'I still don't understand why I couldn't wear the yellow tie, Jeeves. It was a perfectly good example of spring season neckwear.' Bertram W. Wooster frowned down at the grey tie that now cut a straight line down his sternum, then looked up at his valet. The man in question was occupied with handing Bertie his hat and whangee, and the serene, blank look didn't flinch from his face at the faint protest from his master.
'I hesitate to correct you, sir,' Jeeves answered loftily, 'but the aforementioned article did not appear to me to be a good example of anything, barring, of course, an unnecessarily bright beacon, suitable for flagging down faraway ships from a desert shore.'
Bertie took the offered hat and walking stick with a sigh. He'd thought himself very clever, trying to sneak out the door with his new tie firmly wrapped round his neck. But even in the rush to make their appointment, Jeeves had sniffed out the contraband article and stopped Bertie before he could dash down the staircase. A small verbal skirmish had resulted in Jeeves' victory, of course. The valet had efficiently swapped the bright yellow with the more staid dove grey, which wasn't nearly as natty as far as Bertie could see. 'I wish you'd allow me just one or two splashes of colour in the Wooster wardrobe,' he lamented, fixing his hat on his melon. 'But you know best, I suppose.'
'Thank you, sir.' Jeeves' own bowler hat alighted on his majestic head, which tipped towards Bertram in acknowledgement. 'If you are ready, sir, we should be able to arrive at the tailor's with a few moments to spare. It is nearly the appointed hour of your fitting.'
Bertie agreed, giving one last mournful glance at the yellow tie, which was now draped over the back of the chesterfield where Jeeves had placed it after the hurried exchange. Then the door of the flat shut behind them, and Jeeves locked it with his usual care. Bertie was already toddling down the stairs, swinging his cane idly in one hand and whistling a new tune under his breath. He didn't yet know the lyrics, but he thought they had something to do with rafting down a river. Sounded downright cheerful, in Bertie's opinion.
Jeeves caught up to the young master at the bottom of the stairs, where Jarvis the doorman touched the brim of his hat and wished them both a good day before opening the front door for them. Bertie gave him a friendly 'What-ho!' while Jeeves offered a more demure, 'Good afternoon, Mr Jarvis.'
Out in the square, the sun shone smartly and the breeze blew with gentle pleasantness. Bertie took in a healthy breath and grinned up at the man at his side.
'I say, Jeeves, I was just about to suggest a vacation to someplace with a river; part of a song that's stuck in my noggin, you see.' He picked his way down the front steps with a lighthearted bounce. 'But nothing can beat the city in the springtime, what?'
Jeeves followed in his usual soundless glide. 'Indeed, sir. The sight of flowers blossoming and birds singing after such a long winter is most welcome.'
Bertie favoured the overflowing window boxes with a wide smile as they passed them by. 'I always did enjoy geraniums, Jeeves. My Aunt Charlotte used to keep loads of them in her flowerpots every summer. Such cheerful little fellows, so red and bright.'
'Yes, sir,' Jeeves said, keeping pace alongside Bertie on the wide sidewalk. 'Though the flowering plant that is usually called a geranium is actually a different genus entirely. It might interest you to know—'
'Oh, I don't think it would.' Bertie scrunched his face up distrustfully. 'I mean to say, if we're all calling it a geranium, than a geranium is what is it. No sense mucking around with genus, as they say.'
Jeeves regarded Bertie from the corner of his eye. 'Very true, sir.'
'It's a strange business, Jeeves. This name thingummy.' Bertie squinted up at the sky and poked the tip of his tongue out of his lips in thought. 'I don't believe I—'
'Oi there!' a voice called. Bertie had to take two steps backwards to find its source: a narrow alley, where the greeting had echoed after them.
'Yes?' Bertie answered politely, stepping closer.
From the dark recesses of the alley, a man in a dust-coloured jacket appeared. 'Have you got the time?' he asked.
Jeeves stepped in front of Bertie smoothly, taking his pocket watch out for consultation. 'Certainly. It is—'
But just as Jeeves was about to parse out the solicited information, the strange man pulled a metallic, glinting something from his jacket pocket, aimed it, and fired it. It was only after ten whole seconds had passed that Bertie realised the something was actually a gun: five to recover from the loud banging noise, three to stand in shock, and two to grope for the word 'gun'.
