I don't suppose I was looking so dashed unlike something out of an Edgar Allan Poe story myself, for, as you can readily imagine, the news item which I have just recorded had got in amongst me properly. If the Bassett, in the belief that the Wooster heart had long been hers and was waiting ready to be scooped in on demand, had decided to take up her option, I should, as a man of honour and sensibility, have no choice but to come across and kick in. The matter was obviously not one that could be straightened out with a curt nolle prosequi. All the evidence, therefore, seemed to point to the fact that the doom had come upon me and, what was more, had come to stay.
And yet, though it would be idle to pretend that my grip on the situation was quite the grip I would have liked it to be, I did not despair of arriving at a solution. A lesser man, caught in this awful snare, would no doubt have thrown in the towel at once and ceased to struggle; but the whole point about the Woosters is that they are not lesser men.
By way of a start, I read the note again. Not that I had any hope that a second perusal would enable me to place a different construction on its contents, but it helped to fill in while the brain was limbering up. I then, to assist thought, had another go at the fruit salad, and in addition ate a slice of sponge cake. And it was as I passed on to the cheese that the machinery started working. I saw what had to be done.
To the question which had been exercising the mind—viz., can Bertram cope?—I was now able to reply with a confident "Absolutely."
The great wheeze on these occasions of dirty work at the crossroads is not to lose your head but to keep cool and try to find the ringleaders. Once find the ringleaders, and you know where you are.
The ringleader here was plainly the Bassett. It was she who had started the whole imbroglio by chucking Gussie, and it was clear that before anything could be done to solve and clarify, she must be induced to revise her views and take him on again. This would put Angela back into circulation, and that would cause Tuppy to simmer down a bit, and then we could begin to get somewhere.
I decided that as soon as I had had another morsel of cheese I would seek this Bassett out and be pretty eloquent.
And at this moment in she came. I might have foreseen that she would be turning up shortly. I mean to say, hearts may ache, but if they know that there is a cold collation set out in the dining-room, they are pretty sure to come popping in sooner or later.
Her eyes, as she entered the room, were fixed on the salmon mayonnaise, and she would no doubt have made a bee-line for it and started getting hers, had I not, in the emotion of seeing her, dropped a glass of the best with which I was endeavouring to bring about a calmer frame of mind. The noise caused her to turn, and for an instant embarrassment supervened. A slight flush mantled the cheek, and the eyes popped a bit.
"Oh!" she said.
I have always found that there is nothing that helps to ease you over one of these awkward moments like a spot of stage business. Find something to do with your hands, and it's half the battle. I grabbed a plate and hastened forward.
"A touch of salmon?"
"With a suspicion of salad?"
"If you please."
"And to drink? Name the poison."
"I think I would like a little orange juice."
She gave a gulp. Not at the orange juice, I don't mean, because she hadn't got it yet, but at all the tender associations those two words provoked. It was as if someone had mentioned spaghetti to the relict of an Italian organ-grinder. Her face flushed a deeper shade, she registered anguish, and I saw that it was no longer within the sphere of practical politics to try to confine the conversation to neutral topics like cold boiled salmon.
So did she, I imagine, for when I, as a preliminary to getting down to brass tacks, said "Er," she said "Er," too, simultaneously, the brace of "Ers" clashing in mid-air.
"I beg your pardon."
"You were saying——"
"You were saying——"
"No, please go on."
I straightened the tie, my habit when in this girl's society, and had at it:
"With reference to yours of even date——"
She flushed again, and took a rather strained forkful of salmon.
"You got my note?"
"Yes, I got your note."
"I gave it to Jeeves to give it to you."
"Yes, he gave it to me. That's how I got it."
There was another silence. And as she was plainly shrinking from talking turkey, I was reluctantly compelled to do so. I mean, somebody had got to. Too dashed silly, a male and female in our position simply standing eating salmon and cheese at one another without a word.
"Yes, I got it all right."
"I see. You got it."
"Yes, I got it. I've just been reading it. And what I was rather wanting to ask you, if we happened to run into each other, was—well, what about it?"
"What about it?"
"That's what I say: What about it?"
"But it was quite clear."
"Oh, quite. Perfectly clear. Very well expressed and all that. But—I mean—Well, I mean, deeply sensible of the honour, and so forth—but—— Well, dash it!"
She had polished off her salmon, and now put the plate down.
"No, thank you."
"Spot of pie?"
"One of those glue things on toast?"
"No, thank you."
She took a cheese straw. I found a cold egg which I had overlooked. Then I said "I mean to say" just as she said "I think I know", and there was another collision.
"I beg your pardon."
"Do go on."
"No, you go on."
I waved my cold egg courteously, to indicate that she had the floor, and she started again:
"I think I know what you are trying to say. You are surprised."
"You are thinking of——"
"The very man."
"You find what I have done hard to understand."
"I don't wonder."
"And yet it is quite simple."
She took another cheese straw. She seemed to like cheese straws.
"Quite simple, really. I want to make you happy."
"Dashed decent of you."
"I am going to devote the rest of my life to making you happy."
"A very matey scheme."
