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Part 11 A


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« on: December 24, 2022, 03:38:25 am »

Leave me, O Love, which reachest but to dust And thou, my mind, aspire to higher things; Grow rich in that which never taketh rust, Whatever fades, but fading pleasures brings. Draw in thy beams, and humble all they might To that sweet yoke where lasting freedoms be; Which breaks the clouds, and opens forth the light That doth both shine and give us sight to see.
  ---Sir Philip Sidney

Town seemed remarkably empty and uninteresting. Yet a lot of things were going on. Harriet saw her agent and publisher, signed a contract for serial rights, heard the inner history of the quarrel between Lord Gobbersleigh the newspaper proprietor and Mr. Adrian Cloot the reviewer, entered warmly into the triangular dispute raging among Gargantua Colour-Talkies Ltd., Mr. Garrick Drury the actor and Mrs. Snell-Wilmington author of Passion-flower Pie, and into the details of Miss Sugar Toobin's monstrous libel action against the Daily Headline, and was, of course, passionately interested to learn that Jacqueline Squills had made a malicious exposť of her second divorced husband's habits and character in her new novel Gas-Filled Bulbs.

Yet, somehow, these distractions failed to keep her amused. To make matters worse, her new mystery novel had got somehow stuck. She had five suspects, neatly confined in an old water-mill with no means of entrance or egress except by a plank bridge, and all provided with motives and alibis for a pleasantly original kind of murder. There seemed to be nothing fundamentally wrong with the thing. But the permutations and combinations of the five people's relationships were beginning to take on an unnatural, an incredible symmetry. Human beings were not like that; human problems were not like that; what you really got was two hundred or so people running like rabbits in and out of a college, doing their work, living their lives, and actuated all the time by motives unfathomable even to themselves, and then, in the midst of it all--not a plain, understandable murder, but an unmeaning and inexplicable lunacy.

How could one, in any case, understand other people's motives and feelings, when one's own remained mysterious? Why did one look forward with irritation to the receipt of a letter on April 1st, and then feel alarmed and affronted when it did not arrive by the first post? Very likely the letter had been sent to Oxford. There was no possible urgency about it, since one knew what it would contain and how it had to be answered; but it was annoying to sit about, expecting it.

Ring. Enter secretary with telegram (this was probably it). Wordy and unnecessary cable from American magazine representative to say she was shortly arriving in England and very anxious to talk to Miss Harriet Vane about a story for their publication. Cordially. What on earth did these people want to talk about? You did not write stories by talking about them.

Ring. Second post. Letter with Italian stamp. (Slight delay in sorting, no doubt.) Oh, thank you, Miss Bracey. Imbecile, writing very bad English, was eager to translate Miss Vane's works into Italian. Could Miss Vane inform the writer of what books she had composed? Translators were all like that--no English, no sense, no backing. Harriet said briefly what she thought of them, told Miss Bracey to refer the matter to the agent and returned to her dictation.

'Wilfrid stared at the handkerchief. What was it doing there in Winchester's bedroom? With a curious feeling of ...'

Telephone. Hold on a moment, please. (It couldn't very well be that; it would be ridiculous to put through an expensive foreign call.) Hullo! Yes. Speaking. Oh?

She might have known it. There was a kind of mild determination about Reggie Pomfret. Would Miss Vane, could Miss Vane put up with his company for dinner and the new show at the Palladium? That night? The next night? Any night? That very night? Mr. Pomfret was inarticulate with pleasure. Thank you. Ring off. Where were we, Miss Bracey?

'With a curious feeling of--Oh, yes, Wilfrid. Very distressing for Wilfrid to find his young woman's handkerchief in the murdered man's bedroom. Agonising. A curious feeling of--What should you feel like under the circumstances. Miss Bracey?'

I should think the laundry had made a mistake, I expect.'

'Oh, Miss Bracey! Well--we'll better say it was a lace handkerchief. Winchester couldn't have mistaken a lace handkerchief for one of his own, whatever the laundry sent him.'

'But would Ada have used a lace handkerchief, Miss Vane? Because she's been made rather a boyish, out-door person. And it's not as if she was in evening dress, because it was so important she should turn up in a tweed costume.'

'That's true. Well--well, better make the handkerchief small, but not lace. Plain but good. Turn back to the description of the handkerchief ... Oh, dear! No, I'll answer it Yes? Yes? YES! ... No, I'm afraid I can't possibly. No, really. Oh? Well, you had better ask my agents. Yes, that's right. Good-bye ... Some club wanting a debate on 'Should Genius Marry?' The question's not likely to concern any of their members personally, so why do they bother?... Yes, Miss Bracey? Oh, yes, Wilfrid. Bother Wilfrid! I'm taking quite a dislike to the man.'

