Chapter 1 - The Torchbearers by A.J. Hall
Dear God, what was wrong tonight? Hand on the gear-stick heavy as lead, foot on the brake moving through treacle. Christ! That was close to that cyclist. Only one pink gin, well-diluted from the water jug. Must be getting susceptible. Not like at Oxford — oh, God, Oxford. Forget it. He is dead and gone, sweet lady, he is dead and gone. Concentrate. That tricky bend coming up soon. Should have flung the drink in his smiling face, all the same. No. No point tipping one’s hand. Not so soon. Tipping off. He’d that pilot in tow again tonight. Based out Watchet way. Hush-hush, no doubt about it. And that Naval commando last week. Dartmouth instructor. Should one say something? No proof. Be taken as bitchery. Gresham’s law. Bad coin drives out good. No proof. Unless the brake cable — Not likely. Might have been coincidence. Shouldn’t have worn like that, though. All right now. Get someone to take a look at the old one in the morning, all the same. Scientific method. Christ, the bend already? And a lorry coming round it, swinging wide, too fast, much too fast. Brake, you fool, brake, brake, brake!
“Oh, bother,” Harriet said, almost aloud.
There was no possibility of escape. The angular figure sitting at the white-painted iron table had already raised a tentative hand in greeting. Harriet noted, automatically, the virgin expanse of table, the hands on the church clock at precisely five minutes to four, and the harried waitress peering at her pad with the air of the White Rabbit.
Monica Searle had been in the year above Harriet at Shrewsbury, where she had divided her time between the library and Pusey House. Save for their Honours School, they had had nothing in common. Twenty-odd years later, they must have even less. Had she still been Harriet Vane, a brief exchange of banalities followed by the regretful recollection of duties elsewhere would have satisfied the convenances. Lady Peter Wimsey, however, must be more circumspect. Harriet had no particular objection to being thought brusque, but no-one cares to be considered a snob.
Barlock’s high street was a barren desert. Peter was still at the police station. Bunter, doubtless, was standing over the mechanic at the garage, checking there was nothing sinister behind the noises Peter had detected in Mrs Merdle’s engine on the notorious hill. There was nothing for it; she would have to sit down and take tea with the woman.
“Forgive me,” Miss Searle said, once they had got over the initial exclamations about how small the world was, and how little the other had changed, and the waitress had been summoned and sent off again with a further order for tea and scones. “I should have thought — I do hope I’m not intruding on your time. Being on holiday myself, one does tend to assume — but of course, I don’t suppose this is the kind of place you’d think of as a resort —”
Harriet cringed inwardly. Miss Searle’s self-respect determined every Shrewsbury MA ranked equal, but Tatler or, more probably, the silver fork novelists of the last century, had persuaded her that members of the aristocracy would consider it unthinkable to spend a peacetime September anywhere other than in some shooting lodge. As assumptions went, it was no less embarrassing for being largely true.
Harriet did her best. “Actually I came on a walking tour along this part of the coast before the war. I was supposed to get as far as Barlock but things happened and I ended up cutting it short. Magnificent countryside, isn’t it?”
Miss Searle’s smile acknowledged her efforts. “I’ve not quite had the walks I’d hoped for, I admit. Not for want of opportunity. But how about yourself?”
“We only arrived just after lunch. And Peter’s been closeted with the police ever since. Tomorrow, perhaps.”
Miss Searle’s expression was one of horror, tinged with fascination. Harriet recalled Phoebe had nick-named Miss Searle “The Unhoused One” after one too many iterations in the JCR of her favourite phrase “But surely, one shouldn’t dwell”.
“I’m afraid so.” Harriet paused, weighing what she might risk saying. “It’s rather an unpleasant business. There was a body washed up on the beach a few days ago and unfortunately it very much looks as if it might be a — a friend of the family. So Peter volunteered to come down and help. You know. With identification and so forth.”
There. As much or rather more than Miss Searle deserved, and no real confidences broken.
“Oh. I see.” Pink spots flushed on Miss Searle’s cheeks. Harriet recalled that the woman always had been a morbid mass of sensitivities. Surely, though, she couldn’t take a passing reference to Peter as Harriet rubbing in the fact that she was not merely a married woman but a rich and titled one? No, Harriet had misjudged her; the pink was interest, not annoyance.
“Do you know, I believe it may have been some people from the place where I’m staying who found the body? A Miss Shorland and a Mr Langton. They were bathing off one of the smaller beaches and — well, there it was. A most horrible thing. Miss Shorland, in particular, seems to have been particularly badly affected. We played bridge yesterday evening — just a friendly game — and she seemed positively distraite.”
The shade of Paul Alexis hung above the table. The earlier evasion stuck in Harriet’s throat.
“Look here, I should have mentioned it earlier, but when I said I’d been a walking tour here that was cut short, actually that was because I found a dead body on the beach.”
“Well, yes,” Miss Searle said drily. “We do get the papers, even in Oxford, you know. I thought you had to be alluding to the Wilvercombe murder, but I didn’t wish to draw attention to a painful subject unless you felt comfortable with my doing so.”
Harriet repressed the impulse to swear. Another thing she had forgotten was Miss Searle’s unerring ability to put one in the wrong.
“Well, it was a long time ago. But it was rather horrible — it struck me particularly a few days later, when all the running around trying to do something was over and I had nothing to do but think about it — and, of course, the harder you try to stop yourself thinking, the more you do it.”
Miss Searle opened her mouth to say something, probably about spiritual discipline as a corrective to ill-regulated habits of mind. Harriet lifted her hand to forestall her.
“All I meant to say was, we’re staying on at the Barlock Arms for a day or two. If your Miss Shorland wanted to talk to me, as someone else that it’s happened to — it is, often, so much easier to talk about difficult things to a stranger, whom you know you don’t have to see again — do tell her that she only has to leave a message or ring — look, I’ll write the number down for you.”
Miss Searle exhaled; Harriet had an obscure sense it was with relief that a cup had passed from her.
“Thank you. It’s very good of you. That black cloud there seems rather ominous, don’t you think? Perhaps we should move indoors.”
Peter looked grey. She suspected viewing the airman’s body had evoked thoughts of Viscount St George, whose own body had never been found. Harriet stretched out a hand and gripped his, hard.
“Come and have a beer in the garden before the storm breaks. I’ve just been having an unutterably tedious tea with an old Shrewsburian and I need to wash the taste out of my mouth.”
“The cup that neither cheers nor inebriates, eh?” Peter said, obediently allowing himself to be led towards the French windows. Harriet signalled to the waiter.
