Authors: Sebastian Faulks
‘Ah, yes. She is said to be a most capable woman.’
‘Lucky old Mr Tilman, what?’
‘Doubtless he appreciated her talents while alive, sir.’
‘Oh dear. She seems young to be a widow.’
‘He was taken in the prime of life, I believe. How was your own accommodation, sir?’
‘Who are those Indian chaps who sleep on nails?’
‘Well, if you bump into one, do recommend the top floor
back at Melbury Hall. I think he’d find it right up his street.’
‘I shall bear that in mind, sir, though in Melbury-cum-Kingston the contingency is a remote one.’
‘Is it always so bally uncomfortable?’
‘The accommodation varies considerably in my experience, sir. The opulence of the main house is by no means a reliable guide.’
‘Totleigh Towers, Sir Watkyn Bassett’s residence—’
‘Or castle, near as dammit.’
‘Indeed, sir. While it is a most imposing building, the word among the servants is that their rooms have not been touched since the reign of William IV.’
‘Stingy old chap, Bassett.’
‘Brinkley Court, on the other hand, Mrs Travers’s house, is always a pleasure to visit.’
‘Leftovers from Anatole’s wizardry?’
‘It is not merely the excellent table, sir. My bedroom is most comfortably equipped with a view of the garden, a strong reading light and an adjacent bathroom. There is invariably a vase of fresh flowers on the chest.’
‘A bit of favouritism from Aunt Dahlia, I suspect. Anyway, enough of this gossip, Jeeves. Today sees Plan A swing into action.’
‘Might I suggest that you first have a word with the butler, sir? Since you are working for Lord Etringham and not for the household, there should be little constraint on your freedom of movement. However, I have always found it good practice
to consult the butler at the start of the day. Mr Bicknell is well-regarded below stairs, I understand, but somewhat old-fashioned.’
‘Go and pay my respects, you mean. Clock in.’
‘But I’ll have some time off?’
‘The mornings and evenings are generally busy, but the afternoon should see few demands on your time.’
‘Is that when you do your Spinoza-ing?’
‘I have always found that the hours after luncheon are the most propitious for the rational philosophers, sir.’
‘Any idea when I might be able to corner Amelia for Plan A?’
‘I fear not, sir, though Mrs Tilman, I am told, is the
fons et origo
of all such domestic information.’
‘Right ho, Jeeves. Shall I take the tea tray? I suppose you can toddle down to breakfast without my help. I think I can smell the bacon now.’
‘I wonder if I might ask for a copy of
before I go down, sir? It is the normal practice to leave two or three on the hall table. A brief study of the form at Ascot would put me in a strong position to withstand Sir Henry’s questions at breakfast.’
There seemed little point in quibbling, so I went off like a retriever puppy to fetch his lordship’s paper. I managed to deliver it and remove the tray to the servants’ quarters without bumping into anyone, then set about finding the butler.
In my younger days – as an undergraduate, say, on a visit
to some chum’s twenty-first – I had found the butler an aweinspiring figure and spent many an anxious hour calculating how much and at what instant to tip him on the day of departure. The years between, though few enough in number, had taken the edge off such callow fears and it was with a measure of insouciance that I knocked at the door indicated by Mrs Tilman.
‘Come in,’ said a voice that seemed to come from fathoms underground.
I did as I was told and then stopped short. It was the sheer volume of butler that was overwhelming. If one of the heads on Mount Rushmore had taken first a body then a breathing form, it could have picked up a hint or two from this Bicknell. Monumental was the word that came to mind. No one would have wished – or dared – to call him corpulent: there was no suggestion of spare flesh beneath that mighty waistcoat; but it would have been unwise to attempt a circumnavigation without leaving some sort of forwarding address or
‘Can I help?’
‘Yes, I’m Ber … Wilberforce, Mr Wilberforce, I mean. Lord Etringham’s man … valet.’
I was aware of having made the most frightful hash of my opening lines. I coughed and pulled myself together.
‘I thought I’d just look in and say what ho, what?’
There was a silence. I heard the clock in the servants’ passageway strike the hour and felt the success of the whole adventure rather hang on the moment.
‘Good morning,’ said Bicknell. ‘I hope you passed a pleasant night.’
The manner was grave, but the eye was genial.
‘Oh, rather. Very comfortable. Slept like a top, don’t you know.’
