It was one of those crisp May mornings. You know, one of those when the sun comes sidling round the curtains suggesting that it was up and about and firing on all cylinders but has not actually got round to warming the place up yet, so you might just as well stay in bed. It did not find B Wooster arguing.
In a couple of minutes there would come a gentlemanly cough outside my door and Jeeves would shimmer in with a cup of the life giving. If invited to converse, he might say a couple of hushed words about the weather or Surrey’s overnight score, and then he would push off. He did not bring me the post or newspapers or anything that might cause a disturbance to the rising ritual. Jeeves is a great advocate of the Quiet and Regular Life. And after recent events on a trip up the Nile in the company of Catsmeat Potter Pirbright and his friends, a quiet life was what I craved.
So I lay there, basking in that ineffable sense that so often comes to me after I reach home after a jaunt with one of my fellow Drones, that God was in his Heaven and all was right with the world. Or, at least, that no one could get at me. Even the ringing of the doorbell did not disturb my tranquillity. Jeeves, I reasoned, would deal with it.
But then my bedroom door banged back on its hinges and the doorway was full of aunts. Specifically, my Aunt Dahlia.
‘Get up, get up, Bertie, you young hound,’ she carolled, galloping across the room and flinging open the curtains. ‘It’s a beautiful morning and I have a job for you.’
I quailed. The sun quailed.
Jeeves, who had followed her, did not quail. He coughed reproachfully.
‘Mrs Travers, sir,’ he said.
A touch unnecessary, you may think, since the aged relative was now bounding about my room like a horse feeling its oats. My Aunt Dahlia was for many years a pillar of the Quorn and though, since her union with my Uncle Tom en secondes noces, she seldom rides to hounds these days, you can see that sometimes the urge to get a good run at a five barred gate takes hold.
Jeeves removed a Victorian chair and a collection of fossils, gift of one of my recent companions, from her path.
‘Get up. Get up,’ she boomed. ‘You’ve got to collect a young woman and bring her down to Brinkley Court and be smart about it.’
I held the covers up to my chin and goggled.
‘A young woman?’
‘Of course, a young woman. Don’t lie making goldfish faces at me, Bertie. Jump to it.’
I looked wildly at Jeeves.
‘Mr Wooster would be delighted to assist you, madam,’ he said smoothly. ‘A cup of coffee while he collects himself?’
It was clear that the elderly relative would have preferred to haul me out from under the covers and drag me thorough brush, thorough briar until I fell in with her plans. But common sense, or perhaps the steely eye of Jeeves, prevailed.
‘Oh very well,’ she said. ‘But I can’t spend all morning waiting for you to haul yourself out of your pit, Bertie. I have places to go, plots to plot. ’
This did not sound good. I curtailed my ablutions and joined her. I was naturally ruffled at this invasion but my rufflement was as nothing to my trepidation. This Aunt, though as good a soul as you would find thundering down on you across open country, has an unhappy knack of dropping nephews in the soup when she gets the bit between her teeth. A young woman to be met and driven to Brinkley in pursuit of a plot sounded like the start of a prize potage au Bertram.
I was not wrong.
‘This young woman,’ I began.
‘Her name’s Cuckoo or some such nonsense. Joanna Cuckoo. Tom met her on the boat train and invited her to stay.’
I goggled some more. ‘Uncle Tom did?’
She said irritably that she wished I wouldn’t call him that.
‘Sorry. Your respected other half picked up a floozy on the boat train and you want me to bring her to Brinkley?’
I was astonished. Uncle Tom is one of these types who made a packet ruling the empire and shot his digestion while doing it. He and Aunt Dahlia are truly devoted, largely based, I’d always thought, on the fact that she kept a fabulous table and was out a lot. One would have said that Uncle Tom was not naturally one for the ladies.
But even as I thought that, light dawned.
‘Ah. He’s having one of those mid life thingummies and he’s fallen for a younger model. You want me to dazzle her with my metropolitan charm and lure her away from the old buffer.’
Aunt Dahlia gave a whoop that would have had the hounds wheeling on a sixpence. ‘Ass. Tom’s not in love with her. Tom isn’t in love with anything except eighteenth century silver and his burgundy. You ought to know that by now. The woman’s a gourmet,’ she said reverently.
