I carefully place the punt alongside the bank, several feet from where The Dean is engaging loudly with his mysterious companion. The fellow with him is curious indeed; he wears a wide brimmed hat which flops elegantly across one eye. A finely waxed moustache clings like a furry slug to his top lip and he is wearing the most incredible trench coat, the blue silken lining of which can be admired as it flaps in the breeze. As we alight our punt and proceed up the bank, I can detect a faint Austrian twinge to his chatter.
“I tell you, Sir, that I shall have your culprit before you within the fortnight, you mark my words!”
“Make it a week or you’ll see not a penny of your fee!” retorts The Dean.
“Then redouble my renumeration or you’ll not meet your devilish correspondent!”
The Dean folds his arms in a somewhat threatening manner and expels a stream of expletives that would make a sailor blush.
“Ooo, I hear an argument starting…dadblameit,” says Professor Duke, positioning himself at the shoulder of The Dean.
There is something very familiar about this other chap, I must say…
“Everything will be absolutely fine once this chap comes to understand what I am saying to him,” replies The Dean, jabbing a finger violently at the stranger. “Which is a thing as simple as finding the person responsible for sending me those abominable missives by the end of the week. It isn’t complicated. The man is an idiot.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t think I understand,” I say. “Isn’t Head Porter supposed to be looking into that?”
“Head Porter is doing a terrible job of it,” huffs The Dean. “I met this fellow at the rugby club, it seems that solving mysteries is very much along his line of things and I hired him to settle the matter once and for all.”
The stranger is conspicuously avoiding my gaze, but that won’t help him. I already know who he is.
“Well in that case it is all very clear,” I say, looking hard at the stranger, whose previous presumptuous swagger is sagging slightly now. “The Dean and your good self have an agreement and it would be very stupid indeed for you to quibble over it now. I suggest that you should get about your business right away…”
“Like, faster than fast, and faster than you thought possible!” the Professor backs me up. Has he worked it out too?
The stranger shifts uncomfortably in his shiny pointed boots but soon regains his stately composure.
“Of course, I was actually on my way to Old College when I happened upon my esteemed associate, here,” he says, his accent wandering into some sort of French. “Perhaps you two would be kind enough to facilitate my passage in your fine vessel?”
“Yes, good idea!” The Dean remarks. “I am a busy man. I have no time for this.”
“Do you need a lift, Mr. Dean?” asks the Professor.
“No, no, no. I have heard rumour of an enormous argument brewing in the Law Faculty and I mean to put myself right at the centre of it.”
“Oh, goodness, that sounds special! What’s it about, do you suppose?”
“I have no idea but no doubt it is something tiresome. I shall pop along and spice things up a bit. Toodle-oo!”
With that, The Dean strides away, hands firmly buried in his pockets and nose thrust into the air. He has the most unusual gait but somehow it is terrifying. I turn to our new friend.
“Hershel! What in buggeration do you think you’re doing?”
The wretched boy contritely removes his hat and moustache and gives me a weak smile.
“I thought if, maybe, if I revealed the identity of the person who sent those notes he might forgive me,” Hershel replies.
“Well, it’s such a good disguise—though I saw through the fake moustache—that he doesn’t recognise you,” says the Professor. “I’m liking the tactic, the sudden.”
“Well, during my travels, not only did I develop into a profoundly proficient puzzle-solver, I also became a master of disguise! The Dean wouldn’t give me the time of day if I approached him as myself, so I planned to solve this mystery and then reveal my true identity. I thought if he could see that I have changed my ways and made something of myself, he might forgive me.”
“You thought that you would show him that you had changed your ways by using lies and subterfuge?” I say. “That could only make sense to you, Hershel.”
“And here’s a thing or two,” the Professor declares. “You must needs find the person responsible for the letter thingy, or your plan can’t work, see.”
Hershel laughs, somewhat unexpectedly.
“I already know who sent the letters!” he exclaims. “I can’t believe you two haven’t worked it out already, to be honest. It was me, of course!”
Hershel stands defiantly drinking in our shocked expressions before launching into his explanation.
“I have been planning this whole thing for weeks,” he says. “You see, I was desperate to come home and take up residence with my dear Penelope. But of course I was banned from College by The Dean. So I came up with this elaborate ruse to win him over. And I am helping with the Choir, too. I intend to show him that I am a changed man, one who is determined to use his considerable skills for the bettering of my beloved Old College.”
“You know, I’m thinking you thought this through not at all.” Professor Duke shakes his head. “Mr. Dean will be crankier than before. Goodness. Wicked bad plan, my man.”
“Oh, do have a little faith, old chap,” replies Hershel, making the Professor bristle a little. “My powers of persuasion are well-known. And… I really do think I have a lot to offer the place, you know? C’mon, you have to help me out, here.”
I am not entirely convinced by the altruistic implications of his intentions and his methods are without doubt deranged. But that makes them suitably perfect for Old College and I feel I cannot turn my back on an alumnus.
“Very well, if you promise sincerely that your intentions are honourable. Towards Old College, at least, if not Penelope,” I punctuate this with a little wink, which I instantly regret.
“Cross my heart and hope to die,” Hershel beams. “Besides, if you think this disguise was good, you should wait to see the super disguises I’ve got for you chaps when we sneak in to Hawkins College!”
Disguises. Just when I thought it was safe to mount an ill-advised sortie into the bosom of our rivals, he has to go and mention disguises…