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The Sceptre at the Feast

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Time driveth onward fast,

And in a little while our lips are dumb.

Let us alone. What is it that will last?

 

1915

‘Gerald!’ said Helen, as the opening of the drawing room door was followed by the unheralded tread of one who was not a servant.

‘ ’Fraid not,’ said Peter,  approaching the sofa. ‘Hullo Helen, mother.’ He kissed the latter, and to his considerable surprise, his sister-in-law. ‘You’re lookin’ well, Helen.  I like your hair like that – it suits you.’

‘Oh!’ The Duchess of Denver raised a self-conscious hand to the hair knotted at the nape of her neck. ‘I never seem to have the time to do anything with it.’

‘Nothin’ like babies for keepin’ one busy. I’ve brought something for the little chap – it’s with my luggage.’

‘But what are you doing here, Peter?’ asked his mother. ‘Not that it isn’t lovely to see you, my dear, but I thought you weren’t due any leave for months and even yesterday that odious man was talking in the paper about how it coddled our soldiers and distracted them from their duty, though Mary Smith in the village, you remember dear, she lives in that peculiar little cottage with the crooked chimney -  told me that when her Reggie was home he said that leave cheered them all up, especially when they brought back tobacco and socks and things. I’m afraid I’m not very good at socks, but you must try them on and if they’re no use I can use the wool again for scarves.’

‘I’m not on leave, mother,’ said Peter, sinking into an armchair, ‘Don’t worry, Hepple, I haven’t got lice. I had to deliver something to someone in London. There was a chap there runnin’ up somewhere round here and he offered me a lift. I’ll have to go tomorrow after breakfast. Would you mind awfully if I had a bath?’

*

Peter, who was not used to babies, took his nephew from the boy’s mother and cradled him rather gingerly.

‘He’s a handsome boy – a credit to you both. Queer to think I’m seeing him before old Denver. When’s his next lot of leave due?’

‘Next month, he hopes.’ Helen straightened the baby’s bedclothes a little aimlessly. Peter thought that motherhood suited her. The baby was only six weeks old, and the lines of her face were still a little softer than usual, the thick yellow hair less well disciplined. She had lifted the baby with a tenderness that he had never thought could belong to her. She had wandered over to the window and was looking out over the park, dreary under a blanket of mist and already showing signs of absent gardeners. She turned back to him quite suddenly.

 ‘Peter, his letters don’t tell me anything!’ Her face was desperate. ‘I know there are the censors, but even so! Do you know if he’s really all right? He says that his arm is better and that he’s been transferred to headquarters and isn’t doing anything dangerous, but he might just be saying that to reassure me.’

‘Helen!’ Peter spared an arm from the infant and located a clean handkerchief. ‘This isn’t like you. You mustn’t let it overwhelm you, you’ll upset little Jerry - we can’t keep calling him that, can we?  Honestly, Helen, there’s no need to let yourself get into a state. Gerald had a bit of a nasty wound, and God only know what will happen in the future, but for now he is nicely ensconced at HQ and the only worry is that he will get thoroughly bored. Now, what shall we call the silly tender babe? Let’s see. He’s Saint-George I suppose, though it’s a mouthful for the young and he’s on the small side yet to be swinging at dragons. Jerry, Georgie, Jabberwocky – no, I remember you never liked Carroll – Ginger, happily he isn’t, I fear that nothing strikes. I shall leave it to the tender mercies of his parents and grandmother. Hullo, he’s smiling at me.’

‘He’s too young,’ said Helen, forcing a smile herself. ‘It’s only wind.’

‘So they say. Well, I shall count myself honoured regardless.’

 

1933

‘I come,’ said Lord Peter Wimsey, ‘bearing gifts.’

‘Uncle Peter!’ Viscount Saint-George heaved himself to his elbows, fell dramatically back onto his pillows, and not-quite-successfully concealed a grimace.

‘That bad?’

‘Awful,’ he said, ruefully. ‘And all my own fault, which doesn’t make it any better.’

‘I shouldn’t think anything could make two cracked ribs and a broken ankle much better. What,’

‘Don’t!’

‘Don’t what?’

‘Don’t ask me what I thought I was doing. I’ve had that quite enough.’

‘I wasn’t going to,’ said Lord Peter, mildly. ‘I assume it involved ancient and honourable pass-time of high jinks. I merely meant to ask what they’d given you for it.’

‘Nothing that works. Apparently children don’t feel these things so badly,’ he added bitterly.

‘You look pretty rotten,’ admitted Wimsey. ‘Shall I have a word with Matron?’

Saint-George appeared to struggle inwardly for a moment, and then gave up. ‘Would you?’

‘A tactful one, I assure you.’

‘That will be a change. No-one else round hear seems to know the meaning of the word.’

Wimsey raised a sympathetic eyebrow.

