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Psmith and the After-Lunch Winter

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“This is quite the pastoral estate, sedate in its grandeur, but with lashings of mystery,” solemnly commented young Rupert, aged a sensitive eleven years.

“You’ll enjoy rambling about in the garden,” his father replied, holding on to his hat with a firmness that Rupert wished he would instead apply to his grip on the wheel. The car (driven with a terrifying speed by Smith Sr) careened round a bend.

“And how do you know the owner of this charming property?”

“My old tutor at Oxford. I couldn’t possibly pass through this part of the country without looking him up,” Smith Sr answered, as though to a friend or colleague. Such had always been their rapport; inasmuch as he noticed at all that his son was unlike other boys, it was only to thank his stars for being blessed with a thoughtful child who ran rings around him instead of around the house.

The old professor greeted them at the door himself, which Rupert thought rather casual. He was a kindly-looking man with a twinkle of secrets dancing behind his eyes. Rupert would have liked to posit some of his in-progress hypotheses about life and Louis XVI to him for what promised to be well-reasoned feedback, but alas, it was not to be. After a bountiful lunch, during which his father and Professor Kirke exchanged memories like chocolates, the housekeeper, in all her formidable, tightly-bunned glory, appeared menacingly in the doorway.

“Unfortunately, it has started to rain, so you can’t play in the garden. However, you can have the run of the house,” Professor Kirke said. “Much more entertaining for a boy like you than sitting cooped up in this room listening to boring talk.”

Rupert revised his opinion of the professor; perhaps he was not such a kindred spirit, if he could not see that Rupert would have preferred this above all else. But he was nothing if not an obliging house guest. He rose from the table with a practiced grace, especially for one of his middling stature (while tall for his age, he had not yet achieved the remarkable height that was to be his destiny).

“I leave you to your after-lunch drinks, and bid you a good afternoon. Is there a greenhouse in which I might stroll? A music room containing a lyre, upon which I might strum melancholy songs of a lonely heart?”

For reasons unknown to Rupert, almost nothing flapped the professor, not even a speech such as this. The twinkle behind his eyes danced even more balletically when he replied, “Not a lyre, but there’s a harp in one of the rooms in the East wing. Would you show him there, Mrs. Macready?”

“Contrary to what Professor Kirke said, there will be no running,” the worthy woman said on their way to the east wing. “Do you understand me, boy?”

She then proceeded to give a sort of Gettysburg address about the history of the house and the importance of preservation. Rupert listened to it all with a pliant air. Having secured her trust with honeyed words, quiet respect, and appreciative questions about the window treatments, he then proceeded to wander wherever he pleased.

Almost at the beginning of his expedition through the east wing, he found a lovely room all hung with green. The promised harp sat prettily in one corner. Having found this first token, Rupert paused his exploration in order to brighten the world with a little more song, even though he was too young for wine, and had little use for girls. About ten minutes of painful plinking later, it occurred to him that he didn’t know the first thing about playing the harp; his practical education in music had not progressed beyond blowing into a recorder in the nursery.

He continued his self-guided tour with the careful plodding of a jungle explorer, though he doubted he would find the source of the Nile along this dusty corridor. He poked his head into room after room, eventually finding himself in one that was quite empty except for a large and very handsome wardrobe.

Rupert took a moment to admire the woodwork on the face, and then opened it. In the looking-glass on the inside right door, he could see that his exertion with the harp had wrinkled the line of his collar. He fixed it now. Immaculate once again, he looked inside the wardrobe and discovered an impressive line of fur coats hanging in a row.

In some few ways, Rupert was like other children. One of those ways was an attraction to the tactile and textured. He rubbed his string-blistered fingers over the soft mink, and smiled. A pleasant thought occurred to him. He was in short pants and short sleeves today (for it was quite hot, despite the rain). Why should he not bathe, figuratively, of course, in this luxuriant fur?

