Which is to say, thanks, it has been terrific fun to write, and I hope it is half as much fun to read.
Title:The Healing Fountain, or, The English Aristocrat’s Gentleman’s Gentleman’s Gymslip Lover
Length: 7373 words.
Rating: PG, assuming your parents are mine.
Also posted at: Here at AO3
Summary: "Mentone, 1932. An English schoolgirl stands upon the threshold of womanhood. Her beloved father is dead, her mother cold and distant. Amidst the tinsel glamour and loose morals of the Riviera resorts, who can heal her wounded soul and teach her to love again?
Starring Douglas Fairbanks as David Harland and introducing Hilary Thorpe as Sarah Wytham, The Healing Fountain is the motion picture event of 1937."
Hilary Thorpe always said she wanted to be a writer. Reading her first novel, Lord Peter Wimsey finds that some of the characters are surprisingly familiar, particularly the hero, a dark and handsome valet.
The Healing Fountain
‘There’s something else I wanted to tell you,’ said Hilary Thorpe, pausing a moment before the last bite of Chelsea bun. ‘I’ve written a book. I said I was going to, and now I have.’
‘Well done!’ Being married to a novelist, Wimsey knew better than to follow with ‘What’s it about?’, but continued, ‘Have you thought what to do about a publisher? Harriet’s are good, but she advises against Wallgate. Thieves and cannibals.’
Hilary blushed. ‘As a matter of fact, I’ve found one: Garman and Fletcher. They’re quite good, I think. I would have asked Harriet, only – it sounds childish, but I wanted to do it on my own.’
‘It sounds quite understandable. There’s nothin’ like looking at something and thinking ‘That’s
my work. Makes you feel on top of the world.’
‘Oh yes! Even if I never manage another one, I’ll know I did this.’
‘When does it launch upon the unsuspecting world?’
‘In the autumn list. Look here, would you mind awfully waiting to read it until it’s official? I’ll send you a copy, of course, but though one wants people to read it it’s still all a bit shy-making.’
‘Of course,’ said Peter. ‘I look forward to it. The wait will teach me patience. I am told that is a virtue, which explains why it is so dull.’
Lord Peter did not see much of Hilary that summer. Whilst he and Harriet had enjoyed the Mediterranean and Talboys, she had taken her final examinations in Cambridge and, unable to retreat to the rented Red House, paid a visit to the Revd and Mrs Venables and thence to Duke’s Denver, ‘To fulfill my Fenland urges’, before setting up home in London in a small flat with a friend. Wimsey had been relieved by Hilary’s attitude to her childhood home, having feared she would want to live in it herself. Hilary had been regretful, but pragmatic.
‘I love the old place, of course, and I do hope to live there again one day. But I couldn’t farm it myself and I’m afraid that after Girton it would get awfully dull down there on my own. It’s much better to have it lived in and looked after and I shall enjoy the bright lights until I am jaded before my time and happy to retire to country solitude.’
September was over and October roaring unpleasantly into an early winter when Wimsey returned from solving the mystery of the larcenous burgher of Birkenhead to find that his plan of surprising his wife and child with an earlier arrival than promised had wrecked upon their disinclination to stand looking mournfully at the drawing room window waiting for the glimpse of sail on a far horizon. Master Bredon was present, but teething and not to be woken, and Harriet was out on the tiles in Bohemia, a place notorious, reflected Wimsey for its lack of coast. Thus thwarted, Lord Peter settled into an armchair with the post.
It was not that he had forgotten Hilary’s achievement, but three weeks spent in diligent disguise as a Post Office clerk will coarsen a man’s attitudes to the Royal Mail. Cutting the string on a neat brown parcel, Wimsey was relieved to discover only a smartly dust-jacketed book bearing the title The Healing Fountain, and a short note from Miss Thorpe.
Dear Lord Peter,
I said I’d done it, and here it is. I don’t expect you to like it, but be kind and don’t laugh too much. It’s the sort of book we wanted to read at school, and I wrote to please myself. In the pursuit of honesty, I must admit it’s the sort of book we wanted to read at college, too. I expect it will be banned at school, but permitted at college. I ought to say that I honestly didn’t set out to write something that would make Uncle Edward furious. I’m afraid my aunt is badly shocked, but she is shocked by Charlotte Yonge, so that was inevitable. Oh dear, I’m making excuses and I didn’t mean to do that. It holds to a reasonable standard of English and I think it’s not half bad. That will do.
Wimsey ordered more coffee and opened the book. It was impossible for him to do anything else.
