Death on the Cherwell: A British Library Crime Classic

Death on the Cherwell: A British Library Crime Classic

For Miss Cordell, principal of Persephone College, there are two great evils to be feared: unladylike behavior among her students, and bad publicity for the college. So her prim and ...

About The Author

Mavis Doriel Hay

Mavis Doriel Hay (1894–1979) was a novelist of the golden age of British crime fiction. Her three detective novels – ...

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Chapter I

The Bursar Comes Down the River

A sloping roof of cold, corrugated iron, above the sliding, brownish waters of the river Cherwell and beneath the stark boughs of a willow, might not appeal to a sane adult human being as an ideal resort at four o’clock on a gloomy January afternoon. But Sally Watson had declared that it was the perfect spot for a certain mysterious confabulation, and her fellow conspirators had accepted her judgment and were all gathered there. Only Daphne Loveridge had, with her usual air of unspoken criticism, ventured on a qualification of Sally’s chosen rendezvous by bringing a thick travelling rug, which slightly mitigated the chill perfection of the boathouse roof. Undergraduates, especially those in their first year, are not, of course, quite sane or quite adult. It is sometimes considered that they are not quite human. Emerging excitedly from the ignominious status of schoolgirl or schoolboy, and as yet unsteadied by the ballast of responsibility which, later on, a livelihood-earning career will provide, they enter the university like beings born again with the advantage of an undimmed memory of their former lives.  Inspirited by their knowledge of the ways in which authority may be mocked, they are at the same time quite ridiculously uplifted by the easy possibility of achieving local fame in the limited university world during the next three years. Conscious of the brevity of their college life, they are ready to seize every opportunity to assert their individuality. The easily acquired label of “originality” is so much more distinguished than the “naughtiness” of their outpassed schooldays, and quite a lot of wildness may be mixed with a modicum of work and form a sound basis for a highly respectable later life.

The formation of esoteric societies is one of the favourite pastimes of undergraduates, and these societies are on a definitely higher plane than the secret alliances of the school period. Each has its great idea, of which the passwords or rituals are symbols. Daphne Loveridge, Gwyneth Pane and Nina Harson were gathered on the roof of the small boat- house of Persephone College, Oxford, to meet Sally Watson for the purpose of inaugurating the Lode League. The League owed its name to the Oxford habit of giving special titles to sections of its rivers, for the part of the Cherwell on this side of the island on which Persephone College stands is known as the Lode.

Sally came racing across the lawn to join the others a few minutes after four o’clock had chimed from Sim’s tower higher up the river. Five rings of twisted silver wire, slung on a yellow cord, dangled from her wrist as she settled herself on Daphne’s rug.

“Five?” cried Gwyneth in shrill dismay. “You haven’t asked Draga, surely?”

“How could I?” Sally retorted in withering tone. Gwyneth must be made to understand that communal decisions of the League were sacred and could not be flouted even by its leader. “But I’ve got another idea. We’re the Lode League so the Lode is our patron saint and must have a ring too!”

“What waste!” Gwyneth commented.

“We can use the worst one,” Daphne suggested, examin- ing the rings critically.

“Your souls are of the earth earthy,” Nina told them. “I think it’s a stupendous idea, Sally. It will make it all much more sort of binding.”

“It’s awfully unpractical!” Gwyneth grumbled, unconvinced.

“Can’t you understand symbolism, my poor girl?” asked Nina sadly. “You’re reading the English school and yet you haven’t a drop of poetry in your soul!”

“Let’s get on,” Daphne suggested. “It’s chilly.”

“We’ll inscribe the object of the League in our secret code books in my room, after tea,” Sally decreed. “It’s getting too dark here.”

“So much more suitable,” Daphne pointed out, “for mysteries.”

“Anyway, who kept us waiting?” demanded Gwyneth. “Of course, I was pleased to find you so punctual, dears,” said Sally approvingly, “but you could hardly expect me to ask the Morter to cut his coaching short because I had a pressing engagement—”

“Not at all the sort of thing our revered Cordial would approve of,” Daphne interrupted.

“—but, ’s a matter of fact, he seemed in quite a hurry to get away himself—”

“Always thought you were lacking in S.A., my poor girl,” Daphne interrupted again.

“—and I was here half a moment after four. The Morter was definitely gloomy, I thought; didn’t appreciate my essay as much as it deserved.”

“Probably missing his usual afternoon nap,” Gwyneth suggested.

