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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

Everyone went quiet and nervous. Even Christopher said nothing more. We all trooped up the steps, and with the young man's buckled shoes and striped stockings flashing ahead, we followed him through confusing shrubbery paths. By now we were quite near the mansion. We kept getting glimpses of high walls and windows above the bushes, but we only got a real sight of the house when Hugo led us cornerwise to a door in a yard. Just for a moment there was a space where you could look along the front of the mansion. We all craned sideways.

The place was enormous. There were windows in rows. It seemed to have its main front door halfway up the front wall, with two big stone stairways curving up to it, and all sorts of curlicues and golden things above that, on a heavy piece of roof that hung over the door. There was a fountain jetting, down between the two stairways, and a massive circle of drive beyond that.

This was all I had time to see. Hugo led us at a brisk pace, into the yard, across it, and in through a large square doorway in the lower part of the house. In no time at all we were crowding into a big wood-lined room, where Mr. Amos was standing, waiting for us.

No one had any doubt who he was. You could tell he was a Stallery servant because he wore a striped waistcoat like Hugo's, but the rest of his clothes were black, like someone going to a funeral. He had surprisingly small feet in very shiny black shoes. He stood with his hands clasped behind his back, like something blocky that might be going to take root in the floor, his small, shiny shoes astride, his blunt, pear-shaped face forward, and he made you feel almost religious awe. The Bishop down in Stallchester was much less awe-inspiring than Mr. Amos was, although it was hard to see why. He was the most pear-shaped man I had ever seen. His striped waistcoat rounded in front, his black coat spread at the sides, and his hands had to reach a long way back in order to clasp behind him. His face was rather purple as well as pear-shaped. His lips were quite thick below his wide, flat nose. He was not much taller than me. But you felt that if Mr. Amos were to get angry and uproot his small, shiny shoes from the floor, the floor would shake and the world with it.

"Thank you, Mr. Hugo," he said. He had a deep, resounding voice. "Now I want you all standing in a line, hands by your sides, and let me look at you."

We all hastily shuffled into a row. Those of us with plastic bags tried to lean them up against the backs of our legs, out of sight. Mr.Amos uprooted himself then, and the floor did shake slightly as he paced along in front of us, looking each of us intently in the face. His eyes were quite as awesome as the rest of him, like stones in his purple face. When he came to me, I tried to stare woodenly above his smooth gray head. This seemed the right way to behave. He smelled a little like Mayor Seuly, only more strongly, of good cloth, fine wine, and cigar. When he came to Christopher at the end of the line, he seemed to stare harder at him than at anyone, which worried me quite a lot. Then he turned massively sideways and snapped his fingers.

Instantly two more youngish men dressed like Hugo came into the room and stood looking polite and willing.

"Gregor," Mr. Amos said to one, "take these two boys and this girl to be interviewed by Chef. Andrew, these boys are to see Mr.Avenloch. Take them to the conservatory, please. Mr. Hugo, all the rest of the girls will see Mrs. Baldock in the Housekeeper's Room."

All three young men nodded, murmured, "Yes, Mr. Amos," and led their batch of people away. I think most of them had to catch the next tram down into Stallchester. I never saw more than two of them again. In a matter of seconds the room was empty except for Mr.Amos, Christopher, and me. My heart began to bang again, horribly.

Mr.Amos planted himself in front of us. "You two look the most likely ones," he said. His voice boomed in the empty room. "Can I have your names, please?"

"Er," I said. "Conrad Grant."

Christopher said, with great smartness, "I'm Christopher Smith, Mr.Amos." I bet that's a lie, I thought. He's got an alias, just like me.

Mr.Amos's stonelike eyes turned to me. "And where are you from?"

"The bookshop," I said, "down in Stallchester."

The stone eyes rolled up and down to examine me. "Then," Mr.Amos said, "I take it you'll have had no experience of domestic work."

"I clean the shop quite often," I said.

"Not what I had in mind," Mr. Amos said coldly. "No experience of waiting on your betters, I meant. Being polite. Guessing what they need before they ask. Being invisible until they need you. Have you?

"No," I said.

