The Cathcart affair was over. The Duke of Denver had been acquitted of the murder, and the embarrassing alibi had not been called. The question of whether the Duchess of Denver had suspected all along had, publicly at least, remained unasked. Charles Parker found himself in the professionally envious position of having advised against pursuing the prosecution, and the personally awkward one of having the Denvers indebted to a common police official. From this he was rescued by the Dowager, who declared that helping to save a son’s life was far more important than helping to save one’s own and invited him down to the Dower House, enabling his attendance at a face-saving dinner between some safely dull fellow-guests, with Denver’s brother and sister both catching his eye disconcertingly. Lord Peter, of course, was wont to catch your eye disconcertingly at any time, but it was particularly inconsiderate of him to do to when you were attempting to say something engaging across the table to Lady Mary.
Mr Parker, returning from interviewing an ex-Colonel of the Guards who seemed pitifully unaware that his attempt at insurance fraud had been rumbled, was in ebullient mood. Word had it at the station that another couple of good cases would secure his ‘C’. Man could not live by bread alone, but there was nothing to be said against the recognition of one’s superiors, the delight of one’s mother, and an extra couple of quid against the pension. Life was good, and the unmistakable figure of Lady Mary Wimsey was silhouetted against Burlington House, tapping her foot upon the pavement.
Mr Parker did not care for Pope, and to consider that the greatest study of mankind was man was the grossest impertinence. Nonetheless, a certain amount of self-knowledge was necessary to the successful policeman: though Parker would have faced the lions of the Circus rather than confessed his feelings in public, alone he was tolerably honest. Lady Mary Wimsey was the loveliest woman he had ever seen, idolised vision of romantic imaginings, object of fervid dreams.
It was true that her lies had placed her brother in gaol and in peril of his life. Equally true that her straightness and decency and honour had dragged him and her – her lover out of it. Parker, if romantic and furthermore from Barrow-in-Furness, was no fool. Initially he had seen no more in George Goyles to attract a woman than Lord Peter had. On further consideration he had seen an idealist willing to admit a fellow, a man willing to depend upon a woman, and a lover – he didn’t like to think it, but there it had to be, and dimly he was aware that he ought to be shocked and felt something quite different instead – offering, well, more than he did. At the same time, and with no contradiction, Lady Mary was assuredly the purest, sweetest, most angelic of women, foully deceived, monstrously wronged, owed the deepest of reparations by the male sex. She shook out an umbrella impatiently, looked up, saw Parker, and waved, as charming, friendly, and desirable as she had been that weekend at Denver. Pausing only to stow his newspaper, Mr Parker leapt into the road.
Two minutes and an apology to a taxi-driver later, Mr Parker found himself in front of the House, brushing off his cuffs and simultaneously attempting to raise his hat.
‘Mr Parker!’ said Lady Mary. ‘What are you doing here? Are you hot-foot on the trail of crime?’
‘Hardly,’ said Parker, with self-conscious deprecation. ‘Only a financial case.’
‘I’m sure it’s very important,’ said Lady Mary gravely. ‘Else you shouldn’t be on it, should you?’
She was really an extraordinarily intelligent girl. It was dreadful how her family didn’t seem to take her seriously.
‘A policeman does what the Assistant Commissioner tells him, Lady Mary. But, er, what are you – I mean to say – you look rather – is anything the matter.’
‘I,’ said Lady Mary, rapping her umbrella sharply against the soot-blackened stone of the gateway, ‘have been stood up. I told David,’ she continued with the merest air of petulance in her voice, ‘that I’d meet him here and so I have, and he isn’t here. Well, he won’t get another chance, that’s all.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Parker, automatically.
‘But I did want,’ continued Mary, unheeding, ‘to see the wretched exhibition after he went on about it so.’
Parker wrenched his glance away from the violet-blue eyes and golden curls to the large banner surmounting the gateway and promising Archaeological Treasures of the Holy Land. She was Lady Mary Wimsey and not even in his most rose-coloured visions had he dared to approach the prospect of actually asking - but if ever a man was offered an unmissable opportunity...
‘Lady Mary – ’
‘Yes, Mr Parker?’
‘I wonder whether – That is to say – I had intended to visit the exhibition myself. Perhaps if you would honour me – would accept – my escort?’
‘Why Charles,’ said Mary, ‘how sweet of you! I’d love to.’ She slipped her hand under his arm and he led her inside.
The Royal Academy most considerately provides a tea-room to the patrons of the five learned societies inhabiting the purlieus of Burlington House. Mr Parker stared at the tiled fireplace and saw pink-and-white infants dandled before it as Lady Mary poured tea from a porcelain teapot into his cup and smiled at him gratefully.
‘I never knew any of those things you talked about,’ she said, selecting a second cake. That’s a Roedean education for you. I’m sure David didn’t either.
‘It was my pleasure,’ said Parker honestly, and with more secret triumph. He was vaguely aware of having met David in some nightclub or other, on duty. The man wasn’t half good enough for her. He sipped his tea. Somewhere a delicate clock struck the half-hour, and he recalled an imminent meeting with the AC. Damn.
‘I must go,’ he apologised. The wonderful eyes looked at him reproachfully. He gathered hat, coat, and courage to him, and took her hand. ‘Lady Mary. Would you do me the honour – That is – ’ He remembered that the fashionable young people were casual nowadays. Only last Wednesday one young man had confessed to running down a pedestrian in the most unconcerned of tones. He had nothing to offer her, but nor, he thought damping down fury on her behalf, had those other blighters. It was an oddly encouraging thought. He screwed his courage to the sticking post.
‘Would you care to dine with me some time?’