Rien ne dompte la conscience de l'homme, car la conscience de l'homme c'est la pensee de Dieu."--Victor Hugo.
It was not curiosity but fear that caused Lady Peter Wimsey--nee Miss Harriet Vane--to open the plain envelope that lay at the bottom of the stack by her plate.
She had sorted the letters as she always did, saw one with the familiar block-printed letters and no return, and set the entire stack back on the plate to be read later. Instead, she poured coffee for her husband, who kept up a running commentary upon the news in the paper--a commentary extending across three languages, not counting a scrofulous tag from Aristophanes that caused Harriet to choke on her weak tea.
Lord Peter, his fair hair sleeked back, his clothing faultless, kept up the commentary through breakfast, his intention to amuse his wife. He nattered about the news, the weather, retailed (with suitably dramatic gesture) an amusing anecdote of a country man encountered on the road the day before as he unsuccessfully chased pigs somehow escaped in Piccadilly; he kept Harriet in a bubbling stream of laughter until he had finished his egg and muffin. Then he dropped a kiss upon each of Harriet's hands before saluting her lips, and he was gone.
It was not until she heard the front door close and the sound of his motor roaring that she realised he'd not said anything of account. When Peter began quoting, she had learned, there was a fair chance he was disturbed over something.
Well, so was she. Releasing a long sigh, she wished she could drink coffee, or even strong tea. But her stomach, though far less unsettled than it had been over autumn, closed firmly against the former comforts of morning. She frowned down at her Bath biscuits and pale green tea, caught sight of the letters she had managed to forget for so brief a time, and sustained another uneasy lurch in her middle.
The breakfast parlour was empty of servants. She pushed aside the clutter of invitations, bills, and notes, and pulled out the blank one. There had been a lot of anonymous letters after her marriage--most of them informing her (with the boisterous courage of the hidden identity) that her marriage was doomed because she was a fallen woman, that Lord Peter Wimsey would get what was coming to him, that the Bolsheviks would soon rid the world of blood-sucking aristocrats, that Scotland Yard was full of Huns and everyone knew what happened to Huns in 1919, and it would happen again. She'd showed them to Peter, who'd laughed as he pitched them into the fire. If I kept all the anonymous threats I've received over the years, I could paper all Denver's houses, he'd said cheerfully. It's when they sign their names that I take notice. And that just long enough to turn them over to Parker for training his young pups. Seeing she was still disturbed, he'd said more seriously, Oderint dum metuant-- 'Let them hate me so long as they fear me.'
The point is, it's not my conscience hurting, it's theirs. Or why would they seek to threaten me? I do not go out seeking trouble.
I know. But it finds you.
He'd then said while gripping both her hands, Burn them unread. Or give them to me. You should not be made to suffer for my . . . hobbies.
She blinked away the image. Here was the letter, still in her hand, and it would not go away until she did something.
So she reached for the letter knife. In truth the threats had tapered off to nothing--until this past summer, when these cheap envelopes had begun to arrive, the block letters written in cheap ink. These were not threats, and they were not aimed at Peter. They were all personal barbs shot at her. The first had said, THE DUCHESS OF DENVER HATES YOU.
That one had caused her to laugh--however painfully. As her mother in law had said so delightfully once, "But Helen hates everybody that Peter and I love best. In its peculiar way, her disapprobation is an encomium in the highest degree."
Warmth and gratitude flowed through Harriet, lending her the strength to slide the letter knife through the envelope. Out fell the usual paper. Harriet suppressed the urge to use the sugar tongs--as if the touch of the sender would leap from the paper to poison her hands--and opened the note.
It was the longest one yet. Crossing her forearms over her churning middle, she read:
You did not even last a year. If you do not believe me, take a look through the front window of the Trafalgar Café at noon any Wednesday. He doesn't even trouble to hide his new mistress. It's not surprising he replaced you so easily, what's surprising is his lack of taste. But who should know that better than you?
Harriet flung the letter down. She fought a surge of disgust bordering on nausea, as if she'd plucked a rose to discover slugs crawling the undersides of the petals. Her next reaction was a sickening, helpless fury: was this yet another round of Annie and Miss Hillyard? Her fingers stretched toward the letter again, this time to cast it into the fire, as if she could burn the wicked intent of whoever would take time from living to pen such a thing, fold it into an envelope, address and stamp it, walk out in the cold of impending winter to the pillar box.
Of course it was utter rubbish. Yet it had been utter rubbish, the notion that she had poisoned poor Philip seven years ago. Her life had been meager then, the possibility of joy mocking her with its absence, and then even modicum of meaning had been wrenched away, leaving her in a nightmare--and for a murderer's convenience. She had denied the nightmare at first by doing nothing to save herself, a mistake that would surely have killed her had not Lord Peter Wimsey come into her life.
She would not surrender to the nightmare now.
She left the breakfast room and paused outside the study where the telephone lived. No, better not--too public. Instead she ran upstairs and announced to her maid that she had just remembered an appointment. Her maid rang for a taxi while Harriet hastily donned a smart but sub-fusc tweed suit; she was pulling on her gloves when the taxi cab pulled up into Audley Square.
Anyone who might be lurking about in the dignified Mayfair shadows of Audley Square could have watched the veil-hatted Lady Peter Wimsey drive off; she had the taxi drop her in Bond Street, where she walked through two shops, and then, with cool assurance, exited through the back of a shop, walked to another street, and hailed a taxi there, which drove her to a part of town few would expect a wealthy lady to know anything about.
Very soon she entered the shabby but neat office where Miss Climpson was speaking into the telephone. Miss Climpson rang off, sent out the girl trainee who was struggling with shorthand, and then firmly shut the office door.
"Miss Climpson," Harriet said, "I can see you are as busy as ever, but I need your help. And I am not certain where else to turn."
The elderly spinster glowed quite pink. "Pray be seated, Lady Peter," she fluted, dusting the single chair with her own spotless lawn handkerchief. "Goodness! Ought you to be out and about in the city air? Does the doctor know--oh, but you said--that is--" She became so tangled in her efforts to assure herself of the lady's well-being while not making any indelicate references (and to a spinster whose ideas of delicacy had been formed in the nineties, any reference to what used to be called 'an interesting situation' was indelicate in the extreme) she came to a stuttering stop.
From which Harriet swiftly rescued her. "I am quite well, Miss Climpson. But there is very little time. Please, will you take a look at this? It is not the first I have received, though this is the first reference to my husband. Previously they have been all directed at me."
Harriet pulled from her handbag one of her own envelopes, into which she had slipped the anonymous note. The spinster bent over it, tutting and murmuring to herself; when she straightened up, she had reddened with honest indignation.
"You can see my dilemma," Harriet said. "No doubt this horrible person is taking up a place near this café right now, and would love nothing more than to see me lurking about, trying to spy through the windows, whether Peter is there or not."
Miss Climpson nodded slowly. "I see," she said, and scowled down at the wrinkled paper on her desk. "A woman wrote that," she said suddenly. "Or I should more correctly say a Female. I would hardly like to grant such the courtesy of the distinction of Woman."
"How can you tell? The letters are block."
"It's--oh, something in their shape. I have seen enough hands written by gentlemen--and men who were not genteelly trained--that is--oh, I must begin again. This is a woman's hand, and furthermore, she was very well trained. Though she tries to hide it. Look, see that the letters are very even and those Greek E's were, as my lord said once, an affectation of certain types of high falutin' boarding schools that--well, that's neither here nor there. It accords oddly with this cheap sort of paper that now I think on it, I have seen before. And recently, too. But where?"
Harriet drew a deep breath. "A woman."
