Murder At Pentecost
by Dorothy L Sayers
'Buzz off, Flathers,' said the young man in flannels. 'We're thrilled by your news, but we don't want your religious opinions. And, for the Lord's sake, stop talking about "undergrads", like a ruddy commercial traveller. Hop it!'
The person addressed, a pimply youth in a commoner's gown, bleated a little, but withdrew from the table, intimidated.
'Appalling little tick,' commented the young man in flannels to his companion. 'He's on my staircase, too. Thank Heaven, I move out next term. I suppose it's true about the Master? Poor old blighter - I'm quite sorry I cut his lecture. Have some more coffee?'
'No, thanks, Radcott. I must be pushing off in a minute. It's getting too near lunch-time.'
Mr Montague Egg, seated at the next small table, had pricked up his ears. He now turned, with an apologetic cough, to the young man called Radcott.
'Excuse me, sir,' he said, with some diffidence. 'I didn't intend to overhear what you gentlemen were saying, but might I ask a question?' Emboldened by Radcott's expression, which, though surprised, was frank and friendly, he went on: 'I happen to be a commercial traveller - Egg is my name, Montague Egg, representing Plummet & Rose, wines and spirits, Piccadilly. Might I ask what is wrong with saying "undergrads"? Is the expression offensive in any way?'
Mr Radcott blushed a fiery red to the roots of his flaxen hair.
'I'm frightfully sorry,' he said ingenuously, and suddenly looking extremely young. 'Damn stupid thing of me to say. Beastly brick.'
'Don't mention it, I'm sure,' said Monty.
'Didn't mean anything personal. Only, that chap Flathers gets my goat. He ought to know that nobody says "undergrads" except townees and journalists and people outside the university.'
'What ought we to say? "Undergraduates"?'
'"Undergraduates" is correct.'
'I'm very much obliged,' said Monty. 'Always willing to learn. It's easy to make a mistake in a thing like that, and, of course, it prejudices the customer against one. The Salesman's Handbook doesn't give any guidance about it; I shall have to make a memo for myself. Let me see. How would this do? "To call an Oxford gent an - "'
'I think I should say "Oxford man" - it's the more technical form of expression.'
'Oh, yes. "To call an Oxford man an undergrad proclaims you an outsider and a cad." That's very easy to remember.'
'You seem to have a turn for this kind of thing,' said Radcott, amused.
'Well, I think perhaps I have,' admitted Monty, with a touch of pride. 'Would the same thing apply at Cambridge?'
'Certainly,' replied Radcott's companion. 'And you might add that "To call the university the 'varsity is out of date, if not precisely narsity." I apologise for the rhyme. 'Varsity has somehow a flavour of the nineties.'
'So has the port I'm recommending,' said Mr Egg brightly. 'Still, one's sales-talk must be up to date, naturally; and smart, though not vulgar. In the wine and spirit trade we make refinement our aim. I am really much obliged to you, gentlemen, for your help. This is my first visit to Oxford. Could you tell me where to find Pentecost College? I have a letter of introduction to a gentleman there.'
'Pentecost?' said Radcott. 'I don't think I'd start there, if I were you.'
'No?' said Mr Egg, suspecting some obscure point of university etiquette. 'Why not?'
'Because,' replied Radcott surprisingly, 'I understand from the regrettable Flathers that some public benefactor has just murdered the Master, and in the circumstances I doubt whether the Bursar will be able to give proper attention to the merits of rival vintages.'
'Murdered the Master?' echoed Mr Egg.
'Socked him one - literally, I am told, with a brickbat enclosed in a Woolworth sock - as he was returning to his house from delivering his too-well-known lecture on Plato's use of the Enclitics. The whole school of Literae Humaniores will naturally be under suspicion, but, personally, I believe Flathers did it himself. You may have heard him informing us that judgement overtakes the evil-doer, and inviting us to a meeting for prayer and repentance in the South Lecture-Room. Such men are dangerous.'
'Was the Master of Pentecost an evil-doer?'
