The Ghosts of Brinkley CourtA late-ish hour of evening found me slightly under the surface after one too many digestifs with Tuppy and ankling towards one of the smaller parlours in search of a piano that wouldn't rouse the snoring Glossop. A song had caught me in its grasp, only I couldn't remember anything but the first few bars for the life of me. Often a concentrated bang at the keys will restore these memories, so off I went. I suppose I could just as easily have waited a bit and asked Jeeves, but there's never any guarantee he'll know the popular songs, a shortcoming I bear cheerfully in view of the vast acres of virtues.
In my musical musings I'd found my way to a lesser-used corridor populated by lesser-used rooms, but I knew one of them had a serviceable instrument and so soldiered on. I had second thoughts as a damp chill assaulted me on rounding a corner, but it was there and gone so quickly that I assumed it was one of those draughts the makers of country houses so thoughtfully include. What didn't dissipate with the chill was a sudden sort of--I won't call it gloom, exactly--wistfulness, perhaps. I'd suddenly thought, for some reason, of my father and the way he used to bellow silly made-up songs purposely off-key to make my mother laugh, and was this half-lost song one he'd used to sing?
No, I realised as I approached the door of my destination, the thread or two of tune I'd been wondering about had nothing to do with my father. But the music I was hearing now most certainly did. I blinked hard, at first seeing nobody playing, but another draught chilled through. I gave the onion a shake and there was indeed a chap seated on the bench. He had on a rum sort of suit, not of the latest fashion, you understand, and I didn't recognise him, so I could only think he was some member of the household staff who'd sneaked up here to get a bit of practice in before bed.
"Er, what ho, there," I said. My voice echoed oddly in my ears. I'd startled the chappie, I thought, for he crashed his next chord into a noisy fumble. "Oh, I didn't mean to--" But he hit another wrong one, and another, nothing but wrong ones as though all his fingers had suddenly fallen asleep. The sound seemed to continue--just my imagination, surely--even as he stood from the bench and fixed me with a penetrating stare that froze my very blood.
His face--there aren't words in this world or the next for what his face did. It boiled up into white and red contortions not meant for skin, beset by black and yellow and brown...things that seemed to writhe and crawl. Then it all shrank away into a brown leathery horror that I barely glimpsed before it ripped away to bone, and that too was gone in the space of a blink as the whole grotesque ensemble exploded into dust with a piercing scream.
This all went off quick as a flash, you understand, in about the span of time it took my nostrils to be assaulted by the most unimaginably putrid odour. I'd stood paralysed for this moment and only unrooted myself from the spot in the nick of time to stumble to the nearest window before my stomach turned itself inside out.
I sank into a boneless heap on the floor when I was done, quivering like an aspen and blinking through stinging bleariness at the empty room, which showed no sign of ever having contained anyone but Bertram this eve, and certainly not chaps who exploded into dust. There was no dust in sight but a very thin film atop the lid that was closed over the piano keys.
I returned to my room in a dazed shamble. No, it was best to forget the whole thing, blame the port and have done with it. In view of my Uncle Henry (and of certain parties being already under the impression that I ought to spend my next holiday warming a padded cell in Colney Hatch), it was best not to make any mention of the thing at all. Jeeves, most probably, would have an altogether rational explanation, but it might just happen to be 'you're losing the half-dozen or so marbles you did have, sir.'
Much as his presence might have proved a balm to the troubled soul, I was grateful that Jeeves was not in attendance when I at last trudged into my room after what felt like forty years wandering the desert. It gave me time to freshen up and gather my wits a bit; he'd certainly notice something amiss in any case, but I'd stand a better chance of passing it off as a simple weariness and too much to drink if I could appear a little more lifelike than the ashen and red-eyed gawd-help-us that was currently staring back at me in the mirror.
I forced myself to smile, but I could think only of skeletal teeth. I tried to slap some colour into my cheeks but could think only of flesh festering and rotting, the memory of the smell accosting me so strongly that I was nearly sick again.
I had my nose in a bottle of cologne in hopes of driving out the stench by force when a distant sheep-like cough gave me such a start that my still-unsteady mitts couldn't keep hold of the bottle while I was jumping a foot in the air. The thing shattered rather spectacularly on the tiles. There was one thing accomplished, I suppose--it was no longer possible to smell anything but Spiced Limes.
"Forgive me, sir, I did not intend to startle you," Jeeves said.
"Not at all, Jeeves," I said with my best stab at cheeriness. "Lost in thought, don't you know. I thought the cologne had gone off. I suppose it doesn't matter now, what?"
"Indeed, sir." Jeeves regarded me rummily. "You will forgive the observation sir, but you do not look entirely well."
"I'm not, I suppose," I sighed. "Some bit of minor lurgy or other. I'm sure it's nothing forty or so winks won't cure."
Jeeves took me by the elbow and shepherded me over the broken glass towards my waiting nightwear. I missed the vanished hands' touch on my arm more than perhaps I strictly should have, even given the current circs. That is to say, I longed for that strong warmth through a shirtsleeve or at the top of a collar even when it was not the only thing in the world that did not seem cold and horrible.
I have, I think, professed strong views on regarding Jeeves with friendship beyond the demands of the employer and the employed, but there were times when I wished for even more--the Holmes to my Watson, if you will, the Raffles to my Bunny. That cosy sort of comradeship that had slipped through my fingers when the Bingo Littles and Ginger Winships of the world had off and married. I don't know what fancying part of the old bean believed I could rise to the meeting of minds necessary to enjoy such a thing with Jeeves, all questions of feudal spirit aside, but fancy I did, and tonight felt it acutely.
