Actions

Work Header

Florilegium

Chapter Text

Honoria Lucasta sits in bed, listening to her husband’s stumbling progress up the stairs. She has not gone to see since the night she found Williams giving money to a cabman while his master leaned heavily against the doorpost. When the house is quiet again, she gets up (ungainly with pregnancy, she disturbs both Tiglath-Pileser and The Moon and Sixpence in the process.) She finds Gerald sprawled, snoring, and oblivious. He looks, she thinks, like a bad caricature of himself. She shivers with rage, now, rather than fear. His behavior takes them ever nearer to open scandal, and remains an untellable secret.

Dashing away tears, the Duchess catches a glimpse of something unexpected almost at her shoulder. She blinks, and looks again. Great-Uncle Roger -- Great-Uncle Roger, of all people! -- here, and at this time of night. The old guardsman’s watery grey eyes seem more melancholy than their wont. She’s sure that he’s aware of her, but he neither speaks nor looks in her direction. Instead, he stalks grimly, martially to the side of the bed. Gerald makes a noise marginally more uneasy than a snore. And then, to the Duchess’ astonishment, Great-Uncle Roger begins to pace.

He paces with a tread no less regular for being insubstantial; he paces over –- or through, thinks the Duchess distractedly -- the legs of his recumbent and insensible scion. Honoria Lucasta sighs with guilty delight, and feels long-held tension go out of her shoulders. She smiles beatifically up at Great-Uncle Roger, who acknowledges her with what she might almost think of as a wink. Oh, the blessed relief of not being alone any more! And, she reflects with satisfaction, as she gathers her robes about her, Gerald will feel like absolute hell in the morning.

Chapter Text

Mervyn Bunter reloads his rifle. He can do so, now, within five seconds. The rough breathing of the man next to him is more palpable than the shaking of the earth beneath them.

“Don’t worry, sir,” says Sergeant Bunter; “we’re sure to make it back.”

The sharp face of the officer, pale beneath grime, is turned to him. “Don’t you ever, Sergeant, pronounce on matters beyond your knowledge. Or tell your superiors lies they want to hear,” he adds.

Bunter, hearing the tone of the voice, dares a grin in the strafe-lit darkness. “Wouldn’t dream of it, Major Wimsey.”

Chapter Text

“Harriet…”

“Please don’t say it!”

His lordship picked at an invisible roughness on the steering wheel. “And there was silence in heaven,” said he at last, “about the space of half an hour.”

“We were having such a nice evening,” said Harriet lamely. London was turning to springtime; she was beginning to feel that life might be possible, after all.

She saw, rather than heard him inhale deeply. “Yes,” he said. “Yes. And don’t worry, I won’t.”

“I’m sorry, Peter.”

He met her eyes. “That’s something, anyway.”

“What is?”

He smiled. “Your use of my Christian name. Good night, Harriet.”

Chapter Text

“Thank God,” said Harriet Wimsey to her husband, sotto voce, “that they’re so absolutely in awe of Bunter.”

“Amen to that fair prayer, say I,” responded Lord Peter, tucking his wife’s hand through his arm.

This exchange was the most holy conversation that had taken place at Talboys that Sunday morning. But now—at last!—the riot of small boys had been miraculously translated into an orderly procession, from which Bredon only occasionally broke free to make cantering forays over the pristine snow.

Harriet sighed, contentment mingling with a sense of continually-renewed relief. Here, then, the heart of rest.

Chapter Text

“Hardly apt, dearest, surely?”

“Hm?” Lord Peter Wimsey played through the stanza’s conclusion, as if reminding himself of what he had been picking out. “Heart with sorrows hath infected… No, I suppose not.” He ranged over the keys.

“My thoughts are wing’d with hopes, my hopes with love! Mount, Love, unto the moon in clearest night…”

Harriet listened politely while Dowland’s grandiloquent lover declaimed his woes, then queried mildly:

“Have I been particularly Cynthia-like lately?”

“Perish the thought!” The opening chords of “Come again, sweet love” rang out like a fanfare. “I was just wondering about getting a harpsichord.”

Chapter Text

Glass, shattering: on the floor of the darkroom, the remains of a photographic plate. Bunter had demanded, voice tight, if he was hurt, and then exhaled, receiving a reply in the negative. “Then stand well clear, your lordship.” Blushing and miserable, he had done so. Later – no longer blushing but scarcely less miserable – he had stood in the door of the butler’s pantry, cleared his throat for notice, followed an invitation to enter. Bunter had resumed the polishing of the coffee urn, imperturbably accepting of his presence.

“I’m sorry for being careless with your things.”

“You needn’t mention it, your lordship.”

“But I wanted to mention it.” He had drummed his heels against the cupboards. “It was kind of you to let me watch. And Uncle Peter said it was bad enough that you had to put up with him all the time without me mucking about with your space and your tools.”

Bunter had coughed, and become deeply absorbed in the polishing of the urn’s spout. “Care and practice,” he had said, a few moments later. “Most things worth doing take care and practice.”

***

Glass, shattering: had he only imagined that, later, as the beginning of the adventure in the library, with the burglar’s pistol cold in his hand, and then the interrogation that he had accepted with the unquestioning delight of a child, and the thrill of one who was beginning to think of himself as a young man?

***

Glass, shattering: curiously, it is the only thing he remembers about the smash, after the screech of tires, the wrench of the wheel. There must have been the scream of brakes, the angry, dull, disastrous crunch of metal against wood… but all he remembers is the bright, high sound of glass shattering.

***

Glass, shattering: he had expected the windscreen of the Spitfire to collapse in on him… or to spin wildly away, shards falling through space as in the Andersen tale, to turn the hearts of children cold. But the glass had shattered and held, while the 109s passed by. And he had flown home squinting past the opaque dazzle radiating out from the lodged bullet.

***

Glass, shattering: when he gets himself more or less upright in the bed, it is to find Aunt Harriet already bending for the pieces of the tumbler. The lines of her are still lovely, he thinks; water has darkened the hem of her skirt, patterned the floor at her feet.

“Sorry,” he mumbles.

“You needn’t be,” she says; “it was an unlucky break.” He wonders at her ability to say such things so calmly; part of him wants to shout at her. But then she straightens, and he sees the worry in her eyes and the threads of gray in her hair, and he smiles sheepishly.

“I don’t even think I was dreaming.”

“That’s all to the good, isn’t it?”

“I suppose so.” He swallows hard. A nurse appears with a dustpan, which Harriet takes with an almost voiceless thanks. “It’s kind of you to stop.”

“You know I’m glad to, Gherkins.” He finds himself, as always, oddly touched by her use of the childish nickname. He wonders when she picked it up from Uncle Peter. If he didn’t think it would stop her doing it, he’d ask.

“I am also,” she says, “cleverly avoiding a knitting circle. They’ve outgrown the vicarage, and the church is draughty… so Mrs. Goodacre brings them to Talboys. All very suitable, only they will keep trying to teach me to knit.”

The Viscount St. George laughs. “Tell me,” he says drowsily, “how awful you are at it.” He falls asleep to the sound of her voice.

Chapter Text

“Io venni,” declaimed Lord Peter Wimsey, “in loco d’ogne luce muto, che mugghia come fa mar per tempesta, se da contrari venti è combattuto.”

“Quite so,” responded his wife, adjusting her hold on the tarpaulin. “I could never quite rid myself of the feeling that Dante’s similes could be a thought ill-timed.”