'He has written several learned works disproving the existence of Providence, and I must say that I, in common with the whole Pentecostal community, have always looked on him as one of Nature's worst mistakes. Still, to slay him more or less on his own doorstep seems to me to be in poor taste. It will upset the examination candidates, who face their ordeal next week. And it will mean cancelling the Commem. Ball. Besides, the police have been called in, and are certain to annoy the Senior Common Room by walking on the grass in the quad. However, what's done cannot be undone. Let us pass to a pleasanter subject. I understand that you have some port to dispose of. I, on the other hand, have recently suffered bereavement at the hands of a bunch of rowing hearties, who invaded my rooms the other night and poured my last dozen of Cockburn '04 down their leathery and undiscriminating throttles. If you care to stroll round with me to Pentecost, Mr Egg, bringing your literature with you, we might be able to do business.'
Mr Egg expressed himself as delighted to accept Radcott's invitation, and was soon trotting along the Cornmarket at his conductor's athletic heels. At the corner of Broad Street the second undergraduate left them, while they turned on, past Balliol and Trinity, asleep in the June sunshine, and presently reached the main entrance of Pentecost.
Just as they did so, a small, elderly man, wearing a light overcoat and carrying an M.A. gown over his arm, came ambling short-sightedly across the street from the direction of the Bodleian Library. A passing car just missed whirling him into eternity, as Radcott stretched out a long arm and raked him into safety on the pavement.
'Look out, Mr Temple,' said Radcott. 'We shall be having you murdered next.'
'Murdered?' queried Mr Temple, blinking. 'Oh, you refer to the motor-car. But I saw it coming. I saw it quite distinctly. Yes, yes. But why "next"? Has anybody else been murdered?'
'Only the Master of Pentecost,' said Radcott, pinching Mr Egg's arm.
'The Master? Dr Greeby? You don't say so! Murdered? Dear me! Poor Greeby! This will upset my whole day's work.' His pale-blue eyes shifted, and a curious, wavering look came into them. 'Justice is slow but sure. Yes, yes. The sword of the Lord and of Gideon. But the blood - that is always so disconcerting, is it not? And yet, I washed my hands, you know.' He stretched out both hands and looked at them in a puzzled way. 'Ah, yes - Greeby has paid the price of his sins. Excuse my running away from you - I have urgent business at the police-station.'
'If,' said Mr Radcott, again pinching Monty's arm, 'you want to give yourself up for the murder, Mr Temple, you had better come along with us. The police are bound to be about the place somewhere.'
'Oh, yes, of course so they are. Yes. Very thoughtful of you. That will save me a great deal of time, and I have an important chapter to finish. A beautiful day, is it not, Mr - I fear I do not know your name. Or do I? I am growing sadly forgetful.'
Radcott mentioned his name, and the oddly assorted trio turned together towards the main entrance to the college. The great gate was shut; at the postern stood the porter, and at his side a massive figure in blue, who demanded their names.
Radcott, having been duly identified by the porter, produced Monty and his credentials.
'And this,' he went on, 'is, of course, Mr Temple. You know him. He is looking for your Superintendent.'
'Right you are, sir,' replied the policeman. 'You'll find him in the cloisters. . . . At his old game, I suppose?' he added, as the small figure of Mr Temple shuffled away across the sun-baked expanse of the quad.
'Oh, yes,' said Radcott. 'He was on to it like a shot. Must be quite exciting for the old bird to have a murder so near home. Where was his last?'
'Lincoln, sir; last Tuesday. Young fellow shot his young woman in the Cathedral. Mr Temple was down at the station the next day, just before lunch, explaining that he'd done it because the poor girl was the Scarlet Woman.'
'Mr Temple,' said Radcott, 'has a mission in life. He is the sword of the Lord and of Gideon. Every time a murder is committed in this country, Mr Temple lays claim to it. It is true that his body can always be shown to have been quietly in bed or at the Bodleian while the dirty work was afoot, but to an idealistic philosopher that need present no difficulty. But what is all this about the Master, actually?'
'Well, sir, you know that little entry between the cloisters and the Master's residence? At twenty minutes past ten this morning. Dr Greeby was found lying dead there, with his lecture-notes scattered all round him and a brickbat in a woollen sock lying beside his head. He'd been lecturing in a room in the Main Quadrangle at nine o'clock, and was, as far as we can tell, the last to leave the lecture-room. A party of American ladies and gentlemen passed through the cloisters a little after 10 o'clock, and they have been found, and say there was nobody about there then, so far as they could see - but, of course, sir, the murderer might have been hanging about the entry, because, naturally, they wouldn't go that way but through Boniface Passage to the Inner Quad and the chapel. One of the young gentlemen says he saw the Master cross the Main Quad on his way to the cloisters at 10.5, so he'd reach the entry in about two minutes after that. The Regius Professor of Morphology came along at 10.20, and found the body, and when the doctor arrived, five minutes later, he said Dr Greeby must have been dead about a quarter of an hour. So that puts it somewhere round about 10.10, you see, sir.'
