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A Little Light Reading

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I fear that this is a tale that I cannot begin at the beginning, for my memory of the beginning is essentially non-existent. As far as my limited awareness is concerned, it began when I awakened in a strange room, with a strange woman standing beside my bed.

At first, I was only cognizant of a dull throbbing in my head, accompanied by a wash of pale sunlight that suggested to me that the hour was unacceptably late. A moment later, I sensed the presence of another person in the room. My first thought was that, for some unimaginable reason, I had overslept, and Mr. Wooster had come to rouse me. With a start, I began to sit up, only to be restrained by a lash of pain in the middle right portion of my ribcage. I sank back with an involuntary groan.

“Mr. Wooster?” I ventured, in a voice that scarcely sounded like my own.

“No, my duck,” replied a voice of distinctly feminine timbre. “It’s only Mrs. Hodge. Your nurse.”

At this point I endeavoured to fully open my eyes. When at last I succeeded, I saw – despite my alarmingly blurred vision – a matronly woman swathed in white, smiling kindly down upon me.

“Good . . . day, Mrs. Hodge,” I said, being unsure of the hour.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Jeeves. It’s good to have you with us again.”

“Might I enquire as to where I am?”

“Of course you might, duck. You’re in St. Thomas’s. You’ve been in and out of it a goodish bit, poor lad. You were in a pretty bad smash-up in the wee hours this morning. You were out running errands, I suppose, in your master’s car, and someone slid on the ice and smashed right into you sidelong.”

I struggled to remember, but to little avail. Indeed, I could remember nothing more recent than the previous night, when I had sat down to make a list of things that were needed in the kitchen. My head throbbed with the effort of recalling anything further. I tried to press my hand to my brow, but found my right arm quite immobile. I looked down to see that it was bound up in a cast and sling.

“How serious are my injuries, Mrs. Hodge?”

“Oh, quite serious enough to be getting on with. Your right radius and ulna are both bust up pretty badly, and three of your ribs as well. Also a mild concussion, and a bit of a nasty gash to the forehead. But you’re on the mend. You’ll be right as rain in no time.”

“And does Mr. Wooster know . . . ?”

“I should say he does! He’s been popping in and out like a nervous rabbit all day. Made sure we put you up in a private room with all the deluxe fixings.”

I glanced about the room, finally taking in my surroundings. It was a very well-appointed room, quite large and outfitted with a number of comfortable-looking chairs. Sunlight filtered in via a large window, bedecked in gauzy curtains. I became aware, for the first time, of the smell of roses. An attractive bouquet of pink blossoms sat in a vase on the low table beside my bed, along with a notecard in a lilac-coloured envelope.

“Those are from a Mrs. Biffen,” said Mrs. Hodge, following my gaze. “A Mr. Silversmith also rang us up to say he would be paying a call tomorrow. And a few lads from some club or other telephoned to send along their regards. You’re a popular man, Mr. Jeeves. And those,” she went on, “are from your young gentleman.” She indicated a pair of books resting on the table beside the vase.

I recognized the volumes immediately. They were the two that had been most recently resting upon the nightstand by my own bed at Mr. Wooster’s residence: a handsomely bound edition of the writings of Spinoza – a gift from Mr. Wooster himself – and a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

I confess, I found myself moved by the gesture. I was, of course, in no state to read anything. Still, I could not suppress a smile.
“He seems a nice boy, that Mr. Wooster,” remarked the nurse.

“Indeed, Mrs. Hodge. One could scarcely ask for a more congenial employer.”

“Well, I’m sure he’ll be popping back in soon enough to check on you. I must be on my way, ducky. Ring if you need anything.” Mrs. Hodge bustled out, and I succumbed to slumber.

---

I am not sure how long I slept, for my sense of the passage of time was severely disturbed. However, when I awakened, I was once again aware of a presence in the room. This time, it was not Mrs. Hodge that I found beside me, but Mr. Wooster. He was sitting in a chair beside my bed, and I gathered, from the frost-nipped appearance of his nose and cheeks, that he had recently come in from the cold.

“Jeeves!” he cried, when he divined that I was awake.

Mr. Wooster is one of these young gentlemen who does not, to employ an expression, wear the mask. Try though he might to affect it, stoicism is a quality that eludes him. Every emotion, however fleeting, is writ plainly upon his face. And now, he appeared so anxious and stricken that I was nearly overcome by a most unseemly impulse to press his hand in a comforting manner.

“Good evening, sir,” I said instead.

“Good lord, Jeeves! You gave me the dickens of a turn. Are you all right, old man?”

