Fic: The fall of the empire

It is well known that a Wooster is seldom wrong. One of the few cases was my great-uncle Cornelius, who once mistook the Countess of Shrewsbury for a brace of freshly shot rabbits. The result, I am given to understand, was a pinch on the side of the rummy. That is all well and good, but should he prove to be wrong, never let it be said that, leaving aside certain questions occasionally brought before a magistrate, he cannot cop to the wrongitude in question.

The trouble was my man, Jeeves. The fellow has been known to come it a bit raw on the subject of the raiment in which one Bertram Wooster chooses to clothe his naked villainy. When I think of the to-do when I once dared to acquire a certain hat called the Country Gentleman, when he wished me to wear the Longacre. Weeks I was shivering through the deepest freeze seen this side of the Arctic Circle, and all of it indoors in my own homestead. I was obliged to subsist on seal meat and trim the offending hat with fur to survive.

One day, no sooner had I sat down to my pre-lunch snifter than I was summoned by telegram to the country seat of my old school chum, Wotto Fotherington-Twyfford. Well, old Wotto had called upon one Bertram Wooster, man of action, and by hook or by book, one Bertram Wooster would come.

A man of action needs his fuel. Lunch must proceed as scheduled: soup, followed by roast beef, followed a fine figgy pudding, followed by another fortifying snifter to set the will on its iron course, if you will.

There was a chappy at school, did you know, called Fitzgibbon? We used to bundle him in a sheet, call him a figgy pudding and roll him down the stairs. That’s the sort of sport of which Englishmen are made.

Now, it so happened that young Wooster had recently caused to have made for himself a certain driving suit. A topping thing it was, brown tweed with a splendid green piping about the collar and plackets. And knowing how lightly the lion sleeps in his den and all that, this Wooster had not yet dared retrieve this suit from the tailor, fearing what might befall that excellent item should the lion, as it were, catch wind of it.

“Jeeves,” said I, at the conclusion of luncheon, “I have an errand to run before we depart to the country. I shan’t be long.”

“Sir,” said Jeeves, “is this wise? Sir will of course have noticed that the afternoon is no longer in its infancy. I fear sir can scarcely hope to gain the grounds of Mr Fotherington-Twyfford’s estate by nightfall as it is.”

“Jeeves,” I said, “have you not yet learned to have faith in your master? I shall return in an hour. No more, no less.”

“Very well, sir.”

If there was a certain tone in Jeeves’ voice, this-here master of his was far too benevolent a creature to notice.

The bright sparks among you will of course have begun to detect, like the faint, pink light of sunset creeping ’cross the dark horizon, the outline of a sharpened steel trap of a plan. Let us suppose that this young Wooster picked up the suit at the tailor the very afternoon he was scheduled to take a jaunt to the country. And let us suppose that on taking possession of this suit, he professed himself so pleased with it that he could not be satisfied lest he change into it in the very shop. And let us finally suppose that the young master then returned to the homestead already wearing this driving suit, by this time well-behind-time to drive off on his country jaunt. Then: what could that would-be Nero of valets do about his master wearing this offending suit? Short of wrestling the young master to the ground and forcibly tearing his clothes off, preparatory to finally throwing him to the beasts in the arena once and for all – short of that, what?

Nothing, I tell you. He is pooped, this Nero. Come aground. Come a cropper.

Well, there were some war-like scenes, let me tell you, upon the return of Wooster in his glorious raiment. But a fellow needs to know when to show a firm hand to his smallfolk. They respect him more for it in the end.

I am sorry to say, that end had not yet arrived by the time Jeeves and I took off in the two-seater. Jeeves, having first claimed to believe his master’s fine new driving suit had been soiled by some sort of virulent vegetable matter, and having been barely dissuaded from attempting to sponge it off, had descended into an icy silence. This, combined with a nippy breeze under a fading sky, gave us rather bracing a time of it as we made our way out of London.

But I tell you, it was the most miraculous thing. The moment we got out amongst the green, rolling hills of the wondrous English countryside, the angels spaketh unto us, and the clouds parted; the sun came out. “What ho!” I cried. “This is the life, is it not, Jeeves?”

