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Part 8 B


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« on: December 23, 2022, 11:17:06 am »

Harriet changed her frock, pondering on the social absurdities of the party to which she was invited. Clearly Mr. Pomfret clung to her as a protection against Miss Flaxman, and Mr. Farringdon, as a protection against Mr. Pomfret, while Miss Flaxman, who was apparently her hostess, did not want her at all. It was a pity that she could not embark on the adventure of annexing Mr. Farringdon, to complete a neat little tail-chasing circle. But she was both too old and too young to feel any thrill over the Byronic profile of Mr. Farringdon; there was more amusement to be had out of remaining a buffer state. She did, however, feel sufficient resentment against Miss Flaxman for her handling of the Cattermole affair, to put on an exceedingly well-cut coat and skirt and a hat of unexceptionable smartness, before starting out for the first item in her afternoon's programme.

She had little difficulty in finding Mr. Pomfret's staircase, and none whatever in finding Mr. Pomfret. As she wound her way up the dark and ancient stairs, past the shut door of one Mr. Smith, the sported oak of one Mr. Banerjee, and the open door of one Mr. Hodges, who seemed to be entertaining a large and noisy party of male friends, she became aware of an altercation going on upon the landing above, and presently Mr. Pomfret himself came into view, standing in his own doorway and arguing with a man whose back was turned towards the stairs.

'You can go to the devil,' said Mr. Pomfret.

'Very good, sir,' said the back; 'but how about me going to the young lady? If I was to go and tell her that I seen you a-pushing of her over the wall--'

'Blast you!' exclaimed Mr. Pomfret. 'Will you shut up?'

At this point, Harriet set her foot upon the top stair, and encountered the eye of Mr. Pomfret.

'Oh!' said Mr. Pomfret, taken aback. Then, to the man, 'Clear off now; I'm busy. You'd better come again.'

'Quite a man for the ladies, ain't you, sir?' said the man, disagreeably.

At these words, he turned, and, to her amazement, Harriet recognised a familiar face.

'Dear me, Jukes,' said she. 'Fancy seeing you here!'

'Do you know this blighter?' said Mr. Pomfret.

'Of course I do,' said Harriet. 'He was a porter at Shrewsbury, and was sacked for petty pilfering. I hope you're going straight now, Jukes. How's your wife?'

'All right,' said Jukes, sulkily. 'I'll come again.'

He made a move to slip down the staircase, but Harriet had set her umbrella so awkwardly across it as to bar the way pretty effectively.

'Hi!' said Mr. Pomfret. 'Let's hear about this. Just come back here a minute, will you?' He stretched out a powerful arm, and yanked the reluctant Jukes over the threshold.

'You can't get me on that old business,' said Jukes, scornfully, as Harriet followed them in, shutting oak and door after her with a bang. 'That's over and done with. It ain't got nothing to do with that other little affair what I mentioned.'

'What's that?' asked Harriet.

'This nasty piece of work,' said Mr. Pomfret, 'has had the blasted neck to come here and say that if I don't pay him to keep his blasted mouth shut, he'll lay an information about what happened last night.'

'Blackmail,' said Harriet, much interested. 'That's a serious offence.'

'I didn't mention no money,' said Jukes, injured. 'I only told this gentleman as I seen something as didn't ought to have happened and was uneasy in my mind about it. He says I can go to the devil, so I says in this case I'll go to the lady, being troubled in my conscience, don't you see.'

'Very well,' said Harriet. 'I'm here. Go ahead.'

Mr. Jukes stared at her.

'I take it,' said Harriet, 'you saw Mr. Pomfret help me in over the Shrewsbury wall last night when I'd forgotten my key. What were you doing out there, by the way? Loitering with intent? You then probably saw me come out again, thank Mr. Pomfret and ask him to come in and see the College Buildings by moonlight. If you waited long enough, you saw me let him out again. What about it?'

'Nice goings-on, I don't think,' said Jukes, disconcerted.

'Possibly,' said Harriet. 'But if Senior Members choose to enter their own college in an unorthodox way, I don't see who's to prevent them. Certainly not you.'

'I don't believe a word of it,' said Jukes.

'I can't help that,' said Harriet. 'The Dean saw Mr. Pomfret and me, so she will. Nobody's likely to believe you. Why didn't you tell this man the whole story at once, Mr. Pomfret, and relieve his conscience? By the way, Jukes, I've just told the Dean she ought to have that wall spiked. It was handy for us, but it really isn't high enough to keep out burglars and other undesirables. So it's not much good your loitering about there any more. One or two things have been missed from people's rooms lately,' she added, with some truth, 'it might be as well to have that road specially policed.'

