MY MAN JEEVES
Taking a peek at Bertram as he descended from the Southern Railway at Newton Cambridge on a windy Thursday in April, you might have been forgiven for supposing that he had just emerged from a hedge backwards. The eyes were bloodshot, the chin if not stubbled at least resembling something that had come off worst in an encounter with a lead pencil, the hair displaying a hitherto unexperienced waywardness. Bertram, in short, was not in his prime.
If you've never done battle with the Southern Railway, take my advice and give it a miss. By the time I escaped from the train I was a distinctly sub-standard article, about ready to be marked down to half-price. In the absence of my man, Jeeves, deputising for my Aunt Lavinia's butler while he languished in hospital, I had been valeted by an agency replacement, one Crippen - an excellent chap in many respects, but not a patch on the original. It is difficult to face the day with the same equanimity - if that's the word I want - when the valet of one's bosom, in whom one has reposed one's entire faith, is not to hand at the critical hour.
Not, it must be said, that the present excursion would have been necessary had it not been for the combination of Peachey's motor-accident and Aunt Lavinia's house-party. In short after four days of Crippen's lamentable failure to measure up to the high standards Jeeves maintains the Wooster morale was sapped to the point where it became imperative to stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, and dare all in the cause of returning to Jeeves' orbit.
There's some jolly number of the Swan of Avon's about a sporting cove getting his heart's desire 'when Birnam Wood shall come to Dunsinane', and the said wood promptly ups sticks and saunters on over and thoroughly demoralises the opposition. No doubt you are familiar with the piece - Jeeves has it by heart. Take a line from that to the present Wooster predicament and you have a vague notion of the upheaval involved. All was not unconfined sweetness and light; in fact, a few more hours of Crippen's tender ministrations and I should have found myself beating weakly at the gates of Colney Hatch and demanding admittance in a voice that trembled with emotion, and so forth.
Thus the Southern Railway. Thus the arrival at Newton Cambridge, the nearest outpost of civilisation to my Aunt Lavinia's country retreat.
This aunt is a mercifully minor figure in the Wooster social calendar. A cousin of my late mother's, she spent what I believe are known as the best years of her life as a missionary in China, a career that was capped when at a fairly advanced age she signed on the dotted line as second wife to a retired Bishop - who fell off the nest less than a year later. This left my Aunt Lavinia with a large residence - Newton Maloder - in a Kentish backwater, and more of the folding green stuff than an honest Bishop should be able to accumulate even in a lifetime's bishing. She promptly dedicated the place to Good Works, and at any time can be discovered giving shelter and succour to as various an assortment of hearty good fellows and serious-minded young girls as one would ever hope to strike under the same roof. Peachey having, in a moment of inattention, absent-mindedly allowed a motor-cycle and sidecar combination to run over his foot, the hearty and serious young people were in imminent danger of being un-buttled for a spell. Well, never let it be said that Bertram is stinting of his aid in a good cause; wrench though it was, I had given my consent to Jeeves stepping into the breach.
The shooting-brake from Newton Maloder stood outside the station, with what appeared to be the lower half of a chauffeur-handyman protruding from beneath it. I dawdled over and tapped him discreetly with my foot.
"What ho, Jobbings," I called out. "Do I detect a difficulty?"
There came an incomprehensible cry from beneath the conveyance and he squirmed out, a symphony in a rich plum-coloured uniform with silver frogging and engine oil embellishments.
"Oh, Mr Wooster," he said, letting concealment like a trout in the milk feed on his damask cheek - if it isn't some crack about worms and buds, that is. "She've split a oil line, sir. Tom Morris's boy've had to go on his bicycle for another. I thought you was a-coming down on the 4.10, sir?"
I swung the trousseau into the tonneau. "That was the 4.10, Jobbings," I confided. "What's the S.P. on Tom Morris's boy?" He goggled a minute, then caught up. I've always said these country-born types are quick as rabbits when they want to be.
"Be 'least another hour, sir," he said. "Station-master's wife'll run you along in the Austin, or there's the bus to Madeley in twenty-five minutes as calls at the end of the drive."
