Summary: When Lord Peter Wimsey accompanies his wife to a Swiss ski resort in order to research the setting for her next detective novel, it isn't long before he finds himself investigating a mystery of his own. How has a British tourist vanished from a gondola ski lift - and why are the young woman's parents reluctant to involve the police?
The Elevated Investigation of the Empty Gondola
There was much to be said for the Duchess of Denver as a hostess. Her food was good, her drink was good, and her chairs were good. Not for her a frigid room with a few pale things on toast and an insipid sherry. It was only a pity, thought her sister-in-law, that the same couldn’t be said for her choice of company.
‘...I told her quite firmly that with motherhood comes sacrifices, and that she can’t expect to be gadding about as she used to and she must settle down and give her attention to her husband and children.’
‘Quite right, my dear. I don’t understand the modern young mother. In my day, hearth and home were work enough. But what do you think, Lady Peter?’ asked Lady Grummidge, turning to that young woman. ‘I understand that you have modern ideas yourself. Or do you find a baby enough work for you without writing books?’
‘Oh no, Lady Grummidge.’ Lady Peter Wimsey, also Harriet Vane, drained the last of her cocktail and smiled at her inquisitor. ‘I’m very old-fashioned. I have a positive horror of women who devote themselves to their children at the expense of their husband. Peter married a novelist, and he expects his wife to keep up the standard. If I were to give up writing and have babies in the country he’d probably divorce me, and I wouldn’t blame him.’
‘Are you writing a new book already?’ asked Lady Grummidge, seizing on the least challenging part of this narrative.
‘Well, researching one. I’ll admit I haven’t had a great deal of time for writing lately.’
‘And where is it to be set?’ said Mrs Shaw.
‘In Switzerland, in a winter sports hotel. I shall be visiting there in the new year, as a matter of fact, to pick up the sense of place. With modern tourism and news-journalism these days, it’s so important to be accurate, or readers get terribly annoyed and send corrections to the publisher.’
‘I’m sure it is,’ said Lady Grummidge. ‘Do excuse me, I must see dear Helen.’
‘I understand,’ said Lord Peter Wimsey, ensconced with his wife in the back of the car on the way home, a hand on hers under the mink cloak ‘that you plan to visit Switzerland in the new year. May I ask the reason for this sudden wanderlust?’
‘I was very much afraid that I should lose my temper,’ confessed Harriet. ‘If I hear another person tell me that now we’ve got Bredon I shall naturally give up all thoughts of writing and anything at all but cooing over the nursery at strictly regulated hours, I shall not be responsible for my actions. Under the circumstances, pretending I was going adventuring in Switzerland felt remarkably restrained.’
‘I’m sure it was,’ said Lord Peter, who knew Lady Grummidge of old. ‘As, obviously, you must now pay homage to the mountain-tops that freeze, may I enquire whether I am to accompany you, or if this is to be a solo voyage?’
‘I should like it if you did come, of course, but you aren’t obliged. It really is to be a working holiday. Now I’ve said I intend to write it, I jolly well have to, so I can’t spend all the time frivoling.’
‘What, none of it?’
‘Maybe a little. Some of the hotels are said to have very good chefs.’
‘Then it’s settled. I come with you to look on the Matterhorn, or Marathon, or where you will. I’ve never ventured on winter sports and it’s a trifle late in life to make the attempt, but it should be entertaining if nothing else. Do we take Bredon?’
‘I think so, if you don’t mind. He’s awfully little to leave behind. Besides, Nurse would love it.’
‘I am not shaped for sportive tricks,’ said Lord Peter, limping from the bathroom to an armchair in the suite in the Hotel Belvedere in Wengen two months later. ‘No frivoling indeed! I doubt I shall ever move again.’
‘Nor I,’ said Harriet. ‘I shall have to wear a different frock tonight. I’ve a highly lurid bruise on my shoulder and it would show. Do you think that tomorrow we might have the day off? We could run up to the Jungfraujoch on the train, so it would count as work, but we wouldn’t have to move much.’
