We galloped downstairs, and down again to the undercroft. "Funny," I said to Christopher as we tiptoed toward the stairs that led to the cellar. "I didn't know any of those footmen with Mr.Amos. Did you?"
"Hush," he said. "Utmost caution, Grant." Actually there was no one about, and it was quite safe. Christopher was just being dramatic because it was all so easy. There were nice broad steps curving down to the cellar and a light switch beside the door at the bottom so that I could see to put the corkscrew key into the keyhole. The keyhole looked far too big, but the key went in, fitted exactly, and unlocked the door when I turned it. The door swung open easily and silently, and lights came on in the cellar as it opened.
"Lock it after you," Christopher said.
"No," I said. "We may need to get out quickly."
Christopher shrugged. I pushed the door shut, and we walked on into a set of low, cold rooms lined with wine racks and barrels. There were dusty bottles and shiny new bottles, rank on rank of them, little kegs labeled Cognac in foreign letters, bigger barrels labeled herez that Christopher said meant sherry, and whole walls of champagne.
"One could get awfully drunk here," Christopher remarked, surveying a dusty wall of bottles marked Nuits d'йte 1848 . "I have quite a mind to drown my sorrows, Grant. I saw Millie. I talked to her. Do you know how to open champagne?"
"Don't be a fool," I said. I pulled him away and led him on, and on, past thousands of bottles, until we came to another locked door in a wall at the end.
"Ah," said Christopher. "This may be it - whatever it is. Does your gadget work on this door, too?"
I tried the corkscrew key again, and it worked. This door creaked a bit as it opened, as if it were not used very much, and we saw why as soon as we were inside. Lights came on and showed another, newer-looking staircase that led to a trapdoor in the ceiling. Christopher looked up at the shiny new metal of the trapdoor very thoughtfully.
"I do believe," he said, "that we may be right under the butler's pantry here, Grant. In which case the important stuff is just round this corner."
The walls here were of quite new brick. It looked as if an extra room had been built, off at an angle to the main cellars. We edged around the corner to it. There we both stopped, quite bewildered. This room was lined - as closely as the wine cellars were lined with bottles - with lighted, flickering viewscreens. From floor to ceiling they were stacked in rows. Most were covered with green columns of figures that ran and jumped and changed all the time, but about a third of them, mostly on the end wall, were full of strange swirlings or colored jagged shapes. The jumping and flickering made me seasick. Worse than that was the peculiar buzzing of magic in the room, electric and alien and feeling like metal bars vibrating. I had to look at the floor for a while, until I got used to it. But Christopher walked up and down the room, watching the screens with interest.
"Do you understand this, Grant?" he asked.
"No," I said.
"I almost do," Christopher said, "but I'm going to need your help to be sure." He pointed to a screen of jumping numbers. "For instance, what does Coe-Smith mean?"
"Stock market," I said. "I think."
"Right!" Christopher said triumphantly. He pointed to another screen, where blue columns of numbers raced so fast that I couldn't read them. "What's Buda-Parich?"
"That's a city," I said, "over in the middle of the continent. It's where all the big banks are."
"And here's Ludwich," Christopher said, at another screen. "I know that one. More big banks and a stock exchange in Ludwich, am I right? But there can't be a city called Metal Futures, can there? This lot of screens must be stocks and shares, then. Yes, Chemics, Heavy Munitions, Carbon Products - it sort of makes sense. And..." He paused at a clump of screens where green and red lines zigzagged, bent, and climbed. "These lot have to be graphs. But the really puzzling ones" - he went on, moving around to the end wall - "are these . They just seem to be patterns. What do you think this one is? The one that's all jagged moving shapes."
"Fractals?" I suggested.
"I wouldn't know a fractal if it jumped up and bit me," Christopher said. "Which it almost looks as if it could do. Oh, look. These must be the controls."
Under the possible fractals there was a sloping metal console. Rows of buttons took up the top half of it. The bottom part held a very used-looking keyboard. The lights from the screens painted winding colored patterns on Christopher's attentive face as he leaned both hands on the edge of the console and stared at the rows of buttons.
"Interesting," he said. "When controls are used a lot, you can see which the important ones are. This keyboard thingy is quite filthy with finger grease. Used every day, I should think. And this one on its own at the top has been used almost as much." His thin white finger pointed to a square button up on the right above all the others. The metal around this button was worn shiny and ribby, with a ring of grease around the shiny part. The label under it was all but worn away. As far as I could see, it said "shift."
"That must be..." I began, but Christopher turned to me, looking almost unholy in the colored lights.
"What do you think?" he said. "Dare we, Grant? Dare we?"
"No, we daren't," I said.
Christopher simply grinned and pressed the used square button firmly down.