“Oh, yes. Quite apart from the company, the tea itself was dreadful. I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised if they weren’t using that one you told me about, in the advertising agency. You know, made up of odds and ends of other teas —”
“With a name intended to suggest solid worth and respectability? Twentyman’s Domestic Blend. Odd, how that one sticks in the memory, when these days that seems to be the basic ethos behind everything one puts on one’s plate. Powdered egg and dried milk and margarine. The ersatz elevated to an art form — My apologies. I’m getting old, Harriet, old, and cranky.”
“My dear, so am I. And you needn’t go round accusing yourself of unspeakable triviality because you regret scones with Devonshire cream and jam. War’s like that; it sweeps away the small graces as well as the great cathedrals. And the small graces deserve mourning too… Was it unspeakably awful in the morgue? Ought I to have insisted on coming along?”
“God, Harriet, no!”
“I’m sorry,” she said, meaninglessly.
Peter swallowed, hard. “Mostly, in any event, we were just sitting around while the RAF surgeon and the dentist checked records. Which did, at least, put one question to rest. Our man is exactly who he was supposed to be.”
“Why was there any doubt?”
She caught Peter’s warning glance before she became aware of the waiter standing there with two creamy-headed pints. She waited until he had gone before speaking again.
“I’m sorry — I hadn’t thought. If it’s all hush-hush —”
Peter took a sip of beer, rolling it round his mouth in a thoughtful manner that would have done justice to vintage port. “I don’t see why you shouldn’t know — now. I mean, the body’s going to be released to the family and there’ll be a death notice in The Times and so forth. But there are some parts — no, no point even in saying it. I know I can count on you.”
There was a small puddle of beer on the rough lichened wood of the table. Peter traced an abstract pattern in it with his forefinger.
“It was a test flight,” he began abruptly. “I can’t say what they were testing. For one thing, I don’t know, not properly. But anyway, fog rolled in over the Bristol Channel and the base lost contact with our man. They never regained it. When the fog cleared there was a full-scale flap on - all the flappier for being confined to the highest echelons of MI.”
Harriet nodded. “One of Our Aircraft is Missing — but they suspected he’d defected?”
Peter winced. “I don’t think the word itself was mentioned. But the Met Office confirmed that the fog bank had reached all the way to southern Ireland. Plenty of quiet places in Cork or Kerry to put down a plane, and enough people over there who’d be only too eager to broker the sale of the objects in question to wherever it hurt British interests most.”
“But why should they suspect the pilot of anything of the sort? I mean — presumably he’d been vetted and so forth, and been in the war —”
“DFC and bar,” Peter confirmed. “But — well, the Powers that Be sent people round to his digs when he went missing. That’s standard operating practice.”
He paused. From the far distance came a faint roll of thunder, the timpani testing their instruments before the arrival of the First Violin.
“And they found?” Harriet prompted.
He spread his hands in a gesture that suggested sand falling through them.
“They found nothing. No: I don’t just mean the pilot was the tidy, self-contained sort of blighter whose favourite line of Kipling is He travels the faster who travels alone although according to his messmates he was that, too. Never mentioned his family in the mess, no girlfriends or other entanglements. But no; they found nothing. No cheque book, no bank book, no fountain pen. The ash in the fireplace was paper, and he’d done the job thoroughly; burned his letters or whatever it was first and then smashed them to atoms with the knob end of the poker.”
“Ah! So the flap got even flappier?”
“Temperatures on the Air Ministry roof well over 100 degrees in the shade, yes. Wherever he was, that airman had left his digs not intending to come back. So when the body conveniently washed up, they wanted to be absolutely certain that there was no risk of their being had, that sort of thing being not entirely unprecedented.”
“I can see all that. But, Peter, why bring you into it? You aren’t M.I. any more.” Harriet hoped that last sentence had not sounded like a question, or, worse, an accusation. Thoughts of lonely vigils over the last few years still returned to her in nightmares; waiting in Audley Square for a traveller who might never return; jumbled visions of sinister cellars and instruments of tortures; the toothachey sense of long-denied fear.
Peter took a deep swallow of beer as if to wash a sour taste from his mouth.
“I’m not. But somehow, in all the frantic paper shuffling that must have been going on, someone turned up a report I’d filed a few months earlier, which had been sitting gathering dust with no-one to take an interest. I suspect the only thing that jogged someone’s memory was the word ‘Bridstow’. Our pilot’s name came up in it, not in a major capacity, just as part of the mise-en-scene. But what a scene! Blackmail, espionage, murder and what the press tend to call ‘unspeakable depravity.’”
Her lips quirked upwards. “A novelist’s dream. Tell me more.”
“That needs me to go back a bit. Some months after Dunkirk, Jerry came home on leave. The night before he was due to return to the base he contrived to get me on my own, and using a large number of circumlocutions and so on and so forth eventually asked if he could raise a friend’s awkward dilemma with me.”
“So you thought, ‘We must not allow him to think this agency is a home for the feeble-minded’?” Harriet enquired.
Peter’s lips relaxed in the ghost of a smile. “Something of that, at first. Which, as you can imagine, caused me no small anxiety, given what Jerry’d been happy to confess in propria persona over the years. But no; it turned out really to be a friend’s case, a member of his Squadron known as Bim Taylor. I gathered Taylor had a formidable reputation as a flier, but an even bigger reputation as a kind of licensed court jester. Jerry said, ‘Everyone knew what he was, but he wore it with such flair that it would have sounded hopelessly gauche to mention it. Like a Regency dandy with his hand permanently on his rapier hilt, and a wit so cutting he never needed to draw.’”
She nodded. Bohemia contained many who aspired to that model, but this Taylor sounded like the finished article.
“Jerry said they were shockingly undermanned, flying missions at all hours and under the most tremendous stress, so he hadn’t noticed when Taylor began to change. But he went terribly fast towards the end.”
“He stopped being the court jester?”
“Quite the reverse. Even more of the glittering clown than before — except, Jerry said, for the first time you started to glimpse the rough wooden struts propping up the façade.”
“Terrible way with a mixed metaphor, that boy,” Harriet murmured.
“Quite. Anyway, Jerry told me Taylor had come up to him after they’d both returned from a mission, and said, ‘Look here, isn’t your uncle some kind of sleuth in high life? Does he have any kind of security clearance? Something’s come up and I need someone to take a look at it — not through official channels.’ At Jerry’s guess, if Taylor didn’t confide in someone soon he’d go to smash anyway, so Jerry laid it on hot and strong about my being deep in the bosom of the FO and the world’s original oyster to boot, and the long and the short of it was Jerry undertook to sound me out to see if it really was anything or just the effect of living on benezedrine and the edges of their nerves.”
The cloud which had so alarmed Miss Searle had turned into a dense, sulphurous mass, covering the whole sky. Not even a light air stirred in the hotel garden. Harriet’s hair was plastered close to her skull; the delicate waves Mr Budd had taken such care over rendered limp and flattened.
“And there was something behind it?”
