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Scarce Any Man

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"I say, have you seen this? His Lordship's done it again."

"Hmm?"

Harriet pushed open the kitchen door carefully, balancing the tray on one hand. (Well, it was a baking sheet, actually, because what use was owning a tea tray when people were drinking out of any old thing? She would have liked one all the same, but it was the sort of thing Philip hated - he'd smile that rather condescending smile and make some clever remark about how she was a poor excuse for modern woman. Harriet privately thought that possession of a tea tray said less about one's bourgeois leanings than about the impracticality of juggling two mugs, a glass tumbler, and a bottle of not-terribly expensive champagne - but she was rather tired of rows, and lately even stupid things like tea trays had been known to provoke them, so she held her tongue.)

"Sorry, who's done what, did you say?"

"Lord Peter Wimsey," replied Eiluned drily, before her companion could speak again. "Syl's mad on him at the moment. Makes one feel quite green."

"Oh, hush," said Sylvia. "It's just such a novelty, don't you think, to have someone with the old blue blood in the papers for catching murderers. It makes it much more exciting than those dull police reports. Have you read this yet, Harriet? It's almost as good as one of your books."

"Only almost? I suppose that's the best compliment a writer can get - life imitating art and all that."

Harriet set the tray down carefully and settled herself onto the battered old chair that she preferred. The stuffing was really starting to leak out of the left arm, she noted regretfully. Then, with a startled sort of shift in her mind, she realised she could probably afford the cloth to re-cover it now. With a smile, she turned to her guests.

"It sells, at least. Would you like some champagne?"

"I should say so. Shall I pop it?"

"Would you? Thanks awfully, I can never manage."

"The knack," said Eiluned, deftly gripping the bottle under one arm and slipping a thumb into position, "is not to let the men tell you it's about strength."

The cork popped; the champagne was poured. A toast was proposed.

"To Harriet Vane, 'a fine new writer with a flair for mystery', as the Times puts it," offered Sylvia.

"And to a good solid cheque from Trufoot's," added Eiluned.

"Thanks."

Harriet took a sip of the champagne; later in life, she would become acquainted with finer vintages, but she always remembered distinctly the taste of her own hard-won success.

"So that's three now," mused Sylvia. "That's a good number. One might be a whim. Two could be a passing fancy. But after three, they know you mean business, and you shall go on writing without fear or favour."

"So what will the next one be about?" put in Eiluned.

"You know, that's a terrible thing to ask," Sylvia rejoined. "Like asking me what I'm going to paint next while I'm still cleaning up my brushes and thinking of a cup of tea."

"Oh, I don't mind." Harriet sipped her champagne and pulled her legs up under her in the chair. "Actually I've got a rather good one in my head at the moment, only I haven't quite decided how it will be done."

"I say, can we help?" Sylvia leaned forward eagerly. "I've always wanted to plot a crime. How about one of those tricky affairs where they tie a gun to the desk chair so it goes off - bang! - in a locked room and makes it look like a suicide?"

"Too easy to crack," argued Eiluned promptly. "A locked door means someone's had the key, and a closed room means fingerprints, and who knows what else, simply all over the place. Why not plug him in the head in an alley and have done with it?"

"Anyone could see you running away," Sylvia protested.

"Not in the sort of alley I'm thinking of."

"Actually," broke in Harriet, "it's going to be poison. I just haven't decided how the murderer is going to get it into him."

"Stick it in his champagne while he's celebrating the release of his latest book," said Eiluned with a grin. Sylvia pretended to hesitate in taking her next sip. Harriet laughed.

"It does rather depend on the poison," she said. "A lot of the stuff you can buy from the chemist is coloured so that you don't get it mixed up with sugar and so on. And of course, if it tastes strongly, or needs to be in solid form, you couldn't get away with it in a drink."

"You do know a lot about it, don't you?"