Lord Peter bent his head under the rebuke and over Mrs. Merdle’s engine.

“I think,” he said presently, “that she must have gotten water-logged as we came over the last bridge.”

Harriet sighed. “We walk, then?”

“Not so hasty. If her spark plugs are dry, she ought to be all right now that she’s stood for a bit.” He contemplated the uneven and increasingly muddy surface of the road with an air of stoic resignation. “I’ll have to get under the car.”

Wordlessly Harriet handed him the tarpaulin, and left him to adjust the bonnet and his own position while she scrambled for an umbrella. Despite the rain, it was not very cold, and she found, contemplating the lower half of her husband, that her predominant feeling was one of amusement. From under the car proceeded the strains of the gondolier’s song in Rossini’s Otello.

“You,” said Harriet, confident of not being heard over the rain and the singer’s own voice, “are a ridiculous man.”

Presently, a cry of triumph. “Got it — ow!” said his lordship. He wriggled inelegantly out from under the car, and squinted up at her. Obligingly, she held out her free hand. Standing, he did not release it from his clasp.

"Amor,” said Lord Peter Wimsey gravely, “c’ha nullo amato amar perdona, mi prese del costui piacer si forte, che, come vedi, ancor non m’abbandona.”

“Questi,” responded his wife, “che mai da me non fia diviso, la bocca mi basciò tutto tremante.”

He suited the action to the word.

Chapter Text

“Don’t growl, Peter dearest,” said Harriet Wimsey, without taking her eyes from the road.

“Mmmm,” returned his lordship. His wife decided to interpret the noise charitably. For some time they proceeded in silence, Mrs. Merdle humming with her customary dignity.

“You’re very fortunate, you know,” added Harriet, navigating a bridge that had not been designed for automobiles, let alone for those of Mrs. Merdle’s magnificence.

“Mmmm,” said Peter Wimsey again, and clarified the remark with: “In the quality of my wife, or that of my car?”

“In neither,” said Harriet firmly, and ground the gear lever. “That is, in both –- that is, oh damn! Sorry,” she added contritely, resuming her entente cordiale with the Daimler.

“What I meant,” said Harriet, “is that I know you hate being driven, but if you growl at me I will have us over in a ditch, and dent things, and probably break your other arm, and then you’ll be sorry.”

“Do you know,” said his lordship musingly, “I think the boys have had a deleterious effect on your vocabulary. But it’s all right; I’ve as many lives as a cat, and the utmost confidence in your driving, though it be not as the driving of Jehu, the son of Nimshi.”

“Idiot,” said Harriet. “And cats don’t go chasing after dangerous criminals in the autumn of their days.”

“Season of mists,” returned Peter indignantly, “and mellow fruitfulness. Close bosom friend of the maturing sun, conspiring with him how –- ”

“It’s the conspiring,” said Harriet darkly, “that worries me.” After a few minutes’ silence and a roundabout, she added: “I was afraid for you, Peter.”

“How very conjugal of you, Harriet!”

“Shut up.”

“Yours to command –- ow!”

“And don’t try to kiss my hand while I’m driving. It’s bad for you. And very distracting.” Glancing over at him, she was relieved to note that the lines around his mouth had lost their pinched whiteness. “You may,” said Harriet, “quote Keats at me, if you like.”

“Oh good,” said her husband. “Away! away! for I will fly to thee, not charioted by Bacchus and his pards, but on the viewless wings of Poesy, though the dull brain perplexes and retards: Already with thee! tender is the night…”

Together they drove home to Talboys.

Chapter Text

The rain fell steadily from a silver sky, veiling the village. At Talboys, it dripped from the chimney pots and ran down from the eaves. The householders contemplated it from the depths of a goose-feather bed.

“D’you know,” said Lord Peter Wimsey quietly, tightening his arm around his wife’s waist, “there was a time when I hated rain.”

“Mm?” It was a half-drowsy note of mild interrogation.

“No good for the cricket pitch,” said Peter into the nape of Harriet’s neck; she knew it to be a prefatory remark. “Drains all the light from Oxford’s stones, as you know. And then… it meant mud, and it seemed endless. The damp, the cold, the wet — chiefly the mud.” The repetition came with a breath that was not quite laughter.

Harriet bit back the rejoinder that that was a hell of a commentary on a war, and leaned into her husband’s embrace. Feeling his rapid heartbeat, she brought his hand to rest against her own. The bell for service reached them dimly, as though the rain cut them off from sound as well as sight of the village. Close by came the piping of a chaffinch.

“Listen,” said Harriet; “birdsong.”

Chapter Text

“Thalia, I think,” says Harriet.

“Do you?” He is perched on the edge of the bed, one thumb stroking the skin above her knee almost absently. His eyes have not left the face of their infant daughter.

“Yes,” says Harriet simply. Thalia, for abundance and joy and, yes, grace.

“We can always insert something suitably biblical to assuage the vicar’s feelings.”

“Dear Mr. Goodacre! Yes. Do take her, Peter.” He obeys wordlessly, his long-fingered hands deft and tender.

“Judith,” says Harriet. “Or — oh! What about Katharine?”

Peter looks up at her, and smiles. “Her godmother will be in ecstasies.”

Chapter Text

“Peter,” said Harriet suddenly, pulling herself back from the brink of sleep, “we will be all right, won’t we?” His arms tightened around her. In the ensuing silence, on the mild September air there came to them the chiming of the quarter hour.

“I’m sorry,” she began, “that’s not fair…”

“Don’t,” said Peter, in an urgent undertone, “do not on any account apologize.”

Harriet hooked her foot around his ankle. “We have this.”

“Inter-assurèd of the mind… They probably will order me abroad.”

“I know. I’ll write pamphlets about condensed milk.”

“Masterpieces, every one.”

“Peter,” said Harriet, “kiss me.”

Chapter Text

“ ‘Absence, hear thou my protestation,” quotes Lord Peter Wimsey, “Against thy strength, /Distance and length: / Do what thou canst for alteration; / For hearts of truest mettle, / Absence doth join, and time doth settle.’ Attributed to Donne, Bunter, but I have my doubts.”

“Have you, my lord?”

“Far too contented,” continues his lordship, between chattering teeth, “with his damned absence. ‘Reason doth win / Redoubl’d in her secret notions…’ Donne was too sensible a fellow to put overmuch faith in reason.”

“Indeed, my lord.” Bunter settles himself more firmly against his tree. It provides at least some shelter from the wind, and a shadow more substantial than his own. Even with the experiences of an earlier war, he finds himself starting at the sounds of foxes in the undergrowth, half-expecting the lights of electric torches, the shouts of pursuit.

“ ‘Hearts that cannot vary…’ I’m glad you’re here, Bunter.”

Mervyn Bunter, with more than half a lifetime’s training behind him, restrains the impulse to protest against his lordship saying such things. The sentiment that a field in France is no place for two middle-aged Englishmen on a midwinter night remains likewise unvoiced. Bunter keeps to himself the grim conviction that they will be told — presuming, of course, that the plane does come, and that they do get out — how necessary and how worthwhile were their endeavors. Familiar cant.

“What did you say, Bunter?”

“Nothing, my lord.”

“You said it very loudly.”

Bunter coughs. “Yes, my lord.”

