Harriet had thought -- she had hoped, and the Dowager Duchess had given her reason to hope -- that with the execution of Frank Crutchley, the long darkness that had fallen over Peter might pass. He had been brisk and cheerful enough during the trial, but she knew he felt it. And that dawn, when Frank was executed, everything had come to a head and he'd wept, and she'd never seen Peter weep. She'd known something had to give, but now that it had, perhaps life could go on.
He was asleep now, huddled under the bedclothes like a child...or at least she had left him sleeping, having cried himself out and, when that was finished, wiped his eyes in embarrassment.
"It's a rum world," he'd said ruefully, and Harriet had smiled a little and helped him to the bed.
Bunter, she thought, looked almost as exhausted as Peter that morning -- though he was as immaculate as ever, neatly dressed and with steady hands as he poured her tea for breakfast. She pushed the coddled egg around her plate with her fork, leaving smears of runny yolk in its wake. She supposed the passing of the torch was difficult for Bunter, too. Before her, he had been the one who lived with Peter, who saw Peter through his troubles.
"Will there be anything else, my lady?" he asked, and Harriet saw the dark shadows under his eyes. She studied him for a minute, lips pressed together thinly.
"Is it always like this?" she asked quietly.
They hadn't spoken of it, any of it, not since Frank Crutchley had been arrested. Or, well, she supposed Peter and Bunter might have; the veil of the dressing-room was sacrosanct and she didn't know what they spoke about while Bunter attended Peter, or any other time the two of them were alone. She supposed, living together as long as they had, Bunter was probably as much confessor as valet.
Bunter set the teapot down carefully. "It's not...a common occurrence," he said slowly. "Executions, I mean, my lady."
"But there have been some. I know there have," she said. "And it's an ugly business even when there isn't -- don't forget, I've seen Peter's dénouements before."
A faint smile traced his lips. "As you say, Lady Peter."
"And you haven't answered my question," she countered. "You're very good at that. It's only...I wonder, you know. Has it always been so terrible?"
"Lady Peter -- " Bunter looked troubled, and she recanted immediately.
"No, don't answer, I'm sorry. That's inexcusable of me, asking you to tell-tale on your employer," she said. "I'm not accustomed to all this. I don't mean this, just. I keep forgetting you're not...damn," she said, and saw a faint wince cross Bunter's face. "There isn't any polite way to say it, what I mean, not without insulting you."
Bunter clasped his hands behind his back, head bowed a little in thought.
"I suspect, my lady, to speak freely," he said slowly, "you wish to explain that, far from seeing my employ as a position, you forget I am not his lordship's friend."
"But you are, don't you see?" she said, distressed.
"The relationship is a complicated one, no doubt. But you are correct -- we are not equals, your ladyship and I, nor his lordship and I, and -- "
"Nor should we wish to be?" she suggested. "Quite right. You have a position in the household, and I should respect that."
"Just so," Bunter said, looking relieved.
"But we do share a concern for Peter," she continued doggedly. "So -- asking as my husband's wife, maybe, concerned with his comfort..."
She caught another smile on his face, quickly erased when he saw her looking. Aha.
"I'd just like to know if it's always been so dreadful for him, Bunter," she said finally. "And if it has, how on Earth did he survive it?"
"I suspect, not to carry tales out of school, that it has not been so terribly dreadful in the past because it could not be," he said gently. "And now that it may be, now that there is comfort to be had that a servant or a less intimate companion could not provide...I don't pretend to know what transpires between you and his lordship, my lady, but perhaps what you have seen is what there was to see."
Harriet tilted her head.
"I think you have seen all of the past," Bunter said softly. "Because now it could be seen."
"My God," Harriet replied, relieved and frightened at once.
"But," Bunter continued briskly, "that is only my opinion, your ladyship. Will there be anything else?"
"No, thank you, Bunter," she said, as if he'd just brought in a plate of sausages or something. "You can go. You might have a look in at Peter, but please don't wake him unless -- " she stopped, because of course Bunter knew. Peter slept well enough, but when he had nightmares he tended to shout down the walls and it was better to wake him quickly when it was like that.
"Yes, your ladyship," Bunter said, nodding. She almost thought he'd left -- the man was so cat-footed! -- when she heard him speak again. "Your ladyship?"
He was standing at the door, in the doorway itself, half turned to her.
"Yes?" she asked.
"It was far from undesirable," he said, and she frowned. "I think it's better this way, that's all," he added roughly, and ducked through the door without waiting to be dismissed.
Harriet sat back, thoughtfully. It was rare to see the man under the veneer of his position. It seemed a morning for revelations, of one sort or another.
Peter woke dreadfully late in the morning to find Bunter, having anticipated him, already in the room and removing the covers from a tray of food. He sat up, pulling his knees up to his chest, and rested his arms across them.
"Just like old times, eh?" he asked. Bunter didn't look up.
"I should hope not, my lord," he answered gently.
"Oh, I only meant -- you know, breakfast in bed, sleepin' late, all that," Peter waved a hand at the windows, where the curtains had been tied aside to allow light into the room. "I don't mean I'm going to lose the thread again."
Bunter glanced up, gave him a quick smile, and set aside the final cover from the breakfast tray, carrying it forward.
"Besides, there's Harriet to consider now," Peter continued, peering over his knees at the tray sitting on the bed. "It's very gothic and interesting I'm sure, bein' married to a madman, but not really the hitch she signed for, eh? Oh, Bunter," he added. "Porridge and fruit? Really?"
"Would your lordship prefer eggs?" Bunter asked.
"No, I suppose it's best," Peter answered, but he didn't move to take any of the food. He rested his temple on his wrist, looking sideways at Bunter. "How is she? Have I scared her off for good?"
"I believe Lady Peter is attending to her writing," Bunter said, stepping into the other room to lay out clothing for the day. "She did not seem unduly distressed. If I may, your lordship, it might be prudent to declare yourself not at home to any importuning journalists or curious callers," he said, voice drifting out from the dressing-room.
