‘I bet you were. Did everything go black?’
‘Pretty black. I took the rest of the day thinking it over, and this morning wangled leave from the office and got the car out and came down here to tell you…’
He paused, seeming overcome with emotion.
‘To tell you that, whatever we do, we mustn’t let this thing break our old friendship.’
‘Of course not. Damn silly idea.’
‘It’s such a very old friendship.’
‘I don’t know when I’ve met an older.’
‘We were boys together.’
‘In Eton jackets and pimples.’
‘Exactly. And more like brothers than anything. I would share my last bar of almond rock with you, and you would cut me in fifty-fifty on your last bag of acid drops. When you had mumps, I caught them from you, and when I had measles, you caught them from me. Each helping each. So we must carry on regardless, just as if this had not happened.’
‘The same old lunches.’
‘And golf on Saturdays and the occasional game of squash. And when you are married and settled down, I shall frequently look in on you for a cocktail.’
‘I will. Though I shall have to exercise an iron self-restraint to keep me from beaning that pie-faced little hornswoggler Mrs Bertram Wooster, nee Wickham, with the shaker.’
‘Ought you to call her a pie-faced little hornswoggler?’
‘Why, can you think of something worse?’ he said, with the air of one always open to suggestions. ‘Do you know Thomas Otway?’
‘I don’t believe so. Pal of yours?’
‘Seventeenth-century dramatist. Wrote The Orphan. In which play these words occur. “What mighty ills have not been done by Woman? Who was’t betrayed the Capitol? A woman. Who lost Marc Antony the world? A woman. Who was the cause of a long ten years’ war and laid at last old Troy in ashes? Woman. Deceitful, damnable, destructive Woman.” Otway knew what he was talking about He had the right slant. He couldn’t have put it better if he had known Roberta Wickham personally.’
I smiled another subtle smile. I was finding all this extremely diverting.
‘I don’t know if it’s my imagination, Kipper,’ I said, ‘but something gives me the impression that at moment of going to press you aren’t too sold on Bobbie.’
He shrugged a shoulder.
‘Oh, I wouldn’t say that. Apart from wishing I could throttle the young twister with my bare hands and jump on the remains with hobnailed boots, I don’t feel much about her one way or the other. She prefers you to me, and there’s nothing more to be said. The great thing is that everything is all right between you and me.’
‘You came all the way here just to make sure of that?’ I said, moved.
‘Well, there may possibly also have been an idea at the back of my mind that I might get invited to dig in at one of those dinners of Anatole’s before going on to book a room at the “Bull and Bush” in Market Snodsbury. How is Anatole’s cooking these days?’
‘Superber than ever.’
‘Continues to melt in the mouth, does it? It’s two years since I bit into his products, but the taste still lingers. What an artist!’
‘Ah!’ I said, and would have bared my head, only I hadn’t a hat on.
‘Would it run to a dinner invitation, do you think?’
‘My dear chap, of course. The needy are never turned from our door.’
‘Splendid. And after the meal I shall propose to Phyllis Mills.’
‘Yes, I know what you’re thinking. She is closely related to Aubrey Upjohn, you are saying to yourself. But surely, Bertie, she can’t help that.’
‘More to be pitied than censured, you think?’
‘Exactly. We mustn’t be narrow-minded. She is a sweet, gentle girl, unlike certain scarlet-headed Delilahs who shall be nameless, and I am very fond of her.’
‘I thought you scarcely knew her.’
‘Oh yes, we saw quite a bit of one another in Switzerland. We’re great buddies.’
It seemed to me that the moment had come to bring the good news from Aix to Ghent, as the expression is.
‘I don’t know that I would propose to Phyllis Mills, Kipper. Bobbie might not like it.’