Lord Peter Wimsey, Rome
22 May 1935
Rome is hot, and I would otherwise be sweltering unhappily on this terrace, but that my signet ring is conspicuously absent from my finger, and I believe it is on yours instead, for you have said yes to me and I cannot think of anything else. A thousand sweltering days, relentless sunshine for this pale Englishman – I will bask in it, I will bask in the memory of you and one sun-dappled afternoon on the Cherwell, and a slightly less illuminated but all the more enjoyable evening on that same river. Harriet, light of my life – am I being too sentimental? Excessively romantic? Does this rambling bore you terribly? Pray forgive any excessive poetics; I am too much i’ the sun, and I revel in it, and in you.
Is it possible that the great orb shines o’er the Piazza di Spagna as a favourable sign to our love? Have the elements given their approval? (Do not tell me it has rained in London and spoil the effect). I do not presume to have any sway in the universe, but I cannot help but read all signs as echoes of your wonderful, world-turning “yes”. Red carnations in the Pincian Gardens – you have said yes – an afternoon breeze lifts the curtains of my room outward, they sigh blissfully – you have said yes – the most glorious strains of Palestrina float in from Trinità dei Monti – you have said yes and we are to be married and I am transcending.
I am also piffling. Sorry.
Bunter would be the first to tell you that this declamatory indulgence of mine increases proportionally during either of two possible moods: incandescent joy (as now) or, in his words, as ”a necessary method of distraction in the undertaking of detective work.“ Nothing to detect here, Harriet, the clues are simple: 1. my ring is missing, I have a distinct memory of bestowing it upon you in lieu of something more your taste and style – appropriate ring pending, I promise, 2. I have been humming incessantly an air from Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict, which the observant Bunter was kind enough to point out to me at breakfast this morning, and, 3. I bought you roses after leaving the Embassy this afternoon, only to remember upon return to the hotel that you may be with me in spirit but are in London in body. This sort of absent-minded spending greatly amused Bunter, though he attempted to disguise it. He arranged them in a vase and suggested I bring them as a peace offering to a rather stiff diplomat I lunched with yesterday – but they are yours, Harriet, and the diplomat might need an olive branch instead.
All this to say – I do not need Bunter to pontificate on my current state of piffling, nor do I need to detect anything about my person – I love you, Harriet, which you knew already for some time, but I suspect now that you love me too, and that is a happiness I did not expect. One can attempt to prepare for any number of troubles or sorrows, but not for happiness. It has washed over me quite unexpectedly and shows no sign of abating.
The extent of my true distraction – aside from buying flowers for one’s far-off beloved – is this: I am trying to apply my mind to this Foreign Office problem and find that I do not give a damn. It has importance, yes, but my role here is limited, and the Office will continue to postpone the lunches and confrontations and art gallery tours ad infinitum, and I would much rather be doing the same time-wasting but in London, with you. I confess that I am not as focused on the duty of the moment as I ought to be. I gather (from the limited information I am offered) that the problem is lesser than that which took me from you before – and so my piffle may be less needed than expected. I hope for this, because the sooner I am done piffling here, the sooner I can come back to you and bestow better words on your worthier ears.
For now, I hope you will endure some nonsense scribblings from my pen, and that you (time permitting) will send me a few of your own. You have never written nonsense, though, and I love you for it. Give me the truth, plain and simple; tell me how you like Mother, and how Wilfrid and the water-mills are getting on, and let me know if roses shipped at high expense from Rome would be an acceptable gift, or is that the sort of thing you frown upon? I have no desire to make you frown; having been witness to your vast repertoire of expressions, I must say your smile is infinitely preferable. I look forward to the pleasure of prompting its appearance, as often as I possibly can, for the rest of my earthly life. I'm piffling again.
I think I see you out of the corner of my eye on every street corner – hoping for the day to come soon when that flight of fancy is no longer imagination but reality.
25 May 1935
Ms. Harriet Vane
Mecklenburgh Square, London
It rained all yesterday. Engagement’s off.
I kid! I regretted those words the minute I wrote them, because I don’t want to strike any fear into your heart; you have me, really and truly, and no sign from the heavens is going to change my mind now.
The weather was fitting, though, because I had the pleasure of meeting Helen yesterday, and she does rather come down on one like a storm cloud, doesn’t she? All foreboding and angry and threatening to pour at any moment. I realize it’s quite rude to talk about your future in-laws this way, only I turned to speak to your mother just after Helen left, and she made the storm cloud comparison first. Am I forgiven?
Speaking of your mother – I adore her. She is so wonderfully perceptive and generous – she seemed to know right away when we met that I just needed to ramble on a bit, and she let me, and then invited me to dinner. Needs of the soul and body fulfilled. We both cried a little, too, so now we’re properly introduced. Of your family, I think it’s probably her opinion I will care about most - after you, of course, but she’s so impressive and kind I don’t want to disappoint her in any way. I feel I am already a disappointment to Helen, but by her tone she implied that you are, too.
Peter – I did tell you once long ago that someone would marry you just for the pleasure of hearing you talk piffle – and I really didn’t expect it would be me. Talk on. Or write on, rather. I’m afraid I am terribly in love with you and nothing you do will change that. It scares me, strangely – this same happiness you wrote about. I am experiencing something I thought I knew but now realize I have never actually felt before, and there is a lurking fear in the back of my mind that the happiness is unreal, or will vanish. Your words are a great reassurance however you try to hide behind them.
I do feel a bit like poor Wilfrid, post-revisions, suddenly full of overwhelming emotions and unsure what to do about it. Wilfrid is doing very well, by the way. I’ve fleshed out his moral complexes and given him some amusing introspective bits. The beast of it is yet to come; he’ll have to deal with a new piece of evidence that will contradict all his previous assumptions. Art will imitate life.
But back to your letter’s main point – I think you would like to disguise the heartfelt things you say and pretend that they are mere nonsense, but my heart is now at stake, and I can’t let you. I tell you now that I intend to take very seriously all of your declarations, by post or otherwise. Write at your own risk and tell me you love me and I will believe you.
I have to say that it’s quite odd receiving your voice at such length in the mail; I’d much rather speak to you in person, obviously. It’s odder still trying to write down my own feelings and convey them accurately to you – I tell myself that writing is no different from speaking to you, but there is a formality to the process. I of all people should know. There is the benefit of forethought and reflection, of revising what one wants to say, of crossing out whole sheets of paper then starting again, and the final product may look quite different from the first draft.
I did wonder to myself, sitting down to write this, if I would say the same things to you if you were here. Would I confess that I am in love so openly? If we were together I could feign shyness or lead the conversation to any small, distant topic, and avoid the subject of how you make me feel. And you would doubtless see right through any of my attempts at evasion and ask me in your pleasantly direct way what the matter was.
Really, Peter, it comes down to what you said – we can’t prepare for happiness, only let it wash over us. I feel like a small child again, learning to swim, splashing about both delighted and afraid of drowning. But I know that you are in the water with me - hold my hand?
Now, while you may be forced to imagine my face leering at you from street corners, I have the benefit of real photographs of you, given to me by your mother; two portraits which I can pine over in your absence. I will alternate them day-to-day so as not to grow bored of looking at you. As if.
I have studied them both dutifully and while the one of you at the piano has a sort of charming melancholy, I think I prefer the other. Your mother says you call it "Little Mischief" - apt. Do you know you had the same expression on your face the night you interrogated the SCR? Just before walking into dinner? Now I know a little better what was running through your mind. How old was Lord St. George when that was taken? And did he get into a great deal of trouble for what looks like what was a terrible accident with the inkwell? No wonder Helen is disappointed in you; it seems your powerful influence on your nephew’s character began at a young age. Lest my tone is unclear - I think you are a very good influence and precisely the one he needs.
Aside from the photographs, which are now on my desk, I do still have your ring. I haven’t lost it! And no specter has smashed it to bits, but the typewriter wanted to, so I’m not wearing it on my finger any longer. It is safe on a fine chain around my neck, much lighter and less conspicuous than the dog collar. By the way, did you really get your name put on?
Also, why did the diplomat need a peace offering? Did you offend by taking your tea the wrong way, or erring slightly in the intricacies of a foreign language? I realize you may not be allowed to say much about your work in Rome, but I would be so happy to know what occupies your days, aside from sunbathing (and, I imagine, taking advantage of the close access to the Vatican Museums).
Come back soon, until then, keep me above water and write to me whatever you want.
P.S. You may buy me flowers when you return, no need to express from Rome. Offer them to Bunter.
30 May 1935
You know it will take more than a little rain to get rid of me.
Jerry was about four years old when Bunter took the photograph. Gerald had come down to London for a visit, using his son and heir as pretense. My brother at that point didn’t mind my influence on the future Duke, and I think he rather thought Jerry’s youthful joy and ‘innocence’ would bring me out of my slump. Little did he know the slump was long over and I was happily detecting away when not idling about town. Jerry would have gotten in trouble had I not convinced his father that the ‘accident’ with the inkwell was entirely my own fault – the nerves, you know, can’t be helped, the carpet will be fine, et cetera. On that day a strong alliance was formed between Pickled Gherkins and myself, and I’ve been corrupting him ever since.
I wish I could tell you more, but if this letter falls into the wrong hands, not only will they read all my intimate feelings conveyed to you, but I will face a slight awkwardness over a confidentiality agreement with the Foreign Office. I promise to confide in you what I can when I am back home. I can tell you, though, that I personally caused no offence to the diplomat. He was apparently quite put out by an earlier meeting with an American official, and I bore the brunt of his subsequent bad mood throughout our lunch. I’ve since spoken with both parties – actually, I escorted them to the opera and played the charming fool all evening – and all is well again, no flowers needed.
Regarding the flowers, Bunter thanks you for the surprising generosity of your gesture. I am made insecure by your refusal and wonder if you have suddenly switched affections? Is it the man over the master who is preferred? Bunter has contrived to provide several buttonholes for me, from your bouquet – I feel rather silly wearing my own gift to my beloved on my lapel, but he still finds it entertaining. Do you see the kind of impertinence you have inspired?
Because you forbid me from buying you flowers, domina, instead I have been trying to buy you a house. It is for the both of us, so there is no way you can deny its necessity. I also think that it would be harder to pass off to Bunter. I have been negotiating with the Belchesters – family friends – over the sale of 2 Audley Square; they have decided to retire to the country, leaving their grand old home delightfully available. I have always admired it, from without and within, and it is spacious and comfortable. We each already have our own places, of course, but it would be silly for me to keep 110A Piccadilly, seat of my bachelor years, and I don’t suppose you want to stay at Mecklenburgh? Having so rarely darkened its doorstep I cannot pass judgment on its comfort nor its allure as an abode. But I can say that the Audley Square place has a library the scale of which rivals even my own – and the shelves are just waiting to be filled with our books. Shelves from floor to ceiling, Harriet! And the Belchesters have offered to leave us a beautiful Medieval-era book stand, I think probably originally looted from a monastery somewhere, and ours now if we want it. The library also has French windows overlooking the street - you can see down to Hyde Park, it's just a short walk away - but I realize I begin to sound like an estate agent and not the man who asks for your love.
Dear Harriet – I really have always envied this place from afar – and the fact that it is now ours for the taking is too fortuitous to be overlooked. I want to buy 2 Audley Square and fill it with our belongings and make it our home, and sweep you over the threshold and up the stairs to our library, to our room, to our bed – everything newly ours and wholly belonging to the both of us. Our home.
There is a beautiful room on the third floor that would be perfect for a study – for you, for writing, if you want it. I can see you sitting at the desk by the window, head tilted in that divine thing you do when writing furiously to keep the thought from running away. A perfect, slight furrow in your brow – you are a vision, always. I promise the study will really be just yours, too, I won’t come in and bother you all the time, unless you ask of me. Then I will most willingly distract and interrupt and prevent you from meeting all your deadlines.