The Healing Fountain was indeed not half bad. In fact it was a great deal better than that. It was true that Wimsey’s preferred reading material did not usually feature young schoolgirls chafing under the restrictive guardianship of a cold, man-hunting mother and a socialite aunt, but it held to the promised standard of English and a surprising lightness of touch considering the title. The theme was not perhaps the most original – he anticipated with some confidence the arrival of a sophisticated older man and a glamorous affair, although he was uncertain whether to expect the intrusion of a baby – and the treatment of the mother and aunt somewhat immature, but the young girl, dragged round an endless succession of hotels on the Riviera, spas, and ski resorts, was presented with an unsentimental vigour unusual for this kind of fiction. On the whole, it was rather entertaining.
He moved closer to her, so that she had to press herself against the trellis to avoid being crushed against his body. His friend laughed and lit a cigarette. She thought despairingly of her mother, so concerned to please men that she had never taught her daughter how to deny them.
‘Come on, Sally.’ The voice that had so attracted her in the cafe was now coarsened and harsh. His face, close to hers, looked older. She realised with a shock that he must be closer to forty than the twenty-five he had claimed. She closed her eyes, trying not to cry.
‘Here, what the hell?’
Sarah opened her eyes in a rush of air. Thomson was sprawled on the ground at the foot of a stranger. His friend leant against the wall, wiping blood from his lip. The stranger took the cigarette from his hand and crushed it underfoot with an insolent grace before seizing her arm.
‘And I don’t know what you think you’re up to, behaving like a hussy. Your mother’s desperately worried. Come back to the hotel at once.’ He marched her hastily down the stone steps between the heavy cypress trees, before turning swiftly off the path into a cool grove, sitting her firmly down and handing her a handkerchief. She wiped her eyes, her hands shaking, and smiled weakly at her rescuer.
To her surprise, the stranger blushed.
‘I hope you will be good enough to overlook my methods. I fear that Mr Thomson is not a gentleman, and I felt that more gentle persuasion might not have had a lasting effect.’
‘You’re very kind.’
‘I was happy to be of assistance. If you will excuse me, miss, I must return to my hotel. May I escort you to the cafe? If I may make so bold as to suggest it, I believe some refreshment would be wise.’
‘It’s very good of you.’
He handed to her feet, but did not offer his arm, and led the way through the winding paths to the Cafe Josephine at the entrance to the gardens where he saw her to a table and signalled to the waiter.
He raised his hat. ‘Good day to you, miss.’
‘Wait!’ He turned back towards her. He was not so old as she had thought, a year or two over forty, perhaps, with only the faintest trace of grey in his dark hair. ‘Won’t tell me your name?’
‘My name is Harland, miss, and I am honoured to have been of service.’
‘Thank you, Mr Harland.’ Sarah held out her hand and he shook it firmly before excusing himself with a nod. She watched as he walked briskly towards the gate and out into the busy streets, his tall figure clear among the crowds until her attention was called to the waiter and when she looked back he had gone.
Wimsey sipped his port. Harriet had told him scathingly of publishers who urged young writers to ‘write what you know’, and he was delighted to see that Hilary had not done so. Though one could not avoid it all together. Harland’s conversation suggested that Hilary’s knowledge of mysterious older men was drawn from Edwardian servants, which, Wimsey mused, considering her childhood was in all likelihood the case.
Harriet’s party must have been an enjoyable one, for the midnight hour came and went with no sign of her. Peter, telling himself firmly that she must have kept late enough hours as a single woman, some of them even in his company, refrained from feeling sorry for himself by heroic effort. This was made somewhat easier by the progress of The Healing Fountain. Mervyn Bunter, replenishing the brandy, did not begrudge the lateness of the hour. It was, he thought, decidedly like old times.
‘I say, Bunter, Miss Thorpe has written a jolly fine book.’
‘Indeed, my lord?’
‘I wouldn’t say it’s my usual thing, though schoolgirl readin’ has come on a bit since my day, but speaking as a trustee I think the money spent on Cambridge has proved its worth. You might give it a try yourself; you go on with her rather well in Fenchurch, didn’t you?’
‘Indeed, my lord. Miss Thorpe struck me as a very pleasant young woman. Her efforts in the crisis were most appreciated by the villagers.’
‘So they were. The two of you put on quite a show with those evening concerts. I remember she acquired that top hat for you; Vesta Tilley must have been puce with envy.’
‘I wish your lordship would not allude to the incident. I cannot remember it without pain.’
‘Your wish is my command. I’m for bed. See William has something to drink, will you? If Harriet’s reverting to old habits, she won’t be in for hours.’
Harriet returned at 3 o’clock, rolling into bed to discover her husband with surprise and pleasure but not, unfortunately, continued wakefulness. Lord Peter, folding the wife of his bosom into that portion, composed his strength for the morning.