Miss Climpson looked up. "I do believe . . . yes. No one ever notices an old spinster, which is of course how I have often been able to aid dear Lord Peter. But goodness! It is nearly noon! If you will make yourself comfortable, dear Lady Peter, I will send Rebecca in with some tea things, and it will not take me long to make my investigation and return."
Before Harriet could politely demur Miss Climpson whisked herself out of her own office, her manner brisk and efficient. Harriet's protest would have been mere politeness; though she did regret interrupting Miss Climpson's obviously busy day, she also knew that Miss Climpson was never happier than when she was being of use--particularly when she could do so in a covert manner.
Harriet sat there on the uncomfortable chair, glowering at the rapidly cooling tea in its dainty Victorian crockery that probably had been Miss Climpson's in her girlhood. As the clock ticked on the wall next Miss Climpson's tidy desk, Harriet's thoughts bumbled pointlessly like a fly caught between windows. On one side there was her absolute trust in her husband; on the other, the malicious intentions of . . . who? Why?
Peter could be meeting a young woman for any number of blameless reasons; he could have refrained from telling her for an equal number of blameless reasons. She had been terribly ill those first three or four months. She was very nearly overdue on the deadline for her next book. Peter had promised, with his delightful laugh, that all strange murders would be firmly left to Parker and the Yard. So he could have any number of business pursuits, from the hiring of another widow or spinster for Miss Climpson to an inquiry into early incunabula that might be coming up for auction . . .
After an eternity of clock-ticks the door unlatched, and Miss Climpson entered. She locked it behind her, removed her hat and coat and hung them with care on the coat tree in the corner. Then she sat down behind her desk, drew in a deep breath, and recited in the manner of one who has rehearsed her words, "Trafalgar Café turns out to be a new establishment, over in the west end. Too new to be crowded as yet, though the taxi cab driver knew right where it was. This is what I saw, Lady Peter. His lordship was sitting prominently at one of the window tables with a young woman, who might, oh, feel her approach to the years of danger."
Harriet recognized, after a moment, the reference to Elizabeth Elliot in Jane Austen's Persuasion, who was twenty-nine when the novel began.
"She was writing as they talked. He left first. She stayed writing. When she left I followed at a distance--far enough back to see who else might be following--and if there was someone, she is better than I. Or he. But I still believe your Unknown is a she. At any rate, the young woman boarded an omnibus, which drove off toward the business district. So I returned."
Harriet got to her feet. "Thank you, Miss Climpson. I--I know I scarcely need ask, but for my own peace of mind, you understand--"
Miss Climpson raised her hands palms out, as if to stop a racing motor-car. "Of course I shall say nothing to anyone. We both know his lordship well. His business might take him into strange parts, but there is always a reason."
Miss Climpson's worn, gentle face lifted, her countenance expressive of question, and Harriet, sensing the question she dared not ask hastened to agree. "There is always a reason for what he does. What I cannot fathom is the reason behind this." With a moue of distaste she slipped the note back into the envelope, slid it into her handbag, and started to the door.
Miss Climpson darted around her in order to open the door herself. She escorted Harriet to the street door, saw her safely disposed into a taxi cab, and then stood there on the sidewalk watching thoughtfully as the taxi drove away.
When Peter returned to the house in Audley Square, he found Harriet upstairs in the study they had fitted out together, both having taken immense pleasure in selecting furnishings and artwork, each to please the other. He had insisted he would always knock, she had insisted he was welcome at any time. They had compromised on the door. If it was open, he was welcome to come in and interrupt. If, by chance, she was desperately on deadline she was to close the door. No one would disturb her without knocking first.
The door stood open. He perched on the edge of her desk, admiring the slight pucker in her intelligent brow as she stabbed the keys with her capable fingers, the curve of her lips deepening in a sardonic flicker as she whispered some no-doubt wickedly trenchant rejoinder. He looked forward to reading it; he heard all Harriet's books read in her fluid, entrancing voice.
She finished the line; the bell tinged. She threw the carriage. Then looked up and smiled in welcome.
Peter bent and kissed her. "It is time to dress for dinner--though our guests are only Mary and Charles. They probably would not mind if you sat down in a raincoat and pyjamas."
"Except Mary would want to go home and fetch her raincoat and pyjamas," she retorted, kissing him back. "Even marriage to the Yard will not cure her from being socially correct." She held his head in her hands, her gaze searching his, and then kissed him again, and he felt a wordless question, though he could not frame an answer. Except, perhaps, through his kiss.
It seemed to suffice. She smiled as she let him go, and he said, "Feeling more the thing today? Or two things, should I say?"
She laughed a little at the sally. "I thought I had better get back to my book." She patted the neat piles at her side: original and carbon copy. "It's cruel to leave my chief witness stuck for weeks on that muddy road with that spy concealed in the boot."
"How cruel you authors are," he observed, regarding the discarded carbons. "I should not like to fall into one's toils. Except yours. You may put me in your book, if you like. You may do anything you wish with me--how is that for reckless abandon?--so long as I may be a trifle taller, and oh, twenty years younger. You might also shorten my parrot's beak if you would be so good." He tapped his nose significantly.
"But then you would be so much less interesting. The world is full of tall men with short noses and all the callowness of twenty-five. If I do all that, in order to keep you interesting I very much fear I shall have to make you the villain."
"Better a villain than the hapless subject of Phaedrus's fox."
"Phaedrus's fox?" she asked, as he plucked up the top sheet of her carbon paper, and held it to the light.
He lowered the paper. "'Personam tragicam forte vulpes viderat. O quanta species,' inquit, 'cerebrum non habet!' Dear Harriet. I encourage you to be profligate with these carbon papers." He ran a long finger over the pale stripes where the blue ink had been typed away. "This one is so used the copies must be faint as invisible ink. And you know that just invites the imps of mischief to lose your originals."
"Old habit," she said. "Personam tragicam--the mask of tragedy? Ah yes, I have it now. 'A fox who saw a tragedian's mask said, 'It's beautiful but it has no brains.' "
"I will not give up my brains." Peter slid his arm through hers. "You will have to make me the villain."
She smiled at his absurdity, but a deep inner pang reminded her that absurd he might be, but he was never frivolous. Her eyes met his in a quick, searching glance as she said lightly, "What villainous acts did you commit this day?"
"Why none, as it happens--communing with Bishop Ken--but the villainy would be in retailing it. Who was it who said that we can forgive bores, but we cannot forgive those we discover have let us be boring?"
"Communing with--ah," she exclaimed as they stopped outside her dressing room door. She chuckled, then rapidly quoted the good bishop's words as written for the benefit of Winchester College's scholars: "Awake my soul, and with the sun/Thy daily stage of duty run/Shake off dull sloth and joyful rise/To pay thy morning sacrifice. Oh dear. Why is it that good, honest sloth is so underappreciated--in others?"
It was that chuckle that unmanned him. He folded her into his arms and pressed his face into the curve of her neck. "Tombe aux pieds de ce sexe a qui tu dois ta mère," he murmured, and as the knocker sounded below, he freed her. "Duty calls--again."
She listened to his footsteps rapidly descend the stairs, then stepped inside her dressing room. While her maid drew her bath she pressed her fingertips lightly over her mid-section, which had begun to thicken, than ran her hands up to her shoulders, arms crossed over her front. For a time she stood thus, holding herself tightly, as she looked inward at the kernel of doubt that she had harbored, and now acknowledged--to watch it wither away to ash. "Tu dois ta mère," she whispered. This was the man who was supposed to be committing adultery in full view of the streets of London? The man she had held, shivering, while the execution of justice was carried out?
No, and no.
What remained was to discover who wished her to believe it--and why.
