Lady Petra had long since resigned herself to spinsterhood. She was now forty years old, and had definitely been left on the shelf – after the Great War there had been fewer young men who might have been interested in taking her down from that shelf where unmarried women were supposed to sit while they awaited the man who would choose them as a wife.
The single state had its distinct advantages – she could do exactly as she pleased and go where she wanted without any thought of pleasing a man. She was comfortable with that – and of course, she also had Bunter at her side (what would she do without Bunter?)
So it was fair to say that Lady Petra Wimsey was not looking for love.
Love, however, was looking for her, and it came like a bolt from the blue, in the most unlikely of circumstances. She was sitting in the public gallery of a murder trial, and she fell for the accused like a giddy schoolgirl.
She had no idea if Miss Harriet Vane would ever reciprocate her feelings – and it was entirely likely that the young woman would go to the gallows without the slightest idea that Lady Petra even existed. Miss Vane was accused of killing her lover, Philip Boyes, with arsenic, and the evidence against her seemed watertight.
Except that it wasn't – it couldn't be – because she hadn't done it. Lady Petra was as sure of that as she had ever been sure of anything in her life. Harriet Vane was innocent, and none of the cloth-brained idiots involved in the case seemed to realise this.
She included in this assessment her friend Charles Parker, the Inspector in the case. He seemed quite certain that the right person was in the dock.
Her friendship with Charles was, at the moment, complicated somewhat by his obvious affection for her younger sister and the fact that, although they enjoyed each other's company, Charles had not yet done anything to alert Mary to his true feelings for her.
She bore no ill will against Charles for choosing Mary over her. She and Charles had entered into an easy friendship based on investigating crime, and Petra enjoyed matching wits with him to solve a case. The moment he had seen Mary, though, all the protective instincts that resided in that sensible policeman's chest had awoken with a clarion call – and it certainly didn't hurt that, where Petra's hair was straw coloured, Mary's was golden, and Mary was far more conventionally pretty than Petra would ever aspire to be. And she was middle aged now, anyway.
She was, however, getting a little tired of Charles' reticence in matters of the heart, and fully intended to speak to him about it.
But she had to deal with matters of her own heart first. She had looked at Harriet Vane sitting, pale and composed, in the dock, and had fallen for her completely and utterly.
This had never happened to Petra before, and certainly not with another woman. There had been the affair with the opera singer, of course, which had been very civilised, and most enjoyable – but he had never stirred the roiling mass of emotions that filled Petra's heart now. There had been, too, that young officer during the War – she had thought that she adored him, but she had been so much younger then.
This certainly felt like the real thing, but what a cruel irony to feel it now! The jury would make their decision in the case soon and, if they found Miss Vane guilty, as they were almost certain to do, she would die. Petra would never be able to confess her love, or discover how Miss Vane felt about such a shocking declaration from a woman twelve years older than her.
There was no indication from what Petra knew of the case that Miss Vane would be interested in other women – she had been living with a man, after all. She hadn't married Philip Boyes, though, and Petra wondered why. They seemed to move in somewhat Bohemian circles, but that couldn't be the only reason, could it? And since she did move in Bohemian circles, maybe she would be open to the suggestion of a relationship with an older woman.
It was an impossible puzzle to unravel alone. All Petra could do, like the rest of the audience in the public gallery, was to wait for the verdict to be announced.
It took six and a half hours before the jury foreman confessed to the judge that they were unable to agree. He was looking daggers at one particular member of the jury, an older lady, as he said it.
As it happened, the older lady on the jury was known to Lady Petra, and she blessed the day that she had met Miss Climpson and persuaded her to run her typewriting office.
Those among Petra's circle of friends who knew about the office referred to it as one of her "charity stunts". It even had the nickname of "the Cattery", because all the employees were single women who had to earn their own living – and opportunities for doing so in a respectable manner were somewhat limited.
It was the unfairness of the situation that had prompted Petra to act – all those women who had stepped up and served their country during the War had been forgotten about in the Peace, and expected to go back to life as it had been before.
The ladies of the Cattery did, indeed, take on typewriting jobs, but they also did a valuable service in seeking out the sort of men who preyed on women, and ensuring that their misdeeds were made known to the police. Sometimes, they performed other small services for Lady Petra. She thought she would certainly need their help now.
The re-trial date was set for a month's time – there wasn't much time for Petra to uncover the truth.
The first step was to actually meet Harriet Vane. It was useful in this regard that Petra knew Sir Impey Biggs socially – she had even, a great honour, been to see his prized canaries in their rank of cages that opened onto a larger area called a 'flight' where they could stretch their wings in a limited way and forage for millet. He pulled a few strings for her, claiming she was a secretary attached to Mr. Croft, the solicitor in the case.
Petra was quite absurdly nervous when she got to Holloway. She hoped it didn't show. She was shown into the interview room and sat on a hard chair at one side of a plain table. There was another chair on the other side. The prisoner and the visitor were not allowed to touch.
"This is something of a surprise," Harriet said, as she sat down. "I didn't know there were any lady solicitors."
