I know that this is a bit late for Halloween, but it seemed appropriate to resurrect not only the dragons, but the ghosts too! Please enjoy the latest joys of the Devon College’s antics. This story has a dedication, but it comes at the end, so as not to spoil anything!
The cry echoed through the wall. It was followed shortly after by the Master of Devon College himself, with the icy blast of his spectral presence sending papers scattering.
“Oh thank heavens,” he continued as he caught sight of his secretary rising from her desk to glare at the slowly settling flurry of paper. “I see you’re in, Margaret, how fortunate.”
In addition to the raised eyebrow and cool glower, Margaret’s arms came to settle crossed severely in an Omen of Certain Doom. The fact that Professor Richards, Master of the College, was in no way put off by this tableau of vengeance gave Margaret pause however.
Perhaps the matter really was Serious, after all?
“Margaret, there is an absolute crisis afoot! Marshal your resources, if you please, for we must at last mount our war of defence!”
Where before Margaret’s tone had been one of imminent disaster, now there was a note of concern and uncertainty. For a moment she observed the Master pacing a foot above the carpet, clearly too agitated to remember his intention to ‘walk, as is appropriate for a Model of Student Behaviour.’ Horace Richards was a most prosaic man by nature and not at all given to the hysterics of the Bursar or the earnest fumblings of the Chaplain. If the Master felt so strongly that something was seriously wrong that he was prepared to risk her Filing and her ire then perhaps…?
“Indeed, Margaret! Don’t fail me now, I beg of you, we must Do Something immediately!”
Margaret took a deep breath. “And what is specifically the problem, Professor?”
Richards paused in the act of walking through the more comfortable of the office armchairs (for weeping students and especially polite Fellows) and blinked at her for a moment.
“But have I not explained, Margaret?”
“I am afraid not, Professor.”
“Just jumped straight into it mid-sentence, you say?”
“So it would seem, Professor.”
“Good grief! Not like myself at all, am I?” Richards took a deep (unnecessary) breath of his own and visibly Pulled Himself Together. “I do apologise, Margaret. Quite an Unforgivable Lapse for a moment.”
Margaret reached across the desk and patted him comfortingly on the hand. He floated down somewhat to settle into the armchair he’d stopped inside and blinked owlishly.
“I’m sure that it is quite understandable, Professor. Now, what seems to be the problem, and how may I assist you?”
The moment of peace was apparently over and Richards once again burst upwards from the chair to gesture more expansively.
“A veritable coup is underway, Margaret! I have no doubt that you are prepared for just Such An Eventuality, never fear that I doubt you in this-“ He inclined his head respectfully towards his secretary, who inclined hers back in thanks. “No, no I have faith that you shall quash the matter without delay, of course, but the outrage!”
Richards spun to a stop raised he finger to the ceiling to emphasise his point and declared furiously, “The Bursar is Rebelling, Margaret!”
There was a silent pause.
“Indeed, Professor?” This third iteration sounded more resigned than anything which had come before it. “Has he invited more than his allotted number of guests to High table again?”
Richards cast her an Aggrieved Look.
“Margaret! I don’t think you’re taking this seriously at all!”
“Professor. The Bursar is not plotting your imminent downfall. We have had this discussion.” Margaret bent to begin collecting up her scattered papers.
“He most certainly is, I tell you!”
“And what has the poor man done to alert you to his, I have no doubt, nefarious plot?”
The Master of Devon College stomped his foot through the floor with a huff. As his foot only just missed the paper Margaret was in the process of picking up, he earned nothing more for his efforts than a truly poisonous look.
“I am concerned by your sympathy for this, this underhanded deceiver, Margaret! He has been Behaving Uncharacteristically for some time, I will have you know, as if he were hiding something of Value. And naturally I made it my business to discover what it might be”
Despite concerted effort from the FitzMitchell Chemistry Fellow, there existed no ice more dry than Margaret’s tone. Richards shot her a glare but was met with nothing but a flat look in return.
“Your plan, Margaret, if you please?”
Whatever Margaret might have said in response to this will be forever unknown, as at the very moment, who else but the Bursar’s PA, Sarah, burst into the room with a brief knock. In a flash, Richards had dived to hide in the filing cabinets, a learned instinct which Margaret made a note to correct at some other, less fraught time.
“Margaret, you’re not busy are you? No? Wonderful; I hate to bother you with uncertainties, but the Bursar’s been behaving more oddly than normal recently.”
