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Authors: Sebastian Faulks

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BOOK: Jeeves and the Wedding Bells
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I HANDED THE
beastly thing to Jeeves without a word. If there is one thing to strike fear into the belly more than the prospect of a visit from Aunt Agatha, it is the prospect of a visit from Aunt Agatha with young Thos in tow.

‘Ye gods, Jeeves,’ I said. ‘It’s like piling whatsit on whatsit.’

‘Pelion upon Ossa, sir.’

New readers, as they say, start here; the old lags familiar with the Wooster family set-up might like to practise a scale or two on the piano while I bring the tyros up to the mark on the important distinction to be made between my Aunt Dahlia who, though loud of voice and firm of view, is on the side of the Seraphim, Dominions and Powers, and this Aunt Agatha, who is so deeply imbued with shades of darkness that in the aftermath of bloodletting even Vlad the Impaler might have yielded her first dibs with stake and mallet. And that, by way of background, is all I have time for at the moment.

‘What on earth am I do to, Jeeves?’

‘Might I suggest you offer her ladyship the run of the apartment, sir?’

‘Have you gone off your trolley, Jeeves?’

‘I trust not, sir. My thinking was that—’

‘I know what your thinking was,’ I said, as inspiration came to me – suddenly, as it does. ‘Your thinking was something to do with my side-whiskers, wasn’t it? Rather like your inability to offer any help to young Woody this morning. Tell me, Jeeves, man to man. Is this a General Strike?’

‘Not at all, sir. I have no opinion as to your facial hair. It is not my place. Mr Beeching’s predicament is one I would wish to consider more deeply before offering counsel. As for Lady Worplesdon, sir, I thought you might wish to make such accommodation available to her on the grounds that you yourself would be absent from the premises.’

I mulled this over for a moment. ‘Absent, did you say?’

‘Yes, sir. I thought a number of birds might be dispatched with a single stone, as it were.’

‘You speak in riddles, Jeeves.’

‘The matter is a delicate one, sir.’

‘You are among friends.’

‘Thank you, sir. Mr Beeching’s future happiness seems to depend on the successful outcome of another tryst, or engagement. The lady in question, Miss—’

I held up a policeman’s hand. ‘One does not bandy, Jeeves.’

‘Indeed not, sir. Might I refer to recent events on the Côte
d’Azur and to what one might call the Female Lead or Principal in the drama?’

‘You might, Jeeves.’

‘Thank you, sir. It will not have escaped your attention that this Female Lead—’

‘Or Principal.’

‘Indeed, or Principal, has a crucial part to play in Mr Beeching’s future.’

‘The hypothetical bacon bringer-home and the Côte d’Azur Female Lead being one and the same girl, you mean.’

‘Almost certainly, sir. It occurred to me that if you were to take up residence at Kingston St Giles for a short time, you might be able to assist Mr Beeching—’

‘Or at any rate you could, Jeeves.’

‘I should give it my best endeavours, sir. It would further enable you to renew acquaintance with certain persons, should you so desire it, and …’

‘I desire it like billy-ho, Jeeves. Though at a distance. And with conditions. She is engaged to another fellow.’

‘…And furthermore to relieve yourself of any irksome aspects of the proposed familial visit.’

He had a point, I thought. But there was also a sizeable snag. ‘I can’t just telephone this Hackwood fellow and invite myself to stay. It’s not as though I’m a Ranjitsinhji either. I shouldn’t be bringing much to the cricketing party, if invited.’

‘I would think it most unwise to alert Sir Henry to your presence, sir. I feel sure that by now he will have been informed
of certain events upon the Côte d’Azur and would not wish to issue any such invitation.’

‘You mean the Wooster name is already mud as far as he’s concerned.’

‘I have formed the impression that he is a gentleman of a determined character, sir, and has concluded that the advantageous alliance of his ward is his only hope of financial salvation. One would not wish to be the impediment in his path.’

‘And this ward … You think she will have spilled the beans to him about those innocent evenings on the Croisette?’

