What hath night to do with sleep?
‘Peter!’ said Harriet, running her husband of half a day to earth clearing out the garage. ‘It’s no good; I’ve been in the upstairs rooms. There’s a goose-feather bed, all right, but simply crawling with fleas!’
‘My God!’ Wimsey straightened and wiped a cobweb from his hand. ‘I would suffer much for love, but I have my limits. Here I part from Donne; I will not have three in my marriage bed, let alone three hundred. Dearest Harriet, your ideal home is very handsome in its way, but lacking in certain essentials. Fire and water I can do without, but sleep I will not. Look here, let’s pack up and retire from the field for the day. I don’t mean to a haystack. I tried that once when I was at school and it was frightfully ticklish and rather cold and definitely not convenient for two. We can be in London in an hour at this time of night if you don’t object to a little fast driving, and there’s always room at the Ritz.’
‘I think we’d better,’ Harriet agreed. ‘If only I hadn’t been such a fool about things we might be there now.’
‘You reckon without my folly. It claims no privilege of quality, though it is certainly of long standing. But I have conquered it. Tomorrow we will phone Morpeth and see about getting some men in here to sort the place out, and I will do what I swore I never should and throw myself on Helen’s mercy for one of those villas on the Mediterranean.’
‘Greater love hath no man! But we might try your mother first. She must know lots of people with places on the continent.’
‘Wise woman. Bunter! I say, where’s Bunter got to?’
‘He went back to the house. I think he’s being discreet.’
‘Then in the face of his dereliction of duty, come here and let us attend to ours.’
Returning to the house some minutes later, they found Bunter with his sleeve rolled up to his elbow battling with the stove.
‘Give it up, Bunter. Her ladyship has identified vermin in the house, so we shall do as the resident fleas and skip. Will you pack everything up down here? Oh, except the port, we might leave that in the cellar. It can’t come to worse harm there than on the road.’
‘Very good my lord.’
Lord Peter Wimsey, carrying a pair of suitcases down the narrow stairs, reflected that he must buy Harriet a better one. He had been only briefly distracted by the charms of his wife swearing over a stiff buckle, keeping himself in hand with the thought that the later they left, the later they should be in London, and they had been really very little delayed. He hoped that Bunter had got everything in the car once more. He had heard the ejection from the house of Mrs Ruddle, whose cleaning was clearly not what it might be, carried on with some energy and what sounded like a padlock being affixed to the coalhouse door. Less pleasing was a crate of the Cockburn 96 on the scullery table.
‘I say, Bunter, what about the cellar?’
‘The room appears to be somewhat damp, my lord, and I am not happy as to the matter of rats. The scullery faces northwards and is shaded by the adjacent wall. I believe it will be adequate until Mr Morpeth is able to make other arrangements.’
‘Right ho. Are we all packed?’
‘Yes, my lord. In view of the lateness of the hour, I have prepared some sandwiches for the journey. My lord – ’ He hesitated. Wimsey thought with a qualm that his man was looking a little green around the gills. No doubt he too had had a strenuous few days of it.
‘Everything all right, Bunter?’
‘Yes, my lord. Thank you. I am a perhaps little tired, but it will wear off.’
‘I’m beastly sorry you’ve been put to all this trouble.’
‘Don’t mention it, my lord.’
‘You must take some time off when we’re settled in southern climes. I expect we’ll have to stay in a hotel for a few days until we can get a house, so you shan’t need to bother about looking after us.’
If this was perhaps less reassuring than his master had intended, Mervyn Bunter gave no sign. He had more important things to worry about than the state of his own feelings. Once more he tucked a rug around the bride’s legs, wrapped himself in another, and having navigated his lordship to the main road pausing only at a telephone box to make sure of the night’s accommodation, dozed ostentatiously in the back of the car. He had much to think about.
Another great advantage of hotels over country farmhouses, thought Bunter, opening the bedroom door upon a scene of tranquillity, was that they allowed a gentleman to ring for his valet, saving his servant any embarrassment as to what might follow upon a too-discreet knock. Her ladyship, from the sound of it, was in the bathroom. His lordship, smoking a cigarette in an armchair, had a distinct air of self-satisfaction about him as the preliminaries were exchanged. Bunter diagnosed a successful night’s efforts, an agreeable state of affairs that relieved him of one cause of anxiety. The remaining anxiety was unfortunately less easily disposed of.
‘And you’d better phone Morpeth,’ said his lordship, referring to his agent.
‘He can get some men out to look at the place – or no, he can go himself – and I’ll write in a couple of days. I want a bathroom in by Christmas. I’m damned if we’ll spend it at Duke’s Denver.’
‘I have already done so, my lord. I ventured to instruct Mr Morpeth on your lordship’s behalf that he should have the property fully surveyed and the existing furniture removed to storage, subject to further directions from her ladyship as to any pieces to be retained, and that your lordship would give instructions as to your wishes, but that he should assume an upstairs bathroom, a damp-proof course, dry lining the cellar and a modern kitchen. Naturally he will make the preliminary inspection himself.’
‘Good work. Have you breakfasted? Good. Then will you see about flights to Paris? I’d rather like to get out of London by tonight. We can have the luggage sent on.’
‘Very good, my lord.’
Bunter withdrew, not unsatisfied. His lordship was in a spirit to be amenable to tactful management, and if only her grace would come up with a suitable villa in Spain, he could have him two-thousand miles and several days away from the inevitable letter breaking the news about Mr Noakes.
