We had to jump up as soon as we had finished supper. We left the maids clearing plates and giggling at Christopher's back and hurried upstairs with the footmen to the dining room. This was a tall, gloomy room that matched the black-floored hall. Mr.Amos was waiting there to show us how to fold stiff white napkins into a fancy boat shape and then to instruct us in the right way to make two little silver islands of cutlery and wineglasses on the shiny black table. We had to put each knife, fork, and spoon exactly in its right place.
Christopher went rather pale while we were trying to get it right. "Indigestion, Grant," he told me in a sorrowful whisper. "Bolting pie and then running upstairs is not what I'm used to."
"That won't be the only thing that disagrees with you if Mr.Amos hears you," the surly footman - Gregor - said to him. "Hold your tongue. Put this cloth over that arm, both of you, and stand by that wall. Don't move, or I'll belt you one."
We spent the next hour doing just that. We were supposed to be attending to what Mr. Amos and the footmen did as they circled in and out around the two Ladies sitting each at their little island of glass and silver, but I think I dozed on my feet half the time. The rest of the time I stared at a big picture of a dead bird and some fruit on the opposite wall and wished I could be at home in the bookshop. The two Ladies bored me stiff. They talked the whole time about the clothes they were going to buy as soon as the time of mourning was over and where they would stay in Ludwich while they were shopping. And they seemed to go on eating forever.
When at last they were finished, we were allowed to go back to the undercroft, but we had to stay in the Upper Hall in case we were needed to bring things to the Ladies in the drawing room. Gregor watched us to make sure we didn't try to slip away. We sat side by side on a hard sofa as far away from Gregor as we could get, trying not to listen to the two Lady's Maids, who were doing embroidery quite near to us and whispering gossipy things to each other.
"She's got a whole drawerful of keepsakes from him by now," said one.
The other one said, "If that gets found out, they'll both be in trouble."
"I wouldn't be in her shoes for any money," the first one said.
I yawned. I couldn't help it.
"Come, come, Grant," Christopher said. "On these occasions you have to keep going by taking an interest in little things, like those two maids do. We've been here a good seven hours by now. I know they seem the longest we've ever known, but you must have found some little thing to be amazed about somewhere ."
I had, now he came to remind me. "Yes," I said. "How do the Countess and Lady Felice eat so much and stay so thin ?"
"Good question," Christopher replied. "They fair put it away, don't they? The young one probably rushes about, but the old one is slightly stately. She ought by rights to be the size of Mrs. Baldock. Perhaps the chef charms her food. But my guess is she takes slim spells. I dare you to go over and ask her Lady's Maid if I'm right."
I looked across at the two gossiping women. I laughed. "No. You do it."
Christopher didn't dare either, so we went on to talk about other things we had noticed. This was when Christopher told me his theory that Mrs.Baldock drank. But right at the end, just before Andrew came in and said we could go off to bed, Christopher astounded me by asking, "By the way, what or where is this Ludwich that the Countess is so peeved with the Count for vanishing to?"
I stared at him. How could he not know? "It's the capital city, of course! Down in the Sussex Plains, beside the Little Rhine. Everyone knows that!"
"Oh," said Christopher. "Ah. So the Count's gone on a spree, has he? The fact is, Grant, that one gets a little confused about geography, living with the Travelers. They never bother to say where we are or where we're going. So what part of the country are we in now?"
"The English Alps," I said. "Just above Stallchester." I was still astonished.
Christopher repeated, "The English Alps. Ah." looking grave and wise. "What other Alps are there, then - as a matter of interest?"
"French, Italian, Austrian," I said. "Those Alps sort of run together. The English Alps are divided off by Frisia." Christopher looked quite bewildered. He didn't seem to know any geography at all. "Frisia's the country on the English border," I explained. "The whole of Europe is quite flat between Ludwich and Mosskva, and the Alps make a sort of half-moon round the south of that. The English Alps are to the north of the plains."
Christopher nodded to himself. I thought I heard him murmur, "Series Seven - no British Isles here, of course."
"What?" I said. "What are you on about now?"
