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Authors: Dorothy L. Sayers,Jill Paton Walsh

Tags: #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction

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Oh, well! Meanwhile, Paggleham continues to adapt itself to war conditions. On Wednesday we had a fire-practice, with Mr Puffett in charge. (His all-round experience in the building and chimney-sweeping way is held to qualify him to take the lead in emergencies of this sort.) I said they might hold their demonstration here, on the strict understanding that little Paul should take no personal part in the proceedings and that the pouring of water inside the house should be a purely symbolic act. We arranged a very fine performance: an incendiary bomb was to be deemed to have come through your bedroom ceiling, with the accompaniment of high explosive in the scullery, the maids playing parts as casualties, and the children and I as victims of the fire. We thought it better not to sound the local siren and whistles for fear of misunderstanding, but the vicar kindly gave the signal for the attack by having the church bells rung.
Everything went off beautifully. Miss Twitterton was with us, having come over from Pagford for choir-practice (even in war-time, Wednesday is always choir-practice), and rendered first-aid superbly. I lent her your old tin hat (‘for protection from shrapnel and falling brickwork’) and her pleasure was indescribable. We evacuated Polly and Bredon from the bedroom window and the other two from the attic in a sheet, and had just got to the pièce de résistance – my own rescue from the roof with a dummy baby under one arm and the family plate under the other – when the Vicarage kitchen-maid arrived panting to say that the Vicarage chimney was afire and would Mr Puffett please come quick. Our gallant fire-captain immediately snatched away the ladder, leaving me marooned on the roof, and pelted up the lane still in his gas mask, and followed by the ARP warden crying that it would be blackout time in half an hour, and if Hitler was to catch sight of that there chimney ablaze there wouldn’t half be trouble with the police. So I retired gracefully through the skylight, and we transferred the venue to the Vicarage, getting the fire extinguished in nineteen and a half minutes by the warden’s watch – after which the fire-fighters adjourned to the Crown for beer, and I had the vicar and his wife to dinner, their kitchen being – like Holland – not actually flooded, but pretty well awash . . .
Honoria Lucasta, Dowager Duchess of Denver, to Lady Peter Wimsey at Talboys.


