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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

After what Christopher had said, I expected him to look all wrong in his new clothes. Not a bit of it. As soon as he had tightened the straps of his striped waistcoat, so that it sat trimly around his waist, and tied the white neckcloth under his chin, he looked a perfect, jaunty young footman. I was the one who looked wrong. I could see myself in the long stripe of mirror on the back of the door looking, ever so slightly, a mess. This was odd and unfair, because my hair was as black as Christopher's and I was not fat and there was nothing wrong with my face. But I looked as if I had stuffed my head through a hole on the top of a suit of clothes meant for someone else, the way you do for trick photographs.

"Seven minutes up," Christopher said, folding back the frill at the wrist of his shirt to look at his watch. "No time to admire yourself, Grant."

As we left the room, I remembered that I had left the port wine cork in the pocket of my own trousers. Mayor Seuly had said to carry it with me at all times. I had to dive back to get it and stuff it into... Oh. The wretched breeches turned out not to have pockets. I crammed the cork into a narrow waistcoat pocket as I followed Christopher out. I was going to tell him it was a keepsake from home, if he asked, but he never seemed to notice.

Hugo had his watch out when we found him. "You'll have to keep better time than this," he said. "My father insists on it." He put his watch away in order to tweak at my neckcloth, then at Christopher's. Everyone at Stallery was always trying to rearrange our neckcloths, but we didn't know that then, and we both backed away in surprise. "Follow me," Hugo said.

We didn't go down in the lift. Hugo led us down narrow, creaking stairs to the next floor. Here the ceilings were higher and the corridors wider, with matting on them, but everywhere was rather dark. "This is the nursery floor," he said. "At the moment, we use some of the rooms for the housekeepers and the sort of guests who don't eat with the Family, valets, the accountant, and so on."

On the way to the next flight of stairs, he opened a door to show us a long, dark, polished room with a rocking horse halfway down it, looking rather lonely. "Day nursery," he said.

The next flight of stairs was wider and had matting for carpet. At the bottom, the ceilings were a bit higher still, and there was carpet everywhere, new and pungent and dove gray. There were pictures on the walls. "Guest rooms?" Christopher guessed brightly.

"Overflow guest rooms." Hugo corrected him. "My father has his quarters on this floor," he added, taking us to the next flight of stairs. These stairs were quite broad and carpeted rather better than the best hotel in Stallchester.

Below this, it was suddenly opulent. Christopher pursed his mouth and whispered out a whistle as we stared along a wide passageway with a carpet like pale blue moss, running through a vista of gold-and-crimson archways, white statues, and golden ornaments on marble-topped tables with bent gold legs. There were vases of flowers everywhere here. The air felt thick and scented.

Hugo took us right along this passage. "You'll need to know this floor," he said, "in case you have to deliver anything to one of the Family's rooms." He pointed to each huge white double door as we came to it, saying, "Main guest room, red guest room, Count Robert's rooms, blue guest room, painted guest room. The Countess has the rose rooms, through here. This one is the white guest room, and Lady Felice has the rooms on this corner. Round beyond there are the lilac room and the yellow room. We don't use these so often, but you'd better know. Have you got all that?"

"Only vaguely," Christopher admitted.

"There's a plan in the undercroft," Hugo said, and he led us on, down wide, shallow steps this time, blue and soft like the passage, to a floor more palatial yet. My head was spinning by this time, but I sort of aimed my face where Hugo pointed and tried to look intelligent. "Ballroom, banquet room, music room, Grand Saloon," he said, and I saw vast spaces, enormous chandeliers, vistas of gold-rimmed sofas, and one room with about a hundred yards of table lined with flimsy gold chairs. "We don't use these more than two or three times a year," Hugo told us, "but they all have to be kept up, of course. There was going to be a grand ball here for Lady Felice's coming-of-age, but it had to be canceled when the Count died. Pity. But we'll be using them again in a couple of weeks to celebrate Count Robert's engagement. We had a spectacular ball here four years ago when the present Count was eighteen. Almost all the titles in Europe came. We used ten thousand candles and nearly two thousand bottles of champagne."

"Quite a party," Christopher remarked as we went past the main grand stairway. We craned and saw it led down into a huge hall with a streaky black marble floor.

Hugo pointed a thumb down the stairway. "The rooms down there are used by the Family most of the time - drawing rooms, dining rooms, library, and so on - but Staff are not allowed to use these stairs. Don't forget."

