puzzle

An Encounter With The Master

The rabble that increases steadily behind me from The Great Chapel at once becomes distant and dim when in close proximity to The Master. We are stopped dead in our tracks, faced as we are with his formidable countenance. His steady frame is not bowed by his many accumulated years and the striking elegance of his youth still clings with grim determination to a finely chiselled skull. Exuding a stately air of aristocratic menace, The Master offers us the thinest of smiles.

“My, my, my…” His voice is like molten glass. “Wherever there is a commotion there can be found my dear, darling Porters. Why do you suppose that is so?”

Head Porter glances across wildly but I can offer only a shrug. As the seconds pass it becomes painfully evident that he isn’t going to say anything at all, so it falls to me to tackle the response.

“We were offering our support to the College Choir, Sir,” I reply, dry-lipped. “It seems that your Wife has completed a Herculean task with the jolly chaps and they could be in with a good chance of winning.”

A rictus grin spreads across The Master’s face and he seems to enjoy the moment.

“I rather fear that Wastell may have bested us, however.”

“Haha, that’s dadblamery, don’t you know!” exclaims Professor Duke, somewhat unexpectedly. “I think we won, just because. After all, I can’t see us losing, and if I can’t see us losing, I don’t think we can lose. It’s that sort of thing which makes the world turn, see.”

The Master turns to the Professor and addresses him as if he had only just spotted him.

“Professor Duke! What a surprise. I must say, it delights my cold, dead heart to see a member of The Fellowship so keenly supporting College pursuits.”

Wait – what was that about his heart?

“Cold, dead heart? That’s cool, I have one, too,” the Professor is charm personified and he might just get us out of this unscathed. “But, yes, this is a truth: The Professor loves to support the College in every way possible. Why wouldn’t I, of course? After all, I do work here a bit, bits, and little bits. I’ll even be down on the river soon, cheering on the rowing beasts. Yo.”

“Aha yes – The Dean did mention that you were rather proficient on the River.”

There is an ominous silence that is more uncomfortable than the itchy robes of Hawkins College Choir.

“Anyway!” says Head Porter, suddenly. His voice is a good octave higher than usual. “We’ve seen them do their bit so we must get back to the Lodge and get on with… everything.”

“Actually, Head Porter, I was hoping we might converse briefly. Or… at length.” The Master barely noticeably flexes a fist. “Whichever suits the need.”

Head Porter casts me a look that says please don’t leave me. But he soon regroups his senses and nods in deference, touching the brim of his hat respectfully.

“As you say, Sir.”

The Professor whispers to me –

“We should definitely not abandon our post, double-see.”

“I think you two would be wise to return to your daily activities, whatever they may be.” He must have the hearing of a bat. “No doubt I shall be seeing you both again before so very long.”

I deem it prudent to take the path of least resistance and the Professor seems to agree with me. I give Head Porter what I hope is a sympathetic look before we turn on our heels and head back to Old College.

The excitement of the Choir Competition briefly gave me something of a second wind, but now the effects of all-night shenanigans are taking hold quite firmly. But it is a pleasant afternoon and Professor Duke is in a conversational humour so I try to remain as perky as possible.

“Awesome river skills, huh? That’s a thing. I think I should be proud about that, you know. But what did he mean?”

“I’m not sure, Professor,” I reply, stifling a little yawn. “Maybe he meant that time we saw him and The Dean on the riverbank when we were punting. But why would The Dean talk to him about that, of all things?”

“Well, he was probably so impressed with my punting skills…he couldn’t keep quiet. That’s the thing,” the Professor declares.

“Maybe… hey, it was me that was punting!”

“Was it? I’ve forgotten all about that.”

My sleep-deprived brain struggles to convince me one way or the other as I grope through the murky fug for the memory.

“Now, here’s a thing that scares me,” the Professor’s mind flits enthusiastically to his next thought. “This whole dadblamery between Head Porter and The Master’s Wife. What is it all about? And what a wonder she decided to show many interests in Mr. Head Porter at the exact same time Headmistress arrived on the scene! Dadblamery, I tell you.”

“Head Porter is a fine fellow but he does seem an odd choice for a lady such as The Master’s Wife,” I reply.

“It’s sorta funny he couldn’t find a lady, at first. Now, he’s getting overrun. That’s how it always seems to happen. I think they may crush him like a toad hopping on weak pea gravel.”

“A beautiful analogy, Professor.”

“Why, many thanks. It’s just unfair. But then, females are always unfair. It’s just the way things are. That’s why they’re called the unfairer sex. Oh dadblameit.”

There’s something wrong with that statement somewhere, but I am too exhausted to care. All I can think about right now is finding somewhere quiet to grab forty winks.

A Puzzle Solved

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!”

WHAT?!

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.