“Now that’s not a bit like the Morter,” Daphne declared. “He’s quite a he-man really; more likely to take a brisk swim or run round the Parks in shorts.”

“Or perhaps have a canoe race with Burse,” said Gwyneth. “No,” Sally announced firmly. “The Morter is a white man—though I don’t know how Daphne is so sure about his heness. He wouldn’t associate with the dregs of the university. Anyway, it was decent of him to fit in this extra coaching for me because I missed the other through flu.” “Which reminds me that the boathouse roof isn’t     the health resort which our solicitous bursar would recommend for your convalescence,” said Nina. “We’d better hurry.”

“Remember,” Sally reminded them; “that after the League is well and truly formed none of us may mention Burse without a fitting imprecation.”

“I believe it’s rather a pity,” Daphne mused, “that we didn’t include Draga. She’s so good at curses. They’re part of the romantic tradition of her old Slavonic family.”

“You all agreed—” Sally pointed out.

“No, we couldn’t have her in,” declared Gwyneth. “She’s serious about all the wrong things and flippant about what’s really serious. And you never know how far she’ll go—she’d be committing a crime on Burse and bring us all to the gal- lows. Besides, she can’t keep anything secret.”

“And by the way,” Daphne inquired, “how are we going to keep the League secret if we are to be for ever flaunting these gaudy circlets on our fingers?”

“Surely you can wear a ring without telling everyone all about it?” said Nina.

“Couldn’t we wear them on our toes?” suggested Gwyneth. “Even toes aren’t secret in summer,” Daphne pointed out. “You  can have your nose pierced if  you like,” Sally conceded.

“Burse would declare it was unhygienic and make a new rule against it—with fines for breach of same,” declared Nina. “But apart from the rings,” Gwyneth inquired, “how do we really keep it secret? If we are being interviewed by the Cordial and have occasion to mention Burse, do we have to say, Miss Denning, Curse her!”

“You have to exercise some commonsense. But seriously—” Sally leant forward earnestly—“I do believe that if you are cursing a person quite sincerely all the time, she’s bound to get a sensation of something unhealthy in the atmosphere and begin to wilt, or think of trying whether it wouldn’t be pleasanter elsewhere.”

“I simply can’t understand how a fungus like Burse was ever allowed to take root in a comparatively decent establishment for young ladies like Persephone.”

“Pull yourself together, Gwyneth,” Daphne advised. “If you learnt any botany at school you’d know that fungus grows spontaneously in damp spots—such as Oxford, and especially Perse Island. It’s a survival of the Primeval Slime. And even if we eradicate Burse, she’ll doubtless grow again, but nevertheless we must do our best to bring about Peace in Our Time. By the way, do you know—

“Persephone once had a Bursar, “There’s really no need to asperse her; “But her influence rife,

“Has blighted our life,

“So we’re forming the Lode League to curse her.” “Good,” commented Sally. “We’ll inscribe it in our code

books. Incidentally, it’s getting very dark; let’s take the oath quickly and go and toast the crumpets. Gwyneth—I suppose you really do want to join—you’ve done nothing but criticize?”

“Oh, rather!” declared Gwyneth. “I’m all bubbling with enthusiasm, in spite of the chill of this corrugated iron striking up to my innards.”

“And you, Daphne?”

“I’m all for it—though I want to know to what extent my oath will bind me to wage war to the death on Burse. F’rinstance, if I saw her struggling pathetically in the cold waters of the Char, should I fetch her out?”

“I’m sure she can swim like an otter,” declared Nina. “We can settle details later,” declared Sally sternly. “But I think actual crime is barred. Now, we ought to stand up; it’s more ceremonious.”

“But more dangerous,” Daphne pointed out.

From Sim’s tower the chimes for 4.15 strayed through the twilight. “An auspicious moment,” said Sally. “It’s always a good thing to know when any important event takes place.”

Gwyneth scrambled dangerously on the rug. “It’s slipping,” she squeaked. “We shall all be a watery sacrifice!”

“Owing to Daphne’s epicurean propensities,” declared Sally sternly. She was on her feet, rather unsteadily, on the sloping furrows and the others staggered to the upright and chanted after her:

“We hereby declare ourselves to be striving for the illumi- nation and uplift of life in Persephone College and especially for the eradication of all evil influences and fungoid growths, genus Burse, and the improvement of morals—”

Sally had untied the knot in the yellow cord and solemnly held out the rings in her open hand, but as the others reached to take them Gwyneth proclaimed excitedly: “Someone coming!”