The next Wednesday found her at the back of the Trafalgar Café, watching unseen through the waiters' access. Some money and a sprightly story about being a newspaperwoman writing about the coming places for modern café society had gained the goodwill of the café owner. She would have to see the story written, of course, but Miss Climpson would know how to arrange that.
The café was mostly a huge room, decorated with nautical details in the art deco mode. Presently a young woman arrived, sitting down at the table Miss Climpson had described, directly before the big picture window. She was tall, with long legs, her features angular but attractive. Harriet took in her frock, which was smart without being garish--indicative of a young woman with more taste than means. So, Harriet thought, I probably looked ten years ago.
Peter arrived minutes later, sitting down across from her. At once the two heads, dark and fair, bent over something on the table, and so the luncheon went. Harriet, watching both, remained uncertain how to react until the very end, when Peter at last paid for the lunch and then took his leave, and the sad hunger in the young woman's face sent snow-melt through Harriet's veins.
The young woman then jumped up, shoved some papers into a capable bag, picked up her gloves, and whisked herself out the door.
Harriet retreated, waved to the distracted owner (for the luncheon crowd was at its height) and ducked out the back, angling down a jumbled alley then under an old archway. She emerged onto the street moments before the omnibus roared up, squeaking to a stop.
Harriet hastened forward, joining the queue; she was still not certain what she was going to do, but so far, instinct led and she followed.
Instinct directed her up inside the bus, down the aisle--and straight to the empty seat beside the young woman. Harriet sat down. Whereupon instinct abandoned her before the young woman's penetrating stare.
"Oh dear," Harriet said. Her voice had gone dry. She cleared her throat to speak.
But the young woman forestalled her. "I do know you. That is, I recognize you." She added in a wry voice, "Lady Peter Wimsey, I presume?"
"You have the advantage of me."
"My name is Meteyard. I take it you saw me with--"
It was Harriet's turn for enlightenment. "Ah! The advertising house."
Miss Meteyard's thin face coloured despite her best efforts. But she drawled with a brave assumption of savoir faire, "That tells you where, but not why. Despite what it must look like, I can explain."
"What it looks like," Harriet said, "is that my husband has gone out of his way--with your full cooperation--to meet in as public a place as possible. No doubt a short bus ride from your place of business, far enough so that you run less risk of encountering your fellows, but close enough for you to come and go on your lunch break. He never comes or goes with you. To me, it appears the both of you have strained every nerve to conduct as publicly as possible a perfectly legitimate bit of business. But to someone else it appears--or perhaps gives the convenient impression of something else."
At the words something else Miss Meteyard's face coloured more deeply. But she did not speak as Harriet took from her handbag the envelope with the anonymous letter and handed it to the younger woman next to her.
Miss Meteyard pulled out the letter, glanced rapidly down it, then drew in a short, hissing breath. "You too?"
Harriet had, in the week she'd waited, imagined every eventuality but this one. "Me? Too?" she repeated witlessly.
"Mine are ash," Miss Meteyard said. "Or I'd produce 'em. But I can assure you. There have been two of them. Written on impot paper, same cheap blue ink, same letters. The gist is much what you could be forgiven for surmising."
"When did the first one come?"
"I don't remember with any exactness. Except that it was after I began meeting Lord Peter at that café. Which was his suggestion, by the way--the means are rather steep for me. He said it is so public, and so popular, it would shroud us in respectability. Apparently even he makes mistakes."
Harriet frowned. "Never mind what the public think. What I don't understand is the thinking behind this note. Apparently I was to discover the two of you. And then what, go into a rage? Divorce him? But if so, why would you get letters?"
Miss Meteyard's mouth twisted sardonically. "Perhaps mine was meant to send me into such a flutter I'd demand to meet in private."
"So you could be discovered with him, is that it?" Harriet surmised. "Then--the target is not really you, or I, so much as--"
Miss Meteyard steepled her fingers. "Your husband."
"Bringing the question straight back to 'who' and 'why'?" Harriet sighed. "What kind of thinking would have me demanding a divorce, and you demanding secrecy?"
"I cannot imagine either of us being that stupid. Oh hell, my stop is next."
"I wish there was more time--there is someone I would like to introduce you to who wishes to help in this matter. But my Miss Climpson is on the other side of town."
"Regard me as willing but unable. Mr Hankin is a kindly old soul, and doesn't jibe at five minutes here or there, but he's likely to kick over the traces at half an hour or more."
Harriet frowned at the back of the driver's head as he slowed behind a traffic clot.
Miss Meteyard said with an ironic tip of her head, "In my turn, may I ask why you don't lay your letter before Lord Peter? I'd scorn to display my own problems before--any man I might be interested in, but my scruples would not extend past a marriage vow."
Harriet wondered at the hesitation, but forbore asking. She shook her head. "Because it would wound him so, I think, that someone would take aim at him through me. Not on his own behalf, you understand. He is sadly accustomed to potshots of various types. But at the prospect of its hurting me, especially--"
She stopped, her face warming, and Miss Meteyard gave an understanding nod. The sardonic quirk to her eyes and her smile was still there, but there was no hint of malice: amused she might be at the carnival of human life, but she did not wish either Harriet or Peter ill, Harriet was certain, and she sensed that were circumstances otherwise, this woman and she would be friends.
Miss Meteyard said, "I will assume one of those perfectly normal conditions that fond spouses will take into their heads have suddenly rendered their wives more delicate than the swooniest Victorian heroine."
"You are correct. I will tell him at once if there is a hint of anything more sinister or deliberate, but until then, I would far rather solve the matter on my own." Harriet hesitated, then added as Miss Meteyard handed the note back, "Though I have living experience with only a couple of my husband's cases, I do work on detective novels, and so have the habit of working at mental puzzles."
"I know your novels. The Sands of Crime is rather a favourite of mine." Miss Meteyard gave her a curious, fleeting look of pain, more grimace than smile. "As a matter of fact, that is why I am meeting with your husband, and I salute your heroic restraint in not demanding my business. He did offer to introduce me to you, so that I might ask my questions of you, but--" She shrugged her angular shoulders. "I thought it would be the worst sort of presumption as we'd never met and here I was setting up to rival you in your own trade. I was afraid you would feel obliged on his behalf, without wanting the least to be bothered, which was too sickening to consider. But the truth is, I don't think I can stick a lifetime of extolling the non-existent virtues of Twentyman's Teas and Boruber's Baby Biscuits. At Somerville I used to scribble plays that went over well, and at Pym's they keep telling me I'm funny enough to write a book. So I'm taking them at their word. I thought a detective novel with a comedic element might go over. I'm finding it a damned hard go, by the bye, even with your husband's help at plotting and threading the mazes of police work. My admiration for you and the others of your tribe has increased exponentially."
Harriet remembered that glance of longing the young woman had sent at Peter's back--she was beginning to suspect that the Peter was to Miss Meteyard more a symbol than a man. But she only said, "What did you call this type of paper?" Harriet tapped her handbag.
"Impot paper. I take it you did not have brothers. When they're punished they either get caned or they write lines, or impositions."
"I was educated at home," Harriet said. "Until I went to Oxford."
"Shrewsbury, wasn't it? I was at Somerville, but I had chums at Shrewsbury," Miss Meteyard said, and Harriet realised that she'd probably read the newspapers at the time of her marriage, which had included far too much detail about her life. Her father being a country doctor had been among the less sensational details that had been aired in newsprint. "I went to a boarding school, but we had to memorize suitable poems for punishments," Miss Meteyard said. "It's only the boys who copy out pages of Thucydides and Virgil."
"Is this paper exclusively used at schools, then?"
