“Wow — get a look at that rude gargoyle!” George Fayne exclaimed. Craning her neck, she peered at a carved face leering down from a nearby stone wall.
Nancy Drew chuckled. “George,” she said, “you’re so busy staring up at these old buildings, I’m afraid you’re going to trip.”
“Besides, you’re definitely missing the main sights of Oxford University,” added George’s cousin, Bess Marvin. She nodded toward a pair of young men in jeans, strolling across the stone-paved court yard in the direction of the three friends. Bess fluffed her long blond hair and threw them a winning smile. “English guys are definitely the cutest in the world.”
Nancy gave Bess a swift nudge in the ribs. “We’re not here to flirt, either,” she said. “Dad said to meet him at the Senior Common Room. Can either of you see a sign saying where that is?”
The three eighteen-year-old Americans stood, puzzled, in the main courtyard of Oxford’s Boniface College. Dark-haired, athletic George grabbed a stone pillar, part of a cloistered walkway, and swung around it idly. Exasperated, Nancy ran her fingers through her shoulder-length red-blond hair.
“Are you girls lost?” a voice with an English accent boomed from behind them. They turned to see a stout middle-aged man with a bushy gray mustache and wire-rimmed glasses. Over his gray tweed jacket he wore a loose robe of flimsy black cotton.
“We’re looking for the Senior Common Room,” Nancy explained. “I’m supposed to meet my dad there — Carson Drew. We’re guests of Derek Shaw, a law professor here. This is Boniface College, isn’t it?”
“Indeed it is,” the man answered heartily. “And I’m looking forward to meeting your father, the noted American lawyer. I’m Edgar Cole.”
Wondering who Edgar Cole could be, Nancy shook his hand. “I’m Nancy Drew, and this is Bess Marvin and George Fayne. They’ve come over to England with my father and me for a vacation.”
Mr. Cole shook their hands briskly. “So nice to meet you,” he said. “Well. This way, then. He darted through an archway into a narrow, unlit corridor. Nancy and her friends followed.
After bustling up a short flight of stairs and down another hall, Mr. Cole stopped at a massive oak door with iron bolts and hinges. He thrust open the heavy door. “After you, my dears,” he said.
Nancy, Bess, and George walked into a roomy, wood-paneled parlor, with thick carpeting and brocade armchairs. After the dark corridor and stairway, Nancy was surprised at how bright and elegant the room was. At the far end, a large bay window overlooked a lush garden. Beyond was a grand view of the town of Oxford, full of picturesque stone spires and gables and towers.
Around a side table, where cool drinks and predinner snacks were set out, a dozen men and women were gathered. All of them wore the same loose black robes as Mr. Cole. “What is this, some kind of cult?” Bess murmured nervously to Nancy.
“I think you’ll find this is the Senior Common Room,” Mr. Cole said. “Derek, I found these guests of yours wandering about.”
One of the black-robed men turned around. Relieved, Nancy recognized her father’s friend, Derek Shaw, a tall, thin man with unruly black hair.
“Hi, Mr. Shaw,” Nancy said brightly.
Mr. Shaw gave a little wave. “Hello, Nancy,” he replied. “And these two must be the famous George and Bess.”
“Glad to see you’re not impostors,” Mr. Cole said to the girls. “I’ll leave them to you, shall I, Derek?” Then he bustled over to another group of people.
“I see you’ve met the master of Boniface,” Mr. Shaw said with a wry grin.
“Have we?” Bess asked, confused.
“So that’s who Edgar Cole is,” Nancy said. “I should have known. That’s why he acts like he owns the place.”
“He owns Boniface College?” George asked.
“Not really,” Mr. Shaw said. “The master of a college is like the principal.”
“Is that why he wears that black coat?” George asked, glancing over at Mr. Cole.
Mr. Shaw chuckled, raising his arms to show off his own robe. “No. Every member of the college — both the faculty and the students — must wear these academic gowns to college functions. Students don’t have to wear them to dinner anymore, but we dons do.”
“Dons?” Nancy asked.
“That’s the Oxford term for ‘professor,'” Mr. Shaw explained.
“Mr. Shaw, maybe you can tell me,” Bess said. “I thought we were at Oxford University, but now everyone’s calling this Boniface College.”
“Boniface College is part of the university,” Mr. Shaw explained. “Oxford’s a collection of separate colleges, each with its own teachers, students, and walled campus. It’s been so ever since Oxford was founded, back in the Middle Ages. Of course, Boniface is one of the newer colleges — it wasn’t founded until 1674.”
“That’s old enough,” George declared.
