In the face of a good mystery, a Wooster man never backed down, especially if said mysteries involved usually unflappable valets and goofy stuffed bears. It was supposed to be an uneventful day, one where Bertie could gather his bearings and whatnot before partaking in the trials and tribulations of the coming holidays. Well, yes, that and it was cold outside, as cold as the ice of the alps and poles, that is- it was freezing. And of course the slippery roads made it far too dangerous to drive- mentally negligible he may be, but a fool Bertram was not.
"A fool Bertram is not," Mr. Wooster informed his valet, Jeeves the aforementioned unflappable servant, "I shall be staying home today. A little time to ourselves, my man."
"Very good, sir."
"Very good indeed, Jeeves!"
The better part of the morning was spent reading the paper and skimming fingers over the piano. Followed by coffee, taken with sugar and a dip of cream. And then Bertie was overcome by a bout of something strange, something morose and sad, something that made him want to sit and brood, but he didn't want to sit, and brooding sounded like a chore- he was never a keen brooder- some seconds of contemplation brought him the answer he needed. He was bored. Bertram Wooster was bored. It was to be expected, given the lethargy of the holiday season.
His first thought was to call for Jeeves. That bulging head of his would surely have the cure to this illness of the soul. But it was then that the Wooster onion started spinning itself, quite proudly, without the help of any Jeeveses or valetian brains.
Bertie knew he was a thin chap, not the fittest, but certainly no lazy fellow. He would challenge himself then, in the noggin and in the flesh, the ultimate exercise under one's own roof. He would try to sneak past one's own valet.
He had seen Jeeves' room on a few occasions, but never any reason to go in. Now, this was his chance. He would put his stealth to the test, train himself to be less of a klutz, and then materialize in-and-out of Jeeves' room. Of course, he lacked the powers of teleportation that his talented manservant seemed to frequently use, so he would have to settle for more mundane means. On his tiptoes, Bertie crept down the hall, but not before making enough noise by the piano to give Jeeves the illusion that he was not yet mobile.
He may not pay attention to as many details as Jeeves, but Bertie knew his own home well enough to know what Jeeves would be doing: polishing shoes and buckles and whatnot in the backroom. Which would leave the Jeevesian room unguarded.
Smiling to himself, proud at his handiwork, Bertie hugged the walls en route and voila, found himself face to face with an empty room. That is to say, it held no valet. Only things. Thing upon thing of things. He tsked to himself, inspecting the room. It was a plain place, organized and clean, as if no one had ever inhabited it. Typical of Jeeves. Typical!
But he had not made it this far for disappointment. Surely there would be something here worth staring at- perhaps a secret rainbow tie or a garish choice of socks, a rummy novel even. Unless it was a journal- oh, Bertie would never break a gentleman's code and dig that deep into his gentleman's life. There were certain boundaries one had to respect.
There were books of course, stacked in order. Some papers here and there. But it was there, on the simple bed, that the foreign item caught Bertie's eye. He walked towards it and picked the thingummy up. Now, this was a surprise.
It was a bear. Of the stuffed variety, a teddy more fitting for children than a grown man. He furrowed his brows. Jeeves never seemed the type to need this sort of comfort item- which Bertie kept many as a child (and a few as an adult, not that he would divulge that to anyone). It was an old, fading thing, its fur missing at patches and color going out of its beady black eyes. Even the little bow at its nonexistent neck was a tad scruffy for wear.
Perhaps Jeeves was safekeeping it? Preparing to give it off? As a gift? Blackmail? Perhaps he was a secret toy fetishist?
Bertie stared harder at the bear, and its vacant eyes stared back. He shuddered. It was all very unsettling. The bear was made of cotton, he supposed. It was most certainly a child's toy too. He could tell because it felt just right in his hands. In fact, a little too correctly if he could say so himself. Now, he had a mystery at hand.
"I say, Jeeves, do you have any keepsakes from childhood?"
Bertie asked this in an inconspicuous manner, staring at the valet with just the right amount of disinterest as they spoke over lunch. Or rather, Mr. Wooster's lunch. He drummed his fingers on the table, picking at the remains of chicken with a fork in the other hand. Jeeves stood to the side, a pitcher of water in hand, unsuspecting of the machinations going on in the Wooster mind.
"There is a Kantian dissertation I am rather fond of, sir."
Well, that bally well missed the mark!
"No, my dear man, I think you misunderstand." Bertie paused to emphasize that word. "Misunderstand."
"Then to what should I understand, sir?"
"I'm talking about those other thingummies. You know, things we keep from childhood- for instance, Gussie still keeps a wooden newt in his boyhood room. I myself am fond of the first flower I pressed- must have been less than ten at the time. These kinds of things- simple ones."
