Actions

Work Header

Author Portraits

Work Text:

Harriet blinked, considered the venue, and looked again. She had not actually ever spoken to the person in question, and had seen him only a few times, briefly evident in the general vicinity of his employer before discreetly vanishing to leave them à deux.

No—it really was Mr. Bunter, the gentleman’s gentleman par excellence, half concealed under the photographer’s black drape and courteously gesturing for her to take a seat on the little loveseat in the anteroom whilst he saw to the customer currently being exposed to the lens.

“It really has got just about time for a new author photo, don’t you think, Miss Vane?” her agent Mr. Challoner had suggested with his usual cheerful urbanity. “The previous one is the one we’ve been using since you first started publishing with us, and what with one thing and another—“

“You mean, becoming a scandal and a hissing for all of London, not to speak of growing a few years older?” Harriet suggested gently.

“I mean,” Mr. Challoner said, unruffled, “acquiring much greater fame and a wider reading public, naturally. Trufoots will pay for it, of course; we can recommend a photographer’s studio to you. If you would be so kind as to go and get the job done by the end of the month, to keep the printers happy—“

Harriet had resigned herself, and duly presented herself on the appointed date at the rather dusty-windowed but respectable little studio, dressed in a blouse she rather liked and rarely wore because the tucks were so tiresome to iron. One might as well make the most of this sort of thing.

She wondered now whether it would be better to greet the photographer by name, when her turn came, and ask after Lord Peter; or if there was a particular reason while he was in this guise and better to leave well enough alone. For the moment, she bided her time and observed the ordeal of the customer before her.

This also turned out to be a familiar figure, someone with whom she had occasionally crossed paths in the halls of Trufoots, clearly also dispatched here for his jacket photograph. His name did not immediately come to mind, but she knew him to be a writer of travel books of a sort, with lovingly detailed maps as frontispieces and accounts of his sojourns in various lands that blended, not always effectively, the scholarly with the adventurous. In person he was a mild-looking man of forty or so, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a dark suit with a faint air of mothballs—yes, here was Bunter emerging from his drape to take a sort of miniature feather duster to his client. “The smallest amount of dust sparkles on the lens, I find, Mr. Clavering…”

Clavering, yes…Harriet put her mind to it and recalled the first name that went with it. Ambrose, of all things, a much more orotund name than this slightly weedy specimen suggested.

At loose ends, she amused herself with speculation on the presence of the great detective’s right hand in the person of a working photographer. Perhaps Peter (it was not a great deal of time ago that he had requested that she drop the title, and her mind still attempted an automatic correction to “Lord Peter”) failed to pay his servant his worth, and Mr. Bunter was moonlighting in secret out of a sad shortage of emoluments? Grossly unlikely, given even the little she knew both of his lordship’s character and of his state of funds. Perhaps Bunter simply enjoyed photography and spent his days off in its practice? Possible—certainly he seemed to know what he was doing with the camera apparatus—but surely a hobby photographer would not choose this particularly businesslike and artistically unrewarding method of exercising his art. Perhaps the actual owner of this establishment was a friend of Bunter’s and had called him in as a locum tenens during some personal emergency? Somewhat more possible, if extremely coincidental, but not especially interesting.

Or perhaps, she fancied, Bunter was here on Lord Peter…Peter’s explicit instructions, investigating some particularly nefarious author undercover (quite literally, she reflected, as the photographer once again took refuge under his drape). Not, in this case, herself; Peter need not at the moment resort to quite such roundabout methods. Possibly Bunter’s next client after her was…how about the famous author of romances, Ilsabeth Hall? Involved in a tragic romance of her own with a quite unsuitable lover, a cad who was blackmailing her for her royalties, and resorting to…Harriet’s flight of phantasy returned reluctantly to earth, given that she had met Ilsabeth Hall at publishers’ parties and knew her to be privately one Mrs. Edward Kincaid (Anna), a plump and placid mother of three grown sons who had taken up romance writing to amuse herself and entertain the ladies of the parish.

Well, then, clearly the author under investigation was Mr. Ambrose Clavering himself. What his photograph might reveal about whatever horrendous crime he might be involved in was beyond Harriet, but her imagination allowed itself free rein. He had taken off his coat for the photograph, and it hung beside her on the coatstand, dusty black wool like his suit. The corner of a cream envelope protruded from one pocket.

Harriet quarreled with her conscience. Mr. Clavering and Bunter appeared to be engaged in a protracted discussion of whether spectacles would enhance or detract from the image projected by the former in his portrait, seeming both to have forgotten her presence in the anteroom entirely. To abstract the envelope and examine its contents—or at least its address—would be the work of a breath or two, but surely it was unforgivable to disturb the privacy of a perfectly inoffensive fellow author simply in order to…well, to play at being Lord Peter Wimsey for a few moments?

On the other hand, Harriet’s grasp of the unforgivable had been sharply expanded and disarranged by the events of the last eighteen months or so, beginning with the day when Philip Boyes had asked her to marry him. A moment of harmless curiosity seemed relatively anodyne. Resolving that if she was going to do the thing she might as well “do it up brown,” she wrapped her fingers lightly in her handkerchief and, thus protected, extracted the envelope carefully from Mr. Clavering’s coat pocket. It was addressed in a careful, clerkly hand to a “Miss J. Rowland, 14 Mimosa Street, Fulham SW6” and as yet bore no stamps; nor was the flap fastened. In fact, the envelope as a whole was creased all over as if crumpled in rejection; perhaps it was not meant to be sent.

