“Outnumbered at Oxford” – Excerpt

Opening Night

Perveen and Alice had made excellent progress with a bottle of Madeira by the time Maude opened the door. They hadn’t done as well with Perveen’s Roman law essay or Alice’s geometry proof. It had been a lark, breaking the rules with a few tiny drinks as they studied by the fire on a cold February evening in Perveen’s third-floor room. But the thrill was gone.

Maude surveyed them with narrowed eyes. “The principal’s compliments, and she would like to see you at once!”

Perveen’s scout was the eldest of the entire college: a stout country lady somewhere north of forty who had firm opinions on the behavior of Oxford’s female students. Those opinions had rattled Perveen during her earliest months. But Alice, the daughter of a lord, insisted that the scouts assigned to the students at St. Hilda’s Hall were paid for service and cleaning, not bossing. Maude was supposed to build fires, bring tea and the post, and tidy during set hours. This was why her unexplained arrival at 9:15 p.m. was a shock.

“Surely you didn’t bark on us, Maude!” Perveen said, trying for a laugh. She was keenly aware of St. Hilda’s own laws. House Rule 7 read: No wine, spirits or opiates to be kept in bedrooms without special permission.

Maude shook her head at the two college friends hunched over a table cluttered with books, Alice’s special Belgian crystal glasses and the illegal bottle. “I didn’t. But Miss Mistry, you’d better wash your mouth with carbolic because Miss Burrows wants you in her drawing room now. And she’s got the Master of Balliol College in with her!”

“They want to see me?” The sweet taste in Perveen’s mouth had gone sour.

“What on earth, Maude?” Alice asked. When the stone-faced scout said nothing, she swung her blond head around to address Perveen. “Do you have a secret beau at Balliol?”

“Don’t be daft!” Perveen snapped. She’d come from Bombay to study civil law, and as one of a minuscule population of Indian females, she had no intentions of bringing shame onto this community.

“What could it be about?” Alice capped the Madeira bottle, looking at it with regret. “Balliol’s Master, Professor Alistair Mason, is the eldest mathematician in the university. He’s rumored to be ghastly; I’ll go with you as a support.”

“They called for Miss Mistry.” Maude’s voice was starchy. “If I was you, I’d stay out of it. If I was ’er, I’d step right quick.”

Reluctantly Perveen rose and went over to the washstand, where she reached for her Colgate Dental Cream, wondering what could have gone wrong. Perveen had rarely been inside Balliol, because of St. Hilda’s ordinances forbidding unsupervised coeducational fraternizing.

Five minutes later, Perveen was hurrying downstairs while her stomach headed upward to her throat. The Madeira had been a mistake, but she’d never expected this summons. Perveen knocked lightly on the door of the principal’s drawing room. It was opened at once by Lucy, the shy maid who served Miss Christine Burrows, the college’s head. Lucy motioned her inside and hurried off toward the kitchen.

Miss Burrows might have been petite, but she was a formidable lady with silvered hair she wore in a coronet that made her a touch taller. The sight of the principal’s hair—so perfect even at day’s end—led Perveen to nervously touch her own wavy black hair, which she’d taken down from a complicated bun because it was after supper and close to bedtime.

“Professor Mason,” Miss Burrows said, “may I present Perveen Mistry, our young lady from Bombay?”

Sitting by the fire was an elderly gentleman with a half crown of white hair, leading Perveen to guess his age upward of seventy or even eighty. He looked vaguely familiar.

Through round, gold-rimmed spectacles, the professor scrutinized Perveen, who was wearing a green-and-blue-patterned sari with a long-sleeved white blouse and a gray wool cardigan. The combination was odd, but it was the only way she knew to keep from freezing.

“Miss Mistry.” Professor Mason indicated his head toward the tufted velvet wing chair across from him. Perveen looked at Miss Burrows, knowing this was the principal’s favored chair.

“You may take it,” Miss Burrows said. “I shall be nearby.”

