Red Sands

The Confessions of Master Rab MacPherson (15th November 1888)
15th November 1888

“Spit it out man!” lied Bertie. “And don’t move – your back is broken. Tell us all you know and we’ll get that Doctor as quickly as possible.” Marko stood on the man’s fingers, not being happy at being nearly brained by him.

“They’ll get me off, ye’ll see! Soon I’ll have friends in high places—the highest places of all!” sneered the man, then yelping in pain as one of his fingers was crushed.

“Name and business, before I let Marko at you. Quick now!” cautioned Bertie.

The man’s name was MacPherson, and he seemed strangely confident for a man in his position.

“Ach ye’ll no stop us onyway!” he laughed. "We’ve foond a great secret, buried for years. And no one else is gaen’tae have it!”

“We? Secret? Speak sense man!” snarled Sebastian.

“Thae Commonist Cause ye Fool!” snapped MacPherson. "The Russian’s in on it too, I’ll tell ye. He foond the secret door!”

“And what’s all this got to do with young Ponsonby?” asked Henry. “And where is he?”

“They’re at Choker’s place – Fen Hoose.” gasped MacPherson. "They’ve got the laddie locked up in the cellar. He couldn’t handle what we foond or what we’re gaen’tae do!”

“You’re taking us there” said Sebastian. “Chop Chop now!”

“Ach but ye’said……” remonstrated MacPherson, and then gasped in surprise as he was hauled to his feet.

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Rooftop Shennanigans (15th November 1888)
15th November 1888

Having perhaps had one to many in their tour of over half a dozen pubs in just over two hours, Bertie, Henry, Sebastian and Marko stumbled back into the Quad, with repeated “Shhhh!”s and some sniggering.

Their sense of direction being perhaps not what it was, they cast about for the right door just inside the Queen Elizabeth’s Gate. A chance glance upwards perhaps saved them, as they all jumped aside.

A small gargoyle plummeted downwards from the roof, shattering and some of the flying stone flying sideways into Marko. The dark shape of a figure could be glimpsed looking downwards.

Bertie and Sebastian dashed into the Tower, pushing past an astonished porter and towards a set of stairs. After helping up Marko Henry headed towards the Great Gate with similar intent.

After several wrong turns Bertie squeezed up a narrow stair emerging onto the windy, pitch black rooftop. Dimly he witnessed the dark figure scrambling away over the kitchen roof; he and Sebastian gave chase with some difficulty.

Sebastian pulled ahead, and noticed that the figure was disappearing downwards, beyond the edge of the Masters Lodge roof. Scrambling up to the edge he peered over, and noticed the figure, maybe only twenty feet above the ground now, climbing down in the angle between the Lodge and Neville Court. He picked up a crumbling and loose capstone.

“Let’s see how ye’ like your own medicine, you Hound!” he muttered, and pitched the stone downwards, hitting the climber on the shoulder. He lost his grip, and tumbled down, face upwards onto the grass.

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A Rather Dull Read (15th November 1888)
15th November 1888

While the foolish men investigated the local pubs, Lady Glossop sat down in her lodgings with the confiscated pamphlet.

‘The Common Cause’, was a pamphlet which discussed the philosophy of a radical Russian thinker named Nikolai Fyodorov, who believed that human beings must take charge of evolution and “transcend” their human forms. The pamphlet asserted that death itself could be overcome by science, and that this endeavour would one day unite all humankind in a single “common cause.”

The pamphlet mentioned such outré concepts as prosthetic limbs, engineering the human form, harnessing the energy of the sun and the weather, populating the furthest reaches of space beyond even Mars , and eventually achieving immortality. It declared that modern society was destroying the Earth, wasting the potential of millions of human beings, and that human endeavour should aim to restore the vitality of the lost Garden of Eden on Earth.

Finally it proposed that the Russian and British Empires should shelve their differences and unite to find the lost Garden and usher in a new golden age for mankind.

“What Rubbish!” sighed Lady Glossop, tossing the document onto the floor. And then she became aware of some disturbance outside in the Quad.

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The Little Squit (15th November 1888)
15th November 1888

Interrogation of the little squit had only revealed that apparently Ponsonby had become mixed up with some Russians or other, and their nonsensical ideas.

“Not that Marx fellow but some other one – he’s become very excited about some discovery or other he’d made.”

But when they pressed Archibald on this he was either ignorant, or feigning it. They dcided that they might as well search Ponsonby’s room which was just across the landing. Opening the door revealed a suite of rooms, including a sitting room and separate bedroom. The rooms were decorated with furnishings clearly chosen by his mother, with random curios and knick knacks strewn about, and a stupid picture of a little boy wearing a blue jacket.

