Early one morning, just past the crack of dawn – it might have been around ten or so – I woke up to a polite knock at my bedroom door.
With some difficulty, I pried open an eye and saw Jeeves pulling back the curtains. Something bright and hot started shining in my face, and I gave a startled yelp. A hangover, you know.
“I am sorry, sir,” Jeeves murmured. “The sun is somewhat inconveniently sited in the sky at this time of day.”
“What’s the dashed idea?” I mumbled, sort of testily. “You know I came in late from Oofy Prosser’s party, and I need all the rest I can get.”
“I beg your pardon, sir,” he said, “but I’m afraid Mrs Gregson has called and is on her way here.”
“Who?” I protested weakly, even though the name had already sent shivers down my spine. “You don’t mean my Aunt Agatha?”
“Indeed, sir,” Jeeves replied. “She seems to be somewhat upset.”
The thought of Aunt Agatha in a good mood is enough to make hardened Mafia killers babble out all their secrets. Cannibals in the South Seas tip out their missionary from the cooking pot and order him to put in a good word for them if they get news she’s on her way. I could not even imagine what she would be like if she were upset. It brought me springing up in bed like a what-do-you-call-it. You know, one of those thingummies in a box with a spring, and when you open it, the thing jumps out at you. Plum Denby-Thorpleby had brought one to the Drones Club last year, left it on a table, and forgot to tell anyone what it was. Thinking it was a box of cigars, Barmy Fotheringay-Phipp had opened it and fallen over in a faint, as though stricken by all the plagues of Egypt at once.
“Dash it!” I said. “Couldn’t you have put her off?”
“It is not my place, sir,” Jeeves murmured. I looked at him suspiciously. I, of course, immediately divined the cause of the man’s attitude.
A few days ago, Harry Cholomondeley-Mutts had presented me with a harmonica. “Bertie, old son,” he’d said, pressing it into my hand. “You remember that fiver I touched you for?”
“Eminently,” I replied. “Are you trying to touch me for another?”
“No, no,” the blighter had responded with an injured air. “I’m just giving you this priceless musical instrument as a token of gratitude.”
“You are?” I’d taken a look at the harmonica. It was a magnificent one, all black and silver and brass, like the new Rolls Sir Roderick Glossop drives around in. I’d blown a note, and it had sounded good, too, like a wail of a maiden in durance vile pining for her demon lover. “What about my fiver?”
“Ah, yes, I’ll give you that fiver, of course. I don’t actually have it with me, but I’ll have it this evening.”
“How?” I’d asked with interest. The very idea of Harry Cholomondeley-Mutts having money filled me with wild surmise, like those coves who stood with stout Cortez on a peak somewhere or other.
“At the races, old son.” Harry Cholomondeley-Mutts had patted me on the hand holding the harmonica. “I’ve got a hot tip – the hottest. Put your shirt on Magic Morsel on the four-thirty, at ten to one. It can’t miss, my boy.”
I’d promptly decided to do nothing of the sort. If old Job had seen Harry Cholomondeley-Mutts’ luck with horses, he’d have started chortling with glee about how well he was doing in comparison. “So what are you going to bet with?” I’d asked instead.
“Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you about, Bertie,” he’d replied. “I need a little money to bet on the dashed horse. A couple of pounds should suffice.” He’d seen me open my mouth, and had instantly pushed the attack home, like Wellington at Waterloo. “Bertie, dash it. I gave you this magnificent musical instrument, and all I ask in return is two quid which you’ll get back tomorrow, along with the other five.”
So what had there been to do except give him the two pounds? He’d gone off happily enough, and I’d fallen to examining the harmonica.
It was a really good harmonica. I’d managed to produce several interesting squeals from it before Pongy Dobble-Snorts and Sippy Abercrombie-Harris had approached me with strange looks in their eyes.
“Bertie,” Pongy had said, “unless you stop that noise at once, we’re going to throw you out of the club on your ear.”
“Right on your ear,” Sippy had agreed, rolling up his sleeves over his forearms. “Don’t think we won’t.”
“What noise?” I’d asked, befuddled, don’t you know. “What noise are you talking about?”
“That noise with that thing,” Sippy had said. Now Sippy has a face like a friendly gorilla, but at that moment he’d got the look of a gorilla whose girlfriend had given him the old heave-ho. “That noise that sounds like the roar of a mating...what do you call those things?” he’d asked Pongy. “You know, those big things that live in Africa. Roar like a what-do-you-call it.”
“Lions?” Pongy had asked doubtfully. “Leopards?”
“No, no. Those things that live in marshes and look like pigs that began on a banquet and forgot to stop.”
“I think you’re thinking of hippopotamuses,” I’d made the mistake of saying.
“That’s what I mean. Stop that noise that you’re making, like the love song of a hippopotamus in darkest Africa, or we’ll throw you out on your ear.”
And what with looking like a dyspeptic gorilla, I wasn’t sure he wouldn’t do it either, so I’d had to put my harmonica away. But I’d taken it right out of my pocket after I’d got home, and begun practising on it. Jeeves had not been amused.
“That is not an instrument that produces a noise pleasing to the ear, sir,” he'd said, in a tone reminiscent of a judge putting some particularly foul malefactor away in jug for twenty years.
I’d broken off trying to play The Song Of The Drunken Sailor on it to remonstrate. “Some of the best musicians in the world play the harmonica.”
“I am saying nothing about their personal character, sir.”
I’d seen that the man was pained, but, dash it, one has to put one’s foot down somewhere or one stands in danger of losing one’s heart and s. “I will continue to play this instrument, Jeeves,” I’d said coldly. “And you will kindly refrain from further comment on the matter.”
“Very well, sir,” he’d said stiffly.