"Rot," I breezed. "I can be halfway there in less than that. You tootle along with the baggage when you get the old girl sorted out," I advised, tipping him a half-sov. I took a deep breath, expelled railway soot from my lungs and drew in clean country air. A mile-and-a-quarter walk was just what it wanted to put the roses back in my cheeks. I tally-ho-ed him, spun on my heel, and stepped it out in the direction of Aunt Lavinia's place.
The heroine of the gothic novel is frequently to be found battling the elements in a hostile landscape in the cause of True Love. They're always finding themselves abandoned on some windswept heath while the cruel stars stare down unblinking, and that sort of thing. Well, the way to Newton Maloder was not exactly paved with rose-petals, nor were there birds trilling, but there was a distinct spring to the Wooster stride and a sunrise in the heart by the time the ancestral bricks-and-mortar hove into view. I scrunched across the drive, lunged at the bell-pull, and struck fear into the heart of the parlour-maid who admitted me.
"Mr Wooster, sir, good afternoon. Her ladyship and the guests are taking tea; would you care to join them, sir?"
"Not just at present, Ethel," I said, shouldering past her. "I'd like a word with my man Jeeves first - any idea where he is?"
"He's in the kitchen, sir. Shall I fetch him?"
"No, no, lead the way, Ethel. Birnam Wood shall come to Dunsinane."
She gave me the speculative fish-eye, then realised there was no reasoning with me.
"If you'll kindly step this way, sir," she said, holding open the green baize with a hand that trembled.
It's impossible to walk quietly on those ancient flag stoned passage floors. It must have sounded as if a troop of cavalry was thundering down towards the domestic quarters, and yet when Ethel and I erupted onto the scene all was tranquility of the most bucolic order. Jeeves, serenity personified, sat at the head of the table, a cup of tea elevated to his lips, apparently in the midst of some conversation of mutual felicity with the cook. My appearance in the doorway, flustered and dishevelled, would have startled lesser men; Jeeves merely rose to his feet, straightened his jacket and said, "Why, Mr Wooster. Good afternoon, sir."
"Ah - er - yes, Jeeves, good afternoon. A word, if you please."
"Certainly sir. Perhaps I may show you to your room?"
"Yes, that's - er - "
I followed him from the kitchen and he shepherded me some few paces along the corridor and into the staff lift. The door closed behind us with a contented hiss, and the cabin lifted with inexorable slowness and a creaking of ancient winches. I leaned back against the side of the cabin and stared at him. "Jeeves," I said, plaintively, "I've missed you."
I didn't like the smug glitter in his eyes. "Have you indeed, sir?"
"Yes, dash it, I have - and I'm not 'sir', I'm 'Bertie'."
He stepped closer. "Why, so you are," he said, with the air of one who has made a surprising discovery.
In the next moment he had taken hold of me and was kissing me as though his life depended on it, driving his tongue into my throat as though he wanted to turn me inside out. I merely clung to him, shipwrecked, his jacket bunched in my fingers, his scent in my nostrils. Four days without him had been a life sentence.
It may be wondered when the Wooster menage assumed this additional eccentricity. It was, in fact, a comparatively recent development although it is generally known that Jeeves has been resident in my establishment something over a year now.
It was one wet afternoon in that Slough of Despond between the Boat Race and the start of the cricket season that, as a consequence of some piece of idiocy of Pongo Twistleton's, I found myself at a loose end. Dropping in at the Drones at my usual hour, I found the place doing a convincing impersonation of a speak-easy after a police raid. The solitary steward left minding the store advised me that Pongo had Pied-Pipered the lot of them off on some beastly scavenger hunt caper around the purlieus of North London, and that the Dining Room, the Library and even the Games Room were as empty as the space between Pongo's ears - my words, not his. I chalked a couple of consolation snorters up to Pongo's mess bill, and after a desultory hour wended homewards.
Jeeves was generally out about his marketing at this hour, and so breezing into the des. res. in a jolly state of all's-right-with-the-world but carrying the handicap of a distinctly rumbly tum I formed the notion of building myself an omelette. I mean it can't be all that difficult, Jeeves does it all the time. I've seen him do it. All you do is crack the eggs into a sort of dish thingy, chivvy them around for a while with a fork, slosh in a quantity of milk and then Bob is one's mater's frater, so to speak.