The principal settled at her wide mahogany desk a few feet away. Her head was bent over papers, although she was probably listening closely. This was how she typically performed chaperonage: remaining in a room whenever males were present, but not participating in the conversation unless something truly unacceptable was said.

“I hear you read law, Miss Mistry. I don’t typically speak with students in your field. My area is mathematics.”

“Yes, sir.” She could not think of anything better to say.

“I’ve come regarding a situation with Charles McAslan, an undergraduate candidate for mathematics. He’s older than most—he left us to serve in the war and has returned.”

She didn’t know him, so she’d have to offer her regrets that she couldn’t be of service. Trying to look somber, she said, “Sorry, I’m not acquainted with Mr. McAslan.”

“No matter. He is served at his rooms in Balliol by a scout named Subramanian, who is a native of your country.”

“Really! Do you know the rest of his name?”

Clearing his throat, he said, “Just—Subramanian. Our scouts generally go by surnames only.”

Subramanian could be either a first or last name, but explaining this might be more than the don cared to hear.

Mr. Mason said, “I understand you spoke with Subramanian recently.”

Blood rushed to her face. Was the Master accusing her of going up to the student bedrooms at Balliol? “No, sir, I did not! It must have been someone else.”

The professor stiffened in the straight-backed chair. “But you were one of the chief organizers of an Indian Student Society party held in one of our halls. I am certain I saw you there.”

“I issued you a pass to attend that party,” Miss Burrows chimed in.

“Why, yes, I do remember the party. But I’m afraid that I wasn’t introduced to anyone named Subramanian.”

“But others recall you two chatting; apparently Subramanian spoke to you at length!”

Perveen paused, trying to summon the memory. Yes, she recalled the Balliol Master. He’d been ensconced at a table, surrounded by sycophantic Indian mathematics students during the society’s last event during Michaelmas term. It hadn’t been a real party—at least not by Indian standards. Rising to the challenge of an Asian gathering, the Balliol cooks had prepared a few plates of cheddar-and-chutney sandwiches and iced gingerbread. Wishing for something a bit more Indian, Perveen had slipped into the kitchen with her little bags of spices and supervised the making of Parsi chai, a milky, cardamom-and-mint-flavored tea that was the favorite beverage of her own home.

After the scouts had served chai to all of the partygoers, she’d returned to the kitchen and poured out a few cups for these men. Although a few scouts hesitated, proclaiming they couldn’t tolerate spices, most of them liked the sweet tea. She remembered one man, darker skinned and smaller than the others, who’d taken the cup and raised it to his nose for a long inhalation. She warned him to wait a moment because it was still boiling hot, but he’d sipped quickly, as if he’d be called back into service in a minute.

“Thank you. It’s different from my mother’s chai, but still very good,” he’d proclaimed.

“Your mother must make delicious chai.” Perveen had looked at him more closely and realized he had Indian features.

The scout had begun to say something more, but a senior law student, Anand Patel, interrupted. “Come along now, Miss Mistry! I’ve someone for you to meet.”

Wordlessly, the scout put down his own cup and took the tray from Perveen’s hands. She’d smiled apologetically at him as Mr. Patel steered her over to speak with Miss Chatterjee, a shy fresher from Somerville. Miss Chatterjee had recently come from Calcutta and was miserable. The scout who liked chai had slipped straight out of mind.

Perveen explained the course of events to Professor Mason and Miss Burrows, adding, “I’m afraid I don’t know anything else, as I didn’t see him again.”

“Subramanian began working at Balliol in 1914, serving another man who graduated in 1918. Then he began the work for Mr. McAslan, who had returned to his studies after serving with the army for two years. Five days ago, he did not arrive as usual to light a fire in Mr. McAslan’s room. The student naturally assumed that his servant had fallen ill. He asked another scout about him, but that fellow said Subramanian hadn’t slept in the scouts’ quarters that evening. The porter investigated and concluded that the man’s suitcase was gone from the storage room and so were most of his clothes from his cupboard.”

“Perhaps he’s left his job,” Perveen said.