Jeeves possibly took my flushing sigh as a sign of further infirmity, for he murmured some sort of allow-me-sir and laid a hand on my beleaguered brow.
"Am I feverish?" I asked, now feeling as though I might be.
"Not as far as I can tell, sir," Jeeves replied, and the hand might have lingered longer than it needed to, or it might not have. Everything was still a bit fuzzy round the edges after my ordeal.
When Jeeves exited to fetch some restorative tonic or other (and presumably a broom), said ordeal once again shoved itself clearly back into view. Eyes peeled wide or screwed shut, it made no difference, and perhaps the two or three words of The Haunting of Holborn I managed to read rather than stare at weren't quite the thing, as it was a fairly grisly bit where the murderess comes face to face with the ghost of the man she's done in, like Macbeth or Hamlet or whoever it was. I pitched the book to the floor and wondered why I read such trash.
Not that I'd murdered anyone, and of the dearly departed I knew, my apparition was not amongst their ranks. I didn't know him from Adam. I wondered if he'd meant to haunt someone else and just got turned about. I nearly laughed at myself--wasn't it all rot, after all? Weren't there no such bally things as ghosts? But if there weren't, what had I seen? Was just this sort of thing what had started poor Uncle Henry down his path to rabbit husbandry?
The returning knock of Jeeves sent me into another startled jolt. I managed to stop shielding myself with the bedclothes by the time he was through the door, but I'm not sure I presented the perfect picture of composure; his noble brow decidedly wrinkled as he rested a broom against the wall and delivered a steaming cup to the bedside table. Thankfully, he made no further inquiries and simply oiled off with the broom.
Though the hot cup of whatever-it-was did manage to perform the minor miracle of at last returning a bit of human warmth to the Wooster bones, it did but little for the spirit, Wooster or otherwise. I was honestly beginning to feel a bit mad--what if madness lay not in the seeing of ghosts but in knowing what to do once one had seen them?
If anyone would know the proper order of business to go about, it would be Jeeves, but that wasn't the sort of thing you just dropped at a fellow's feet in between the nightcap and the good-night-sir, if ever. He'd surely have some nice bit of logic or science to lay the thing to rest, but it was the science that worried me.
"Jeeves," I burbled when he came back into the bedchamber proper, before I could stop myself.
I gaped like a fish momentarily. "Does--does madness really run in families, do you think?"
"There is believed to be some hereditary disposition, yes, sir."
"Oh." I rather deflated. "Well, that'll be all, Jeeves. Good night," I said to nip the inquisitive spirit in the bud.
"Good night, sir," Jeeves said soupily, and oozed out.
I tried, bootlessly, to sleep. The creakings and settlings that ought to have been as familiar to me as my own heartbeat were now sinister groans and knocks that might herald some new doom. The shadows outside the windows styled themselves as spectral sorts of claws. And still that awful face--or rather the awful thing it had turned into--dogged my memory. I tried to call up the pleasantest thoughts I could, sunshine and roses and all that, but whether I pictured a well-enjoyed night at the Drones or the only time in recorded history I had ever seen Jeeves laugh, there the blighter was again, lurking round corners like some shrieking rotting Jack the Ripper.
I'd just about resolved to give the sleeping notion up as a bad job and risk a jaunt to the library for some lighter reading--hopefully something Madeline Basset might have left behind, with no death and a large dose of fluffy woodland creatures--when yet another shadow twitched in the corner of my eye. I knew from the returning chill what I would see if I turned my head, and yet I could not help but turn. Even expecting it, I still gasped a heart-stopping one to see a figure seated at the little desk by the window.
I didn't dare speak to him, for fear he'd do an encore of the screeching maggot act. Just let him write his blasted letter or whatever it was and be gone. I held my breath and had to shove my bottom lip in between my teeth to keep them from chattering. I didn't see him stand up, but suddenly he was on his feet and coming towards me at a rapid clip. I unleashed a manly squawk of fright and scrambled backward on the bed, only there was no backward to scramble and I merely succeeded in upsetting the bedside table and giving the bean a deuce of a whack on the headboard.
Trapped, I braced for whatever was to come next, but my unwelcome guest only moved past me, straight though the wall as though it, too, were merely the product of the maddening Wooster brain. He was gone, and if he returned I mercifully slept through it, or rather remained collapsed from sheer exhaustion and over-excitement.
I greeted the sunlight and tea-bearing Jeeves with aplomb, though it might have come off a bit wan given my shortened time in Morpheus's grasp. Jeeves righted the overturned table without comment except to enquire after the young master's health.
"Oh, right as rain, Jeeves," I said as cheerily as I could manage. "I could just about droppeth gently onto the place beneath, or however it goes."
"I am relieved to hear it, sir. Mr Seppings seems now similarly afflicted as you were last night, and I had agreed to stand in for him provided you would not require more than the usual attention, sir."
"Poor old bird," I commiserated, though privately I rejoiced. He couldn't mean that Seppings was seeing ghosts, of course, but if he was sickening for something then I might have been, too. Merely delirious, don't you know, and no spirits in the offing that didn't come out of a bottle. "Stand in to your heart's content, old thing. If anything, I'll want less than the usual valeting--still a bit worn from the ordeal and all that."
"Very good, sir." Jeeves looked to be on the point of shimmering off about his business, but instead bent and retrieved some bit of paper from beneath the edge of the bed. He inspected it with as rummy a raising of eyebrow as I've seen him give the most shocking of ties, and handed it over to me. "Does this belong to you, sir?"
