This is the fic that I was supposed to writing when I got overtaken by last week’s fic. It is still Wrong, but considerably less Wrong than its spawn. Well, as long as you don’t add a final paragraph in which Paul reflects on the outcome of his efforts... In any case, the author accepts no responsibility for damage to furniture or carpets as a result of missing the sick-bucket.
The business of selecting a lover, even a lover by proxy, is a delicate one
She was, you must understand, quite extraordinarily beautiful. I considered that important. Young men like women to be beautiful. All men like women to be beautiful. But beauty is not everything; it was also important that she was clever. If a taste for beauty is inevitable, one may at least endeavour to inculcate a taste for brains. I was not naive enough to imagine that a young man is not liable to fall at least a little in love with his first woman, and I was determined that Peter should be able to look back on such youthful follies without embarrassment on that front at least, which shows only that one cannot tell the future.
I made an appointment to call on her. I forget the excuse, shares or factories or something along those lines. I wished to be sure of seeing her alone, but I did not care for any misunderstandings. These little awkwardnesses are apt to get in the way if allowed to arise, and the prudent man avoids them. Naturally, I carried some information concerning factories. One does not begin negotiations with a woman by letting her down, and Natascha, being a sensible woman, was far more interested in industrial investments than she was in diamonds. It put her in a good mood, and I embarked upon my main theme. As I had expected, she was not immediately convinced by my proposal. I remember exactly how she said it; she had a very attractive voice, a little high, but clear and never shrill.
‘You and I are old friends, Monsieur Delagardie, perhaps because we have never been lovers, which I do not think is a problem for women, but is very often for men. You will not be offended if I speak frankly, so I tell you that there is no possible consideration that could persuade me. A seventeen year-old English schoolboy? And at Eton! He would need to be the son of twenty Dukes. My dear Paul, understand me, I am sure he is a very nice boy, but really – on no consideration.’
I replaced my teacup – I have never been very fond of tea, but accept its role as a social necessity – and smiled.
‘Not even –’ I said, and named a sum.
The question as to which woman was to have the task of introducing my young nephew to the arts of love had given me some anxiety. I had made the proposal to arrange things for him in the blithe good humour of one making a generous offer that is sure to meet with a grateful reception. Peter might not have known exactly what he was asking for when he requested to see me concerning a personal matter, but I was seventeen once myself.
With Peter returned to school and my promise contingent on persuading his mother, my brother-in-law, and the lady herself, of the virtues of my scheme, I confess I was a little less sanguine. In the event the Duke, entangled in the expensive aftermath of his own most recent affair and his eldest son’s misadventures in Oxford, proved unwontedly grateful and promised to see to all expenses. Gerald’s episode with the publican’s daughter had upset Denver more than he liked to admit. My sister, who is not a Wimsey but understands them – with the exception, I fear, of her daughter – only cared that Peter was happy and safe and was quite ready to believe that he was more likely to be so under my hands in Paris than left to his own devices in England. I could only agree with her. Peter has never been an Adonis, but he was a tolerable-looking young man and possessed of very pretty manners. There were not a few young wives of little more than his age who would have been interested in a change from drab husbands, but I had no desire to see Peter begin his career embroiled in a public scandal. It was not in my nature to take up a cudgel on my sister’s behalf, nor would Lucy have thanked me if it had been, but I confess that I have never since been altogether approving of adultery. Nor did I expect it to appeal to Peter, but he was quite young and inexperienced enough to find himself inadvertently entangled.
The financial side taken care of, this left only the woman into whose experienced hands my inexperienced protégé was to be placed. My fondness for the boy did not go so far as to anticipate that his initial forays would demonstrate any greater proficiency at his task than the average young Englishman. I only hoped that his native good temper and intelligence, with the aid of a little humility, would contrive to carry him through. Vanity hoped that he might in time be a credit to me. The character of the woman was a more delicate issue. She must not be vulgar. I have always hated vulgarity and I felt Peter might shy away from anything of that sort. He was a noticing kind of young man, and inexperienced as he was I felt sure that he would recoil at any sense of the ersatz or obvious. At the same time, the power of physical attraction should not be under-estimated. My sex is not always high-minded; I have already remarked that men like beautiful women. She must be amiable, but not acquiescent. I did not think that Peter would be improved by acquiescence. She must inspire respect, for he must not despise, but neither should he love.
Natascha was all I could have wished for. A woman with beauty, a woman with a brain, with a sense of humour, with conversation, old enough to appear sophisticated to a young man, young enough to look to a future without him. A little detached. If Natascha were not the perfect courtesan it was perhaps because she lacked the ability to make a man believe her utterly in love with him, and thus inspire the fervent love a man may feel even for a woman of her type. I believe this may be why she had never attracted me. Understand, I had no wish to fall in love, but there is a frisson in the possibility of being overpowered. This experience alone I did not wish to give to Peter. His parents would not thank me for it, and nor, when he came to his senses, would he. Natascha was ideal. She was, I felt, a woman with whom Peter might be himself with very little risk and the likelihood of a great deal of enjoyment, if only the lady herself could be persuaded.
