Fic: The Beginning (Lord Peter Wimsey), gen, PG
Title: The Beginning Author: lyras Fandom: Dorothy L Sayers - Lord Peter Wimsey Characters: Bunter, Peter, the Dowager Duchess Rating: PG Recipient: marginaliana Summary: Lord Peter is home from the war, but he hasn't left it behind yet. Meanwhile, an old friend is preparing to fulfil a promise made in the trenches. Notes: Thanks very much to nineveh_uk for a swift and helpful beta-read. I hope you enjoy this, marginaliana!
A Lord Peter Wimsey tale featuring his valet Mervyn Bunter, and extracts from the diary of Honoria Lucasta, Dowager Duchess of Denver
Peter home! Poor boy horribly pale and quiet, has clearly had a terrible time of it. But he is safe! At least, his body is. Fear the mind will take longer to heal. Had Johnson serve some of the claret Paul sent over before the war in celebration of the prodigal's return (not very good analogy, if that is the word, since P not terribly keen to go away in the first place).
At dinner, Gerald rather tactful for once; Helen not. Peter not up to talking, but she refused to heed this. Talked and talked about Lady Wentworth's son who wouldn't come home although his brother had been killed at Passchendale, about how somebody else's son had led the hounds a week after being invalided out with broken ribs, Gerald straight back into estate business, and Peter ought to pick things up immediately, what did he intend to do with his life? Peter chilly and incommunicative, which was when I realised how serious the situation was and hurried Gerald and Helen out.
Peter home and healthy in body, as I said, but not so healthy in mind. Worse than I thought, my poor boy. He won't speak of France - quite understandable, but he won't see anybody, either, or do anything at all. The only things that seem to please him are those incunabulae (spelling?) of his, and even that isn't pleasure so much as escape, I don't believe.
Helen insufferable. Peter not home a week, clearly exhausted and near to breaking down (or is it relapsing? I do wish he would tell me what happened to him), and she tries to make a match of him. Not even a sensible girl (which would still be too much), but a pretty, inconsequential thing who reminded me of poor little Barbara.
Dr Hawkins out to see us today. Looked at Peter, and seemed grave afterwards, but told me nothing but rest would do it. That man has such wild eyebrows; I've always found it very easy to believe him. Not at all like Dr Bennett when the boys were younger. He had the voice of an angel and the brows of a saint in one of those renaissance portraits, but sadly he was not a good doctor. I feel I can rely on Dr Hawkins's eyebrows.
Peter left the library long enough to insult Helen very badly. Still (Peter, not Helen) far too pale, although not helped by tendency to haunt the library. Yesterday I found him writing letters, and he admitted they were to the families of his men, those who had died. Wished I could kiss his pain better the way one does a child's grazed knee. But it won't do.
Peter worse not better. Refuses to eat with the family (quite understandable, given Helen's idiocy), and the other day Harker told me he doesn't keep any food down. When I enquired, P made a joke about meat reminding him of rotting flesh. Suspected he was speaking the truth.
Worst of it is that he refuses talk to me seriously. Speech all allusions and witty comments, with nothing of substance behind it. I know my Peter, and I know when he is hiding himself. Of course, he is perfectly entitled to do so. But I don't feel this isn't doing him any good.
In a cramped little house on the outskirts of London, Mervyn Bunter gently pushed his mother's hands away from the pot that she was stirring on the stove.
"I can do this, Mother. I learnt, you know. Let me look after you for a change."
"Oh, Merv!" His mother turned to him with a smile. "You never could abide to sit still." She stepped away, though, and let him finish cooking breakfast while she fussed over provisions: cold ham, cheese and bread, along with a flask of tea.
His mother provided most of the conversation during the meal; she seemed to have an endless supply of information about people he used to know. Milly Stephens was with child and wouldn't say whose it was. Sarah Speke told anyone who would listen that she wasn't giving up her job, no matter how many men came back to take it from her. Old Peter Fox was ill and they were afraid it was that new flu that was going around. All this and much more, Mrs Bunter rattling away while her son chopped and chewed and swallowed, aware that she was purposely not mentioning any young men of their acquaintance; equally aware of why: so few of them would ever come home.
