“Jeeves,” I said, “I have a problem.”
My more hard-bitten and cynical readers are no doubt already rolling their eyes and stifling yawns. This, they are probably saying, is stale material. When, they may be asking themselves, does this Wooster not have a problem?
I entreat those readers to keep their shirts on, and what’s more, to hold onto their hats. For this was no garden variety broth that the young master had waded into; nor was it one that called for ordinary methods of fishing-out.
“I am sorry to hear that, sir,” said Jeeves, bunging the customary brandy and soda onto the side table in a soothing manner. “Might I be of any assistance?”
I pondered. “No, Jeeves,” I said after a moment. “I think not. I’m inclined to believe that this is one of those unsolvable crises that one runs up against from time to time in the course of life, of the ‘Does aught befall you’ variety. Part of the great web, and all that. I probably wouldn’t even have bothered to bring it up if I weren’t already several sheets to the wind.”
He gave me one of those grave, sympathetic looks that have got him so well liked among the right-thinking sort. “Perhaps if you were to elucidate the nature of the problem, sir, I might at least suggest some palliative measure,” he said.
I waved a weary snifter. “Very well. The fact is, I’m in love.”
“Indeed, Jeeves. What’s more, I’m in love with someone I can’t possibly have.”
“I see, sir. Are the young lady’s affections engaged elsewhere?”
I unshipped a bitter laugh. “I fear you have dealt the nail but a glancing blow.”
“I’m afraid I do not understand, sir.”
“I’m going to tell you something that I really ought not to tell you. And I only tell you this because, as I said, I am presently stewed to the gills. No doubt I will regret it in the morning, or possibly sooner. However, I am past caring.”
Jeeves was registering about as much concern as he ever does by this point, mainly in the shape of drawing in his eyebrows about half a millimeter and pursing his lips a bit. But he stood by with an attitude of respectful silence, waiting for me to spill the beans.
I took a fortifying swig, and spilled them.
“I am in love with Esmond Haddock.”
Do you know this Haddock? If so, I hope you will bear with me while I put the stragglers abreast. He first swam into my ken a few years ago when I was forced, by a dashed peculiar concatenation of events, to pop down to a hell-hole in South Hampshire called Deverill Hall and skulk about the place for several days incognito as Gussie Fink-Nottle. Esmond was one of the tenants of this dump, along with about fifty-three aunts, his cousin Gertrude, and Jeeves’s uncle Charlie.
The long and short of it is that this Esmond loved my pal Cora “Corky” Pirbright with a passion, and she in turn loved him with a passion, but something of a rift had sprung up between them on account of Esmond’s unfortunate tendency to grovel before his aunts. So naturally, Jeeves and I had rallied round to bring the sundered hearts back together, mainly by way of giving poor old Esmond’s confidence a much-needed boost, thereby allowing him to defy the aunts and ride off with Corky into the sunset. This we accomplished by ensuring that he was the toast of the village concert—not a terribly difficult feat, given the blighter’s natural talents and sheer, animal magnetism.
I should mention that Esmond Haddock was one of these preternaturally good-looking birds, if preternaturally is the word I want. He looked rather like what you would get if you crossed Lord Byron with Henry Irslinger and tossed in a dollop of Adonis for good measure.
What’s more, it was borne in upon me after spending about two minutes in his society that he was both a sound egg and a kindred spirit. We bonded more or less instantly over a fine bottle of port, and had barely got the preliminaries out of the way before we were dancing on the table and singing hunting songs together like ancient chums.
Anyway, being dashed fond of both Corky and Esmond, I considered theirs a consummation devoutly to be wished. I spared no effort in pushing the thing along. Once safely ensconced in the W1 postal district once more, I raised a relieved glass to their health and happiness. I may even have shed a manly tear or two, for we Woosters are always deeply moved by our friends’ triumphs.
And yet, for some time after, I found myself strangely distracted. I could not stop thinking of Esmond. I missed his society, of course. But I also found my thoughts lingering on the wavy hair, the dark and flashing eyes, and the broad shoulders. And with these thoughts came the blushing cheeks, the jelly-like kneecaps, and the quivering ventricles.
It would have taken a far duller mind than Bertram Wooster’s to miss the signs. Esmond Haddock had got right in amongst me, and was proceeding to give me the works.
By the time our present story begins, several months had passed, and time was doing its great healer stuff to good effect. And then, just when I thought I’d managed to give all these unwanted emotions the bum’s rush, I ran into Esmond again. I had stepped into the Criterion for a refreshing snootful. Almost at once, I spotted a familiar figure bent over the bar, apparently in the midst of drowning its sorrows in a pint of something. The heart-strings gave a zing, and my feet steered me forward of their own accord.
“Esmond!” I cried.
He slowly raised his head, and gazed at me with bleary, red-rimmed eyes. “Gussie?” he creaked.
I winced. It was an understandable mistake, given the fact that, through no fault of his own, he’d labored under the unfortunate notion that I was Gussie Fink-Nottle throughout nearly the entire period of our association. Still, it stung a bit.
“It’s Bertie, old man,” I corrected gently.
“Oh, right,” said Esmond, doing a little wincing of his own. “Awfully sorry, Bertie.”
“It’s quite all right. Don’t give it another thought.”
“It’s not all right,” he rumbled. “Nothing has happened to alter my opinion that that Fink-Nottle is a contemptible cheese-mite. It must have been terrible for you, having everyone go about thinking that hollow-log dweller was you.”
“It was,” I conceded. “But it was a small price to pay in the service of patching up all those aching hearts.”
He rested his chin on his hand and smiled sadly at me, and I felt myself go a bit wobbly about the patellae. “I’ve always liked you, Gus—er, Bertie,” he said. “You’re a decent chap.”
“As are you, Esmond.”
“Did I ever tell you I like your face?”
“You did. And I believe I told you I like yours, too.”
“Of course you did. It’s just the sort of upstanding, decent thing you’d do.”
I took a seat, for I was beginning to feel faint, and called for a whiskey and soda to soothe the fizzing ganglia. “Tell me, Esmond,” I said, “what has happened? You are not your usual, buoyant self. You look like a man in need of a sympathetic ear, and possibly a shoulder to cry on.”
“That’s what I like about you, Bertie. You’re so perceptive. Yes, life has been dragging me through the mud a bit of late. It’s all over between me and Corky.” His voice cracked sharply on the word “Corky,” and my heart gave a hard little kick. It was all I could do not to clutch his poor, tortured head to my chest and murmur “There, there!” into his hair. Instead, I settled for a sharp intake of breath and a sympathetic click of the tongue.
“Oh, Esmond! But, whatever happened? I thought you were the respective lodestars of each other’s lives!”
“We were,” he said miserably.
“Then what was it? Did you lose your nerve with the aunts again?”
“No,” he said, shoving a few swigs of Guinness over the larynx. “I became the lead male vocalist for Victor DeFonce and His Melody Men.”
I confess I was a bit fogged at this juncture. I failed to see what this development had to do with the sudden coolness that had arisen on the Corky and Esmond front. After clapping him on the back by way of congratulations, I said as much.
“It was just deucedly bad timing, Bertie. Had I met her five years ago, all would have been sunshine and roses. But Corky has grown tired of show business. When she met me, she was ready to settle down into a quiet, respectable life out in the country. I, on the other hand, have been doing just that for as long as I can remember. I longed for greater things, Bertie. You can understand that, can’t you?” As he said this, he laid a large and well-formed hand on my wrist.
“Yes,” I yipped, knocking back the entire whiskey and s. that the barmaid had just set before me in a single gulp.
“You know, when I got up on that stage at the village concert and belted out that hunting song, and stood there basking in the wild cheers and applause of that crowd, I knew I’d found my calling. They loved me, Bertie. They ate me up like ice cream!”
“Who wouldn’t?” I said, with some enthusiasm.
“It was the first time I’d felt anything like it. And it never would have come off so well if it hadn’t been for you coaching me on those lyrics and cheering me on from the sidelines. I owe you a great deal, Bertie.”
I nursed a second w. and s. in a guilty manner. “I don’t know about that, Esmond. Not if my meddling has caused you and Corky to scratch the fixture.”
“That’s not your fault,” he said. “It just wasn’t meant to be. We must each follow the path of our own destiny, and it just so happens that my path zigged where Corky’s zagged.” He said all this with a determined set to his already impressive jaw, but there was a slight tremor about the lips and a dangerous glimmer in the eyes. It was clear his heart was aching, and mine ached right along with it.
“But surely there must be some way—!”
“There isn’t. She’s engaged to someone else. They’re going to be married next week.”
It was some hours later that I finally staggered home, with a bowed-down heart and a sozzled bean. I could not recall the last time I’d felt quite so thoroughly pipped, not to mention befuddled.
My sense of duty told me I ought to do everything in my power to heal this rift between two loving hearts, which struck me as nothing less than a heinous breach of justice. And yet, some tiny and dreadful little voice kept whispering in my ear that now was one of those tides in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, lead on to fortune. Utter rot, of course. But try as I might, I could not seem to switch it off.
I shuffled into the flat and sank miserably into my armchair.
“Jeeves,” I said, “I have a problem.” But that brings us back to where we came in.
There followed upon the heels of my announcement a chunk of silence so long and meaty that I began to fear the worst. I was just trying to come up with something to break the ice—possibly a crack about the weather, or an amusing anecdote—when Jeeves abruptly resurfaced.
“I was not aware that you were so inclined, sir,” he said.
“Toward Haddock in particular, or chaps in general?” I asked. I attempted a casual note, but I’m fairly sure I missed the mark by a widish margin. I had never canvassed Jeeves’s views on this particular issue before, so I hadn’t much of an inkling of how it would go over. On the one hand, it might be all right; on the other hand, it might not.
“I meant the latter, sir, although the former piece of intelligence had also eluded me.”
So far, it seemed to me that it was going pretty well. I mean, Jeeves is never one to leap about to any great extent, and his customary stuffed frog mask always makes it a little tricky to suss out what exactly is passing through that magnificent cranium of his at any given moment. But I’ve spent enough time around the fellow to recognize his typical symptoms of disapproval. At present, all I could discern was a little mild surprise, mixed with just a pinch of concern for the young master’s general well-being.
“Well, there you have it, Jeeves,” I said, with a shrug of the shoulders. “It’s not something one brings up in casual conversation, of course.”
“It’s just that I seem to have come down with an unusually severe case.”
“Mr. Haddock is an exceptionally attractive young gentleman, sir.”
“Oh, you noticed that as well, did you?”
“If you will pardon my saying so, sir, I am not hard of seeing.”
I must say, I found his sympathetic attitude heartening. “I find your sympathetic attitude heartening, Jeeves,” I said. “I should not have doubted you.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“At any rate,” I went on, “my attraction to Esmond is neither here nor there. I merely felt the need to unburden myself to a compassionate ear. With time, no doubt, my affliction will pass. In the meantime, there is a more pressing matter to which we must address ourselves, viz. the decided lack of boomps-a-daisyness in relations between Esmond and Corky.”
“Indeed, sir? Have the young persons had a disagreement?”
“They have, Jeeves,” I said, and with a few well-chosen words, I put him abreast.
“I see, sir,” he said, when I had finished. “Then you do not wish to pursue an amatory relationship with Mr. Haddock?”
My eyes bulged a bit at this. “What? Good lord, no! Use your intelligence, Jeeves. Even if he did return my affections—unlikely, I think you will agree—I would never stoop to insert myself between two of my beloved chums in such a low and unsporting fashion. No, we must cluster round and get down to the business of patching up the Haddock-Pirbright relations once more.”
“Well, sir . . .”
“What do you mean, ‘Well, sir?’”
“It merely strikes me that a reconciliation between Mr. Haddock and Miss Pirbright seems unlikely, given the circumstances that you have described.”
“Piffle, Jeeves! Esmond is Corky’s ewe lamb, and Corky the apple of Esmond’s eye. No doubt she has attached herself to this other blighter in an effort to score off him. We’ve seen it a million times. I intend to ring her up first thing tomorrow and see if I can’t talk some sense into the little gumboil.”
“Very good, sir.”
I can’t say I felt a great deal better after that, but at least I had gotten the damn thing off my chest. What’s more, I could take some comfort in the notion that I might be in a position to bring a little sunshine back into the adored object’s life—not to mention that of Corky, who was one of my oldest and dearest.
I crawled into bed without bothering to shed the correct eveningwear, and soon plunged into the deep and dreamless.
I awoke the next morning to the unpleasant sensation of a troupe of elephants performing The Rite of Spring on my parietals. Mercifully, Jeeves floated in a few moments later with one of his dynamite specials on a salver, and I was soon restored to a nearly human state.
“Well,” I said, once the mists had cleared and the eyeballs had ceased to spin, “let us get down to brass tacks. What shall we do about this Corky-Esmond business, Jeeves? Whatever it is, we’d best look slippy about it. It strikes me that time is of the essence in this case.”
“Indeed, sir. I have already instituted inquiries, and have ascertained that Miss Pirbright is currently in London, carrying out errands in preparation for her upcoming nuptials. Perhaps, if you could speak to the young lady in person, you might glean some further information that would place us in a better position from which to approach the problem.”
“Solid work, Jeeves! Do you happen to know where I can find the little blister?”
“I have taken the liberty of contacting the young lady on your behalf, sir. She will expect you for lunch at the Savoy in an hour and a half.”
“Right ho,” I said approvingly. “I suppose I should take it easy on the eggs and b., then. Just a slice of toast and a few kippers to tide things over, if you don’t mind, Jeeves.”
“Very good, sir.”
During the course of the above chit-chat, I had been regarding the fellow with a watchful and contemplative eye. I was still on the qui vive for any signs of shirtyness with regard to my confession of the previous night. As I say, he had seemed all right at the time, but then, many things do when one is fried to the tonsils. All too often, upon sober reflection in the cold, hard light of day, one finds out that they are not.
At the outset of our interview, I had briefly considered asking him in a casual sort of way if I had said anything out of the ordinary the night before. Upon further reflection, I quickly gave this idea the shove. There are certain matters about which Jeeves and I have an unspoken understanding, and this, it would seem, was shaping up to be one of them.
In any case, I saw nothing that raised the alarm bells to any great extent. There was, I fancied, a certain something-or-other in his manner that had not been apparent before, but whatever it was, I found it more comforting than disconcerting. Overall, his attitude in this affair appeared to be one of decent feudal-mindedness and general good sportsmanship.