Now all this was a dashed long time ago – at least a week – and one would have thought he’d got over it by now, but evidently he was determined to have his way. My Wooster fighting blood – the legacy of Woosters dating back to the mists of antiquity, don’t you know – was aroused. “Very well, Jeeves,” I said. “I will get ready to face Mrs Gregson. Kindly make me some of your egg and Worcestershire Sauce hangover cure. I feel I shall need it.”
For a moment he hesitated, and I thought he was softening. But then something seemed to enter the man’s eyes as his glance fell on the harmonica, which rested on the bedside table.
“As you wish, sir,” he said.
“Bertram!” My Aunt Agatha’s voice, like her appearance, suggested someone chewing broken glass. “You will kindly explain this.”
“Explain what?” I blinked. “What are you going on about this early in the morning?”
I could already see that, even in a long history of being a tough egg, she hadn’t managed quite so much tough-egginess before. In response to my cheery “What ho, Aunt Agatha! How are you today?” she had only sniffed, like one of those bally animals that breathe fire and whatnot. You know the one I’m talking about. Starts with a d, and St George had a jolly good time fighting them.
“It is not early in the morning, you lazy wastrel. It is almost noon.” Aunt Agatha slapped a newspaper down on the table hard enough to make everything on it jump. “I refer to this...alliance...you contracted at this party last night.”
“What alliance?” I asked, forbearing – if that’s the word – to point out that calling me a lazy wastrel was unfair on her part. I may be a little short on the grey matter sometimes, but when necessary I can work as hard as anybody. Ask all my friends whom I’ve helped along in their love lives. Of course, it did require the help of Jeeves in the end, but it’s the principle of the thing.
“This!” Aunt Agatha’s finger stabbed down on the paper, like Brutus’ knife giving Caesar the business. I saw she was pointing at the Society page, something earnestly to be avoided if you want to keep your marbles all about you. I’ve always thought it was partly due to her addiction to Society news that Aunt Agatha turned out the way she did. “It says you were at some Mr Prosser’s party last night. One of your worthless acquaintances with too much money and too little brains, I’m sure.”
This was too accurate a description of Oofy Prosser to be disputed, so I did not dispute it. “So were a lot of other coves,” I protested. “Why are you singling me out?”
Aunt Agatha leant across the table, fixing me with an eye as gimlet sharp as old Marcus Junius’ knife. “Did those others also promise to marry a fourth-rate actress from Hollywood?” she asked.
“What?” I gasped, you know, like someone had sloshed me over the noggin with a cosh. “What did you say?”
“Read this,” Aunt Agatha said menacingly. And if you want to know what Aunt Agatha sounds like when she is being menacing, don’t. Don’t want it. “Here, read it, right here.”
I read it. It said, in plain black and white letters, that Miss Amanda Hollander, the up and coming young actress from Hollywood, Calif., had announced that she was contemplating marriage to Mr Bertram W. Wooster, the well known young man about town, after a whirlwind courtship at a party thrown by the famous young millionaire Alexander C. Prosser. Mr Wooster, she said, had begged her to become his wife, and she would announce a decision after talking to her manager and agent.
“What do you have to say about that?” Aunt Agatha demanded. “I suppose you’ll claim that you don’t even know this woman.”
“I don’t,” I began. “I...” A faint memory came to me of the party, like a scene dimly glimpsed through a mirror coated i’ the mist. A face with bright red lips, hair piled up like a sleeping blonde boa constrictor, and a nasal accent. “I have no clear remembrance of this,” I said. “But I’m certain I did not ask her to marry me, whoever she is. You know my views on marriage.”
“I’m sure you don’t have any memory. You get disgustingly drunk, you lose control of your faculties, and then you say things which make the most unsuitable young women think that you’re proposing to them. You need someone to take care of you.”
I felt the stirring of danger, like an antelope on the African plains stalked by one of the lions or leopards Pongy had been talking about. “I have Jeeves to take care of me.”
“Jeeves! I do not mean Jeeves. I mean you need a wife. A sensible young woman who will keep you on a tight leash.” Aunt Agatha’s eyes fixed me with a stare that would have turned a basilisk to stone. “I have the right girl for you. I was not certain earlier, because she can tend to be a little overwhelming, but I am now convinced that she is the only one who can keep you under control.”
At her words I felt my h. fall to the p. of my stomach. “Who is this female?” I managed to utter.
“Do not call her a female! Her name is Hermione Collinshaw, of the Shropshire Collinshaws, and you will address her as Hermione.”
“My apologies, Aunt Agatha,” I managed to utter. “And how exactly do you intend to get me hitched to this young blister...I mean, to this Hermione? I have never even met her.”
“Something which will soon be rectified. I have already sent a telegram asking her to come to London. You, she, and I will lunch tomorrow at noon exactly at the Ritz.” She got to her feet and picked up the newspaper in such a way that I winced, fearing that she would bring it down on the old bean. “Do not be late, do not be drunk or hung over, and, Bertram?”
“In the remote possibility that this American actress woman is advised by her agent and manager to marry you, you will, of course, refuse.”
“Refuse? Aunt Agatha, dash it, there’s a thing called noblesse oblige, you know. Gentlemen do not go back on their word.”
“Gentlemen, possibly, do not,” this human pestilence pronounced. “But stupid drunken wastrels like you, Bertram, hardly fall under that category, do they?”
And leaving me with a feeling as though termites were eating me from inside, she galumphed off, trailing clouds of indignation all the way.
“This is indeed a serious development, sir,” Jeeves murmured.
He’d shimmered in after the aunt had legged it, and listened impassively to my anguished appeal.
“Serious development?” I squawked. “You have some American actress waiting for word from her manager and agent on the one hand to marry me, and Aunt Agatha with some kind of human smallpox germ on the other to marry me to, and all you have to say is that this is a serious development?”
“I am afraid, sir, that no more apt phrase suggests itself to me at the moment.” You could see the dashed blighter was still miffed about the harmonica. “However, it is true that the situation seems to be a little precarious. I suggest a temporary withdrawal from the country may be advisable.”
