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Part 15

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« on: December 25, 2022, 12:25:40 am »

Do but consider what an excellent thing sleep is: it is so inestimable a jewel that, if a tyrant would give his crown for an hour's slumber, it cannot be bought: of so beautiful a shape is it, that though a man lie with an Empress, his heart cannot beat quite till he leaves her embracements to be at rest with the other: yea, so greatly indebted are we to this kinsman of death, that we owe the better tributary, half of our life to him: and there is good cause why we should do so: for sleep is that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together. Who complains of want? of wounds? of cares? of great men's oppressions? of captivity? whilst he sleepeth? Beggars in their beds take as much pleasure as kings: can we therefore surfeit on this delicate Ambrosia? Can we drink too much of that whereof to taste too little tumbles us into a churchyard, and to use it but indifferently throws us into Bedlam? No, no, look upon Endymion, the moon's minion, who slept three score and fifteen years, and was not a hair the worse for it.

   ---Thomas Dekker

'You will find the tea-basket,' said Wimsey, 'behind you in the bows.'

They had put in under the dappled shade of an overhanging willow a little down the left bank of the Isis. Here there was less crowd, and what there was could pass at a distance. Here, if anywhere, they might hope for comparative peace. It was, therefore, with more than ordinary irritation that Harriet, with the thermos yet in her hand, observed a heavily-laden punt approaching.

'Miss Schuster-Slatt and her party. Oh, God! and she says she knows you.'

The poles were firmly driven in at either end of the boat; escape was impossible. Ineluctably the American contingent advanced upon them. They were alongside. Miss Schuster-Slatt was crying out excitedly. It was Harriet's turn to blush for her friends. With incredible coyness Miss Schuster-Slatt apologised for her intrusion, effected introductions, was sure they were terribly in the way, reminded Lord Peter of their former encounter, recognised that he was far too pleasantly occupied to wish to be bothered with her, poured out a flood of alarming enthusiasm about the Propagation of the Fit, again drew strident attention to her own tactlessness, informed Lord Peter that Harriet was a lovely person and just too sympathetic, and favoured each of them with an advance copy of her new questionnaire. Wimsey listened and replied with imperturbable urbanity, while Harriet, wishing that the Isis would flood its banks and drown them all, envied his self-command. When at length Miss Schuster-Slatt removed herself and her party, the treacherous water wafted back her shrill voice from afar:

'Well, girls! Didn't I tell you he was just the perfect English aristocrat?'

At which point the much-tried Wimsey lay down among the tea-cups and became hysterical.

'Peter,' said Harriet, when he had finished crowing like a cock, 'your unconquerable sweetness of disposition is very shaming. I lose my temper with that harmless woman. Have some more tea.'

'I think,' said his lordship, mournfully, 'I had better stop being the perfect English aristocrat and become the great detective after all. Fate seems to be turning my one-day romance into a roaring farce. If that is the dossier, let me have it. We'll see,' he added with a faint chuckle, 'what kind of a detective you make when you're left to yourself.'

Harriet handed him the loose-leaf book and an envelope containing the various anonymous documents, all endorsed, where possible, with the date and manner of publication. He examined the documents first, separately and carefully, without manifesting surprise, disgust, or, indeed, any emotion beyond meditative interest. He then put them all back in the envelope, filled and lit a pipe, curled himself up among the cushions and devoted his attention to her manuscript. He read slowly, turning back every now and again to verify a date or detail. At the end of the first few pages he looked up to remark:

'I'll say one thing for the writing of detective fiction: you know how to put your story together; how to arrange the evidence.'

'Thank you,' said Harriet drily: 'praise from Sir Hubert is praise indeed.'

He read on.

His next observation was:

'I see you have eliminated all the servants in the Scouts' Wing on the strength of one locked door.'

'I'm not so simple-minded as that. When you come to the Chapel episode, you'll find that it eliminates them all, for another reason.'

'I beg your pardon; I was committing the fatal error of theorising ahead of my data.'