By the time I had broken fast, scrubbed the corpus, and dressed for lunch, I was feeling considerably braced, if not actually chirpy.
Corky had not yet presented herself for roll call when I arrived at the Savoy, so I took a seat in a soothingly dim corner with a revitalizing cup of coffee and awaited her arrival in quiet contemplation. She blew in at about fifteen minutes past the appointed hour, looking more than ever like Helen of Troy fresh after her daily milk bath.
“Bertie, my prince!” she cried, beaming like a lighthouse and presenting a flawless cheek for me to kiss. After I had done so, she held me out at arms’ length for inspection. “Poor darling, you look as though you woke up on the wrong side of your coffin this morning. What have you been doing, my sweet? Don’t tell me you’ve been hopping milk trains and breaking into houses again.”
“Nothing of the sort, old thing. Merely a late night with the lads.”
She tutted good naturedly and ruffled my hair, none of which I would have minded under normal circs. As I have indicated, I am extremely fond of this Corky, and ordinarily would have been delighted to see her so full of beans and buck. At the present, however, her manner struck me as downright ominous. I had been expecting a subdued and tight-lipped Corky, valiantly struggling to conceal the broken heart and the tortured soul behind a tremulous smile. In short, a Corky merely waiting for a bit of firm and sensible advice from a wise friend to send her running tearfully back to the arms of her beloved, followed by sobbing into his ample chest that she had been such a fool, or words to that effect.
Instead, what I had before me was a radiant and vivacious Corky, about as far a thing as one could imagine from the crumpled but attractive piece of human wreckage that had been last night’s Esmond Haddock. I felt more strongly than ever that now was the time for decisive action.
“Corky,” I said, striking a stern and somber note, “what is this I hear about you and Esmond?”
She turned down the wattage a bit.
“Oh, you heard about that, did you?” she said, sliding into her seat. “I’d been hoping to tell you myself.”
“I did hear about it, from Esmond’s own lips. I saw him last night.”
“How did he seem?”
“Positively crushed. A mere shadow of his former self. A broken man.”
Corky rolled her eyes. “Well, I certainly hope he didn’t try to make out that I coldly tore his heart out and stomped on it, because that’s not how it went. We parted as friends, on mutual agreement, more than two months ago. But I think I know what’s happened. I just told him about my engagement a few days ago, and now I expect he’s come down with a sudden case of the O-what-might-have-beens.”
I sucked in a bit of air through my teeth. One could follow her line of reasoning. I was reminded of my own emotions on discovering that, shortly after terminating his association with me as a result of our little disagreement about my taking up the banjolele, Jeeves had latched onto my friend Chuffy. It knocks the stuffing out of one, finding out that an erstwhile esteemed companion has gone and clamped onto somebody new before one has even had a moment to catch the breath and pick up all the scattered pieces.
“I see what you mean,” I said. “Hard news for a chap who has recently lost the lodestar of his life. But dash it, Corky, I still fail to grasp why the thing had to go up in smoke in the first place. Do you really mean to sit there and coolly inform me that you and Esmond decided to dish the whole thing simply because the poor fish chose to slide into some white coattails and warble in front of a sweet-music orchestra of middling notoriety? One fails to grasp the logic.”
She laid her hand upon mine in a placating manner and spoke to me in the tone of a mother consoling a tot who has just dumped his ice cream on his Buster Browns. “Bertie, my pet, I know you are disappointed, especially after all the wonderful work you and Jeeves did to help bring us together. But you must believe me when I tell you that all this is for the best.”
“Yes, but dash it—”
“Poor old Esmond didn’t fall in love with me, Bertie. He fell in love with Cora Starr, sweetheart of the silver screen. Instead, he got plain old Corky Pirbright, who wants nothing more than to finally settle down and live the quiet life in the country, out of the public eye.”
I wanted to remark that there was nothing plain, old, or quiet about Corky Pirbright, but she plowed on.
“And I fell in love with Esmond Haddock, the noble squire of King’s Deverill. Instead, I got Esmond Haddock, the Vagabond Lover. So far he’s hit upon all of the plot points except for the burglary attempt and the whirlwind romance with Sally Blane. It would never work, Bertie.”
“I don’t see why not,” I persisted, for we Woosters are nothing if not persistent. “Esmond could enjoy his time in the limelight, and you could retire and lend moral support. Actresses do it all the time.”
She shook the lemon prettily. “Absolutely not, Bertie. Esmond can’t stick the country anymore at any price, and I’ve had it up to my eyeteeth with anything in the shape of metropolitan living. When we got engaged, he planned to stay with me in Hollywood until my contract was up, and then we were going to take a little cottage in the country and raise livestock and whatnot. I was all for it. The scenario struck me as ideal. But then he joined that dratted band, and started talking wildly about how he would have to live in London, and possibly move to New York if all went well.”
I chewed the lip a bit, and interjected briefly to say that I could see the difficulty presented by this development.
“To sum it all up, my feeling was that I’d be damned if I was following Esmond and his dratted Melody Boys all over the globe, and I’d be damned if I was going to languish alone in the country while he was out Crosbying all over the place without me. Meanwhile, Esmond said he’d be damned if he’d go on living in the middle of nowhere with nobody to serenade but the village toughs and the occasional passing sheep, and that was that.” She heaved a sigh. “Anyway, it’s a moot issue. I’ve meet the man of my dreams, Bertie.” And here, a dreamy look spread over her map, and the monologue fizzled out.
“Hmm,” I said, a little austerely. “And who is this paragon? I can’t imagine he holds a candle to Esmond.”
“What is your fixation with Esmond, Bertie? Of course I still hold Esmond in the highest esteem, and will always consider him a dear, dear friend, but he’s not the only dreamboat in the sea. And I’ll have you know that Wilfred is a paragon.” The dreamy look resurfaced. “He’s the veterinarian out in King’s Deverill. I met him about a month and a half ago, when Sam Goldwyn got loose from Uncle Sidney’s place and swallowed about a dozen golf balls up at the village links.”
Sam Goldwyn, for readers who are not hep, is Corky’s dog—a companionable enough brute, if a little too expansive in the expression of his many and varied sentiments for this Bertram’s liking. I was grateful that he was conspicuous by his a. on this particular occasion.
“I see,” I said. “And I assume there is not much chance of this monument of ideal manhood dashing off in order to croon popular favorites for the masses in front of a twenty-man ensemble?”
“Absolutely not. For one thing, he can’t sing a note. Don’t give me those sad eyes, Light of my Life. I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. And Esmond will be all right, too. If he doesn’t have scores of lovestruck damsels strewing themselves at his feet already, I shall eat my hat.”
I spent the remainder of our time at the feed trough in relative silence, for I was putting in some pretty tense brooding. Corky was in robust form, and was more than capable of shouldering the bulk of the chin-wag. I held up my end with an occasional listless “Oh, ah” or “Right ho,” until at length she glanced at her wrist-watch and chirruped about the time. With a cheery toodle-pip and an exhortation to give her love to Jeeves, she gathered me into a sisterly embrace, planted a hearty kiss on each of my cheeks, and made for the wide open spaces.
It was some time before I trickled out myself, feeling rather less than bobbish. I moved slowly along the Strand on a sou’-sou’-westerly bearing with my eyes downcast, with the result that I did not see a solid object curvetting towards me from a nor’-nor’-easterly heading until the inevitable collision had already commenced.
Once I had disentangled myself from the solid object’s embrace, I discovered that it was none other than Esmond Haddock. What’s more, it appeared to be a positively giddy Esmond Haddock. His manner was so markedly different from the way it had been the night before that I could not help but wonder if my earnest talk with Corky had brought home the goods after all.
“Gussie!” he exclaimed.
“Bertie,” I wheezed.
“Right, right, Bertie, yes,” he replied. He eyed me sternly, like Lord Byron preparing to give his pal Shelley an earful about his views on intellectual beauty. “You know, Bertie, I’m not a man to complain, and I know you had your reasons, but it is most confusing—very, very confusing indeed—when a chap spends a couple of weeks in your company making every effort to convince you he is one chap, only to reveal, at the eleventh hour, that he has been the other chap all along.”
“I know, old egg.”
Something seemed to arrest his attention, and he peered at me even more intently. “Is that lipstick on your cheeks? You hound! I wouldn’t have thought you’d have the pep for that sort of thing, after the way you were tying one on last night. Good lord, you Fink-Woosters do live, don’t you?”
I fingered the dial absently. “Ah, that’s just from Corky,” I said.
He deflated like a punctured hot water bottle. The brow darkened. “Oh, Corky? Corky, eh?”
“Yes, I’ve been having lunch with her.”
“Oh? And what was she doing covering your face with kisses? I thought she was meant to be engaged to this Wilmot or Wilbur or whatever his name is.”
I saw that he had got the wrong idea. “The kisses were entirely brotherly. Or, I should say, entirely sisterly. Corky and I have been friends since we were so high. We were in the same dance class together.”
“You told me Gussie was in the same dance class with her! Was every chap in England in the same dratted dance class with Corky?”
“No, no, my dear Esmond. Gussie was never in any dance class with Corky. I told you that about Gussie when you thought Gussie was me.”
He massaged his temples a bit. “I’m going to need someone to draw up a chart or something. It’s all too much to keep sorted. I don’t know how you managed to keep it up for so long without flubbing the thing,” he added, with a note of admiration.
“Just one of my many talents,” I said modestly.
“What did you and Corky talk about?” he asked, striking a nonchalant air.
“Oh, this and that,” I replied, for the subject was a bit of a painful one. I had not completely given up hope—we Woosters seldom do—but I confess that hope seemed a bit thin on the ground at the moment. I decided to steer the conversation in another direction. “I say, you seem drastically more chuffed than you did last night. What’s been happening?”
This line of inquiry yielded excellent results. The Byronic look subsided, and the edges ceased to droop. He did a little canter, like a Percheron that has just been offered an exceptionally crisp apple.
“The most sensational thing has happened, Bertie!”
“Oh, yes! Victor DeFonce has been invited to perform at Lady Malcolm’s Servants’ Ball.”
“That big do they have every year at the Albert Hall?”
“The very one.”
“Well, that sounds like a bit of goose for Victor! His Melody Men are invited as well, I presume?”
“You presume correctly, Bertie. Apparently, someone has been hobnobbing with the management about the new lead vocalist, and the general consensus is that he is hot stuff.”
This seemed like another of those moments which call for back slapping. I slapped with gusto.
“Esmond, old top!”
“Isn’t it wonderful?”
“Absolutely, it is!”
This might have gone on indefinitely, had Esmond not been suddenly struck by one of those inspirations that suddenly strike one from time to time. “Bertie,” he cried, laying his massive hands on my shoulders and gazing earnestly into my eyes, “you must come!”
“Yes, you! You are my lucky charm, Bertie. I would never have gone over the way I did at that village concert if it hadn’t been for you. Did I tell you that before?”
“You did. But Esmond, isn’t this Servants’ Ball for . . . well, servants?”
“For a master of disguise like yourself, I don’t see why that should pose a problem,” he said, cuffing me affectionately on the arm. “Besides, it’s fancy dress. Nobody there will know you from Adam. I’m sure that wonder man of yours—what was his name, Jeeves?—will have no trouble procuring a ticket for you.”
“Oh, right ho, then,” I said, for I hated to dampen his gorgeous enthusiasm. Furthermore, I quite relished the idea of seeing Esmond thrill the many headed with his vocal stylings in a form-fitting tailcoat.
“Wooster, you’re the top,” said Esmond, and for a fleeting but sublime moment, he folded me into a crushing embrace. He released me with a brief “Tally ho!” and receded into the distance, leaving me gasping and flopping like one of his finny namesakes on a dock.
As the long day wore on, I found myself none too sanguine about the prospect of asking Jeeves to collar me a ticket to the Lady Malcolm binge. I shimmied, I vacillated, and I generally let “I dare not” run roughshod over “I would.”
There was no question, of course, that he would be able to get the goods. Even putting aside his general omnipotence, I knew he was a regular, for I gave him the night off annually to attend the thing. The real crux, or nub, if you like, was whether he would be able to stick the idea.
From what I knew of this fete, it was a blowout of fairly vast proportions. Everyone who was anyone in London’s domestic scene would be in attendance. I could see Jeeves kicking pretty hard at the thought of the young master pulling a Mary’s Little Lamb act while he tried to let his hair down and tie one on with the other valets and butlers and whatnot. I was reminded of a time when I had taken a girl I admired to a show at the Gaiety, only to have Claude and Eustace show up and insert their foul carcasses into the seats on either side of us. These sorts of things tend to put a damper on the revelry.
It was not until I had put myself around the outside of a couple of cocktails and Jeeves was ladling out the soup course back at the flat that I worked up the nerve to broach the subj.
“Jeeves,” I said, “I have an unusual request.”
“I’m not sure you’ll like it.”
“I fear I do not have enough information at present to venture an opinion, sir.”
I twiddled an anxious spoon, but decided the time had come to whack into it without further preamble. “Right ho. Can you get me a ticket to Lady Malcolm’s ball?”
One of his eyebrows ticked up by a millimeter or two. “I believe I can be of some assistance along those lines, sir. But, if I may ask . . .”
“You may, Jeeves. I was invited, as a matter of fact. By Esmond. It seems that he and his band have been recruited entertain the troops.”
Jeeves did not exactly smile—he seldom does—but there was a sort of benevolent crinkling about the eyes and a hint of a spasm in the nasolabial region. “This is most gratifying, sir.”
“Esmond certainly seems to think so. Anyway, he has asked me to rally round with a bit of the old moral support.”
To my astonishment, Jeeves reached into the recesses of his costume and produced a slip of paper with the words “LADY MALCOLM’S SERVANTS BALL” emblazoned across its middle regions. Further examination revealed a small but distinct “ADMIT ONE” in the upper left-hand corner.
“Gosh, Jeeves!” I exclaimed. “You really are the eighth wonder.”
“Thank you, sir. I happened to obtain an extra ticket from an acquaintance at the Junior Ganymede Club who found himself unable to attend due to a family obligation.”
“Good lord. That’s dashed fortuitous, what?”