"I'm not going to fall to pieces, Bunter, I promise," Peter called. "Besides, I shan't think we'll get many strange visitors at Talboys, we're far enough from civilisation. And the vicar and the sweep and the dairy maid are harmless enough, you know."
"Just so, my lord," Bunter answered. Peter gave up and released his knees, leaning forward to spoon some jam into the porridge. It was, at least, very good porridge; childhood tastes stay with us our whole lives, and he'd been raised on this stuff until he'd been sent off to boarding school. Besides, the room was deuced cold, even with a fire going; the bowl warmed his hands.
"If Sal Hardy makes the pilgrimage and wants a quote, you can let him in," Peter continued, taking a bite of the porridge. "I'd rather give one steady line than let them speculate and lie for days on end. And Sal won't ride too roughshod."
"As you wish, my lord," Bunter pronounced. Peter could hear him shuffling quietly through the shirts, and turned to his breakfast, leaving him be for now. When he was finished eating, he slid out of bed carefully and went to the washstand, scrubbing his face and hair in the warm water. Bunter emerged just as Peter picked up his razor, holding it in one slightly shaking hand.
"Feel like a bit of barbering today?" he asked lightly. Bunter calmly accepted the razor and stropped it while Peter mixed the lather and spread it on his own face. He sat in front of the mirror, holding carefully still while Bunter drew the blade over his skin.
"It is rot," Peter said, following Bunter into the dressing-room when they were finished, shedding his pyjamas and pulling on the shirt and pants Bunter had laid out for him. "These bally nerves. Some men, you know, they actually pull the lever; I'm sure they're not fussed or they wouldn't take the job, would they? Here I am, every advantage, no need to take any job -- I'm a terrible waste, really -- and I can barely stand it," he finished, the words heavier than he'd meant. Sometimes even he didn't realise when his piffle was leading up to a confession. He studied Bunter's face as Bunter buttoned his shirt for him.
"How are you, then?" he asked softly. Bunter hesitated for only a fraction of a second before returning to work.
"As well as can be expected, given the events of this morning," he replied.
"Sufficiently well to perform my duties, my lord."
"Hm," Peter said, knotting his own tie while Bunter fixed his braces to his trousers. "Take the afternoon off. I doubt we'll need much in the way of attention, and there's cold supper fixings that Mrs. Ruddle can attend to."
"Thank you, my lord," Bunter said, sounding a little dubious about the pleasures of an afternoon off when his Lordship was unwell. Peter merely smiled and took himself off to find and bother Harriet.
Harriet was at the little desk under the window in the sitting room, idly tapping her pen against a tablet, when Peter came in. She heard him, light-footed as he could be, but she waited until he'd reached her and bent to kiss her neck, murmuring French into her skin, before she took any notice.
"Good morning," she said, tilting her head a little so that he could rest his chin over her shoulder.
"Better than some," he replied. "How goes the work?"
"Mm, not well," she said, as he released her and picked up a newspaper from a nearby table, going to sit in the big armchair by the fire. Talboys had been unfurnished, the last time they left it; she suspected Bunter and the Dowager Duchess had handled the decoration of it, though the credit was given to Peter.
"The muse is steadfastly unwoo'd?" he asked, shaking the paper out. She cast her eyes sideways, watching him just a little bit, knowing he would hate it if he saw (she had, after she'd been out of prison, when Eiluned had come to stay with her for a bit and walked on eggshells).
"Well, life's been thrown about a bit lately," she said. "It feels like coming back to work after a long holiday, only not so pleasant a holiday and not so irksome the work."
"Too much i'the sun, eh?" Peter said. "No, my own, I think I understand. Although that reminds me, I've given Bunter the afternoon. I expect he might catch up some sleep."
"Poor dear, he looked like he could use it," Harriet said absently.
"Couldn't we all," Peter murmured. "Aren't you cold, Harriet? I'm practically in the blaze and it's still dreadful in here. I should have had someone up to plug the draughts -- I expect Tom would have done it."
"I was just thinking I was rather warm, actually," Harriet replied. "The house is reasonably snug."
"Hm. Perhaps there's one about here," Peter said, craning his head around the chair, but he gave up and flopped back into it before he'd found whatever imaginary draught he was looking for. Harriet thought she heard a soft noise and looked up, away from Peter -- but it was only Bunter passing the doorway. He glanced over, eyes meeting hers; she saw a fleeting smile cross his face as he turned to Peter, and then he disappeared into the kitchen.
Peter fell asleep in the chair near the fire, sometime after lunch. Harriet didn't like his colour, but they were all tired. He'd feel better soon, she was sure, especially out here in the country air. She'd given up on writing entirely and was intending to go walking, to try and clear her head. When she saw Bunter in the scullery, shrugging into a thick wool coat, she smiled.
"Peter thought you might sleep this afternoon," she said, and Bunter turned, back going ramrod straight even as he smoothed his collar.
"I had considered it, my lady," he said, buttoning the coat. "But I felt perhaps the air would be beneficial."
"I was just thinking the same thing. Are you going up to town? Would you mind terribly if I walked with you?"
Bunter's eyes strayed, for just a moment, to a bundle sitting on a bench inside the door; his camera, she thought. Still, it was barely a second's hesitation, and then he smiled.
"Not at all, my lady," he said smoothly.
"Well, if you're not going to town you needn't escort me," she said, with her own bland smile. "Peter did give you the afternoon off."
"I was going in the direction of town," Bunter insisted, turning away to collect his bag, which he slung on a strap over his shoulder. She noticed a handful of sticks tied to the strap -- a collapsing tripod, of course.
"That's not quite going to town, though, is it?" she asked, as he held the door for her. He followed, shutting it behind him, and adjusted the strap on his shoulder, giving her a wary look. "Is that your camera? Doing a bit of landscape photography?"
"Indeed, my lady."
"I suppose it gets a bit confining, only photo'ing dead bodies and fingerprints," she said, and was startled to hear a brief bark of laughter from him. "What?"
"My apologies, Lady Peter. That was precisely the thought which motivated me," he said.
