Looking back on it, I suppose I picked Sir Roderick because I felt I was getting too dependent on competence. I wanted to see how a completely arrogant practitioner conducted himself, and what the consequences were to patients.
Of course, Sir Roderick was not a complete idiot. He was in fact energetic, quick-witted, highly ethical, and possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge, both general and specialist. However, if his narcissistic personality disorder was any worse, he would need regular attendants to drag him away from mirrors. He was, false modesty aside, the leading specialist, and both heaven and hell help the fool who thought anyone else approached Sir Roderick on the lofty peak.
As my own family is riddled with such symptoms, I wanted to get a better idea what havoc they could wreak. I arrived with impeccable credentials and wrote a suitably deferential letter to Sir Roderick, whereupon he graciously let me know he would be able to fit me in and help me achieve respectable professional standards.
Of course, such escapades are no fun without the possibility of some backfire. A dash of suspense keeps the wits quick. In this case, t found the quicksand waiting for me just inside Sir Roderick’s foyer.
Since I was to be trained and observed in all manners professional and personal, I would be Sir Roderick’s houseguest. His daughter Honoria, having been fully briefed, decided to see how I met her standards.
I was deliberately not exploiting my own advantages. That would be taking the challenge out of this. However, Honoria was a rather easy read. I could see that I lost points for being bespectacled and reserved, but I gained points for handling my own trunks with ease.
[My mother teases me that I am showing off for the locals. However, I dispute this. If I were to show anything off, it would be my own intellectual talents and attainments. Handling my own heavy objects is merely being cordial to my hosts and their employees. And I do tip generously for small errands, so no one can claim I am taking work or income away from anyone]
Parenthetical digression aside, Honoria herself was what my mother would have laughingly dismissed as “Jolly Hockey Sticks.” She had a classic mesomorph body and clearly exploited it enthusiastically in sports, if her tennis attire was any indication. So she was not stick-like at all, and had some aesthetic appeal — including a striking profile — although I’m sure Aunt Flora would have been horrified. And she was indeed jolly, or at least high-spirited.
A too-comfortable routine soon set in. Sir Roderick drilled me, and I carefully had my facts in a row while letting him instruct me in matters of opinion. The old devil was in fact quite a boon to his patients, but then his patients turned out to not be terribly demanding. The hopeless cases were taken firmly into a well-appointed hospital, received more than adequate nutrition and comfort, and were generally protected from themselves and the outside world. Those suffering existential crises received a placebo benefit from Sir Roderick’s extensive talking cures. The truly neurotic were not in evidence — perhaps too anxiety-ridden to approach Sir Roderick — but the other two classes of patients ably supported Sir Roderick and his household. I learned no true clinical skills, but I will admit that Sir Roderick helped me polish my own ideas — through good examples more than bad — of what constituted effective manner towards patients and their families.
I also developed some athletic acumen, as Honoria claimed me for an hour or so per day for some sporting endeavor — which, I hasten to add for any of my family who may be reading my diary, was the sort of athletics where participants were clothed, in public spaces, and followed rules of conduct. Honoria somehow had the idea that we were involved in a courting ritual which only ended when she bested me at something. Since she was merely human, these wins happened when I got bored or careless, which taught me to avoid such failures of attention. Her braying laugh was perfect aversion therapy.
I was composing a family emergency that would take me away when life was made more interesting by visitors. Sir Roderick had promised a friend and occasional patient that he would allow her nephew and his butler to stay for a few days. Sir Roderick proclaimed this young man an interesting species of lunatic, and that he would normally have not allowed him within the town limits, but the aunt could be very persuasive and of course I was around to assist. The woman herself was due in several days to ensure the boy was present and cared for.
A bit of gossip from the cook — simple cordiality got me a great deal of interesting conversation, and an unusual tea biscuit recipe I intended to share with my mother — was that this Mr. Wooster, the questionable lunatic in question, had once been affianced to Honoria. Of course neither father nor daughter would ever speak of it, but I could see Honoria’s wheels turning.
The subtext when everyone arrived was worthy of Grand Central Station in any iteration. Honoria made a point of introducing me to Mr. Wooster in glowing terms, playing up my intellect and good breeding. Her gambit was that whether I was flattered, or Wooster was provoked into jealousy, or both, her interests were furthered by making us more interested in her. Wooster, to his credit, missed it completely. Wooster reminded me of a wonderful adage, that intelligence got you out of things that wisdom would not let you get into. Wooster was evidently lacking in more intelligence than required to maintain erect posture, polite conversation and appropriate grooming. However, he placidly and pleasantly refused to rise, or even notice, any attempt at baiting him. Since so few were at our intellectual level, mother had taught me to appreciate other qualities in people. I decided that despite his apparent deficiencies in reason, sanity or awareness, Mr. Wooster would be good company.
The difficulty would be the butler. He and I assessed each other immediately. He had been settled here longer, long enough to develop a kind of patina, but he was another visitor. He was not happy to see me. I could sympathize, but of course I was obligated to have a chat with him.