"Nothing," he said. "I'm half asleep." I don't think he was, although I certainly was. When Andrew said we could go, I tottered into the lift, then out of it, and fell into the nightshirt and into bed and went to sleep on the spot. I dimly heard Christopher get up later in the night. I assumed he was visiting the toilet up at the end of the corridor, and I waited, mostly asleep, for him to come back. But he was away for so long that I went properly back to sleep and never heard him returning. All I knew was that he was in bed and asleep the next morning.
They woke us up at dawn.
We got used to this in the end, but that first morning was awful. We had to put on aprons and go around with a big basket collecting shoes to be cleaned, from the attics downward. Most doors had at least one set of shoes outside them. But Mr. Amos put out four pairs of small black shoes. The Countess put out a dozen pairs, all fancy. Lady Felice put out a stack of riding boots. We had to stagger down to the undercroft with the lot, where we were very relieved to discover that they employed someone else to clean them all. I could hardly clean my face that morning, let alone shoes.
Then we were allowed to have breakfast with a crowd of red-eyed, grumpy footmen. Andrew was off duty that morning, and
Gregor was in charge, and he didn't like either of us and had it in for Christopher particularly. He sent us upstairs to the Family breakfast room before we'd really finished eating. He said it was important to have someone on duty there in case one of the Family came down early.
"I bet that was a lie!" Christopher said, and he rather shocked me by helping himself to bread and marmalade from the vast
sideboard. We found out that all the footmen did the same, when they finally loitered in.
And it was just as well they deigned to turn up. Lady Felice came in before seven, looking pale and pensive and wearing riding clothes. No one had expected her. Gregor had to shove the bread he was eating under the sideboard in a hurry, and his mouth was so full that one of the other footmen had to ask Lady Felice what she fancied for breakfast. She said, a bit sadly, that she only wanted rolls and coffee. She was going out riding, she said. And would Gregor go to the stables and ask them to get Iceberg saddled. Gregor couldn't speak still, or he would have sent Christopher. He had to go himself, scowling.
By the time the Countess stalked in, obviously seething for some reason, the sideboard had been lined with dishes under
dome-shaped silver covers, most of them fetched from the food lift by Christopher or me, and she had a choice of anything from mixed grill to smoked kidneys and fish. She ate her way through most of them while she was interviewing the poor snuffly old accountant man.
His name was Mr.Smithers, and I think he had only just started his own breakfast when she rang for him. He kept eyeing her plates sorrowfully. But he was a long time arriving, and Gregor sent Christopher to look for him, while the Countess drummed her long pearly nails angrily on the tablecloth.
Christopher marched smartly out of the room and marched smartly in again almost at once with Mr. Smithers, who behaved as
if Christopher had dragged him there by his coat collar. Gregor looked daggers at Christopher. And honestly, that was one of a good many times that I didn't blame Gregor. Christopher was so pleased with himself. When he looked like that, I usually wanted to hit him as much as Gregor did.
Mr.Smithers was in trouble with the Countess. She had an awful way of opening her ice blue eyes wide, wide, and saying in a
sweet, cold, cooing voice, " Explain yourself, Smithers. Why is this so?" Or sometimes she just said, " Why ?" which was worse.
Poor Mr. Smithers snuffled and shifted and tried to explain. It was about some part of her money that was late coming in. We had to stand there and listen while he tried.
And it was odd. It was all quite ordinary stuff, like the income from the home farms and the inn she owned in Stallstead and her property in Ludwich. I kept thinking of Uncle Alfred telling me about Stallery's worldwide dealings and the huge markets that needed the possibilities pulled to work them, and I began to wonder if Uncle Alfred had got this right. He had told me about millions on the stock exchange, and here was the Countess asking about sixties and eighties and hundreds. I was really confused. But then I thought it had to be the Count who dealt in the big money. Someone had to. You only had to look at Stallery to see it cost a bomb to run the place.
But I didn't have much time to think. Mrs. Baldock rang for us the moment the Countess had polished off Mr. Smithers and her breakfast. Christopher and I had to pelt off to the Housekeeper's Room. By the time we got there, Mrs. Baldock was pacing about among her pretty floral chairs and little twiddly tables. The purple bits down the sides of her face were almost violet with impatience.