“Indeed! But after Subramanian left, Mr. McAslan realized his own papers were also missing.”

Perveen’s interest was piqued. “What kind of papers?”

“Academic papers involving an original mathematical proof. I shan’t trouble you with details that you cannot understand, but his tutor, Mr. Edward Flynhall, says it is brilliantly complex and would have been finished Trinity term.”

“Sorry, sir, I’m still not understanding! For which reasons might one relate the disappearance of the proof and Subramanian’s leaving Oxford?”

“We will have the answer if we could find this Indian and question him!”

“But . . . ” Perveen trailed off. The logic seemed specious, but how could she say that to such an important, elderly don?

“For the sake of our college, I’m requesting your assistance in finding out whether anyone in the colleges or in town has knowledge of Subramanian’s whereabouts. You will be able to speak with Indians more easily than our proctors can.”

“Forgive me, Mr. Mason,” Perveen began. “I gave Subramanian a cup of tea, but I am hardly his confidante. Surely some of the male students in residence at Balliol College must be better acquainted.”

“I’ve queried the six Indian undergraduates currently studying at Balliol. However, they claim not to have spoken with him. It surely is a matter of caste discrimination.” Mr. Mason’s moustache drooped lower, accentuating his frown.

“Perhaps.” Perveen guessed that Subramanian was a high-caste name, but not being a Hindu, she didn’t know for certain.

“And I will not ask undergraduates to proceed further. They are here to earn degrees. It would be improper.”

“As a St. Hilda’s student, you have studying privileges at Oxford but stand outside the university community and its regulations,” Miss Burrows said. “There is no conflict of interest.”

Mr. Mason spoke again. “The matter is sensitive. Subramanian is the first Indian to be employed as an Oxford scout. We wish to solve the crisis without public notice. Nothing that would reflect badly on any of your people.”

Perveen felt desperate. “Professor, am I understanding correctly that you wish me to make inquiries throughout the town about the location of a missing Oxford employee—someone whose face I saw so briefly?”

“You shall obtain these and any more details from McAslan and his tutor, Mr. Flynhall.”

“Has anyone considered whether the academic papers were misplaced?”

“Mr. McAslan and his tutor have turned his quarters upside down looking for them,” the Master answered. “At this point, I have not involved the police, but if Mr. McAslan chooses to ask for their assistance, we could have a minor scandal.”

“But it’s the middle of term.” Perveen heard a tremor in her own voice, the evidence of her difficulty in contradicting the powerful administrators. “Unfortunately, I attend lectures every morning and spend the afternoons and evenings studying. My essay on Roman law is due in two days, and honours examinations are ahead.”

The professor’s eyes blinked furiously behind his glasses. “With Miss Burrows’ agreement, I shall notify your department head that you may have an extension.”

An extension. Perveen thought how relieving it would be to have just a little more time with Caesar’s law. By now she also felt sorry for Subramanian. Regardless of what he’d done, he should know his legal rights before anyone got a choke hold on him.

“Very well,” Perveen said. “But what if he’s gone away? He might be living somewhere in the towns around here or even gone to London.”

“You shall have a pass for entry into town and beyond. I’ll have a word with the bursar about recouping any costs for train fare.”

“Mr. Mason!” Miss Burrows’ voice was cool. “St. Hilda’s ladies never go into town without an approved chaperone. As college head, I am the one who signs every pass that is issued. We are not subject to Oxford University regulations.”

The elderly professor blinked, as if utterly surprised by this information. “Of course, Miss Burrows. You shall select the chaperone.”

Miss Burrows cleared her throat. “Regrettably, I only assign our hardworking tutors to chaperonage during short visits on Saturday and Sundays afternoons. I’ve pledged my support, but Miss Mistry cannot go anywhere beyond academic buildings without a chaperone.”

“Might the Honorable Miss Alice Hobson-Jones accompany me?” Perveen knew her friend would be thrilled by any chance for freedom.

“Miss Hobson-Jones is a student—not a tutor,” Miss Burrows said.

