Having so far overcome his early training to ask his wife whether she would rather he stayed with her, Lord Peter Wimsey hoped that the same training concealed his relief when she suggested gently and firmly that she thought not. Harriet had permitted him to help her upstairs (he had assumed the event would take place in her own room, but Harriet said that there was only so far one could diverge from a middle-class upbringing and that he should count himself lucky she wasn't insisting on a nursing home with limited visiting hours), and to sit with her whilst she had some tea, before sending him back to bed where he had lain and worried until dropping off around dawn for an hour of two of fitful sleep. Crambo – hard to believe he was that same John Cromer of Pop who had once raced a whippet round the quad – had been summoned and stuck his head around the door around eight, said things would be a while yet, and promised to return later. The nurses were already terrorising the maids and footmen. There was no sound from upstairs.
They were playing cards in the library, game after game and he was losing. Reassured by Crambo he had managed a bit of business in the morning, but with the coming of Elevenses and the drawing on of the day the realisation that he had not seen Harriet for a good long time, and the knowledge that if things did not go well he would be spending a bloody long time apart from her again, had not been good for his nerves. Bunter had seen it, of course, and after lunch had brought in the cards, and a cribbage board that made him feel like an old woman, but Bunter liked cribbage and it provided a change as time wore on. The shadows shifted along the wall as they dealt out hands by turn. Every so often Bunter would attend to the fire or ring for a fresh pot of tea, and somehow when he looked at his watch the hands had moved.
Crambo had called and left again, uttering platitudes about how first ones always took a time and that everything seemed to be progressing as expected, which was no help at all. He had simply not understood, not in this awful, visceral way, not even after the events six years ago and then again in Oxford, what it meant to have ventured all one's hopes in this frail vessel and to know her now in such hazardous waters. He picked fretfully at the cards. It was a foul day outside, the dreary, leaf-sodden wind and rain of early Autumn blowing fretfully around the Square.
'Beastly weather, Bunter.'
'Indeed, my lord. It is most depressing to the spirits.'
'Ought to be glad of an excuse not to be out in it. Poor Jenkins'll be looking at the workings on his own. Still, he knows a damn sight more about it than I do, and he'll get round quicker without me poking my interminable questions, so that's not much loss to him. But I daresay we'll have the flu on us if it keeps up.'
'I shouldn't be surprised, my lord.'
Wimsey turned his attention to his cards.
'Let's see, seven fifteens is fourteen, three pairs twenty and one for his nob. D'you know, Bunter, I'm almost inclined to bet I'll win this game.'
'I shouldn't recommend it, my lord.'
'Really? No, I see. Come on, it's late enough, let's have a drink. No, don't get up, I'll see to it'
'Thank you, my lord.'
Wimsey juggled decanter and glasses at the sideboard. A particularly vigorous gust of wind howled at the windows, and he dropped the stopper with a crash.
'Allow me, my lord.' Bunter tidied the tray and installed his lordship in his armchair with a glass of sherry and a sympathetic straightening of the cushion. 'Have a cigarette, my lord.'
'Thanks, Bunter, think I will. Have one yourself. Ah, that's better. It's the waiting, you know. Always did hate waiting. And that damn' wind. Keep thinking I'm hearing something, don't you know.' He rubbed a fretful hand against his nose.
'Quite understandable, my lord,' said Bunter. 'I understand that the feeling is not unusual among expectant fathers.'
'Expectant fathers, eh?' Wimsey grinned. 'Not sure I quite fancy that. There's something to be said for not doin' the hard work. What I'd like to know is how anyone sticks it more than once. What did Meredith do?'
'I believe that he dug vegetables, my lord. Although on the last occasion he was in France.'
'Healthy exercise, though I'm glad to be spared the latter. Yes, what is it William?'
'A telegram, my lord,' the footman's face was an inadequate mask of duty, 'for Mr Bunter.'
'All right, William.' The man beat a hasty retreat, leaving Bunter standing with the yellow envelope in his hand.
'Go on,' gestured Wimsey. 'Unless you'd rather –'
Bunter looked at him blankly. 'It is from Kent, my lord.'
'How – oh.'
Bunter sat down heavily, but drew the flimsy paper from the envelope with steady hands. Peter, catching sight of the direction, saw that it was indeed from Kent. Bunter looked up.
'My lord,' he hesitated. 'It is – ' his voice shook slightly, and stopped. Wimsey reached across the table and took the telegram from the unresisting fingers.
MOTHER WORSE COME AT ONCE - MEREDITH
It mustn't come to a choice. He rang the bell.
'You'd better take the Daimler.' The footman entered. 'William, tell George to get my car out and fill her up. Mr Bunter will want her at once.'
'Very good, my lord.'
Bunter raised a white face from his hands. 'My lord – '
'You can be there in two hours in Mrs Merdle. Besides, it's not as it I shall want her much in the next few weeks. Stay as long as you need, and let me know if you want anything sent down.'
'Thank you. I do not expect - I do not think it will be very long.'
'We'll see. If it does come to it, well, you'll let me know, of course. I should want to come down, if I can.' He pushed the glass into his servant's hand. 'Finish your drink, and go and pack.'
Bunter returning five minutes later in a lounge suit with a Burberry over one hand and a suitcase in the other found his master putting away the cards.
'All ready? You'd better get off. I think I shall go downstairs for a bit and make a nuisance of myself. Here.' Wimsey handed over his key. Bunter took it automatically.
'Perhaps,' he said, 'if it is convenient you would – Mother has always been very fond of children, and she has always thought most highly – she would be very proud –' He faltered and busied himself for a moment in putting on his coat.
'Of course I will. Weight and sex as soon as we've got 'em.' A hand clapped on his arm. 'I really am damn' sorry, old man.'
Bunter drove off. Wimsey watched the car turn out of Audley Square, and returned to the hall. The black and white flags danced across the floor before him. He made his way hurriedly to the back of his house and down the stairs, opening the door to the servant's hall upon a startled housemaid who whisked the coal-scuttle past his trousers with a flourish.
'Hullo, Mrs Trapp. Thought I might lend a hand down with things down here.'
'That's very good of you, my lord. I can't deny that with first Mr Meredith and now Mr Bunter away we're getting a bit behind. Get his lordship a cup of tea, Florence. Now you just sit down here. What a day we're all having.' The housekeeper drew back a chair in front of the fire and pushed him in to the table in a manner reminiscent of the old days in the nursery. 'Let's see, dear, why don't you make a start on these candlesticks?'