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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

Christopher was called to Mama's dressing room that afternoon. There was a new Governess sitting on the only hard chair, wearing the usual sort of ugly grayish clothes and a hat that was uglier than usual. Her drab cotton gloves were folded on her dull bag and her head hung down as if she were timid or put-upon, or both. Christopher found her of no interest. All the interest in the room was centered on the man standing behind Mama's chair with his hand on Mama's shoulder.

"Christopher, this is my brother," Mama said happily. "Your uncle Ralph."

Mama pronounced it Rafe. It was more than a year before Christopher discovered it was the name he read as Ralph. Uncle Ralph took his fancy completely. To begin with, he was smoking a cigar. The scents of the dressing room were changed and mixed with the rich, incenselike smoke, and Mama was not protesting by even so much as sniffing. That alone was enough to show that Uncle Ralph was in a class by himself. Then he was wearing tweeds, strong and tangy and almost fox-colored, which were a little baggy here and there, but blended beautifully with the darker foxiness of Uncle Ralph's hair and the
redder foxiness of his mustache. Christopher had seldom seen a man in tweeds or without whiskers. This did even more to assure him that Uncle Ralph was someone special. As a final touch, Uncle Ralph smiled at him like sunlight on an autumn forest. It was such an engaging smile that Christopher's face broke into a return smile almost of its own accord.

"Hallo old chap," said Uncle Ralph, rolling out blue smoke above Mama's glossy hair. "I know this is not the best way for an uncle to recommend himself to a nephew, but I've been sorting the family affairs out, and I'm afraid I've had to do one or two quite shocking things, like bringing you a new Governess and arranging for you to start school in the autumn. Governess over there. Miss Bell. I hope you like one another. Enough to forgive me anyway."

He smiled at Christopher in a sunny, humorous way which had Christopher rapidly approaching adoration. All the same, Christopher glanced dubiously at Miss Bell. She looked back, and there was an instant when a sort of hidden prettiness in her almost came out into the open. Then she blinked pale eyelashes and murmured, "Pleased to meet you," in a voice as uninteresting as her clothes.

"She'll be your last Governess, I hope," said Mama. Because of that, Christopher ever after thought of Miss Bell as the Last Governess. "She's going to prepare you for school. I wasn't meaning to send you away yet, but your uncle says - - Anyway, a good education is important for your career and, to be blunt with you, Christopher, your papa has made a most vexatious hash of the money - which is mine, not his, as you know - and lost practically all of it. Luckily I had your uncle to turn to and... "

"And once turned to, I don't let people down," Uncle Ralph said, with a quick flick of a glance at the Governess. Maybe he meant she should not be hearing this. "Fortunately, there's plenty left to send you to school, and then your mama is going to recoup a bit by living abroad. She'll like that - eh, Miranda? And Miss Bell is going to be found another post with glowing references. Everyone's going to be fine."

His smile went to all of them one by one, full of warmth and confidence. Mama laughed and dabbed scent behind her ears. The Last Governess almost smiled, so that the hidden prettiness half emerged again. Christopher tried to grin a strong manly grin at Uncle Ralph, because that seemed to be the only way to express the huge, almost hopeless adoration that was growing in him. Uncle Ralph laughed, a golden brown laugh, and completed the conquest of Christopher by fishing in a tweed pocket and tipping his nephew a bright new sixpence.

Christopher would have died rather than spend that sixpence. Whenever he changed clothes, he transferred the sixpence to the new pockets. It was another way of expressing his adoration of Uncle Ralph. It was clear that Uncle Ralph had stepped in to save Mama from ruin, and this made him the first good man that Christopher had met. And on top of that, he was the only person outside the Anywheres who had bothered to speak to Christopher in that friendly man-to-man way.

Christopher tried to treasure the Last Governess too, for Uncle Ralph's sake, but that was not so easy. She was so very boring. She had a drab, calm way of speaking, and she never raised her voice or showed impatience, even when he was stupid about Mental Arithmetic or Levitation, both of which all the other Governesses had somehow missed out on.

"If a herring and a half cost three-ha'pence, Christopher," she explained drearily, "that's a penny and a half for a fish and a half. How much for a whole fish?"

"I don't know," he said, trying not to yawn.

"Very well," the Last Governess said calmly. "We'll think again tomorrow. Now look in this little mirror and see if you can't make it rise in the air just an inch."

But Christopher could not move the mirror any more than he could understand what a herring cost. The Last Governess put the mirror aside and quietly went on to puzzle him about French. After a few days of this, Christopher tried to make her angry, hoping she would turn more interesting when she shouted. But she just said calmly, "Christopher, you're getting silly. You may play with your toys now. But remember you only take one out at a time, and you put that back before you get out another. That is our rule."

