“I’m willing to meet him, of course,” Harriet said cautiously. “It--is a him, isn’t it?”
“Oh yes. My own wasn’t, you know--a Russian girl, quite a common name apparently, impossible to trace. Of course things were different when I was young, for women especially--though sometimes people did look with a kindly eye on Boston indiscretions when the ladies in question were matched--but then, one was absolutely expected to marry within one’s own class, names or no, and that did create so many terribly awkward situations that did no one any good, except perhaps Aunts, who always so disproportionately interest themselves in the business of who one marries that I think they must have some sort of stake on the race.”
The Dowager Duchess of Denver, a still-striking woman in her fifties with startlingly white hair, neatly-dressed and inclining to regal plumpness, took up her teacup and saucer and lifted the cup to her lips. The cup and saucer were from Mrs. Vane’s good set. Harriet had never realized before today that they were old-fashioned. Serviceable, thankfully rather handsome, and unchipped (save for a single barked saucer Mrs. Vane squirreled away at the back of the cabinet, refusing either to use it or to throw it out), but nothing like the sets they had in at Liberty or Harrods. Harriet felt an instant’s swift sting of hot-prickling shame in her cheeks, which had to be suppressed before it showed.
The Duchess must wish that the name her son bore in addition to his own had shown up on a quick flick through Debrett’s. If only this 'Harriet Vane' had been from the sort of house that could receive her with better fare than the scones they’d spent the morning making, the madeleines Harriet had run out to get from the baker’s, the sad tea cakes her mother had plated up at the last minute because the table didn’t look, well, full, did it? And this was--well, it might be so important, Harriet go and get the tea cakes. After she’d arranged them and set them out, Mrs. Vane had surveyed the table with pinched lips, knowing it had been a mistake, that the tea cakes weren’t of the best quality, and the Duchess would know it, she’d see right through--but the Duchess’s car was in the drive, and it was too late to alter anything.
Really, it wasn’t as bad as all that. The Vanes weren’t well off, but neither were they poor. The Duchess must be so rich, however, that it was possible she might fail to appreciate such gradations. Harriet wasn’t by any means ashamed to be middle class, in the normal way of things. But she was ashamed to be put in a position where she looked grasping, simply by virtue of existing. She might not have rung the agency, if she’d known she’d look such a fool. Perhaps she shouldn’t have done.
Oh don’t be stupid, she thought, shoving an unruly brown curl behind her ear. No one’s said anything of the kind, no one’s forcing you to do anything. You haven’t even met the man. With her thumb, she nervously rubbed the word on her arm through the fabric of her best dress. ‘Wimsey’ - the Duchess’s last name, and his, apparently.
Harriet had woken up the previous morning and stared at it blearily. Thought there was an ‘h’ in it, thought it was the word proper. Thought ‘how funny, a sudden Whimsey’. Blinked and there it still was. She was twenty-one, this was her twenty-first birthday, and she was home because term hadn’t begun yet, and there it was, the name. She’d bolted out of bed and run to the bathroom and thrown on the light and stared at the gold letters that were now as much a part of her as two lips, indifferent red, two grey eyes, with lids to them. It was one thing to know it would come along in due course and another entirely to see it there, beginning to form. Even if, at present--
The Duchess finished her sip and set down her mug. “I take it the surname’s all that’s come through, as yet?”
“Yes.” Harriet started, then recovered with a smile. “I’m afraid I didn’t recognize it. That seems--somewhat foolish now.” But really - one couldn’t expect to know all the titled families in the country by name--though dukes were relatively important, and the Wimseys had, her mother said, made the news a fair bit, one way or another, over the years. And of course there were the historical Wimseys, which she might have remembered--oh, damn. She cleared her throat. “There’s still rather a lot of room. The ‘y’ is up near my elbow. Will there actually be a--er--”
“Oh, a title? Bless you, no. The clouds may drop down titles, but not upon young ladies’ arms. All men are equal in the sight of God--and, apparently, on one another’s limbs.”
“His name itself, then, is impressively long,” Harriet said with a hint of amusement, because there was a hint of the ridiculous in bearing a name that insisted on appropriating the entirety of your arm for its own use. “Like Volumnia Esperanza Constance Snickington Farceworth Dedlock”--the core joke of that Dickens character being that her mother had wished to ensure that no man bound to her daughter could easily ignore the fact (no matter how much he might wish to).
“Well, now you’ll have to pay attention to him, won’t you?” The Duchess cheerfully returned, making Harriet laugh before she realised that a woman who’d never been able to find the bearer of the too-common name on her own wrist might have good reason to want her children’s names to be exceptional. That though Harriet had spoken lightly, she’d very probably been a touch cruel, not to mention made something of an ass of herself. Harriet knew herself to be direct, but she hated people who made tactlessness a point of pride, and she couldn't stand pointless meanness--least of all being the author of it.
“I didn’t mean any--”
“My dear girl,” the Duchess interrupted her in a gentle tone, “I don’t take offense at trifles, and my goodness, if I wanted to waste my time in such a silly fashion, I could hardly help seeing how nervous you are. Which is much to be expected--I should worry you lacked feeling, if you were perfectly composed. It’s strange how much you remind me of my son, at your age--though I suppose that’s quite natural. He too suffered from palpable earnestness as a youth, like those young ladies with ‘Ernest’ on their arms in that play of Wilde's.
“Speaking of country houses, could you possibly see your way to coming down to Bredon Hall for the week-end? I was the only one of the family in Town when the Agency wrote, and I’ve telegraphed Duke’s Denver to let them know I’ll be along, and to ready the Dower house for me. I should so much like to introduce the two of you. Of course it’s entirely your affair whether or not you decide to become better acquainted with him, though I suspect you’ll get on very nicely. And even if the poor boy should positively repel you, there are splendid grounds, and a good library, and plenty besides to entertain a young lady, for a few days at the least.”
Harriet was somewhat bowled over by the torrent of speech. It was all bright froth, flecked with sudden, startling glimpses of a strong and well-directed mind beneath it, governing the apparatus--like Poseidon ordering the sea from beneath the waves and flotsam. Harriet said of course she’d be delighted, she hadn’t any other engagements, because she wasn’t a coward and she wanted, at least, to face the matter out. A part of her she was trying to keep firmly in check hoped the obvious, stupid things. “More than kisses, letters mingle souls”--oh, all of it.
The Duchess was kind, and far easier to speak to than she had any right to be. She seemed to have a knack for understanding situations and people. She so clearly wanted Harriet--or at least, wanted her son to be made happy. Harriet suspected, from the Duchess’s eagerness, that he might not be terribly happy at present. Their apparent closeness spoke well of the son--this was a man who inspired, at least in his mother’s heart, earnest concern rather than perfunctory filial affection.
Even with agencies, with the human race scattered as it had been since the sundering of Babel, perhaps only ten percent of people ever found their soulmate (as the old-fashioned term had it). Fewer still were able to marry that individual, provided that that was the bent their bond took. Harriet was nervous, and Harriet allowed herself to expect nothing, but Harriet nevertheless threw the book of poetry she’d been reading the previous night (a choice spurred by the romantic occasion of her Appearance) into her bag as she packed.
