Two random notes:
Half the fun of writing this was looking up the historical references, but my favourite, albeit not terribly useful, find was London Street Noises: 1928. Exactly what it sounds like -- it consists of street noises recorded in Leicester Square and Beauchamp Place in September 1928, and elaborated on by a peeved-sounding commentator. Buskers become much more interesting to listen when they're playing eighty-seven years ago.
Looking at a calendar for 1929 and comparing it the dates in Strong Poison, I noticed that Philip's first "attack" as noted by the visiting doctor fell on March 31st. In 1929, that was Easter Sunday. I have no idea if this was intentional on Sayers' part or not, but I couldn't help thinking that Urquhart must have laid on the arsenic with an overly lavish hand if they had to get a doctor out to the house on that particular day.
Harriet looked blankly at him for a moment, then frowned. "Phil, that's a beastly joke. Did you remember the steak?"
"I left it on the hall table. Harriet, I'm not joking. I want to marry you – get the thing done properly. I know you've wanted this," and he leaned in for a kiss.
He did not get it. Instead she stood, and stared at him as the blood drained from her face. Odd, he thought, he hadn't realized that someone could actually turn as white as paper – he would have to remember that for his next story. He wondered why she hadn't said anything yet.
"What's come over you? Here, Harriet, let's sit down and be reasonable." He patted the chair she had been in a moment ago.
She sat, and her gaze strayed over to the flowers. "Oh God. You're serious, aren't you."
Philip had the sensation of a man who has just been thrown into twelve feet of cold water when he was expecting a hip-bath. "Yes, of course I am. I thought you would like –"
"You thought I would like a pair of legal handcuffs, to become a man's property? I remember you being very eloquent on the subject."
"Oh come now, I didn't mean that literally. If a couple make a trial of marriage first, it's quite a different thing, and you've been wonderful, Harriet, really you have. You didn't ask for anything --"
"After you had – after you had –" she seemed to be struggling to breathe. Philip felt his own lungs constricting; what the hell had gone wrong with her? He had thought that by now he would be telling Harriet where he planned to take her in Harlech, seeing her face light up at the prospect of finally having the wedding-trip she must have wanted. He tried to wrench the conversation back in the right direction.
"Listen, I have good reasons to be afraid of marriage, anyone has, but in a case like ours, where we've already chosen to be together, it's a different matter. We know what we have already, we've already given ourselves to this, this is just making it easier to get about in the world. Isn't that what you wanted, for God's sake? Haven't you spent most of the last year keeping yourself away from anyone who's not in Bloomsbury?"
"I have," she said, "I have. Because you told me that marriage was something you didn't believe in, because I had a choice between having you without marriage and not having you at all." She reached for her handbag, which was further down the table – looking for a cigarette, he realized. "And now you tell me this was a – a trial, a test? Is that what it was?"
"Call it a trial marriage," he said. "Lots of people have done it. For God's sake, Harriet, there's no need to get so worked up. It's a perfectly reasonable thing, it's simply waiting to see if we're both committed to this, that there's no way we're being compelled into something we don't truly want. I'm sure I must have talked about this sort of thing at some point – making a trial of it."
"I'm quite sure you never did." She had found her cigarette case and was fiddling with it aimlessly; she stood and looked towards the kitchen for a moment (thinking of matches?), appeared to forget what she was looking for, and turned back. Philip took advantage of the silence to press on.
"I'm sure I did – but that doesn't matter. I love you, Harriet, you're a good soul and you deserve to be happy. Once we're married you can go about the way you used to, you can meet my family, see those friends you never go about with anymore, you can have everything you want – isn't that enough? Nobody will mind about all this once we're married, you know. They'll forget it before you've had time to turn around."
"I won't forget it." Her voice was chilly. "And I'll mind."
"But why?" His confusion and fear were dissolving into rage, and he began to shout. "Why the hell wouldn't you want to get married? Haven't you been moping after this all year? Damn it, didn't you tell me for months on end that you wanted to be married? What in the bloody hell made you change your mind now?"
"Change my mind?" she said. Her face was still paper-white and the cigarette in her hand had been crushed. "Oh, you're brilliant. You're the one who's been telling me that no sane woman would ever get married, and now you're shouting at me like I'm a truant schoolboy because I'm not falling on my knees like the beggar-maid, now that you've finally deigned to rescue me. Except that you're worse than King Cophetua – he didn't make the maid into a beggar in the first place. You did that, Phil. You cut me off from half the world and now you're going to be marvellously big and give it back to me."
"The hell I did that! You cut yourself off, not me. I never told you to stay away from those biddies at the parish, or to dodge people on the street. That was all your doing. People don't care about this sort of thing nearly as much as you think, but you would never believe that. Don't blame it on me; I never forced you to live with me, I never forced you into anything. I didn't!" He hit the table out of sheer frustration at the injustice of it, and hit harder than he had intended; there was a loud crack and Harriet backed off, dark eyes widening. Her face was so strained that he wondered how he had ever thought her pretty, and her horrified expression was like a stab in the gut.
"You made a fool of me," she said. "All this rubbish about a trial marriage – even a servant who's taken on trial knows she's on trial, but I didn't. You could have told me that, at least."
For a moment, he thought of confessing that he couldn't have, as he hadn't intended it then either. But looking at her chalky face, he realized he was too deep into his argument to back down now. If he did, she would want to know what had changed him – and he could hardly tell her it had been fear that she would leave. Besides, the thing was all to her advantage; she would have to realize that eventually, she would come round without his having to admit to having made a mistake. Philip took a long breath, leveled out his voice, and thought of the things he had said so many times before in his novels, things which, at the time he wrote them, he had wholeheartedly believed.