Peter offered her his cigarette case, and then his lighter. Their cigarette ends glowed like tiny furnaces. A fat raindrop plopped onto her hand.
“Indeed. Blackmail.” His voice sounded curiously flat; another effect, perhaps, of the building atmospheric pressure.
“Blackmail? But you said that Taylor —”
“What a blessed relief it is to have an intelligent listener. The mutual support, help and comfort that one ought to have of the other… You’re quite right. Taylor’s methods were eccentric, but his instincts were sound. He was, insofar as a man in his position could be, effectively immune from blackmail. Others in his circle weren’t. This next bit is pure hearsay, of course. But I trusted Jerry’s account.”
The rain drops were no longer occasional, but Peter sat immobile at the table, staring into the middle distance.
“It seems Bim Taylor attended a certain party. In Bridstow.”
The stress Peter put on the word “party” recalled sweltering Chelsea studios of long ago.
“Once there, it seems he made a remark based on some gossip he’d heard. The subject of the said gossip happened to be present. The gossip derived from a confidence the subject had shared only with a specific third party, also present. Ergo, Taylor’s informant appeared — prima facie— to be the aforementioned third party. The subject of the gossip therefore proceded to deliver the cut direct to the third party. Result: metaphorical bloodied noses all round and a distinct air of ‘I would send my friends to wait on you, were it not —’ “
Harriet raised her eyebrows. “Goodness, it really does sound rather Regency.”
The line of Peter’s shoulders eased again.
“Quite so. And Taylor — whom from Jerry’s account emerges as all the more the gentleman despite his affectations — derived the distinct suspicion he’d been had. Someone, he concluded, had been pulling his strings.”
He looked up at the sky. “Perhaps we should snatch our drinks and run for it?”
They arrived in the residents’ lounge damp, giggling and a trifle out of breath just as the first flash of lightning forked down the sky.
“Did he say who he thought it was?”
“No, more’s the pity. But he clearly had his suspicions and, according to Jerry, the more he thought about it, the more bothered he became. I suspect, reading between the lines, that his candidate for X, the person who’d acquired the information, had used it as bait, to see if anyone revealed more when they rose to it. And, Jerry said, Taylor told him one thing definitely, X was in a field where he had a lot of access to hush-hush stuff and — rather more to the point — to other people with that sort of access, too.”
Harriet leant across the low and rather regrettable bamboo coffee table on which they had balanced their drinks. “What are you trying to tell me? That X wasn’t blackmailing for money, but for secrets? That he met people through — parties — and found out where they worked and then he had something over them and he could milk them for more?”
He nodded. “That’s about the size of it. But of course, if Taylor confided his suspicions officially he’d have risked being cashiered, if not court-martialled, and most of his friends and acquaintances with him. So, naturally, I told Jerry to tell Taylor that if he wired, I’d drive down to see him. We’d arrange some country pub to meet in, away from the airfield and from Bridstow. And we were due to meet the following Tuesday, but —”
He screwed out his cigarette end in the ashtray with an air of finality.
“Oh, no!” Absurdly, the tears she had found so hard to shed for Jerry came welling up for this man she had never met and had only just heard of. Peter passed her a handkerchief, and the rose and went to the window, looking absently out into the rain-sodden garden until she had composed herself.
“So that brought matters to a dead end?”
He turned back to face her, an odd, impish smile lifting the corners of his mouth. “Not entirely. Because I got a second wire, from Jerry, telling me to meet him at the same pub, same time. He’d had an idea.”
“Gherkins, are you completely mad?”
“Wouldn’t be a bit surprised. Half the Squadron’s a bit doolally by now, and I’m pretty certain Squadron-Leader Marlow’s at least two and a half times round the twist, and has been as long as I’ve known him. Talks to birds, you know.”
“That’s not the point, and you know it. What you’re proposing is quite absurd.”
“Is it? After all, it’s not as if there aren’t girls in Europe right now who aren’t risking their virtue or whatever you like to call it, making up to fat-necked German officers in bars to get decent gen for the Allies. Except none of the girls in the bars have had the advantage of an Eton education, which I daresay will turn out to have been quite apropos. In the circumstances.”
“I’m not quite sure the High Master would see it in that light.”
“Don’t try to talk me out of it, Uncle Peter. I owe this to Bim. And I’ve got it all planned out. Look, there was a chap at the House — a Charles Fosticue — a frightful wart, in many respects. But this Fosticue character was in the bottom set of my staircase, so I thought I’d better be civil — it was Finals year, and I couldn’t be having with any sort of strife. So I did the polite, and so did he. And one night in Michaelmas I happened to be coming back from a coaching, and feeling rather fed up about things, generally. Another of the lights of my life had turned out to be NBG, so I’d told her to get packing, smartish. Yet, all the same, I missed her.”
“You mean, you missed who you’d hoped she might have been?”
“I missed Christie. And I could hear the gramophone playing in Fosticue’s set, playing one of the songs we’d danced to — she was the most superb dancer, light as anything — and I knew he must be having one of his famous parties. ‘Extraordinary, how potent cheap music is.’ Isn’t that what the man said? Anyway, I started up the stairs, past his door, going up to my set, but just as I reached the bend there the chap was, sitting there at the start of the second flight, looking pretty much like I felt.”
“Who was he?”
“It doesn’t matter. Call him Arthur. Anyway, I know this sounds stupid, but this is how it was. I somehow felt that if he went off and did something irrevocable it would be on my conscience. So I told him he couldn’t go sitting on the staircase being an obstruction to traffic, and why didn’t he come on up to my set and have a drink, because I wanted one myself and I’d feel even more last-strawish if I ended up drinking alone, so he’d be doing me a kindness really. Rather to my surprise, he came. And I opened up a bottle of that Niersteiner you sent me, and after a glass or so the whole story came flooding out.”
“It does tend to have that effect, I’ve noticed. Another one?”
“Don’t mind if I do. Well, it turned out he was a Keble man, up on a County Scholarship from some ghastly hole in the Midlands. Reading chemistry or maths or something. He’d been scooped up by Fosticue’s crowd. He confided it’d felt like something out of a novel. At least, at first … And then, right in the middle of Fosticue’s party, it dawned on him that he hadn’t been invited as a guest at all; he was there to be the entertainment. That killed it. I expect he’d been quite dignified and formal; he was that sort. He ‘apologised for having misunderstood the situation, and hoped no-one would feel offended.’ Must have taken a hell of a nerve. No wonder he was sitting shaking on the stairs. Only he’d left his gown at the party. Since he was poor as a church mouse, he couldn’t risk being picked up by the Proggers for being improperly dressed in the street. But he couldn’t summon up the nerve to go back in and collect it.”
“So you, I take it, volunteered to do the decent thing?”
