Roville, which we reached early in the morning after a beastly choppy crossing and jerky night in the train, is a nifty spot where a bird without encumbrances in the shape of aunts might spend a somewhat genial week or so. It is like all these French places, mainly sands, hotels and casinos. The hotel, which had the bad luck to draw Aunt Sheila's custom, was the Splendide, and by the time we got there, there wasn't a member of the staff who didn't seem to be feeling it deeply. I sympathized with them. I've had experience of Aunt Sheila at hotels before. Of course, the real rough work was all over when I arrived, but I could tell by the way everyone groveled before her that she had started by having her first room changed because it hadn't a southern exposure and her next because it had a creaking wardrobe, and that she had had her say on the subject of the cooking, the waiting, the chamber-maiding and everything else with perfect freedom and candor. She had got the whole gang nicely under control by now. The manager, a whiskered cove who looked like a bandit, simply tied himself in knots every time she looked at him.
All this triumph had produced a sort of grim geniality in her, and she was almost motherly when we met.
"I'm so glad you were able to come, Willow," she said, then added with a glance, "and you too Miss Maclay, though your attendance was unexpected, it is welcome, nonetheless. The air will do you much good. Much better for you, Willow, than spending your time in those stuffy London nightclubs."
"Oh ah," I said, feeling Tara's humorous regard on the back of my neck.
"You will meet the most pleasant people too," Aunt Sheila continued, "I want to introduce you to a Mr. Hemmingway and his brother, who have become great friends of mine. I'm sure you will like Mr. Hemmingway. A nice, quiet fellow; so different from so many of the bold gentlemen one meets in London nowadays. His brother is curate at Chipley-in-the-Glen in Dorsetshire. He tells me they are connected with the Kent Hemmingways. A very good family. He is a charming lad."
I had a grim foreboding of an awful doom. All this boosting was so unlike Aunt Sheila, who normally is one of the most celebrated right and left-hand knockers in London society. I felt a clammy suspicion, and by Jove, I was right.
"Andrew Hemmingway," said Aunt Sheila, "is just the sort of fellow I should like to see you marry, Willow."
I heard the sound of creaking leather behind me; no doubt it was Tara applying a lethal two-handed twisting grip on her purse straps.
"You ought to be thinking of getting married. Marriage might make something of you. And I could not wish a better husband than dear Andrew. He would be such a good influence on your life."
"Here, I say!" I chipped in at this juncture, chilled to the marrow.
"Willow!" said Aunt Sheila, dropping the motherly manner for a bit and giving me the cold eye.
"Yes, but I say…"
"It is young people like you, Willow, who make the person with the future of the race at heart despair. Cursed with too much money, you fritter away in idle selfishness a life which might have been made useful, helpful and profitable. You do nothing but waste your time on frivolous pleasures. You are simply an anti-social animal, a drone. Willow, it is imperative that you marry."
"But, dash it all…"
"Yes! You should be breeding children too…"
"No, really, I say, please!" I said, blushing richly. Aunt Sheila belongs to two or three of these women's clubs, and she keeps forgetting she isn't in the smoking room.
"Willow," she resumed, and would no doubt have hauled up her slacks at some length had we not been interrupted. "Ah, here they are!" she said, "Andrew, dear!"
And I perceived two chappies bearing down on us, smiling in a pleased sort of manner.
"I want you to meet my niece, Willow Rosenby," said Aunt Sheila. "She has just arrived. Such a surprise! I had no notion that she intended coming to Roville."
I gave the couple the wary up-and-down, feeling rather like a cat in the middle of a lot of hounds. Sort of a trapped feeling, you know what I mean. An inner voice was whispering that Willow was up against it.
Andrew's brother was a small, roundish cove with a face rather like a sheep. He wore pince-nez, his expression was benevolent, and he had on one of those collars which fasten at the back.
I could feel Miss Maclay's eyes boring into the back of my neck much like the hot sun on a particularly stuffy summer day.
"Welcome to Roville, Miss Rosenby," the cleric said.
"Oh, er, thank you," I said, "and I should very much like you both to meet my very, very….very dear friend Miss Tara Maclay. We are traveling together."
"Yes, of course," he said, "a pleasure to make your acquaintance Miss Maclay."
"Likewise," she replied. Rather stiffly, I thought.
"Oh, Jonathan!" Andrew said, "Doesn't Miss Rosenby remind you of Canon Blankenship's cousin, who came with him to Chipley last Easter?"
"My heavens! The resemblance is most striking!"
They peered at me for a while as if I was something to look at in a glass case, and I goggled back and had a good look at Andrew. There's no doubt about it, he was different from what Aunt Sheila called the bold gents one meets in London nowadays. I don't know when I've met anybody who looked so - respectable is the only word. He had on a plain kind of suit, and his hair was plain, and his face was sort of mild and saint-like. I don't pretend to be Sherlock Holmes or anything of that order, but the moment I looked at him I said to myself, "this chap plays the organ in the village church!"
Tara's voice roused me from my deducing. "If you all will excuse me, I haven't yet had the opportunity to explore the local shops."
"Oh, I'll come with you," I said. I was desperate for any sort of escape.
"No, thank you, Willow. I'd rather go alone, if you don't mind." The sternness of her reply sent my innards on a rapid journey southward where they began bullying my toes for a decent hiding place.
