Batman and Catwoman in Cat-Tales by Chris DeeCat-Tales 39: Polishing Silver

Polishing Silver by Chris Dee
The Journal of Alfred Pennyworth

Tea and Shakespeare


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This is, as I have mentioned, the fourth journal I have kept in my life. The first was undertaken, somewhat reluctantly, on the instruction of Mr. Bilkin at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.  It was, I believe, a token assignment on Mr. Bilkin’s part, a grudging nod towards the “American Method,” which is an offshoot of the Stanislavski “System.”  These “inside out” schools of acting stressed the performer’s internal journey to discover the emotional mechanisms of a character.  They vary greatly from the “outside in” approach favored at RADA.  I recall Mr. Bilkin going on at some length about the absurd exercises then in vogue among American actors to build “sense memories”: accessing complex emotions from the subconscious by concentrating on the sights, sounds, tastes, or smells associated with them.

Today I am unable to scoff at the notion of sense memory, for this morning, the squeak of the back wheel on an old teacart has evoked the late Mrs. Wayne in my recollections with greater vibrancy than I would have thought possible.  It was, you see, the late Mrs. Wayne who first came up with the idea of using the teacart to collect all of the drawing room silver for polishing.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

My duties for Master Bruce are naturally quite different than they were for the late Dr. and Mrs. Wayne. They are different, indeed, than they would be for any other household in the world. In the normal course of events at Wayne Manor, I remove only one piece of silver at a time from the dining room, morning room, or drawing room. I clean and polish it at my leisure, and then return it to its place the next day. In this way, I can cycle through the treasures of Wayne Manor in about six weeks time without neglecting my other duties.

Today’s circumstances, of course, are far from “the normal course of events.”

It was Mr. Marshall, the butler at Charleville House, who is said to have first recognized the importance of silver in our profession. No other object, he observed, “comes under such intimate scrutiny from outsiders as does silver during a meal, and as such, it serves as a public index of the house’s standards.”

In the normal course of events, such “standards” are not a great priority at Wayne Manor, but as I said, the occasion before us is far from normal. It is vital at such times to give one’s best, not merely for the sake of the household’s appearance to outsiders, but out of respect for the young lady. I therefore wheeled the old teacart in from the storeroom and loaded it up with all the silver ornaments and serving pieces, so they can all be cleaned and polished at once.

The cart, as I indicated, was the late Mrs. Wayne’s innovation. In her day, the polishing of silver was, as you would expect, one of my gravest duties as butler. Every Tuesday, I would scrupulously clean and polish the three tea sets, the punch bowl, soup tureen, chafing dishes, and the various trays, salvers, baskets, center pieces, candlesticks and other ornaments. This necessitated a goodly number of trips back and forth between the upstairs rooms and the kitchen. Mrs. Wayne said it was ridiculous to be making such an effort when I could just load up the cart to transport it all to “Pug’s Pantry” in a single trip.

I should perhaps explain that “Pug’s Pantry” was Mrs. Wayne’s particular appellation for the butler’s pantry off the kitchen. Mrs. Wayne, like Master Bruce, was born into a household with servants. When she was very young, she sometimes heard the staff speak of “Pug’s Parlor” when they meant the housekeeper’s room. She had thought, understandably, that meant the housekeeper’s name was Pug.

It was, in fact, an old Victorian term from the days when “upper servants” who ran the house (the housekeeper, butler, valet, and lady’s maid) kept a certain distance from the housemaids and footmen. They ate separately, in the housekeeper’s room, or else met there to walk in procession to the servant’s hall for dinner. The lower servants, as one might imagine, would look askance at these pretensions, and among themselves they spoke of the room as Pug’s Parlor and the procession as Pug’s Parade.

