“Peter,” said Harriet.
“Mmmm,” said Lord Peter Wimsey, not lifting his eyes from the morning newspaper.
“Peter, I’ve just had a letter from Shrewsbury. The dean is rather concerned.”
Peter raised his eyes to his wife’s face. “Has something gone south with the scholarship? We’ve picked quite good scholars until now, but there’s bound to be a dud in the batch at some point. Has she gone off her studies? Finds seventeenth-century poetry too exciting for the blood and is begging to switch to science, by which path of academic learning she may cool herself with the observation and documentation of the life cycle of amoebae?”
“I don’t know that amoebae would be so very cooling,” Harriet observed, frowning. “Aren’t they found in blood?”
“If they are, you’re in for a rough time of it. I say, that’s a rather good idea for a murder plot. The murderer introduces amoeba-contaminated matter to the victim—”
“—Who suffers a brief and painful illness and dies seemingly of natural causes. That has been done before, both in fact and fiction—”
“—And probably more often than is discovered in real life. Well, is something the matter with our scholar?”
“No, Miss Martin doesn’t mention that. She’s writing on behalf of Miss De Vine and all the faculty. Annie Wilson has died and they’re concerned about the children.”
“Died?” Peter’s voice sharpened. “Does she say how?”
“Yes. It’s rather beastly. She hung herself. Miss Martin says she had been doing quite well at the home and the nurses didn’t have any idea that she wanted to harm herself. I suppose they ought to have watched her more closely, but it’s been five years and she’s been quite docile so they had no suspicion.”
“Damn,” said Peter. “Damn and damn.”
“The children will have to be told. Her children, I mean. Peter! Isn’t Miss Climpson on that? I mean, when Annie was put away for treatment, just before we were married, and the Shrewsbury dons were worried about the children—you put Miss Climpson on it, didn’t you? I know you did, because Miss Martin wrote to me and said it was such a load off their minds, that the Wilson girls would be seen to, and since they were boarding at the school they would feel the absence of their mother less acutely. I’m sure you put Miss Climpson on it. I suppose,” Harriet added, “you pay their fees?”
“Well,” Peter said, “I do. In a roundabout way, via Miss Climpson and with no names attached. They needed someone to look out for them, and it seemed rather good insurance as well. I can’t say I’m a believer in the sins of the father being visited upon the children, but when a child has been exposed to his father’s—or rather, her mother’s—sins, it might conceivably plant an idea in her head. The thought was that a proper education and a kindly attention from the headmistress and matron would not go amiss in soothing the past and the future into something rather more bearable for Miss Beatrice and Miss Carola. And if, in the process of growing up at a highly respected and respectable scholastic environment, their young minds were encouraged to forgot old grudges and learn to see things in a reasonable light, that would be just as well for Miss De Vine and for ourselves. Because Miss De Vine might be their father’s Judas, but I’m rather their mother’s, aren’t I? Beatrice, at any rate, was old enough to work that out in her mind. She might have got to brooding if she’d been put at the mercy of the state and grown up unhappy. Unhappy people do brood. Besides, in all charity, one couldn’t send them to an orphanage, and they had no relatives that anyone could find.”
Peter stopped to draw breath and Harriet studied her husband’s rather flushed and sheepish face.
“You do have an awfully endearing habit of wrapping up your good deeds in cold logic,” she said, and refilled his coffee cup. “It’s very decent of you to pay their fees and very clever of you to think of it. The question now is how this news about their mother is going to be broken to them.”
“I’ll send round a line or two to Miss Climpson, and she will have a word with the headmistress. I think it can be arranged from afar and the spheres may be kept nicely separate. Sometimes a clinical separation of worlds is for the best. Unless it’s going to worry you. You were, of course, rather involved in the Annie Wilson affair. It was more yours than it ever was mine.”
His eyes were hooded and Harriet recognized the wary expression, the intelligence that so quickly grasped the situation, the reason that tried in vain to tame the irrational and vague clench of fear over unpleasant circumstances, an emotional outburst, a mind made unquiet.
“No,” Harriet said. “I’m not upset over it. I feel sorry for Annie Wilson and I feel sorry for the girls, and I’m glad you’re doing your best for them, but I don’t think I’m troubled by it.”
