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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

From then on, Uncle Ralph arranged a new experiment every week. He had, Tacroy said, been very pleased because the carriage and the packages had arrived in Tacroy's garret with no hitch at all. Two wizards and a sorcerer had refined the spell on it until it could stay in another Anywhere for up to a day. The experiments became much more fun. Tacroy and Christopher would tow the carriage to the place where the load was waiting, always carefully wrapped in packages the right size for Christopher to handle. After Christopher had loaded them, he and Tacroy would go exploring.

Tacroy insisted on the exploring. "It's his perks," he explained to the people with the packages. "We'll be back in an hour or so." In Series One they went and looked at the amazing ring trains, where the rings were on pylons high above the ground and miles apart, and the trains went hurtling through them with a noise like the sky tearing without even touching the rings. In Series Two they wandered a maze of bridges over a tangle of rivers and looked down at giant eels resting their chins on sandbars, while even stranger creatures grunted and stirred in the mud under the bridges. Christopher suspected that Tacroy enjoyed exploring as much as he did. He was always cheerful during this part.

"It makes a change from sloping ceilings and peeling walls. I don't get out of London very much," Tacroy confessed while he was advising Christopher how to build a better sand castle on the seashore in Series Five. Series Five turned out to be the Anywhere where Christopher had met the silly ladies. It was all islands. "This is better than a Bank Holiday at Brighton any day!" Tacroy said, looking out across the bright blue crashing waves. "Almost as good as an afternoon's cricket. I wish I could afford to get away more."

"Have you lost all your money then?" Christopher asked sympathetically.

"I never had any money to lose," Tacroy said. "I was a foundling child."

Christopher did not ask any more just then, because he was busy hoping that the mermaids would appear the way they used to. But though he looked and waited, not a single mermaid came.

He went back to the subject the following week in Series Seven. As they followed a Gypsy-looking man who was guiding them to see the Great Glacier, he asked Tacroy what it meant to be a foundling child.

"It means someone found me," Tacroy said cheerfully. "The someone in my case was a very agreeable and very devout Sea Captain, who picked me up as a baby on an island somewhere. He said the Lord had sent me. I don't know who my parents were."

Christopher was impressed. "Is that why you're always so cheerful?"

Tacroy laughed. "I'm mostly cheerful," he said. "But today I feel particularly good because I've got rid of the flute-playing girl at last. Your uncle's found me a nice grandmotherly person who plays the violin quite well. And maybe it's that, or maybe it's your influence, but I feel firmer with every step."

Christopher looked at him, walking ahead along the mountain path. Tacroy looked as hard as the rocks towering on one side and as real as the Gypsy-looking man striding ahead of them both. "I think you're getting better at it," he said.

"Could be," said Tacroy. "I think you've raised my standards. And yet, do you know, young Christopher, until you came along, I was considered the best spirit traveler in the country?"

Here the Gypsy man shouted and waved to them to come and look at the glacier. It sat above them in the rocks in a huge dirty-white V. Christopher did not think much of it. He could see it was mostly just dirty old snow - though it was certainly very big. Its giant icy lip hung over them, almost transparent gray, and water dribbled and poured off it. Series Seven was a strange world, all mountains and snow, but surprisingly hot too. Where the water poured off the glacier, the heat had caused a great growth of strident green ferns and flowing tropical trees. Violent green moss grew scarlet cups as big as hats, all dewed with water. It was like looking at the North Pole and the Equator at once. The three of them seemed tiny beneath it.

"Impressive," said Tacroy. "I know two people who are like this thing. One of them is your uncle."

Christopher thought that was a silly thing to say. Uncle Ralph was nothing like the Giant Glacier. He was annoyed with Tacroy all the following week. But he relented when the Last Governess suddenly presented him with a heap of new clothes, all sturdy and practical things. "You're to wear these when you go on the next experiment," she said. "Your uncle's man has been making a fuss. He says you always wear rags and your teeth were chattering in the snow last time. We don't want you ill, do we?"

Christopher never noticed being cold, but he was grateful to Tacroy. His old clothes had got so much too small that they got in the way when he climbed through The Place Between. He decided he liked Tacroy after all.

"I say," he said, as he loaded packages in a huge metal shed in Series Four, "can I come and visit you in your garret? We live in London, too."

"You live in quite a different part," Tacroy said hastily. "You wouldn't like the area my garret's in at all."

Christopher protested that this didn't matter. He wanted to see Tacroy in the flesh and he was very curious to see the garret. But Tacroy kept making excuses. Christopher kept on asking, at least twice every experiment, until they went to bleak and stony Series Eight again, where Christopher was exceedingly glad of his warm clothes. There, while Christopher stood over the farmhouse fire warming his fingers around a mug of bitter malty tea, gratitude to Tacroy made him say yet again, "Oh, please, can't I visit you in your garret?"

"Oh do stow it, Christopher," Tacroy said, sounding rather tired of it all. "I'd invite you like a shot, but your uncle made a condition that you only see me like this while we're on an experiment. If I told you where I live, I'd lose this job. It's as simple as that."