A faint familiar wail breaking through the morning air proclaimed that the son and heir of the house was awake. His father, observing that Harriet was dead to the world and likely to remain so for some time, pulled on a peacock-spangled dressing gown and made his way to the nursery at the top of the house. Here he participated in an agreeable if somewhat messy breakfast and submitted to having his knuckles chewed for half an hour before retreating to his bed and the company of his wife and The Healing Fountain.
If only, thought Sarah, it only she were still fifteen! If only she were still a child, confined to her bedroom after dinner as her mother and Aunt Elizabeth haunted the ballrooms and casinos. If only she were not now deemed old enough to be forced into an evening frock and paraded around the hotel to decorate the table so that her mother’s friends could tell Mrs Wytham that she couldn’t possibly be old enough to have such a grown-up daughter. If only she could be free of it! But she had no education, no money, no family, escape. Her father might – but what would her father care? He had married her mother, and that was the measure of him. Her mother danced with Colonel Williams and Aunt Elizabeth gossiped with Mrs Van Der Kone, and Sarah wished away another night of her young life and did not notice the man who crossed the floor toward her.
‘May I have this dance?’
He wore evening dress, plain but correct, the dark cloth well-fitted to a tall and manly figure that cut a contrast with the older men gone to seed and the louche younger set of a Riviera resort not quite of the first rate.
‘I should be delighted. May I, Aunt?’
Aunt Elizabeth, starting impatiently from the tale her friend was weaving of a mutual acquaintance who had come a cropper, saw a respectable middle-aged man offering to take her niece off her hands at a most opportune moment – for Mrs Van Der Kone had a look in her eye that could only mean that hitherto unsuspected detail was about to be revealed – and murmured acquiescence. Sarah stood, Mr Harland bowed over her hand, and for the first time in her life she found herself taken in the arms of someone who was neither dancing master, fellow pupil, nor innocuous boy chum, but only and utterly a man.
Oh but he could dance! Sarah had never known such a partner, such a balance of precision and ease, of lightness and strength. He held her no closer than any other man had done, yet she was acutely conscious of the heat of his powerful body and the queer throbbing in her own. The silk of her evening dress was so thin that his hand at her waist seemed to burn against her skin. She felt that when the music stopped the whole room would hear the heaving in her breast.
‘Hullo!’ said Harriet drowsily.
‘Awake, my heart?’
‘Awake, if not to be loved. Or not yet, though morn is long broken. Not that I can moralise.’
‘Certainly not. What time is it?’
‘Only ten or so.’
‘Only!’ said Harriet, throwing back the bedclothes.
‘My dear,’ said Peter, catching her in a familiar movement, ‘you may decline to be a lady of leisure, but it is Sunday and we are abed and if you will not rest, then be a woman full of good works.’
‘What were you reading?’ asked Harriet some time later over the coffee and, to her husband’s grief, toast and jam in bed.
‘The Healing Fountain. Remember I told you Hilary Thorpe had written a book? This is the book.’
‘What’s it like?’
‘Like the book of life, it features a man and a woman. The woman is a vivacious schoolgirl and I think the man has just turned up and has a dark secret. I shall report further anon. What do you intend to do today?’
‘To have the day off.’
‘A splendid plan. You will find me doing the same. We might, if you liked, do some of it together.’
Two dances, given out of pity by a middle-aged man in evening dress, and her heart was hollow that there could be no more. Mrs Wytham had booked tickets on the night train to Paris.
‘Paris, darling! We shall buy you a frock. Several frocks. I can’t bear to look at you in those dreadful things you have. And then London, won’t that be gay? I have some business to attend to,’ she added, in unusually sober tones, ‘before the winter.’
A last walk along the promenade, a last kiss of the Mediterranean sun, a last glimpse of the Mediterranean blue. A first glimpse, from the high sweep of the jetty, of a man walking up the shore from the surf, tall, straight, and strong-bodied, his dark hair wet with spray curling wildly over his brow. In his dark blue bathing suit with its white belt he was not a vision of Adonis, but something far more than that, the epitome of virile masculinity.
‘Good lord!’ said Peter Wimsey.
‘Peter?’ Harriet looked up from the newspaper.
‘Only Hilary’s book. But you really must read this when I’m finished. I think,’ he added, ‘that the author’s subconscious may have been at work.’
