My man Jeeves has my highest respect. My friends, I know, feel much the same, having depended upon his finely-tuned cerebrum at some time or another for strategic extraction from the bouillon. My aunts hold more nuanced views, for Jeeves is a free spirit who giveth not the battle to the strong, but they, too, recognise in my man the wit and wherewithal of a Solomon. That his name was sacred from the Drones’ Club to the Junior Ganymede I had no doubt.
Consequently, it afforded me no little satisfaction when, on one crisp November morning last week, Jeeves presented the customary poached egg and toasted soldiers with an unexpected side-order, consisting of a businesslike envelope that, upon inspection, contained a request from an Oxford Chair. Rummy, you might think, to receive correspondence from a man who styles himself as an item of furniture. Wonder no further. As I recall, for I myself went up to Oxford and barely escaped with a policeman’s helmet, these academics are of the first water in the matter of eccentricity.
Casting that to one side, the gist of the piece was essentially a summons. To wit., one Reginald Jeeves, gentleman scholar, was begged to attend an Enlightenment conference at Balliol, there to contribute to lively debate on the subject of the dualism of God and Nature.
I cannot say I did not blink. I blinked like billy-oh. “Jeeves,” I said, “Pack your Gladstone and a litre of fish-oil. We shall leave for Oxford on the morrow.”
“Indeed. I have many pleasant memories of the punting.... I see you glancing at the frozen skies. Punting in November is too cold to be entirely comfortable, but it is for this that the boatman’s tipple is so warmly recommended by the connoisseur. And besides - “
I don’t know whether you’ve ever felt the sensation of having taken a small bite of a hot, clingy substance – pommes de terre Dauphinoise, for example – and finding that, in fact, it is a larger bite than you had anticipated. You are left with the choice of swallowing it down, a process that always makes me feel like one of those reptiles that dislocates its jaw and swallows its prey in one lump and then sits around snoozing until the digestion has done its job, or spitting it out in an inglorious manner calculated to raise frowns from even the most placid of aunts.
In the end, I opted for, “I have friends in Oxford.” It wasn’t what I wanted to say, but I thought it better to swallow the blasted sentiment than spit it out.
In Oxford, we agreed that Jeeves would spend the days at the conference, returning at lunchtime. I felt it unnecessary; after all, I argued, I could put on the nosebag at the hotel with little expectation of salmonella, for the place was a haunt of gourmets. From the looks of our guide-book you couldn’t throw a bread roll without hitting a Michelin scout. But Jeeves insisted. I could see that it meant something to the chap, and on discussing the issue with Two-Sticks – Two-Sticks Boddington, a stout fellow of the Varsity who had soaked in his education so effectively that the blighters had given him a job and instructed him to think his socks off – it dawned that perhaps Jeeves simply wanted a little grounding.
For as Two-Sticks put it, “Wooster old boy, those philosophers are jolly heavy stuff. A morning’s worth of listening to them and your man is bound to want a little light relief.”
And it’s true, of course. In matters of no significance few come more highly rated than your humble correspondent. The explanation had everything to recommend it. Consequentially, I ceased to protest and allowed myself to enjoy the prandial return of my wandering valet.
It was a halcyon week. Each morning Jeeves donned civilian clothing and departed for the College. We lunched by the river. I said only as much as was required to encourage Jeeves to share with me the events of the morning. As Jeeves is loath to speak of himself, I nonetheless made most of the conversation during these sessions, although I heard quite enough to be able to assure you that these philosophers have an unwarranted reputation for gravitas. They get up to some pretty wild stuff. The drinking songs alone were an education.
At the close of the conference, Jeeves returned to the hotel room with a faint smile and a fainter odour of smoking-rooms and vintage brandy wafting around his person. “What ho!” I said, for I had run out of murder mysteries. A shot of Jeeves’ presence was a welcome antidote to the silence of the tomb, or the Castle Hotel, which in the absence of a sufficiently large number of mealtimes - and the presence of a large number of student essays which Two-Sticks was honour-bound to mark - had begun to feel very much like the same thing. Many of these severe and serious establishments suffer from a similar flaw, you know. Tastebuds may be satisfied, but what of the bonce?
I said as much to Jeeves. “Indeed, sir. In wine, it is said, one beholds the heart of another. A temple to Bacchus must show us the hearts of our fellow travellers...”
I perceived that the good man remained in philosophical mood. “I don’t think much of this lot’s,” I said. “The man in the blue serge, who always takes the table by the pillar, spends all his time scribbling into a notebook – if that man’s a Bacchanalian then I’m a Dutchman.”
Jeeves was smiling now. I was almost sure of it. “The gentleman is a food critic, sir,” he said. “And I perceived from his regular ingestion of patent pills that he suffers from indigestion. For myself, I am quite satisfied as to the character of my fellow-traveller." He paused. "If you will permit me, sir, I shall resume my working attire and then perhaps - “
I stopped him. “Jeeves, I can be silent no longer. My pride runneth over. It is your week of triumph, and I“ - here, I stuttered - “I should like you to celebrate it with me. Come down to the river, Jeeves, and we shall hire a punt and drift to the Water-Rat, where the ale is of the finest.”