"The Dowager showed me a few photographs you'd done of Peter," Harriet remarked, as they walked down the lane towards the main road. "I suppose practice imbues a certain amount of skill, but they seemed quite talented to me."
"Thank you, my lady," Bunter murmured, looking slightly embarrassed. Harriet realised she was overstepping her bounds again, and she sighed to herself. Bunter seemed content with the companionable, only slightly awkward silence that settled over them, though, so she let it be as they walked.
She caught him turning a little, eyes roaming over the landscape, and finally she drew in a breath to speak.
"If you'd like to stop, I've no objections," she said carefully. "I mean, this is why you came out in the first place, isn't it?"
"Your ladyship should feel free to walk on," Bunter said, just as careful. "I shouldn't wish to detain you..."
"Well, it's not as if I have pressing business. Would you mind terribly if I watched?"
"No, my lady," Bunter said, opening the flap on his camera-bag and withdrawing a sleek, compact camera. He unslung the tripod from its confines, set it up quickly on the gravel at the edge of the road, and bent over it, fiddling with dials and buttons. He clicked one of them a few times, pulled a gear, did a few other things, and then -- apparently satisfied -- removed the plate, placing it in a separate pocket in his bag. He lifted the camera, tripod and all, and carried it over his shoulder like a rifle as they continued.
They stopped a few more times, along the way, Harriet waiting patiently while Bunter performed the mysterious obsequies of his task. She thought she had just about puzzled out most of his actions by the time they stopped, Paggleham in view up a gentle incline, and Bunter snapped distant photos of the town's outline.
"Do you know, I've always rather wanted to learn photography," Harriet said, a little wistfully. Bunter carefully didn't look up from his subject. "Never could afford it. Well, I had a Brownie as a child, I mean who didn't, but I know they're not really professional grade, are they?"
"My equipment is at your ladyship's disposal," he said, snapping another plate.
"Oh, no, Bunter," she said. "Those are yours, I couldn't. It'd be like stealing your shirts."
She thought she saw his lips quirk, briefly.
"I suppose I could buy my own," she said thoughtfully. "Woman of means now, and all. I wouldn't know where to begin."
"My expertise is, of course, also at your ladyship's disposal," Bunter murmured, straightening. He looked at her -- actually met her eye -- and smiled.
"Would your ladyship care to be photographed?" he asked.
"What?" Harriet said, startled. Bunter nodded at the empty field to their left.
"The landscape is compelling, but the composition lacks," he said. "There's nothing to draw the eye. And I think his Lordship -- "
Harriet laughed. "Yes, I can imagine his Lordship's thoughts on the matter of my being photographed. Very well -- is my hair all right?"
Bunter nodded soberly, and Harriet let herself be led a few steps off the road, into the field itself. She was surprised when he touched her chin, tipping it up a little, but she didn't react; just let him guide her head into the proper position. She held the pose as he hurried back to the camera and took three plates in quick succession.
"That will suffice, my lady," he said, and Harriet let her chin drop a little, studying him as he stowed the plates carefully and hefted the camera. When she didn't move, he hesitated. "My lady?"
"Bunter, I think..." she thought about his fingers on her chin, lifting it, positioning it properly. "Look, we've well sorted out boundaries, haven't we? I mean, as the lady of the house and -- " she laughed a little, " -- and his lordship's valet. But there's more to sort, isn't there?"
He gave her a mild, questioning look.
"I mean, there's an awful lot to dance around, and I'd like to just speak frankly with you sometimes. I know it's not the done thing, but I wasn't brought up like Peter. I'm used to associating with my equals. And I think I'd rather like to try that, with you. Somehow. If we can."
Bunter seemed thoughtful. He took the camera off its tripod, placed it carefully in the bag, and slung the tripod into its holster on the strap again.
"Do you mind if I smoke?" he asked, and offered her a cigarette-case. She took one, let him light it for her, watched as he lit his own. She hadn't even known he smoked. She waited for him to speak again. It was a long time coming.
"I understand," he said, finally. "I do. And there are certain times it would be easier to be candid, but there must be firm lines drawn. You cannot always be my equal. It just wouldn't do, d'you see."
Harriet nodded. "But sometimes...? When you're not working, maybe, or if we could just...I don't know, step outside things once in a while. Like we are now."
Bunter puffed, thoughtfully.
"When I was first demobilised, after the war," he said, "I came to enter his Lordship's service -- you're aware of what transpired?"
"Aware enough," Harriet said, nodding. "His mother told me a bit."
"In those days, his Lordship was not always entirely clear on where the boundaries lay between..." Bunter inhaled. "Well, between servant and master, between peacetime and wartime. I found that in moments of crisis, it was easier for both of us when he called me Sergeant. It became a shorthand, of a sort. It's rarely required now, but..."
Harriet smiled at him. "In that case, may I?"
"And you must call me Harriet," she said.
"Must I?" he asked, grinning. Harriet laughed.
"Harriet," he continued, and for a second she thought he was just trying out her name, but then he continued, "this is dangerous. Familiarity with the staff...when I was an under-footman as a boy it would have been considered an insult to both of us. But times do change," he added, voice soft. "And anyway, it's not as though it's been a very traditional life, his Lordship's and mine."
"I shouldn't think so, no," Harriet said.
"It's not been easy for him."
"And you?" Harriet asked.
"Oh, well. I'm bred a little more sturdy than he is. It bothers me, but not so much as it does him, and mostly for his sake." The candidness surprised her; all the stiffness, the set of his shoulders, seemed to have gone out of him. "I've never had anyone to talk to about it before," he added.
"Then it sounds as if we could both do with a little rule-breaking," she said. "I think I'm going to like you, Sergeant."
He laughed a little. "I already like you, Harriet."
"Just as well," she said. "Shall we go up into town?"
"Quite," he agreed. "You know we mustn't, though, in town," he added, as they began walking again. "People would talk."
"Good lord, can you imagine? It'd set Paggleham by its ears. No," she agreed. "What about Peter, though?"
He shrugged. "He won't like it. He won't say anything..."
