Chapter 1: June 1927 - March 1928
Philip Boyes sat in Ryland Vaughan's armchair, contemplating his latest novel. Or rather, contemplating the back of it. He had seen the front of the book too much over the last few weeks; the bold, red cover with a splash of black underscoring the title. Nineveh, it said in block capitals, and in smaller capitals beneath, by Philip Boyes. He had seen it staring out at him from display-windows in the smaller bookstores, seen it pushed into obscurer corners as it was engulfed by other, more popular books in the larger bookstores, and as it became clear that this book was no more to the public's taste than his first three, he had sunk gradually into the gloomy dyspepsia which always seemed to arrive at about this time in the publication schedule. Damn Grimsby, he always swore he was going to really make a push this time, but somehow it never seemed to come off. If people would only read, not just suck up the mindless trash which they found in the railway stations …
The back of the book displayed a more welcome sight; his own face, or rather, his own face as it had been eight years ago, when Philip Boyes was the handsome young author of the much-discussed if poorly-selling Abhasa. Dark curls artfully rumpled, the younger, optimistic Philip stared out at the current version, and looked distinctly unimpressed. Well, no wonder, thought the living Philip. He had found some white hairs frizzing out from the dark curls, and the lines by his eyes never left them now. He had thought that by the time he looked like this, he would have at least managed a title which sold more than two thousand copies.
The bell rang. Vaughan, home already? No, he wouldn't be ringing his own bell. Philip crossed the living room to the front window and looked out at the rather droopy young man who now stood on the doorstep, hatless and sweating. James Rushworth – well, he would be a distraction. Philip went down the staircase and opened the door.
"Phil! I thought I might find you here." James always took the steps upstairs two at a time; Philip couldn't think where he found the energy. "Is Vaughan in? Oh dear, trapped at the bank again? Well, no need to wait for him, he'd just make the place more depressing and empty all the bottles. What do you say to a bite and then we'll go round to a party?"
"Hell, not another party, I'm sick of them."
"Oh, this isn't the usual crowd. Or, it isn't most of them – Miss Phelps is invited, and she told me that she's sure I could come as well, for a breather. I've been at home for the last three days trying to finish up the latest issue of Lightning and had to listen to Naomi and Mother talking up dear Walter every single second of the day. When I'd finished the last sentence I absolutely fled. I even forgot my hat, or perhaps I remembered and then I forgot it on the tube. Oh dear, well, it was a dreadful hat anyway."
"Take this," said Philip, grabbing one of Vaughan's. He put on his own hat and opened the door. The warmth of the summer evening was reflected back from the steps, the sun still high in the sky. Poor old Vaughan, he thought, sweating in that underground office somewhere. Still, it made no sense to wait – he would probably be hours. "Where do you want to go?"
"The club, of course. I'll put it on Mother's tab. She owes me that much for having to listen to her rhapsodies about dear Walter."
"Has Naomi actually captured the heart of dear Walter? I thought he had better taste than that."
"I'm sure he has, but he hasn't absolutely told her No and he has told her how intelligent she is a few times, so she's eating out of his hand. You know how women are," said James, who even by the laxest standards could not be said to know any such thing. "They like to think a man likes them for their brains, and heaven knows Naomi hasn't got much in the way of looks. You should come to the next do, to watch the fun. She follows him around like a dog."
Philip, who was trying to hail a taxi and not paying much attention, wondered vaguely if this conversation would produce an opening for a question on whether Lightning planned to raise its payment rates any time soon. His latest contribution, "The Failed God Of D.H. Lawrence" had been enthusiastically received but less enthusiastically remunerated.
It wasn't until they were actually seated at the club, trying to decide which of the offered dishes was most likely to actually be available, that Philip asked to which party James had been indirectly invited.
"It's at Sylvia Marriott's. It's for a friend of hers, Harriet Vane – she writes mysteries. Her third book just came out and Sylvia is having a celebration in its honour."
Philip, who had been ready with a dismissive quip ever since the word "mysteries", opened his mouth and then shut it again. Then – "Is she the one who wrote His Final Death? Vaughan lent that one to me. It wasn't bad, for a mystery."
"Yes, I remember that one. Personally I think it rather unfair to make do with the murderer's confession, but I heard Mother and Naomi hashing it out when they'd read it and none of us could think how it could possibly have been proved. She must be a dead ingenious girl to think of something like that, and I'll offer her my warmest congratulations once we've crashed her party. I've heard she sells pretty well, too, and that's always something worth celebrating."
Philip winced, then took a sip of some unidentifiable alcoholic liquid. Perhaps he should beg off, say his health was at a low ebb again – but no, that would mean going back to the house, and having to put up with Vaughan's oppressive concern combined with complaints about the horror of the banking life. The liquor cabinet had required frequent replenishings lately. No, he'd go and meet Miss Vane, and extend his congratulations. Who knew, she might even be worth a look or two – and without a doubt, she'd be easier on the eyes than Vaughan.
Sylvia had insisted on the party celebrating the appearance of The Seventh Sin. "Three is a lucky number, after all," she had told Harriet as they sat at the table while Sylvia cracked walnuts with a severe-looking pair of metal pincers. "After this, even you have to admit that you're a success!
"Eiluned can't come, she's out of London for the weekend with some terrible friend of hers from school, Mabel something, she's always mentioning books she's read and saying she expects you haven't. I don't know what she sees in her, really. The Brubakers are coming too, like you asked for, and Townsend and Trimbles, and Marjorie Phelps. She told me she'd asked James Rushworth along also – you know James? He's one of that crowd that's always running up to Lady Till and Tweed's country house and telling each other how marvelous they are. I'm sure she nearly bankrupts herself on these things but of course that never occurs to any of her guests. Mark seems to think she's an official branch of the Bank of England. The other day he was telling me how the last weekend he was there, Lady T was so skimpy with the dinners that he could swear he actually saw a saddle of mutton being brought out for a second day, like something our grandparents might have done. I suggested that perhaps the butcher's bill was getting a little high and he looked absolutely shocked. It never crossed his mind. Of course, Eiluned would say, how many men ever have to work on a household budget?"
"Dad did," said Harriet, more to give Sylvia time to catch her breath than because she felt like reminiscing. "He would open the books every first Saturday and then close them five minutes later after saying that he didn't believe we could possibly spend so much and he had better look again later when he was better prepared for it. It wasn't that much, really, but he liked investing and was never very good at it, so we never had as much to spend as he thought we should. Here, let me get those sausage rolls."
"Oh no you don't, you're the guest of honour," said Sylvia, pulling the tray back. "It's bad luck to prepare food for your own party."
"I've never heard that before."
"Well, I have. Or perhaps I made it up just now, but the principle is sound. Leave the rolls to me – Mrs McKee finished the other things before she left."
"Nonsense," said Harriet. "I can't stand to sit around feeling useless. I'll get them."
The rolls were barely finished before the bell began to sound. George Townsend and Dora Blacknall, painters who were swathed in scarves and airs of mystery but whose ethereal appearance was counterbalanced by their ravenous appetites. Miss Blacknall had only got halfway through The Seventh Sin and kept asking Harriet how it ended, as she wasn't sure when she would have time to finish. Laura and John Brubaker were good company, although Laura wanted to talk about some complicated quarrel between herself and another barrister's wife, and John appeared interested only in the extremely wobbly state of something called the Megatherium Trust. Marjorie Phelps appeared, thankfully interrupting John's expansively-gestured explanation, and after congratulating Harriet she promptly scooped up half-a-dozen sausage rolls and made for an armchair. "I'm famished," she said, as Miss Blacknall gave her a look. "A commission for a sweet little boy holding a bunch of balloons, and I swear that it's cursed. He simpers and smirks at me. It's dreadful. I'll probably be spending the whole week-end exorcising the studio and starting again."
"The whole week-end? Surely that's not all you're doing," said George Townsend, filling a plate with cheese straws. "Isn't anybody in love with you at the moment?"
Miss Phelps evidently found this a normal inquiry, as she only said "Not precisely. Lord Peter has been nosing around recently but he's been called away on an inquiry and abandoned me to pottery balloons."
"An inquiry – Lord Peter Wimsey, do you mean?" said Harriet, as the bell rang once more.
"Oh yes, didn't you know? He could talk all the air out of a house but he is a darling. And of course, you're somewhat in his line, aren't you? I'll have to introduce you some time."
Harriet reached into her pocket for her cigarette case, only to discover that it was missing. "No, please don't think of it. I doubt he'd think very much of my efforts, though I'd certainly like to hear more about his. I'm sure the papers don't tell half of it."
"They don't. But he also – oh, hullo!"
"James Rushworth and friend," said Sylvia, who was holding both men's hats. "This is Miss Vane, the reason we're all here."
"Philip Boyes," said the friend, extending his hand, then starting to turn away almost before she finished shaking it. Harriet laughed, just as she realized – this was the Philip Boyes, the one who had written Abhasa and Mrs Bolton-Brown. Those books had made the rounds of half the undergraduates at Shrewsbury and Miss Mollison had been rather tiresome in her insistence that she understood them.
"Is that how you treat a guest of honour?" she said.
He glanced back at her. "How precisely should I treat a guest of honour? Should I throw roses at her as if she just won a bullfight?"
"If you want to," she said, "But all I require is that you look at me for a moment."
Mr. Boyes's dark eyes crinkled a bit at the corners. "My apologies, Miss Vane. The truth is, I'm a bit out of sorts with the world and am taking it out on anyone who happens to live in it."
"I'm sorry to hear that," she said. "Would coffee or tea be better for reconciling you with the world?"
"Coffee. I can't abide tea."
Harriet wondered how many consolatory cups of coffee she had poured out over the years. Her father had drunk pots of it but had never learnt to make it to his own satisfaction.
"What has the world done to you, then?"
"Oh, the usual. Sales. My latest thing – Nineveh, you may have seen the notices – isn't doing any too well, and I hoped that by now … well, no use going on about it. You seem to be doing all right, though."
"I'm not doing too badly, but mysteries are – people expect different things from them."
"Less of a challenge, perhaps?"
Harriet could feel her face turning crimson, but Philip was smiling as he said it and didn't look as if he meant to be insulting. She took a long breath while her thoughts crystallized. "I don't think that's true," she said at last. "But the fact is that a purely literary writer will have a style, and type of book, which is entirely his own. With a mystery, one can have one's own style, but the type of book is still part of a larger whole. The man at the railway station may never have read a Harriet Vane mystery before, but he's probably read an E.F. Benson or an Agatha Christie, and if he hasn't read them he's read Nellie Quick or James Brunvand. But if he's read D.H. Lawrence, that doesn't mean he knows what a Philip Boyes book will be like."
"Interesting that you should mention Lawrence, I did an article on him not long ago, in Lightning. And I didn't see it myself but there are a few people who think some of my stuff is fairly similar in spirit. Did you ever read Mrs Bolton-Brown?"
"I did once." Well, she had read most of it.
"What did you think?"
Even to that pleasant voice and those dark eyes, she couldn't bring herself to lie. "I never give opinions on other authors' work."
Philip's shout of laughter made everyone else in the room jump; Miss Phelps looked positively astonished. "You're lying, Miss Vane," he said. "Or you're the only writer in the world who never talks about other people's books. I forgive you, though. It's one of my early things, anyway. You might like Nineveh, though. Shall I send you a copy? I won't demand an opinion afterward."
"I shall read, mark and learn, and inwardly digest."
"Ah, a daughter of the parsonage. My condolences." He took a sip of coffee.
"My father was a doctor. My grandfather was the parson."
They seemed to have run out of words, but before the moment could become too awkward, James Rushworth came bouncing over with some claret. Miraculously, he also appeared to have actually read The Seventh Sin, though he showed a terrible tendency to remember minor inconsistencies in the plot. But somehow her eyes kept straying back towards Philip Boyes. A literary man – perhaps not the most popular, but nonetheless well-known – and he had wanted to talk with her. Judging by the way he was staring silently out the window, he wasn't a natural talker, but he had talked to her. And there was something about his face …. he turned suddenly, and caught her staring at him. He lifted an eyebrow, nodded, and went back to his companion. But in the moment he looked at her she had felt as if something had smashed into her breastbone and left her struggling for air.
She had always felt a faint pride, while at school, that she did not succumb to pashes and love affairs the way the other girls did. She had regarded their antics, their obsessive note-passing and whispering, their constant talking about the boy at the other school or the wonderful gym mistress, as juvenile and weak-minded. Now she was discovering that far from being an adept at resisting temptation, she had simply never been subjected to it in the first place. In the space of half an hour, she had acquired a new and urgent concern in her life: to have Philip Boyes smile at her again, and to talk with him.
In the meantime, her cigarette case was still missing. She finally borrowed a Gauloise from Sylvia and as she received congratulations and Sylvia proposed a toast, her nerves quieted. When Philip Boyes left, not long after, she managed a good-bye that was as casual as if she had been talking to Miss Blacknall.
Harriet was scratching out and rewriting a timeline for her current book when the bell rang. Walking to the window, she was mildly let down to see that the bell-ringer was Sylvia. (Well, who on earth had she expected it to be?) Sylvia was carrying a large brown parcel and her expression, beneath her broad hat, was unreadable.
Harriet met her at the doorstep. "Here," said Sylvia, pushing the parcel into Harriet's arms. "Phil Boyes sent this round for you this morning. What on earth did you say to him? I can't remember the last time he gave anything to anyone."
"I didn't know you knew him, I thought he tagged along with Mr Rushworth." The day was warm but overcast, and the breeze felt damp as it played with Harriet's uncovered hair. The parcel was addressed to Miss Vane, care of Miss Marriott, and the weight suggested that it was full of either books or bricks.
"I've seen him about. I certainly didn't intend to invite him. Aren't you going to open it?" said Sylvia.
"Why not?" said Sylvia, sitting down on the steps. "I want to see what it is, and I haven't time to come inside, Eiluned's back in town and I'm meeting her for lunch."
Eiluned again. Harriet wondered if Sylvia realized just how often that name cropped in her conversations. She undid the parcel – a little too quickly, as it turned out, as the contents suddenly broke through the paper and tumbled onto the steps. Sylvia yelped with surprise and then with laughter as they bounced down the steps.
"Harriet! He's sent you all his books! Oh, good lord, look at this. Abhasa. That looks like one of his author copies. Mrs Bolton-Brown! I read that one when it came out; Lew Garvice thought it was brilliant and he made me. Nineveh, he was whinging about that last night. Eiluned told me once that if he wants to know why his books never sell, he should try reading them."
Harriet stood with the books stacked in her arms, her face burning. What on earth had come over Sylvia? They were in public. The books didn't belong to her. What had Philip Boyes ever done to her besides write books she didn't care for? Phoebe Tucker had put Abhasa aside after thirty pages, saying that if she suspected Bob of resembling any of the characters she would flee to a convent, but that hadn't been the same.
Rain was spattering on the pavement now, and umbrellas were going up. Sylvia looked at Harriet for a moment, then gathered up the books and handed them to her wordlessly.
"Thank you," said Harriet coldly.
"It's nothing. I apologize for getting carried away. Still – Harriet – do please be careful. He can be charming, but –"
"I'm not an innocent, Sylvia." She had witnessed some of the small and large scrapes her fellow-students had got into, and of course her father had made sure she read the relevant portions of his medical textbooks.
"It isn't that, exactly, but he – " Sylvia seemed to be struggling to speak. "Very likely I'm prejudiced," she said finally. "He simply isn't someone I care for. Perhaps I'm wrong. I can give you his address if you want to write and thank him."