"Makes me want to slide down those banisters at once," Christopher murmured as Hugo took us to a much narrower flight of stairs instead, which came out into the hall behind the Family lift. He pointed to the various big black doors and told us which was which, but he said we couldn't look inside the rooms because Family might be using any one of them. We nodded, and our feet skidded in our new shoes on the black, streaky floor.

Then we thudded through a door covered with green cloth, and everywhere was suddenly gray stone and plain wood. Hugo pointed, "My father's pantry, Family china scullery, silver room, flower room, Staff toilets. We go down here to the undercroft."

He went galloping down a flight of steep stone steps. As we clattered down after him, I suddenly felt as if I were back at school. It had that smell, rather too warm and mixed with chalk and cooking, and like school, there was that feeling of lots of people about, many voices in the distance and large numbers of feet shuffling and hurrying. A girl laughed, making echoes, and - again like school - a bell rang somewhere.

The bell was ringing in the large stone lobby at the bottom of the stairs. There was a huge board there with row upon row of little round lights on it. One was flashing red more or less in the middle of it. A lady in a neat brown-and-yellow-striped dress and a yellow cap on her gray hair was looking up at the light rather anxiously.

"Oh, Hugo," she said gladly as we clattered off the stairs. "It's Count Robert."

Hugo strode across to the board. "Right," he said, and unhooked a sort of phone from the side, which seemed to stop the light flashing at once. I looked up at it as it went off. White letters under the light said CR Bdm. All the lights had similar incomprehensible labels. Stl Rm, I read. Bkfst Rm, Dng Rm, Hskpr, C Bthrm, Stbls. The only clear one was in the middle at the bottom. It said Mr.Amos.

Meanwhile, a voice was distantly snapping out of the phone thing. It sounded nervous and commanding. "Coming right away, my lord," Hugo said to it. He hung the phone up and turned to us. "I've got to go. I'll have to leave you here with Miss Semple. She's our Under-Housekeeper. Do you mind showing these Improvers round the undercroft?" he asked the lady.

"Not at all," she said. "You'd better go. He's been ringing for three minutes now." Hugo grinned at all of us and went racing up the stone steps again. We were left with Miss Semple, who smiled a mild, cheerful smile at us. "And your names are?"

"Conrad T...Grant," I said. I only remembered my alias just in time.

Christopher was just the same. He said, "Christopher...er, er...Smith," and backed away from her a little.

"Conrad and Christopher," she said. "Two Cs." Then she made us both start backward by pouncing on us and straightening our neckcloths. " That's better!" she said. "I've just been putting your duty rosters up on our bulletin board. Come and look."

It was really more like school than ever. There was a long, long board, taking up all the wall beside the stairs. This was divided into sections by thick black lines, with black headings over each section: Housemaids, Footmen, Parlor Staff, Stillroom, Laundry, Kitchen, we read, and right at the end beside the stairs, we found Improvers. There were lists and timetables pinned under each heading, but it was like school again in the way there were other, less official notices scattered about the board. A big pink one said, "Housemaids' KneesUp, 8:30 Thurs. All Welcome." Miss Semple tut-tutted and took that one down as we came to it. Another one read, in dark blue letters, " Chef wants that hat returned NOW!!" Miss Semple left that one up. She also left a yellow paper that said, "Mrs.Baldock still wants to know who scattered those pins in the Conservatory ."

When we came to the Improvers column, we saw two large sheets of paper neatly ruled into seven and labeled with the days of the week. Times of the day, from six in the morning until midnight, were written on the left, and lines ruled for each hour. Almost every one of the boxes made like this was filled with neat gray spidery writing. "6:00," I read on the left-hand sheet, "Collect shoes to take to Blacking Rm for cleaning. 7:00, Join Footmen in readying Breakfast Rm. 8:00, On duty in Breakfast Rm ..." My eyes scudded on, with increasing dismay, to things like " 2:00 Training session in Laundry, 3:00, Training sessions in Stillroom and Kitchen annex 3 with 2nd Underchef " It was almost a relief to find a square labeled simply "Mr.Amos" from time to time. On down my eyes went, anxiously, to the last box, " 11:00-12:00 ." That said, " On call in Upper Hall." Bad, I thought. I couldn't see one spare minute in which I might manage to summon a Walker, once I knew who was causing my Fate. And there didn't seem to be any boxes with meals marked in them either.

