Sylvia and Eiluned had presented themselves at Harriet’s flat at nine o’clock in the morning with a couple of sacks full of brown paper and string, and a determined look on their faces.
‘It’s far too soon to start packing’, Harriet protested weakly. ‘I can’t live out of boxes for the next month, and besides, I haven’t decided what I want to do with everything.’
‘That,’ said Sylvia, ‘is the whole point. ‘You never will decide. You’ll chuck everything in crates, and spend three years hunting through the jumble wondering where your favourite pen is and why on earth you kept that appalling apron. You know what it was like when you went to the continent. Now go and have your bath while we survey the territory.’
Bathed, dressed, and resigned to her fate, Harriet found Sylvia and Eiluned in the flat’s small sitting room and wondering whether they had brought enough cardboard boxes.
‘I thought you said no packing.’
‘I did,’ said Sylvia, brightly. ‘These are for breakables you’re chucking. Come on, Eiluned’s going to tackle your clothes, and you and I are going to start on the kitchen.’
The employment of a charwoman had been one of Harriet’s few luxuries since the day she had moved out of rooms to live with Phil. It had not, after leaving him, been an easy thing to keep up, but she had persisted. In those days, she had had to do her own typing, on a slow and clumsy machine; one could not manage all the rough work, write, and type, and the typing bureau cost more than Mrs Calver. Harriet now discovered that whilst the servant certainly prevented the accumulation of dust, she did not prevent that of junk. Sylvia, hauling chipped crockery and battered pans out of cupboards, was merciless.
‘This lot,’ she said, heaving it with a clatter into a sack, ‘is for the dump. Yes, I’m sure someone, somewhere could make use of it, but I’m not going to find out, and goodness knows you won’t. This’, turning to a box, ‘will do for a mission somewhere. I’ll tell Bobby Fawcett to send some lads round with a cart. This box is also mission, but teas.’
‘I don’t want to chuck it all!’
‘Of course not, but are you honestly going to use any of it in the London house?’
‘Probably not,’ Harriet admitted.
‘This stuff,’ went on Sylvia, as Harriet reflected with some anxiety that Eiluned was doubtless being equally ruthless with her wardrobe, ‘I have actually seen in use. I thought we might divide it into sentimental retention for every day, country cottage, and country-cottage-children’s-teas. That’s if you intend to have children, of course.’
‘I don’t know. We haven’t talked about it. After all,’ she said, feeling a little defensive, ‘Peter hasn’t been back in the country a fortnight, and it’s not the easiest sort of thing to raise in a letter.’
‘Perhaps not. Though what you and Peter have been talking about the past five years beats me. Still, it will give you conversation now. No, you can’t keep that plate; look at the crack in it. I suppose he won’t insist on children?’
‘If I thought there were the least chance that he would,’ said Harriet seriously, ‘I shouldn’t be marrying him. But I honestly haven’t the least idea what he thinks otherwise. His nephews and nieces seem to like him, so he doesn’t seem violently opposed to all infants on principal.’
‘What about you?’
‘I don’t know. Before - with Phil, I mean - I was rather more concerned about not having them. And I’ve never thought of it as something, well, something that I particularly wanted to do. Now I suppose it’s different. I mean, I’ve a father to hand if I want one – and if he does, of course.’
‘You don’t feel a womanly urging when you see him that you must be mother to his children?’ said Eiluned, standing in the doorway with a pair of rather disgraceful stockings in her hand.
‘I think that’s a euphemism for the purposes of clergymen,’ said Harriet, ‘but taking it at face value, no, the biological imperative does not overwhelm me. I do wonder if it mightn’t be rather fun, though. And Peter’s money really would make a difference. Not that one would want to send them away at three, or whatever Spartan practices Peter’s relatives adhere to, but at least it would mean one needn’t be up to one’s elbows in grotty napkins all the time.’
‘Like poor Jenny Hay,’ said Sylvia. ‘I told her that it was a terrible idea if Gilbert wasn’t going to get a decent job, but she gave in. Apparently Gilbert objects to “unnatural practices”, although I haven’t noticed him offering to eat his dinner raw.’
‘I told her to go home to her mother,’ said Eiluned bluntly. ‘She couldn’t be worse off. But you’re changing the subject. Where were we?’
‘Unnatural practices,’ said Sylvia.
‘Oh yes, whether Harriet intends to employ them or let nature take its course.’
‘I really don’t think it’s any of your business,’ said Harriet, feeling herself getting flustered, and annoyed by it.
‘It isn’t. But everyone else is going to be asking you, if not quite in such terms, so you might as well practise on us. You can blush modestly and turn away if you prefer, or you can say whether you’ve been to the doctor.’
‘Well, yes,’ Harriet admitted, ‘but I’m not sure whether I shall bother – it’s such a nuisance. Not that babies aren’t, of course; I suppose I shouldn’t want one quite at once. And it does depend what Peter thinks. But I didn’t let you stay to grill me. We’re supposed to be putting things in order.’
‘So we are. Come and look at your clothes, and let Syl finish in here and start on the bathroom.’
Eiluned – she and Sylvia must have conferred beforehand – had taken a similar approach to Harriet’s wardrobe as her friend had to the kitchen cupboards. Garments lay neatly piled on and rug, empty sacks waiting expectantly.