“I know. It’s a damned filthy business. Food for powder, food for powder…”

“Hardly that, my lord,” says Bunter, alarmed. Fluent German and unassailable sangfroid have gotten them this far. Neither of those things, however, will provide assistance against the other man’s fever or his own frostbite. The cold has settled in his bones like a memory of the trenches; the sky over them is empty of all but stars.

“By absence,” says Lord Peter softly, “this good means I gain, / That I can catch her / Where none can watch her, / In some close corner of my brain. / There I embrace and kiss her, / And so I both enjoy and miss her.’ ”

Bunter makes no rejoinder. He is visited by a stab of anger, painful as freezing limbs. Perhaps it is better that they should risk themselves than that younger men and women should do so, but it is still a violation of the order of things. Bunter in his wrath decides that he shall refuse a medal, if it is offered, and then reverses his decision. He thinks wildly that he should have asked Lady Harriet to look after his mother in the event of his death. It would have meant asking her to confront the possible death of the man beside him. But remembering her farewell, solemn and dry-eyed, he rather thinks she already has. I know you’ll look after him, Bunter; look after yourself too, won’t you?

In the distance, low and unmistakable, comes the rumble of a plane.

Chapter Text

Lord Peter Wimsey lies long awake before going to the library. Once there, he potters in a determined fashion. His hands are not steady enough for Bach; he runs them, instead, over the spines of books. He takes down a medium quarto volume, bound in much-handled calf’s leather. He tries to read it. He tries not to hear the whizzing of phantom shells in the dark. At last, in frustration — he will not call it terror — he rings the bell. That's something, he tells himself. A bell has been rung, and a man has been summoned. That's something.

Sergeant Bunter (just Bunter, he tells himself; just Bunter, now) appears with compunction-inducing promptitude. His dark hair is tousled, his face still soft from sleep. There are circles under his eyes. “Yes, my lord?”

“I…” The request dies on his lips. He is not entirely sure what he had been going to ask for. The latest mailbag? A cup of soup, if there was any to be had? Chiefly, he thinks, not to be alone in this damned darkness, this damned cold. His long fingers tighten on the volume in his hands, and he forces himself to relax his grip. There is no mailbag, but Sergeant Bunter is waiting for his orders…

“Would you care for a cup of tea, my lord?”

“Thank you, Bunter.” When the man is on the threshold, he calls after him. “Bunter!” He swallows. “Make… make one for yourself, if you like, won't you?”

“Yes, my lord.”

The tea, when it comes, is strong and sweet. He supposes that he should not be surprised, Sergeant Bunter being, well, being Bunter. Having brought the tea, he has withdrawn into one of those silences for which he has such a gift. Lord Peter has left the little volume open on its rests, propped on a table between them. The illumination must have been specially commissioned by its pious owner, though the Last Judgment is a conventional subject enough. In the grisaille image, Christ sits enthroned upon the firmament, the incarnation of divine wisdom (unfathomable), and justice (unimaginable.) Out of the earth as out of foxholes rise the souls of all the dead. No one is buried forever. It’s an uncomfortable thought.

“Might I inquire, my lord…”

“Yes, Bunter?” He is nearly dropping with fatigue, but he cannot help flinching at the echoes of guns, listening for the screams of men and shellfire.

“As to the nature of the book? It’s a beautiful thing,” adds Sergeant Bunter, as if decorously complimenting a new acquaintance.

“It is, isn't it? Only glad it made it here safely. It was commissioned in the part of the world where we found ourselves this time last year. Flanders, or northern France… the borders were uncertain then, too. It’s a way of keeping time. It’s a way of sanctifying time.” It’s a way of not going mad in a changing world. “There are prayers for each hour of the day. There are prayers for scholars, and prayers for virgins, and prayers for those who defy kings.” He half-smiles at the man on the other side of the sofa. “Saints, Bunter… there are some saints who wouldn't be left behind by the privates in the general-cursing department.”

“Is that so, my lord?”

“Mm.” Bunter refills the teacups. Again Lord Peter glances sideways. His sergeant, too, is looking less haggard, he thinks. “You can tell… tell where the book was made by the saints. Sometimes for whom, too. This one belonged to a woman: a learned one, probably, but not a nun. The man who was selling it wouldn't have gotten a tenth of its value. It’s a lovely thing. Those rigid draperies — those are characteristic. The eyes, too; there was a master working in Bruges doing similar work, though little hope of attributing it to him beyond doubt.

“They knew about suffering,” he continues. He reaches out, delicately turns the parchment leaves. “There. All of these, the full-page images, she requested them — whoever she was, the book’s owner. See: the Virgin already sleeps in blessedness. For her, there are already the flights of angels. But that’s not all, you see, my Bunter…”

“The men are weeping.” There is something like awe in his voice.

“Yes!” He catches him up with eagerness; it is so important, that Bunter should see that. “The artist knew.” He swallows. “The artist knew that they should be allowed their grief.”

There is silence between them. The fire, stirred up by Bunter, crackles comfortably. Outside, the London rain whispers against the windows, against the pavement. A belated taxi passes. There are no other sounds. Bunter contemplates the book of hours, his eyes soft. And, for a miracle, he seems quite at his ease there, on the sofa, his cup between his knees, awake in the small hours of the morning to make tea, to ask for disquisitions on medieval art.

“Bunter,” breathes Lord Peter Wimsey.

The other man half-starts, as if recalled from a doze. “Yes, my lord?” He blinks. Unshaven and in pajamas, he still looks, somehow, as though he could not be other than he is.

“Bunter,” says Peter Wimsey, afraid to disturb the silence with more than a whisper, “I love you.”

And Sergeant Bunter, astonishingly, smiles. “Yes, my lord.” He leans closer, gently removes the teacup from Lord Peter’s hands. “That’s quite understood.”

Chapter Text

“I do apologize,” said Lord Peter Wimsey, “for the atmosphere.”

Harriet made a face at him, and slipped her arm through his. “I thought I could not breathe in that high air,” she declaimed melodramatically, “that pure severity of perfect light. I wanted warmth and color, which I found in Lancelot… No, seriously, Peter, it’s fine.”

She could feel as well as hear his release of breath, which surprised her enough that she glanced sideways at his profile. His arm was still tense beneath hers. “Good,” he said. “Good.”

“It’s all very tempting,” said Harriet, into the unusual silence, “but I’m not sure that I know enough to choose wisely. I place myself entirely in your hands.” The grey eyes, preternaturally bright, flickered up to meet hers. “Regarding the menu, Peter,” she added softly. (Why, she asked herself, in a furious internal parenthesis, should she feel impelled to be gentle with him?)

“Yes,” said Lord Peter Wimsey; “yes.” But when their immaculate waiter came, the choice of dishes was ceded to him in turn. And that too, Harriet thought, was unusual — not so much as a set of instructions about the salad.

Over the oysters, Harriet exerted herself. She attempted to draw him out on his opinions of the upcoming economic conference; and, when that failed, she offered up what she hoped was a witty commentary on the new map of the Underground.

“Quite,” said Peter, but without animation. “Liable to go down and come up mere yards from where you started, if you don’t know what you’re doing. Here we go round the prickly pear, prickly pear, prickly pear…”

“Peter!” said Harriet, more sharply than she meant to. She had reached to cover his hand with hers before she could stop herself. She could feel him trembling; he neither moved nor spoke. The waiter came to clear their plates; and Harriet removed her hand.