She wrote Philip Boyes a polite note and put the books aside for the evening. The Seventh Sin may have only just been released, but it didn't do to sit on one's laurels – the public would read it, put it aside, and demand another one before she had time to look around. She set to work again but after a few hours she was relieved to see that the post had arrived and given her an excuse to stop fruitlessly erasing things for a bit. Two circulars, two bills, a note from the Misses Benn and Clarridge, who had lived in her grandfather's parish, doubtless bidding her to tea and improving lectures ("We see you so seldom, Hattie, and you only a few miles away now!"). And finally, a letter whose postmark told her it was from Mary Attwood.
She knew how little it would really tell her, but she opened it nonetheless. Her circumstances had kept her from visiting Mary during the last two years, and Mary's letters were poor substitutes for the Mary she had known at Shrewsbury; a bright, lively talker, always planning an outing, an excursion, a party – but reading Mary's flat letters made Harriet wonder how much of her brilliance had in fact been the result of her attempts to avoid thinking about anything in particular for very long. From sport to sport they hurry me … Her delightfulness utterly failed to translate to the written page, and this latest letter was no exception. Her mother-in-law had come to visit. She was expecting another baby (by intention? She gave no indication of how she felt about it). She was having a hard time finding a maid, they all wanted office or factory work these days. She wished she and Harriet could go punting or picnicking together again, but that was all over.
Harriet sighed and put the letter down. She would have to come up with something to say about all of these things. If only she could see Mary in the flesh, or if Phoebe Tucker would write more often – her letters sounded just like her, but she was barely ever in England now, and her letters always arrived four months after posting and covered with mysterious blurred stamps.
At least, now that she knew Philip Boyes hadn't responded, she could get back to work. Which she did, and was pleased to discover that the embryonic book was much more cooperative. By evening she had the timeline much improved and was leafing through her copy of The Art Of Cross-Examination, thinking about alibis.
Philip didn't answer her letter straightaway: first, because he was in an extended wrangle with Tom Alderman of The London Review over cuts to a short story, and second because he regretted having sent all of his books. What extravagant impulse had made him give up his next-to-last author's copy of Among The Serpents? Just one book would have been enough, but as it was the girl was likely to get a swelled head – if it weren't swelled already from having sold four thousand of The Seventh Sin. Still, he thought, as he underscored "extremely presumptuous" in his latest letter to Alderman, all that proved was that the reading public didn't like a challenge. And she herself seemed to recognize that from the way she had spoken about it …. realism was always attractive in a girl, realistic, intelligent girls knew how the world worked and didn't make impossible demands on one. And while he couldn't call her pretty, there was no denying that she had a good figure. Youth compensated for a good deal.
Several days later, once the spat with Alderman had concluded and a new one with Grimsby had arisen to fill its place, he took a look at his calendar and realized that Kropotky's concert was the day after tomorrow. He wasn't sure he could survive the experience alone, so he concluded the evening by dashing off a quick invitation to Miss Vane. A composer friend of his was conducting his new piece at a concert hall in south Chelsea. Would she care to accompany him?
"What did you think?" Philip asked as they stood on the pavement, awaiting the bus which would carry them to the celebration at the Kropotkys' flat.
"I think," said Harriet, "That I need some time to recover before I can articulate properly. What was the chorus supposed to be doing, did you know?"
"Expressing the soul of the voiceless invertebrate, I believe. I think the bit with the musical saw represented paramecia, but I can't quite remember."
"He's certainly an impressive conductor. I can't imagine what it takes to conduct a chorus who are all singing in different keys."
"Don't tell him that. At least, don't say "conduct." It implies the submission of the musicians, and that offends him."
Harriet said nothing. This seemed like as good an opening as any.
"We can go to my flat if you'd prefer. There are always a thousand people at the Kropotkys' – nobody will mind if we're not there. And Vaughan should be out for the evening." Or if he wasn't, Philip would scrounge up enough money for a bottle and see to it that he was.
"Mr Boyes, I don't feel like going to anyone's flat just now. My head is feeling dreadful, and I really would like some tea."
"I could give you tea at my flat."
"Do you keep tea there? I thought you said you didn't like it."
She remembered – clearly she appreciated his company more than she was letting on. He took her hand, and while she didn't grasp his hand in return she didn't pull away either. "Vaughan may have something. I could content you without doing grief – that's Thomas Wyatt. "
"I know," she said. "But it would hardly be polite to scrounge your flatmate's tea. There's an ABC over there – shall we join the weeping, weeping multitudes?" She paused a split second and smiled at him. "That's T.S. Eliot."
"Mmm – well, if we must." said Philip. "Oi! There's the light. Let's cross."
A few minutes later, they were sitting by the second-storey window at the ABC, Harriet nursing her headache with Earl Grey and Philip attacking a poached egg on toast. "Not bad," was his comment, "But I could do it better. Eating-places can never do much with eggs, but you, Miss Vane, must do me the honour of sharing an omelette with me someday. Now tell me, did you get a chance to read the books?"
"What, all of them?"
"Of course not. But maybe one or two."
"I read Among The Serpents."
"I won't ask what you thought of it, since you never give opinions on other authors' work." He smiled at her and took a sip of coffee.
"Mr Boyes, you know that wasn't serious. You had me caught short."
"Then what is your opinion?"
She looked into her teacup for a moment, as if looking for an answer in the leaves. Finally, she looked him level in the eye and said "I thought parts of it were brilliant. The scene where Niniane is walking about the empty house and looking through the windows – that was beautifully done, like being in her head as she sees the past and the future together. And you have your people in very intriguing situations. But they don't move enough. They spend too long in the same place, and they have the same conversations over and over. If they could move just a little faster than the reader's thoughts, I think you wouldn't need to worry about your sales. For example, when Basil is braiding the whip in the garden – he talks too much and the whip disappears from the scene. It didn't feel alive."
"The whip wasn't meant to be literal, you know. And even if it were, he may have paused while he was braiding it. There's a lot of symbolism behind it at all – it's never finished and disappears from the story, and after is when the crackup begins. You caught that, I hope? This sort of thing needs a very close reading."
"I gave it one. Mr Boyes, if you ask for opinions, you should be prepared to get them."
For a moment he thought of walking out. Then he thought of her sales. Miss Vane, shallow as her choice of genre might be, clearly knew a technical trick or two. And now, in the dim evening light filtering through the tea-shop windows, her sober, expectant face was almost beautiful. He fought down his resentment. "If it's any solace, the reading public agreed with you. Still, you should see some of the letters I got. I think there were more country cousins trying to get the book banned than there were people who bought it."
"At least that would be one way to help sales."
"Yes, make people go to Paris for it. I had people writing and telling me that if I were going to write things like that, I would have been better off fetching it in the war and letting someone else live." He had, indeed, received one letter saying this. "I couldn't be in the war. Medical disqualification – I've had gastric troubles my whole life. Why anyone should think himself superior to me because the army wouldn't have me I don't know, but a lot of them do. Even Rushworth was in it at the end. Can you believe they took him?"
"He seems to have got through it, though. I'm sorry for the letters, but I get them too – it's just something that comes with the job."
"Letters wishing death on you?"
"No, you have me there. But I do get a lot of people who like to hunt for mistakes in the timelines and alibis and the worst of it is that often they're right. I also get a few who swear I based the characters on themselves and their friends, though why anyone would want to claim that I can't imagine. Someone once told me that Robert Templeton shouldn't wear tweed, as it didn't suit bearded men. And I once got a letter saying `Dear Miss Vane, I have just read A Murder Of Prose and I wish to inform you that I have spent two weeks in New York and Americans do not talk the way you say they do.' Or people want me to write about real crimes."
"Like the Trunk Murderer?"
"Yes, I've had a few people send me cuttings about him. But of course, if I put a body in a trunk now, everyone would say I was copying him."
"Haven't you ever used a real murder in any of your books? There are certainly enough queer things that go on, I'd think you wouldn't even have to bother inventing anything."
"I've used bits now and then, but of course they were all from long-ago cases. One can't be too blatant about copying from recent things, especially if anyone involved is still alive. But the fact is that most real murders are dull and would make for dull reading. Usually it really is the person caught with the smoking gun and who had the life-insurance policy. Like the Dumb-bells in New York."
From there on the conversation wandered pleasantly among recent murders, the vagaries of the publishing business, and parsonical upbringings. Harriet's father had been an intermittent churchgoer at best, but as she had been sent to live with her very High Church grandfather during her mother's frequent spells of illness, she had been observant while he was still alive and even for a while afterward. Philip, who had certainly not considered that when he was in his father's house, he was in a better place, was less than enthralled by her descriptions of her parents but grinned when she mentioned that her great-aunts had insisted on calling her Hattie. "I loathed it. It was very immoral of me, but I hated it almost as much as my mother going away. When I found out she was dead – they only told me a week after, Dad said I was too young to attend a funeral – my first thought was that now I would have to stay with them and be called Hattie forever. But Dad sent me to school instead, and I had a very decent time there."
"Hattie," said Philip. "I can't connect that with you at all. Hat, perhaps. A sensible sort of name, very much like you."
"Please don't. That's almost worse." Her head drooped slightly. "Mr Boyes, it's been very enjoyable, but I really must go home now."
He began to protest, then realized that he was exhausted and furthermore, that the poached egg was beginning to disagree with him. The old trouble? God, he hoped not. The last thing he needed was another doctor's bill. "I'll see you to your bus. Good night, Miss Vane."
Sylvia was packing: although she did not seem to move quickly, her clothes flew into the cases with surprising efficiency. "Will they laugh at this hat in Paris, do you think?" she asked Harriet, holding up a poisonously green cloche with a netted veil hanging in front. "Never mind, it will get me looked at either way. I do hope the men are careful with those canvases. It's not as if I can whip up replacements in two days if they do something unspeakable to them. What am I hearing about you and Phil Boyes? You seem to be going about together quite a lot."
"He invited me to a concert, and I've been to his flat a few times. We talked about books – he's asked me to look over his newest thing. And he made omelettes for tea once."
"He's very interesting, you know. Just because you don't care for his books –"
Sylvia closed the trunk lid with a decisive thump. "If he suits you, then I won't complain about it. I only wanted to know what was going on. You know, we'd have room for a third if you wanted to stop in Paris some time over the next few months. Lew Garvice will be taking this flat while I'm gone and he'll be paying the rent, so we have enough for a lovely large place. It will be positively cavernous without guests."
"I'll see about it – you know I have to be careful about money."
"Surely not by now, but never mind. And do write – I'll need some return for all the postcards I'll send. Could you hand me that hatbox?"
She had become acquainted, if not precisely friends with, a few of Phil's circle. Volodya Kropotky was amiable if sometimes incomprehensible, and on her first visit to him, he gave her an impromptu demonstration of the loss of the post-war soul as performed on the musical saw. The Rushworths overwhelmed her with sticky sweet drinks and pastries, praised her books to the skies, and then only required her to nod and make affirmative noises while they talked about medicines and meditation and how pineal extracts would cure inborn criminality. They were comforting if slightly embarrassing company, she told Phil later. He said "James is the only one of that crowd with a brain in his head, and he doesn't use it half the time. But they're generous, I'll agree with you there. They understand what a rough time artists have of it."
But Ryland Vaughan, the flatmate, was harder to please. She had encountered him several times, but each time he found some excuse for clearing out within a few minutes. The very first question he had asked her was "Have you read Phil's books?" Phil had looped his arm around her waist and said "Oh, she never gives opinions on other authors' work. Isn't that right, Harriet? It was one of the first things she ever said to me."
"Phil, it wasn't –"
"You said it, though, didn't you?"
"Of course I did, but –"
"I see," said Vaughan, though his expression was thoroughly uncomprehending. He left about five minutes later, saying he had just remembered a meeting, and managing to bump into Harriet before slamming the door behind him. Phil had shrugged it off, but Harriet was left with a profound gratitude that her finances had never been so desperate as to necessitate a flatmate.
"Is he all right, do you think?" she asked Phil as they settled back onto the sofa.
"Quite all right," said Phil, "Especially now that he's left." And he leaned in to give her a kiss. He had given her several more over the course of the afternoon, and she had ended the visit very reluctantly.
A month later, Vaughan became harder to ignore. It was the end of September, and Harriet was accompanying Philip to the Kropotkys' (a poetry reading this time, he assured her, not a concert) when Vaughan announced that he would be coming with them as well. "Phil and I go to these things all the time," he told Harriet as he walked on Phil's other side. "It's not much of a scene but I suppose it would seem different to you."
She could think of no response to this, but three hours later, as she sat enjoying the pleasant sensation of Phil's arm around her shoulders and the confusing impression left by the Russian poem which somebody was shouting by the window, her glance strayed towards the stove and she noticed something that was different: Vaughan, apparently unconscious. The people milling around him appeared not to notice this phenomenon.
Vaughan twitched for a second, and then appeared to be groaning, although she couldn't make out what he might be saying over the shouts of the Russian poet. His body convulsed and for a moment she thought he was going to be sick, but instead he subsided into snoring.
Phil had noticed as well. "Oh God," he whispered to her as the Russian poet stood down and another took his place. "He would. We'll have to get him repaired before he'll be fit to come home. Harriet, give me your notebook."
He took the little tablet which she always kept in her handbag and began scribbling. "There's a chemist across the street who should still be open. Go get this made up before Vaughan dies on Volodya's carpet, damn him."
She glanced at the ingredients listed on the notepad. "Won't this make him worse?"
"No! It works, he's had it before. Stop talking and go get it, I'll try and wake him up."
An hour later, an exhausted,ill, but somewhat mobile Vaughan had been deposited in his bedroom and left to find consolation in slumber. Harriet, not being sure what to do, fell back on making coffee as a restorative, and when Phil emerged from Vaughan's room he gave her a kiss, took a cup and drained half of it.
"You wonderful girl. The only good thing about this damned evening."
She poured a cup for herself; her nerves were coming back together finally. "Is he often like this?"
"Drowning his self-pity in a butt of malmsey? Yes."
"Hadn't you better think about living somewhere else? I know he was your school friend but it can't be good for your work, always having him hanging about your neck like that. If you could live someplace where you could get more done –"
"I could, if I lived with you."
For a moment, she only stared at him while her interior began to suddenly complain about the coffee. "Phil – you know I care for you, a great deal – but we couldn't possibly get married yet. It hasn't even been four months."
Phil sat down and leaned back. The look on his face was one of honest bewilderment. "Married? I never meant that."
"What did you mean, then?"
"Harriet, I love you, and if you would live with me I think we could be happier together than anyone who's ever gone near a registry office. Marriage is just a legal pair of handcuffs for two people – I've written articles about it. Why any sane woman would want to get married I can't understand: she's allowing herself to become a man's legal property, with no voice and no rights of her own. She's tied to him for good no matter what he might do to her. Free love means that a man and a woman are together entirely by choice. Not because some clergyman muttered a few words over their heads and now they feel obliged to stick it out, or because neither one has the money to bring a divorce case. Why are you looking so surprised? You've read my books, I thought you knew I didn't believe in marriage."
"No, how would I? Or do you think that because I write books about murders, that must make me a murderer?" The coffee cup was shaking in her hand, and she quickly set it down.
"Those are puzzles, Harriet. They're very good puzzles, but they're not about life. They're not literature. If you wrote a different sort of books, you would see how it's impossible to keep your own opinions out of it. But that isn't the issue. You're not someone's Victorian daughter, you've made your own life and your own money. What is there in marriage for you?"
"Love – mutual honesty – trust? All the reasons people get married."
