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The Preparation of a Gentleman's Nursery

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"Sometimes I find myself longing for a nice, unfathomable murder," said Harriet.

"Oh, dear," said Eiluned.

"Too much togetherness?" Sylvia suggested, with rather more sympathy.

"No, no, not at all. We don't spend every hour of the day joined at the hip," Harriet began. How could she explain? "I'm expecting the proofs for 'Twixt Wind and Water any day, and meanwhile I've been making notes towards the next book, doing some research—and Peter has plenty to keep him busy. His landlord duties, and his library, oh, all kinds of things I never thought about before we were married. It's just that." She stopped, frustrated. "There's something going on, and I can't quite define it."

"Has your—" Sylvia gestured towards Harriet's eight-months abdomen, "has your pregnancy made a difference?"

"Yes."

"Isn't he happy about it? I thought people from his background were all eager to give themselves heirs," Eiluned said.

"He's very happy about it," Harriet responded, trying not to sound irritated, since her own failure to define the problem was not Eiluned's fault.

"Perhaps he's worried about you," Sylvia said.

"I suppose so...." Peter's first thought, after the instantaneous delight when she had given him the news, had been of her own safety. She smiled. "That might be it. I'll have to think it through. And, really, how dreadful of me to be wishing for someone to die a grisly and mysterious death just to give Peter something to do!"

"Ah, but nothing else has sufficient gravitas!" Eiluned, reminding Harriet of an argument she had made about her own craft. No lesser crime has the importance, the weight, of murder. In fiction.

"Never mind about murdering anybody, Harriet. Perhaps you need to give your husband something useful to do," said Sylvia.

"That will probably help," Harriet decided. "We are going to be interviewing nurse-midwives this week. I expect it will satisfy Peter's need to be useful. Not that I know anything about interviewing servants. What does one do?"

"Lord Peter must know," said Sylvia. "He has heaps of servants."

"Yes, but you see, the Dowager Duchess found the household servants for us. There's Bunter, but from what I understand, he simply turned up one day and began doing the job."

"How about your personal maid? What's her name, Mango?"

"I'm afraid Mango is another rather special case, like Bunter. At any rate, he didn't so much interview her as just offer her the job and then send her off to train to do it. I don't think Peter knows any more about interviewing nurses than I do. And I ought to be the one who has the final say, really. It is a rather intimate relationship."

Sylvia and Eiluned looked at one another with the bafflement Harriet herself felt. She sighed.

"I suppose," Sylvia ventured, "you need to have enough conversation to discover whether you like the person, and whether she and you have the same attitude to the work that needs to be done."

"No sense taking someone on if you can't work together," said Eiluned.

"Somehow, I'm not sure that helps," Harriet said, grinning affectionately at them both. "But you are quite right. It needs to be a person I can work with. It is called labour for a reason. And I believe children are quite demanding, too."

***

 

Harriet was still in the breakfast room, gazing meditatively out of the window. Wimsey, who had breakfasted earlier and spent half an hour in the library signing papers, took the opportunity to enjoy the sight of his wife, burgeoning magnificently and draped in a dark blue garment with white cuffs that brought to mind an eighteenth-century portrait. She had a letter in her hand, and was patently not reading it.

"Morning," he said, and Harriet turned to smile at him over her shoulder.

"If you squint along Tilney Street there's just a glimpse of the park at the end," she said, "and the trees are beginning to turn. I've always liked to look at the trees in autumn."

"A better prospect than whatever is in your post," Wimsey observed as he seated himself beside her. He was pleased to see she had eaten a good breakfast—not that the queasiness of the early days had troubled her for some months now, but he was still reassured by the closed knife and fork and the empty toast rack.

"Ah," Harriet said. She looked at the letter and frowned slightly. "It's from Helen."

"From my sister-in-law?"

"Mmm. She has very kindly informed me of all the details pertaining to Winifred's forthcoming Little Season, though I cannot imagine why she should expect me to be interested." She sighed. "I suppose I ought to be interested."

"Certainly not," he replied at once. "After all, even Helen can't expect you to attend a grand ball, not at present."

