A little festive jeu d’esprit, written in a spirit of sincere homage to the late Master, P. G. Wodehouse. Enjoy.
The Yuletide season generally finds Bertram in a suitably festive spirit. I am suffused with goodwill to all, and entirely favourable to the notion of peace on Earth. This year – this particular year I am going to tell you about, not this year right now, you understand – was no different, but I confess that my stores of goodwill were much depleted, and if peace was general throughout the Earth, it was decidedly on the short side in the Wooster household.
The thing began when I happened to mention to Jeeves that I planned to spend the Christmas holidays at The Byres, country home of the Wintercombe family. I tried to be bright and offhand about it, but I confess I was a trifle nervous at broaching the subject.
“Jeeves,” I said, affecting insouciance, “we will be spending Christmas with Charlie’s family this year. In Lincolnshire, you know.” He raised an eyebrow at that.
“Indeed, sir? I fear Mrs. Travers will be sadly disappointed.” He sounded not a little disappointed himself, and I knew why. My usual festive custom was to repair to Brinkley Court, home of my Aunt Dahlia, and there live it up to no small degree. Aunt Dahlia is one of my good aunts, and furthermore retains the services of an outstanding French chef by the name of Anatole. Of course it was very pleasant to spend the season in the bosom of the family, especially family I actually liked, but I must confess that Anatole’s superlative efforts at Christmas cuisine were the principal draw. And Jeeves, I know, particularly enjoyed participating in the carolling, where he was a valued tenor in the Brinkley choir. (I was barred from it myself, as Aunt Dahlia likened my singing to the sound of someone attempting to strangle a cat, and claimed it put half the pigs in Worcestershire off their feed.)
I quailed a bit at his eyebrow, but essayed a feeble smile and attempted to explain.
“Well, yes, quite, but Charlie invited me specifically, so I am honour bound to go. Wants me to meet her family, and all that. Rather fun, what?”
Jeeves merely said “Yes, sir,” in injured tones, and retreated to the pantry in silent dudgeon. I took another dose of whisky and soda, by way of a bracer, and contemplated my lot. At that point in the Wooster annals, my lot was mainly Charlie.
I don’t know if I’ve ever told you about Charlotte Wintercombe. Frightfully good looking girl, full of the old oomph and espièglerie, and I was rather struck with her. She had the most electrifying smile, and big green eyes, and red hair, and every time she smiled at me I felt like somebody had removed my insides and replaced them with strawberry jelly. We had been seeing quite a lot of each other just then and the upshot was she had invited me to spend Christmas at The Byres, her family pile in Lincolnshire. I admit I was torn; I had no wish to disappoint Aunt Dahlia, or to miss Anatole’s confections (it is truly amazing, what that man can do with a Christmas pudding), but then Charlie flashed her smile at me and the jelly came back, so I was rather forced to accept.
The next thing that happened in connection with this business was running into Aunt Dahlia herself. She accosted me in the perfumery department of Harrods, where I was attempting to choose a present for Charlie.
“You are a blight and a pestilence, Bertie,” she told me, without further preamble. Aunt Dahlia has one of those carrying voices, honed on the hunting fields of the Quorn, so most of Knightsbridge and a good part of South Kensington now knew what she thought of me. “I suppose it’s some girl or another that has caused you throw me up like this?”
I admitted as much, and presented what I considered a handsome apology.
“Faugh,” she said, rattling the dinosaur bones in the Natural History Museum with the force of her contempt. “Keep your feeble apologies to yourself, Bertie. I couldn’t care less whether some blighter of a nephew isn’t there to eat me out of house and home; it’s Jeeves I want. Without him the carolling is a complete wash. The only other tenor is the butcher’s son, and he’s fifteen, and liable to suddenly become a contralto halfway through Once in Royal David’s City. On your own head be it, Bertram. If you’d rather forgo the eternal rapture of Anatole’s Christmas dinner for some temporary fling with a girl with so little sense as to take up with a wretch like you, well … faugh, as I said. Stop bleating, man, you sound like a nanny goat with the croup. And why are you hanging around the perfume counter in this suspicious manner, anyway?”
I brightened a bit, perceiving that, disgruntled as she was, Aunt Dahlia was indubitably female, and thus in a pos. to help me with my dilemma.
“I can’t decide between the Temptress and the Jezebel,” I said. She goggled at me.
“Good heavens, you don’t mean to tell me you have got two poor girls on the go? I knew you were a sap, Bertie, but I never had you down as a cad.”
