He’s gone. It fills her senses - this man whom she had spent so many years denying, only to fall at last, harder than she knew, harder than she would have given credence to - now his absence is everything.
The telegram came with the morning post, seemingly nothing out of the ordinary, save for Bunter’s face so white, his manner so stiff. She’d been concerned, until she read those simple words, and then she had been somewhat discomposed.
NO WORD WE FEAR THE WORST
Six words to change everything. Peter on a simple mission to Spain - naturally he was nowhere of the sort, probably instead in Asia or Ethiopia or on some outlandish island eaten by cannibals.
Harriet was rapidly becoming hysterical, despite her carefully cultivated somewhat discomposed exterior. She was four months along, news she hadn’t even shared with Peter yet - only his darling mother knew, and Harriet was possessed, instantly, of a need to be with the Dowager Duchess.
With a trembling hand, she rang the bell.
Bunter came in. He was neither stiff nor white now - he stood before her with his shoulders slumped, a posture she had never before seen from her husband’s correct gentleman’s gentleman. His face was grey, and he walked with a sombre tread.
“My lady,” he said formally, as though speech itself hurt him.
Harriet stared. And then, at last, the tears came.
Some time later, fortified with tea and toast, mistress and man were on the road for Duke’s Denver. It was not Harriet’s practice to allow Bunter to drive her, but her own little car was hardly practical for the trip, and she was unaccustomed to the Daimler.
Besides, Harriet’s tears seemed to have had an electrifying effect on Bunter. The grey had receded, replaced with a less-concerning pale, hardly discernible to those less familiar with him, and his shoulders had resumed their usual set. Harriet hardly dared to consider the relief this brought her. If asked, she would have downplayed the significance of Bunter in her - their - life; but that simply wasn’t true.
Uncomfortable and inconvenient, perhaps, but Bunter was Peter’s. She’d accepted that, because she’d understood, barely, that parting them would be sheer cruelty. Until this day, she’d never considered it to be something greater - something that even she, with all her power, would have been unable to achieve.
Only the great leveller Fate could make such a call, toss away a life, and leave those connected to it, by it, to tumble and fall where they might.
“I have a place,” Harriet sobbed, later, head in the Dowager Duchess’ lap like one of the hysterical fashionable she despised. “I carry his child, I bear his name, he cannot truly truly ever be taken from me. But Bunter loves him too, and what is he left with?”
“Child, you mustn’t speak that way.” Honoria Lucasta, heartbroken herself, yet found what comfort for her daughter-in-law she might. “Bunter has a place here always, and no doubt a place with you also.”
Harriet shook her head, because that wasn’t exactly what she had meant. How to describe the right to mourn, given her so freely, yet denied to Bunter by his place, his station, his sex?
Instead of trying, she composed herself as much as she was able. “I feel like I have given up hope, and we have no firm news yet. But I’m so afraid. I’ve never felt so helpless, and I don’t know what to do.”
Fortified with tea, advice, and as much petting as she could stand Harriet retreated to her room after midnight. Her bed had been warmed and her things laid out, and she knew without needing to ask that no maidservant had been employed in those endeavours.
She had just slipped beneath the covers when a light tap came on her door.
At her soft “Come”, Bunter entered the room. In the candlelight, he looked much younger than his years.
“If your ladyship will forgive me,” he said, low, intense. “It has been a fraught day, from the news this morning until tonight. Permit me to suggest that it would be unwise to give up hope so soon, with no clear news from abroad.”
Harriet drew up her knees with a little frown. Bunter had seen her in her bed before - their household was small and it was the way of things - but she wasn’t certain she was comfortable with him in her bedchamber. She also wasn’t certain of her ground - what was the modern position on such things, anyhow?
“Why do you say that, Bunter?” she asked, taking refuge in the conversation, even as she understood she was giving tacit permission for the visit. “Why would they telegraph if there was doubt?”
“The thing is, Peter - that is, his lordship, he’s not easy to kill. I know that, God help me, and thankful I am for it.” Bunter’s voice roughened, and he crossed the room uninvited and sat on the dressing-table stool, looking toward Harriet. But his gaze was keen and faraway, and Harriet had the strong impression Bunter was barely in the room with her at all.
“We were in a bivouac in some godforsaken corner of France, and it was cold as all hell. Wimsey’d been sick as a dog for a week or more, coughing fit to kill, and I’m damn sure the man had pneumonia. He was sweating out a fever while it was sleeting outside, joking about the Riviera in summer, when next thing they started shelling us. Worst thing was, we found out later it wasn’t even Jerry - it was the Brits, London had received false intel and we nearly paid with our lives.”
“That’s terrifying,” Harriet said, because it was. She knew next to nothing about her husband’s wartime experiences, save what his mother had told her - and she, really, also knew little.
“He worked all night, digging out men dead and alive, he coughed up blood, then he turned around and kept on slogging. The next morning they carted us off to the field hospital along with the casualties, and two days later he was picking daffodils for the nurses. I was barely lucid for a week with fever, and by the time I was back on deck, he’d been sent on to Caudry.”
Bunter blinked, and looked back at Harriet. “Your ladyship knows what happened there,” he said slowly. “And he came through that too, when no-one else did, and no-one expected him to.”
“You did,” Harriet said, surprising herself.
A little smile played on Bunter’s lips. “I didn’t expect him to,” he said carefully. “I ordered him to. I needed him and I told him so, and perhaps - perhaps it was that which was enough. I don’t know.”
“I need him too,” Harriet said, and she wasn’t sure if it was defiance or a plea. Both, perhaps.
“He knows that, my lady. Don’t fear. God willing, we shall have better news soon.”
Bunter stood, a ghost in the guttering candle, and was gone without further salutation. Harriet stared at the door for a long moment, then blew out the candle-stub and lay down. She did not expect to sleep - how could she - but Bunter’s words were an unexpected lullaby. “He knows that, my lady. Don’t fear.”
“Peter,” she whispered to the night, “get out of whatever hole you are in now, and come home. I need you, baby needs you, your mother needs you. And Bunter needs you most of all.”
A day’s travel from the Romanian border, Mr. Death Bredon picked a daffodil from the roadside and handed it to the suspicious gypsy woman whose wagon had hidden him from the hired thugs acting as border security. She spoke rapidly in a guttural language, and after listening intently, Mr. Bredon replied in the same tongue. It seemed they had reached an understanding, as her expression relaxed, and she pointed down the rocky slope, nodding.
“Two days,” he said under his breath. “Hang in there, Bunter. Look after Harriet for me. I’m coming!”