"He'd better not. He knows it's my own business who I associate with. Then again, perhaps -- no, I won't lie to him. But I won't bring it up unless he does."
"He will, you know," Bunter said. He smiled and dropped his cigarette, tapping it out with his boot. "He's a detective, he sees these things."
"Let him see, then," Harriet replied. "Come on, Sergeant, you can leave me at the milliner's and go amuse yourself flirting with the barmaid."
"I never do!" Bunter protested, laughing. "I have a position to maintain. I only flirt to get information, and discounts on his Lordship's milk delivery."
They parted ways at the milliner's. Harriet, trying on hats near the window, watched as Bunter made his way to the pub, kicked the mud off his boots against the wall before entering, and ducked inside.
The house was quiet when Harriet returned, early in the evening. She found Peter still asleep in the armchair, which wasn't like him.
She bent, intending to wake him, and noticed the high flush in his cheeks, the dampness in his hair. She rested a hand against his forehead and even if her fingers hadn't been chilled she would have felt too much heat there. Peter stirred, cleared his throat without opening his eyes, coughed, and settled deeper into the chair.
"Poor darling," she murmured, sighing. "Small wonder you were cold."
She straightened and went to the kitchen, leaning in the doorway. Mrs. Ruddle was placidly slicing bread for sandwiches.
"Mrs. Ruddle, would you be a dear and run up to the chemist's?" Harriet asked. "Peter has a bit of a fever. Some Aspro, I think, and throat pastilles."
"Well, I knows a poultice that works a treat, if it's a cough his Lordship's been taken with," Mrs. Ruddle suggested, laying down the bread knife.
"We'll see. I don't think it can be very serious," Harriet said, hoping she wasn't lying to herself. "Only Bunter's taken the afternoon off and I think he's still in town; I'd rather keep an eye on Peter. If you see Bunter in town you might let him know."
"As you like, my lady," Mrs. Ruddle said, and Harriet returned to the sitting room, where Peter was snuffling miserably in his sleep.
"Peter," she said quietly, laying a hand on his wrist rather than his face -- a few months of sharing a bed with Peter Wimsey had taught her a little about the best way to wake him when he was having a hard go of it. "Peter, wake up."
Peter's eyes opened sharp and quick, as they usually did if he was woken unexpectedly. He drew in a breath to say something, but it caught in his throat and he doubled over, coughing. Harriet rubbed his back.
"That's a fine way to wake," he grumbled. "Sorry, Harriet, I -- " he broke off as another cough worked its way out of his chest.
"I think you might have taken a chill," Harriet said, a little amused. Peter nodded, wiping the corners of his eyes where tears had formed. "Come on, up you go and back to bed."
"Harriet, I hardly think -- " Peter began, standing, but as soon as he was upright he gripped the back of the chair to keep from falling over. Harriet put a hand gently on his chest. "Hm. You are right, as you usually are."
"Flattery will get you nowhere," she said, offering him her shoulder. He accepted without looking her in the eye, and together they made slow progress up the stairs. By the time they reached the top, Peter was shivering. He tumbled -- graceless, for once -- into bed, and Harriet sat on the edge next to him as he curled into the blankets, teeth chattering.
"A nice married life I've provided for you," he muttered, sounding slightly bitter. "First a working honeymoon, then that dreadful trial, and now -- "
"I think we did employ the phrase in sickness and in health in our vows," Harriet said, as he broke off into a coughing fit. "Now. Bunter should be home before dark, and Mrs. Ruddle's gone to town to get something for the fever and cough. You try being a lord of leisure for once and stay out of mischief, won't you?"
That drew a weak smile from Peter. "Just so, your Ladyship," he replied, in a very passable imitation of Bunter. Harriet smoothed her fingers through his damp hair, laughing. "Domina," he added in a low voice.
"Rest," she repeated, bending to kiss his temple. "I'll be back up in a bit."
Downstairs, she took in the half-made sandwiches, tapping a finger against her lips. Well, she had cooked for herself for years; there was no need to wait for Mrs. Ruddle or Bunter. There were tins of soup from Fortnum & Mason in the larder, left from last time they'd come to Talboys, and she tried not to feel as if they were a bit cursed while she opened one and emptied its contents into a pan on the stove. Not exactly home cooking, but it would do.
The soup was just beginning to steam when Bunter came in, stamping mud off his boots in the scullery and stopping at the threshold of the kitchen when he saw her.
"Oh, thank goodness," Harriet said, as Bunter quietly stowed away his camera equipment. "Did you see Mrs. Ruddle as you came down?"
"No, but I took a few country lanes," he answered. "Is something amiss?"
"Would you run up and check on Peter? He has a fever and a cough. I've sent Mrs. Ruddle to town for supplies."
"Made himself sick again, has he?" Bunter asked, and then covered his hand with his mouth, eyes widening. Harriet smiled. "I apologise, my lady."
"Quite all right. Technically you're still on your afternoon off, Sergeant. Has he done this before, then?" she asked, as Bunter hung up his coat.
"Once or twice. It's of no great concern; a few days and he'll be fully recovered, I'm bound," Bunter answered.
"Ah, yes. I've done it myself -- finishing a novel is bloody exhausting," she said. "One feels a bit ill for a few days after."
"Just so," Bunter said, and she fought a smile; Peter really had sounded just like him. "I'll see to his Lordship. Shall I take up the soup?"
"Oh, if you would," Harriet answered, spooning some out into a bowl. "When Mrs. Ruddle gets back I'll be along."
Bunter took the bowl, placing it on a nearby tray; he neatly added a spoon, a serviette, and a few chunks of the bread Mrs. Ruddle had been slicing. Harriet put the meat and bread away, then ate a quick bowl of soup herself, thoughtfully, leaning against the table in the kitchen.
When she came upstairs with a packet of Aspro and a glass of water, courtesy of Mrs. Ruddle (who had finished the sandwiches and then gone home, sniffing about poultices) she heard voices murmuring. She stopped in the doorway to the bedroom. It wasn't eavesdropping, she told herself; she was simply waiting until they'd finished speaking to enter.