I was called away - tour of the Giardino degli Aranci (the Orange Garden, sounds better in Italian) with some people from Spain and Portugal. The whole court of Europe is here, and I don't know if I'm the jester or the advisor. Some days it seems like both.
One more thing, before I dash off again: I know you’re too sensible to be bothered by Helen, but just in case – she really has no idea what she says, and you shouldn’t pay attention to any of her declarations, they are insecure and untrue. I had once thought, foolishly, that age and marriage to Gerald might begin to soften her, but no such luck. I try to be charitable to her for my brother's sake, and to stay on her good side – if it exists. You know my mother will be on your side in my absence, so you are not alone in any prospective battles with my family, though I know you can more than capably defend yourself should the need arise. You also have a most willing ally in Jerry, I'm sure.
Wire and let me know about the house – if you prefer something else, say the word and it's yours.
All my love,
P.S. The collar is yet a blank. I did entertain the idea of my name, entirely as a joke – but back in Oxford just after you were attacked, I wasn’t sure if nor when I would have the chance to ask you the usual question again, and I no longer wanted to presume you owed me the answer I wanted. So I withheld from that kind of possessive indulgence.
1 June 1935
DEAR PETER BUY HOUSE LOVE H
3 June 1935
Mecklenburgh Square, London
You beautiful, silly, wonderful man. The house sounds perfect, and I trust your judgment entirely. You sounded almost nervous or afraid in your letter – as if I wouldn’t adore wholeheartedly something you chose for us. I do trust you. In everything.
Your mother took me by the house a few days ago to tour. I think I would have been content without seeing it right away - the thought of a whole house for just the two of us is overwhelming - but your high praises of the library did capture my imagination. When I received your last letter, I was working at home, and suddenly the disorderly stacks of books piled on the floor around my single, measly bookshelf seemed to loom ever higher, and they looked down upon me for having the audacity not to store them properly. They have stopped toppling over since I told them of the prospect of floor-to-ceiling shelves awaiting in a few, short (I hope) months.
But to speak of time – here is what has been occupying my mind. I miss you terribly. I know it’s been little more than a week, but it feels like eternity. And now I am resorting to the kinds of terrible clichés I only thought possible in romance fiction. I have always refused to read such works on a matter of principle, obviously, but one can’t spend three years in a women’s college attended by students of varying literary tastes without encountering the works of Hull and Heyer. And I have, at times, merely out of boredom, of course, flipped through their pages.
I’m running away from my topic: I miss you, and I’ve begun to feel guilty about the fact that we had such little time to spend together because I took so long in making up my mind. You knew what you wanted from the start. You’ve been so patient with me, especially when I least deserved it. And I do feel that this couldn’t have happened any other way, I couldn’t have chosen any sooner – this is what I reason to myself. But then the small voice in the back of my mind bothers me; it says that if I had said yes earlier, we would have been together longer, and waiting now wouldn’t be so hard. Though I suppose the waiting may be easier for you because you’re used to it?
If a past Harriet had made that sort of remark, you would have winced, and I would have regretted it later, after the smug satisfaction of getting under your skin had passed. But I say it now honestly and with no intent to harm – do you mind that we are apart? Is the waiting easier on you? I know circumstances are beyond our control, and I know that you miss me as I miss you, but I still feel ashamed that I made you wait so long, and I don’t want to think of you hurting - or my causing you any hurt.
It took me an eternity to wake up and to really see myself truly, to realize that you were and are everything I dreamed of – but never let myself actually want. I banished desire for so long, and now my heart, my soul, my body, my self – are all full of want. I want you, I want to be with you, and every minute without you grows emptier within me.
I have been going back and thinking over all the little moments I chose to ignore – the things that, if I were paying better attention, ought to have made me fall in love with you much sooner. I see them all now with new eyes. One of these moments: The first time you took me to the symphony, I was in a horrible mood because of a review, and I didn’t want to talk about it, obviously, but you didn’t push me to tell. I went along so reluctantly, and I listened to you ramble about which work of Williams’ was most sophisticated rhythmically, and the influence of Purcell on Elgar, and who knows what else – I certainly lost track – but it was the best possible distraction. You didn’t try to pry me open but gave me something else to think about. I told myself when I got home that it was the Williams piece that had improved by mood, but if I was being honest then, as I'm trying to be now - it was you. Your conversation, your gentleness, your willingness to put up with me when I was stewing in resentment - I didn't deserve your love then, but you gave it so freely. And I found myself expecting your next telephone call with some kind of eagerness, though I would never admit it.
This has turned into a more melancholy letter than I expected, so I will try to end it well. My consolation in waiting now is that I know we have a lifetime to spend together awaiting us - and if the happiness I've felt so far is any indication, it will be the happiest of lifetimes.
Are my sentiments verging on cliché acceptable? Please provide rating - nice to know if detective fiction fails, I will have a backup genre.
All my love, with none of me left to protest,
Wow I didn't mean to take another 4 months to write this! But I promise there'll be more.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
10 June 1935
DEAR H HOUSE BOUGHT LOVE P
12 June 1935
Do you know that I adore you? You are warned – in the letter that follows I will attempt to rival you in sentimental cliché, and it will all be true and earnest.
I had foolishly once thought that the process of aging meant achieving a certain conclusive level of knowledge – arriving at a summit, feeling confident in oneself and one’s abilities, finding life both predictable and manageable. To an extent I suppose this could be true of other subjects, but not of love. I think I had believed that in five years of knowing you I had come to know love’s scope – the depths of disappointment contrasted with the excitement of hearing your voice on the telephone, or the quiet joy felt at receiving your letters – no matter their contents.
I recall a particular missive, sent to Rome, containing a rejection to one of my earlier proposals. But it was not the rejection that was surprising (hardly, then, dearest) but your voice, on paper, so honest and open and direct. Despite being written in the midst of the unpleasantness at Shrewsbury, despite my unquestionably bothersome persistence, you opened your heart to me and offered your friendship; you invited me into your confidence. It was one of many events in the sequence of delightful surprises that has been knowing and loving you, Harriet. I was then and am continually, to use the cricketer’s term, bowled over. You astound and transfix me.
Therefore I no longer entertain any illusions of my existing knowledge of the Scope of Love – there is a book title for you – nor of the depths of my beloved. With every letter you delight me – romantic clichés, worried musings, all. And as much as I wish we were together... domina, if I cannot hold you yet, I have your words and the echo of your voice in my mind, I feel that you are close to me. I feel your fingertips leaving mine at the gate of Shrewsbury, I see you walking away, passing under the arch, and turning to look at me again, and smiling, before the darkness of night covers you. Memory is a complicated beast, and I wonder if I romanticize in retrospect, but Reason and Imagination are here in accord: you are my beloved, and I cannot recall you wrongly.
And so you live in my mind; you are never far from my thoughts. I wish I could turn to you with my daily troubles and ask your advice – they are more hourly than daily when the Foreign Office is involved. Your perceptivity would save nations, I am sure. When I return I will bore you with a complicated knot of egos and translation errors and you will undo the whole thing and present me with a neat spool of thread. But enough of that. A love letter is no place for business.
To address your closing question, though by now I suspect you know the answer: your sentiments are, of course, highly acceptable. I am eagerly looking forward to the publication of An Eternity to Wait, debut romance from esteemed detective novelist Harriet Vane. I trust I will receive an advance copy? Or perhaps feature in the dedication, having been the inspiration for your ramblings? Mostly I inspire journalists and the occasional gossip hound, so this provides a nice change.
And please - express no shame at having read the likes of The Black Moth, for you emulate Ms. Heyer’s style most satisfactorily. I know because I have read it.
Are you surprised? Years ago, on a train ride through Switzerland, I discovered an abandoned copy under the seat cushion in my compartment, likely left behind by a former passenger who shares our literary scruples. Out of pure curiosity I began to skim the first chapter, only to be interrupted by Bunter three hours later to find I’d read the whole thing. Let it not be said the romance novel lacks virtue – it can considerably shorten any train ride.
And to address your other question, about the waiting being easier – dearest one, you did not offend me. Is it easier for me to wait, having, as you said, waited longer? I do not know. You had your own (I imagine unbearable) period of waiting through the trial – I do not want to remind you of that unhappy time, but I have always admired your fortitude during those horrible weeks. I cannot ascribe to myself such honorable patience; I am often notoriously ungracious about having to wait, and you may ask either Bunter or my mother for testimony to that fact, though you have also witnessed it firsthand. Lately I have been ungracious often - lounging about my hotel room in a melancholy mood, alternately reading the papers and folding them into boats, perusing catalogues of incunabula and contemplating impulsive purchases. Buying the house helped.
That is what my waiting looks like; I imagine yours has been more materially productive in the form of several chapters on poor Wilfrid. I hope that - while you wait, and write - you will put all feelings of shame and guilt from your mind - for you cannot possibly make me unhappy now. I could never be upset with you for agreeing to marry me. I will bear any number of weeks waiting in Rome because I know that this time will end and I will come back to you - for the first time in my life I have the pleasure of being able to return to someone, to my heart's home, and you have given that to me, Harriet, so never apologize for it.
Yours, beginning to burn under the Italian sun, dreaming of London rain,
P.S. Speaking of Italian sun, how do you feel about Florence? Or Venice? For a honeymoon? How do you feel about a honeymoon generally? We can go wherever you like for as long as you want, so long as it’s not Wilvercombe.
The letter Peter refers to is found in Chapter 11 of Gaudy Night.
15 June 1935
I’m sorry, this letter will be shorter than I’d like, but I’ve been caught up in a series of agent and editor meetings for Death ‘twixt Wind and Water (am beginning to rethink that title) and Sylvia wanted to take me to a new exhibit at the Tate and I went to a very uncomfortable tea hosted by Helen and “some select friends” (assorted storm clouds like her, and other icy, moralizing philanthropic types) so my head has been spinning non-stop since Tuesday. Your letter is a balm.
I just got back to the flat an hour ago and sat down to read in the armchair by the window. I’ve been looking over the Square and watching the stars come out, and wishing on them, childlike, that today could be easily erased and I could return to the distant dream of the end of May.
I confess I’m a bit of a wreck at the moment. I've known that my life is about to change, substantially, and it’s a welcome change, of course. I want to marry you. But now I feel as though I've become suddenly trapped in the neck of an hourglass which has just been turned over – and there I hang, upside down, sand pouring over my face. No matter how hard I try I can't get right-side up again.
It was the tea with Helen that did it.
I'm loath to recount this because I have been trying to ignore her, as you said, but she really has a terrible gift for making a person feel inferior. She asked me to tea at the Savoy, and I went, thinking it was a private meeting, and that I could reassure her I’m not a dreadful heathen out to destroy both the Wimsey name and her reputation in one go. But she’d asked a whole committee of friends to assess me (I can’t remember their names now) – and with all of them pursing their lips and tilting their heads and sipping furiously I was made to feel altogether inadequate, underdressed, and thoroughly gauche. I know I am none of these things (except perhaps occasionally underdressed, as befits a writerly disposition), but Helen and her accomplices made me feel so. I shouldn’t be bothered, I know, so I came home to my little empty flat and made my own tea quite angrily and am now drowning my sorrows in camomile and writing to you. Damn it all, Peter, I wish you were here. I wish you were in London and had accompanied me to this hellish tea and had held my hand under the table when Helen asked me about the "surely dwindling sales" of my last book, and I wish we'd laughed it off after and gone walking in St. James' Park at sunset.
I am trying to hold my own against Helen as well as I can, but the constant condescension is exhausting. I suppose she wanted to catch me off-guard, knowing, of course, that you are in Rome and cannot defend me. It was a well-planned ambush, I credit her that. I fought the fight and am now battered.
