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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 thought he would never live through the time until tomorrow night. He burned to show Uncle Ralph what he could do. If it had not been for the Last Governess, he would have made himself ill with excitement, but she managed to be so boring that she somehow made everything else boring too. By the time Christopher went to bed that next night, he was almost wondering if it was worth dreaming.

But he did dream, because Uncle Ralph had asked him to, and got out of bed as usual and walked around the fireplace to the valley, where his clothes were lying on the rocky path as usual. By now this lot of clothes was torn, covered with mud and assorted filth from a hundred Almost Anywheres, and at least two sizes too small. Christopher put them on quickly, without bothering to do up buttons that would not meet. He never wore shoes because they got in the way as he climbed the rocks. He pattered around the crag in his bare feet into The Place Between.

It was formless and unfinished as ever, all slides and jumbles of rock rearing in every direction and high overhead. The mist billowed as formlessly as the rocks. It was one of the times when rain slanted in it, driven this way and that by the hither-thither winds that blew in The Place Between. Christopher hoped he would not have to spend too long here hunting for Uncle Ralph's man. It made him feel so small, besides being cold and wet. He dutifully braced himself on a slide of rubbly sand and shouted.

"Hallo!"

The Place Between made his voice sound no louder than a bird cheeping. The windy fog seemed to snatch the sound away and bury it in a flurry of rain. Christopher listened for a reply, but for minutes on end the only noise was the hissing hum of the wind. He was wondering whether to shout again, when he heard a little cheeping thread of sound, wailing its thin way back to him across the rocks. "Hallo-o-o!" It was his own shout. Christopher was sure of it. Right from the start of his dreams, he had known that The Place Between liked to have everything that did not belong sent back to the place it came from. That was why he always climbed back to bed faster than he did when he climbed out to a new valley. The Place pushed him back.

Christopher thought about this. It probably did no good to shout. If Uncle Ralph's man was out there in the mist, he would not be able to stand and wait for very long, without getting pushed back to the valley he came from. So the man would have to wait in the mouth of a valley and hope that Christopher found him. Christopher sighed. There were such thousands and thousands of valleys, high up, low down, turning off at every angle you could think of, and some valleys turned off other valleys - and that was only if you crawled around the side of the Place that was nearest. If you went the other way, towards the Anywhere that did not want people, there were probably many thousands more. On the other hand, Uncle Ralph would not want to make it too difficult. The man must be quite near.

Determined to make Uncle Ralph's experiment a success if he could, Christopher set off, climbing, sliding, inching across wet rock with his face close to the cold hard smell of it. The first valley he came to was empty. "Hallo?" he called down it. But the river rushed down green empty space and he could see no one was there. He backed out and climbed up and sideways to the next. And there, before he reached the opening, he could see someone through the mist, dark and shiny with rain, crouching on a rock and scrabbling for a handhold overhead.

"Hallo?" Christopher asked.

"Well I'll be - Is that Christopher?" the person asked. It was a strong young man's voice. "Come on out where we can see one another."

With a certain amount of heaving and slipping, both of them scrambled around a bulge of rock and dropped down into another valley, where the air was calm and warm. The grass here was lit pink by a sunset in the distance.

"Well, well," said Uncle Ralph's man. "You're about half the size I expected. Pleased to meet you, Christopher. I'm Tacroy." He grinned down at Christopher. Tacroy was as strong and young as his voice, rather squarely and sturdily built, with a roundish brown face and merry-looking hazel eyes. Christopher liked him at once - partly because Tacroy was the first grown man he had met who had curly hair like his own. It was not quite like. Where Christopher's hair made loose black rounds, Tacroy's hair coiled tight, like a mass of little pale brown springs. Christopher thought Tacroy's hair must hurt when a Governess or someone made him comb it. This made him notice that Tacroy's curls were quite dry. Nor was there any trace of the shiny wetness that had been on his clothes a moment before. Tacroy was wearing a greenish worsted suit, rather shabby, but it was not even damp.

"How did you get dry so quickly?" Christopher asked him.

Tacroy laughed. "I'm not here quite as bodily as you seem to be. And you're soaked through. How was that?"

"The rain in The Place Between," Christopher said. "You were wet there, too."

"Was I?" said Tacroy. "I don't visualize at all on the Passage - it's more like night with a few stars to guide by. I find it quite hard to visualize even here on the World Edge - though I can see you quite well of course, since we're both willing it." He saw that Christopher was staring at him, not understanding more than a word of this, and screwed his eyes up thoughtfully. This made little laughing wrinkles all around Tacroy's eyes. Christopher liked him better than ever. "Tell me," Tacroy said, waving a brown hand towards the rest of the valley, "what do you see here?"

