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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 early morning. Christopher realized that what had woken him was angry cat noises from the basket lying on its side in the middle of the floor. Throgmorten wanted out. Instantly. Christopher sat up beaming with triumph because he had proved he could bring a live animal from an Anywhere. Then he remembered he had a spear sticking out of his chest. He looked down. There was no sign of a spear. There was no blood. Nothing hurt. He felt his chest. Then he undid his pajamas and looked. Incredibly he saw only smooth pale skin without a sign of a wound.

He was all right. The Anywheres were really only a kind of dream after all. He laughed.

"Wong!" Throgmorten said angrily, making the basket roll about.

Christopher supposed he had better let the beast out. Remembering those spiked tearing claws, he stood up on his bed and unhitched the heavy bar that held the curtains. It was hard to maneuver with the curtains hanging from it and sliding about, but Christopher rather thought he might need the curtains to shield him from Throgmorten's rage, so he kept them in a bunch in front of him. After a bit of swaying and prodding, he managed to get the brass point at the end of the curtain bar under the latch of the lid and open the basket.

The cat sounds stopped. Throgmorten seemed to have decided that this was a trick. Christopher waited, gently bouncing on his bed and clutching the bar and the bundle of curtain, for Throgmorten to attack. But nothing happened. Christopher leaned forward cautiously until he could see into the basket. It contained a round ginger bundle gently moving up and down. Throgmorten, disdaining freedom now he had it, had curled up and gone to sleep.

"All right then," said Christopher. "Be like that!" With a bit of a struggle, he hitched the curtain pole back on its supports again and went to sleep himself.
Next time he woke, Throgmorten was exploring the room. Christopher lay on his back and warily watched Throgmorten jump from one piece of furniture to another all around the room. As far as he could tell, Throgmorten was not angry anymore. He seemed simply full of curiosity. Or maybe, Christopher thought, as Throgmorten gathered himself and jumped from the top of the wardrobe to the curtain pole, Throgmorten had a bet on with himself that he could get all around the night nursery without touching the floor. As Throgmorten began scrambling along the pole, hanging on to it and the curtains with those remarkable claws of his, Christopher was sure of it.

What happened then was definitely not Throgmorten's fault. Christopher knew it was his own fault for not putting the curtain pole back properly. The end furthest from Throgmorten and nearest Christopher came loose and plunged down like a harpoon, with the curtains rattling along it and Throgmorten hanging on frantically. For an instant, Christopher had Throgmorten's terror-stricken eyes glaring into his own as Throgmorten rode the pole down. Then the brass end hit the middle of Christopher's chest. It went in like the spear. It was not sharp and it was not heavy, but it went right into him all the same. Throgmorten landed on his stomach an instant later, all claws and panic. Christopher thought he screamed. Anyway either he or Throgmorten made enough noise to fetch the Last Governess running. The last thing Christopher saw for the time being was the Last Governess in her white nightdress, gray with horror, moving her hands in quick peculiar gestures and gabbling very odd words...

He woke up a long time later, in the afternoon by the light, very sore in front and not too sure of very much, to hear Uncle Ralph's voice.

"This is a damned nuisance, Effie, just when things were looking so promising! Is he going to be all right?"

"I think so," the Last Governess replied. The two of them were standing by Christopher's bed. "I got there in time to say a staunching spell and it seems to be healing." While Christopher was thinking, Funny, I didn't know she was a witch! she went on, "I haven't dared breathe a word to your sister."

"Don't," said Uncle Ralph. "She has her plans for him cut and dried, and she'll put a stop to mine if she finds out. Drat that cat! I've got things set up all over the Related Worlds on the strength of that first run and I don't want to cancel them. You think he'll recover?"

"In time," said the Last Governess. "There's a strong spell in the dressing."

"Then I shall have to postpone everything," Uncle Ralph said, not sounding at all pleased. "At least we've got the cat. Where's the thing got to?"

"Under the bed. I tried to fetch it out but I just got scratched for my pains," said the Last Governess.

