Many of Jeeves’ great author types avidly subscribe to the whole in medias res business – bunging the reader right into the thick of things and leaving him to make his own way out. I’ve always found it dashed confusing myself, but who is humble Bertie Wooster, esq., to pit himself against the Greats? That being said, I can’t quite bring myself to begin without offering this one short preface.
Of all the many bumbling fatheads jammed into this longsuffering mortal coil, Tufty Hennington is by far the bumblingest. If searching for a fellow who would follow a sign reading “Motorway to France,” or cheerfully purchase a coin engraved 10 BC, or bid on a chocolate fireguard, then seek no farther – Tufty Hennington can be counted on for all of the above. Really, the only possible feat which could dislodge him from the title of World’s Biggest Airhead is the fact that one Bertram Wooster, when asked if he would accompany said Tufty for a drive in his new two-seater one early January morn, replied in the affirmative.
My nose was deuced itchy. Itchy as a fly – flea – itchy thing.
I reached up and felt fire trickling in tiny streams flowing under my skin. I thrashed in the dark – pitch dark – found myself wrapped up like a corpse, swaddled in winding cloth.
“It’s alright, sir. It’s alright now. Calm down.” A familiar voice, a cool hand on my brow, melting away the flames. “You’re quite alright, sir. Be calm. Calm.”
I seemed to be in a river, rocking. The gentle waves washing against me, cool, soothing.
The first thing I remember thinking was that my nose was deuced itchy. This is not the type of thought that usually shakes the firmament to its deepest foundations. In the ordinary course of things it might be termed mundane, or even trivial. Very possibly not the sort of event which deserves to be mentioned at all, you may say. Had this been in the ordinary course of events, I would have agreed wholeheartedly. On this occasion, however, when I determined to open my eyes and reach up to relieve the irritation, the whole firmament was not only shaken to its deepest foundations but positively cracked to the core.
Despite my resolution to relieve the itch, the world remained dark as a cellar at midnight, while the old arm gave such a fearful twinge I desisted at once. It was too late, though; the tiny movement acted like a bally electric hare, and the rest of the old Wooster nerves dashed out onto the scene with fire in their footprints. Everything ached, a deeply uncomfortable needling kind of pain that made me simultaneously want to twitch and lie still. By far the worst was my face, which felt as though it had been lashed, and the socket of my right shoulder that seemed to have been coated with oil and then lighted.
Any rational thought left at that point cut out rather abruptly. I must have tried to reach for my face with the flipper that was still working, for cool fingers caught my wrist gently and pulled it away. A second jolly soothing hand rested against my fevered brow – I was conscious of it only as a sensation, of safety and reassurance.
“You’re alright, sir. You’re quite alright. Be calm, now.” The words meant little to me, washed over me as a tone more than anything else. Soft and comforting, like the rippling water of a stream over weary feet. “Sleep, sir. Sleep.”
Like most members of the Drones, waking up in unfamiliar surroundings is no new experience to yours truly. In my time I have begun many a day on mysterious beds, sofas and occasionally floors – particularly after Boat Race night. But I have never before woken in an unknown environment which I have been utterly unable to place, feeling raw as a peeled prawn.
Such was my experience upon quitting old Morpheus. I found myself in a bed I knew by the sheets and pillows not to be mine and whose scent the animal hindbrain classified as unnerving but unidentifiable, ensconced in a darkness that didn’t abate one jot when I batted the old eyelids. Right shoulder feeling stiffer than one of Jeeves’ whisky and sodas, I reached up with a shaky but serviceable left hand and felt a strip of cloth obscuring the noble visage from cheekbones to eyebrows. The ticker gave several painful leaps in my breast, gathering speed in a dizzying hurry as my trembling fingertips traced the lower edge of the bandage.
“Sir?” Had it been anyone else, I daresay I would have leapt about a mile. But Jeeves is like the back of one’s skull – always there, without ever really being noticed. He sounded quite close by.
Your average Wooster is a gallant chap, and I fancy I stand up pretty well to that discerning standard. But finding myself sightless and pained to the bone in a strange habitat had rather reduced me. The heady relief of a familiar voice – the most familiar voice in my life – dashed nearly brought tears to my eyes.
