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Part 22 A

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« on: December 25, 2022, 09:48:03 pm »

Thursday. A heavy, gloomy and depressing Thursday, pouring down uninteresting rain from a sky like a grey box-lid. The Warden had called a meeting of the Senior Common Room for half-past two--an unconsoling hour. All three invalids were up and about again. Harriet had exchanged her bandages for some very unbecoming and unromantic strappings, and had not exactly a headache, but the sensation that a headache might begin at any moment. Miss de Vine looked like a ghost. Annie, though she had suffered less than the others physically, seemed to be still haunted by nervous terrors, and crept unhappily about her duties with the other Common-Room maid always closely in attendance.

It was understood that Lord Peter Wimsey would attend the S.C.R. meeting in order to lay certain information before the staff. Harriet had received from him a brief and characteristic note, which said:

'Congratulations on not being dead yet. I have taken your collar away to have my name put on.'

She had already missed the collar. And she had had, from Miss Hillyard, a strangely vivid little picture of Peter, standing at her bedside between night and dawn, quite silent, and twisting the thick strap over and over in his hands.

All morning she had expected to see him; but he arrived only at the last moment, so that their meeting took place in the Common-Room, under the eyes of all the dons. He had driven straight from Town without changing his suit, and above the dark cloth his head had the bleached look of a faint water-colour. He paid his respects politely to the Warden and the Senior dons before coming over and taking her hand.

'Well, and how are you?'

'Not too bad, considering.'

'That's good.'

He smiled, and went to sit by the Warden. Harriet, at the opposite side of the table, slipped into a place beside the Dean. Everything that was alive in him lay in the palm of her hand, like a ripe apple. Dr. Baring was asking him to begin, and he was doing so, in the flat voice of a secretary reading the minutes of a company meeting. He had a sheaf of papers before him, including (Harriet noticed) her dossier, which he must have taken away on the Monday morning. But he went on without referring to so much as a note, addressing himself to a bowl filled with marigolds that stood on the table before him.

'I need not take up your time by going over all the details of this rather confusing case. I will first set out the salient points as they presented themselves to me when I came to Oxford last Sunday week, so as to show you the basis upon which I founded my working theory. I will then formulate that theory, and adduce the supporting evidence which I hope and think you will consider conclusive. I may say that practically all the data necessary to the formation of the theory are contained in the very valuable digest of the events prepared for me by Miss Vane and handed to me on my arrival. The rest of the proof was merely what the police call routine work.'

(This, thought Harriet, is suiting your style to your company with a vengeance. She looked round. The Common-Room had the hushed air of a congregation settling down to a sermon, but she could feel the nervous tension everywhere. They did not know what they might be going to hear.)

'The first point to strike an outsider,' went on Peter, 'is the fact that these demonstrations began at the Gaudy. I may say that that was the first bad mistake the perpetrator made. By the way, it will save time and trouble if I refer to the perpetrator in the time-honoured way as X. If X had waited till term began, we should have had a much wider field for suspicion. I therefore asked myself what it was that so greatly excited X at the Gaudy that she could not wait for a more suitable time to begin.

'It seemed unlikely that any of the Old Students present could have roused X's animosity, because the demonstrations continued in the following term. But they did not continue during the Long Vacation, So my attention was immediately directed to any person who entered the College for the first time at Gaudy and was in residence the following term. Only one person answered these requirements, and that was Miss de Vine.'

The first stir went round the table, like the wind running over a corn-field.

'The first two communications came into the hand of Miss Vane. One of them, which amounted to an accusation of murder, was slipped into the sleeve of her gown and might, by a misleading coincidence, have been held to apply to her. But Miss Martin may remember that she placed Miss Vane's gown in the Senior Common Room side by side with that of Miss de Vine. I believe that X, mis-reading "H. D. Vane" as "H. de Vine" put the note in the wrong gown. This belief is, of course, not susceptible of proof; but the possibility is suggestive. The error, if it was one, distracted attention at the start from the central object of the campaign.'

Nothing altered in the level voice as he lifted the old infamy into view only to cast it in the next breath into oblivion, but the hand that had held hers tightened for a moment and relaxed. She found herself watching the hand as it moved now among the sheaf of papers.

