1. Of Harpoons and Anonymous Crumpets
A brief glance down the teeming stalls of the Caledonian Market afforded me an easy glimpse of the size-fourteen bowler hat towering over most mere mortals. Clutching my prize—a vase Aunt Dahlia had sent me to get for Uncle Tom's collection, if you want to know—and eager to pass it into more careful hands than mine, I ankled over. It wasn't until I'd what-ho'd him cheerily that I realised I'd interrupted Jeeves's conversation, for the erstwhile-other-converser also turned to peer at me. He was a distinguished sort of older chap, possibly a former employer or a relation.
Jeeves pried the antique from my paws and made the introductions. "Inspector Bloom, my employer Mr Wooster."
Well, I confess I cringed a bit, though I tried not to. When a chap's been behind bars, both justly and unjustly, on as many occasions as certain Woosters, being confronted with a man of the law even in purely innocent circs is enough to make one want to leg it down the nearest alleyway crying 'foul!' However, I stiff-upper-lipped it, trusting Jeeves wouldn't just spring some unlawful arrest on me out of the clear blue whatsit, and put an untrembling hand out in salutation.
"Pleasure," the inspector said, shaking heartily, and I breathed a sigh of relief when he had no more to say about Bertram's criminal past and turned back to my man. "Well, I must be off," he said. "I hope you'll come round one day soon. No need waiting for another bout of thievery," he chortled with something in the way of a back-slap, which I had never in my life seen anyone attempt on Jeeves, but he seemed to receive it in a welcoming way.
I missed whatever solicitous adieu Jeeves parried with, because I was too busy mulling over this bouts-of-thievery business. What thievery? Whose thievery? My thievery? I let the matter drop until we were safely home, the hustle and bustle of the journey not lending itself much to conversation, but as soon as I was ensconced before the hearth with the w. and s., the first words out of my mouth after the usual mutterings of gratitude for drinks delivered were, "Thievery, Jeeves? What thievery?"
"Some time ago I aided an investigation of Inspector Bloom's, sir."
"Aided? You mean you offered the instrumental clue that brought the blighter to justice? You pointed out the proverbial chipped bit of stonework or footprints under the window? Played Holmes to his Watson, in fact?"
"The police would no doubt have reached the correct conclusion on their own had I not intervened, sir," Jeeves said lightly, busying himself with moving some objets d'art aside to dust beneath them.
"But you got them there faster, didn't you?"
"One does not like to brag, sir," he said, not a bit of scrutability to his map.
"Still, I think we're past any point where I'd think of your so-called liberties as such. I bet they gave you a medal or something that you're hiding away."
"No, sir." Jeeves was now dusting a shelf that had become spotless some few passes ago, and I thought he might have sighed slightly. "The time at which the events in question occurred is not one I enjoy thinking about, let alone discussing."
I'm ashamed to say that unless it was laid plainly before me like this, I never gave much thought to what Jeeves had got up to before the fateful morning (oh, all right, afternoon) he'd turned up on my doorstep. I knew he hadn't simply winked into existence then and there, of course, but I'm very much one for the present. Now, presented with a reminder that Jeeves had a past, and a possibly unpleasant one at that, I didn't quite know what to say. He wouldn't offer up those shreds of Jeeves the Man rather than Jeeves the Valet Above Valets to just anyone; it was a rare privilege of confidence that warmed the cockles of the Wooster heart, wherever the cockles are. Still, I regretted causing him the pain of remembering whatever this unpleasantness was.
"And I won't make you now, Jeeves," I said quickly. "In mind of liberties, you know you're free to tell the young master to go and boil his head if he persists with impertinent questions."
"You could not have known, sir," Jeeves said. "There is no harm done."
Unfortunately, sometimes my mouth works faster than my mind, for no sooner had the thought begun to dawn than I came out with, "I say, you weren't wrongly implicated were you?" Then I smacked the forehead. "Go and boil your head, Bertram," I recited for him, since I doubted he'd do it himself despite the permission.
There was a ghost of a smile on the Jeevesian lips. "No, sir," he said. "It was my information that led to the apprehension of the thief. It was a situation similar to the matter of Mrs Travers's pearls, only with a real theft and motives less innocent."
"The lady of the house hadn't simply pawned them, you mean."
"No, sir. The culprit was a footman with whom I had developed a friendship." I took the soupiness surrounding the word 'friendship' to mean he hadn't been best pleased to learn of being bosom pals with a jewel thief.
"Rummy circs, Jeeves," I said. "But I won't press you further as you dislike the memory."
"Thank you, sir," he said, and went back to dusting the dustless.
I relate the above interlude—if one can have an interlude before the thing really even gets going—not because it had any direct bearing on the immediate unfolding of events, but because once I get to the events it bears on, I won't want to stop in the middle to go back and explain this seemingly random rencontre. It is safely put out of the mind for the present, or perhaps left to linger somewhere near the back so there won't be a need for any flipping of pages when the time comes to recall it.
The thing that really carries all the weight for the forseeable f. is the fact that one Bonfire Night, Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps let a firecracker off in the Drones Club lavatory, after which the latch on the door was never quite the same. It couldn't be repaired, precisely, since after the legendary Roman Candle Conflagration of '98, the Committee had decreed that anything with more bang than a Christmas cracker was grounds for being tossed out on one's ear, and nobody had wanted to turn poor old Barmy in as he'd honestly mistaken it for a cigar. Therefore this latch had, and has to this day, a nasty tendency to stick at random intervals and lock one within until someone either hears the banging and the shouts of 'hi! stuck in here!' or happens to answer a call of nature.