"I can at least do that. But—may I be quite frank with you, Bertie?"
"Then I must tell you this. I am fond of you. I will marry you. I will do my best to make you a good wife. But my affection for you can never be the flamelike passion I felt for Augustus."
"Just the very point I was working round to. There, as you say, is the snag. Why not chuck the whole idea of hitching up with me? Wash it out altogether. I mean, if you love old Gussie——"
"No. What happened this afternoon has killed my love. A smear of ugliness has been drawn across a thing of beauty, and I can never feel towards him as I did."
I saw what she meant, of course. Gussie had bunged his heart at her feet; she had picked it up, and, almost immediately after doing so, had discovered that he had been stewed to the eyebrows all the time. The shock must have been severe. No girl likes to feel that a chap has got to be thoroughly plastered before he can ask her to marry him. It wounds the pride.
Nevertheless, I persevered.
"But have you considered," I said, "that you may have got a wrong line on Gussie's performance this afternoon? Admitted that all the evidence points to a more sinister theory, what price him simply having got a touch of the sun? Chaps do get touches of the sun, you know, especially when the weather's hot."
She looked at me, and I saw that she was putting in a bit of the old drenched-irises stuff.
"It was like you to say that, Bertie. I respect you for it."
"Yes. You have a splendid, chivalrous soul."
"Not a bit."
"Yes, you have. You remind me of Cyrano."
"Cyrano de Bergerac."
"The chap with the nose?"
I can't say I was any too pleased. I felt the old beak furtively. It was a bit on the prominent side, perhaps, but, dash it, not in the Cyrano class. It began to look as if the next thing this girl would do would be to compare me to Schnozzle Durante.
"He loved, but pleaded another's cause."
"Oh, I see what you mean now."
"I like you for that, Bertie. It was fine of you—fine and big. But it is no use. There are things which kill love. I can never forget Augustus, but my love for him is dead. I will be your wife."
Well, one has to be civil.
"Right ho," I said. "Thanks awfully."
Then the dialogue sort of poofed out once more, and we stood eating cheese straws and cold eggs respectively in silence. There seemed to exist some little uncertainty as to what the next move was.
Fortunately, before embarrassment could do much more supervening, Angela came in, and this broke up the meeting. Then Bassett announced our engagement, and Angela kissed her and said she hoped she would be very, very happy, and the Bassett kissed her and said she hoped she would be very, very happy with Gussie, and Angela said she was sure she would, because Augustus was such a dear, and the Bassett kissed her again, and Angela kissed her again and, in a word, the whole thing got so bally feminine that I was glad to edge away.
I would have been glad to do so, of course, in any case, for if ever there was a moment when it was up to Bertram to think, and think hard, this moment was that moment.
It was, it seemed to me, the end. Not even on the occasion, some years earlier, when I had inadvertently become betrothed to Tuppy's frightful Cousin Honoria, had I experienced a deeper sense of being waist high in the gumbo and about to sink without trace. I wandered out into the garden, smoking a tortured gasper, with the iron well embedded in the soul. And I had fallen into a sort of trance, trying to picture what it would be like having the Bassett on the premises for the rest of my life and at the same time, if you follow me, trying not to picture what it would be like, when I charged into something which might have been a tree, but was not—being, in point of fact, Jeeves.
"I beg your pardon, sir," he said. "I should have moved to one side."
I did not reply. I stood looking at him in silence. For the sight of him had opened up a new line of thought.
This Jeeves, now, I reflected. I had formed the opinion that he had lost his grip and was no longer the force he had been, but was it not possible, I asked myself, that I might be mistaken? Start him off exploring avenues and might he not discover one through which I would be enabled to sneak off to safety, leaving no hard feelings behind? I found myself answering that it was quite on the cards that he might.
After all, his head still bulged out at the back as of old. One noted in the eyes the same intelligent glitter.
Mind you, after what had passed between us in the matter of that white mess-jacket with the brass buttons, I was not prepared absolutely to hand over to the man. I would, of course, merely take him into consultation. But, recalling some of his earlier triumphs—the Sipperley Case, the Episode of My Aunt Agatha and the Dog McIntosh, and the smoothly handled Affair of Uncle George and The Barmaid's Niece were a few that sprang to my mind—I felt justified at least in offering him the opportunity of coming to the aid of the young master in his hour of peril.
But before proceeding further, there was one thing that had got to be understood between us, and understood clearly.
"Jeeves," I said, "a word with you."
"I am up against it a bit, Jeeves."
"I am sorry to hear that, sir. Can I be of any assistance?"
"Quite possibly you can, if you have not lost your grip. Tell me frankly, Jeeves, are you in pretty good shape mentally?"
"Still eating plenty of fish?"
"Then it may be all right. But there is just one point before I begin. In the past, when you have contrived to extricate self or some pal from some little difficulty, you have frequently shown a disposition to take advantage of my gratitude to gain some private end. Those purple socks, for instance. Also the plus fours and the Old Etonian spats. Choosing your moment with subtle cunning, you came to me when I was weakened by relief and got me to get rid of them. And what I am saying now is that if you are successful on the present occasion there must be no rot of that description about that mess-jacket of mine."