"Harriet, there's something you simply must understand. A woman who commits herself only so she can get what she wants at the end of a period of time isn't truly giving herself, only making an exchange. Giving yourself means not expecting anything in return for it at the end, it means –"
"Casting forth my bread upon the waters?" she said. "Or perhaps I should say casting my body. Oh, I've been such an idiot. Oh, God." And to his horror, she began to cry.
He tried to put his arm around her after a moment, but she pushed him away savagely. "Fine, then, do as you like," he said. "All I wanted was to make you happy, and you do this."
He walked to the other end of the room and began hunting in his pockets for a cigarette. Damn, damn, damn, he thought. His gaze strayed towards the hallway table. The steak was still there, its juices starting to seep through the brown paper.
The night seemed to go on forever, but while Philip eventually fell into a mild doze, Harriet barely sat down, let alone rested. During their quarrel she had had a horrible sense that the man she was shouting at was not really Phil, that eventually the real Phil would walk in the door, or somehow re-emerge from this impostor who had just made it brutally clear that their household had been built on sand. A trial marriage, she thought, nothing more than test, a test which she hadn't even been permitted to know she was taking. For oft ye prayed, and long assayed – not out of his own love, but only to try hers. All those months of agony before and endurance afterwards, and it had been in his power to stop it any time he wanted, to have made it never happen in the first place. And she had loved and respected him for his honesty.
She moved as lightly as she could in the bedroom as she packed her suitcases, stuffed her teakettle in among some old petticoats, considered the piles of books and the alarm clock sitting on her old steamer trunk and realized that this would have to be sent for afterwards. She did this not out of consideration for the sleeping Phil's comfort, but because she feared what she might do if he were to wake and start talking to her again.
It wasn't until Sylvia answered her door, rumpled and pale, that Harriet realized how early it was, for Sylvia was wearing her spectacles. Harriet had never seen her wear them before outside the studio; she must have been completely unprepared to answer the door.
Sylvia's bleary expression gradually turned into one of deep surprise. "How are – no, never mind. Come on in and I'll make something hot. Oh! And watch that step just before the landing, it's been needing repair for months and you don't need a twisted ankle on top of everything else. The landlady keeps saying she'll get the workmen in but I don't think I'll be seeing them anytime this year."
Harriet trudged up the stairs with her suitcases; the lights in the stairwell flickering as she went past. She had not realized until now how tired she was; so tired that her bones were hurting. She hoped devoutly that Eiluned was not visiting at the moment, and this unformulated prayer was answered – Sylvia was alone in the sitting room, depositing one of the suitcases next to the sofa. "I'll have some cocoa made in a moment, if you think you can stay awake that long. Sit down, you look all in."
She sat down and closed her eyes as Sylvia's gentle, meaningless words washed over her – Syl had taken refuge in the great English custom: talking about the weather. Harriet almost laughed, but the impulse died in her throat, and for a moment she wondered if she was going to be sick. When the cocoa was ready she could only look at it and shake her head. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry … I thought I could, but I can't."
"Never mind that," said Sylvia, clearing the cocoa away. "What you need just now is a lie-down. Let me just get the bed remade and you can sleep for a bit – no, it's no trouble at all, I have a beastly amount of work to get done and I need to go out to the shops before I do anything else. Let me just do this and I'll clear out."
Even in her benumbed state, Harriet had doubts about the authenticity of Sylvia's errands, but she could not bring herself to care. She crawled into bed and was asleep within minutes.
When she awoke, the grey light of afternoon was filtering through the window and there were people talking somewhere else in the flat. Her first thought was to wonder if Phil had invited someone over, and then came the twist of the knife in her memory.
The voices belonged to Sylvia and Eiluned; though most of the talking was being done by the latter. Harriet could not make out everything she was saying, but it was clear that she was speculating about what Phil had done, and while her indignation on Harriet's behalf was strong, her level of accuracy was much less so. Harriet was surprised to find herself becoming momentarily indignant on Phil's behalf; surely Eiluned didn't think he had done that? Then, once again, the hot, crushing feeling of remembering what he had done, how completely she had been fooled, all this long year and a half. All of that agony, all that she had given away, and for nothing. But at least there would be no divorce petitions, no agonizing legal wait to divide herself from him. He would have nothing to hold over her. She hoped he enjoyed the results of his principles.
It was no good staying in bed now, it would only make her feel worse. She dressed, made a quick attempt to make her hair look civilized (where were her pins? Somewhere in the chaos of her suitcases, she had no memory of where) and finally emerged into Sylvia's sitting room. Sylvia and Eiluned both became silent instantly.
"Hullo!" said Sylvia, a little too merrily. "Would you like some lunch?"
"Yes, very much, thank you. No, please don't bother yourself – I'll do it."
Eiluned followed her into the kitchen and began making tea. "We'll help you get it sorted out," she said, balancing the kettle in her hand. "You're too good for the likes of Phil Boyes and always have been. He's an ass, and whatever he tried to –"
Harriet shook her head. "Please don't. Please don't ask about it. He made a complete fool of me, isn't that enough? I needn't tell everyone all the juicy bits."
Eiluned frowned. "Of course you needn't. I only want to help –"
"You can, by talking about something else."
"Tell her about school!" Sylvia shouted from the sitting-room.
Eiluned laughed. "Oh yes, I'm sure she wants to hear all about it!"
"School?" said Harriet, genuinely curious about something for the first time since the previous afternoon.
