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Authors: Sebastian Faulks

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BOOK: Jeeves and the Wedding Bells
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‘Golly, Jeeves. This is tricky.’

‘In the short walk back from the post office, sir, I examined the matter from a number of angles. I feel that I may be able to carry off the subterfuge successfully so long as Sir Henry is not able to consult any reference books on the peerage and baronetage.’

‘Come again, Jeeves.’

‘A glance at Burke or Debrett, sir, might inform Sir Henry that his lordship and I are of different ages, for instance. There would be further detail about the seat and the family, and should Sir Henry raise such matters conversationally—’

‘You’d be in the soup. Though you could telephone one of your pals and get him to look up the address of the country digs, number of children and so on.’

‘Most probably. It is the age question which I fear may be insuperable, sir.’

‘His lordship might be a lean and slipper’d pantaloon, you mean.’

‘Indeed, sir. Or a whining schoolboy with his satchel and shining—’

‘I catch your drift, Jeeves.’

I replaced
The Mystery of the Gabled House
on the shelf, as I needed a spare hand to rub the old bean.

After a few moments, I said, ‘We don’t know for sure that he has these books, do we?’

‘I fear, sir, that for a gentleman of Sir Henry’s interests and disposition they would be a
sine qua non
.’

‘A cine-what?’

‘They would form the cornerstone of his library, sir.’

‘So what do you suggest? Burn down the library? Like the chap at where was it?’

‘Alexandria, sir. No, I think such drastic action unnecessary. I judge it would suffice merely to remove the volumes in question.’

‘To pinch them, you mean.’

‘To rehouse them temporarily elsewhere, sir.’

‘Then he could just ring up a pal and ask him to read out the entry on old Etringham. You haven’t thought this one through, Jeeves.’

‘With respect, sir, I had foreseen the problem you raise. It may be necessary for the telephone line to be temporarily disabled.’

‘This is all getting a bit much,’ I said. ‘Don’t you think it would be better to beat a swift retreat?’

‘Where to, sir?’

The penny dropped with a nasty clang. I couldn’t go back to London, where Aunt Agatha had by now installed herself in my flat and for all I knew was at this moment preparing the first of her human sacrifices.

‘Anywhere,’ I said. ‘Cornwall would do. Or we could catch a Channel ferry from Poole and lie low in Dieppe until the trouble blows over.’

‘I had the strong impression, sir, that Mr Beeching is relying on our help. The question of his future happiness is a grave one.’

I said nothing for a longish time while I stared out of the back window over the cottage garden. Woody was my brother in all but fact. His plight looked pretty desperate, seeming to hang on the whim of this sports-mad old snob. And then there was the Georgiana complication …. In that particular foggy business, I couldn’t at this moment make out the wood for the trees, but one thing seemed fairly certain: this was no time to leave the forest.

‘Jeeves,’ I said. ‘There is a tide in the whatsit of men …’

‘So I am given to understand, sir.’

‘So you’d better get up to the Hall pretty sharpish and do your dirty work before Sir Henry gets back from his ride and curls up with Debrett.’

There was a pause, a longish one.

‘I say, Jeeves?’

‘Yes, sir?’

‘You’re not saying anything.’

Jeeves went through a bit more of the old coughing and shoe-staring routine.

‘What is it, Jeeves? Out with it.’

‘I fear it would be ill-advised for a member of the peerage to be seen in the vicinity of the Hall with wire-cutters, sir, or books that did not belong to him. It would give the wrong impression.’

‘But you’re not going to be seen, Jeeves. This is a smash-and-grab operation. In, out, and back to Seaview Cottage in fifteen minutes flat, books in hand. We lower a snootful to toast your success, bung you into some evening clothes and shove you back up the drive as Lord E.’

‘I fear the danger of discovery is too great, sir. After all, the Hall is home to Lady Hackwood, Miss Hackwood and Miss Meadowes in addition to Sir Henry. I gained the impression that there are further house guests as well as a sizeable domestic staff on the premises.’

‘Then if it’s too risky, we’d better leave old Woody in the lurch and repack the bags. Unless of course … You’re not suggesting … Jeeves, I absolutely … Under no circumstances …’

‘In the event of your being discovered, sir, you would have the advantage of being unknown to Sir Henry.’

