Far, far from Wipers I long to be,
Where German snipers can't get at me,
Dark is my dugout, cold are my feet,
Waiting for whizz bangs to send me to sleep.
It was a source of unease to Bunter, who had an eye for the finer nuances of men's fashion, that he was obliged to present himself at Duke's Denver in his demob suit, which was missing a top button and, after four years in storage, smelled noticeably of moth balls. His mother had sewn on a new button the previous evening, but the replacement was smaller and lighter than the original, and Bunter suffered greatly under the apprehension that all eyes would instantly be drawn to it. Assuming, that was, that they weren't watering so badly from the camphor that they couldn't see it at all.
"It's no use crying over spilt milk," said his mother, who had come to the station with him to see him off. "Times is hard and I'm sure his lordship will understand. He must 'ave took a shine to you, Mervyn, to offer you a situation out of the blue like that, so I don't suppose he'll mind if you smell a bit funny."
Bunter groaned, but it couldn't be helped. He might have worn one of his brothers' suits, but feelings of delicacy aside, he had always been the tallest of his family, and a missing button was preferable to a missing two inches of trouser leg.
The guard's whistle sounded, and he opened his arms for a farewell embrace, only to find himself smothered in fierce maternal kisses. Mrs Bunter was a tough old bird, but at the sight of her first-born out of uniform, out of the army, and out of danger, she had wept buckets, and it seemed to have given her a taste for histrionics.
Bunter bore the display stoically. Two other sons would never return, having laid down their lives for King and Country, and although Mrs Bunter had received very nice letters from their respective commanding officers and, in one case, a Distinguished Conduct Medal, it was only natural that she should be thinking of them when she said goodbye. The tears in her eyes as her eldest son eased himself out of her arms made him feel worse than ever about having to touch her for ten shillings for the train fare.
The confidence that he would soon be able to return the loan was given something of a battering by the lodgekeeper at the gate to Duke's Denver, a portly man of around forty, too old to have been drafted and too young to have sons in the army. He scrutinised Bunter with the civilian's distrust of the recently demobbed, and on hearing that the stranger wished to present himself to Lord Peter Wimsey, rolled his eyes heavenward and declared that he might as well sod off back to where he came from and save himself the walk. It took a blistering dressing-down in Bunter's best sergeant's manner before the man could be prevailed on to open the gates.
The lengthy trudge up the drive did nothing to restore his complacency, and when he rounded a corner and caught sight of the house itself - a monstrous pile, dripping with decorations, like a Victorian wedding cake - his spirits were depressed still further. A peacock screamed at him as he rounded the east wing. Like the lodgekeeper, it appeared to have avoided the worst effects of rationing; indeed to Bunter's jaundiced eye it looked as fat as the bloated rats that scurried through the trenches after a push.
He found the servants' entrance to the Dower House beneath a spectacularly ugly gargoyle, whose bulging eyes and outraged features suggested that the pipe coming out of its mouth was matched by another rammed into its backside; but its expression was nothing compared to that of the housekeeper, Mrs Sweetapple.
"I don't know what gave you the idea of coming here, I'm sure," she said, her nose wrinkled in disdain, "but his grace is not in the habit of employing vagrants."
Sir John Sanderton's second footman would have accepted the dismissal meekly, but Sergeant Bunter had left friends hanging on the wire in No Man's Land, and housekeepers held no terror for him.
"I am here at the behest of Lord Peter Wimsey," he said obstinately, "Major Wimsey, as was. I should be surprised, Mrs Sweetapple, if you were to consider it your place to countermand his lordship's direct orders." The mental addition, "So stick that up your Khyber, you old gargoyle," was naturally inaudible.
Mrs Sweetapple surrendered with ill grace.
"His lordship is currently indisposed," she snapped. "However, perhaps you will condescend to speak to her grace, the Dowager Duchess. She's with him now. If you would be so kind as to wait, Mr Bunter, I shall explain the situation to her grace."
The situation evidently took some explaining. It was a good quarter of an hour before Bunter was sent into the hall to present himself to the Dowager Duchess, a little round currant bun of a woman, with a quantity of black hair arranged with architectural complexity, and eyes as black and beady as a hamster's. She came down the staircase with an armful of cats and greeted the new arrival with a severe expression.
"Bunter, is it? This really won't do, you know. I can't have you turning up unannounced and terrorising my servants. I don't know what you said to Sweetapple, but you've put her into a terrible flap."
Bunter took a deep breath, acutely conscious of his mis-matched buttons, and delivered himself of his best Jeeves impression. "I merely informed Mrs Sweetapple, your grace, that Lord Peter Wimsey had instructed me to present myself here immediately upon obtaining my demobilisation in order to take up a situation as his personal man."
"Oh," said the Duchess, suddenly looking rather flustered. "Oh. I see. Well, I'm awfully sorry, Bunter, but I'm afraid you've had a wasted journey. His lordship…" she hesitated a moment. "The fact. is Peter isn't terribly well at the moment. The War, you know. He was… he was injured."
"I am aware of that, your grace," said Bunter. "I was a member of the party that dug him out following the explosion and accompanied him to the field hospital."
For the first time, the Duchess really looked at him.
"You were there?" she said. "Was it very terrible? Because I don't see why… I mean, it seems out of all proportion…" She sighed. "It's not even as if he was doing something terribly heroic - if he'd won a VC or something - but it was just the ordinary war. It's just as well his father didn't live to see it, I'm afraid he always found Peter a…" She broke off abruptly.