"I can only spare you five minutes," she said. "I have to be at my daily conference with the Countess after this. There's just time to outline the nature of your training to you now. We aim, you see, to ensure that whichever of you attains the post of valet to the Count is completely versed in all aspects of domestic science. You'll be learning, first and foremost, the correct care of clothing and the correct fashion for everything a gentleman does. Proper clothes for fishing are just as important as evening dress, you know, and there are six types of formal evening wear..."
She went on about clothes for a good minute. I couldn't help thinking that the Count would have had to hire a lorry when he
went to Ludwich if he really did take all the clothes Mrs.Baldock said he needed. I watched her feet tramping about on the floral carpet. She had huge ankles that draped over the sides of her buckled shoes.
"But just as important are laundering, house-cleaning, and bed making," she said. "And in order to learn to care for your gentleman in every way, you'll be having courses on flower arranging, hair-cutting, and cookery, too. Do either of you cook?"
While I was saying, "Yes, ma'am," I had the briefest glimpse of absolute horror on Christopher's face. Then he somehow managed a beguiling smile. "No," he said. "And I couldn't arrange flowers if my life depended on it. It's beginning to look as if Conrad's going to be the next valet, isn't it?"
"The Count will shortly marry," Mrs. Baldock pointed out. "The Countess is insisting on it. By the time his son is of an age to require a valet, even you should have learned what is necessary." She gave Christopher one of her long, expressionless looks.
"But why cooking ?" he said despairingly.
"It is the custom," Mrs. Baldock said, "for the Count's son to be sent to university accompanied by both his tutor and his valet. They will take lodgings together, and the valet will create their meals."
"I'd far rather create a meal than cook one," Christopher told her frankly.
Mrs.Baldock actually grinned. She seemed to have taken to Christopher. "Get along with you!" she said. "I can see well enough that you can do anything you set your mind to, young man. Now go and report to the Upper Laundrymaid and tell her I sent you both."
We blundered our way through the stone warren of the undercroft and finally found the laundry. There the woman in
charge looked at us doubtfully, then straightened our neckcloths, and then stood back to see if this had changed her opinion of us. She sighed. "I'll start you on ironing," she said pessimistically. "Things that don't matter too much. Paula! Take these two to the pressing room, and show them what to do."
Paula materialized out of the steam and took us in tow, but unfortunately, she turned out to be no good at explaining things. She showed us to a bare stone room with various sizes of ironing tables in it. She gave Christopher a damp linen sheet and me a pile of wettish neckcloths. She told us how to turn the irons on. Then she left.
We looked at each other. Christopher said, "Penny for them, Grant."
"It's a bit like," I said, "that story where they had to turn straw into gold."
"It is!" Christopher agreed. "And no Rumpelstiltskin to help." He pushed his iron experimentally across the sheet. "This makes no difference - or possibly more wrinkles than before."
"You have to wait for the iron to get hot," I said. "I think ."
Christopher lifted the iron and turned it this way and that in front of his face. "A touch of warmth now," he said. "How do these things work anyway? They don't plug in. Is there a salamander inside, or something?"
I laughed. Christopher's ignorance was truly amazing. Fancy thinking a fire lizard could heat an iron! "They have a power unit inside - just like lights and cookers and tellies do."
"Do they? Oh!" said Christopher. "A little light came on at the end of this iron!"
"That may mean it's hot enough," I said. "Mine's got a light now. Let's try."
We got going. My first idea - that you could save time and effort by doing ten neckcloths at once - didn't seem to work. I cut the pile down to five, to two, and then to just one, which promptly turned yellowish and smelled. Christopher kept muttering, "I don't seem to be living up to Mrs. Baldock's high opinion of me - not at all!" until he startled me by crying out, "Great heavens! A church window! Look!"
I looked. He had a dark brown iron shape burned into the middle of his sheet.
"I wonder if it will do that again," he said.
He tried, and it did. I watched, fascinated, while Christopher printed a whole row of church windows right across the sheet. Then he went on to make a daisy shape in the lower half of it.
