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Chapter 2: Niblick's Dilemma
Neville took a deep breath of air. He caught the heavy scent from the vase of white lilies on a side table.
‘Come, come, young man!’ said the wizard. ‘Are you, or are you not delivering fresh salmon from the fishmonger’s?’
‘I … I’m Neville Longbottom. Sorry.’
He was aware that unsavoury flakes of Fung-jello were peeling off his jeans and littering the hearthrug.
‘But, why did you not say so? My dear Mr Longbottom, I have long wished to make your acquaintance.’
‘Your reputation travels before you. Your grandmother, Mrs Longbottom … Daisy Dabinet as she was when we were chums at Hogwarts … has been sending me photographs ever since you were born. No doubt she has mentioned me: Hector Pengryphon. How do you do.’
‘Oh! How do you do.’
‘I received the latest photograph only yesterday. You are a little older than I imagined, but no less estimable on that account’
Mr Pengryphon nodded towards a card to which had been glued a picture of Neville at the start of his third year at Hogwarts. It showed a nervous, blinking boy in an over-large robe and a hat pushed down over his sticking-out ears. The boy was clutching a wand in one hand and a struggling toad in the other. Beneath the picture were the words:
My Grandson Neville…..A Hogwarts Hero.
As Neville gazed in horror, his grandmother’s hand emerged from the left hand side of the photograph’s crocheted frame and rubbed at a smudge on his cheek with a spitty handkerchief.
At least, Neville thought, he was in the right house. Luna would be pretty miffed about him bumping into her Great Uncle Hector, but he could do with some tea; it was a long time since his cheese and pickle sandwich. He said, ‘Thank you, tea would be very welcome,’ and took the arm chair opposite Mr Pengryphon. Beyond the tall window there were trees and mown grass and rows of tall, joined-together muggle houses built of greyish stone. So this was Bath!
The door opened and a stately house elf with a big round head and hooded eyes entered. He wore a spotless tabard of four starched table-napkins, fastened together with safety pins and a fifth napkin, folded in the shape of a bishop’s mitre, on his hairless pate. Niblick carried himself with the dignity of a house elf bound in service to a wizarding family of distinction.
‘Mr Neville Longbottom has called, Niblick,’ said Mr Pengryphon. ‘We require tea and a plate of Cook’s delightful scones. There are fresh scones, I take it?’
‘Cook is baking scones this very afternoon, Mr Hector, sir’
‘One should never make do yesterday’s scones. Standards must be maintained. Give yesterday’s scones to the poor, I say!’
Neville was hungry enough to eat last week’s scones…or last month’s for that matter. Trevor, sensing that it was tea-time, crawled out of the back pocket of his jeans and plopped to the floor, leaving a damp, toad-shaped mark on the hearth rug.
‘Handsome creature,’ said Mr Pengryphon, ‘but hardly suited to the drawing room. Remove him, Niblick, and supply him with blue-bottles.’
Niblick picked up Trevor, bowed and left the room.
‘One does enjoy company at afternoon tea! Not that that one lacks for acquaintances in Bath, what with coffee mornings, cocktail parties and congenial evenings at the Bridge Club. Yet, afternoon tea is so often consumed in solitude, don’t you find?’
‘Not at Hogwarts it’s not. It’s hard to find solitude at the Gryffindor
table. I ate lunch on my own today, though, because we’re working on the Hogwarts Restoration Programme.’
‘Why should Hogwarts need restoration?’
‘It got knocked about in a battle.’
‘How very uncomfortable! One did hear that Hogwarts had suffered an intrusion and one could not but wonder why the Ministry of Magic had, yet again, failed to stem this distressing increase in breaking and entering. Things are not what they were. Only yesterday a distinguished wizard was reported missing: Professor Erasmus Shorthosen, author of Alchemy in the Austrian Alps. Are you acquainted with his work?’
‘My grandmother swears by his Fit-witch Yodelling Manual.’
‘Dear little Daisy Dabinet! She must be quaking in her shoes in these troubled times.’
Neville wondered whether to mention that only three weeks before, his little grandmother had been firing jinxes at Death Eaters in the Great Battle for Hogwarts Castle. He decided not to.
Niblick returned, carrying a vast black-lacquered tea tray laden with china tea cups, saucers and plates, a silver teapot, milk jug and sugar bowl and a mountain of scones on a gold-rimmed platter. Cut-glass dishes of butter, honey, jam and cream fitted neatly into the corners of the tray. Balanced on his head were a lace table cloth, two linen napkins and a basket containing knives and spoons. He clicked his fingers and everything arranged itself on a small tea table.
‘Your afternoon tea, Mr Hector, sir and Mr Neville Longbottom, sir,’ he announced.
Neville did not count the number of scones he consumed and he trusted his host did not either. The more he ate, the more scones covered the platter and the hollows where he had dug into the butter, jam and cream filled up of their own accord. This visit was working out rather well, he thought, wiping his jammy mouth on his napkin.
Luna’s Great Uncle Hector rang for Niblick to clear away.
