1. 1915: Paris.
Mervyn Bunter had been a corporal but a week before he began to think wistfully of the simple joys of life as a mere private. Promotion seemed to bring with it much less time in pubs and rather more time listening to long speeches by the serjeant.
The current discourse seemed initially to be about knowing one’s place but had then wandered over several topics before landing (oddly, Bunter thought) on the dangers of Paris women.
Eventually, Bunter thought he had the handle of it: A young officer had died under uncertain circumstances and someone very highly born (the serjeant said “royal,” but Bunter thought that most unlikely) had arranged for someone slightly less highly born to come ask questions about it. And now someone quite low born was needed to fetch a car and drive a high-born lieutenant around Paris for two days. Bunter was going to miss his card game again, it seemed.
The following morning, Bunter drove a car up to the appointed destination at the proper time but was unsurprised when told to wait. The military and life as a footman had this in common: a lot of waiting around for others to decide what they wanted followed by the utmost speed in carrying out said orders. He eyed the grey sky and decided it probably wouldn’t rain.
Several possible candidates for his lieutenant came out the door while Bunter waited. He had been told to look for fair hair and a beaked nose, but as that described fully half the officers Bunter had met previously he assumed that the lieutenant would be more likely to spot him — or at least the car — first. Although if he did not, Bunter thought, that would bode ill for the outcome of this investigation.
Was that him? A gentleman meeting the lieutenant’s general description had just stepped out of the building and was staring up at the sky. Bunter coughed gently and was quietly pleased when he was proven right. The lieutenant moved toward him, asking his name.
“It’s Bunter, sir.” Bunter took his case and held the car door open. And continued to hold it open as the lieutenant looked again at the sky, then down at the car and then up at the sky again.
"I'm Wimsey," the lieutenant said. "We've got two days to dry a poor mother's tears, so let's start at the morgue." He paused, said something else in what Bunter assumed was French, and finally seated himself in the car.
Bunter closed the door. It was going to be a long day.
2. 1916: Poperinge, Belgium.
Bunter had been steadily losing at cards for hours. He wished he could say it was part of an elaborate scheme to mislead his opponents, but it was just simple bad luck. And possibly too much ale. Determined to avoid looking a total simpleton, he swore off alcohol for the rest of the night and thus continued to grow more sober as those around him grew less.
This did little for his luck, but it did mean that Bunter had perfect recall of the events that followed, whatever a certain lordship might try to claim in subsequent years.
A group of about eight young soldiers — from the East End of London, by their accents — had claimed one of the pub’s main tables and began drinking in a way that suggested they had just rotated off the front line. Their shoulders relaxed as they drank, however, and Bunter relaxed as well. This pub wasn’t exactly the TocH, but it was a nice enough place and he’d hate to see trouble here. Eventually the group began singing, but they were mostly in tune and soon others sitting around them joined in on the more popular numbers.
Apparently not everyone was a music lover, however, because just as Bunter was preparing to leave, the military police arrived in force.
“Oi, mates, it’s the rozzers!” shouted one of the soldiers, lifting his glass in salute. His friends laughed and began standing to offer other, less polite toasts. Whether it was the sentiments expressed or the fact that the soldiers were now starting to weave dramatically around the floor, the MPs started nodding to each other significantly.
“Right, boys,” one of the MPs said, “It’s time to call it a night. We have some nice dry floors you can sleep on.”
Two of the soldiers put their glasses down and began pulling up a friend who had fallen on the floor. Others were not so agreeable. One MP tried to take away a soldier’s beer and received a punch in the face for his trouble. It wasn’t a very forceful punch, as the soldier delivering it was having difficulty standing, but it changed the mood immediately. Now there was talk of arrests and extra police and several uninvolved patrons found themselves with urgent business elsewhere.
Bunter was himself halfway to the door when he heard an oddly familiar voice say, “See here, you can’t send us to the cells, old thing.”
He turned around and watched in amazement as Lt. Wimsey — Captain by now, possibly? Bunter couldn’t see in the dim light of the pub — came forward and put his arms around two of the soldiers. They seemed startled to be embraced by him, but when Wimsey stumbled, they caught hold of his arms and held him up.
“My dear chap,” Wimsey said to the nearest MP. “My name is Captain Bredon and I must insist you don’t haul us all off in chains like this; it wouldn’t do at all.”
