Patricia Brent, Spinster/Chapter 7
LORD PETER PROMISES A SOLUTION
SUNDAY supper at Calvin House was a cold meal timed for eight o'clock; but allowed to remain upon the table until half-past nine for the convenience of church-goers.
Patricia had dawdled over her toilette, refusing, however, to admit that she dreaded the ordeal before her in the dining-room. When at last she could find no excuse for remaining longer in her room, she descended the stairs slowly, conscious of a strange feeling of hesitancy about her knees.
Outside the dining-room door she paused. Her instinct was to bolt; but the pad-pad of Gustave's approaching footsteps cutting off her retreat decided her. As she entered the dining-room the hum of excited conversation ceased abruptly and, amidst a dead silence, Patricia walked to her seat conscious of a heightened colour and a hatred of her own species.
Looking round the table, and seeing how acutely self-conscious everyone seemed, her self-possession returned. She noticed a new deference in Gustave's manner as he placed before her a plate of cold shoulder of mutton and held the salad-bowl at her side. Having helped herself Patricia turned to Miss Wangle, and for a moment regarded her with an enigmatical smile that made her fidget.
"How clever of you, Miss Wangle," she said sweetly. "In future no one will ever dare to have a secret at Galvin House."
Miss Wangle reddened. Mr. Bolton's laugh rang out.
"Miss Wangle, Private Enquiry Agent," he cried, "I——"
"Really, Mr. Bolton!" protested Mrs. Craske-Morton, looking anxiously at Miss Wangle's indrawn lips and angry eyes.
Mr. Bolton subsided.
"We're so excited, dear Miss Brent," simpered Miss Sikkum. "You'll be Lady Bowen——"
"Lady Peter Bowen," corrected Mrs. Craske-Morton with superior knowledge.
"Lady Peter," gushed Miss Sikkum. "Oh how romantic, and I shall see your portrait in The Mirror. Oh! Miss Brent, aren't you happy?"
Patricia smiled across at Miss Sikkum, whose enthusiasm was too genuine to cause offence.
"And you'll have cars and all sorts of things,' remarked Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe, thinking of her solitary blue evening frock, "he's very rich.'
"Worth ten thousand a year," almost shouted Mr. Cordal, striving to regain control over a piece of lettuce-leaf that fluttered from his lips, and having eventually to use his fingers.
"You'll forget all about us," said Miss Pilkington, who in her capacity as a post-office supervisor daily showed her contempt for the public whose servant she was.
"If you're nice to her," said Mr. Bolton, "she may buy her stamps at your place."
Again Mrs. Craske-Morton's "Really, Mr. Bolton!" eased the situation.
Patricia was for the most part silent. She was thinking of the coming talk with Bowen. In spite of herself she was excited at the prospect of seeing him again. Miss Wangle also said little. From time to time she glanced in Patricia's direction.
"The Wangle's off her feed," whispered Mr. Bolton to Miss Sikkum, producing from her a giggle and an "Oh! Mr. Bolton, you are dreadful."
Mrs. Barnes was worrying as to whether a lord should be addressed as "my lord" or "sir," and if you curtsied to him, and if so how you did it with rheumatism in the knee.
Patricia noticed with amusement the new deference with which everyone treated her. Mrs. Craske-Morton, in particular, was most solicitous that she should make a good meal. Miss Wangle's silence was in itself a tribute. Patricia nervously awaited the moment when Bowen's presence should be announced.
When the time came Gustave rose to the occasion magnificently. Throwing open the dining-room door impressively and speaking with great distinctness he cried:
"Ees Lordship is 'ere, mees," and then after a moment's pause he added, "'E 'as brought 'is car, mees. It is at the door."
Patricia smiled in spite of herself at Gustave's earnestness.
"Very well, Gustave, say I will not be a moment," she replied and, with a muttered apology to Mrs. Craske-Morton, she left the table and the dining-room, conscious of the dramatic tension of the situation.