Still living and breathing, obviously, but tired. But I won't linger on this any longer, I need to sleep, and moreover you deserve a nicer letter, especially after the one you've just sent me. Tomorrow I'm going to the British Library to look at some windmill maps and diagrams and this invigorating research will - I hope - keep my mind off Helen nicely. Then I'll return to your letter in a kinder mood and write you the reply you deserve.
Before I go - a honeymoon - yes, please. Wherever you'd like, really. I haven't been to either Florence or Venice and both have an antique appeal to them, but will you have tired of Italy by then, whenever it is the Foreign Office decides to release you? Who do I need to bribe to arrange for your swift return? (To any intercepting agent reading this letter, I am a writer with no funds for bribery).
Love, your irritated,
P.S. Peter - I'm sure you know I'm not irritated at you for not being here, I don't blame you in the slightest. You know Helen - you understand.
P.P.S. Your letter was the sweetest thing.
Didn't think it'd take a pandemic for me to keep working on this but here we are!
Harriet to Peter, 18 June 1935
APOLOGIES LONGER LETTER IMPOSSIBLE ALL MY LOVE
Lord Peter Wimsey to Lord St. George, 19 June 1935
FOR GOD’S SAKE KEEP YOUR MOTHER AWAY FROM MY BETROTHED
Peter to Harriet, 19 June 1935
NO APOLOGY NECESSARY UNDERSTAND COMPLETELY LOVE P
20 June 1935
I wonder how I will ever make it up to you for my family.
I’m also afraid this will be the first of many apologies I make on Helen’s behalf. There is no excuse for her behaviour. I have only theorized one possible explanation for it; I believe she harbors an innate insecurity regarding her place in the world, and so seeks to diminish those who challenge her. Because she possesses her station only by birth and by marriage, she recognizes her inadequacy in character and intellect, and therefore makes sport of those who outrank her in such domains. You are gifted and accomplished and have made your way in the world without a title, and so your – forgive me – proletarian presence is a threat. I’ve had many more years than I’d like to come to know Helen, and I’ve found the best approach is simply to maintain indefatigable good cheer and a keen wit through all interactions – as she possesses neither, she cannot compete, dialogically.
And still – I am sorry, my love. I know you don’t need my protection, and I am certain you defended yourself valiantly against her on the battleground of the Thames Foyer, but what you wrote is true. She only planned this trap because I am absent. I am her preferred punching bag, and so I have left you, in a sense, defenseless.
How can I make it up to you? For leaving you, and for leaving you to the family wolves? Well, wolf, singular. Mother and Jerry are fine. And my older brother shouldn’t cause you any trouble. But Harriet, I am lazing about in the Caput Mundi, sipping Madeira with irritable diplomats and circling the Coliseum out of sheer boredom, while you toil away writing a novel and keeping your sword up against beastly personal attacks from one who should welcome you. It’s hardly fair. I should have some support or consolation to offer if I cannot be present, but what can I give you from afar but my heart, unfolded on these few pages?
A poor compensation. Curse the Foreign Office keeping me tied here and away from your side. I have wanted to come back to you since the moment I left.
But to return to the question – how do I make it up to you? How do I remove you from this perilously acrobatic position in the figurative neck of the hourglass? (Your metaphors dazzle me). Allow me to begin with a pecuniary indulgence; since I cannot be with you nor smile at you across the tea table, please accept, as preliminary apology for my more difficult relations, flowers shipped from Rome at high expense. If I cannot be physically present, I will turn your flat into a hothouse. If flowers are unwanted please pass them on at your discretion to any interested friend.
Next, knowing full well that you are the writer, not I, allow me an attempt at righting the glass – a glimpse into the near future, a world brought into bliss by our lives made one. I cannot promise you a world without Helen, though I will willingly become her target at the next opportunity, but I promise you, here and now, and in the months and years to come – waking together in our bed at Audley Square, the cold sunrise of fall alighting on the window sill, mist over Hyde Park pressing in from the outside, and a day empty of schedule and obligation. I promise you my hand in marriage, and under any and all tea tables, clasping yours, resting on your knee, on the small of your back, gently, my thumb across your cheek, beneath your eye, my lips where they belong. I promise you another sleepless night in Oxford, this time watching the stars from the roof of the Camera, drinking from a shared bottle of Fonseca 1912 (a lovely vintage for a dress colour). I promise you the sound of twin scratchings of ink pens in our library, your stories, my detecting, the both of us making sense of this world with the means we have been given. Of these dreams – idyllic, maybe, but all within reach – I promise you my enduring presence in your life, for as long as you will have me, I am yours and I am with you, by paper or (more preferably) in the flesh. For the time being – more than kisses, letters mingle souls.
Soldier on, my Harriet, when seeing Helen is unavoidable, and at all other times, decline her invitations and spend your time more worthily. Write to me. Write of Wilfrid. I think Death ‘twixt Wind and Water is an excellent title, for what it’s worth. I would say you could go visit my mother but likely she will foist herself upon you first, and take you out to tea, or the ballet, or shopping. I know she would be furious to know what Helen's done - it is up to you whether you tell her, but know she is on your side. Gerald is likely ignorant. If I told him, he would cough, slightly abashed, and change the subject. He has never tried to restrain Helen's worse qualities, which I suppose makes him an ideal husband in her eyes, but rather a useless brother and head of family in mine.
I am sorry I cannot write more at present; I must be off to a meeting with someone from Belgium, and have been reminded several times that any slight departure from courteous punctuality could be catastrophic for these international affairs, and so…
My love, once more, my sincere apologies for the indefensible behaviour of my sister-in-law. Will you forgive me my relatives, and marry me?
24 June 1935
Yes, of course, I will marry you.
You know I used to hate hearing you ask that question, but I confess I’ve rather missed it, lately.
I’ve calmed down since my last letter – after I wrote you, I dashed out a very nasty argument scene for Death ‘twixt Wind and Water and fell asleep at my desk. Woke up with a definite ache in my neck but feeling mentally refreshed, went to the British Library and immersed myself in wind- and watermills for much of the day, emerged, stomach grumbling, mid-afternoon, and took myself to a pub around the corner for a belated lunch. Then I went to Eiluned’s and Sylvia’s and ate most of their biscuits while watching them squabble (very lovingly) about mixing paints. I won’t say I’d forgotten about Helen by the time I left, but since then, and since your letter, she’s receded from the forefront of my mind.
But the whole business with Helen has made me think about how strange it’ll be to have a family once again, to be one person among many interdependent others. And to enter the intricate web of relationships and histories and problems in an established, private social set – and the Wimsey set, no less – well. It is daunting, Peter.
You’re lucky there are no living Vanes left; you don’t need to ingratiate yourself with anyone. Sylvia has given her wholehearted approval, and Eiluned approves – but a little grudgingly. She worries that entering the bonds of conventional matrimony will make me abandon my Bohemian ways and become a severe matron devoted to do-gooding and event-attending instead of Art – another Helen, as it were.
No more of Helen! I’m going to take your advice and write about something else. Your letter did away with my upset over your sister-in-law; you can consider my metaphorical hourglass to be righted. Perhaps it’s always the fate of a detective novelist to dream up such morbid images. I’ll count on you to talk me out of them when necessary.
Instead of bemoaning your relations, I will quibble with something you said in your last letter. You claim you are not a writer. A blatant untruth and I won’t allow it! You write gloriously, Peter. Has anyone collected your correspondence for a volume? They ought to. I’d read it.
You know there was a time I used to burn your letters… an attempt to dispose of incriminating evidence. If I’d been hoarding them I’d have had to confront certain undeniable truths. But now I keep your recent letters in a wooden box on my mantel, safe from potential ink spills and the half-empty teacups scattered about my desk and perched on various book stacks. The longer I wait for you to return the more I’m looking forward to our future bookshelves. It will be so nice to have a floor one can walk on without constant fear of tripping.
Speaking of tripping – thank you for the abundance of roses. They are so beautiful I can almost forgive the expense. But please, Peter, don’t feel you have to make my flat into a hothouse just to remind me you exist. You sent more bouquets than I have vases for, to say nothing of my lack of suitable tabletop space on which to display said vases. I’ve distributed some of the excess bouquets among friends (I brought some to your mother, as well), but there is still enough foliage left in my flat to set dress an amateur production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Your letters bring you here, more than any flowers could, and I find it so much easier to keep the former over the latter. Paper doesn’t need its water changed nor its dead buds trimmed. Your writing really is enough.
Of Death ‘twixt Wind and Water… I do grow sick of the title, but the detection is going along swimmingly, unlike the corpse. The mill research helped, and next week I’m supposed to meet with an obliging Shrewsbury alum who did a kind of Great Tour of countryside mills a couple years ago as a research project. I’m hoping to clarify the minutiae of wheel construction so poor Winchester’s demise really is plausible. The trouble with being the one writing the thing is – the solution seems so obvious to me after mulling it over for months, and I want to ensure my readers, whoever they may be, don’t find it blatantly obvious. Or worse, that they anticipate it because I’ve forgotten about some little clue that absolutely gives everything away in Chapter Three.
I know you can’t tell me anything of the Foreign Office business, at least not now, but I do hope that your saving of the stability of Europe is going well, and more importantly, that you are well. Write back and tell me anything about Rome you can say without consequences for our national security. How did you get roped into international diplomacy work to begin with? Where is the worst place you’ve been sent? And what do you love (or perhaps hate) most about Rome?
P.S. I am toiling, Peter, but I’m also relaxing and reading Maugham and meandering around Russell Square when the mood strikes. Don’t feel too bad for me.
Peter to Harriet, 28 June 1935
AMATEUR? WEST END AT LEAST.
Harriet to Peter, 29 June 1935
ROSES AND I WILTING. NEW LETTER COMING.
26 June 1935
I change my mind. You may feel a little bad for me.
I suppose I’d better just get right out and say it. I’ve been deliberating on this since yesterday evening and have been trying to find the right words and have instead distracted myself with nonsense and things that don’t really need doing, like arranging the teas in my cupboard alphabetically, and cleaning my typewriter, and sorting out old papers in my desk drawers. I’ll get to the point.
I last wrote to you on Sunday. Yesterday afternoon, Monday, your mother invited me – well, really, she politely summoned me, to meet with your solicitor Mr. Murbles, to discuss the various financial implications of our marriage, and every possible outcome if one of us died unexpectedly, or married again, to someone else, and my head was reeling within the first minute of his explanations. Our meeting was scheduled for 1 pm and he unfolded paperwork in your mother’s sitting room for what felt like at least three hours; much of the legal jargon I didn’t understand, but your impressive and frankly astounding wealth I did.
He finally left and promised to send me duplicates of “Certain Important Documents” (emphasis his), and your mother insisted we go to Rumpelmayer’s, and she ordered while I sat there in a daze. I emerged only when tea and madeleines and several varieties of Austrian chocolates arrived at the table. She does have excellent taste in delicacies.
But I’m piffling! I see how useful your habit is for distracting one’s listener from the essential. The problem is, Peter – and this is what I started to tell your mother, and she kindly suggested I write to you about it, which I’ve been putting off until now – I am so reluctant to accept an income from you.
Murbles named a sum – I won’t write it here, because the number seems ridiculous, and I’m sure you already know what it is – and I am supposed to believe that this number would be deposited to me upon the event of our marriage, and then renewed in perpetuity annually until I die. Or until you die, in which event, barring the existence of children (a question for another letter, or better yet, in person), the entirety of your wealth is granted to me in one fell blow.
