Actions

Work Header

A Touch of Sun

Work Text:

October 1936.

"I really don't understand it." Harriet, Lady Peter Wimsey, looked down at the sleeping child in the cot. The tears she was shedding threatened to fall down and wake him. "I am an intelligent, rational human being. I have managed to get through a murder trial, another murder investigation, and launch my writing career. I am married to a wonderful man, who appreciates me for who I am, and I have in front of me a child who, apart from a slightly odd skin colour, is otherwise well. I should be content. Grateful even. And yet…"

The tears burst forth and she moved quickly away from the cot and fumbled for a handkerchief. The proud grandmamma (the Dowager Duchess) hesitated for a split second, then hurried over and put her arms about Harriet and led her to the small chaise longue at the side of the nursery, where Harriet would sit to feed young Bredon. Normally restrained in her emotions, Harriet was humiliated to find herself bawling her eyes out on her mother-in-law's shoulder, but she couldn't stop.

Five minutes later, the Duchess passed her own handkerchief over, Harriet's being sodden and useless.

"It's no good, Harriet. These creatures cannot be tamed, not by man or beast. They have their own timetables, their own needs. No matter how organised you are, or how determined to do things your way, they will insist on doing it in theirs and nothing you can do will help." She reached behind to the bellpull. "We shall go down to the drawing room and have a good strong cup of tea. And then you should get some sleep. That's the hardest thing about this time – the complete lack of sleep. There's no helping it, and we must do as well as we can."

The nurse came in, and the Duchess relinquished the care of the child as she took over the responsibility for the mother. Ten minutes later, Harriet was sitting on a chair in the drawing room, the tea and some seed cake in front of her, while the Duchess went in search of Lord Peter Wimsey.

She tracked him down to his own study within seconds. "Peter!"

"Oh, hello, Mother. He's quite the specimen, isn't he? Definitely takes after your side of the family, for which we are grateful. Harriet's done rather well." He ran his hand through his hair, then turned back to the single sheet in front of him. "And I've found a rather fascinating puzzle as well. The authorship of this incunabulum is in doubt, and Wally at the Whipple has asked me for some help."

"Peter, if you don't help your wife, then you may well find yourself being forced to eat that piece of manuscript." At this, Peter put down the magnifying glass he had just picked up, and turned back to his mother.

"Is something wrong with Bredon?"

"Bredon is well, apart from a touch of jaundice which afflicts most babies his age. It's Harriet I am concerned about." The Duchess seated herself opposite Peter, her fingers steepled and her face deadly serious.

"But she is coping so very well! I am no expert in babies, of course, but I understood that she was managing everything splendidly. And surely she would tell me if something was wrong."

Honoria shook her head. "She would, if there was something actually wrong. At the moment, everything is right, but Harriet cannot see that. And she does not want to appear to be failing to cope. The expectation on mothers these days, that they should manage a house and a husband and a baby, and in her case, a career as well – she is drowning, and she cannot understand why she cannot breathe underwater."

Peter looked alarmed. "Is the nurse not doing her job? I engaged her on the understanding that she would ease the burden on Harriet. If she is incapable…"

"It's not the nurse, dear. It's Harriet. She's trying to still do it all, and she does not have the skills to let go and let others do some work so that she might rest." The Duchess sighed, and leaned across to pat Peter's hand. "If I might be an interfering old busy-body…"

"I think that by this time, you have earned that right."

"Nonsense. It must be claimed afresh with each new grandchild, if the parent will allow it. But you must take Harriet away, and give her a rest from her books and from her duties here. I know how important they are to her, but just now, she needs to put them aside and concentrate on my grandson. And on herself. They are both equally precious in my eyes." She reached into her pocket, then realised her handkerchief was missing – and then Peter passed her his.

"You always were a wise one, Mother. Shall I tell her, or will you?"

"I would never dream of interfering between a husband and his wife. I shall say my farewells, and then you may arrange with her as you might. Tallboys, I assume?" The Duchess rose, and Peter stood too, leaning over to kiss his mother on the cheek.

