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Taking Out the Change

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It all began when the grippe came to Paggleham. An indiscriminate caller, it felled one and all in the village and the surrounds. The only exceptions were Miss Twitterton, who inevitably called upon her favorites with words of comfort on her lips and healthful parsnip wine in hand, and Bunter, whose carriage remained upright and demeanor remained mild, though Harriet distinctly heard him sniffle at least twice.

The spring had been cold and damp, which had soaked into the walls of the houses and the bones of the people. The grippe found fertile ground and cast itself there eagerly. Harriet had felt it coming on after, at Mrs. Goodacre's request, she'd given a little talk at the Women's Institute. While she sat at her desk, working out the bit of her new book that involved spark-plugs, a stained burberry, and a sledgehammer, the headache had begun, stale and hard behind her eyes. By dinnertime, she was coughing hard enough to make her throat feel torn, and by bed-time, she was thoroughly under the spell of the fever.

Peter ministered unto her with sweet tolerance, checking her pillows and blankets regularly, reading to her when she was restless, and ringing Bunter for tea when she felt she could stand the taste of it. Bunter, of course, did the majority of the nursing while Peter did the majority of the fretting. If 1918 had taught nothing lasting about the politics of warfare, it had been most instructional in the fear of influenza.

In the end, even Peter's constitution could not bear up under the assault. Four days after she succumbed, his body betrayed him with a fusillade of coughing, and then Bunter had the both of them to nurse.

That first night, Harriet, sleepless, felt well enough to crawl from her sickbed to Peter's, candle in hand and cursing the belated delivery of the electric plant. He was asleep, probably worn out from coughing. She set her hand to his pale brow and found it damp with the fever's breaking. His eyes opened at her touch, and he mumbled something -- her name? -- before the heavy eyelids fell shut again. She smoothed his hair, which was dark with sweat, and he muttered something else.

Quite suddenly, a wave of exhaustion engulfed her and she felt entirely unequal to the task of recrossing the distance between Peter's bed and her own. Without a thought for Bunter's sensibilities, she tucked herself under the blankets on the other side of the bed. She left her candle to burn out on the bedside table.

Peter's loud muttering woke her to darkness. She reached for him automatically, as she'd learned to do over the past few months. Before she could lay hold of him, he lurched partway upright, shouting, "Dian, no!"

Harriet tugged him gently back down onto his pillow, and noticed that he was burning hot again. Peter gave her one swift wild and wide-eyed look in the darkness, not quite seeing her, and then, hesitantly, "Harriet!"

"Yes," she said, and added, "I couldn't sleep. You don't mind, do you?"

"Mind?" His voice had a higher pitch than usual, humming along a tight and discordant string on an instrument. He cleared his throat, which started him coughing. As he sat up and let the spasm wrack him, Harriet scrambled out of bed to get hold of the cough syrup on the bedside table. When he could breathe, he took some docilely, and lay back, sighing carefully. "Again. I didn't say anything this time, did I?"

There was something, a catch or a tone, in his voice that moved her to say, "No, nothing clear, as usual."

Later, she regretted the white lie, because if she'd just said something, they, feverish and ill as they were, could have had it out. But they didn't, and as a result, it gnawed at the edges of her conscience and thoughts through the balance of their respective illnesses and onward.

Finally, the spring turned warm and fine, and the crocuses and daffodils sprang up from old Noakes' garden, brilliant with yellows and whites and purples. It was a respite from the unrelenting greyness of the spring, and yet, it was also a reminder of the gardener's hand that would not come again. Harriet, through the offices of Bunter, engaged another gardener, of course. Peter grew broody and restless, and Harriet waxed discontented with herself.

Finally, she said, "Peter, I was thinking that I should go up to town. I'm far enough along with this manuscript that I really ought to start giving Miss Bracey chapters to type so I can start editing the thing."

Peter was standing at the window of the bedroom in his dressing gown, pulling thoughtfully on his pipe. At her words, he turned. "Ah, yes. Mater should be arriving in town shortly herself. We could write and ask her to be sure that the house is opened properly."

"She's been very kind in engaging the servants," Harriet said, taken aback. "I suppose I'd forgot about the townhouse almost entirely."

Peter smiled wryly. "Expected to be going back to your flat then?"

"Apparently," Harriet said. "I don't know where my mind is these days."

"Well, it's good timing, I think," Peter said, looking back out the window. "The plant will be delivered by month's end, and we can have the place electrified while we're away."

"I expect it will harrow Bunter less if he doesn't have to manage the household around the work," Harriet said.