After he'd eaten, Bunter pushed his plate away and rounded the table to kiss his mother on the cheek.
She pressed her lips together in a rueful smile. "Write to me, won't you, dear? And do make sure you have a warm bed tonight."
"I will." He fitted the bag of food into his knapsack, pulled it over his shoulder, and stepped out into the rain with a last smile for his mother.
It took him most of the day to reach his destination. The tea was cold long before lunchtime, but the food and his greatcoat kept him warmer than he'd ever been in the trenches of France. He stopped off in Piccadilly to comb his hair and check his suit for wrinkles, and then presented himself at Lord Peter Wimsey's club. Unfortunately, he allowed eagerness to get the better of him for once and antagonised the standoffish doorman, who felt that he should have approached via the tradesmen's entrance. Bunter wasted several minutes arguing before being informed that his lordship was not within, and had not been seen since returning from France. More than that the man would not divulge.
Well, if he wasn't in London, he must be in the country. After spending his dwindling discharge pay on a night in a working men's hostel in Whitechapel, Bunter set out along the North Road and reached Broxbourne by nightfall. The following morning, he picked up a couple of lifts from farm hands, winding up at Downham Market, where a combination of sparse finances and a desire to be done with the journey resulted in him walking through the night. His persistence was rewarded early the next morning when a man in an automobile pulled over and turned out to be heading for Duke's Denver. He had been "fixing up" the vehicle for one of the local gentry, and once he knew Bunter's destination, he was delighted to pass on the latest gossip regarding the Wimsey family.
By the time they arrived at the village inn, Bunter had learnt that the duke was a decent fellow, the duchess a tartar, the dowager kindly if a little dotty, and Lord Peter an odd duck. Also that there was "something wrong" with the young lord at present: he had not been seen in weeks, and the mother of one of the footmen said he never went anywhere except his chamber or the library. This had caused people to speculate that he had some kind of shameful disease, or that he was meddling with the occult.
"I just reckon he needs time to get over the war," the engineer said grimly, bringing the car to a shaky halt. "Well, there you are. The house is up that way; the George and Dragon does a bit of lunch if you want to clean up first. Messy business, driving!" He waited for Bunter to climb out, nodded and drove away.
Bunter had indeed intended to clean himself up before approaching the family, but in the light of what he had just heard, he walked straight in the direction he had been pointed. He was one of the few people to have seen Captain Wimsey's face when they had pulled him out of the shell-hole; he was also perhaps the only person to have shared so many such experiences with Wimsey during the war. I ought to have come sooner, he thought, although he had paused only a few days at his mother's house after returning to England.
The drizzle did not make the grand old house with its poplar-lined driveway look any less imposing. A lesser man would have quailed at the sight, but Bunter had faced down English country homes before. He merely smoothed down his suit and sedately peeled off to the left, following the path to the servants' entrance.
When the door was opened by a young and comely housemaid, he relaxed slightly. He was rusty, but he'd always been able to charm women, perhaps because his demeanour was so unthreatening. No woman, he thought, would believe some of the things he'd done in France.
"Lord Peter? You want the dower house." The girl smiled shyly. "Walk around to the other side of the building and then take the path by the hedge for about ten minutes. You can't miss it."
"Thank you," he said gravely. "Would you do me the honour of wishing me luck? I'm applying for a job."
She did so, pink-cheeked and bright-eyed, and he went on his way with a more cheerful heart.
He had a longer wait this time while the maid fetched the housekeeper, who fetched the butler, who consulted the dowager duchess, who summoned him for a brief interview during which he concluded that she wasn't in the least dotty, at least not where it mattered, and then showed him into the library.
Lord Peter was seated at a desk, his gaze directed at the window - futilely, since the heavy curtains were closed, allowing so little light into the room that Bunter had to wait a few seconds for his eyes to adjust, and even then he could make out little more than the profile of the man he had come to see.
He coughed quietly. "My lord."
