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Our Library => John Bude - Death Makes a Prophet (1947) => Topic started by: Admin on May 23, 2023, 08:42:45 am

Title: 2: Mrs. Hagge-Smith Has a Vision
Post by: Admin on May 23, 2023, 08:42:45 am

“MY dear,” said Mrs. Hagge-Smith, as she swept into the breakfast-room of Old Cowdene, “don’t speak to me for a moment. I want to sit perfectly silent and let the Influences flow into me. I’ve had a vision! A wonderful, inspiring vision!” She sniffed appreciatively. “Ah, am I right in suspecting walnut steak? Yes, my dear, you can serve me with a small helping and pour my coffee. It’s wrong to neglect our earthly bodies. We must never forget that they’re the temporary dwelling-places of our Better Selves.”

She was addressing her secretary, a young and extremely pretty brunette with a stylishly slender figure and a nice deferential manner that went well with her position in the household. That this manner was the only false thing about her, Mrs. Hagge-Smith had never realised. That behind her charming presence Denise Blake concealed an unswerving dislike of her employer was something so fantastic that Mrs. Hagge-Smith would have refused to credit it. She was used to deference, smiling faces, quick obedience and good service---the result, she felt sure, of an irresistible personality rather than a bloated bank balance. She liked to have Denise about because she was quiet and efficient and deft. She had, moreover, a pale blue aura which Alicia had always found particularly soothing.

Having crossed to the sideboard and served Mrs. Hagge-Smith, Denise poured her coffee and returned to her own place at the breakfast-table. She began to nibble her toast, slyly watching Alicia from under her long lashes. There was no doubt from the smile of beatitude on her face that the Influences were flowing in. Denise wondered what form her latest enthusiasm would take and just where it was destined to land them. From a certain congested look about those raddled and monumental features there was no doubt that the vision was a thumping big one.

At the end of ten minutes, Mrs. Hagge-Smith came out of her state of “non-being” like a cork from a bottle. She reached for the toast and marmalade, demanded a second cup of coffee and rapped out:

“We shall be leaving for Welworth on the ten-ten. You will come with me. See that Millie has me packed by nine-thirty sharp and order the car round for nine-forty-five.”

“Yes, Mrs. Hagge-Smith.”

“And ring the Endive Hotel and reserve our rooms for a week.”

“Yes, Mrs. Hagge-Smith.”

Denise, despite the gloomy November day beyond the window, brightened considerably. Anything to get away from the deadly dull routine which reigned at Old Cowdene. Even Welworth Garden City would seem like Paris and Buenos Aires rolled into one after this waterlogged, isolated corner of Sussex. Although she had been with Mrs. Hagge-Smith for nearly six months, she had never before accompanied her on any of her many visits to this Canterbury of Cooism. She had often tried to imagine what Mr. Mildmann and Mr. Penpeti and many other of the Coo celebrities looked like, for at one time or another Mrs. Hagge-Smith had dictated letters to all of them. Now she would have the chance to see for herself. She imagined the experience would be rather amusing.

Out in the hall, she got through to the Endive Hotel and was informed with regrets that every room in the place was booked up for at least a fortnight. There was a Hand Weavers Conference due to start that very day. Denise went up to Mrs. Hagge-Smith’s dressing-room and gave her the information.

“How tiresome, my dear. But we mustn’t lose control. You must telephone Mr. Mildmann at once and see if he can have us. Tell him it’s urgent. Tell him I’ve had a vision in connection with our great work. I must discuss it with him without delay.”

“Yes, Mrs. Hagge-Smith.”

Ten minutes later it was all arranged. Mr. Mildmann, who really had no option, said he’d be only too delighted to accommodate Mrs. Hagge-Smith and her secretary under his humble roof. He would expect them for lunch. Little did Denise realise as she turned away from the phone that the Hand Weavers Conference was destined to alter the whole future aspect of her existence. Little did she realise, as she packed her well-worn, imitation leather suitcase, that she was moving towards an experience before which all previous experiences would pale into insignificance.


Lunch---spaghetti and lentil pie with prunes and custard to follow---was over. Mrs. Hagge-Smith, aflame with impatience, drew Eustace aside into the latter’s study. Eustace eyed his patron through his pince-nez with a nervous, rather apprehensive look. He conducted her to a chair and threw an extra log or two on the fire.

“Well, Alicia?”

“Eustace, my dear,” announced Mrs. Hagge-Smith dramatically. “We simply must have it! We must bend all our energies to its creation. We must organise it without delay. It all came to me last night in a vision.”


