Upon the Professor’s instructions, I follow him to his rooms. He offered no elaboration as to what this private conversation might entail, but it very much reminds me of being dragged along to the Head Of Year’s office when I was at school. There would be any number of grounds for these summonings; slights and mischief were very much part of my everyday life back then, as I am sure you can imagine (please all take a moment, if you will, to consider my dear mother, who during this time came to know the inside of the Head Teacher’s office almost as well as I did). But the uncertainty of not knowing quite what was about to be presented to me was most agitating. Why, it gave me no time to formulate a decent defence. Pah. That was their ruse, of course.
It is never easy to judge the mood of the Professor, as he is never quite himself. As we enter his rooms I am alarmed to note that one of the stuffed creatures from the high shelves seems to have made its way down to the battered wooden coffee table by the high-backed red velvet stool. It eyes me with interest, mouth gaping and teeth flashing, as I discretely wander to the opposite side of the room. Professor Duke seems to sense my unsettlement.
“Shirley! You total wicked thing!” He scolds the creature. “You’re not allowed down here, dadblameit! It’s against the professorish code to scare people, don’t you know. Unless you’re in a war, of course.”
The Professor unceremoniously tucks the beast under his arm and pulls out a small set of ladders from beneath the shelves. He clambers up, still admonishing Shirley for her iniquity, before tossing her back into the vacated spot between the other fearsome creatures.
“She likes to jump, don’t you see,” he says, rejoining me. “Now, the important matters, I say. Cherry tea or tea?”
Before long, the tall, thin silver teapot is spurting forth steaming liquid of golden brown into the mismatched receptacles so treasured by Professor Duke. Today, I decide upon a splash of milk and dusting of sugar to make my tea complete. Taking a sip from the wide-rimmed china cup, I think that this is quite the most unusual tea I have ever tasted. It has most invigorating attributes, however.
We sit down together on the leather settee, which gives the appearance of having fought a long war in a haberdashery. The Professor puts down his cup and places his hands on his knees. He means business.
“So, here’s the thing: I’ve been having thinks about lots of things. Most of them are important; some are more important than others, and very few are unimportant. It’s that sort of thing, see. So, I’ve noticed you’ve been a bit odd of late. Hope all is spicy. What make you of Head Porter’s love affair?”
“I’m delighted for Head Porter, of course!” I reply, somewhat taken aback. “The Headmistress seems like quite the suitable partner for him. And he has been so much happier in himself, don’t you think?”
The Professor nods emphatically.
“I think that might be the way to think on it,” he agrees. “Is it troubling you? The whole thingy? It might be troubling me, see.”
Head Porter’s pursuit of romance has indeed brought things into sharp focus for me. But certainly not in the manner to which Professor Duke alludes.
“Nope. Not a bit.” I give the Professor my best smile. “This is the best thing to happen to the old boy, I tell you. But you are right when you say that there is something on my mind. Or, rather, someone.”
“Aha! And a goody. We are thinking the same, then!” The smile is returned in spectacular style. “And I sorta knew we would, see.”
“Thinking on Hershel, correct?” He retrieves his tea and slurps excitedly. “He’s a bit too…you know, too vicious. I mean, not too vicious. Just too unworthy. No, that’s not it either. Too..un-trustable! There’s something wild and untamed about him, don’t you know… Reminds me of me, when I was a youthful beetle.”
“How old actually are you, anyway?” I ask. It is a very difficult thing to discern where he is concerned.
“I’m not even sure anymore,” replies the Professor, nodding knowingly. “Some tell me I’m ageless. I say I’m younger than the stars but older than the mountains. Everyone thinks I’m older than I am, see. Now, what if Hershel had something to do with the Music Professor’s disappearance?”
I give this some consideration. He was behind the notes to The Dean, certainly – an elaborate plot devised to beat a path back to his beloved Penelope. And recent events have indeed placed his lady friend right at the forefront of the prestigious proceedings of the Choir Competition, a coup by anyone’s standards. A competition, no less, that he himself will be orchestrating from behind the scenes with his marvellous plan.
“You make a good point,” I say. “If you look behind the ‘adorable rogue’ facade, there is certainly a degree of rather cynical manipulation going on.”
“Yes, I feel he’s hiding something, too. Something rather wicked.” The Professor thinks a bit. “Well, keep your eyes on him. Make sure he stays righteous. I’d offer to lend an eye or two or three, but I have to organize a party now!”
“A party fit for a Dean, no less!”
“Yes, yes. So, goodbye for now, I say. This professor has so much to do, the sudden.”
Leaving my unusual friend to his endeavours, I decide to take the scenic route back to the Porters’ Lodge by way of the Chapel. This close to the competition, the Choir will be practising around the clock. It couldn’t hurt to see how they are getting along.