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Shoes For His Feet

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Bunter had known, of course, that Major Wimsey was not well. But he wasn't prepared for the darkened bedroom where the major, blanket-draped like an invalid, huddled in a chair before the unlit fire. The major gave a nervous start when the door opened, then turned his face away without acknowledging the Dowager Duchess's, "There's someone to see you, Peter."

In Bunter's shock some instinct came to the fore, and he reacted like a sergeant rather than a properly deferential servant. Sergeants know how to handle officers paralysed by nerves or despair, how to tactfully anticipate the orders that those officers might forget to give. The first thing Bunter did was draw the curtains, transforming the room from a scene in a lurid Victorian novel of madness into something unsymbolic, only cold and still rather dark on this February day.

Turning, he appraised the major with as quick as glance as he could. No one likes to be stared at, especially when they're unhappy. And unhappiness--deep, long-sustained, unrelenting unhappiness--spoke from the hollows of the major's face and his blueish skimmed-milk pallor. "It's Bunter, sir."

"Bunter?" The major looked at him, something like curiosity or surprise briefly enlivening his corpse face. "So you're here. I'd given you up. Thought you weren't coming."

"The discharge process was not expeditious, sir." Bunter had used the old sergeants' grapevine, calling in favours and pulling strings, finding more strings and pulling them, and despite that nearly infallible network of small but concerted influence it had taken him three worrisome months to get free.

"Good, good," the major said with a vagueness that Bunter had never heard from him before. "I expect there are - salary, that sort of thing - talk to my mother, she'll sort it out."

Bunter looked over to the doorway, but the Dowager Duchess had gone. She'd been there, Bunter thought, until the major spoke. She hadn't been expecting that. "Of course, sir."

The major closed his eyes and sighed like a tired man settling in to sleep. He pulled the blankets closer around him and stretched his legs out, showing bare toes despite the cold. The sight of those unprotected toes, like a child's or a gypsy's or a refugee's, was as terrible as if the major had been naked and raving. It rattled Bunter out of all his better instincts and put a revolting heartiness in his voice when he asked, "What are your orders for me this morning, Major?"

A tremor went through the major, visible even under the blankets, and he spoke strangely between clenched teeth. "Don't . . . don't . . . not major, don't."

"Very good, sir." Bunter would have added an apology, but calling more attention to the horror that was shaking the man could only be a mistake. "Lord Peter," he said. It was too familiar from a servant to his master, somewhat improper, but it did panicked men good to hear their own names.

He didn't ask for orders again, but rang for a maid and began to give them--a bath for his lordship, and then tea and toast brought to his room. A few minutes later Bunter announced, "Your bath is ready, my lord," just as though it had been ordered in the usual way. His lordship nodded without speaking, but his posture changed a little, to something that was neither half-controlled fear nor passive resignation. Well, then, Bunter would see to it that his lordship need not give any orders until he was ready.

While Lord Peter bathed, Bunter laid out clothes for him: warm tweed trousers, a soft shirt, a thick country jumper rather than a jacket, winter-weight silk socks, stout brogues. It was as far from a uniform as he could manage without putting his lordship back into pyjamas, which, judging from the pair Bunter sent off to be laundered, he'd been wearing for too long.

It took self-discipline for Bunter not to hover while his lordship, wet-haired and still unshaven (had they taken away his razor?) dressed. But he was sure that worry and fuss were the last things his lordship wanted. He occupied himself with tidying, and when that was complete he looked back to find that his lordship was now nearly the image of a respectably informal country gentleman. Only the hint of fair beard belied it--that and his feet, which were still bare. Less shocking now, they only made him seem very young, but they were also white with cold. "Let me assist you with the socks and shoes, my lord."

"No, that's . . . no."

Boots, Bunter thought. If one thing summed up the army in Bunter's memory, it was boots. Polishing boots, his own and then Major Wimsey's when Bunter became his batman. Checking the men's boots before inspection. The men's constant problems with ill-fitting boots, painful boots, shoddy boots, holed and splitting boots. The daily routine of ordering the man to strip off their boots and present their feet for examination against trench rot. Sleeping in one's boots. Boots coated with mud, blood, and worse things.

It seemed his lordship needed to go barefoot. And yet . . . "You could catch the influenza like that, my lord," said Bunter. "Would you care for just the socks, for warmth's sake?"

"All right," said his lordship, looking gloomily down at his feet.

Bunter waited for a moment, then, when it was clear that his lordship couldn't bring himself to do it, picked up the socks and knelt. "If you would care to sit down?" His lordship complied, and Bunter slipped the brown knit silk over his feet. He rose again silently and went, at the housemaid's knock, to bring in his lordship's tea and toast.

