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Christmas at Duke's Denver

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In the early years of her marriage to Peter, Harriet often found herself wondering what she could have done to deserve such outrageous fortune. ‘Happiness’ seemed too small a word to describe her state - one was happy at birthdays, to see people, to help out. Being married to Peter was a fundamental re-arrangement of the world, as if the laws of reality had been re-written at an atomic level just to please her.

Their first Christmas at Duke’s Denver was not one of those times.

“Not too late to back out,” Peter had said as they sped through the frozen country lanes on Christmas Eve morning. Bunter was in the back seat, cradling their gift to the Denvers of a crate of vintage sherry, and the boot of the car was packed tightly with matching, monogrammed luggage that Harriet still struggled to recognise as her own.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Harriet had said, closing her eyes as the Daimler flew round a corner. “Besides, I’m looking forward to seeing your mother. She promised to knit me a scarf.”

“She would. My mother is very good at giving presents. Very well, then, with Bunter as our witness, you’re not allowed to divorce me on account of my relatives. Agreed?”

“Scout’s honour.”

“Bunter?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Excellent. Then onward!”

..

Gerald was in a genial and expansive mood when they arrived, what ho-ing all over the place and beaming indiscriminately at everyone. Saint-George managed to take a moment out from charming all and sundry to kiss Harriet, at which Peter merely rolled his eyes, and the Dowager Duchess slipped deftly through the crowd to embrace them both thoroughly, explaining as she did so that Mary and Charles’s youngest had managed to catch chickenpox and that therefore the whole family would be staying home and that she’d sent Franklin around with bottles of home-made calamine lotion and wasn’t it a good thing that Mary had caught it young from Peter, who’d caught it from the stable-hand’s daughter? Because shingles was horrid.

Helen was in full sail and at her most Helen-like. She said, “Oh, there you are,” when she saw Peter and Harriet arrive, as if they were scandalously late rather than half an hour early for lunch, and proceeded to introduce Harriet to the assorted country neighbours with helpful comments like ‘And of course you know Cousin Amelia’, managing to imply that any lack of knowledge on Harriet’s part was entirely her own fault.

Contrary to her own expectations, Harriet found the various huntin’, shootin’, and fishin’ types remarkably easy to talk to. She asked after the huntin’, shootin’, and fishin’, they asked after the murder-writing business, and everyone agreed that the weather was very fine for this time of year and wasn’t the salmon good, what?

“Ah! So you’re the author woman that Peter married,” said Cousin Amelia. She was terrifyingly hearty, with a tweed suit and weather-burnished face and a deep, husky voice that cut through the hubbub like an axe splitting logs. “Tilly likes your books very much. I suppose you’re always looking at a gathering like this and thinking who’d you bump off if this were a book.”

“Not really,” said Harriet politely, having been faced with this question a few hundred times before, and she was about to change the subject when she caught sight of Helen a few seats away. Helen had the sort of warning, ‘don’t you dare’ expression on her face that Harriet had previously only seen directed at offspring by their parents, and which, as it so often does with children, had the perverse effect of making Harriet decide to do exactly what she was being warned not to do. “I tend to write my books backwards - I start by deciding who the murderer is, and finish with the victim. Makes it much easier to keep everything in order.” This was mostly true. There was one person present who’d make the perfect victim for a murder mystery, but Harriet thought it would probably be poor form to say you’d kill off your hostess, even if it was in some ways a compliment.

“Ah! So you’d be more likely to look round a group of people and say ‘hullo, you’d make a good villain’?” Amelia glanced down the table. “I expect everyone asks you this, don’t they? Want to find out if you think they’d make a good character.”

“Quite a lot of people,” admitted Harriet, cheerfully ignoring Helen’s tight-lipped expression. “I’m never quite sure what they want me to say. Neither’s particularly flattering - murderers have to be awful, obviously, and victims can’t be too nice otherwise the book makes people depressed, so they usually end up being either villains themselves or rather dim.”

“Go on, then, which would you make me? Don’t worry about causing offence - I’ve never taken offence in my life.”

Harriet looked Amelia over and decided that she meant it. “Second-act victim. The person who knows something and tries to tackle the murderer themselves and gets killed off for their troubles, but not without leaving a vital clue for the detective.”

“Good-oh,” said Amelia, looking rather pleased with her proposed fictional death. "Sounds about right."

..

