Happy Halloween Everybody! In celebration of this spookiest day of the year, I thought it would be fun to publish the conclusion of The Hero of The Hour a whole day early! Don’t worry – there’ll be a post on Wednesday as usual, but I just couldn’t resist a chance to let our favourite ghost be the star of the day!
This story is the second of two parts; it will not make any sense without reading Part 1…
Richards wasn’t sure if he was proud or insulted that the night-porter, Stephen-no-really-sir-call-me-Steve, appeared not in the least shocked to find the Master of the College striding back and forth in the chapel while lecturing on college history (with brief tangents in the general ecclesiastical trends and their efforts on socio-economic norms) to three bound and gagged young men.
“Interesting night for you, was it, Professor?”
Richards tried not to be too obviously embarrassed at being caught in such … unusual circumstances. He was suddenly aware that even by the standards of Devon College this was not a Normal Start to the Day.
Fortunately, the Stiff Upper Lip asserted itself, as it always ought to in Trying Situations.
“Ah, good morning Stephen! And how do you fare this dawn?”
Stephen-no-honestly-sir-please-call-me-Steve was still staring at Richards’ captive audience, but he was grinning as he responded that the dawn was especially picturesque today and that Richards would be pleased to know that the weather forecast was due to be fine and dry throughout the day.
“I’m sorry, Professor, but I really feel like we need to get back to the – ah – the visitors you seem to be entertaining?”
The poor man was giving every sign of a man who was not at all sure that he wanted the explanation, but the resignation in his tone was displaying fully their mutual knowledge that he was going to be asked for such an explanation very soon. He looked no happier when Richards provided the explanation, although they shared an instinctive feeling that it was Undoubtedly Best to attempt to get the matter cleared up before the senior fellows were up and about.
“I know, Stephen, that these may be the feelings of an old man, but I understand that the police-force is getting younger every year. There’s really no call to subject them to the Bursar before it is absolutely necessary. Some faith in humanity is doubtless an important aspect in young officers of the law?”
Stephen’s wife had been in the police force in the past, Richards’ recalled, and he hoped that this valuable experience would aid him in crafting whatever semblance of the night’s events would be socially acceptable…
The saying goes that the best-laid plans go often awry and sadly so it proved this morning.
It had begun smoothly enough; the Chaplain had been summoned and, when menacing Richards with an Outburst of Gratitude, was swiftly diverted onto providing the three would-be vandals with tea, biscuits and Encouraging Words. No harm’s been done after all, Horace, and I’m sure that these young men have simply lost the True Path. They just need someone to believe in them! I’ll just sit with them and have a nice chat…
Richards swiftly got out of sight as the police arrived, no reason to cause more awkward questions. Last time he saw the Chaplain, he’d pulled out the pamphlets. You almost had to feel sorry for the boys – this night was doubtless one they would long regret.
Richards tried very hard not to sigh from his perch on the chapel roof, when the Trunbridge and Farthingbury Fellows strolled nonchalantly into the quad, took one look at the uniformed officers leading Richards’ erstwhile new acquaintances out of the chapel, and all-but flew back into their shared office. He supposed it was too much to ask that the alarm might remain silent until it was all over?
Richards had the highest respect for the intellectual pursuits and talents of his colleagues, but sadly he was also well-aware of their ‘general life-skills’ as one of the summer helpers had called them. Sarah, the Bursar’s PA, would often say (in his hearing no less – she knew perfectly well that he had hidden from the Chaplain inside that cleaning cupboard!) that Richards was too hard on the Fellows. Their behaviour this morning proved his case beyond dispute.
“Sirs, I’m sorry to bother you with this, especially since there’s no question of this going to trial – the men have all admitted to breaking-and-entering. But they all agree that they were held prisoner by a ghost?”
The Detective-Sergeant was clearly eager to get the last of the questions over and done with. Stephen-no-sir-I-promise-you-everyone-calls-me-Steve had volunteered to assert that he had stumbled across the men on his rounds and had subdued them more by luck than skill (Richards’ had been impressed by the man’s humility, if not his honesty). The evidence had been plain, the culprits caught, there was surely little remaining, and yet…
“What?!” Three of the gathered academics cried, jumping like schoolboys caught with illicit cookies.
Richards groaned and buried his face in his hands, as the Bursar took it upon himself to gallantly make everything worse.
“What nonsense! The college has no ghosts on its staff!” At this point, the Bursar’s brain clearly attempted to regain control of his mouth for a brief shining instant. “Not that ghosts are real of course. Because they are not. Clearly the ravings of sleep-deprivation, I should say, poor chaps.” Before sadly his habitual inability to cease and desist while ahead broke through. “And even if ghosts were real, I make a point of not employing them in the college under any circumstances!”