"Didn't I mention it at the party at – at your flat? I've taken a post at St Ursula's – art mistress. It's not what I imagined myself doing ten years ago but it keeps the bankbook happy and if I can sell a few more things, I should be able to get back to Paris for a while next autumn."
"I missed that entirely." Privately, Harriet was sure that Eiluned had been too busy baiting Phil to talk about anything she was doing, but damn Phil, she was done thinking about him. "I hope it's a girls' school?"
"Naturally. I couldn't stick teaching a pack of boys."
Harriet had by now found some soup in the tiny icebox and begun warming it. "I daresay you'd do them good."
"I'm sure I would, but I doubt they would return the favour. But the girls are rather fun – let me tell you about the exercise I set them the other day."
Sylvia was now standing in the doorway of the kitchen. "I still can't comprehend why you haven't had eighty or so parents demanding your dismissal for that."
"Excuse me, Miss Marriott, but education has changed a great deal since our day."
Harriet sat down with the soup; she found that she was ravenous. Sylvia and Eiluned sat with her and kept up a patter of stories about teaching, the bizarre preoccupations of gallery owners, the even more bizarre preoccupations of Miss Clifford of the Paris salon, and a novel which one of her salon members had written which was supposed to have all the other members in it. She almost told them about Phil and his similar problem with Annabella's Face, until she remembered that even then he had been acting a part to her.
That night she lay on Sylvia's newly made-up sofa bed and wished that she were not there alone. If it took time to become used to lying next to someone, it seemed it would take at least as much time to
resign oneself to lying alone once more.
At least, she thought, she would not be utterly bereft. Her life with Phil had split open like a ship dashed against a rock, but there were still plenty of things in it to salvage. Her books were still her own. Her earnings were hers alone, as well; Phil couldn't touch them. She would find another flat, set it up, take up her old life again.
But it would not be her old life. She had submitted herself to Phil's pleadings, let him persuade her into something she had finally forced herself to want. Leaving him would not wipe that experience out; she would still have lived with him. (Experience keeps a dear school, indeed). No, all she could do now was to gather up as many fragments as she could and find a new ship. Perhaps just a rowboat, at first, but still something.
Norman was as rigidly upright and polite as ever, but his face was even paler than usual and there were heavy bags under his eyes. "I've just returned from Windle," he explained as he and Philip settled down in the library, the maid in the corner getting them drinks from the liquor cabinet. "Aunt Rosanna had a bad turn last week and I had to hurry down. She pulled through, but it was a touchy business for a few days."
"Really?" Philip had little concern just now for the affairs of great-aunts. "I had a bad turn myself last week. Harriet's moved out."
Norman's eyebrows lifted. "Why should she do that?"
"It's ridiculous," said Philip, feeling his face grow hot. "I'd thought that we should do the thing properly – not that it matters to me, mind you, but I knew she'd like to be married –"
"You offered to marry her?" For the first time since Philip could remember, Norman's face showed genuine surprise.
"Yes I did, and why not? I haven't been keen on marriage before but Harriet's been a good, steady girl and I wanted to make her happy. Except that I didn't; she simply exploded at me for not having done it earlier! After she had been living with me all that time. I can't understand it."
Norman's mouth twitched. "Most unfeminine of her. I don't like to speak ill of people I don't know, but Miss Vane sounds as if she may be a little too modern to be a comfortable sort of wife for you. These independent women can be very trying."
The maid set a glass down in front of Philip, and he gave her his best smile, then stared into the liquid moodily. "I wonder what old Wrayburn thought of marriage to an independent woman. I don't suppose those children were much consolation. What happened to them, anyway?"
"Cholera," said Norman. "A great tragedy, of course."
"The devil took care of his own there, I suppose … but that's the devil of modern women; you think they're used to being rational and weighing every position, then suddenly they fly off the handle for no reason at all. She won't even speak to me; just sent some men round for her trunk and her chairs. And I'm damned if I know what I'll do without her, the place is so empty."
Norman hesitated. "If I may … you would be welcome to stay with me. Not on a permanent basis, of course, but for a little while. It will give you time to make new arrangements, and to avoid solitude."
Philip's heart lightened perceptibly – he had known he could not keep the flat up much longer. "That's damned good of you, old man – I do believe I'll take you up on it." He took a long drink from the glass, which improved his mood even more. "When I was small, my father always talked as if Aunt Rosanna was on a level with the Queen – money and jewels and the like. I don't suppose you'd know anything about that?"
"A reasonable amount," said Norman. "But as her solicitor, I naturally must keep her affairs confidential."
"Even to family?"
"Yes." Norman's eyes flicked over to the maid, who was giving the bar a quick clean with a rag. The implication was clear; these were not matters to be talked about in front of the servants. Philip shrugged and took another drink. Aunt Rosanna had been a dim presence for most of his life; a far-off, faint star who had blazed into life only when he sent her his books, just one time. Besides, she likely didn't have as much money as everyone thought. How many grand old women died every day and turned out to have just enough money left to see them into their graves?
Harriet's new flat in Doughty Street was smaller even than the one she had had before Phil, but it was clean and conveniently situated, and the blank walls were beautiful. She would get them covered properly in time, she thought, as she hung up Eiluned's etching and a small painting of tulips which Sylvia had given her as a parting gift when she left her flat. And thank heaven, she would never again have to contemplate "The Death of Chatterton" as she worked. And work she must; the new book had gone sticky for a good while after she had left Phil, and only now that she had found her own place and got all her things back was she pulling it out of the swamp once again. The young, doomed Bohemian man and the inconsolable Bohemian woman had gradually shrunk, until now they were little more than the lay figures who populated most mysteries. It was a pity, she thought, but the story still worked, and that was what really mattered. And perhaps the characters themselves had never been quite as good as she had thought. It was difficult to remember what exactly she had been thinking at that time.
