Patricia Brent, Spinster/Chapter 8
LORD PETER'S S.O.S.
" THE bath is ready, my lord."
Lord Peter Bowen opened his eyes as if reluctant to acknowledge that another day had dawned. He stretched his limbs and yawned luxuriously. For the next few moments he lay watching his man, Peel, as he moved noiselessly about the room, idly speculating as to whether such precision and self-repression were natural or acquired.
To Bowen Peel was a source of never-ending interest. No matter at what hour Bowen had seen him, Peel always appeared as if he had just shaved. In his every action there was purpose, and every purpose was governed by one law—order. He was noiseless, wordless, selfless. Bowen was convinced that were he to die suddenly and someone chance to call, Peel would merely say: "His Lordship is not at home, sir."
Thin of face, small of stature, precise of movement, Peel possessed the individuality of negation. He looked nothing in particular, seemed nothing in particular, did everything to perfection. His face was a barrier to intimacy, his demeanour a gulf to the curious: he betrayed neither emotion nor confidence. In short he was the most perfect gentleman's servant in existence.
"What's the time, Peel?" enquired Bowen.
"Seven forty-three, my lord," replied the meticulous Peel, glancing at the clock on the mantelpiece.
"Have I any engagements to-day?" queried his master.
"No, my lord. You have refused to make any since last Thursday morning."
Then Bowen remembered. He had pleaded pressure at the War Office as an excuse for declining all invitations. He was determined that nothing should interfere with his seeing Patricia should she unbend. With the thought of Patricia returned the memory of the previous night's events. Bowen cursed himself for the mess he had made of things. Every act of his had seemed to result only in one thing, the angering of Patricia. Even then things might have gone well if it had not been for his wretched bad luck in being the son of a peer.
As he lay watching Peel, Bowen felt in a mood to condole with himself. Confound it! Surely it could not be urged against him as his fault that he had a wretched title. He had been given no say in the matter. As for telling Patricia, could he immediately on meeting her blurt out, "I'm a lord?" Supposing he had introduced himself as "Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Peter Bowen." How ridiculous it would have sounded He had come to hate the very sound of the word "lord."
"It's ten minutes to eight, my lord."
It was Peel's voice that broke in upon his reflections.
"Oh, damn!" cried Bowen as he threw his legs out of bed and sat looking at Peel.
"I beg pardon, my lord?"
"I said damn!" replied Bowen.
"Yes, my lord."
Bowen regarded Peel narrowly. He was confoundedly irritating this morning. He seemed to be my-lording his master specially to annoy him. There was, however, no sign upon Peel's features or in his watery blue eyes indicating that he was other than in his normal frame of mind.
Why couldn't Patricia be sensible? Why must she take up this absurd attitude, contorting every action of his into a covert insult? Why above all things couldn't women be reasonable? Bowen rose, stretched himself and walked across to the bath-room. As he was about to enter he looked over his shoulder.
"If," he said, "you can arrange to remind me of my infernal title as little as possible during the next few days, Peel, I shall feel infinitely obliged."
"Yes, my lord," was the response.
Bowen banged the door savagely, and Peel rang to order breakfast.
During the meal Bowen pondered over the events of the previous evening, and in particular over Patricia's unreasonableness. His one source of comfort was that she had appealed to him to put things right about her aunt. That would involve his seeing her again. He did not, or would not, see that he was the only one to whom she could appeal.
Bowen always breakfasted in his own sitting-room; he disliked his fellow-men in the early morning. Looking up suddenly from the table he caught Peel's expressionless eye upon him.
"Yes, my lord."
"Why is it that we Englishmen dislike each other so at breakfast?"
Peel paused for a moment. "I've heard it said, my lord, that we're half an inch taller in the morning, perhaps our perceptions are more acute also."
Bowen looked at Peel curiously.
"You're a philosopher," he said, "and I'm afraid a bit of a cynic."
"I hope not, my lord," responded Peel.
Bowen pushed back his chair and rose, receiving from Peel his cap, cane, and gloves.
"By the way," he said, "I want you to ring up Lady Tanagra and ask her to lunch with me at half-past one. Tell her it's very important, and ask her not to fail me."
"Yes, my lord: it shall be attended to."