Richards sighed and made a note to ask Sarah if she could find the Bursar a nice unaudited ledger, or some small change to count. Something to settle the poor man’s nerves after the ordeal of having to speak to people he could not bluster into submission…
“Yes sir,” and too his credit, the Sergeant’s face barely even twitched. If being faced with a flustered Bursar first-thing in the morning couldn’t shake the man, Richards really had no wish to envision what comprised his usual duty. “Sir, do you think we might be able to speak to the Master of the College before we leave?”
There was a long, horrified pause.
“No!” “Totally impossible!” “Utterly out of the question, terribly sorry-“
Dependably, the Bursar continued to Provide Assistance. “And not because the man’s a ghost of course! Because he isn’t!”
“He’s in meeting!” The Clevebury Fellow jumped in.
“He’s at a conference,” The Meterston Lecturer spoke at the same time.
“He’s not been feeling very well lately!” Everyone fell silent to look disparagingly at the Trunbridge Fellow; it seemed that imagination was not the poor chap’s strong point.
It was hardly surprising that the police were starting to look suspicious. Richards was thankful that acting was not a key requirement across academia; he would, on this showing, be left with an empty college…
The Bursar tried to salvage everything.
“But he is, with any shadow of a doubt, alive, wherever he is! You can rest assured on that count.”
Richards wondered if Margaret had a way to send anonymous tokens of gratitude to the police force of Oxford? Something to compensate them for dealing with his fellows like this. Not one single officer laughed and no one was arrested for insanity. He wasn’t sure if this said something of the generosity of their hearts or the poor impression of academics generally? Either way, he was going to have to Speak To his fellows Most Strongly about The Importance of Interacting with Society Properly. This was obviously well-overdue.
Just as the gathering had reached its peak of utter preposterousness, a cry came from the back like the rallying-call of a beleaguered army when rescued by angels.
“Margaret! You’re here!”
Richards watched as the police, the fellows and the staff all turned in perfect synchrony, like a field of sunflowers, towards their saviour, sent as if by prayer to redeem them from the pit of their own making. Richards was momentarily afraid that the Fernbury Fellow was about to propose marriage he looked so relieved to see salvation approaching in a woolly jumper and sensible mackintosh.
That Margaret did not turn on her sensible heel, duck past Stephen-even-my-wife-calls-me-Steve as he tried to usher her towards the disaster that was Devon’s fellows Interacting with Society faster, and walk straight back out of Devon College heading for the safety of home was yet another sign that she was a Treasure the likes of which whole wars had once been fought over.
She smiled politely at the officers in greeting, requested their patience for a few moments longer, soothed the fellows back to some semblance of sense and coherency before shooing them off to their breakfast, and even diverted the Bursar’s attention from causing further disaster by casually mentioning that the strong-room doubtless needed to be checked for signs of a forced entry.
One officer – younger than the rest and still overly keen – tried to explain that the porters had gone with the police already to check but had cowered under the sharp glare he had received over behind the Bursar’s back. Even his colleagues had shot him reproving looks at his near-scuppering of any scheme to send the overwrought man away with some busy-work.
At last, however the crowd had been disbursed with the calm authority of an empress in her own court and Margaret was free to favour the police with a benevolent smile.
“Now how may I help you, gentlemen? My understanding is that the matter is all but cleared up, is that not correct?”
“No, Ma’am, that’s correct,” the sergeant mumbled after being pushed forward by the others, “we only wanted to speak with the Master of the College, ma’am, before heading out.”
“Ah,” Margaret’s smile was so kindly that even Richards blushed and shuffled his feet. “I see now. Well, I’m terribly sorry, gentlemen but Professor Richards is away on a research trip this week, but I shall brief him on all that has occurred and I expect that you will receive a note of thanks in the next few days.”
Richards wondered idly if he was going to see this note he was writing before it was sent…
The sound of fluttering tweeds signalled the return of the Bursar as the last police car drove away.
“Margaret, you were wonderful!” Steady on, thought Richards, don’t go overboard there, Bursar, you can’t go around stealing my secretary just like that! He needn’t have worried though; the Bursar could always be relied upon to sink his own fleet. “I solemnly apologise for all those times I changed my papers for the Governing Body meetings the night before to make you re-do the photocopying.”
There was a considered pause, in which Richards silently promised himself that when Margaret killed the Bursar in the main quad, he would not stand for the man coming back to share his afterlife. No, not even if Sarah threatened to cry at him.
However Margaret only smiled fondly, as though the Bursar were a ridiculous but cherished nephew and patted his forearm gently.
“Yes well, Bursar, just so long as you try to refrain from such nonsense in the future.”
As the Bursar bustled off again, Margaret turned and, presumably with the magic powers she swore she didn’t have, looked directly at the invisible Richards. She said nothing and nothing needed to be said. Richards floated meekly to her side and shimmered back into view.
“I see that you have already accomplished impossible feats before breakfast, Professor.”
She smiled at him then, warm and fond and even (a little) respectful. “Well done, Professor.”
“Thank you, Margaret.”
They went into the office together. The day had only just started, after all.
Missed Part 1 of Hero of the Hour? Need to catch up? Follow the link here.