But at this point I was recalled to my own work by a cloud of black smoke and a very strong smell. I looked down to find that my iron had burned a neckcloth right in two and then gone on to burn its way into the ironing table beneath. I had a very deep black church window there. I found red cinders in it when I snatched the iron up.
"Oh, help!" I said.
"Panic ye not, Grant," Christopher said.
"I can't help it!" I said, trying to fan away rolls of brown smoke. "We're going to get into awful trouble."
"Only if things stay like this," Christopher said. He came across and looked at my disaster. "Grant," he said, "this is too deep for a church window. What you have here is probably a dugout canoe." He switched his own iron off and wagged it in my face. "I congratulate you," he said.
I nearly screamed at him. "It's not funny !"
"Yes, it is," he said. "Look."
I looked, and I gaped. The smoke had gone. The black boat shape was not there anymore. The ironing table was flat and complete, with its brown-blotched surface quite smooth, and on top of it lay a plain, white, badly ironed neckcloth. "How...?" I said.
"No questions," Christopher said. "I shall just get rid of my own artwork." He picked up a corner of his ruined sheet and shook it. And all the church windows simply disappeared. He turned to me, looking very serious. "Grant," he said, "you didn't see me do this. Promise me you didn't, or your dugout canoe comes back deeper and blacker and smokier than ever."
I looked from him to the restored ironing table. "If I promise," I said, "can I ask you how you did it?"
"No," he said. "Just promise."
"All right. I promise," I said. "It's obvious anyway. You're a magician."
"A magician," Christopher said, "is someone who sets out ritual candles round a pentangle and then mutters words of power. Did you see me do that?"
"No," I said. "You must be a very advanced kind."
Then I was half frightened, half pleased, because I thought I had made Christopher annoyed enough to tell me about himself. "Piffle! Pigheaded piffle!" he began. "Grant..."
To my great disappointment, Miss Semple hurried in and interrupted him. "You have to stop this now, boys," she said. "Make
sure the irons are switched off. Mr. Avenloch has just brought in the produce for today, and Mr. Maxim wants you to start your cookery course by learning to pick out the best."
So off we hurried once more, to a chilly stone storeroom that opened off the yard, where Mr. Avenloch was standing watching a gang of lower gardeners carry in baskets of fruit and boxes of vegetables. One of the gang was the boy with the handmade boots. He grinned at us, and we grinned back, but I didn't envy him. Mr.Avenloch was one of those tall, thin, eagle-faced types. He looked a total tyrant.
"Wipe that smile off your face, Smedley," he said, "and get you gone back to that hoeing."
When the whole gang had gone scurrying out again, Mr.Maxim pranced forward. He was almost as full of himself as Christopher was. He was Second Underchef and he had been given the extra responsibility of teaching us, and this had made him really cocky. He rubbed his hands eagerly together and said to Christopher, "You are choosing for the table of the Countess herself. Pick me out - by sight only - all the best vegetables for her."
From the look on Christopher's face, I was fairly sure he had never seen a raw vegetable in his life before this. But he made a confident pounce toward a basket of gooseberries. "Here," he said, "are some splendid peas, really big ones. Oh no, they're hairy. It can't be good for peas to have bristles, can it?"
"Those," Mr.Maxim said, "are gooseberries for the Stillroom. Try again."
A little more cautiously, Christopher approached a small box of bright red chilies. "Now here are some fine, glossy carrots," he suggested. "They probably fade a bit when you cook them." He looked at Mr.Maxim. Mr. Maxim nearly dislodged his tall white hat by clutching at his head. "No?" Christopher asked. "What are they then? Pipless strawberries? Long, thin cherries?"
By this time I was leaning against the wall bent over with laughter. Mr. Maxim rounded on me. "This is no joke!" he shouted. "He's winding me up, isn't he?"
I could see he was furious. Cocky people hate being made fun of. I shook my head and managed to pull myself together. "No, he's not," I said. "He really doesn't know. He - you see - he's lived all his life as heir to a great estate - a bit like Stallery, really - but the family fell on hard times, and he had to get a job." I looked sideways at Christopher. He put on a modest look and did not try to deny what I said. Interesting.