“My name in thine flesh, thine in mine appeares, / And true plaine hearts doe in the bodies rest” chased itself around her over-stimulated brain as she rode up with the Duchess in her car. Harriet idly flicked through and tapped at the book, but couldn’t concentrate well enough to read it. She was a little annoyed at being so visibly distracted before a stranger, even one as pleasant and comfortable as the Duchess.
“A favorite of yours?” the Duchess asked in a suspiciously amused tone that told Harriet that whoever they were going to meet had something of a known fetish for the poet.
Harriet managed a faltering, and then a more earnest exchange on the subject of Donne, and felt some of her anxiety draining away. The Duchess’s conversation had a meandering logic of its own, like a pleasant scenic walk, and it carried them ably through a scattershot garden of engaging topics.
Once, in a lull, Harriet blurted out what she was thinking--a habit she was working hard to curb, but which still sometimes broke in upon her, her youth giving her but an imperfect control over herself.
“I’m surprised you’re not telling me all about young--” she checked her arm, “Bredon.” Named for the house, perhaps, she thought wryly.
“Ah, more still to come, I’m afraid,” the Duchess said. “No, I suspect he can speak for himself. Fond of me as he is, I doubt our relationship could survive the strain of my telling his new-discovered soulmate all his youthful indiscretions. And he’s not so young as all that--though neither could you call him middle-aged. Ah--this is the manor town. The Dukedom and its responsibilities fell of course to my oldest son, Gerald, when my husband managed to get himself killed hunting foxes some years ago--don’t express contrition, my dear, we fall a bit outside the window of obligation, or do I mean opportunity, and I’m practical about the matter.
“Oh I don’t say that one can’t or shouldn’t love a man not one’s soulmate, of course, only that my husband could at times make himself somewhat difficult to like. So I quite understand taking care with these decisions, because heaven knows the lithesome limbs of youth and suchlike don’t long endure, nor does their memory adequately compensate one for the grumbling sulks of age. Mary and my younger son are far more Delagardie than Wimsey--or so my brother Paul insists, at any rate, though you are to completely disregard Paul if and when you should meet him, a more confirmed old rake there never was. He positively cultivates it.
“At any rate, Gerald and his wife are currently out with a shooting party at someone or other’s. Either Helen neglected to tell me or I neglected to listen. Their young son Saint-George is with us at present, and of course my daughter, Mary.”
“Hadn’t you better tell me his name, at least? This mysterious second son of yours?”
“And spoil your imminent discovery? My dear girl, never! Oh you might think now that you’re a sensible sort of young lady with no great love for dramatic revelations, but I assure you, on your deathbed you should curse me for spoiling a moment that must be all your own. After all, we get so few things of the sort in life.”
They’d turned down a long avenue of trees, and Harriet’s attention was caught by caught by the great bulk of an old, old house--a castle, really, glimpsed in flashes through the arms of the elms.
I never wanted this, she thought with a sudden, controlled surge of panic and glum self-pity. I wanted to be comfortable, certainly--I might have wished for a beneficent ancient aunt with thirty thousand pounds to leave me. But never--Though what did it matter? It made little sense to treat this as wealth acquired, nor yet as wealth threatening, wealth salient. She owed no one anything, no matter what her body felt about the matter. She simply wanted to meet him, to see for herself.
At the door of the house, a footman released the Duchess and Harriet from the confines of the car's cabin, offering his hand in turn to help the ladies disembark.
“Is Bunter--? Ah!” The Duchess signaled at the window with a wave, and a neat valet emerged. “Always where you’re wanted! He’s right, you know - you are a positive marvel.” Here the Duchess’s voice took on a tone not entirely her own, and Harriet got the feeling, by the glitter in this Bunter’s eye, that someone she didn’t know--the mysterious son, perhaps--was being mocked, and quite acutely. “Where’s he gotten himself to? Not out riding or anything, I hope?”
“His Lordship is in the library, madam.”
“Yes,” the Duchess said consideringly. “That will do nicely. Harriet, would you like to refresh yourself, or would you prefer--?”
Harriet swallowed. “Oh, better to get it over with, I think. If that’s all right?”
“For the best, I should think.”
Bunter, who’d not reacted at Harriet’s name (which he must have seen countless times in the course of attending to the man Harriet presumed was his master), but whose eyes had flickered in a perceptive way on hearing it, asked whether he might attend to the young lady’s baggage. The Duchess thanked him, and, with a stream of commentary and directions, conducted Harriet through the impressive, imposing house to a set of blue doors. Harriet paused a moment, swallowing. The Duchess opened them, ushered Harriet in with uncharacteristic silence, and, while Harriet was blinking in the light from the long windows, taking in the fine room, managed to slip out behind her, shutting the door in her wake.
Harriet started and turned, taken aback by her sudden betrayal to this socially-awkward fate. Rapidly Harriet remembered Bunter’s surprise, and realized the Duchess hadn’t clarified, in her telegram, why she was coming, or the nature of her guest’s purpose here. This son of hers would be taken completely unawares--and Harriet would be bereft not only of an introduction, but also of a foundation on which to introduce the subject of their interview. The Duchess was clearly a romantic, and capable of anything. She would have to be watched closely in future.
Turning with resolve, Harriet noted a figure at the far end of the room, silhouetted against the windows. He hadn’t noticed their quiet entry, hadn’t looked up. She took a few steps closer, observing him in this moment of quiet before the battle. He was framed against those long windows. Average height, and thin--blond, clear complexion, sharp jaw. Excellent suit--rather too good, a pair of shoulders tailored to swooning point. Expression, similarly, too sensitive. Reading a book, draping long, elegant fingers across its binding. Lovely hands--wide-spreading, strong and deft hands that turned a page with a precise grace that rendered the invisible, every-day act visible, and elegant. If he didn’t make much use of them, then it was a pity and a waste.
He glanced up at her, sudden and swift, and the moment of unguarded calculation made his blue eyes sharp as as the snap of a bitter-cold day. Harriet took in a short breath.
She felt strangely grateful to have met him in this attitude, to have known him unobserved, in such a stillness. It was as though she had happened upon the heart of him. She might have searched for it long and in vain, had they met at some party, at some bop or in the street, all vague and confused and distracted--or worse, too thoroughly prepared.
His face shifted, becoming polite and vague, and she knew it for what it was--an assumed disguise, because he wasn’t like that. He was that moment of uncomfortably bright light. It made people nervous and didn’t serve, didn’t suit all occasions. So he’d made himself a mask, and wore it out of doors. Like his mother--her piffle was as real as it wasn't, it was a velvet glove, a tool. Rather feminine of him, to have picked that up from her.