By tea-time, Wilfrid was behaving so tiresomely that Harriet put him away in a rage and sallied out to attend a literary cocktail party. The room in which it was held was exceedingly hot and crowded, and all the assembled authors were discussing (a) publishers (b) agents, (c) their own sales (d) other people's sales, and (e) the extraordinary behaviour of the Book at the Moment selectors in awarding their ephemeral crown to Tasker Hepplewater's Mock Turtle. 'I finished this book,' one distinguished adjudicator had said, 'with tears running down my face.' The author of Serpent's Fang confided to Harriet over a petite saucisse and a glass of sherry that they must have been tears of pure boredom; but the author of Dust and Shiver said, No--they were probably tears of merriment, called forth by the unintentional humour of the book; had she ever met Hepplewater? A very angry young woman, whose book had been passed over, declared that the whole thing was a notorious farce. The Book of the Moment was selected from each publisher's list in turn, so that her own Ariadne Adams was automatically excluded from benefit, owing to the mere fact that her publisher's imprint had been honoured in the previous January. She had, however, received private assurance that the critic of the Morning Star had sobbed like a child over the last hundred pages of Ariadne, and would probably make it his Book of the Fortnight, if only the publisher could be persuaded to take advertising space in the paper. The author of The Squeezed Lemon agreed that advertising was at the bottom of it: had they heard how the Daily Flashlight had tried to blackmail Humphrey Quint into advertising with them? And how, on his refusal, they had said darkly, 'Well, you know what will happen, Mr. Quint?' And how no single Quint book had received so much as a review from the Flashlight ever since? And how Quint had advertised that fact in the Morning Star and sent up his net sales 50 per cent in consequence? Well, by some fantastic figure anyhow. But the author of Primrose Dalliance said that with the Book of the Moment crowd, what counted was Personal Pull--surely they remembered that Hepplewater had married Walton Strawberry's latest wife's sister. The author of Jocund Day agreed about the Pull, but thought that in this instance it was political, because there was some powerful anti-Fascist propaganda in Mock Turtle and it was well known that you could always get old Sneep Fortescue with a good smack at the Blackshirts.

'But what's Mock Turtle about?' inquired Harriet.

On this point the authors were for the most part vague; but a young man who wrote humorous magazines stories, and could therefore afford to be wide-minded about novels, said he had read it and thought it rather interesting, only a bit long. It was about a swimming instructor at a watering place, who had contracted such an unfortunate anti-nudity complex through watching so many bathing-beauties that it completely inhibited all his natural emotions. So he got a job on a whaler and fell in love at first sight with an Eskimo, because she was such a beautiful bundle of garments. So he married her and brought her back to live in a suburb, where she fell in love with a vegetarian nudist. So then the husband went slightly mad and contracted a complex about giant turtles, and spent all his spare time staring into the turtle-tank at the Aquarium, and watching the strange, slow monsters swimming significantly round in their encasing shells. But of course a lot of things came into it--it was one of those books that reflect the author's reactions to Things in General. Altogether, significant was, he thought, the word to describe it.

Harriet began to feel that there might be something to be said even for the plot of Death 'twixt Wind and Water. It was, at least, significant of nothing in particular.

Harriet went back, irritated to Mecklenburg Square. As she entered the house, she could hear her telephone ringing apoplectically on the first floor. She ran upstairs hastily--one never knew with telephone calls. As she thrust her key into the lock, the telephone stopped dead.

'Damn!' said Harriet. There was an envelope lying inside the door. It contained press cuttings. One referred to her as Miss Vines and said she had taken her degree at Cambridge; a second compared her work unfavourably with that of an American thriller-writer; a third was a belated review of her last book, which gave away the plot; a fourth attributed somebody else's thriller to her and stated that she 'adopted a sporting outlook on life' (whatever that might mean). 'This,' said Harriet, much put out, 'is one of those days! April the First, indeed! And now I've got to dine with this dashed undergraduate, and be made to feel the burden of incalculable age.'

To her surprise, however, she enjoyed both the dinner and the show. There was a refreshing lack of complication about Reggie Pomfret. He knew nothing about literary jealousies; he had no views about the comparative importance of personal and professional loyalties; he laughed heartily at obvious jokes; he did not expose your nerve-centres or his own; he did not use words with double meanings; he did not challenge you to attack him and then suddenly roll himself into an armadillo-like ball, presenting a smooth, defensive surface of ironical quotations; he had no overtones of any kind; he was a good-natured, not very clever, young man, eager to give pleasure to some one who had shown him a kindness. Harriet found him quite extraordinarily restful.