Jeeves and I exchanged glances. This was worrying. Could it be that advancing years had at last caught up with my respected relative?
For several years Aunt Dahlia had employed a chef of unparalleled skill. Anatole’s creations brought joy to a grateful world and kept Uncle Tom in Paradise. But then Rosie M Banks, the well known tripe confectioner, had lured him away with promises of largesse and celebrity dinner guests. A succession of female cooks had tried and failed to take his place. Brinkley Court, though strong on the Roast Beef of Olde England and Rice Pudding, was not currently a spot to which one would invite gourmet.
‘It may have slipped your mind, old thing,’ I said gently, ‘but Anatole is no longer among those present at Brinkley.’
She hooted. ‘Get a grip, Bertie. Of course he’s not. And we all know who to thank for that,’ she added, briefly sidetracked.
This was an old accusation and it was unfair. I ate toast and marmalade in a marked manner, before saying with dignity, ‘While it is true that this R M Banks is married to my old friend Bingo Little, it was not I who introduced the succubus into the Travers household. It was you, my dear aunt, in pursuit of an unremunerated article for Milady’s Boudoir.’
Aunt Dahlia shifted pettishly. ‘Well, we were broke. We didn’t have to pay her because she wanted to plug her latest ghastliness to a new market.’
I could see that Aunt Dahlia’s readers, being solidly from the hunting and debutanting set, would not number themselves among Mrs Bingo’s regulars.
‘Fair enough. But agree that it was not I who introduced Rosie M to Anatole’s cooking. If you’d paid her a decent fee, you wouldn’t have had to ask her to lunch.’
‘God, it was awful,’ she said reminiscently. ‘I thought Tom was going to revolt. She kept talking about ‘Twas Love and Love Alone, or whatever the latest drivel is called, and he couldn’t bear it. Jumped ship before dessert and said he had to write a letter. And it was Anatole’s mousse au chocolat a la façon de la Princess de Clèves. That shows you.’
‘It was your own fault,’ I said. I do not like to be harsh, but one needs to keep an aunt’s eye firmly on the facts of the case. Even the best of them will shift the blame over time, if allowed to get away with it.
She sighed. ‘I suppose you’re right. Though what right thinking woman would have accepted my hospitality and then sidled out to the kitchen and seduced Anatole with her honeyed words?’ She brooded.
I agreed it was hard. ‘It is a sad thing to say about the wife of a friend but romantic novelists are not gentlemen.’
Aunt Dahlia perked up at that. ‘Quite. So I’m going to get him back. This Joanna Cuckoo is going to help me. And so are you.’
Well, I argued, of course. I pleaded my recent return from foreign parts, my unpreparedness to go out of town. It was in vain.
‘Tom’s been to three health spas for a cure in the last year. Do you know where he had been when he met this Cuckoo on the boat train? Aix–les-Bains,’ she said impressively. ‘That shows you.’
It did indeed.
Uncle Tom is one of those Englishmen who do not naturally seek the company of persons speaking other lingoes. While not exactly hating foreigners, he is at a social loss when they don’t want him to organise their tea planting roster.
‘It can’t go on like this. Poor darling, he’s miserable sitting with a bunch of Frenchmen talking about their crises de foie. And he’s miserable eating Mrs Golightly’s roast pork and apple dumplings. And he’s miserable not eating it and having boiled rice instead. There’s no other solution. We must have Anatole back.’
‘But how will inviting this gourmet woman help? One would imagine that it will only rub salt in the wound.’
‘Anatole left because he said he wanted appreciative and distinguished guests. She is.’
‘Yes but he works for the Littles, now.’
‘Not,’ said my aunt,’ for the next two weeks. ‘While the cat’s away, the chef will play.’
‘Mrs Little,’ said Aunt Dahlia with hauteur, ‘is on a book tour, pushing ’Twas Love and Love Alone at the unfortunate natives of the USA. Thereby leaving Anatole alone. He has no one to cook for but the Pekes. He is not pleased.’
‘Ah. You feel it wounds Anatole’s proud spirit?’
