It is also possible that I find myself suddenly addicted to The Merry Widow (actually The Land of Smiles would be better for the time period, but such plot as there is wouldn't work with the lead in yellowface).
Harriet sank back into the plush red seat and sighed. It had been a busy few days. A chance encounter in Berlin with the brother of an old schoolfriend had lead to an invitation to give a British Council lecture in Vienna as part of a series on popular British fiction. Mystery fiction, so Harriet was informed, was all the rage in the embassy. The rather more wealthy author originally engaged, she had been honestly if not especially flatteringly informed by James Wentworth, had pulled out pleading ill-health and suspected alcoholism. It would do Wentworth a great deal of credit with his superiors if Miss Vane would accept at such short notice. Miss Vane did so. An expenses-paid trip to Vienna was not to be sniffed at and she had half a talk written already in the form of an introduction to an American anthology of mystery stories.
The lecture, to a happily packed audience in a saloon at the embassy, had gone rather well. No-one had asked any awkward questions, and the Austrian contingent were generous on the subject of the superiority of the original voice to the translation. It was in fact the first occasion on which Harriet had spoken in public since her trial, and the inch-deep carpets, excessive gilding, and faint smell of coffee that permeated the building had gone a good way to quell the sense of being back in the dock. The hurdle had been cleared, and she thought that the next time an invitation arrived in London she might not turn it down with a polite note through her agent. The audience had certainly been better-dressed than one would expect in London: scarcely a woman without furs, and the men in magnificent overcoats. A skull-faced man with a powdery voice a would do splendidly for a villain in a short thriller, and the statuesque red-head in silver fur, whom her host informed her was a singer of considerable repute, was just the woman to burst in upon Robert Templeton as he was engaged on a walking-tour of the Alps, and beg him to save the life of her lover.
Pleasant as her hosts had been, it was nonetheless something of a relief to escape the outpost of chattering London for a few hours at the operetta. Harriet did not normally care for operetta, but it was what the English did in Vienna, and a warm theatre with comfortable seats and easy music had something to be said for it. The lateness of the engagement and the popularity of the lead tenor had prevented the party’s obtaining seats together, and Harriet had insisted on taking this solitary chair. Should the performance prove dull, the evening would not be wasted if only one could fall asleep. She slouched comfortably in her seat and prepared to doze until the interval.
In the event, Harriet soon found herself sitting up. Lehár, it seemed, belonged to a rank above the light frivolities popular in London. If this piece, too, was frivolous, with its Ruritanian setting, still there was something even in the overture that made one want to listen properly, and Harriet was thoroughly enjoying herself by the time the lead tenor walked on stage.
It wasn’t he, of course. Peter could sing a little, but hardly like this, and he had consistently disclaimed any interest in amateur dramatics. But if this man was rounder in the face than Peter, his hair not quite so fair, still he too wore his evening dress as if he were born to it. He swanned around the stage with that same aristocratic arrogance of thinking that he could arrange everything just as he liked and to hell with everything else, and the wretched audience was cheering him on. By the end of the first act, Harriet felt quite out of charity with the whole theatre. She considered feigning a headache and retreating to her hotel, but if it was going to be infuriating watching Peter Wimsey charm the heroine to the altar, it would happen anyway and it would be even worse to resent it in a solitary hotel room, especially when her hosts had been so pleased to entertain her. If only one could see the funny side. It was only a trivial play, and foolish to take it to heart. It was not as if Peter had any hope of wearing down one’s own resistance just because a woman in an operetta wasn’t sensible enough to live as a rich widow, or indeed to tell the assembled gentlemen to go to hell and take herself off to do as she wished in New York. Harriet was pleased with this thought; one might do something with it. Her imagination rapidly filled in a sketch of a rich widow, not quite in middle-age, good-looking, free of ties, kicking her heels at her would-be suitors to run off and indulge herself before turning round and scandalising the world even more by doing something sensible and unwomanly with herself. Perhaps she might enter parliament on a Liberal ticket and contract a very ordinary second marriage with a schoolmaster. Only people didn’t want that kind of book, certainly not from Harriet Vane, and nor had Harriet any wish to write it. One knew where one was with one’s own job: better stick to it. Perhaps if one became sick of Robert Templeton, the widow could take up sleuthing.
The music waltzed on, the tenor inevitably claimed his lady, and the curtain fell on a slightly forced scene of Parisian gaiety. Harriet’s own acquaintance with the Parisian demi-monde was solely fictional, but she had a fair idea that nightclub girls tended to look considerably younger and rather less well-nourished. But that last waltz - she hummed to herself in the queue for the lavatories. She had waltzed with Peter Wimsey in Wilvercombe, in the highly respectable ballroom of the Hotel Resplendent. Would Peter take her to a dubious Parisian nightclub, if she asked him? She supposed that he would. But she had no intention of asking him, not even for the sake of her work, and even less of accepting any invitation that might lead one there. She collected her coat, and joined the party again.
‘Will you come for coffee, Miss Vane?’ Mrs Wentworth, rather a dear, if somewhat lacking in brains. Harriet declined politely.
‘My train is so early,’ she apologised, ‘I really must say goodnight. It’s been a delightful evening.’
‘Wasn’t Tauber marvellous?’ said Mrs Wentworth, ‘and so handsome! Not like most singers, looking like overstuffed armchairs.’
‘I believe Susan’s half in love with him!’ said Wentworth, seizing his wife around the waist. ‘Thank you again, Miss Vane, for coming to talk to us. I wish I could see you off tomorrow, but it’s quite impossible. The car will take you to the station.’
‘Thank you – and thank you for inviting me. I’ve enjoyed it enormously.’
‘Do come and see us again if you’re in town – or in London.’
‘I should love to. Goodnight.’
‘Goodnight, Miss Vane.’
Harriet’s hotel room was warm, and she had forgotten that the maid would pack her case. She felt too restless to sleep, too idle to read. She ran a hot bath and lay in it, ruminating on the events of the past few days – the past months. It had been the right thing to come away. No-one knew her here. She was anonymous, a well-off – shocking to find oneself suddenly so well-off, and old habits had yet to adjust themselves – Englishwoman for whom doors were opened and cabs were held. Tomorrow she would be back in Berlin, which was less pleasant, if fascinating in its way. There had been one or two queer looks and encounters, pauses for scrutiny through unreadable eyes before people heard the voice of an educated Englishwoman. On the whole, Harriet thought, one might move on from Berlin quite soon. But in Vienna, in a hotel room one could not have paid for oneself, with coffee to come in the morning, it was natural to think not of political conditions in modern Europe, but of winter and music and waltzing, and for the heart to soften a little as one wandered to the writing table and took from one’s bag a package purchased earlier in the day. One might as well write cards now as in the train, especially with a slightly unreliable fountain pen. It would be a good way to show that one wasn’t resentful, and there was no need to give a return address on a simple card. She took up the envelope and wrote with steady hand: Lord Peter Wimsey, 110A Piccadilly.