Talboys, Hertfordshire, 1945
Harriet propped herself on one elbow and contemplated the dark head on the pillow beside her. Dawn had not, as part of her mind had feared, brought regret and a sickening sense of “what have I done?” but peace, the memory of laughter and the absence of the heavy numbness that had weighed on her since Peter’s death. Waiting for Bunter to wake, she could only hope he felt the same way about it.
She had been wrong that time long ago, she thought, in thinking that any woman would have done. Whether one was seeking distraction, respite or temporary oblivion, any man would not have done at all. This man. This place. A man who understood and was, despite outward appearances, as bereft as one was oneself. And, she reflected, this particular man’s attention to detail and dedication to knowing what one wanted before one knew it oneself did bring unanticipated benefits, with the added advantage that what conversation there was hadn’t been conducted entirely in French. She smiled, remembering, and stretched. In the early hours she had woken to find him attempting to return to his own room but had quickly, silently, convinced him that there was no need for that. Not yet. However, she reflected, on the whole it might be advisable for him to have removed himself before Mrs Ruddle put in an appearance downstairs. Strange to think that she had Helen to thank for this new state of affairs, whether permanent, occasional or temporary.
It had been an ordinary morning. No longer able to see any lighter side to death, even in fiction, Harriet had plunged determinedly into a series of pamphlets and reports on subjects as varied as the need for post-war public housing and the use of liquid paraffin as a butter substitute in domestic cookery, desperate to write something, anything, and not to think. She wrote after breakfast, a period of welcome peace, interrupted only by Bunter, melancholy and silent, with cups of tea.
“The Duchess of Denver, my lady” His tone was impassive but as Bunter showed the Duchess into the sitting room, Harriet detected a sympathetic raised eyebrow.
“Would your ladyship like me to bring the tea now?”
“Yes, Bunter. Thank you.” Thus recalled to the duties of hospitality, Harriet rose to greet her sister-in-law.
“Helen. This is – unexpected. How in the world did you get here?”
“Train to Great Pagford and an unconscionably slow taxi,” the Duchess replied. “The little man driving was about a hundred and five and I had my doubts about his eyesight.”
“Mr Hancock does the best he can,” Harriet pointed out. “What with all the men called up, drivers are in rather short supply,” not to mention, she thought, the small matter of our having had the last one hanged.
“I have told him to wait. I shall be catching the 1.10 to attend a meeting at the Ministry. I shan’t be staying for lunch. Where are the children?” Helen peered around the room as if expecting them to be hiding under the table.
“Bredon has lessons at the vicarage every morning and Paul is out with Emily. They usually go and look at the ducks.”
Helen dismissed the ducks with a sniff. “I had feared Bredon might be attending some dreadful village school with all sorts of impossible people. I take it the vicar is a suitable tutor?”
“Certainly. He’s an Oxford man and relishes the challenge. It all goes swimmingly as long as Bredon can be prevailed upon not to distract him from Latin verbs by asking about cacti.”
Helen was uninterested in cacti. “As head of the family,” she continued, “I – that is Gerald – we are naturally concerned about the boys’ upbringing. With Peter gone, and considering Denver...”
Denver. So that was what had brought Helen twenty miles out of her way across country and unannounced on a wet morning. The thought that the heir presumptive to the Dukedom might not be being brought up in an appropriately aristocratic manner. Remembering Jerry – mercurial, selfish, spoilt and shot down over the Channel – Harriet wondered whether Helen was perhaps not the expert on child-rearing she thought she was, but it would have been cruel to say so.
“Peter put both boys’ names down for Eton at birth,” Harriet said firmly. “I hardly think you need worry about their education.”
“Education is all very well,” her sister-in-law observed, “but there are other things to consider. Are they making the right sort of friends? I cannot expect you to understand the importance of making the proper connections but even you must realise that as Bredon’s mother you have a position to keep up. You cannot possibly continue to bury yourself in the middle of nowhere once the war is over. Farmhouses may be picturesque for a week-end, if a trifle insanitary, but one simply does not live in one on a permanent basis. We appreciate that you might find running the London house alone a daunting prospect and that is why Gerald and I thought it our duty to offer you and the children a home with us.”
Harriet clenched her fists under the table and wondered where Bunter had got to with the tea.
“That is very - kind - of you Helen,” she replied once she had recovered the power of speech. “I would like the boys to come to know and love Duke’s Denver, just as their father did. We will naturally visit, should you care to have us, and perhaps, later on, they could sometimes stay with you for the holidays if you, and they, wish, but I see no need for us to move in. I haven’t thought about after the war – I can’t see my way further than a day ahead. We may well stay on here, with Bunter to see to everything.” She congratulated herself on her restraint.
“Bunter,” said Helen tight-lipped. “Another matter I wished to talk to you about. What are you intending to do about Bunter?”
“Do I have to do anything about him?” Harriet asked mildly. “My experience of Bunter is that he just gets on with things and everything runs smoothly if one leaves him to it.”
“Harriet,” Helen sighed, exasperated at such incompetence. “The man is a valet. A gentleman’s personal gentleman. Now that Peter is dead, it is high time he went. I daresay Peter left him well provided for, he always was quite tiresome about the fellow, which does lead one rather to wonder what the man thinks he is still doing here.”