“Jeeves?” I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have recognised the voice as mine, if I hadn’t distinctly felt the word slip out. Bertram Wooster has often been complimented on his pleasing baritone, but even one of those tone-deaf chappies would have recoiled at this raw rasp.
“Yes, sir. You’re in the Royal London Hospital; you’ve been here since yesterday, sir. I fear your automobile excursion with Mr. Hennington came to an unfortunate conclusion.” Perhaps it was simply because I couldn’t see his doubtless glacial expression, but it sounded almost as though there was a touch of emotion below the usual ice. Unfortunately it leant no more clarity to his statement.
“Tufty?” I last recalled seeing him the night before when I had offered to put him up to be more convenient for his garage. I couldn’t seem to manage to fix up that past up with this present, however.
“It is not important at this juncture, sir. You avoided critical injury, and are expected to make a full recovery. The doctor has prescribed you some substantial pain medication at the moment, though, and recommends you rest as much as possible, sir.”
“’S this, Jeeves?” I asked, indicating the cloth girting my cranium.
“A bandage, sir. You had an encounter with the windscreen resulting in several deep lacerations. Your vision will not be impacted, sir, however in order to avoid scarring the surgeon has recommended you keep your eyes closed and as immobile as possible for the next ten days.”
The lengthy words rolled right over me without sticking at all. I caught that there was something important about it all, but I couldn’t seem to pin down the actual point. The brain simply did not want to slip into gear. “Sorry Jeeves, must be awfully stupid. What?”
“A temporary measure, sir. I will explain more fully later. Perhaps more sleep would be advisable, sir.”
“Sleep, eh?” Funny word, sleep. Just the sound of it’s enough to make the eyes heavy. A smooth, honey-like word.
“Yes, sir,” he said, softly. His hand caught mine lightly, and pulled it down from the bandage to rest by my side. That tiny contact felt awfully reassuring, a solid manifestation of assurance and safety. I wrapped my fingers around it, and clung to this bastion of familiarity in a dashed confusing landscape until I slipped away again.
I don’t know whether you’ve ever had occasion to notice how static places often seem to present different impressions depending on who’s in them and the prevailing attitude of the day. For instance, my bedroom is quite a cheery little room decorated in fetching tones of primrose and cornflower and furnished in well-matched Hepplewhite furniture. On bright mornings with a day of moderate excitement before me, it seems quite the most pleasant room I’ve ever called my own. But on those black days which threaten to forever blight my life when some horrific epistle has been delivered from a girl of the Madeline Bassett type, it seems to shrink around me until I feel quite trapped and want nothing more than to chuck one of the bally matching chairs out of the window to let in some air.
I experienced the same sort of divergence when I awoke again. My impression of the room I was inhabiting had not been rammed home strongly before. Consequently I formed two impressions at once: the current one, and the previous by comparing the differences. The room was warm and rather noisy, filled with the sounds of women’s heels on a hard floor and chattering voices and carts rolling by with jingling glasses on them. It seemed a stark contrast to the quiet, cool and almost gloomy feel it had had about it when last I was awake.
The one striking similarity was, of course, that it was still black as the Earl of Hell’s blasted riding boots.
I rather think I must have moved inadvertently, because two things happened. All the same aches and pains as had made themselves known before jumped up to be taken notice of again, albeit with slightly less spring in their step. And someone said, very quietly, “Sir?”
I turned towards the voice, wincing at the ache in my shoulder but enduring it with manly fortitude. There was definitely some mild improvement – it felt rather more like it had been wrenched by an angry bull than a furious elephant.
“Jeeves. Still here, what?” My voice, too, sounded at least like something produced by a human than a decrepit water buffalo, although admittedly a human who was suffering from a bad bout of laryngitis. I coughed, and heard the sound of water being poured.
“Here, sir. Use your left hand.” A gentle arm slipped beneath my neck and helped to raise me up, while another pushed a cool glass into my left hand. I took it and sipped carefully, finding the water cool but not ice-cold. I drank deep as a camel about to set off on a jaunt across the Sahara, draining the glass dry and surrendering it back to Jeeves.