The Dower House,
15th December, 1939
Bredon Hall,
Duke’s Denver, Norfolk


Dearest Harriet,
How tiresome for you that Polly should have caught this horrid flu germ! I can’t think why the Almighty should have wanted to make such a lot of the nasty little creatures – misplaced ingenuity I should call it in anybody else. Though I read in a book the other day that germs were probably quite well-behaved, originally, but had taken to bad habits and living on other people, like mistletoe. Interesting, if true, and all Adam and Eve’s fault, no doubt. Anyway, I saw Mary in town and told her not to worry and she sent love and said how sweet of you to stay at home and look after her erring offspring. I hope you have received all the parcels. I couldn’t get a gas-mask case to match the dress-pattern exactly, but the one I sent tones in pretty well, I think. The shoes have had to be specially dyed, I’m afraid – it seems to be rather a difficult colour. I hope the Christmas cards will do. I had a terrible time with the sacred ones; there seems to be nothing this year between things from the British Museum and those sentimental modern ones with the Virgin and angels very thin and willowy and ten feet tall. Such a mistake, too, to imagine that children approve of baby cherubs and little darling boys and girls swarming over everything. At least, I know my children always wanted stories and pictures about proper-sized people, whether it was knights or cavaliers or pirates, and just the same with their dolls and things – I suppose it gave them a grown-up feeling and counteracted their inferiority complexes.
It’s only grown-ups who want children to be children; children themselves always want to be real people – do remember that, dear, won’t you? But I’m sure you will because you’re always most tactful with them, even with your own Bredon; more a friend than a parent, so to speak. All this cult of keeping young as long as possible is a lot of unnatural nonsense; no wonder the world seems to get sillier and sillier. Dear me! when I think of some of the Elizabethan Wimseys: the third Lord Christian, for instance, who could write four languages at eleven, left Oxford at fifteen, married at sixteen and had two wives and twelve children by the time he was thirty (two lots of twins, certainly, but it’s all experience), besides producing a book of elegies and a learned disquisition on Leviathans, and he would have done a great deal more, I dare say, if he hadn’t unfortunately been killed by savages on Drake’s first voyage to the Indies. I sometimes feel that our young people don’t get enough out of life these days. However, I hear young Jerry shot down a German bomber last week, and that’s something, though I don’t think he’s likely to do very much with the languages or the Leviathans.
Talking of books, I had a heartfelt outburst from the young woman at the library, who said she really didn’t know what to do with some of the subscribers. If there isn’t a brand-new book published for them every day they go in, they grumble frightfully, and they won’t condescend to take anything that’s a couple of months old, even if they haven’t read it, which seems quite demented. They seem to spend their time running to catch up with the day after tomorrow – is it the influence of Einstein? The girl asked when there was going to be a new Harriet Vane murder story. I said you thought the dictators were doing quite enough in that way, but she said her readers wanted their minds taken off dictators, though why murders should do that I don’t know – you’d think it would remind them. I suppose people like to persuade themselves that death is a thing that only happens in books, and if you come to think of it, that’s probably the way they feel about religion, too, hence the pretty-pretty Christmas cards. All the same, I’m sending a few assorted murders to the poor dear men who are being so bored on the balloon barrage and jobs like that. So dull for them, poor things, and nobody seems to take much interest in them. More romantic, of course, to send to the men overseas, but it can’t be so solitary out there as sitting up all night with a blimp in darkest England.
Talking of darkest England, what one wants on the shops at night is not just a sign saying ‘Open’, but something to show what they’ve got inside. They’re allowed a little light on the goods, but if one’s driving along one can’t possibly see whether a pile of vague little shapes is cigarettes or chocolates or bath buns or something to do with wireless sets; and it doesn’t help much to see just ‘J. Blogg’ or ‘Pumpkin and Co.’ unless you know what Blogg or Pumpkin is supposed to be selling.
My dear, this letter is full of shopping and nonsense, but I’ve made up my mind that we just mustn’t worry about Peter because he disappeared so many times in the last war and always turned up again more or less safe and sound. He’s got quite a good instinct of self-preservation, really. And he’s not stupid, which is a comfort, whatever Kingsley has to say about being good and letting who will be clever, though I don’t see how you can be clever just by willing. Peter always maintains that Kingsley said ‘can’, not ‘will’, and perhaps he did. I only hope he still has Bunter with him, though if he’s gone into any queer place in disguise I can’t think what he can have done with him, because if ever a man had ‘English gentleman’s personal gentleman’ written all over him, it’s Bunter. I had a letter from him yesterday, so discreet it might have been written from Piccadilly, and conveying the compliments of the season to all the Family, with a capital F.
We’re looking forward to seeing you all for Christmas, germs permitting. I hope you won’t mind our being overrun with evacuees and children’s parties – Christmas tree and conjurer in the ballroom, with charades and games after supper – I’m afraid it will be rather noisy and rampageous and not very restful.
Always your affectionate