Wimsey had said in the past that no man on earth could disguise a back. He wondered whether the same applied to backsides. The black-clad one presently disappearing through the drawing room door had been familiar for twenty years and was not normally liable to inspire flights of fancy. But Wimsey saw it now on a beach in Italy on its owner’s afternoon off, clad in a surprisingly daring bathing suit and again in the same at Fenchurch St Paul under rather less pleasant circumstances and with the addition of a pair of rubber boots, assisting in clearing a drain. He shook his head. Half his nephew’s friends no doubt owned the same thing.
The Healing Fountain had taken a change of direction. The mother had gone to America and Hilary, having limited knowledge of that country, had sensibly sent her heroine to school. School, even a girls’ school of the duller type, was a familiar world to Wimsey and Sarah’s success on account of an extensive albeit theoretical knowledge of sex seemed entirely plausible. He paused briefly to admire the new girl’s attitude to contact sports and the wisdom of reading the rules of hockey in advance. The summer holidays brought the return of the Mediterranean round and of Mr Harland, now firmly established as the man, unless his lordship were very much mistaken, to induct the heroine into the pains and passions of physical love, if not without some hiccoughs along the way.
‘But why won’t you be introduced?’ cried Sarah passionately. ‘You dance with me, and take me to tea. It doesn’t matter if you weren’t in the war – Mother couldn’t care a fig for that –’
‘I was in the war,’ said Harland quietly, but Sarah rushed on,
‘Or if you haven’t any money. Heavens! As if one cared whether people have money. I haven’t any money. Aunt Elizabeth hasn’t any money. Mother has, but only because it was father’s! Are you so ashamed of me? Am I such a child to you?’
‘My dear – ’ said Harland reaching impulsively for her hand before withdrawing again. ‘I am sorry. I had hoped – Forgive me. You were a child to me and I thought only to do some small service. I did not guess that you would become – that I - But you cannot introduce me to your mother. Your mother would not wish to know me.’
‘I don’t believe that!’ said Sarah. ‘I wouldn’t say Mother’s the most open-minded woman in the world, but really she knows all sorts of people. She receives Mr Johnson, and he’s been in prison! Oh! I’m sorry – was, is it – that?’
Harland laughed. ‘No, not prison. Nor scandalous divorce.’
‘I don’t think Mother would care if it were,’ interrupted Sarah, before continuing more thoughtfully, ‘that is, she might at first, but Aunt Elizabeth would talk her round. All sorts of people are divorced these days. But whatever it is, I know I’ve said things that might seem – but there’s no need to worry about it.’
‘I don’t worry,’ he said seriously. ‘I know. You see, I am – I am a domestic servant.’
‘A servant! Don’t be ridiculous, you can’t be.’ But her laugh had something of fear in it.
‘It is not ridiculous,’ he said quietly. ‘It is how I earn my living. I am the personal man, the valet, of Mr Smith Cordoba, the artist. That is how I spend the summer on the Mediterranean. My employer, as you know, is renowned for his landscape work and summers in this region. He is a most generous man and frequently absorbed in his work, which he prefers to perform in solitude. On such occasions when I have finished my duties I may dispose of my time as I wish. You have become a person I – wished – for, for which I can only tender my profoundest apologies.’
‘But you can’t be a servant,’ said Sarah again, ‘it isn’t fair!’
‘It is the truth. I am very sorry.’ He smiled at her gently. ‘I quite understand.’ He bowed, and walked away along the promenade.
‘It isn’t fair,’ cried Sarah, ‘oh, it isn’t fair!’
Her heart was not breaking. She was not then truly in love, but it was her first experience of what a poet has called the bitterness of reality breaking upon our illusions, the more acute perhaps because Sarah was not a girl of many illusions. Harland did not look back as he passed out of sight behind the harbour wall, but Sarah would not have seen him if he had. She was in her hotel bedroom weeping into her hands, uncaring if she were heard.
‘What are you smirking at, Peter?’ asked Harriet.
‘I’ll tell you later,’ said his lordship. ‘What? Oh, er, thank you Bunter.’ He took a glass of sherry and sipped it thoughtfully, his eyes narrowed speculatively over the dustjacket.
‘That,’ said Harriet, taking off her hat, ‘was just what I needed.’ The wet skies of the previous fortnight had lifted for the afternoon, and Harriet, who had taken advantage of both the weather and her husband’s absence to make inroads on her new novel and was feeling rather frowsty as a result, had seized the opportunity for a long walk in Regent’s Park.
‘What I need,’ said Peter, who had spent the same time on his feet, ‘is tea and muffins. Do you think Bunter will let me keep this Burberry until spring?’
‘I doubt it,’ said Harriet judiciously. ‘You had better put in a bid to transfer it to the car. And no, I don’t mind if you read Hilary’s book with your muffins. It must be good – or has she cast you as the dashing hero? That doesn’t quite strike me as Hilary’s style, but one never knows with impressionable young women novelists.’