I let the insult pass, and hastened to explain.
“No, no, they are the names of the perfumes.” I indicated the girl behind the counter, and gave her notice that I wished her to spray her samples again. “Which one do you think Charlie would prefer, as a Christmas present?”
Aunt Dahlia gave a couple of deep, rich, sniffs, as if she were inhaling about a pound of snuff.
“Presuming Charlie is the hapless girl who has fallen into your clutches, and not the chap who mends your boiler, I’d say the first one is marginally less redolent of a peat bog.”
“Ah. That would be the Temptress. I’ll take it,” I told the spray girl, and parted with the necessary oof.
I tried it on Jeeves when I got back to the flat, and he said that the odour would probably disperse after a while, and should he get a supply of scented candles in? He was still a tad miffed, I saw, and what with his doleful countenance, and Aunt Dahlia bellowing at me, I as near a toucher relented, but then I remembered Charlie’s smile, and got a touch of the strawberry jellies, and said nary a word.
That very night – it would have been about a week before Christmas – I dined out with Charlie, and as we were browsing and sluicing, and chatting away like a pair of merry jackdaws – well, Charlie was chattering, and I was bathing in her radiance, and contributing an occasional ‘I say’ at appropriate moments – a shadow fell over us. This isn’t one of those colourful things writers slip into their narrative, like saying ‘she had a face like a Greek goddess’, when the beasel in question doesn’t look the slightest bit Greek, or comparing something to a summer’s day when it isn’t one. No, what I mean to convey is that an actual shadow fell across our table, as something large came between us and the light. I looked up, and beheld a man. He was a very tall man, and broad in the beam, and looked handsome in a sort of dark, brooding, Rochester kind of way. Charlie looked up at him, too, and squealed happily.
“I say, Bunny!” she cried. “What are you doing here?”
The man gave a cold smile, and his eyes flashed. Anything less like a bunny you never saw. I had a sudden urge to crawl under the table, before he started uprooting trees and rending limbs.
“I had some business in Town,” he said, stiffly. “I trust you are well, Charlotte?”
“Oh, don’t be such an old stuffed shirt, Bunny,” she told him. “Bertie, this is Arthur Fforbes-Ffortescue, an old friend of mine. Bunny, this is Bertie Wooster, who I am rather sweet on.” And she gave me that smile again, and for a moment I forgot the looming hulk of the Bunny, and wallowed in jelly for a bit. Thus fortified, I put my hand out to this Fforbes-Ffortescue, intending to share a manly handshake, but he only gave it a withering look. It duly withered, and I tried to pretend I had been adjusting my napkin, instead.
“So,” he said, turning the full force of his icy glare on me, and I’m not at all certain he didn’t grind his teeth. “This is the fop you have given me over for, is it? I despair of you, Charlotte.”
She stuck her tongue out at him.
“Bertie isn’t a fop,” she said, with a vehemence I had not previously observed in her. “He’s a perfectly sweet man, and I’m very happy with him, and you’re not to be beastly to him, Bunny, if you value your life.”
The improbably named Bunny merely grunted at this, and then curled his lip at me. Under the table began to look more attractive than ever, and I wondered if I could get away with dropping a fork, and going to look for it.
“Has your mother met him yet?” Bunny wanted to know.
“No,” Charlie admitted, sounding oddly uncomfortable. “He’s coming down to The Byres at Christmas. Mother will meet him then.”
Bunny gave a smile such as you might see on the face of a tiger suddenly apprised of a helpless kid in the vicinity.
“Really?” he said, and gave a dry little chuckle. “That will be something to look forward to. I can hardly wait to see her face when you land this wet fish in her lap.”
“Will you be there too, then?” I said, startled out of silence by this revelation.
“Oh, yes,” he said, smiling coldly again. “Lady Wintercombe has invited me expressly. It promises to be most amusing.” And he shot his cuffs, nodded distantly at me, bowed to Charlie, and then beetled off with stately stride.
“You mustn’t mind Bunny,” Charlie told me as he left. “He’s a dear, really, but he’s still a bit ticked off that I broke the engagement.”
I goggled a bit.
“You were engaged to him?” I said.
“Oh, yes, for ages. But he criticised my latest book, and what’s more he did it very badly. Speaking of which, have you read it yet?”
