“Last night a few of us went round to Frolics on the Roof——”
And so on and so forth, yards of it. I suppose it’s the artistic temperament or something. What I mean is, it’s easier for a chappie who’s used to writing poems and that sort of tosh to put a bit of a punch into a letter than it is for a chappie like me. Anyway, there’s no doubt that Rocky’s correspondence was hot stuff. I called Jeeves in and congratulated him.
“Jeeves, you’re a wonder!”
“Thank you, sir.”
“How you notice everything at these places beats me. I couldn’t tell you a thing about them, except that I’ve had a good time.”
“It’s just a knack, sir.”
“Well, Mr. Todd’s letters ought to brace Miss Rockmetteller all right, what?”
“Undoubtedly, sir,” agreed Jeeves.
And, by Jove, they did! They certainly did, by George! What I mean to say is, I was sitting in the apartment one afternoon, about a month after the thing had started, smoking a cigarette and resting the old bean, when the door opened and the voice of Jeeves burst the silence like a bomb.
It wasn’t that he spoke loud. He has one of those soft, soothing voices that slide through the atmosphere like the note of a far-off sheep. It was what he said made me leap like a young gazelle.
And in came a large, solid female.
The situation floored me. I’m not denying it. Hamlet must have felt much as I did when his father’s ghost bobbed up in the fairway. I’d come to look on Rocky’s aunt as such a permanency at her own home that it didn’t seem possible that she could really be here in New York. I stared at her. Then I looked at Jeeves. He was standing there in an attitude of dignified detachment, the chump, when, if ever he should have been rallying round the young master, it was now.
Rocky’s aunt looked less like an invalid than any one I’ve ever seen, except my Aunt Agatha. She had a good deal of Aunt Agatha about her, as a matter of fact. She looked as if she might be deucedly dangerous if put upon; and something seemed to tell me that she would certainly regard herself as put upon if she ever found out the game which poor old Rocky had been pulling on her.
“Good afternoon,” I managed to say.
“How do you do?” she said. “Mr. Cohan?”
“Mr. Fred Stone?”
“Not absolutely. As a matter of fact, my name’s Wooster—Bertie Wooster.”
She seemed disappointed. The fine old name of Wooster appeared to mean nothing in her life.
“Isn’t Rockmetteller home?” she said. “Where is he?”
She had me with the first shot. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I couldn’t tell her that Rocky was down in the country, watching worms.
There was the faintest flutter of sound in the background. It was the respectful cough with which Jeeves announces that he is about to speak without having been spoken to.
“If you remember, sir, Mr. Todd went out in the automobile with a party in the afternoon.”
“So he did, Jeeves; so he did,” I said, looking at my watch. “Did he say when he would be back?”
“He gave me to understand, sir, that he would be somewhat late in returning.”
He vanished; and the aunt took the chair which I’d forgotten to offer her. She looked at me in rather a rummy way. It was a nasty look. It made me feel as if I were something the dog had brought in and intended to bury later on, when he had time. My own Aunt Agatha, back in England, has looked at me in exactly the same way many a time, and it never fails to make my spine curl.
“You seem very much at home here, young man. Are you a great friend of Rockmetteller’s?”
“Oh, yes, rather!”
She frowned as if she had expected better things of old Rocky.
“Well, you need to be,” she said, “the way you treat his flat as your own!”
I give you my word, this quite unforeseen slam simply robbed me of the power of speech. I’d been looking on myself in the light of the dashing host, and suddenly to be treated as an intruder jarred me. It wasn’t, mark you, as if she had spoken in a way to suggest that she considered my presence in the place as an ordinary social call. She obviously looked on me as a cross between a burglar and the plumber’s man come to fix the leak in the bathroom. It hurt her—my being there.
At this juncture, with the conversation showing every sign of being about to die in awful agonies, an idea came to me. Tea—the good old stand-by.
“Would you care for a cup of tea?” I said.
