I’ve never liked sick rooms of any kind; hospitals, nursing homes, doctor’s offices, even my own bed for more than a day, and since I was a lad I’ve always had an uneasy feeling around illness. Having settled our score with a dreadful bout of mumps followed by a plague of measles at Eton, pestilence had ceased his assault and we had come to an amicable place, where once a year I might shake his hand a catch a sneeze, but nothing more. So, for a long while, I’d quite forgotten how dashed nervous these germs and such make me feel, until Aunt Agatha fell ill.
I suppose she’d been young once, what? To me, she’d always seemed old, even though she can’t be more than ten years older than Aunt Dahlia. You’d swear one was the mother and one the daughter, though I’d never say that, of course. Aunt Agatha was as terrifying as those Greek monsters in that dusty old tome of Jeeves’, but she’s still a lady, and you can’t question a lady’s age. I only mean that it feels like she has always been there, since the beginning of everything. To think of her otherwise is nonsense.
She began using a cane, and then a walker, and finally a bath chair, and, over the past year, there seemed to be less and less of her whenever we met. The rummy thing is, she never seemed smaller, despite that. She sat up straight, and glared at me with those icy, sharp eyes, and you’d never think she was sitting down. So, maybe why that was why I didn’t notice, you know.
It was young Thos. who told me she was to be staying in this home from now on, since he was always at the bank and his sons away at Oxford. His wife never got on with Aged A, of course, so there was really little choice. He’d come on weekends, and sometimes after work, but I would come when he couldn’t. I didn’t blame her much for complaining about the house, because I didn’t fancy it much myself. A stale odor hung about the place, and the ladies she lunched with were shadows of what they ought to be, like gray tissue paper figures that stared vacantly, in the best cases, or, on rare, dreadful occasions, moaned and howled like the devil himself. I’m quite ashamed to say that they frightened me, these poor people. Their screaming, their staring, the smell of disease and unwashed linen was terrifying in a way that I simply can’t explain. Aunt Agatha, thankfully, did not share my sentiments, for I once saw her soundly whack a howling woman with her own cane to cease the noise.
I was not alone in all of this, or I couldn’t have coped. Jeeves was always by my side, of course, or, rather, a discreet ten paces behind me. Aunt Agatha knew that he was there, but we never discussed it. She had always preferred to treat him as a silent fixture, an object, unless utterly necessary, and although it pained me, I didn’t protest because Jeeves preferred it that way, as well. It was a good way to avoid conflict, which is enough to sell me on the idea most days, but on others… I think of all that Jeeves has done for me, and I wish for more for him. I know that he is standing just beyond that door frame, patiently waiting in the stench and gloom for me to finish my dreary visit, hours; all for my sake.
Aunt Agatha has been in and out of sleep for days. Sometimes she speaks to me clearly, and it seems that she’s putting on a stiff upper lip, and then she’ll call me Charles. I don’t have the heart to correct her. I don’t let her see me cry, or she’ll know who I really am.
I hear the shuffling of feet in the hallway, soft, but deliberate, reminding me of my man’s presence. I take a shuddering breath and hold her bony hand.
Her white head shifts on the pillow. “Bertie.”
I perk up, leaning close. “Yes, Aged A?”
“Tell him to go away. We need to talk. Such a nuisance, always underfoot.” Weakly, she gestured to the door.
I’ve never been able to stand up to her when she insults him. I’m not enough of a man, I suppose. With the familiar strains of guilt and resentment swirling around my gut, I rose to close the door, before returning to her side. “I’m here.”
“Bertie… you are a wealthy man. It isn’t … it isn’t too late to marry.” The words came slow, as though they took more effort than usual.
“Please, Aunt Agatha… Not this. Not now. I’m fine, really.” It was as though a series of nightmares were converging on me.
The sharpness returned to her eyes, for just a moment, that look that always made my spine turn to jelly. “Bertie. I must speak frankly. You must stop playing games, before it’s too late. I know what you two do, and he should be ashamed of himself. Servants have no shame. You never learned that, Bertie. You’ve made his life soft, and you’ll never have a wife as long as you keep him in your house. You cannot expect one of them to do what is best for you.”