I'm bound to say I couldn't quite follow the development of the scenario. As I watched Tara go the good old persp was bedewing my forehead in a rather lavish manner. I don't know when I've been so rattled.
"Miss Rosenby, do you find the air a trifle warm?" asked Andrew.
"Oh, no, no, rather not. Just right."
Well, we gazed at each other for a bit, and there was a certain amount of chitchat, and then I tore myself away. But before I went I had been booked up to accompany the two brothers on a ride that afternoon. And the thought of it depressed me to such an extent that I felt there was only one thing to be done. I went straight back to my room, dug out the sash and draped it about the old tum. I turned around and Giles shied like a startled mustang.
"I beg your pardon, miss," he said in a sort of hushed voice. "You are surely not proposing to appear in public in that thing?"
"The sash?" I said in a careless, debonair way, passing it off. "Oh, rather!"
"I should not advise it, miss, I really shouldn't."
"The effect, miss, is loud in the extreme."
I tackled the blighter squarely. I mean to say, nobody knows better than I do that Giles is a mastermind and all that, but, dash it, a bird must call her soul her own. You can't be a serf to your valet. Besides, I was feeling pretty low and the sash was the only thing which could cheer me up.
"You know the trouble with you, Giles," I said, "is that you're too - what's the word I want - too bally insular. You can't realize that you aren't in Picadilly all the time. In a place like this a bit of color and a touch of the poetic are expected of you. Why, I've just seen a fellow downstairs in a morning suit of yellow velvet."
"Giles," I said firmly, "my mind is made up. I am feeling a little low-spirited and need cheering. Besides, what's wrong with it? This sash seems to be called for. I consider that it has a rather Spanish effect. A touch of the hidalgo."
"Very good, miss," said Giles coldly.
Tara chose this moment to appear in the room.
"Darling!" I said, breathing an air of relief. I dashed over and attempted a kiss on the cheek.
"Oh, but dearest, really…"
"If our relationship is to be over, I don't feel it's appropriate."
"I've already made arrangements to return to London. From there, I'm not sure where I'll go. Perhaps home to the States."
"London?! States?! I say! What?"
"Willow, I'd rather end this before it becomes complicated by your marriage."
"Now, look here," I said, feeling as flustered as a turkey the day before Christmas, "what on Earth gave you the idea I was to be married?"
"Willow, need I remind you that my last attachment ended when she was forced into marriage by her family? I'd prefer not to relive the experience."
The poor girl looked as though she had been crying for hours, and was about to tuck in for another long jag. I took her strongly by the shoulders.
"Tara, my dear, darling girl," I said. "I have absolutely no intention of doing any such thing. Aunt Sheila has no real say in whether I marry or not. True, she scares the stew right out of me, but she can't give matrimonial blessings this way or that."
"Certainly not! And I'll be dashed if I allow her to saddle me with the male equivalent of a ball and chain." I pulled her into my arms and held her snuggly for a moment. "Let's put the whole thing behind us, shall we?"
"Yes, let's." She agreed, straightening. "I'm sorry I was so silly."
"Think nothing of it, my dove. Perfectly understandable. The whole holiday just got off on the left instead of the right. I say, it would almost be worth it to march back to the train station and start the ruddy business all over complete with Giles getting the bags."
She smiled at me, and the birds outside the window started to twitter on cue.
"There's no need to go to that much trouble, dear." She said. "I saw a lovely café down by the seaside during my walk. Let's go there for a late lunch."
My joy turned instantly to salt at the mention of the lunch hour.
"Of course you'll have to change out of that odd… whatever it is you're wearing," she went on.
"I'm afraid I can't." I said.
"You can't change? But it clashes so horribly."
"You don't think it's rather Spanish? Touch of the hidalgo?"
"Perhaps. But this is France." Her logic was inarguable; I started to take it off. "Oh, but wear it if you'd rather, darling. It's only luncheon, after all."
Luncheon. There it was again. My hand was being forced rather -well - rather forcibly.
"Er, darling, now, don't be too upset, but I'm afraid I can't join you for lunch today."
I watched grimly as she began to stiffen up like a bowstring.
"Why not?" she asked coolly.
"Ah, er, well, I'm afraid I'm already engaged." I instantly regretted my choice of adjectives.
"I meant appointment. I already have an appointment."
"It was my Aunt--"
"It's really nothing more than a ride through the countryside. A quick jaunt out and back, you know. Possibly a picnic. You should join us! I'd rather you were there than that rummy Andrew fellow."
"Andrew Hemmingway." She stated, her white skin flushing the color of my sash. "You're going on a romantic drive alone with Andrew Hemmingway."
"No, no! Not romantic! And certainly not alone! His brother will be there."
"How convenient. Your Aunt is sending you on a private getaway with minister in tow on the off-chance of a proposal."
Now this was going too far. I could understand her being pipped at the prospect of my going on this drive. But I was fairly certain I had made myself clear on the subject of marriage not moments before.
"Honestly, Tara. The idea that I would propose to that Andrew chappie is simply ridiculous."
There was a ghastly long pause which a motivated Johnnie could have driven several large grocer's buses through.
"Willow, though your ignorance of simple things is often endearing, in this instance it has proven intolerable."
"I shall not return to London, but until this situation with the Hemmingways is resolved, I will be taking a separate room!"
I steadied myself against a wall as I found myself watching Giles carry her bags out the door to her new quarters.