“Of course, madam, but she’s much older than I am—she’s twenty-two! Did you know that Miss Hobson-Jones is daughter of a Balliol graduate? And she happens to be reading mathematics.”

Looking thoughtful, Professor Mason nodded. “If she reads mathematics, she may already be acquainted with Charles McAslan or his tutor. Miss Burrows, it would be a great kindness to our college if you would appoint this senior student as a chaperone.”

“It’s irregular.” Miss Burrows paused. “I will permit it for this instance, but both of you must return by nine o’clock every night. Let me see you to the door, Miss Mistry.”

Perveen said good-bye to the Balliol Master and went to the door. As Miss Burrows opened it, her voice was low in Perveen’s ear. “And you must not go anywhere outside of your room with your hair in such a state. Have I made myself clear?”

“Yes, Miss Burrows.”

The Search Begins

That night, in the narrow bed in her small room at St. Hilda’s, Perveen dreamed. She was no longer in Oxford or even Britain: she was huddled against the smudged window of a third-class carriage that reeked of coal fumes and garlic. Outside, India was passing: rice paddies, fields of mustard, long clumps of undeveloped jungle. A cluster of peasants stood at a junction: Perveen watched as the train grew closer, then was shocked to see they weren’t unknown. Each person staring at her was someone from her past: first, Miss Vaccha, her geography teacher from J.B. Petit High School for Girls; then, her parents and her brother, Rustom. All these people, looking disapprovingly at her as she ducked away from the window.

In the next instant the train compartment was filled by a stern ticket collector. Perveen reached for her ticket but found she had Miss Burrows’ pass instead. Feeling sick, she began explaining that she’d not had time to buy a ticket. But the ticket collector had caught sight of what packed the interior of her silk-lined bag: the heavy pearl choker, the set of pear-shaped diamond earrings, all the gold-and-ruby bangles and the rest of her wedding jewelry.

“Thief!” the ticket collector yelled and began blowing his whistle. Suddenly she realized all the other passengers in the compartment were looking eagerly toward her half-open bag.

“It’s mine,” she said, clutching the beaded bag against her stomach. “Yes, I’m a runaway, but it’s mine!”

“Up with you!” the collector shouted, and as he shrilled his whistle, Perveen knew she was doomed.

“Up with you, miss! Another minute and you’ll be late for chapel.”

The voice was different: it was Maude. Perveen opened her eyes to find she was no longer in a hot train compartment of the Bombay Mail but in her own small college room with a coal fire burning in the grate. And the jewelry was all gone: it had been sold for her travel to England and three years of tuition and expenses.

“What—what time is it?”

“Half-eight. I’ve been calling you every five minutes.”

Perveen gazed around the room, simply furnished with just a desk, chair and bureau. No devils or angels of her past were here. Nobody at Oxford knew about her brief, failed marriage or how she’d got to Oxford on a passport that wasn’t in her proper name.

“You’ll tell me later about the goings-on with our Miss Burrows and Balliol Master,” Maude said. “Not enough time now.”

As Perveen slid her feet into her slippers, her gaze alighted on a small folded paper between the sheets. It was Miss Burrows’ pass, tightly folded up. How odd. Perveen remembered placing it in its original, unfolded condition on the nightstand, along with the one meant for Alice Hobson-Jones. Her friend’s pass was still untouched.

• • •

Given the alcoholic revels of the night before, Alice Hobson-Jones was suffering from headache. She peered with half-open eyes at the pass that Perveen laid next to her breakfast plate. They were sitting at the end of a long table in the dining hall and had enough space around them that Perveen felt the situation was private.

After Perveen explained the situation, Alice said, “You’re putting me on. That can’t be Miss Burrows’ signature—it’s a forgery!”

“Alice, I swear to you that she wrote it out in front of me.”

“And you believe this pass will allow me to miss classes and go all around town with you?”

“Yes, indeed. Hopefully we can get just a bit of information to satisfy the professor and be done with the matter quickly.”

Alice laughed. “Of course I’ll join you. When do we start?”