“That’s about the size of it. Fosticue was the most terrific tuft-hunter. My being the pater’s son, I could guarantee he wasn’t going to object to my gate-crashing him, whatever he’d have said to anyone else. Worked like a charm. I waltzed in, had a cocktail or so, picked up Arthur’s gown and wandered back to my set. Smooth as you like. We opened a second bottle of the Niersteiner on the strength of it and engaged in what someone or other calls ‘A very spirited critique on the party’.”
“Jerry; you continue to have depths which astound me. But the point of all this?”
“Oh, yes, I was rambling off a bit, can’t think where I get that from, can you? Well, the long and the short of it was that we ended up hitting it off quite remarkably. Arthur turned out to be the most perfect genius when it came to mechanics; had been tinkering with bicycles and wirelesses since practically before he could walk; I think his father ran a garage or something. So I invited him to the Squadron. Blind as a bat without his glasses, so he’d never have got his pilot’s licence, but the ground crew fell on him like a long-lost brother. Anyway, I ended up seeing quite a bit of him on and off, and kept in touch when we went down. And he’s in Bridstow now, working in something I don’t understand and I shouldn’t tell you about if I did. But he’s the sort of person whom X will be after, if X exists at all. And he knows the places in Bridstow I’ll have to go, and will introduce me to the people in Bridstow I have to know if I’m going to find X. And I’m going to do it, Uncle Peter. I can either do it with your help or without it, but trust me: I’m going to do it.”
“Jerry said what about the advantages of an Eton education?”
However one tried to be modern about this sort of thing, she was still a mother. It had been worrying enough to see Bredon off to prep. school, and Paul’s horror at the prospect of following his brother had won him a year’s stay of execution. With less than eighteen months to go before Bredon left that cosy establishment in the Sussex Downs, the thought of how he would cope amid the structured oppression of a great public school had already been preying on her mind. Notwithstanding her wide experience of modern literature, this particular worry had not carried significant weight, until now.
Peter, almost uniquely in her experience of him, looked abashed, though not without an underlying glimmer of humour.
“I think, domina, the conventional thing for a husband to say at this point is ‘Perhaps, in a bad school, in a bad house, at a bad time’… I’d be lying if I said such things don’t go on. But by and large there’s a pretty rigorous code of schoolboy honour applying to it all and the vast majority of boys emerge from it more-or-less unscathed, from all one can tell, and who can say how the others would have turned out, come what may?”
There was an outline of paler wallpaper around one of the pictures on the wall, almost two inches broad. A larger picture had hung there, not very long ago. Harriet concentrated, rather hard, on imagining what it must have looked like, and what might have become of it.
She thrust worries about Bredon resolutely to the back of her mind. “And you approved of Jerry dangling himself about Bridstow in the hope of finding X?”
Peter shrugged. “The bleating of the kid excites the tiger. He was going to do it whether I approved or not. The best I could do was give him the benefit of a few hints about to do it sensibly. We arranged a code; it wasn’t the sort of thing one could put in letters a censor might see. But he hadn’t sent anything when — well, you know when.”
He broke off, looking suddenly shrunken and withdrawn.
She stretched out her hand to grip Peter’s. “I’m sorry. I’m a brute. I shouldn’t have made you drag all this up again.”
“Rubbish. If you have to blame anyone, blame X. To whom I thought I was no nearer when Jerry went West than when Taylor had died. And then, out of the blue, about six months ago I got a wire from someone high up in a particular Government department which doesn’t officially exist, asking for a meeting. One of their boffins had got himself involved in a car smash on the outskirts of Bridstow — they thought, perhaps, it might not have been an accident. So they collected the car to have one of their pet mechanics take a look at it, and sent people along to his lodgings to collect his things before anyone else could try doing any collecting. And that was where I came in.”
Harriet raised an enquiring eyebrow. Peter shrugged.
“Here, there hadn’t been any destruction of paperwork. Quite the reverse. He was a scientist. His motto was ‘Document everything, throw away nothing.’ Letters — hundreds of letters — lab notebooks and diaries coming out of your ears. And a bundle of the letters turned out to be from Jerry. Oh, nothing that could upset the censor; nothing even that could upset Helen, if she’d seen them — provided, that is, that she could get over the shock of her white-headed boy being on first name terms with a grammar school lad from Kettering. The man’s diaries, however, turned out to be rather a different matter, once they decoded them.”
“Peter! Jerry hadn’t —”
Peter took the final swallow of his beer and made a face. “No. Much to — well, let us carry on with Jerry’s gentlemanlike convention and refer to him as ‘Arthur’, shall we? Much to Arthur’s regret, nothing happened. To Arthur’s credit, I don’t think he ever thought it could.”
In an airless, windowless cubby hole in some featureless building round the corner from Victoria, Peter had turned over the crabbed, cryptic pages, and shunning the official crib, had through his own laborious efforts uncovered the record of an unspoken, unspeakable devotion.
“Turned out that night in Jerry’s rooms had hit him like a thunderbolt. Oh, he was perfectly sensible about it. Even when he heard Jerry’s half-baked plan of getting him to show him around the camper parts of Bridstow, he didn’t let himself get his hopes up. But his diary was heart-rending, poor chap.”
“Like a worm i’th bud?”
“Something of the kind, yes. But Jerry trusted him, you see, and that meant everything. I mean, to Arthur. He could get up in the morning and cope with rationing and the Blitz and even the risk of arrest and so forth because he knew Jerry was relying on him.”
Harriet felt her eyes widen. “Jerry confided in him about X?”
Peter hesitated. “The diary isn’t clear. I think, probably, yes. Arthur was a bright chap, of course. It wouldn’t take much for him to put two and two together. And, once Jerry was out of the picture, Arthur decided to pick up the baton.”
Outside the window, the thunder rolled. The rain fell in steel rods from an inky sky. The harsh electric light of the living room drained the futile, shabby pinks and yellows of the resident’s lounge of all colour.
A headache was beginning behind Harriet’s eyes. “Peter — you said the Ministry weren’t convinced the car accident was genuine. Was it?”
His lips were pinched together, making a thin, unhappy line. “I doubt it. The first clue was the car. As I said, the Ministry sent their pet boffins to check it for tampering.”
“And it had been tampered with?”
“No. That was the curious incident. But both the brake and clutch cables had been recently changed; odd, given the difficulties of obtaining spare parts and the fact that the rest of clutch and brake assemblies were older, but barely worn. Also, every screw had been replaced. The new screws needed a special screwdriver to unscrew, and the heads were made in a different, softer metal so that you could see instantly if anyone had tried.”
“Oh. I see.”