Harriet wondered if she was seeing what she wanted to see, or whether happening upon him like this had simply provided her with an opportunity to cheat a labyrinth, to cut through the walls. If the latter, had the nature of their connection granted her an insight into his character, or had her common powers of observation done the job, with no need for metaphysical assistance? And was it as valuable to be given knowledge as it was to earn it, to be given love as opposed to finding or creating it--
Harriet was aware she’d been silent for too long a moment. She smiled. “Sorry to have startled you. The Duchess--your mother, I think?--kindly gave me permission to examine your library.” She tucked her arms, covered though they were, behind her back, clasping her hands together. She didn’t precisely want to lie to him, but neither was she comfortable launching into the subject. They must get this sort of thing--researchers, interested tourists--all the time.
“You’re my Harriet, aren’t you?” There was no uncertainty. The way he said ‘Harriet’ was devastating. Like he loved the word.
Harriet regarded him, her expression steady. “Why do you say that?”
“You look old enough to be twenty-one, if only just. You’re not lyin’, but you’re being awful careful about why you’re here. You’re covering yourself quite capably, which is just the sort of quality I admire. You’re somewhat nervous, if you’ll pardon the observation, and you tucked your arms behind your back to speak to me. And you’re absolutely perfect, standing there lit by the glow of the windows, in what I’d wager is your best birthday frock. Or at least I find you so, which is rather the point, from what I understand.” The slightly unpleasant vagueness had left his eyes--he was all glitter and contained energy.
“Well done,” Harriet said, smiling despite herself.
“Thank you,” he said gravely. “My mother said she was bringing a guest down for the week-end, but she neglected to be more specific.”
“Yes, I think she wanted to avoid spoiling the occasion. She wouldn’t even tell me your name--unless it’s--” Harriet brought back and checked her arm, starting and glancing up at him. “Death? What, really?”
“Pronounced Deeth--an old name, long in the family.”
“I think you’ll find it runs in every family.”
“Touché.” He grinned. “I take it my first name has yet to present itself--I know it’s an awful liberty, but may I--?” He reached out a tentative hand.
“Oh!” she said, a little surprised. One’s Name was typically an incredibly private affair, but she supposed the actual person it referred to had a certain claim on it.
“I don’t wish to confirm its presence or anything horrid, I’d just--rather like to look at it, is all.” His tone was curiously husky and uncertain. He flushed with the embarrassment attendant on his own request.
“No no, I quite--here.” She extended her arm, and, with something like tenderness, he cradled it, his eyes if not his fingers tracing the elegant swoops of what must be his own handwriting. She had a strong sense that he’d very much like to touch the writing itself, but he refrained.
There was a profound intimacy to the way he held her arm, and Harriet felt the blood rising hard and hot in her cheeks. Under that tailored, too-good jacket she’d find her own signature, the emphatic tilt of her own strong vertical lines, the product of a life spent writing a Christian name bounded with an H and a t. It was hers and he, this adult man, was hers by old, now-ameliorated laws and custom, and that--
He stepped back, drawing the tension off.
“Seemed positively cruel. In Vane across the vein. As if a prophecy of lonely death--”
“--were writ across my stars, and there’s an end.”
“Precisely. A good ten years without a whisper--oh I did look, of course. Something crushingly romantic in the wait itself, don’t you know. As it happens there's a positive wealth of Harriet Vanes.”
“More than you’d think--and, for all I knew, you were a convert in China, an American, anything you like. And of course the under-twenty-one name archives are sealed tight, if a body’s immoral enough to press the question. I manfully resisted the urge. Oh I know many a swain has it harder--a fingerprint from someone who can’t write, the name of a soul that’s passed on, all the other probable difficulties. Still, I did lodge a complaint with the Agencies. Where was the other part my song, etcetera.”
“Yes, I checked in yesterday morning. As one does. I’m sorry to have been so long in coming, but I’m afraid I can’t help having been born belatedly--you’ll have to take the question up with my mother.”
“Your father, traditionally, but I’ll ask anyone you like.”
Harriet thought he was probably joking, about something she’d prefer he didn’t make light of just now, but put it down to his obvious nervousness.
“I’m sorry I was evasive, when I came in. It’s just I felt something at a disadvantage. I didn’t know where to begin. One doesn’t like to make oneself ridiculous, barging in and--you must think me rather foolish.”
“No. No, I don’t think you that.” He looked at her too intently, and she had to glance away. He cleared his throat. “Please, you’d infinitely oblige me if you’d just sit right there,” he gently maneuvered her into a chair, and popped up onto the accompanying desk, “and tell me all about yourself--every last detail. Or, if that’s too queer an order to meet, try telling me one thing, the most exciting thing to happen to you in the last fortnight.” His accent was unreal--it was as if he was too posh to say words properly. He took one of those stupid, affected little eyeglasses out of his pocket, as though it were a prop, or gave him something to do with his hands.
“Hoping to hear good of yourself?” she teased.
“Well,” he conceded, “besides all that.”
“I was told I’d won an essay prize, for a piece on Sheridan Le Fanu.”
“Why Harriet, my most heartfelt congratulations! You’re at university, then?”
“I’m at Oxford, on a scholarship--am I to take it you approve of women’s education?”
“My dear girl,” Harriet smothered a twitch in her lip--there it was, gel, “I suspect you’re teasing me. There’s an Elizabeth Bennet wryness about your expression that does put me in fear for my dignity. You should not imply that I have any right either to approve or disapprove.”
“Oh I shouldn't, should I? You don’t think a woman's college the maddest folly going, then?”
“That would hardly be sporting of me. I went to Balliol myself, and learned within those walls a few particulars worth knowing.”
“And what did you do?”
“History, in point of fact. And you?”
“I’m up for English. In point of fiction. Thus the Le Fanu.”
“Well, one doesn’t like to presume. So you sleep beneath the themselves-dreaming spires--or you will come Michaelmas term, at any rate. Your final year, I take it--where precisely, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Ah,” his mouth tweaked in a smile, “Naturally. ‘There is a greater than he, which is my Lady of Shrewsbury.’”
“So I hear.”
“And English, eh?”
“Yes--that is, I thought--" It was difficult to say it properly, but Harriet ploughed on, determined, "I’d like to write novels, you see. I’ve always intended--that is to say, my position makes it necessary to think in terms of someday supporting myself. And I intend to do so as a novelist, if I can.”
“Hard work, but noble.”
“Yes. The former, at least. I’m not sanguine or romantic about my ‘calling’ or my prospects. I’m prepared for jobbing. Though I suspect I don’t know enough to know what the difficulties therein will really be.”
“No, but one never does beforehand, does one?”
“The fact is, I shouldn’t like to do it--as a hobby, as something to keep myself busy. I should like to do it as a profession, to give myself over to the pursuit of a thing beyond myself. To be good, really and truly good at something, through the application of effort--and perhaps leave behind me creations greater than myself. And I shouldn’t like to be--allowed to do it, you know, as an indulgence, or looked fondly on. It shouldn’t matter what my husband or relations or anyone thinks. I should like to do it for myself, and for the sake of the thing.” She’d never said that to anyone before--not even really to herself--not properly.
“And so you shall--I hope and expect. You don’t really seem the ‘domitable’ sort. If it’s not too forward--that is, if you wouldn’t consider it a liberty, I’d be happy to introduce you to some chaps I know in Bloomsbury. After that, I suppose you’d sink or swim on your merits, but you’d at least have your foot in the door, what?”
