Philip Boyes sat in Ryland Vaughan's armchair, contemplating his latest novel. Or rather, contemplating the back of it. He had seen the front of the book too much over the last few weeks; the bold, red cover with a splash of black underscoring the title. Nineveh, it said in block capitals, and in smaller capitals beneath, by Philip Boyes. He had seen it staring out at him from display-windows in the smaller bookstores, seen it pushed into obscurer corners as it was engulfed by other, more popular books in the larger bookstores, and as it became clear that this book was no more to the public's taste than his first three, he had sunk gradually into the gloomy dyspepsia which always seemed to arrive at about this time in the publication schedule. Damn Grimsby, he always swore he was going to really make a push this time, but somehow it never seemed to come off. If people would only read, not just suck up the mindless trash which they found in the railway stations …
The back of the book displayed a more welcome sight; his own face, or rather, his own face as it had been eight years ago, when Philip Boyes was the handsome young author of the much-discussed if poorly-selling Abhasa. Dark curls artfully rumpled, the younger, optimistic Philip stared out at the current version, and looked distinctly unimpressed. Well, no wonder, thought the living Philip. He had found some white hairs frizzing out from the dark curls, and the lines by his eyes never left them now. He had thought that by the time he looked like this, he would have at least managed a title which sold more than two thousand copies.
The bell rang. Vaughan, home already? No, he wouldn't be ringing his own bell. Philip crossed the living room to the front window and looked out at the rather droopy young man who now stood on the doorstep, hatless and sweating. James Rushworth – well, he would be a distraction. Philip went down the staircase and opened the door.
"Phil! I thought I might find you here." James always took the steps upstairs two at a time; Philip couldn't think where he found the energy. "Is Vaughan in? Oh dear, trapped at the bank again? Well, no need to wait for him, he'd just make the place more depressing and empty all the bottles. What do you say to a bite and then we'll go round to a party?"
"Hell, not another party, I'm sick of them."
"Oh, this isn't the usual crowd. Or, it isn't most of them – Miss Phelps is invited, and she told me that she's sure I could come as well, for a breather. I've been at home for the last three days trying to finish up the latest issue of Lightning and had to listen to Naomi and Mother talking up dear Walter every single second of the day. When I'd finished the last sentence I absolutely fled. I even forgot my hat, or perhaps I remembered and then I forgot it on the tube. Oh dear, well, it was a dreadful hat anyway."
"Take this," said Philip, grabbing one of Vaughan's. He put on his own hat and opened the door. The warmth of the summer evening was reflected back from the steps, the sun still high in the sky. Poor old Vaughan, he thought, sweating in that underground office somewhere. Still, it made no sense to wait – he would probably be hours. "Where do you want to go?"
"The club, of course. I'll put it on Mother's tab. She owes me that much for having to listen to her rhapsodies about dear Walter."
"Has Naomi actually captured the heart of dear Walter? I thought he had better taste than that."
"I'm sure he has, but he hasn't absolutely told her No and he has told her how intelligent she is a few times, so she's eating out of his hand. You know how women are," said James, who even by the laxest standards could not be said to know any such thing. "They like to think a man likes them for their brains, and heaven knows Naomi hasn't got much in the way of looks. You should come to the next do, to watch the fun. She follows him around like a dog."
Philip, who was trying to hail a taxi and not paying much attention, wondered vaguely if this conversation would produce an opening for a question on whether Lightning planned to raise its payment rates any time soon. His latest contribution, "The Failed God Of D.H. Lawrence" had been enthusiastically received but less enthusiastically remunerated.
It wasn't until they were actually seated at the club, trying to decide which of the offered dishes was most likely to actually be available, that Philip asked to which party James had been indirectly invited.
"It's at Sylvia Marriott's. It's for a friend of hers, Harriet Vane – she writes mysteries. Her third book just came out and Sylvia is having a celebration in its honour."
Philip, who had been ready with a dismissive quip ever since the word "mysteries", opened his mouth and then shut it again. Then – "Is she the one who wrote His Final Death? Vaughan lent that one to me. It wasn't bad, for a mystery."
"Yes, I remember that one. Personally I think it rather unfair to make do with the murderer's confession, but I heard Mother and Naomi hashing it out when they'd read it and none of us could think how it could possibly have been proved. She must be a dead ingenious girl to think of something like that, and I'll offer her my warmest congratulations once we've crashed her party. I've heard she sells pretty well, too, and that's always something worth celebrating."
Philip winced, then took a sip of some unidentifiable alcoholic liquid. Perhaps he should beg off, say his health was at a low ebb again – but no, that would mean going back to the house, and having to put up with Vaughan's oppressive concern combined with complaints about the horror of the banking life. The liquor cabinet had required frequent replenishings lately. No, he'd go and meet Miss Vane, and extend his congratulations. Who knew, she might even be worth a look or two – and without a doubt, she'd be easier on the eyes than Vaughan.
Sylvia had insisted on the party celebrating the appearance of The Seventh Sin. "Three is a lucky number, after all," she had told Harriet as they sat at the table while Sylvia cracked walnuts with a severe-looking pair of metal pincers. "After this, even you have to admit that you're a success!
"Eiluned can't come, she's out of London for the weekend with some terrible friend of hers from school, Mabel something, she's always mentioning books she's read and saying she expects you haven't. I don't know what she sees in her, really. The Brubakers are coming too, like you asked for, and Townsend and Trimbles, and Marjorie Phelps. She told me she'd asked James Rushworth along also – you know James? He's one of that crowd that's always running up to Lady Till and Tweed's country house and telling each other how marvelous they are. I'm sure she nearly bankrupts herself on these things but of course that never occurs to any of her guests. Mark seems to think she's an official branch of the Bank of England. The other day he was telling me how the last weekend he was there, Lady T was so skimpy with the dinners that he could swear he actually saw a saddle of mutton being brought out for a second day, like something our grandparents might have done. I suggested that perhaps the butcher's bill was getting a little high and he looked absolutely shocked. It never crossed his mind. Of course, Eiluned would say, how many men ever have to work on a household budget?"