‘Perhaps not directly to Sir Henry, sir, but almost certainly to her coeval, Miss Hackwood. And once such intelligence has entered the distaff side, it is generally only a matter of time before—’

‘Lady H gets to hear the hot gossip and fills in the old boy.’

‘I fear it is inevitable, sir.’

I drew in a pensive one and let it out again slowly between the front teeth. ‘What do you suggest?’

‘It has been our wont on previous occasions, sir, to avail ourselves of a small cottage, there to observe and await developments.’

‘Like Wee Nooke, you mean.’

‘Yes, sir.’

I shuddered. ‘Though less likely to go up in flames, I hope.’

‘A lack of such combustibility would be a decided advantage, sir. I took the liberty while you were at luncheon of making some inquiries by telephone. A local agent has offered use of a three-bedroom dwelling by the name of Seaview Cottage. It is
within walking distance of Melbury Hall and enjoys fine views to the south.’

I drained the last of the reviving cup and put it firmly back in the saucer. I had made up my mind. ‘Jeeves,’ I said. ‘All roads lead west. Please compose a gracious telegram to Aunt Agatha, giving her the run of the whole bally place. And apologising for my absence on urgent business. Key to be left with Mrs Tinkler-Moulke.’

‘As you wish, sir.’

A thought struck me. ‘I say, Jeeves, won’t you mind missing Ascot?’

‘I feel my duty lies elsewhere, sir.’

‘Jolly decent of you. I’m sure we can find a bookmaker in Sherborne or somewhere. Pack at least two bags. We could be in for the long haul.’

‘I have already done so, sir.’

‘Good. We leave at dawn. Or ten-ish, anyway. And, Jeeves?’

‘Yes, sir?’

‘I suppose you’d better bung in a pair of cricket flannels, if I still have any. Just in case.’

‘The item was among the first to go into the suitcase, sir.’

Whether it was the fear that Aunt Agatha might arrive early or for some other reason I couldn’t say, but the sole of the right brogue was no more than an inch from the floor of the two-seater when Stonehenge slid past to our right. Jeeves was giving me the lowdown on the novels of Thomas Hardy as we
turned off and motored over Cranborne Chase into the depths of Dorsetshire.

‘Sounds a pretty gloomy sort of bird,’ I said, as he reached the big finale of
Jude the Obscure
.

‘His is undoubtedly not the sunniest of dispositions, sir. The poetry to which he has returned in later life has—’

‘Shall we leave the poetry for another day, Jeeves?’

‘As you wish, sir.’

We broke our journey with a ham sandwich and a glass of ale in the small and silent village of Darston. Although we were his only customers, the innkeeper eyed us with a wariness that verged on the hostile. It can’t have been the appearance, since we were both wearing simple clothes to let us pass as holidaymakers at our destination. The beer took an age to trickle from the barrel and the ham seemed to have been cut from a porker ill-fated enough to have featured in the novels of T. Hardy.

We did not linger, and with the help of the Gazeteer and a letter from the house agent, it was not long before Jeeves guided us into the village of Kingston St Giles and thence the gravelled area in front of Seaview Cottage. Here I let the faithful motor take a blow while Jeeves unloaded the bags.

Seaview Cottage had a thatched roof and whitewashed walls. The accommodations were on the modest side, though adequate for our purposes. While Jeeves unpacked, I pottered round a pleasant patch of garden with some roses just coming out and a few rows of beans. As for a view of the sea, we appeared to be a good twenty miles inland, though I daresay a hawk with a strong telescope hovering a few feet
above the chimney pot might have made out a smudge of distant ocean.

In the village, we had driven past a post office, a grocer and a butcher as well as a brace of inns, and I now dispatched Jeeves to send a telegram to Woody at Melbury Hall, advising of our arrival. As I may have mentioned, Woody, though brainy, is about as highly strung as Suzanne Lenglen’s tennis racquet. I didn’t want him letting off a startled, ‘Blow me down, it’s Bertie Wooster!’ if he bumped into me in lane or meadow. I also instructed Jeeves to bring in some supplies and see what either of the public houses might provide by way of dinner.

