The matter of the fire bell was weighing heavily on the old Wooster cranium as I cycled back to Brinkley. The key Jeeves had sent me for was one he already had. Even as the rain came down in sheets and the going got rough on those old country roads, I had faith.
Jeeves is a paragon, after all, a wonder among mere mortal men. He had some grand plan, no doubt. Something cracking and Wooster-saving that would tie the whole situ up in a bright red bow.
So, I suppose describing the jolt I received pulling into Aunt Dahlia's homestead is almost super-something. Superfluous, that's the bean.
Whatever it was, it bally well hurt like the dickens.
I sat on the bicycle, soaking wet and covered in mud. There were bloody scrapes on my hands and on my knees from where I'd taken a nasty tumble by the old mill. The rain poured down around me and I shivered, and rather pathetically so, I'm not afraid to point out.
And Tuppy and Jeeves stood together in the upstairs balcony window. They were sipping from mugs of something hot. And most importantly, they were laughing at me.
Well, Tuppy was laughing and also waving in a rather mocking sort of way. Jeeves had a certain twist to his mouth that would indicate hysterics in a lesser man.
The scales fell from my eyes. Have you ever had a moment like that? An epiphonie? No, wait. That's not it. Epiphany?
Suddenly everything made such perfect, horrible sense. I stood there, in the rain, looking up at them. I don't know how long it was, but Tuppy stopped laughing and Jeeves left.
Then Jeeves was standing under an umbrella next to me.
"Sir, it might be advisable to come in out of the rain."
I could not look at him. Something cold and hard and unfamiliar settled into my chest. I dropped the bicycle and walked straight past him. Tuppy met me at the door, still chuckling a bit.
"I say, Bertie, that was absolutely-"
I pushed by him, not so much as glancing in his direction.
"Oh, come on, now! You brought it on yourself, you know!" He called after me.
He could have been shouting anything, it was all without meaning. I climbed the stairs. I believe Aunt Dahlia was on the landing.
"Attila! Made it back then, did you?"
I brushed by her without so much as a by-your-leave. And do you know something? All of this felt strangely satisfying. I knew the truth now. I understood everything.
I didn't even bother to swing the door to my room shut behind me. I began stripping off the wet robe and pyjamas. I nearly jumped out of my wet, clammy skin when Jeeves appeared behind me.
"I took the liberty of lighting the fire and drawing you a bath, sir." His voice had a differential quality to it I'd heard him use once or twice before. When he wanted to soothe my ruffled feathers and get his way all at the same time.
He needn't have bothered. My feathers weren't ruffled. They'd been plucked. Bertram was naked in more ways then one. I ignored him, the crackling fire and the steaming bath and dressed in traveling clothes.
"Are we traveling this evening, sir? It may be more prudent-"
"'We' aren't going anywhere. I'm going back to London. The sooner I'm out of this godforsaken place, the better." I didn't recognize my own voice. It didn't sound anything like itself.
"Perhaps a hot bath and a good night's rest might improve your view of the world, sir."
"I very much doubt that." I hadn't looked even vaguely in his direction through this entire exchange. I picked up my hat, coat, gloves and keys and left the room.
Jeeves followed me. I walked past Angela, not trusting myself to open my mouth. The first thing that came to mind was a curse so perfectly awful I couldn't believe it had come from my own feeble brain.
"Bertie! You're not going off in this weather?"
The butler, Seppings, opened the door to the garage for me and I gave him a polite nod. He'd never done a thing to me, after all. I climbed into the two-seater and Jeeves stood to the side.
"Sir, I beg you to reconsider. At the very least allow me time to pack. I will accompany you."
This was the last thing I wanted in the entire world at that moment. I started engine.
"You can take the train at your leisure."
And I pulled out.
* * * * * *
I don't remember anything about the drive itself. I do remember tipping the doorman for parking the car and taking the elevator up to the flat. It was the wee hours of the morning and still raining. Thunder and lightening crashed and it all seemed terribly fitting.
I hung up my own coat and took off my wet shoes. I locked the door behind me and put my hat on the side table. Then I sat down on the sofa. It was black as pitch because I hadn't bothered to put the lights on. Every few minutes the lightening would flash and the entire room would be briefly visible. Then the thunder rolled.
I was alone.
But then, I now knew that I was always alone. I didn't have any friends. I had a whole bunch of people in my life that I loved dearly. But they didn't even like me. I was idiot they used. Whether it was money they wanted from me, or just a participant in some hair-brained scheme or other, I was there to be used.
My family was the exact same way. The only people who had ever loved me had died when I was six.
