Across the landing, light spills out onto the worn carpet from an open door at the far end. We sprint towards it, hearts in mouths and anxious at what terrible scene might await us. As we approach the door, The Dean muscles his way to the front, which is good of him, I feel.
“Stay close, chaps” he says under his breath “This could be grisly, and no mistake.”
“Thank goodness I am still wearing my travelling trousers,” remarks Professor Duke, wearing identical white trousers to those of any other occasion. “I would hate to get grisliness on my best trousers. Then, they wouldn’t be the best.”
“D’you know, I really should think about wearing something other than my Porter uniform occasionally,” I say unexpectedly, even to myself. “We’re not even in College.”
“You are representing us, Deputy Head Porter,” replies The Dean, firmly. “You shall keep that uniform on until I tell you otherwise, do you understand? But anyway, your attire is hardly at the forefront of current events. Follow me.”
With that, The Dean sweeps grandly into the awaiting room, followed obediently by the Professor and my good self.
My mind is fuzzy with a thousand and one replayed memories of all the rooms I have ever walked into, all the scenes I have come across, beautiful and terrible in equal numbers. I should be prepared for anything. But that makes it worse, somehow. Oh, for a return to the blissful ignorance of the world and to be able to face such things with little more than a pounding heart and a hopeful disposition.
In truth, what awaits us in the room is certainly not the worst thing I have ever seen. Not by a long way. It could well be up there in the top five of the strangest, that’s a possibility, but certainly not the worst. This is a positive, at least.
Standing about the room are a collection of people who, at first glance, could be identified variously as a Princess, a Prince, a Knight, a Villager and a Merchant. Laying in the middle of the floor is the prone figure of what could be a King, who has most likely suffered a blow to the head. His crown rests sadly several inches from his head.
“What the..?” the Professor utters, his face contorted with confusion. “Goodness!”
The assembled persons turn to face us.
“Parlez vous English?” says The Dean, making little attempt at an accent. It seems to do the trick.
“Who are you people?” asks the Merchant.
“We are an emissary from Old College, the greatest educational establishment in all England!” replies the Professor, grandly.
“In the world, actually,” The Dean corrects him. “Definitely. Now, what is going on here? Is that fellow dead?” he points to the stricken King.
I crouch beside the body and check for a pulse.
“He’s not dead,” I am happy to answer. “He is out cold, though. He must have taken quite a bashing about the bonce.”
“This is none of your business!” snaps the Prince, angrily. “Leave us to our own affairs!”
“I should very much say this is our business,” The Dean retorts, hands placed on hips in contempt. “We are staying just across the landing. If you chaps are the types to go knocking people about the head I think we should know about it.” He pauses and regards the group once more. “What types are you chaps, anyway?”
“We are a troupe of travelling actors and bards,” replies the Princess. “We were celebrating a well-received performance, but I rather fear too much celebration has led to frayed tempers and this… unpleasantness has occurred.”
“Now who did the punching?” asks the Professor. “That’s what I must needs to know!”
The group trade fretted glimpses between themselves, all awash with suspicion and mistrust.
“These fellows are a wily bunch, I’d say,” whispers The Dean. “I say we question them in a cunning fashion.”
“Yepeth,” nods the Professor. “Let’s call them to account about their own behaviours!”
We start with the Princess. She blushes and places a shaking hand to her breast.
“Oh my! But I know that it cannot have been the Prince. I saw him in another place nearby, just as the scream rang out.”
The Prince seems to confirm her account –
“I most certainly heard the voice of a woman coming from this very room, but the Villager and the Princess had not yet arrived.”
The Knight, silent until now, is muffled by the cumbersome helmet that is so important to the attire of such a person.
“Obviously, I hastened to the King’s side as fast as I could,” the Knight says. “No one but myself and the Prince were in the room.”
“The Merchant and I arrived here together,” says the Villager. “Therefore, it is impossible for either of us to be the culprit.”
“That’s right!” agrees the Merchant. “And hear this – I saw a woman come in here shortly after I arrived. She certainly seemed to have taken her time getting here.”
And there we have it. Could it be that within these testimonies there is enough to uncover the truth? The Dean is pacing, a sure sign he is working on a problem. Professor Duke is tapping his chin with his left hand. I am not sure what this is a sign of but before I can ask, he breaks the uneasy silence within the room.
“Aha, aha!” he announces, suddenly. “From what you have all said there can only be one solution! And a simple one, at that. One of you is a beast and a half—and then some! Would you like me to explain?”
With Professor VJ Duke