sonetka (sonetka) wrote,

  • Mood:

In The Beginning, Part 3

In which Harriet and Philip move in together and it goes about as well as you'd expect. (Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here). As usual, all questions, comments, corrections, and Howlers are welcome, as are Britpicks -- since I've spent a grand total of five weeks in the UK, I'm sure they'll be needed!

Strange, Harriet thought one April afternoon as she unpacked a box of books, it sometimes felt as if they were married after all. Once Phil had found a furnished flat in Wigmore Street – he had managed that faster that she had expected – there had been no reason to put it off any longer. Now, though stray boxes still littered the edges of the rooms and she had given up on finding her orange scarf (something of a blow, that, as an aunt had given it to her, but with luck it would reappear one day) the flat looked as ordinary and respectable as if its inhabitants had fifty marriage certificates. Eiluned's etching of the rue Jacob hung next to Phil's print of "The Death Of Chatterton," which Vaughan had given him years earlier. Harriet disliked the print intensely and wished he would take it down, but then, one couldn't expect to have everything one's own way when living with another person. She had discovered that on their first day, when she had been hanging curtains in the bedroom and Phil was sitting amidst a pile of disordered suitcases, having a cigarette. "Must you talk to yourself like that?" he had said after a while. "I wish you wouldn't – I'm sure the curtains will stay up without your telling them to." She had not realized that she had been talking at all; she must have developed the habit over the last year or two.

After the curtains were hung, Phil had put his arm around her, and from there things had gone quickly. "Good lord, you really don't know anything, do you?" he had teased her. "Would you rather I did?" she had snapped back, and he had lifted his brows and then apologized. It had become better since then, though he sometimes got an abstracted sort of expression which made her wonder uneasily what Liubov and the others had been like, and there was always that small worry that her precautions would fail. But now they had the books mostly unpacked, her tea kettle on the gas-ring and Phil's armchair in the parlour, though he had had a loud dispute with Ryland Vaughan when he took possession of it. Best of all was knowing that when Phil left, it was only temporary. They could now make as much of their time together as they wanted to; talk together, match quotations, and mark up doubtful manuscript passages, though Phil seldom found time to do this. He seldom found time to sort or pick up the laundry, either, nor to cook – unless he wanted eggs – nor to do the shopping. Harriet had realized belatedly that Vaughan must have been capable of more than she realized. Well, Phil would learn. If she could break her life in half for him, he could surely remember to stop by the butcher's once in a while.

Miss Clarridge had sent her a note that was pure anguish. "I can't understand why you would do such a thing, Hattie," she had said. "Please, dear, think of what your parents would have said." She had concluded by saying that she would pray for her. Miss Benn had simply returned every note Harriet had ever sent her, without comment. She had had no letters from Mary or Phoebe, only remembering belatedly that she had not given them her new address. Mr and Mrs Dyer, who lived in the flat below, had been delighted to see that Harriet Vane would be living near them (Mrs Dyer had seen her at the reading she had given a few months ago) and had invited her and Phil to tea. Phil had seemed quite at ease and charmed their hosts with stories about Lady T and writerly rivalries while Harriet sat and sipped her milky Twentyman's, tensing up for the question she knew was coming. When it did, Phil stepped in. "We don't believe in marriage," he told the startled Dyers. "Men and women shouldn't be so ashamed of themselves that they have to get permission from the law to do something that's as natural as breathing." They had not been asked over since, and the small stack of Harriet Vane books Mrs Dyer had brought out a moment before had remained unsigned.

So no, perhaps not quite like being married after all. Still, there was no sense in bemoaning something that couldn't be. And Phil was quite right in some ways – how many murders had been committed by unhappy spouses who saw no escape from the trap they were in save the worst possible one? There would be many more wives and husbands still walking the earth had they or their spouses been able to get away. She squeezed her father's Conan Doyle collection and her mother's limp book of moderately skilled sonnets onto the shelf and tossed the empty box into the corner. Now there was no excuse not to write – she hadn't got a line down all day.

Two hours later, the book was still stuck and she had begun sketching out a short story to distract herself, when she heard the door snick open and the thud of a dropped umbrella in the hallway – Phil.