‘I couldn’t comment. None of the young women novelists I have known has been the least impressionable. But I am certainly not the hero – nor villain neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.’
‘Mr Smith Cordoba,’ said Sarah’s mother coolly, ‘paints landscapes.’
Mrs Wytham had as little claim to education or accomplishment as most other women of her class. She knew nothing of science and less of philosophy, although her arithmetic was sound and her spelling tolerable. In one way only she broke from the mould of woman that every line of her body proclaimed her to be: she understood art. That is, she did not claim to be artistic, have a penchant for drooping scarves, nor affect a thrill at the mildly obscene. She sketched only a very little, solely and privately for her own pleasure. But she had an eye and she had trained it, and a mind otherwise employed on trivialities had been enriched by sufficient study to develop a broad knowledge of the minor painters and a good understanding of the major ones. This interest went largely unsuspected by her friends, as she did not have the money necessary to acquire what she would have liked and when advising those who did understood that such advice would almost certainly be ignored and so confined herself to stating that one should buy only what one really liked, and never as an investment.
She was therefore the one woman in the Hotel Grande who understood what it meant to receive a note from Mr Smith Cordoba asking if he might call, and though she quashed the friend who jumped to a conclusion both similar to and infinitely far from her own with the observation that Mr Smith Cordoba painted landscapes, she had seen his eye fall on Sarah as the girl leapt from a dinghy. And because she too saw the picture, her heart had stirred not with ambition, but only with a rare maternal tenderness, recognising the loveliness that was there in the pale green eyes that glowed with the light of the waves, the yellow hair that burnt in the evening sun. Her note in return was short and businesslike, and arranged an appointment for a time when Sarah would not be present.
The mother met the artist, who proved to be an intelligent middle-aged businessman. Wimsey supposed that really successful artists ought to be businessmen, and that this probably accounted for why so many were not quite successful. A reluctant Sarah was persuaded to sit by a mother who had suddenly acquired a character: ‘If you’d really rather not, darling, you needn’t, but do think for a moment. What if I told you I had had a chance to sit for Whistler, but hadn’t cared to?’
‘I suppose I should think you’d been awfully silly.’
Wimsey could not help feeling that he might have rather liked a novel about Edith Wytham, disappointed by an early love, embittered by life, discovering a late career as an art critic, but he supposed that he would have to wait twenty years for it. So Sarah agreed to have her portrait painted in the garden studio belonging to a small house hired by the artist, thus solving the problem over which Peter had been puzzling for some time, as to how Harland was to seduce the heroine in either the servants’ quarters of a large hotel or her mother’s suite.
The meeting after a year apart, pretending strangeness under the eyes of the artist and the mother. The reconciliation on the cliff-top path above the resort with its admissions of I don’t know, I don’t care, and tremulous I love. The inevitable embrace. The inevitable day when the artist was away and the man led the girl by the hand to the small room at the top of the house.
She had known what it would mean if she went to the house this afternoon, known the irrevocable nature of this step. She had looked from her cold bed to the door, and put on her shoes.
Sarah looked around the small room, at the brutal simplicity of the white walls and painted boards that the gay rugs and cushions could not wholly disguise, the reassuring shelf of Wodehouse and Trollope. She had longed for a room of her own, something permanent and solidly hers after the never-ending succession of hotel bedrooms in which her small possessions lay only on the surface. Now she felt an overwhelming wave of pity for this man, twice her age, who had so little himself and deserved so much more. He had told her – she had always known – there could be no future for them. Here in this stark room, the room of a servant or a child, so at odds with his vigorous maleness, she knew it more than ever, and more than ever she was certain that the one thing they could give one another, however fleeting, was the most important thing in the world.
‘Does the sniggering mean you’ve reached the racy bits?’ asked Harriet.
‘Almost. There’s time for an appalling interruption, but I don’t expect it. Not in Mentone. I can see why Hilary wanted to be finished with Cambridge before she published it.’
The bed was narrow and the mattress hard, but David’s hands, gentle and knowing, quelled all fears. He unbuttoned the childish shirt with patient gravity, drawing down her anxious hands to press his lips against the unblemished skin below her collarbone.
‘You promise to – to take care of things?’
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘You won’t catch me forgetting that. Here,’ he drew away her shirt and smiled, ‘I can be valet as well as lover.’
‘Valentino!’ said Sarah laughing, ‘but you are much more of a gentleman than the Sheikh.’