I'd personally got into the habit of telling whomever I was excusing myself from to send round a search party if I wasn't back in five minutes. There'd been no one in the area when I'd gone in, so rather than bang and shout, I simply sighed and leaned against a basin to cool my heels until someone came to spring me.
Approaching footsteps and voices heralded freedom after not much heel-cooling, and I was about to apply a fist to the wood, but I stopped halfway to a knock when I heard my name.
"Bertie? Bertie Wooster?" said a voice I didn't recognise. The 'yes, let me out' died on my lips, however, because I wasn't being called to. I was being talked about. "He'd never," the unfamiliar voice continued.
I'd never what, I wondered. "You don't think?" asked an equally unfamiliar voice. It could've been Oofy Prosser, but I wouldn't have sworn to it. There's a thousand blokes, probably, that sound just like him, and while I could pick out even a slightly known fellow Drone by sight, I couldn't do it by sound except for my bosomest pals, and even a few of those would give me trouble with nothing else to go on. "As many girls as he's not married?" continued this second chap.
"Not the slightest inkling," the first chap said.
"I'd bet my shirt he just hasn't worked it out," said the second chap. "You fish with a net your whole life because nobody's ever told you about harpoons, but as soon as you're given one, well! You wonder why you were bothering with this net business in the first place." I had to crane my ear to hear the end of that as they began to move away, leaving me still stuck, but I couldn't very well let on I'd heard. "I didn't know my own heart either before I..." but it had faded too much, and I was left in the dark as to what the second chap hadn't known his heart before. As much in the dark as I was as to what that had to do with harpoons, and me, and what about my heart I hadn't worked out, and what the bally blue blazes it had to do with my admittedly numerous broken engagements.
I was still stewing over it when Tuppy came to let me out. No voice anywhere around me seemed to match the ones I'd heard, and Oofy was apparently in Italy somewhere, so it couldn't have been him unless someone had dragged over an extremely loud telephone. I was severely distracted from what was meant to be a relaxed afternoon conversation and card-throwing by my ponderings. I eventually gave it up as a bad job, because when there are such ponderous ponderings afoot, there's only one thing for it, and that's to put the matter to Jeeves. Therefore I beat a hasty retreat home.
Jeeves was vaguely surprised to see me back so soon, and to have me barge into the kitchen rather than linger at the door to be attended to, indicated by the raising of his left eyebrow by about two hairs, but I didn't give him a chance to offer the usual pleasantries on how my outing had gone. "What know you of harpoon fishing, Jeeves?" I asked, waving him back to the seat in front of the half-polished teapot he'd been in the process of laying aside.
"Some small amount, sir; I have once or twice engaged in the activity."
"And would you say it's better or worse than fishing with a net?"
"It would depend on the particular fish to be caught, sir," he said, noble brows knitting now a bit more than two hairs' breadth. "There is certainly more sport in it."
"But if you'd never met a harpoon, you'd happily go on fishing with a net?"
"More probably a line and pole, sir," he said, and I could tell he was about to if-I-may-ask me.
I saved him the trouble. "You see, Jeeves, some words were unintentionally overheard. I know that eavesdroppers never hear anything good about themselves, but as I was locked in a lavatory at the time there was nothing for it. These overheard remarks have laid a bit of a puzzle at my feet, and I'm trying to work out what it means." I faithfully recounted the exchange that was now burned into my memory.
Jeeves took the teapot back up and addressed his answer to it more so than to me. "It sounds, sir, as though the second conversant believes, due to his own experience, that you should consider a possibility that would not ordinarily have occurred to you but that, once it does, will seem more...exciting than the options you believed yourself to have." He didn't turn so much as an eyelash my way.
"But my heart, Jeeves? It's almost as though he thinks I'm positively potty for someone without knowing it."
Jeeves put down the other potty thing in the room (being the teapot) and fixed me with a look I thought rather in the long-suffering line. "Do you believe such a thing to be possible, sir?"
"Well, it's my heart, isn't it? Wouldn't I know?"
"If I remember the reported statement correctly, sir, the implication was that you do not."
"What rot," I laughed. "I'd believe myself sooner than I'd believe some anonymous crumpet who was in all likelihood talking through his hat. As for what I would and wouldn't consider, clearly this cove doesn't know me at all or he'd be in no doubt that between self and pals, I've certainly seen entanglements on every sort of line and wouldn't think anything impossible. Waitresses, cooks, ex-pickpockets, all the way up to royalty.
"Besides, I've been engaged to nearly every girl I know at one time or another. What I wouldn't consider possible amounts to aunts and the elderly, and if they're the harpoon then Chap Two is welcome to them." I shuddered vaguely at the thought. Aunts had to beget other aunts somehow, I supposed, but I wanted no part in it. "Unless I'm missing something, that leaves out the entire female—" had I been holding anything, I would have dropped it, and as it was, my jaw fell a good four feet. No, he couldn't have meant— "I say!"
"Sir?" Jeeves asked, seemingly oblivious to the turmoil bubbling up within the Wooster breast.
"If it leaves out the female population as a whole, then— I say. That's a bit thick, lurking outside lavatories accusing all and sundry of...of...well, really! You don't just go about saying that sort of thing about people!"
Jeeves was hard at work on the teapot, which was gleaming by this time, but apparently not gleaming enough for him. "I believe the gentleman in question implicated himself equally, if that was indeed the implication," he said. "I would not worry, sir."