Petra smiled wryly. "There aren't," she said. "I'm a friend of Sir Impey Biggs, and he got me added on to Mr. Crofts' staff for the duration.... Dash it all, I presume you've heard of Lady Petra Wimsey?"
"The lady detective?" Harriet asked. She looked Petra up and down, appraisingly. "I've seen photographs, of course. Being a writer of detective stories, I have naturally studied your career with interest." She looked at Petra expectantly. It flustered Petra, but she floundered on.
"Well, yes – I heard about the case and all that, and I thought there might be something I could do...."
"That was very good of you," Harriet said gravely, "though I'm afraid I'm rather a hopeless case." She paused, considering. "I must say, it's rather a relief to deal with another woman for a change – someone sensible to talk to, you know? Since I've been in here, I've had forty six proposals of marriage. I suppose there are a lot of imbeciles who want to marry anybody who's at all notorious."
Petra managed a weak smile, and resolved never to mention her own feelings within the prison walls. "I shall try to be sensible, of course," she said. "I'm not coming to this case entirely as some sort of dilettante, after all. I can assure you that I am completely on your side and I'll do my damndest to prove your innocence."
They discussed the case, as objectively as they could with the shadow of the noose hanging over them, but at the end of it, Petra still had no idea where to begin to prove Harriet's innocence. All she was sure of, now she had met and spoken with Harriet Vane, was that she was totally besotted – and that she could say nothing about it while Harriet was still in prison.
As there was no clear lead to follow, the only way forward that Petra could see was to treat all the leads with equal seriousness until one of them developed into something more substantial. To this end, she visited Philip Boyes' father, the Rev. Boyes, and rather took to the old chap. She went to the offices of Philip Boyes' publisher, Mr. Cole, and to Mr. Challoner, Miss Vane's literary agent. She visited the house of Philip Boyes' cousin, Mr. Urquhart, but he wasn't in. There was some story of him visiting a sick relative. She popped round to Mr. Urquhart's office, to find that he really had gone away, to visit a Mrs. Wrayburn. The address of Mrs. Wrayburn was produced, and also the information that Mr. Pond the head-clerk was looking for a new lady clerk for Mr. Urquhart's office. Petra telephoned Miss Climpson at once to send some of her best girls round to apply for the vacancy.
She still needed to speak to Mr. Urquhart himself, but until he came back there was nothing she could do. It occurred to her that it would be very useful to speak to the servants in the house, but she could not just march in there and question the servants herself. Bunter could, though, under the guise of servants' gossip.
When Bunter agreed to the task, Petra sat down to write a note to Mr. Urquhart at once.
After a moment, she looked up. "Bunter, I have the sensation of being hovered over. I do not like it. What, O Myrtle-bush, is troubling you?"
Bunter took a deep breath, as if her nerves needed steadying before she came out with the fateful question. "I wished to ask you, my lady, whether you had thought of making any changes in your establishment?"
Petra laid down her pen and stared. "Changes? What sort of changes?"
"I thought it possible that your ladyship might be thinking of – re-organising your domestic relations...."
"Oh." Petra said, in rather subdued tones. "Bunter, am I really that transparent?"
"I have known you for several years, my lady," Bunter said.
"And...? Oh God, you disapprove, and want to give notice!"
"Indeed not, my lady. I would be very sorry to leave your ladyship's service."
Petra looked down at the pen she was twisting between her fingers. "So, what do you think, Bunter?" she asked.
"She seems to be a very agreeable lady, my lady," Bunter said.
"It strikes you that way, does it? The circumstances are unusual, of course – and unconventional at the best of times. I haven't even declared myself to the object of my affections yet, but you seem to know all about it."
"Yes, my lady," Bunter said, sympathetically.
"But – you won't desert the ship, Bunter?"
"Not on any account, my lady."
"Then – don't go frightening me like that again. My nerves are not what they were."
While Bunter dealt with Mr Urquhart's servants, Petra decided to find out more about Philip Boyes' background and the circles in which he had moved. When she needed an entree into Bohemian society, she usually contacted Marjorie Phelps, a maker of porcelain figurines who knew absolutely everyone artistic in London.
She had certainly known Boyes, and had seen Harriet Vane at a distance, which was of limited use to Petra – but she thought she could introduce Petra to Vaughan, Philip Boyes' most devoted fan. He, of course, was in the anti-Harriet camp, but Marjorie thought she could also introduce Petra to some Harriet supporters. "You'll like Eiluned Price, I think. She scorns everything in trousers, but she's a good friend at a pinch."
Vaughan was quite as appalling as Marjorie had suggested – they found him at a party given by the Kropotskys, where Petra sipped Russian tea while listening to Vaughan hold forth about what a genius Philip was and what an evil harpy Harriet was – when she could hear him over the thumping of the piano, constrained as it was into the bourgeois restraints of the octave and the diatonic scale, which was competing with a poet bellowing his latest composition.
They staggered out, Petra's head thumping in time with the piano. "At least I don't think he murdered Boyes," she said. "I had to meet him to be sure."
Marjorie took Petra on to the Trimbles' party, but the Harriet supporters that Marjorie was hoping to find were not there. Apparently one of them had sprained her ankle.
