“Well, Jerry,” says Lady Mary Parker to the Viscount Saint-George, sitting down upon the settee next to him and wrapping her arms around a handy cushion, “how are you these days?”
Jerry grins at his aunt. “All right, thanks. Town’s dashed decent this time of year, but Mother insisted I come down for the week, of course. Can’t say I blame her—family, Christmastime, all that—but it does seem hard to be holed up in the countryside when there are so many things pressing on one’s mind in London.”
Lady Mary laughs. “I thought you hadn’t a care in the world, Gherkins. If there’s something pressing on your mind, it must be money or a girl.”
Jerry blushes and squirms a little, which strikes him as highly unsuitable for a mature man of 24 years. He settles down and takes a gulp of whisky. “Oh, well, you know. I keep my hand in with this and that. Got to have something to occupy my time.”
This comment is a mistake, and he ought to have known better. Aunt Mary is a proponent of hard work and has, upon occasion, spoken quite strongly regarding the dissipation of the upper classes. She’s usually quite decent to him, of course—really topping, as far as aunts go—but Jerry has no desire to be captive audience if she gets it into her head to start lecturing about the proletariat.
He gives her a sidelong glance and is relieved to see that she looks only amused.
“Well, I hope it’s not too worrying,” she says. “It’s always a little tragic when worries spoil your vac.” Her eyes travel to her husband, standing at the far end of the room talking with Uncle Peter, and Jerry remembers that Uncle Charles is on some sort of difficult case at the moment.
“It’s nothing important,” he hastens to say. “Not at all important like murder or well-known jewel thieves or psycho-whatsits. Forget I mentioned it.”
“Oh, bother worries and bother important things,” says Aunt Mary, laughing, and for a moment Jerry sees a flash of her former self, the young lady who used to drink too much gin and swagger through the rooms at Denver wearing dresses with the backs cut much too low and her heels much too high.
He raises his glass. “To not worrying about anything ever at all.”
Later, after charades, after a word game which Uncle Peter insists upon and which Jerry’s mother categorically refuses to play, after most of the guests have gone to bed, when the gin and whisky decanters are nearly empty, when the fire is dying down—later, Jerry finds himself sitting next to his Aunt Mary once again.
Jerry is nursing his drink, feet stretched out to the fender, his eyes fixed on the flames in the grate. Aunt Mary sinks down next to him on the settee and kicks off one of her shoes, the heels of which really aren’t that much lower than they used to be.
Jerry glances up, looks back into his glass where the ice is melting in pale amber liquid. “I say, Aunt Mary?” His voice sounds hesitant to his ears. He clears his throat. “I say, that thingummy I told you about, pressing on my mind ever so slightly?”
“Oh, yes?” She stifles a yawn.
“Well, the long and short of it is, I’ve met a girl.”
She sits up a little straighter. “Go on.”
“And the thing is, I’m a bit worried about her, leaving her alone for Christmas.”
Aunt Mary turns her face toward her nephew and gives him a very shrewd look. “Just what sort of worry are we discussing, Jerry? Is this girl in trouble?”
“Good Lord, no! Nothing like that. Didn’t mean to imply—no, it’s all very proper. All aboveboard—nothing I couldn’t tell my own mother about.”
“And yet you’re not confiding in dear Helen’s ear.”
“Well, no. The thing is, it’s a bit awkward. I mean, she’s rightly Uncle Peter’s business, not mine.”
Aunt Mary looks aghast. “Peter’s? Jerry, you don’t mean to tell me— But he and Harriet—”
Jerry chokes on his drink.
A full minute later, after Aunt Mary has whacked him on the back and he’s recovered his breath, Jerry has realised he is going to have to try a bit harder if he means to explain the situation correctly. He sets down his drink and straightens his shoulders.
“Look here, Aunt Mary. The thing is, this girl is some kind of ward or something of Uncle Peter’s. Her parents are dead, but that’s all right because she’s up at Oxford. Only she has some frightful relations or something whom she goes to between terms and things, and it’s worrying me a bit, her being with her uncle when it seems to me that I ought to have stepped in and invited her here—only it’s really Uncle Peter’s place to invite her, don’t you see—and then there’s Mother, of course.”
“I think I see,” she says. “Education for women is in Peter’s line and I daresay he’s liable to pick up a stray here or there, as well as having married one of course, and I know it’s not polite to call them bluestockings these days but that is how I grew up having heard them called, and although I have nothing against women being educated I can’t say I understand first-hand, not having gone to university myself—well, it’s all very well for Peter, but I wouldn’t have thought you’d fall for that sort of girl yourself.”
This speech strikes Jerry as such a peculiar mixture of his mother’s sentiments delivered in his grandmother’s rhetorical style that it takes him a minute to reply. When he does, he’s blushing again.
“I suppose you thought I’d be more likely to go for the sort of girl who likes champagne and dancing and things. I admit I always have done before. But this girl caught my eye, you could say.”
“Does she not like champagne and dancing?”
“Well, as a matter of fact, I believe she does.”
“But not enough to toss over Oxford and devote herself to that sort of life.”
Jerry reflects that his aunt did not like champagne and dancing enough to toss over the chance at a middle-class life with a man she clearly adores, and he decides that it really must be each to his own, or to her own, he supposes, and takes another gulp of whisky.
“As you say, she’s awfully keen on Oxford.”
“And you’re keen on her.”
“Well, I am rather.”
“What does Peter say?”
“The trouble is—the trouble is he doesn’t know.”
“Ah.” Aunt Mary kicks off her other shoe and slowly wiggles her toes. “Well, do you want to know what I would do, Jerry?”
“I’d have a chat with him, man-to-man. For heaven’s sake, don’t let Harriet in on it. If Peter thinks you’re not cut from the same cloth as he is—if you’re not suited to take on a Bloomsbury sort of woman—then he’ll tell it to you straight. Otherwise, I expect he’ll not stand in your way.”
“Thanks, Aunt Mary. You’re right, of course. I’ll corner him tomorrow and we’ll have it out.”
“All right then.” She stifles another yawn. “Good luck, Gherkins. I hope you get her in the end.”
He grins. “I hope so too.”
“Oh, you never told me—what’s her name?”
“Hilary,” he says. “Her name is Hilary.”