"I could go around all the garrets," Christopher suggested cunningly, "and shout Tacroy and ask people until I found you."

"You could not," said Tacroy. "You'd draw a complete blank if you tried. Tacroy is my spirit name. I have quite a different name in the flesh."

Christopher had to give in and accept it, though he did not understand in the least.

Meanwhile, the time when he was to go to school was suddenly almost there. Christopher tried carefully not to think of it, but it was hard to forget when he had to spend such a lot of time trying on new clothes. The Last Governess sewed name tapes - C. CHANT - on the clothes and packed them in a shiny black tin trunk - also labeled C. CHANT in bold white letters. This trunk was shortly taken away by a carrier whose thick arms reminded Christopher of the women in Series Eight, and the same carrier took away all Mama's trunks, too, only hers were addressed to Baden-Baden while Christopher's said "Penge School, Surrey."

The day after that, Mama left for Baden-Baden. She came to say good-bye to Christopher, dabbing her eyes with a blue lace handkerchief that matched her traveling suit. "Remember to be good and learn a lot," she said. "And don't forget your mama wants to be very proud of you when you grow up." She put her scented cheek down for Christopher to kiss and said to the Last Governess, "Mind you take him to the dentist now."

"I won't forget, Madam," the Last Governess said in her dreariest way. Somehow her prettiness never seemed to come out in front of Mama.

Christopher did not enjoy the dentist. After banging and scraping around Christopher's teeth as if he was trying to make them all fall out, the dentist made a long speech about how crooked and out of place they were, until Christopher began to think of himself with fangs like Throgmorten's. He made Christopher wear a big shiny tooth-brace, which he was supposed never to take out, even at night. Christopher hated the brace. He hated it so much that it almost took his mind off his fears about school.

The servants covered the furniture with dust sheets and left one by one, until Christopher and the Last Governess were the only people in the house. The Governess took him to the station in a cab that afternoon and put him on the train to school.

On the platform, now the time had come, Christopher was suddenly scared stiff. This really was the first step on the road to becoming a missionary and being eaten by Heathens. Terror seemed to drain the life out of him, down from his face, which went stiff, and out through his legs, which went wobbly. It seemed to make his terror worse that he had not the slightest idea what school was like.

He hardly heard the Last Governess say, "Good-bye, Christopher. Your uncle says he'll give you a month at school to settle down. He'll expect you to meet his man as usual on October the eighth in Series Six. October the eighth. Have you got that?"

"Yes," Christopher said, not attending to a word, and got into the carriage like someone going to be executed.

There were two other new boys in the carriage. The small thin one called Fenning was so nervous that he had to keep leaning out of the window to be sick. The other one was called Oneir, and he was restfully ordinary. By the time the train drew into the school station, Christopher was firm friends with them both. They decided to call themselves the Terrible Three, but in fact everyone in the school called them the Three Bears. "Someone's been sitting in my chair!" they shouted whenever the three came into a room together. This was because Christopher was tall, though he had not known he was before, and Fenning was small, while Oneir was comfortably in the middle.

Before the end of the first week, Christopher was wondering what he had been so frightened of. School had its drawbacks, of course, like its food, and some of the masters, and quite a few of the older boys, but those were nothing beside the sheer fun of being with a lot of boys your own age and having two real friends of your own. Christopher discovered that you dealt with obnoxious masters and most older boys the way you dealt with Governesses: you quite politely told them the truth in the way they wanted to hear it, so that they thought they had won and left you in peace. Lessons were easy. In fact most of the new things Christopher learned were from the other boys. After less than three days, he had learned enough - without quite knowing how - to realize that Mama had never intended him to be a missionary at all. This made him feel a bit of a fool, but he did not let it bother him. When he thought of Mama, he thought much more kindly of her, and threw himself into school with complete enjoyment.

The one lesson he did not enjoy was magic. Christopher found, rather to his surprise, that someone had put him down for magic as an extra. He had a dim notion that Tacroy might have arranged it. If so, Christopher showed no sign of the strong gift for magic Tacroy thought he had. The elementary spells he had to learn bored him nearly to tears.

"Please control your enthusiasm, Chant," the magic master said acidly. "I'm heartily sick of looking at your tonsils." Two weeks into the term, he suggested Christopher give up magic.

Christopher was tempted to agree. But he had discovered by then that he was good at other lessons, and he hated the thought of being a failure even in one thing. Besides, the Goddess had stuck his feet to the spot by magic, and he wanted very much to learn to do that, too. "But my mother's paying for these lessons, sir," he said virtuously. "I will try in future." He went away and made an arrangement with Oneir, whereby Christopher did Oneir's algebra and Oneir made the boring spells work for Christopher. After that, he cultivated a vague look to disguise his boredom and stared out of the window.
"Wool gathering again, Chant?" the magic teacher took to asking. "Can't you muster an honest yawn these days?"

Apart from this one weekly lesson, school was so entirely to Christopher's taste that he did not think of Uncle Ralph or anything to do with the past for well over a month. Looking back on it later, he often thought that if he had known what a short time he was going to be at that school, he would have taken care to enjoy it even more.