It might be fatal to me, Peter. I don’t know how to spend what I haven’t worked for. And I know you are generous, but I simply can’t take what I haven’t properly earned. I know the correct terminology for the whole arrangement must be “income”, but it does sound rather like I’m being paid a salary simply for marrying you, which I can’t condone. I know that’s not the case, of course, but that’s what it sounds like. You can’t buy me, Peter. I’m already yours. I would marry you if you didn’t have a penny in the world. And I know you aren’t trying to buy me, anyway, and that this is just the way things are done, but still…
I think I told you that my parents were so good as to provide for my getting to Oxford, and I received a very small sum when they died, but since then I’ve made my own way. Writing is no reliable method for making a living, but I’ve pieced together my survival over the years, and I haven’t had any money to spend that wasn’t hard-earned by writing Templeton books and potboiler short stories and the occasional critical article when I could sell one.
I’ve never told you this before, but there was an evening a couple of years ago when you asked me out to dinner and I went, for your company, yes, reluctant as I was to accept it at the time, but also because I’d been waiting on a cheque from my publisher, and I’d already used up my previous advance to pay rent, and I didn’t have anything left to eat in my flat. I hadn’t had anything that day but a piece of toast.
I never could have told you. I couldn’t accept the reality of a position of dependence, even when I found myself in it. The dinner – at the Ritz, naturally - was exquisite, and you were a perfect gentleman, and yet I still held my breath until the cheque arrived the next morning in the post.
And I wasn’t anywhere close to destitute, of course. I’ve been very lucky. I’m also much better off now than I was back then. But I’m still so hesitant about this income. I’ve known you have wealth, and I’ve benefited from it (sometimes not very graciously, I’m afraid). Recent flowers aside – your gallantry in taking me to the theatre and to your box at the opera and to the symphony and for tea and for dinner at your club – I know and have experienced all of these wonderful things with you, because of you, but it was much easier to enjoy them when I could blissfully ignore their cost.
What would I spend an income on, Peter? I only know scrounging up loose change for bus fare and buying more books than I have time to read. And not precious incunabula or rare first editions, either. I frequent the Thames-side book stalls and very rarely, when I’m feeling indulgent, I’ll buy something new at Hatchards.
I have no conclusion, no answers, no demands to make of you – I’m just thinking aloud. Please don’t be hurt. I don’t mean to be ungrateful. Know that if you were a penniless orphan like me I’d still marry you in a heartbeat. I want you, Peter, not your money. Write back and say you understand my pride and my reluctance and tell me how you feel and what you think.
Love from, your poor (preferring to remain mostly so),
Peter to Harriet, 3 July 1935
LETTER RECEIVED DO NOT FEAR WILL REPLY SOON
Of course I had foreseen the difficulty. You would like very much not to impose on me nor be dependent on my wealth, unearned - and I should very much like to bestow it all upon you, as you so eloquently describe, in one fell swoop. What does the vow say? With my worldly goods I thee endow? As I now have the joy of contemplating binding myself to you in holy matrimony, for as long as we both shall live, with it comes the pleasure of giving you something that might add to your material happiness on this earth.
I know you earn your own way, and have for many years, and you know, of course, that you must keep writing without my interference and earning in any way you like. But it would delight me to know I could supply any little things which a successful detective novelist’s income will not allow - or at least, I could offer you a security on which you can depend, if at any time you decide to cast off responsible occupation and become a woman of indulgent leisure. I know you to be the woman I am marrying, and therefore I do not expect you will want to give up work, nevertheless...
The solution I’ve proposed, via Murbles, is the income I freely offer you without prerequisites or conditions. You may spend it however you like. Squander it on reams of paper for your typewriter, or buy a new typewriter altogether, or buy claret-coloured frocks, or horde it all like Scrooge. I know it is a generous sum and probably seems excessive - I make no presumptions on your current income as a writer - only, inherited wealth expanded by some reasonable investments and guided by Freddy’s keen mind tends to increase rather beyond the yearly income of His Majesty’s average citizen. Anyway, it is large, I know, but quite suitable for any purchases that strike your fancy.
You may also ignore it, and spend in your usual way from your own income. But I would very much like to know that I can offer you something, besides myself, and whether you use this offering or not is up to you.
The alternative - perish the thought - is you leave all my riches with me, and I continue to invest in incunabula and buy up rare bottles of Ferreira 1815 to my heart’s content. I will do this regardless, actually. But if I can’t endow you with an income you must know, I’ll be unable to resist spending money on you in a very lavish manner. Chess sets in shop windows, obviously, and rare first-editions of Le Fanu, and a proper ring for your finger. The latter is in the works, but I refuse to have it sent to you by post or by any messenger other than myself, so you will have to continue guarding the signet until Rome releases me and I can give you its proper replacement.
I will likely spend money on you in a lavish manner even if you do accept the income. But either way you choose, income or no, I promise you won't want for anything. Through no merit of my own I've been situated in and accustomed to a life of great comfort. I know you would rather have taken me without this comfort and its privileges. But I also know you to be a very gracious person, and I hope you will accept the income. It is my joy to give of what I have been given to those I hold dearest.
Nothing needs to change in your day-to-day routine, of course. You can go on riding the 'bus and frequenting the library or the second-hand bookshops, enjoying all the habits of your life before my troublesome wealth darkened your door. The only major change I conceive is - you will never spend a day hungry again. Not on my watch.
I'm resolved that you not feel you are losing anything in marrying me. Freedom and independence are still yours, and, if I may politely note, not hindered in any way by an increase in funds. Either your pride or mine will have to be sacrificed - I can only appeal to your generosity to let it be yours.
P.S. I'm attending a concert of Palestrina's works tonight. Am supposed to be placating representatives from France and Greece. Will be thinking of you instead.
The opening and closing lines of Peter's letter are by Dorothy L. Sayers, from the mention of this letter in Busman's Honeymoon.
12 July 1935
Of course, you understand. I don’t know why I was anxious to write you — no, anxious isn’t the right word, but ill-at-ease, perhaps. I’ve been so careless with your heart in the past, and I know how much I’ve hurt you, and so I didn’t want to write anything thoughtlessly. I want to take care.
I’ve been thinking it over since I wrote you about the meeting with Murbles (nice alliterative book title, there), and I’ve realized that my gratitude beast has reared its troublesome head once again. The income question is about money, yes, but it’s also about your generosity, so unmerited towards me, and how delicate and complicated it is to give and to take in love. I’ve never had anyone love me like you have, Peter. I’ve never known anyone to offer me so much as you have — and I don’t mean in the pecuniary sense, obviously — I mean your heart, given to me over and over again, never mind how often I’ve rejected it. I feel at once in awe and rather unworthy and indebted and guilty for not accepting you sooner.
But these are old demons you’ve already banished! I don’t need to drag them out again. Your past letters have already done away with these fears and worries of mine. Reading your latest I remember that you do know me, and the whole matter really is quite simple, and that my pride (which I know as being quite burdensome) is in fact a very light thing to lay down as you offer yourself to me.
And so — after much deliberation, and your latest, convincing epistle — I accept. You may endow me with “The Income” (comedic effect attempted). You already know my hesitations, of course. I still shudder slightly to picture this very generous yet mysterious payment suddenly sinking down upon my shoulders. I don’t know what I’ll do with it; money is something I’ve never had much of and find hard to envision in large quantities. I warn you now that I may have to pretend the income doesn’t exist, at least for the first few months of marriage. It’ll take me some time to become accustomed to its presence. I may be rather like a skittish new kitten, lurking in the corner by the fireplace while she tries to decide if her new owners are trustworthy. Or perhaps it’s the other way around; I’m the hesitant new owner, and The Income is the shy kitten* hiding in the shadows. This is a limited image, I know. Rest assured I won’t treat you so distantly.
But speaking of the distance, I couldn’t help but think, after I wrote you, and again after I received your letter, how much easier this debate would have been if we were in the same city. No letters needed, you’d have presented the business to me yourself in an afternoon, I’d have given you all of the same qualms, but we could have resolved it in a matter of minutes so as not to let it trespass on our evening. But instead the question takes us weeks to figure out, and we’re held back by the tedious delay between thoughts and responses, and the conversation is so unnaturally prolonged and halting when between us language would otherwise flow like water.
I’ve started to feel the physical distance between us stretching time, too, expanding minutes into hours and days into interminable weeks; an open, vast sea with no discernible horizon in sight. I can hardly believe only two months have passed since we were together in Oxford, and the more I think back to that last day, the further it, and you, feel from me. I sit at my desk, distracted, daydreaming, drawn back into the cool nights of May, echoes of Bach, and your arms around me in a certain punt - and then a car horn sounds outside in the street and I’m brought back to the present, and find only five minutes have gone by, and you’re still in Rome, and I’m still staring at the same page of my manuscript.
Of course we’ve already discussed the subject of waiting, and how these days feel to the both of us, but now I’d like to evoke the Bard and summon Time himself to the stage, to use his wings and advance the plot into the future - not sixteen years, but just a few weeks, or months, if needed, and I’d like him to bring you back to me. Darling, it’s a silly question, but entertain me - does the Foreign Office have no one else? Are you really so indispensable to the state of international affairs? I fear I may be growing selfish while you are away, but I want you all to myself, back in London, ringing me up to go out for dinner, as you used to do.
None of the clichés are satisfactory, you know. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, yes, but it also just makes me miss you more.
Ever yours -
* You may not buy me a small kitten and name it The Income, as I know the idea is now appealing to you.
19 July 1935
Foiled! Halfway through your letter I was happily entertaining visions of a demure silver tabby curled upon the hearth in the library at 2 Audley Square, and I was intending to call Bunter to begin the necessary inquiries into suitable breeders. I’d already internally drafted my response to any of his objections; I would proclaim that although I have never been a great lover of cats, nor any animals, really, I would be prepared to throw all hesitations out the window, if only I could make my lady laugh with this one living metaphor. And then I reached your anticipatory postscript, and I was the one laughing, and Bunter came in to inquire if I was quite alright. You delight me, as ever.
Nevertheless… If you do change your mind and wish to welcome The Income, theoretical feline edition, into our soon-to-be-formed household, I’m sure my mother will be more than happy to provide recommendations of her own. As I recall, the purchase of Ahasuerus was an elaborate undertaking.
And you will now notice, as I had warned you, that even as you’ve accepted the income – and I thank you, domina, from the bottom of my heart – I still want to buy you things. If not a kitten, is there anything else? You must realize that you’ve opened the floodgates to all kinds of indulgences. I thought, perhaps, I might replace the chessmen, as you were hardly able to enjoy them before they met their untimely end, but I don’t believe their equal exists in the world. Do you still have the surviving pawn?
Now to answer your question - the Foreign Office does have other diplomats at their beck and call, but according to the men in charge, I am the particular brand of fool “perfectly suited” for this occasion. I choose to believe they are referring to my experience in diplomacy, rather than my habiliments; however, I will always accept compliments of my apparel, and relay them to Bunter, who is greatly to be praised for his work in this area, as is my tailor in London.
But to be quite serious, Harriet, matters in Rome are currently tense enough to make me question once again, as you do, the purpose of my presence in this political circus. Why, indeed, am I chosen? Some strange hand of Fate dictates that I must be chaperone and mediator for the fractious representatives of nations seemingly on the brink of war… and yet, the evening whist games and garden strolls and luncheons are mostly passing without incident.
To the international top brass here assembled, I am merely an innocent English wit, brought in for a bit of light fun, don’t you know, connections at the best opera houses, knowledge of the right sommeliers, propensity for saying the silliest, most unexpected things! But behind closed doors, the Foreign Secretary’s brow grows ever more furrowed, and I am warned in late-night meetings or scrawled notes delivered to my hotel that Person A simply must not encounter Person B tomorrow while Persons C, D, and E are meeting to discuss arbitration.
