Peter and the Power of Suggestion
”That is our one guinea port, Madam. A very popular choice with the gentlemen, we find. Are you buying for a gentleman?”
Harriet smiled apologetically at the shop assistant, and handed the bottle back. “I am, but I’m afraid it’s not quite what I was looking for.”
But what on earth was she to buy Peter for Christmas, and priced at under a guinea at that? She had made things needlessly hard on herself with the one guinea stipulation, of course. But the sheer orgy of gift giving that Peter had fallen into in the first year of their marriage, not to speak of the giddy-making intoxication of spending hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds fitting out Talboys and their house in Audley Square, had disconcerted her.
She had mentioned a house and Peter bought it for her. Presumably if she had mentioned the desire for a tiger and some peacocks, there would now be a small zoo in the garage, along with Mrs Merdle. This time, she had felt, Peter needed a firm hand.
So for their second Christmas together she had stipulated, very clearly, that she required something small and modestly priced – no more than a guinea she had added hastily, realising just in time that Peter’s definition of modest was likely to vary from her own. Look on it as a chance to live within somebody else’s means, she had added, a little imp of mischief urging her on. And had been rewarded when she saw Peter’s eyes suddenly gleam behind his monocle, as he realised that a challenge had been laid down.
“Dulcius ex asperis,” he had declared, “Domina, I accept.”
It was just a pity that she hadn’t decided, before her challenge, what she would buy for him.
She turned to her companion, who was hovering nervously beside her. “There is really no point my trying to buy Peter wine, or even a tie. He has such very firm views on both. And he gets his cigarettes and cigars from one particular emporium in the Strand and has a perfectly splendid time discussing the tobacco blend when he does so. And there’s another place in the Burlington Arcade that he goes to for his shirts. And of course he has a bespoke tailors over in Jermyn Street and so on. You know, for a man, he is remarkably fond of shopping.”
“Did you perhaps,” asked Miss Climpson timidly, “ask Bunter what he might like?”
“I did ask Bunter,” replied Harriet. “He is sure that his Lordship will cherish any gift I might choose to confer upon him, but he suggests that I might want to avoid socks. It seems Peter has plenty of socks. So I thought of wine – but again he has a cellar full, and in all likelihood of twice the quality as this.” She looked at another gleaming bottle on the shelf, her dark brows furrowed.
“My dear mother was always fond of a small glass of port on special occasions,” said Miss Climpson inconsequently, “She found sherry rather too warming.” Her eyes darted around, taking in the scene. She and Lady Peter were standing in the wine vault at Harrods. Miss Climpson had not been in a wine merchant before, and rarely indeed in Harrods. The prices! Though there had been that occasion when she had been shadowing the Bayswater bigamist, of course. She shivered a little – what a very unpleasant man he had been. And with a terrible taste in silk handkerchiefs.
“Perhaps slippers,” she said vaguely.
“Specially made to measure by his own shoemaker in Mayfair,” said Harriet gloomily. She looked down at Miss Climpson, noting that her companion seemed a little distracted. “Never mind, let’s head to the café and have tea. Harrods do a very splendid tea.”
Miss Climpson followed her uncomplainingly. It would be lunch time in less than two hours, but she fancied Lady Peter needed to sit down.
Lord Peter Wimsey and his mother Honoria, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, sat in the living room waiting for the car to be brought to the front door, each dressed in the full finery required to enter the Members’ Enclosure at Ascot. Peter was sitting on the sofa, his right knee twitching, his cane beating a nervous staccato on the floor.
“Peter, dear,” said Honoria, “the parquet.” Peter’s nervous leg stilled.
Honoria patted his leg, “So Harriet wants a present for under a guinea? What fun! Although I am not at all sure what one can buy for under a guinea – stationery perhaps? Certainly a book. Stamps. Flowers. Chocolates, a very small Fortnums hamper.”
“Too commonplace,” said Peter firmly. “It has to be personal.”
His mother looked at him, her mouth quirked into a smile. “Personal and under a guinea? Goodness me, she has set you on a quest.” She sat down on the other end of the Chesterfield sofa from her nervous offspring, and began to flick through the pile of catalogues placed on the table beside her.