Then I took a deckchair into the garden, removed the tie, rolled up the sleeves and opened
By Pullman to Peking
, by Rupert Venables, which I had had sent round from the bookshop before we left. I had been surprised to find that it was signed by the author on the title page, but Jeeves told me it was common for authors to scribble in as many copies as they could, since this meant the bookshop could not return them unsold to the publisher.

It knocked me back a bit. I suppose I had expected something of a yarn or an adventure, but this Venables recounted his journey from first idea, to booking office, to tram, to terminus, in the same tone. He reminded me of someone – though for a moment I struggled to remember who. It was on page thirty-four, in the boat train from Victoria, in which Venables described each of the passengers in his compartment, that it came to me: it was ‘Stodgy’ Stoddard, the club bore at the Drones, around whom there was always a blast area where
other lunchers had evacuated the vicinity. ‘The next person to come into the compartment, was a nondescript middle-aged man of oriental or perhaps Eurasian descent,’ wrote Venables; but it wasn’t worth finding out about this chap because it turned out that after Boulogne he slung his hook and disappeared.

After an hour or so, I put down the book, not without a certain relief, I admit, though also with a fair degree of puzzlement. How on earth had Georgiana allowed herself to become hitched to such a fellow? The only thing I could think of was that he must be livelier in the flesh; and if not, there must have been a dozen others better suited within the county boundary.

I took a turn about the garden, mulling over this oddity. I had just gone back into the house with a view to starting
The Mystery of the Gabled House
, a copy of which I had seen on the hall bookshelf, when Jeeves let himself in.

‘What ho,’ I said. ‘Telegram dispatched?’

‘Indeed, sir, though in the event, it proved unnecessary, since I encountered Mr Beeching in person outside the greengrocer’s.’

It is not often that one sees Jeeves rattled, but I had the distinct impression that all was not as it should have been. For a start, I had expected to see his arms full of local produce: eggs from contented hens, a slab of yellow butter, peas fresh from the allotment and so forth. But he was empty-handed.

‘Is everything all right, Jeeves?’

He coughed a couple of times. ‘As we were conversing, we were joined by Sir Henry Hackwood, who was riding a horse.’

‘Golly,’ I said.

‘Indeed, sir. I am sorry to say that Mr Beeching seemed
somewhat nonplussed by events. He appeared to think Sir Henry required an explanation of our acquaintance.’

‘Even though you’re not dressed as a valet or—’

‘Indeed, sir. Mr Beeching introduced Sir Henry to me, but when it came to supplying my name in return, he grew agitated.’

‘He panicked, you mean.’

‘Doubtless he is anxious to make a good impression on the man he hopes will be his father-in-law and this may account for—’

‘What did the silly ass say?’

‘He … improvised, sir. He introduced me as a friend of his family, Lord Etringham.’

‘He did what?’

‘He introduced me to Sir Henry as Lord Etringham, sir.’

‘Who on earth is Lord Etringham?’

‘I have not yet been able to establish, sir.’

‘Dear, oh dear. This is no good at all,’ I said.

‘I suppose that on the spur of the moment, sir, Mr Beeching thought it best not to mention your own name – as a more accurate introduction would have necessitated.’

‘Hackwood having me marked down as public enemy number one, you mean? I suppose I can see his point. Anyway, there’s no harm done. You won’t bump into him again.’

Jeeves coughed. ‘I fear matters may develop further. Sir Henry is a gentleman who appears keenly aware of matters of social standing.’

‘A corking snob, you mean. Yes, I’d heard as much at the Drones.’

‘On being informed, or rather misinformed, that I was a member of the peerage, Sir Henry reined in his horse. His interest seemed to quicken considerably.’

‘How quick did it get?’

‘He invited me to dine at Melbury Hall tonight.’

I let out a short, mirthless one. ‘What a daft old buffer.’

Jeeves looked down at his shoes for a moment, then cleared his throat. ‘I regret, sir, that in the circumstances I deemed it best to accept.’

‘What? But Jeeves, you can’t—’

‘There seemed no other available course of action, sir.’

Well, I saw what he meant, of course. He couldn’t really say, No thanks, I’d rather have a pork pie and a pint of shandygaff at the Dog and Whistle. Even so …

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