“I’m glad of that. I’ll write to Miss Climpson directly.”
“Thank you. And I shall write to Miss Martin to say the girls are well taken care of.” Harriet folded the dean’s letter and reached for the next one on her stack. “Will you ring the bell, please, Peter? You’ve eaten all the toast.”
Beatie graduated from Meadowbank School for Girls the year the war ended. The world was bent and bleeding in the summer of 1945. Winston Churchill had yielded power to Clement Attlee. Hitler was dead and so were Mussolini and President Roosevelt. The men who had dominated the world, who had held millions of lives in their hands for good or evil, were reduced to dust and ashes in quick succession, like a row of dominos knocked over.
Beatie found death interesting. Men and women and children across the country, across the world, were dead and burned, gassed and shelled, their towns and possessions and lives reduced to rubble along with their souls. Beatie felt a kind of vague, unfocused sympathy for humanity in the summer of 1945. She had faced death intimately herself, first in the death by pistol of her father, then in the death by rope of her mother. She told herself she had been brave in the face of her parents’ deaths. She had kept a stiff upper lip and carried on, for Carola’s sake if not for her own. She felt that the British people, that people around the world, must do the same. There was no time for feelings, not now nor ever. There was only each day to be got through.
But a stiff upper lip could not turn off one’s thoughts, and Beatie thought that death was interesting. Her mother had clearly been interested in the effect death has on the mind. Beatie remembered the grotesque pasted notes her mother had created, sitting in the Jukes’s kitchen, instructing her children on which letters to cut from the newspapers. “What will you do when you fail at Schools?”—“ You deserve to fail and I shall see that you do”—“You’d better end it now”—“Try the river.”
Annie had chuckled over these notes and hushed her daughter when she asked what they were for.
“They’re only a bit of a joke, dear. A prank. You’ll understand when you’re older.”
Mrs. Jukes had laughed. “One of the students done you wrong, Annie? Didn’t clean up her crockery, or give you mouth in the corridor?”
“Something like that. Those ladies at Shrewsbury, they don’t know what it means to be a lady. Books and lectures and dead languages, at what trouble and expense for the rest of us?” Annie made a rude gesture with her hand and Mrs. Jukes had burst into laughter.
“Well, a practical joke never did no one no harm,” Mrs. Jukes said, and sat down to help with the cutting out of letters.
Later, they had sat at a table in a different kitchen, a new house where Beatie and Carola were domiciled, a new cramped bedroom upstairs, a new woman to learn to know. This one was Mrs. Jukes in all but face and name, and Annie had taken to Mrs. Pratt just as easily as she had to Mrs. Jukes. It was Beatie who hated moving so often, who hated new beds and new faces and new people to face around the breakfast table.
That afternoon Annie’s face had been excited and savage. “Did you hear about what’s happened at the ladies’ college, Mrs. Pratt? A student tried to kill herself. She took a boat on the river and nearly drowned in the reeds.”
“I never!” Mrs. Pratt poured tea and passed a plate of cakes. “I had heard something of the sort, but they did say it was an accident.”
“It wasn’t an accident.” Annie bit into a cake and daintily brushed the crumbs off her fingers. “It’s what happens when a woman has too much learning. It’s not good for a women’s mind.”
Beatie listened and she learned, her eyes always on her mother’s face. But her mind drifted further back, to her father’s face and voice. She had used to like to sit with him when he was correcting papers for his pupils at the preparatory school. He had had a study, a tiny cramped room in a tiny cramped flat, because times were hard and too much of their money went to drink. Beatie had heard her mother say that, once or twice, under her breath, but never to Arthur’s face. It was true that Arthur Robinson’s study smelled of cheap whiskey, but Beatie liked to sit with him, wedged on the floor between desk and radiator, watching her father’s rather vacant face as his pen scribbled across his pupils’ papers.
“Don’t go the way I’ve gone, Beatie,” he had said to her once. “Don’t let your life get the better of you. The world will knock you down—everyone may be against you—but keep your chin up. Don’t drown like I’ve done.” He reached for his glass and took a swallow. “And for God’s sake, don’t go your mother’s way either. She’s hard. I’m weak and she’s hard. Try to be a good girl and try to lead a decent life.” He had dropped a clumsy, affectionate hand on her head.
