Herbert Jenkins.

Patricia Brent, Spinster



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"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 Up. "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 vigorous 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 fianc?. 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!"

CHAPTER VI
THE INTERVENTION OF AUNT ADELAIDE

Sunday at Galvin House was a day of bodily rest but acute mental activity. The day of God seemed to draw out the worst in everybody; all were in their best clothes and on their worst behaviour. Mr. Cordal descended to breakfast in carpet slippers with fur tops. Miss Wangle regarded this as a mark of disrespect towards the grand-niece of a bishop. She would glare at Mr. Cordal's slippers as if convinced that the cloven hoof were inside.

Mr. Bolton sported a velvet smoking-jacket, white at the elbows, light grey trousers and a manner that seemed to say, "Ha! here's Sunday again, good!" After breakfast he added a fez and a British cigar to his equipment, and retired to the lounge to read Lloyd's News. Both the cigar and the newspaper lasted him throughout the day. Somewhere at the back of his mind was the conviction that in smoking a cigar, which he disliked, he was making a fitting distinction between the Sabbath and week-days. He went even further, for whereas on secular days he lit his inexpensive cigarettes with matches, on the Sabbath he used only fusees.

"I love the smell of fusees," Miss Sikkum would simper, regardless of the fact that a hundred times before she had taken Galvin House into her confidence on the subject. "I think they're so romantic."

Patricia wondered if Mr. Bolton's fusee were an offering to heaven or to Miss Sikkum.

On Sunday mornings Miss Wangle and Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe went to divine service at Westminster Abbey, and Mr. Cordal went to sleep in the lounge.

Mrs. Barnes wandered aimlessly about, making anxious enquiry of everyone she encountered. If it were cloudy, did they think it would rain? If it rained, did they think it would clear up? If it were fine, did they think it would last? Mrs. Barnes was always going to do something that was contingent upon the weather. Every Sunday she was going for a walk in the Park, or to church; but her constitutional indecision of character intervened.

Mr. Archibald Sefton, who showed the qualities of a landscape gardener in the way in which he arranged his thin fair hair to disguise the desert of baldness beneath, was always vigorous on Sundays. He descended to the dining-room rubbing his hands in a manner suggestive of a Dickens Christmas. After breakfast he walked in the Park, "to give the girls a treat," as Mr. Bolton had once expressed it, which had earned for him a stern rebuke from Miss Wangle. In the afternoon Mr. Sefton returned to the Park, and in the evening yet again.

Mr. Sefton had a secret that was slowly producing in him misanthropy. His nature was tropical and his courage arctic, which, coupled with his forty-five years, was a great obstacle to his happiness. In dress he was a dandy, at heart he was a craven and, never daring, he was consumed with his own fire.

The other guests at Galvin House drifted in and out, said the same things, wore the same clothes, with occasional additions, had the same thoughts; whilst over all, as if to compose the picture, brooded the reek of cooking.

The atmosphere of Galvin House was English, the cooking was English, and the lack of culinary imagination also was English. There were two and a half menus for the one o'clock Sunday dinner. Roast mutton, onion sauce, cabbage, potatoes, fruit pie, and custard; alternated for four weeks with roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, cauliflower, roast potatoes, and lemon pudding. Then came roast pork, apple sauce, potatoes, greens with stewed fruit and cheese afterwards.

The cuisine was in itself a calendar. If your first Sunday were a roast-pork Sunday, you knew without mental effort on every roast-pork Sunday exactly how many months you had been there. If for a moment you had forgotten the day, and found yourself toying with a herring at dinner, you knew it was a Tuesday, just as you knew it was Friday from the Scotch broth placed before you.

Nobody seemed to mind the dreary reiteration, because everybody was so occupied in keeping up appearances. Sunday was the day of reckoning and retrospection. "Were they getting full value for their money?" was the unuttered question. There were whisperings and grumblings, sometimes complaints. Then there was another aspect. Each guest had to enquire if the expenditure were justified by income. All these things, like the weekly mending, were kept for Sundays.