Christopher had become rapidly and dismally accustomed to this rule. It reduced the fun a lot. He had also become used to the Last Governess sitting beside him while he played. The other Governesses had seized the chance to rest, but this one sat in a hard chair efficiently mending his clothes, which reduced the fun even more. Nevertheless, he got the candlestick of chiming bells out of the cupboard, because that was fascinating in its way. It was so arranged that it played different tunes, depending on which bell you touched first. When he had finished with it, the Last Governess paused in her darning to say, "That goes in the middle of the top shelf. Put it back before you take that clockwork dragon." She waited to listen to the chiming that showed Christopher had done what she said. Then, as she drove the needle into the sock again, she asked in her dullest way, "Who gave you the bells, Christopher?"

No one had ever asked Christopher about anything he had brought back from the Anywheres before. He was rather at a loss. "A man under a yellow umbrella," he answered. "He said they bring luck on my house."

"What man where?" the Last Governess wanted to know - except that she did not sound as if she cared if she knew or not.

"An Almost Anywhere," Christopher said. "The hot one with the smells and the snake charmers. The man didn't say his name."

"That's not an answer, Christopher," the Last Governess said calmly, but she did not say anything more until the next time, two days later, when Christopher got out the chiming bells again. "Remember where they go when you've finished with them," she said. "Have you thought yet where the man with the yellow umbrella was?"

"Outside a painted place where some gods live," Christopher said, setting the small silvery bellcups ringing. "He was nice. He said it didn't matter about money."

"Very generous," remarked the Last Governess. "Where was this painted house for gods, Christopher?"

"I told you. It was an Almost Anywhere," Christopher said.

"And I told you that that is not an answer," the Last Governess said. She folded up her darning.
"Christopher, I insist that you tell me where those bells came from."

"Why do you want to know?" Christopher asked, wishing she would leave him in peace.

"Because," the Last Governess said with truly ominous calm, "you are not being frank and open like a nice boy should be. I suspect you stole those bells."

At this monstrous injustice, Christopher's face reddened and tears stood in his eyes. "I haven't!" he cried out. "He gave them to me! People always give me things in the Anywheres, only I drop most of them. Look." And regardless of her one-toy-at-a-time rule, he rushed to the cupboard, fetched the horse flute, the mermaids' necklace and the clockwork dragon, and banged them down in her darning basket. "Look! These are from other Anywheres."

The Last Governess gazed at them with terrible impassiveness. "Am I to believe you have stolen these, too?" she said. She put the basket and the toys on the floor and stood up. "Come with me. This must be reported to your mama at once."

She seized Christopher's arm and in spite of his yells of "I didn't, I didn't!" she marched him inexorably downstairs.

Christopher leaned backwards and dragged his feet and implored her not to. He knew he would never be able to explain to Mama. All the notice the Last Governess took was to say, "Stop that disgraceful noise. You're a big boy now."

This was something all the Governesses agreed on. But Christopher no longer cared about being big. Tears poured disgracefully down his cheeks and he screamed the name of the one person he knew who saved people. "Uncle Ralph! I'll explain to Uncle Ralph!"

The Last Governess glanced down at him at that. Just for a moment, the hidden prettiness flickered in her face. But to Christopher's despair, she dragged him to Mama's dressing room and knocked on the door.

Mama turned from her mirror in surprise. She looked at Christopher, red faced and gulping and wet with tears. She looked at the Last Governess. "Whatever is going on? Is he ill?"

"No, Madam," the Last Governess said in her dullest way. "Something has happened which I think your brother should be informed of at once."

"Ralph?" said Mama. "You mean I'm to write to Ralph? Or is it more urgent than that?"

"Urgent, Madam, I think," the Last Governess said drearily. "Christopher says that he is willing to confess to his uncle. I suggest, if I may make so bold, that you summon him now."

Mama yawned. This Governess bored her terribly. "I'll do my best," she said, "but I don't answer for my brother's temper. He lives a very busy life, you know." Carelessly, she pulled one of her dark glossy hairs out of the silver-backed brush she had been using. Then, much more carefully, she began teasing hairs out of her silver and crystal hair-tidy. Most of the hairs were Mama's own dark ones, but Christopher, watching Mama's beautiful pearly nails delicately pinching and pulling at the hairs, while he sobbed and swallowed and sobbed again, saw that one of the hairs was a much redder color. This was the one Mama pulled out. She laid it across her own hair from the brush. Then, picking up what seemed to be a hatpin with a glittery knob, she laid that across both hairs and tapped it with one sharp, impatient nail. "Ralph," she said. "Ralph Weatherby Argent. Miranda wants you."

One of the mirrors of the dressing table turned out to be a window,, with Uncle Ralph looking through it, rather irritably, while he knotted his tie. "What is it?" he said. "I'm busy today."
"When aren't you?" asked Mama. "Listen, that Governess is here looking like a wet week as usual. She's brought Christopher. Something about a confession. Could you come and sort it out? It's beyond me."

"Is she?" said Uncle Ralph. He leaned sideways to look through the mirror - or window, or whatever - and when he saw Christopher, he winked and broke into his sunniest smile. "Dear, dear. This does look upsetting. I'll be along at once."

Christopher saw him leave the window and walk away to one side. Mama had only time to turn to the Last Governess and say, "There, I've done my best!" before the door of her dressing room opened and Uncle Ralph strode in.

