I was, however, spared the trouble of popping, for at this moment he entered left centre.
‘Oh, there you are, Bertie,’ he said. ‘I heard you were back. I was looking for you.’
He had spoken in a low, husky sort of way, like a voice from the tomb, and I now saw that he was exhibiting all the earmarks of a man who has recently had a bomb explode in his vicinity. His shoulders sagged and his eyes were glassy. He looked, in short, like the fellow who hadn’t started to take Old Doctor Gordon’s Bile Magnesia, and I snapped into it without preamble. This was no time for being tactful and pretending not to notice.
‘What’s all this strained-relations stuff between you and Bobbie, Kipper?’ I said, and when he said, ‘Oh, nothing,’ rapped the table sharply and told him to cut out the coy stuff and come clean.
‘Yes,’ said Aunt Dahlia. ‘What’s happened, young Herring?’
I think for a moment he was about to draw himself up with hauteur and say he would prefer, if we didn’t mind, not to discuss his private affairs, but when he was half-way up he caught Aunt Dahlia’s eye and returned to position one. Aunt Dahlia’s eye, while not in the same class as that of my Aunt Agatha, who is known to devour her young and conduct human sacrifices at the time of the full moon, has lots of authority. He subsided into a chair and sat there looking filleted.
‘Well, if you must know,’ he said, ‘she’s broken the engagement.’
This didn’t get us any farther. We had assumed as much. You don’t go calling people rats if love still lingers.
‘But it’s only an hour or so,’ I said, ‘since I left her outside a hostelry called the “Fox and Goose”, and she had just been giving you a rave notice. What came unstuck? What did you do to the girl?’
‘Well, it was this way.’
There was a pause here while he said that he would give a hundred quid for a stiff whisky-and-soda, but as this would have involved all the delay of ringing for Pop Glossop and having it fetched from the lowest bin, Aunt Dahlia would have none of it. In lieu of the desired refreshment she offered him a cold crumpet, which he declined, and told him to get on with it.
‘Where I went wrong,’ he said, still speaking in that low, husky voice as if he had been a ghost suffering from catarrh, ‘was in getting engaged to Phyllis Mills.’
‘What?’ I cried.
‘What?’ cried Aunt Dahlia.
‘Egad!’ I said.
‘What on earth did you do that for?’ said Aunt Dahlia.
He shifted uneasily in his chair, like a man troubled with ants in the pants. ‘It seemed a good idea at the time,’ he said. ‘Bobbie had told me on the telephone that she never wanted to speak to me again in this world or the next, and Phyllis had been telling me that, while she shrank from Wilbert Cream because of his murky past, she found him so magnetic that she knew she wouldn’t be able to refuse him if he proposed, and I had been commissioned to stop him proposing, so I thought the simplest thing to do was to get engaged to her myself. So we talked it over, and having reached a thorough understanding that it was simply a ruse and nothing binding on either side, we announced it to Cream.’
‘Very shrewd,’ said Aunt Dahlia. ‘How did he take it?’
‘Lot of reeling there’s been in this business,’ I said. ‘You reeled, if you recollect, when you remembered you’d written that letter to Bobbie.’
‘And I reeled again when she suddenly appeared from nowhere just as I was kissing Phyllis.’
I pursed the lips. Getting a bit French, this sequence, it seemed to me.
‘There was no need for you to do that.’
‘No need, perhaps, but I wanted to make it look natural to Cream.’
‘Oh, I see. Driving it home, as it were?’
‘That was the idea. Of course I wouldn’t have done it if I’d known that Bobbie had changed her mind and wanted things to be as they were before that telephone conversation. But I didn’t know. It’s just one of life’s little ironies. You get the same sort of thing in Thomas Hardy.’