Bunter felt entirely out of his depth. How was he to explain to this middle-aged woman, who looked at him so pleadingly, what "the ordinary war" had been like? Rats and lice and the flesh rotting on your feet from the damp. Food a dog wouldn't touch. The corpses scattered like fallen leaves, leaking into the putrid mud, their bones poking out through the trench walls. To be buried alive with them, to have that vile mud forcing its way into your throat, your lungs… He couldn't begin to put it into words.
"I believe, your grace, that the anticipation of death renders the experience a great deal more shocking," he said at last.
The Duchess looked thoughtful. "Peter always was very imaginative," she said, "and I suppose the War was particularly hard on that sort of man. Lady Canfield's nephew is perfectly fine, and he got both his legs blown off and a VC, but then he always was the most insensitive child - nothing in his head beyond hunting and shooting, so he probably enjoyed it all no end, apart from the legs, of course, though he has artificial ones now, and one can hardly tell the difference, although obviously Germans aren't the same as foxes, and it would be very wicked to take pleasure in shooting them, except for the ones that eat babies. Still, I've always felt that some of the stories one reads in the newspapers aren't entirely reliable - there was one last week about a woman giving birth to seventeen rabbits, which does seem like rather a lot, doesn't it? So perhaps there wasn't quite so much baby-eating going on as they made out - whereas Peter was always rather prone to nightmares, and I don't suppose it was easy for him, having to give all those orders to people to go out and get blown up and shot and so on. And being so imaginative, he couldn't help seeing what happened to them inside his own head, which must have made it much worse."
"Very probably, your grace," said Bunter.
"Well, since you know the story, I suppose you might as well see him," said the Duchess after a moment. "I'm afraid he's having one of his bad days today. Dr Cameron has prescribed a rest cure to settle his nerves, but sometimes I think he would benefit from reading some more up-to-date medical books – Dr Cameron, I mean – because he never did cope very well with boredom and I'm sure reading would do him good, except he's not allowed books in case they over-stimulate him. This is his room here." Her voice sank to a whisper. "I'm afraid we have to keep it locked, in case he wanders off. He doesn't always know where he is, you see, and it can be rather difficult for visitors if they run into him unexpectedly, like Uncle Matthew, although of course he wouldn't hurt a fly, but they can't be expected to know that. People are so dreadfully frightened by mental illness, aren't they?"
She turned the handle and the door opened, to reveal a darkened room. There were no lamps, and the sharp winter sun was excluded by thick drapes, so that the only light issued from a fire blazing in a vast stone fireplace. The room was as hot as a furnace, but the figure huddled in an armchair in front of the fire was nonetheless wrapped in several layers of blankets.
"He feels the cold," the Duchess whispered. "On days like this he can't seem to stop shivering."
"Who's that?" said a fretful voice, and a pale face turned towards them. "I can't see you. What do you want?"
Bunter took a deep breath of the hot stale air and moved instinctively to the window.
"Sergeant Bunter, my lord," he said, flinging back the drapes and flooding the room with light, "Come to take up the situation as agreed."
"Bunter? Good lord, is that really you?" The thin face lit up like a beacon, and Bunter felt a lurch in the vicinity of his chest. Major Wimsey had never been physically imposing - though he had made up for it with a glare that could freeze the balls off a polar bear - but the man in the chair looked like a child's stick figure. "What are you doing here, Sergeant? Are you on leave?"
"No, my lord, the War is over."
"Oh Peter, dear, I've told you that," said the Duchess. "The Armistice was months ago."
"Did you, mother?" said Wimsey. "I'm sorry, I don't remember. I get things muddled, you see, Bunter. I'm afraid I'm not quite right in the head."
His face twisted as if he might cry.
"Is any of us, my lord?" said Bunter, fumbling with the window latch. A moment later the pane swung open and a great swatch of clean cold air poured into the room. The Duchess gasped, and Bunter hastened to consolidate his position before she could protest.
"Might I suggest, my lord, that there is no better reassurance that hostilities have ended than a nice hot bath. Then, if your lordship is agreeable, we might take a stroll around the park – the ground is as sound as a bell with all this frost – and I can apprise your lordship of what the lads from the Regiment are up to in peacetime."
"Peacetime," said Wimsey, a look of wonder crossing his face. "So it's really true?"
"Indeed, my lord. If your grace would be so good as to leave us now, I will prepare his lordship for his bath."
"Oh yes, of course, do carry on, Bunter," said the Duchess, and had somehow backed out of the room before she quite knew what she was doing. She found Bunter rather disconcerting, like an avalanche that swept away everything in its path, expressing tactful deference as it went, not to mention the fact that he emanated a faint scent of mothballs, but he seemed to be doing Peter good, and that was what mattered.
As she closed the door behind her she heard Bunter say, "Watkins finally got that blighty one, my lord. He got fed up of waiting for the Almighty to intervene and stuck his hand up over the edge of the trench with a cap on it. The bullet took off two fingers, clean as a whistle." Then Peter's voice, more vivid than she had heard it for weeks, "Watkins always did have the devil's own luck."
"Indeed, my lord. And speaking of devils, young Phipps got married, the very day he was demobbed. His young lady was waiting for him at the docks with a Minister and dragged him straight off to the nearest church."
"Did she, by Jove? Well done her! There's a young woman who knows her own mind."
"Yes, my lord. I shouldn't care to be married to Phipps myself, my lord, but there's no accounting for taste."
"The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing," observed Lord Peter Wimsey, who was always ready with an apt quotation, and his mother, still lurking outside the door, had to raise her hand to brush away a sudden spill of tears.