By tea-time the atmosphere was one of unrest. Mr. Sefton returned from the Park disappointed, Miss Sikkum from Sunday-school, breathless from her flight before some alleged admirer, Patricia from her walk, conscious of a dissatisfaction she could not define. Mr. Cordal awoke unrefreshed, Mrs. Craske-Morton emerged from her "boudoir," where she balanced the week's accounts, convinced that ruin stared her in the face owing to the tonic qualities of Bayswater air, and Mr. Bolton emerged from Lloyd's News facetious. Miss Wangle was acid, Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe ultra-forbearing, whilst Mrs. Barnes found it impossible to decide between a heart-cake and a rusk. Only Mrs. Hamilton, at work upon her inevitable knitting, seemed human and content.

On returning to Galvin House Patricia had formed a habit of instinctively casting her eyes in the direction of the letter-rack, beneath which was the table on which parcels were placed that they might be picked up as the various guests entered on their way to their rooms. She took herself severely to task for this weakness, but in spite of her best efforts, her eyes would wander towards the table and letter-rack. At last she had to take stern measures with herself and deliberately walk along the hall with her face turned to the left, that is to the side opposite from that of the letter-rack table.

On the Sunday afternoon following her adventure at the Quadrant Grill-room, Patricia entered Galvin House, her head resolutely turned to the left, and ran into Gustave.

"Oh, mees!" he exclaimed, his gentle, cow-like face expressing pained surprise, rather than indignation.

Gustave was a Swiss, a French-Swiss, he was emphatic on this point. Patricia said he was Swiss wherever he wasn't French, and German wherever he wasn't Swiss and French.

"I am so sorry, Gustave," apologised Patricia. "I wasn't looking where I was going."

Gustave smiled amiably, Patricia was a great favourite of his. "There is a lady in the looaunge, Mees Brent, the same as you." Gustave smiled broadly as if he had discovered some subtle joke in the duplication of Patricia's name.

"Oh, bother!" muttered Patricia to herself. "Aunt Adelaide, imagine Aunt Adelaide on an afternoon like this."

She entered the lounge wearily, to find Miss Brent the centre of a group, the foremost in which were Mrs. Craske-Morton, Miss Wangle, and Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe. Patricia groaned in spirit; she knew exactly what had been taking place, and now she would have to explain everything. Could she explain? Had she for one moment paused to think of Aunt Adelaide, no amount of frenzy or excitement would have prompted her to such an adventure. Miss Brent would probe the mystery out of a ghost. Material, practical, levelheaded, victorious, she would strip romance from a legend, or glamour from a myth.

As she entered the lounge, Patricia saw by the movement of Miss Wangle's lips that she was saying "Ah! here she is." Miss Brent turned and regarded her niece with a long, non-committal stare. Patricia walked over to her.

"Hullo, Aunt Adelaide! Who would have thought of seeing you here."

Miss Brent looked up at her, received the frigid kiss upon one cheek and returned it upon the other.

"A peck for a peck," muttered Patricia to herself under her breath.

"We've been talking about you," said Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe ingratiatingly.

"How strange," announced Patricia indifferently. "Well, Aunt Adelaide," she continued, turning to Miss Brent, "this is an unexpected pleasure. How is it you are dissipating in town?"

"I want to speak to you, Patricia. Is there a quiet corner where we shall not be overheard?"

Miss Wangle started, Mrs. Craske-Morton rose hurriedly and made for the door. Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe looked uncomfortable. Miss Brent's directness was a thing dreaded by all who knew her.

"You had better come up to my room, Aunt Adelaide," said Patricia.

As she reached the door, Mrs. Craske-Morton turned. "Oh! Miss Brent," she said, addressing Patricia, "would you not like to take your aunt into my boudoir? It is entirely at your disposal."

Mrs. Craske-Morton's "boudoir" was a small cupboard-like apartment in which she made up her accounts. It was as much like a boudoir as a starveling mongrel is like an aristocratic chow. Patricia smiled her thanks. One of Patricia's great points was that she could smile an acknowledgment in a way that was little less than inspiration.

