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"The Lives of Christopher Chant"

Chapters 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

It was years before Christopher told anyone about his dreams. This was because he mostly lived in the nurseries at the top of the big London house, and the nursery maids who looked after him changed every few months.

He scarcely saw his parents. When Christopher was small, he was terrified that he would meet Papa out walking in the Park one day and not recognize him. He used to kneel down and look through the banisters on the rare days when Papa came home from the City before bedtime, hoping to fix Papa's face in his mind. All he got was a foreshortened view of a figure in a frock coat with a great deal of well-combed black whisker, handing a tall black hat to the footman, and then a view of a very neat white parting in black hair, as Papa marched rapidly under the stairway and out of sight. Beyond knowing that Papa was taller than most footmen, Christopher knew little else.

Some evenings, Mama was on the stairs to meet Papa, blocking Christopher's view with wide silk skirts and a multitude of frills and draperies. "Remind your master," she would say icily to the footman, "that there is a Reception in this house tonight and that he is required for once in his life to act as host."

Papa, hidden behind Mama's wide clothing, would reply in a deep gloomy voice, "Tell Madam I have a great deal of work brought home from the office tonight. Tell her she should have warned me in advance."

"Inform your master," Mama would reply to the footman, "that if I'd warned him, he would have found an excuse not to be here. Point out to him that it is my money that finances his business and that I shall remove it if he does not do this small thing for me."

Then Papa would sigh. "Tell Madam I am going up to dress," he would say. "Under protest. Ask her to stand aside from the stairs."

Mama never did stand aside, to Christopher's disappointment. She always gathered up her skirts and sailed upstairs ahead of Papa, to make sure Papa did as she wanted. Mama had huge lustrous eyes, a perfect figure and piles of glossy black curls. The nursery maids told Christopher Mama was a Beauty. At this stage in his life, Christopher thought everyone's parents were like this; but he did wish Mama would give him a view of Papa just once.

He thought everyone had the kind of dreams he had, too. He did not think they were worth mentioning. The dreams always began the same way. Christopher got out of bed and walked around the corner of the night nursery wall - the part with the fireplace, which jutted out - onto a rocky path high on the side of a valley. The valley was green and steep, with a stream rushing from waterfall to waterfall down the middle, but Christopher never felt there was much point in following the stream down the valley. Instead he went up the path, around a large rock, into the part he always thought of as The Place Between. Christopher thought it was probably a leftover piece of the world, from before somebody came along and made the world properly. Formless slopes of rock towered and slanted in all directions. Some of it was hard and steep, some of it piled and rubbly, and none of it had much shape. Nor did it have much color - most of it was the ugly brown you get from mixing every color in a paintbox. There was always a formless wet mist hanging around this place, adding to the vagueness of everything. You could never see the sky. In fact, Christopher sometimes thought there might not be a sky: he had an idea that the formless rock went on and on in a great arch overhead - but when he thought about it, that did not seem possible.

Christopher always knew in his dream that you could get to Almost Anywhere from The Place Between. He called it Almost Anywhere because there was one place that did not want you to go to it. It was quite near, but he always found himself avoiding it. He set off sliding, scrambling, edging across bulging wet rock, and climbing up or down, until he found another valley and another path. There were hundreds of them. He called them the Anywheres.

The Anywheres were mostly quite different from London. They were hotter or colder, with strange trees and stranger houses. Sometimes the people in them looked ordinary, sometimes their skin was bluish or reddish and their eyes were peculiar, but they were always very kind to Christopher. He had a new adventure every time he went on a dream. In the active adventures people helped him escape through cellars of odd buildings, or he helped them in wars, or in rounding up dangerous animals. In the calm adventures, he got new things to eat and people gave him toys. He lost most of the toys as he was scrambling back home over the rocks, but he did manage to bring back the shiny shell necklace the silly ladies gave him, because he could hang it around his neck.

He went to the Anywhere with the silly ladies several times. It had blue sea and white sand, perfect for digging and building in. There were ordinary people in it, but Christopher only saw them in the distance. The silly ladies came and sat on rocks out of the sea and giggled at him while he made sand castles.

"Oh clistoffer!" they would coo, in lisping voices. "Tell uth what make you a clistoffer." And they would all burst into screams of high laughter.

They were the only ladies, he had seen without clothes on. Their skins were greenish and so was their hair. He was fascinated by the way the ends of them were big silvery tails that could curl and flip almost like a fish could, and send powerful sprays of water over him from their big finned feet. He never could persuade them that he was not a strange animal called a clistoffer.