'Will you come up for a moment and have a drink or anything?' said Harriet, on her own doorstep.

'Thanks awfully,' said Mr. Pomfret, 'if it isn't too late.'

He instructed the taxi to wait and galumphed happily up. Harriet opened the door of the flat and switched the light on. Mr. Pomfret stooped courteously to pick up the letter lying on the mat.

'Oh, thank you,' said Harriet.

She preceded him into the sitting-room and let him remove her cloak for her. A moment or two later, she became aware that she was still holding the letter in her hand and that her guest and she were still standing.

'I beg your pardon. Do sit down.'

'Please--' said Mr. Pomfret, with a gesture that indicated, 'Read it and don't mind me.'

'It's nothing,' said Harriet, tossing the envelope on the table. 'I know what's in it. What will you have? Will you help yourself?'

Mr. Pomfret surveyed such refreshments as offered themselves and asked what he might mix for her. The drink question being settled, there was a pause.

'Er--by the way,' said Mr. Pomfret, 'is Miss Cattermole all right? I haven't seen very much of her since--since that night when I made your acquaintance, you know. Last time we met she said she was working rather hard.'

'Oh, yes. I believe she is. She's got Mods next term.'

'Oh, poor girl! She has a great admiration for you.'

'Has she? I don't know why. I seem to remember ticking her off rather brutally.'

'Well, you were fairly firm with me. But I agree with Miss Cattermole. Absolutely, I mean, we agree about having a great admiration for you.'

'How nice of you,' said Harriet, inattentively.

'Yes, really. Rather. I'll never forget the way you tackled that fellow Jukes. Did you see he got himself into trouble only a week or so later?'

'Yes. I'm not surprised.'

'No. A most unpleasant wart. Thoroughly scaly.'

'He always was.'

'Well, here's to a long stretch for comrade Jukes. Not a bad show to-night, don't you think?'

Harriet pulled herself together. She was all at once tired of Mr. Pomfret and wished he would go; but it was monstrous of her not to behave politely to him. She exerted herself to talk with bright interest of the entertainment to which he had kindly taken her and succeeded so well that it was nearly fifteen minutes before Mr. Pomfret remembered his waiting taxi, and took himself off in high spirits.

Harriet took up the letter. Now that she was free to open it, she did not want to. It had spoilt the evening for her.

Dear Harriet,

I send in my demand notes with the brutal regularity of the income-tax commissioners; and probably you say when you see the envelopes 'Oh, God! I know what this is.' The only difference is that, some time or other, one has to take notice of the income-tax.

Will you marry me?--It's beginning to look like one of those lines in farce--merely boring till it's said often enough; and after that, you get a bigger laugh every time it comes.

I should like to write you the kind of words that burn the paper they are written on--but words like that have a way of being not only unforgettable but unforgivable. You will burn the paper in any case; and I would rather there should be nothing in it that you cannot forget if you want to.

Well, that's over. Don't worry about it.

My nephew (whom you seem, by the way, to have stimulated to the most extraordinary diligence) is cheering my exile by dark hints that you are involved in some disagreeable and dangerous job of work at Oxford about which he is in honour bound to say nothing. I hope he is mistaken. But I know that, if you have put anything in hand, disagreeableness and danger will not turn you back, and God forbid they should. Whatever it is, you have my best wishes for it.

I am not my own master at the moment, and do not know where I shall be sent next or when I shall be back--soon, I trust. In the meantime may I hope to hear from time to time that all is well with you?

Yours, more than my own,
        ---Peter Wimsey.

After reading that letter, Harriet knew that she could not rest till it was answered. The bitter unhappiness of its opening paragraphs was readily explained by the last two. He probably thought--he could not possibly help thinking--that she had known him all these years, only to confide in the end, not in him, but in a boy less than half his age and his own nephew, whom she had known only a couple of weeks and had little reason to trust. He had made no comment and asked no questions--that made it worse. More generously still, he had not only refrained from offers of help and advice which she might have resented; he had deliberately acknowledged that she had the right to run her own risks. 'Do be careful of yourself'; 'I hate to think of your being exposed to unpleasantness'; 'If only I could be there to protect you'; any such phrase would express the normal male reaction. Not one man in ten thousand would say to the woman he loved, or to any woman: 'Disagreeableness and danger will not turn you back, and God forbid they should.' That was an admission of equality, and she had not expected it of him. If he conceived of marriage along those lines, then the whole problem would have to be reviewed in that new light; but that seemed scarcely possible. To take such a line and stick to it, he would have to be, not a man but a miracle. But the business about Saint-George must be cleared up immediately. She wrote quickly, without stopping to think too much.

