‘Bertie,’ she said, heaving to beside me and waving a trowel in an overwrought manner, ‘do you know what?’
‘I’ll tell you what,’ said the aged relative, rapping out a sharp monosyllable such as she might have uttered in her Quorn and Pytchley days on observing a unit of the pack of hounds chasing a rabbit. ‘That ass Phyllis has gone and got engaged to Wilbert Cream!’
Her words gave me quite a wallop. I don’t say I reeled, and everything didn’t actually go black, but I was shaken, as what nephew would not have been. When a loved aunt has sweated herself to the bone trying to save her god-child from the clutches of a New York playboy and learns that all her well-meant efforts have gone blue on her, it’s only natural for her late brother’s son to shudder in sympathy.
‘You don’t mean that?’ I said. ‘Who told you?’
‘In the flesh. She came skipping to me just now, clapping her little hands and bleating about how very, very happy she was, dear Mrs Travers. The silly young geezer. I nearly conked her one with my trowel. I’d always thought her half-baked, but now I think they didn’t even put her in the oven.’
‘But how did it happen?’
‘Apparently that dog of hers joined you in the water.’
‘Yes, that’s right, he took his dip with the rest of us. But what’s that got to do with it?’
‘Wilbert Cream dived in and saved him.’
‘He could have got ashore perfectly well under his own steam. In fact, he was already on his way, doing what looked like an Australian crawl.’
‘That wouldn’t occur to a pinhead like Phyllis. To her Wilbert Cream is the man who rescued her dachshund from a watery grave. So she’s going to marry him.’
‘But you don’t marry fellows because they rescue dachshunds.’
‘You do, if you’ve a mentality like hers.’
‘And is. But that’s how it goes. Girls like Phyllis Mills are an open book to me. For four years I was, if you remember, the proprietor and editress of a weekly paper for women.’ She was alluding to the periodical entitled Milady’s Boudoir, to the Husbands and Brothers page of which I once contributed an article or ‘piece’ on What The Well- Dressed Man Is Wearing. It had recently been sold to a mug up Liverpool way, and I have never seen Uncle Tom look chirpier than when the deal went through, he for those four years having had to foot the bills.
‘I don’t suppose,’ she continued, ‘that you were a regular reader, so for your information there appeared in each issue a short story, and in seventy per cent of those short stories the hero won the heroine’s heart by saving her dog or her cat or her canary or whatever foul animal she happened to possess. Well, Phyllis didn’t write all those stories, but she easily might have done, for that’s the way her mind works. When I say mind,’ said the blood relation, ‘I refer to the quarter-teaspoonful of brain which you might possibly find in her head if you sank an artesian well. Poor Jane!’
‘Her mother. Jane Mills.’
‘Oh, ah, yes. She was a pal of yours, you told me.’
‘The best I ever had, and she was always saying to me “Dahlia, old girl, if I pop off before you, for heaven’s sake look after Phyllis and see that she doesn’t marry some ghastly outsider. She’s sure to want to. Girls always do, goodness knows why,” she said, and I knew she was thinking of her first husband, who was a heel to end all heels and a constant pain in the neck to her till one night he most fortunately walked into the River Thames while under the influence of the sauce and didn’t come up for days. “Do stop her,” she said, and I said “Jane, you can rely on me.” And now this happens.’
I endeavoured to soothe.
‘You can’t blame yourself.’
‘Yes, I can.’
‘It isn’t your fault.’
‘I invited Wilbert Cream here.’
‘Merely from a wifely desire to do Uncle Tom a bit of good.’