"I see, sir."
Jeeves refilled his empty glass. Bertie hadn't noticed how fast he gulped down that waster. Only goes to show how tasteless and bland water was.
"I was never fond of toys, at any age," Jeeves replied stiffly.
"Surely there must be something! An animal perhaps, of the cotton stuffed classification. What do you call those things- an American president- something furry, children hug them, not that I'm accusing you of anything. Jeeves, what's the word?"
"Teddy bear, sir?"
"Ah, yes! Like Winnie the Pooh. Surely you must be fond of Pooh. I don't think I could stand a fellow who disrespected Pooh."
"It is a pleasing story, sir." Here, Jeeves raised a quarter of a quarter inch of his brow. "Is all this in reference to the bear in my room?"
Bertie stared, jaw slacking. And how stealthy he had been too! Dejected, the young master cast a sheepish grin. "Now, Jeeves, don't think me a bloke. I know it was bally wrong, but a chap has the right to look around his own home. I suppose I had no right to prowl in your room. Forgive me, you will forgive me, won't you?"
"I do not resent it, sir." If anything, the glint in Jeeves' eyes was a hint of amusement. That and the touch of a smirk on his lips. "Are you terribly curious about it? Sir, if you will not mind, I can divulge a few details."
"Of course not! Tell away, my man!"
Jeeves set the pitcher on the table and proceeded to pull out the chair next to Mr. Wooster, the latter giving him the signal that said yes, it was fine to sit. When the valet next spoke, it was with a somber gentle voice, much like those romantic chaps lost in the frozen English woodlands, or Bertie supposed that was what it should have sounded like.
"I was safekeeping it, as a matter of fact. For someone very dear to me."
"Now, Jeeves, this isn't... a sad story, is it?" Because Bertie was not in the mood for crying, lest Jeeves attack him with a tragic story of weeping willow proportions.
"You will have to decide for yourself, sir. But I think not."
"Go on, then."
"It would have to be a good while more than ten years ago..."
Before there was Jeeves, there was Reginald.
Jeeves was among the fittest of men, of the likes who feared nothing and whose mind was prepared for everything. He did not lack in confidence, skill, or physique. He had eyes that could never be read and possessed the qualities of a mystery that would never be solved. This was Jeeves.
Reginald too had eyes that could never be read. For they always seemed sad. He was tall and lean and brooding, the kind of boy who spent far too much time imagining cities torn to pieces instead of the next game of tag. He flinched at shouts and the thought of bloodshed. Here was a youth who thought too much and feared far more. This was Reginald.
And for Reginald, it seemed bloodshed would be everywhere. But it was on his departure from the homeland, decked out in a soldier's uniform, of the lowest ranks, that everything in his world changed.
No one had come to see him off, his father being a busy sort of downstairs worker, and his sister away with her betrothed. Had tables been turned, he would not have seen them off either. Such was the way house Jeeves worked. But to that young man's mind, someone had come to see him off that day. It was during the first rays of daylight that his group prepared to leave. And it was during those last rounds about the town they stayed at, pondering the various ways he would die, that he bumped into something small.
Reginald was not Jeeves. He did not know what he wanted in life or if he even wanted, or warranted, a life. His mother always said he thought too much for one so young. He had a dark head full of philosophy and poetry, of math and science, so many things that he wanted to use but knew he never could. And humanity was ugly. It was ugly in his books and uglier in his life: the squabbles of the footmen, the weeping hall maids with their torn dresses, the blood on the lips of his mistress, the worn-out eyes of his mother, the start of a limp in his father's walk, tales of widows and orphans and infidels. Nietzsche's words plagued. Reginald decided very early on that there was nothing for him in life and nothing for him after.
He did not smile, if he ever did. He did not remember having ever laughed. For the world was not black and white- it was a solid shade of grey, one coat of tragedy that would cover all who walked within it. That is, until-
The youth looked down. A child, with fair hair plastered down by far too much gel, rubbed at his small nose, a stuffed bear cradled in his arms. He was an incredibly tiny child, up to the soldier's waist. Terribly fragile. And here was yet another reason to resent life- already, Reginald had harmed a countryman and he hadn't even gone to war yet.
"I- I'm sorry," the young man said, feeling more near tears the boy. "Are you all right?"
"Mummy kisses me when I'm hurt. It's supposed to make me feel better." The child implored him with wide blue pools.
Despite the disheveled clothes- perhaps the boy had tried his hand at dressing himself- the accent and demeanor suggested a boy from the higher classes. And it would not do to offend his parents. Reginald found himself in quite a dilemma.
"Perhaps your mother can kiss you later. Where is she?"
The child's face fell. Looking shyly from side to side, he spoke in a whisper. "Gone. Daddy too." His eyes were downcast.
