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if a girl of sixteen means to be a heroine

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Leave was leave, however you spent it. Lord Peter spent some of it in conventional debauchery, some of it at a Bach recital that he listened to so hungrily his expression frightened his neighbour, and more of it than might have been expected in the library at his mother's townhouse. It took too long to get to Denver, and in any case the only people there were Helen, her married sister, and baby Gerald, who hadn't been in the world yet long enough to settle on a nickname other than Baby. Lord Peter couldn't deal with the young Duchess of Denver very well when they were both at their best, and he was intelligent enough to realise that a rattled junior officer and a shaken new mother with her husband off at war would mix poorly. 

 

He preferred his mother's company, anyway, and her collection of books - while smaller - was well-tailored to his tastes; with the self-absorption of the young and wealthy, he never considered that that might have been a deliberate choice. And when he sank deeply into a book, he could forget all the mud and the screaming and the flash-crash of artillery shells and the way a howitzer blast rolled through you, even half a mile away. He'd always had the capacity to disappear into words like that. It had alienated his father, confused his brother, and mildly annoyed his Uncle Paul, and even his mother sometimes wished that he would just pay a little more attention, Peter dear, but now she at least seemed to be glad of it. Every now and then he would look up, notice caught by some whisper of a noise or flash of movement, and see her straight skirts disappearing behind a bookcase, or a softly closing door.

 

The sound of a door opening, however, made him jump, and he reached for a pistol that he very fortunately didn't have, because his sister was standing in the doorway looking at him like a stranger.

 

He supposed he rather was. An age gap of ten years was not insignificant, and... there'd been another little sister once, Beatrice like the princess, but the childhood measles that had passed over him like a summer shower and Gerald like a storm in the Bay of Biscay had taken Beatrice clean away, so Peter had had a silly fancy as a boy that all little sisters were impermanent things. He had consequently paid little attention to Mary.

 

Silhouetted in the doorway with her mouth half-open and her hair falling out of its plait, Lady Mary Wimsey didn't look so much ‘impermanent’ as ‘sensibly considering whether to run away’. Struck by remorse, Peter assembled a rueful smile.

 

“Polly, old girl,” he said, and heard the falsity striking every note. “You startled me.”

 

“I'm sorry,” Polly said, without moving a muscle. Clearly she could hear those false notes too.

 

Peter metaphorically heaped coals of fire on his own head and literally waved a hand at the other armchair. He had moved the lamp to cast more direct light on the book he was reading, a small and finickily printed volume of poetry, and now he moved it back, so that it was shared between the two chairs. With the heavily, muffling curtains drawn over the windows, and the soft light from the lamp keeping the darkness at bay, it was quite a little oasis. A lovely place to spend an afternoon and forget about everything else.

 

Hesitantly, Polly walked into the library, and then (when he didn't throw the book or anything else at her) curled up in the formerly empty chair. Peter was accustomed to seeing her in the dress and pinafore of childhood: the sack-like item of clothing she wore now was scarcely grown-up, and she plainly still wore her thick fair hair down on her shoulders and her skirts up at mid-calf, but her plait and sober dress indicated that she had won an old battle and been allowed to go away to school. Perhaps the governess had run away to work in a munitions factory, or marry a sailor, or train to be a nurse. If this went on much longer Polly would be old enough to train as a nurse - a thought that, looking at his sister's moon-innocent eyes and the uncertain set of her mouth, inspired Peter with a desire to crush the war down to beetle-size so he could stamp it into oblivion before it got anywhere near Polly.

 

“Just come back from school?” he said rather weakly, trying to cover that he had forgotten which school it was and had only barely remembered that there had been a school in the case at all.

 

Polly nodded. “I'm awfully late. There was some trouble with the train, so we had to wait for ages.”

 

Peter had no idea what time it was. “Well, at least you're here now. Long holiday, I hope?”

 

“Only a short exeat,” Polly said shyly. “And I was supposed to go ho- I mean, to Duke's Denver, but I got away with coming here because you're home, you see.”

 

“Poor old Helen,” Peter said, trying to be jolly. “Missing out.”

 

Polly wrinkled her nose. “I don't think Helen likes me very much.”

 

“More fool her,” Peter said, more sharply than he meant to. 