He stepped inside the wardrobe, and turned round and round, rubbing every bit of himself in the fur. He was glad that there was no one about to see him acting so childishly. While spinning, he lost track of which direction the open door lay (for he was too wise to have shut himself in). He eventually became dizzy and stumbled forward, landing on something much pricklier than the hard floor of the spare room.

Looking up, he saw that he was in a wintry forest wonderland. Like one of the Dutch landscapes he and his father both admired.

“Curioser and curioser,” he mused to himself.

He removed one of the coats from its hangar, checked behind him to ensure that the spare room was still accessible through the door, and set off. Instead of a jungle explorer, he was now an intrepid Arctic surveyor, plunging forward despite wearing shoes insufficient to the task.

The forest was beautiful but quiet. So quiet that Rupert could almost hear the snow falling. The only living creature he saw after a few minutes’ walk was a larger-than-usual fox who crossed his path. The fox paused to give him a shocked and, frankly, disapproving look before continuing on its way. If Rupert had possessed that quality of embarrassment, which so often went hand in hand with flappability, he would have felt embarrassed now. But since his babyhood, during which his nurse had called him the most self-possessed little lord she’d ever had the pleasure to slap, Rupert had never once felt embarrassed nor flapped. Not even when he could have sworn the fox had muttered under its breath, “Is it mad? A human, walking about in the open like this! The queen shall kill him if she finds him.”

Rupert decided his ears were playing tricks on him. He continued, unperturbed.

Soon after his altercation with the fox, he heard something new. This time, it was the swooshing sound of a sleigh cutting its path. Rupert stood between two trees and waited for the vehicle to come into view.

His patience was well-rewarded, for the sleigh was a beautiful example of craftsmanship, and its occupants a fascinating study in contrasts. The driver was shorter than Rupert’s little sister, but with a beard to rival Rip Van Winkle’s, while the passenger was the tallest woman Rupert had ever seen. He might have called her beautiful, had her face not been so pale. She wore a crown, which suggested she was a personage of some importance.

Rupert patted one of the reindeer, who nuzzled into his affectionate hand. He had often found that befriending animals was a certain way to ingratiate himself with their owners.

“A beautiful breed,” he said, congratulating the pale lady. “What do you call them?”

Instead of answering, the woman rose and asked in a terrifying voice, “What, pray, are you?”

It was not the opening salvo he had expected, but he responded with dignity. “An excellent question, one for the ages, in fact. My aunts have called me ‘the soul of impertinence’, my school masters ‘a sorry student’, and my sister, ‘a spoilsport boy’. Such confusion is enough to cause anyone an identity crisis. The cry goes up, ‘But what is he? This boy? What shall he become?’ I suppose that, instead of relying upon the attributes others have given me, I ought to forge my own path, decide my identity for myself.”

When she had posed her question, the beautiful, pale lady had looked as though she’d been on the verge of doing something unpleasant with the wand she held. However, as Rupert’s speech continued, her brow furrowed and the tip of the wand moved lower and lower, as her hand held it in increasingly limp confusion. Rupert was seized with a horror of that wand.

“Are a son of Adam?”

“My father's name is George.”

“A boy. You said you are a boy.”

“A mere boy, I know. But one day… one day… All flowers bloom, unless they are cut off by a frost, which this one might do for me. I say, can you tell me about this abrupt change of weather?”

“It has been winter in Narnia for almost a hundred years,” she answered, still eyeing him with a mixture of fear, hatred, and befuddlement. “There has been no change.”

Rupert nodded sympathetically. “My mother feels similarly. She has one of those delicate constitutions, which feel cold no matter where they are or what season is upon them. A hot cup of tea has always done the trick. I recommend it to you, too. Oolong is the preferred variety.”

“Enough of this chatter. Are you, or are you not, a human boy?”

“None other,” Rupert replied, though it seemed to him a rather obvious question from such an otherwise intelligent-seeming grown-up.

“Have you come from Archenland? Broken through the barrier of ice that separates our realms and forced yourself into my dominion?”