I sigh.

“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…

The Return Of Hershel

The dress rehearsal is complete and I am pleased to report that my ears remain in one piece and are not even slightly bleeding. Organ Scholar and Penelope have achieved the impossible and I mean to congratulate them on their efforts. I am also quite interested to discover exactly why Hershel has decided to join the Choir.

The Master’s Wife has sidled over to Head Porter, who looks most uncomfortable. Phone in hand, he seems to want to be somewhere else quite urgently.

I mingle among the chattering Choir, who are quite rightly congratulating themselves on a song well sung. As beautiful as they might be, it seems there is nothing quite as flattering to their faces as a hard-won accomplishment. I would go as far to say as that many of them have been inspired.

“I’ve got to tell you, you’ve done a great job,” I say to Organ Scholar and Penelope, who beam with pride and the smallest smear of smugness. “I never thought I would be able to actually listen to the Choir sing.”

“There’s still a lot of work to do,” Organ Scholar replies, a consummate perfectionist when it comes to such things. “But, aye, they’re coming along nicely.”

Penelope looks as if she might be about to add her own thoughts, when she is suddenly tugged away and into the arms of an amorous Hershel. Swooping her low across his body, he kisses her with such dramatic force I wonder if it is appropriate for me to intervene.

“We’ll have none of that in the Chapel,” Organ Scholar huffs.

Hershel releases his lady and presents us with a broad grin.

“I bet you didn’t expect to be seeing me again, Deputy Head Porter!”

“Penelope did mention that you might be back,” I reply, levelling a stern eye in his general direction. “But I certainly wasn’t expecting to find you robed-up and singing your little heart out in the College Choir.”

“Oh, he’s not allowed to sing,” says Penelope, rather breathless. “That was the primary condition of him joining.”

“Listen, I thought I told you we had to be careful about Hershel visiting College?” I say, in my very best Deputy Head Porter voice. “Serenading The Dean is not exactly what I would call ‘careful.’”

Hershel throws back his head and sends a spirited laugh echoing throughout the Chapel.

“Ah, the miserable old bugger! How is he? If he didn’t like my love notes perhaps he will like my singing better.”

“What do you mean – ‘love notes’?” If he means what I think he means, I fear I may be in danger of not only losing my temper but denying it’s existence completely.

Hershel waves a hand dismissively but his eyes bright with mischief suggest that I should not be dismissing anything.

“Just a missive or two to help pave my way back to Old College,” he says. “I thought if he found himself in need of a private investigator, I might be more welcome. I have been all over Europe investigating things, you know. What can I say, Deputy Head Porter – you’ve inspired me.

“Wait – you’re saying that you sent those notes written in blood?”

“It wasn’t actual blood,” Hershel is sounding less sure of himself, now. “Just a very effective ink. What did he say when he saw them?” His eyes are wide with anticipation. “Was he terrified?”

“He was bloody furious!” I snap back. “What did you expect? The Dean has only two states of being – furious and asleep. He’s had Head Porter chasing around College looking for an enemy who can’t spell.”

Another burst of triumphant laughter escapes from Hershel, this time accompanied by an enthusiastic slapping of the thigh.

“This isn’t funny, Hershel!”

He straightens himself up and seems to gather himself a little.

“Oh, come on, Deputy Head Porter, please don’t be like that. I couldn’t bear it if we weren’t chums. Look, once I graduated I decided that my law degree wasn’t of use to me after all and I took a different path. Ever since that incident with those two poor chaps we found at the bottom of the gardens, I have wanted to seek out mysteries and puzzles – and solve them! So that is exactly what I set out to do. So you see, really, if it wasn’t for you we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

I cannot help but admire his innate ability to talk himself out of almost absolutely everything. Unfortunately, it is a skill that works the other way round, too.

“Your entrepreneurial ethic is commendable, dear boy,” I say, trying to remain fairly solemn. “But nonetheless if The Dean catches you in College he will go absolutely spare.”

“Actually, we think that he won’t,” Organ Scholar chimes in. “Hershel has a fool-proof plan to help us win the Choir Competition.”

“Well, if not actually win, then at least beat Hawkins College,” adds Penelope. “Which is the same as winning, really.”

“I don’t want to know!” I theatrically clasp my hands to my ears, knowing that whatever devious methods Hershel has devised will be trouble of the highest order. “I absolutely do not want to know!”

“Oh, are you sure?” asks Organ Scholar. “Professor Duke seemed to think you would be very keen. He seemed quite excited when I told him Hershel had a plan. He told us to meet him in his rooms this evening to go through everything. You mean you aren’t joining us?”

Oh, he did, did he? The Professor is naughtier than a box of naughty things. Well, I have no choice, now. If I don’t turn up who knows what these chaps will get themselves into…