“Yes, sir,” he said. It is difficult to discern the precise shade of a man’s tone of voice above the noise of a motor in full throttle, but I had every confidence he was coming around.

It so happened that we were passing a picturesque little hamlet. And young Wooster, made bold by the favour of the heavens, rather fancied he would like a short stroll in this hamlet, a bit of a stretch of the old pins, and perhaps to suck down a fortifying gasper to see him through to journey’s end.

I pulled off the road by a fine and charming sort of mill, above an ancient stone bridge. It was the sort of place a girl who likes to make paintings would go bonkers for.

“Sir,” Jeeves said. “The time?”

“Oh, come along, Jeeves. We are men of leisure, not slaves to the punch clock.” Since I had so thoroughly bested him, I was feeling rather masterful. I slammed the driver’s door with a most masculine vigour and force, and strode purposefully away to the top of the arch of the little bridge, to take the view.

It was perhaps not all that was to be hoped for in a view. There was a rather rummy fallen-down pigsty, currently pigless, and some disconsolate horses in blankets staring at one in a way that quite reminded one of one’s Aunt Agatha. Normally when taking a view, one is expected to offer some small remarks. On this account I was rather glad Jeeves had stayed in the car. It would have been all right if there had been a girl – to a girl who liked views , you’d just say, “What ho, what a view, then,” or some such, and she’d gush on for hours without your needing to puzzle out anything else. But Jeeves, I fear, is made of a firmer, less gushing, sort of substance.

I did not wish to slink back to Jeeves with my tail between my legs, but the longer I stood there, the more unnerved I became by these horses. Any moment one of them really would bare its teeth, whinny, “Bertie, you complete fathead!”, and start trying to marry me off to the nearest sheep, goat or domesticated badger.

Imagine my surprise when I stole a glance back in Jeeves’ direction and found him chatting away to three gay-looking fellows who were standing around the car in an appreciative sort of way. Of course I dashed back quick-sticks to see what was a-brewing.

On the approach it became clear that the conversation between Jeeves and these three fellows was not, after all, entirely a friendly one. To see through to the heart of the matter was the work of moment for a mind of Woosterian quality. Jeeves did not approve of the attire of these three sprightly gents. One wore a topping checked suit of the very kind over which Jeeves and this Wooster had once crossed swords, to the dolour of the poor vanquished Wooster. The second wore a wondrously cheerful marigold tie. The third wore a cloth-covered boot – an item also under the interdiction of a certain pontiff of the orthodox Woosterian wardrobe. The cloth covering the boot, if you will believe it, bore the lively houndstooth check of a coat I had forborne to buy for fear of excommunication by said pontiff not three months prior. And all three of these fellows wore the most magnificent moustaches – thick as a horse’s tail, coiffed, waxed – you could strain pea-and-ham with them.

In view of the recent matter of the driving suit, I felt an instant kinship to these fellow free spirits.

“What ho,” I called out. “Admiring the old motor, eh?”

“Aye, guvnor,” said the fellow in the marigold tie. “She’s a beauty. Cost a pretty penny, I’ll wager.”

Here was a rum thing. I saw at once I had been mistaken in him: this fellow was not the sort of chap I would hob-nob with in the usual course at all. He was more a sort of tradesman or suchlike. But since I had called out to him so chummily, I hardly felt I could come it high-and-mighty now and start insisting I wasn’t anyone’s guvnor thank-you-very-much.

“Oh, I suppose so,” I ventured.

“How much, then?” he insisted.

“Well, one prefers not to dwell, you know.”

“Oh, one prefers not to dwell, does one,” he said. His two friends laughed a smidgeon unpleasantly through their voluminous moustaches.

“I’m Bertie Wooster,” I said, offering my hand. “And who might you chaps be?”

“Friends of the road, mate. Friends of the road,” he only said, and took my hand in his own, meaty, hairy-knuckled one. “How’s about giving us a squiz under this ’ere bonnet, then? Seeing as you’re so proud of it.” And he rapped on my bonnet as rudely as if it were a tin can he hoped to prise the sardines out of.

