Actions

Work Header

to translate a passion, to divide a sorrow

Work Text:

“Normally I never would,” Harriet said, hoping she did not sound too apologetic. “It’s not that I feel I’m above that sort of thing—” shades of Philip Boyes and his horror of being a “writer for hire”—“but writing to order never seems to produce, in me, anything but the most horrid formulaic drivel, and that’s hardly fair to the person asking. But I really felt I couldn’t turn down the Dean.”

“Well, as long as you don’t feel unfairly pressured, what. I’m sure the exchequer would run to a bit of a donation to Shrewsbury’s coffers.”

“It’s very kind of you, Peter. I expect they wouldn’t care to take advantage, but perhaps you could keep that particular philanthropic spirit in reserve for the case of a sudden emergency of some kind. In the meantime, I shall do my best to write Shrewsbury its very own detective story.”

“Are you planning to fling Robert Templeton to the lionesses? Soft-boiled or hard shirts at High Table?”

“Hard-boiled, naturally,” said Harriet, trying very hard not to succumb to giggles; Peter was half a continent away at present and it would not do to behave badly on the telephone. “No, I can’t help feeling in this case that to make the most of the setting, the detective ought to be a Shrewsburian. What do you think, a Senior Member or an undergraduate?”

“The Dean herself, surely? Seems like her cup of tea, what?”

“Miss, er, Lavinia Melton, Dean of the College, investigating a suspicious death? That would be charming. I do rather fight shy of romans à clef, though. It wouldn’t do to have people think the victim—or the murderer—were real as well.”

“After past events, no, certainly not.” There was a loud, unclear noise from Peter’s end of the line, and she heard him cover the receiver and say something, probably to Bunter. “Sorry, domina,” he said, returning. “Must dash, many fires to be put out here—”

“Do try to keep your cuffs unsinged,” Harriet said, holding the receiver tighter. “And give my love to Bunter.”

“Always. Mine to the boys—and above all, Harriet, to you, always to you—”

One ought to be grateful, Harriet supposed, that after nearly five decades of life and nearly five years of marriage one’s husband still retained his Romantic tendencies in full. She returned the sentiments, and rang off with a sigh.

Bredon was with his grandmother for the weekend, being thoroughly spoiled by the Dowager Duchess and Franklin, as was his inalienable right. Paul was asleep in his bassinet across the room, where she might keep him under her eye without undue steps or troubling the servants. Peter was with Bunter in Sweden of all places, working his magic, with passage booked back to England for Thursday week. Harriet was here at her desk in Audley Square, facing down her writing paper. All was, if not right with the world, as right as it might be in these parlous times.

And the Dean wanted a murder for Shrewsbury. Ten thousand words (“or so!”) for death, detection, and discovery, to be printed in a fancy little collector’s edition of fifty volumes and auctioned off so that Shrewsbury could shore up its foundations, in this case those beams of the Library found to be afflicted by a serious case of dry rot. It was one of the few contexts in which Harriet would have dreamed of accepting the commission.

No scheming scouts in this story, she told herself, nor hideous effigies, nor threatening missives. The College’s memory was not short. Perhaps she ought not to risk making the murderer a Member of the College at all? Her readers were likely to come from the Oxford men’s colleges or from the general populace (or at least its more well-heeled segment), and it would be churlish to do Shrewsbury a kindness with one hand and besmear its reputation with the other. Men were, unfortunately, all too willing to seize on any signs of hysterics or mental instability in women, such as might be realized in the form of a murder—although they did not seem to draw the same conclusions from the large-scale organized forms of murder generally orchestrated by men, such as warfare. Harriet winced and turned her mind once again from the outside world to the sedate confines of the College.

Perhaps her murderer and her victim might both be ghosts, haunting the College in search respectively of absolution and redress. No, that would involve taking a few too many pages out of LeFanu’s book, nor had she the spare time or mobility just now to do the research into College history necessary to find appropriate specters. Anyway, she had never ventured into the supernatural before, and this did not seem like a suitable time to begin.

Frustrated, she turned her mind from the murderer to the detective. Perhaps, in order to get as far away from Robert Templeton as possible, she might have a pair of plucky undergraduates to solve her mystery? An odd couple, one rather in the mold of a female St. George (Harriet allowed herself a brief smile at the vistas offered thereby of expensive gin, silk stockings hung on the light fixture, fast cars with custom flamingo paint, essays dashed off at the eleventh hour with careless flair, and male scions of the county used and discarded one after the next), and the other the stolid, ironic daughter of a Midlands tradesman, resolutely undisconcerted by all College life had to offer and with an uncanny gift for saying the few words that would convince her listeners to give up their dearest secrets at the drop of a hatpin.

