It struck me - now over a month ago, the tale has been delayed in the telling - that I had been cruel to Harriet on her wedding night, and I had likewise been cruel to Peter, but there was a third person at Talboys that night (not counting the corpse, who has suffered enough) and that I ought to be cruel to him, too. I have also been cruel to all three of them at once on one occasion (in collaboration), but Bunter has so far got away without vomiting, and that must be remedied.
‘My God!’ said Peter ... ‘do you realise what will happen to us if you die of neglect and starvation?’*
Mervyn Bunter gazed at the ceiling of his bedroom in the Mitre, and wondered why it was necessary for it to sway so disconcertingly. Turning his mind over the events of his previous night he speculated grimly as to what Lord Saint-George might have put in the champagne before concluding that it must have been the sausage portion of the mixed grill consumed after a late arrival from London. He could only hope that his lordship was not similarly afflicted. There was in any case little to be done about it now, though he would have words with the landlord in due course; no weakness of his should be permitted to sully his lordship’s nuptials. No doubt the situation would improve over the course of the day.
Some weeks later Peter Wimsey would remark to his wife that he ought to have realised that something was up, never having known Bunter to hesitate in the face of foie gras. All things considered they had much for which to be grateful to him. The station hotel at Broxford had a young and enthusiastic manager and was far more comfortable than it had any right to be, and it was a great deal easier to assess what needed to be done to Talboys without having to live in it. Moreover the discover by Noakes’ creditors of his body in the cellar had been followed by firm instructions from the visiting Chief Constable that he expected his officers to deal with the situation without the need for what he termed “civilian involvement”. Harriet was secretly glad that the explosion of the local taxi with the likeliest suspect inside it had ended the business before Peter had fretted himself into a fever at what she was sure he secretly regarded as his own responsibility. Mrs Ruddle, whose light fingers with the paraffin were unlikely to trouble Peter’s bankers, more than made up for her faults as an inveterate source of local gossip and subsequently implied that the explosion had been no accident, but the act of a vengeful father. As Frank Crutchley had left no small number of vengeful fathers in his wake, the precise actor remained mysterious: though Mr Venables had surprised even himself with the eloquence of his sermon on Romans 12:19, it had not lead to any confession. It was only to his wife that Lord Peter remarked that his first response to Bunter’s indisposition was to wonder where he could bury the body. It says much for the marriage that she took it as a compliment.
Harriet had anticipated that marriage to Peter might bring rather a lot of new experiences, some more welcome than others. The prospect of dealing with servants had given her some anxious hours over the summer, because whatever Peter said about not having his wife being bothered with housekeeping, housekeeping and servants were one of those things that it seemed wives always were bothered with. As she had grown beyond the need for a nurse, her parents’ household help had consisted of maid, cook, and odd afternoons from a local man, and servants in wealthy families in detective novels were generally confined to making house parties run smoothly and blackmailing their erstwhile employers. Sitting down to supper with Bunter was not exactly unwelcome – he seemed to be making Talboys run as smoothly as it might, and one hoped he liked Peter too much to blackmail him – but one wondered whether Peter wouldn’t have preferred the romance of a tête-à-tête table and champagne and oysters at the Hotel Gigantic to the drafty kitchen at Talboys and things out of tins, even if the tins were from Fortnum’s. A clichéd romance, perhaps, but she felt guiltily that what with the Foreign Office and the sleuth-hounds of the press Peter had been rather short-changed on romance during his betrothal. But here they were, the three of them, and not, one fervently hoped, as rivals, and Bunter was concluding his speech, clean enough, but still enough to make one conscious.
‘My lord and my lady,’ he concluded, raising a truly appalling teacup, ‘your very good health.’
Bunter drained his wine, set it down, made as if to sit down himself, straightened, said,
‘My lord, my lady, your – my - regrets,’ and lurched from the table, leaving the chair behind him clattering onto the flags.
‘My goodness,’ said Harriet. ‘
Bunter had shut the scullery door behind him, but the sounds that penetrated the ancient wood were unmistakable. The quails in aspic were suddenly a great deal less appetising, and Harriet noted with concern that though Bunter had largely ignored the foie gras, he had shown a similar appreciation of the venison pâté to herself. What did one do when the servants were unwell? She remembered her mother attending a very young house-parlourmaid with hot compresses during a bout of mumps, but it seemed unlikely that this would answer in the present circumstances.
