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A Donne Deal

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"I say, Wimsey," burbled the Honourable Freddy Arbuthnot, "you'll like this chappie who's coming to dinner. Mad for old books and poetry, just like you and Harriet."

 

"Indeed?" said Lord Peter. "Not your usual type of acquaintance, what? Or is delving into the depths of Donne now done amongst those who dun?"

 

"I couldn't say," replied the Honourable Freddy, who had long ago learned the utility of that phrase whenever his friend failed to make sense, which was frequently. Answering the spirit of the inquiry nonetheless, he offered, "He's keen on Sharon, one of Rachel's baby cousins. And Sharon's keen on you, Harriet," he added. "She's bringing her copies of all your books for you to sign."

 

"Well, then she shows signs of good taste," said Peter, grinning. "If her selection in men equals her discerning eye for literature, she'll find herself well-entertained."

 

Harriet looked up from her crossword and smiled warmly at both men -- Peter, for his habitual gallantry, and Freddy, for his amiable acknowledgment of her vocation. Unlike some of Peter's other upper-class friends, Freddy had never treated the existence of her career as an inconvenience or an embarrassment, and for that, she was ready to forgive how he always asked whether she was "writing any more books" whenever they met.

 

"Could be," Freddy agreed. "Sharon's mother would love for her to settle down. Thinks with the way the world's goin', there might not be as many men to choose from in a year or two."

 

Harriet's eyes met Peter's as her hand instinctively curved against her stomach underneath the paper. She was six months pregnant with her and Peter's first child, and the phrase "hostage to fortune" now held fresh resonance for them both. Peter nodded imperceptibly at her and glided over to the piano bench.

 

"It's not How Many but Who," he intoned to Freddy. "After all, look how long you served for Rachel. You could have had your pick of any flighty young thing during those seven years."

 

His friend's face lit up, as it always did when Rachel was mentioned. "So I did, so I did. I daresay there's no rush. Haven't asked around yet about the bloke, anyhow -- I figure there'll be time enough if Sharon says he's the one."

 

"Time stands still with gazing on her face," quoted Wimsey, as his fingers commenced playing the song itself on the pianoforte.

* * *

 

"What terrifies me," said Sharon, "is that I am not a very consistent person. So, much as I enjoy your books, Lady Peter, they also make me quite anxious. It's a silly worry, considering that my life is actually terribly boring."

 

Harriet was predisposed to detest bored women -- especially rich ones, who in her view had little excuse -- but for Freddy and Rachel's sake, she smiled kindly at Sharon anyway. "In fiction, people do have to be consistent -- or consistently inconsistent. Otherwise, it's not playing fair with the reader, strewing red herrings all about."

 

Sharon's young man, Michael Sands, swallowed his mouthful of fish Newburg and leaped in. "That's why I specialise in the Renaissance," he declared. "Consistency. Poems rhyming where they're supposed to, and things spelled properly. None of this frightful bosh being fluffed about by that Eliot piker or that Stein gorgon, never mind that Cummings bloke with the broken typewriter."

 

Harriet darted a startled look at Peter, but her husband merely drawled, "Indeed? And who are your favorites amongst the glory of honours, beauties and wits?"

 

"Shakespeare, of course," said Sands. "And Donne. And Herbert."

 

"Excellent choices all," opined Lord Peter. "And do you share his love for metaphysical meanderings, Miss Levy?"

 

Sharon grinned, her expression frank. "I don't really understand it much, but it sounds very pretty when he reads it to me."

 

Harriet said, her eyes mischievous, "It's just as well that you don't, really. The Dean of St. Paul's was hardly an exemplar of a constant mindset."

 

Lord Peter aimed a mock-reproving glare at her. "For thou, when thou retorn'st, wilt tell mee / All strange wonders that befell thee, / And sweare / No where / Lives a woman true, and faire."

 

Rachel Arbuthnot snorted. "Talk about bosh! He probably wrote that while swiving his merry way through -- which court would that have been, Peter? Elizabeth's or James's?"

 

Peter paused in the act of raising his wineglass to his lips. "Our advocate of traditional verse would be able to speak to that, I should think. Sir, what say you?"

 

Michael replied, "Elizabeth's. He went a trifle wild after graduating from Cambridge."

 

Peter's grip slipped on his wineglass, splattering Chateau Kefraya all over his plate and shirt-front. "Blast! So sorry, Rachel -- getting so dashed clumsy in my old age."

 

"Not to worry," said his hostess, unfazed. One of her men was already at Peter's elbow, offering a towel while a second servant whisked away the plate and glass. "They'll bring in the boeuf en miroton while you go up and change."

 

"I do not go for weariness of thee," quipped Wimsey, "and shall return post-haste."

 

Harriet looked speculatively at Michael. The young man was studying his own beverage rather intently. She ventured, "Do you like Ralegh as well? 'The Lie' always gives me the shivers."

 

As Michael hesitated, Freddy said, curious, "What was the lie?"

 

Harriet answered, "Oh, it's rather extended. Ralegh was about to be executed, so he decided to call everything as he saw it." She quoted:


Go, Soul, the body's guest,

Upon a thankless errand;

Fear not to touch the best;

The truth shall be thy warrant:

Go, since I needs must die,

And give the world the lie.

 

Say to the court, it glows

And shines like rotten wood;

Say to the church, it shows

What's good, and doth no good:

If church and court reply,

Then give them both the lie.

