Nul points to the check-out assistant in Waterstone’s, for stupendous sulking when she had to put things through the till again after I pointed out that I didn’t want the Waterstone’s vouchers she was counting out for me, but the book tokens I had asked for.
Speaking of stupendous sulking, here follows Miss Hillyard fanfic. It’s the Gaudy Night missing scene in which Lord Peter attempts to get through some of the tangles resulting from (a) Miss Hillyard knowing that Harriet is in love with LPW and that he is in love with Harriet, (b) Miss Hillyard believing that the aforementioned are enjoying the opportunities afforded by the privacy of the Shrewsbury guest room and (c) Miss H. rather fancying LPW herself, but not knowing whether he is aware of it himself, or whether Harriet has told him, or indeed if he has no idea.
She had always told herself that the cure for pain lay in work. She hadn’t believed it then; it was hard to believe it now. Nonetheless, there was a reward in work, and so she did it anyway. The cure for making a fool of oneself was more dubious; time, and hiding, and though bitter experience had taught the efficacy of neither, still she could think of nothing better. She closed the inner door to her rooms, and worked.
She did not hate Harriet Vane: she never had. Only – she envied her, and that was not an attractive characteristic. Since the girl had first come up, Miss Hillyard had watched people choosing Harriet Vane. Mary Stokes, a butterfly, but not a bad girl, who might have had anyone, Miss Lydgate, the Dean. It was not even the choosing that infuriated her. It was that Harriet never seemed to know it. People who got opportunities always chose the wrong ones. People who might have people always chose the wrong ones. And now Miss Vane might have Lord Peter, and would not. Miss Hillyard, too angry and humiliated to think, picked painfully through the proofs of an article, and dreaded lunch.
She had known the knock at the door would come, though not from whom. Whoever it was, she was damned if she would get up.
The door opened smoothly, and his head appeared round the side looking so young and sheepish that he might almost have been his undergraduate nephew.
‘Yes, Lord Peter?’ She turned only a little from a desk. These papers are important, her back said. You are not.
‘May I come in?’
‘Yes, of course.’ She was brusque, she couldn’t help it, but he smiled and entered easily, treading lightly over the carpet, catlike. She remembered a game played in childhood – beyond childhood – of stepping in pools of light along mullion-windowed corridors. He held something out to her: her slipper.
‘I believe that this is yours.’ Her slipper, wiped clean of gravel and ivory, last seen in the hand of a triumphant Miss Vane. He released it to her. “I’m sorry, but you know how it is for a detective. Let the least little thing go by because you don’t like it, and before you know it you’ve the wrong man in quod and the bodies are piling up in the conservatory. The only possible approach is the unflinching one. Anything less is -” The hand he had held out waved and dropped. He should have been a scholar, could one bear to think of him cooped up in a library, back bent over dust. No inkstains for those hands of his that he had washed in blood. Nor for the other’s. He had left her for the war. He need not have gone, not then. He had chosen his country over her and been glad, and she could not forgive him.
‘Then I take it you are satisfied that I had nothing to do with the … events of last night?’ She saw again the chessmen shattered on the floor, the little bits of red and white ivory, delicate figures ground into powder, and Miss Vane in this very room accusing her, shaking with fury, dark eyes rimmed bright red. She could say what she liked. Miss Hillyard had seen the neck of Harriet Vane’s dress off-centre where it had been straight, the bushy hair at the back of her head flattened by the hand of this man against it, seen her shadow in his arms.
‘Of course. Otherwise, I shouldn’t have returned it. The detective never lets go of his evidence.’
‘I see. Thank you.’ She heard her voice that had never been musical, saw herself stiff, corseted all these years in fury, and forced herself to lower her chin. She ought to think of something to say; she could not. She wished he would leave. What had Harriet Vane said? Had she told him? Had they laughed together? Had they been laughing at her as they – No, she thought, he wouldn’t laugh. He was still standing there, the slanting light falling across head and breast, glinting on the gold watch-chain.
‘It is so much easier,’ he said, ‘dealing with people who really understand about evidence.’
She leant back slightly, resting against the chair. ‘I suppose you often run into difficulties with people who fail to distinguish between evidence and prejudice.’
‘Oh yes,’ he grinned. ‘My brother-in-law – he works for Scotland Yard, you know – was telling me of a case only the other day when he barely got away with his life after asking a man whether his wife customarily wore a certain brand of underwear.’
