Fantasy Humor Science Fiction

Greeves and the Evening Star

By Matthew Hughes
Sep 12, 2018 · 10,687 words · 39 minutes


A few years ago, George R.R. Martin and the late Gardner Dozois indulged their taste for the "good old stuff" by co-editing two anthologies, Old Mars and Old Venus, in which modern SF authors would write stories set in the science fictional Mars and Venus that people used to think existed "out there," until the first probes went to those planets and made plain there were no canals on Mars and no swamps on Venus.

I was invited into both anthos.  The story below is from Old Venus and in it I indulged my own taste for the Jeeves and Wooster romps of P.G. Wodehouse -- in my opinion the greatest comic author ever to write in English.

The names have been changed to protect all concerned against litigation.

  

GREEVES AND THE EVENING STAR

 by Matthew Hughes

 

I threw back the covers and sat up.  “Greeves,” I said, “I had the most bally awful dream.”

“I am sorry to hear it, sir.”

He handed me the morning cup and saucer and I took the sip without which the Gloster day cannot begin.  The ordinary day, that is, in the common run of things, not the kind of day that follows a night of revelry and riot at the Inertia Club, when one awakes with the sense that death is not only imminent but cannot arrive soon enough.

“I dreamt that Baldie Spotts-Binkle had lured me onto Slithy Tove-Whippley’s home-made rocket ship, battened down the hatch, if battened’s the word I want . . .”

“It is, sir.”

“Right ho . . . and then we’d blasted off for Venus – not the statue, mind, but the evening star itself – and that we’d slept like that Winkle chap for months on end before pitching up at Baldie’s estate in the middle of the most dismal swamp imaginable.”

Greeves inclined his head in a manner I recognized as conveying sympathy.  I plowed on, the dream as real to me as the vital oolong of which I now took a second, fortifying draught.  “It was a place steeped in gloom where the sun never shows its face, all stagnant pools and sluggish streams, with only the occasional dab of what we might call solid earth.”

“Oh, dear, sir.”

“Ah well,” I said, motioning with my unencumbered hand to indicate that the unpleasant figments were fast dwindling in life’s rear-view mirror.  “Draw the curtains, will you, Greeves, and admit the smiles of rosy-fingered–”

“Sir, you must prepare yourself for a disagreeable prospect,” he said.

“Rain?” I hazarded a guess.  “Stiff winds?”

“Not the winds,” he said, throwing aside the heavy cloths to reveal panes streaked with rivulets whose flows were perpetually interrupted by the impact of freshly arrived droplets the size of marbles.

I rose from the bed and went to the window.  It can justly be said that while Bartholomew Gloster may occasionally be surprised, and now and then, when circumstances so conspire, even awestruck, it is rare that he is actually staggered.

Yet I was staggered by the view from the window.  The cup and saucer fell unnoticed from a nerveless hand, though not unnoticed by the ever vigilant Greeves, who deftly caught them without the spilling of a drop.

“I say, Greeves,” I said, “I mean to say.”  Though what I meant to say, I did not know.  It was scarcely a moment for the mot juste.

“Indeed, sir.”

As far as the eye could stretch, whatever wasn’t gray was green, and whatever wasn’t green was gray.  Even so, every green was well tinged by the gray.  And all was being relentlessly battered from above by unending bucketloads of rain.

“This,” I declared, “will not do.”

Greeves agreed.  “Most disturbing, sir.”

There sprang into my mind, like Athena springing from the brow of Zeus, only the other way round, a plan.  First, a bath;  then breakfast;  then a brisk and businesslike dialogue with Baldie, leading to the earliest possible embarkation on Slithy’s contraption;  and so to home.

I gathered myself and issued instructions.  Greeves shimmered out of view and, an instant later, I heard water running in the bathroom.  “Right,” I said, shedding the pajamas like a snake with a pressing agenda while figuratively girding myself for strife.  “And off we go.”

“Baldie,” I said, over the remains of a remarkably large kipper and an even larger than remarkable egg, “we must speak.”

“Agreed, Bartie,” he said.  “It’s why I had Slithy bring you.”

I should pause briefly to furnish a sketch of Archibald Spotts-Binkle, the better to focus the reader’s inner eye on the proceedings.  Imagine a fish in a fairy godmother tale, magically transformed into a man afflicted with hornrimmed specs, except that the f g in question has skimped on the incantation, so that the transmogrification was only nine parts out of ten.  Bulbous eyes, protruding lips that are ever-moist, glabrous skin with just a hint of scaliness.   Now add a voice that sounds like the product of a child’s first involuntary sawings at the violin, and you have Baldie taped and targeted.  Thus it would come as no surprise to discover that the sole abiding passion of his existence has been a fascination with newts.

This was the pallid apparition that blinked dully at me across the breakfast table as I unburdened myself of a few trenchant observations on the damage done to a life-long friendship by a “ruddy shanghaiing off to a sodden planet one wouldn’t wish on one’s direst foe.”

When in distress, it was Baldie’s habit to draw his neck into his meager shoulders to a depth greater than ought to have been anatomically possible.  The effect was rather like that of a fish trying on an impression of a turtle.  He performed this maneuver now, and I formed the view that once I ceased beleaguering him, he would advance a suitably penitent apology, allowing me to be magnanimous in victory, as befits my nature.

I therefore softened my tone and relinquished the floor, although as we were sitting I’m not sure exactly what I was relinquishing.  But, instead of tendering his regrets, my old chum thrust his narrow neck back out of concealment and said, “Oh, fie, Bartie!”

“Fie?” I said.  I am often taken aback when confronted by raw injustice.

“Yes, fie!” he returned.  “And double fie at that!”

“Steady on, Baldie,” I said.  “Bear in mind that some fies, once launched, can ne’er be recalled.”

He elevated his negligible chin.  “I don’t care, Bartie,” he told me.  “It’s all meaningless, else.”

“Else what?”

“What do you mean?” he said.

“What do you mean?” I said.

The bulging eyes blinked several times.  “Stop repeating what I say!” he snapped.  “This is no time for childish games!”

“Childish games?” I said.  “Well, I must say, that’s a bit over the top, coming from a fellow who would have a dashed hard time demonstrating that he’s reached man’s estate!”

His pale skin grew even paler and flecks of spittle appeared on his lower lip.  I experienced a sudden memory of the only time Baldie Spotts-Binkle, in our long-ago school days, had lost his rag while being bullied by Roderick Bass-Humptingdon, a thug in an Eton collar who reigned over the junior form in much the same way Tiglath-Pileser, if that’s the bloke I want, had lorded it over the Ten Lost Tribes.  I remembered piercing shrieks and a flailing of stick-thin limbs, like a stringed puppet whose master is overcome by a fit of apoplexy.  All ending, of course, in tears, Bass-Humptingdon’s schoolyard sobriquet of Basher being well earned.

