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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

The next morning Matron noticed Christopher stumbling about, aching-eyed and scarcely awake. She pounced on him. "Can't sleep, can you?" she said. "I always watch the ones with tooth-braces. I don't think these dentists realize how uncomfortable they are. I'm going to come and take that away from you before lights-out tonight and you can come and fetch it in the morning. I make Mainwright Major do that too - it works wonders, you'll see."

Christopher had absolutely no faith in this idea. Everyone knew this was one of the bees in Matron's bonnet. But, to his surprise, it worked. He found himself dropping asleep as soon as Fenning began reading "The Arabian Nights". He had just presence of mind to fumble the parcel of books from his locker, before he was dead to the world. And here an even more surprising thing happened. He got out of bed, carrying the parcel, and walked across the dormitory without anyone appearing to notice him at all. He walked right beside Fenning, and Fenning just went on reading with the stolen candle balanced on
his pillow. Nobody seemed to realize when Christopher walked around the corner, out of the dormitory and onto the valley path.

His clothes were lying in the path and he put them on, hanging the parcel from his belt so that he would have both hands free for The Place Between. And there was The Place Between.

So much had happened since Christopher had last been here that he saw it as if this was the first time. His eyes tried to make sense of the shapeless way the rocks slanted, and couldn't. The formlessness stirred a formless kind of fear in him, which the wind and the mist and the rain beating in the mist made worse. The utter emptiness was more frightening still. As Christopher set off climbing and sliding down to Series Ten, with the wind wailing around him and the fog drops making the rocks wet and slippery, he thought he had been right to think, when he was small, that this was the part left over when all the worlds were made. The Place Between was exactly that. There was no one here to help him if he slipped and broke a leg. When the parcel of books unbalanced him, and he did slip, and skidded twenty feet before he could stop, his heart was in his mouth. If he had not known that he had climbed across here a hundred times, he would have known he was mad to try.

It was quite a relief to clamber into the hot valley and walk down to the muddy-walled city. The old men were still charming snakes outside it.

Inside was the same hot clamor of smells and goats and people under umbrellas. And Christopher found he was still afraid, except that now he was afraid of someone pointing at him and shouting, "There's the thief that stole the Temple cat!" He kept feeling that spear thudding into his chest. He began to get annoyed with himself. It was as if school had taught him how to be frightened.

When he got to the alley beside the Temple wall - where turnips had been thrown away this time - he was almost too scared to go on. He had to make himself push into the spiked wall by counting to a hundred and then telling himself he had to go. And when he was most of the way through, he stopped again, staring through the creepers at the cats in the blazing sun, and did not seem to be able to go on. But the cats took no notice of him. No one was about. Christopher told himself that it was silly to come all this way just to stand in a wall. He pulled himself out of the creepers and tiptoed to the overgrown
archway, with the parcel of books butting him heavily with every step.

The Goddess was sitting on the ground in the middle of the shady yard, playing with a large family of kittens. Two of them were ginger, with a strong look of Throgmorten. When she saw Christopher, the Goddess jumped to her feet with an energetic clash of jewelry, scattering kittens in all directions.

"You've brought the books!" she said. "I never thought you would."

"I always keep my word," Christopher said, showing off a little.

The Goddess watched him unhitch the parcel from his belt as if she could still scarcely believe it. Her hands trembled a little as she took the waxy parcel, and trembled even more as she knelt on the tiles and tore and ripped and pulled until the paper and string came off. The kittens seized on the string and the wrappings and did all sorts of acrobatics with them, but the Goddess had eyes only for the books. She knelt and gazed. "Ooh! Five of them!"

"Just like Christmas," Christopher remarked.

"What's Christmas?" the Goddess asked absently. She was absorbed in stroking the covers of the books. When she had done that, she opened each one, peeped inside, and then shut it hastily as if the sight was too much. "Oh, I remember," she said. "Christmas is a Heathen festival, isn't it?"

"The other way around," said Christopher. "You're the Heathens."

"No we're not. Asheth's true," said the Goddess, not really attending. "Five," she said. "That should last me a week if I read slowly on purpose. Which is the best one to start with?"

"I brought you the first five," Christopher said. "Start with "Millie Goes to School"."

"You mean there are more!" the Goddess exclaimed. "How many?"