"Harriet!" To her relief, he sounded cheerful. "Alderman took Annabella's Face – said it didn't need any more cuts, it's good as it stands. He'll be sending the proofs in a few weeks. What do you say we go out for a drink?"

"Yes! The chapter is being absolutely beastly. What are you getting for Annabella?"

"Ten. You'd think they could extend themselves a little considering it's fifteen thousand words but Alderman knows I'm at his mercy ever since Lightning went west. Thank God the Dial took my thing on Conrad Aiken. Who'd be a bloody writer? Besides you, of course."

Harriet was in the hallway beside him now, putting on the red hat Sylvia had made her buy in January. "Must you say that? It isn't easy for me either, you know."

"Isn't it? It seems like every time I look at you, you're opening a cheque. I've led a misguided life, my girl. I should have stuck to putting knives into the backs of butlers, not letting my literary reach exceed my grasp." He kissed her quickly and despite her annoyance she found herself returning it; he had a comforting, faintly spicy smell, although his chin had by now become a bit sandpaper-like as well. "Actually, why don't we make a night of it and go to the cinema as well?"

"To see what?" Harriet felt a vague apprehension, but Phil ended that by saying "The new Chaplin, of course. There, I thought you'd like that. Come, let's spend some of Alderman's tenner."

Harriet enjoyed the Chaplin film all the more for seeing how much Phil was enjoying it too; during the scenes where the police were chasing Charlie through the mirror maze, he laughed so hard that he sagged against her shoulder and both their hats were knocked askew. Afterward they went to the Yelverton Arms, where an uninspired dinner was followed by a much more inspiring round of drinks and, finally, a darts game in which Phil managed to best five other men who ended up clubbing their money to buy him a Guinness. Harriet watched the contest while having a cigarette and mentally writing up the scene for future purposes; a skilled darts player whose accuracy would prove to be a clue to … she was startled when a jubilant, Guinness-imbued Phil seized her hand and pulled her up. "Come on, Harriet, give it a go! Mustn't leave the lady out."

"No, indeed." She weighed a dart in her hand, considered a moment, took aim – and had it land half an inch wide of Phil's winning dart. He looked at her in surprise. "Not bad! Played sports at school, did you?"

"I did – hadn't I told you already?"

"Maybe, I don't remember. Here, try it again – you want to hold it a bit more towards the front and you'll get it right in." He gave her wrist a squeeze as he put the dart in her hand, but this time it sailed wide; the barmaid made a pantomime of ducking and a few men laughed. Harriet found herself laughing as well, and refused when Phil tried to coax her into trying again. "I need to go home," she told him. "I'm done up, and I've got that chapter to work on tomorrow."

His protests were not very strong, though as they left he told her "We must come back sometime soon – I'll make a darts player of you yet." As they walked to the taxi stand, Harriet was startled to see two familiar figures emerging from the darkness – a man and a woman, both well wrapped against the chill of a spring night, both looking in her direction. The Brubakers, back from Davos. Laura hesitated for a moment, but Harriet walked straight on. She did not know what they had heard, and she did not want to see the dismayed look on their faces which she had already seen on many others.

Philip had fully intended to try Harriet at darts again, but she showed an odd reluctance to go back to the pub, and soon enough he had other pressing matters: an impossibly small royalties statement from Grimsby & Cole which led to a furious exchange of letters, and the proofs of Annabella's Face, which in the end were gone over by Harriet since Philip had been laid low by another gastric attack, this one so bad that Dr Weare needed to be called in. His thirty-fifth birthday passed while he was ill, and he found himself sliding once again into one of the black moods which beset him whenever he looked at his own life too closely. Nel mezzo del cammin, and how many people had even heard his name? Fewer than had heard of Harriet, he was certain. God, what he wouldn't give to have people simply pick his books up and take a chance on them – eventually, people would listen ...

Harriet was efficiently attentive during his illness, but she kept sliding into the next room to work on her own things, and he had had to remind her several times both to take out the laundry and to look over Annabella and return it to Alderman in time for the June issue. She had also surprised him by asking for the remainder of the ten pounds, and for the fee he had received from the Dial. "I'm not asking you to put it in my hand," she said, "But we must know where we are with our money, and how we're to spend it." She had blinked when he told her about his allowance from his father but had not otherwise reacted, and she had remorselessly insisted on going over every item in his carelessly updated bank book so that she could be sure precisely how much their household had brought in. She had a streak of the termagant which he hadn't noticed before, but fortunately it didn't extend to other areas – although he sometimes wondered if she had committed herself to him quite as much as he had thought. Surely, if she were wholehearted enough, she would respond a little more satisfactorily? But she was young, and the ancestral vicarage clearly loomed large in her thoughts. She deserved a little more time.