“This morning. I think we should meet Mr. McAslan at Balliol. I saw Subramanian so briefly that I probably couldn’t recognize him if he were standing in front of me.”

“But he’s Indian!”

“Are you saying we look alike?” Perveen mock-swatted her. “India comprises many different kingdoms and people who arrived from various places—”

“Just like Oxford!”

“No, much more complex. As I’ve said before, I’m Zoroastrian—but everyone calls us Parsi in India because our ancestors arrived from Persia to escape religious persecution between the eighth and ninth centuries. My Persian heritage is probably why I’ve got my strong nose—and such lively hair,” she added.

Alice rolled her eyes. “But what has this to do with anything?”

“I’m saying that we Parsis coexist in India with Sikhs and Muslims and Christians, Jews and Buddhists and Hindus. We’re all quite different.”

“Mind you, I was born in India too.” Alice put her hands to her head as if Perveen had just given her the worst headache.

“Yes, but you were shipped off to school at seven—so you require education. Returning to my point, Subramanian is a South Indian name particular to Hindus. There’s a common assumption that South Indians are all of Dravidian origin with sharply defined features and dark skin. If Subramanian had such striking looks, I would have noticed it straightaway—which I did not. I’d like a description of Subramanian’s appearance and manner from Mr. McAslan before proceeding.”

Alice nodded. “And this meeting will give me a chance to hear more about this supposedly brilliant paper. Charlie McAslan’s a foul-mouthed wretch, so it rather surprises me his classwork is valuable enough for a don to become involved.”

“So you are acquainted with him.”

“We’ve been in a few of the same lectures. After I made a comment the other day, he called me a bluestocking. Thought he’d get a laugh out of his lads, but he’s damned unoriginal bringing up that tired old insult.”

“Do you think he’s corrupt enough to have either lost or hidden his paper and then blamed it on his scout?”

“Honestly, I’ve no idea. But putting him through a few questions is something I wouldn’t mind.”

“Don’t be too wild, Alice.”

“Oh, I won’t.”

But Alice’s lazy smile made Perveen nervous.

• • •

Balliol College lay at the heart of Oxford. It was about a mile from St. Hilda’s, which had been built up out of a country house on the southeastern edge of Magdalen College. But the morning was unusually sunny for February, and after a brisk walk, Perveen and Alice reached the massive men’s college dating from the thirteenth century. A dour-faced porter emerged from the lodge to dissuade them, but after seeing their passes and reading the Balliol Master’s letter of introduction, he relented and told a scout to take them to the library, where he would send Mr. McAslan and his tutor, Mr. Flynhall.

Perveen found the Balliol library quite different from St. Hilda’s own library; chiefly, it had many more bookcases and a smell that was virtually unknown at St. Hilda’s: tobacco. Also, the furniture here was much grander than the secondhand pieces gracing St. Hilda’s. Perveen was admiring the medieval relics when a clatter of leather-soled shoes returned her to 1919.

Striding in was a slender blond man with aquiline features and violet-blue eyes. He had played up his looks by dressing in gray flannel trousers and a well-fitting Norfolk jacket. A plum silk cravat was tied just so at the neck of his starched white shirt. His oxblood-colored brogues gleamed with a mirrorlike shine.

The fellow next to him was taller: about six feet, and strongly built. However, his reddish-gold hair was unruly, and his tweed suit lumpy. Perveen imagined Mr. Mason rarely bothered the men about their appearances.

The blond fellow assessed Perveen and then smiled. “Good morning. I’m Edward Flynhall, a tutor of mathematics at Brasenose College. Miss Mistry, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” Perveen put out her hand. Mr. Flynhall’s cool, pleasant grip felt almost sensual; she pulled her hand away, not wanting him to think she found him attractive. “Mr. Flynhall, may I introduce my chaperone, the Honorable Miss Alice Hobson-Jones?”

“I know her already.” The other man spoke in a voice laden with a heavy Scottish burr. “She’s appeared at a number of mathematics lectures. Last week she was speaking about the finite.”