"And you?" Mr. Amos asked, moving his stony eyes to Christopher. "You're older. You must have earned your keep, or you wouldn't have had the money for those fancy clothes." Christopher bowed his neatly clipped dark head. "Yes, Mr.Amos. I confess I have been three years in a household of some size, though not as big as this one, of course. But, in case you get the wrong impression, I was there more as a hanger-on than precisely as part of the work force."

Mr.Amos stared intently at Christopher. "You mean, as a poor relation?" he said.

"That sort of thing, yes," Christopher agreed. I thought he sounded a little uncomfortable about it.

"So neither of you have the sort of experience I mentioned," Mr. Amos said. "Good. I like my trainees ignorant. It means they don't come to Stallery with all the wrong habits. Next big question. How do you both feel about serving as a valet, a gentleman's gentleman? This means dressing your gentleman, caring for his clothes, looking to his comfort, running errands if he asks it, even cooking for him in certain cases, and generally knowing the gentleman's secrets - but never, ever breathing a word of those secrets to another soul. Can you do all that?"

Christopher looked a little stunned by this. I remembered how Christopher, so oddly, had not seemed to know why he was here, and I realized that this was my best chance ever of making sure I got this job. "I'd like doing that a lot," I said.

"Me, too," Christopher said promptly. "Looking after clothes and keeping secrets are the two things I do best, Mr.Amos." I began to think I hated him.

"Good, good," Mr. Amos said. "I'm glad to see you both so ambitious. Because of course it will take some years of training before either of you are up to a position of such trust. But both of you seem quite promising material." He rocked back and forth on his small, shiny feet. "Let me explain," he commanded. "In a few years I shall probably be retiring. When this happens, my son, Mr.Hugo, will naturally take over my position in charge of Stallery, as I took over from my father here. This will leave untenanted Mr.Hugo's current post as valet to Count Robert. My aim is to train up more than one candidate for this position, so that when the time comes, Count Robert will have a choice. With this in mind, I propose to appoint the pair of you to the position of Improvers, and I expect you to regard yourselves as rivals for the honor of becoming, in time, a proper valet. I shall naturally recommend to the Count whichever of you most meets with my approval."

This was wonderful luck! I could feel my face spreading into a relieved grin. " Thank you!" I said, and then added, "Mr. Amos, sir," in order to start by being respectful.

Christopher seemed equally relieved but also slightly bewildered. "Er, won't you need to see any of my references, sir?" he asked. "One of them is quite glowing."

"Keep them," Mr.Amos said, "for your own encouragement. The only reference I need is my own powers of observation, honed through many years of scrutinizing young applicants. You no doubt saw the ease with which I distinguished who, among your companions, was likely to make a kitchen apprentice, who were potential maidservants, and who could only become a gardener's boy. I can do this in seconds, and I am almost never wrong. Am I, Mr.Hugo?"

"Very seldom," Hugo agreed, from the other side of the room.

Neither of us had seen him come in. We both jumped.

"Take Christopher and Conrad to their quarters, Mr. Hugo, show them the establishment, and acquaint them with their hours," Mr.Amos said. "We have our two Improvers, I am glad to say."

"Yes, sir. Where do they eat?" Hugo asked.

We could see this was an important question. Mr. Amos looked gravely at us, looked at the ceiling, and rocked on his feet. "Quite," he said. "The Middle Hall will be their station once it is in use, but since it is not... Not the Lower Hall, I fear. Young men are too prone to horseplay with the maidservants. I think we must reluctantly do as we temporarily did with the footmen and allow them to eat in the Upper Hall until the period of mourning for the late Count is past and we have Stallery full of guests again. Show them, will you. I want them present and properly dressed when I serve Tea."

Hugo held open the door beside him and said, in his pleasant way, "If you'd come with me, then."

As I picked up my plastic bag and followed Christopher through that door, I was nervous all over again, in quite a new way. I felt as if I had accidentally entered the priesthood and wasn't cut out for it. I expected Christopher to be feeling the same, but as Hugo showed us into a slow brown lift - "Strictly for Staff," he said. " Never show Family or their friends to a Staff lift" - and pressed button A, for the attics, I could see Christopher was wholly delighted, bubbling over with delight, as if he had just won a game. He looked the way I felt whenever Uncle Alfred pleaded with me to go on doing the cooking.

