Authors: Sebastian Faulks
‘And did she like it?’
‘She has yet to vouchsafe an opinion, sir.’
I cast a moody eye back to the paper. A second reading seemed to make the news, if possible, more final. ‘The engagement is announced between Georgiana, only daughter of the late Mr and Mrs Philip Meadowes of Pershore, Worcestershire
and Rupert, elder son of Mr and Mrs Sidney Venables, of Burghclere, Hampshire, late of Chanamasala, Uttar Pradesh.’
‘Will there be anything else, sir? Shall I put out your golfing clothes?’
The prospect of hacking through the Surrey heather looking vainly for the stray white pill had suddenly lost its allure.
‘This is no time for the plus-fours.’
‘As you wish, sir. A gentleman called an hour ago to see you, but I told him you were not to be disturbed. A Mr Beeching, sir. He said he would return at eleven.’
‘Good God, not “Woody” Beeching?’
‘He did not confide his first name, sir.’
‘Tallish chap, eyes like a hawk?’
‘There was a suggestion of the accipitrine, sir.’
From infancy, Peregrine ‘Woody’ Beeching and I had been pretty much blood brothers – from the first day at private school to the last commem ball at Oxford. Our parents had been the best of friends, and as a youthful partnership Woody and I had seen more scrapes than a barber’s strop. I have been lucky with my pals over the years, but I doubt that any had been more like a brother to me than this Beeching.
‘Good old Woody,’ I said. ‘Is he still a bundle of nerves?’
‘The gentleman did appear a trifle agitated, sir.’
I laughed – a merry but a brief one, as I glanced back to the tea-stained copy of the morning newspaper. ‘What brought him here?’
‘He came to seek my advice, sir.’
This struck me as odd, since Woody, while prone to fretting,
is not short of the grey matter. Since coming down from university he had made himself a considerable living at the Chancery Bar and was not the sort of man to be found short of an answer – and often more than one, I gathered, when faced by their lordships’ fire from the bench.
‘You intrigue me, Jeeves.’
‘I believe the issue is a sensitive one, sir. As you know, Mr Beeching is engaged to be married to Miss Amelia Hackwood and one suspects that the path of true love has encountered some anfractuosity. However, Mr Beeching felt it improper to say more until he had properly renewed his acquaintance with yourself, sir.’
‘Quite right, too.’ I consulted the bedside clock. I had time enough to wash, shave and ready myself for the day before Woody returned. Pausing only to stipulate the eggs poached and the bacon well done, I sprang from the place of slumber and headed sluicewards with all speed.
It was a fragrant if pensive Bertram who at the appointed hour opened the door to his old friend Peregrine ‘Woody’ Beeching.
‘Ah, good afternoon, Bertie. Bit of an adventure for you being up at this hour,’ said Woody, sending his hat with a carefree toss in Jeeves’s general direction.
‘I’ve been up for some time,’ I informed him coolly. ‘I have something on my mind.’
Woody raised an eyebrow and made a visible effort to bite something back – a witticism, no doubt, at my expense.
‘Good heavens,’ he said as we went into the drawing room. ‘Are you wearing side-whiskers? Or are you going to a costume ball as Billy the Kid?’
‘All the fellows on the Côte d’Azur had them this spring,’ I said. ‘I’ll wager you’ll be wearing a pair yourself by August.’
‘Not unless I want to look like Soapy Sid and lose my entire practice at the Bar. What does Jeeves think of them?’
‘His view is of no consequence to me,’ I said airily. ‘I have not sought it.’
After a bit more of this banter, Woody got down to business. ‘The thing is, Bertie, the reason I needed to consult you, or rather your excellent manservant is … Well, it’s a bit sensitive.’
I glanced up at Jeeves, who had slipped back into the room after the old pals’ catching-up was done and now stood like an attentive gun dog awaiting the command to fetch.
‘Woody,’ I said. ‘Remember who you’re confiding in. Graves are garrulous, tombs talkative when compared to me. Is that not so, Jeeves?’
‘Your discretion has frequently been remarked upon, sir.’
Woody heaved a big one. ‘It involves a woman.’
‘My lips are sealed.’
‘Three women in fact.’
‘Even more sealed.’
‘Her name … Oh, dash it, I may as well make a clean breast of it … is Amelia Hackwood.’
‘Woody, old chap, this is hardly news. Your engagement was in the paper.’
‘Well, it isn’t any more. I mean, Amelia’s broken it off.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that, Woody.’