"Dad did," said Harriet, more to give Sylvia time to catch her breath than because she felt like reminiscing. "He would open the books every first Saturday and then close them five minutes later after saying that he didn't believe we could possibly spend so much and he had better look again later when he was better prepared for it. It wasn't that much, really, but he liked investing and was never very good at it, so we never had as much to spend as he thought we should. Here, let me get those sausage rolls."
"Oh no you don't, you're the guest of honour," said Sylvia, pulling the tray back. "It's bad luck to prepare food for your own party."
"I've never heard that before."
"Well, I have. Or perhaps I made it up just now, but the principle is sound. Leave the rolls to me – Mrs McKee finished the other things before she left."
"Nonsense," said Harriet. "I can't stand to sit around feeling useless. I'll get them."
The rolls were barely finished before the bell began to sound. George Townsend and Dora Blacknall, painters who were swathed in scarves and airs of mystery but whose ethereal appearance was counterbalanced by their ravenous appetites. Miss Blacknall had only got halfway through The Seventh Sin and kept asking Harriet how it ended, as she wasn't sure when she would have time to finish. Laura and John Brubaker were good company, although Laura wanted to talk about some complicated quarrel between herself and another barrister's wife, and John appeared interested only in the extremely wobbly state of something called the Megatherium Trust. Marjorie Phelps appeared, thankfully interrupting John's expansively-gestured explanation, and after congratulating Harriet she promptly scooped up half-a-dozen sausage rolls and made for an armchair. "I'm famished," she said, as Miss Blacknall gave her a look. "A commission for a sweet little boy holding a bunch of balloons, and I swear that it's cursed. He simpers and smirks at me. It's dreadful. I'll probably be spending the whole week-end exorcising the studio and starting again."
"The whole week-end? Surely that's not all you're doing," said George Townsend, filling a plate with cheese straws. "Isn't anybody in love with you at the moment?"
Miss Phelps evidently found this a normal inquiry, as she only said "Not precisely. Lord Peter has been nosing around recently but he's been called away on an inquiry and abandoned me to pottery balloons."
"An inquiry – Lord Peter Wimsey, do you mean?" said Harriet, as the bell rang once more.
"Oh yes, didn't you know? He could talk all the air out of a house but he is a darling. And of course, you're somewhat in his line, aren't you? I'll have to introduce you some time."
Harriet reached into her pocket for her cigarette case, only to discover that it was missing. "No, please don't think of it. I doubt he'd think very much of my efforts, though I'd certainly like to hear more about his. I'm sure the papers don't tell half of it."
"They don't. But he also – oh, hullo!"
"James Rushworth and friend," said Sylvia, who was holding both men's hats. "This is Miss Vane, the reason we're all here."
"Philip Boyes," said the friend, extending his hand, then starting to turn away almost before she finished shaking it. Harriet laughed, just as she realized – this was the Philip Boyes, the one who had written Abhasa and Mrs Bolton-Brown. Those books had made the rounds of half the undergraduates at Shrewsbury and Miss Mollison had been rather tiresome in her insistence that she understood them.
"Is that how you treat a guest of honour?" she said.
He glanced back at her. "How precisely should I treat a guest of honour? Should I throw roses at her as if she just won a bullfight?"
"If you want to," she said, "But all I require is that you look at me for a moment."
Mr. Boyes's dark eyes crinkled a bit at the corners. "My apologies, Miss Vane. The truth is, I'm a bit out of sorts with the world and am taking it out on anyone who happens to live in it."
"I'm sorry to hear that," she said. "Would coffee or tea be better for reconciling you with the world?"
"Coffee. I can't abide tea."
Harriet wondered how many consolatory cups of coffee she had poured out over the years. Her father had drunk pots of it but had never learnt to make it to his own satisfaction.
"What has the world done to you, then?"
"Oh, the usual. Sales. My latest thing – Nineveh, you may have seen the notices – isn't doing any too well, and I hoped that by now … well, no use going on about it. You seem to be doing all right, though."
"I'm not doing too badly, but mysteries are – people expect different things from them."
"Less of a challenge, perhaps?"
Harriet could feel her face turning crimson, but Philip was smiling as he said it and didn't look as if he meant to be insulting. She took a long breath while her thoughts crystallized. "I don't think that's true," she said at last. "But the fact is that a purely literary writer will have a style, and type of book, which is entirely his own. With a mystery, one can have one's own style, but the type of book is still part of a larger whole. The man at the railway station may never have read a Harriet Vane mystery before, but he's probably read an E.F. Benson or an Agatha Christie, and if he hasn't read them he's read Nellie Quick or James Brunvand. But if he's read D.H. Lawrence, that doesn't mean he knows what a Philip Boyes book will be like."
"Interesting that you should mention Lawrence, I did an article on him not long ago, in Lightning. And I didn't see it myself but there are a few people who think some of my stuff is fairly similar in spirit. Did you ever read Mrs Bolton-Brown?"
"I did once." Well, she had read most of it.
"What did you think?"
Even to that pleasant voice and those dark eyes, she couldn't bring herself to lie. "I never give opinions on other authors' work."
Philip's shout of laughter made everyone else in the room jump; Miss Phelps looked positively astonished. "You're lying, Miss Vane," he said. "Or you're the only writer in the world who never talks about other people's books. I forgive you, though. It's one of my early things, anyway. You might like Nineveh, though. Shall I send you a copy? I won't demand an opinion afterward."
"I shall read, mark and learn, and inwardly digest."
"Ah, a daughter of the parsonage. My condolences." He took a sip of coffee.
"My father was a doctor. My grandfather was the parson."
They seemed to have run out of words, but before the moment could become too awkward, James Rushworth came bouncing over with some claret. Miraculously, he also appeared to have actually read The Seventh Sin, though he showed a terrible tendency to remember minor inconsistencies in the plot. But somehow her eyes kept straying back towards Philip Boyes. A literary man – perhaps not the most popular, but nonetheless well-known – and he had wanted to talk with her. Judging by the way he was staring silently out the window, he wasn't a natural talker, but he had talked to her. And there was something about his face …. he turned suddenly, and caught her staring at him. He lifted an eyebrow, nodded, and went back to his companion. But in the moment he looked at her she had felt as if something had smashed into her breastbone and left her struggling for air.