“Bunter was devoted to Peter, Helen. We both owe him a great deal. I could no more sack Bunter than chop off my right arm. I couldn’t manage without him and he is wonderful with the boys.”
“This is exactly the kind of thing I was afraid of. A word of warning - one simply cannot afford to let the lower orders get ideas above their station. And what’s more, it is inappropriate, if not to say unseemly, for a woman, particularly a woman of your reputation, to be living with a manservant.”
Harriet’s eyes widened. “Just what precisely are you insinuating, Helen?”
“My dear Harriet, I am merely pointing out that a woman in your position cannot afford to take unnecessary risks. Think of the family. Think of the embarrassment. Bunter is a personable fellow, some might say handsome if you like that kind of thing, and heaven knows what he used to get up to with all those housemaids and people in London. You are practically alone here together. There will be talk.”
“Helen, that is hardly the case,” retorted an infuriated Harriet. “Charles and Polly have returned home and Lizzie left to marry her pig farmer over at Nine Elms so we’re not as full as we were, but Mrs Ruddle is here every morning, Emily lives in, there are the boys – Paul still wakes in the night – and half the time the kitchen is full of the ARP in a fug of pipe smoke. Even if Bunter and I were lovers, I fail to see how we could manage it.”
There was a muffled crash from the passage. Hoping it hadn’t been the best service, Harriet abandoned any thought of tea, which might have provided a welcome interruption to the conversation, and wondered how much else he might have heard. Blast.
Helen was finally dispatched to meet her train, vanquished, at least temporarily, by Harriet’s suggestion that if Bunter was an unsuitable father figure, perhaps family would, after all, be best, in the shape of Uncle Paul. Harriet had won that battle, but she felt battered and bruised. Helen was right in that she had not given a thought to the future. And what of Bunter? The tea had failed to appear at all, though the passage bore signs of rough scrubbing. Had he died of embarrassment or gone to pack his bags, never having been so insulted? Neither felt likely.
Harriet stepped across the passage and opened the kitchen door. The kitchen was empty and the scullery contained only Mrs Ruddle, vigorously peeling potatoes over the pig bucket. Harriet finally ran Bunter to earth in one of the outbuildings chopping logs with extreme violence. She heard the swing and thud of the axe as she approached and between the crack of splitting wood a furious monologue, the only discernable words of which were “interfering”, “condescending”, “stuck-up” and “bitch”.
She tried to retreat but he had seen her. Better to tackle it head on. Something had to be said.
“Do we need more firewood, Bunter?”
“No, my lady.”
The equivalent then of a long drive in a fast car. Well it was one way of relieving pent up fury. Helen’s words ringing in her ears, she was suddenly conscious of the open neck of his shirt, his rolled-up sleeves, the muscles in his arm.
“Her grace has left, Bunter. I’m afraid I lost my temper.”
“That must have been most gratifying to your ladyship.”
“Yes, though I may live to regret it. Peter would have been much more diplomatic.”
He dropped the axe and raised a stricken face to hers.
“If they had let me go with him...” he tailed off.
The Dowager Duchess had said he looked too much like an English gentleman’s personal gentleman to go undercover, and whatever outfit it was that had seized on Peter after that first mission in 1940 had shared her opinion. The second time, Peter had left alone and Bunter would never forgive himself.
“Perhaps,” she said. “But they didn’t and that is not your fault.” She took a deep breath. “Bunter – I don’t know how much you – I mean whether...” That sentence did not seem to be going anywhere useful. Harriet started again.
“Whatever Helen may say, Bunter, I see no reason why you should leave if you don’t want to. But if you would rather go and run a pub or a photographic studio or something, I wouldn’t stand in your way.”
The tension left his shoulders and he seemed to be recovering his equilibrium.
“I had hoped, my lady, that my being here was of assistance to your ladyship rather than the reverse.”
“It is.” Peter at this point would probably have put a manly arm across his shoulders. Strange that she had never really thought about his shoulders before. They were very broad shoulders. Harriet shook her head. Curse Helen. She was still furious.
“Bunter,” she said vehemently. “Helen Denver does not dictate what I, or you do, or both of us come to that.”
He looked at her, surprised, amused, speculative. Damp from the rain, his usually smooth hair was ruffled by anger and exertion. She gazed, stunned, and was suddenly scarlet.
“Mum-mmy...” called a shrill voice. “Was the Sherriff of Nottingham as bad as Hitler?” And Bredon wanted to know if he could go fishing with Mr Puffett and stay up all night and Emily had broken a plate and the thought was gone.
But not forgotten. In the week that followed, Harriet found Bunter as scrupulously polite and dutifully attentive as ever, but at unguarded moments she caught the odd glance, sideways, appraising. She found herself increasingly aware of his hands as he carried trays and shut curtains and if their eyes met it was hers that fell first. She couldn’t sleep at all.
