Copyright © 2002 by Jill Paton Walsh and The Trustees of Anthony Fleming, deceased
First published in Great Britain in 2002 by Hodder and Stoughton
An Hachette Livre UK Company
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Book ISBN 978 0 340 82067 4
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For Barbara, who remembers
Honoria Lucasta, Dowager Duchess of Denver, to her American friend, Cornelia, wife of Lambert B. Vander-Huysen, of New York.
12th November, 1939
Duke’s Denver, Norfolk
I think I had better write you my usual Christmas letter now, because naturally the war has upset the posts a little; and one can’t really expect ships to go quickly when they are convoyed about like a school crocodile, so tedious for them, or keep to Grand Geometry, or whatever the straight course is called, when they have to keep darting about like snipe to avoid submarines, and anyway I like to get my correspondence in hand early and not do it at the last moment with one’s mind full of Christmas trees – though I suppose there will be a shortage of those this year, but, as I said to our village school-mistress, so long as the children get their presents I don’t suppose they’ll mind whether you hang them on a conifer or the Siegfried Line, and as a matter of fact Denver is thinning a lot of little firs out of the plantation, and you’d better ask him for one before he sends them all to the hospitals.
And really, Cornelia, I think you must have been listening to Goering or Goebbels or that Haw Haw man or something: the suburbs aren’t in ruins and Oxford and Cambridge haven’t been invaded by anything worse than a lot of undergraduates from other universities, so good for both sides, I think, though I’m told the plague of bicycles in the streets is quite a menace – still, it never was anything else – and we’ve got plenty of butter and guns, if it comes to that, though they keep on saying they’re going to ration them, just as Hitler keeps on saying he’s going to begin, only he doesn’t go: like the people in the
Pirates of Penzance
, and Peter says if he waits much longer the audience will refuse to clap and perhaps the Munich bomb was in the nature of a cat-call, but what I say is, if little Adolf found anything nasty in that beer-cellar he must have brought it with him. And, talking of Peter, I can’t really tell you where he is, because he’s gone back to his old job, and everything comes without any proper address through the Foreign Office. I rather fancy he may have been in Turkey a little while ago, from something he said about the coffee being good; I can’t think of any other place where that would be likely to happen, because he never really likes French coffee (too much chicory), and nobody else seems to have any, except us, and I know he’s somewhere abroad, the letters take so long. Wherever it was, he isn’t there now, and that makes me think it must have been Turkey, because they seem to have settled everything splendidly there. But of course this is only guess-work.
It’s very hard on poor Harriet, his being sent off like that, but she is being very sensible; they’ve shut the London house, and she’s gone down to Talboys, that’s their farmhouse in Hertfordshire, with the children – I enclose a photograph of little Paul, he’s nearly a year old now, and Bredon just three; how time flies! – and my daughter Mary’s youngsters are there, too. I think it’s very good of Harriet to take care of her sister-in-law’s children but she says it’s no more trouble than looking after just her own. You’ll think it’s a doting grandmother speaking, but they are very nice children: Charles Peter, who likes to be called Charlie now he is ten, Mary who gets called Polly just as her mother used to, and little Harriet, who is only three, but very sweet-tempered. However you look at it, I think it must be a lot of work for Harriet, but it frees Mary for war work. She’s doing ARP work and looking after her husband – you remember him, Charles Parker, the CID Chief Inspector – naturally he can’t leave town. They seem well and happy and very busy. Charles was a little upset the other day over finding two human legs (a very bad match) in a police-post, tied up in brown paper. He said it made him feel he was going to miss Peter. However, it turned out they had only been left there by a man who was taking them to a hospital and had popped them inside out of the rain while he hunted for a taxi in the blackout, and it would all have been cleared up quite quickly, only when the poor man had found the taxi he’d forgotten where the police-post was, and drove wildly round the West End looking for it; so confusing, but one must expect these little inconveniences in war-time. And à propos of sandbags (oh, no, I didn’t mention them, but the police-post was built of sandbags, a sort of little hut, you know, like a night-watchman’s) you can’t think how queer Piccadilly Circus looks with Eros gone and a sort of pyramid like King Cheops on a small scale built up over the fountain – though why they should take all that trouble I can’t think; unless it’s the water-mains, except that people feel very sentimental about it and if anyone dropped a bomb on it they’d feel the heart of Empire had stopped beating. Peter says we ought to do something constructive in the opposite direction and floodlight the Albert Memorial because the park would be better without it, but poor Queen Victoria would turn in her grave and, as I reminded him, he didn’t know Queen Victoria personally: I did.