"Not just a bluestocking, but a bluenose! Marriage kills love if it does anything. Is there a more depressing prospect than loving someone because you must? I would never do that to you, or to anyone."
"Have there been other ones?"
"A few. Women don't flock to poor men, no matter what they may say about their books. I lived with Liubov Borisova for most of 1922, and Sarah Trenton – the painter – for a few months some years back. Not bad girls, but obstinate – not very sensitive in some ways. But you're not like them, you know."
Harriet sat back, suddenly feeling very drunk although she had not touched a glass all evening. "I'm not like them at all. And I must go home now."
He saw her to her taxi, saying, before she stepped in, "I'm sorry if I startled you, Harriet. But I couldn't go any further and not be honest with you."
"I understand," she said, and closed her eyes as the taxi pulled away.
Damn it, thought Phil the next morning as he heard Vaughan crashing and moaning his way out the door like a soused giraffe – perhaps he ought to have proposed after all. The way the girl looked at him, she may well have accepted. Now it looked as if she might have gone altogether; Harriet with her grave face, her barbs which cropped up unwelcome but somehow still intriguing, her wonderfully juvenile pronouncements on writing, and of course her other attributes. She'd never had another man so much as hold her hand, he was certain of it. But no – proposing was no solution to the problem. Marriage was a short march to mental slavery; she would doubtless want a better flat, more income to pay for it, and children to suck up whatever might still remain of their money. Or would she? She might not be quite a Bohemian but she was hardly a standard-issue young working woman, either.
It wasn't quite time to give up. Before getting the eggs out of the cupboard for a late breakfast (the charwoman having come and gone already) he wrote a note in which he apologized for having upset her and asked if she were still willing to help him with the editing of his current short story. He valued her opinion and hoped they could still be friendly with each other even if their conflicting principles made anything more impossible.
Two days later, he received a cool reply, inviting him to call at her flat. He brought the typescript with him – only a few pages at this point – and the brief call turned into a two-hour discussion, ending with them lying on Harriet's sofa.
"I really think we could make a go of it," he said as he stood at the doorway, reaching for his hat. "You just have to look at the thing reasonably."
"You have a rather extraordinary definition of what's reasonable," she said. But she did not object when he asked if he might call again.
Jolting and sweltering in the bus on the way home, he looked over the manuscript and felt a slow headache coming on. She was clever enough, but why had she struck all his best passages? She was leaving him with something barely better than a thriller. Though she may perhaps have been right in a few places – he had loaded on the adjectives a bit extensively. He took a pencil from his pocket and began striking out Harriet's less perceptive edits.
Vaughan was home from the office by the time Philip arrived at their flat, and doing his yeoman best to roast chicken and potatoes without filling the room with smoke. Ever since the episode of a few days ago, Vaughan had been surlier than ever; far from being grateful to Philip and Harriet for having rescued him from disgracing himself on the Kropotkys' carpet, he appeared to regard their interference as a personal affront. Dinner was a dull and sulky meal, the silence broken only by Vaughan's asking where exactly Philip had spent his afternoon, not that he needed to ask. "Miss Vane, again, of course. What were you doing with her?"
"Asking her advice."
"Advice? From her? What in heaven's name could she have to teach you? I wouldn't give her a nursery rhyme to look at, she'd mutilate it. Just because she's had some fluke success – what did she tell you?"
Philip had been ready to produce the manuscript, along with a few sarcastic remarks, but when he looked at Vaughan's reddening face he felt a sudden disgust. Harriet might not have great literary perception, she might be mistress only of a cheap art form, but he wasn't going to have Vaughan, of all people, mocking her. What the hell had Vaughan ever done, anyway?
"She didn't tell me anything," said Philip, reaching for the salt-cellar. "Remember? She never gives opinions on other authors' work."
The rest of the evening was spent with Vaughan at the dining-room table, going over the books, and Philip on the sofa, water and sodium bicarb by his side, trying not to move. He could hardly remember a time when he hadn't been subject to this sort of thing, but it never became easier. And with Vaughan acting the way he had been, it was becoming increasingly clear that Philip would have to part ways with him at some point. There was no way he could live by himself – his health and finances both forbade it. If Harriet would only see sense, he could be spared all this.
Summer began slipping into autumn. The papers were full of news of the once-more hostile Soviet Union, the first woman to swim the Channel, and the crowds in Hyde Park demanding that Sacco and Vanzetti be spared. In October, John Brubaker's predictions proved justified when Megatherium Trust, Ltd, collapsed so spectacularly that it seemed for a while as if every notable in the country had been injured by it, some fatally. Sylvia sent stray humourous postcards from Paris. Laura Brubaker confided that she thought John might need to go to Switzerland for a while, as his lungs were refusing to improve and she was afraid what another winter in the London fog might do to him, and two weeks later Harriet received a brief letter from them, postmarked Davos.
Harriet herself made two polite visits to Miss Benn and Miss Clarridge, and wrote lightheartedly and uninformatively to Mary Attwood when the latter regretted that she couldn't invite her up for Christmas ("The baby will be here, or almost here, and we can't depend on having a proper nurse.") She wrote a short story in which the Kropotky concert featured as the scene of a murder (the victim's dying screams were masked by the louder and more cacophonous shrieks of the choir). And she continued to see Philip Boyes – on a purely friendly basis, she told herself, although these friendly visits had a tendency to end with the two of them on the sofa while Harriet told him, with lessening conviction, that it was impossible for them to go further. He argued that it was perfectly possible, that half her friends had done the same thing without a divine lightning-bolt intervening, and that she was depriving herself for no reason. "Do you think your aunts' ghosts are going to come and haunt you for doing something perfectly natural?"
"No," she told him once, "But a baby would haunt me much longer and be much more demanding."
"Needn't happen," he said. "There are lots of ways of preventing it. We couldn't have a baby getting in the way of my work – our work, I mean. Leave babies to the people who don't have anything else to do with their minds."
"So children should only be raised by people who have no minds? That's a dismal prospect for the future."
"They'd be a dismal prospect for us, though. Especially with my health, and work."
When Philip wasn't evangelizing on the virtues of free love, he was lively if immoderately sarcastic company. He made her his omelette recipe on a few more occasions, he asked her to the films, and once turned up a reading she gave with a group of other detective novelists. And he talked. His account of a recent disastrous weekend at Lady Till and Tweed's delighted her so much that she asked if he minded her adding a stabbing or two to it, for a short story. "Good heavens, of course you can," was his reply. "At least it will be a change, all her guests do is write about each other, and about her. You'll just stab her in the back literally, not figuratively. Have you read Vermillion? Tollett barely had to change a thing about the place. I don't think Lady T's invited him back since."
"Poor woman," said Harriet. "It sounds to me like they take horrible advantage of her. I was thinking she could be the detective, not the victim. Robert Templeton doesn't do very well in short stories."
More than once Harriet lay next to Philip, her hand on his cheek, and was on the verge of asking him to stay and do whatever he wanted. But no – she pulled herself back – it was not reasonable, no matter what he might say. Her religious convictions had largely died with her relations, but if she did this for him she would not just be disregarding their shades; she would be trampling on something which most of society held in great value. Philip might think nothing of it, but the world could not be expected to follow his example. And it was hardly reasonable, or fair, for him to ask this of her when it meant that her world would be half uprooted while his remained unchanged.
It might be worth it, she thought one evening, if I could be sure I loved him as well as he says he loves me. But love whilst that thou mayst be loved again ... Her pen drove over the paper, digging into it, transforming the hapless Lady T into a preternaturally gifted sleuth.
"So what are your plans for Christmas?"
Norman Urquhart sat at his oppressively polished dining room table, spooning up soup with a faintly disapproving expression. The sky had darkened long ago; Philip wondered what was wrong with Norman that he didn't have the maid pull the drapes. He and his cousin were reflected in the window now, very clearly – the candle-flame lit up his own face as clearly as a portrait, while all one could see of Norman was his back – dark, vague, could be anybody's.
"What are your plans for Christmas?"
"Sorry, old man, my mind was wandering. I'm going to my father's for a few days. He's not a bad old stick and he's lonely these days. I suppose my Christmas gift to him will be attending service so that his parishioners don't talk more than they already do. And what about you?"
"I have a great deal of work to do and will be staying in town for the most part. I may see a show or two, though. And of course I need to make a short trip to Windle."
"Windle? Oh yes. Aunt Rosanna. I don't suppose there's any improvement, is there?"
"None, I'm afraid. Her doctor tells me she could last for days or for years, but she's unlikely ever to regain her wits."
The candle-flames wavered as the maid quietly refilled his wine glass. Philip took a long sip, his mind wandering back to the last time he had seen Aunt Rosanna. He had given her an author copy of the newly-published Abhasa and an old postcard of Cremorne Gardens, found in one of Vaughan's photograph albums. Later she had sent him a note to say that she was glad some of the younger generation were still aspiring to true artistry. He had meant to visit again, but then she had had her stroke, and after that there hardly seemed to be a point to it – what could he, or she, have to say to the other?
For that matter, what did he and his cousin have to say to each other? He had been surprised at the invitation to dinner, as he had last seen Norman eight years ago. Then, as now, he had been very close-mouthed. Of course, Norman had always been that way, even before the war. What he had gone through there Philip never learned, except that it had involved a great deal of crouching in the mud at Gallipoli and several near misses. He had asked a few questions, years before – the invalid husband in Mrs Bolton-Brown was originally supposed to be a returned man suffering from shell-shock – but Norman had deflected his questions with a brevity and politeness brought on, Philip thought sourly, by too many years of lawyering. "Largely unpleasant," was his sum total description of his months in the mud, and "Quite relieved," was his answer when asked how he had felt upon being demobilized. In the end, Philip had had to give the character another problem, as he had realized that dozens of other men writing about the war could do so from personal knowledge which he could never match. I was neither at the hot gates, nor fought in the warm rain.
Norman was talking on now, inquiring after his father's health. As good as ever, thank you for asking. And Philip's own health? Still some attacks from time to time, but he was holding up. And how was Philip's work going? Norman himself had always had a reserved sort of admiration for his writing, although he had never expressed it before. Philip felt himself expanding under the praise.
"Well, it's always good to know that one's relations have taste. I'm on my uppers at the moment, though – people think that all one has to do is get something in print and then it's all milk and honey from that moment. It isn't a bit. The books don't bring in enough to keep a cat alive and my articles and shorts; they're a heartbreaking amount of work and the magazines will cheat you however they can. Or they fold. James Rushworth, who edits Lightning – you haven't heard of it? It's not all bad stuff – but he just told me that it's folding. I can usually get five or ten pounds a month from stuff for them, but Lady Till and Tweed was their major backer, and now Rushworth tells me she lost half her money in the Megatherium crash. What that silly old biddy was thinking, playing at investing like that, I can't imagine, but she lost a lot and now the artists are paying for it. She'll be all right, half a fortune is still a fortune, but damned if I don't wonder sometimes where I'll be in ten years. Rushworth isn't even trying to keep the thing going – he's clearing out of the country and taking his sister with him – her fiance shot himself last month and he says she's cracking up and needs a rest-cure. Well, why couldn't her mother take her? He has no consideration for the people who depend on that magazine. If there could be a Bel Esprit for every artist, the world would be a better place, believe me."
"I quite agree. It's fortunate that you don't have family obligations."
"No, thank God. There is a girl, but of course marriage isn't something I could possibly contemplate, and she knows that. She had a parson for a grandfather, poor thing, but I think she'll clear all that rubbish out of her head with a little help. She's clever in her own way."
"Which isn't your way? How are you planning to support her?"
"No need – she's one of your modern girls. Have you heard of Harriet Vane? She writes those murder mysteries you see at the railroad stalls. Junk, so of course they sell like mad."
"An interesting choice of occupation. I'll have to pick up one sometime."
Before Philip left, Norman casually pressed a five-pound note into his hand. "It's a pity to see an artist underappreciated," he said. "I hope you'll consent to join me for dinner from time to time. There's very little left of our family, and we should not be strangers to each other."
Harriet's Christmas had been spent assisting Miss Benn at a church charity dinner, and she had been horrified to realize how close she was to sobbing by the end of the day. Philip's absence was a torment – the lack of his jokes, stories, and complaints about publishers, even his endless, wearing insistence on hashing out all the disadvantages of legal marriage – it all made her feel as if she were merely marking time while he was gone. At least she had more time for writing, but the satisfaction in finishing a short story, or another chapter, was bitter whenever she remembered that she would not see him for several more weeks.
It was a relief when, one day in early January, she heard the bell and for the first time in months saw Sylvia standing on the steps. She was carrying a bouquet and a satchel, her face was pink with cold, and she burst into the flat like a creature from another existence.
"Happy new year! Here, the satchel's for you; all the latest naughty books that the English publishers wouldn't touch. You have been working, haven't you? You look exhausted, and no wonder – whenever I picked up a 'tec magazine from the English bookstalls I saw something by you in it. I'm sure you've made enough by now to buy another hat, at least. Come on out with me, you'll get some fresh air and we'll look for that hat. Or go to the films. What's wrong?" For Harriet had put her head in her hands and not responding.
"Nothing's wrong, Sylvia, it's just a headache. And Philip won't be back for weeks and I wish he weren't so … oh, everything's a mess-up and I feel as if I should know better."
"What sort of mess-up? Oh no – it's not a baby, is it?"
Harriet laughed for the first time in weeks. "No, thank goodness! But it's difficult enough." Her gaze wandered towards the coat stand. She had had that beige cloche for a very long time, it was true. "Let's go and get that hat, and I'll tell you all about it at tea."
A few hours later, with not one but two hats duly bought, she and Sylvia sat in a tearoom corner, well out of earshot of the other patrons. Sylvia was fiddling with a ten-centime piece she had discovered in her coat pocket as she talked.
"I'm hardly in a position to talk about other people's arrangements, but it seems to me that if women are victims of matrimony, we can reject it without Phil's help. He loves the sound of his own voice as much as most men do –"
"Syl, is that Eiluned talking?"
"I suppose it is, a little," she said, and smiled. "But all I can say is, our crowd would understand if you did agree to it. And I'm sure they'd understand if you didn't – " she stopped without finishing the sentence.
"But the world is so much larger than that. I have other friends, and I don't want to lose them. I haven't even been able to tell them about this. And if the next book didn't do well and I had to look for work … my readers, if word got out –"
"Why on earth would it? I thought your mail went to Challoner's, anyway – the readers wouldn't know whom you were living with or weren't, and it's hardly their business anyway. Besides, how many men authors keep their noses clean? I'm sure Phil hasn't. Forget all that. Do you want to live with Phil?"
"I love him, and we would do so well together. Phil's got an extraordinary talent – don't look at me like that! I think I know him pretty well by this point, and I think if he just made a few changes, if he had better company at home than Vaughan, he could break out of the rut he's in."
"You haven't answered my question."
"I can't. I don't know what I think any more."
Phil returned in the middle of January, but not in the way she had imagined he would; he stumbled off the train as ill as Harriet had ever seen him, so ill that, for once, he had no interest in talking. Vaughan claimed him as soon as she hauled him out of the taxi, and Harriet had to content herself with sending round some of Sylvia's Parisian books and some sodium bicarb. A few days later Phil was standing at her front door, paler and a little thinner but otherwise well, wondering if she could look over an outline for him. Within an hour it was as if he had never left. Well, what had she expected? His principles couldn't be expected to change over the course of a month – and as welcome as the change would have been to her, she would have mistrusted him somewhat if they had. They were still at an impasse. After he left, she was so wound up that she couldn't bear to think of eating, so she spent the next three hours writing letters – to her agent, her publisher, and a few readers who had spotted errors – and experimenting with her old cloche to see just how long it took to dry after having been plunged in the dishpan for five minutes. Her latest alibi involved a woman who claimed to have been caught in a sudden rainstorm, miles away from the crime, but whose hat was suspiciously well-preserved.