We felt the shift like an earthquake down there. Our feet seemed to jerk sideways under us. All the screens blinked and began to flicker away madly in new configurations. Above the console, the strange patterns wove and writhed into quite different shapes and colors.
"Now you've done it!" I said. "Let's get out."
Christopher made a face, but he nodded and began to tiptoe away from the console. I had just turned to follow him, when a voice spoke. It was a woman's voice, very cultivated and rather deep. "Amos!" it said, and stopped both of us in our tracks. We stood, bent and on tiptoe, craning to look up at the round grid in the ceiling where the voice had come from. "Amos," it said. "Do pay attention. I don't think we can afford to make changes at the moment. We may have trouble this end. I told you about the ratty little fellow we caught sneaking around the office. Security locked him up, but he must have been some kind of magic user because he got away in the night. Amos ! Are you listening?"
Christopher and I waited for no more. I clutched his arm and he grabbed my shoulder and we bundled each other around the corner and out through the door. I could scarcely turn the corkscrew key in the lock for giggling. Christopher giggled, too. It was the silly way you behave when you feel you have almost been caught.
As we sped back past the ranks of wine, Christopher said in a giggling whimper, "That was never the Countess, was it?"
"No," I said. "Mrs.Amos?"
"A bit la-di-da for that," Christopher said.
We were still laughing when we came to the outer door and I locked that after us, and we didn't really get a grip on ourselves until we came to the lobby of the undercroft and I tried to fit the corkscrew key into my waistcoat pocket. It wouldn't go. It was more than twice as long as the wine cork, and it stuck out whatever I did.
Christopher said, "Here. Let me." He whipped a piece of string out of thin air, threaded it through the corkscrew handle, knotted the ends together, and hung the lot around my neck. "Under your shirt with it, Grant," he said.
While I was stuffing it out of sight under my cravat, Miss Semple came into the lobby, full speed ahead, striped skirts flying. "I've been looking all over for you two!" she said. "You're eating in the Middle Hall from now on, with the new Staff - " She stopped, went back a step, and put her hands up in horror. She was the sort of person who did that. "My goodness!" she said. "Go and get into clean uniforms at once ! You've got two minutes. You'll be late for lunch, but it will serve you right."
We fled up the undercroft steps and dodged into the Staff toilets at the top. Christopher sagged against the nearest wall inside. "This has been quite the busiest morning of my life," he said. "Damned if I go all the way up to the attics again!"
This was my feeling, too. But when I looked over at the mirror, I saw why Miss Semple had been so horrified. We were both filthy. Christopher was covered in dust and carpet fluff. One of his stockings had come down, and his cravat looked like a gray string again. I had cobwebs all over me, and my hair stuck up. "Then work some magic," I said.
Christopher sighed and flapped one hand. "There." And we were once more smart flunkeys in crisp, clean shirts and neat cravats. "Drained," he said. "I'm exhausted, Grant. You've forced me to do permanent magic on us. At this rate, I shall be old before my time."
I could see he was all right, really, but he kept saying this sort of thing all the way back into the undercroft. I didn't mind. Neither of us wanted to talk about the Walker, or about the screens in the cellar and the voice from the ceiling. It was all too big to face just then.
We opened the door of the Middle Hall to find it almost entirely full of strangers, maids in yellow caps and footmen in waistcoats and striped stockings, who all seemed more than usually good-looking. Andrew, Gregor, and the other footmen we knew were sitting in a row down at the end of the long, low room, staring in a stunned way. One of the best-looking maids was standing on the table among the glasses and cutlery. As we came in, she held one hand up dramatically and said, "Oh when, oh when comes azure night and brings my love to me?"
And a fellow in a dark suit who was kneeling on the floor between the chairs said, "E'en before the twilight streaks the west with rose, I come, I come to thee!"
"Most rash," replied the young lady on the table.
"EH?" said Christopher.
Everyone jumped. Before I could believe it possible, every new maid and every strange footman was sitting demurely in a chair at the table, except for the man in the suit, who was standing up and pulling his coat sleeves down. And the girl - she really was very pretty - was still standing on the table.
"You rats!" she cried out. "You might have helped me down. Now I'm the one in trouble!"
"It's all right," I said. "We're only the Improvers."
Everyone relaxed. The man in the suit bowed to us. He was almost ridiculously tall and thin, with a sideways sort of hitch to his face. "Prendergast," he said. "Temporary underbutler. Temporary name, too," he added, hitching his face to the other side. "My stage name is Boris Vestov. Perhaps you have heard of me? No," he said sadly, seeing Christopher looking as blank as I felt. "I mostly play in the provinces anyway."
"We're all actors here, darlings," another good-looking maid explained.
"How? Why?" Christopher said. "I mean..."