It turned out just to be one voice, Bunter's; he was seated on the edge of the bed, turned to the head, one arm outstretched and his hand resting on Peter's throat. Tracking his pulse, she thought. Peter was unmoving, and looked asleep, the blankets bunched up around him in a picture of misery.
"...told you this would happen," Bunter was murmuring quietly, eyes on his pocket-watch. "We should have gone further away. I don't know why you go chasing about thinking you can save these blighters from themselves. Crutchley was a bastard. Not worth your time. He'd never be sorry, and he knew he'd hurt you if you let on you wanted him to be. You ought to have known that."
She cleared her throat, uncomfortable with the affectionate remonstrance in his tone, and Bunter immediately stood up, straightening his waistcoat primly.
"His pulse is good," he said, tucking the pocket-watch away. Harriet decided if he could ignore it, she would. "He did not partake of much soup, I am sorry to report."
It was fascinating, watching the shift between the two men Bunter could be -- the army Sergeant who smoked and laughed and got mud on his boots, and the valet who could only be spoken with through some excruciating twists and turns of traditional phrase. Harriet found she liked them both, but she felt honestly more comfortable around Sergeant Bunter.
"Do you think I ought to wake him?" she asked, setting the glass down next to the bed. "It'll help his fever..."
Bunter looked torn.
"Oh, for god's sake, he's sick," Harriet said. "Until he's well, you're fired, and you're Sergeant. Now come be his friend and help me."
Some of the tension eased out of his shoulders.
"I think he should have the pills," he said.
"Thank you," she answered, and ran her fingers through Peter's hair. "Peter. Wake up, it's me."
Peter shifted and coughed miserably. His skin was still flushed, and very warm.
"Peter, come on," she coaxed. Peter's eyes drifted open, unfocused until he turned enough to see her face. He tried to sit up, coughed again, and curled his arms around his chest. It sounded, to the ear of a country doctor's daughter, like bronchitis. Bunter was already around the other side of the bed, pulling on Peter's elbow with one hand, the other curled firmly around his shoulder to get him to sit upright.
He took the pills wordlessly, with none of his usual piffling and banter, and that was perhaps the most frightening thing, that Peter wasn't talking. Still, once he'd swallowed half the glass of water (forced on him by her, with Bunter helping) he fell back against the pillows and mumbled, "Gran Dio! Morir si giovane."
Harriet burst into what was probably slightly insane giggles. Bunter was biting his lip.
"If he's quoting La Traviata he can't quite be at death's door yet," she said, relieved, as Peter's eyes slid shut again.
"I shouldn't worry until he's quoting Nero," Bunter said. She gave him a puzzled look. "Qualis artifex pereo."
Harriet giggled again. "Quite. All right, sweetheart, we'll leave you to your operatic tragedy," she told Peter, and patted his hand. "Do you think it's safe?" she asked Bunter, who shrugged.
"Frequent checks, I should think," he said. "I can fetch a doctor if you're concerned."
"Mm. Let's see how he fares tonight," she murmured, tucking the blanket up around his chin. They looked at each other across the bed, across Peter's slumped and sleeping form.
"Have you eaten?" Bunter asked finally.
"Yes -- did you eat in town?"
"No, but there's food in the kitchen -- I usually eat later than you and he," he said uncertainly. "Do you need anything?"
Harriet looked down at Peter again, then shook her head. "I think I'll see if I can distract myself. I'll be in the living room. Come in if you want some company," she invited.
When she came downstairs, she heard Bunter go into the kitchen, but then she also heard the kitchen door unlatch, and thud shut softly. She got up and went to the doorway, peering through the windows in the kitchen door; Bunter was standing outside, lighting a cigarette with shaking hands. Harriet left him to it; there was a difference between being a friend and being an invasive busybody. He had as much right to privacy as anyone, after all.
She didn't think she'd be able to read, or to work, not with Peter upstairs miserable and sick. She didn't want to listen to the wireless, either; Peter had, perhaps with more bravado than good sense, bought a new one, a slimmer and more modern model than the one Frank Crutchley had used to kill Noakes with. She hadn't really gone near it, and anyway it might wake Peter, who clearly needed his sleep. She sat and stared out the window for a while, absently registering when Bunter returned inside, listening to him putter in the kitchen.
Eventually she got up and went to her desk, settling herself. She'd said she would keep writing as Harriet Vane, but since the murder and the trial she hadn't felt especially inspired -- scribbled notes and doodles were all she'd managed to accomplish. Now an idea was sparking in her imagination, and a distraction would be good for her. There was something about the dual life Bunter seemed to be leading that appealed to a writer of mysteries, and while she wouldn't for the world steal Bunter for a novel (that would be cruel to him, and hurtful to Peter as well) it was really about time to start discussing class in popular literature. The butler did it was well and good, but the butler wasn't ever a fully-blown person in those, and nobody ever wrote about housemaids and valets being killed. She supposed most people didn't want to read about the blank-faced, obedient servant, but if one could give a servant a rich other world, make people really consider that they were people as well...
When she looked up again from her work, she'd used up nearly half her tablet, and the clock on the wall said at least three hours had passed. She was surprised to still hear the scratch of nib against paper, and turned to find Bunter sitting in one of the chairs, inkpot on a table at his elbow, writing something of his own.
"I didn't hear you come in," she said, surprised.
"You were, one assumes, working," he answered, lifting his head briefly to give her a smile. "Besides, a soft step is commendable, in my line of work."
"Well, yes, I was," she admitted. "I think I'm onto a new novel. Something for Peter to read when he convalesces, perhaps," she added, with a little laugh. "I don't know. We've talked a bit about whether he wants to read my books, and he said he should leave it up to me, but I think he'd enjoy this. Or find it shocking, but it's good for him to be shocked a bit, once in a while."
"I'm sure he'll be glad to see you working again," Bunter remarked, bending to whatever he was writing.
"Yes...I haven't been much for it lately. Of course he noticed," she said, more to herself than to him.
"Is this to be another Templeton story?" he asked, and she was so surprised by his reference to the hero of her books that she didn't reply before he could sense it and look up again.