'The second communication, picked up accidentally by Miss Vane in the quad, was destroyed like the other; but from the description I gather that it was a drawing similar to this.' He slipped out a paper from under the clip and passed it to the Warden. 'It represents a punishment inflicted by a naked, female figure upon another, which is clothed in academical dress and epicene. This appears to be the symbolical key to the situation. In the Michaelmas Term, other drawings of a similar kind appear, together with the motif of the hanging of some academical character--a motif which is repeated in the incident of the dummy found later on suspended in the Chapel. There were also communications of a vaguely obscene and threatening sort which need not be particularly considered. The most interesting and important one, perhaps, is the message addressed to (I think) Miss Hillyard. "No man is safe from women like you"; and the other, sent to Miss Flaxman, demanding that she should leave another student's fiancÚ alone. These suggested that the basis of X's grievance was sexual jealousy of the ordinary kind--a suggestion which, again, I believe to be entirely erroneous and to have obscured the issue in a quite fantastic manner.

'We next come (passing over the episode of the bonfire of gowns in the quad) to the more serious matter of Miss Lydgate's manuscript. I do not think it is a coincidence that the portions most heavily disfigured and obliterated were those in which Miss Lydgate attacked the conclusions of other scholars, and those scholars, men. If I am right, we see that X is a person capable of reading, and to some extent understanding, a work of scholarship. Together with this outrage we may take the mutilation of the novel called The Search at the exact point where the author upholds, or appears for the moment to uphold, the doctrine that loyalty to the abstract truth must override all personal considerations; and also the burning of Miss Barton's book in which she attacks the Nazi doctrine that woman's place in the State should be confined to the "womanly" occupations of Kinder, Kirche, Kuche.

'In addition to these personal attacks upon individuals, we get the affair of the bonfire and the sporadic outbursts of obscenity upon the walls. When we come to the disfigurement of the Library, we get the generalised attack in a more spectacular form. The object of the campaign begins to show itself clearly. The grievance felt by X, starting from a single person, has extended itself to the entire College, and the intention is to provoke a scandal, which may bring the whole body into disrepute.'

Here for the first time the speaker lifted his gaze from the bowl of marigolds, let it travel slowly round the table, and brought it to rest upon the Warden's intent face.

'Will you let me say, here and now, that the one thing which frustrated the whole attack from the first to last was the remarkable solidarity and public spirit displayed by your college as a body. I think that was the last obstacle that X expected to encounter in a community of women. Nothing but the very great loyalty of the Senior Common Room to the College and the respect of the students for the Senior Common Room stood between you and a most unpleasant publicity. It is the merest presumption in me to tell you what you already know far better than I do; but I say it, not only for my own satisfaction, but because this particular kind of loyalty forms at once the psychological excuse for the attack and the only possible defence against it.'

'Thank you,' said the Warden. 'I feel sure that everybody here will know how to appreciate that.'

'We come next,' resumed Wimsey, his eyes once more on the marigolds, 'to the incident of the dummy in the Chapel. This merely repeats the theme of the early drawings, but with a greater eye to dramatic effect. Its evidential importance lies in the "Harpy" quotation pinned to the dummy; the mysterious appearance of a black figured frock which nobody could identify; the subsequent conviction of the ex-porter Jukes for theft; and the finding of the mutilated newspaper in Miss de Vine's room, which closed that sequence of events. I will take up those points later.

'It was about this time that Miss Vane made the acquaintance of my nephew Saint-George, and he mentioned to her that, under circumstances into which we need not, perhaps, inquire, he had met a mysterious woman one night in your Fellows' Garden, and that she had told him two things. One: that Shrewsbury College was a place where they murdered beautiful boys like him and ate their hearts out; secondly: that "the other had fair hair, too."'

This piece of information was new to most of the Senior Common Room, and caused a mild sensation.

'Here we have the "murder-motif" emphasised, with a little detail about the victim. He is a man, fair, handsome and comparatively young. My nephew then said he would not undertake to recognise the woman again; but on a subsequent occasion he saw and did recognise her.'

Once again the tremor passed round the table.

'The next important disturbance was the affair of the missing fuses.'

Here the Dean could contain herself no longer and burst out: 'What a lovely title for a thriller!'

The veiled eyes lifted instantly, and the laughter-lines gathered at the corners.

'Perfect. And that was all it was. X retired, having accomplished nothing but a thriller with good publicity value.'

'And it was after that,' said Miss de Vine, 'that the newspaper was found in my room.'