“I knew I could count on you, Jeeves. And when exactly is this bash—or soiree, if you prefer—taking place?”
“The twentieth, sir.”
“Of this month?”
“Why, that’s only three days from now!”
“They really did rope old Esmond in at zero hour, didn’t they? But, dash it, this is excellent news. That means there’s still time!”
“Yes, Jeeves. Time to talk some sense into Esmond before Corky hitches herself to that bally dog mechanic.”
A curious whatsit crept into his manner. “I fear I do not understand, sir,” he said.
“Come now, Jeeves. You will agree that the only thing standing in the way of the happy union of Esmond and Corky is this blasted singing wheeze of his, yes?”
“Miss Pirbright’s new fiancé, sir, would seem to pose a particular impediment as well.”
“Well, granted, Jeeves. But that blighter would not be in the picture at all if Esmond hadn’t biffed off and signed up with the blasted Melody Men. No, it all comes down to Esmond and his musical escapades. I shall go to this ball of his. I shall do my duty as a pal, and cheer him on from the stands. And then I intend to draw him aside and implore him, in frank and manly tones, to give the whole bally business the bum’s rush.”
“You would ask Mr. Haddock to give up singing, sir?”
“If it will help him win back the woman he loves, then yes. I jolly well would. We must all make our sacrifices for the tender pash, what? Jeeves, you are giving me a look.”
“I beg your pardon, sir. I will endeavour to correct it. It merely occurs to me that, even if you were to succeed in convincing Mr. Haddock to sever his contract with the Melody Men, there is no guarantee that Miss Pirbright would agree to break off her engagement with the new gentleman.”
“Tosh, Jeeves! You are failing to consider the nature of feminine psychology. Imagine Corky’s reaction if she learned that Esmond had walked away from it all at the peak of his career, all for love of her. She’d have to have a heart of stone to be unmoved by a thing like that.”
Jeeves was pouring his heart and soul into the stuffed frog routine by this point in the give-and-take. I could not imagine what had got into the man. “If you say so, sir,” he said. I did not like the tone of his voice. It was decidedly soupy.
“I do say so, Jeeves!” I replied, a little peevishly. “I must say, this cynicism suits you ill. I am disappointed.”
“I apologize, sir.”
We plunged into a tense and chunky silence. I champed moodily at a buttered roll while Jeeves, who was still clutching the ticket, did a passable impression of a slab of marble. To my surprise, Jeeves was the first to break the surface. He gave one of those gentle coughs that indicate that he has something to say.
“Something on your mind, Jeeves?” I prompted, although I can’t say I was particularly eager to keep shooting the breeze with the man. There are times when misery just wants to be left alone with the soup and a half-bot of something.
“Nothing of great import, sir. I was merely reminded, by an odd train of thought, of an anecdote recently related to me by my Uncle Charlie.”
I massaged the temples wearily. “Jeeves, I admire your Uncle Charlie greatly, and these little familial reminiscences of yours are always wholesome and amusing. But one must ask oneself if now is really the time, what?”
“Of course, sir. However, I believe you will find this particular item to be fraught with considerable interest. It concerns Mr. Haddock.”
“Yes, sir. As I understand it, this event took place when Mr. Haddock was around sixteen years of age. My Uncle Charlie, as you may know, was already serving in his present capacity as butler at Deverill Hall at the time, having been employed previously as a—”
“Skim lightly over the family history, Jeeves.”
“Let us save it for the long winter evenings.”
“Very good, sir. On the occasion in question, the young gentleman was staying at Deverill Hall during a school holiday. He began to spend a great deal of time with the under-butler, a youth of about the same age as young Master Haddock. His name, if I recall correctly, was Simmons.”
“I didn’t know Deverill Hall had an under-butler.”
“Like many of these old households, sir, they have been forced to curtail their staff somewhat in recent years.”
“Too bad. So, they were pretty good chums, were they, Esmond and this under-butler?”
“Indeed, sir. In fact, one day, whilst taking a stroll in the gardens behind the hall, Uncle Charlie happened to overhear the two young persons conversing in hushed voices on the other side of a row of topiaries. Simmons was beseeching young Master Haddock for a cigarette, in response to which Master Haddock replied that he would gladly relinquish his entire box in exchange for a kiss.”
The soup spoon slipped from my nerveless fingers. “What!”
“And . . . did they?”
“Kiss, dash it.”
“Unfortunately, my Uncle Charlie was not in a position to directly observe what followed. However, he informed me that he overheard a certain amount of giggling and sounds of respiratory exertion. At this point, Uncle Charlie coughed loudly to signal his approach and stepped into view. He found the two young men standing some distance apart, looking flushed and disheveled.”
“Gosh! He didn’t turn them over to that slavering horde of aunts, did he?”
Jeeves looked mildly horrified at the suggestion. “Good heavens, no, sir. I believe he merely drew young Simmons aside at a later date and advised him to exercise more discretion in the future.”
“Sound egg. But—dash it, Jeeves, why are you telling me this?”
“I thought you would find it of interest, sir.”
I suddenly found myself quite unable to meet his eye. I was both moved and, for reasons I could not quite fathom, strangely aggravated with the chap. I suppose I had half convinced myself that Jeeves had either quite forgotten about my drunken confession of the previous night, or that he had dismissed it as mere inebriated twaddle. I thought it dashed unsporting of him to dredge the matter up again, even in this roundabout manner.
“Well, boys of sixteen do a lot of cloth-headed things,” I informed my soup bowl testily. “I think I can say that with reasonable authority, having been one myself not so many years ago.”
To my surprise, Jeeves seemed to take umbrage at this. The eye became glassy and fish-like, and there was a hard set to the jaw. Altogether, he had the air of a man who was prepared to shove a slip of paper marked “ADMIT ONE” back into his coat pocket and stride from the room.
“Is ‘cloth-headed’ really the expression you would employ, sir?” he said at length.
“Do you consider it foolish for gentlemen to pursue such relationships, sir?”
“No, no! I mean—that is, all I meant was—blast it, I don’t know what I meant. I’m sorry, Jeeves.” I wasn’t even sure why I was apologizing to him, but it seemed to help. The fishy eye receded, and he relaxed his grip on the ticket.
“It is quite all right, sir.”
“It’s just . . . well, even if Esmond’s gate does, er, swing in both directions, as you seem to be suggesting . . . I mean to say, consider more recent trends.”
“All right, Jeeves, I shall put it plainly, since it seems the cat is already well out of the bag and doing foxtrots on the dining table. Why would a specimen like Esmond—who was until only a short while ago happily affianced to the closest thing to Nefertiti outside the Berlin Museum—wish to attach himself to someone like Bertram?”
Jeeves set the ticket down on the table and gave it a gentle shove in my direction.
“You do yourself a disservice, sir.”
I felt my map blossom into blushes. “Awfully good of you to say so, Jeeves. And, well, I concede that I’m no gargoyle by the standards of ordinary mortals. But pin me up alongside a couple of demigods of the Esmond and Corky type, and I don’t stand a chance.” I shook the bean sadly. “No, Jeeves. It’s good of you to try, and I’m dashed grateful to you, but I must ask you to lay off. It’s just not meant to be, so let’s say no more about it.”
“Very good, sir.”
So deeply of a twitter was I that I did not remember until the next morning that I needed to obtain a costume.
“Egad, Jeeves!” I yelped, overturning my soft-boiled egg.
Jeeves had shimmered out of the room only a moment before, but at the sound of the young master’s anguished heart-cry, the noble head reappeared in the doorway. “Sir?”
“A costume, Jeeves! I shall need one instanter. Lay out my suit. I must hie me to Cohen Bros. in all good haste.”
“Do not trouble yourself, sir,” said Jeeves, gently righting my toppled egg. “I will obtain a suitable costume for you.”
I regarded him dubiously. As a general rule, I trust Jeeves’s judgment implicitly. However, in the matter of fancy dress, I have never found myself quite able to see eye to eye with the fellow. I don’t think anyone who knows his history in such matters would blame me. Take, for example, his ill-conceived plan to send Gussie Fink-Nottle to one of these binges in the most frightful Mephistopheles costume I have ever laid eyes on in my puff. For another, take the more recent incident in which he had the immortal rind to send me toddling off to my doom in a police uniform about ten sizes too large—one pilfered, no less, from that pestilential gorilla, Stilton Cheesewright.
“Jeeves, I hope you are not proposing to shove me into scarlet tights and a pointy beard.”
“Oh, no, sir. I hardly think that such measures are called for under the present circumstances.” His face arranged itself into something that could very nearly be classified as a smile. “I believe you will approve of the disguise I have in mind, sir.”
“No chance of finding out what it is ahead of time, I suppose?”
He put in a little more of the almost-a-smile stuff and bunged in a touch of eyebrow for good measure, but said nothing. Dashed infuriating. Under ordinary circs, I wouldn’t have stood for such guff. But the Servants’ Ball was Jeeves’s domain, and Bertram but a humble interloper. If this kind of oompus-boompus was the price I must pay for his continued aid and support in the matter, then so be it.
“Very well,” I said, waving a resigned kipper. “I commend myself to your mercy. But I say, talking of costumes—what on earth will you be wearing, Jeeves? Surely not a Pierrot!”
“I have developed my own persona, sir, which I regularly employ to great effect at this particular event.”
I could see that I had cropped up against another dead end. I dropped the costume motif. “Will I see you there, Jeeves?” I asked, trying a different tack.
He pursed the lips. “Perhaps, sir. However, I believe it would be best if we arrived separately. Although the requirements for entry to Lady Malcolm’s ball are decidedly lax, attendance by individuals who are not members of the servant classes is not encouraged. It would be unseemly for me to present myself there as my employer’s escort.”
“Say no more, Jeeves. I understand. Wouldn’t want to tarnish your reputation with the guild, and all that sort of thing.”
“Thank you, sir. Will that be all, sir?”
“Yes, Jeeves. You’d better push along and nab that costume.”
“I shall do so directly, sir,” he said, and trickled out.
As I examined myself in the full-length mirror the next evening, I found myself thinking once again that I should never have doubted Jeeves. It was a silly habit, this Jeeves-doubting. I really couldn’t imagine why I kept doing it. I would have told Jeeves as much, but he was already gone.
The costume that Jeeves had obtained for me was a positively ripping Scarlet Pimpernel that fit me as if I had been poured into it. Every aspect of the getup, from the caped and high-collared red frock coat to the knee-length boots, seemed perfectly designed to enhance and flatter the Wooster form. The whole effect was completed with the addition of an elegant black mask that concealed the upper slopes of my face. I don’t think Sir Percy himself could have looked more the part. How Jeeves had managed to snag the thing on such short notice, I couldn’t imagine.
Having adjusted the beaver topper to what I felt was a sufficiently rakish angle, I sallied forth. For the first time in days, I felt in excellent fettle, and ready to take on whatever the night held in store.
By the time the taxi-cab disgorged me onto the pavement before the Royal Albert Hall some twenty minutes later, my bravado had begun to waver. I found myself confronted by a surging sea of Pierrots and Marie Antoinettes. I suppose the choice of venue should have clued me in to the scale of the event well before my arrival, but somehow the notion had failed to penetrate.
I cast about for any sign of Jeeves in the madding crowd, but it was quite hopeless. There was nothing for it but to hitch up my socks and plunge in.
As I edged my way toward the entrance, I collided with a Cleopatra built like a longshoreman. “Sorry, my love,” muttered Cleo, in a baritone that seemed to come up from the soles of her gold-plated sandals.
“Pardon me,” I riposted, tipping my hat and making a nimble leap to the left. My nimble leaping successfully disentangled me from Cleopatra, but it sent me staggering directly into an extraordinarily voluptuous Groucho Marx who was striding by on the arm of a snub-nosed girl in a sailor suit. Groucho giggled musically and gave my posterior a playful swat.
I wasn’t sure quite what I had let myself in for, but I was getting on to the idea that it was no run-of-the-mill fancy dress affair.
I was half afraid that the johnnie in livery taking tickets at the door would demand my credentials, but he barely gave me a second glance. I went slinking in, feeling both triumphant and vaguely guilty.
As I made my way through the teeming foyer, my eye was drawn to a remarkably tall woman lingering by the cloak room. She looked like the sort of noblewoman that used to charge about by the score at the end of the last century, perhaps some species of baroness or duchess. She was swathed in yards of midnight blue velvet and dripping with jewels. Also the neatly cinched waist, the opera gloves, and the pile of soft black curls pinned up with glittering combs. Her face, like mine, was partially concealed behind a mask, but a powerful jaw and a noble nose were among the bits that presented themselves for inspection.
In short, the whole effect was decidedly imposing. I couldn’t have said for sure that the lady was an aunt, but if someone had offered me a wager to that effect, I wouldn’t have hesitated to put a fiver on it. I shuffled past with my eyes downcast and my hat clutched to my chest.
But as I shuffled, the lady’s silk handkerchief drifted to the floor at my feet. I hastily retrieved it and pressed it into her waiting hand. She accepted it with a gentle cough, like that of an elderly sheep clearing its throat on a distant hillside.
I shied like a startled mustang. “Odd’s fish!” I ejaculated. “Is that you, J—”
The syllable had barely begun to leave my lips when the lady cut me off with a smart rap on the knuckles with her folded silk fan. “Lady Regina, if you please,” she said curtly. Her voice was at once familiar and utterly strange.
“Oh,” I said, once I had retrieved my jaw from the floor and the vocal apparatus had sufficiently recovered for use. “Right ho!”
She gave her fan a flick. “The entrance to the arena is that way, young man.”
I uttered a garbled thanks and scampered off in the direction indicated.
The first thing that caught my eye as I entered the arena – aside from the vast and gaudily-attired mob sloshing about on the dance floor – was the bandstand at the far end of the hall. Upon it was a group of natty gents wielding various types of horns and violins and things. These I deduced to be Victor DeFonce’s Melody Men. The chap waving a long stick about in the foreground in a languid sort of manner must, then, be Victor DeFonce. Also in front of the Melody Men was Esmond, looking even more glorious than I had dared to imagine in a dove grey suit with pale blue trim.
My heart skipped a beat or three at the sight of him. But anxious though I was to fly to his side, I could see that this was a situation that would require no small amount of maneuvering. It was impossible to sidle an inch in any direction without elbowing an incognito parlourmaid or treading on a masked butler.