“Jeeves, you’re right as usual!” I jumped up with relief. “Pack our bags at once, and book passage on any ship leaving for America today. I don’t care which ship, any will do.”
“Begging your pardon, sir,” he murmured in reply, “I would not suggest the United States as a port of call for the present. You will recall that Miss Hollander is an American citizen, and if you should turn up in the US, the press would naturally assume that you had followed her there. That would not be a good thing in view of your current situation.”
“Dash it, no, it wouldn’t! Her agent and manager would say that a marriage would be excellent publicity, too. So where can we go in a hurry?”
Jeeves coughed slightly. “I should suggest France, sir. Paris, to be more precise. Unlike the Riviera, there is little likelihood of meeting anyone there with whom you are acquainted, and who could report back your whereabouts to Mrs Gregson.”
“You’re right, Jeeves,” I said, an immense weight rolling off my mind, as though someone had come to that blighter who was carrying the world on his shoulders and offered to take the weight off. You know the one I mean. They named railway timetables after him, or something. “So let’s pack up, and then what ho for France!”
“The bags are already packed, sir,” Jeeves said. “I took the liberty of preparing them while you were talking to Mrs Gregson. I also took the liberty of leaving the harmonica unpacked, on your bedside table.”
I took a deep breath and decided to be stern. I mean, the chap had saved my life, but there comes a point when one jolly well has to make a stand and make one’s point of v clear. “The harmonica goes in my bags, Jeeves. I will not leave without it.”
The man took it like a trooper. Only a flickering eyelash showed the depths of his unhappiness. “Very good, sir.”
It’s unreasonable the hours one’s expected to keep in Paris. The bally constabulary, or whatever it is they call them in France – gendarmerie or something – takes a dim view of someone who, having imbibed too well, is trying to find his way back to his hotel at three in the morning. I discovered this when I was standing in their equivalent of a magistrate’s court, having to shell out a mille franc note as the alternative to being jugged for the duration.
It was only after I finally returned to the hotel, and had been plied with a restorative by Jeeves, that the true horror of the situation became apparent.
“There is a telegram, sir,” Jeeves said. “It is from Mrs Gregson.”
“Aunt Agatha?” My mouth fell open like one of those people watching the Assyrian come down like a wolf on the fold. “How on earth does she know where we are?”
“I believe, sir, that the unfortunate incident of your arrest made the morning papers in Paris, and it seems not unlikely that some acquaintance of hers conveyed the information back to Mrs Gregson. It is possibly someone at the embassy. I believe her nephew by marriage, Hector Bassington-Portlesby, is a junior diplomat, and is posted to France.”
“That must be it, dash it.” My hangover, which had until now been in the act of going out as the lamb, returned as the lion, roaring and gnashing its teeth. “What does the blankety-blank missive seek to convey?”
“Shall I read it?” Jeeves cleared his throat and unfolded the portentous-looking piece of p. “AM ARRIVING 24TH MORNING WITH HERMIONE IN PARIS STOP YOU WILL MEET US FOR BREAKFAST WITHOUT FAIL STOP NO FURTHER EVASION WILL BE TOLERATED STOP HAVE TAKEN STEPS ACCORDINGLY STOP AGATHA GREGSON.”
“The twenty fourth?” I squeaked. “But that is...”
“The day after tomorrow. Quite so, sir.” Jeeves deftly took the glass of restorative, which was in the act of falling from my fingers, and returned it to the table. “It would appear that the situation is somewhat in extremis, as one might say.”
“Terrible, you mean? Awful?”
“Precisely, sir. I would even go so far as to call it critical.”
“But, dash it, can’t we just move somewhere else...?” A thought struck me. “Jeeves, what do you suppose she meant by saying have taken steps accordingly?”
“I could not say for certain, sir, but I imagine that Mr Bassington-Portlesby at the embassy will have been notified to keep track of our movements, and, if necessary, to stop us from leaving.”
Until then I’d not understood the meaning of the expression “the room spun before my eyes,” but the whole bally affair began to turn round and round, like the Nautilus caught in the whirlpool, don’t you know. “Jeeves,” I asked imploringly, “what are we going to do?”
“I do have one solution, sir, but it may be a little extreme.”
“And that is? I’ll do anything that gets me out of the clutches of Aunt Agatha and this Hermione blister.”
“Yesterday, sir, while you were out, I happened to have exchanged a few words with the concierge of this establishment, and it turned out that he was a former member of the French Foreign Legion. He strongly recommended it as an organisation which sheltered anyone who wished to escape a, shall we say, contretemps in their lives.”
“The Legion!” I stared at Jeeves, astonished. “You don’t mean that army of the damned, which men join to forget, and in the forgetting, to die?”
“I do believe that some of that is possibly a slight exaggeration, sir,” Jeeves replied. “As far as I am aware, at this moment the Legion is not engaged in any warfare. It, however, is always in need of volunteers, and it protects them from the authorities, as well as unfortunate complications in personal lives.”
“Like Aunt Agatha, you mean.” I sighed. “All right, Jeeves. I bow to your superior intellect. But how do we join the Legion? I suppose it isn’t as though we have to waltz off to deepest Francophone Africa, walk into a fort, and demand to be signed on?”
For a moment I thought I almost saw a tremble on his lip, as though it were the ghost of a smile. “No, sir. I have taken the liberty of ascertaining the location of the recruiting stations of the Foreign Legion. The nearest is right here in Paris, only a short distance away.”
I peered at him suspiciously. “And I assume that you have already made arrangements for us to turn up there?”
“Yes, sir. We will be expected at the recruiting sergeant’s office early tomorrow morning.” Jeeves coughed gently. “It would be advisable, sir, to not turn up reeking of the blood of the grape, that is, alcohol. So if I might venture a suggestion, it might be better not to imbibe too freely tonight.”