"I bought a book. Thought I'd better do the thing properly, but every time I think I've found a good one, it turns out to be almost impossible to get hold of the stuff. I'm starting to think I'll have to settle for one of the old standbys - I'm probably going to use strychnine, or maybe arsenic - though I'll have to look into whether or not it's really as easy to buy those as the papers seem to think."

"It's quite chilling when you think about it," mused Eiluned. "Anyone could do the same sort of research for more sinister reasons. It almost makes one wonder if the blighters who advocate censorship don't have a point."

"But think how much harder it would be to write decently researched novels," replied Harriet.

"And anyway," put in Sylvia, "that would only stop you and me. In half these cases, it's a chemist or someone who's given them the stuff in with their usual dope. Take this business at the Bellona Club, for example."

She waved at the newspaper still open on her lap. Eiluned groaned.

"Good Lord, she's on to Wimsey again."

Sylvia elbowed her good-naturedly.

"It's really quite fascinating. Harriet ought to write a book about it. This elderly chap was found dead in his club, you see, and it turned out he'd been given some stuff that bust his heart, only the doctor who did the post-mortem was the murderer, and covered it up. So they might not have even known it was murder, except that Lord Peter--"

Whatever it was Lord Peter had done, Harriet was not to hear, for at that moment the front door flew open with a minor crash. There was a startled pause, and then a burst of uproarious male laughter from the passage. Harriet got up hurriedly, but was forestalled from going to investigate by the appearance in the doorway of her lover and his friend, clinging to each other in the throes of inebriated hilarity. They both stopped short upon seeing the three women in the sitting room.

"Phil, you said she wouldn't be here," burst out Vaughan peevishly.

Harriet felt herself turning dull red in mortification, but Philip disentangled himself and staggered over to kiss her with a flattering enthusiasm, although the cheap whiskey on his breath made her turn her face away after only a moment.

"Darling, I didn't think you'd be in! We've got some friends coming over - the usual crowd, you know, Jack and so on." Philip slung himself into Harriet's chair and hauled her down into his lap. "Weren't you going to be at Clarence's for another hour?"

"I was," replied Harriet, rather firmly taking hold of his wandering hands; Philip could call her a prude and anything else he liked, but she was not going to let him make a display of them in front of her friends and Ryland Vaughan, who was now glaring at her from the doorway. "But actually I had some rather good news on the 'phone this afternoon, so I thought we should celebrate."

This statement, as intended, garnered demands for expansion, followed by wild guesses, helped along by the occasional sly remark from Sylvia or Eiluned, until Harriet tired of the game.

"I heard from my agent," she told Philip, "about my book. It's done so well on first orders that Trufoot's have given me my advance on the next one already - and it's a good bit more than last time!"

"Oh," said Philip after a pause. He frowned, as if unsure what to say next.

"Have you got no decent human feeling at all?" demanded Vaughan. Harriet glanced at him, startled by the venom in his tone. "How can you throw that in poor Phil's face when he's been having such a dreary time of it?"

Harriet got off Philip's lap in a hurry, outrage welling up halfway between tears and fury.

"Shut up, Vaughan," began Eiluned loudly, but Philip had lurched to his feet and crossed the room to clout Vaughan on the shoulder in an indulgent manner.

"Easy there, old man," he said. "Good of you to defend me and all, but it's really a different thing altogether. It's not as though the sort of people who read my books will have time for Harriet's, or vice-versa. You mustn't chide the old girl just because it's a good bit easier to bang out stuff about murders and whatnot than it is to write real literature."

Vaughan's scowl had lightened into the slightly idiotic grin he usually wore around Philip. Philip himself was beaming at Harriet with the self-assurance of the gallant knight on his white charger. And Harriet had to clench her fists and bite her tongue, or else start the kind of row that one should never have in front of company.

"I say, Harriet, we'll be late if we don't get off soon," piped up Sylvia with her usual impeccable timing. "You'd better get your coat."