After some consideration, Bunter had unburdened himself to Morpeth as to the matter of the corpse in the Talboys cellar. It had been tempting not to do so. His own position was sound enough on the face of it: the cellar really was a little damp, and it was quite understandable that he had not seen the body in the dim circle of an oil-lamp from halfway down the stairs, at least after he had dragged it across to the other wall and scuffed out the marks. Morpeth was a sensible man. Presented with the unexpected presence of a deceased Mr Noakes, he would have telephoned the police and his lordship for instructions. But his lordship ought not to be troubled. The summer had not been easy, and there was her ladyship to consider. Long as she had taken about it, she had at last made his lordship happy, and a sentimental stirring in his breast was loath to see her pleasure spoilt for such a cause.
Morpeth had grasped the problem at once. Bunter had indeed telephoned him, but they had spoken in person in his office at one of his lordship’s earlier properties, their subject being ill-fitted to being overheard by a bored operator. Morpeth had not been in his lordship’s employment for ten years without realising that nervous attacks were bad for business and worse for marriage, and that something must be done.
‘I see that it’s awkward for you, Mr Bunter. His lordship’s never been behindhand with a question, and suspicion is a tricky thing. You don’t want him wondering. If only you hadn’t cleared the garage! We might have popped him in there for a few days, and none been the wiser. I don’t suppose,’ he added wistfully, ‘you left anything at the back?’
Bunter shook his head. The garage was not a large one, and Mrs Merdle, like her antecedent, was built upon generous lines. ‘I understand that Mr Noakes,’ he ventured, ‘had a lease on a Broxford flat.’
Morpeth’s head came up sharply. ‘He did at that. A shop with a flat above it.’
‘Of course,’ Bunter added in regretful tones, ‘it might not be suitable.’
‘On the contrary, Mr Bunter. I had a look round when I came to view the house. Only from the outside of both, mind, Mr Noakes being close about his business. Now, I’ve seen shops you couldn’t smuggle a cat into at midnight, never mind a corpse. But that would never have done for a man who practices business like I reckon Noakes did. If I back the van right up there’s a little angle that should cover everything nicely.’
The rest of the business was arranged simply enough. Morpeth should have no trouble with a nosy-parkering neighbour and jemmying a door. The eventual discovery of the body at the foot of the stair in the Broxford flat would not be pleasant, but such things could not be helped. Mr Morpeth, who had reason to know, gave as his firm opinion that a man like Noakes was no loss to the world, and pained as his lordship would be were he to suspect himself the cause of a murderer – if murderer there were - going free, there was no reason he ever should suspect it. Bunter, going through Noakes’ pockets as a matter of routine, had found his lordship’s £650 still in them. That must be some consolation, if only to his undoubted creditors.
There were worse fates, reflected Bunter the next morning as he packed his pyjamas, for a newly-married couple than to be confined to a hotel suite waiting for news on plane tickets and a villa in Spain. By the time he got them out of the hotel by a back door en route to Croydon the bride’s hair looked as if it needed the attention of a comb and the groom’s collar had seen better days. A well-worded telegram from Mr Morpeth had assured Bunter that the most important business had been satisfactorily dealt with. Murder, or even accident, for it was just possibly accident, must eventually out, but time, distance, wifely caresses, and above all the much-to-be-hoped-for disinclination of the local police to summon Lord Peter Wimsey to do more than note, by mail, at the inquest that he had purchased property B from the owner, should serve to keep the sleuth-hound off the scent.
‘Good God!’ said his lordship. ‘Mr Noakes is dead!’
It was a little over a fortnight later, as his lordship was breakfasting in the villa that the Dowager Duchess had procured from her friend, the Dowager Countess of Sterne, that Mr Morpeth’s letter arrived.
‘That’s why he didn’t meet us at Talboys: he was lying in his flat in Broxford all the time. Morpeth’s written to get in ahead of the police – they’ll want a statement from me about buying the house, I suppose. It seems that Miss Twitterton refused to believe that Uncle had skipped, and raised such a fuss that eventually the police agreed to force the door and she was right all along. Not that he wasn’t intending to skip, I dare say, because they found the notes in his pocket, but he fell downstairs before he did it and bashed his head in.’
‘Poor Miss Twitterton. I suppose she won’t see any of the money.’
‘Not likely. He only rented the Broxford place, and Talboys alone wouldn’t cover the creditors.’
‘I suppose that it was an accident?’ frowned her ladyship. Bunter, who had been about to leave the room, busied himself at the sideboard instead.
Wimsey shrugged. ‘Sounds like it. There’ll be an inquest, of course, and the body wasn’t in much of a state, but Morpeth writes that there was a big knob on the end of the banister, and the stair carpet so threadbare it might as well have been greased. But I say! It’s rather a pity it didn’t happen at Talboys. It might have been fun to begin our marriage with a murder enquiry.’
‘I’m rather glad that we didn’t,’ said Harriet, drily. ‘And the press would have been a frightful nuisance. Even Sally Hardy won’t be able to make much out of ‘Former Owner of Aristocratic Sleuth’s Country Home Trips on Stairs.’
‘Are Your Slippers Slip-Proof?’ added his lordship. ‘Farley’s Footwear Keeps your Children Safe on the Stair.’
But Bunter, placing the replenished coffee-pot in front of her ladyship, felt that she looked a little thoughtful. She caught him later in the kitchen, under the excuse of needing to rinse out her pen.
‘It’s really very fortunate, isn’t it Bunter, that Mr Noakes should have been at Broxford when he died and not in our house?
Bunter had no great taste for detective fiction, but in the course of his duty he had read a number of Miss Vane’s works. They displayed, he thought, a considerable understanding of human nature.
‘Very fortunate, my lady. One might almost call it providential.’
Their eyes met with perfect understanding.