Eustace looked utterly fogged. Mrs. Hagge-Smith threw wide her arms as if embracing her large and invisible idea.

“Our Summer School!” she cried. “Our very own al fresco Convention! A gathering of all our children, all of them . . . at Old Cowdene.”

“Old Cowdene?” echoed Eustace bleakly.

“All our children!” repeated Mrs. Hagge-Smith with a moist expression. “All of them.”

“All?” echoed Eustace, still more bleakly. “But my dear Alicia----”

“Eustace!” exclaimed Mrs. Hagge-Smith. “Don’t tell me that you haven’t the wildest enthusiasm for my idea. It would break my heart if I thought I couldn’t rely on your support. We shall have to put it, of course, to the members of the Inmost Temple. But as you know, we never have the slightest difficulty in overriding their objections. Well, what do you say?”

“It’s all so sudden, so extensive in scope, I’ve barely had time to grasp it all. You mean you are prepared to throw open your estate at Old Cowdene for a general convention of the Movement?” Mrs. Hagge-Smith nodded. “But how would you house them? We have, as you know”---Eustace coughed deprecatingly---“a present membership of over ten thousand. Even if only half of them were able to attend----”

“Tents!” broke in Mrs. Hagge-Smith with a snap.

“Tents?” echoed Eustace. “You mean we could accommodate them in tents?”

“I was granted an astral manifestation of it, my dear Eustace. Rows and rows of delightful tents with all our happy and devoted children wandering among them. With the Chinese summer-house converted into a Temple and a huge marquee for meals. It was all there---perfect in every detail. Even the cook-houses. It was all so beautiful, so idyllic, so right, that it brought tears to my eyes. I confess it, Eustace. When my vision faded I just lay in bed and wept with joy.”

“What if it rains?” asked Eustace in a tentative sort of way.

“It won’t,” said Mrs. Hagge-Smith decisively. “I have a feeling about these things. And I feel it won’t rain. I’m always lucky with my weather. It runs in the family.”

“And Peta?” asked Eustace. “How do you think he’ll react?”

“Yes, there is Mr. Penpeti,” said Mrs. Hagge-Smith, her previous self-assurance suddenly modified. “You rang him as I suggested and told him to come round at once?”

Eustace nodded.

“He should be here at any minute. I know you value his opinion on matters of grand policy.”

“I do. I think he’s an exceptionally gifted man. So hypnotic. A Gemini, of course. Like Shakespeare.”

“Umph,” commented Eustace with a hint of sourness. “I’m not sure if we can trust these astrological labels. Shakespeare himself said ‘It is not in our stars . . .’, didn’t he? And Gemini,” he mused. “The Heavenly Twins. I often think it is the sign of the two-faced. I have nothing against Peta, of course. But I sometimes think you overrate his sincerity.”

“Eustace!” gasped Mrs. Hagge-Smith. “Don’t tell me you’re jealous of Mr. Penpeti. You, the High Prophet of our order, allowing the grosser human emotions to . . .”

Mrs. Hagge-Smith got no further since at that moment the maid announced the arrival of Mr. Penpeti himself. He came into the room, still wearing his fez, with a smile of welcome on his pallid features. Ignoring Eustace entirely, he crossed the room with a pantherine tread, seized one of Mrs. Hagge-Smith’s large and capable hands and raised it to his lips.

“An unanticipated pleasure,” he murmured. “All day I have been filled with a strange sense of expectancy. And now . . .” He stood back with a soft, ingratiating smile. “And now this!

He made to seize her hand a second time, but unfortunately Mrs. Hagge-Smith in the interim had unearthed her handkerchief to attend to a slight catarrhal trouble to which she was subject. Penpeti’s manœuvre, therefore, much to Eustace’s delight, was merely an embarrassment for both of them. He crossed to a chair and, somewhat stiffly, sat down.

“I called you round,” said Eustace haughtily, “because Alicia . . . er, that is, Mrs. Hagge-Smith, has a matter of considerable importance to discuss with us.”


“Mr. Penpeti!” exclaimed Mrs. Hagge-Smith. “I am sure I can look to you for the enthusiasm which dear Eustace has lamentably failed to exhibit.” Penpeti gave a little bow. “I have been blessed with a most wonderful inspiration. Last night in bed I----”

And for the second time Mrs. Hagge-Smith set out the details of her vision. Penpeti’s reaction was startling. He sprang from his chair, seized both Alicia’s hands, kissed them each in turn, and whipped round on Eustace.