"N-no, I shouldn't think. It's probably used widely. We get paper from our clients, or we might be using it ourselves," Miss Meteyard said. "But I recognized it from my brother's trunks when he came down each vac." She looked up. "Here's my stop. Look, Lady Peter, I would like to be in at the kill, but I don't see how I can be of any help. But if anything does occur, or I get more of those damned letters--"
"Write to me," Harriet said.
"And in your turn, you can write to me care of Pym's, as my landlady tends to leave her tenants' correspondence in a heap for anyone to rifle through." Miss Meteyard flicked her gloved hand at the stone edifice across from the bus stop.
Harriet began to thank her but the words were lost in the roar of the omnibus slowing. A quick shake of her hand. Miss Meteyard moved swiftly to the door, and was gone.
"What is it, dearest, are you ill?" Peter asked several days later.
His concern made Harriet hasten into words. "No, no. I am fine. Regaining an appetite at last. It's just that--"
She hesitated. Too many clashing and clanging bells in her brain: the novel, which was horridly stuck, a hurried conversation on the telephone with Miss Climpson that day. True to her word, Miss Climpson had seen to the write-up of the café for the newspapers, giving a false identity that they had employed before; but at the close of the conversation Miss Climpson had said, Where are my wits gone begging? My point being, I knew I had seen that paper before, and there it was, in a wire basket for everyone's use, at the main desk, where the journalists hand in their work for the typists-- And then Peter had come in, forcing Harriet to close the conversation in a hurry.
Peter brushed her hair back from her face, the light, tender gesture diminishing the strain of which she had until then been scarcely aware. "I know. It's that a dose of Helen can unsettle the strongest stomach. But since we're abandoning her Christmas Eve parade in favor of Shrewsbury's hallowed halls we have to bow down to mammon today."
Harriet hated to say anything at all about her sister-in-law. She was too sensitive to the Mrs Grundy whispers that trailed her like moaning ghosts whenever she was in the presence of the Duchess of Denver; the irony of gossiping about how much she hated someone who, she knew quite well, gossiped about her made her avoid the subject as much as possible.
So Peter said it for her. "I fully realise that Helen's martyrdom to the cause of family amity makes the prospect twice as repellent. Will it help to know that my mother telephoned last night in a sad voice to report that her sore throat, alas, faded away?"
Harriet chuckled. "I'm glad she will be there. Gives me someone to talk to."
"Oh, never fear. I have reason to believe there will be at least one real person among the stuffed shirts in Helen's showcase. I'll introduce you."
Bunter arrived then, knocking to say that his lordship's bath had been drawn, and so Peter left her to get ready. Harriet sighed, staring with no enthusiasm at the exquisite velvet gown Worth had made for her. She was aware that, despite her general lack of interest in haute couture, there had been a time in her life when a gown from Worth would have seemed a dream impossible to achieve. But now Worth's house and the fittings, and the snatches of drawling, poisonous gossip she caught going to and from those elegant dressing rooms, all reminded her of the Duchess of Denver. Harriet never put on Worth gowns except when socially engaged with the Duchess, because she would never let down the side by appearing in anything but the best. The Duchess could--and did--criticise her face, her form, her voice, her conversations and interests, but she would never have the slightest fodder in her appearance or manners.
She grimaced at the gown, which had been tastefully designed to hide her middle. Ten years ago, everyone had dressed in straight-sided flapper sheathes. Now the gowns were cut on the bias, draping over one's shape--just as she was losing hers. So much for fashion!
Bunter had the car waiting for them when they descended arm in arm. They did not drive directly to the mansion, but made a short detour to collect the Dowager Duchess. But Mayfair is not large, and too soon for Harriet they were pulling up before the old-fashioned great house, gathering as much attention as possible with its striped awning, crimson carpet, and festival plants in pots set out to frame the elegant arrivals. The Duchess might insist that the fuss was due her guests, but the truth was, she liked the world knowing when she was entertaining a select gathering of society's best--because the rest of the world was not invited, but left to look on in envy.
Peter entered with his mother on one arm and his wife on the other. At the door there was the usual little flurry to surrender their wraps, and then on up to where the Duchess, with her Duke being picturesque but silent behind her, waited to be gracious.
Harriet had learnt that the Duchess uttered either the right words in a faint, acidic tone, or barbed words in a sweet voice. Her minim of the Duchess's welcoming attentions fell into the latter category. "You do not look well, Harriet, dear. Really, you should not have come at all if you are ill--no one would demand such a sacrifice from you."
Harriet ignored the tone and answered the words as if they had been meant, her calm politesse earning a firm hand-press of approval from Dowager Duchess. They were conducted down the halls to the brilliantly lit rooms, handed off from footman to footman as if they had been packages. Inside the double-width formal drawing room they discovered most of the rest of the guests standing about in small clusters, drinks in hand and diamonds discreetly twinkling in the reflected light of the chandelier.
"No sign of Mirabelle. It always amazes me how unerringly Helen can gather about her precisely the people one least wishes to see," the Dowager Duchess murmured at Harriet's side as Peter guided them through the little knots of guests from whom chatter and well-bred laughter radiated. "And she knows my old friend Mirabelle is not afraid of her in the least."
Above the well-bred hubbub tinkled a familiar laugh, its effect like a shower of ice slivers.
Peter's voice lightened to little more than a sigh. "Caelum, non animum, mutant, qui trans mare currunt. Ah, just who I wanted. Ladies, I shall leave you here."
He established Harriet and the Dowager Duchess in a pair of chairs next to one of the enormous windows overlooking the garden terrace. Then he was off, smiling to the right, dropping a word of greeting to the left, until his tailored, fair-haired figure was lost from view.
As they sat down a waiter appeared, offering champagne and cocktails on a silver salver. The Dowager took champagne; after a hesitation Harriet did as well, though the smell of it made her inwards lurch again, and she held the glass just to have something to do with her hands.
The Dowager sipped, then nodded her approval. "Gerald did inherit his father's good palate. My, if these gowns drop any lower in the back, the dressmakers ought to charge only for a skirt's worth of fabric. I can count every single knob on Dalilah Snype's spine--and I really wish I couldn't. What was that Peter said?"
Harriet smothered a laugh as the oblivious Mrs Snype undulated past, drawing three men in her wake as she gestured broadly with her cigarette holder, diamond bracelet glittering on her thin, silk-gloved arm. "It's from Horace. 'They change their sky, not their soul, who run across the sea.' That's the gist of what he said, but I cannot tell you why."
"Ah," the Dowager said wisely, nodding once. "Shark infested seas."
Harriet's quick smile came and went, a warm gleam among the cold glitters. "He said once, before my first visit here, that I ought to ask you about the sharks." But in those days I was afraid to ask.
"Sail with the care of the raft through shark-infested waters," the Dowager said, eyes distant in memory. "How odd it is, that, unlike the real thing--which I do trust I shall never encounter--the teeth and bites were always easier if, afterward, one could name each shark. Somehow it lessened the effect of their bites, though why that should be, I couldn't say. Maybe those Germans like that Dr. Freud could tell us. Peter was quite young--it was before the War, you see--we always used to sit together with hot cocoa after a party and count up all the sharks. And so, even if someone had been deliberately cruel, he would go off to bed laughing. He must be rescuing someone from a shark right now."
Sure enough, he returned with a tall young man in tow. Pleasant face, good manners--and an impressive title, Harriet thought as Peter introduced them, yet the young man wore a faintly apologetic air. Once they'd shook hands, uttering the words one utters, Peter made all clear with, "You'll recognize his name once I tell you he used to be a mere Mr Ingleby back when I was a mere Mr Bredon, fellow cogs in the Pym gear box."
