Patricia Brent, Spinster/Chapter 9
LADY TANAGRA TAKES A HAND
AT a quarter to five Patricia left the library to go upstairs to put on her hat and coat. In the hall she encountered Mrs. Bonsor.
"Finished?" interrogated that lady in a tone of voice that implied she was perfectly well aware of the fact that it wanted still a quarter of an hour to the time at which Patricia was supposed to be free.
"No; there is still some left; but I'm going home," said Patricia. There was something in her voice and appearance that prompted Mrs. Bonsor to smile her artificial smile and remark that she thought Patricia was quite right, the weather being very trying.
When she left the Bonsors' house, Patricia was too occupied with her own thoughts to notice the large grey car standing a few yards up the square with a girl at the steering-wheel. Patricia turned in the opposite direction from that in which the car stood, making her way towards Sloane Street to get her bus. She had not gone many steps when the big car slid silently up beside her, and she heard a voice say, "Can't I give you a lift to Galvin House?"
She turned round and saw a fair-haired girl smiling at her from the car.
"Jump in, won't you?" said the girl.
"But—but I think you've made a mistake."
"You're Patricia Brent, aren't you?"
"Yes," said Patricia, smiling, "that's my name."
"Well then, jump in and I'll run you up to Galvin House. Don't delay or you'll be too late for your aunt."
Patricia looked at the girl in mute astonishment, but proceeded to get into the car, there seemed nothing else to be done. As she did so, the fair-haired girl laughed brightly. "It's awfully mean of me to take such an advantage, but I couldn't resist it. I'm Peter's sister, Tanagra."
"Oh!" said Patricia, light dawning upon her and turning to Tanagra with a smile, "Then you're the solution?"
"Yes," said Lady Tanagra, "I'm going to see you two out of the mess you've somehow or other got into."
Suddenly Patricia stiffened. "Did he—did he er—tell you?"
"Not he," said Lady Tanagra, shoving on thesuddenly to avoid a crawling taxi that had swung round without any warning. "Peter doesn't talk."
"But then, how do you——?"
"Well," said Lady Tanagra, "he told me that I was to be the one who had introduced him to you and explain him to your aunt. It's all over London that I've got measles, and there will be simply piles of flowers and fruit arriving at Grosvenor Square by every possible conveyance."
"Measles!" cried Patricia uncomprehendingly.
"Yes, you see when Peter wants me I always have to throw up any sort of engagement, and he does the same for me. When he asked me to lunch with him to-day and said it was important, I had to give some reasonable excuse to three lots of people to whom I had pledged myself, and I thought measles would do quite nicely."
Patricia laughed in spite of herself.
"So you don't know anything except that you have got to——"
"Sponsor you," interrupted Lady Tanagra.
For some time Patricia was silent. She felt she could tell her story to this girl who was so trustful that everything was all right, and who was willing to do anything to help her brother.
"Can't we go slowly whilst I talk to you," said Patricia, as they turned into the Park.
"We'll do better than that," said Lady Tanagra, "we'll stop and sit down for five minutes." She pulled up the car near the Stanhope Gate and they found a quiet spot under a tree.
"I cannot allow you to enter into this affair," said Patricia, "without telling you the whole story. What you will think of me afterwards I don't know; but I've got myself into a most horrible mess."
She then proceeded to explain the whole situation, how it came about that she had come to know Bowen and the upshot of the meeting. Lady Tanagra listened without interruption and without betraying by her expression what were her thoughts.
"And now what do you think of me?" demanded Patricia when she had concluded.
For a moment Lady Tanagra rested her hand upon Patricia's. "I think, you goose, that had you known Peter better there would not have been so much need for you to worry; but there isn't much time and we've got to prepare. Now listen carefully. First of all you must call me Tan or Tanagra, and I must call you Patricia or Pat, or whatever you like. Secondly, as it would take too long to find out if we've got any friends in common, you went to the V.A.D. Depot in St. George's Crescent to see if you could do anything to help. There you met me. I'm quite a shining light there, by the way, and we palled up. This led to my introducing Peter and well—all the rest is quite easy."
"But—but there isn't any rest," said Patricia. "Don't you see how horribly awkward it is? I'm supposed to be engaged to him."
"Oh!" said Lady Tanagra quietly, "that's a matter for you and Peter to settle between you. I'm afraid I can't interfere there. All I can do is to explain how you and he came to know each other; and now we had better be getting on as your aunt will not be pleased if you keep her waiting. What I propose to do is to pick her up and take her up to the Quadrant where we shall find Peter."
"But," protested Patricia, "that's simply getting us more involved than ever."
"Well, I'm afraid it's got to be," said Lady Tanagra, smiling mischievously; "it's much better that they should meet at the Quadrant than at Galvin House, where you say everybody is so catty."
Patricia saw the force of Lady Tanagra's argument, and they were soon whirling on their way towards Galvin House. She wanted to pinch herself to be quite sure that she was not dreaming. Everything seemed to be happening with such rapidity that her brain refused to keep pace with events. Why had she not met these people in a conventional way so that she might preserve their friendship? It was hard luck, she told herself.