Christopher seemed to be trying to hide even worse dismay than I felt. "This is a disaster!" I heard him mutter as he scanned the closely filled right-hand sheet. He put a finger out to one of the only empty squares there was. "Er, someone seems to have forgotten to fill this square in." "No mistake," Miss Semple said, in her high, cheerful voice. She was one of those nice, kind people who have no sense of humor at all. "You both have two hours off on Wednesday afternoons and two more on a Thursday morning. That's a legal requirement."

"Glad to hear it!" Christopher said faintly.

"And another hour to yourselves on a Sunday, so that you can write home," Miss Semple added. "Your full day off comes every six weeks and you can - " A bell began to ring on the board across the lobby. Miss Semple whirled around to look. "That's Mr.Amos!" She hurried over and unhooked the phone.

While she was busy saying, "Yes, Mr.Amos... No, Mr.Amos..." I said to Christopher, "Why did you say this was a disaster?"

"Well, er," he said. "Grant, did you know we were going to be kept this busy when you applied for the job?"

"No," I said dolefully.

Christopher was going to say more, but Miss Semple hooked the phone back and hastened across the lobby again, saying confusingly, "You can take two free days together every three months if you prefer, but I shall have to show you the undercroft later. Hurry upstairs, boys. Mr. Amos wants a word with you before Tea is served."

We ran up the stone stairs. As Christopher said late that night, if we had grasped one thing about Stallery by then, it was that you did what Mr.Amos said, and you did it fast. "Before he's said it, if possible," Christopher added.

Mr. Amos was waiting for us in the wood-and-stone passage upstairs. He was smoking a cigar. Billows of strong blue smoke surrounded us as he said, "Don't pant. Staff should never look hurried unless Family particularly tells them to hurry. That's your first lesson. Second - Straighten those neckcloths, both of you." He waited, looking irritated, while we fumbled at the white cloths and tried not to pant and not to cough in the smoke. "Second lesson," he said. "Remember at all times that what you really are is living pieces of furniture." He pointed the cigar at us three times, in time to the words. "Living. Pieces. Of furniture. Got that?" We nodded. "No, no!" he said. "You say, "Yes, Mr.Amos...""

"Yes, Mr.Amos," we chorused.

"Better," he said. "Say it smarter next time. And like furniture, you stand against the walls and seem to be made of wood. When Family asks you for anything, you give it them or you do it, as gracefully and correctly as possible, but you do not speak unless Family makes a personal remark to you. What would you say if the Countess gives you a personal order?"

"Yes, your ladyship?" I suggested.

"No, no!" Mr. Amos said, billowing smoke at me. "Third lesson. The Countess and Lady Felice are to be addressed as "my lady" and Count Robert as "my lord.' Now bear these lessons firmly in mind. You are about to be shown to the Countess while we serve Tea. You are there for this moment simply to observe and learn. Watch me, watch the footman on duty, and otherwise behave like two chairs against the wall."

His stone-colored eyes stared at us expectantly. After a moment we realized why and chorused again, "Yes, Mr.Amos."

"And chairs would be slightly more use," he said. "Now, repeat back to me..."

Luckily at that moment a bell shrilled downstairs in the lobby.

"Ah," said Mr.Amos. "The Countess has Rung for Tea." He stubbed out his cigar on a piece of wall that was black and gray with having cigars stubbed on it and put the dead cigar into a pocket of his striped waistcoat. Then he stuck out both arms, rather like a penguin, to make his shirt cuffs show and shook his thick shoulders to settle his coat. "Follow me," he said, and pushed through the green cloth door into the hall.

We followed his solemn pear-shaped back out into the middle of the huge black-floored hall. There his voice rang around the space. "Wait here." So we waited while he went to one of the large doors on the other side of the hall and pushed the two halves of it gently open. "You rang, my lady?" His voice came to us, smooth and rich and full of respect.

Probably someone said something in the room beyond. Mr.Amos bowed and backed away into the hall, gently closing the doors. For a moment after that, I could hardly see or hear anything, because I knew I was now actually going to see the person causing my bad karma. I was going to know who they were and I was going to have to summon a Walker. My heart banged, and I could hardly breathe. My face must have looked odd, because I saw Christopher give me a surprised, searching look, but he had no time to say anything. At that moment the footman called Andrew backed out through the distant green door, carefully towing a high-tea trolley.