As the band struck up the opening bars of “Nevertheless,” I gave the breeches a hitch and plunged into the whirling tide of the dance floor.
My first partner was a petite and freckled Little Bo Peep who reminded me vaguely of Jeeves’s cousin Queenie. I barely had a moment to say “What ho” before she was swept away by a Julius Caesar built along the lines of Roderick Spode.
Seconds later, a lissome arm slid around my waist, and I found myself in the clutches of a lithe young chap with a powdered face and rouged lips. He was wearing flared red pyjama trousers and a patterned silk shirt about which Jeeves would undoubtedly have had a thing or two to say.
“Hullo,” I said, striking the civil note.
“Hullo yourself,” replied the powdered chappie, giving me an approving north-to-south. “Are you new here? I’m sure I’d remember if I’d seen you before.”
“Oh, rather. I was invited by a pal. I’m just here for—” I paused, for at that moment, Esmond started singing, and words temporarily eluded me. “—him,” I finished faintly, once speech returned to her throne.
My companion followed my gaze to the bandstand. “Don’t tell me you know that savoury dish!”
“I do, as a matter of fact.”
“Lucky blighter. I heard that we were supposed to be getting Jack Hylton and His Orchestra, but they dropped out at the last minute. I was awfully disappointed until I saw the lead understudy.”
I cleared my throat a couple times and leaned in conspiratorially. There was a nagging question that I wished to resolve, and for some reason this fellow struck me as just the chap to resolve it. “I say,” I said, “am I wrong in thinking that this particular ball is the sort of binge where chaps – and girls, I suppose – of a certain, er, inclination, are free to mingle with others who share their particular, well, interests?”
The chap chucked his head back and laughed heartily. “Oh, my dear boy, you are new at this! No, you are not wrong. Lady Malcolm’s has been a blessed night for our little cult these past few years. The rozzers never bother us here. It’s far too much trouble. And for now, our lovely hostess either doesn’t know or doesn’t care what her guests get up to on the dance floor. Enjoy it while you can, laddie, for someone’s bound to get the breeze up about it eventually. Polite Society can only let a good thing last for so long before sticking its nose in and spoiling everybody’s fun.”
A fellow whirled up in a Mephistopheles outfit that made Gussie’s attempt at same look like something you’d wear to visit your maiden aunt on Easter Sunday. My companion slid away into the newcomer’s embrace with a parting wink. “If you need any help wooing your singer,” he called out over his shoulder, “just ask Lady Regina! When it comes to matters of the heart, she’s your man.”
Before I could respond, he was swallowed up by the crowd. I realized with a start that my mysterious partner had waltzed me directly to the edge of the dance floor, leaving me standing but a few scant feet from Esmond Haddock.
I extracted myself from the crushing throng and took up a station in a secluded spot on the sidelines. From this vantage point, I found myself in an excellent position to observe both Esmond and his audience.
Esmond was magnificent. I stood transfixed as he belted out “It Had to Be You,” “Body and Soul,” and “Thinking of You.” At some point during “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” some unseen phantom pressed a strongly-mixed martini into my hand. I intended to offer a quick word of thanks, but by the time I tore my eyes away from the vision before me, the good Samaritan had melted back into the crowd.
It was clear that I was not alone in my opinion that Esmond was exactly the stuff to give the troops. In addition to whooping and whistling, the patrons of Lady Malcolm’s Ball expressed their passion by showering the stage with a deluge of flowers, handkerchiefs, and the occasional lacy object of uncertain ilk.
Esmond seemed to drink it all in like a thirsty rosebush in a May sunshower. The eyes sparkled, the cheeks were flushed, and the massive chest heaved with emotion. Most impressive to me was the fact that his voice – already loud enough to disturb the neighbors in Basingstoke – seemed to become more robust with each new number. I couldn’t imagine how he did it. My own pipes tend to get a trifle shaky about three-quarters of the way through a public performance of “The Yeoman’s Wedding Song.”
As undeniably pleasant as all this was, I found myself feeling increasingly out of sorts. I had come, after all, with the express intention of talking Esmond into giving show business the air. Watching him gambol all over the stage like an overgrown St. Bernard pup, I began to feel positively churlish.
“Don’t weaken, Wooster,” I muttered to myself, gulping down my martini. “It’s for his own bally good.”
Through some arcane method of unspoken communication, the band decided to take a breather. I saw Esmond eyeballing the crowd in a searching, questioning sort of manner, and I divined with a little flutter about the breastbone that he was probably looking for me. But before I could step forward and make my presence known, Esmond was engulfed by a mob of admirers. I nosed about on the outskirts of the stampede, looking for an opening, but my efforts proved both vain and bootless.
Abruptly, the band began to play again, and the crowd dispersed. When the mists cleared, I saw that Esmond’s place on the stand had been taken by something decidedly more petite and feminine. Esmond himself had seemingly evaporated, leaving not a rack behind.
I found myself rather at a loss. I don’t know if you have ever attempted to hunt for a single crooner in an Albert Hall stuffed to bursting with Pierrots and Edward the Confessors, but I daresay that stronger men than Bertram Wooster would probably blench at the task. I mean to say, it was all dashed discouraging. This, I decided, was a situation that called for the aid of an experienced helpmeet.
I set my glass down on a passing table and began to sidle back toward the foyer in the faint hope that Lady Regina might still be keeping her vigil by the cloak room. I had not made it far before I felt a firm hand close around my elbow. Turning to see who had accosted me, I nearly gave out at the knees. I was caught by a pair of massive arms, and the next thing I knew, I was pirouetting across the dance floor in the embrace of Esmond himself.
“What ho,” I offered weakly. I suddenly wished that Jeeves had selected a costume that did not require form-fitting breeches. At the moment, mine felt a trifle constraining.
“Er, hello,” said Esmond. “I hope you don’t mind – the dancing, I mean – but it seems to be the done thing around here.” He jerked his head meaningfully in the direction of Napoleon and Ramesses the Great, who were waltzing by on our right.
“Oh, rather,” I said, attempting what I hoped was an airy chuckle. “When in Rome, what?”
Esmond gave a little leap and narrowly missed treading on my foot. “Gussie!”
“Yes, right, yes! Bertie! Good lord, I didn’t even recognize you in that mask. You did come!”
“Well, of course I came, my dear Esmond! Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
Esmond clutched me closer to his bosom, and I silently cursed the both the breeches and the extended family of the tailor who constructed them. “Oh, but Bertie,” he said, “I had no idea! How can I possibly thank you?”
“It was no trouble, old egg. Besides, I promised I’d be here.”
“No, I don’t mean that. I mean – well, I mean . . . just everything!”
I was fogged, not to mention perplexed. I failed to grasp his meaning. I told him as much.
Esmond gave me a roguish pinch on the cheek, which did not help the state of my breeches. “Look, Bertie, there’s no need to play coy, you sly devil. I know all about it. After I got finished singing, this incredibly tall woman came up to me. You may have seen her – dressed like a duchess or something, wearing a black mask. She told me I had a secret benefactor who had arranged the whole thing – Hylton calling off the show, the Melody Men stepping in at the last minute, all of it.”
I boggled at him, although I suspect my efforts were somewhat impeded by my mask. “Oh, she did, did she?”
“Yes. And,” – he paused to extract a cluster of small, red blossoms from his buttonhole – “she gave me this.”
I stared blankly at the foliage.
“Scarlet pimpernels,” he sighed, his eyes glittering.
Realization dawned. “Oh, ah!” I said. Despite the fact that I once won a prize at school for the best arrangement of wildflowers, I fear that my botanical knowledge is more or less limited to roses and whatever greenery happens to turn up on my plate at dinner time. I’m not sure I had even realized, before that moment, that a pimpernel was any sort of a flower, but there you are.
“The moment I saw you, I knew you must be the one,” Esmond went on. “That was my favorite book growing up, you know. The Scarlet Pimpernel, I mean. You didn’t know, did you?” He frowned thoughtfully. “I don’t see how you could.”
“It doesn’t matter. All I know is that you’re a kindred spirit, Bertie. A true pal. The kind of chum that comes along once in a lifetime. Gosh, you look fantastic. Good lord, Bertie, what a night!”
At that moment, the young beazel on the bandstand began singing “Dancing in the Moonlight.” A sort of rummy gleam came into Esmond’s eyes, and he began to hum along. I could feel his chest rumbling against my own. “Sorry,” he murmured after a moment. “I’ve never been able to resist this song. I used to sing it to—well, never mind.”
As he said these words, the spectre of my grim duty rose before my mind’s eye once again. I gulped a few times and shifted anxiously in his clutches. “I say, listen, Esmond,” I said.
“There’s something awfully important I need to talk to you about.”
“Say no more,” said Esmond, and I don’t suppose I could have even if I’d wanted to. Esmond parted the waves of footmen and chambermaids like the prow of a noble ship, and I was towed along breathlessly in his wake.
Moments later, we found ourselves in what I assumed was some species of tiring-house or green room. The place was littered with various accoutrements of performance, along with an array of chairs and couches and the occasional low-lying table. Esmond shoved enough bobbinet tulle to sew five or six ballerinas off one of the chairs, and graciously invited me to sit. I did so, divesting myself of the beaver hat and mask and stretching out the aching gams.
Esmond dashed off to some remote corner of the room and returned a moment later bearing a couple tumblers of liquid restorative. He shoved one of these in my direction, and I accepted the proffered glass, feeling rather like a French legionnaire must have when coming across a particularly fruity oasis in the middle of the Sahara.
“Skin off your nose,” said Esmond happily, downing the needful in a single gulp.
“Mud in your eye,” I riposted, following his example.
“Worst scotch I’ve ever tasted,” said Esmond, once he had finished choking and gargling.
“Bally rotten. Is there any more?”
“There is.” He produced a bottle, and sloshed a second helping into each of our glasses. I was just groping for a way to broach the unpleasant subj. at hand when Esmond spoke again. “Now, listen, Bertie,” he said, settling into a chair across from me, “I want you to be perfectly frank. Brutal, in fact. Hold back no criticism, however minor. How was I?”
I gulped down the contents of my glass, grateful for a momentary diversion. “Oh, splendid,” I wheezed. “Positively topping.”
“Was I really?”
“You’ve no criticisms? No suggestions? Nothing whatsoever?”
“Er, well . . .”
Esmond refilled my glass in an expectant manner.
“Well,” I began again, having drained the font once more, “I suppose if I were to make a complaint . . .”
“And it would be a trifling complaint. More of an observation than a complaint, really.”
“Well, the fact is, you’ve got a marvelous voice, and your delivery is most awfully spirited. But you sing everything as if it were that blasted hunting song.”
Esmond gazed at me over his glass with saucer-like eyes. “You really think so?”
“Yes, I do. What you need, Esmond,” I went on, warming to the theme, “is an injection of soul.”
“But – what do you mean, ‘soul’?”
“Consider Bing Crosby. Or Al Bowlly, if you like. What have they got?”
“Well, I suppose—”
“Soul,” I said, poking him in the sternum with my glass to drive the point home. “That’s what!”
“Right,” said Esmond. “Soul. I don’t know that I’ve got much of that, Bertie.”
“Of course you have! You’ve got loads of it. It’s just a matter of bringing it out. Adjusting your approach a little, don’t you know.”
“Well, the thing is, you’ve been singing to the standees at the back, when you really ought to be singing to the tender, radiant creature sitting two feet in front of you.”
“But I haven’t got a tender and radiant creature sitting two feet in front of me! Or, rather,” he muttered into his glass, “I haven’t when I’m on stage. And besides, I want everyone to hear me.”
“Ah, but that’s the wonder of modern science,” I said triumphantly. “The Melody Men have a microphone, do they not?”
“They do,” said Esmond, adding with a note of pride, “but I don’t need it.”
“Esmond, you are ensnared by the mindset of the quaint village concert. These metropolitan audiences want a softer, more modern approach. Bung a microphone in front of you, and you can sing to a host of thousands as if they were but a single beautiful girl sitting on your knee in a Morris chair. You’ve got to make love to them with your voice.”
He blushed violently at this, and I quickly shoved the beaver hat, which I had been twiddling absently in my free hand, into my lap.
“I’m not sure I know how,” Esmond said, chewing his bottom lip a bit. Then he brightened. “But you could show me!”
“Of course, you. Don’t forget, I heard you singing at Deverill. You’re no slouch at it, you know. Go on, show me how it’s done.”
“Oh, I don’t know, old thing.”
He rested his chin on his hands and fixed me with a look of expectant admiration. “Oh, go on, Gussie.”
“Well, all right,” I said. After all, far be it from a Wooster to disappoint his public. “It’s quite simple, really. You just fix the object of your pash with a burning gaze—”
“But what if there is no object of my pash? To fix with a burning gaze, I mean. When I’m on stage.”
“Then you use your imagination, dash it. Conjure her up in your mind’s eye. Pretend that she is before you, a stunning vision. All that’s best of dark and bright meet in her whatsit and her thingummy. Do you have her? Right ho, then. You fix the vision, or simulacrum, if you like, of the object of your pash with a burning gaze, like so.”
“Good lord, you do have a knack for this,” said Esmond, pinkening again. “Wherever did you learn this stuff?”
“Oh, here and there,” I said airily. “Hither and yon and whatnot. But this is neither hither nor yon. We have not got to the important part yet, viz. the singing. At this point, having fixed her with a burning gaze, you give her the works. You must sing as if the words will travel directly from your lips to her shell-like ear.”
“Allow me to demonstrate,” I went on. Then, having gently cleared the pipes, I f.’d him with the b. g. and gave it to him with all the ginger I could muster.
It was awfully ripe stuff, if I do say so myself. I’m not a man to brag, but I don’t think I’d be overstating the case if I told you I knocked the cover off the ball, as our American cousins might say. The combined effects of the martini and the scotch had got the vocal apparatus fairly well lubricated and the ganglia feeling pleasantly droopy. And in my case there was, of course, no need to summon up any simulacra, or, if you prefer, visions.
The song that I selected – “If I Had You” – was one that I had performed in the shower-bath on numerous occasions, to generally positive notices from Jeeves. I had scarcely reached the bit about turning grey skies to blue before it became clear that I had picked a winner. Esmond stared at me in undisguised, goggle-eyed admiration. By the time I started the gag about being a king, dear, uncrowned, he had scooted so far forward in his seat that his knees nearly brushed my own.