'None of that,' said Jukes. 'I ain't a-going to have my character took away. If it's as you say, then I'm sure I'd be the last to want to make trouble for a lady like yourself.'

'I hope you'll bear that in mind,' said Mr. Pomfret. 'Perhaps you'd like to have something to remember it by.'

'No assault!' cried Jukes, backing towards the door. 'No assault! Don't you go to lay 'ands on me!'

'If ever you show your dirty face here again,' said Mr. Pomfret, opening the door, 'I'll kick you downstairs and right through the quad. Get that? Then get out!'

He flung the oak back with one hand and propelled Jukes vigorously through it with the other. A crash and a curse proclaimed that the swiftness of Jukes' exit had carried him over the head of the stairs.

'Whew!' exclaimed Mr. Pomfret returning. 'By jove! that was great! That was marvellous of you. How did you come to think of it?'

'It was fairly obvious. I expect it was all bluff, really. I don't see how he could have known who Miss Cattermole was. I wonder how he got on to you.'

'He must have followed me back when I came out. But I didn't go in through this window--obviously--so how did he--? Oh! yes, when I knocked Brown up I believe he stuck his head out and said "That you, Pomfret?" Careless blighter. I'll talk to him.... I say, you do seem to be everybody's guardian angel, don't you. It's marvellous, being able to keep your wits about you like that.'

He gazed at her with dog-like eyes. Harriet laughed, as Mr. Rogers and the tea entered the room together.

Mr. Rogers was in his third year--tall, dark, lively and full of an easy kind of penitence.

'All this running around and busting rules is rot,' said Mr. Rogers. 'Why do we do it? Because somebody says it is fun, and one believes it. Why should one believe it? I can't imagine. One should look at these things more objectively. Is the thing beautiful in itself? No. Then let us not do it. By the way, Pomfret, have you been approached about debagging Culpepper?'

'I am all for it,' said Mr. Pomfret.

'True, Culpepper is a wart. He is a disgusting object. But would he look any better debagged? No, Socrates, he would not. He would look much worse. If anybody is to be debagged, it shall be somebody with legs that will stand exposure--your own, Pomfret, for example.'

'You try, that's all,' said Mr. Pomfret.

'In any case,' pursued Mr. Rogers, 'debagging is otiose and out of date. The modern craze for exposing unaesthetic legs needs no encouragement from me. I shall not be a party to it. I intend to be a reformed character. From now on, I shall consider nothing but the value of the Thing-in-Itself, unmoved by any pressure of public opinion.'

Having, in this pleasant manner, confessed his sins and promised amendment, Mr. Rogers gracefully led the conversation to topics of general interest, and, about 5 o'clock, departed, murmuring something in an apologetic way about work and his tutor, as though they were rather indelicate necessities. At this point, Mr. Pomfret suddenly went all solemn as a very young man occasionally does when alone with a woman older than himself, and told Harriet a good deal about his own view of the meaning of life. Harriet listened with as much intelligent sympathy as she could command; but was slightly relieved when three young men burst in to borrow Mr. Pomfret's beer and remained to argue over their host's head about Komisarjevsky. Mr. Pomfret seemed faintly annoyed, and eventually asserted his right to his own guest by announcing that it was time to pop round to New College for old Farringdon's party. His friends let him go with mild regret and, before Harriet and her escort were well out of the room, took possession of their armchairs and continued the argument.

'Very able fellow, Marston,' said Mr. Pomfret, amiably enough. 'Great noise on O.U.D.S. and spends his vacations in Germany. I don't know how they contrive to get so worked up about plays. I like a good play, but I don't understand all this stuff about stylistic treatment and planes of vision. I expect you do though.'

'Not a word,' said Harriet, cheerfully. 'I dare say they don't either. Anyhow, I know I don't like plays in which all the actors have to keep on tumbling up and down flights of steps, or where the lighting's so artistically done that you can't see anything, or where you keep on wondering all the time what the symbolic whirligig in the centre of the stage is going to be used for, if anything. It distracts me. I'd rather go to the Holborn Empire and have my fun vulgar.'

'Would you?' said Mr. Pomfret, wistfully. 'You wouldn't come and do a show with me in Town in the vac, would you?'

Harriet made a vague kind of promise, which seemed to delight Mr. Pomfret very much, and they presently found themselves in Mr. Farringdon's sitting-room, packed like sardines among a mixed crowd of undergraduates and struggling to consume sherry and biscuits without moving their elbows.

