Gerald was dead, and the world had changed. They had left a weeping Helen in the hands of her daughter and taken a taxi the short distance from the Mayfair house to Audley Square. Harriet had spoken to the boys’ schools and arranged for them to come a day early for half-term and the funeral, but she had at present no serious worries in that direction. Gerald had been a kindly uncle, but he belonged, in mind if not hitherto in body, to a generation dismissed in the minds of boys as old men. She found Peter writing letters at the little table in the drawing room. He looked up as she entered and she crossed the room to kiss his temple before retreating to the chair in front of the unseasonable fire.
‘Have you ordered tea?’
‘What? No, I didn’t think of it.’
‘Then let’s have some now; I’m starving, and you might drink something.’
‘All right.’ He turned back to his papers, and Harriet picked up her notebook. She had long since learned not to be wounded by Peter’s retreat into himself on these occasions. She recalled her mother-in-law’s words of long ago, he is still in there, and he did, in the end, always come back to her. The letters needed to be written, and he would be better for feeling useful. She sent the maid for tea and muffins, a pleasure once more with the end of butter rationing.
The heavy door opened to admit Bunter bearing a silver tray laden with the usual teapot and associated paraphernalia, and plates piled high with muffins and cucumber sandwiches. Harriet recalled belatedly that lunch had consisted of a single biscuit.
‘Thank you, Bunter,’ she said, feeling suddenly exhausted. Peter had not turned round. Bunter laid a hand on his shoulder, and bent his head to murmur something ending in, ‘tea, your grace.’
Peter sat up as if he had been bitten, turning a distraught face to his valet.
‘Oh no, Bunter! Not you, too.’
Harriet said nothing. She remembered once before when Bunter’s words had made something real, my lady, now gone forever. Now he stood as implacable as Jane’s Mr Brocklehurst, a straight black pillar with its face like a carved mask.
‘Your grace,’ the voice not unsympathetic, but softly insistent. There could be, she understood, no resistance to the overwhelming tide. Canute, poor misrepresented man, had known that. Though it was like Peter to fight against the waves nonetheless.
‘But not yet, surely?’
The curved lips of the mask understood, but were unmoving. The strong fingers on the shoulder distorted the grey flannel. Tomorrow, the cloth would be black and the hand at his side.
Peter yielded reluctantly, inevitably, ‘At least not at home.’ And then more quietly, ‘Bunter?’
Harriet, watching silently, saw something shift behind the mask. A struggle was taking place, something happening she had never quite seen before, and then the mask dropped and there was only a man standing there, looking frightened and exhilarated and as old as he was, the mouth gone soft and uncertain, only the dark eyes still shadowed. His hand dropped from Peter’s shoulder and Harriet saw the fingers stiffen and forced straight again. Bunter, drawing breath and fixing his eyes straight ahead, looked so like a little boy nerving himself to recite that she couldn’t help smiling. He let out a breath, dropped his gaze to meet Peter’s, and said in a voice that could not quite conceal its own daring: