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The Incident of the Fellow in the Fellow's Garden

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An illustrated version of this story is available at: http://www.englishanddrama.at/FannishStuff/wimseyfic/

 

Cambridge, June 1955


"Dash it, Duffers," said Lord Peter Wimsey, gazing petulantly across the verdant green of Christ's College playing field, "you drag me out here to the desolate wastes, or at any rate to the fens, which is much the same thing, on the promise of a cricketing extravaganza, and what do I find? That you have spoken with forked tongue. I just hope your May Ball does a better job of living up to its reputation."

"You're getting impatient in your old age," returned Sir John Duffield placidly. He had only recently been elected Master of Christ's and was still overflowing with pride at the achievements of his new demesne. Indeed, it was bidding fair to rival Balliol in his estimation, although he knew that Wimsey could hardly be expected to agree. "Henderson just had a bad innings, that's all. It could happen to anyone. Just you wait a bit."

"I am waiting," grumbled Wimsey. "Patience on a monument, that's me, smiling at mediocrity. Look, that fellow's out too, what's his name? Carruthers? Mind you, the bowler's a bit of a demon, I'll give you that."

"St John's finest," said Duffield. "But he won't keep it up, he's got no staying power. Fancy another glass of something?"

"No thanks," said Lord Peter, refusing to be mollified. "Can't stand Pimm's, makes me feel sticky all afternoon. I say, who's the chap who's just come on? He's got one hell of a cross-stroke."

"That," said Sir John smugly, "is our latest sporting acquisition, one Illya Kuryakin. And believe it or not, before this year he'd never played cricket in his life."

"No?" said Wimsey disbelievingly. "What is he, some kind of Caspar Hauser? A member of an obscure sect, where sports are heresy? Or does he hail from Outer Mongolia?"

"Almost. He's from Russia, one of our graduate students. I must say, if they could all play like that, I'd up the number of overseas students on the spot."

The third ball of the over came spinning down the pitch. Kuryakin stepped forward and smote it mightily, to resounding cheers from the watching Junior Members.

"A splendid shot," said Lord Peter, admiringly. "Is it all that clean living and physical jerks, do you think? Perhaps I should abjure my decadent ways and start taking cold baths. I say, look at him sprint down the crease, with wingèd heels as English Mercuries – well, one Russian Mercury anyway. You were quite right, Duffers, this is well worth the trip. And not just because I wanted a chance to congratulate you personally on your election to the Royal Society. What's the next stop? A Nobel?"

"Oh, there's no need for that," said the newly-fledged FRS modestly. "As a matter of fact, I had a bit of an ulterior motive for inviting you up here. That is to say, I've been meaning to ask you - well, look here, Flim, the truth of it is, the cricket was just a lure. The fact is, I'm in a bit of a fix.”

"Spit it out," said Lord Peter, turning perhaps half of his attention – for he could spare no more - from the goings-on on the cricket pitch. "Sing to me, and beat upon my whorlèd ear."

Sir John hesitated. "It's all rather awkward, old man. I don't know if you heard this on the grapevine, since we managed to keep it out of the newspapers, thank God, but one of our Fellows killed himself last week. Dr Gregory Black, a mathematician. A very solid chap in his field, but a bit of a queer fish."

"How did he die?"

"He shot himself," said Sir John, with a grimace.

"Shot himself?" said Wimsey. "That's rather dashing of him. In my experience your scholastic types prefer poison. Was a woman involved? Cherchez la femme and all that?"

"We don't know," replied the Master. "Though to be quite honest, I can't imagine any woman getting involved with Black. He wasn't what you'd call the answer to a maiden's prayer."

"The Lord answers all prayers," said Wimsey serenely. "But sometimes the answer is no. Oh, I say, well played!"

"Well, quite," said Sir John. "And I rather think that would be the maiden's answer in this particular case. But the fact of the matter is, we don't know why he did it, because he didn't leave a suicide note."

"How d'you know it was suicide then?"

"The police were reasonably satisfied it was. He shot himself in the Fellows' Garden, at a time when all College members were accounted for - it was Founder's Dinner that night, so we had a full house - and there was no sign of any intruder."

"What with? A shotgun? An army pistol?"