Despite the grimness, there was an unholy glee about Peter’s expression. “You do, don’t you? According to Jerry, Arthur was a mechanical genius. If a mechanical genius suspected he had been or might be the victim of sabotage, that’s exactly what he’d do. And then the stomach content analysis came back. The accident had happened at about dusk or a little later, and the stomach contents were consistent with the last meal having been taken at mid day, a lightish sort of lunch. Also, there was a small amount of alcohol, consistent with one pink gin taken just before the accident. Not nearly enough to affect anyone’s driving, not even on an empty stomach, unless they had an abnormally weak head.”
Harriet thought of Arthur having had the presence of mind to make his excuses and leave Fosticue’s party despite, doubtless, having been stayed with flagons. Not the actions of a man with a weak head, in either the literal or metaphorical sense.
“So, the toxicology report?” she enquired.
“Quite so. Medinal. Not a large dose — less than a cautious man might take as a sleeping draught — but quite enough to affect his reactions behind the wheel.”
“Someone slipped him a Mickey Finn?”
“Indeed they did. And given the timing of the accident, and so forth, and assumptions about how long it would have taken the medinal to take effect, to say nothing of evidence about where Arthur usually parked his car, they narrowed down the possible locations — assuming it was a pub and not a private house, of course — to a short-list of three or four. And between Arthur’s diary and the little I had been able to glean from Jerry, one location leapt off the page at me.”
She sat back for a second or so, digesting the implications.
“So what did you do?”
“Ah. Well. This part is rather awkward. You know what we were saying earlier, about the unexpected advantages of an Eton education — ?”
“Who the hell is she?”
“The ageing fruit in the corner nursing a bitter-shandy? Not a clue, sweetie. Came in about half an hour ago, according to Jack. Claimed to be ‘waiting for a friend’. Not betty bracelets, anyoldhow, unless they’re sending them out in O.E. ties these days.”
“Waiting for a friend, eh? Well, my dear, I’d be surprised if it took long for her to find one. Did you see her cigarette case? 18 carat gold if it was an ounce. To say nothing of the green jade cigarette holder with the gold trim. Oh, look who’s arrived now. Bunny! Over here.”
“Well, isn’t this cosy? Quite like old times. Pin gin, Jack, please. And the rest of you? Same all round, then.”
“Oh, look at her, flaunting her gelt.”
“Well, I have had a teensy bit of luck in a little speculation recently. So why not share it around, that’s my motto. Bottoms up, girls!”
“You didn’t go to the funeral?”
“I’d not have been seen dead there, ducky. Not the way we parted; him lookingat me like he’d just put his plates in dog dirt, and all over the most silly little misunderstanding. How was I to know he was going to get funny about my borrowing his car? It was practically an antique to begin with, and I wouldn’t have dreamt of being seen in it, if that fool of a van driver hadn’t gone into the side of the Riley. He was happy enough to lend it to Phyllis, so I don’t see why it mattered that it ended up with me driving instead. Anyway, looks like I dodged a bullet. Must have been something wrong with the brakes for him to lose control the way he did, and right into a lorry, too. And him priding himself on never spending a penny on garages. I could have told him, ‘the man who fixes his own car has a fool for a client.’ Or am I thinking of lawyers? Anyway, he was a terrible wet blanket when he was alive, so I won’t have him spoil this lovely soiree now he’s dead. Change of subject, please.”
“A little bird told me they saw you at The Grapes with a pilot. Trying to knock off all the Forces in turn? On Saturday I walk out with a sai-lor —
“Ugh, no! Never again, dearie. No; I’ve swallowed the anchor — and didn’t it stick in my gullet going down? I very nearly brought it straight back up again. Mind you, I should have learnt my lesson the first time around. Air force blue is such a better look on me. Well, since you insist — and bearing in mind this is all strictly entre-nous —”
“So, girls, I’d best love you and leave you. Don’t want to keep my dashing flyboy waiting. Tata, everyone. Be good, and if you can’t be good, be careful. Bye, Jack.”
“Well! What it is to have looks.”
“They’re nothing to what they were five years ago. Oh, you weren’t around Bridstow back then, were you? Bunny rather ran through our set like a dose of Epsom salts through a short grandma. It all ended in the most tremendous smash. Quite amusing if you were only watching from the sidelines, not if you got caught up in the middle of it all. It began like this — have you come across Alec Deacon? Oh, yes, I thought you had. Well, it was at his birthday party — September 1940, that must have been, not all that long after Dunkirk —”
“Just shows, you shouldn’t judge. The fruit in the corner was waiting for a friend, after all. Black bowler hat and tie, just come in. Looks like he’d been to a funeral himself, come to think of it.”
“Well it can’t have been anyone too close, judging by how they’re both smiling.”
“Be glad to have someone to look at me like that when I’m their age. Look at them together now. Just like an old married couple.”
“Goes to show, there’s hope for us all, my dear. Another gin?”
“Don’t mind if I do. Cheer oh!”
“Oh,” Harriet said weakly, at the end of this narrative.
“As Jerry said, plenty of people ended up doing worse in the war.” Peter sounded like a fishmonger not entirely convinced of the youthful freshness of his haddock.
She felt an unstoppable giggle welling up. “No wonder Bunter looked sort of stuffed when I asked him how you’d been getting on while I was on my lecture tour in America!”
He looked at her sidelong, and permitted himself a small smile. “To be honest, I’ve never felt more terrified than when I proposed the stratagem. But, as ever, he revealed hidden depths.”
Harriet considered enquiring further, but suppose she were to be told? She opted for prudence.
“What happened to the case?” she enquired.
“Nothing, so far as I was aware. I made a report, and doubtless it sat gathering dust on some departmental shelf. I couldn’t precisely blame them. I’d given them a good line on X, but the evidence was barely circumstantial. Arthur, with the best will in the world, could only make guesses at who X’s victims might be. It didn’t help that (for obvious reasons) that set tended to go by nicknames. But I thought, to be honest, that report was a dead letter from the start. It wasn’t the kind of pond many people fancied stirring a stick in.”
“Until a few weeks ago.”
“Until, as you say, a few weeks ago. When one of Arthur’s best guesses first went AWOL, and then turned up dead on Barlock beach. But —”
The door opened, framing the waiter. “Excuse me, madam, but I have a lady enquiring for you. A Miss Shorland. Should I tell her you are not at home?”
“Oh!” She caught Peter’s faintly baffled expression. “That’s the woman who found the body. She’s staying at the same place as the Old Shrewsburian I mentioned.”
“She found the body?” All trace of the vulnerability Peter had displayed earlier was gone; the old sleuth-hound was back.
“I gather so. But Peter — that body had been in the water weeks by that time. There can’t possibly have been anything by way of clues left, even if she were in any fit state to take notice.”
“Probably not. But — there’s a sort of suggestiveness about bodies, I’ve found. Even when nature has had a chance to do her worst. You can always tell when one’s been moved, for instance.”
“But —” The automatic response died on her lips. “I’ll do my best. If it comes up. But I’m not going to bully her. Now. Make yourself scarce so I can talk to her without the Great Sleuth skewering her through his monocle.”