Harriet was surprised by the show of approbation. “Thank you. I shouldn’t like to impose, and I’m not ready for that as yet--but I understand one can’t be too proud for a spot of introductory nepotism, if one’s to succeed in such a rough business. I should like to take you up on that, when the time comes.”
“I’m not trying to bribe you, or anything of the sort. I’d be very glad to take you to Town anyway, for the fun of the thing. Entirely above board, of course--my mother keeps a Town house, and I have a flat of my own in Piccadilly. Not a bad little place--though no room for a harpsichord, more’s the pity. There’s one down here, but I seldom get the chance to play it. Don’t suppose you’re musical?” He brightened with obvious hope.
“What will you say if I’m tone-deaf?”
“And I’ll think you said it in I-don’t-know-what key. Well, it’s not as bad as all that. I can sing a little.”
“It doesn’t surprise me. You’ve the loveliest voice. Curiously deep and resonant--pure, like an unmuffled tenor bell.” Again that uncomfortable sincerity, at odds with and yet united to the light tone, the baffling readiness of words that made her feel comparatively sedate and steady. Harriet hastened to sell herself shorter. It wouldn’t do to give him the wrong idea.
“Just the church choir, you know--and I play, but I’m neither a very capable performer nor a composer of no ordinary merit.”
The phrase struck home. His eyes glittered. “Harriet, my dearest Harriet, are you perhaps interested in crime?”
“You make it sound like I’m a budding murderess.”
“Oh I’m sure you’d never do a thing like that, but you know very well I’m asking about your taste in reading, and perhaps in journalism.”
“As it happens, I am keen on detective fiction--and popular literature generally, provided a book’s well done, an honest and artful example of the thing it intends to be. Though I'm given to understand that, at least while at Oxford, one’s supposed to concentrate exclusively on elevating thoughts about the lyric. I have a few stored up for the purpose.”
“Oh, I find popular novels plenty elevatin’. The gentleman who has not pleasure in a good novel must be intolerably stupid, and so on. And in detective stories, virtue is always triumphant. They’re the purest literature we have. Now, did you happen to see anything about the Levi affair in the paper, a coupl’a months back?”
“I’m afraid I hardly breathed for coursework at the end of last year--and then all summer I’ve been trying desperately to head off disaster by working through the material we're coming up on. If I should fumble the thing and waste my scholarship I’d never forgive myself--besides the obvious consequences.”
“Well, stop me if it doesn’t interest you a jot, but I’m actually down here recoverin’, as it were, from a roughish sort of time in Town. During the war I did a bit of intelligence work, and I developed a taste for that sort of thing. Friend of a friend got landed with an unidentified body in his bathtub, so I popped ‘round with Chief Inspector Parker, my old chum and lately Mary’s fiance, what with their Names matching and all.”
He proceeded to explain the state of affairs to Harriet. She stopped him relatively early on, as he related a conversation he’d had with his mother, who had been good friends with the dead man’s wife.
“Wait--right there. What your mother said--about Levi’s wife and Freke, the broken understanding. It was him, wasn’t it? Or no, it can’t be, can it? Perhaps I’m being too obvious.” She bit her lip, then spoke with decision. “No--it’s him. He did it. I don’t know how yet, though.”
The man regarded her. “I wonder if I’m not tellin’ the story in a way that prejudices your opinion.”
Harriet shook her head. “No, I don’t think that’s it--and neither do I have any time for ‘feminine intuition.’ Clues I can follow all right, but really people view their lives as narratives, don’t they? There’s a certain logic to Freke killing him--it’s what I’d write. It feels plot-like. And your mother is the sort of person who appreciates these things, isn’t she? She has a way of dazzling you with a balestra while actually slicing through and making a touch at your heart, and then bounding away again before you’ve a chance to feel the hit. I am right, aren’t I?”
“Yes, and so was mother before you, in her round-the-houses way. If you want pudding served before the main course--not that you haven’t shrewdly earned it--at it happens, Freake’s name was writ across the lady’s self, and vice versa. Freke was livid that, despite this claim, and his own merits, she chose someone else over him, and a Jew besides. Felt jilted, as though he’d a right to her as his property--as though that sort of attitude wasn’t terribly old-fashioned, and wouldn’t devalue the thing outright, besides. There can’t be any love without free will.
“So, suited to this cold man though she might have been, she had enough sense to choose a husband who’d love her better. Freke might have been the man she deserved, but Levi was willing to have her, and by God she’d take it.”
“You’re not trying to put me off, are you? Letting me down gently with parables of the horrors of one’s appointed destiny?”
His already-pale face went a shade paler. “My dear girl, entirely the opposite. I’m sorry I’m making an ass of myself at present, I so want to--”
She wasn’t ready to hear what he might be about to say, though she had set the scene herself. She briskly headed him off. “Anyway, how did you discover the culprit? In detail, please. Don’t rush yourself or skip to the end and spoil the thing.”
“Well,” he took the warning, “if you’re still interested-- Harriet we could talk about anything you like, if you’d prefer--”
“No no, Scheherazade, I’m afraid you do have to finish. Come on, our poor little architect: what became of him?”
Bunter entered as he was quietly relating his tense moment in the chair, with Freke poised to take his life. Harriet started at being interrupted, and realised they’d been talking for some hours.
“Tea is served on the terrace, my lord, Miss Vane. Shall I tell them you’ll be along?”
He stood up and glanced at Harriet for confirmation, receiving a swift nod. His gestures were so intelligible--it was terribly easy to talk to him. Even with good friends she often reached impasses of mutual confusion and had to, with some annoyance, double back and find the dropped stitch of mutually-agreed-upon meaning in a conversation. She’d known him a handful of hours, and yet his glance, the tilt of his head, accomplished the work of several sentences. That was how the thing functioned, she supposed. That or a more banal affinity lay between them.
“Very good, my lord.” Bunter slipped out.
“Can you finish quickly?” Harriet asked her host. “I know I said that would spoil it, but the matter seems out of our hands and in Bunter’s, along with a tea tray.”
“And lose you for the afternoon? That’s hardly a strategy worthy of the great Scheherazade, now is it? After tea, I think. Stew in curiosity ‘till I relieve you.”
“Well, I know you didn’t die, at any rate.”
“And yet I lived not till I met you.” He opened the door and she preceded him out.
“Incidentally, does one call you Lord, as per Bunter’s good example, or simply--” Harriet checked her arm, “Neville?”
“What?” He blanched horribly, and she saw she’d given him a real shock.
“I’m sorry! Peter, I’m sorry. It was just a stupid joke. It’s finished now, there.”
Peter put a hand to his heart, then, without waiting for permission, grabbed Harriet’s arm and kissed her wrist on the exposed P, reassuring himself. “Harriet Deborah Vane, my dear idiot, have some consideration for a man’s feelings and please never execute a joke of that kind in future. My aged nerves simply aren’t up to your festive tricks.”
“You’ve my solemn promise. Besides, I’m afraid a joke of that kind could only come off the once.”