I hoicked Mrs Beeton off the shelf and communed with her on the subject. 'Take two dozen fresh eggs' was her opening gambit. Disconcerting, this. I've never seen Jeeves throw more than about six or so into the fray. Backing his judgement, I assembled half-a-dozen of the things and began.
Jeeves has this nifty wheeze whereby you hold the egg firmly in the right hand, bring it down smartish on the side of the receptacle, drain the gooey matter out of the inside and flick the shell into a bucket, all without drawing breath. When I tried it, I found it left a trail of egg all the way across the kitchen table, finishing up on my new suede brogues.
Subsequent attempts lowered my stock even further, reducing me from advanced hysteria to gibbering mania. It seemed to me that Jeeves, when observed, had managed to keep all the egg inside the bowl and most of the shell outside, whereas in this case the reverse seemed to hold true. Then, of course, the reason for the difficulty dawned on me and I saw how we must have got hold of a defective batch of eggs somehow. I had just decided to direct Jeeves to complain to the manufacturers when the door opened silently and the man himself wafted into the kitchen.
One eyebrow lifted a very precisely calculated fraction of an inch.
"Good afternoon, sir. May I enquire what you are attempting to do?"
I began to giggle, the unseemly effects of Veuve Cliquot on an empty stomach.
"Jeeves," I said, wisely, "you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs."
He set down his parcels on the table and stared at me, the sort of scolding and indulgent look you give your best beloved child when it comes home all covered in nettle rash. It spoke a volume, that look; a volume I'd never troubled to open before which told me all I would ever need to know about the old bean's feelings vis-a-vis yours truly.
"Oh, Jeeves," I said, offering up my ridiculous plight with a shrug and a laugh, knowing he would rescue me from myself. His expression transformed slowly; first the eyes lit up, then the mouth curved, and finally an unfamiliar sound assailed the air. It was soft, deep and mellifluous; it was the sound of Jeeves laughing. We traded chuckles for a moment, like two lifelong buddies surprised by an unexpected meeting, the detritus of the failed experiment unregarded all round us. Then he moved towards me and held out his hands.
"Oh, Bertie," he said, fondly.
I collapsed into his arms without giving it another thought. The next thing I knew he was kissing me, and it never occurred to me to offer even a token resistance. I just sort of sagged against him and let him take over, wondering why I wasn't putting up a fight and coming to the conclusion that I had no wish to, now or at any other time. "Dear old thing," I muttered huskily as he released me. It didn't seem in the least extraordinary that I should find myself in these circumstances; there has never been much in the way of a master-servant divide in the Wooster establishment, thank goodness. Jeeves knows his place and keeps to it rigidly - and his place is wherever he wishes it to be.
He lifted a hand and wiped his mouth. It was a most delicate gesture. Then he stepped back from me altogether and turned away, apparently dazed.
"Sir," he said, "I must beg you to accept my resignation with immediate effect."
It is not often the Wooster wit is keen enough to tackle a crisis situation, but the hour brings forth the man at a time like this. I grabbed his arm somewhat unkindly, and hastened to express myself on the subject.
"No, blast it, absolutely not!" I roared, astonishing myself by this elevation to heroic stature in the face of adversity. "Spare a thought for a chap's bally feelings, Jeeves. You can't - no, you positively can't - steam in here, make free of the Wooster person and then tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new, hang it all. I don't know," I went on, less commandingly, "what it is I've got that an all-around marvel like you could possibly want, but whatever it is - consider it freely given."
I could see the cogwheels spinning around, and I waited for them to mesh. Jeeves is not generally slow on the uptake, but extraordinary situations probably interfere with the mental processes a trifle.
"Sir?" he said, in an advanced state of terminal confusion.
"Bertie," I corrected. "I liked the way it sounded when you said it just now."
Thus the heroine in the gothic novel breaks the heart of the cruel landlord, who thenceforward is her devoted serf. The loyal retainer turned towards me with a thunderstruck, gaffed-fish sort of look, and gazed down into the open honesty of the Wooster countenance. I mean to say, as if I could ever attempt to goldbrick Jeeves! "Come on, old thing," I cajoled mercilessly. "This is not the Jeeves past form has led us to expect. Where's the decisive thinker? Where's the old get-up-and-strangle-'em spirit?"