“Aha! Proof! From his own office, no less!”
The words burst forth, followed shortly by the ghost who veritably exploded from the draws in a whirl of plastic wallets, post-its and neatly-organised papers.
The two women glared in silence for a moment, while the fluttering sheets slowly settled around them.
“Good morning, Professor,” Sarah sighed.
She didn’t even look startled anymore. Margaret’s advice had clearly been paying off, and equally clearly Richards needed to start thinking of new tricks.
“Sarah, you came to see me with some concerns?” Margaret made a valiant effort to get the conversation back on topic.
Sarah nodded. She spoke uncertainly of mysterious appointments in which the only voice heard was the Bursar’s. She explained that he was keeping increasingly odd working hours and refusing to allow her inside his office unless pressed very hard, and even then he would hover around and usher Sarah out as soon as he could.
“Perhaps he has documents detailing his plans for conquest and he fears that you would assist our rebellion, Sarah?” Richards was perhaps a little more invested in this notion than was good for him?
At the very least, Sarah seemed cheered by the idea, and by the confidence he had in her. “Thank you, Professor. I should of course assist as was appropriate.”
Margaret simply sat at her desk, her fingers steepled and listened closely. Whenever Richards looked as if he would interrupt, her grey eyes flashed over the tops of her green-rimmed glasses and he subsided quickly. Finally Sarah was finished and Margaret sat in silence for a long moment, thinking.
“While I do agree that this is strange behaviour – yes, even for the Bursar – I am reluctant to consider it a matter for concern. Like many gentlemen occupied with financial matters, the Bursar is perhaps a little,” she paused, delicately, “highly strung? I may be that he only needs time to settle down again and that our interference would only make things worse.”
Sarah nodded, and even Richards could think of no rejoinder.
“Well then, I thank you both for coming to express your concerns to me, but we shall all have to just keep an eye on the situation and see what developments unfold.”
And that, for a time was that.
Richards certainly did not sulk as Margaret shooed him out of her office with a pointed glare at the detritus he’d caused to be scattered all over everything. Nor at her utter refusal to destroy the Bursar on demand.
He most certainly did not.
“It would appear so, Professor.” Margaret didn’t even look away from her task of affixing conference signs up on the notice board in the Porters’ Lodge. As the Master of the College, Richards was Assisting by holding the rest of the posters in a neat stack.
Richards scowled at her lack of attention, but continued on undaunted. “But they never speak to each other! They haven’t said two words together since The Lobster Incident back in ’13. The Bursar even declared that he’d see the Herriot Fellow trampled by his own research before he’d admit him onto the Charity Board, remember?”
Margaret straightened at last, and frowned, considering. “I do remember, Professor. However, I should like to remind you that the Chaplain has been very keen on the teachings regarding the reconciling of enemies and laying aside of anger this year. Perhaps he has succeeded where the rest of us have failed?”
Richards opened his mouth to decry the idea of the Chaplain (or indeed, of anyone) persuading the Bursar to do anything, but then reconsidered. After his own experience of a meeting with an eager and inspired Chaplain seeking to provide Solace and Succour, he supposed that a similarly beleaguered Bursar might agree to anything to end the suffering too.
“Perhaps that is it, Margaret. Perhaps that is it.”
“Margaret, he’s stealing all the bread rolls again!”
“Indeed! This lunchtime alone he made off with four – four, mark you! – with four bread rolls!”
Margaret blinked. “I see.”
The expression Richards bore suggested that rather more had been expected of her, and Margaret preferred to give satisfaction where possible.
“I shall make note of it. Please let me know if there are further developments, Professor.”
Richards puffed himself up slightly and bustled out again. “Indeed I shall, Margaret. Indeed I shall!”
Margaret resumed writing the minutes for tomorrow’s meeting of the Fellowships Committee.
Beatrice, the College Librarian, rarely left the sacred ground of the stacks for anything save the gravest on emergencies, so her presence at Coffee was a sure cause for concern. Margaret accordingly put the gingernuts back in her desk drawer and withdrew the chocolate-coated Viennese Whirls instead.
If there was a crisis to be dealt with, it could not be managed on the everyday biscuits.
Sarah, arriving late, took in Beatrice’s presence also and ran back to her office for the left-over cake from her daughter’s birthday. Margaret nodded in thanks before Addressing the Issue.