‘You will occupy the blue bedroom, Mr Longbottom. It affords a charming view of the Abbey spire. Niblick will show you up. You could do with a rest, I’m sure, after your journey.’
‘That would be great,’ said Neville politely.
He could almost hear Luna fuming with impatience in the kitchen, but he was having too much fun to worry. The bed hangings and curtains in his room were of blue brocade and the wallpaper was bright with Chinese birds and flowers against a cloudless sky. Neville felt too grubby for these sumptuous surroundings and asked Niblick where the bathroom might be.
‘Would Mr Longbottom care for a wash and brush-up, sir?’
‘If Mr Longbottom will kindly stand by the dressing table, sir, Niblick will see to it.’
Neville stood where he was told. Niblick clicked his fingers. Splish, sploosh, splutter! Warm water landed on Neville’s head and trickled down his body. Invisible hands shampooed his hair, soaped his neck and sponged him from head to foot and between his toes. His T-shirt and jeans were scrubbed and squeezed and subjected to a thorough laundering. A deliciously long warm rinse followed; then a deluge of tingling cold. White towels dabbed and mopped, hot air puffed and blew. After the wash came the brush-up, from hair to boots, concluding with a spicy spray of cologne. Neville had never been so clean and shiny, even as a small boy, when his grandmother had washed him with Pinchpepper’s Rhubarbary Soap and scrubbed his knees with a Quillo pad.
Niblick wheeled a mirror towards him across the completely dry carpet. Was this presentable young fellow in hipster jeans and body-skimming T shirt really him, Neville wondered? His hair had been cunningly styled to curve over his sticking-out ears, the charity-shop cowboy boots shone like conkers and the dragon -skin belt had a trendy new buckle.
‘Cool!’ he thought, twisting to view himself from every angle, ‘This’ll impress the chicks at Hogwarts!’
Then he remembered that he was here to help Luna.
‘Hold on a minute, Niblick! Could you direct me to the kitchen?’
‘The kitchen, sir? If, Mr Longbottom insists.’
They descended two flights of stairs. At the kitchen door Niblick muttered something about having to polish the Pengryphon coat of arms and stalked away, leaving Neville to enter alone. Luna was seated at the table, holding a loaf of bread and a honey pot. Before he could apologise for landing in the wrong hearth, she exclaimed, ‘Thank goodness you’re here! Everything’s gone wrong. Where’s Niblick?’
‘Gone off to polish a coat of arms.’
‘That’s because he’s upset and doesn’t want to talk to me’
‘I only asked him whether daddy had been here. He refused to answer and I got cross. I called him a mean old worm-guzzling garden gnome.’
‘He gave me one of his looks and walked away. I hate myself and I’m starving. I’ve been chewing bits off the loaf because I can’t find a bread-knife and this honey pot won’t open. I’ve said every spell I know and it won’t budge.’
Neville picked up the pot and gave the lid a sharp twist.
‘A little muggle trick,’ he said.
‘Thanks. Where have you been since you arrived?’
Neville told her, confessing that he had seemed to have accepted an invitation to stay over-night. He added that dinner might be worth sticking around for.
Mr Hector Pengryphon was excessively pleased when his great niece Luna presented herself in the drawing room. It was ten years since they had last met. Before her death, Mrs Elspet Lovegood had been a frequent visitor at Royal Crescent and she had brought her daughter with her. Mr Pengryphon expressed his expectation that Luna would stay for some time and trusted she would find the rose bedroom to her liking.
‘How fortuitous that the grandson of an old school chum has chanced to call this very afternoon! Are you acquainted with Mr Longbottom?’
‘We are students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.’
‘Then I am not obliged to introduce you. Excellent! Dinner at eight, young people; not a minute later, if you please! Cook hates to be kept waiting.’
‘Great Uncle Hector, may I have a wash and brush-up like Neville? He looks quite good … not like him at all.’
‘Young ladies do not wash and brush up; they change into a dinner gown.’
‘I haven’t got a dinner gown.’
Mr Pengryphon raised an astonished eyebrow. A young lady with no gown? He waved a plump white hand to indicate that she should look into the gilt mirror that hung between the drawing room windows. A slender girl with large enquiring eyes and light-gold hair walked into the mirror and looked back at Luna. Her frock of green-blue silk rippled with silver, like a tropical sea and a string of gleaming grey pearls hung round her neck.
‘Who’s that … a mermaid in a frock?’ asked Luna.
She blinked. The girl now appeared to be wearing yellow pedal-pusher pants, a yellow and white football shirt and grubby pink ballet shoes. With a look of disgust, she walked out of the edge of the mirror. Luna was left with the frock and pearls.
‘I look alright I suppose, but I miss my yellow pants. Quite fancy these silver sandals, though. What do you think, Neville?’
‘You look very nice,’ said Neville. ‘Not that you were that bad before,’ he added hastily.
‘My hair’s gone all shiny.’
‘That’s because it has been washed,’ said Mr Pengryphon.