Lord Peter turned his head and leaned forward slightly. "I say, who is that?" His voice was reedy, as if it hadn't been much in use. "Sorry about the gloom; I find the light rather trying just at present."
"It's Bunter, my lord," he said steadily.
"Is it?" Lord Peter rose and stepped shakily around the desk, squinting towards him. "By all that's good and glorious, it is indeed Bunter." Bunter found his hand grasped and shaken thoroughly; warmth chased away the last of the night's damp chilliness. "I must say, you look better than the last time I saw you."
This was hardly surprising given the circumstances of their previous meeting, but Bunter was unable to return the compliment. Wimsey had always looked odd in uniform, his rather random features distinctly out of place in such orderly clothes, but he looked even stranger now, dressed (or rather undressed) in a brown smoking jacket over a pair of silk pyjamas which did nothing to conceal his emaciated frame. His flyaway hair appeared rather thinner than it had been, and the shadows under his eyes contrasted eerily with the papery paleness of his skin.
"My lord," was all Bunter found to say. I really ought to have come sooner. Then he gathered his wits. "My lord, if you will allow me, I shall have some clothes pressed and laid out for you in half an hour."
Peter looked at him for a long time, his lips quirked in a shadowed smile. "Well, why not?" he said at last. "Yes, why not? In fact, I rather hope to get horribly drunk and maudlin with you in the near future, and we must be dressed for that."
Extraordinary thing. A fellow turned up yesterday claiming to have been Peter's batman (whatever that is) in France, and announced that Peter had offered him, and he had accepted, a position as his valet. There was something about him, hard to describe (in fact, his appearance is very nondescript, although pleasant), but he seemed very dependable. Wondered whether Peter would refuse to see him, as with everyone else, but showed him straight in to the library, and suddenly, there was the first spark of Peter since he came home.
The man (Bunter) is a wonder. Within an hour he had Peter dressed, drinking from a bowl of soup and chatting away to him while I looked on. He says it's in his interests to heal his digestion now, because he wants to get drunk and reminisce with Bunter, and he won't be able to enjoy it properly if his stomach isn't lined.
Gerald made enquiries later that evening, of course: did the man have any references, who knew what kind of fellow he was, Peter could have picked up all sorts in the war, and what if he was taking advantage of P's indisposition? Luckily, he turns out to have an impeccable reference from the Sandertons, so all well there.
Peter awfully sick after Bunter finally indulged him with wine yesterday. Bunter looking unusually pale, too, but not quite as bad a case. They laid waste to several bottles of Paul's claret, so I suppose at least they enjoyed themselves, although will never understand why men need to do this kind of thing. Gin and champagne much more to my taste.
Peter at Sunday luncheon for first time this year. Quite polite to Helen until she mentioned a friend of hers, "very well-connected", at which point P cut her off and entertained us with tales of dark antics in the world of book dealers until the peach melbas arrived. Helen very silly - no friend of hers would suit Peter, nor would he marry anyone for the sake of connections. Why should he need to, indeed?
Relapse. A horse took a bad fall during the hunt and they had to shoot her. Not one of ours, but the poor thing. Peter returned very white and silent, straight to bed. Bunter attending to him.
Bunter just appeared to tell me he has given Peter a draught of something and now he is sleeping. Odd how much confidence the man inspires.
Peter very rude about eggs for breakfast and demanded a sausage. Hurrah! Now I know he is feeling better.
Bunter came to see me; thinks Peter needs a change of scene and would be better off in London. Not enough distractions here in the country. At least, he said nothing of the sort, but somehow I understood all of that. I gave him permission to look up a flat, and promised to speak to Peter about it, although no doubt they have reached an understanding between themselves. They seem to understand one another better than Peter and Gerald ever did, even when they were children.
First day of spring, and they are gone up to Town, Bunter having found a flat in Piccadilly. Peter much brightened by the prospect of excitement. I shall miss them - house feels very empty with only Helen and Gerald for company. Think I shall follow them up to Town very soon, although I have every faith in Bunter. Must think of something illuminating to read, should of course have asked Peter. But all is well.