By February, Eiluned had finally returned from Paris with a sheaf of etchings under her arm and another sheaf of stories about a certain woman's salon, and Harriet had asked her and Sylvia to supper so as to have a few hours of distraction from her dilemma. She did not get it, as Eiluned seized on the subject of Philip Boyes with enthusiasm and decided that it was high time to disabuse Harriet of her illusions about him. Despite Sylvia's frantic signals and frequent attempts to change the subject, Harriet nonetheless heard a good deal of Paris-sharpened invective about Phil's selfishness, childishness, laziness, and complete lack of talent. When the supper was done, Sylvia pulled Harriet aside to apologize. "Please forgive her – I know you won't believe it, but she's worried about you. Those Clifford salon people are all about trying to top each other in outrageousness and I think she hasn't quite realized that she's in London now."
Harriet was so tired that she could not bring herself to be angry. She should have remembered how Eiluned was about men who didn't suit her, which was to say any man aside from her two brothers and one schoolboy nephew. She was wrong about Phil, how could she not have been?
Sylvia must have said something to Eiluned, because the next week they invited Harriet for a chilly but beautiful visit to Kew Gardens, during which Eiluned told some of her Paris stories, did not mention Phil's name, and offered Harriet an etching of a seventeenth-century courtyard on the rue Jacob. Harriet received it gratefully, but that evening, as she tried first one place on the wall and then another, she thought that picture only made the rest of her flat look emptier. But love whilst that thou mayst be loved again … Her work, outings, friends, none of them helped lift her unhappiness. Only Phil could do that, and he would not change.
She put the picture aside, sat down, and wrote a note to Philip asking him to coffee the next day. Not tea, of course. Never tea.
She said it as soon as he walked through the door, so that she would not have a chance to stop herself later on. "I'll live with you," she said. "I will."
Chapter 2: April 1928 - February 1929
Strange, Harriet thought one April afternoon as she unpacked a box of books, it sometimes felt as if they were married after all. Once Phil had found a furnished flat in Wigmore Street – he had managed that faster that she had expected – there had been no reason to put it off any longer. Now, though stray boxes still littered the edges of the rooms and she had given up on finding her orange scarf (something of a blow, that, as an aunt had given it to her, but with luck it would reappear one day) the flat looked as ordinary and respectable as if its inhabitants had fifty marriage certificates. Eiluned's etching of the rue Jacob hung next to Phil's print of "The Death Of Chatterton," which Vaughan had given him years earlier. Harriet disliked the print intensely and wished he would take it down, but then, one couldn't expect to have everything one's own way when living with another person. She had discovered that on their first day, when she had been hanging her curtains in the bedroom and Phil was sitting amidst a pile of disordered suitcases, having a cigarette. "Must you talk to yourself like that?" he had said after a while. "I wish you wouldn't – I'm sure the curtains will stay up without your telling them to." She had not realized that she had been talking at all; she must have developed the habit over the last few years.
After the curtains were hung, Phil had put his arm around her, and from there things had gone quickly. "Good lord, you really don't know anything, do you?" he had teased her. "Would you rather I did?" she had snapped back, and he had lifted his brows and then apologized. It had become better since then, though he sometimes got an abstracted sort of expression which made her wonder uneasily what Liubov and the others had been like, and there was always that worry that the precautions she had obtained from Sylvia's doctor would fail. But now they had the books mostly unpacked, her tea kettle on the gas-stove and Phil's armchair in the parlour, though he had had a loud dispute with Ryland Vaughan when he took possession of it. Best of all was knowing that when Phil left, it was only temporary. They could now make as much of their time together as they wanted to; talk together, match quotations, and mark up doubtful manuscript passages, though Phil seldom found time to do this. He seldom found time to sort or pick up the laundry, either, nor to cook – unless he wanted eggs – nor to do the shopping and pay the charwoman. Harriet had realized belatedly that Vaughan must have been capable of more than she realized. Well, Phil would learn. If she could break her life in half for him, he could surely remember to stop by the butcher's once in a while.
Miss Clarridge had sent her a note that was pure anguish. "I can't understand why you would do such a thing, Hattie," she had said. "Please, dear, think of what your parents would have said." She had concluded by saying that she would pray for her. Miss Benn had simply returned every note Harriet had ever sent her, without comment. She had had no letters from Mary or Phoebe, only remembering belatedly that she had not given them her new address. Mr and Mrs Dyer, who lived in the flat above, had been delighted to see that Harriet Vane would be living by them (Mrs Dyer had seen her at the reading she had given a few months ago) and had invited her and Phil to tea. Phil had seemed quite at ease and charmed their hosts with stories about Lady T and writerly rivalries while Harriet sat and sipped her milky Twentyman's, tensing up for the question she knew was coming. When it did, Phil stepped in. "We don't believe in marriage," he told the startled Dyers. "Men and women shouldn't be so ashamed of themselves that they have to get permission from the law to do something that's as natural as breathing." They had not been asked over since, and the small stack of Harriet Vane books Mrs Dyer had brought out a moment before had remained unsigned.
So no, perhaps not quite like being married after all. Still, there was no sense in bemoaning something that couldn't be. And Phil was quite right in some ways – how many murders had been committed by unhappy spouses who saw no escape from the trap they were in save the worst possible one? There would be many more wives and husbands still walking the earth had they or their spouses been able to get away. She squeezed her father's Conan Doyle collection and her mother's limp book of sonnets onto the shelf and tossed the empty box into a corner. Now there was no excuse not to write – she hadn't got a line down all day.
Two hours later, the book was still stuck and she had begun sketching out a short story to distract herself, when she heard the door snick open and the thud of a dropped umbrella in the hallway – Phil.
"Harriet!" To her relief, he sounded cheerful. "Alderman took Annabella's Face – said it didn't need any more cuts, it's good as it stands. He'll be sending the proofs in a few weeks. What do you say we go out for a drink?"
"Yes! The chapter is being absolutely beastly. What are you getting for Annabella?"
"Ten. You'd think they could extend themselves a little considering it's fifteen thousand words but Alderman knows I'm at his mercy ever since Lightning went west. Thank God the Dial took my thing on Conrad Aiken. Who'd be a bloody writer? Besides you, of course."
Harriet was in the hallway beside him now, putting on the red hat Sylvia had made her buy in January. "Must you say that? It isn't easy for me either, you know."
"Isn't it? It seems like every time I look at you, you're opening a cheque. I've led a misguided life, my girl. I should have stuck to putting knives into the backs of butlers, not letting my literary reach exceed my grasp." He kissed her quickly and despite her annoyance she found herself returning it; he had a comforting, faintly spicy smell, although his chin had by now become a bit sandpaper-like as well. "Actually, why don't we make a night of it and go to the cinema as well?"
"To see what?" Harriet felt a vague apprehension, but Phil ended that by saying "The new Chaplin, of course. There, I thought you'd like that. Come, let's spend some of Alderman's tenner."
Harriet enjoyed the Chaplin film all the more for seeing how much Phil was enjoying it too; during the scenes where the police were chasing Charlie through the mirror maze, he laughed so hard that he sagged against her shoulder and both their hats were knocked askew. Afterward they went to the Yelverton Arms, where an uninspired dinner was followed by a much more inspiring round of drinks and, finally, a darts game in which Phil managed to best five other men who ended up buying him a Guinness each. Harriet watched the contest while having a cigarette and mentally writing up the scene for future purposes; a skilled darts player whose accuracy would prove to be a clue to … she was startled when a jubilant, Guinness-imbued Phil seized her hand and pulled her up. "Come on, Harriet, give it a go! Mustn't leave the lady out."
"No, indeed." She weighed a dart in her hand, considered a moment, took aim – and had it land half an inch wide of Phil's winning dart. He looked at her in surprise. "Not bad! Played sports at school, did you?"
"I did – hadn't I told you already?"
"Maybe, I don't remember. Here, try it again – you want to hold it a bit more towards the front and you'll get it right in." He gave her wrist a squeeze as he put the dart in her hand, but this time it sailed wide; the barmaid made a pantomime of ducking and a few men laughed. Harriet found herself laughing as well, and refused when Phil tried to coax her into trying again. "I need to go home," she told him. "I'm done up, and I've got that chapter to work on tomorrow."
His protests were not very strong, though as they left he told her "We must come back sometime soon – I'll make a darts player of you yet." As they walked to the taxi stand, Harriet was startled to see two familiar figures emerging from the darkness – a man and a woman, both well wrapped against the chill of the spring night, both looking in her direction. The Brubakers, back from Davos. Laura hesitated for a moment, but Harriet walked straight on. She did not know what they had heard, and she did not want to see the dismayed look on their faces which she had already seen on many others.
Philip had fully intended to try Harriet at darts again, but she showed an odd reluctance to go back to the pub, and soon enough he had other pressing matters: an impossibly small royalties statement from Grimsby & Cole which led to a furious exchange of letters, and the proofs of Annabella's Face, which in the end were gone over by Harriet since Philip had been laid low by another gastric attack, this one so bad that Dr Weare needed to be called in. His thirty-fifth birthday passed while he was ill, and he found himself sliding once again into one of the black moods which beset him whenever he looked at his own life too closely. Nel mezzo del cammin, and how many people had even heard his name? Fewer than had heard of Harriet, he was certain. God, what he wouldn't give to have people simply pick his books up and take a chance on them – eventually, people would listen ...
Harriet was efficiently attentive during his illness, but she kept sliding into the next room to work on her own things, and he had had to remind her several times both to take out the laundry and to look over Annabella and return it to Alderman in time for the June issue. She had also surprised him by asking for the remainder of the ten pounds, and for the fee he had received from the Dial. "I'm not asking you to put it in my hand," she said, "But we must know where we are with our money, and how we're to spend it." She had blinked when he told her about his allowance from his father but had not otherwise reacted, and she had remorselessly insisted on going over every item in his carelessly updated bank book so that she could be sure precisely how much their household had brought in. She had a streak of the termagant which he hadn't noticed before, but fortunately it didn't extend to other areas – although he sometimes wondered if she had committed herself to him quite as much as he had thought. Surely, if she were wholehearted enough, she would respond a little more satisfactorily? But she was young, and the ancestral vicarage clearly loomed large in her thoughts. She deserved a little more time.
Of course, she did insist on making things harder for herself. When cousin Norman, who was apparently sincere about renewing the old ties, sent a note inviting Philip to the new show at the Haymarket, he added that he had a third ticket, should Philip care to bring "a friend." To Philip's bemusement, Harriet turned the invitation down flat. "That's ridiculous. He can't possibly mean me," she said, as she stood in the kitchen, spoon in hand, waiting for a sauce to thicken. "You should ask Volodya Kropotky, I'm sure he's due some repayment for hospitality."
"Oh come now, what would Norman want with Volodya?"
"What would he want with me?" said Harriet, frowning as she tasted the sauce. "We're not married, and we have no right to embarrass the poor man. It's all very well having one's principles, but nobody will like them better for our ignoring other people's."
Philip sighed, shrugged, and sent a note of invitation to Ryland Vaughan, who could at least be counted on for a little gratitude. Now that they no longer lived in the same place, Vaughan's company had become more appealing; when Phil sent him a copy of an article, Vaughan always responded with hosannas instead of a sharp pencil, and the warm bath of his adulation could be very refreshing after a wrangle with a publisher. Still, though, a few hours of his company was enough, and a play would be just the thing to keep Vaughan happy for a while.
If Norman was surprised to see Vaughan with Philip instead of Miss Vane, he gave no sign of it. The three of them sat through a decent enough drama in a private box – during the interval, Norman and Vaughan had discovered a common foe in the person of an agent working for the Universal Bone Trust and got on quite well, to Philip's surprise – and afterward Norman somehow managed to ease Vaughan into a taxi while inviting Philip to a late dinner at the Cicero Club, "as there are a few things I believe we need to discuss."
Harriet was eating toast and reading about Beatrice Pace in the morning paper by the time Philip got up. "Nothing for me?" he said, staring at the table.
"The loaf is over there."
"Oh, come on, Harriet, I didn't get back in until midnight and I had the most fearful evening being lectured about my responsibilities. Be a sport and make it this time."
It was a small enough thing, albeit one of many small things she had found herself always doing – it seemed ungracious to argue the point. She began making the toast while Philip began telling her of how Norman had given him dinner after the theater and spent all four courses telling Philip that he needed to get his financial affairs together. "I wish you had been there, you probably know more about them than I do, with that notebook you always carry around. And I got another lecture when he found out that I don't have a will. What's the use of a will? I've nothing to leave, unless the public suddenly gets a fancy to become intellectual for a change."
"Copyrights," said Harriet, who had made her will after her father's death had forced her to think of how quickly one could go from apparent good health to a mortuary. She had left everything to Shrewsbury College.
"That's what he said. I suppose there's something to that – I'd like you to have my copyrights if a 'bus knocks me down, though I don't suppose they'd do you much good. That is, if you don't mind living off my shocking stories of people who live in sin?"
"No more than I mind living off people who stab and strangle each other. Or use poison," she added, looking back at the morning paper, which Phil had appropriated when she got up to make his breakfast.
"Ah, Mrs Pace," he said, shaking the paper open. "A great beneficiary of marriage, that one. Five dead children and a husband who beats her. Ah, here we are. Where's the marmalade? A situation like that, who could be surprised when the man ends up being fed his own sheep dip?"
Harriet sat back down and shook out her napkin. "It does seem a shame to leave marriage only to the people who have the least aptitude for it."
"They're the only ones who are fools enough to want it. At any rate, I'll be seeing Norman next week to have the will done – he's waiving his fee, though it's no more than his duty, really. Now I've got to be off, Alderman wants me to come around to his office to get the books for my Notes column. Why the man can't take a moment to send them by post I don't know, but that's an editor for you." He was halfway out the door by the time Harriet called out to remind him that he was supposed to pick up the fish this afternoon for supper.
She cleared the plates while looking vaguely at the lurid headlines and thinking about poisons. Somehow, none of Robert Templeton's cases had ever involved poison, and even her short stories, where he seldom appeared, tended to hinge more on altered clocks and disguised accomplices and quick doublings-back on deserted side roads. The sort of thing that, as Phil so often gibed, was really a glorified crossword puzzle. But poison was something as common as – well, as common as living in sin.
She shook her head – there was no time for that now; she had two chapters left on the current book and then an agony of editing, not to mention a serial story which she had promised to the editors of Elementary. And, now that the issue had arisen, she had better see about altering her will. Her morning must have night, after all, and if night came suddenly, Phil shouldn't be left with nothing. Now, to the scene where the twin brothers were slated for their last confrontation with Templeton – the left-handed one should come around from that direction, in order to try and take him by surprise, and – Harriet clapped a hand over her mouth. She had just realized that she was talking to herself again.
Phil returned that evening without the fish and in a towering rage. "Damn Alderman, and damn his idiotic rag. He doesn't want me do the Notes column any more after this month, and he won't tell me why. Someone's put him up to this. Damn it, why does everything always have to go against me?" He took one of the heavier books for review and threw it at the wall so hard that the pictures shivered and "The Death Of Chatterton" almost fell off the wall. Harriet stared.
"Haven't you got anything to say?" Philip barked.