After lunch Peter caught up with Harriet as they exited the dining hall.

“Hullo,” he said, catching her arm by the elbow.

“Hullo.”

“Still in one piece?” The palm of his hand was warm; it really was ridiculous that she should react so to a simple touch to the elbow, the most decorous of joints.

“I think so. Would you like to check?”

Peter stumbled slightly. “Do you know,” he said lightly, when he’d recovered, “I rather think we’re free until tea-time.”

“That’s-”

Harriet didn’t get a chance to finish as Gerald appeared in front of them.

“Peter! Need a word with you. Mind looking over some plans for the estate with me?” He nodded affably at Harriet.

Peter sighed and squeezed Harriet’s elbow in silent apology. “Not at all,” he said, and they departed study-wards.

Harriet was left standing in the main hall in front of a gargantuan Christmas tree, tastefully bedecked with candles and beautiful glass baubles that looked like colourful bubbles of soap, impossibly delicate and shining with reflected candle-light.

“Some of those were old when I was a child,” said the Dowager Duchess. “We lose a few every year to accidents - Jerry’s twelfth Christmas had a particularly high casualty rate, as I recall - but somehow the rest remain.”

“They’re lovely.”

“Yes. Now, Tilly and I are going back to the Dower House for the afternoon to do some knitting. Would you like to come with us and hold my wool?”

“That sounds marvellous,” said Harriet, her eyes flickering unbidden to the closed library door.

“Peter will know where to find you,” said the Dowager Duchess, taking Harriet’s arm and leading her purposefully towards the front door. “He’s a detective, you know.”

..

The Dower House was an oasis of calm, with candles and evergreen arrangements in every room and the smell of cinnamon in the air. The Dowager Duchess and Cousin Matilda settled themselves down in the sitting room with their needles and wool, and Harriet curled up on the sofa opposite them.

“Not that you actually need to hold the wool,” said the Dowager Duchess as she worked on something small and blue and soft-looking, “but Ahasuerus has a tendency to pounce if he thinks no-one’s watching him. I suppose wool twitches in quite an appealing manner, like mice tails, and the primitive part of his brain just can’t resist.”

Underneath the Duchess’s chair, a pair of yellow eyes in a cloud of white fluff regarded Harriet with suspicion.

“I shall watch him with unceasing vigilance,” vowed Harriet, diplomatically not questioning the existence of any non-primitive parts of the cat’s brain. “What are you knitting?”

“Hats for the Arbuthnot twins. So awkward if one gets them muddled up, especially when they’re too young to tell you if you’ve got it wrong. Freddy tells me that they’re putting Sarah in pink and Rebecca in blue, which should make things easier at least until they’re older and decide it’s fun to tease people by switching places, but I expect they’ll have outgrown these by then anyway.”

Harriet regarded the small scrap of knitting suspended between the Duchess’s needles, not much larger than the palm of the Duchess’s hand. “Yes, I expect so. What about you, Cousin Matilda?”

Matilda Wimsey was a plump, fair woman in her early fifties, wearing a flowery silk frock and a pair of gold reading glasses that made her eyes loom large behind them. “Yet another prayer-book cover, I’m afraid. Our vicar is having another drive for our Mission in the Levant, and they do sell well, even though I would have thought all the prayer-books in the village were covered by now, and half the telephone directories as well.”

There was something hypnotic about watching the quick, assured motions of an experienced knitter, fingers moving along the rows in a well-practised rhythm to the clacking sound of the needles. Harriet rested her head on her hand and let her mind drift for a minute, bouncing slowly from thought to thought like a toy boat set floating on a still pond that bounces gently from one patch of mossy bank to another.

“How are we related?” she asked eventually.

“I’m Peter’s third cousin once removed,” said Matilda without pausing in her knitting. “On his father’s side, obviously. And Milly is his second cousin.”

“I see,” said Harriet, and she started thinking idly about inheritance laws, and whether a second cousin once removed would trump a third cousin, and if a mis-identification in the first chapter would be cheating, and whether murder by knitting needle had been done yet.

 

..

With serendipitous timing, Peter floated in just as the tea things were being laid out.

“Hullo, hullo,” he said, beaming round the room and catching Harriet’s eye. Harriet felt herself glow in response, like a stained glass window struck by a sunbeam. “This is rather cosy. What a marvellous thingummy you’re knitting, Cousin Tilly. Harriet, you’re looking very lily-of-the-field-esque - I think I shall join you, if you don’t mind.” And he suited action to word, seating himself beside Harriet on the sofa.