Bloody Peter. How dare he go and be dead and leave her with his blasted family and all their incumbent duties and obligations. It wasn’t as if one had ever wanted the money and the title and all that went with it. If only one could escape. Go back. Not wanting ever to depend for one’s happiness on another person because as soon as you did they would leave you to the mercy of their interfering relatives. One should have known it was all too good to last. And she had wasted five years they could have had. Was it better to snatch at what chances Fate gave one? But at least feeling angry was better than feeling numb. What had held good through it all? Her sons. His sons. And Bunter. Bunter, who now Helen mentioned it… Why hadn’t she ever noticed? And now that she had noticed, what then? She remembered a small Bredon, solid and unrepentant, explaining in mitigation, “but the trouble is, mummy that if Aunt Helen tells me not to do something, it makes me want to go and do it even if it’s something I hadn’t even thought of before.” But that was ridiculous. And besides he’s called Mervyn. One couldn’t possibly. A bubble of laughter emerged, the first since the dreadful day when they had told her and life had ceased to have any point to it at all The only sin passion can commit is to be joyless... Getting out and starting again... I hope I may be dead before I give either of you cause to leave me for another… Damn. One could not go on like this.
“You know as how it’s my afternoon off next Tuesday and I’m going to my ma’s over to Broxford? Well I’ve told her so much about Paul and I’d like to take him to see her. Do you think her ladyship would mind? I’d look after him ever so careful.”
“It is quite a long journey for him,” Bunter said considering. “Though he’d probably be excited by going on the bus. If I were you, I’d ask her ladyship if you could stay the night, just this once. Paul is much aggrieved at not being allowed to go fishing with his brother. If he was to have a night-time adventure of his own to look forward to, I think it would do much to restore domestic harmony.”
“Would you ask her ladyship, Mr Bunter, or should I?”
“Perhaps, Emily, it would be best if it came from you.”
“I hear you’re taking young Bredon fishing Mr Puffett.”
“That’s right Mr Bunter. I thought we’d go up the Pagg, Blackraven Wood way. You fancy comin’ along?”
“Not me. You fixed on a day yet?”
“Well it’s choir practice Wednesday. I don’t rightly know. Thursday mebbe?”
“How about Tuesday?” said Mr Bunter.
Ready for bed, Harriet closed the curtains, sat down and re-read the letter from her sister-in-law that had arrived by the afternoon post. In it Helen magnanimously forgave Harriet for her loss of temper, blaming it on the emotional strain of bereavement, albeit indulged for far too long. She went on to repeat her offer of a home at Denver, expressed her doubts about the way the children were being brought up, voiced her continued concern at the unorthodox presence and over-familiarity of Bunter and concluded with assurances that she was only doing her duty. Damn the woman. How dare Helen tell her what she should or shouldn’t do. It wasn’t even as if there were any opportunity. Apart from tonight, said a small voice in her head. The house was empty. How had that been so precisely engineered?
There was a tap at the door.
“Having observed the postmark, my lady, I thought perhaps a drink might be required.”
“Thank you, Bunter. As ever, you read my mind.”
“Quite, my lady.” His voice was expressionless as she looked up at him but the corner of his mouth twitched. He had shaved, she noticed. A drop of water glistened on the curve of his neck. Help. One of them would have to say something but, expert in words as she was, she hadn’t the slightest idea what. Bunter stepped into the breach.
“Will that be all, my lady?” he asked. “Or will there be anything – further?” He placed his hand on her shoulder. She waited. Swallowed. His thumb traced circles against her neck. She knew that if she said “That will be all,” it would be an end of it. She wasn’t entirely sure she could breathe. She raised her hand to cover his. Wide hands. Short, strong fingers. She stood and turned to face him.
“Not as an order, nor out of duty.” She searched his face.
“No,” he said. “Not that.” He paused.
Deep down inside something released, her stomach churned. He waited. She stepped forward, smiled ruefully, took his face in both hands and kissed him.
“Then,” she said, recovering breath, “would it please you to come to bed?”
He opened his eyes and looked into hers.
“I have never known you at a loss for words, Bunter. Aren’t there valet’s handbooks for this kind of thing?”
“Unfortunately not, my lady. I fear that here we may have to make it up as we go along.”
“I think we might manage that,” she said. “Although, is it absolutely necessary to call me ‘my lady’ quite all the time?”
He raised a reminiscent, questioning eyebrow and assumed an air of innocence.
“On the available evidence, my lady, I ventured to infer that the appellation was not displeasing to your ladyship.”
“Cut it out, Bunter.”
The church clock struck seven. Bunter sat up and reached for the neatly folded garments on the chair beside the bed. He was arrested by the sound of the swing of the gate, steps on the gravel. They looked at each other in consternation.
“Did you lock the back door?”
“I regret that last night it may somehow have slipped my mind.”
Steps below. Ascending the stair. The click of the latch and a figure in the doorway.
“Peter,” he said, his gaze taking in the rumpled bed, his wife, and Bunter determinedly doing up his trousers. “They came, you know, and told me you were dead. Except that they happened to be wrong about that.”
Bunter was the first to speak.
“It is very good to see you back, your lordship,” he said. “Perhaps, my lord, my lady, I should see to breakfast.”
He closed the door behind him and leaned against it.
“Oh bugger,” said Bunter.