Death in an Ivory Tower (Dotsy Lamb Travel Mysteries) (2 page)

BOOK: Death in an Ivory Tower (Dotsy Lamb Travel Mysteries)
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I spotted Keith Bunsen, a lecturer in biochemistry and a fellow of St. Ormond’s College at which we were now gathered. Keith lived here year round, he had told me, because his long-term research kept him in town when most of the faculty left for the summer. I wondered why he was here at this little gathering, schmoozing with history scholars. Tall and awkward, he tried to brush a wine spill off his tie with his free hand but jostled his glass as well and spilled a bit more. Then I saw the reason.

Georgina, the lovely young niece of our host, weaved delicately through the throng with her tray of hors d’oeuvres. Keith nodded at her, smiled, and lifted a shrimp from her tray with another nod, another smile, and another slosh of wine down his tie. Our servers were dressed as Elizabethan servants. Nice touch, I thought. I imagined the costumes were the brainchild of Daphne, our hostess and the wife of Harold Wetmore, Master of St. Ormond’s College, Oxford. Georgina’s thin cotton blouse lightly skimmed the tops of her pretty breasts.

I could hear Keith now:

“Wha-wha-what’s on tonight, Master? The k-k-kitchen’s gone daft.”

“Kickoff for that Arthurian Conference.”

“Enjoy yourselves while I’m cooking porridge on the g-g-gas ring.

“Feel free to join us for drinks. Six-thirty to seven.”

“Thanks. I may j-join you for a bit.”
Keith Bunsen’s blatant wangling for an invitation would have followed his discovery that Georgina would be there, and Harold Wetmore’s invitation would have been the obligatory sort not meant to be accepted.

Georgina offered her tray to Larry and me.

“Lovely,” I said. “What are these?” I pointed to some circular green-and-white items in the center.

“Steamed scallops on avocado and toast,” Georgina said as Larry relieved her tray of a bacon-wrapped broiled mussel. I took one, too, because the scallops looked too large to manage without a fork and saucer.

“You’re l-l-looking especially lovely tonight, Georgina,” Keith said, swallowing his shrimp with a bob of his Adam’s apple.

“Thank you,” she said, curtsied, and added, “and thank you for not calling me a serving wench.”

While Larry and Keith went on, trying clumsily to amuse Georgina, I looked around the room. Some thirty or forty people were present and I knew only about ten. I wondered how many of them were staying here at the college, as I was. My gaze swerved to an interior doorway where I saw Daphne Wetmore, our hostess, tugging at her husband’s sleeve in a vain attempt to pull him away from a circle of academics, their heads bent over a glass display case full of antique guns. Harold had already shown me his prized collection, which included a flintlock musket he called “Brown Bess,” and a beautiful pair of eighteenth-century dueling pistols. Sweat dotted Daphne’s upper lip. Her face was flushed, and no wonder. This was Harold’s party but it was all her doing. She had probably reminded him to shower and laid out his clothes for him, else he would still be sitting in his study, poring over ancient medieval maps. Daphne, barely five feet tall in heels, had to stretch to peer around her husband’s bent arm. Still failing to make eye contact, she tugged at his elbow again, then turned toward the open door behind her.

My gaze followed hers, and I think I must have gasped because Keith’s and Larry’s heads turned as well. A grey figure glided past the doorway in the direction of the staircase. My first thought was, Lady Macbeth! I know it was stupid but that’s what I thought. I imagined her climbing the stairs, wringing her hands, crying, “Out, damned spot!”

Larry said, “What the fu—?”

Daphne released her husband’s sleeve and dashed through the doorway.

It couldn’t have been my imagination because others saw it, too. And the most interesting part of it, for me, was the wide variety of fleeting impressions recalled later by the onlookers.

Dinner was in the great dining hall, a long room with walls lined with oil portraits of past luminaries and terminated by a slightly raised dais, the High Table, behind which hung a gargantuan portrait of the founder. A morose-looking sixteenth-century bishop in clerical garb, he stood staring disapprovingly down at the center row of tables as he had done for several hundred years, condemning a dozen generations for the sin of gluttony.