"Sir," he said, cautiously - obviously the 'Bertie' had been a Freudian s. - "if I understand you correctly ... "
He faltered. I wondered if he would ever again force a complete and coherent sentence past his lips. Those lips were a subject on which I did not dare to dwell. I put the thought from me with difficulty.
"You do, Jeeves. You do."
His expression suggested that he thought otherwise. I pursued the subject ruthlessly. "Now, elevate the arms," I instructed. "Wrap them firmly around the young master, and put from your mind any notion of seeking alternative employment. Do you have the least idea how blue your eyes are?" I added inconsequentially as he complied with my instructions.
"No, sir," he breathed - and then for several minutes neither of us said anything at all worth recording.
Touching on the sequence of events just witnessed it would be as well to state, without fear of equivocation, that I am not generally in the practice of indulging in liaisons with menservants - not even with gentlemen's personal gentlemen. I mean, the previous incumbent of the post, one Meadowes, was about as revolting a specimen as you'd hope to find outside a dissecting-room. Jeeves, on the other hand, if not precisely the stuff of matinee idols, is decidedly pleasant to look upon and has that certain 'je ne sais quoi' - I believe that's the phrase - which probably causes riots among the parlourmaids wherever he goes.
It must be acknowledged that Bertram Wilberforce Wooster, bachelor of this parish, whilst a keen appreciator of feminine charm - preferably from a safe distance - has occasionally been known to enjoy close and as you might say sentimental relationships with other chaps. At school, although you may not credit it now, I was considered quite a beauty and was always much in demand to take the role of the heroine in the end-of-term play. I believe my 'Juliet' to Bingo Little's 'Romeo' is still highly spoken of in some circles - not surprisingly, perhaps; life imitating art and so forth, some of the love scenes had a distinctly Parisian flavour not found in the original.
The matter of old Bingo, although well into the murky past as it were, is nevertheless decidedly - what's the word, sounds like 'geraniums'? Germane, yes, that's the beggar. Decidedly germane to the subject under discussion. Since that time it has been the straight and narrow path for Bertie; a few close calls in the marriage stakes and a general perception of Bertie as a wastrel and lounge-lizard seem to have kept at bay any suspicion about my preferences in intimate companionship. Now here was Jeeves, just about everything I might have chosen for myself, cutting to the final reel in a matter of seconds; I've always said he was perceptive above the average, but even so I had to marvel at the way he just strolled right to the heart of the matter and took over, so to speak.
To return to the kitchen of Number 6a, Crichton Mansions, Berkeley Street, W. I detached myself from Jeeves' embrace with considerable reluctance and dropped down onto a chair with my elbows on the table, feeling in far from top-drawer condition. I beckoned Jeeves to the adjacent pew, and noticed as he sat down that someone appeared to have driven a steamroller over him; his collar and tie were awry, the front of his shirt gaped discreetly, and his hair was well and truly rumpled - which last probably accounted for the scent of brilliantine on my fingers.
"Jeeves," I said. It is not easy to address one's lover as Reginald', and 'Reggie' is better adapted to the type of rodent encountered at the Drones, so 'Jeeves' he has remained, even in moments of complete abandon. "Jeeves, my Aunt Agatha was good enough to inform me some time ago that I ought to marry someone strong, self-reliant and sensible. She was touting Honoria Glossop at the time. No doubt you recollect the occasion?"
"It is burned indelibly into my memory, sir," he admitted.
"And mine, by Jove!" I took his hand and studied it; it was squarish, with strong fingers, and smooth. "She also informed me that I needed someone who would look after me."
"Yes," I told him miserably. "You will have gathered ere this, Jeeves, that marriage is not precisely my bowl of soup. Not that I have anything against women in general, you understand," I went on, "but I have no wish to marry one."
"Quite so, sir. If I may say so, my own feelings on the matter are somewhat similar."
I was gratified to hear it. I told him so.