Every time he went to that Anywhere, the latest nursery maid complained about all the sand in his bed. He had learned very early on that they complained even louder when they found his pajamas muddy, wet and torn from climbing through The Place Between. He took a set of clothes out onto the rocky path and left them there to change into. He had to put new clothes there every year or so, when he grew out of the latest torn and muddy suit, but the nursery maids changed so often that none of them noticed. Nor did they notice the strange toys he brought back over the years. There was a clockwork dragon, a horse that was really a flute, and the necklace from the silly ladies which, when you looked closely, was a string of tiny pearl skulls.

Christopher thought about the silly ladies. He looked at his latest nursemaid's feet, and he thought that her shoes were about big enough to hide the flippers at the end of her tail. But you could never see any more of any lady because of her skirts. He kept wondering how Mama and the nursery maid walked about on a big limber tail and flippers, instead of legs and feet.

His chance to find out came one afternoon when the nursery maid put him into an unpleasant sailor-suit and led him downstairs to the drawing room. Mama and some other ladies were there with someone called Lady Badgett, who was a kind of cousin of Papa's. She had asked to see Christopher. Christopher stared at her long nose and her wrinkles. "Is she a witch, Mama?" he asked loudly.

Everyone except Lady Badgett - who went more wrinkled than ever - said, "Hush dear!" After that, Christopher was glad to find they seemed to have forgotten him. He quietly lay down, on his back on the carpet, and rolled from lady to lady. When they caught him, he was under the sofa gazing up Lady Badgett's petticoats. He was dragged out of the room in disgrace, very disappointed to discover that all the ladies had big thick legs, except Lady Badgett: her legs were thin and yellow like a chicken's.

Mama sent for him in her dressing room later that day. "Oh Christopher, how could you!" she said. "I'd just got Lady Badgett to the point of calling on me, and she'll never come again. You've undone the work of years!"

It was very hard work, Christopher realized, being a Beauty. Mama was very busy in front of her mirror with all sorts of little cut glass bottles and jars. Behind her, a maid was even busier, far busier than the nursery maids ever were, working on Mama's glossy curls. Christopher was so ashamed to have wasted all this work that he picked up a glass jar to hide his confusion.

Mama told him sharply to put it down. "Money isn't everything, you see, Christopher," she explained. "A good place in Society is worth far more. Lady Badgett could have helped us both. Why do you think I married your papa?"

Since Christopher had simply no idea what could have brought Mama and Papa together, he put out his hand to pick up the jar again. But he remembered in time that he was not supposed to touch it, and picked up a big pad of false hair instead. He turned it around in his hands while Mama talked.

"You are going to grow up with Papa's good family and my money," she said. "I want you to promise me now that you will take your place in Society alongside the very best people. Mama intends you to be a great man - Christopher, are you listening?"

Christopher had given up trying to understand Mama. He held the false hair out instead. "What's this for?"

"Bulking out my hair," Mama said. "Please attend, Christopher. It's very important you begin now preparing yourself for the future. Put that hair down."
Christopher put the pad of hair back. "I thought it might be a dead rat," he said. And somehow Mama must have made a mistake because, to Christopher's great interest, the thing really was a dead rat. Mama and her maid both screamed. Christopher was hustled away while a footman came running with a shovel.

After that, Mama called Christopher to her dressing room and talked to him quite often. He stood trying to remember not to fiddle with the jars, staring at his reflection in her mirror, wondering why his curls Were black and Mama's rich brown, and why his eyes were so much more like coal than Mama's. Something seemed to stop there ever being another dead rat, but sometimes a spider could be encouraged to let itself down in front of the mirror, whenever Mama's talk became too alarming. He understood that Mama cared very urgently about his future. He knew he was going to have to enter Society with the best people. But the only Society he had heard of was the Aid the Heathen Society that he had to give a penny to every Sunday in church, and he thought Mama meant that.

Christopher made careful inquiries from the nursery maid with the big feet. She told him Heathens were savages who ate people. Missionaries were the best people, and they were the ones Heathens ate. Christopher saw that he was going to be a missionary when he grew up. He found Mama's talk increasingly alarming. He wished she had chosen another career for him.

He also asked the nursery maid about the kind of ladies who had tails like fish. "Oh you mean mermaids!" the girl said, laughing. "Those aren't real."

Christopher knew mermaids were not real, because he only met them in dreams. Now he was convinced that he would meet Heathens too, if he went to the wrong Almost Anywhere. For a time, he was so frightened of meeting Heathens that when he came to a new valley from The Place Between, he lay down and looked carefully at the Anywhere it led to, to see what the people were like there before he went on. But after a while, when nobody tried to eat him, he decided that the Heathens probably lived in the Anywhere which stopped you going to it, and gave up worrying until he was older.