When she had not been able to write, she had still been able to read, and as a result, Dixon Mann and several other books about forensic toxicology now crowded onto the shelf next to her mother's poems and her father's copies of The Hound Of The Baskervilles and The Case Of Oscar Slater. She had reread the latter on Good Friday while in a blue fit after accidentally encountering Phil at George Townsend's exhibition. He had grimaced in pain and turned away from her, and she felt ill at remembering how attractive she had once thought that face. She had left the exhibition as quickly as was polite.
That had been two weeks ago, and the book had been coming well since then. However, the villain's agent was now due to purchase some arsenic for doing away with the young man; Harriet had found herself writing and rewriting the scene, increasingly dissatisfied with it, and finally she realized why. "It's because it's too synthetic," she told herself (talking to herself, and what matter? Phil could take his complaints to whatever unfortunate person was supporting his artistic endeavours now). "I've never bought arsenic in my life, and just because the papers say it's so easy doesn't mean it's so. The papers say all kinds of things, after all. The scene sounds like it was written by a journalist trying to thrill people, and it doesn't work." Surely if she could drown a hat, cross-check rail schedules, and see if a Little Leather Book could actually be cut in half with a pen-knife, she could buy arsenic and write up the scene as it really happened? Besides, it was a beautiful day, and a walk would do her good.
The shop assistant at Brown's looked no more than sixteen and, Harriet thought, was no credit to whatever school system had produced him, as his competency level appeared marginal at best. He had rummaged through several back cupboards before producing the requested package of Rough On Rats, and only when he was ringing her up at the till did Harriet, feeling rather foolish for doing his job for him, ask "This has arsenic in it, hasn't it? Hadn't I better sign for it, or something?"
The boy looked down at the package and shifted from one foot to the other. "Oh, yes, I suppose it has. I suppose I'd better get the poison book." He fumbled about somewhere inside the counter behind the till. "I think this is it – here's a pen, Miss –"
"Slater," said Harriet. Until that moment, she had had every intention of using her own name, but why not see if a false name would pass muster easily? Her character was, after all, very anxious to conceal her own intentions. The boy demanded no further proofs of identity, and she signed the poison book as Mary Slater.
Well! That had been disconcertingly easy, she thought a moment later as she walked towards the Tube. Of course, the boy had been so inexperienced – she may simply have been lucky this time. And where had she got the name from? As she dodged across the street, avoiding a horse-drawn funeral carriage and the squall of car horns from the impatient motorists trapped behind it, she remembered: of course, her father's copy of The Case Of Oscar Slater.. Mary – she supposed it could be Mary Attwood, but she had thought of her so little recently; it was a shock to realize that her youngest child must be more than a year old now. Perhaps she should write again – but what on earth could she tell her?
The entrance to the Tube yawned ahead of her, when – "Miss Vane!" called a high voice, and she turned around to see Laura Brubaker.
She had not intended to tell Laura anything, but there in the tea-shop she found that the urge to confess to someone who was not part of the web of Bloomsbury gossip was too strong. Laura, who had tactfully said nothing when Harriet mentioned parting with Philip, could not contain her surprise when Harriet told her why.
"But good heavens, why should you do that? It sounds as if he was at least trying to make things right for you."
"Don't you see? It was all wrong from the beginning, he had been trying me the entire time. It had nothing to do with his principles." To her vexation, she felt her face turning red.
"And it was very wrong of him to do so," said Laura, emphasizing the point by clinking her teacup firmly back into its saucer. "But I don't understand – you must have loved him, how could you not want to marry him? Especially after everything else that had happened between you?"
Harriet's impatience rose. Laura had always been sweet, now she seemed dimwitted. But most people would probably agree with her – if one was willing to do everything else, then why not marry? If she had allowed Phil the use of her body, then why should she balk when he merely insulted her? Explaining would never be any use. It was better to stick to other things.
"The Red Queen would say that it's too late to correct it," said Harriet. "Are you only in London for the summer or is John well enough to stay the whole year?"
"John's doing quite well now," said Laura. "He managed to get a decent bit done while we were in Davos – more than the doctors thought good for him, in fact – and he has more work here now than he can handle. Not that he's working today, as it happens; he's playing golf with Sir Impey Biggs."
"I'm glad he's strong enough to outlast eighteen holes," said Harriet politely, trying to remember the last time she had played tennis. She should find someone to play with her soon, she thought – possibly she should ask Laura. Tennis would be very helpful for the emotions, and if they were playing, they would not have to talk much.
The conversation wandered politely among sporting topics, and Harriet finally suggested a tennis game. Laura agreed readily, but took pains to say that John would not be able to accompany them and probably would not do so in the future either. Well, after all, when you've done a thing, thought Harriet, that fixes it, and you must take the consequences. When they parted, Harriet felt that despite their agreement, she and Laura were now as far apart as they had ever been.
Philip sat on a broken-springed sofa next to Ryland Vaughan, coughing at the smell of burnt kippers and listening halfheartedly to a dramatic recitation by Madame Kropotky. She had translated several of her own tone-poems from Russian into English, and Philip wasn't sure that the Russian versions might not have been easier to understand. Fortunately, she seemed to be approaching the end, and he could drift off politely if he wanted to. Vaughan was already twitching restlessly, clearly anxious to be at the drinks.
