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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

At breakfast, Lady Felice looked more cheerful than usual, even though she did nothing but scrunch her bread all over the table and make a mess that Gregor made me clear up before the Countess arrived.

It was spotting with rain that morning. Lady Felice looked at it and said she would do her riding later on, when the rain had stopped. Andrew had to run all the way to the stables to stop them getting her horse ready. I wished she had sent Gregor. Andrew came back red in the face and quite wet.

We were supposed to go to Mr.Maxim straight after the Countess had finished breakfast, but Mrs.Baldock sent for us first.

"Have you looked in the stables?" I asked Christopher on our way to the Housekeeper's Room.

"Not really," he said. "Just felt about there. I don't get on with horses. But you're right, Grant. We'd better investigate there, too, this afternoon."

It was about our afternoon off that Mrs. Baldock wanted to see us. "You'll have time to go up to Stallstead," she said, "and if you want to do that, I'll advance you some pay. But remember - you have to be back here at six o'clock promptly."

I was relieved. I was afraid she was going to tell us off for being up half the night. Christopher said, with great courtly politeness, "No, thank you, ma'am. We hoped to look round the gardens and perhaps take a tour of the stables, if that's all right."

"Oh, well, in that case," Mrs.Baldock said, and she smiled at Christopher. He was a real favorite with her by then. "There's no problem about the stables. Just ask one of the grooms. But the gardens and the park are another matter. Staff are not allowed to be seen there by the Family. In the gardens you must take care not to go where you can be seen from the windows, and if you see any member of the Family in the gardens or the park, you must get out of sight at once. If I get a complaint about that from the Family, there's nothing I can do but give you notice on the spot, and you wouldn't want that, would you?"

"No, indeed, ma'am," Christopher said, very seriously. "We'll be extremely careful." As we went back along the stone passage to find Mr.Maxim, he said, "You know, Grant, I was just getting really angry about the Family hogging all these acres of gardens, when I realized that I've never once seen a footman or a housemaid in the gardens at home. I think they must have the same rule there. Oh, and Grant, don't forget we're trying to persuade Mr. Maxim to take us into the wine cellar. That's urgent."

This turned out to be difficult. Mr. Maxim had us cooking eggs that day. "The simplest, quickest, and most nutritious form a light meal can take," he said, rubbing his hands together in his usual irritating way. "How many ways do you know of cooking an egg?"

"Poached, boiled," Christopher said, "er, omelets. What wine goes best with an egg, Mr. Maxim?"

"Later, later," Mr. Maxim said. "Conrad?"

"Scrambled," I said. "Fried. My sister sometimes used to do them in little pots in the oven. When she did, my uncle used to open a bottle of red wine - "

"Let's leave your family history out of this."

Mr.Maxim retorted, "and come and look at the stove instead. I have a small pan of water boiling here and another full of melted butter. What is your next step? Christopher?"

He held a large bowl of eggs out to Christopher. Christopher thought hard for a moment. "Marinade!" he said. "That's the word! If I poured wine over these..."

"You could try boiling them in wine instead of water," I suggested, backing Christopher up. "Sort of poached de luxe?"

"Or we could put wine in the butter," Christopher said. "If I knew which wine..."

It was a wonder Mr. Maxim didn't throw all the eggs on the floor. I could see he wanted to. "Give me patience!" he all but screamed. "Forget wine! Learn the basics first! Christopher, how would you make me a plain boiled egg?"

"Um, I think I'd drop it in and let it boil for an hour or so," Christopher said. "But I do want to learn about wine, too," he added, looking hopeful.

Mr.Maxim said, with his teeth clenched together, "I... said... forget... wine. Wine is Mr. Amos's business, not yours. Conrad, what do you think of Christopher's suggestion?"

"He'd end up with a sort of poached bullet," I said. "Honestly, Mr.Maxim, we were hoping you'd let us do a little wine tasting today." "Well, you can't," said Mr. Maxim. "Now boil me an egg."

