The audience had applauded and the packed hall was slowly clearing. Peter, with Harriet leaning against him, felt no particular need to hurry to the doors, and they lingered under the eyes of the old portraits as the room emptied with a surprising amount of grumbling after an excellent concert. Eventually reaching the doors they discovered the reason for both grumbling and delay. It was raining. White fountains danced on the flagstones and rose in a grey mist as great spouts overwhelmed the guttering. The noise was extraordinary.
‘Into each life some rain must fall,’ said Lord Peter, ‘but I wish it wouldn’t do it now. Look here, you’d better wait in the Lodge and I’ll see if I can summon some sort of car. Will you?’
This was not the intended finale.
Harriet, conscious of her high heels, reflected that feminine independence was all very well, but that at this particular moment to stay warm and dry was better.
‘Thank you, Peter.’
They had turned back to the doorway for the dash over the quad, when the Balliol porter appeared.
‘Excuse me, my lord. Your man has left your car in the Master’s yard. Your lordship knows the way?’ He handed over a large umbrella and raised his hat. ‘Good evening, miss.’
‘Bunter,’ said Harriet ‘is a marvel.’
‘Isn’t he? And on his evening off, too.’
They splashed across the cobbles to the gleaming Daimler. The car, its roof closed, was warm and a little humid, but dry. Wimsey inspected his trouser hems mournfully.
‘It’s a vile evening. Let’s not go and frowst indoors. We’ll take the long way round and farewell the town.’
‘All right, Peter.’
He swung the car out onto St Giles’ and headed north up the Woodstock Road. The heavy chestnuts glowed darkly under the grey sky and the road ran with water. Peter drove without speaking. Harriet, oddly and acutely aware of his presence, could not tell if he were pre-occupied merely with the road conditions, or with some other thought. A lorry passed them with a blinding spray. Peter pulled over.
‘We’ll be in the gutter at this rate. Let’s give it five minutes.’
‘I think that would be wise. Still, the Daimler makes a very nice ark.’
‘Doesn’t she? Better than waitin’ for a taxi in the Porter’s Lodge?’
‘You’re not cold?’
‘Hardly! It’s boiling.’ The atmosphere had become rather heavy and self-conscious. Harriet hunted for something insignificant to say. ‘How long do you think they shall keep you in Italy?’
‘I don’t know. They always say it’ll only be a week or two, signifying nothin’. I hope it shan’t be too long; Rome gets so hot in summer melting in Tiber isn’t the word. I think the rain’s getting worse.’
‘It’s the wind shifting.’
‘Maybe - yes. Harriet.’
He had been half-turned towards her, but now he shifted to stare out at the water running over the windscreen, one thumb rubbing at the leather wheel, hunting for words. The car, felt Harriet, was increasingly far too small and closed in and inhibiting. It made things awkward; one couldn’t get away, and it was worse every minute, this feeling that something significant must be about to be said and things might become dreadfully embarrassing and regrettable – or nothing would be said, which was unendurable. Because surely after everything that had happened he couldn’t now leave Oxford without – unless he really had changed, and what would one do then? If only one knew what one wanted him to do. She looked vainly for support from the elements. Delay – if the rain died and let them drive on – distraction and time to collect oneself - but it was still raining, refreshing if not soft, and Peter sat like marble, resolution placed, or wandering? And to what end?
The black sky tore in two, the thunderclap resounding overhead from Shotover to Wytham Woods. As the clamour faded Harriet was conscious of an overwhelming relief at the interruption.
‘Heavens! In thunder, lightning, and in rain,’ she laughed, ‘Did you see it? Right over the road.’
Peter, who was looking rather startled, said nothing for a moment and then shook his head swiftly.
‘No. I’m sorry. Are you all right?’
‘Quite all right, though I must have jumped half out of my skin.’
‘It’s my fault. It was a stupid idea to stay out in this. I’ll take you home.’
‘Really, Peter, there’s no need. I enjoy a good storm.’
Another flash of lightning, and thunder crashing overhead with a noise like the last trump. She looked at Peter.
He sat white-faced and rigid, hands seized upon the steering wheel. With a tremendous effort he overcame himself, dropping his hands to his lap.
‘That was rather a surprise.’
‘Wasn’t it?’ Harriet touched her fingers to his. ‘You don’t like thunder?’
The dart of a cornered expression told her that it had been the wrong question, but he answered lightly enough,
‘Not especially, no.’
‘If you’d rather go back - I could drive if you don’t feel up to it.’
‘Please don’t trouble about it. It’s only foolishness.’ Peter’s expression suggested that he would like to curl up in the footwell and die, if only it wouldn’t be impolite. He removed his hand from hers and drew out his cigarette case. ‘Besides, the roads are no good for the car like this.’ Harriet accepted the cigarette and smoked quietly. Thunder rumbled in the distance, scarcely audible over the continuing storm of rain, but Peter showed no outward sign of noticing but the cigarette burning to ash in a stiff hand.