“But this is a superb, incomparable idea! Of course we must have a Summer Camp. Why haven’t we thought of it before! We must ensure that we have representatives from every branch. My dear Mrs. Hagge-Smith, the Movement already owes more to you than it can ever repay. Now, alas, we’re more than ever in debt to you. And when do you suggest that we----?”

“Next June,” broke in Mrs. Hagge-Smith, whose organised mind had already worked out the general details of her scheme. “That will give us six months to prepare. We must, of course, have running water laid on, with proper drainage, shower-baths, electricity, telephone extensions, laundry facilities, washing-up machines----”

The list seemed to prolong itself interminably and as the magnitude of Mrs. Hagge-Smith’s conception dawned more fully on Mr. Mildmann’s mind, his nervousness seemed to increase. As a small provincial bookseller he was not used to thinking in a big way. The whole project not only staggered but frightened him. Carrying out the ceremonies of his faith in the snug and familiar atmosphere of the Welworth Temple, he was happy and confident. But this super-epic à la Cecil de Mille left him apprehensive and miserable. He dropped into a sulky silence whilst Alicia and Penpeti continued to discuss the scheme with ever-increasing liveliness. Only once did he look up and murmur a timid objection.

“But the expense . . . the expense of it all! Have you thought of that, Alicia?”

Mrs. Hagge-Smith dismissed his objection with an airy wave of her hand and returned with redoubled fervour to Peta Penpeti. She was thinking it was a thousand pities that Cooism had been created by such a spineless creature as Eustace Mildmann. Otherwise Mr. Penpeti might have been its High Prophet---a splendid, forceful, inspiring leader, a man after her own heart. Together they could have lifted the Movement to new and exalted heights, expanding its influence, furthering its publicity until it was known from one end of the country to the other. This Summer Convention was but a trial spin. Mrs. Hagge-Smith could see the tentacles of Cooism reaching out over the Continent and beyond, to India, Africa and Asia, even to America. Cooism---a World Religion! And why not? With Penpeti by her side she was ready to dare anything. If only Eustace were not such a wet blanket, such a cautious old maid, so provincial in outlook! Alicia sighed. Life, even if you had a million, was very exasperating.


In the large, severely-furnished drawing-room across the hall another conversation was in progress. It was by no means a fluent conversation. In fact, silence and speech were mixed in about equal proportions. The room itself was not exactly conducive to light and witty badinage. There was a vast amount of hard polished wood underfoot, with here and there an unreliable rush-mat which, at the slightest provocation, would skid from under one with all the consequent social embarrassment. Hard wooden chairs were set about, defying the intruder to make himself comfortable. Strange appliquéd figures, representing scenes from the Book of the Dead, marched in stiff procession round the wooden-panelled walls. Two stone Thoths, one Anubis, three Hathors, a Beb, a Mut and a Set were the principal ornaments, save for one enormous imaginative oil-painting over the wooden fireplace depicting Am-Mit, the Eater of the Dead, enjoying with immense gusto the unvarying plat du jour. A few scraggy sprays of “everlastings” stuck up from the necks of several wooden vases and to either side of the door, like the immobile sentinels of a past epoch, stood two anthropoid coffins of carved and painted wood.

Yet by far the most wooden object in the room at that particular moment was Terence Mildmann. He was sitting on the very edge of a small upright chair, his brawny knees gleaming in the firelight, his two ham-like hands clasped over his thighs. Despite the raw November day he was dressed, save for walking-stick and rucksack, like a hiker. His expression was difficult to analyse but among the more fleeting emotions it was possible to isolate delight, incredulity and acute bashfulness. Seated opposite to him on a small, hard, wooden coffin-stool, was Denise.

Neither was prepared to say just what had happened to them over the luncheon-table. Once, twice, perhaps three times, their eyes had met for a brief instant, yet within that flash of time something incredible had transpired. Terence, at any rate, knew that he had never seen anything quite so breathlessly lovely as Denise, and Denise knew that she had never met anything quite so pathetically helpless as Terence. Once they were in the drawing-room he had offered her a cigarette. She said she didn’t smoke. Terence said he didn’t, either. He wasn’t allowed to. His father didn’t like it. After that they both looked into the fire and said nothing for a time. Then Terence tried again:

“You work for the Blot, don’t you?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I say!---I shouldn’t have said that. I meant Mrs. Hagge-Smith.”

“Yes, I’m her secretary.”


After which expressive ejaculation there was again a long silence. This time it was Denise who stepped in.

“Don’t you find it cold wearing shorts in the winter?”

“I have to. My father believes in rational clothing.”

“But he doesn’t wear shorts.”

