Patricia Brent, Spinster/Chapter 4

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CHAPTER IV

THE MADNESS OF LORD PETER BOWEN

WHEN Patricia awakened the next morning, it was with the feeling that she had suffered some terrible disappointment. As a child she remembered experiencing the same sensation on the morning after some tragedy that had resulted in her crying herself to sleep. She opened her eyes and was conscious that her lashes were wet with tears. Suddenly the memory of the previous night's adventure came back to her with a rush and, with an angry dab of the bedclothes, she wiped her eyes, just as the maid entered with the cup of early-morning tea she had specially ordered.

With inspiration she decided to breakfast in bed. She could not face a whole table of wide-eyed interrogation. "Oh, the cats!" she muttered under her breath. "I hate women!" Later she slipped out of the house unobserved, with what she described to herself as a "morning after the party" feeling. She was puzzled to account for the tears. What had she been dreaming of to make her cry?

Every time the thought of her adventure presented itself, she put it resolutely aside. She was angry with herself, angry with the world, angry with one Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Bowen. Why, she could not have explained.

"Oh, bother!" she exclaimed, as she made a fourth correction in the same letter. "Going out is evidently not good for you, Patricia."

She spent the day alternately in wondering what Bowen was thinking of her, and deciding that he was not thinking of her at all. Finally, with a feeling of hot shame, she remembered to what thoughts she had laid herself open. Her one consolation was that she would never see him again. Then, woman-like, she wondered whether he would make an effort to see her. Would he be content with his dismissal?

For the first time during their association, the rising politician was conscious that his secretary was anxious to get off sharp to time. At five minutes to five she resolutely put aside her note-book, and banged the cover on to her typewriter. Mr. Bonsor looked up at this unwonted energy and punctuality on Patricia's part, and with a tactful interest in the affairs of others that he was endeavouring to cultivate for political purposes, he enquired:

"Going out?"

"No," snapped Patricia, "I'm going home."

Mr. Bonsor raised his eyebrows in astonishment. He was a mild-mannered man who had learned the value of silence when faced by certain phases of feminine psychological phenomena. He therefore made no comment; but he watched his secretary curiously as she swiftly left the room.

Jabbing the pins into her hat and throwing herself into her coat, Patricia was walking down the steps of the rising politician's house in Eaton Square as the clock struck five. She walked quickly in the direction of Sloane Square Railway Station. Suddenly she slackened her speed. Why was she hurrying home? She felt herself blushing hotly, and became furiously angry as if discovered in some humiliating act. Then with one of those odd emotional changes characteristic of her, she smiled.

"Patricia Brent," she murmured, "I think a little walk won't do you any harm," and she strolled slowly up Sloane Street and across the Park to Bayswater.

Her hand trembled as she put the key in the door and opened it. She looked swiftly in the direction of the letter-rack; but her eyes were arrested by two boxes, one very large and obviously from a florist. A strange excitement seized her. "Were they——?"

At that moment Miss Sikkum came out of the lounge simpering.

"Oh, Miss Brent! have you seen your beautiful presents?"

Then Patricia knew, and she became angry with herself on finding how extremely happy she was. Glancing almost indifferently at the labels she proceeded to walk upstairs. Miss Sikkum looked at her in amazement.

"But aren't you going to open them?" she blurted out.

"Oh! presently," said Patricia in an off-hand way, "I had no idea it was so late," and she ran upstairs, leaving Miss Sikkum gazing after her in petrified astonishment.

That evening Patricia took more than usual pains with her toilette. Had she paused to ask herself why, she would have been angry.

When she came downstairs, the other boarders were seated at the table, all expectantly awaiting her entrance. On the table, in the front of her chair, were the two boxes.

"I had your presents brought in here, Miss Brent," explained Mrs. Craske-Morton.

"Oh! I had forgotten all about them," said Patricia indifferently, "I suppose I had better open them," which she proceeded to do.