I gave the thing the old once-over. It was one of those photographs you can send as a postcard, featuring a chappie about my own age in the same style of suit my spectre had been wearing. He was not the spectre, of course, just some cove sat upon a chair holding his hat on his knees. If recognition flickered over my map, it was only due to the suit; some cog or other knocked into place to tell me that if indeed I was hallucinating chaps at pianos and desks, I was also hallucinating fashions past. 1894, to be precise, as helpfully inscribed on the reverse, along with To W.-- I do not love thee with mine eyes --from P. P. presumably being the chap on the other side, but I hadn't the faintest notion who he might have been otherwise.
"No, nobody I know, Jeeves. It must've fallen out of the table. I wonder if Aunt Dahlia remembers who its rightful owner could be."
"Perhaps, sir," Jeeves said, and took it back from me.
I'd given myself an idea by mentioning the dear old relation perhaps knowing photographic subjects. The one thing I knew about ghosts--if there were indeed ghosts and my reading material involving assorted bumps in the night could be believed--was that they haunted places where they'd spent a good bit of time. Ergo, if this fellow had existed, he might have visited often enough for a camera to catch him.
After breakfast (during which Angela was not speaking to Tuppy due to having found him still snoring away in his evening clothes where I'd left him), I made mutterings of having business to conduct and excused myself to the library. Some two hundred years of Wooster and Travers family history lived bound up in albums and ledgers on a high shelf behind a cabinet door painted to match the more normal books. It was these that I tottered up the ladder in search of.
Getting them down proved a bit of a chore, and I nearly sent for Jeeves to help me, but then I'd need to explain what I was doing. I suppose I could have claimed to have been searching for P. within the records, but knowing Jeeves, he'd probably already tracked P. down and reunited him happily ever after with W, leaving me no reason to dig through any scrapbooks. Besides which, he was probably busy doing whatever it was Seppings did at this time of day. This is not to say that I wouldn't have sorely liked his counsel on the whole matter, but for all I knew, the mentally negligible young master at last proving himself slightly mad might be the final straw to send him packing once and for all. Madness, after all, was beyond even Jeeves to solve.
In the end, I waylaid a housemaid and handed the books down to her. The girl had a stutter and looked barely old enough to be out of pigtails; she asked no questions and was rewarded for her trouble.
I don't mind telling you, I got quite a bit wistful searching through all the old pages. My dearly departed father featured frequently in the records of family gatherings, ones I'd seen a million times, though not recently and never with any sort of attention to who else might be in them if they weren't my mother or the rather bafflingly pretty girl now known as Aunt Agatha. If I found my ghost at all, I was expecting he might be third from the left in a large group or possibly glaring up from some murderous newspaper clipping.
Even searching as I was, it was still a shock when I did see him. I stood up like a shot and was unable to unglue my gaze even as my chair fell to the floor. He was smiling, yes, but it made no difference. That face was burnt into my memory. Here was my proof, kitted out for a hunt with my father's arm slung round him like they were bosom pals. 'Bill and Me--don't we look dashing?' my father had penned along the bottom.
I stared at the thing so long that Bill seemed to blink, which gave me another startle and sent me tripping back into my fallen chair. That, at least, I think was my imagination. When I regained my footing and a white-knuckled grip on the edge of the table and forced myself to look again, he made no motion. No melting or screaming, and the paper did not catch fire when my trembling digits pried it out of its tacking to search for any other clues on the back.
"Pardon me, sir--"
I let forth a sound best approximated as 'gah!' and dropped the photograph like a hot coal. "Jeeves!" I spun round and yet again ended up ambushed by chair legs.
Jeeves floated over to my aid and it was all I could do not to cling to him.
"Might I be of some assistance, sir?"
I hesitated. Surely I could not merely have imagined a man I'd never seen before. I sank into the righted chair with a defeated sigh. If I truly were going mad, wouldn't it be best to catch it at the beginning in hopes of heading it off? Jeeves would not simply abandon me to the tender mercies of Colney Hatch, surely, and if any solution was to be brought, he was the man to bring it. "Pour us both a good stiff one, Jeeves, and I shall tell you all."
Bracer duly poured, I stumbled haltingly through an account of the evening previous, told largely to my glass and the tabletop because every time I chanced to look at Jeeves, his frown deepened. That is to say, the corners of his mouth turned down a hair or two, but to me it shone like a beacon of soupiness. One of his hands even seemed to be threatening to clench into a fist. What I did not see was any inkling of sympathy, though that would have been indicated by a minute softening round the eyes that I feared meeting.
"But I can't be mad, can I?" I cried when Jeeves was fully abreast of all happenings (though I'd decided he had no need to hear the bit about being sick out the window). "This is him right here!" I tapped an impassioned finger on the photograph whose gaze I'd been equally avoiding.
"No, sir," Jeeves said softly. "I do not believe you are mad."
I looked up sharply at the warmth in his tone and there was that sympathetic loosening about the eye-corners, at last. I fairly melted with relief and gratitude, and only just had the restraint required not to fling myself upon his neck. If Jeeves thought I was sane, then sane I was. I confined myself to saying tremulously, "Well, thank heavens for that."
"May I examine the photograph, sir?"
"Have at it, Jeeves, though it's given up no secrets to me." I forked it over, glad to have the matter resting on more capable shoulders, or at least to have halved the burden.
Jeeves studied the thing front, back and sideways, squinting at minute details or perhaps in consternation. "Your father's Christian name was Charles, was it not, sir?"
