“What’s with you, Daddy-o?” The tall red-haired youth twisted in his seat, one foot already out before the convertible had fully pulled to the side of the cobbled street. “You had your heels on fire to get here and now it’s dragsville? Change your mind about my going here rather than Harvard?”
“No.” Bertram Wooster looked up at the no-longer-familiar fronts of the remembered buildings. “I just… have memories.”
“If your brainspace is that grim this boy is turning around and making with the hot foot exit.”
“No. Oxford was… They are good memories.” He reached out, briefly gripping the young hand still curled around the car’s steering wheel. “I’m sure you’ll be happy here.” Or he hoped so. This was the last chance to share some part of his lost life with the son he loved but seldom understood.
“I’m going to have a blast!” The younger man hopped out. “Watch out dolls! With Tom and I sharing this pad it will be like we have our very own frat.” Catching the look of paternal interpretation, he quickly added “And we’ll study, of course.”
“And I’ll write. I mean, other than just asking for moola.”
“Right-ho.” Not that the lad didn’t already have plenty of that, Bertie thought. Reginald Wooster had inherited his mother’s fortune on her death three years before. Much was still in trust, left in a banker’s care, but the allowance was plenty to keep the lad in rent and tuition and - yes - cars and birds.
“And hey!” Reggie made one of his provoking rock-and-roll moves. “This burg is like Woosterville! I bet the boss guys here remember you.”
That was a thought. “I should hope they don’t.”
“I’m quite certain some do.” A soft voice came from the doorway.
And it was. Looking older, but somehow unchanged. His black suit was more modern, and by the whims of fashion less formal, but the man showed the same steel in spine and voice.
“Mr. Wooster.” Jeeves nodded formally. “Mr. Wooster.”
“You know this cat?”
“Yes. That is…” How should he describe his … Jeeves… to his son?
“We were… acquainted.” Jeeves slid smoothly forward, handing the ring of house keys to the younger man. “It was before the war.”
“Rockin’.” Reggie’s smile broke, white and welcoming. “Did you know my old lady too?”
“I had the honor. Briefly.”
Brief? Was that the way to describe the three weeks between the wedding announcement and Jeeve’s final departure? Bertram would have said interminable, but perhaps brief also had a place. The days had been tense agony, but so fleeting compared to the longer barrenness that followed.
“It was before your birth.” Jeeves answered some question Bertram Wooster had missed.
“Harsh!” the young voice replied. “I was hoping to hook up with some of her friends, being fresh to this English gig. Sort of duck out of water here. Out of water across the pond. That’s beat, hey?”
“Yet it has not dampened your spirits. Nor, I note, your talent for verbal improvisation. A talent doubtless inherited from the senior Mr. Wooster.”
“See big-daddy, he does remember you.”
“Hey.” Reggie shot back, already busy snatching his luggage from the rear. “Why don’t you two geezers do the old home week while I head upstairs. I want to call dibs on my choice of room before Tom gets here.”
“If you are quite certain I can be of no further service?”
“Pour some brew in pops here? Now that’d be a service.” The young man laughed. “For me? Time to make tracks and don’t look back.”
“There is a small tea-shop a few blocks from here.” Jeeves pointed down the walk.
“Yes. I’ll go. If that’s what you want.” Bertram addressed… who knew. Maybe Jeeves. Maybe the boy.
They were half a street away before he spoke again. “Jeeves. You… look good. I often worried that…”
The man didn’t look at his former master. Or indeed at anything, were one to judge by his absence of expression. “I landed on my feet, as the phrase goes. Baron Chuffnell was surprisingly helpful under the circumstances.”
“Chuffy always did have a yen for you.”
“More for my actuarial abilities. I manage his properties here in Oxford.”
“And manage them jolly well, I’m sure.” Bertie forced himself to sound happy. Because he was. Truly he was. He would hate for Jeeves to have wanted for anything. Anything but…
“And you, sir?” The question came after a pause. “You rather fell off the earth.”
“Just slid to the south of it. Boston. Moved in with the wife’s father. Took a job in copy-writing, can you credit it? Banged out jingles for soap and foot powder.” And whisky, until the lure of the product itself made that a task better avoided.
Jeeves took the answer gravely. “Not your usual associations.”
“Couldn’t keep my usual associations. Sooner or later I would have slid back to… the usual. It wouldn’t have been fair to Eloise. Not preaux, you know. I married her for better or for worse.” He hoped what Eloise had gotten was the better. Bertie had certainly been served a full slice of the worse. “Also, there was our son to consider.” Their one child. Born five months after the wedding, and her unspoken reason for the American heiress accepting his second-hand proposal. As alien as the landscape of Timbuktu, but Bertie’s empty heart had wrapped around the infant and… a Wooster was ever a fool for love.
“A fine looking young man - if rather American.”
“Only to be expected, what?” Bertie quirked an eyebrow. “I’ve not set foot back in Old Blightly since…”
“Since your nuptials, sir.”
They had reached one of the low bridges that crossed the river. Bertram paused, posed against the railing as if to admire the view but more honestly to support legs that no longer wanted any part of the standing wheeze. “Not that I didn’t dream of the metrop. Some days I thought I should just go down and throw myself on the first hull headed across the Atlantic.”
“Not a course I could advise, sir. It would have been both dangerous and…”
“And there was nothing here left to come back too. Well, other than the choice of Bassett or Glossop.”
“Indeed, sir. Scylla and Charybdis.”
“More dragons versus vultures. Perhaps I should have faced them down but…” The consequence needed no repetition. Aunt Agatha might - for fear of her own name - have backed off from laying criminal charges against her nephew. When it came to Reginald Jeeves? Her rage would have brooked no hesitation.
“Sadly understood, sir. Not that there were not days when I would have willingly bartered two years to hear your voice.”
“Mine likewise.” Of his own, yes. But auntly revenge would have brought down Ginger and Offy and Rocky and… more names than he could bear reciting now, although the litany had run though his nightmares every night these last decades. Those withered fingers tossing out picture after picture, each one enough to doom a man. That shrill bitter voice listing off all his - Bertram’s - sins and all the friends he had condemned along with himself.
“Instead we both bartered twenty.” Twenty years of a life sentence commutable only by death. When the news had come Bertram had actually been shocked it had been her death rather than his own. True, the woman was older but… like the bad witch in the fairy tale he had somehow expected her to loom over the century.
“It has not been an unhappy life. Not wholly.”
Again, Bertram told himself he was glad. Any other impulse would be inexcusably selfish, churlish even. His conscience said that, but what his lips offered was “Do you have… anyone?”
“Friends. Books. I have always preferred a quiet life.”
“So. No waitress or such to win your heart?”
“My heart?” Jeeve’s strong fingers clutched white on the carved stone. “I fear that item was … exported.”
“Perhaps merely… caught up in customs? I’m sure there was no license for removal.”
“Sir?” Jeeves slid close. It was the merest bump of arm against arm, but that one touch carried more message than all the books of the Bodleian.
Bertram turned towards Jeeves, close enough for breath on breath. “If you were to look? Might you reclaim your what is yours?”
THE BEGINNING - AGAIN