Bertie turned round, his mouth and eyes as wide as they had ever been. Jeeves had fallen to the cobble-stoned ground on his back, his gold watch still gleaming in his hand, his face turned away from Bertie's sight.
'Jeeves,' Bertie breathed. Every muscle in the Wooster body appeared to be frozen, even as the mind screamed in wordless horror. And it seemed that, for a long time, nothing happened.
Then time seemed to catch up with itself, going from still to incredibly sped up. A heavy hand landed on Bertie's shoulder, and he found himself pushed back against the rough brick of the alley wall. Bertie's walking stick clattered to the ground, dropped from his numb fingers. The strange man, the one with the gun, was hissing in his face, but Bertie couldn't hear anything beyond the whooshing of blood in his ears. He craned his neck to see Jeeves over the man's dust-coloured shoulder; the valet's right arm moved slightly, groping along the ground as if for purchase. Still alive!
'Jeeves!' Bertie surged forward in an attempt to get to the man's side, to help him however he could, but the stranger's strong hands held him back.
'The money!' he was shouting in a coarse accent. 'Hand over your bloody pocketbook!'
'Money? I don't have any money!' Bertie said, his mind whirling in circles so fast, he couldn't even understand the demand.
'What do you mean, no money? Are these clothes just a costume, then?' The man grabbed a hold of Bertie's grey silk tie and pulled hard enough to choke. Bertie gasped for breath, his fingers scrabbling at his throat.
'N-no...I mean, I don't carry money. Jeeves...my man...he carries my billfold,' Bertie managed in a tortured voice.
The man released his tie and shoved him in Jeeves' direction. 'Then get it off a' 'im, damn it!'
Bertie didn't need any more encouragement to scurry to Jeeves' side. He knelt down on the cool flagstones, gazing down at the black-clad figure. Jeeves' chest was rising and falling slowly, and ragged, bubbling breaths were hanging audibly in the air. Bertie reached out and took Jeeves' face in his hands, turning him to get a better look. Pale, the man's face was so pale. Even his lips looked ashen. As Bertie watched, his eyelids fluttered once, twice, and then his dark blue eyes, glazed with pain, looked up at Bertie.
'Sir...?' he whispered, his voice a thin and brittle line. 'What...?'
'I don't have all day,' the hated voice of the gunman sneered, and Bertie was cuffed soundly on the back of his head. 'Get it off a' 'im now!'
'All right, all right!' Bertie babbled, hunching down away from any repeat blows that might come. He spread Jeeves' black suit coat open, and then bit down on a wail of anguish. Bits of red were flecked against Jeeves' crisp white shirt. Bertie glanced over Jeeves wildly, searching for the wound. There it was: an ugly rent in the fabric of his black waistcoat, on his left side. There was so much blood gushing forth, Bertie wasn't sure what to do. He pressed a hand over the bullet wound in a panicked attempt to stop it up, but Jeeves cried out, a sound of pure agony, and Bertie pulled his hand away, sticky and red. Jeeves' eyes slid shut again as if he hadn't the strength to keep them open.
'Well? Does he have it or doesn't he?'
Bertie felt the cold, hard steel of a gun barrel press against the back of his head, digging into his tousled curls. He shut his eyes with a whimper. 'Just, just give me one moment. Please,' he said as levelly as he could manage. He curled his shaking fingers in the lapel of Jeeves' coat, trying to regain his composure.
'Hurry it up,' the man said.
'Please,' Bertie said again, and he suddenly was aware of the tears leaking from the corners of his eyes.
'I swear to God I'll shoot him in the heart if you don't hand over that pocketbook,' was the answering growl. The weapon gave a menacing click.
'No! Please, don't.' Bertie snaked his hands back into Jeeves' coat, feeling along for the inner pocket. He was both gratified to feel the lungs under his hands drawing breath, and scared to feel how slow their movements were. Finally, his fingers clutched at the items Jeeves always kept in his suit coat. He tore them out and rifled through them: a telegraph pad, a small notebook, a train schedule...
'Here! That's all of it,' Bertie said, finally turning to hand the gunman the leather billfold. 'Now please...' He spread his arms as if to protect Jeeves from any more attacks, unsure of what the man would do next, if he would follow through on his threat for no reason other than he could.
The man flipped through the neat folds of cash with a frown. 'Hand over the watches too.'
