The glass photography plates were piled neatly in a corner awaiting development, with Bunter's usual tidiness. There had been a dinner party in the luxurious bachelor quarters of 110A Picadilly the previous day, and he hadn't had time to develop them between supervising the cook, preparing the brandy, attending the gentlemen, and making sure everything was proper and right. It pleased him to make things proper and right, particularly for Lord Peter, who noticed and appreciated it. And he had heard the talk when he was out of the room -- not meaning to hear, of course. And wasn't it a servant's right to eavesdrop, at any rate?
Freddy Arbuthnot always had something nice to say about his service, and one of the other men, a relatively new acquaintance, had expressed an admiration mixed with terror which Bunter was not unused to. Lord Peter had trusted him to choose the brandy himself, and he had not disappointed, if Colonel Marchbanks was any judge, and Bunter knew he was.
So, glowing with the quiet satisfaction of a job well done and knowing that Lord Peter had basked in the praise of his servant as much as he himself had (Bunter felt, though Peter would have been horrified by the idea, that a good servant was like fine art; a credit not only to himself but to his employer's tastes), Bunter turned himself to his photographic work. Lord Peter had eaten and was dressing, and would call if Bunter was needed.
Rather than call, however, his Lordship wandered into the darkroom just as Bunter was hanging up the final photograph to dry, and it was safe to turn on the light and allow him entrance. The darkroom was, as it were, Bunter's space and his lordship rarely visited without permission, express or implicit, but it was also a useful neutral territory. Bunter was master here, and when Lord Peter needed a friend and a crony more than a servant, here was the best place to find it.
"Wastin' my money wooin' young maids with your camera again?" Lord Peter asked, grinning. Bunter gave him a small smile -- gentlemen will have their jokes -- and began tidying up the developing trays. Most of the photographic plates were tests of light and fingerprint powder in various conditions; they were Lord Peter's thumbprint in fact, pressed onto pieces of glass and photographed with a number of different powders (white, Mercury, lampblack) on various backgrounds.
"Oh, I say, this one's almost art, isn't it?" he asked, pointing to a striking contrast -- white powder on deep, uneven grey, the result of laying the glass over a tank of water. "Is that your eye, d'you suppose, or natural happenstance? Not that I don't think you could, Bunter -- deuced fine portrait-photographer you'd make if I ever sacked you."
Bunter expressed a mild wish to continue in his Lordship's service, accompanied by an inquiry if Lord Peter was intending to sack him soon. Peter laughed quietly. If Peter's teasing seemed cruel and Bunter's over-subtle, it was the result of years of familiarity, which bred understanding.
"Hullo-ullo," Peter said suddenly. "What's this?"
Bunter, too late, realised that he ought to have checked the photographs before allowing his lordship entry. Peter was leaning over one tray, peering at a nearly-dry print, long nose barely inches from the paper. "When did you take this one, Bunter?"
"I beg your lordship's pardon -- " Bunter began, but Peter stopped him.
"Don't. Can I take it down?"
Bunter nodded, briefly, feeling rather as though the bottom had dropped out of his stomach.
Lord Peter unclipped it and carried it, carefully, out of the darkroom and into the library, where he stood under one of the windows, examining the photograph in natural light.
"Do you suppose it's truth or myth that Aboriginals believe the camera steals the soul, Bunter?" he asked finally.
"I wouldn't know, my lord."
"I suspect you'd know better than I would."
Bunter fell silent.
"When did you say you took it?"
"I did not, my lord. It was taken the day after..." Bunter hesitated.
"The day after Penberthy up and shot himself?" Peter asked, brutally.
"Yes, my lord."
His lordship bent to examine the photograph again, seating himself on one of the narrow window-seats. Bunter couldn't help wishing for a camera, as inappropriate as the wish was. He knew what the photograph showed; he remembered taking it, though he'd forgotten the plate, perhaps purposefully, and left it in a corner for, oh, three weeks now.
The thin, gaunt look had gone from his employer's face since then, and after all a suicide was in some ways easier than a trial to struggle through. Especially with someone who was, in Bunter's private opinion, an apalling tick like Penberthy, who'd kill an old man and marry a woman he didn't love just so he could study glands. Honourable suicide was too good for the likes of Penberthy. But at any rate, Peter's illness was there in the photograph; granted, it was softened, and no-one who didn't know his lordship had been ill would look twice at it.
Lord Peter had been playing cantatas, unusual for his merrily Anglican soul, and he had ended just as Bunter was passing the doorway with a camera; the late afternoon light picked out highlights in the pale blond hair and silhouetted his face as it bent over the keyboard. Able hands still rested on the keys, but to Bunter's expert eye they seemed rather lost, and Peter himself looked as though he had been thrown into a deep confusion.
Bunter, a natural photographer, had taken the picture before he realised what he was doing, not expecting it to come out, and indeed everything but his lordship was slightly out of focus. It was unnervingly intimate, and it had been taken without his lordship's permission or knowledge, at a time when Peter had been unusually fragile of mind.
The silence stretched out between them, Peter studying his own image, Bunter studying Peter -- who was in no small part Bunter's creation, from the choice of suits to match his colouring to the delicate handling after the war, which had drawn him back from the brink.
"May I have it?" Peter asked, finally. "I think I should like to give it to my mother."
"Of course, my lord." The stomach having dropped out of him through nerves, Bunter was surprised to find a warm pleasure right in the pit of it.
"It's very good, Bunter."
"Thank you, my lord."
"I look almost human." Peter said, then before Bunter could respond (not that he knew how) he added, "Sorry, that was unworthy of me. Do you often -- "
"No!" Bunter said quickly, then recovered himself. "It was an accident, my lord."
Peter raised an eyebrow, but Bunter's face was impassive.
"Well, I shan't have you horsewhipped for it, stop looking so pale," his lordship answered. He tested the back of the paper to make sure it was fully dry, then placed it in a leather folio of sheet music he was planning to take down when he visited the Dowager later in the day. "Bunter, there are no accidents between us."
Bunter affected misunderstanding. "My lord?"
"Never mind. Ripping good work, you know. Learn anything from the developing today?"
He probably meant the fingerprints; almost certainly he meant the fingerprints. Still, caution was warranted.
"Yes, my lord," Bunter said slowly, "but I believe I shall keep it a trade secret."