“Oh, don’t mock me, mater,” groaned Peter, running his hands through his straw-coloured hair. “I think I went in and out of every shop in the west end this week. In the stress of it all, I very nearly bought her a marbled green celluloid Fountain pen, inscribed with her initials in flowing cursive. Luckily sanity prevailed before I was thoroughly disgraced.”
Honoria laughed, “My poor, dear Peter.”
Peter ran his hand through his hair again, causing it to stand up in tufts. “Poor Shock-Headed Peter,” added the Dowager, looking at her son’s disordered locks. She moved along the sofa, and smoothed Peter’s hair down for him, adding a maternal kiss on his brow.
Peter ducked his head like a schoolboy. “I have even been reduced to asking Bunter what he thought she might like.”
“Oh, good idea,” agreed Honoria, returning to her catalogue, “I am sure I wish your dear father had asked Manningtree what I might have liked for Christmas – it would have saved me from a great many bottles of that dreadful French perfume. What did Bunter say?”
“He is sure that Her Ladyship will cherish any gift I might choose to confer upon her, but he suggests that I might want to avoid handkerchiefs, said Peter, disordering his hair again, “It seems Harriet has plenty of handkerchiefs.”
“I believe Helen gave her handkerchiefs for a wedding present,” said the Dowager, putting down one catalogue and opening another, “no doubt embroidered with a coronet.” She picked up the catalogue again and began to flick through it as she sipped. “I had no idea there were so many ways to make a dog’s coat glossy. I must try it with Ahasuerus – although maybe extreme glossiness would not do in a long-haired cat. What do you think, Peter dear?”
“Ten teemes of oxen draw much lesse, than doth one haire of Helen’s tresse,” murmured Peter absently.
“Well, I am sure Helen’s hair was extremely glossy, that is to say Helen of Troy, not Gerald’s Helen,” said the Dowager Duchess, “for she has terrible luck with her hair, poor thing - which may account for some of her temper.” She paused, and read a little further, “although whether or not Helen – Helen of Troy again, darling - ate egg yolks and cod liver oil for breakfast I do not know.”
Peter nodded. “The poets are silent on that point. Not a lick of detail on Cleopatra’s breakfast routine either, though we do read that she went in for external application of asses milk.”
“You know that never struck me as strictly practical,” said the Dowager, “and imagine all the extra work it would have made for the servants. I believe I shall stick to Ponds cold cream.” She turned another page, “Apparently one can buy special vitamin tablets for dogs too, flavoured with liver. Helen is fond of liver – Gerald’s Helen that is. Again, I’ve no idea what Helen of Troy thought about liver. Although didn’t the Greeks go in for eating entrails? Or was it burning them? Or am I thinking of the Hebrews?” She flicked over a third page, “Goodness, I had no idea that feeding a dog could be so complicated. It must be the modern scientific method.”
“There’s another catalogue in the hall with pages full of leads and collars and brushes,” said Peter gloomily, “I seem to be on Messrs Skinners’ mailing list.”
“Are you indeed?” said the Duchess.
Peter nodded, “Yesterday they sent me a 10 page pamphlet on dog biscuits. I had no idea you could fill even one page with information about dog biscuits. I am being bombarded with the bally things. And meanwhile, I still have no idea what to get for Harriet.”
“Peter,” said the Dowager kindly, “are you quite sure you are taking enough vitamins yourself? Because you seem to have transformed into an idiot child.” She cocked her head and waited.
Peter paused for a moment, then his eyes widened, and he groaned and gave his head a sharp rap with his knuckles, “Wood, solid wood.” He rose and kissed his mother, “Reassuring to see that at least one Wimsey still has her marbles. As for me, I must eat more fish. Though perhaps I shall be as bad as Cousin Percy soon, and trying to eat my kippers with the sugar tongs.”
“I do think it unfair that poor Percy is still having to live that down,” said Honoria mildly, “After all, it was only the once.” She rose, and drew her son’s arm through hers. “Now come along. I have a red hot tip for the 2.30 Sweepstake and I don’t want to miss it.”
Harriet stirred her tea. A stand of fancy cakes and triangle sandwiches sat untasted on the table between herself and Miss Climpson. Perhaps she should have taken her to a Lyons Coffee House instead? As a threadbare novelist she had viewed tea and tea-cakes at Lyons as the height of luxury, and Harrods simply as the playground of the filthy rich.