"I shouldn't have been surprised if she'd expected me to stay decently indoors for the duration," Harriet said, "so as not to inflict the unnerving sight of my fecundity on the rest of the world."

Wimsey closed his lips firmly on an acrid remark.

"But I'm being unfair," Harriet said, "because she hasn't said anything of the sort. She is," and she laughed, "she is writing to recommend a nurse to me!"

"Good Lord."

"Yes. Very civilly, too. Strongest possible praise, excellent qualifications, highly capable. It's very awkward."

"Indeed it is," said Wimsey, not failing for an instant to understand the dilemma in which Harriet now found herself.

"Is it likely, after all, that I should find congenial someone with stalwart common sense and great self-discipline whom Helen thinks would be an admirable nurse for the scion of a ducal house. And yes, she actually says, the scion of a ducal house."

"Perhaps she's been readin' romantic novels," he suggested, and Harriet snorted.

"And what's more, she is well aware that we have so far failed to find a satisfactory candidate for the job from all those nurses the agency sent along. I am clearly absurdly picky—no, she doesn't say that, she just notes that we've been having difficulties—and so I am recommending Nurse Wallace to you." Harriet put down the letter. "And I dare say she may be right. I don't propose to be an entirely aloof parent, kissing the offspring at breakfast and bedtime and ignoring it for the rest of the day, but if I am to get any work done in the future...." After the safe delivery of the child, of course. Wimsey knew the thought was in both their minds, though Harriet had less reason to anticipate it with dread. "All the same," she continued, "I cannot believe that someone recommended by your sister in law will be..."

"Somebody you can live with? No, I should think probably not," Wimsey agreed. "But, my dear, there's absolutely no reason to hire this woman just because Helen thinks she'll be suitable."

"No," Harriet agreed, "but, well, I do think she's making a sincere effort to do her best for us. I'd like to meet her half-way. This Nurse Wallace is going to turn up on our doorstep at two o'clock this afternoon to be interviewed for the position, and I ought to at least see her before I decide she's impossible." She paused. "I don't feel very confident in my ability to decide on a good nurse. Mrs Trapp has been very helpful, of course, but although she has her own expertise she doesn't know me very well." The housekeeper still had an absurd reverence for himself, as her sometime nurseling, but she and Harriet had not altogether got one another's measure yet. "I have seen so many already," Harriet went on, "and I can't put my finger on why I didn't find anybody satisfactory. If I don't know what I want, how can I know whether I've found it?"

"Should you like me to be there?"

"Yes, please. It's absurd, because I ought to be able to work out for myself if I could feel comfortable with this woman, but I can't quite seem to believe that I can manage it. Taking on a nurse is a great deal more personal than taking on a secretary."

"Courage, Domina. We'll do it together." He kissed her forehead, then her lips. "At two o'clock."

***

"Well," Harriet said. It was hard to think of anything else.

"I have to confess, Helen has surprised me very much," her husband said, a statement which perfectly encapsulated her own feelings.

"I liked her, Peter. I think she'll do very well."

"Yes, indeed. I quite see that. A useful counterweight to Mrs Trapp's rather authoritarian air, and she seems to know her stuff."

Indeed, yes. Nurse Wallace, younger than Harriet had expected, had nonetheless been well able to answer all Mrs Trapp's questions about professional matters. "I can write with a clear conscience," Harriet said, much relieved. She could have composed a letter regretting that it was, for various reasons, impossible to take on the Duchess's proffered candidate, but it was going to be so very much easier to write a letter of genuine gratitude.

Peter was frowning. No, not quite frowning, there was just a touch of discontent above the eyebrows.

"Is something wrong?" Harriet asked. Perhaps, this time, he might tell her?

He smiled, but it appeared that yes, there was. "She trained at the London Hospital. A very respectable hospital too, good reputation within the profession an' all that. However, I can't help but wonder at Helen giving her approval to someone who learned her trade in Whitechapel. My sister in law does not in general accord much in the way of human dignity to anyone coming from the East End."

"If it comes to that, this whole thing seems uncharacteristic," Harriet observed. "I was expecting a stern, middle-aged dragon with no sense of humour."