My memory was still hazy, but I did remember a few facts which seemed important to clarify. “This is the hospital, isn’t it Jeeves?”
“Yes, sir. The Royal London Hospital.” He was speaking in his usual formal tone, modulated slightly to the muffled version one uses to address chaps in a fragile state of health. “You were in an automobile accident –”
“Tufty Hennington,” I interjected, my memory beginning to turn over like a recalcitrant engine.
“Yes, sir. You remember?”
“Not a blasted thing about it I’m afraid,” I said, with rather more cheerfulness than I can honestly say that I felt sloshing about in the old veins. “But I do recall you mentioning him. And something about… the windscreen?” I reached up to scratch my head, and encountered a somewhat rough-textured bandage girting the melon. “Stitches, are there?” I inquired, rather faintly.
“I’m afraid so, sir, but the surgeon was quite confident the scarring will be negligible, if indeed at all detectable. Your sight was not damaged, sir.” Once he said it I remembered him saying it before, a sort of odd stereo effect.
I let out a breath I hadn’t noticed getting lodged down in the thorax – rather like swallowing a balloon, once I did notice it. It slipped away and I leant back into the pillow smelling of a strict regime of chemical cleanliness.
“How long is one tethered here, Jeeves? When can I slip the lead?”
“The doctor shall want to speak with you, sir, but as your injuries are not dangerous and as you shall of course have my assistance at the flat, I do not foresee any difficulty with your being discharged at an early date.”
That was a bit thick, like cement funnelled into the ears, but I felt I gathered the just of it. “So quite soon, you feel,” I clarified, just to be sure.
“If that is your desire, sir.”
“It is. You may even say A.S.A.P.”
“Then I shall endeavor to expedite the process, sir.”
“Thank you, Jeeves,” I said, settling the old noggin back against the rather flat hospital pillows. There was a minute pause before Jeeves replied in a low voice.
“Not at all, sir.”
In fact, after I proved myself fit by consuming a thoroughly unsatisfactory bowl of chicken consummé, spooning it up with the eagerness of the camel drinking his fill at the watering hole, the doctor-chappy came by and stamped my chit. Jeeves had fetched in some clothes at some point while I had been sawing logs, and with his help I threw on the old kit and stood, swaying like a reed in the breeze. Jeeves clapped a hand to my shoulder to introduce an element of steadfastness, and the two of us stood there like a groom and his skittish colt.
Skittish I say, and skittish I felt. I can’t quite describe to you why, but somehow on standing the bottom seemed to drop right out of my stomach to leave me feeling as though someone had spooned in jelly to replace it. My legs went wobbly and unreliable as Gussie Fink-Nottle faced with a spat of public speaking, and I stumbled and caught myself on Jeeves’ broad shoulder.
“’Pologies, Jeeves. Feeling a bit dizzy.”
“Perhaps you would prefer to make the journey in a wheelchair, sir?” suggested Jeeves, with silver-tongued tact. I was having none of it.
“Perhaps nothing. A Wooster does not cringe from adversity. If it’s adversity I mean.” I straightened the old spine, took a deep breath for luck, and struck out with Jeeves’ guiding hand at my elbow.
Out in the hallway I smelled more of the kitchen’s loathsome brew circulating to the other wretched and unfortunate inmates of the institution. Here and there there were groans and moans, presumably of the ill upon receiving their daily ration.
“I say Jeeves, a lucky escape, eh?”
“Very much so, sir,” he replied in an honest tone, rather startlingly close to my ear. I could feel the warmth of his breath on my jaw; it made my stomach turn over again.
We made it out of that vale of tears and into the bright sunlight beyond; I could feel it on my cheek, soft as duck down and with a warmth that quite lifted my spirits. Jeeves led me to the two-seater and yours truly plunked himself down in the passenger seat.
As Jeeves pressed the self-starter and the engine roared to life I felt a sudden jolt, such as you might feel when left to mind an aunt’s cat only to find you had left it in a room with a pair of Alsatians. A stream icier than the run-off from Everest ran over me and I shook, latching onto Jeeves’ arm entirely by accident.