"Yes, I suppose he did, at that. My good name—such as it is—aside, what on earth would give anybody the idea that I...." I shook the bean in consternation. There had been a few schoolboy tumbles, of course, but everyone did that. It didn't mean anything or make you anything— my second-to-last term at Oxford would have turned out very differently were that the case. If it made you anything it would have been proven that night, but that had been no more than a champagne-fueled grab at the whatsits of yesteryear.
"Even if he were entirely right," I declared, "and I believe he is not, such things are not to be acted upon when one wishes to remain free to walk the streets. Besides which, you'd be as horrified as if I were happily trundling up the aisle with Honoria Glossop, hand in your portfolio, and I probably would end up married to Honoria Glossop. I might actually prefer prison, come to that."
"A great many otherwise respectable persons have conducted discreet affairs of the sort you mention without detection, sir," Jeeves said, a rummy cast to his voice though the exp. was as stuffed-frog as ever. "If you were to embark on such a venture, my continued employment would depend on the other party and whether the household was altered, not the association itself."
I was a bit floored, I don't mind telling you. Any more floored and I would have found myself seated upon it. "Well," I spluttered, "that's dashed...revolutionary of you, Jeeves, but I believe the point is utterly moot and it's more likely this chap was not only talking through his hat, but had it on backward."
"As you say, sir."
"Though I wonder—call it morbid curiosity, Jeeves—what 'other parties' would you not biff off to greener pastures over?"
"Thus pressed, sir, I find myself unable to name one. It was more a theoretical."
"Well. This is a silly conversation anyway, as nothing of the sort is going to occur."
I resolved to put the thing from my mind and more or less succeeded. The 'less' bit of it had to do with Jeeves's remarks re discreet affairs and the distinctly soupy eye he gave me occasionally over the next few days, as though he expected me to suddenly burst into poetry over my undying love for Bingo Little or similar. He wouldn't have been too far off the mark on the subj. of Bingo and discretion, but that was the most ancient of histories.
Therefore, I found it necessary to lay down the law. "Jeeves, do stop eyeing me in that soupy manner," I told him two evenings after our discussion as he gathered hat and coat toward wherever valets went on their nights off.
"I will endeavour to correct it, sir, if you would care to elucidate what you find objectionable."
"This manner, Jeeves, the soupiness of it. The gaze that you fix upon the young master as though you expect to return home to find him wearing a green carnation and doing something compromising."
"That was not my intention, sir," he said stiffly, "nor my expectation."
"Well," I said, rather at a loss, "good." Of course he wouldn't have admitted it, and on reflection the soupy e. could have been attributed to the fact that the Wooster locks were beginning to want a trim.
"If you require nothing further, sir?"
"Er. No, Jeeves. Off you go. Have a nice time, what?"
"Thank you, sir." He shimmered out, leaving a bit of frost in his wake.
I gave a considering frown to the door as it shut behind him. I hated to think that these eavesdropped notions were now plaguing him; that had been the furthest thing from my mind when I'd laid my query at his door. I wondered if he had some idea of my introduction to harpoons—to continue the theme—and now worried that there were dangers to our happy bachelorhood on two fronts.
But that was just it— it was happy bachelorhood. I had no idea of tying myself to anyone in that manner, above-board or otherwise. Considering the man's dizzying intellect, he shouldn't have had to question it. I'd told him time and again how lost I'd be without him, and rather proven it on several occasions. It went without saying that his situation was in no danger from anyone.
There was the stomach-knotting possibility, of course, that he wasn't as tolerant toward this business of discreet...harpooning as he'd made out, and was now looking for any sign that there would be any going on in case he needed to alert his inspector friend and leg it in the other direction. But he'd as good as said he wouldn't, and given his lack of compunction at expressing strong opinions on haberdashery and stringed instruments, I was forced to conclude that there was nothing to it and it had to be my hair.
Not entirely at ease, but a little more so, I settled in for a quiet evening in the company of a tall scotch and a short novel. I'd just got comfortable and was no great distance into either before the ears were assaulted by the ringing of the telephone.
It's rummy how events can seem to relate to each other even when they likely had no intention of doing so. The voice on the other end belonged to none other than the Reverend H.P. Pinker, known to those near and dear as Stinker due to his tendency to trip over anything that crosses his path. I have mentioned in the preceding paragraphs a certain nostalgic mistake at Oxford; it was before he took orders, of course, but Stinker was the other party to it. In fact, at the time I judged it as the reason he started buttoning his collar in the back.
Not that I'd ever asked him, as what followed the ill-considered evening had been several years of his being too busy learning the curate business to see much of his old pals. By the time I'd seen him again he'd been engaged to Stiffy Byng and seemed to have forgotten all about it, which was what I'd suggested in the first place. I wouldn't have thought of it now if not for the subj. having been brought up by my lavatory incarceration, but as it was I saw this rummy sort of relation-of-events. Stinker was in London and had something he wanted to talk to me about, he said, and once I'd invited him round for luncheon the following day and rung off, I found myself oddly nervous.
There was the chance that he simply wanted me to commit some act of theft on Stiffy's behalf, of course, but circs being what they were, my first thought was in the line of, 'Gads! What if he wants to dredge all that up?' But he'd sounded perfectly cheery, so I cautiously put it down to my imagination playing up.