A week later, he had sat in his study and taken a gun in that same hand and shot himself in the head.
Beatie never repeated her father’s words to her mother. She kept them to herself and turned them over and over in her mind. And she watched her mother cutting letters out of newspapers and wondered if that was what hard meant, if hard was taunting a student to her death, if hard meant taking a practical joke too far.
When she and Carola were sent to Meadowbank school, she tried to honor her father’s memory by being a good girl. She applied herself to her studies and got top marks in her classes. Despite her work, she did not much like many of her classes. She found English, French, rhetoric, art, and tennis to be boring. She made a special effort to like history, in honor of her father’s memory, but that, too, she found flat.
She did like science and mathematics. Maths came easily to her and helped make sense of her world. Europe, Asia, and Africa might be in turmoil; her schoolmates’ fathers and brothers might be dying on the battlefields across varied continents; her father’s and mother’s voices might be beating a contradictory tattoo in her head; but mathematics was not subjective. Numbers did not say one thing and do another—tell one’s daughter to be a good girl and then shoot one’s brains out—tell one’s daughter to be a lady and then post coarse anonymous letters to strangers who had done one no harm—no, numbers did not contradict themselves, they were not horribly subjective, they did not betray loved ones and leave a girl alone at school with the terrible burden of watching out for a younger sister. Numbers were impersonal and objective. They yielded to laws and the fine lead scribble of a pencil. You could make them do what they were supposed to do.
The mathematics mistress noticed Beatie’s interest and began to use it as leverage against her. There were two main things about which Miss Chadwick cared in life. She loved Meadowbank school and she loved mathematics. She would move in and out of her classroom and her pupils’ lives in a hum of pleasant chatter, but when she stumbled across a pupil who was as skilled with numbers as she was herself, Miss Chadwick would pounce. She pounced on Beatie in Beatie’s second term at Meadowbank.
Miss Chadwick began having Beatie to tea in her private parlor. This weekly event, usually held on a Sunday, was issued as an invitation but executed as a command. Beatie dutifully attended and sipped tea. There were always a little group of other pupils present, and that made things easier. Beatie could relax into a corner of the couch and listen to the conversation. Miss Chadwick was a very interesting conversationalist and could cover in one breath topics ranging from Aristotle’s golden mean to the development of modern algebra to the Marshall Plan. Yes, Miss Chadwick was an interesting person to listen to. But it was rather more terrifying to have to talk alone with her.
Miss Chadwick began having her to tea alone the year Beatie turned fifteen. This was the year Miss Chadwick launched her campaign to convince Beatie to attend university. Beatie did not respond favorably. She resented Miss Chadwick’s organizing of her life for her and she was not at all sure she wanted to attend university. But Miss Chadwick was not to be deterred.
“You’ll have a good number to choose from,” the mistress would say pleasantly, every Sunday when Beatie would dutifully turn up for tea to argue about her fate—like the Paris Conference, she thought, except it happens every single week and there are fewer people arguing around the table.
“You’ll be able to take your pick of several really good universities, because Meadowbank is a good school and with your marks you’ll be sure to get into some of the best. You must expect a few rejections, but if you diversify your applications I believe you’ll be able to find the right one for you. Now, you may wish to apply to a few provincial and foreign schools, but the important ones are really Oxford and Cambridge.”
“Yes, Miss Chadwick,” Beatie would say, keeping her tone polite because she was a good girl and Miss Chadwick was her elder and an authority figure. “I know about Oxford and Cambridge. I lived at Oxford and at York. I know all about university. But I don’t want to go to university.”
“What do you want to do with your life?” Miss Chadwick would, inevitably, demand.
Sometimes Beatie would say she wanted to be a dancer or an aeroplane pilot or a housewife, just to see how Miss Chadwick would respond. But one day she looked down into her teacup and said slowly, “When I was a little girl I wanted to be a chauffeur. I liked motorcars and things. My really big dream in life was to own a motorcycle.”