Ingleby laughed a little, and Harriet's polite smile widened into the warmth of hopeful friendship. "Mr Ingleby! The Trinity man who was quite decent with a bat," she said, which drew a more genuine laugh out of the young man. "My husband is fond of cricket, as you know, and I still remember his description of the famed Brotherhood game."
"Infamous game," Peter corrected, after a quick glance around at the unheeding guests. "From which, as I unfondly recall, I was hauled away in manacles."
A few more words of chatter and then came the faint, plaintive voice of her grace, which doused the little glow of fellowship from the conversation as effectively as a bucket of water.
The Duchess appeared with a cool flash of emerald green on hands and breast, uttered a politeness to the Dowager, then turned to Peter. "Come, it is quite unforgivable to hide here with those you see every day. I need you to talk to the American Ambassador--Lady Tewkes-Thaugh is trying to get him to understand something or other in French, but I . . . over there . . . Lord Repton, I trust you have everything you need? Permit me to introduce you around . . ." She took the former Mr. Ingleby's arm with a proprietary gesture and led him away to where the tinkling laugh rose above a cluster of high titles.
Harriet was reflecting on the wide varieties of laughs--how this one could convey so complete a lack of humour--when the Dowager whispered, "Poor young fellow! She's flinging him to that dreadful Sylvester-Quicke gel." She steered Harriet behind the broad back of a retired Admiral who was holding forth on the merits of Italian versus French wine to an audience of fixed smiles and clutched drinks. "I have quite determined that she's La Reine du Salon--the soi-disant queen of that horrid Sunday gossip column. Rapporteuse, more like it. But Peter will not permit me to trap her."
The mention of the Sunday gossip columns brought back a vivid, painful memory: it had been that column that had not just resurrected Harriet's notoriety from six years before, but had managed to intimate, very cleverly, that she had taken a high titled lover after murdering poor Philip, thus insuring her judgement as innocent before the court of inquiry. Harriet winced. "You think she writes those things? But I thought--"
"You thought a woman of birth would scorn to write for a newspaper, and a common gossip column at that--for what is her 'queenship' but the airing the dirty linen of people of rank?" the Dowager said. "Who else could, except someone who has access to all the parties? Especially Helen's," she added rather crisply. "Those two have always been thick as thieves, clear back when they were terrorizing that obnoxious boarding school as Head Girls. You note that Helen's Good Works never fail to get mention. Which I suppose is all right in itself, for the Good Works at least get done. My point is, Helen tried her very best to get Peter for Amaranth. No, that's not my original point. I lost myself. The gossip column. Yes. For all those airs and graces, she is paid to dig up dirt. How else can she afford that gown from Paris she's wearing right now, when everyone knows that the Sylvester-Quickes haven't two pennies to rub together? Her father lived on Expectation, but his uncle, a bachelor all his life, turned up married at age seventy, and produced an heir. Which goes to prove," she finished in satisfaction, "that there is justice in the world."
Harriet smothered a laugh. "If she does write those horrid things, how would you trap her into revealing it?"
"Oh she would never reveal it on purpose. Sooo lowering." The Dowager plunked her champagne glass down on a passing tray. "As for my clever trap? You and darling Peter are clever at detecting, but that does not mean everyone cannot. His gifts have to have come from somewhere, you know. I had thought I would let drop, quite casually, something eminently false--like the Denvers being invited over to Germany to meet that horrid new Chancellor, Himlet, or Hitlim, or whatever his name is--"
"Hitler? I believe Himmler runs his private army."
"Well if they all insist on using outlandish names that sound the same, how do they expect one to tell them apart? Anyway, I'd let it drop, and see if it gets published. Then, when the truth comes out, I'd say, oh, I misheard, it must have been the Henleys--who do actually invite Gerald to hunt every season, and who could blame a dotty old woman for mistaking one name for another?" The Dowager's face brightened with the quick, sidelong smile that was so much like Peter's, and Harriet felt a rush of affection. "The added pleasure would be how very chagrined Helen would be if such a rumour circulated round. These Germans are not at all the thing, you know. I don't mean their politics--Helen would not care a jot for that--but they all seem to be gangsters. Peter said that Hitlim is a house-painter, or was before he ended up in gaol. If Mr. Chancellor Himlit had been born Kurfurst Hohenzollern, he might do what he liked with Germany, and Helen would beg for an invitation to his chalet. Hello, there is Bracket, it must be time to line up at the trough, as my dear husband used to say. Helen hates that, too," she finished with satisfaction.
It was indeed the announcement for dinner, and Harriet gladly set aside her untouched champagne. With smiling assurance the Duchess of Denver maneuvered her husband into offering his arm to the senior ranking lady there to lead the way, which gave her the exquisite dilemma of choosing between two royals. Peter had been dragooned into walking someone else in, leaving Harriet to find her own partner. Harriet glimpsed Peter ahead of her, glancing around the table with the swift, smiling assurance of intent.
The new Lord Repton emerged from the gathering crowd, his smile and his straight path making his intent clear before he offered his arm to Harriet, as an elderly Parliamentarian claimed the Dowager and brought her forward in line, chatting with the comfort of very old acquaintance.
"This is the second one of these things I've ever been to," Repton muttered sotto voce to Harriet. "I usually duck them, but Peter insisted I come--face the firing squad without a blindfold, he said."
They each gave quiet exclamations of relief when they discovered from the name cards that they were to sit next one another.
As Lord Repton seated Harriet, she wondered how Helen Denver could have made such an error: hitherto her dinner partners at the Denvers' were invariably either spotty young men who ignored her or older men who sneered with well-bred innuendo that Harriet found twice as insulting as the honest leer of a labourer on the street. A quick glance showed the Duchess frowning in puzzlement, and Miss Sylvester-Quicke giving an angry, pinched look at the table then at Helen before moving away from the chair--next to Peter, Harriet realised--where she had apparently expected to be seated.
Miss Sylvester-Quicke took her place between an old Colonel who, quite deaf, had only two interests: his dinner and his horses, and a young and callow Honourable whose braying laugh as he seated her made several people in his vicinity wince.
Harriet's gaze flicked to Peter, who quite solemnly took his place between a staid married woman and the divorcee Mrs Snype, who was busy making eyes across the table at a wealthy and titled recent widower. Harriet did not dare meet Peter's gaze; she felt the ire of the Duchess, and turned her attention with relief to young Saint-George, who--oblivious to his mother's disapprobation--flung himself into the chair at Harriet's other side, chattering cheerfully across the table to the Callow Honourable about his new roadster.
While the servants paraded in with the silver dishes and began the orderly business of serving the food, the Duchess glanced down her table. Yet another of the long, tiresome duties for which no one ever thanked her, and really, how could Peter get away with it? Of course he changed those name cards--and of course Gerald would never dream of calling him on it. She sent a venomous glance at her block of a husband there at the head of the table. So Peter got away with yet another piece of criminal meddling. Really, he quite deserved to be shackled to that frightful murderess scribbling her penny-dreadfuls. The question was, why did Amaranth still want him? Probably it was just because she couldn't have him--she'd always got what she wanted when they were girls, one way or another. Helen glanced at that sharp, angry face, and sustained a moment of uneasiness. Amaranth had always had a cruel streak. But then, if she exercised it on Helen, she had to know that the invitations would stop. So that was all right.