"That it was," I said. "It's how my sister came to be called Charlotte. So that makes my ghost Bill. I may ask Aunt Dahlia if she remembers him."
"I could not advise it, sir," Jeeves said almost before I'd finished speaking.
"No, sir. Mrs Travers would likely question your sudden interest in the family albums."
"Think she'd see right though me if I claimed I simply wanted a glimpse of old Pop Wooster, then?"
"Quite probably, sir. If you will pardon my saying so, prevarication is not chief amongst your talents, sir."
I wondered if he was trying to tell me he'd seen right through me all along and simply found me unsuitable as anything more than an employer. But if he truly believed I was so hopeless, he might have couched his meaning a bit more shallowly for the benefit of Woosters of very little brain. "No, no, you're quite right, Jeeves. If anything, I ought to be thanking you for thinking I've got talents at all."
"Sir, I did not intend the implication--"
"Never mind, Jeeves. It's enough that I'm not mad. More to the point, what know you of ghosts? I don't suppose there's any way to send this chappie back to the great beyond?"
"While I have no personal experience, sir, common superstition and folklore hold that restless spirits continue to show themselves in the living world due to some unresolved task during their lives."
"Like catching their murderer, you mean? Like in The Haunting of Holborn."
"Possibly, sir, or something less sinister. An aunt of mine often related an account of a departed relative who continued to visit his widow on their anniversary out of remorse for having forgotten the occasion shortly before his passing."
"Dashed thoughtful of him, I suppose, but somehow I don't think that's why Bill's here."
"Likely not, sir."
"Do you think you'd be able to reason with him, Jeeves?"
"I have no expertise in communicating with spirits, sir."
"But you do have quite ten times the brains of the young master. If anyone can work out what he wants and get him gone, it'll be you."
"My presence may prevent his appearance, sir. It is believed that spirits may only show themselves to select persons."
"Well, anybody with a problem comes to me because they really want you, Jeeves. No harm in trying, is there?"
"One must hope not, sir."
It was a distracted Bertram that went about the rest of the day. I saw little of Jeeves, or little where I could have spoken to him, anyway, as Seppings was still under the weather. The one time I could have caught Jeeves alone, I found him deep in conference with the under-butler, a fellow named Forrester who was advanced enough in age that he might be forced to retire himself before he could succeed Seppings, who by all accounts from Jeeves was more or less having to be handcuffed to his bed to stop him butling.
Angela had glared Tuppy right out of the house and back to London; the dearest cousin herself was now in high dudgeon and to be avoided at all costs. I found my own thoughts too oppressive to stay locked indoors with them, so I donned coat and hat and set out for a turn round the gardens, though they were not at their most picturesque in late October. I thought to find myself a quiet bit of bench for a bit of contemplation where I wouldn't wonder if every shadow and creak was some harbinger of doom.
I hadn't been out five minutes when an anguished cry round the other side of a hedge funnelled ice into my veins. Did Bill really have the crust to haunt me even out of doors and in broad daylight?
I peered cautiously round the browning greenery and breathed a sigh of relief. Bill was not the culprit, nor as far as I could tell was any other spirit. I recognised the stuttering maid who'd helped me with the albums, very much alive if apparently a bit injured.
"What ho, there," I said.
She whipped her head up with a startled squeak. I could see evidence of a good deal of womanly waterworks. "Mr W-w-wooster, sir!"
"Turned your ankle, have you?" I asked as I crouched down. "I don't think I caught your name." I suppose it's worth noting that servants were not meant to be in the gardens if not on some errand, but it didn't seem worth bothering about given the circs.
"Y-y-yes, sir. My n-n-name's Lydia, sir."
"Well, Lydia, I think we'd better get you off the old cold ground and back to the house, what?"
My answer was a fresh round of sobs. "I c-c-can't, sir! I'll b-b-be sacked!"
"I think you'll be sacked in any case if you don't go back. Off the ground, at least?" At the sniffling nod, I helped her hobble round to the bench I'd been about to have a think upon and supplied the poor creature with my handkerchief and coat. "Now, then, Lydia. What do you think they'll sack you for? Being out here? I can always say you were bringing me a message. My man Jeeves will back me up."
"Th-th-that's ever so k-kind, sir," Lydia said, turning doleful watery eyes on me, "but that ain't it. S-s-somebody said s-something not so n-nice to me and I run off out here."
"Well, it isn't your fault, then, is it? It must've been deuced unpleasant to make you run off."
"It w-w-was that, sir, b-but in the end it's true."
"That the g-g-gent-- ch-chap I'm in l-love with's f-f-found better girls'n me not good enough to m-m-marry, and he wouldn't never look t-t-twice at the likes o' me." She buried her face in the handkerchief.
"Oh, now," I said with an awkward pat to her shoulder. "I don't precisely know you, Lydia, but you seem a good sort of girl. That's no kind of thing to say to anybody."
A muffled sob, and a muffled, "B-but she's right, sir."
She peeked over the handkerchief. "I d-d-don't like to say, sir."
"Suit yourself, I suppose. You know what you ought to do, Lydia? Put the matter of this chap to Jeeves. He's fixed up all manner of star-crossed lovers."
"I d-d-did, sir," Lydia said with a heavy sigh. "He were ever so k-k-kind about it, but he m-made no bones about tellin' me I'd b-b-best forget it. Y-y-y-- th-the man don't want to marry n-n-nobody."
"That's a sticky wicket. Jeeves knows a thing or two about fellows who don't want to get married, given that he works for one."