Of course, she did insist on making things harder for herself. When cousin Norman, who was apparently sincere about renewing the old ties, sent a note inviting Philip to the new show at the Haymarket, he added that he had a third ticket, should Philip care to bring "a friend." To Philip's bemusement, Harriet turned the invitation down flat. "That's ridiculous. He can't possibly mean me," she said, as she stood by the stove, spoon in hand, waiting for a sauce to thicken. "You should ask Volodya Kropotky, I'm sure he's due some repayment for hospitality."

"Oh come now, what would Norman want with Volodya?"

"What would he want with me?" said Harriet, frowning as she tasted the sauce. "We're not married, and we have no right to embarrass the poor man. It's all very well having one's principles, but nobody will like them better for our ignoring other people's."

Philip sighed, shrugged, and sent a note of invitation to Ryland Vaughan, who could at least be counted on for a little gratitude. Now that they no longer lived in the same place, Vaughan's company had become more appealing; when Phil sent him a copy of an article, Vaughan always responded with hosannas instead of a sharp pencil, and the warm bath of his adulation could be very refreshing after a wrangle with a publisher. Still, though, a few hours of his company was enough, and a play would be just the thing to keep Vaughan happy for a while.

If Norman was surprised to see Vaughan with Philip instead of Miss Vane, he gave no sign of it. The three of them sat through a decent enough drama in a private box – during the interval, Norman and Vaughan had discovered a common foe in the person of an agent working for the Universal Bone Trust and got on quite well, to Philip's surprise – and afterward Norman somehow managed to ease Vaughan into a taxi while inviting Philip to a late dinner at the Cicero Club, "as there are a few things I believe we need to discuss."

Harriet was eating toast and reading about Beatrice Pace in the morning paper by the time Philip got up. "Nothing for me?" he said, staring at the table.

"The loaf is over there."

"Oh, come on, Harriet, I didn't get back in until midnight and I had the most fearful evening being lectured about my responsibilities. Be a sport and make it this time."

It was a small enough thing, albeit one of many small things she had found herself always doing – it seemed ungracious to argue the point. She began making the toast while Philip began telling her of how Norman had given him dinner after the theater and spent all four courses telling Philip that he needed to get his financial affairs together. "I wish you had been there, you probably know more about them than I do, with that notebook you always carry around. And I got another lecture when he found out that I don't have a will. What's the use of a will? I've nothing to leave, unless the public suddenly gets a fancy to become intellectual for a change."

"Copyrights," said Harriet, who had made her will after her father's death had forced her to think of how quickly one could go from apparent good health to a mortuary slab. She had left everything to Shrewsbury College.

"That's what he said. I suppose there's something to that – I'd like you to have my copyrights if a 'bus knocks me down, though I don't suppose they'd do you much good. That is, if you don't mind living off my shocking stories of people who live in sin?"

"No more than I mind living off people who stab and strangle each other. Or use poison," she added, looking back at the morning paper, which Phil had appropriated when she got up to make his breakfast.

"Ah, Mrs Pace," he said, shaking the paper open. "A great beneficiary of marriage, that one. Five dead children and a husband who beats her. Ah, here we are. Where's the marmalade? A situation like that, who could be surprised when the man ends up being fed his own sheep dip?"

Harriet sat back down and shook out her napkin. "It does seem a shame to leave marriage only to the people who have the least aptitude for it."

"They're the only ones who are fools enough to want it. At any rate, I'll be seeing Norman next week to have the will done – he's waiving his fee, though it's no more than his duty, really. Now I've got to be off, Alderman wants me to come around to his office to get the books for my Notes column. Why the man can't take a moment to send them by the post I don't know, but that's an editor for you." He was halfway out the door by the time Harriet called out to remind him that he was supposed to pick up the fish this afternoon for supper.