At the start of November, he got a letter from Uncle Ralph:

"Old chap,

What exactly are you playing at? I thought we had an arrangement. The experiments have been waiting for you since October and a lot of people's plans have been thrown out. If something's wrong and you can't do it, write and tell me. Otherwise get off your hambones, there's a good chap, and contact my man as usual next Thursday.

Your affectionate but puzzled uncle,

Ralph"

This caused Christopher quite a rush of guilt. Oddly enough, though he did think of Tacroy going uselessly into trances in his garret, most of his guilt was about the Goddess. School had taught him that you did not take swears and swaps lightly. He had sworn to swap Throgmorten for books, and he had let the Goddess down, even though she was only a girl. School considered that far worse than not doing what your uncle wanted. In his guilt, Christopher realized that he was going to have to spend Uncle Ralph's sovereign at last, if he was to give the Goddess anything near as valuable as Throgmorten. A pity, because he now knew that a gold sovereign was big money. But at least he would still have Uncle Ralph's sixpence.

The trouble was, school had also taught him that girls were a Complete Mystery and quite different from boys. He had no idea what books girls liked. He was forced to consult Oneir, who had an older sister.

"All sorts of slush," Oneir said, shrugging. "I can't remember what."

"Then could you come down to the bookshop with me and see if you can see some of them?" Christopher asked.

"I might," Oneir agreed. "What's in it for me?"

"I'll do your geometry tonight as well as your algebra," Christopher said.

On this understanding, Oneir went down to the bookshop with Christopher in the space between lessons and tea. There he almost immediately picked out "The Arabian Nights" (Unexpurgated). "This one's good," he said. He followed it with something called Little Tanya and the Fairies, which Christopher took one look at and put hastily back on the shelf. "I know my sister's read that one," Oneir said, rather injured. "Who's the girl you want it for?"

"She's about the same age as us," Christopher said and, since Oneir was looking at him for a further explanation and he was fairly sure Oneir was not going to believe in someone called the Goddess, he added, "I've got this cousin called Caroline." This was quite true. Mama had once shown him a studio photo of his cousin, all lace and curls. Oneir was not to know that this had nothing whatsoever to do with the sentence that had gone before.
"Wait a sec then," Oneir said, "and I'll see if I can spot some of the real slush." He wandered on along the shelf, leaving Christopher to flip through "The Arabian Nights". It did look good, Christopher thought. Unfortunately he could see from the pictures that it was all about somewhere very like the Goddess's own Anywhere. He suspected the Goddess would call it educational. "Ah, here we are! This is sure-fire slush!" Oneir called, pointing to a whole row of books. "These Millie books. Our house is full of the things."

"Millie Goes to School", Christopher read, "Millie of Lowood House", "Millie Plays the Game". He picked up one called "Millie's Finest Hour". It had some very brightly colored schoolgirls on the front and in small print: "Another moral and uplifting story about your favorite schoolgirl. You will weep with Millie, rejoice with Millie, and meet all your friends from Lowood House School again ..."

"Does your sister really like these?" he asked incredulously.

"Wallows in them," said Oneir. "She reads them over and over again and cries every time."

Though this seemed a funny way to enjoy a book, Christopher was sure Oneir knew best. The books were two and sixpence each. Christopher chose out the first five, up to Millie in the Upper Fourth, and bought "The Arabian Nights" for himself with the rest of the money. After all, it was his gold sovereign. "Could you wrap the Millie books in something waterproof?" he asked the assistant. "They have to go to a foreign country." The assistant obligingly produced some sheets of waxed paper and, without being asked, made a handle for the parcel out of string.

That night Christopher hid the parcel in his bed. Oneir pinched a candle from the kitchens and read aloud from "The Arabian Nights", which turned out to have been a remarkably good buy. "Unex-purgated" seemed to mean that all sorts of interestingly dirty bits had been put in. Christopher was so absorbed that he almost forgot to work out how he might get to The Place Between from the dormitory. It was probably important to go around a corner. He decided the best corner was the one beyond the washstands, just beside Fenning's bed, and then settled down to listen to Oneir until the candle burned out. After that, he would be on his way.

To his exasperation, nothing happened at all. Christopher lay and listened to the snores, the mutters, and the heavy breathing of the other boys for hours. At length he got up with the parcel and tiptoed across the cold floor to the corner beyond Fenning's bed. But he knew this was not right, even before he bumped into the washstands. He went back to bed, where he lay for further hours, and nothing happened even when he went to sleep.

The next day was Thursday, the day he was supposed to meet Tacroy. Knowing he would be too busy to deliver the books that night, Christopher left them in his bedside locker and read aloud from "The Arabian Nights" himself, so that he could control the time when everyone went to sleep. And so he did. All the other boys duly began to snore and mutter and puff as they always did, and Christopher was left lying awake alone, unable to get to The Place Between or to fall asleep either.

By this time he was seriously worried. Perhaps the only way to get to the Anywheres was from the night nursery of the house in London. Or perhaps it was an ability he had simply grown out of. He thought of Tacroy in a useless trance and the Goddess vowing the vengeance of Asheth on him, and he heard the birds beginning to sing before he got to sleep that night.

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