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"Conrad's Fate"

Chapters 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Anthea's going made a dreadful difference, far worse than any change made by Count Rudolf up at Stallery. Mum was in a bad mood for weeks. I'm not sure she ever forgave Anthea.

"So sly!" she kept saying. "So mean and secretive. Don't you ever be like that, Conrad, and it's no use expecting me to run after you. I have my work to do."

Uncle Alfred was tetchy and grumpy for a long time, too, but he cheered up after he had set the spells that were supposed to fix Anthea at home once she came back. He took to patting me on the shoulder and saying, "You're not going to let me down like that, are you, Con?"

Sometimes I answered, "No fear!" but mostly I wriggled a bit and didn't answer. I missed Anthea horribly for ages. She had been the person I could go to when I had a question to ask or to get cheered up. If I fell down or cut myself, she had been the one with sticking plaster and soothing words. She used to suggest things for me to do, if I was bored. I felt quite lost now she was gone.

I hadn't realized how many things Anthea did in the house. Luckily I knew how to work the washing machine, but I was always forgetting to run it and finding I'd no clothes to go to school in. I got into trouble for wearing dirty clothes until I got used to remembering. Mum just went on piling her clothes into the laundry basket as she always had, but Uncle Alfred was particular about his shirts. He had to pay Mrs. Potts to iron them for him, and he grumbled a lot about how much she charged.

"The ingredients for my experiments cost the earth these days," he kept saying. "Where do I find the money ?"

Anthea had done all the shopping and cooking, too, and this was where we all suffered most. For the week after she left we lived on cornflakes, until they ran out. Then Mum tried to solve the problem by ordering two hundred frozen quiches and cramming these into the freezer. You can't believe how quickly you get tired of eating quiche. And none of us remembered to fetch the next quiche out to thaw. Uncle Alfred was always having to unfreeze them by magic, and this made them soggy and seemed to affect the taste.

"Is there anything else we can eat that might be less squishy and more satisfying?" he asked pathetically. "Think, Fran. You used to cook once."

"That was when I was being exploited as a female," Mum retorted. "The quiche people do frozen pizzas, too, but you have to order them by the thousand."

Uncle Alfred shuddered. "I'd rather eat bacon and eggs," he said sadly.

"Then go out and buy some," said my mother.

In the end we settled that Uncle Alfred did the shopping and I tried to cook what he bought. I fetched books called "Simple Cookery" and "Easy Eating" up out of the shop and did my best to do what they told me. I was never very good at it. The food always seemed to turn black and stick to the bottom of the pan, but I usually had enough on top to get by with. We ate a lot of bread, though only Mum got noticeably fatter. Uncle Alfred was naturally skinny, and I kept growing. Mum had to take me shopping for new clothes several times a year from then on. It always seemed to happen when she was very busy finishing a book, and this made her so unhappy that I tried to make my clothes last as long as I could. I got into trouble at school once or twice for looking like a scarecrow.

We got used to coping by next summer. I suppose that was when it finally became obvious that Anthea was not coming back. I had worked out by Christmas that she had left for good, but it took Mum and Uncle Alfred most of a year.

"She'll have to come home this summer," Mum was still saying hopefully in May. "All the universities shut for months over the summer."

"Not she," said Uncle Alfred. "She's shaken the dust of Stallchester off her feet. And to be brutally frank with you, Fran, I'm not sure I want her back now. Someone that ungrateful would only be a disturbing factor."

He sighed, dismantled his spell to keep Anthea at home, and hired a girl called Daisy Bolger to help in the shop. After that, he was always worrying about how much he had to pay Daisy in order to stop her going to work at the china shop by the cathedral instead. Daisy knew how to get money out of Uncle Alfred much better than I did. Talk about sly! And Daisy always seemed to think I was going to mess up the books when I was in the shop. Once or twice Count Rudolf up at Stallery worked another big change, and each time Daisy was sure it was me messing the books about. Luckily Uncle Alfred never believed her.

Uncle Alfred was sorry for me. He would look at me over his glasses in his most worried way and shake his head sadly. "I reckon Anthea's going has hit you hardest of all, Con," he took to saying sadly. "To be brutally frank, I suspect it was your bad karma that caused her to leave."

"What did I do in my past life?" I asked anxiously.

Uncle Alfred always shook his head at that. "I don't know what you did, Con. The Lords of Karma alone know that. You could have been a crooked policeman, or a judge that took bribes, or a soldier that ran away, or maybe a traitor to the country - anything! All I know is that you either didn't do something you should have done, or you did something you shouldn't . And because of that, a bad Fate is going to keep dogging you." Then he would hurry away, muttering, "Unless we find a way you could expiate your misdeed, I suppose."

I always felt horrible after these conversations. Something bad almost always happened to me just afterward. Once I slipped when I was quite high up climbing Stall Crag and scraped the whole front of me raw. Another time I fell downstairs and twisted my ankle, and one other time I cut myself quite badly in the kitchen - blood all over the onions - but the truly nasty part was that each time I thought, I deserve this! This is because of my crime in my past life. And I felt horribly guilty and sinful until the scrapes or the ankle or the cut had healed. Then I remembered Anthea saying she didn't believe people had more than one life, and after that I would feel better.