Rupert had no idea what Archenland might be, and assumed it was part of an elaborate metaphor. “No, I came from a goodish trudge in that direction.” He pointed back where he’d come from. “I was in London this morning.”

She started at that. “You come from London? The dirty capital of the world of men. I remember it well.”

“Oh, do you?” Rupert asked pleasantly. “Where do you stay when you visit? My father has a snug flat in Kensington for when he—”

“Have you come to conquer me, then?” the lady interrupted. “To despoil me?”

Rupert blushed, or perhaps it was the cold making his cheeks ruddy. “I dare say I’m a bit young for that yet. And even in a few years… I do not mean to offend, but…” Not even Rupert’s already considerable skills of articulation could find a diplomatic way of saying that even had he been old enough to take an interest in such things, this woman would most not likely be ‘his type'.

Luckily, she didn’t seem to notice. Next, she asked, “What about the others?”

“What others?”

“The prophesy says there are four of you. Four siblings, who come together and…”

“I have but one sibling. An younger sister. I’ve no doubt her heart means well, but she…”

The lady sank back down into her seat and began mumbling to herself, quite rudely cutting into Rupert’s flow. “Only one of each, so not to worry.” Her face softened and she looked at him with new kindness. “You must be cold, my child. Would you like to sit here with me? I can provide refreshments that will warm you from the inside out.”

But kind as her eye pretended to be, Rupert had studied enough of the human (or not so human) comedy in his scant years to detect the dangerous gleam that burned behind the mask. And now, the fox’s mumbled warning became all too relevant.

“I thank you for the offer,” he said politely, “but I had a large breakfast—with kippers!—this morning, and only just now rose from a generous lunch.”

“Yes, but…” she began, in her most supplicating tones.

“But the day is waning, and the sun setting. It is not to be, thee and me. You seem a jolly nice queen—I dare to assume as much from the crown on your handsome head—and I would so love to study with you the arts of statecraft and diplomacy in more detail, but if I am not back in time for tea, I shall catch it. Have you ever been on the receiving end of a housekeeper’s wrath? No? Well, I shall inform you, it is formidable. Queens and emperors have quaked before it. Maharajahs have quivered. Mere human boys such as myself bear it as best we can. I’ll simply jog back now. However, next time you are in London, it would be a pleasure to see you again. Simply ask for a family by the name of Smith.” (For the first time in his life, Rupert was seized with a happiness to be in possession of such a common name.) “It was a joy and to make your acquaintance, and yours, too, sir,” he said, bowing quickly to the silent dwarf, for a dwarf it must be. “And so, farewell, my regal vision.”

More quickly than anyone might have expected from a boy so statuesquely still, he jumped up, and with long arms, snatched the wand that had tapped on the queen’s knee throughout this speech right out of her hands. She screamed and reached out to grab him, but Rupert had learned nimbleness at a young age, and was out of her grasp in an instant. He ran, faster than the dwarf, who was old and wheezy, could hope to follow. His mistress was too well-swaddled to be able to give immediate chase. And so, Rupert got a decent head start. He ran faster than he ever had, even in school cricket, and threw the wand away into the forest as he ran.

“That way, boy!” the helpful fox, reappearing from a hole, urged. “To the left! That’s where you came from.”

“Much obliged!” Rupert whispered to this unexpected savior.

Soon, he was back amongst the furs. He hung his coat back on its hangar and closed the door behind him.

“I desire some normal company, to soothe my nerves,” he said to the empty room, before setting off to the central part of the house again.

“Back again so soon, Rupert?” his father asked.

“Did you find the harp?” the Professor inquired.

“I did. And a most…” Rupert shook his head. “The mellifluous tones, in concert with the large and delicious lunch, must have lulled me to sleep, a sleep haunted by strange dreams.”

“It couldn't have been a long nap. You've barely been gone,” his father said.

“Really? It seems as though I've been gone hours,” Rupert said, but the clock struck a mere three o'clock, proving his father correct.