She had always felt a faint pride, while at school, that she did not succumb to pashes and love affairs the way the other girls did. She had regarded their antics, their obsessive note-passing and whispering, their constant talking about the boy at the other school or the wonderful gym mistress, as juvenile and weak-minded. Now she was discovering that far from being an adept at resisting temptation, she had simply never been subjected to it in the first place. In the space of half an hour, she had acquired a new and urgent concern in her life: to have Philip Boyes smile at her again, and to talk with him.
In the meantime, her cigarette case was still missing. She finally borrowed a Gauloise from Sylvia and as she received congratulations and Sylvia proposed a toast, her nerves quieted. When Philip Boyes left, not long after, she managed a good-bye that was as casual as if she had been talking to Miss Blacknall.
Harriet was scratching out and rewriting a timeline for her current book when the bell rang. Walking to the window, she was mildly let down to see that the bell-ringer was Sylvia. (Well, who on earth had she expected it to be?) Sylvia was carrying a large brown parcel and her expression, beneath her broad hat, was unreadable.
Harriet met her at the doorstep. "Here," said Sylvia, pushing the parcel into Harriet's arms. "Phil Boyes sent this round for you this morning. What on earth did you say to him? I can't remember the last time he gave anything to anyone."
"I didn't know you knew him, I thought he tagged along with Mr Rushworth." The day was warm but overcast, and the breeze felt damp as it played with Harriet's uncovered hair. The parcel was addressed to Miss Vane, care of Miss Marriott, and the weight suggested that it was full of either books or bricks.
"I've seen him about. I certainly didn't intend to invite him. Aren't you going to open it?" said Sylvia.
"Why not?" said Sylvia, sitting down on the steps. "I want to see what it is, and I haven't time to come inside, Eiluned's back in town and I'm meeting her for lunch."
Eiluned again. Harriet wondered if Sylvia realized just how often that name cropped in her conversations. She undid the parcel – a little too quickly, as it turned out, as the contents suddenly broke through the paper and tumbled onto the steps. Sylvia yelped with surprise and then with laughter as they bounced down the steps.
"Harriet! He's sent you all his books! Oh, good lord, look at this. Abhasa. That looks like one of his author copies. Mrs Bolton-Brown! I read that one when it came out; Lew Garvice thought it was brilliant and he made me. Nineveh, he was whinging about that last night. Eiluned told me once that if he wants to know why his books never sell, he should try reading them."
Harriet stood with the books stacked in her arms, her face burning. What on earth had come over Sylvia? They were in public. The books didn't belong to her. What had Philip Boyes ever done to her besides write books she didn't care for? Phoebe Tucker had put Abhasa aside after thirty pages, saying that if she suspected Bob of resembling any of the characters she would flee to a convent, but that hadn't been the same.
Rain was spattering on the pavement now, and umbrellas were going up. Sylvia looked at Harriet for a moment, then gathered up the books and handed them to her wordlessly.
"Thank you," said Harriet coldly.
"It's nothing. I apologize for getting carried away. Still – Harriet – do please be careful. He can be charming, but –"
"I'm not an innocent, Sylvia." She had witnessed some of the small and large scrapes her fellow-students had got into, and of course her father had made sure she read the relevant portions of his medical textbooks.
"It isn't that, exactly, but he – " Sylvia seemed to be struggling to speak. "Very likely I'm prejudiced," she said finally. "He simply isn't someone I care for. Perhaps I'm wrong. I can give you his address if you want to write and thank him."
She wrote Philip Boyes a polite note and put the books aside for the evening. The Seventh Sin may have only just been released, but it didn't do to sit on one's laurels – the public would read it, put it aside, and demand another one before she had time to look around. She set to work again but after a few hours she was relieved to see that the post had arrived and given her an excuse to stop fruitlessly erasing things for a bit. Two circulars, two bills, a note from the Misses Benn and Clarridge, who had lived in her grandfather's parish, doubtless bidding her to tea and improving lectures ("We see you so seldom, Hattie, and you only a few miles away now!"). And finally, a letter whose postmark told her it was from Mary Attwood.
She knew how little it would really tell her, but she opened it nonetheless. Her circumstances had kept her from visiting Mary during the last two years, and Mary's letters were poor substitutes for the Mary she had known at Shrewsbury; a bright, lively talker, always planning an outing, an excursion, a party – but reading Mary's flat letters made Harriet wonder how much of her brilliance had in fact been the result of her attempts to avoid thinking about anything in particular for very long. From sport to sport they hurry me … Her delightfulness utterly failed to translate to the written page, and this latest letter was no exception. Her mother-in-law had come to visit. She was expecting another baby (by intention? She gave no indication of how she felt about it). She was having a hard time finding a maid, they all wanted office or factory work these days. She wished she and Harriet could go punting or picnicking together again, but that was all over.
Harriet sighed and put the letter down. She would have to come up with something to say about all of these things. If only she could see Mary in the flesh, or if Phoebe Tucker would write more often – her letters sounded just like her, but she was barely ever in England now, and her letters always arrived four months after posting and covered with mysterious blurred stamps.
At least, now that she knew Philip Boyes hadn't responded, she could get back to work. Which she did, and was pleased to discover that the embryonic book was much more cooperative. By evening she had the timeline much improved and was leafing through her copy of The Art Of Cross-Examination, thinking about alibis.
Philip didn't answer her letter straightaway: first, because he was in an extended wrangle with Tom Alderman of The London Review over cuts to a short story, and second because he regretted having sent all of his books. What extravagant impulse had made him give up his next-to-last author's copy of Among The Serpents? Just one book would have been enough, but as it was the girl was likely to get a swelled head – if it weren't swelled already from having sold four thousand of The Seventh Sin. Still, he thought, as he underscored "extremely presumptuous" in his latest letter to Alderman, all that proved was that the reading public didn't like a challenge. And she herself seemed to recognize that from the way she had spoken about it …. realism was always attractive in a girl, realistic, intelligent girls knew how the world worked and didn't make impossible demands on one. And while he couldn't call her pretty, there was no denying that she had a good figure. Youth compensated for a good deal.