I forcibly unlatched the wayward hand, jaw tight as a sprung trap. “Nothing Jeeves. Just a trifle nervy, all of the sudden. ‘Spect it must be the shock.”
“You’re entirely safe in my hands, sir.”
Truer words, I felt, and wagged the head to show my appreciation. “I know. Thanks.” I then turned my face to the wind, like the hound that scents the fox from afar. “Home, Jeeves.”
He let out the clutch and we toddled away.
The air in my room at the flat was crisp as a newly-ironed seam, a fresh breeze wafting in through the open window accompanied by the sounds of the big city hurly-burly beyond. I could feel the draught ruffling my hair, my manly locks untouched by brilliantine for the duration of my medical captivity. Doubtless owing to the bandage girting my brow, Jeeves had suppressed his natural bent to see to that aspect of my toilette prior to our departure from hospital.
After the surprisingly taxing journey from the kerb to the flat, exhaustion set in to the extent that I doubted I could blow the skin off a rice pudding. Usually upon returning home after an extended sojourn I prowl the premises and reacquaint myself with my records and gramophone or curl up with an unfinished Sexton Blake while Jeeves unpacks the traps. On this occasion, however, I longed for nothing more than the waiting embrace of my mattress. With my hand on Jeeves’ wide shoulder – the smooth wool of his suit beneath by fingers sat with easy refinement over his strapping form, although in truth this was the first time I had noticed it so distinctly – we proceeded at a pace better measured in knots than mph.
“Bed I think, Jeeves.”
“Yes, sir.” Once again, the heat of his breath on the back of my ear sent a shiver racing down my spine like a pony express rider eager to reach his hand-off. I chalked it up to raw nerves, strained to their limits by Tufty’s buffoonery, and thought no more of it – at the time.
Undressing is usually a simple matter, requiring Jeeves’ assistance only with finicky aspects such as wrestling tie-pins and cufflinks into submission. These were not, however, the usual set of circumstances as experienced by Bertram W., Esq., and I found myself hardly capable of undoing the laces of my shoes, never mind the Everest-like challenge that the buttons on my shirt presented. Jeeves, as always, stepped in where lesser men might have quailed and took me firmly in hand.
Before any reader can accuse me of unfair play, I can only say that I have always made a clean breast of my admiration for Jeeves’ nearly limitless array of skills. His sartorial expertise, his stiff pick-me-ups, and of course the humdinger schemes his fish-fed brain happens upon, all come to mind. He is a positive whiz, and I have already made it clear to him that he ought to donate his brain to science for the betterment of the species. Once he’s done with it, of course.
Having so clarified, I can with a clear conscience report that the way in which he divested me and poured me into a pair of P.J.s was masterly. His hands were brisk but warm against my cooler skin – my convalescence having weakened my otherwise steely constitution – and his arms as he supported me were sturdy as an old oak. There was something comforting about being so held.
Once I was properly attired for retiring, Jeeves guided me to my bed and saw me settled amongst the plump pillows and clean sheets. Even in a crisis, my man had found the time to see my bedlinens laundered. It launched a train of thought, like the retort of the starter pistol, and I loped off gamely in pursuit. “I say, Jeeves. What have you been up to these past few days? It was jolly good of you to keep me company in lock-up; can’t have been very convenient to the household sched.”
“I managed to find the time, sir. With you away there is in fact very little to do.”
“Well I appreciate it, old bean. Seemed like every time I awoke, you were there with me.”
There was the briefest of pauses. “That was my intention, sir.”
What promised to shape up as an otherwise splendid day – birds singing winsomely on the bough and all that – was blighted by the unforetold arrival of my Aunt Agatha. She slithered in like the vilest of Komodo dragons with a heaving noise like that which accompanies a moderate hurricane, which I took to be her laboured breathing. Not for naught is she known as the Nephew Crusher.
Sure enough, when she spoke it was with a smoky rasp to her throat, fitting for one who dined on fag ends and broken glass. “Bertie,” she declared, “you are an absolute boob. Of all the feather-brained, empty-headed, Johnny-Head-In-Clouds I have ever encountered, you take not only the cake but the entire dessert trolley. How on earth you have survived to your present age unscathed is beyond me, but I sincerely hope if you learn anything from this appalling circumstance it is that you must transplant your social circle at once.” Having thus delivered her banshee’s warning she fell silent, or as silent as a rampaging bull’s worth of mad energy siphoned into one smallish middle-aged lady can fall.