Mrs. Wayne—young Martha Van Geisen, rather, as she was then—knew none of this, of course. That way of life was long dead before she was even born. But the terms had stuck, at least among the Van Geisens. The housekeeper, a Mrs. Wenforth, could not help but be charmed at little Martha calling her Pug and encouraged her to continue. A bond formed between her and the little girl… Perhaps those not brought up with servants can ever understand the ties that may form between a family servant and the children of the house. I know Mr. Kent has particular difficulty comprehending my role with respect to Master Bruce… Nevertheless, the bond did form, and if Mrs. Wenforth had not been of an age to retire, I have no doubt she would have been installed at Wayne Manor upon Martha Van Geisen’s marriage to Master Thomas.

I had the pleasure of having Mrs. Wenforth to tea twice in those weeks leading up to the marriage, and it was on one of these occasions that I heard the story of “Pug’s Parlor.”  Knowing that history, I naturally took it as a great mark of acceptance the day Mrs. Wayne applied the term, in a roundabout way, to myself.  She had run out of postage stamps in the morning room and asked, with that wry good humour of hers, if I had any “tucked away in that Pug’s pantry of mine off the kitchen.” She had been with us about a year at the time, still very much a young bride in terms of her running of the house. The young can be so terribly unsure of themselves. It’s only natural; they have no true experience to fall back upon after all. The danger of their overcompensating for that deficiencyI sometimes wonder if Master Bruce realizes.

I have little occasion to use the teacart these days. Indeed, I had quite forgotten the squeak and warble of that back wheel. I remember my great concern the first time this occurred that it might scratch the parquet floor.

Of course Master Bruce realizes the danger. Master Jason’s costume, preserved in the cave, serves as a daily reminder to us all.

As I say, I had quite forgotten the squeak, but on hearing it again today I could not help be reminded of the late Mrs. Wayne.

With respect to Master Jason’s costume in the cave, one is forced, distasteful and ghoulish though it may be, to wonder what Master Bruce will do now. One costume preserved in such a way is a memorial; two, it could be argued, is a graveyard.

These sense memories, as I explained, oblige one to uncover associations one may make between certain emotional and sensory experiences. There is a particular brand of cream soda I purchased in the weeks after Master Dick came to reside at the manor, before his preferences became known to me. This was, of course, immediately after the tragic passing of his parents. To this day, I still link the smell and taste of that beverage with a heavy sense of helpless melancholy.

I did not, of course, have the honour to know John and Mary Grayson. My own pain of that period derived from seeing a young boy’s grief—along with that of Master Bruce, whose anguish at seeing his own heartache and loss mirrored in that innocent young lad cannot be adequately conveyed in words.

In the tragic case of Miss Stephanie, one’s position is somewhat different. I was privileged to know the young woman, albeit slightly. It is impossible not to be aggrieved at the loss of one so young and so lovely. It is impossible not to feel bewildered, and even somewhat angry, that such a one should be taken in such a way. That her fate resulted, so irrefutably, from her own recklessness is surely the most dreadful aspect of the whole grisly event.

And yet, much as one may be saddened by Miss Stephanie’s loss, one is far more stricken by the effect it must have on those who remain: Master Timothy and Miss Cassie, who knew her best; Master Bruce, who must undertake a share of guilt for any and all in his circle; Master Dick, who has, more than any other, I believe, many unresolved pangs about Master Jason’s terrible fate… And even Miss Selina, whose dilemma I did not begin to glean until this afternoon.

The funeral proper is naturally the realm of the Brown family. Those who were so fortunate as to know Miss Stephanie as Spoiler are unable to attend. To do so would not only compromise their identities, it would conceivably intrude upon the grief of her blood family, such as it is.

Recognizing the need for Miss Stephanie’s other family, the “Bat Family” as it were, to pay their respects, Master Bruce had the prescience to arrange a private memorial service here at the manor. One originally expected this gathering to be confined to the immediate Gotham circle: Master Tim and Miss Cassie, Master Dick and Ms. Barbara, Mr. Valley, possibly the Misses Lance and Bertinelli. In the hour before lunch, the guest list swelled unexpectedly as several persons from the Titans, Outsiders, and the former Young Justice announced their readiness to attend. To my knowledge, none of Superboy, Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, Arrowette or Arsenal were well-acquainted with Spoiler, but I gather their wish is to offer support and condolence to Master Timothy. The architect of this exceptional gesture is, I am quite sure, Mr. Kent, who telephoned immediately after lunch to say that he too planned to attend.