She spoke as if she had never heard of the stuff.
“Nothing like a cup after a journey,” I said. “Bucks you up! Puts a bit of zip into you. What I mean is, restores you, and so on, don’t you know. I’ll go and tell Jeeves.”
I tottered down the passage to Jeeves’s lair. The man was reading the evening paper as if he hadn’t a care in the world.
“Jeeves,” I said, “we want some tea.”
“Very good, sir.”
“I say, Jeeves, this is a bit thick, what?”
I wanted sympathy, don’t you know—sympathy and kindness. The old nerve centres had had the deuce of a shock.
“She’s got the idea this place belongs to Mr. Todd. What on earth put that into her head?”
Jeeves filled the kettle with a restrained dignity.
“No doubt because of Mr. Todd’s letters, sir,” he said. “It was my suggestion, sir, if you remember, that they should be addressed from this apartment in order that Mr. Todd should appear to possess a good central residence in the city.”
I remembered. We had thought it a brainy scheme at the time.
“Well, it’s bally awkward, you know, Jeeves. She looks on me as an intruder. By Jove! I suppose she thinks I’m someone who hangs about here, touching Mr. Todd for free meals and borrowing his shirts.”
“It’s pretty rotten, you know.”
“Most disturbing, sir.”
“And there’s another thing: What are we to do about Mr. Todd? We’ve got to get him up here as soon as ever we can. When you have brought the tea you had better go out and send him a telegram, telling him to come up by the next train.”
“I have already done so, sir. I took the liberty of writing the message and dispatching it by the lift attendant.”
“By Jove, you think of everything, Jeeves!”
“Thank you, sir. A little buttered toast with the tea? Just so, sir. Thank you.”
I went back to the sitting-room. She hadn’t moved an inch. She was still bolt upright on the edge of her chair, gripping her umbrella like a hammer-thrower. She gave me another of those looks as I came in. There was no doubt about it; for some reason she had taken a dislike to me. I suppose because I wasn’t George M. Cohan. It was a bit hard on a chap.
“This is a surprise, what?” I said, after about five minutes’ restful silence, trying to crank the conversation up again.
“What is a surprise?”
“Your coming here, don’t you know, and so on.”
She raised her eyebrows and drank me in a bit more through her glasses.
“Why is it surprising that I should visit my only nephew?” she said.
Put like that, of course, it did seem reasonable.
“Oh, rather,” I said. “Of course! Certainly. What I mean is——”
Jeeves projected himself into the room with the tea. I was jolly glad to see him. There’s nothing like having a bit of business arranged for one when one isn’t certain of one’s lines. With the teapot to fool about with I felt happier.
“Tea, tea, tea—what? What?” I said.
It wasn’t what I had meant to say. My idea had been to be a good deal more formal, and so on. Still, it covered the situation. I poured her out a cup. She sipped it and put the cup down with a shudder.
“Do you mean to say, young man,” she said frostily, “that you expect me to drink this stuff?”
“Rather! Bucks you up, you know.”
“What do you mean by the expression ‘Bucks you up’?”
“Well, makes you full of beans, you know. Makes you fizz.”
“I don’t understand a word you say. You’re English, aren’t you?”
I admitted it. She didn’t say a word. And somehow she did it in a way that made it worse than if she had spoken for hours. Somehow it was brought home to me that she didn’t like Englishmen, and that if she had had to meet an Englishman, I was the one she’d have chosen last.
Conversation languished again after that.
Then I tried again. I was becoming more convinced every moment that you can’t make a real lively salon with a couple of people, especially if one of them lets it go a word at a time.
“Are you comfortable at your hotel?” I said.
“At which hotel?”
“The hotel you’re staying at.”
“I am not staying at an hotel.”
“Stopping with friends—what?”
“I am naturally stopping with my nephew.”
I didn’t get it for the moment; then it hit me.
“What! Here?” I gurgled.
“Certainly! Where else should I go?”