Later that day Christopher said this was when he began to feel he might be in church. Mr. Amos gestured to us to fall in on either side of Andrew, while he walked in front of the trolley himself and threw the double door wide open so that we could all parade into the room beyond in a solemn procession, with the trolley rattling among us. But it didn't go quite smoothly. Just as we got to the doorway, Andrew had to stop the trolley to let a young blond lady go through first.

She was very good-looking. Christopher and I agreed on that. We both stared, although we noticed that Andrew very carefully didn't look at her. But she did not seem to see me, or Christopher, or Andrew, though she nodded at Mr. Amos and said, "Oh, good. I'm in time for Tea." She went on into the room, where she sat bouncily on one of the several silk sofas, opposite the lady who was already there. "Mother, guess what..."

"Hush, Felice dear," the other lady said.

This was because the church service was still going on, and the other lady - the Countess - did not want it interrupted. She was one of those who had to have everything exactly so and done in the right order.

If you looked at her quickly, this Countess, you thought she was the same age as the good-looking one, Lady Felice. She was just as blond and just as slender, and her dark lilac dress made her face look pure and delicate, almost like a teenager's. But when she moved, you saw she had studied for years and years how to move gracefully, and when she spoke, her face took on expressions that were terribly sweet, in a way that showed she had been studying expressions for years, too. After that, you saw that the delicate look was careful, careful, expert makeup.

By this time two small jerks of Mr.Amos's chin had sent me and Christopher to stand with our backs against the wall on either side of the doorway. Andrew stopped the trolley and shut the doors - practically soundlessly - and Mr.Amos gently produced a set of little tables, which he placed out beside the ladies. Then back and forth he and Andrew went, back and forth from trolley to tables, setting a thin gold-rimmed plate and a fluted cup and saucer on three of the tables, then napkins and little forks and spoons. Then there was the teapot to place on its special mat on another table, a strainer in a bowl, a gold-edged jug of cream, and a boat-shaped thing full of sugar cubes. All just so.

Then there was a pause. The ladies sat. The teapot sat, too, steaming faintly.

Christopher, who was staring ahead looking so totally blank that he seemed to have no brain at all, said that at this point he was thinking the tea in the pot would soon be cold. Or stewed. So was I, a bit. But mostly I was feeling really let down. I stared and stared at the Countess, hoping I would suddenly know that she was the person causing my Fate. I even looked at Lady Felice and wondered, but I could tell she was just a normal, happy kind of person who was having to behave politely in front of the Countess. The Countess was a sort of hidden dragon. That was why I thought she might be the one. She was very like a teacher we had in my third year. Mrs. Polak seemed very sweet, but she could really give you grief, and I could see the Countess was the same. But I didn't get any knowing off her at all.

It has to be Count Robert, then, I thought.

"Amos," the Countess said in a lovely, melodious voice, "Amos, perhaps you could tell my son, the Count, that we are waiting to have tea."

"Certainly, my lady." Mr.Amos nodded at Andrew, and Andrew scudded out of the room.

We waited some more, at least five minutes to judge from the way my feet ached. Then Andrew slithered back between the doors and whispered to Mr.Amos.

Mr.Amos turned to the Countess. "I regret to tell you, my lady, that Count Robert left for Ludwich some twenty minutes ago."

"Ludwich!" exclaimed the Countess. I wondered why she didn't know. "What on earth does he need to go to Ludwich for? And did he give any indication of how long he proposed to be away?"

Mr.Amos's pear-shaped body bent in a bow. "I gather he intended a stay of about a week, my lady."

"That's what I was going to tell you, Mother," Lady Felice put in.

At this, something happened to the Countess's face, a hard sort of movement under the delicate features. She gave a tinkly little laugh. "Well!" she said. "At least the tea has had time to brew. Please pour, Amos."

"Ouch!", I thought. The Count's going to be in for it when he gets back!

This was the signal for the church service to go on. Mr.Amos poured tea as if it were the water of life. It was steaming so healthily that Christopher said later that he was sure there was a keep-warm spell in the mat. Andrew offered cream. The Countess waved him away and got given lemon in transparent-thin slices by Mr.Amos instead. Then Andrew moved in with the sugar boat, and the Countess let him give her four lumps.