But, here in Baldie’s breakfast room, the anticipated frenzy did not occur.  Instead, he burst into tears then buried his snuffles in his cold, long-fingered hands.  It was a good thing I had already breakfasted, since here was a sight to quell the appetite of a cyclops.

“Steady on, Baldie,” I said for the second time in mere moments, but my tone was now softer.  Bartie Gloster may be able to summon the stern eye and the censorious word as warranted, but when an old pal breaks down and blubs across the breakfast table the better angels sit up and seize the reins.  Admittedly, I waffled a bit as to whether I should bluffly encourage the stiff upper lip or offer the consoling pat on the shoulder.  In the latter department, Spotts-Binkle’s specimens were not such as to invite contact, being more in the line of the Carpathian mountains – sharp, hard, and like to bruise the tender flesh.

But a decision was soon reached, and I extended a hand to pat the upthrust boney protrusion, adding the traditional, “Now, now,” “there there,” and “what’s all this,” as indicated.

The result was a fresh gusher, leading me to believe I’d taken a wrong turn.  I reviewed my stock of consoling phrases and realized that I had already emptied the store.  I was considering a tactical shift toward the stiff u l when the door opened and Slithy Tove-Whippley entered the breakfast room with only slightly less swagger than your average pirate exhibits when boarding a prize.

“What ho, Bartie!” he said, sashaying over to the sideboard to survey the goods.

I welcomed the change of focus.  For it was he who, while purporting to show me the rocket ship he’d assembled on the lawn, had led me into its cramped saloon and asked for my views on a new cocktail he’d devised.  An “atom-smasher” he’d called it.  I took a first sip and said, “I say, Slithy,” as the brew’s potency made itself felt.  But no further words passed the numbed Gloster lips.  Instead, the lights went out and I was plunged down a rabbit hole from which I did not emerge until I awoke in the depths of space.

“Don’t you ‘what ho’ me,” I said, rising and casting aside a furious napkin.  The phrases “unmitigated gall,” “dastardly trick,” and “absolute stinker” were jostling each other in my brain to see which would be first out of the gate.  I was also considering “sharper than a serpent’s bosom,” though I wasn’t quite sure it scanned well.

But Slithy showed me the backs of his fingers moving in a way suggestive of crumbs that were swept aside.  “Come on, Bartie,” he said, helping himself to scrambled eggs and a rasher of bacon I had thought looked a bit dodgy, it being an odd shade of green, “can’t you take a joke?”

“A joke?  Well, that takes the biscuit.”  I had now marshaled gall, trick, and rotter into a single devastating phalanx and was about to send it crashing into Tove-Whippley’s line.  But just then Baldie gave forth with another freshet of woe, and it seemed somehow not the done thing to be offering battle when there were wounded in need of comforting.

Comfort, though, was not Slithy’s style.  “Buck up, there, Baldie!” he said, in a parade-ground tone, before sitting down and addressing himself to his plate in a manner that put one in mind of a wolf that had mastered the rudiments of wielding cutlery.  I recalled that, at school meals, the other boys had always left a clear space around Tove-Whippley;  hands other than his that penetrated the pale risked sudden and not inconsiderable injury.

While I was thus briefly immersed in reminiscence, Baldie Spotts-Binkle rose from the table and, dashing tears from his eyes, fled the room.  Slithy detroughed himself long enough to grunt an ambiguous comment – or he might just have been loosening some morsel lodged in his throat – then returned to the clashing of silver on porcelain.

Concern for Baldie drove my anger to the rear.  I said, “I say, Slithy, what has cast Spotts-Binkle into the slough of despond?”

He looked up at me and, around a mouthful of egg, said, “Newts.”

Well, of course, it would be newts.  I should have seen that right away.  Since his formative years, Archibald Spotts-Binkle had been entranced by the slimy little wrigglers.  At school, in his study, he kept a covey of them in a glass tank, and would spend hours considering their ways, often dangling flies on strings before their muzzles.

The rest of us boys, busy with our own interests, gave scant thought to Baldie’s odd fascination.  If we had, I suppose it would only have been to give thanks that he hadn’t settled on some even less wholesome pursuit.  And therein lay our error.  For as our boyhood interests gradually blossomed, if that’s the word I want, into more manly fields, Baldie’s traipsed off in the other direction. 

He grew ever more engrossed in his study of newts, to the point where it became his life’s work.  If he had ever mastered spelling, I am sure he would have written a book about the little blisters.  As it was, he launched learned papers at some journal that concerned itself with newtdom;  its editor, one Hudibras Gillattely, FRS, routinely sent back these epistles with stinging comments, igniting a long-simmering feud that may well have enlivened whatever gatherings drew newt fanciers together.

Through all this, Baldie stuck to his ancestral pile in the country where he was mostly content, as the estate contained a pond that fairly seethed with newts.  And there he would have remained had he not, while on a newt-seeking ramble along bosky bucolic lanes, happened upon one Marilyn Buffet with whom he fell precipitously in love.

Theirs was a stormy courtship, on one moment, off the next, into which I was unwillingly drafted as a patcher and restorer.  At one time a left-handed twist of fate had seen me engaged to Marilyn myself, a situation that chilled the Gloster blood until it lay inert in the veins.  In the end, thanks to a brilliant stroke by Greeves, who is rather deft in such matters, Baldie and Marilyn were delivered safely to the altar to become as one flesh.

The thought of the large-eyed yet somewhat droopy former Miss Buffet now raised a question in the penetrating Gloster mind.  It was not like her to be hanging back in the shadows.  She was a girl who liked to make her presence felt – not the sort to dominate a room, but certainly able to pervade it.  So it struck me as curious that the room in which I stood, and the bedroom in which I had awakened, betrayed no trace of the Marilyn Spotts-Binkle oeuvre:  their respective wallpapers were not cloyed with flowers, the tablecloth was not embroidered with flocks of cheerful bluebirds, nor did every available surface bear a cluster of porcelain rabbits and mice colorfully attired in the habits of rustic folk of a bygone age.

For all the depth of my cogitations, no more than a moment had passed since Tove-Whippley had voiced his one-worded explanation as to what was wrong with Baldie.  I now advanced a new and possibly more pertinent question.  “Where’s Marilyn?”

He raised his eyebrows in a meaningful way.  “Earth.”

A shiver passed through.  This news was not good.  In his salad days, before Marilyn had hoved into view and taken him in tow, Baldie could have posed for a likeness of monomania.  The realization that he was here on his own, and with newts in the picture, boded ill.  I sat down again at the breakfast table and lit a meditative gasper, blew out a peal of smoke, and said, “Out with it, Slithy.  The full chronicle.”

I won’t reproduce his exact words, nor the several questions I had to put to elicit them.  Conversation was never Slithy Tove-Whippley’s métier;  he got by mostly on grunts and monosyllables.  But the story that we together unfolded revealed that Baldie, after a lifetime of newt studies, had come to the melancholy conclusion that the field would henceforth offer him no new worlds to conquer.  He had exhausted all that newts could offer him, and the realization caused him to fall into the aforementioned s of d.