I was suddenly keenly aware of a number of discomforts that had not been so apparent to me during my last bout of wakefulness. My head still throbbed, as did my ribs. My arm ached dully, and itched furiously beneath the impenetrable confines of the cast. “I have been better, sir,” I admitted.

“Poor old Jeeves!”

“I fear, sir, that your car is—”

“A total loss,” he said with a shrug. “But what’s one car, more or less? They churn the things out at an incredible rate these days. I’m far more worried about the world’s stock of Jeeveses. They’re already in dashed short supply. It would have been a dickens of a jar to take the regular inventory only to find that we are suddenly fresh out.”

“I appreciate your concern, sir, but I have been assured that my injuries are more inconvenient than life-threatening. However, I am afraid I shall be of little use to you as a personal attendant for the time being.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that, Jeeves. We Woosters can rough it with the best of them if need be. I shall manage. Take all the time you need.”

“Very good, sir.”

He glanced anxiously about the room. “Are they treating you well here? Fluffing the pillows and freshening up the water pitcher and all that sort of thing?”

“To the limited extent that I am aware, sir, yes. I have only quite recently become more or less conscious of what is transpiring. However . . .” I shifted slightly, and winced at the growing discomfort in my ribs.

“Yes, Jeeves?”

“A little morphine would not be unwelcome at this juncture.”

Mr. Wooster leaped so quickly for the call bell that I feared he would upset the water pitcher by my bed. Having pressed the bell several times, he returned to his chair. “There,” he said. “Just sit tight, and we shall have you fixed up in two shakes of a whatsit.”

“Thank you, sir.”

He brightened suddenly. “I say. I brought you some things. Just a couple of books, to help while away the lonely hours. I hope you don’t mind, but I, er, nipped into your lair and collared the first two that came to hand.”

“They have been brought to my attention, sir. Thank you. You are most kind.”

“If you’d prefer, I could pop off to the nearest bookseller and nab something new for you. A little variety and all that.”

“I would not wish to put you to any trouble, sir.”

“Nonsense, Jeeves. Name anything you desire, and it shall be yours.”

“Well, sir . . . while I greatly appreciate the offer, I fear that reading anything is quite out of the question in my current state. Even if I had the use of both hands and could easily hold a book and turn the pages, I fear that my eyes are simply not up to the task at present.”

Mr. Wooster looked aghast. “Oh, Jeeves! How bally awful!”

“It will pass, sir.”

“Yes, but, dash it! I remember when I had my appendix out as a young squirt. The only thing that kept me from completely losing my nut was the constant stream of Boy’s Owns that my Aunt Dahlia smuggled in.”

“I shall endeavour to bear up, sir.”

But he appeared distrait and unsatisfied. At this point Mrs. Hodge returned, having heard the bell’s insistent summonses. While she ministered to me, Mr. Wooster sat silently, his brow furrowed in contemplation. It was clear that he did not intend to let the matter rest.

As soon as Mrs. Hodge departed, he spoke again.

“Jeeves, I have hit upon a solution to this vexing problem.”

“Indeed, sir?”

“Yes, and I will brook no objection. Jeeves,” he said gravely, “I shall read to you.”

“Sir, I would hardly expect you to—” I began, but he held up his hand.

“I will not take no for an answer. A Wooster cannot sit idly by while a pal suffers. You don’t mind if I refer to you as a pal, do you, Jeeves?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, it’s settled, then.”

“Very good, sir.”

I uttered this last remark with a certain amount of what Mr. Wooster would call “soupiness” in my tone. It has always been my policy to maintain a level of professional detachment in my relations with any employer. I have found that it creates in them the sense, however illusory, that I am somehow above it all. This, in turn, lends me an air of gravitas and authority that considerably facilitates the guidance and management of the young gentleman when the need arises.

In fact, I was deeply touched. I had not been relishing the notion of being bedbound for however long the nature of my injuries necessitated, much less the prospect of facing this sentence without the ability to read so much as a newspaper. I did not, therefore, put up much of a fight.

“Right, then!” said Mr. Wooster triumphantly, and he reached for The Philosophy of Spinoza.

---

I do not remember much of our first session. Mr. Wooster is possessed of a pleasingly resonant baritone voice, and this, combined with the soporific effects of the recently administered morphine, soon lulled me into a deep sleep. I did not awaken until the next morning.

Although my ribs and arm still brought me great discomfort, my head felt somewhat clearer than it had the previous day. I ate a reasonably hearty breakfast and spent a pleasant hour in the company of my uncle, Charlie Silversmith, who drove up from Deverill to call upon me. Mr. Wooster did not arrive until the late afternoon.

