‘Is Mr Herring an old friend of yours, Mr Wooster?’
‘I beg your pardon. Bertie. You have known him for some time?’
‘Practically from the egg.’
‘And is Miss Wickham a friend of his?’
‘Reggie Herring and I are engaged, Sir Roderick,’ said Bobbie. Her words seemed to seal the Glossop lips. He said ‘Oh’ and began to talk about the weather and continued to do so until Bobbie, who since Kipper’s departure had been exhibiting signs of restlessness, said she thought she would go and see how he was making out. Finding himself de- Wickham-ed, he unsealed his lips without delay.
‘I did not like to mention it before Miss Wickham, as she and Mr Herring are engaged, for one is always loath to occasion anxiety, but that young man has a neurosis.’
‘He isn’t always as dippy as he looked just now.’
‘And let me tell you something, Roddy. If you were as up against it as he is, you’d have a neurosis, too.’
And feeling that it would do no harm to get his views on the Kipper situation, I unfolded the tale.
‘So you see the posish,’ I concluded. ‘The only way he can avoid the fate that is worse than death – viz. Letting his employers get nicked for a sum beyond the dreams of avarice – is by ingratiating himself with Upjohn, which would seem to any thinking man a shot that’s not on the board. I mean, he had four years with him at Malvern House and didn’t ingratiate himself once, so it’s difficult to see how he’s going to start doing it now. It seems to me the thing’s an impasse. French expression,’ I explained, ‘meaning that we’re stymied good and proper with no hope of finding a formula.’
To my surprise, instead of clicking the tongue and waggling the head gravely to indicate that he saw the stickiness of the dilemma, he chuckled fatly, as if having spotted an amusing side to the thing which had escaped me. Having done this, he blessed his soul, which was his way of saying ‘Gorblimey’.
‘It really is quite extraordinary, my dear Bertie,’ he said, ‘how associating with you restores my youth. Your lightest word seems to bring back old memories. I find myself recollecting episodes in the distant past which I have not thought of for years and years. It is as though you waved a magic wand of some kind. This matter of the problem confronting your friend Mr Herring is a case in point. While you were telling me of his troubles, the mists shredded away, the hands of the clock turned back, and I was once again a young fellow in my early twenties, deeply involved in the strange affair of Bertha Simmons, George Lanchester and Bertha’s father, old Mr Simmons, who at that time resided in Putney. He was in the imported lard and butter business.’
‘The – what was that strange affair again?’
He repeated the cast of characters, asked me if I would care for another drop of port, a suggestion with which I readily fell in, and proceeded.
‘George, a young man of volcanic passions, met Bertha Simmons at a dance at Putney Town Hall in aid of the widows of deceased railway porters and became instantly enamoured. And his love was returned. When he encountered Bertha next day in Putney High Street and, taking her off to a confectioner’s for an ice cream, offered her with it his hand and heart, she accepted them enthusiastically. She said that when they were dancing together on the previous night something had seemed to go all over her, and he said he had had exactly the same experience.’
‘Twin souls, what?’
‘A most accurate description.’
‘In fact, so far, so good.’
‘Precisely. But there was an obstacle, and a very serious one. George was a swimming instructor at the local baths, and Mr Simmons had higher views for his daughter. He forbade the marriage. I am speaking, of course, of the days when fathers did forbid marriage. It was only when George saved him from drowning that he relented and gave the young couple his consent and blessing.’