"Desolation's lang-teeth'd harrow, Nine miles an hour" Peter said, smiling over his shoulder.

"If Desolation only works at nine miles an hour," Harriet said, "then we'll easily outrun it."

"True, oh sage," Peter said, and rang for Bunter.

---

The Dowager Duchess took Harriet over the Audley Square house after the initial review and approval of the household staff. Harriet murmured appreciatively over the infinite details her mother-in-law had considered. Somewhere around the third bedroom, Harriet turned to the tiny whirlwind at her side and said, "I need to ask you something."

The Duchess stopped as she was taking breath for her next sentence, something about the drapes and the bedstead, and examined the anxious countenance before her. "Of course, my dear."

Harriet bit her lip. "Do you... have you ever heard... was Peter ever... was there ever a woman named 'Dian'?"

The Duchess grew thoughtful and turned back to the bedstead, running her fingers over the smooth walnut curves of the footboard. "The mothers, you know, would point the girls at him and he is rather handsome... though I shouldn't say so, and not quite as good-looking as Jerry, but he always had a way with words that made up for it. There were always plenty of girls with their caps set for him... I always wondered about that phrase, since it sounds rather like one ought to be pulling one's cap down over one's eyes like a carriage driver in the rain, and that's never very attractive, especially not with the caps back in those days... and I dare say that there were a few Dians or Dianas among them. But he's always been commendably discreet, and I've hardly ever known the names unless he was quite serious about them. There was a Barbara, I recall, that quite broke his heart, I think, though he was young and the young are always breaking their hearts over something or someone."

"Yes, indeed," said Harriet, with feeling. "I expect it was something serious. I mean, he wasn't quite in his right mind -- we had the grippe -- and he sounded rather alarmed."

"I wondered if the fabric would shine too much for such a small room," the Duchess said, moving to tug a fold out of the curtain. "Only I thought that the high ceilings would balance that out, and I think I was right. One can never credit what a man says when he's out of his mind. Poor things, their reason is so hard-won anyway, and a fever will set them right off their heads. I remember a footman we had who came down with the grippe, and he spent a week in bed, believing he was hiding from the police for stealing the Crown Jewels! What one would want with the Crown Jewels anyway, I have no idea, since there's no way one could sell them. But we later found out that he had stolen something, though not, of course, the Crown Jewels, just a necklace of zircons I'd left lying about because I hated the thing anyway. He was just emplacing the guilt... or is that displacing?... while he was out of his head. All one can do is ask them what they think they were talking about, and see what they say."

Harriet sighed miserably. "I told him he hadn't said anything clear. I wish I hadn't."

The Duchess took her arm and led her from the room. "You're only human, dear, and so is he. Now, though, thinking about crime, I wonder if he was talking about that girl a while ago. There was a Dian... Dian de Momerie, I think... Mary told me he was mixed up in a case and the girl's name came up. I remember her coming-out, quite tall and blonde and striking, but her family would have nothing to do with her only a few years later. Something to do with drugs or smuggling or racing cars. But Peter was doing one of his investigations and she was part of it and I think she was murdered, poor thing... yes, I'm quite sure of it. You could ask Mary about it, if you liked."

Relief crashed in on Harriet, quite drowning the tiny jealous voice for the nonce. "No. No, I think you're quite right," she said. "I think I should ask him about it."

The Duchess patted her arm and drew her into another room. "Now, I hope you don't think I'm interfering, but I thought this would make an admirable nursery, and I thought you might need it sooner than later..."

Harriet didn't bother to ask how she'd known.

---

Peter was reclining on the windowseat, trimming his nails, and Harriet was brushing her hair, watching him in the mirror. All at once, Harriet felt she must say something or nothing, and burst out with a determinedly casual, "Peter, who is Dian?"

He looked up blankly, but his face underwent a series of dramatically strangled alterations in a few seconds. "Blast," he said at last. "I should've known."

"I don't know why I didn't ask you at once," Harriet said, gaze dropping to her dressing table. "I wasn't thinking clearly."

"You weren't well," Peter said. He stood and rummaged in the pockets of his blazer, which hung on the door.

After a moment, he abandoned whatever he was searching for and looked at Harriet. She turned to face him, setting her hairbrush down and trying not to seem expectant.

"Dian de Momerie," Peter said, face composed. "She was a girl involved with a drug gang a few years ago. Not working with the gang so much as buying from them. She got caught up with one of their agents, a fellow named Milligan. A case I was investigating was tangled up in this gang, y'see. She was... well, I got information from her, and connected with Milligan, and so forth. They were a damned brutal and efficient bunch, though, and got her in the end."

