I've often wondered since then how these murderer fellows manage to keep in shape while they're contemplating their next effort. I had a much simpler sort of job on hand, and the thought of it rattled me to such an extent in the night watches that I was a perfect wreck the next day. Dark circles under the eyes - I give you my word! I had to call on Giles to rally round with one of those life-savers of his. Furthermore, to make matters worse, on what was setting out to be an already perfect blighter of a day, my Aunt Sheila decided to descend upon Easeby, full of vigorous intent to have a word with me.
She sprang it on me before breakfast. There in seven words you have a complete character sketch of my Aunt Sheila. I could go on indefinitely about brutality and lack of consideration. I merely say that she routed me out of bed to listen to her painful story somewhere in the small hours. It can't have been half-past eleven when Giles woke me out of the dreamless and broke the news.
"Mrs. Rosenby-Gregson to see you, miss."
I thought she must be walking in her sleep, but I crawled out of bed and got into a dressing gown. I knew Aunt Sheila well enough to know that, if she had come to see me, she was going to see me. That's the sort of woman she is.
I staggered into the smoking-room where Daniel and I had had our severe proceedings the day before and found her sitting bolt-upright in a chair, staring into space. When I came in she looked at me in that darn critical way that makes me feel as if I had gelatin where my spine ought to be. Aunt Sheila is one of those strong-minded women. I should think Queen Elizabeth of old must have been something like her. She bosses her husband, Ira Gregson, a battered little chappie on the Stock Exchange. She bosses my cousin "Lumpy" Harrison-Phipps. She bosses her sister-in-law, Lumpy's mother. And, worst of all, she bosses me. She has an eye like a man-eating fish, and has got moral suasion down to a fine point.
I dare say there are fellows in the world-men of blood and iron, don't you know, and all that sort of thing-whom she couldn't intimidate; but if you're a bird like me, fond of a quiet life, you simply curl into a ball when you see her coming and hope for the best. My experience is that when Aunt Sheila wants you to do a thing, you do it, or else you find yourself wondering why those fellows in the olden days made such a fuss when they had trouble with the Spanish Inquisition.
"Halloa, Aunt Sheila!" I said.
"Willow," she said, "you look a sight. You look perfectly dissipated."
I was feeling rather like a badly wrapped brown-paper parcel, what with the night I'd had and the looming scheme ahead of me. I'm never at my best in the early morning. I said so.
"Early morning! I had breakfast three hours ago, and have been riding on the train here ever-since, trying to compose my thoughts."
If I ever breakfasted at half-past eight, I shall walk on the Embankment, trying to end it all in a watery grave.
"I am extremely worried, Willow. That is why I have come to you."
And then I saw she was going to start something, and I bleated weakly for Giles to bring me my tea. But she had begun before I could get it.
"What are your immediate plans, Willow?"
My mind drifted nervously to the crime I was enlisted to commit later that day. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.
"Well," I ahemed, trying to skirt the mention of my upcoming devious doings, "I rather thought of tottering to the village for a bite of lunch later on, and then possibly staggering round to the pond for a bit of a walk, and after that, if I felt strong enough, I might trickle off for a round of golf with some girlie pals of mine."
"I am not interested in your totterings and tricklings. I mean have you any important engagements in the next week or so?"
I scented danger.
"Rather," I said, "Heaps! Millions! Booked solid!"
"What are they?" She eyed me skeptically.
"I- er- well, I don't know."
"I thought as much. You have no engagements-"
"Well," I interjected, "I had hoped on spending this week with Daniel Osbourne here at Easeby. We are engaged you know."
"Yes, I know. I have already sent him my condolences."
My jaw snapped shut with a rather pipped "pop."
"It's just as well you are here," she went on, "for here is where I wish you to stay. I am sending your cousin Alexander to join you."
"Old Lumps? Why?"
"I felt he needed to be removed from the presence of certain, unfortunate, influences."
"What's Lumpy been doing?"
"'Lumpy'", she began, bristling slightly at using his nick, "is making a perfect fool of himself."
To one who knew young Lumpy as well as I did, the words opened up a wide field for speculation.
"In what way," I inquired.
"He has lost his head over a creature."
On past performances this rang true. Ever since he had arrived at man's estate Lumpy had been losing his head over creatures. He's that sort of chap. But, as creatures never seemed to lose their heads over him, it had never amounted to much.
"I imagine you know perfectly well why Alexander was sent to London from the country, Willow. You know perfectly well how wickedly extravagant your Uncle Anthony was."
She alluded to Lumpy's governor, the late head of the family, and I am bound to say she spoke the truth. Nobody was fonder of old Uncle Anthony than I was, but everyone knows that, where money was concerned, he was the most complete chump in the annals of the nation. He had an expensive thirst. He never backed a horse that didn't get a housemaid's knee in the middle of the race. He had a system of beating the bank at Monte Carlo, which used to make the administration hang out the bunting and ring out the joy-bells when he was sighted in the offing. Take him for all in all, Uncle Anthony was as willing a spender as ever called the family lawyer a bloodsucking vampire because he wouldn't let Uncle Anthony cut down the timber to raise another thousand.