While the show moved on to Lady Felice, the Countess said, as if she were covering up an awkward pause, "I see we have two new page boys, Amos."

"Improvers, my lady," Mr. Amos said, "who will function as pages until they learn the work." His head jerked sharply at Christopher. "Christopher, be good enough to hand the sandwiches."

Christopher jumped. I could see his mind had been miles away, but he pulled himself together and heaved the sandwiches up off the trolley. There were scores of them, tiny, thin things with no crusts and thick, savory-smelling fillings, heaped up on a vast oval silver plate. Christopher sniffed at them yearningly as he hoisted the plate up, but he went and held the plate out to the Countess very gallantly, with a flourishing bow that matched the way he looked.

The Countess seemed startled, but she took six sandwiches. Mr.Amos frowned as Christopher brought the plate to Lady Felice and went on one knee to hold it out to her.

Christopher had to go back and forth. It was amazing how much those two slim ladies ate. And all the while Mr. Amos stood back like a stuffed penguin and frowned. I could see he thought Christopher was too fancy.

"Ludwich!" the Countess complained after about her fifteenth sandwich. "Whatever does Robert mean by it? Without warning, too!"

She went on about it rather. Eventually Lady Felice dumped her eighteenth sandwich back on her plate in an irritated way and said, "Really, Mother, does it matter ?"

She got a stare. The Countess had ice blue eyes, big ones, and the stare was glacial. "Of course it matters, dear. It's extreme discourtesy to me."

"But he was probably called away on business," Lady Felice said. "He was telling me that his bonds and shares..."

I could see this was quite a cunning thing to say, a bit like the way Anthea and I used to ask Uncle Alfred for money to stop him raging when we'd broken something. The Countess held up a small, gentle hand all over rings to stop Lady Felice. "Please, darling! I know nothing about finance. Amos, are there cakes?"

It was my turn to jump. Mr. Amos said, "Conrad, hand the cakes now, please."

They were at the bottom of the trolley on another huge silver plate. I almost staggered as I heaved it up. The plate was truly heavy and made heavier still by being piled so with all the tiniest and most delicious pastries you could imagine. Scents of cream, fruit, rosewater, almond, meringue, and chocolate hit my nose. I felt my stomach whir. It sounded so loud to me that I couldn't think of any elegant way to hand those cakes. I simply walked over to the Countess and held the plate out to her.

Mr.Amos frowned again. I could tell he thought I was too plain.

Luckily I didn't have to heave the plate about for very long. The Countess had just wanted to change the subject, I think. She only took three cakes. Lady Felice had one. How they could bear not to eat the lot, I shall never know.

After that we had the church service again, with everything being cleared back onto the trolley in the proper religious order. Mr.Amos and Andrew bowed. Both glared sideways at us until we realized we had to bow, too. Then we were allowed to push the trolley away into the hall.

"Tea ceremony over," Christopher muttered, under the clattering.

But it was not, not quite. In the middle of the hall Mr. Amos stopped and told us off. He made me at least feel quite awful. "In front of Family !" he kept saying. "One of you flounces like a pansy, and the other plods like a yokel!" Then he went on to the way we stood. "You do not gaze like half-wits; you do not stand to attention like common soldiers. You are in a proper household here. You behave right . Watch Andrew next time. He stands against a wall as if it were natural ."

"Yes, Mr.Amos," we said miserably.

He allowed us to go away down the stone stairs in the end. And there the bewildering day went on and on. Miss Semple was waiting to show us the undercroft. Christopher tried to sidle off then, but she turned and shot him a mild but all-seeing look and shook her head. He came glumly to heel. I followed her resignedly anyway. It was clear to me that I was here for a week, until Count Robert came back, so I thought I might as well learn my way about.

The undercroft was vast. I had to be shown all over it again the next day because it was too big to take in that first time. All I remembered was a confusion of steams and scents from several kitchens and a laundry, and people in brown-and-gold uniform rushing about. There were cold stores and dry stores full of food, and a locked door leading to the cellars. There was at least one room dedicated entirely to crockery, where two girls seemed to be washing up all the time. I was very surprised when Miss Semple told us this was just crockery for Staff. The good china for the Family was upstairs in another pantry with another set of maids to wash it. Family and Staff were like two different worlds that only linked together at certain times and places.

