Chapter 1: More of gravy than the grave
In which a number of improbable houseguests drive young Professor Kirke to distraction, drink and indigestion – not necessarily in that order.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Digory stared at the shambles on the dining table in dismay. Polly had only arrived last night. How did these things always get out of hand so quickly? And… "Why is the gravy boat full of gin?" asked Digory plaintively. It was far too early in the morning for shenanigans, he would have added had anyone asked him, but they did not.
"The flower vase was already full," answered Nick Charles, as if that explained everything. As he was currently engaged in pouring himself a libation from said vase, perhaps it did.
His wife wrinkled her nose and held out her glass. "It's pronounced vase, dear," said Nora.
"I don't see what difference it makes, they're both spelled the same. V-E-R-M– I'll be damned – darling, does O come next, or U?"
Nora pulled her glass away. "On second thought, I think I'd rather have the gravy."
"Good morning, all!" Uncharacteristically cheery for such a wee hour, Bertie Wooster waltzed in, patting his vest pockets with all the vim and vigor only the morning after vermouth can provide. "I say, what's for breakfast?" He peered at the table. "Good gravy!"
"Indeed sir," commented Jeeves, smoothly inserting a glass of harmless juice into his employer's outstretched hand.
Inwardly, Digory amended his previous and heretofore only coherent thought of the morning. It was far too early for houseguests.
"Have a bit of the hair of the dog, old thing," said Bertie, proffering the gravy boat and an empty glass. Somewhere in the house, a single bark rang out.
"One o'clock," exclaimed Nick. "Time for a drink!"
"No, dear, that was Asta."
"Ah. Two drinks, then."
"I don't drink," protested Digory weakly.
Bertie peered at him like one would at an interesting museum specimen that had not been observed in the wild since the days of Dr. Livingston, I presume. "I say, you do look a bit green about the thingummy. Doesn't he, Jeeves?"
Nora clapped her hands. "It's a lack of stimulation, that's all. No, Nicky, I don't mean the vermouth. It's not yet eleven, you know."
"My dog is off, then. Someone pass me the gravy boat."
Just as Digory resumed his horrified contemplation of the ersatz gravy, Polly made her appearance. It was a delicate moment, as when one's eyes first alight on a grandfather clock upon entering a room and the pendulum is frozen for a second in time, and one has no way of knowing whether it will continue to rise or begin its descent. Polly's mere presence could either instigate order and good sense, or else precipitate a swift decline into chaos.
"Is there any gravy left?" Polly asked. When various affirmative replies made her visibly perk up, Digory knew it was going to be One of Those Days. The best he could hope for was that no hansom cabs would be harmed.
They all sat down more or less to business, with Jeeves pouring coffee and doubling as bartender. "Where were we?" asked Nick, dashing pepper in his martini and carefully placing an olive atop his fried egg.
"Stimulation, sir," prompted Jeeves.
"Don't mind if I do." Nick proffered his glass for a refill. Nora took it from him, sipped and promptly sneezed.
"As I was saying," she continued, her eyes watering, "we need a little excitement."
Digory felt a faint sense of foreboding.
"Nonsense," said Bertie cheerfully. "All we need do is wait. Nick and Nora are here, so some body or other is bound to turn up eventually, what?"
"I think there are quite enough of us here already," muttered Digory to himself. Unfortunately, the ever-attentive butler was, well, attending.
"I believe Mister Wooster was referring to a body of the deceased disposition, sir, rather than the more synechdochial indefinite pronoun."
Unasked, Bertie translated – in a manner of speaking. "Not somebody, you know, but somebody's, er, body. Shuffled off the mortal, and all that."
There was a pause as everyone digested this (except for Digory, who did not much feel like digesting anything). Then Nora chimed in brightly, "Oh, you mean a stiff!"
"Quite," assented Jeeves, his tone only slightly cool.
"What has the old upper lip to do with anything?" wondered Bertie. "I mean, besides the obvious."
Finally, Polly stepped in. "It's American slang for a corpse, Bertie. It refers to the stiffening of limbs due to rigor mortis. Digory, are you feeling quite well? You look a bit pale."