Harriet's throat was dry. "What do you want me to say? You should have aimed a little to the right?" Phil's face reddened, and she was immediately sorry. Why was it she so often became sarcastic these days? But Phil said nothing in response, merely slammed the rest of the books onto the table and went into the bedroom, where she could hear him swearing first at Alderman and then at Len Tollett, whom Harriet had seen once but could hardly remember. She had never heard Phil say much about him one way or the other except that he had enjoyed Tollett's novel Vermillion.
She found sausages and began slicing some potatoes which looked as if they still had a few days left in them. A terrible supper for such a hot day, but it was what they had. We have both been in London too long, she thought, we should get away. How to travel, though, unmarried … she shriveled at the thought of going to a hotel. They would either have to lie – and neither of them would want to do that, she was sure – or have separate rooms and slip through the halls at night like people in some terrible farce … sneaking and slipping around …
Phil's voice in the doorway. "Is that supper?"
"Sausage and potatoes."
"I can't eat a thing right now. It's that damned Len Tollett – Alderman didn't say anything, but I'm sure Tollett saw that monkey story in Annabella's Face and got at Alderman to sack me."
"I'm sorry, I'm mixed," said Harriet. "I remember the bit with the monkey – did you hear that story from Tollett? I didn't realize that."
"I did – it was a damn good story and there's no reason I shouldn't use it, he certainly never did. But Tollett's got the devil's own pride and he probably thought that whole character was supposed to be him."
"But did you – was it really supposed to be?"
Philip shifted uncomfortably. "I wasn't consciously thinking of him at the time, but I suppose … he's a poet, he's had his run-ins with law when he drinks too much."
Harriet let out a long breath. "How do you know that Alderman doesn't simply want to stop running the Notes column?"
"Harriet, when you've been around as long as I have, you'll learn that editors don't simply stop long-running features unless there's a reason. I do know something about the literary world, even if I didn't go to Oxford."
She stared down into the frying-pan, biting her tongue for fear of what she might say.
Philip was silent a moment, then came over and wrapped his arms around her. "It's been a terrible day and I can't help losing my temper. You've got a bit of a temper yourself, haven't you?"
She relaxed a little – it was hard not to, when one was being held like that. "Come now, let's try and feel better," Phil said, tightening his hold.
"I really would like to eat."
"Afterwards," he said. Afterwards he joined her for a few moments, ate half a sausage and drank two cups of coffee, and talked cheerfully and ramblingly of the literary vengeance he would wreak on Len Tollett when the time came. Harriet merely listened. All men had these fits sometimes, she supposed, and the only thing was to push through until they were done.
Joey Trimbles had two paintings in the Exhibition and Sylvia had one, and when Harriet and Philip arrived at the Royal Academy there was a small knot of their friends already gathered by entryway. Eiluned, Harriet noticed, was not there, but Sylvia was bravely turned out in a flowered dress and a large flowered hat which Harriet couldn't remember ever seeing before. "Hullo, Harriet! Phil, how are things? Phil, you've met Joey? Of course you have, I was forgetting. I owe Joey a dinner – and I was so sure I would have more paintings in than he did!"
"There's no need to take me to Frascati's – a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou will suffice," said Joey, who looked very odd without the usual paint stains on his shirtsleeves. Dora Blacknall and George Townsend gave Harriet their usual regal nods (did those two ever go about separately? She had never seen them apart) and Marjorie Phelps gave her a smile and went back to talking with her companion, who was –
"James!" Philip strode forward. "Good to see you back in the country. Any plans to start up Lightning again?"
James smiled. "I think Lady T has moved on to greener pastures. She's holding salons now; she's taken a house in Russell Square and sold the country place. Every Sunday from twelve to four, and they're not bad if you don't mind listening to her poetry. I'm sure she'd be happy to see you and Miss Vane one of these days."
"Are you at another journal, then?" By now they were through the entry and being led by Sylvia through the knots of spectators and to her own startlingly large canvas. Harriet thought the main theme was flowers, but didn't quite like to ask in front of so many others. Phil was still haranguing James about something related to Lightning. She saw that Marjorie Phelps standing a little removed from the others, her gaze wandering towards a small, lumpy statue in the center of the room. Less from interest in Marjorie than from boredom with Phil's lectures on publishers, Harriet walked over to Miss Phelps.
"So what's it about?"
"The statue?" said Marjorie. "Oh, I've no idea. That's not the sort of work I do; I merely make things which people buy."
"I'm in that line myself."
"So I've heard."
There was a pause which hovered on becoming awkward. "I'm glad to see the Rushworths back," said Harriet, mostly sincerely. "Is it only James or are his sister and mother back in London as well?"
"His mother is," said Marjorie. "Naomi is still in Mentone; she met some very odd modern dancers who all live together and decided to join them. According to James, she spends most of the day undulating in one way or another – he showed me a photo of her dancing in a fish-scale costume. I can't imagine it will last very long but at least it's got her off the subject of Walter Penberthy, so that's all to the good."
"Certainly." Harriet had not thought much of Naomi, but she was certainly bony enough to make a dancer, and half the modern dances seemed to be performed with masks on anyway. Her gaze drifted back towards Phil, who was still buttonholing James. Marjorie sat on a bench and Harriet joined her. She wished she could have a cigarette.
"Miss Dorland is also doing quite well, if you were wondering," said Marjorie suddenly.
"Miss – oh, her. What about her?" Her memories of Ann Dorland were even sketchier and duller than those of Naomi Rushworth.
"Do you mean to say you never heard? Everything that happened last November, when Ann's aunt died and there was that fight over the will? I'd have thought it was the sort of thing you'd have been onto like a shot." And she proceeded to sketch out to Harriet the story of the poisoned general, the disputed inheritance, and Miss Dorland, who was now, it transpired, preparing to enter the School of Medicine for Women. Harriet, who had once seen some of her canvases, strongly approved of this plan. "But of course," Miss Phelps concluded, "most of it was never in the papers. You were quite right that time when you said that the papers don't tell half of it, though in this case it was more like nine-tenths. It's a shame there was never a chance to introduce you to Lord Peter."
"We have left undone those things which we ought to have done," said Harriet. "Poisons seem to be quite in fashion these days, don't they? Look at Mrs Pace."
"Look at the others," said Marjorie. "They're going on to the next gallery."
They rose and followed.
Afterward, Philip grumbled that James had had nothing for him – that in fact, he was looking for work. "He's giving up, that's all that it is. I'd thought better of him than that." But Harriet remembered how James had spotted all the little inconsistencies with The Seventh Sin after reading it once, and that Phil's old copies of Lightning, however execrable some of their content, had been beautifully edited. Seized to her own surprise by a charitable impulse, she decided that she would write to Trufoot and ask if they had any spaces for a skilled editor. When she told Phil, he shrugged. "Sometimes I think Shelley had the right idea," he said. "Drowning before he was thirty. The world never got a chance to kill him slowly in an office."
A heavy thunderstorm in early September had been followed by a string of cool, clear days – days which seemed to bring a brighter mood to everyone except Philip. He had spent days writing letters to publishers, badgering his agent, even descending to asking for help from Mr Cole, but nobody in the periodicals market appeared to want something by Philip Boyes, except for some dreadful magazines which were sold at railway stations and contained articles with all the depth of a glass of water. And his current novel was as stuck as he was – Harriet had been able to do nothing with it except strike all his best descriptive passages, which he had irritably reinserted. There was a week when he did nothing but go to his club every afternoon so he could spend a few hours smacking at tennis-balls with anyone there who was willing, and several head-splitting evenings at the Kropotkys, seeking inspiration and distraction together. At last the editor of Standing Up had said that he would consider Phil's proposal for an article on "The New Necessity Of Atheism," and Philip spent a week pacing, snapping, exhorting Harriet on the subject of Len Tollett and Tom Alderman, and banging out the article, feeling as if he had already written it twenty times before – which he probably had, in one form or another. He did not offer to show it to Harriet, who in any case was spending her days checking and cross-checking a pile of about fifty different train schedules for her serial, snapping repeatedly at him when he pushed them aside for his own papers. She was also looking over the galleys of An Eye For Murder, which was due out in a month. One afternoon, when the article was not going well, Philip lay down and read the galleys himself. It really wasn't a bad puzzle, as he told Harriet afterwards. Privately he thought it was clever and distracting enough to sell another four thousand, which should give him a little breathing room.
They attended a few of Lady Till and Tweed's salons, but Philip couldn't help thinking that a plate of cream scones and tea sandwiches was a poor substitute for a weekend at a country house. At least it had turned out that Lady T liked mysteries, so Philip had been pleased to stand, arm firmly around Harriet's waist, while Harriet told Lady T politely that it was difficult to say exactly where she got all her plots and yes, An Eye For Murder was coming out soon and Harriet would be pleased to sign her copy. He had not been so pleased when Lady T failed to ask him when his own new book would be coming out, however.
"But you don't know when it's coming out," said Harriet a moment later, as they sat down on a sofa so plush he feared he might be unable to get up from it again. "I find it's best to wait until one knows pretty well when the thing will happen. If one keeps talking about a book and it takes too long to appear, people lose interest. Books don't get written by talking."
"What would you know about people losing interest?" He took a bite out of a cucumber sandwich.
"Not much, I admit. But there's always the chance of a flop, and getting one's public back after that would be a hundred times harder than bringing them in in the first place."
"Not a chance, it'll be fine," said Philip, who considered the average patron of the railway bookstall to be as regular and unthinking in his habits as an ant foraging for food.
As it turned out, Philip was quite correct. An Eye For Murder took off quickly, garnered a good many favourable reviews from the less discriminating newspapers, and left Harriet happy enough to suggest a dinner out, during which Philip had three glasses of wine and Harriet had more. "Shall we try darts again?" said Philip at one point. "We're not far from the pub."
"After this? We'd kill someone," said Harriet, smiling and leaning back in her chair, her head tilted a bit to one side. Still quite an attractive girl, Philip thought, when she wasn't fussing about something. "I don't fancy being in the dock, especially for something so idiotic."
"All right then," said Philip. "Write a story about it. It could be about a man who has a business rival, and they play darts every, every Friday, and one evening he keels over and the bells, I mean ten bells – oh, hell, I can't even put a proper sentence together right now. I make about as much sense as the Grand Panjandrum."
"Miss Edgeworth!" said Harriet. "How much of that do you remember? `So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage leaf, to make apple pie, and at the same time a great bear –"
"She-bear – a great she-bear coming up the street pops her head into shop and says `What, no soap?' So …"
"So he died, and she very imprudently married the barber, and there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the – oh hell, now I can't remember either."
"Gallimaufries?" said Philip. "It was something like that."
"Picninnies, Joblillies, and Gallimaufries – no, it was something else. But at the end there was gunpowder running out of the boots of their heels. Or was it the heels of their boots?"
"Does it matter? It's supposed to be nonsense."
"All of it is, every bit, everything," said Harriet, fervently if incoherently. As they wobbled towards a taxi afterward, she stopped dead. "Garyulies!" she said. "I knew I remembered it. And then the Great Panjandrum himself."
Harriet was in Mr Challoner's office, drinking a rather musty-tasting cup of tea and talking about contracts. There was something about seeing the terms laid out in black and white that made her think of stories of fairy gold – if she once took success for granted, it would vanish with a flop, with a prolonged illness, or with a simple drying-up of the well. People were always asking her how she got her ideas (Lady T had been most persistent; it had been rather a disappointment meeting her, Harriet's fictional version had been so much more interesting) but the truth was that she hardly knew; if she thought enough about something, an idea always seemed to get her at last, and then she could begin the real work. So far, the ideas had always come along eventually, but if one day they didn't … Phil didn't seem to understand that, he thought of her writing as a tap that could be turned on and off. Just the other day he had been surprised to hear how she was struggling not to fall behind – he simply could not get it through his head that it took more than a few evening hours to do all of this, after continual interruptions during the day – he would realize it, eventually – he must. That last time they had gone out for dinner, he had been wonderful; perhaps she ought to keep that particular vintage at home for use when needed.
"Incidentally, Miss Vane, what's the next book to be about?"
"Murder," she said at once. "I can set your mind at ease on that point."
"What sort of murder? Sticking with the tried and true or trying something different? Not that there's much Robert Templeton hasn't seen by now."
"I was thinking that perhaps Robert Templeton could fall back a little in this one – no, I'm not taking him out altogether," she added, seeing the look of alarm crossing Mr Challoner's face; agents did not like to hear that a popular sleuth was going to bow out of his own book. "But I was thinking that this story would be a little more natural – not as much about timetables and crossword puzzles." (Why had she said that?) "A poison mystery," she concluded. "I'm not sure which one yet, but I think arsenic is the most likely."
"Like Mrs Pace? There won't be too much of a resemblance, I hope – she was acquitted, after all."
"I dote upon Mrs Pace and would never libel her. Besides, she hardly has a monopoly on arsenic; one sees it in the papers all the time."
"Very well, then – I look forward to seeing what you do with it. And I don't believe there's anything more … have you any plans for Christmas, Miss Vane?"
"Yes -- visiting friends," she said.
"Sounds pleasant. A very happy new year to you."
As it had the previous year, Philip's absence made the heart grow fonder. He had gone once again to Tweedling Parva to spend a few weeks with his father, and even Philip could not attempt to argue that it would be possible for Harriet to join him. She did indeed visit Sylvia, Eiluned, and Joey Trimbles while he was gone, talking of painting and the newest novels and telling them that she was quite happy. Christmas Day she spent alone in the flat, comfortably eating a pudding from Fortnum's (expensive, but the new book was doing well enough to justify it) lighting each cigarette with the butt of its predecessor, and working out the complex but comparatively naturalistic plot for her new poison story. By the end of the day she was as content as she had been for a long time, and she was looking forward to Phil's return. Even with his opinions on detective stories, he would have to admit that there might be something in this.
Philip had received the galleys of his latest novel while in Tweedling Parva and had gone through them with a feeling of growing dread. The thing was too similar to his other books - clever, idea-filled jewels, each one, but insufficiently vulgar to appeal to the public taste. Grimsby & Cole might say that they didn't care for such things, but they had managed to squeeze his percentage down to half of what it had been for Abhasa – what little this newest one, Cold Muscovy, made would be going almost entirely into their pockets. Harriet had suggested that he employ her own agent, but he had not been able to bring himself to do that. Challoner had no real literary clients; he traded entirely in writers of potboilers and hackwork – quick, cheap, and popular. He would have no contacts with literary publishers, no idea of how to handle a book like this one.
Consequently, when he returned to the flat to find Harriet both flush with royalties and trying to get him to praise her latest clockwork plot (as if using poison could make anything different!) he had been sharp. "You can't make a real novel out of detective story," he said. "It looks like a good puzzle, why the hell can't you be happy with that?"
"Perhaps I will be," she said, coldly. "I've learnt to be happy with a lot of things."
"That's not fair," he said, stung. "I didn't force you into anything."
She nodded silently, then put on her coat and hat, and did not return for several hours. She had been taking a walk by the river, she explained, and she certainly looked cold and windswept enough. Philip explained about his disappointment with the galleys.
"I'll help you with the next one," she said, "If you'd like me to. I really think you can make it work … oh God, I wish we could have a proper holiday, just get away from all of this for a bit." Her voice trailed off.
"Look, I know I was an ass," said Philip. "Can't we just forget about it now? Let's go the films or something, there's that German thing I was reading about earlier. We could walk there."
"I'm not sure – I don't know if I could endure German film just now."
"Come on, now, it's supposed to be brilliant. Let's go."