The MPs started to look nervously at each other. It wasn’t exactly written down anywhere, but no one wanted to arrest an officer on what was supposed to just be a standard night patrol.
Wimsey was still talking, and now had one arm around one of the soldiers and one arm around an MP. “Old bean, I’m dreadfully sorry we were making such a racket, it’s all my fault, they know I can’t resist a …”
The rest was in another language that Bunter could only guess at. From the baffled look on the MP’s face, Bunter assumed he was equally confused by Wimsey.
For it was Lt. Wimsey, whatever he was calling himself. If Bunter hadn’t been sure of it before, the tendency to start a sentence in one language and finish it in another would have confirmed it. In the two days he’d spent driving the lieutenant around Paris, Bunter had understood maybe a third of what he'd said. And it was Bunter’s experience that few of the upper classes actually spoke that much Latin and Greek.
“Listen,” Wimsey said, reaching up to touch his face and then stopping halfway as if remembering he wasn’t really wearing a monocle in the middle of a war.
“Listen,” he said again, walking his chosen MP to the door. “Why don’t you help me get these boys off to their billets? I’m a bit squiffy or I’d do it myself. But we’re all in this together, after all. Like the poet says …”
And right, Bunter thought, that was probably Latin this time. He was starting to feel sorry for the military police. He also was beginning to doubt how drunk Wimsey really was, as somehow between the second and third stanza of whatever he was reciting, the group of soldiers reached the front door and the military police were now quietly walking out behind them, all talk of arrests forgotten.
Wimsey, now holding the door for the last of the MPs, began whistling another song. He looked up at Bunter and winked.
Bunter walked towards the door. “Need any help, sir?”
Wimsey smiled and clasped Bunter by the elbow as they walked out. “So kind of you, my dear corporal. I think we’re sorted, but why don’t you walk with me on this splendid night?”
Bunter grinned and let himself be led out of the pub. “Congratulations on the promotion, sir,” he said, nodding toward the third star on Wimsey’s shoulder.
“Oh, that,” said Wimsey. “It’s not actually mine, to be honest, anymore than the name — well, slightly less than the name, actually — but I can’t tell you the rest, but trust that I come by this deception honestly.”
Bunter considered this as they followed behind the gradually shrinking group of soldiers and military police, watching as pairs and trios disappeared into billets.
“They’re not your men, then?”
“No,” Wimsey replied. “But the person I was to meet scarpered when the MPs showed up so I thought I might as well help the lads out. And it never hurts for Captain Bredon to be thought more than unusually dissolute.”
“Sir,” Bunter said, nodding his head.
“Not to mention, I was enjoying the singing.”
“Sir,” Bunter said again, resisting the urge to roll his eyes.
Wimsey grinned back at him. “Oh, Bunter, you’re wasted in your unit, you know.”
3. 1918: northern France.
Bunter has nightmares of his own. He hopes Lord Peter isn’t aware of them, but suspects he is. Two old soldiers, they are extra solicitous of each other in the mornings, even decades on.
What Bunter remembers most of that day in Caudry is his utter terror that they wouldn’t be in time. That his arms wouldn’t hold out long enough, that he couldn’t convince the others to keep digging, that another shell would land and finish them all, that in the end, none of it would matter. In the nightmares, he never stops digging and he never knows if Major Wimsey is actually alive.
Bunter doesn’t remember much of what happened after they did find the major alive. He thinks someone set him down and made him drink some water, because he remembers leaping up when he realized the major was being carried away, and he remembers the wounded cry that escaped his mouth.
But mostly he just remembers digging and digging and digging.
Sometimes, when Bunter is awake anyway, he finds an excuse to check on Lord Peter and watch him sleep. It helps.
4. 1919: London.
“I don’t understand why you have to go all the way to Norfolk when you’ve just come back home.”
Bunter continued packing and continued to ignore his sister.
“Mum says you don’t even know for sure where he is. I thought at least you’d had a letter or something!”
He really needed another jersey, but Bunter wasn’t sure where he could acquire one now. He was glad to be home, but after four years on the continent, London was almost as foreign to him as Paris had been once. At least he could make a decent presentation out of his old footman’s uniform and one of his brother’s jackets. Bunter had never seen the major in civilian garb but they’d once spent two days pinned down in a trench arguing about the evolution of the waistcoat, so he felt sure that his own high sartorial standards would be both appreciated and reciprocated. Once he found the major, anyway.
