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A Touch of the Old Uncanny

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Have I ever told you about the strange affair of Reggie Pepper? I suppose I probably haven’t, because it all happened before Jeeves came along, and I find that most of the stuff from the Before Jeeves era lacks a certain punch. It doesn’t hold the public’s interest. Not that I utterly lack fascination when taken on my own, but a Bertram without a Jeeves is rather like a slab of icing without any cake. Or is it the other way round?

Nevertheless, this particular little episode, dating though it does to the pre-Jeeves epoch of my career, is one that I find to be fraught with interest. This is due in no small part to the fact that I can’t jolly well make heads or tails of it, despite having had a ringside seat to the entire entertainment. I’ve tried telling Jeeves about it a couple times, and he just looks at me as if I were nature’s last word in human goofiness. Sometimes he bungs in a “Most peculiar, sir.” Not particularly helpful, if you see what I mean. Maybe it’ll make more sense if I write out the whole sordid tale, and then my dear readers can have a whack at sorting it all out for themselves.

It happened during my first engagement to Florence Craye, just before Jeeves shimmered into my life and mercifully scuppered the thing. I was still employing Meadowes at the time, and although I am a tolerant sort of cove, my patience with the man was well past the wearing-thin point. In fact, I had just given him the sack and was spending a few days in London in the hopes of rustling up a new valet before returning to my uncle Willoughby’s place in Shropshire for the remainder of my customary summer holiday.

Having made my stop at the agency office, I decided to take a bit of a stroll. It was a pleasantly sunny afternoon, although a bit hot for my liking. I had just about decided to give it up and ankle off to the club for a cooling restorative when I caught sight of someone I knew: a fellow member of the Drones by the name of Reggie Pepper.

This Reggie was one of the old-fashioned knuts, something of a relic of an earlier age. I couldn’t have told you how old he was, but if I had to take a stab at it I would have placed him somewhere in his thirties or forties. Positively ancient, by Drones standards. He was the sort of bird who always looked as if the hand of some invisible marionetteer was the only thing keeping him more or less vertical. If he'd been on the RMS Titanic when it went down, he no doubt would have been sprawled out in a deck chair with a brandy and s. in his hand, muttering "Dashed rotten luck," just before the aft section upended him into the drink. Imagine my surprise, then, when I encountered him strolling along in Piccadilly Circus with a positively purposeful air.

“What ho, Reggie!” I cried, giving him a jaunty wave.

He sort of slowly unfurled, like a shy snail presented with a lettuce leaf. He dug out a monocle, shoved it onto his map, and gave me a leisurely once-over before finally answering. “Is that Bertie Wooster?” he called out.

“It is,” I said as I hove to. “What are you doing out and about, Reggie? I thought you were more or less nailed to the settee by the Drones smoking room window.”

“Just on an errand, you know, for a chum who’s in need of aid and succor. Where is your hat, my lad?”

I groped the bean in surprise. “I seem to have forgotten it,” I said, a bit sheepishly.

“Leave it at the club?” he asked sympathetically.

“No, at the flat. I suppose I’ve been out all day without it.” I reached into my pocket for a handkerchief to mop the sodden brow, but came up empty handed. “My handkerchief, too,” I said sadly.

“Well, you’d better come with me before you catch your death of sunstroke.”

“Where are we going?” I asked, gamely turning to tag along. But Reggie didn’t answer right away. He seemed lost in thought.

“You ought to get yourself a good man,” he said abruptly.

I was a bit startled by this turn in the conversation. Rather Parisian, it seemed to me. “What do you mean, old egg?” I asked, wondering if he’d got a touch of the sun himself.

“A man,” he repeated. “A gentleman’s gentleman. A valet. They’re indispensable, you know. I don’t know how so many of you young fellows nowadays get along without one.”

Understanding dawned. “Oh, ah!” I said. “Well, as a matter of fact, I had one. I had to hand him the mitten only yesterday. Aside from being an inveterate clomper, he had a tendency to pinch anything that wasn’t bolted to the floor.”

“Oh, I say, that is too bad.”

“What’s more, he took far too much interest in the state of my soul. One night he got religion and ticked me off properly in front of Barmy and a few of the other lads for being a ‘moral leper’ or some such rot.”

Reggie had a sort of thoughtful, dreamy look in his eye. “Some people do get it up their nose a bit about that sort of thing, what? Souls, you know. I shouldn’t worry about it much. You’re a good egg.”

“Oh, thanks,” I said, although I hadn’t been so awfully worried about it.

“The great thing,” he went on, “is to have some sort of a purpose. As long as you’re a soundish egg and have a bit of a purpose, you’ll get along all right. It doesn’t have to be anything grand.”

I admit I was a bit floored by all this. If there was one thing old Reggie had never struck me as, it was philosophical. And yet here he was, gassing on about souls and purposes, as if he’d really got much of either. “Oh? Do you have a purpose, Reggie?” I asked.

“I have a sympathetic ear,” he said, tapping the organ in question. “Always have had. So I suppose my purpose is to lend it to people. I’m never able to be much help, but it does seem to be some sort of comfort.” With that, he stopped so suddenly that I nearly crashed into him. “Well, here we are, what?”

We had come up alongside a rather nondescript tearoom, and I thought at first that this must be the “here” in question. But Reggie pointed to a sign in a dim window above the establishment with a languid wave of his impeccably rolled umbrella. It read, in elegant red and gold hand-stenciled letters: