Chapter 1: Prelude
“Lord Peter Wimsey was one of your schoolfriends?” Troy asked.
“A schoolmate, at least,” Alleyn said, after a slight hesitation. “We investigated a case together at school.”
Under other circumstances, Troy might have laughed, or pressed for details. But now she simply smoothed the letter in her lap and frowned down at it again. “And now he wants me to paint his wife, the suspected murderess.”
“Acquitted,” Alleyn reminded her. “Not all suspects are guilty, you know.”
“Of course,” Troy said ruefully, remembering her own brief time as a suspect. “But no one seems to have impressed this on the press. A suspected murderess painting a suspected murderess – soon I will be painting nothing but pretty murderesses. Criminals have the most boring faces, Rory, I can’t bear the thought.”
As she spoke, a newspaper photograph from the Vane case floated up in her mind. The girl had looked almost ugly, with a sullen mouth and a strong, dark brow.
It was the brow that made Troy pause now. There might be something in that. One could not tell from a newspaper photograph.
“I suppose,” she acquiesced, “it will do no harm to meet her.”
Chapter 2: October 3, 1943
I had some sharp words for you when you first passed along Lord Peter Wimsey’s request that I paint his wife’s portrait, but I take it back without reservation. She has a marvelous face. Not pretty - you know I mean this as a compliment. Pretty faces are so boring to paint.
But she is extraordinarily striking. Once you see her face, you want to keep looking at it. Even those horrible newspaper photographs they printed during her trial captured that quality, and the effect is far more powerful in person. It’s fortunate I didn’t have any charcoal with me at luncheon, or very likely I should have begun preliminary sketches right there on a napkin in the restaurant.
Lord Peter was terribly sorry you couldn’t make it - regaled us with stories of your years together at Eton. All a lot of bosh, I’m sure. Did he wear that monocle even then? I suppose it must have been a great provocation to you all, but all the same, I really can’t see you paddling Lord Peter with a hairbrush, though he swears up and down that you did.
Or can I? I imagine that when one is stuck in a dormitory with him, the temptation to strike him might become overwhelming. Especially if he is not exaggerating when he claims that he liked to tell you all tales of his apprenticeship with Sherlock Holmes. “That was Allers’ first case,” he said proudly. (Did they really call you Allers, Rory?). “He wanted to prove I made it all up.”
He also claims that your friendship began after you capped his quotation from Macbeth, which has the ring of truth. And I shall certainly want to hear your side of the story of the Case of the Missing Cricket Bat when you return.
Harriet – we progressed to first names during her portrait sittings; you see I’m not such a cold fish after all – let Lord Peter do most of the talking at that first lunch. Indeed, I don’t believe we exchanged more than a few pleasantries until her third sitting. It is a real pleasure to paint someone who doesn’t take advantage of the captive audience to treat you as a psychoanalyst. The family secrets people sometimes impart!
I am not sure Harriet and I ever would have had a conversation at all, except that when I arrived for the third sitting - Lord Peter wanted her painted in situ at her desk, and sent a car to bring me to their townhouse for the sittings - I found her still scribbling away. “I’m terribly sorry,” she said. “I’m in the middle of a scene, but I can stop if you need me to.”
Even as she offered, her eyes strayed back to her page and her fingers twitched on the page. I assured her that I could work on the background, and she might keep writing as long as she needed.
But in fact I ended up finishing the work on her face at that sitting. Her look of absorption was exactly right. It’s the pensiveness, I think, that makes her face so absorbing. Perhaps also that touch of sadness. Even her marriage, though it seems almost alarmingly happy, has not banished that.
At last she set aside her pen, and sat back in her chair, and sighed – and then started at the sight of me: she had forgotten I was there. “Oh! I am sorry,” she said.
“Oh no,” I assured you. “It was perfect. It made you so much less self-conscious.”
A tactless thing to say, of course, but it made her laughed. “Self-consciousness has always been my bugbear,” she said. “I was a wretchedly awkward girl.”
People like you, who were born polished and elegant (the Handsome Detective, as they call you in the papers! Nigel Bathgate may expire for want of copy while you are in New Zealand - ), probably cannot imagine what a bond it is to discover someone who shared one’s own childhood awkwardness. In a moment we were both transported back to our younger days, when we stood sullen and slump-shouldered in corners with our hands thrust in our pockets, bitterly and rebelliously aware that our angularity was an affront to the sugar-and-spice ideal of girlhood.
We found a great deal to talk about, and ended by sitting on the hearthrug - not ungracefully, I might add. “We’ve both grown into ourselves quite well,” I told Harriet cheerfully, and almost at once lost a crumpet off its toasting fork into the fire.
I even let her see her portrait, although it was not yet quite done. Already I could tell that it was the best thing that I’ve painted all year - perhaps the best thing I’ve painted since the war began. Painting can feel so frivolous when there are bombs dropping from the sky.