Harriet found herself almost wishing, as their conversation went haltingly on, that he would drink more. It might loosen that tongue of his. And even having him drink too much — she found she could hardly imagine it — would be preferable to the mechanical detachment with which he was treating the really excellent Chenin Blanc. It would give her something to reproach him with. (It would give her, added the brutally honest voice in her head, some outlet for her mounting worry.)

“The chicken,” said Harriet, hating herself for the false brightness of her tone, “is worthy of Escoffier.” Surely he could be drawn out upon Escoffier: some surprising anecdote, some amusing near-disaster or the comeuppance of a snobbish guest or…

“Do you know,” said Peter, without looking at her, “I did a bit of intelligence work in the war.”

Harriet swallowed, the chicken turned to ashes in her mouth. Alarm bells were sounding in her head: they didn’t talk about this. He didn’t talk about this. “Did you?” She hid her hands under the table, twisting the napkin between them.

“And then,” said Peter, as though continuing a line of thought, “other people get hurt. It doesn’t have to be a direct consequence. Though sometimes it is, of course — there’s an irony in it, don’t you think? That living a lie should have such a capacity to unearth rather nasty truths?”

“I — yes,” said Harriet. “Yes.”

“Sorry,” said Peter. He raised two fingers to his temple. “I seem to be in a dangerously confessional mood. I do apologize.”

“Don’t,” said Harriet. “Please, don’t apologize.” Are you living a lie now? “It’s only… are you sure you’re quite all right, Peter?”

He smiled at her: rueful, exhausted, but the closest to his ordinary self that she had seen him all evening. “No. No. I’m sorry.”

“If you apologize again, Peter, I shall tread on your foot. Call the waiter over and let me see you home.”

“Harriet, there’s no need —”

“Peter.”

Again that shaken smile. “All right. ‘For as yow liketh, it suffiseth me.’”

Harriet decided that she was not going to brood on the possible implications of that particular choice. He was all too clearly at the end of his resources, and not to be held responsible for his actions. They continued in silence as they departed. Curiously, she found it almost restful.

“It’s a case,” he said, when they were in the taxi. “I — I’m afraid I can’t talk about it.”

“It’s all right, Peter.” The lights of London flashed by them. The old Underground with its new maps rumbled. Revelers crowded the pavement, and Harriet found herself resenting them. “You know I trust you.” He turned to look at her. “Contra mundum.”

She watched him swallow, his face pale in the street lamps. “Harriet.”

“Promise me you’ll be safe, Peter.” She could ask that of him, surely; they were friends and they had fought each other and themselves bloody to keep that friendship. She could ask that of him.

“Harriet,” he said, a little hoarsely. “I will never make you a promise I cannot keep.”

Oh. She looked down at her fingers, braided in her lap. “I see. Well, will you — will you promise to look after yourself?”

He smiled again, the Eros just visible over his shoulder. “I will promise to try.”

“Good,” said Harriet, with fierce satisfaction. “Good.”

She got out of the taxi with him; she wondered whether he was too weary to protest or too exhausted even to notice.

“Ah, Bunter,” said Peter, and did not quite stumble on the threshold. “She is coming, my own, my sweet; were it never so airy a tread — to see me home. Harriet, I — ”

“Don’t you dare apologize, Peter. Ring me when you like. Look after him, Bunter, won’t you?”

“Certainly, miss.”

“Good night, Harriet.” She wished he weren’t so solemn; she wished his face didn’t look like that of a medieval king, a face lined by suffering, carved from stone.

“Good night.” Standing on the pavement, she forced herself to inhale deeply of the spring air. It was a lovely evening. The twilight was soft; the mist was rising from the Thames. My heart would hear her and beat, were it earth in an earthy bed; my dust would hear her and beat, had I lain for a century dead. Harriet shook herself, and told herself not to be morbid. She turned away from the façade of 110A, and began to walk home, her hands shoved into her pockets. The walk, she decided, would do her good

Chapter Text

Harriet drapes herself over the piano in her best Elinor Glyn attitude, and throws her head back in entirely unfeigned relief. “At last we are alone.”

A surprised splutter of laughter from the sideboard tells her that the effect was successful. “The long-awaited hour,” responds her husband, “my houri, has come.” The cool glass of the whisky tumbler traces along the exposed line of her throat. “The hour,” continues Peter, “when we shall… do what?”

“Mm,” says Harriet, taking the whisky from his hand. “If you tell me that you require suggestions, my lord, I shall be most disappointed.”

Chapter Text

“It’s very kind of you, Lady Peter,” says Miss Murchison, not for the first time.

“Do call me Harriet.” Harriet hands her guest a glass of sherry, and folds herself neatly into the opposite corner of the primrose-patterned sofa. “After all, you did have a hand in saving my life.”

“Oh!” Miss Murchison blushes patchily. “Well! It wasn’t really, that is, it’s very kind of you to put it like that, Lady – Harriet.”

Harriet puts her head to one side and contemplates her guest. A very competent and competent-looking woman in a beautifully pressed uniform, her nervousness cannot be habitual to her. Perhaps, Harriet thinks, it may dissipate under the mellowing influence of the sherry. Or the clarification of the unknown variable: the absolutely incalculable man who is not in the room with them.

“I’m afraid,” says Harriet, “that I’ll have to give Peter’s regrets on faith. He’s – well, even I don’t know where he is at the moment. I try to hope it’s considerably west of Berlin, but one never knows.”

“No,” says Miss Murchison, and meets Harriet’s eyes steadily. “No, one doesn’t.”

“Is that what drew you to the MTC? Or is it frightfully impertinent of me to ask?”

“Hardly. To the second question, that is. To the first,” says Miss Murchison reflectively, “I’m not sure it’s anything so noble. I like organizing things. I’m good at it. And – ” again Miss Murchison flushes – “I’m afraid that lock-picking may have given me rather, well, rather a taste for machinery. You’d be amazed at how much less fussy a carburetor is than a typewriter, all things considered.”

“I’m sure I would.”

“This is quite excellent sherry,” adds Miss Murchison, “though I suppose it is superfluous for me to say so.”

“I’ll tell Peter you noticed,” says Harriet. “I’m under strict orders to keep drinking it up in his absence, lest it be lost to a bomb, and break Bunter’s heart.”

Miss Murchison sighs. “He seems to have a remarkable philosophy of life.”

“Oh, yes,” says Harriet. “Constantly salvaging people and wines. Can’t be cured of it – not that I’d want to try, though it can be slightly alarming to have reformed criminals or cases of Madeira turning up unexpectedly on one’s doorstep. Tell me more about your work.”

Chapter Text

It is late enough to be early, the pale light from the street and that from the studio blurring. London’s midnight chimes are long silent, and the dark outside is held at bay by laughter and the occasional warbled accompaniment to the gramophone, by the warmth of too many people in a small space.

“Speech!” says a man’s voice over the comfortable chaos. “Speech!”

“She doesn’t have to,” returns Eiluned gruffly. The master of the house, thinks Harriet, a little giddily.

“No,” she says, “no, it’s all right.” She finds, as she gets to her feet, that this is true. The room sways a little, or she does; she decides that she must be very drunk. Harriet tightens her grip on the glass in her hand.

“I don’t want to talk about the dead,” says Harriet. She surveys the group in front of her: women and men, mostly the former, tangled in each other’s arms or sprawled across cushions or scattered around the room in various attitudes. “It’s… I never thought I could be so glad to see a sofa.” There is a ripple of slightly uncertain laughter. “Thank you,” says Harriet, “for being here, for… for being here despite everything. Not our usual kind of mess,” she adds, and this is greeted with laughter both more rueful and more genuine, with the tapping of glasses against available furniture.