The smaller box contained chocolates, as Mr. Bolton put it, "evidently bought by the hundred-weight." The larger of the boxes was filled with an enormous spray-bunch of white and red carnations, tied with green silk ribbon, and on the top of each box was a card, "With love from Peter."

Patricia's cheeks burned. She was angry, she told herself, yet there was a singing in her heart and a light in her eyes that oddly belied her. He had not forgotten! He had dared to disobey her injunction; for, she told herself, "good-bye" clearly forbade the sending of flowers and chocolates. She was unconscious that every eye was upon her, and the smile with which she regarded now the flowers, now the chocolates, was self-revelatory.

Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe glanced significantly at Miss Wangle, who, however, was too occupied in watching Patricia with hawk-like intentness to be conscious of anything but the quarry.

Suddenly Patricia remembered, and her face changed. The flowers faded, the chocolates lost their sweetness and the smile vanished. The parted lips set in a firm but mobile line. What had before been a tribute now became in her eyes an insult. Men sent chocolates and flowers to—to "those women"! If he respected her he would have done as she commanded him, instead of which he had sent her presents. Oh! it was intolerable.

"If I sent flowers and chocolates to a lady friend," said Mr. Bolton, "I should expect her to look happier than you do, Miss Brent."

With an effort Patricia gathered herself together and with a forced smile replied, "Ah! Mr. Bolton, but you are different," which seemed to please Mr. Bolton mightily.

She was conscious that everyone was looking at her in surprise not unmixed with disapproval. She was aware that her attitude was not the conventional pose of the happily-engaged girl. The situation was strange. Even Mr. Cordal was bestowing upon her a portion of his attention. It is true that he was eating curry with a spoon, which required less accuracy than something necessitating a knife and fork; still at meal times it was unusual of him to be conscious even of the existence of his fellow-boarders.

It was Gustave who relieved the situation by handing to Patricia a telegram on the little tray where the silver had long since given up the unequal struggle with the base metal beneath. Patricia with assumed indifference laid it beside her plate.

"The boy ees waiting, mees," insinuated Gustave.

Patricia tore open the envelope and read: "May I come and see you this evening dont say no peter."

Patricia was conscious of her flushed face and she felt irritated at her own weakness. With a murmured apology to Mrs. Morton she rose from the table and went into the lounge where she wrote the reply: "Regret impossible remember your promise," then she paused. She did not want to sign her full name, she could not sign her Christian name she decided, so she compromised by using initials only, "P.B." She took the telegram to the door herself, knowing that otherwise poor Gustave's life would be a misery at the hands of Miss Wangle, Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe and the others.

"Why had she given the boy sixpence?" she asked herself as she slowly returned to the dining-room. Telegraph boys were paid. It was ridiculous to tip them, especially when they brought undesirable messages. "Was the message undesirable?" someone within seemed to question. Of course it was, and she was very angry with Bowen for not doing as she had commanded him.

When Patricia returned to the table and proceeded with the meal, she was conscious of the atmosphere of expectancy around her. Everybody wanted to know what was in the telegram. At last Miss Wangle enquired, "No bad news I hope, Miss Brent."

Patricia looked up and fixed Miss Wangle with a deliberate stare, which she meant to be rude.

"None, Miss Wangle, thank you," she replied coldly.

The dinner proceeded until the sweet was being served, when Gustave approached her once more.

"You are wanted, mees, on the telephone, please," he said.

Patricia was conscious once more of crimsoning as she turned to Gustave. "Please say that I'm engaged," she said.

Gustave left the dining-room. Everybody watched the door in a fever of expectancy.

Two minutes later Gustave reappeared and, walking softly up to Patricia's chair, whispered in a voice that could be clearly heard by everyone.

"It ees Colonel Baun, mees. He wish to speak to you."

"Tell him I'm at dinner," replied Patricia calmly. She could literally hear the gasp that went round the table.

"But, Miss Brent," began Mrs. Craske-Morton.