The memory, too, worked its magic, bringing back a long-buried settee, too much champagne, and hands everywhere. Everything everywhere, and skin, and slurred words of adoration the likes of which I'd never heard directed at yours truly before or since. In the h. of the m. it had been one thing, of course; in the harsh light of morning Stinker had looked on me with dawning horror. I'd tried to console him by telling him there was nothing to it, just old friends reminiscing. That had been when he'd stormed out, and the aforementioned next words he spoke to me were years later as a curate and future Mr Stiffy.
Could this be what the overheard bloke had been referring to? Did he, heaven forbid, somehow know of it and believe I was secretly and unknowingly pining? No. I'd have to be dead not to find the act itself pleasant (and the memory of it rather embarrassingly affecting, which was dealt with before bed), but the only remotely pine-like or any other evergreen sort of thought I had towards Stinker Pinker was for an excellent friendship cut down in its prime and never quite mended.
I knew my own heart quite well, thank you very much. Still, it wouldn't hurt to have a go at bit more mending, now all the troubles were behind us. Whatever it was Stinker wanted, I'd give the old college try at accomplishing it as a demonstration of goodwill and steadfast palliness.
I did not add this new collection of thoughts to the set of ponderings I'd laid at Jeeves's door, as he defrosted several degrees when I told him over the breakfast tray that I'd like my hair cut, and I wouldn't have wanted to spoil it even if I hadn't managed to work matters out on my own. It may seem odd that a not-impecunious chap with all the barbers in London and environs at his disposal would choose to have the barbering done at home, but Jeeves is as hidebound on matters of coiffure as he is on fashion.
I'd gone to a barber exactly once since he'd entered my employ, very early in his tenure, and not only had he disapproved of the configuration of the mane itself, he'd actually seemed rather insulted I hadn't asked him to do it. Years of subjection to Auntery has taught me that if one lacks a strong opinion on a subj, the thing is best left up to the party who does not lack one. As I don't personally mind what's going on atop the onion as long as there is no wild curling or lopsidedness, I'd done the sensible thing and left it up to him ever since.
Well, I'd started out with no strong opinion on Jeeves vs. barbers, but one experience in his capable hands had put me firmly on his side of the argument. Jeeves does not merely cut hair, nor does he stop at the application of hot towels and razor to the face. I'm perfectly capable of de-whiskering the jowls myself, of course, but there's truly nothing like having it done for you properly. Jeeves's skill in this alone would have sold me on the notion, but he does nothing by halves and tends to surpass even wholes.
Barbering à la Jeeves also includes painstaking attention to the finger and toenails and the dashed pleasant massage of something tingly and good-smelling into the scalp. This last bit has the effect of reducing Bertram to a pliant patient who would quite happily sit still to have his very eyelashes tweezed out, not that Jeeves would do such a thing.
"Jeeves," I said in the course of these ministrations, putting voice to a thing I'd often wondered about in a vague way but never given overmuch thought to, "where did you learn to do this? Do they teach valet lessons someplace?"
"While there are not 'lessons' in the strictest sense, sir," he said, setting my left foot back into its slipper and picking up my right, "certain of the staff in larger households do offer some instruction and guidance when a young man's intentions towards his future career become known, whatever they may be. I was fortunate to have the personal attendant of the headmaster at the school where I was first employed take an interest in me. And as you know, sir, several of my family are also in service and were generous with passing on their particular wisdom."
"Like your Uncle Charlie, you mean?" I asked. "I say, that tickles."
He altered his grip on my twitching toe. "I beg your pardon, sir. Yes, my Uncle Charlie was most instructive, as was my father."
I peered down at him in surprise. I'd never heard him mention his father, never even given much thought to the idea of him having one, but of course he hadn't sprung fully formed from some Olympian head. "Your father, eh?" I said. "If you're anything to go on, I bet he's a force to be reckoned with, what?"
"He was a formidable man, sir, in his time," Jeeves said to my foot. The odd quietness of it pointed to my blunder: his father was no longer with us. I was about to mutter some apology but Jeeves continued. "He was butler at Beacham Park for the last half of his life."
"Beacham Park? But I used to go there when I was a lad. The lady of the house was a great friend of my mother's. I don't remember what the butler's name was, but it wasn't Jeeves, as presumably it would've been had the chap been he."
"My father's health forced him to retire several years before he passed on," Jeeves said. "I doubt you would have been more than six years old at the time, sir."
I'd distracted him with the unhappy memories again; he was simply holding my right foot without doing anything to it. I gave the toes a wiggle and he snapped back into action, popping up and parking himself on a stool in front of me to get at my hands.
I don't know if it was the trip down memory lane or if it was simply a day for noticing things I didn't ordinarily notice, but I found myself very aware of Jeeves's hands as they went about their filing and clipping. I remembered—vividly, from all the boxing of ears and shoving-into of clothing they did—how rough and red my Nannie Pete's hands had been. Her name hadn't been Pete, of course. It had been Peterson, but she'd always been Nannie Pete to me. Ear-boxing or not, I'd been quite put out when Aunt Agatha had let her go after my parents joined the ranks of the dearly departed.
But to get back to the point, the hands that I was now inspecting were, while certainly a pair that had seen a good bit of work, not the painful-looking sandpapery sort one acquired when made to shove them constantly into dishwater and boot polish. They were as well-groomed as my own, not a nail chipped or a speck of dirt, and while a bit tough in places with small calluses, smooth. Large, of course, befitting such a giant among men, and strong, but also nimble enough to wield the tiny scissors with great precision. They were also, I noted, very warm. I couldn't help but gaze on them fondly, these singular appendages that hauled me so faithfully out of the soup time and again.