After Madame Kropotky had remained silent for about ten seconds, the assembled throng concluded that the recitation was over and came to life again. Stanislas Terletsky, who had contrived to stretch himself out just in front of the sofa with a cold compress on his forehead, snarled when Philip stumbled over him. "God, haven't you got anywhere else to lie down?" said Philip, but Stanislas barked back "Hrintobivnis, I have headache!" He remained where he was, and Philip despondently followed Vaughan.
"Let's go on the balcony," Philip said a few moments later. "I feel like hell." The balcony was small and the chairs covered with a film of soot, and the view was a discouraging muddle of motorcars and down-at-the-heels shops, but at least the air had not already been breathed by dozens of other people. He and Vaughan sat gingerly on the chairs, Philip looking down at the street, and Vaughan looking at Philip.
"I've been meaning to ask you something, old man," said Philip. "Two things, actually. I've been thinking of leaving town for a bit, taking a holiday – I've been so ill since Harriet ran off, and a change of air might help. Would you like to come along? Norman's been very reasonable about the whole thing, and he'll be covering my expenses – actually, he suggested the West Indies but I've got to keep close to my publishers. I've wanted to see Harlech for a good while now; I was there as a child and have meant to go back for ages. So, what do you think? Will the bank unchain you for a few weeks and let you come with me? I'll need a bit of help, I'm afraid – I'm still having weak spells."
"Of course I will!" Vaughan seemed overcome; Philip would have sworn there were tears in his eyes. He certainly seemed to be adept at making people cry lately, he thought with irritation, but at least Vaughan could be counted on not to snarl at him after being offered a gift like this one. Of all the unreasonable –
"What was the second thing?" said Vaughan. "You said there were two."
"Oh! Yes, it's about my will."
"Don't you have one?" Vaughan looked slightly horrified; he was too much the bank clerk to be anything but disapproving of carelessness about documents.
"I do, in fact, but as Norman recently reminded me, it's in Harriet's favour; I left her all my copyrights."
Vaughan made a dismissive noise. "She doesn't deserve them."
"More than that," said Philip, "I don't think she'd bother about them. She's so wrapped up in her own trash that she'd probably just chuck the stuff in a bottom drawer and never bother Grimsby about them again. She's damned heartless sometimes – you know, I've seen her a few times since and never even got a civil word from her." Vaughan groaned in sympathy, and Philip wondered if he would eventually be forced to move back in with him. Would it be any more bearable than the last time? "I asked Dad, but of course he said he couldn't take them, he has his position to maintain. And Norman has his clients." While Norman politely claimed to enjoy Philip's books, Philip had always had a remarkably hard time getting him to talk about them. While Norman clearly agreed with Philip that the man of business owed a certain duty to the artist, but he didn't seem to feel that discussion of said artist's works was part of that obligation. It was easy to imagine his copyrights languishing with Norman, just as they would with Harriet. But Vaughan … he knew that Vaughan would treat Philip's literary offspring as his own – although he would probably have to rewrite the will again in a few years after Vaughan had one too many of the Kropotkys' drinks.
Fortunately Vaughan had no apparent objection to the fact that he had not been first, second or even third on the list of potential beneficiaries – clearly the right choice for this particular charge. As they stood, however, he gave Philip a long look. "You're not thinking of going out, are you? Because I – "
"What? Oh, not at all, nothing like that. But I've been so ill, and Norman's a solicitor, so naturally he always has these sorts of things in mind. I'll get it done before we leave London, to stop his pushing at me about it, but there's no need to concern yourself."
They went inside.
Harriet had finished three chapters, played quite a few sets of tennis with Laura (it had turned out that she was right; they barely talked about anything except the game), and planned out several short stories using different poisons – not to be sent out all at once, of course, but if she got all the information now she could parcel them out over the next few years. Only once had she had any trouble whatsoever, when a clerk informed her politely that they only sold aconitine to official representatives of industrial firms. Otherwise it had been a depressingly easy business. At least they were all safely out of her flat now – with each purchase, she had opened each package, taken careful notes on the appearance of the contents, and then burnt all of them in the fireplace – Rough On Rats, Cooper's Weedicide, and all the rest. Now that it was June, though, she would have to stop; it was too hot to use the fireplace and besides, she had been getting rather tired of the game.
She sat at the table, busily maneuvering her griefstricken young Bohemian woman into the pub where her lover had encountered the fatal dose of arsenic. She was telling the bartender that it was not suicide, that she was determined to have his name vindicated; fortunate girl, thought Harriet. If he had lived, he would have let you down soon enough – smart lad, to slip betimes away.
A scuffling sound outside her window – the postman on the steps. Had Sylvia written back?
She had, saying that she would be delighted to see Blackmail as soon as that film opened, and she trusted that Harriet wanted to see the talkie version? "I've never seen a talkie yet and do feel so left out; half my friends have seen them in other places but at least I can console myself that we both waited to Buy British Goods. Joey and Eiluned are also quite taken by the idea, and James may come along as well, although having read the story Joey says he will make sure to conceal any knives in his flat should we repair there afterward."
There was another envelope, postmarked Harlech, whose handwriting was all too familiar. What on earth did he want? She had seen him several more times at parties since she had left – the only way to avoid that eventuality was to stay in, and she refused to do that any longer – but they had barely spoken. Nonetheless, here he was, writing in his old, easy, arrogant way, as if he hadn't shown himself to be completely unworthy of assuming any sort of superiority over her. He would be in town on the 20th, he would like to stop by her flat, he hoped he persuade her to see reason before he took a trip out west. The better to nurse his despair with, she thought. Phil needed to work, not to travel and mope, and if he thought that she was ready to take on the role of devotee again, he knew her even less well than she had thought.
