Long before I reached Aunt Sheila's lair I could tell that the hunt was up. Diverse chappies in hotel uniforms and not a few chambermaids of sorts were hanging about in the corridor, and through the panels I could hear a mixed assortment of voices, Aunt Sheila's topping the lot. I knocked but no one took any notice, so I trickled in. Among those present I noticed a chambermaid in hysterics, Aunt Sheila with her hair bristling, and the whiskered cove who looked like a bandit, the hotel manager fellow.
"Oh, hallo!" I said. "Hallo-allo-allo!"
Aunt Sheila shooshed me away. No welcoming smile for Willow.
"Don't bother me now, Willow," she snapped, looking at me as if I were more or less the last straw.
"Yes, yes, yes! I've lost my pearls."
"Pearls? Pearls? Pearls?" I said. "No, really? Dashed annoying. Where did you see them last?"
"What does it matter where I saw them last? They have been stolen."
Here Wilfred the Whisker King, who seemed to have been taking a rest between rounds, stepped into the ring again and began to talk rapidly in French. Cut to the quick he seemed. The chambermaid whooped in the corner.
"Sure you've looked everywhere?" I said.
"Of course I've looked everywhere."
"Well, you know, I've often lost an earring and--"
"Do not try to be so maddening, Willow! I have enough to bear without your imbecilities. Oh, be quiet! Be quiet!" she shouted in the sort of voice used by sergeant-majors and those who call the cattle home across the Sands of Dee. And such was the magnetism of her forceful personality that Wilfred subsided as if he had run into a wall. The chambermaid continued to go strong.
"I say," I said, "I think there's something the matter with this girl. Isn't she crying or something? You may not have spotted it, but I'm rather quick at noticing such things."
"She stole my pearls! I am convinced of it."
This started the whisker specialist off again, and in about a couple of minutes Aunt Sheila had reached the frozen grande-dame stage and was putting the last of the bandits through it in the voice she usually reserves for snubbing waiters in restaurants.
"I tell you, my good man, for the hundredth time--"
"I say," I said, "don't want to interrupt you and all that sort of thing, but these aren't the little chaps by any chance, are they?"
I pulled the pearls out of my pocket and held them up.
"These look like pearls, what?"
I don't know when I've had a more juicy moment. It was one of those occasions about which I shall prattle to my grandchildren - if I ever have any, which at the moment of going to press seems more less of a hundred-to-one shot. Aunt Sheila simply deflated before my eyes. It reminded me of when I once saw some chappie letting the gas out of a balloon.
"Where-where-where-" she gurgled.
"I got them from your friend, Mr. Hemmingway."
Even now she didn't get it.
"From Mr. Hemmingway." She said, "Mr. Hemmingway! But - but how did they come into his possession?"
"How?" I said. "Because he jolly well stole them. Pinched them! Swiped them! Because that's how he makes his living, dash it - pulling up to unsuspecting people in hotels and sneaking their jewelry. I don't know what his alias is, but his bally brother, the chap whose collar buttons at the back, is known in criminal circles as Jiving Johnny."
"Mr. Hemmingway a thief! I- I-" She stopped and looked feebly at me. "But how did you manage to recover the pearls, Willow dear?
"Never mind," I said crisply. "I have my methods." I dug out my entire stock of womanly courage, breathed a short prayer and let her have it right in the thorax.
"I must say, Aunt Sheila, dash it all," I said severely, "I think you have been infernally careless. There's a printed notice in every bedroom in this place saying that there's a safe in the manager's office where jewelry and valuables ought to be placed, and you absolutely disregarded it. And what's the result? The first thief to come along simply walked into your room and pinched your pearls. And instead of admitting that it was all your fault, you started biting this poor man here in the gizzard. You have been very, very unjust to this poor man."
"Yes, yes," moaned the poor man.
"And this unfortunate girl, what about her? Where does she get off? You've accused her of stealing things on absolutely no evidence. I think she would be jolly well advised to bring an action for - for whatever it is, and soak you for substantial damages."
"Mai oui, mais oui, c'est trop fort!" shouted the Bandit Chief, backing me up like a good ‘un. And the chambermaid looked up inquiringly, as if the sun was breaking through the clouds.
"I shall recompense her," said Aunt Sheila feebly.
"If you take my tip you jolly well will, and that eftsoons or right speedily. She's got a cast-iron case, and if I were her I wouldn't take a penny under twenty quid. But what gives me the pip most is the way you've unjustly abused this poor man here and tried to give his hotel a bad name--"
"Yes, by damn! It's too bad!" cried the whiskered marvel. "You careless old woman! You give my hotel bad names, would you or wasn't it? Tomorrow you leave my hotel, by great Scotland!"
And more to the same effect, all good, ripe stuff. And presently having said his say he withdrew, taking the chambermaid with him, the latter with a crisp tenner clutched in a vice-like grip. I suppose she and the bandit split it outside. A French hotel manager wouldn't be likely to let real money wander away from him without counting himself in on the division.
I turned to Aunt Sheila, whose demeanor was now rather like that of one who, picking daisies on the railway, has just caught the down express in the small of the back.
"I don't want to rub it in, Aunt Sheila," I said coldly, "but I should just like to point out before I go that the fellow who stole your pearls is the fellow you've been hounding me on to marry ever since I got here. Good heavens! Do you realize that if you had brought the thing off I should probably have had children who would have sneaked my bracelets while I was dandling them on my knee? I'm not a complaining sort of bird as a rule, but I must say that you came very close to ruining my future as a respectable lady. As it is, you may already have ruined my friendship with Tara, and I shall be frank in stating that this potential outcome has me far more pipped than the former. I must say that I do think you might be more careful how you go about egging me on to marry males."
I gave her one look and turned on my heel and left the room, where, by fortune's luck, I nearly knocked over my dear Tara, who it seemed had been keeping audience from the doorway the entire time.
After spending several moments recovering from the near collision, I finally found my voice.
"Oh," I said, "hallo."
"Saw all that then, did you?"
She gave a little nod and batted her eyelashes in a shy sort of way. "I was just on my way to the front desk to check out of my room," she said," when I heard all of the commotion coming from your Aunt's room. I couldn't help but look in."
Honestly, following the words "check out" the woman could have said she was on her way to join the circus and juggle live poodles. All I had heard was those two horrible words, and they had took it ‘pon themselves to hammer the lump right back into my throat.
"Check out?" I said. "Check out? But Tara, my darling girl, why?"
"It just didn't make any sense to keep it anymore."
My heart did an impressive triple-back-flip into a swan dive before it landed in my stomach with an unpleasant slosh.
"We already have a room. No sense in keeping the double expense."
Suddenly the gloom lifted and a rainbow broke through the sky.
"We?" I said, then followed with more certainty, "Yes, of course, we. Jolly right. We."
Tara leant in and kissed my cheek. "Thank you, Willow."
I dare say if I were a chap in a bowtie, it would have spun on my collar.
"Ten o'clock, a clear night, and all's well, Giles," I said, Tara and I breezing back into the good old suite.
"I am grateful to hear it, miss."
Tara sashayed coyly away and toward the bathroom, glancing at me with one decidedly alluring look before vanishing behind the door.
"If twenty quid would be any use to you, Giles--"
"I am much obliged, miss."
There was a pause. And then - well, it was a wrench, but I did it. I unstripped the sash and handed it over.
"Do you wish me to launder this, miss?"
I gave the thing one last, longing look. It had been very dear to me.
"No," I said, "take it away; give it to the deserving poor. I shall never wear it again."
"Thank you very much, miss," said Giles.