Mr.Maxim was instantly sorry for Christopher. "My dear boy," he said, "I quite understand. Please go round with Conrad and let him identify the produce for you." He was wonderfully kind to Christopher after that and even quite kind to me when I mistook a pawpaw for a vegetable marrow.
"Thanks," Christopher murmured to me while we were arranging the fruit I had chosen in a great cut glass bowl. "I owe you one, Grant."
"No, you don't," I whispered back. "Dugout canoe."
But he did end up owing me one later that day. This was after we had stood against the wall in yet another eating room, each of us with a useless white cloth draped over one arm, watching the Countess and Lady Felice eat lunch. Part of the meal was actually the bowl of fruit we had arranged that morning. This gave me a good feeling, as if I had really done something at last. The Countess attacked the fruit heartily, but Lady Felice took one grape, and that was all.
"Darling," said the Countess, "you've hardly eaten anything. Why?"
It was the bad " Why ?" with the stare. Lady Felice looked at her plate in order not to meet the stare and muttered that she wasn't hungry. This did not satisfy the Countess at all. She went on and on about it. Was Felice ill? Should she call a doctor? What were the symptoms? Or had breakfast disagreed with her? All in the sweet, high voice.
In the end Lady Felice said, "I just don't feel like food, Mother. All right?" Her face went pink, and she almost glared at the Countess.
And the Countess said, "There's no need to be coy, dear. If you're trying to lose weight, you're welcome to borrow my pills."
Christopher's eyes went sideways and met mine. She does take spell pills! his look said. Both of us nearly burst, trying not to laugh. Mr.Amos shot us a dirty look. So did Gregor. And by the time we had a grip on ourselves, Lady Felice had flung down her napkin and rushed out of the room, leaving the Countess looking annoyed and mystified.
"Amos," she said, "I shall never understand the young."
"Naturally not, my lady," Mr. Amos replied.
She smiled graciously, folded her napkin neatly, and walked elegantly to the door. "Tell Smithers to come to my boudoir with his revised accounts," she said as she left.
For some reason - I think it was watching her walk - I remembered Mrs.Potts saying that the Countess used to kick up
her legs in a chorus line. I was staring after her, trying so hard to imagine her doing it - and I couldn't - that I jumped a mile when Mr.Amos shouted at me. He was really angry. He planted himself on the carpet face-to-face with us, and he told us off thoroughly for daring to laugh in front of the Ladies. He made me at least feel awful. It didn't seem to matter that he was the same height as I was and inches shorter than Christopher. He was like a prophet or a saint or something, hating us for being ungodly and thundering out of heaven at us.
"Now you will learn to be mannerly," he said in the end. "Both of you are to go out of this door and come in again as softly and politely as you can. Go on."
Even Christopher was quite cowed by then. We crept to the double door, crept out into the hall, and tiptoed apologetically in again. And of course that was not right. Mr. Amos made us do it over and over again, while Gregor kept shooting us mean smiles as he cleared the lunch away. We must have gone in and out fifty
times, and Mr.Amos was just promising us that we would go on doing it until we got it right, when one of the other footmen came to say that Mr. Amos was wanted on the telephone.
"What a relief!" Christopher muttered.
"Gregor," said Mr. Amos, "set these two to cleaning the silver until we Serve Tea. If this is the call I was expecting, I shall be busy all afternoon, so you are to make sure they keep at it." And he hurried away on his small, shiny feet.
"I spoke too soon," Christopher said as Gregor came toward us.
"This way. Hurry up," Gregor said. He was positively gloating. Among his other drawbacks, Gregor was big. Hefty. He had the
meaty sort of hands you could rather easily imagine giving you a wallop on the ear. We scuttled after him without a word, with our three sets of feet ringing, clack-clack-clack, around the hall. He led us through the green cloth door and along the wood-and-stone passage to a room right at the end, where there was a long table covered with newspapers. "Right," Gregor said. "Aprons behind the door. Roll your sleeves up. Here are the rags, and this is the polish. Get going." He whipped the newspaper away. "I shall be back to check," he said, "and I need to see my face in all this when I do."