As the first course was handed round, the Duchess firmly turned her attention to the elderly royal at her right, signaling the conversational shift. She uttered the inanities of the dinner table with the ease of long practise as her mind assessed the dinner. She prided herself on being smart--on knowing the exact line between being modern and adhering to the traditions expected of People of Rank. Modernity could be so dangerous, especially with respect to those nice distinctions of Rank. She'd made it clear that the dinner was to follow tradition, as expected of people of breeding . . . only what was the use of confining her horrid brother-in-law to his partners (one of whom ought to have been Amaranth) when her cards had been all upset? From now on, she vowed, whenever they were forced to invite Peter and that black-browed gaol bird--look at her flirting away with Repton, really, despite his birth and new honours the taint of the shop was ineradicable--she would inspect the table directly before Bracket was sent to the salon, no matter how troublesome it would be. Although, as usual, no one would thank her for her extra trouble . . .
Harriet confined herself quite correctly to the gentleman at either side. After an easy chat with Saint-George, who effused with the terrifying energy of the very young about aeroplanes and flying lessons, she turned to her other partner, whom she was used to thinking of as Mr Ingleby.
Peter. She remembered her husband exclaiming in exasperation shortly after their marriage, during the time when the boundaries come down opening each's experience to the other, that for the stupidity of rank Peter would have left Pym's having gained a friend. When I was a mere Mr Bredon there was no problem. The intrusion of the 'lord' before my name, and Ingleby rejected me for my own sake. Foolish humanity! If we all stood at a wall dressed alike in the monk's robe, who is then the duke and who the drayman? But give a man a title, be him ever so humble, it's the ones around him that shove him away, investing him with an elevation that takes him beyond simple human friendship.
Now that the ranks had evened up, Peter had gained his friend, at least. Trusting to the chatter at either side, Harriet encouraged the new lord to talk about his sudden change in estate. He was nothing loth.
" . . . my great-uncle was a sad old rip. His son died in the Great War, so my cousin lived on the expectation, though he'd begun to run into serious debt as the years went by. My great-uncle--despite a life of excess--looked like living to see two hundred. But quite unexpectedly last April a state dinner finally did him in. My cousin promptly got himself engaged to the Right Girl, but made the mistake of wanting a last fling at the bachelor life before delivering himself to Hanover Square for duty. Took his yacht out, along with two friends and half a dozen cases of liquor apiece, and somehow or other managed to drown all three of them during a storm. And so one night last spring I went to bed a mister, living in lodgings and labouring each day to sell the public on the benefits of Cadgett's Colic Cure, and woke up a lord with four houses, a stable of racers, thirty-five servants, and a recovered yacht that I will never set foot on."
Harriet, listening closely for cues, murmured, "What an extraordinary story. I don't know whether to congratulate or commiserate."
He gave a humourless little laugh. "Truth? A bit of both. Not that I shed any tears over my cousin, who anyone will tell you, was even worse than his grandfather. I, ah, thought to stop on at Pym's--I rather liked the place, if not the work--but damned if the chaps did not act as if I had collared the crown jewels. I began to understand Peter's chagrin when I turned down his invitation to a country cricket match a year or so ago, when I thought I'd just be a burden to his lordship. Finally Pym himself called me in, and in the most apologetic way possible, gave me the sack."
"Word of honour. So . . ." His gaze slid away. "There were--reasons--I'd wanted to stop on, but it was no go."
"Forgive my impertinence--you needn't answer--but had those reasons to do with any thing, or any one, outside of Codgett's Cures and the like?"
Repton's fingers twirled his wine glass as he cast a single, searching look into Harriet's face. "You'd know," he said suddenly. Then he turned his head. "Damned right--I beg pardon--may I trouble you for some advice when we're not surrounded?"
Harriet said ironically, "Advice is the easiest of things to give," and saw a corresponding flash of humour in his expression. "For what it is worth, I will do my best."
So absorbed were they in the conversation, they were not aware of anyone else, such as Peter watching benignly--or Miss Sylvester-Quicke's puzzled animosity. The Duchess of Denver's gaze wandered down the table as the royal at her left nattered on about Ascot, stopping on Repton's head bent toward the Horrible Harriet. Flirting? Under the eyes of her husband, of course. Really, she was just as bad as Dalilah--who was, at least, better born. What did these idiot men see in her?
Cutting the royal quite short, she signalled the turn, and hoped piously that the tedious woman would refrain from practicing her wiles upon her innocent son.
The party dragged on. Standing about after dinner made Harriet's feet hurt and her head pang. She longed to sit down, at least, but the fine and uncomfortable Louis Quinze chairs had been shifted to the fire where the card tables had been set up, and there Harriet saw the Dowager in the middle of a rubber of bridge. How long would the card game last? She wished she could leave--except she'd promised to hear out Lord Repton. Could either of those things be got round with any grace? Peter could do it. But how to get near him without everyone hearing? For of course he was the centre of a group.
The Duchess was not the hostess to bind together so disparate a gathering, who had nothing in common but money and rank. They had gradually divided into three groups: the old, who claimed the fireside and the card tables; the very young, who had scampered into the billiard room next door, from which high voices and shrill giggles could be heard; thus leaving a mass in the middle roughly comprised of all those not under twenty or over sixty.
Harriet walked round the outer perimeter of the crowd, trying to look past the faultlessly tailored shoulders of a phalanx of men in order to catch her husband's eye. Directly across from him stood Amaranth Sylvester-Quicke, hanging on his every word. Harriet's instinct was to avoid the woman, who in their brief encounters shared with Helen the nasty habit of uttering unpleasantries in a faint, well-bred whine. Discovering that she might be the gossip columnist queen who had aired Harriet's past so wittily at the time of her wedding made her even less desirous of any encounter whatsoever.
But that meant trying to get past these men to catch Peter's eye. He seemed to be the target between what appeared to be four main combatants, all not-quite-arguing international politics.
" . . . came back from the continent with no more liking for the German government than I would trust it," Peter was saying.
"Quite true," Miss Sylvester-Quick put in. "I quite think like you, Peter. They none of them have the least breeding, and it shows."
"The Germans are too yawn-making," Dalilah Snype drawled. "Except perhaps for the Berlin set. That Dr. Goebbels is ever so fun--not the least like a German at all. Some of those parties are too, too scream-making."
"No, no, my lord," a Colonel boomed, galloping over the frivolity of the fair. "With all due respect, you must admit that the Germans are admirable engineers. And their workers don't strike at every turn like ours. Say what you like about their government--I hated the Boche as much as anyone during the War, and my record, I believe, stands open to the strictest scrutiny--but one must bow to facts."
"Correct, sir," insinuated a young government toady hoping to bag a stellar secretaryship. "The Germans are admirably efficient. Admirably. But you were there just last year, my lord," he addressed Peter. "You must admit that the Germans gain the respect of the far-sighted with their industry."
Peter polished his monocle. "If one is to discount a small matter of the Versailles Treaty abroad, and the abandonment of civil law at home, most certainly."
"Oh, laws." Mrs Snype waved, her diamond bracelets rattling. "The idea of Germans and all their hideous rules. But not at the Berlin parties, je vous assure. Too mirth-making!"
"Oh my dear you must introduce us," Miss Sylvester-Quicke put in, adding in the tone one uses when casting a Meaningful Glance. "Parties here have got so boring--anyone is let in—one would think we've gone Bolshie."
Harriet could not see the woman, and wondered who had been the target of her Meaningful Glance. Probably me.
"Oh, Peter, do let's go over there," Miss Sylvester-Quick exclaimed. "What a lark! We could collect Diana Guinness and Oswald Mosley and the rest of that crowd, and travel together. You could perform whatever it is you do, and we would be your cover."
"Too, too fun-making!" echoed Mrs Snype.
The Colonel thundered on past, rampant in military superiority. "At Versailles we left them on their knees," he said, rocking back, thumbs in his waistcoat pockets. "On--their--knees. So they had much to do to rebuild, and anyone who has toured their factories, seen their roads, is left with respect."
"Not respect for civil law," Peter countered gently.
