P.G.Wodehouse. Jeeves in the offing, 1960

It was a lovely afternoon, replete with blue sky, beaming sun, buzzing insects and what not, an afternoon that seemed to call to one to be out in the open with God’s air playing on one’s face and something cool in a glass at one’s side, and here was I, just to oblige Bobbie Wickham, tooling along a corridor indoors on my way to search a comparative stranger’s bedroom, this involving crawling on floors and routing under beds and probably getting covered with dust and fluff. The thought was a bitter one, and I don’t suppose I have ever come closer to saying ‘Faugh!’ It amazed me that I could have allowed myself to be let in for a binge of this description simply because a woman wished it. Too bally chivalrous for our own good, we Woosters, and always have been.

As I reached Wilbert’s door and paused outside doing a bit of screwing the courage to the sticking point, as I have heard Jeeves call it, I found the proceedings reminding me of something, and I suddenly remembered what. I was feeling just as I had felt in the old Malvem House epoch when I used to sneak down to Aubrey Upjohn’s study at dead of night in quest of the biscuits he kept there in a tin on his desk, and there came back to me the memory of the occasion when, not letting a twig snap beneath my feet, I had entered his sanctum in pyjamas and a dressing-gown, to find him seated in his chair, tucking into the biscuits himself. A moment fraught with embarrassment. The What-does- this-mean-Wooster-ing that ensued and the aftermath next morning – six of the best on the old spot – had always remained on the tablets of my mind, if that’s the expression I want.

Except for the tapping of a typewriter in a room along the corridor, showing that Ma Cream was hard at her self-appointed task of curdling the blood of the reading public, all was still. I stood outside the door for a space, letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would’, as Jeeves tells me cats do in adages, then turned the handle softly, pushed – also softly – and, carrying on into the interior, found myself confronted by a girl in housemaid’s costume who put a hand to her throat like somebody in a play and leaped several inches in the direction of the ceiling.

‘Coo!’ she said, having returned to terra firma and taken aboard a spot of breath. ‘You gave me a start, sir!’

‘Frightfully sorry, my dear old housemaid,’ I responded cordially. ‘As a matter of fact, you gave me a start, making two starts in all. I’m looking for Mr Cream.’

‘I’m looking for a mouse.’

This opened up an interesting line of thought.

‘You feel there are mice in these parts?’

‘I saw one this morning, when I was doing the room. So I brought Augustus,’ she said, and indicated a large black cat who until then had escaped my notice. I recognized him as an old crony with whom I had often breakfasted, I wading into the scrambled eggs, he into the saucer of milk.

‘Augustus will teach him,’ she said.

Now, right from the start, as may readily be imagined, I had been wondering how this housemaid was to be removed, for of course her continued presence would render my enterprise null and void. You can’t search rooms with the domestic staff standing on the sidelines, but on the other hand it was impossible for anyone with any claim to be a preux chevalier to take her by the slack of her garment and heave her out. For a while the thing had seemed an impasse, but this statement of hers that Augustus would teach the mouse gave me an idea.

‘I doubt it,’ I said. ‘You’re new here, aren’t you?’

She conceded this, saying that she had taken office only in the previous month.

‘I thought as much, or you would be aware that Augustus is a broken reed to lean on in the matter of catching mice. My own acquaintance with him is a longstanding one, and I have come to know his psychology from soup to nuts. He hasn’t caught a mouse since he was a slip of a kitten. Except when eating, he does nothing but sleep. Lethargic is the word that springs to the lips. If you cast an eye on him, you will see that he’s asleep now.’

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Categories: Wodehouse, P G