The best thing about these lessons was that we were allowed to eat what we cooked. I suppose it was a good way to keep our minds on what we did. We ate boiled eggs - or I did. Christopher left his because he said his spoon bounced off it. We did omelets next. I think Christopher was hungry. He was very careful and attentive to his omelet. They were coming along beautifully, and I was really looking forward to eating mine, when there was a most peculiar feeling. It was as if the world jerked violently sideways.

Christopher cried out, "What was that?" His omelet flew out of his pan and fell on his feet. I only just saved mine - except that when I looked down at it, it was bacon and fried eggs. Christopher had a fried egg on each shoe and bacon caught on the buckles.

"What do you mean, What was that ?" Mr. Maxim asked angrily. "You are a nightmare, boy, a cook's despair! I ask you to cook me the simplest meal there is, and you tip it on your shoes! Pick it up. Throw it away and try again."

Christopher's eyes met mine in a mystified stare. Instead of the big bowl of eggs waiting on the table to be cooked, there were rashers of bacon and four cups, each with an egg ready broken into it. But Mr.Maxim simply had not noticed.

"There's been a change, Mr.Maxim," I explained. "We were cooking omelets a moment ago. Someone's pulled the possibilities, I think."

Christopher's stare turned into an enlightened grin. "Really, Grant? A probability shift? I never knew they felt like that."

Mr.Maxim looked at us gloomily. " My memory is that I decided yesterday to teach you bacon and eggs," he said. "But I take your word for it. Staff are always telling me things have changed. I never notice." Then he went all suspicious and demanded, "You're not pulling my leg, are you?"

"No, I promise," I said. "The books in our shop used to change like this, too."

An idea struck Christopher. "If he really doesn't remember..." he murmured to me. And he said to Mr.Maxim, "I'd like to ask you about wine..."

"Stop that!" Mr.Maxim shrieked. "I tell you for once and for all that there is no wine that goes with bacon and eggs! Now clean up your shoes."

"Hmm," said Christopher. He delicately slid a fried egg off each shoe into the waste bucket and shook the bacon off after them. "We obviously wanted a wine tasting in this probability as well. I think that means the cellar is important."

"What are you muttering about?" Mr.Maxim yelled.

"Nothing, nothing," Christopher said. "Just something we'd do on our afternoon off - I suppose that hasn't changed, has it, Grant?"

It hadn't. To our relief, as soon as the Countess had folded her napkin and left, Mr. Amos solemnly gave us leave to go. Because he was watching us, we walked soberly across the black floor of the hall, but once we were through the green door, we ran. We clattered down the stone steps and charged through the undercroft to the nearest outside door. It felt good just to run. The drizzle had stopped outside, and we galloped out into sun, laughing.

The stables, across the yard beyond the kitchens, were an enormous place like two barns joined together by a clock tower. I let Christopher talk to the groom on duty there. He could turn on the charm far better than I could. And he did. In next to no time we were walking on a soft passageway inside the big dim barn, gazing into spacious stalls lined with even softer stuff. The horses in the stalls put their faces over the doors and gazed back at us.

I found myself gripped with a sort of fierce wistfulness. If only I had not happened to be born and brought up in a bookshop, if only I had happened to be born a stableboy like the one who was showing us around, then I could have spent all day with these huge, beautiful horses. The smell of them went to my head, and the look of them turned my heart over. There was one really big horse, almost red-colored, who had a white streak down his bent and noble nose, that I liked particularly. He was called Teutron. All the horses had their names on a board outside their stalls.

The stableboy said Teutron had belonged to the old Count and would probably be sold soon. I wished I were rich enough to buy him. The new Count liked a different style of horse, the boy said, and showed us two smaller, darker horses that moved like cats, which he said were Count Robert's. They were called Dawn and Dusk. Christopher, whose nose was wrinkled in disgust and who was definitely not enjoying it here, said those were sissy names. Lady Felice had three horses, Iceberg, Pessimist, and Oracle. They were putting a saddle on Oracle, down at the end of the barn, ready for Lady Felice to ride. Lucky thing.