Did I mention that Charlie Wintercombe is an author? No? Well, she is. You may have read some of her stuff without knowing it, as she uses several pen names. This particular tome was called Purple Heartstrings, written under the alias of Carolyn Rock, and as far as I can gather was a torrid tale of doomed romance among the natives of Slough. I had tried to read it, but every time I did I got the sensation I was drowning in eau-de-cologne, and had to go and have a little snifter of something to dispel the effect. Give Bertram a good detective yarn, and he will consume prose by the yard, but Romance with a capital R is not his favoured cup of oolong.
I made some feeble excuse to cover my lack of effort on the book front, and then for the rest of the evening Charlie told me altogether too much about Arthur Fforbes-Ffortescue, touching heavily on his shortcomings as a literary critic, but also finding time to mention that he had boxed for his college, played in the second row for the Harlequins Rugby football team, and swum from Mablethorpe to Skegness in a record time. I’ve had better dining experiences, and if it hadn’t been for Charlie smiling every now and then it would have been positively dismal.
It was the very next afternoon that I encountered Bunny for the second time. He loomed out at me as I entered the lobby of the Drones club, appearing suddenly from behind a pot–plant.
“Wooster,” he said, menacingly, towering over me like a thunderstorm on legs. “I thought I might find you here. It is exactly the sort of den I would expect to see a lounge lizard like you in.”
I was minded to point out that one, lizards do not live in dens, and two, he not being a member would he kindly leave forthwith, but something about his mien and his general largeness throttled the words rather.
“I may be Charlie’s past,” he went on, “and you, God help us, may be Charlie’s present, but by heaven, Wooster, if you were to wound that dear, sweet girl in any way whatever, I shall take it upon myself to ensure that your future will be nasty, brutish and short. I shall be there next week, and watching you like a hawk. So take great care, Wooster. Farewell; we shall meet at Philippi.” And with that he snapped the brim of his hat and strode off, before I could come up with any suitable rejoinder, and although several particularly witty ones occurred to me as I steadied my nerves at the club bar, it was a bit late by then.
Whilst I was there, sipping something restorative and devising devastating repartee, Bingo Little hove into view. He being an old chum of mine, we fell into convivial chat, in the course of which I mentioned I was currently entangled with Charlie. Smiles and jelly may have been brought up, if I recall aright. Bingo raised an eyebrow, or possibly two, at that.
“Have you met her mother yet?” he asked. I said I hadn’t, and wondered aloud why everybody was so dashed keen for me to meet this lady.
“Do you know her?” I asked him. He said he didn’t, but he knew a man who did, and took me over by the fire in the lounge. There, lurking within a wing chair and nursing a glass of port, was one of those festive old birds you often find in such habitats, snoozing and reminiscing about the high jinks they got up to back in the ’Eighties. This one had a sweep of white hair and a nose that would have made an excellent figurehead for a clipper ship.
“George,” Bingo said to him, “tell Bertie here all about Lady Wintercombe.”
George eyed me through his monocle, and brushed his moustache, a sly smile visible beneath this foliage.
“Ella Pinchbeck, as was,” he said, and sighed. “Damned fine gel she was. Handsomest filly I ever saw, and damned spirited, too. Far too good for old Lungy Wintercombe. Turned me down flat, she did, all because she didn’t like the way I ate toasted cheese. That’s a gel that knew her own mind. Do you know her?”
“No, not yet. But I’m going out with her daughter, you know.”
“Young Charlie? You lucky dog, you. Well, in that case you don’t need me to tell you anythin’. She’s the absolute spit of her mother, takes after her in every way, and I don’t doubt for a minute she’ll turn out exactly the same, too. She’ll soon set you to rights, no fear. But mind how you go about eatin’ toasted cheese.”
Two days later came the next act in the unfolding drama. I was sat in the peaceful, and, as I thought, safe haven of the Wooster residence, enjoying a gasper and a little splash of something that, taken in sufficient quantity, both cheers and inebriates, when there came a ring at the door. I wondered who the deuce that could be, and was just concluding that it was probably some impecunious soul from the Drones come to put the Christmas bite on me, when Jeeves shimmered in to my inner sanctum and announced that a Lady Wintercombe had called, and wished to see me.
“She’s here, in my res., right this minute?”
“Yes, sir. She was somewhat insistent.”
“Oh. Right-ho. I’d better see her, then.”
“That would seem to be the optimum course, sir.”
I flung the gasper into the fireplace, checked my reflection in the mirror, and then tooled into the old recep., smiling brightly.
“What ho, what ho,” I cried. “Awfully topping to see you, what?”