“Hello darling,” said the Dowager Duchess as she put away her knitting. “Did you speak to Gerald?”

“Verily,” said Peter. “All is well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” He dropped one hand to his side where it landed, as if by chance, on Harriet’s stockinged foot. “Have you been having a jolly time with wool and whatnot?”

“I haven’t,” confessed Harriet, trying to ignore the way her heart beat faster as Peter’s fingertips traced her instep. “I’ve just been spectating.”

“She’s been keeping us company and guarding the wool from Ahasuerus,” said the Duchess.

“A noble task,” said Peter gravely.

The Duchess poured the tea and handed round cups and they sat peacefully drinking and chatting in the warm.

“Oh!” said Peter suddenly, and he squeezed Harriet’s foot once more before letting it go. “Knew I’d forget something. Tilly, Milly said to tell you that she’s got a four together for bridge later.”

“Oh, splendid,” said Tilly before turning to Harriet. “I’m afraid we’re getting a bit old for all the dancing.”

“Nonsense,” said the Duchess. “I have it on very good authority that you were still playing at dawn last year, and most of the dancers had gone to bed by then.”

“I did have very good hands,” said Tilly dreamily. “Do you play?” she asked Harriet, a hopeful gleam in her eye.

“Not well.”

“Oh, I’m sure we could-”

“Tilly, darling, not everyone shares your passion,” said the Duchess, coming to Harriet’s rescue like a white-haired knight in shining armour. “You know how tiresome it is when someone can’t keep the bidding straight and it’s not much fun for them either, always losing count of how many trumps have gone and being told off by their partner for leading the wrong card. Have a macaroon.”

Chastened, Cousin Matilda took a macaroon before passing the plate to Harriet. They were coconut, flavoured with lavender and very sweet. Harriet ate two out of sheer sybaritic indulgence.

 

..

When the mantelpiece clock in the sitting room started to chime six o’clock, Harriet glanced up and found that Peter was looking at her. As she caught his eye, or he caught hers, a curious thing happened; the gap between the chimes seemed to widen, stretching out like spun sugar, in denial of modern physics but entirely in accordance with the universally acknowledged truth: that the speed at which time passes is inversely proportional to the speed at which one wants it to pass.

“Goodness, is that really the time?” said the Dowager Duchess. “Which is a silly question, really - I don’t suppose the clock has anything to gain by fibbing and if it was wrong it would be much more likely to be slow than fast, and anyway Mr Barlow winds it every Monday. It has been a lovely afternoon. Tilly, I want you to come and have a look at those shawls and pick one each for you and Milly.”

They departed without much further ado, Cousin Tilly bobbing along in the Duchess’s wake like an acquiescent duckling.

“In all fairness,” Peter said into the ensuing silence, “I did tell you that my mother was very good at giving presents.”

Later, as Harriet sat wrapped in a silk dressing gown brushing her hair in front of the fire, she said, “Your relatives aren’t nearly as awful as you led me to believe.”

“Hm?” Peter sat in unabashedly naked splendour at the head of the bed, smoking a cigarette and regarding the world with a benevolent air. “Oh no, some of them are perfectly acceptable. Usually the more distant ones, worse luck.”

“I do keep getting the family tree muddled. I’d assumed Milly and Tilly were sisters, but apparently they’re not even that closely related.”

“Well, no,” said Peter, sounding faintly scandalised. “I should think not.”

Harriet paused in her brushing to review the conversation, and then to count the number of guests staying at the Dower House and compare it to the number of bedrooms. “Oh!” she said.

“Indeed.”

“Does everyone know?”

“That they’re not sisters? Yes, I expect so.”

The Dowager Duchess must know, thought Harriet, and then, uncharitably: I bet Helen doesn’t.

Harriet hadn’t thought she could be any more content than she had been a few moments before - alone with her love, body humming with satisfaction, she’d had to resist the temptation to curl up and purr. But somehow the small, petty pleasure of being entrusted with a secret, even a relatively open one, tipped her over the edge into bliss.

Outside the window snow was falling in the darkness, blanketing the house in a stilled hush. Having finished his cigarette, Peter began to whistle an old French carol.

Harriet resumed her brushing.