Harriet went all queer and shy as she studied the portrait. “Peter will love it,” she said quietly; and stood and looked a while longer, which is better praise than all the gush in the world, and more than makes up for the pangs I felt about not being able to send it to the Salon.
Even before I began painting, Lord Peter insisted upon the condition that the painting must not be publicly exhibited, but even if he had not I wouldn’t have sent it. The newspapers would take any public exhibition as an excuse to write yet another account of Harriet’s trial - doubtless with at least one execrable pun on the theme that “at last the notorious Harriet Vane has been hung somewhere, if only on the walls of the Salon.”
That pun is Harriet’s, not mine. It is the only time she has ever alluded to her trial. She is such a private person: it must have hurt her deeply - the trial itself, but even more, the publicity. Even now, the reviews of her books never fail to allude to her “notoriety.” It infuriates me. I haven’t read her books - I am almost afraid to; I think I will like them, but it would be horrible if I don’t, and even if I do I may not have anything intelligent to say. But I am sure they deserve to be considered on their merits, rather than always linked to this sordid case in which she was cleared of all charges.
If people mentioned the Gluck case every time they discussed one of my paintings, I believe I would hang up my brushes. No - I don’t think I could bear that. But I might very well turn into a mad recluse who paints murals on the inner walls of her house, like Goya.
Harriet, however, has simply set her face against the wind, and continues to write. I admire her tremendously and wish that I knew how to tell her so, but so far my awkwardness - not outgrown after all, alas! - has gotten in the way.
The portrait is done, but we have continued to see a great deal of each other. We have even been Christmas shopping together, and you know how I loathe Christmas shopping - and it is even worse than usual now, with rationing. But Harriet took me to a peculiar shop, where I found a Chinese vase for Kattie which I hope will make up for all the years of lackluster gifts I have given, when I went to Harrods and fled with the first halfway presentable object I could find.
Harriet found the most marvelous chess set. She stood a long while in silent rapture at the sight. I think she and Peter must play. He is away on war work, and she rarely speaks of him, but I know she misses him a great deal.
She has invited me to spend Christmas at the Wimsey family seat. I have accepted: I hope your mother won’t be too disappointed. But it seems that your mother and the dowager duchess of Denver are great friends, so I may very well see your mother over the holidays after all.
Harriet has offered to try to line up a few of the women dons at her old Oxford college to sit for me. I do hope it works out. They acted as her bridesmaids at her wedding - she showed me the wedding photographs, at my insistence - and many of them have truly interesting faces. Do you think Oxford dons will think it is frivolous to have one’s portrait painted? Perhaps if I try to appeal to their sense of the higher aesthetic appeals of art…
I hope you arrived in New Zealand without any trouble on the high seas. One doesn’t hear as much about U-Boats this war as during the last, but still one can’t help worrying. Do send me a letter when you can. Until then, I send you
All my love,
Chapter 3: December 29, 1943
I write to you from my tower room at Duke’s Denver! It is just such a room as I would have wanted when I was a little girl devoted to tales of King Arthur. It disappoints my expectations only in that it has wide modern windows rather than slender arrow slits, which I attempt to regret, but in truth I enjoy the view of the frost-dusted grounds and the dark forest beyond. One can almost imagine a dragon lumbering out of those woods to lay siege.
Of our modern dragons, Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs, we have seen very little. The old dungeon has been fitted out for an admirable bomb shelter, which the butler showed me on the tour of the house. “But look out for the ghosts, ma’am,” he told me gravely.
“Are butlers allowed to joke?” I murmured to Harriet.
“Oh no,” she replied, with all evidence of seriousness. “No Wimsey servant would ever joke.”
I cannot tell if this is merely evidence that the ghosts are a very elaborate joke indeed, or if the Wimseys truly believe that their house is haunted. In any case I shall endeavor never to visit Duke’s Denver over Hallowe’en.
I won’t bore you with tales of our Christmas festivities. They seemed dazzling to me, after the privations of the war, but I imagine that you have been feasting upon entire legs of lamb bedizened with kiwi fruit and must therefore consider our rationed fair poor stuff, even if we washed it down with the finest reds from the Wimsey cellars and finished the meal with a truly excellent port. (“The Wimsey cellars are most extensive,” the duke told me, with evident self-satisfaction.)
And the cook somehow contrived to make us a plum pudding, which came out victoriously flaming with brandy. Even the duchess, whose great gift seems to be finding the disagreeable in any situation, managed a smile at the sight; and she was almost civil to Harriet for the rest of the night.