"Off?" Philip's face fell. "I thought you weren't going to Clarence's after all?"

"Actually we've got a table for three booked at a little place in Soho," replied Eiluned with considerable heat and no tact whatsoever. "No room for you, I'm afraid."

"I didn't think you'd be back this early," added Harriet quickly, though a part of her would have rather not taken the sting out of Eiluned's words. "Sorry, Phil, but we really do have to go."

"But the rest of the chaps will be along any minute," complained Philip. "I'm going to read my new pages. I was hoping you'd give them a listen and tell me what you think."

"You know I don't like to--" began Harriet. Vaughan made a sound uncommonly like a snort, but Philip plunged on heedless of Harriet's interruption.

"It's really too bad, darling, to go rushing off without the slightest notice when I need you here. I've got to know I've got a sympathetic ear, you know, or I just can't get into the right mood."

"You've always got my ears," put in Vaughan with the earnest eagerness of the drunk. "Let her go, Phil, there's no point in thrusting culture where it's not wanted."

"He's not letting me go anywhere," retorted Harriet, thin veneer of patience snapping at last. "And as for culture--"

A thunderous knocking at the door drowned her out and nipped in the bud a really splendid row, as Philip at once dove to answer it.

"Come on," whispered Sylvia, "let's escape before Eiluned has to hit someone."

Harriet found her coat and hat, and slipped her latch key into her pocket, entirely automatically, as the flat filled up with loud, opinionated young men and a few gaily laughing young women. As she threaded her way towards the hall, where Sylvia and Eiluned were waiting, she saw that someone had already seized on the remains of the champagne and was passing it around his neighbours. For a blinding second she hated them all impartially; then she was out in the mews and the November chill, and just grateful to be getting away.

"Harriet, darling--" Philip, blast him, with that wheedling tone she despised, "-- are you sure you won't stay? I really wish you would."

"Goodnight," Harriet responded tartly, and swung the door closed behind her. She just caught Vaughan's voice as she did so.

"Come on, Phil, I'll pour you a whiskey and soda and we can--"

The door latched and she was up the steps and onto the street, walking briskly with the other two towards the main road.

"I loathe that Vaughan," muttered Eiluned. "Did you ever see such a disgusting display of toadying? Let's find a cab and get on with dinner to get the taste out of our mouths."

"Hear, hear." Sylvia took Harriet's arm in hers. "Honestly, Harriet, you're a saint for putting up with Phil Boyes a moment longer than you have to. The man really believes the world revolves around him."

"The least he could have done would be to congratulate me on the book," Harriet agreed, but she couldn't quite work the anger past the lump of unhappiness that had taken up unwanted residence in her chest.

"I suppose he's got a point of a sort, though," she went on more softly. "He didn't have to be so horrid about it, but it's not as though my books really count as literature, is it?"

"Now see here, my girl," started Eiluned as they reached the main thoroughfare and Sylvia waved at a passing taxi, "that's utter tosh and you know it. What good's his precious 'literature' if nobody can stand to read the dreary old things?"

"Still. I sometimes wonder if I oughtn't to..."

"What? Chuck it in?" Eiluned pulled open the door of the cab and shook her head briskly. "Just when you're getting the rewards for all your hard work?"

"Give the public a bit of credit," added Sylvia as Harriet clambered in beside her. "The proof of the pudding, and all that. People like a good book, and they like yours."

"And Philip Boyes can't see past his own ego to tie his shoelaces," finished Eiluned, slamming the door and leaning forward to give the taxi driver directions.

Harriet smiled despite herself. Sylvia patted her knee reassuringly.

"Now, let's forget about him and carry on hearing about your new novel. You said you were thinking of strychnine?"

"Arsenic," said Harriet, plunging willingly into the land of make-believe, where her heroine, she suddenly decided, would know the bliss of perfect love before having it snatched away. "Definitely arsenic."

*

"Affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. " - John Donne