Lady W. turned to face me. She had been inspecting a picture on the wall. It was one of those an artist pal in New York had given me, on account, mainly on the account that he had no money. I didn’t mind it too much myself, but one had to admit that to a traditionalist for the arts it might have seemed a trifle modern. Lady Wintercombe looked as if she might be a traditionalist, to judge by her severe expression.
“Mr. Wooster, I presume?”
I allowed that I was, biting back the crack that I certainly wasn’t Doctor Livingstone, which I usually employ as a response to this sally. It didn’t seem appropriate, somehow. She was looking at me with decided disapproval. She was tall, like Charlie, and had green eyes and red hair, just like Charlie, except hers was greying a bit round the edges. (The hair was, I mean. Not the eyes). In fact, apart from being about thirty years older, she looked so much like Charlie that it was rather discomfiting.
“Charlotte informs me,” she went on in a clipped, brisk tone, “that you will be visiting us at The Byres over Christmas?” I got the impression that this was one of those questions I used to get in the French grammar book at school, the ones headed ‘questions expecting the answer No’.
Instead I said
“Oh, rather. Looking forward to it no end, you know.”
“Are you, indeed. I thought, Mr. Wooster, that before you came to visit I ought to give you the once-over, so to speak. I must say you seem a rather different kind of man from Mr. Fforbes-Ffortescue. The family were so distressed when Charlotte broke off the engagement.”
“Ah, yes, bad business, what?”
“Very,” she said, icily. “But he should not have given vent to such a foolish opinion of Charlotte’s latest book. Have you read it, Mr. Wooster?”
I started a bit, and babbled something about not having actually got round to it yet, what with one thing and another. She sniffed, and then proceeded to give me the third degree. Over the ensuing twenty minutes she conducted a close interrogation of young Bertram, rapping out a series of questions designed to elicit all pertinent information concerning my family, education, financial standing, prospects, way of life and opinions. Battered by this storm of relentless quizzing I must admit that I did not show myself to any advantage. Frankly, I stammered, I havered, I hemmed and quite possibly I hawed. I got particularly tangled up in a section dealing with the Gold Standard, which I had been under the impression was something to do with jewellers, but apparently was a thing the Chancellor of the Exchequer had done lately, and I was expected to have an opinion on it. All I could offer up was that my Uncle Tom had a number of choice remarks to make about said Chancellor, and judging by that he must be the most frightful rotter. This seemed to go down quite well, but for the most part my performance made a very poor impression. Sweat ran in torrents from my brow, and I would have dearly loved to undo my collar, so as to be able to breathe freely.
“Very well,” she said, when she was at last done, and sniffed again. “You seem to me to be a very vapid and foolish young man, with a frivolous lifestyle, and I cannot think what Charlotte sees in you, but at least your politics are sound. I look forward to seeing you at The Byres next week.” And then she smiled at me, and the smile was not only very like Charlie’s to look at, but had a similar effect on my insides, except that in this case the flavour of jelly they were turned to was vinegar rather than strawberry. “And,” she added, “do read Charlotte’s book. We shall all be most interested to hear what you think of it.”
And with that she swept out, leaving havoc and ruin in her train.
I was left feeling like a man who had been cast up on a beach by a hurricane. I clung to the mantelpiece for support, wrenched my collar apart, and called for Jeeves and a swift w. and s., and that right soon.
“Jeeves,” I said, once I had recovered the power of speech, “I don’t believe even Aunt Agatha in her prime ever minced me into such quite small pieces.”
“I would hesitate to underestimate Mrs. Gregson’s powers in that regard, sir, but in this case I fear you may be correct.”
I ruminated a little.
“Old George at the club told me that Lady W. was exactly like Charlie, back in the day, and he reckoned Charlie would grow up the same way.”
“Indeed, sir. I have hesitated to mention it, but – ”
“Say on, Jeeves.”
“It has occurred to me that Miss Wintercombe, whilst a very charming young lady, does possess considerable reserves of steel.”
“Not half. Her late fiancé, Mr. Fforbes-Ffortescue, is a hulking great chap, and she calls him ‘Bunny’, and ticks him off as if he were a toddler.”
“Am I to understand that the engagement was broken off after the gentleman expressed an unwise opinion about her latest novel?”
“You divine correctly, Jeeves. Have you read it?”
“I have, sir, and I fear you would be hard pressed to give a positive account of it were you to do likewise, sir.”
“You may well be right, Jeeves. Every time I open it I feel like I’m being sucked down into some ghastly perfumed whirlpool made of syrup, and after ten minutes I have to chuck it and go for a drink, to feel clean again.”