Christopher became fascinated by this. "It's my amateur status, Grant," he told me. "It allows me to take a detached view of the tribal customs here. You must admit it's a strange setup when all these people chase about in the basement, just to look after two women."

He was so fascinated that he asked question after question at supper. Our part of the Staff had supper in the Upper Hall at seven, so that we would be ready to wait on the Family when they dined at eight. Their food was called Dinner and was very formal, but ours was fairly formal, too. A whole lot of Staff gathered round a big table at one end of a large sort of sitting room. There were chairs and magazines in the other end, and a smaller board with lights, in case anyone needed us while we were there, but no television. Andrew told me rather sadly that you couldn't get a signal up in Stallery, not for any money. Andrew was the nicest of the footmen by far.

Anyway, there were six footmen, and us, and a dismal old man with a snuffle (he was steward or accountant or something) and a whole lot of women. Miss Semple was there, of course, and she told me that the very smart elderly woman was the Countess's maid, and the almost as smart younger one was Lady Felice's. Those two weren't very nice. They only spoke to each other. But there were the Upper Stillroom Maid, the Head of Housemaids, the Head of Parlormaids, and several other Heads of Somethings. Apparently there should have been Hugo, too, but he had gone to Ludwich with Count Robert. All the other Staff ate in the Lower Hall, except Mr.Amos, who had his meals alone, Miss Semple said.

There was also Mrs.Baldock. She was Housekeeper, but I kept thinking of her as the Headmistress. She was the largest woman I had ever seen, a vast six-footer with iron gray hair and a huge bosom. The most noticeable thing about her was the purple flush up each side of her large face. Christopher said this didn't look healthy to him. "Possibly she drinks, Grant," he said, but this was later. At that supper she swept in after all the rest of us. Everyone stood up for her. Mrs.Baldock said a short grace, then looked down the table until she saw Christopher and me.

"I'll expect you two in the Housekeeper's Room promptly at nine-thirty tomorrow," she said.

This sounded so ominous to me that I kept my head down and said nothing for most of the meal. But Christopher was another matter. When supper came - and it was steak pie and marvelous, with massive amounts of potatoes in butter - it was brought in by four maids. Mrs. Baldock cut the pie, and the maids carried it around to us. Nobody started eating until Mrs. Baldock did.

"What is this?" Christopher said as the maid brought his slice.

"Steak pie, sir," the girl said. She was about Christopher's age, and you could see she thought he was ever so handsome.

"No, I mean, the way there are Staff to wait on Staff," Christopher said. "When do you get to eat?"

"We have high tea at six-thirty, sir," the girl said, "but..."

"What a lot of meals!" Christopher said. "Doesn't that take another whole kitchen and a whole lot more Staff to wait on you?"

"Well, only sort of," the girl said. Her eyes went nervously to Mrs.Baldock. "Please, sir, we're not supposed to hold conversations while we're serving."

"Then I'll ask you" Christopher said to Andrew. "Do you see any reason why this serving business should ever stop? We have supper now, so as to wait on the Family, and these charming young ladies have theirs at six-thirty in order to wait on us. And when they are waited on, those people must have to eat at six, and before that some other people have to eat earlier still in order to wait on them. There must be some Staff who have supper at breakfast time in order to fit all this serving in."

Andrew laughed, but some of the other footmen were not amused. The one called Gregor growled, "Cheeky little beggar!" and the one called Philip said, "You think you're quite a card, don't you?" Behind them all four maids were trying not to giggle, and from the head of the table, Mrs. Baldock was staring. Well, everyone was staring. Most of the Head Maids were annoyed, and the two Lady's Maids were scandalized, but Mrs.Baldock stared with no expression at all. There was no way of knowing if she approved of Christopher or was about to sack him on the spot.

"Someone must be cooking all the time," Christopher said. "How do you manage with only three kitchens?"

Mrs.Baldock spoke. She said, "And a bakery. That will do, young man."

"Yes, ma'am," Christopher said. "Delicious pie, whichever kitchen it came from." He and Mrs.Baldock eyed each other down the length of the table. Everyone's heads turned from one to the other like people's at a tennis match. Christopher smiled sweetly. "Pure curiosity, ma'am," he said.

Mrs.Baldock just said, "Hmm," and turned her attention to her plate.

Christopher kept a wary eye on her, but he went on asking questions.

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