‘I knew you would be, Bertie. The trouble is …’
‘Get it off your chest, old man.’
‘Amelia is the sweetest girl who ever drew breath. I worship the grass beneath her plimsolls, the dance floor beneath her evening slippers, the—’
‘We catch your drift,’ I said.
‘You should see her play tennis,’ said Woody. ‘The way she swoops across the court, the tanned limbs – good heavens, she even has a backhand.’
I tried not to catch Jeeves’s eye while Woody filled us in on Amelia’s other qualities. These, to keep it brief, included an outstanding knowledge of lepidoptery (or butterfly collecting, as I was able to establish later); a dexterity on the violin that reminded him of Paganini; and – weighing heavily with her swain – an ardent devotion to Beeching, W.
Into the rich unguent, alas, there had entered a substantial fly: this Amelia, it appeared, was one of those girls who, while themselves most liberally endowed with what it takes, are uneasy if the loved one is in the company of another female. At a weekend party in Dorsetshire, at Melbury Hall, the Hackwood family seat in Kingston St Giles, Woody had made insufficient efforts to discourage attention from a couple of local maidens.
‘There was absolutely nothing to it, Bertie. A pair of rosy-cheeked village girls were among those invited to tea. I made myself pleasant, but no more. I thought Amelia would like it if the occasion went off with a bang. The next thing you know,
I’m being read the Riot Act. Amelia tells me she can’t bear the thought of fifty years of me flirting with anything in a dress and that the whole thing’s off.’
‘That’s a bit rough,’ I said. ‘But surely she’ll come round.’
‘You don’t know Amelia.’
‘No, I haven’t had the—’
‘She used some pretty ripe language, you know. She accused me of “drooling” over one of them.’
‘I say, that’s a bit—’
‘One of them ran her hand up and down my sleeve a couple of times. What was I meant to do? Biff her one?’
‘Perhaps get up and hand round the sandwiches?’
‘But they were nothing. Nice enough girls, of course, but compared to Amelia, they were … they were …’
For once the Chancery advocate seemed at a loss for words, though I had a sense that Jeeves could provide. I looked in his direction.
‘Less than the dust beneath her chariot wheel, sir?’
I lit a meditative cigarette and sat back in the old armchair. Although I knew that Woody was as honest as the day is long, I wondered if he was giving us quite the whole picture. As well as making F. E. Smith look tongue-tied, Woody, I should have mentioned, is one of those chaps who seems able to turn his hand to anything. He was in the Oxford cricket eleven two years running, played golf off a handicap of two and, as if that were not enough, in his final year picked up a half-blue at boxing.
His features might best be described as craggy, with the old beak pretty prominent, the eyes on the hooded side and the hair generally in need of ten minutes in the barber’s chair, but the opposite sex were drawn to his scruffy figure as moths to the last candle before wax rationing. And being an obliging sort of fellow, Woody enjoyed a bit of repartee with the fairer sex; he didn’t like to see a girl’s face without a smile or a glass without a drink in it. It took a man who had known him since boyhood to see how little all this meant, because the better part of Woody’s mind was always turning over some finer point of jurisprudence or wondering how he could slope off to the Oval to catch Jack Hobbs in full flow. The gist of what I’m saying, I suppose, is that while never doubting the old bosom friend, I was also wondering whether Amelia might not have a point.
While the Wooster intellectual juices had been so distilling the data, as it were, Woody was coming to the end of his tale.
‘So I’m to go down to Kingston St Giles at the weekend again, but only because Sir Henry insists I play for his confounded cricket team. Amelia said she won’t be seen in the same room as me, but Sir Henry’s dead set on winning this match against the Dorset Gentlemen.’
There was an imperceptible rustle, neither cough nor sneeze, but an indication that Jeeves was on the verge of utterance, if invited. I invited away.
‘Might I inquire, sir, as to Sir Henry’s attitude in general to the engagement of yourself to his daughter?’
‘Grudging,’ said Woody. ‘And hedged about with caveats and provisos.’
I think I may have missed the odd detail of Woody’s story, but not the choice morsel with which he now concluded.
‘Yes. Sir Henry needs a very large sum of money to save Melbury Hall, where his family have lived for nine generations. Otherwise it will be sold to a private school. Either his daughter or his ward must provide the wherewithal through marriage.’