"Women!" said Uncle Ralph. "I'll get it." Christopher heard his knees thump on the floor. His voice came up from underneath. "Here. Nice pussy. Come here, pussy."

There was a very serious outbreak of cat noises.

Uncle Ralph's knees went thumping away backwards and his voice said quite a string of bad words. "The creature's a perfect devil!" he added. "It's torn lumps off me!" Then his voice came from higher up and further away. "Don't let it get away. Put a holding spell on this room until I get back."

"Where are you going?" the Last Governess asked.

"To fetch some thick leather gloves and a vet," Uncle Ralph said from by the door. "That's an Asheth Temple cat. It's almost priceless. Wizards will pay five hundred pounds just for an inch of its guts or one of its claws. Its eyes will fetch several thousand pounds each - so make sure you set a good tight spell. It may take me an hour or so to find a vet."

There was silence after that. Christopher dozed. He woke up feeling so much better that he sat up and took a look at his wound. The Last Governess had efficiently covered it with smooth white bandage. Christopher peered down inside it with great interest. The wound was a round red hole, much smaller than he expected. It hardly hurt at all.

While he wondered how to find out how deep it was, there was a piercing wail from the window-sill behind him. He looked around. The window was open - the Last Governess had a passion for fresh air - and Throgmorten was crouched on the sill beside it, glaring appealingly. When he saw Christopher was looking, Throgmorten put out one of his razor-loaded paws and scraped it down the space between the window and the frame. The empty air made a sound like someone scratching a blackboard.

"Wong," Throgmorten commanded.

Christopher wondered why Throgmorten should think he was on his side. One way and another, Throgmorten had half-killed him.

"Wong?" Throgmorten asked piteously.

On the other hand, Christopher thought, none of the half-killing had been Throgmorten's fault. And though Throgmorten was probably the ugliest and most vicious cat in any Anywhere, it did not seem fair to kidnap him and drag him to a strange world and then let him be sold to wizards, parcel by parcel.

"All right," he said and climbed out of bed. Throgmorten stood up eagerly, with his thin ginger snake of a tail straight up behind. "Yes, but I'm not sure how to break spells," Christopher said, approaching very cautiously. Throgmorten backed away and made no attempt to scratch. Christopher put his hand out to the open part of the window. The empty space felt rubbery and gave when he pressed it, but he could not put his hand through even if he shoved it hard. So he did the only thing he could think of and opened the window wider. He felt the spell tear like a rather tough cobweb.

"Wong!" Throgmorten uttered appreciatively. Then he was off. Christopher watched him gallop down a slanting drain and levitate to a windowsill when the drain stopped. From there it was an easy jump to the top of a bay window and then to the ground. Throgmorten's ginger shape went trotting away into the bushes and squeezed under the next-door fence, already with the air of looking for birds to kill and other cats to bully. Christopher put the window carefully back the way it had been and got back to bed.

When he woke up next Mama was outside the door saying anxiously, "How is he? I hope it's not infectious."

"Not in the least, Madam," said the Last Governess.

So Mama came in, filling the room with her scents - which was just as well, since Throgmorten had left his own penetrating odor under the bed - and looked at Christopher. "He seems a bit pale," she said. "Do we need a doctor?"

"I saw to all that, Madam," said the Last Governess.

"Thank you," said Mama. "Make sure it doesn't interrupt his education."

When Mama had gone, the Last Governess fetched her umbrella and poked it under the bed and behind the furniture, looking for Throgmorten. "Where has it got to?" she said, climbing up to jab at the space on top of the wardrobe.
"I don't know," Christopher said truthfully, since he knew Throgmorten would be many streets away by now. "He was here before I went to sleep."

"It's vanished!" said the Last Governess. "A cat can't just vanish!"

Christopher said experimentally, "He was an Asheth Temple cat."

"True," said the Last Governess. "They are wildly magic by all accounts. But your uncle's not going to be at all pleased to find it gone."