The full horror of the situation rolled over me like a wave. I couldn’t see what on earth I was to do. I couldn’t explain that this wasn’t Rocky’s flat without giving the poor old chap away hopelessly, because she would then ask me where he did live, and then he would be right in the soup. I was trying to induce the old bean to recover from the shock and produce some results when she spoke again.
“Will you kindly tell my nephew’s man-servant to prepare my room? I wish to lie down.”
“Your nephew’s man-servant?”
“The man you call Jeeves. If Rockmetteller has gone for an automobile ride, there is no need for you to wait for him. He will naturally wish to be alone with me when he returns.”
I found myself tottering out of the room. The thing was too much for me. I crept into Jeeves’s den.
“Jeeves!” I whispered.
“Mix me a b.-and-s., Jeeves. I feel weak.”
“Very good, sir.”
“This is getting thicker every minute, Jeeves.”
“She thinks you’re Mr. Todd’s man. She thinks the whole place is his, and everything in it. I don’t see what you’re to do, except stay on and keep it up. We can’t say anything or she’ll get on to the whole thing, and I don’t want to let Mr. Todd down. By the way, Jeeves, she wants you to prepare her bed.”
He looked wounded.
“It is hardly my place, sir——”
“I know—I know. But do it as a personal favour to me. If you come to that, it’s hardly my place to be flung out of the flat like this and have to go to an hotel, what?”
“Is it your intention to go to an hotel, sir? What will you do for clothes?”
“Good Lord! I hadn’t thought of that. Can you put a few things in a bag when she isn’t looking, and sneak them down to me at the St. Aurea?”
“I will endeavour to do so, sir.”
“Well, I don’t think there’s anything more, is there? Tell Mr. Todd where I am when he gets here.”
“Very good, sir.”
I looked round the place. The moment of parting had come. I felt sad. The whole thing reminded me of one of those melodramas where they drive chappies out of the old homestead into the snow.
“Good-bye, Jeeves,” I said.
And I staggered out.
You know, I rather think I agree with those poet-and-philosopher Johnnies who insist that a fellow ought to be devilish pleased if he has a bit of trouble. All that stuff about being refined by suffering, you know. Suffering does give a chap a sort of broader and more sympathetic outlook. It helps you to understand other people’s misfortunes if you’ve been through the same thing yourself.
As I stood in my lonely bedroom at the hotel, trying to tie my white tie myself, it struck me for the first time that there must be whole squads of chappies in the world who had to get along without a man to look after them. I’d always thought of Jeeves as a kind of natural phenomenon; but, by Jove! of course, when you come to think of it, there must be quite a lot of fellows who have to press their own clothes themselves and haven’t got anybody to bring them tea in the morning, and so on. It was rather a solemn thought, don’t you know. I mean to say, ever since then I’ve been able to appreciate the frightful privations the poor have to stick.
I got dressed somehow. Jeeves hadn’t forgotten a thing in his packing. Everything was there, down to the final stud. I’m not sure this didn’t make me feel worse. It kind of deepened the pathos. It was like what somebody or other wrote about the touch of a vanished hand.
I had a bit of dinner somewhere and went to a show of some kind; but nothing seemed to make any difference. I simply hadn’t the heart to go on to supper anywhere. I just sucked down a whisky-and-soda in the hotel smoking-room and went straight up to bed. I don’t know when I’ve felt so rotten. Somehow I found myself moving about the room softly, as if there had been a death in the family. If I had anybody to talk to I should have talked in a whisper; in fact, when the telephone-bell rang I answered in such a sad, hushed voice that the fellow at the other end of the wire said “Halloa!” five times, thinking he hadn’t got me.
It was Rocky. The poor old scout was deeply agitated.
“Bertie! Is that you, Bertie! Oh, gosh? I’m having a time!”
“Where are you speaking from?”
