Investigation proved that the friends Angela had gone to spend the day with were some stately-home owners of the name of Stretchley-Budd, hanging out in a joint called Kingham Manor, about eight miles distant in the direction of Pershore. I didn’t know these birds, but their fascination must have been considerable, for she tore herself away from them only just in time to get back and dress for dinner. It was, accordingly, not until coffee had been consumed that I was able to get matters moving. I found her in the drawing-room and at once proceeded to put things in train.
It was with very different feelings from those which had animated the bosom when approaching the Bassett twenty-four hours before in the same manner in this same drawing-room that I headed for where she sat. As I had told Tuppy, I have always been devoted to Angela, and there is nothing I like better than a ramble in her company.
And I could see by the look of her now how sorely in need she was of my aid and comfort.
Frankly, I was shocked by the unfortunate young prune’s appearance. At Cannes she had been a happy, smiling English girl of the best type, full of beans and buck. Her face now was pale and drawn, like that of a hockey centre-forward at a girls’ school who, in addition to getting a fruity one on the shin, has just been penalized for “sticks.” In any normal gathering, her demeanour would have excited instant remark, but the standard of gloom at Brinkley Court had become so high that it passed unnoticed. Indeed, I shouldn’t wonder if Uncle Tom, crouched in his corner waiting for the end, didn’t think she was looking indecently cheerful.
I got down to the agenda in my debonair way.
“What ho, Angela, old girl.”
“Hullo, Bertie, darling.”
“Glad you’re back at last. I missed you.”
“Did you, darling?”
“I did, indeed. Care to come for a saunter?”
“I’d love it.”
“Fine. I have much to say to you that is not for the public ear.”
I think at this moment poor old Tuppy must have got a sudden touch of cramp. He had been sitting hard by, staring at the ceiling, and he now gave a sharp leap like a gaffed salmon and upset a small table containing a vase, a bowl of potpourri, two china dogs, and a copy of Omar Khayyám bound in limp leather.
Aunt Dahlia uttered a startled hunting cry. Uncle Tom, who probably imagined from the noise that this was civilization crashing at last, helped things along by breaking a coffee-cup.
Tuppy said he was sorry. Aunt Dahlia, with a deathbed groan, said it didn’t matter. And Angela, having stared haughtily for a moment like a princess of the old regime confronted by some notable example of gaucherie on the part of some particularly foul member of the underworld, accompanied me across the threshold. And presently I had deposited her and self on one of the rustic benches in the garden, and was ready to snap into the business of the evening.
I considered it best, however, before doing so, to ease things along with a little informal chitchat. You don’t want to rush a delicate job like the one I had in hand. And so for a while we spoke of neutral topics. She said that what had kept her so long at the Stretchley-Budds was that Hilda Stretchley-Budd had made her stop on and help with the arrangements for their servants’ ball tomorrow night, a task which she couldn’t very well decline, as all the Brinkley Court domestic staff were to be present. I said that a jolly night’s revelry might be just what was needed to cheer Anatole up and take his mind off things. To which she replied that Anatole wasn’t going. On being urged to do so by Aunt Dahlia, she said, he had merely shaken his head sadly and gone on talking of returning to Provence, where he was appreciated.
It was after the sombre silence induced by this statement that Angela said the grass was wet and she thought she would go in.
This, of course, was entirely foreign to my policy.
“No, don’t do that. I haven’t had a chance to talk to you since you arrived.”
“I shall ruin my shoes.”
“Put your feet up on my lap.”
“All right. And you can tickle my ankles.”
Matters were accordingly arranged on these lines, and for some minutes we continued chatting in desultory fashion. Then the conversation petered out. I made a few observations in re the scenic effects, featuring the twilight hush, the peeping stars, and the soft glimmer of the waters of the lake, and she said yes. Something rustled in the bushes in front of us, and I advanced the theory that it was possibly a weasel, and she said it might be. But it was plain that the girl was distraite, and I considered it best to waste no more time.
“Well, old thing,” I said, “I’ve heard all about your little dustup. So those wedding bells are not going to ring out, what?”
“Definitely over, is it?”
“Well, if you want my opinion, I think that’s a bit of goose for you, Angela, old girl. I think you’re extremely well out of it. It’s a mystery to me how you stood this Glossop so long. Take him for all in all, he ranks very low down among the wines and spirits. A washout, I should describe him as. A frightful oik, and a mass of side to boot. I’d pity the girl who was linked for life to a bargee like Tuppy Glossop.”
And I emitted a hard laugh—one of the sneering kind.
“I always thought you were such friends,” said Angela.
I let go another hard one, with a bit more top spin on it than the first time:
“Friends? Absolutely not. One was civil, of course, when one met the fellow, but it would be absurd to say one was a friend of his. A club acquaintance, and a mere one at that. And then one was at school with the man.”
“Good heavens, no. We wouldn’t have a fellow like that at Eton. At a kid’s school before I went there. A grubby little brute he was, I recollect. Covered with ink and mire generally, washing only on alternate Thursdays. In short, a notable outsider, shunned by all.”
I paused. I was more than a bit perturbed. Apart from the agony of having to talk in this fashion of one who, except when he was looping back rings and causing me to plunge into swimming baths in correct evening costume, had always been a very dear and esteemed crony, I didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Business was not resulting. Staring into the bushes without a yip, she appeared to be bearing these slurs and innuendos of mine with an easy calm.