“I hope we haven’t missed Dad,” Nancy said. “He stayed at our hotel to phone his office while we took a walk around. He said he’d meet us here.”
“Oh, I saw Carson downstairs,” Mr. Shaw said. “I took him for a stroll in the Fellows’ Garden — a special privilege, since only we dons have keys. But then a young lady joined us and stole him away from me.” He led them to the window, where they could look down into the beautiful walled garden.
Nancy peered out, searching for her father amid the blooming roses and hollyhocks. Her eyes lit up as she spotted him beside a dark-haired teenage girl. “It’s Pippa!” she exclaimed, waving through the window. Pippa and Mr. Drew looked up, waved back, and headed for the garden gate.
Nancy turned to George and Bess with an excited smile. “You remember I told you about Pippa Shaw, when the Shaws visited us in River Heights last summer? I hoped I’d see her on this trip.”
“Ordinarily Pippa’s away at boarding school, but she asked to make a special trip home this week,” Mr. Shaw said, eyes twinkling. “Was it you she wanted to see so badly, Nancy? I thought she was just eager to hear your father’s lecture to the Common Law Society on Friday evening.”
“Sure,” Nancy said, joking along with Mr. Shaw. “I’ll bet she’s fascinated by the topic of American inheritance laws.”
The door to the Senior Common Room swung open, and Pippa Shaw came in, Mr. Drew close behind. “Hi, Nan,” Carson Drew said, leaning over to give his daughter a fond kiss. “Remember Pippa?”
“Do I ever!” Nancy replied, giving her English friend a quick hug.
While Mr. Shaw introduced Carson Drew around to the other dons, Nancy introduced Pippa to her two River Heights friends. The four of them chatted while they sipped sodas and nibbled on cheese crackers.
“Father says you’ll be in Oxford for five days,” Pippa said. “Do you have any special plans?”
“I want to do some cross-country hiking,” George said. “I read that the Cotswold Hills are the place to go for that.”
“Oh, yes, there are some super walking trails there,” Pippa said. “A bit hilly, but brilliant views.”
“While you’re out working up a sweat, I think I’ll just hang around Oxford trying to meet some students,” Bess said. “You’re so lucky to live here, Pippa. These guys are real hunks!”
Pippa grinned. “There are some smashing guys in college right now. When we go into the dining hall, you can look them over. Too bad we have to sit up at the high table, with the boring old dons. But at least it gives us a front-row seat.”
“Speaking of front-row seats,” Nancy said, “I hope we can go to London for some theater. There’s a new play I’ve heard about — The Monkey Puzzle, by Dame Gwyneth Davies. She’s my all-time favorite mystery writer. Or maybe I should say she was my favorite. She died a couple of months ago, you know.”
“She died?” Bess looked dismayed.
“Well, she was seventy-five years old,” Pippa said. “She died of natural causes in her sleep. But the news hit the papers the day before the play opened, and there was ever so much publicity. Oddly enough, that made the play a hit.”
“It would have been a hit anyway,” a crisp British voice broke in beside Pippa’s elbow. Startled, the girls turned to see a gray-haired woman in a wheelchair. Her piercing dark eyes flashed as she wheeled forward.
“Oh, Miss Innes,” Pippa said. “I didn’t know you were — ”
“Gwyneth Davies wasn’t just a good mystery writer, she was a great writer, period,” Miss Innes said, briskly smoothing down her black gown. “And a brilliant philosophy don, even if she did teach at St. Cyril’s College and not Boniface.”
“Miss Innes, these are my friends from America — Nancy Drew, Bess Marvin, and George Fayne,” Pippa said. “Miss Innes teaches history here. She was Dame Gwyneth’s closest friend, weren’t you?”
“For years,” Miss Innes said, “ever since the days of the Puzzlers. We were the only women in the club — all the others were men. Philosophers, mathematicians, even a scientist or two…now, there was a group of people who knew how to use their minds. We’d sit up till all hours, making up complex riddles and logic problems to confound one another.”
“And scavenger hunts, too,” Nancy added eagerly. “I remember reading about them in Dame Gwyneth’s second book, Murder by the Fireside.”
Miss Innes stared at Nancy with shrewd approval. “Very good. You’re a fan, I see.”
“I’ve read every one of her books,” Nancy said.
“Nancy’s a detective herself,” Pippa added. “Back home in America, she’s solved all sorts of cases that have even stumped the police.”
Miss Innes drew herself up stiffly. In a choked voice, she said, “A detective?”