"Would you mind telling me what you propose doing?" enquired Patricia.
"I promised Peter to gather up the pieces," was the response. "All you've got to do is to remain quiet."
Lady Tanagra brought the car up in front of Galvin House with a magnificent sweep. Gustave, who had been on the watch, swung open the door in his most impressive manner.
As Patricia and Lady Tanagra entered the lounge, Miss Wangle and Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe were addressing pleasantries to a particularly grim Miss Brent.
"Oh, here you are!" Miss Brent's exclamation was uttered in such a voice as to pierce even the thick skin of Miss Wangle, who having instantly recognised Lady Tanagra, retired with Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe a few yards, where they carried on a whispered conversation, casting significant glances at Lady Tanagra, Miss Brent and Patricia.
"I told Patricia that it was time the families met," said Lady Tanagra, "and so I insisted on coming when I heard you were to be here."
"I think you are quite right."
Patricia was surprised at the change in her aunt. Much of her usual uncompromising downrightness had been shed, and she appeared almost gracious. For one thing she was greatly impressed at the thought that Patricia was to become Lady Peter Bowen. As the aunt of Lady Peter Bowen, Miss Brent saw that her own social position would be considerably improved. She saw herself taking precedence at Little Milstead and issuing its social life and death warrants. Apart from these considerations Miss Brent was not indifferent to Lady Tanagra's personal charm.
"Tan's parlour tricks," as Godfrey Elton called them, were notorious. Everyone was aware of their existence; yet everyone fell an instant victim. A compound of earnestness, deference, pleading, irresistible impertinence and dignity, they formed a dangerous weapon.
Lady Tanagra's position among her friends and acquaintance was unique. When difficulties and contentions arose, the parties' instinctive impulse was to endeavour to invest her interest. "Tanagra is so sensible," outraged parenthood would exclaim; "Tan's such a sport. She'll understand," cried rebellious youth. People not only asked Lady Tanagra's advice, but took it. The secret of her success, unknown to herself, was her knowledge of human nature. Even those against whom she gave her decisions bore her no ill-will.
Her manner towards Miss Brent was a mixture of laughter and seriousness, with deft little touches of deference.
"I've come to apologize for everybody and everything, Miss Brent," she cried; "but in particular for myself." Lady Tanagra chatted on gaily, "sparring for an opening," Elton called it.
"You mustn't blame Patricia," she bubbled in her soft musical voice, "it's all Peter's fault, and where it's not his fault it's mine," she proceeded illogically. "You won't be hard on us, will you?" She looked up at Miss Brent with the demureness of a child expecting severe rebuke for some naughtiness.
Miss Brent's eyes narrowed and the firm line of her lips widened. Patricia recognised this as the outward evidences of a smile.
"I confess, I am greatly puzzled," began Miss Brent.
"Of course you must be," continued Lady Tanagra, "and if you were not so kind you would be very cross, especially with me. Now," she continued, without giving Miss Brent a chance of replying, "I want you to do me a very great favour."
Lady Tanagra paused impressively, and gave Miss Brent her most pleading look.
Miss Brent looked at Lady Tanagra with just a tinge of suspicion in her pea-soup coloured eyes.
"May I ask what it is?" she enquired guardedly.
"I want you to let me carry you off to a quiet place where we can talk."
Miss Brent rose at once. She disliked Galvin house and the inquisitive glances of its inmates.
"I told Peter to be at the Quadrant until seven. He is very anxious to meet you," continued Lady Tanagra as they moved towards the door. "I could not let him come here as I thought, from what Patricia has told me, that you would not care—to——" She paused.
You are quite right, Lady Tanagra," said Miss Brent with decision. "I do not like boarding-houses. They are not the places for the discussion of family affairs."
Patricia descended the steps of Galvin House, not quite sure whether this were reality or a dream. She watched Miss Brent seat herself beside Lady Tanagra, whilst she herself entered the tonneau of the car. As the door clicked and the sprang forward, she caught a glimpse of eager faces at the windows of Galvin House.
As they swung into the Park and hummed along the even road, Patricia endeavoured to bring herself to earth. She pinched herself until it hurt. What had happened? She felt like someone present at her own funeral. Her fate was being decided without anyone seeming to think it necessary to consult her.
"By half-past five to-morrow afternoon I shall have found a solution." Bowen's words came back to her. He was right. Lady Tanagra was indeed a solution. Patricia and Miss Brent were merely lay-figures. It must be wonderful to be able to make people do what you wished, she mused. She wondered what would have happened had Bowen possessed his sister's powers.
At the Quadrant Peel was waiting in the vestibule. With a bow that impressed Miss Brent, he conducted them to Bowen's suite. As they entered Bowen sprang up from a writing-table. Patricia noticed that there was no smell of tobacco smoke. The Bowens were a wonderful family, she decided, remembering her aunt's prejudices.
