“Jeeves,” I said, “I have a problem.”
My more hard-bitten and cynical readers are no doubt already rolling their eyes and stifling yawns. This, they are probably saying, is stale material. When, they may be asking themselves, does this Wooster not have a problem?
I entreat those readers to keep their shirts on, and what’s more, to hold onto their hats. For this was no garden variety broth that the young master had waded into; nor was it one that called for ordinary methods of fishing-out.
“I am sorry to hear that, sir,” said Jeeves, bunging the customary brandy and soda onto the side table in a soothing manner. “Might I be of any assistance?”
I pondered. “No, Jeeves,” I said after a moment. “I think not. I’m inclined to believe that this is one of those unsolvable crises that one runs up against from time to time in the course of life, of the ‘Does aught befall you’ variety. Part of the great web, and all that. I probably wouldn’t even have bothered to bring it up if I weren’t already several sheets to the wind.”
He gave me one of those grave, sympathetic looks that have got him so well liked among the right-thinking sort. “Perhaps if you were to elucidate the nature of the problem, sir, I might at least suggest some palliative measure,” he said.
I waved a weary snifter. “Very well. The fact is, I’m in love.”
“Indeed, Jeeves. What’s more, I’m in love with someone I can’t possibly have.”
“I see, sir. Are the young lady’s affections engaged elsewhere?”
I unshipped a bitter laugh. “I fear you have dealt the nail but a glancing blow.”
“I’m afraid I do not understand, sir.”
“I’m going to tell you something that I really ought not to tell you. And I only tell you this because, as I said, I am presently stewed to the gills. No doubt I will regret it in the morning, or possibly sooner. However, I am past caring.”
Jeeves was registering about as much concern as he ever does by this point, mainly in the shape of drawing in his eyebrows about half a millimeter and pursing his lips a bit. But he stood by with an attitude of respectful silence, waiting for me to spill the beans.
I took a fortifying swig, and spilled them.
“I am in love with Esmond Haddock.”
Do you know this Haddock? If so, I hope you will bear with me while I put the stragglers abreast. He first swam into my ken a few years ago when I was forced, by a dashed peculiar concatenation of events, to pop down to a hell-hole in South Hampshire called Deverill Hall and skulk about the place for several days incognito as Gussie Fink-Nottle. Esmond was one of the tenants of this dump, along with about fifty-three aunts, his cousin Gertrude, and Jeeves’s uncle Charlie.
The long and short of it is that this Esmond loved my pal Cora “Corky” Pirbright with a passion, and she in turn loved him with a passion, but something of a rift had sprung up between them on account of Esmond’s unfortunate tendency to grovel before his aunts. So naturally, Jeeves and I had rallied round to bring the sundered hearts back together, mainly by way of giving poor old Esmond’s confidence a much-needed boost, thereby allowing him to defy the aunts and ride off with Corky into the sunset. This we accomplished by ensuring that he was the toast of the village concert—not a terribly difficult feat, given the blighter’s natural talents and sheer, animal magnetism.
I should mention that Esmond Haddock was one of these preternaturally good-looking birds, if preternaturally is the word I want. He looked rather like what you would get if you crossed Lord Byron with Henry Irslinger and tossed in a dollop of Adonis for good measure.
What’s more, it was borne in upon me after spending about two minutes in his society that he was both a sound egg and a kindred spirit. We bonded more or less instantly over a fine bottle of port, and had barely got the preliminaries out of the way before we were dancing on the table and singing hunting songs together like ancient chums.
Anyway, being dashed fond of both Corky and Esmond, I considered theirs a consummation devoutly to be wished. I spared no effort in pushing the thing along. Once safely ensconced in the W1 postal district once more, I raised a relieved glass to their health and happiness. I may even have shed a manly tear or two, for we Woosters are always deeply moved by our friends’ triumphs.
And yet, for some time after, I found myself strangely distracted. I could not stop thinking of Esmond. I missed his society, of course. But I also found my thoughts lingering on the wavy hair, the dark and flashing eyes, and the broad shoulders. And with these thoughts came the blushing cheeks, the jelly-like kneecaps, and the quivering ventricles.
It would have taken a far duller mind than Bertram Wooster’s to miss the signs. Esmond Haddock had got right in amongst me, and was proceeding to give me the works.