Harriet gave in to temptation entirely. Somewhat hampered by her handkerchief, she withdrew the single sheet from the envelope and glanced over it.

“My dearest Julia:

Do please understand that my position does not permit me to do as you ask. While I am proud to say that I have no secrets from you and intend never to do so, my stance with regard to the reading public is otherwise, and were the roles of my various correspondents to be known, I would instantly be—“

At this psychological moment, Mr. Bunter’s voice was heard to say with exceptional distinction “Thank you, Mr. Clavering, that is all.”

Harriet slipped the letter back into its envelope and the envelope back into the coat pocket with the speed of lightning, and when the author himself turned around was already putting her handkerchief to use for its originally intended purpose. He barely glanced at her, preoccupied with bidding a brief if polite farewell to Bunter and encumbering himself with his coat; after the outer door had closed behind him, Harriet got up and made her way cautiously into the photographic area.

“Miss Vane,” said Bunter with half a bow, clearly not inclined to pretend he did not know her. “An unexpected pleasure. I take the liberty of passing on his lordship’s regards, as I am sure he would have instructed me if knowing I might encounter you.”

“How kind,” said Harriet, a little taken aback by the plenitude of subjunctives, and sat down after adjusting the sitter’s stool to suit the slight difference between her height and Mr. Clavering’s. She did not bother with fixing her hair, having compelled it to its best attempt at tidiness before leaving her flat and being unwilling to struggle with it any further. “I’m ready when you are, Mr. Bunter.”

There was a pause; Bunter, half in and half out of the black drape, contemplated something slightly beyond her position. Harriet waited, sensing a struggle.

“Miss Vane. You may consider this a great imposition, but—I seem to have observed that you were taking an interest in the previous gentleman’s coat—“

“Mr. Clavering,” Harriet said, feeling her curiosity unfold with a certain delight. “Yes, Mr. Bunter, I’m afraid I was.”

“To what end, if I may ask?”

“Am I,” she ventured, “to suppose that your presence here has something to do with Mr. Clavering?”

“You are,” said Bunter.

“I gather, then, that Lord Peter—Peter has been investigating him to some end?”

“He has,” said Bunter.

Harriet exercised her mind on its usual professional occupation. “Possibly,” she hazarded, “at the request of one Miss Julia Rowland?”

For the first time she could remember in their brief acquaintance, Bunter’s face broke into a smile of astonishing brilliance, suggesting that in his own person rather than that of the gentleman’s gentleman he might be rather more handsome than his employer. Harriet, warmed (but not dazzled), smiled back.

“His lordship knows what he’s after, all right,” Bunter remarked obscurely. “It would be wrong for me to tell you any such name, Miss Vane, but if you have mentioned it yourself already…May I surmise that you got the name from the contents of the gentleman’s coat pocket?”

“Yes, you may, and I expect you’d like to know what else I saw there.” Harriet took his attentive silence as her cue and recited what she could remember of the few lines she had seen.

“The roles of my correspondents,” Bunter muttered. “Yes, indeed. Yes, that’ll do nicely. Addressed to Miss Rowland, was it? Fool the man is, I must say. Thank you, Miss Vane, his lordship will be most indebted to you.”

The word caught her on the quick. “I would say this hardly cancels out my debt to him,” she remarked, more sharply than she had meant.

“You must,” Bunter said, almost gently, “discuss that with his lordship, I can’t speak to it. Say, then, I’m most indebted to you myself, if you prefer.” He cleared his throat. “Shall I begin the photography, Miss Vane?”

Harriet collected herself, drawing a deep breath. “…Please, Mr. Bunter.”

He knew what he was about as a photographer, certainly; the job was quickly and efficiently done, and they exchanged no further conversation about the mysterious Miss Rowland or the less mysterious Lord Peter, only the usual courtesies as she departed.

When the jacket proofs were ready, she found that the photograph made her look deep-eyed and thoughtful, not especially pretty, any more than ever, but—very much herself, for good or ill. “A bit somber, but after all you’re writing about murders, not tea parties,” Mr. Challoner said cheerfully. “This new man is quite good, isn’t he?”

“He is,” Harriet agreed carefully. “Tell me, Mr. Challoner—do you represent Ambrose Clavering as well?”

“Certainly not, much to my relief, although he shares—or shared—your publisher. I suppose you saw the news?”

A short item in the paper two days before had indicated that Mr. Ambrose Clavering, the well-known travel writer, had been found to have been cobbling together his accounts from letters to him by residents of the countries he had purportedly visited (or rather, had indeed visited, but only to relax in the hotels of the capital under an assumed name). His fiancée, whose name was omitted, had discovered the truth.

“Quite a scandal for the industry. The lady in question must be one of rigid honesty.”

“Especially given that she would have shared the royalties if they had married,” Mr. Challoner agreed. “I suppose any further ones will be scattered to latter-day Kim O’Haras on three continents.”

“Just as well,” Harriet said mildly, “in terms of fairness?”

He laughed. “My dear Miss Vane, you’ve an outsize sense of integrity yourself. Well then, the jacket proofs are approved? I look forward very much to the royalties you’ll be seeing yourself thanks to Robert Templeton’s latest case.”

“Not,” Harriet added flatly, “to be shared with any fiancé.”

On returning home that day, she wrote a card to Lord Peter Wimsey, congratulating him on the work of himself and Mr. Bunter in their latest endeavor.