Peter grinned, as she had intended. “I hear and obey.”
The apologetic waiter ushered in a slight, withdrawn figure, apparently scarcely out of the Sixth form. And so wet! The storm must have broken when Miss Shorland was past the point of no return, but still some considerable distance from the Barlock Arms.
Abandoning her prepared opening, Harriet packed the waiter off to bring towels, hot soup and, as an afterthought, brandy.
“I’m sorry — I’m a mess — you’re much too kind — I don’t deserve it,” Miss Shorland mumbled, emerging from the towel’s folds with her hair in hedgehog spikes.
“No need, you aren’t, I’m not and you certainly do,” Harriet said briskly. “It would be bad enough to have something like that happen to you on an ordinary holiday, but I don’t suppose you’ve had much chance to get away, over the last few years.”
That last was not merely a bow at venture; the girl had a fine-drawn, exhausted quality which Harriet had marked before among those whom war-work had worn down to the bone.
Miss Shorland’s gaze wandered restlessly round the faded living room. “No, I suppose not. That is, I was making aircraft parts, so one couldn’t exactly take a holiday. I did two harvests in Sussex, as well as potato-lifting in Norfolk. It was a change, after the factory, and the gang of girls I was with weren’t so bad. But I’d have liked somewhere with more hills.”
“Very flat, Norfolk,” Harriet quoted.
Miss Shorland looked up and met her eyes for the first time.
“That was one of the things I missed, in the war. People taking it for granted that one knew about — things. Books and poetry and music and so forth. In the factory, if one referred to Noel Coward or anyone like that, people immediately assumed one was putting on side. They didn’t call it that, but that was what they meant. I got into quite a few rows when I first started, trying to defend myself. After a couple of months, I stopped trying. In the end, I stopped knowing I missed it; on the surface, at least. But then, this week, I thought I’d found it again, and all I could think of was to snatch, and hold on.”
Harriet swallowed. She heard a younger woman’s voice: I saw four plays in Town this winter, all preaching the doctrine of snatch. It left me thinking none of the characters knew what they really wanted. Times changed and one changed with them but nevertheless she thought that woman had been on to something. Another remembered voice chimed in: Miss Searle, only an hour or so earlier, describing the finding of the body. A Miss Shorland and a Mr Langton. They were bathing off one of the smaller beaches.
Before the girl’s arrival, Harriet had presumed “Miss Shorland” to be a second Miss Searle, well on into middle life and spinsterhood. As to the little thought she had spared him, she had presumed Mr Langton to be their male counterpart: one of those prim, dessicated types one found in obscure Oxford coaching positions and in the less-sporty boys’ schools. Perhaps she should revise that assumption. She tried a ranging shot, first.
“When I first went up to Oxford, I thought I could never get to the end of it. That wonderful sense that if one threw an idea up into the air there’d be someone to catch it and toss it even further up, or in a different direction, and no-one found it strange that one wanted to play with ideas.”
Miss Shorland shifted in her seat. “The mistress at school who coached me for Oxford entrance talked like that, too. That was what made me keenest. And she was the only one one who seemed to know what I was feeling when I got in. Oh, mother and my aunt and Jock — he was my cousin, we’d been engaged since forever — all said they were pleased for me, but it was a bit like being pleased that I’d won a book-token in a cross-word competition or a spot prize at a dance; something that was nice but which didn’t really matter.”
“And how did you find it, when you got there?” Harriet enquired.
“Oh.” Her spark of animation snuffed out. “The war came. I couldn’t go up. At least — I suppose I could have gone, but I’d have felt a terrible heel, when Jock was risking his life in the RAF. Being in the aircraft factory made me feel closer to him, at least at first. And then, when the news came —”
Miss Shorland’s hand stole to the gold St Christopher she wore around her neck. It took no trouble to decode that gesture.
“I suppose then everyone told you that you should keep on at the factory because it was your best way of hitting back at the Germans?”
“They did, actually. But how did you know?”
“It’s exactly the sort of thing my sister-in-law would have said. Did say. She worked for the Ministry of Instruction and Morale.”
A small vertical line appeared between Miss Shorland’s brows. “The ones who did the posters?”
“Trust me, the posters you saw were only a fraction of the ones they proposed.”
Fortunately, the girl seemed not to have heard the subtext. “I was proud to do it. And it cures you of snobbery — at least, it teaches you only to be snobbish about the right things. I see now Oxford would have made me a much worse person. If I’d been a man it might have been different, but in a women’s college — it would have been far too comfortable for me. I’d have been cocooned inside it. It would have felt like running away.”
Harriet suppressed her first, defensive response. The girl might be twenty-five or so and have lived through a war, but there was something curiously unfinished about her. Also, the absurd sentiment sounded sucked up from books and solitary, adolescent introspection, not the fruit of lived experience.
She reminded Harriet of someone, though for the moment she couldn’t recall whom. Recollection, when it flooded in, made her feel physically sick. That first winter in Bloomsbury, newly down from Oxford and trying to keep afloat in the restless bustle of literary London, where everyone seemed to speak a language one only half understood. So tempting, to seize on a pilot through those choppy, unfamiliar waters. So easy to choose the wrong guide.
By way of cover, Harriet lit a cigarette and offered the case to the other woman. Miss Shorland looked for a moment like a startled rabbit, and then accepted, making a clumsy botch of lighting it. Harriet silently took over the lighter and lit it herself.
For a moment Harriet hesistated, like an angler on the banks of a salmon burn, chary of the rushing waters and uncertain ground underfoot. Mentally, she adjusted her waders, gritted her teeth, and strode into the middle of the flood.
“Look here; it’s none of my business and you’re quite entitled to tell me to go to Hell if you feel like it. But — this reminds me of something someone said to me, years ago, when I’d got myself into a most terrible muddle about feelings.”
Miss Shorland’s head jerked up. “Go on.”
Harriet paused for a moment, and cast her fly.
“Well, what — this person — said to me was that if you found yourself constantly making big, fundamental mistakes about someone, then that meant that person wasn’t your job.”
Miss Shorland’s voice mingled surprise and recognition. Harriet thumbed the catch of the reel and ran out a little more line.
“I’d never thought of it that way, but as soon as she said it, I knew exactly what she meant. You see, I’d made an awfully big mistake about someone once and it ended terribly.”
Miss Shorland greeted this revelation with no more than vague, baffled courtesy. Either she had failed to connect Lady Peter Wimsey with the notorious Miss Vane of the 20s, or the Boyes trial had simply dropped into obscurity as more sensational matters took its place.
Harriet ploughed on. “What Miss de Vine — what my friend pointed out, you see, was that I’d been persuading myself into appropriate feelings rather than being scholarly about it and taking my time.”
