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Before the Dawn

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It is his custom under such circumstances to ask the condemned man’s forgiveness.
From his demeanor, I do not think he had it.
- Mervyn Bunter, Busman’s Honeymoon

 

Frank Crutchley is not the first man to be condemned to the hangman’s noose through his lordship’s actions. One cannot enter upon the career to which his lordship has devoted himself, and expect one’s hands to remain bloodless. At dawn a life will be snuffed out, because of Lord Peter Wimsey; Bunter watches the knowledge sit heavy on his lordship’s shoulders, like a monstrous black cat devouring him whole.

He is grateful to her ladyship for sending him tonight. Not because it showed deference to his longstanding service – Bunter is secure in his own estimation and needs no special acknowledgment. No, he is grateful because her words show that she has understood her husband and has sought to support him, and consulted him as an expert. He has never doubted the love his lordship bears for her ladyship, and though her ladyship’s regard was late-come he believes it to be true as well. But love is one thing, and his lordship’s demons are another.

His lordship is driving fast tonight. His hands clutch the wheel; his face is white and set.

You cannot outrun the dead, Bunter thinks.

He has never tried to prevent one of his lordship’s attacks. He is no magician. He can only be his lordship’s rock in the gale, the calm harbour of refuge in a tempestuous storm.

Tonight he will try to give his lordship another harbour.

Bunter cannot guarantee that he will take it. His lordship is a proud man, for all that he hides it behind jests and japery. To show weakness to his new bride – to hide his tears against her breast – to share with her not only a moment’s failing, but the full shattering – Bunter does not know if he will find the strength, in the end.

It is different with his lordship and Bunter. When you have fought in the trenches together, seen your men blown to pieces for a scrap of mucky field, heard the cannons scream and been buried alive, no words are necessary. His lordship knows his episodes neither shock nor dismay Bunter.

Bunter watches the still white profile of the man at his side, as they whiz over the quiet open road, far faster than is legal or advisable. Turn back to her, he thinks.

It would be easy for his lordship to drive all night, with his familiar companion at his side. No need to worry about Bunter’s reaction, no fear of frightening him, no gnawing irrational conviction that she might love him less, if she sees him like this. Just the open road, and the Daimler, and the freedom of speed; until dawn breaks, and it passes eight o’clock, and all is over.

They come to a crossroads in the darkness, and the car stops.

After all these years, Bunter does not have the urge to speak. He will always be a support for his lordship, whensoever and howsoever he is needed. But there is another who must be his lordship’s comfort, if their marriage is to be the true communion that he knows his lordship longs for. His lordship will never cease to use his talents to do what is right, even though a hundred Frank Crutchleys perish by his skill, and his lordship’s demons will never wholly leave him, not if he live to a hundred.

You cannot protect them all, he thinks. This is not the War, when every soldier’s loss, however criminal-minded or even evil he might have been at Home, fell like a brand upon his lordship’s sensitive soul. This is peacetime, and those who break that peace to visit violence upon others deserve to pay the price for their sins. Bunter has at heart a stern sense of justice. If you deprive another of their life, you must pay for it in your turn.

But the man at his side, his set face illuminated by the moonlight, knows that a man dies at dawn because of him. He may know that Frank Crutchley deserves his fate; he may intellectually see that Crutchley’s refusal to grant him forgiveness for the part he played in Crutchley’s downfall reflects only on Crutchley himself, not on the broader justice of his lordship’s actions. All of that ceases to matter, however, before the central fact – a man goes to his death because of me.

If Bunter could take the weight on himself, he would.

His lordship’s stillness turns suddenly into action. He turns the car in the crossroads and drives back to Talboys, even more quickly than before.

When they arrive, Bunter puts his lordship on the settle in the sitting-room, makes up a strong fire for him, and then goes quietly up the back way to her ladyship.

She comes to the door immediately upon his quiet tap, and he knows that she has not slept.

In this moment, as she asks after his lordship with a focused intensity, he feels a kinship fall into place between them. Their histories may be divergent, but here in the darkness before this dawn they have a shared worry and a shared goal. Already Bunter has one ally against his lordship’s demons, his lordship’s mother; now he finds that he has another.

Her ladyship intends to wait for his lordship, and not to go to him or to press him. If he comes to her, it will be of his own will and in his own time.

Bunter approves.

As he turns to go, he sees her face in the moonlight. It is not a pretty face, as fashions go; it is striking and distinctive, and could never be mistaken for mere prettiness. But in this hour it is shadowed and strained; he can see the determination in the set of her head, the resolve to be strong for her husband and to fight through this night – together.

“Would your ladyship like me to bring you a cup of tea?” he asks, softly.

“Oh, Bunter, thank you,” she says. “Yes, I should.”

After he has brought it, he returns to the kitchen to keep his long solitary vigil.

That vigil, though solitary, is not unshared. In the sitting room, his lordship wrestles with his demons and with the inevitable march of the passing hours. Upstairs, her ladyship waits for him, not to take away his burden, but to share it.

Bunter drinks tea and wonders which will come first, the dawn or his lordship’s step upon the stair.

It has gone four when at last he hears the sitting room door open, and his lordship ascending the stair. He closes his eyes in momentary relief; then he washes the tea things and goes to his bed. Not for him the waiting until the church clock strikes eight and Frank Crutchley is dead. Crutchley will die whether he is awake or not, and Bunter’s conscience is clear.

Bunter does not know what will come with the morning. They may want breakfast; they may be unable to stand the idea of food. They may sleep late; they may go for an early morning walk or drive. They may stay at Talboys; they may leave it behind and journey elsewhere, shaking off both vengeful ghosts and troubled drains.

Whatever they need, Bunter will provide it.

He sleeps, and upstairs Harriet and Peter wait for the dawn.

~//~