Patricia Brent, Spinster/Chapter 5
GALVIN HOUSE dined at seven-thirty. Miss Wangle had used all her arts in an endeavour to have the hour altered to eight-fifteen, or eight-thirty. "It would add tone to the establishment," she had explained to Mrs. Craske-Morton. "It is dreadfully suburban to dine at half-past seven." Conscious of the views of the other guests, Mrs. Craske-Morton had held out, necessitating the bringing up of Miss Wangle's heavy artillery, the bishop, whose actual views Miss Wangle shrouded in a mist of words. As far as could be gathered, the illustrious prelate held out very little hope of salvation for anyone who dined earlier than eight-thirty.
Just as Mrs. Craske-Morton was wavering, Mr. Bolton had floored Miss Wangle and her ecclesiastical relic with the simple question, "And who'll pay for the biscuits I shall have to eat to keep going until half-past eight?"
That had clinched the matter. Galvin House continued to dine at the unfashionable hour of seven-thirty. Miss Wangle had resigned herself to the inevitable, conscious that she had done her utmost for the social salvation of her fellow-guests, and mentally reproaching Providence for casting her lot with the Cordals and the Boltons, rather than with the De Veres and the Montmorencies.
Mr. Bolton confided to his fellow-boarders what he conceived to be the real cause of Mrs. Craske-Morton's decision.
"She's afraid of what Miss Wangle would eat if left unfed for an extra hour," he had said.
Miss Wangle's appetite was like Dominie Sampson's favourite adjective, "prodigious."
So it came about that on the Friday evening on which Colonel Peter Bowen had announced his intention of calling on Patricia, Galvin House, all unconscious of the event, sat down to its evening meal at its usual time, in its usual coats and blouses, with its usual vacuous smiles and small talk, and above all with its usual appetite—an appetite that had caused Mrs. Craske-Morton to bless the inauguration of food-control, and to pray devoutly to Providence for food-tickets.
Had anyone suggested to Patricia that she had dressed with more than usual care that evening, she would have denied it, she might even have been annoyed. Her simple evening frock of black voile, unrelieved by any colour save a ribbon of St. Patrick's green that bound her hair, showed up the paleness of her skin and the redness of her lips. At the last moment, as if under protest, she had pinned some of Bowen's carnations in her belt.
As she entered the dining-room, Miss Wangle and Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe exchanged significant glances. Woman-like they sensed something unusual. Galvin House did not usually dress for dinner.
"Going out?" enquired Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe sweetly.
"Probably," was Patricia's laconic reply.
Soup had not been disposed of (it was soup on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; fish on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and neither on Sundays at Galvin House) before Gustave entered with an enormous bouquet of crimson carnations. It might almost be said that the carnations entered propelled by Gustave, as there was very little but Gustave's smiling face above and the ends of his legs below the screen of flowers. Instinctively everybody looked at Patricia.
"For you, mees, with Colonel Baun's compliments."
Gustave stood irresolute, the crimson blooms cascading before him.
"You've forgotten the conservatory, Gustave," laughed Mr. Bolton. It was always easy to identify the facetious from the serious Mr. Bolton; his jokes were always heralded by a laugh.
"Sir?" interrogated the literal-minded Gustave.
"Never mind, Gustave. Mr. Bolton was joking," said Mrs. Craske-Morton.
"Yes, madame." Gustave smiled a mechanical smile: he overflowed with tact.
"Where will you have the flowers, Miss Brent?" enquired Mrs. Craske-Morton. "They are exquisite."
"Try the bath," suggested Mr. Bolton.
"Sir?" from Gustave.
It was Alice, Gustave's assistant in the dining-room during meals, who created the diversion for which Patricia had been devoutly praying. An affected little laugh from Miss Sikkum called attention to Alice, standing just inside the door, with an enormous white and gold box tied with bright green ribbon.
Patricia regarded the girl in dismay.
"Put them in the lounge, please," she said.
"You are lucky, Miss Brent," giggled Miss Sikkum enviously. "I wonder what's in the box."
"A chest protector," Mr. Bolton's laugh rang out.
"Really, Mr. Bolton!" from Mrs. Craske-Morton.
Patricia wondered was she lucky? Why should she be made ridiculous in this fashion?