A placid day ascending and descending the rack and pinion railway that takes the traveller in comfort from the villages of Grindelwald and Wengen to the mighty peaks of the Jungfrau and the Mönch left Harriet feeling considerably more comfortable, and that her aches and sprains might stand another day of skiing on the morrow. She had come to the reluctant conclusion that Robert Templeton should not find a stiffening corpse sprawled across the track within the tunnel, but had not given up hope that a body might be flung from the Eigerwand window either to hang conspicuously from the mountain face in full view of the telescopes of Kleine Scheidegg, or to bounce ignominiously to its foot. Never before had Templeton examined a corpse in such a precarious and dramatic situation, and Harriet rather thought it would sell. A public appetite whetted by the Olympic Winter Games in Garmisch and mountaineering attempts on the Eiger’s north face would surely be unable to resist Murder at Altitude.
‘What about attempting the slopes tomorrow?’ said Lord Peter at dinner that evening. ‘I think I can almost walk, and it would be a pity to forget everything before trying again.’ He signalled to the waiter.
Harriet grinned. ‘It was rather fun when one wasn’t falling over. Shall we take the gondola? I’d love to try it.’
‘Why not? We can’t make greater fools of ourselves on the heights than we did in the valley, so we may as well try for exaltation on one front at least. I say, they’re a trifle slow tonight. Our usual chap isn’t on.’
‘No, it’s someone new.’
‘So he is. Something hearty, wouldn’t you say? My tummy’s been rumblin’ since noon. It must be the mountain air.’
‘Me too, I’m starving. Perhaps I should use it as a clue. Robert Templeton observes that someone isn’t eating who ought to be, and concludes that they have a guilty conscience or have been poisoned or something.’
‘You’d have to have a pretty guilty conscience not to have an appetite here. You were right about the chefs, this one’s a marvel: Paris trained, I’d say. The wine-list’s interesting, too. I suppose they have to account for the elevation, but they’ve done a jolly decent job of it.’
‘Does it affect it the taste so much?’ asked Harriet. ‘I mean, if one drank the same wine twice, once in the lowlands and once on the mountain, could one tell the difference?’
‘With a good palate one might. That’s why one should never drink on an aeroplane; it makes one feel rotten and it isn’t even enjoyable. You’ll see they don’t offer much Bordeaux here, and what they do isn’t anything to write home about. The wine they drink in Paradise is said to be made in Haute Lorraine, but I never heard that Chesterton was much of a critic. Are you struggling with the plot again?’
Harriet made a wry face. ‘I might be. It’s this business of having to come up with something out of whole cloth, it’s rather difficult. Normally I write a particular thing –a book, anyway, short stories don’t matter as much – because I feel I’ve got a rather good idea, not because I said I would simply to get out of a trying conversation, and now I have to write it, and more than that, it has to be particularly good, because if I don’t or it isn’t it only proves that if one has a baby one can’t do anything else. It’s ridiculous to think it, but one can’t help it.’
‘Even the idiots matter to one’s vanity,’ said Peter. ‘They oughtn’t to, but they do. We shall simply have to stay until you have amassed inspiration for a best-seller.’
If inspiration were to strike anywhere, thought Harriet as the gondola ascended the next morning to the Männlichen peak, high above the Lauterbrunnen valley, surely it must strike here. Above the ridge, the Eiger slowly came into view, the infamous north wall dark and ominous beneath even this brilliant blue sky. Below, the mountainside sparkled white, dotted here and there with the figures of skiers, flying impossibly smoothly over the dazzling snowfields.
With a rattle and a jerk the cabin entered the shade of the gondola station. The door was pulled open by a tall Swiss who bundled them out into a dark room smelling powerfully of creosote and engine grease, and filled with the sound of rattling machinery and, Harriet realised, an irate holiday-maker engaged in furious argument with a second gondola attendant, a man possessed of phlegmatic temperament and apparently limited English.