"I have only just heard you were in town," she heard Bowen explaining to Miss Brent. "I rang up Patricia this morning, but she could not remember your address."
Patricia gasped; but, seeing the effect of the "grey lie" (it was not quite innocent enough to be called a white lie, she told herself) she forgave it.
During tea Lady Tanagra and Bowen set to work to "play themselves in," as Lady Tanagra afterwards expressed it.
"Poor Aunt Adelaide," Patricia murmured to herself, "they'll turn her giddy young head."
"And now," Lady Tanagra began when Bowen had taken Miss Brent's cup from her. "I must explain all about this little romance and how it came about."
Patricia caught Bowen's eye, and saw in it a look of eager interest.
"Patricia wanted to do war work in her spare time." continued Lady Tanagra, "so she applied to the V.A.D. at St. George's Crescent. I am on the committee and, by a happy chance," Lady Tanagra smiled across to Patricia, "she was sent to me. I saw she was not strong and dissuaded her."
Miss Brent nodded approval.
"I explained," continued Lady Tanagra, "that the work was very hard, and that it was not necessarily patriotic to overwork so as to get ill. Doctors have quite enough to do."
Again Miss Brent nodded agreement.
"I think we liked each other from the first," and Lady Tanagra smiled across at Patricia, "and I asked her to come and have tea with me and we became friends. Finally, one day when we were enjoying a quiet talk here in the lounge, this big brother of mine comes along and spoils everything." Lady Tanagra regarded Bowen with reproachful eyes.
"Spoiled everything?" enquired Miss Brent.
"Yes; by falling in love with my friend, and in a most treacherous manner she must do the same." Lady Tanagra's tone was matter-of-fact enough to deceive a misanthropist.
Patricia's cheeks burned and her eyes fell beneath the gaze of the others. She felt as a man might who reads his own obituary notices.
"And why was I not told, her sole surviving relative?" Miss Brent rapped out the question with the air of a counsel for the prosecution.
"That was my fault," broke in Bowen.
Three pairs of eyes were instantly turned upon him. Miss Brent suspicious, Lady Tanagra admiring, Patricia wondering.
"And why, may I ask?" enquired Miss Brent.
"I wanted it to be a secret between Patricia and me," explained Bowen easily.
"But, Lady Tanagra——" There was a note in Miss Brent's voice that Patricia recognised as a soldier does the .
"Oh!" replied Bowen, "she finds out everything; but I only told her at lunch to-day."
"And he told me as if I had not already discovered the fact for myself," laughed Lady Tanagra.
"Patricia wanted to tell you," continued Bowen. "She has often talked of you (Patricia felt sure Aunt Adelaide must hear her start of surprise); but I wanted to wait until we could go to you together and confess." Bowen smiled straight into his listener's eyes, a quiet, friendly smile that would have disarmed a gorgon.
For a few moments there was silence. Miss Brent was thinking, thinking as a judge thinks who is about to deliver sentence.
"And Lady Meyfield, does she know?" she inquired.
Without giving Bowen a chance to reply Lady Tanagra rushed in as if fearful that he might make a false move.
"That is another of Peter's follies, keeping it from mother. He argued that if the engagement were officially announced, the family would take up all Patricia's time, and he would see nothing of her. Oh! Peter's very selfish sometimes, I am to say; but," she added with inspiration, "everything will have to come out now."
"Of course!" Patricia started at the decision in Miss Brent's tone. She looked across at Bowen, who was regarding Lady Tanagra with an admiration that amounted almost to reverence. As he looked up Patricia's eyes fell. What was happening to her? She was getting further into the net woven by her own folly. Lady Tanagra was getting them out of the tangle into which they had got themselves; but was she not involving them in a worse? Patricia knew her aunt, Lady Tanagra did not. Therein lay the key to the whole situation.
Miss Brent rose to go. Patricia saw that judgment was to be deferred. She shook hands with Lady Tanagra and Bowen and, finally, turning to Patricia said:
"I think, Patricia, that you have been very indiscreet in not taking me into your confidence, your sole surviving relative," and with that she went, having refused Lady Tanagra's offer to drive her to her hotel, pleading that she had another call to make.
When Bowen returned from seeing Miss Brent into a taxi, the three culprits regarded each other. All felt that they had come under the ban of Miss Brent's displeasure. It was Lady Tanagra who broke the silence.
"Well, we're all in it now up to the neck," she laughed.
Bowen smiled happily; but Patricia looked alarmed. Lady Tanagra went over to her and bending down kissed her lightly on the cheek. Patricia looked up, and Bowen saw that her eyes were suspiciously moist. With a murmured apology about a note he was expecting he left the room.
That night the three dined at the Quadrant "to get to know each other," as Lady Tanagra said. When Patricia reached Galvin House having refused to allow Bowen to see her home she was conscious of having spent another happy evening.
"Up to the neck in it," she murmured as she tossed back her hair and began to brush it for the night, "over the top of our heads, I should say."