Peter was tired. Not the tired cured by sleep or a week in the country (far from his sister-in-law), but a sort of bone-deep, nagging exhaustion. It dogged his steps, dimmed his joie de vivre, left the cases he turned to lacklustre and unsatisfying.
Nor did joy return in the arms of the bird of paradise he dallied with in Vienna; Miss Climpson failed to win more than the politest of smiles; even Gherkins and a new truck palled after an unheard-of forty-five minutes.
"My lord," Bunter said at last, as he served eggs and sausages for breakfast on a wintry day, "may I enquire of Miss Vane?"
Peter dropped his newspaper in the jam-dish and looked up, wearing the mien of a fawn at bay.
Bunter raised an eyebrow. Few but he ever saw - were ever allowed to see - Wimsey so discomposed. Remembering his place, he lowered the brow again and bowed his head. "Forgive me, my lord. I merely wondered, as your lordship has seemed somewhat withdrawn of late."
Peter raised a brow, and then his monocle. The question was well outside of Bunter's place, and although the lines between master and man were blurred, at times, it was not the type of thing Bunter was wont to put into words.
"Are you taking up a career as an agony aunt, my Bunter? I am desolated to inform you that I shall not be availing myself of your services, if so."
Bunter simply gave a small smile, and bowed his head again. From another man, it would have been a stinging rebuke. From this man, his master and his Captain, it was simply a refusal to discuss it. Bunter had expected no less.
The following week, however, he was startled to receive orders to pack for an unspecified period on the Riviera. Peter detested the place, preferring to play in Vienna or Rome, and when travelling to France staying mainly in Paris.
But on arrival, the first thing Bunter saw was a Young Person he knew to be a particular friend of one Miss Vane, and that answered everything, including the unfashionable hotel Peter had selected. The Villa Rivoli, however, sat directly across the street from the modest lodgings from whence Miss Vane's friend had emerged. Bunter understood, unpacked, and laid out his lordship's evening clothes with perfect decorum.
To Bunter's knowledge, Miss Vane was completely unaware of the three weeks that Lord Peter Wimsey lived and breathed across the street from her. And Peter made no special attempts to see her, nor watch her - he was not so crass, reflected Bunter, even if he was sometimes unwise.
Peter spent his days between the embassy, the gendarmerie, and the homes of various friends, partly working, although Bunter was unsure of his exact employment at the time - be it for the secret service, the government or private investigation - and partly simply socialising - but the dragging weariness was gone, and Peter was his usual gay self.
Bunter, who had noted some time ago that this time Peter was well and truly sunk, simply added it to Miss Vane's account. It wasn't that he disliked her - it wasn't his place to like or dislike those that took his lordship's fancy after all. It was simply that, so far, she was not worthy, and her account was going more and more heavily into arrears.
Peter was tired. He had been dragging about the London house for a week, barely summoning the energy to answer telegrams as they came. He had even cancelled his weekly evening with his brother-in-law Charles.
"My lord," Bunter said at last, as he served eggs and sausages for breakfast on a wintry day, "may I enquire of her ladyship?"
Peter sighed and looked up. Harriet and the children were at Talboys for a month, and he missed them like he missed the sun. Not that it was Bunter's place to ask.
"She's very well," he said, with a hint of frost in his voice. But the corners of his mouth turned up unbidden as he looked at the amused sympathy in the eyes of his man. "Ah, my Bunter, here you are at agony aunt again. Whatever shall I do with you?"
Bunter handed Peter the newspaper. He had taken the precaution of keeping it back until after his question. Cleaning the jam-spots from the tablecloth had been no job of his, but he had been told all about it. At length.
"May I suggest that the tenants in Hertfordshire may be pleased to see your lordship as the festive season approaches?"
Peter's reluctant smile became a grin. 'You know me too well, Bunter. Yet I must attend at Duke's Denver in a week - it cannot be helped."
"And so your lordship may," Bunter said with some aplomb, "but in the meantime, London grows thin of company and tiresome."
"And so I may," Peter mused. He looked at the sausages and eggs before him, and speared at the dish with sudden enthusiasm. "You have the right of it, Bunter, as always. Telegraph Harriet for me, and send for the car. We'll go up this afternoon."
The following morning, Bunter was awakened by his lordship singing songs in the French language beneath his window. Blearily, he poked his head out of the casement to find Peter busily engaged in chopping kindling for the kitchen stove.
Bunter regarded him for a moment, considered calling out and offering his services, then rejected the idea. His lordship was having the time of his life.
He soundlessly closed the window and dressed, then headed for the kitchen, where he found Harriet deep in conversation with Mrs. Ruddle. "Good morning my lady," he said, "Mrs. Ruddle," then withdrew.
"A moment, Bunter," Harriet said, following him from the room and closing the door on Mrs. Ruddle's inquiring look.
"Yes, my lady?" Bunter waited for an errand or commission - Peter's Christmas present to be fetched from the village, a woman villager in need to be driven somewhere while Peter was otherwise engaged - and was surprised at the soft press of his mistress' hand on his arm.
"Thank you, Bunter. Thank you for making him come. He was so angry when I refused to go to Duke's Denver this year - but now his mother is gone, there is no reason for it." She pressed her lips together, and Bunter knew, as good servants do, all the things she kept back. Helen's snideness making life unpleasant for Harriet, and her sons - Peter's bright, sensitive boys as bewildered by their uncle as Peter had been by his own father - Jerry's drinking weighing down the whole celebration, worse now that Bredon was old enough to notice.
Bunter, moved, just for a moment touched the fingers that rested so lightly on his sleeve. "As ever, my lady, I remain at your ladyship's service," he said stiffly.
"Merry Christmas, Bunter," Harriet said. "I have no idea where we would any of us be without you." She turned back to the kitchen, and Bunter, vision unaccountably wonky, pulled his coat from the hook by the door and went, after all, to help Peter with the kindling.