"I didn't count - about five," Christopher said.

"Five! You don't want another cat, do you?" said the Goddess.

"No," Christopher said firmly. "One Throgmorten is quite enough, thanks."

"But I've nothing else to swap!" said the Goddess. "I must have those other five books!" She jumped up with an impetuous clash of jewelry and began wrestling to unwind a snakelike bracelet from the top of her arm. "Perhaps Mother Proudfoot won't notice if this is missing. There's a whole chest of bracelets in there."

Christopher wondered what she thought he would do with the bracelet. Wear it? He knew what school would think of that. "Hadn't you better read these books first? You might not like them," he pointed out.

"I know they're perfect," said the Goddess, still wrestling.

"I'll bring you the other books as a present," Christopher said hastily.

"But that means I'll have to do something for you. Asheth always pays her debts," the Goddess said. The bracelet came off with a twang. "Here. I'll buy the books from you with this. Take it." She pushed the bracelet into Christopher's hand.

The moment it touched him, Christopher found himself falling through everything that was there. The yard, the creepers, the kittens, all turned to mist - as did the Goddess's round face, frozen in the middle of changing from eagerness to astonishment - and Christopher fell out of it, down and down, and landed violently on his bed in the dark dormitory. CRASH!

"What was that?" said Fenning, quavering a little, and Oneir remarked, apparently in his sleep, "Help, someone's fallen off the ceiling."

"Shall I fetch Matron?" asked someone else.

"Don't be an ass. I just had a dream," Christopher said, rather irritably, because it had given him quite a shock. It was a further shock to find he was in pajamas and not in the clothes he knew he had put on in the valley. When the other boys had settled down, he felt all over his bed for the parcel of books, and when they did not seem to be there, felt for the bracelet instead. He could not find that either. He searched again in the morning, but there was no sign of it. He supposed that was not so surprising, when he thought how much Uncle Ralph had said Throgmorten was worth. Twelve-and-sixpenceworth of books was a pretty poor swap for several thousand poundsworth of cat. Something must have noticed that he was cheating the Goddess.

He knew he was going to have to find the money for those other five books somehow and take them to the Goddess. Meanwhile, he had missed Tacroy, and he supposed he had better try to meet him next Thursday instead. He was not looking forward to it. Tacroy was bound to be pretty annoyed by now.

When Thursday came, Christopher nearly forgot Tacroy. It was only by accident that he happened to fall asleep during a particularly tedious story in "The Arabian Nights". "The Arabian Nights" had become the dormitory's favorite reading. They took it in turns to steal a candle and read aloud to the others. It was Oneir's turn that night, and Oneir read all on one note like the school Chaplain reading the Bible. And that night he was deep into a confusing set of people who were called Calendars - Fenning made everyone groan by suggesting they got their name from living in the part of the world where dates grew - and Christopher dropped off to sleep. Next thing he knew, he was walking out into the valley.

Tacroy was sitting in the path beside the heap of Christopher's clothes. Christopher eyed those clothes and wondered how they got there. Tacroy was sitting with his arms wrapped around his knees as if he were resigned to a long wait, and he seemed quite surprised to see Christopher.

"I didn't expect to see you!" he said, and he grinned, though he looked tired.

Christopher felt ashamed and awkward. "I suppose you must be pretty angry..." he began.

"Stow it," said Tacroy. "I get paid for going into trances and you don't. It's just a job for me - though I must say I miss you being around to firm me up." He stretched his legs out across the path, and Christopher could see stones and grass through the green worsted trousers. Then he stretched his arms above his head and yawned. "You don't really want to go on with these experiments, do you?" he asked. "You've been busy with school, and that's much more fun than climbing into valleys of a night, isn't it?"

Because Tacroy was being so nice about it, Christopher felt more ashamed than ever. He had forgotten how nice Tacroy was. Now he thought about it, he had missed him quite badly. "Of course I want to go on," he said. "Where are we going tonight?"

"Nowhere," said Tacroy. "I'm nearly out of this trance as it is. This was just an effort to contact you. But if you really want to go on, your uncle is sending the carriage to Series Six next Thursday - you know, the place that's living in an Ice Age. You do want to go on - really?" Tacroy looked up at Christopher with his eyes screwed into anxious lines. "You don't have to, you know."