Miss Chadwick’s forehead wrinkled. “I believe motorcycles are not uncommon in Oxford. I think you might see about purchasing one.”
Beatie looked up in astonishment. “Take a motorcycle to Oxford?”
“Why not? You must,” the mistress continued in rather more gentle tones, “you must do what makes you happy in life. But just think, Beatrice—think about living your whole life without doing really fun maths ever again. Do you want to spend your days totting up the weekly shopping in your kitchen account books? If that’s what would bring you happiness, I should have to accept that. But I don’t think it would make you happy. And I would find it such a very great shame for you to take brains like yours and turn them to something like chauffeuring.”
“My mother didn’t think ladies should attend university,” Beatie said bluntly. “She said that a woman’s place was with her husband and children. She would think it was perfectly appropriate for me to tot up my household accounts and never do anything with maths beyond that.”
“Would you find it appropriate?” Miss Chadwick demanded.
Beatie was silent. “I would find it appropriate,” she said finally, “but I don’t think I would find it very interesting.”
“Your father went to university. He was a scholar. What would he say?”
Invoking her father’s memory was blackmail, and Beatie knew that Miss Chadwick knew it. That must mean that Miss Chadwick thought that this was very important, if it warranted such a criminal approach. Beatie stared into her teacup and remembered to keep her upper lip stiff. “I’ll think about it, Miss Chadwick,” she said.
In the end, she acknowledged the inevitable and submitted her applications to university. She told herself it was because she wanted to study maths, but she knew it was really because she had been unable to resist Miss Chadwick’s will. Beatie was a good girl, and good girls respected their elders. The only trouble was when one’s elders contradicted each other. Arthur and Annie had not agreed on a woman’s place in the world; Miss Chadwick and Annie did not agree; and although Miss Chadwick had spoken for her dead father, Beatie was not really sure that Arthur would have thought much of Miss Chadwick. Arthur had not been, after all, a very enthusiastic scholar. He had exhorted his daughter, not to use her brains, but to use her heart. Beatie, with her parents dead and a dutiful appreciation for Miss Chadwick’s kindly interest, yielded to the living force and put in the applications.
She was accepted to Oxford and to Cambridge. She knew she had top marks and that her school was well-regarded, but she was surprised to have earned entrance to all the universities to which she applied. She appealed to Miss Chadwick for an explanation and was met with a bland smile. “You know your work is top-notch, Beatrice, and Headmistress did write you a very nice letter of recommendation. There is also a sponsor of the school who took an interest in your case and wrote a few letters. I believe he serves on the board of directors. You wouldn’t have met him, but a letter from him would have boosted your applications quite a bit.”
With this Beatie had to be satisfied. She had no taste for mysterious benefactors and she had never before considered the school’s board of directors, but someone had pulled a string and gotten her into university, and now she had a decision to make. It wasn’t really a decision, after all, though: Oxford held unpalatable memories and Miss Chadwick would not heard of her attending a lesser school than Oxford or Cambridge.
“It will open doors for you,” Miss Chadwick insisted. “If you go to Oxford or Cambridge, you’ll make connections and meet people that the provincial schools simply can’t provide. I expect you’ll end up teaching—that’s what most degreed women do, and you’ll make a fine teacher. But you ought to explore other avenues as well. Go to Cambridge. See what they can offer you.”
Beatie did not want to teach. She loved mathematics but she did not want to spend a lifetime drilling maths into the heads of bored and disinterested pupils. “What else can I do with a degree?” she asked.
“Well, you might do engineering or research. On a practical level, many of us find that teaching is the best avenue. But there is teaching and there is teaching. I greatly enjoy my work here at Meadowbank, my dear. You might tutor some really bright children if you are able to find enough private pupils. Or you might get a position at a first-class school, like we have here. The less fortunate mistresses, I suppose, end up teaching in less exciting positions.”
Beatie thought of her father, shuffling between depressing prep schools and eventually finding solace in whiskey and a bullet.
“Go to Cambridge,” Miss Chadwick repeated. “See what they can offer you.”
There seemed no arguing with that. In the fall of 1945, Beatie boarded a train bound for Newnham College at Cambridge.
“Harriet,” said Peter.
