There are times when the stage is jolly well set. I mean to say, there are times when a place is so brimming with atmosphere, fitted out with all the sober gothic style of the Victorians and all the creaks of an old flat that it feels just a step from being written into an old-fashioned thriller, caped villain and all.
So it was when I found myself in the middle of an abandoned old flat in Soho, in the above Victorian garb (that Jeeves would adore, I knew, for all its musty, damask thingness.) It was all coated in a choking layer of dust, though—hadn’t seen the feathers for centuries, it seemed….
I’ve done it again, haven’t I? In the middle of the race, in medius—beginning in the middle of the tale and forgetting all the bally expose so my dear readers will know where the whole sitch is coming from. But the meat of the story’s just what you want to hear, right? I can always let you piece it together as we go along…. No? Well, then….
I, one B. Wooster, esquire, last of the noble Wooster line and heir to the Marquis-dom of Yaxley, was in a spot of bother. You see, this last of the Woosters is of a particularly sunny disposish. Always delighted to help a friend or brother or what have you, especially if said friend or brother hails from the fine old school. Always willing to sacrifice life, limb or a fair bit of cash for the improvement of a friend’s lot.
What I was reluctant to part with was my bed.
You see, the generosity of this last Wooster was such that he was being forced to move. His unwillingness to let a chap drown in the soup had motivated him thus. He spares no comfort, no luxury to allow a fellow graduate a leg up. Even if it does mean some tearing at the wallpaper on his way out the door. I wasn’t full-steam on this idea at first—the thought of leaving the homey comfort I’d established in Berkeley Mansions was a severe kick in the trousers. Almost more than a Wooster could bear.
It all started when my pal Algernon ‘Mousey’ Mottershead came to visit. He’d started at Oxford just at the tail-end of my stint, and had always seemed a small chap in every way: small frame; small, twitchy nose; small soul. A follower, you see. But he’d warmed up to everyone in time and managed to squeeze in among Bertram’s dearest chums within the year. And on this day he’d scurried over to my flat out of the blue sky of one of autumn’s finest with real terror in his voice.
“Oh, Bertie….” There was disaster looming in those syllables. “It’s a disaster!” He moaned, his grey eyes flitting here and there about the room. Jeeves barely had time to pluck Mousey’s overcoat from his shoulders before the twitchy frame collapsed into a nearby armchair.
“Disaster, old thing?” I questioned him with warm gaiety in the hopes of countering his tenebrous—if ‘tenebrous’ is the word I want—state of being. There had but moments before been grand plans of tottering around to the Drones to pick up Boko and Bingo for a new musical-theatre production that evening, but I could tell already that whatever crises had befallen young Mousey would require a full hour at the least.
The sitch was presented thusly: Mousey had an aunt who was frightfully keen on good works. She was always pottering about the East End, standing a meal here and hosting an activity there. And she was positively bent on the idea that Mousey, too, should be going out on the town, personally sponsoring some poor chumps who had fallen down into a certain station in life. This aunt of his would be loathing to hear that any requests from Mousey, no matter how small, until he could show her something he’d done of adequate selflessness for the downtrodden folks of London.
And Mousey had a real devil of a request this time: He wanted to marry a little milkmaid he’d met on a scenic trip through Lincolnshire, a girl with nothing but one silk dress and a fell pony to her name. Now, no aunt in Aunt Mousey’s posish would dare allow a girl of that sort into the family—the poor girl supposedly had none of her own to give the ancestral push to the proposed union, and I’m given to believe that names are nothing short of the bee’s patellae to the standard aunt. To even begin to hope that he would get away with his liver and his love, Mousey had to show that he was essentially rehabilitating a group of poor people by the sheer goodness of his heart.
The trouble with all that being that Mousey was no great man of service—the fellow was quite used to all the comforts of plenty of cash and ample loafing room, you see. I tried coaxing the spirit out of him first. A man has to try, and, really, it would have been simpler just for old Mousey to bite the bullet, as it were.
I didn’t think that drastic measures needed be taken, at first. There are plenty of bust blokes in London, a thousand men who’d gladly take a certain sum off of Mousey’s paws to pretend that he was under the old boy’s care for half an hour. Mousey claimed it was no good.
“I told Aunt Millicent that I was helping a man about my age in Soho,” he said lowly, toying with a cigarette between nervous fingers. “And that he’d been fixed up with suits and baubles for his house by yours truly, not to mention instruction on how to earn an honest living.”
“But why can’t you try all that? Sounds simple enough to me,” I said, glancing back at a quietly-thinking Jeeves (no doubt firing bright on his luncheon fish.) Mousey tossed his little head at me.