"Yes, but I will," Christopher said. "See you next Thursday." And he dashed back to bed, where, to his delight, something seemed to be happening to the Calendars at last.

The rest of that term passed very swiftly, from lesson to lesson, from tale to tale in "The Arabian Nights", from Thursday to Thursday. The longest parts were the weekly magic lessons. Climbing across The Place Between to meet Tacroy the first Thursday, Christopher still felt quite frightened, but it made a difference knowing that Tacroy was waiting for him outside the fifth valley along. Soon he was used to it again, and the experiments went on as before.

Someone had arranged for Christopher to stay for the Christmas holidays with Uncle Charles and Aunt Alice, the parents of his cousin Caroline. They lived in a big house in the country quite near, in Surrey too, and Cousin Caroline, in spite of being three years younger and a girl, turned out to be good fun. Christopher enjoyed learning all the things people did in the country, including snowballing with the stable lads and Caroline, and trying to sit on Caroline's fat pony, but he was puzzled that no one mentioned Papa. Uncle Charles was Papa's brother. He realized that Papa must be in disgrace with his whole family. In spite of this, Aunt Alice made sure he had a good Christmas, which was kind of her. Christopher's most welcome Christmas present was another gold sovereign inside a card from Uncle Ralph. That meant he could afford more books for the Goddess.

As soon as school started again, he went down to the bookshop and bought the other five Millie books, and had them wrapped in waxed paper like the others. That was another twelve-and-sixpence towards the cost of Throgmorten. At this rate, he thought, he would be carrying parcels of books across The Place Between for the rest of his life.

In the Temple, the Goddess was in her dimly lit room bent over Millie's Finest Hour. When Christopher came in, she jumped and stuffed the book guiltily under her cushions. "Oh it's only you!" she said. "Don't ever come in quietly like that again, or I shall be a Dead Asheth on the spot! Whatever happened last time? You turned into a ghost and went down through the floor."

"I've no idea," said Christopher, "except that I fell on my bed with a crash. I've brought you the other five books."

"Wonderfu..!" the Goddess began eagerly. Then she stopped and said soberly, "It's very kind of you, but I'm not sure Asheth wants me to have them, after what happened when I tried to give you the bracelet."

"No," said Christopher. "I think Asheth must know that Throgmorten's worth thousands of pounds. I could bring you the whole school library and it still wouldn't pay for him."

"Oh," said the Goddess. "In that case - How is Throgmorten, by the way?"

Since Christopher had no idea, he said airily, "Trotting around bullying other cats and scratching people," and changed the subject before the Goddess realized he was only guessing. "Were the first five books all right?"

The Goddess's round face became all smile, so much smile that her face could hardly hold it and she spread her arms out as well. "They're the most marvelous books in this world! It's like really being at Lowood House School. I cry every time I read them."

Oneir had got it right, Christopher thought, watching the Goddess unwrap the new parcel with little cries of pleasure and much chinking of bracelets. "Oh Millie does get to be Head Girl!" she cried out, picking up "Head Girl Millie". "I've been wondering and wondering whether she would. She must have got the better of that awful prig Delphinia after all." She stroked the book lovingly, and then took Christopher by surprise by asking, "What happened when you took Throgmorten? Mother Proudfoot told me that the Arm of Asheth killed the thief."

"They tried," Christopher said awkwardly, trying to sound casual.

"In that case," said the Goddess, "you were very brave to honor the swap and you deserve to be rewarded. Would you like a reward - not a swap or a payment, a reward?"

"If you can think of one," Christopher said cautiously.

"Then come with me," said the Goddess. She got up briskly, clash-tink. She collected the new books and the old one from among the cushions, and gathered up the paper and the string. Then she threw the whole bundle at the wall. All of it, all six books and the wrappings, turned over on itself and shut itself out of sight, as if a lid had come down on an invisible box. There was nothing to tell that any of it had been there. Once again Christopher was impressed. "That's so Mother Proudfoot won't know," the Goddess explained as she led the way into the shady yard. "I like her a lot, but she's very stern and she's into everything."

"How do you get the books back?" asked Christopher.

"I beckon the one I want," said the Goddess, pushing through the creeper in the archway. "It's a by-product of being the Living Asheth."