"Though nobody with any sense would expect you to engage someone like that. But Helen..." he smiled down at her, and left the rest of the unnecessary sentence unspoken. "Still. It does seem right and proper to investigate the young woman's credentials. If you've no objection?"

"Of course not." It would be unfortunate to find oneself in the unqualified hands of a charlatan at the most vulnerable moment of her life, Harriet thought. Though why anyone should attempt to cheat her way into the house in the guise of a nurse/midwife she could not imagine. Her novelist's brain chided her: of course she could imagine an explanation—half a dozen explanations! The woman might be... an intrepid jewel thief, intent on making away with Harriet's rubies and the fabulous diamond parure. Or a reporter, sneaking in to the household to bag an exclusive exposé of the Wimseys' marital life—not that there would be an editor in Town who would print it, the British press was not sunk quite so low. But it was a disconcerting thought. A devotee of her own novels, perhaps, wanting to get close to the source—no. All far too fanciful.

"I think I'll speak to Miss Climpson," her husband said. "Should be a simple enough matter to check."

Harriet nodded, and watched thoughtfully as he left the room, upright and purposeful. Was it a good thing that he now had an excuse to do something, however trivial? Mrs Trapp had declared herself satisfied. So was this surely unnecessary activity something Harriet ought to put a stop to, if she could? Or was it something Peter needed, something to do that he could construe as helpful?

She was fairly sure that he needed to feel useful, while she went through her pregnancy, but it felt as though there were something more. It felt, lately, as though there were a veil between her and his feelings. It was something to do with her pregnancy, but what? He had been honestly delighted at the prospect of a child. Of that, she was certain. He still was. But there was something worrying him, and he was hiding it. Harriet did not like it but could not work out what to do.

"He is allowed to be worried," she said to herself, "but if he won't share it with me, there is something wrong." She hauled herself out of her seat and walked round the room a few times. Perhaps she might go to the park? But a glance along Tilney Street showed her the tree being blown violently about, so she decided to sit again.

In lieu of her refreshing walk, she would have to find something else to take her attention away from the problem, so that it might, as her plots so often did, unravel itself in her subconscious.

She would write to Helen.

And then, confronted by a blank piece of paper and the simplest of thanks to compose, she found herself addressing the letter to her mother-in-law instead, and a long, complicated letter flowed out with no difficulty at all.

***

"Harriet!"

His wife looked up as Wimsey strode into the library. "What is it, Peter?"

"That new nurse. Nurse Wallace. I don't think we'll be able to take her on after all," he said, firmly.

"Why on earth not? What has happened?"

"I've had a letter from Miss Climpson," he replied, brandishing it. "She says she cannot find any trace of a Miss Wallace training at the London Hospital who matches the dates we were given."

"Good gracious!' Harriet looked, he thought, rather disappointed. She had liked the young woman who'd presented herself for interview—he had liked her himself, but at present he could only feel profound thankfulness that he had decided to follow his instincts and had Miss Climpson check up on her. Harriet was too precious to risk in dishonest or unscrupulous hands.

"Miss Climpson made a list of all the people whose qualifications and training dates matched Nurse Wallace, and has investigated to see whether perhaps she might be using a married name. As she quite rightly points out in her letter, after all, a trained nurse who is widowed at a young age—and we cannot deny that such sad things happen—might forget that the hospital records would be in her maiden name."

"Well, I—I don't quite know what to say." Harriet shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She was finding it increasingly difficult—Wimsey reprimanded himself for the pun even though it had been unintentional and unuttered—to be comfortable, as she moved through the final few weeks of her pregnancy. "I was quite settled in my mind that Nurse Wallace would be here with me, and now, I suppose we can't take her on."

"I don't see how we can possibly employ someone who deliberately deceived us," he said, neutrally.

"No. But I," Harriet paused, and worried at her lower lip. "I should very much like to know why she lied to us," she said. "And, well. What am I to tell Helen?"

"I think we are due an explanation," Wimsey said, and rang the bell. "Ask Nurse Wallace to come down to the library, please," he told the footman.