I stood frozen in place, disbelief warring with a primal terror in my gut. Again, I met her eyes, and saw the truth. She really had just said all of that. She knew, she’d known all this time, and she had not given me away to the authorities. Should I feel elated? Should I feel ill? I swallowed, hard.
“He’s been good to me.” I managed, struggling to make up for every insult I’d never defended him from. “He’s made me happy.”
“Bertie.” She sighed, the word sounding tired and frustrated. “You have to think of your future.“
“He’s going to stay.” I managed, brokenly.
“Even if he were not of the people, Bertie, a servant, for heaven’s sake, whatever would your poor mother say, God rest her soul!-“
“I say, Aunt Agatha!”
“He cannot give you children, Bertie.” She looked at me as though I were looney, as though I could not grasp what was the most obvious. Of course I knew that!
“I don’t want children.” I sulked.
“Bertie!” she scolded. She coughed then, the short yell taking the breath out of her. I rubbed her back in small circles until she recovered. “Bertie, you need children. You’ll die alone…”
“I won’t.” The thought was too awful to think of. I didn’t want her thinking such awful thoughts when she was ill. I didn’t want to think them when I was well. “I say…I really do love him, you know. If you could just… just give us your blessing…” I choked on the words, and swallowed. I shouldn’t have asked that much of her, I know. I just wanted it so much, all of a sudden.
“Honestly, Bertie.” She sighed, exasperated. Her eyes slid shut, and I stayed by the bedside, clutching her hand. She didn’t open her eyes again.
I didn’t cry until I saw Aunt Dahlia, and then I couldn’t stop. The evening of the funeral, I crept away to be with Jeeves, unwilling to face my family until I’d rid myself of the most humiliating tears on his shoulder. “Jeeves?” I snuffled, turning my face away from his ruined shirt. “I feel terrible.”
His eyes were soft. “I know, sir. It is normal to feel this way.”
I shook my head. “No, I mean… I feel terrible. Guilty, I mean. I started to feel this horrible when I saw Aunt Dahlia. I think , Jeeves, I think I’m crying for the wrong Aunt. Maybe I’m crying because I know someday Aunt Dahlia won’t be around anymore. That’s awful, isn’t it? I’m a terrible nephew.”
Jeeves sighed, and pulled me back into his lap. “You misunderstand, sir. I believe that you are merely suffering from a form a delayed grief, a state of shock, as it were. As you were with Mrs. Gregson at the time of her passing, perhaps it did not seem quite real until your family arrived to mourn.” His lips brushed against my hair, and I toyed with the idea. Jeeves knew a lot of the psychology of the individual, after all. Hope dawned on me that I wasn’t quite as wretched as I’d imagined.
“I love you, you know. So much, old thing.” I felt his lips curl into a grin against my skin. “She was something else, you know. Really. She was awful, and awful to you, and I’m truly sorry for that, really I am. But still, I bally well loved her. I just don’t… I don’t regret a thing, Jeeves. Even if I die alone, like she said. I don’t care, because I’ll have had you.”
“You shall not die alone, sir. I give you my word.” He pressed a kiss to my forehead. “Mrs. Travers needs you, sir.” He whispered.
“Right ho.” I nodded. I went to do my duty, to deliver stiff drinks with a stiff lip.
Jeeves is a chap who keeps his word. He didn’t say anything out of the ordinary to me, but I noticed the changes. First it was the gaspers left unlit, and the butter left untouched. Then came the introductions, nieces and nephews, great nieces and great nephews, invited for tea and dinner, Jeeveses of all ages calling me Uncle and generally being jolly. He was moving the earth for me, again. There was that familiar determination in his eyes, which had always seen me through in the past, through engagements, sticky situations with the law, and even a terrifying war. Aunt Agatha never knew all that he did for me, or what he would do for me, but I’ve decided that that’s really quite all right. All that matters is what Jeeves thinks about what I do for him, and what I will do for him, always. I have a lot to live up to, but I find myself looking forward to the challenge.