“Now here’s a pretty puzzle to cleanse your palates,” Lady Peter Wimsey said one morning in the spring of ’43, leaning in the door of what had once been the second guest bedroom in Talboys and then briefly the nursery before encroaching war had driven the children into further ruralisation at Duke’s Denver. For the past several months it had served as an office for the revolving line of strays Peter fished from secretarial and non-com pools of government offices and the armed and merchant services, denuded of all useful knowledge and released into those indifferent vessels to regain size and utility. Harriet in her head termed it the Kittery in deference to the youth of its members, for though Peter had the born teacher’s instinct for gathering to himself talented young creatures of both sexes, circumstances largely conspired to fill Talboys with bright young women and the occasional overwhelmed young man.
The wallpaper would never recover from the tobacco fumes but it had been a happier house for being fuller, even with every scrap of spare ground within turned over to desks and cots and without to cabbages and potatoes. Just then the catch was sparse: Hilary Thorpe retrieved from the huts of Bletchely Park, Winifred Wimsey claimed by what Harriet rather thought devolved to blood-right, Jerry visiting for a length of time Harriet refused to think of as suspicious, and a single beleaguered naval radio officer who kept Hilary in whoops and Fred in fits by his trenchant refusal to confide his war record, citing as his reason for being in Talboys having been shot in North Africa, half-drowned in the English Channel, held as a POW in France, and let off war with a sick note, brandishing his mangled hand as substantiation for one and all.
She was met with no less than five glances ranging from bewilderment through politeness to smug satisfaction. The owner of the last, no less lithe for supporting a rapidly silvering head of hair, rose from his perch on the window and wove his way through eight trousered and beskirted legs to claim possession of his wife and bestow a greeting. Fred, caught unawares, stopped battering away and was disarmed of her stapler and tucked away into a corner of the ottoman beside Jerry.
“Work,” Peter said, “just what we need,” and coolly extracted the letter from her hold. With some pleasure she watched his face run through amusement and polite indifference into true interest. It was good, these days, to see Peter worry about matters that came with no gag-order stamped with the Official Secrets Act.
“It’s from one of my school-mates,” she explained for the benefit of the eavesdroppers. “Her uncle passed away about a year ago, and she’s been living in his house ever since. He always said he was going to leave everything to her because she was spending so much time taking care of him, and it isn’t in any case a large family, just one other cousin who remarried recently. Now the cousin’s husband has produced a later will, lodged with a London solicitor, and Olive doesn’t know what to do.”
“Ideas for Miss Lethbridge’s predicament?”
“Old man changed his mind at the last minute and was too cowardly to tell her about it,” Jerry said, and Fred, looking rather extinguished, nodded along.
“What was he ill with? If it was dementia or something like he wasn’t in possession of his faculties,” Hilary offered, and settled back at Peter’s approving nod.
Lanyon said, “The husband did it,” and to general uproar added, “ah, but I know the family. At least if it’s the people I’m thinking of, his name’s Straike and she has a grown son from an earlier marriage.”
“And that has made all the difference,” Peter said, and released Harriet, moving back into the room to clap Lanyon on the shoulder. “We’re done here. Go with Harriet and play the familiar face while she snoops.”
Under Peter’s eye, Lanyon’s face smoothed out of its stricken look. He might have been one of the effigies Harriet had taken rubbings of in church, calm and somehow primitive. Where a sensible man, feeling as much as he did, would have declined and tucked tail back to the Admiralty, he said, “Yes my lord,” and caught Fred’s flailing arm without bothering to turn around.
The feeling of pageantry lasted the day long. It did most days. She had loved Talboys as a girl for its great age and the perceptible difference between it and her own childhood home, which stretched doubtfully back to the late Romantics, and Peter had filled it for her with a mixture of period and modern comfort: good sturdy things that did not spoil the line or mock the venerability of the house. Now with the blackouts drawn and radio silent and even Bert Ruddle gone off to France—and Mrs. Ruddle hoping he’d remember his trousis—and Mrs. Merdle muffled by lack of fuel, age hung heavy on the eaves of the house and on Harriet’s shoulders. She had written last before the house was invaded, since it had grown impossible to think of cardboard characters in a cardboard England, and her editor had called to let her know that the public wanted stories less dismal than were issuing from her pen. When she had met Helen last the Duchess had offered her a most repulsive show of camaraderie and understanding and not even cavilled overmuch at the thought of Fred living under her roof with what might any moment be a houseful of strange men, none of whom were assured, or even likely, to belong to the ducal set.