Miss Shorland gave a little exclamation, quickly stifled.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch?”
Miss Shorland swallowed. “I meant — how could she have known? That’s exactly as it was with me and Jock. At first, it seemed both our families expected something — it was a standing family joke, at Christmas and parties and so forth — so if I didn’t go along with it, then I’d be letting them down, and, later, when I saw how he felt, it would letting him down too. And the girls on my bench saw his photograph and once when he was on leave and came to pick me up from the works, and I could see them looking at me, wondering how I’d managed to acquire such a magnificent type, and I felt as though it was all happening to a girl in a magazine story and not to me at all. And that seemed to make it even more impossible for me to break it off. It wasn’t what the girl in the magazine story would have done, at all.”
“Ah, yes,” Harriet said drily. “The crushing weight of narrative expectation. I know it well. And was it different with Mr Langton?”
Miss Shorland’s face set in tight, angry lines. “I don’t think you have any business speaking about him to me.”
Harriet leant back and exhaled smoke. “Why not?”
“Because —” Miss Shorland fell silent, and scowled, looking even more like a schoolgirl caught out of bounds than before.
“I admit, I am being disgustingly intrusive,” Harriet said, “but forgive me; I cannot see why a fellow guest at Weir View — even one with whom you discovered a dead body — is a more sensitive topic than the man to whom you were engaged for years.”
In that, she was being more than a little disingenuous. Nevertheless, a detective cannot afford to be too nice. Miss Shorland fluffed up, visibly, like an angry cat. Her voice came out staccato, each word bitten-off short.
“If you must know, I ended my engagement with Mr Langton this afternoon. There!”
If Miss Shorland had intended it as a conversation-stopper, she had misjudged her audience. Helen, perhaps, might have considered propriety required her to turn an ostentatiously deaf ear and take out the change in private gossip. Harriet, on the other hand, had no such scruples.
“Ended your engagement? Miss Searle must have — completely inadvertantly, of course — misled me. I had no idea you knew Mr Langton before coming here.” Her calculated blandness found its mark: Miss Shorland flushed an angry, patchy red.
“I didn’t. I’m surprised Miss Searle didn’t say something — I’m sure the whole guest house was gossiping and making up stuff about it. You see, I’d arranged to meet someone here — someone I knew from home. Oh, I know what you’re probably thinking, but I was naive; I thought we really could spend a week together getting to know each other better and if things went well, well, there might be more to it, but if not we could go back to being pals. Eric — misinterpreted me.”
“Did he?” The instant the words left her lips, Harriet knew she had misstepped. From her expression, the girl, her nerves stretched to a morbid sensitivity by the events of the week (and what a week!) had taken Harriet’s comment as a reflection on her own morality and judgement. Not for the first time since Miss Shorland had entered the room, Harriet found herself back in a hot, unhappy Bloomsbury time.
“That is, I’ve found a certain sort of man is very apt to assume,” Harriet continued smoothly. “And, I’m afraid, they aren’t inclined to pay much attention to evidence or plausibility if it suits their interests not to do so.”
“Oh! You really do understand.” The surprise in Miss Shorland’s voice was heartbreaking; it told Harriet a great deal too much about how she had been brought up.
“I should. I write crime stories, and the one thing a crime writer needs to know a lot about is deception. Self-deception’s the most effective form of all. So I take it Eric said a few things to make sure you felt as guilty as possible, and then stormed off?”
“He had the decency to pretend to get a wire from work. But I don’t think anyone in the guest house was fooled. No-one else said anything to my face, but I could see they thought it. But Mr Langton was terribly decent to me.”
Harriet thought the girl might be giving Mr Langton too much credit. Even though she herself was no stranger to proposals made on the shortest of notice, in her case time had, indeed, been of the essence. Mr Langton had evidently chosen to muscle in on Miss Shorland, knowing she was on the rebound from the egregious Eric. It smacked unpleasantly of opportunism.
Harriet probed, gently, and the whole story came tumbling out.
“We got engaged two days ago — yesterday, properly speaking, I suppose. I know it sounds mad, but it was just something that happened, like blinking. Extraordinary, but somehow matter-of-fact, like walking to work in the war and seeing where a building had been demolished by a bomb in the night, so you were seeing a vista that had been hidden for two hundred years or more.”
“I suppose as the two youngest people in the guest-house you must have been thrown together a good deal,” Harriet said, neutrally.
Without answering the implied question, Miss Shorland embarked on a rapid — and, to the novelist’s ear, somewhat inconsistent — account of events.
Miss Vane must be thinking the very worst of her — no, that was very kind, but she saw how it must look to outsiders. If she had heard or read of it happening to another girl, she would have had her doubts, herself. Wasn’t it the worst sort of cliché, a woman with nothing to look forward to but a typing pool in some dreary office, who turned into the kind of gibbering spinster who hung about graveyards, snatching at curates? Thanks awfully, but she worried herself at times. But it hadn’t been at all like that with Mr Langton, however it looked.
Miss Shorland had got herself into difficulties on a cliff and Mr Langton had saved her. Yes: very experienced, not like her, who was little more than a beginner. Mr Langton was the real thing. He’d been a climbing partner of Sammy Randall, the Alpinist, who’d been Jock’s great hero. She’d told Mr Langton about Jock and at first he’d seemed interested, even encouraging, but today he’d made a scene about her wearing Jock’s medallion for climbing, without even checking to see whether she’d been wearing it. And today had been the first time she’d taken it off in three years. From things the girls at the factory had said, she supposed jealousy of that sort was something she should find flattering, but perhaps she wasn’t a very womanly woman. The outburst had struck her as simply as dreary and exhausting. So she’d broken the engagement; it was clear she wasn’t ready for marriage, and perhaps she never would be. It was far better for both of them as it was.
“Hmph. Mr Langton is blessed with such happy manners as may ensure his making friends — whether he may be equally capable of retaining them, is less certain, indeed,” Harriet thought.
She reached for the decanter, which the waiter had thoughtfully left within reach, and topped up Miss Shorland’s glass.
“And finding a dead body on top of all that? You have been having a time of it. No: drink it — you’re still shivering.”
The girl sipped obediently, wrinkling her nose a little. “I was awfully silly about that. I fainted.”
Was that “awfully silly” parroting an expressed or unspoken judgement on the part of Mr Langton? One really had no business jumping to conclusions, but Phil cast a long shadow. These Bloomsbury echoes were troubling on more than one level.
Harriet assumed a robust tone. “That doesn’t sound silly at all. The woman who taught First Aid in Paggleham, in the War, said a faint is just Nature’s way of shutting your body down, to gain time to take stock of the situation. In any event, as Miss Searle no doubt told you, I’ve had a similar experience to yours, and I know how that felt. I’d be the last person to blame you.”