‘What on earth is that about?’ Peter ejaculated, narrowly missing a window with his ski tips as he swung to observe the scene.
‘I haven’t the foggiest,’ said Harriet. ‘But I think he’s at our hotel. Look, that’s his wife in the mink hat.’
‘So they are. Damn! Harriet,’ he looked at her a little sheepishly. ‘Would you mind awfully if I were to be interferin’?’
Harriet did not mind in the least. She hastily stowed their skis against the wall as Peter made his way towards the pair, pulling off his soft cap.
‘I say, dreadfully sorry to barge in on a private conversation and all that, but I wondered if I might be of use? I believe we’re stayin’ in the same hotel. My name’s Wimsey. Only this chap doesn’t seem to speak much English and he’s lookin’ like he might start to think of the universal language of the fist instead.’
‘Oh Edward, do!’ The woman seized upon her husband’s sleeve. ‘You’ve heard of Lord Peter Wimsey, the amateur sleuth! I’m sure he could help us.’
The man looked less convinced, but extended a hand nonetheless. ‘Edward Clary. If you speak German, you might ask that devil of a Switzer what the hell he’s done with our daughter.’
‘That’s right. He was on the gondola yesterday when we came up. Val was in the car ahead of us, only when we got here there was no sign of her. We looked about a bit, and when we couldn’t find her we assumed she’d made her own way down. She and her mother had had a few words earlier; you know what girls are like.’ Wimsey nodded sagely. ‘We didn’t think much of it, and later in the afternoon we were to go to a concert and Val was dining with friends and with one thing and another we didn’t see her again her again before bed.’
‘I see,’ said Wimsey.
‘Val’s a grown woman,’ snapped Clary. ‘We don’t follow her every move. She’s disappeared. She wasn’t at breakfast this morning, and she hasn’t slept in her room. She got into the gondola in front of us, but she never got off. That’s what this fellow’s saying, but it won’t wash with me.’
‘What was Miss Clary wearing yesterday?’
‘A tweed ski suit,’ said Mrs Clary. ‘Pale blue, with an ivory cap and scarf. She’s very fair, Lord Peter. It suits her beautifully.’
‘I’m sure it does.’ Wimsey turned to the lift attendant who had watched the conversation with some interest and, he suspected, more understanding that he had given Mr Clary to believe.
‘Sorry to be such a nuisance; all frightfully inconvenient when a chap has a job to do. Only this gentleman appears to believe that you have abducted his daughter. Frankly it seems unlikely. There is only one door, and no time to dispose of a body. But he is a loving father, and it seems a trifle unfair to let him be unnecessarily upset if it can be avoided. Do you remember this man and his wife yesterday?’
The man shrugged. ‘Of course. They were clumsy, I had to slow the cabin.’
‘I can imagine you did. Perhaps you also remember that in the cabin before them was a very lovely young woman in a blue suit and a bad temper. I expect she left the station as soon as she arrived.’
‘No. I did not see any such girl. This man and woman I remember, but the cabin before them was empty. Nobody got out.’
‘I have a good memory.’
‘Even so, to remember every cabin during the day...’
‘Of course I do not remember that. But I remember this man and woman, and so I remember what is around them. After them comes a fat lady in a camelhair coat with a little boy. Before them is an empty cabin. I have seen no girl in blue.’
‘Thank you,’ said Wimsey. ‘You’ve been most helpful. I don’t suppose there’s any other witness? You see, Mr Clary seems to feel you may be a trifle biased, Herr - ’
‘Bauer.’ He nodded thoughtfully. ‘There was a cameraman from one of the big American news agencies, he filmed the mountains and the slope for a time. I think he is staying at the hotel in Kleine Scheidegg.’
‘That’s handy. By the way, if Miss Clary doesn’t turn up soon her father is likely to go to the authorities. He is a stern parent, but a loving one. If you did have any idea as to her whereabouts, it might be a good idea to drop me a hint now. There’s no need for Clary to know, if it’s awkward. I’ve seen the girl and she’s of age.’