Jeeves didn't look up to see the fond g., which upon reflection was a good thing. I utter no end of rot in Jeeves's presence, but I could envision the polite throat-clearing and raised brow that would be the result of 'oh, I was just appreciating your hands.' Especially in light of recent topics of discussion, he might take such a thing in a different spirit than it was meant.
It was certainly the fumes of whatever tonic was added to the hot towels Jeeves swathed my head in that caused an unbidden and highly inappropriate thought about the hands in question to bubble its way up. Once said thought had made its entrance, though, I couldn't quite shake it and became very glad that there was a sheet draped round my shoulders to hide some rather damning evidence that would have made it plain what sort of thoughts I was thinking.
Not about Jeeves specifically, you understand. About hands in general, the merits of large strong ones, and the places they could go. This made twice in what by the clock wasn't even a full day. I am not made of stone, nor am I particularly pious, and as such do entertain the occasional impure thought and all that goes with it, but this was a level of distraction not seen since the days when my age ended in teen.
I hoped ignoring my condition would make it go away on its own, but it only got worse when the towels came off and the barbering began in earnest. Even so much as a fingertip applied to steady or guide seemed to send a little shot of fire southward, and the less said about the bally scalp massage the better. And there was a worse problem: any moment, Jeeves would declare the hair cut and whip off the sheet with a flourish.
About the only thing I could think of that was more unpleasant than sitting here in this state was Jeeves knowing I'd been sitting here in this state. And then what? It would be one thing if it had just happened on its own while I was a safe distance away and he'd just happened to notice, but at present he'd no doubt think it a result of his activities. He'd be horrified, he'd go, and there'd be no getting him back. I'd be forever denounced in the annals of valetry as some sort of carnivorous lech, if not simply left to the law to deal with.
That did the trick, thank heavens. Wooster Minor had the good sense to realise that a Jeevesless household was no world for Woosters of any sort, and meekly lay down enough so that there was not a nasty scene when the sheet came off. Still, I thought it best to keep my distance until I got matters under better control, so rather than malinger in the kitchen while he popped the luncheon makings into pots and pans as was sometimes my wont when I lacked for any better occupation, I parked myself at the piano for the duration and took care to choose tunes that would have him not wanting to be anywhere near me.
Intent on my ivory-tickling as I was, I failed to notice the ringing of the bell or the admitting of Stinker until he'd tripped over the entry rug and narrowly avoided smithereening a bookcase. I what-ho'd him heartily and very studiously did not think of hands as he shook mine.
"Keep playing if you like," he said, putting himself in a chair without incident. "I was just thinking I rather missed it."
This, I judged, was either a calculated bit of flattery in hopes of having me agree to whatever favour he was after, or a prelude to a dredging-up of history. Despite Stinker possessing all the guile of a soup spoon, I chose the conclusion that would not cause me to panic.
"Yes, I suppose you'd be rather starved for music that isn't all holy lambs and mountains green. Nothing against either, of course," I hastened to add, and launched into the first thing I could think of before he could say anything else. The first thing I thought of happened to be 'Everybody Loves My Baby,' likely owing to the fact that it had been a great favourite of both of ours back in the halcyon days of Magdalen. I'd meant to avoid anything that had even a flirtation with the subj., but I couldn't very well stop and change my mind halfway through.
Stinker was laughing when I'd finished. Wiping at a wistful eye he said, "Do you remember when you told Tuppy he could work off his bridge debt if he went and sang that under Old Wossit's window at midnight?"
Alas, memory lane was to be trodden whether I liked it or not. Still, it was a fond one, as anything that leaves Tuppy looking an ass tends to be, and I could not help but laugh reminiscently along with him. Old Wossit, for the uninitiated, was more formally known as one Oldham Wotherington, the exacting Informator and bane of all chorally inclined Magdalenians, famous for abhorring anything remotely modern.
"And then all he did was throw a shoe and grumble 'damn cat,'" I remembered. "I was rather hoping for at least a chamberpot. It would have stood me in good stead to look back on after Tuppy forced me into the Drones swimming bath in full evening dress."
"Oh, I don't know," Stinker said. "You've got to admit—"
I didn't find out what it was I had to admit, because Jeeves floated in to announce the readiness of lunch, and by the time we were seated and served, Stinker's mirth had faded and he was looking across the table at me with the baleful sort of eye McIntosh gets when he's been whacked with a newspaper. McIntosh being my Aunt Agatha's doted-upon dog, of course. I was a coward on instinct and did not tell him to out with it. "So how fares old Stiffy?" I asked instead. "All forward-march on the matrimonial bliss front?"
"Oh, yes," he said. "Partly why I'm in town, actually. The first batch of invitations went astray in the post somewhere and Stephanie insisted I collect the replacements from the engravers in person."
Never one to be cowed by ill omens, was Stinker. "Jolly good. When's the happy day?"
"First of August. Bertie, there's—" He stopped short as Jeeves came to deliver the main course. Speaking of ill omens, I thought it not a very good one that he didn't like to say whatever he was going to say with Jeeves in attendance. "You know you're my oldest friend, don't you?" he said when we were once again just the two.
I blinked. I rather would have thought the honour would go to some old school chum, but I was not one to question such things. Still: "Whenever that question has been asked of me, it's almost invariably ended with me in some sort of grave peril."