The crowd was such that Harriet never set eyes on Miss Flaxman from first to last. Mr. Farringdon did, however, struggle through to them, bringing with him a bunch of young men and women who wanted to talk about detective fiction. They appeared to have read a good deal of this kind of literature, though very little of anything else. A School of Detective Fiction would, Harriet thought, have a fair chance of producing a goodly crop of Firsts. The fashion for psychological analysis had, she decided, rather gone out since her day; she was instinctively aware that a yearning for action and the concrete was taking its place. The pre-War solemnity and the post-War exhaustion were both gone; the desire now was for an energetic doing of something definite, though the definitions differed. The detective story, no doubt, was acceptable, because in it something definite was done, the 'what' being comfortably decided beforehand by the author. It was borne in upon Harriet that all these young men and women were starting out to hoe a hardish kind of row in a very stony ground. She felt rather sorry for them.

---

Something definite done. Yes, indeed. Harriet, reviewing the situation next morning, felt deeply dissatisfied. She did not like this Jukes business at all. He could scarcely, she supposed, have anything to do with the anonymous letters: where could he have got hold of that passage from the ∆neid But he was a man with a grudge, a nasty-minded man, and a thief; it was not pleasant that he should make a habit of hanging round the College walls after dark.

Harriet was alone in the Senior Common Room, everybody else having departed to her work. The S.C.R. scout came in, carrying a pile of clean ash-trays, and Harriet suddenly remembered that her children lodged with the Jukeses.

'Annie,' she said impulsively, 'what does Jukes come down into Oxford for, after dark?'

The woman looked startled. 'Does he, madam? For no good, I should think.'

'I found him loitering in St. Cross Road last night, in a place where he might easily get over. Is he keeping honest, do you know?'

'I couldn't say, I'm sure, madam, but I have my doubts. I like Mrs. Jukes very much, and I'd be sorry to add to her troubles. But I never have trusted Jukes. I've been thinking I ought to put my little girls somewhere else. He might be a bad influence on them, don't you think?'

'I certainly do think so.'

'I'm the last person to wish to put difficulties in the way of a respectable married woman,' went on Annie, slapping an ash-tray smartly down, 'and naturally she's right to stick by her husband. But one's own children must come first, mustn't they?'

'Of course,' said Harriet, rather inattentively. 'Oh, yes. I should find somewhere else for them. I suppose you haven't ever heard either Jukes or his wife say anything to suggest that he--well, that he was stealing from the College or cherished bad feelings against the dons.'

'I don't have much to say to Jukes, madam, and if Mrs. Jukes knew anything, she wouldn't tell me. It wouldn't be right if she did. He's her husband, and she has to take his part. I quite see that. But if Jukes is behaving dishonestly, I shall have to find somewhere else for the children. I'm much obliged to you for mentioning it, madam. I shall be going round there on Wednesday, which is my free afternoon, and I'll take the opportunity to give notice. May I ask if you have said anything to Jukes, madam?'

'I have spoken to him, and told him that if he hangs round here any more he will have to do with the police.'

'I'm very glad to hear that, madam. It isn't right at all that he should come here like that. If I'd known about it, I really shouldn't have been able to sleep. I feel sure it ought to be put a stop to.'

'Yes, it ought. By the way, Annie, have you ever seen anybody in the College in a dress of this description?'

Harriet picked up the black figured crÍpe-de-chine from the chair beside her. Annie examined it carefully.

'No, madam, not to my recollection. Perhaps one of the maids that's been here longer than me might know. There's Gertrude in the dining-room; should you like to ask her?'

Gertrude, however, could give no help. Harriet asked them to take the dress and catechise the rest of the staff. This was done, but with no result. An inquiry among the students produced no identification, either. The dress was brought back, still unclaimed and unrecognised. One more puzzle. Harriet concluded that it must actually be the property of the Poison-Pen; but if so, it must have been brought to College and kept in hiding till the moment of its dramatic appearance in Chapel; for if it had ever been worn in College, it was almost inconceivable that no one should be able to recognise it.

The alibis produced, meekly enough, by the members of the S.C.R. were none of them water-tight. That was not surprising; it would have been more surprising if they had been. Harriet (and Mr. Pomfret, of course) alone knew the exact time for which the alibi was required; and though many people were able to show themselves covered up to midnight or thereabouts, all had been, or claimed to have been, virtuously in their own rooms and beds by a quarter to one. Nor, though the porter's book and late-leave tickets had been examined, and all students interrogated who might have been about the quad at midnight, had anybody seen any suspicious behaviour with gowns or bolsters or bread-knives. Crime was too easy in a place like this. The College was too big, too open. Even if a form had been seen crossing the quad with a bolster, or indeed for that matter a complete set of bedding and a mattress, nobody would ever think anything of it. Some hardy fresh-air fiend sleeping out; that would be the natural conclusion.

