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False Pretences

Chapter Text

“The obvious solution,” Lady Markham said, “is poison. Preferably administered before he causes more inconvenience.”

Harriet Vane turned to her, smiling gently. “Are you referring to the Colonel or to Mr. Pemberton?”

“Mr. Pemberton, of course. A revolver will suffice for the Colonel.”

There was a deliberate pause as the waiter brought more cakes. Harriet and her companions, all writers of detective fiction, had learned that tempering their conversation spared many tedious explanations.

“Such a cliché,” Mr. Fox said with a superior sniff, as soon as the waiter departed. “Really, a crossbow would be far more interesting. So—unique.”

Miss Montague shook her head dismissively. “It’s been done.”

“It’s all been done,” declared Lady Markham. “Novelty is not to be pursued for its own sake. Regardless of the details, the deed must be carried out in an engaging and credible manner.”

“And with dispatch,” Harriet added. “Here comes Mr. Pemberton.”

There was a collective sigh at the table. Years earlier, while Harriet was still at Oxford, Lady Markham and a few colleagues had formed an author’s circle. From time to time, members of the circle collectively wrote a mystery novel. Each would write a chapter in turn, and submit a sealed envelope containing their solution to the crime. This year, eleven members had chosen to participate, and Harriet and her four companions had agreed to thrash out the final details of their work.

Lady Markham had suggested that a long weekend at a seaside resort would be an ideal venue to finish their novel: it would distance them from their daily responsibilities, pamper them with a soothing atmosphere and delectable food, and give them somewhere pretty to walk if they needed to exorcise a thorny plot complication. For publicity’s sake, there would be a brief interview with the press on the Friday, followed by a book signing. After that, the authors would be free to review the chapters and solutions submitted by their colleagues, plan a final chapter, and revise the extant chapters to produce a cohesive whole.

As Lady Markham had handsomely offered to pay everyone’s expenses, her suggestion had been accepted with alacrity. The hotel had proven to be comfortable without being overly ostentatious, the service unobtrusive yet attentive, and the food excellent. The hotel had even set aside a private parlour for their use. All would have been well save for the unwelcome intrusion of Mr. Pemberton.

Mr. Pemberton was a publicity agent wished upon them by the publisher, and the authors had taken an instant dislike to him. He was a middle-aged man with an ingratiating manner, a florid complexion, thinning hair, and a tendency to perspire. Although perpetually in a dither of activity, he accomplished very little, apart from putting people’s backs up. Harriet presumed he was a cousin or brother-in-law of someone highly placed at the publishing firm.

Mr. Pemberton seemed full of unnecessary and contradictory advice with regards to handling members of the press and the public, as if none of the authors had ever encountered such strange and unpredictable beasts. He was also eager to enlarge the publicity programme for reasons best known to himself. While he expounded uselessly on the importance of capturing just the right photograph, Harriet amused herself by studying her companions. There was Lady Markham, the Marchioness of Ashwood: a tall, angular woman in her sixties, long acknowledged as a grande dame of detective fiction. Despite her title, or perhaps because of it, she had no pretensions and was the most adept of them at handling Mr. Pemberton. Lady Markham nodded gravely at every thing he said, while blithely ignoring it all.

Mr. Rupert Fox sat to Lady Markham’s right. Harriet had noticed he always claimed that place during the circle’s monthly meetings and wondered whether Mr. Fox believed sheer proximity could confer talent and fame upon him. He was a short, slight man of twenty-five who had not yet learned to conceal his envy of others. His novels were hailed by some as fresh and experimental but reminded Harriet too much of the sort of poetry many second-years had composed at university: so self-consciously infused with Deep Meaning and Importance that they were stilted and lifeless. His sleuth appeared to be a thinly disguised and wildly glamorised version of himself.

Next to him sat Mr. Archibald Cuthbertson, a nondescript man of seventy and another founder of the author’s circle. Unremarkable both in appearance and manner, he was a retired police inspector who wrote about the less appetising aspects of London’s night life. Harriet found him to be well-organised and even in temperament, which she hoped would prove useful in coping with Mr. Fox’s more extravagant outbursts.

Miss Sylvia Montague was a round, contented woman of forty-five who’d had two husbands and countless lovers of both sexes. Self-educated, she was nonetheless well-read and clever. Despite her upbringing and unconventional lifestyle, her detective was a genteel spinster not unlike Miss Climpson, although with far fewer exclamation marks. Miss Montague’s face often wore an amused expression, as she derived enjoyment from the follies of others. Even now, she was smirking at Mr. Pemberton.

“And if his lordship would consent to join us for the interview, I’m sure the reporters will have a few questions for him,” said Mr. Pemberton with a hopeful expression.