'Yes,' said Wimsey; 'mine was a rational, not a chronological grouping.... That brings us to the end of the Hilary Term. The Vacation passed without incident. In the Summer Term, we are faced with the cumulative effect of long and insidious persecution upon a scholar of sensitive temperament. That was the most dangerous phase of X's activities. We know that other students besides Miss Newland had received letters wishing them bad luck in their Schools; happily, Miss Layton and the rest were of tougher fibre. But I should like particularly to draw your attention to the fact that, with a few unimportant exceptions, the animus was all directed against dons and scholars.'

Here the Bursar, who had been manifesting irritation for some time, broke in:

'I cannot imagine why they are making all that noise underneath this building. Do you mind, Warden, if I send out and stop it?'

'I am sorry,' said Wimsey. 'I am afraid I am responsible for that. I suggested to Padgett that a search in the coal-cellar might be profitable.'

'Then,' pronounced the Warden, 'I fear we must put up with it, Bursar.' She inclined her head towards Wimsey, who went on:

'This is a brief summary of the events as presented to me by Miss Vane, when with your consent, Warden, she laid the case before me. I rather gathered'--here the right hand became restless and began to beat out a silent tattoo upon the table-top--'that she and some others among you were inclined to look upon the outrages as the outcome of repressions sometimes accompanying the celibate life and issuing in an obscene and unreasoning malice directed partly against the conditions of that life and partly against persons who enjoyed or had enjoyed or might be supposed to enjoy a wider experience. There is no doubt that malice of that kind exists. But the history of the case seemed to me to offer a psychological picture of an entirely different kind. One member of this Common-Room has been married, and another is engaged to be married; and neither of these, who ought to have been the first victims, were (so far as I know) persecuted at all. The dominance of the naked female figure in the early drawing is also highly significant. So is the destruction of Miss Barton's book. Also, the bias displayed by X seemed to be strongly anti-scholastic, and to have a more or less rational motive, based on some injury amounting in X's mind to murder, inflicted upon a male person by a female scholar. The grievance seemed, to my mind, to be felt principally against Miss de Vine, and to be extended, from her, to the whole College and possibly to educated women in general. I therefore felt we should look for a woman either married or with sexual experience, of limited education but some acquaintance with scholars and scholarship, whose past was in some way linked with that of Miss de Vine, and (though this was an assumption) who had probably come into residence later than last December.'

Harriet twisted her glance away from Peter's hand, which had ceased its soft drumming and now lay flat on the table, to estimate the effect of this on his hearers. Miss de Vine was frowning as though her mind, running back over the years, were dispassionately considering her claim to have done murder; Miss Chilperic's face wore a troubled blush, and Mrs. Goodwin's an air of protest; in Miss Hillyard's eyes was an extraordinary mixture of triumph and embarrassment; Miss Barton was nodding quiet assent, Miss Allison smiling, Miss Shaw faintly affronted; Miss Edwards was looking at Peter with eyes that said frankly, 'You are the sort of person I can deal with.' The Warden's grave countenance was expressionless. The Dean's profile gave no clue to her feelings, but she uttered a little, quick sigh that sounded like relief.

'I will now come,' said Peter, 'to the material clues. First, the printed messages. It seemed to me extremely unlikely that these could have been produced, in such quantity, within the College walls, without leaving some trace of their origin. I was inclined to look for an outside source. Similarly with the figured dress found on the dummy; it seemed very strange that nobody should ever set eyes on it before, though it was several seasons old. Thirdly, there was the odd circumstances that the letters which came by post were always received either on a Monday or a Thursday, as though Sunday and Wednesday were the only days on which letters could conveniently be posted from a distant post-office or box. These three considerations might have suggested someone living at a distance, who visited Oxford only twice a week. But the nightly disturbances made it plain that the person actually lived within the walls, with fixed days for going outside them and a place somewhere outside, where clothes could be kept and letters prepared. The person who would fulfil these conditions best would be one of the scouts.'

Miss Stevens and Miss Barton both stirred.

'The majority of the scouts, however, seemed to be ruled out. Those who were not confined within the Scouts' Wing at night were trusted women of long service here--most unlikely to fulfil any of the other conditions. Most of those in the Scouts' Wing slept two in a room, and therefore (unless two of them were in collusion) could not possibly escape into the College night after night without being suspected. This left only those who had separate bedrooms: Carrie, the head scout; Annie, the scout attached first to Miss Lydgate's staircase and subsequently to the Senior Common Room, and a third scout, Ethel, an elderly and highly reputable woman. Of these three, Annie corresponded most closely to the psychological picture of X; for she had been married and had the afternoon of Sunday and the afternoon and evening of Wednesday free; she also had her children domiciled in the town and therefore a place where she could keep clothes and prepare letters.'