PS: I’m sorry my English is so confusing. It was Bunter, not Peter, who wrote the discreet letter, and Peter, not Kingsley, who has Bunter with him – at least, I hope so.
Lady Peter Wimsey to Lord Peter Wimsey, somewhere abroad. (extract)
6th February, 1940
. . . This is the coldest winter anyone can remember. The Pag has frozen solid, and all the children and the land-girls have been skating on the village pond, looking like a scene painted by Brueghel. There is no coal to be had for love nor money, which is more to do with the freeze-up than the enemy. Troops are being used to dig snow off the railway lines. I’m afraid the vine in the glass-house will die, but other than lining the glass with newspaper – it is already elaborately criss-crossed with sticky tape, as are all the windows of the house – I can’t think what to do about it. We have no fuel to spare for a heater; as it is we are carrying branches home from Blackden Wood, and spending most of the day in the kitchen, where Mrs Trapp keeps the range going splendidly, and it’s always warm.
In all this chill we need a hot topic, and that is provided by the land-girls. Seven of them are working at Datchett’s farm and five at Bateson’s. John Bateson has lodged them in the outbuildings just beyond our kitchen garden, you know – the range that was the stable yard and tack rooms before this house was split from the farm itself. They all seem rather jolly to me, and incredibly hard-working. John Bateson seems rather hard on them: I heard him the other day saying, ‘You’ve come here to do a man’s job, and you’ll just have to get on with it!’ They have been kitted out for work with awful fawn aertex shirts, grey slacks and green pullovers but they wear silk stockings and lipstick when off duty, and have rapidly acquired a reputation for being ‘fast’, which has all the young men buzzing round like wasps at a honey pot. There’s no shortage of young men to buzz round, because we have two airfields between here and Broxford, and some sort of hush-hush military establishment in the Manor House, requisitioned from the squire, and full of youngsters in mufti fond of dancing and the flicks when off duty. This is all rather a lot to swallow for the older people, who shake their heads over it all till their necks must ache!
The other big news is that the Anderson shelters have arrived – at long last; Broxford and Lopsley have had theirs for weeks – and of course the ground is frozen so hard that nobody can dig the holes in the gardens required to erect them. Mr Gudgeon – you remember him, the landlord of the Crown – has made his cellars available as a public shelter. It turns out the Crown is much older than it looks above ground; it has a warren of vaulted powerfully ancient-looking undercrofts, which surely must have been part of an abbey before the Reformation, and although the handiest part, down some stairs behind the bar, is full of beer barrels, there are positively spacious catacombs further in. Gudgeon will throw these open to the villagers. The president of the Paggleham Women’s Institute was talking of providing comforts – built-in bunks, paraffin heaters, tea-kettles, a library of second-hand books, communal blankets – when, behold and lo! a difficulty arises: the Methodists of Paggleham will on no account be herded into a public house, not even as a matter of life and death. Mr Gudgeon, rather magnanimously I thought, offered to close off his beer barrels so that one could reach the safety of the vaults without even catching sight of a stave or hoop or spigot, but it will not do. In Paggleham not even Hitler will cause a Methodist to be caught sight of entering a public house.
There matters rested for several days until someone remembered ‘The Cave’, an excavation in the chalk of Spring Hill, used, I am told, in the Napoleonic War as a munitions store, and seemingly deep enough for safety, and large enough for the congregation of the Chapel. Mrs Ruddle’s Bert is duly at work fitting it out with primitive bunks; never let it be said that Church folk or the Godless had an easier berth than Chapel folk . . .
I can’t help thinking that in practice, when we get an air-raid, everyone will rush to the nearest point of safety, and we shall have ecumenical havens, one each end of the village.
As Hitler has not yet obliged us with an actual peril, our excellent ARP committee has ordered a rehearsal on Saturday night, when an air-raid will be supposed to take place. It has to be Saturday, as everyone is available then, and nobody wants to imitate the horrible inconvenience that might attend a real air-raid.
Since there is to be a dance on Saturday next week in the Village Memorial Hall, and we don’t want to disappoint the brave fellows from the airfields all around, the practice is timed for just after the dance, and we shall see if the Methodists’ cave is near enough to be reached in time. The cave would be nearer than the Crown for Talboys, of course, but I have promised to help Mrs Goodacre with the refreshments for the dance, so it will be the vaults for us this time. Dear Peter, how petty all this must seem to you, reading this letter, if you ever get it, in the middle of something much more world-shattering, and in danger for which no artificial rehearsal is necessary. But it’s all the news there is from our parish pump. God keep us from having anything more interesting to write to you about! . . .






It is through chance that, from among the various
individuals of which each of us is composed,
one emerges rather than another.
Henry de Montherlant,
Explicit Mysterium
, 1931
 ‘Whoever, for example, Lady Peter,’ said Miss Agnes Twitterton, ‘is that?’
‘You do have a point, my dear,’ said Mrs Goodacre, the vicar’s wife, who was standing with the two women behind a trestle table at one end of the Village Hall, pouring out Miss Twitterton’s parsnip wine into rows of assorted sherry glasses. ‘There was a time, as you say, and not so long ago, when we would have known everybody we could possibly meet here – when any stranger was a seven-day wonder – and now here we are organising a village hop, and we don’t know half the people here. They could be anybody; indeed I expect they are.’
BOOK: A Presumption of Death
6.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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