Claude, Eustace, and I sank slowly and deeply into the upholstery of the second-best drawing room of the East Wing, the dust motes swirling gently around us in the cool of the indoors. I buried myself in an armchair, and Claude and Eustace threw themselves on the settee and then smeared themselves in a tangle from one armrest to the other. Being without a fourth at tennis, we had resurrected a game from our childhood. Our matted locks spoke of our contest, they having bested me in an energetic afternoon of cowboys-and-lawn-tennis.
Back when Claude’s Rs were still Ws and Eustace’s thumb kept up residence in his mouth, Claude had suggested a fast-draw serve contest, and then of course we instituted a serve at ten paces. Two of us would start back to back at the net, the object being to hit the other with the ball or defend oneself from a hit with the racquet. The most fun was to get a volley going. The third would judge the outcome, and then play the winner. Eustace insisted on costumes. We didn’t spare each other a jot, and I had the bruises to prove it. They played with such gusto, it was evident they’d make an excellent father. I mean they would make an excellent father, if either of them reached fatherhood.
“Right,” I said, pulling off my makeshift eye-mask. I thought very, very hard about standing up.
After a pause, Claude piped up. “Right, I’m getting up,” he said.
“Right-oh. I’ll join you,” said Eustace, and raised his torso a few inches above Claude’s lap, only to fall back again with an oomf.
Thirst battled exhaustion, and won.
I reached an arm up behind me, and fished around for the bell-pull. The twins offered encouragement. After all, those can’t do – prod others into doing.
“Other side. No, left. Left! Double lefter than that. Oh, Bertie, you’re miles off.”
“Right, he means. Your right, Bertie. Right!”
“Bertie, you’re aiming lower the righter you go. Aim up a bit.”
“Well show us your aim, then,” I said. “Seppings must be rung to bring the medicinal. I’m completely knackered.”
Eustace raised his chin, tilting his head back to peer up into Claude’s face. “I say, Claude.”
Claude curled forward over Eustace with a groan.
“Go on, Claude. Hit the bell with your shoe. My arms are about to fall off."
Claude raised a leg and waved a futile hand, then seemed to ooze into action.
He began to twist against the armrest, managing not to dislodge Eustace, who wriggled obligingly until Claude could lie along the settee and use the armrest as a pillow. He ended up with one foot up on the back of the settee and the other planted on the floor. Eustace pulled one of Claude’s arms across himself and tucked his knees in.
“No,” said Claude. Superflously.
No point getting in the middle of that.
Desperate times, and all that— I rallied and twisted round till I could sight the bell and lobbed an ashtray. The bell made single sharp tink.
"Not sure they'll consider that a pull, chaps."
"Bertie, another!” saith the terrible two in chorus.
“Listen, my dear old buck-a-roos. That is all you’ll get out of Bad Luck Bertie.”
The twins were silent so loudly one could almost hear them bickering over which one them would get up.
Just as Claude said, “Oh, all right,” Seppings swept in, with pitcher and glasses on tray and ice clinking invitingly. I took two because… Well, Eustace and Claude only need one of anything, really.
“Dinner is in the conservatory tonight, sirs. Madam wishes to celebrate the beginning of the season.”
Now, if I was thirsty, the blame was the twins’. Therefore it follows, that if I was tipsy, the blame was Seppings’.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had to tie a bow around the ivory column. There’s a trick to it, to get the creases exactly right. You put your fingertips on each side of the bit that goes around and just under it, and the person doing the tying pulls it all tight. Then you withdraw your fingertips and you have the most perfect bow. With two it’s like squeezing toothpaste out of a tube, but on one’s own it’s as fiddly and messy as trying the reverse. I did my best, but the mirror showed that the bow had an inquisitive, challenging angle to it. “And what are you going to do about it?” it seemed to say. I was running a trifle late already, so it would have to do.
I wore short trousers the last time the Woosters dined in the conservatory at Brinkley Court. These days, between Anatole and the gardener McGregor, there are always herbs, bushes, and even trees of all sorts in there. Between McGregor and Aunt Dahlia, there are also urns ready to be trundled to terraces and banks of plants to replant the beds. Add in the need Aunt Dahlia and Seppings have for fragrant flora to decorate the rooms, and you can believe me when I say that the proposed dinner was more likely to resemble a meal in a jungle than a conservatory of a spiffy homestead. A panther lurking about wouldn’t have surprised yours truly.
I smoothed the front of my soft-bosomed shirt and gave my cock-eyed bowtie a twist to coax it straight as I pushed through some ornamental shrubbery.
“Chummy! What ho! And Sally!”
Sally was inexplicably at the head of the table, between my two aunts. I mean what, what? Aunt Agatha was clutching a giant mess of crochet to her chest. With a smile on, she actually resembled my smilier aunt, Aunt D. There was only one empty place at the table, and it was facing across from a broad-shouldered someone who could probably use a trim. He turned in his seat, I thought to greet me. Do you ever feel like a loose collection of atoms held together by a whim? My ionic bonds could have used a boost in that moment.