She admitted to herself that she was struggling with Miss Climpson. It was hard not to be self conscious when you were looking across a tea cup at the woman who had saved you from the hangman. It made every topic of conversation, however anodyne, seem pregnant with a hidden meaning. Awkward, however grateful one was.
“Perhaps one iced fancy,” said Miss Climpson, lifting a pink square from the cake stand. She proceeded to nibble at it delicately.
Harriet picked up a salmon sandwich, and raised it to her mouth. The scent of fish reached her nostrils and she felt a wave of nausea. She closed her eyes for a long moment and breathed out. The nausea departed.
“Are you quite all right, Lady Peter?”
Harriet opened her eyes to find Miss Climpson regarding her anxiously. “Yes indeed, and please, do just call me Harriet. But I think I shall wait for luncheon after all.” She put her sandwich down and closed her eyes again. You’re making a hash of this, Harriet. The poor woman probably thinks you’re bored silly.
“Perhaps,” she said, rather hopelessly, “one might find something in those quaint antique shops along the Portobello Road. Your office is near there isn’t it? And Peter is safely off at Ascot for the whole day, so I should take my opportunity.”
Harriet walked up the road, her feet aching. She and Miss Climpson had shopped, and taken lunch, and had shopped again. They had now visited six antique shops in total, gazing doubtfully at dented silver cigarette cases, insipid bucolic landscapes, walking stick handles shaped like mallard ducks, horse brasses, antique keys with no locks to fit them into, simpering china shepherdesses, and the fragmented remains of old dinner services rimmed in worn gold leaf.
“Really, it’s no wonder people get rid of these things,” muttered Harriet to herself. “The marvel is that someone else buys them.”
Finding the last shop had taken them off the main road and into the maze of streets that ran southwards to Holland Park. Now, as they came to the next intersection, Harriet looked up the side street running to her left and saw another small shopfront. A man bundled into a mackintosh came out of the door as she watched, shortly followed by another.
“Well, that one looks popular,” she said doubtfully.
They stood outside the small shop, trying to peer into the window, which was heavily pasted with brown paper. The sign above the door read ‘Grandage’s Emporium’. A broken mangle, a brass coal scuttle and a frayed rug sat in the shop window, unpriced.
“I am not at all sure that it is open,” murmured Miss Climpson.
As they stood hesitating, the door opened and another customer came out, jingling the doorbell, and brushed past them with his head down.
Harriet firmed her shoulders, “Well, that mystery is solved.” She smiled down at Miss Climpson, “And we certainly have gone downmarket here. Shall we try it? Nil desperandum.”
Miss Climpson swallowed, and pushed the door open, setting the shop bell swinging. “Very well, Lady….um…Harriet. And looking on the positive side, as you so rightly suggest we should, I cannot imagine that this is a shop much favoured by Lord Peter. Oh dear!”
The “oh dear!” was occasioned by the smell in the shop, which was a powerful melange of dirt, the ghost of fried meals past, and cat. The shopkeeper stood massively behind his counter, a greasy straggle of hair trained over a bald dome. Frayed fingerless gloves stretched over fat meaty fingers, capped with black nails.
A very fat black cat sat on the counter beside him, regarding them with contemptuous yellow eyes. Harriet raised her finger to stroke him, then changed her mind. He looked like the kind of cat that would scratch.
“Good afternoon,” she said pleasantly.
The shopkeeper grunted, clearly unwilling to concede the point.
“I wonder”, said Harriet, trying to peer into the grimy gloom of the shelves behind him, “if you have any netsuke?”
“Never ‘eard of it.” The shopkeeper’s good eye looked past her to where Miss Climpson was earnestly regarding a stuffed heron in a cracked glass case. He bellowed suddenly, in a voice that would have suited a quarterdeck, “Oi, you in the hat. Don’t touch anythin’.”
Harriet jumped. Miss Climpson jumped too, and stepped back into a hatstand full of walking sticks. It fell to the floor with a clatter, spilling walking sticks and umbrellas in every direction.