Bertie gave him a hearty clap on the shoulder, and Digory narrowly avoided dipping his nose in the hollandaise. "Perhaps a bracing stroll, old man, to put a bit of color back in the old cheekbones," he suggested.
"It could be most salubrious, sir," added Jeeves.
Before anyone else could manage him out the door, Digory dropped his napkin on the table and stood. "Very well, I think I shall," he said a bit shortly. The chorus of farewells in his wake seemed decidedly muted. Glumly, he reflected that the others were likely glad to have the wet blanket well out of the way. Not that he had any desire to sit around drinking gin at half past ten, mind – it was more the principle of the thing.
"Still," said Digory to himself, "it's a beautiful morning, not that they'd notice. The fresh air will do me good."
And so it might have done, if not for the body sprawled among the rhododendrons not twenty paces from Digory's back door.
Digory stood still for a long moment. He took a deep breath and mentally recited one of his favorite passages from Aristotle: The things that are posterior to becoming are prior in form and in substantiality.
Then he thought: That body's posterior is substantial in form. And: It is crushing the rhododendrons.
Digory turned around and walked back into his house, pausing only to wipe his feet on the mat. He strode matter-of-factly into the dining room, even-keeledly picked up the gravy boat, and without-a-care-in-the-wordly took a long drink from its spout. Around the table, conversation ceased. Eyebrows rose.
"Bertie was right," Digory stated. A select number of eyebrows climbed even higher. "There is a stiff – excuse me – a body in the garden."
"What?" Bertie's voice cracked mid-word. "I mean to say – what, what?" he added for good measure.
Nick looked sharply at Digory. "You mean to say there's somebody pushing up daisies in your garden?"
"No," said Digory. "Rhododendrons. Pardon me, but have you any more gravy?"
Digory blocked out most of the subsequent uproar by the sensible expedient of putting his fingers in his ears. He did catch snatches of conversation, however, as it was necessary to un-stopper in order to drink. The gravy boat was essentially a two-handed vessel: if one held onto the handle alone, the spout would waver and begin to drip on one's chin in a deplorable waste of gin. Digory spared a moment of brief regret that the cow creamer could not be used instead, but alas that was a touchy subject with Bertie and was best left undisturbed in the cupboard.
"I say, oughtn't we phone the constabulary?" Bertie's voice, high-pitched with alarm, cut through the din of Digory's musings.
"That not might be altogether wise, sir," cautioned Jeeves, "after the incident with the helmet."
"Oh, tosh, that was simply ages ago."
"It was last month, sir."
"As I said. Ages!"
Digory experimented with humming a little ditty as he drank, but instead of drowning out the noise he nearly drowned himself with a spoutful of gin up his nose. Through the coughing, he heard the Charlses:
"Oh Nicky, how splendid. You needn't even take a cab to the crime scene."
"You're a ghoulish girl, my darling, have I ever told you that?"
"Only in the morning. Which is rather rich of you, I might add – you're no Greek god yourself in the morning, you know."
"No, only Greek. You're a snob."
"I thought I was a ghoul."
"And a lovely one. Would you care to accompany me to the murder, Mrs. Charles?"
"You do take me to the nicest places, Mr. Charles."
Polly chose that moment to interrupt the proceedings with what Digory privately called her Siren Voice – deceptively sweet at first, but 'ware the shoals ahead. He carefully set down the gravy boat to follow Odysseus's fine example by plugging his ears.
In a private corner of his mind, Digory could admit to having once admired another formidable woman and her peremptory orders. The resemblance ended there, of course, but nevertheless he knew Polly would not appreciate the comparison in the slightest. Truly, he only thought of it at all because he was feeling rather like his old Uncle Andrew at that moment: bemused, upset, and more than a bit blotted. If anyone should plant me in the garden, thought Digory, I should object most strenuously to the presence of another body in my flowerbed.
"Digory." Polly wielded her punctuation as effectively as some men wielded fencing foils. Or pistols. Her full stops were ammunition. Exclamation points, a slashing riposte. And the dreaded dash– "Digory!" she exclaimed. Ah, a mortal wound.