"Oh, it's nothing like that," he said with a laugh. "I only wanted to ask if you'd be best man."
I had to laugh myself. "With bells on," I said with relief. "But why this cloak and dagger bit? You could have asked me over the 'phone."
Stinker heaved a great heft of a sigh and let his fork clatter down to the plate. I could nearly hear Jeeves flinch on the other side of the door. "She's driving me mad, Bertie. Absolutely crackers. I'm the one that insisted on fetching the invitations because I had to get five minutes to breathe for myself."
"Aha," I said, understanding at last. "I'm sure Jeeves can find some way to get you out of it."
"No!" he exclaimed, with force, poised as though to physically restrain me if need be. "No. I don't want out of it."
I was unconvinced. If he couldn't stick her now, when she was still under the watchful thumb of Sir Watkyn Bassett, what of sharing house and home? "She's a corking girl, of course, but even the best of us err in our judgment on what we can bear to death-do-us-part with. Nothing wrong at all in it, as long as she thinks it was her idea to break it off."
"Anyone would think you didn't want me to marry her." I do believe he meant it to sting.
"I want you to marry whomever you want to marry," I said, piqued.
"Then why are you trying to get me out of it?"
"I thought you wanted out of it. Driving you mad, had to get away, that sort of thing. Leads one to the wanting-out-of-it conclusion."
"I don't. I have to marry her."
"I say! You haven't gone and got her—"
"No! Lord, no. It's—" He sighed, looked round, and dropped his voice so I could only barely hear. "Would you mind awfully sending Jeeves off on some errand or other?"
"He's got better things to do than listen at keyholes, you know." I was mildly insulted at the insinuation.
What could I do? I convinced him to at least finish the repast, though he only picked at his, and mine rather turned to ashes under the strain of all the impending doom. Dredging-up, I was sure of it, in which case I sincerely did not want Jeeves present myself. Not, of course, that he listens at keyholes unless absolutely necessary, but as I well knew it was easy to overhear things one didn't mean to hear.
Of course, I could think of no good reason to send Jeeves away that would sound plausible, so I quietly told him more or less the truth. "He seems to want to discuss something he doesn't want anybody else overhearing. In normal circs I'd tell you to put an ear to the wall and see what you could make of it, but if it's what I think it is, I think you might find the dark a better place to remain."
"Very good, sir." And who could blame him if he said it in a soupy tone? Very little good ever comes of my leaving him out of a scheme. "Will two hours be sufficient?"
"Oh, yes, I should think so. But don't come rushing back on my account. Have a nice leisurely afternoon somewhere." Bad enough I was telling him to go; the least I could do was not also dictate for how long.
He went, and I once-mored unto the breach. Stinker stood at the window and said nothing, watching until Jeeves was deposited onto the pavement below.
"Well?" I demanded, not the very soul of patience at this juncture. "You were about to tell me why you must marry Stiffy, I think, only I didn't get the impression it was your heart issuing the imperative."
He turned and fixed me with a moue of sad placidity. "It's my only chance."
While not the most prized catch going, if one went in for penniless clerics and didn't like to keep a lot of breakables about, one couldn't form a more perfect union. "Oh, come. Plenty of girls—"
"She's the only one that's ever interested me in the slightest." Not precisely the poetry of an adoring heart, but only once had I known him to be remotely soppy and those had been extreme circs. "And I've always wanted a family."
"Well, I hear marriage is the way to go about getting one. But for a man getting what he wants, you don't seem the picture of contentment."
"Don't be an ass, Bertie. You know what I am."
He went back to staring out the window. "I should be happy. Grateful I've got the chance to be respectable."
"You're perfectly respectable as you are. If one needs a wife to be respectable—"
"Oh, it's all right for you. Anybody with money can do as he likes without too much trouble." It's worth noting that Stinker did not have any aunts. "But for me it would only be a matter of time before people began to wonder."
He spun around, red in the face, raked a violent hand through his hair and half-shouted, "For pity's sake, have I got to spell it out?"
"Oh," I said. I'd been rather refusing to think about it, but there was now no avoiding allowing the thing to dawn. What he was getting at was that marriage, to a girl of any sort, wasn't what he wanted because he was— well, what had been to me a sort of minor indiscretion between us was something he might've liked to make a habit of. Not with me, necessarily, but certainly not with girls. Or, I realised with a gulp when I saw the look he was giving me, possibly indeed with me specifically. "Oh." Those declarations had not been mere drunken babble. And I'd gone and told him it meant nothing. "I'm so very sorry. If I'd known—"
"It wouldn't have made a bit of difference. You probably did us both a favour, just ending it then and there."
"I never meant to be ending anything. Only you looked so dashed horrified! I didn't want you to go away. I thought I could just sort of smooth it over and go on as we always had."
"Did you really?" He laughed, but it had a bitter edge to it.
"I don't know why that's so surprising. Everyone did in school. I thought it was the same sort of thing, romance of friendship and all that."
"On your side. That wasn't all it was for me."
"All I can do is be sorry," I said. "The last thing I ever wanted was to cause you any pain."
"I know that." He smiled in a soft sort of way. "You never want to cause anyone any pain. It's why you let everyone mess you about so."
"No one does any messing about of any Woosters," I protested, even as he caught me round the waist and pulled me towards him.
"Then why are you letting me do this?" His voice had taken on a gravelly quality.
I didn't know, really, but the steadily more embrace-like hold was beginning to stir the same stirrings that had so inconveniently stirred earlier.