---

Harriet, exasperated, went over to Bodley and plunged into her researches upon Lefanu. There, at least, one did know what one was investigating.

She felt so much the need of a soothing influence that, in the afternoon, she went down to Christ Church to hear service at the Cathedral. She had been shopping--purchasing, among other things, a bag of meringues for the entertainment of some students she had asked to a small party in her room that evening--and it was only when her arms were already full of parcels that the idea of Cathedral suggested itself. It was rather out of her way; but the parcels were not heavy. She dodged across Carfax, angrily resenting its modern bustle of cars and complications of stop-and-go lights, and joined the little sprinkling of foot-passengers who were tripping down St. Aldate's and through Wolsey's great unfinished quadrangle, bound on the same pious errand as herself.

It was quiet and pleasant in Cathedral. She lingered in her seat for some little time after the nave had emptied and until the organist had finished the voluntary. Then she came slowly out, turning left along the plinth with a vague idea of once more admiring the great staircase and the Hall, when a slim figure in a grey suit shot with such velocity from a dark doorway that he cannoned full tilt against her, nearly knocking her down, and sending her bag and parcels flying in disorder along the plinth.

'Hell!' said a voice which set her heart beating by its unexpected familiarity, 'have I hurt you? Me all over--bargin' and bumpin' about like a bumble-bee in a bottle. Clumsy lout! I say, do say I haven't hurt you. Because, if I have, I'll run straight across and drown myself in Mercury.'

He extended the arm that was not supporting Harriet in a vague gesture towards the pond.

'Not in the least, thank you,' said Harriet, recovering herself.

'Thank God for that. This is my unlucky day. I've just had a most unpleasant interview with the Junior Censor. Was there anything breakable in the parcels? Oh, look! your bag's opened itself wide and all the little oojahs have gone down the steps. Please don't move. You stand there, thinkin' up things to call me, and I'll pick 'em all up one by one on my knees sayin' "me‚ culp‚" to every one of 'em.'

He suited the action to the words.

'I'm afraid it hasn't improved the meringues.' He looked up apologetically. 'But if you'll say you forgive me, we'll go and get some new ones from the kitchen--the real kind--you know--speciality of the House, and all that.'

'Please don't bother,' said Harriet.

It wasn't he, of course. This was a lad of twenty-one or two at the most, with a mop of wavy hair tumbling over his forehead and a handsome, petulant face, full of charm, though ominously weak about the curved lips and upward-slanting brows. But the colour of the hair was right--the pale yellow of ripe barley; and the light drawling voice, with its clipped syllables and ready babble of speech; and the quick, sidelong smile; and above all, the beautiful, sensitive hands that were gathering the 'oojahs' deftly up into their native bag.

'You haven't called me any names yet,' said the young man.

'I believe I could almost put a name to you,' said Harriet. 'Isn't it--are you any relation of Peter Wimsey's?'

'Why, of course,' said the young man, sitting up on his heels. 'He's my uncle; and a dashed sight more accommodating than the Jewish kind,' he added, as though struck by a melancholy association of ideas. 'Have I met you somewhere? Or was it pure guesswork? You don't think I'm like him, do you?'

'When you spoke, I thought you were your uncle for the moment. Yes, you're very like him, in some ways.'

'That'll break my mater's heart, all right,' said the young man, with a grin. 'Uncle Peter's not approved. I wish to God he was here, though. He'd come in uncommonly handy at the moment. But he seems to have beetled off somewhere as usual. Mysterious old tom-cat, isn't he? I take it you know him--I forget the proper bromide about how small the world is, but we'll take it as read. Where is the old blighter?'

'I believe he's in Rome.'

'He would be. That means a letter. It's awfully hard to be persuasive in a letter, don't you think? I mean, it all takes so much explaining, and the famous family charm doesn't seem to go over so well in black and white.'

He smiled at her with engaging frankness as he recaptured a last straying copper.

'Do I gather,' said Harriet, with some amusement, 'that you anticipate an appeal to Uncle Peter's better feelings?'

'That's about it,' said the young man. 'He's quite human, really, you know, if you go about him the right way. Besides, you see, I've got the bulge on Uncle Peter. If the worst comes to the worst, I can always threaten to cut my throat and land him with the strawberry leaves.'

'With the what?' said Harriet, fancying that this must be the latest Oxford version of giving the raspberry.

