i wish you could have met my mother,” said Captain Herbert. “A wonderful woman, truly wonderful. I don’t suppose the world will see her like again. Does that sound excessive? I’m sorry. Veronica reminds me of her not a little at times, do you know? A dear girl. You are a very fortunate young man. My uncle, the Brigadier, who as you know was Veronica’s god-father, used to remark on the resemblance when she was quite a small girl . . . although of course there is no relationship whatsoever . . . unless perhaps through my Marloe cousins? . . . in any case very distant. I don’t think you knew my uncle?

“I didn’t, I’m afraid,” said Henry.

“A remarkable man. I’m sorry, dear boy, is that your sherry? A man of quite extraordinary insight! I well remember his predicting, while I was still at Sandhurst, that I would never marry. And do you know, I never have! Isn’t that remarkable?

“Remarkable,” said Henry.

Captain Herbert was himself no ordinary figure. He was a small, sandy man, his face pinched by a multiplicity of conflicting lines into an expression of sad sweetness, enhanced rather than disguised by a fierce ginger moustache. He wore a thick yellowish tweed suit; a pair of openwork sandals revealing small areas of pale mauve sock; and a white polo-necked sweater, ribbed in enormous cable-stitch pattern, on the chest of which was sewn an embroidered circular badge declaring its wearer to be the winner of the Open Downhill Slalom, Sestriere, 1936. A goldrimmed monocle on a thin chain swung elegantly across these expanses of dazzling white, adding the final touch to an appearance which somehow contrived to convey both freedom from the standardised normalities of society and a respectful nostalgia for the trampled corpse of Edwardiana. It was perhaps the painful sweetness of Captain Herbert’s smile that saved him from any suggestion of sportiness. ‘A queer dear’Veronica called him, despite Henry’s frequent objections to her use of both these words. His appearance at Mrs. Timberley’s dinner table were an unfathomable mystery.

“Our dear hostess,” said Captain Herbert, “seems anxious to attract your attention. Am I to lose you, then? It seems I am. Do try to come back to me, dear boy. In a roomful of ladies, you know, ha-ha, a single man feels so dreadfully exposed.”

Henry smiled sympathetically, and, clutching his tiny glass of sherry, crossed the room to where Veronica’s mother, extended with sickly grace upon a moorish ottoman, was making her little signals of encouragement and distress, Henry came to rest at the foot of the ottoman, and stood towering awkwardly above his future mother-in-law, battling with the physical revulsion which her proximity always caused in him. Mrs. Timberley was a professional invalid, exercising from her couch or bed a sort of sticky, compelling power against which Henry had hitherto been defenceless. Now, having recently discovered within himself the ability to despise her mind and laugh at her pretensions, she held fewer horrors for him; indeed, he was surprised that he should ever have been so over-whelmingly impressed by her. The physical revulsion, however, remained.