Five times Mervyn Bunter didn’t get laid in the line of duty (but once he did)
Mervyn Bunter, knotting his tie in front of the large round mirror that was one of the few tolerable features of the small studio his lordship had seen fit to rent in Kirkudbright this year, found that despite everything he was looking forward to the evening. It was true that the film to which he was squiring the young person Elizabeth was one he had already seen in London, and that it had merited only a negligible claim on his attention the first time, but as he did not intend to spend much time watching it this was of little concern. He distributed notecase, cigarettes, and a bag of boiled sweets in their various pockets, and, after a moment’s contemplation over the sponge-bag, slipped a small packet in with his handkerchief. The girl wasn’t bad looking, and one never knew.
She wore a surprisingly smart hat and coat, and introduced him to the box office attendant as a “real London servant” in a tone of awe that promised much. They took their seats second from the back row (pushing things too early never paid off), she ate her ice-cream, and then turned to him her wide, foolish, cornflower blue eyes,
‘Oh, Mr Bunter. Do tell me everything about his lordship!’
‘That one’s got ‘er eye on you. You’d better watch yourself, mate.’
Bunter lowered his glass and surveyed the scene thoughtfully.
‘Nah. Not worth it. That sort never keep their mouths shut, and where’s your place then?’ He drained his glass. ‘Not much reward for no tits.’
‘Better not. Got to drive back, and his lordship doesn’t like it if I’ve had a few. Good beer, though.’
The Walbeach Gala to open the New Cut, had been a terrific success. The Duke of Denver had cut the ribbon and was shortly to award cups to the prize winners. Bunter himself had won a pig at ninepins, and handed it off with some regret to a pigtailed child whom he was reliably informed had an invalid brother, an incompetent mother, and a knack with livestock. Nonetheless, the barman’s words had shaken him. That sort of thing only meant trouble, and when the object in question was a skinny kid with no chin and no chest, it wasn’t even worthwhile trouble. Pity it wasn’t her brother. Bunter didn’t normally go for blokes, but he’d made exceptions in a good cause and the brother was a very good cause. Ah well. He collected a cocoanut and straw hat from his lordship, and set off back to see that the car was in order.
She was sitting in the passenger seat, hair tousled, skirt artfully disarranged to show a glimpse of stocking top.
‘Can I do anything for your ladyship?’
‘Oh thanks, not rather. Only it’s beastly crowded, I thought I’d have a rest.’ She fanned herself vigorously. ‘You ought to sit down. I’m sure Uncle Peter works you too hard. Mother says he’s got no consideration.’
Bunter, bent over to check the oil, murmured something that might have been a polite denial. A pink face appeared over the uplifted bonnet. Lady Winifred Wimsey extended her arms along the edge and smiled at him coquettishly – and, what was more frightening – not without a glimmer of intelligence.
‘You lead such an exciting life, Bunter, not like Daddy’s stodgy friends. Now tell me about the time you saved Uncle Peter from a tiger.’
It wasn’t that he had moral qualms about it. As wrongs went, if there were any, it was considerably less than letting the innocent go the gallows for want of guts to save them. Nor could he complain that his lordship exploited his position. His lordship had done the same himself on enough occasions, and there was no doubt that where housemaids were concerned, Bunter was the better qualified. Come to that, he’d seen his lordship with his kit off often enough to consider himself the better qualified under any circumstances. Nonetheless, seated on the park bench with an arm around Hannah Westlock’s shaking shoulders, Bunter couldn’t help feeling a little queasy. He handed her a pristine handkerchief and suppressed a shudder as she blew her nose.
‘I’m sorry, Mervyn. What must you think of me? And after all your kindness. I feel quite – ’ She dissolved into tears again, and he patted her hand gently.
‘They say,’ he said, adopting an avuncular tone, ‘that a problem shared is a problem solved. Now if you can just tell me what the matter is, I’m sure we can see our way through it. It isn’t – there’s nothing bothering you about this unpleasant case, is there?’
‘Oh no!’ She shook her head. ‘Oh, Mervyn! I’m sorry, and I know he doesn’t deserve it, but I’m still in love with him after all.’
A tremendous weight seemed to lift off his shoulders. He removed his arm, and said with great heaviness,
‘I see. I knew something was up.’
‘It’s silly of me.’
‘Not at all. None of us can help that sort of thing. Why, I – ’ he hesitated for exactly the right length of time before continuing, ‘I had a similar sort of experience myself not so long ago. I tell myself it’s over, but, you’ll understand my saying it, even with a nice woman like you, I still find myself sitting at night with my cocoa, wondering where Ethel may be.’
‘I’m so sorry, Mervyn.’
He straightened his shoulders manfully and smiled at her. ‘What a pair we are, eh? Come on, let’s go and have a cup of tea and I’ll tell you all about his lordship’s latest case.’
When the fourteen year-old Bunter had first gone into service, his elder brother Meredith had taken it upon himself to give him some useful advice. There were three kinds of men, said Meredith, that particularly went after young chaps in service. The first was the man who’d have anything in skirts or trousers. He took some fending off, but ultimately took a refusal without offence. The second was more inconvenient, in that he fancied himself in love and could be persistent. In such cases, Meredith recommended cultivating an attitude of overwork and the need to get back to some activity best performed in the servants’ hall, and doing the boots early in the morning. As young servants were usually overworked, this was not difficult. The third type was the religious man, who didn’t particularly care about servants per se, but liked youth and found servants a convenient source. These men tended to be guilt-ridden, therefore dangerous.
Charles Parker, thinks Bunter, is none of these types, though Bunter has seen the way he looks at men, unwitting and appraising. But his lordship's friend, a policeman, next door to a non-confomist - and neither of them is brave.
‘Golly,’ she said, ‘it wasn’t like that in The Constant Nymph.
Mervyn Bunter located his cigarette case, offered it to his partner, and leaned back on his pillow with a sense of satisfaction. After a fortnight sleeping in the freezing church on a sack of straw with his lordship muttering in his ear and elbowing him in the head every half-hour, the mattress alone would have been worth the effort. As it was, the main event, wholly unexpected, had proved decidedly satisfactory and that future encounters would be forestalled by the young lady’s returning to school the next day was a source of some disappointment although it undoubtedly kept things simpler.
Reminiscence was interrupted by the sound of choking. He took the cigarette from her before she could set fire to the eiderdown, and held a glass of water to her lips.
‘Thanks,’ Hilary grinned. ‘That doesn’t happen in novels, either. Look here, it won’t take five minutes to find those old blankets when we get into the attic and no-one will miss me for another hour. I’m sure Margaret Kennedy would say girls aren’t meant to ask, but do you think we could have another go?’
I - Young Elizabeth (Betty), Five Red Herrings
II - Winifred Wimsey, The Nine Tailors
III - Hannah Westlock, Strong Poison
IV - Charles Parker, sometime, never
V - Hilary Thorpe, The Nine Tailors