We watched them doing that, me with interest, Christopher yawning, until the boy happened to mention that the next barn was where they kept the cars.

"Ah," Christopher said, suddenly coming awake. "Lead me to the cars."

I took this to mean that Christopher had not found any trace of Millie in the horse barn. I followed him rather sadly into the barn next door, where the lovely hay and animal smell was replaced by fumes of motor fuel. A row of gleaming saloons there were being polished by six dapper mechanics.

"Better," Christopher said. "Penny for them, Grant. You look mournful."

I sighed. "I was thinking I made a mistake not getting reborn in this life as a stable hand. But perhaps they don't let you choose. Maybe whatever I did to get my bad karma meant I had to be born in the bookshop instead."

Christopher gave me one of his long, vague looks as we edged along by the cars. "Why are you so sure that your soul has been recycled, Grant? There's no evidence of it that I can see."

"My Uncle Alfred knows," I said. "He said I was. I had a bad former life."

"Your Uncle Alfred's word is not law," Christopher said. "Oh, look. Here's a car with all its guts showing."

We leaned on the wall next to this car, and Christopher watched with ridiculous interest while a mechanic did things inside its open front. I yawned. "Can you tear yourself away, Grant?" Christopher said after an endless five minutes. "We must have a look at the gardens."

The man working on the car told us that the quickest way to the park was through the small door across the yard outside the car barn. Christopher sauntered off there beside me. I was just opening the small door when there was a terrific noise from a car - a really bad noise, like pop-pop-pop BOOM - and a small red sports car came bellowing into the yard through the big open gates. It stopped with a squeal, in a spray of stones and a gust of blue, smelly smoke. The two young men in it were laughing their heads off.

"That was quite horrible!" one of them said as the engine died with a final pop.

"At least it got us here," said the one who was driving.

Christopher, like lightning, pushed us both through the small door and then held it not quite shut, so that we could only see a slit of the yard with the red car in it. "Family, Grant," he said.

The two young men came vaulting out of the car, still laughing. The one who had been driving called out, "Lessing! I'm afraid we need you. This is a very sick car."

The mechanic we had been watching walked into view, saying, "What is it this time, my lord?"

The other young man swallowed a giggle and said, "A piece dropped off in the middle of Stallchester. Robert said it was only a piece of trim, but it obviously wasn't. I said if he was that sure, there was no point stopping and picking it up. A mistake."

"Yes, blame Hugo," said the driver. "He couldn't wait to get home, so we've had to push the darn thing up all the steepest Alps." Both young men laughed again.

I stared at them through the gap Christopher was holding open. They were both in ordinary sort of clothes, and medium tall, and thin, with fairish hair. They might have been a pair of students, laughing and joking after a day out together. But the one with the fairer hair had to be Count Robert himself, and the other one, now I looked properly, was indeed Hugo. I just hadn't known him without his valet's clothes.

I looked at the Count then, expecting to know that he was the one causing my Evil Fate. But I had no feeling at all. The Count might have been any cheerful, healthy young man, like one of the students who came to Stallchester to ski. I put my hand into my waistcoat pocket and took hold of the port wine cork, hoping that would help me to know , but it made no difference at all. The Count was still nothing but a normal, good-looking young man. I couldn't understand it.

While I stared, Lessing was saying something about the pair of them only having to look at a car for it to go wrong and he'd better see what they'd done now . He shrugged humorously and went to fetch his tools.

When he was gone, the Count and Hugo turned to each other, not laughing anymore, and stood for a moment looking sober and rueful. "Ah, well, Hugo," the Count said. "Back to real life, I suppose." And they both followed Lessing into the car barn.

"Interesting," Christopher remarked, gently shutting the small door. "No sign of Millie here, Grant. We have to look elsewhere."