“By Jove, no! And if I did, it would be just like Hector Bassington-Portlesby to get me jugged for drunk and d, just to keep me locked up till Aunt Agatha gets here. A disgusting little tadpole, as I recall from the time I met him at Aunt Agatha’s house. He was a schoolboy then, but the mark of evil was already stamped indelibly on his features. You know what he did, Jeeves?”
“I’d left my shoes out in the passage to be polished, and the little pustule knotted the laces together. I had to cut the laces to free them.” I brooded on the memory, like Napoleon on the retreat from Moscow. “Never trust a boy who ties shoelaces together, Jeeves.”
The Legion! The place where the walking wounded of life, the lovelorn and the criminal, found redemption and forgiveness, and a new beginning! The Legion – where men were forged with fire and steel, and marched through the gates of hell and back again! The Legion!
The recruiting sergeant was a cove who looked as much more like a gorilla than Sippy Abercrombie-Harris as old Sippy looked like a gorilla than a human being, if you get my drift, only one that looked as though it was in the throes of an acute toothache. He peered at me as though he’d never seen a normal human before. “And your name is?” he said, slowly, in English.
“Beau Wilberforce,” Jeeves said before I could open my mouth. “And I am Beau Reginald.”
“Both of you are called Beau?” the sergeant asked, furrowing his brow as though the dentist had asked him when he’d last brushed his teeth.
“It is a common name with us English,” Jeeves said. “A certain series of romance novels would seem to be to blame. They were written by the well known novelist Rosie M Banks, whose male protagonists invariably were handsome, irresistible to the ladies, and...”
“All right,” the recruiting sergeant said hurriedly. “Go in through that door, and ...” then he said something under his breath that I couldn’t catch.
“What did the old chap mutter at the end there?” I asked Jeeves, as we toddled through a stone passage, rather reminiscent of the Tower of London.
“I believe he was saying ‘God help the Legion’ in German, sir,” Jeeves said. “Doubtless that is his native language.”
“How are you so familiar with the works of Rosie B, Jeeves?” I asked curiously. “After all, I could never get through one of her turgid tomes. The woman is dire.”
“I have stated earlier, sir, that my own aunt has an extensive collection of Miss Banks’ books, and I have therefore some acquaintance with them,” Jeeves said. “They err, perhaps, somewhat on the side of turgid prose once in a while.”
“And what possessed you to give false names while we were signing up?” I asked, as we clambered up a flight of stairs as steep as the Matterhorn. Or, to be perfectly honest, I clambered. Jeeves just shimmered as usual.
“I thought it likely that false names would make it harder for Mrs Gregson to track us down, sir.”
“I suppose you’re right, Jeeves,” I said. “But being called Beau Wilberforce gives me the absolute pip. It’s like the time my Bible class in grammar school held a Scripture study session and I was the only one who couldn’t pronounce Arpachshad. I think...”
I didn’t get to finish what I thought. We’d arrived at a door, which opened into a long room, with several people in uniform. One of them, another sergeant, spotted us and came over.
“You is the two Beau, yes?” he asked.
We were in.
“Jeeves, old top,” I said. “Somehow, this is not quite what I expected.”
“I mean, look at this.” I waved my hand from the fort’s ramparts. “All those books about the magnificent Sahara, with the dunes like waves on a sea, and lines of camels as caravans traverse the sandy wastes – and what do we have here? Some beastly little cliffs and things covered by scrub, and that village over there…”
“It is called al Madina, sir. That means, in the Arabic tongue…”
“Piffle to what it means in the Arabic tongue. Tosh too, if you prefer. Where are the camel-hair tents we were led to expect, the aromas of exotic spices, the belly-dancers with swirling veils, the dark-eyed temptresses with perfume in their hair? All we have is just another village. The houses look a little different, I grant you, and there is the mosque, but when it’s all said and done, it’s just a village like any other back home.”
“That is indeed true, sir. We, on the other hand, are emphatically not the same as at home.”
“There you have me. But is it an improvement? I ask you!” I held out an arm to demonstrate. “Look at this! And look at these boots we have on! And these caps! What would I not do for a pair of spats and a topper. It’s not exactly the what-do-you-call-it of sartorial splendor, is it?”
“Yes, sir. I admit that there is something perhaps a little lacking in the matter of quality as far as habiliments are concerned. Possibly the Legion could have used a softer cloth for its uniforms.”
“As well as provided mattresses for the beds, in place of sacks stuffed with straw.” I slapped the stock of my rifle. “And this hulking great thing is so heavy that I ought to have my own pack mule to carry it on our marches. Why, yesterday…” I broke off as a sound tolled from underneath.
“I believe that is the signal for lunch, sir,” Jeeves said.
The sound came again, and temporarily deprived me of speech. It rang in my ears like the Inchcape Bell, and with as much finality as it had for poor old Sir Ralph the Rover. “Jeeves!” I cried when I could speak again. “The food! I could take the uniform, and the rifle, and the mattress. I could even take the marches. But I can’t take the food.”
“It does, perhaps, lack a certain savour, sir. I have, however, ascertained that the cook could perhaps be enticed to provide better provender, if only he were adequately recompensed for the trouble involved.”
“Adequately recompensed? You mean bribed?”
“In a word, yes, sir. In fact, I have already taken the liberty, this morning, of slipping a mille note into his kepi. I believe you will find a distinct improvement in his cooking.”
“Jeeves,” I said fervently, “you’re a life-saver. If I had any more of that gruel tasting of lime, that bread tasting of weevils, and the meat...what did the meat taste of, Jeeves?”
“I could not say for certain, sir, but I did see that the meat lacked something in freshness. I have induced the cook to substitute a somewhat better joint, and compensated him for it as well. Shall we go down, sir? The corporal down in the quadrangle is looking up at us, and signalling rather impatiently.”