This had turned out to be a mistake. The film was a gloomy piece about two mutually unfaithful lovers who decided in the end to gas themselves while holding hands, and Harriet's face, after the last lingering shot of the dead woman's ear had faded away, was anything but happy. Her eyes had a glassy distance to them, and there was a certain set to her jaw which reminded him of something – he couldn't think what, but it was nothing good.
They had almost reached the flat when he remembered. That look – he had used it in a story once. It was the look he had seen on Liubov's face during the last month before she left him.
She should have remembered how Phil was about his novels, Harriet thought. She had no great hopes for this one; as with all his other books, there were excellent passages but his characters all simply wrangled and spouted their philosophies too much. If he could only have understood when she tried to explain her edits – but he was too close to it, he simply didn't like to let go of a thing that, while well-written in itself, was simply unnecessary. And yet, so many books had been sunk by all the unnecessary cargo their authors freighted on them, all those decorative paragraphs like carved knick-knacks people brought back from their travels, all beauty and uselessness. She could persuade him in time, though – he must learn to listen after a time. She had heard the saying often enough about the first year of marriage being the hardest, and there seemed no reason why the same should not be true of those couples who were not married.
Phil was back to his older, more charming self now. He had begun cooking a little again (mostly eggs, of course, but what did that matter?) and had invited a whole crew for drinks at their flat at the end of January, when Cold Muscovy was released. True, several of the guests had needed the concoction which Harriet had first encountered when Ryland Vaughan had collapsed at the Kropotkys', and Eiluned had been openly rude to just about every man there, but the evening was lively otherwise. Even more happily, he had gone out of his way to praise An Eye For Murder, and to say that the next would be even better, though of course he was bound not to reveal what it was about. She assumed this was by way of apology, but it wasn't a bad one at all.
She sat at the table with her notes for the poison story spread before her, writing a short character description of a witty, talented, doomed Bohemian author.
Philip had been watching her anxiously over the past few weeks, and his concern had not lessened. That expression on her face, her constant distraction, the remoteness which seemed to come over her – he had seen that before in Liubov, and in Sarah as well, although since the latter had walked out after three months there had been considerably less warning.
She couldn't leave, not really. He hadn't thought her capable of it, but perhaps her friends had been giving her ideas over Christmas – or perhaps she had never been quite what he thought all along. But if she left … the pit of his stomach grew cold. She would take everything from him. He wouldn't even be able to keep the flat. And all for nothing, he had done nothing! It was ridiculous. How to get her to stay – what would make her happy? She was really a very reasonable sort of girl, and she had given him a good deal. There must be something he could do.
If one looked at it the right way, this whole last year had been like a trial marriage – and Harriet had proved herself well. A legal marriage would let her see the people she had cut herself off from, let them go places together without her endlessly shrinking back – would, in fact, give her something she had wanted for a long time. She would be more than just pleased – she would be absolutely grateful to have the thing done properly at last. And it would ensure that he would not wake up one morning to discover that, like Liubov and Sarah, she had unaccountably packed a suitcase and vanished. It would be a sacrifice on his part to give up the principles he had stuck to for so long, but when the devil drives, he thought, such things are necessary.
It was a few days later, on a foggy evening in the first week of February, that Philip returned to the flat for supper, having remembered to pick up both a steak from the butcher (which Harriet had requested) and a small bunch of flowers (which she had not).
Harriet was sitting at the table going over the accounts; the tips of her fingers were blue with inkstains. "I don't believe we can possibly spend so much," she said, looking up at him with a smile. "But as much as Dad liked to ignore the books, I'm trying to do better than he did."
"Will the books permit a short trip to Wales next spring?" said Philip, setting the bunch of flowers down next to her.
She frowned. "I suppose they would – really, we're not doing too badly, I just think of what Dad said every time I do this. Why do you need to go?"
"I was talking about both of us, not just me."
The distant look again. "Phil, you know that isn't possible."
"It will be perfectly possible," he said, sitting down next to her and smiling, "After we're married."
Chapter 3: February 1929 - September 1929
Harriet looked blankly at him for a moment, then frowned. "Phil, that's a beastly joke. Did you remember the steak?"
"I left it on the hall table. Harriet, I'm not joking. I want to marry you – get the thing done properly. I know you've wanted this," and he leaned in for a kiss.
He did not get it. Instead she stood, and stared at him as the blood drained from her face. Odd, he thought, he hadn't realized that someone could actually turn as white as paper – he would have to remember that for his next story. He wondered why she hadn't said anything yet.
"What's come over you? Here, Harriet, let's sit down and be reasonable." He patted the chair she had been in a moment ago.
She sat, and her gaze strayed over to the flowers. "Oh God. You're serious, aren't you."
Philip had the sensation of a man who has just been thrown into twelve feet of cold water when he was expecting a hip-bath. "Yes, of course I am. I thought you would like –"
"You thought I would like a pair of legal handcuffs, to become a man's property? I remember you being very eloquent on the subject."
"Oh come now, I didn't mean that literally. If a couple make a trial of marriage first, it's quite a different thing, and you've been wonderful, Harriet, really you have. You didn't ask for anything --"
"After you had – after you had –" she seemed to be struggling to breathe. Philip felt his own lungs constricting; what the hell had gone wrong with her? He had thought that by now he would be telling Harriet where he planned to take her in Harlech, seeing her face light up at the prospect of finally having the wedding-trip she must have wanted. He tried to wrench the conversation back in the right direction.
"Listen, I have good reason to oppose marriage, anyone has, but in a case like ours, where we've already chosen to be together, it's a different matter. We know what we have already, we've already given ourselves to this, this is just making it easier to get about in the world. Isn't that what you wanted, for God's sake? Haven't you spent most of the last year keeping yourself away from anyone who's not in Bloomsbury?"
"I have," she said, "I have. Because you told me that marriage was something you didn't believe in, because I had a choice between having you without marriage and not having you at all." She reached for her handbag, which was further down the table – looking for a cigarette, he realized. "And now you tell me this was a – a trial, a test? Is that what it was?"
"Call it a trial marriage," he said. "Lots of people have done it. For God's sake, Harriet, there's no need to get so worked up. It's a perfectly reasonable thing, it's simply waiting to see if we're both committed to this, that there's no way we're being compelled into something we don't truly want. I'm sure I must have talked about this sort of thing at some point – making a trial of it."
"I'm quite sure you never did." She had found her cigarette case and was fiddling with it aimlessly; she stood and looked towards the kitchen for a moment (wanting matches?), appeared to forget what she was looking for, and turned back. Philip took advantage of the silence to press on.
"I'm sure I did – but that doesn't matter. I love you, Harriet, you're a good soul and you deserve to be happy. Once we're married you can meet my family, see those friends you never go about with anymore, you can have everything you want – isn't that enough? Nobody will mind about all this once we're married, you know. They'll forget it before you've had time to turn around."
"I won't forget it." Her voice was chilly. "And I'll mind."
"But why?" His confusion and fear were dissolving into rage, and he began to shout. "Why the hell wouldn't you want to get married? Haven't you been moping after this all year? Damn it, didn't you tell me for months on end that you wanted to be married? What in the bloody hell made you change your mind now?"
"Change my mind?" she said. Her face was still paper-white and the cigarette in her hand had been crushed. "Oh, you're brilliant. You're the one who's been telling me that no sane woman would ever get married, and now you're shouting at me like I'm a truant schoolboy because I'm not falling on my knees like the beggar-maid, now that you've finally deigned to rescue me. Except that you're worse than King Cophetua – he didn't make the maid into a beggar in the first place. You did that, Phil. You cut me off from half the world and now you're going to be marvellously big and give it back to me."
"The hell I did that! You cut yourself off, not me. I never told you to stay away from those biddies at the parish, or to dodge people on the street. That was all your doing. People don't care about this sort of thing nearly as much as you think, but you would never believe that. Don't blame it on me; I never forced you to live with me, I never forced you into anything. I didn't!" He hit the table out of sheer frustration at the injustice of it, and hit harder than he had intended; there was a loud crack and Harriet backed off, dark eyes widening. Her face was so strained that he wondered how he had ever thought her pretty, and her horrified expression was like a stab in the gut.
"You made a fool of me," she said. "All this rubbish about a trial marriage – even a servant who's taken on trial knows she's on trial, but I didn't. You could have told me that, at least."
For a moment, he thought of confessing that he couldn't have, as he hadn't intended it then either. But looking at her chalky face, he realized he was too deep into his argument to back down now. If he did, she would want to know what had changed him – and he could hardly tell her it had been fear that she would leave. Besides, the thing was all to her advantage; she would have to realize that eventually, she would come round without his having to admit to having made a mistake. Philip took a long breath, leveled out his voice, and thought of the things he had said so many times before in his novels, things which, at the time he wrote them, he had wholeheartedly believed.
"Harriet, there's something you simply must understand. A woman who commits herself only so she can get what she wants at the end of a period of time isn't truly giving herself, only making an exchange. Giving yourself means not expecting anything in return for it at the end, it means –"
"Casting forth my bread upon the waters?" she said. "Or perhaps I should say casting my body. Oh, I've been such an idiot. Oh, God." And to his horror, she began to cry.
He tried to put his arm around her after a moment, but she pushed him away savagely. "Fine, then, do as you like," he said. "All I wanted was to make you happy, and you do this."
He walked to the other end of the room and began hunting in his pockets for a cigarette. Damn, damn, damn, he thought. His gaze strayed towards the hallway table. The steak was still there, its juices starting to seep through the brown paper.
The night seemed to go on forever, but while Philip eventually fell into a mild doze, Harriet barely sat down, let alone rested. During their quarrel she had had a horrible sense that the man she was shouting at was not really Phil, that eventually the real Phil would walk in the door, or somehow re-emerge from this impostor who had just made it brutally clear that their household had been built on sand. A trial marriage, she thought, nothing more than test, a test which she hadn't even been permitted to know she was taking. For oft ye prayed, and long assayed – not out of his own love, but only to try hers. All those months of agony before and endurance afterwards, and it had been in his power to stop it any time he wanted, to have made it never happen in the first place. And she had loved and respected him for his honesty.
She moved as lightly as she could in the bedroom as she packed her suitcases, stuffed her teakettle in among some old chemises, considered the piles of books and the alarm clock sitting on her old steamer trunk and realized that it would have to be sent for afterwards. She did this not out of consideration for the sleeping Phil's comfort, but because she feared what she might do if he were to wake and start talking to her again.
It wasn't until Sylvia answered her door, rumpled and pale, that Harriet realized how early it was, for Sylvia was wearing her spectacles. Harriet had never seen her wear them before outside the studio; she must have been completely unprepared to answer the door.
Sylvia's bleary expression gradually turned into one of deep surprise. "How are – no, never mind. Come on in and I'll make something hot. Oh! And watch that step just before the landing, it's been needing repair for months and you don't need a twisted ankle on top of everything else. The landlady keeps saying she'll get the workmen in but I don't think I'll be seeing them anytime this year."
Harriet trudged up the stairs with her suitcases; the lights in the stairwell flickering as she went past. She had not realized until now how tired she was; so tired that her bones were hurting. She hoped devoutly that Eiluned was not visiting at the moment, and this unformulated prayer was answered – Sylvia was alone in her bed-sitting room, depositing one of the suitcases next to the sofa. "I'll have some cocoa made in a moment, if you think you can stay awake that long. Sit down, you look all in."
She sat down and closed her eyes as Sylvia's gentle, meaningless words washed over her – Syl had taken refuge in the great English custom: talking about the weather. Harriet almost laughed, but the impulse died in her throat, and for a moment she wondered if she was going to be sick. When the cocoa was ready she could only look at it and shake her head. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry … I thought I could, but I can't."
"Never mind that," said Sylvia, clearing the cocoa away. "What you need just now is a lie-down. Let me just get the bed remade and you can sleep for a bit – no, it's no trouble at all, I have a beastly amount of work to get done and I need to go out to the shops before I do anything else. Let me just do this and I'll clear out."
Even in her benumbed state, Harriet had doubts about the authenticity of Sylvia's errands, but she could not bring herself to care. She crawled into bed and was asleep within minutes.
When she awoke, the grey light of afternoon was filtering through the window and there were people talking quietly somewhere nearby. Her first thought was to wonder if Phil had invited someone over, and then came the twist of the knife in her memory.
The voices were outside on the landing and they belonged to Sylvia and Eiluned, though most of the talking was being done by the latter. Harriet could not make out everything she was saying, but it was clear that she was speculating about what Phil had done, and while her indignation on Harriet's behalf was strong, her level of accuracy was much less so. Harriet was surprised to find herself becoming momentarily indignant on Phil's behalf; surely Eiluned didn't think he had done that? Then, once again, the hot, crushing feeling of remembering what he had done, how completely she had been fooled, all this long year and a half. All of that agony, all that she had given away, and for nothing. But at least there would be no divorce petitions, no agonizing legal wait to divide herself from him. He would have nothing to hold over her. She hoped he enjoyed the results of his principles.
It was no good staying in bed now, it would only make her feel worse. She dressed, made a quick attempt to make her hair look civilized (where were her pins? Somewhere in the chaos of her suitcases, she had no memory where) and finally opened the door. Sylvia and Eiluned, who were sitting companionably on the top step, both became silent instantly.
"Hullo!" said Sylvia, a little too merrily. "We'd just got back. Would you like some lunch?"
"Yes, very much, thank you. No, please don't bother yourself – I'll do it."
Eiluned followed her to the kitchen corner and began making tea. "We'll help you get this sorted out," she said, balancing the kettle in her hand. "You're too good for the likes of Phil Boyes and always have been. He's an ass, and whatever he tried to –"
Harriet shook her head. "Please don't. Please don't ask about it. He made a complete fool of me, isn't that enough? I needn't tell everyone all the juicy bits."
Eiluned frowned. "Of course you needn't. I only want to help –"
"You can, by talking about something else."
"Tell her about school!" Sylvia called out from the sofa.
Eiluned laughed. "Oh yes, I'm sure she wants to hear all about it!"
"School?" said Harriet, genuinely curious about something for the first time since the previous afternoon.
"Didn't I mention it at the party at – at your flat? I've taken a post at St Ursula's – art mistress. It's not what I imagined myself doing ten years ago but it keeps the bankbook happy and if I can sell a few more things, I should be able to get back to Paris for a while next autumn."
"I missed that entirely." Privately, Harriet was sure that Eiluned had been too busy baiting Phil to talk about anything she was doing, but damn Phil, she was done thinking about him. "I hope it's a girls' school?"
"Naturally. I couldn't stick teaching a pack of boys."
Harriet had by now found some soup in the tiny icebox and begun warming it. "I daresay you'd do them good."
"I'm sure I would, but I doubt they would return the favour. But the girls are rather fun – let me tell you about the exercise I set them the other day."
Sylvia had come over and was now sitting at the table. "I still can't comprehend why you haven't had eighty or so parents demanding your dismissal for that."
"Excuse me, Miss Marriott, but education has changed a great deal since our day."
Harriet sat down with the soup; she found that she was ravenous. Sylvia and Eiluned sat with her and kept up a patter of stories about teaching, the bizarre preoccupations of gallery owners, the even more bizarre preoccupations of Miss Clifford of the Paris salon, and a novel which one of her salon members had written which was supposed to have all the other members in it. She almost told them about Phil and his similar problem with Annabella's Face, until she remembered that even then he had been acting a part to her.
That night she lay on Sylvia's newly made-up sofa bed and wished that she were not there alone. If it took time to become used to lying next to someone, it seemed it would take at least as much time to resign oneself to lying alone once more.