“Steady on!” I struggled to sit up, registering a sharp objection from my shoulder. I overruled the treacherous joint and hauled the old phiz. into a nearly vertical posish. I began to sweat uncomfortably, cold beads rolling down my skin; this too I ignored. “That Tufty takes the prize among buffoons, I readily admit. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater –”
“Let’s,” disagreed Aunt A., vehemently. I could imagine her expression readily: that of an over-fed pug which has just been squeezed a good sight too tightly. “It’s time for you to grow up and leave behind those irresponsible louts you call your close acquaintances. You’re a Wooster, Bertie; surely the name means something to you. This is a sign from the Lord himself: take yourself in hand, find a wife who will mend your ways, and pass on the Wooster name.”
Her words got my blood up. Heart rabbiting away in my ears, I composed my reply salvo. The failure to enquire after my health, I could have passed by. The insult to my fellow Drones, I could have sidestepped. But the order to find a bride and take the plunge into the marital life, I could not abide. Perhaps you are aware that former engagements blot the landscape of my past, forming a veritable minefield of near disasters. Flush with the wisdom that had blossomed from these many follies, I was wholeheartedly determined never to tie the knot.
Drawing in a breath, I felt like David standing before the Philistine, ready to vault towards the battle line. Instead of delivering a resounding thrashing to my aging relation, however, as I drew myself up my shoulder gave a second, prolonged pang and like the tower of Babylon I fell, collapsing into the mattress with a cry.
My ears were filled with a momentary thrumming, my head spinning like a top. When it cleared I could feel a warm hand on my uninjured shoulder, and heard Jeeves’ voice speaking.
“– needs rest, Mrs Gregson. If you could return in a few days, he will doubtless be in a fitter state to converse.”
“Unless he’s shamming,” suggested Aunt Agatha, in a dark tone.
“Mr Wooster has been very seriously ill. An uninterrupted convalescence is of the utmost import.”
A small sniff. Then: “Very well, Jeeves, if you think it best. I will return.”
And so, her cloven hooves scampering on the carpet, she departed.
“I say, Jeeves. A narrow escape, that,” I commented, once she had been expunged from the premises.
“I apologize, sir. I ought not to have permitted her entry; your physician advised total rest. However…”
“Yes, rather difficult orders to carry through when faced with Battle Axe Gregson. Perhaps a task better honoured in the breach than the observance, you might have felt.” I nestled back into my pillows. “It’s a dashed unpleasant mess Tufty has landed me in this time. Aunts to the left of me, Doctors to the right, into the jaws of Death rode Bertie Wooster, what?”
“I sincerely hope not, sir,” murmured Jeeves, from beside me.
“Very feudal of you, Jeeves. As for Tufty… what has become of him? Not in the same jam one hopes, although it would bally well serve him right.”
“Mr Hennington was extracted from the motor car without significant injury, sir. He was desirous of paying you a visit in hospital, but I felt in your precarious condition such a visit was best postponed.”
“Quite right. For one thing, it would be difficult to restrain myself from biffing him one. He deserves one of the juiciest, make no mistake.” I raised my good hand to trace my fingers over the gauze girting the old melon, and felt a cold front settle over me like a curtain falling. “You’re sure the damage is of a temporary nature?” For some reason the image of circus folk was coalescing in my mind: the bearded woman, the wolf man, and Bertie Wooster, the man with the mangled face. I could hear the hucksters calling now.
“Quite sure, sir,” replied Jeeves, with reassuring emphasis, bursting the bubble of my thought. “I questioned the doctor most closely.”
“Thank you, Jeeves. You’ve been no end a rock throughout this whole ordeal. Or at least, the beginning of it,” I concluded, bitterly aware of the further several days of darkness to come.
“I shall be by your side, as always, sir,” murmured Jeeves.
Feeling bucked up by this very commendable sentiment, I snuggled in amongst my blankets and let sleep wash over me.