Lydia sobbed her hardest yet. Dashed awkward thing, sobbing lovelorn maids. And if Jeeves didn't see any way through, what on earth could I do?
"I m-m-may as well l-l-let 'em sack me, sir," she wailed. "Th-then I'll never have to see y-y-y-- him again."
After a bit more of this back and forth, and sadly nothing solved, I at last convinced Lydia that she couldn't simply live in the hedge and that the house was the best place for her if she'd like the use of her rapidly swelling ankle anytime soon. She was now beyond hobbling, so the only thing for it was to carry her.
"Lydia, you little fool!" exclaimed a practically purple-faced Edwards, Aunt Dahlia's right-hand woman, when I arrived in the servants' hall with my sobbing armful. "I beg your pardon, Mr Wooster," Edwards said as I deposited Lydia into a chair. "The girl hasn't got the sense she was born with and will be on the next train out." Lydia sobbed at this, naturally.
"I don't presume to tell you how to run your staff, Edwards," I said coolly, "but my pardon's not the one you ought to be begging. I don't leave girls with twisted ankles to freeze in hedges, whatever they might have done wrong, and the account I've had of the thing sounds as though there's somebody who ought to be offering their mea culpas to Lydia here, though she won't say who. If you truly must send her packing, it would be only decent to wait until she can bally well walk." I admit I got a trifle impassioned once I'd warmed to the theme, but there's nothing like somebody pouring out their troubles to you for sparking sympathy.
Off to the side of the room, it must be noted, Jeeves had been regarding me with...well, I don't precisely know what to call it. Soupy, certainly, possibly a bit of surprise, but there was something else there I couldn't put my finger on, even knowing my Jeeveses as well as I do.
Edwards answered me glacially with as near to a dismissal as I think she dared, but to her credit had a couple of girls carry Lydia off to be seen to.
"I'd be obliged for a few moments of your counsel, Jeeves, if you're not otherwise occupied," I said to the still-unmoved figure, who nodded in agreement.
We reconvened in my room, Jeeves arriving some minutes after me with my forgotten coat and a tray of tea.
"I know it's none of my business, Jeeves," I said, with more interest in warming my hands on the cup than in drinking its contents, "but Edwards won't really sack that poor girl, will she?"
"I could not say, sir," he said stiffishly.
"I mean to say, somebody had just told her she wasn't good enough for whatever chappie she's carrying a torch for. And apparently," I said pointedly, "on top of hearing from you that she'd best forget the whole thing."
He stood straight as a board, still halfway across the room, not having come one jot closer for the conference. "I had it on good authority, sir, that the object of Lydia's affection did not desire a romantic entanglement with any woman. Although--" and I hadn't thought it possible for him to ice up even further, but he did-- "given this afternoon's events, it is possible that I misjudged his regard."
"Eh? How's that, Jeeves? Worried about her, was he?"
"And came gallantly to her aid, sir," Jeeves said heavily.
I nearly dropped my teacup. "Oh, Jeeves, you don't mean--not me, surely!"
"I am afraid so, sir."
"The poor girl."
"I myself had just got done telling her I didn't want to marry anybody. By way of an example, you know. I'd no idea her chappie and self were one and the same." Then the other half of what Jeeves had said finally hit its mark. "Jeeves! You don't mean to tell me you thought this tender pash of hers was returned?"
"Your defence of her was vigorous, sir, and she is...not unattractive."
"I don't go round importuning housemaids, Jeeves!" I shot up from my chair and marched over to him. "Good God, man, you know me better than that, I should hope!"
"That was not my implication, sir." He did thaw a fraction, but only a fraction. "I would never suspect you of abusing your position."
"Then why on earth do you keep glaring at me, Jeeves? It's dashed unsettling. Gone sour on my tie, have you?"
"No, sir. I am sorry, sir."
I sighed. "I suppose it's your business if you want to be stiff and soupy, only don't do it to me when I've done nothing to earn it."
I glared up at him, searching for some clue as to what on earth was going through his massive brain, and he down at me looking for who knew what, but my heart fluttered at seeing him unhappy and I couldn't keep it up. "Jeeves, if you'll just tell me what the blazes I've done this time--"
He thawed just a fraction more. "Nothing, sir."
"I hope you're not coming down with whatever Seppings has got."
"Fortunately not, sir. I find myself somewhat apprehensive in relation to this evening's planned vigil."
"As if a mere ghost is any match for you, old thing," I said with only slightly less affection than I felt. I had never heard Jeeves admit to being afraid of anything, even slightly, and it warmed me considerably that he felt he could make free to do so.
"It is not that I fear the ghost itself, sir, but the suspicion it may confirm."
"Suspicion, Jeeves? What suspicion?"
"I would prefer not to say, sir. If I am incorrect, the damage would be irrevocable."
"Right ho," I said bemusedly. What could he suspect that would be so terrible? A murderer in our very midst? I shivered. "Only tell me, Jeeves--it's not murder, is it?"
"No, sir, I do not believe so."
"Well, thank goodness for small favours," I declared with relief.
"If you require nothing else, sir?"
"Oh, no, Jeeves. I'll let you get back to it."
"Very good, sir."
"Oh, Jeeves?" I called when he was mid-shimmer in the doorway.
He turned back. "Yes, sir?"
"You were right, by the by. I don't want to marry any girl and I rather doubt I ever will."
I was afraid, for a moment, that I'd been entirely too obvious--Jeeves regarded me rummily for a moment. But then, with (if you'll pardon the expression) the ghost of a smile, he said, "Thank you, sir," of all things and shimmered the rest of the way out.