“Finite equations,” said Alice, who was now shaking Mr. Flynhall’s hand vigorously. Perveen knew the tutor’s attractiveness and insinuating grip would not affect Alice. The only person who made Alice swoon was a first-year girl, Jemima St. Clair, who was utterly oblivious.

“Miss Hobson-Jones and Miss Mistry, will you permit me to introduce my student, Mr. Charles McAslan?”

Charles McAslan kept his hands in his pockets and nodded curtly at the women.

“The Master of Balliol said you wished to speak to us before undertaking a search for the thief.” Mr. Flynhall delivered another practiced smile. “I daresay you consider this plan as irregular as we do. But thank you for being willing to help.”

“I need a proper detective—not schoolgirls,” Mr. McAslan said gruffly.

Nodding at Mr. McAslan, Perveen said, “Sorry, but this is not how we expected to spend our time, either. Miss Hobson-Jones and I won’t keep you overly long. We’ve come to learn just a bit more about your scout. Have you a photograph of him?”

“A photograph?” echoed Mr. Flynhall. “It’s not often that a student keeps a memento of his scout. Mr. McAslan, have you any photographs, etchings, watercolors or paintings of Subramanian?”

“Indeed, no. And why should I be photographing my scout?” Mr. McAslan glared at Perveen. “He’s darker than you, for sure, and a wee thing. He’s got rabbity teeth.”

“What does that mean, exactly, about the teeth?” Perveen asked.

“They jut out in front—you know, like a hare.”

Perveen began taking notes in her diary. “How old is he?”

Mr. Flynhall shrugged. “I’ve not the slightest. Did he ever tell you his birthday, Mr. McAslan?”

“About your age,” McAslan said to his tutor.

“Early thirties, then,” Perveen said. “What was his daily costume?”

“I don’t know,” Mr. McAslan said. “I never noticed.”

“Male scouts wear white aprons,” Mr. Flynhall said. “Underneath they wear a white shirt, a dark cravat, usually a woolen weskit, and trousers of similar material.”

Charles McAslan added, “He also had a black wool jacket—he wore it often, as he found the building cold.”

Perveen considered the five cardigans she owned: cream and dove gray lamb’s wool for spring, and black, gray and brown mohair and cashmere for winter. Such dull, non-Indian colors, but all that she could find in the ladies’ shops in town.

Edward Flynhall spoke again. “Tell me, is there a place that Indians take shelter together, either in Oxford or London?”

“The only places I’ve heard of are in London: the Northbrook Indian Society, which is a club for Indian students and interested British people, and the Asiatic Seafarers’ Society, which concerns itself with destitute laborers,” Perveen said.

“You two have a difficult road ahead of you.” Flynhall looked directly at Perveen. “My worry is that this scout absconded with Mr. McAslan’s most important academic papers.”

“I’d like to hear more about that,” Perveen said. “But before I do, Mr. McAslan, did Subramanian ever chat to you about his personal life or friends he might visit when off duty?”

The undergraduate shook his head.

Perveen continued, “He didn’t mention boating or sport or the pictures?”

“Always had his nose in a book,” Charles McAslan said.

“What types of books?”

“Just—books. I never asked.”

“What were things like between you? Was it a cordial relationship, or was it more . . .” Perveen trailed off, wondering if a male student could feel as nervous as she did around her scout.

“Yes, he was a good help to me. I trusted him,” Charles McAslan said. He blinked his eyes rapidly, and Perveen thought she saw a glimmer of moisture.

“Servants withhold their true emotions,” Mr. Flynhall said. “Someone like Subramanian would find a trusting student an easy mark.”

Alice jumped in. “An easy mark for what?”

“Subramanian might sell the papers,” Mr. Flynhall said. “It would take just a bit more work to bring the proof to a brilliant fruition.”

“What kind of proof is it?” Alice didn’t hide her interest.

Flynhall answered, “It’s rather complicated for others to understand—”

“I’m a third-year honours mathematics student,” Alice said sharply.