Within a few minutes, 'Nurse Wallace' was standing before them. A broad-shouldered, round-faced woman somewhere in her thirties, pleasant but not pretty, she smiled at first and then, as she began to realise that this was not a call for her professional services, the rosy colour drained from her cheeks.

*

"I am so, so sorry," the nurse began, which was both a confession and a sensible approach. "You see, I—oh, how do I explain?"

"Begin at the beginning," Wimsey told her.

"I'd just finished an engagement with a family in Kent, in Faversham, and I had written for a position at an address in South Kensington. I was coming to London to be interviewed, and to put my name down with the nursing agency in case they declined to take me on. Then I met Nurse Wallace on the train. The uniform is always an introduction, so we got talking. She told me that she had been given a recommendation by the Duchess of Denver, but that she, oh, dear, forgive me, I don't want to be—" she broke off, looking worriedly at Harriet and then at himself.

"I think we had better not guess. Out with it, and I promise not to slay you in my wrath," Wimsey said.

"She told me that she didn't want to work for a woman who—a woman—oh, dear, for a woman of your reputation, Lady Peter. She said that her previous employer was an old acquaintance of the Duchess, but that she had not asked for the recommendation and would have preferred a position in a less, uh, well-known household."

Notorious, Wimsey substituted mentally. Harriet was expressionless, listening to this. "Go on."

"And so you see, I'm afraid we concocted the scheme on the train, that I should keep Nurse Wallace's appointment here, and that she should go to the Fitch-Merton house in Kensington and present herself for their approval." She looked miserably at the floor. "My previous employers were very decent, worthy people, but so dull, and I realised as I was on that train—before Nurse Wallace got on, I mean—that I'd rather go back on the wards than be utterly bored at work again."

"You don't object to working for a notorious person, I take it?" Harriet said lightly.

"Lady Peter, I thought it was the most exciting thing ever to happen to me," the nurse admitted. "The chance to work for a famous novelist and a lord who investigates crimes! So much more interesting—it was as if a good fairy had waved her wand and tossed an opportunity into my lap! It, er. Was not a very sensible thing to do. But I am always sensible, and, um."

Wimsey intervened. "Back on the wards, you say? Do I take it that you are indeed a qualified nurse and midwife?"

"Oh, certainly. I lied to you about my name, Lord Peter, but not about anything else. All my qualifications and experience are exactly as I represented them to you. I brought the certificates with me, and the recommendations from my previous employers. I just, having claimed to be Nurse Wallace, I couldn't quite work out how to tell you that I... wasn't."

"What is your name?" Wimsey had Miss Climpson's carefully composed list on the table at his side.

"Jenkyns, my lord. Margaret Jenkyns."

He picked up the list, but the name was a familiar one and he was not at all surprised to find it there. Margaret Jenkyns had been a very good student, he saw. "Would you mind fetching those certificates, please?"

Nurse Jenkyns' eyes lit with sudden hope, and she hurried out.

"Well, Harriet?"

"I still like her, Peter. And I have some sympathy." She grinned at him. "Much more exciting to work for a Lord Peter Wimsey who investigates crimes than for Mr and Mrs Stuffy-Boring in Kensington, don't you think?"

"I do, provided you don't omit the exciting prospect of working for a writer of detective novels as part of the charm." Harriet tended to underrate herself, but he could and would give her her due. He considered. "I should like to check this new story of hers. It does have a ring of truth to it, but I propose to send Bunter to Kensington to have a word with their Nurse Wallace, whom I assume is not masquerading under any kind of false name. If she corroborates the meeting on the train...."

"I think she will. It did sound like the truth."

"You know, in any other circumstances, I wouldn't dream of taking on an employee who attempted to deceive us."

"We took on Mango," she reminded him. "Not that Mango tried to deceive us, but she actually had a criminal record, yet she is exactly the kind of person I can work with. I think we can stretch a point for Nurse Jenkyns, don't you?"

"If she is the person you want, Harriet, you shall have her."

Harriet smiled. "I think she'll be fun."

