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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

For the rest of the Spring term, Christopher went regularly to the Anywheres with Tacroy, but he did not try to go to one on his own. By now Uncle Ralph seemed to have a whole round of experiments set up. Christopher met Tacroy in Series One, Three, Five, Seven and Nine, and then in Eight, Six, Four and Two, always in that order, but not always in the same place or outside the same valley. In each Anywhere people would be waiting with a pile of packages which, by the weight and feel, had different things inside each time. The parcels in Series One were always knobby and heavy, and in Four they were smooth boxes. In Series Two and Five, they were squashy and smelled of fish, which made sense since both those Anywheres had so much water in them. In Series Eight, the women always breathed garlic and those parcels had the same strong odor every time. Beyond that, there seemed no rule. Christopher got to know most of the people who supplied the packages, and he laughed and joked with them as he loaded the horseless carriage. And as the experiments went on, Uncle Ralph's wizards gradually perfected the carriage. By the end of the term, it moved under its own power and Tacroy and Christopher no longer had to drag it up the valleys to The Place Between.

In fact, the experiments had become so routine that they were not much of a change from school. Christopher thought of other things while he worked, just as he did in magic lessons and English and Chapel at school.

"Why don't we ever go to Series Eleven?" he asked Tacroy as they walked up one of the valleys from Series One with another heavy knobby load gliding behind on the carriage.

"Nobody goes to Eleven," Tacroy said shortly. Christopher could see he wanted to change the subject. He asked why. "Because," said Tacroy, "because they're peculiar, unfriendly people there, I suppose - if you can call them people. Nobody knows much about them because they make damn sure nobody sees them. And that's all I know, except that Eleven's not a Series. There's only one world." Tacroy refused to say more than that, which was annoying, because Christopher had a strong feeling that Tacroy did know more. But Tacroy was in a bad mood that week. His grandmotherly lady had gone down with flu and Tacroy was making do with the stern flute-playing young lady. "Somewhere in our world," he said, sighing, "there is a young lady who plays the harp and doesn't mind if I turn transparent, but there are too many difficulties in the way between us."

Probably because Tacroy kept saying things like this, Christopher now had a very romantic image of him starving in his garret and crossed in love. "Why won't Uncle Ralph let me come and see you in London?" he asked.

"I told you to stow it, Christopher," Tacroy said, and he stopped further talk by stepping out into the mists of The Place Between with the carriage billowing behind him.

Tacroy's romantic background nagged at Christopher all that term, particularly when a casual word he dropped in the dormitory made it clear that none of the other boys had ever met a foundling child. "I wish I was one," Oneir said. "I wouldn't have to go into my father's business then." After that, Christopher felt he would not even mind meeting the flute-playing young lady.

But this was driven out of his mind when there proved to be a muddle over the arrangements for the Easter holidays. Mama wrote and said he was to come to her in Genoa, but at the last moment she turned out to be going to Weimar instead, where there was no room for Christopher. He had to spend nearly a week at school on his own after everyone had gone home, while the school wrote to Uncle Charles, and Uncle Charles arranged for Papa's other brother, Uncle Conrad, to have him in four days' time. Meanwhile, since the school was closing, Christopher was sent to stay with Uncle Ralph in London.

Uncle Ralph was away, to Christopher's disappointment. Most of his house was shut up, with locked doors everywhere, and the only person there was the housekeeper. Christopher spent the few days wandering around London by himself.

It was almost as good as exploring an Anywhere. There were parks and monuments and street musicians, and every road, however narrow, was choked with high-wheeled carts and carriages. On the second day Christopher found himself at Covent Garden market, among piles of fruit and vegetables, and he stayed there till the evening, fascinated by the porters. Each of them could carry at least six loaded baskets in a tall pile on his head, without even wobbling. At last, he turned to come away and saw a familiar sturdy figure in a green worsted suit walking down the narrow street ahead of him.

"Tacroy!" Christopher screamed and went racing after him.

