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Role Model

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1936

Viscount Saint-George never meant to make a role model out of his uncle. If he were looking for adult mentorship, the obvious choice would have been his father or, he thinks rather doubtfully, perhaps one of his uncles on his mother’s side. But if his mother terrifies him, her stuffed-shirt brothers horrify him, and he has always spent as little time in their presence as common courtesy will allow.

Still, Uncle Peter would not have been at the top of the list, even if Saint-George had been of a mind to make himself someone’s protégé. But somewhere along the line, Uncle Peter wormed his way into Saint-George’s mind, or rather his conscience. Uncle Peter, at very least, seems to be human; his father is all brandy and bluster, rather muddle-headed and thinking only of the county. Saint-George knows he himself hasn't brains, not like his uncle has, but at least he has spirit enough to wish to live life a little. Uncle Peter seems to live life quite fully. Saint-George likes Niersteiner '23 and Viennese singers and fast cars as much as the next man, and Uncle Peter seems to know how to handle all three quite admirably.

So he has always looked to Uncle Peter, looked for money to supplement his allowance but also looked for more subtle clues, how to hire and fire a valet, how to wine and dine a lady, how to choose a pair of cufflinks. Uncle Peter has been good to him, has always treated him with the same grave courtesy he extends to all humans regardless of age. He may never have considered his uncle to be a role model as such, but in retrospect, Saint-George feels he owes Uncle Peter some small debt for making sure his nephew arrived at adulthood with his hide reasonably intact.

Now, as Saint-George finds himself staring into the infant face of Uncle Peter’s firstborn son, he wonders whether he might make half as good a role model to this boy as Peter has been to him.

Saint-George has never thought much about cousins before. He already has two of them on the Wimsey side by the time Bredon hurls himself into the world, making noise from the start, boasting his mother’s stubborn chin and his father’s grey eyes. But somehow Aunt Mary’s children never affected Saint-George the way Bredon does. Saint-George attended the christenings and he buys the requisite Christmas gifts, but Charles Peter and Mary Lucasta belong to a different world, a solidly middle-class life with their mother’s money tucked into a discreet and never-accessed bank account. Bredon lives in Audley Square; he joins an appallingly short line to the succession of the dukedom; he bears the name Wimsey. Something stirs in Saint-George: he understands this child’s existence.

His uncle is standing at his elbow as they hand the bundle of blankets into Saint-George’s arms. “Got a firm hold there, Gherkins?” Uncle Peter asks. His voice is light, but his hands hover under the child’s small form.

“Don’t worry, I won’t pull any tricks,” Saint-George says. “Losing a wedding ring is one thing, dropping a child is quite another. I’ll hold him tight, scout’s honor.”

“The thing is,” Uncle Peter says, “you can’t replace ’em the way you can a car or a suit of clothes. Awfully long turnaround on this model. Takes nine months just to get your first look at the initial investment.”

Saint-George is not paying attention. He has got his first close look at the child and he is oddly mesmerized. “I say, Uncle Peter, he’s got your eyes, hasn’t he?”

Aunt Harriet, standing with her hand on Uncle Peter’s arm, peers at the child. “I thought he might,” she says, “but it’s hard to tell. He’s just starting to un-wrinkle. They do come out a little goopy-looking. By the way, Jerry, it was very kind of you to stop by, but please don’t feel obliged to say pleasant things. I mean, liking one’s own children is one thing, but saying nice things about another person’s child can be sick-making.”

“I don’t feel sick at all,” Saint-George assures her, and gives the child an experimental jiggle.

The baby responds to the movement by opening his mouth and beginning to bellow. Saint-George gives a small sympathetic whimper. “I’m done now, Uncle Peter.” Aunt Harriet is laughing at him as his uncle takes the child out of his arms.

1944

He forgets about role models for a few years after that. Roger and Paul come along, and then a pair of girls who, astonishingly, make more noise than their brothers combined. By this time the world has exploded and Saint-George is in the R.A.F., flying planes over places he is not allowed to disclose. It turns out that he is quite good at flying planes. He remembers Aunt Harriet’s voice in the Christ Church infirmary, wry and worried, pointing out that his uncle might conceivably be a better driver than Saint-George. He could not deny it, not with a smashed car and a smashed head to prove the point, but land and air are night and day. Something magic happened when Saint-George stepped into his first cockpit and now he’s doing his best to give Hitler hell from the air.

He is in England on leave when the telephone jangles in his Bloomsbury flat. He lives in Bloomsbury not because he particularly cares for it over any other part of London, but because his valet found him the flat when he left Oxford and he was too busy pursuing a girl called Bridget that summer to give the matter much thought. By the time Bridget breaks his heart in the autumn, he is settled in quite nicely. After Bridget, Uncle Peter takes him out one evening and tells him about somebody called Barbara. Saint-George doesn't pay much attention to the details about Barbara, but he appreciates the wine and the meal, and Uncle Peter's company that night keeps him from throwing himself into the Thames, so he supposes the role model thingamajig is working. He stays in Bloomsbury.

