The dew had not yet dried off the ground as Gus approached the Sheldonian Theater. He was absorbed into a mass of activity, as he entered the crowd of young men preparing for today's matriculation. He had only arrived from London yesterday, but he walked with grace and carried himself with an air of aristocracy. Several of his fellow students looked at him with a mixture of admiration and envy, while others of lower stature openly fawned over his mother's achievements in London. She had retired from performing a few years ago, but was still an admired figure in the arts, and his father the viscount had combined her acclaim and his own social status into a respectable standing in London. Gus took in all the attention with a practiced ease as he smoothly approached the theater. He was about to reach for the door, when he overheard a whispered hiss.
"Twas the banshee I tell ye!"
He glanced to the side and saw Professor Murphy trying to usher away a clearly vexed groundskeeper. Gus had met Gareth Murphy in London when he had been discussing attending Oxford with his parents. Murphy had explained many of the opportunities that the university afforded, which had apparently helped convince them to let him leave London to continue his studies. Gus was about to offer his assistance when a hand clapped him on the shoulder.
"Come forth Master Gus. The matriculation shall soon be commencing forthwith."
Gus turned a flat expression onto an athletic young man who somehow looked both well-groomed and unkempt at the same time. He had no idea how Alan Davies managed to accomplish the feat, but it existed right before his eyes. He had met Alan on the train from London. He had been returning from a cricket match and was about to begin his second year at Oxford. As the son of a wealthy merchant he attracted some disdainful glares amongst the many students who tried to simply ignore him entirely, but Alan was unperturbed and grinned at his new friend.
"If you're attempting to sound genteel with big words, then you should refer to me by my full name Mr. Davies."
Alan blinked several times before laughing raucously while releasing his grip. He then made a show of straightening his coat and tie before striding imperiously into the theater. Gus shook his head bemusedly before remembering the scene that had caught his attention just moments ago. He turned back to assist Professor Murphy but found that he and the groundskeeper had disappeared. He wondered what the scene had been about, but he didn't have time to search for them, and if they had vanished that quickly, it must not have been a serious problem. Gus joined the throng entering the theater and eagerly waited for the matriculation ceremony to begin.
Several hours later, the students filed out of the theater and began milling around the lawn. The bells of the nearby cathedral tolled the signal for midday, and everyone began to seek out whatever options were available to them.
Gus took out a small loaf of bread he had set aside in the morning and walked east to the nearby grove. There was a stream running through, so he sat on the edge and hummed to himself as he nibbled at the loaf of bread. His father wanted him to take over the family responsibilities and business interests soon, which made him feel constrained. As much as Gus understood the importance of his father's connections and efforts, he had always enjoyed listening to his mother sing. When he had been a boy, she would sometimes sing a duet with him filling his heart with song. But then, one day she stopped singing with him, and only sang in her public performances.
Gus leaned back, remembering those happy times of his youth has he felt himself drifting off to sleep. How long had it been since he'd remembered those times they'd sung together? Three years? Four? Gus sent his mind searching for what they had sung. Operas. Arias. And also a song about someone…
"The Angel of Music…"
Yes, that was the one, it was a very pretty melody. How had he forgotten that one, it had always been sung with such beauty and passion? Gus began humming the melody to himself when his mind suddenly jolted back from it's stupor. He felt like he had actually heard that music, not in his mind, but from his ears. After his brain registered this thought he bolted upright startling some ducks in the stream. The water rippled as he looked around frantically, searching for the source of what he'd heard. But he saw no one throughout the shady grove. It was just himself and the birds in the trees and on the water.
Gus tossed the last of his bread into the water at the floating ducks before turning around to walk back towards town. It was still early afternoon, but he felt like he should make sure all his arrangements were settled for the day before night descended. He spotted Professor Murphy as he was approaching the town. Gus waved a greeting, and after Professor Murphy smiled back he walked over.
"Gustave, lad, how are you this afternoon? The trip from London was comfortable I trust?"
"Yes sir. Thank you for your assistance with my parents. I'm not certain they would have agreed to my enrollment without your recommendation. Father especially seems to think I need to focus on my station and office, rather than the arts."
"Not at all. And Oxford has incredible resources for both, truth be told. You would do well to remember that and avail yourself of all the options at your disposal while you are here. After all, stunning talents like your mother, do still need patrons," he said with a wink. "Have you settled into your dormitory yet?"
"Not yet sir. I hadn't had time to submit my paperwork after arrival yesterday, so I just stayed locally. I'm on my way to do that right now though."
"Splendid. Then let me leave you to it. If memory serves, you are in my class at 10 o'clock tomorrow. Do not be late," Professor Murphy gently commanded, as he walked away.
Gus watched him walk a few yards to the north before continuing onward to the administration building. It was a little more than a hundred yards before he found himself amidst a small group of young men trying to get the attention of the disinterested clerk. At seemingly random intervals, the clerk would either take some papers from one person before pointing in one direction or hand over a sheaf of papers while pointing in a different direction, after which he would return to bobbing his head while moving his pen over something on his desk. Gus joined the throng as he began the process of getting his affairs and arrival papers in order.