"Why aren't you shoving me away?" This was said very near to my ear, and I shivered. "I think you like this. I don't think you like girls at all."
It was indeed an undeniable fact that no girl had ever had this effect on me, not even when I was fifteen and Minnie Walker had put her hand down my trousers. "I don't know anything anymore," I sighed. Because it was nice, too bally nice, but at the same time there was something not quite right. Not that it was wrong, but that it was missing that sort of rightness these things ought to have. What is a stirring embrace ever missing but contact of lips, I thought, and remedied the oversight.
There were not fireworks. My insides did not turn to jelly. That isn't to say it wasn't pleasant—no vicar or future vicar should have any right to kiss like that, for the good of the Church if nothing else—but that thingness I'd been seeking was still notably absent. I was also mildly surprised, when it stopped and I opened my eyes, that the ones blinking back in me in confusion were brown and not blue. In hindsight it makes perfect sense, of course, but at that present moment I put it down to misremembering.
"I'm sorry," I said, stepping back to a decent distance and hanging my head.
"It's not that I'm not a girl, is it? It's that I'm not— who, then?"
"I don't know. Perhaps there is no who and never will be." I peered at him worriedly. "I haven't made it worse, have I?"
"It would be my fault if you had."
"Do you love her? Stiffy, I mean. Even a little bit?"
"Yes. Not like I— yes. Enough, I think. I always knew I'd marry someone."
"And the driving you mad?"
"I hear it's a wife's job. I don't suppose you'll still stand up with me?"
"Of course I will, if you want me to."
He stepped up and again embraced me tightly, more along brotherly lines this time. "Thank you," he said, and I think it was for more than just agreeing to stand as best man.
And that was sort of that, in view of Stinker at least. We shared a not-horribly-uncomfortable parting glass in friendship and he went on his way.
In view of self, there was still quite a lot of working-out and mulling-over to do. There was absolutely no way past admitting that I'd enjoyed this kiss a great deal more than previous ones because it had occurred with someone of the male persuasion.
Modern medicine held that I should be going straight to Sir Roderick Glossop to apply for a padded room; modern law held that I should be in a cell of a different sort. As neither sounded pleasant, I dismissed both. Once upon a time, 'modern' medicine had believed one should bathe as little as possible and that drilling holes in one's head would release the demons. Perhaps this, too, would one day be looked back on as barbaric ignorance.
But why, then, if I was that way inclined, had something in me balked at the idea of inclining that way with Stinker? I could do much worse. Then again, I could do much worse than marry a few of the girls I hadn't married. And even if I could have, I wouldn't have married him. Ergo, as the Bard said, I did not love him. The thing to do, I reasoned, was not to be bothered about it until someone came along who I could love. If someone did.
I'd managed to work myself into decent spirits by the time Jeeves returned home, though I was still not entirely at ease in my mind and all its new discoveries.
"Was your conversation successful, sir?" Jeeves asked, and it's to his credit that there wasn't the faintest hint of soup in his voice.
"Oh, quite, quite," I said, for what else could I say? "A thing or two is cleared up that wanted clearing up, and all the wheels within wheels are set full steam ahead on the Stinker-Stiffy nuptials." There, that had something of the truth to it.
"I am glad to hear it, sir."
But the spirits declined into restlessness, and the B. Wooster who enjoyed his after-dinner gargle was a distinctly pacing creature. What was this missing rightness? Would I know it when it arrived? I flitted hither and thither, never managing to alight with any satisfaction.
"If you'll pardon the observation, sir," said Jeeves somewhere in the midst of the umpteenth unsettled turn about the room, "you seem out of sorts."
"I am, Jeeves, I am," I admitted, but I could admit no more than that, so I followed with, "and I don't know why. I should be resting perfectly content on the laurels of a job well done. And yet rest I cannot. The very cushions rankle, Jeeves."
"Perhaps a change of scenery, sir?"
I fairly groaned. "For the seventy-fifth time, Jeeves, we are not going to Japan." It was the latest destination set by his ever-present Viking spirit, and he'd been dropping little hints here and there for a few weeks now.
"I was more in mind of Paris in any case, sir," he said. "There is an exhibition of Eastern antiquities at the Grand Palais, and if some time out of London would improve your spirits, it would have the effect of killing two birds with one stone."
"This exhibish, it's rather a big do?"
"It has been much-anticipated, yes sir."
"Well, then, how the dickens will we find a hotel at such late notice?"
"I was given to understand that you had a house in the city at your disposal, sir."
"What, potty Uncle Henry's place?" Somehow I'd become trustee of it when he'd popped off to rabbit heaven. Uncle Henry had barely used it himself, in his dotage, and some old pal of his there looked after it for me. It was meant to go to Claude and Eustace, his sons and my own troublesome cousins, when they came of age.
Why he'd handed the reins to me and not to Aunt Emily with the rest of the estate was anyone's guess, but then again, there was a reason he was potty Uncle Henry. It didn't sound at all bad when I gave it a bit of thought. "I suppose it'll do," I said, "if the roof hasn't caved in. Can you get a telegram to Jonas Birmingham or whatever his name is, let him know we'll be turning up?"
I half-expected Jeeves to tell me he'd already arranged it all, but he simply very-good-sirred me (after correcting me on the point of the fellow's name, which was Brittingham) and shimmered out, leaving me alone with my thoughts.
The thoughts were not of a light and happy nature, and I eventually resolved that I just shouldn't have any more of them at all for the time being and called it an early night.