‘As if I don’t know that it was stupid!’ Jerry burst out. ‘Do they think that telling me I’ve been an idiot is going to bring it home any more? I’m missing Lord’s! It’s my only chance and I’m missing it because I thought I hadn’t grown so much I couldn’t still climb that bloody tree. And if you say anything about my language I’ll break something else and hit you with it.’

‘You’d be well within your rights. Is it really your only chance?’

‘I think so,’ answered his nephew. ‘I don’t see myself making the Varsity team. Oh, I’m a decentish all-rounder, and a school team always needs one. But I’ve had to practise a hell of a lot to be that. I simply haven’t the eye for the first class game. So you see, what with Carruthers in the spot the last two years, this was my one shot, and now it’s gone.’

‘I understand. That is rotten for you.’ The boy, Wimsey observed, looked tired and strained, and decidedly not in need of any further lecturing or agitation. ‘But you mustn’t get excited, or nurse will have my blood. Let’s do something else.’ He picked up one of the several brown-paper parcels. ‘Is Ludo too infantile? I can move the pieces for you.’

‘Oh, do you remember when I used to do that for everybody – and make Bunter play, too.’

‘Vividly. He – Bunter, I mean – sends his respectful commiserations, by the way.’

‘Did he send any plum cake as well?’

‘It’s in one of the parcels.’

‘Thank him for me, won’t you. May I have the red and blue pieces?’

 

1935

May

The Mitre, Oxford

Dear Gherkins,

I am delighted to tell you that Miss Vane has done me the very great honour of agreeing to become my wife. There, that’s the formal bit done with. We are both, I hope, very happy, and your efforts in keeping Harriet alive and in one piece up to this point are much appreciated. I leave for Rome this morning; God knows when the wedding will be.

I know that you’ll back us up to the family, but please, for Miss Vane’s sake, do try to do so in a manner that won’t antagonise your parents.

Your loving uncle,

Peter

P.S. I shall need a best man, if you’re willing.

 

September

‘I’m sorry,’ said the Viscount, unrepentantly, ‘am I interrupting anything?’

‘So that was you in the hall?’ said his uncle, keeping an arm fixed about Harriet’s waist. ‘We heard something of a disturbance, but assumed that Bunter must be tacking a particularly persistent press-hound.’

‘Tackling’s the word,’ Saint-George said ruefully, rubbing an elbow. ‘I didn’t know Bunter had such a temper.’

‘Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious in a moment, but Bunter can? I hope it does hurt and I don’t feel the least bit sorry for you.’

Saint-George turned a dazzling smile upon Harriet. ‘Don’t you feel sorry for me, either? I shan’t ask you to kiss it better, but you might summon up a bit of womanly consolation.’

‘I don’t think I have any,’ said Harriet rather shortly. Peter might take it lightly, but she could not quite manage the same degree of nonchalance. She wriggled her shoulder surreptitiously and attempted to settle her shirt. She had a sneaking feeling that Peter was finding it rather amusing, but if he wasn’t going to let his nephew get a rise out of him, nor would she.

‘Why are you here, Jerry? Your mother said you were in the country for a few days.’

‘I was,’ said Jerry, helping himself to a biscuit from the plate Bunter presented, ‘only I had one or two things to sort out before going up to Oxford – no, don’t worry, uncle, not money or anything – and the weather was beastly, so I came back.  As a matter of fact, I came to bring you a wedding present.’ He produced a brown-paper parcel, surreptitiously introduced, Harriet realized, by Bunter with the biscuits.

Peter took it and settled himself once again comfortably upon the chesterfield. ‘Shall we open it now?’

‘Let’s.’ Somehow a pair of scissors had appeared in Harriet’s hand. She cut the string with tolerable neatness, the compromise reached in years of economy warring with impatience, and carefully peeled back the lid of a small box. ‘Oh Jerry! How lovely.’

‘Do you like them?’

‘They’re beautiful, although this one does seem to possess an extravagance of bells.’

‘That’s for Uncle Peter. He’s a dreadfully late riser. You see,’ he explained, ‘I always remembered when I visited uncle, or he came to Denver, that he had a vile little bedside clock with flaking paint and an enormous bell that he said he had had at school and was the only thing that could ever wake him. So I asked grandmother if she had seen if you had anything really decent at your flat, and she thought you hadn’t, and so – one clock each, and I had them set off Uncle Peter’s in the shop and I should think it’d wake the dead. That shouldn’t inconvenience you, Aunt Harriet; women always seem to get up earlier than men. I think it’s natural industry or something. Besides, if you get on with the procreation of children bit you’ll have to.’

‘Jerry, you are an appalling young man,’ said his uncle. ‘But it is a very thoughtful present and taking it in the spirit in which it is given I shall refrain from throwing it at your head.’

It was some time later, when Saint-George had departed and Harriet was replacing the clocks in their native box, that Peter whispered in her ear ‘And I shall never forget to wind it.’

