The whole story started with a visit from my aunt Dahlia, as these things so often do. Often and often have I found that many a time and oft is it that case that such malentendus (if that’s the word I’m after) – or is it contretemps? – that such imbroglios, if I may use the expression, often begin with a visit from the aunt. For she is a stormy petrel of sorts who brings the old storm clouds in her wake wherever she hies as if they were attached by a leash to her ankle. Which is substantial, by the way, having been lovingly beefed up for years by her incomparable French chef Anatole. But this is by the way.

So on the morning in question the old aunt had incorporated, if that’s the word, in my midst at about nine a.m. without so much as a word of warning. Faithful readers will not need to have it spelled out to them what a nuisance, indeed a what-d’ye-call-it such unanticipated visitations present to the Wooster constitution, which is frail and birdlike. To intrude into the presence before noon is to risk the wrath that my ancestors showed to such effect at Boulogne (I think it was). And so it proved on the occasion in question.

‘My dear old a.,’ I said, fixing her with a cold stare, ‘what is the meaning of this?’

But she was unflappable. Indeed I have often and often had occasion to remark that to flap old aunt Dahlia is a project beyond the capacities of most mortals. She has a sort of steely whatsit to her that is all but impossible to penetrate. Even the bravest men have been seen to quail before her when she stands athwart their doorway like a seventy-four that is miffed. But not for nothing am I a Wooster, and the Wooster blood does not curdle lightly.

I braved her steely gaze bravely and continued my harangue, for to be honest I was quite dashedly pipped. ‘I must observe, aunt of my loins,’ I continued icily, ‘that your unheralded appearance chez Bertie at this ungodly hour is not at all what I would call the thing. There is a fine line between paying a nephew a friendly visit and making a damned nuisance of yourself, and you seem to have mistaken that line for the starting pistol in the long jump.’ Thinking back I suppose I got my metaphors a bit mixed at this point, but the gist was clear enough. ‘What, I ask again, is the meaning of this barbaric intrusion? I haven’t had breakfast.’

‘Nor will you ever, you nitwit, if you go on in that vein,’ she said in what I thought was a somewhat menacing tone, ‘because I’ll kill you. Now listen to me. You’re to come down to Brinkley Court tout de suite. Take the first train down. No need to pack. Bring Jeeves.’

And with these ominous words she was gone, like a wraith that has, well, uttered ominous words and gone.

I was left rather nonplussed by this communication, to tell you the truth. It sounded as if she had said ‘You’re to come down to Brinkley Court tout de suite’ and ‘Take the first train down’, as well as ‘No need to pack’ and also ‘Bring Jeeves’. But this was scarcely possible.

Thus reflecting I sank back upon my pillow with a sigh and decided to put in another hour or four of Zs. Perhaps things would be clearer in the morning, or, seeing that it was morning, in the afternoon. ‘Jeeves,’ I murmured sleepily, forgetting that he was not by my side.

‘Sir?’ came his answering hail from the direction of the kitchen. The chap has a marvelous sense of pitch, I’ve always said. He can distinguish his own name from a parasang away.

‘Jeeves, I shall be wanting breakfast in about four hours.’

‘Very good, sir,’ says he. ‘But would you not prefer to breakfast at Brinkley Court?’

There was that name again. ‘Brinkley Court?’ I said. ‘Why on earth should I prefer to breakfast at Brinkley Court when I’m not at Brinkley Court? You’ve taken leave of your senses, Jeeves.’

‘I was under the impression, sir, that we were to embark for Brinkley Court in a matter of minutes.’

This took the biscuit.

‘Oh, you were, were you?’ I said. ‘Well, you can extricate yourself from under that impression, Jeeves, and spare yourself considerable discomfort, I would imagine. We are to do nothing of the sort.’

‘Very good, sir. But I suspect Mrs Travers will be rather put out if we fail to arrive forthwith.’

‘Mrs Travers’ put-outness or the contrary, Jeeves, is none of your concern,’ I said, imbuing my tone with a hint of that Wooster sharpness that has made braver men than he to quail and blubber. ‘Breakfast in four hours. Till then, toodle-pip.’

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December 21, 2012 · 10:52 pm

At that moment my uncle stormed in. Gesturing furiously at the cigarette I was holding he inquired,

– Is that what I think it is?