She laid her teacup in its saucer. She was not offended; this, too, had led me to favour her. The sentimental coyness that denies such things are business transactions may have its attractions, but they are dangerous ones. I prefer to acknowledge the facts. One may always pretend to forget them afterwards.
Natascha shook her head.
‘Why would a man – even a Duke – give so much for his son? A Frenchman, that one might imagine, but an Englishman! It is not possible. My dear Paul, you must be mistaken. You have misunderstood.’
‘I assure you I have not,’ I said, and named the figure again.
‘That is quite simple: my brother is ashamed. His wife loves him, and he persists in betraying her. He conducts his affairs with sincerity, of a sort, and inevitably therefore they end in embarrassment. He has recently had to extricate his eldest son from an entanglement in Oxford – I must not be unfair to the girl, it was entirely Gerald’s fault – ending in an order for maintenance. As for Peter, he has never understood the boy at all. But he does care for him, and would wish to spare his son, as well as himself, the vague presentiments of disaster with which his limited imagination besets him.’
Natascha laughed. I declined to add that my brother-in-law had failed to hide his relief at learning his fastidious son was interested in women at all. I did not think that would be a recommendation.
‘I am sorry for the Duke. We manage these things better in France. But a boy is still a boy, even a rich boy of an unhappy father. I should be a laughing stock.’
‘I don’t think so. But you might make a laughing stock of someone else.’
Her expression became very still. ‘What do you mean?’
‘My dear, I know you were greatly offended by the Marquis’ manner of leaving you.’
‘I was,’ she said coldly. ‘He made me look a fool. But I scarcely see what this has to do with the matter in hand.’
‘Only that you might make him look a greater fool in return. I know that no-one will imagine you that take on Peter out of love. But you might find him worth keeping, and if he is, you might enjoy making something of it. I hear that the Marquis is not as happy as he might be in his marriage – no doubt his bride is disappointed in him – and looks to return to Paris. How unfortunate for him if he should find you otherwise occupied with his successor, professing, perhaps, the entirely satisfactory nature of this replacement. Take Peter for a month, and see what you can make of him. Start him off in the country, if you don’t care for it in Paris. He will be grateful, and you will be tolerably well rewarded. After that, I leave it in your hands.’
Natascha summoned the maid, who poured more tea, replenished the cakes, and retired having allowed her mistress time to consider. ‘It might be entertaining,’ she conceded. ‘One could consider the issue scientifically: are the bad habits of so many men innate, or the result of poor training? Although I am not happy about Eton – they say these English schools are all rum and buggery, is it not so?’
I narrowly avoided choking on a crumb, and composed myself with a little tea. ‘They certainly say it,’ I admitted, as indeed in Paris they did, ‘but you shouldn’t believe everything you hear. I don’t think you need be concerned on that score. If I am wrong, you may name the penalty.’
‘Do you have his photograph?’ she asked, and I felt a blossoming confidence in the outcome of our discussion. Peter has always photographed well, even before that man of his took to using him as a study. Besides, I believe that when a lady asks for a photograph she is no longer looking for an excuse to say no, but confirmation of her desire to say yes. Naturally I had a photograph, and naturally Peter looked at his best in it. I had some scruples; I informed the lady that the photograph understated the size of Peter’s nose.
‘Is he sentimental? That is so wearing.’
‘Not at all. I believe that if he fell in love he might be romantic, but I hope that he would not confuse romance with something else.’
‘Is he a religious man?’ Natascha, like many women of her calling, was a deeply religious woman. Fortunately for my cause, her religion took the form of an obscure Polish sect native to her village, compared to the stark purity of which she rejected the Catholicism of Paris as frivolous indulgence and almost never went to church. If one wishes to give a young man his first experience of love without guilt or shame, it does not do for the lady to rise every day from his bed to go to confession.
‘No more than any English schoolboy – he bends his head as ritual demands, sings in the church choir in Denver, and at school never thinks of it between one chapel and the next. His disagreements with his father are matters more of partiality and taste than moral outrage.’
She handed me the photograph, looked at her watch, and rose. ‘Forgive me, Paul, I have an appointment with my man of business, and I shall not scruple to make use of your information. I shall consider your nephew and let you know my decision.’ She smiled, placating. ‘You know I never make a decision without sleeping on it – alone.’
I had donned my coat when she laid a soft hand on my arm. ‘Tell me one thing quite honestly, Paul. Why are you doing this for the boy?’
I raised my hat. ‘Because I care for him, as does his father, and we remember what it was like to be young and would spare him – ’
‘I understand.’ Natascha looked away, but not before an indefinable expression passed over her face. Then it was gone and she looked back at me and laughed. ‘Bring your nephew to Paris and introduce him to me, and I shall see what I can make of him. I believe it might prove amusing after all.’
Author's Note: This fic draws in a minor way on a piece of unpublished Sayers material (part of the Thrones, Dominations papers) that I nonetheless feel is mentionable because Jill Paton Walsh has talked quite a bit about those bits of MS, specifically that the motivation of the character I’ve named Natascha is at least in part that she has been unceremoniously dumped by an ex-client, and looking for some social revenge. It also, of course, draws heavily on Uncle Paul’s biographical note, the veracity of which I leave to the reader to consider.