***

Bunter was returning to Lord Peter's room after a hasty cup of tea and a slice of cold pork pie in the kitchen. He'd missed breakfast; Lord Peter had woken in the dark and sat up the rest of the night pretending to read a book. He hadn't called, but Bunter had heard him get up, gone in to see if he required anything, and not dared to leave him until he fell asleep in his chair around mid-morning.

Bunter was about to open the door that led from the servant's stairs to the family and guest rooms when he heard the Duchess, Lord Peter's brother's wife, talking in the hallway. She had a carrying voice, unlike the man, presumably the Duke, who answered her almost inaudibly. Her words were exceedingly clear. " - room next to Peter's? Nonsense, why can't he sleep in the servants' quarters?" Bunter had asked for that room on his second day here, having discovered Lord Peter that morning locked in one of his waking dreams. He'd thought he was buried alive again, and in his struggles had overturned furniture and cut himself on a broken vase. Bunter had gone to the Dowager Duchess asking to sleep within earshot. She had agreed without consulting the current Duchess, to that lady's now-evident irritation.

"I tell you, the man is above himself. He won't take meals with the other servants, Pomeroy tells me. He just comes into the kitchen and helps himself at whatever hour he likes."

A conciliatory-sounding response.

"Yes, but isn't it time to ask ourselves whether we can really be of any help to poor Peter? It's been months and he's no better. Of course he's a hero, and family, but surely he would be happier somewhere with well-trained specialists who understood his condition. I wrote to my friend Charlotte, her eldest was in aeroplanes and got horribly burned, and she told me about . . . " The Duchess's voice disappeared as she descended the staircase to the ground floor.

She would never manage to send Lord Peter away, not while the Dowager Duchess lived, but there could be a real quarrel about it and that would do his lordship no good. Not to mention that his loving sister-in-law was probably dropping a little poison in his ear every time she saw him.

He'd got to get Lord Peter out of here.

***

At first he thought of the countryside, the Lake District perhaps or the Cornish coast, somewhere beautiful and healing. But it occurred to him that part of his lordship's trouble might be too much time to think. His own mind imprisoned him; his memories tied him like a strait-waistcoat, and the placid countryside gave no relief. In London, his lordship would have all the distractions of the greatest city in the world to tempt him out of himself.

Bunter brought it up at the end of a good day; his lordship had managed to go downstairs for dinner, though still in his stocking feet, and afterwards played billiards with the Duke, drinking port and making jokes without much undertone of bleakness in them.

Bunter hadn't been precisely eavesdropping. He couldn't help it if the wall between the servants' passageways and the main rooms was thin. He couldn't help needing to know how his lordship was coping. Nevertheless, it was presumptuous. Everything about his service to his lordship was presumptuous, starting with turning up at the family's doorstep on the basis of an offer they knew nothing about and his lordship might well have forgotten. The Duchess's "above himself" had been ringing in Bunter's head, and as he gave Lord Peter a brandy, Bunter sheltered behind formality. "Has his lordship perhaps considered the great advantages of a flat in London?"

"London? What's brought this on?"

"I merely observe that London offers many conveniences to his lordship: the theatre, concerts, art galleries, tailors, restaurants, and of course his lordship's clubs. Most invigorating for an active mind."

"Sick of all this rustication, Bunter? By the way, all that third-personning makes me hurt my neck craning around for his lordship."

"Very good, sir." Bunter took a deep breath around the nervous lump in his throat and tried to find a tolerable mode of being. He wasn't a footman anymore, but nor was he Major Wimsey's batman, formalities worn away by mud and blood, lice and corpses and tea made in stinking water. Serving Lord Peter Wimsey, no longer Major, was an undefined sort of business, like a game whose rules they were inventing between them. "You - you said once that you lived in London, mostly, before the war."

"London and Paris. Somehow I don't fancy seeing France again just yet." His lordship smiled. He made a great effort to mention the war now and then with seeming off-handedness.

Bunter wondered sometimes why the war had been so much worse for Lord Peter than for him. Not that Bunter didn't have his share of nightmares, and memories as bad as nightmares, but most of the time he could set them aside. His lordship wasn't a coward; the furthest thing from it. Perhaps it did, after all, come down to giving orders. Bunter had seen a lot of young Englishmen die, but he'd never had to think that it was his fault.

"The last time I was in London on leave," his lordship said out of a silence that had begun to stretch, "I quite wanted to hit a lot of people in the face. But perhaps the urge won't be so strong now."