Accepting rebuke, he relapsed into silence, while she studied his half-averted face. Considered generally, as a façade, it was by this time tolerably familiar to her, but now she saw details, magnified as it were by some glass in her own mind. The flat setting and fine scroll-work of the ear, and the height of the skull above it. The glitter of close-cropped hair where the neck-muscles lifted to meet the head. A minute sickle-shaped scar on the left temple. The faint laughter-lines at the corner of the eye and the droop of the lid at its outer end. The gleam of golden down on the cheek-bone. The wide spring of the nostril. An almost imperceptible beading of sweat on the upper lip and a tiny muscle that twitched the sensitive corner of the mouth. The slight sun-reddening of the fair skin and its sudden whiteness below the base of the throat. The little hollow above the points of the collar-bone.

He looked up; and she was instantly scarlet, as though she had been dipped in boiling water. Through the confusion of her darkened eyes and drumming ears some enormous bulk seemed to stoop over her. Then the mist cleared. His eyes were riveted upon the manuscript again, but he breathed as though he had been running.

So, thought Harriet, it has happened. But it happened long ago. The only new thing that has happened is that now I have got to admit it to myself. I have known it for some time. But does he know it? He has very little excuse, after this, for not knowing it. Apparently he refuses to see it, and that may be new. If so, it ought to be easier to do what I meant to do.

She stared out resolutely across the dimpling water. But she was conscious of his every movement, of every page he turned, of every breath he drew. She seemed to be separately conscious of every bone in his body. At length he spoke, and she wondered how she could ever have mistaken another man's voice for his.

'Well, Harriet, it's not a pretty problem.'

'It's not. And it simply mustn't go on, Peter. We can't have any more people frightened into the river. Publicity or no publicity, it's got to be stopped. Otherwise, even if nobody else gets hurt, we shall all go mad.'

'That's the devil of it.'

'Tell me what we are to do, Peter.'

She had once again lost all consciousness of him except as the familiar intelligence that lived and moved so curiously behind an oddly amusing set of features.

'Well--there are two possibilities. You can plant spies all over the place and wait to pounce on this person when the next outbreak occurs.'

'But you don't know what a difficult place it is to police. And it's ghastly waiting for the outbreak. And suppose we don't catch her and something horrible happens.'

'I agree. The other, and I think the better, way is to do what we can to frighten this lunatic into keeping quiet while we dig out the motive behind the whole thing. I'm sure it's not mere blind malignity; there's a method in it.'

'Isn't the motive only too painfully obvious?'

He stared pensively at her, and then said:

'You remind me of a charming old tutor, now dead, whose particular subject of research was the relations of the Papacy to the Church in England between certain dates which I do not precisely recall. At one time, a special subject on these lines was set for the History School, and undergraduates taking that subject were naturally sent to the old boy for coaching and did very well. But it was noticed that no man from his own college ever entered for that particular special--the reason being that the tutor's honesty was such that he would earnestly dissuade his pupils from taking his own subject for fear lest his encouragement might influence their decision.'

'What a charming old gentleman! I'm flattered by the comparison, but I don't see the point.'

'Don't you? Isn't it a fact that, having more or less made up your mind to a spot of celibacy you are eagerly peopling the cloister with bogies? If you want to do without personal relationships, then do without them. Don't stampede yourself into them by imagining that you've got to have them or qualify for a Freudian case-book.'

'We're not talking about me and my feelings. We're talking about this beastly case in College.'

'But you can't keep your feelings out of the case. It's no use saying vaguely that sex is at the bottom of all these phenomena--that's about as helpful as saying that human nature is at the bottom of them. Sex isn't a separate thing functioning away all by itself. It's usually found attached to a person of some sort.'

'That's rather obvious.'

'Well, let's have a look at the obvious. The biggest crime of these blasted psychologists is to have obscured the obvious. They're like a man packing for the week-end and turning everything out of his drawers and cupboards till he can't find his pyjamas and toothbrush. Take a few obvious points to start with. You and Miss de Vine met at Shrewsbury for the first time at the Gaudy, and the first letter was put into your sleeve at that time; the people attacked are nearly all dons or scholars; a few days after your tea-party with young Pomfret, Jukes goes to prison; all the letters received by post come either on a Monday or a Thursday; all the communications are in English except the Harpy quotation; the dress found on the dummy was never seen in College: do all those facts taken together suggest nothing to you beyond a general notion of sex repression?'