“No! I can’t, don’t you see? She thinks I’m a great reformer, that I’ve changed some overgrown urchin into Oxford material. I don’t have the money for the suit; I can’t imagine a bloke desperate enough to play the part I want without loads of oof.
“The old lady needs a picture, see,” he explained, by way of accentuating the seriousness of his problem. “The image of one of those jobless johnnies in Soho… to convince her that I’m doing all I can… but I don’t know any.” I thought the matter laughably simple.
“Well, perhaps Jeeves could –”
“I don’t want to know any,” he ejaculated, pale eyes flashing. “Louts, all of them. Without the necessary rhino backing me up, I’ll never get one of them to agree that he’s my protégé… and Aunt Millicent’s cut back on me ever since she got started with those East-End blighters….”
“Jeeves… how does a man acquire a protégé without meeting said man?” I said, thoroughly stumped like a disciple without a parable. Jeeves’ eyes had a certain flash of their own to them.
“I believe that I may have a solution on that front,” his voice rumbled behind me. I daresay my eyes flashed, too, if only because the eyebrows had just made a mad dash for my hairline.
“I say, Jeeves,” I cried, the voice tinged with the requisite awe, “old Alexander should’ve had you at his right hand on meeting Gordias’ knot.”
“Thank-you, sir. I must warn you, however, that the plan requires a certain amount of sacrifice on your part.”
Now we return to a point of reluctance in the heart of old B.W.W.: in the past, when asked to do some ‘small thing’ of my own volition, out of simple, gentlemanly chivalry, I’ve been asked to climb up drainpipes to steal cheques, charged to sneer at and make off with silver cow-creamers; tried to help a pal out with a girl and found myself covered in flour from stem to stern. I couldn’t help the sigh in my voice when I replied,
“Get on with it, Jeeves,” with as much resignation as said Jeeves himself in the face of a merry banjolele chord or toot of the trombone.
“Thank-you, sir. I believe that if Mister Mottershead were to request someone of your station to take a Soho address, I fancy it would be simple to convince the aunt in question of all that has been said.” I scoffed.
“Oh, come, Jeeves,” I laughed, derisively. “No-one at the Drones would give up his bed for a plank in Soho.” I confess that I’d missed the thrust of Jeeves’ suggestion.
“What I mean to suggest is that you yourself, sir, act the part of the protégé. In order to lend complete verisimilitude to the charade, you might take an apartment in Soho and live there for some time. Enough that the woman visits you and observes substantial improvement in your person as a result of your tutelage by Mister Mottershead.”
I confess: I goggled. I goggled at Jeeves like one of his landed tarpon, shocked and betrayed. Of course, he’d simply spoken, but I could tell by the toothy smile blooming over Mousey’s little face that the old boy was ready to accept the wheeze as advertised.
“Jeeves, that is positively brilliant!” Mousey squeaked, and leapt up in his excitement. “If you could just find an apartment down there, and fixed it up for me… Aunt Millicent could come down any time, and I’d never have to worry!”
“Yes, yes, but… Mousey, old thing,” I began, a tremor of supplication (if that’s the word I want) in the voice, “think of the Hell to which you would be condemning old Bertram. Thrusting him in among those blighters that you won’t touch with a ten-foot pole… it all seems rather unsporting.”
I could have spotted the first signs miles off: The bright, clear, wide eyes of the hierophant, begging silently for my acquiescence. (Or was it supplicant? Shall have to ask Jeeves later.) I think I may’ve even spotted a tremor of young Mousey’s lower lip. I remained unmoved.
“Ah-ah! Mousey,” I chided. One had to be swift on the bud-nipping with these young fellows. Given an inch, will take a mile and all that. “No amount of this childish display will sway me.”
“But we were at school together!”
I tutted at the boy and placed a sympathetic hand on his little shoulder. “Mousey,” I said, in the most stately of Wooster voices, “if a man must live by the decrees of his school-mates alone, he shall soon find himself embroiled in… oh, what was it the Bard said, Jeeves?”
“Treasons, stratagems and spoils, sir?”
“That’s the baby! Yes, treasons, stratagems and spoils.” I knew this all too well. Memories of a certain Glossop and a certain wager brought a wince to the Wooster dial.
One expects abject quivering despair at this point. One assumes one will have to have one’s perfectly-pressed valet mop the puddle-like remnants of his guest off of one’s fine wool carpet. It hits the heart hard, of course; one isn’t indifferent to the trouble of schoolmates. But some things are beyond even the generosity of Bertram Wooster.
There were no signs of melting from Mousey as I looked upon his map again. If anything, he was grinning. But I took no note at the time, determined as I was to teach this lesson to my ill-educated friend.