He left us staring at two deep boxes of cutlery, silver teapots, silver coffeepots, several jugs, ladles, and two rows of the huge silver plates, all laid out on more newspaper. Rearing behind those were bowls, tureens, urns, and complicated twiddly candlesticks, most of them enormous.
"Straw into gold again, Grant," Christopher said, "and I think that would be easier."
"Most of it's quite shiny already," I said. "Look on the bright side."
"I hate bright sides," said Christopher.
But we knew Gregor would love to catch us slacking, and we got to work. I let Christopher rub on the pink, strong-smelling
polish - because that was the easy part, and I was fairly sure that cleaning silver was another thing Christopher had never done before - while I took a pile of rags and rubbed and rubbed. After a while I got into the swing of it and began to read the newspapers under the silver and to think of other things. The cleaning room must have been next door to Mr. Amos's pantry. I could hear his voice as I worked, droning on in blasts and occasionally giving out a sort of booming bark, but I couldn't hear the words, just his voice. It got me down.
I mentioned this to Christopher. He sighed.
I made several other remarks to Christopher, and he did not answer any of them. I turned and looked at him. He was drooping
over the table, panting a bit, and his face was almost the gray and white color of the newspaper on the table. He had turned his neckcloth back to front in order not to get polish on it, and I noticed that there was a gold chain with a ring threaded on it hanging out of his shirt. It kept tinking on the candlestick he was working on because he was all bowed over.
I remembered a boy called Hamish at my school who could never do Art because the paints gave him asthma. It looked as if
something the same was wrong with Christopher. "What's the matter? Is the polish making you ill?"
Christopher put the candlestick down and held himself up with both hands on the table. "Not the polish," he said. "The silver. There's something about Series Seven that makes it worse than usual. I don't think I can go on, Grant."
Gregor, luckily, was lazy enough not to keep dropping in on us. But he was going to come in at some point. And Christopher was the one he disliked most. "All right," I said. "You keep a lookout by the door so that you can look busy when Gregor turns up, and I'll do it. There's no point making yourself ill."
"Really?" said Christopher.
"Truly," I said, and waited. Now he really did owe me one.
Christopher said, " Thanks !" gratefully, and backed away from the silver. He went a better color almost at once. I saw him glance down and notice the gold ring dangling out of his shirt. He looked quite horrified for an instant. He tucked the ring and its chain out of sight, double quick, and pulled his neckcloth around to hide it. "I owe you, Grant," he said as he went to the door. "What can I do for you?"
"Success!", I thought. I was so curious about Christopher by now that I very nearly blurted out that I wanted him to tell me all about himself. But I didn't. Christopher was the kind of person that you needed to go cautiously with. So I said, "I don't want anything at the moment. I'll let you know when I do."
"Fair enough," Christopher said. "What's this droning sound coming through the wall?"
"Mr.Amos phoning," I said, picking up the candlestick and starting to rub.
"What could a butler find to phone about all this time?" Christopher said. "The exact vintage of champagne? Or has he an
old mother who insists on a daily report? Amos, dear, are you using those corn plasters I sent you? Or is it his wife? Hugo must have a mother, after all. I wonder where they keep her."
I grinned. I could tell Christopher was feeling all right again now.
"Talking of mothers," he said, "I don't care for the Countess at all, do you, Grant?"
"No," I said. "Mrs.Potts, who cleans the bookshop, says she used to be a chorus girl."
Christopher was absolutely delighted. "No? Really? Tell me every word Mrs.Potts said about her."
So I told him as I polished. From there I somehow went on to tell him about the bookshop, too, and about Mum and Uncle Alfred, and how Anthea had left. As I talked, it occurred to me that, instead of me finding out about Christopher, he was finding out about me. And I thought that was just typical of Christopher. Anyway, I didn't mind telling him, as long as he didn't get to know about my Evil Fate and what I had to do, and it did help the silver cleaning along wonderfully. By the time Gregor put his head around the door - and Christopher dashed to the table and pretended to buff up a jug - it was almost all done. Gregor was really annoyed.
"Tea is Served in ten minutes," he said, scowling. "Get washed. You two are pushing the tea trolley in today."
"Never an idle moment here, is there?" Christopher said.