Bunter set the shirt he was folding aside and turned his full attention to his sister. She had full charge of the house now, and he hated the pinched worried look she constantly wore. He also hated being a burden, and knew that once he was gone, the rest would all eat better. Besides, the major needed him. He didn’t need a letter to know that.
“Norfolk isn’t France,” Bunter said, calm. “And in fact, I expect that once the major — that is, his lordship — recovers, we’ll likely be in town quite a bit.”
“Mervyn.” Her voice was softer this time, but still worried. He reached out and touched her hand, briefly.
“I know,” he said. “But don’t worry, I’m getting better at finding him.”
5. 1921: London.
The dishes were done, tomorrow’s suit pressed and laid out and every bit of incunabula in the flat had been dusted and replaced. Bunter resisted the urge to look again at the hall clock. Perhaps he could get a start on those negatives his lordship was interested in.
Two hours later, Bunter had come to appreciate the effects of the new lens his lordship had purchased, and had prepared some notes on the best way to adjust the chemical processing solution, but the fact remained that he could clearly see the sky starting to lighten in the distance while the flat remained absent its owner.
It was absurd to be this worried, of course. It had been months since Lord Peter had suffered any sort of attack, much less one as severe as those of the year after the war. Bunter told himself he was not actually concerned that his employer might be wandering Hyde Park, looking for German snipers. Well, not seriously concerned, at any rate. Bunter decided the silver could do with another polish.
The fact that his lordship had gone to the party in the company of the Hon. Freddy Arbuthnot weighed both for and against the peace of Bunter’s mind. He liked the gentleman, but Mr. Arbuthnot was not what Bunter would call “steady.” It was quite likely that the two friends had simply moved on from the party to one of their clubs and stayed the night there. More than likely — probable, even.
Another hour of pacing. Finally, Bunter firmed up his shoulders and reached for his coat and hat. He would just take a nice walk, he told himself. It was good to breathe in the early morning air. He might, for instance, even walk over to the Serpentine. Just in case.
Bunter walked briskly towards the park, barely noting the tradesmen making their early morning deliveries around him. An acquaintance on the door at the Cavalry Club called out to him, but Bunter just nodded and continued on his way. Crossing into the park, he paused and took a deep breath. He sighed once more and then continued to the Serpentine.
From a distance, he could make out a few figures on the other side of the lake, but the paths circling it were mostly empty. There, though, was that him? Bunter quickened his pace.
It was indeed Lord Peter, but as Bunter drew nearer he saw that he was neither crouching in fear nor standing at attention. Instead, his master was leaning against a tree and haphazardly throwing pieces of bread to a group of ducks clustered at his feet.
“Don’t be such a greedy beggar, you, give your friend a chance,” Lord Peter was saying. “This is really top-notch bread, you know — if my hostess knew I was giving it to ducks, she’d —” He broke off as he saw Bunter approach and waved.
“What ho, Bunter!”
Bunter approached, cautious. “My lord?”
“Come help me feed these ducks, Bunter,” Lord Peter said, turning his attention back to the hungry throng. “I’m in an excellent mood this morning and inclined to share my good fortune with all friends, both fair and, well —” he gestured to the ducks, “fowl.”
“Indeed, my lord.”
“I know, it’s early in the day for puns. But as I say, it’s been a spiffing night.” He stood up properly and handed Bunter the bag of bread. Bunter stepped back as the ducks shifted their attention to him.
“You remember Parker? The police chap from the Attenbury case? Well, Freddy and I ran into him last night — don’t ask where, I lost track two stops after Lady Menton’s party ended — and he told me of another case he thinks I could be useful on. Nothing as grand as emeralds, but still, think of it!”
Bunter gave up trying to ration out the bread and emptied the bag as quickly as he could. Out of the corner of his eye, he observed his lordship’s manner. His tone was excited, true, but it appeared to be with pleasure, not nerves, and his skin was flushed with enthusiasm. Lord Peter’s eyes gleamed as he talked, and he began using his arms to sketch out his grand plan of tackling a new spot of detective work. “And you’ll be my assistant, Bunter, with your camera and your general good sense of — well, your general good you-ness, anyway.”
They had begun to walk out of the park when Lord Peter stopped suddenly, and turned to Bunter. “I mean, only if you want to, of course, Bunter.”
Bunter smiled. “I'd be delighted, my lord.”