It would be misleading to say that, during his two years exile incognito and carefully presented death, Lord Peter Wimsey had envisioned his homecoming. For one thing, he knew very well that his best and only chance of success in this endeavor depended on the complete believability of his role. The man Rogers had no flat, valet and peerage awaiting him at the successful conclusion of his subterfuge; therefore neither did Wimsey. For another, he was disinclined, when he approached the thing rationally, to believe much in the possibility of a return, and had thought once or twice, during his constant preparations, that if he were to go down after a successful destruction of the gang it would save everyone a great deal of trouble, including himself. Everyone but Bunter and his mother and sister would have got their grieving well over with, and even those three would have become thoroughly and necessarily accustomed to a life without his presence. Nor would any lawyers need be involved.
The deed done, however, the evidence entered, the criminals dispatched, and Parker -- who had shown a tendency to grin foolishly at nothing and blow his nose periodically in a most unprofessional manner -- having deposited him in Piccadilly, Lord Peter took a deep breath, rolled his shoulders, and allowed himself to think, in luxuriant detail, about the meal, bath and bed Bunter would have prepared for him.
The nursery-maid weeping copiously in his sitting room came as a surprise.
She seemed a very genteel girl, as nursery-maids go, possibly with designs on higher station, and even in her obvious distress was maintaining her vowels and aitches admirably. Bunter stood most correctly beside her, and, judging from the two balls of crumpled linen at her feet and the third in her hand, had already twice supplemented her own handkerchief supplies with his own.
The expression Wimsey's valet turned to him was only momentarily a stricken one, before he inclined his head politely and said, as if his two-years'-dead master had merely stepped out to visit his club, "My lord."
The maid looked up at Wimsey with a stricken expression that was by no means momentary, and staggered to her feet, attempting to curtsy while still holding the handkerchief to a regrettably blotchy nose.
"My lord, oh my lord, what you'll think of me, what she'll say to me..."
Understandable irritation reared its head briefly in Wimsey's eyes, then slunk away, dismissed by humor and a sort of tired, amused compassion.
"Alright, my dear, you are since my time but the terror with which you invest the feminine pronoun marks you as one of Helen's staff. Winifred's penultimate caretaker, I presume? And why are you weeping in her uncle's flat at...good heavens, Bunter, is that clock accurate? No wonder I'm fit to drop."
"It's my fault, sir."
The voice was only vaguely familiar, and the figure that now emerged from the kitchen less so. Viscount St. George, the future -- Lord willing -- Duke of Denver, had been an undergrown child, for whom turning thirteen had produced no change but pimples, when Lord Peter Wimsey bade him a blithe farewell a few days before the Christmas of 1928, pleading the irresistible draw of African hunting.
He was now full as tall as his diminutive uncle, tastefully if hastily dressed in his school clothes, standing very straight in the doorway. He held a glass of milk in one hand, which he placed on a table beside him a trifle too quickly for his air of insouciance.
"Detective Parker called grandmother, and I wanted to...I thought I ought...I was.."
"Yes, Jerry?" Peter said, his voice carefully unemotional, as the boy paused for a deep breath.
The intended gentle, bracing effect failed. Peter's nephew gave one enormous gulp, his voice leapt into childhood registers, and with an inarticulate sound he thudded into Wimsey nearly hard enough to knock him down.
Bunter looked studiously at the floor and the maid, emboldened, burst into a fresh burst of sobs.
St. George, his head on his uncle's shoulder, did not cry, though his frame bucked once or twice against the tentative arm that curved around his shoulders. Other than that arm, Wimsey stood very still, his face distantly thoughtful, his eyes on the wall opposite. The boy sniffed once, audible even over the maid, and began to extricate himself.
Wimsey retained him by the simple expedient of keeping his arm steady, and brought his other hand up. The attenuated, graceful fingers lay for a long moment like a benediction on the tow-colored hair, thicker and unrulier but otherwise identical to his own.
"Alright, Gherkins," he said, very quietly and very steadily. "Alright."
Jerry swallowed, hard, and then straighted. Wimsey pushed the boy from him then and looked him over, appraisingly.
"Two years, it appears, can add quite a lot. Sit down, idiot; it makes me feel old to have you loom at me. Lord help us, when boys become men and elope with nursery maids..."