She led him across the blazing yard, among the cats, to an archway he remembered rather too well for comfort. It was the one he had fled into with Throgmorten yowling in the basket. Christopher began to be nervously and gloomily certain that the Goddess's idea of a reward was nothing like his own. "Won't there be a lot of people?" he asked, hanging back rather.

"Not for a while. They snore for hours in the hot season," the Goddess said confidently.

Christopher followed her reluctantly along a set of dark passages, not quite the way he had run before, he thought, though it was hard to be sure. At length they came to a wide archway hung with nearly transparent yellow curtains. There was a rich gleam of daylight beyond. The Goddess parted the curtains and waved Christopher through, tink-clash. There seemed to be an old, dark tree in front of them, so old that it was thoroughly worm-eaten and had lost most of its branches. And something was making a suffocating smell, a little like church incense, but much thicker and stronger. The Goddess marched around the tree, down some shallow steps, and into the space full of rich daylight, which was blocked off by more yellow curtains a few yards away, like a tall golden room. Here she turned around to face the tree.

"This is the Shrine of Asheth," she said. "Only initiates are allowed here. This is your reward. Look. Here I am."

Christopher turned around and felt decidedly cheated. From this side, the tree turned out to be a monstrous statue of a woman with four arms. From the front it looked solid gold. Clearly the Temple had not bothered to coat the back of the wooden statue with gold, but they had made up for it on the front. Every visible inch of the woman shone buttery yellow gold, and she was hung with golden chains, bracelets, anklets and earrings. Her skirt was cloth-of-gold and she had a big ruby embedded in each of her four golden palms. More precious stones blazed from her high crown. The Shrine was made so that daylight slanted dramatically down from the roof, touching each precious stone with splendor, but veiled by the thick smoke climbing from golden burners beside the woman's huge golden feet. The effect was decidedly Heathen.

After waiting a moment for Christopher to say something, the Goddess said, "This is Asheth. She's me and I'm her, and this is her Divine Aspect. I thought you'd like to meet me as I really am."

Christopher turned to the Goddess, meaning to say, No you're not: you haven't got four arms. But the Goddess was standing in the smoky yellow space with her arms stretched out to the side in the same position as the statue's top pair of arms, and she did indeed have four arms. The lower pair were misty and he could see the yellow curtain through them, but they had the same sort of bracelets and they were arranged just like the statue's lower pair of arms. They were obviously as real as Tacroy before he was firmed up. So he looked up at the statue's smooth golden face. He thought it looked hard and cruel
behind its blank golden stare.

"She doesn't look as clever as you," he said. It was the only thing he could think of that was not rude.
"She's got her very stupid expression on," the Goddess said. "Don't be fooled by that. She doesn't want people to know how clever she really is. It's a very useful expression. I use it a lot in lessons when Mother Proudfoot or Mother Dowson go boring on."

It was a useful expression, Christopher thought, a good deal better than his vague look which he used in magic lessons. "How do you make it?" he asked with great interest.

Before the Goddess could reply, footsteps padded behind the statue. A strong voice, musical but sharp, called out, "Goddess? What are you doing in the Shrine at this hour?"

Christopher and the Goddess went into two separate states of panic. Christopher turned to plunge out through the other set of yellow curtains, heard sandals slapping about out there too, and turned back in despair. The Goddess whispered, "Oh blast Mother Proudfoot! She seems to know where I am by instinct somehow!" and she spun around in circles trying to wrestle a bracelet off her upper arm.

A long bare foot and most of a leg in a rust-colored robe appeared around the golden statue. Christopher gave himself up for lost. But the Goddess, seeing she was never going to get the bracelet off in time, snatched his hand and held it against the whole heap of jingling jewelry on her arm.

Just as before, everything turned misty and Christopher fell through it, into his bed in the dormitory. Crash!

"I wish you wouldn't do that!" Fenning said, waking up with a jump. "Can't you control those dreams of yours?"

"Yes," Christopher said, sweating at his narrow escape. "I'm never going to have a dream like that again." It was a silly setup anyway - a live girl pretending to be a goddess, who was nothing but a worm-eaten wooden statue. He had nothing against the Goddess herself. He admired her quick thinking, and he would have liked to learn both the very stupid expression and how you did that vanishing trick with the books. But it was not worth the danger.

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