Dear Peter,

No. I can't see my way to it. But thank you all the same. About the Oxford business--I would have told you all about it long ago, only that it is not my secret. I wouldn't have told your nephew, only that he had stumbled on part of it and I had to trust him with the rest to keep him from making unintentional mischief: I wish I could tell you; I should be very glad of your help; if ever I get leave to, I will. It is rather disagreeable but not dangerous, I hope. Thank you for not telling me to run away and play--that's the best compliment you ever paid me.

I hope your case, or whatever it is, is getting on all right. It must be a tough one to take so long.

Harriet.

Lord Peter Wimsey read this letter while seated upon the terrace of an hotel overlooking the Pincian Gardens, which were bathed in brilliant sunshine. It astonished him so much that he was reading it for the fourth time, when he became aware that the person standing beside him was not the waiter.

'My dear Count! I beg your pardon. What manners! My head was in the clouds. Do me the favour to sit down and join me. Servitore!'

'I beg you will not apologise. It is my fault for interrupting you. But fearing that last night might have somewhat entangled the situation--'

'It is foolish to talk so long and so late. Grown men behave like tired children who are allowed to sit up till midnight. I admit that we were all very fractious, myself not least.'

'You are always the soul of amiability. That is why I thought that a word with you alone--We are both reasonable men.'

'Count, Count, I hope you have not come to persuade me to anything. I should find it too difficult to refuse you.' Wimsey folded the letter away in his pocket-book. 'The sun is shining, and I am in the mood to make mistakes through over-confidence.'

'Then, I must take advantage of the good moment.' The Count set his elbows on the table and leaned forward, thumb-tip to thumb-tip and little finger-tip to little finger-tip, smiling, irresistible. Forty minutes later, he took his leave, still smiling, having ceded, without noticing it, rather more than he had gained, and told in ten words more than he had learned in a thousand.

But of this interlude Harriet naturally knew nothing. On the evening of the same day, she was dining alone, a little depressed, at Romano's. She had nearly finished, when she saw a man, just leaving the restaurant, who was sketching a vague gesture of recognition. He was in the forties, going a little bald, with a smooth, vacant face and a dark moustache. For a moment she could not place him; then something about his languid walk and impeccable tailoring brought back an afternoon at Lord's. She smiled at him, and he came up to her table.

'Hullo-ullo! Hope I'm not bargin' in. How's all the doings and all that?'

'Very well, thanks.'

'That's grand. Thought I must just ooze over and pass the time of day. Or night. Only I was afraid you wouldn't remember me, and might think I was bein' a nuisance.'

'Of course I remember you. You're Mr. Arbuthnot--the Honourable Frederick Arbuthnot--and you're a friend of Peter Wimsey's, and I met you at the Eton and Harrow match two years ago, and you're married and have two children. How are they?'

'Fair to middlin', thanks. What a brain you've got! Yes, ghastly hot afternoon that was, too. Can't think why harmless women should be dragged along to be bored while a lot of little boys play off their Old School Ties. (That's meant for a joke.) You were frightfully well-behaved, I remember.'

Harriet said sedately that she always enjoyed a good cricket match.

'Do you? I thought it was politeness. It's pretty slow work, if you ask me. But I was never any good at it myself. It's all right for old Peter. He can always work himself into a stew thinking how much better he'd have done it himself.'

Harriet offered him coffee.

'I didn't know anybody ever got into a stew at Lord's. I thought it wasn't done.'

'Well, the atmosphere doesn't exactly remind one of the Cup Final; but mild old gentlemen do sometimes break out into a spot of tut-tuttery. How about a brandy? Waiter, two liqueur brandies. Are you writing any more books?'

Suppressing the rage that this question always rouses in a professional writer, Harriet admitted that she was.

'It must be splendid to be able to write,' said Mr. Arbuthnot. 'I often think I could spin a good yarn myself if I had the brains. About the odd things that happen, you know. Queer deals, and that kind of thing.'