The boy of two years ago would have flushed scarlet and exploded in excuses; St. George, having profited as intended from the brusque and cheerful tone, merely grinned.
"More pursued than eloped, Uncle."
Cue horrified gasp from the maid, and a quelling, "My lord Viscount," from her fellow domestic. Wimsey applied himself to the task of salving her wounded feelings.
"Ignore the flippancy of youth and the degeneracy of old age, Miss..."
"Williams, my lord," Bunter interposed.
"Miss Williams. How did you find yourself in this unfortunate company at this ungodly hour?"
Miss Williams, not insensitive to being addressed so respectfully by her mistress' brother in law, sniffled and sat up straighter.
"I saw him leaving, my lord, or rather, my lady his sister did. And I could only get her to stay in her room by promising to stop him myself, but.."
"When I found out she intended to stop me herself or raise the alarm," the Viscount interrupted cheerfully, "I hauled her into the passenger seat and gunned off too fast for screams."
"A vain, giddy, shallow, humorous youth..." Wimsey quoted absently, and then abruptly turned the full force of his glare upon his nephew.
"Do you mean to tell me, you omnicidal puppy, that you drove here from Duke's Denver? At fifteen years old and in the time since Parker called my mother?"
"I'd've hailed a p'leeceman but it's as much as my place is worth..." Miss Williams wailed, training giving way at last.
"I was home on holiday. It'd've been far easier to come from school, but you were dashed inconsiderate in your timing..."
Jerry managed cheeky impudence for a few seconds and then looked down, abashedly, before his uncle's eyes.
Wimsey, with the deliberate movements of exhaustion, raised a slender hand to his face and massaged his forehead.
"Bunter?" he managed, plaintively.
"I believe there is a train leaving soon, my lord, that bears an excellent chance of returning Miss Williams and his young lordship before their absence is necessarily noted. Lady Winifred is the most likely to remark upon it, and she may be safely assumed to keep silence."
"Splendid. Memory has not overgilded you, Bunter."
"I could drive us back just as.." Jerry began mutinously, and quailed immediately under his uncle's glance. He had never before remarked a resemblance between Uncle Peter and Dad, but it was hard to miss at present.
"Having recently returned from the dead, young man, I have had quite enough of wills, bequests and funerals. Nor have I any intention of letting myself in for the live burial of the duchy, as will be my fate if you fail to survive long enough to meet the unfortunate woman destined to bear your sons. If you get home too late to fool anyone, the game is simply up; if you make it, wake up your Aunt Mary and tell her to train up before Gerald notices the missing car. She can drive back down herself. If mes beaux yeux aren't enough to draw her, tell her Detective Parker needs bracing under the shock of my renewed existence and her presence would be an act of Christian charity.
"...say it with a smirk like the one you're trying to hide, incidentally, and you will have the inestimable pleasure of explaining a materteral black eye to your schoolmates. Good Lord, Jerry, I haven't seen you for two years. You have no excuse for the insufferable state of your morals."
It was quicker done than said. The Viscount shook his uncle's hand, said, with perfect control, "It's lovely to see you again, sir," and was bundled down the stairs to a waiting cab. Miss Williams, subsiding again into cautiously hopeful sniffles, followed. Wimsey stopped her at the door.
"Miss Williams, it is highly likely that your presence prompted the wastrel to marginally more caution, and I owe you thanks at any rate for risking life and limb to prove your loyalty to the family. If this causes any sort of trouble for you, come to me and I'll see you have a nursemaid's character Amalthea would gore for."
Understanding the intention if not the allusions, Miss Williams expressed her soggy gratitude and exited.
Wimsey closed the door behind them with dramatic finality.
"My word, Bunter. I appear to have bucked tradition and reserved my purgatory for after my resurrection. What possessed the cub?"
"While perhaps overexuberantly expressed, my lord, his sentiments are complimentary," Bunter replied, carrying in the tea service.
"I don't suppose you expect my mother by the next train?"
Bunter was laying a place, smoothly and efficiently.
"I took the liberty of speaking to Lady Mary earlier this evening, my lord, and she expressed the belief that the Dowager Duchess would need a few days before such a trip would appeal to her. I gather the extent of her relief upon hearing of your lordship's success...did credit to her maternal feelings."