Sarah was not ignorant. Her mother and her aunt had seen to that. But she had never been a natural flirt and to arouse passion in another and to feel it herself was something wholly new to her. He was no novice. He had told her nothing of the past history of this part of his life, but she read it in the sure confidence of his caresses. Lovers he had had and would have again, but she did not care. In this moment he was hers, and she felt all the pride of her tender young womanhood in the conquest. The flame of his ardent love was fuel to hers. If she could not meet his hot kisses with equal skill, yet she could match their burning desire. If she did not know quite how the urgent longing in her body might be met, she knew that met it must be, and that she would give herself wholly to him.
He cast away his own clothes and stood before her in the full glory of his naked manhood.
‘My dear,’ said Harriet wondering why on the first night he had spent with her for almost a month, her husband was so consumed with a women’s novel that he hadn’t appeared to notice what she thought was a rather fetching new nightgown, ‘just what is so fascinating about that book? You look as if you don’t know whether to smirk or die of shock.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said he. ‘My mind is much is distract of late, though that is no excuse in the presence of that thing you’re wearing. But it’s this book.’
‘Is it really that exciting? I’m pleased if Hilary’s produced something really good, of course, but that good?’
‘It isn’t so much the content,’ replied Peter, ‘as the cast. At least, one of the cast. The romantic hero of Hilary’s book is, well, it’s Bunter.’
‘Bunter! ‘ exclaimed Harriet. ‘Our Bunter?’
‘The very same.’
‘Good heavens! I can see that would be distracting all right. Er, when you say romantic hero – you don’t mean the brooding chap who stands on the cliff-top contemplating the cruel cold world?’
‘Oh lor! Poor Bunter. Is he terribly recognisable?’
‘I don’t know about terribly; I expect the Freudian reviewer will conclude that she saw The Admirable Crichton at an impressionable age. But Harriet, when I say it’s Bunter, I mean it really is about a girl – who is quite plainly a melodramatic Hilary - having an affair with Bunter. They’ve even got the same bathing suit.’
Harriet laughed. ‘Darling Peter, I think that the years as a detective may be swaying you unduly. Half Brighton has Bunter’s bathing suit, and at every third student at Oxford. And you can’t possibly think,’ she opened the book at random ‘that Bunter has waltzed by moonlight on a Mediterranean bay with Hilary wearing only her step-ins? Hilary wearing them, that is, not Bunter. They wouldn’t fit.’
‘I’m serious. He’s got Bunter’s appendix scar, too.’ Harriet raised her eyebrows. ‘Listen.’
‘Your mother will expect you,’ said Harland.
‘Not she,’ said Sarah. ‘She’s at the casino with Captain Fairbanks. I don’t mind him, he’s a decent old stick and he only wants some company. I’d have him for a step-father, only I think mother really would, too. It’s barely nine and they won’t be back for hours. I can stay for ages.’
They lay together in the fragrant garden. Mr Smith Cordoba was out for the night with some fishermen. He wished, he said, to study the waters in the moonlight, and to see the colours of the dawn as the working men saw it. Harland had gathered the rugs and cushions from his room, leaving it more cell-like than ever, and spread them under the lemon trees. Naked together in the dappled moonlight she traced the shadowing boughs upon his chest, the queer fish-hook at the end of the scar that slashed across his loins. The night breeze on her skin made her shiver, and her blood danced in her veins.
He took her in his arms, and she surrendered to his masculine potency.
‘Taking your word on the comparability,’ said Harriet, when she had recovered, ‘the evidence does seem compelling. I assume that the bathing suit covers the scar?’
‘Goodness. Let me have that for a sec.’ Harriet took the book, read the final page, and handed it back. ‘The prose is regrettably purple, but that’s youth for you. I can hardly bear my first book. But it has a satisfactory ending, so I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. Lucky Hilary.’
‘Certainly. She seems to have left college with a good degree, a dead-cert bestseller, and a high standard by which to judge the young pretenders. Would we were all were so fortunate.’
Peter, seizing on one of the less difficult of these points said with some pleasure, ‘You think it’ll sell?’
‘Of course it’ll sell. It’s tolerably well-written for its type, and every woman under twenty-five will want to read it. And, thanks to the ruder bits, the older women and a fair number of men. She might even get a film, though I can’t see Clark Gable as a very convincing valet.’
‘You don’t seem to be taking this very seriously.’
‘What is there to be serious about? Peter, I do hope you’re not being a snob.’
‘Of course not!’ He smiled a little deprecatingly. ‘Perhaps a little. She’s very young, and her life has been rather sheltered in some ways. I should simply hate her to be hurt.’
‘I know,’ said Harriet gently, ‘and if I thought she had been it would be quite different. But look at the evidence! Look at Hilary. Look at the book. Come to that I don’t see Bunter trembling in fear of retribution should Hilary tell you he done her wrong.’