Bowen went out. Lady Tanagra was Bowen's only sister. As children they had been inseparable, forced into an alliance by the overbearing nature of their elder brother, the heir, Viscount Bowen, who would succeed to the title as the eighth Marquess of Meyﬁeld. Bowen was five years older than his sister, who had just passed her twenty-third birthday and, as a frail sensitive child, she had instinctively looked to him for protection against her elder brother.
Their comradeship was that of mutual understanding. For one to say to the other, "Don't fail me," meant that any engagement, however pressing, would be put off. There was a tacit acknowledgment that their comradeship stood before all else. Each to the other was unique. Thus when Bowen sent the message to Lady Tanagra through Peel asking her not to fail him, he knew that she would keep the appointment. He knew equally well that it would involve her in the breaking of some other engagement, for there were few girls in London so popular as Lady Tanagra Bowen.
Whenever there was an important social function, Lady Tanagra Bowen was sure to be there, and it was equally certain that the photographers of the illustrated and society papers would so manœuvre that she came into the particular group, or groups, they were taking.
The seventh Marquess of Meyfield was an enthusiastic collector of Tanagra figurines and, overruling his lady’s protestations, he had determined to call his first and only daughter Tanagra. Lady Meyfield had begged for a second name; but the Marquess had been resolute. "Tanagra I will have her christened and Tanagra I will have her called," he had said with a smile that, if it mitigated the sternness of his expression, did not in my way undermine his determination. Lady Meyfield knew her lord, and also that her only chance of ruling him was by showing unfailing tact. She therefore bowed to his decision.
"Poor child!" she had remarked as she looked down at the frail little mite in the hollow of her arm, "you're certainly going to be made ridiculous; but I've done my best," and Lord Meyfield had come across the room and kissed his wife with the remark, "There you're wrong, my dear, it's going to help to make her a great success. Imagine, the Lady Tanagra Bowen; why it would make a celebrity of the most commonplace female," whereat they had both smiled.
As a child Lady Tanagra had been teased unmercifully about her name, so much so that she had almost hated it; but later when she had come to love the figurines that were so much part of her father's life, she had learned, not only to respect, but to be proud of the name.
To her friends and intimates she was always Tan, to the less intimate Lady Tan, and to the world at large Lady Tanagra Bowen.
She had once found the name extremely useful, when in process of being proposed to by an undesirable of the name of Black.
"It's no good," she had said, "I could never marry you, no matter what the state of my feelings. Think how ridiculous we should both be, everybody would call us Black and Tan. Ugh! it sounds like a whisky as well as a dog." Whereat Mr Black had laughed and they remained friends, which was a great tribute to Lady Tanagra.
Exquisitely pretty, sympathetic, witty, human, Lady Tanagra Bowen was a favourite wherever she went. She seemed incapable of making enemies even amongst her own sex. Her taste in dress was as unerring as in literature and art. Everything she did or said was without effort. She had been proposed to by "half the eligibles and all the ineligibles in London," as Bowen phrased it; but she declared she would never marry until Peter married, and had thus got somebody else to mother him.
At a quarter-past one when Bowen left the War Office, he found Lady Tanagra waiting in her car outside.
"Hullo, Tan!" he cried, "what a brainy idea, picking up the poor, tired warrior."
"It'll save you a taxi, Peter. I'll tell you what to do with the shilling as we go along."
Lady Tanagra smiled up into her brother's face. She was always happy with Peter.
As she swung the car across Whitehall to get into the north-bound stream of traffic, Bowen looked down at his sister. She handled her big car with dexterity and ease. She was a dainty creature with regular features, violet-blue eyes and golden hair that seemed to defy all constraint. There was a tilt about her chin that showed determination, and that about her eyebrows which suggested something more than good judgment.
"I hope you weren't doing anything to-day, Tan," said Bowen as they came to a standstill at the top of Whitehall, waiting for the removal of a blue arm that barred their progress.
"I was lunching with the Bolsovers; but I'm not well enough, I'm afraid, to see them. It's measles, you know."
"Good heavens, Tan! what do you mean?"
"Well, I had to say something that would be regarded as a sufficient excuse for breaking a luncheon engagement of three weeks' standing. Quite a lot of people were invited to meet me."
"I'm awfully sorry," began Bowen apologetically.
