After dinner, Aunt Jessica arrived. Mrs. Harrison-Phipps, my Aunt Jessica, is, I think, the most dignified person I know. She lacks Aunt Sheila's punch, but in a quiet way she has always contrived to make me feel, from girlhood up, that I was a poor worm. Not that she harries me like Aunt Sheila. The difference between the two is that Aunt Sheila conveys the impression that she considers me personally responsible for all the sin and sorrow in the world, while Aunt Jessica's manner seemed to suggest that I am more to be pitied than censured.
If it wasn't a matter of historical fact, I should be inclined to believe that Aunt Jessica had never been on the vaudeville stage. She was like a stage duchess.
She always seems to me to be in a perpetual state of being about to desire the butler to instruct the head footman to serve lunch in the blue room overlooking the terrace. She exudes dignity. Yet, twenty five years ago, so I've been told by the old boys who were lads about town in those days, she was knocking them cold at the Tivoli in a double act called "Fun in a Tea-Shop", in which she wore tights and sang a song with a chorus that began "Rumpty-tiddley-umpty-ay."
There are some thing a bird's mind absolutely refuses to picture, and Aunt Jessica singing, "Rumpty-tiddley-umpty-ay," is one of them.
She got straight to the point within five minutes of our meeting.
"What is this about Alexander? Why did you cable me, Willow?"
"It's a rather long story," I said, "and complicated. If you don't mind, I'll let you have it in a series of motion pictures. Suppose we look in at the drawing room for a few minutes."
The girl, Anya, stood by the piano as Lumpy plunked about on the keys. Tara sat attentively on one of the couches, and nearby Uncle Willoughby snoozed lightly in one of his great chairs. Mr. Jenkins was not about the place. I assumed he had retired to the smoking room for a cigar, as Uncle had made it clear during dinner that he was not pleased with the odor left behind in the sitting room.
I led Aunt Jessica to a seat even as Anya started in on an act of three songs. I must admit the girl did have a ripping voice.
"Exhibit A," I said softly into Aunt Jessica's ear, "the girl Lumpy's engaged to."
She didn't seem to hear me. Anya finished her second song, and both Tara and Lumpy applauded generously. Uncle Willoughby stirred from his chair, and muttered something about retiring to the quiet of the library.
"Well?" I said as the girl began her final number.
"I like her work. She's an artist."
Anya finished and she and Lumpy promptly switched places.
"Exhibit B," I said, "Lumpy."
She did not move a muscle, but just stared at Lumpy as he drooled on about the moon. I was sorry for the woman. It must have been a shock to her to see her only son prancing about the room and singing what was obviously a vaudeville number, but I felt it best to let her get a strangle-hold of the intricacies of the situation as quickly as possible. If I had tried to explain the affair without the aid of illustrations I should have talked all night and muddled her up as to who was going to marry whom and why.
Lumpy finished with a resounding chorus, and after receiving several polite claps, he and his girl popped off to the garden.
"What does this mean, Willow?"
She spoke quietly and her voice shook a bit.
"Lumpy went into the business," I said, "because the girl's father wouldn't let him marry her unless he did. He's an old boy, rather large, and he's Exhibit C on my list."
As though the blighter had been standing off-stage awaiting his cue, Mr. Jenkins presently entered the drawing room.
"Good Evening, Mr. Jenkins," I began.
I had got as far as that when there was a kind of gasping cry at my elbow.
"Dan!" cried Aunt Jessica, and staggered upright against the sofa.
For a moment Old Jenkins stared at her, and then his mouth fell open against his many chins, and his eyebrows shot up like rockets.
And then they got hold of each other's hands and where shaking them till I wonder their arms didn't come unscrewed.
I'm not equal to this sort of thing at such short notice. The change in Aunt Jessica made me feel quite dizzy. She had shed her grande-dame manner completely, and was blushing and smiling. I don't like to say such things about any aunt of mine, or I would go further to put it on record that she was giggling. And Old Jenkins, who usually looked a cross between a roman emperor and a particularly pipped walrus, was behaving like a small boy.
"Dear old Dan! Fancy meeting you again!"
"Wherever have you come from, Jessie?"
Well, I didn't know what it was all about, but I felt a bit out of it. I butted in.