Accordingly, we wafted down the stairs and into the dining hall, where the common herd of Legionnaires were already tucking into their nosh with all the delicacy of a pack of starving hornbills. Or is it hyenas I’m thinking of? You know, the beast that laughs like Twisty Frobisher-Hobbs when he’s pulled off another cheating job in cards. We soon got the food, and if the beef was a little tougher than would be acceptable at the Ritz, and the bread perhaps a little over baked, we didn’t complain, and as for the rest of them, I don’t think they noticed.
We’d just toddled out of the dining hall, adequately sated, when the corporal screamed in my ear, like one of those storms they get in the southern oceans. He was a German, and I’d told Jeeves that the ruddy Kaiser had probably used him to shout messages from Berlin across to the trenches. “Legionnaire Beau Wilberforce? Why is you answer not, when call I you?”
I jumped. “Who?” For the moment, you see, I’d quite forgotten that the bally blighter was using the name Jeeves had given when we had signed up.
“Is you talking to me back?” the corporal demanded, shaking a finger in my face. “If so, a good way of teaching lesson, we have. Buried up to your neck in the earth, you will be.”
The chappie was the size and general appearance of a barn door, and his finger looked about the size of the handle of a cricket bat as he wagged it in my face. “Well?” he demanded. “Why is you answer not, when I call?”
Jeeves broke in at that moment, and I think the tone of voice he used was what is popularly known as “unctuous”. “We beg your pardon, corporal, but Beau Wilberforce was considering how best we could serve the Legion. Standing guard on the fort ramparts is not all we joined up for.”
I saw that the corporal was less than convinced. He was, in fact, giving us a bit of the old stinker look, like one might eye a bookie disguised as a jellied eel seller in order to avoid paying out the winnings, so I hastened to join in. “Now, corporal, my dear old chap, he’s telling the truth, don’t you know. Isn’t there some kind of mission you could send us on, in which we might prove ourselves?”
“With the captain, I talk will. In meantime, you go and the yard sweep.”
“I would be happy to volunteer for that task,” Jeeves said immediately, in the old feudal spirit.
“No. You will with me come, to help the duty sergeant’s office fix up. And you, Beau Wilberforce, to it you get.”
To it, perforce, I got. The yard was as big as though all the playing fields of Eton got together and said, “What ho, let’s all go on holiday to North Africa and make ourselves the yard of a Foreign Legion fort.” And as I finished sweeping one end and moved on to the middle, a huge herd of legionnaires came trampling like stampeding cattle back over the bit I’d just swept, so I’d had to go back and sweep it again. So by the time I finally finished, the s was sinking in the west, and the shadows were long, and it would have been just the hour when Bertie, back in London, would have adjusted his bow tie, set his hat at a jaunty angle, and toddled off to the Drones Club for an evening of fun and enjoyment. But before I could even put the broom down and totter to the dining room for a spot of tea, my old friend the corporal trundled up again.
“You will with me come,” he said. “The captain wants to talk to you.”
I staggered back from the captain’s office, like one of the world heavyweight champion’s victims who had walked into a punch he wasn’t expecting. I had, in fact, the impression that the fort was dancing around me – a dance rather in the manner of a fandango or something similar. In such circumstances, I would normally have tottered into the nearest pub for a stiff brandy and soda, but the total lack of pubs was another feature of the lamentable deficiencies of the Legion. Instead, I resolved to find Jeeves.
When I tracked him down, I found him reading the papers. Apparently, the post, which was an uncertain thing here, had come, and some of the newspapers with it.
“Good evening, sir,” Jeeves said, as though nothing had happened in the interim. “Would you like to see the newspapers?”
Impatiently, I pushed the offered sheet of newsprint away. “Jeeves, we’re in the most awful trouble.”
“Indeed, sir?” The chap might have been commenting on the weather. “How is that?”
“You know what we said to the corporal about being sent on a mission? Well, the captain is sending us on a mission, at dawn tomorrow. Just the two of us.”
“Yes, sir? And the nature of this mission?”
“It appears that there’s some kind of revolt brewing among the natives, under some bounder called Abd el Brim. It would seem that these rebels have an encampment a few kilometres to the east. The captain had been waiting for reinforcements, he said, before sending a team to spy out the land. But since we’re so eager to do something for the Legion, he says, you and I are to go and spy out the place tomorrow morning. Alone.”
“Indeed, sir?” he repeated. “It would appear then to be an undertaking of some importance, and a considerable responsibility.”
“Haven’t you been listening, Jeeves? What happened to that magnificent brain of yours?” It was all a huge let down, as though when the men bringing the good news from Aix to Ghent, or maybe the other way round, had arrived, the people of Aix, or Ghent, had just blinked at them lazily. “It’s obvious that the captain just wants to get rid of us. This Abd el Brim is supposed to have thousands of warriors at his encampment.”
“Yes, sir. But, remember, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”
“It is from Horace, sir. Sweet and becoming it is to die for one’s country.”
“Well, whoever that cove Horace is, you can tell him from me that of all the fatheaded, idiotic, blithering rubbish I have ever heard, including Gussy Fink-Nottle’s attempts to hold forth on his newts in the Drones Club, this is the absolute, undisputed champion. It takes the gold, silver, and bronze, and if there were platinum and diamond medals, it would take them, too, as easily as anyone might swallow one of Aunt Dahlia’s chef Anatole’s famous dinners.”
“That is, unfortunately, impossible, sir. The poet Horace has been dead several centuries.”
“So did he die for his country?” I asked curiously.
“No, sir. His later years were somewhat indelicate.”
“There you are, then. And it’s not as though the Legion is our bally country, anyway, so I don’t see what that has to do with it.”
“It is the principle of the thing, sir.” Jeeves glanced over my shoulder and straightened to attention. “Good evening, corporal.”
“Ah, the two of you, talk.” The cove couldn’t contain his glee. “Tomorrow you will to Abd el Brim go, and then nobody again you will see.”