Bauer looked at him coldly. ‘I am a married man.’
‘Oh, quite. Terribly sorry to have asked, but one never knows. She’s very pretty.’
‘As I have not seen her, I cannot say. There are many beautiful girls who visit here. I do not notice them.’
Against this stony front, Wimsey conceded defeat and retreated to the Clarys. Mr Clary, under the influence of his wife, was fuming more quietly, and if not entirely persuaded by Wimsey’s assurance of Bauer’s probable innocence, was at least willing to be lead into the adjoining hut serving coffee and rolls for discussion in more comfortable surroundings.
Harriet, listening attentively as her husband led the anxious parents through an account of the past twenty-four hours, marvelled once again at the wealthy Englishman’s blithe unconcern as to the interpretation that might be put on his words by the man he expected to take on his problems. Within the space of half-an-hour, she and Peter had a fair picture of the history of the Clarys’ marriage, their less than satisfactory son, their hitherto entirely satisfactory daughter, Mr Clary’s business affairs, and Mrs Clary’s unexpected past as a baseball coach. They radiated assurance that, being in the right, their circumstances must be righted. It would be interesting, she thought, were Mr Clary ever to find himself in front of the police. She shook herself: there was surely no reason to think that likely. What was Peter asking now? Did they have a photograph of Val? Surely they must, all modern parents must have photographs of their children – although come to think of it, one didn’t have one of Bredon, or rather one did, but at home in an album, and whatever Bunter had taken to test the new lens Peter had given him as a Christmas present. The same was true of Mrs Clary. There was a lovely photograph of Val, taken just before Christmas, only it was at home in London. Her passport? Of course, there was a photograph in Val’s passport, but the passport was also not where it ought to be. A suggestive situation – Peter’s eyes met his wife’s across the incongruous lace tablecloth – but not immediately helpful.
‘Oh dear, how silly of me!’ Mrs Clary shook her head. ‘Of course we have a photograph, that is if Val hasn’t... We had a copy made for Eric.’
Mrs Clary blushed a little. ‘Eric Ludlow, Val’s fiancé. He’s lives in America.’
‘I’m dreadfully sorry,’ said Peter. ‘I hadn’t realised that your daughter was engaged.’ Mrs Clary stammered a little.
‘It isn’t formal,’ explained Clary. ‘It was understood between them and the families, but the boy won’t finish his medical training for another year, and I don’t hold with a long engagement in public.’
‘Oh quite,’ agreed Peter. ‘Builds expectations and all that, and frightfully embarrassing if a party changes their mind.’
‘There’s no prospect of that. He’s a steady young man, and Val’s got a sensible head on her shoulders, or I always thought she had. It’s all right, Margaret, Val gave me the copy to send to Ludlow - I mean via Ludlow Snr - with my report. Young people, Lord Peter, insist upon Airmail. Val must have spent half her allowance on writing to her friends.’
‘The allowance, I take it, being from you. May I enquire whether it was a large one, and whether Miss Clary has any money of her own? My postal bill’s atrocious for a few bits of paper, but it don’t compare to a first class ticket to Paris or New York.’
‘Val hasn’t her own income. Her grandmother left her a bit, but she doesn’t come into that until she’s twenty-five. We don’t keep her short, though, Lord Peter; I pay any bills she gives me and you can see how nicely she dresses. We don’t stint on her expenses.’
‘You pay her bills directly; they don’t come out of her allowance?’
‘No,’ said Mrs Clary. ‘You see, Lord Peter, one hears of so many young people making mistakes with money, and confidence tricksters and so on, that we thought it would be better to give Val a smaller allowance for daily expenses, and have her charge her bills to us on top of it. Val’s always been quite content with it, and I’m sure that taken together she has more than most girls of her age.’
‘How wise of you,’ said Harriet, avoiding her husband’s glance.
‘You will help us, won’t you Lord Peter? Even if Val is – just being a silly girl – we want so much to know where she is, and that she’s all right, and – ’
‘Of course we’ll help,’ said Harriet. ‘If you’re sure you don’t want to involve the police.’