When he was a little older, people in the Anywheres sometimes gave him money. Christopher learned to refuse coins. As soon as he touched them, everything just stopped. He landed in bed with a jolt and woke up sweating. Once this happened when a pretty lady who reminded him of Mama tried laughingly to hang an earring in his ear. Christopher would have asked the nursery maid with big feet about it, but she had left long ago. Most of the ones who came after simply said, "Don't bother me now - I'm busy!" when he asked them things. Until he learned to read, Christopher thought this was what all nursery maids did: they stayed a month, too busy to talk, and then set their mouths in a nasty line and flounced out. He
was amazed to read of Old Retainers, who stayed with families for a whole lifetime and could be persuaded to tell long (and sometimes very boring) stories about the family in the past. In his house, none of the servants stayed more than six months.

The reason seemed to be that Mama and Papa had given up speaking to one another even through the footman. They handed the servants notes to give to one another instead. Since it never occurred to either Mama or Papa to seal the notes, sooner or later someone would bring the note up to the nursery floor and read it aloud to the nursery maid. Christopher learned that Mama was always short and to the point.

"Mr. Chant is requested to smoke cigars only in his own room." Or, "Will Mr. Chant please take note that the new laundry maid has complained of holes burned in his shirts." Or, "Mr. Chant caused me much embarrassment by leaving in the middle of my Breakfast Party."

Papa usually let the notes build up and then answered the lot in a kind of rambling rage. "My dear Miranda, I shall smoke where I please and it is the job of that lazy laundry maid to deal with the results. But then your extravagance in employing foolish layabouts and rude louts is only for your own selfish comfort and never for mine. If you wish me to remain at your parties, try to employ a cook who knows bacon from old shoes and refrain from giving that idiotic tinkling laugh all the time."

Papa's replies usually caused the servants to leave overnight.

Christopher rather enjoyed the insight these notes gave him. Papa seemed more like a person, somehow, even if he was so critical. It was quite a blow to Christopher when he was cut off from them by the arrival of his first Governess.

Mama sent for him. She was in tears. "Your Papa has overreached himself this time," she said. "It's a mother's place to see to the education of her child. I want you to go to a good school, Christopher. It's most important. But I don't want to force you into learning. I want your ambition to flower as well. But your Papa comes crashing in with his grim notions and goes behind my back by appointing this Governess who, knowing your Papa, is bound to be terrible! Oh my poor child!"

Christopher realized that the Governess was his first step towards becoming a missionary. He felt solemn and alarmed. But when the Governess came, she was simply a drab lady with pink eyes, who was far too discreet to talk to servants. She only stayed a month, to Mama's jubilation.

"Now we can really start your education," Mama said. "I shall choose the next Governess myself."

Mama said that quite often over the next two years, for Governesses came and went just like nursery maids before them. They were all drab, discreet ladies, and Christopher got their names muddled up. He decided that the chief difference between a Governess and a nursery maid was that a Governess usually burst into tears before she left - and that was the only time a Governess ever said anything interesting about Mama and Papa.

"I'm sorry to do this to you," the third - or maybe the fourth - Governess wept, "because you're a nice little boy, even if you are a bit remote, but the atmosphere in this house! Every night he's home - which thank God is rarely! - I have to sit at the dining table with them in utter silence. And she passes me a note to give to him, or he passes me one for her. Then they open the notes and look daggers at one another and then at me. I can't stand any more!"

The ninth - or maybe the tenth - Governess was even more indiscreet. "I know they hate one another," she sobbed, "but she's no call to hate me too! She's one of those who can't abide other women. And she's a sorceress, I think - I can't be sure, because she only does little things - and he's at least as strong as she is. He may even be an enchanter. Between them they make such an atmosphere - it's no wonder they can't keep any servants! Oh Christopher, forgive me for talking like this about your parents!"

All the Governesses asked Christopher to forgive them and he forgave them very readily, for this was the only time now that he had news of Mama and Papa. It gave him a wistful sort of feeling that perhaps other people had parents who were not like this. He was also sure that there was some sort of crisis brewing. The hushed thunder of it reached as far as the schoolroom, even though the Governesses would not let him gossip with the servants anymore. He remembered the night the crisis broke, because that was the night when he went to an Anywhere where a man under a yellow umbrella gave him a sort of
candlestick of little bells. It was so beautiful that Christopher was determined to bring it home. He held it in his teeth as he scrambled across the rocks of The Place Between. To his joy, it was in his bed when he woke up. But there was quite a different feeling to the house. The twelfth Governess packed and left straight after breakfast.

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