She cleared the plates while looking vaguely at the lurid headlines and thinking about poisons. Somehow, none of Robert Templeton's cases had ever involved poison, and even her short stories, where he seldom appeared, tended to hinge more on altered clocks and disguised accomplices and quick doublings-back on deserted side roads. The sort of thing that, as Phil so often gibed, was really a glorified crossword puzzle. But poison was something as common as – well, as common as living in sin.

She shook her head – there was no time for that now; she had two chapters left on the current book and then an agony of editing, not to mention a serial story which she had promised to the editors of Elementary. And, now that the issue had arisen, she had better see about altering her will. Her morning must have night, after all, and if night came suddenly, Phil shouldn't be left with nothing. Now, to the scene where the twin brothers were slated for their last confrontation with Templeton – the left-handed one should come around from that direction, in order to try and take him by surprise, and – Harriet clapped a hand over her mouth. She had just realized that she was talking to herself again.

Phil returned that evening without the fish and in a towering rage. "Damn Alderman, and damn his idiotic rag. He doesn't want me do the Notes column any more after this month, and he won't tell me why. Someone's put him up to this. Damn it, why does everything always have to go against me?" He took one of the heavier books for review and threw it at the wall so hard that the pictures shivered and "The Death Of Chatterton" almost fell off the wall. Harriet stared.

"Haven't you got anything to say?" Philip barked.

Harriet's throat was dry. "What do you want me to say? You should have aimed a little to the right?" Phil's face reddened, and she was immediately sorry. Why was it she so often became sarcastic these days? But Phil said nothing in response, merely slammed the rest of the books onto the table and went into the bedroom, where she could hear him swearing first at Alderman and then at Len Tollett, whom Harriet had seen once but could hardly remember. She had never heard Phil say much about him one way or the other except that he had enjoyed Tollett's novel Vermillion.

She found sausages and began slicing some potatoes which looked as if they still had a few days left in them. A terrible supper for such a hot day, but it was what they had. We have both been in London too long, she thought, we should get away. How to travel, though, unmarried … she shriveled at the thought of going to a hotel. They would either have to lie – and neither of them would want to do that, she was sure – or have separate rooms and slip through the halls at night like people in some terrible farce … sneaking and slipping around.

Phil's voice in the doorway. "Is that supper?"

"Sausage and potatoes."

"I can't eat a thing right now. It's that damned Len Tollett – Alderman didn't say anything, but I'm sure Tollett saw that monkey story in Annabella's Face and got at Alderman to sack me."

"I'm sorry, I'm mixed," said Harriet. "I remember the bit with the monkey – did you hear that story from Tollett? I didn't realize that."

"I did – it was a damn good story and there's no reason I shouldn't use it, he certainly never did. But Tollett's got the devil's own pride and he probably thought that whole character was supposed to be him."

"But did you – was it really supposed to be?"

Philip shifted uncomfortably. "I wasn't consciously thinking of him at the time, but I suppose … he's a poet, he's had his run-ins with law when he drinks too much."

Harriet let out a long breath. "How do you know that Alderman doesn't simply want to stop running the Notes column?"

"Harriet, when you've been around as long as I have, you'll learn that editors don't simply stop long-running features unless there's a reason. I do know something about the literary world, even if I didn't go to Oxford."

She slammed the frying-pan back down onto the stove, biting her tongue for fear of what she might say.

Philip was silent a moment, then came over and wrapped his arms around her. "It's been a terrible day and I can't help losing my temper. You've got a bit of a temper yourself, haven't you?"

She relaxed a little – it was hard not to, when one was being held like that. "Come now, let's try and feel better," Phil said, tightening his hold.

"I really would like to eat."

"Afterwards," he said. Afterwards he joined her for a few moments, ate half a sausage and drank two cups of coffee, and talked cheerfully and ramblingly of the literary vengeance he would wreak on Len Tollett when his time came. Harriet merely listened. All men had these fits sometimes, she supposed, and the only thing was to push through until they were done.

Joey Trimbles had two paintings in the Exhibition and Sylvia had one, and when Harriet and Philip arrived at the Royal Academy there was a small knot of their friends already gathered by entryway. Eiluned, Harriet noticed, was not there, but Sylvia was bravely turned out in a flowered dress and a large flowered hat which Harriet couldn't remember ever seeing before. "Hullo, Harriet! Phil, how are things? Phil, you've met Joey? Of course you have, I was forgetting. I owe Joey a dinner – and I was so sure I would have more paintings in than he did!"