This made Christopher feel decidedly guilty. He could not go back to sleep, and when, about an hour later, he heard brisk heavy feet approaching the door, he sat up at once, wondering what he was going to say to Uncle Ralph. But the man who came in was not Uncle Ralph. He was a total stranger - No, it was Papa! Christopher recognized the black whiskers. Papa's face was fairly familiar too, because it was quite like his own, except for the whiskers and a solemn, anxious look. Christopher was astonished because he had somehow thought - without anyone ever having exactly said so - that Papa had left the house in disgrace after whatever went wrong with the money.

"Are you all right, son?" Papa said, and the hurried, worried way he spoke, and the way he looked around nervously at the door, told Christopher that Papa had indeed left the house and did not want to be found here. This made it plain that Papa had come specially to see Christopher, which astonished Christopher even more.

"I'm quite well, thank you," Christopher said politely. He had not the least idea how to talk to Papa, face-to-face. Politeness seemed safest.

"Are you sure?" Papa asked, staring attentively at him. "The life-spell I have for you showed - In fact it stopped, as if you were - um - Frankly I thought you might be dead."

Christopher was more astonished still. "Oh no, I'm feeling much better now," he said.

"Thank God for that!" said Papa. "I must have made an error setting the spell - it seems a habit with me just now. But I have drawn up your horoscope, too, and checked it several times, and I must warn you that the next year and a half will be a time of acute danger for you, my son. You must be very careful."

"Yes," said Christopher. "I will." He meant it. He could still see the curtain rod coming down if he shut his eyes. And he had to keep trying not to think at all of the way the spear had stuck out of him.

Papa leaned a little closer and looked furtively at the door again. "That brother of your mama's - Ralph Argent - I hear he's managing your mama's affairs," he said. "Try to have as little to do with him as you can, my son. He is not a nice person to know." And having said that, Papa patted Christopher's shoulder and hurried away. Christopher was quite relieved. One way and another, Papa had made him very uncomfortable. Now he was even more worried about what he would say to Uncle Ralph.

But to his great relief, the Last Governess told him that Uncle Ralph was not coming. He said that he was too annoyed about losing Throgmorten to make a good sick-visitor. Christopher sighed thankfully and settled down to enjoy being an invalid. He drew pictures, he ate grapes, he read books, and he spun out his illness as long as he could. This. was not easy. The next morning his wound was only a round itchy scab, and on the third day it was hardly there at all. On the fourth day, the Last Governess made him get up and have lessons as usual; but it had been lovely while it lasted.

On the day after that, the Last Governess said, "Your uncle wants to try another experiment tomorrow. He wants you to meet the man at Series Eight this time. Do you think you feel well enough?"
Christopher felt perfectly well, and provided nobody wanted him to go near Series Ten again, he was quite willing to go on another dream.

Series Eight turned out to be the bleak and stony Anywhere up above Nine. Christopher had not cared for it much when he had explored it on his own, but Tacroy was so glad to see him that it would have made up for a far worse place.

"Am I glad to see you!" Tacroy said, while Christopher was firming him up. "I'd resigned myself to being the cause of your death. I could kick myself for persuading your uncle to get you to fetch an animal! Everyone knows living creatures cause all sorts of problems, and I've told him we're never going to try that again. Are you really all right?"

"Fine," said Christopher. "My chest was smooth when I woke up." In fact the funny thing about both accidents was that Throgmorten's scratches had taken twice as long to heal as either wound. But Tacroy seemed to find this so hard to believe and to be so full of self-blame that Christopher got embarrassed and changed the subject. "Have you still got the young lady who's stern stuff?"

"Sterner than ever," Tacroy said, becoming much more cheerful at once. "The wretched girl's setting my teeth on edge with that flute at this moment. Take a look down the valley. Your uncle's been busy since you - since your accident."

Uncle Ralph had perfected the horseless carriage. It was sitting on the sparse stony grass beside the stream as firm as anything, though it looked more like a rough wooden sled than any kind of carriage. Something had been done so that Tacroy was able to take hold of the rope fastened to the front. When he pulled, the carriage came gliding down the valley after him without really touching the ground.