“I do beg your pardon,” said Miss Climpson, two little red spots of mortification appearing on her cheeks. She bent to collect the walking sticks, and Harriet hurried to help her.
“Oh dear, oh dear,” muttered Miss Climpson, “Lady Peter, I mean, Harriet, you really shouldn’t…” She bobbed nervously, and their hats bumped together. “I’m most dreadfully sorry!” exclaimed Miss Climpson, “Really Lady Peter, you must allow me to…”
“Don’t think I don’t know your game,” said the shopkeeper boomingly, from just above them. Harriet jumped again, and then drew herself to her feet, finding herself almost nose to nose with their host, who had come out from behind his counter to loom over them. She took a hasty step backward, then covered it by turning away from him and deliberately placing the walking sticks in her hand back into the stand.
“We do not have a game,” she said, turning back to him and drawing herself up to her full height, “We are your customers - and can expect to be treated with some level of civility. Manners maketh man.”
The shopkeeper eyed her with disfavour, “Very la di da, ain’t yer? . And I know jest how many walking sticks there are in that stand,” he added pointedly to Miss Climpson, who blushed, and renewed her efforts to collect the fallen items.
The door bell jangled, and a small man entered. He turned abruptly and walked out again.
“And you should do something about the odour in here,” added Harriet. “It seems to be driving your customers away before they even make it past the threshold.”
“What odour?” asked the shopkeeper unpleasantly. He stepped forward and a walking stick crunched under his heavy foot. “And now,” he said dramatically, “you’re causing breakages. I want you out, both of you.”
“I shall of course pay for the walking stick, since I knocked the stand over,” said Miss Climpson, and picking up the two broken pieces of the stick, and squaring her thin shoulders.
“My dear Katherine, you didn’t break it, cried Harriet. “I see no reason why you should have to…”
“But I insist on paying for it,” said Miss Climpson. She turned to the shopkeeper, “What is the price, please?”
“Ten shillings,” said the shopkeeper, his hand already out.
“I doubt it is worth sixpence,” said Harriet indignantly.
Miss Climpson fished in her purse, then paused. “And I am afraid I only have half a crown,” she said, something of a quaver in her voice.
The shopkeeper shrugged, “Half a crown, then, and out you go. I’m shutting up.”
Harriet paused at the corner of the street, her cheeks bright red with anger. “What an absolute cad that man was.” She turned to regard Miss Climpson, who seemed to have recovered from her mortification, and in fact had taken on the air of an alert grey terrier who has found a bone. “I am very sorry that you had to go through that scene on my behalf, Katherine. And I would be very happy to reimburse you the half crown, since we were in that shop at my urging.”
Miss Climpson tugged at her sleeve, “Let us keep walking Lady Peter, at least until we are around the corner.” And she drew Harriet on at a brisk pace until they had put two streets between them and the Emporium. She stopped, affected a deep interest in a shop window full of knitting wool, and spoke in a low voice, “I believe what we have inadvertently discovered in that street, Lady... I mean Harriet, is a front for illegal gambling. The lack of stock, the blacked-out windows, the swift flow of customers in and out, are all highly uncharacteristic of a thriving second hand dealer. But highly characteristic of an illegal betting shop on race day.”
“Interesting,” said Harriet. “If seedy. Well done, Miss C, I would never have known.”
Miss Climpson looked modest, “My investigations on behalf of Lord Peter have given me a certain amount of experience in such things.”
“And he set out to be foul to us so we’d leave quickly, and he could get back to taking bets again,” mused Harriet mentally making notes for her next novel.
“Yes, indeed,” said Miss Climpson primly, “Although you were very brave to stand up to him, Lady Harriet, and you made some very cogent points about the need for civility and mutual respect that he would do well to contemplate upon.” She set off walking again, “I shall make a telephone call to Scotland Yard as soon as I return to my office. Meanwhile, given that Mr Grandage – if that is his name – does not derive his income from his stock, I think I was quite justified in purchasing this walking stick for what I suspect was a very reasonable price.”
She placed the handle of the broken stick in Harriet’s hands. It was somewhat blackened with dirt, but she could see that it was made of green jade, carved in the likeness of a turtle with the head of a dragon. The carving was intricate and full of flowing life.