Several days later, once the spat with Alderman had concluded and a new one with Grimsby had arisen to fill its place, he took a look at his calendar and realized that Kropotky's concert was the day after tomorrow. He wasn't sure he could survive the experience alone, so he concluded the evening by dashing off a quick invitation to Miss Vane. A composer friend of his was conducting his new piece at a concert hall in south Chelsea. Would she care to accompany him?
"What did you think?" Philip asked as they stood on the pavement, awaiting the bus which would carry them to the celebration at the Kropotkys' flat.
"I think," said Harriet, "That I need some time to recover before I can articulate properly. What was the chorus supposed to be doing, did you know?"
"Expressing the soul of the voiceless invertebrate, I believe. I think the bit with the musical saw represented paramecia, but I can't quite remember."
"He's certainly an impressive conductor. I can't imagine what it takes to conduct a chorus who are all singing in different keys."
"Don't tell him that. At least, don't say "conduct." It implies the submission of the musicians, and that offends him."
Harriet said nothing. This seemed like as good an opening as any.
"We can go to my flat if you'd prefer. There are always a thousand people at the Kropotkys' – nobody will mind if we're not there. And Vaughan should be out for the evening." Or if he wasn't, Philip would scrounge up enough money for a bottle and see to it that he was.
"Mr Boyes, I don't feel like going to anyone's flat just now. My head is feeling dreadful, and I really would like some tea."
"I could give you tea at my flat."
"Do you keep tea there? I thought you said you didn't like it."
She remembered – clearly she appreciated his company more than she was letting on. He took her hand, and while she didn't grasp his hand in return she didn't pull away either. "Vaughan may have something. I could content you without doing grief – that's Thomas Wyatt. "
"I know," she said. "But it would hardly be polite to scrounge your flatmate's tea. There's an ABC over there – shall we join the weeping, weeping multitudes?" She paused a split second and smiled at him. "That's T.S. Eliot."
"Mmm – well, if we must." said Philip. "Oi! There's the light. Let's cross."
A few minutes later, they were sitting by the second-storey window at the ABC, Harriet nursing her headache with Earl Grey and Philip attacking a poached egg on toast. "Not bad," was his comment, "But I could do it better. Eating-places can never do much with eggs, but you, Miss Vane, must do me the honour of sharing an omelette with me someday. Now tell me, did you get a chance to read the books?"
"What, all of them?"
"Of course not. But maybe one or two."
"I read Among The Serpents."
"I won't ask what you thought of it, since you never give opinions on other authors' work." He smiled at her and took a sip of coffee.
"Mr Boyes, you know that wasn't serious. You had me caught short."
"Then what is your opinion?"
She looked into her teacup for a moment, as if looking for an answer in the leaves. Finally, she looked him level in the eye and said "I thought parts of it were brilliant. The scene where Niniane is walking about the empty house and looking through the windows – that was beautifully done, like being in her head as she sees the past and the future together. And you have your people in very intriguing situations. But they don't move enough. They spend too long in the same place, and they have the same conversations over and over. If they could move just a little faster than the reader's thoughts, I think you wouldn't need to worry about your sales. For example, when Basil is braiding the whip in the garden – he talks too much and the whip disappears from the scene. It didn't feel alive."
"The whip wasn't meant to be literal, you know. And even if it were, he may have paused while he was braiding it. There's a lot of symbolism behind it at all – it's never finished and disappears from the story, and after is when the crackup begins. You caught that, I hope? This sort of thing needs a very close reading."
"I gave it one. Mr Boyes, if you ask for opinions, you should be prepared to get them."
For a moment he thought of walking out. Then he thought of her sales. Miss Vane, shallow as her choice of genre might be, clearly knew a technical trick or two. And now, in the dim evening light filtering through the tea-shop windows, her sober, expectant face was almost beautiful. He fought down his resentment. "If it's any solace, the reading public agreed with you. Still, you should see some of the letters I got. I think there were more country cousins trying to get the book banned than there were people who bought it."
"At least that would be one way to help sales."
"Yes, make people go to Paris for it. I had people writing and telling me that if I were going to write things like that, I would have been better off fetching it in the war and letting someone else live." He had, indeed, received one letter saying this. "I couldn't be in the war. Medical disqualification – I've had gastric troubles my whole life. Why anyone should think himself superior to me because the army wouldn't have me I don't know, but a lot of them do. Even Rushworth was in it at the end. Can you believe they took him?"
"He seems to have got through it, though. I'm sorry for the letters, but I get them too – it's just something that comes with the job."
"Letters wishing death on you?"
"No, you have me there. But I do get a lot of people who like to hunt for mistakes in the timelines and alibis and the worst of it is that often they're right. I also get a few who swear I based the characters on themselves and their friends, though why anyone would want to claim that I can't imagine. Someone once told me that Robert Templeton shouldn't wear tweed, as it didn't suit bearded men. And I once got a letter saying `Dear Miss Vane, I have just read A Murder Of Prose and I wish to inform you that I have spent two weeks in New York and Americans do not talk the way you say they do.' Or people want me to write about real crimes."
"Like the Trunk Murderer?"
"Yes, I've had a few people send me cuttings about him. But of course, if I put a body in a trunk now, everyone would say I was copying him."
"Haven't you ever used a real murder in any of your books? There are certainly enough queer things that go on, I'd think you wouldn't even have to bother inventing anything."
"I've used bits now and then, but of course they were all from long-ago cases. One can't be too blatant about copying from recent things, especially if anyone involved is still alive. But the fact is that most real murders are dull and would make for dull reading. Usually it really is the person caught with the smoking gun and who had the life-insurance policy. Like the Dumb-bells in New York."
From there on the conversation wandered pleasantly among recent murders, the vagaries of the publishing business, and parsonical upbringings. Harriet's father had been an intermittent churchgoer at best, but as she had been sent to live with her very High Church grandfather during her mother's frequent spells of illness, she had been observant while he was still alive and even for a while afterward. Philip, who had certainly not considered that when he was in his father's house, he was in a better place, was less than enthralled by her descriptions of her parents but grinned when she mentioned that her great-aunts had insisted on calling her Hattie. "I loathed it. It was very immoral of me, but I hated it almost as much as my mother going away. When I found out she was dead – they only told me a week after, Dad said I was too young to attend a funeral – my first thought was that now I would have to stay with them and be called Hattie forever. But Dad sent me to school instead, and I had a very decent time there."