‘I know it does. The ghastly chef pincher promised him Crowned Heads supping off gold plate at her table. Then she pushed off west, leaving him to cook for a pack of canine tearaways who can’t tell tournedos Rossini from Irish stew. Naturally he finds it wounding.’
I rather liked the Pekes when I encountered them with young Bingo, but I could see that they were a bit short in the tasting and savouring department. Your average Peke’s approach to dinner is brisk and workmanlike. Keep it coming is his basic philosophy and he rewards the provider with a courteous nod at best. To an artist like Anatole it would have been gall and wormwood.
I said as much.
‘Well, he shouldn’t have fallen for the benighted pen pusher’s line in the first place,’ said the Aunt robustly. ‘The woman can’t tell fact from fiction, like all these damned novelists.’
I demurred. A chap has to register a protest when another chap’s wife is traduced, even by a blood relative.
‘You should have seen him, Bertie. Wandering round the cheese counter at Fortnums like a lost soul. Of course, it was his own fault. But even so, it quite wrung my withers. He had his annual holiday approaching and was so down that he didn’t have the heart to take his bucket and spade to St Malo with the rest of the family.’ She brightened. ‘So we biffed chit chat back and forth a bit. And the upshot is that Anatole is returning to Brinkley to make, as it were, a guest appearance for one week only.’
‘Very good thinking, revered relative.’
Aunt Dahlia has no false modesty. ‘Yes, it’s a pippin. And while he is with us, I shall give dinner party after dinner for Crowned Heads and people who know about food. All I ask in return is that they trot into the kitchen and tell Anatole he is wonderful, with as many terms of art as they can muster.’
I saw the first flaw in her plan. ‘Is this wise, Aunt? I mean Uncle Tom won’t like a lot of foreign gabbling under his roof.’
‘He will if it means that Anatole returns to us.’
I mused and came to the same conclusion. ‘You could be right. So it is my task, in that week, to make Anatole feel loved and wanted?’
‘Got it in one,’ she said with energy. ‘Show him that we appreciate him as the Blasted Banks has never done.’
‘And this Cuckoo?’
‘She’s going to talk to him about food with understanding and respect. And you’re going to eat and go to the kitchen and fawn on him after every meal.’
I considered. Compared with most of my Aunt’s commissions, this one seemed almost laughably easy. Certainly well within my capacities. And there was the added bonus of Anatole’s cooking to be born in mind.
‘Right you are, old thing. I’ll give it my best shot. Except that Jeeves is off to see his aunt at Herne Bay and will not be able to accompany me. Is that an obstacle?’
She considered and decided it wasn’t. ‘Basically, you just have to eat and say nice things for a week. Even you can’t mess that up, Bertie.’
Ha. Little did either of us know that there was about to be a major fly in the ointment.
This fly turned out to be the aforementioned gourmet, Joanna Cuckoo. Only her name wasn’t Cuckoo. My Uncle Tom’s approach to foreign names is basically to find the nearest English word and hang onto it like a falling man to a cliff edge. In this case he had clocked two syllables and a consonant and found something that an Englishman could get his tongue round. That is what misled me. She wasn’t Joanna Cuckoo, she was Janna Procou and she was a disaster in smart French court shoes and matching ensemble.
For I knew her. She had been of the Nile cruising party. Indeed, she had been the life and soul of it.
I still recall us all, racing along the bank on fine Arab steeds, after she had taken us fossil hunting and the boat had Not Waited. She led the way, shouting abuse at the sailors from the back of her horse. Pretty crisp stuff, it must have been, too, because they pulled into the shore in a sheepish sort of way to take us on board and didn’t even ask for a tip. One had the feeling that it was not the first time they had crossed swords with her and they knew when to cut their losses.
Mind you, I’m not surprised that Uncle Tom was taken with her. She was an attractive half pint, flashing eyes and all the fixings. Rather appealing, if you hadn’t actually bounced about on a wooden saddle, hurtling after her in Lawrence of Arabia mode. Even Catsmeat, who has done gallop-on work in westerns, said her action sequences were some of the most terrifying he’d seen. She had travelled widely. In Egypt, ship board rumour had it that she had gone as a cabin boy to Brazil, looking for gold, or possibly adventure. I must say I doubted it. Adventure, if by adventure you mean mayhem, was her constant companion. And, well, cabin boys take orders, don’t they, and frankly, I didn’t see that going down well with Janna. More used to giving them, if you know what I mean.
