Sleight Of Hand – Episode 09

THE Duke Humfrey’s looked pleasingly tidy when Ruth and Terence visited two days later.

“I am delighted!” Dr Nicholls cried, clapping his hands and then looking ashamed when an ancient scholar glared at him. He lowered his voice. “There has been a lower incidence of damage.”

“Only lower?” Sergeant Greene asked.

“Just three creases and two pencil lines, at least that we can divine.”

Ruth looked at the quiet, orderly library and the guard that she could see, standing discreetly beside a window.

“And the rearrangement of the furniture does not look so odd to me, now.”

Dr Nicholls nodded enthusiastically.

“Indeed. When you were last here, Miss Rutherford, I became agitated that the library was so changed, with chairs and tables shifted about so much. I am stuck in my ways, of course. But Mr Franklin,” he held up a hand to catch the attention of the big black-coated gent by the window, “Mr Franklin understood entirely. Such a sensitive man! He is most interested in the map collections! He had the men store some of the more ungainly pieces of furniture until this problem is well and truly gone, and as you see the appearance of the space is so much better for our mutual purposes!”

Sergeant Greene looked at a pair of students poring over books at a table nearby.

“The scholars don’t mind . . . a lack of chairs?”

Dr Nicholls shook his head.

“We have subtracted only some of the less practical items. So, there it is! Whichever criminal has been wilfully causing harm to the books, he is discouraged. Mr Franklin, and also Mr Waites, who calls in most assiduously, they tell me that the threatening presence of the men will most probably have the desired effect very soon. This vandal will see that the Duke Humfrey’s does not sit by and allow such things!”

Ruth suggested carefully to Sergeant Greene that, since the vandalism was declining, his suggestion of international espionage was an unlikely explanation.

“Would a cipher expert,” she said, “or some person passing on secret information, continue to do so when watched like that? And it seems even less likely that he would somehow . . . scale down his evil activities.”

The policeman shrugged.

“I am not giving up my theory yet,

Miss Rutherford. Have you a better one?”

Ruth confessed that she hadn’t. They had reached St Hilda’s. In the back of her mind was the essay for Miss Foster, who could be fierce in cases of tardy academic work. But he was so pleasant to talk to!

“Am I allowed inside?” the sergeant asked, peering warily into the front quad, busy with females talking and hurrying from place to place.

“Until six in the evening,” Ruth said, “and as long as the door is open. I am also allowed to make you tea.”

In her room, which she shared with Mildred, he sat opposite her, his long legs spread across her rug, his large figure incongruous in the feminine environment. They talked not about the case and drank endless cups of tea, and were happy, until he looked at his watch and suddenly sprang from the chair.

“I have to meet Unwin in less than an hour!” he exclaimed. “And I’m still in uniform after my shift!”

“Have you and Mr Unwin an engagement?” Ruth asked.

“Yes, and I have to get across Oxford and back! We are to see the Lady Shokranka again.” He caught sight of Ruth’s expression, and coloured. “Jim insisted. Jim’s very much taken with her. With the magic, I mean.”

“There’s no such thing,” Ruth said disapprovingly, “as magic.”

“Well, of course I know that. But he’s diverted by it.”

Ruth looked up at him, her face set hard.

He picked up his helmet.

“So I ought to be getting along,” he said.

“I hope the show is as enjoyable as the last time,” Ruth said sharply.


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