"Tallboys. I can continue my research there, and it is only a short journey up the road to Cambridge. Although why I am assisting the enemy, I am not sure…"

"Allies. Cambridge is not the enemy of Oxford, except on the Thames every summer, and it is well past that. Fresh air, country food, and no editors will make Harriet into a new woman in no time." She left at that, pausing only briefly in the drawing room to cajole Harriet into grabbing what sleep she could before the child insisted once more on feeding.

--------------------- xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx ---------------------

Two days later, Harriet leaned back in the old rocking chair that had been set up in the nursery for her at Tallboys. Young Bredon had just finished a huge feed – probably the best he had had in days – and had been handed over to the nurse for changing. She stretched, feeling rested after a good night's sleep, and hauled herself to her feet carefully, the post-natal body still not totally recovered.

Moving gingerly down the stairs, she stopped by Peter's study, where he was once more checking over the parchment with his large magnifying glass. A pair of white cotton gloves made his hands seem almost comical against the dark wood of the desk.

"He'll sleep for a while now." She walked over to the desk and peered at the parchment. "And what is it you're trying to find out? Clues from a sixteenth century murder? The hidden will of Richard the Third?"

"Close enough." He pointed at a section of the manuscript where the printed words had a hand-written addition. "It's a pamphlet decrying the reign of John the Elector of Brandenburg, and how his corrupt rule encouraged his son Joachim to try and get elected as Prince of Mainz. The problem is the age. John died in 1499, and while his son inherited immediately, it's difficult to tell if this was written before or after John's death. This addition, for instance, calls John 'The Fat', and I doubt if someone would have said that before he died."

"But of course, to qualify as an incunabulum, it must have been printed prior to 1500. " Harriet peered at the thick letters. "My German is quite rusty."

"It's in a local dialect too, so sometimes hard to decipher. I am not certain yet whether it is talking of John in the present or past tense, although some of the insults are quite colourful." Peter pointed to another section, where the ink had smudged a little. "And that is not something I would want to be called. It is a good thing you are a respectable married woman to whom I can show this."

"Goodness, yes. Does the author really think it is possible to insert a cat into … no, I must be misreading it." Harriet followed the word, which had been truncated and abbreviated, then split onto the next line. "Do they mean Teil as in general body part, or is the… Oh. The drawing at the side. That is fairly explicit. You're right. I am a respectable married woman and I do not feel the need to read any more." She kissed him on the top of his head, then straightened up carefully. "Nurse has gone into the village for an hour or two, and I thought I might take advantage of your son's slumber to try out my new camera in the orchard. The late apples are a glorious red, and the sun is quite bright still. Is that why you have the curtains closed?"

"I don't dare risk any damage to the document. It's parchment, so quite sturdy, but I am not so sure of how badly the inks would fade." He took off his gloves, and stood to kiss her. "Do tell me how the camera goes. We can ask Bunter to develop the film tomorrow, when he comes up."

"I shall. The folding mechanism is a little tricky, but I think I have it now." She kissed him back, then walked carefully out of the room, as he turned and sat back down with his mediæval puzzle.

--------------------- xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx ---------------------

Twenty minutes later, Peter was standing up in the study, holding the manuscript up to the light bulb, when his deliberations were interrupted by the sound of a baby crying. He shrugged it off, expecting the quick steps of the nurse to remedy the situation, but when the crying continued, he yelled.

"Harriet? Nurse?"

There was a momentary interruption in the cries, then they continued louder than ever.

"Anyone?"

No coherent response. Peter hurried to the nursery, where the three-week-old infant was wailing in a manner that indicated that the end of the world was nigh.

"Hello there, Bredon."

The crying did not stop.

Peter put the manuscript down on the table beside the rocking chair, and stripped off his gloves, before carefully lifting the precious bundle that was his firstborn. He had done so before, but only under the careful supervision of qualified professionals, such as his wife. This was the first time he had lifted the baby by himself, and he supported his son's head with great dexterity as he brought the child out of the cot. The movement did not help, though, and Peter tried to think what could possibly work now.

Cradling the child in his arms, he started strolling around the room, crooning softly. This slowed the crying a little, but not completely.

"Bother."

Peter looked around wildly for inspiration, and spotted the chair. Gently seating himself in it, (no mean feat with his arms around a small and fragile infant), he settled his son back so that he had one arm free and could stroke Bredon's head as he started to rock and croon at the same time.

Bredon started to calm down, and opened his eyes to peer up at his father.