"Yes, my dear," he replied fuzzily. Polly's brow furrowed. "Girl," he blurted. "My dear girl. Er, yes?"
Exasperated, she pulled him from his chair and kept a firm hand on his elbow. "You will show us the body."
"And then what?"
Nick stepped forward. "Then I will investigate."
Nora cleared her throat.
"We," amended Nick, "will investigate."
Bertie looked a trifle put out. "But I say… Jeeves and I have rather a bit of experience sleuthing and whatnot. That is, Jeeves is a details man, you know – always turning stones right and left. Upside-down too, naturally."
"Stolen cow creamers hardly equate to homicide, Bertie," said Polly, which Digory thought unnecessarily harsh.
"You haven't met my Aunt Agatha," muttered Bertie.
Digory found himself nodding in sympathy. "Aunts," he said, clumsily patting Bertie on the shoulder, "can be murder. Q.E.D."
"With a healthy dollop of I.O.U.," agreed Bertie.
Polly was getting that pinched look again, so Digory abruptly spun on his heels (the room spun with him, but he ignored that) and marched towards the door, ready for her sake to get on with it already. He had forgotten his arm was hooked through hers but the only damage was to the umbrella stand in the corner, which Polly abused on a routine basis, so that was all right.
"Spiffing!" cried Bertie in their wake. "Are you coming, Jeeves?"
"It seems inevitable, sir."
To be continued in Ch. 2: The plot like gravy thickens.
Chapter 2: The plot, like gravy, thickens
In which a plot arises, to the consternation of all.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Suitably fortified, Digory marched his motley troops out the kitchen door towards the body in the garden. Technically, he supposed marching should have entailed a smidgeon more rhythm, but Digory defied even that hum-drumming Sousa fellow to march with Polly tugging on one elbow and Bertie jostling the other. There was also a dog underfoot somewhere – possibly two; Digory wasn't certain. A kaleidoscope of wagging tails and bedraggled petunias collided before his eyes.
A forceful tug on his arm jerked him to a stop, one foot in the mulch and the other in Asta's mouth. Digory looked down. There was a third foot, and it was missing its shoe. A fourth, similarly attired, stuck its grubby toes in the air like tiny potatoes left behind by some carless gardener.
"The stiff," pronounced Digory, sweeping his arm in a grand gesture and nearly knocking Nora upside the head. "Sorry. I mean, the corpus corporis delecti, I mean the corpuscule delectable – no, that's not right…"
"The stiff," repeated Nora, steering the conversation back to smoother linguistic ground.
"Just what I said," agreed Digory. He felt very agreeable all of a sudden. The crisp air, the fresh soil underfoot, the very Englishness of his garden all agreed with him. The gin had most definitely agreed with him. Even the houseguests agreed with him – at least, Nora did. And Polly, even though she often disagreed with him, agreed with him, in a manner of speaking. And – oh. The body. Well, that was rather disagreeable, wasn't it?
"I don't see any blood," said Nora. "What do you think, darling? Strangulation? Poison?"
Nick was just kneeling down for a closer look when the corpse gave a mighty groan, rolled over and vomited into the much abused rhododendrons.
"Yes, I'd say poison," Nick drawled, "but more your usual sort, my dear. Poor fellow's half drowned, but not dead – though he might well wish he were."
"Good gad!" exclaimed Bertie.
"Most unusual, sir," agreed Jeeves.
"Not around here," muttered Polly.
Digory didn't wish to disagree with her – not when he was feeling so agreeable – but when he tried to point out that he was not in fact in the habit of finding corpses, alive or otherwise, in his garden shortly after breakfast, Polly cut him off.
"Let's get him sitting up, then, and get something warm into him," she ordered. Under her breath, she added something derogatory about men, thoughtlessness, and taking a pulse.
"I'll heat the gravy, shall I?" offered Digory loudly, talking over her.
Polly glared at him. "I fancy he's already had his fill of that," she censured. "And so, for that matter, have you."