As expected, the process to settle his registration for the term took many hours and it was well past sunset when he finally walked out of the building to find the dormitory he had been assigned. Midway into the process, the clerk had assured him that his belongings had already been taken care of and would be waiting in his room. Gus was thankful that at least he wouldn't need to drag a large trunk filled with his personal effects through the streets in the middle of the night. He walked along the cobblestone street, beneath the flickering orange glow of the street lamps. In a few more blocks, he would be at his dormitory and would settle into his new home for the coming months.
Gus began wondering what the dormitory looked like and how much space he would have. His friends had teased that his room would be very cramped and spartan in comparison to his family's home in London. As he tried to picture the room, his eyes were drawn to the flickering shadows in the alley to his left. In the darkened alley, he saw what appeared to be a cloaked figure standing over something.
"Excuse me sir, is there a problem?"
A head whipped around, as Gus's inquiry clearly startled them. As the figure turned to face Gus, he began to notice the noose around the neck of the prone figure on the ground. Gus's eyes widened in alarm and he began to shout.
"Help! Murderer! Help!"
Gus continued calling for help, as the assailant brandished something from under their cloak. Gus suddenly froze, realizing all at once that his life may be in peril. He began to raise his hands in a gesture of surrender when suddenly his senses were assaulted by a mixture of light and noise from a sudden explosion. He stumbled back trying to handle the sudden painful sensation from his eyes and ears. He fell over backwards and landed on his backside trying to cover his hands with his arms.
Gus felt tears forming as he continuously blinked trying to force his eyes back into a functional state. He saw blurs approaching from down the road that slowly focused into some of the nearby townspeople. It took a bit longer for the ringing in his ears to subside, but eventually he could hear a shopkeeper asking if he was alright. He nodded cautiously, taking note of several people examining the body in the alley. There was no sign of the assailant, and Gus counted himself lucky that he was not face down next to the other body.
"What happened lad?"
"I… I don't know. I was walking when I just happened to notice something going on over there, "Gus said pointing toward the alley. "Some fellow in a cloak was in there. And when he saw me, there was some kind of explosion."
"We heard that as we were coming over. Saw the flash too."
"They probably heard that boom halfway to London," another man chimed in as he exited the alley. "Grisly bit of work there, seeing a man strangled to death like that. You must've startled him real good."
"Why do you say that?"
"'Cause I don't know why else someone would bother to strangle someone to death and then make enough light and noise to rouse the whole town. If you're going to go to the trouble to kill 'em that way, you generally don't want people to hear you doing it. A gun is much quicker and easier. I'm Inspector Poole, the local constable. And you are?"
"Gustave de Chagny, from London. I arrived yesterday for classes here at Oxford. I had just finished my enrollment papers and was on my way to the dorms."
"Have you eaten yet?"
Gus shook his head, and his stomach gave a low growl. Inspector Poole smirked and told Gus to head over to the nearby pub and put some stew in his belly first. Between the explosion and the murder, he thought the young man might be in shock and taking some time to settle down in a warm setting would do him good. The man who had first inquired as to his well-being offered to accompany Gus to the pub, and he gratefully accepted, since he still felt slightly unsteady.
Gus's new companion introduced himself as Robert. He was a somewhat large man, who had clearly been working hard during the day. He explained that he was a tradesman that had lived in Oxford all his life. Robert grinned as he whispered that before the commotion, he was heading to the pub anyway for a bit of a nightcap. After which he gave Gus a wink and pulled the door open.
The warm air poured out of the entrance and washed over Gus like a wave. He hadn't realized the chill he'd been feeling, until the cozy warmth of the communal room began to wash it away. Robert led Gus into the dining room and asked for a beer and a meat pie for Gus. A stout woman wearing an apron put down two pint glasses, one filled with amber, foamy liquid and the other with water. Agatha Parker was a sturdy woman, with a demeanor that was friendly, while radiating an air that she'd accept no mischief.
"So what's all that noise," Agatha asked.
"No idea," Robert replied as he lifted the beer. "I was just coming to get a drink when the boom sounded."
Agatha snorted derisively.
"Never been a spot of bother in the whole town that you didn't have a finger on Robert Johnson. Don't get this boy wrapped up in no trouble," she said while walking back to the kitchen.
Gus sipped tentatively at the glass of water that had been left for him. He wasn't sure if he wanted to replay the events from before he came to the tavern or if he was better off trying to distract himself with other things, and his head was swimming while he tried to sort it out. He thought that tea would probably be better for calming his mind, but might make getting to sleep later more difficult. So, with an early morning expected, Gus decided to stick with water.
Gus and Robert took their time drinking from their respective glasses as more people began filtering in. Many had at least stopped to inquire about the events in the alley as Gus caught snippets of conversation about the noise and the grisly scene. There was a nervous excitement, since that sort of thing was clearly unusual for a relatively small town like Oxford. The few people who hadn't gone near the commotion were asking whispered questions to some of the new arrivals, several of whom waited until they received their drinks to reply.