“So simply ‘Peter’ then?”
“Yes, you young harridan, Peter. Your own P-e-t-e-r. You shall have ample opportunity to memorize it, I’m sure.”
The terrace contained the Duchess, redolent in her subdued smugness, a blonde girl perhaps a few years older than Harriet, who was unmistakably Peter’s sister Mary, and a five-year old who must be Saint-George. With deft tact, the Duchess performed introductions. With no tact whatsoever, Saint-George glanced at his uncle and gave a smile simultaneously angelic and demonic.
“Are you my Auntie, Miss Vane?”
Peter buttered a muffin. “May you never live to grow to manhood--nor shall you, if I’ve anything to say about it.”
“I shall call you Auntie Harriet,” Saint-George proclaimed with the imperious grandeur of an uncrowned Dauphin.
“I know where you sleep,” Peter informed the child cheerfully.
“I know as well--that doesn’t make you special.” Saint-George stuck out his tongue.
“Just Harriet, thank you,” Harriet said with a tone of command, taking up her tea cup and giving the child as severe a look as she could paste over her amusement.
“Just as you say, Auntie.”
Harriet rolled her eyes. With a slight gesture of his wrist, Peter offered her the first muffin. She put out her plate to accept it and he began to make himself one. Taking up the milk, Harriet poured for herself and him until a flick of his fingers communicated that the milk and the tea had nodded in cordial mutual acknowledgment, and that was enough of an introduction to satisfy him. Without thought, they glanced at each other’s tea, noted the color for future reference, and then as one looked up at the Duchess and Mary.
Mary cleared her throat, attempting to pretend that hadn’t been slightly unnerving. “So, Harriet, mother tells me you’re reading English at Shrewsbury.”
This developed into a congenial discussion of what everyone was currently reading. Mary was on ‘News from Nowhere’. Harriet was frantically cramming, but, in stolen moments, ducking into ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’, just to give herself some sense of liberty and ease amidst the dark wood of difficult Dante, who was serving as a foundation for her essay on anabasis in English poetry.
“You know,” Mary jerked as though a mother who knew where this was going had applied a slight hint of shoe to her shin--the message behind which Mary entirely ignored, “Peter once consulted the men themselves, as a small boy. He wasn’t much older than Saint-George.”
Peter tried to head it off at the pass by babbling. “You know there's plenty of chatter about whether those two were ‘linked by a golden thread’ in one way or another. I’ve heard more than my share of wild surmises. People seem to think an interest in the thing comes in my line, and offer ‘em up willy nilly. The Holmes-Moriarty fringe is admirably zealous--mostly ladies, strangely--and Parker swears up and down a few men on the Yard loyally claim one of the men for their own Lestrade. They don’t seem to much much care which.”
“I found a Gregsonite among the ranks the other day. But the point is,” Mary persisted, “several years before I was born, there was this lost kitten that no one cared about but Peter, and so he actually bothered the greatest detective who ever lived to help him locate it. And then it was stuck in his own bedclothes, and the maid had made up the bed and missed it.”
“That kitten,” Peter insisted, “lived to become an ill-tempered old cat instead of suffocating, in my bed, which should have traumatized me for life. And the gentlemen were very good about it. But thank you Mary. With these revelations made, I shall now remove myself from the Earth. After removing you from it first, of course.”
“It’s an adorable story,” Mary said serenely. “Isn’t it an adorable story, Harriet?”
“More tea, I think,” said the Duchess with a small sigh.
During the afternoon, Peter claimed Harriet for a tour of the village. They had to take Mrs. Merdle, his Daimler--ostensibly to reach a notable church some ways out and return in time to dress for dinner, but, Harriet suspected, actually because Peter enjoyed driving and wanted to show off the clearly-beloved car.
Indecently early the next morning, a knock landed on Harriet's door. Peter stood there in elegant riding gear (the treacherous maid having apparently informed Bunter, who had duly informed him, that Harriet was up and dressed), asking if she’d like to borrow his sister’s things and go out. Harriet demurred. He suggested they might do something else instead, and she insisted that since he was already dressed for it, he might as well go out without her--perhaps she’d see him at breakfast?
Harriet watched a disappointed Peter, who’d obviously chiefly wanted to go riding with her, ‘round the corridor. She then bolted to the door next to hers.
“Mary,” she murmured at it, “Mary, are you--?”
The door opened. Mary stood there in her robe.
“Mary I can’t ride,” Harriet blurted out.
“...what do you mean you can’t? Are you just--not very good at it? Not keen?” Mary said, apparently not requiring further context as to what had occasioned the remark.
“One just doesn’t necessarily! I’ve never been on a horse except when I was a child on holiday at the seaside. We’ve lived in London since I was a girl. Does he like riding?”
The question seemed to perplex Mary. “He’s not mad about it, but he does it often and is considered very good, as things go. Oh, I don’t know--we live in the country and have a hunt every year. It’s not something one likes or dislikes, really. It’s just--” Mary made a vague gesture, “ordinary, you know. Like drinking tea.” Mary suddenly eyed Harriet critically. “You do drink tea, don’t you?”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Mary, I’m middle class, not American.”
Mary froze. “Harriet, I’ve just realized--I’ve never seen Charles on a horse. He always said he was feeling indisposed. He’s from Barrow-in-Furness, which is in Lancashire, but all the same--do you think--?”
Mary nodded decisively. “Right. I shall speak to him in private on this matter. I do try to be consistent in my politics, but I’m forever tripping myself up on things that simply don’t occur to me. A nice problem to have, I know. In the meantime--Peter asked you to ride and you Bunburried, or I suppose Charles’d it?”
“And one does not want to appear ridiculous in front of--”
“We’ll ask Merriweather--our groom. He’ll set you up with a mount. Half a minute--oh here, take some of my gear and change yourself.”
Properly attired, they took a back way and arrived at the stables, Peter having mercifully ridden out already. Merriweather was less surprised by the information than Mary had been--or simply had a terminally unsurprised face. He assured Harriet that it was possible for her to learn without the thing coming off as a feeble joke, though it would require time and work for her to measure up to a good standard.
Appropriately appointed and given the use of an old, supremely docile nag Merriweather had chosen for the purpose, Mary led Harriet to a quiet, secluded spot and took her through her courses. Harriet had some embarrassing difficulty mounting and a couple of non-dramatic falls. The thing wasn’t an entire catastrophe.
Mary wasn’t a bad instructor. She remembered the challenge of acquiring a seat herself, and was firm and no-nonsense in a way Harriet appreciated. Harriet would have resented being bullied, and she couldn’t have borne being coddled.
They weren’t at it that long--Mary said they should make sure of getting some breakfast, and that Harriet would be quite sore enough from what they’d already done. Best to take it in stages. On the way back, Harriet asked about Charles Parker, who’d figured large in Peter’s narration of the case he’d just finished. Mary was only too glad to discuss him. This brought them onto the topic of soulmates generally.
“I know for a fact he won’t begrudge Peter anything, but I imagine Bunter must feel a little broken up about the whole subject. His died in the Somme, apparently--another of the men. He doesn’t like to talk about it, so I’d try not to allude, in front of him.”