“You have something you would like to talk about, Beatrice?” She asked, kindly.
Beatrice sighed in relief of being asked, and took a second bite of her Whirl.
“You know, I shouldn’t like to mention it, in the usual course of things, and I don’t want to suggest, Sarah, that you might be slipping at all…”
She trailed off for a moment as Margaret and Sarah exchanged grim looks.
Sarah leaned forwards, clutching her coffee cup like a lifeline as her braced herself for the worst. “It’s the Bursar, isn’t it? Has he been behaving… oddly, at all?”
Beatrice nodded, taking one of Sarah’s hands in her own. “You knew?” she whispered.
Sarah nodded and sniffed quietly.
Margaret coughed gently. “May I ask what happened, Beatrice? We must know what we are facing, after all.”
Beatrice took a deep breath. “I’m afraid that the Bursar has been taking a large number of ornithology books out of the library… and not returning them on time.”
Sarah gasped and dropped her cake. “No! But he feels so strongly about the prompt returning of loaned books! He lectures the new students about it every Michaelmas!”
Beatrice looked pained. “I am aware. And yet he has run up – I’m sorry, Sarah, this must be very painful – but he has run up over £15 in fines already and if they are not returned tomorrow then he will owe more than £20!”
There was a pause as the shock was absorbed. Margaret refilled everyone’s cups, and passed cake and biscuits around again. After all, if caffeine and sugar cannot fix a problem then All was Surely Lost.
Finally Margaret gently took up the conversation again.
“Sarah, I assume that you have not seen any of these books in the Bursar’s office? Perhaps they may have been buried by the preparations for the Investments Committee tomorrow?”
Sarah threw her hands up in distress and frustration.
“And how should I know?! He still won’t let me in there and when I think of the mess he’ll have made of the ring bonders I set up for him-!” She broke off with an inarticulate noise of rage.
Margaret nodded again. “Quite so. Naturally when all of this is resolved, Sarah, I shall be happy to lend any assistance you require to set the room back to rights.”
Sarah calmed slightly, and nodded her thanks while accepting more cake.
Beatrice looked somehow even more aghast. “He won’t let you in his office? It must be worse than I thought!”
Margaret patted her arm while passing the biscuits over again. “Let us not lose hope at this stage. I’m sure it can only be a temporary lapse in judgement and he will be properly ashamed when he recovers himself. Beatrice, might you see your way clear to not mentioning the matter to the Master or the Dean? I shall see what can be discovered.”
Beatrice and Sarah both relaxed slighted and sipped their coffee.
“Thank you, Margaret.” Beatrice sighed, “I knew I could rely on you to set my mind at ease.”
Margaret smiled slightly, but internally, she was worried. Perhaps Professor Richards had not been over-reacting at all?
The final straw came two days later, when Sarah called Margaret in tones of such distress that witnesses reported seeing Margaret actually run out of her office and towards the Bursary, with Richards floating along rapidly behind her.
Before they had reached the building, however, they stopped dead (if you will pardon the expression) in their tracks, shocked at the scene they had arrived at.
Arrayed in front of them was a preposterous scene the likes of which had not been seen since the Gaudy Night of three years before.
The week prior to the return of the students was habitually the occasion for ten sturdy young men armed with an array of sharp and strong weapons to do battle with the college ivy. Although the war was an ongoing matter, after three or four days the green enemy was beaten back once more to its accepted boundaries and windows could once again let in light.
However, right now the fine men of the gardens department were being held at ransom, it seemed, by an irate Bursar.
Primordial eagle faced off against tree shepherds with such ferocity that Richards afterwards swore that he could actually see the feathers being ruffled. Surely at any moment the thin man would actually take flight and swoop for the men’s eyes?
Although too far away to make out the Bursar’s actual words, it could be interpreted by careful examination of various hand-gestures that the gentlemen of the forest wished very much to give the ivy covering the Bursar’s office windows a good trimming, and that the Bursar was at least equally keen that they should kindly bugger off and take their sheers and pruning equipment with them.
Richards wandered over to the amassed crowd of fellows, graduate students and various staff members to absolutely not snigger into the Dean’s shoulder at the scene, while Margaret attempted to catch Sarah’s attention through her window and signal for more details.