She was not much given to ghosts. Even Old Gregory and his kinsmen and women had not thrilled her bones, and she had long since ceased to regard Mr. Noakes as a presence in the house. But over the long winter she had grown to enjoy the thought of some apple-cheeked farm-wife staring at her from four centuries away and recognising some sisterhood of spirit beating in the heart beneath the strange clothes. We are England , she thought fondly, nonsensically, going up the stairs switching off the lights, and England holds . Then, too, trouble had loured close.
Little enough drove it home as well as going to bed. She had gone from home to school to university to a succession of little flats—most shared and all equipped with a relative lack of privacy, noise filtering in from the street and neighbours thumping on the wall and people forever coming in when least wanted to borrow books or a coat or talk over coffee. Only with Peter had she known the deep peace of being alone together in a house humming quietly to itself, with nobody nearer than four locked doors and a precarious flight of stairs. Now Jerry slept on a cot in Peter’s dressing-room like a page guarding the door, and Fred and Hilary between them had the run of Harriet’s dressing-room and bedroom.
Only Lanyon—and before him a square-jawed mathematician and a striking, nervous young historian—was penned in another part of the house, in the room under the shadow of the beech that Jerry had long since commandeered as his very own and been put-out to find occupied. Lanyon had offered to switch and been adroitly blocked by Peter and Jerry in rare accord. He was by no stretch dangerous, but there was something vaguely repulsive in the care with which he held himself that made the thought of travelling with him distinctly uncomfortable.
Peter, when she told him as much, said, “I’d give you Jerry for a chaperone, but that would hardly answer. You’re not really worried?”
If she had been, Harriet thought irritably, thumping down into the pillow rather more harshly than necessary, she wouldn’t have confided it to that tone of polite scepticism. Peter failed or flat refused to see what in Lanyon put her on edge, something in him ascribing it to the obvious and denying the possibility. Jerry, unhampered by any nobility of purpose or character, was inclined to indulge in a schoolyard sort of bullying that Lanyon brushed gently and contemptuously aside, and with the girls it was impossible to discuss the matter: Fred was half in love with him and half in awe, and Hilary would take it upon herself to explain sententiously that Lanyon’s particular proclivities rendered him rather less a threat than more.
After a while, feeling Peter’s eye implacable on her, she said into the darkness, “You’re not sending him to be my guard, are you, Peter? You’re sending me to be his.”
“You’d make a terrible bodyguard,” Peter said, which was worse than answering silence, and swarmed up to kiss her into somnolence.
The worst of the war for Peter was the rationing. He didn’t stoop to complaint, but there was of some mornings when he hadn’t quite awoken a look of bewilderment in his eye that spoke volumes. He didn’t seem to really mind, and was quite good about remembering why he was being deprived of his wonted spread. But it was obvious all the same that none of them had ever had to do without or live according to a budget.
There had been no talk of resorting to the black-market that Harriet had heard, except once upon surprising Jerry and Peter in the garage staring longingly at Mrs. Merdle VII and her younger kin. She had been hard-put not to laugh when Peter bestowed a very familiar pat on the bonnet, and had gone away immediately and been very kind to him the remainder of the day. She would have eaten toast sandwiches a week straight before admitting to her own relief. Had fuel only gone up in price it would have stopped neither of them, and Jerry at least evinced a touching belief that cars, like the planes he had been lately flying, could take to the sky if only urged enough.
For her part, she liked trains. There was about the routine of looking up trains, purchasing tickets, and boarding a quiet compartment something ineffably soothing that not even Lanyon’s presence could disrupt. While at school she had been accustomed to travel with an uncle who had survived the War and come home brittle. Strange that she thought of it still as The War, all in pretty capitals, even having been too young then and too old now, when Peter—who had served and did still—and Bunter had transitioned smoothly to the present. For the oldest members of the Kittery it might have been at best a fever-dream endured in infancy. One could do something with that, the perspicacity of children, how tone or gesture might communicate what words did not, the child as unwitting witness: a domestic crime, perhaps murder, not a divorce, certainly, that sort of thing smacked inevitably of childhood complexes that she might unblushingly have committed to paper before marriage and motherhood.
It changed one, and not in particularly satisfactory ways. Harriet Vane, living in shared flats with paper-thin walls and going to mad, smoky little parties, would have thought very little of sharing room and board with an oddity, but for Lady Peter Wimsey it had been many years indeed. The gentlemen of Peter’s acquaintance were to the last man genteelly boring or terribly hearty, and to the others she had never been introduced. Salcombe Hardy and his ilk provided colour, but one could hardly call him a friend any more than a gnat or wasp. She kept thinking of Ryland Vaughn, but that was an unfair comparison if ever there was one. If Lanyon hated anyone as much as Vaughn had her, they’d be put cleanly out of the way and she suspected untraceably.