I did notice that Jeeves had laid out my red silk pyjamas without complaint, which he only did (without complaint, anyway) when he'd put me through some sort of ordeal or I was in a very bad mood. I don't know precisely what he had against them—I think I heard him mutter something about opium dens the day I came home with them—but the move was clearly calculated to cheer the young master up. Though it didn't really accomplish its intention with any great import, I took the gesture in the spirit intended.
Despite the stop-the-presses order I'd issued to the thinking mechanism of the bean, the cogs of thought kept not-so-merrily rolling along. Couple that with an overwarm night, as this night was, and you have the perfect recipe for a rapid boil of the stewpot of the mind that meant sleep proved elusive well into the ticking over of the wee hours.
The stew ingredients were, roughly, as follows:
One pint 'well, now, what does this make me?'
One half-pint 'what is this missing thingness?'
One pound hashed 'will I ever find it?'
One half-pound diced 'if I do, will it be found with a person of the male persuasion?'
One quarter-pound 'does such a person exist?'
Several teaspoons 'Jeeves will leave if he ever finds out.'
Plus a dash of bitters.
Somewhere along the way I moved my cogitations out to the sitting room in hopes of cooling off a bit. I'd been there some little time when a light caught my attention, revealing as its source a dressing-gowned Jeeves coming through the kitchen.
I must've looked a sad sight, a little red ball upon the sofa with my head upon my knees, because he instantly abandoned his quest for a glass of water or whatever he'd wanted and planted himself before me.
"Are you quite well, sir?" he asked, betraying as much concern as I'd ever seen from him.
"Yes, Jeeves, I'm fine. I simply can't sleep. Probably this heat." And it was dashed oppressive. Summery nights have never bothered me much since I've been grown, but as a child it used to send me into fits where I'd tear off my nightwear and some unfortunate servant would have to drag me out of whatever lake or pond was on the premises, in the middle of the night and naked as the day I was born. I've outgrown such practices except under the influence of a great deal of drink, fortunately, and even then the vestments tend to stay in place.
Jeeves floated out, and for a moment I thought he was leaving me to it, but he appeared back directly with a frosty glass of iced soda water and a cold wet cloth, applying the latter to the back of my neck. I didn't want the excuse of water-marks for the prized pyjamas joining the ranks of scores of objectionable ties and hats, so after weighing the options for a moment I unbuttoned the top and slid it off. The whole thing vastly improved my outlook, as though my mind had simply boiled over from all the stewing and needed to be cooled down.
"Thank you, Jeeves," I said with gratitude, drinking deep ere I spoke. I swiped haphazardly at a few drops that had escaped down my front. Jeeves produced a handkerchief from somewhere, and with an allow-me-sir, wiped them away more effectively. His fingers brushed against the skin of my neck in the process, and they were nice and cool too, probably from scrabbling round in the ice. I shivered slightly and he pulled his hand away. I was on the verge of telling him to put it back. Such a request could not have gone over well, and luckily I had no chance to make it because he laid a cool palm across my forehead.
"I feared you might be feverish, sir," he explained, the posish we were in requiring that to be said rather close to my ear.
Unfortunately, I have a bit of a thing about my ears, and that piled onto earlier events and thoughts and whatever was the matter with me caused, yet again, the unbidden stirrings I'd been fending off all day. This would most certainly not do. "I think I can sleep now, Jeeves," I said, extracting myself as quickly as possible without making it obvious I was trying to escape. "Sorry to have kept you up." I hied the traitorous corpus to the concealing cover of bedclothes while there was still time.
Jeeves followed me in with the forgotten pyjama top, luckily not before I was safely covered, and helped me into it. When I looked up to thank him, I reeled and would have fallen had I been standing: his eyes were the exact shade of blue I'd been expecting earlier.
The turmoiled stew gained another ingredient, once I'd stammered a goodnight and been left to my own devices: what in bally blue blazes did that mean? It seemed to me as though Jeeves's so-called psychology of the individual might well apply, but I couldn't precisely ask him. Did I sub-whatsit-ly want to kiss Jeeves?
Cautiously, I prodded that thought and attempted to imagine it, and good lord. The stirrings whipped themselves into a full-on dervish, and I think I might have actually groaned.
Anyone who knows me will lay good money that I will be among the last to work a thing out, when a thing needs working out, but this? This was so stupidly simple that even one so slow of study as Bertram ought to have eureka'd it straight away. Too many cooks had spoilt the broth and I'd missed what was right in front of me. Jeeves was the only person I'd ever wanted with me in a permanent way. He often knew me better than I knew myself. He made me laugh, and I spent his absences in a hopeless funk. If that was not deep and abiding love, I didn't know what was.
But on the heel of one woe, after only the briefest respite of relief, another tread. Stirrings and stew were both washed down the drain by a ponderous vat of 'oh no.' If I thought he'd be horrified at wrongly thinking I was...stirred by him, that paled against him thinking it rightly. He'd run for the hills at something so improper. Whatever revolutionary theoreticals he might posit, I'm sure he had no idea of them ever applying to him in an actual and specific way. Icy tendrils of fear wove themselves round my heart.
Jeeves could not go. That was, and always had been, absolutely paramount, even if it meant labouring in some harsh wintry place forever unrequited.
His mere companionship would have to suffice, as it always had done, because the thought of his going was more awful than ever, more so even than places harsh or wintry. Thus decided, I drifted at last into fitful slumber.