– That is an interesting problem in epistemic ontology, I replied. I am inclined to say that objects in the world exist in a different plane from our mental representations of them, and that to conflate the two is a category error. But some would counter that the fallacy consists rather in postulating the objective existence of things independently of our perception of them, as we can never have empirical grounds for so doing; in which case to answer your question in the affirmative would be merely to state a truism.

– All right, mister smart alec, said my uncle. Give it here.

– Certainly, I said, perceiving that it would be foolish to oppose him in his present nervous condition. It is not of the highest quality but you are always welcome to what humble hospitality I can afford. There are matches on the dresser.

– Damn your impudence, he said.

Snatching the proffered cigarette from my hand he sniffed at it gingerly, then held it up at a roughly equal distance from my face and his, in the manner of a barrister displaying a forensic exhibit.

– You’re in some very hot water, he said. You won’t be wearing that smirk for much longer, let me tell you that. Now then, mister smarty pants. Where’d you get this from?

– It was a present from Mr Connolly, I said.

– Connolly, is it? Is that the pimply little bugger who was here just now?

– It is very ill bred of you to call him that, I said. I don’t make derogatory comments about the appearance of your friends.

Though God knows it’s tempting, I thought, but decided not to give voice to this further observation.

– Well, he continued, I never liked the look of that ugly little bastard and now I know why.

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December 21, 2012 · 10:50 pm

He waited for a moment just outside, pressing his ear to the door. No noise: not even a sleeper’s breath: only the hum of the waves and the splash of the water falling from the keel with each dip of the bowsprit. A snore would be welcome, he thought, straining to hear: he would take heart at a snore. Maybe the captain was at his desk, poring over charts or logs even at this hour of the night? But no light showed under the crack of the door. He must be asleep; and now if only the door did not creak–

It did not creak. Tiptoeing in, he shut it behind him, fearing it would slam to with the swinging of the ship, and stood in the darkness, not breathing. He had seen where the captain kept the chest, against the wall at the foot of his bed.

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December 21, 2012 · 10:45 pm

My parishioners will doubtless excuse the fecundity of a feverish imagination when I disclose to them the appurtenances of evil by which I have endeavored to reconcile a bleeding conscience with the fructuous involucrations of her sins. I ask your kind disposal of the relics I entrust to you this night, fellow heelers and swayers in the orlop deck of damnation: many things are arguable by the learned and I am conscious that many of you are indeed exquisitely learned, but one proposition is not among them and that is that your humble shepherd has ever displayed anything but a most befitting kindheartedness to his flock. Thus penitently I supplicate your momentary tolerance for this iniquitous Confiteor.

 

Last May, as you all know, our humble parish was buffeted by wrathful storms and the paddocks of Squire Usperborough, that model of civic magnanimity, were quite deluged with a dare I say Biblical stratum of rainwater. Few there were who did not keep to their bedrooms under that inclemency of the heavens; but I – and here begins the confession – I was, to my eternal shame, among those few. It was the night before St. Bartholomew’s mass and I (for I will sweep you rather headlong into the scene than set the stage wearisomely with disquisitions and minutiae) was trudging in my moccasins through the Squire’s sodden park. The moon was gibbous, as it always is on such nights; I mean, on nights when the lechers are out. Yes! do not gasp, goodwife Tucket, at the word, and spare your blushes, mistress Stewkes (for indeed they take in no one). It was for no chaste or vestal purpose that I stole abroad that night.

 

You all know, my gobsmacked parishioners, that innocent young maiden (so at any rate she would have it) name of Miss Smiffley, who until oddly recently served in the role of governess to the Squire’s clutch of brats. You may have wondered, some of the more astute among you, what betokened her oddly momentary departure on another weather-drenched night some three months after the events I relate. She was a flaxenhaired vixen with the sad eyes of an ox, and the thighs of (to choose a classical allusion that will be familiar to most of you) Aphrodite.

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December 21, 2012 · 10:43 pm