"That being the case, however, there is still a vacancy for a strong, self-reliant and sensible type to take care of me on a lifelong basis. The ideal candidate," I went on, lightly, "would be tall and possessed of blue eyes, would be required to live in, and should be prepared to make superhuman efforts to address me by the name of 'Bertie' from time to time. This paragon - if he could be found, Jeeves, and no doubt his price is above rubies - would be rewarded with an equal devotion as long as there is a breath left in my body. It seems to me you have pretty well all the qualities required; would you care to take a shot at it?"
He looked pretty concerned, which I have found in the past tends to denote serious thought. That well-educated eyebrow lifted a precisely calculated fraction of an inch and the hand I held gripped back.
"You are no doubt thinking, sir," he said, gravely, "of the type of bargain referred to in a poem by Sir Philip Sidney? 'My true love hath my heart and I have his, by just exchange one for the other given'?"
It's astonishing how he always seems to know what I'm thinking. "Yes, dash it, that's the fellow! 'I hold his dear and mine he cannot miss, there never was a better bargain driven'!" I blessed the memory of that summer with old Bingo.
Jeeves nodded his head slightly. It is not often that I am a match for him in the quotation business - he seems to have endless cantos of poetry tucked away securely in his noggin - but occasionally I find myself able to render like-for-like and he never fails to acknowledge the fact.
"Well, what about it?" I pursued, relentlessly. I sounded to my own ears like an over-anxious puppy whining for its supper.
His lips pursed. He obviously had no idea of the effect that gesture had on me. "I was under the impression, sir," he said, "that you had already engaged my services in that capacity."
"As a valet, Jeeves, as a valet. Do you feel capable of assuming, in addition, the duties of lover and helpmeet till death do us part, and so forth?"
He looked away. I imagined he had never received a proposal of marriage from an employer before and was wondering how on earth to answer it.
"Mr Wooster," he said. "Bertie ... "
"Aha!" said I, all for throwing my arms around him. He fended me off graciously.
"Bertie," he went on, with what I can only describe as the most exceptional tenderness in his tone, "since the moment I entered your employment I have hoped, I must confess, for an occasion such as this when I might be permitted to express myself freely on this topic. As the poet Herrick has it, sir," he went on, and I'll swear he blushed, "'I dare not ask a kiss, I dare not beg a smile, lest having that, or this, I might grow proud the while.' Nothing could give me greater pleasure than to accept your offer, but I trust you will forgive me for suggesting that you have perhaps neglected to consider the matter in sufficient depth."
"No, sir, I believe not. Your reputation would be compromised beyond redemption if it should ever become known that you had been involved in an affaire de coeur with a person of the servant classes, sir."
"An affaire de coeur, Jeeves," I enthused. "Isn't that just what it would be, though? On both sides, I mean? Hang it all, you do love me, I suppose?"
He appeared scandalised that I could even bring myself to question it.
"Naturally, sir. However I am not, if you will excuse me saying so, entirely sanguine about your own motives, sir."
"Ah." I picked the bones out of this speech only slowly, and released the hand I had been holding. "Ah, so that's it. You suspect me of trifling with the affections of my social inferiors, do you, Jeeves? You think I'm going to toy with you and then dump you when I'm fed up. You don't, in short, believe Bertram is capable of making up his mind and sticking to it, do you?"
There may have been more acid in my tone than I intended, but I was cut to the quick by his lack of confidence in me. He rose from the table looking somewhat shell-shocked and began to stow his marketing in the cupboards and to wipe away the debris of the failed omelette. He made no reply.
I could see that the time had come to be decisive. I stood up. "Jeeves," I said, "I am going to my room to lie down. If you should decide there is any percentage for you in exploring a more intimate aspect to this relationship I trust you will not hesitate to rendezvous with me there in due course. If, on the other hand, you want to write it all down to experience and reinstate the status quo ... well, we'll say no more about it."
He nodded acquiescence. He looked pretty choked, and I suspected he needed time to himself in which to think. I turned away and left him to it.
My bedroom is a charming spot, the last word in comfort. It's done out in beige and cream and gold, and the furniture is all birds-eye maple from Heals. Jeeves keeps it spotless, of course. I tweaked the curtains half-closed to shut out the gloomy afternoon, threw off my jacket and flung myself down on the bed, staring up at the ceiling.