"Well, that's a very curious thing, and rather unfortunate. He shot himself with Milton's pistol. John Milton was a Christ's man, as I'm sure you're aware, and amongst the College treasures are a pair of duelling pistols that he bequeathed us. They're kept on display in a case in the SCR, or at least one of them is. The other is currently in the hands of Her Majesty's constabulary."

"Fingerprints?"

"On the gun? Only Black's own. So you see, it must have been suicide."

"Yes, but the murderer could perfectly well have wiped his off and pressed Black's cold, dead hand against the metal afterwards. Very sloppy thinking, Duffers, though I suppose it's no more than one would expect from The Other Place. Who found the body?"

"Croft, the night porter. He was locking the place up when he heard the shot. Of course he rushed into the garden immediately, but he didn't see anyone."

"The murderer might have hidden in the herbaceous border, and then hopped over the wall whilst Croft was off raising the alarm."

"Well, I'm not sure which would be more dreadful – that Black was despairing enough to take his own life, or that some unscrupulous murderer did away with him. But either way, that's not what's troubling me. A couple of days later, I found this in my pigeonhole."

He handed over an envelope. Lord Peter perused the contents, his expression darkening as he read.

"Don't hold any truck with anonymous letters," he said, handing it back to Sir John. "I'm surprised you didn't bin the beastly thing as soon as you'd read it."

"Well, I would, normally," said the Master, "but this is a bit different from the usual poison pen letter, you must admit. Suppose the tip-off's genuine?"

"But surely if young Kuryakin was a KGB assassin he'd have sloped off after the job was done? Urgently recalled to the Motherland, unexpected illness of agèd parent or something?"

"But perhaps they were hoping his cover wouldn't be blown. Then they could use him again."

"Cutting a swathe through the academic institutions of Europe, you mean? Might be rather obvious if dons start dropping like flies every time our man shows up. I suppose his academic credentials are genuine?"

"I did have a quiet word with his supervisor, and the work he's done here on quantum mechanics entirely lives up to his references, so he's the real thing in that respect. Mind you, there wouldn't be much point in getting a man into Cambridge who wasn't up to it intellectually, he'd be found out in no time."

"And is it a convincing allegation? I mean, was Black the sort of chap the KGB would want to rub out?"

"It's possible, I suppose. He was staunchly anti-communist. I don't know if his Red-baiting activities extended beyond lengthy rants over the port, but if they did, that might account for it."

"What about his research? What was he working on when he died?"

The Master looked vague. Keeping up with the research activities of his Fellows was evidently something he regarded as going above and beyond the call of duty. "Something to do with number theory, I should think," he said, hesitantly. "That was his field. I suppose he might have stumbled across something significant, but it's hard to imagine what. It's no good asking me about it, I'm an applied chap. Pure mathematics isn't my thing."

Peter nodded. "It doesn't sound as if there's anything in it, but why don't you go to the police and let them investigate?”

"And suppose this isn't a tip-off, but just some spiteful little cad who's got it in for Kuryakin? Once he's tarred with that brush, he'll never get clean again, even if the police prove his innocence ten times over."

"And neither will Christ's? 'Commie College Harbours KGB Hit Man' sort of thing?"

"I admit I'd rather avoid those sorts of headlines if I can. I wish you'd do a spot of sleuthing, old man, see if there's any truth in the accusation. You've got the requisite SIS background, after all."

"Yes, but the Soviets aren't my area of expertise. Bit of a drawback not parleying the lingo, you know. Still, if - by George, will you look at that!"

The putative KGB assassin had struck the ball for six. It went sailing across the boundary, over the pavilion and bounced into the road beyond. There was a squeal of brakes.

"A hit! A very palpable hit! I say, he's lucky he didn't put that car windscreen out." Lord Peter paused, remembering another cricket match with an unexpectedly brilliant player. "Look here, Duffers, invite Kuryakin to High Table tonight, and I'll run my beady eye over him. Chap who plays cricket like that could be capable of anything."

"I'll invite him," said Sir John, "but he won't come. He's a nice enough young man, but not at all clubbable. Got a bit of a chip on his shoulder about class privileges."

"Then get the whole cricket team up and honour our Soviet friend as Man of the Match - even my cursorary eye can tell you he'll have earned it – and he can't wriggle out without looking damned ungracious. And seat me next to him, I'll do a spot of pumping. By Jove, did you see that? Well played, sir! Well played! Thanks so much for inviting me, Duffers. I owe you one."