Harriet nodded. There was a whole league of twilight quasi-widows, on half widow’s-pensions, whose names had appeared on their arms and the list of the dead almost simultaneously. Young women checking the casualty lists frantically had been perhaps the great photographic image of the incalculable loss of the war.
The Half Mourning League, under the leadership of a woman named Estelle King, argued that while their losses didn’t entitle survivors to full pensions unless they’d actually been married, they’d nevertheless been robbed of something--in Miss King’s case, a boy named Rob Gilson. The cavernous loss visible in every photograph of her beautiful, ravaged, determined face almost could not be faced. She resisted being sentimentalized even as she strategically courted it. Parliament might have granted her petition just to deflect the haunting lead-weight of that look. It suggested pain on her part and guilt on theirs that could never be ameliorated, not by money or apologies or time. The treaty of Versailles had also stipulated that Germany would also pay off Allied Seelenverwandten, ‘Herzwitwen’ whose soulmates had actually been Germans or casualties from German-allied nations.
The thing was, no one really knew how any of it worked. There was a decent chance your soulmate was from your own country--far more than purely random name generation would lead to, scholars said--but that chance was still far, far less than 50%, if you were English. It was also not incredibly unlikely that your soulmate was a person of the same gender--here numbers were more difficult to obtain, but the rate was certainly well above than the full-null social Darwinists would have found tidy. Proximity or culture or genetics or fate were somehow involved in the selection, but damned if anyone had reliably sorted out how. Religion offered its own explanations, but these were more conciliatory and philosophic than algorithmic.
But then there were some irregular societies that mucked up what little people could say. Groups that married within themselves for some time apparently tended to have higher rates of genetic disorders and higher rates of endogamous soulmates. The ease with which pairs within these groups came together bred resentment and vile rumors in less-blessed populations. From what ancient Greek writing said about the ancient Egyptians, and what many archaeologists believed the material evidence supported, their names had been remarkably almost entirely endogamous. Whether the archeologists were wrong, and the degree to which the Greeks had been exaggerating, were deeply contested questions.
Mary was, she said, in part in favor of a world government under communism because of the obviously international character of humans’ very nature. Borders, national immigration policies and class-restricted education that curtailed universal literacy made little sense, especially given that people’s bodies apparently demanded different arrangements. Mary thought it ludicrous to argue against radical equality when a chimney sweep in Bombay could very well be the fated mate of the crown prince, whoever he married for dynastic reasons.
Mary and Harriet traded gossip and knowledge in the rapid, effective exchange Harriet was deeply familiar with from living in a women’s college. Despite her being a few years older than Harriet, there was something about Mary that reminded Harriet of certain of the new girls. Mary acted as though, at some point, someone had told her she was stupid, and she’d believed it to the extent that the people close to her had come to believe it as well. Harriet was inclined to cast the departed Pater Familias, whom Peter and the Duchess both swiftly dismissed and tended to conversationally step around, in the role of First Bastard.
Perhaps it took an outsider to see Mary. Parker, a late arrival on the scene, apparently valued her highly. Mary implied as much with an air of dismissal. She seemed to think his judgment, which she otherwise valued, worthless when it countered her own assessment of herself.
Mary was also restless, like the girls who came up to study and found the change of pace, the alteration of circumstances, bewildering, and struggled to adapt. But this was Mary’s life, and her air was the result of no transition. It was the precipitate of twenty-odd years of living in circumstances such as these. Her commitment to and knowledge of politics was self-guided, and her intellectual discomfort with class tangled up in her discomfort with her own life. Harriet didn’t know that Mary should be reconciled or pacified, but Mary was kind and frank and shouldn’t be miserable, stuck waiting for the day she’d marry Charles (and then what?). Mary hadn’t gone to university herself, what with the war and how girls in her set didn’t. Besides, she’d never been clever, you know, not in the way Peter was clever. There was real admiration there--the counterbalance to Mary’s need to tease him, to make him notice her.
Harriet, with some calculation, pointed out that Merriweather knew his business--she’d need a lot more work if she was ever to ride decently. Mary candidly agreed. Harriet said that if it was ever convenient for Mary, perhaps they could work on it, say, if Mary visited her in Oxford, or perhaps in London? Harriet’s school friend Sylvia had recently set up house in Bloomsbury with her name-match (as the more modern set had it), a Welsh girl named Eiluned. Eiluned was very involved with Socialist circles in the capital, and had a knack for piercing the casual machismo and complacency that permeated the smoke-heavy drawing rooms of Bohemia. Mary might like her.
Mary accepted the proposal with a show of casual, sociable pleasure--she could easily make a trip of it, and have dinner with Charles in London in the bargain. But there was suppressed excitement in her tone. Harriet very much thought she’d guessed right. Mary was dying of boredom, and knew not what to do with herself. It would be a Godsend to her to have the opportunity to air the stale room of her mind, to dust off her thoughts in conversation with other women roughly her own age, to get out of Duke’s Denver and to do anything with herself, to so much as attend a lecture, and on top of it all to have a regular pretext to do it, one that made it look as though she was doing Harriet a favour instead of than acting as a sad, unwelcome upper-class hanger-on.
It was only when they neared the stables that Harriet heard a newly-unmistakably familiar voice. “I have to hand it to Gerry--he can certainly buy a horse worth the having.” Merriweather grunted assent, and Peter continued on cheerfully, apparently used to Merriweather’s taciturnity or generally unbothered by having to carry the whole of the conversation.
Harriet turned to Mary, distressed and irritated. “He’ll think I’ve been terribly rude--oh hang.”
“He’ll come this way in a moment. Quick, quick, duck under here--”
Mary shoved Harriet down beside some kind of agricultural equipment (Harriet knew not what), and followed herself. They were effectively screened from vision. However--
“Mary--you’re not--still holding the reins, are you?” Harriet asked.
Mary was silent for a moment. “In my defence, I am not at my best when flustered.”
Next to the horse, which was still obviously visible, Peter coughed. Pointedly.
Mary and Harriet turned and poked their heads above the whatever-this-was.
“Are we in Wodehouse now?” Peter asked pleasantly, with a gesture at their farcical position.
“You live in Wodehouse,” Mary muttered mutinously. “Jeeves and all. Just with more murders.”
“Ah, but here your parallel breaks down, Polly my dear--Bunter isn’t my name-mate. No, my name-mate is hidin’ behind a McCormick automatic reaper with knotter-device with my sister. Wearin’ riding clothes. After she told me she’d no interest in riding this morning. A man could take it personal, you know.”
Being of a naturally honest and direct temperament, Harriet admitted, “I can’t ride. Not even slightly. Mary’s kindly agreed to attempt to teach me.”
Peter’s face went through a mime-like series of speaking expressions, from ‘what do the normally-comprehensible words ‘I can’t ride’ mean when placed in a sentence, together?’ to contrition-mingled-with-embarrassment-at-having-embarrassed-her to ‘I shall capitalize on this’.
