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An Unknown Factor

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Excerpts from the correspondence of Mr. Mervyn Bunter to Mrs. Bunter, Senr., ca. 1930 – 1936.

 

15 January, 1930
London

Dear Mother,

Thank you for your last and for the packet of handkerchiefs. They are very sturdy, and beautifully stitched. I am glad your arthritis is not too painful and you are able to keep on with your sewing.

You mentioned you have been following his lordship’s latest case in the papers. I am enclosing today’s edition of the Morning Star with the hope you will find the contents on the front page to be of interest. As you will see, the lady in question has been fully exonerated, thanks to his lordship’s efforts. I was able to be of some small service in the matter of chemical analysis during the investigative proceedings, and, as usual, I found the task to be very interesting, not to mention most gratifying to be of assistance in clearing the name of an entirely innocent person.

I will tell you in confidence that I had begun to wonder if his lordship had some feeling invested in this case beyond the usual intellectual pleasure of detection. His frequent trips to Holloway Gaol to visit Miss Vane during the course of this investigation, and his pensive moods following these interviews, have given rise to certain suspicions that I think you, too, may infer, Mother. However, this evening he announced his intention of traveling to Vienna next week. There resides in Vienna an attractive and talented lyric soprano whose company his lordship has, in the past, found pleasing. I conclude that my deductions were baseless.

 

22 January, 1930
Vienna

…Well, Mother, our stay in Vienna was briefer than I had anticipated. We arrived on the Thursday afternoon to the Praterstraβe flat which his lordship has kept these past several years. I had barely finished unpacking when his lordship was calling for his evening kit and he was off to the Staatsoper. I was given to understand there was to be a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 and I concluded that his lordship was anxious not to miss this pleasure. Mr. Mahler is not what you would call one of his lordship’s favorite composers, but my lord has previously expressed an appreciation for the Sehr behaglich.

Previous sojourns in Vienna have heavily featured the opera house and have led to lengthy and apparently amiable periods of recreation. You will imagine my surprise then, Mother, when his lordship returned alone(!!) quite early in the evening(!) and announced rather abruptly to me that he would see his agent tomorrow to give up the lease.

“I’ve wrapped up my affairs here,” said he, “and I don’t expect I shall have any cause to return.”

“I see, my lord,” I said, considerably taken aback, for, as I say, the lease of the Vienna flat has been of some long standing. “I will see to packing the heavier items and have them shipped to England.”

“Thank you, Bunter,” he replied. “I shouldn’t think there will be much to pack. We’ve collected a few odds-and-ends here, haven’t we, but nothing that we shall want in England.”

His lordship is not what you might call a sentimental man, but there were some small trinkets I would have supposed he might wish to keep, having been gifts, I had been given to understand, from the aforementioned singer. But now his lordship has instructed me to sell or put into the waste bin every blessed thing in the flat. He does not appear upset, but rather his spirits seem quite high.

 

23 June, 1931
The Hotel Bellevue, Wilvercombe

Dear Mother,

Having concluded the business in Eastbourne with which his lordship tasked me, I have joined him at his hotel. I am glad to hear your strawberry crop is nicely up to snuff this year. I found the pot of jam you sent waiting for me when I stopped by the Piccadilly flat to collect fresh shirts and so on. You know how pleased I am to receive it; there is nothing like your homemade jam. (His lordship left London for Wilvercombe in so much haste on Friday that he barely remembered his hat and stick. I was that mortified, Mother, when I discovered he had forgotten to even put a blessed handkerchief in his pocket. I took care when I stopped at the flat to pack all he might want. The luggage might be heavier than he would expect, but I do not know how long he expects to stay at the Bellevue and I will not have him put me to shame again. I have packed for every contingency this time.)

These last comments are so heavily underlined the ink bled through the paper, apparently testament to the writer’s emotion.

...I do not know how long we will be here in Wilvercombe. His lordship is investigating a business which has brought him back in contact with Miss Vane, whose name you will remember from the papers two years ago. Perhaps you saw the newest headlines this week regarding the body Miss Vane discovered on the beach. I confess my curiosity was greatly kindled when his lordship informed me today that we would be picnicking with the lady this afternoon. His lordship has seen her from time to time these past eighteen months, but I have not had the occasion to personally make her acquaintance before now.

I will say frankly, Mother, I have not quite known what to think of her. On the one hand, I put great store in his lordship’s taste and good sense, both being, I believe, of the highest order. If my lord finds Miss Vane’s company pleasing, she must possess good manners and a reasonable intellect—these traits being, you might say, a requirement in order to capture his lordship’s interest.