‘Do you think you ought to –’
‘No,’ said Peter. ‘Bunter has a strong sense of propriety. He refuses to be detected in a weakness. His strength is as the strength of ten, because his heart is bloody-minded. I suggest an adjournment to the sitting room. I don’t know about you, but my appetite has diminished somewhat. Perhaps,’ he said, with a distinct gleam in his eye, ‘we might feed the tigers instead.’
The ancient settles were beautiful and the electric blue Chesterfield hideous, but experience proved the latter considerably more convenable than the former.
‘I should very much like,’ said his lordship, releasing Harriet from his embrace some time later, ‘to prove new pleasures, but I think perhaps – We’re rather dependent on Bunter – ’
Lord Peter found his wife in what he supposed was her bedroom, folding a sheet in front of the fire.
‘Mortified. He begs your ladyship’s forgiveness.’
Harriet laughed ruefully. ‘His timing is deplorable.’
‘Hmm. Bunter’s almost never ill – constitution of an ox and all that – but he’s certainly more than a little off-colour now. He ought to go to bed.’
‘I thought about that,’ said Harriet. She hung the sheet over one arm. ‘He’d better have this room.’
‘What?’ His appalled face, elongated by raised eyebrows and the dropping of the long jaw, gave him a comical look above his evening dress, as if he were on a stage. Harriet shrugged apologetically.
‘The others are freezing. If Bunter’s as poorly as all that we can’t very well put him to bed without even a fire. We might make up the bed in the next room if you’d kick the rugs out of it. They reek of mothballs and they make me sneeze. I found the linen cupboard, so there’re sheets and things, but it’s cold and the back bedrooms are hopeless. I mean, the rooms would do, but the beds are in pieces. At least the other one has a mattress on it and I think the chimney would be all right once we got a fire going. And it’s not as if – I mean –’ She found herself blushing under Peter’s eye.
‘I suppose you’re right. It’s not that I couldn’t appreciate a nice warm bed as Bunter groaned in the outer darkness, but I might feel a bit of the wrong sort of beast. I suppose it could be worse. I should find it hard to be reconciled to the haystack in the flood, even in your company. Besides,’ he added, ‘I’ve seen to it that he’s had a couple of aspirin. He’ll be out like a light in no time.’
‘I am warm, I have seen the fire.’
Harriet, holding one of Bunter’s newspapers against the fireplace to persuade it to draw, inspected her hands and supposed she should be glad that she had tackled the bed first. She looked round at her husband.
‘No you haven’t; the paper hasn’t caught, and I’m all over soot. I’m sorry, that sounded peevish. I am remembering the conveniences of modern living and the inconveniences of romance. Oh dear! That sounded peevish, too. How is Bunter?’
Peter crossed the room and kissed her. ‘He’ll live. I tucked him up nicely and located a bucket under the kitchen sink.’
‘How do you feel?’ his lordship enquired anxiously. ‘Not sickening for anything?’
‘I don’t seem to be. Perhaps the parsnip wine serves as an inoculation.’
The coal had ceased steaming and begun to glow. Harriet screwed up the newspaper and flung it into the flames, and because even on such occasions curiosity must sometimes overcome the finer emotions asked, ‘What do you do when Bunter is poorly?’
‘Hire a nurse and retire to my club,’ Peter said promptly. ‘I have said that Bunter is a private and dignified animal. I remove myself to let him groan in peace and relieve him of the temptation to climb from his sickbed to lay out my socks.’
‘How considerate of you. Will you do the same when I’m laid low?’
‘Certainly not. You shall be quarantined on the top floor.’
‘Perhaps I’ll run away with the gypsies after all.’
Peter’s hand drifted across the back of her neck. ‘Are you quite sure I can’t persuade you at least to wait until morning?’
‘I suppose you might. Peter, what is that in your hair?’
He raised a conscious hand and brought it away black and oily. ‘The kitchen stove was smoking like hell. Damn! And the copper has a leak in it.’
‘There’s always the scullery pump.’
‘Brutal woman! Whatever happened to wifely sympathy? I bet it’s beastly cold. There was half a kettle left downstairs once I’d mopped up Bunter. You’d better take it; you can warm the bed for me.’