 

Polly gave him a quick, surprised look. He'd always been so careful never to criticise Helen in front of her before; after all, they were all brothers and sisters now, weren't they? And whatever Peter thought of Gerald's decision to marry Helen, it was done and could not be undone short of the divorce court and a very unimaginative scandal. “Dassett told me you were in the library, so... so I thought I'd come and say hello, you see.”

 

“I'm glad you did,” Peter said, unsure whether it was true or not. He'd been enjoying his library peace.

 

“Only,” Polly said, and screwed up her mouth despairingly, “only you looked at me like -“

 

Peter's heart sank through the floor and into the scullery far below. “Polly, old thing -“

 

“No,” Polly said heroically, “it's all right. I know you - you had a disappointment and you need - time - at least in all the books it says time helps.”

 

Peter knew a moment of absolute blank surprise, and then he put the pieces together and knew a moment of very highly coloured surprise. “Polly dear, what have you been reading?”

 

“Novels Bess Fletchley lent me in the dorm,” Polly confessed. “I don't know if they're good but I do like them. Helen would never approve -“

 

“A consummation devoutly to be wished,” Peter said, confusing his sister further by grinning all over his face, because of all the things his sister thought he might have been glooming over he had no idea how his broken engagement with Barbara Villiers could possibly have made even the top ten. And yet, of course, they wouldn't explain to a girl in her teens what the trenches were like, would they? He himself had just now been wishing that Polly could stay ignorant, and hoping she could be happy.

 

“- So I just shan't tell her, and anyway, you were sitting in the light brooding and you're reading love poetry,” Polly said, all in a rush. “What do you mean, a -“

 

“I didn’t know you read John Donne,” Peter broke in hastily, closing the book and turning it over so the gold-lettered spine flashed in the light. “How does it go with Bess Fletchley's novels?”

 

“I don't,” Polly said, honestly. She was twisting her fingers in her lap. “I just know it's love poems, and I thought that - perhaps -“

 

“Never mind Barbara. I don't want to think about her.” Peter handed Polly the book; she took it with ginger hands. “They're good poems, whatever you get from them. Write to me and tell me what you think. When's your birthday?”

 

“Next Thursday,” Polly said, and then added - with a perspicacity her brother hadn't previously suspected - “I'll be sixteen.”

 

“Heavens. Quite the grown-up. Maybe I'll get you a copy of your own to pore over.” Peter stretched his legs out and observed the way his sister had begun to smile, very slightly and hopefully. It was nice, he thought, it was real. It was happening right now and he didn’t need to disappear into the words of somebody dead for a century in order to feel content with it, or to shut out everything that was repulsive about the world. “Ring the bell, Polly, and ask for some cocoa. And then you can tell me all about this school.”

 

 

The following Thursday a double-wrapped parcel appeared in the post for Wycombe Abbey, addressed to Lady Mary Wimsey. Further investigation showed that it had been sent by a Lieutenant Cholmondeley completely unknown to Lady Mary. Much twittering from the girls and stern silence from the teachers ensued, until further perusal of Lieutenant Cholmondeley’s graceful note indicated that he was merely obliging his friend Captain Lord Peter Wimsey by posting a birthday present which Captain Wimsey had found shortly before returning to the Front.

 

This was sufficiently unexceptionable that Lady Mary was permitted to unwrap her present. 

 

Miss Fletchley asked if Lieutenant Cholmondeley was someone special, but Lady Mary ignored her, too busy tearing off the shop-wrapped string and paper, half-hoping Peter had sent her the poetry he'd mentioned, half-hoping he had not - she had found she could not get through a single Donne sonnet without some extremely careful close reading. The Metaphysical poets were not as yet a book that had been opened for her. Trying to open it herself was not easy.

 

A copy of Northanger Abbey fell out of the wrappings. Lady Mary flipped it open, and found at the front inside cover had been inscribed in Peter's eccentric, elegant handwriting:

 

Polly -

 

I considered the Donne but I thought this too apposite to pass up. With love from your brother,

 

Peter. 

 

He flourished the P the same way on both Polly and Peter. Perhaps it was only what he always did, but perhaps it was something he meant them to share. 

 

Polly was sure she would enjoy Northanger Abbey, though she had struggled dutifully through Sense and Sensibility at thirteen and thereafter abandoned the enjoyment of Austen. Peter had chosen it specially. But she resolved to read and understand John Donne too, and write to Peter, and tell him what she thought.

 

Few other people had ever troubled to ask her what she thought; but then, perhaps that was what older brothers were for.