“Only if we fail in our mission, corporal,” Jeeves said. After some more gloating, the corporal wandered off, and Jeeves turned to me. “I have been given guard duty for the first watch, and you for the second, according to the rota, sir. Would you prefer to retire to bed and rest until then, or perhaps read the paper?”
“To blankety-blank with the paper,” I replied, deeply stirred. “Here I am worried out of my gourd, and you talk about the paper. Piffle, tosh, and even forsooth!” And, turning away from him, I staggered, or it might have been tottered, from the room.
Dash it all, I was stirred to the depths of my soul, you see.
Jeeves woke me well before dawn, with a gentle shake of the shoulder. It’s a measure of the terrible thing the Legion does to a man that I, who had seldom thought of retiring to bed before that hour, had almost grown accustomed to crawling out of it. I even managed to unclose an eye, and gulp down the hot mug of tea Jeeves offered, but declined the Legion biscuit.
“If that is the last meal the condemned man is to have, Jeeves,” I informed him, “then I would rather do without.”
“It will be a long day, sir,” he murmured, as unflappable as usual. “I would have made certain to induce the cook to provide us with sufficient victuals, but he has made himself unavailable. It is possible that he does not wish to squander rations on those he considers condemned.”
“That’s hard, Jeeves. Hard, I say!” Having no alternative, I took a bite of one of the biscuits. It was even harder. “Maybe the fighting quality of the Legion, Jeeves, depends on keeping the men so bally hungry that they are always in a foul mood. Look at these beastly things, Jeeves. Can a normal human being with teeth that aren’t like those of a man-eating crocodile ever consume one of them? Have you ever thought of that?”
“You are very possibly right, sir. In any event, since we could not secure rations, I have packed our possessions in the bags, so that, in the probable event that we do not return, we will still have access to them.”
“And if we get shot?” I hurriedly held up a hand. “No, don’t answer that, Jeeves. This is not a time for a proclamation from the oracle.”
“Very good, sir.”
The guard at the gate, when we wended our way there, had no illusions about our fate. “Proper shafted you, ‘aven’t they,” he said. “And serve you right too. Stupid toffs. Abd el Brim will string you up, see if he doesn’t.”
Maintaining a dignified silence, we trudged off through the darkness. Or, to be exact, I trudged, while Jeeves, in his usual uncanny manner, merely shimmered. “Do you think that Abd el Brim will have spies watching the fort, Jeeves?” I asked suddenly, the idea just striking the old noggin. “Could he be ready for us?”
“It is highly likely indeed that he has spies in al Madina, sir. If I am not mistaken, some of them will be watching us now.”
I stared into the darkness, sort of wild-eyed. “The coves could shoot us now, at any moment!”
“I do not think so, sir. From all I have heard of Abd el Brim – I have been making enquiries about him – he is popularly supposed to be an honourable man, who does not fight an enemy without giving him a chance to fight back. Shooting someone from the concealment afforded by darkness is beneath him.”
This did not quite fill me with the kind of comfort old Abu ben Adhem got from the angel when he came back the next night and showed him the book with the names that god loved. But the sun was beginning to come up, and though it was dashed cold, I had discovered that being up at the unearthly hour of dawn – a hitherto unknown experience, don’t you know – can actually do up the what-have-you and put you back on your feet.
“I say, Jeeves,” I began. “What do you think Aunt Agatha will have thought when she came to Paris, and found that, despite her strict orders, we had flown the coop?”
“I expect that she would have been a little unhappy, sir.”
“She’ll have been like a bear with a sore head,” I diagnosed. “No, worse. She’d have been like a bear with two sore heads. It’s a jolly good thing, I can tell you, that we’re here and she’s far away in England. Or maybe Paris.” A thought came to me. “Wonder what she did to that young blister, Hector, for letting her down? Did she disembowel him with her bare hands, do you think?”
“Hardly, sir. You see, because...”
What he was about to say remained unsaid, because at that very moment we were suddenly surrounded by an army of misbegotten sons of Belial who seemed to have sprung from the very bowels of the earth. There seemed to be at least a hundred of them, though a later count proved their number to be only five, all of whom, for some strange reason, had guns pointed at us and cloth covering their faces. Their leader, a tough egg of the sort one wouldn’t want to meet out in an alley at midnight, stared at us and said something in French.
“What was that, old man?” I asked. “A sad tendency to neglect my French lessons in school, which I blame on the strictness of an overly disciplinarian French master, has made my grasp of the language less than complete.”
“I believe the gentleman stated, sir,” Jeeves murmured, “that we are his prisoners, and that we are to give up our weapons.”
“That’s right,” the cove said, unexpectedly, in English. “Give us your guns and come along with us. If you do not, I’ll cut your ears off.”
I gave him the dashed rifle. I am, ever since school where the aforesaid French master had had a habit of twisting the ears of anyone who failed to learn French irregular verbs, not pleased at the prospect of having them separated from my head. And the dashed weapon was so heavy that he was welcome to it anyway.
“You must be very stupid,” the bruiser-in-chief chortled, as we meandered on together, “if you thought you could approach the camp of Abd el Brim unnoticed and spy on us. Abd el Brim will be amused, and that is good for you.”
“What if he is not amused?” I asked.
The cove frowned a bit, as though I’d said something a bit silly. “If he is not amused, it will not be good for you.”
Soon afterwards, we arrived at the camp of Abd el Brim. It was, you know, quite large, and quite filled with chappies legging it here and there. One in particular came trundling over, shouting something in his language, to which our chief bruiser replied. The shouting cove turned to us.
“So,” he shouted. “You came here to spy on Abd el Brim? Well,” he added, tapping himself on a chest the size of the Queen Mary with a finger like a torpedo he went on, “here is Abd el Brim. You can spy on him now.”
It was with some interest, like Galileo inspecting the moons of wherever-it-was, that I gazed on this blighter. Apart from the outsize dimensions, he had a beard that was probably useful as a shield against bullets and spear thrusts. Once you managed to peer past the face fungus, he had eyes that were unpleasantly reminiscent of Aunt Agatha.
