The disquietude in the Armingford Room is like electrified ice, if there could ever be such a thing. Each person present is poised at the very edge of his or her nerves, eyes darting between us, each one waiting to see what will happen next.
The enthralling command that The Dean once held over the room has now passed to the formidable Detective Chief Inspector Thompson. A striking gentleman with a University education, he balances his air of authority perfectly well with aloof superiority. I am ordinarily comfortable in the company of senior police officers, but this one makes me rather nervous. Quite apart from anything else, he has now twice placed The Dean under arrest and left him lost for words at least once and a chap that can achieve that should be treated with caution, I say.
Handcuffed, yet still defiant, The Dean turns to confront the Chief Inspector.
“Tell me, Detective. What was so interesting about the search of my home?”
“Perhaps you would prefer to pursue this down at the station?” suggests DCI Thompson with the slight smugness of one who is confident of having the upper hand.
“Perhaps you would like to tell me how you managed to obtain a warrant to conduct the search in the first place?” replies The Dean, sharp and cutting but bereft of his usual bombastic overtones. DCI Thompson offers nothing but a wry smile by way of reply. That information is something he clearly will not be divulging in the presence of us mere civilians.
“Very well,” the detective says eventually, shifting into a more casual stance and placing one hand in his pocket. “If you will insist on playing this out like the finale of an Agatha Christie novel, then so be it. You have shared with us all your fascinating theory, now I shall share mine.
My attentions were first drawn to you, Dean of College, during our initial visit to Old College. Your first action was to lie to Detective Sergeant Kirby and me about the whereabouts of the Lord Layton. This raised more than my eyebrow, I can tell you – it aroused a fair amount of suspicion. As a police officer of high standing and long service, I am very accustomed to people being less than honest in their interactions with me. But this was something else, something more than the usual Collegiate resistance to outside interference. And your continued hostility towards the investigation, to the extent that you were even prepared to be arrested for obstruction – well. Your behaviour was not that of a soundly thinking gentleman, Sir.”
“If I might, Detective Chief Inspector” I cut in hesitantly “That sort of thing is rather par for the course with The Dean. With all due respect, Sir” the final addition is directed towards The Dean himself, whose expression indicates that this is a reasonable enough comment.
“I am an old boy of the University system myself,” replies DCI Thompson, holding my gaze as though I were a fish on a hook. “And even making allowances for the general lack of sound thinking, my gut told me that something was being kept from me. You, Dean of College, were clever to distract your colleagues with your cunning distractions of the involvement of Head Porter and Hawkins College, very clever indeed. You used your considerable influence to sway the minds of Deputy Head Porter and this mustachioed fellow here,” with a sweeping arm movement he indicates Porter, who looks rather put out. “All the while distracting from the fact that you yourself had taken the painting and hidden it in your very home.”
“What the devil would I want with the bloody painting?” The Dean is furious but is doing well to maintain a civil composure. “What do you suppose I did with it? Hung it in the drawing room?”
“But it was not the painting itself that interested you,” DCI Thompson continues. “Your eye for art is not what it could be. No, it was the priceless antique frame that caught your attention, wasn’t it? You have a fascination with such items, you said as much to the proprietor of the shop on Shelley Street, did you not? When you took some pots in to be valued just recently?”
The Dean is aghast and his valiant battle with his temper is a sight to behold. I almost think DCI Thompson is doing this on purpose.
“A mere item of idle conversation!” The Dean splutters.
“I think not, Dean of College. Besides, when my officers visited your rather sumptuous dwelling earlier today, we found…”
As one, we all who are assembled in the Armingford Room wheel round to face the source of the heavy sound that happens suddenly at the entrance. The oak paneled door itself has been flung back with some force and bundling through it are two rough-hewn chaps with very narrow vocabularies, limited it would seem to four-letter words. They are both wearing brown overcoats and are carrying a large rectangular object covered in heavy dust sheets. A tickly, unusual feeling makes itself known in the pit of my stomach.
“Hallo, Porter!” says the younger of the two as he sees him sat in the chair. “You alright me old geezer, I haven’t seen you in donkey’s. Where d’you want us to stick this?” He gestures to the covered object. Porter rises very slowly to his feet. I catch his eye and I think he has had the same thought that I have just had.
