‘A bit of luck for you, I should have thought.’
‘Far from it.’
‘Why? You were crazy about the girl once.’ ‘But no longer. The fever has passed, the scales have fallen from my eyes, and we’re just good friends. The snag in this business of falling in love, aged relative, is that the parties of the first part so often get mixed up with the wrong parties of the second part, robbed of their cooler judgment by the parties of the second part’s glamour. Put it like this. The male sex is divided into rabbits and non-rabbits and the female sex into dashers and dormice, and the trouble is that the male rabbit has a way of getting attracted by the female dasher (who would be fine for the male non-rabbit) and realizing too late that he ought to have been concentrating on some mild, gentle dormouse with whom he could settle down peacefully and nibble lettuce.’
‘The whole thing, in short, a bit of a mix-up?’ ‘Exactly. Take me and Bobbie. I yield to no one in my appreciation of her espieglerie, but I’m one of the rabbits and always have been while she is about as pronounced a dasher as ever dashed. What I like is the quiet life, and Roberta Wickham wouldn’t recognize the quiet life if you brought it to her on a plate with watercress round it. She’s all for not letting the sun go down without having started something calculated to stagger humanity. In a word, she needs the guiding hand, which is a thing I couldn’t supply her with. Whereas from Kipper she will get it in abundance, he being one of those tough non-rabbits for whom it is child’s play to make the little woman draw the line somewhere. That is why the union of these twain has my support and approval and why, when she told me all that in the pub, I felt like doing a buck-and-wing dance. Where is Kipper? I should like to shake him by the hand and pat his back.’
‘He went on a picnic with Wilbert and Phyllis.’
The significance of this did not escape me.
‘Tailing up stuff, eh? Right on the job, is he?’
‘Wilbert is constantly under his eye.’
‘And if ever a man needed to be constantly under an eye, it’s the above kleptomaniac.’
‘Haven’t you been told? Wilbert’s a pincher.’
‘How do you mean, a pincher?’
‘He pinches things. Everything that isn’t nailed down is grist to his mill.’
‘Don’t be an ass.’
‘I’m not being an ass. He’s got Uncle Tom’s cow-creamer.’
‘Of course I know.’
Her … what’s the word? … phlegm, is it? … something beginning with a p… astounded me. I had expected to freeze her young – or, rather, middle-aged -blood and have her perm stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine, and she hadn’t moved a muscle.
‘Beshrew me,’ I said, ‘you take it pretty calmly.’
‘Well, what’s there to get excited about? Tom sold him the thing.’
‘Wilbert got in touch with him at Harrogate and put in his bid, and Tom phoned me to give it to him. Just shows how important that deal must be to Tom. I’d have thought he would rather have parted with his eyeteeth.’
I drew a deep breath, this time fortunately unmixed with gin and tonic. I was profoundly stirred.
‘You mean,’ said, my voice quavering like that of a coloratura soprano, ‘that I went through that soul-shattering experience all for nothing?’
‘Who’s been shattering your soul, if any?’
‘Ma Cream. By popping in while I was searching Wilbert’s room for the loathsome object. Naturally I thought he’d swiped it and hidden it there.’
‘And she caught you?’
‘Not once, but twice.’
‘What did she say?’
‘She recommended me to take treatment from Roddy Glossop, of whose skill in ministering to the mentally afflicted she had heard such good reports. One sees what gave her the idea. I was half-way under the dressing-table at the moment, and no doubt she thought it odd.’
‘Bertie! How absolutely priceless!’
The adjective ‘priceless’ seemed to me an ill-chosen one, and I said so. But my words were lost in the gale of mirth into which she now exploded. I had never heard anyone laugh so heartily, not even Bobbie on the occasion when the rake jumped up and hit me on the tip of the nose.