By the time our present story begins, several months had passed, and time was doing its great healer stuff to good effect. And then, just when I thought I’d managed to give all these unwanted emotions the bum’s rush, I ran into Esmond again. I had stepped into the Criterion for a refreshing snootful. Almost at once, I spotted a familiar figure bent over the bar, apparently in the midst of drowning its sorrows in a pint of something. The heart-strings gave a zing, and my feet steered me forward of their own accord.
“Esmond!” I cried.
He slowly raised his head, and gazed at me with bleary, red-rimmed eyes. “Gussie?” he creaked.
I winced. It was an understandable mistake, given the fact that, through no fault of his own, he’d labored under the unfortunate notion that I was Gussie Fink-Nottle throughout nearly the entire period of our association. Still, it stung a bit.
“It’s Bertie, old man,” I corrected gently.
“Oh, right,” said Esmond, doing a little wincing of his own. “Awfully sorry, Bertie.”
“It’s quite all right. Don’t give it another thought.”
“It’s not all right,” he rumbled. “Nothing has happened to alter my opinion that that Fink-Nottle is a contemptible cheese-mite. It must have been terrible for you, having everyone go about thinking that hollow-log dweller was you.”
“It was,” I conceded. “But it was a small price to pay in the service of patching up all those aching hearts.”
He rested his chin on his hand and smiled sadly at me, and I felt myself go a bit wobbly about the patellae. “I’ve always liked you, Gus—er, Bertie,” he said. “You’re a decent chap.”
“As are you, Esmond.”
“Did I ever tell you I like your face?”
“You did. And I believe I told you I like yours, too.”
“Of course you did. It’s just the sort of upstanding, decent thing you’d do.”
I took a seat, for I was beginning to feel faint, and called for a whiskey and soda to soothe the fizzing ganglia. “Tell me, Esmond,” I said, “what has happened? You are not your usual, buoyant self. You look like a man in need of a sympathetic ear, and possibly a shoulder to cry on.”
“That’s what I like about you, Bertie. You’re so perceptive. Yes, life has been dragging me through the mud a bit of late. It’s all over between me and Corky.” His voice cracked sharply on the word “Corky,” and my heart gave a hard little kick. It was all I could do not to clutch his poor, tortured head to my chest and murmur “There, there!” into his hair. Instead, I settled for a sharp intake of breath and a sympathetic click of the tongue.
“Oh, Esmond! But, whatever happened? I thought you were the respective lodestars of each other’s lives!”
“We were,” he said miserably.
“Then what was it? Did you lose your nerve with the aunts again?”
“No,” he said, shoving a few swigs of Guinness over the larynx. “I became the lead male vocalist for Victor DeFonce and His Melody Men.”
I confess I was a bit fogged at this juncture. I failed to see what this development had to do with the sudden coolness that had arisen on the Corky and Esmond front. After clapping him on the back by way of congratulations, I said as much.
“It was just deucedly bad timing, Bertie. Had I met her five years ago, all would have been sunshine and roses. But Corky has grown tired of show business. When she met me, she was ready to settle down into a quiet, respectable life out in the country. I, on the other hand, have been doing just that for as long as I can remember. I longed for greater things, Bertie. You can understand that, can’t you?” As he said this, he laid a large and well-formed hand on my wrist.
“Yes,” I yipped, knocking back the entire whiskey and s. that the barmaid had just set before me in a single gulp.
“You know, when I got up on that stage at the village concert and belted out that hunting song, and stood there basking in the wild cheers and applause of that crowd, I knew I’d found my calling. They loved me, Bertie. They ate me up like ice cream!”
“Who wouldn’t?” I said, with some enthusiasm.
“It was the first time I’d felt anything like it. And it never would have come off so well if it hadn’t been for you coaching me on those lyrics and cheering me on from the sidelines. I owe you a great deal, Bertie.”
I nursed a second w. and s. in a guilty manner. “I don’t know about that, Esmond. Not if my meddling has caused you and Corky to scratch the fixture.”
“That’s not your fault,” he said. “It just wasn’t meant to be. We must each follow the path of our own destiny, and it just so happens that my path zigged where Corky’s zagged.” He said all this with a determined set to his already impressive jaw, but there was a slight tremor about the lips and a dangerous glimmer in the eyes. It was clear his heart was aching, and mine ached right along with it.