I found my name at a place about halfway down the center row. Glancing around I saw, to my delight, Larry Roberts pulling out a chair at the table nearest the south wall and knew I’d have a break from his badgering. But my heart sank when I spotted Bram Fitzwaring and Mignon Beaulieu. They were seated at the far end of that row, and no one else sat anywhere near them. Were there no place cards for them? Had they taken these places because they were unassigned?

Harold Wetmore, standing at the center of the High Table, clinked his knife against a glass and called on a man in a clerical collar for the blessing, which the man delivered in Latin.
How classy! If folks back home could see me now!
I thought, understanding none of the words beyond
in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti,
and rather pleased with myself for even catching that.

I sat between a woman from the British Museum and a man from the Bodleian Library. Directly across from me, Keith Bunsen seated himself with a bow to each of us. This really surprised me. I assumed he was only attending the pre-dinner gathering, but my intentional flip of his place card while reaching for the water pitcher revealed that, indeed, his name was on the card.

The talk was all about the apparition. The Grey Lady. Some said she was wearing black and some said green. Some marveled that she had no feet, saying she glided silently a few inches above the hall floor. Others said she wore black slippers. A man at the table behind me declared that she must have been a ghost because Daphne Wetmore said there was nowhere for her to have gone but up the stairs and no one was on the stairs when Daphne pursued her through the doorway, seconds after the apparition had passed.

A few people thought it was a man.

“I’m ashamed to confess that the first thing I thought was, Lady Macbeth,” I said, leaning to one side so the waiter could place a roll on my bread plate. “I suppose that’s because my head has been immersed in the Scottish play for the last year.”

The woman from the British Museum laughed and admitted she’d thought of Lady Jane Grey. “The poor girl. She’d be perfectly within her rights to haunt a conference like this.” She was referring to the young Tudor woman, beheaded after serving as England’s queen for nine days.

The man from the Bodleian Library said he suspected it was the ghost of Prudence Burcote who died of a broken heart when her Cavalier lover left her. “But Prudence normally hangs about on Magpie Lane,” he said.

To bring Keith into the conversation, I said, “As a scientist you probably think we’re all crazy, talking about ghosts. Did you see it?”

“I must confess that I did, and that I rather thought it might be M-Madame Curie.”

That lightened us up. The diners on either side of Keith joined in. The discussion meandered easily from ghosts, to folklore, to the vast differences in the impressions of witnesses to a single event. We all laughed when Keith suggested we were lucky the Grey Lady didn’t kill someone out in the hall because the police would have concluded we were all completely potty. I felt my level of anxiety, at a dangerous peak earlier thanks to Larry, returning to a more reasonable level.

Between the pheasant and the dessert, Daphne Wetmore left the High Table and made her way down the aisle behind me. She touched me on the shoulder, leaned over, and whispered, “How are your accommodations? Is your room satisfactory?” A purely perfunctory, good hostess question. I’d already told her I liked the room.

I assured her, again, that it was and that I loved staying in a room that dated back to the Elizabethan period.

“Which staircase is it? Thirteen? You know, some people refuse to stay there. Unlucky, they say.”

Unlike the typical dormitory rooms in American colleges, the residence quads at St. Ormond’s didn’t have long central halls on each floor with rooms leading off left and right. Instead, the three-and four-story stone buildings had numbered staircases winding up, ground floor to top, with only one or two rooms on each level and no communication with other staircases. If your room was on Staircase Thirteen you had to go outside, into the open-air central garden to visit someone in, say, Staircase Ten.

Inside my room I felt a profound privacy—an almost eerie sense of isolation.

Isolation.
The word reminded me of the interlopers from Glastonbury.

I searched again for Bram and Mignon by craning my neck to see over the shoulder of the man seated next to Keith. There they were, in the same seats as before, but now surrounded by others and actively conversing with them. Bram’s face wore a look of rapt fascination at whatever the man seated across from him was talking about. Mignon and the woman on her left inclined their heads toward each other, nodding. I heard Mignon’s hearty laugh in response to an exaggerated eye-roll by the other woman. I felt a bit better.

Daphne made polite small talk with others as she worked her way down the aisle. I heard her say, “Pray that Harold doesn’t tell one of his naughty jokes. He’s had four glasses of Merlot.”

