Authors: Maxine Barry
And something had long-since told him that this was no prospective patient, either. In spite of her obvious nervousness, there was also a feeling of competency about her. An aura of what he'd always secretly labelled HSOR (head-screwed-on-right). It was a very
like expression, and he'd die before ever admitting to having used it, but there was no doubt that, at times, it described people very accurately indeed.
Now he put on the kettle and indicated a chair. âUnless you'd like to go into the living room, my dear?' he added hastily as an afterthought, hiding a twinge of embarrassment as he recalled the state of that room.
He made a mental note to clear it up before his wife came home from the hospital.
Nesta quickly shook her head. âNo thank you, I'm fine,' she assured him. The kitchen had that lived-in look that all good kitchens had. The rectangular wooden table in the centre was scratched but big and well used, and the chairs around it were round-backed, well padded and looked comfortable.
She sat down gratefully, then deliberately put her briefcase on the table in front of her. This business-like gesture was definitely not lost on Sir Vivian, but he nevertheless kept up a pleasant line in chit-chat as he set about preparing the tea.
âAre you an Oxfordian, Miss Aldernay?' he fished for information gently.
âNo. I come from Durham. I've just finished getting my B.A. there.'
âOh? What subject?'
Vivian paused momentarily, frozen in the act of extracting a spoonful of tea from the tea caddy. âOh? I do hope, you're not under the impression, er . . .' he broke off, looking a little embarrassed.
But Nesta was already ahead of him. âNo, I'm not here to try and wangle a graduate place at Oxford, Sir Vivian. This is strictly personal.'
Sir Vivian shot her a quick look. She looked very composed, sitting there in her plain black slacks and grey and lavender coloured pullover. The tones suited her, without making any particular statement. They were casual, but smart.
Sir Vivian smiled. Interestinger and Interestinger, as Alice might have said during her sojourn into Wonderland.
The kettle boiled and he made the tea, bringing it to the table on a battered tray. He took a milk bottle from the fridge and set it down beside the teapot, much to Nesta's relief. After watching him spoon in the old-fashioned loose tea leaves, she'd half expected him to bring out a hideously expensive Royal Dalton tea-set and silver creamer. And she wouldn't have felt comfortable using either!
She helped herself to a spoonful of sugar and good splash of milk.
Sir Vivian instantly noticed that the tension was back in her shoulders. Of course. They were about to get down to the nitty gritty.
he was on the verge of retiring from academic life, and was very worried about his wife June, currently in the John Radcliffe Hospital undergoing tests on a suspicious lump in her breast, he found himself, for the first time in months, actively intrigued and excited about something.
It was a new sensation for a Don who'd thought he'd seen everything, and he was somewhat amused by his own anticipation as the pretty redhead opened her case and brought out a surprisingly large stack of papers.
Nesta lay them on the table in front of him, rather like a conjurer displaying a pack of cards and inviting him to take his pick. For some reason, the old man had an image of a ticking time bomb . . .
Sir Vivian raised one voluminous silver eyebrow. âThat's an awful lot of paperwork, my dear. Am I supposed to read it?' he asked mildly.
âYes,' Nesta said softly. Something in her tone, a hint of iron perhaps, but wrapped in something softerâsadness maybeâmade Sir Vivian lower the eyebrow again. She looked so serious. Both resolute and angry.
âCan you give me a brief summary?' he asked softly, a hopeful note in his voice. âThere's an awful lot of reading in there.' He tapped the pile of papers significantly.
Slowly, carefully, Nesta took a deep breath
told him why she was in Oxford.
When she'd finished, Sir Vivian was as pale as she had once been, out in the rose garden. His breathlessness, she noticed with some alarm, had come back. For a long, long while, he didn't speak.
Thoughts raced through Sir Vivian's head. She couldn't be right. It was unthinkable. It was horrendous. Perhaps, after all, he was mistaken about her. She could be delusional. What, after all, did he really know about her?
âTell me about Durham, Nesta,' he finally said, his voice gentle but firm.