The toady said, with a quick look around for approval, "But they have the highest respect for written law! Why, the Germans are everywhere known for it! The Chancellor is in the process of modernizing their government, which requires vast vision and great changes. Is it not said that you do not bake a cake without breaking some eggs? Who, after all, has been discommoded but a few criminals and Jews? For that matter, are they not one and the same?"
The Colonel led the laughter, from which Peter's light voice emerged: "Les lois sont des toiles d'aragnees a travers lesquelles passent les grosses mouches et ou restent les petites."
A diplomat from France, hitherto maintaining a diplomatic silence, snorted with laughter, as the toady said with an assumption of hearty good-will, "Eh? What's that? I caught something about spiders." And he glanced inadvertently down at the Aubusson carpet.
"Balzac," Harriet murmured without thinking. The Colonel turned a frown of puzzlement on her, causing a shift in the circle. Harriet was left in a little cleared space. She saw Peter smiling at her, and lifted her chin. "Honore de Balzac wrote that in La Maison Nucingen."
A couple of the guests nodded as if they'd just remembered, and others stared with that glassy-eyed blankness peculiar to people who are caught short in their knowledge of the Language of Diplomacy but don't want anyone to perceive it.
The diplomat said with a mild smile, "Translated as Laws are spider webs that catch little flies but let the big ones go. It seems to me that sums up the New Germany quite nicely. Thank you for the observation, my lady." A bow toward Harriet.
A soft sigh of annoyance from the direction of Miss Sylvester-Quicke caused Harriet's nerves to prickle. Then the Colonel, who obviously felt he'd lost his grip on the direction of the conversation, made a little show of recognizing her. "Ah! Lady Peter," he said, with a patently false chuckle. "One might expect a knowledge of those writer chappies from another pen-pusher, what?"
As Harriet made a self-deprecatory gesture, Amaranth Sylvester-Quicke murmured in perfect French, just loud enough to be audible to the little group, "Helas! Les femmes n'ont lu que le roman de l'homme et jamais son histoire."
The Colonel laughed. "I remember that one from school. No one makes a better dig at the ladies than another lady, eh what?" as the toady whispered, "What was that?"
Harriet glanced toward Peter, sensing his silent support just from his smile. But he would not insult her by coming to her defence.
Harriet turned to the toady. "That was, if I am not mistaken, written a full century ago, in Madamoiselle de Maupin, by Theophile Gautier. You could translate it thus: 'Alas, women have read only the novel, not the history, of man.' To which one could retort, Mais non! Elles l'ont ecrite."
The diplomat gave a crack of laughter. "Yes, yes. My wife would agree with you there--and most gracefully they do it, too. Speaking of literature, she is a most devoted admirer of Colette. Do you know her work?"
Harriet smiled. "Who could not love Sens qui savant gouter un parfum sur la langue, palper une couleur et voir, fine comme un cheveu, fine comme une herbe, la ligne d'un chant imaginaire. I admire her as well."
And Peter drew attention by chattering in his Bertie Wooster mode, "That came out just after the war--in the early twenties. La Maison de Claudine. And for those who might one day wish to swot up their French, you could render it thus: Senses capable of tasting a fragrance on the tongue, of feeling a colour at the fingertips, and of seeing, thin as a hair, thin as a blade of grass, the line of an imaginary song."
A little light applause followed, then admiring murmurs. But below the well-bred voices Harriet heard the snake-hiss of another indrawn breath. Because of the shift in the group she now had a clear field of view. She glanced at Miss Sylvester-Quicke, surprising a glare of such venom, such naked hatred, as to take her own breath away.
Everyone else's attention stayed on Peter. The diplomat led the responses, with effortless ease replacing the Colonel as principal man in the circle. Once everyone had aired their views on Colette (or claimed they meant one day to pick up one of her books had they time), he said, "Lord Peter, I compliment you upon your bride, who demonstrates wit as well as beauty."
During the reactions to the translation of Colette Peter had with two seemingly casual steps closed the gap, and slid his arm beneath hers; she discovered she was trembling. That horrible look--why? What had she said to cause such hatred?
Miss Climpson's fluting voice echoed in her ears: and there it was, in a wire basket for everyone's use, at the main desk--
No. Do not jump to conclusions--that is just stupid. Far too easy and convenient. Yet Harriet could hear the woman's suppressed breathing as they walked away, and her neck tightened.
"You'll forgive me," Peter said quietly. "If I cannot resist the impulse to hover. But are you all right?"
"I am quite fine. Merely a draft in the room," Harriet said firmly.
"From that windbag Colonel Thompson. It's men like him who have me half convinced I ought to stand for Parliament."
Harriet's grip tightened on his arm. She knew her reaction had betrayed her, but she said anyway, "Parliament could use your gifts."
"Perhaps one day, when I am old and grey. As for the immediate future, I very much fear that despite fools like our Germanic Colonel who admire Hitler without reserve, war is again in the air. So much," he said, "for the War to end all Wars. But this new one will fall to the younger chaps. It will be the place for us older ones to serve by sharing experience."
Their hands met, clasped and dropped away as Helen appeared at last from the billiard room, a line between her brows that was fast becoming etched there. She ignored Harriet and addressed Peter. "I cannot get those young people into any sort of order. What is wrong with youth today? They will be so fractious when their elders spoil them so abominably. Listen to them, romping like riff-raff in Tottenham Court Road."
Peter looked a question; Harriet nodded slightly, and he smiled. "I will see what I can contrive." And vanished into the billiard room, just as a male whoop issued forth, chased by female chatter.
Helen sighed. "I cannot think where Gerald got himself to. Probably holed in the library again with that tiresome American Ambassador. I know I need not stand upon ceremony with you, Harriet. Do excuse me--" And off she sailed.
Leaving Harriet, as she thought, alone. But when she turned about to seat herself by the window, where she could watch the snow, she started when she found Amaranth Sylvester-Quicke almost directly behind her--close enough for Harriet to smell the unmistakable scent of Shiaparelli's Shocking.
The woman was probably Harriet's own age, the remains of her Monte Carlo tan fading, her person fashionably thin and sleek in her exquisite Greek tunic-gown by Vionnet. Her thin cheekbones were marked with colour that owed nothing to rouge, and her pupils were enormous with tightly-gripped emotion.
Harriet said, watching her eyes, "Correspondence that bears no signature goes straight to Peter."
Miss Sylvester mimed incomprehension, but for all her expression of puzzlement there was no bewilderment in her demeanor, not a hint of real surprise. Only the tension of poised flight.
Snow chilled Harriet's nerves again. After it came a wave of profound disappointment. There was no conspiracy after all, no clever puzzle to be solved with the aid of Miss Climpson and Miss Meteyard--no lurking spies reporting to a sinister master or mistress. Amaranth Sylvester-Quicke herself had probably followed Peter about, while prowling for news.
Harriet said, "There's been a lot of rubbish sent me ever since my trial. It is now routinely handed off to my husband's investigative team at Scotland Yard. They deal with it from there."
Amaranth Sylvester-Quicke could not hide a quick recoil of fear. She endeavoured to cover it over with a jerky shrug of her thin shoulders and a well-bred sniff. "You can spare me the expiation on the details of your . . . trade. I have better things to do than read lurid novels." And made to pass on by.
Harriet did not stop her. But she said softly as the other walked away, "L'art pour l'art est un vain mot. L'art pour le vrai, l'art pour le beau et le bon, voila la religion que je cherche."
Miss Sylvester-Quicke betrayed with a twitch of her head that she had heard. But she did not falter in her step.