But then he had read in the papers of the emergent craze for rocketing off to Mars and Venus.  The former did not interest him, being a dry place;  but the descriptions he read of the planet named for the goddess of love – its vast swamps, its rain-sodden jungles, its mosses and lichens – could not help but to ring the one bell in Baldie’s lightly furnished belfry:  here must be newts;  and not just any newts, but new newts waiting to be discovered, newts that languished unobserved, loitering about in their watery lairs until a bulbous Spotts-Binkle eye should fall upon them and make them known.

And then he’d heard that his arch-foe Gillattely had upped stakes from Warwickshire to build himself a house in the middle of a Venerian swamp.  There he was beavering away at winning the acclaim that warmed Archibald Spotts-Binkle’s dreams.  He cast about for an early passage on a Venus-bound rocket, but was rebuffed at all the entrances;  jaunts to the evening star were this year’s version of a season in Monte Carlo:  all ships were booked solid.  There was not a chance of an empty berth before next year.

But then a conversation overheard by chance in the Inertia Club opened the way before him.  Slithy Tove-Whippley, marked for eccentricity in a club that included the likes of Barking Mondeley-Spriggs and Flinders Bunchup, had caught the Venus infection – not the newt variant but the whiz-bang bug.  He had already built a one-man rocket and flown it to Venus and back, and now he was seeking funds to build a more capacious model, which he would offer for charters.

Gripped by manic energy, Baldie began sending telegrams.  In short order, he became the major shareholder of the Tove-Whippley Rocketry Company.  He also sent several peremptory missives to Professor Gillattely, recommending that he cease all inquiries until a Spotts-Binkle was on the scene.  These telegrams were returned as undeliverable. 

Baldie redoubled his efforts to spur on Slithy Tove-Whippley, writing a blizzard of checks.  And soon the silvery dart was ready to rise on its tail of fire.  Baldie, equipped with nets, rubber wellingtons, and a yellow sou’-wester, stepped aboard and blasted off in quest of newts.

“And did he find them?” I asked the rocket man.

“And how!”  He chewed a piece of the local bacon.  Apparently it was tough sledding as it took him a while to clear the passages.  “Pond.  Middle of the estate.  Newts abounding.”  He raised both hands, crumbs dropping from fork and knife.  “Big uns.”

Another conundrum.  A Spotts-Binkle who had sought newts and found them in abundance ought to be dancing on moonbeams, not weeping over the kipper bones.  There was little point in quizzing Slithy Tove-Whippley.  His last peroration had probably temporarily exhausted a year’s supply of words.  It would take hours for the cistern to replenish itself.

I had a momentary inclination to seek out Greeves and to lay the mystery before him.  Greeves comes equipped with a prodigious brain, whose powers he augments by frequently dining on fish.  But a Gloster is also not without a neuron or two, and I resolved to pursue the matter myself.  I went in search of Baldie.

It was a fair-sized house – it appeared to have been brought over in prefabricated sections – but experience told me that if the grounds contained a pond that contained newts, on its shores would be the first place to look for a newt-fancier.  I first had to find boots and an oilskin;  my plus-fours and tweed jacket, though I thought them eminently fashionable in Belgravia, would not have served.  I sloshed my way from the rear of the house, down what would have been a sloping lawn had it not been ankle-deep in moss.  I found my old schoolmate on the banks of a dark pool whose surface was continually stippled by the ceaseless downpour.

The pond was not self-contained but more of a widening in a sluggard of a river that separated the island on which stood the house from another bit of high ground where Slithy Tove-Whippley had parked the rocket.  A stone bridge arched across a narrow stretch of the waterway to connect the two bits of terra firma.

While I was taking in the lay of the land, I also noticed that a short distance from the house, someone had stuck a short, white wooden stake in the ground.  A little farther on was another, then two more, leading down to the water.  Near the bank a few more bits of wood were scattered about, as if someone had been marking out a playing field for a game but had grown tired of it and gone in to tea.

Rambling down to where Baldie stood and, letting the bygones fall where they may, I offered a cheery, “What ho!”

He had been inspecting the water.  I saw that he must have still been in a state of distress when he exited the premises, because he had neglected to clothe himself against the elements.  His suit was drenched, as was he.  His narrow shoulders hunched and the rain ran down his collar.  One would have to fare far and turn over many a rock to uncover a more morose specimen.

He gave my greeting no answer, nor raised his eyes from the pond.  Once more unto the breach, I counseled myself and said, “I say, this looks a dashed fine locus in quo for the odd lizard or two, what?”

He turned his mournful gaze my way.  The downturn of his mouth put me in mind of a croquet hoop.  “Just the one,” he croaked, “but what a one, Bartie!”  And then came a fresh flood of tears.

I again applied the consoling hand to the shoulder.  “Come on, Baldie,” I said, “out with it, there’s the stout fellow.  What’s it all about?”

He snuffled and shook his head, droplets flying unnoticed in the downpour.  “Love, Bartie,” he said.  “It’s about love.”

I looked about, like that fellow on that peak in Darien.  “Do you mean to say Marilyn’s given you the cold mutton?  Easily fixed, I should say.  Fly to her side with a bouquet of the best and tell her she’s the apple’s eye.  Throw in a sonnet or such like.  Can’t miss.  Girls like Marilyn are easy prey to a well turned quatrain.”

“It’s not Marilyn, you oaf.”  He drew himself up, though he still reached no great heights.  “I love another.”

“Another?”  I goggled, or boggled, or whatever it is one does when confronted by life’s absurdities.  “Another what?”

“A goddess,” he said.  “She walks in beauty like the something something . . . I can’t remember the rest, but she’s the real McCoy, Bartie.”

I took an involuntary step back, then a voluntary one for good measure, and said, “I mean to say, old chum, it’s not on, is it?  A broken engagement, that’s one thing, but a putting asunder?  Besides which, an enraged Buffet is not a factor to be left out of one’s plans.  Disemboweling’s not out of the question.”

“I don’t care, Bartie,” he said.  “The heart has its imperatives.”

“Oh, it does, does it?” I said.  “Well, Marilyn has the aspect of the tiger.  Not the imitation, the real thing.”

He had deflated again.  “It doesn’t matter,” he said.  “For though I love with a passion to shake the ages, the goddess does not smile on me.”

Light dawned – not the real thing, of course;  the sun would have needed a trowel to penetrate the clouds that lowered over us – but the figurative glimmer of comprehension.  “Hold on, there, Baldie.  Are you saying that you love another but she does not care to return the serve?”

“I am,” he said, brightening a little.  “You always have the right phrase at your fingertips, don’t you, Bartie?  That’s why I asked Slithy to bring you.”