"Very good, sir."
"You will not come to me when all is over and ask me to jettison the jacket?"
"Certainly not, sir."
"On that understanding then, I will carry on. Jeeves, I'm engaged."
"I hope you will be very happy, sir."
"Don't be an ass. I'm engaged to Miss Bassett."
"Indeed, sir? I was not aware——"
"Nor was I. It came as a complete surprise. However, there it is. The official intimation was in that note you brought me."
"Odd, sir, that the contents of that note should have been as you describe. It seemed to me that Miss Bassett, when she handed me the communication, was far from being in a happy frame of mind."
"She is far from being in a happy frame of mind. You don't suppose she really wants to marry me, do you? Pshaw, Jeeves! Can't you see that this is simply another of those bally gestures which are rapidly rendering Brinkley Court a hell for man and beast? Dash all gestures, is my view."
"Well, what's to be done?"
"You feel that Miss Bassett, despite what has occurred, still retains a fondness for Mr. Fink-Nottle, sir?"
"She's pining for him."
"In that case, sir, surely the best plan would be to bring about a reconciliation between them."
"How? You see. You stand silent and twiddle the fingers. You are stumped."
"No, sir. If I twiddled my fingers, it was merely to assist thought."
"Then continue twiddling."
"It will not be necessary, sir."
"You don't mean you've got a bite already?"
"You astound me, Jeeves. Let's have it."
"The device which I have in mind is one that I have already mentioned to you, sir."
"When did you ever mention any device to me?"
"If you will throw your mind back to the evening of our arrival, sir. You were good enough to inquire of me if I had any plan to put forward with a view to bringing Miss Angela and Mr. Glossop together, and I ventured to suggest——"
"Good Lord! Not the old fire-alarm thing?"
"You're still sticking to that?"
It shows how much the ghastly blow I had received had shaken me when I say that, instead of dismissing the proposal with a curt "Tchah!" or anything like that, I found myself speculating as to whether there might not be something in it, after all.
When he had first mooted this fire-alarm scheme of his, I had sat upon it, if you remember, with the maximum of promptitude and vigour. "Rotten" was the adjective I had employed to describe it, and you may recall that I mused a bit sadly, considering the idea conclusive proof of the general breakdown of a once fine mind. But now it somehow began to look as if it might have possibilities. The fact of the matter was that I had about reached the stage where I was prepared to try anything once, however goofy.
"Just run through that wheeze again, Jeeves," I said thoughtfully. "I remember thinking it cuckoo, but it may be that I missed some of the finer shades."
"Your criticism of it at the time, sir, was that it was too elaborate, but I do not think it is so in reality. As I see it, sir, the occupants of the house, hearing the fire bell ring, will suppose that a conflagration has broken out."
I nodded. One could follow the train of thought.
"Yes, that seems reasonable."
"Whereupon Mr. Glossop will hasten to save Miss Angela, while Mr. Fink-Nottle performs the same office for Miss Bassett."
"Is that based on psychology?"
"Yes, sir. Possibly you may recollect that it was an axiom of the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, that the instinct of everyone, upon an alarm of fire, is to save the object dearest to them."
"It seems to me that there is a grave danger of seeing Tuppy come out carrying a steak-and-kidney pie, but resume, Jeeves, resume. You think that this would clean everything up?"
"The relations of the two young couples could scarcely continue distant after such an occurrence, sir."
"Perhaps you're right. But, dash it, if we go ringing fire bells in the night watches, shan't we scare half the domestic staff into fits? There is one of the housemaids—Jane, I believe—who already skips like the high hills if I so much as come on her unexpectedly round a corner."
"A neurotic girl, sir, I agree. I have noticed her. But by acting promptly we should avoid such a contingency. The entire staff, with the exception of Monsieur Anatole, will be at the ball at Kingham Manor tonight."
"Of course. That just shows the condition this thing has reduced me to. Forget my own name next. Well, then, let's just try to envisage. Bong goes the bell. Gussie rushes and grabs the Bassett… . Wait. Why shouldn't she simply walk downstairs?"
"You are overlooking the effect of sudden alarm on the feminine temperament, sir."
"Miss Bassett's impulse, I would imagine, sir, would be to leap from her window."
"Well, that's worse. We don't want her spread out in a sort of purée on the lawn. It seems to me that the flaw in this scheme of yours, Jeeves, is that it's going to litter the garden with mangled corpses."
"No, sir. You will recall that Mr. Travers's fear of burglars has caused him to have stout bars fixed to all the windows."
"Of course, yes. Well, it sounds all right," I said, though still a bit doubtfully. "Quite possibly it may come off. But I have a feeling that it will slip up somewhere. However, I am in no position to cavil at even a 100 to 1 shot. I will adopt this policy of yours, Jeeves, though, as I say, with misgivings. At what hour would you suggest bonging the bell?"
"Not before midnight, sir."
"That is to say, some time after midnight."
"Right-ho, then. At 12.30 on the dot, I will bong."
"Very good, sir."