He hollers something into the telephone and hears Bunter on the other end of the line. “An unprecedented situation having arisen,” the man says, “Lady Peter wishes to inquire whether Master Bredon might spend a few days under your care.”

“Why on earth?” Saint-George says.

Bunter gives a cough. “Certain circumstances require the immediate departure of his lordship and myself for an undetermined amount of time.”

He means they’re going to be messing around with M.I. business on the Continent, and Saint-George feels the thrill of the chase, the same way he feels when the wheels of his plane lift off the tarmac. “All right,” he says. “But I say, isn’t there a nursemaid or something?”

“There is a nursemaid,” Bunter says, and his tone makes Saint-George feel two feet high. “Lady Peter has taken up residence with the nursemaid and the children at Talboys. Bredon, however, is at school. The school is currently under threat for measles and Bredon must vacate the premises. His lordship recalled that he was able to one time assist your mother with the care of you under similar circumstances. On behalf of Lord and Lady Peter, I phoned to inquire—”

“Yes, all right,” Saint-George says. He runs his mind over his diary and realizes with a sinking heart that a number of appointments will have to go. There is a nightclub he was looking forward to investigating, and a lovely girl called Patricia who had expressed an eagerness to form a friendship. Still, duty calls. He clears his throat in what he hopes is a manful manner and says, “Of course I’ll take him. But look here. London isn’t exactly safe. I’ll run him down to Denver, shall I? He and I can manage for a few days down there until he can go back to school. Tell Uncle Peter he’ll be fine, and I say, good luck and all that on your trip.”

He is not sure how to entertain an eight-year-old boy, but it is not as difficult as he had feared. Bredon wants to catch peacocks and catch tadpoles and catch foxes. They succeed with the tadpoles, and Saint-George talks him out of the peacocks and foxes. In the evening they attempt to play chess, which neither of them finds very interesting, and then Saint-George shows Bredon his book collection. This consists of one lone volume, the Cosmographia Universalis that Bredon’s father helped Saint-George purchase twenty years ago. Bredon finds the book as wonderful as Saint-George once did, and Saint-George feels enormously pleased.

In hindsight, Saint-George wonders why he didn’t see that week that something was happening, something good, the formation of a bond between cousins separated by 22 years in age but united by a love of tadpoles and dragons. Also fast cars and attractive women, but that comes later.

He reports back to his R.A.F. base and Bredon sends him a letter. A brief letter, because Bredon does not care much for writing. He writes back—briefly, because nor does he care for writing—and the friendship grows. Next time he’s on leave he asks Aunt Harriet if he might take the boy out for an ice or something, and she looks rather astonished and says all right. They eat their ices and Saint-George tells Bredon all about airplanes. Bredon asks Aunt Harriet if he might leave Talboys and move in with Saint-George, and he grins and ruffles his cousin’s hair before he leaves.

He forgets about Bredon for another few months after that. In September his plane goes down over France and he has a devil of a time getting it on the ground and getting himself out of it in one piece. He manages, mostly, although he leaves some of his leg in the plane as he pulls himself out. It hurts worse than when he crashed his car at Oxford, and it’s going to leave more marks this time around. Wimseys might have more lives than cats, but he’s pretty sure his quota is running low by now. His mother and father visit him in the hospital, his mother’s mouth a thin white line, and Aunt Harriet and Uncle Peter bring flowers and an air of sober comfort.

Uncle Peter visits once again, alone this time, and he spends a long afternoon with Saint-George. He doesn't say much, but what he says sticks with his nephew. When he leaves, Saint-George feels he might be able to give post-war life a shot. He had been considering giving his head another kind of shot, but somehow after Uncle Peter is gone, he figures he might as well put that off for a while. When he finally makes it out of bed, he finds that he can manage pretty well on his feet. He doesn’t even limp very much, at least not when he carries a cane. He sends a dubious prayer of thanks up to a God he does not often consider and settles in at his Bloomsbury flat. More than losing a bit of his leg, he minds that he’s lost his chance to fly.

1952

He is trying to keep his chin up, but it's been a hell of a few years. His leg hurts and he has bad dreams and Uncle Peter understands but he can't help, not when the trouble is in his own damn head. Still, he's managing fairly well until his father dies.

The doctors say it was a heart attack, but Saint-George thinks his father gave up on living a long time ago and it was his mother’s sheer force of will that kept him alive as long as this. Helen has always made it clear that she did not relish the day she would become dowager and her son would be given the management of the property. Paramount in Saint-George’s rather confused mind is that he’s going to have to get used to being called Denver.

The funeral is in Norfolk and it seems half the county comes. Saint-George—who refuses to call himself Denver, not until he’s gotten used to it—stands at the side of the grave and looks at the faces around him. His mother is composed, as always. Winifred is twisting her handkerchief into a Gordian of a knot. Uncle Peter’s face is white; Saint-George can see the lines of strain etched around his mouth and eyes. Aunt Harriet stands tall and statuesque beside him.