“Awfully sorry, Jeeves,” he said as he hung up his coat and settled in beside me. “It takes me a dickens of a time to put myself together when I’m left to my own devices.”

“It is quite all right, sir.”

“I hope you haven’t been wasting away with ennui, if ennui is the word I want.”

“No, sir. I have had a visit from Mr. Silversmith.”

“Oh, your Uncle Charlie was here? Well, well. Sorry I missed him.”

“Yes, sir. He sends his regards.”

We passed some minutes exchanging pleasantries in this fashion, and then Mr. Wooster shifted uncomfortably in his seat, as if preparing to broach an unpleasant subject. “Jeeves,” he said, “about this reading wheeze of ours.”

“Are you finding the arrangement disagreeable, sir?”

“Oh no, nothing of the sort, old chap. Only too happy to help a fellow creature. It’s just, well . . . I hesitate to speak ill of your chum Spinoza, since it’s clear you hold the bird in high esteem and all that, but . . .”

I raised my eyebrows in feigned incredulity. “You do not enjoy Spinoza, sir?”

“I mean, dash it, I’m sure he’s a wonderful chap and all, but his work’s . . . well, a bit of a slog. That bit I read yesterday even put you to sleep.”

“It does not, perhaps, lend itself to casual reading, sir.”

“I’ll say it doesn’t. I mean, take for example this passage.” He opened the book to a page that he had marked with a bit of ribbon, and read:

“’It is of the nature of reason to consider things as necessary and not as contingent. This necessity of things it perceives truly, that is to say, as it is in itself. But this necessity of things is the necessity itself of the eternal nature of God. Therefore it is of the nature of reason to consider things under this form of eternity. Moreover, the foundations of reason are notions which explain those things which are common to all, and these things explain the essence of no individual thing, and must therefore be conceived without any relation to time, but under a certain form of eternity.’ I mean to say, what?”

“Once appreciates your point, sir.”

“What does it all mean, Jeeves?”

“That is the essential question, sir.”

“Hmm. Yes, well. If it’s all the same to you, why don’t we try something else for a bit?”

“Very good, sir.”

“You wouldn’t be averse to a bit of the Shakespeare, then?”

“Certainly not, sir.”

“Right ho.” He picked up the volume of sonnets, which fell open to a well-thumbed passage, and began to read once more. “’A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion . . .’”

Here he stopped, cleared his throat several times, and poured himself a glass of water. After drinking deeply, he began again:

“’A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted,
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all ‘hues’ in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since . . .’”

Here he faltered once more, casting a wide-eyed glance in my direction. I met his questioning look with one of silent expectation. He cleared his throat again, raised the book so that his face was mostly hidden from my view, and continued.

“’But since she, er . . . prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.’”

At this juncture, I feel I must confess to a fact of which I am not proud: I have always derived a certain satisfaction from seeing Mr. Wooster flustered.

I would not go so far as to use the term Schadenfreude, although there was perhaps an element of such in the earliest part of our association. I am fond of Mr. Wooster, and wish no genuine harm upon him. Nor do I desire to make a Roman holiday of his sufferings and embarrassments, although I have found it convenient to do so at times in order to bring about a satisfactory conclusion to the various contretemps in which he often finds himself embroiled. Nevertheless, there is something about observing the young gentleman in a vexed or disquieted state that evinces in me an undefinable sort of pleasure.

I thought at first that it was simply amusement tinged with sympathy, and perhaps a sense of pleasant anticipation of the happy resolution which I invariably would have a hand in bringing about. But in this particular instance, as I watched a blush slowly creep up from beneath his collar and flood the parts of his face not concealed from me behind the pages of the book, I sensed that there was another element to this phenomenon, the nature of which still eluded me.

Whatever it was, I knew that I desired more of it.

---

I carefully composed my face into an impassive mask as Mr. Wooster lowered the book. His cheeks were still burning brightly, but it was clear that he, too, was attempting to feign nonchalance.

“You know, Jeeves,” he said, riffling through the pages and assiduously avoiding my gaze, “I don’t know if you have ever experienced this, but there are times, reading old William S., that I’m left with the feeling that the blighter has just been elbowing me in the ribs and winking.”

“Indeed, sir. Salacious innuendo is a device frequently employed in the works of Shakespeare.”