"Hattie," said Philip. "I can't connect that with you at all. Hat, perhaps. A sensible sort of name, very much like you."
"Please don't. That's almost worse." Her head drooped slightly. "Mr Boyes, it's been very enjoyable, but I really must go home now."
He began to protest, then realized that he was exhausted and furthermore, that the poached egg was beginning to disagree with him. The old trouble? God, he hoped not. The last thing he needed was another doctor's bill. "I'll see you to your bus. Good night, Miss Vane."
Sylvia was packing: although she did not seem to move quickly, her clothes flew into the cases with surprising efficiency. "Will they laugh at this hat in Paris, do you think?" she asked Harriet, holding up a poisonously green cloche with a netted veil hanging in front. "Never mind, it will get me looked at either way. I do hope the men are careful with those canvases. It's not as if I can whip up replacements in two days if they do something unspeakable to them. What am I hearing about you and Phil Boyes? You seem to be going about together quite a lot."
"He invited me to a concert, and I've been to his flat a few times. We talked about books – he's asked me to look over his newest thing. And he made omelettes for tea once."
"He's very interesting, you know. Just because you don't care for his books –"
Sylvia closed the trunk lid with a decisive thump. "If he suits you, then I won't complain about it. I only wanted to know what was going on. You know, we'd have room for a third if you wanted to stop in Paris some time over the next few months. Lew Garvice will be taking this flat while I'm gone and he'll be paying the rent, so we have enough for a lovely large place. It will be positively cavernous without guests."
"I'll see about it – you know I have to be careful about money."
"Surely not by now, but never mind. And do write – I'll need some return for all the postcards I'll send. Could you hand me that hatbox?"
She had become acquainted, if not precisely friends with, a few of Phil's circle. Volodya Kropotky was amiable if sometimes incomprehensible, and on her first visit to him, he gave her an impromptu demonstration of the loss of the post-war soul as performed on the musical saw. The Rushworths overwhelmed her with sticky sweet drinks and pastries, praised her books to the skies, and then only required her to nod and make affirmative noises while they talked about medicines and meditation and how pineal extracts would cure inborn criminality. They were comforting if slightly embarrassing company, she told Phil later. He said "James is the only one of that crowd with a brain in his head, and he doesn't use it half the time. But they're generous, I'll agree with you there. They understand what a rough time artists have of it."
But Ryland Vaughan, the flatmate, was harder to please. She had encountered him several times, but each time he found some excuse for clearing out within a few minutes. The very first question he had asked her was "Have you read Phil's books?" Phil had looped his arm around her waist and said "Oh, she never gives opinions on other authors' work. Isn't that right, Harriet? It was one of the first things she ever said to me."
"Phil, it wasn't –"
"You said it, though, didn't you?"
"Of course I did, but –"
"I see," said Vaughan, though his expression was thoroughly uncomprehending. He left about five minutes later, saying he had just remembered a meeting, and managing to bump into Harriet before slamming the door behind him. Phil had shrugged it off, but Harriet was left with a profound gratitude that her finances had never been so desperate as to necessitate a flatmate.
"Is he all right, do you think?" she asked Phil as they settled back onto the sofa.
"Quite all right," said Phil, "Especially now that he's left." And he leaned in to give her a kiss. He had given her several more over the course of the afternoon, and she had ended the visit very reluctantly.
A month later, Vaughan became harder to ignore. It was the end of September, and Harriet was accompanying Philip to the Kropotkys' (a poetry reading this time, he assured her, not a concert) when Vaughan announced that he would be coming with them as well. "Phil and I go to these things all the time," he told Harriet as he walked on Phil's other side. "It's not much of a scene but I suppose it would seem different to you."
She could think of no response to this, but three hours later, as she sat enjoying the pleasant sensation of Phil's arm around her shoulders and the confusing impression left by the Russian poem which somebody was shouting by the window, her glance strayed towards the stove and she noticed something that was different: Vaughan, apparently unconscious. The people milling around him appeared not to notice this phenomenon.
Vaughan twitched for a second, and then appeared to be groaning, although she couldn't make out what he might be saying over the shouts of the Russian poet. His body convulsed and for a moment she thought he was going to be sick, but instead he subsided into snoring.
Phil had noticed as well. "Oh God," he whispered to her as the Russian poet stood down and another took his place. "He would. We'll have to get him repaired before he'll be fit to come home. Harriet, give me your notebook."
He took the little tablet which she always kept in her handbag and began scribbling. "There's a chemist across the street who should still be open. Go get this made up before Vaughan dies on Volodya's carpet, damn him."
She glanced at the ingredients listed on the notepad. "Won't this make him worse?"
"No! It works, he's had it before. Stop talking and go get it, I'll try and wake him up."
An hour later, an exhausted,ill, but somewhat mobile Vaughan had been deposited in his bedroom and left to find consolation in slumber. Harriet, not being sure what to do, fell back on making coffee as a restorative, and when Phil emerged from Vaughan's room he gave her a kiss, took a cup and drained half of it.
"You wonderful girl. The only good thing about this damned evening."
She poured a cup for herself; her nerves were coming back together finally. "Is he often like this?"
"Drowning his self-pity in a butt of malmsey? Yes."
"Hadn't you better think about living somewhere else? I know he was your school friend but it can't be good for your work, always having him hanging about your neck like that. If you could live someplace where you could get more done –"
"I could, if I lived with you."
For a moment, she only stared at him while her interior began to suddenly complain about the coffee. "Phil – you know I care for you, a great deal – but we couldn't possibly get married yet. It hasn't even been four months."
Phil sat down and leaned back. The look on his face was one of honest bewilderment. "Married? I never meant that."
"What did you mean, then?"
"Harriet, I love you, and if you would live with me I think we could be happier together than anyone who's ever gone near a registry office. Marriage is just a legal pair of handcuffs for two people – I've written articles about it. Why any sane woman would want to get married I can't understand: she's allowing herself to become a man's legal property, with no voice and no rights of her own. She's tied to him for good no matter what he might do to her. Free love means that a man and a woman are together entirely by choice. Not because some clergyman muttered a few words over their heads and now they feel obliged to stick it out, or because neither one has the money to bring a divorce case. Why are you looking so surprised? You've read my books, I thought you knew I didn't believe in marriage."