I wrapped the thing up, and Esmond was silent for a moment. Then he extended a hand and enclosed my patella in a warm and crushing grip. “Bertie,” he said, swallowing a few times, “that was . . .” And then he sort of faded out.
“Say no more,” I squeaked. I was both deeply disappointed and profoundly relieved when he removed his hand a moment later.
“You ought to be up on that stage!”
“No, no. I shall save my modest talents for the bathtub and the occasional village treat. This sort of thing ought to be mere child’s play for you, Esmond. Apply the simple principles I have outlined above, and you shall have them swooning by the score. They’ll have to call in the League of the Red Cross to clear the casualties off the dance floor.”
“You really think so?”
“And this technique of yours works with any song?”
“Oh, rather. It doesn’t really matter what you sing. It’s all in your technique. Why,” I went on, “if you infused it with enough soul and passion, I imagine you could sing ‘Yes! We Have No Bananas’ and still have the masses weeping with admiration and strewing roses at your feet.”
Esmond furrowed the brow and hoisted the jaw, looking like a man who is prepared to rise to any challenge. “All right,” he said resolutely. “Why don’t we try it, then?”
“A topping idea,” I said, waving an enthusiastic snifter.
“Sing it with me, Bertie.”
“Right ho! Let’s skip straight to the chorus.”
He refilled and drained his own glass in a single, fluid motion, and rose to his feet. He squared his shoulders, and his map assumed a grave and severe aspect. He looked rather like Lord Byron preparing to inform whomever happened to be listening that there lay the steed with his nostril all wide, but through it there roll’d not the breath of his pride.
“Hold up a moment,” I said, rising from my own chair to stand before him.
“You look like a chappie from one of those operas where everyone charges about in horned helmets and yanks swords out of ash trees. We want something a little more tender and melting.” I reached out to knead his shoulder. “Relax, old egg. Remember the burning gaze.”
“Yes, the burning gaze,” he muttered. “Tender and melting, yes.” He closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, he fixed them directly upon mine with a look that went through me like a hot knife through a pat of butter. “Better?” he asked.
“A marked improvement,” I said, quivering like a blancmange.
With a bashful grin that did little to calm the hullaballoo taking place in my upper thorax, Esmond began to sing.
“Yes, we have no bananas,” he purred, taking a step toward me.
“We have-a no bananas today,” I sang, rooted to the spot.
“Just try those coconuts,” sang Esmond, edging closer still.
“Those walnuts and doughnuts . . .” I whispered faintly.
“There ain’t many nuts like they,” declared Esmond, and after that it suddenly seemed rather difficult to go on. I realized, with a start, that my hand had come up to rest on Esmond’s cheek. Esmond, too, had paused to take stock of this development. It seemed to be going over pretty big. His jaw became slack and his breath heavy. His eyes also glittered, and his skin blazed beneath my fingers.
“W-we’ll sell you two kinds of red herring?” I ventured uncertainly, but Esmond did not reply. One of his hands came to rest on top of mine, and the other reached out and gently cupped my chin.
Intellectually speaking, I may not be one of the leading lights of my generation. However, I know when I am about to be kissed. For a brief and glorious moment, I was all for it. My eyes drifted closed, my lips parted, and I wilted against him in blissful surrender. The whole arrangement was most awfully cozy. I was just thinking to myself that it all seemed a bit too bally good to be true, when the memory of my unhappy errand suddenly rose up and socked me between the eyes like a lead-stuffed boxing glove. My heart sank as if weighed down by the guilt of a thousand sundered engagements.
Just as his lips were about to hit home, I wrenched myself from his grasp with a strangled “Stop!”
The colour drained from Esmond’s cheeks, and he backed away so quickly that he nearly tipped over into his chair. “Oh,” he said. “I’m sorry. I thought—I didn’t mean—”
I felt as though my heart was attempting to make an escape via my eye sockets, but with a terrific effort, I managed to pull myself together. “It’s quite all right,” I said stiffly, quickly gathering up my hat and mask.
“I’m so terribly sorry.”
“Don’t be. There’s nothing to be sorry for. Put it out of your mind.”
I took what was meant to be a bracing breath, and made a vain attempt to draw myself up in a dignified manner. “Esmond, listen,” I said, sounding rather less firm and resolute than I had hoped, “I’m awfully sorry to tell you this, but . . .”
“But what?” he cried, his face a mask of anxiety.
“But, well, I don’t know how else to say it. You just don’t have it.”
He deflated like a punctured tyre. “What!”
“You’ve got a wonderful voice, Esmond, but it’s all wrong for this kind of stuff. Just . . . just go home, dash it. Go to Corky and tell her—”
“Corky! I don’t understand.”
“Yes, Corky. Go back to Corky, and tell her you are ready to put all this singing nonsense behind you and live the quiet, respectable life in the country.”
His brow darkened, and although I couldn’t have said so for sure, I think he may have ground a molar or two. “Did she put you up to this?” he demanded.
“She did not,” I said, with something as close to quiet dignity as I could muster.
“Fine,” said Esmond. “Very well. So that’s how it is, is it? I see. Fine.” He turned away for a moment, and then turned back to face me again. “I am disappointed in you, Gussie,” he said coldly. “I thought you understood me. I suppose I was wrong.”
“Please, just go,” he said, turning his back to me once more and waving a dismissive hand. “I wish to be alone.”
Feeling more like something you might find clinging to the floor of a taxi-cab than anything human, I shoved my hat back onto my drooping bean and shuffled out.
Somehow I groped my way to an exit and staggered out into the night. I had a vague idea of hailing a taxi and returning home to drown my sorrows in a half bot of something, but somehow it all seemed too much to manage. Instead, I deposited myself on step beside the statue of Prince Albert. I removed a gasper from my cigarette case, but found I didn’t have it in me to light the thing. I was just entertaining a pleasant fantasy about flinging myself into the Thames with a brick tied around my neck, when a quiet rustle and a gentle cough informed me that I was no longer alone.
Raising the weary coconut, I perceived Lady Regina standing beside me, smoking a cigarette in a twelve-inch holder and gazing down at me in a benevolent manner. “Young man, what are you doing out here alone on a night like this?” she asked, pushing out a languid smoke ring.
“I am wallowing,” I said, “in my misery. And I rather wish you’d leave me to it. I find it’s something of a solitary pursuit.”
She did not actually click her tongue sympathetically, but she looked as if she were giving it serious consideration. “That cad didn’t trifle with your feelings, did he?” she asked.
“Not at all. Esmond is guilty of no wrongdoing whatsoever, except possibly for being too blasted charming and adorable for the good of himself and society at large.”
“Then what’s happened?”
“Oh, more or less what you’d expect. I’ve made an ass of myself. I’m a heel, and not one of those dainty French vamp models, either. I’m the sort of thing you find nailed to the bottom of a jackboot. Open the dictionary to ‘bounder,’ and you shall find a picture of Bertram W. Wooster.”
“Hmm,” she said, taking another thoughtful drag on her cigarette. “Then there has been a misunderstanding?”
“You could call it that.”
“Well, for heaven’s sake, dear boy, get back inside and sort it out.”
I gaped at her incredulously. “What? Absolutely not! I couldn’t possibly face him again,” I said, and I keenly hoped that she did not notice the snag in my voice as I said it.
To my surprise, she gave her skirts a dainty hitch and took a seat beside me. She then raised her mask and nestled it carefully atop her pile of raven curls, and any lingering doubts I may have harbored about the Lady’s identity evaporated. I found myself gazing into the familiar – if uncharacteristically adorned – face of my valet.
I noted that Jeeves had gone to the trouble to make up his eyes, and had done a dashed competent job of it, too. How he managed to keep them looking so fresh within the close and sultry confines of his mask, I could not say. But it is a well-established fact that Jeeves is not like us mere mortals.
“Tell me everything, sir,” he said.
I sniffed a bit and averted the map. “Have you ever had your heart broken, Jeeves?” I asked.
“Oh. Really? I’d always supposed you were immune to that sort of rot. Well, then, I’m sure you’ll agree there’s very little in the experience to recommend it.”
“Very true, sir.”
“It’s the sort of thing one wishes to give the miss in baulk, as a general rule.”
“Of course, sir.”
“As a matter of fact, I would go so far as to say that avoiding heartbreak was the cornerstone, or linchpin, if you will, of my policy re: Esmond Haddock. Which is why,” I added coldly, “I specifically requested that you keep your blasted beak out of it.”
“It’s no good saying ‘Mr. Wooster.’ It would take a far meaner intellect than mine to miss your handiwork in all this. I’m not blaming you, Jeeves. I know you were only trying to help. I’m well aware of this compulsion of yours. Possibly you were born with it, or possibly it’s a sort of complex that came on at some point in your youth. Whatever the reason, you encounter a Situation, and you are unable to resist shoving your oar in. It was my fault, really, for gassing on to you about my feelings instead of steeling the old upper lip and waiting for it all to blow over.”
Jeeves did not reply, but I could see from the peculiar set of his stuffed frog mask that I had wounded his amour propre. I felt a pang of guilt – difficult to discern, of course, on top of the buckets of the stuff already sloshing about in my innards – and raised my hand in a conciliatory gesture.
“I’m sorry, Jeeves. I didn’t mean to be so critical. It was awfully good of you to try, and all.”
“Thank you, sir. I am sorry that matters did not resolve themselves to your satisfaction.” He paused and cleared his throat in the way that signals that he is about to broach a delicate subject. “If you will pardon me for asking, sir . . . did Mr. Haddock rebuff your advances?”
“He did not,” I said bitterly. “I rebuffed his. But we have already established that I am a heel. There is no need to go into it any further.”
“Sir . . .”
“It’s all right, Jeeves. You did your best. You simply failed, when making your calculations, to factor in the abysmal depths of the young master’s chumpery.” I rose. “I’m going home, Jeeves.”
“Do you wish me to accompany you, sir?” asked Jeeves, also rising.
“No, no, don’t cut your evening short on my account. I have strewn enough misery in the world for one night. Go out on the tiles and enjoy yourself.”
“Very good, sir. Thank you, sir.”
I started to walk away, but paused. I felt the urge to offer some sort of olive branch to the honest fellow, for I had been awfully hard on him. “Oh, and Jeeves,” I said.
“You look absolutely smashing.”
Jeeves slid the mask back down over his eyes, and Lady Regina smiled gently back at me. “Thank you, my dear. As do you.”
I have never been much of a lad for moping about. We Woosters pride ourselves on our resilience. Fate may, from time to time, attempt to twist us into a pretzel, but we generally pop back into shape with a jolly sproing in a day or two. On this particular occasion, however, it seemed as if the bounce had gone right out of the old elastic. I couldn’t remember the last time when I’d felt so bally depressed.
For several days, I skulked quietly about the flat, speaking in hushed tones starting at slight noises. Occasionally Jeeves would surge round and clear his throat at me in a meaningful fashion, but I waved him off each time. “There’s no use talking about it, Jeeves,” I told him. “This is one of those times when one must simply sweep up the fragments and do one’s best to forget.”
I’m not entirely sure how long this went on – it may have been a few days, or it may have been a couple of weeks, for it all went by in something of a blur. At any rate, I was roused from my torpor one afternoon by the insistent tootling of the doorbell.
I was stretched out on the chesterfield at the time, thumbing through a disinterested spine-tingler. Jeeves streamed silently by and opened the door. After a few moments of quiet conference with whomever stood without, he announced, “Mrs. Cora Pembleton-Wexley.”
I was, for a moment, quite stymied. Briefly running through the inventory of married females of my acquaintance, I failed to turn up a match. I was on the point of asking Jeeves who the devil he was talking about and if she couldn’t come back some time next year, when a tornado of feminine aspect blew into the room, and I found myself quaking before the wrath of the erstwhile Corky Pirbright.
Corky’s first act was to bean me with a rolled up periodical – some sort of gossip rag, I suspected, being well acquainted with her tastes in weekly literature. I pondered briefly on the question of whether this was an approach she had honed through months of experience with the hound Sam Goldwyn, or through years of experience with Catsmeat.
“What ho, Corky,” I said meekly.
She blew steam through her nostrils and pawed the ground with her hooves. “Don’t ‘what ho, Corky’ me, you little bleeder! What have you been doing to Esmond?” she demanded.
“Yes, you! I went with Wilfred to pick up my marriage license in King’s Deverill a few days ago, and who do you suppose was there in the registry office, doing Justice of the Peace duty?”
She beaned me again. “Esmond, you ass!”
“Yes, really. He told me he’s given up singing. He cut up his contract with the Melody Men and went right on home to that flock of slavering aunts.”
The heart sank like a lead balloon. “He didn’t!”
“He did! And he’s absolutely sick about it, the poor lamb.”
Hope flickered briefly in the beleaguered bosom. “I don’t suppose you flew into his arms and sobbed on his chest about how wrong you’d been, did you?”
Her nostrils flared, and she looked dangerously close to beaning me a third time. “Of course I didn’t, you great galloping fathead. Is that what all this was about? He told me you told him to quit.”
“He actually listened to me? Good lord.”
“Unaccountable as it is, he did. He thinks awfully highly of your opinion, Heaven only knows why.” She grabbed my throat and gave it a gentle throttle. “Why did you do it, Bertie? I love you dearly, my sweet, but why are you such a goddamn chump?”
“I thought it would help,” I offered lamely.
“I told you it was over between me and Esmond, Bertie. Don’t know how I could have made it any clearer.”
“You did tell me. And Esmond told me. And Jeeves told me, too. It just – well, dash it, it seemed like such a bally shame, that’s all.”
Corky sighed and passed a dainty hand over the brow – hers, not mine. “That ship has sailed, Bertie. What’s more, it has snuggled up against an iceberg, busted in two, and gone merrily down into the drink. I’m a married woman, and happy as a clam about it. And you may not believe me, my love, but Esmond would have been happy as a clam as well, given another month or two.”
I bent the lemon in contrition. “I can’t tell you how sorry I am, my dear girl. I never meant for things to turn out this way. If there’s anything I can do to make amends . . .”
She fixed me with a glittering eye, rather in the vein of an ancient mariner when he stoppeth one of three. “Oh, never fear, darling. I’m quite sure I’ll think of something.” And she blew out, leaving me quivering like an aspen in her wake.
