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Photographic Evidence

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March 1931

TITLED CLUBMAN CHARGED

Photographs to be brought in evidence

*

Bail had not been granted. Given the accused’s wealth and the nature of the charges, absconsion was considered highly likely. This would have suited the authorities very well and they had gone to some efforts to promote it, but Lord Justice Hebden had broken his foot, and Lord Justice Adams took a dimmer view of such things. The prisoner was arraigned to appear before the court on charges of buggery and gross indecency.

*

The solicitor was not Murbles, of course, but a younger man recommended by Impey Biggs. Wimsey had initially suspected that it was only the prospect of briefing that most famous silk that had persuaded the man to take on such a hopeless case. It had been a brief moment of respite to discover that someone had still wanted to work with him, though the case was dull enough, in its way.

‘It would help,’ said Murgatroyd carefully, 'if you would name the other man in the photographs. It might weigh heavily with the judge.’

‘Sorry, old chap, but it simply wouldn't do.’

Murgatroyd nodded. ‘I thought not. Let’s hope that weighs, too.’

*

When they told him he had a visitor he could not have imagined its being her. For a moment, seeing her face on the other side of the cheap deal table the memory of old times made him feel almost like his old self. Only the circumstances had utterly changed, and Harriet Vane would be the one walking free as he returned to the cell. She looked a little nervous, whether at the undoubted social awkwardness of the occasion or at being in a prison again he could not tell.

‘I hope you don’t mind my coming.’

‘Of course not. You brighten the day immeasurably.’

‘I wanted to see if I could help, though I don’t know what I could do.’

‘You do help.’ Did she smile at him? ‘Although I’m not sure anyone can do anything much.’

‘I said that once. It wasn’t true. You – ’

‘For God’s sake don’t tell me that you’re grateful!’

She flushed. ‘I suppose I deserved that. But I wasn’t going to, not like that, anyway. You did make it better, believing me and coming to see me so often, although I wasn’t very decent to you at the time.’

‘I made a damn nuisance of myself.’

‘I sometimes thought so,’ she admitted, ‘but it took me out of myself all the same. You see,’ she said a little awkwardly, ‘I do know what it’s like. Not just being here, but knowing people are thinking – one tries not to care, but it doesn’t always work.’

‘No.’

*

‘Of course, this is all most irregular, said Biggs, announcing himself, ‘but I’ve never let these things bother me and I shan’t start now. Murgatroyd’s good, but I wanted to see how you were getting on, and it’s always easier to thrash things out in person.’ The Adonis profile twisted in a bitter smile. ‘Besides, it’s a rare pleasure to have an intelligent client. You’ve not done anything stupid so far, and I want to keep it that way.’

‘I think other people might disagree,’ Wimsey said.

‘We don’t count the outside in here. You’ve kept your mouth shut and your relatives muzzled. That is always a help. Let’s get down to business. I don’t think we need worry about Bunter. He’s kept his mouth shut, too.  He’ll plead not guilty. Gross indecency can be a sticky one, but a good democratic jury will have sympathy for a servant anxious not to lose his place with a mother and an invalid niece dependent upon his wages and the mother needing an operation.’

‘They’re not – and she doesn’t.’

‘As a matter of fact she does. A woman of that sort with seven children usually needs an operation. That she only became aware it was possible when I sent my nurse to see her needn’t concern us. Don’t be difficult, Peter. The man was afraid for his place – all servants are, so it won’t blacken your character too much– and he took the photographs, but that’s all.’

‘If you can do it I’ll be damn’ grateful. I’ve not been feeling very good about Bunter.’

‘As for yourself,' Biggs continued, 'you plead guilty and you say nothing. Those damned pictures! Anything else and I could work with it, but Bunter’s too good with a camera, and I can’t get a claim of forgery that’ll stand up. Don’t let them fluster you about the other man. At least they can’t try and make any claim that he’s a minor, not with that rug on his chest. You keep your mouth shut, and we trust that the actions of a gentleman will help us in the long run - even if only time off for good behaviour,’ he finished soberly.

Lord Peter winced.