And this human firework was the woman I was supposed to take to Brinkley Court. My heart misgave me.
Mind you, she couldn’t have been sweeter when I pootled round to her hotel to pick her up. Unlike me, she clearly already knew whom she was getting into a car with.
‘Hello Bertie,’ she said in her charming accent. ‘I was astonished when Tom Travers told me you were his nephew. You’re not at all alike. He is delightful. A cultivated man.’
‘Nephew by marriage,’ I said stiffly.
’That would explain it.’
But she didn’t hand out any more snide remarks. Indeed, apart from a tendency to shriek ‘Mummy’ when alarmed, a habit which had caused a couple of unpleasant misunderstandings on board, and which she resorted to every time a rabbit hopped into the road in front of us and looked about, she was very good company all the way down to Brinkley. The English countryside was at is best, with the hawthorn making the hedgerows bridal and the full-leaved branches meeting overhead, giving a lacy pattern of shadows on the road. Birds twittered and flittered. Janna liked it.
‘The Nile, of course, is interesting, but one gets tired of all that sand. Besides, I don’t like the heat. It is impossible to get comfortable. By the way, has your man seen your harem trousers yet?’
I should explain that this woman had encouraged me to purchase from one of the souvenir vendors, a pair of light baggy trousers in sunset orange. I admit, they had been the perfect attire for hot days on deck, in spite of the fact that Catsmeat said they made me look like the back row of the chorus in Kismet. I had tried to give them to one of the crew before I left.
Janna had caught me and put a stop to it. ‘Nonsense. They are ideal wear for hot days. Even in England you have hot days sometimes.’
‘But Jeeves – ‘ I bleated.
‘What are Jeeves?’
‘My man. He won’t like them.’
She looked down her nose. ‘Your man? Your employee? You let him veto your wardrobe?’
I was stung. ‘Of course not.’
‘Well then.’ She was triumphant. She twitched the harem trousers out of the man’s hand. ‘Give him five pounds and I’ll say you’ve changed your mind.’
Well, what could I do? She was not the sort of woman you argue with. I had been trying to get rid of them ever since.
It is not easy to dispose of a pair of bright orange muslin trousers without being spotted. I’d had them returned to me twice, once at Southampton docks by a boy scout who barred my way until I gave him a bob for his retrieval job, once on Waterloo station by a City Gent who handed them over with two fingers, looking pained.
I was in despair. Then, after Aunt Dahlia pushed off, I had had one of those moments of inspiration that the poet Coleridge spoke of. As you no doubt remember, the poet C advised that he who is best prepared is best able to serve his moment of inspiration. So, striking the nail while it’s hot, I had taken the opportunity of Jeeves packing his butterfly net, to slip down to the garage and stuff the things in the boot of the two seater. They were there now, tucked behind my gentleman’s travelling valise, wrapped in newspaper.
I told Janna this and she laughed a girlish laugh, like a tinkling stream. That’s another thing. She not only leads you into the sort of situation where you have no choice but to leap aboard some huge stallion and gallop off after her, she finds it amusing.
‘If you don’t want to wear them, just tell your man to give them away. Oxfam. The Boy Scouts. Whatever he does with your old clothes.’
The thought of Jeeves discovering the offending orange trouserings gave me quite a turn, I can tell you. I said so, perhaps a little crisply.
She tossed her head, then did some more of the tinkling s. routine. ‘Then give them away yourself. You should not let these people bully you.’
A vision of walking into the Mayfair Oxfam shop with a brown paper parcel full of orange harem pants rose before me, like one of those vampire chappies in the graveyard at midnight. It is not too much to say the hair rose on the back of the Wooster neck.
‘Not Oxfam,’ I stuttered. ‘My Aunt Agatha is the Chief Gauleiter. There’s a team of Charitable Ladies who run the place and they all report back to her.’
Janna stopped tinkling and clicked her tongue impatiently. ‘For Heaven’s sake, Bertie, be a man. What are you going to do with them if you aren’t brave enough to wear them and can’t give them away?’