Feeling that he had to say something and not let his lordship talk into emptiness, Bunter said, "I shouldn't think so, sir. There were people who needed hitting. I remember too. But it's not the same now."

"Peace in our time, amen." His lordship gulped down the rest of his brandy. "Eternal peace before their time for a lot of chaps in France. But I ought not to dwell on that, I suppose. Forget and be happy. Like a pig spared the abattoir."

If Bunter had been a man of Lord Peter's station, or Lord Peter a man of his, Bunter would have put his arms around him, Sometimes at the front a man would come almost to the end of what he could bear, and words were never as good as the simplest physical comfort. Bunter had held George Cooper all through a night of shelling once and no one had thought it odd. When Georgie was killed a couple of weeks later Bunter had cried like a baby at the memory of his heartbeat. But between Bunter and his lordship there was a line that couldn't be crossed. It wasn't even a real line--Bunter believed, quietly, in the rights of man, in fair pay and fair treatment and even votes for women, and a lord was only a man with a title and more money--but like a border, it had power all the same. Bunter picked up his lordship's empty glass and said hopelessly, "I wish I could help you, sir."

"Never mind." His lordship's eyes were wet, and he wiped at them self-consciously. "If you're pining for London, Bunter, I shouldn't like to hold you back from it. This position must have sounded a lot more interesting when I offered it to you than it's turned out to be."

For an appalled moment Bunter wasn't sure if his lordship was agreeing to move or offering to let him seek new employment. "I - I will look for a suitable flat, then, my lord, if you're agreeable."

"Mmmm," said Lord Peter, in that vague accepting manner that was his way of authorizing Bunter's proposals without coming close to an order.

"Very good, sir." Bunter took the glass away and began to lay out his lordship's pyjamas.

"Bunter?"

"Yes, sir?"

"Thanks," said Lord Peter.

***

It was impossible, unfortunately, to buy a London flat without leaving Duke's Denver. Bunter had to go to London twice. The first time he went to look at flats that might be suitable and returned that night. His lordship, looking quietly strained, joked about not being able to do without him any more. The second visit, to complete the purchase, extended overnight while Bunter's letters of authorisation from his lordship, his lordship's solicitor, and his lordship's bank manager were examined, considered, and confirmed. Bunter sent a telegram and thought of ringing, but he had no reason to do so except a belief, founded like all faith largely on unseen things, that it would do his lordship good to speak to him. Immobilised again by propriety, he did not ring.

When he returned to Denver just before noon the next day, the Dowager Duchess sent for him immediately. "Peter's had a dreadful night. He's been in the garden since about four o'clock this morning and won't be persuaded to come in. He's . . . I shall let you see for yourself."

"I'm terribly sorry, Your Grace. If I had known - "

"I'm not blaming you, Bunter. Well, I am a tiny bit, but I oughtn't to. Completely unfair. Please do what you can for him, is what I meant to say. None of the family can get near him. He takes us for Germans."

Bunter found Lord Peter crouched behind a low hedge. His pyjamas were torn at one knee and streaked with grass stains and drying mud, and his face and hands were scratched. He must have been crawling through the hedges at some point. His bare feet were even more caked in mud than his pyjamas. "Get down, man!" he hissed when he saw Bunter. "There's a sniper! Christ, didn't anyone tell you?"

Bunter squatted beside him. "I believe he's gone, sir."

"No, he's there all right. Caught a flash of light from his rifle sight or his binoculars." Lord Peter pointed towards a chimney on the roof of the house, and Bunter wondered if he even saw it as a house or if his mind had made it a church tower or a hill. The day was cloudy, too, with no sun to reflect off of glass. "Careless bugger, but a devilish good shot."

"We'll just have to wait him out then, sir. I've got some tea and sandwiches for you."

"Good man! I was wondering where you'd got to."

A kitchen maid had been persuaded, grumbling all the while that it wasn't a proper meal for a gentleman, to prepare ham sandwiches on thick slabs of bread and pour milky, heavily sugared tea into a flask. It was still fresher and more refined than anything they'd have had at the front, but the maid had wanted to give him a picnic basket and a china teapot on a tray. Bunter handed his lordship the flask and a paper-wrapped sandwich.

"My god, it's real ham. You are clever, Bunter. I'd ask your methods but I'm afraid to know. Well, go on, tuck in."

"I'm not hungry, sir."

"You're a rotten liar, though." In fact Bunter had not exactly been lying. He was peckish, breakfast having been early and the servants' dinner hour now almost past, but not as hungry as his lordship probably was. Yet his lordship had read it in Bunter's face, despite the lack of expression he had cultivated as a footman and a sergeant. "Eat, there's plenty."