As if he’d heard his name, Harold Wetmore stood and clinked his knife against his wine glass for attention. Slowly the room hushed. He ran one hand in his pants pocket, exposing the green suspenders bracketing his red bow tie. Harold looked like an albino orangutan with a fringe of uncombed white hair framing a great expanse of forehead and small eyes beneath overgrown eyebrows. From his rumpled linen jacket to his unbelted pot belly, Harold was every inch the absentminded professor. He cleared his throat and began:

“I confess that the ghost of Lady Tanfield crossed my mind earlier this evening. Though her fiery chariot normally confines itself to the night skies above Burford, it is rumored that a black cloud sometimes follows her and if this cloud surrounds you it sucks out your mind—a fate one might suspect has already befallen much of Oxford.”

This produced a wave of laughter all around the room.

“I’m so terribly pleased to welcome you to St. Ormond’s College. We are delighted to have a distinguished group of scholars from three continents, and I am sure we will all find much food for thought as we exchange our ideas over the next few days. It is the Elizabethan period that concerns us here. Not the medieval. Not the rule of the Anglo-Saxons or the Normans or the Celts. I’m sure we’re all keenly aware of the tremendous influence of the Arthur myths on social mores in England and France as these stories were invented and popularized in those distant years, but did they die out with the coming of the early modern period? To what extent had they already shaped this island’s psyche? And to what extent were they exported to the rest of the world as England embarked upon a great age of exploration?

“That’s what we’re here to talk about.

“If there are any here who wish to turn this into a treasure hunt for the Holy Grail or Arthur’s bones, or Excalibur, for God’s sake, let him forever hold his peace and depart forthwith by the down train. Or, as a certain don would have said, ‘by the town drain.’”

Amid laughter from the locals and blank stares from most of the foreign guests, Wetmore nodded to his audience and sat down. I had read a lot about Oxford University over the past year and knew that his closing remark referred to William Spooner of New College, famous for his “Spoonerisms.” It was said that he once proposed a toast to “our queer dean.”

“Well!” said Claudia, the woman from the British Museum, fishing for her purse under the table. “That was rather sharp, don’t you think? What was he talking about?”

Keith pulled the wayward purse from the floor near his feet and handed it across the table. “That’s Harold for you. He’s a stickler for insisting people remember King Arthur is a myth. Don’t ever suggest there might really have been such a king. Not around Harold.”

“I’ll remember that,” I said.

“What now? Is this it?” asked the man from the Bodleian.

“There will be c-c-coffee in the Senior Common Room, for those who wish to relax and chat a bit before retiring.”

All Oxford colleges kept a Junior Common Room for undergraduates and a Senior Common Room for faculty and grads. In the United States we’d call them lounges. I wasn’t sure where St. Ormond’s Senior Common Room was, but figured I could find it by following the crowd. Stepping out into the arched corridor that connected East Quad to Middle Quad, I felt a cool breeze in my hair. The night was lovely, high sixties, maybe low seventies, and crisp. I decided to sit on one of the benches in the East Quad for a minute.

My own room was in a corner of this quad but not visible from my seat on the bench because the room’s only window, a tiny, leaded-glass one, opened over Sycamore Lane, which ran parallel to this part of the college. An arched passage on the opposite side, leading to faculty offices, was lit now by one small carriage lantern casting a long beam across the grass. In its pale yellow glow the texture of the Cotswold sandstone stood out in bold relief. The flowers bordering all four walls of the quad were now darkened to shades of blue. Drops of water on the hostas sparkled as they swayed in the passing breeze. A hint of grape-scented heliotrope drifted by. All around the edges, expertly tended flowerbeds seemed to have been planned for maximum impact this very week, but I suspected they always looked their best. The only position at an Oxford college harder to acquire than that of Master was that of Gardener, a post some said required a great deal more knowledge. The English love their gardens, and nowhere was this more obvious than in Oxford.

A few lights still burned in the porter’s office at the main entrance. A couple, most likely members of our group, tapped the electric eye beside the massive nail-studded door with one of the magic entry buttons the college issued each of us and slipped out into the city night. High heels clicked on a flagstone walk behind me. City traffic noises, damped by the walls around me, seemed farther off than they were. I thought of a line from Dorothy L. Sayers’s
Gaudy Night.
“If only one could come back to this quiet place, where only intellectual achievement mattered . . .”

BOOK: Death in an Ivory Tower (Dotsy Lamb Travel Mysteries)
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