‘You do understand, Flim, that there will be a conviction?’ Biggs' tones were studiedly neutral. Only the old school name betrayed the unspeakable sympathy.

Wimsey nodded grimly. ‘The newspapers have been very eager to tell me so, not to mention threats of durance vile. It seems that stone walls really do make a prison.’

‘If you mean will it be a custodial sentence, I'm very much afraid so,’ said Biggs. ‘I’ll make the best case I can, don’t worry about that, but even a lenient judge – but we mustn’t get ahead of ourselves. Sometimes they surprise one’

‘We used to say that prison would be nothing after Eton and the army,’ Wimsey mused, ‘but we were wrong.’

Impey Biggs inspected his nails. ‘In some ways.’ After he left, Wimsey remembered that something that his mother had once said, that Biggs was the handsomest man in England and no woman would ever care tuppence for him. He had thought then that she meant he was too stern, too cold, marble hard and polished to be loved. Once, Peter had wished he could imitate that unbreachable shining surface without crack or flaw, on which hopes of all warmer human relations shattered. It was queer, he thought, that despite everything, now he would not.

*

Parker came to visit, ostensibly as representative of the family. It might have looked odd had he not shown his face at all and no-one else would or could come. He looked pinched and miserable and tired. The new baby – small Peter – did not sleep. In his more cynical moments Wimsey wondered if it were picking up on its father’s guilty conscience. The incriminating photographs, after all, had been Charles’s idea even as he had been afraid to show his face in them.

‘You look all in, Charles. I don’t suppose Helen and Gerald are talking to you, but if they relent,’ he fixed his eyes steadily on his brother-in-law, ‘you might tell them that they needn’t fear any hideous revelations in the witness box.’

‘Thank you. I’m sure they’ll be glad to know that.’

‘Although it does rankle,’ said Peter. ‘I’ve spent all these years trying not to make Gerry’s mistakes, to learn that if only I’d stuck to girls under twenty-one I’d be home and dry. It is almost impossible, Biggs tells me, to get a conviction. Or rape. You can be out in two years for rape if they put you in at all. Whereas I have the newspapers telling me how inconsiderate I am not to have shot myself. I suppose I can be grateful that your chaps were quick enough with the arrest that I didn’t have the chance.’

Bunter, of course, did not visit.

*

A week until the trial. Harriet visited again. She had taken more than usual care over her dress, which he would normally have taken as a good sign, but if he had been unreasonable to ask her to marry her with their roles reversed, it was even more so now. He had asked a girl to wait once before, and it hadn’t ended well. Besides, he had something else to say, even more important.

‘I want to apologise. I was so sure you would be cleared that I never thought enough about what it meant afterwards, how much the verdict failed to change things for you. It was stupid of me. I understand now, all right.’

‘I wish you didn’t.’

‘I’m sorry – I’m supposed to be apologisin’, not extracting womanly sympathy. Only I can’t help thinking about it. What am I to do, and all that when – it’s finished. The FO won’t touch me, nor will the police, whatever the verdict. My job – that’s an awfully vain way of thinking of it – detecting things, I mean, has always rather depended on people telling me things, and more than I’ve admitted on them feelin’ they had to tell me things. That’s all gone. There’s the property, of course, but it isn’t the same.’

‘I understand,’ said Harriet. ‘It made rather a lot of difference to me, being able to go on with my work. I needed the income, of course, but it wasn’t just that. I suppose I was lucky the reading public found the brush with murder more exciting than they disapproved of the other thing.’

‘My nephew’s at Eton,’ he said inconsequentially. ‘It must be bloody.’

Before she left she had said,

'Don’t martyr yourself, Peter. It doesn’t achieve anything. I learnt that, too, but longer ago.’

'It seems rather hard to help it. I do nothing upon myself, and yet am mine own executioner. But I promise not to give them any unnecessary aid.'

*

Six days. Five days. Four. His mother, well enough at last to come, looking tired and old and trying not to cry. Three days. Two. The day itself. He looked up at the bench. The flowers on the bench were sickly yellow daffodils, and they had not been fortunate with the judge. Harriet was in the public gallery. He unclenched his hands and stood.