“Mmmm,” said Harriet, not lifting her eyes from the morning newspaper.
“I’ve had a letter from the president of the board at Meadowbank. He mentions you.”
“What does he want with me?” demanded Harriet, lifting her eyes to her husband’s face. “A literary lecture? A fundraising luncheon for the school? I’m not very good at organizing that sort of thing. They must inquire with my agent if they want an appearance. I might give a lecture, but I really can’t raise funds, Peter. It’s not in my nature. Couldn’t we just give them some more money ourselves?”
“They don’t want lectures or celebrity appearances or anything like that—they’ve never exploited their pupils’ families or their connections, and thank God for it—I suppose they would lose half their pupils if they did. They are hurting rather for funds just now after the war, but some of us with an interest in the school will see that they stay well enough afloat. No, it’s about the board. My term ends this year, and it seems they would like you to consider filling the vacancy.”
“Then why did they write to you instead of to me?”
“I rather think they wanted my husbandly approval before broaching the subject to you.”
“And do you approve?” inquired Lady Peter Wimsey, with grave deference.
“Good God, it’s not for me to approve or disapprove—” He broke off, seeing the amusement on his wife’s face. “Damn it, Harriet, will you stop teasing me?”
“You do take the role of women in the modern world so seriously,” Harriet said, not at all apologetic, and reached for the letter. “I’ve never served on a board of directors before. It sounds very interesting.”
“It might be as well if you do serve. I’d like to keep a connection to the school until Carola graduates.”
“How is she doing these days?”
“Rather well, according to Miss Bulstrode, the headmistress, you know. Apparently Carola is very enthusiastic about games and quite the most popular student.”
“I’m glad for her. I hope she’s happy. It’s awful to be unhappy at school.”
“Don’t I know it,” Peter said with vehemence. “There is no worse terror than what one child can do to another child. But she seems to be getting on quite well. She doesn’t get high marks like Beatrice, but there’s no reason she ought to.”
“And how is Beatrice doing at Cambridge?”
“All right, I think. I would like to inquire a bit further into that. Miss Bulstrode, understandably, did not know very much about it, but I rather got the impression that Beatrice is not very happy at university.”
“Poor kid! Has she stopped working?”
“No, she’s doing good work. She just doesn’t seem to be taking to it very happily.”
“Well, it was a gamble. Her experience with academia as such has not been friendly heretofore.”
“The mathematics mistress at Meadowbank had her heart set on it, and it didn’t seem such a bad idea. Beatrice deserves the chance to face the thing and thrash it out on her own terms. She needn’t stay in academia if she doesn’t want to.”
“But does she know that? If she thinks she’s stuck on this path and none other, and if she’s not happy about it, she might not see many options. And her parents didn’t set a very nice example for what to do when you’ve reached the end of your tether.”
“Damn,” said Peter. “Perhaps I’d better have a word with her tutor at Newnham. But look here, Harriet. At what point does she learn to walk on her own two feet? All this meddling must stop somewhere. It was one thing to make sure the girls were given a shot at something decent in life. Setting them up at Meadowbank seemed only fair, and Miss Climpson has always taken care of the details. But then Meadowbank recruited me for the board, and Miss Chadwick wanted my help to make sure Beatrice got into university—she deserved the chance and had certainly earned it academically—but at what point does it go too far? One can’t play God all one’s life, pulling strings and meddling from afar. It’s not fair to her, and God knows what she would think if she found out.”
“Feeling rather like Magwitch?”
“Exactly like Magwitch.”
“You could always come clean to her. Go down to Cambridge and introduce yourself as her interested party. Get it off your chest and let her face the facts. You said yourself that she had a right to face the thing and thrash it out. You’re part of the thing. Let her see the unseen factor and deal with it as she fits.”
“Damn,” he said again. “I wish you hadn’t laid it all out so clearly. There’s no other way of seeing it once you put it in that light.”
“Well, I can’t see it any other way.”
“God forbid you should. No, don’t apologize—”
“I wasn’t going to,” Harriet said.
“Good. Because I deserved to hear that. Thank you. I shall do exactly as you say.”
“Peter,” said Harriet, taking pity on him, “would you like me to come with you?”