'They suggest a lot of things separately, but I can't make anything of them taken together.'

'You are usually better than that at a synthesis. I wish you could clear this personal preoccupation out of your mind. My dear, what are you afraid of? The two great dangers of the celibate life are a forced choice and a vacant mind. Energies bombinating in a vacuum breed chimaeras. But you are in no danger. If you want to set up your everlasting rest, you are far more likely to find it in the life of the mind than the life of the heart.'

'You say that?'

'I say that. It is your needs we are considering, you know; not anybody else's. That is my opinion as an honest scholar, viewing the question academically and on its merits.'

She had the old sensation of being outwitted. She grasped again at the main theme of the discussion:

'Then you think we can solve the problem by straight detection, without calling in a mental specialist?'

'I think it can be solved by a little straight and unprejudiced reasoning.'

'Peter. I seem to be behaving very stupidly. But the reason why I want to--to get clear of people and feelings and go back to the intellectual side is that that is the only side of life I haven't betrayed and made a mess of.'

'I know that,' he said, more gently. 'And it's upsetting to think that it may betray you in its turn. But why should you think that? Even if much learning makes one person mad it need not make everybody mad. All these women are beginning to look abnormal to you because you don't know which one to suspect, but actually even you don't suspect more than one.'

'No: but I'm beginning to feel that almost any one of them might be capable of it.'

'That, I fancy, is where your fears are distorting your judgment. If every frustrate person is heading straight for the asylum I know at least one danger to Society who ought to be shut up.'

'Damn you, Peter. Will you keep to the point!'

'Meaning: what steps ought we to take? Will you give me to-night to think it over? If you will trust me to deal with it, I fancy I see one or two lines that might be followed up with profit.'

'I would rather trust you than anybody.'

'Thank you, Harriet. Shall we now resume our interrupted holiday?... Oh, my lost youth. Here are the ducks coming up for the remains of our sandwiches. Twenty-three years ago I fed these identical ducks with these identical sandwiches.'

'Ten years ago, I too fed them to bursting-point.'

'And ten and twenty years hence the same ducks and the same undergraduates will share the same ritual feast, and the ducks will bite the undergraduates' fingers as they had just bitten mine. How fleeting are all human passions compared with the massive continuity of ducks ... Be off, cullies, that's the lot.'

He tossed the last crumbs of bread into the water, rolled over among the cushions and lay watching the ripples with half-shut eyes ... A punt went past, full of silent, sun-stupefied people, with a plop and a tinkle alternately as the pole entered and left the water; then a noisy party with a gramophone bawling 'Love in Bloom'; then a young man in spectacles, by himself in a canoe, and paddling as though for dear life; then another punt, paddled at a funeral pace by a whispering man and girl; then a hot and energetic party of girls in an outrigger; then another canoe, driven swiftly by two Canadian undergraduates kneeling to their work; then a very small canoe, punted dangerously by a giggling girl in a bathing-dress, with a jeering young man crouched in the bows, costumed, and obviously prepared, for the inevitable plunge; then a very sedate and fully-clothed party in a punt--mixed undergraduates being polite to a female don; then a bunch of both sexes and all ages in an inrigger with another gramophone whining 'Love in Bloom'--the Town at play; then a succession of shrill cries which announced the arrival of a hilarious party teaching a novice to punt; then, in ludicrous contrast, a very stout man in a blue suit and linen hat, solemnly propelling himself all alone in a two-pair tub, and a slim, singleted youth shooting contemptuously past him in a pair-oar skiff; then three punts side by side, in which everybody seemed to be asleep except those actually responsible for pole and paddle. One of these passed within a paddle's length of Harriet: a tousle-headed, rather paunchy young man lay with his knees cocked up, his mouth slightly open and his face flushed with the heat; a girl sprawled against his shoulder, while the man opposite, his hat over his face and his hands clasped over his chest with the thumbs beneath his braces, had also given up all interest in the outer world. The fourth passenger, a woman, was eating chocolates. The punter had a crumpled cotton frock and bare legs, much bitten. Harriet was reminded of a third-class railway compartment in an excursion train on a hot day; it was fatal to sleep in public; and how tempting to throw something at the paunchy youth. At that moment, the chocolate-eater screwed her remaining lollipops tightly in the bag and did throw it at the paunchy youth. It caught him in the midriff, and he woke with a loud snort. Harriet took a cigarette from her case and turned to ask her companion for a match. He was asleep.