Tacroy did not appear to hear. He went walking on, with his curly head bent in a rather dejected way, and turned the corner into the next narrow street before Christopher had caught up. When Christopher skidded around the corner, there was no sign of him. But he knew it had been, unmistakably, Tacroy. The garret must be somewhere quite near. He spent the rest of his stay in London hanging around Covent Garden, hoping for another glimpse of Tacroy, but it did no good. Tacroy did not appear again.

After that, Christopher went to stay at Uncle Conrad's house in Wiltshire, where the main drawback proved to be his cousin Francis. Cousin Francis was the same age as Christopher, and he was the kind of boy Fenning called "a stuck-up pratterel." Christopher despised Francis on this account, and Francis despised Christopher for having been brought up in town and never having ridden to hounds. In fact, there was another reason too, which emerged when Christopher fell heavily off the quietest pony in the stables for the seventh time.

"Can't do magic, can you?" Francis said, looking smugly down at Christopher from the great height of his trim bay gelding. "I'm not surprised. It's your father's fault for marrying that awful Argent woman. No one in my family has anything to do with your father now."

Since Christopher was fairly sure that Francis had used magic to bring him off the pony, there was not much he could do but clench his teeth and feel that Papa was well shot of this particular branch of the Chants. It was a relief to go back to school again.

It was more than a relief. It was the cricket season. Christopher became obsessed with cricket almost overnight. So did Oneir. "It's the King of Games," Oneir said devoutly, and went and bought every book on the subject that he could afford. He and Christopher decided they were going to be professional cricketers when they grew up. "And my father's business can just go hang!" Oneir said.

Christopher quite agreed, only in his case it was Mama's plans for Society. I've made up my mind for myself! he thought. It was like being released from a vow. He was quite surprised to find how determined and ambitious he was. He and Oneir practiced all day, and Fenning, who was no good really, was persuaded to run after the balls. In between they talked cricket, and at night Christopher had normal ordinary dreams, all about cricket.

It seemed quite an interruption on the first Thursday, when he had to give up dreams of cricket and meet Tacroy in Series Five.

"I saw you in London," Christopher said to him. "Your garret's near Covent Garden, isn't it?"

"Covent Garden?" Tacroy said blankly. "It's nowhere near there. You must have seen someone else." And he stuck to that, even when Christopher described in great detail which street it was and what Tacroy had looked like. "No," he said. "You must have been running after a complete stranger."

Christopher knew it had been Tacroy. He was puzzled. But there seemed no point in going on arguing. He began loading the carriage with fishy-smelling bundles and went back to thinking about cricket. Naturally, not thinking what he was doing, he let go of a bundle in the wrong place. It fell half through Tacroy and slapped to the ground, where it lay leaking an even fishier smell than before. "Pooh!" said Christopher. "What is this stuff?"

"No idea," said Tacroy. "I'm only your uncle's errand boy. What's the matter? Is your mind somewhere else tonight?"

"Sorry," Christopher said, collecting the bundle. "I was thinking of cricket."

Tacroy's face lit up. "Are you bowler or batsman?"

"Batsman," said Christopher. "I want to be a professional."

"I'm a bowler myself," said Tacroy. "Slow leg-spin, and though I say it myself, I'm not half bad. I play quite a lot for - well, it's a village team really, but we usually win. I usually end up taking seven wickets - and I can bat a bit too. What are you, an opener?"

"No, I fancy myself as a stroke player," Christopher said.
They talked cricket all the time Christopher was loading the carriage. After that they walked on the beach with the blue surf crashing beside them and went on talking cricket. Tacroy several times tried to demonstrate his skill by picking up a pebble, but he could not get firm enough to hold it. So Christopher found a piece of driftwood to act as a bat and Tacroy gave him advice on how to hit.

After that, Tacroy gave Christopher a coaching session in whatever Anywhere they happened to be, and both of them talked cricket nonstop. Tacroy was a good coach. Christopher learned far more from him than he did from the Sports master at school. He had more and more splendid ambitions of playing professionally for Surrey or somewhere, cracking the ball firmly to the boundary all around the ground. In fact, Tacroy taught him so well, that he began to have quite real, everyday ambitions of getting into the school team.