This brought the total expected to fifteen or possibly sixteen if his RSVP included Ms. Lane, too many to comfortably fit into the morning room. I therefore approached Miss Selina with a new plan, to lay out a light buffet in the south drawing room following the formal observance, and to learn her choice of which tea service should be used. I got only a sentence into my request when I noticed her aspect was far from what one might call receptive. She seemed, indeed, quite weighed down by some private burden, so much so that I was not sure she had even heard my question. I began to fear I might have misjudged her attachment to Miss Stephanie, that I might be troubling her with what were, essentially, domestic trivialities at a time of genuine grief.

“You seem distraught, miss,” I began with a new tack, “Might I bring you some tea?”

She looked up at me as if quite bewildered at my words. There truly is something feline about the lady at such moments.

“Out of curiosity, Alfred, what’s the thing with tea? I know you mean well. I know it’s supposed to help. I just don’t get why.”

Her bewildered tone altered over the next few words and that vigor I have already spoken of began to assert itself:

“Tim is the nicest… sanest… most genuine… sweetest human being to put on a cape, and his girl is dead. Bruce is—eating himself up already. This is the first real one I’ve been here for, Alfred. When Jason died, and what happened with Bane, it was all—Bane was a different hell for me, but I certainly wasn’t there for him. Now this happens—poor Stephanie, that poor—stupid kid—I don’t know what to do, for either of them. I just know I’m not going to be good at this. And now we’ve got a houseful of heroes coming, and I’m supposed to serve them tea! Alfred, please, you’re a butler and you’re English, and… please, just explain to me, how for the love of God is tea supposed to help?”

I began to understand her dilemma.

“I expect it might be sense memories, miss,” I told her. “If you would follow me, please, I shall explain.”

For all the “Impossible Woman”s uttered by the master, I have, in my own experience, found Miss Selina to be an infinitely reasonable creature. She followed to the kitchen as I had bid and watched while I demonstrated the Pennyworth secrets for brewing the perfect pot of tea. While I did so, I revealed another secret.

“I fear I sometimes lose sight, Miss Selina, of your other nature. Despite the several times I have now seen you in costume, I have only seen you in Catwoman-mode, if I may so phrase it, on that one occasion when Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn invaded the Foundation Gala here at the manor. You will observe that the teapot must be primed with boiling water before we begin. No other method of heating it beforehand will produce the proper effect.”

“I had forgotten that night,” she answered. “My god, that seems a long time ago. That wasn’t really cat-mode, though. It was… I don’t know. Pam—that’s Ivy—wrangled me into an intervention with Harley, I remember. Didn’t work, of course.” She sighed, then seemed to dismiss the thought and went on in a matter-of-fact tone. “Check, boiling water in the pot.”

I smiled. She was an apt pupil, if nothing else. I reproduce the rest of our conversation as well as I can recall it. I was, of course, occupied from this point on preparing the tea.

“It’s funny you mentioned that time,” she said musingly, “In a way, the intervention’ with Harley is part of Bruce’s problem right now. He went to all that trouble to get her off the book idea, but he didn’t see what was going on with Stephanie. Says he should have. Well, you know what he’s like: the buck stops here.’”

“Is that all you believe it to be, miss; the root of the master’s guilt?”

“I don’t know.  The guilt part, maybe, but… Alfred, the things he was talking about right before it happened—hope, happy endings, if it would be better or worse tomorrow—it scares me. It’s like he was a hair’s breadth, a cat’s whisker even, of giving up on it… giving up on us. And now… just look what’s happened.”

“Now we add one scoop of Darjeeling for each cup of tea, but here is where the Pennyworth method differs from others. You will have heard the formula: one spoonful per person and one for the pot’—our one for the pot’ will not be Darjeeling but a rich smoky tea called Lapsang Souchong. Just smell this delicious essence.”