 

Tell potentates, they live

Acting by others' action;

Not loved unless they give,

Not strong but by a faction.

If potentates reply,

Give potentates the lie.

 

Returning to the room, Wimsey chimed in as Harriet broke off:


Tell arts they have no soundness,

But vary by esteeming;

Tell schools they want profoundness,

And stand too much on seeming:

If arts and schools reply,

Give arts and schools the lie.

 

"Well," Rachel said, her voice dry, "so much for your Oxford degrees..."

 

"Ralegh was under some strain," Peter said wryly. "We must allow him some rhetorical leeway."

 

"Donne, on the other hand..." said Harriet.

 

Peter nodded. "Merely undone, and he did live long enough to die in his own bed. Sands, what's your verdict on 'The Will'?"

 

The young man pursed his lips. "I couldn't say, my lord. I'm not well enough acquainted with that one."

 

"Oh?" Peter said, lightly. "Well, I daresay you and Miss Levy might find it of interest. It has quite a bit in common with the Ralegh, what with his bequeathing of doubtfulness to schoolmen and the like. It even talks about constancy."

 

"I thank you for the recommendation, Lord Peter. Mrs. Arbuthnot, this wine is wonderful."

 

"Isn't it? It's also a Peter recommendation, as it happens..."

* * *

 

As soon as the younger couple left for the theatre, Rachel said, "Out with it, you two."

 

Harriet flushed. "Were we dreadfully rude? I was hoping we weren't being too blatant..."

 

Rachel stood firm. "Sharon's a complete goose, but she's still my cousin. If that nice young man isn't as nice as he should be, I want her breaking things off with him now rather than later."

 

Freddy sat up straight at Rachel's words. "I say, Peter. Was that squirm-making stretch of quoting on purpose?"

 

Peter sighed. "I wouldn't want to swear that Sands knows his Robert Herrick from his Robert Graves. He certainly didn't seem terribly game to play quote-the-poet, and it's deuced peculiar when a self-styled Renaissance specialist fails to recognise two of the most-anthologised poems from the era."

 

"That, and Renaissance-era spellings weren't at all standardised," added Harriet. "Modern English is far more predictable, even when Eliot and co. are feeling playful."

 

"And Donne didn't graduate from Cambridge," Peter finished. "He was a Catholic at the time, and he couldn't take the Oath of Supremacy they required."

 

Rachel's expression was grim. "Well, then. I shall ring up Miriam tomorrow and that will be the end of it. She's wild to get Sharon married off, but England's not that depleted of suitable men just yet."

 

Freddy, his expression uncharacteristically sober, sidled next to his wife and put his arm about her, offering comfort. "It'll be all right, old thing," he said. "I shouldn't think they were that tangled together yet. At least, I hope not." He looked to Wimsey for confirmation.

 

"Wouldn't know, old bean," said Peter. "But I put a word in Bunter's ear when I went to change my shirt. He's keeping an eye on them at the show, and after."

 

Rachel looked at him gratefully. "Thank you, Peter. I'll instruct the footmen to keep watch when they return."

 

Peter nodded briefly, and then turned his attention to Harriet. "How are you holding up, Domina?"

 

Harriet's face was troubled. "It's terribly peculiar, Peter. Why such a pretense? It's like Dr. Watson and the deep-blue Ming saucer --"

 

At that moment, the butler appeared in the doorway and announced, "Telephone call for Lord Peter."

 

"Thank you, Timberton," said his lordship, following the man out into the hall.

 

"Frightfully strange," Freddy agreed. "Still, queer things happen all the time, and Sharon has money."

 

"Yes -- but posing as a literature expert?" Rachel frowned. "Harriet's right, it doesn't make sense."

 

Peter returned to the drawing room. "That was Parker," he said. "His men got called to Audley Square -- a couple of blokes snuck into the library and tried to sneak back out with a Donne autograph."

 

"Peter!" Harriet looked stricken.

 

"It's quite all right, Domina -- Meredith heard them bumping about and quite sensibly called Scotland Yard right after he locked them in. But I do fear, Rachel," he said gently, "that they knew Lord and Lady Peter Wimsey--"

 

"--would be dining with the Arbuthnots this evening because I imagined you might get along splendidly," Rachel moaned. "Peter, I am so sorry."

 

"Hardly your fault," he reassured her. "And your cousin's pleasant enough -- has she met St. George, my nephew?"

 

"Peter!" Harriet exclaimed, but this time with amusement.

 

"Be good for him to take up with an unmarried woman for a change," he retorted. At Rachel's horrified look, he added, "I'm not being serious. Jerry's not steady enough to marry anyone yet, no matter how much his parents want him to."

 

Rachel's expression turned considering. "Frankly, that's true of Sharon as well. Peter, we should get them together for a lunch."

 

Harriet and Freddy exchanged astounded glances, then both burst out laughing.

 

"What?" Rachel said, feigning bewilderment. "It will get Miriam off my back!"

 

"If only that were true of Helen," Peter mourned. "Still, it's a fine plan, Rachel. Sometime next week, say? 'Let none but the harmless....'-- you won't mind if I indulge in a spot more of music, will you?" As Rachel gestured for him to go ahead, he seated himself once more at the piano and launched into Purcell:


Come all ye songsters of the sky,

Wake and assemble in this wood;

Let no ill-boding bird be nigh,

No, none but the harmless, and the good.