The distance from London to Brinkley Court being a hundred miles or so and not much more than two minutes having elapsed since I had sent off that telegram, the fact that he was now outside the Brinkley front door struck me as quick service. It lowered the record of the chap in the motoring sketch which Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright sometimes does at the Drones Club smoking concert where the fellow tells the other fellow he’s going to drive to Glasgow and the other fellow says ‘How far is that?’ and the fellow says ‘Three hundred miles’ and the other fellow says ‘How long will it take you to get there?’ and the fellow says ‘Oh, about half an hour, about half an hour.’ The What-ho with which I greeted the back of his head as I approached was tinged, accordingly, with a certain bewilderment.
At the sound of the old familiar voice he spun around with something of the agility of a cat on hot bricks, and I saw that his dial, usually cheerful, was contorted with anguish, as if he had swallowed a bad oyster. Guessing now what was biting him, I smiled one of my subtle smiles. I would soon, I told myself, be bringing the roses back to his cheeks.
He gulped a bit, then spoke in a hollow voice, like a spirit at a seance.
‘So there you are.’
‘Yes, here I am.’
‘I was hoping I might run into you.’
‘And now the dream’s come true.’
‘You see, you told me you were staying here.’
‘Your aunt well?’
‘You all right?’
‘More or less.’
‘Capital. Long time since I was at Brinkley.’
‘Nothing much changed, I mean.’
‘Well, that’s how it goes.’
He paused and did another splash of gulping, and I could see that we were about to come to the nub, all that had gone before having been merely what they call pour-parlers. I mean the sort of banana oil that passes between statesmen at conferences conducted in an atmosphere of the utmost cordiality before they tear their whiskers off and get down to cases.
I was right. His face working as if the first bad oyster had been followed by a second with even more spin on the ball, he said:
‘I saw that thing in The Times, Bertie.’
I dissembled. I ought, I suppose, to have started bringing those roses back right away, but I felt it would be amusing to kid the poor fish along for a while, so I wore the mask.
‘Ah, yes. In The Times. That thing. Quite. You saw it, did you?’
‘At the club, after lunch. I couldn’t believe my eyes.’
Well, I hadn’t been able to believe mine, either, but I didn’t mention this. I was thinking how like Bobbie it was, when planning this scheme of hers, not to have let him in on the ground floor. Slipped her mind, I suppose, or she may have kept it under her hat for some strange reason of her own. She had always been a girl who moved in a mysterious way her wonders to perform.
‘And I’ll tell you why I couldn’t. You’ll scarcely credit this, but only a couple of days ago she was engaged to me.’
‘You don’t say?’
‘Yes, I jolly well do.’
‘Engaged to you, eh?’
‘Up to the hilt. And all the while she must have been contemplating this ghastly bit of treachery.’
‘A bit thick.’
‘If you can tell me anything that’s thicker, I shall be glad to hear it. It just shows you what women are like. A frightful sex, Bertie. There ought to be a law. I hope to live to see the day when women are no longer allowed.’
‘That would rather put a stopper on keeping the human race going, wouldn’t it?’
‘Well, who wants to keep the human race going?’
‘I see what you mean. Yes, something in that, of course.’
He kicked petulantly at a passing beetle, frowned awhile and resumed.
‘It’s the cold, callous heartlessness of the thing that shocks me. Not a hint that she was proposing to return me to store. As short a while ago as last week, when we had a bite of lunch together, she was sketching out plans for the honeymoon with the greatest animation. And now this! Without a word of warning. You’d have thought that a girl who was smashing a fellow’s life into hash would have dropped him a line, if only a postcard. Apparently that never occurred to her. She just let me get the news from the morning paper. I was stunned.’