WHEN Ruth saw Terence Greene again, she didn’t mention the incident outside the theatre. It was, she told herself, of no concern to her what diversions the policeman enjoyed. But, to her annoyance, he seemed intent on mentioning it.
“She is remarkable,” Terence said. They were once again on their way to the Duke Humfrey’s.
“Who?” Ruth said.
“The magician lady. She asked for a loan of a pocket watch from a fellow who went on stage to help her with a rope trick. One second later she was all blushes, and saying she was shocked to find that it had vanished! The poor fellow searched high and low it was the funniest thing and she even insisted he search her pockets, her sleeves!” He was thoughtful for a moment. “I must say, though, that in that particular costume there was nowhere to hide so much as a lace handkerchief!”
“It sounds very . . . amusing,” Ruth said tersely.
“Extraordinary,” Terence said. “I stared at her as hard as I could, when she made a knot vanish or a rabbit appear, but I couldn’t work out how she did any of it!”
“It must have been exhausting,” Ruth said. “And now here we are at the library, ready for some more serious topics.”
“If you think Doctor Nicholls’s folded-over corners are serious,” Terence said as they pushed open the doors. “My chief only let me come as a piece of diplomacy towards the university. He calls it ‘keeping the scholars sweet’.”
This time, Dr Nicholls showed them pencil marks in the margins of four books, and corners turned down in five others. He was adamant that none of this had been there before.
“I have worked in this library,” he said, “since eighteen sixty-seven, and I know the books, Sergeant Greene, really I do! There is wickedness at work, and yet I have to try to convince the Oxford police that I need their help to track down the culprit!”
Greene examined the marks closely. Ruth could tell that he was trying to understand the gravity of the events from the doctor’s point of view. He promised to speak again to his superior and they made their way to the exit.
It was Thomas Fellowes, approaching from a hidden part of the shelving. His quiet voice was pleasant on the ear.
“How nice to see you again. If you will wait a moment, I will fetch you a book of Greek plays which I know will interest you.”
Ruth sensed Sergeant Greene stiffen.
“Thank you,” she said. “You’re very kind. I trust it isn’t a library book.”
Fellowes laughed softly.
“No, it’s from my own collection.”
“He’s a presumptuous sort of fellow,” Sergeant Greene whispered as they left the building. “And why shouldn’t it be a library book? This is a library.”
“You can’t take a book out of any part of the Bodleian Library,” Ruth explained, laughing. “And the Duke Humfrey’s is part of the Bodleian. The documents and books are precious, mostly unique. You must read them here.”
Ruth felt his discomfort keenly. But she also felt a small thrill of pleasure that he didn’t like the attentions of the assistant librarian towards her.
“Let’s talk this damage problem over,” she said as they walked.
“Well,” Greene said, “I have a theory.”
“Excellent.” Ruth was delighted. “Tell me.”
“Well, you know how much I read ”
“About detection?” Ruth interrupted.
He looked sideways at her.
“I read about all sorts of things,” he said. “Many people who have never attended a university read all the time.”
“I have an interest in military and political secrets intelligence, I mean. There has been a quite proper increase in the government’s attempts to learn about German mobilisation. That country is building its empire. And the Fenian threat in Ireland needs watching closely. Intelligence was of extraordinary assistance in the Boer Wars.”
“I see. And what about Doctor Nicholls’s books?”
“I am coming to that. Mr Melville has recruited agents across Europe to work for Britain.”
“Is this the Melville who got the War Office finally to agree to form the Secret Service Bureau?”
“The same. Now, all these agents use codes and ciphers. It’s well known. There are records of all sorts of coded information being passed in ever more ingenious ways, left in churches, wrapped around sticks all sorts. What if information can be passed through a tiny tear, a pencil mark, a fold?”
“In a library?”
“Not just any library. A place where statesmen may come and go, or more lowly men with connections to our nation and nations all over the world. Men who have the power to overturn countries by knowing their secrets.”
Ruth’s eyes widened.
“I suppose it’s possible.”