We followed a path around to the gardens at the back of the mansion. These were massive. We went through steep ferny parts, flat places with pools and water lilies, fountains and rose arches, and a huge stretch that was all gravel and trees carved into silly shapes, and came to the part directly behind the house. There the garden was like one of those jigsaws that are almost impossible to do, with flowers of all kinds stacked into acres of long beds and grass and paths between.

I hung back, rather. "We aren't supposed to be seen from the windows."

"I assure you," Christopher said, "that not a soul will see us, Grant. I'm not a nine-lifed enchanter for nothing, you know."

He strode on, and I followed much less boldly. We marched down an endlessly long path slap in the middle of the jigsaw, with frothy walls of flowers on both sides of us and our ears filled with the buzzing of bees. We were in full view from the rows of windows behind us, but nobody came after us with yells of anger, so I supposed it was all right.

"I can feel that strangeness here, too," Christopher said, "but not as strongly as at the top of the house."

As he said this, we came out into a wider bit, where the flowers bent outward to make a circle around a sundial. "Can you feel Millie here at all?" I asked him.

Christopher frowned. "Ye-es," he said, "and no." He went and leaned on the sundial. "She's here and not here," he said. "Grant, I don't understand this at all."

"You said a maze," I was beginning, when there came that sideways jerk that had changed the eggs that morning. Christopher was suddenly leaning against a statue of a chubby boy with wings. He sprang away with a squawk. "The Count," I said. "He's back. He must have done that." "Nonsense," Christopher said. "Use your head, Grant. Someone was messing with the probabilities this morning, long before the Count got home. Come along, and let's look for a maze."

There didn't seem to be a maze. The nearest we found to one was where the jigsaw puzzle petered out into a place where stone pillars stood in rows, hung with flowering creepers. Beyond that the gardens stopped. There was drop of about ten feet down into a ditch, and after the ditch, the parklands began, rolling away for miles ahead of us.

"A-ha-ha," Christopher said.

"Nothing's funny," I said. I was too hot by then, and sick of searching for a girl who didn't seem to exist. I was beginning to think Christopher was imagining Millie was near.

"I mean that this drop into a ditch at the end of a garden is called a-ha-ha," Christopher explained. "At least it is in my world."

"I don't think it is here," I said. The new gardener's boy, Smedley, was sitting in the ditch, a few yards along from us. He had his boots off, and he looked as hot and sulky as I felt. "Why not ask him?" I said.

"Good idea." Christopher bounded along the row of pillars and stuck his head through the creepers above where the boy was sitting. "I say! Smedley!"

The poor kid jumped a mile. His sweaty face went white, and he scrambled to his bare feet in a hurry. "Just coming, sir - Oh, it's you!" he said when he saw Christopher's face sticking out from the creepers above his head. "Don't call out at me in posh voices like that! Do you want to give me a heart attack?"

"This is my normal voice," Christopher said coldly. "What are you doing in that ditch anyway?"

"Skiving off, of course," said Smedley. "I'm supposed to be looking for that damn guard dog - the one you tamed when we was walking here. Brute disappeared this morning, and park security's doing his nut, thinking someone may have poisoned it. All us garden staff are out looking for it." He scowled. "I'm not risking getting bitten, thanks."

"Very sensible," Christopher said. "Tell me, does this garden have a maze?"

"No," said Smedley. "Oriental garden, rose garden, four flower gardens, water garden, shrubbery, topiary garden, fern garden, hedged garden, vegetable garden, fruit garden, six hothouses, one orangery, big conservatory, but no maze. Or it may have got caught in a trap, see."

"What - the maze? Or the whole garden?" Christopher asked.

"The dog, stupid!" Smedley said.

"We'll keep a look out for it for you," Christopher told him. "What do you call this ditch and wall at the end of this garden? Apart from a good place to lurk, that is."

"This? This is the ha-ha," Smedley said.