***

Bunter's report proved entirely satisfactory, and Harriet was very happy to confirm Nurse Jenkyns in her post. If one was going to have someone hold an ear trumpet to one's middle, take one's blood pressure, and check one's ankles every day, that someone should be friendly, quietly competent, and possessed of a sly sense of humour.

Helen, she decided, need never know.

She was looking along the narrow strip of Tilney Street to that tree, now brown and gold with autumn, and a speckled carpet of leaves below it, when Peter came into the room, walked to stand behind her, and said, "May I?"

"Of course," she said, looking over her shoulder at him, and he slid his right arm round her and rested his hand confidently on her belly. Beneath his touch, their child shifted, and Peter made a small sound. Harriet leaned into him, and they stood contentedly for several minutes, saying nothing, looking at the tree in the park.

Eventually, Harriet decided to sit, so she urged Peter onto the sofa beside her. "You look..." How did he look? Different, somehow, but what was it?

"Ah, Harriet. I do feel somewhat different."

"I knew there was something worrying you. Are you ready to tell me about it?"

"I'm sorry, Domina. It is difficult to shed the habit of reticence."

"What has happened?"

"My mother sent me something. A journal of my father's. Most of it was business, farming, notes about the tenantry and so on, very dull stuff, but she bookmarked a page for me. Harriet, do you remember, last year, we talked about whether we wanted children, and you told me what sort of father I should be?"

"Casual, apologetic, reluctant and adorable," she repeated, fondly.

"It shook me, rather, when you said that. I wasn't at all sure you were right. I have been—there's a line from the Talmud, it translates as When you teach your son, you teach your son's son. I have been reflecting on that, and," he paused, "perhaps hoping that it isn't true."

She considered very carefully what to say next. The late Duke had not been a kind father, certainly not an adorable one, she knew. Quite the wrong father for a boy as sensitive as Peter must have been. "And something has changed," she said.

"My father wrote... on the day of my birth. Just a short comment. Thought I wouldn't feel it again, but I do. Extraordinary, looking at one's son. Overwhelming. That's all. But, Harriet, I never knew he felt anything very much for me except disappointment, that I wasn't what he wanted. I can't tell you how relieved I am to think that he felt something—that—whatever that was. I'd been afraid that I—" He stopped, and from the thickening of his voice she knew he had been struggling very hard.

"That you wouldn't be glad to meet your offspring?" Harriet said, trying for lightness.

"That I might not be able to love him, her, as I ought."

"Oh, my dear. No."

He took a deep breath. "I am so very glad of your confidence in me," he said, shakily.

"Good," she said, firmly. "Peter, I don't really know what kind of father you will be, but neither do I know what kind of mother I shall be. For so much of my life it never even occurred to me to consider the matter. And I don't think I shall suddenly turn into the kind of woman who coos over babies." She had a sudden vision of Peter's hands cradling an infant. The infant's features were a blur to her, but those hands, strong and gentle, were clear as could be.

"I don't think I can guarantee to coo over the baby either," Peter said. "But this baby will be ours. Yours and mine. Surely we'll be able to make a bond from that."

"You know, Mary told me that motherhood was not at all what she had expected. She said that her children arrived with their personalities already in place, that what she and Charles are doing amounts to teaching them morals and manners. And reading to them at bedtime, of course. We can do that, you and I, and we can do it without requiring our children to be mirrors of ourselves."

"Yes, we can. Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each*," he quoted, and there was a hint of a smile on his face, a slight relaxation of his features, that made her feel she must be on the right track. "In fact, it should be an interestin' business, getting to know one's children. Child."

"I think it will."

"And you're not... apprehensive about..?"

"About bringing the child into the world? No, no, I don't think I am. I have Nurse Jenkyns on my side, and I have every confidence in Dr Peters. I'm healthy and strong." Now that Peter was no longer in that odd, detached place, she was fully confident of the future. "Everything will be all right."

***

Bientôt, coeur chéri, plus d'obstacles ! Nous serons libres d'être l'un à l'autre, chaque jour, à chaque heure, à chaque moment, toujours!**

* Plato

**Honoré de Balzac