‘That can come later, if need be,’ said Clary grimly. ‘I won’t wash my linen in public yet.’
‘I will gladly do what I can,’ said Wimsey, ‘but you must understand that as Miss Clary is of age, if there is no indication that any harm has come to her, that may be little enough. If she has chosen to go, it is you who must persuade her to return. By the way, when you were in the gondola yesterday morning, which of you was looking uphill?’
‘I was,’ said Mrs Clary.
‘Could you see your daughter inside the cabin?’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes! Well – I watched her get in, so I knew she was there, but – now that I think of it – the snow’s so bright, you see, and then I was talking to Edward, you’ll think me ever so silly, but sometimes I feel a little nervous in the gondola, and looking at Edward takes my mind off it. I knew Val was there, but perhaps I couldn’t honestly say that I saw her.’
Peter arranged for Mr Clary to leave his daughter’s photograph with the hotel receptionist, and withdrew himself and his wife from the café.
‘Well, Harriet,’ he said, strapping on his skis. ‘It’s pretty obvious what’s happened, shouldn’t you say?’
‘She’s run off with the wrong man. The Clarys didn’t mention another boyfriend, but it was plainly what they were worried about. They certainly seemed unconcerned at the prospect of her having hurt herself on the mountain.’
‘I am inclined to agree. Still, it’s rude not to leave a letter. One may as well look into it; I dare say it won’t take too long, and I’ll enjoy my dinner a great deal more if Mr Clary isn’t shouting at the maitre d’.’
‘So shall I. Do we interview the newsman at Kleine Scheidegg?’
‘We do. But I don’t see why we should curtail our morning. It’ll take Clary some time to come up with that photo. Shall we venture the route to Grindelwald? Then we might tackle the newshound in the hotel bar at lunchtime. If one wants to find an unknown journalist, one should always start with the hotel bar.’
The journalist ran true to form, and Peter and Harriet tracked him to an easy chair in the observation lounge at the Kleine Scheidegg hotel. After the lengthy ski to the lower village and return on a crowded train, Harriet was feeling rather in need of a comfortable armchair herself, and nothing loathe to sit with a brandy as Peter persuaded the man to let them view the footage from the previous day. The flickering images would certainly impress the picture-goers, and the camera had captured the moment that Mr and Mrs Clary emerged blinking from the dark of the gondola shed onto the bright mountainside. Their daughter, however, was nowhere in evidence.
‘So that’s that,’ said Peter, as they left the hotel. ‘Herr Bauer wasn’t lying. I must admit I had my doubts about him. He spoke pretty reasonably to me, but that was only after Clary had antagonized him. If Val had tipped him to keep his mouth shut, one can see how he might stand by her.’
‘But if Bauer’s telling the truth, and I agree it looks as if he must be, then how did Val Clary get off the gondola - or didn’t she get into it at all? Mrs Clary did say she wasn’t particularly looking on the way up. She might not have noticed if the cabin were empty.’
‘But she seemed quite definite the girl got in, and if she were slow and awkward about the business herself, as Bauer says, then it stands to reason that she’d watch to make sure Val was all right when they started off. I have another theory which, if you will accompany me back to the village via this charming if somewhat precipitous track, I shall endeavour to prove.’
The route led them, efficiently if inelegantly, to the south end of the village. Peter deposited their skis in the care of a porter, and set off determinedly in the direction of the gondola station from which they had departed that morning. Harriet, observing his disinclination to share his thoughts on his intentions, diagnosed a desire to show off, possibly enhanced by several picturesque falls on the charming track that had left him quoting Milton, and reflected that in any case if she was in Switzerland to work, it was only fair to let him do the same. The afternoon was drawing on, and only a few enthusiasts now approached the gondola. The operator lounging beside the gate had no objection to being drawn into conversation. The mechanical workings of gondola lifts and the associated incompetence of foreign tourists in their use provided fertile ground.