“Yes, sir. And when you arrive at the Wintercombe home I greatly fear you would be expected to expound upon it at some length.”
I blanched at the prospect.
“And if I was to say what I really thought …”
“In such a case, do you think that Charlie might feel wounded, at all?”
“And then one, she’d chuck me, and two, old four f’s will carry out his threat.”
He delivered an eyebrow raising at this intelligence.
“He has threatened you, sir?”
“He said that if I were to wound her in any way, he would make my life nasty, brutish, and short.”
“I see. Sir, may I be permitted to speak freely?”
“I think the times call for it, Jeeves.”
“Then allow me to borrow a leaf from literature of perhaps a more elevated variety than Miss Wintercombe’s, and offer you a series of scenarios, or visions, if you will, concerning the season. In Christmases past, sir, you have been wont to spend this festive period in the pleasant surroundings of Brinkley Court, attended by Mrs. Travers and other companions dear to you, and partaking of the not inconsiderable culinary fare provided by her most estimable cook, Anatole.”
I sipped my drink and smiled at this happy memory.
“This Christmas present, however, bids fair to be filled with stress and tension. Not only would you be in the intimate company of Lady Wintercombe – ” I shuddered at the thought “ – but you would be bound to be forced into a most invidious situation with regard to Miss Wintercombe’s novel. Either you will not have read it, which would be sure to cause offence, or you would be driven to giving an opinion on it, and I do not believe sir, that you could hide your true feelings. You do not have the gifts of a dissembler, sir.” I nodded. It is true; if Bertram has a fault, it is an excess of honesty. “And then, sir, you would not only be the cause of mental anguish to Miss Wintercombe, but very possibly the recipient of physical anguish, imparted by Mr. Fforbes-Ffortescue. A dismal prospect, sir.”
I gulped, and downed another glass.
“Furthermore, sir, were you to somehow navigate the awaiting shoals, your Christmases future would then be all too likely to be spent in the environs of Lady Wintercombe, whose cook, let it be noted, is reputed to be the very worst in all Lincolnshire. And more than this, the companion of the rest of your days would be the woman whom, I believe, is destined to take after her mother in every respect.”
He paused, and allowed the dread tidings to sink in.
“But Jeeves, if I duck it, and don’t go, won’t Charlie be very unhappy?”
He smiled in a reassuring manner.
“Only briefly, sir. Recall that Mr. Fforbes-Ffortescue will be there to console her, and I believe they both still harbour strong feelings for one another.” He gazed off into the distance, and his voice took on a sepulchral sort of tone. “I see a reconciliation, sir; I see a man whose opinion of Miss Wintercombe’s books has undergone a transformation, and looking further still I see a happy future for them both, with children at their feet. Have no fears on that score, sir.”
I felt a great relief, like a man who has been thrashing about in the sea, trying to save himself from drowning, who suddenly finds that the water only comes up to his waist.
“Jeeves,” I said, humbly, “I repent. The scales have fallen from my eyes. Your words have shown me the light. I shall not go to Lincolnshire for Christmas.”
“I think it best, sir. But if I might advise, perhaps you ought not to stay in London until the reconciliation I alluded to has actually taken place. Mr. Fforbes-Ffortescue may take umbrage when he finds you are not to accompany Miss Wintercombe. She will naturally be a little upset at first, and that might – ”
“Great Scott, so it might. I shouldn’t want Bunny taking umbrage at me.”
“Indeed not, sir.”
“But where shall I go?”
“Might I suggest Brinkley Court, sir?”
“But Aunt Dahlia won’t be expecting me.”
“I took the liberty of advising Mrs. Travers to reserve a place for you, sir, as a contingency measure. There is a train leaving Paddington at three-thirty, sir. I can follow in the motor with the cases.”
“Jeeves,” I said, overcome with strong emotion. “I’ve said it before, but you are a marvel. You stand alone.”
“I endeavour to give satisfaction, sir. Now, if you could excuse me, sir, I wish to continue packing the cases.”
“Carry on, Jeeves, carry on.”
And he glided back to his lair, from whence I shortly heard the strains of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, sung in a resonant tenor.
I thought of Brinkley Court, and Aunt Dahlia, and Anatole’s cooking, and beamed happily. In the mirror I saw a young man who had narrowly escaped a hellish prospect, but was now set fair for a happy holiday in peace and comfort. I raised my glass to him, and gave a toast.
“God bless us,” I said. “Every one.”