'When did these Americans leave the chapel?'
'Ah, there you are, sir!' replied the constable. He seemed very ready to talk, thought Mr Egg, and deduced, rightly, that Mr Radcott was well and favourably known to the Oxford branch of the Force. 'If that there party had come back through the cloisters, they might have been able to tell us something. But they didn't. They went on through the Inner Quad into the garden, and the verger didn't leave the chapel, on account of a lady who had just arrived and wanted to look at the carving on the reredos.'
'And did the lady also come through the cloisters?'
'She did, sir, and she's the person we want to find, because it seems as though she must have passed through the cloisters very close to the time of the murder. She came into the chapel just on 10.15, because the verger recollected of the clock chiming a few minutes after she came in and her mentioning how sweet the notes was. You see the lady come in, didn't you, Mr Dabbs?'
'I saw a lady,' replied the porter, 'but then I see a lot of ladies one way and another. This one came across from the Bodleian round about 10 o'clock. Elderly lady, she was, dressed kind of old-fashioned, with her skirts round her heels and one of them hats like a rook's nest and a bit of elastic round the back. Looked like she might be a female don - leastways, the way female dons used to look. And she had the twitches - you know - jerked her head a bit. You get hundreds like 'em. They goes to sit in the cloisters and listen to the fountain and the little birds. But as to noticing a corpse or a murderer, it's my belief they wouldn't know such a thing if they saw it. I didn't see the lady again, so she must have gone out through the garden.'
'Very likely,' said Radcott. 'May Mr Egg and I go in through the cloisters, officer? Because it's the only way to my rooms, unless we go round by St Scholastica's Gate.'
'All the other gates are locked, sir. You go on and speak to the Super; he'll let you through. You'll find him in the cloisters with Professor Staines and Dr Moyle.'
'Bodley's Librarian? What's he got to do with it?'
'They think he may know the lady, sir, if she's a Bodley reader.'
'Oh, I see. Come along, Mr Egg.'
Radcott led the way across the Main Quadrangle and through a dark little passage at one corner, into the cool shade of the cloisters. Framed by the arcades of ancient stone, the green lawn drowsed tranquilly in the noonday heat. There was no sound but the echo of their own footsteps, the plash and tinkle of the little fountain and the subdued chirping of chaffinches, as they paced the alternate sunshine and shadow of the pavement. About midway along the north side of the cloisters they came upon another dim little covered passageway, at the entrance to which a police-sergeant was kneeling, examining the ground with the aid of an electric torch.
'Hullo, sergeant!' said Radcott. 'Doing the Sherlock Holmes stunt? Show us the bloodstained footprints.'
'No blood, sir, unfortunately. Might make our job easier if there were. And no footprints neither. The poor gentleman was sandbagged, and we think the murderer must have climbed up here to do it, for the deceased was a tall gentleman and he was hit right on the top of the head, sir.' The sergeant indicated a little niche, like a blocked-up window, about four feet from the ground, 'Looks as if he'd waited up here, sir, for Dr Greeby to go by.'
'He must have been well acquainted with his victim's habits,' suggested Mr Egg.
'Not a bit of it,' retorted Radcott. 'He'd only to look at the lecture-list to know the time and place. This passage leads to the Master's House and the Fellows' Garden and nowhere else, and it's the way Dr Greeby would naturally go after his lecture, unless he was lecturing elsewhere, which he wasn't. Fairly able-bodied, your murderer, sergeant, to get up here. At least - I don't know.'
Before the policeman could stop him, he had placed one hand on the side of the niche and a foot on a projecting band of masonry below it, and swung himself up.
'Hi, sir! Come down, please. The Super won't like that'
'Why? Oh, gosh! Fingerprints, I suppose. I forgot. Never mind; you can take mine if you want them, for comparison. Give you practice. Anyhow, a baby in arms could get up here. Come on, Mr Egg; we'd better beat it before I'm arrested for obstruction.'