“I mean, he believes in it for other people.”

“I see.”

“Mind you, I’m pretty tough.” Terence crooked an arm to show off his biceps and threw out his barrel-like chest. “I do dumb-bells and clubs before my open window every morning. I can do the mile in four minutes, twenty seconds. Not bad, is it?”

“It’s jolly good,” said Denise warmly. “I’m not very hot at that sort of thing. I was in the second eleven hockey at school. But even that was rather a fluke.”

After a further pause, Terence enquired:

“Do you believe in all this Children of Osiris stuff? I know I oughtn’t to talk like this. After all it was the Guv’nor’s idea. I suppose it’s all right if you like that sort of thing. But I don’t. I’m keen on sports. Er . . . do you belong?”

“Well,” admitted Denise, “I’m a member of the Order, if that’s what you mean. You see in my job it would be a bit awkward if I wasn’t. Mrs. Hagge-Smith more or less made me join when she engaged me. And as I have to earn my own living . . .”

“I say, what rotten luck. Of course, my father being the High Prophet, I can’t very well get out of it. I’m a Symbol-Bearer in the Temple. But I’m not much cop at it.” He boomed happily: “I’m awfully glad you’re going to be staying here for a bit. It will cheer things up for me no end.”

Denise flushed with pleasure at the compliment, but not knowing quite what to say, she wisely said nothing. Terence scratched his knees, which were burning in the heat from the fire, shot a quick glance at the miracle in his midst and asked abruptly:

“I say, don’t think this rude of me, but do you have manifestations?”


It sounded as if he were referring to insects or pimples.

“Yes, you know---astral visions and all that sort of thing. Spirit shapes.”

“No---I can’t say that I do. I dream rather a lot after a late supper. But I’m not at all psychic, if that’s what you mean.”

“I am,” announced Terence, to Denise’s surprise. “I’m always having astral manifestations. I get quite a kick out of it.” His eyes assumed a dreamy expression and then suddenly narrowed, as if he were trying, there and then, to penetrate the Veil. “It’s marvellous sometimes how clearly I see things. They’re so terribly realistic.”

“Things?” enquired Denise. “What things?”

“Steaks mostly. But sometimes it’s mutton-chops or steak and kidney pudding. I just have to close my eyes, relax my mind and body, and there they are.” He passed a healthy red tongue round his lips and swallowed rapidly. “You think it’s blasphemous of me to see things like that, don’t you? I know it’s not very high-minded, but----”

“I don’t think anything of the sort. I think it’s very clever of you to see anything at all.”

Terence shot a quick glance at the door, shied away from the painted glaring eyes of the mummy-cases, and lowering his voice, went on:

“I just can’t help it. I suppose it’s a kind of wish fulfilment, as the psychologists call it. The point is, I’ve got a pretty healthy appetite and all these vegetarian fripperies leave me cold. I’ve no interest in the food I’m supposed to eat, only in that which I’m not allowed to. Sickening, isn’t it? I mean I just can’t work up any real enthusiasm for peanut cutlets and raw cabbage. Pretty low-minded of me, isn’t it?”

“Oh I don’t know. I’m only a vegetarian myself because in Rome one has to do as the Romans do. But then, I never worry much about food.”

“You never worry?” said Terence with a shocked and incredulous look. “Never worry about food!” For the second time he lowered his voice and cast a guilty glance at the door. “Look here, can you keep a secret?”

“Of course.”

“You promise not to give me away?”

“Of course.”

“Then I’ll let you in on something. Last week I went on the binge. And it’s not the first time, either.” There was a proud and defiant ring in his rumbling bass voice. “Yes, I sneaked out last Tuesday night and went on the binge.”


“Wilson’s Restaurant in Chives Avenue.” He sighed profoundly and his eye was lit with a retrospective gleam. “Gravy soup, sole à la bonne femme and a double portion of silver-side! Oh boy!” He chuckled happily. “What a binge! What a glorious, all-in, slap-up binge! I’d been saving up for that. Ten weeks’ pocket-money gone in a flash. You can’t keep that sort of thing up on sixpence a week. There are long blank periods in between, worse luck!”

“Oh you poor boy!” breathed Denise, genuinely moved by his predicament. “Fancy you getting only sixpence a week at your age.”

“Father’s pretty stingy, you know. He doesn’t believe in money. At least, not for other people.”

“Like rational clothing.”

“Yes---that’s it. Like rational clothing.”

They laughed happily together, each conscious of the undercurrent of sympathy which was flowing between them. Already they were fast overcoming their shyness.