‘I daresay people leave all sorts of things behind them,’ said Peter. The operator agreed that this was the case. Sweet-wrappings, gloves, handkerchiefs, and on one memorable occasion a billfold containing a thousand dollars in US notes, from which the ungrateful owner, on collecting it from the police, had not even restored the price of a glass of beer to the finder. Wimsey acknowledged this shocking omission in the usual form and continued.
‘The women are the worst, of course. Take my niece, nice girl, but shockingly careless. Went up on this very lift yesterday morning, come dinner can’t find her scarf and swears blind that she’s left it on the mountain. Of course, it was in her room all the time. You might remember her, a pretty girl in a blue tweed coat and white cap.’
‘Of course. She came down the mountain at let me see – just before eleven. I remember the time, because I was thinking it was almost time for my cigarette. I always have a cigarette at eleven. She was a very pretty girl, but I agree – careless. When the young man met her, she dropped her glove. He had to come back for it, and he was carrying the suitcase, too.’
‘That must have been her fiancé,’ said Wimsey. ‘He’s a good chap. They must have been heading for the station.’
‘Yes,’ agreed the attendant. ‘He was anxious about the time.’
‘Where next?’ said Harriet, as they left the gondola. ‘The railway station?’
‘I think a bath,’ said Wimsey. ‘The hotel has the railway timetables, and I shall concentrate better for some tea. Besides, I suspect that employees of the Swiss railways are rather less inclined than gondola attendants to gossip about their patrons, and unless the Clarys are prepared to go to the police, one might not get a great deal out of them.’
Harriet acceded to this sensible plan, and having taken delivery of the photograph of Val Clary, ensconced herself with her young son on the sofa to give him his bottle and listen with half an ear to Peter’s survey of the railway timetables
‘Zurich!’ he proclaimed at last. ‘There’s a good train at 11.15, but if you miss that there isn’t another decent connection until after 3. Of course, Val’s young man might simply be one of those people who hate hangin’ around at railway stations, but it is suggestive, especially as there’s a better train connection for Bern at 11.30.’
‘I wonder who the young man can be,’ said Harriet. ‘The Clarys mentioned friends here in Wengen, but surely they’d have asked them if they’d seen Val before jumping to conclusions about nefarious gondola men. Especially if their number included a man they wouldn’t want her to marry.’
‘One would have thought so. But she did go missing on the gondola. Perhaps they wanted to clear things up there before raising a social stink. Let this be a lesson to you, young Bredon,’ he observed to that infant. ‘When eloping with the daughter of friends, make sure that you lay a good cover story.’
‘Val’s wasn’t a bad one – she’s been gone more than 24 hours and we’ve no better idea of where to find her than a good train to Zurich. Have you thought about how she pulled off the gondola trick, by the way? She can hardly have hidden behind the door.’
‘Under the seat is more likely. It would be a bit cramped, but she’s on the small side and it would only need to be long enough to get clear of the upper station. She would have known that her parents would be slow leaving their cabin, so even if they had thought to ask Bauer if he’d seen her, she’d be halfway down the mountain by that time. I wish I knew more about Swiss marriage laws. I don’t suppose they’ve come up in your researches?’
‘I’m afraid not. What shall you do next?’
‘Return this young scamp to his mother, and request an interview with our hotel manager. It occurs to me that the Hotel Belvedere harbours not one, but two missing persons: Val Clary, and our erstwhile waiter.’
‘Good lord! I’d quite forgotten him. But do you really think she’s the sort to run off with a waiter? Her parents are frightful snobs.’
‘It would explain the lack of a letter, if Val were seriously worried that her father would be furious. We’ve seen that Clary has a temper. I don’t claim – yet – it’s the only solution, but he’s a personable young man and they disappeared the same evening.’
‘The manager won’t like your asking.’
‘No,’ conceded Peter, ‘but he’ll like Clary asking even less. They don’t care to lose staff in the middle of a season, either. I shouldn’t be surprised if a place like this paid a bonus for sticking it out, and the fact that our bloke hasn’t may be a fact of note.’