Harriet came to with a start. Mr. Pemberton was looking at her expectantly. Belatedly, she realised that the lord being referred to must be her own. “Peter?” she said blankly. “He’s not here.”

“But surely,” replied Mr. Pemberton, “you are so newly married. To be apart from him… most irregular...” He produced a large handkerchief and mopped his brow before continuing, “the reporters will be particularly eager to ask his opinion of your books. I’m sure they’re rather expecting it.”

“I’m afraid you have a limited understanding of these matters,” said Lady Markham. “Indeed, the Marquess and I often lead quite separate lives, with no diminution of affection. And you should not be encouraging the reporters with tit-bits you have no way of producing. It’s annoying to them and unfair to us.”

“But if he could perhaps drive down tomorrow… just for a few hours,” Mr. Pemberton pleaded, with the air of a spaniel intent on a particularly juicy bone.

Harriet regarded Mr. Pemberton’s desperate eagerness and concluded that Lady Markham was right: he must have promised them Peter. “I’m afraid my husband is abroad on business, and not at leisure to return.”

“That should placate them somewhat,” said Mr. Cuthbertson. “If you’ll excuse us, we have some work yet to do before the interview.”

“It’s...” began Mr. Pemberton.

“We are aware of the time and place,” Miss Montague interrupted in a surprisingly severe tone. “Toddle off.”

Mr. Pemberton retired from the field in a state of confusion and unhappiness while Lady Markham frowned at his retreating figure. “Perhaps poison would be too slow. One doesn’t wish to be cruel, but the kinder, less detectable poisons aren’t immediately to hand.”

“Never overlook the possibilities of the blunt object,” said Mr. Cuthbertson.

“That’s another cliché,” Mr. Fox objected.

Mr. Cuthbertson eyed him steadily. “It’s common because it’s convenient. Also, effective and sometimes difficult to detect. A weapon that a murderer has gone to some trouble to obtain can all too often be traced back to the offender. Making use of available resources confounds that line of inquiry. If the worst happens and the killer is apprehended, he can always claim leniency for a crime of passion. Dashed difficult to do that with poison.”

Mr. Fox subsided with a sulky expression. Ignoring him, Lady Markham said, “Well, we shall be rid of Mr. Pemberton after the interview and the signing, whether he wills it or no. There shall be no last-minute additions to the schedule and I have firmly resolved to ignore any hints that he might attend our deliberations. We have got, after all, to do away with the Colonel.”

“My solution,” Mr. Fox began.

“Is fantastic,” said Miss Montague. “Or, rather, fantastical. A monkey trained to use a crossbow is unlikely to be believed by the readers.”

“Whyever not?”

“The footprint, for one thing,” said Harriet. “The monkey’s presence is only deduced by the presence of a footprint in paint. Why should the Colonel or anyone else have left about an open pot of paint for the monkey to tread in? Why not summon a servant to tidy the mess? Why is there a pot of paint in the study in the first place?”

“What if it’s not paint, but India ink,” suggested Miss Montague. “And the ink is knocked over when the Colonel is murdered, so there’s no one to ring for a servant.”

After a lengthy dispute about the drying time of India ink, Mr Cuthbertson consulted his watch and said, “It’s time for the interview. In any case, I still doubt a monkey small enough to scamper down an unlit chimney would have the strength to release a crossbow. Leaving aside the likelihood of the Colonel keeping a loaded crossbow on his wall.”

In consequence of this remark, Mr. Fox was snappish during the interview, causing the reporters to take less interest in him than they might have done otherwise. The other authors fielded their questions with good humour, occasionally raising an appreciative chuckle from their inquisitors. Even Harriet was enjoying herself, despite the reporters’ obvious desire to obtain some sort of usable quote about her marriage.

“Miss Vane… it is Miss Vane?” asked a London reporter Harriet particularly disliked. Mr. Wilkins wrote for a London daily known for printing more gossip than news and had made a career of exploding tiny cracks into gaping chasms.

“In this context, yes,” Harriet replied. “In all other things, I am quite content to be Lady Peter Wimsey.”

“But doesn’t his lordship object?”

“Why should he? He’s sensible enough to realise it makes good business sense to carry on writing under the name my readers are familiar with.”

“What do you talk about?” asked a society reporter who seemed distinctly disappointed by Lord Peter’s absence.

“What does any couple talk about?” Harriet replied casually, while trying not to think about Europe. Everything seemed to be on the verge of going to blazes and Lord Peter had been called away to Rome yet again. “We’re renovating an old house in the countryside, so we spend a surprising amount of time discussing chimney pots and gardens.”

“And nurseries?”

“I’m afraid we must be getting on,” said Lady Markham. “Terribly sorry, but we’re overdue for a signing party. So kind of you to come.”