"No, how would I? Or do you think that because I write books about murders, that must make me a murderer?" The coffee cup was shaking in her hand, and she quickly set it down.
"Those are puzzles, Harriet. They're very good puzzles, but they're not about life. They're not literature. If you wrote a different sort of books, you would see how it's impossible to keep your own opinions out of it. But that isn't the issue. You're not someone's Victorian daughter, you've made your own life and your own money. What is there in marriage for you?"
"Love – mutual honesty – trust? All the reasons people get married."
"Not just a bluestocking, but a bluenose! Marriage kills love if it does anything. Is there a more depressing prospect than loving someone because you must? I would never do that to you, or to anyone."
"Have there been other ones?"
"A few. Women don't flock to poor men, no matter what they may say about their books. I lived with Liubov Borisova for most of 1922, and Sarah Trenton – the painter – for a few months some years back. Not bad girls, but obstinate – not very sensitive in some ways. But you're not like them, you know."
Harriet sat back, suddenly feeling very drunk although she had not touched a glass all evening. "I'm not like them at all. And I must go home now."
He saw her to her taxi, saying, before she stepped in, "I'm sorry if I startled you, Harriet. But I couldn't go any further and not be honest with you."
"I understand," she said, and closed her eyes as the taxi pulled away.
Damn it, thought Phil the next morning as he heard Vaughan crashing and moaning his way out the door like a soused giraffe – perhaps he ought to have proposed after all. The way the girl looked at him, she may well have accepted. Now it looked as if she might have gone altogether; Harriet with her grave face, her barbs which cropped up unwelcome but somehow still intriguing, her wonderfully juvenile pronouncements on writing, and of course her other attributes. She'd never had another man so much as hold her hand, he was certain of it. But no – proposing was no solution to the problem. Marriage was a short march to mental slavery; she would doubtless want a better flat, more income to pay for it, and children to suck up whatever might still remain of their money. Or would she? She might not be quite a Bohemian but she was hardly a standard-issue young working woman, either.
It wasn't quite time to give up. Before getting the eggs out of the cupboard for a late breakfast (the charwoman having come and gone already) he wrote a note in which he apologized for having upset her and asked if she were still willing to help him with the editing of his current short story. He valued her opinion and hoped they could still be friendly with each other even if their conflicting principles made anything more impossible.
Two days later, he received a cool reply, inviting him to call at her flat. He brought the typescript with him – only a few pages at this point – and the brief call turned into a two-hour discussion, ending with them lying on Harriet's sofa.
"I really think we could make a go of it," he said as he stood at the doorway, reaching for his hat. "You just have to look at the thing reasonably."
"You have a rather extraordinary definition of what's reasonable," she said. But she did not object when he asked if he might call again.
Jolting and sweltering in the bus on the way home, he looked over the manuscript and felt a slow headache coming on. She was clever enough, but why had she struck all his best passages? She was leaving him with something barely better than a thriller. Though she may perhaps have been right in a few places – he had loaded on the adjectives a bit extensively. He took a pencil from his pocket and began striking out Harriet's less perceptive edits.
Vaughan was home from the office by the time Philip arrived at their flat, and doing his yeoman best to roast chicken and potatoes without filling the room with smoke. Ever since the episode of a few days ago, Vaughan had been surlier than ever; far from being grateful to Philip and Harriet for having rescued him from disgracing himself on the Kropotkys' carpet, he appeared to regard their interference as a personal affront. Dinner was a dull and sulky meal, the silence broken only by Vaughan's asking where exactly Philip had spent his afternoon, not that he needed to ask. "Miss Vane, again, of course. What were you doing with her?"
"Asking her advice."
"Advice? From her? What in heaven's name could she have to teach you? I wouldn't give her a nursery rhyme to look at, she'd mutilate it. Just because she's had some fluke success – what did she tell you?"
Philip had been ready to produce the manuscript, along with a few sarcastic remarks, but when he looked at Vaughan's reddening face he felt a sudden disgust. Harriet might not have great literary perception, she might be mistress only of a cheap art form, but he wasn't going to have Vaughan, of all people, mocking her. What the hell had Vaughan ever done, anyway?
"She didn't tell me anything," said Philip, reaching for the salt-cellar. "Remember? She never gives opinions on other authors' work."
The rest of the evening was spent with Vaughan at the dining-room table, going over the books, and Philip on the sofa, water and sodium bicarb by his side, trying not to move. He could hardly remember a time when he hadn't been subject to this sort of thing, but it never became easier. And with Vaughan acting the way he had been, it was becoming increasingly clear that Philip would have to part ways with him at some point. There was no way he could live by himself – his health and finances both forbade it. If Harriet would only see sense, he could be spared all this.
Summer began slipping into autumn. The papers were full of news of the once-more hostile Soviet Union, the first woman to swim the Channel, and the crowds in Hyde Park demanding that Sacco and Vanzetti be spared. In October, John Brubaker's predictions proved justified when Megatherium Trust, Ltd, collapsed so spectacularly that it seemed for a while as if every notable in the country had been injured by it, some fatally. Sylvia sent stray humourous postcards from Paris. Laura Brubaker confided that she thought John might need to go to Switzerland for a while, as his lungs were refusing to improve and she was afraid what another winter in the London fog might do to him, and two weeks later Harriet received a brief letter from them, postmarked Davos.
Harriet herself made two polite visits to Miss Benn and Miss Clarridge, and wrote lightheartedly and uninformatively to Mary Attwood when the latter regretted that she couldn't invite her up for Christmas ("The baby will be here, or almost here, and we can't depend on having a proper nurse.") She wrote a short story in which the Kropotky concert featured as the scene of a murder (the victim's dying screams were masked by the louder and more cacophonous shrieks of the choir). And she continued to see Philip Boyes – on a purely friendly basis, she told herself, although these friendly visits had a tendency to end with the two of them on the sofa while Harriet told him, with lessening conviction, that it was impossible for them to go further. He argued that it was perfectly possible, that half her friends had done the same thing without a divine lightning-bolt intervening, and that she was depriving herself for no reason. "Do you think your aunts' ghosts are going to come and haunt you for doing something perfectly natural?"