‘I’m pleased to hear it. Some visitors find the bed takes a day or two to get used to.’
‘Not me, Bick … Mr Bicknell. Quite used to roughing it. Officer cadet corps at school and all that. Absolute lap of luxury.’
I sensed that I hadn’t quite got the hang of this dialogue and thought it best to say as little as possible for the time being.
‘We’re at full stretch this weekend,’ said Bicknell. ‘We lost a footman last week. Liddle.’
‘Oh dear. An accident?’
‘No. Liddle was what you might call a shirker. Bone idle. I don’t like shirkers, Mr Wilberforce.’
‘Nor do I. No time for them at all.’
‘And then he was caught with a dozen Georgian forks in his coat pocket when he went home on Saturday night. Sir Henry is very particular about his silver.’
‘What a scoundrel. Was he hauled up before the bench?’
‘Sir Henry is the bench, in a manner of speaking. He didn’t want to take it any further.’
‘But Liddle was shown the door.’
‘Yes. The next morning. We have a new man called Hoad who’s come to help out while we’re full up.’
‘Yes, he’s from the village. He used to work in the stables.’
‘I see. And does that complete the picture?’
‘There’s also Mrs Tilman – and Mrs Padgett, the cook. And the women who come in to clean.’
‘Well, if I can help at all, just let me know. Always happy to oblige, don’t you know.’
‘That’s most thoughtful of you, Mr … Wilberforce. As a matter of fact there is something you could do. Sir Henry has asked me to have the telephone line mended. I’ve written to the company but that may take a day or two. If you were in the village you could perhaps go into one of the public houses and make a telephone call to report the fault. I shan’t have the time myself. I would recommend the Hare and Hounds over the Red Lion.’
‘Consider it done, Mr Bicknell. I shall see you later, no doubt.’
So saying, I left the impressive fellow in his den and headed to the kitchen garden for a well-earned gasper. On my return to the house, I found breakfast under way in the kitchen. This meal consisted of what had been brought back from the dining room with a fresh pot of tea plonked down by the cook. This Mrs Padgett was a red-faced old party whose way of speaking indicated that she came from somewhere in the northern wilds – possibly this side of Hadrian’s Wall, but not by much.
‘Come and sit yourself down, Mr Wilberforce. Don’t be a stranger,’ said Mrs Tilman.
I did as I was told, and found myself between some sort of charwoman and a short, stumpy fellow with a face like a church gargoyle whom I took to be Hoad, the emergency footman.
‘I wouldn’t eat them kidneys if I was you,’ he said. ‘Filthy stuff that is.’
This view being widely shared, I was the only taker. I have always been partial to the dish, though it’s one I only seem to come across when staying with people. Mrs Padgett’s had plenty of devil to them.
‘What’s Lord Etringham’s plans today, then?’ said Mrs Tilman. ‘Keeping you busy, is he?’
‘His lordship has told me he will be spending a quiet day reading,’ I said. Then, thinking this sounded rather feeble, I added, ‘But he may need me to accompany him to the bookmaker this afternoon.’
‘You’ll be needing to go to Dorchester then. He’s quite a one for the gee-gees, isn’t he?’ said Mrs Tilman.
‘Oh, rather, yes. Never happier than when he’s standing by the rail with a pair of bins clamped to his face.’
‘He’ll be putting some money on for Sir Henry, I expect.’
‘Yes, I shouldn’t wonder. Don’t change a winning team, what.’
While the table was being cleared, I saw an opportunity and turned to Mrs Tilman. ‘If Lord Etringham wanted a private word with Miss Hackwood at some point today, have you any idea when and where might be suitable?’
Mrs Tilman smiled. ‘She’s a bundle of energy, Miss Amelia. You never quite know where she’s going to be. Except at three o’clock.’
‘What happens then?’ I said, quick as you like.
‘That’s when she has her tennis lesson. Gentleman comes over from Blandford Forum. County player he was. Twice a week. Other days she tries to get Miss Georgiana to play.
Trouble is, she’s too good, Miss Amelia. She always wins. But Miss Georgiana’s a good sport about it.’
‘She’s a jolly good sport about everything,’ said Hoad.
‘Too much for her own good if you ask me,’ Mrs Padgett chipped in.
‘That Mr Vegetables is a lucky man,’ said Hoad.
‘Mr Venables,’ corrected Bicknell.