Patricia turned and looked straight into Mrs. Craske-Morton's eyes interrogatingly. Gustave hesitated. Mrs. Craske-Morton collapsed. Miss Wangle and Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe exchanged meaning glances. Little Mrs. Hamilton looked concerned, almost a little sad. Patricia turned to Gustave.

"You heard, Gustave?"

"Yes, mees," replied Gustave and, turning reluctantly towards the door, he disappeared.

There was something in Patricia's demeanour that made it clear she would resent any comment on her action, and the meal continued in silence. Mr. Bolton made some feeble endeavours to lighten the atmosphere; but he was not successful.

In the lounge a quarter of an hour later, Gustave once more approached Patricia, this time with a note.

"The boy ees waiting, mees," he announced.

Patricia tore open the envelope and read:

"Dear Patricia,

"Won't you let me see you? Please remember that even the under-dog has his rights.

"Yours ever,
"Peter."

"There is no answer, Gustave," said Patricia, and Gustave left the room disconsolately.

Half an hour later Gustave returned once more. On his tray were three telegrams. Patricia looked about her wildly. "Had the man suddenly gone mad?" she asked herself. "Tell the boy not to wait, Gustave," she said.

"There ees three boys, mees."

The atmosphere was electrical. Mr. Bolton laughed, then stopped suddenly. Miss Sikkum simpered.

Patricia turned to Gustave with a calmness that was not reflected in her cheeks.

"Tell the three boys not to wait, Gustave."

"Yes, mees!" Gustave slowly walked to the door. It was clear that he could not reconcile with his standard of ethics the allowing of three telegrams to remain unopened, and to dismiss three boys without knowing whether or no there really were replies. The same feeling was reflected in the faces of Patricia's fellow-boarders.

"Miss Brent must be losing a lot of relatives, or coming into a lot of fortunes," remarked Mr. Bolton to Mrs. Hamilton.

Patricia preserved an outward calm she was far from feeling. She rose and went up to her room to discover from the three orange envelopes what was the latest phase of Colonel Bowen's madness. Seated on her bed she opened the telegrams.

The first read:

"Will you go motoring with me on sunday peter."

No, she would do nothing of the kind.

The second said:

"If I have done anything to offend you please tell me and forgive me peter."

Of course he had done nothing, and it was all very absurd. Why was he behaving like a schoolboy?

The third was longer. It ran:

"I so enjoyed last night it was the most delightful evening I have spent for many a day please do not be too hard upon me peter."

This was a tactical error. It brought back to Patricia the whole incident. It was utter folly to have placed herself in such an impossible position. Obviously Bowen knew nothing of women, or he would not have made such a blunder as to remind her of what took place on the previous night, unless—unless—— She hardly dare breathe the thought to herself. What if he thought her different from what she actually was? Could he confuse her with those—— It was impossible! She was angry; angry with him, angry with herself, angry with the Quadrant Grill-room; but angriest of all with Galvin House, which had precipitated her into this adventure.

Why did silly women expect every girl to marry? Why was it assumed because a woman did not marry that no one wanted to marry her? Patricia regarded herself in the looking-glass. Was she really the sort of girl who might be taken for an inveterate old maid? Her hands and feet were small. Her ankles well-shaped. Her figure had been praised, even by women. Her hair was a natural red-auburn. Her features regular, her mouth mobile, well-shaped with very red lips. Her eyes a violet-blue with long dark lashes and eyebrows.

"You're not so bad, Patricia Brent," she remarked as she turned from the glass. "But you will probably be a secretary to the end of your days, drink cold weak tea, keep a cat and get hard and angular, skinny most likely. You're just the sort that runs to skin and bone."

She was interrupted in her meditations by a knock at the door.

"Come in," she called.

The door was softly opened and Mrs. Hamilton entered.

"May I come in, dear?" she enquired in an apologetic voice, as she stood on the threshold.

"Come in!" cried Patricia, "why of course you may, you dear. You can do anything you like with me."