‘Rag and bone, wearable by someone else, keep. You may check wearable if you insist, and then you’d better pull out anything you need for your honeymoon.’
‘That won’t be easy; we haven’t decided where we’re going.’
‘Honestly, Harriet! You might have talked about that in letters.’
‘I know. Oh well, an awful lot of it’s new anyway, and I have got pretty much everything I might need otherwise, as long as we don’t go mountaineering or something. I say, Eiluned, do you think I might get a bob or two for the wearable pile?’
‘Some of it’s not bad. I don’t see why not.’
‘Only I’m rather broke at present. You see, what with the wedding dress, and all the new things, and Peter’s present, I’m starting to run a bit short.’
‘I know. But some of it was rather expensive, and I’ve been consoling myself for accepting Peter’s money by spending a lot of my own. I’ve bashed out a couple of shorts, but the rest of the advance isn’t due until November and it’s going to be a bit tight, and I’m damned if I’ll spend any of Peter’s before we really are married.’
‘I’m glad you took the money,’ said Eiluned, unexpectedly. ‘I know you didn’t want to, but it’s a lot easier not to spend it if you have it than it is to discover you need it after all and have to ask later.’
‘That’s what Peter said. And it’s not as if I’ll never have any of my own again. I mean, Harriet Vane isn’t giving up the day job, so I’ll still get my own royalties and cheques and things, even if Lady Peter Wimsey lives beyond Harriet’s means. Of course, she may not. I’m not quite sure who Lady Peter is yet, though I do hope she won’t be as silly as the name.’
Eiluned grimaced sympathetically. ‘Oh it isn’t that bad. At least “Peter”’s all right. Objectively, of course, it isn’t really any stupider than Mrs John Smith, and much better for booking tables in restaurants.’
‘That’s true. I only hope people won’t be too stuffy about the Miss Vane bit – they will, of course, but I wish they wouldn’t pick at Peter for it. It isn’t fair.’
‘I’m sure he can weather it. It isn’t a big unfairness, in the grand scheme of things.’
‘I suppose not. No, I really can’t chuck those bras – I ran out of money for replacements.’
‘So I see. Well, you can sacrifice this frock instead. Really, Harriet, no-one deserves to face that across the breakfast table and you might get sixpence for it. Come on, let’s get rid of this lot and see how Sylvia’s getting on.’
Sylvia, back in the kitchen, proved to have swept like a whirlwind through the bathroom (‘Goodness, Harriet, are these from when you were trying to do different things with your hair?’) and was busily engaged in cutting sandwiches. Harriet found herself suddenly very hungry.
‘I’m glad you came. I had been meaning to start, but couldn’t quite manage it.’
‘Part of the general overwhelmingness of things?’
Sylvia poured tea from a condemned teapot into spared cups. ‘Is that someone on the stairs?’
‘I’m not expecting anyone,’ shrugged Harriet. ‘Perhaps it’s the post.’
It was Peter. He stood with his hat in his hand, looking slightly sheepish.
‘I happened to be in the area,’ he said, the untruth endearingly transparent, ‘and I thought I might take you to lunch if you were free.’
‘Oh! I’m afraid not. We’re sacking the flat. You could join us if you liked.’
‘I’d be intruding,’ he said quickly.
‘Of course you wouldn’t. It’s Sylvia and Eiluned, and they’ve been whipping me mercilessly. It’s only cheese and tomato sandwiches, but there’s enough for four.’ She kissed him. ‘Come on. You can hold my hand during the introductions.’
She ought to have known that introductions would not be needed. Peter, it seemed, had practically haunted Sylvia’s exhibitions in the first year of their acquaintance, carefully arranging chance meetings in the vicinity. ‘It would have been rather obvious,’ he said, ‘if we’d kept bumping into one another in front of the paintings themselves.’ Eiluned had clearly given him the seal of approval, and even let him off cutting his tomato with the butter knife with no comment about men creating washing-up.
‘I say,’ he exclaimed, returning from filling the kettle, ‘you really are ruthless, Miss Marriott. I only hope Bunter isn’t as severe with me. By the way, assuming that the locusts are at work in every room, do you think you might possibly manage to throw the green and grey frock in their way? You know, Harriet, the one you always wore when endeavouring to look particularly discouraging. I haven’t seen it for some time, but it haunts my dreams. Not, I hasten to add, for the visual effect, so much as the intended message. I don’t think I could see it on my wife without wondering when the divorce papers would arrive.’
‘It’s gone,’ said Harriet. ‘Eiluned said it made me look like a corpse.’
‘Far be it from me to disagree with Miss Price,’ said Peter.
He had left immediately after lunch, observing that it was all very well to avoid one’s own work, but unacceptable to get in the way of someone else’s. Harriet showed him out, trying to ignore the sense of Sylvia and Eiluned summing him up in the sitting room.
‘I’ll see you at seven, then. Is my flat still all right? I think I can promise we shall still have chairs and a table, and I’ve some plans I want to go over with you.’
‘Yes, of course. It’ll be a nice change from a restaurant.’
‘Much more comfortable, certainly.’
Harriet, returning a few minutes later from the hallway, found her friends gingerly engaged in the extraction of a folding stool and various oddments from behind her bedroom wardrobe, and herself blushing furiously.
‘We ain’t sayin’ anything,’ said Sylvia, ‘except that we approve. Now, this has got to go.’