Nesta, who was now feeling emotionally drained after such a catharsis, looked puzzled for a moment. Then, suddenly, she understood. Sir Vivian was wondering if she was lying. Or worseâif she was paranoid.
For a second her emerald eyes flashed a vivid, warning green. Sir Vivian noticed it, but continued to hold her gaze steadily.
And once again, Nesta was forced to take a deep breath. Losing her temper was definitely out of the question. She hadn't just spent four years studying the intricacies of the human mind not to understand the importance of self-control.
Besides, looking at it logically, she could appreciate Sir Vivian's point of view. What she'd just told him must have come as a considerable shock. Given his well publicised
of Oxford, and of the university in particular, it was only to be expected that it would take some persuading for him to take her accusations seriously. Especially since she was asking him to do something that would bring pain and shame to the institution he loved so well.
Well, all right, she thought grimly. He wants to be convinced that I'm not hysterical, delusional, or downright vicious. So be it.
âYou can, of course, check out my credentials with Durham University with a single phone call,' she began quietly. âHowever, in the interests of saving time, I can tell you that I've studied everything from J.P. Guildforda's claim . . .'
âWhich was?' Sir Vivan interjected quietly, watching her carefully.
Nesta smiled grimly. âThat intelligence was made up of a hundred and twenty different factors, and that an I.Q. is only an “operational definition” of intelligence. I also studied Philip Vernon's type “C” intelligence. In my final year I specialised in the effects of “maternal deprivation”. It's the field I'm most interested in. I've always found affectionless psychopathy very intriguing. I did the usual study of the Arapesh tribe, the Mundugumor tribe, and of course, I can tell you exactly what significance to sociological . . .'
She trailed off as Sir Vivian held up his hand. âEnough, Nesta. You obviously are who
say you are.'
âThank you,' she acknowledged, somewhat dryly.
âNow don't get defensive, my dear,' her companion rebuked her gently. âI had to make sure. You must admit that this . . .' Sir Vivian once again tapped the slightly yellowed and dusty-smelling papers gingerly, âis something that cannot be taken as sacrosanct, merely on your word alone.'
Nesta sighed tremulously. âI know that, Sir Vivian.' She leaned forward earnestly, twisting her hands together in her lap. âDon't you see, that's why I came to you?'
Her green eyes were brightened now by held-back tears. âI need someone independent, respected,
, to . . . well . . . champion me, if you like. Oh, I can do the research myself,' she assured him, with perhaps just a hint of threat that she would do so, should it prove necessary, âbut unlike you, I don't have ready access to such things as the Bodleian. And I don't have anywhere near the knowledge of the university that you have, nor the contacts,' she admitted honestly. âWhat would take me weeks, even months, you could do in hours. Besides . . .'
Her voice lost some of its passion, and her green eyes ceased to glow like those of a cat.
âBesides,' Sir Vivian finished for her gravely, âpeople won't want to believe you.'
âNo,' she predicted simply and quietly. âThey
For a moment or two, Sir Vivian looked at the bent, red head. He could almost feel the waves of misery emanating from her.
âI'm very much afraid that they won't want to believe me either, my dear,' he warned her sadly.
Nesta sighed and looked up. She looked perfectly composed. âNo, I realise that,' she admitted. As she spoke, she noticed how much older Sir Vivian was suddenly looking. His hand was pressed to his chest as if he were in pain, but she had a fair idea that his torment was more mental than physical.
He looked less like Father Christmas now, and more like Ebenezer Scrooge. His face had a pinched, tight look, and he was frowning. But it was not miserliness, but rather misery, that had effected the change in him. As if sensing her thoughts, Sir Vivian stirred in his chair.
âYou must understand one thing,' he began gravely. âAt the moment, all you have is a theory. Backed up by hear-say and a few tentative notes of research.'
Nesta nodded meekly. âI know,' she admitted softly.
But her theory was right. She knew it. And she suspected that Sir Vivian knew it too. Otherwise, why hadn't he told her to take her âevidence' and go?