They were reading Oneir's cricket books aloud in the dormitory now. Matron had discovered "The Arabian Nights" and taken it away, but nobody minded. Every boy in the dormitory, even Fenning, was cricket mad. And Christopher was most obsessed of all.

Then disaster struck. It began with Tacroy saying, "By the way, there's a change of plan. Can you meet me in Series Ten next Thursday? Someone seems to be trying to spoil your uncle's experiments, so we have to change the routine."

Christopher was distracted from cricket by slight guilt at that. He knew he ought to make a further payment for Throgmorten, and he was afraid that the Goddess might have supernatural means of knowing he had been to Series Ten without bringing her any more books. He went rather warily to the valley.

Tacroy was not there. It took Christopher a good hour of climbing and scrambling to locate him at the mouth of quite a different valley. By this time Tacroy had become distinctly misty and unfirm.

"Dunderhead," Tacroy said while Christopher hastily firmed him up. "I was going to lose this trance any second. You know there's more than one place in a series. What got into you?"

"I was probably thinking of cricket," Christopher said.

The place beyond the new valley was nothing like as primitive and Heathen-seeming as the place where the Goddess lived. It was a vast dockside with tremendous cranes towering overhead. Some of the biggest ships Christopher had ever seen, enormous rusty iron ships, very strangely shaped, were tied up to cables so big that he had to step over them as if they were logs. But he knew it was still Series Ten when the man waiting with an iron cart full of little kegs said, "Praise Asheth! I thought you were never coming!"

"Yes, make haste," Tacroy said. "This place is safer than that Heathen city, but there may be enemies around all the same. Besides, the sooner you finish, the sooner we can get to work on your forward defensive play."

Christopher hurried to roll the little kegs from the iron cart to the carriage. When all the kegs were in, he hurried to fasten the straps that held the loads on it. And, of course, because he was hurrying, one of the straps slithered out of his hand and fell back on the other side of the carriage. He had to lean right over the load to get it. He could hear iron clanking in the distance and a few shouts, but he thought nothing of it, until Tacroy suddenly sprang into sight beside him.

"Off there! Get off!" Tacroy shouted, tugging uselessly at Christopher with misty hands. Christopher, still lying across the kegs, looked up to see a giant hook on the end of a chain traveling towards him faster than he could run.
That was really all he knew about it. The next thing he knew - rather dimly - was that he was lying in the path in his own valley beside his pajamas. He realized that the iron hook must have knocked him out and it was lucky that he had been more or less lying across the carriage or Tacroy would never have got him home. A little shakily, he got back into his pajamas. His head ached, so he shambled straight back to bed in the dormitory.

In the morning he did not even have a headache. He forgot about it and went straight out after breakfast to play cricket with Oneir and six other boys.

"Bags I bat first!" he shouted.

Everyone shouted it at the same time. But Oneir had been carrying the bat and he was not going to let go. Everyone, including Christopher, grabbed at him. There was a silly laughing tussle, which ended when Oneir swung the bat around in a playful, threatening circle.

The bat met Christopher's head with a heavy THUK. It hurt. He remembered hearing several other distinct cracks, just over his left ear, as if the bones of his skull were breaking up like an ice puddle. Then, in a way that was remarkably like the night before, he knew nothing at all for quite a long time.

When he came around, he knew it was much later in the day. Though the sheet had somehow got over his face, he could see late evening light coming in through a window high up in one corner. He was very cold, particularly his feet. Someone had obviously taken his shoes and socks off to put him to bed. But where had they put him? The window was in the wrong place for the dormitory - or for any other room he had slept in for that matter. He pushed the sheet off and sat up.

He was on a marble slab in a cold, dim room. It was no wonder he felt cold. He was only wearing underclothes. All around him were other marble slabs, most of them empty. But some slabs had people lying on them, very still and covered all over with white sheets.

Christopher began to suspect where he might be. Wrapping the sheet around him for what little warmth it gave, he slid down from the marble slab and went over to the nearest white slab with a person on it. Carefully he pulled back the sheet. This person had been an old tramp and he was dead as a doornail - Christopher poked his cold, bristly face to make sure. Then he told himself to keep quite calm, which was a sensible thing to tell himself, but much too late. He was already in the biggest panic of his life.