"Oh, it's all right!" was the reply as the car jumped forward. "I shall be deluged with fruit and flowers now from all sorts of people, because the Bolsovers are sure to spread it round that I'm in extremis. To-morrow, however, I shall announce that it was a wrong diagnosis."
Lady Tanagra drew the car up to the curb outside Dent's. "I think" she said, indicating an old woman selling matches, "we'll give her the shilling for the taxi Peter, shall we?"
Peter beckoned the old woman and handed her a shilling with a smile.
"Does it make you feel particularly virtuous to be charitable with another's money?" he enquired.
Lady Tanagra made a grimace.
Over lunch they talked upon general topics and about common friends. Lady Tanagra made no reference to the important matter that had caused her to be summoned to lunch, even at the expense of having measles as an excuse. That was characteristic of her. She had nothing of a woman's curiosity, at least she never showed it, particularly with Peter.
After lunch they went to the lounge for coffee. When they had been served and both were smoking, Bowen remarked casually, "Got any engagement for this afternoon, Tan?"
"Tea at the Carlton at half-past four, then I promised to run in to see the Grahams before dinner. I'm afraid it will mean more flowers and fruit. Oh!" she replied, "I suppose I must stick to measles. I shall have to buy some thanks for kind enquiries cards as I go home."
During lunch Bowen had been wondering how he could approach the subject of Patricia. He could not tell even Tanagra how he had met her—that was Patricia's secret. If she chose to tell, that was another matter; but he could not. As a rule he found it easy to talk to Tanagra and explain things; but this was a little unusual. Lady Tanagra watched him shrewdly for a minute or two.
"I think I should just say it as it comes, Peter," she remarked in a casual, matter-of-fact tone.
Bowen started and then laughed.
"What I want is a sponsor for an acquaintanceship between myself and a girl. I cannot tell you everything, Tan, she may decide to; but of course you know it's all right."
"Why, of course," broke in Lady Tanagra with an air of conviction which contained something of a reproach that he should have thought it necessary to mention such a thing.
"Well, you've got to do a bit of lying, too, I'm afraid."
"Oh! that will be all right. The natural consequence of a high temperature through measles." Lady Tanagra saw that Bowen was ill at ease, and sought by her lightness to simplify things for him.
"How long have I known her?" she proceeded.
"Oh! that you had better settle with her. All that is necessary is for you to have met her somewhere, or somehow, and to have introduced me to her."
"And who is to receive these explanations?" enquired Lady Tanagra.
"Her aunt, a gorgon."
"Does the girl know that you are—that I am to throw myself into the breach?"
"No," said Peter, "I didn't think to tell her. I said that I would arrange things. Her name's Patricia Brent. She's private secretary to Arthur Bonsor of 426 Eaton Square, and she lives at Galvin House Residential Hotel, to give it its full title, 8 Galvin Street, Bayswater. Her aunt is to be at Galvin House at half-past five this afternoon, when I have to be explained to her. Oh! it's most devilish awkward, Tan, because I can't tell you the facts of the case. I wish she were here."
"That's all right, Peter. I'll put things right. What time does she leave Eaton Square?"
"Five o'clock, I think."
"Good! leave it to me. By the way, where shall you be if I want to get at you?"
"Say six o'clock."
"I'll be back here at six and wait until seven."
"That will do. Now I really must be going. I've got to telephone to these people about the measles. Shall I run you down to Whitehall?"
"No, thanks, I think I'll walk," and with that he saw her into her car and turned to walk back to Whitehall, thanking his stars for being possessed of such a sister and marvelling at her wisdom. He had not the most remote idea of how she would achieve her purpose; but achieve it he was convinced she would. It was notorious that Lady Tanagra never failed in anything she undertook.
While Bowen and his sister were lunching at the Quadrant, Patricia was endeavouring to concentrate her mind upon her work. "The egregious Arthur," as she called him to herself in her more impatient moments, had been very trying that morning. He had been in a particularly indeterminate mood, which involved the altering and changing of almost every sentence he dictated. In the usual way he was content to tell Patricia what he wanted to say, and let her clothe it in fitting words; but this morning he had insisted on dictating every letter, with the result that her notes had become hopelessly involved and she was experiencing great difficulty in reading them. Added to this was the fact that she could not keep her thoughts from straying to Aunt Adelaide. What would happen that afternoon? What was Bowen going to do to save the situation? He had promised to see her through; but how was he going to do it?