But at this moment Radcott was hailed by a worried-looking don, who came through the passage from the far side, accompanied by three or four other people.
'Oh, Mr Radcott! One moment, Superintendent; this gentleman will be able to tell you about what you want to know; he was at Dr Greeby's lecture. That is so, is it not, Mr Radcott?'
'Well, no, not exactly, sir,' replied Radcott, with some embarrassment. 'I should have been, but, by a regrettable accident, I cut - that is to say, I was on the river, sir, and didn't get back in time.'
'Very vexatious,' said Professor Staines, while the Superintendent merely observed:
'Any witness to your being on the river, sir?'
'None,' replied Radcott. 'I was alone in a canoe, up a backwater - earnestly studying Aristotle. But I really didn't murder the Master. His lectures were - if I may say so - dull, but not to that point exasperating.'
'That is a very impudent observation, Mr Radcott,' said the Professor severely, 'and in execrable taste.'
The Superintendent, murmuring something about routine, took down in a note-book the alleged times of Mr Radcott's departure and return, and then said:
'I don't think I need detain any of you gentlemen further. If we want to see you again, Mr Temple, we will let you know.'
'Certainly, certainly. I shall just have a sandwich at the cafe and return to the Bodleian. As for the lady, I can only repeat that she sat at my table from about half-past nine till just before ten, and returned again at ten-thirty. Very restless and disturbing. I do wish, Dr Moyle, that some arrangement could be made to give me that table to myself, or that I could be given a place apart in the library. Ladies are always restless and disturbing. She was still there when I left, but I very much hope she has now gone for good. You are sure you don't want to lock me up now? I am quite at your service.'
'Not just yet, sir. You will hear from us presently.'
'Thank you, thank you. I should like to finish my chapter. For the present, then, I will wish you good-day.'
The little bent figure wandered away, and the Superintendent touched his head significantly.
'Poor gentleman! Quite harmless, of course. I needn't ask you, Dr Moyle, where he was at the time?'
'Oh, he was in his usual corner of Duke Humphrey's Library. He admits it, you see, when he is asked. In any case, I know definitely that he was there this morning, because he took out a Phi book, and of course had to apply personally to me for it. He asked for it at 9.30 and returned it at 12.15. As regards the lady, I think I have seen her before. One of the older school of learned ladies, I fancy. If she is an outside reader, I must have her name and address somewhere, but she may, of course, be a member of the University. I fear I could not undertake to know them all by sight. But I will inquire. It is, in fact, quite possible that she is still in the library, and, if not, Franklin may know when she went and who she is. I will look into the matter immediately. I need not say, professor, how deeply I deplore this lamentable affair. Poor dear Greeby! Such a loss to classical scholarship!'
At this point, Radcott gently drew Mr Egg away. A few yards farther down the cloisters, they turned into another and rather wider passage, which brought them out into the Inner Quadrangle, one side of which was occupied by the chapel. Mounting three dark flights of stone steps on the opposite side, they reached Radcott's rooms, where the undergraduate thrust his new acquaintance into an arm-chair, and, producing some bottles of beer from beneath the window-seat, besought him to make himself at home.
'Well,' he observed presently, 'you've had a fairly lively introduction to Oxford life - one murder and one madman. Poor old Temple. Quite one of our prize exhibits. Used to be a Fellow here, donkey's years ago. There was some fuss, and he disappeared for a time. Then he turned up again, ten years since, perfectly potty; took lodging in Holywell, and has haunted the Bodder and the police-station alternately ever since. Fine Greek scholar he is, too. Quite reasonable, except on the one point. I hope old Moyle finds his mysterious lady, though it's nonsense to pretend that they keep tabs on all the people who use the library. You've only got to walk in firmly, as if the place belonged to you, and, if you're challenged, say in a loud, injured tone that you've been a reader for years. If you borrow a gown, they won't even challenge you.'
'Is that so, really?' said Mr Egg.
'Prove it, if you like. Take my gown, toddle across to the Bodder, march straight in past the showcases and through the little wicket marked "Readers Only", into Duke Humphrey's Library; do what you like, short of stealing the books or setting fire to the place - and if anybody says anything to you, I'll order six dozen of anything you like. That's fair, isn't it?'