There seemed nothing for it but to let him have his look-see. But no sooner had I popped the lid for him, than his pal in the checked suit was calling out to me, “Eh, guvnor, come over ’ere! Guvnor! Eh! Over ’ere!”

I overheard Jeeves, on the far side of the car, exclaiming, “Now, look here!”

“All right old sport. All right old chum,” the third fellow was saying to Jeeves, placatingly.

“It’s all right, Jeeves. All’s well,” I called. No doubt Jeeves was a touch anxious in the presence of these rough fellows, and required reassurance that his master had the situation well in hand.

The fellow who had called me over was standing at the back of the car. “Well,” I said, “I am here.”

“I like your suit, guvnor,” he said. Whereupon he raised his hand to my person and actually fondled my lapel. You may well imagine that merely on account of having met some fellow on a country road, Bertram Wooster does not expect to be obliged to have his lapel fondled.

“Do you,” I said. “That’s good for you. I suppose.”

“Where’d you get it, then?”

“Saxbury and Mason’s on Savile Row. I have a card, if you’d like.”

“No, no. I don’t think I need no tailor.”

“Well, they’re very good.”

“I can see that, aye,” he said, and laughed.

“I’m afraid Mr Wooster and I really must be going,” called Jeeves.

A small wash of relief may have come over one at the sound of that. “Oh yes, quite,” I said. “We really must, if you don’t mind.”

“But what if we do mind?” said the odious fellow who was peering under the bonnet. “When we’re all such friends now.”

“Friends, sir,” Jeeves said to the fellow rather pointedly, “would never dream of attempting to overstay their welcome.”

“All right, old son, all right,” the fellow said, and allowed Jeeves to close the bonnet again. Young Bertram darted to the driver’s door like a hare with a fox after it, and so we made our getaway.

When I looked back over my shoulder, they had disappeared.

The sun was disagreeably low in the sky as we set out again.

“Well they were curious fellows, weren’t they, Jeeves?”

“Quite, sir.” To my relief, he made no remark about the chap’s interest in my suit. I allowed myself to hope he had not overheard the pertinent exchange in all the hubbub.

“Well, I don’t mind telling you, Jeeves, you were right about the hour growing a bit over-mature. We’re going to have a dark old time of it before the journey’s done.”

“Sir is good to say so.”

Just then, things went a bit rummy underfoot. The motor sounded like nothing so much as Bingo Little trying to light his pipe after a long hard afternoon on the tiles.

“Is everything all right, sir?”

“I cannot for the life of me tell you,” I said, pulling over to the side of the road.

I got out and stared at the metallic miscreant.

I looked around. We were in the midst of an empty green meadow. On the horizon all around were empty green hills and stands of trees gone bluish with distance. Aside from the road, there was nothing to suggest we weren’t wandering lost in an uninhabited world, likely to be eaten for tea by a woolly mammoth. It was dashed inconvenient.

“Well, what’s all this, then?” I demanded of the miscreant. “What have you got to say for yourself?”

“Sir, if I may venture to say so, the motor car is not well known for its sparkling conversation.”

“Yes, thank you, Jeeves.”

I’m afraid we were in danger of becoming short with each other. However, just then a car appeared on the road in the distance.

“Thank heavens! We’re saved!” I cried.

“One can only hope, sir.”

“What do you mean, one can only hope? Our rescuers have crossed yon horizon and are even now dashing to our side.”

Jeeves bowed his head.

It was an older sort of car that approached, of sturdy make, rather like a solid old draught horse beside the gleaming stallion of mine own conveyance. As it got closer I was taken aback to see it contained the three fellows from back in the village. Still, since they were there to rescue us, I was willing to be friendly.

“What ho,” I said as they pulled up. “Jolly good show you came along. We seem to have a spot of car trouble.”

“He seems to have a spot of car trouble, does he?” the marigold-tie chap said to the others. They all laughed odiously.

