Harriet’s hands shake as she reads the telegram again. Five words to read, seven days to wait, and her heartbeat thundering so loud in her ears that it drowns out all sound of the street outside.
“Not bad news, I hope?” her secretary asks after a few minutes.
“Peter’s back next week,” says Harriet. Has her voice always sounded that queer? She feels luminous, translucent, like a lightbulb being switched on for the first time, as if all her thoughts and feelings were shining out for the world to see.
“You must be pleased.”
'Pleased' seems such an inadequate word that Harriet feels dizzy at the thought of it, like a romance novel heroine overcome by an unfortunate letter. She wonders, absurdly, if there are any smelling salts in the bathroom cabinet.
“Yes,” she says.
Dining out with the Dowager Duchess should be a surreal experience but it makes Harriet feel as if she’s come back to the right side of the looking-glass. Harriet’s current reality is shaped by this one fundamental, overwhelming truth - that she loves Peter, and is loved in return - and interacting with people who don’t know this feels like talking to people who are unaware that the sky is blue, or that the earth is round, or that a thrown champagne cork must inevitably come back down to the ground.
"Hear hear," says Harriet cheerfully as the waiter tops up their glasses. So far the Duchess's speech has taken in: divorce; the importance of furniture polish; children and the diseases thereof; betrothal traditions of the 1890s; fruit cake; the freedoms that one has as a single woman; the ambivalence that the Duchess feels regarding, on the one hand, how delighted she is in Harriet's suitability for being Peter's wife and, on the other hand, her awareness that taking on such a role will inevitably entail giving up some of said freedoms; the parable of the mustard seed; geraniums; and a book the Duchess read last week about an itinerant piano teacher, really very good, she can't remember the title but thinks it was something about an elephant, does Harriet know it?
It is the best speech Harriet has ever heard.
“I’m not sure if Peter has pulled me into Wonderland or out of it,” says Harriet after the Duchess has finally come to a stop. They are dining at the Savoy, where the Duchess knows the maitre d’, the sommelier and three of the waiters by name. Harriet feels as if she was made of champagne - thoughts keep rising through her like bubbles and popping out unwilled.
“Poor Mr Dodgson,” says the Duchess. “Not a happy man, although so clever and with such a way with words. I remember him trying to explain long division using a salad fork and a plate of peas, though I’m afraid at eight years old I was much more interested in Gertrude’s puppy.”
“Oh good,” says Harriet. Of course the Duchess knew Lewis Carroll; Harriet can’t imagine how she could ever have thought otherwise.
“You should know I’m not going to give you any advice, about marriage I mean, because advice is always so vexing and usually wrong anyway; people can only tell you about their marriage, which is always going to be different because it’s two different people, and anyway the ones who are keenest to give advice always seem to have the most dreadful husbands, why is that?”
“I don't know, but you're quite right."
“I do hope Peter won’t be tiresome. One doesn’t like to think of one’s own son being tiresome, especially not Peter, who really is very well-behaved despite Paul’s influence, but then again Peter has never been married before.”
“Neither have I,” says Harriet. “I might be horrible at it.”
The Duchess tilts her head to one side. “I think you’d have to try very hard,” she says at last. “To be bad at it, I mean. Peter has wanted to marry you for a long time.”
Harriet flushes warm with the old, familiar wave of guilt. “I-”
“Which isn’t to say that I think you should have said yes earlier, of course. As I had to explain to Peter more than once when he was a child, wanting it very badly won’t make the souffle rise any faster and if you open the oven door too soon it will fall and be ruined - the souffle, I mean, not the oven - and then Cook will be very cross with you, and rightly so.”
“I see,” says Harriet.
“Speaking of souffle,” says the Duchess, “do you like lemon?”
They order lemon souffle, and more champagne, and as they eat and drink the Duchess congratulates and condoles and distracts Harriet in equal measure, her voice bubbling over Harriet with all the freshness and unstoppability of a mountain stream.
On Monday Harriet answers all of her outstanding correspondence, re-organises her research notes, turns out her linen cupboard, sews on a button and takes a long walk, and when all that is done she still has nearly one hundred hours to wait.
On Tuesday Harriet buys a cake and invites herself round to Sylvia Marriott’s flat for tea. Sylvia's busy preparing a commission for the V&A and there are drawings everywhere, fluttering down the backs of armchairs and sticking out of teetering piles of books.
“And what about you?” asks Sylvia when she's brought Harriet up to date with all the news. “You're awfully quiet..”
“I’m going to marry Peter,” says Harriet.
“Of course you are,” says Sylvia.
Eiluned arrives just as Sylvia is making a fresh pot of tea, thumping in with an armful of chicken wire.
“I’ve had an idea about that maquette,” she says by way of greeting.
“Harriet’s deserted us for the ranks of the betrothed,” says Sylvia.
Eiluned harrumphs. “Wimsey, I suppose.”
“Could be worse, as men go,” says Eiluned in a considered tone, and Harriet thanks her politely. It's a high compliment from Eiluned and Harriet's first thought is to write to Peter and tell him but then she remembers that no, there will be no more letters, in just three days she will be able to tell him in person, and the thought arrests her attention so that she loses the thread of the conversation. She feels like a desert waiting for the rain, her skin tingling with the static electricity of the approaching thunderstorm.
Wednesday passes, somehow, and Thursday, and then shortly after breakfast on Friday morning the telephone rings.
“Hullo,” says Peter, and the world rushes into glorious Technicolor. “Harriet, darling, you really have no idea how wonderful it is to hear your voice. Naturally, I suppose, you hear it every day, take it for granted, that sort of thing, but please take it from a thoroughly partial observer that it is the most marvellous sound in the world. Orpheus would have wept and chucked the harp in as a bad lot. I’m waffling.”
“Yes,” says Harriet solemnly.
“Will you have dinner with me?”
“Will you marry me?”
“Just checking. I like hearing you say yes.”
“I like saying it,” says Harriet, because it is the truth. At the moment, there is nothing truer than her desire to say yes to Peter.
Peter's breath catches. "Dinner?" he asks, his voice a little husky. May I pick you up at seven?"
“Yes,” says Harriet, smiling.
Nine hours, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two one-
The doorbells rings and Peter is there. Darling Peter, with his hair neatly parted, his eyes lively, and his hand reaching for Harriet's.
"I missed you," he says, his hand warm, running his thumb over Harriet's palm. "Very much."
"Like torrents in summer," agrees Harriet. He kisses her, there on the doorstep on a muggy autumn evening, and the rain falls, the desert blooms, and the clock stops ticking because this, this is what she has been waiting for, and time has served its purpose because it has brought Peter back to her.