Patricia ran down the passage leading to the lounge, then, suddenly remembering that haste and happiness were not in keeping with anger and reproach, entered the lounge with a sedateness that even Aunt Adelaide could not have found lacking in maidenly decorum.
Bowen came across from the window and took both her hands.
"Why was she allowing him to do this?" she asked herself. 'Why did she not reproach him, why did she thrill at his touch, why——?
She withdrew her hands sharply, looked up at him and then for no reason at all laughed.
How absurd it all was. It was easy to be angry with him when he was at the Quadrant and she at Galvin House; but with him before her, looking down at her with eyes that were smilingly confident and gravely deferential by turn, she found her anger and good resolutions disappear.
"I know you are going to bully me, Patricia." Bowen's eyes smiled; but there was in his voice a note of enquiry.
"Oh! please let us escape before the others come in sight," said Patricia, looking over her shoulder anxiously. "They'll all be out in a moment. I left them straining at their leashes and swallowing scalding coffee so as to get a glimpse of a real, live lord at close quarters."
As she spoke Patricia stabbed on a toque.
"Shall I want anything warmer than this?" she enquired as Bowen helped her into a long fur-trimmed coat.
"I brought a big fur coat for you in case it gets cold," he replied, and he held open the door for her to pass.
"Quick," she whispered, "they're coming."
As she ran down the steps she nodded brightly to Gustave, who stood almost bowed down with the burden of his respect for an English lord.
As Bowen swung the car round, Patricia was conscious that at the drawing-room and lounge windows Galvin House was heavily massed. Unable to find a space, Miss Sikkum and Mr. Bolton had come out on to the doorstep and, as the jerked forward, Miss Sikkum waved her pocket handkerchief.
For some time they were silent. Patricia was content to enjoy the unaccustomed sense of swift movement coupled with the feeling of the luxury of a Rolls Royce. From time to time Bowen glanced at her and smiled, and she was conscious of returning the smile, although in the light of what she intended to say she felt that smiles were not appropriate.
The car sped along the Bayswater Road, threaded its way through Hammersmith Broadway and passed over the bridge, across Barnes Common into Priory Lane, and finally into Richmond Park. Bowen had not mentioned where he intended to take her, and Patricia was glad. She was essentially feminine, and liked having things decided for her, the more so as she invariably had to decide for herself.
Half-way across the Park Bowen turned in the direction of Kingston Gate and, a minute later, drew up just off the roadway. Having stopped the engine he turned to her.
"Now, Patricia," he said with a smile, "I am at your mercy. There is no one within hail."
Bowen's voice recalled her from dreamland She was thinking how different everything might have been, but for that unfortunate unconvention. With an effort she came down to earth to find Bowen smiling into her eyes.
It was an effort for her to assume the indignation she had previously felt. Bowen's presence seemed to dissipate her anger. Why had she not written to him instead of endeavouring to express verbally what she knew she would fail to convey?
"Please don't be too hard on me, Patricia," pleaded Bowen.
Patricia looked at him. She wished he would not smile at her in that way and assume an air of penitence. It was so disarming. It was unfair. He was taking a mean advantage. He was always taking a mean advantage of her, always putting her in the wrong.
By keeping her face carefully averted from his, she was able to tinge her voice with indignation as she demanded:
"Why did you not tell me who you were?"
"But I did," he protested.
"You said that you were Colonel Bowen, and you are not." Patricia was pleased to find her sense of outraged indignation increasing. "You have made me ridiculous in the eyes of everyone at Calvin House."
"But," protested Bowen.
"It's no good saying 'but,'" replied Patricia unreasonably, "you know I'm right."
"But I told you my name was Bowen," he said, "and later I told you that my rank was that of a lieutenant-colonel, both of which are quite correct."
"You are Lord Peter Bowen, and you've made me ridiculous," then conscious of the absurdity of her words, Patricia laughed; but there was no mirth in her laughter.
"Made you ridiculous," said Bowen, concern in his voice. "But how?"
"Oh, I am not referring to your boy-messengers and telegrams, florists' shops, confectioners' stocks," said Patricia, "but all the tabbies in Galvin House set themselves to work to find out who you were and—and—look what an absurd figure I cut! Then of course Aunt Adelaide must butt in."