The tutor smiled. “Very well. It relates to one of the twenty questions posed at the 1900 International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris.”

“Professor David Hilbert’s questions,” Alice clarified. “Perveen, he’s a very famous German mathematician—the fellow who created the axioms that explain geometry.”

McAslan squinted at Alice, as if he couldn’t believe what had come from her mouth. “Yes, that’s the man. I’m working on his seventeenth problem.”

“Oh. Are the earlier ones all solved, then?” Perveen asked.

“Oh, no! It’s all so complicated,” Alice said. “Many scholars are diving in willy-nilly, wouldn’t you say, Mr. Flynhall?”

“That’s not quite true.” Mr. Flynhall’s voice was silky. “Hilbert’s seventeenth problem is not as abstract as some of the earlier ones and therefore is likelier to be solved. Number seventeen is concerned with expressing a nonnegative rational function.”

“Yes—as a quotient of sums of squares,” Alice said.

Mr. Flynhall’s patronizing smile vanished. “Miss Hobson-Jones, are you working on the problem as well?”

“Oh, no. I’m much more interested in the merging of physics and mathematics,” Alice said with a laugh. “But I certainly know about Hilbert.”

Perveen felt the two were missing the point. “If people haven’t been able to solve this particular problem since it was unveiled nineteen years ago, what might an uneducated scout do with it?”

“He couldn’t understand it,” said Mr. Flynhall. “But it might be finished by someone at Cambridge or the University of London.”

“Oh, that’s intriguing!” Alice said. “Who could do it? Have you a particular scholar in mind?”

“Of course not,” Mr. Flynhall snapped. “I’m only suggesting that Mr. McAslan’s missing proof has tremendous value.”

“Perhaps Mr. Mason could send a letter to various mathematics deans warning that important work by an Oxford student has gone missing,” Perveen suggested.

Flynhall laughed lightly. “Other academics would make him a laughingstock for sending out such a letter.”

“And how do you feel about it, Mr. McAslan?” Perveen asked.

Charles McAslan remained silent.

“Please, won’t you tell us what you think should be done?” Perveen asked again.

The tutor spoke, filling the silence. “As you can imagine, we don’t want anyone else knowing about the calculations until Mr. McAslan has completed his work.”

“I’m curious about something,” Alice said. “Is Mr. McAslan working on a proof to which you—his tutor—don’t know the answer?”

Flynhall sighed. “As his tutor, I will vet the proof for accuracy, and then, of course, it goes to Mr. Mason. If the mathematics faculty agree that the work is sound, Charles will submit an article about it for publication.”

As his tutor spoke, Charles McAslan stared at a fixed point beyond them, as if wishing himself away. So he is a genius, Perveen thought. This explained his awkward, disheveled state. He had no time for daily concerns like soap and combs. The tutor, on the other hand, already had earned a master’s degree and might be working toward the D.Phil. degree the university had recently introduced. And perhaps he dressed so formally because he was gunning for an administrative post. It would be quite a boon for a tutor to have directed the scholarship of such a brilliant student. From a purely cynical perspective, Perveen could understand why Flynhall was concerned about the missing proof.

“Who is the current scout caring for your room?” Alice asked McAslan.

“Jeffries. He was pulled from another college after Subramanian left.”

“And has Jeffries cleaned your room yet this morning?” Alice continued.

“I suppose he’s doing it now.”

“Splendid! May we all go there together to speak with him?” Perveen chimed in.

“To all our regret, ladies aren’t allowed in a male undergraduate’s quarters!” Mr. Flynhall said with a chuckle. “If you wish to speak with the scout, he can be summoned here for an interview.”

“Shall I call him, then?” McAslan looked at his tutor for guidance.

“Yes, but do remember to come back!”

McAslan hurried out of the room without saying good-bye.

Mr. Flynhall looked after him, then turned to the ladies with a soft, serious expression. “I’m grateful for the privacy. There are things you must know.”

“Do tell!” Alice said.