Perhaps they might have an aerie-faerie classmate convinced that ghosts were responsible for the murder? (Of the poor unfortunate whose face and vital, or mortal, statistics remained unclear to Harriet.) Certain modern novels would go on to reveal that the ghost-believer had in fact committed the murder herself, while in a fugue state which left her amnesiac after the fact, but this kind of psychological phantasy was not Harriet’s forte—or preference—either.

Harriet dug both hands into her hair, disadvantaging the high bun she had taken to wearing since Paul acquired the ability to grasp things, and glared at the page in front of her, which bore only a list of negatives. Who indeed, then, was to be murdered?

Well, what harmless foibles might an Oxonian possess that might legitimately drive someone to murder? Harriet contemplated Peter’s reaction to those who dog-eared the pages of innocent books. Tempting, but her husband would be unlikely to resort to murder on those grounds alone, not least because it would be ineffective in restoring the volumes to their pristine state. Undergraduates said not infrequently of one another “Oh, I’d like to wring her neck!” but were disinclined to follow through, especially as a general balance of sins tended to prevail (she who left unwashed teacups in the room of a friend was also she who bemoaned the friend’s tendency to return a borrowed bicycle with tires flat, and vice versa).

Unwashed teacups and dog-eared books, by a lengthy chain of free-association, brought to mind Miss Lydgate’s scholarly nest of revisions on revisions. Surely her assistants, if not her publishers, had been moved more than once to murderous feelings when she had realized at the last minute that half of her italicized sigmas ought in fact to be cedillas? If Miss Lydgate had not been such a very sweet-natured person, she might yet have fallen victim to one too many prosodical signs and symbols.

Murdering Miss Lydgate was a bridge too far, but what if the detective were to be a Miss Lydgate character of sorts? No romans à clef, Harriet reminded herself. Well, then, if one were to take Miss Lydgate’s personality in reverse, what might one come up with?

Clearly a very brisk, practical, down-to-earth Senior Member indeed. Perhaps one who excelled in the lecture room but would rather do anything than put a sentence down on paper; she would only be able to retain membership in her professional societies, with their requirements for submission of papers on a regular basis, through the determined aid of a devoted student, one adept at turning her lecture notes into the format of academic articles... . What would their subject be? Not philology, since this was a reverse image. Nothing scientific, as Harriet did not trust her own reserves of knowledge on this point. History, perhaps.

Harriet winced, for two separate and specific reasons, and then decided to go ahead with it. Call it an homage, indeed.

A minor crisis would be on the verge of arising in the form of the devoted student’s Schools: very shortly she would no longer be in a position to act as amanuensis, whether she were to take an M.A., go to teach at a girls’ school somewhere, or go down to marry. For both the tutor and the student (let them have names of their own: Miss Yeo, say, for crispness and conciseness, probably a Margaret in another homage to the Countess of Shrewsbury herself, and...Ivy, perhaps? Rather too allegorical. Iris, then. Iris Grant, as Harriet found herself unable to abandon allegory entirely); for both Miss Yeo and Miss Grant, this disruption in their harmonious partnership would seem of greater import than it ought.

At which point, of course, a much greater crisis would arise, to wit...perhaps she need not abandon St. Georgiana and her taciturn friend after all? They might form a threesome of friends with Miss Grant, and it would be, of course, one of St. Georgiana’s more dissolute and boorish suitors whose body was found stiff and cold on the College lawn one frosty morning.

There; now she had a victim whose death no one need greatly regret (other than his parents, but perhaps they had predeceased him?) and whose faults could not be laid at the College’s door. All that remained was to identify the murderer, as Miss Grant and Miss Yeo would make an excellent pair of detectives. (St. Georgiana would need a real name along the way, but that would take a bit of rummaging through Debrett’s in order to find something both plausible and unreal. Harriet decided without thinking much about it to call her quiet friend Miss Parker, realized in a moment where the association derived from, and chuckled to herself. While her sister-in-law might find the reference entertaining, it seemed a little injudicious. She contemplated the Chief Inspector’s interests, cudgeled her brains to produce the appropriate references, and christened the fictional young lady Miss Holborn instead.)

