At precisely ten o’clock in the morning, while the head porter listened 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 and prepared for the worst.
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 it would be the last.
Even the combination of his father’s wealth and his mother’s breeding 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 a dispute about his capacity to walk back to the College under his own steam.
On the other side of the door, The Master of The College – both always referred to in writing with initial capitals by The Master – was sitting at his desk with his hands steepled under his chin, gazing out of the window at the hideous brickwork of The College chapel.
Tall, fastidiously dressed, bespectacled and stork-thin, The Master had just arrived at The College as an undergraduate himself when the new chapel began to emerge from its foundations, designed by one of the most eminent architects of the day and funded by a grateful northern industrialist whose son The College had turned into a gentleman.
The Master had loathed it then and ever after for both aesthetic and personal reasons. To his eyes it looked brash and ugly against the mellow stonework of the medieval quadrangle, and it symbolised everything he hated about the Victorians.
The only child of a provincial solicitor’s clerk, The Master had inherited his brains and his social sensitivity from his ambitious mother. He had learned from her to hide his own insecurities about his modest origins behind an exaggeratedly proper elocution and a smokescreen of intellectual and cultural snobbery, and he despised the Victorians equally for their vulgar, Gothic ostentation and their brash, philistine confidence in the absolute power of money.
As he gazed out of his window he could still remember his distress as the full horror of the chapel’s design first emerged fifty years ago, and it had remained the only serious thorn in his side as he made his way up the academic pyramid from Congratulatory First Class Honours degree to appointment as a College Tutor, election as a Fellow and then, ten years ago, after forty years of almost hermitic devotion to The College, the ultimate accolade of the Mastership.
Now, at the age of seventy, after a glass or two of Madeira he liked to trot out a creaky joke that so far he had spent more than five-sevenths 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 more exalted place than The Master’s lodgings in this ancient and beautiful Oxford college. On the few occasions that he laughed aloud, The Master sounded exactly like someone blowing gently across the top of a very small bottle. ‘Wheu, wheu, wheu.
He wasn’t laughing this morning. He sighed and turned his attention to the more immediate distasteful reality of 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, he thought. Do not fight a battle you cannot win.
He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. ‘Enter.’
When the head porter had ushered William through the door and withdrawn, the Master gestured to the empty chair facing him across the desk. ‘Please be seated,’ he said, in his light, affected, perfectly modulated voice. In the almost tangible quiet of the panelled room, the final consonant tapped in the air like a hailstone hitting a windowpane.
The Master was aware that he was known by the students not as The Master but as The Spinster, but he had complete faith in the unassailable authority of his position, and he prided himself on being able to make himself heard across a lecture theatre full of noisy undergraduates without raising his voice, simply by enunciating his consonants with the u-T-mos-T C-l-ari-T-y.
On the other side of the door, the head porter lowered himself ponderously onto one knee and glued his ear to the keyhole. From past experience he knew he would hear every syllable The Spinster uttered, but he was anxious not to miss the Honorable William Saltwood’s side of the interview. 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 needed to be fully alert to any possible requirement from The Master for assistance.
The Master’s main concern was not for his own wellbeing, but for the loss to his beloved College that would follow the sending down of such a wealthy and well-connected undergraduate. This morning 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.
‘Dear me, William. 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…’ he peered more closely, ‘…Walby, concerning an incident in which I believe you were involved, on the High Street of the city, at approximately five minutes before midnight last night. Outside The College walls, therefore, after curfew?’
He looked up at William, who raised his eyebrows in a gesture of polite 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 gust of voices and laughter carried up to them from the quad.
‘Dear me. Yes,’ said the Master eventually, ‘this is very unfortunate. It appears that you were apprehended on the High Street in a state of intoxication… moderate intoxication, but intoxication nevertheless… 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 Constable Silston through the window of a… shop.’
The Spinster 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…
‘We have tried very hard, William, to keep you within our fold here. Very hard indeed. But this, I fear, has made it impossible.’ The Master looked over his spectacles at the figure sitting opposite him. ‘Your path with us has not been smooth, William. Indeed, very far from it. There have been many other infractions against both the rules of The College and the law of the land. There have been substantial fines, and two occasions of rustication. I believe on the second occasion you received a formal warning that any further serious breaches of discipline would leave us with no other option but to send you down?’