‘Adela Cream writes mystery stories. Are you a fan of hers? No? Well, start boning up on them, directly you arrive, because every little helps. I’ve bought a complete set. They’re very good.’
‘I shall be delighted to run an eye over her material,’ I said, for I am what they call an a-something of novels of suspense. Aficionado, would that be it? ‘I can always do with another corpse or two. We have established, then, that among the inmates are this Mrs Cream and her son Wilbert. Who are the other three?’
‘Well, there’s Lady Wickham’s daughter Roberta.’
I started violently, as if some unseen hand had goosed me.
‘What! Bobbie Wickham? Oh, my gosh!’
‘Why the agitation? Do you know her?’
‘You bet I know her.’
‘I begin to see Is she one of the gaggle of girls you’ve been engaged to?’
‘Not actually, no. We were never engaged. But that was merely because she wouldn’t meet me half-way.’
‘Turned you down, did she?’
‘Yes, thank goodness ‘
‘Why thank goodness? She’s a one-girl beauty chorus ‘
‘She doesn’t try the eyes, I agree.’
‘A pippin, if ever there was one.’
‘Very true, but is being a pippin everything? What price the soul?’
‘Isn’t her soul like mother makes?’
‘Far from it. Much below par. What I could tell you … But no, let it go Painful subj.’
I had been about to mention fifty-seven or so of the reasons why the prudent operator, if he valued his peace of mind, deemed it best to stay well away from the red-headed menace under advisement, but realized that at a moment when I was wanting to get back to the marmalade it would occupy too much time. It will be enough to say that I had long since come out of the ether and was fully cognizant of the fact that in declining to fall in with my suggestion that we should start rounding up clergymen and bridesmaids, the beasel had rendered me a signal service, and I’ll tell you why.
Aunt Dahlia, describing this young blister as a one-girl beauty chorus, had called her shots perfectly correctly. Her outer crust was indeed of a nature to cause those beholding it to rock back on their heels with a startled whistle But while equipped with eyes like twin stars, hair ruddier than the cherry, oomph, espieglene and all the fixings, B. Wickham had also the disposition and general outlook on life of a ticking bomb In her society you always had the uneasy feeling that something was likely to go off at any moment with a pop. You never knew what she was going to do next or into what murky depths of soup she would carelessly plunge you.
‘Miss Wickham, sir,’ Jeeves had once said to me warningly at the time when the fever was at its height, ‘lacks seriousness She is volatile and frivolous. I would always hesitate to recommend as a life partner a young lady with quite such a vivid shade of red hair.’
His judgment was sound I have already mentioned how with her subtle wiles this girl had induced me to sneak into Sir Roderick Glossop’s sleeping apartment and apply the darning needle to his hot-water bottle, and that was comparatively mild going for her. In a word, Roberta, daughter of the late Sir Cuthbert and Lady Wickham of Skeldings Hall, Herts, was pure dynamite and better kept at a distance by all those who aimed at leading the peaceful life The prospect of being immured with her in the same house, with all the facilities a country-house affords an enterprising girl for landing her nearest and dearest in the mulligatawny, made me singularly dubious about the shape of things to come.
And I was tottering under this blow when the old relative administered another, and it was a haymaker.
‘And there’s Aubrey Upjohn and his stepdaughter Phyllis Mills,’ she said That’s the lot What’s the matter with you? Got asthma?’
I took her to be alluding to the sharp gasp which had escaped my lips, and I must confess that it had come out not unlike the last words of a dying duck. But I felt perfectly justified in gasping A weaker man would have howled like a banshee. There floated into my mind something Kipper Herring had once said to me. ‘You know, Bertie,’ he had said, in philosophical mood, ‘we have much to be thankful for in this life of ours, you and I However rough the going, there is one sustaining thought to which we can hold. The storm clouds may lower and the horizon grow dark, we may get a nail in our shoe and be caught in the rain without an umbrella, we may come down to breakfast and find that someone else has taken the brown egg, but at least we have the consolation of knowing that we shall never see Aubrey Gawd-help-us Upjohn again. Always remember this in times of despondency,’ he said, and I always had. And now here the bounder was, bobbing up right in my midst. Enough to make the stoutest-hearted go into his dying-duck routine.