At least, she thought, she would not be utterly bereft. Her life with Phil had split open like a ship dashed against a rock, but there were still plenty of things in it to salvage. Her books were still her own. Her earnings were hers alone, as well; Phil couldn't touch them. She would find another flat, set it up, take up her old life again.
But it would not be her old life. She had submitted herself to Phil's pleadings, let him persuade her into something she had finally forced herself to want. Leaving him would not wipe that experience out; she would still have lived with him. (Experience keeps a dear school, indeed). No, all she could do now was to gather up as many fragments as she could and find a new ship. Perhaps just a rowboat, at first, but still, she would find something.
Norman was as rigidly upright and polite as ever, but his face was even paler than usual and there were heavy bags under his eyes. "I've just returned from Windle," he explained as he and Philip settled down in the library, the maid in the corner getting them drinks from the liquor cabinet. "Aunt Rosanna had a bad turn last week and I had to hurry down. She pulled through, but it was a touchy business for a few days."
"Really?" Philip had little concern just now for the affairs of great-aunts. "I had a bad turn myself last week. Harriet's moved out."
Norman's eyebrows lifted. "Why should she do that?"
"It's ridiculous," said Philip, feeling his face grow hot. "I'd thought that we should do the thing properly – not that it matters to me, mind you, but I knew she'd like to be married –"
"You offered to marry her?" For the first time since Philip could remember, Norman's face showed genuine surprise.
"Yes I did, and why not? I haven't been keen on marriage before but Harriet's been a good, steady girl and I wanted to make her happy. Except that I didn't; she simply exploded at me for not having done it earlier! After she had been living with me all that time. I can't understand it."
Norman's mouth twitched. "Most unfeminine of her. I don't like to speak ill of people I don't know, but Miss Vane sounds as if she may be a little too modern to be a comfortable sort of wife for you. These independent women can be very trying."
The maid set a glass down in front of Philip, and he gave her his best smile, then stared into the liquid moodily. "I wonder what old Wrayburn thought of marriage to an independent woman. I don't suppose those children were much consolation. What happened to them, anyway?"
"Cholera," said Norman. "A great tragedy, of course."
"The devil took care of his own there, I suppose … but that's the devil of modern women; you think they're used to being rational and weighing every position, then suddenly they fly off the handle for no reason at all. She won't even speak to me; just sent some men round for her trunk and her chairs. And I'm damned if I know what I'll do without her, the place is so empty."
Norman hesitated. "If I may … you would be welcome to stay with me. Not on a permanent basis, of course, but for a little while. It will give you time to make new arrangements, and to avoid solitude."
Philip's heart lightened perceptibly – he had known he could not keep the flat up much longer. "That's damned good of you, old man – I do believe I'll take you up on it." He took a long drink from the glass, which improved his mood even more. "When I was small, my father always talked as if Aunt Rosanna was on a level with the Queen – money and jewels and the like. I don't suppose you'd know anything about that?"
"A reasonable amount," said Norman. "But as her solicitor, I naturally must keep her affairs confidential."
"Even to family?"
"Yes." Norman's eyes flicked over to the maid, who was giving the bar a quick clean with a rag. The implication was clear; these were not matters to be talked about in front of the servants. Philip shrugged and took another drink. Aunt Rosanna had been a dim presence for most of his life; a far-off, faint star who had blazed into life only when he sent her his books, just one time. Besides, she likely didn't have as much money as everyone thought. How many grand old women died every day and turned out to have just enough money left to see them into their graves?
Harriet's new flat in Doughty Street was smaller even than the one she had had before Phil, but it was clean and conveniently situated, and the blank walls were beautiful. She would get them covered properly in time, she thought, as she hung up Eiluned's etching and a small painting of tulips which Sylvia had given her as a parting gift when she left. Thank heaven, she would never again have to contemplate "The Death of Chatterton" as she worked. And work she must; the new book had gone sticky for a good while after she had left Phil, and only now that she had found her own place and got all her things back was she pulling it out of the swamp once again. The young, doomed Bohemian man and the inconsolable Bohemian woman had gradually shrunk, until now they were little more than the lay figures who populated most mysteries. It was a pity, she thought, but the story still worked, and that was what really mattered. And perhaps the characters themselves had never been quite as good as she had thought. It was difficult to remember what exactly she had been thinking at that time.
When she had not been able to write, she had still been able to read, and as a result, Dixon Mann and several volumes of Notable British Trials now crowded onto the shelf next to her mother's poems and her father's copies of The Hound Of The Baskervilles and The Case Of Oscar Slater. She had reread the latter on Good Friday while in a blue fit after accidentally encountering Phil at George Townsend's exhibition. He had grimaced in pain and turned away from her, and she felt ill at remembering how attractive she had once thought that face. She had left the exhibition as quickly as was polite.
That had been two weeks ago, and the book had been coming well since then. However, the villain's agent was now due to purchase some arsenic for doing away with the young man; Harriet had found herself writing and rewriting the scene, increasingly dissatisfied with it, and finally she realized why. "It's because it's too synthetic," she told herself (talking to herself, and what matter? Phil could take his complaints to whatever unfortunate person was supporting his artistic endeavours now). "I've never bought arsenic in my life, and just because the papers say it's so easy doesn't mean it's so. The papers say all kinds of things, after all. The scene sounds like it was written by a journalist trying to thrill people, and it doesn't work." Surely if she could drown a hat, cross-check rail schedules, and see if a Little Leather Book could actually be cut in half with a pen-knife, she could buy arsenic and write up the scene as it really happened? Besides, it was a beautiful day, and a walk would do her good.
The shop assistant at Brown's looked no more than sixteen and, Harriet thought, was no credit to whatever school system had produced him, as his competency level appeared marginal at best. He had rummaged through several back cupboards before producing the requested package of Rough On Rats, and only when he was ringing her up at the till did Harriet, feeling rather foolish at doing his job for him, ask "This has arsenic in it, hasn't it? Hadn't I better sign for it, or something?"
The boy looked down at the package and shifted from one foot to the other. "Oh, yes, I suppose it has. I'll have to look for the poison book." He fumbled about somewhere inside the counter behind the till. "I think this is it – here's a pen, Miss –"
"Slater," said Harriet. Until that moment, she had had every intention of using her own name, but why not see if a false name would pass muster easily? Her character was, after all, very anxious to conceal her own intentions. The boy demanded no further proofs of identity, and she signed the poison book as Mary Slater.
Well! That had been disconcertingly easy, she thought a moment later as she walked towards the tube. Of course, the boy had been so inexperienced – she may simply have been lucky this time. And where had she got the name from? As she dodged across the street, avoiding a horse-drawn funeral carriage and the squall of car horns from the impatient motorists trapped behind it, she remembered: of course, her father's copy of The Case Of Oscar Slater. Mary – she supposed it could be Mary Attwood, but she had thought of her so little recently; it was a shock to realize that her youngest child must be more than a year old now. Perhaps she should write again – but what on earth could she tell her?
The entrance to the tube yawned ahead of her, when – "Miss Vane!" called a high voice, and she turned around to see Laura Brubaker.
She had not intended to tell Laura anything, but there in the tea-shop she found that the urge to confess to someone who was not part of the web of Bloomsbury gossip was too strong. Laura, who had tactfully said nothing when Harriet mentioned parting with Philip, could not contain her surprise when Harriet told her why.
"But good heavens, why should you do that? It sounds as if he was at least trying to make things right for you."
"Don't you see? It was all wrong from the beginning, he had been trying me the entire time. It had nothing to do with his principles." To her vexation, she felt her face turning red.
"And it was very wrong of him to do so," said Laura, emphasizing the point by clinking her teacup firmly back into its saucer. "But I don't understand – you must have loved him, how could you not want to marry him? Especially after everything else that had happened between you?"
Harriet's impatience rose. Laura had always been sweet, now she seemed dimwitted. But most people would probably agree with her – if one was willing to do everything else, then why not marry? If she had allowed Phil the use of her body, then why should she balk when he merely insulted her? Explaining would never be any use. It was better to stick to other things.
"The Red Queen would say that it's too late to correct it," said Harriet. "Are you only in London for the summer or is John well enough to stay the whole year?"
"John's doing quite well now," said Laura. "He managed to get a decent bit done while we were in Davos – more than the doctors thought good for him, in fact – and he has more work here now than he can handle. Not that he's working today, as it happens; he's playing golf with Sir Impey Biggs."
"I'm glad he's strong enough to outlast eighteen holes," said Harriet politely, trying to remember the last time she had played tennis. She should find someone to play with her soon, she thought – possibly she should ask Laura. Tennis would be very helpful for the emotions, and if they were playing, they would not have to talk much.
The conversation wandered politely among sporting topics, and Harriet finally suggested a tennis game. Laura agreed readily, but took pains to say that John would not be able to accompany them and probably would not do so in the future either. Well, when you've done a thing, thought Harriet, that fixes it, and you must take the consequences. When they parted, Harriet felt that despite their agreement, she and Laura were now as far apart as they had ever been.
Philip sat on a broken-springed sofa next to Ryland Vaughan, coughing at the smell of burnt kippers and listening halfheartedly to a dramatic recitation by Madame Kropotky. She had translated several of her own tone-poems from Russian into English, and Philip wasn't sure that the Russian versions might not have been easier to understand. Fortunately, she seemed to be approaching the end, and he could drift off politely if he wanted to. Vaughan was already twitching restlessly, clearly anxious to be at the drinks.
After Madame Kropotky had remained silent for about ten seconds, the assembled throng concluded that the recitation was over and came to life again. Stanislas Terletsky, who had contrived to stretch himself out just in front of the sofa with a cold compress on his forehead, snarled when Philip stumbled over him. "God, haven't you anywhere else to lie down?" said Philip, but Stanislas barked back "Hrintobivnis, I have headache!" He remained where he was, and Philip despondently followed Vaughan.
"Let's go on the balcony," Philip said a few moments later. "I feel like hell." The balcony was small and the chairs covered with a film of soot, and the view was a discouraging muddle of motorcars and downtrodden shops, but at least the air had not already been breathed by dozens of other people. He and Vaughan sat gingerly on the chairs, Philip looking down at the street, and Vaughan looking at Philip.
"I've been meaning to ask you something, old man," said Philip. "Two things, actually. I've been thinking of leaving town for a bit, taking a holiday – I've been so ill since Harriet ran off, and a change of air might help. Would you like to come along? Norman's been very reasonable about the whole thing, and he'll be covering my expenses – actually, he suggested the West Indies but I've got to keep close to my publishers. I've wanted to see Harlech again for a good while now; I was there several times when I was small and have wanted to go back for ages. So, what do you think? Will the bank unchain you for a few weeks and let you come with me? I'll need a bit of help, I'm afraid – I'm still having weak spells."
"Of course I will!" Vaughan seemed overcome; Philip would have sworn there were tears in his eyes. He certainly seemed to be adept at making people cry lately, he thought with irritation, but at least Vaughan could be counted on not to snarl at him after being offered a gift like this one. Of all the unreasonable –
"What was the second thing?" said Vaughan. "You said there were two."
"Oh! Yes, it's about my will."
"Don't you have one?" Vaughan looked slightly horrified; he was too much the bank clerk to be anything but disapproving of carelessness about documents.
"I do, in fact, but as Norman recently reminded me, it's in Harriet's favour; I left her all my copyrights."
Vaughan made a dismissive noise. "She doesn't deserve them."
"More than that," said Philip, "I don't think she'd bother about them. She's so wrapped up in her own trash that she'd probably just chuck the stuff in a bottom drawer and never bother Grimsby about them again. She's damned heartless sometimes – you know, I've seen her a few times since and never even got a civil word from her." Vaughan groaned in sympathy, and Philip wondered if he would eventually be forced to move back in with him. Would it be any more bearable than the last time? "I asked Dad, but of course he said he couldn't take them, he has his position to maintain. And Norman has his clients." While Norman politely claimed to enjoy Philip's books, Philip had always had a remarkably hard time getting him to talk about them. His cousin clearly agreed with Philip that the man of business owed a certain duty to the artist, but he didn't seem to feel that discussion of said artist's works was part of that obligation. It was easy to imagine his copyrights languishing with Norman, just as they would with Harriet. But Vaughan … he knew that Vaughan would treat Philip's literary offspring as his own – although he would probably have to rewrite the will again in a few years after Vaughan had one too many of the Kropotkys' drinks.
Fortunately Vaughan had no apparent objection to the fact that he had not been first, second or even third on the list of potential beneficiaries. As they stood up, however, he gave Philip a long look. "You're not thinking of going out, are you? Because I – "
"What? Oh, not at all, nothing like that. But I've been so ill, and Norman's a solicitor, so naturally he always has these sorts of things in mind. I'll get it done before we leave London, to stop his pushing me about it, but there's no need to concern yourself."
They went inside.
Harriet had finished three chapters, played quite a few sets of tennis with Laura (it had turned out that she was right; they barely talked about anything except the game), and planned out several short stories using different poisons – not to be sent out all at once, of course, but if she got all the information now she could parcel them out over the next few years. Only once had she had any trouble whatsoever when buying poisons – when a clerk informed her politely that they only sold aconitine to official representatives of industrial firms. Otherwise it had been a depressingly easy business. At least they were all safely out of her flat now – with each purchase, she had opened each package, taken careful notes on the appearance of the contents, and then burnt all of them in the fireplace – Rough On Rats, Cooper's Weedicide, and all the rest. Now that it was June, though, she would have to stop; it was too hot to use the fireplace and besides, she had been getting rather tired of the game.
She sat at the table, busily maneuvering her grief-stricken young Bohemian woman into the pub where her lover had encountered the fatal dose of arsenic. She was telling the bartender that it was not suicide, that she was determined to have his name vindicated; fortunate girl, thought Harriet. If he had lived, he would have let you down soon enough – smart lad, to slip betimes away.
A scuffling sound outside her window – the postman on the steps. Had Sylvia written back?
She had, saying that she would be delighted to see Blackmail as soon as that film opened, and she trusted that Harriet wanted to see the talkie version? "I've never seen a talkie yet and do feel so left out; half my friends have seen them in other places but at least I can console myself that we both waited to Buy British Goods. Joey and Eiluned are also quite taken by the idea, and James may come along as well, although having read the story Joey says he will make sure to conceal any knives in his flat should we repair there afterward."
There was another envelope, postmarked Harlech, whose handwriting was all too familiar. What on earth did he want? She had seen him several more times at parties since she had left – the only way to avoid that eventuality was to stay in, and she refused to do that any longer – but they had barely spoken. Nonetheless, here he was, writing in his old, easy, arrogant way. He would be in town on the 20th, he would like to stop by her flat, he hoped he persuade her to see reason before he took a trip out west. The better to nurse his despair with, she thought. Phil needed to work, not to travel and mope, and if he thought that she was ready to take on the role of devotee again, he knew her even less well than she had thought.
Still, if he insisted on coming round, it might turn out for the best. Once the interview was over, perhaps he would finally realize that it was hopeless, and leave her alone.
The journey to Harlech had been a success in some ways; with walks, good food, and plenty of rest, Philip had finally begun to feel human again. Vaughan had been faithfully if somewhat annoyingly attentive, had praised Cold Muscovy extravagantly, and had made it clear that in his opinion, Harriet was mostly if not entirely to blame for every affliction Philip suffered. Philip himself was not so far off from sharing that opinion – he had been a damned sight healthier when he and Harriet were still together, after all, though that hardly explained his current recovery. Some sort of psychological thing, he shouldn't wonder – after all, this was where he had intended to take her for their wedding-trip, and as devoted as Vaughan was, he was a poor substitute for her. He also had a troubling habit of talking about his drugs collection; Veronal and God knew what else, and weeping about his lack of a real place in the world. Good God, man, Philip had thought more than once, killing yourself won't make you into a poet posthumously. He hoped he didn't have to rewrite his will yet once more before the year was out.