“Oh great, life’s on the brink of total ruin, but hey, I can make one hell of a cup of tea.”

“If there are more than four cups being brewed, you may wish to use a four-to-one ratio rather than the strict one for the pot’ formula.”

“So that’ll be my claim to fame, eh? One day when the Titans are all grown up into the new JLA: Oh yes, that cat-broad that was shacking up with Batman for a while there before he gave up and tossed her away, remember her? Not bad with a whip, and boy could she make good tea.”

“Now we let it steep for four minutes, no less. That is the invariable error on the Continent, pouring too soon produces a pale weak infusion.”

“ALFRED!”

“Yes, miss?”

“The worst happened. A bat dropped dead and landed right smack on his keyboard. Stephanie got killed after Tim dumped her because he decided they had no future together. Tomorrow’ turned out a lot worse than yesterday. That’s where Hope got him, Alfred. He… What if he gives up?”

“Then you shall have to enlighten him, won’t you, miss? Milk or lemon?”

“What?”

“Miss Selina, you have over the past minutes—as in the past months, and indeed, in all the years of your association with him—demonstrated an understanding of Master Bruce, his aspirations, his desires and his demons, that would be the envy of his closest colleagues, who believe they know him better than anybody. It is quite impossible to credit your fear that you ‘will not be good at this,’ for there is clearly no one in his life better suited to comfort him in tragedy, rejoice with him in triumph, and keep him from being alone in the days and nights in between. If he should ‘give up hope,’ I have no doubt you would manage the situation with the same sublime felinity you have used to such advantage in the past. Now drink your tea, young woman, and the next time you enjoy, or even sniff, this particular brew, I dare say you will understand how it helps.”

Her expression underwent a curious change as I spoke, from despair to contentment to shock.

“You mean all this was to get me to sign off on the drawing room and the Georgian tea set?”

I smiled.

“As you say, miss.”

“Alfred, there are times when there is just a little bit of the scheming bat in you.”

“Thank you, miss.”

There was a curious epilogue to that conversation with Miss Selina.

I don’t know if you yourself are in the habit of pausing before entering a room where persons are already conversing.  I can vouch that it is a common practice among many domestic professionals, in order to avoid interrupting at an inopportune moment. I had paused in this way at the door to Master Bruce’s study a short while after Miss Selina had departed the kitchen, and there I chanced to overhear the master unburdening himself on the very matter she had alluded to, the efforts he had undertaken to save Ms. Quinn.

“Harley.  All that trouble to make Harley wake up to the danger she was putting herself in. When all the time it was Stephanie. I should have seen it. I should have known she wasn’t up to this. I should have done more to keep her out of that damn costume.”

“Bruce. I don’t want to say this, and I really don’t want to have to say this to you now. But you’ve got a guilt thing and it’s really not appropriate right now. This one is Tim’s. If anybody gets to deal with this by—by wrapping themselves up in a shitload of blame and culpability, it’s Tim’s option. You should just not.”

I knocked then, before the master could reply, and delivered my message. There was a telephone call from former commissioner Gordon. It could have properly been taken by either Master Bruce or Miss Selina, and there commenced an exchange of looks between them, evidently discussing which of them it was to be.

“Fine, I’ll go,” Miss Selina said finally.

It was not the first time I had witnessed this phenomenon. The master once remarked how his relationship with Catwoman existed for so many years on an unspoken level. This strange mutual understanding of the other’s thoughts and feelings, while hardly constant or infallible, appears to be the result. Master Bruce merely waited in silence until Miss Selina had left us, then he turned to me.

“How’s she doing?”

The question startled me, certainly.  Of the immediate circle struck by this loss, I had, up until our conversation in the kitchen at least, considered Miss Selina to be the least affected, her acquaintance with Miss Stephanie being comparatively slight.

“I should say she is holding up against the challenges of this sad day most admirably, sir.”

He nodded.

“She’s okay with playing hostess to a… crimefighting assembly, then?”