"Aunt Jessica wants to have a talk with you, Mr. Jenkins."
"I knew you in a second, Dan!"
"It's twenty-five years since I saw you, kid, and you don't look a day older."
"Oh, Dan! I'm an old woman!"
"What are you doing here? I suppose" - Old Jenkins' cheerfulness waned a trifle - " I suppose your husband is with you."
"My husband died a long, long while ago, Dan."
Jenkins shook his head.
"You never ought to have married out of the profession, Jessie. I'm not saying a word against the late - I can't remember his name; never could - but you shouldn't have done it, an artist like you. Shall I ever forget the way you used to knock them with 'Rumpty-tiddley-umpty-ay'?"
"Ah! How wonderful you were in that act, Dan." Aunt Jessica sighed. "Do you remember the back-fall you used to do down the steps? I always have said you did the best back-fall in the profession."
"I couldn't do it now!"
"Dan, tell me, why did you leave England to tour America for so long?"
"Well, I - I wanted a change. No, I'll tell you the truth, kid. I wanted you, Jessie. You went off and married that - whatever that stage-door Johnny's name was - and it broke me all up."
I edged for the door and slipped from the room. I felt weak. The old bean will stand a certain amount, but this was too much. I groped my way down the hall and out onto the grounds.
"Care if I join you?" Miss Maclay's lovely voice drifted into my ears. "It's a beautiful night for a walk."
"Ah! Miss Maclay - or that is to say, Tara, as you have said I am to call you - of course you may, and it is, rather, isn't it?"
Or it would have been, if the world weren't in a process of falling down about me.
"Things aren't going very well, are they?" She said.
"What? Oh, nothing of the kind. Everything's bally wonderful." I paused a moment. "I say, there wouldn't be a chance of you falling madly in love with Lumpy and turning his head from that actress-woman?"
"I'm afraid not."
"I thought naught."
I bit my lip and mulled.
"I'd hoped we might be able to continue our conversation from earlier." She said.
"Oh, yes, of course, carry on, carry on."
"Well, I was trying to explain about my former marriage."
"Ah, the chappie in Boston?"
"Yes, that's exactly what I was hoping to clarify. Willow, there was no 'chappie'."
I felt a strange expression come over my face as the melon promptly turned to dust.
"You weren't married, then?"
"Not in what you might call the traditional sense. I lived with a woman for several years. We only recently parted ways."
"I'm no expert of course, but I never thought to be one's roommate was the same as being married."
"We-we were more than roommates. We were attached."
"Well, certainly. I'd imagine spending loads of time with a person in tight quarters and you are likely to become close, what?"
She stepped in front of me as though to halt my advance. She seemed rather pipped about something or other.
"Willow, I fear I am going to have to be very plain with you."
"Haven't you been?"
"Not as plain as is apparently necessary, no."
"We loved each other."
"The woman I lived with and myself." She kept on. "Her name was Eleanor, and though we did care for each other very much, her father had a particularly strong hold on her welfare. At his arrangement, she was married to a wealthy landowner in Carolina. I have been without a companion since. I did not come to England to find a husband, as I do not care, nor ever have cared, for the company of men. But somehow, I feel, that this should not come as a shock to you. Willow, when we met yesterday, I felt there was a certain understanding that passed between us, even though you may not have known it at the time. Do you follow what I am saying?"
"You haven't traveled across the pond to seek out a fellow?"
"In truth I've come to England to settle. I'm bored of the States. It's all industry, no art. All logic and no romance."
"Well, now, I must argue with you there. I have been to New York and logic certainly wasn't the first word to pop to mind." They have barmen, don't you know, in New York, not barmaids. Rum idea!
"The trouble is, I haven't found anywhere I can afford. The exchange rate is simply awful, especially given my limited savings. So I have been traveling the country, doing my best to endear myself well enough to be a guest in the nicer homes. The only real problem is I haven't a home of my own, and I keep getting pushed to form attachments with every eligible Englishman of name."
"Jolly nuisance, what?"
"Exactly. Now, what of you, Willow? Do you have a - companion?"
I brooded over the word a moment. She seemed to have likened the term to mean roommate, which I certainly didn't have, and answered so.