“I don’t think it’s very fair to ask you to do that. I made this mess, with high-minded intentions but insufficient forethought. It’s for me to try to tidy it up as best I can.”
“Maybe so, but let me help.” She reached out her hand across the breakfast table.
He clasped her hand in his own. “That is truly mercy. Very well, I will face my just deserts and allow mercy to walk beside me.”
“You’ve twisted that up rather, haven’t you? It’s seek justice and love mercy and walk humbly—”
“—But you are merciful and I do love you, and if you’re trying to tell me you don’t love me after ten years of marriage, I won’t listen. Hush! I am sentencing myself and I must not be interrupted. So. We’ll motor down to Cambridge and introduce ourselves to Beatrice and I shall throw myself at her mercy. I only hope I find her half as gracious as you.”
Cambridge was not as lovely as Oxford. Beatie was surprised to find herself prejudiced toward Oxford. She had thought herself to have only antipathy for the place where her mother had fled after love and loss, only to go mad in the city of dreaming spires. Cambridge’s spires did not seem to dream, and Beatie thought this was, perhaps, for the best. She had no room for dreaming, not now, when her life was at her feet and she had, perforce, to make something of herself in a cold and crumbled world. The little ruined city she found herself in was not, after all, so little or so ruined. To be sure, Cambridge still held more than its share of men in uniform, but the RAF station and its denizens did not penetrate the walls of Newnham.
The work was good. Mathematics bent, as always, to Beatie’s brain and her pencil. She found her studies to be a source of contentment. Making equations come out right did not elicit great emotion in her, but rather quieted the unhappy restlessness that had been roused from a long slumber by her return to a university setting. Maths brought peace, and for that Beatie was grateful.
But not all of life, even at university, was comprised of maths. There were meals and lectures and fellow students, and Beatie struggled with these quotidian intrusions. She had managed her social life at Meadowbank with the same dogged determination with which she had looked out for Carola, applied herself to her studies, and refused to think about her father and mother’s deaths. She had forced herself to be pleasant to her classmates, to socialize during mealtimes, to make perfunctory friendships. But none of those friendships lasted beyond her final day at Meadowbank, and she found herself alone and adrift at Cambridge. Her tutors were pleasant but impersonal. Beatie kept to herself out of habit and then keeping to herself turned to keeping everyone else out. The unhappy gnawing feeling grew. What was one to do with one’s life when her parents and the world were all dead? England was struggling back to its feet; England would recover after the war; but her parents were gone and mathematics was cold comfort in this city that reminded her every day of her mother and her father and what was gone and would not come back.
The letter came on one sunny day in May of 1946. Easter term had just begun. She had just come from the vac. She had spent part of the time on a visit to see Carola and she had seen Miss Chadwick as well, but she couldn’t very well spend a month at Meadowbank. She had spent the rest of the time in London and had found it depressing to be alone in the city, with no money to spend on amusements and a great noisy and impersonal city for company. She had hailed the beginning of the new term with relief, and had returned to Cambridge resolved to ignore anything that made her unhappy and to focus on her work.
A little sheaf of letters was waiting in her pigeonhole when she returned. A note from her tutor—an invitation for all female students to attend a tea at Girton College—a note from the Latin mistress at Meadowbank, politely wishing her well and regretting she had not been able to see Beatrice during the vac. Beatie had not enjoyed Latin very much but Miss Smith was kind and Beatie appreciated kindness.
On the bottom of the stack there was one more plain envelope. She tore it open and found a letter addressed to her in neat script. It was a letter from a lord—a lord whose name dredged up vague memories, something her mother and Mrs. Pratt had discussed—and he wanted to see her in connection with her studies and academic career. He was a member of the Meadowbank board and took an interest in women in the workplace. Would she have tea with him and his wife? Did the 16th of May suit her schedule?
So this was her patron, the anonymous gentleman who had sealed her fate by pulling at the strings and ensuring she was accepted to every university she applied to. Lord Peter Wimsey—surely that was—yes, she was sure this was the man who had sent her mother to the madhouse, to die a confused and desperate death by her own hand five years later.