“You will see that is rather awkwardly mounted as a stick handle,” said Miss Climpson, “probably to some gentlemen’s order. But I fancy it was originally sitting on the lid of a box, or a bottle or something similar. Somewhere in China.”
She handed it to Harriet, “and half a crown is well inside your one guinea limit, Harriet. I do hope Lord Peter will like it.”
“Katherine,” said Harriet warmly, handing her half a crown, “It is becoming clear to me that you are a genius.”
“Good evening, milady. Welcome home.”
“Thank you Bunter.” Harriet removed her hat, stripped off her gloves and put them on the hallway table. “What time is it? Goodness, nearly eight pm. I have been having a most educational and entertaining visit with Miss Climpson and her ladies at the typing bureau.”
“I am glad to hear it madam.” Bunter deftly took Harriet’s coat as she shrugged it from her shoulders. “Shall I ring for tea?”
“Oh please don’t,” said Harriet, “I am drowning in tea. And cake. They serve very good cake in the bureau, Bunter. They take it in turns to make it, and I believe there is a competitive element. And the cases they deal with! I have sat at their feet as a disciple as they told me of their triumphs and their tragedies. Single women of modest means are much underestimated, Bunter. Even by me, I am afraid, and I was one of them. Oh, hang on.” And she felt in the pocket of her coat, removing her handkerchief, in which was wrapped the small jade turtle, now separated from the broken walking stick’s haft. She held it out for Bunter to admire.
“And I finally have a Christmas present for Peter. I believe it is a dragon turtle, which is a Chinese symbol for prosperity. Peter will know the details. I may have to fumigate it first, though – and burn the handkerchief. You should have seen the shop it came from.”
“Laundering should be sufficient for the handkerchief, milady. And I believe a little mild soap is indicated for the jade. If your Ladyship would allow me.”
Harriet laughed, and handed over the turtle and the handkerchief. “I shall bow to your superior knowledge in the matter, Bunter.” She cast an eye over the contents of the salver on the hall table, “Have we seen any progress with the catalogues?
Bunter hung Harriet’s coat on a hook, and shook his head. “I fear not, milady. I discovered the Kennel Club literature in the study wastepaper basket this morning. I have rescued it for the second time, and returned it to the pile in your Ladyship’s study."
Harriet shook her head, “I am beginning to worry a little.”
Bunter looked discreetly sympathetic, “If I may venture milady, I am sure the penny will eventually drop. His lordship is a very astute gentleman.”
“Hmm,” said Harriet, "At this point, Bunter, I have my doubts.”
She heard a key at the front door, and turned. The door opened, and the husband in question entered the room, doffing his top hat and handing it together with his cane to Bunter as he did so. “The car’s outside, Bunter. And poor Peter’s a-cold, and must have tea.”
“I shall see to it directly, sir,” said Bunter, hanging up the hat and cane, and accepting the car key.
“Ah Peter, there you are,” said Harriet.
“Evening, dear thing,” greeted his Lordship affably, “Here I am indeed. But with no victor’s garland wrapp’d around my brow. We made twenty bob on the Sweepstake, but then mother let it go to her head, and we ended up thirty bob down by close of proceedings. She is most disgruntled. I told her not to put her widow’s mite on a horse with only three good legs, but she was not inclined to listen.” He picked up a pile of letters from the tray on the sideboard and clicked his tongue. “It’s amazing what these advertising fellas think a chap might want to buy from them. I had a catalogue for dog biscuits and wonder chow this morning and now I’ve got another one offering me superior leather collars in the afternoon post. Do I look like a man who keeps a pack of hounds? I almost never wear pink. Muffins as well as tea, Bunter, if you would - I need sustenance.” He tossed the catalogue on to the tray Bunter was silently holding out, and went on his way.
Harriet sighed, "Well, Bunter, we must persist.” She picked up the catalogue, and opened it at the appropriate page again, “I shall put it on the sideboard by the whiskey."
It was three days before Christmas. Tomorrow Harriet and Peter would head down to Duke’s Denver for the complicated duties and pleasures of a traditional family holiday. But for this evening they were alone. And a private exchange of gifts was taking place within the family living room.
“It’s delightful,” said Peter, turning over the dragon turtle in his hands. “And very old. Did you really get it for under a guinea?”