"A valley," Christopher said, wondering what Tacroy saw, "with green grass. The sun's setting and it's making the stream down the middle look pink."

"Is it now?" said Tacroy. "Then I expect it would surprise you very much to know that all I can see is a slightly pink fog."

"Why?" said Christopher.

"Because I'm only here in spirit, while you seem to be actually here in the flesh," Tacroy said. "Back in London, my valuable body is lying on a sofa in a deep trance, tucked up in blankets and warmed by stone hot-water bottles, while a beautiful and agreeable young lady plays tunes to me on her harp. I insisted on the young lady as part of my pay. Do you think you're tucked up in bed somewhere too?"

When Tacroy saw that this question made Christopher both puzzled and impatient, his eyes screwed up again. "Let's get going," he said. "The next part of the experiment is to see if you can bring a prepared package back. I've made my mark. Make yours, and we'll get down into this world."

"Mark?" said Christopher.

"Mark," said Tacroy. "If you don't make a mark, how do you think you will find your way in and out of this world, or know which one it is when you come to it?"

"Valleys are quite easy to find," Christopher protested. "And I can tell that I've been to this Anywhere before. It's got the smallest stream of all of them."

Tacroy shrugged with his eyes screwed right up. "My boy, you're giving me the creeps. Be kind and please me and scratch the number nine on a rock or something. I don't want to be the one who loses you."
Christopher obligingly picked up a pointed flint and dug away at the mud of the path until he had made a large wobbly 9 there. He looked up to find Tacroy staring as if he was a ghost. "What's the matter?"

Tacroy gave a short wild-sounding laugh. "Oh nothing much. I can see it, that's all. That's only unheard of, that's all. Can you see my mark?"

Christopher looked everywhere he could think of, including up at the sunset sky, and had to confess that he could see nothing like a mark.

"Thank Heaven!" said Tacroy. "At least that's normal! But I'm still seriously wondering what you are. I begin to understand why your uncle got so excited."

They sauntered together down the valley. Tacroy had his hands in his pockets and he seemed quite casual, but Christopher got the feeling, all the same, that Tacroy usually went into an Anywhere in some way that was quicker and quite different. He caught Tacroy glancing at him several times, as if Tacroy was not sure of the way to go and was waiting to see what Christopher did. He seemed very relieved when they came to the end of the valley and found themselves on the rutty road among the huge jungle trees. The sun was almost down. There were lights at the windows of the tumbledown old inn in front of them.

This was one of the first Anywheres Christopher had been to. He remembered it hotter and wetter. The big trees had been bright green and dripping. Now they seemed brown and a bit wilted, as far as he could tell in the pink light. When he followed Tacroy onto the crazily built wooden veranda of the inn, he saw that the blobs of colored fungus that had fascinated him last time had all turned dry and white. He wondered if the Landlord would remember him.

"Landlord!" Tacroy shouted. When nothing happened, he said to Christopher, "Can you bang on the table? I can't."

Christopher noticed that the bent boards of the veranda creaked under his own feet, but not under Tacroy's. It did seem as if Tacroy was not really here in some way. He picked up a wooden bowl and rapped hard on the twisted table with it. It was another thing that made Tacroy's eyes screw up.

When the Landlord shuffled out, he was wrapped in at least three knitted shawls and too unhappy to notice Christopher, let alone remember him.

"Ralph's messenger," Tacroy said. "I believe you have a package for me."

"Ah yes," shivered the Landlord. "Won't you come inside out of this exceptionally bitter weather, sir? This is the hardest winter anyone has known for years."

Tacroy's eyebrows went up and he looked at Christopher. "I'm quite warm," Christopher said.

"Then we'll stay outside," Tacroy said. "The package?"

"Directly, sir," shivered the Landlord. "But won't you take something hot to warm you up? On the house, sir."

"Yes please," Christopher said quickly. Last time he was here he had been given something chocolatish which was not cocoa but much nicer. The Landlord nodded and smiled and shuffled shivering back indoors. Christopher sat at the table. Even though it was almost dark now, he felt deliriously warm. His clothes were drying nicely. Crowds of fleshy moth-things were flopping at the lighted windows, but enough light came between them for him to see Tacroy sit down in the air and then slide himself sideways onto the chair on the other side of the table.
"You'll have to drink whatever-it-is for me," Tacroy said.

"That won't worry me," Christopher said.

"Why did you tell me to write the number nine?"