Porridge, the reader may take my word for it, is a very panacea or universal remedy for all ills besetting the sensory organs. For blurriness of vision, cataracts, or the squint, it is a medicine without peer; for deafness, tinnitus, or that dull drone or echo in the auditory chamber that is the especial plague of miners, it is a godsend; it intensifies the smell, and hones and vivifies the gustatory faculty, both of which tend to wither and flag with the onset of middle age. But it is as a tonic for the sense of touch that porridge reserves its supremest powers. The tactile membranes of the skin are (as Myriagmus remarks in his De Deorum Frumentia) both the first to take form in the genetic development of infants, and the last to depart this world in death; which latter fact may be demonstrated by that tendency shewn by the skin of a corpse, in the hour or so from its earthly tenant’s demise, to shift and draw under the touch of the hand, as if unwilling to sever so soon its final communication with the human and living world. Likewise touch was the first of the channels by which man became conscious of his Maker; for it must be supposed that the divine Sculptor, when he fashioned Adam from the clay of Eden, made the primal man’s body before He made his eyes or ears, and therefore that our first father knew the touch of a Godly chisel ere he ever heard his Lord’s voice call to him or saw Him walking in that fragrant and primeval garden. Thus the sense of touch, it may be said, is at once our most precious memento of the youth of mankind, ‘ere ever sin came into the world’, and our sole genuine ticket for that ultimate passage we must all make to a place where all sin shall be either purged with flames terrible but transient, or punished by fires the agony of whose heat shall seem cool beside the all-consuming knowledge that they will burn unquenchably and eternally.

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December 21, 2012 · 10:42 pm

With what sort of a heart it was, then, that I embarked upon my solitary wanderings over the “rueful roads of Wynth” (as Esculanius calls them), I shall leave it to my reader to imagine: adding only that my premonitions of the vicissitudes that awaited me on this journey, though just, were incomplete. Of the travails and affliction that visit all such purseless peripatetics as I was to become, my gloomy imagination could taste the bile already; but of the single principal curse that was to be mine I had not the faintest notion. I refer to the mere length and temporal extension of my roamings. It is a fact little remarked, that in those cases (none too uncommon) where troubles present themselves to us in unrelenting succession and over long stretches of time, their force seems to result not merely additive, but exponential. This I suppose is because, as each fresh blow digs deeper the cavern in the heart, so its successor has a more ample space in which to echo; so that what began as a little notch or nook, which scarce afforded room for reverberation to even the most plangent wail of woe, by prolonged excavation becomes a very sound-chamber or acoustic hall of mirrors, and amplifies into a rumbling roar every slight hiss or whisper that would previously have passed unheard.

So, as I stepped forth out of my dear hosts’ cottage on that chill and cloudless Nibblinghamshire dawn, I believed myself miserable; but how carefree, how blessedly and blithely happy now appears that long-vanished figure I must call myself! If, as Dr Firtham says, ‘sorrow is not sorrow that lacks knowledge of sorrow,’ if woe unseen is woe unfelt, then that babe whose eyes are yet shut against the specter of despair that haunts the race of the sighted must be called happy, though it be famished and shivering with cold; for that one chief ghostly anguish it cannot yet see will, when it once opens its eyes, drive out all sensation of these secondary bodily griefs. Likewise my unsuspecting mind on that morning, still unracked by agonies that it could not imagine, though suffering from what I now know to be minor and inconsequential sorrows, appears with the objectivity of hindsight as having enjoyed an enviable state of bliss.

But I must not deject my patient reader with pitiful ruminations. Let me recount, instead, my first peregrinations and perambulations through the wintry forests of Wynth; for in these days of settled urban prosperity it is scarcely likely that he shall have experienced treks as squalid, or as seemingly unending, as mine. These days (and I am conscious as I write, simultaneously of the old man’s wont to dote upon the remembered unpleasantnesses of his youth for their sheer pathetic charmless charm, and of the youth’s contempt for these hobbling excursions into nostalgia) – these days, I say, it is a rare member of the novel-reading classes who has in his own past (whether shamefully buried, or paraded at the dinner-table for gasps of shocked fascination) any such adventures as my penurious and friendless state then forced me into. Let me then exhibit before the naïve reader my most prized anecdotes of abjectitude: for I have, through frequent telling of these events, constructed a kind of horrid museum, through the stations of which, now ordered and routine, I lead all who are sufficiently indulgent or enthralled as to listen to these true stories of varicolored tragedy.

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December 21, 2012 · 10:41 pm

The atmosphere of conviviality that prevailed at the dinner table that evening was marred only by a slight sense of ennui. Predictably enough the butler, Reynolds, had developed an inexplicable penchant for gargling mouthwash in the presence of milord; and this was sufficiently vexing to cause Mrs. Widgeons to let fall the sherry decanter precisely into the lap of Aunt Gregoria, bringing about a most awkward how-d’ye-do; but on the whole no untoward eventualities intervened to relieve the soiree of its suffocating miasma of inspissated gloom. Further conversation was prevented by the entrance of twelve machete-wielding dwarfs, who proceeded to hack the company to pieces without any sign of compunction.