Digory felt obliged to disagree with that assessment as well, which pretty much canceled out any remaining agreeableness that had suffused him but a moment before. How fleeting was agreeability, he mused ruefully. Agreeableness. Agreeable-osity?
From the ground, the erstwhile corpse belched loudly.
"If you will excuse me, sir," murmured Jeeves, "I will prepare a restorative."
Bertie spun round, but his man had already melted away and was presumably already in the butler's pantry. "Take heart, ladies!" Bertie cried. "And do not faint – or if you do, take heart–"
"You already said that," interrupted Digory. The body groaned again. Nobody paid either any heed.
"– for the draughts that Jeeves prepares are as elixirs unto gods, or goddesses, and will presently restore the lively pulse, the blush to fair cheeks not unlike the first blush of affection–"
Ignoring Bertie entirely, Nora and Polly continued making observations. "He looks even worse than you did this morning, Digory," said Polly critically. She stooped to take the man's pulse with only a quick glance in Digory's direction. Digory stood patiently by and tried not to fidget under Nora's suddenly intense observation.
The corpse groaned under Polly's ministrations. Digory sympathized.
Nick had produced a martini from someplace and sipped it as he idly watched the proceedings. "See, Nora, this is why I don't like vacationing in the countryside. It's not good for one's health."
Nora turned up her nose at him. "If you're going to sulk, then I'll just have to solve the mystery myself."
"What mystery?" Nick toyed with his olive. "The man's smashed, not strangled."
"We can at least find out who he is," she countered. "And what he's doing in Digory's garden. If it won't be too much of a strain on your delicate disposition, darling."
Nick pulled her to his side. "You know I can't resist you when you alliterate."
"Not in front of the others, Nicky." But she permitted a swift kiss on the cheek. "Now will you get to work?"
Nick rolled up his sleeves, stood safely downwind, and began questioning the inebriated interloper as best he could.
The ex-stiff's name, it transpired, was Wilberforce Abernathy Lickspittle IV. It was all they could get out of him for some time, but it was quite enough to be getting on with.
"With a name like that, I'd drink too," commented Nick.
"You are drinking," Digory pointed out. Nick shrugged.
"Just imagine how the First must have felt!" exclaimed Nora. "At least the Fourth has a precedent."
"And a hangover. My guess is he wasn't drinking the kind of liquor that improves with age." Nick sipped his martini and made a face. It was warm.
"Time hasn't done his name any good, either," replied Nora, wrinkling her nose.
Polly cleared her throat. A glass had magically appeared in her hand via Jeeves, who stood diffidently a step behind. The contents of the glass were of indeterminable color, being halfway between puce and mauve, and of indeterminate state – neither solid nor entirely liquid. Polly visibly steeled herself against the fumes and handed the glass to W.A.L. the Fourth. It was testament to his high tolerance for noxious liquids (applying the term generously) that he swallowed it in one gulp. Digory's stomach turned over. The others looked impressed. Even the unflappable Jeeves appeared somewhat flapped.
"Wilberforce," the man belched.
"Yes, you – er – mentioned that." Bertie tugged at his collar. "You might wish to consider stopping."
Bertie looked longingly at Nick's martini.
"Oh, may as well finish the round, then. Tally-ho, there's a good chap."
"The Fourth." The man fell back on the ground. Digory winced on the rhododendrons' behalf.
"Quite, quite. Well done, awfully – and I do mean that."
"Hush, Bertie." Polly gently but firmly pulled the man back to a sitting position. It could not properly be called upright, since he listed eastward and swayed back and forth like a mizzenmast amidships on a rough sea, but it evidently met Polly's minimum standards.
Digory chalked the lowering thereof up to the gravy. It had certainly had the same effect on him. "Mr. Lick– er, can we call you Will?" he blurted.
The man grunted.
"Good," said Digory, relieved. "In that case, Will, what are you doing lying in my garden?"
"Don't you mean laying?" interrupted Nora.
"Pretty sure it's lying, old bean," offered Bertie, at which point Digory began doubting his own grammatical instincts. Anything upon which he agreed with Bertie Wooster had to be immediately suspect.