“It always comes back to children,” Harriet thought with resignation, while signing novels for a surprisingly long line of people. The reporters asked, Peter’s brother Gerald asked, and her sister-in-law Helen assumed without even troubling to ask. Only the Dowager Duchess seemed capable of holding her tongue. Even the readers she was signing books for wanted to know whether she would have children, and how many, and how soon. After gently repelling the well-meant but tiresome inquiries of yet another stranger, Harriet found herself sighing heavily.

“Appalling, isn’t it? Being treated like a broodmare?”

Harriet looked up in surprise, to realise she recognised the young woman now in front of her. They’d been introduced a month ago at an interminable reception engineered by the Duchess of Denver. “Lady Celia,” she said, while accepting the proffered book. “What brings you down to Hastings?”

“I wanted to get away for the weekend. London’s very stifling just now, with my parents in Town. My problem’s much like yours. Family eager to increase its size, although there’s still the hurdle of a suitable marriage to be overcome. God save me from suitable young men.”

“I find the unsuitable ones far more entertaining,” put in Lady Markham, from the next table over.

“No doubt, but having one’s name in Burke’s is every bit as confining as a cell in the Tower,” said Lady Celia.

“Then you must search out a resourceful and unsuitable fellow to engineer your escape,” replied Lady Markham. “Or undertake it yourself. Being wholly disinterested in public opinion can be quite freeing.”

“Easier said than done. Thanks ever so much,” Lady Celia said, as Harriet returned her book. “I daresay my people will be inviting you both round next week. Do please come; otherwise it will be too ghastly for words.” She nodded to them and flitted away, leaving Harriet to wonder about the nature of prisons.

Where did all those people come from?” Miss Montague asked, as they sat down to dinner that evening. “I’d expected a handful of readers at most. Perhaps Mr. Pemberton is capable of something, after all.”

“I’ve seen this before,” said Mr. Cuthbertson. “Sometimes, you’ll get an extraordinary turnout in the most unlikely places.”

Lady Markham nodded. “There are more people in London, of course, but also far more things to attract their interest. If you happen to strike a time when not much else is happening, it’s amazing who’ll come out of the woodwork for a signing. I once signed a book nearly twenty years old and falling apart at the seams. A woman had bought it and everyone in the family had read it, as was obvious by the stains.”

“Treacle’s the worst,” said Miss Montague. “I don’t mind signing old books unless they’re sticky. It’s rather gratifying to see one’s work read repeatedly. Does anyone know what’s become of Mr. Fox?”

“I believe he’s gone off to register a complaint with Mr. Pemberton,” said Mr. Cuthbertson. “Apparently, the signing failed to attract many of his readers.”

“I almost feel sorry for Mr. Pemberton,” said Miss Montague. “If Mr. Fox is too unpleasant, Mr. Pemberton might perspire himself into a life-threatening state of dehydration. Hang on, there’s a thought. Do you suppose?”

“No,” said Harriet. “That’s worse than the monkey.”

Mr. Fox put in a belated appearance at dinner, and was displeased to discover that his proposed solution had been set aside. “Why waste my time with this?” he said, while savagely attacking his roast saddle of lamb. “You’ve no interest in doing anything new or fresh. You may as well copy the crime from your last novel. Your readers are so thick they’d never notice. I’m off.” He stormed out of the parlour, slamming the door behind him.

“Oh, dear. We’ve upset the baby,” said Miss Montague. “He does have talent.”

“He does,” agreed Harriet. “But he often tries too hard to make a mark, at the expense of telling a good story.”

Lady Markham nodded. “He wants perspective, which may come in time. I rather had hopes of him, which is why I invited him along.”

“He cares too much for his own opinion, and too little for anyone else’s,” said Mr. Cuthbertson. “That’s a flaw occasionally mended by experience, but too often not. Now, about Mrs. Pettigrew’s solution, concerning the valet...”

Mr. Fox left for London the following afternoon, after curtly instructing Lady Markham to remove his chapter from the novel. She agreed without demur, reserving her pique for Mr. Pemberton, who insisted that a photographic session for publicity purposes was essential.

“Mr. Pemberton,” she said in frosty tones, after her first two attempts to dissuade him by gentler means proved unsuccessful, “our readers have no need to see us strolling along the seaside or play-acting at reconstructing the crime. They are readers, not gawkers, and would likely find that sort of thing rather juvenile and off-putting. We are here, at my expense, not the publisher’s, to finish a novel, and your continual efforts to wring one more publicity event from us are wasting precious time. We have met the commitments originally agreed to, and if you insist upon impeding our progress, I shall be forced to notify your superiors that we are unlikely to meet our deadline because of you.”

Mr. Pemberton shrank back in horror at this threat. However commonplace, failure to meet deadline is considered a tragic circumstance by publishers. That he should be blamed for it—unthinkable! He reached for his handkerchief while muttering his apologies, and hastily retreated.