"Aunt Adelaide!" repeated Bowen, knitting his brows. "Tabbies at Galvin House!"
"If you repeat my words like that I shall scream," said Patricia, "I wish you would try and be intelligent. Miss Wangle told Aunt Adelaide that I'm engaged to Lord Peter Bowen. Aunt Adelaide then asked me about my engagement, and I had to make up some sort of story about Colonel Bowen. She then enquired if it were true that I was engaged to Lord Peter Bowen. Of course I said 'No,' and that is where we are at present, and you've got to help me out. You got me into the mess."
"Might I enquire who Aunt Adelaide is, please, Patricia?"
Bowen's humility made him very difficult to talk to.
"Aunt Adelaide is my sole surviving relative, vide her own statement," said Patricia. "If I had my way she would be neither surviving nor a relative; but as it happens she is both, and to-morrow afternoon at half-past five she is coming to Galvin House to receive a full explanation of my conduct."
Bowen compressed his lips and wrinkled his forehead; but there was laughter in his eyes.
"It's difficult, isn't it, Patricia?" he said.
"It's absurd, and please don't call me Patricia."
"But we're engaged and——"
"We're nothing of the sort," she said.
"But we are," protested Bowen. "I can——"
"Never mind what you can do," she retorted. "What am I to tell Aunt Adelaide at half-past five to-morrow evening?"
"Why not tell her the truth?" said Bowen.
"Isn't that just like a man?" Patricia addressed the query to a deer that was eyeing the car curiously from some fifty yards distance. "Tell the truth," she repeated scornfully. "But how much will that help us?"
"Well! let's tell a lie," protested Bowen, smiling.
And then Patricia did a weak and foolish thing, she laughed, and Bowen laughed. Finally they sat and looked at each other helplessly.
"However you got those," she nodded at the ribbons on his breast, "I don't know. It was certainly not for being intelligent."
For a minute Bowen did not reply. He was apparently lost in thought. Presently he turned to Patricia.
"Look here," he said, "by half-past five to-morrow afternoon I'll have found a solution. Now can't we talk about something pleasant?"
"There is nothing pleasant to talk about when Aunt Adelaide is looming on the horizon. She's about the most unpleasant thing next to chilblains that I know."
"I suppose," said Bowen tentatively, "you couldn't solve the difficulty by marrying me by special licence."
"Marry you by special licence!" cried Patricia in amazement.
"Yes, it would put everything right."
"I think you must be mad," said Patricia with decision; but conscious that her cheeks were very hot.
"I think I must be in love," was Bowen's quiet retort. "Will you?"
"Not even to escape Aunt Adelaide's interrogation would I marry you by special, or any other licence," said Patricia with decision.
Bowen turned away, a shadow falling across his face. Then a moment after, drawing his cigarette-case from his pocket, he enquired, "Shall we smoke?"
Patricia accepted the cigarette he offered her. She watched him as he lighted first hers, then his own. She saw the frown that had settled upon his usually happy face, and noted the staccatoed manner in which he smoked. Then she became conscious that she had been lacking in not only graciousness but common civility. Instinctively she put out her hand and touched his coat-sleeve.
"Please forgive me, I was rather a beast, wasn't I?" she said.
He looked round and smiled; but the smile did not reach his eyes.
"Please try and understand," she said, "and now will you drive me home?"
Bowen looked at her for a moment, then, getting out of the car, started the engine, and without a word climbed back to his seat.
The journey back was performed in silence. At Galvin House Gustave, who was on the look-out, threw open the door with a flourish.
In saying good night neither referred to the subject of their conversation.
As Patricia entered, the lounge seemed suddenly to empty its contents into the hall.
"I hope you enjoyed your ride," said Mr. Bolton.
"I hate motoring," said Patricia. Then she walked upstairs with a curt "Good night," leaving a group of surprised people speculating as to the cause of her mood, and deeply commiserating with Bowen.