Nick shook his head. "I'm with Nora. If he's lying, that means he isn't telling the truth. And that name is so absurd – no offense – that no one would lie about it, so he must be laying."
"Thank you darling," said Nora, leaning on his shoulder. She tried to sip his martini, but Nick pulled it away and kissed her on the nose instead. Nora made a face at him.
"But you can't just lay," protested Bertie. "It's not the done thing. You have to lay something – like an egg. It's a whatchamacallit. An intransigent verb."
"Intransitive, sir," corrected Jeeves.
"I ain't any such thing!" cried Wilberforce from the ground. He was trying without success to fend off Polly, who was intent on checking his head for injury.
"It's probably harder than the rocks," Digory tried to reassure her.
Bertie nodded fervently. "Oh, rather. Because he's on the rocks, what?"
Polly gave them both a withering look and prodded a bit harder at the unfortunate skull.
"Ow! Lay offa me, woman!"
"See?" cried Bertie triumphantly. "Lay (off of) – verbal phrase. Me – indirect object."
Polly paused in her less-than-tender ministrations to stare at Bertie. He preened, basking in the light of her gaze.
Digory sulked. "I'm the one who said it correctly in the first place," he complained. "But does anyone listen to me? Oh, no. Only when I find a dead body–"
"Who's not actually dead," Nick pointed out.
"Only when I find a seemingly dead body," Digory said more loudly, "does anyone pay any attention to what I have to say." Startled to find his audience was in fact attending, he took a breath and gathered steam. "And then what do you do? Criticize! He's not dead enough. His name isn't good enough. He must be laying about! Er, lying. And another thing–"
Polly cut him off. "No one is criticizing your body, Digory." She broke off, flustered and slightly flushed. "I mean your stiff – er, Wilberforce. Or your grammar," she added as an afterthought.
Mollified, Digory subsided. "Well, all right then."
"And I weren't lyin'," added Wilberforce indignantly. "Some bleedin' blighter–"
"I say!" objected Bertie. "That's no way to speak in front of a lady!"
Nick stayed conspicuously silent, and Nora slapped him on the arm.
Scandalized, Digory added his two pence. "Or in front of Polly!" On second thought, maybe he was a farthing short.
A faint wince crossed Jeeves' hitherto inscrutable features. For her part, Polly merely looked amused.
"I mean," backpedaled Digory, "much less in front of Polly – er, Ms. Plummer – who has so valiantly tended you in your… in your…"
Bertie willingly floundered into Digory's wake like an enthusiastic pup following a punting boat only to swim off with the paddle. "In the thorny thickets of your moral compass! The morass of your plundered rosebeds–"
"Rhododendrons," interjected Digory.
"Quite right, quite right! The rho. which by any other name doth smell–"
"Like a distillery?" said Polly wryly. "If you're quite finished, perhaps you great philosophers could help our guest inside."
Philosopher indeed. Digory sniffed. Polly knew perfectly well he was a theologian.
Bertie let the slight fly over his head, as he did so many other things. "And then we can get to the bottom of this!" he exclaimed.
"Bottom of the bottle, maybe," said Nick, downing the last of his martini. "I doubt there's much else to it than that."
"Bottom of the bottle?" W.A.L. the Fourth echoed in alarm, swaying between Nick and Jeeves as they tried to hoist him to his feet. "Izzit empty? Why? Why is the rum gone?" With that plaintive cry, he tipped forwards. Only Polly's quick thinking and the hook of her umbrella kept him from falling prostrate into the daffodils.
"Polly," whispered Digory loudly. "Don't you carry rum in your flask?"
She fixed him with a stern look. "Not now, Digory."
Ever the optimist, Digory followed her in the hopes that not now did not exclude the possibility of later. He had, after all, been operating on the same principle for years and regularly proposed to Polly every six months. She had never turned him down flat – and he knew she would not hesitate to do so were her mind truly made up. So Digory continued to wait patiently for the day when the long purgatory of not now might end, should Polly ever decide her life had room for adventure and romance both.
In the meantime, there was always the hope of rum.
To be continued in Ch. 3, A rather rummy affair