By John McDonnell

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."

Something about this conversation had given me the feeling one gets when looking down from a ski lift to the valley below - a sort of dizziness, a lightheadedness that makes one feel a bit off ones' moorings, and so I was glad when the waiter came by and asked if we'd like something to drink. A stiff one was what I needed to restore my spirits, and I ordered a whisky straightaway.

Alas, that whisky and the second one I ordered a short time later did nothing to lift the sense of impending doom that was settling on Bertram's soul. Mr. Tony Sprezzatura and his daughter were planning out my wedding and much of my life thereafter with such a sense of glee that I could not help but feel as trapped as a dashed mouse that's been cornered by a particularly malevolent cat. One gets the feeling at such times that Life is a sort of game that one hasn't been properly coached on, and that the clock is running out but you have no idea how to proceed.

As the afternoon wore on Tony was feeling particularly benevolent, and at one point he clapped me on the shoulder and said, "I can't tell you how happy it makes me that Francine found somebody to marry, even if is one of you limp-wristed English guys. I mean, I fixed her up with a whole bunch of wise guys, made men who all had good futures in loan-sharking, narcotics, all the growth markets. They'd have kept her in jewelry and furs for the rest of her life. Francine, though, she's always been different, so I guess that's why she had to pick you. No hard feelings, though - in fact, just to show how happy I am, I'll whack somebody for you. You got anybody you need whacked?"

"Whacked?" I said. "I'm not sure I get what you mean."

"You know, you got anybody who's bothering you? Anybody who needs to be taken care of?"

"Well, now you mention it, I do sometimes think my Aunt Agatha could use a good talking to. There are times when-"

"Where does she live?" Tony said. "I can have her wearing cement overshoes by this time tomorrow. She'll be swimming with the fishes, get me?" He laughed, and the light caught his gold tooth in the most charming way.

"Swimming with the - oh, no, Tony, I don't think I want that. Oh, no, not at all."

"You sure? Because anyone who's bothering my new son-in-law is going to get a visit from Cousin Vito."

"No!" I fairly shouted. "No need to get Cousin Vito involved, not at all. Now, if you don't mind, Tony, I think I'd better get back to my digs. My cousin Oliver Finch-Tuxton has an important engagement he needs me to attend, and I don't want to be late."

"Sure," Tony said, slapping me on the back one more time. "Just remember, if you ever need anybody whacked, I can fix it for you. Understand?"

"Y-yes," I said. "I'll definitely keep you in mind if I suddenly have a need to get someone whacked."

I said a hasty goodbye to Tony, gave a peck on the cheek to the lovely Francine (making sure to avoid her viselike embrace), and hotfooted it out of the restaurant and into the first cab I could find, telling the cabbie there'd be an extra fiver in it if he could set a new speed record back to my cousin's address.

It was a glum Bertram indeed who dragged his weary body back to the apartment, flopped in a chair by the fire, and rang for Jeeves.

When the man shimmered into the room, as he is wont to do, appearing out of nowhere, he found a very dejected Bertram, one for whom all the fizz had gone out of Life.

"I take it your meeting with Miss Sprezzatura and her father did not go well?" Jeeves said.

"It bally well did not go well," I said. "Jeeves, it's a terrible thing, how a fellow can be living his life in good spirits, feeling in the pink of health and all that, and then Fate, or whatever you want to call it, comes along and throws a clawhammer into the works and ruins everything. If this Sprezzatura plot takes hold, I'll be led like the proverbial lamb to slaughter, and you can say goodbye to Bertram Wooster."

"I am sorry," Jeeves said, producing a glass filled with one of his life-enhancing martinis. "Perhaps this will restore your spirits."

Grateful as I was for Jeeves' skill with the martini mixer, the concoction did not have its usual effect. Instead of putting a spring back in my step, it simply left me flat and listless, like a glass of soda that's been left out in the sun.

"Jeeves, I bally well think it's curtains for me. If you don't come up with a solution, I'm facing a future of sharkskin suits, antipasto, and broken kneecaps that I won't be able to leave unless I join the Witness Protection Program. You must help, dear fellow. Do you have a solution?"

"I have thought long and hard on this matter," Jeeves said. "And although the situation is indeed dire, I came up with a solution that, however improvised it may be, may just do the trick."

"What is it, Jeeves?" I said, suddenly perking up. "Out with it, man! Has that superior brain of yours once again found the perfect fix for a predicament involving your young master Bertram?"

"You are too kind," said Jeeves. "Let me explain, and you can judge for yourself whether my efforts have borne fruit.

"I took the liberty of doing some research on this Mr. Tony Sprezzatura," Jeeves continued, "and it seems he has a cousin named Vito. . ."

"A fearsome chap, from what I have heard," I said, "but, go on, Jeeves, go on."

"Well, this Cousin Vito has been known to gamble on the horses," Jeeves said. "A pastime with which I am not unacquainted."

I well knew that Jeeves liked to attend the races on his days off, and that he sometimes placed "a judicious wager on the outcome of the event," as he liked to say.

"Go on, Jeeves," I said. "I'm all ears on this one."

"Yes sir. I also found that Cousin Vito had recently taken a trip to England, and, putting two and two together, I placed a call to a friend who is associated with the racing business, specifically the part of it where racing aficionados place monetary bets on their favorite horses."

"A bookie, Jeeves?"

"They are sometimes known by that nomenclature," said Jeeves. "Anyway, my friend informed me that Cousin Vito had lost a good deal of money in his most recent visit to the races, through some unwise bets. He was, my friend said, in arrears for a great deal of money, and, unfortunately, Cousin Vito was not able to repay it."

"A deadbeat, eh?"

"Precisely. Which, of course, meant that Cousin Vito was in great danger of getting - I believe the term is 'whacked'. When I was apprised of this situation an idea occurred to me. So, while you were meeting with Mr. Sprezzatura I had a rather fruitful meeting with Cousin Vito, in which I elicited his help in the current predicament. In return for Cousin Vito's help in getting this engagement cancelled I gave him several sure winners in the afternoon's events at a nearby track, and I promised more tips in the future, which will help him pay back his debt to the English 'bookies', as you called them.

"But what can Cousin Vito do to help me?" I said.

"Cousin Vito is very, ah, persuasive," Jeeves said. "Especially when one knows that he carries a rather large, sharp knife with him at all times. I am not sure if you are aware, but Cousin Vito has a master's license in the butcher trade."

"Yes, I had heard that," I said.

"He can carve a side of beef in record time," Jeeves said. "His associates all know this about him, and it makes him more persuasive when he talks to them. I believe at this very time he has already finished a meeting with Mr. Sprezzatura, and if all goes well, you should be receiving a phone call from Miss Sprezzatura shortly."

Well, you can imagine my state of mind when the phone rang that very second, and on the other end was a hysterical Francine Sprezzatura, babbling on about some horrible accident involving her father's pinky finger, and how the wedding would have to be called off, and that she was sorry but she would never be able to see me again, etc. etc.

To say that Bertram was overjoyed when he hung up that phone would be understating matters by a good bit. Why, I felt like all the old Wooster pep had returned to my step, the Wooster bonhomie was back, Spring had returned to the woodland dell, and all that. I was a new man, as the saying goes, and this new man owed it all to that amazing specimen of mental acuity, Jeeves.

Honestly, the man simply outdoes himself sometimes.