They ducked out of the party as soon as they could.
"I used to enjoy this sort of thing once," Marjorie remarked, as they climbed back into the taxi.
"We're getting old, you and I," said Petra. "Sorry, that's rude. But do you know, I'm getting on for forty, Marjorie."
"You wear well. But you are looking a bit fagged tonight, Petra dear. What's the matter?"
"Nothing at all but middle age."
"You'll be settling down if you're not careful."
"Oh, I've been settled for years."
"With Bunter and the books. I envy you sometimes, Petra."
Petra wasn't sure what to say to that, especially after the difficult discussion she had had with Bunter that very afternoon. If she did manage to prove Harriet's innocence – but of course she would, because Harriet hadn't done it. All she needed was time – but there was so little time, the month slipping away moment by moment. But when (that was a more positive attitude) Harriet was freed, there was no certainty that Petra's life would change at all. It was more than likely that Harriet would return to her own life writing detective novels and there would never be an opportunity for them to meet socially again. Harriet would be grateful to Petra, of course, and Petra would return to Bunter and the books and her settled life, which suddenly seemed such a dreary prospect. If only there was some way she could discover what Harriet's reaction was likely to be, if Petra did declare her feelings for her. If only she could hope that Harriet would turn her settled life upside down.
"I'm sorry, Marjorie," she said at last. "I'm afraid I'm not very good company tonight. Oxygen-starvation, probably. D'you mind if we have the window down a bit?"
Eiluned opened the door to them. As reported, Sylvia was sitting with her swollen ankle elevated on a packing case. "Hello, Syl," Eiluned introduced them. "Here's Marjorie, with a gel who's going to get Harriet out of jug!"
"Produce them instantly!" Sylvia commanded, as Petra smiled to be described as a 'gel' just after she'd been self-pityingly feeling her age in the taxi.
It was Sylvia's belief that Mr. Urquhart had killed Philip, though she had no idea what the motive might be. Both ladies, however, were staunchly on Harriet's side, and obviously good friends with her, which made Petra's heart skip a beat or two. She had known already that Harriet moved among unconventional circles, and was therefore open to unconventional beliefs, but to have the proof of that in the form of a lesbian couple who were obviously devoted to each other gave Petra a slightly giddy feeling of hope. With friends like Eiluned and Sylvia, maybe Harriet would not reject Petra's declaration of affection out of hand. Maybe she would at least consider the possibility that she might return Petra's love for her.
She felt even more giddy when she got the telephone call from Scotland Yard. Inspector Parker had found the pub where Philip Boyes had been seen on his last night.
In the end, it all hinged on the will, of course. Petra dispatched the redoubtable Miss Climpson North to investigate Mrs. Wrayburn's part in the affair, while Miss Murchison found out what she could at Mr. Urquhart's office and the pieces of the puzzle came together.
She presented her findings to Harriet and, seeing Harriet heartened by the knowledge of the case against Mr. Urquhart, she dared to speak of more personal matters. "I suppose you know by now," she began, tentatively, "that I haven't just been pursuing this case out of an objective desire for justice? It was also for – more personal reasons."
Harriet looked mildly curious, which was enough to encourage Petra to continue.
"How many proposals of marriage did you say you'd had?" Petra asked.
"I think it was forty six when you first came to see me," Harriet said. "It's something over sixty now." She paused, and looked at Petra with penetrating dark eyes. "You're surely not suggesting – that you want to propose too?" she asked.
"Not in such a formal way," Petra said, "but my heart is yours, if you would accept it."
To her relief, Harriet did not laugh. "I didn't know you were – well, that sort of a person," she said at last.
"I didn't think so either, until I saw you," Petra admitted. "It was something of a shock to me, but if I were a man I wouldn't hesitate to propose marriage to you."
"It wouldn't work, you know," Harriet said. "After all, I am quite notorious now, and you're in the public eye, too, and – it's not a respectable thing to do, after all."
"Hang respectability," Petra said. "It's highly over-rated. With any luck it would just be seen as one of the eccentricities of the nobility, and people would be too polite to mention it in public."
"They'd whisper in private, though," Harriet said quietly.
"I wouldn't care about that," Petra said, "but – I'm sorry. It's wrong of me to presume that you are even interested in a relationship like that when we've only met across this damned table. I just – wanted you to know, that's all."
"I'm sorry, too," Harriet said. "I don't know. I can't think. I can't see beyond the – beyond the – beyond the next few weeks. I only want to get out of this and be left alone."
"All right," Petra said. "I won't worry you. Not fair. I shouldn't have said anything."
She was back in the public gallery of the court on the day of the re-trial. Mr. Urquhart had been arrested, of course, but it was still a huge relief to hear the Attorney-General say: "My lord, I am instructed that the Crown offers no evidence against this prisoner." And Petra could have cheered when Sir Impey Biggs stood up to give a speech making clear Harriet Vane's complete innocence. People in the court were cheering, in fact.
Under cover of the commotion, Lady Petra Wimsey slipped out of the public gallery and out of the court building. It would be too awkward to meet Harriet now, when she had said so clearly that she wanted to be left alone.
But maybe, in time, they could meet again.