“You want me to tell you what to say to win her heart?”  It seemed a rum business.  One doesn’t go around helping chums to overturn the marital apple cart.  Besides, there was the prospect of an unmarried Marilyn Buffet just over the horizon.  When she and Baldie had been on the outs, during their tortuous courtship, the blue Buffet orbs had fixed on Bartholomew as her second string in the matrimonial target shoot.  The idea of exposing myself once more to the predatory aims of the Buffet turned my knees to water and my bowels to jelly.  Or perhaps it was the other way round.  Either way, it was not a fate that invited a forward rush.

“I won’t advise you,” I said.  “My lips are sealed.”

“I don’t want you to advise me,” he said.

“Oh, well, good.”  I heaved a sigh of relief.  Rather a heavy one.

“I want you,” he said, “to speak to her.”

“To her?” I said, water and jelly galloping back into the picture.  “To Marilyn?”

“Not to Marilyn.  Stop talking about Marilyn.  She is past and forgotten, one with Nineveh and Tyre.  I want you to speak to her.” 

His pale fingers fluttered in the general direction of the dark pond.  I turned in the direction indicated, peering through the curtain of rain to see if there was someone standing on the other side of the water.  I could see nothing.

“Where is she?” I said.  “And, a salient point, who is she?”

Instead of answering, he squatted by the edge of the water.  Then he extended a hand and patted the surface of the pool with his fingertips, in what appeared to be a deliberate rhythm, though Baldie couldn’t have kept a beat in a jam jar.  After a moment, apparently satisfied, he rose and stood back.

“I’m sorry, Baldie, but I don’t quite see–”

“Shh,” he said, gesturing toward the pond.  “Look.”

Out in the center, a circular ripple appeared.  Then it became a vee, making toward where we loitered on the shore.  It seemed a very determined sort of vee, the kind one sees in films that feature brawny-chested types in loincloths who have nothing better to do with their afternoons than wrestle crocodiles that leap upon them from gray, greasy rivers,  Gray and greasy, incidentally, made a pretty good description of the color and texture of Baldie’s pond.

I took a judicious step back, leaving Baldie to remain in status quo, drooped over the water’s edge like a willow mourning the loss of its will to live.  The vee continued to close upon him.

“Baldie,” I said, meaning to add a warning.  But at that moment the surface at the point of the vee broke.  From it emerged a green triangular head, roughly the size and shape of a ditch-digger’s spade, except that it had two large and golden eyes about where you’d expect to find them.  As the head rose from the water, I saw that from under the lower jaw protruded branchlike organs.  I had a vague memory of a much younger Baldie Spotts-Binkle pointing to some little lizard in a tank and inviting me to notice its gills – an invitation that I am glad to say I succinctly declined.

The head was now well clear of the surface.  Below it were two narrow shoulders that sat above a slim and sinuous torso.  As the apparition reached the shore and emerged from the water, it produced a pair of slender arms and a matching set of pins, both ending in webbed digits.  A long, glistening tail, sporting a kind of fin that actually began at the nape of the creature’s longish neck provided the denouement.

Words failed.  I emitted a sound that began with a “guh” and ended in an “ack”, with a kind of hiccup to bridge the two.  Baldie shot me the sort of look an aunt gives a fellow who’s just spilled tea on the best Persian and said, “For God’s sake, Bartie!  Stop gawking and say how do you do to Shilistrata.”

I closed my mouth, opened it, still found nothing of use in it, and closed it again.  But then I managed to rally the routed remnants of my vocabulary.  “How do you do?” I said.  “Shilistrata, is it?  Charming.  Unusual.”

“Don’t be an ass, Bartie,” said Baldie.  “I doubt it’s at all unusual on Venus.”  He turned to the – and let’s not beat around the shrubbery – she was a newt and said, “You’ll have to forgive my chum.  He can be a touch provincial, don’t you know.”

That was a bit stiff coming from a fellow who’d spent most of his life messing about in rural puddles and who, to my certain knowledge, had not shown his piscine phiz in London more than once in ten years.  But I let it pass, because the creature from the pond had now turned her remarkable eyes – round, amber with flecks of silver – on me and at the same time a voice spoke in my head, saying, “You are the Bartie?  The Gloster?”

“Well, yes,” I said.  “So to speak.  And you are the Shilistrata, I believe.  How do you do?”

“It is what the Archibald calls me,” the voice said.

“It’s a perfectly good name,” said Baldie.  I had a passing recollection that Shilistrata might have been the moniker he had bestowed on one of his tank denizens, back in our school days.

“Would you like to call me something else?” said the voice, which now that I focused on it I realized was rich and warm, calling up an image of honey being stirred into cream.

“No, no,” I said.  “Shilistrata’s just the ticket.”

She smiled at that.  I should clarify that assertion on two points.  Point the first:  although Shilistrata showed none of the anatomical bits and pieces associated with the divine female form, still less any fripperies of feminine fashion, being clad only in her mottled green skin, every aspect of her bespoke the fairer sex.  Not least the voice, which had the sort of mellifluosity, if that’s the word I want, that would have set a troubadour to swooning.

Point the second:  when she opened her mouth, exhibiting more pearlies than one is used to – indeed two needlish ranks of them, above and below – along with a tongue that put me in mind of a pink bonnet ribbon, the only gentlemanly response was to receive the action as a smile, and to send one back across the net.

“Well,” I said, then “well,” again.  I realized I was rocking back and forth on toe and heel, something I’m prone to do when conversation sails into the doldrums.  As one does when a rear tire becomes surrounded by mud, a gentle rocking eases the old two-seater up and out and back to cruising the byways.

On the heels of that realization came another.  Someone was hissing.  At first, I thought it might be Shilistrata.  Then, realizations now coming thick and fast, I grasped that the sound was coming out of Baldie.  He was saying, “Hist,” in a stage whisper, obviously to get my attention.

I turned to him, and he said, “For goodness sake, Bartie, speak up!”

At first I thought that he was trying to tell me that the talking newt was a little hard of hearing – no shell-like ears were in evidence – but then he made the back of the fingers gesture in her direction and the final realization of the occasion now made its entrance:  Baldie wanted me to speak up – for him, and to her.

A Gloster is always willing to come to the aid of an old school pal.  It’s what we’re bred for, after all.  But in this instance, a clear path to the goal was lacking.  I turned Baldie’s way, put up a hand to shield my lips, and said, “About what, exactly?”

I was rewarded with the sight of Baldie impersonating an exasperated fish. “About me, of course!”

“About you?” I said, then the penny hit the bottom of the chute.  “You don’t mean as a suitor?”

“I mean nothing else!”

“But, Baldie, she’s a . . .” I threw an apologetic glance Shilistrata’s way and lowered my voice to a whisper.  “A newt!  Or at least a newtess!”

“I am aware of that, Bartie,” he said.

“Well, then,” I said, “how exactly would you expect matters to work themselves out?  I mean to say, what is your goal?”