"No," she told him once, "But a baby would haunt me much longer and be much more demanding."
"Needn't happen," he said. "There are lots of ways of preventing it. We couldn't have a baby getting in the way of my work – our work, I mean. Leave babies to the people who don't have anything else to do with their minds."
"So children should only be raised by people who have no minds? That's a dismal prospect for the future."
"They'd be a dismal prospect for us, though. Especially with my health, and work."
When Philip wasn't evangelizing on the virtues of free love, he was lively if immoderately sarcastic company. He made her his omelette recipe on a few more occasions, he asked her to the films, and once turned up a reading she gave with a group of other detective novelists. And he talked. His account of a recent disastrous weekend at Lady Till and Tweed's delighted her so much that she asked if he minded her adding a stabbing or two to it, for a short story. "Good heavens, of course you can," was his reply. "At least it will be a change, all her guests do is write about each other, and about her. You'll just stab her in the back literally, not figuratively. Have you read Vermillion? Tollett barely had to change a thing about the place. I don't think Lady T's invited him back since."
"Poor woman," said Harriet. "It sounds to me like they take horrible advantage of her. I was thinking she could be the detective, not the victim. Robert Templeton doesn't do very well in short stories."
More than once Harriet lay next to Philip, her hand on his cheek, and was on the verge of asking him to stay and do whatever he wanted. But no – she pulled herself back – it was not reasonable, no matter what he might say. Her religious convictions had largely died with her relations, but if she did this for him she would not just be disregarding their shades; she would be trampling on something which most of society held in great value. Philip might think nothing of it, but the world could not be expected to follow his example. And it was hardly reasonable, or fair, for him to ask this of her when it meant that her world would be half uprooted while his remained unchanged.
It might be worth it, she thought one evening, if I could be sure I loved him as well as he says he loves me. But love whilst that thou mayst be loved again ... Her pen drove over the paper, digging into it, transforming the hapless Lady T into a preternaturally gifted sleuth.
"So what are your plans for Christmas?"
Norman Urquhart sat at his oppressively polished dining room table, spooning up soup with a faintly disapproving expression. The sky had darkened long ago; Philip wondered what was wrong with Norman that he didn't have the maid pull the drapes. He and his cousin were reflected in the window now, very clearly – the candle-flame lit up his own face as clearly as a portrait, while all one could see of Norman was his back – dark, vague, could be anybody's.
"What are your plans for Christmas?"
"Sorry, old man, my mind was wandering. I'm going to my father's for a few days. He's not a bad old stick and he's lonely these days. I suppose my Christmas gift to him will be attending service so that his parishioners don't talk more than they already do. And what about you?"
"I have a great deal of work to do and will be staying in town for the most part. I may see a show or two, though. And of course I need to make a short trip to Windle."
"Windle? Oh yes. Aunt Rosanna. I don't suppose there's any improvement, is there?"
"None, I'm afraid. Her doctor tells me she could last for days or for years, but she's unlikely ever to regain her wits."
The candle-flames wavered as the maid quietly refilled his wine glass. Philip took a long sip, his mind wandering back to the last time he had seen Aunt Rosanna. He had given her an author copy of the newly-published Abhasa and an old postcard of Cremorne Gardens, found in one of Vaughan's photograph albums. Later she had sent him a note to say that she was glad some of the younger generation were still aspiring to true artistry. He had meant to visit again, but then she had had her stroke, and after that there hardly seemed to be a point to it – what could he, or she, have to say to the other?
For that matter, what did he and his cousin have to say to each other? He had been surprised at the invitation to dinner, as he had last seen Norman eight years ago. Then, as now, he had been very close-mouthed. Of course, Norman had always been that way, even before the war. What he had gone through there Philip never learned, except that it had involved a great deal of crouching in the mud at Gallipoli and several near misses. He had asked a few questions, years before – the invalid husband in Mrs Bolton-Brown was originally supposed to be a returned man suffering from shell-shock – but Norman had deflected his questions with a brevity and politeness brought on, Philip thought sourly, by too many years of lawyering. "Largely unpleasant," was his sum total description of his months in the mud, and "Quite relieved," was his answer when asked how he had felt upon being demobilized. In the end, Philip had had to give the character another problem, as he had realized that dozens of other men writing about the war could do so from personal knowledge which he could never match. I was neither at the hot gates, nor fought in the warm rain.
Norman was talking on now, inquiring after his father's health. As good as ever, thank you for asking. And Philip's own health? Still some attacks from time to time, but he was holding up. And how was Philip's work going? Norman himself had always had a reserved sort of admiration for his writing, although he had never expressed it before. Philip felt himself expanding under the praise.
"Well, it's always good to know that one's relations have taste. I'm on my uppers at the moment, though – people think that all one has to do is get something in print and then it's all milk and honey from that moment. It isn't a bit. The books don't bring in enough to keep a cat alive and my articles and shorts; they're a heartbreaking amount of work and the magazines will cheat you however they can. Or they fold. James Rushworth, who edits Lightning – you haven't heard of it? It's not all bad stuff – but he just told me that it's folding. I can usually get five or ten pounds a month from stuff for them, but Lady Till and Tweed was their major backer, and now Rushworth tells me she lost half her money in the Megatherium crash. What that silly old biddy was thinking, playing at investing like that, I can't imagine, but she lost a lot and now the artists are paying for it. She'll be all right, half a fortune is still a fortune, but damned if I don't wonder sometimes where I'll be in ten years. Rushworth isn't even trying to keep the thing going – he's clearing out of the country and taking his sister with him – her fiance shot himself last month and he says she's cracking up and needs a rest-cure. Well, why couldn't her mother take her? He has no consideration for the people who depend on that magazine. If there could be a Bel Esprit for every artist, the world would be a better place, believe me."
"I quite agree. It's fortunate that you don't have family obligations."
"No, thank God. There is a girl, but of course marriage isn't something I could possibly contemplate, and she knows that. She had a parson for a grandfather, poor thing, but I think she'll clear all that rubbish out of her head with a little help. She's clever in her own way."
"Which isn't your way? How are you planning to support her?"