Still, if he insisted on coming round, it might turn out for the best. Once the interview was over, perhaps he would finally realize that it was hopeless, and leave her alone.
The journey to Harlech had been a success in some ways; with the walks, good food, and rest, Philip had finally begun to feel human again. Vaughan had been faithfully if somewhat annoyingly attentive, had praised Cold Muscovy extravagantly, and had made it clear that in his opinion, Harriet was mostly if not entirely to blame for every affliction Philip suffered. Philip himself was not so far off from sharing that opinion – he had been a damned sight healthier when he and Harriet were still together, after all, though that hardly explained his current recovery. Some sort of psychological thing, he shouldn't wonder – after all, this was where he had intended to take her for their wedding-trip, and as devoted as Vaughan was, he was a poor substitute for her. He also had a troubling habit of talking about his drugs collection; Veronal and God knew what else, and weeping about his lack of a real place in the world. Good God, man, Philip had thought more than once, killing yourself won't make you into a poet posthumously. He hoped he didn't have to rewrite his will yet once more before the year was out.
It wasn't possible that Harriet should hold out forever, thought Philip, as he walked around Harlech Castle one brilliant June afternoon. Now that it had been several months, surely she would be missing his company, realizing what she had lost. If he put it to her again, when they were both calm and ready to discuss it, perhaps he could bring her round. Surely she would see the advantages of the thing in the end. Besides, after this, whom else would she marry? Someone as scrupulous as she was would not like the prospect of telling another man about this. She would have realized that by now as well.
Her reply to his letter had been cool and discouraging, but at least she had replied. By the time he stood ringing her bell on this warm, bright midsummer evening, he had had all day to become optimistic.
His optimism took a blow the moment she opened the door. Her face seemed severer somehow, and she stood well back from him.
"May I come in?" he said, pointedly.
"If you like," she said, moving away from him. "I take it you would like some coffee."
She poured it for him in silence, handed him the cup, then poured her own and added a little milk. She sat down across the table from him, looking at him directly. The same direct gaze he had seen on the evening he met her, but there was no curiosity this time, only guardedness.
"So," he said, "You've been busy, I take it?"
"I haven't been doing as much as I ought. I've been ill, worse than ever –" surely that would soften her a bit – "and I went to Wales for a few weeks. It's done me good, though Norman thinks I should go to Barbados for a longer cure."
She nodded, and took a sip of her coffee.
"I just wish you'd been there with me; Vaughan isn't a patch on you, you know."
"I imagine not. He supported you quite well, though, before you met me, so it's hardly becoming for you to criticize him."
"Oh come, Harriet, you aren't going to take his part, are you? I thought you two couldn't stick each other."
"We can't. But he was your devoted slave for a long time; he probably still is, poor man. And I was the same thing, for a while."
"What in God's name do you mean?" said Philip, genuinely startled.
It was their old argument all over again, except that Harriet had had several months to think over her complaints and list them one by one like something on a charge sheet, and Philip had had an equal amount of time to forget that he had ever been interested in anything except a trial marriage followed, if all went well, by a legal one. And if he had never told her – well, was it more noble to strike a bargain with one's body or to give freely – or to – he stopped and bent over for a moment, gasping. It had felt as if a razor were slicing through his stomach. Not that, not that old trouble again, he thought. Then, irrationally – I should have stayed in Wales.
Harriet sat with an expressionless face, awaiting his recovery. In the old days, she would have at least shown some concern, had him lie down, brought a drink to soothe him. Now she was like stone. Norman had been right; unfeminine, through and through. How had he not seen that?
Another stab in the gut made him jerk out of his chair; Harriet looked up, startled.
"Enough of this. I'm going," he said, reaching for his hat. He was starting to sweat, enough that even the sweltering indoor air was unable to lift the chill from him.
At the door, he paused. What should he tell this plain, furious girl who was half a stranger to him? He could hardly think; the worst might happen all too soon.
"I hope we can still be friends," he said, mechanically.
"I don't think we were ever friends," she said. "We were lovers, and that's a very different thing. And I don't believe we have anything more to say to each other, so good night."
"You're impossible," said Philip. He felt another sharp stab in his gut, worse than the preceding ones, and the pain of rejection receded before the urgency of getting home before he lost control of his own functions. "I feel dreadful – I've got another attack coming on. And no wonder," he added spitefully, "After listening to that rubbish you've been spouting. No, I don't need help – just get away."
The door slammed, and he was alone in the twilight, feeling worse by the second. For a moment he was tempted to ring her bell again, humble himself long enough to apologize, beg her to call a cab – but he didn't know if she was on the phone, and he was damned if he'd ask that proud bitch for a favour ever again. He limped off in the direction of Theobalds Road, one hand clutching his stomach, praying for a cab to appear. All he wanted now was to go home.
It took quite a few sets of tennis that weekend to put the memory of Phil's visit in its proper light (damn him, she thought as she swung, he can find out what it's like to stew over what one can't have) but by Monday morning all was calm again. She was planning to visit the Assyrian rooms at the British Museum later that day, looking for a plausible location for a short-story villain to conceal a small but vital packet, and she was about to close the paper and clear her breakfast away when a small headline caught her eye: NOTED AUTHOR'S DECEASE. And she read, in increasing shock, of Philip Boyes's death.
Her first, idiotic thought was that he had not been supposed to do that – he had been supposed to go to Barbados. Her second was that she should go to Sylvia's studio, and her third was that she had no earthly idea of what to say when she got there.