"There's no need to take me to Frascati's – a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou will suffice," said Joey, who looked very odd without the usual paint stains on his shirtsleeves. Dora Blacknall and George Townsend gave Harriet their usual regal nods (did those two ever go about separately? She had never seen them apart) and Marjorie Phelps gave her a smile and went back to talking with her companion, who was –

"James!" Philip strode forward. "Good to see you back in the country. Any plans to start up Lightning again?"

James smiled. "I think Lady T has moved on to greener pastures. She's holding salons now; she's taken a house in Russell Square and sold the country place. Every Sunday from twelve to four, and they're not bad if you don't mind listening to her poetry. I'm sure she'd be happy to see you and Miss Vane one of these days."

"Are you at another journal, then?" By now they were through the entry and being led by Sylvia through the knots of spectators and to her own startlingly large canvas. Harriet thought the main theme was flowers, but didn't quite like to ask in front of so many others. Phil was still haranguing James about something related to Lightning. She saw that Marjorie Phelps standing a little removed from the others, her gaze wandering towards a small, lumpy statue in the center of the room. Less from interest in Marjorie than from boredom with Phil's harangues, Harriet walked over to Miss Phelps.

"So what's it about?"

"The statue?" said Marjorie. "Oh, I've no idea. That's not the sort of work I do; I merely make things which people buy."

"I'm in that line myself."

"So I've heard."

There was a pause which hovered on becoming awkward. "I'm glad to see the Rushworths back," said Harriet, mostly sincerely. "Is it only James or are his sister and mother back in London as well?"

"His mother is," said Marjorie. "Naomi is still in Mentone; she met some very odd modern dancers who all live together and decided to join them. According to James, she spends most of the day undulating in one way or another – he showed me a photo of her dancing in a fish-scale costume. I can't imagine it will last very long but at least it's got her off the subject of Walter, so that's all to the good."

"Certainly." Harriet had not thought much of Naomi, but she was certainly bony enough to make a dancer, and half the modern dances seemed to be performed with masks on anyway. Her gaze drifted back towards Phil, who was still buttonholing James. Marjorie sat on a bench and Harriet joined her. She wished she could have a cigarette.

"Miss Dorland is also doing quite well, if you were wondering," said Marjorie suddenly.

"Miss – oh, her. What about her?" Her memories of Ann Dorland were even sketchier and duller than those of Naomi Rushworth.

"Do you mean to say you never heard? Everything that happened last November, when Ann's aunt died and there was that fight over the will? I'd have thought it was the sort of thing you'd have been onto like a shot." And she proceeded to sketch out to Harriet the story of the poisoned general, the disputed inheritance, and Miss Dorland, who was now, it transpired, preparing to enter the School of Medicine for Women. Harriet, who had once seen some of her canvases, strongly approved of this plan. "But of course," Miss Phelps concluded, "most of it was never in the papers. You were quite right that time when you said that the papers don't tell half of it, though in this case it was more like nine-tenths. It's a shame there was never a chance to introduce you to Lord Peter."

"We have left undone those things which we ought to have done," said Harriet. "Poisons seem to be quite in fashion these days, don't they? Look at Mrs Pace."

"Look at the others," said Marjorie. "They're going on to the next gallery."

They rose and followed.

Afterward, Philip grumbled that James had had nothing for him – that in fact, he was looking for work. "He's giving up, that's all that it is. I'd thought better of him than that." But Harriet remembered how James had spotted all the little problems with The Seventh Sin after reading it once, and that Phil's old copies of Lightning, however execrable some of their content, had been beautifully edited. Seized to her own surprise by a charitable impulse, she decided that she would write to Trufoot and ask if they had any spaces for a skilled editor. When she told Phil, he shrugged. "Sometimes I think Shelley had the right idea," he said. "Drowning before he was thirty. The world never got a chance to kill him slowly in an office."