It was a neat and noiseless kind of sleep; the posture might be described as the half-hedgehog, and offered neither mouth nor stomach as a target for missiles. But asleep he undoubtedly was. And here was Miss Harriet Vane, gone suddenly sympathetic, afraid to move for fear of waking him and savagely resenting the approach of a boatload of idiots whose gramophone was playing (for a change) 'Love in Bloom.'

'How wonderful,' says the poet, 'is Death, Death and his brother Sleep!' And, having asked whether Ianthe will wake again and being assured that she will, he proceeds to weave many beautiful thoughts about Ianthe's sleep. From this we may fairly deduce that he (like Henry who kneeled in silence by her couch) felt tenderly towards Ianthe. For another person's sleep is the acid test of our own sentiments. Unless we are savages, we react kindly to death, whether of friend or enemy. It does not exasperate us; it does not tempt us to throw things at it; we do not find it funny. Death is the ultimate weakness, and we dare not insult it. But sleep is only an illusion of weakness and, unless it appeals to our protective instincts, is likely to arouse in us a nasty, bullying spirit. From a height of conscious superiority we look down on the sleeper, thus exposing himself in all his frailty, and indulge in derisive comment upon his appearance, his manners and (if the occasion is a public one) the absurdity of the position in which he has placed his companion, if he has one, and particularly if we are that companion.

Harriet, thus cozened into playing Phœbe to the sleeping Endymion, had plenty of opportunity to examine herself. After careful consideration, she decided that what she most needed was a box of matches. Peter had used matches to light his pipe: where were they? He had gone to sleep on the whole outfit, confound him! But his blazer was beside him on the cushions; had anybody ever known a man to carry only one box of matches in his pockets?

To take possession of the blazer was ticklish work, for the punt rocked at every movement and she had to lift the garment over his knees; but his sleep was the deep sleep of physical fatigue, and she crawled back in triumph without having wakened him. With a curious sense of guilt she ransacked his pockets, finding three boxes of matches, a book and a corkscrew. With tobacco and literature one could face out any situation, provided, of course, that the book was not written in an unknown tongue. The spine was untitled, and as she turned back the worn calf cover the first thing she saw was the engraved book-plate with its achievement of arms: the three silver mice on a field sable and the 'domestick Catt' couched menacingly on the helmet-wreath. Two armed Saracens supported the shield, beneath which ran the mocking and arrogant motto: 'As my Wimsey takes me.' She turned on to the title-page. Religio Medici. Well!... Well? Was that so very unexpected?

Why did he travel about with that? Did he fill in the spare moments of detection and diplomacy with musing upon the 'strange and mystical' transmigrations of silkworms and the 'legerdemain of changelings'? or with considering how 'we vainly accuse the fury of guns and the new inventions of death'? 'Certainly there is no happiness within this circle of flesh; nor is it in the opticks of these eyes to behold felicity. The first day of our jubilee is death.' She had no wish to suppose that he could find any personal application for that; she would rather have him secure and happy in order that she might resent his happy security. She flicked the pages over hurriedly. 'When I am from him, I am dead till I be with him. United souls are not satisfied with embraces, but desire to be truly each other; which being impossible, these desires are infinite, and must proceed without a possibility of satisfaction.' That was a most uncomfortable passage, whichever way you looked at it. She turned back to the first page and began to read steadily, with critical attention to grammar and style, so as to occupy the upper current of her mind without prying too closely into what might be going on beneath the surface.