I'm not sure I tasted a single bite of Anatole's succulent dinner, and for all I knew I might have agreed to rob the Bank of England to fund Milady's Boudoir. That is to say, my mind was very firmly planted in the coming events of the evening rather than the ones moving along around me.
I don't know what madness possessed me to picture self and Jeeves cosied up in our dressing gowns together like a couple of schoolboys on a midnight rag, but it resulted in disappointment when he arrived at the appointed hour still thoroughly suited and tied, and appeared to be intending to remain standing for the duration.
"You might as well make yourself comfortable, Jeeves," I urged. "We could be in for a long night."
"Quite possibly, sir," he murmured, and after a moment poured us a couple of brandies and planted himself on the little padded bench at the foot of the bed.
I scrambled down the mattress to plant myself equally. "I'd just as soon stick close to you, if you don't mind, Jeeves. Last night I thought he was making a grab for me."
"I highly doubt such an endeavour would succeed, sir," Jeeves said, but didn't move the arm that my abrupt arrival had sort of trapped between my back and the footboard.
And so we sat. Jeeves's arm being where it was, I'm sure he felt my heart threatening to thump its way right out, and I'm sure even in the dim light that he could see the flush creeping over my map when he turned to look at me.
"Sort of exciting, isn't it?" I managed with a dry gulp. "Like Holmes and Watson waiting for a ghostly canine to pounce out of the fog and slobber all over their nice clean waistcoats. Though I hope Bill will stop short of slobbering," I babbled.
"There is undoubtedly an element of adventure, sir," Jeeves said, I think not without some amusement. He reached across me to remove the glass that I now saw was in danger of trembling out of my hand. His fingers closed over mine briefly, at the same moment that our eyes chanced to meet, and by God, if it was mere friendship I'd been longing for, even the very deepest philosophical kind, then I was the King of Sweden. I wanted to kiss him, badly so, and far more than that. If I'd been standing I don't think I could have remained upright.
This all walloped me in the gut in the space of about a second, time enough for Jeeves to pry the glass away and set it down. "You are cold, sir," he said, and wrapped the afghan from the foot of the bed round my shoulders.
I stared miserably at my knees. This mythical truest of friendships might not have been entirely out of the q, but even at our most inseparable, Ginger Winship hadn't much wanted to kiss me, and I hadn't much wanted to kiss Bingo Little in my turn. I knew very well how steep the odds were against managing to fall in with anybody at all who wanted the exact same thing all round.
But whatever too-revealing statement I'd been about to bumble through was driven directly from my mind, as were the bounds of feudal propriety, for that infernal chill chose that moment to sink into my bones and the windowpanes began to rattle so violently that I thought they would break. I yelped and clung to Jeeves's side in admittedly not my most stunning display of manly courage. He tensed up like a dropped anchor rope, though whether from the sudden haunting or my creditable imitation of a limpet, I couldn't be certain.
"Show yourself!" Jeeves called out forcefully.
The windows stilled and the chill lifted. I relaxed a fraction but didn't let go of Jeeves. "Think that scared him o--"
My last word was choked off by the smell of rotten eggs filling the room as though several dozens of dozens had just been dropped in from on high. I clapped the afghan over my nose and mouth, and even Jeeves coughed slightly. But it was gone almost as soon as it had arrived, and was replaced by a mist that raced through the room, clean through us with a frigid stinging stab, echoes stirring in every corner and saying words I couldn't make out.
"Jeeves," I whispered through chattering teeth, "what's it saying?"
"I've no idea, sir," he said, breath fogging out as he spoke, and to my grateful surprise, his hand found mine beneath the blanket and not only squeezed reassuringly but held on. I chanced a glance at him, but his eyes were darting round the room as though chasing the sounds.
"Sorry," Jeeves murmured.
"You've nothing to be--"
"No, sir. The...spirit. It is saying 'sorry.'"
I listened hard, and indeed it did sound like it. 'Sorry' and something else. All? Fall? Nothing made sense.
Jeeves's hand tightened into an iron grip on mine. "Paul," he whispered, and then, loudly, "Paul. Do you want Paul?"
"Who the dickens is Paul?" I wheezed.
"Paul," the room said clearly. "Sorry. Paul."
Then the echoes ceased to stir, but were replaced the next second with a banging under the floor, and I didn't half feel like the chappie in the Poe yarn, except that I hadn't murdered anybody, of course. It rattled and shook until a floorboard came loose. Jeeves leapt from his place to kneel down and pry it open, and had shoved his hand in and come up with a bit of paper before I could so much as right myself after the abrupt loss of the supporting shoulder.
The room wailed as Jeeves looked over the paper, black smoke billowing from the direction of the bathroom. I ran on wobbling pins to see what was burning. There was no fire, but the mirror was blackened and the tub full of red water. "Jeeves!" I called.
Jeeves appeared behind me just as the lights flickered and all the bulbs shattered. He grabbed me round the waist and pulled me back from the shower of hot glass. "We will bring Paul to you," Jeeves called out over such a din that I couldn't think how it hadn't woken the whole house. "Return at midnight--not again before, and never again after--and you may have your final word with him."
And silence. Blessed silence of the most golden sort, the only sounds two pounding hearts and two offbeat rhythms of ragged breathing. Jeeves kept his arms round my middle and I sagged back against him, too shaken to want anything of it but something that was not cold and wailing.
"I believe it has departed, sir," Jeeves said at length, breath warm on my ear but lips still cold.
"For the nonce," I said, and forced myself to push forward and stand on my own. "But what happens," I said, turning in horror, "when we can't produce Paul?"