Through some carefully-used facial expressions and the barest hint of hand signals, Margaret and Sarah were able to ascertain that there seemed to be something hidden within the ivy, and as the Chaplain had now been summoned to bring Peace, Order and Forgiveness to the standoff, Margaret carefully slipped off her shoes, hitched up her skirt, and clambered across the ivy-provided climbing frame to discover what the source of the dispute may be.
At her cry of surprise and possible delight (was Margaret ever delighted? Scholars would spend years debating the very thing) all noise in the West Quadrangle ceased abruptly.
“Margaret, get down from there this instant!” The Bursar turned his fury onto a new target, but any further expostulations were prevented by the Master of the College unceremoniously clobbering him with a nearby bicycle.
“Bursar, if you cause Margaret to fall from fright, I shall personally ensure that you are banned from every single Benefactors’ event for the rest of time!”
“Miss, can we help you down from there?”
“Shall I bring you a ladder, Margaret?” Richards looked around for the very thing.
“Margaret, watch where you’re stepping for goodness’ sake!” Even Beatrice had been coaxed out by the racket, it seemed.
“Margaret, are you alright up there?” Sarah leaned out of her window, preparing to help her friend however she could.
Margaret turned slightly, waved a reassuring hand to her anxious would-be rescuers, and slowly began her descent back to solid ground.
“Is it treasure?” called one of the more excitable students. There was a general rumbling of excitement from the crowd. What had been found indeed?
Smiling, Margaret shook her head at the disappointed crowd, and gently asked the gardeners if they might possibly come back to finish the West Quadrangle next week? With much grumbling and some rather uncomplimentary language cast in the Bursar’s direction, this was agreed to.
“Oh, don’t mind the Bursar!” Richards, now that his Margaret had ceased dangling from unstable foliage over the deep drop into the cellar-area, was in high spirits in the face of such a good morning’s entertainment. “He’s always like this when we haven’t aired his coffin out properly!”
The icy glare he received at this last would have felled another man, but Richards had not become the head of a college by being susceptible to affronted glares from academics, and he in no way meant to start becoming so now.
Instead he loftily called to Sarah to pull out “fresh supplies of the old AB negative, if you’d be so good, the poor chap’s had quite a morning of it!” And watched with great satisfaction as some of the more impressionable graduates ran from the back of the crowd to spread the word that the generally long-held belief had finally received confirmation.
One has to take one’s victories where one can, after all.
Eventually – the spectacle apparently being over – the crowd dispersed, the gardeners moved onto other, less fraught, walls in need of trimming and the Bursar was escorted firmly into his office by the Chaplain and the Dean with Richards following after a stern talking-to by Margaret on the Evils of False Rumour-mongering. Once assembled, with Sarah and Margaret ensconced in the available armchairs, all was revealed at last.
“Ducklings, Bursar. Really?”
Perhaps it was his avian ancestry, Richards would later speculate which had led to the bursar adopting the mallards nesting in the leaves above his window? That he had done his best to keep the family a secret from all was only natural – Bursars after all not being a personality-type easily lent towards sharing in joys and wonders.
“I suppose that explains the stolen bread and the such interest in birds, eh?” Richards clapped the Bursar firmly on the shoulder, nearly sending the taller man into a gigantic and unstable looking pile of papers. “And there I was thinking that you’d been talking to the Herriot Fellow after the Chaplain’s influence towards reconciliation!”
Although the Bursar looked like the very idea pained him, the Chaplain’s smile was an incandescent thing to behold. Long years of practice ensured that all present had raised their hands to their eyes to shield them from the glow.
“Why, Professor, your continued faith in my influence is a constant comfort to me!”
“Think nothing of it, Lawrence!” Richards waved a hand, apparently not finished causing mischief today. “Now tell me, do you think the ducklings ought to be baptised? I’m afraid I’m not up on my feathered-faithfulness, and I’d hate to think that we might be caught out in providing appropriate pastoral care!”
Sarah made a noise which suggested either sudden and intense pain or smothered laughter, while Margaret mentally scheduled three extra and totally unnecessary meetings with the Vice-Chancellor in the coming week.
It wouldn’t do to allow the professor to have everything his own way, after all.
Dedicated to the many adorable ducks that nest in and around Oxford’s Colleges. You sometimes have really weird ideas about suitable nesting places, and you have no idea at all about how traffic works, but you bring joy to me every single year without fail!
Dedicated also to the Twitter of
@OxQuackademics, may you forever keep quacking on!
Enjoyed this story? Check out the rest of the series here.