"Hello again, son. I see your eyes are threatening to remain blue. This is a good thing."

Bredon stopped crying altogether, but when Peter did not continue with the vocalisation, the tears recommenced.

"Now, now, my lad. I don't believe we should be trying to conduct a conversation at this level, do you?" Peter leaned back a little, and almost jumped as he felt the chair rock back. The movement seemed to suit Bredon, who slowed down the crying once more. Peter started the chair rocking gently back and forth; Bredon's cries quietened down to a sob, still forlorn enough to incite similar feelings in Peter, who was beginning to panic a little.

"I don't believe we have this one cracked yet, Bredon. Is it my voice you need?" The cessation of the sobbing gave Peter the answer. "Then I shall continue to talk to you, giving you the absolute piffle your mother says was the reason she married me. I don't believe her, by the way, but a gentleman should not contradict a lady in the matters of the heart. Or at least not this one."

Bredon's eyes continued looking up curiously at Peter, although on later reflection Peter thought it might be just his own desperation reflected by the infant. "Then I shall rock you and read to you, son of mine. It is time, after all, that I imparted to you some of the wisdom I have collected over time. See here?" He picked up the manuscript and held it where both he and Bredon could see it. "I think I have finally deciphered the exact arguments against the appointment of Albert of Mainz as the Prince-Bishop of Halberstadt. You see, the author obviously had a very close relationship with John…" Continuing with the rocking, Peter spoke in a low authoritative voice, watching his young son's eyelids drop slowly until he was sure the child was asleep.

He stopped the rocking, and attempted to get up, but the change in the movement disturbed Bredon, who reawakened and began crying again.

"All right. Shall we go back to the reasons why Albert Achilles was appointed in the first place?" Peter sighed with frustration and settled back in the chair, rocking and reading as his son slowly settled back into sleep.

--------------------- xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx ---------------------

Some time later, Harriet came up the stairs to the nursery and was surprised to see the door open. Peering inside, she beheld the sight of her lord and husband fast asleep in the rocking chair, one hand very safely around their son who was also still sleeping, and the other holding the manuscript, his dangling arm keeping it just off the ground. A ray from the lowering sun had crept under the blind and was illuminating the scene gloriously.

The temptation was too great. Harriet still had the camera in her hand, and it was the work of a moment to unfold it, line up the shutter, and capture the scene for posterity.

As she had expected, the click of the two-levered shutter was enough to rouse her husband, who opened his eyes and raised one eyebrow at her. She put the camera down, and crept over to him, taking the sleeping child from her husband's arm.

"Is he…"

"Shhhh." She carried the baby over to the cot and laid him down, tucking him in gently. The parents looked over the sides of the cot at the tiny form, then crept out and shut the door gently behind them.

"His skin colour is much improved." Peter had his arms around Harriet, as she straightened his collar and pushed his hair back into place.

"The sunlight does wonders for that. That, and time, and feeding. Shall we see if dinner is almost ready?"

"Let us."

--------------------- xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx ---------------------

Bunter's arrival the next day was greeted with exclamations of delight. He had left Hope in town, as she was feeling the first unpleasant symptoms of her own pregnancy, but had all his own photographic equipment in the expectation of making a study of the older village buildings. Harriet approached him about developing her own film.

"I would be pleased to, Lady Peter. I have not had the chance to try one of these new daylight loading canisters, and it will be an excellent test of their suitability for my own work. Shall I try it after supper?" He unloaded his own bellows machine from the car, and the suitcase of developing fluids.

"That would work very well, Bunter. I should have an hour or so before Bredon needs to be fed for the evening."

"Very well, my lady. If you will excuse me now, I'll get the darkroom set up downstairs." The pair walked into the house, and Bunter headed straight for the cellar where it was a simple matter to exclude all the light from the area. He had long ago laid in a supply of red bulbs, and set up the tables and hanging lines.

That evening, Harriet headed down to the cellar with Bunter and her prized camera. The main light glowed red, and the film canister proved as easy to remove from the camera without accidental exposure as the instructions had said. Within minutes Bunter had it sloshing in the developer bath.

Half an hour later, Harriet and Bunter were examining the contact prints. Most of the external shots had worked nicely, except for one where Harriet had pressed the levers accidentally as she was trying to focus on a mossy detail on the wall. The result of that picture had been a hand across the lens and the rest of the shot showing only the clouds in the sky.