A short time later, the proprietress came by with the pie Robert had ordered for Gus and placed it on the table in front of him. Gus thanked her and began to pick at it with his spoon. It was common fare, just some little diced meat mixed with a healthy portion of peas, carrots and corn. The dish was somewhat bland but the warm comfort food began to fill his empty stomach and gave him something else to think about.
"Do you eat here very often?" Gus asked as he scooped up another spoonful of the pie.
"Maybe once a week. I've known Aggie a good while, her food'll fill you up after a long day's work." He paused before whispering, "and if it's bad, at least you can get a beer here too."
Robert snickered at his own joke before gulping down another mouthful of beer. As he clapped his glass down on the table, a girl stumbled out of the back and made her way to the bar. Her head was mostly covered by a kerchief, but dirty hair was barely contained and spilled out the back. Gus glanced over as she began to collect glasses and wipe down a part of the bar that had been vacated.
"Christ, Lucy. Couldn't you stay in the back till close? We were just starting to forget about that mess in the alley."
Gus saw the shadowed face tilt slightly as eyes scanned the common room where townsfolk were drinking their cares away. He saw a spark of fire blaze within those eyes before they briefly went wide as her head swiveled to the door she'd stumbled out of a few moments ago. Her head tilted back down as she scrubbed the bar in earnest. Gus began to rise before a hand dropped down on his arm.
"Leave it be lad. Aggie's a good one, but she doesn't like trouble in her pub. At best, you'll get Lucy punished for causing trouble. At worst, you'll get a knock on the head yourself for being drunk and stupid."
"All I've been drinking is water," Gus replied dryly.
Robert pushed his nearly empty glass in front of Gus.
"Then have a sip. So at least you can say it was that, what made you stupid."
The boorish fellow at the bar resumed his drink, and Gus had to grudgingly agree that there wasn't really anything for him to do aside from cause more problems. The girl hurriedly completed her work and disappeared into the back area.
"She's been dealing with that kinda thing for a long time. Most people feel bad for her, because of what happened to her dad and all, but you got bloody arses everywhere and Oxford ain't no different as far as that goes. Course, at this point I don't think she's chuffed about all the pity either."
"Something happened to her father?"
Robert nodded, "was a long time ago. He did repairs for the railroad. Working on the engines and cars and what not. One day, he was working on an engine. No idea what went wrong, but the thing blew up. Lucy was nearby, to see her dad or playing around the station, or something. Anyway, her pa burned up bad. He got hit with a bunch of debris too, but the fire probably got him anyway. Bad enough that it took her dad like that, but Lucy was too close. Poor kid's face has been a wreck ever since. Her ma went crazy, so Aggie takes care of her."
"It's a shame really. Lucy would probably be married by now or at least engaged. Her mom was pretty comely. But around here, being able to cook and clean is good enough, unless you're some kind of circus freak."
"Is it really that bad?"
"You heard Bill. He's an arse, to be sure, but he wouldn't have said nothing without reason."
Gus pushed the last of his meal around on his plate. The story sounded terrible, but he didn't really have anything to do with the situation. As it stood, he was only there because he'd convinced his father to let him study at the university. He had no real power or resources to help the girl. And even if he did, what could he do, she was a kitchen maid in a small town. London was filled with sad stories from the destitute and derillect.
After distractedly pushing the last of his meat pie around for a minute, Gus finally put down his spoon. He exhaled softly before thanking Robert for the meal and the company. Robert waved affably as he leaned back in his chair. Gus then rose and excused himself for the evening before walking out of the pub into the chill night air. The moon was slightly more than half full and sparse clouds dimmed the pale glow a bit more. But the street lamps still flickered, and Gus walked cautiously to the dorm.
The building was not far, a scant few blocks, and luckily it was still early enough for the dorm proctor to be awake and on duty. He welcomed Gus to the building and gave him a key to room 5 on the second floor. Gus made his way up the stairs and after unlocking the room entered what would be his new residence for the next year.
His trunk was sitting in the middle of the floor and two other bags rested nearby leaning against one another. Beyond his belongings, there was a small cot to one side and a sink on the far end of the room. To his immediate left, there was a closet and a desk beside that with a chair before it and a shelf right above. The window allowed in the pale glow of moonlight, giving the room a ghostly hue. There was a candle on the desk, which Gus lit and opened his trunk.
He quickly retrieved his pajamas and a small towel. After stripping to his underwear, Gus scrubbed at his face and tried to clean up some of the grime his early experience in the alley had bestowed upon him. As he lowered the now soiled towel to the sink, Gus felt very tired. He took a quick glance at the still mostly packed trunk and bags before blowing out the candle and climbing into bed. He smiled ruefully as he climbed into the bed. "Had I really worried that a spot of tea would keep me awake?" Gus wondered as he closed his eyes and quickly fell asleep.