"I didn't know you'd read my books," she said.
"Oh, yes. His lordship has always made very free with his library, and they're quite the sensation below stairs," he replied. "Many of the Dowager Duchess's maids are extremely fond of Mr. Templeton."
Harriet burst out laughing. She couldn't help it; the idea of Bunter, or of any of Peter's mother's servants, settling in of an evening with a copy of Death In The Pot was a grand one.
"I won't ask if you liked them," she said, still laughing. "But that's lovely to hear, Sergeant, it really is."
"Of course I liked them," Bunter answered, as she subsided. "I should be employed in entirely the wrong household if I didn't enjoy a good mystery. Anyway, one never knows the murderer for at least a hundred pages, and they're a bit easier on the brain than Christie."
"Hm, is that a compliment?"
"I can't bear charts and graphs and maps and things," Bunter said. "Besides, it's hardly realistic. But then you know -- you've read his Lordship's monograph."
"The Vade Mecum, yes. I daresay you probably know as much about detectoring as Peter does, by now."
"The theory. And the practice of evidence-gathering. I leave the deduction to his Lordship."
"Hm, which reminds me, I should check on him," Harriet said, rising.
"I've looked in a few times. He's sleeping. Fever's still high, but not worryingly so," Bunter said. "Would you like me to air out one of the spare room beds for you?"
"Have we any cots? I'd rather stay in the room with him," she said.
"I believe we did acquire camp beds, in the view that it's best to be prepared," he replied. "I can sit up with him, though, if you like."
"Oh, Sergeant," she sighed. "Neither of us has slept much in the last two days. Get yourself some rest, and if I need you I'll come wake you."
"Just so," Bunter said, folding his pages and standing, smoothing his waistcoat. "We're likely to have many guests, tomorrow," he added, heading for the kitchen -- probably for the door to the cellar, where she assumed the camp bed was stored.
"How d'you -- never mind. Mrs. Ruddle," Harriet said, and Bunter nodded. "She'll have told the whole town by now, won't she?"
"They'll mean well," Bunter told her, pausing in the door. "Most of them won't even know they've come here to look in on the sick and gossip. They'll bring round food for you, soup for him, their mum's famous treatment that works a treat..." his accent dropped into the slower country drawl for a moment before resuming its brisk efficiency. "Not to worry. I'm quite good at directing traffic."
Peter wasn't sure what time it was when he woke; he could remember a few waking moments, but he hadn't really had a good sense of time since he'd sat down in the chair near Harriet, the better to bask simultaneously in the fire on the hearth, the newspaper, and the near presence of his beloved. At some point he must have fallen asleep, which would explain why he was so sore; not getting any younger, after all, and the places he'd slept in his youth would give him a cramp, nowadays --
No, he wasn't in the chair, though it certainly felt like he was still sitting in that bloody draught. He was in bed, his and Harriet's bed -- and freezing, despite the heavy blankets pulled around his shoulders. He shifted, curling in on himself. Bally fever, that was what it was; he'd gone and done himself in, and Bunter would be furious and disapproving in that way he had, where he never showed it but you knew it anyway. He hoped Harriet wouldn't fret.
"Sweetheart?" came a sleepy voice from the darkness, and Peter realised it must be night -- probably, with his luck, the middle of the night. He tried to sit up, but he was so cold. "Peter, darling, are you awake?"
"Harriet," he mumbled, throat sore and dry. He heard movement and then a warm hand on his forehead.
"You're still burning up," she told him. A second later, he could feel her lifting his head, pressing a glass to his lips. The water was so cold going down he almost choked on it, but he felt better after.
"I had a fever like this during the war, once," he said, and then wondered why he'd said it. Harriet didn't want to hear about the war, surely, and truth be told he didn't even want to talk about it.
"Hush, mine," Harriet said, and he tried to be quiet, but his teeth were chattering. He pressed his face against the chilly pillowcase, trying to stop it, and then there was a sudden, paralysing rush of cold as the blankets were lifted. It was brief, mercifully, but it shocked him into wakefulness, long enough for him to discover Harriet had crawled under the blankets with him, and was curling up against his chest. She radiated warmth. He sighed a little as the tight trembling in his chest eased.
"You'll get sick," he mumbled.
"Don't care if I do," she retorted, running warm hands up along his shoulders. He groaned and let his muscles go slack, soaking up the heat from her body.
"I love you so dreadfully much," he said.
"You just needed a heater," she teased, and he laughed, turning his head away when it turned into a dry, barking cough. He felt Harriet turn his head back, holding him against her neck, chin tucked up against the crown of his head, and he held on until he fell asleep again.
The next morning, Harriet wanted to stay with Peter, who drifted in and out of sleep. Still, she recognised that, as the new neighbours (much less the local nobility), there were certain hostess duties she'd have to resign herself to. Bunter was very good about accepting callers and making sure most of them didn't linger, but some were unavoidable.
Not that she wanted to avoid the vicar, who came up to see if there was anything he could do and to inform her that his cactus was thriving. Or Miss Twitterton, who brought two fresh chickens up for soup, along with a jug of parsnip wine "for medicinal purposes". It was just that every minute she spent being gracious and accepting such things was a minute she couldn't spend with Peter, and his fever was beginning to worry her.
Mrs. Ruddle actually prepared a poultice without consulting either her or Bunter, which led to a brief storm in the kitchen when Bunter told her in no uncertain terms that his Lordship would not submit to being smeared with mustard and god-knew what else. At least they left Harriet out of it. After that, Bunter firmly closed the doors and locked them, declaring in the local symbolism that they were Not At Home to further callers. Harriet, with a sigh of relief, escaped upstairs.
Peter was sleeping restlessly, the fever still battling it out with his body. Harriet sat on the edge of the bed and brushed his short hair back from his face, smoothing out the little curls at the ends. She wasn't sure how long she stayed there, just studying his poor flushed face, but eventually Bunter arrived with a plate of sandwiches and coaxed her gently over to the little writing desk near the window where Peter did his correspondence. They sat companionably at either end of the desk and ate, and when Harriet was finished Bunter held up a pack of playing cards.