“Well,” says Harriet, feeling the need to take herself in hand, “I’m glad to be back among the living. No partitions, no keys. And friends,” she adds, taking them all in with a gesture. “The toast,” says Harriet, “has to be our hosts and our friends. Models of… of steadiness, and defiance, and the best friends an accused murderess could ask for. Eiluned and Sylvia!”

“Eiluned and Sylvia!” choruses the company, and Eiluned’s arm is around Harriet’s shoulders, and Sylvia is kissing her on the cheek.

Harriet lets out a breath. “I mean it,” she adds, in a whisper for their benefit alone.

Chapter Text

Harriet looked out over the tulips in Regent’s Park. By the edge of the lake, intrepid boys in caps and coats were already putting boats into the water, shadowed by attentive parents and nursemaids. Despite the lingering chill of March, Harriet had walked up from Harley Street. And now she sat in the spring sunshine, wondering what to do next. At a safe distance from boys and boats sat ducklings, still dark with down, still a little uncertain about the perils of the water. How fleeting are all human passions compared with the massive continuity of ducks. Well. Her human passions — la candeur de l’antique animal — have led her to facing a continuity of quite a different sort. Harriet shivered slightly, and got up from the bench.

The problem, she decided, sitting in the back of the taxi, was that they hadn’t really discussed it, not since that first night driving down to Talboys in the open car. The diaphragm she had once owned belonged quite definitely to the category of old, unhappy, far-off things. And they hadn’t had that long. What Harriet called the Oxford corner of her mind pointed out at this juncture that she was attempting to reason out probabilities after the fact, which was unsound. Selfishly, Harriet found herself thinking that she simply wanted more time with Peter. She wanted more time to sit with him in the evenings, and massage his calf with her foot until he shut his book and said her name. More time to be entirely his, as he was entirely hers. And more time to become used to pleasure, before diving once more headlong into risk. Danger and disagreeableness will not turn you back, and God forbid that they should. Well. Perhaps it would be all right, after all.

Bunter, being Bunter, materialized to take her Burberry. “Would your ladyship care for a cup of tea?”

“Bunter, you are a paragon, and I would.”

So she drank her tea in the sitting room, and stared at the Steinway and at the calf-bound incunabula, and wondered how on earth she was going to tell Peter.

***

“Harriet?”

She half-roused herself, beset by acute confusion. The room was growing dark around her; she must have fallen asleep on the sofa. Oh damn.

“Harriet?” said Peter again, bending to turn on a lamp. “Are you all right?”

She managed a smile. “Sit down, Peter. You look like a Caravaggio apostle standing in the light like that.”

“Less gloomy, I hope,” was the reply; but he obeyed. “Harriet…”

“Yes,” she said quickly, “yes, I know what the question was.” She reached to take one of his hands in both hers. She was conscious of gripping it too tightly, but not for her pride or his could she let go. She took a deep breath. “Peter…” It would be cruel to draw this out. “Yes.” Her voice, she found, was not quite steady. “Yes, I’m all right. That is… for now, and, and probably…” She was starting to cry. Oh damn.

“Believe me,” said Peter into her hair, “if all those endearing young charms… Harriet, Harriet darling, Harriet, beloved…” She drew breath against his shirtfront. “Thou wouldst still be adored,” said Peter, “as this moment thou art, let thy loveliness fade as it will…”

“I’m glad you feel that way about it.” She felt him stiffen beneath her. “But Peter, dearest, I’m not ill. I may feel ill, but Peter…” She struggled upright, bracing one palm against his chest. For this she needed to see his face. “Peter, I’m expecting.”

She could see the blood drain from his face. “You…”

“Yes, Peter, I. We.” Harriet smiled; she really was most ridiculously fond of this man, who an instant ago had been passionately declaiming Romantic poetry and was now struck dumb, gazing at her with drowned and solemn eyes. “We are, it would seem, an improvident pair of lovers.”

“But you… you don’t mind?”

“Mind! Peter!” Damn propriety, Harriet thought; while she respected Bunter’s feelings, she was not so tender of them as to refrain from climbing into her husband’s lap. “Peter,” said Harriet again, when she had kissed him breathless, “I do not mind.”

He raised one hand to her face, his thumb tracing along the line of her jaw. “Harriet.”

“Yes, Peter?”

“Harriet.”

She laughed, finding herself flooded with an absurd joy. “Yes,” she said again. “Yes, Peter. Yes, I am happy; yes, I am fine; yes, I am quite sure; yes, I love you.” This time, it was he who reached for her, curling his fingers around her nape and drawing her to him.

“I did say,” said Harriet, after some time had elapsed. She was nestled quite comfortably between Peter and the sofa cushions, and beginning to feel smug. “I did say that I wanted to have your children.”

“Yes,” said Peter. “Give me those lips again.”

Chapter Text

“Twelve days of Christmas,” says Lord Peter Wimsey, “are entirely too many.”

“Don’t sulk, Peter,” rejoins his wife promptly. “You wouldn’t say that if we were at Talboys instead of Denver. Do up my frock for me, will you?”

“I can refuse you nothing — as the king said to Scheherazade — that is just and reasonable.”

His dextrous fingers handle the emerald silk with great delicacy. Indeed, Harriet soon suspects that it is an exaggerated delicacy. Surely it is not necessary to all but caress the buttons within their loops, his breath on her skin…

“Peter?”

“Timeless houri?”

“Undo the buttons.”

Chapter Text

The afternoon activities of Paul and Roger had been of a disheveling variety. When Harriet emerged from her inner sanctum at teatime, it was to find the boys (triumphant and grubby) being taken into Edith’s charge, and her lord and husband incongruously garlanded with bits taken from the hedgerow and the costume box indiscriminately.

“Peter,” said Harriet, suppressing laughter, “you look like something out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

He grinned at her. “Ah, Pyramus, lover dear! thy Thisby dear, and lady dear!”

“Idiot,” said Harriet, and kissed him.

Chapter Text

“Damnable business,” said Lord Peter Wimsey, collapsing into a chair.

The Viscount St. George was not a young man naturally gifted with tact, nor had he cultivated this quality; but he made no reply save to hand his uncle a large whisky. Under the electric lamp, the viscount thought, he looked dangerously pale, and uncomfortably close to his age.

“A heresy and a schism,” said his lordship, “foisted into the canon law of love… Here’s luck.” They drank. “Drummond,” he continued, reviving, “is a fool and an ass, and if he spent half the time on people that he did on seating arrangements for the League of Nations, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Why they gave him this post after the Mukden Incident is beyond me. And why, in God’s name, I should be sent out as the sacrificial beast…”

Jerry rather thought that he should intervene before the ambassador, the Foreign Secretary, and half a dozen ministers were wished into riding accidents or under busses. What he said was: “She will be all right.”

“Damn you for an impertinent puppy, assuming knowledge though you have it not. No, no more whisky, thanks; it’s back to London for me. She mustn’t…” Jerry held his breath over the unfinished sentence, but all Lord Peter said was: “She mustn’t be alone.”

“No,” said Jerry promptly. “No, of course not. I’ll call in.”

“When did you become so damned perceptive?”

“That’s your doing,” the viscount informed his uncle. “You’re a bad influence.”