"Can't you find out who I was and what I did?" I asked Uncle Alfred, one time after I had been told off by the headmistress because my clothes were too small. She sent a note home with me about it, but I threw it away because Mum had just started a new book, and anyway, I knew I deserved to be in trouble. "If I knew, I could do something about it."

"To be brutally frank," said my uncle, "I fancy you have to be a grown man before you could change your Fate. But I'll try to find out. I'll try, Con."

He did experiments in his workroom to find out, but he never seemed to make much headway.

About a year after Anthea left, I got really annoyed with Daisy Bolger when she tried to stop me looking at the newest Peter Jenkins book. I told her my uncle had said I could, but she just kept saying, "Put it back! You'll crease it, and then I'll be blamed."

"Oh, why don't you go away and work in that china shop!" I said in the end.

She tossed her head angrily. "Fat lot you know! I wouldn't dream of it. It's boring . I only say I will to get a decent wage out of your uncle - and he doesn't pay me half what he could afford, even now."

"He does," I said. "He's always worrying how much you cost."

"That," said Daisy, "is because he's stingy, not because he hasn't got it. He must be rich as the Count up at Stallery almost. This bookshop's coining money."

"Is it?" I said.

"I keep the till. I know," Daisy said. "We're at the picturesque end of town, and we get all the tourists, winter and summer. Ask Miss Silex if you don't believe me. She does the accounts."

I was so astonished to hear this that I forgot to be angry and forgot the Peter Jenkins book, too. That was no doubt what Daisy intended. She was a very cunning person. But I couldn't believe she was right, not when Uncle Alfred was always so worried. I began counting the people who came into the shop.

And Daisy was right. Stallchester is a famous beauty spot, full of historic buildings and surrounded in mountains. In summer, we got people to look at the town and play the casino and hikers who walked in the mountains. In winter, people came to ski. But because we are so high up, we get rain and mist in summer, and in winter there are always times when the snow is not deep enough, or too soft, or coming down in a blizzard, and those are the days when tourists come into the shop by their hundreds. They buy everything, from dictionaries to help with crosswords to deep books of philosophy, detective stories, biographies, adventure stories, and cookery books for self-catering. Some even buy Mum's books. It only took a few months for me to realize that Uncle Alfred was indeed coining money.

"What does he spend it all on?" I asked Daisy.

"Goodness knows," she said. "That workroom of his is pretty expensive. And he always buys best vintage port for his Magicians' Circle. All his clothes are handmade, too, you know."

I almost didn't believe that either. But when I thought about it, one of the magicians who came to Uncle Alfred's Magicians' Circle every Wednesday was Mr. Hawkins, the tailor, and he often came early with a package of clothes. And I'd helped carry dusty old bottles of port wine upstairs for the meeting, often and often. I just hadn't realized the stuff was expensive. I was annoyed with Daisy for noticing so much more than I did. But then, she was a really cunning person.

You would not believe how artfully Daisy went to work when she wanted more money. She often took as much as two weeks on it - ten days of sighing and grumbling and saying how overworked and hard up she was, followed by another day of saying how the nice woman in the china shop had told her she could come and work there anytime. Finally she would flare up with "That's it! I'm leaving!" And it worked every time.

Uncle Alfred hates people to leave, I thought. That's why he let Anthea go to Cathedral School, so she could stay at home and be useful here.

I couldn't threaten to leave, not yet. You have to stay at school until you are twelve in this country. But I could pretend I was not going to do any more cooking. It didn't take much pretending, really.

That first time I went even slower than Daisy. I spent over a fortnight sighing and saying I was sick to my back teeth of cooking. Finally, it was Mum who said, "Really, Conrad, to listen to you, anyone would think we exploited you."

It was wonderful. I went from simmering to boiling in one breath, and I shouted with real feeling, "You are exploiting me! That's it! I'm not doing any more cooking ever again!"

Then it was even more wonderful. Uncle Alfred hurried me away to his workroom and pleaded with me. "You know - let's be brutally frank, Con - your mother's hopeless with food, and I'm worse. But we've all got to eat, haven't we? Be a good boy and reconsider now."

I looked around at the strange-shaped glass things and shining machinery in the workroom and wondered how much it all cost. "No," I said sulkily. "Pay someone else to do it."

He winced. He almost shuddered at the idea. "Suppose I was to offer you a little something to take up as our chef again," he said cajolingly. "What could I offer you?"

I let him cajole for a while. Then I sighed and asked for a bicycle. He agreed like a shot. The bicycle was not so wonderful when it came, because Uncle Alfred only produced one that was secondhand, but it made a start. I knew how to do it now.

When winter came, I went into my act again. I refused to cook twice. First I got regular pocket money out of my uncle, and then I got skis of my own. In the spring I did it again and got modeling kits. That summer I got most things I needed. The next autumn I actually made Uncle Alfred give me a good camera. I know this was calculated cunning and quite as bad as Daisy - though I couldn't help noticing that my friends at school got skis and pocket money as if they had a right to them, and that none of them had to cook for these things either - but I told myself that my Fate had made me bad and I might as well make use of it.