“The way the nibs in school used to go on about him, you’d think he was one of those quiet, respectable old birds who holed up in the woods, leading a monk-like existence and Suffering for His Art. Instead, he seems to have been the type who would have been regularly called into the headmaster’s office to take a few of the juiciest across the back end for passing naughty parchments under his desk at school. It just goes to show, you never can tell.”

“Very true, sir.”

“And what do you suppose he’s on about with all this ‘master-mistress of my passion’ stuff? Dashed rummy, it strikes me as.”

“I am sure it has been a matter of much debate amongst scholars of English literature.”

“Still, I suppose he’s got nothing on a lot of these modern writers.”

I found myself strangely compelled by the turn the conversation had taken. “Indeed, sir,” I remarked in what I hoped was a convincingly dispassionate tone. “The works of D. H. Lawrence come to mind.”

Mr. Wooster frowned thoughtfully. “Isn’t that the chap who used to charge about in the desert hobnobbing with sheikhs and whatnot?”

“No, sir. You are thinking of T. E. Lawrence. The person of whom I am speaking is a poet and novelist. It is said that his latest novel is so ribald that it is quite impossible to obtain an uncensored edition outside of Italy or France.”

“Gosh! And this bird writes off-colour verse as well?”

“His poetry may certainly be described as . . . evocative, sir.”

“Hmm,” said Mr. Wooster, and there the matter rested. The remainder of the afternoon passed uneventfully. He read several more sonnets, but none of these evoked in him the same electrifying response as the 20th.

---

The next morning, with the help of the kindly Mrs. Hodge, I managed to rise from the bed and spend a short time walking about the room. My ribs throbbed with every step, and I quickly grew fatigued and dizzy, but I was nonetheless grateful for even a brief opportunity to stretch my legs. When Mr. Wooster arrived – this time a full thirty minutes before the hour of noon – I was seated in an armchair by the window with a blanket drawn over my lap. The young gentleman regarded me with concern.

“Er, Jeeves,” he said, “it’s good to see you up and about and all that . . . or at least, upper and abouter than you were . . . but one wonders. Is this prudent? Is this wise? All this bounding about and leaping into armchairs, I mean.”

“I appreciate your solicitousness, sir. However, the doctor is of the opinion that mild exercise, taken with proper precautions, stimulates the healing process.”

He appeared unconvinced. “Well, I suppose we must take his word for it, then. I just hope the old bird isn’t talking out of his hat.”

“He strikes me as a competent physician, sir.”

“If you say so, Jeeves.” He pulled up a chair and seated himself across from me, and I noted with interest that he carried a parcel. He must have noticed my glance, for he brightened visibly. “I brought you something, Jeeves,” he said, lifting the object. His gaze moved to my immobilized arm. “Oh, I suppose I had better open it for you.”

“If you would be so kind, sir.”

He removed the string and paper, and produced a handsome silver box. “It’s a shave kit,” he explained, turning the box over in his hands.

“Thank you, sir. You are most generous.”

“Not at all, Jeeves. I, er, don’t want to wound your finer feelings or anything, but you’re starting to look a bit like one of those Heralds of the Red Dawn blighters that Bingo Little used to swank about with.”

I passed my free hand over my stubbled cheek and chin. “Yes, sir. I fear that my condition has somewhat hampered my ability to perform my customary toilette.”

“Of course, Jeeves, of course! I understand and sympathize. Knowing your feelings about whiskers, I imagine the whole thing must be a dickens of a shock to your system. In fact, I wondered if I might . . . well, it’s dashed awkward now that I come to say it out loud, but . . .”

“Yes, sir?”

“Well, I thought I might give you a shave.”

I found myself momentarily speechless. My heart palpitated in an alarming manner, and it was with some effort that I maintained my customarily aloof appearance.

“I hardly think that will be necessary, sir,” I said in the most cool and level tone that I could manage.

Mr. Wooster looked momentarily abashed, but a familiar stubborn glint quickly stole into his eyes. It was a look I had seen many times during our association – the look of a young employer preparing to assert himself.

“Now, Jeeves,” he said, drawing himself up, “I know you’re a stickler for propriety and all that, but you have to admit the circs are a little unusual. You can’t be happy going about with that fungus all over your map. Just think of it as the young master returning the favour, you know, for all the times you’ve done the same for me.”

I could feel my resolve slipping, but I stood my ground. “Mr. Wooster, when I shave your whiskers, I do not do so as a favour. Attending to your personal appearance is one of my duties as your valet. Sir.”

He frowned and drummed his fingers on the lid of the shave kit, apparently defeated. I thought for a moment that he was about to let the matter drop, but he took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and spoke again. “Jeeves,” he said quietly, “I insist.”