I am at risk of revealing more than I should. You read the papers, Harriet, you can already imagine, I’m sure, the way of things. My job in this mess is to take every necessary precaution in conversation and in the planning of the social calendar, and to play the damned fool so as to make my few calculated remarks worthwhile. It’s hard to tell if any of it is working.
But I don’t want to bore you any longer. I’d much rather be regaling you with tales of my heroic diplomacy efforts – there are a limited number in this category – and anecdotes relating to contradictory understandings of punctuality, table etiquette, and rules of conversation throughout the Continent. Retellings of the latter category would take more time than I have at present to write; besides, I can’t recreate the dialogue with the right voices over paper. And I’d have to censor the best parts, and the names of the speakers, for the sake of international security. I highly doubt anyone is intercepting our correspondence, but the Foreign Office is always abundant in caution.
Something I can relate; however, is an entirely unpolitical, highly engaging encounter I had last night. I met the Pope, Harriet! Very unexpectedly. It transpired thus. On Monday, I’d asked permission to visit the Vatican Library to look at a few pages they have of Botticelli’s Divine Comedy – I’ve always wanted to see his illustrated Cantos up close – and they usually only allow proper scholars to enter, but I made my case to the padre on the desk, and he said he thought he could slip me in on Thursday evening.
But when I showed up last night, the man was nowhere to be found, so I was lolling about admiring the ceilings for several minutes undisturbed, when who should turn the corner but His Holiness himself, come to return a book! Imagine. Unaccompanied, very unassuming, and looking just as surprised as I was to run into another person at such a late hour. He did seem wary of me at first, but I quickly introduced myself and explained I’d come to see a manuscript, that I wasn’t a serious academic, just an amateur, and it was no trouble, really, if I couldn’t go in – I said all of this in a mix of English and halting Italian – and then he lifted his hand, very solemnly, cutting off my rambling, and said, “ Andiamo!” I gathered from this, and his subsequent beckoning, that I ought to make like my Biblical namesake, leave my fishing nets, and follow him, and so I did.
He retrieved a little key from somewhere behind the desk and led the way into the inner sanctum. I trotted along like an eager schoolboy, rather bewitched by the shelves and the artwork, and then he asked me what I was doing in Rome, and which manuscript I’d come to look for. Looked very grave as I told him about the League of Nations troubles, and our attempts to make peace, but he did light up excitedly when I mentioned I was hunting for Botticelli’s drawings. I swear there was a new spring in his step as he searched them out in the display cases. They are not kept in as prominent a place as I think they deserve, but he showed them off very proudly, and offered some fascinating observations about stylus markings and the preservation process. I wish you could have been there to see the Map of Hell - simply marvelous details, Harriet.
I really wouldn’t have thought manuscripts were in a pope’s usual line of work, him being head of the Church of Rome and sovereign of a small state and all, but apparently His Holiness was a paleographer and librarian at the Ambrosian Library before being called to higher things, and I gathered he misses it. He had the librarian’s fastidiousness about him, slow and precise with the parchment, observing the proper form in lifting the edges, and restoring everything to its original state when we finished and he locked up. The whole thing must have taken less than half an hour, but it felt like a meeting entirely out of measured time, a stumbling bilingual conversation nevertheless rich with meaning. The Bishop of Rome returned the key to the desk, offered me a blessing, and bid me good night, disappearing down the moonlit hallway as inconspicuously as he had arrived. What a strange, pleasant surprise of an evening.
Forgive me, Harriet, for taking up almost half a letter to describe my seeing a manuscript - but I believe you understand my enthusiasm. The Pope also recommended a few incunabula of interest kept at the Ambrosian. How do you feel about Milan? I realize we never did resolve the question of a honeymoon. But we need not make it a research project or a museum tour, if you don’t wish it! With you I am content with any kind of time-wastin’. As you have said, it’s difficult to converse and consider plans when we are so far apart. Shall we leave the question until I am free and can return? As much as I love your letters, I love you more, and I would also rather I were in London, ringing you up for dinner, and for lunch, and tea, and every time of day until death do us part.
All my heart is yours, my darling.
27 July 1935
I’m swooning. You know it is every woman’s desire to hear her beloved say, “I wish you could have seen the Map of Hell with me.”
No, really, Peter, I’m almost viridescent with envy. You’re having so much fun in Rome without me! I must ingratiate myself with the higher powers in our government if these are the perks.
But I also know you’re slogging through the swamp of Foreign Office nonsense with ever so much patience and goodwill, and I know I wouldn’t be half as polite as you about having to endure all of the pointless social gatherings and diplomatic commotions. I don’t mean to make light of your work, and I’m so glad there have been moments of levity in the general tedium. Meeting the Pope, for example! I can hardly believe it, but you told the story so vividly I felt I was there with the both of you, sneaking around the Vatican library after hours.
I wish I’d encountered someone equally exciting to tell you about. I did spy Salcombe Hardy coming out of Covent Garden station yesterday, but I hastily made my retreat down James Street to avoid crossing his path. I know we haven’t discussed at all who we are telling about our engagement and who we are not - but I made the quick calculations that if Hardy found out, all of London would be reading about us in the papers this morning, and so I dashed into a shoemaker’s and pretended to be very interested in the latest in mid-heel Oxfords until I felt it was safe to re-emerge.
I could have talked to Hardy, of course, and betrayed nothing. Perhaps I could have rambled on about my book and stirred up some advance publicity. But the man is a journalist and you know they have a way of telling when something is afoot, and I’m afraid I’m rather obviously happy these days, and not at all in the mood to dissemble. Eiluned has said I have an “annoying buoyancy” about me now, even when the skies are overcast and threaten to pour. So there. I can’t pretend I’m not in love, I must continue to avoid journalists with whom we both have a complicated past, and therefore I do not have any exciting London gossip to convey.
And I’m just about to leave the city, so any further news bulletins will have to wait. I promise I’m not running away – from you or from our engagement. I mentioned in another letter that I’d been planning to meet with an old Shrewsbury friend to talk about mills. I’ve since gone for lunch with her - formerly Frances Ryan, now Mrs. James Simmons, but we all knew her as Frankie - I digress - she has invited me to Redbourn to tour a famous watermill there. She’s something of an expert on the subject and claims the Redbournbury Watermill is the one mill most worth my seeing. Supposedly it’s the only mill in England owned by a lady miller - you see, my sex is making great strides in all professions - but the mill has also survived several historic fires and was formerly owned by none other than Henry VIII, so I really must see it. And these manifold attractions aside, I do need to run away. Not from you, as I said, but from finishing my book.
I’m sensing I’ve put a foot wrong somewhere in the resolution but I can’t figure out yet where it was, and I’m tired of looking at my own writing. With the convincing (read: rather weak) excuse of “authorly research” I told my editor, Andrew, that I’d be taking a fortnight to go see the mill and tour the surrounding countryside. I phoned him so as to avoid having to explain in person, but I could hear the amused disapproval in his voice, anyway. He knows I’m delaying. But I’m still well before our agreed deadline, and most of the book is written. I know you won’t judge me for taking some time to shake the plot out of my head before I try to make sense of it again.
And all that being said, I do want out of London for a while. It feels lonely without you in it, and I’ve noticed I’m beginning to scowl at happy couples loitering in St George’s Gardens when I go out for an evening walk. I find resentment and loneliness where I never often felt them before; meanwhile I am still inexplicably happy, but the explanation to both these emotional scenarios is you, and you being absent from me. I’ve realized, Peter, that love overwhelms the self and changes all sense perceptions and does everything else discomfiting the poets may describe, but it also comes and dredges up all other kinds of previously unexperienced, currently undesirable emotions in the heart, most unlike the felicitous experience of love itself. There’s a very unpoetic, circular conclusion for you. Why am I all at once moved, annoyed, envious, and grateful, upon seeing a gentleman opening an umbrella for his lady companion on the steps of the Embassy Theatre, where we saw together that horrible production of The Duchess of Malfi ?
Now I’m coming out of my somewhat melancholy mood – I’ve remembered the dreadful handling of all the deaths in the last scene and am laughing to myself. But I thought I sensed a hint of melancholy in your letter, too, or maybe just weariness. Two months have flown by for me and yet still feel impossibly long and tedious – and I can only imagine how the time has been for you with the future of Europe weighing heavily upon your shoulders.
Please don’t waste away, Peter. I know you feel a sense of responsibility in helping the Foreign Office with this Italian interlude, but I’ve grown very attached to you, you see, and I would have you return to me whole and unburdened, content to stroll in parks and poke fun at bad theatre, free from worrying about the fate of Europe.
With all my love, and a great deal of impatience for every diplomat who has thrown a spanner in the works in your tireless quest for peace,
P.S. I always forget to answer your questions until after I’ve finished writing, of course. I agree we should talk about a honeymoon when you come back; too prolonged a debate to have over writing.
P.P.S. And I do still have the pawn. He proudly guards the box on the mantel where I keep your letters.
8 August 1935
If I’ve calculated my timing correctly, this letter should arrive at your flat a day or two before you do. I could have written it sooner, but I rather disliked the idea of then waiting a fortnight for a reply after I’d posted it, and so instead I decided to delay the writing process itself. I am aware of the flaw in this logic, as is Bunter, he pointed out that I’ve merely changed the nature of the waiting, not shortened its duration. I openly acknowledge this problem.
My hope was that this letter, arriving to Mecklenburgh Square near the day of your own return, would be discovered, by you, somewhere on the top of the mail stack that has undoubtedly collected in your absence, as opposed to near the bottom, buried under bills and invitations and letters from other adoring readers. And I also hoped that you, returning refreshed from your adventures in Hertfordshire, would find yourself immediately inspired to sit down at your desk and write a reply.
And so not only am I hopeful and illogical in this little postal scheme - I am rather selfish. I miss your voice and your perfect words and how you cross the “t” on your name like an impatient afterthought. I imagine it so; there is something in the way your last stroke rushes to the edge of the paper, as if you are eager to move on to a fresh page and other ideas. I will not search your next reply for clues of when it was written (or for the state of mind of the writer, or the precedence the letter took compared to other writing tasks), but a date will provide some suggestion, should you choose to include it.
If, however, you’ve returned to London with Death ‘twixt Wind and Water sorted, and Wilfrid and company begging you for speedy resolution, I gladly step down in the ranking of priorities. Please, finish your book, and don’t dismay your editor on my account. I am eager to read it and to know from you how the trip to the mill went. Any gruesome discoveries in its history, useful for your purposes?
No gruesome discoveries on my end, sadly. Rome remains sunny, though the diplomatic tensions are simmering, as always. You are right that I am weary of this work and would be done. I spoke a few days ago with one of my Embassy connections, off the record, outside of any scheduled meetings, and he is not optimistic about our maintaining peace.
Harriet - may I confide something in you? I ask as if you could answer immediately. But I don’t want what I write next to be a burden. If it is, you are most welcome to burn these pages and forget what I’ve said, and I’ll write again with all lighthearted nonsense.
The heaviness begins here: I trust that you have gleaned enough about the problem the Foreign Office has assigned me, perhaps more from the news than from my sparse hints. I often make light of my work, and some of it is ridiculous and worthy of mockery, but in recent days the ominous cloud of war has drawn nearer on the horizon and casts its shadow upon all proceedings, suffocating any of my usual attempts to provoke amusement and general good feeling. In May it seemed we might avoid armed conflict. Now I am not sure that will be possible. I am afraid that the event I barely survived a little over fifteen years ago is about to be repeated, and once again I realize that my role in the making of peace is insubstantial, deeply fallible, and unsteady.
Can England survive another war? Can the world? There are too many countries at the table here in Rome; each makes untenable demands, talks of the importance of peace, and is unwilling to concede anything. If ambassadors and diplomats may be taken as true representatives of their governments and their people, we are already lost.