The marigold-tie fellow and the checked-suit fellow got out the car. The marigold-tie fellow took a pistol out of the pocket of his coat and pointed it directly at my face.

I am sorry to say the checked-suit fellow did the same to Jeeves.

I have discharged the odd rifle in the general direction of a pheasant in my time, but I had never stared down the barrel of a cocked and loaded pistol before. I cannot say I liked it.

“On your knees,” Marigold Tie said.

There was naught to do but comply.

My feeling was that this was all some sort of a joke. At any minute everyone would throw their costumes off to reveal that it was all just some fellows from school playing a trick on me, and wasn’t I funny to have fallen for it.

“Well now, guvnor,” he said. “This car you’re having so much trouble with. We’ll be taking it off your hands.”

I found my voice at last. “Steady on, old chap.”

“Steady on? It’s you who’d better steady on, my mate.” He brandished the pistol at me, very close to my face. “Where are the keys?”

There is something about the muzzle of a pistol so up-close-and-personal that makes the seeing or hearing of other things a bit tricky. I could not answer his question. Clearly the fellow felt that I had the said keys, but I patted and patted my pockets in vain. “Er,” I said. “Ah.”

“Give them to me or you are a dead man.”

I did hope Aunt Dahlia was thinking well of me just at that moment, even though I had quite inadvertently taken the last sausage at breakfast when I had last come to stay. And I hoped they would not feel too much as though the life had gone out of the party at the Drones on a Saturday afternoon. And Jeeves, that fine fellow! I suppose I could have got the suit unpiped, couldn’t I?

There came a sound. It was the voice of Jeeves, in great duress, such as I had never heard, crying out, “Will you leave him alone!”

Marigold Tie lurched around, horribly, and shook his pistol at Jeeves, so that two of them menaced him now, and none Bertram.

I confess in my own abjection, though I had been thinking of him, I had forgotten Jeeves was actually physically here. I saw now his danger might be greater than mine, for he was inclined to intervene on my behalf. It is one thing to contemplate one’s own imminent demise, I can tell you, but quite another to tolerate the prospect of the demise of the fellow beside one, when he is so wondrous a fellow as Jeeves – a firm friend, and quite the cleverest man alive.

“They’re in the ignition,” Jeeves told them.

He was right. Marigold Tie stepped over and peered into the car to confirm it, with a chuckle.

I thought it was over then – they would be on their way, and what a relief it would be to be left there in the middle of an empty field, so long as these awful fellows were gone.

“Now,” Marigold Tie said, pistol back in my face. “We’ll have that suit.”

“How do you mean?” I said.

“How do I mean? Get it off!” he howled. “Strip!”

“Strip!” Checked Suit shouted.

“Make him do a dance!” bellowed the chap still in the car. They all guffawed, moustaches leaping.

I must say to you I had long since ceased to admire those moustaches.

Bertram Wooster got to his feet. I saw clearly that if I provoked them, Jeeves might try to step in, and then he would surely get one in the neck on my behalf. I readied myself to remove my garments in the midst of a field, and to give my best impression of a cancan girl while doing it.

“That’s it!” cried Jeeves, in a strangled voice.

I hardly know how to tell you what happened next. Except that Jeeves – Jeeves, as mild-mannered a cove as you can imagine, a chap so delicate in his manners he almost glides when he walks – this very same Jeeves struck the lead ruffian full in the face with a closed fist.

A thick and sickening sound it made.

Jeeves struck that man in order to wrestle his pistol away from him. He succeeded in doing this, but I am sorry to say that in the process, the other fellow attempted to shoot Jeeves. It so happened that he missed and by chance struck his comrade in the thigh.

That is another thing I had never witnessed before, and never wish to again: the sound of a bullet striking a man’s flesh, and the piteous state of the man afterwards.

Jeeves and Checked Suit were each now pointing a pistol directly at the other’s heart.

At length Jeeves spoke. It was as though some deep, dark cavern in the earth had found voice. “If you do not throw that away into the grass this instant, I will bloody well blow your head off.”