His face was as marble.
Seppings took my elbow, stepping between me and the table.
“Sir,” he said, and tugged. The thought struck me that Jeeves hates soft-bosomed shirts. I hoped it niggled him. “This way, sir.”
“Oh right. Thank you. Seppings. So many flowers! You’re not waiting at table tonight, are you, Seppings? Oh, of course, Georges will have to bring in the courses on the cart. You’ve quite outdone yourselves. Flowering trees! Has Anatole been in to see it? It must have taken you ages to light these torches. Do you remember when— before, when we dined in here all the time? We had a fountain in here, I think, with cupids…”
I don’t know what else I said, but I could feel the sympathy of the table on this unlucky Wooster’s side. Chummy on my left and Uncle Tom on my right immediately brought me up to date on labour disputes in charity hospitals (Chummy) and a recent exhibition of Dutch silver (Uncle Tom). The centre-pieces weren’t tall enough to obscure Jeeves from my view, but their height was sufficient to making sociability, vocally or otherwise, mercifully awkward. Jeeves sat between Eustace and Claude, who were doing, frankly, a too obvious a job of treating him like an empty chair by speaking across him. I do recall thinking their treatment of him a mite harsh. At the same time, I was immensely relieved not to have to engage in social intercourse with the blighter. Touched to the core, of course. They all were projecting an invisible barricade around me – cousins, Aunts, house staff and beyond. There was a tense moment when Jeeves broke through, asking me to pass the salt, but Chummy plunked his down within my reach and that was that. Jeeves addressed me as Mr. Wooster, if you were wondering.
But I wanted the closed ranks to realise that their services were not required. Man and master, Jeeves and Wooster, was all done and dusted. The mind was made up, though the body wasn’t quite done with the death throes. My eyes kept sliding past Jeeves, unable to pin him with even a glance. I finally mustered courage at the cheese plate and lifted my head, with the phrase, ‘Excellent table, what?’ at the ready, because it was an excellent table, with all of Aunt Dahlia’s dogs nosing our ankles beneath it and the honeysuckle above our heads strong enough to bring on a headache, when our attentions were claimed by two of the grounds staff carrying in a platter, upon which was seated a rather ferocious dragon.
The applause for Cook and Anatole was honestly come by. The two were supervising lighting the confection aflame and accepting our congratulations — with a beaming face and quivering mustachios (Anatole) and hands on cheeks and a blush like a bad sunburn (Cook). I admit that I wanted badly to know what Jeeves thought of it. The dragon was carved from ice, guarding eggs that were bowls of ice cream. Cherries in brandy were aflame all around, and with the lights so low, it was a scene out of a fairy tale. Half the table were on their feet, walking around it to see it at every angle. Jeeves had turned in his chair for his own gander. Claude had a hand on Sally’s shoulder, and they were saying something to Cook, who had her eyes squeezed shut tight with laughter. Chummy’s eyes were fixed on Eustace, and I could tell by the shapes he was drawing in the air that Eustace was telling him about the time the kitchen had made the Trojan horse and filled it with soldiers spun from sugar.
Jeeves turned around, and our eyes finally met like two clouds on a course that could only produce a thunderclap. His face was deeply shadowed, not that his expression ever gave anything away. Uncle Tom chose that moment to use the back of my chair to heave himself up, tipping me back and breaking our gaze.
“Cigars, my boy,” he said, and let go. Seppings was saying something to Jeeves, probably explaining that guests served themselves dessert, same as breakfast, so I followed Uncle T. out.
Uncle T had been buttonholing me since I arrived. He was showing off his collection greater detail than ever before, to the extremes of showing me the albums of exhibition notices from when he lends them out to museums. More or less half of the collection was on display throughout the house, apparently. I don’t care for silver much myself, but chewing the fat with Uncle T on the subject was pleasanter than you would think. My cousins, especially Angela, leg it when the talk turns to silver, but I don’t mind it. Perhaps that particular September found both Uncle Tom and I in need of staunchly incurious companionship.
As I followed him, my heart fondly recalled the days of yore. We used dine in the conservatory towards the end of summer quite often, when I was the leader of a crew of cousins (simply by virtue of age) and the summer seemed to go on for years. Mother was still alive, and so was Uncle Willoughby. We were rather propah as a family, but the summer dinners were anything but. We didn’t bother with seating arrangements, all of us ragamuffins were ‘allowed at the table’, and Seppings made sure that some of the downstairs or the grounds could come up at the end for a toast. The desserts were always elaborate.
Uncle Tom and I, as I said, hadn’t stuck around for afters. We had brandy and cigars in the music room. He spread some music out on top of the grand, but not for me to play. He was after my opinion on what to add that Aunt Dahlia’s guests might know how to play. As he passed me sheaves and I passed back sheets, I thought how comforting his silence was. When Chummy tumbled in with Claude and Eustace, all quite the worse off for wine, I took myself off to bed.
I don’t know if Seppings thought Jeeves would help me out of my studs, but no one came to valet.