The dissonant chords, randomly picked out as if following a tone deaf jazz composition, alerted Mervyn Bunter that all was not well. "You wished to see me, my lord?"
Over at the piano, Lord Peter Wimsey trailed his fingers along the ivory keys in a wan and woeful finale, before closing the lid. "Would it be a damned inconvenience, Bunter, if we went back to London tonight?"
"No, my lord," said Bunter, considering the question. "Not a damned inconvenience," he added, minutely emphasizing the modifier.
A faint smile graced his lordship's countenance. "In that case," he said, getting up from the piano, "would you pack our bags?"
"I shall, my lord," Bunter said, withdrawing and heading upstairs.
In truth, Bunter had rather expected something of this sort since their arrival on Friday, and was only surprised that His Lordship had waited until late into this Sunday evening to propose the move. The pattern had become a familiar one, since the conclusion of the affair at Wolvercombe – and Miss Harriet Vane's rejection, once more, of Lord Peter's proposal.
Nothing quite suited His Lordship anymore, barring the odd case that circumstance or his fancy brought his way, and this state of affairs gave Bunter some cause for concern. To pursue a love unobtainable…well, it took its toll on a man.
Bunter had some personal knowledge of that affliction. Lord Peter, at least, had the option of a free and open pursuit, however much Miss Vane might elude him. For Bunter, the consolations were even more rare and ineffable.
"Don't say Peter's leaving us!" the Hon. Freddie Arbuthnot cried, leaning a bit unsteadily in the doorway and blinking owlishly as he watched Bunter packing up Lord Peter's belongings.
"Afraid so, Mister Freddie," Bunter said, smoothly carrying on his task.
"Nothing wrong, I hope," said the Hon. Freddie.
"Can't say, I'm sure," said Bunter, conveying volumes nonetheless.
"Ah," a knowing, if blurry, look crept into the Hon. Freddie's expression. "Say no more." He tapped the side of his nose – or tried to, his index finger skimming the tip. "Treaties gone astray and the duchess can't find her jewels, and only Wimsey the Sleuthhound can save the day. Shall Peter need my help, do you think?"
"Early days yet, Mister Freddie."
"Yes, of course. Understood. Well," the Hon. Freddie executed a wobbly bow and took his leave, appearing somewhat uncertain of which direction he required until Bunter kindly sent him off on the right bearing.
The Lagonda was well on its way to London, barreling through the quiet, midnight countryside, when Lord Peter finally spoke. "Love's a damnable thing, Bunter."
Eyes on the stretch of road illuminated by the headlamps, Bunter said, "So I've heard, my lord."
Another silence, then a deep sigh, and the rustling sound of Lord Peter sitting up a bit straighter. "It was Lady Evelyn, of course."
"So I perceived," Bunter said, and felt Lord Peter's gaze turn on him with interest.
"Did you? Care to share your observations?"
Clearing his throat, unaccountably wary of a sudden, Bunter said, "Only that Her Ladyship appeared to be going to some lengths to gain your attention."
"Making a spectacle of us both, you mean," said Lord Peter – but with a hint of good humor in his voice. "And so she did," he added with another sigh.
"Of herself, perhaps."
"You're too kind, Bunter,"
"I think you know better, my lord."
A snort from Lord Peter, then, sober, "D'you think she'd care, if she heard of it?"
No need to ask the she spoken of. "I doubt she would think poorly of your lordship."
"No." Lord Peter sighed. "Probably want to shake hand and congratulate me for getting on with things and leaving her behind."
Bunter doubted that very much.
"This study you've made of me, Bunter," Lord Peter had turned slightly in the seat to look at him, "have you drawn many conclusions? Besides my allure for the misguided, if enthusiastic, Lady Evelyns of the world?"
Choosing circumspection, Bunter said, "You are an eligible bachelor, my lord--"
"And looking likely to remain so." Lord Peter sat back again. "Not the worst of worlds, though, is it?"
"Not for me to say, my lord."
"Magnanimous Despair alone
Could show me so divine a thing,
Where feeble Hope could ne'er have flown,
But vainly flapped its tinsel wing…"
Daring to take his eyes off the road for a moment, Bunter found Lord Peter regarding him with a wistful eye. "My lord?"
"D'you think you'd like to grow old along with me, Bunter?"
Quite certain this was the most perplexing conversation of his life, Bunter said, "Should your lordship desire it," he said, contributing to the mystery, "that would be agreeable."
"Wouldn't it, though?" said Lord Peter, thoughtful, something seeming to ease in his manner. "Opposition of the stars be damned," he murmured, startling Bunter with a hand on his shoulder, musician's fingers playing along the back of his neck. "Does this thing go any faster?" he asked.
Bunter, experiencing a most unexpected incentive, found that it did.