‘I can’t help feeling responsible.’
‘I know, dearest, but consider... She is of age, you know. Even if she weren’t – though I think there must be some poetic licence, because I credit Bunter with a very healthy sense of self-preservation, and besides, when would they have had the opportunity – you haven’t much claim to the moral high ground on that score. Unless you’re about to tell me how awful it is when an older man introduces you to a, let's say more experienced, lover and how dreadfully you were taken advantage of as a boy by Josephine or Rosinette or Natalie or whatever her name was, and frankly if you are I don’t credit it.’
‘The gentleman doth protest too much? But look here, it’s all very well being modern about it and not going off for pistols at dawn and whatever wounded guardians are supposed to do, but what on earth am I to say to her – and to him, come to that. Oh God! And I told Bunter he ought to read the blasted thing.’
‘I shall leave Bunter to you. But seriously, Peter, if you really do feel some sort of moral obligation, consider it this way. You’re not her guardian, you’re the Wilbraham trustee, or you were, and that’s where Hilary still needs advice. If you’re to remain in any position to give it, you won’t let on you’ve the least idea about it all. She’ll never forgive you if you embarrass her. If it will stop you worrying I’ll have a tactful word myself. Without any indication that I might have clocked the bloke.’
‘I’d be very grateful.’
‘All right. Now put that damn thing down and come here – or no!’
‘I think after all you might read me some more of that book.’
She gloried in the hunger of his need for her. Though she delighted in the new pleasures of physical passion, almost as great to the love-starved girl was that passion’s proof of her own significance. I am wanted, sang her soul, I am needed, I am alive. The urgency of his male needs confirmed the importance of her own existence. So in this girlish vanity Sarah’s youthful heart retained its peculiar innocence, seeing nothing crude in the raw animality of Harland’s desire for her, nor weakness in the utterness of her own surrender.
Outwardly, Sarah showed no change. Mrs Wytham and Aunt Elizabeth saw no alteration in the girl except, perhaps, a greater steadiness that was only to be expected at that age in a well brought up child. Mrs Wytham, indeed, heaved a sigh of relief that her daughter’s school had brought about not the feared hoydenishness, but rather this level maturity, and turned back to her own cares.
‘You can skip the introspective parts - and the school. And any tennis, unless it is highly metaphorical.’
‘David! You really came!’
‘Of course,’ he said gravely. ‘I promised.’
‘Yes, but it must have meant a lot of trouble for you.’
‘That doesn’t matter. Now let’s find a taxi and take your things to the hotel and you can change. I’ll call for you at seven and we can dine.’
‘Not at the hotel,’ he added. ‘It couldn’t be done. But I promise you will like the restaurant.’
‘Then,’ he said, and his eyes met hers, ‘we shall see.’
Sarah would never forget that evening, the first time she dined alone with a lover in a restaurant, in an evening frock borrowed from a friend. The candlelight warmed anew skin fading from its summer gold, cheeks flushed with the wine Harland measured carefully, laughing at Sarah’s protestations that she was sure she wouldn’t be drunk if only he would let her have another glass. The taxi back to the hotel, the waiting for him to come to her room. Opening the door.
Only let me submit to him, cried her soul! Let me submit in the very depths of my being and I shall be complete! There was nothing sordid in that London hotel room. He wanted only to posses her, she, to be possessed, and in giving themselves wholly to one another what did it matter his position, her self-absorption, or that both knew it must come to an end.’
‘Move on, Peter, unless the Forsterian note ends swiftly .’
‘I am shocked. I always thought you read novels in a state of high-minded criticism.’
‘Not this sort of book. If you’d ever read The Constant Nymph, you’d understand why.’
Even in fine weather, when Mrs Wytham made no objection to Sarah’s spending half her days exploring the natural beauties of the coast, their meetings were of necessity infrequent. He had his duties, she her own interests and her schoolwork, and often those times when he was free of his tasks were times when Sarah was not, and her love-surrender was not absolute. Catching a glimpse of him about his mundane duties, at a shop-counter or the wheel of a car, she would feel a surge of private feeling, a knowledge and a pride at her knowing him as she did. Mr Smith Cordoba held a private viewing in one of the hotels, to which Sarah, her mother and her aunt were naturally invited. She watched Harland move about the room; unobtrusively organising and managing, setting things to rights before any knew they were wrong, he was everywhere active, and yet unnoticed. It was queer that he should be so invisible, so disregarded, that this man whose priapean body had met hers with such passion should be so publicly bodiless. That – ’
‘Hilary’s vocabulary. Really, Peter, priapean! Unless –?’ Her eyes widened.