“Ah, yes,” said Lord Peter, and faintly smiled. “Thank you, Gherkins.”

Chapter Text

Charles Parker is struggling to keep his eyes open. He is holding a pale green cup and saucer in both hands. The knuckles of his left hand are bruised. The cup is filled with a liquid that the hospital is pleased to call tea. Parker drinks it off rapidly, in the hope that haste may disguise its inadequacies, and then shakes his head like a horse trying to be rid of a gadfly.

A dark-haired man in a dark suit appears at the end of the corridor, carrying a leather case, and Parker stands abruptly. To his own intense annoyance, he sways in doing so. It strikes him suddenly as odd that this should be his first time encountering the other man. But then, an unorthodox partnership with a member of the public is hardly a social relationship within the meaning of the act. And after tonight… he puts an end to that thought.

“Sergeant Bunter? Charles Parker.”

The other man blinks. “It’s just Bunter now, sir. And if he used the old title — forgive me, but — is he…?”

“He is a fool and an ass and a prating coxcomb,” says Parker, with more vehemence than tact. Still, some of the tension leaves the other man’s shoulders, and Parker exhales.

“Ah,” says Sergeant Bunter, so feelingly that Parker infers that he is in the presence of a kindred spirit as well as a fellow-sufferer.

“It’s not dangerous, I’m told,” continues Parker. “I,” he adds bitterly, “was fully occupied in organizing the affair from a tactical distance, and they still might have given us the slip if Peter hadn’t blithely sauntered in to spring their booby trap before they were ready for us. Damn him. That is, I shouldn’t…”

“I quite understand, sir.”

“I’m sure that you do. I don’t know where they get the stuff.”

“From the Continent, I believe.”

“Oh,” says Parker, and looks more closely at the saturnine, intelligent face of the man standing opposite him, just Bunter now, who still stands like a soldier. “Yes, I suppose you would; that is, I didn’t mean to imply you weren’t in his confidence…”

“That’s quite all right,” says Bunter, at though it were. “Ought you perhaps to sit down, sir?”

“Oh,” says Parker again, and does so. “Thanks. Please…” He gestures towards the chair next to him; somewhat gingerly, Bunter takes it, the neat satchel with its presumptive pajamas at his feet.

“I’m sorry about the…” says Parker after a few minutes. “There was a great deal to be done, and I didn’t mean for you to… I know you care for him,” he says simply, “and I would have liked for you to have gotten the news as a friend.” Bunter stiffens almost imperceptibly. “Or as a comrade, if you prefer.”

Bunter meets his eyes steadily. “Thank you, sir.” They sit in silence for what feels like a long time. Metal carts rattle. Parker tries not to start when nurses hurry past. He wakes suddenly, into the glare of the fluorescent lamps.

“Would you like a cup of tea, sir?” asks Sergeant Bunter.

“Oh.” The man must be warned. “If it could be got,” says Parker darkly, “but I’m afraid that it’s…”

“Leave that to me, sir,” says Sergeant Bunter, and dematerializes. Curiously, it is the impression of dematerialization that Parker receives. He knows himself to be very tired, but even so, it should be impossible for a tall man to move so softly, to move so confidently in a place to which he is a stranger.

The tea, when Bunter returns with it, is excellent.

Chapter Text

“Well, Flim,” says the large man, rising from behind his large desk, “you’ve done us proud.”

“There’s no way of knowing that,” retorts his opposite number, slim where he is bulky and fair where he is dark. “And you know it, Pongo, and I know it.”

“Come now,” says the large man amiably, smoothing the folds of his uniform, “don’t be peevish.”

“You’re quite right.” Fleetingly the pale man smiles. “Dreadful manners, terribly sorry.”

“You know I wouldn’t soft-soap you,” continues Pongo, persuasively. “I won’t give you implied capital letters and I won’t give you slogans. But it has helped.”

“Good of you to say so.” The smaller man puts out his hand, and Pongo takes it. “And I do know it. War does ask rather a lot of us, doesn’t it? ‘That is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…’ ”

“There you go again,” says Pongo cheerfully. “Someone coming to pick you up? You’ll note that I don’t ask Is Your Journey Really Necessary?”

“Yes,” says the man who is called Flim. He stretches out his hand a little gropingly for the marble balustrade, but his smile is sudden and brilliant. “My wife.”

*

Slowly Peter Wimsey makes his way around the gallery from Pongo’s office, and slowly down the wide stair, where secretaries and suited men hurry up and down, and men and women in uniform move with steady purpose. He scans the hall, and finds it empty of what he seeks. He emerges into the loggia, and peers into the cul-de-sac. Somewhat hesitatingly he chooses his way, walking towards the tree-lined street. And then, quite suddenly, he stops. The one other motionless person in all that bustle is a dark-haired woman on a bench. She is picking at a thread on the gloves that are gripped in her lap. She is as yet unaware of him. Peter Wimsey straightens his shoulders, and strides out towards her.

Something alerts her — his step or his certainty — and suddenly she rises. When I do come, she will speak not, she will stand…

“Hullo,” says Peter Wimsey.

Harriet smiles, and puts her hands on his shoulders. “Hullo.” She scans his face; he thinks of it as her writer’s habit, cataloging any unfamiliar mood or moment.

“Harriet,” says Peter, in a shaken voice, and she leans up, and kisses him, extinguishing sight and speech.

“You are all right,” she says, when she has drawn away; she says it like a truth she has already confirmed.

He puts her arm through his. “Yes, domina.”

“Good,” says Harriet, leaning into his side. They will drive home to Talboys, and to the tumult of the boys, and to the goose-feather bed. But this, thinks Peter Wimsey a little deliriously, this is the true homecoming.

Chapter Text

“Harriet,” says Peter Wimsey.

“Mm?” She does not immediately look up. Wartime frugality has come to Talboys, and so she is practicing the skills of the doctor’s daughter and impecunious undergraduate, and is sewing on a button. The silence changes. “Yes, Peter?”

He answers her look with a rueful smile. “It’s no good. There’s nothing that isn’t maudlin.”

Harriet puts down her mending, and crosses to him. “Peter.”

His hand covers hers. “I have missed,” he says, “speaking with you. And now I can find no words.”

Harriet kisses the crown of his head. Around them, the house is quiet.

Chapter Text

Harriet wakes suddenly, into an empty darkness. She listens attentively: for a scuffle or a cry from the boys; for the distant, ominous rumble of a plane. There is only the deep silence of the country.

“Oh, Peter,” says Harriet aloud, and somewhat stiffly gets out of bed and into her robe and slippers. On crossing to the window, she is not really surprised to see a familiar silhouette by the shed. She proceeds cautiously downstairs, and emerges sleepy and shivering on to the doorstep.

A damp night on the edge of autumn, in the middle of a war. It would make a good line, she thinks: something for one of the little romances that bring in their satisfying if unnecessary cheques. There’s always some cause that can use them.

“Peter,” says Harriet, and yawns involuntarily. “You disappeared.”

“I suppose I did.” He reaches for her hand, and links her arm through his.

“Mm,” says Harriet. “That’s better.”

“Couldn’t sleep,” he says, after a few moments. “So I came out to…”

“Walk the perimeter?” suggests Harriet.

“Probably. ’Come and help me. I am disappearing.’ Is that from something?”

“Probably,” says Harriet indulgently.

“I do love you, Harriet.”

She kisses him.

Chapter Text

“Hullo, Domina,” said Lord Peter Wimsey, without raising his head.

