Oxford University | September 1908
While the head porter waited for an answer to his discreet knock on the polished oak door of the Master’s lodgings, William Saltwood adopted a look of bored nonchalance, leaned back against the balustrade, folded his arms and crossed his ankles.
He was considerably more concerned than he hoped he looked. This was not the first time he had waited for the Master to pass judgement on his behaviour at Oxford, but this morning he knew that he would not be given another chance to prolong his university career. Even the combination of his father’s wealth and his mother’s ancestry would not be enough to ease him past the large hole he had made the previous night in the display window of Oxford’s biggest High Street store. It wasn’t the size of the hole that would send him down, but the fact that he had made it by knocking one of the local police constables through the window in an effort to avoid arrest.
On the other side of the door, the Master of The College was sitting at his desk with his hands steepled under his chin, gazing with gloomy distaste across the quad at the vulgar striped brickwork of The College’s Victorian chapel. It was an architectural affront to his beloved college. He was himself a Georgian and a classicist, and he despised the Victorians for their sentimental romanticism, their bombastic self-assurance and their vulgar, modern ostentation. He shuddered gently and returned to the other distasteful reality of the morning. He was also preparing himself for yet another disagreeable interview with the Honourable William Saltwood. He could console himself with the thought that this would be the last, but for the sake of The College he wished it could be otherwise. Adversus solem ne loquitor. Do not fight a battle that you cannot win.
The Master was impeccably dressed in the full academic regalia of his office. He had been an undergraduate at the college himself and almost immediately after taking his Congratulatory First Class Honours degree he had been invited to become a College Tutor, elected a Fellow, and risen imperceptibly over forty years to the pinnacle of the Mastership. So now at the age of seventy he could trot out his creaky joke that so far he had spent more than three-quarters of his life here, and hoped the Almighty would allow him to improve considerably upon that fraction by the time he passed hence to an even better place. If indeed there really could be a better place than the Master’s lodgings in this ancient and beautiful Oxford college. The hideous new Victorian chapel notwithstanding.
He sighed, and turned his full attention reluctantly to the matter at hand.
When the head porter ushered William through the door, the Master gestured to the empty chair facing him across the desk. “Please be seated,” he said. In the almost tangible quiet of the panelled room, the final consonant tapped in the air like a piece of gravel hitting a windowpane. The Master prided himself on being able to make himself heard across a lecture theatre full of students without raising his voice, simply by enunciating his consonants with the uTmosT C-lariTy.
The head porter withdrew, closing the door silently behind him, lowered himself ponderously onto one knee and glued his ear to the keyhole. From past experience he knew he would hear every syllable the Master uttered, but he was anxious not to miss the Hon William Saltwood’s side of the interview. If it was pithy enough, it might be worth a bob or two from his enterprising young contact at the Oxford Gazette. More importantly, he would be expected to report the interview accurately to Lord Saltwood’s private secretary, who paid him a regular fee to keep his Lordship informed of his younger son’s activities, curricula and extra-curricula. If seen earwigging, his excuse in this instance would be that he had been given to understand by the Master that the interview would not be a pleasant one, and he was alert to any possible requirement from the Master for assistance.
The Master’s main concern was not for his own well-being, but for the loss to the college that would follow the sending down of such a wealthy and well-connected undergraduate. There was no other course open to him, however, so he peered at William Saltwood over his round, tortoiseshell spectacles and shook his head gently.
“How very unfortunate this is,” he said sadly. He leaned forward and studied a piece of paper placed precisely and squarely in front of him on the desk. “I have here a report from a Police Inspector… Inspector… yes, Walby, concerning an incident in which I believe you were principally involved, on the High Street of the city, at approximately half past eleven last night.” He looked up at William, who raised his eyebrows politely in concurrence, but said nothing. The Master studied the paper for another minute in silence. The ticking of a grandfather clock standing against the wall beside the door was very loud. A muffled burst of voices and laughter carried to them from the quad below as though from another world.
“Yes,” said the Master eventually, “this is very unfortunate. It appears that you were apprehended on the High Street in a state of intoxication by a Police Constable…Silston, and that in…,” he looked down his nose at the report again, “…in an altercation resulting from your refusal to accompany the constable quietly back to the college, you pushed the constable through the window of a…shop.”
The Master pronounced the word ‘shop’ as though he was not quite certain what it meant, and looked up once more at the figure sitting opposite him. He noted that young Saltwood was wearing white tennis or boating flannels. Or perhaps they were cricket flannels? It struck him that it had never occurred to him before that there might be any difference. Above the flannels, the young man wore a blazer bearing a badge that he had a vague notion signified one of those oafish Germanic dining or drinking clubs. There was no semblance of proper undergraduate academic dress, or any sign of sartorial respect for the Master or the situation. Based on nearly fifty years of dealing with undergraduates, the Master correctly interpreted this as a demonstration by the Honourable William Saltwood that he was above caring what anybody thought of him or his behaviour.
There was a considerable pause while the Master reviewed a mental gallery of all the lofty young men he had known who had advertised their uniqueness in an infinite variety of similar ways, and then he spoke again. “Do you agree that this represents the facts?”
William nodded. “I regret that it does, sir.”