"It is the rare photographer who has all their shots perfect, Lady Peter." Bunter pointed out the shadow contrasts on a picture that had managed to capture the whole of Tallboys' front view. "Time and practise, and the results will improve."

"What about this one, Bunter?" She indicated the last picture on the roll, where Peter's sleeping form was protecting her son.

"I believe you have caught the light at just the right angle, my lady. Shall I try an enlargement?"

"Please, Bunter. Shall I leave you with that and arrange for some tea?"

"That would be satisfactory. I understand that there is fruitcake available as well, should you wish to avail yourself of that opportunity." Bunter reached for the black envelope containing the sensitive paper, then stopped. "I shall wait until you have left the room, my lady, so that the light from the doorway does not fog the paper."

"Of course. Perhaps we should set up a curtain so that it doesn't happen by accident. I shall see you upstairs shortly." Harriet walked slowly up the stairs, glad to feel that she wasn't as tired as she had been the day before and that the country rest was definitely helping her return to full health.

Twenty minutes later, Bunter brought a manila folder up, its contents smelling of hypo solution. Peter pounced on it, opening the folder with scarcely-hidden eagerness, as Harriet leaned over his shoulder.

"You have caught me perfectly, Harriet." He traced his finger down the nose of the photograph, every curve of the beaked nose delineated beautifully by the contrasts created by the sunlight. She noticed the mirroring of the nose in their son, then she started.

"Peter? What are those marks on the manuscript?"

"Where?" Peter peered closer. "Bunter, do you have that magnifying gl… oh, thank you."

"I anticipated that your Lordship would wish for a closer look at Bredon's features."

"Harriet, one day they will be able to run a test for mindreading, and I swear I shall have Bunter under the wired helmet for calibration purposes. Now let's see."

They placed the photograph on the desk, and Peter went straight to the manuscript. He held the glass close to the paper, muttering to himself.

"Old ink. Faded. I wonder…"

"Yes, my lord?"

"Bunter, do you have by any chance a Wood's Lamp amongst your equipment?"

"I shall fetch it immediately."

Peter turned to Harriet. "Have a look at this, would you? And I shall fetch the original."

He left the room in an instant, taking the stairs two at a time. Harriet picked up the magnifying glass and examined the manuscript's image. There, across the bottom, was a line of scrawled text in a Germanic script, not quite clear enough to discern the individual letters. She definitely knew it had not been visible when she viewed the document earlier.

Peter and Bunter arrived back simultaneously, each bearing their burdens with the utmost care. Bunter had the Wood's Lamp plugged in in a moment, its purplish light making Harriet's white blouse fluoresce ferociously. Peter slipped the parchment into the glow, and the letters that had previously been invisible now showed clearly against the creamy background. Peter traced the words with his fingers, muttering under his breath, then laughed.

"Thank you, Harriet. Thank you, Bunter. You have, between you, solved the problem of provenance which was eluding me."

"I hope to always be of service to your Lordship." Bunter peered at the letters, as did Harriet.

"What does it say, Peter?"

He put his finger on one section in particular. "This is a refuting of the lies above, a reiteration that Joachim's claims should be considered, but it ends in one phrase that makes the whole worthwhile. Do you remember I mentioned the insults to John in the text?"

"I do." Harriet smiled. "You mean…"

"The words written are somewhat forceful, but the meaning is clear. The direct translation is "… and I am not fat!"

"John wrote that." Harriet looked to Peter for confirmation. "Which indicates clearly that…"

"The document was printed prior to 1499, as John of Brandenburg was still alive. The Whipple Museum will be pleased. Bunter, do you think we could get a clear photograph of this writing under the lamp?" But Peter was too late. Bunter was already halfway down the stairs for his own camera, and a stand that would give the best results.

Harriet turned to Peter and kissed him. "Another mystery solved."

"Domina, you are my inspiration." The kiss began again, only to be interrupted by a cry from upstairs.

"And your son's supplier. I shall go to bed after feeding him – I may manage six hours this time. Goodnight, Peter." Harriet kissed Peter one last time, then headed up to her son, ready to tell him of his part in the affair.