‘’Im being forty if he’s a day and all,’ Hoad went on. ‘You ever tried reading one of them books of ’is?’
‘Yes,’ said Mrs Tilman, rather to my surprise. ‘I’m halfway through
By Tramcar to Toledo
‘By Penny-farthing to Piddletrenthide’s where I’d like to see ’im go.’
A shadow fell across the table. Bicknell had risen to his feet. ‘That’s quite enough, Hoad. We don’t gossip about Sir Henry’s guests. You’ve got plenty of work to do. Get started on it, please. We don’t want another Liddle in this house.’
‘All right, Mr Bicknell. Wait yer hurry. Just finishing me tea.’
Tearing myself away from this badinage, I headed upstairs to my cell, there to tidy things up a bit and nerve myself for the three o’clock showdown with Amelia. I was more than ever convinced that a bit of gossamer-light flirtation would lift the scales from her eyes as far as old Woody was concerned. And if that didn’t do the trick, I was prepared, as Jeeves had put it, to buy for one.
What I was not prepared for was the exact nature of the beast – if I may refer to Amelia in that way. While I’d given
Jeeves a fair bit of guff about the psychology of the individual, it had not occurred to me that there was one piece of the jigsaw missing – viz., that I had never actually met the individual in question. The female of the species is not only deadlier than the m., it’s also a jolly sight rummier. No amount of theory can ever prepare one for the true extent of that rumminess. I remember the talk given to us half-dozen leavers by my housemaster at Eton on the evening of our final day at school. The wisdom with which he wished to send us out to face the world could be boiled down to three things, he said. First: Never trust a man who keeps billiard chalk in his waistcoat pocket. Second … I seem to have forgotten the second. But the third was, Women are queer cattle. A disrespectful titter had passed among those present, but experience had taught me that the old pedagogue knew whereof he spake.
I had discovered from Jeeves that he would be driving the two-seater to the bookies’ at Dorchester with his new best friend Sir Henry Hackwood in the dickey rather than with yesterday’s news, yours truly. Hurtful, of course, but it freed me for some preparatory work. After an hour scouting out the territory, I had selected an excellent spot for my chance encounter with Amelia. And it happened – as the chap in the Bible says – on this wise.
From the centre of the terrace there ran a path with crazy paving, going in a southerly direction for a hundred yards between lines of small, clipped yew trees. At its end were two solid gateposts crowned with stone pineapples. The gates were set into a hedge at right angles to the path, and beyond them,
tucked away to the right and thus out of sight of the house, was the lawn-tennis court.
Dressed now in sports coat and flannels, I drew on the old Red Indian tracking skills to make a loop through the convenient cedars and positioned myself on the court-side of the Pineapple Gates at ten to three.
I am no stranger to the butterfly belly. A man who has had to pass himself off as Gussie Fink-Nottle to four aunts in a chilly Hampshire dining room with only orange juice in the carburettor knows the meaning of fear. I remembered, too, as a sixteen-year-old thespian, waiting for Helena to finish her interminable complaint before the lads who played the rude mechanicals could come on stage and liven things up a bit. Bottom’s palms were too damp for any useful weaving at that point. This tennis court moment, though, was certainly in the top ten, and quite possibly up there in the unholy trinity.
Through a gap in the yew hedge I saw my prey approaching, bang on the appointed hour. Remember, Wooster, I said to myself, this is all for good old Beeching, P., the friend of your youth. Remember Beeching …
Amelia Hackwood was wearing a tennis dress to just above the ankle, and a dashed well-turned a. it was, clad in whiteish hosiery. Her hair was held with a bandana and she swished the wooden racket back and forth with a distracted air. In any household that did not contain G. Meadowes, she would have passed for hot stuff; and even so, I could see how Woody must have fallen like a sack of coals going down a hole in the pavement.
For all the schoolgirl complexion and lissomeness of form, however, there was something missing: a light, a spark. Her face was, as I’ve heard Jeeves describe it, sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.
‘What ho!’ I said, springing out, as she came through the gates.
She leapt back and pressed a hand to the bosom. ‘You gave me a fright.’
‘Expecting the professional from Blandford Forum, were you?’
‘What? No, I’m—’
‘Just out for a quick knock-up, what? Shall I act as ballboy?’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Awfully nice dress, you know. Very becoming. Flattering to the old figure and all that.’