The prow of a canoe came swaying gently round the bushes which bulged, dark and untidy, over the water at the turn of the Cherwell just above the boathouse.

“Probably her,” whispered Daphne. “Draga said she had gone up the Char in her canoe.”

“Don’t let’s stand here like Serpentine bathers waiting for the photographer—if it really is Burse—” Nina suggested, and she sat down, trying to look as if she were there to study the view.

There was a scratchy noise, of stiff twigs brushing the side of the canoe. “Rotten steering!” someone muttered. Down that dark channel between the thick brushwood on the banks, faintly lighted by a dull winter evening sky, the canoe floated uncertainly. No one was paddling it.

“It’s empty!” exclaimed Gwyneth in a high squeak. “Must have upset!”

“No—she’s lying down—”

“Dreaming away the summer afternoon,” murmured Daphne.

“Floating down just like the Lady of Shalott! Some new romantic stunt of hers!” Nina was scornful.

“There’s something wrong!” Sally stated in a flat, practical voice, which masked the horribly real fear flickering in her mind. “A boat-hook—no, a punt pole—quick!”

She plunged from the boathouse roof on to the steps that led to the water at one side of it and, bending under the roof, stepped into a punt moored there and from that into another punt farther out, setting them all splashing and knocking against one another. She had been so quick that the others were still moving thunderously on the roof above her. What a din! But it did not disturb the occupant of the floating canoe.

“Hurry! Hurry!” Sally yelled. “A pole!” But she found one for herself, slung in the straps at the side of a punt, and got it out with a great deal of splashing and banging. Daphne arrived on the steps with another pole; Nina and Gwyneth, stumbling down behind her with paddles, almost   pushed her into the lapping water. The canoe drifted down on the sluggish stream; now it was nearly level with the steps.

Sally poised her pole. “She’s drifting farther out; are any of those punts unlocked?”

Nina, in a rocking punt, clinging to the roof, tried the padlocks. “Of course not—when we want them.”

No one felt inclined to leave the scene of action and run to the house for a key.

“Hold me—” Sally leaned dangerously across the water reaching out the heavy pole. “I’m slipping—hold hard— I’ve got her! She’s turning broadside on—hook the stern, Daphne!”

“It’s the Faralone right enough,” Gwyneth was murmuring. “And it’s her,” Nina corroborated.

They dragged the canoe in alongside a punt. In it lay   a woman stretched at full length beneath the thwarts and partly covered by a long tweed coat. Her green jersey and tweed skirt were sodden and her wet, fair hair was looped rakishly over one eye and streaked across her pallid face that was smeared with dark mud. Her partly open mouth and the one free eye horribly upturned, gaped vacantly.

“She’s drowned!” gasped Gwyneth in a frightened whisper. “How can anyone drown in a canoe?” demanded Sally severely. “P’rhaps she’s only ill. We must haul her out.  No, tie up the canoe first.”

Myra Denning, the bursar of Persephone College, was not a big woman but it was with difficulty that the four girls, crowding each other on the narrow steps, heaved the inert body and its weight of wet clothing from under the thwarts of the canoe and up the steps on to the gravel path.

The suddenness of what had happened and the horror of it had sent all thoughts of the Lode League from their minds for the time being. It was only when the cold  body lay on the path that the grim connection between it and their reason for being there struck Gwyneth.

“We can’t do any more; hadn’t we better clear out?” she suggested in a shaky voice.

“Artificial respiration,” said Daphne doubtfully.

“But it can’t be any good!” wailed Gwyneth. “And we—” she shuddered.

“Don’t  be an ass!” Sally commanded. “Don’t  breathe  a word, of course, about the League. It has nothing to do with—what has happened.” She was already at work with Nina on the unresponsive corpse. “Run like mad to Miss Cordell and tell her to phone to a doctor.”

Gwyneth sped away across the wet lawn and round the end of the house towards the garden door.

Reviews of

Death on the Cherwell: A British Library Crime Classic

The result is a wonderful “one of us may be the murderer” tangle, encompassing fraud and passion in the college itself. Hay, who also wrote Murder Underground (1934), crafted a witty and sometimes scathing account of women at Oxford at a time when they were only grudgingly accepted.

Booklist

The result is a wonderful “one of us may be the murderer” tangle, encompassing fraud and passion in the college itself. Intelligent, funny, sexy cast, and what do you have? Some marvelous reading, that’s what.~~~ Another worthy rerelease in the British Library Crime Classics series.

Booklist

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