I knew nothing of this T. Hardy of whom he spoke, but I saw what he meant. It was like what’s always happening in the novels of suspense, where the girl goes around saying, ‘Had I but known.’
‘Didn’t you explain?’
He gave me a pitying look.
‘Have you ever tried explaining something to a red-haired girl who’s madder than a wet hen?’
I took his point.
‘What happened then?’
‘Oh, she was very lady-like. Talked amiably of this and that till Phyllis had left us. Then she started in. She said she had raced here with a heart overflowing with love, longing to be in my arms, and a jolly surprise it was to find those arms squeezing the stuffing out of another and … Oh, well, a lot more along those lines. The trouble is, she’s always been a bit squiggle-eyed about Phyllis, because in Switzerland she held the view that we were a shade too matey. Nothing in it, of course.’
‘Just good friends?’
‘Well, if you want to know what I think,’ said Aunt Dahlia.
But we never did get around to knowing what she thought, for at this moment Phyllis came in.
Giving the wench the once-over as she entered, I found myself well able to understand why Bobbie on observing her entangled with Kipper had exploded with so loud a report. I’m not myself, of course, an idealistic girl in love with a member of the staff of the Thursday Review and never have been, but if I were I know I’d get the megrims somewhat severely if I caught him in a clinch with anyone as personable as this stepdaughter of Aubrey Upjohn, for though shaky on the IQ, physically she was a pipterino of the first water. Her eyes were considerably bluer than the skies above, she was wearing a simple summer dress which accentuated rather than hid the graceful outlines of her figure, if you know what I mean, and it was not surprising that Wilbert Cream, seeing her, should have lost no time in reaching for the book of poetry and making a bee line with her to the nearest leafy glade.
‘Oh, Mrs Travers,’ she said, spotting Aunt Dahlia, ‘I’ve just been talking to Daddy on the telephone.’
This took the old ancestor’s mind right off the tangled affairs of the Kipper-Bobbie axis, to which a moment before she had been according her best attention, and I didn’t wonder. With the prize-giving at Market Snodsbury Grammar School, a function at which all that was bravest and fairest in the neighbourhood would be present, only two days away, she must have been getting pretty uneasy about the continued absence of the big shot slated to address the young scholars on ideals and life in the world outside. If you are on the board of governors of a school and have contracted to supply an orator for the great day of the year, you can be forgiven for feeling a trifle jumpy when you learn that the silver-tongued one has gadded off to the metropolis, leaving no word as to when he will be returning, if ever. For all she knew, Upjohn might have got the holiday spirit and be planning to remain burning up the boulevards indefinitely, and of course nothing gives a big beano a black eye more surely than the failure to show up of the principal speaker. So now she quite naturally blossomed like a rose in June and asked if the old son of a bachelor had mentioned anything about when he was coming back.
‘He’s coming back tonight. He says he hopes you haven’t been worrying.’
A snort of about the calibre of an explosion in an ammunition dump escaped my late father’s sister.
‘Oh, does he? Well, I’ve a piece of news for him. I have been worrying. What’s kept him in London so long?’
‘He’s been seeing his lawyer about this libel action he’s bringing against the Thursday Review.’
I have often asked myself how many inches it was that Kipper leaped from his chair at these words. Sometimes I think it was ten, sometimes only six, but whichever it was he unquestionably came up from the padded seat like an athlete competing in the Sitting High Jump event. Scarface McColl couldn’t have risen more nippily.