She regarded me keenly a moment.
"I wish to do something I fear may frighten you off. But I simply cannot contain myself any longer."
And then I found her leaning toward me, and her eyes fluttered shut, and before I could say two words about it, she'd kissed me.
It was one of those still evenings you get in the summer, the kind where you can hear a snail clear its throat a mile away. The sun had finished sinking over the hills and gnats were fooling about all over the place, and everything smelled rather topping - what with the falling dew and so on - and I was just beginning to feel a little soothed by the peace of it all coupled with the lovely sensation of the girl's lips on my own when suddenly I heard my name spoken.
"It's about Willow."
It was the loathsome voice of young blighted Connor! For a moment, I couldn't locate it. But then I realized that it came from the library. Our stroll had taken us within a few yards of the open window.
I often wondered how those Johnnies in the books did it - I mean the fellows whom it was the work of a moment to do about a dozen things that ought to have taken them ten minutes. But, as a matter of fact, it was the work of a moment with me to excuse myself from Tara, swear a bit, leap about ten yards, dive into a bush that stood near the library window, and stand there with my ears flapping. I was certain as I've ever been of anything that all sorts of rotten things were in the offing.
"About Willow?" I heard Uncle Willoughby say.
"About Willow and your parcel. I heard you talking to her earlier before supper. I believe she's got it."
When I tell you that just as I heard these frightful words a fairly substantial beetle of sorts dropped from the bush down the back of my neck, and I couldn't even stir to squash the same, you will understand that I felt pretty rotten. Everything seemed against me.
"What do you mean, boy? I was discussing the disappearance of my manuscript with Willow and she professed herself as perplexed by the mystery as myself."
"Well, I was in her room yesterday afternoon, doing her an act of kindness, and she came in with a parcel. I could see it, though she tried to keep it behind her back. And then, she asked me to go to the smoking room and snip some cigars for her; and about two minutes afterwards she came down - and she wasn't carrying anything. So it must be in her room."
I understand they deliberately teach these dashed Boy Scouts to cultivate their powers of observation and deduction and what not. Devilish thoughtless and inconsiderate of them, I call it. Look at the trouble it causes.
"It sounds incredible," said Uncle Willoughby, thereby bucking me up a trifle.
"Shall I go look in her room?" asked young blighted Connor. "I'm sure the parcel's there."
"But what could be her motive for perpetuating such an extraordinary theft?"
"Perhaps she's a - what you said just now?"
"A kleptomaniac? Impossible!"
"It might have been Willow who took all those things from the very start," suggested the little brute hopefully. "He may be like Raffles."
"He's a chap in a book who went about pinching things."
"I cannot believe that Willow would - ah - go about pinching things."
"Well, I'm sure she's got the parcel. I'll tell you what you might do. You might say that Mr. Berkeley had wired that he'd left something here. He had Willow's room, you know. You might say you wanted to look for it."
"That would be possible. I-"
I didn't wait to hear any more. Things were getting too hot. I sneaked softly out of my bush and raced for the front door. I just rounded the corner into the hall when I practically collided with Lumpy.
"Willow," he said, "I feel as if I were dreaming."
"I wish I could say the same, old top," I said, and took another glance at the stairs leading to my room.
"Anya and I just returned to the drawing room. And what do you know? The mater was sitting hand in hand with old Jenkins!"
"They are going to be married!"
"Anya and I are going to be married."
"I suppose so."
"Willow, old chum, I feel immense. I look round me, and everything seems to be absolutely corking. The change in the mater is marvelous. She is twenty-five years younger. She and old Jenkins are talking of reviving 'Fun in a Tea Shop,' and going out on the road with it."
I pushed away from him.
"Lumpy, old top," I said, "leave me for a while. I would be alone. I think I've got brain fever or something."
I sprinted up to my room and made for the drawer where I put the parcel. And then I found I hadn't the key. It wasn't for the deuce of a time that I recollected I had shifted it to my golfing trousers the night before and must have forgotten to take it out again.
Where the dickens were my sporting things? I had looked all over the place before I remembered Giles must have taken them away to brush. To leap at the bell and ring it was, with me, the work of a moment. I had just rung it when there was a footstep outside, and in came Uncle Willoughby.