A dim recollection of something Wimsey had once said lit up the labyrinth of Harriet's mind. Money. That was the connection between the two men. Mr. Arbuthnot, moron as he might be in other respects, had a flair for money. He knew what that mysterious commodity was going to do; it was the one thing he did know, and he only knew that by instinct. When things were preparing to go up or down, they rang a little warning bell in what Freddy Arbuthnot called his mind, and he acted on the warning without being able to explain why. Peter had money, and Freddy understood money; that must be the common interest and bond of mutual confidence that explained an otherwise inexplicable friendship. She admired the strange nexus of interests that unites the male half of mankind into a close honeycomb of cells, each touching the other on one side only, and yet constituting a tough and closely adhering fabric.

'Funny kind of story popped up the other day,' went on Mr. Arbuthnot. 'Mysterious business. Couldn't make head or tail of it. It would have amused old Peter. How is old Peter, by the way?'

'I haven't seen him for some time. He's in Rome. I don't know what he's doing there, but I suppose he's on a case of some kind.'

'No. I expect he's left his country for his country's good. It's usually that. I hope they manage to keep things quiet. The exchanges are a bit nervy.'

Mr. Arbuthnot looked almost intelligent.

'What's Peter got to do with the exchange?'

'Nothing. But if anything blows up, it's bound to affect the exchange.'

'This is Greek to me. What is Peter's job out there?'

'Foreign Office. Didn't you know?'

'I hadn't the slightest idea. He's not permanently attached there, is he?'

'In Rome, do you mean?'

'To the Foreign Office.'

'No; but they sometimes push him out when they think he's wanted. He gets on with people.'

'I see. I wonder why he never mentioned it.'

'Oh, everybody knows; it's not a secret. He probably thought it wouldn't interest you.' Mr. Arbuthnot balanced his spoon across his coffee-cup in an abstracted way. 'I'm damned fond of old Peter,' was his next, rather irrelevant, contribution. 'He's a dashed good sort. Last time I saw him, I thought he seemed a bit under the weather ... Well, I'd better be toddling.'

He got up, a little abruptly, and said good night.

Harriet thought how humiliating it was to have one's ignorance exposed.

Ten days before the beginning of term, Harriet could bear London no longer. The final touch was put to her disgust by the sight of an advance notice of Death 'twixt Wind and Water, embodying an exceptionally fulsome blurb. She developed an acute homesickness for Oxford and for the Study of Lefanu--a book which would never have any advertising value, but of which some scholar might some day moderately observe, 'Miss Vane has handled her subject with insight and accuracy.' She rang up the Bursar, discovered that she could be accommodated at Shrewsbury, and fled back to Academe.

College was empty, but for herself, the Bursar and Treasurer, and Miss Barton, who vanished daily into the Radcliffe Camera and was only seen at meals. The Warden was up, but remained in her own house.

April was running out, chilly and fickle, but with the promise of good things to come; and the city wore the withdrawn and secretive beauty that wraps her about in vacation. No clamour of young voices echoed along her ancient stones; the tumult of flying bicycles was stilled in the narrow strait of the Turl; in Radcliffe Square the Camera slept like a cat in the sunshine, disturbed only by the occasional visit of a slow-footed don; even in the High, the roar of car and charabanc seemed minished and brought low, for the holiday season was not yet; punts and canoes, new-fettled for the summer term, began to put forth upon the Cherwell like the varnished buds upon the horse-chestnut tree, but as yet there was no press of traffic upon the shining reaches; the mellow bells, soaring and singing in tower and steeple, told of time's flight through an eternity of peace; and Great Tom, tolling his nightly hundred-and-one, called home only the rooks from off Christ Church Meadow.

Mornings in Bodley, drowsing among the worn browns and tarnished gilding of Duke Humphrey, snuffing the faint, musty odour of slowly perishing leather, hearing only the discreet tippety-tap of Agag-feet along the padded floor; long afternoons, taking an outrigger up the Cher, feeling the rough kiss of the sculls on unaccustomed palms, listening to the rhythmical and satisfying ker-klunk of the rowlocks, watching the play of muscle on the Bursar's sturdy shoulders at stroke, as the sharp spring wind flattened the thin silk shirt against them; or, if the day were warmer, flicking swiftly in a canoe under Magdalen walls and so by the twisting race at King's Mill by Mesopotamia to Parson's Pleasure; then back, with mind relaxed and body stretched and vigorous, to make toast by the fire; and then, at night, the lit lamp and the drawn curtain, with the flutter of the turned page and soft scrape of pen on paper the only sounds to break the utter silence between quarter and quarter chime. Now and again, Harriet took out the dossier of the poison-pen and looked it over; yet, viewed by that solitary lamp, even the ugly, printed scrawls looked harmless and impersonal, and the whole dismal problem less important than the determining of a first edition date or the settlement of a disputed reading.

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