Wimsey's eyes, drifting closed in the comforting miasma of tea and buttered toast, flew open and looked quickly, sharply at his valet.
"She is alright, yes?"
Bunter nodded, still bent to his work.
"Merely feeling the reaction of longstanding uncertainty, my lord, and no doubt cheerful at the prospect of a rest. Lady Mary did suggest that the Dowager Duchess would welcome a visit, when it suits your lordship."
"Mm. No doubt."
Wimsey regarded him narrowly for a moment. Bunter's suit showed its usual impeccable and subtle tailoring, and Wimsey had not seen him, even at a distance, for two full years. But he thought the other man was thinner than he had been when, expressionless, he handed his master a well-packed suitcase and saw him onto a ship. His face was paler and more deeply lined, though that could have been fatigue; fatigue could not, however, explain the prominent grey at his temples. He had aged more than time could account for, the one altered thing in an otherwise unchanged apartment.
"You appear to have done very little with your legacy, Bunter."
"As I could not know when your lordship would return, I judged it best to make only such changes as would be necessary to retain the illusion of ownership. They were cosmetic, and easily rectified earlier this evening. Your lordship may note the absence of one or two valuables which I had not had the chance to remove from storage before the arrival of Viscount St. George and Miss Williams. The situation will be addressed."
He straightened from the table.
"Would your lordship prefer a more substantial meal first, or a rest, or shall I run your bath?"
Wimsey's eyes closed in unfeigned weariness.
"Lord, Bunter, I'm too exhausted for deference. I leave it to your discretion."
"As you will, my lord."
Bunter disappeared to make near-inaudible, things-being-taken-care-of noises in another room. Wimsey rose, slowly and stiffly but with a delicious sense of privacy, and moved to his bedroom.
The view from the flat was not one to delight the soul or the senses, particularly under a grey and lethargic dawn. But there was familiarity, and familiarity, Wimsey felt, was an old pleasure so long foregone it had become new again. Nephews might mourn and mothers develop unexpected weaknesses and valets show the indelible marks of sustained anxiety...but the view from his flat was still comfortingly, prosaically banal.
He heard the sound of footsteps behind him, and spoke without turning from the window.
"If I could persuade you, Bunter, to comment on an issue more controversial than the holy and sanctified marriage of socks to ties, I wonder if you would agree with me."
Wimsey's voice was surprisingly grim, the easy nonchalance dissolving.
"It is being borne in upon me that a man with a modicum of consideration, let alone affection, for his acquaintance would hesitate to put them through twenty-four months of either false grief or persistent fear."
"Much of your acquaintance, my lord, endured such difficulties during the War."
"It is also being borne in upon me that life is very different, now, than it was in 1916."
"I should venture to move, my lord, that that is a cause for celebration rather than otherwise." Bunter was silent a moment, and continued, Wimsey was sure, only because his lordship's sharp eyes were turned away from his visage. "And as for...if you will permit me, my lord, it is primarily a question of relative benefits. Whether the game is, as they say, worth the candle."
Wimsey let out his breath in what might have been a laugh. Certain episodes of the previous night passed in vivid detail before his eyes.
"And is it my place to make that judgment? When it is apparently much more a concern of others than I had assumed?"
"Forgive me, my lord, but I do not see who else could claim the right. Or the responsibility."
Wimsey's long hands tightened a moment on the windowsill, and then relaxed. He turned, slightly smiling, and then froze.
Bunter, with careful, practiced motions, had just finished laying the shaving supplies and was briskly stropping a razor. Wimsey's fingers found his strong beard -- surprisingly bristled, considering the hair on his head -- and stroked it ruminatively. Bunter met his eyes, and his gaze would not have sat amiss in the eyes of a hanging judge.
"Your lordship was good enough to leave it to my discretion. Some actions appeared to me more...urgent, than others."
Wimsey gave his beard an unfriendly tug, and stretched his aching arms luxuriously.
"Bunter my Bunter, it is damned good to be back."
Bunter deigned to give a very small smile to the lather he was competently creating.
"It is a sensation, my lord, most sincerely reciprocated."