“Half a crown,” said Harriet, with justifiable pride. “Although, actually, you have your Miss Climpson to thank, Peter. All I did was fill her with tea and pork chops and follow in her wake. She found you this, and cracked an illegal betting ring, all in one afternoon.”
“Did she by Juno? She’s a remarkable woman,” said Peter comfortably. “I should have asked her help to choose your present. I had the devil’s own time thinking what you might want. Flummoxed, I was.”
“Were you?” asked Harriet mildly.
“Terribly,” said his Lordship. “My heart was oppressed with anguish, if not quite to the point of death then pretty near. However, my brain did eventually emit a faint and feeble spark, and I bought you this.” And he handed Harriet a flat paper parcel, tied with a neat golden bow.
Harriet weighed it in her hand – reasonably heavy, arranged in loops. Was it a necklace? She tore open the parcel to reveal a dog’s metal leash, crowned with a handsome leather loop.
“Peter, you beast,” said Harriet, “You knew all along!” And she took up the sofa cushion that was nearest to her and struck him with it.
Peter laughed, fending off the cushion, “Not all along, my Penthesilea. In fact I was damnably perplexed right up until Ascot Day, when the mater gave me a hint. After that I simply could not resist playing you along, especially as you were looking so deuced smug about things from your end.”
Harriet paused in her assault. “So we set out to buy each other a personal present – and you ended asking advice from your mother, and I ended up being guided by Miss Climpson. We are a sad pair, Peter.”
“Terrible,” agreed his Lordship imperturbably. “We should have just bought each other socks.” He jingled the lead in his hands. “I thought you might like to come along for the actual selection of the canine. We shall visit the pet shops as soon as they are open.”
“Battersea Dogs Home, I thought,” said Harriet. “Let’s give some poor little brute a second chance. I’m a great believer in second chances.”
“Of course Battersea Dogs Home,” said Peter smoothly. “And we shall bring home the oldest and ugliest dog there, lest we be accused of being superficial.”
“And take him to Duke’s Denver to meet Helen and Gerald,” said Harriet gravely.
“Perfect,” said Peter.
Harriet paused. “I have one other thing for you, Peter. And still priced within the guinea.”
Peter raised an eyebrow, “Deuced unsporting of you to squeeze two presents out of one guinea, when I sweated blood to find even one.”
“This present,” said Harriet demurely, “I made myself – though with some help from you, admittedly.” She handed him a crisp white sheet of foolscap, neatly folded.
Peter took the paper and unfolded it, his head cocked quizzically to one side. “A doctor’s note?”
“The results of my Hogben test,” said Harriet, seeing that he had not yet read it. “Which costs 12’/ 6d, not that it matters.”
“Hogben test, where have I heard that before?” Peter’s brow creased. He opened the sheet and read it, muttering. “What rot these medical men write, never one word when ten will do. Hogben, Hogben,” and ended on a shout, “Hogben!”
Harriet nodded, “Yes, darling, we made a toad spawn. And you are going to be a father. Peter?” For Peter was gaping at her, his face quite white.
“Good Lord, said Peter, “I’ve come over all queer, as the actress said to the Bishop.” He took a turn about the room, the paper crushed in his hand.
“You are pleased?” said Harriet, concerned. “I mean I know you wanted children. You said so.”
“Pleased?” cried Peter. He dragged her on to his lap, and proceeded to kiss her thoroughly, “I am ridiculously pleased. Just look at me. I am flying upon eagle’s wings unto the heavens, that’s how bally pleased I am. This, my dear blessed idiotic Harriet, is the very best Christmas present of all that you could have given me.”
The fire was dying down. Harriet and Peter lay comfortably entangled on the sofa watching it burn. The servants were gone to bed, and the house was quiet around them, only the faint popping of the fire, and the ticking of the grandfather clock in the hallway challenging the silence.
“You know,” said Peter, turning over the little green turtle in his hands, “the dragon turtle is a fertility symbol as well as a symbol of good fortune.” He kissed her forehead, “and it seems it is awfully effective. Perhaps we should pass it on before we have a whole quiverful of little Wimseys.”
“Oh,” said Harriet comfortably from his lap, “I think we should keep it.”
Through difficulty will come sweetness.