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Bird watching is the favorite pastime of Paul Pennyfeather, a sensitive, serious young divinity student at Oxford. After being set upon by some drunken undergraduates who remove his trousers, he stumbles over a girl and is expelled for indecent conduct. Through a disreputable employment agency, he gets a teaching job at a seedy Welsh boarding school for boys presided over by the flamboyant Dr. Fagan. Also on the staff are Mr. Prendergast, an old-maidish former clergyman; Captain Grimes, a one-legged bigamist who has opportunistic designs on Fagan's unattractive daughter Flossie; and Solomon Philbrick, a criminal who serves as Fagan's butler. On Sports Day, everything goes wrong as rain pours down, Prendergast accidentally shoots a student in the foot with the starter's gun, and the nefarious Philbrick sees to it that the silver trophies are stolen. For Paul, however, the day is saved when he meets a wealthy patron named Margot Beste-Chetwynde, who asks him to tutor her son at her lavish estate. After being easily seduced, Paul proposes marriage to Margot and is accepted. Before the ceremony, Margot gets Paul to go to Tangier on a seemingly innocent business trip. As a result, Paul finds himself convicted of trafficking in prostitution and sent to prison. There he encounters two old acquaintances, Philbrick and Captain Grimes. Margot, after marrying the Home Secretary, arranges for Paul's release by a complicated maneuver in which it is stated that Paul died in Dr. Fagan's new nursing home. And a corpse for Paul is provided when Prendergast conveniently comes to an untimely end. Now officially dead, Paul is able to assume a new identity and set out on a new life.