‘And if I might be so delicate as to inquire, sir, whether—’
‘I know what you’re trying to ask, Jeeves. The Beeching fortune was lost some time ago. An unwise speculation on the Canadian Pacific Railroad by my grandfather. I’ve no more than what I earn. Sir Henry told me he can’t bless my union with Amelia unless his ward brings home the bacon.’
I don’t know if you’d spotted anything in the set-up Woody was describing, but if I say a faint tinkling had started in the Wooster brain a minute or so back, I now felt like Quasimodo on New Year’s Day as sounded by a bell-ringer with plenty to prove.
‘And is she?’ I inquired.
‘Is who what?’ said Woody, rather testily, I thought, as though the two great brains had forgotten I was in the room.
‘Is the ward bringing home the bacon?’ I glossed.
‘Up to a point,’ said Woody. ‘She’s engaged to a chap who has the stuff in sackfuls, but her heart’s not in it. She’s a dutiful girl, but she’s a romantic deep down, like all girls. I’m not convinced she’ll get to the church door, let alone the altar.’
‘A most parlous state of affairs, sir,’ said Jeeves.
His eye met mine and his right hand rose a fraction of an inch – a gesture that in Jeeves’s world was tantamount to jumping up and down with a fistful of red flags. I took the hint and kept the lips sealed.
‘So what do you suggest I do, Jeeves?’ said Woody.
‘I regret to say that I have no advice to offer, sir. The situation is most delicate.’
‘Is that it? Have you lost your touch, Jeeves?’
‘I feel sure, sir, that the problem will be susceptible of a solution in due course. Meanwhile, I would strongly advise a return to Kingston St Giles as soon as may be convenient. An outstanding performance on the cricket field could well go some way towards mollifying Miss Hackwood. As a keen sportswoman herself, she would be sure to appreciate a display of skill from her fiancé.’
‘Ex-fiancé,’ said Woody gloomily.
‘And lay off the girls, Woody. Talk only to other chaps.’
‘Thank you, Bertie. I don’t know how you come up with these things. I would never have thought of that by myself.’
This having pretty much concluded the business part of the interview, I suggested that Woody might like to join me in a stroll before looking into the Drones for a bite of lunch. Mondays generally saw a rather toothsome buffet, with cold fowl and lamb cutlets
to the fore.
‘A zonker beforehand, do you think?’ said Woody. ‘Just to whet the appetite?’
This ‘zonker’ was a drink whose secrets Woody had been taught by the barman at his Oxford college and had in turn
shared with old Upstairs Albert at the Drones. It involved gin, bitters, a slice of orange, some sweetish vermouth, a secret ingredient and then a fair bit more gin, with ice. It tasted of little more than sarsaparilla, but invariably made the world seem a happier place.
‘Perhaps just one,’ I said.
‘No more,’ concurred Woody. ‘Then I’m going off to do a stint on the Piccadilly Line.’
‘You’re doing what?’
‘Surely even you, Bertie, are aware that there’s been a General Strike?’
‘I thought that had all been sorted out and that the lads had gone back to work with a song on their lips.’
‘It’s officially over but there are one or two lines still not back to normal. Some other chaps at the Bar have roped me in. My shift starts at four. You should think about doing it yourself. You might not get another chance to drive a train.’
‘I rule nothing out, Woody,’ I said. ‘So long as I don’t get set on by the frenzied mob.’
What with one thing and another it was almost five by the time I got home. After Woody had left for his public transport duties, I picked up a game of snooker pool with Oofy Prosser and Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright, who was resting between dramatic roles, and this, as chance would have it, went to a profitable third frame.
As I latchkeyed myself back into Wooster GHQ, I was aware
of the smell of fresh Darjeeling and, unless I was mistaken, a spot of toast. Jeeves has an instinct for the hour of my return and for the sort of fillip that’s needed.
I was scanning the evening paper when he duly shimmied in with the needful. Alongside the buttered t. was an unopened telegram, and I didn’t like the look of it.
‘Who the devil’s this from, Jeeves?’
‘I should not care to hazard a guess, sir.’
I uttered a small cry as I saw the name of the sender. It took a certain mental steel to read the contents in full. They were as follows: ‘
WOULD BE GRATEFUL USE OF YOUR SPARE ROOM WEDNESDAY FOR FIVE DAYS STOP BUILDING WORK MAKES HOUSE UNINHABITABLE STOP URGENT ERRANDS LONDON STOP WILL HAVE THOMAS SUNDAY STOP HALF-TERM. STOP. AGATHA WORPLESDON