"I should say chocolates." The suggestion came from Mr. Cordal through a mouthful of roast beef and Brussels sprouts. Everyone turned to the speaker, whose gastronomic silence was one of the most cherished traditions of Galvin House.
"He must have plenty of money," remarked Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe to Miss Wangle in a whisper, audible to all. "Those flowers and chocolates must have cost a lot."
"Ten pounds." The remark met a large Brussels sprout that Mr. Cordal was conveying to his mouth and summarily ejected it.
As Mr. Cordal was something on the Stock Exchange (Mr. Bolton had once said he must be a "bear") he was, at Galvin House, the recognised authority upon all matters of finance.
"Really, Mr. Cordal!" expostulated Mrs. Craske-Morton, rather outraged at this open discussion of Patricia's affairs.
"Sure of it," was all Mr. Cordal vouchsafed as he shovelled in another mouthful.
"You've been a goer in your time, Mr. Cordal," said Mr. Bolton.
Mr. Cordal grunted, which may have meant anything, but in all probability meant nothing.
For a quarter of an hour the inane conversation so characteristic of meal-times at Galvin House continued without interruption. How Patricia hated it. Was this all that life held for her? Was she always to be a drudge to the Bonsors, a victim of the Wangles and a target for the Boltons of life? It was to escape such drab existences that girls went on the stage, or worse; and why not? She had only one life, so far as she knew, and here she was sacrificing it to the jungle people, as she called them. Was there no escape? What St. George would rescue her from this dragon of——?
"Colonel Baun, mees."
Patricia looked up with a start from the apple tart with which she was trifling. Gustave stood beside her, his face glowing in a way that hinted at a handsome tip. He was all-unconscious that he had answered a very difficult question in a manner entirely unsatisfactory to Patricia.
"I haf show him in the looaunge, mees. He will wait."
Patricia believed him. Was ever man so persistent? She saw through the move. He had come an hour earlier to be sure of catching her before she went out. Patricia was once more conscious of the ridiculous behaviour of her heart. It thumped and pounded against her ribs as if determined to compromise her with the rest of the boarders.
"Very well, Gustave, say we are at dinner."
"Yes, mees," and Gustave proceeded with his duties.
"He's clever," was Patricia's inward comment. "He's bought Gustave, and in an hour he'll have the whole blessed place against me."
If the effect upon Patricia of Gustave's announcement had been startling, that upon the rest of the company was galvanic. Each felt aggrieved that proper notice had not been given of so auspicious an event. There was a general feeling of resentment against Patricia for not having told them that she expected Bowen to call.
There were covert glances at their garments by the ladies, and among the men a consciousness that the clothes they were wearing were not those they had upstairs.
Miss Sikkum's playful fancy was with the Brixton "Paris model," which only that day she had taken to the cleaners; Miss Wangle was conscious that she had not hung herself with her full equipment of chains and accoutrements; Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe thought regretfully of the pale blue evening-gown upstairs, a garment that had followed the course of fashion for nearly a quarter of a century. Mr. Bolton had doubts about his collar and his boots, whilst Mr. Cordal, with the aid of his napkin and some water from a drinking glass, strove to remove from his waistcoat reminiscences of bygone repasts.
The other members of the company all had something to regret. Mr. Archibald Sefton, whose occupation was a secret between himself and Providence, was dubious about the creases in his trousers; Mrs. Barnes wondered if the gallant colonel would discover the ink she had that day applied to the seams of her dress. Everyone was constrained and anxious to get to his or to her room for repairs.
"Did you know Colonel Bowen was coming?" enquired Mrs. Craske-Morton, quite at her ease in the knowledge that "something had told her" to put on her best black silk and the large cameo pendant that made her look like a wine-steward at a fashionable restaurant.
"He said he might drop in; but he's so casual that I didn't think it worth mentioning," said Patricia, conscious that the reply was unanimously regarded as unconvincing.
Having finished her coffee Patricia rose in a leisurely manner. She was no sooner out of the door than a veritable stampede ensued. Everyone intended "just to slip upstairs for a moment," and each glared at the other on discovering that all seemed inspired by the same idea.
Mrs. Craske-Morton went to her "boudoir" out of tactful consideration for the young lovers; Mrs. Hamilton went up to the drawing-room for the same reason.
Patricia paused for a moment outside the door of the lounge. She put her cool hands to her hot cheeks, wondering why her heart should show so little regard for her feelings. She felt an impulse to run away and lock herself in her own room and cry "Go away!" to anyone who might knock. She strove to work herself into a state of anger with Bowen for daring to come an hour before the time appointed.