"Oh, Willow," he said, without a blush, "I have - ah - received a telegram from Berkeley, who occupied this room in your absence, asking me to forward him his - er - his cigarette-case, which, it would appear, he inadvertently omitted to take with him when he left the house. I cannot find it downstairs; and it has, therefore, occurred to me he may have left it in this room. I will - er- just take a look around."
It was one of the most disgusting spectacles I've ever seen - this white-haired old man, who should have been thinking of the hereafter, standing there lying like an actor.
"I haven't seen it anywhere," I said.
"Nevertheless, I will search. I must - ah - spare no effort."
"I should have seen it if it had been here, what?"
"It may have escaped your notice. It is -er - possibly in one of the drawers."
He began to nose about. He pulled out drawer after drawer, pottering around like an old bloodhound, and babbling from time to time about Berkeley and his cigarette-case in a way that struck me as perfectly ghastly. I just stood there, losing weight every second.
Then he came to the drawer where the parcel was.
"It appears to be locked," he said, rattling the handle.
"Yes, I shouldn't bother about that one. It - it's - er - locked, and all that sort of thing."
"You have not the key?"
A soft, respectful voice spoke up behind me.
"I fancy, miss, that this must be the key that you require. It was in the pocket of your golfing trousers."
It was Giles. He had shimmered in, carrying my sporting things, and was standing there holding out the key. I could have massacred the man.
"Thank you," said my uncle.
"Not at all, sir."
The next moment Uncle Willoughby had opened the drawer. I shut my eyes.
"No," said Uncle Willoughby, "there is nothing here. The drawer is empty. Thank you, Willow. I hope I have not disturbed you. I fancy - er - Berkeley must have taken his case with him after all."
When he had gone I shut the door carefully. Then I turned to Giles. The man was putting my sporting things in the armoire.
"Er - Giles!"
It was deuced difficult to know how to begin.
"Er - Giles!"
"Did you - Was there - Have you by chance-"
"I removed the parcel this morning, miss."
"I considered it more prudent, miss."
I mused for a while.
"Of course, I suppose all this seems tolerably rummy to you, Giles?"
"Not at all, miss. I chanced to hear you and Lord Daniel speaking of the matter the other evening, miss."
"Did you, by Jove?"
"Well - er- Giles, I think that, on the whole, if you were to - as it were - freeze on to that parcel until we get back to London-"
"And then we might- er- so to speak - chuck it away somewhere, what?"
"I'll leave it in your hands."
"You know, Giles, you're by way of being rather a topper."
"I endeavor to give satisfaction, miss."
"One in a million, by Jove!"
"It is very kind of you to say so, miss."
"Giles, those purple stockings!"
"Thank you very much indeed, miss."
"Well, that's about all then, I think"
"Very good, miss."
Suddenly, a horrifying thought struck me and sent my mood crumbling to a shambles.
"Lord Osbourne! I'd completely forgotten! Oh, Daniel! Oh, Tara! Oh, it's simply horrible!"
"I'm afraid I do not follow, miss."
"Well, I must tell her, mustn't I? I shan't be her companion now, shall I? Oh, blighted Daniel!"
I legged it from the room in a terrible state and staggered to the garden where I found Tara sitting by a lighted fountain. The girl looked like an angel, her coiffed hair all a-glow and whatnot. Rather like one of those museum paintings with all the cherubs floating about.
It liked to have killed me to tell her of Lord Osbourne's attachment to me, but I had no other choice. My agreement with him had been made before my meeting Miss Maclay, and sadly, an agreement was an agreement.
She took the news as well as could have been hoped. Brave little soldier and all that, though it was easy to see she was terribly saddened, and I swear I saw her chin quiver once or twice. She complained of being suddenly tired, so I escorted her gently to her room. She placed the tiniest of kisses on my cheek before bidding me goodnight.
I awoke the next morning to find her packing off for the London train. I knew it was my entire fault, and felt terrible, rather like one of those two-timing Johnnies from the books, don't you know. I instructed Giles to go along with her to the city and not to return to Easeby until he had installed her at one of the finer hotels at my expense, and made it clear that she was to stay there as long as she liked.
He returned that evening and reported all was in satisfactory order.
I was frightfully depressed.