His library revealed a number of social critiques, and a series of English translations of modern Russian authors such as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Hidden among these was a slim pamphlet, written in Russian but heavily annotated in English, with the name “Narodnikov” at the top in English. It was printed by the Russian Free Press in London.

“Hmm” said Lady Glossop, skimming through it. “It seems to discuss the philosophy of a man named Fyodorov – perhaps I’d better read through it before bedtime.”

“Good idea” said Bertie. “While you do that me and the chaps can trawl the pubs and bars for more of Ponsonby’s friends.” He smacked his lips at the prospect.

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The Student Lodgings (15th November 1888)
15th November 1888

Half an hour later Archibald Fenwick heard a tapping on his door.

“Who’s there?” he called nervously.

“It is I, Lady Glossop. We met earlier and I thought we too might have a …… more intimate conversation.”

“But Madam, ladies are not allowed on the premises. I could get into real trouble. Please go home.”

“Now, Now Archibald, you had better invite me in. We don’t want your neighbours to call the Porters or make a scene you naughty boy” crooned Lady Glossop. A grunt of exasperation was heard from behind the door, and then it swung open.

Archibald took in Lady Glossop, and then the four additional figures standing in shadow on the landing behind her. Marko shoved the door open and the group walked inside.

“Now Old Chap” said Bertie, “Let’s continue our little chat.”

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The Eagle (15h November 1888)
15th November 1888

The Eagle was one of the larger pubs in Cambridge, on the north side of Bene’t Street in the centre of the city. It was here that they had been directed by Magworthy, and eventually they saw three young men enter, one of them fitting Fenwick’s description.

“Get the drinks in Archie old fellow” called one of them, as he and the other made a bee line for the Billiards table.

“I’ll get those” said Bertie, and with a look of surprise the young man turned to face him.

“I’m afraid I have an ulterior motive old chap” said Bertie, and explained their business in a few words. He thought he saw a look of panic in the young man’s eyes.

“I…I’m sorry about Edward being sent down " he stammered, “But there’s really nothing I know which can help I’m afraid.” He made his excuses and returned to his friends, several more of whom had now arrived.

“He’s not saying something” muttered Bertie.

Shortly thereafter they saw him being remonstrated to by one of his friends, and shortly thereafter he collected his coat and scarf and left. Lady Glossop smiled and quietly followed.

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Kilts and Whiskey (15th November 1888)
15th November 1888

To describe Professor MacMillann as eccentric would perhaps have been fair. As they entered his study he sat on a sofa, wearing a kilt and an old tweed jacket with the inevitable leather elbow patches. His knees were relaxed akimbo, and in one hand he held a huge Cuban cigar, and in the other a glass of malt whiskey, with a decanter close to hand. He seemed slightly tipsy, and was all orange hair and whiskers.

“Ach Noo” he proclaimed, “Ying Ponsoonbee was a fair student…Aye, quite fairrrr…..”

“No the most forward o’ ying men, but a’hd say he micht have a future in the profession…a sirt of flair if ye’ like.” He refilled his glass.

“Jamie my man” he yelled. “Have ye’ no manners ye southern milksop. Some malt furr mah geests……” here he paused slightly, winking at Lady Glossop.

“Mah apologees ma’am” he said. “Eff mah language is tae sensitive furr they pretty young ears.”

“Et’s a bluidy shame he was wasting his time with that damned bloody socialist element.” he added.

“Socialists?” prickled Sebastian. “By God Sir, you mean he had fallen in with irresponsible Radicals?”

“Ach ah cannae say no more” said MacMillan. “Mah Gentleman’s Code forbids it, but ah’ll say that there’s some that should know better leading ohn young fools like Ponsonby.”

“What about his friends?” asked Bertie. “Perhaps we might speak to some of them?”

“Ye micht try Archibald Fenwick” said the Professor. “His College floormate. No doot he’s doon the pub by now, but I’m sure the Porters micht point ye’ in the richt direction.”

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The Tutor (15th November 1888)
15th November 1888

After settling in Bertie had sent his card to Dr. Oswaldthwistle – his rooms were situated only across the Quad – along with the letter of introduction and a comment that he would call in at six, if that were convenient.

It was clear from his library shelves that the Doctor, a tall thin man, with a set of unimpressive whiskers, was a lecturer in English literature. Bertie explained their position, and their search for young Ponsonby.

“Eh well” explained the Doctor. “Not sure I can help you much there. I’m his College Tutor yes, but not his Studies Tutor: he never really approached me so I’m afraid I’ve not had too much to do with him you understand.”

“What was he like Sir? As a person I mean?” asked Sebastian.

“Ah well” pondered the Doctor. “How can I put this? Dear me. Well young Ponsonby is not really the type who draws too much attention I’m afraid: mine included. Hardly a public speaker, I would think.”

