Bertram Wooster is not a man to flinch at the merest touch of physical pain. We Woosters pride ourselves on our ability to withstand the vagaries of of life, to stand tall against the storm, as it were, and not to buckle before the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and whatever else it is the poet says about such things.
However, on a certain recent morning I, young Bertram Wooster, found myself feeling rather like a team of construction workers had invaded my brain and was knocking about inside with jackhammers and various other pneumatic power tools, causing no small amount of turmoil inside the old noggin. My stomach was queasy, my tongue felt as if it were made of wool, and the room seemed to have a definite motion to it, rather like the feeling one might get when out on a small boat in the middle of a squall.
I lay in bed trying to remember what caused this malaise, and slowly the details came back to me. I was visiting my cousin Oliver Finch-Tuxton in New York City, and said cousin had taken me out last evening to a few establishments where there was music, dancing, and a wide variety of alcoholic creations to imbibe, and Bertram had imbibed with gusto.
After a certain point the evening's details became a bit misty, although isolated scenes involving firecrackers, water balloons, and police sirens presented themselves to mind.
It was a morning that called out for the restorative power of my man Jeeves, who makes some type of secret concoction involving red peppers, Worcestershire sauce and various other extracts and essential oils that restore a man to the pink of health in a matter of seconds after having drunk it.
The man has an uncanny ability to know when I need his medicinal brew, and, true to form, he appeared next to my bedside with a breakfast tray on which there was a small glass of the golden elixir.
"I took the liberty of mixing up a restorative, sir," he said, in that smooth way of his. "I heard you come in last night, and I thought it would be prudent to bring a glass in this morning."
"Thank you, Jeeves," I managed to say, although it was a bally hard thing to manage, talking when your mouth feels like someone's stuffed a woolen muffler inside it. I took the glass and drank a long draught of the liquid, and it was a matter of a minute or two before Bertram started to feel the old blood surging through the veins again, and the world looked considerably more cheerful.
"Well, that did the trick," I said. "Now, for a bit of coffee, toast, and those ravishing scrambled eggs you make, and I will be ready to conquer the world, Jeeves. I believe my cousin, the esteemed Finch-Tuxton, has plans to take me to a Broadway show this afternoon."
"I'm afraid those plans have changed, sir."
"Oh? Has young Oliver got something better in mind? I was rather hoping to see a show while I'm here in New York. A musical, perhaps, although I can never remember the words when I'm coming out of the theater. We Woosters have always had a hard time remembering musical lyrics."
"I'm afraid there is another engagement which will have to take precedence over your plans with Mr. Finch-Tuxton," Jeeves said. It was dashed difficult to read the man in any circumstances, but this morning he was being especially opaque.
"Well, out with it, Jeeves," I said, buttering my toast. "I'm a man of action, as you well know, and I must be up and about, meeting the challenges of the day. What is this engagement which takes priority over an afternoon spent with one's American cousin?"
"You are to attend a luncheon at which you will be meeting the father of the young lady to whom you were betrothed last night."
At the mention of the word "betrothed" a piece of toast got stuck in my windpipe and I started a bally commotion of choking, which was only resolved by Jeeves applying the Heimlich Maneuver to me, so that I finally spit it out on the bed.
When I had managed to get my breath again, I said, "Jeeves, I seem to be having a problem with my hearing this morning. I thought I heard you use the word 'betrothed' in relation to me. Quite amusing that I'd mishear you that way, eh?"
Jeeves paused the merest second, then cleared his throat and said, "I am afraid you did not mishear me, sir."
"What? You must be mad, Jeeves. How on earth could I be betrothed? I bally well think a man would know something like that. You don't just go around saying a man is betrothed when he doesn't know to whom he is betrothed in the first place, do you?"
"Do you not recall a Miss Francine Sprezzatura?" Jeeves said. "Apparently she spent most of last evening with you and Mr. Finch-Tuxton. You met her at one of the establishments you were visiting early in the evening, and, finding that you were soulmates, as it were, you two spent many hours in 'Love's sweet embrace', as the poet calls it, which culminated in -- if I am to believe what Miss Sprezzatura told me when she called this morning -- a proposal of marriage by you, which she accepted." "A what?" I said. If I had had any toast in my mouth I would have choked again. "A proposal? Marriage? Jeeves, this is absurd. If I didn't know you better, I'd think you were joking."
"No sir, I am not joking," Jeeves said. "Do you not remember this young woman?"
I thought intently on it, which was no easy task, given that my brain still felt like it had been mauled by a pride of lions. After a time I did recall a very attractive young female in a very tight dress who had large fingernails and large hair, and eyebrows that flared so dramatically they looked like they were ready to take flight.
"Yes, it's all coming back now," I said, working the brain cells furiously. "I do remember the young woman, and we did have some spiffing laughs together, but a marriage proposal? That is beyond the Pale, Jeeves. I would never have done such a thing."
"Miss Sprezzatura seems to have a different memory of last night's events," Jeeves said.
"Well, I'll bally well just deny everything," I said. "Under the influence of the grape, and all that. You can't hold a man to a marriage proposal when he's been out on the town with his cousin, visiting establishments that supply him with mind-altering substances in glasses with little umbrellas in them."
"I'm afraid she has a document, sir," Jeeves said. "Apparently you wrote a note to her on the back of a bar bill, and it proclaims your undying love and your intention to marry her."