Bunter ate a sandwich, agreed that the ham was excellent, and drank from the flask of tea when his lordship passed it over.

"Better save a bit," his lordship said, screwing the cap back on. "We might be here a while."

"Yes, sir." Bunter gave up on keeping his trousers clean and sat in the damp grass. Usually his lordship's attacks were brief, but from the sounds of it this one had already lasted for hours. He tried not to think that this might something worse, the start of actual, permanent madness.

After a few minutes his lordship said, "When I was a boy, I was terribly fond of all the soldier kings in Shakespeare. Henry the Fifth especially. I suppose all boys are."

"I was." Bunter had been fifteen and still a hallboy at Sir John Sanderton's, lowest of the low, when he first read Shakespeare. Mr. Nichols, the butler, had caught him sneaking into the kitchen one night at eleven o'clock with a copy of Dracula illicitly borrowed from the master's library. Bunter had expected to be dismissed immediately without a reference. But after ensuring that Bunter was in search of a light and not a bit of cold pie, and that the book was undamaged, Mr. Nichols had offered Bunter the use of his own books instead. He liked to see boys improve themselves, he'd said, so long as it didn't make them cheeky. Then he'd confiscated Dracula and lent him Macbeth: "It has all the devils you could wish for, but it's literature, not rubbish."

His lordship, Bunter was sure, had come to Shakespeare along a very different route.

"I used to dream of being a hero," his lordship continued. "Do you suppose war was different then? Cleaner?"

"I doubt it, sir. Think of what King Henry threatens to do to Harfleur. After the surrender there's looting and profiteering and corruption. And the French kill the boys at Agincourt, and the English kill the prisoners."

"Yes. Yes, you're right. Perhaps I'll stick to the comedies from now on."

They talked about A Midsummer Night's Dream, and his lordship, professing shock that Bunter had never been to the theatre, offered to take him when the war was over. "Reading a play is never as good as seeing it. Though I must say you're better read than I'd have expected, Sergeant. I hope that doesn't make me sound a frightful snob."

"I've always read as much as I can in my free time, sir."

"Not going to country dances and fighting off the housemaids?"

"No, sir." Housemaids had never appealed to Bunter, and given what did appeal, it was wiser and safer to read books. "The tea will get cold, sir."

"We'd better drink it up then." They passed the flask back and forth until it was empty, although the tea was already cold. Bunter gritted his teeth so as not to shiver. His lordship was shivering badly but seemed unaware of it.

"I'll check if Jerry's still about, sir." Bunter lifted his hat over the top of the hedge, holding it cautiously by the brim as if there really were a sniper; the trick to drawing his lordship out of these nightmares was to play along and let reality seep in gradually. After a few moments Bunter lowered the hat. "I think we can make our way back behind the lines all right."

It took a good fifteen minutes to get back to the house, moving in short bursts and sheltering behind hedges and trees. His lordship was limping, which became even more noticeable when they got inside ("Never thought I'd be so glad to see the old trench") and he stood up and tried to walk normally. The house was suspiciously empty as they went upstairs, his lordship leaning on Bunter's shoulder, but out of the corner of his eye Bunter saw the Dowager Duchess peep out of the drawing room and mouth "Well done."

Bunter settled his lordship into a chair and summoned a housemaid to draw a bath. "And bring a basin of hot water to the room, Jane. With soap. After you've run the bath, ask Mrs. Matheson for iodine and bandages." His lordship's feet would need washing before the bath if he wasn't to sit in dirty water, and there were probably cuts under the mud.

A languor always came over his lordship when he started to recover from a waking dream. He slumped passively in the chair while Bunter, relieved, put his feet into the basin. He soaped and rinsed the right foot and held it in his hands to examine it. There were not only cuts, but bruises darkening in spots all over the sole. His lordship had probably run barefoot along the drive, gravel biting into his poor feet at every step. Bunter felt the foot over as softly as possible, looking for broken bones but also wanting, somehow, to soothe and comfort if he was too late to protect. He felt as though his lordship's whole being were in his hands, delicate and naked. I wish I could keep the hard ground from you. The thought was so wild that he wanted to disclaim it, but had to accept it as his own. I wish I could lie down on the stones and let you walk on me.

Blinking hard against tears that for a dozen reasons he couldn't shed in front of his lordship, Bunter washed and examined the other foot. "There, you'll be all right, sir," he said, and helped his lordship to the bath. He then stood for a couple of minutes at his lordship's bedroom window, shaking. He hadn't known. Not truly. Not the way he knew now.

