Anyway, very much a fragment, the Botanical Gardens...
Soon will you and I be lying
Each within our narrow bed
Lord Peter Wimsey, strolling through the honey-coloured arch that marked the entrance to the Botanical Gardens, considered that life was for the present not too bad. Oxford, even Oxford with a poltergeist, was paradise after the heated folly of Rome. Moreover Oxford held Harriet, a Harriet newly and entrancingly amenable, who refused no invitations, but replied to his letters in tones hitherto unimaginable, took his arm at will and flushed scarlet from head to toe when caught contemplating his phiz from the other end of a punt. With any other woman, he would have felt that victory was assured.
Unfortunately in the case of Harriet the non-too-distant future looked less promising; with the hunt for Arthur Robinson well under way, Harriet must surely deduce the identity of Robinson’s wife, and with who and how came why. With this in mind, to take five minutes apart from the world to wander the gravel paths with her arm slipping idly through his was worth the store against the day she should step away and shake hands for ever , fleeing from the devil love behind the high serenity of Oxford’s walls. To be happy? Some comfort if he could believe it.
This new threat of Oxford as an alternative to matrimony had discovered to Wimsey a complacency long possessed, hitherto unacknowledged but in its acknowledgement now gravely shaken. Quite simply, he had allowed himself to take for granted that there existed no other serious contender for Harriet’s hand nor obstacle to his suit but Harriet herself, and with that same complacency he had been persuaded that however long it took - although resolution before decrepitude had crept too far upon him was preferable – she would, with world enough and time, be his. Against both callow young men and their more sophisticated elders he had felt the need for no guard beyond Harriet’s own wariness; against Oxford he was impotent, with no defence but the one he had sworn never to use. She had asked for two-and-thirty red and white ivory chessmen, had accepted them with a gratitude undreamt of, had acknowledged his fears of the poltergeist, the hands at her neck, and fallen beneath him, laughing and breathing hard, and she was still that Harriet who threw out brutal words, taking nothing, forgetting nothing, forgiving nothing, bitter and scarred and weary of heart and hand, still standing armed against a world that had hurt her.
Miss Hudson selected a strawberry from the basket and examined it thoughtfully.
‘Do you think they’re doing it?’
‘What?’ asked Miss Colburn, whose general air of charming naivity was almost entirely unfeigned.
‘Not at Shrewsbury,’ said Miss Dale darkly, and as four youthful and enquiring faces turned towards her, blushed horribly. ‘I mean to say, there was a chap at my brother’s coll. They had to tell him if he didn’t cut it out they’d go to the Dean. Chas was rather torn about it, but honestly! It was that or fail Mods.’
Miss Dale, having recovered her equilibrium, shrugged. ‘The walls are too thin and the bedsprings creak. That’s the devil of these modern buildings.’
‘Perhaps they’re red,’ said Harriet.
‘Cowslips of Jerusalem. Like daughters.’
‘Having no daughters, I do not feel qualified to comment. But I observe a horny-handed son of toil hoeing something or other beneath a specimen tree. We shall enquire of him.’
The horny-handed son of toil was disappointing. Yes, he was familiar with Cowslips of Jerusalem. The gentleman might know the flower as Pulmonaria. No? Then perhaps as lungwort. Yes, that was right, miss, short, with bluish flowers and prone to mildew. There were some under the quince in the south border if the lady cared to show the gentleman.
Wimsey, who had been contemplating venturing on a romantic gesture courtesy of the florist, amended his plans. Cowslips of Jerusalem were romantic and it seemed they were even in season; lungwort was clearly impossible.
Past the goldfish in a limestone basin, the cottage-garden daisies, first poppies and foxgloves and whatever vermeil roses might be, the wisteria blossoming along the wall, and Harriet’s hand sliding through his as she buried her face in the hanging blooms.
‘There was wisteria on the garden wall when I was a child. My mother loved it.’
‘I’ve never heard you talk about your mother before.’
‘No? I suppose I don’t remember her very well. She died when I was quite small.’ She slipped her arm through his again. ‘Let’s go and look at the river.’
‘There they are!’ said Miss Colburn. ‘Look, they’re holding hands.’
‘Then they positively can’t be doing it,’ said Miss Isaacson with authority. ‘People who are having affairs never hold hands in public.’ As Miss Isaacson was renowned for almost having had an affair with quite a famous musician, this statement was received with due solemnity.
‘He was at high table the other night,’ said Miss Hudson. ‘It was ever so funny; the Warden was doing her Grand Inquisitor act, you know what she’s like when she gets going, and he was being polite and Miss Vane looked like she wanted to slide under the table.’
‘Maybe that was the sherry.’
‘Not Shrewsbury sherry. One can’t, I’ve tried.’
‘I’m surprised Flaxman hasn’t had a go at him,’ said Miss Dale, who had her reasons.
‘Not him,’ said Miss Groves, ‘he’s far too old. His nephew though – ’
Sweet Thames, run softly... The water gurgled gleaming brown and silver beneath the high bank, bearing its load of students and day-trippers downstream. The bench had worked less well than Peter had hoped, being just large enough to encourage two people to sit apart. One could hardly move up without being obvious. Besides, a group of woman students in a punt moored by the Magdalen School playing field looked suspiciously familiar. The sky was clouding over, and he did rather need to see the Warden, not that he had a great deal of hope from that stern and upright figure, far too decent to hear a name without proof. Because he knew, quite assuredly he knew, the identity of the poltergeist, but the Dons would insist on proof and fairness and decency, an admirable trait in almost every circumstance but that of sending Harriet back to beard the lioness in her den. If only Harriet herself would see it, if she were on guard against an acknowledged foe and not a phantom. Only she wouldn’t ask the name, and he couldn’t possibly tell her, and his increasing conviction as to why she wouldn’t see it was no comfort. He saw himself bargaining with the Fates, only let her live and I’ll give her up, as if he could. It was all very well for her to believe him honest; he would pour blood in magic sigils on the ground, if it would do any good.
‘I don’t understand it,’ said Miss Dale. ‘They’re both quite obviously desperate, and it’s not as if either of them has anything to save themselves for.’
‘You’re so unromantic,’ said Miss Colburn reproachfully. ‘I think they must be in love, with something dreadfully sad dividing them.’
Miss Hudson, Miss Isaacson, Miss Groves, and Miss Dale considered this comment for what it was worth and sighed.
The girls in the punt were quite definitely Shrewsbury students. He recognised one who had been making eyes at Jerry, a hopeless venture with that figure. Perhaps if he threw out a lure: not motive and speculation, but some hard fact that Harriet didn’t know, with a leading train of thought. A cheap tactic, but scruples were becoming unaffordable. The dog collar - what had he been thinking of - was hardly a panacea. The crooked porter, yes that was a direct line all right and would do nicely, and if she couldn’t pick up on that, well, he’d know something else. The butler never did it in books, but no novelist ought to miss the jealous lover.
‘I think I shall have to pay a visit to a friend of yours. Do you know how Jukes came to be caught with the stuff on him?’