"I- I'm sorry."
Reginald was not one who bothered with the basics of humanity, for he found the cause ultimately worthless. But in that moment, he forgot those pretenses. The youth stooped to the boy's level, touched him gently, and planted a quick peck to the child's crown.
"I'm sorry," Reginald found himself saying again, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry." If he could apologize for all mankind at the moment, he would, and probably did. He could hear his own voice breaking, cheeks suddenly hot. The child clung at him.
When the soldier pulled apart from the embrace, it was the boy's small fingers that were brushing his tears away.
"Are you lost?" he asked the child.
"No, I came out ta see the birds. Auntie said there'd be birds in the morning- but she doesn't like it when I call her auntie." And then, as children were wont to do, he changed the subject. "Why are you so sad?"
"You're still crying."
"Oh... I suppose it's because I'm going to die. It doesn't matter really. I think I was born to die." Reginald said it, more for himself than the child. "But if I die, then the birds can still come out- if we win, if-"
"That's stupid." The boy sniffled. "You sound like you want to die. Auntie calls people like you 'blokes.'"
"No, I think I'll die because I've got nothing to offer. Don't be like me. Promise me you'll watch the birds for me, that you'll be successful-"
"No- no, oh, I'm sorry, I've said too much. Don't listen to me- I'm just a houseman, nothing more."
"We have a houseman. An' and' I don't think he's nothing."
The child stared at him with tearful eyes, making his heart very guilty. But there was a spark of sudden determination in them, one that Reginald had never seen in a grown adult, let alone a boy this small.
"I don't think you're nothing. You're not going t'die, mister!" He lifted the bear and stuffed it into the soldier's hands. It was a light brown shade, a little bow at the neck, round black eyes staring forward. "He'll protect you! He's strong and brave an' a real friend! And he never gets hurt- because he's a bear!"
"I- I can't take this!"
"I'm not giving him to you. You can borrow him, but you have to give him back."
There was a tone so firm, so bright, so resolute in the child's voice that Reginald heard the unspoken promise. He had to live. And he had to come home. This little boy, who looked as if he hadn't an inkling of what philosophy was, believed in life and its joys and with a smile and a bear, he changed everything for a soldier who might have died.
Before he could reply, his mind reeling with thoughts, the child ran off, babbling about his aunt and the birds. The bear went with Reginald to the barracks.
The war was everything he expected and worse. His skin felt the bite of a bullet, not once but twice. Scars formed and tore. He met boys and men who came and went as soon as he remembered their names. Reginald bled. He cried and hurt and bled. But that child's bear never bled. The bear reminded him of a child's bright smile and all that went with it. He had to live. Needed to live. The bear needed to go home, to find its owner. Because imagining that child's life without that child's smile was impossible.
"I returned after the War and accepted a position as a first footman. Memory is a strange thing, sir. I remember perfectly our exchange, but could not find the child's identity. So I decided to keep the bear with me, until I do so, that is."
Bertie was silent, stunned he should think. Jeeves gave him a curt nod before standing and pushing the chair back in.
"Jeeves... have you- have you considered naming the toy?"
"No, sir. That would disrespect its rightful owner, I think."
"True, true. But your story..." Quite a few bells were ringing in the Wooster mind. He had always been a bit scattered here and there, but something told him there was something more to be said, something important.
"Did you ever find the owner?" he asked instead, face no doubt a picture of deep thinking.
"Eventually. It was by chance, rather. In fact, I planned to gift him this bear on Christmas."
"Planned, as in, past tense?" Almost had it.
"Well, I had wanted it to be a surprise, sir."
"And now it can't be a surprise because-" And then it came back to him, why the bear had felt so right in his hands. Its name was Mr. Barryinton, earl of Honey Hive.
"Wait, what's your name?" Reginald cried out in a fit of spontaneity, still clutching the stuffed animal.
The child turned back in his dash, grinning, and yelling fast enough for the soldier to hear: "I'm Bertie!"
"Merry Christmas, Mr. Wooster," Jeeves said, the two having rushed to his room after Bertie's sudden revelation.
"Jeeves, I don't know what to say..." It was all too fantastic, by Bertie's standards anyway, to take in. He settled for clapping the valet on the shoulder while staring with bulging eyes. Had he really been so important to the young Jeeves? Was it really him? He had always imagined that if anyone was shaping anyone, it should be the opposite.
"Then would you allow me to say...?"
"Go ahead, Jeeves."
"I wanted to say: thank you, sir."
And Jeeves smiled, not one of those subtle hints, those amusing smirks. An actual, honest smile, one that was warm and content all at once. Embarrassingly, Bertie admitted, that was when the Wooster tears started flowing, freely and voraciously.