Perhaps it was the fatigue, or the injury to my brain, or the peculiar state of mind brought about by our reading session of the previous afternoon. Whatever the cause, I found myself entirely unable to resist him. When I answered, I could scarcely credit the words that emerged from my own lips.

“Very good, sir.”

---

Mr. Wooster appeared quite as astonished by this turn of events as I was, but he wasted no time fetching a basin of warm water and lathering up the brush. He drew his chair up alongside mine and set to work. Neither of us spoke until he gently laid his fingers on my jaw in preparation for applying the lather, and I was wracked by a sudden frisson.

“Oh, Jeeves!” he exclaimed, quickly removing his hand. “Are you all right? Did I touch a tender spot?”

“No, sir. I was merely startled. Please, continue.”

“Right ho,” he said, and I noted a slight blush mantling his cheeks once more. I hoped that my own face would not betray me in this manner, and found myself grateful for the concealing effect of the lather. Mr. Wooster plied the brush with a gentle and diffident hand. I found the effect sublimely soothing. My eyelids fluttered shut of their own accord.

“Jeeves,” said Mr. Wooster some moments later, in a voice that was nearly a whisper.

“Yes, sir?”

“Just checking that you were still with us, old man. I’m about to start scraping.”

“Very good, sir.”

He continued to speak as the razor slowly glided along the curve of my jaw. “You know, Jeeves, that D. H. Lawrence blighter you were telling me about the other day . . .”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, he strikes me as a bit of a pill.”

“Indeed, sir?”

“Yes, Jeeves. I went to the booksellers after our last conference and picked up a book of his poems. The way you built him up, I expected them to be of the sort that start with ‘There once was a man from Nantucket.’”

“I gather that his work did not meet your expectations, sir.”

“No, Jeeves, it did not.” There was a brief pause as he rinsed the razor in the basin, and then he resumed. “His stuff all seems a bit grim, if you ask me. I think ‘morbid’ may be the mot juste. Lots of blighters moping about, and occasionally some beazel runs into the ocean with a heaving bosom and meets a chap with an upraised oar or some such rot.”

“It is perhaps not to everyone’s taste, sir.”

“There was one,” he said, gently raising my chin and applying the razor once more, “that rather put me in mind of the sort of thing you’d get if you crossed Edgar Allen Poe with Madeline Basset.”

“How intriguing, sir.”

“There’s this sort of sturdy rustic chap roaming about the countryside, and all the while this girl is mooning about back at the wee cottage, and there’s this bit about the flowers flirting with the moths or something. All très Bassett, just the sort of drivel you’d expect her to scoop up with a spoon. But then the rustic Johnny starts terrorizing the little woodland creatures and murdering bunnies and whatnot, and the blighted beazel back at the cottage seems positively thrilled with it all.”

“Yes, sir. You are speaking of ‘Love on the Farm,’ a composition otherwise known as ‘Cruelty and Love.’”

“Yes, that’s the bird. I take it you know this one, Jeeves?”

“Yes, sir.” I opened my eyes and gazed directly into his as I recited the final stanza of the poem.

“’And down his mouth comes to my mouth! And down
His bright dark eyes come over me, like a hood
Upon my mind! His lips meet mine, and a flood
Of sweet fire sweeps across me, so I drown
Against him, die, and find death good.’”

Mr. Wooster, who had been sitting motionless and wide-eyed with the razor in his hand for the duration of my brief recital, abruptly turned away and busied himself again with the rinsing basin. “Gosh,” he murmured. “You jolly well do know it, don’t you.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well then,” he continued, without turning back to face me, “maybe you can explain this whole ‘die, and find death good’ wheeze. I always thought the tender pash was supposed to be, er, pleasant.”

“The poem is of course subject to multiple interpretations, sir. However, I am of the opinion that death, in this case, is a metaphor for surrender.”

“Surrender, Jeeves?”

“Yes, sir. The French sometimes refer to the supreme moment of passion, in a romantic embrace, as ‘la petite mort.’ It refers to the momentary loss of one’s faculties – and the brief but utter surrender of the self to one’s lover – during the act of lovemaking.”

Mr. Wooster quickly crossed his legs, and dropped the razor into the basin.

“You know, Jeeves,” he said hoarsely as he retrieved the object, “I’ve never been much of a lad for poetry.”

“No, sir?”

“No, Jeeves. I think, on the whole . . . no. Let us leave the poetry to the nibs from now on. We shall find something else to read.”

“Just as you say, sir.”

This, I realized, would require careful consideration.