“You’ve had this away for cleaning, have you?” asks Porter, slowly.
“We have at that. D’you want us to stick it back up on the wall?”
“Show me your job ticket” Porter says urgently. His friend fumbles with a grubby piece of paper and they look at it together.
“Lessee then. I don’t know why they have to use these little symbols. So we’ve got the goat, that’s the Armingford Room thingy, isn’t it? Right. And then we’ve got this peacock whatsit. That’s this painting here,” he points to the plaque beneath the empty space once occupied by the Lord Layton. Porter stares at the document before him and shakes his head.
“No, this painting here, the Lord Layton is the feathers” he says. “The peacock is for Cow By A Lake, over there. See?”
“But that’s a peacock on that plaque there”
“It is!” I say excitedly. “You see, I told you they had been swapped round!”
“No, I don’t think they have” says DCI Thompson looking carefully at the plaque. “These are quite clearly heraldic feathers. An idiot could see that. Admittedly, in heraldry the peacock emblem and that of the feathers are rather similar, but this here is definitely the feathers.”
“I must’ve made a mistake,” mumbles the younger chap. “I thought that was a peacock. So we’ve had away the wrong painting, then?”
The older of the overcoated fellows is casting the dust sheets aside. A collective holding of breath makes the room feel like a vacuum as we watch with something of disbelief at what is revealed.
The Lord Layton. Looking very neat and tidy, I must say.
Walking through the cloisters of Apple Tree Court with The Dean and Head Porter, we are all still a little stunned by the enormity of the anticlimax in the Armingford Room.
“So, the painting was never even stolen in the first place!” exclaims Head Porter for the third time in as many minutes. “I can’t believe you thought I did it!” He says to The Dean. Again, not for the first time.
The Dean rubs his wrists which are evidently still smarting from the unforgiving caress of DCI Thompson’s handcuffs. The Chief Inspector had been very gracious about the entire matter, I must say. Seeing as his extensive operation had just been blown out of the water by a couple of chaps in overcoats he behaved in the most gentlemanly manner, I think. The Dean, too, was uncharacteristically reasonable regarding the whole affair. The relief of having the Lord Layton returned, unharmed, to College grounds was enough to placate him I should imagine.
“All that fuss and it wasn’t even stolen” Head Porter shakes his head. “I just can’t believe it.”
“Well, look at this way,” muses The Dean “It was a jolly good jape for a few weeks, there. We would have had bugger-all else to do over the summer. A bit of fun all round, I’d say.”
“I’m not sure Hawkins College would feel that way about their broken window,” I remark. This provokes an outburst of genuinely gleeful laughter from The Dean.
“Aha! The buggers got what they deserved! But what I want to know is, do you suppose Porter will keep seeing that Detective Sergeant? Now that there is no crime to be investigated.”
“He has booked the weekend off, I think he is taking her away” replies Head Porter cheerfully. “That’s a point, I need to change the rotas around. I will catch up with you two later. A drink in The Albatross, chaps?”
We nod in approval and agree to meet Head Porter in our favourite haunt later that afternoon. Alone with The Dean, I decide to tactfully broach the subject of him possibly taking up The Mastership of Wastell College.
“You wouldn’t really leave us, would you Sir?” I ask, the very hint of a flutter upon my eyelashes.
“That depends, Deputy Head Porter” replies The Dean, with a sigh. “It depends on many things, but mainly it depends on if you meant what you said to me that night we drank far too much whiskey. Because, if you did mean it, I thought I might take The Mastership and you with me. I think you would like it there. But if it was just a drunken ramble, well… I might as well just stay here.”
“Right then” I reply flatly, of course completely unable to recall any of the events from that evidently eventful evening.
“Have a think about it over the weekend,” he says, blissfully ignorant of my amnestic state. “We shall be fine friends whatever you decide.”
The Dean pats me on the shoulder and gives me a contented grin. I watch him as he makes his way towards his rooms, his distinctive bouncing swagger accentuated by hands thrust in pockets, and I wonder what the coming academic year has in store for us splendid chaps at Old College.
Probably best not to think about it, actually.