The sun moved down the sky and the shadows lengthened upon the water. There were fewer craft on the river now; the tea-parties were hurrying home to dinner and the supper-parties had not yet put out. Endymion had the air of being settled for the night; it was really time to harden her heart and pull up the poles. She put off decision from moment to moment, till a loud shriek and a bump at her end of the punt came to spare her the trouble. The incompetent novice had returned with her crew and, having left her pole in the middle of the river, had let her craft adrift across their stern. Harriet pushed the intruders off with more vigour than sympathy and turned to find her host sitting up and grinning rather sheepishly.

'Have I been asleep?'

'Getting on for two hours,' said Harriet, with a pleased chuckle.

'Good lord, what disgusting behaviour! I am frightfully sorry. Why didn't you give me a shout? What time is it? My poor girl, you'll get no dinner to-night if we don't hurry up. Look here, I do apologise most abjectly.'

'It doesn't matter a bit. You were awfully tired.'

'That's no excuse.' He was on his feet now, extricating the punt-poles from the mud. 'We might make it by double-punting--if you'll forgive the infernal cheek of asking you to work to make up for my soul-destroying sloth.'

'I'd love to punt. But, Peter!' She suddenly liked him enormously. 'What's the hurry? I mean, is the Master expecting you, or anything?'

'No; I've removed myself to the Mitre. I can't use the Master's lodgings as a hotel; besides, they've got people coming in.'

'Then couldn't we get something to eat somewhere along the river and make a day of it? I mean, if you feel like it. Or must you have a proper dinner?'

'My dear, I would gladly eat husks for having behaved like a hog. Or thistles. Preferably thistles. You are a most forgiving woman.'

'Well, give me the pole. I'll stay up in the bows and you can do the steering.'

'And watch you bring the pole up in three.'

'I promise to do that.'

She was conscious, nevertheless, of Wimsey of Balliol's critical eye upon her handling of the heavy pole. For either you look graceful or you look ghastly; there is no middle way in punting. They set their course towards Iffley.

'On the whole,' said Harriet, as they took boat again some little time later, 'thistles would have been preferable.'

'That kind of food is provided for very young people whose minds are elsewhere. Men of passions but not parts. I am glad to have dined on apricot flan and synthetic lemonade; it enlarges one's experience. Shall I, you or we pole? Or shall we abandon aloofness and superiority and paddle in beauty side by side?' His eyes mocked her. 'I am tame; pronounce.'

'Whichever you prefer.'

He handed her gravely to the stern seat and coiled himself down beside her.

'What the devil am I sitting on?'

'Sir Thomas Browne, I expect. I'm afraid I rifled your pockets.'

'Since I was such a bad companion, I'm glad I provided you with a good substitute.'

'Is he a constant companion of yours?'

'My tastes are fairly catholic. It might easily have been Kai Lung or Alice in Wonderland or Machiavelli--'

'Or Boccaccio or the Bible?'

'Just as likely as not. Or Apuleius.'

'Or John Donne?'

He was silent for a moment, and then said in a changed voice:

'Was that a bow drawn at a venture?'

'A good shot?'

'Whang in the gold. Between the joints of the harness ... If you would paddle a little on your side it would make it handier to steer.'

'Sorry ... Do you find it easy to get drunk on words?'

'So easy that, to tell you the truth, I am seldom perfectly sober. Which accounts for my talking so much.'

'And yet, if anybody had asked me, I should have said you had a passion for balance and order--no beauty without measure.'

'One may have a passion for the unattainable.'

'But you do attain it. At least, you appear to attain it.'

'The perfect Augustan? No! I'm afraid it's at most a balance of opposing forces ... The river's filling up again.'

'Lots of people come out after supper.'

'Yes--well, bless their hearts, why shouldn't they? You're not feeling cold?'

'Not the least bit.'

That was the second time within five minutes that he had warned her off his private ground. His mood had changed since the early hours of the afternoon and all his defences were up once more. She could not again disregard the 'No Thoroughfare' sign; so she left it to him to start a fresh subject.

He did so, courteously enough, by asking how the new novel was getting on.

'It's gone sticky.'

'What happened to it?'

This involved a full rehearsal of the plot of Death 'twixt Wind and Water. It was a complicated story, and the punt had covered a good deal of water before she reached the solution.

'There's nothing fundamentally wrong with that,' said he; and proceeded to offer a few suggestions about detail.