Christopher seemed quite unable to contain his joy while the lift climbed sluggishly upward. "Tell me," he burst out at Hugo, "will Conrad and I learn your trick of entering a room through a crack in the floorboards? I once read a book where a manservant was always oozing in like some soundless liquid, but with you it was more like soundless gas! You were just there ! Was it magic?"

Hugo grinned at this. Now I knew he was Mr. Amos's son, I could see the likeness. He had the big lips and the snubby nose, but in Hugo it was rather nice-looking. Otherwise, he was such a different size and shape, and seemed such a different sort of person, that it was hard to see him stepping into his father's place when Mr.Amos retired. "You'll learn how to enter a room," he said, leaning against the wall of the lift. "My father had me doing it for hours before he let me go into a room where the Family were. But the main thing you'll learn - I'm warning you - is how to be on your feet for fourteen hours at a stretch. Staff never sit down. Any more questions?"

"Hundreds," Christopher said. "So many I can't think what to ask first." This was evidently true. He had to stop and stare at the wall, trying to decide.

I seized the space to ask, "Should we call you Mr.Hugo?"

"Only in front of my father," Hugo said with another grin. "He's very strict about it."

"Because you're the heir to the butlership?" Christopher asked irrepressibly.

"That's right," said Hugo.

"Rather you than me!" Christopher said.

"Quite," Hugo answered, rather sadly.

Christopher looked at him shrewdly, but he said nothing else until the lift finally made it up to the attics. Then he said, "My God! A rat maze!"

Hugo and I both laughed, because it was like that up there. The roof was quite low, with skylights in it, so you could see narrow wooden corridors lined with doors running in all directions. It was warm and smelled of wood. I'm going to get lost up here, I thought.

"You'll be sharing a room along here," Hugo said, leading the way along a corridor that looked just like any of the rest. All the doors were painted the same dull red-brown. He opened a door like all the others. "You'll have to be careful not to make too much noise up here," he remarked. "You'll be among quite senior Staff."

Beyond the door was a fresh white room with a sloping ceiling and two narrow white beds. The little low window looked out at blue mountains, and sun streamed in. It smelled of warm whitewash. There was a carpet, a chest of drawers, and a curtained corner for hanging things in. It was rather nicer than my room at home. I looked at Christopher, expecting him to be used to much fancier bedrooms. But I'd forgotten he'd just spent a month in a gypsy caravan. He looked around with pleasure.

"Nice," he said. "Companionable. Twice as big as a caravan. Er... bathroom?"

"The end of the corridor," Hugo said. "The corner room on every passage is always a bathroom. Now come and get your uniforms. This way."

I hurriedly dumped my plastic bag on a bed, wondering if I would ever find it again, and we followed Hugo back out into the corridor.

Here Christopher said, "Just a second." He took off his narrow silk tie and wrapped it around the doorknob on the outside of the door. "Now we can find ourselves again," he said. "Or isn't it allowed?" he asked Hugo.

"I've no idea," Hugo said. "I don't think anyone's thought of doing it before."

"Then you must all have the most wonderful sense of direction," Christopher said. "Is this the bathroom?"

Hugo nodded. We both stuck our heads around the door, and Christopher nodded approvingly. "All the essentials," he said. "Far better than a tin tub or a hedge. Towels?"

"In the linen store next to the uniforms," Hugo told him. "This way."

He led us in zigzags through the narrow corridors to a place with a bigger skylight than usual. Here the doors were slatted, although they were the same red-brown as all the others. He opened the first slatted door. "Better take a towel each," he said.

We gazed at a room twice the size of the one we had been given, filled with shelves piled with folded towels, sheets, and blankets. Enough for an army, it seemed to me.

"How many Staff are there?" Christopher asked as we each took a big red-brown towel.

"We're down to just fifty indoors at the moment," Hugo said. "When we start entertaining again, we'll go up to nearly a hundred. But the mourning period for Count Rudolf isn't over for another fortnight, so we're very quiet until then. Plenty of time for you to find your feet. Uniforms are this way."