But again I will show you my selfishness - as much as I fear for the nations, I am afraid for myself. I’m sure you remember the evening we shared dinner some time ago, and I was lost in memory and preoccupied with a case, unable to be attentive to you as you deserve. The same worries darken my mind now: what more could I have done, can I do, to prevent the unnecessary suffering of so many?
I’ve found myself receding into this kind of reflection frequently, absent from the moment and my surroundings. I visited the Catacombs of San Sebastiano yesterday, a historical marvel, and the artwork wonderfully restored, but all I saw were bodies upon bodies, decayed in the sarcophagi, decaying in the mud of France, soon to be dying and then decaying in Abyssinia.
Domina - forgive me. I left this paper after writing those grim last lines and walked across my room to the balcony. The sun - still - is shining, in the distance I hear the church bells marking the hour, a child in the square below is playing with a spinning top that clatters against the stone. I am alive and well and have so much to love - and I have you, my darling, my only one. Forgive me.
I have been trying to shake these thoughts from my head since yesterday and I apologize that they have fallen on you. I don’t want to lessen your happiness - the joy of your holiday and your probable creative discoveries therein - nor do I want to interfere with your writing. God forbid I come between you and Wilfrid again.
And I did say in an earlier letter that I wouldn’t write of business, didn’t I? I won’t throw the whole thing out now - because I would hear your words - but again, I will understand if you’d rather burn it. And I promise to write nothing but sheer love and adoration in the next letter, to make up for the sadness and weight of this one. Perhaps it will sink to the bottom of the mail pile after all.
I love you, and I miss you, and I am close to defying orders and running away from here just to see you again -
15 August 1935
Damn! Through my own distracted plan-making, and forgetting about a writers’ luncheon I’d promised to attend, I inadvertently spoiled your letter-writing plot. I originally intended to leave the city for a fortnight, but in the end could only manage five days away. I left London on the evening of the 10th and I suspect your letter arrived shortly afterwards, because when I came back tonight, it was sixth in the pile, underneath a box of something posted from Shrewsbury, a few bills, and a rather messy bundle of fan-mail. They won’t really be letters of adoration, of course, just people complaining that I’ve got some chemistry detail wrong, or letting me know that they guessed the clue about the oyster fork long before the solution. My agent collects all these letters for me at her office and drops off a batch every now and then, and very conveniently, she brought this month’s lot after your letter arrived.
But - dear, silly, wonderful Peter - do you really think I’d deal with bills before you? That I wouldn’t hunt through the mail pile the minute I returned, looking for your handwriting? My bags from my trip along with my hat and the rest of the mail are in a mess in the middle of the carpet, because I abandoned them there so I could open your letter and read what you’d written. And now I’m at my desk writing you back, and so the mess will have to wait until tomorrow morning. My darling. I miss you so.
I wish I could be in Rome with you to say all of this to you directly - I wish I could take your hands in mine, and kiss you, and tell you that everything will be alright - that the world is not entirely on your shoulders, and that while your fight for peace is noble and good, it is not your fight alone, and that the outcome of all this international intrigue, whatever it may be, is not your sole responsibility.
I know you’re inclined to feel otherwise. I know life and detecting and military intelligence work have shaped you into the man whose job it is to solve the unsolvable problems, to make sense of the conundrums that befuddle the civil servants. But not every mystery - or political impasse - will be yours to solve. I know it isn’t about your ego, at all, but rather your very admirable desire to help, and to discover truth and preserve justice above anything. You’ve been so relentless in searching out the pieces of the puzzle in past cases - analyzing them, exploring how they might fit together, imagining the final picture. But with a problem of this scale - I’m afraid some of the puzzle pieces are simply out of your hands. From what you’ve written - and, yes, from what I’ve gathered from the papers - every global power has a conflicting interest in the fate of Abyssinia, and some of those interests are beyond your influence.
I hesitate to offer advice, because so much of it could sound condescending, and you know the intricacies of diplomacy work far better than I do. So please ignore me if I’m being facile. I’ll just say this: if my years as a writer have taught me anything, it’s that I always seek to write the tidiest solution, and with it, to affirm my own ability and intellect in its creation. I tie up all the loose ends, leaving nothing unaccounted for. Life is rarely so neat; we cannot obtain such easy answers for any problems. On the page I can endow Robert Templeton with astonishing powers of perception - he naturally knew about the oyster fork three books ago because I needed him to - and it all seems quite natural to the reader, that such knowledge was stored away in his head, awaiting its time of revelation. But behind the scenes, I’d spent weeks traipsing around London, staring blankly into shop windows, waiting for my brain to realize the thing I’d missed. And then - aha! Somehow, unexpectedly, I recalled it, and slotted it into its space in the plot (or in this specific case, the oyster fork, into the keyhole), and all was well. I charge you, daughters of Jerusalem, that ye stir not up, nor awake the solution, until it pleases.
And so while I can’t draw an exact line between my mystery-solving and yours, I can speak in defense of Time. It has untangled many knots I couldn’t untie by myself. Writing problems aside, you know, Peter, what Time has changed in me. My word of advice to you is “patience” - I sound like a curate, presenting you with a Virtue to embed in your weary soul. But you never know what time may do, and perhaps in the days it takes this letter to reach you, all the political mess will have resolved itself, and you’ll be free to come home.
But if not… I have great faith in you, and in your abilities. Much as I curse the Foreign Office for keeping you away, I know they couldn’t have anyone better on their side, fighting for king and country, even as that fighting is not so much physical as verbal - clever repartee in another language, or a discreet word of caution before dessert is served at an embassy dinner. Your words, your wit, and your unfailing courtesy are your strongest weapons here, and I know you’ll be wielding them expertly.
To say one more thing, and then I’ll move on to happier thoughts - I don’t want to assume anything of what you experienced in the war, and I won’t pretend I remember much of it, myself. I was comparatively safe coming of age in the countryside, and I didn’t realize the horrors of the front until I started noticing the injured men returning home. But I hope you know this: if it does come to war again, it’ll be different for you this time. You have me. Any pain to follow can be shouldered together.
And now, Peter, would you do something for me? I’m worried about you, and because I can’t be there in Rome to distract you personally, I have to make this request.
Would you take a day off? Is such a suggestion audacious, or will the Foreign Office allow it, and give you your freedom for twenty-four hours? If that’s too much of an indulgence, then surely at least a morning or an evening, away from the strategizing and secret meetings. Take whatever time they’ll give you, and escape your hotel, and go wandering the streets of Rome without a plan or itinerary. Find a neighbourhood you’ve never seen before, or an antiquarian bookshop - I am sure they sing their siren song to you as they do to me - and get lost in the shelves. Or browse an outdoor market, and buy me some bizarre trinket - a locket with strangers’ photographs inside, or a letter-opener that may be cursed - I leave the nature of the object entirely up to you. Surprise me.
But really, Peter - it’s not that I want a gift from you, it’s that I want you to spend some time away from trying to save Europe, and to allow yourself the luxury of an unregulated morning or afternoon, absorbing the Roman atmosphere, observing paradise around you, and letting thoughts and dreams float through your head without attempting to order or critique them. I spent a full day with Frankie wandering Redbourn itself - and there isn’t much to wander, because the village has its limits, but - it was glorious. A much-needed escape. I know you can’t leave Rome yet, but I hope you can find similar freedom within for however short a time. And after you’ve done so, write to me and tell me what you’ve found.
All my love,
16 August 1935
Damn! Sorry. I was being so poetic, too. I was startled last night by a telephone call from Frankie - she thought she’d left a parcel in my car and so I went down to rummage for it, and when I came back up I realized it was nearing midnight, and so I decided to finish the letter today with a clearer head. This morning I awoke to recall the pile on the carpet, and so I unpacked my things from the trip between distractedly opening my other mail, and ate toast with a very nice jam I got at a bakery in Great Pagford, and then I saw your mother for lunch, and - I’m glad that in the midst of all this I hadn’t sent your letter yet, because I realized that I have something else to ask you. A slightly more involved request than just making you take time off to explore Rome. Brace yourself.
How would you feel about buying a cottage?
And now, the explanation behind this unexpected question: I know you’ve just bought us a house in London, and it seems so silly of me to ask for another one, but when I drove back to London yesterday, I detoured through Great Pagford, where I grew up, and then through Paggleham, the next village over. There was a farmhouse there I loved as a girl and I wanted to see if it was still standing, and what its condition might be. When I was younger I had a secret hope I’d grow up to become a famous writer, and would have enough money to buy it, and that I’d live there until my old age, writing away and tending to the little garden. This was before I had a realistic sense of how much money one could actually make as a mystery writer, and also before I realized I had little practical aptitude for horticulture.
Anyway - I drove by the place on a whim, and it’s still there - Talboys, a perfectly evocative, ancient, English name. You have to see it to know that it fits; Elizabethan construction, black gables, and beautiful window panes. It’s a little ways outside the main village, and so not too close to anyone else, and very quiet and picturesque. I can’t make any promises about modern amenities or an extensive library; I visited it once or twice as a girl and vaguely remember a stone fireplace, creaking wood stairs, and a general sense of country comfort, with herbs hung up to dry, wildflowers in mismatched vases, and a window seat looking out toward the lane, etc.
I’m realizing that our correspondence involves a great deal more conversation of real estate than I would have originally imagined; we both have now taken our turns at convincing the other to buy properties sight unseen. What can I say? You started it, Peter. Look at your shameful influence.
I do think you would love Talboys. It’s about an hour’s drive from London - you’d drive it in less - close enough to escape for a weekend, or for Christmas, or any other time we want to be by ourselves, away from the city. I didn’t even think to check if it was for sale, I was just thrilled to see that it was still there, apparently untouched by time.
And so it seems I’m on a theme of making requests of you, both incredibly reasonable and rather outlandish - would you be interested in buying it?
Feel very free to say no. After all, the house at Audley Square wasn’t exactly purchased sight unseen; you knew it from before and could vouch for its perfection. I, on the other hand, am asking you to consider buying a surplus property on no other basis than my childhood nostalgia and a likely ill-conveyed description of some dated interior décor. I won’t write any more, now, and spoil that effect, but will leave you to your thoughts and wandering.
With all my love,
P.S. No gruesome discoveries at the mill - sorry to disappoint!
19 August 1935
Harriet, my darling,
Of course! Without a moment’s hesitation. Yes, oui, si and also sì, ja, feliciter. It would be my great delight to buy you Talboys, and any other such houses sight unseen. I would buy you a hundred - nay, a thousand - houses if only you asked. My heart is yours; in more mercenary terms, so is my pocketbook.
I did warn you that I planned to spend money lavishly on you whether or not you accepted The Income, but I didn’t imagine you would give me the chance so soon! Nor did I think you would ask me so directly to do so. I’ve been working on your ring, of course, which you already accepted in advance when you took my signet, but I had also been dreaming of other future gifts and wondering how I might convince you to accept them. Now you have rendered those plans obsolete - no matter, because you’ve asked me for something, and I cannot and will not refuse you.
Dear heart - I’m afraid you’re making me unspeakably happy. I tried valiantly in the past to refrain from indulging my spending impulse, so as not to bother you, but while I refrained I also longed for the day when you might ask me to buy you things. And I never dreamed of houses, Harriet! Only a book of verse, perhaps, or an ink pen if you needed one. Anything you asked for I would have given you in a heartbeat - but you wouldn’t ask, and I understand why and do not blame you in the slightest. You kindly indulged me in Oxford when you asked for the chess set. The excitement I felt then - to give you something you actually wanted - was only a slight foretaste of the joy I feel now.
I know we’ve written enough of money already, and I know your reluctance to accept anything unearned - a very lovable, admirable desire to be self-sufficient at all costs. But it is incredibly gratifying to know that you are willing to lay down your arms on this front once in a while and simply ask. To have your trust, Harriet, is a wonderful gift worth far more to me than houses of any kind. I know it has not been lightly given, and so I do not take it lightly, either.