A heavy thunderstorm in early September had been followed by a string of cool, clear days – days which seemed to bring a brighter mood to everyone except Philip. He had spent days writing letters to publishers, badgering his agent, even descending to asking for help from Mr Cole, but nobody in the periodicals market appeared to want something by Philip Boyes, except for some dreadful magazines which were sold at railway stations and contained articles with all the depth of a glass of water. And his current novel was as stuck as he was – Harriet had been able to do nothing with it except strike all his best descriptive passages, which he had irritably reinserted. There was a week when he did nothing but go to his club every afternoon so he could spend a few hours smacking at tennis-balls with anyone there who was willing, and several head-splitting evenings at the Kropotkys, seeking inspiration and distraction together. At last the editor of Standing Up had said that he would consider Phil's idea for an article on "The New Necessity Of Atheism," and Philip spent a week pacing, snapping, exhorting Harriet on the subject of Len Tollett and Tom Alderman, and banging out the article, feeling as if he had already written it twenty times before – which he probably had, in one form or another. He did not offer to show it to Harriet, who in any case was spending her days checking and cross-checking a pile of about fifty different train schedules for her serial, snapping repeatedly at him when he pushed them aside for his own papers. She was also looking over the galleys of An Eye For Murder, which was due out in a month. One afternoon, when the article was not going well, Philip lay down and read the galleys himself. It really wasn't a bad puzzle, as he told Harriet afterwards. Privately he thought it was clever and distracting enough to sell another four thousand, which should give him a little breathing room.

They attended a few of Lady Till and Tweed's salons, but Philip couldn't help thinking that a plate of cream scones and tea sandwiches was a poor substitute for a weekend at a country house. At least it had turned out that Lady T liked mysteries, so Philip had been pleased to stand, arm firmly around Harriet's waist, while Harriet told Lady T politely that it was difficult to say exactly where she got all her plots and yes, An Eye For Murder was coming out next month and Harriet would be pleased to sign her copy. He had not been so pleased when Lady T failed to ask him when his own new book would be coming out, however.

"But you don't know when it's coming out," said Harriet a moment later, as they sat down on a sofa so plush he feared he might be unable to get up from it again. "I find it's best to wait until one knows pretty well when the thing will happen. If you keep talking about a book and it takes too long to appear, people lose interest. Books don't get written by talking."

"What would you know about people losing interest?" He took a bite out of a cucumber sandwich.

"Not much, I admit. But there's always the chance of a flop, and getting one's public back after that would be a hundred times harder than bringing them in in the first place."

"Not a chance, it'll be fine," said Philip, who considered the average patron of the railway bookstall to be as regular and unthinking in his habits as an ant foraging for food.

As it turned out, Philip was quite correct. An Eye For Murder took off quickly, garnered a good many favourable reviews from the less discriminating newspapers, and left Harriet happy enough to suggest a dinner out, during which Philip had three glasses of wine and Harriet had more. "Should we try darts again?" said Philip at one point. "We're not far from the pub."

"After this? We'd kill someone," said Harriet, smiling and leaning back in her chair, her head tilted a bit to one side. Still quite an attractive girl, Philip thought, when she wasn't fussing about something. "I don't fancy being a murder defendant, especially for something so idiotic."

"All right then," said Philip. "Write a story about it. It could be about a man who has a business rival, and they play darts every, every Friday, and one evening he keels over and the bells, I mean ten bells – oh, hell, I can't even put a proper sentence together right now. I make about as much sense as the Grand Panjandrum."

"Miss Edgeworth!" said Harriet. "How much of that do you remember? `So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage leaf, to make apple pie, and at the same time a great bear –"

"She-bear – a great she-bear coming up the street pops her head into shop and says `What, no soap?' So …"

"So he died, and she very imprudently married the barber, and there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the – oh hell, now I can't remember either."

"Gallimaufries?" said Philip. "It was something like that."

"Picninnies, Joblillies, and Gallimaufries – no, it was something else. But at the end there was gunpowder running out of the boots of their heels. Or was it the heels of their boots?"

"Does it matter? It's supposed to be nonsense."

"All of it is, every bit, everything," said Harriet, fervently if incoherently. As they wobbled towards a taxi afterward, she stopped dead. "Garyulies!" she said. "I knew I remembered it. And then the Great Panjandrum himself."