Now I saw an exasperated fish dealing with an obtuse interlocutor.  “Matrimony, of course!”

“But, Baldie, she’s a newt!”

“Stop saying that!” he said.  “There is nothing wrong with my organs of perception!  And I should think that if either one of us is likely to recognize a newt on sight, it would be I!”

There was clearly something wrong with at least one of Archibald Spotts-Binkle’s organs, and I would have taken odds on its being the one stewing behind his fish eyes.  I made one last attempt.  “A newt, Baldie!  You’re not even the same order, or genius, or whatever it is!”

“Oh, that,” he said, with a roll of the eyes, “we’re above all that.  This is a marriage of souls, a union of essences.  We will conjoin on a spiritual plane, in an exalted merger of the spirit.”  He fluttered those dismissive fingers again.  “It’s beyond your comprehension, Bartie.”

It certainly was.  I found myself blinking, at a loss as to how to make further headway.  It came to me that now would be a suitable moment to enlist the cerebral powers of Greeves.  If ever there was a fellow who could think his way – or mine, for that matter – out of a tight spot, Greeves topped the list.  I turned and looked about, hoping that that well-stocked head might be somewhere in view.  But that recourse was not on offer.  And now Baldie seized my arm and hissed, or histed at me once more.

“Tell her, Bartie!”

“Tell her what?”

“About me, you fathead!  About my . . . qualities.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Rather.  Right ho, Baldie.”  I turned to the sinuous green form, which had been swaying before me like one of those cobras summoned from baskets by near-naked flautists on the subcontinent.  “Um,” I began, then followed with a “well” and a “here’s how it is,” but then the spring ran dry.

I turned to Baldie and said, “I say, Spotts-Binkle it would be a dashed sight easier to praise you in your absence.  One feels constrained when the subject of the paean is hanging about, snagging every word.”

Now it was his turn to blink.  “Really?” he said.  “It hadn’t occurred.”

More likely, he’d had so little experience of being lionized, in his absence or presence, that the ins and outs eluded him.  But now he nodded and said, “Right ho, Bartie.  I’ll leave you to get on with it.”  And with a nod and a bow to the newtess, he shuffled off toward the house. 

Shilistrata gave no sign of having noticed his departure.  Instead, her lambent eyes remained fixed on yours truly and her swaying became even more pronounced.  There certainly didn’t seem to be much wrong with her backbone, assuming she had one.  She would have won the first-in-class ribbon for limberness.  I had an odd passing thought:  Baldie had used to go one about how newts courted each other by wriggling and tail-shaking.  I suppressed the query as non-germane.

“Well, Shilistrata,” I said, “you’ve caught yourself a first-rater in our Archibald.  Why, when it comes to knowledge of the ways of pond-dwellers, you couldn’t have struck more lucky.  Backed a sure winner, so you have.”

Her motions now became alarmingly fluid.  There was something almost hypnotic about the side-to-siding, and it seemed as if a song was humming in my brain – and not to any toe-tapping Charleston or Black Bottom rhythm, but more on the louche and languid side of the dance floor.

Nonetheless, there was a job to be done.  “I doubt,” I pressed on, “that there’s a better newt man in all of England than Archibald Spotts-Binkle.  My advice is to snap him up, and sharply, before some other newtess tosses a lasso around his angular form.”

I paused there, expecting some kind of rejoinder.  Instead, all I got was more swaying and humming.  I found that my own head was moving in concert with her motions, and that the song she was humming was growing more and more entrancing.  I was thinking that that was just the song I’d always wanted to hear, though I hadn’t known it until now.

And now her voice was speaking.  I thought it was quite a good trick, to be able to speak and hum at the same time.  It beat the pants off Flinders Bunchup’s celebrated turn at the Inertia Club Christmas saturnalia, two years back, when he sang The Darktown Strutters Ball while juggling an entire set of condiment dishes.

“Come to me,” she was saying.  “You are the one.”

“The one what?” I managed.  But now it was not just my head that was moving in a mysterious way.  My whole body was in syncopation with hers.

“Come,” she said, “it is the time.  You are chosen.” 

Still bonelessly undulating, she was backing toward the dark pond.  Yet somehow the distance between us had not grown.  That puzzled me for a moment, until I realized that I was swaying along after her.  It seemed to be exactly the right thing to do.

I had the vaguest inkling that I was supposed to be engaged in some other task, something to do with Baldie.  The word “qualities” tried to make itself known, but the humming and the swaying played trump upon trump.

I took another step.  At that moment, a blast of icy cold liquid slapped against my face, instantly sobering me.

“I beg your pardon, sir,” said Greeves.  “I was bringing you a glass of refreshment and stumbled on the uneven ground.”  A firm hand took my arm as he said, “Please let me lead you to the house where we will locate a towel and undo the damage.”

The strong grip now drew me steadily away from the pond.  The humming and speaking faded to a dwindle then suddenly the Gloster head was once more illuminated by its customary clarity.  I looked at Greeves and saw him regarding me with what I took to be a judgmental eye.  I withdrew my arm from his grasp.

“A towel, Greeves?” I said, then added, “Pshaw!  The occasion requires not less but more liquid, preferably brown, well aged, and with a splash of soda.”  I strode toward the house.

“Indeed, sir,” he said, matching me step for step.  “I will be pleased to prepare it for you.”

“Do so, Greeves,” I said as we crossed the threshold, shedding my raingear, “and be not parsimonious in the dispensing.”

“As you wish, sir.”

Moments later, in the drawing room, he handed me a beaker of the best.  I quaffed half in one swallow, took a breath, then downed the rest.  I extended the glass to Greeves and said, “Another is called for, I think.”

“Indeed, sir,” he said, shimmering over to the drinks cabinet to repeat the miracle.

“And then,” I said, “some thinking must ensue.”

He returned with the whiskey.  “Yes, sir.  If I may say so, I have taken the liberty of examining the records stored in the library and I believe I can provide grist for the mill.”

I may have mentioned before that Greeves is a great one for the information-gathering.  Little that has happened since Adam was a ball of clay has escaped his attention.  “Say on, Greeves,” I told him, taking a seat and doing justice to the drink.  I was surprised that Baldie should have bothered to stock a decent single malt;  carrot juice was more his line of country.  But Greeves soon cleared up that minor point along with some more salient issues.

It seemed that the house in which we stood – actually, I sat while Greeves paced and recounted the fruits of his researches – had been built by none other than Hudibras Gillattely, the newt boffin.  Baldie, arriving to give the professor the benefit of his views, had found it empty and simply moved in.

“I take it that, once he was exposed to the climate, this Gillattely fellow realized that the game was not worth the candle?” I said.  “He departed for sunnier climes?” 

“Apparently not, sir,” was the answer.  “It seems that Professor Gillattely mysteriously disappeared while still in the midst of a research project focused on the pond outside.  But he published his initial observations in the Journal of Salamandridrae Studies, of which he was the editor.  Mr Spotts-Binkle read the article and immediately wrote to the author.  When his telegram was returned as undeliverable, he took umbrage and came to Venus to make his points in person.”