As she entered the lounge, Bowen sprang up and came towards her. There was a spirit of boyish mischief lurking in his eyes.
"I suppose," said Patricia as they shook hands, "you think this is very clever."
"Please, Patricia, don't bully me."
Patricia laughed in spite of herself at the humility and appeal in his voice. She was conscious that she was not behaving as she ought, or had intended to behave.
"It seems an age since I saw you," he continued.
"Forty-eight hours, to be exact," commented Patricia, forgetful of all the reproachful things she had intended to say.
"You got the flowers?" as his eye fell on the carnations which Gustave had placed in a large bowl.
"Yes, thank you very much indeed, they're exquisite. They made Miss Sikkum quite envious."
"Who's Miss Sikkum?"
"Time, in all probability, will show," replied Patricia, seating herself on a settee. Bowen drew up a chair and sat opposite to her. She liked him for that. Had he sat beside her, she told herself, she would have hated him.
"You're not angry with me, Patricia, are you?" There was an anxious note in his voice.
"Do you appreciate that you've made me extremely ridiculous with your telegrams, messenger-boys, conservatories, and confectioner's-shops? Why did you do it?"
"I don't know," he confessed with unconscious gaucherie, "I simply couldn't get you out of my thoughts."
"Which shows that you tried," commented Patricia, the lightness of her words contradicted by the blush that accompanied them.
"The King's Regulations do not provide for Patricias," he replied, "and I had to try. That is how I knew."
"Do you think I'm a cormorant, as well as an abandoned person?" she demanded.
"A cormorant?" queried Bowen, ignoring the second question. "I don't understand."
"Within twenty-four hours you have sent me enough chocolates to last for a couple of months."
"Poor Patricia!" he laughed.
"You mustn't call me Patricia, Colonel Bowen," she said primly. "What will people think?"
"What would they think if they heard the man you're engaged to call you Miss Brent?"
"We are not engaged," said Patricia hotly.
"We are," his eyes smiled into hers. "I can bring all these people here to prove it on your own statement."
She bit her lip. "Are you going to be mean? Are you going to play the game?" She awaited his reply with an anxiety she strove to disguise.
Bowen looked straight into her eyes until they fell beneath his gaze.
"I'm afraid I've got to be mean, Patricia," he said quietly. "May we smoke?"
As she took a cigarette from his case and he lighted it for her, Patricia found herself experiencing a new sensation. Without apparent effort he had assumed control of the situation, and then with a masterfulness that she felt rather than acknowledged, had put the subject aside as if requiring no further comment. This was a side of Bowen's character that she had not yet seen. As she was debating with herself whether or no she liked it, the door opened, giving access to a stream of Galvin Houseites.
"Oh!" gasped Patricia hysterically, "they're all dressed up, and it's in your honour."
"What's that?" enquired Bowen, less mentally agile than Patricia, as he turned round to gaze at the string of paying guests that oozed into the room.
"They've put on their best bibs and tuckers for you," she cried. "Oh! please don't even smile, ple-e-e-ase!"
The first to enter was Miss Wangle. Although she had not changed her dress, it was obvious that she had taken considerable pains with her personal appearance. On her fingers were more than the usual weight of rings; round her neck were flung a few additional chains; on her arms hung an extra bracelet or two and, as a final touch, she had added a fan to her equipment. To Patricia's keen eyes it was clear that she had re-done her hair, and she carried her lorgnettes, things that in themselves betokened a ceremonial occasion.
Following Miss Wangle like an echo came Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe. She had evidently taken her courage in both hands and donned the blue evening frock, to which she had added a pair of white gloves which reached barely to the elbow, although the frock ended just below her shoulders.
Miss Wangle bowed graciously to Patricia, Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe followed suit. They moved over to the extreme end of the room. Mr. Cordal was the next arrival, closely followed by Mr. Bolton. At the sight of Mr. Cordal Patricia started and bit her lower lip. He had assumed a vivid blue tie, and had obviously changed his collar. From the darker spots on his waistcoat and coat it was evident that he had subjected his clothes to a process of cleaning.