"Oh, yes," she said, beaming. "That's very thoughtful, that way we can both stay up here and have a grand excuse for not answering the door."
"It does help the soul not to brood," Bunter agreed gravely. "Many's the night his Lordship and I spent in the trenches, playing gin rummy."
"Rummy?" Harriet asked, raising an eyebrow. Bunter blushed, which was a sight to see.
"Well, that's what one tells people back home," he said. "Blackjack was more the thing, but we never played for real money. That's illegal on duty and his Lordship was very particular about infractions like that."
"Hard to imagine Peter leading soldiers," Harriet said. "I mean, even so well as I know him...I suppose it must have been something to see."
"I'd rather not have. But there's no denying he kept as many of us alive as he could, and it was a sight more than most other squads," Bunter said. "Got me out of a tight place once or twice."
"I've heard Peter say a squad's only as good as its sergeant," Harriet said with a grin. Bunter grinned back, dealing out a hand.
"If it wasn't for his Lordship I might have stayed on -- in the army, I mean -- but it's a bugger of a life. Begging your pardon," he added hurriedly, and Harriet waved it off. "I didn't mind the bad food or the discipline but the trenches, I minded those. And anyway, he needed me."
"You don't ever consider leaving service now?" Harriet asked. "Going out on your own? Open a shop, or some such?"
"No," he said, looking up from the cards. "You said you weren't raised the same way he was. I'm on his side of the equation, I'm afraid. We both of us were brought up to know our places. He's no less tied to service than I am. More, I suppose. I can always quit. You can't quit being the gentry, not really."
"No, I suppose not," Harriet said thoughtfully. "Do you think he ever does? Want to quit, I mean."
Bunter was silent for a while. "I think he's come as close to escaping it as he ever will," he said, and looked up at her. "This isn't even something I should say regardless of our -- views towards each other, Harriet, but -- I don't think it was an accident that he married a progressive, educated liberal who wouldn't have him for saving her life."
Harriet thought of the novel she'd already begun, the one she was turning over in her head, the one about the lives of servants, about class and its gaping flaws.
"Ah," she said. "I see."
Just by chance she happened to look over at Peter's huddled form in the bed, and found that one blue eye was just barely slitted open. She couldn't be sure how much he'd heard, or if he'd heard anything at all; his face was still sleep-smooth, and even as she watched his eye closed again.
By evening, Peter had managed to keep down some beef tea and a bit of bread for dinner, but he was still feverish. Occasionally when she looked in his eyes, she saw Peter go...away somewhere. If he was delirious he was keeping a firm lid on it (how like Peter) but she still fretted.
"I'll fetch the doctor in the morning," Bunter said quietly, when she brought Peter's dinner things downstairs. "Unless I ought to go tonight?"
"No," she said, leaning on the kitchen counter. "Give him another little rest first. You know how he is about doctors."
"Mm. Last time he bruised a rib I taped him up myself. He will be a stubborn little fool sometimes," Bunter said. Harriet chuckled.
"As I well know," she said, as Bunter washed the dishware. "I'm sure most of his friends thought he was mad. I know most of my friends did."
"Lord Peter has traditionally had very little patience for what others think of him," Bunter said.
"Well, we have that in common anyway. It's not like I can afford to, with my past."
"We three shall be unconventional, shan't we?"
"Oh no, Lady Peter," Bunter said, putting on his most formal, most straitlaced voice. "His Lordship's manservant is to be the soul of conservatism and conventionality. The quality of the servant is the mark of the man. Now," he added, checking the oven, "something more substantial for us than his Lordship's beef tea, I think."
There was no question of Harriet taking the camp bed that night. Peter protested, but it wasn't as though he had the strength -- either of muscle or character -- to push her away when she crawled into the bed with him. Nor did either she or Bunter discuss his arrival, shortly thereafter, and his claiming of the camp bed for himself. Harriet was grateful for his presence; Bunter, if he had any thoughts on sleeping in the same room as his Lord and Lady, kept them to himself. He might be settling into the camp bed in a pair of (really rather fetching) red striped pyjamas, the familiarity all Sergeant Bunter, but his face was the impassive mask of Mr. Bunter, servant of his Lordship. Harriet smiled at him from across Peter's chest, which rose and fell weakly. Peter himself was too far under to even register her presence.
It wasn't difficult to sleep, with Peter so still and Bunter's reassuring presence in the room. Harriet drifted off easily, dreams vague but untroubling. She slept, in fact, quite soundly --
Until she was woken by a violent movement, to find Peter attempting to crawl over her out of the bed. She sat up, bashing her forehead painfully against his shoulder, and then grasped the back of his pyjamas, struggling with him. He didn't even seem to see her, or if he did she didn't register. His eyes skimmed over her face as if she were a stranger. Or worse, irrelevant.
"Must get out," he mumbled. "I'll come back for the body -- "
"Bunter," she yelped, as Peter began to pull away from her. "Sergeant, help me!"
For a second she thought Bunter was going to sleep through it, or perhaps had moved back to his own room belowstairs during the night. Instead, she realised, he had heard her and moved before he could speak -- he was climbing onto the bed, wrestling Peter off her, pulling him back and away from the edge of the bed.
"It's Caudry all over again," Bunter muttered, flipping Peter onto his back and pinning him down in what looked like a wrestling hold. "Major! Major, wake up, it's Sergeant Bunter!"
Peter struggled, and Harriet saw the problem: Peter had been buried alive at Caudry.
"Let him go," she gasped, and Bunter turned to look at her. "Oh, let him go, he's frightened."
Bunter eased away and Harriet threw the blankets back, scrambling out of Peter's way as he went, only touching him again when he almost fell off the bed. She went down with him, onto the floor, and he seemed easier there; the shock of cold air was vivid. It certainly woke her up.
"Peter, sweetheart, you're out," she said, kneeling and cupping one hand on his jaw, careful not to hold him or touch him anywhere else. "You're out, they brought you out, remember?"