"We can produce Paul, sir."
"Paul is a resident of this household, sir."
"I will make you up a room down the hall, sir. I doubt you will wish to remain in this one in any case."
"That's no answer, Jeeves. Who is Paul?"
"It is not mine to tell, sir."
"The hell it isn't!" I vociferated. "After what I've been through the past two nights, I think I've got the right to know the cause!"
Jeeves levelled a probing gaze at me, and after a moment passed me the paper he'd excavated from the floor. "If on reading this, sir, you believe you would not find it offensive to know the full truth of the matter, I will request that the other party confide it to you," he said, stuffed-frog visage firmly in place.
I took it and duly read:
My Dearest Paul,
It was fear--no, pure cowardice!--that drove me to tell you such unconscionable lies. If I could unsay it all, undo it all, I would. I do love you, more than any man ever loved his friend or any man ever loved a woman, and I love no other. I leapt, as you have always chastised, without looking, without stopping to consider how far different my life is from that of my unfortunate friend. If you can ever forgive me, if you even believe that one day you might find such a thing in your good heart, let us go as we've so long dreamed and leave all of this behind. I will have no need of the society of those who will censure me, not with you at my side, if you will consent to be there.
Meet me at the station for the last train out. Stay as angry as you like, forever if you like, but if you have ever loved me at all, I beg you, come and let me try to mend the pain I've caused you, the wrong I have done you. If the train depart without us on it, I shall know all is lost, and I shall be lost too, for good and all. One final chance, that is all I ask, though perhaps I have no longer the right.
I am, have always been, and will ever be--
It took a good few beats for the slowish workings of the Wooster bean to put all the facts where they belonged. W, William, and Bill were all the same chap, or rather, had been. Paul, P. of the photograph, had never found the letter. And if I was not very much mistaken, that bathtub full of blood had been where Bill breathed his last, done in by his own hand. My heart broke for both of them. "Paul must be one of the staff," I said numbly, "or else I'd know his Christian name."
"Yes, sir," Jeeves said.
"And Bill was a friend of my father's presumably a gentleman of some persuasion."
"And they were in love."
I sighed a forlorn one. "I'm sorry for shouting that way, Jeeves. Of course you wouldn't want to go putting that about to just anyone."
"But I'd like to know the whole thing, if Paul doesn't mind me knowing. You can give him my word that I won't breathe the smallest syllable of it."
"And your opinion of Paul, sir?" Jeeves pressed like I was a witness in the dock. "I do not believe he could bear disgust and contempt compounded upon this ordeal."
How could I have been disgusted? I didn't know if Jeeves was blind to my regard for him by oversight or by choice, for surely it ought to have been plain by now. "You said yourself I'm hopeless at lying, Jeeves," I said with a wan smile, "and you read me like a book besides. Well, most of the time. You'd know if I were disgusted, I think. I'm not entirely blind to the ways of the world."
"Paul's wouldn't be the only secret of that sort I know, anyway."
"Sir, I do not believe Mr Bassington-Bassington's proclivities are as secret as they are politely not mentioned," Jeeves said with a hint of a smirk.
I couldn't help but laugh. "I didn't mean him, but no matter. Fetch Paul and I'll cool my heels across the way, to be told or not as he likes." I passed him the letter and let our fingertips catch briefly. I even dared to glance up to see how he received it, but I don't know if his cheeks coloured an inkling or if I'd imagined it, for he'd oiled out before I got a good look.
Good as my word, I cooled my heels in a sheeted-over bedroom across the corridor, or more accurately rather warmed them with all the pacing and looking at the clock I did. At a quarter past eleven, Jeeves poked his head in and summoned me back to my room.
"Seppings!" I exclaimed before I could stay my tongue. The old stalwart turned his head, and though impeccably dressed as always, he looked decidedly the worse for wear. "Pay me no mind, Seppings," I said sheepishly. "I'm a silly ass. I would've been surprised no matter who I'd found standing here. But sit, sit! You're still about half ill, aren't you? I don't even know how Jeeves smuggled you out."
"One can move fairly freely when one holds all the keys, Mr Wooster, sir," said Seppings. He took a seat at the desk. "Mr Jeeves tells me my old ghosts have been haunting you, sir, quite literally."
"Just the one ghost, Seppings," I said, "but yes."
"I'd scarcely have believed it if not for the nightmares these past few nights. Full of our last argument and the morning I found him. I am truly sorry you've been visited such terrors, sir, but not as sorry as I am that my last words to him were in anger."
Jeeves handed round the brandies and the cigarette box and sat next to me on the bench, rather closer than the size of the thing required, and I found it more than comforting.
"Bill, you mean?" I asked.
"He was Bill to everyone, sir, but always William to me. Sweet William, I called him. I suppose I sound like a sentimental old fool at best, and at worst here's the irony as we await Sweet William's ghost." Seppings barked a bitter laugh and took a long pull from his glass.
"This was his room when he stayed here, Mr Wooster, as you might have inferred. Even when he was absent, all the family called it Bill's Room, and even us below stairs out of their hearing. Years after he was gone, they'd still have to catch themselves to call it the Ivy Room.
"He was a great friend of your father's, Mr Wooster, as you know, and a cousin of your mother's on the Bellamy side. It was he that brought them together. He and your father came down the first half-term from Oxford. I was an under-butler at the time and tasked with dressing him. I was fascinated with him from the very first. One night on that first visit, I chanced upon him alone, playing the piano in the room where you first saw him, sir.