I exchanged a look with Jeeves, who had been hovering respectfully in the background during the whole exchange. “Hell hath no fury, what?” I said faintly.
He raised a sympathetic eyebrow. “Indeed, sir.”
If there is one thing I can say for being a marked man, it is that it takes one’s mind off one’s other troubles. For the next few days, I was too busy wondering what form Corky’s vengeance would take to spend much time fretting about the hash I had made of things with Esmond. Knowing Corky’s general modus operandi, about the best I could hope for was that it would not end in self being coshed into a spiritual awakening, or spending an extended holiday in Dartmoor.
As it turned out, I did not have long to wait. Not five days passed before I was startled out of my skin one afternoon by the tootling of the telephone as I champed down a nervous cucumber sandwich. Jeeves, having answered the dire summons, waited politely for my choking fit to subside before handing the instrument to me.
“Mrs. Pembleton-Wexley is on the line sir,” he said.
“Oh, all right. But you could have done the feudal thing and told her I had just perished of asphyxiation, Jeeves,” I said peevishly. I took the receiver from his hand and unshipped a wary hullo into it.
“Hello, Bertie, darling,” came Corky’s answering chirrup, and a dashed sinister chirrup, it struck me as. I couldn’t tell you exactly how the wonders of modern telecommunication work – I asked Jeeves about it once, but I lost him somewhere around the time he started in on carbon granules and induction coils – but there’s something about the hissing of the wire that can make the most innocent yoo-hoo sound ominous. “Do you remember what you said last time we met?” she went on. “’If there is anything I can do,’ you said, ‘to make amends . . .’”
“Not a moment goes by that I do not think of it.”
“Good. Because I have just the thing.”
“I was afraid you might.”
“We are having a treat at the finishing school here in King’s Deverill.”
“Corky,” I said, with some austerity, “say no more.”
“Oh, good. I knew I could count on you.”
“That is not what I meant. When I say, ‘Say no more,’ I mean cease and desist. This is a shot which is not on the board. There are a great many things that a Wooster is willing to do for a pal. Ask around among those who know me best, and they will assure you that even larceny is not beyond my scope, if it will help out a chum in need. But I draw the line at anything to do with finishing schools. Nolle prosequi is the word of the day.”
There was a brief and fuzzy silence on the line, and then Corky piped up again. “You know, Bertie, it’s been awhile since I had any Latin, but I am guessing that nolle prosequi means ‘I’m a perfidious louse.’ Because that’s exactly what you are if you try to wiggle your way out of this.”
“I may be a perfidious louse, my dear Corky, but I’m also a louse with a good head on its shoulders and a strong sense of self-preservation. I am not doing anything at any school treats, and I am certainly not touching any finishing school with a hundred-mile barge pole. Anyway, you remember what happened last time you roped me into performing at one of your beastly concerts.”
“Yes,” she said, “I distinctly remember that you never so much as set foot on the stage. And I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit ever since. ‘It’s really too bad,’ I keep telling myself, ‘that Bertie Wooster never got to bowl over the good and simple folk of King’s Deverill with his suave, metropolitan charms.’ Such a shame. You would have given them something to talk about for months.”
“Ha! I’d say I jolly well did give them something to talk about. Besides, you can’t possibly think it would be a good idea to subject a bunch of teen-aged school girls to a half-baked Pat and Mike act. Blood and tomato pulp would be running in the streets.”
“No, no, no. No Pat and Mike act this time. You’re going to sing.”
“Ha!” I said a second time. “If you think I’m going to stand up in front of a mob of pigtailed hooligans and warble out ‘The Yeoman’s Wedding Song’ . . .”
“Oh, good lord, no. The girls will want something much more modern. I’ve been promising them a bona fide sweet-music singer, and, well, you’ve single-handedly rendered King’s Deverill’s one and only native crooner a useless property. So there we are.”
“It would mean so much to the girls.”
“It will be a valuable lesson to them, that disappointment is a part of life.”
“Then you won’t do it?”
“I will not.”
“Really, Bertie, I never thought you, of all people, would let me down.”
“Well, down is exactly where I am letting you, Corky.”
“I see,” she said frostily. “Goodbye, then, Bertie.” A firm click informed me that she had signed off.
With a heavy sigh, I proffered the receiver to Jeeves. “That was Corky, Jeeves,” I informed him.
“So I was given to understand, sir. Shall I begin packing for the journey to King’s Deverill?”
“Right ho, Jeeves.”
The first thing that struck me, upon pulling up outside chez Corky and stepping out onto the cobblestone drive, was Sam Goldwyn. The hound had evidently been counting the minutes since our last encounter, waiting for the moment when he could inhale the characteristic ambrosia of the Wooster trouser legs once more.
I am unsure how long the animal would have continued trampling me into the earth if left to his own devices. However, a pair of worn but well-kept shoes presently put in an appearance, accompanied by an authoritative whistle, and Sam subsided like a genie returning to his lamp.
“Hello,” said the owner of the shoes, hoisting me to my feet. “You must be Bertie Wooster.”
“In person,” I replied. “You must be Wilfred Pembleton-Wexley.”
“Guilty as charged.”
Once upright, I was in a better position to observe my rescuer. He was a slight, elegant, William Powellish sort of bird, clad in tweeds with patches on the elbows. He had kindly blue eyes, a touch of grey about the temples, and a neat little mustache that gave me a pang of wistfulness. A more different specimen from Esmond Haddock one could scarcely hope to encounter, but the appeal was undeniable. I had to grudgingly concede that Corky had done herself well.
Wilfred gave my hand a warm shake, smiling benevolently. “A pleasure to finally meet you, Bertie. May I call you Bertie? Splendid. Cora talks about you all the time.”
“Does she?” I asked, with no little trepidation.
“Oh, yes. She thinks the world of you.”
Just then, a window of the cottage – which undoubtedly would have been twined ‘round with fragrant honeysuckle in a more clement season – flew open, and Corky’s head emerged.
“Is the louse here?” she cried.
“Yes, darling,” said Wilfred. “He just pulled up.”
A look of fiendish triumph passed over Corky’s angelic visage. “Ha!” she said, and withdrew, bringing the window down with a bang.
Wilfred beamed placidly at me, like a kindly shepherd looking over his flock. “Help you with your bags?” he said.
“Don’t you think it’s a bit hard, Corky,” I said, once ensconced across from her on a quaint loveseat with a cup of tea and a pile of biscuits before me, “calling a fellow a louse after he’s come up all the way from London just to perform in your carnival of horrors?”
“No. I think it’s entirely deserved,” said Corky, stirring a lump of sugar into her tea in a marked manner. “I’m still very upset with you, Bertie. You’ve reduced an esteemed former fiancé of mine to a mere toad beneath the harrow, and I cannot abide that sort of thing.”
I winced. “Yes, but it was all in the service of—”
“Trying to break up my happy engagement to dear Wilfred?” she hissed.
I glanced around guiltily. Wilfred was in the kitchen pottering about with grinders and percolators, apparently being the sort of odd chap you meet on occasion who prefers coffee to tea. “All right,” I said, bowing the lemon contritely. “You needn’t rub salt in the wound. I know I’ve made a colossal ass of myself. The point is, I’m here now. Ask of me what you will.”
“Don’t worry, dearheart. Your sacrifice hasn’t gone unnoticed. Since you’re here, you’re merely a common, run-of-the-mill louse, not a perfidious one.”
“By the way, where’s Jeeves?”
“Following shortly by train. He said he had some errands to attend to. What am I going to be singing at this grisly wing-ding, anyway?”
“Oh,” said Corky, nibbling a casual biscuit, “you’ll be doing ‘Dancing in the Moonlight.’”
The corpuscles froze in my veins, and my teacup nearly slipped from my nerveless fingers. “But isn’t that . . .” I gulped a couple of times, and then tried again. “Isn’t that Esmond’s favorite song?”
“Is it?” she said distantly. “You may be right. I suppose that’s why it popped into my head as I was trying to think of something for you to sing. Isn’t the brain a funny thing?” She uncorked a light and airy laugh.
“But I hardly know the song!”
“Well, then, my darling, you’ll have to learn it fast. The performance is in two days.”
“Or, if you forget the words, you could just improvise. All the best jazz vocalists do it.”
“Corky, you are labouring under one of those things under which people labour.”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“I don’t know what you have heard, but my skills as a vocal extemporizer are rudimentary at best. I am merely a simple Wooster, not Cab Calloway.”
Corky rested her chin on her hand and gazed at me dreamily. “Too bad. I would much prefer it if you were Cab Calloway.”
“Chalk it up as one of my many character flaws.”
“Charming man, Cab Calloway.”
“I’m sure he is.”
“Smile that could melt through steel beams. I met him once, you know, on the Paramount lot. He was there filming a short picture for—”
“Corky, please,” I interjected, for I knew that, if unchecked, she would go on in this vein indefinitely. “I appreciate Cab Calloway as much as the next chap, but let us save these tales of your Hollywood exploits for another time. The point is, I can’t do it. You simply must give me something else to sing.”
She began totting off points on her fingers. “For one thing, the programs have already been printed up, at great expense. For another, the band has been rehearsing tirelessly—”
“Band! You hired an entire bally band?”
“Of course, Bertie. I told you I wanted to make it something special for the girls. Besides, considering what an expert you profess to be . . .”
“Oh, now look here!”
But before I could continue, Wilfred popped in, coffee in hand. “Talking about the show?” he asked mildly. “Splendid. I wish I could have a chance to see you perform, Bertie. I’ve heard great things.”
On top of the various other emotions clamouring for attention in the Wooster bosom, I now felt a pang of disappointment. This Wilfred’s presence was a calming one, and although I had barely made his acquaintance, I couldn’t help but feel that the nightmarish ordeal that lay before me would have been improved – however minutely – by his moral support. “Oh. Won’t you be there?” I said.
“I’m afraid not, old man. This is an exclusive event. Strictly for the young ladies and their governesses. No chaps allowed – aside from the entertainment, of course.”
I reeled, as much as it is possible to reel while sitting on a quaint loveseat. I look’d at Corky with a wild surmise. “You mean . . . Jeeves won’t be there, either?”
Corky shrugged. “Sorry, darling. I don’t make the rules. Wilfred’s right. The company will be entirely feminine, aside from you, the band . . . oh, and Mr. Haddock, of course.”
I upset my plate of biscuits. “Mr. Haddock?” I squeaked. “You don’t mean Esmond is going to be there?”
She flashed an angelic smile. “Didn’t I tell you? He’s agreed to be the master of ceremonies.”
I gathered the scattered biscuits and rose. “Excuse me,” I said faintly. “I must step out and get some air.”
I stood out on the drive for some time, gulping down a cigarette of the sort which the advertisements would have me believe was calming and refreshing. I had already mentally composed half of a harshly-worded missive about the manufacturer’s attempts to mislead the consumer when a taxi pulled up and disgorged Jeeves.
Having paid the chap and gathered his bags, Jeeves slid off in my direction with what practically amounted to a spring in his step. I don’t say he actually sauntered, and he certainly didn’t shove his hands in his pockets or whistle, because Jeeves isn’t the type. But if he were, that’s exactly what he would have been doing.
I longed to rebuke him for it, for I was in a dark mood, but I did not. You can’t very well rebuke a chap for not quite sauntering and not actually whistling.
“What ho, Jeeves,” I said instead, without a great deal of pep.
“Good evening, sir,” said Jeeves, depositing the bags at his feet in order to doff his hat at me. “A lovely night, is it not?”
I writhed like an electric fan. “Lovely! Forsooth! Look around you, man. Do you know where you are?”
“Yes, sir. I am on the northernmost outskirts of the village of King’s Deverill, Hampshire, at the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Pembleton-Wexley.”
“Exactly. And yet you stand about describing the evening as ‘good’ and the night as ‘lovely.’ It just goes to show how lax everyone is becoming in these hard modern times.”
“If I may say so, sir, you seem out of sorts.”
“Your powers of observation are keen as ever, Jeeves. What was it the chap said about prospects?”
“You speak of the ‘Missionary Hymn,’ by Reginald Heber, sir. I believe the phrase for which you are groping is ‘Though every prospect pleases, and only man is vile.’”
“Well, he must have been writing about King’s Deverill, Hants. It’s pleasing to the eye, I’ll grant you. The place is lousy with quaint cottages, rolling hills, and apple-cheeked villagers. But underneath the bucolic façade lies a teeming and sinister underbelly. The ordeal that lies before me is more horrifying than anything my worst imaginings could have prepared me for, Jeeves.”
He registered concern. “I am sorry to hear this, sir.”
“Shall I tell you what Corky told me just now?”
“I am agog, sir.”
I gave him a brief outline of my conversation with the recent Corky, while he stood by with a solemn and sympathetic look on his dial.
“And so,” I said, wrapping up the aperçu, “the only thing that remains to complete the resemblance to one of my boyhood nightmares would be for me to arrive at my performance without trousers on.”
“I would never allow such a thing, sir.”
“I suppose we must thank heaven for small favours, Jeeves. But tell me, haven’t you anything to suggest?”
“I fear not, sir.”
“Nothing at all?”
“Only ‘Heart within and God o’erhead,’ as the poet said, sir.”
“I hope the poet burns, Jeeves.”
“No, sir. Longfellow.”
I took a steadying breath and squared the shoulders. “Well, I suppose there’s nothing else for it, then. I shall rise upon the stepping stones of my dead self and give it my all. What time is this fete of Corky’s?”
“The festivities commence at ten o’clock, sir. Your performance is slated for thirty minutes past the hour.”
“In the A. M.?”
“Not much chance of slipping into the village pub for a few quick ones before I go on, then?”
“I fear not, sir.”
I allowed myself a delicate shudder, then steeled the spinal column once more. “Very well. If Corky wants a performance, then I shall give her one. She won’t have the satisfaction of seeing old Bertram brought to his knees by a gaggle of pint-sized thugs in pinafores. Jeeves, I shall need the music and lyrics for ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’ delivered to my door in a plain van at your earliest convenience.”
“I have already obtained a copy of the vocal score, sir.”
I eyed the man keenly, for even in my distracted state, this development struck me as a trifle rummy. “That’s awfully quick work, Jeeves.”
“Mrs. Pembleton-Wexley was kind enough to communicate her selection to me by telephone before my departure, sir.”