Christopher shot me a superior look. "There you are, Grant. Come along now." He jumped down into the ditch beside Smedley, who flinched away. "Fear me not," Christopher said. "Grant and I are merely going for a stroll in the park. We will not give you away."

I jumped down and went squelch. One of my buckled shoes came off. I took the other one off, too, and my striped stockings. Smedley seemed to me to have the right idea. The grass felt deliciously cool and wet as we climbed the bank and set off into the parklands.

"Your funeral if you tread on a bee!" Smedley shouted after me. Evidently Christopher's superior manner annoyed him as much as it annoyed me, because he added, "Poncy footmen!" when we were almost too far away to hear.

"Take no notice," Christopher said - as if I would have done. "Our friend Smedley has clearly been told that house staff are nothing but mincing lackeys and that gardeners do all the real work." We walked a little way. I curled my toes luxuriously into the grass and thought that Christopher would think this. He had no idea how irritating he could be. "Smedley may be right," Christopher added. "I've never minced so much in my life before." We walked some more, and Christopher began to frown. "The oddness is getting fainter," he said. "Can you feel?"

"Not really," I confessed. "I only properly felt it in the attics."

"Pity. Well, let's go as far as that clump of trees and see," Christopher said.

The clump of trees was more like a small bushy wood on top of a little hill. We pushed our way through, up the hill and down in a straight line. I had forgotten it had rained earlier. Willows wept on us, and bushes sprayed us. Christopher hardly seemed to notice. He pushed on, murmuring, "Fainter, fainter." I put my shoes back on my muddy feet, wishing we'd taken the time to put on ordinary clothes. We would both need to change into dry uniforms for this evening, or Mr.Amos would have our guts for garters. Count Robert would be there for Dinner, I supposed. Maybe the reason I hadn't known he was causing my Fate was because I hadn't been close enough to him. I could get to stand right beside him at Dinner. Then I'd surely know.

We were both so busy thinking of other things that we nearly missed seeing Lady Felice riding toward the wood on Oracle.

I said, "Oh-oh! Family!" and pulled Christopher back among the wet willows.

He said, "Thanks, Grant." Then we had to stand there, because Lady Felice was cantering straight toward the hill where we were. Water ran down our necks, along with itchy bits of willow, while we waited for her to swerve around the hill and ride out of sight.

Instead, she came careering straight toward the edge of the wood and pulled the horse to a stop there. Hugo came out of the bushes just below us, still in his everyday clothes, and stood there with his hair as wet as ours was, looking up at her. She stared down at Hugo. Everything went tense and still.

Hugo said, "The car nearly broke down. I thought I was never going to get back."

Lady Felice said, "I wish you or Robert had warned me. It felt like a hundred years!"

"For me, too," Hugo said. "Robert didn't want any questions asked, you see. At least he didn't find Ludwich as dreary as I did. It was like being half dead."

Lady Felice cried out, "Oh, Hugo!" and jumped down off Oracle. Hugo sort of plunged forward to meet her, and the two of them flung their arms around each other as if it really had been a hundred years since they last met. Oracle wandered peacefully off and then stood, with the look of a horse that was used to this.

I stared at them and then stared at Christopher, who looked quite as uncomfortable as I felt. He made a very slight gesture and said, in his normal voice, "Spell of silence, Grant. They won't hear us. I guess we're looking at something here that mustn't get back to the Countess or Mr. Amos either."

Not altogether believing in the spell of silence, I was just nodding when there was another of those sideways jerks. It was quite strong, but nothing much seemed to change. It did not seem to affect Hugo and Lady Felice in the least, and we were still draped in trees - except that they were not willows now, but some other kind, just as drooping and just as wet. I noticed that my striped stockings were not in my hand anymore. When I looked down, I saw they were on my legs instead.

Christopher backed away out of sight of Hugo and his Lady, looking very excited. "That definitely came from the house!" he said. "Come on, Grant. Let's get back there quickly and find out what's doing it."

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