“Feels a bit Nicholas Nickleby--I’d be positively delighted to teach you myself.”
“Thank you, but no. We’ve made our own arrangements, you see.” Harriet stood with dignity and brushed herself off, even as Mary scrambled up and returned the horse to a stoic, seemingly still-unamused Merriweather. Unfortunately brushing herself off brought a bruise about that region to keen and painful life. Harriet swallowed an unladylike exclamation, but the look on her face communicated her discomfort.
“Poor girl,” Peter clucked sympathetically. “So you’d rather make yourself ridiculous before Mary than me, eh? Shall I take that as a sign of favor, or the other one?”
“You shall take us to the promised breakfast. I could eat that which I just rode, and I’ve no idea where to find the modest eggs that will have to content me in its stead.”
Breakfast could not in any way be described as modest--the toast rack alone might have provisioned an army. Once everyone but Harriet, Peter and an attendant Bunter had drifted off to do something or other (a discreet way of giving them time to speak without being overtly chaperoned), Harriet asked about the train timetables.
Bunter obligingly proffered the information even as his master’s head shot up.
“You’re going back to Town?”
“Sunday is traditionally considered the close of the week-end,” Harriet said with a wry smile. “My parents are expecting me.”
“Can’t you telegram?”
“Oh yes, but unfortunately I can’t ask them to do my revision for me in my absence. It wouldn’t quite come off.”
“We’ve a good library, you know.”
“Yes, but no Graveyard Poets--I noticed that yesterday.”
“I’ll order the lot, if you like.”
“Or at least I can drive you back. There’s no need to take the train.”
“Didn’t you intend to stay on?”
“Are the connections vile? Shall I somehow be marooned in Penzance if I dare venture forth?”
“It’s a matter of less than two hours by train, Miss Vane,” Bunter volunteered.
“Don’t help,” Peter said shortly.
Harriet laughed. “There you have it. Don’t trouble yourself over driving me, Peter, really. I can easily take the train.”
“To the station, at least! Let chivalry have its due, Harriet!”
“Only because I suppose there isn’t any bus service in the Fens,” she teased. “The presence of electricity this far from civilization has astounded and delighted me.”
“Being cruel about Norfolk is hardly original, Harriet.”
“No? Goodness, I wonder why not?”
Peter ‘couldn’t possibly’ take her at any time before the last train, for vague reasons Harriet humored. In the interim he properly guided her through the library collections, possibly in hopes of convincing her she could get a lot done in Denver, possibly simply because he was deeply enthused about the handsome early protestant bible of Gervase Wimsey (a canon of St. Paul’s and a protestant martyr, apparently), which dated from the 1550s. Harriet was sympathetic to both motives.
She did have a lot to get on with, but almost equally she was motivated by a desire to catch space to breathe, away from Peter. She was enjoying his company too much, it was difficult to consider anything with him a room away. The same city might not provide her with sufficient distance. Harriet valued her capacity to be analytical and fair, obedient to higher, external standards of reckoning. She needed to process him and the options available to them, to evaluate his own position--to be true to her nature rather than enthralled to his experience, his confidence, the immense sway she could feel creeping over her. No one had said it would be so terrifyingly total--such a wondrous threat.
She set a date to meet Mary, and she packed--or rather she found Bunter had done it for her, and awkwardly thanked him, unused to having her things handled by a professional as a matter of course.
Then Peter was driving her in the Daimler, perhaps quite consciously in shirt sleeves. His jacket was tossed over the back seat, his cuffs were rolled up, and flashes of familiar handwriting became visible with the turn of the wheel. No driving gloves in evidence. It was somehow more overwhelming now to be alone with him, even than it had been in the library. What if he’d been polite, but he didn’t want--? He had every reason not to. What if he did? Oh God. He was trying to explain something. She made herself pay attention to that, and not just the cadence of his voice.
“Look,” he made a noise preparatory to discussing something slightly ugly, and she tensed. “This is going to sound awfully big-headed, but if you don’t want the press buzzin ‘round like bees, I’m afraid you’ll have to favor long sleeves for a while. I, for one, don’t mind a jot, but you’re less used to it--and your house doesn’t have a great fence ‘round it like mine does.”
“Oh yes, I know what those ghastly human interest stories are--peer and pauper: united by fate, rumbles in the finest drawing rooms of Europe, etc.” Harriet fussed with her satchel. “But I’m certain my mother’s not told anyone. She’s fairly discreet about that sort of thing.”
“If she had, we’d know it it already. Salcombe Hardy and company would like nothing more than the opportunity to get your picture in the paper, looking charmingly bemused at finding yourself attached to a silly-faced chap like myself--and old Sal’s the best of the lot.”
“Is this Hardy a friend of yours?”
“Well,” Peter considered, “as much as one can be friends with a vampire who’d like nothin’ better than to suck out all one’s blood and spit it on the sorts and slugs for the six-p-m edition, to save on ink. Thank heavens you had the good sense to use a reasonably discreet agency--no, they’ll wait to give quotes and testimonials until the story breaks--won’t want to risk soiling the reputation of their firm.”
“Are you--forgive me if this sounds rude--but are you really as famous as all that?”
He laughed. “Far ruder of me to tell you all about how important I am, if anything. Though I mean it more in warning than in exultation. There are always society columns, but the Freke affair, if it’s not made me a household name, has certainly given me a familiar-enough ring to justify a column inch or two on a slow news day. Then there’s the Attenbury Emeralds besides. And I don’t imagine I’ll stop finding work to do, or that I’ll stop being an amusing oddity. 'The noble criminologist’, as Hardy has it. It’s not--going to get better, I shouldn’t think. Of course if the work bothers you, I could always find a new hobby.”
“What?” She looked at him, horrified. “Please don’t suggest that, not even in the first blush. Perhaps we could both find something else to do, something we’re properly good at, and that would be all right--but please, don’t make it any kind of choice between one calling and another. I couldn’t bear it.”
Peter pulled up into a secluded lot around the side of the station. The town was small and it seemed no one else was going to London this evening--though perhaps there’d be a few straggling souls on the platform. Neither Peter nor Harriet immediately got out of the car.
“Well,” Harriet said.
“One day we’ll have to talk about--” Peter began. Stopped. “There was a man in my unit, who had his Named arm blown off on the eve of his twenty-first. Said he’d sooner have parted with the other and a leg than that. Harriet--”
“What I mean to say is, I want to marry you. If you can put up with me and all that.”
"Absolutely not! Peter, I’ve known you two days! A week-end! And I didn’t even arrive until noon on Saturday!"
"Oh," said Wimsey. "I suppose you’re quite right. It was stupid of me—"
His voice sounded hurt, and Harriet eyed him remorsefully.
"No, not at all. But--why? That’s everything. I have to know you don’t feel--somehow obliged to, for a start."