A picture was beginning to emerge, though I could not quite bring it into focus.  “Is there more, Greeves?” I said.

“Indeed there is, sir.”  His face took on a cast that I recognized.  There was not only more, but the more was a pip.  I bid him say on and braced myself for the fall of the other shoe.

“Professor Gillattely’s notes were written in a gentlemanly hand–” he began.

“In other words, nearly unreadable?” I offered.

“Very nearly, sir.  But I was able to decipher much of them.  His work was focusing on a new species he had named veneria salamandridrae sireni, especially on the creature’s reproductive habits.”

“I say,” I said, remembering Shilistrata’s limberness, “something saucy?”

“No, sir.  To the contrary:  the species is parthenogenetic.”

I grasped at a passing straw.  “Persians?”

“No, sir.  If I may presume to correct you, the term comes from the Greek word for a maiden, parthenos, and denotes a method of reproduction in which the female plays all the necessary roles, without benefit of male participation.”

“Oh,” I said, “not very sporting, if you ask me.”

“Indeed, not.  No sport at all, sir.”

We seemed to have wandered down a byway.  I sought to bring us back to the main thoroughfare.  “What’s this got to do with Baldie?”

“Mr. Spotts-Binkle has taken up the torch where Professor Gillattely let it fall, sir,” Greeves said.  “He has continued to study reproduction among the v. salamandridrae sireni.  He has been fortunate not to suffer the same fate as his predecessor.”

“Eh?” I said.  “I thought that was a mystery?”

“It was, sir,” he said, “until I examined the evidence.”

“Well, well done, Greeves,” I said.  “They haven’t yet devised the plot you can’t fathom.  That Christie woman should put you on a retainer.”

“Very kind of you say, sir.”

“Not at all.  Credit where credit’s due.  So, what’s it all about, then?”

“The crucial clue, sir, was in the creature’s name, specifically the sireni cognomen.”

The term rang a faint bell.  “Something to do with that Ulysses chap and beeswax?” I said.

“Indeed, sir.  Ulysses put wax in the ears of his fellow sailors then had them chain him to the mast while they rowed the ship past the Isles of the Sirens, whose irresistible song drew hapless mariners onto wave-washed rocks.”

“Irresistible song, Greeves?  You mean like that catchy little ditty Shilistrata was humming?”

“Exactly like, sir.”

The picture was becoming clear now, and a dire vista it made.  “She was trying to lure me?”

“Into the pond, sir.  Where she would have, if you’ll pardon my plain-speaking, immersed you in the ooze and laid her eggs in every available orifice.”

“Oh, I say, Greeves!  A fate worse than death!”

“I’m sorry to contradict you, sir.  Death would have come before the egg-laying.  By drowning, as it no doubt did for Professor Gillattely.”

“You haven’t seen any beeswax lying about, have you, Greeves?”  I looked around, as if some might be conveniently to hand.

“Again, sir, I must correct you,” Greeves said.

“Blaze away, Greeves!  The floor is yours.”

“Wax will not serve, sir, because the creature Mr Spotts-Binkle has named Shilistrata communicates by mental telepathy.”

“Reads minds, you mean?

“I cannot vouch for the reading, sir,” he said.  “Her mentation is not like ours.  But certainly she broadcasts a strong signal.”

“That humming,” I said.  “Rather compelling.”

“Indeed, sir.”

I dwelt upon the matter for a few moments, while allowing more of the flavor of peat and heather to do their salutary work.  Then a thought struck.  “But, you, Greeves, were not affected.  It was as if your mental ears were stuffed with wax.”

“My mind was on other things, sir,” he said, “most particularly your safety.”

“Ah,” I said, and, “well.”  After a moment, I added, “Thank you, Greeves.”

“Not at all, sir.”

“Is there more?”

“A little, sir.  It would seem that Shilistrata, having fulfilled her biological destiny with Professor Gillattely, again came into season and began seeking a new host for her young.

“Mr Spotts-Binkle presented himself and she began the process of, if I may speak bluntly, reeling him in.  But then she decided, for reasons only she could know, that he was unsuitable.  She decided to wait for a better prospect.”

“Slithy Tove-Whippley wouldn’t do?”  It seemed to me that there was more than a meal or two to be made of Slithy’s meaty frame.

“The gentleman does not go near the pond,” Greeves said, “and has not been aboard the rocket ship since we landed.”

“Probably just as well,” I said.  I finished my whisky and rubbed decisive palms together.  “Well,” I said, “I suppose we’d better go break the bad news to Baldie.”

“I’ll give you bad news,” said Baldie from the doorway.  “And you can have a broken bone or two while I’m at it.”

“Ah, Baldie.  What ho,” I said.

“Don’t you ‘what ho’ me!” he said, advancing into the room.  I had an odd sense of déjà-vu, as if I’d recently heard just those words, though I couldn’t quite place where.  But Spotts-Binkle’s next utterance drove the question from my mind.  “You conniving hound!  You treacherous cheat!  You cad!”

I raised an eyebrow, then another.  “I say, Baldie, steady on!”

“I’m steady enough,” he answered.  For the first time in our long acquaintance, I saw color in Archibald Spotts-Binkle’s countenance:  two bright red spots at about the height of his cheekbones, like an aging actress who has dipped once too often into the rouge pot.  “Steady enough to break your eye and blacken your nose!”

“I think you’ll find you mean–” I began, but he spoke over me, in a most unBaldie-like way.

“I mean to batter you into a shapeless mass then trample you into the carpet!” he said.

“But I’m just about to save your life!”

“Save your own!” he said.  “If you can!”  He had balled his knobbly hands into fists and now he raised one as if he knew how to use it.  I remembered again the short, sharp set-to with Basher Bass-Humptingdon in the junior boys’ cloakroom, and recalled that though Baldie had been deficient in the technical aspects, he had not lacked for energy.  I moved to put an obstructing sofa between us.

But he was not to be stayed by sofas.  He leapt onto the cushions, still brandishing his fist, and now he did so from the advantage of greater height. Suddenly the likelihood of Baldie doing actual damage grew less remote.

“I say, Spotts-Binkle,” I said, “what’s this all about?”

“It’s about treachery and double-dealing!  And a man I thought was a friend behaving like a worm!”

Greeves, who had been standing by, quiet as a statue, now spoke.  “May I inquire, sir, if it concerns the person you have named Shilistrata?

“He knows it is!” Baldie said, without taking his feverish eyes from mine.  “He was supposed to speak to her for me!  Instead, he spoke for himself!”

“I praised you to the skies!” I protested.  “I called you a winner and a first-rater among newt men.  I counseled her to seize the day before some other newtess claimed you for her own!”