“Ah! Yes,” said the Master. “It is indeed regrettable. Most regrettable.” He sat back in his wing chair and removed his spectacles. “We are fortunate that Inspector Walby has allowed the college to deal with this before he decides whether or not to press charges against you. The constable has stated that you did not strike him, but you resisted his attempt to detain you and in the ensuing struggle the constable was pushed through the shop window. Even without a blow, Inspector Walby points out that you are liable to charges both of resisting arrest and assaulting an officer of the law – an assault that might easily have caused injuries of a most serious nature. Very serious injuries, William.” The Master perched his spectacles on the end of his nose and peered at the letter again. “Glass. Broken glass. Dear me. It is a miracle that you were not both cut to ribbons. I am sorry to say that the Inspector insists that we must be seen to treat this with appropriate gravity if he is to refrain from pursuing the procedures that would normally pertain in circumstances such as these. He is alliterative, the Inspector, but forbearing. I assume that you would prefer not to appear before the Magistrates…again?” He raised his own eyebrows interrogatively at William, who shook his head. “So this leaves me with no alternative but to ask you to leave us once more. I believe this will be the third time?’
William nodded again. ‘Yes, it will, sir, I’m afraid.’
“How very regrettable this is, then,” said the Master. He removed his spectacles again. “Your path with us has not been entirely smooth, William. There have been many other infractions against both the rules of the college and the law of the land, and I cannot do otherwise than remind you that this must be the last.”
The Master looked at the young man opposite him and wondered why he had so persistently courted trouble during his two years at the University. William Saltwood was not a stupid young man, thought the Master, or a degenerate. Rather the contrary, behind that blasé facade. He was certainly a great deal more intelligent than his older brother, who had passed through The College without leaving any kind of a mark some five years before. Clever, even, thought the Master, but the younger Saltwood did suffer from his fair share of the inconsiderate arrogance that seemed to infect the sprigs of the aristocracy, and he also seemed to have developed a preference for notoriously dissipated company.
The Master sighed again. “The facts and the circumstances of this very regrettable incident will, of course, be recorded by the Proctors, but unless you wish otherwise there will be no disciplinary hearing, and we will draw this matter to its unfortunate conclusion here and now. You have been rusticated twice, now, William, and I am sorry to confirm that this time I must send you down. I would ask you to vacate your rooms here at your earliest convenience. I would suggest that you leave us quietly today, and the head porter will make the necessary arrangements to forward your belongings to any address you choose.”
William nodded again. He had realised that his time at Oxford was up from the moment another constable and one of the university Bulldogs had appeared on the scene the previous evening. He had been frogmarched to the nearest police station, and it was a poor reflection on his reputation that both the constables and the Bulldog had known exactly who he was. The Bulldog had told him with some satisfaction that he was finally for the bloody high jump, despite the fact that they had only caught him because he had stayed to pull the first constable out of the shattered window and onto his feet. He had been picking splinters of glass carefully off Constable Silston’s back and wondering how much he should offer him to forget how the incident had happened when the two reinforcements arrived at the double, the Bulldog blowing hard under his bowler hat.
“I appreciate your discretion,” said William, “Please accept my apologies for any trouble I have caused you and the college. I will take myself off your hands as quickly as I can.” The Master was relieved by this polite acceptance of what to most undergraduates would have been a catastrophic outcome. He rose from his chair and held his hand out to William across the desk. William uncrossed his legs, stood up and shook the Master’s hand.
“I will bid you goodbye, then, William. I am sorry that your time with us should end like this, and I wish you well,” said the Master, with genuine regret. His regret had very little to do with the fact that William would not complete his degree at the university, or the minimal effect he expected this would have on the young man’s future, and much more to do with the indication Lord Saltwood had given a year ago following his son’s second suspension for a whole term that he was prepared to be exceedingly generous if the college managed to steer his younger son safely through to graduation.
William Saltwood’s thoughts at that moment were following surprisingly similar lines to the Master’s. He didn’t give a damn for the loss of his degree. There were only a few aspects of Oxford he would miss, one of them particularly. In most respects it was simply a convenient base for his social life. His main concern, like the Master’s, was his father’s response to this latest turn of events.
On the landing outside, Gissings reacted with a grimace of disappointment when he heard the Master’s inevitable conclusion. William Saltwood had been a regular source of extra income for the head porter during the past two years – generous tips for his help in certain social matters; even more generous tips to persuade him to turn a blind eye to entrances and exits into and out of the college after hours; occasional payments from the local reporter for inside information, and the regular fee from Lord Saltwood’s secretary. With almost as much experience behind him as the Master, however, Gissings was standing a discreet distance from the door, his face blank, well before it opened.
William emerged onto the landing and shut the door behind him. The head porter and the student looked at each other solemnly for a moment, then William grinned. “Come on, Gissings,” he said. “Don’t pretend you didn’t hear every word of that.”
The head porter blew his cheeks out and gave William a brief but sincerely regretful smile. Not only was his income about to drop considerably, but college life was going to be a lot less exciting without this particular dishonourable undergraduate. “How could you suggest such a thing, sir?” he said. “Shall I send Jessop up to help you pack?”