And what hurt most: Jeeves was just like them all. All those pitiful little moments between us that I stored away in my heart of hearts meant nothing at all to him. He was clearly closer to Tuppy than he'd ever been to me
Here's the kicker. Here's the salt in the gaping wound. I thought (or had thought) of Jeeves as more than a friend. I never expected anything to actually happen, mind you. One word about perverted uranian thoughts and Jeeves would as likely have me arrested as not.
But the fact of the matter is, I was in love with the most mercenary of all the mercenaries in my life. And that's what broke me, finally. I curled around a sofa cushion for the comfort it offered and tried to cry out all my heartbreak so it wouldn't hurt anymore.
I could not bear to look at my valet. But neither could I bear the idea of him going away.
I cried myself out eventually, of course, as one usually does. But the absence of tears did not mean a lessening of pain. But the sharpness became a constant throb, an ache that made breathing an effort. I rose from the sofa, shedding clothing carelessly as I went.
My bed was perfectly made, of course, unless I was in it, it always was so.
I crawled blindly between crisp sheets and my last thoughts, I do not recall, suffice to say they were unpleasant.
The sun was bright the next morning. Jeeves hadn't been there the night before to draw the curtains. But he was there now, looking perfect and devote as ever, holding a tea tray. I rolled over and buried my head deeply in the pillows.
"Sir? Would you not care for some breakfast?"
"No, thank you."
"Your tea, sir?"
"I wish to be left alone for the foreseeable future."
He paused for a moment and left the room, shutting the door quietly behind him.
I settled into a strange state, drifting in and out of consciousness every few hours. I wanted to sleep forever. When I was asleep I knew nothing of my life and I could dream.
When Jeeves appeared at my bedside I thought the entire day had passed and he was bothering me over supper. But the morning light was shining again and he was bearing breakfast once more.
I did not want it. There have only been a few times in my life that food has had no draw for Wooster, B. This was now one of them.
"I don't want anything, Jeeves. Please let me be."
This time the pause was much longer.
"Sir, if you would tell me the exact nature of your upset, perhaps I could garner a remedy."
"Please, go away."
My voice cracked on the 'please'. It had something to do with his offering to fix me. As though one of his corking schemes could make everything better. As if by donning a ginger mustache would make my friends and relations love me and respect me. As if sprinkling anise seed on my trousers I could fix the great flaws that rend the Wooster person asunder.
I pulled the blankets over my head and heard him leave the room.
On the third morning he was getting insistent.
"Sir, I fear if you do not resume your normal calorie intake you will weaken and grow ill. Please."
But my stomach let me know it would have none of the eggs and b. with a swift twist of nausea.
"I'm not hungry, Jeeves. Why don't you go polish something? Or read an improving book? In fact, go out and buy a new one on me." I gestured vaguely to the billfold on the dresser.
"Perhaps a nice hot bath would be refreshing, sir? I could change the sheets while you bathe."
Now he was telling me I stank. I threw back the covers in a fit of pique, still only wearing underpants, and attempted to stand up. I had to sit right back down, black spots had invaded my vision.
I waved Jeeves off and entered the bathroom, shutting the door firmly behind me. I spent several minutes finding the right temperature, not accustomed to drawing my own bath. I was now convinced I'd never let Jeeves see me in the altogether again.
As I watched the water rise, seated on the bench, I contemplated a solution to my problem.
Problem: Life. Turns out it's rather rummy and unpleasant.
Solution: Move elsewhere and start a new one.
Problem: Where? And surely all the Wooster flaws will follow.
And that made sense, I thought as I shut off the water. No matter where I went, I'd still be an invert. I'd still be a silly ass, as stupid and mentally negligible as they come. I could read all the books in the world and it wouldn't make me Jeeves.
I got into the tub and it did feel nice. I began washing my hair.
Problem: No matter what I do or where I go, things are always going to be this way.
I sighed a bit tearfully and began soaping up.
Solution: Well, you know the obvious answer, now don't you, stupid?
I dropped the sponge and watched it slowly sink.
* * *
Jeeves was startled to find me dressing with a big smile.
"Sir, are you going out?"
"Yes, Jeeves, I just need to pick up a few things."
I was in the best mood I'd been in for awhile. I had the solution and it was so very simple. I even knew just how to go about it.
* * *
My first stop was my solicitor to get my affairs in order. We spend about an hour arranging things and I signed a stack of papers. When I was leaving, he shook my hand and told me he wished there were more young men of privilege taking an interest in their wills and such. I very nearly laughed in his face.
Then I went through the Drones to see everyone, some of those chaps aren't so bad. I shook Biffy and Barmy's hands, anyway.
Then I went to the chemist.
* * *
I set down my clinking parcel on the piano bench as Jeeves appeared to help me with my coat.
"I trust you had a pleasant morning out, sir?"
"Yes, I got everything done that I meant to."