For the last time that day she took a deep shaky breath. âWill you help me?' she asked
Although it would be a blow if he were to refuse, she would by no means be beaten by it. There were others she could ask. And if they all refused, she'd do it herself. On her own. If it took her years. She would meet with nothing but hostility, and no doubt the academic world would curl up on itself like a prickly hedgehog, to try to keep her shut out. But she wouldn't give up. No matter what it took.
âOf course I'll help you,' Sir Vivian said, his voice rife with weariness now, and all sense of his previous excitement having vanished. But it had been replaced by an implacable resolve, Nesta was sure. Proof of it was there, in his eyes. Above all, Sir Vivian Dalrymple was that rare thing these daysâan honourable man.
âIf things are as you say they are, then . . . yes. It must be brought out into the open. But,' he leaned forward suddenly, fixing Nesta with gimlet blue eyes. âI must, in return, have a promise from you, young lady. And when I say a promise, I mean a
promise. Something you mean. Something that you intend to honour, so help you God. I realise that to most people that might seem like a hopelessly outdated concept nowadays. But I think I'm right when I say that you, perhaps, understand its true worth.'
Nesta went from wilting relief to instant wariness. He sounded so vehement.
I can make you a promise, I will,' she said
âAnd you're right. I believe in keeping my word. That's why I've always been careful when and how to give it.'
âVery commendable,' Sir Vivian said with a brief and somewhat dry smile. He hadn't missed the fact that she'd put so much emphasis on the word âif' in her previous statement.
âSo just what is it you want me to swear to?' she asked warily.
Sir Vivian looked at the beautiful young redheaded woman a little sadly. So much passion. So much youth. He wished, suddenly, that June was here. She'd like this Nesta Aldernay. He wished, too, that he were a decade younger and still fired with just a little of her zeal. He wished . . .
He sighed and pulled the papers towards him. âI want you to promise me that you'll do nothing, and say nothing to anyone, anyone at all, under any circumstances whatsoever, until I've had a chance to do the proper amount of investigating about this matter.'
As Nesta opened her mouth to angrily contend with him, Sir Vivian imperiously held up a hand. It was a blue-veined hand, slightly scratched by the rose-thorns despite the protection of gloves, and right at that moment it was shaking slightly, no doubt a reaction to the shock she had just given him. Nevertheless, such was the man's innate authority, the raising of that hand totally silenced her,
Nesta, listen to me,' Sir Vivian said, his voice deep, almost hypnotic now. âThis is a very serious matter. You've made a very serious accusation, against a very well liked and respected member of this university. Until we have proof, anything you say is legally slanderous, and morally reprehensible.'
Sir Vivian ran a shaky hand across his forehead. âLet me see if I can explain to you why I must have this promise from you. In Oxford, my dear, academic and personal reputations are exceedingly fragileâfar more so than in any other walk of life or indeed in business. In London, a city stockbroker or a politician can easily pick himself up and dust himself off and still get on with things after almost any amount of scandal. And no doubt many do so! But here? Just a rumour about any wrong-doing can utterly ruin a career or a reputation of decades' standing.'
His shoulders slumped slightly. Was he getting through to her?
Nesta took a long, slow breath. Even though she still had many years more training to do if she wanted to work in the field of psychology, she knew enough about the ways of universities to know that what Sir Vivian was saying was no more than the harsh truth.
âI hate to say it of my fellow academics, my dear,' Sir Vivian carried on wearily, âbut professional jealousy is rife in this city. Now you must see, or at least acknowledge,
until I've been able to check this out thoroughly,' and again he tapped her father's papers, âwe must keep it quiet. Just in case things are not as they seem. Yes, I know . . .' he again raised his hand as Nesta looked set to interrupt him hotly, âI know how cut-and-dried it seems. But the fact is, we're
not sure of our facts yet.
And until we are, and if I'm to help you, I must have your promise on this. You'll discuss your case with