There was a big metal door down at the other end of the cold room. Christopher seized its handle and tugged. When the door turned out to be locked, he kicked it and beat at it with both hands and rattled the handle. He was still telling himself to be sensible, but he was shaking all over, and the panic was rapidly getting out of control.

After a minute or so, the door was wrenched open by a fat, jolly-looking man in a white overall, who stared into the room irritably. He did not see Christopher at first. He was looking over Christopher's head, expecting someone taller.

Christopher wrapped the sheet around himself accusingly. "What do you mean by locking this door?" he demanded. "Everybody's dead in here. They're not going to run away."

The man's eyes turned down to Christopher. He gave a slight moan. His eyes rolled up to the ceiling. His plump body slid down the door and he landed at Christopher's feet in a dead faint.

Christopher though he was dead too. It put the last touch to his panic. He jumped over the man's body and rushed down the corridor beyond, where he found himself in a hospital. There a nurse tried to stop him, but Christopher was beyond reason by then. "Where's school?" he shrieked at her. "I'm missing cricket practice!" For half an hour after that the hospital was in total confusion, while everyone tried to catch a five-foot corpse clothed mostly in a flying sheet, which raced up and down the corridors shrieking that it was missing cricket practice.

They caught him at last outside the Maternity Ward, where a doctor hastily gave him something to make him sleep. "Calm down, son," he said. "It's a shock to us too, you know. When I last saw you, your head was like a run-over pumpkin."

"I'm missing cricket practice, I tell you!" Christopher said.

He woke up next day in a hospital bed. Mama and Papa were both there, facing one another across it, dark clothes and whiskers on one side, scents and pretty colors on the other. As if to make it clear to Christopher that this was a bad crisis, the two of them were actually speaking to one another.

"Nonsense, Cosimo," Mama was saying. "The doctors just made a mistake. It was only a bad concussion after all and we've both had a fright for nothing."

"The school Matron said he was dead too," Papa said somberly.

"And she's a flighty sort of type," Mama said. "I don't believe a word of it."

"Well I do," said Papa. "He has more than one life, Miranda. It explains things about his horoscope that have always puzzled..."

"Oh fudge to your wretched horoscopes!" Mama cried. "Be quiet!"

"I shall not be quiet where I know the truth!" Papa more or less shouted. "I have done what needs to be done and sent a telegram to de Witt about him."

This obviously horrified Mama. "What a wicked thing to do!" she raged. "And without consulting me! I tell you I shall not lose Christopher to your gloomy connivings, Cosimo!"

At this point both Mama and Papa became so angry that Christopher closed his eyes. Since the stuff the doctor had given him was still making him feel sleepy, he dropped off almost at once, but he could still hear the quarrel, even asleep. In the end he climbed out of bed, slipping past Mama and Papa without either of them noticing, and went to The Place Between. He found a new valley there, leading to somewhere where there was some kind of circus going on. Nobody in that world spoke English, but Christopher got by quite well, as he had often done before, by pretending to be deaf and dumb.

When he came slipping back, the room was full of soberly dressed people who were obviously just leaving. Christopher slipped past a stout, solemn young man in a tight collar, and a lady in a gray dress who was carrying a black leather instrument case. Neither of them knew he was there. By the look of things, the part of him left lying in the bed had just been examined by a specialist. As Christopher slipped around Mama and got back into bed, he realized that the specialist was just outside the door, with Papa and another man in a beard.

"I agree that you were right in the circumstance to call me in," Christopher heard an old, dry voice saying, "but there is only one life present, Mr. Chant. I admit freakish things can happen, of course, but we have the report of the school magic teacher to back up our findings in this case. I am afraid I am not convinced at all..." The old dry voice went away up the corridor, still talking, and the other people followed, all except Mama.

"What a relief!" Mama said. "Christopher, are you awake? I thought for a moment that that dreadful old man was going to get hold of you, and I would never have forgiven your papa! Never! I don't want you to grow up into a boring law-abiding policeman sort of person, Christopher. Mama wants to be proud of you."

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