When they reached the "boudoir," Miss Brent sat down with a suddenness and an air of aggression that left Patricia in no doubt as to the nature of the talk she desired to have with her.

Miss Brent was a tall, angular woman, with spinster shouting from every angle of her uncomely person. No matter what the fashion, she seemed to wear her clothes all bunched up about her hips. Her hair was dragged to the back of her head, and crowned by a hat known in the dim recesses of the Victorian past as a "boater." A veil clawed what remained of the hair and hat towards the rear, and accentuated the sharpness of her nose and the fleshlessness of her cheeks. Miss Brent looked like nothing so much as an aged hawk in whom the lust to prey still lingered, without the power of making the physical effort to capture it.

"Patricia," she demanded, "what is all this I hear?"

"If you've been talking to Miss Wangle and Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe, Aunt Adelaide, heaven only knows what you've heard," replied Patricia calmly.

"Patricia." Miss Brent invariably began her remarks by uttering the name of the person whom she addressed. "Patricia, you know perfectly well what I mean."

"I should know better, if you would tell me," murmured Patricia with a patient sigh as she seated herself in the easiest of the uneasy chairs, and proceeded to pull off her gloves.

"Patricia, I refer to these stories about your being engaged."

"Yes, Aunt Adelaide?"

"Have you nothing to say?"

"Nothing in particular. People get engaged, you know. I suppose it is because they've got nothing else to do."

"Patricia, don't be frivolous."

"Frivolous! Me frivolous! Aunt Adelaide! If you were a secretary to a brainless politician, who is supposed to rise, but who won't rise, can't rise, and never will rise, from ten until five each day, for the magnificent salary of two and a half guineas a week, even you wouldn't be able to be frivolous."

"Patricia!" There was surprised disapproval in Miss Brent's voice. "Are you mad?"

"No, Aunt Adelaide, just bored, just bored stiff." Patricia emphasised the word "stiff" in a way that brought Miss Brent into an even more upright position.

"Patricia, I wish you would change your idiom. Your flagrant vulgarity would have deeply pained your poor, dear father."

Patricia made no response; she simply looked as she felt, unutterably bored. She was incapable even of invention. Supposing she told her aunt the whole story, at least she would have the joy of seeing the look of horror that would overspread her features.

"Patricia," continued Miss Brent, "I repeat, what is this I hear about your being engaged?"

"Oh!" replied Patricia indifferently, "I suppose you've heard the truth; I've got engaged."

"Without telling me a word about it."

"Oh, well! those are nasty things, you know, that one doesn't advertise."

"Patricia!"

"Well, aunt, you say that all men are beasts, and if you associate with beasts, you don't like the world to know about it."

"Patricia!" repeated Miss Brent.

"Aunt Adelaide!" cried Patricia, "you make me feel that I absolutely hate my name. I wish I'd been numbered. If you say 'Patricia' again I shall scream."

"Is it true that you are engaged to Lord Peter Bowen?"

"Good Lord, no." Patricia sat up in astonishment.

"Then that woman in the lounge is a liar."

There was uncompromising conviction in Miss Brent's tone.

Patricia leaned forward and smiled. "Aunt Adelaide, you are singularly discriminating to-day. She is a liar, and she also happens to be a cat."

Miss Brent appeared not to hear Patricia's remark. She was occupied with her own thoughts. She possessed a masculine habit of thinking before she spoke, and in consequence she was as devoid of impulse and spontaneity as a snail.

Patricia watched her aunt covertly, her mind working furiously. What could it mean? Lord Peter Bowen! Miss Wangle was not given to making mistakes in which the aristocracy were concerned. At Galvin House she was the recognised authority upon anything and everything concerned with royalty and the titled and landed gentry. County families were her hobbies and the peerage her obsession. It would be just like Peter, thought Patricia, to turn out a lord, just the ridiculous, inconsequent sort of thing he would delight in. She was unconscious of any incongruity in thinking of him as Peter. It seemed the natural thing to do.

She saw by the signs on her aunt's face that she was nearing a decision. Conscious that she must not burn her boats, Patricia burst in upon Miss Brent's thoughts with a suddenness that startled her.



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