He still loomed over me, but the homicidal mania had lost some of its pep.  He resembled a Viking berserker who had paused to take thought.  His gaze slid toward Greeves.

“Is this true, Greeves?”

“It is, sir.”

“But when I went to her, just now,” Baldie said, climbing down from the cushions, “she spurned me.  ‘Bring me Bartholomew’ she said.  ‘I must have him.’“

“Well, she’s not getting me, nor any part thereof,” I said.  “One shudders to think–”

“That’s enough of that sort of talk!” said Baldie, his color, however localized, rising again.  “One does not speak thus of the woman I intend to wed!”

“Baldie . . . ,” I said, casting about for a clear avenue of approach, “it’s not a stroll down the petal-strewn aisle she has in mind.”

Again, the dismissive digits.  “Oh, I know there are differences between us,” he said.  “Know them better than most, I’d say.  But with good will and growing affection, I’m sure they can be overcome.”

“Baldie–”

“I won’t hear any more against her!”

I made a silent appeal to Greeves, via eyebrows and corners of the mouth.  Baldie has always had a high regard for his acumen. 

As good souls will, Greeves filled the gap in the line.  “Mr. Spotts-Binkle,” he said, “it grieves me to be the bearer of unhappy tidings, but the lady in question is not seeking a mate.  Rather, she is thinking in terms of, shall we say, support for her children.”

“I understand that, Greeves,” Baldie said, “and I’ve assured her that my resources will be at their disposal.  I mean, what’s the use of having a bob or two if you don’t use it to do some good?”

“It is not wealth, sir, that is sought,” Greeves said.  “It is the candidate’s more immediate assets that the sireni has in view.”

“Baldie,” I said, “she means to bury me in the ooze at the bottom of the pond while her grubs, or whatever they are, feast upon my rotting carcass.”

As Greeves and I fed him the true gen, he once again defaulted to that pop-eyed, slow-blinking Baldie that is the classic model.  After a pause to take it all in, he said, “I don’t believe it!”

“She prefers Mr. Gloster,” Greeves said, “because, as with Hudibras Gillattely, who suffered the same fate, his form is more fleshy, – he turned to me – “if you will permit my saying so, sir.”

“Not at all, Greeves.  There is more on the Gloster bones than on the Spotts-Binkles.  Luck of the draw in the parentage department, probably.”

There ensued another period of Baldie’s blinking accompanied by the up-and-down course of his Adam’s apple as he metaphorically, if that’s the word, swallowed the bitter pill of truth.

Then he spat it out.  “I don’t believe a word of it!”  He dismissed me with a curl of the lip and rounded on Greeves.  “For once, Greeves, you’ve misread the cues, followed the tracks up the wrong path.”

“I am sorry, sir, that you think so.  Professor Gillattely’s notes were quite detailed.”

“Pah!  Him!”

Greeves produced a bound notebook.  “He wrote, sir, and I quote, ‘I will endeavor to ascertain the range of the creature’s mesmeric influence, placing a series of white stakes in the turf.  I will begin with the distance at which I feel the first mental itch, then proceed to the point at which it becomes almost irresistible.’“

Greeves offered Baldie a view of the page.  “As you’ll see, sir, that was his last entry.”

“That could mean anything, Greeves!”

“I think you’ll find, sir, that it means the Professor advanced a stake too far.”

“By Jove, Baldie, “ I said, “Greeves has cinched it again!  I saw those stakes in a line down to toward the water, with the last few all in a higgle and piggle!  That must be the locus delecti or whatever the Latin is for the spot where she did the dirty on old Gillattely.”

“That was my surmise, too, sir,” said Greeves.

The two of us had obviously hung Baldie on the horns of a dilemma.  Clearly, he did not want to wave in the news that his inamorata was an aquatic Nosferatu, if that’s the fellow I’m thinking of, but Greeves’s air of quiet confidence, coupled with the evidence of the stakes, was undermining his defenses.

“If I may make a suggestion, sirs,” Greeves now said, “we should depart at the earliest opportunity.  Professor Gillattely’s notes also indicate that there are several other females of the species in the vicinity, some of them considerably larger than the one we have been discussing.  I fear that our presence has drawn them towards the house.  Mr. Tove-Whippley went to see if he could launch the rocket and bring it to this side of the stream.  The fact that he has not done so indicates that our situation grows dire.”

Baldie, by this point, had lost the knack of taking action.  He seemed to be contemplating some bleak inner vista – probably involving his inevitable home-coming conversation with Marilyn Spotts-Binkle, née Buffet – that was robbing him of whatever was needed to cause him to buck up and soldier on.  It was time for a Gloster to take charge.

 “Would you see about the packing, Greeves?”

“If I may, sir, I would advise a more precipitous departure.  Night is falling, and the creatures grow more restive in the hours of darkness.”

“Right ho, Greeves!  All hands, abandon ship!”  Then a thought occurred.  “If we’ve lost Slithy, who will operate the rocket?”

“I closely observed Mr Tove-Whippley’s activities on the outward voyage, sir,” Greeves said.  “I believe the task is not one that would pose difficulties to an agile mind.”

“You think I’ll be able to manage a take-off, Greeves?” I said.

“I was thinking rather, sir, that you would minister to Mr. Spotts-Binkle.”

“Ah, yes,” I said, regarding the proposed object of my tender care.  “Baldie?  Are you with us?” 

But Baldie was present in name only.  He had even stopped blinking.  Greeves proposed that we each take an arm and walk him towards the rocket ship.  I agreed and we took up our stations and proceeded toward the door.  But then Greeves bid us stop and went to the drinks cabinet, where he snaffled up a large bottle of something.

“Good thinking, Greeves,” I said.  “I’m sure we’ll need a stiffener somewhere along the line.”

“Indeed, sir,” he said.  “Now, sir, if I may advocate a certain rapidity of gait?”

“Advocate away, Greeves.  I’m with you.”  Then, as we went through the door onto the mossy lawn, I let out a short note of laughter.

“Sir?”

“I just thought, Greeves, well . . . what we’re doing with poor old Baldie.”

“The situation excites humor, sir?”

“Well,” I said, savoring the moment to come, “it’s a frog-march, isn’t it?  I mean to say:  frogs, newts;  march, marsh.  It works on many levels.”

“Indeed sir.  Most droll.  Now, we are coming within range.  If I may recommend that you concentrate your mind in a way that will resist the female’s siren call.  A brick wall, perhaps.  Or large earmuffs.”

“Oh, for beeswax, eh, Greeves?” I said, as we marched on.

“Oh, indeed, sir.”

But then his voice faded into the background cacophony that was rising all around us, the swamp dwellers letting the night know that they were all present and open for business.  We struggled on, with Baldie between us doing a rather convincing impression of a sack of potatoes, angling our course away from the pond towards where the little bridge spanned the stream that trickled through the marsh.  Beyond the stone arch, on the swamp’s only other elevation, I could see the dull sheen of Slithy’s rocket ship.  Its hatch was open, with a bit of a ladder leading up to it.