What Mrs Ruddle had called ‘the modern bit’ proved surprisingly comfortable. Admittedly the porcelain was an appalling pink colour, presumably picked up going cheap, but it was spotlessly clean, the bathmat thick, and there were plenty of rails to hang things on. Muffled sounds of alternate clanking and swearing drifted through the scullery door as Harriet retreated down the back stair and through the sitting room. The other bedroom was still a trifle cold, but the fire flamed cheerfully and the blankets, as Harriet crawled beneath the fine linen sheets, smelled faintly and sweetly of the cedar chest. She had located a pair of Peter’s socks, which took the worst of the chill off. Her crêpe-de-Chine nightgown had been rather expensive, but not chosen for warmth. One felt rather nineteenth-century, lying in bed waiting chastely for the bridegroom, vaguely conscious of Bunter asleep in the next room. One was grateful for the aspirin. It was queer to think of servants being everywhere; living alone had been one of the advantages of living in sin – and disadvantages, of course, because there had still been all the work and they couldn’t afford a really decent charwoman. But the doors were solid enough.
The stairs creaked. Peter, pyjama-clad and still a trifle wet, his hastily scrubbed hair resembling a pale hedgehog, crept through the door.
‘Many waters cannot quench love,’ he said, ‘neither can the floods drown it, but it was jolly close.’
‘Dear Peter!’ She reached out a hand and pulled him to her, and either she loved him or she must have believed at last that she was rich, cradling the damp head against silk, because she didn’t think about the watermark until morning.
Peter was murmuring something in French that Harriet didn’t quite catch, but the tone at least was unmistakable. Fortunately he took being answered in English with equal enthusiasm.
‘Oh my lord!’
‘What the hell was that? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean you, I meant - ’ A stifled howl subsiding to a groan penetrated the timbered wall. Peter located his pyjama trousers and vanished into the other room.
He reappeared in the doorway some minutes later looking rather pale. Harriet, who had busied herself with an ornamental kettle that was nonetheless capable of boiling over the remains of the bedroom fire, presented her husband with his dressing gown and a cup of tea.
‘I’m very much afraid it’s his appendix.’
‘I worried it might be – the hazards of marrying a doctor’s daughter. Is he very bad?’
‘Hospital case, I think, and pretty urgent.’
‘Poor Bunter. I’ve packed a bag. Can you get him into his clothes while I get the car out? Don’t look so terror-struck, dearest. I’m a perfectly good driver and I’m sure Bunter would prefer it to the other way round. Besides, you did promise to endow me with all your worldly goods.’
‘So I did,’ Peter admitted, ‘but I’d hoped it might come after the previous clause rather than interrupt it. I hadn’t nearly finished the worshipping part.’
‘It could be worse – it could be you. Or me.’
‘Don’t say that, my darling. Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof. The keys are in my Burberry pocket, and my heart is at your feet.’
The hotel bed, if lacking the romance of the ballad feathers, was modern and comfortable. It was only a pity that they hadn’t reached it until the October dawn, far too late for Peter to return to his devotions. But they could hardly have left Bunter before the surgeon arrived and it had been all too obvious that Peter wouldn’t be good for anything until he knew that it was all right. Firmly instructed that all was well and visiting hours were from two until four he had retreated peaceably enough, albeit firmly repossessing the driver’s seat. Harriet had rather enjoyed the drive to the Broxford Infirmary. She wondered whether, if Peter could not be persuaded to give up Mrs Merdle – and after all, why should he – two Daimlers could perhaps be justified in a family. She couldn’t possibly afford it, but Peter could, and he had promised – there had been all those papers, grisly things – one might as well have the benefit. Though other benefits would be preferred sooner. Peter looked sound asleep, fair hair in his eyes prompting a ridiculous urge to brush it aside, one’s own hair doubtless awful as it always was in the mornings – a hand raked fruitlessly through the tangle – the expensive nightgown crumpled and, yes, with a shocking watermark, and it would be rather pleasant to drift off for another three hours or so, only there was Peter and what Peter meant, and it was really very unfair of him still to be asleep, and,
‘Wha’?’ He blinked dazzled against the light and pulled the sheet over his head.
‘Ah! Mais tu es –’
‘ - Vrai.’ Her hand found his cheek.
The sheet lowered itself. ‘Harriet?’
‘My dream thou brok’st not. It’s two o’clock, you know. Do you ever get up before noon if you haven’t a case?’
‘I’ll tell you later. Let’s act the rest.’
Author’s note: I know that aspirin isn’t a sedative, but we’re playing by Golden Age rules here.
*There’s a completely different fic in that. I’m not writing Peter, Harriet, and the apocalypse. Not least because the Daimler’s fuel consumption would be bloody awful for a road trip.