"What!" I said. "Preposterous! I wouldn't have ... well, maybe I did ... it's rather hard to recall every detail of last night's adventures ... I say, Jeeves, we'll just have to take a hard line on this. No matter what the young lady says, or what she claims to have in writing from me, I will simply refuse to go through with this, on the grounds that I was not in my right mind."
Jeeves wrinkled his formidable brow in response. "While in theory that may be a good tactic," he said. "I fear that as a practical matter it will not work."
"Why is that, Jeeves?"
"Well, sir, it seems that Francine is the beloved daughter of one Tony 'The Enforcer' Sprezzatura, a man who is rumored to be rather high up in the local organized crime hierarchy. He is a man with a quick temper, and is not accustomed to seeing his wishes thwarted. His daughter Francine is the apple of his eye, as it were, and if Francine wants to marry you he will expect to see that happen."
When I say the Wooster spirits sank lower than a sperm whale feeding on squid at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, you may have a glimmer of the shade of my mood. I am a man who has spent a good deal of time and energy avoiding the prospect of matrimony, and now, to be caught unawares by a Mafia princess and face the prospect of spending my life surrounded by men who wear more jewelry than their wives, well, it was horrifying, to say the least.
"Jeeves, you must help me," I said. "You must find a way to get me out of this situation. Fire up that amazing brain of yours, get the old gray cells working, and find a solution."
"I will do what I can," Jeeves said, and I saw the spark of his superior intelligence flaring up to meet the challenge. "I shall certainly give some thought to this," he added. "However, in the meantime you must go to the luncheon engagement with Miss Sprezzatura, so I suggest that we get you dressed."
I succumbed to Jeeves' ministrations, but it was a glum Bertram who took a cab to the restaurant an hour later. I felt rather like a man who was on the way to his execution, and I had the strangest constriction in my throat, as if I could already feel the rope tightening around it.
The address Jeeves had given me was in a part of Little Italy that was crowded with restaurants, and the cabbie let me off outside a place called "Mario's Squid Garden". Waiting for me at the door was the aforementioned Francine, wearing a black miniskirt, heels that put me in mind of a stiltwalker, and enough shiny metallic jewelry to stock a stall in a street market. I recognized her eyebrows immediately.
"Hiya, Bertie!" she said, sauntering over and pinioning me in an embrace that put in me in mind of an octopus. Didn't we have a blast last night?"
"About that," I said, feeling like Harry Houdini wriggling about in a straitjacket as I tried to extricate myself from her arms. "My man Jeeves said something about a marriage proposal. I really don't recall--"
"Yes, isn't it wonderful?" Francine said. "You were so romantic, my little English Bertie. Of course I accepted. And now we have to meet Daddy, because he'll be paying the bills for this extravaganza of a wedding. Come on, he's waiting inside."
She grabbed my arm in a viselike grip, and pulled me inside the restaurant, where she marched me straight over to a table where the formidable Mr. Sprezzatura awaited.
He was a large man in a rather too small sharkskin suit with a collar that was open to reveal a hairy chest set off by a large gold pendant about the size and shape of a steak platter. He immediately embraced me, and I could tell that arm muscles like steel cords were a family trait.
"Sit down," said Mr. Sprezzatura, pushing me into a chair. "I want to get a good look at the man my Francine wants to marry."
"Isn't he adorable, Daddy?" Francine said. "And wait till you hear him talk. He's got the cutest British accent. Say something for Daddy, Bertie."
"Well, ah, I don't exactly ... I mean ... you see, Mr. Sprezzatura, about this matter of marrying your daughter ... well, she's a fine young woman, as I'm sure you know ... it's true that I spent an enjoyable evening with her ... the thing is, dash it all, I wasn't expecting..."
"See what I mean?" Francine said. "Don't you just love the way he stutters and stammers all the time? It's so British."
"I don't know," her father said, eyeing me up and down like a chef examining a cut of meat. "He doesn't seem too smart, and it's kind of hard to figure out what he's saying." All of a sudden, however, he gave me a hearty slap on the back, and bellowed, "But if Francine wants to marry you, that's enough for me."
"But Mr. Sprezzatura," I said.
"Call me Tony," he said, breaking into a grin. "You English guys are too formal. Besides, you're going to be part of the family, so we ought to be on a first-name basis."
"Yes, of course," I said. "Well, you see, Tony..."
"Yes?" Tony said.
"About this wedding."
"Go on," Tony said.
He was looking at me rather like an alligator in the shallows of a river eyeing a small bird who has stopped for a drink, and I could not help but notice a distinct bulge in the jacket of his shiny gray suit, a bulge that put me in mind of a small caliber automatic weapon, and, well, in situations like that a fellow tends to lose his train of thought.
"I think a wedding is a capital idea," I said.
"Good!" Tony said. "Now, we need to work out some of the details. Do you have a large family?"
"Well, ah, there's, my Aunt Agatha. Several aunts, actually. Then, I have some friends at the Drones, my club in England. And, of course--"
"Good, good," Tony said. "Invite as many of those English guys as you want. On our side there's a lot of family, plus some, uh, business associates of mine that will have to be invited."
"I'm not inviting Cousin Vito," Francine said. "He gives me the creeps."
"We have to invite Cousin Vito," Tony said. "I owe him too much. Besides, he doesn't forget things easily. You wouldn't want anything to happen to your cute English husband. You know Cousin Vito was a master butcher, don't you? We have to invite him."