“I say---what’s the Blot doing here? Any idea?”

“None at all at present. I daresay we shall soon find out.”

“Well, whatever she’s got up her sleeve,” observed Terence sagaciously, “I’ll wager it’s going to land us in all sorts of trouble. Whenever she turns up in Welworth things start to happen. And the trouble is you can never tell where they’re going to end!”

Which was about the wisest and most penetrating remark Terence Mildmann had ever made.


Mr. Penpeti stayed to tea. He also stayed to dinner. Even Eustace could not entirely detach himself from the wild enthusiasms swirling about him. A complete scheme for the Summer Convention had been drawn up. Numerical and astrological influences had been worked out so that the most suitable period of June could be chosen. Denise, under Mrs. Hagge-Smith’s direction, had already drawn up a summons to the members of the Inmost Temple to attend a committee meeting on the following day. Eustace and Penpeti had even sketched out a rough schedule of lectures, discussions, rituals, and so forth. Aware that Denise would almost certainly have to attend the convention, Terence was prepared to admit that Mrs. Hagge-Smith’s latest and most grandiose idea wasn’t such a bad bet after all. As for Penpeti, he was at his most forceful, charming and persuasive---every now and then veiling his hypnotic eyes behind their heavy lids, slipping away into a state of “non-being” and coming out of his trance with ever new and more splendid suggestions.

But behind all this activity it grew more and more evident that Eustace was simmering with irritation. He resented the free-handed way in which Penpeti gradually took command of the proceedings. Once or twice Peta actually overrode Mrs. Hagge-Smith’s opinions and substituted ideas of his own. And what was even more disturbing, Mrs. Hagge-Smith appeared quite ready to submit to his dictatorship. Everybody seemed ready to bow down before him.

When he left “Tranquilla” (which was the name of Mr. Mildmann’s mock-Tudor mansion) Penpeti was delighted with the way in which everything was progressing. His position inside the Movement was growing more and more secure and his influence over Mrs. Hagge-Smith more comprehensive. He sighed with the deepest satisfaction.

His rise had been swift. In less than eighteen months he had been promoted from a mere nonentity to the second most important person in the Order. Of course, he had been forced to walk warily, very warily; but now his patience and caution were beginning to pay big dividends. It was not only that he enjoyed the kudos and the five hundred a year that went with the office of Prophet-in-Waiting---it was more than that. Much more. The whole point was that, after a period of almost unbearable suspense, he was safe! Safe at last from the----

But at this juncture Peta Penpeti’s thoughts sheered away from all recollections of the past. It was better that way. Why summon up those dark unwanted spectres when he could exorcise them by a simple refusal to think about them? It would be only too easy to allow those smoky shadows of the past to haunt him and hound him into a pit of the deepest depression. But that way lay madness! After all, for eighteen months now he had been safe. And if safe for eighteen months, why not for ever? The fear that had once sniffed at his heels now seemed to have turned tail and given up the hunt. He was free once more to look ahead and relax. He must still walk warily, of course, but . . .

Suddenly, not five yards from his own front-gate, Penpeti stopped dead. In a flash all his reassuring arguments fled. A chill trickle of fear ran up his spine and left him trembling. From the gloom ahead a figure in a seedy mackintosh and black felt hat sidled up to him and placed a detaining hand on his arm. Penpeti recoiled as if from the clammy touch of a snake.

“Well?” he demanded in a low voice. “What is it? What do you want?”

“I think you can guess.”

“But look here, Yacob, you know I damned well can’t----”

“Think again, my dear fellow. Er . . . For your sake.”

For an instant Penpeti hesitated, then with a quick glance up and down the road, he muttered angrily:

“All right---come inside. I don’t want to be seen hanging about here with you.”

“That’s perfectly understandable,” said Yacob.

Penpeti opened the gate and Yacob followed him up the flagstone path and into the tiny unlighted hall. Not until he had groped his way into the little sitting-room and carefully drawn the curtains, did Penpeti switch on the light. Yacob blinked owlishly in the sudden glare, threw his black hat on to the settee and sat down beside it. Penpeti stood over him and scrutinised with unconcealed hatred those swarthy, dark-jowled features, the tawny, malignant eyes that looked up so mockingly into his own. Just now, of course, he had been wrong. Too optimistic. There was always Yacob---the predatory, unpredictable Yacob, wandering back at odd intervals into his life and forcing him to remember all he wanted to forget.

Perhaps, after all, he wasn’t quite so safe as he imagined. No, despite all his reassuring arguments, there was always Yacob!