"That is most gratifying to hear, sir."
I picked up my parcel. It was a sad moment then. I reflected that I would never get to kiss those perfectly bowed, curiously rosy lips. The ones belonging to my manservant, naturally, I didn't mean to imply I keep a disembodied pair floating about the parlour.
If course, the odds were pretty much guaranteed not to be in my favour either way. I thought of all the things I had never done. This was taking awhile as these were legion. I promptly decided to make a list and set the package down again to find my favourite pen in the bedroom.
When I returned, Jeeves was standing by the piano, open package in hand looking as white as a sheet.
I have never in my life seen him show that much emotion. The horror on his face, his chest rising up and down rapidly, and his hands gripping the bottles so tightly I thought them in grave danger of shattering.
"What- why did you buy these?" He stared at me, eyes wide. He'd even left off the 'sir'. That was how moved he was by his discovery.
I decided a man as logical as Jeeves would understand perfectly, so I was blunt.
"Well, I heard laudanum was a pretty easy way to go." I tried some self-effacing humour, "You know what I coward I am."
Jeeves shakily sat down on the piano bench, hugging the bottles tightly as if that alone would keep me from them.
"Why-why would you-? Forgive me, sir. Perhaps if- if you just explained I could help… you."
"Because I can't think of a single reason not to." I sat on the sofa and lit a thoughtful gasper. It looked like it might take awhile to talk him around.
"But- you have money, more money than you could ever spend… in a few years you'll have at least two titles to go with it. You have hundreds of friends. You have looks and charm and talent. You- you were the happiest person I've ever met until three days ago. Women hurl themselves at you. How-? I just don't understand."
"Money and titles are worth nothing at all. I don't have any friends. I have a large number of people who take endless advantage of me. I've never particularly liked anything about myself and I was only happy so long as I was ignorant. And honestly, Jeeves, I like women as friends but they do nothing for me otherwise."
I stubbed out the butt of my cigarette, "So you see, it will be so much better not existing than doing so. I'll never cause a scandal like Oscar Wilde, I'll never hurt another beazel's feelings. And I'll never have to steal another blasted cow creamer."
My elation of that morning had vanished in the wake of revisiting my secret sorrows. What did it matter if Jeeves knew now? I'd be dead before evening.
A small thud startled out of my daze. Jeeves was on his knees beside me. There were genuine tears in his eyes. If you had asked me to imagine such a sight before now I would have been on the telephone to Roderick Glossop in the interests of finding you a nice soft room without any corners.
"I did this. This is my fault. I'll fix it, I swear I'll fix it."
"You can't fix me, Jeeves. Why would you even waste the effort? I went to my solicitor's this morning to play with my will a bit. You don't get absolutely everything but you get most of it. All you have to is go in the kitchen for awhile and pretend like you had no idea and you'll never need to work again."
He began shaking his head, the tears fell and I just didn't understand why he was upset.
"NO! No, no, I will not let you do this! I don't want your money, I want you to be alive and to be happy again. I'll do anything you want. I'll never say another word about feathered hats or purple socks. You can grow the mustache again. I'll follow you about like a dog so I can prevent any woman from ever seizing your hand in marriage. I will steal the cow creamer and I'll never, ever let you cause a scandal, I don't care what I have to do!"
The mustache bit was a bit of a shock, let me tell you, not to mention the purple socks. I glanced over at the partially wrapped brown bottles.
"What does it matter to you?" I asked suddenly, "You come out far ahead and you don't even need to do anything." My voiced cracked on that last part. And here I'd thought I was completely cried out.
"Because I love you." He said softly.
* * * * *
I left. I didn't say a word. I just got up and walked out the door as quickly as I could without breaking into a rather sharpish dash. I even forgot my hat.
I suppose it was my cowardice reasserting itself, or perhaps it was my newly disillusioned mind refusing to allow me to believe such an obvious falsehood.
Jeeves could no more love me than an elephant could love an earthworm.
I sat down on the park bench with no recollection whatsoever of the process of getting there. It was a bright, jolly sort of day. Snail's on the thorn, lark's on the wing and all that sort of thing. Old nans and little kiddies feeding the ducks, happy couples, dizzy with love, I could hear a Spode-like creature making a fascist speech in the distance.
I'd never felt so alone. And just then I wasn't.
Jeeves sat down next to me without even asking permission. He was carrying my jacket and hat.
"I'm sorry, but I am not going to leave you alone for any reason, sir." He sounded a bit congested and I would wager the stuffiest of stuffed frog expressions was on his face just then. I couldn't confirm it because I simply couldn't look at him.
I stared straight ahead, a couple pushing a pram walked past and then stopped. A voice called out with great emotion.