'The strawberry leaves,' said the young man. 'The balm, the sceptre, and the ball. Four rows of moth-eaten ermine. To say nothing of that dashed great barracks down at Denver, eating its mouldy head off.' Seeing that Harriet still looked blankly at him, he explained further: 'I'm sorry; I forgot. My name's Saint-George and the Governor forgot to provide me with any brothers. So the minute they write d.s.p. after me, Uncle Peter's for it. Of course, my father might outlive him; but I don't believe Uncle Peter's the sort to die young, unless one of his pet criminals manages to bump him off.'

'That might easily happen,' said Harriet, thinking of the plug-ugly.

'Well, that makes it all the worse for him,' said Lord Saint-George, shaking his head. 'The more risks he takes, the quicker he's got to toe the line for the matrimonial stakes. No more bachelor freedom with old Bunter in a Piccadilly flat. And no more spectacular Viennese singers. So you see, it's as much as his life's worth to let anything happen to me.'

'Obviously,' said Harriet, fascinated by this new light on the subject.

'Uncle Peter's weakness,' went on Lord Saint-George, carefully disentangling the squashed meringues from their paper, 'is his strong sense of public duty. You mightn't think it to look at him, but it's there. (Shall we try these on the carp? I don't think they're really fit for human consumption.) He's kept out of it so far--he's an obstinate old devil. Says he'll have the right wife or none.'

'But suppose the right one says No.'

'That's the story he puts up. I don't believe a word of it. Why should anybody object to Uncle Peter? He's no beauty and he'd talk the hind leg off a donkey; but he's dashed well-off and he's got good manners and he's in the stud-book.' He balanced himself on the edge of Mercury and peered into its tranquil waters. 'Look! there's a big one. Been here since the foundation, by the looks of him--see him go? Cardinal Wolsey's particular pet.' He tossed a crumb to the great fish, which took it with a quick snap and submerged again.

'I don't know how well you know my uncle,' he proceeded, 'but if you do get a chance, you might let him know that when you saw me I was looking rather unwell and hag-ridden and hinted darkly at felo-de-se.'

'I'll make a point of it,' said Harriet. 'I will say you seemed scarcely able to crawl and, in fact, fainted into my arms, accidentally crushing all my parcels. He won't believe me, but I'll do my best.'

'No--he isn't good at believing things, confound him. I'm afraid I shall have to write, after all, and produce the evidence, Still, I don't know why I should bore you with my personal affairs. Come on down to the kitchen.'

The Christ Church cook was well pleased to produce meringues from the ancient and famous College oven; and when Harriet had duly admired the vast fireplace with its shining spits and heard statistics of the number of joints roasted and the quantities of fuel consumed per week in term-time, she followed her guide out into the quadrangle again with all proper expressions of gratitude.

'Not at all,' said the Viscount. 'Not much return, I'm afraid, after banging you all over the place and throwing your property about. May I know, by the way, whom I have had the honour of inconveniencing?'

'My name's Harriet Vane.'

Lord Saint-George stood still, and smote himself heavily over the forehead.

'My God, what have I done? Miss Vane, I do beg your pardon--and throw myself abjectly on your mercy. If my uncle hears about this he'll never forgive me, and I shall cut my throat. It is borne in upon me that I have said every possible thing I should not.'

'It's my fault,' said Harriet, seeing that he looked really alarmed, 'I ought to have warned you.'

'As a matter of fact, I've no business to say things like that to anybody. I'm afraid I've inherited my uncle's tongue and my mother's want of tact. Look here, for God's sake forget all that rot. Uncle Peter's a dashed good sort, and as decent as they come.'

'I've reason to know it.' said Harriet.

'I suppose so. By the way--hell! I seem to be putting my foot in it all round, but I ought to explain that I've never heard him talk about you. I mean, he's not that sort. It's my mother. She says all kinds of things. Sorry, I'm making things worse and worse.'

'Don't worry,' said Harriet. 'After all, I do know your uncle, you know--well enough, anyhow, to know what sort he is. And I certainly won't give you away.'

'For Heaven's sake, don't. It isn't only that I'd never get anything more out of him--and I'm in a devil of a mess--but he makes one feel such an appalling tick. I don't suppose you've ever been given the wrong side of my uncle's tongue--naturally not. But of the two, I recommend skinning.'

'We're both in the same boat. I'd no business to listen. Good-bye--and many thanks for the meringues.'

She was half-way up St. Aldate's when the viscount caught her up.

'I say--I've just remembered. That old story I was ass enough to rake up--'

'The Viennese dancer?'

'Singer--music's his line. Please forget that. I mean, it's got whiskers on it--it's six years old, anyway. I was a kid at school and I dare say it's all rot.'

Harriet laughed, and promised faithfully to forget the Viennese singer.

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