RUTH attended a lecture the following afternoon which proved very interesting, and cheered her up immensely. She got into conversation afterwards with a young man whose abundant fair hair, expensive clothes and air of extreme self-confidence indicated that he’d been educated at one of England’s most exclusive schools.
“I didn’t understand an awful lot of that,” he whispered as they came down the steps of the faculty building. “Did you?”
“I . . . I found it interesting,” she said carefully.
He grinned. A row of tombstone teeth glinted in the afternoon sunlight.
“I jolly well know that’s as good as agreeing with me. My tutor said I had to attend, and now I shall have to come up with something to show I ‘got it’. What a bore.” He looked at her admiringly. “Now then, what’s a pretty girl doing at a lecture?”
Ruth drew herself up to her full five feet and one inch.
“I am a student of St Hilda’s Incorporated College,” she said.
He took a step backwards in his surprise and nearly fell on the bottom step.
“Are you? You don’t look at all like I expected. My pal Brewer he’s at Brasenose over there he says they might let girls into the university sort of . . . fully. How rum!” He looked Ruth up and down. “I’m all for it, myself. Tristan Pardieu, at your service. I’ll walk you back over the bridge.”
Ruth held up a hand.
“Oh, I’m perfectly all right, thank ”
“Nonsense,” he interrupted. “Could do with the exercise.”
Ruth sighed, and they made their way along the pavement. Ruth looked up at the windows of the Duke Humfrey’s, thinking about Terence’s theory, and wished that it were Terence who was walking with her now.
“That old library!” Mr Pardieu said. “Terrible old place. Chap in there actually threw me out for chatting to a chum I hadn’t seen for months! He was the most crotchety cove you’ve ever met, and he looks like a chimp. Straight out of Mr Darwin!”
“Doctor Nicholls?” Ruth’s voice had a touch of steel in it.
The young man nodded, unaware.
“That’s the man. My friend Tubby Calder-Brown, very sound man he said that we’d have our revenge with him by doing some jape or other. Tubby said we could get something impossible on to the roof of the old place, for a really ripe joke. You know a cart, or a pig or something of that nature!” He looked vaguely in the direction of the library’s roof. “Never got round to it. Too much to do elsewhere. Oh, are you going elsewhere yourself?”
Ruth was heading purposefully off the main road down a narrow lane.
“We were having such a nice chat,” he was saying, his voice fading out.
“I have just remembered,” she called back, “a pressing appointment.”
Ruth wound her way back to St Hilda’s by an annoyingly circuitous route to avoid Tristan Pardieu.
She wondered whether Dr Nicholls was simply the victim of some mean, thoughtless undergraduate prank. Knowing some of the sillier students as she did, she would not be at all surprised. She pondered the theory as she climbed the stairs to her room.
Mildred was there, and the floor was scattered with papers.
“Hullo, Ruthie,” Mildred said. “Sorry about the mess. I have neglected my philosophy and I think Miss Schultz will have me kicked out if I don’t produce something decent by Friday.”
“That’s all right. I’ll make some cocoa, shall I?”
“Would you? Oh, your policeman called.”
Ruth spun round.
“Did he?” Then she turned back quickly and picked up the cocoa tin, so as not to appear too eager. “He’s not my policeman, Mildred.”
Ruth could feel the smile of her friend boring into her back.
“If you say so, darling,” Mildred said. “Well, he seemed anxious to talk to you. He was quite distressed that you were absent. I explained about the lecture. Was it good?”
Ruth turned once again, and stood with her hands braced behind her on their little table.
“Very. I expect the sergeant had a fresh theory on the thing we’re looking into.”
Mildred jumped up, knocking her pen to the floor. Ruth noticed a fine line of ink spots form on the edge of the rug.
“Do tell me! What is it that you’re investigating? I remember in Michaelmas term that you and he got in very deep on something thrilling.”
“Well, it’s most likely nothing. Did Sergeant Greene say he would come back?”
Mildred regarded her friend narrowly for a moment.
“I rather think, Ruthie, that you can be sure of that.”