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Sam Mansell and the case of the maiden aunt

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James had spent his Friday afternoon staring at paint samples until his eyes were sore and he could no longer tell his Linen White from his Venetian Lace. A cup of tea had failed to have its usual reviving effects and therefore he was very grateful for the diversion when Sam finally came through the door at ten to six.

"Drink?" he said. "The post is on the sideboard. There's a letter from your aunt."

"Which one?" asked Sam, who suffered on occasion from a superfluity of relations.


"Thank God for that."

Though Aunt Hilary was the favoured aunt—whether bearing Fuller cake or not—the more regular correspondent was Aunt Pauline, who could be relied upon to compose lengthy epistles full of helpful advice about how Sam, now that he was settled in chambers, ought to be thinking about marriage and family, and recommending any number of (apparently interchangeable) nice young girls of her acquaintance.

Having poured drinks for both of them, Sam came over to sit on the couch with the letter in hand. He ripped it open and stared at the contents disbelievingly, as though it had been a tailor's bill submitted under false cover.

"Well, I'll be..."

James had rarely seen him so confounded. "What is it?"

"I'll read it you."

My dear Sam, it began.

If being a doctor has taught me anything, it is that there is no good way to break surprising news, even the pleasant kind, so I will tell you simply: I am going to be married next Tuesday at 10am, at the registry office in Cheltenham. Short notice I know, but the young man concerned is on the verge of being called up by the RAF and it seemed better not to wait. It will be a small wedding, informal, no need for morning dress. I very much hope that you and James will be able to get away...

"Jolly good of her," said James. He had been to enough Mansell family gatherings to have come to be considered virtually an honorary member. "And good for her as well, I always said your Aunt Hilary was a dark horse."

"That's not all. Listen." particular because you happen to know the groom.

It is J.R. Fleming, whom...

"Told you!" exclaimed James. "I told you, Sam, didn't I? A woman doesn't come all the way up to London on a whim like that and then just happen to slip the name of a chap who happens to have been not only the most beautiful man in his year, but quite possibly the most beautiful man Oxford has ever seen. I didn't tell your aunt, but had you heard that Fosticue used to call him the Zuleika Dobson of Trinity? He did, you know."

Sam sat staring at the letter as if he had not heard a word that James had said.

"Come now," James added, "Fleming was a bit wet but there was no harm in him. You must admit she could have done worse..."

"How is a man supposed to feel," Sam said morosely, "when his favourite maiden aunt goes and gets herself married to a fellow two years younger than he is?"

"Can't say I've ever thought of her as a maiden aunt."

"My dear James," said Sam with reproach.

Very occasionally James spoke before he thought. It was probably a good thing he had decided not to go into the law.

"I didn't mean that," he said.

"You did."

And of course that was exactly what he had meant.

He had first met Hilary Mansell when he and Sam had been in their second year; she had invited the two of them to afternoon tea at the Randolph. Whatever he had been expecting of Sam's aunt, it was not the young woman, still under thirty, who had arrived half at a run, having come, as she explained, from the Randolph Infirmary just up the road. If he had been differently inclined he might have been rather taken by her. As it was he simply liked her very much.

Halfway through their tea they had been treated to the edifying spectacle of Sam's aunt blushing to the roots of her hair while making introductions to a man whom she clearly had not expected to meet at the Randolph. James had caught the first murmured aside from her friend—taking them in twos now, Hilary?—but it was not this which had provoked the blush. David, said Hilary, providing no surname, was a fellow doctor at the Radcliffe. Passing off the encounter with admirable self-possession, David had pronounced himself pleased to make the acquaintance of any friend or relation of Hilary's and, after making a few commonplace remarks about the weather, the Boat Race, and the state of undergraduate education at Oxford nowadays, had discreetly left them to their tea.

James had been certain then, and was no less certain now, that the relationship between the two doctors was rather closer than claimed; he furthermore suspected that David had never been invited—or, perhaps, willing—to meet any other of Hilary's large collection of relations.

He had, however, never discussed the subject with Sam, who, as he himself had discovered two terms previously, had a stubborn talent for remaining utterly oblivious to things that were right before his nose.

"But I haven't finished reading the letter," Sam added, interrupting James's thoughts. He took it up again.

...It is J.R. Fleming, whom we discussed when I visited you last. I expect you may be a bit shocked but we are very happy about it all and I hope you will wish us the best.

You may hear from your father, as the announcement will be in the Times. I will be writing to him myself in due course. Don't let him blame you for your foreknowledge. The fault is mine, as it was all those times when I liberated you from school!

In haste, your loving aunt,


"A bit shocked!" repeated Sam indignantly.

"I don't suppose one need wonder what she sees in him, anyway."

"You might go for that sort of Adonis chap, James, but I certainly don't."

"Maybe I ought to be glad of that," mused James. "Ought I, Sam?"

"Don't try to distract me, it won't work."

James withdrew the consoling arm that he had put around Sam's shoulder.

"Will you go?" he asked.

"Rather," said Sam. "And I jolly well hope that you won't leave me to do it alone."