"He caught me staring and I thought he'd send me away, but he looked up and smiled and said, 'Play at all, Seppings?' I said no sir, I'd never learnt, and he sat me down and taught me a few notes. When I was clearing at table the next night, there was a note under his saucer. 'Same time tonight,' it read, and it's for that moment alone, Mr Wooster, that I cannot claim to have never dropped a tray."
What would I have to do, I wondered, to make Jeeves drop so much as a cuff-link? Seppings pressed palms of his hands over his eyes, and I charitably averted mine until he'd collected himself. Jeeves was watching me, not Seppings, I saw. I squirmed.
"So we met, sir," Seppings continued, "night after night, that holiday and the next, until I could play 'Oh, Promise Me' with my eyes closed. When he went back up after Christmas, he sent me a letter, which he'd gone so far as to post from London under a false name, though all it said that I was to know the right-hand part of a song he'd scored out by hand. I still don't know its name but I believe I could play every note." He took a deep breath and stubbed out his burnt-down cigarette. "The last night of those Easter holidays, what had been only in unspoken glances became...rather more. You'll forgive me, sir, if I do not describe that in detail.
"We fell in love, as deeply and as truly as anything you might find in a storybook, sir. That loose floorboard was what we used as a letter box, as we couldn't risk passing anything in the open. We arranged meetings that way, in secret spots throughout the house and grounds--I know every one, Mr Wooster, as you will remember from your boyhood."
I smiled ruefully. Yes, Seppings had always been the one to sniff me out when I didn't want to be found, though he never gave me up if he didn't have to.
"We stole what time we could and talked over dreams of how we might manage a real life together. Thus it continued, sir, for several years. Even when the Wilde scandal first hit the papers, we kept on--William knew Lord Alfred, you understand, sir, who swore it would all come to nothing. Everything changed when the conviction came down. William panicked. I had to learn of his engagement in the papers, and when he arrived with his bride-to-be in tow a week later, he said hateful things to me. I realise now that he hoped to scare me away for my own protection, but he only broke my heart.
"I will never," Seppings said, his voice breaking, "never forgive myself for not looking for a note when I saw him leaving that night. And by morning he was dead. I found him, and the whole thing was hushed up as an accident." Seppings was now making no effort to stop the tears that dripped down his otherwise perfectly stoic map. "I would happily have drowned myself in drink, and I went quite mad for a long while. The family believed it was because of the shock of what I'd seen and saw to my care, and were good enough to take me back once I had recovered enough to work. Until tonight I was never certain whether William meant those things he said to me."
"Oh, Seppings," I said, for what on earth could I say? What on earth could anyone say?
"I believe he blames himself as well," Jeeves said hoarsely, not unaffected.
The clock ticked over to midnight and the fire went out.
"Come, sir," Jeeves said. He gently ushered me out the door as Seppings got to his feet and looked round for his visitor. I saw Bill appear, no fanfare or chill or noise, and touch a ghostly hand to Seppings's cheek, but after that we were fully out of the room and I couldn't say what occurred other than a murmur of voices within.
"Jeeves," I whispered as we stood and waited, the arm he'd used to nudge me out of he room happily still resting warmly at the small of my back.
"All of my murderous haunting novels are to be immediately given to a worthy cause and replaced with improving reading."
I thought I caught the faint rumble of a chuckle. "Very good, sir." His hand crept over to my hip and I rested my head against his shoulder, and there we stayed until a vastly moved Seppings emerged with a bit of colour back in his cheeks. After a moment's scrutinous glance, he embraced the both of us and was gone.
Jeeves stepped away from me and cleared his throat. "I presume you would prefer to spend the remainder of your stay in a different room, sir," he said, and suddenly I felt he was as distant as that hillside sheep.
"No, I don't think so, Jeeves," I said with a shake of the bean. "After all, Bill's been put to rest. And, well, I've always stayed in this room. I don't think it's without meaning that Seppings would put me in it."
"Quite probably, sir," Jeeves said, I think with a tinge of admiration.
"Only I wonder why I've never been haunted before now."
"I do not believe you have ever spent All Hallows' Eve in this room, sir. It is the night when our world and the next are believed to be closest."
"I think we can leave out the 'believed to be' in light of events, Jeeves." I tiptoed into the bathroom around the broken glass, but nearly fell into it all when I saw the mirror. All the blackening was gone save a few crucial spots, to spell out HOPE YET JUST TRY. "Jeeves?" I called shakily.
He stopped short in the doorway. "Most unusual, sir."
"Too bally right," I muttered. "Somehow I don't think that was meant for Seppings."
"Possibly not, sir."
I forgot the call of nature for the moment and hopped back over the broken glass. Jeeves didn't step back from the threshold, which meant I was practically standing on his feet. I dared to take his hands. "Shall we, then?" I asked.
"Try, sir?" Jeeves said with more than just a hint of a smile.
"How long have you known, you bounder?" I said, nose to nose but not yet closing that last delicious inch.
"That I loved you, sir, or that you reciprocated it?" He let go of one of my hands and trailed his fingers slowly up my spine to rest at the back of my neck.
I trembled and flushed and was certain I would expire on the spot if this business of trying did not begin post-haste. "Either. Both. Tell me later," I breathed, and more or less fell forward that last little bit. There are kisses and then there are kisses, and this was one of the latter sort. Our lips were clearly meant to be upon each other, and I could have done nothing else for the rest of my days. It was water after a lifetime of thirst, and we drank until it was all we could do to remain standing under the force of it. I think the faint strains of an old tune on a dusty piano I heard were only in my imagination, but I can't be sure.