“But surely there must be some way—!”
“There isn’t. She’s engaged to someone else. They’re going to be married next week.”
It was some hours later that I finally staggered home, with a bowed-down heart and a sozzled bean. I could not recall the last time I’d felt quite so thoroughly pipped, not to mention befuddled.
My sense of duty told me I ought to do everything in my power to heal this rift between two loving hearts, which struck me as nothing less than a heinous breach of justice. And yet, some tiny and dreadful little voice kept whispering in my ear that now was one of those tides in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, lead on to fortune. Utter rot, of course. But try as I might, I could not seem to switch it off.
I shuffled into the flat and sank miserably into my armchair.
“Jeeves,” I said, “I have a problem.” But that brings us back to where we came in.
There followed upon the heels of my announcement a chunk of silence so long and meaty that I began to fear the worst. I was just trying to come up with something to break the ice—possibly a crack about the weather, or an amusing anecdote—when Jeeves abruptly resurfaced.
“I was not aware that you were so inclined, sir,” he said.
“Toward Haddock in particular, or chaps in general?” I asked. I attempted a casual note, but I’m fairly sure I missed the mark by a widish margin. I had never canvassed Jeeves’s views on this particular issue before, so I hadn’t much of an inkling of how it would go over. On the one hand, it might be all right; on the other hand, it might not.
“I meant the latter, sir, although the former piece of intelligence had also eluded me.”
So far, it seemed to me that it was going pretty well. I mean, Jeeves is never one to leap about to any great extent, and his customary stuffed frog mask always makes it a little tricky to suss out what exactly is passing through that magnificent cranium of his at any given moment. But I’ve spent enough time around the fellow to recognize his typical symptoms of disapproval. At present, all I could discern was a little mild surprise, mixed with just a pinch of concern for the young master’s general well-being.
“Well, there you have it, Jeeves,” I said, with a shrug of the shoulders. “It’s not something one brings up in casual conversation, of course.”
“It’s just that I seem to have come down with an unusually severe case.”
“Mr. Haddock is an exceptionally attractive young gentleman, sir.”
“Oh, you noticed that as well, did you?”
“If you will pardon my saying so, sir, I am not hard of seeing.”
I must say, I found his sympathetic attitude heartening. “I find your sympathetic attitude heartening, Jeeves,” I said. “I should not have doubted you.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“At any rate,” I went on, “my attraction to Esmond is neither here nor there. I merely felt the need to unburden myself to a compassionate ear. With time, no doubt, my affliction will pass. In the meantime, there is a more pressing matter to which we must address ourselves, viz. the decided lack of boomps-a-daisyness in relations between Esmond and Corky.”
“Indeed, sir? Have the young persons had a disagreement?”
“They have, Jeeves,” I said, and with a few well-chosen words, I put him abreast.
“I see, sir,” he said, when I had finished. “Then you do not wish to pursue an amatory relationship with Mr. Haddock?”
My eyes bulged a bit at this. “What? Good lord, no! Use your intelligence, Jeeves. Even if he did return my affections—unlikely, I think you will agree—I would never stoop to insert myself between two of my beloved chums in such a low and unsporting fashion. No, we must cluster round and get down to the business of patching up the Haddock-Pirbright relations once more.”
“Well, sir . . .”
“What do you mean, ‘Well, sir?’”
“It merely strikes me that a reconciliation between Mr. Haddock and Miss Pirbright seems unlikely, given the circumstances that you have described.”
“Piffle, Jeeves! Esmond is Corky’s ewe lamb, and Corky the apple of Esmond’s eye. No doubt she has attached herself to this other blighter in an effort to score off him. We’ve seen it a million times. I intend to ring her up first thing tomorrow and see if I can’t talk some sense into the little gumboil.”
“Very good, sir.”
I can’t say I felt a great deal better after that, but at least I had gotten the damn thing off my chest. What’s more, I could take some comfort in the notion that I might be in a position to bring a little sunshine back into the adored object’s life—not to mention that of Corky, who was one of my oldest and dearest.
I crawled into bed without bothering to shed the correct eveningwear, and soon plunged into the deep and dreamless.