Nancy blushed. She never liked to draw attention to her success as an amateur detective. “Yes, ma’am,” she answered. “A few times I’ve stumbled onto a case I was able to figure out.” She kicked Pippa’s shoe to keep her friend quiet.
“Not a very ladylike occupation, I’d say,” Miss Innes muttered. Then she spun her wheelchair around and left.
“What’s with her?” George asked.
Pippa sighed and shrugged. “I don’t know,” she replied. “She’s always been a bit eccentric. Father says she took Dame Gwyneth’s death very hard. Still, why should she care if Nancy solves crimes?”
A deep-toned bell began to ring from some nearby tower. As if on cue, all the dons set down their drinks and started moving toward a small door in a side wall. “On to the hall for dinner,” Pippa said. “Now you can get a look at those students, Bess.”
After passing through the door, Nancy and her friends entered a long, magnificent room paneled in dark wood. The arched ceiling had grand carved rafters, and stained-glass windows were set into one side wall. Three banquet tables stretched the length of the hall, and a couple of hundred students stood by them, waiting to sit. The dons and their guests took seats at a fourth table on a low platform built across the top of the hall. At the far end, an elaborately carved balcony overhung the entrance.
Nancy had hoped that she and her friends could sit together at dinner, but the master, Mr. Cole, had other plans. Nancy found herself seated next to a tall thirtyish man with glasses, Mark Sunderwirth, who told her he taught French. Down the table, she spotted her father seated next to the master. George sat on the other side of the master’s wife, a robust blond woman. Bess was seated at the far end of the table beside Mr. Shaw.
White-coated waiters flocked in, bearing steaming platters of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Nancy tasted hers. “Umm — better than most college food,” she remarked to Mr. Sunderwirth.
“Oh, yes,” he said pleasantly. “A Boniface alumni owns England’s largest chain of grocery stores, and he donates all our food. We’re known to serve the best meals in the university. No one ever passes up an invitation to dine at Boniface.”
“Well, someone’s missing a Boniface dinner,” Nancy said, nodding to the empty chair on the other side of her.
Mr. Sunderwirth frowned. “That should be Dorothy Innes’s place,” he said. “She’s our medieval history fellow. But I thought I saw her in the Common Room earlier.”
“She was there, all right,” Nancy said. “I chatted with her, but I didn’t see her leave the room.”
“She’s a funny old bird,” Mr. Sunderwirth said. Now he sounded unconcerned. “Perhaps she simply didn’t feel up to dinner. Her health hasn’t been all that good lately.”
“Is that why she’s in a wheelchair?” Nancy asked.
“She’s been in a chair ever since I was a student here at Boniface,” he said, spearing a chunk of rare roast beef on his fork. “The word is that she had a riding accident when she was young.”
“She was very good friends with Dame Gwyneth Davies, wasn’t she?” Nancy said.
“The late Dame Gwyneth,” Mr. Sunderwirth said. “I’ve never read any of her books, I must confess. I’m not a mystery fan. But I did see The Monkey Puzzle last week — a super play. Have you seen it?”
“No, but I’d like to,” Nancy said.
“They were both members of the famous Puzzlers,” Mr. Sunderwirth said. He gave her a sly sideways glance. “Do you know about the club?”
“Yes, I do,” Nancy said. “They used to have big banquets, where they would ask each other complicated riddles and logic problems and — ”
“Yes, and they were mad about practical jokes, too,” Mr. Sunderwirth interrupted, sitting up eagerly. “Once they invented a fictional professor to apply for a post at St. Cyril’s. They wrote fake references for him, even hired an actor to show up for his job interview. They did such a good job that the bloke was actually hired. Quite an embarrassment for St. Cyril’s when the truth came out. Then there was the time they…”
Mr. Sunderwirth went on at length, relating tales of the Puzzlers’ antics. From the gleam in his eyes, Nancy could tell he was a bit fanatical on the subject. She was interested at first, but soon her attention wandered. I must be tired from our long trip, she told herself stifling a yawn.
“Oh, look — gooseberry tart for dessert!” Mr. Sunderwirth announced suddenly.
“Gooseberry?” Nancy asked, rousing herself.
“One of my favorites,” he replied. A waiter cleared their dinner plates and set down a pie filled with what looked like overgrown green grapes.
“I’ve never eaten gooseberries — ” Nancy began.
She halted in midsentence as a blur of motion in the balcony over the entrance caught her eye. She heard a faint twang and saw a billow of black cloth behind the railing.
An arrow came whistling down the length of the huge dining hall. Zing! The shaft quivered as the sharp arrowhead struck and pierced the ancient oak table — right in front of Nancy’s plate.