"He left your Aunt Jessica very little money for a woman in her position. The estate left to her requires a great deal of keeping up, and poor dear Ira, though he does his best to help, has not unlimited resources. It was clearly understood why Alexander went to London. He is not clever, but he is rather good-looking, and, though he has no title, the Harrison-Phippses are one of the best and oldest families in England. He had some excellent letters of introduction, and when he wrote home to say he had met the most charming and beautiful girl in the world I felt quite happy. He continued to rave about her for several mails, and then this morning a letter has come from him which he says, quite casually as sort of an afterthought, that he knows we are broadminded enough not to think any the worse of her because she is on the vaudeville stage."
"Oh, I say!"
Aunt Sheila nodded gravely, fanning herself. "It was like a thunderbolt. The girl's name, it seems, is Anya Jenkins, and according to Alexander she does something which he describes as a single on the big time. What this degrading performance may be I have not the least notion."
"By Jove," I said, "it's like a sort of thingummy-bob, isn't it? A sort of fate, what?"
"I fail to understand you."
"Well, Aunt Jessica, you know, don't you know? Heredity and so forth. What's bred in the bone will come out in the wash, and all that kind of thing, you know."
"Don't be absurd, Willow."
That was all very well, but it was a coincidence for all that. Nobody ever mentions it, and the family has been trying to forget it for twenty-five years, but it's known to everyone that my Aunt Jessica, Lumpy's mother, was a vaudeville artist once, and a very good one too, I'm told. She was playing in the pantomime at Drury Lane when Uncle Anthony saw her first. It was before my time, of course, and long before I was old enough to take notice that the family had made the best of it, Aunt Sheila had pulled up her socks and put in a lot of educative work, and with a microscope you couldn't tell Aunt Jessica from a genuine dyed-in-the-wool aristocrat. Women adapt very quickly, you know.
I have a gentleman friend who married Daisy Trimble of the Gaiety, and when I meet her now I feel like walking out of her presence backwards. But there the thing was, and you couldn't get away from it. Lumpy had vaudeville blood in him, and it looked as though he were reverting to type, or whatever they call it.
"By Jove," I said, for I am interested in heredity stuff, "perhaps this thing is going to be a regular family tradition, like you read about in books - a sort of Curse of the Harrison-Phippses, as it were. Perhaps each head of the family's going to marry into vaudeville for ever and ever. Unto the what-d'you-call-it generation, don't you know?"
"Please do not be quite idiotic, Willow. There is one head of the family who certainly is not going to do it and that is Alexander. And you are going to stop him."
"Me? I say! Why me?"
"Why you?" She said with a roll of her eyes. "You are too vexing, Willow. Have you no sort of feeling for the family? You are too lazy to be a credit to yourself, but at least you can exert yourself to prevent Alexander's disgracing us. You are going to stop him because you are his cousin, because you have always been his closest friend, because you are the only one in the family who has absolutely nothing to occupy her time except golf and 'tricklings' and 'totterings'. If you require another reason, you are to do it because I ask you as a personal favor."
What she meant was that if I refused she would exert the full bent of her natural genius to make life a Hades for me. She held me with her glittering eye. I have never met anyone who could give a better imitation of the Ancient Mariner.
"So you will accept, won't you, Willow?"
I didn't hesitate.
"Rather!" I said, "Of course I will."
"There's a good girl. Now, in addition to my instruction to Alexander to have him join you here at Easeby, I have invited a young lady who I feel is a more suitable match than that- that- actress."
"A young American girl by the name of Maclay. Her father is the owner of several textile mills outside of Boston. Although their money is unfortunately new, it will certainly do well to help your cousin's estate. Your position is really quite simple, Willow. All you must do is drop several positive observations of this Maclay girl in your cousin's lap and urge him to engage her in private conference. Multiple times would be preferable. Then, inevitably, nature should take its own course."
"How can you be so certain it will?"
"I have it on good authority that the young lady of which I speak is a quiet creature of rare beauty. Alexander has always had an eye for the fairer of the fair, not to mention remarkably fickle in the delegation of his affections."
"Well, that's all very good, of course. But perhaps she isn't equally taken with him?"
"Don't be ignorant, Willow! Even you should understand the benefits to both families involved. The Harrison-Phippses will happily welcome the Maclays' money, and, in exchange, the Maclays will gain credibility. Certainly it is clear that Miss Maclay's father would have already instructed her to accept any agreements young Alexander might propose."
I considered this a moment.
"What if he hasn't?"
"Oh, Willow, you are tiresome."