On the other hand, his lordship has, on more than one occasion, returned from an evening spent in Miss Vane’s company in what I can only describe as a deflated mood. What can it say about her good sense, not to mention any appreciation she may (or apparently may not) feel toward him for past services rendered, if an evening spent in her company brings his lordship so low?

With these thoughts turning over in my mind, I packed our picnic basket and accompanied his lordship to the shore where we met the young lady. While his lordship engaged her in conversation regarding the case he is investigating, I took my time to study her, discreetly, of course, and meaning no disrespect.

She has a frank and engaging manner about her which is pleasing. Her attitude toward Lord Peter I found to be comfortable without being forward. His lordship treats her with the openness he would show a good friend. The whole business leaves me puzzled, Mother. If they find each other’s company mutually agreeable, the rest ought to fall right into place easy as you wish. And yet his lordship has apparently been courting her for eighteen months and all we have to show for it is a picnic on the shore. I would say I wash my hands of it, but it worries me a bit. I have never seen his lordship put his mind to something he cannot achieve, but he apparently has an uphill battle in front of him.

The lady bade me a genial good evening when we parted company, going out of her way to thank me for the picnic basket. I found the gesture rather touching.

 

1 July, 1932
Piccadilly, London

…His lordship has been engaged with a case which has kept him quite busy during the days these past few weeks. He has not found need of my services, so I have had time to reorganize my pantry and experiment with a new photographic technique I have been wanting to try. (I enclose a few prints of flora and fauna for your collection.) The case concluded earlier this week, however, and the dénouement has affected his lordship rather badly. I prescribed a rest-cure and hoped to get him away to Denver, or somewhere quite isolated, for a good time to recover his spirits. He had, however, an engagement with Miss Vane that he refused to break. He went out, therefore, last evening, only to return to the flat again quite early in the evening upon the arm of the lady.

I could see immediately that his lordship was in a bad way. I had heard the key in the latch and hurried to the hall, only to stop short as I saw his lordship in the company of the lady. She was standing a little rigidly, her hand under his elbow rather as if she were attempting to support him rather than the other way around. She hadn’t taken more than two steps inside and she did not seem at all inclined to take off her coat and stay awhile. In my experience, the typical lady his lordship brings over his threshold is agog with curiosity—a man’s home being something of his sanctum, you understand, and his lordship’s being furnished in the finest taste—but Miss Vane’s attention was entirely focused on his lordship.

“Oh, Bunter, good evening,” she said. “I’m sorry to trouble you, but his lordship seems to be under the weather.”

“Headache,” said my lord, very white about the mouth. “I’m sorry, Harriet. Frightfully disagreeable for you. I mean to say, ruining your evening. I didn’t think. Even when one’s head is poundin’ away, one always thinks of oneself as the air, invulnerable.” His teeth began to chatter. “And I’m sorry you’ve missed your dinner.”

“Don’t be an ass, Peter,” she said, not unkindly, and turned to me. “Bunter, will he be all right with you?”

“Perfectly,” I assured her. “It is a not uncommon reaction following a trying case. If you will allow me, I will assist his lordship to bed.”

She left promptly and without a fuss, thanking me gravely and wishing me a good evening. She shows a good deal of common sense and her concern for his lordship is becoming.

I got his lordship into his bath and bed and I trust a few days’ rest will render a full recovery.

 

15 August, 1934
Piccadilly, London

…We returned from the north late last night. The case with which his lordship was assisting Mr. Parker has been satisfactorily resolved, although I am sorry to say at the expense of two cracked ribs on the part of his lordship. Thank you for your concern, Mother, but I remain in good health, having not fallen off the wall which was his lordship’s undoing on this occasion.

I had leisure to write these pages this evening as his lordship dined at his club with Miss Vane. He returned in such high spirits that I wondered if he had news to impart, but he has not said a word to me. I trust that, if his lordship were intending to reorganize his household on a matrimonial basis, he would inform me at the proper time.

 

10 May, 1935
The Mitre Hotel, Oxford

Dear Mother,

I apologize for the delay in my usual correspondence. I hope this letter finds you well and the heavy rain has not done too much damage to your lettuces.

We have had an active spring with a great deal of travel. Just when I thought we were settled in at Warsaw for a time, his lordship was told his services were no longer required and we might return to England. That very afternoon his lordship was given his papers and he booked us on an aeroplane to return home.

I would not say this to anyone but you, but I have been a trifle worried about his lordship these past weeks. There is a look about his eyes that I am afraid means he’s nearing the end of his tether. I should have liked him to take some little time to stay quietly in Warsaw before more travel. Still, my spirits lifted when he told me on the Saturday that we were to motor down to Oxford. It is my experience that Oxford has a salubrious effect on his lordship. Even factoring in a visit to his nephew—who, as you know, is sometimes something of a handful—I dared to hope his lordship might find the visit restful.