Christopher quite forgot his sobs in the interest of all this. He tried to think what was on the other side of the wall of Mama's dressing room. The stairs, as far as he knew. He supposed Uncle Ralph could have a secret room in the wall about one foot wide, but he was much more inclined to think he had been seeing real magic. As he decided this, Uncle Ralph secretly passed him a large white handkerchief and walked cheerfully into the middle of the room to allow Christopher time to wipe his face.

"Now what's all this about?" he said.

"I have no idea," said Mama. "She'll explain, no doubt."

Uncle Ralph cocked a ginger eyebrow at the Last Governess. "I found Christopher playing with an artifact," the Governess said tediously, "of a kind I have never seen before, made of a metal that is totally unknown to me. He then revealed he had three more artifacts, each one different from the other, but he was unable to explain how he had come by them."

Uncle Ralph looked at Christopher, who hid the handkerchief behind his back and looked nervously back. "Enough to get anyone into hot water, old chap," Uncle Ralph said. "Suppose you take me to look at these things and explain where they do come from?"

Christopher heaved a great happy sigh. He had known he could count on Uncle Ralph to save him. "Yes please," he said.

They went back upstairs with the Last Governess processing ahead and Christopher hanging gratefully on to Uncle Ralph's large warm hand. When they got there, the Governess sat quietly down to her sewing again as if she felt she had done her bit. Uncle Ralph picked up the bells and jingled them. "By Jove!" he said. "These sound like nothing else in the universe!" He took them to the window and carefully examined each bell. "Bull's-eye!" he said. "You clever woman! They are like nothing else in the universe. Some kind of strange alloy, I think, different for each bell. Handmade by the look of them." He pointed genially to the tuffet by the fire. "Sit there, old chap, and oblige me by explaining what you did to get these bells here."

Christopher sat down, full of willing eagerness. "I had to hold them in my mouth while I climbed through The Place Between," he explained.

"No, no," said Uncle Ralph. "That sounds like near the end. Start with what you did in the beginning before you got the bells."

"I went down the valley to the snake-charming town," Christopher said.

"No, before that, old chap," said Uncle Ralph. "When you set off from here. What time of day was it, for instance? After breakfast? Before lunch?"

"No, in the night," Christopher explained. "It was one of the dreams."
In this way, by going carefully back every time Christopher missed out a step, Uncle Ralph got Christopher to tell him in detail about the dreams, and The Place Between, and the Almost Anywheres he came to down the valleys. Since Uncle Ralph, far from being angry, seemed steadily more delighted, Christopher told him everything he could think of.

"What did I tell you!" he said, possibly to the Governess. "I can always trust my hunches. Something had to come out of a heredity like this! By Jove, Christopher old chap, you must be the only person in the world who can bring back solid objects from a spirit trip! I doubt if even old de Witt can do that!"

Christopher glowed to find Uncle Ralph so pleased with him, but he could not help feeling resentful about the Last Governess. "She said I stole them."

"Take no notice of her. Women are always jumping to the wrong conclusions," Uncle Ralph said, lighting a cigar. At this, the Last Governess shrugged her shoulders up and smiled a little. The hidden prettiness came out stronger than Christopher had ever seen it, almost as if she was human and sharing a joke. Uncle Ralph blew a roll of blue smoke over them both, beaming like the sun coming through clouds. "Now the next thing, old chap," he said, "is to do a few experiments to test this gift of yours. Can you control these dreams of yours? Can you say when you're about to go off to your Almost Anywheres - or can't you?"

Christopher thought about it. "I go when I want to," he said.

"Then have you any objection to doing me a test run, say tomorrow night?" Uncle Ralph asked.

"I could go tonight," Christopher offered.

"No, tomorrow," said Uncle Ralph. "It'll take me a day to get things set up. And when you go, this is what I want you to do." He leaned forward and pointed his cigar at Christopher, to let him know he was serious. "You set out as usual when you're ready and try to do two experiments for me. First, I'm going to arrange to have a man waiting for you in your Place Between. I want you to see if you can find him. You may have to shout to find him - I don't know: I'm not a spirit traveler myself - but anyway, you climb about and see if you can make contact with him. If you do, then you do the second experiment. The man will tell you what that is. And if they both work, then we can experiment some more. Do you
think you can do that? You'd like to help, wouldn't you, old chap?"

"Yes!" said Christopher.

Uncle Ralph stood up and patted his shoulder. "Good lad. Don't let anyone deceive you, old chap. You have a very exciting and important gift here. It's so important that I advise you not to talk about it to anyone but me and Miss Bell over there. Don't tell anyone, not even your mama. Right?"

"Right," said Christopher. It was wonderful that Uncle Ralph thought him important. He was so glad and delighted that he would have done far more for Uncle Ralph than just not tell anyone. That was easy. There was no one to tell.

"So it's our secret," said Uncle Ralph, going to the door. "Just the three of us - and the man I'm going to send, of course. Don't forget you may have to look quite hard to find him, will you?"

"I won't forget," Christopher promised eagerly.

"Good lad," said Uncle Ralph, and went out of the door in a waft of cigar smoke.

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