Patricia Brent, Spinster
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"If Miss Wangle desires to discuss my friends with you in future, Aunt Adelaide, I think she should adopt the names by which they prefer to be known."
Patricia watched the surprised look upon her aunt's face, and with dignity met the keen hawk-like glance that flashed from her eyes.
"If, for reasons of his own," continued Patricia, "a man chooses to drop his title in favour of his rank in the army, that I think is a matter for him to decide, and not one that requires discussion at Miss Wangle's hands."
Miss Brent's stare convinced Patricia that she was carrying things off rather well.
"Patricia, where did you meet this Colonel Peter Bowen?"
The question came like a thunder-clap to Patricia's unprepared ears. All her self-complacency of a moment before now deserted her.
She felt her face crimsoning. How she envied girls who did not blush. What on earth could she tell her aunt? Why had an undiscriminating Providence given her an Aunt Adelaide at all? Why had it not bestowed this inestimable treasure upon someone more deserving? What could she say? As well think of lying to Rhadamanthus as to Miss Brent. Then Patricia had an inspiration. She would tell her aunt the truth, trusting to her not to believe it.
"Where did I meet him, Aunt Adelaide?" she remarked indifferently. "Oh! I picked him up in a restaurant; he looked nice."
"Patricia, how dare you say such a thing before me." A slight flush mantled Miss Brent's sallow cheeks. All the proprieties, all the chastities and all the moralities banked up behind her in moral support.
"You ought to feel ashamed of yourself, Patricia. London has done you no good. What would your poor dear father have said?"
"I'm sorry, Aunt Adelaide; but please remember I've had a very tiring week, trying to leaven an unleavenable politician. Shall we drop the subject of Colonel Bowen for the time being?"
"Certainly not," snapped Miss Brent. "It is my duty as your sole surviving relative," how Patricia deplored that word "surviving," why had her Aunt Adelaide survived? "As your sole surviving relative," repeated Miss Brent, "it is my duty to look after your welfare."
"But," protested Patricia, "I'm nearly twenty-five, and I am quite able to look after myself."
"Patricia, it is my duty to look after you." Miss Brent spoke as if she were about to walk over heated ploughshares rather than to satisfy a natural curiosity.
"I repeat," proceeded Miss Brent, "where did you meet Colonel Bowen?"
"I have told you, Aunt Adelaide, but you won't believe me."
"I want to know the truth, Patricia. Is he really Lord Peter?" persisted Miss Brent.
"To be quite candid, I've never asked him," replied Patricia.
Miss Brent stared at her niece. The obviously feminine thing was to express surprise; but Miss Brent never did the obvious thing. Instead of repeating, "Never asked him!" she remained silent for some moments while Patricia, with great intentness, proceeded to jerk her gloves into shape.
"Patricia, you are mad!" Miss Brent spoke with conviction.
Patricia glanced up from her occupation and smiled at her aunt as if entirely sharing her conviction.
"It's the price of spinsterhood with some women," was all she said.
Miss Brent glared at her; but there was more than a spice of curiosity in her look.
"Then you decline to tell me?" she enquired.There was in her voice a note that told of a mind made up.
Patricia knew from past experience that her aunt had made up her mind as to her course of action.
"Tell you what?" she enquired innocently.
"Whether or no the Colonel Bowen you are engaged to is Lord Peter Bowen."
Patricia determined to temporise in order to gain time. She knew Aunt Adelaide to be capable of anything, even to calling upon Lord Peter Bowen's family and enquiring if it were he to whom her niece was engaged. She was too bewildered to know how to act. It would be so like this absurd person to turn out to be a lord and make her still more ridiculous. If he were Lord Peter, why on earth had he not told her? Had he thought she would be dazzled?
Suddenly there flashed into Patricia's mind an explanation which caused her cheeks to flame and her eyes to flash. She strove to put the idea aside as unworthy of him; but it refused to leave her. She had heard of men giving false names to girls they met – in the way she and Bowen had met. He had, then, in spite of his protestations, mistaken her. In all probability he was not staying at the Quadrant at all. What a fool she had been. She had told all about herself, whereas he had told her nothing beyond the fact that his name was Peter Bowen. Oh, it was intolerable, humiliating!