“Mr. McAslan is most awkward in his conversational skills, but he’s a good young man. During the war he acted with such tremendous valor that he earned several medals.”

“How did the war affect him?” Perveen asked, thinking about the many grim-faced veterans who’d returned to Oxford.

“Like most veterans, he speaks seldom of the war. Returning to Oxford was a dream that kept on through the hardest of times. That’s why I’m livid about what’s happened. The mathematics faculty and I devised this opportunity for him to do more individual work than sit examinations, because those settings are unbearable for him.”

“That’s most compassionate,” Perveen said.

“We don’t widely publicize this practice, lest the other students become aggrieved. But the situation’s become grave. For Mr. McAslan to rework this proof on his own from the very beginning would be most difficult. He has problems with memory and endurance.”

Perveen decided to bring up what she’d been thinking of since the previous evening. “There’s a chance that he’s lost some of the papers in his room, don’t you think? Or he could have dropped them elsewhere . . . a scout cleaning up in a college room or lecture hall might have thought the papers were discarded and just thrown them in the bin.”

Mr. Flynhall’s expression was rueful. “I searched the room with his new scout, but our efforts were in vain. And in response to your other question, he wouldn’t have taken the papers anywhere else except for my own study.”

Perveen asked, “Mr. Flynhall, how many other students might have visited his room or yours?”

“I shan’t dare venture as to how many men may have visited Mr. McAslan—he stays here in Balliol, and it’s a sociable college. In my rooms on the third floor of Brasenose, half a dozen mathematics undergraduates regularly come for tutorials and other consultations. But no student could possibly submit Mr. McAslan’s work to their tutors or professors without being caught red-handed.”

“Although someone might have kept the paper as a prank,” Alice suggested. “I don’t know if you’re aware of it, sir, but your student isn’t terribly popular.”

“Perhaps you dislike him, but I don’t know about problems with any others,” the tutor said, looking quizzically at Alice. “He’s got a small circle of friends, most of whom he knew before the war. They study together often at the Bodleian.”

“Who are these friends?” Alice sounded skeptical.

“He studies often with Mr. Ian Little and Mr. Roger Campbell.”

“All Scottish names!” Alice said with a laugh. “I suppose it’s a case of blood brothers staying close?”

The creak of an aged door made Perveen turn. Charles McAslan had returned alone. Looking down, he said, “Jeffries can’t come.”

“What a shame. Why is that?” Perveen asked.

“Slops,” said McAslan.

“And what does that mean?” Perveen continued.

“He takes my chamber pot for washing. I know that’s where he must be, because I couldn’t find the pot.”

Perveen gasped, and Alice shook with inappropriate laughter. The women’s colleges, which were always being lambasted by the men as architecturally insignificant, at least had modern lavatories. The fine antiques in Balliol’s library didn’t seem as enviable, if the private quarters still had characteristics of the Dark Ages.

“We’re drawing close to luncheon, and I’m expected at the High Table today.” Mr. Flynhall stood up and shook hands with each of the women. “Thank you for coming, Miss Mistry. Tell me again the name of your academic dean?”

“Dean Robertson, in the school of jurisprudence.”

“A good man; I know him. And I trust that if you hear anything about Subramanian’s whereabouts, you’ll let me know first. I’m willing to go to Subramanian, wherever he might be, to help you convince him to speak to the Balliol Master.”

“We will do that, should the need arise. Good day, Mr. Flynhall; and also to you, Mr. McAslan,” Perveen said.

“Are you returning to St. Hilda’s now?” the tutor asked.

“Not yet; we’re headed into town,” Alice said. “We’ve been issued special passes that give us almost the same freedoms as Oxford men.”

“Ha. I still don’t think you’ll find him,” Mr. McAslan said with a glowering look.

Mr. Flynhall’s expression wasn’t as clear. The smiles he’d showered upon their arrival had dwindled. Perhaps he hadn’t liked Alice knowing so much about David Hilbert. Or had he sensed Perveen’s secret sympathy for the accused?

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