You could see the fellow’s thoughts churning a long while. But he saw sense, and the pistol sailed away to be lost to sight in the meadow. Then he dragged his fallen comrade away, and the fellow in the car got out to help wrestle him into the back. They turned and hared away at speed, throwing up a plume of dust that seemed to me the most dashed attractive thing I had ever seen.

All the while Jeeves stood unmoving, pistol trained upon them, like some martial statue.

Finally the blighter simply uncocked the pistol, threaded it through his belt and enquired, “Is sir quite all right?”

“It is as I thought, sir,” Jeeves informed me gravely, straightening up from his inspection of the motor. “Sabotage.”

“Bother. No fixing it, then?”

“I fear not, at present.”

“We are in a pickle, then, eh, Jeeves?”

“If sir will permit me a suggestion…?”

“By all means.”

“It is not safe to linger by the roadside. Those fellows may return.”

This had not occurred to me, and I could not entirely master myself in time to conceal my reaction.

“I do, however, know of a country inn, well off the main road, not ten miles distant.”

“Well,” I said, “what is ten miles to a fighting-fit Wooster?”

Jeeves began to load up our luggage all over his person like some Arabian camel. Of course one’s valet does things for one all the time, but on this occasion, I did not feel entirely right about it. It seemed a bit rum that the fellow who did the heroics with the gunfire should also be obliged to cart all the sundries. I tried to take up some of the smaller cases myself. A rather blistering “Sir!” from Jeeves set me back in my place, and I subsided.

By the time the sun had turned all the green world to pink and purple, I was sure ten miles must almost have passed.

Jeeves, pessimistic fellow that he is, insisted it had only been two.

My spirits were not to be dampened, however. The greater the distance grew between us and the site of our humiliation, the more wondrously elated I became. “What ho, Jeeves!” I declared at last. “The highwayman certainly came riding riding riding, didn’t he, what-what?”

“Indeed, sir. But I venture one ought to declaim the line ‘riding – riding – riding’.”

“That’s what I said! Riding riding riding.”

Jeeves, being the fellow that he is, took it upon himself to declaim the whole of that poem that begins:

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding –
     Riding – riding –
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

In the falling twilight, one could well imagine it.

A most ringing and clear voice he had, singing out into the country night. An astonishing fellow was this Jeeves, it seemed to me.

It is a long poem, that one, and by the end I was so transported, I felt certain we must have flown ten miles on the very wings of poetry. Jeeves, however, assured me it was still only about three.

It was very dark by the time we arrived at this inn. The landlady was disinclined to be roused, and only some rather curt and lordly words from Jeeves, shouted in a parlour window, saved the day.

We ate, if you will believe it, cold bread and cheese at a card table, before retiring to the single room that had been rather begrudgingly made available.

Jeeves attempted to sleep on the floor, but I could not allow it.

We slept together in the narrow bed. There was a great deal of wriggling to try to manage our many elbows and knees – between the two of us we seemed to have more than the ordinary number.

Eventually we settled into an embrace, Jeeves on his back below, and myself above, resting across his body. Jeeves was a pleasant bedmate – most agreeably warm, quiet and still. When one found oneself sharing a bed with boys at school, they typically kicked one, stole the blanket, or broke wind under the covers catastrophically then forced one’s head down.

“Sir,” Jeeves said, when I was almost asleep. “Is sir sure he is quite all right.”

“Sir is wonderful,” I said. “Sir has never been better.” I stroked his side a little, as one might a highly strung cat.

I found I had an urge to josh with him. “Who would have thought, Jeeves, you would have proved so passionate a champion of my new suit, eh?”

“I was rather more bestirred on behalf of sir’s person,” Jeeves replied. There was a certain strain in his voice.

“Hmm,” I said. I was sure there was still some point that might be scored here, but I did find myself so tremendously sleepy. I laid my head upon his shoulder.

Not to be deterred, he found a tense spot on my back he wished to rub at gently. “All right, sir?” he whispered.

I could only murmur.

A lesser man might have found the next day a bit of a strain.

There was a return to the inn’s card table, where one broke one’s fast on an item whose pretence at being a kipper seemed a mite shabby.