The worst of it was that she seemed unable to extricate herself from the ever-increasing tangle arising out of her folly. Miss Wangle and Galvin House had been sufficiently serious factors, requiring all her watchfulness to circumvent them; but now Aunt Adelaide had thrown herself precipitately into the m?l?e, and heaven alone knew what would be the outcome!
Had her aunt been a man or merely a woman, Patricia argued, she would not have been so dangerous; but she possessed the deliberate logic of the one and the quickness of perception of the other. With her feminine eye she could see, and with her man-like brain she could judge.
Patricia felt that the one thing to do was to get rid of her aunt for the day and then think things over quietly and decide as to her plan of campaign.
"Please, Aunt Adelaide," she said, "don't let's discuss it any more to-day, I've had such a worrying time at the Bonsors', and my head is so stupid. Come to tea to-morrow afternoon at half-past five and I will tell you all, as they say in the novelettes; but for heaven's sake don't get talking to those dreadful old tabbies. They have no affairs of their own, and at the present moment they simply live upon mine."
"Very well, Patricia," replied Miss Brent as she rose to go, "I will wait until to-morrow; but, understand me, I am your sole surviving relative and I have a duty to perform by you. That duty I shall perform whatever it costs me."
As Patricia looked into the hard, cold eyes of her aunt, she believed her. At that moment Miss Brent looked as if she represented all the aggressive virtues in Christendom.
"It's very sweet of you, Aunt Adelaide, and I very much appreciate your interest. I am all nervy to-day; but I shall be all right to-morrow. Don't forget, half-past five here. That will give me time to get back from the Bonsors'."
Miss Brent pecked Patricia's right cheek and moved towards the door. "Remember, Patricia," she said, as a final shot, "to-morrow I shall expect a full explanation. I am deeply concerned about you. I cannot conceive what your poor dear father would have said had he been alive."
With this parting shot Miss Brent moved down the staircase and left Galvin House. As she stalked to the temperance hotel in Bloomsbury, where she was staying, she was fully satisfied that she had done her duty as a woman and a Christian.
"Sole surviving relative," muttered Patricia as she turned back after seeing her aunt out. And then she remembered with a smile that her father had once said that "relatives were the very devil." A softness came into her eyes at the thought of her father, and she remembered another saying of his, "When you lose your sense of humour and your courage at the same time, you have lost the game."
For a moment Patricia paused, deliberating what she would do. Finally, she walked to the telephone at the end of the hall. There was a grimness about her look indicative of a set purpose, taking down the receiver she called "Gerrard 60000."
There was a pause.
"That the Quadrant Hotel?" she enquired. "Is Lord Peter Bowen in?"
The clerk would enquire.
Patricia waited what seemed an age.
At last a voice cried, "Hullo!"
"Is that Lord Peter Bowen?"
"Is that you, Patricia?" came the reply from the other end of the wire.
"Oh, so it is true then!" said Patricia.
"What's true?" queried Bowen at the other end.
"What I've just said."
"What do you mean? I don't understand."
"I must see you this evening," said Patricia in an even voice.
"That's most awfully good of you."
"It's nothing of the sort."
Bowen laughed. "Shall I come round?"
"Will you dine with me?"
"Well, where shall I see you?"
Patricia thought for a moment. "I will meet you at Lancaster Gate tube at twenty minutes to nine."
"All right, I'll be there. Shall I bring the car?"
For a moment Patricia hesitated. She did not want to go to a restaurant with him, she wanted merely to talk and see how she was to get out of the difficulty with Aunt Adelaide. The car seemed to offer a solution. They could drive out to some quiet place and then talk without a chance of being overheard.
"Yes, please, I think that will do admirably."
"Mind you bring a thick coat. Won't you let me pick you up? Please do, then you can bring a fur coat and all that sort of thing, you know."
Again Patricia hesitated for a moment. "Perhaps that would be the better way," she conceded grudgingly.
"Right-oh! Will half-past eight do?"
"Yes, I'll be ready."
"It's awfully kind of you; I'm frightfully bucked."
"You had better wait and see, I think," was Patricia's grim retort. "Good-bye."
Patricia put the receiver up with a jerk.
She returned to her room conscious that she was never able to do herself justice with Bowen. Her most righteous anger was always in danger of being dissipated when she spoke to him. His personality seemed to radiate good nature, and he always appeared so genuinely glad to see her, or hear her voice that it placed her at a disadvantage. She ought to be stronger and more tenacious of purpose, she told herself. It was weak to be so easily influenced by someone else, especially a man who had treated her in the way that Bowen had treated her; for Patricia had now come to regard herself as extremely ill-used.