Mrs. Hamilton was small and white and fragile, with a ray of sunlight in her soul. She invariably dressed in grey, or blue-grey. Everything she wore seemed to be as soft as her own expression.

"I—I came up—I—I—hope it is not bad news. I don't want to meddle in your affairs, my dear; but I am concerned. If there is anything I can do, you will tell me, won't you? You won't think me inquisitive, will you?"

"Why you dear, silly little thing, of course I don't. Still it's just like your sweet self to come up and enquire. It is only that ridiculous Colonel Bowen who is showering telegrams on me in this way, in order, I suppose, to benefit the revenue. I think he has gone mad. Perhaps it's shell-shock, poor thing. There will most likely be another shower before we go to bed. Now we will go downstairs and stop those old pussies talking."

"My dear!" expostulated Mrs. Hamilton.

Patricia laughed. "Yes, aren't I getting acid and spinsterish?"

As they walked downstairs Mrs. Hamilton said:

"I'm so anxious to see him, my dear. Miss Wangle says he is so distinguished-looking."

"Who?" enquired Patricia, with mock innocence.

"Colonel Bowen, dear."

"Oh! Yes, he's quite a decent-looking old thing, and he's given Galvin House something to talk about, hasn't he?"

In the lounge Patricia soon became the centre of a group anxious for information; but no one was daring enough to put direct questions to her. Mrs. Craske-Morton ventured a suggestion that Colonel Bowen might be coming to dine with Patricia, and that she hoped Miss Brent would let her know in good time, so that she might make special preparations.

Patricia replied without enthusiasm. None was better aware than she that had her fiancé turned out to be a private, Mrs. Craske-Morton would lave been the last even to suggest that he should dine at Galvin House. There would have been no question of special preparations.

About ten o'clock Gustave entered and approached Patricia. She groaned in spirit.

"You are wanted on the telephone, mees."

Patricia thought she detected a note of reproach in his voice, as if he were conscious that a fellow-male was being badly treated.

"Will you say that I'm engaged?" replied Patricia.

"It's Colonel Baun, mees."

For a moment Patricia hesitated. She was conscious that Galvin House was against her to a woman. After all there were limits beyond which it would be unwise to go. Galvin House had its standards, which had already been sorely tried. Patricia felt rather than heard the whispered criticism passing between Miss Wangle and Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe. Rising slowly with an air of reconciled martyrdom, Patricia went to the telephone at the end of the hall, followed by the smiling Gustave, who, like the rest of Galvin House, had found his sense of decorum sorely outraged by Patricia's conduct.

"Hullo!" cried Patricia into the mouthpiece of the telephone, her heart thumping ridiculously.

Gustave walked tactfully away.

"That you, Patricia?" came the reply.

Patricia was conscious that all her anger had vanished.

"Yes, who is speaking?"

"Peter."

"Yes."

"How are you?"

"Did you ring me up to ask after my health?"

There was a laugh at the other end.

"Well!" enquired Patricia, who knew she was behaving like a schoolgirl.

"Did you get my message?"

"I'm very angry."

"Why?"

"Because you've made me ridiculous with your telegrams, messenger-boys, and telephoning."

"May I call?"

"No."

"I'm coming to-morrow night."

"I shall be out."

"Then I'll wait until you return."

"Are you playing the game, do you think?"

"I must see you. Expect me about nine."

"I shall do nothing of the sort."

"Please don't be angry, Patricia."

"Well! you mustn't come, then. Thank you for the chocolates and flowers."

"That's all right. Don't forget to-morrow at nine."

"I tell you I shall be out."

"Right-oh!"

"Good-bye!"

Without waiting for a reply, Patricia hung up the receiver.

When she returned to the lounge her cheeks were flushed, and she was feeling absurdly happy. Then a moment after she asked herself what it was to her whether he remembered or forgot her. He an entire stranger—or at least he ought to be.

Just as she was going up to her room for the light, another telegram arrived. It contained three words: "Good night peter."

"Of all the ridiculous creatures!" she murmured, laughing in spite of herself.