"Because this set of worlds is known as Series Nine," Tacroy explained. "Your uncle seems to have a lot of dealings here. That was why it was easy to set the experiment up. If it works, I think he's planning a whole set of trips, all along the Related Worlds. You'd find that a bit boring, wouldn't you?"

"Oh no. I'd like it," Christopher said. "How many are there after nine?"

"Ours is Twelve," said Tacroy. "Then they go down to One, along the other way. Don't ask me why they go back to front. It's traditional."

Christopher frowned over this. There were a great many more valleys than that in The Place Between, all arranged higgledy-piggledy too, not in any neat way that made you need to count up to twelve. But he supposed there must be some way in which Tacroy knew best - or Uncle Ralph did.

The Landlord shuffled hastily out again. He was carrying two cups that steamed out a dark chocolate smell, although this lovely aroma was rather spoiled by a much less pleasant smell coming from a round leather container on a long strap, which he dumped on the table beside the cups. "Here we are," he said. "That's the package and here's to take the chill off you and drink to further dealings, sir. I don't know how you two can stand it out here!"

"We come from a cold and misty climate," Tacroy said. "Thanks," he added to the Landlord's back, as the Landlord scampered indoors again. "I suppose it must be tropical here usually," he remarked as the door slammed. "I wouldn't know. I can't feel heat or cold in the spirit. Is that stuff nice?"

Christopher nodded happily. He had already drained one tiny cup. It was dark, hot, and delicious. He pulled Tacroy's cup over and drank that in sips, to make the taste last as long as possible. The round leather bottle smelled so offensive that it got in the way of the taste. Christopher put it on the floor out of the way.

"You can lift it, I see, and drink," Tacroy said, watching him. "Your uncle told me to make quite sure, but I haven't any doubt myself. He said you lose things on the Passage."

"That's because it's hard carrying things across the rocks," Christopher explained. "I need both hands for climbing."

Tacroy thought. "Hm. That explains the strap on the bottle. But there could be all sorts of other reasons. I'd love to find out. For instance, have you ever tried to bring back something alive?"

"Like a mouse?" Christopher suggested. "I could put it in my pocket."

A sudden gleeful look came into Tacroy's face. He looked, Christopher thought, like a person about to be thoroughly naughty. "Let's try it," he said. "Let's see if you can bring back a small animal next. I'll persuade your uncle that we need to know that. I think I'll die of curiosity if we don't try it, even if it's the last thing you do for us!"

After that Tacroy seemed to get more and more impatient. At last he stood up in such a hurry that he stood right through the chair as if it wasn't there. "Haven't you finished yet? Let's get going."

Christopher regretfully stood the tiny cup on his face to get at the last drops. He picked up the round bottle and hung it around his neck by the strap. Then he jumped off the veranda and set off down the rutty road, full of eagerness to show Tacroy the town. Fungus grew like corals on all the porches. Tacroy would like that.

Tacroy called after him. "Hey! Where are you off to?" Christopher stopped and explained. "No way," said Tacroy. "It doesn't matter if the fungus is sky-blue-pink. I can't hold this trance much longer, and I want to make sure you get back too."

This was disappointing. But when Christopher came close and peered at him, Tacroy did seem to be developing a faint, fluttery look, as if he might dissolve into the dark, or turn into one of the moth-things beating at the windows of the inn. Rather alarmed by this, Christopher put a hand on Tacroy's sleeve to hold him in place. For a moment, the arm hardly felt as if it was there - like the feathery balls of dust that grew under Christopher's bed - but after that first moment it firmed up nicely. Tacroy's outline grew hard and black against the dark trees. And Tacroy himself stood very still.

"I do believe," he said, as if he did not believe it at all, "that you've done something to fix me. What did you do?"

"Hardened you up," Christopher said. "You needed it so that we could go and look at the town. Come on."

But Tacroy laughed and took a firm grip on Christopher's arm - so firm that Christopher was sorry he had hardened him. "No, we'll see the fungus another time. Now I know you can do this too, it's going to be much easier. But I only contracted for an hour this trip. Come on."

As they went back up the valley, Tacroy kept peering around. "If it wasn't so dark," he said, "I'm sure I'd be seeing this as a valley, too. I can hear the stream. This is amazing!" But it was clear that he could not see The Place Between. When they got to it, Tacroy went on walking as if he thought it was still the valley. When the wind blew the mist aside, he was not there anymore.

Christopher wondered whether to go back into Nine, or on into another valley. But it did not seem such fun without company, so he let The Place Between push him back home.

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