I raised an eyebrow. Miss Selina had made passing reference to that aspect of the matter during our conversation, but I had given it little weight compared to the other issues we discussed.

“To the best of my knowledge, sir, she is aware of the potential for some slight awkwardness, but I dare say she is resolved to meet the occasion with poise and dignity.”

The master responded to this with one of those guttural utterances that one is forced to accept as considered acknowledgement, but is still, to my mind, little better than a grunt.

“She was pretty upset about that bat yesterday.”

“So I gather, sir.”

“I, eh, didn’t exactly come home early, but I did put off the log entry when I got back. Went straight up to bed. I was just going down now to… put in the log…”

“I suspected as much, sir. There was no coffee cup or disturbance of the papers at your workstation this morning. And one did detect, if I may so describe it, sir, a certain sheltering aspect to your respective postures when one woke you and Miss Selina this morning.”

This is not the kind of detail one would normally give admission to noticing, but there are times when Master Bruce is a bit too inclined to deny the more feeling aspects of his nature, and it is useful at such times that he be aware that he has been “caught in the act,” so to speak.

“Well she’s going to be twice as difficult now if it happens again, Alfred—”

“I should think so, sir. Given the day’s terrible news, it is difficult to entirely dismiss Miss Selina’s view of the expired bat as something of a portent.”

The master said nothing more that I could hear, except for another of those guttural utterances as he went about opening the grandfather clock. He disappeared in the dark passageway thus opened, and I resumed my regular duties.

“Old Silver,” such as that found at Wayne Manor, achieves a lovely sheen of whitish patina after decades of tarnishing and polishing. This delicate patina can be destroyed by overzealous rubbing or harsh chemical dips. I have therefore found it prudent to employ the old methods for the care of these beautiful objects, soaking them first in a mixture of hot water and baking soda, and then polishing with a quality silver cream. I was bringing several large saucepans of water to a rolling boil for the former step, for the larger pieces, as you might imagine, require a great deal of liquid to become fully immersed. The kitchen was quite the scene of steam rising from multiple pots when former commissioner Gordon entered.

“Good gravy, man! You look like a mad scientist back there,” he exclaimed, startling me not a little. I had left him and Master Bruce in conversation in the drawing room after dinner and certainly never expected him to present himself in my kitchen.

I stepped out from behind the island where I had stationed myself, wiping my hands of any residual perspiration from proximity to the stove, and offered it to my unexpected guest.

“My apologies, sir. Was there anything you wanted?”

“Yes. A darn sight less stiff upper lip, polite chatter about the weather, how-dee-do, and a good deal more frank talk than I can get out there from those two.”

This struck me as a rather presumptuous declaration on Mr. Gordon’s part.  He had, I was given to understand from Miss Selina, invited himself to dinner, in a manner of speaking. He had learned of the planned memorial through Ms. Barbara, which was certainly understandable. And feeling, either though his own discernment or through Ms. Barbara’s explanations, that because of the costumed identities involved, it would not be a suitable occasion for one such as himself, he opted instead to call on Master Bruce this evening. Miss Selina obliged him with an invitation to dinner, which I had already prepared and served, and left the diners, as I said, in the drawing room in order to resume my own preparations for tomorrow’s sad event.

“So. He’s lost another one, eh,” was the somewhat shocking manner in which Mr. Gordon chose to proceed. “How old was she anyway? 19? 20? I often wonder if Dent and I didn’t make a mistake all those years ago, accepting Batman into the official world that way. Where would he be now if we hadn’t, hm?”

“You are not disposed to regard the Batman’s contribution as material?” I asked tactfully.

“His contribution is monumental, Alfred. His is. But come on, it would have been with or without my say so, nothing would have stopped him from doing what he does. I just wonder, times like this, if we hadn’t opened that door for him, if the whole thing would have spread the way it did. Robin, Batgirl, Nightwing. Another Robin. Another Batgirl. Where does it end?”