“And his being sent down?” asked Bertie.

“Breaking and entering, believe it or not?” replied the Doctor.

“Really?!” asked Bertie, luckily stifling a guffaw.

“Yes really. No doubt some stupid prank I imagine, but he complaint was made by Doctor Melchisedek Choker, a doctor of medicine at Trinity. Of course we had to take it seriously.”

“Well I never!” pondered Bertie.

“I’d advise you to speak to Professor MacMillan – young Ponsonby’s studies tutor. Certainly knows him a lot better than I do. His rooms are not far”

“What is he a Professor of?” asked Lady Glossop.

“He is an eminent Field Archaeologist Madam” replied Dr. Oswaldthistle.

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Trinity is still My Name (15th November 1888)
15th November 1888

Taking a deep breath, Bertie plunged into the Great Gate towards the Porters Lodge: during the cab journey they had decided that it might be convenient if they could arrange a stay in Guest Rooms at the college. As an old Cambridge man He was of course entitled to ask for temporary lodging, and technically he was allowed to ask for rooms for his guests, availability permitting.

It was with some trepidation that he stared at the fierce moustaches bristling beneath a bowler hat. The bowler-hatted and black-uniformed Cambridge porters were an unsettling mix of servant and sage, policeman and pastor. Typically middle-aged and older men, often with an ex-services background, they were men required to keep order in a college of frequently unruly undergraduates. Although they referred to students as “sir” (or “miss”), they could be as terrifying as a sergeant-major.

And then he remembered the man’s name. John Magworthy was in his 50s – a massive man with a bald pate, close-cropped silver beard, and a funereal air. It was rumoured that he had been a champion wrestler in the Indian Army, and he recalle that he had often put the skill to good use. He gulped.

“I say old chap” stammered Bertie. “Magworthy isn’t it?”

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The Old Alma Mater (15th November 1888)
15th November 1888

“Well the Old Gorgon was right about the trains at any rate” thought Bertie.

Their arrival at Cambridge Station on a cold and blustery autumn afternoon had gone without incident, though Henry had almost been delayed in the capital – some business for the Aunt he was staying with while in London. He had managed to join them at the last minute however.

With him also were Sebastian, Lady Glossop and Marko; no doubt Sebastian looked askance on this but Bertie knew that he was good at knocking heads together – which might be far more useful than shooting holes in British Citizens or charging them on horseback with a sabre. As usual Marko had simply shrugged and agreed to accompany them, and he was now clad in smart merchant seaman’s attire, lighting up one of his Turkish cigarettes and peering round.

The cold and gathering gloom brought back warm memories of his own time in Cambridge, and of student discussions at Tea Shops with hot buttered crumpets, and poking round dusty bookshops. A brief wave of nostalgia flooded over him. He had always liked the Autumn, and favoured the Autumn Term with its run up to Christmas and Carols at Kings.

He had wired Doctor Oswaldtwistle ahead, and he had agreed to meet them for tea at five. His rooms were at Trinity, where the Doctor lectured in English Literature. Bertie had snored through several of his lectures, which had focused heavily on Chaucer he recalled.

He noticed that Marko and Sebastian were looking around outside the N & ER station, and at the line of cabbies outside.

“The station’s a mile or two outside of town chaps”, said Bertie. “In fact rumour has it that the University blocked any attempts to build it closer back in the forties.”

“The University has that much clout?” asked Sebastian.

“Cambridge and its university are inseparable Old Bean — as you’ll see when we get a bit closer. Seventeen colleges — each built like a Bally Castle with towers, chapels, courtyards, and ancient libraries and dining halls and whatnot, housing 3,000 students, from a total town population of 40,000. That’s a big chunk. ‘Dreaming Spires’ and all that rot.”

“It is very old, yes?” said Marko.

“Well Legend has it that the university was founded in 300 B.C. by a Spanish prince named Cantaber, though what the fellow was doing wallowing around in the swamps here I don’t know. Cook’s tour perhaps.”

“Written records begin in the 12th and 13th centuries. There are even two colleges for the Ladies – Girton and Newnham, founded nearly 20 years ago.” Sebastian harruphed, and missed a glare from Lady Glossop.

“We’ll need a place to stay” suggested Sebastian.

“What Ho. What Ho.” burbled Bertie. “Hotels all over Cambridge -the Hoop on Bridge Street and the Prince of Wales on Sidney Street maybe. But of course, as an old Trinity Man myself I might be able to wangle a stay in college rooms. Maybe guests too – but of course that’s up to you chaps.”

“Ladies too.” Bertie lifted his hat and nodded toward Lady Glossop. He smiled at her nervously, and tried to suppress the image of naked boobies illuminated and bobbing up and down in the moonlight.

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