It wasn't possible that Harriet should hold out forever, thought Philip, as he walked around Harlech Castle one brilliant June afternoon. Now that it had been several months, surely she would be missing his company, realizing what she had lost. If he put it to her again, when they were both calm and ready to discuss it, perhaps he could bring her round. Surely she would see the advantages of the thing in the end. Besides, after this, whom else would she marry? Someone as scrupulous as she was would not like the prospect of telling another man about this. She would have realized that by now as well.
Her reply to his letter had been cool and discouraging, but at least she had replied. By the time he stood ringing her bell on this warm, bright midsummer evening, he had had all day to become optimistic.
His optimism took a blow the moment she opened the door. Her face seemed severer somehow, and she stood well back from him.
"May I come in?" he said, pointedly.
"If you like," she said, turning and mounting the staircase to her new flat. "I take it you would like some coffee."
She poured it from a saucepan in silence, handed him the cup, then poured her own and added a little milk. She sat down across the table from him, looking at him. The same direct gaze he had seen on the evening he met her, but there was no curiosity this time, only guardedness.
"So," he said, "You've been busy, I take it?"
"I haven't been doing as much as I ought. I've been ill, worse than ever –" surely that would soften her a bit – "and I went to Wales for a few weeks. It's done me good, though Norman thinks I should go to Barbados for a longer cure."
She nodded, and took a sip of her coffee.
"I just wish you'd been there with me; Vaughan isn't a patch on you, you know."
"I imagine not. He supported you quite well, though, before you met me, so it's hardly becoming for you to criticize him."
"Oh come, Harriet, you aren't going to take his part, are you? I thought you two couldn't stick each other."
"We can't. But he was your devoted slave for a long time; he probably still is, poor man. And I was the same thing, for a while."
"What in God's name do you mean?" said Philip, genuinely startled.
It was their old argument all over again, except that Harriet had had several months to think over her complaints and list them one by one like something on a charge sheet, and Philip had had an equal amount of time to forget that he had ever been interested in anything except a trial marriage followed, if all went well, by a legal one. And if he had never told her – well, was it more noble to strike a bargain with one's body or to give it freely – and – he stopped and bent over for a moment, gasping. It had felt as if a razor were slicing through his stomach. Not that, not that old trouble again, he thought. Then, irrationally – I should have stayed in Wales.
Harriet sat with an expressionless face, awaiting his recovery. In the old days, she would have at least shown some concern, had him lie down, brought a drink to soothe him. Now she was like stone. Norman had been right; unfeminine, through and through. How had he not seen that?
Another stab in the gut made him jerk out of his chair; Harriet looked up, startled.
"Enough of this. I'm going," he said, reaching for his hat. He was starting to sweat, enough that even the sweltering indoor air was unable to lift the chill from him.
At the door, he paused. What should he say to this plain, furious girl who was half a stranger to him? He could hardly think; the worst might happen all too soon.
"I hope we can still be friends," he said, knowing now that it would never happen.
"I don't think we were ever friends," she said. "We were lovers, and that's a very different thing. And I don't believe we have anything more to say to each other, so good night."
"You're impossible," said Philip. He felt another sharp stab in his gut, worse than the preceding ones, and the pain of rejection receded before the urgent need to get home before he lost control of his own functions. "I feel dreadful – I've got another attack coming on. And no wonder," he added spitefully, "After listening to that rubbish you've been spouting. No, I don't need help – just get away."
The door slammed, and he was alone in the twilight dimness of the hallway, feeling worse by the second. For a moment he was tempted to pound on her door, humble himself long enough to apologize, beg her to call a cab – but he didn't know if she was on the 'phone, and he was damned if he'd ask that proud bitch for a favour ever again. He limped down the stairs and out the front door, then slowly made for Theobalds Road, one hand clutching his stomach, praying for a cab to appear. All he wanted now was to go home.
It took quite a few sets of tennis that weekend to put the memory of Phil's visit in its proper light (damn him, she thought each time she swung, he can find out what it's like to stew over what one can't have) but by Monday morning all was calm again. She was planning to visit the Assyrian rooms at the British Museum later that day, looking for a plausible location for a short-story villain to conceal a small but vital packet, and she was about to close the paper and clear her breakfast away when a small headline caught her eye: NOTED AUTHOR'S DECEASE. And she read, in increasing shock, of Philip Boyes's death.
Her first, idiotic thought was that he had not been supposed to do that – he had been supposed to go to Barbados. Her second was that she should go to Sylvia's studio, and her third was that she had no earthly idea of what to say when she got there.
"Poor Phil," said Sylvia. "Though I shouldn't say that to you, since I know he did something dreadful. But I always thought he was malingering with those illnesses of his, and now it turns out he wasn't at all."
"No, he wasn't lying about that." said Harriet, pushing away another mug of Sylvia's cocoa – the cocoa in her studio always had a faint hint of turpentine in the flavour. "It was bad, but I never thought this could happen. I simply can't believe it, it's like a dream."
"A good dream or a bad dream?" said Sylvia, examining a preliminary sketch with a critical eye. "Sorry, it's not fair to ask that." There was a pause. Harriet tried the cocoa; not as bad as she thought it would be.
"If I may be terribly tactless," said Sylvia, "What on earth did Phil do last winter? Everyone wondered."
I'm sure they did, thought Harriet, but she saw no need to satisfy their curiosity. Let them think what they liked. "It doesn't matter now," she said. And indeed it did not. Even if she had married Phil a year ago, she thought with a jolt, that would be done now. Dis aliter visum – a marriage not meant to be.
She insisted that she still wanted to see Blackmail with the others, but she was numb to the wonders of the talkie and only half took in the story – I'll have to come back again, she thought, I can't get any sense out of this. At Joey Trimbles' studio afterwards, having drinks, the topic of Phil's death was so studiously avoided that she wondered momentarily if she had lost her wits and dreamed up the whole thing. The worst illness to be mentioned was James Rushworth's. "In bed with the flu, poor fellow," said Joey. "That's why he couldn't come tonight. They even had to bring a nurse in, he was so bad. I brought him a consolatory bottle but his mother took it away and said he shouldn't even clap eyes on it until he was better. Oh, he mentioned you, Miss Vane; said to thank you for that recommendation at Trufoot's. He finds it's a great consolation, knowing that he'll be able to pay for the nurse when he's well."
"I imagine it would aid the recovery process considerably," said Harriet, lighting her third cigarette of the hour and thinking blackly that here was yet another bill Philip would leave it to someone else to pay – poor man. She remembered his misery during the attacks he had had while he was with her (and lying to her even then if she had known it) and this last one must have been a horror for him. His funeral had been held two days ago, in that mysterious Tweedling Parva which she had never visited and now never would. Attending, or writing to them, would have been unthinkable – she was nothing to his family, and to push herself on them now would have been worse than insulting.
When she arrived home she felt very much as she had on the night Phil had made his proposal; sleeping was impossible, the only bearable thing was to act. Her steamer trunk squatted by a wall in her sitting-room, still unpacked. By two in the morning, she had taken care of half its contents when she saw some familiar, blocky covers lurking beneath a dress she hadn't touched since last summer. Phil's books, the ones he had given her. She picked them up, one by one, and weighed them in her hands. Abhasa. Mrs Bolton-Brown. Among The Serpents. Nineveh. She had written her name on the flyleaf of each one. When had she done that? She had no memory of it at all.
She looked up at the bookshelf which, on the top row, held her mother's sonnets and her father's medical books and Conan Doyle collection. She considered for a moment, then turned the other way and quickly dropped the books into the bin. She would never have kept them if Phil had been alive, and she couldn't like him any better now that he was dead.
Afterwards, she slammed the steamer trunk closed and went to bed. She would finish clearing it out another day.
She ended up visiting the Assyrian rooms with Sylvia and James Rushworth, the latter of whom was still a little pale but seemed quite recovered otherwise. James had surprised her when they met on the steps by giving her a small parcel. "Just some books," he said, "A belated attempt at thanks for that recommendation to Trufoot's." She opened it somewhat reluctantly and found The Golden Hours Of Kai-Lung, which she had owned while at Oxford and then lost, and something called The Innocent Voyage.
"I was wondering if you'd –" said James, and she looked up, hoping he was not planning to ask her anywhere. He seemed pleasant enough, but his editing skills were the most attractive thing about him – and besides, how could one tell what thoughts a man concealed behind even the most amiable face? Fortunately James seemed unable to finish his sentence coherently, and trailed off into a mutter about "perhaps heard anything."
"I'm sorry, I don't quite catch you."
"Oh, nothing, nothing. It isn't worth discussion. Actually, I was wondering if you had already heard about The Innocent Voyage? It's caused quite a stir on the other side of the Atlantic but we're not getting it here for a few months, which seems quite unfair considering it was written by a Welshman."
"No, I hadn't heard, but as long as it isn't actually in Welsh I'll be happy to read it. It's very nice of you to get it for me."
James and Sylvia kept slipping away during their visit, or perhaps it was simply that Harriet was slower than they, hampered as she was by the need to make notes and rough sketches to ensure that the packet ended up in a place that existed in the room she said it did. There was something unnerving about their disappearances, though; they certainly were not flirting and they kept flitting out of earshot. At one point, while she was examining a winged bull of Khorsabad, they came close enough that she could hear Sylvia saying "Absolutely not. It's likely all nonsense anyway – she's just trying to stir up excitement."
"She didn't seem like –" began James, and they drifted out of earshot again. When Harriet had finally noted down a few likely places and the three of them were at tea, Sylvia and James talked with determined cheerfulness on all the latest gossip. George Townsend and Dora Blacknall had got married after all, to general astonishment. "I'm almost sure Dora's got a baby coming," said Sylvia, "But it's so hard to tell with all those draperies she wears. Poor mite, imagine all the ghastly portraits they'll paint of it when it does arrive."
"At least she won't need to lay in baby-linen," said Harriet. "She can just use a few hundred of her extra scarves." And the conversation moved brightly from baby-linen to dresses and when were the designers going to pick a hemline and stick to it for more than four months at a time? So Harriet never got a chance to ask what on earth they had been talking about, and soon enough she forgot it herself, wrapped in her own book, books by other people, and a collection of crossword puzzles which Joey Trimbles had unearthed from somewhere and given to her. People gave her things a good deal now; likely they thought she was sorry over Phil's death, and in a way she was. But she could not tell them that the greatest part of what she felt was relief. He was gone, he would not haunt her any longer. Last year she would have been crushed – but, like Alice, it was no good going back to yesterday, because she had been a different person then.
"Not going to Paris? Ridiculous," Sylvia said one August afternoon as she, Harriet, and Eiluned sat in the grass by Queen Charlotte's Cottage, which Eiluned was busy sketching. "I thought you were at St Ursula's entirely so you could get back to Paris and do some more etchings for Mademoiselle Clifford."
"I am going," said Eiluned, "But I'll wait until Christmas. I don't want to leave the girls in the lurch; some of them are quite talented."
"There will still be talented girls left in the lurch when you leave after next year."
"Perhaps I won't leave even then – the vacations are long enough. Besides, I rather fancy teaching. I didn't think I would, but sometimes these things surprise you." Eiluned's snub face was serious; it was clear that Paris would have to be patient until she descended upon it again.
"Harriet shall go with me, then," said Sylvia.
"No, no, I won't listen to that. You've been saying it for years, but surely you have enough now for a few weeks away. I was meaning to go in October – didn't you tell me the new book should be done by then? And you need a holiday, you've needed one for years."
"I have. If you hadn't cut me off, I was going to say yes, I'd love to." Not Wales then, she thought, but Paris. "I've been once before, but that was when I was in school, and it was only for a few days. It should be much more interesting without being hovered over."
"You never know," said Sylvia, "There may be a few men who would like to hover."
Eiluned snorted. "They won't be at Miss Clifford's."
"Nonsense," said Sylvia. "We won't be spending our time frowsting there. We'll call, but we needn't spend more than an afternoon. Besides, most of her ladies have brothers who are quite used to being neglected by now, poor darlings. A woman who pays attention to them will be quite a novelty."
"I'm sure she will be," said Harriet, "Whoever she may be."
Sylvia shook her head and then laughed. "I'll lend you my Baedeker," she said. "And how is your French these days? When those attentive brothers turn up I'm sure you won't want to use the wrong conjugations."
"I wasn't bad in school, but of course the theory and the reality of a thing can be pretty far apart some times. I've cause to know that."
Sylvia looked skyward, then leaned over Eiluned's shoulder and squinted slightly. "That's lovely. Hadn't we better be going soon? I'm getting rather damp."
"I'm not done yet, but you two can leave if you like. Go have some tea and get Harriet a French grammar."
"I have three," said Harriet, "So there's no need."
"You would," said Sylvia. "I suppose next you'll be telling me that the trip will be very useful material for a story."
"Yes, I will, because it's true."
"I'm sure it is. Besides, it'll be better for you to be away from talk for a while."
Harriet wondered briefly what talk that was. Hadn't people anything else to discuss now? Phil had been dead for two months, and surely the quarrel couldn't still be of that much interest to them. Rumour's garment must be threadbare by now, but that was what came of people not working enough, she supposed.
Harriet sat on her sofa, Sylvia's Baedeker on the table beside her and the book of crossword puzzles in her lap. The book had been going so well yesterday that she had worked through supper-time and then late into the evening, polishing off the second-to-last false suspect and getting one closed door away from the last false suspect. This morning she had awoken with an exhausted headache and a sudden conviction that the false suspect's dialogue would have to be approached from an entirely different angle, and as she wasn't quite up to it yet, a crossword puzzle would be a good way to get her mind working. So far, though, it was going slowly. It was early afternoon, a fly was buzzing somewhere above her, and she was looking sightlessly at 12 Down. A rose-red city, half as old as time. Five letters, first letter P. She should know this one, but it kept slipping her mind. Certainly not Paris. By now she had about twenty different slips of paper in the Baedeker's, marking the things she would like to see. She drifted across the names of cities beginning with P – Paris, Prague, Portsmouth – ridiculous, far too many letters. Paggleham? Also ridiculous, also not a city. Pavia, Pisa, Plymouth, Petrograd –
The bell rang. Who on earth? She was unreasonably annoyed at the interruption; she had felt that she was coming close to the answer, but now some latter-day person from Porlock had come expressly to spoil her crossword. Looking out the window, she saw that the person from Porlock was a man whom she did not recognize, so she went down to the front entrance and opened the door partway.
A tall man of about forty stood before her, his unremarkable face set in a pleasant expression. She did not open the door further. Who was he? She had heard of authors' devotees trying to find them in their homes, but so far all of her communication with such people had been through the post and she hoped it stayed that way.
"Good afternoon," he said. "Would you be Miss Harriet Vane?"
"Yes, I am. I don't believe I know you."
"Detective-Inspector Charles Parker, Scotland Yard." He held up his identification, long enough for her to get a good look at it. "I was wondering if I might speak with you for a few moments."
Bewildered, she opened the door the rest of the way. "Certainly. What on earth is this about?"
"I wanted to ask you a few questions about Mr Philip Boyes. I'm told that you and he were – acquainted."
What on earth has Phil done, she thought, before remembering; nothing, he's dead. Well, she would find out what the trouble was soon enough.
"Of course, Mr Parker." She led him up the staircase and through the door of her flat. "Please sit down. Would you care for some coffee?"