A light went on in Harriet's internal study. "Was this the girl your nonexistent cousin was accused of murdering?" When Peter looked startled, she smiled. "One cannot help but notice the news stories about people one knows."

"Really?" he said, possibly thinking of the drawer full of news clippings that he'd never got rid of. "Well, yes, that was her. And I must have said her name during that fever dream, and I'm sure I cannot apologize sufficiently, my dear."

Harriet rose and gave him her hand. "I should have said something sooner. I've been quite the fool."

"You a fool and I a sweep," he said, taking her hand and pulling her into his arms.

After a moment, she said, "The dream sounded horrid. And you've seemed distracted since."

Peter sat on the windowseat again, drawing Harriet with him. "Truly there is a matter that disturbs his peace of late," he said. "He has dreamed a dream three times, and its meaning is beyond the skill of any man to solve. Except I think I know the meaning well enough." He broodingly scowled at the curtain sash. "I was going to a masquerade, which is actually how I met Dian, but this one was different. I was dressed, for this party, as Pierrot, in a great baggy white shirt and trousers, and Dian was with me, in a motley dress I expect was Columbine's. We went into the house, and it was both Milligan's house and Talboys, I think. I saw my face in the glass in the entry hall, and it was painted."

"With just the black points above and below the eyes?" Harriet said. "Or with the teardrop as well?"

"No teardrop, I think," Peter said. "Nothing so obvious, I suppose. We went through the house into the back, and there was a fountain there. Now, you'll think me a right idiot, but I have to tell you that at the real party, I dived from the top of the fountain into the pool."

"Peter!" she exclaimed. "I'm surprised you managed to avoid breaking your neck."

"Madmen have all the luck," he said. "Of course, what do you expect was standing atop the fountain but myself, got up as Harlequin, just as I'd been in life."

"Of course," Harriet said. "I am learning that you are positively Holmesian in your affection for theatrics."

"You shouldn't have me otherwise," he said complacently.

"You're right. What happened then?"

"Dian started toward him, and that young fool Willis -- a fellow that was caught up in the case --stepped out in his black cassock and hood to block her. He said something... I don't remember what... and Dian broke out in that speech of Richard's."

"Which one?"

"Act One, Scene One. Why I, in this weak piping time of peace, have no delight to pass away the time."

"Unless to see my shadow in the sun/And descant on mine own deformity?"

"Yes, and she put quite an emphasis on the lines after that: And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover/To entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain/And hate the idle pleasures of these days."

"Interesting... for a drug addict."

"She was bored, and liked me for the difference I made," Peter said, grimacing. "And so concluding her speech, she made for ye beckoning Harlequin. And I think that was when I called out -- it was one of those things that are terrible in the dream but sound so strangely mundane on waking, but I knew that the Harlequin was really the hangman." He looked out the window, fine mouth set in a grim line.

"Oh, Peter," Harriet said, gripping his hands.

"There was much to regret in that case," he said. "She'd never have been killed but for knowing me. Neither would Milligan, I know, but there! I don't regret that, and besides, he was run down by a lorry, and didn't have his throat cut like Dian. And then there was the fellow who did the job I was investigating first. He was a decent sort, but only got lured into the business, and the little tick that was his coworker started blackmailing him."

"It sounds like a thoroughly wretched situation. What happened?"

"Well, Tallboy did for the tick with a slingshot..." He trailed off. "Oh."

"The house!" Harriet cried. "And old Noakes and Crutchley, digging up the history even more. No wonder, poor darling."

They sat quiet for a few moments, and finally Harriet said, "What happened to him? I don't recall a notice of arrest."

"Truly, I would not hang a dog by my will, much more a man who hath any honesty in him," Peter said bitterly. "He chose the honorable route. The drug gang knocked him down in the street and he was run over. Nothing ever came out in the papers, and his wife and child never knew."

"Peter, I'm sorry," said Harriet, after another short silence in which she tried to think of what to say, and coming up only with the conventional platitude.

Peter gave her a last squeeze, then rose and took up his blazer. "Enough of giving sorrow words, I think." He twitched it onto his shoulders with a quick tug which Harriet might have taken for impatience in another man. "The grief which does speak may whisper the o'er-fraught heart as well as that which does not. Besides, I'm sure I smell bacon."

"Peter, don't be ridiculous," she said, rising and straightening her skirt. "The kitchen is two floors below us."

"Hush! Do not question my husbandly omniscience." He offered her his arm.

"Let us see the exhibition of it, then," Harriet said, taking it, "arm in arm, like Satire and Sentiment, and light on the strangest contrasts laughable and tearful."