'But--' began the Bursar, indignantly.

'This is only the case as I saw it last Sunday week,' said Wimsey. 'Certain powerful objections at once presented themselves. The Scouts' Wing was shut off by locked doors and gates. But it was made clear at the time of the Library episode that the buttery hatch was occasionally left open for the convenience of students wishing to obtain supplies late at night. Miss Hudson had, in fact, expected to find it open that very night. When Miss Vane tried it, it was, in fact, locked. But that was after X had left the Library, and you will remember that X was shown to have been trapped in the Hall Building by Miss Vane and Miss Hudson at one end and Miss Barton at the other. The assumption made at the time was that she had been hiding in the Hall.

'After that episode, greater care was taken to see that the buttery hatch was kept locked, and I learn that the key, which was previously left on the inner side of the hatch, was removed and placed on Carrie's key-ring. But a key can very readily be cut in a single day. Actually, it was a week before the next nocturnal episode occurred, which carries us over the following Wednesday, when a key abstracted from Carrie's bunch might readily have been copied and returned. (I know for a fact that such a key was cut on that Wednesday by an ironmonger in the lower part of the town, though I have not been able to identify the purchaser. But that is merely a routine detail.) There was one consideration which inclined Miss Vane to exonerate all the scouts, and that was, that no woman in that position would be likely to express her resentment in the Latin quotation from the Ăneid found attached to the dummy.

'This objection had some weight with me, but not a great deal. It was the only message that was not in English, and it was one to which any school child might easily have access. On the other hand, the fact that it was unique among the other scripts made me sure that had some particular significance. I mean, it wasn't that X's feelings habitually expressed themselves in Latin hexameters. There must be something special about that passage besides its general applicability to unnatural females who snatch the meat from men's mouths. Neo saevior ulla pestis.'

'When I first heard of that,' broke in Miss Hillyard, 'I felt sure that a man was behind all this.'

'That was probably a sound instinct,' said Wimsey. 'I feel sure that a man did write that.... Well, I need not take up time with pointing out how easy it was for anybody to wander about the College at night and play tricks on people. In a community of two hundred people, some of whom scarcely know one another by sight, it is harder to find a person than to lose her. But the intrusion of Jukes upon the situation at that moment was rather awkward for X. Miss Vane showed, and announced, a disposition to inquire rather too closely into Jukes's home-life. As a result somebody who knew a good deal about Jukes's little habits laid an information and Jukes was removed to gaol. Mrs. Jukes took refuge with her relations and Annie's children were sent away to Headington. And in order that we should feel quite sure that the Jukes household had nothing to do with the matter, a mutilated newspaper appeared shortly afterwards in Miss de Vine's room.'

Harriet looked up.

'I did work that out--eventually. But what happened last week seemed to make it quite impossible.'

'I don't think,' said Peter, 'you approached the problem--forgive me for saying so--with an unprejudiced mind and undivided attention. Something got between you and the facts.'

'Miss Vane has been helping me so generously with my books,' murmured Miss Lydgate, contritely; 'and she has had her own work to do as well. We really ought not to have asked her to spare any time for our problems.'

'I had plenty of time,' said Harriet. 'I was only stupid.'

'At any rate,' said Wimsey, 'Miss Vane did enough to make X feel she was dangerous. At the beginning of this term, we find X becoming more desperate and more deadly in intention. With the lighter evenings, it becomes more difficult to play tricks at night. There is the psychological attempt on Miss Newland's life and reason and, when that fails, an effort is made to create a stink in the University by sending letters to the Vice-Chancellor. However, the University proved to be as solid as the College; having let the women in, it was not prepared to let them down. This was no doubt exasperating to the feelings of X. Dr. Threep acted as intermediary between the Vice-Chancellor and yourselves, and the matter was presumably dealt with.'

'I informed the Vice-Chancellor,' said the Warden, 'that steps were being taken.'

'Quite so; and you complimented me by asking me to take those steps. I had very little doubt from the start as to the identity of X; but suspicion is not proof, and I was anxious not to cast any suspicion that could not be justified. My first task was obviously to find out whether Miss de Vine had actually ever murdered or injured anybody. In the course of a very interesting after-dinner conversation in this room, she informed me that, six years ago, she had been instrumental in depriving a man of his reputation and livelihood--and we decided, if you remember, that this was an action which any manly man or womanly woman might be disposed to resent.'