My hopes were slightly dashed when I was told to press his lordship’s newest linen suit as he was engaged to meet Miss Vane on the river. I nearly begged his pardon, for I never have dreamed we might encounter that lady in Oxford. And yet his lordship tells me she is staying at Shrewsbury College and I was to press his suit and please to order a picnic basket.

Mother, I spent the afternoon in a brown study, what with being worried over his lordship’s health and knowing the opposing effects the lady might have on him. On the one hand, he may return uplifted, but on the other hand, he may be thrown into a deeper state of distress. In his present condition, I really would fear what the effect of a downturn in his mood would have on his lordship.

I was still in a bit of a temper—although I hope I needn’t say that I would not stoop to letting his lordship see this—when he returned this evening. Imagine my surprise when he displayed neither effervescent uplift nor terse disappointment. He, was, to my surprise, quietly singing the tenor line of the Confiteor from Mr. Bach’s Mass in B Minor, a very pleasing work of music although you know I am not papist in the least. I took his singing to be a good sign. I am told he has a new case, and perhaps this has put him in better spirits.

 

20 May, 1935

Dear Mother,

I am writing while on the train, so I hope you will excuse any unevenness in my script. We are bound for the continent again, likely for a stay of several months’ time. We left from Oxford this morning with only a brief stop at the flat to pack a trunk.

His lordship was a touch distracted this morning. When we reached Piccadilly, he sat quite still in the library staring into the empty grate while I reviewed his wardrobe for what should need to be packed—Rome will be warmer this time of year than our own climate—and only when I informed him that everything was in order and ready to go did he choose to confide in me.

“Bunter!” said he, and he looked so queer that for a moment I was reminded of that bad time fifteen years ago when I was new to his service and we were all very much concerned for his health. But then he rose to his feet, turning his face to the light, and I saw quite a different expression on his face.

“Bunter, Miss Vane has accepted my proposal of marriage.”

He stood so quietly and spoke so simply that I was startled, for you know, Mother, his lordship’s usual habit is to speak at more length but in a less direct manner. His conversation is not, as a rule, concise. My experience has been that direct speech from his lordship is indicative of a profound affectation of his mind.

“May I extend my very great congratulations, my lord,” I said, watching him closely.

“Thank you,” he said, and—

Here the text breaks off and several words appear to be marked out and overwritten.

grinned like a small boy —the expression on his face dissuaded any concern I might have felt as to his reaction to this development.

“Yes, well, Bunter,” his lordship continued in more like his usual tone. “It has been a long five years. She came to prove him with hard questions…and we will give unto her all her desire. But not until we get this Foreign Office business behind us. Are you satisfied as to the matter of suits and hats? Very well. Victoria Station, then.”

I write this in the strictest confidence as the news has not been made public yet. I expect the announcement to run in the Times quite soon.

 

8 October, 1935

Dear Mother,

I write to you from an “unknown destination” in the country, hoping this finds you as it leaves me….

 

2 January, 1936
Cadaqués, Spain

…His lordship and her ladyship continue to enjoy their honeymoon. I am greatly pleased to report their union appears to have produced a deep and mutual satisfaction. I was a bit worried for his lordship after the conclusion of the case at Talboys. A violent and unhappy conclusion is always apt to leave him troubled in his mind. Her ladyship’s presence is a new factor. She seems to have a soothing effect on his lordship. He is eating his meals and not pacing his rooms at night, and as to the rest, I cannot say.

 

9 November, 1936
Audley Square, London

Dear Mother,

We have had a very trying night, although the doctor—an old school-friend of his lordship’s—insisted the proceedings were nothing out of the ordinary. They were certainly out of the ordinary for this household. If you had told me ten years ago, Mother, that his lordship would end up married and the father to a son, I would have frankly not believed it. His lordship appears to be somewhat befuddled, if I may use the term. After the doctor had left, he drank a quantity of champagne, bestirred himself to go out on an errand quite early this morning, and returned to fall asleep again in the front hall.

I do not blame his lordship for any erratic behavior. My own nerves feel quite strained. Her ladyship is held in high esteem by the members of the household, myself first among them, and concern for her wellbeing these past twenty-four hours has been deeply felt by all downstairs. Her kind ways and easy manners endear herself to all who have the privilege to know her, and I am profoundly happy for her—and of course his lordship—on the birth of the new young Wimsey. If the volume of the infant’s bellows is any indication, he is a fine, healthy young boy.

I leave in haste now as his lordship is ringing for me.

I remain, as ever, your loving son,

Mervyn