We caught up with each other at 3 AM. The others in the house were sound asleep. An evening’s sleep meant less to the two of us than missing a meal. However, the cook had already let us know where the leftovers were so we enjoyed a light snack while we identified which page each of us was on, and whether the pages were from the same book.
After the usual evasions, we established that he, like me, was lingering in this place for reasons of personal interest. Working for Mr. Wooster was a tangent to these interests, but was pleasant enough that my fellow traveler had decided to stay at least until Wooster’s Aunt Agatha finally ascended to the next social ladder, and Wooster’s inheritance was comfortably sealed.
We found many points of concrete agreement. Roderick and Honoria were both self-important egomaniacs. [ I took the butler’s word that the absent Aunt Agatha was on the same continuum.] Wooster was pleasant but harmless, like a large, friendly puppy whose rambunctiousness and noise, rather than being a drain on patience, promised cheer and entertainment.
So our resulting problems were not with each other, but merely because of each other. Individually, external interlopers like us were mild irritants to a Shadow. When we exited, the irritation would subside, like a bug bite. However, the two of us, being present in the same house, acted to provoke a kind of allergic reaction. I had not seen the same effect before or since, but these other places usually had active proprietors, heavy traffic or both. Perhaps the querulous reaction of the place was due to its isolation otherwise, or to some other facet in its character. However, the golf game would be a memorable one.
Honoria had insisted we do something outdoors, and it was a beautiful day — even given the definition of golf as a long walk, ruined. Given our range of age and condition — Sir Roderick was physically the senior, and Wooster only lifted champagne bottles and ran from policemen — golf was the best choice. Croquet is one of the few social activities that justify deadly force to avoid. Also, Wooster’s aunt was due to arrive that day, and it was understood that once she arrived, she scheduled events from then on.
While the other three got into a bitter argument over whose fault it was that the ball got into a sand trap on the third hole, the butler and I looked at each other with the sad knowledge that the sand trap had not, in fact, been there at the start of the game. Nor had the water hazard at the fifth hole, complete with alligators. The odd-numbered holes simply got odder. The white rabbit at the seventh hole was just too much. It was perusing a racing form and asked if it could borrow a quid to place a bet. While the ever-amiable Wooster lent it the money, Roderick and Honoria gaped at the unavoidable fact that reality as they knew it had taken a tea break.
There are powers and skills that could be used to soothe a traumatized Shadow, or to bludgeon it into submission. Neither the butler nor I had these particular abilities. Mother could do it easily, but I really did not feel it was appropriate to Trump her just because a golf game was misbehaving.
The butler put on an admirable face of confusion, ignorance and dismay. I attempted to match his example. Sir Roderick finally harrumphed his way to a declaration that this was some sort of reaction to badly-cooked eggs this morning.
“The Dickens you say,” Wooster responded in genuine wonder and astonishment and without a lick of irony or wit.
It finally got too much at the thirteenth hole. A bad slice into the woods triggered a counter-attack but what I can only describe as druid ninjas. To his credit, Wooster had the wit to dive for cover and the spirit to cover Sir Roderick when he did so. That left thirty or so druid ninjas against myself, the butler and Honoria. Honoria brandished her nine iron like a broadsword, and gave that braying laugh of hers.
I opened my third eye and glared. Half the ninjas staggered back, but the unreality of the situation hindered my assault. However, the butler did something I could not describe exactly what, as his anatomy was particularly fluid at the time. While he flowed, and the ninjas stumbled, Honoria strode through swinging.
I suppose it was a satisfactory battle. We survived, and there was much noise and activity and a general sense of exertion and invigoration. Oddly enough, among the fatalities was an elderly woman who was a stranger to me but whom Roderick and Wooster declared with surprise was Wooster’s Aunt Agatha. Of course, none of us could be sure exactly when she arrived. I could not tell you truthfully if she had been among the ninjas or if somehow the butler had arranged for her to arrive in the middle of the violence. As she had apparently died of a major cerebral hemorrhage, I suppose I claim at least some of the credit for her demise.
The nature of the butler’s scheme became apparent. Sir Roderick and Honoria were obliged to testify that Agatha’s death had been sudden and not accompanied by any foul play or other odd phenomena. It was murky whether they found the law, the journalists, or social gossip more worrisome. Mr. Wooster’s inheritance was not only assured but expedited. At that time, the butler gave notice.
So I and the butler left together. We sat for a mint julep before going our separate ways. He explained that he was by inclination a caregiver, finding people like Wooster who needed help and staying with them until they were settled.
It was his opinion that the smug Roderick and Honorias were the norm for the Houses of Amber and Chaos, which in turn were reflected across creations. Any major deviation from these norms was to be cherished and protected.
“So the late Agatha was another surplus to be pruned?” I asked. The former butler nodded.
“Why not work to change matters at the higher levels and let the improvements be reflected?”
“I am not yet in a position to prune the royal families,” he lamented.
“You do not have to prune them. Just show them a better way.”
“You have been studying how others think and feel for decades, Isaac. How much have you changed from it?” With that he got up and left. I considered the mint julep I had barely touched. I wondered if he had seen me as someone to prune and what I could remember his hands doing as we sat. Then I paid my bill and left.