I would like to confide something - about others in my past who have made similar requests. Oddly enough, you are not the only person to ever ask me to buy a property - more on that in a moment. It is exceptionally bad form to allude to ghosts in one’s romantic history, I know, but we’ve already established in our correspondence that I am unlikely to obey any of the conventions of the genre and will incessantly bother you with politics and the like. So I hope you’ll forgive another transgression - and I believe you will understand why I want to write briefly of those who have long been absent from my heart. I promised last time that I would send only love and adoration in this missive, and so now I promise that this tangent - though it will appear to begin in irrelevance - remains within the adoring theme.
I haven’t spoken of this before to anyone else, and I’m aware that what I am about to write may be reminiscent of the arrogance and entitlement you once (very rightly) disliked in me. So if this missive offends… Harriet, my only, weak excuse is my happiness in loving you and in receiving your love in return. If you ask me to buy you anything else - this is not a threat, only a guess - elation may take me over entirely, and reason and decorum vacate the mental premises forever.
Caveats having been offered, here begins my confession regarding asking and receiving in love. When I was a younger man - starting in such a clichéd manner surely bodes ill, nevertheless - I realized quickly that I had advantages in the realm of courtship that other men had not. Namely - a large disposable income, and privileged “connexions”. Money spoke for me long before I did; a whisper from a mother to her daughter at a dinner party changed the way the latter looked at me for the rest of the evening. I was labelled a prospect. Only a second son, of course, but still wealthy enough to be a worthwhile pursuit. I don’t write any of this to flatter myself, Harriet, I know that the attention I received was hardly credit to my character or appearance.
Regardless - I became something of a target, and I learned that initial romantic interest was often followed by material requests. Not always, but frequently enough - beginning with a dress, or a necklace, or the use of my box at the opera to host someone’s visiting cousin - and eventually progressing to the request to use said box without me present, and the wearing of said dress or necklace for the attracting of other suitors. I don’t begrudge any of these women the excellent use they made of me - I was not naïve about what was really going on - and I greatly enjoyed their company and affection while it lasted. But I’d seen enough of Gerald and Helen and could not be ignorant of the many distinctions between convenient mutual use and genuine love.
Mine was not a situation worthy of pity; I still enjoyed high society and companionship, I simply became guarded. I found it easier to leave England and to court in countries that didn’t care for my title, to find lovers who had advantages of their own and little need of mine. I recognize now that it was a rather weak attempt at self-protection. It’s difficult to give oneself in love when one is constantly doubting the integrity of the lover’s intentions. And now this brings me to the request of your last letter.
Harriet… I mentioned that you are not the first person to ask me to buy a property. There was an opera singer in Austria several years ago, and her house-buying request unintentionally provoked our parting. It brought about the realization of an unavoidable conclusion we’d both been ignoring. It wasn’t a question of her material dependence - she had money of her own and didn’t need me in that regard. But when it came to her actually asking the question - I identified the underlying assumption in her words, an assumption echoing the requests of many other women who had come before her and made requests of me. It was the moment I realized my generosity was expected - which I didn’t mind very much - but also that my generosity was desired more than I was - and that I did mind.
Being used is not a pleasant feeling. I believe you know the sensation yourself, though under different, more painful circumstances. If I had said yes to this one request, and bought her the home she wanted primarily for her own usage - it seemed to be requested as a condition of my continuing to see her - I would have committed myself to a lie. An eternally prolonged and ultimately pointless flirtation, a gift of self without true reciprocity, no real joining of lives in shared purpose and intent. Perhaps my assessment is bitter, but at the time I weighed my own desire and found it wanting. I couldn’t bring myself to use my money to make up for the lack in my own heart, for the desire I still had for passion given and returned in free exchange. I went back to England, and to a resignation that the kind of happiness I sought I might never find - but embracing solitude and the busyness of investigative work were far better than trying to falsify domestic bliss.
And so, Harriet, to return to the point - you are not the only woman to ever ask me to buy a home. But it is your asking which has revealed to me the change in my own heart, worked over time and through your love. Upon reading your letter I thought again of times past and lovers long-gone, and the requests I couldn’t fulfill, and I realized anew why that was. I resented the expectation and entitlement others expressed toward my wealth. My mother raised me by her example of a lighthearted kind of generosity, and I gave as freely as I could, where I could - but I didn’t want to buy affection, to participate in an endless chain of relationships founded on my advantages as a person of means. It seemed an unstated fact that I could afford to give without end, and that I would accept that my true worth lay in my financial offerings rather than my character. I carried this unrealized reluctance for years, trying to give in love and finding trust strained and broken instead, and then - you.
Harriet - I have never wanted to answer a woman’s desires as I have yours. You can understand the painful, ironic amusement I felt upon meeting you - you had little interest in my silliness, quite understandable, but still less interest in my wealth. I couldn’t buy your love if I had tried. Here I was, at last before the one woman in the world I wanted to give everything - and you would take none of it.
You changed the globe’s axis entirely, Harriet, and sent me spinning off into a new, bewildering orbit. I was used to women who’d read me up in the papers and would ask me outright to indulge them - and now here you were, glorious and righteous and justly proud in your independence, and you glowered at me across the table the first time I tried to pay the bill at dinner. I write “glowered” with the greatest affection, Harriet. My heart was absolutely incinerated and I have been burning for you ever since.
And then, five years of all kinds of flames between us - five years spent fighting with you over questions of pride and reliance and possession, five years in which I tried rather unsuccessfully to convince you that contrary to your sound perceptions, I wasn’t selfish and possessive and demanding. Five years I sorely needed to mortify the entitlement at the heart of my damned aforementioned spendin’ impulses. I have learned from you, over and again, that love cannot control, cannot possess, cannot attempt to win the other with anything but the self, stripped of title and rank and all privileges. You stunned me and transformed me, Harriet, because you didn’t care for anything I’d once thought was my advantage in winning affection.
Loving you has been a journey of unmaking and making anew all my intentions and impulses - and I know you have experienced your own journey from the other side of the problem. I was so relieved when you accepted The Income because I felt that we were at last resolving the initial war between us - that I could give to you without regret or expectation, and that you could receive from me without resentment or feeling indebted. I confess I did still worry that I would need to convince you again to accept more from me; to trust that I really am yours, and that I won’t hold anything - houses or income - against you.
But your last letter, domina - you did away with any remaining qualms of mine. You asked me to buy you something and you wrote with such joy and excitement, sharing with me this childhood dream and imagining it as part of the setting of our future together. You wrote in the same forthright manner with which you first denied my attempt to pay for that fateful dinner five years ago - you declared yourself and your desire, and now as then, I cannot but acquiesce.
Forgive me, I believe I did say I’d be brief in my reminiscences. I hope you’ll pardon this rambling, periphrastic letter - thousands of words when really all you needed me to say was, “Yes, dear, I will buy that charming little cottage.”
I hope you’ll also forgive the detour into the past. I am not trying to claim that I love you above others only because you refused to ask me for anything - nor am I trying to establish some system of comparison wherein you rate yourself against a queue of vague spectres. In my heart there is only you and no other, Harriet.
What I am claiming is this: I do not regret anything of the past, nor your initial refusal to accept me as I first presented myself. I was a most inadequate and ill-prepared suitor then and am only slightly less so now. I have read your letters from these past few months again and again and I still wonder at my fortune in having the chance to love you. If you will let me - if you will ask me whenever you like for whatever you want or need, for Talboys or any other house or thing - I will spend my life honouring the trust you have placed in me, and will say “yes” to as many of your outlandish and reasonable requests as I can.
And now, my darling Harriet, I swear I haven’t forgotten about the other request in your last letter. I spent so much of your time on answering a single, very simple question, and surely now you need a break to read other words or not to read at all. Go and be free of my palaverous prose. I am going to write to you tomorrow* and will bother you again.
I have obtained the evasive “time off” - there is a meeting with Spain over coffee tomorrow morning, but then I am free to explore and wander and to report back to you with my travel article and possible souvenir. I’ve given Bunter the time off, too; and so I really will have to leave the hotel and venture forth without assistance.
Harriet, Harriet, Harriet - you are ever in my mind and in my dreams and your name is on my tongue -
*I’m calling Bunter now to post this letter, and would you kindly let me know which arrives first, this, or tomorrow’s? I’m quite curious about the postal speeds of the Italian and English systems.
P.S. I have, in fact, called my agent, and he’s begun the necessary inquiries for Talboys. A practical detail I neglected to mention in my five pages of piffling. I love you.
20 August 1935
I really had planned to write this second letter to dazzle you therein with witty recountings of my afternoon’s adventures around Rome - and I will attempt some wit, but my time off was filled with rather more contemplation than I expected, and hardly any lighthearted hijinks. And so I hope what follows isn’t too somber. I’d hate to bore you.
I did have a promising start - after mercifully uneventful coffee with Spain this morning, I set out this afternoon to explore Rome without map or itinerary, to let my mind as well as my body be free to wander, unburdened by thoughts of Abyssinia or the current global order.
Bunter was incredibly helpful in seeing me off - almost a little too helpful. He disarmed me of my pocket watch before I left, saying I ought not to be distracted by timekeeping while fulfilling my lady’s mission. But I suspect ulterior motives. Several mysterious cases accompanied us to Rome - no doubt carrying cameras and lenses - and over the past few weeks I have noticed him casting covetous glances in the direction of the Villa Borghese gardens when he thinks I’m not looking. It is now close to dusk as I sit here writing to you, and he is nowhere to be found. No doubt he has assembled a makeshift darkroom somewhere and is squirreled away developing photographs.
Alas, I did give him his freedom for the afternoon as well as the evening, and you didn’t ask to hear about Bunter’s leisure, but mine, and so I shall return to my subject. When I left the hotel I chose to wander in a southwesterly direction, not for any poetic reason, but rather to avoid a rather large lorry - the back of which was filled with precariously stacked fruit crates - attempting to navigate into one of the narrow alleys just north of the hotel. There was a lot of gesticulating and yelling about oranges going on - in Italian, of course, both the gesticulating and the yelling - and so I veered south, away from the commedia of the fruit delivery, and towards the church of Sant Ignazio di Loyola.
I’d been meaning to visit it for some time; I have heard glorious things spoken of its ceilings, but when I passed, the piazza was too crowded for my liking, and so I walked further away, towards the Tiber and Ponte Sisto.
I have always found winding rivers in cities to have a grounding effect; not only helpful landmarks for orienting oneself, but also signs that nature must be accommodated. Civilization’s constructions - our churches, palazzos, and fruit deliveries - can only advance so far without being interrupted by running water demanding our attention.
I crossed the ancient bridge and began climbing towards the botanical gardens on the slopes of the Janiculum, overlooking the rest of Rome. My dear - I really had intended to get lost in some bookshop along the way, as you’d suggested, and I so wanted to find you a cursed vial, jewel, or other horrid antique trinket, for the fun of the thing - but after so many days of tiresome meetings and events, all held in stuffy chambers, I couldn’t bring myself to go back inside. I wanted the exertion of a walk longer than a hotel hallway, I wanted to feel the sun on my face - not dimmed through a window - and the wind, disturbing my hair. But not too much, you know - there are standards one must maintain.
And so I climbed. The Janiculum is not rated as one of the Seven Hills of Rome, being on the wrong side of the Tiber - but the landscapes and prospects it provides are well worth the slightly longer journey to get there. I imagine if I returned in another time or another mood, I would pay more attention to its features: the collection of tropical ferns, the fascinating busts of Risorgimento patriots, etc. But you did not ask for a travel pamphlet’s description of sights to be seen, and I wasn’t paying enough attention to those sights, anyway. As I climbed, I found myself thinking instead of the hill’s namesake - that ancient, Roman, double-faced deity - Janus.