“Are you done looking?” he bellowed eventually. “Now, questions I will ask, and answers I will have.”
My fighting blood, the blood of Woosters from generations past, was, as it had been earlier, again up. Especially the fighting blood of my five-times great uncle Richard, who had valiantly served as a supply clerk in the Admiralty at the time of Trafalgar. “I will tell you nothing, cad,” I said. “No matter how you torture me. Not one word will you wring from my lips.”
“No?” The bounder stared at me a moment. “I see,” he said. “Perhaps, then, you would like to marry my daughter instead.”
There is a time and place for a man’s fighting blood to be up, and a t and p for it to quietly turn round and sneak away home, if it knows what’s good for it. My fighting blood decided, like my second cousin thrice removed Norman at Isandlwana, that it was time to pack up and shut down shop. “Your daughter?”
“Yes,” Abd el Brim shouted. I wondered if there was some control knob, like on a bally radio, which could be turned to reduce the volume of his shouts. “She is in my tent. You will come and meet her now, and be married to her tomorrow.”
“To your daughter?” I repeated. “Why do you want me to marry your daughter?”
“Because you’re such a brave man,” the blighter boomed. “It would need a really brave man to marry her. And,” he laughed, a horrid gurgling sound reminiscent of an expiring mud volcano, “a very stupid one.”
“Jeeves,” I began, desperately. “Tell him that...” But before I could say another word, I had been seized by the collar like a dashed rag doll and dragged away. And a moment later I was thrown into a tent and down on to a carpet, at the feet of a girl.
She was a dashed pretty girl, I could see. I could also see that she had the kind of eyes that made Aunt Agatha look like a pussycat curled up by the fire in comparison. My heart, already in the pit of my stomach, tried to fall further and found there was nowhere to go.
“She is called Arifa Alam,” Abd el Brim shouted. “Arifa Alam, this will be your husband.”
The girl looked down at me. “He is stupid looking,” she said. “And I see he will need a lot of training. I intend to start off by making him learn Arabic.”
“He does not even speak French,” Abd el Brim shouted. “Do you think he is capable of it?”
“By the time I am through with him,” Arifa Alam said, with a smile that reminded me of a polar bear – a hungry polar bear at that – “he will be capable of anything I tell him to do.”
I could believe it, too. In my life, I’ve come across a lot of tough females, some of whom would make an old boot look supple in comparison – but this girl took the cake. She took not just the cake but the dish it sat on, the tablecloth, the cake knife, and probably the table as well. I gulped.
“And he will learn to control his expressions, too,” Arifa Alam said, and poked me with her foot. “Stop gulping.”
I stopped gulping.
“Do you think he drinks?” the little pestilence asked, bending an interested eye towards me.
“All Englishmen do. I am certain you will cure him of that as well.”
“Of course. In a week he will have forgotten the taste of wine, beer, brandy, whisky, rum and whatever else they drink.”
At her words my spine felt turned to ice, as though one of those glacier things in Norway had decided to run a marathon down it. “I say...” I began to protest.
“You will not speak unless spoken to,” the girl said. “You will now stop speaking.”
I stopped speaking. There was something in her manner which made it impossible to do otherwise. It was as though the Ancient Mariner had thought about whom to pass on the glittering eye which held the Wedding Guest when he retired, and at that moment seen this girl, and decided, “What ho! There’s the exact candidate I was looking for!” Terrifying, don’t you know.
“All right, then,” Abd el Brim shouted. “You’ve met.” Grabbing me by the collar again, he dragged me out of the tent and back to where Jeeves stood, along with the bally crew who had captured us. “Now, you. You will answer my questions.”
“I have none of the scruples that bedevil Mr Wooster, Abd el Brim,” the cove said. “As his gentleman’s gentleman, though, it is more appropriate if we had our conversation in private.”
“Very well,” Abd el Brim shouted. “Meanwhile, I must make certain that my future son in law is kept safe and secure till tomorrow.” He must have made a sign of some sort, because all at once someone threw a blanket over my head. I felt myself wrapped in it and tied with ropes.
“Jeeves,” I shouted, but it was no use. I was dragged away and thrown down like a s of potatoes. It was painful as the dickens, mostly because I seemed to be lying on a bed of nails, like one of those fakir chappies in India. At least the things digging into me seemed sharp enough to be nails. And tomorrow, Arifa Alam would get her nails into me. I’d noticed they looked sharp as billy-o.
I’d finally managed to wriggle into a more comfortable position when I felt myself picked up, thrown on something, and then even more ropes going around and around me, and then the whole thing started to heave and sway. It was a bit like the time I’d got drunk at Pongo Twistleton’s birthday party and then tried to meander home, only to end up walking into a police station while singing “Auld Lang Syne” at the top of my voice. Embarrassing, don’t you know, only I was too busy trying to stop the city going round and round and round me to think too much about it. Only this time I couldn’t even sing, because under that cloth it was all I could do to breathe.
I was just beginning to wonder if killing a prospective groom by shaking him around in a blanket was part of the wedding customs of Abd el Brim’s people when the shaking stopped. I felt the ropes loosen, and then a sudden bally great impact as I was thrown down on a rough surface. Then the remaining ropes were removed, and the blanket drawn away.
I was lying on a dark, deserted street in a town. It was night, and a moon was floating in the sky, raining down moonbeams like nobody’s business. In its light I saw Jeeves peering down at me.
“Are you all right, sir?” he asked solicitously, and helped me to my feet. "I trust you were not too uncomfortable.”
“Where on earth are we, Jeeves?” I asked. “And what are you doing in civilian clothes?” For the chap had shed his uniform and was in the suit and bow tie ensemble he had on when we were still in Paris.