"It's supposed to return to London with me when I go back to my garret," he explained. "I know that doesn't seem likely, but your uncle swears he's got it right this time. The question is, will it go back with a load on it, or will the load stay behind? That's what tonight's experiment is to find out."

Christopher had to help Tacroy haul the sled up the long stony trail beyond the valley. Tacroy was never quite firm enough to give a good pull. At length they came to a bleak stone farm crouched halfway up the hill, where a group of thick-armed silent women were waiting in the yard beside a heap of packages carefully wrapped in oiled silk. The packages smelled odd, but that smell was drowned by the thick garlic breath from the women. As soon as the sled came to a stop, garlic rolled out in waves as the women picked up the packages and tried to load them on the sled. The parcels dropped straight through it and fell on the ground.

"No good," said Tacroy. "I thought you were warned. Let Christopher do it."

It was hard work. The women watched untrustingly while Christopher loaded the parcels and tied them in place with rope. Tacroy tried to help, but he was not firm enough and his hands went through the parcels. Christopher got tired and cold in the strong wind. When one of the women gave a stern, friendly smile and asked him if he would like to come indoors for a drink, he said yes gladly.

"Not today, thank you," Tacroy said. "This thing's still experimental and we're not sure how long the spells will hold. We'd better get back." He could see Christopher was disappointed. As they towed the sled away downhill, he said, "I don't blame you. Call this just a business trip. Your uncle aims to get this carriage corrected by the way it performs tonight. My devout hope is that he can make it firm enough to be loaded by the people who bring the load, and then we can count you out of it altogether."

"But I like helping," Christopher protested. "Besides, how would you pull it if I'm not there to firm you up?"
"There is that," Tacroy said. He thought about it while they got to the bottom of the hill and he started plodding up the valley with the rope straining over his shoulder. "There's something I must say to you," he panted. "Are you learning magic at all?" "I don't think so," Christopher said.

"Well you should be," Tacroy panted. "You must have the strongest talent I've ever encountered. Ask your mother to let you have lessons."

"I think Mama wants me to be a missionary," Christopher said.

Tacroy screwed his eyes up over that. "Are you sure? Might you have misheard her? Wouldn't the word be magician?"

"No," said Christopher. "She says I'm to go into Society."

"Ah Society!" Tacroy panted wistfully. "I have dreams of myself in Society, looking handsome in a velvet suit and surrounded by young ladies playing harps."

"Do missionaries wear velvet suits?" asked Christopher. "Or do you mean Heaven?"

Tacroy looked up at the stormy gray sky. "I don't think this conversation is getting anywhere," he remarked to it. "Try again. Your uncle tells me you're going away to school soon. If it's any kind of a decent school, they should teach magic as an extra. Promise me that you'll ask to be allowed to take it."

"All right," said Christopher. The mention of school gave him a jab of nerves somewhere deep in his stomach. "What are schools like?"

"Full of children," said Tacroy. "I won't prejudice you." By this time he had labored his way to the top of the valley, where the mists of The Place Between were swirling in front of them. "Now comes the tricky part," he said. "Your uncle thought this thing might have more chance of arriving with its load if you gave it a push as I leave. But before I go - next time you find yourself in a Heathen Temple and they start chasing you, drop everything and get out through the nearest wall. Understand? By the looks of things, I'll be seeing you in a week or so."

Christopher put his shoulder against the back of the carriage and shoved as Tacroy stepped off into the mist holding the rope. The carriage tilted and slid downwards after him. As soon as it was in the mists it looked all light and papery like a kite, and like a kite it plunged and wallowed down out of sight.

Christopher climbed back home thoughtfully. It shook him to find he had been in the Anywhere where the Heathens lived without knowing it. He had been right to be nervous of Heathens. Nothing, he thought, would possess him to go back to Series Ten now. And he did wish that Mama had not decided that he should be a missionary.

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