As the sound of approaching footsteps grows louder I hold my breath, which is a rather unlikely thing to be doing when I might need to be running or fighting at any moment soon. It is a perfectly natural human reaction to such things, but quite a stupid one.
“I bet things are going to get pretty spiced up in here,” whispers Professor Duke. “I’m thinking I should put down my hat so it will be safe.”
“Never mind your blasted hat,” replies The Dean “We need a plan. Whatever it is that comes for us, I say we attack it all at once. I shall go for the head, since I am the tallest.”
“I’ll go for the neck, since it’s a softer target, I’m thinking,” says the Professor. “You can go for the head, if you must. Maybe the arms? They’re more lethal than the head, after all. Deputy Head Porter should concentrate on the knees.”
“Might I propose an initially non-violent approach?” I suggest. “We are British, after all.”
“Well, I’m something of an American, overall,” the Professor retorts. “Violence is a pastime where I come from.”
The Dean looks set to put forward his case for unfettered ferocity but there is no time. Our pursuer is upon as.
The footsteps come to an abrupt halt as their owner seems to be surprised at the sight of the three of us, just as he is rather a surprising sight himself. A shiny white dome of a head is decorated dramatically with a black leather patch that covers his left eye. An angry-looking purple scar snakes from the socket down towards a jaw that looks as if it is fashioned from granite. The right ear is missing. He stands at over six feet tall.
“Hello, there!” I say brightly. I offer a little wave.
“GET HIM!” roars The Dean and at once there is a fearsome rush of air as he and Professor Duke charge headlong towards the Curator. The element of surprise serves them well and our adversary comes crashing to the ground beneath a flurry of top hat and expletives. But the Curator is clearly a man well-versed in the art of war and it is not long before he is thrashing around on the floor, viciously fighting back at his attackers.
As the bellicose threesome tumble amongst the filth of the dungeon floor, I really feel I should be doing more to help. The Professor’s hat rolls off into the discarded moonshine and I quickly scoop it up before it gets too sticky. He will thank me for that later.
“For goodness sake, Deputy Head Porter, DO something!” shouts The Dean, wrestling with an arm the size of a tree trunk and evidently losing.
“Yes, blind him in his eye!” Professor Duke yells, fending off flailing legs and hobnail boots “The thing about being blinded…is you can’t…fight…what you can’t…see.”
Well. I don’t think I have ever blinded a man in my life. And he has only got one eye as it is, so that seems dreadfully unfair. Perhaps a temporary blinding of some sort is in order.
Now, it is well documented that in times of great stress and excitement, the human brain often does not function as well as it should. Which goes some way to explaining why what I do next seems like such a good idea.
With the intention of temporarily blinding the Curator at the very forefront of my mind, I gamely bound over to the seething mass of human flesh locked in mortal combat and place my posterior squarely on the face of our adversary, making sure to completely cover his one good eye. This obviously comes as quite a surprise to the Curator, who lets out a very unusual sound before, to my horror, attempting to bite my behind.
I am able to manoeuver myself so that my cheeks remain unchomped but it quickly becomes apparent that this is not a very good idea.
“I just think this is making matters worse, to be honest” I say to my colleagues. “Are you sure a non-violent approach would not be better?”
The Dean, red-faced and panting, turns his face towards the Curator’s (which is partially obscured by my bottom).
“What d’you say old chap, have you had enough? What say we talk this through like men, hmm?”
“I shall agree to whatever terms you suggest, monsieur!” rasps the Curator “But please remove this woman from my head!”
I leap up, pleased that my role in the action is at an end. The three chaps seem to have exhausted themselves with their battling and gingerly clamber to their feet, one by one. Once breath has been caught and balance restored, the questionings can begin. The Curator regards us warily with his one remaining eye and wears an expression of unease.
“Listen, I think we may have all got off on the wrong foot,” I say, attempting diplomacy.
“Mon dieu! If you interfere with a man’s wine-making what is it that you expect??”
“That was wine?” mutters The Dean, eyeing the remains of the little stricken brewery.
“What are you doing with wine in a dungeon?” asks the Professor, accompanying his words with his second-best smile. “Too good for prisoners. But, here’s the thing: we didn’t do anything. It was a rat that did it.”
“Do not take me for an imbecile!” spits the Curator “I know that you are here to steal the secrets of the finest wine in France. You English wine-makers cannot compete, you know it!”
“I’ve never made wine once, let alone in a dungeon,” protests Professor Duke. “Promise. Double promise. We are adventurers!”
“And also academics,” The Dean chimes in, wanting to add some gravitas to proceedings no doubt. “From Old College in England. What we seek certainly isn’t wine…”
“Although, if you happen to have a glass to hand I wouldn’t say no,” I say quickly. Well, you never know. And besides, I’m parched.
“Old College? Old College?!” the Curator’s reaction suggests he might have already heard of us. The clenching of his fists and the protruding of his neck veins imply that whatever he has previously heard is not good. “You filthy, English pig-dogs!”
“Actually, I’m something of an American…”
“Silence! You take from me the most precious thing that exists and now, all these years later you return! And destroy my wine! I hoped I would never again hear the name of your cursed College as long as I live!”
Someone from Old College has obviously rubbed him up the wrong way sometime in the past. I turn to The Dean.
“Have you been here before?” I ask.
We are certainly missing something, here. What could it be?
With Professor VJ Duke