It was a problem to which I had given much thought. ‘Burn them. Or perhaps bury them.’
She swung round on me, wide eyed. ‘Bury them?’
‘You are joking?’
‘No.’ I smiled a superior smile. After an anxious few days, I had now formed a fool proof plan and it was a corker. It came to me when Aunt Dahlia was talking about Brinkley, a fine gentleman’s country seat and well supplied with gardens, shrubberies and woodland.
‘Burying the evidence is impossible in Town. There are park keepers and policemen who frown on you digging up the local greenery. And small dogs dig them up again.’
She popped her eyes at me. ‘You mean you actually tried to bury them in Kensington Gardens?’
‘Green Park, actually,’ I said with dignity. ‘It didn’t work for the reasons stated. But there’s plenty of room to give them a decent burial at Brinkley Court. What’s more, the hounds are never allowed into the garden, so they can’t dig the blighters up again. Alternatively, I could burn them, in the kitchen range, say, or the book room fireplace. Though burying is probably better. I have the things with me for precisely that purpose.’
She gave several rather unbecoming snorts which I took to indicate mirth and mockery. I ignored them.
‘Won’t people notice you digging and think you’ve gone loopy?’
‘I shall creep out unobserved, probably after dark.’
She shook her head. ’If you say so. Well, if you don’t manage to do the deed yourself, give them to me and I will do it for you.’
I believed her. I also believed that, in doing so, she would attract a good deal of exactly that sort of attention I was most anxious to avoid. I thanked her and said I could handle it, thank you.
‘Up to you. The offer stays open.’
Actually, she behaved perfectly at Brinkley. For the rest of the week, it was Eden incarnate. The sun shone. Bees hummed. Early roses foamed over the old trellis and trout leaped in the river. Anatole created a mousseline de truite aux asperges which had Uncle Tom positively purring. Janna offered to write a piece for Milady’s Boudoir on the Unsung Inspirational Chef. Anatole preened. Aunt Dahlia beamed. All was for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
For once the other guests were good eggs too. The Crowned Head was a Balkan cove who’d lost his throne and was making a very decent living as a professional tennis player these days. The only slight blight on the landscape was Honoria Glossop, a former fiancée of mine. Still she was second only to Janna in her capacity to pack away the plat du jour and come back for more, so she was generally thought to be giving satisfaction in the task specified.
She had brought along with her a chap called Higgers, with whom I’d had a cordial nodding acquaintance at Oxford. He was a Brainy Bird, always reading us blood soaked bits from Greek tragedy, with women wrapping other women in poisoned gowns. Presumably this had taught him caution with the Fair Sex, which in Honoria’s case was probably wise. An excellent girl in many ways and a good chum, but once, when we were briefly engaged, she presented me with a list of books she expected me to read before the next time I took her out for a bit of supper. Not a decent mystery among them.
Anyway, the Brainy Bird showed a tendency to jump nervously whenever Honoria hove into view and I didn’t blame him. She and the ex-King kept beating each other in loud argumentative games of tennis. Higgers took up with Uncle Tom instead. It seemed they shared a passion for burgundy. They would disappear down into the cellar before every meal, to discuss the perfect alliance of food and wine. And Janna went with them.
In fact, all was sweetness and light, until, in some light chat about food, drink and inebriation, Honoria announced, in that bossy way she has, that the troops of Alexander the Great got drunk in the Himalayas.
The Brainy Bird raised an eyebrow, which I knew of old meant that he had his doubts. But he was too wily to call her on it. Honoria was much attached to her views and any sign of doubt would be regarded as mutiny on the part of the gentleman escort. There was only one thing for a decent chap to do, and that was keep his head down until the storm had passed. Even looking sceptical was a higher risk than I would have wanted to run myself.
Janna, however, was not a decent chap, and she seemed to regard Alexander as one of the family.
‘That is not true,’ she said energetically.
Honoria’s eyes bulged. She was not accustomed to being challenged. She drew herself to her full seven foot and said, ‘Excuse me?’