Mr. Bolton, on the other hand, had followed Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe's lead, and made a clean sweep. He had assumed a black frock-coat; but had apparently not thought it worth while to change his brown tweed trousers, which hung about his boots in shapeless folds, as if conscious that they had no right there. He, too, had donned a clean collar and, by way of adding to his splendour, had assumed a white satin necktie threaded through a "diamond" ring. His thin dark hair was generously oiled and, as he passed over to the side of the room occupied by Miss Wangle and Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe, he left behind him a strong odour of verbena.
Mrs. Barnes came next and, one by one, the other guests drifted in. All had assumed something in the nature of a wedding garment in honour of Patricia's fiancé. Miss Sikkum had selected a pea-green satin blouse, which caused Bowen to screw his eyeglass vigorously into his eye and gaze at her in wonder.
"Do you like them?" It was Patricia who broke the silence.
With a start Bowen turned to her. "Er—er—they seem an er—awfully decent crowd."
Patricia laughed. "Yes, aren't they? Dreadfully decent. How would you like to live among them all? Why they haven't the pluck to break a commandment among them."
Bowen looked at Patricia in surprise. "Really!" was the only remark he could think of.
"And now I've shocked you!" cried Patricia. "You must not think that I like people who break commandments. I don't know exactly what I do mean. Oh, here you are!" and she ran across as Mrs. Hamilton entered and drew her towards Bowen. "Now I know what I meant. This dear little creature has never broken a commandment, I wouldn't mind betting everything I have, and she has never been uncharitable to anyone who has. Isn't that so?" She turned to Mrs. Hamilton, who was regarding her in astonishment. "Oh, I'm so sorry! I'm quite mad to-night, you mustn't mind. You see Colonel Bowen's mad and he makes me mad."
Turning to Bowen she introduced him to Mrs. Hamilton. "This is my friend, Mrs. Hamilton." Then to Mrs. Hamilton. "You know all about Colonel Bowen, don't you, dear? He's the man who sends me conservatories and telegrams and boy-messengers and things."
Mrs. Hamilton smiled up sweetly at Bowen, and held out her hand.
Patricia glanced across at the group at the other end of the lounge. The scene reminded her of Napoleon on the Bellerophon.
Suddenly she had an idea. It synchronised with the entry of Gustave, who stood just inside the door smiling inanely.
"Call a taxi for Colonel Bowen, please, Gustave," she said coolly.
Gustave looked surprised, the group looked disappointed, Bowen looked at Patricia with a puzzled expression.
"I'm sorry you're in a hurry," said Patricia, holding out her hand to Bowen. "I'm busy also."
"But——" began Bowen.
"Oh! don't trouble." Patricia advanced, and he had perforce to retreat towards the door. "See you again sometime. Good-bye," and Bowen found himself in the hall.
"Damn!" he muttered.
"Sir?" interrogated Gustave anxiously.
As Bowen was replying to Gustave in coin, Mrs. Craske-Morton appeared at the head of the stairs on her way down to the lounge after her tactful absence. For a moment she hesitated in obvious surprise, then, with the air of a would-be traveller who hears the guard's whistle, she threw dignity aside and made for Bowen.
"Colonel Bowen?" she interrogated anxiously.
Bowen turned and bowed.
"I am Mrs. Craske-Morton. Miss Brent did not tell me that you were making so short a call, or I would——" Mrs. Craske-Morton's pause implied that nothing would have prevented her from hurrying down.
"You are very kind," murmured Bowen absently, not yet recovered from his unceremonious dismissal. He was brought back to realities by Mrs. Craske-Morton expressing a hope that he would give her the pleasure of dining at Galvin House one evening. "Shall we say Friday?" she continued without allowing Bowen time to reply, "and we will keep it as a delightful surprise for Miss Brent." Mrs. Craske-Morton exposed her teeth and felt romantic.
When Bowen left Galvin House that evening he was pledged to give Patricia "a delightful surprise" on the following Friday.
"That will teach them to pity me!" murmured Patricia that night as she brushed her hair with what seemed entirely unnecessary vigour. She was conscious that she was the best-hated girl in Bayswater, as she recalled the angry and reproachful looks directed towards her by her fellow-guests after Bowen's departure.
In an adjoining room Miss Wangle, a black cap upon her head, was also engaged in brushing her hair with a gentleness foreign to most of her actions
"The cat!" she murmured as she lay it in its drawer, and then as she locked the drawer she repeated, "The cat!"