"Don't get too fond of them," Mr. Nichols had told him once. "Be loyal, yes. But you mustn't let them mean too much. It's a risk, when you've got the temperament to be a good servant. You can get caught up. Eaten up and swallowed, because you will never mean anything to them. So hold yourself back and live your own life as much as you can."

It would have been useful advice if Bunter had remained Sir John Sanderton's footman or even risen to become butler himself some day. A grand house imposed its formalities, its distances. But instead, in the chaos of war and its consequences, his life had got muddled with Lord Peter's. He knew he'd never leave Lord Peter Wimsey's service as long as they both lived. Tears were in his eyes again and he almost let them come, but his lordship called for him from the bathroom, so he went to do his duty.

After he'd got his lordship warmly dressed and given him a whisky, Bunter swabbed his feet with iodine and bandaged them to protect the bruises. As he looped gauze over the high fine arch of one foot, an urge to kiss it shot through him. It came with a cinematographic tumble of images: the mouse pulling the thorn from the lion's paw; a tender father with an injured child; Achilles and Patroclus binding each other's wounds; "Kiss me, Hardy"; and others, hotter and fleshier, all the things kisses could do. He leaned back on his heels, steadying his breath, and finished up the bandaging as quickly as he could. When he started to get up, Lord Peter touched his shoulder. Bunter knew it was a request to stay, just as he'd started to know when his lordship was getting hungry or having a nightmare. So he sat on the hearth at his lordship's feet, and only hoped it wasn't obvious how happy he was to do it.

Lord Peter's hand rested on Bunter's shoulder, then, after a few minutes, slipped up to stroke his hair. Almost systematically, Lord Peter undid the well-brushed neatness, loosening it to hang over his forehead and cheeks. Delight in disorder. No, more than that, the necessity of disorder. For a little while, Lord Peter was softly pulling apart order and discipline, station and propriety. Bunter laid his head on Lord Peter's knee and sighed.

This is all there'll ever be, Bunter thought. This little time which may already be ending. It'll never happen again, and we'll never mention it. Happiness and despair curled up in him like lovers, and he knew he would never put his feelings back in order again.

He laid his hand along the arch of Lord Peter's foot and closed his eyes.

***

Bunter drove his lordship to London before the bandages were off his feet. The leave-taking was a rare moment of harmony at Duke's Denver: Lord Peter was pleased to regain a little independence, the Dowager Duchess, the Duke, and Bunter himself were pleased that Lord Peter seemed more cheerful, and the Duchess was pleased to see them go.

During the drive the wind brought colour to his lordship's cheek, and he looked at the grey-green winter countryside with occasional interest. Eventually he began to talk about books, explaining the early history of printing ("incunabula, comes from the Latin word for cradle"), how the war had made rarities available, how he wanted to start working seriously on his collection, and how he'd teach Bunter to evaluate a book's authenticity and condition.

They'd hardly settled in London before his lordship was sending Bunter round to auction houses and antiquarian booksellers for their catalogues. Occasionally he bought something sight unseen and dispatched Bunter to fetch it, but he never left the flat. Bunter tried to tempt him with mentions of art galleries, Shakespeare performances, and the sights of London he was enjoying on his afternoons off (which at first he'd been reluctant to take, only doing so after he'd seen that it upset and distressed his lordship if Bunter stayed to look after him). His lordship listened, smiled, and told him not to miss Temple Church, but remained as homebound as a baby bird in the nest.

The nightmares came less often, though, both the sleeping and waking sort. As the weather warmed into spring, his lordship began opening all the windows and sitting or standing near them, watching the city pass by about its business.

Finally, on a warm and gloriously sunny day in April, his lordship got out of the chair he'd been fidgeting in for an hour and said, "Bunter, I . . . should you care for a walk?" He still couldn't give orders, but he was learning the trick of phrasing them as questions.

"Indeed, sir. It's a beautiful day." Trying not to put any emphasis on it, not to weight it with the hope that was crushing the breath out of him, Bunter added, "Will you be accompanying me, sir?"

"Yes. There's a limit to lazing about, even for me." He swallowed, then smiled, and Bunter saw what he'd already known to be true: his lordship was afraid to go out, afraid of the crowds and noise, afraid of a dream of the front catching him up where strangers would see. He was terrified and very brave. "I shall need my shoes, however."

Bunter rushed to get them, and as he returned bringing a light coat as well in his unsteady hands, his lordship smiled at him again, almost shyly. "I expect I've never properly expressed it, because I really am a lazy beast at heart, but, well . . . I'm awfully grateful to you, Bunter."

Bunter worked at the laces of the shoes for a moment before he found the will to meet his lordship's eyes. "It's my pleasure, sir," he said.