Beatie stood very still, looking at the paper in her hand. Then she sat down at her desk and wrote a very quick reply. She would be pleased to take tea with his lordship. He was quite kind to take an interest in her studies. She looked forward to meeting him and her ladyship. She was free on the 16th.
She posted the letter and went into hall with slow steps.
Lord Peter Wimsey was slim and polished, glittering like his monocle, sleek and smooth and unreadable. Lady Peter Wimsey was tall and graceful, younger than her husband, with a friendly face and a firm handshake. They made an unnerving pair, of much the same height and build, the same short and smooth hair—his silver-and-gold, hers black—her alto voice almost a match for his tenor, and a pair of bland smiles which belied a shrewd look in the eyes. They looked, aside from the coloring and age difference, similar enough to have been born twins, like Viola and Sebastian, Beatie thought, and she frowned slightly as she shook hands.
They had met in the JCR. Lord Peter held a chair for Beatie and then one for his wife before sitting down himself. A scout brought a tea tray and Beatie poured. Through all this Lord Peter kept up a stream of courteous chatter which Beatie found distracting. Something was ringing a warning bell at her, something that was trying to make its way to the surface, and she wanted a quiet moment to work it out.
Lady Peter stirred sugar into her tea and turned to Beatie, and Beatie blinked in sudden recognition. “Excuse me,” she said, “but surely we’ve met before? You look so awfully familiar and I feel sure we must have met at Oxford. After we met, my mother spoke of you, but I thought you were a don, not married—” She broke off, flushing. “Do excuse me. I think I may have been mistaken.”
“No,” Lady Peter said. She set down her cup and met Beatie’s eyes. “No, you’re not mistaken. I didn’t know if you’d remember me, but it’s quite true that we met. Just one time, in Shotover Park I think it was. You were with your mother and little sister, weren’t you?”
“Yes, but I thought you were a don then,” Beatie repeated doggedly. “I’m sorry, Lady Peter, but I don’t understand. Why are you here?”
It was not a courteous question. It was not a question that good girls asked. But Beatie was tired in spirit and confused in mind, and this sleek and urbane pair was more than she could cope with. Her eyes dropped from Lady Peter’s face and then rose to meet Lord Peter’s. His eyes were grey and hooded but he met her gaze steadily. “Lord Peter,” Beatie said, “Please explain to me what this is all about.”
Lord Peter opened his mouth and began to explain.
Twenty minutes later, Lord Peter was still speaking. “In conclusion,” he said, “I should like to apologize. I have not meant to deceive you. I have meant my actions for the best. But if you feel I have interfered without warrant, I quite understand. I will stop taking an interest in your affairs and I shan’t bother you anymore. Only I felt—we both felt, my wife and I—that you were owed the truth.” With that he stopped speaking, rather abruptly, and sat looking down at the table, where his tea had gone cold in the cup.
“May I speak frankly?” Beatie asked.
Lord Peter took out a handkerchief and began to polish his monocle. He glanced up quickly and then looked back down at his work.
Lady Peter spoke. “Yes,” she said. “I think frankness is probably best at this point.”
“Well,” Beatie said slowly, “I think you have been very kind to my sister and me. You didn’t owe us anything and yet you provided schooling and you intervened to open doors for me at university and you made sure all along that Carola and I weren’t forgotten in the mess that my parents made of their lives.” She paused to draw breath. “I’m supposed to hate you, I suppose, or at least resent you. My mother certainly hated both of you. I needn’t pretend she didn’t, because you know she did. I wasn’t supposed to know anything about that affair at Oxford, but people talk and I was old enough to listen. I knew she blamed both of you for what happened to her. You’ve told me just now that you hold yourself accountable for having deprived me of my mother. But she brought that on herself, and all you’ve done is make the way smoother for Carola and me. Maybe you’ve bought your way into my good graces, but why should you care about my good graces? You haven’t any reason to care about what I think of you, and that must mean you’ve done all this out of kindness. It was kind. Thank you.”
Lord Peter looked up quickly. “You are very gracious.”
“No, you are. I’m nobody. Carola and I should have ended up in an orphanage if you hadn’t taken an interest in you.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” Lord Peter interjected. “I think the dons at Shrewsbury would have worked something out. They were very much concerned at the time. I think you ought to know that.”