This outburst rather illuminated matters. I knew from first-hand experience the “If I had/If I had not” questions that plagued one at such a time. The former commissioner went on to reference an event the master himself has cited many times. He too considers it pivotal in his career as a crimefighter:

“The three of us, Harvey Dent, the D.A. and me, the police—official, the voices of the law—and Batman, nobody, no name, no face, a man in a mask who believed in the same goals we did… We stood there and we vowed to draw a line against the crime that was eating this city alive. To this day, I don’t know if we did it because Gotham was really that bad or if he was just that good. How could we turn down what he offered us?  Then we lost Harvey and, I don’t know, I guess that just cancelled it out for him.”

“He always viewed you as his greatest ally in your time as commissioner, sir.”

“No. Not the way he does them. He built his ‘bat-family’ and he left me standing on that roof by myself.”

In essence, I could not deny the truth of his complaint. Master Bruce always thought of James Gordon as competent and worthy to be commissioner of “his city.”  He saw him as a good man doing a difficult job that was perhaps a little too big for him, with less money and manpower than he should have had, and more political interference than he could have wanted. But it must also be said that Master Bruce did not become a policeman; he became Batman. He rejected Gordon’s way as ultimately wanting. It is my belief that, for all the talk of respect and friendship, that base condescension was always present: he could work with the commissioner, he could respect him, he could call him friend, but he found James Gordon limited in his mindset in ways the “bat-family” (and even Miss Selina) are not.

“…Children. Not just civilians but children that have no business…”

Then there is, of course, the matter of the master’s identity. He did not reveal it to James Gordon; Gordon worked it out for himself. That may be a fine testament to the man’s detective skills and intellect, but it is equally illuminating in terms of the trust Master Bruce placed in his allies of officialdom compared to his allies of choice.

“This is wrong, Alfred. This is nothing but vigilantism and frontier—”

“Justice, sir. It is an endeavor in the pursuit of Justice which you yourself valued enough to accept the means necessary to the end. Is it not somewhat late in the day to be finding fault with—”

“Yes.”

“—the manner in which, excuse me, sir?”

“I should have come around to it when Barbara was shot—or when that second Robin ‘disappeared’—I should have come around to it the very first night he showed up with a young boy in a mask and cape.”

“I see, sir. You’ve come for absolution.”

“What?! What the devil—”

“I am all too aware, sir, of the tendency to blame one’s self when these tragedies arise.”

“If you mean him, he—”

“I mean myself, sir. When Master Dick was shot. And Ms. Barbara. And Master Jason met his tragic fate. When Bane injured the master. On each occasion, I pondered if I was right to acquiesce as I have. You did too, I dare say, but not knowing the Batman’s identity, the course of action you pursued tonight was unavailable to you.”

“Y’mean absolution,” he grumbled.

“Yes, sir. I dare say you presented yourself here tonight in the hopes of a dialogue with Master Bruce in which you might put forth your doubts and concerns, and receive reassurance that they are groundless.”

“And?”

“They are, sir, and at the same time they are not. What is it Shakespeare says? ‘The king is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant; for they purpose not their death, when they purpose their services.’

“Shakespeare, eh?”

“Yes, sir. Henry V.”

“And what’s that bit of pretty poetry supposed to mean, anyway?”

“It’s the eve of a battle, sir, a great battle in which our English troops were terribly outnumbered. The soldiers in the camp know many of them are to die the next day. The king who led them into France, into this dire situation they now face, goes among his men in disguise, and they talk over the battle to come and the nature of soldiers and kingship. There are many interpretations as to why he does this. For myself, I believe his motive, like yours, is to purge himself of guilt and find absolution.”

“And what does he conclude?”

“When you accepted Batman as you did on that rooftop, sir, you never intended that harm come to him or any other persons he might employ.”

He grunted in a coarse, throaty fashion, as I have often seen done to disguise emotion.

“Well, er, anyway, Alfred, that was a damn fine dinner you cooked up. Just wanted to stop back here on my way out and say thanks.”

“Thank you, sir. I strive to give satisfaction.”

To be continued…


 

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