Harriet was in Mr Challoner's office, drinking a rather musty-tasting cup of tea and talking about contracts. There was something about seeing the terms laid out in black and white that made her think of stories of fairy gold – if she once took success for granted, it would vanish with a flop, with a prolonged illness, or with a simple drying-up of the well. People were always asking her how she got her ideas (Lady T had been most persistent; it had been rather a disappointment meeting her, Harriet's fictional version had been so much more intelligent) but the truth was that she hardly knew; if she thought enough about something, an idea always seemed to get her at last, and then she could begin the real work. So far, the ideas had always come along eventually, but if one day they didn't … Phil didn't seem to understand that, he thought of her writing as a tap that could be turned on and off. Just the other day he had been surprised to hear how she was struggling not to fall behind – he simply could not get it through his head that it took more than a few evening hours to do all of this, after continual interruptions during the day – he would realize it, eventually – he must. That last time they had gone out for dinner, he had been wonderful; perhaps she ought to keep that particular vintage at home for use when needed.

"Incidentally, Miss Vane, what's the next book to be about?"

"Murder," she said at once. "I can set your mind at ease on that point."

"What sort of murder? Sticking with the tried and true or trying something different? Not that there's much Robert Templeton hasn't seen by now."

"I was thinking that perhaps Robert Templeton could fall back a little in this one – no, I'm not taking him out altogether," she added, seeing the look of alarm crossing Mr Challoner's face; agents did not like to hear that a popular sleuth was going to bow out of his own book. "But I was thinking that this story would be a little more natural – not as much about timetables and crossword puzzles." (Why had she said that?) "A poison mystery," she concluded. "I'm not sure which one yet, but I think arsenic is the most likely."

"Like Mrs Pace? There won't be too much of a resemblance, I hope – she's been acquitted."

"I dote upon Mrs Pace and would never libel her. Besides, she hardly has a monopoly on arsenic; one sees it in the papers all the time."

"Very well, then – I look forward to seeing what you do with it. And I don't believe there's anything more … have you any plans for Christmas, Miss Vane?"

"Yes -- visiting friends," she said.

"Sounds pleasant. A very happy new year to you."

As it had the previous year, Philip's absence made the heart grow fonder. He had gone once again to spend a few weeks with his father, and even Philip could not attempt to argue that it would be possible for Harriet to join them. She did indeed visit Sylvia, Eiluned, and Joey Trimbles while he was gone, talking of painting and the newest novels and telling them that she was quite happy. Christmas Day she spent alone in the flat, comfortably eating a pudding from Fortnum's (expensive, but the new book was doing well enough to justify it) lighting each cigarette with the butt of its predecessor, and working out the entire, somewhat complex but comparatively naturalistic plot for her new poison story. By the end of the day she was as content as she had been for a long time, and she was looking forward to Phil's return. Even with his opinions on detective stories, he would have to admit that there might be something in this.

Philip had received the galleys of his latest novel while at the rectory and had gone through them with a feeling of growing dread. The thing was too similar to his other books - clever, idea-filled jewels, each one, but insufficiently vulgar to appeal to the public taste. Grimsby & Cole might say that they didn't care for such things, but they had managed to squeeze his percentage down to half of what it had been for Abhasa – what little this newest one, Cold Muscovy, made would be going almost entirely into their pockets. Harriet had suggested that he employ her own agent, but he had not been able to bring himself to do that. Challoner had no real literary clients; he traded entirely in writers of potboilers and hackwork – quick, cheap, and popular. He would have no contacts with literary publishers, no idea of how to handle a book like this one.

Consequently, when he returned to the flat to find Harriet both flush with royalties and trying to get him to praise her latest clockwork plot (as if using poison could make anything different!) he had been sharp. "You can't make a real novel out of detective story," he said, "unless you're an alchemist. It looks like a good puzzle, why the hell can't you be happy with that?"

"Perhaps I will be," she said, coldly. "I've learned to be happy with a lot of things."

"That's not fair," he said, stung. "I didn't force you into anything."

She nodded silently, then took up her coat and hat, and did not return for several hours. She had been taking a walk by the river, she explained, and she certainly looked cold and windswept enough. Philip explained about his disappointment with the galleys.

"I'll help you with the next one," she said, "If you'd like me to. I really think you can make it work … oh God, I wish we could have a proper holiday, just get away from all of this for a bit." Her voice trailed off.