Yes, my dear, we are all quite all right. My older son Gerald, Duke of Denver, is worried about my grandson Jerry, of course, because he’s in the RAF, and naturally that’s rather dangerous, but dear boy, how he is enjoying himself, being able to go just as fast as he likes (you remember how he used to terrify us with that big racing-car). His father says he ought to have got married to somebody first so as to provide an heir in case of accidents. ‘Really, Gerald,’ I said, ‘fancy worrying about that at a time like this. If there’s anything left to be heir to when we’ve finished paying for the war, Peter’s got two boys – and, judging by Jerry’s present taste in young women, we are mercifully spared.’ That was rather tactless, I suppose, because Gerald’s fretting quite enough about the estate already; he says we shall be ruined, of course, but he doesn’t mind that if only he can do his duty by the land.
And then we’ve got a big boys’ school in the west wing, and that gets on his nerves sometimes – still, most fortunately, Helen, his wife, isn’t here, which relieves the tension. As you know, I never like to criticise my daughter-in-law, but she is a very difficult sort of person and I was devoutly thankful when she took herself off to the Ministry of Instruction and Morale. What she can possibly have to instruct anyone about I don’t know, but as the place is packed with everybody’s wives and nephews and all the real jobs seem to have been handed over to other departments it’s as good a spot as any to intern the nation’s trouble-makers, and she’s got three secretaries paid by a grateful country to endure her so all is for the best. There was a picture of her in the papers last week, glaring like the wrath of God and when Denver saw it I thought he’d burst a blood vessel or have a blood-bath or something, only fortunately, just at that moment, one of our little evacuees put a cricket ball through the long window of the yellow saloon, and in the strain of trying to swear on two fronts at once the frightfulness blew itself off. They are all elementaries (the evacuees, I mean) from a rather slummy bit of London, and I’m afraid the infant cherub with the cricket bat made pique, repique and capot of Denver before he could score half his vocabulary. Curious and charming, isn’t it, how much the peerage and the proletariat have in common once you get down to the raw stuff of life, so to speak. Any nice middle-class foster-parent would have turned purple, but Gerald burst out laughing and has begun to take quite an interest in the school. In fact, he’s offered to umpire their end-of-term sports competition, and has lent them a pony for riding lessons.
Well, my dear, I must stop now and see a deputation from the Women’s Rural Institute, who are getting up a Nativity Play for Polish refugees, so sweet of them, and most providentially there’s a full moon for Christmas, so we shall get a good audience. I have promised to play ‘Anna a prophetess’ – I’d forgotten there was such a person so I must look her up quickly before they come. We carry on, you see, war or no war: ‘we don’t take no account of blackouts in these parts,’ having never known the bright lights. (Dear me, Cornelia, what would you do with a blackout in New York?) And, as for wars, this is a very old country, and we can remember a great many of them.
My best love and all the good wishes of the season to you and yours.
Your affectionate old friend,
Harriet, Lady Peter Wimsey, to Lord Peter Wimsey, somewhere abroad. (extract)
17th November, 1939
Nr Great Pagford, Herts
. . . I’ve been trying to write an article about war-aims and peace-aims, though I’m not at all sure that all this definition doesn’t end by darkening counsel, on the principle of ‘Mummy, I think I might understand if only you wouldn’t explain.’ We all know pretty well that something we value is threatened, but when we try to say what, we’re left with a bunch of big words like justice, freedom, honour, truth and so on, that embarrass us, because they’ve been misused so often they sound like platform claptrap. And then there’s ‘peace’. Peter, I’m terrified by this reiterated demand for ‘enduring peace and lasting settlement’ – it’s far too like the ‘war to end war’. Do we really still persuade ourselves that there’s some final disposition of things – territory, economic adjustment, political machinery – that will stabilise all human relationships by a stroke of the pen? That the story can end in the old-fashioned way with wedding-bells: ‘so they married and lived happy ever after’? If so, we need an Ibsen to deal with public life.
If one looks back at the last twenty years, one sees at how many points we might have prevented this war, if it hadn’t been for our inflexible will to peace. We said ‘Never again’, as though ‘never’ wasn’t the rashest word in the language. ‘River, of thy water will I never drink!’ We will never go to war again, we will revise all treaties in conference; we will never revise anything for fear of starting a war; we will never interfere in other people’s wars, we will always keep the peace: – we wooed peace as a valetudinarian woos health, by brooding over it till we became really ill. No wonder we couldn’t stand by the Covenant of the League, which set out to enforce peace by making every local injustice an occasion for total war. That idea was either too brutal or too heroic, I’m not sure which. A mistake, anyway. What I want to say is that there’s no hope of getting peace till we stop talking about it. But I don’t suppose that view will be very popular! As for going into a terrifying conflict under the leadership of Neville Chamberlain – hoping against hope that he will be better at war than he was at securing ‘peace in our time’ – everyone says he was trying his best, but his best might not be nearly good enough.