‘What if he rings the police? Are you suggesting I give a false name?’

‘If you remember, sir, on the occasion of Boat Race night—’

‘All right, all right, it wouldn’t be the first time. I suppose
Eustace H. Plimsoll, of The Laburnums, Alleyn Road could make a comeback by popular demand. For one night only. At a pinch. But it’s not a pinch I intend to feel.’

‘Such an expedient might be wise, sir. I feel it would be most unfortunate were Sir Henry to discover that an intruder in his house was the same person as the gentleman whose social activities on the Côte d’Azur had threatened to block his path to financial salvation.’

I put my foot down. ‘Damn it, Jeeves, I simply can’t go through with this. Woody or no Woody.’

I was still protesting silently when I found myself slinking up the back drive of Melbury Hall some ten minutes later.

I am something of a connoisseur of the country pile and I must say old Sir Henry had done himself remarkably well. At a guess I would say it was from the reign of Queen Anne and had been bunged up by a be-wigged ancestor awash with loot from the War of the Spanish Succession or some such lucrative away fixture. This ancient Hackwood had stinted himself on neither grounds nor messuages. The ensemble reached as far as the eye could see, taking in deer park, cricket pitch, lawns and meadows as well as walled kitchen gardens and a stable block that could have quartered the Household Cavalry. The staff needed for such a place must have drawn on every household in Kingston St Giles and I could see that whoever signed the yearly cheque to the electricity company would need a tumblerful of something strong to nerve him for the task.

I got a good squint at the pile itself, a handsome affair in reddish brick with stone bits here and there and a parapet above the second-floor bedrooms. A wide terrace faced south, and I guessed that if I could get there unobserved I could quickly ascertain which of the ground-floor rooms contained the library. Fortunately, the Hackwoods were fond of trees – cedars in particular – and it was easy enough for a chap who had so often played Red Indian scout to Woody Beeching’s Masked Cowboy to approach unobserved.

It would be an exaggeration to say that I was enjoying myself, but the sinews were stiffened up like anything as I ducked down beneath the first windowsill. After a pause to regain the breath, I risked a glance inside. It was a half-acre drawing room, with two wooden columns either side of a broad flight of three wooden steps. It also contained three elderly women, one younger one, possibly Amelia, a spindly fellow of about forty, an old codger in full flow and a butler of solemn aspect handing round the teacups. I ducked down sharpish and stole forwards to the next opening.

Raising the beak cautiously over the sill, I was rewarded by a glimpse of books, and plenty of them. I risked another look and got a full snapshot. There was only one thing I wanted more than a library and that was a library devoid of Hackwoods; it seemed that I had hit the bullseye at the second attempt. Gently, I tested the lower section of window. It rose. I looked down to make sure the footing was adequate to heave myself through the opening. As I did so, I noticed a small box attached to the outer wall at ankle height. The Wooster fortunes seemed
to be getting juicier by the moment, for unless I was mistaken this was the telephone connection. I have never been much of a one for the practical aspects of life and I feared that if I used the implement that Jeeves had given me to snip the flex I might go up in smoke. I judged it wiser to give the cable a firm upward yank, and to my delight it yielded at once. I concealed the disconnected wires as best I could behind the box and moved on to part two of the operation.

Effecting an entrance was simple enough; finding the relevant brace of volumes looked an altogether trickier prospect. A complete set of
Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack
took up one bookcase. Another comprised stud books devoted to matters of livestock and horse breeding. Military history, with special ref to the Hundred Years War, accounted for a sizeable wall. There was frankly not much in the library of Sir Henry Hackwood to appeal to what one might call the general reader. Where on earth, I wondered, did he keep his detective stories? There was something called
The Eustace Diamonds
that looked promising, but a quick flip through its pages disappointed. No hint of a corpse anywhere.

Recalling the urgency of the mission, I pressed on and looked down to the lower shelves. There were a couple of dictionaries and a telephone directory behind a small table with the now useless instrument on it. This looked more promising. And there, between
Bradshaw’s Railway Time Tables
and
An Introduction to Numismatism
, lurked a well-used copy of Debrett and a positively dog-eared Burke. Suppressing a small cry of triumph, I bent down and hoiked up the weighty volumes.