 

1937

The sound of grizzling from one of the back rooms at Talboys, which Harriet had been trying not wholly successfully to ignore, rose suddenly to a full-throated wail.

‘Damn!’ she said.

Peter acknowledged the expression, but did not allow it to distract him. ‘Don’t worry, Florence will see to him’

‘But I don’t want Florence to see to him Peter! That’s why we didn’t bring Nanny. I’m his mother, and every so often I’d like it to be me who looks after him. Even,’ she added, attempting to locate her dressing gown without getting out of bed, ‘if he chooses the most inopportune moments on the coldest nights to want me.’

Peter flung back the covers with a show of fortitude, located his own dressing gown, and wrapped his wife in hers. ‘Come on, then. Once more into the breach, although I do hope it won’t come to that.’

‘Peter, wait!’ There were footsteps in the hall. ‘Who’s that? That isn’t Florence.’

‘Nor Bunter. I have not lived twenty years with the man not to know the fateful tread of Bunter.’ A door creaked, the wail intensified, and suddenly quieted it. Beyond the door and cold hallway someone was speaking softly. A floorboard creaked, a distant sob turned to a hiccup, and there were footsteps again, slow but rhythmical, as of someone dancing , and a voice, soft and low, singing first one song, then another, punctuated with little sounds of the baby turning from unhappiness to contentment, and then at last no footsteps and a very quiet voice,

Golden slumbers kiss your eyes,

Smiles awake you when you rise.

‘Good old Jerry,’ said Peter. ‘Come on, let’s go back to bed.’

 

1943

‘Jerry!’ said Helen, but no door had opened and Harriet felt her blood turn cold

They had run up to Denver for a few days holiday, with hope of swimming in the lake and early strawberries in what remained of the kitchen garden. Peter had leave from his work, Bunter was home between mysterious duties, and with her own latest book despatched to the printer and no-one having noticed that she had acquired some free time for them to fill, life on the home front felt a little less hectic. The proposal itself had come from Peter, whose diffident suggestion of a few days at the Dower House, if she thought they could manage it, had ill-concealed a plea for rest in familiar surroundings with space to quiet the mind and exercise the legs. The Dower House had escaped requisition, but was shut up, which meant the Hall itself, and if this entailed ones sister-in-law it was a price worth paying for space for three boys to run thoroughly wild.

There were no other guests, and Gerald was on good form, talking tonight about his daughter Winifred in whom he appeared to have developed a late interest. She was one of those people whom war had given a purpose, and was very busy driving an ambulance in London. It was odd, thought Harriet, how some people could reveal themselves as quite different under different circumstances. One would never have thought that Peter’s vain, lacklustre niece would drive an ambulance in the blitz and talk of going to the continent with the Red Cross after the invasion.

‘Jerry?’ She said it very softly, and for a moment Harriet allowed herself to hope, because Helen could never see the Wimsey ghosts. But Peter was white as a sheet, and Gerald looking baffled and frightened, and Peter’s hand suddenly closed tight upon her arm at the play's last scene.

There was a soft thud. On the far side of the room, where he stood by the wall behind the Duchess, a ladle lay on the Aubusson carpet at Bunter’s feet.

‘Son?’ said Gerald. His voice shook. ‘Oh son.’

It was unmistakably the Viscount. He stood as if he had entered through the doors that lead on to the terrace, the son of the house, quite at home. He was wearing his uniform, cap jaunty, metal gleaming. He looked unhurt, the beautiful face quite clean and whole, the slim, strong figure upright and true, death’s pale flag not yet advancèd. He winked at her.

Peter roused himself. ‘Hullo Jerry,’ he said, ‘it’s good of you to come. Do you intend to stay long?’

Jerry shook his head, just once, and Peter nodded.

‘That’s probably for the best.’ They smiled at one another in an odd understanding.

‘It’s not true,’ said Helen. ‘Tell me it’s not true!’ But no-one could. Her son moved silently around the table towards her. She was chalk white, her eyes huge and grey in a bloodless face. Harriet remembered that she was Peter’s cousin, too. Jerry passed Bunter and turned his face towards him so that Harriet could not see it, but she saw Bunter’s eyes brim suddenly with tears. Helen had pushed her chair away from the table, but did not rise. Her son lowered his face to hers, and Harriet saw her feel the kiss. He touched his hand to his father’s shoulder, and Gerald raised his wonderingly to the place it had lain. And then he was gone. Gerald walked over to his wife and bent to put his arm around her.

There was a soft murmur of feet as Bunter vanished through the servant’s door, and a dreadful keening that was Helen crying and Gerald holding her head against his chest. Harriet felt suddenly and awfully superfluous.

‘Come on, Peter.’

They got up and went out. From the other side of the house came the faint shrill of the telephone.