As we neared the crossing, I felt a tickling between my ears.  I’d been expecting another rendition of the slow and sultry number Shilistrata had been playing at our earlier tryst, but it seemed that, in the presence of other anglers, she had gone for a straightforward gaffing of the Gloster fish.  The tickle grew quickly into an unbearable itch;  I would have gladly torn off the top of my skull just for a chance to scratch it.  Accompanying the maddening sensation was the certain knowledge that it would stop the moment I turned toward the pond.

“I say, Greeves,” I said, “I’ve got this awful–”

“Itch, sir?” he said, and I saw that his face was almost registering a strong expression, rather like one of Hesiod’s Titans acknowledging an earache.

“An itch to end all itches,” I said.

“Very apt, sir, inasmuch as giving in to it would soon bring about the end of existence.”

“I believe I’ll put it out of my mind, Greeves.”

“Do endeavor to do so, sir,” he said, “although I fear it is about to become more difficult.”  He had only his chin to point with, like Achilles before the walls of Troy, and he used the appendage to indicate that Shilistrata had come out of the pond to take up a position at the near end of the bridge.  She had spread her arms wide to bar our passage while narrowing her eyes to slits.  She was also giving us an uninhibited view of those rows of glistening needles along her pale, pink gums.

“Sirening be dashed,” I said, the itch in my brain having suddenly ceased, “she’s going for brute force.”

“More than that, sir,” Greeves said.  “Professor Gillattely believed that the creature’s bite is poisoned.”

“Um,” I said, “so simply booting her out of the way will invite peril.”

“Hence this, sir.”  He raised his free arm, which contained the item he’d picked up from the drinks cabinet.

“Planning to render her squiffy?” I said.

“No, sir,” he said, advancing on the newtess, with Baldie and me perforce marching in his train.  When we neared the hissing creature, Greeves let fly.  It seemed that he had not brought along a flagon of Gillattely’s hooch, but the full soda bottle.  He now depressed its lever and sprayed Shilistrata from her head to her nonexistent navel with a stream of clear, bubbly liquid.

One often sees soda bottles thus used in the cinema where, along with the tossing of custard pies, they are a staple of Mr. Sennett’s comedies.  On the newtess, however, the effect was more in a tragic vein:  where the sparkling water touched her, her green skin turned first a pale yellow, then bleached to a leprous white.  Her hiss became a yawp.  She scrubbed at her front with her paws, and the contact made her paws exhibit the same color change.

She bent over, emitted a series of yips, and abandoned her bridge-blockading strategy in favor of a quick plunge back into the pond.  Greeves and I, with Baldie still hung between us like an oddly shaped rug on a clothesline, tramped onto the bridge.

But at the far end we saw a new obstacle:  another newtess, big enough to make Shilistrata look like the runt of the litter, had dredged herself up from the creek and was giving us the same dentist’s-eye-view of her pointed gnashers. 

“Onward, sir, if you please,” Greeves recommended, and we thundered down the slope of the arch like a three-man version of the Scots Greys’ charge at Waterloo, a painting of which my aunt Daisy had over her bed.  Greeves gave the enemy a thorough dousing with soda water, with much the same effect as on the first occasion.  In a moment, the way lay clear and we crossed to dry – well, dryish – land and struggled up the slope to where the rocket stood.

“That’s the spirit, Greeves,” I said.

“I regret, sir, that the curtain is not yet down,” he said, waving the bottle to indicate that a passel of newts was rising from the water to pursue us.  “May I again counsel speed, sir?”

“No need,” said I, putting on the best I was capable of.  Together, we slogged up to the top of the knoll and thrust Baldie bodily through the hatch.

“After you, sir,” Greeves said, as he turned to play Horatio at the bridge.

“Never you mind that,” I said, taking the soda bottle from him.  “Go in and get the engine warmed up or whatever one does.”

A gape-mouthed newtess hoved into view and I let her have a splash of soda large enough to have ruined a snifterful.  Another one came right behind her, and I let fly again.  The same color change and expression of horror came over both of them, and they beetled off to wherever they’d come from.

“Don’t care for it at all, do they, Greeves?” I called over my shoulder.  I could hear clicks and flicks from behind me as he did things with the ship’s controls.

“Their skins are covered in an acidic slime,” he said as he continued to work.  “The bicarbonate of soda neutralizes the acidity, causing them much the same discomfort as you and I would feel if someone poured acid on us.”

I gave another comer a faceful of fizz.  “I say, Greeves,” I said, “we’re running low on soda.”

I heard a fresh series of switch-snappings, then I felt two strong hands under my arms.  “Please forgive my manhandling you, sir,” he said as he hoisted me backwards through the hatch and kicked the door closed.  He led me to a sort of chaise-longue fitted with straps and buckles and made me secure, then did the same for Baldie.

Something banged on the hatch.  “If I may, sir?” he said, gesturing to the control console.

“Please, Greeves,” I said.  “Venus has lost whatever charms it may once have held.”

He sat in a chair and moved a lever.  The ship began to vibrate.  Then I began to feel strangely heavy.

Some time later, Greeves shimmered into view with a pot of tea and the necessary accouterments.  He undid my buckles then informed me that he had administered a draft of the sleeping potion to Baldie, who would now lie in the arms of that Morpheus chap throughout the long journey home.

“Would you care to sleep, too, sir?” he asked.

“Wouldn’t that leave you all alone for, I don’t know, weeks?”

“Months, sir, in fact.”

“Good grief in garters, Greeves.  I couldn’t let you do that all alone.”

“Very good of you, sir.”

I took a sip of the brew and thought for a moment, then said, “Greeves, I came to Venus because Slithy Tove-Whippley slipped me a mickey.  But how did he trick you?”

“The gentleman did not trick me, sir.  When I saw that he meant to abscond with you, I insisted that he take me, too.”

“Wide awake, Greeves?”

“Indeed, sir.”

“Must have been a dashed boring trip, though, eh?”

“Mr. Tove-Whippley was kind enough to teach me a card game called pinochle.  He learned it while working with Mr. Ford in America.”

“Good game, Greeves?”

“Quite engaging, sir.  And even when played for small stakes, the winnings from several months of constant pinochle-playing can add up.”

“Won a packet, did you, Greeves?”

“I won the Lulu, sir.”

“The Lulu?”

“It is the name of this rocket ship, sir.”  He took thought for a moment.  “Though I may change it.”

“Good for you, Greeves,” I said.  “Now, how about one more cup of tea, and then we’ll cut the cards.”

“Very good, sir.”

“And Greeves?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Thank you for . . . .”  I made a gesture that took in all of Venus and its manifold trials.

“Not at all, sir.”

 

This story originally appeared in Old Venus.


Matthew Hughes

I'm writing fantasy and science fiction, often in a Jack Vance mode.