Upon reflection, reflected Aunt Petunia as she sat in a silent passion upon her ample Regency prie-dieu the following Whitsunday, it would perhaps have been better to renege. The frazzled complexities of her agonized mind could not easily be reduced to a state of mere whimpering abjectitude; but nonetheless it was a matter of the utmost consternation to her that such a regrettable proceeding should have been seen fit to be resorted to. Vulgar, she called it. Especially given that a farrago of more elegant methods of acquitting oneself suggested itself at once to her far-ranging mind: ampullae of absinthe spiked with belladonna; a silken garotte; even hypnosis might have answered, given the extreme suggestibility of what these nouveau-riche louts almost charmingly called their minds. Murder by mesmerism: yes, now that would have been something to mention to Count Oswald when next they met: she could see the almost imperceptible but unmistakably approving slant of his monobrow as he raised the gadrooned goblet to his fleshy lips, or would have done; nay, would and should and shall, should she ever now be granted the very mingled pleasure of his company again by an ambivalent Fate. But over this potentiality there hung as it were a miasma of the most nephelidious doubt.

As it was, she considered that what might be called the political situation presented as it were a bramble of the thorniest quandaries. Like Balaam’s ass, she hesitated between two equiponderous courses, though neither of them palatable; indeed both festered with maleficent maggots, so to speak. There was the Law; one could appeal to that; many people did, she knew, although she had never been able to see them otherwise than as the most squalid poltroons. The jejune caviling, the obsequious kowtowing to pimply potentates in wigs, above all the interminable dilatoriness of the crawling juggernaut of Procedure, were all infinitely repulsive to her proud piratical mind. A flash of rapiers in the moonlight was the proper, the only satisfactory method of resolving such disputes, she thought; certainly not the droning dialectic of borborygmous barristers, as endless as it was infantile. No, not for Petunia de Grimsby the law and its petty vexations. Not to mention its inherent and quite scandalous unpredictability of outcome.

Well, that left private justice. But private justice had its own perplexities.

She was enumerating these to herself for the umpteenth time when a discreet knock heralded the arrival of Sir Wolfgang, who had let himself in, at her instance, by the scullery door to avoid inquiry. She brought her intellectual and intestinal efforts to a hasty conclusion and emerged to greet him.

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December 21, 2012 · 10:38 pm

But there she was under her green felt hat, serene in a seat by the window, leafing through a magazine; never an eyelash raised she though surely, surely she must sense his burning gaze on her cool shadowed cheek – the tram sped by, the signal changed and she was gone, her fleeting profile hidden by the rain.

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December 21, 2012 · 10:32 pm

Hamlet. God is one hand; for God is odd, being three in one.
Ophelia. (She takes his hand) Three in one leaves one left over; (covers his three fingers with the thumb) – and who’s that?
Horatio. The serpent.
Hamlet. Aye: for he’s a very devil for cunning. (Wiggles it) He’d tickle your fancy.
Ophelia. My fancy what?
Horatio. He has a lisp. Pray, what did you call your old nurse?
Hamlet. Nancy; but ’twas not her name.

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December 21, 2012 · 10:28 pm

It was not, then, without a modicum of angst that I beheld the pale visage of my moribund Aunt Petunia standing in the doorway with a significant leer. It was of a forenoon, mostly, that this flaysome wretch of a relative executed her morbid hauntings of my ancestral demesne; and it was of a forenoon that I now hissed at her, “You foul Apparition and gruesome caricature of a maiden aunt! Begone, I say – begone!” and hurled an inkpot with impressive skill.

She was gone; nothing but a sickly effluvium remained to tell that she had ever stood there eyeing balefully the rightful inhabitants of these halls; nothing, that is, but a sickly effluvium and the echo of her awful parting words:

“There’s a lady here to see you, Lucius.”

– A lady? I thought, as my aunt’s malignant mutter trickled slowly through my brain. – A lady, here to see me? Why, pray to God it may be–

Pray indeed, reader! for we shall need all the heavenly intercession we can get. But who (I hear you ask), who in the world, what lady demure or otherwise could be so much desired and doted upon as to inspire such fervency in our mildmannered narrator? Can it be there is some mystery, some secret affair in his past that our Lucian (crafty fellow!) has left undivulged?

Indeed there is, reader. But to learn the secret you must await my next instalment.

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December 21, 2012 · 10:25 pm