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Gilded Butterflies

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SCENE THE FIRST

“Peter, I can’t.”

“You can, and you shall, my best beloved. My mother on the trail is not to be denied.”

“But… hats. Hats, Peter!”

“She’s been longing to get you into a milliner’s since first she clapped eyes on you, my dove, my Lady-Peter-to-be.”

“What? Was I dowdy in the dock?”

“Perish the thought. She felt you had the bones for a cloche. Mama yearned for someone to wear one of those dashed bell-heads. Helen never would.”

“Well, thank God I rejected you then. I can’t abide cloches.”

“What can you abide? Tell me. I shall shower you in titfers, given half a chance.”

“Let that be between your mother and me.”

“Aha! So you will go with her.”

Lord Peter, triumphant.

*

SCENE THE SECOND

“I don’t know,” said the Dowager, “That I really like sherbet lemons. Perhaps that is the trouble.”

Harriet, harried, took off the offending sample with more speed than grace. Her Grace, her future mother-in-law, Peter’s adored Mama (whatever one could with propriety call this woman, Harriet had yet to fathom), was not someone whose fashion sense could be ignored. One might, perhaps, reject something of which she approved, but one should never acquire something of which she did not.

“This?” she tried. It had not looked like much, a scrap of black satin, a touch of net. Something a trifle evil, or perhaps commonplace. But somehow once on, it became more. She tilted her chin up, and mirror-Harriet regarded her with pride. Chin down, positive coquettish, but in a manner she could enjoy. “Oh,” she said.

“Yes,” said the Dowager. “When one meets the right hat it’s so very gratifying, don’t you think? An extension of one’s skull, although that’s quite grotesque now I’ve said it, poor Mr Meyrick was so much less photogenic whatever his headgear, but there’s something to be said for a hat which truly fits one’s face, don’t you think?”

“I do,” said Harriet, helplessly. She contemplated the likely cost of the slip of nothing very much she was currently sporting. Corinne’s was not an establishment which specified prices at any point until the – sadly necessary but so long-distant – moment of the presentation of the bills. However, there was no help for it. “I’ll take it.”

“And the green,” said the Dowager. “And I think perhaps the ruby headband, assuming that you intend to drop in on the fashionable world now and again. Peter does enjoy it, mostly with irony but he does have friends, you know, and-“

Harriet glimpsed an anxiety, unexpected. “I’d never stop him,” she said. “I thought that was understood.”

“Oh, but you could,” said the Dowager, gimlet-sharp amid the softness of her public persona. “Your disdain, or your absence from his side. Either would, or will, eventually cut him off. You must know that. And while all of us go less into Society as we age, I think Peter would miss it a great deal if he were never to-”

Harriet sighed. “Very well. How often is enough, do you think? I won’t ration myself, but it would be useful to know of a minimum permissible. That way I can audit at need, and confect something in Town if we are falling down on it.”

The Dowager smiled, and began a lengthy spoken calculation which Harriet largely tuned out. The final figure would be enough, and she would tell Peter about it. Better to be honest. He might be longing to withdraw from London circles, after all. But she had a strong suspicion the Dowager knew her son at least as well as Harriet could claim to. Marriage would be rather more than a bilateral concern, as she had feared.

However, it would be worthwhile. Now decided, Harriet surprised herself with her firm resolve. Marriage, Lady Peter awfulness and all, it would be.

The Dowager reached a conclusion, which Harriet had just time to note down in her Lady Peter mental drawer, before darting off in another, yet more terrifying direction. “And the lingerie,” she said, firmly. “One doesn’t mention to Peter, but of course that is rather more significant than hats. Not just for the honeymoon, either. It is one of the secrets of a happy marriage. Not that I had one, but one does pay attention to when others succeed, don’t you find? And dear Dorothea always swore by her undergarments. I don’t believe Pethercombe ever had more than three mistresses, and that in fifty years!”

Harriet, in her wake, avoided the discreetly-amused eye of the milliner. She did, undeniably, need underpinnings. Probably more glamorous than those of the Lady Crime Writer, be she never so successful.

This, though, she was determined would not be purchases designed for Lady Peter. Underneath the persona, she would remain Harriet. It was, she was entirely confident, what Peter would enjoy, and it was moreover all that she could contemplate.

And despite all this, certainty. She would be Lady Peter. She would do the Season, insofar as necessary. She would host house parties, and go on shooting weekends. She might, all willing, provide a spare heir or two, relieving pressure on poor St George as the hope of the Wimsey line. And around this still she would write, and wear unrespectable underthings, and remain Harriet. But she would also have Peter. And that would be quite different.

*

SCENE THE THIRD

Dearest Peter,

You have chosen excellently. She looks splendid in the right hat. I shall look forward to shopping with her often.

Your loving

Mama