He led us to the next slatted door. Beyond it was an even bigger room. It had shelves like a public library, and all the shelves were stacked with clothes. There was pile after pile of pure white shirts, a wall of velvet breeches, neat towers of folded waistcoats, stack upon stack of striped stockings, rails hung with starched white neckcloths, and more shelves devoted to yellow-striped aprons. Underneath the shelves were cardboard boxes of buckled shoes. A strong spell against moths made my eyes water. Christopher's eyes went wide, but I only dimly saw Hugo going around, checking labels, looking at us measuringly, and then taking down garments from the shelves.

We each got two shirts, two aprons, four pairs of underpants, four pairs of stockings, one waistcoat, and one pair of velvet breeches. Hugo followed those with neckcloths, carefully laid over the growing heaps in our arms, and then a striped nightshirt apiece. "Do you know your shoe sizes?" he asked.

Neither of us did. Hugo whipped up a sliding measure from among the cardboard boxes and swiftly found out. Then he fetched buckled shoes from the boxes and made us try them on, efficiently checking where our toes came to and how the heels fitted. "It's important your shoes don't hurt," he said. "You're on your feet so much." I could see he made a very good valet.

"Right," he said, dumping a gleaming pair of shoes each on top of the nightshirts. "Go and get into the uniforms and put the rest away and meet me by the lift in ten minutes." He fetched a slender gold watch out of his waistcoat pocket and looked at the time. "Make that seven minutes," he said. "Or I won't have time to show you the house. I have to start for Ludwich with Count Robert at four."

I put my chin on the shoes to hold them steady and tried to remember the way we had come here. So did Christopher. I went one way with my pile of clothes. Christopher, with a vague but purposeful look, marched off in exactly the opposite direction.

Hugo went racing after Christopher, shouting, " Stop! Not there !" He sounded so horrified that Christopher swung around in alarm.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

Hugo pointed to a wide red-brown stripe painted on the wall beside Christopher. "You mustn't ever go past this line," he said. "It's the women's end of the attics beyond that. You'd be sacked on the spot if you were found on the wrong side of it."

"Oh," said Christopher. "Is that all? From the way you yelled, I thought there must be a hundred-foot drop along there. Which is the right way back to our room, then?"

Hugo pointed. It was in a direction that neither of us had thought of taking. We hurried off that way, feeling rather foolish, and after a while, more by luck than anything, arrived in the corridor where Christopher's tie hung on the doorknob.

"What foresight on my part!" Christopher said as we each dumped our armloads of clothing on a bed. "I don't know about you, Grant, but I know I'm going to look and feel a perfect idiot in these clothes, though not as silly as I'm going to feel in this nightshirt tonight."

"We'll get used to it," I said grumpily as I scrambled out of my own clothes. By this time Christopher's confident way of going on was annoying me.

"Do I detect," Christopher asked, climbing out of his trousers and hanging them carefully on the rail of his bed, "a certain hostility in you, Grant? Have you, by any chance, let Mr. Amos's ideas get to you? Are you regarding me as a rival?"

"I suppose I'm bound to," I said. I turned the black knee-length trousers around to see which was front and which was back. It wasn't easy to tell.

"Then let me set your mind at rest, Grant," Christopher said, puzzling over the breeches, too. "And hang on. I think we need to put the stockings on first. These things buckle over the stripy socks and - I hope - help to keep the wretched things up. I sincerely hope so. I hate wrinkles round my ankles. Anyway, forget Mr. Amos. I shall only be here for a short time."

"Why?" I said. "Are you sure?"

"Positive," Christopher said, wriggling a bare foot dubiously into a striped stocking. "I'm only doing this while I'm on my way to something quite different. When I find what I want, I shall leave at once."

I was at that moment standing on one foot while I tried to put a stocking on, too. It was floppy and it twisted and the top kept closing up. I was so astonished to hear that Christopher was in exactly the same position as me, that I overbalanced. After a moment or so of frantic hopping about, I sat on the floor with a crash.

"I see your feelings overwhelm you," Christopher remarked. "You really needn't worry, Grant. Regard me as a complete amateur. I shall never be a serious footman, let alone a valet or a butler."

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