Harriet, finding limited fascination in the weather, was conscious of a growing impatience. Damn Peter! What right had he to behave like this, to be so extraordinarily embarrassed over something so ordinary? Who was he, whose job it was to drag everyone else’s shameful and humiliating secrets out into the light, to be so precious about his own weakness? As if he hadn’t known every single beastly thing about one the first time they met, as if that very meeting hadn’t been in circumstances so horrible and degrading! Although no, not quite everything, because there had been tonight, when one had said things that had been impossible … That was Bach, irresistibly drawing one to confession, only Peter had known the right thing to say and Harriet plainly had not. Miss de Vine had been quite right. Two independent and irritable intelligences could hurt each other so easily. Only how queer now, after shutting Peter out for all these years to feel wounded by his doing the same, because after all one had no claim to confidences and had told him so very firmly. He turned to her suddenly with an apologetic smile.
‘I am most frightfully sorry. This must be very boring for you.’
‘It wouldn’t be,’ said Harriet, ‘if you weren’t being so silly about it. Honestly, Peter, what does it matter?’
‘It’s not much of a farewell to Oxford, sitting in the rain with a blithering idiot.’
‘For God’s sake, Peter, stop being so maudlin! You’re not at prep school now, you know. As if anyone cared about it. Hell! I’m no good at being sympathetic. I never know what to say.’
‘It doesn’t matter. And I can’t apologise enough for my appallin’ behaviour. It’ll be all right in a moment, and then we can go if - you’ll trust my driving.’
Another spark of irritation, and a slightly guilty feeling that she wasn’t sure she did trust his driving in the event of further thunder. The rain had eased off, but the gutters were full and the carriageway awash with black water and fallen leaves. He caught her hesitation and looked quickly away. Blast! thought Harriet, with a sense that she was being well and truly served with her own medicine. I might have handled that better. If only he’d let me – but I haven’t any right, though he’s tried to give it me often enough. Well then, if I wanted – but it was a ridiculous idea, to give in all of a sudden merely because one was exasperated with the man for being an idiot. Only it wouldn’t be giving in, not really, not like this, and it ought to be preposterous, only it wasn’t, because after all...
It was hopeless. One couldn’t reason it out like that, not in the end. One could only do what seemed right now. Hadn’t Peter said often enough that he knew what he wanted? Well, if he meant it he could damn well be the one to have to take.
She touched his shoulder lightly, and he turned to face her again. Now for it.
‘I don’t want to go back to Shrewsbury, Peter. Not now.’ Peter said nothing. He had gone absolutely still. Harriet wasn’t entirely sure that she was still breathing herself. ‘My dear Peter, I’m not nearly as patient as you. I can't wait another five years for you to come to your senses.’
‘Harriet?’ His sudden look of hope made her absolutely certain: it was the right thing after all.
‘Do you still want to marry me, Peter?’
‘Yes.’ He was pale, but the husky voice was level. ‘You know that I do. I love you.’
‘Yes, I do know that now.’ Known for ages, only wouldn’t face it, but it wasn’t the moment to get distracted, because this was the difficult bit, and one had to get it right because otherwise it would be worse than anything. ‘I won’t force confessions – I’ve always hated that – but, Peter, if we did – if it were to work -’
‘It would work’ he said intently. ‘I know it would.’
‘ – if it were to work, Peter, it could only because it was truly on equal terms.’
‘Of course! That’s what I want, I’ve told you.’ To the south over Somerville the sound of thunder rose again but he didn’t seem to hear it.
‘It isn’t enough to tell,’ she said gently. ‘You needn’t tell me anything if you don’t want to, but you must let me care. You said you didn’t want tactful dependants; if you meant that, then you mustn’t make me into one, because I won’t be that. We couldn’t be happy like that.’
‘I meant it,’ he said, and she thought how simple it was after all. ‘Only,’
‘It isn’t easy. God knows it’s taken me long enough. But I do care, Peter, if you want -’ She laid a hand against his cheek for a moment and felt his head rest against it.
‘Will you marry me, Peter? Then for God’s sake hold my hand.’
Police Constable Brown, stumping home with a feeling of increasing damp about his person, saw the dim figures inside the car and sighed. It was always the well-off types in their big cars; of course, they were the only ones with room in them. Drawing level with the Daimler’s nearside front window he knocked sharply with his knuckle and waited. The couple sprung apart and the window slowly lowered, revealing a pair of academic gowns and an eyeglass. PC Brown, who had learned early not to let a don get in the first word, said briskly,
‘Evenin’ sir. Have you ask to move the car, I’m afraid. Can’t have it blocking the road like this.’
‘All right, constable. We’ll move along.’
‘Thank you, sir. Good night.’
He withdrew and strolled slowly. Harriet winding up the window as Peter started the car, found herself giggling.
‘At least he wasn’t the proctor. That would have been awkward.’
‘I'm glad you see it that way. Let’s get out of here, and then we can decide what to do. Though choices are a little limited.’
Wimsey turned into a sideroad and switched off the lights.
‘That’s taken care of him, but look here, it isn’t eleven yet. There must be some alternative to taking you home, only the country sideroads will be bad, the town’s crawling with police and proctors, and the car isn’t very comfortable anyway. I shall carry the mark of the handbrake in my knee for some time. But I can’t think of anything else.’
‘Then it’s a good thing I’m here,’ said Harriet, fishing in her bag, ‘because this key opens the Shrewsbury boathouse.’
‘I don’t promise it’s particularly comfortable, but there’s a solid roof and there certainly aren’t any handbrakes, and the students are usually quite good about bringing in the cushions.’
‘However did I manage without you?’
‘Badly, I should say. Now kiss me and drive before that policeman comes along again.’
‘This is one other gaudy night. Oh, Harriet!’