The night of the murder had a strange drawn-out quality, but the days that followed were worse: a subdued numbness set upon the Faculty that none of us could shake.
None had known the woman particularly well–although she had indeed brought us tea every mid-morning and fruit cakes in the evening. And now, of course, she was dead.
Was one of my fellows the murderer? Most of us had been present on the night that the murder occurred. And so we each played the night over and over in our minds: to whom we had spoken and at what times and we recounted these astonishingly dull details with astounding accuracy to the local constabulary.
As it went, none of us were arrested for the crime. And little by little the lounge once more began to fill up in the afternoons. Drinks and conversations were had (though we never spoke about the murder) and one afternoon the big oak door opened to reveal the arrival of a new tea lady to replace the one we had… lost.
Tabitha was both a little too young and a little too pretty to be competent at serving tea. But of course some of the men enjoyed trying to dazzle the young miss with the details of their latest experiments in which Tabitha, strangely enough, did not seem particularly interested.
Some of us felt sorry for her, but more than anything we were intimidated by her. Each of us scientists–men of books and learning–were frightfully inept (or so it seemed) at being in the company of a beautiful young woman.
We joked with the girl, but only a little. And we had all been shaken up by the police interviews such that we were, all of us, extremely eager to be seen “doing right” by the girl at every possible opportunity.
We fell over ourselves in our eagerness to pour our own cups of tea and we rushed to hold open the door any time Tabitha needed to pass through it. Most of all we tried to make certain that all of our interactions with her took place within view of our colleagues, such that none of us was ever alone with the girl for an extended period in case any unfortunate event (such as, for example, a murder) were to occur.
As such, to find oneself accidentally alone in the corridors with Tabitha gave rise to a peculiar sensation not unlike someone running their fingers gently across your scalp whilst simultaneously squeezing your stomach like an inexperienced bagpiper.
I remember the first time that it happened to me.
“Professor Fitzgerald,” Tabitha said , looking up with wide brown eyes.
I fumbled with my papers. “Yes m’girl?”
“Professor Fitzgerald,” she repeated. “You seem to be a very important man. May I ask what it is to which your studies pertain?”
I blinked, not once: but twice, because that was not what I had been expecting her to ask. Nor would I have been willing to hazard a guess.
“I, uh…” fumbled with my words. Perhaps if she looked away from me for a second I would be able to collect my thoughts and form a coherent sentence, but she just kept staring.
We laughed about it later, of course; my colleagues and I.
Alexander-in-Tweed slapped me on the back and he said:
“At least she’s served us biscuits since, so none can claim you murdered her!”
“Can you believe that she actually asked about your research, as though she could possibly hope to understand such a thing?” chortled Old Nelson Red Nose.
“Now, now,” said Alexander. “Just because she is beautiful doesn’t mean she is stupid,” and then he added: “She was sent to us by the nearby Finishing School as some sort of… punishment, was she not? Perhaps we could offer to put on classes for the other girls. Offer to broaden their understanding of the sciences, if you catch my drift.”
“Foolishness,” said Old Nelson. “That school teaches nothing but comportment and tea-pouring, and the girl has already proven to be inept at the latter. She would never understand the sort of work we do here–no woman would.”
Science is the domain of great and powerful men such as me, I thought in Old Nelson’s voice. That was, after all, what he was really saying.
“You’d have as much luck teaching a mouse to do mathematics,” said Mortimer Longface.
“Or a tortoise to sing,” said Old Nelson.
“A butterfly to swim,” said Mortimer.
Doubtless they would have continued on with such stupidity for some time longer had I not interjected. I glanced across at Alexander and he looked back at me. He might have nodded, or I may have imagined it, but in any case I said:
“The boy is right.”
Nelson and Mortimer both sat with their mouths open and their eyes twitching, as though daring me to continue speaking.
“Women have just as much right to an education as men. Perhaps they will even be able to bring some new thinking to the table. I propose we each draw up a selection of lectures on the fundamentals of our respective fields and invite the young ladies of the finishing school–and perhaps even their old schoolmarm–to attend.”
Nelson and Mortimer looked flabbergasted; suddenly neither man could find the ability to speak. I would hear it from them later, no doubt. Across from me Alexander smiled and took a sip from his teacup.