Despite herself, she laughed. She found that she was still holding the slipper, and turned to place it on the desk. Lord Peter would go now, he must go now, and she would put the shoe away and return to her work, but still he was standing there running his thumb along his fingernails with the smooth movements of the pianist. She jerked her glance away, but he had not noticed. He was looking over her shoulder towards the mantelpiece. ‘He is going to say something,’ she thought. ‘He is going to say something and I shall never be able to look at her again.’ He raised his hand to his monocle, stopped, lowered it again, and hooked a thumb over his pocket.
‘I ...’ To her surprise, she saw that he had flushed pink. ‘I … this is rather embarrassing. I don’t know quite how to say…’ He set his shoulders resolutely, so that his awkwardness was rather emphasized than otherwise by the determination to correct it. But she would not help him, not in this. If they wanted to laugh at her she could not prevent them, but they would do it without her aid. She waited, unmoving. ‘I wanted to ask you … if you could … to ask you for a favour.’
‘Me?’ It was no effort to keep her voice so level. She seemed to hear him in a part utterly divorced from the rest of her. She could hear everything: the tick of the clock in the room next door, the voices of two students coming up the stairs for a tutorial in Miss Lydgate’s rooms.
‘Yes. It’s, it’s rather personal. I wouldn’t ask, only that, it’s for Miss Vane really.’
‘Yes. You see, I think - I am afraid – from one or two things I’ve heard said, that some people may have got hold of the wrong impression about her and, and of me, I mean about the nature of our friendship, and that they might be drawing inferences that are incorrect and that would hurt Miss Vane.’
‘I see.’ So she was to receive a lesson, was she? The outraged lover in arms for his lady’s honour, not that that meant anything. Miss Hillyard knew. The collar of that dress and powder on his jacket, the face bearing the remains of high colour in the reddened eyes and lips that had – what? Cried into a shoulder? Had he held her as she cried for those little bits of broken ivory? Had she proof, real proof?
‘I’m very fond of Miss Vane, you see. I mean, I really do think very highly of her, most honourable intentions and so on. I’m afraid that I may have made myself rather obvious. One tries not to, but feelings will leak out when one isn’t watching, like purple socks in the wash. It’s not her fault – goodness knows she’s tried hard enough to get rid of me - only I’m rather hard to get rid of. Always did insist on stickin’ around where I wasn’t wanted. Only I’m rather afraid my being here may have exposed her to a certain amount of unpleasantness, not to mention danger.’
‘Hmm. The Poltergeist, you know. I’m probably making too much of myself. Only I haven’t any excuse to be hanging around except looking into this College business, and one doesn’t know how clearly this person is thinking by now, and if she perceives any sort of danger – ’
‘I see.’ She hesitated. ‘You really think there is a threat?’ How did he feel, then, leaving Miss Vane in it? He said he was fond of her, though the words were superfluous. Still, the shoulder between one and the world did not seem quite his style.
‘To some people, yes, I do think there may be. I…’ He stopped. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to go on about that. Never know who’s listening at the keyhole.’ He grinned disarmingly. Did he even know, consciously, how he charmed people? She had a sudden strange vision of him as a little boy, smiling and getting what he wanted. Except that hadn’t he as good as said … Was it true, that Miss Vane - that he wasn’t her lover? And if it were, could he possibly not see it? Miss Hillyard had seen it, Miss Vane watching him all through that uncomfortable evening in the Senior Common room, saying almost nothing, only a few sentences that were the ones he wanted her to say. The woman was in love with him, and he had taken her hand and kissed it beneath the beech trees. Could he really not know? And yet people so often did not see what was plain in front of them. Miss Hillyard made a decision; she would do as he asked.
‘You said you wished me to do something for you, Lord Peter?’ She heard her voice, brisk, telling a student to come to the point.
‘Yes, I was saying. I’m very fond of Harriet - Miss Vane. I hate to think I’m making things awkward for her. If you would … if you heard things, if I could rely on your setting them right, quite quietly. Don’t tell Miss Vane – I’m sure she’d be furious, and one must retain a certain self-preservation if only for the sake of vanity, regardless of any prospects of The Voice That Breathed O’er Eden. I can’t say I blame her; there’s a lot to be said for the life of the mind, if it’s what one really wants, though I’m afraid that those people who think it’s a peaceful choice are rather deluding themselves.’
‘Certainly they show themselves unfamiliar with university politics.’
He laughed. ‘Yes, the myth of academic naivety must seem a strange one to those involved. Money, passions, power – all the business of war and the business of life. All these students, and most of them with no idea what this has cost.’
‘Some of them know. Enough to keep us going.’
The clock struck.
‘Oh Lord, I must fly. Look, would you mind, I never told Miss Vane where I’m going. I’m expecting evidence; could you give this address to her? Thank you so much. Good day.’
She took the paper, and he was gone.