“Oh don't pretend you don't know what I mean. There’s that gentlemanly school of thought that says I’m entitled to you. That I’ve some sort of claim, whatever your inclinations might be. I won’t have that, that obligation. I shouldn’t like to be always grateful for your condescension--and you shouldn’t like it either. You’re older and obviously more than well-off besides, and you know by now that I’d by marrying you I'd acquire a certain comfort I haven’t attained for myself, or been born into. One could overcome all that, of course, but one would have to know--on what basis.” Harriet laughed, and it had a wry edge. “You’re like that, aren’t you, under everything? Duty and honor and Protestant martyrs, justice served and the family name upheld. What should you have done with yourself, if you'd met me and you found you didn’t even like me? Would you even know you didn’t?”
Wimsey looked ahead as though he were still driving, his idle right hand clenching hard on the steering wheel in evident agitation. "I wish you wouldn't sound as if you thought it was rather funny, the idea of my feeling things. Stirrings of duty and whatnot. I know I've got a silly face, but I can't help that. As a matter of fact, I'd like somebody I could talk sensibly to, who would make life interesting. Your hypothetical scenario makes for a pretty logic puzzle, but it don’t account for the facts in hand. If you need it stated any plainer, I adore you, Harriet, and tomorrow I’ll worship you, and the day after that I don’t know what I’ll do. I’m damned lucky to have found you. I thought turning ‘round to see you standing there, knowing it was you would be the height of it, that nothing could exceed it. I was an idiot. I mistook the foot of the mountain for the summit. You’re the absolutely one and only woman, and I’d think it if my arm said Erzsebet or Bunter or anything. Dammit, I know I would!"
“You can’t know it,” she reasoned. “There’s so much we don’t know about one another--”
“Well then, we’ll start asking questions! Make a regular inquisition of it. I wish you were staying--well, at least another week, if not perpetually. We should certainly get on together. You can see that, can’t you?”
“I can hardly say! You might think it now, but tomorrow?”
“Don't be so damned discouraging," said Peter. "I have already carefully explained to you that I know my own feelings at present, and my schedule for tomorrow’s. Anybody would think you had no confidence in me."
"People have been wrong about this sort of thing before now," Harriet insisted. Why did she have to play the sane, reasonable part, against her own inclinations, in a conversation with an intelligent older man, who ought to have known better?
"Exactly; simply because they weren’t us--thus they lacked both my conviction and your manifold charms."
Harriet rolled her eyes. "I never thought of that."
"Think of it now. You will find it very beautiful and inspiring. It might even help to distinguish me from the bright young boys of Oxford, if you should happen to forget my name, or anything. Oh, by the way—I don't positively repel you or anything like that, do I? Because if I do--"
"No," said Harriet, unthinkingly honest again. "No, you don't repel me."
Peter blinked at the automatic readiness of her reply, and with a growing confidence that unnerved Harriet, he seemed to read something in her that made a smirk tug at the edge of his lip. Harriet realized she was flushed, and flushed harder in consequence.
"I'm glad of that.” He sounded it. He colored slightly in turn, and Harriet found that additionally distracting. “Any minor alterations, like parting the old mane, or growing a tooth-brush, or cashiering the eyeglass, you know, I should be happy to undertake, if it suited your ideas."
"Well the eyeglass is certainly a mis--” Harriet clapped a hand over her mouth, and then commenced frantically waving her hands to take it back. “Don't. Please don't alter yourself in any particular!"
“The eyeglass, eh?” He was grinning now, and he popped it out, cleaned it with a handkerchief, and solemnly handed both over to her. “Grind it under heel, if you like, o best-beloved. Never shall I wear it again--barring, of course, any necessary disguises in future, to which I am sure you shan’t object. What other token may I be permitted to give thee? Will you accept garnet rings? A satchel? Poetry?”
“No; perhaps for Christmas, thank you, this one is coming apart rather; and I take Elizabeth Bennet’s line on poetry as well, I’m afraid. But I’d cheerfully accept a hand with my suitcase, in a minute.”
“Ah!” He put a hand to his heart. “How romantic--by these and other feats is Gwenivere won. So: I shall court you assiduously, in London and in Oxford, until you feel you know me well enough to answer one way or another. Is that acceptable?”
“Very, so long as you form your own opinions as well.”
“I’ve formed them. Forever and ever, I’m afraid. Don’t laugh in that dismissive manner, I’m quite serious.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just--I’m quite--oh hell.” She plunged, seizing his face in her hands, and with a slight exclamation of surprise he came very gladly. She kissed him frantically, hoping to make up for never having done it before, because sometimes if you did a thing fast then the fact that you didn’t know how to do it well was less apparent. She pulled back and they rested their foreheads together, and his thumb rubbed his name on her arm, and her face flamed with embarrassment and pride as she read hers in full. It was written emphatically, the Deborah-D with an extra, superfluous curl she only added when she was feeling pleased with herself. Her best work and him.
“May I call on you tomorrow--?”
“You know, by the modern conventions of our sadly commercialized age, the week begins on a Monday, doesn’t it? And so I might be justified in poppin’ ‘round at midnight, or indeed tomorrow--”
“You--” She laughed, burying her face in his shoulder. “You talk such piffle. Please don’t bully me, I can’t think. A week. Write to me though, please write--”
“A week,” he promised, kissing his name, her hands. “All the time you want, all the time in the world, but it’s damnably hard. And you will love me, won’t you? You will say yes? Si me encantas, oui il me plaît, ja, ναί, placet? Anything you like, anything in the world, so long as it’s yes.”
“Peter--Peter, damn, damn, that’s my train. Get the bag, get the bag!” She opened the door of the Daimler and bounded out. “Sir, sir!”
Peter hailed the platform attendant by name, peremptorily, and then she was watching Peter on the swiftly receding platform, and cradling a perfect circle of glass and a monogrammed scrap of fabric bearing the initials she herself bore. She’d left her Donne in the car and she needed that, dammit, she’d have to let him bring it up to her, but she’d let it be in a week, a little week, and then there would be time to make sure of everything she already knew.
She’d wait until tomorrow--until she’d thought--to tell her friends what had happened. But Mary had specially asked to be kept abreast of developments, and so Harriet rang to tell her about the proposal even before she told her mother (who anyway was out with Dr. Vane, at some party or other).
“No, he’s--hold on--yes, nowhere in the room. Unless he’s hiding under the sideboard, his sanity has ever been fragile. Did he? He didn’t say anything to me. Typical. Frankly, though, I’m surprised he restrained himself that long. We were all very proud of his manly reticence. Most becoming, I’m sure. Welcome, etcetera.”
“Don’t be daft, I said no! I’ve known him two days! Honestly, what's the matter with your family? Anyway, I’ve university to finish. I have to get through exams, no distractions.”
Mary snorted eloquently. “Whatever you say. And good luck with that. I've never known Peter to be obnoxious and distracting--oh, speak of the Devil.”
Harriet’s pulse picked up when a familiar voice came into the background. “There you are--Mary is that--? Perhaps you’d better put me on, Polly dear. No, no, give it here--hello, darling.”
Harriet hung up immediately, grinning stupidly to herself in the empty hall. She got a pear from the kitchen, went up to her bedroom, and valiantly struggled to concentrate on her books. A fat drop of juice from the late, ripe pear rolled down her arm, and, with a slight flush, she licked it off the second e.