‘It was washed already. I shampoo it with boiled gurdyroot and fish gum to keep minges and flug worms at bay. That’s what daddy advises.’
‘Ginny Weasley uses Flora Pink’s Ring-a-Rosie Shampoo,’ said Neville, ‘and she doesn’t complain about flug worms.’
Luna tossed her pale-gold hair to indicate that she couldn’t care less, but Neville caught her sneaking glimpses of herself in the mirror.
The dining room walls were a ripe plum colour and the table and chairs were carved from dark rosewood. Generations of Pengryphon ancestors posed or scowled or waved a disdainful hand from their portraits on the walls. From the days of King Arthur, the head of the Pengryphon family had held the office of Keeper of the Keys of Camelot.
‘I am awaiting the arrival of my own portrait,’ said Mr Pengryphon. ‘It is by Mr Vyvyan Chaudle; very highly esteemed in artistic circles. It should have been delivered ten days ago. I trust Mr Chaudle has not vanished without trace, like poor Professor Shorthosen.’
‘Madame Rosmerta told me about a witch who’d disappeared,’ said Neville.
‘Indeed! From where did she disappear?’
‘From a pie shop in Diagon Alley,’
‘No one of importance, then,’ said Mr Pengryphon.
Dinner was asparagus in Hollandaise sauce, wild salmon with dill, a refreshing lemon sorbet, roast lamb with redcurrant jelly, green peas and new potatoes, followed by a luscious chocolate mousse. Niblick waited at table. Neville noticed that he avoided Luna’s eyes.
Mr Pengryphon set down his pudding spoon.
‘Cook has surpassed herself this evening, Niblick. Mr Longbottom, I trust our humble repast matches the standard of Hogwart’s School meals.’
‘It certainly does. Mind you, Hogwarts food has gone down since the battle. The kitchen elves were taken off catering to help put the castle back together.’
‘Their kitchen had been trashed by Death Eaters,’ said Luna. ‘The senior Hufflepuffs have been feeding us from a camp kitchen. They serve sausage-and-mash from a wheel-barrow.’
‘And gravy from a watering can’
‘Remember when they set fire to that cauldron of spaghetti Bolognese?’
‘And baked apple pie in a wash tub? It tasted of soap.’
‘Enough, my dear young people!’ cried Mr Pengryphon, ‘You will shake Niblick to the core. He recognises no standard lower than perfection.’
Niblick served coffee and frogmints in the drawing room. Luna tried to catch his eye, but he evaded hers and stalked over to examine the hearthrug which Neville’s unplanned entry had speckled with of flakes of Fung-jello.
‘No lasting damage, eh, Niblick?’ Mr Pengryphon inquired.
‘Niblick is seeing no difference, Mr Hector, sir. The rug is old and shabby.’
. ‘Of course it is. It’s antique.’
‘Indeed, sir, yet its appearance is hardly in keeping with the elegance of a drawing room! If Mr Hector will purchase a new hearth-rug, sir, Niblick will remove this one to the attic.’
Mr Pengryphon’s chubby face lighted up. He loved shopping.
‘I shall go to Pride of Place Furnishings in the morning,’ he said.
The evening ended with Wizard Scrabble, a game in which players levitate letters from their opponents’ words and hide them under the furniture. Games can last for several hours and get quite heated. Neville’s wand let him down, as usual, and he scored only three and half points.
At last Mr Pengryphon excused himself and retired to bed, leaving Luna and Neville to drink their mugs of Honeyduke’s Hot Chocolate. Niblick lingered to close the window shutters. Before leaving the room, he dropped two envelopes on the coffee table, one addressed to Luna, the other to Neville. Inside were white cards, printed with the words:
House Elf in Chief to
Mr Hector Pengryphon
(Keeper of the Keys of Camelot)
On the back of each card was a hand-written message. Neville’s read:
Seriously Loyal and Ancient Volunteer Elves Society
Repair! Rebuild! Refurbish!
Applications to the Arch-Elf of Bath and Wells
He slipped the card into his pocket and turned to Luna, who was still staring at the back of hers. Silently, she handed it to him to read.
The House Elf Code of Conduct
Be Subject to thy Master, Elf,
And Never Seek to Please thyself!
Take Pains his Floors to Sweep and Scrub
And Wash his Linen in the Tub!
His Dinner thou shalt Boil and Roast
And Brew his Tea and Brown his Toast.
Before thou Goest to Bed at Night
Make Sure His House be Bolted Tight!
Breathe not one Word to Living Ear
Of Secret Matters thou shalt Hear
And See within thy Master’s Door …
Or Banished be for Evermore!
‘Look at the last verse, Neville!’ said Luna. ‘Niblick wasn’t being mean when he refused to answer my questions about daddy visiting Eleven and a half Royal Crescent. He is forbidden to talk about any secret matter he hears or sees within his master’s door. He can’t breach the House Elves’ Code of Conduct.’
‘Poor old elf! He’s in a proper dilemma,’ said Neville. ‘If we want to find out what’s happened to your dad, we have to get him out of it.'