I thought he would refuse. I was kicking myself for making the suggestion, for the pride of a Jeeves is no small matter and I feared that I had wounded him. But at length, he said, “Under the understanding that, tomorrow, I resume my usual duties - “
“Of course, of course...”
“- then I would be most gratified, sir. As Dutchmen say, ‘Drink zonder zorgen, de kater komt morgen’”
We ate, we drank and Reginald Jeeves taught me a drinking song about Socrates. I expressed my pride in his achievements – that a man under my roof should be in demand by dwellers in the dreaming spires of Oxford, I marvelled! - and he winced a little and smiled a little more.
Outside, we piled back into the punt. Miraculously, we did not capsize. The punt was still firmly tethered to the pier. But we landed in a heap of elbows and knees, a symptom of a night’s soaking at the Water-Rat that I remembered with much fondness from the days of my youth. We moved to untangle ourselves, but the punt rocked alarmingly, so I desisted and lay back in the bottom of the boat, head and feet on cushions, left arm trapped underneath Jeeves, and stared up at the achingly crisp November sky. I felt Jeeves cease the struggle to right himself. The boat’s motion calmed.
“Jeeves,” I said at length.
“You should be a scholar. No, I don’t mean that. You are a scholar, blast it. What I mean is that you should be an Oxford don. You should have students and blackboards and one of those mortar-board things and go around dressed like a crow in mourning. They should pay you to think, not to buttle and fold clothes,” and as I said it I realised that I really did mean it, that this brainiest of men was wasted on my domestic affairs. “Why don’t you take a job at the varsity?”
He spoke softly. Stealing a glance, I realised that he was looking at the sky, too. “They would not take me, sir.”
“Is it finances? Dash it all, Jeeves, if that’s all I -”
His voice was full of sadness. I flopped around, sending the punt on another bout of bucking. His hat had come off and was lying on the stern. His hair, grown a little shaggy – I thought that he had not bothered to apply the hair-oil that usually calmed it, unlike my own unruly fuzz – flopped down towards his face. In the light of the distant gas-lamps and the half-grown moon, I saw his face as if for the first time. His cheekbones; his smooth skin; his dark eyes and full eyelashes.
A wild surmise flooded through me. Statuesque, perhaps, but – at last I thought I understood Jeeves’ shyness, his propriety, his reluctance to share items of clothing, and more - his gentleness, his need to withdraw from the public presence, from my company...
Those eyes were open, the pupils blown out in the half-light. I could not help but kiss those lips. He stiffened, then responded, his arms reaching up to pull me down to him, holding me as though I might be the only solid object left in his universe. I half-lay, half-knelt by him, waiting for the punt to calm. “Jeeves -“ I said. “Oh, Jeeves.”
He was silent.
“Why didn’t you tell me, Jeeves?”
“Reggie - “
His mouth twitched.
I said, “My dear Jeeves. I loved you as a man, and I love you as a woman. That is what you’re telling me, isn’t it? Don’t let old Bertie labour under a misapprehension.”
He – she, I suppose – gave a little nod.
“But you could go to Oxford,” I said. “There are womens’ colleges...”
“But there are no female professors,” he said. “And women are nothing – nothing at all – to the men. I suppose you have not met Wittgenstein, Russell’s favourite student; I met him in London, where he spoke of the Tractatus he recently completed... he told me that he had no use for women, reactive only as they are to emotion and the dictates of their own sexual organs,“ that last spoken in an angry, if hushed, snarl, “– forgive my language, sir - “
I tutted, too overwhelmed to risk a pshaw and fearing that it might be misunderstood. “Jeeves,” I said. “My dear Jeeves.”
“My name is Reggie,” he said. "I am Regina, but Reggie is safer; sir, we may be overheard -”
“It is a pretty kettle of fish,” I agreed. It wouldn’t do for us to go public. The only way to save my beloved’s academic career would be for both of us to be jugged as inverts, which probably wouldn’t play too well in the philosophy scene either. I held him in silence for a while, too shaken to amend the masculine pronoun. At length a thought occurred.
“Reggie?” I said.
“Mmmm...” he said distantly.
“Stay with me. I understand now. Things will be as they were.”
“I shall read Spinoza,” he said.
“And I shall play the piano and try to persuade you to help me with the choruses.”
“But it’s a lie,” he said, suddenly sounding despairing. “Everything I have - “
I tightened my arms around him. “It’s not a lie. Dash it, you’re not here because of your sex. You’re here because you’re the brainiest bird they could find. And – oh, Jeeves. I’m not here for Two-Sticks. I’m here with you because I miss you when you’re gone...”
We untethered the punt together and lay back down beneath the blankets that the boathouse owner had thoughtfully provided. As it drifted down the wine-dark river we lay, feeling a peace that we had perhaps never felt before, and watched the eternal stars.