A half-hour in, their tickets checked and returned to her purse and his pocketbook, she ventured, “You said you know the family?”
“Primarily the son,” Lanyon said, and frowned momentarily. “He was several years my junior at school and when by great good fortune we chanced to meet again in the retreat from Dunkirk and later yet in hospital we struck up a friendship. It was exactly the sort of thing you’re thinking of, of course, but I did get to know at least the mother quite well. I shan’t contaminate your first impressions with my opinions about her or Straike, though I suppose it’s too late for Laurie.”
It wasn’t terribly like Peter these days to embroil her in domestic squabbles as ghastly as this was likely to turn out. When they had first known each other he might have done it as a test or a prank or in a fit of petulance, but they had learnt since to speak to each other. The alternative must have been worse.
“I rather enjoy unreliable narrators,” she said. “Bread and butter to mystery novelists.”
He smiled a little, mostly to himself, and caved. Too easy, Harriet thought immediately, what a silly little show of resistance.
“She’s very sweet. Kind to everyone, as long as she gets her own way, and from what I’ve seen has a tendency to exile people from her affections when that for whatever reason doesn’t happen. I’m afraid I can’t tell you if her habits are otherwise normal, too small a sample size.” He gave her an agreeable little nod, and fished a little notebook and pencil out from a pocket and bent to it.
The trouble with the type was they so often had a grievance, against themselves or the world or some section of it that to them represented a spurning authority. If they’d known about themselves for a while, and Lanyon certainly looked the sort, it was usually their mothers, or all women, or at least all women of a certain type. She ought not have asked: now she would go in nursing a positive bias about the woman simply because Lanyon put her off.
“What do you think of Olive Lethbridge, or did you not know her well enough to hazard a guess?” With Olive she was on solid ground, and full of a distant affection unlikely to be ruffled by attack.
But Lanyon smiled, awfully young of a sudden. It was hard sometimes to remember that he was St. George’s contemporary, a good dozen years her junior. “Very auntly, like she’s been practicing for the role. Wouldn’t be surprised if she brought me a present some day, or pinched my cheek. I am surprised she wrote to you, she’s always struck me as too self-effacing to put up any resistance worth the name.”
The Olive Lethbridge she best remembered had been a fussy prefect who talked first-formers out of homesickness and sixth-formers out of fits of depression about exams and the beckoning dread future. Harriet, at the time one of the hapless former, thought In twenty years or thereabouts the kindnesses she had been in the habit of receiving might respectably have morphed into matertal behaviour. “It’s a house,” she said gently, “hardly the same as letting go of a favourite book or sweater.”
Lanyon lifted one side of his thin mouth in the sort of smile he reserved almost exclusively for Fred at her most Wimsical, and offered, “I wouldn’t know. Too small a sample size,” and bent his head to his notebook again.
They reached the station at six, and found themselves having to walk the two kilometres up to the house, past much of the town into the older parts of it. The house itself was of Victorian origin, perhaps built new by Olive’s grandfather, and kept in good order. Harriet, who had never been on such terms of intimacy with her, would have been lost had they had to depend on the directions which were greatly imbued with local colour, but Lanyon having once looked over the instructions she had scribbled over the length of a phone-call ignored them contemptuously and went as if compass-led to the house. Olive had been at some pains to mention in her letter that really she did not grudge Laurie the inheritance, but it really was rather strange and the boy himself seemed to have no idea about it. Lanyon, she thought grimly, picking her way across a field that was hard even on her sensible heels, must have had occasion to know the place rather well.
They had settled already that Olive’s birthday would provide necessary camouflage, and if the span afforded by the that proved too slim, one or the other of them would pretend at infirmity. Harriet had resigned herself to being the patient, and prayed only that there would be no close questioning of Lanyon’s continuing presence. She alone might have pressed unassuming into Olive’s life, and felt herself more than capable of managing a housewife and village priest even should the need arise. She had been too long Peter’s wife, forever at his elbow and lately entrapped in the nursery with their rising brood. Once he would have thought nothing of sending her off to picnic with suspected murderers.
“This is the house,” Lanyon said at length, and Harriet, staring up at it in the instant between the bell being rung and responded to, thought it would suit Olive rather well, if they could contrive to secure it to her.