"Poor Phil," said Sylvia. "Though I shouldn't say that in front of you, since I know he did something dreadful. But I always thought he was malingering with those illnesses of his, and now it turns out he wasn't at all."
"No, he wasn't lying about that." said Harriet, pushing away another mug of Sylvia's cocoa – the cocoa in her studio always had a vague hint of turpentine in the flavour. "It was bad, but I never thought this could happen. I simply can't believe it, it's like a dream."
"A good dream or a bad dream?" said Sylvia, examining a sketch critically. "Sorry, it's not fair to ask that." There was a pause. Harriet tried the cocoa; not as bad as she thought it would be.
"If I may be terribly tactless," said Sylvia, "What on earth did Phil do last winter? Everyone wondered."
I'm sure they did, thought Harriet, but she saw no need to satisfy their curiosity. Let them think what they liked. "It doesn't matter now," she said. And indeed it did not. Even if she had married Phil a year ago, she thought with a jolt, that would be done now. A marriage not meant to be: Dis aliter visum.
She insisted that she still wanted to see Blackmail with the others, but she was numb to the wonders of the talkie and only half took in the story – I'll have to come back again, she thought, I can't get any sense out of this. At Joey Trimbles' studio afterwards, having drinks, the topic of Phil's death was so studiously avoided that she wondered momentarily if she had lost her wits and dreamed up the whole thing. The worst illness to be mentioned was James Rushworth's. "In bed with the flu, poor fellow," said Joey. "That's why he couldn't come tonight. They even had to bring a nurse in, he was so bad. I brought him a consolatory bottle but his mother took it away and said he shouldn't even clap eyes on it until he was better. Oh, he mentioned you, Miss Vane; said to thank you for that recommendation at Trufoot's. He finds it's a great consolation, knowing that he'll be able to pay for the nurse when he's well."
"I imagine it would aid the recovery process considerably," said Harriet, lighting her third cigarette of the hour and thinking blackly that here was yet another bill Philip would leave it to someone else to pay – poor man. She remembered his misery during the attacks he had had while he was with her (and lying to her even then if she had known it) and this last one must have been a horror for him. His funeral had been held two days ago, in that mysterious Tweedling Parva which she had never visited and now never would. Attending, or writing, would have been unthinkable – she was nothing to his family, and to push herself on them would have been unconscionable.
When she arrived home she felt very much as she had on the night Phil had made his proposal; sleeping was unthinkable, the only bearable thing was to act. Her steamer trunk squatted against a wall in her sitting-room, still unpacked. By two in the morning, she had taken care of half its contents when she she saw some familiar, blocky-looking covers lurking beneath a dress she hadn't touched since last summer. Phil's books, the ones he had given her. She picked them up, one by one, and weighed them in her hands. Abhasa. Mrs Bolton-Brown. Among The Serpents. Nineveh. She had written her name on the flyleaf of each one. When had she done that? She had no memory of it at all.
She looked up at the bookshelf which, on the top row, held her mother's sonnets and her father's medical books and Conan Doyles. She considered for a moment, then turned the other way and quickly dropped the books into the bin. She would never have kept them if Phil had been alive, and she couldn't like him any better now that he was dead.
Afterwards, she slammed the steamer trunk closed and went to bed. She would finish clearing it out another day.
She ended up visiting the Assyrian rooms with Sylvia and James Rushworth, the latter of whom was still a little pale but seemed quite recovered otherwise. James had surprised her when they met on the steps by giving her a small parcel. "Just some books," he said, "A belated attempt at thanks for that recommendation to Trufoot's." She opened them somewhat reluctantly and found The Golden Hours Of Kai-Lung, which she had owned while at Oxford and then lost, and something called The Innocent Voyage.
"I was wondering if you'd –" said James, and she looked up, hoping he was not planning to ask her anywhere. He seemed pleasant enough, but his editing skills were the most attractive thing about him – and besides, how could one tell what ideas a man held concealed behind even the most amiable face? Fortunately James seemed unable to finish his sentence coherently, and trailed off into a mutter about "perhaps heard anything."
"I'm sorry, I don't quite catch you."
"Oh, nothing, nothing. It isn't worth discussion. Actually, I was wondering if you had already heard about The Innocent Voyage? It's caused quite a stir on the other side of the Atlantic but we're not getting it here for a few months, which seems quite unfair considering it was written by a Welshman."
"No, I hadn't heard, but as long as it isn't actually in Welsh I'll be happy to read it. It's very nice of you to get it for me."
James and Sylvia kept slipping away during their visit, or perhaps it was simply that Harriet was slower than they, hampered as she was by the need to make notes and rough sketches to ensure that the packet ended up in a place that existed in the room she said it did. There was something unnerving about their disappearances, though; they certainly were not flirting and they kept flitting out of earshot. At one point, while she was examining a winged bull of Khorsabad, they came close enough that she could hear Sylvia saying "Absolutely not. It's likely all nonsense anyway – she's just trying to stir up excitement."
"She didn't seem like –" began James, and they drifted out of earshot again. When Harriet had finally noted down a few likely places and the three of them were at tea, Sylvia and James talked with determined cheerfulness on all the latest gossip. George Townsend and Dora Blacknall had got married after all, to general astonishment. "I'm almost sure Dora's got a baby coming," said Sylvia, "But it's so hard to tell with all those draperies she wears. Poor mite, imagine all the ghastly portraits they'll paint of it when it does arrive."
