Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Death at the Principal's Lodging

From the very beginning, as Appleby was later to remark, the affair had contrived to have had about it a distinctly odd smell. The odour, in fact, could readily be identified, and not only by the Junior Dean's joking remark.
"When I saw the Principal lying there with his head - as I believe the facetious term has it - "all over the shop" (and I suppose it is to be thought that the Senior Common Room is a kind of "shop"), or that at any rate what is spoken within it might be characterised by the historians of contemporary slang as "shop", I thought not so much in terms of what I saw, but of saws in general and their inventor in particular. And it was quite a different sense which engaged that process of what might be called thought, though I should say now that it was idling merely." The Junior Dean snuffled into his snuff hankerchief with what might have been amusement, or distaste.
Appleby received this tiresome circumlocution with patience, or what might have passed for it amidst what were clearly regarded in these quarters as the lower orders, and took the opportunity to relight his pipe.
"But if we leave aside for a moment your reflexions on the legend of Perdix - for such I take them to be - you are referring, I am to take it, to a distinctive odour, and not some other phenomenal event." He felt he had returned serve.
"Quite so." The Junior Dean looked, or might have been said more precisely to have looked, as he sipped his port, as if he were not entirely gratified by this indication that Appleby, though he undoubtedly resembled a better-dressed member of the professional (not to mention educated) upper-middle-class rather than a man from the Metropolitan police, had followed his less than transparent observation. The Junior Dean's jokes were not designed for other people to "get", as the current term had it, or so his his younger colleagues amongst the academic linguisticians had assured him was the case.
"If I may be candid, Sir John," his voice dropped to a whisper, as if he were debating internally whether Appleby could in fact be entitled to that particular prefix, "it smelt fishy. Or rather, only metaphorically piscatorial. Indeed, in point of fact, one would have to describe it as avian. Distinctly so. It was, in short, the smell of roast partridge."
"Yes," said Appleby. "I had gathered as much. And you concluded - "
"Why, that the poor Principal had succumbed to food poisoning."
"You did not consider that food poisoning does not generally result in a man having his head severed from his shoulders and placed in the punchbowl of the Senior Common Room of one of the colleges of our ancient universities, the doors of which have previously been nailed shut from the inside?"
"My dear sir," protested the Junior Dean, "I have no medical training at all. My field is epigraphy. You might want to take a look at the Bursar, if that is the aspect of the matter which interests you."
"Hullo, what's all this?" said a hearty young man in tweeds and a notably grubby academic gown. "Old Beaky's had his head cut off?"
"Ah, Bursar, we were just thinking of you," said the Junior Dean. "You will excuse me, my dear Sir John, will you not, but I needs must quit this spot, though every prospect pleases."
Appleby completed the quotation for himself and turned to the young man.
"What is all this nonsense, then?"