Harriet, at times I wish I was less attuned to the conspicuous irony of everyday life. Here I am in Rome, playing my fool’s part, adopting the false face necessary for soothing ambassadors’ egos while simultaneously, discreetly interrogating them for potential intelligence. My days are spent in calculated performance, and at night, when I return to my hotel, and close the door to my chambers - only then can I drop the harlequin’s mask, look in the mirror, and remember that there ought to be a person left behind it. Morning comes - I replace the mask and continue the act. And then, this afternoon, when I was granted a momentary escape, I came across the one site in Rome that exposed to me all my facades and constructions.
And I wondered - am I ever truly myself, Harriet? Am I anything more than a collage of mannerisms and bon mots , assembled attributes designed to distract and disarm? Please forgive this grim turn, but this was the dangerous direction my thoughts took as I wandered the gardens of the Janiculum and made my way up to a plateau overlooking the Eternal City.
I was caught in this kind of rumination, utterly trapped inside my own head - and then suddenly I was looking out at the skyline of Rome, the domes and towers and rooftops all alight and glowing in the warmth of the afternoon sun, as if the whole city had decided to become a shimmering mirror for celestial beings, returning light into light and conveying to me an infinite, radiant brightness. I heard the faintest strain of birdsong and turned to glance behind me, half-expecting, half-hoping I would see you there - as if you had climbed up a few steps behind me, and I could have reached for your hand and said, “Look, Harriet -” and together we could have taken in the sun and the silence, noticed the breeze in your hair and in mine, the two of us marvelously free and alone, together upon Janus’ hill.
You weren’t there, of course. It was remembering your absence that reminded me of the reason for my being out climbing and having such time for pondering when otherwise I’d have been trapped inside, still bound to my schedule - and that reason, of course, is you.
You, Harriet, your love, your constant light breaking through the occasional gloom of my thoughts and ponderings - it was the memory of your particular care for me, constant even while we are apart, that brought me back out of my interior maze this afternoon. And I thought - what is the need for my agonizing over mirrors and masks and harlequin’s double faces when I have found myself seen, reflected, and loved in you?
Janus was also the god of gates, you know. And doorways, and transitions. Again, I will choose to read the irony to be found in everyday life, but this time I find it delightful rather than worrying. Something changed within the contemplation of my afternoon walk, Harriet - there was some kind of threshold to be crossed, something of the old self to be left behind, something of a new self to discover. Before you, the strain of self-reflection and self-doubts would have kept me trapped inside my mind - and Bunter, no doubt, would worry himself sick trying to pull me out with a distracting case. But after you, Harriet, and now every day with you - whether together or apart - I cannot remain within the pressing darkness with its wispy phantoms of guilt and duties neglected. You illuminate everything; you are the clear light of day calling me back into the world, calling me to pay heed to the very air I breathe, to the fact that I am breathing.
So there - there is your souvenir from my wanderings, and a very poor one, at that. You asked for a cursed trinket and I gave you instead a momentary existential dilemma, resolved and clarified at once by the recollection of your blessed existence. My God, Harriet. Next time I’ll just send a postcard. I miss you unspeakably.
I’d endure weekly tea with Helen a thousand times over if I could be back to you by tomorrow morning; alas, I don’t believe the Foreign Office could arrange such a bargain, nor would they consider it a fair swap.
The next time I am in Rome - the next time we are in Rome - I will take you to the Janiculum, that unfortunate, fortunate site, and we can observe the nature of sunlight on rooftops together, and I will occupy my mind with pleasanter musings.
And now I must fly; that is, find Bunter and alarm him with the state of my hair.
Yours, feeling at once very silly and very tired and very much in love with you,
With thanks (and thanks, and ever thanks) to larkspurblue for the beta for this chapter and many of its predecessors!
24 August 1935
Peter, my dear, sweet, silly boy,
I imagine most people, when given an afternoon of freedom from the burdens of their daily labours, will venture out in pursuit of ice cream, or coffee, or some other similar treat, and will then amble about in a square or park, idling away their time, people-watching to their hearts’ content. You, however...
Peter, I did ask you to enjoy yourself on your afternoon off, didn’t I? I wanted you to have at least some fun gallivanting about Rome, not to spend the time pondering your role in the universe - a mental pursuit which I believe comes rather naturally to you. Only you would embark upon the exploration of a botanical garden only to become preoccupied with Latin etymology and consequently a questioning of the very fabric of your character. But only you - only you, my dear idiot, could write such a soul-confiding epistle after the fact.
I hope I don't sound like a scold, Peter - I’m very glad, after all, that you aren’t most people, and that you took the afternoon off to spend as your heart desired, and that your wanderings begot such a wonderful letter as arrived in my mailbox yesterday afternoon. Oh! wise Penelope would ne’er have stayed to broider on her hearthstone, if her Ulysses could have writ such letters! But would have cast away her silken bobbins and fled to join him, mad for love as Helen.
Unfortunately I’ve never been one for much ‘broidering - and this could very nearly have been the downfall of my writing career, because I got some stitching details on Ada’s handkerchief dreadfully wrong in Death ‘twixt Wind and Water, until my editor’s wife pointed them out. This has certainly saved me from several smug fan letters. But Peter, to return to the point, your letter made me want to cast away all my hearthside activities, leave behind pages and ink pens and scribbled notes on paper scraps to rush out in search of you. If only you weren’t several countries away - if only your last letter had been posted from 110A Piccadilly, and I could rush down my stairs, catch a taxi, and be on your doorstep in minutes.
But of course, if you were in London, there’d be no need for such letters. There’s more everyday irony for you. To answer your inquiry - your last letter before this one arrived only the day before, and so the Italian and English postal systems, on this occasion, were boringly reliable.
Roxane was right, though - excellent love letters do bring on a certain kind of madness and distraction, and perhaps Penelope would have been a bit more proactive in her professed fidelity to Odysseus if he’d been able to wire her a line or two between dodging sirens and sea monsters. And if Odysseus wrote like you… well, then.
It’s rather unfair how good you are at the genre, Peter. Love letters, I mean. I think I’m probably paling in comparison - but I spend my writing days mired in alibis and handkerchiefs, so when it comes time to write to you, I just ramble. Not for much longer, though - because I’ve finished my book.
There. I’ve announced it to you and therefore to the world. It’s done. My editor has the final manuscript and until I hear back from him I’m not thinking about it. I won’t spoil the resolution for you, in case you’d like to read it at any point. I also remember you writing in a past letter that the Foreign Office has sternly warned you not to discuss any state secrets in mail that could potentially be intercepted. Abyssinia aside, I’d really rather the public not find out how Templeton solves this one before it goes to press. Suffice it to say for now that in Death ‘twixt Wind and Water he is as ill-dressed as ever and arrives at the solution with, I think, his usual charm and savoir-faire.
The book - finally - being done, I went out last night to celebrate. Several books ago, Eiluned and Sylvia started a tradition of standing me a pint of Guinness whenever I finished a novel. I don’t remember how the tradition got started, because none of us particularly likes Guinness, but a custom established tipsily among dear friends is sacrosanct and ought not to be changed in any way. And so, last night, after dinner and several pints on top of the first, and Eiluned gleefully proposing new, post-marriage pen names for me - each one more ridiculously ribald than the last - I saw them off and headed in the direction of home via Trafalgar Square.
I was just passing George IV on horseback - his statue, of course, not the man himself - when I heard the unmistakable, ominous opening chords of Bach’s Passacaglia in C, blasting out from St. Martin-in-the-Fields, its front doors ajar, and golden light from the church spilling down the steps into the darkening dusk. Don’t be too impressed with me for identifying the piece on the spot; Peter, I spent several stressful chapel services at Shrewsbury page-turning for an organist friend.
You know I’m not very musical, but I find it hard to resist the Romantic theatricality of an unexpected organ recital on a summer evening, and Bach always reminds me of you, and I’d had more than enough Guinness and was beginning to feel slightly melancholy - and so I crossed the street, climbed the steps to the church, slipped into a pew at the back, and promptly got lost in listening.
Somewhere up above, in the loft, the organist was delivering the Passacaglia in all its furious glory, and I looked up at the chandeliers and the carved ceiling, watching the flicker of shadows playing in the sanctuary, cast by candlelight, as the music climbed to its triumphant resolution. I won’t pretend I can be at all articulate about how music works technically, and I have little poetry to offer on the subject, but I can make one observation: the listening made me feel, for a moment, less alone.
It reminded me of the last time I’d listened to Bach, which was also the same night as the very last time you asked me to marry you, which was also the very first time I said yes. The Passacaglia has its own temper and argument so unlike Bach’s concertos, but I still thought of the music we heard that night: the two voices of the violins, their dueling, their dialogue, and at last their resolution in agreement. I remember you seated next to me on the bench at Balliol - with whole worlds unspoken in the little space between us. And then - after the concert - the sweetest of evenings, of memories.
Bach could never be the same after that. I thought that as I listened last night - it just isn’t the same without you by my side; my other voice, my partner in song.
When the piece ended, there was a breathless moment of silence before scattered applause broke out and everyone rose and turned to look towards the loft - and that slight silent pause struck my heart somehow; I felt a strange, aching love for the music I’d just heard, and a dutiful awe at the skill of its performer, but most of all a sadness that you hadn’t heard and loved it with me.
I am happy, Peter - please don’t agonize over this brief wistful turn - I’m happy to be done with my book, and to have celebrated it with friends, and to have been able to trespass on a beautiful organ recital. But the world feels flat, still, somehow. I won’t embarrass myself by belabouring the musical metaphor. All I mean to say is that I still miss you, Peter, and I’m growing tired of daily life without you in it. Unexpected concerts, browsing aimlessly at Foyles, morning tea while watching the dawn from my bedroom window, stumbling a little through Trafalgar Square in the evening - though you’d never stumble, I’m sure - I would very much like you to be here with me in the everyday.
But I have to stop writing myself into vicious circles: I miss you, I wish you were here, and then you write to me, I’m comforted, and then I miss you all the more. There’s no end to it until you return, and so, until then, I can either look back to happy memories or look forward to our future together.
To anticipate that future: of course I feel a little lonely and wistful in my day-to-day life while you’re away, but I really only need to remind myself that the world can’t be in crisis forever, and that a time will come when the Foreign Office will release you, and you’ll be back and on my doorstep and will whisk me off to symphony concerts as you used to do, but I won’t glower at you anymore, or try to start fights - instead I’ll rest my head on your shoulder so I can listen for your heart, keeping time with the music. And soon I won’t wander into Foyles alone - you’ll be with me, wrinkling your nose at my competition’s books on display in the mystery section, and later sidling up to me with a copy of The Fountain Pen Mystery, the front cover open and your own pen extended, asking if the authoress would care to autograph it for a devoted reader. And you’ll be with me at morning tea looking out the window as the mist clears, but over Audley Square and Hyde Park instead of Mecklenburgh, and with me, flashing your monocle ever so slightly whenever Helen says something cutting, and with me, walking or stumbling home at any time of night. Well - as I said - I can’t imagine you stumbling, but I might, and you’d be there to steady me.
Don’t mind all this, Peter - now that I’m done my book I must channel the writing impulse somewhere, and I like to imagine with my pen what we can’t yet live out in reality. This happens every time I’ve written a solution; I always feel first elated and then downcast, wondering how I’ll come up with something different and original for the next one. And then inspiration inevitably strikes in the unexpected and I’m off again, scribbling away. Do you think a body might be easily hidden in an organ? Not in the pipes, of course but you know how those creaking choir lofts always seem to have several mysterious cupboards built around the instrument itself.
Come back to me - as soon as you are able -