"At least she won't need to lay in baby-linen," said Harriet. "She can just use a few hundred of her extra scarves." And the conversation moved brightly from baby-linen to dresses and when were the designers going to pick a hemline and stick to it for more than four months at a time? So Harriet never got a chance to ask what on earth they had been talking about, and soon enough she forgot it herself, wrapped in her own book, books by other people, and a collection of crossword puzzles which Joey Trimbles had unearthed from somewhere and given to her. People gave her things a good deal now; likely they thought she was sorry over Phil's death, and in a way she was. She could not tell them that the greatest part of what she felt was relief. He was gone, he would not haunt her any longer. Last year she would have been crushed – but it's no good going back to yesterday, she thought, because I was a different person then.
"Not going to Paris? Ridiculous," Sylvia said one August afternoon as she, Harriet, and Eiluned sat in the grass by Queen Charlotte's Cottage, which Eiluned was busy sketching. "I thought you were at St Ursula's entirely so you could get back to Paris and do some more etchings for Mademoiselle Clifford."
"I am going," said Eiluned, "But I'll wait until Christmas. I don't want to leave the girls in the lurch; some of them are quite talented."
"There will still be talented girls left in the lurch when you leave after next year."
"Perhaps I won't leave even then – the vacations are long enough. Besides, I rather fancy teaching. I didn't think I would, but sometimes these things surprise you." Eiluned's snub face was serious; it was clear that Paris would have to be patient until she descended upon it again.
"Harriet should go with me, then," said Sylvia.
"No, no, I won't listen to that. You've been saying it for years, but surely you have enough now for a few weeks away. I was meaning to go in October – didn't you tell me the new book should be done by then? And you need a holiday, you've needed one for years."
"I have. If you hadn't cut me off, I was going to say yes, I'd love to." Not Wales then, she thought, but Paris. "I've been once before, but that was when I was in school, and it was only for a few days. It should be much more interesting without being hovered over."
"You never know," said Sylvia, "There may be a few men who would like to hover."
Eiluned snorted. "They won't be at Miss Clifford's."
"Nonsense," said Sylvia. "We won't be spending our time frowsting there. We'll call, but we needn't spend more than an afternoon. Besides, most of her ladies have brothers who are quite used to being neglected by now, poor darlings. A woman who pays attention to them will be quite a novelty."
"I'm sure she will be," said Harriet, "Whoever she may be."
Sylvia shook her head and then laughed. "I'll lend you my Baedeker," she said. "And how is your French these days? When those attentive brothers turn up I'm sure you won't want to be caught using the wrong conjugations with them."
"I wasn't bad in school, but of course the theory and the reality of a thing can be pretty far apart some times. I've cause to know that."
Sylvia looked skyward, then leaned over Eiluned's shoulder and squinted slightly. "That's lovely. Hadn't we better be going soon? I'm getting rather damp."
"I'm not done yet, but you two can leave if you like. Go have some tea and get Harriet a French grammar."
"I have three," said Harriet, "So there's no need."
"You would," said Sylvia. "I suppose next you'll be telling me that the trip will be very useful material for a story."
"Yes, I will, because it's true."
"I'm sure it is. Besides, it'll be better for you to be away from the talk for a while."
Harriet wondered briefly what talk that was. Hadn't people anything else to discuss now? Phil had been dead for two months, and surely the quarrel couldn't still be of that much interest to them. Rumour's garment must be threadbare by now, but that was what came of people not working enough, she supposed.
Harriet sat on the sofa, Sylvia's Baedeker on the table beside her and the book of crossword puzzles in her lap. The book had been going so well yesterday that she had worked through supper-time and then late into the evening, polishing off the second-to-last false lead and getting one closed door away from the last false lead. This morning she had awoken with an exhausted headache and a sudden conviction that the false lead's dialogue would have to be approached from an entirely different angle, and as she wasn't quite up to it yet, a crossword puzzle would be a good way to get her mind activated. So far, though, it was going slowly. It was early afternoon, a fly was buzzing somewhere above her, and she was looking sightlessly at 12 Down. A rose-red city, half as old as time. Five letters, first letter P. She should know this one, but it kept slipping her mind. Certainly not Paris. By now she had about twenty different slips of paper in the Baedeker's, marking the things she would like to see. She drifted across the names of cities beginning with P – Paris, Prague, Portsmouth – ridiculous, far too many letters. Paggleham? Also ridiculous, also not a city. Pavia, Pisa, Plymouth, Petrograd –
The bell rang. Who on earth? She was unreasonably annoyed at the interruption; she had felt that she was coming close to the answer, but now some latter-day man from Porlock had come expressly to spoil her crossword. Looking out the window, she saw that the visitor was a man she did not recognize, so she went to the door and opened it partway.
A tall man of about thirty-five stood before her, his unremarkable face set in a pleasant expression. She did not open the door further. Who was he? She had heard of authors' devotees trying to find them in their homes, but so far all of her communication with such people had been through the post and she hoped it stayed that way.
"Good afternoon," he said. "Would you be Miss Harriet Vane?"
"Yes, I am. I don't believe I know you."
"Detective-Inspector Charles Parker, from Scotland Yard." He held up his identification, long enough for her to get a good look at it. "I was wondering if I might speak with you for a moment."
Bewildered, she opened the door the rest of the way. "Certainly. What on earth is this about?"
"I wanted to ask you a few questions about Mr Philip Boyes. I'm told that you and he were – acquainted."
What on earth has Phil done, she thought, before remembering; nothing, he's dead. Well, she would find out what the trouble was soon enough.
"Of course, Mr Parker." She turned towards the kitchen. "Do sit down. Would you care for some coffee?"