'The what?' Bertie gaped.
'Watches!' The gun was waved in his face. 'Both of them! Give them here.'
Bertie's uncooperative fingers fumbled with his watch chain. It was a gold watch; a memento from his father. It was inscribed with his parents' wedding date. Bertie was ashamed to realise he didn't care. He handed the thing over without a second thought.
'And the other chap's.'
He pried the pocket watch from Jeeves' hand and unhooked it from its chain with shaking fingers. 'I'm sorry, Jeeves. Lord, I'm sorry,' he whispered.
For one moment, Jeeves opened his eyes again. His lips parted, but no words came out.
The trinket was ripped from Bertie's hands the moment he had it free. Then the gunman shoved the items in his trouser pocket, gave a small, unfathomable bow, and disappeared into the street. Bertie was left in the dark alley, kneeling beside Jeeves, his heart racing in his chest.
Snap out of it, Wooster! he told himself sternly. He dashed a hand across his wet eyes and then tore his suit coat from his shoulders. Jeeves was in dire need of help, and he couldn't just sit there like a gaping goldfish and let his man down. He balled the coat in his hands and pressed it to the wound in Jeeves' side to staunch the flow of blood. Pressure, that's what was needed. Bertie vaguely remembered such a tactic from one of his murder mysteries.
'S-sir,' Jeeves said quietly, his glassy eyes wandering over Bertie's face.
'Stay awake, Jeeves. Keep your eyes open,' Bertie ordered, not knowing if keeping one's eyes open would do any good in this kind of situation; he only knew it would make him feel better if Jeeves was awake and with him. 'It's going to be all right.'
'Not the blue stripe, sir,' Jeeves whispered. His hands came up to lay atop Bertie's on the bundled suit coat. His eyes fell shut once more, fluttering with the effort to remain open and losing the battle. 'It will be ruined...'
'I don't give a damn about the blue stripe!' Bertie cried, keeping a firm hold on his makeshift bandage. From the edge of his vision, he saw a few shapes of what must have been passersby, and he remembered that this was the proper time to call for help. So he screamed his head off, and two stalwart-looking fellows came running. One was wearing a postman's uniform, so Bertie guessed he might be a postman. The other looked like a window-washer, clothed in dingy coveralls.
For the rest of his days, Bertie promised himself, he would never say an unkind word about either postmen or window-washers.
'He's been shot,' Bertie said, or at least he think he said, as the men approached with helping hands outstretched. He could have been babbling in Bantu for all the sense he seemed to be making.
'Calm down, lad,' the postman said. 'He needs a doctor.'
'Dr Hollis has a surgery four blocks down,' the maybe-window-washer suggested.
'Too far. Is there a place nearby we can carry him, lad?'
Bertie stared down at his hands, now jumbled with Jeeves', on top of the pinstriped coat. It was becoming soaked with blood, sodden and heavy with it. It squelched from between his fingers.
'Hey!' The postman shook Bertie by the shoulder.
'Er, yes. Yes, my flat is around the corner. Berkeley Mansions,' Bertie finally answered. A small crowd seemed to be gathering now at the mouth of the alley, and the postman put them all to good use.
'You!' he directed a small boy. 'Run to Dr Hollis and tell him to come to— The number, lad, the number!'
'Six-A,' Bertie said.
'To six-A, Berkeley Mansions.' The boy scampered off. 'And you!' The postman pointed to someone else milling in the crowd. 'Find a bloody policeman!'
'Let's lift on three, shall we?' The window-washer grabbed Jeeves' legs, and the postman took his arms.
'Please be careful,' Bertie said. 'Please.'
'No worries, lad. You just keep holding that over the bleeding and don't let up. Ready? One, two...'
There followed a flurry of activity, the carrying of Jeeves' limp body, the parting of the crowd and the cries of women at the sight of the blood on the ground. Bertie kept pace with the two workmen, keeping his coat clasped over the bullet hole, feeling Jeeves' limp hands fall away from his to hang in the air. He dared a glance at Jeeves' face. His eyes were closed. Outside of this insane scene, with all these people and all this shouting, Bertie might have believed he was sleeping peacefully.
'Don't worry, Jeeves,' he murmured, more to himself than anything. 'It's going to be all right.' Though he had no idea if this was the truth.