That title, the one that never failed to straighten my spine and remind me of all my responsibilities to my men, my duty to king and country. I hadn't heard that title in more than five years. I looked up.
I didn't recognize him right away, there were so many, you see? Thousands of faces like his had looked at me imploringly, begged me, got angry with me because I was not God, I couldn't be expected to remember all of them.
Besides, most of them were dead.
"Captain Wooster!" He rushed to my side and dropped to his knees in the grass, "Sir, I always wanted to find you. I heard you made it. But you never come to the Veterans' Club and you don't talk to any of us old boys."
There were no excuses. The moment the war was over I abandoned them. I abandoned everything. I spent the last half-decade or so trying to forget the unforgettable. Planting a smile on my face and going along as if none of it had ever happened.
"No, I don't," his name came to me then, out of the blue, "Thomas, wasn't it? Tommy the Tommy."
A grin split his face and the scar that cut one cheek in half puckered. I have no scars. Not one. It isn't fair, not to anyone. I deserve them more.
"Yeah, that's what they called me," his face grew very serious, "I will never forget what you did for me. I mean, you did so much for all us boys, but for me in particular. I'm no gentlemen and you really didn't have to save me. Charlie told me after that Major Appleton told you to leave me out there. Said I was a gonner."
His words brought me right back. There was the gunfire, the smoke, explosions in the distance and the stink. It always stank. For almost five years I could never get the smell of gunpower, blood, rotting flesh and emptied bowels out of my nasal passages.
I could see the Major's face, white with fear and wide-eyed with panic. To say he was unsuited to soldiering was like saying Jeeves knows a few things and can iron the odd shirt. He died the next day. Mustard gas is an awful way to go.
Tommy kept speaking as my mind re-ran the long crawl.
"I was in the barbed wire, a hundred feet into No Man's Land."
I had a sixth sense for mines. It was uncanny. I could never explain how I always knew exactly where they were. One of those things, I guess. Like how Oofy Prosser can fit his whole fist in his mouth. I can't even come close to doing that. I've hurt myself trying, actually.
"I was just on this dip of a hill so the Jerries couldn't get a proper shot, but I couldn't move, I'd got all twisted up. I've never been so scared in my whole life. I was lying there crying and saying the Lord's Prayer in Latin like I learned at school…"
I passed body after body, sometimes just bits and pieces. More than one set of blank eyes stared at me, once belonging to someone I'd shared my rations with a day or two before.
"Then you just sort of appeared out of the smoke, I couldn't believe my eyes. You got me loose, your hands didn't even shake. Not even when you had to dig the barbs out of me. You just sort of did it real quick and calm like. And you were sort of crooning to me to keep me quiet…"
I'd actually been reciting one of Horace's Odes, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, sed dulcius pro patria vivere, et dulcissimum pro patria bibere. Ergo, bibamus pro salute patriae.
I'd come to despise that piece by then but some of the men found it soothing.
"That was it."
I realized I'd said it aloud. I was suddenly in the park again, on a beautiful spring day. There was no muck made of blood and dirt. The only smells were flowers and fresh cut grass.
"I'm alive because of you. I know a couple hundred fellows could probably say that but I wanted to make sure I did get to say it." His earnest green eyes stared into mine.
I swallowed, "Thank you, Tommy, for saying it. You were worth it."
He coughed and got a bit teary and looked back, "That's my wife. The baby, Stephen, he'll be a year old next month."
The pretty young lady smiled shyly and waved when she saw us looking at her. I waved back feeling very strange indeed.
"I should probably get back. I don't want to take up too much of your time."
"It's fine. I was glad to talk to you. Maybe I'll drop by the Vet's Club sometime soon." I wiped my hands on my trousers.
He beamed at me again, "I'd love to see you there. So would loads of the others. We tell stories about you just about every time. I didn't even know half of 'em. I'm sorry I called you 'captain' earlier. It was reflex. I heard they made you a major in the end."
I waved it off, in fact, I'd forgotten.
I watched him join his wife, they looked so happy just then.
Jeeves shifted next to me and I just about jumped out of my skin. I'd completely forgotten he was even there.
I turned to him and he was staring at me as though he'd never seen me before.
"I am more than what my friends and family think of me."
"I have done things that matter. None of them, not a single one of them has ever done anything that mattered. When they look down on me, when they call me names, when they blackmail me and manipulate me I will remember Tommy. I'll remember that France was more than a place to take holidays."
I got up and Jeeves mirrored me, "I've spent years trying to forget and for good reason. But doing that, doing that has done a lot of good men a great disservice." I put on my hat and we started for home.
* * * * * *
That night I had a humdinger of a night terror. Jeeves woke me, sitting on the edge of my bed in his dressing gown. I wiped the tears from my face and put my arms around his neck.
"I love you, too."