“However do you do it, Holmes?” rejoined his wife indulgently.

“No one else in this household wears shoes with that kind of heel; also you bear about your person the whiff of woodsmoke, to be found even in London upon the autumn air.”

Harriet groaned, and sank onto the sofa next to her wedded lord. “I am about to liberate myself from these heels. And I don’t know how I ever stood literature parties. I must be getting old.”

“Where are the songs of spring, ay, where are they? Think not of them, thou hast thy music too.”

“Thank you very much.” Harriet tucked her feet under two blue-and-gold pillows, and looked up to find Peter grinning at her, strangely inverted. She reached for his hand, and settled her head in his lap. “What are you reading?”

He chuckled softly. “Mere whimsy. ‘The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral,’ among other old favorites.”

“Perfect. Will you read aloud?”

“If you like. And shall we toast crumpets at the fireplace later on?”

“Absolutely,” said Harriet, refusing to be teased out of complacency.

“Very well.” The corners of Peter’s mouth were folded in suppressed amusement. “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. Verum usque in praesentem diem multa garriunt inter se Canonici de abscondito quodam istius Abbatis Thomae thesauro…”

Chapter Text

Harriet sits hunched in the old-fashioned armchair, and stretches her hands to the fire. All in all, she reflects, it has not been a bad ordeal. The Dowager Duchess is, of course, a darling. Helen… well, Helen seems to be in a rather chilly isolation among the Wimseys, whose Christmas spirit manifests in unusually eccentric frivolity. Mary, Gerald, and Peter had outdone each other in hilarious anecdote, while the lines around Helen’s mouth became increasingly pinched. Harriet almost feels sorry for her.

Harriet rises, and opens the connecting door. “Peter,” she says in a stage whisper, “come to bed.”

Chapter Text

“That,” said Lord Peter Wimsey, coming into the library, “is a very undergraduate habit.”

His wife, kneeling on the hearthrug, looked up at him and grinned unrepentantly. “So it is,” she observed cheerfully. “Do you suppose that Bunter would bring us muffins to toast?”

“I’m quite sure that he would, if asked.” Lord Peter considered the hearthrug for a moment, and then installed himself in the wingback chair at his wife’s side.

“Where’s your sense of adventure?” inquired Harriet, without particular energy.

“Aging. Book going well?”

She smiled up at him. “It is, actually. I have the loveliest red herring worked out. My years of plotting the cheapest ways to use the London omnibuses will bear fruit.”

He stretched out a hand, and she laced her fingers through his. “Will there be timetables?”

Harriet laughed, and he wondered when that sound had become necessary to him. “Perhaps. If I’m feeling particularly devilish.”

“Mm.” For some moments they were silent, watching the flames. “Harriet?”

“Yes, Peter?”

“You know that I love you.”

“Yes.” She appeared, he was relieved to note, neither surprised nor alarmed. The implicit question was accepted, as natural as its answer. “Do you suppose we can toast muffins?”

Chapter Text

Harriet’s first coherent thought, after the wave of nausea has subsided, is that she must tell Peter. Her second is that she mustn’t. She wonders if he’ll telephone, his voice leached of all color, offering chivalrously to break it off. She wonders if she ought to let him.

“Miss Bracey,” says Harriet unsteadily, “would you make us a cup of tea?” The tactful Miss Bracey recedes into the background.

No: no, surely, she mustn’t think like that. She mustn’t fail this first challenge. Like a knight of the Round Table, she thinks wildly, asked to surrender all honor, to crawl on hands and knees, to be bloodied by swords and battered by clubs, and not to fail. But Lancelot minded dreadfully, for all that: Ah, God, of what was he accused? Why was he carried in a cart? For what sin, or for what crime? He will always suffer the reproach…

The telephone rings. Harriet starts in her chair. She stares at the apparatus, casts one glance around for Miss Bracey, and then picks up the receiver.

“Hello?” Please, let it not be reporters, or the publisher’s, or…

“Harriet.”

“Peter.” To her surprised embarrassment, she is suddenly close to tears.

“Heart’s desire, you know I’d like to whip them round the square, that I’d condescend to challenge them, and that I’d gladly engage them in fierce and unequal combat if it were a matter of tilting at windmills, but…”

“Oh, Peter.” She is sure that he can hear her crying.

“…but I don’t mind,” he concludes earnestly. “Not… not in the way the scandal sheets so oozily imply.”

Harriet sniffles, and manages to unearth a handkerchief in her attaché case. “I don’t think oozily is a word.”

“Abhorrently. Abominably. From the Latin, in both cases: abhorresco, to dread, to become terrified, to bristle up (ed. note, particularly the latter); abominari, to loathe, to execrate…”

“…To regard as an ill omen.”

“That,” says Peter reprovingly, “is a very rare form of the verb.”

“Peter.”

“Yes, Harriet?”

She can hear his breathing over the line, louder than her own. “Placet,” says Harriet.

Chapter Text

“Peter,” said Harriet drowsily, “what would you think of… of going away?”

“Hm? Oh,” he said, with a casualness that she did not quite trust, “a capital idea. We have been rather thrown together amid all the draperies that we haven’t gotten used to, and I’m sure I’m most tryin’ to the temper. Bunter is kind enough not to say so — as are you — but…”

“Peter,” said Harriet, “I meant together.”

“Oh.”

“That I did love the Moor to live with him,” quoted Harriet dryly, “my downright violence and storm of fortunes may trumpet to the world.”

“Ah,” said Peter.

Chapter Text

“Promise me, Peter,” said Harriet drowsily.

“Mm? What, heart’s lady?”

“Promise me that you won’t…” She hesitated over the words, groping for them through the haze of promised sleep and satisfied pleasure. “Promise me that you won’t try to make things as they were before. We’ve weathered enough,” she said softly. “Whatever another war brings… we can face that, too.”

His intaken breath was something she could hear and feel. “Harriet,” said the beloved, familiar voice, “Harriet, you don’t know…”

“I know enough. Do you promise?”

“And so live ever,” said he, tightening his embrace, “or else…”

“Shh,” said Harriet.

Chapter Text

Lord Peter Wimsey sat with his head in his hands, in one of the few places where this would not excite comment or surprise. The slate-grey suit had been carefully chosen by Bunter to suggest piety while not looking out of place on Canterbury’s springtime streets. At this early hour, the brightness of the nave seemed almost unnatural, a concentration of light vouchsafed only to the devout, and in this case to an insomniac. Lord Peter wondered if the holy blissful martyr had seen an increase in trade of late. True, his countrymen tended to view saints as in somewhat poor taste, a bit too flamboyant (as Thomas indeed had found to his cost.) But the archbishop had cured the blind, and had humbled a king. What better saint to intercede for those blinded by gas, for those who had seen — who still saw — too much? What better saint to visit the mighty and impenitent? He had died here, believing that his duty to his God was higher than that to his king. Had he died afraid? He had seen them coming, those four armed men who claimed they were following orders, and who were damned for doing so.

Chapter Text

“I fear,” said Harriet, “that I am acquiring a taste for sloth.”

Her husband raised himself on his elbows. “Really?”

She swatted at him with one foot. “You needn’t sound so pleased with yourself.” She yawned. “Corrupting influence of the aristocracy.”

“I have been told so,” said his lordship musingly, “before, though never under such pleasant circumstances.”

