A year-end tradition at St. Barbara’s College Oxford ends in the death of a controversial professor. Royce Sheridan had enemies—but which one killed him? A weekend at a stately home may enable Veronica and Claire to uncover the culprit, but as a snowstorm engulfs the house and the body count rises, they may find more than they bargain for.
Saturday, 1st December 1923.
“Brr! They might’ve chosen a better time of year to do this.”
Veronica huddled into her wool coat until the rim of her hat sank deep into the fur collar. The lovely new smell from the garment enfolded her along with the warmth. She peeped out at Claire standing alongside her.
“It’s so inconsiderate, isn’t it, darling.” Claire rubbed her gloved hands together as she peered into the murky night. “I’m near perished. When is this bloody race going to begin?”
They stood in the hallowed quadrangle of St. Barbara’s College, Oxford. Ivy clad Tudor buildings surrounded the square, their foursquare shapes looming in the drizzly winter night. Golden halos glowed around the old wrought iron gaslamps, their mellow light illuminating the crowd gathered to watch the traditional year-end Race for the Bundle.
“There’s quite a preponderance of men here,” Claire remarked.
Veronica grimaced. “I noticed. Don’t worry, it’s all very civilised. I know it’s not all men, but which men to be wary of. Right now, I think I can cope.”
“I’m glad, darling. If you do feel the need to leave, of course, we’ll do so right away.”
“Thank you, dearest.” Veronica pointed. “There’s Ben.”
A couple of dozen students had assembled in the nearby corner, ready to take part in the race. Claire’s youngest brother, Ben, stood among them, his sandy hair distinctive. Like the others, he wore rugby gear in the college colours of quartered green and yellow. Seeing them looking his way, he gave them a hearty wave.
“He seems chipper enough,” Veronica remarked.
“I’m glad to see it.” Claire looked pensive. “The poor boy’s had quite a year.”
Veronica sighed. Haven’t we all? “So what’s this all about?”
“From what Ben told me, centuries ago, some academic cove was working late at night when he realised he’d made an awful mistake in his work. Instead of chucking it in the bin like a normal chap, he bundled it all up, tied it with string, and threw it out the window.”
“Quite. A roving band of students passing below caught it and decided it’d be fun to race it around the quadrangle. Whoever had the bundle when the college clock chimed midnight would be given a bottle of wine.”
“Good heavens. Well, it keeps them off the streets, I suppose.”
Claire chuckled. “In the last century, they upgraded the reward to a jeroboam of champers, but it still doesn’t seem worth all the bother.”
“No, but you and I both know school traditions are not to be trifled with.”
Claire pointed to a stout man of sixty or so, with a splendid set of grey Victorian whiskers. “That’s Sir Gideon Rayner, principal of St. Barbara’s, and his wife, Lady Alice. They visited Daddy in London after that awful business with Edward to reassure him that Ben still has a place here.”
“That was nice of them.”
“Yes, Daddy appreciated it.” She looked across at Ben and shook her head. “The House of Lords should soon finish their deliberations over Edward’s right of succession to Daddy’s title. If they pass him over, Ben will be the next Lord Sibfield-Murray. Isn’t that something? I never would’ve imagined it.”
“It makes you think.”
“Doesn’t it? Daddy’s already starting to vet Ben’s choice of girlfriends. After all, whoever Ben chooses to be his wife’s going to be the next Lady Sibfield-Murray.”
“How old-fashioned it all is.”
“Quite. If it wasn’t for all this first-born-son nonsense, I’d inherit the title. Wouldn’t that be something?”
“I’m not sure what you’d do with yourself, dearest.”
“Oh, I’d sit on some ghastly charitable board or other and start pontificating on the lax morals of youth. It’s what Mummy does anyway.”
“You made a start in that direction when you accepted that place on the Fenton Priory School board.”
“Oh well, that’s no hardship. I’m all in favour of Lucinda Fairbright’s Rousseauesque approach to education, so I’m happy to help out there.”
Veronica nodded toward the crowd—a mixture of male students, female students with their chaperones, faculty, and guests. “It’s a good turnout in spite of the weather.”
“Yes. I’m not sure who those other people are, but they look like faculty members.”
“I can help you there, ladies.”
A pleasant deep voice with a trace of Irish lilt spoke from behind them. Veronica tried not to flinch when she realised a man had approached them without her knowing. She turned quickly, her guard up.
Claire touched her arm reassuringly. “Good evening, Mr…”
“Sheridan, Miss Sibfield-Murray.” He sketched a bow. “Professor Royce Sheridan, Lecturer in engineering here at St. Barbara’s. My apologies for approaching you without introductions, but I know your brother, Benjamin.”
Veronica’s heart resumed its normal beat. I doubt there’s anyone here who doesn’t know Ben after this summer.
“Yes. A fine young man. We at St. Barbara’s have great hopes for him.”
“How kind of you to say so,” Claire replied in her plummiest voice.
“I speak only the truth, so.”
Sheridan had greying russet-red hair, cut longer than was fashionable. The locks swept back from a lofty forehead, kept in place by a jaunty dark green felt hat. A neat extended goatee adorned his face. His dark academic robe hung open to reveal a light-coloured tweed suit set off by a vivid scarlet bow tie. A matching scarlet kerchief poked saucily from his breast pocket. He eyed her with a slight smile. The air around him became infused with the aroma of a good quality port.
Veronica sighed inwardly. He’s a handsome man who knows it and fancies himself a little too much.
Sheridan turned to point out his colleagues. “That fellow with the wavy red hair is Dr. Daniel Haynes, also of the engineering faculty. A good academic…after a fashion, but not one to set the world alight with his brilliance.