The manager of the Hotel Belvedere was more sympathetic than Harriet had feared. A quiet chat with Lord Peter Wimsey was almost a complement, whereas the prospect of a row in the bar with Edward Clary or worse, a visit from the police, was to be avoided at all costs. He had every confidence in his young waiter who had left the hotel at this unusual time in order to join his uncle’s hotel, where the maitre d’ had broken his leg. He had expected to leave at the end of the season for the same destination in any case. It was inconvenient, but not insurmountable. The manager hoped he was prepared endure a little inconvenience for the sake of a young man wishing to support his family. Nonetheless, he handed over the address of a hotel in Zurich, and that of a house belonging to the mother of young Meyer.
‘Zurich?’ observed Harriet, as Peter recounted the exchange over dinner. ‘Shall you tell Mr and Mrs Clary?’
‘Not yet. The thing is, they’ve both a perfect right to vanish if they want to. If I hand over Meyer’s address and Clary goes off the deep end, or even gets the police or the embassy involved, well, that would be it. Mrs Clary might find herself never seeing her daughter again. On the other hand – ’
‘- if he is a confidence trickster, we know Val hasn’t got any money. She’s completely dependent on him.’
‘I think I shall go to Zurich myself,’ said Peter. ‘If it’s all above-board and I can persuade Val to give me a letter for her mother, there needn’t be any further fuss. If she’s having second thoughts, it might be easier to climb down from her high horse in front of a stranger than an outraged parent saying ‘I told you so.’ In the meantime, I had better say something suitably mollifying to the Clarys. Will you come and rescue me if I don’t return in five minutes?’
Harriet promised that she would.
The admirably efficient SBB deposited Lord Peter in Zurich at half-past ten the next morning. A taxi had taken him to address of the large and imposing hotel indicated by M. Favre as belonging to young Meyer’s uncle, but upon reflection, Peter thought that he would begin at the house.
The door was opened by a fair-haired young woman. Wimsey had seen her in the Hotel Belvedere, but had she been a stranger, everything about her would have proclaimed her nationality. She wore an expression of no-encouragement, and a smart suit.
‘Lord Peter Wimsey?’ said Val Clary. ‘I’ve been wondering if it would be you they’d send. You’d better come in. I shan’t repay Frau Meyer’s kindness by having a row in the street.’
Wimsey was shown into the front parlour, a large, light room decorated with a quantity of lace and occupied by a middle-aged Swiss woman who refused Wimsey’s attempt to decline any coffee and bustled off to the kitchen to oversee the girl.
‘I’m sorry to intrude,’ said Wimsey. ‘I really don’t want to create an awkwardness for you, don’t you know, but I thought I might be a less intrusive intruder than your father – or the police.’
‘I shouldn’t have let the police across the threshold,’ said Val. ‘I’m twenty-two, and my visa’s right. I’ve a perfect right to stay with friends if I want to.’
‘Of course you have,’ agreed Wimsey, ‘but you must concede your mother has a right to care for your wellbeing.’
‘Perhaps she has, but it’s funny how one’s parents’ care is always on their terms. I assume you’ve come from my parents. I suppose you met them in the hotel and they asked for your help, and put it to you that they were lost and bereft and you thought you’d kindly reunite the family so needlessly torn apart by a girl being silly. How noble of you.’
Wimsey accepted this blow in silence. ‘You’re wasting your time,’ Val continued. ‘I haven’t run away on a whim: I’ve been engaged to Hermann for three years, and for three years I’ve been dreaming of leaving my parents. Sometimes,’ she admitted, ‘I’ve dreamt that they’d come round and I’d be able to tell them about us and they’d accept it – or even that they’d accept my doing anything they haven’t approved of first. I expect they told you how generous they are to me, how they never stint on my clothes, or a train ticket to a friend. But do you think it’s generous for a man as rich as my father to give his daughter a pound a month, and expect the rest to be billed? Stamps and chocolate! That’s all they think I should deal with myself. I can barely manage to tip the maid. It’s humiliating.’