I raised my hands in a gesture of defeat. “Why am I always the last to learn these things? So be it. I shall begin practice at once. And by ‘at once,’ I mean tomorrow, after I have had a stiff brandy and at least twelve hours’ sleep.”
“Very good, sir.”
Two days later, I awakened on the dawn of the fateful morning to find that a strange calm had descended upon me. I never met the ancestral Wooster who fought at Agincourt – the whole mess was a bit before my time, I think. However, I imagine that he must have faced his fate with much the same equanimity, if equanimity is the word I want.
“Well Jeeves,” I said with quiet dignity as my man helped me don the white tie and tails, “here we are.”
“The moment of truth, what?”
“Indeed, sir. Do you feel adequately prepared for the task ahead?”
I hoisted the chin and attempted a brave smile. “After all the practicing I put in yesterday? I don’t see how I could fail to make a hit, Jeeves. I shall play upon the young inmates of the King’s Deverill Finishing School like so many stringed instruments.”
Jeeves regarded me with a sort of beatific glimmer in his eye. “A commendable attitude, sir. You were in fine voice yesterday. I am confident you will do well.”
“Good of you to say so, Jeeves,” I said, feeling my cheeks get a tad warmish. “Still, I wish you could be there. It would take the edge off a bit, having my trusty helpmeet by my side.”
“I shall be there in spirit, sir.”
“That’s cold comfort, Jeeves, but I’ll take what I can get.” I turned to the full-length mirror and twiddled the neckwear thoughtfully. “How do I look?”
To my amazement, Jeeves leaned in and gave my shoulder the most fleeting of pats. “If I may borrow a phrase, sir,” he said, “you look absolutely smashing.”
By the time I oiled onto the grounds of the King’s Deverill Finishing School, the proceedings were already well underway. Despite Corky’s threats of bodily harm should I arrive anything less than twenty minutes before I was scheduled to step into the spotlight, I had no intention of hanging about soaking up the atmosphere any longer than necessary. I rolled in at about twelve minutes before the appointed moment, and parked myself at the back of the crowd.
It became apparent at once that Corky had sunk a goodish chunk of spondulix into the production. In addition to being festooned with schoolgirls and teachers on canvas chairs, the school grounds had been outfitted with a refreshment tent decorated in coloured crepe streamers and silk flowers, a canvas dance floor, and a positively whacking outdoor stage, complete with red velvet curtains. Inside the refreshment tent, a tall woman in a veiled sunhat was pottering about, carrying a dashed inviting-looking pitcher of something I presumed to be lemon squash.
At the moment I arrived, a sort of adolescent feminine Ted Healy and His Stooges act had just commenced. A wiry, freckle-faced blister of about fifteen with a bob like a rozzer’s helmet sat at a piano, ferociously banging out the opening bars of “It’s Delightful to be Married.” Three other girls stood clustered in the middle of the stage, surrounded by a copse of massive plywood cherry trees. After a little aimless shuffling and elbowing, they began singing in what might – to a discerning ear – have resembled a three-part harmony.
The act broke down part way through the first verse, when one of the girls accidentally beaned her neighbor with a parasol. The affronted party let out a yowl and swung her basket of silk flowers wildly at her companion, while the third girl leaped back and collided with one of the cherry trees, sending it crashing to the floor.
It struck me that this would be a hard act to follow. The student body, as a whole, seemed to feel that this was exactly what the doctor had ordered. The crowd erupted in raucous mirth. A couple of teachers and a world-weary Head Girl were sent to the front lines to break up the fracas.
Being the sort of chap who knows a strategic moment when he sees one, I took the opportunity to make a dive for the refreshment tent. I was almost upon it when I heard a triumphant cry, and Corky abruptly manifested herself in my path.
“So,” said Corky, shoving a couple of kid-gloved fingers into my ribcage and making me leap like a skewered trout, “you finally deigned to show up, did you?”
“Of course I did. A Wooster never shirks his duty.”
“Is that so? Then just where the devil do you think you’re going? You’re meant to be on stage in about ten minutes.”
“To the refreshment tent, dash it! Can’t a chap get a glass of lemon squash before he is made to go and do his performing flea act for the masses? I’m dry as the Sahara.”
“No,” she replied, “he can’t. I’ll bring the lemon squash to you. The band is already behind the stage, getting ready. You’d better get your adorable little posterior back there with them before I kick it over there myself.” She waggled a dainty foot in a threatening manner.
I raised my hands in surrender. When a woman like Corky tells you to relocate your hindquarters, there is little else to be done. I cast one last, longing look at the refreshment tent, and legged it.
By the time I made my way to the stage, the Stooge act had resumed. To the disappointment of the audience, it now seemed to be proceeding without a hitch. The singing portion of the entertainment wrapped up as I sidled by, and some species of dancing interlude commenced.
I started to slip around behind the stage, where various musicians were messing about with their instruments among the scattered set pieces from previous acts. I noted amongst the plywood detritus a couple of inebriated-looking camels, a pyramid, and a grove of palm trees. I was about to head for the palm trees when my attention was arrested by the sight of a familiar silhouette lurking in the stage-side entrance.
My heart plunged into my stomach with a thud. I’d known Esmond would be there, of course, but that hardly prepared me for the sight of the man himself. I was standing transfixed, my eyes glued to the noble profile, when someone took me by the elbow and hauled me behind the stage.
It was Corky. She shoved a glass of lemon squash into my hands. “You’d better drink up while you can, my pet,” she said. “You’re on in about five minutes, assuming we don’t have to carry any of the Albinson sisters off on a stretcher.”
I took a grateful swig of the vital fluid, and nearly choked. “It’s been spiked!” I yelped.
“Shush!” hissed Corky, giving my arm a swat. “What on earth are you talking about?”
“You put gin in my lemon squash, that’s what! Not that I’m complaining, mind you, but a little warning wouldn’t have gone amiss.”
“I did no such thing.”
“The woman in the refreshment tent must have done it, then.”
“Dear, sweet Ms. Piggott? Why would she do such a thing?”
“It is hard to say. Possibly, she is one of those great humanitarians that one runs across from time to time in life. An angel in human form is what I call her. Here, try some, if you don’t believe me.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake. Keep your germs and your paranoiac fantasies to yourself, Bertie. Oh, look! The girls are done! You’d better get ready. Break a leg darling – and do try not to take that literally.”
I tossed the rest of the lemon squash cocktail down the hatch and pressed the glass on Corky with trembling hands. The girls had indeed wrapped up their act, as evidenced by a smattering of dissatisfied applause from the audience.
The four young performers presently made their appearance, emerging in a jostling and clomping cluster from the stage-side entrance. They were followed closely by a troupe of red-faced women, whom I took to be members of the school staff, hauling away the plywood cherry trees. Then the musicians began queuing up for their entrance, and it was abruptly borne in upon me that there were an awful lot of them.
“That’s a big band, Corky,” I whispered.
“Oh, is it?” she said disinterestedly, brushing an invisible speck of dust from one of her pristine cuffs.
“It is. It’s an awfully big blasted band, Corky. It’s at least as big as—”
“Well, you’d better get up there, Bertie. It would be a shame to leave all those fellows hanging, wouldn’t it? Go on! Up you go!” She grabbed me by the shoulders and shoved me forward. I stumbled into line behind an elegant chappie with blonde hair so impeccably brilliantined that I could practically see my reflection in it. This, I surmised by the baton in his hand, must be the leader of the band.
The brilliantined bird turned to glance at me as we filed up the stairs. His face, I thought, was strangely familiar, but I could not place it.
“Ah,” he said. “You must be Wooster.” He gave my hand a firm shake. “Cora tells me you’re quite the songbird. We’ve got a vacancy for a singer, you know. If all goes well this afternoon, we might have a spot for you with the ensemble.”
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly—” I began, but he had already turned away. The musicians were beginning to assemble. Some mysterious agent had set up a microphone in the middle of the stage. The curtains had been rung down, cutting off my view of the audience. I halted in the wings and mopped my suddenly cold and sodden brow with a handkerchief.
I cast about for any sign of Esmond, but he was nowhere to be seen. I decided that he must have moved to the other side of the curtains. A moment later, my suspicions were confirmed. His voice rang out from somewhere in the front portion of the stage, addressing the audience.
“Wasn’t that lovely?” he was saying, in a voice laden with sorrow. “Our very own Albinson sisters. How charming. And now, the act you have all been waiting for. They have come all the way from London to entertain us today, so I hope you will give them a very warm welcome.” There was a long and pregnant pause, and then he went on, brokenly: “Victor DeFonce and His Melody Men, with . . . B-Bertie Wooster.”
My heart, which had already been sloshing about in the vicinity of my lower intestines, now plummeted into my shoes. I froze. “Victor DeFonce!” I gasped.
“And His Melody Men,” said Corky, who must have been at my heels the whole time.
“But . . . that’s Esmond’s band!”
Corky gave a sardonic snort. “Not anymore, it isn’t.”
I turned and started to make for the exit, but Corky stepped into my path. “Where do you think you’re going now?” she demanded.
“Home,” I said. “If you think for a moment that I’m going to stand up there and sing with the Melody Men while Esmond looks on—”
She grabbed my shoulders and spun me back toward the stage. “You have to. You’re the main act! The girls have been talking about nothing but the great Bertie Wooster for days on end. There’s no backing out now. Go on,” she went on, in a voice that could almost be classified as kind. “Knock ‘em dead, Bertie.” She gave me a gentle shove, and I staggered onto the stage.
At that moment, the curtains went up, and the girls of the King’s Deverill Finishing School erupted into hearty applause. I stumbled to the microphone stand and clutched at it as if it were a life preserver.
Taking in the vastish crowd before me, my eye was immediately drawn to Esmond. He had joined the audience, and was standing off to the side of the front row, gazing directly at me.
His time back in the country had done nothing to diminish his beauty. Hours spent pacing the meadows with a heavy tread had bronzed his skin and brought the roses to his cheeks. It seemed he had also been eschewing the barber, for his hair had grown longer, with the result that it curled roguishly around his temples, and unruly locks tumbled over his forehead. There was an inscrutable look in his dark and flashing eyes.
I was still grappling with the emotion of being confronted with this vision when the chap with the brilliantined hair – whom I now knew to be Victor DeFonce – gave his baton a couple decisive waves, and the band burst forth with the opening bars of “Dancing in the Moonlight.”
Remembering the ancestral Wooster at Agincourt, I straightened my spine and held the onion high. I then fixed Esmond with what I hoped was a burning gaze, and began to sing.
I think it is fair to say that my first moments out of the starting gate were pretty hot stuff. The vocal cords, primed by the gin-infused lemon squash, were lithe and supple. The well-practiced words poured out like warm honey. The sea of fresh-faced striplings sat enrapt before me, hands clasped and eyes shining.
I made it all the way to the end of the first stanza – the bit that goes, “If the night will bring a moon, a tune, and you” – before things went pear-shaped.
Possibly it was the word “you,” combined with the sight of Esmond’s glittering eyes and trembling chin, that got to me. Or it might have been the memory of his chest rumbling against my own as we swayed to this very melody only a couple short weeks before. Whatever it was, something seemed to come unstuck inside me. My voice fizzled out, and my vision became a watery blur. I averted my face from the crowd, desperately blinking back the unshed. The band fell silent, and time seemed to grind to a standstill.
I’ve never gone in much for crying. It’s all right, I suppose, if you like that sort of thing, but I generally find that there are other things with which I’d rather occupy my time. What with one thing and another, it’s not something I’ve done a whole lot of in my adult life. In any case, if one must cry, I certainly don’t recommend doing it in front of about eighty-thousand finishing school students and their teachers. For one thing, there is the whispering. Also the giggling, which is even harder to abide. Better, on the whole, to do it in the safety and convenience of your own home.
As I stood there struggling to hold back the floodgates, it began to feel as if my torment would stretch on indefinitely. And then, abruptly, a rich baritone voice burst forth from somewhere near the foot of the stage.
“I don’t care where the place may be, if there’s room for you, and there’s room for me,” sang the r. b. v.
I cracked open a dewy and timorous eye. Esmond Haddock was standing directly before me, one foot up on the stage, his hand outstretched in an entreating gesture.
“And there’s room enough to dance . . .” I chimed in faintly, reaching out to grasp his hand.
“I’ll always take a chance,” sang Esmond, as I hoisted him onto the stage. The band sprang to life again behind us.
I glanced at Esmond. He gave me an encouraging nod. I filled my lungs with a bracing slab of country air, and began to sing again, Esmond’s voice mingling magnificently with my own.
Standing shoulder to shoulder, we knocked ‘em dead.
It seemed like the whole business was over almost as soon as it began. All at once, the music ended, and the throng of schoolgirls erupted into deafening applause, intermingled with the occasional shriek of delight. I was too stunned to do much more than stare dumbly back at them, but Esmond’s natural showmanship slid swiftly into gear. He seized my hand and hoisted it triumphantly above our heads, and then pulled me down with him into a deep bow.
“Thank you!” he cried, letting go of my hand in order to graciously spread his arms. “Ladies and, er, ladies: Victor DeFonce and His Melody Men! And,” he went on, raising his voice to be heard over the continued clamour of the crowd, “Bertie Wooster.”
As he said this, he reached for me, but his groping hand met empty air. I was already sidling for the exit. Esmond hastily bowed again, and trotted after me into the wings.
“Bertie!” he whispered hoarsely. “Where are you going?”
“I—” I began, but before I could marshal my words, there was a sudden commotion from the audience. Someone had begun shouting.
I peeked around the edge of the curtain, and quickly ascertained that the source of the row was Ms. Piggott, the woman from the refreshment tent. She had stationed herself behind the back row of girls, all of whom were now silently craning their necks to look at her. And what she shouted was this:
“We want Haddock! We want Haddock! We want Haddock! We want HADDOCK!”
A bony, Basil Rathbone-ish woman whom I took to be the headmistress rocketed out of her seat in the front row. “What is the meaning of this?” she demanded. But her query went unanswered. Ms. Piggott continued her refrain:
“We want Haddock! We want Haddock! We want Haddock! We want HADDOCK!”
In one of the middle rows, a chubby girl with a bright pink face and blazing copper curls slowly rose to her feet. She raised her fist in the air and took up the cry: “We want Haddock! We want Haddock! We want Haddock! We want HADDOCK!”