‘Alexander’s troops were never drunk. The Greeks trained the greatest army in the world. They were disciplined. That is why they beat the Persian rabble.’ You could see that Janna thought the Persians were rotters of the first order and more or less asking for it.
The Brainy Bird raised his eyebrow again. My heart bled for him. He knew not what he did.
For in speaking of Greeks, Janna spoke of that which was nearest her heart and the old home fires. In spite of her Brazilian adventures and a goodly number of French grandmothers, Janna was Greek to her chemise and primed to extol Hellenic virtue at the drop of a hat. Her lectures on the superiority of Greek olives, Greek cooking, Greek art and Greek waiters had held us all spellbound during the cruise. If you looked squiggle-eyed at Alexander, one might say, you looked squiggle-eyed at Janna Procou.
Honoria said, ‘Tsk.’
It was all I could do not to duck. You did not Tsk at Janna Procou. An Egyptian waiter had tried it and was not seen above decks thereafter.
‘The Greek army did not drink on campaign.’
‘They were drunk.’
‘They – did – not – drink.’
‘Michael!’ rapped out Honoria, calling up reinforcements.
He gurgled a bit but said no word. Very wise, I thought.
Honoria turned on him. ‘The Greek army got drunk on the way to India. Tell this – Tell everyone.’
And that’s when he made his big mistake. He considered for a moment and I thought he was going to have a couging fit and demand water. But in the end the old passion for ancient texts and passing on the good bits was just too much for him.
He said cautiously, ‘We-ell, Plutarch says they had the symptoms of drunkenness. I stress symptoms.’
I knew what he was trying to do, poor sap. I could have told him it was a mistake. Women in the middle of an argument don’t want expert evidence, they want agreement and pretty sharpish, too. Both of them glared at him.
But Higgers had got the bit between his teeth, just like he used to do in the Buttery, when someone asked him a question about female murder methods.
‘Plutarch was working from Ptolemy, who had read Callisthenes on The Deeds of Alexander. And he drew on soldiers’ tales, too, which Cleitarchus collected. The truth is probably that the soldiers ate rhododendron honey. It made them stagger and vomit and some of them went a bit mad.’
He seemed to realise at last that he had lost his audience and stopped. Neither woman appeared to be grateful.
‘It’s called grayantoxin poisoning,’ he added helpfully.
Honoria turned her shoulder. ‘Paul, it’s time I gave you your revenge,’ she said to the ex King, and marched him off through the french windows for another drubbing on the tennis court.
Janna turned to me, ignoring him. ‘Remind me. Who is that big, beefy person, again?’
She didn’t mean Higgers, who could have given Lord Byronic a run for his money in the pale and interesting stakes, or the athletic ex King. Beyond the french windows, I saw Honoria take a vicious swipe at a passing lavender bush.
But, apart from that, Janna was absolutely doing her stuff. Not an hour went by without her popping to the kitchen and burbling with Anatole in French, while nicking tastes from whatever he was mixing up at the time. He loved it.
The extraordinary thing was, she never had to so much as loosen her waistband. The rest of us had moved our belts at least a couple of notches. By the end of the week waistcoats were being worn unbuttoned.
Aunt Dahlia became a serious fan. ‘All right, she gabbles away in too many languages,’ she said, ‘but I like a girl who enjoys her food. And the way she packs it away is nothing short of miraculous. Anatole says he’ll stay if she’s going to be a regular guest. Something about not casting his pearls before swine for once. You know, you’ve got a real find there, Bertie.’
And that was when it hit me. The election had, as it were, lit on Fortinbras. Aunt Dahlia had decided that a nephew was not too much to sacrifice in pursuit of retaining the services of the ineffable Anatole.
‘No need for buts, Bertie. She’s just the sort of girl I’ve always wanted for you. Strong minded.’
She must have noticed a certain lack of enthusiasm in my voice. She patted my shoulder. ‘Tom says she has an excellent palate,’ she said comfortingly.
‘Spiffing,’ I said in a hollow voice.
Not that I had anything against Janna herself. I mean she wasn’t Madeleine Basssett who thought the stars were God’s daisy chain. If Janna asked you to take her to look at the stars, she’d expect you to bring a businesslike telescope and a little something to keep the cold out. But – well, as I said, I like a quiet life. Wives, by definition, aren’t quiet. Janna, in my experience, would not be an exception to that particular rule.