"No need – she's one of your modern girls. Have you heard of Harriet Vane? She writes those murder mysteries you see at the railroad stalls. Junk, so of course they sell like mad."
"An interesting choice of occupation. I'll have to pick up one sometime."
Before Philip left, Norman casually pressed a five-pound note into his hand. "It's a pity to see an artist underappreciated," he said. "I hope you'll consent to join me for dinner from time to time. There's very little left of our family, and we should not be strangers to each other."
Harriet's Christmas had been spent assisting Miss Benn at a church charity dinner, and she had been horrified to realize how close she was to sobbing by the end of the day. Philip's absence was a torment – the lack of his jokes, stories, and complaints about publishers, even his endless, wearing insistence on hashing out all the disadvantages of legal marriage – it all made her feel as if she were merely marking time while he was gone. At least she had more time for writing, but the satisfaction in finishing a short story, or another chapter, was bitter whenever she remembered that she would not see him for several more weeks.
It was a relief when, one day in early January, she heard the bell and for the first time in months saw Sylvia standing on the steps. She was carrying a bouquet and a satchel, her face was pink with cold, and she burst into the flat like a creature from another existence.
"Happy new year! Here, the satchel's for you; all the latest naughty books that the English publishers wouldn't touch. You have been working, haven't you? You look exhausted, and no wonder – whenever I picked up a 'tec magazine from the English bookstalls I saw something by you in it. I'm sure you've made enough by now to buy another hat, at least. Come on out with me, you'll get some fresh air and we'll look for that hat. Or go to the films. What's wrong?" For Harriet had put her head in her hands and not responding.
"Nothing's wrong, Sylvia, it's just a headache. And Philip won't be back for weeks and I wish he weren't so … oh, everything's a mess-up and I feel as if I should know better."
"What sort of mess-up? Oh no – it's not a baby, is it?"
Harriet laughed for the first time in weeks. "No, thank goodness! But it's difficult enough." Her gaze wandered towards the coat stand. She had had that beige cloche for a very long time, it was true. "Let's go and get that hat, and I'll tell you all about it at tea."
A few hours later, with not one but two hats duly bought, she and Sylvia sat in a tearoom corner, well out of earshot of the other patrons. Sylvia was fiddling with a ten-centime piece she had discovered in her coat pocket as she talked.
"I'm hardly in a position to talk about other people's arrangements, but it seems to me that if women are victims of matrimony, we can reject it without Phil's help. He loves the sound of his own voice as much as most men do –"
"Syl, is that Eiluned talking?"
"I suppose it is, a little," she said, and smiled. "But all I can say is, our crowd would understand if you did agree to it. And I'm sure they'd understand if you didn't – " she stopped without finishing the sentence.
"But the world is so much larger than that. I have other friends, and I don't want to lose them. I haven't even been able to tell them about this. And if the next book didn't do well and I had to look for work … my readers, if word got out –"
"Why on earth would it? I thought your mail went to Challoner's, anyway – the readers wouldn't know whom you were living with or weren't, and it's hardly their business anyway. Besides, how many men authors keep their noses clean? I'm sure Phil hasn't. Forget all that. Do you want to live with Phil?"
"I love him, and we would do so well together. Phil's got an extraordinary talent – don't look at me like that! I think I know him pretty well by this point, and I think if he just made a few changes, if he had better company at home than Vaughan, he could break out of the rut he's in."
"You haven't answered my question."
"I can't. I don't know what I think any more."
Phil returned in the middle of January, but not in the way she had imagined he would; he stumbled off the train as ill as Harriet had ever seen him, so ill that, for once, he had no interest in talking. Vaughan claimed him as soon as she hauled him out of the taxi, and Harriet had to content herself with sending round some of Sylvia's Parisian books and some sodium bicarb. A few days later Phil was standing at her front door, paler and a little thinner but otherwise well, wondering if she could look over an outline for him. Within an hour it was as if he had never left. Well, what had she expected? His principles couldn't be expected to change over the course of a month – and as welcome as the change would have been to her, she would have mistrusted him somewhat if they had. They were still at an impasse. After he left, she was so wound up that she couldn't bear to think of eating, so she spent the next three hours writing letters – to her agent, her publisher, and a few readers who had spotted errors – and experimenting with her old cloche to see just how long it took to dry after having been plunged in the dishpan for five minutes. Her latest alibi involved a woman who claimed to have been caught in a sudden rainstorm, miles away from the crime, but whose hat was suspiciously well-preserved.
By February, Eiluned had finally returned from Paris with a sheaf of etchings under her arm and another sheaf of stories about a certain woman's salon, and Harriet had asked her and Sylvia to supper so as to have a few hours of distraction from her dilemma. She did not get it, as Eiluned seized on the subject of Philip Boyes with enthusiasm and decided that it was high time to disabuse Harriet of her illusions about him. Despite Sylvia's frantic signals and frequent attempts to change the subject, Harriet nonetheless heard a good deal of Paris-sharpened invective about Phil's selfishness, childishness, laziness, and complete lack of talent. When the supper was done, Sylvia pulled Harriet aside to apologize. "Please forgive her – I know you won't believe it, but she's worried about you. Those Clifford salon people are all about trying to top each other in outrageousness and I think she hasn't quite realized that she's in London now."
Harriet was so tired that she could not bring herself to be angry. She should have remembered how Eiluned was about men who didn't suit her, which was to say any man aside from her two brothers and one schoolboy nephew. She was wrong about Phil, how could she not have been?
Sylvia must have said something to Eiluned, because the next week they invited Harriet for a chilly but beautiful visit to Kew Gardens, during which Eiluned told some of her Paris stories, did not mention Phil's name, and offered Harriet an etching of a seventeenth-century courtyard on the rue Jacob. Harriet received it gratefully, but that evening, as she tried first one place on the wall and then another, she thought that picture only made the rest of her flat look emptier. But love whilst that thou mayst be loved again … Her work, outings, friends, none of them helped lift her unhappiness. Only Phil could do that, and he would not change.
She put the picture aside, sat down, and wrote a note to Philip asking him to coffee the next day. Not tea, of course. Never tea.
She said it as soon as he walked through the door, so that she would not have a chance to stop herself later on. "I'll live with you," she said. "I will."