'Do you mean to say,' cried the Dean, 'that all that discussion was intended merely to bring out that story?'

'I offered an opportunity for the story's appearance, certainly; but if it hadn't come out then, I should have asked for it. Incidentally, I established for a certainty, what I was sure of in my own mind from the start, that there was not a woman in this Common Room, married or single, who would be ready to place personal loyalties above professional honour. That was a point which it seemed necessary to make clear--not so much to me, as to yourselves.'

The Warden looked from Miss Hillyard to Mrs. Goodwin and back to Peter.

'Yes,' she said., 'I think it was wise to establish that.'

'The next day,' said Peter, 'I asked Miss de Vine for the name of the man in question, whom we already knew to be handsome and married. The name was Arthur Robinson; and with this information I set out to find what had become of him. My working theory was that X was either the wife or some relation of Robinson: that she had come here when Miss de Vine's appointment was announced, with the intention of revenging his misfortunes upon Miss de Vine, the College and academic women in general; and that in all probability X was a person who stood in some close relation to the Jukes family. This theory was strengthened by the discovery that information was laid against Jukes by an anonymous letter similar to those circulated here.

'Now, the first thing that happened after my arrival was the appearance of X in the Science lecture-room. The idea that X was courting discovery by preparing letters in that public and dangerous manner was patently absurd. The whole thing was a clear fake, intended to mislead, and probably to establish an alibi. The communications had been prepared elsewhere and deliberately planted--in fact, there were not enough letters left in the box to finish the message that had been begun to Miss Vane. The room chosen was in full view of the Scouts' Wing, and the big ceiling light was conspicuously turned on, though there was a reading-lamp in the room, in good working order; it was Annie who drew Carrie's attention to the light in the window; Annie was the only person who claimed to have actually seen X; and while the alibi was established for both scouts, Annie was the one who most closely corresponded to the conditions required for X.'

'But Carrie heard X in the room,' said the Dean.

'Oh, yes,' said Wimsey, smiling. 'And Carrie was sent to fetch you while Annie removed the strings that had switched out the light and overturned the blackboard from the other side of the door. I pointed out to you, you know, that the top of the door had been thoroughly dusted, so that the mark of the string shouldn't show.'

'But the marks on the dark-room window-sill--' said the Dean.

'Quite genuine. She got out there the first time, leaving the doors locked on the inside and strewing a few of Miss de Vine's hairpins about to produce conviction. Then she let herself into the Scouts' Wing through the Buttery, called up Carrie and brought her along to see the fun.... I think, by the way, that someone of the scouts must have had her suspicions. Perhaps she had found Annie's bedroom door mysteriously locked on various occasions, or had met her in the passage at inconvenient times. Anyhow, the time had obviously arrived for establishing an alibi. I hazarded the suggestion that nocturnal ramblings would cease from that time on; and so they did. And I don't suppose we shall ever find the extra key to the Buttery.'

'All very well,' said Miss Edwards. 'But you still have no proof.'

'No. I went away to get it. In the meantime, X--if you don't like my identification--decided that Miss Vane was dangerous, and laid a trap to catch her. This didn't come off, because Miss Vane very sensibly telephoned back to College to confirm the mysterious message she had received at Somerville. The message was sent from an outside call-box on the Wednesday night at 10.40. Just before eleven, Annie came in from her day off and heard Padgett speak to Miss Vane on the 'phone. She didn't hear the conversation, but she probably heard the name.

'Although the attempt had not come off, I felt sure that another would be made, on either Miss Vane, Miss de Vine or the suspicious scout--or on all three. I issued a warning to that effect. The next thing that happened was that Miss Vane's chessmen were destroyed. That was rather unexpected. It looked less like alarm than personal hatred. Up till that time, Miss Vane had been treated with almost as much tenderness as though she had been a womanly woman. Can you think of anything that can have given X that impression, Miss Vane?'

'I don't know,' said Harriet, confused. 'I asked kindly after the children and spoke to Beatie--good Heavens, yes, Beatie!--when I met them. And I remember once agreeing politely with Annie that marriage might be a good thing if one could find the right person.'

'That was politic if unprincipled. And how about the attentive Mr. Jones of Jesus? If you will bring young men into the College at night and hide them in the Chapel--'

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