‘I can see it would be,’ said Wimsey. ‘Though, forgive me, you’re an intelligent young woman, might you not have got a job?’
‘I might,’ agreed Val. ‘In fact, I did. Only I needed the money for a flat until I got my first salary, and they wouldn’t lend it to me. I sold a fur hat to pay for it myself, only I wasn’t of age at the time, and – in the end the landlord wouldn’t take me because of father, and a fuss was made at the office and I lost the job. So that was that. Six months later I met Hermann, and I decided I’d just stick it out. It gave me a terrible shock to see you in Wengen. Everything was set, and then you and your wife turned up and – obviously I was right. I suppose you’re going to tell them where I am?’
‘Not if you don’t want me to. But I do think they are both very upset. If you could let them know you are well, it would ease their minds.’
‘I wish I could – I’m not completely heartless, I hated leaving without a letter. Only if they know where I am they’ll come and pester me and make things awful for poor Frau Meyer. It’s awful enough to think of them making a nuisance at the wedding, but I can’t bear to think of their damaging the interests of the hotel and father could, you know.’
‘You’re not married yet?’
‘The wedding’s on Saturday. Hermann’s staying at the hotel: we’re to have a flat there once we’re married. It’s lovely, all modern and efficient. They’re going to refit the old part of the hotel next year, and Hermann wants me to help with the decoration. I’m good at things like that. Lord Peter, I don’t know how you found us, but I’m very sorry, I must ask you not to tell my parents where I am. I’ll give you a letter, if you like, that you can give to them, and I’ll be as nice as I can in it. And I wish they could come to my wedding, because I know I sound like an ungrateful beast, but I do love them awfully. But I won’t go home and marry Eric Ludlow, who makes my skin crawl, and I won’t risk Hermann’s livelihood or his family’s reputation.’
‘I quite understand. I think you might be glad later if you gave me a letter, but I promise I won’t tell them where you are.’
‘Once you’re married, there are such things as forwarding addresses. You could write to them quite safely if you wanted.’
‘I hadn’t thought of that. I’d hoped maybe that if there were children later, it might help to mend things. Even Daddy couldn’t try to turn the clock back then.’ She smiled ruefully. ‘He really was awfully fun when I was small. It’s frightens me sometimes, Lord Peter, to imagine my children thinking about me as I have about my parents. How does one avoid it?’
‘I’m rather a new father,’ said Peter, ‘and no expert, but I think one begins by admitting the possibility.’
The railway delivered Lord Peter to his hotel in the late afternoon. He found his wife seated in the great picture window of their sitting room with a notebook in one hand and the baby on her knee, staring absentmindedly out towards the mountain.
‘Hullo! You’re early. Does this mean triumph or disaster?’
‘Somewhere in between, I think. I found Miss Clary, and she still is of that name, but she isn’t coming home and she intends to be Frau Meyer by the end of Saturday. Do you fancy a stroll in the village while I explain? I seem to have spent all day sitting down.’
‘All right, but we’ll have to take Bredon. I gave Nurse the afternoon off and she won’t be back until 6, she’s gone skating in Lauterbrunnen or something. Mango’s out taking a lesson from Bunter – you must tell me when on earth he learnt to ski so well – and I thought it would force me to stay in and do some work.’
‘And has it?’
‘Well, I’ve stayed in, and I’ve worked a bit. I’m afraid it wasn’t terribly compatible for much of the time; Bredon has a very poor respect for his mother’s work ethic.’ She looked fondly at the baby, who was sucking absently on her collar. ‘But I think I’ve got a plot at last.’
‘I’m glad of that. May I hear it, or is it secret?’
‘You may hear the idea. It isn’t a whole thing yet, but I’m sure it’s going to be. It’s got that feeling about it. But I want to hear your story first.’
‘It shall be my pleasure to tell you, and a great deal more of one than it was telling Mr and Mrs Clary. Come, Bredon, let us walk en famille.’
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