I had another pop at it:
“ ‘Uncouth’ about sums it up. I doubt if I’ve ever seen an uncouther kid than this Glossop. Ask anyone who knew him in those days to describe him in a word, and the word they will use is ‘uncouth.’ And he’s just the same today. It’s the old story. The boy is the father of the man.”
She appeared not to have heard.
“The boy,” I repeated, not wishing her to miss that one, “is the father of the man.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about this Glossop.”
“I thought you said something about somebody’s father.”
“I said the boy was the father of the man.”
“The boy Glossop.”
“He hasn’t got a father.”
“I never said he had. I said he was the father of the boy—or, rather, of the man.”
I saw that the conversation had reached a point where, unless care was taken, we should be muddled.
“The point I am trying to make,” I said, “is that the boy Glossop is the father of the man Glossop. In other words, each loathsome fault and blemish that led the boy Glossop to be frowned upon by his fellows is present in the man Glossop, and causes him—I am speaking now of the man Glossop—to be a hissing and a byword at places like the Drones, where a certain standard of decency is demanded from the inmates. Ask anyone at the Drones, and they will tell you that it was a black day for the dear old club when this chap Glossop somehow wriggled into the list of members. Here you will find a man who dislikes his face; there one who could stand his face if it wasn’t for his habits. But the universal consensus of opinion is that the fellow is a bounder and a tick, and that the moment he showed signs of wanting to get into the place he should have been met with a firm nolle prosequi and heartily blackballed.”
I had to pause again here, partly in order to take in a spot of breath, and partly to wrestle with the almost physical torture of saying these frightful things about poor old Tuppy.
“There are some chaps,” I resumed, forcing myself once more to the nauseous task, “who, in spite of looking as if they had slept in their clothes, can get by quite nicely because they are amiable and suave. There are others who, for all that they excite adverse comment by being fat and uncouth, find themselves on the credit side of the ledger owing to their wit and sparkling humour. But this Glossop, I regret to say, falls into neither class. In addition to looking like one of those things that come out of hollow trees, he is universally admitted to be a dumb brick of the first water. No soul. No conversation. In short, any girl who, having been rash enough to get engaged to him, has managed at the eleventh hour to slide out is justly entitled to consider herself dashed lucky.”
I paused once more, and cocked an eye at Angela to see how the treatment was taking. All the while I had been speaking, she had sat gazing silently into the bushes, but it seemed to me incredible that she should not now turn on me like a tigress, according to specifications. It beat me why she hadn’t done it already. It seemed to me that a mere tithe of what I had said, if said to a tigress about a tiger of which she was fond, would have made her—the tigress, I mean—hit the ceiling.
And the next moment you could have knocked me down with a toothpick.
“Yes,” she said, nodding thoughtfully, “you’re quite right.”
“That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking myself.”
“ ‘Dumb brick.’ It just describes him. One of the six silliest asses in England, I should think he must be.”
I did not speak. I was endeavouring to adjust the faculties, which were in urgent need of a bit of first-aid treatment.
I mean to say, all this had come as a complete surprise. In formulating the well-laid plan which I had just been putting into effect, the one contingency I had not budgeted for was that she might adhere to the sentiments which I expressed. I had braced myself for a gush of stormy emotion. I was expecting the tearful ticking off, the girlish recriminations and all the rest of the bag of tricks along those lines.
But this cordial agreement with my remarks I had not foreseen, and it gave me what you might call pause for thought.
She proceeded to develop her theme, speaking in ringing, enthusiastic tones, as if she loved the topic. Jeeves could tell you the word I want. I think it’s “ecstatic,” unless that’s the sort of rash you get on your face and have to use ointment for. But if that is the right word, then that’s what her manner was as she ventilated the subject of poor old Tuppy. If you had been able to go simply by the sound of her voice, she might have been a court poet cutting loose about an Oriental monarch, or Gussie Fink-Nottle describing his last consignment of newts.
“It’s so nice, Bertie, talking to somebody who really takes a sensible view about this man Glossop. Mother says he’s a good chap, which is simply absurd. Anybody can see that he’s absolutely impossible. He’s conceited and opinionative and argues all the time, even when he knows perfectly well that he’s talking through his hat, and he smokes too much and eats too much and drinks too much, and I don’t like the colour of his hair. Not that he’ll have any hair in a year or two, because he’s pretty thin on the top already, and before he knows where he is he’ll be as bald as an egg, and he’s the last man who can afford to go bald. And I think it’s simply disgusting, the way he gorges all the time. Do you know, I found him in the larder at one o’clock this morning, absolutely wallowing in a steak-and-kidney pie? There was hardly any of it left. And you remember what an enormous dinner he had. Quite disgusting, I call it. But I can’t stop out here all night, talking about men who aren’t worth wasting a word on and haven’t even enough sense to tell sharks from flatfish. I’m going in.”
And gathering about her slim shoulders the shawl which she had put on as a protection against the evening dew, she buzzed off, leaving me alone in the silent night.
Well, as a matter of fact, not absolutely alone, because a few moments later there was a sort of upheaval in the bushes in front of me, and Tuppy emerged.