This is a great improvement over her usual attitude toward Harriet. Generally she attempts to pretend that Harriet does not exist. Harriet does not seem to mind (“Early on, she wanted to improve me, and that was far worse”), but I must confess that various schoolgirl pranks have arisen in my mind, all ready to be trotted out the moment that Harriet gives the sign. I suspect that neither of us ever pulled a prank while we were at school - much too serious and awkward - but we are not such old dogs that we cannot learn new tricks.
However, for now I have pushed these thoughts into my mental lumber room. Lord Peter has managed a flying visit, and therefore Harriet is too happy to spare the duchess a thought. Lord Peter has to leave tomorrow morning, so they have disappeared for the day, which is how I achieved this quiet time to write to you. I am luxuriating in this bliss of solitude.
I did see Lord Peter briefly at breakfast, where he commented that he is so pleased to have finally got an Alleyn to visit Duke’s Denver. How many invitations did you turn down when you were at Eton, Allers? I believe that poor boy hero-worshipped you. You must have crushed him.
But then he seems very much like a bed of chamomile, which only springs back and grows more vigorously for a little trampling. No doubt it was very good for him.
I believe I understand him better for having visited Duke’s Denver: I am entertaining the idea that he is a sort of nouveau riche. Not in money, of course - the family has had that for centuries, possibly since William the Conquerer, although I must confess my attention had drifted by the time the duke finally reached so far back in his family tree. He seems a nice enough man, but utterly conventional and an utter bore on the topic of the Wimsey line.
Much of the family is like that: conventional to the point of philistinism. It is not money or pedigree that is new to Lord Peter but art, literature, culture - and so he splashes it about as ostentatiously as the nouveau riche are wont to do. Every sentence decorated with a quotation, much as a plutocrat might put a ring on every finger.
I should not carry this idea too far. The Wimseys do have a splendid library, although it seems little used, and their portrait gallery is quite fine. Harriet and I spent a wonderful morning making up stories about the pictures, or at least that is what I thought we were doing. Harriet insists that she was simply relating the history of the Wimsey family.
“Are you quite sure these stories are all true?” I demanded.
“I got them direct from the Dowager Duchess,” she replied, smiling slyly. This sounds like a guarantor of veracity, but in fact it probably means they are at least half embroidery. Not that the Dowager is lying. It is simply that stories grow baroque encrustations in her memory over time.
We have spent a good deal of time with the Dowager Duchess. She is so very like your mother that I feel I need to add no other description: you will envision her perfectly if you simply imagine your mother with a haughty cat prowling about her feet.
The cat, indeed, supplies all the haughtiness that one might expect to find in a Duchess, Dowager or otherwise. The Dowager herself is very kind, and terribly fond she is of Harriet. So often a mother despises the girl that her favorite son marries, but instead the Dowager seems to have adopted Harriet almost as a daughter.
This alone would make me warm to her: Harriet cannot have too many friends for my taste. But for all that I laugh at her foibles, I’ve grown fond of the Dowager for her own sake. Beneath that fluffy-headed exterior and tendency toward malapropisms, she’s made of stern stuff. One can imagine her as a medieval lady, twittering away like a bird with her ladies in the solar - until the neighboring baron attempts to storm the castle, at which point she would stride firmly to the battlements and cheerfully pour boiling oil on their heads.
We listened to one of the king’s speeches on the radio together. You know how I have always dreaded his speeches - it has always seemed to me that the really patriotic thing to do would be not to listen, and allow the poor man to stutter in peace - but the Dowager took quite a different view. “It’s always so inspiring to hear him,” she said. “With that stutter you know that the microphone must be an absolute gorgon to him, and yet he bravely approaches his monster and gives his speech. It makes one feel that the least one can do is grub potatoes.”
It was with some difficulty that we dissuaded her from setting out with a spade right then. In vain we urged that night had fallen, the ground had long since frozen iron hard, and the potatoes had all been grubbed out weeks before. “Surely there was something else she could do in the garden,” she insisted. At length we distracted her with seed catalogs, and she has been planning a new vegetable garden ever since.
I wonder if I could convince her to be painted as a medieval lady. It might strike her fancy: one never knows with these Wimseys. Generally costume paintings do not strike mine, but somehow I feel I could not paint the Dowager any other way.
A maid has arrived at my room with my tea on a tray, accompanied by apologies for its paucity. Paucity! Before the war, a great house like Duke’s Denver might have scorned to serve something as simple as bread and butter (real butter, Rory!) and good, strong black tea, but now this fare seems as precious to me as any capon cooked in wine. I shall be utterly spoiled for all normal society if I stay here too long, so you had better come and rescue me, my gentle parfit knight.
Your shudder at that epithet reverberates across both the Indian and the Atlantic Oceans. Don’t worry. I know your liege lords at Scotland Yard must give you leave before you can be quit of New Zealand, and I shall endeavor to slay my own dragons until you return. But know that I hope to see you as soon as may be, and until then I remain