Since it was clear to Harriet that neither St. Georgiana nor Miss Holborn had in fact murdered the unfortunate lout in question, who had in fact done so? “When you know how, you’ll know who,” said Peter cheerfully in her mind’s ear. (Oh hang Sweden and the F.O. and all their works! If only she might talk this over with him tonight after retiring, her chin tucked into his shoulder and his hands warm and present and just short of distracting.) Well then, what was the cause of death? Perhaps an accident in the Officers Training Corps? But surely that would leave quite distinctive marks, ones that could hardly be laid at St. Georgiana’s door.

How would St. Georgiana have murdered him, were she moved to do so? He had been a large, healthy, athletic young man, so surely not by the direct laying on of hands. Poison? Ugh. Ah, of course, let him have fallen (or been pushed) from a high place, the body then moved by person or persons unknown to the College lawn. Or, even more simply, make the high place the roof of Burleigh Building or the Library, looking down on the Old Quad, no troublesome relocations required.

Who had been on the roof with him, late that night? St. Georgiana in person, perhaps, and a reluctant Miss Holborn—perhaps each suspecting the other of being the pusher, for one another’s sake? And, of course, the actual culprit. The Proctor who was the murder victim’s tutor at his college, naturally. A touch of blackmail, in the traditional manner. (Harriet brought to mind a story told her by Peter some time ago, about the difference between those who said “Publish and be damned” and those who could not bring themselves to do so.) The point of the blackmail...oh, let the police figure that out, outside the borders of the hortus conclusus of Harriet’s ten thousand words. It hardly mattered to the ladies involved.

Under suspicion, St. Georgiana and Miss Holborn would each, separately, confess their distress to their friend Miss Grant. (Harriet recalled that she would be writing a short story, not a novel, and resolved to cover these discussions in a sentence or two apiece.) Miss Grant, thus burdened, would attend on Miss Yeo (a paper due for submission no later than that afternoon, unlikely to take shape without Miss Grant’s adroit assistance.

(Harriet drew a thick line across the paper and, below it, began to write more quickly.)

“And which of the two do you believe, Miss Grant? Have you any reason to believe either lies?”

Iris looked down unhappily at her ink-blotted fingers. “I shouldn’t like to think either of them would lie. They don’t make a habit of it—Gill tells the truth and shames the devil even when it comes to telling her people about whatever her latest escapade has been, and Ellen doesn’t say a great deal at all but when she does you may rely on it. But surely this isn’t a usual sort of affair.”

“Among the aphorisms history suggests to us,” said Miss Yeo, “is that people behave more like themselves, not less, in unusual circumstances. And you have a historian’s eye for human nature.”

Iris bit her lip, momentarily distracted by a different qualm. Firmly placing it to one side, she ventured, “They can’t both be telling the truth, though. Unless both of them are wrong.”

“How many people,” said the History Tutor, “were—illicitly, of course—on that roof to begin with?”

From there, the sinister figure of the Proctor might emerge, and Gillian and Ellen—St. Georgiana and Miss Holborn—be convinced to trust in one another enough to relate the presence of the Proctor, previously unremarked upon in their concern with each other, to the police. There; no call for Robert Templeton’s detective skills at all. Miss Yeo and Iris Grant might rest on their laurels in peace of mind.

Well, except that Miss Yeo would shortly be deprived of Miss Grant’s editorial skills, and Miss Grant herself...seemed indeed to have something on her mind unrelated to the fate of Miss Yeo’s future scholarly papers or the safety of her two unfortunate friends.

“’You have a historian’s eye for human nature,’” Iris repeated to herself, in the bath. The regulation five inches of water announced of late was most unsuited for leisurely basking, but at least it was hot. Was Miss Yeo correct about her? Well, oddly enough, if anyone at Shrewsbury knew her, it was Miss Yeo. Iris briefly entertained the fancy that, instead of Gill and Ellen, it had been herself and Miss Yeo on the roof that night with the loathly Cunliffe-Blunt and his horrid victim-murderer. Would they have suspected each other as Gill and Ellen had done, from the very best of motives? No, it beggared imagination. Iris did not flatter herself that she knew everything there was to be known about Miss Yeo’s internal convolutions, but on this point each chamber of the nautilus-shell was open to her eye, none murderous. She suspected that Miss Yeo would say the same of her.

Let it be, then, that the “eye for human nature” was indeed hers. If this single eye (leave aside the possibility of binocular vision) turned elsewhere, was one betraying history, or expanding its reach?