“Mm,” said Harriet. “The hens are abroad in their yard, the sun is simply pouring through windows and through curtains, and here I — we — lie idle!”

“License my roving hands,” suggested Peter. “Until I labor…”

Harriet laughed, turned over, and capped his quotation.

Chapter Text

Peter,” says Harriet, when he finally comes to bed. She cannot keep the mirth out of her voice.

“Heart’s desire?”

“Peter, you are…” She shakes her head at the bedroom’s timbered ceiling. Talboys. A childhood fantasy as a wedding present. “You are incorrigible,” says Harriet firmly. “A snake. In Miss Quirk’s bed. Honestly.”

“Mm,” says Peter. It is a distinctly unrepentant monosyllable.

“Did Bunter find the snake?”

“He did.” Peter’s roving hands are assuming conjugal license, but Harriet refuses to be distracted.

Cuthbert,” says Harriet.

“Bredon’s snake,” says Peter indistinctly, into the fold of her knee. “Not dangerous.”

Harriet laughs.

Chapter Text

Harriet, making polite conversation by the tea tent, feels her lord and master stiffen next to her. She compliments the flowers with gracious finality, and turns to him.

“Good lord, Harriet.”

She follows his gaze to where Bredon is standing by the tombola. “Ah,” she says. “Peter, darling, did you really think your eldest son wouldn’t flirt with the comely village maidens?”

My — ” He breaks off when he sees the laughter dancing in her eyes, and smiles ruefully.

Harriet sips her tea thoughtfully. “We could horrify him,” she suggests, “with the story of how you bought me a dog collar.”

Chapter Text

The study at Denver Ducis is quiet enough that the hiss of the soda siphon seems intrusive. At length:

“It was a dam’ fool thing to do, Peter,” says the duke.

The slighter of the two men moves restlessly in his chair. “And why beholdest thou the mote,” he murmurs, “that is in thy brother's eye…”

“Yes, well,” says Gerald huffily, drawing breath for a reply that he does not, then, immediately make. “You were hardly obliged,” he says at last, “to cross the Atlantic by air in January.”

“No,” says Peter wearily. “Attribute it to quixotry, if you like.”

Chapter Text

“How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world; Bunter must be developin’ something.”

“Mm,” says Harriet sleepily, from Mrs. Merdle’s passenger seat. “When the moon shone, we did not see the candle.”

“The crow doth sing as sweetly as the lark — no, damn, that comes later. Well, never mind.”

“Mm,” says Harriet again, and yawns prodigiously. “If you’d told me, in my Bloomsbury days, that my idea of an evening’s entertainment would end in a homecoming to Great Pagford at the entirely decorous hour of 11 p.m., I wouldn’t have believed you.”

“How many things by season season’d are, to their right praise and true perfection!” responds her husband, sententiously.

“Shut up,” says Harriet amiably, and stops his mouth for him in the next instant. When at length she draws away again, he is grown grave and silent, and it is left to her to complete the quotation. “Peace, ho! the moon sleeps with Endymion, and would not be awaked.”

Chapter Text

Somewhere in Paggleham, a farmer is burning dead leaves; the October air smells of decay.

“I just…” Harriet makes half a gesture, and then folds her hands tightly in her lap. On the other side of the horsehair sofa, Peter is sitting very upright. “I thought we would have more time,” she says, and partly hates herself for saying it.

“Four years,” says Peter, and his voice is hard. “Like the fairy tales: for this term…”

“I know,” says Harriet quickly, because she cannot bear for him to look like that. “You once said that violence catches us all.”

“Yes.”

“And I do know that peace at any price is no peace at all.”

His smile is strange and shaken, but he meets her eyes. “No. And to our enemies no bonds are sacred.”

“No.” She does not say: but I cannot bear it. She does not say: but Roger wouldn’t remember you.

“Wellie-Boots — you remember him, he wrangled the reporters after the wedding — told me I was a damned fool and looked so relieved… I won’t say I was certain I was doing the right thing, but…”

Harriet reaches for him, and he takes her hand. “You are.”

Chapter Text

Harriet is annoyed both with herself and, still less rationally, with Peter. She is also alarmed, and frank enough to admit this to herself. With nothing to occupy her but the probably supererogatory task of surveying visitors to the Library, she has time to consider the treachery of her subconscious. It would be comfortable to believe in Peter’s embraces as a polite symbol of the Thing Feared. But she cannot, in all honesty, imagine that those embraces (if submitted to) would be either polite or symbolic. No: he seems far too sure of wanting her, sans façade and sans pretense.

Chapter Text

“Really, Peter,” says Harriet. It is difficult to sound repressive, she finds, while decked out in a sheet and three scarves.

“Hush, damsel,” replies her wedded lord reprovingly, and replaces his cutlass between his teeth. “Quail!” he suggests, rather indistinctly.

Harriet obediently bends at the waist and casts her eyes to heaven, just in time for her offspring to careen around the corner of the woodshed, followed by a delighted Pompey.

“Aaargh!” says his lordship, and spits out his cutlass. “Have at ye!”

Harriet snorts, suppresses a giggle, and supervises the process of her rescue sidelong until it is completed.

Chapter Text

Mervyn Bunter surveys the Piccadilly flat. It will, he thinks, do nicely. The built-in bookshelves will save trouble and expense. He infers their necessity from his lordship’s tendency to frequent the library at Denver Ducis, and his earlier habit of producing fragments of poetry at odd moments. The plumbing is satisfactory; the bathtub is luxurious. The pantry is adequately equipped, and the kitchen is one a man can turn around in without occasioning disaster, while not being inconveniently large. And, he thinks, they are close enough to the life of the city to be easily called out into it.

Chapter Text

Irritably Harriet feels that his very patience is an offense. “Peter,” she asks, “why do you do it?”

“Hm?” He seems strangely relaxed, his hands easy on the wheel of the Daimler.

“The drives, the outings, the tea shop in Tunbridge Wells, for God’s sake.”

“It wasn’t too quaint, was it?”

“You know it wasn’t. And you know that wasn’t what I meant.”

For a moment he is silent. “Have you ever read Wilhelm Meister? No? It’s full of the most extraordinary characters. One of them says to the hero: ‘If I love you, what business is it of yours?’” He smiles. “It’s an unanswerable question, of course.”

The miles and the evening roll past them, swallows diving among the hedgerows. “Of course,” says Harriet.

Chapter Text

The square is customarily empty at night. Its trees commune almost in silence. The policeman on his beat walks up from South Audley Street, and moves on. The place where Cromwell built a redoubt is deserted. But there are exceptions. Sometimes, a man and a woman let themselves silently out of Number 23, and seat themselves where so lately vegetable gardens had been dug for victory.

“Listen,” says Peter, on a warm spring night.

“The voice I hear this passing night…” rejoins Harriet. “Sorry, but it’s yours alone.”

“And who,” says Peter, “could have believed London to be so still?”

Chapter Text

A peculiar conversation was taking place in the garden of The Trout. “I know it’s in a good cause,” the mystery novelist said dubiously, “but it still feels rather bloodthirsty.”

“Nonsense,” replied her husband vigorously, handing her half a pint of the local bitter. “You kill off an odious — and entirely fictional — financier, brains educated by Shrewsbury College are cudgeled in the service of crime-solving, and their owners pay that august institution of higher learning for the privilege of so doing.”

“An edifying evening,” suggested Harriet dryly, “for all concerned.”

“And honi soit qui mal y pense,” agreed Peter.