“The Midnight Revels. We’ve been here an hour, and I think we’re a fixture for the night. I’ve told Aunt Isabel I’ve gone out to call up a friend to join us. She’s glued to a chair, with this-is-the-life written all over her, taking it in through the pores. She loves it, and I’m nearly crazy.”
“Tell me all, old top,” I said.
“A little more of this,” he said, “and I shall sneak quietly off to the river and end it all. Do you mean to say you go through this sort of thing every night, Bertie, and enjoy it? It’s simply infernal! I was just snatching a wink of sleep behind the bill of fare just now when about a million yelling girls swooped down, with toy balloons. There are two orchestras here, each trying to see if it can’t play louder than the other. I’m a mental and physical wreck. When your telegram arrived I was just lying down for a quiet pipe, with a sense of absolute peace stealing over me. I had to get dressed and sprint two miles to catch the train. It nearly gave me heart-failure; and on top of that I almost got brain fever inventing lies to tell Aunt Isabel. And then I had to cram myself into these confounded evening clothes of yours.”
I gave a sharp wail of agony. It hadn’t struck me till then that Rocky was depending on my wardrobe to see him through.
“You’ll ruin them!”
“I hope so,” said Rocky, in the most unpleasant way. His troubles seemed to have had the worst effect on his character. “I should like to get back at them somehow; they’ve given me a bad enough time. They’re about three sizes too small, and something’s apt to give at any moment. I wish to goodness it would, and give me a chance to breathe. I haven’t breathed since half-past seven. Thank Heaven, Jeeves managed to get out and buy me a collar that fitted, or I should be a strangled corpse by now! It was touch and go till the stud broke. Bertie, this is pure Hades! Aunt Isabel keeps on urging me to dance. How on earth can I dance when I don’t know a soul to dance with? And how the deuce could I, even if I knew every girl in the place? It’s taking big chances even to move in these trousers. I had to tell her I’ve hurt my ankle. She keeps asking me when Cohan and Stone are going to turn up; and it’s simply a question of time before she discovers that Stone is sitting two tables away. Something’s got to be done, Bertie! You’ve got to think up some way of getting me out of this mess. It was you who got me into it.”
“Me! What do you mean?”
“Well, Jeeves, then. It’s all the same. It was you who suggested leaving it to Jeeves. It was those letters I wrote from his notes that did the mischief. I made them too good! My aunt’s just been telling me about it. She says she had resigned herself to ending her life where she was, and then my letters began to arrive, describing the joys of New York; and they stimulated her to such an extent that she pulled herself together and made the trip. She seems to think she’s had some miraculous kind of faith cure. I tell you I can’t stand it, Bertie! It’s got to end!”
“Can’t Jeeves think of anything?”
“No. He just hangs round saying: ‘Most disturbing, sir!’ A fat lot of help that is!”
“Well, old lad,” I said, “after all, it’s far worse for me than it is for you. You’ve got a comfortable home and Jeeves. And you’re saving a lot of money.”
“Saving money? What do you mean—saving money?”
“Why, the allowance your aunt was giving you. I suppose she’s paying all the expenses now, isn’t she?”
“Certainly she is; but she’s stopped the allowance. She wrote the lawyers to-night. She says that, now she’s in New York, there is no necessity for it to go on, as we shall always be together, and it’s simpler for her to look after that end of it. I tell you, Bertie, I’ve examined the darned cloud with a microscope, and if it’s got a silver lining it’s some little dissembler!”
“But, Rocky, old top, it’s too bally awful! You’ve no notion of what I’m going through in this beastly hotel, without Jeeves. I must get back to the flat.”
“Don’t come near the flat.”
“But it’s my own flat.”
“I can’t help that. Aunt Isabel doesn’t like you. She asked me what you did for a living. And when I told her you didn’t do anything she said she thought as much, and that you were a typical specimen of a useless and decaying aristocracy. So if you think you have made a hit, forget it. Now I must be going back, or she’ll be coming out here after me. Good-bye.”