There was the ignominy of watching one’s prized two-seater hitched to a cart and towed away by a team of reeking Clydesdales.

There was a lengthy and equally ignominious journey to Wotto’s place, on the back of a potato cart, driven by a fellow wearing a hat that appeared to have been dug up with the potatoes. He was a man with a full complement of opinions on the subject of the modern motor car, and had obviously seldom before had an opportunity to share them at such length.

There was the encounter with Wotto himself, upon our arrival in the afternoon – he had quite lost what remained of his marbles when we had failed to show the day before. It was all about a girl, of course – it always is – but I could not make head nor tail of it, and told him we would discuss it further over dinner.

Then it was a quick bath and into the dinner things.

Dragging on the old starched-front, there came a great weariness upon me. Jeeves was obliged to step in to wrestle all the little studs closed. He was delicate as a cat at it, feather-light. I remembered how he had struck that man in the face, and marvelled.

“If sir is very tired, sir should excuse himself from dinner, and rest.”

“No, no,” I said. “Old Wotto needs a talking-to. He’s gone quite bonkers.”

He held me at the waist and coaxed me to turn about, so he could embrace me from behind to tie my bow-tie. No doubt it would be the best my bow-tie had ever looked. I was pleased to think how much it would please him.

“If sir is sure?” His breath was on my ear.

A feeling came over me that I would like to lay my head back on his shoulder. I could feel the warmth of his body behind me. Perhaps in fact I would like to lie down with him on the bed and have him hold me, warm and quiet, as he had last night.

He stepped back in front to put in my cuff-links – it was ticklish at the wrist – and then helped me into my dinner jacket. I found I no longer quite wished to look him in the eye.

I am afraid I had rather a skinful at dinner, and required further assistance from Jeeves to undress for bed. I felt by now quite inhumanly tired, and kept sort of falling over onto him as he was trying to help me. He would have to wrestle me back and forth, and bodily prop me up as he was taking my clothes off.

The curious thing was that this was all done in deadly quiet – none of our usual to-and-fro at all.

By the time I was down to just my shirt-tails, the earlier feeling that I wished to lie down with him had come back with a vengeance. At an opportune moment, I threw myself backwards onto the bed, and dragged him with me, on top of me.

Then an odd thing happened. He kissed me on the mouth. Or perhaps the way he tilted his head announced that he wished to kiss me, which made me realise I desperately wished to kiss him. So I did.

I kissed him, I must say, with a vigour I had never dared impose upon a girl.

But then – “Sir, I…!” he cried in mortification. He was a man in a panic, discomposed, trying to escape.

I caught on to him with arms and legs. “Come back,” I implored him. “Come back!”

“Please,” I said more softly.

His face softened. He had been afraid he was offending me, I suppose, that he had imposed this wickedness with the kissing on me. I saw that I would need to take care of him, in this, in the same way he took care of me otherwise.

I snaked my arms closer around him, to pull him back down.

Now he bent down slowly to kiss me again, eyes on mine. I understood very clearly that he wished me to know he was about to to kiss me. I clutched the back of his head in response.

We kissed, and rolled about in our enthusiasm, lashing back and forth like two lions sparring in a clinch.

He tried to get up again. I made a sound of complaint.

“Sir,” he said, “I am only getting up to lock the door.” He pushed my arms down onto the mattress. He put his hand on my bare knee and did the same to it. He said, “Stay there.”

You may be sure that I did.

To be sure, it is not quite the usual thing, to have a valet one rolls around with on the bed in the evening. And also in the morning, or after lunch – or not necessarily on the bed – as the case may be.

But we get along well enough. The main thing is that one gets very good at speedily making sure nothing is ahoo when someone comes to the door.

You must know we never argue about my clothes anymore. I find that I am willing to wear almost anything, if it is lovingly applied by hand to my person by the right fellow. And Jeeves, for his own part, has begun to adopt an attitude of amused, superior tolerance to my very-occasional gestures of sartorial independence. If this sparks a feather-light touch of rancour in me, I believe we both feel privately assured that we will get our own back soon enough.

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