“Very well. You are all of you very kind.” Beatie let out her breath slowly. “What happens now? Is this a farewell visit? I’m nearly of age and if I succeed in earning my degree then I shall graduate with quite good prospects. I’ll be able to make a living and look out for Carola. I expect she’ll land on her feet, though. She’s friendly and popular; I daresay she’ll marry young, and we shall both have perfectly pleasant lives. You’ve watched out for us and I appreciate it. Thank you, Lord Peter.” Beatie stood up and held out her hand.
Lord Peter rose to his feet as well and took her hand. “This wasn’t meant to be farewell. It was meant to be hello. If you’d like it to be,” he added quickly. “I hope I’ve made it clear that we’ve no wish to force ourselves into your life. But look here. Put aside everything from the past. Put aside how our stories have connected. Look at the here and now. I mean, here you are at Cambridge, an intelligent young student studying mathematics, of all things—”
He gave a small shudder and Beatie laughed despite herself.
“Yes, well,” said he in plaintive tones, “Not everyone has a head for numbers, and here you are taking an entire degree in the thing. The way I see it, quite soon you’ll be a force to be reckoned with. I like reckoning with interesting forces. May I continue to take an interest? Lady Peter and I should like to see what you end up doing with your degree. I don’t know if you’ve latched onto one sort of thing or another quite yet, but you might just drop us a line once you’ve made up your mind. The other day I was lunching with a friend of mine and he told me all about a group of mathematicians in America who are doing quite astonishing things with Turing equivalences. If you let me know where your interests lie, perhaps I may continue to put in a word for you here or there. I know quite a lot of people,” he ended in a rather apologetic voice, and stood looking down at her, still holding her hand in his.
“If you really mean it,” Beatie said, “then I will accept your continued patronage. It will be nice to have someone taking an interest. People have been very kind. The mistresses were very kind at school. But it was all rather impersonal, wasn’t it? People like that are obligated to take an interest. It’s rather nice to have someone who isn’t obliged and only wants to because it’s a real interest. And,” she added eagerly, “if you do know anyone working on the Turing machines, I will be very grateful if you will put in a good word for me.”
“I shall,” Lord Peter said. He released her hand and picked up his hat. “It has been my pleasure to meet you, Miss Wilson. I don’t know what your plans are for the long vac, but perhaps you will pay us a visit? We should be delighted.”
“Yes,” Lady Peter said. “We should be. May I write to you once your plans are a little firmer? We’ll get it settled then. And perhaps Carola would like to come as well.”
“I shall look forward to it.” She smiled at Lady Peter, the first real smile she had shown either of them. “Thank you again. Until this summer, then.”
After they had gone, she made her way slowly back to her room. Some enormous weight seemed to have lifted from her. The whole curious interview had lasted just over an hour, but what a lot had changed. She had two people who cared, not out of obligation but because they looked at her and liked what they saw. She had somewhere to go for the break between terms. And she had someone who had volunteered, deferentially and a little abashed, to lay down maps to avenues she had not dared to hope she might walk. The patronage of Lord Peter Wimsey! Not just patronage—but the kindness and respect of lord and lady alike. Beatie smiled wide and went to find pen and paper. She must write to Carola and tell her of their new friends.
“Well, Peter, that wasn’t so bad.”
“No,” Peter said. His hands lay light on the steering wheel and he glanced at Harriet before looking back at the road. “It wasn’t bad at all. We have bought our pardon and found the price not too high.”
“Miss Wilson,” said Harriet with a chuckle, “has the gift of gratitude. She’s a very pleasant young woman. Not at all like I remember her mother.”
“Thank God character isn’t inherited. She seems to have turned out quite well. I must congratulate Miss Bulstrode and the other mistresses at Meadowbank. They must have come through really nicely over the years for Beatrice and Carola.”
“As have you. Rather more Mr Brownlow, I think, and less Magwitch.”
“Apparently. I don’t deserve it but I shall accept that as a compliment.”
“We'll get home before dark,” Harriet observed.
“We’ll dine out somewhere, shall we? I think we rather deserve a treat.”
“Yes,” Harriet said. “I think we do.”