From there, the chant spread like a ripple from a stone chucked into a still pond. Within about half a minute, each and every pupil of the King’s Deverill Finishing School was on her feet, howling for Haddock. The teachers looked at each other with a wild surmise, and then shrugged helplessly. One of them, a jovial-looking specimen who put me in mind of a younger Aunt Dahlia, stood up and added her own voice to the chorus.
I turned back to Esmond. “I think they want an encore,” I said.
He beamed at me, his face flushed. “Well, what are we waiting for?” he cried.
“You go, Esmond,” I said, gazing shyly at my spats. “It’s you they’re shouting for.”
“Go on,” I urged. “I’ll be waiting.”
He looked at me hard for a moment, biting his lower lip. Then he gave my shoulder a tight squeeze, turned, and curvetted back out onto the stage to the thunderous adulation of the crowd.
I blundered off the stage and directly into the arms of a beaming Corky.
“Bertie, my angel, light of my life, you were magnificent,” she said, planting a sloppy kiss on my cheek.
“Esmond was magnificent,” I said humbly. “I was a mere foil for his splendour.”
“Nonsense,” said Corky, giving my other cheek a stinging pinch. “You were divine. It couldn’t have gone more perfectly. Have another lemon squash, darling. You’ve earned it.”
I gratefully accepted the proffered glass, and took a cautious sip. I was pleased to discover that the new concoction was even stronger than the last. If ever there was a time that called for a drink stiff enough to fell a full-grown ox, that time was now. The warmth of the gin shot through me, leaving my bones feeling pleasantly gelatinous in its wake.
“That Ms. Piggott is a treasure,” I remarked.
“You have no idea,” said Corky. “And now, why don’t you go have a sit-down by camels? You look like you’re ready to drop. I’ll tell Esmond where you are. I’m sure he’ll want a word with you when he’s done.”
I was only too happy to follow Corky’s suggestion. I found some species of large chest or trunk tucked away between the cut-out camels and the plywood palm grove, and took a seat on it.
I’m not sure how long I sat there in quiet contemplation. Presently I became aware that the music from the stage had stopped. There was another round of wild applause, and then a new and unfamiliar tune started up. A few moments after that, it dawned on me that I was no longer alone.
I looked up to find Esmond standing before me, clutching at a palm tree and gazing at me with blazing eyes. His dark curls clung damply to his brow.
“Bertie Wooster,” he said, in a low and husky voice.
I rose on unsteady pegs to greet him. “Esmond,” I said. “I . . . I can’t even begin to tell you how sorry I am, old thing.”
“Sorry! Why, you haven’t a thing in the world to be sorry for, Bertie.”
My breath caught in my throat, and my eyes stung like the dickens. “Of course I have,” I said. “I told you to give up singing, didn’t I? And you listened to me, dash it. You should never listen to me, Esmond. I’m a bally idiot.”
“It’s all right,” I said with a shrug. “I’m not ashamed to admit it. It’s a well-known fact among my associates. Ask anyone.”
“If you’re such an idiot, then answer me this. Who was it,” demanded Esmond, slipping effortlessly into the role of a justice of the peace interrogating a key witness, “who so astutely identified my inferiority complex, and realized that making a smashing success at the village concert would finally give me the confidence to defy my aunts?”
He blinked, momentarily nonplussed. “Oh. Well, then, who was it who almost singlehandedly patched up every sundered heart at Deverill Hall in a matter of only a few days, against the severest of odds?”
“That was also Jeeves. Primarily, I mean. If a problem has been solved somewhere in Bertram’s vicinity, it is more or less a cert that the hand pulling the strings was Jeeves’s.”
“Ah. But did Jeeves give me those incredible lyrics, thus saving me from what surely would have been the flop of a lifetime?”
“Was it Jeeves who taught me that absolutely anything can be turned into a love song, with a proper infusion of soul?”
“I suppose not.”
He closed the distance between us in two quick strides, and laid his hands on my shoulders. “You’re no idiot, Bertie. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And I never believed all that rot about my singing for a minute. I know I can sing, damn it.”
“Then why on earth did you quit?”
“I don’t know. Because I was embarrassed, I suppose. Embarrassed at the thought that I had misunderstood you so badly, and made a fool of myself in front of you. And heartbroken at the thought that you didn’t—”
My heart pounded like a jackhammer. “Didn’t what?” I prompted breathlessly.
“That . . . well, that you didn’t . . . care for me.”
“Oh, Esmond!” I gasped, swaying a bit.
“But you do,” he went on, taking one of my hands in both of his. “I see that, now. You’ll scarcely credit this, Bertie, but that woman from the refreshment tent pulled me aside a little while before you came on, and told me everything.”
I gaped at him, fogged. “Told you everything?”
“Yes. She explained to me that everything you had said the night of the ball was out of the purest motives. Some sort of misguided sense of duty, she called it. She said that you were madly in love with me, but you thought that I could only be truly happy with Corky, and that you were willing to do anything to try and push me back into her arms.”
My jaw dropped. “Ms. Piggott said all that?”
“Is that her name?” he said absently. “Remarkable woman. Very tall. Makes an incredible lemon squash. I have the funniest feeling that I’ve met her somewhere before. Perhaps she’s my guardian angel.”
“I’m fairly certain she’s mine, actually.”
“Either way, it all seemed so incredible that I didn’t believe her at first. I mean to say, how could she possibly know? But then, the moment I saw you up on that stage, the scales fell from my eyes, and everything became clear.” He paused. “You do care for me, don’t you, Bertie?”
I reached up and laid a hand on his flaming cheek. “Of course I do, Esmond! Good lord, how could I not? I just never dreamed for a moment that you could possibly feel the same way.”
“Because you’re a paragon, Esmond. A Michelangelo sculpture in the flesh. A living example of the masculine ideal. And I’m . . . well, dash it, just look at me!”
“Yes,” said Esmond, sliding one of his hands around the back of my neck and leaning in so close that I could feel his hot breath on my face as he spoke. “Just look at you.”
And then he was kissing me, and the world around us seemed to melt away like candy floss in a rainstorm.
“Bertie,” Esmond said a few moments later, between frantic kisses, “I need—to go back—to London.”
“Mmf,” I replied, shoving my torso as far up against his as I could without actually emerging somewhere on the other side of him.
He pulled back for a moment, panting like a hart after the water brooks. “Victor has offered to reinstate my contract,” he said breathlessly. He then turned his attention to the space between the top of my collar and the bottom of my left ear.
“Esmond, old bean, that’s—oh, dear lord, that’s marvelous. Don’t stop.”
“Of course, I gave up my flat in London when I came down,” he went on, giving my earlobe a gentle nip.
I wriggled like an eel in his arms. “Oh, God! Stay in mine. Stay as long as you want. Stay forever!”
“That’s the best idea I’ve heard in weeks.”
“Like it, do you?” I asked, pressing the front of my straining dress trousers against his well-muscled thigh. He groaned approvingly in reply.
“Well, it’s settled then,” I went on. “Move your hand, Esmond.”
“No, no. Lower.”
We crashed into the plywood pyramid, causing it to teeter dangerously. Esmond paused, exhaled deeply, and pulled away from me once more. “We can’t carry on like this here,” he said, running a shaky hand through his unkempt curls.
“Of course. You’re quite right.”
“We must go back to London at once. Meet me outside the Hall in an hour.”
“An hour!” I cried, clinging desperately to his lapels. “That’s torture!”
“I know. But I must finish out the show.”
“But why must you?”
He took one of my hands and pressed the palm fervently to his lips. “Because, my darling, Corky will murder me if I do not.”
The next morning, when I awakened in my own bed in Berkeley Mansions, W1, my first thought was that the entire business had been a wondrous dream. But then something large and warm and solid encircled my torso, and a quick glance revealed that the object in question was an arm.
Following the arm to its source, I discovered Esmond Haddock, sprawling languidly beside me in the altogether. My heart turned a several somersaults. I sat up and gazed down at him in wonder. “Good lord. You’re really here!” I said.
Esmond smiled blearily up at me. “Of course I am, Gussie,” he mumbled. “Where else would I be?” He then yanked a pillow over his head, rolled over, and plunged back into the deep and dreamless.
However, despite the indecently early hour, going back to sleep was quite out of the question for Bertram. I paused to run an admiring hand over Esmond’s artfully sculpted anatomy, kissed his well-formed scapula, and then quickly donned the heliotrope pyjamas and dressing gown.
The ambrosial scent of bacon informed me that Jeeves was already at work in the kitchen. I biffed off thither with a song in my heart and a smile on my lips.
“Good morning, sir,” said Jeeves, as I poked the coconut in through the kitchen door.
“It is, isn’t it? Yes, an absolutely corking morning. The sort of morning that makes one want to dance in the streets and tell anyone who will listen how splendid life is.”
Jeeves folded an efficient omelet. “I am gratified to hear it, sir. Will Mr. Haddock be breakfasting here?”
I blushed so hard my scalp tingled. “He will, Jeeves, but not yet, I think. Later. The poor chap is utterly exhausted.”
“I can only imagine, sir.”
I paused to munch a thoughtful rasher of bacon. “Jeeves, about that school treat.”
“I sense your hand in what transpired.”
“I may have played some small part, sir.”
“Good lord, you and Corky must have been in cahoots the entire time!”
“Mrs. Pembleton-Wexley was kind enough to take me into her confidence regarding the matter, sir.”
“I say,” I said, dropping my voice to a whisper – I’m not sure why, it just seemed like the thing to do in the moment – “does Corky . . . I mean to say, is she aware . . .”
“To use the young lady’s own words, sir, she saw the signs a mile off in neon lights.”
“A sound egg, that Corky,” I said reverently, for I was deeply touched.
“The soundest of all possible eggs!”
“She is a most charming and sympathetic young lady, sir.”
“But Jeeves,” I went on, cutting straight to the heart of the matter, “how the devil did you pull it off?”
“What I mean is, how could you possibly have known that things would work out the way they did?”
Jeeves filled a thoughtful teapot. “I must confess, sir, that I was doubtful of the efficacy of the scheme that Mrs. Pembleton-Wexley originally outlined. She explained to me that Mr. Haddock is almost irresistibly compelled to sing along whenever confronted with a performance of the song ‘Dancing in the Moonlight.’”
“Her reasoning is sound, Jeeves. It is a phenomenon I witnessed myself, at Lady Malcolm’s ball.”
“It was the young lady’s hope that, upon hearing you perform the song with the Melody Men, Mr. Haddock would be unable to restrain himself from joining in. On completion of the entertainment, an agent planted in the audience would then raise the cry for an encore performance by Mr. Haddock.”
“Ah,” I interjected, raising a knowing eyebrow. “Thereby restoring his wounded amour propre and returning him to mid-season form.”
“Precisely, sir. However, given Mr. Haddock’s severely depressed emotional state, I felt that it would be prudent for . . . someone to apprehend the young gentleman before the performance and speak frankly with him regarding the events that transpired at Lady Malcolm’s ball.”
I raised a second knowing eyebrow. “That someone being our mysterious and talented purveyor of lemon squash, Ms. Piggott.”
A corner of Jeeves’s mouth sidled minutely upward. “Yes, sir.”
“A close relative of Lady Regina’s, I presume?”
The errant labial muscle inched even higher. “You could say that, sir.”
He paused to cover the steaming breakfast tray, and then went on, in a contemplative vein. “Still, even having taken such measures, I remain doubtful that the desired outcome would have been achieved, had it not been for your own splendidly emotive performance.”
My scalp tingled again. “Thank you, Jeeves. For everything.”
“Do not mention it, sir.”
“I’ve said it before, and I shall say it again: you stand alone.”
“You are too kind, Mr. Wooster. Shall I bring your breakfast to the dining room, sir?”
“Oh, yes, rather.”
“Very good, sir.”
As I sat at the dining room table a few moments later, watching Jeeves surge silently in with the breakfast tray, I found myself lost in thought.
“Er, Jeeves,” I said at last, fiddling with the silverware and avoiding the fellow’s eye, “I’ve meant to say this for some time, but what with the frantic rush of life these past few weeks, I hadn’t got around to it yet.”
“I won’t beat around the bush, Jeeves. You showed an awful lot of confidence in the young master by spilling the beans to me about your Lady Regina-Ms. Piggott wheeze. In the hands of a careless or unscrupulous employer, such information would be pure dynamite. I’m most frightfully moved that you found me to be worthy or your trust, old top.”
Jeeves smiled openly – the very same smile that I’d seen on the lips of Lady Regina on the night of the ball.
“It is a well-known fact,” he replied, “that a Wooster does not bandy a woman’s name.” He then trickled out, leaving me alone with my omelet and my thoughts.
A short while later, Esmond crept in, kitted out in a set of scarlet pyjamas that suited him deucedly well. But then, everything did.
“Esmond! You’re up!” I cried happily, rising to greet him.
“Bertie,” he beamed, pulling me into a long and crushing embrace.
“Hungry?” I asked, once Esmond had released me and breath had returned to the lungs. “I can have Jeeves whip something up for you. He turns out a corking omelet.”
“Lovely,” said Esmond, gazing at me with a dreamy smile on his map.
“Anything else, old thing? Toast with marmalade? Kippers? Bacon?”
He looked thoughtful for a moment. “Have you any bananas?”
“Yes,” I said, “we’re fresh out.”
First, a million thanks to my fabulous beta reader/brainstorming buddy, Wembley! This fic wouldn’t have been nearly so much fun to write (and probably would have taken a hell of a lot longer) without you.
Another million thanks to Nonnel, who helped inspire Bertie and Esmond’s UST-laden duet of “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”
A couple brief notes on the story:
This story is set in 1933 or so. At the time, Lady Malcolm’s Servants’ Ball had been an important part of the London queer scene for several years. Starting around 1934 or so, the organizers of the ball started cracking down on “undesirables,” and drag was expressly forbidden. Still, the event remained a staple of the gay London scene until well into the 1950s.
“Piggott” was the surname of Jeeves’s aunt who was featured (but, through a HEINOUS BREACH OF JUSTICE, never appeared on the page) in the last Jeeves novel, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen.
If you’re interested in listening to (mostly) vintage recordings of the songs mentioned/performed in the story, I’ve compiled a playlist here.