But one can’t say a thing like that to a delicately brought up girl who has just saved your uncle from lifelong dyspepsia and your aunt from weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.
So when Aunt Dahlia suggested that I take Janna to look at the lake after dinner and Janna leaped to her feet with girlish enthusiasm, I smiled weakly and said delighted.
We toddled out through the French windows and Janna tucked a hand through the crook of my arm. She clearly knew where she wanted to go and it wasn’t the lake. As far as I could tell we were headed for the herb garden.
‘More research for Anatole up-buttering?’
‘Not at all, Bertie. I am saving your bacon.’
‘I’ve watched you moving that pile of old newspaper around for days. It’s them, isn’t it?’
I jumped guiltily. ‘What?’
‘The harem trousers. You keep moving them from hiding place to hiding place, in case anyone sees them and tells Jeeves.’
I could not deny it.
She laughed, quite kindly really. ‘Your secret is safe wi th me. Now I’ve been here, I see why you don’t want to wear them in England. So I have decided to help you.’
She was impatient. ‘Well, you’re clearly not very good at it. Someone has to take charge.’
She pulled me round the herb garden until we were somewhere south of the compost heap. The aroma of old cabbage leaves was unmistakable.
‘Right,’ she said, producing a parcel I recognised from under her light shawl. ‘Here they are. Stuff them into the compost heap and let’s go.’
As I say, she was good at giving instructions. I’d never tried to insinuate anything into an already functioning compost heap before and I freely admit I made a bit of a bish of it. Janna thought it was very funny. At least she did until a piece of old kitchen waste flew out in the wrong direction and got her amidships, when she gave a scream to shatter an ice berg.
Now, I had come to recognize that this was an all purpose foreign exclamation of surprise and dismay, something like ‘Hell’s teeth’ or ‘Strike me pink’. But to anyone listening it must have sounded like a frantic cry for help to her absent parent. Especially if you’d been brought up on Classical Stuff where violence is pretty much the order of the day. I don’t know whether any of those Greek coves ever met their end by suffocation in a compost heap but it wouldn’t surprise me, for thundering round the hedge from the herb garden came the Brainy Bird.
‘Wooster,’ he roared.
Janna spun round and dropped the newspaper. My orange trousers spilled out of it. I leaped to retrieve them, accidentally knocking her off the path as I did so. She staggered a bit and sat down on the ground. The Brainy Bird hit me.
It seemed to go down well with Janna. Women like the rough stuff, don’t they? But then, now I come to think of it, she is Greek.
I fell into the compost heap, which slowly disintegrated under me. Neither of them noticed.
They were gazing into each other’s eyes and making the sort of mumbled conversation that made a chap wish he could get out of the compost heap and steal away into the night without any more being said. Unfortunately, I needed assistance.
Encouraged by Janna, Higgers hauled me up and, commenting austerely on the whiff of cabbage, sent me on my way.
I gather that afterwards he rebuilt the damn thing to Head Gardener standards. That is, of course, no more than you would expect from a Greats man. They’re the types who can do everything, like Renaissance chappies. He even put the harem trousers in the middle of the heap, which I think was very civil of him, in the circs. He told me afterwards they were bio-degradable, which I think meant that it was all they were fit for. A severe judgement but, I have to admit, fair.
When he and Janna announced their engagement, Aunt Dahlia went very quiet.
‘Sorry Bertie,’ she said at breakfast the next day, from behind Horse and Hound.
Uncle Tom pressed my hand in silent sympathy when we went in to dinner that night. And Anatole served up an extra special mousseline, with added alcohol, just for me.
They all thought I was heart broken, you see. It seemed unkind to say that I was on top of the world.
Never have I sent a silver fish slice with a lighter heart. Those two were made for each other.
By the time Bingo and the little woman came back from peddling ‘Twas Love and Love Alone to our American cousins, Anatole was once again in the bosom of Brinkley Court. Jeeves returned, braced from the sea air. I still have my quiet life. And the Wooster abode is permanently light one pair of orange harem trousers.
God’s in his Heaven, all’s right with the world.