I had got one leg out of the window when I heard a soft contralto behind me say, ‘Hello, Bertie, what on earth are you doing here?’

I swivelled round to see who spoke, catching the top of the skull a mighty crack on the raised window as I did so. It was Georgiana Meadowes, wearing a summer dress of printed purple flowers, looking if possible even more like something released that instant from the heavenly drawing board than I had remembered.

‘I … was er, I was just … Borrowing a book, don’t you know.’

There was the sound of the old bubbling brook going over the well-tuned harp, which would no doubt have delighted in other circumstances.

‘I can’t explain now,’ I went on. ‘I’m helping a chum. It’s all in a good cause, I promise you.’

‘I didn’t even know you were in Dorset. You should have telephoned.’

‘Pointless in the circs.’ Suddenly, I remembered my manners. ‘Dash it, Georgiana, it’s awfully nice to see you. How are you, old thing?’

With some difficulty, I reinserted the whole of the person into the library, intending to offer a peck on the cheek. Unfortunately, I caught my toe on the edge of the sill as I touched down, and this made me trip and pretty much stumble into the poor girl, with Burke and Debrett heading off their several ways.

We brushed ourselves down a bit and I apologised for having
cannoned into her like an open-side rugby forward, ‘Don’t worry, Bertie. At least you didn’t actually floor me this time.’

‘Absolutely. Anyway, I’d best be off. Books to read, don’t you know.’

Georgiana then did an odd thing. She locked the door of the library behind her. ‘I don’t want Sir Henry to burst in,’ she said. ‘Bertie, I think you’re in a bit of a pickle. Do you want to tell me about it?’

‘I don’t think so, Georgie. I think I’d really best be off pronto.’

She let me have the full thousand watts of those brown eyes and I felt the old knees buckle a fraction. A smile began to play around her lips, then lit up the entire physog, like a sunrise speeded up by trick photography.

‘Do you often find yourself surprised in the act of theft from country houses where your presence is unannounced?’

There was a bit of a pause while I mulled this one over. ‘Not often,’ I said. I toyed with the idea of evasion, but we Woosters are wedded to the truth. ‘But it’s not the first time. I do have a tendency to get into scrapes.’

‘Is that all you’re going to tell me?’

‘It’s all I can for the time being. Though if you should clap eyes on me at any time in the next few days and there’s someone else there, best pretend you don’t know me.’

‘Why?’

‘I’ll explain one day. I promise you.’

‘All right, then. I won’t recognise or acknowledge.’

‘Under any circs.’

‘I’ve got it. Any circs. Now come on. Let’s get you out of here. But you must promise to telephone me.’

‘I … Er, yes, of course.’

‘Then maybe you could come and have dinner.’

‘I’m not sure I’m top of the list of Sir Henry’s desired dinner companions.’

‘Well, write to me anyway. There are three posts a day.’

‘Oh, rather. I’ll be back,’ I said, though the words came out sounding more like a threat than I’d intended.

‘Don’t forget your library books,’ Georgiana said as I was halfway through the window.

She passed out D and B, and I hitched up one under each arm.

‘Run along, Bertie. I’ll keep watch here.’

I had an overwhelming urge to lean through the window and plant a smacker on that lovely face, but discretion being nine-tenths of something or other, I legged it down the terrace, sprinted into the shadow of the cedars and, when I was well out of sight, changed gear into a steady trot that was enough to get me back at Seaview Cottage in less than ten minutes.

It was a pretty relieved Bertram who, mopping the brow, bunged down the weighty vols on the hall table and resumed his seat in the garden, there to catch his breath and take stock of the situation.

I was aware of a discreet rustling behind my deckchair and
a moment later a small table was deposited alongside, bearing a trayful of refreshment.

‘I was unsure, sir, whether you would require a cold drink or a cup of tea, so I have brought both.’

‘Then I shall drink both, Jeeves. I’ve had a bit of a triumph, though I say so myself.’

‘I observed the volumes on the hall table, sir. A considerable achievement.’

I brought Jeeves up to date with the Melbury Hall Raid. Those who witnessed it might have felt that in the telling I rather stressed the fleetness of foot and swiftness of thought over the bruised skull and near-flattening of the divine presence, but all the essentials were there and I could see that the blighter was impressed.

BOOK: Jeeves and the Wedding Bells
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