"Look, I know I was an ass," said Philip. "Can't we just forget about it now? Let's go the films or something, there's that German thing I was reading about earlier. We could walk there."

"I'm not sure – I don't know if I could endure German film just now."

"Come on, now, it's supposed to be brilliant. Let's go."

This had turned out to be a mistake. The film was a gloomy piece about two mutually unfaithful lovers who decided in the end to gas themselves while holding hands, and Harriet's face, after the last lingering shot of the dead woman's ear had faded away, was anything but happy. Her eyes had a glassy distance to them, and there was a certain set to her jaw which reminded him of something – he couldn't think what, but it was nothing good.

They had almost reached the flat when he remembered. That look – he had used it in a story once. It was the look he had seen on Liubov's face during the last month before she left him.

She should have remembered how Phil was about his novels, Harriet thought. She had no great hopes for this one; as with all his other books, there were excellent passages but his characters all simply wrangled and spouted their philosophies too much. If he could only have understood when she tried to explain her edits – but he was too close to it, he simply didn't like to let go of a thing that, while well-written in itself, was simply unnecessary. And yet, so many books had been sunk by all the unnecessary cargo their authors freighted on them, all those decorative paragraphs like carved knick-knacks people brought back from their travels, all beauty and uselessness. She could persuade him in time, though – he must learn to listen after a time. She had heard the saw often enough about the first year of marriage being the hardest, and there seemed no reason why the same should not be true of those couples who were not married.

Phil was back to his older, more charming self now. He had begun cooking a little again (mostly eggs, of course, but what did that matter?) and had invited a whole crew for drinks at their flat at the end of January, when Cold Muscovy was released. True, several of the guests had needed the concoction which Harriet had first encountered when Ryland Vaughan had collapsed at the Kropotkys', and Eiluned had been openly rude to just about every man there, but the evening was lively otherwise. Even more happily, he had gone out of his way to praise An Eye For Murder, and to say that the next would be even better, though of course he was bound not to reveal what it was about. She assumed this was by way of apology, but it wasn't a bad one at all.

She sat at the table with her notes for the poison story spread before her, writing a short character description of a witty, talented, young Bohemian author.

Philip had been watching her anxiously over the past few weeks, and his concern had not lessened. That expression on her face, her constant distraction, the remoteness which seemed to come over her – he had seen that before in Liubov, and in Sarah as well, although since the latter had walked out after three months there had been considerably less warning.

She couldn't leave, not really. He hadn't thought her capable of it, but perhaps her friends had been giving her ideas over Christmas – or perhaps she had never been quite what he thought all along. But if she left … the pit of his stomach grew cold. She would take everything from him. He wouldn't even be able to keep the flat. And all for nothing, he had done nothing! It was ridiculous. How to get her to stay – what would make her happy? She was really a very reasonable sort of girl, and she had given him a good deal. There must be something he could do.

If one looked at it the right way, this whole last year had been like a trial marriage – and Harriet had proved herself well. A legal marriage would let her see the people she had cut herself off from, let them go places together without her endlessly shrinking back – would, in fact, give her something she had wanted for a long time. She would be more than just pleased – she would be absolutely grateful to have the thing done properly at last. And it would ensure that he would not wake up one morning to discover that, like Liubov and Sarah, she had unaccountably packed a suitcase and vanished. It would be a sacrifice on his part to give up the principles he had stuck to for so long, but when the devil drives, he thought, such things are necessary.

It was a few days later, on a foggy evening in the first week of February, that Philip returned to the flat for supper, having remembered to pick up both a steak from the butcher (which Harriet had requested) and a small bunch of flowers (which she had not).

Harriet was sitting at the table going over the accounts; the tips of her fingers were blue with inkstains. "I don't believe we can possibly spend so much," she said, looking up at him with a smile. "But as much as Dad liked to ignore the books, I'm trying to do better than he did."

"Will the books permit a short trip to Wales next spring?" said Philip, setting the bunch of flowers down next to her.

She frowned. "I suppose they would – really, we're not doing too badly, I just think of what Dad said every time I have go over the accounts. Why do you need to go?"

"I was talking about both of us, not just me."

The distant look again. "Phil, you know that isn't possible."

"It will be perfectly possible," he said, sitting down next to her and smiling, "After we're married."
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.