“I can’t do this, Mousey. The Code of the Woosters makes exceptions for outrageous demands made upon one of its clansmen.” I’d turned around to face him face-to-face, as it were, and only then really noticed the look he’d taken on. He was laughing quietly; he smiled where frowns were much more the accepted choice of expression.
“Oh, Bertie,” he sighed. A regular jocular gent had taken the place of my shrinking young pal. I gazed at him, besotted. Or perhaps bemused. “It would have been so much easier for everyone if you’d just agreed to help…. Oh, what a shame it all is…”
“What?” The voice sharpened a touch further; I pulled it back into my own genial suavity sharpish. I said I wouldn’t be moved by him, and I was determined that I would not. “What are you blathering on about, old thing? ‘Everyone’? There is but you and this sainted aunt of yours to worry about. I perceive no ‘everyone.’”
“Bertie!” The brow furrowed instinctively at the manner Mousey had acquired. A cross between an over-enthusiastic winner at the races and a man who’s just been told that his impression of The Scream means the difference between life and death. His voice had circus fleas performing their way down his spine. “You haven’t forgotten that I have a beloved cousin, have you? A darling red-haired sprite called Bobbie Wickham?”
I confess: I had forgotten. I’d been told of it in passing before. It was a distant, marriage-bound sort of relation, but the Motterheads and the Wickhams really were tied together.
‘Why the fuss?’ I hear you cry. You must understand that I’ve held a certain flame for this Bobbie Wickham for some time. A jovial girl with a lovely toned frame from her action on the tennis courts and really ravishing red curls. I’d been seeing much of the fine young potato of late and had designs on making her my wife.
Not that this all mattered, I realized, after a moment of silent musing. Mousey knew Bobbie. What harm did this do me?
“Tut!” I cried.
“What?” The Mousey squeaked.
“I said ‘tut.’ Denounced you. Decried your foolish methods. You’re talking through your hat, old man.”
“Well, you know this Bobbie. A charming girl in all respects, and friend of one B. Wooster. What would be achieved by a little Mousey squeaking in her ear that this B. Wooster refused to participate in his bally scheme? Why, I imagine she’d offer hearty congratulations on this Wooster’s good judgment.”
Mousey, true to this foul new form he’d taken on, let out one of the gay and cheerful ones. “Oh, Bertie….” I was tiring of hearing that phrase. “Don’t you recall that night?... That fateful Oxford boat race night that nearly had old Bertram expelled?”
The armor of Wooster pride began to slip at that. “Mousey—”
“I remember it like it was just yesterday,” he sighed, gazing wistfully up at my ceiling. “A near-graduate called Bertie Wooster was seen sneaking onto the boat of a competing party with a bag of sorts….”
“Mousey, please.” I don’t like to say I was pleading with him, but hearing him tell the tale had the ring of an executioner reading off what tortures I was to receive at the Queen’s pleasure.
“And, near the middle of the race, a certain team found its decks overrun by flea-bitten barn rats….”
“But Mousey, surely—”
“And witnesses had seen this Bertram Wooster commit crime; they claimed to, anyhow. But they were mistaken. A freshman called Algernon Mottershead stepped forward and claimed responsibility, gaining a criminal record but selflessly saving his dear friend.”
I’d been blackmailed many times before, by the likes of Byngs, Glossops and others. Regularity didn’t make it any easier. My stomach was always tied in awful knots by the end of it, and I could feel my grasp on the situation slipping away like so much sand. I couldn’t help thinking that Mousey should’ve tried this kind of eloquence on his aunt; I imagine he could’ve gotten away with anything if he only had the goods on her, as well.
The gaze had flickered on and off to Jeeves during the whole ordeal. He was pensive. Although the light of intelligence still gleamed in those blue eyes of his, there was no move to speak, no twinkle to the eye that told me he’d contrived a way out. I was doomed.
“Mousey….” I’d said his name many times that evening. By degrees it’d slipped, from cheerful greeting of an old friend down to the beaten thing it was after Mousey’s threats. “Fine. I’ll move out to a tenement in Soho for you. Bertram will languish in a vermin-infested apartment all for you and your blessed milkmaid.”
“Oh, thank-you, Bertie!”
“But never, never approach me about Bobbie again,” I told him, with a sound prod to the chest. “You’ve no right to be meddling in a Wooster’s affaires de cœur. It’s simply unsporting.”
“Yes, yes, fine,” the Mousey muttered, already on the path to collecting his coat and hat from Jeeves. “Wonderful! You’ll write me as soon as you’ve settled in, right? Good. Tinkerty-tonk!”
And, just like that, he was gone.