“Ashes to ashes,” the minister intones, “dust to dust,” and he gestures to Helen. She stoops and picks up a handful of earth. There is a sound like bullets as the loam hits the casket. For a minute, Saint-George is back in the air, pulling up sharply on the control yoke and wondering why his plane is diving toward the ground. He swallows hard, feeling the pain searing in his leg and leaning heavily on his cane. The ground looms nearer.

No one seems to notice his distress. He needs to get out, he needs to be away from fresh-dug graves and his father’s dead body inside a box and the sharp staccato roar of machine guns in his head. He looks to his uncle, who understands about too much death and destruction and how to stop the machine-gun fire in one's head, but Uncle Peter is holding very tightly to Aunt Harriet's hand and both of them are looking down into the grave.

Saint-George turns, shoving his cane through the grass, and is stopped by a tall, solid form. Bredon, sixteen years old and on the winter vac from school, had been standing a little behind his father and mother at the graveside. He looks like the dead duke, the closest resemblance the family has managed to produce, with the familiar barley-coloured hair and stocky frame. He leaves his parents now and ambles round to Saint-George. He stands close, not touching his cousin or Saint-George's cane, but close enough to lend an air of sturdy strength. The ground seems to right itself again. Across the open grave, Uncle Peter has shifted his focus and is watching his nephew and son with sharp eyes. Saint-George steadies his cane and meets his uncle's gaze.

Uncle Peter’s family stays at Denver for a few weeks after the funeral, and Bredon gets him through those first long weeks of being a duke. There are papers to sign and endless columns of facts and figures and Saint-George wants to shove it all off into his uncle’s hands and have a whiskey in the library. But Bredon wants to shoot pool and go hunting and try whiskey, and as Saint-George pulls himself together enough to deny his cousin the alcohol, in the process he puts his own glass aside as well.

He manages to sort out the facts and figures, with ample assistance from Uncle Peter and Murbles, but he knows he’s never going to do justice to the property, not like his father did. For a few months he thinks, vaguely, that things will work themselves out, but all along he has known that he would never be able to manage on his own. Four months after his father's death he lays the problem before his uncle, who suggests that he, Peter, might handle some of the business if Saint-George finds it not quite in his line.

“Well, perhaps, if you don’t find it too much trouble,” Saint-George says. “It’s an awful blow to the pride and all that, but it’s only that I’d hate to run it all into the ground and have nothing for Bredon to take over. Honestly, Uncle, I never thought I’d be duke. I'm always running around waiting to get myself killed. I was sure it would pass to you. At any rate, God knows I’m not going to leave an heir of my own.”

“You’re quite sure about that?” Uncle Peter does not seem to take Saint-George very seriously when his nephew makes pronouncements of this nature.

Saint-George is quite sure. A very promising affiliation with a lady called Belinda has just gone south, he has found his first silver hairs in the gold, and he is in no mood to discuss procreation. “I tell you, it will all be Bredon’s one day,” he says peevishly.

Peter looks at Saint-George for a long moment. "I shouldn't say anything to him, if it's all right with you," he says. "It's not that Bredon will mind, but it's not gentlemanly, you know, to bet further than one's expectations. I shouldn't like him to form that habit."

It's the first time in years that Uncle Peter has referenced Saint-George's debauched habits during his Oxford years, and he feels himself flushing. "Haven't done that in years," he mumbles. "I may have expensive tastes, but at least I can cover them now." He swirls brandy in his glass and wills himself to meet his uncle's eyes. "Damn it, Uncle, are you going to make me grovel? I told you, I came to you because I don't want to fritter it all away. Do you think I want to run the family money and the family name into the ground? One must have some sense of responsibility."

Uncle Peter reaches out and refills Saint-George's glass. "I'd say you have a quite good sense of responsibility."

He leaves the house in Audley Square a little later, feeling much more light-hearted than just the brandy could produce. Uncle Peter has come through once again, saved him from his own self, and he is immensely relieved to not have smashed up more than his own pride this time around. It's more than Uncle Peter, though, who made him do it; it's Bredon, Bredon with his mother's chin and his Uncle Gerald's square face and his father's white-blonde hair, and his cousin's taste for airplanes and dragons.

The boy is only sixteen, but he'll grow up soon enough, and then Saint-George can introduce him to pretty ladies and fast cars and good wine. Meanwhile, Uncle Peter has taught Saint-George a thing or two about how to save his own hide, but Bredon has taught him to look to the future. Perhaps Saint-George won't produce his own heir, but he's going to make damn sure Bredon is an heir Saint-George can be proud of. He whistles a little and twirls his cane. The property will be in good hands once Saint-George—Denver, he corrects himself—once he pegs off.

Meanwhile, he thinks he might buy an airplane and take Bredon up for a ride.