Nothing, she told herself, would have persuaded her to ring up Bowen in the way she had done, had it not been for Aunt Adelaide. In her heart she had to confess that she was very much afraid of Aunt Adelaide and what she might do.
Patricia dreaded dinner that evening. She knew instinctively that everybody would be full of Miss Wangle's discovery. She might have known that Miss Wangle would not be satisfied until she had discovered everything there was to be discovered about Bowen.
As Patricia walked along the hall to the staircase, Mrs. Hamilton came out of the lounge. Patricia put her arm round the fragile waist of the old lady and they walked upstairs together.
"Well," said Patricia gaily, "what are the old tabbies doing this afternoon?"
"My dear!" expostulated Mrs. Hamilton gently, "you mustn't call them that, they have so very little to interest them that – that – "
"Oh, you dear, funny little thing!" said Patricia, giving Mrs. Hamilton a squeeze which almost lifted her off her feet. "I think you would find an excuse for anyone, no matter how wicked. When I get very, very bad I shall come and ask you to explain me to myself. I think if you had your way you would prove every wolf a sheep underneath. Come into my room and have a pow-wow."
Inside her room Patricia lifted Mrs. Hamilton bodily on to the bed. "Now lie there, you dear little thing, and have a rest. Dad used to say that every woman ought to lie on her back for two hours each day. I don't know why. I suppose it was to keep her quiet and get her out of the way. In any case you have got to lie down there."
"But your bed, my dear," protested Mrs. Hamilton.
"Never mind my bed, you just do as you're told. Now what are the old cats – I beg your pardon, what have the – lambs been saying?"
Mrs. Hamilton smiled in spite of herself. "Well, of course, dear, we're all very interested to hear that you are engaged to – Lord Peter Bowen."
"How did they find out?" interrupted Patricia.
"Well, it appears that Miss Wangle has a friend who has a cousin in the War Office."
"Oh, dear!" groaned Patricia. "I believe Miss Wangle has a friend who has a cousin in every known place in the world, and a good many unknown places," she added. "She has got a bishop in heaven, innumerable connections in Mayfair, acquaintances at Court, cousins of friends at the War Office; the only place where she seems to have nobody who has anybody else is hell."
"My dear!" said Mrs. Hamilton in horror, "you mustn't talk like that."
"But isn't it true?" persisted Patricia. "Well, I'm sorry if I've shocked you. Tell me all about it."
"Well," began Mrs. Hamilton, "soon after you had gone out Miss Wangle's friend telephoned in reply to her letter of enquiry. She told her all about Lord Peter Bowen, how he had distinguished himself in France, won the Military Cross, the D.S.O., how he had been promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, and brought back to the War Office and given a position on the General Staff. He's a very clever young man, my dear."
Patricia laughed outright at Mrs. Hamilton's earnestness. "Why of course he's clever, otherwise he wouldn't have taken up with such a clever young woman."
"Well, my dear, I hope you'll be happy," said Mrs. Hamilton earnestly.
"I doubt it," said Patricia.
"Doubt it!" There was horror in Mrs. Hamilton's voice. She half raised herself on the bed. Patricia pushed her back again.
"Never mind, your remark reminds me of a story about a great-great-grandmother of mine. A granddaughter of hers had become engaged and there was a great family meeting to introduce the poor victim to his future "in-laws." The old lady was very deaf and had formed the habit of speaking aloud quite unconscious that others could hear her. The wretched young man was brought up and presented, and everybody was agog to hear the grandmotherly pronouncement, for the old lady was as shrewd as she was frank. She looked at the young man keenly and deliberately, whilst he stood the picture of discomfort, and turning to her granddaughter, said, "Well, my dear, I hope you'll be happy, I hope you'll be very happy," then to herself in an equally loud voice she added, "But he wouldn't have been my choice, he wouldn't have been my choice."
"Oh! the poor dear," said Mrs. Hamilton, seeing only the tragic side of the situation.
Patricia laughed. "How like you, you dear little grey lady," and she bent down and kissed the pale cheeks, bringing a slight rose flush to them.
It was half-past seven before Mrs. Hamilton left Patricia's room.
"Heigh-ho!" sighed Patricia as she undid her hair, "I suppose I shall have to run the gauntlet during dinner."