It did indeed. Her story impressed me profoundly. I knew Chekhov’s Seagull. My Aunt Agatha had once made me take her son Thos to a performance of it at the Old Vic, and what with the strain of trying to follow the cock-eyed goings-on of characters called Zarietchnaya and Medvienko and having to be constantly on the alert to prevent Thos making a sneak for the great open spaces, my suffering had been intense. I needed no further evidence to tell me that Phyllis Mills was a girl whose motto would always be ‘Daddy knows best’. Wilbert had only got to propose and she would sign on the dotted line because Upjohn wished it.
‘Your aunt’s worried sick about it.’
‘She doesn’t approve?’
‘Of course she doesn’t approve. You must have heard of Willie Cream, going over to New York so much.’
‘Why yes, news of his escapades has reached me. He’s a playboy.’
‘Your aunt thinks he’s a screwball.’
‘Many playboys are, I believe. Well, that being so, one can understand why she doesn’t want those wedding bells to ring out. But,’ I said, putting my finger on the res in my unerring way, ‘that doesn’t explain where Pop Glossop comes in.’
‘Yes, it does. She got him here to observe Wilbert.’
I found myself fogged.
‘Cock an eye at him, you mean? Drink him in, as it were? What good’s that going to do?’
She snorted impatiently.
‘Observe in the technical sense. You know how these brain specialists work. They watch the subject closely. They engage him in conversation. They apply subtle tests. And sooner or later -‘
‘I begin to see. Sooner or later he lets fall an incautious word to the effect that he thinks he’s a poached egg, and then they’ve got him where they want him.’
‘Well, he does something which tips them off. Your aunt was moaning to me about the situation, and I suddenly had this inspiration of bringing Glossop here. You know how I get sudden inspirations.’
‘I do. That hot-water-bottle episode.’
‘Yes, that was one of them.’
‘What did you say?’
‘Because when I think of that night of terror, I feel like saying “Ha!”‘
She seemed to see the justice of this. Pausing merely to eat a cucumber sandwich, she proceeded.
‘So I said to your aunt, “I’ll tell you what to do,” I said. “Get Glossop here,” I said, “and have him observe Wilbert Cream. Then you’ll be in a position to go to Upjohn and pull the rug from under him.”‘
Again I was not abreast. There had been, as far as I could recollect, no mention of any rug.
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well, isn’t it obvious? “Rope in old Glossop,” I said, “and let him observe. Then you’ll be in a position,” I said, “to go to Upjohn and tell him that Sir Roderick Glossop, the greatest alienist in England, is convinced that Wilbert Cream is round the bend and to ask him if he proposes to marry his stepdaughter to a man who at any moment may be marched off and added to the membership list of Colney Hatch.” Even Upjohn would shrink from doing a thing like that. Or don’t you think so?’
I weighed this.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I should imagine you were right. Quite possibly Upjohn has human feelings, though I never noticed them when I was in statu pupillari, as I believe the expression is. One sees now why Glossop is at Brinkley Court. What one doesn’t see is why one finds him buttling.’
‘I told you that was his idea. He thought he was such a celebrated figure that it would arouse Mrs Cream’s suspicions if he came here under his own name.’
‘I see what you mean. She would catch him observing Wilbert and wonder why-‘
‘ – and eventually put two and two together -‘
‘ – and start Hey-what’s-the-big-idea-ing.’
‘Exactly. No mother likes to find that her hostess has got a brain specialist down to observe the son who is the apple of her eye. It hurts her feelings.’
‘Whereas, if she catches the butler observing him, she merely says to herself, “Ah, an observant butler.” Very sensible. With this deal Uncle Tom’s got on with Homer Cream, it would be fatal to risk giving her the pip in any way. She would kick to Homer, and Homer would draw himself up and say “After what has occurred, Travers, I would prefer to break off the negotiations,” and Uncle Tom would lose a packet. What is this deal they’ve got on, by the way? Did Aunt Dahlia tell you?’