Harriet turned her back. Now she did feel ill, caused by the backwash of remorse and a sorrow at so much unnecessary pain. Amaranth Sylvester-Quicke wanted to marry Peter for all the wrong reasons--amorous, perhaps, of his person, and certainly of his possessions, without being the least curious of his soul, or how could she so consistently misunderstand everything he said?
A flurry of noise and voices started at the other end of the drawing room: the coffee things were brought in by a line of white-gloved servants and set on a table. Harriet joined the crowd, was served, and when she turned away, she found Lord Repton at her side, his head at an inquiring angle.
She smiled and led the way across the room. There were no more chairs to be had; the billiard room was now silent, and so they wandered there, and sank gratefully into two large, comfortable chairs that the Duke, usually so mild and compliant a husband, would not get rid of, despite the efforts of his fashion-conscious Duchess.
Harriet was plumbing her small cache of ready social chatter in an effort to find a delicate way to bridge the silence, but Repton said abruptly, "Look. You're a woman."
He was too anxious for Harriet to feel more than the most mild flutter of laughter behind her ribs. She schooled her face into polite blandness.
"You know how they think. At least--damn, I'm in a muddle, and I assure you I've spent the past half hour getting up my words. It's this damned title. There's someone at Pym's who--well, I had nothing whatever to offer before, and for a time I thought her interests were elsewhere." He paused.
Harriet said, "I trust you'll forgive a possible trespass, but are we speaking of a lady? Miss Meteyard, perhaps?"
Repton made a curious grimace. "So your husband noticed, did he?"
Harriet was quick to answer. "Only in the most general sense. When we were young we called that a G.P.--a Grand Passion. He thinks she was in love with the idea of great deeds, and masquerades, and titles, and the high life--she could not have known him as a person."
Repton nodded. "Yes. Barbara--Miss Meteyard--said something of the sort herself. He represented escape from the grind of daily labor. And so I thought I had a chance when I inherited the means to get her away. We get along so well! We have the same sense of humour, we like the same things, and when I fell into the title and all its trappings, my very first thought was that now I could take her away from Pym's and the walk-up flat and give her the sort of life she ought to have. But she won't have me, won't be the beggar maid to the King, she said, with all the gallery clapping or hallooing." He thumped his fist onto the chair of the arm--slopping the coffee in his other hand. "Oh, now look what I've done." He groped inside his dinner jacket for his handkerchief.
Laughing, Harriet pulled hers from the flat little pocket at the side of her gown, and mopped the spill.
Repton said, his kindly face reddening, "I gather--pardon me if I'm wrong--that something of the sort might have got in the way of you and Peter."
"Something of the sort plus a trial for murder," she said drily. "No, don't apologise. Here. I don't know her except from the praise my husband gave her. He thought highly of her wit and her strength. And her sense of honour."
"It's that cursed sense of honour that stands between us now."
"If that is true, then I wonder if you might go ahead and risk some summary action. No, I don't mean sweeping her off her feet in the old-fashion way. A woman with her wit would hate being managed for her own good. But . . . well, what is there to lose if you were to, say, make an extravagant gesture?"
"Like something she would love. Has she ever expressed a wish to do something out of the ordinary? Go somewhere?"
"She once said she dreamed of visiting the Greek isles, just once, during the dead of winter. While England was snowed in, she would be lying in the sun, listening to someone declaim Sapphic verses."
"Why not let that someone be you? Give her a trip. Make it romantic, mysterious, impossible to resist. Pay for it all, so all she needs to do is pack a bag and go. And when she's lying there in the sun, you appear, or declaim the verses from behind a tree or rock. And if she laughs, well, you laugh with her. If she wants to see you, she has only to speak--away from all the avid eyes in London, and the hateful insinuations of the petty-minded."
"But what if I'm wrong? What if she refuses, or worse, she goes, but when I come there she gets angry?"
"Then you are no worse off than you are now, except you're out the money--"
"Damn that," he retorted. "I don't care about the money. Wouldn't have even as a plain mister earning the weekly cheque."
"Well, there you are. Either she storms back to the frigid winter and more Colic Cure, or . . . or you have the warm sun and the blue water as your setting while you work things out. And Pym's gallery are not there--or anyone else."
Repton drummed his fingers on the chair arm. "You almost have me convinced. But I'd feel such a damned fool if--"
Harriet came to a decision. "Before you do, perhaps it would not be considered intrusive if I were to invite the lady to lunch, and tell her the story of a foolish woman who, out of nothing but mistaken pride, nearly ship-wrecked her own life?"
A noise behind them caused them both to look up. In the doorway stood Amaranth Sylvester-Quicke with a peculiar expression on her face, her arms folded tightly across her front, crushing that exquisite gown. Triumph? Behind her crowded the Duchess, several others--and Peter.
Who came forward, smiling brilliantly, monocle winking reflections of the electrical lights in the wall sconces. "I say, there the two of you are! Jolly good show, I hoped you would find one another. Splendid party, eh?"
"Splendid, Wimsey," Repton said, rising. "Couldn't be better. Your wife and I have been sitting here discussing the Greek isles."
"Now that's a notion. Why not take a yacht over there?"
"No yachts," Repton said, raising his hands. "No yachts!"
Peter laughed--and so did two or three others who drifted in to join them--seeing that there was, after all, no scandal, but just another of Peter Wimsey's many friends chattering with his new wife with his obvious approbation.
Mrs Snype turned away in boredom, seeking a thrill somewhere else (preferably from her wealthy widower whom she hoped to accompany her next trip to the altar). Amaranth Sylvester-Quicke tasted the bitter weed of disappointment and left abruptly, counting up the dreary offences of the evening, which would be fashioned into a very witty squib. Art for art's sake. The arrogance! The presumption! But what could be said about Horrible Harriet that hadn't been said before? And so Amaranth Sylvester-Quicke passed into her life's garden, seeing only the weeds, until eventually she crossed through the shadowy wall beyond.
Left were those who had the wit to see what the Dowager saw when she slipped in behind the crowd who had shifted because others shifted, gradually, to this comfortable room, where suddenly the laughter was more natural, the groupings easy on the old, comfortable furniture. They perceived a couple whose generosity of spirit did not extend merely to conscious trust, but transcended the question. Of course one finding the other alone in a room with another man or woman would be sharing the confidence of a friend, and that friendship included both. The last thing the Dowager heard before the slow avalanche of departure, amid the flurries of wraps and purses and umbrellas, was that young Repton whispering to Harriet, "I believe I shall take your advice. Do ask her to tea--whatever you might or might not say about me, I suspect you would be great chums," and Harriet's immediate response, "I think so too."
On Christmas morning, despite a hard frost, there were two figures standing side by side on the roof of Shrewsbury College, overlooking Cat Street. The Oxford towers pointed ghostly fingers heavenward in the pale blue light, the entrancing jumble of turrets, walls, and rooftops uniformly crowned in pristine white. The Cotswolds, coated in light grey shadow, framed the whole.
Despite the defence of coats, hats, gloves, and boots, the wintry air sent its advance guard to chill the flesh, causing the two to press together, Harriet grateful for Peter's strong length, Peter gathering in the resilient curve of Harriet from shoulder to hip.
The world seemed to be asleep, except for a solitary figure here and there, but after all someone was awake and alert: just as the sun's limb peeked over the eastern horizon, rilling out in shafts of molten gold to touch caryatids and crenellations and old chimneys, the ten bells in the New College tower pealed, sending cadenced echoes ringing into the silent world.
He knew, Harriet thought. He knew all along. But this time it was mine to solve, while he watched from the side. And so I have!
Peter's breath clouded white. He looked down, his smile sweet. "Placetne, magistra?"
She gave a joyous laugh, her own white cloud mingling with his. "Placet."