Was ever a Wooster in this humour wooed, I asked myself. Was ever a Wooster in this humour won? The thing had turned to so much gall and wormwood before my very eyes. No doubt even at this moment Jeeves was preparing to fold his tents and silently steal away.
I had more or less resigned myself to the prospect of making some kind of life without him when there was a most respectful tapping at the door.
"Come in, Jeeves," I said. Somehow I kept the tone level.
The door opened a fraction and he stepped in, looking decidedly downcast. He had removed his jacket. There are few things more attractive to the susceptible Wooster heart than the sight of a gentleman's personal gentleman in his shirtsleeves.
"Forgive me for doubting you, sir," he said, remaining just inside the door. "I am still exceedingly anxious about the preservation of your good name - "
"Such as it is," I interrupted.
"Such as it is, sir," he conceded. "However I have no serious reservations about the honourable nature of your intentions towards myself. If your proposal is still open, I should like to accept it."
I sat up and held a hand out to him. "My dear man," I said, greatly moved by the simple elegance of his words, "consider yourself signed up for life."
He moved closer and I pulled him down onto the bed beside me, rolled over into his arms - and the rest, as they say, is silence.
This ecstatic state of affairs having obtained for some two or three weeks it may be imagined that I was not a wholly enthusiastic seconder of the motion to allow Jeeves to take the place of my aunt's butler, although at length he succeeded in persuading me that in the interests of what he persists in referring to as my reputation it might be a jolly wise idea. Only the thought of the repellantly goopy crowd with which Aunt Lavinia surrounds herself had prevented me from inviting myself down there at the outset - that and the geographical difficulties involved in carrying on a 'tween-stairs love affair in someone else's house. Four days at Crippen's tender mercy, however, was enough to convince me that there was simply no substitute for close proximity to Jeeves, whatever the circumstances.
I fell from his embrace and propped myself in the corner of the lift cabin with my fingertips just resting on his cuff.
"I don't know if you were aware of it, Jeeves," I said, softly, "but I appear to be in love with you."
"Thank you, sir," he replied, positively brimming over with self-satisfaction, "I confess I had formed that impression."
"And I am delighted to hear it, sir."
"And to reciprocate it, eh, Jeeves?"
"And to reciprocate it, yes, sir."
The lift stopped, and he ushered me from it and into a bedroom. Apart from the fact that my luggage was still stuck outside the station with Jobbings everything was in readiness for me, and I could detect the loving hand of the man himself in the meticulous preparations. "So four days without me hasn't dulled the old Jeeves spirit?" I asked, perhaps a fraction hysterically.
"Four days?" he queried, helping me out of my coat. "I thought it had been much longer than that."
I sank into an armchair. "Have no fear, Jeeves," I said, smiling up at him. "Release is at hand. I have put up your bail, and on the morrow we shall both be free from durance vile." He looked at me as though I were gabbling Double Dutch.
"I have played my ace, Jeeves. Crippen arrives on the 7.10 to take over the buttling duties - my contribution to the Good Works. I find that you and I are needed urgently in New York - we sail per S.S. Normannia on Tuesday, and I doubt we shall be back much before Derby Day."
"Indeed, sir? That is a most gratifying development, if I may so express myself." He allowed a smile to gain access to his face, and his eyes lit up like blue stars. I found it difficult, all of a sudden, to catch my breath.
"You may, old thing, you may. And how do you view our - er - personal arrangement now, Jeeves?"
He affected to consider the matter, and then delivered his verdict in a deep and thrilling tone. "With equanimity, sir." In less than the blinking of an eye he transformed from lover to butler, deferring any further discussion of intimate matters until a more appropriate time. "Is there anything you require at the moment, sir?"
I rubbed my hands together in delight. "Yes, dash it. Didn't someone mention tea? I could eat a horse."
"Quite so, sir. I will bring you some refreshments immediately, sir, and dinner is at eight."
"Excellent work, Jeeves," I told him fondly. "Leaving no toast unburned, eh?"
He loosed on me a smile of unsurpassed radiance.
"As you say, sir," he replied, and shimmered out.
* * *