"Is it breaking?" Bunter asked, dropping to his knees on Peter's other side. He carefully hovered a hand over Peter's forehead, then brushed his hair back. "I think it is. I think the worst is past."
Harriet collapsed a little, letting her head drop to Peter's shoulder. After a few minutes he stirred, looked down at her; she looked up, too, wondering if she was imagining the recognition in his eyes.
"Am I on the floor?" Peter asked, hoarsely.
"Yes, my own," she said, and burst into relieved laughter against his sleeve.
"Not in the foxhole?" Peter asked. Bunter replied before she could.
"No, my lord," he said. "You're in Hertfordshire."
"Oh. Jolly good then," Peter said, and slumped over against him. Harriet kept laughing, because it was terribly funny somehow, Bunter's expression combined with Peter's obvious pleasure at not being in a collapsed foxhole in France. She was still laughing when Bunter stood, pulling an unconscious Peter up after him, and rolled him back onto the bed; she was still laughing when Bunter bent down again and helped her up -- or maybe she was sobbing, because he pulled her into his arms and cradled her head on his shoulder, making soft soothing noises. She clung onto his lapels, shaking, until he finally let her go to sit on the edge of the bed. He bent and brushed her hair back off her face, offering her a handkerchief. She wondered, with what lucidity was left to her, where he'd got it from.
"There," he said, gently. "No need for tears. He's on the mend now, he will be anyway."
"I'm sorry," she said helplessly. "I didn't think I was so worried about him."
"Quite natural," Bunter told her, and she could hear it was Bunter, not Sergeant. Bunter knew how things fit together, knew how to navigate these dangerous waters, all these rough emotions she didn't even know she'd been containing. "Shall I make tea?"
"No," Harriet sniffled. "Thank you, no. Oh, how undignified. Some progressive woman I am."
Bunter smiled, dry but affectionate. "I would not have given him over to anyone who would put their own concerns before my master, your Ladyship. And he would never give over to anyone who would put him before themselves, not really. The odds of you -- " he took his handkerchief back, folded it, and dried some dampness near her ear she hadn't even felt, " -- the odds of you, Harriet, were not in his favour. Or in mine. You are the only one; there's no shame in that. Now," he added briskly, "The blankets need seeing-to, and you must rest if you're to be of any use tomorrow, and I shall be in the cot should anything untoward happen. Are you sure about the tea?"
"Quite sure, thank you," Harriet said, helping him sort the blankets out and spread them over the bed and the unconscious lump in the middle that was Peter. That done, she crawled under them herself and nudged him over just a little. His skin already felt cooler, and his sleep was more natural, not the deep sick stillness or the restlessness of fever.
She was exhausted, and Bunter had as good as said he would see to anything that needed it. For the second time, Harriet fell asleep, but this time she was less afraid.
Soft voices woke her, slowly, so that the sound of Peter's gravelly tones blended into her dreams before she was fully conscious. When she opened her eyes, she saw light streaming into the room, Peter lying on his side near the edge of the bed with his back to her, Bunter sitting in the curl of Peter's legs.
" -- worry her," Peter was saying, and Bunter was nodding.
"Well, there will be some little worry in married life, I should think," he replied. "As far as I'm aware her Ladyship was not unduly distraught. There were no hysterics to be had."
She heard Peter laugh softly. "No, Harriet wouldn't. I suppose she was very sensible about it."
"She had your interests at heart," Bunter answered.
"Not quite the same thing, Bunter."
"Nor meant to be. She did show a great concern for you," Bunter murmured.
"Dash it all. I'd hoped she wouldn't."
"The price of winning the fair lady, my lord."
"Well, cheap at the price then, but -- I'd like to be a proper husband, not a sick child to look after. I shall make it up to her. You can help me think of something," Peter said. Harriet almost laughed. She saw Bunter's eyes flick up and over Peter's shoulder to her, briefly; he must have seen some small movement. Peter didn't appear to notice.
"I think such concerns would be better addressed when his lordship is feeling up to the task," he said, and Peter groaned and laughed.
"Maybe so. It's only that she holds my heart in her hands, you see. And you get on well with her, don't you?" Peter said. "No grumbling downstairs and all that."
Bunter's eyes darted up again quickly, and then he clapped Peter on the shoulder gently.
"Indeed, I can find no fault with your choice. I'm very fond of her ladyship," he said. "And now, breakfast, I think. Will your lordship take some eggs?"
"Oh yes. Must have some eggs. And toast, I'm ravenous. And some bacon!" Peter called, as Bunter departed the room. Harriet let a giggle escape, then, and was promptly pounced on by Peter, who kissed her throat and then rolled away again.
"Up you come, my own, Bunter's making breakfast and I can have eggs," he said, sitting up in the bed. "How long have you been listening?"
"I should have known you'd know," she said, sliding up against the headboard. "You're looking better."
"I feel better. Well. Rather like I've been tossed around a room full of sharp-edged objects, but you know." He shrugged, kissed her again, and settled back, twitching his shoulders into the pillows. "On the mend, anyway. Was it terribly boring, while I was ill?"
"Yes. The light went out of life, all entertainments failed to divert, et cetera," she said, and Peter grinned at her.
"Bunter did his best, I'm sure, but he doesn't piffle half so well as I do," he said in a confidential tone.
"No, but he plays cards rather better than you," she teased. "I did get some work done. Started a new novel, in fact. If you behave and eat all your toast, I'll read you some of it."
"I'd like that very much," Peter replied. "Bunter played cards with you? Interestin'. Did he undo the top button of his shirt as well? Allow his shoes to go un-shined?"
Harriet curled up against his arm. "He was a dear. We were worried for you, you know."
Peter kissed the crown of her head. "I was worried for me too. But all's bright now, eh? Thank you, Harriet," he added, a little more sincerely.
"Sickness and health," she reminded him. The smell of bacon frying began to drift up to the bedroom, and Peter sighed happily. Soon Bunter would be back with food, and later she could sit with Peter and read to him while Sergeant Bunter listened at the doorway.
This would be a good life, she decided. All of it.