“But yours was a murder, Miss Searle said. That must make a difference, surely.”
“I didn’t know it was a murder at the time,” Harriet observed. “Everyone thought it was a suicide. Except — little things didn’t quite add up.”
Miss Shorland’s brows furrowed. “Well, even if it had been suicide, that’s a crime too. It’s the violence that marks it, surely.”
That, Harriet thought, was a statement worthy of Miss Searle and might indeed have originated with her.
Before she could challenge it, Miss Shorland added, “With the dead airman — I was shocked, of course, because I thought at first of Jock, though the times were all wrong; it couldn’t have been a wartime casualty at all — but afterwards I remember thinking how oddly peaceful he’d looked.”
The goosebumps rose on Harriet’s arms. A sort of suggestiveness about bodies.
“Yes. I wondered, you see, if it might have been one of those cases — Jock let something slip, once — where they get engine gases in the cockpit, and the pilot slowly asphyxiates without knowing anything about it. Or perhaps an aneurysm or something like that. Something which meant he didn’t realise he was crashing, so didn’t fight it.”
Something, perhaps, like a massive dose of medinal taken once he knew he was over the sea and the crash would cause no other casualties. Harriet thought of the systematic destruction of every scrap of paper in the dead airman’s lodgings. A cold, white rage rose within her.
After so long in the water, it was improbable hard evidence could be found, though perhaps checks at the chemists’ shops near — but not too near — the dead man’s lodgings might turn up the purchase of such a drug.
But, proof or not, Harriet was possessed of moral certainty. By sure and certain murder of the spirit, X had claimed another victim. This time, though, the unknown airman had, by the conflux of tides, currents and weather, drifted ashore at the very time and place for Miss Shorland to find him, and then to allow Miss Searle — unlikeliest of angels — to bring word to Harriet of what Miss Shorland had seen.
As at the moment when a cryptic crossword clue resolves itself without conscious thought, X stood revealed: his strength, and within that strength his vulnerability.
Jerry, Arthur and even Peter and Bunter had approached the problem from the wrong angle. X was a blackmailer, yes, and he drew his victims from a specific pool of candidates. Every man in that pool could be threatened with exposure and social ruin; even, perhaps, imprisonment. But there was one further factor which singled out those whom X was likely to target.
“My husband’s nephew was a pilot,” Harriet said. “It was an awful blow when we learnt he’d crashed. But there was something he said once when he was home on leave, which I kept thinking about, afterwards. He said that the thing that haunted him wasn’t the risk of being killed, but that something would happen where he’d survive but not be able to fly again.”
Blindness, specifically, but she had no intention of sharing Jerry’s deepest fear with the girl.
“I think Jock must have thought that way, too,” Miss Shorland said. “He didn’t talk about flying much, but when he did —”
She flushed and fell silent, with that habitual English reticence concerning matters so profound they shaped one’s soul.
Harriet nodded. “I don’t think it was true of all fliers; perhaps, not even the majority. But there were some, there were always some who loved flying more than life itself. Who couldn’t conceive of themselves other than as a pilot.”
Over those men, X had held the ultimate sanction; not merely dismissal in ignominy from the RAF but debarred forever from the skies. No civil airline would knowingly take on an invert as a pilot.
One could not identify by overhearing casual chat in a bar who might be so uniquely vulnerable. But there was another way.
Miss Shorland’s earlier reference to the dreariness of secretarial work brought back memories of Miss Climpson, so fussy and inconsequential in manner, so formidably effective in action. She and the rest of the Cattery had stalked the jungle of the classified advertisements, protected not merely by Lord Peter’s money and his connections to Scotland Yard, but by their prey’s obtuseness. Hope not for mind in women Donne had said, but, for the vast majority of men, hope had nothing to do with it. They did not even look for mind in women, and, not looking, missed it when it was there. For men of X’s type, with no interest in women even for the obvious reason, a girl from the typing pool would pass as unnoticed as the distemper on the wall.
Miss Shorland — restless, intelligent, unformed, and with, Harriet judged, an inchoate yearning for justice and order buried under stultifying layers of conventionality and muddled thinking — might be the person to step up and succeed where Arthur, Jerry, Bim Taylor and even Peter had failed. Through Miss Climpson’s connections and Peter’s combined, getting her a place in X’s Bridstow office would not be difficult. Once there, who knew what he might let slip?
Harriet gathered her wits. First, she had to recruit Miss Shorland to the cause.
“I was only eleven when the Great War ended, but I was one of those irritating sorts of noticing children. Also, as I was an only child, I ended up spending a lot of time with grown-ups, rather than people of my own age. And one of the things I noticed was how different women were who’d come of age in the War, compared to those — who might only be a couple of years older — who’d been already grown up when it started. They had — more guy-ropes, I suppose you might say. More memories to anchor themselves to.”
Miss Shorland frowned. “What are you getting at?”
“Just — if you’ll forgive me — that it seems you went straight from the discipline of school to the discipline of the factory. And to be engaged, so young, and to someone in your family, too — it struck me that — to quote the wise friend I told you about earlier — you’ve spent your whole life so far being identified with someone else’s job, and not had much of an opportunity to look about and find your own.”
Miss Shorland flushed. “A job? But Miss Vane, as I’ve been saying, I’m nothing special. Any job I’m qualified for, there are a thousand girls who could do the same and do it no worse. The war made it possible for people like me to fool ourselves that we actually mattered: the girl that makes the thing that drills the hole that holds the ring that drives the rod that turns the knob that works the thing-ummy bob and all that rot, but it’s just propaganda and cheap journalese.”
Not for the first time, Harriet found herself forcibly repressing an impulse to swear. Where did the girl find this stuff? It was almost if she were hearing Phil — but he, of course, would have said, “any half-educated clerk” and “themselves”. That the individual must inevitably be devoured by 20th century machine culture was a philosophy Phil had indeed preached, but never thought to apply to himself.
A shiver went up her spine. With an effort, she made her voice level.
“I don’t agree. In fact, I believe there’s a job which you might be uniquely suited for — if you’d be interested. I’m told the food’s surprisingly decent here. Suppose you join Peter and me for dinner and we can discuss it?”
Miss Shorland glanced down at her still-damp summer frock, a dubious expression on her face. Harriet could read her thoughts: her doubts that she could dine with the aristocracy dressed as she was; the risks that she might re-encounter the jilted Mr Langton if she returned to Weir View to change; the dreary, damp trail back uphill to the guesthouse …
Before she could answer, though, the door opened. Peter poked his head round. “Miss Shorland? I hope my wife has already invited you to dinner? My man Bunter reports that the mechanic has given the car a clean bill of health, and he would be more than happy to run you up to now where you’re staying, if you wanted to get into some dry things.”
“Thank you,” Miss Shorland said. “I should be happy to accept.”