Seven Years Later

“Come on, Smith,” Mike entreated. “What do you mean, you won’t get in the sleigh?”

It was the first big snowstorm of the winter term at Cambridge, and all the college was out making merry. Some Blood had rented sleighs, and meant for all the King’s men to ride through the village and pelt houses with snowballs. It was the sort of rag Mike relished most. He’d thought Psmith would feel similarly, and could not understand his friend’s reluctance.

“I have had a horror of sleighs since my youth,” Psmith explained.

“Whatever for?”

“They portend danger and doom. Do you not agree? There was an episode in my youth… nay, a nightmare, more likely. But it scarred me, Comrade Jackson. The lesions still mark my heart.”

“This is all rot though,” Mike said, and was about to get into it, when a new voice interrupted him.

“It isn’t rot at all. I can’t stand sleighs either.” It was Pevensie, one of those watching, waiting chaps who said little most of the time, and then came out with the most extraordinary statements. “Especially when you don’t put bells on them, as Anderson is proposing. I’ll sit this rag out with you, Smith.”

Mike had been at primary school with the chap, and had tried to warn Psmith away when he’d recognized him again at Cambridge.

“The meanest, most spiteful little beast I ever met,” had been his invective at the beginning of the year. “He was the sort of boy who would have thought painting a dog was a funny sort of joke. He’d rat people out even when it did him no good.”

However, he’d had to admit, as the weeks went by and their paths continued to cross, that Pevensie had changed. No longer spiteful, no longer a beast. He kept to himself, mostly, but wasn’t a bad sort. He was not popular in the way that Mike, and even Psmith were, but everyone respected him, and liked him.The only fault Mike could find with him these days was that he went in for fencing and boxing instead of cricket. But he excelled so much at his chosen sports that not even Mike could begrudge him following his passions.

“I will feel Comrade Jackson’s desertion cruelly, but your solidarity is much appreciated, Comrade Pevensie.”

“Are you a socialist, Smith?” Pevensie asked.

“I am. May I spend the evening swaying you to the cause?”

Pevensie shook his head. “I’m a monarchist, through and through.”

“Constitutional or absolutist?”

Pevensie thought. “Absolute, I suppose. But in practice, I was always open to something a bit more democratic.”

Mike thought the phrasing strange, and a bit above himself, because Pevensie was a decent enough chap, but no king. However, he thought it best not to comment.

“And whence comes your aversion to sleighs, Comrade?”

“Rum sort of run-in as a child. Wouldn’t make any sense to explain,” Pevensie said dismissively, but the true horror of whatever memory he'd recalled flashed across his face, belying his words. “You?”

“An after-lunch nightmare I had as a boy. My imagination was always feverish, but never more so than after a triple helping of steak and kidney pie. It was all quite realistic. A mere dream, but it stayed with me. Monstrously tall queens with frightening wands, wintry forests, sullen dwarves, talking foxes, unexpected references to the Book of Genesis—”

“What is this nonsense?” Mike asked, but Pevensie sat up as straight as a cricket bat and turned rather pale.

“And where did you have this lunch? I mean… Were you in your home when you had this dream?”

“It was during a visit to one of my father’s old Oxford tutors. I know, it is a great shame, to be descended from enemy stock, but I hope that one day we can put these inter-university quibbles between us, and exist in educational harmony and—”

“Professor Kirke?” Pevensie asked in a rush. “Is that whose estate you were visiting?”

“You are also acquainted with him, I take it?”

“My siblings and I spent a summer with him during the war. Pure coincidence, but…”

“Fascinating cabinetry he has. Don’t you agree?”

The other chaps were outside calling for Mike to come along, but he was rooted in the room. His was an ordinary mind, but even he could see that something of import was happening here, with Psmith and Pevensie staring open-mouthed at each other. It wasn’t every day Mike got to see Psmith looking gob-smacked. He decided to stay and see it through.