I stopped the year I was going to be twelve. This was not because I was reformed. It was part of a plan. You can leave school at twelve, you see, and I knew Uncle Alfred would have thought of that. The rule is that you can go on to an Upper School, but only if your family pays for you. Otherwise you go and find a job. All my friends were going to Upper Schools, most of them to Cathedral like Anthea, but my best friends were going to Stall High. I thought of it as like the school in the Peter Jenkins books. Stall High cost more, but it was supposed to be a terrific place, and best of all, it taught magic. I had set my heart on learning magic with my friends. Living as I did in a house where Uncle Alfred filled the stairway with peculiar smells and the strange buzz of working spells at least once a week, I couldn't wait to do it, too. Besides, Daisy Bolger told me that Uncle Alfred had been to Stall High himself as a boy. How that girl found out these things was something I never knew.

Knowing Uncle Alfred, I knew he would try to keep me at home somehow. He might even be going to sack Daisy and make me work in the shop for nothing. So my plan was to threaten to stop cooking just near the end of my last term and get him to bribe me with Stall High. If that didn't work, I thought I would threaten to go and get a job in the lowlands and then say that I'd stay if I could go to Cathedral School instead.

I worked all this out sitting in my room staring upward at Stallery, glimmering among the mountains. Stallery always made me wish for all the strange and exciting things that I didn't seem to have. It made me think that Anthea must have sat in her room making plans in much the same way - except that you couldn't see Stallery from Anthea's old room. Mum used it as a paper store now.

Stallery was in the news around then anyway. Count Rudolf died suddenly. People gossiping in the bookshop said he was quite young, really, but some diseases took no account of age, did they? "Driven to an early grave," Mrs. Potts said to me. "Mark my words. And the new Count is only twenty-one, they say. His sister's even younger. They'll be having to marry soon to preserve the family name. She'll insist on it."

Daisy was very interested in weddings. She hunted everywhere for a magazine that might have pictures of the new Count, Robert, and his sister, Lady Felice. All she found was a newspaper with the announcement of Count Robert's engagement to Lady Mary Ogworth in it. "Just plain print," she complained. "No photos."

"Daisy won't find pictures," Mrs. Potts told me. "Stallery likes its privacy, it does. They know how to keep the media out of their lives up there. I've heard there's electrical fences all round those grounds, and savage dogs patrolling inside. She won't want people prying, not she."

"Who's she ?" I asked.

Mrs.Potts paused, kneeling with her back to me on the stairs. "Pass the polish," she said. "Thanks. She," she went on, rubbing in polish in a slow, enjoying sort of way, "is the old Countess. She's got rid of her husband - bothered and nagged him to death, I've heard - and now she won't want anyone to see while she works on the new Count. They say he's well under her thumb already and bound to be more so, poor boy. She likes all the power, all the money. He'll marry that girl she's chosen, and then she'll run the pair of them, you'll see."

"She sounds horrible," I said, fishing for more.

"Oh, she is," said Mrs. Potts. "Used to be on the stage. Caught the old Count by kicking up her legs in a chorus line, I heard. And..."

Unfortunately, Uncle Alfred came rushing upstairs at this point and upset Mrs. Potts's cleaning bucket and Mrs. Potts's nerves along with it. I never got Mrs. Potts to gossip about Stallery again. That was my Fate at work there, I thought. But I got a few more hints from Uncle Alfred himself. With his face almost withered with worry, he said to me, "What happens up in Stallery now, eh? It could be even worse. I mention no names, but someone's very power-hungry up there. I dread the next set of changes, Con."

He was so worried that he telephoned his Magicians' Circle and they actually met on a Tuesday, which was almost unheard of. After that, they met on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and I helped carry up twice the number of dusty wine bottles every week.

And those weeks slowly passed, until the dread day arrived when the Headmistress came and gave everyone in the top class a School Leaver's Form. "Take this home to your parent or guardian," she said. "Tell them that if they want you to leave school at the end of this term, they must sign Section A. If they want you to go on to an Upper School, then they sign Section B. Get them to sign tonight. I want all these forms back tomorrow without fail."

I took my form home to the shop, prepared for battle and cunning. I went in through the backyard and straight upstairs to Mum. My plan was to get her to sign Section B before Uncle Alfred even knew I'd got the form.

"What's this?" Mum said vaguely as I pushed the yellow paper in front of her typewriter.

"School Leaver's Form," I explained. "If you want me to go on at school, you have to sign Section B."

She pushed her hair back distractedly. "I can't do that, Conrad, not when you've got a job already. And at Stallery of all places. I must say I'm really disappointed in you."

I felt as if the whole world had been pulled out from under me like a carpet. " Stallery !" I said.

"If that's what you told your uncle, yes," my mother said. And she took the form and signed Section A with her married name. F.Tesdinic. "There," she said. "I wash my hands of you, Conrad."

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