“You could have done that when we first met him,” said Miss Montague. “Or just after the book signing.”

“True,” said Lady Markham, “although I loathe being disagreeable. Next time, we shall have to take a much firmer hand with him from the start. Well, that’s him and Mr. Fox disposed of. Do let’s see what can be done about the vicar’s alibi.”

The rest of weekend passed in a frenzy of activity. All of the proposed solutions were discussed, potential alibis were invented and discarded, and essential clues were identified and assigned their proper place in the narrative. By Sunday afternoon, the theory of the crime had been finalised and chapters of the book parceled out for revision. After agreeing to meet again in London in a fortnight, the authors celebrated their progress with an especially lavish dinner.

“Well that’s done, or as near as makes no difference,” said Lady Markham. “The revisions should take no time at all, and then all that’s left will be the galley proofs.”

“And the publicity,” said Mr. Cuthbertson, with a teasing smile. “We can look forward to seeing more of Mr. Pemberton.”

“I categorically refuse,” Miss Montague declared. “Let someone else in the group deal with him.”

“But think how entertaining it would be, when some reporter asks whether we have any ideas for the next book,” Harriet said. “You could give Mr. Pemberton a long, considering look and then turn to the reporter to say, ‘We’ve decided on a victim.’ ”

Miss Montague countered, “But what if they don’t ask?”

“They always ask,” said Lady Markham. “Just as they always ask whether your characters are based on actual individuals. I always tell them no, but occasionally it’s yes, although in a small way. I never write an entire person, but I sometimes give my characters odd little quirks I’ve noticed in people.”

Mr. Cuthbertson nodded. “I am continually amazed by the number of acquaintances I have who believe I am writing about them. The funny thing is that those are never the people I’m making use of. It must be awkward for you,” he said, turning to Harriet, “having married into a prominent family. Now I suppose everyone will assume you’re utilising your new relatives.”

“Yes,” Harriet agreed, “I’m afraid I shall be rather self-conscious for some time. My sister-in-law is just the sort of person to assume I’m referring to her or someone of her acquaintance.”

“You’ll get round it in time,” said Miss Montague. “If nothing else, your dreadful experiences after Philip Boyes’ murder should convince you that all manner of evil can be overcome.”

“I take it you’ve never met the Duchess,” said Lady Markham, much to Harriet’s amusement.

Harriet found it difficult to sleep that evening. For days, she’d been preoccupied with the business of finishing a detective novel. The idle languor which sometimes follows the conclusion of effort had taken hold of her, yet left her curiously restless. She wondered how Peter was getting on in Rome. She’d rather hoped he’d finish his task before she finished hers, but surely he would have wired to let her know he was returning?

She took up a book to read, but put it down again a few minutes later. What was the matter with her? The past few days had gone smoothly enough on the surface. The only off moment had been… “Lady Celia,” she remembered. “Something very wrong there. She feels trapped, and thinks I’m trapped, too. Am I?”

Was she? She’d married Peter with joy, without reservation, but was she suited for the life ahead of her? “It’s only the life I’ve always had,” she thought, but knew that was false. She had a certain status now, and servants, even if she’d left them behind in London. For the past few days, she’d been Harriet Vane, not Lady Peter Wimsey. But were they such very different people?

“They needn’t be,” she thought. “Peter doesn’t want that. He’d be horribly hurt to think I’d sacrificed myself for him. No doubt Helen expects me to be her idea of a proper lady, but Peter doesn’t. Well, Helen and the others can go hang. Lady Mary went her own way and she and Charles are very happy. There’s no reason Peter and I can’t do the same.” With resolution, she put out the light and curled up in bed. Slumber claimed her, but not before she remembered a critical difference between Mary and Peter: he stood second in line to a dukedom.

Monday dawned cold and blustery, but Harriet felt her mood much lightened. She was mildly embarrassed to recall the uneasiness of the previous night, then reminded herself that much in her life had changed since accepting Peter’s proposal. There was bound to be some settling in. Settling in! She wondered how the work at Talboys was getting on, and how soon the renovations would be done.

She went down to breakfast thinking largely of drains and had a peaceable meal with her colleagues. Their conversation was pleasant but somewhat disjointed. “We’ve already returned to our other lives in our minds,” Harriet thought. “This weekend might have been only a dream. Ah, well! That’s the nature of holidays, though I don’t suppose many would consider plotting a crime to be a suitable restorative.”

After making her farewells, she had her case brought down and someone sent to fetch her car. She’d thought of using the lesser roads on her return journey but with the weather turning colder, the prospect of taking in the scenery held less appeal.

She was mentally reviewing the fastest way to return to London when the porter opened the boot, then gave a shout while backing away smartly as a body tumbled out. It was Lady Celia.