Mr Egg accepted this offer with alacrity, and in a few moments, arrayed in a scholar's gown, was climbing the stair that leads to England's most famous library. With a slight tremor, he pushed open the swinging glass door and plunged into the hallowed atmosphere of mouldering leather that distinguishes such temples of learning.
Just inside, he came upon Dr Moyle in conversation with the doorkeeper. Mr Egg, bending nonchalantly to examine an illegible manuscript in a showcase, had little difficulty in hearing what they said, since like all official attendants upon reading-rooms, they took no trouble to lower their voices.
'I know the lady, Dr Moyle. That is to say, she has been here several times lately. She usually wears an M.A. gown. I saw her here this morning, but I didn't notice when she left. I don't think I ever heard her name, but seeing that she was a senior member of the University - '
Mr Egg waited to hear no more. An idea was burgeoning in his mind. He walked away, courageously pushed open the Readers' Wicket, and stalked down the solemn medieval length of Duke Humphrey's Library. In the remotest and darkest bay, he observed Mr Temple, who, having apparently had his sandwich and forgotten about the murder, sat alone, writing busily, amid a pile of repellent volumes, with a large attache-case full of papers open before him.
Leaning over the table, Mr Egg addressed him in an urgent whisper:
'Excuse me, sir. The police Superintendent asked me to say that they think they have found the lady, and would be glad if you would kindly step down at once and identify her.'
'The lady?' Mr Temple looked up vaguely. 'Oh, yes - the lady. To be sure. Immediately? That is not very convenient. Is it so very urgent?'
'They said particularly to lose no time, sir,' said Mr Egg.
Mr Temple muttered something, rose, seemed to hesitate whether to clear up his papers or not, and finally shovelled them all into the bulging attache-case, which he locked upon them.
'Let me carry this for you, sir,' said Monty, seizing it promptly and shepherding Mr Temple briskly out. 'They're still in the cloisters, I think, but the Super said, would you kindly wait a few moments for him in the porter's lodge. Here we are.'
He handed Mr Temple and his attache-case over to the care of the porter, who looked a little surprised at seeing Mr Egg in academic dress, but, on hearing the Superintendent's name, said nothing. Mr Egg hastened through quad and cloisters and mounted Mr Radcott's staircase at a run.
'Excuse me, sir,' he demanded breathlessly of that young gentleman, 'but what is a Phi book?'
'A Phi book,' replied Radcott, in some surprise, 'is a book deemed by Bodley's Librarian to be of an indelicate nature, and catalogued accordingly, by some dead-and-gone humorist, under the Greek letter phi. Why the question?'
'Well,' said Mr Egg, 'it just occurred to me how simple it would be for anybody to walk into the Bodleian, disguise himself in a retired corner - say in Duke Humphrey's Library - walk out, commit a murder, return, change back to his own clothes and walk out. Nobody would stop a person from coming in again, if he - or she - had previously been seen to go out - especially if the disguise had been used in the library before. Just a change of clothes and an M.A. gown would be enough.'
'What in the world are you getting at?'
'This lady, who was in the cloisters at the time of the murder. Mr Temple says she was sitting at his table. But isn't it funny that Mr Temple should have drawn special attention to himself by asking for a Phi book, today of all days? If he was once a Fellow of the college, he'd know which way Dr Greeby would go after his lecture; and he may have had a grudge against him on account of that old trouble, whatever it was. He'd know about the niche in the wall, too. And he's got an attache-case with him that might easily hold a lady's hat and a skirt long enough to hide his trousers. And why is he wearing a top-coat on such a hot day, if not to conceal the upper portion of his garments? Not that it's any business of mine - but - well, I just took the liberty of asking myself. And I've got him out there, with his case, and the porter keeping an eye on him.'
Thus Mr Egg, rather breathlessly. Radcott gaped at him.
'Temple? My dear man, you're as potty as he is. Why, he's always confessing - he confessed to this - you can't possibly suppose - '
'I daresay I'm wrong,' said Mr Egg. 'But isn't there a fable about the man who cried "Wolf!" so often that nobody would believe him when the wolf really came? There's a motto in the Salesman's Handbook that I always admire very much. It says: "Discretion plays a major part in making up the salesman's art, for truths that no one can believe are calculated to deceive." I think that's rather subtle, don't you?'
End of Murder At Pentecost by Dorothy L Sayers