Iris wanted to write, of course. Harriet glowered at her page, resenting the intrusion of this cliché, which had got into Iris’ personality when she was not looking and now refused to be rooted out. What would she write? Well, she didn’t know herself. Perhaps a long, evocative regional novel à la Phyllis Bentley or Winifred Holtby, or something unexpectedly sparkling and sardonic that would sell, or... Not detective stories, that would verge on infinite regression. Well. One need only hint at the possibility of her hopes, surely. She had not gone down from College yet.

Harriet read over her notes again, increasingly sure that they would brew up nicely into a rather elegant little tale, with a happy ending for all but the villains. And yet, and yet! An Oxford historian with a flair for solving mysteries. A Shrewsbury undergraduate who longed to set aside her academic achievements to write novels. A devoted relationship between a dissolute aristocrat with a heart of gold and a quiet middle-class scholar. A reprieve from suspicion of the murder of one’s lover. A firm faith in the inability of another ever to murder.

“Alarmingly autobiographical,” she said aloud, censoriously, and regretted it when she was answered by a faint complaint from Paul’s direction. She let her pen fall to the desk and rose to distract herself with his needs.

Nursery supper and bath-time intervened. Paul’s favorite bath toy by far was the battered wooden boat passed down to him in lordly fashion by his big cousin C.P., which always evoked an expression of rue in Peter, its original begetter. Harriet recalled the fine mouth, pinched in wryly just a little at one corner, the slightly flared nostrils and the droop of the eyelids over the grey eyes turned distant, and had to repress an impulse to plunge her own head momentarily into the bathwater in order not to cry out with missing her husband.

Would Miss Yeo have grey eyes like that, she wondered absently, buttoning Paul’s pyjamas while he patted at her face as if it was new and curious. Perhaps she would, yes, although her hair—worn in a coil like Miss de Vine’s, surely, but with far better-behaved hairpins—would be a little darker than Peter’s, a pale brandy color. Iris would be dark and pale, perhaps a little plump, neither dowdy nor especially modish in her dress.

With Paul well kissed and put to bed, Harriet returned to her study and was presented with supper on a tray, as she had requested. There really was no point in sitting like Patience on a monument alone at the big dining table, after all.

Iris, she thought, would stay in Oxford after she went down (with a respectable “good Second”). She would continue to serve as Miss Yeo’s...secretary, amanuensis, aide de camp, sister in arms... and do a bit of coaching or exam marking as well, thus ensuring she avoided starvation until her first sale, while at the same time beginning to write in earnest.

For some reason, Harriet found it an immense relief to have solved the problem of the occupation to be taken up by this wisp of a figment of her imagination, plump dark-haired Iris Grant of Tunbridge Wells and Shrewsbury College, who had not existed at all before three o’clock this afternoon. The carefully prepared pheasant and potatoes dauphinoise took on rather more flavor.

Once the story was written in full and not in sketch form, she might perhaps do well to have the Dean—and even more so the Bursar—vet it for her, not as literary editors but to see whether it would serve their purpose. Should the prospective audience be expecting a purely jigsaw-puzzle, clockwork-doll style (heaven forfend that any would be hoping for something more in Sexton Blake’s line; Harriet was neither competent nor moved to allow the indestructible ‘tec hero free rein over Oxford), they might be disturbed to find themselves in possession of a...of a meditation on one’s proper occupation and affection, with a murder happening to no great distress in the background.

Relinquishing her empty dishes and beginning to prepare for bed, Harriet brushed her hair in front of the mirror and looked unseeing at her own face, floating against the dimly lit background of her dressing room, only the twin slashes of heavy black eyebrows clear.

Let the Dean and the Bursar and their would-be benefactors have what they would—Shrewsbury deserved all the emoluments it might lay hands on—but if this particular story were found wanting, she would not burn her books but rather take it away, perhaps even to work up into a novel. The greater length would allow the autobiographical echoes which had given her such pause to resonate without a betraying twang; it would be a worthwhile exercise to see one’s tangled inner landscape fall into the clear patterns of the land seen from the air, and then to return to the polyphonic tangles.

First, she thought, climbing between the cold sheets, it would be shown to Peter, upon his return. And let him see then what he thought of the book she could write if she tried, she reflected a little maliciously, smiling fondly to herself.

She had expected to sleep poorly once again in the too-empty bed, but it was not often that one drafted an entire short story in the course of an afternoon (yes, perhaps there had been something there from the start), and she felt the healthy fatigue of the laborer. Harriet turned onto her side and allowed herself to succumb to sleep, the brother of death. “When I am from him, I am dead till I be with him.” Let sleep take the brother’s part for now, until she be with him again, with story in hand.