'How intelligent you are, Peter. You're quite right. Of course that would be much the best way to get over the clock difficulty. But why does the whole story sound so dead and alive?'

'If you ask me,' said Wimney, 'it's Wilfrid. I know he marries the girl--but must he be such a mutt? Why does he go and pocket the evidence and tell all those unnecessary lies?'

'Because he thinks the girl's done it.'

'Yes--but why should he? He's dotingly in love with her--he thinks she's absolutely the cat's pyjamas--and yet, merely because he finds her handkerchief in the bedroom he is instantly convinced, on evidence that wouldn't hang a dog, that she not only is Winchester's mistress but has also murdered him in a peculiarly diabolical way. That may be one way of love, but--'

'But, you would like to point out, it isn't yours--and in fact, it wasn't yours.'

There it was again--the old resentment, and the impulse to hit back savagely for the pleasure of seeing him wince.

'No,' he said, 'I was considering the question impersonally.'

'Academically, in fact.'

'Yes--please.... From a purely constructional point of view, I don't feel that Wilfrid's behaviour is sufficiently accounted for.'

'Well,' said Harriet, recovering her poise, 'academically speaking I admit that Wilfrid is the world's worst goop. But if he doesn't conceal the handkerchief where's my plot?'

'Couldn't you make Wilfrid one of those morbidly conscientious people, who have been brought up to think that anything pleasant must be wrong--so that, if he wants to believe the girl an angel of light she is, for that very reason, all the more likely to be guilty. Give him a puritanical father and a hell-fire religion.'

'Peter, that's an idea.'

'He has, you see, a gloomy conviction that love is sinful in itself, and that he can only purge himself by taking the young woman's sins upon him and wallowing in vicarious suffering.... He'd still be a goop, and a pathological goop, but he would be a bit more consistent.'

'Yes--he'd be interesting. But if I give Wilfrid all those violent and lifelike feelings, he'll throw the whole book out of balance.'

'You would have to abandon the jig-saw kind of story and write a book about human beings for a change.'

'I'm afraid to try that, Peter. It might go too near the bone.'

'It might be the wisest thing you could do.'

'Write it out and get rid of it?'


'I'll think about that. It would hurt like hell.'

'What would that matter, if it made a good book?'

She was taken aback, not by what he said, but by his saying it. She had never imagined that he regarded her work very seriously, and she had certainly not expected him to take this ruthless attitude about it. The protective male? He was being about as protective as a can-opener.

'You haven't yet,' he went on, 'written the book you could write if you tried. Probably you couldn't write it when you were too close to things. But you could do it now, if you had the--the--'

'The guts?'


'I don't think I could face it.'

'Yes, you could. And you'll get no peace till you do. I've been running away from myself for twenty years, and it doesn't work. What's the good of making mistakes if you don't use them? Have a shot. Start on Wilfrid.'

'Damn Wilfrid!... All right. I'll try. I'll knock the sawdust out of Wilfrid, anyhow.'

He took his right hand from the paddle and held it out to her, deprecatingly.

'"Always laying down the law with exquisite insolence to somebody." I'm sorry.'

She accepted the hand and the apology and they paddled on in amity. But it was true, she thought, that she had had to accept a good deal more than that. She was quite surprised by her own lack of resentment.

They parted at the postern.

'Good night, Harriet. I'll bring back your manuscript to-morrow. Would some time in the afternoon suit you? I must lunch with young Gerald, I suppose, and play the heavy uncle.'

'Come round about six, then. Good night--and thank you very much.'

'I am in your debt.'

He waited politely while she shut and locked the heavy grille against him.

'And so-o-o' (in saccharine accents), 'the co-onvent gates closed behind So-o-onia!'

He smote his forehead with a theatrical gesture and an anguished cry and reeled away almost into the arms of the Dean, who was coming up the road at her usual brisk trot.

'Serve him right,' said Harriet, and fled up the path without waiting to see what happened.

As she got into bed she recalled the extempore prayer of a well-meaning but incoherent curate, heard once and never forgotten:

'Lord, teach us to take our hearts and look them in the face however difficult it may be.'

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