“We are in a back street in the port of Oran, sir,” he told me. “We have been brought here by camel, disguised as luggage – and passage has been arranged for us to England on the freighter El Dorado, which leaves tomorrow for Liverpool. Now, sir, I would suggest you divest yourself of this uniform, which might attract unwelcome attention, and change into your suit, which I have ready for you.”
With about as much regret as the Dutch boy must have felt when he took his finger out of the dyke, I got out of the uniform and back into my comfortable suit, which Jeeves removed from the bags we had carried with us from the fort. He then rolled up the uniforms, his and mine, you understand, into a bundle which he proceeded to thrust behind a bush, undoubtedly for some child of the streets to discover tomorrow and play around in. “Now, sir,” he said, “perhaps we should find an establishment where we can spend the night, and have some nourishment. I deduce from your appearance that you are possibly somewhat famished.”
We found a hotel and soon had managed to fortify ourselves with dinner and a stiff whisky and s each. “Jeeves, you’re a miracle,” I said, when we were finished. “I was thinking bitter thoughts about being cut to pieces by Abd el Brim’s daughter. What did you do to get us out of it?”
“It was not difficult, sir. I merely had to point out to Abd el Brim two things: first, that the Legion had sent us out on what was certain to be a mission ending in our death or capture, so that any information we could provide would certainly be valueless and possibly a trap. And the second...”
“I asked him to consider, sir, the possible value of having a member of the British royal family on his side. If he released us and...”
“The British royal family?” I repeated. “What member of the British royal family?”
“As to that, sir, I regret that I had to descend to a little subterfuge. I said that you were a prince of the Crown, fifth in line to the succession, who had grown tired of the restrictive life at court and run away to enlist in the Legion under a false name on a whim, while I had been deputed by the Crown to accompany you. I took advantage of the unlikelihood of Abd el Brim’s being at all familiar with the minor royalty of the realm, sir.”
“But, dash it, even then, why did the bounder believe you?”
Jeeves coughed politely. “I suggested, sir, that anyone as obviously stupid and incompetent as you were could not possibly survive at large unless he were part of the Royal family. I suggested that it was clear that you could never hope to hold down any employment on your own behalf, which furthermore meant, that since you were not confined to an institution, that you were clearly of royal parentage.”
I considered. On the one hand, the blighter had obviously insulted me to Abd el Brim. On the other hand Abd el Brim had been going to make me marry his daughter, and that was a fate much worse than death. All in all, it was, in v of the circumstances, not bad at all. “Also,” he added, “I informed him that the death or disappearance of a Royal family member would call down the wrath of Britain on him, and it would possibly be a little difficult for him to fight both Britain and France at the same time. He agreed, and arranged for us to be smuggled immediately to Oran, while his agents here bought us passage on the freighter to Liverpool. It will, I am afraid, not be equivalent to a first class stateroom on a transatlantic liner, but it is desirable that we leave before the French authorities begin to suspect that we are the Legionnaires who have disappeared.”
“Or before Abd el Brim realises that he’s been jolly well gypped,” I added. “By Jove, Jeeves, every time you achieve one of your miracles I am further amazed at the power of your brain.”
It was when we were already at sea, and the waves of the Mediterranean were washing against the ship’s hull like nobody’s business, that I suddenly had the sensation of being hit between the eyes with a sock filled with lead shot. “Jeeves,” I gasped, “we can’t go back to England! Aunt Agatha is lying in wait there, with her Hermione, just waiting for me to stick my head in the guillotine!”
“There is no fear of that, sir,” Jeeves said gravely, “as you would have known for yourself if you had taken my advice to read the newspaper back in the fort. I have brought the newspaper in question with me.” Removing the sheet from his bag, he unfolded it to the personal advertisements page and pointed.
“The engagement is announced,” I read, “between Miss Hermione Collinshaw, daughter of Sir Wilfred Collinshaw, Bart, and Lady Daphne Collinshaw of Squelch-In-The-Mud, Shropshire, and Hector Bassington-Portlesby, assistant to the British Ambassador in Paris. The wedding is expected to take place shortly.”
I gasped. Stunned, don’t you know.
“Jeeves!” I said. “Jeeves, we’re saved! Aunt Agatha’s lost her hold over me! Now only that American actress...”
Jeeves turned to the entertainment page and pointed to a news item. “The well-known actress, Miss Amanda Hollander, recently returned from England, will star in the new film by Rosenblumethal Movies of Hollywood, The Dark Matador. Miss Hollander has refused to confirm or deny rumours that she secured her role because of a love affair with the film’s director, Mr Stephen Spellberg.”
I gasped again. “Jeeves, you’re simply astonishing. Did you know when you suggested that we enlist in the Legion that all this would happen?”
“Not in so many words, sir, though I thought from the start that Miss Hollander was a negligible threat. People like that tend to have their heads turned on the spur of a moment, sir. As for Miss Collinshaw, it did seem to me that she – being a strong willed woman – would think that marriage to Mr Bassington-Portlesby, with the certainty of a future ambassadorial position, would be a far better prospect than marriage to you. And Mrs Gregson, when unable to find you, would naturally approach Mr Bassington-Portlesby for an explanation. Since Miss Collinshaw was with her, it would mean the two young people would inevitably become acquainted, sir, and I thought that the possibility of relations developing was quite high. Also, as for the Legion, I was tolerably certain of securing our release at an early date. As you can doubtless see, that has been the case.”
To say I was deeply moved would be an understatement. “Jeeves,” I said when I could articulate again, “you can take that harmonica and do with it what you want. Throw it into the sea, or give it away to somebody, for all I care.”
“Thank you, sir. I have already given it away to Abd el Brim, sir. He said it would serve to rally the troops, sir.”
“You did? What else did he say?”
“He said it sounded like the mating call of a hippopotamus. Will there be anything else, sir?”
The ship sailed on towards England.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2017
|[Edited from alamy dot com]|
[Based on characters created by Pelham G Wodehouse, Esq. As if you didn’t know that.]