‘I believe on this subject a gentleman must disclaim knowledge.’
‘That’s not what your eyebrows say. Well!’
‘Ah, Bunter. I come bearing remorse. I praised Miss Thorpe’s book to you, but come to bury it. I’m afraid her ladyship has pinched it first, though I shall harry her at every turn.’
‘I am most grateful to your lordship for considering the matter. I trust her ladyship will find the volume of interest. As it happens, Miss Thorpe has been good enough to send me an inscribed copy. It arrived this morning. It is a most generous gesture.’
‘She is a very, er, thoughtful young woman,’ said Wimsey.
Bunter seemed to feel that explanation was called for.
‘As your lordship is aware, the male’ Bunter paused, and coughed delicately in the Jeevesian mould, ‘love-interest of the novel, if I may so describe the person, is a gentleman’s personal gentleman. Miss Thorpe, having had little opportunity for acquaintance with the details of the profession, did me the honour of requesting my opinion on some points of factual information. Your lordship may have noticed,’ he added with satisfaction, ‘that the standard of description of the gentlemen’s clothing is, if I may make so bold, considerably above that customarily found in works of this type by young ladies. I regret that I find the works of Miss Lehmann particularly distressing on that account.’
Wimsey shuddered in sympathy. ‘Harriet makes the same complaint about the men. I wonder what Miss Thorpe will write next? Adventures in a bedsit, perhaps.’
‘I believe that is the customary sequel, my lord. Although I understand from her ladyship that the young lady has expressed some disappointment at the state of literature depicting women’s colleges.’
Wimsey considering this statement against the recollection of (i) his own college days, (ii) those of his nephew, and (iii) his wife’s, weighed the exhibits against (iv) the evidence of Hilary’s own predilections, and concluded that whatever else transpired – and he had every confidence that the publishers at least would wish to avoid a prosecution for indecency – Hilary’s financial future looked secure
The Mediterranean dawn rises cool, even in July. Sarah Wytham, returning to dip her hands once more in those wine-dark waters had achieved her degree, her majority, and a man who might, should it still seem a good idea in a couple of years, become a husband. Behind her, the town began to stir, but here on the beach, far from the slipways where the fisherman drew in their boats, the sun rose in quiet as Sarah walked along the pebbled shore.
‘Mr Smith Cordoba!’
Absorbed in her own reminiscence she had not seen the artist, his easel propped beside the rock until she was almost upon him.
‘My dear! How delightful.’
‘I’m not disturbing you?’
‘No, no. Indeed you save me. I was almost tempted, just there, a little ultramarine. And yet – quite wrong! But how are you? Have you left your college?’
‘Yes. That is, I do wonder about going back to do more work. But I’ve finished for the present.’
‘And your mother is to marry. How our little community changes.’
Sarah acknowledged the unspoken question. ‘I’m glad for mother. I like Mr Berwick awfully, though I’d never have expected it. I hope you are well. I read about your new exhibition.’
Mr Smith Cordoba inclined his head graciously.
‘But,’ Sarah hesitated, and then thought herself silly. What would he know? What would he care? ‘how is Mr Harland? He was so kind to me that summer, looking after me when I was so foolish about having my portrait taken. I do hope he is well?’
‘Oh my dear,’ said the artist, and quite suddenly she saw that he was much older than she had realised, ten, fifteen years older than Mrs Wytham, ‘he is dead.’
‘It was only two months ago. Your mother was not in town. There was an accident. He was crossing the street, you see, and the driver came too fast round the bend. He was struck and died at once: they said he could not have suffered.’ The words sounded queer, not rehearsed for the benefit of others, but as if he had said them, over and over, to convince himself. It did not hurt her. It had been too long ago, too different a life for that. Only Smith Cordoba’s pain was unmistakeable.
‘I’m so sorry,’ said Sarah. ‘I liked him a great deal. You must miss him very much.’
‘I do,’ the words rang strange and loud in the cold air and he continued more quietly, ‘I do. He had been with me ten years. I thought – ’ The artist had been gathering his equipment as he spoke, but now he stopped and looked at Sarah as if he saw for the first time how the woman had left the girl behind. ‘I miss him dreadfully. They say how unfortunate it is, and what an inconvenience it must be, that this man I knew for ten years, this man I liked, is dead.’
‘How beastly of them!’
‘It is. And I never painted him, you see. I never thought of it; he wasn’t much of a subject. But his mother would have liked it.’
‘Can’t you do it now?’ asked Sarah. ‘I mean, from a photograph?’
‘No,’ said Smith Cordoba. ‘It wouldn’t be the same at all.’
They walked together over the sands towards the hotel.