"Because Mr. Amos is an extremely practical person," said the girl on the table. She knelt down and smiled at Christopher. She was blond and, face-to-face, quite stunning. Christopher looked as stunned as Andrew and the rest. Her name, I found out, was Fay Marley, and she was a rising star. I'd seen her last year on a friend's television, when I came to think about it.
I nudged Christopher. "It's true," I said. "She was in Bodies last year."
"So?" he said. "What has it got to do with Mr.Amos being practical?"
Fay Marley scrambled off the table and explained. They all explained. Nobody could have been friendlier than those actors.
They laughed and joked and called us "darling," and they went on explaining while the ordinary maids came in with lunch. The ordinary maids were full of giggles and goggles. They kept whispering to me or to Christopher, "She's that young nurse in Bodies!" and "He's the one who jumps through the window in the chocolate ad!" and "He was the lost elf in Chick-Chack!" Mr.Prendergast/Vestov had more or less to push them out of the room.
Anyway, it seemed that practical Mr. Amos had, a long time ago, made an agreement with the Actors' Union that when Stallery
needed more maids or footmen in a hurry, he would hire any actors who were not at that moment working.
"Being out of work is something actors are quite often," a glamorous footman said.
"But the Union makes strict conditions," a dark maid, who was quite as glamorous, told us. "If we get stage or film work while we're here, we're allowed to leave Stallery at once."
"And we take our meals together," a beautiful parlormaid said. "We're only allowed to work so many hours a day here. You'll be doing much longer hours than us, darlings."
"But," said Christopher, "what makes you think you can do the work at all?"
They all laughed. "There's not a soul among us," Mr.Prendergast told him, "who has not, at one time in his or her career, walked onto a stage and said, "Dinner is served, madam,' or carried on a tray of colored water and wineglasses. We know the part quite well."
"And we've a day or so to rehearse in anyway," said another glamorous footman. He was Francis, and fair-haired like Fay. "I'm told that the guests don't arrive until the ladies get back from Ludwich."
They told us that they had all arrived by coach earlier that morning. "Along with that lovely wench who's checking the
library," a pretty parlormaid added. "I'd give my eyeteeth for a complexion like that girl has."
We got told this bit more than once. This was because there were at least two more of those sideways changes during lunch. At each one, the conversation did a sort of jolt and went back a few stages. Christopher began to look just a little guilty. He rolled his eyes at me each time, hoping I would not say anything. By the end of lunch he was quite quiet and anxious.
Then the bell rang. Christopher and I had to go back on duty, along with Andrew, Gregor, and two of the actor footmen. And Mr.Amos was waiting at the top of the stairs, stubbing his cigar out in the usual place. I was sure he knew that we had been in his secret cellar. I almost ran away. Christopher went white. But it was the new footmen Mr.Amos wanted. He sent us on to the dining room ahead.
Whatever Mr.Amos said to the actors, it made them very nervous. They were awful. They got in one another's way all the
time. Francis broke two plates, and Manfred fell over a chair. Andrew and Gregor were very scornful. And when the Countess
came in, followed by Lady Felice and Count Robert, it was to the long clattering of knives pouring out of a drawer that Francis had pulled open too far. The Countess stopped and stared. She was all beautifully got up for her trip to Ludwich.
"I do beg pardon, my lady," Mr. Amos said. "The new Staff, you know."
"Is that what it was?" Count Robert said. "I thought it was a war."
The Countess gave him a disgusted look and stalked to her chair, while Francis, redder in the face than I thought a person could be, crawled about, scooping knives out of her path. Mr. Amos nodded me and Christopher off to help him. I was crawling about on the floor, and Manfred had just managed to slop soup over half the knives, when there came the most majestic clanging from somewhere, like someone tolling for a funeral in a cathedral.
"The front door," Mr.Amos said. "I beg you will excuse me, my ladies, my lord. Mr.Prendergast is not yet practiced in his duties." He seized Andrew's arm and whispered, "Put those two idiots against the wall until I get back." Then he fairly whirled out of the room.
Gregor gave me a sharp kick - typically - and made me serve the soup instead of Manfred. By the time I had given all three of them a bowlful, and the Countess, spoon poised at her lips, was saying, "Now, Felice, dear, you and I are going to have a very serious talk about Mr.Seuly on the way to Ludwich," Mr.Amos came hurrying back. He looked almost flustered. As he shut the door in his soundless way, I could hear the voice of Mr. Prendergast outside it.
"I tell you I'm quite capable of opening a door, you pear-shaped freak!"
Everyone pretended not to hear.
Mr.Amos came and bent over Count Robert. "My lord," he said, "there is a King's Courier in the hall asking to speak with you."
The Countess's head snapped up. Her spoon clanged back into the soup. "What's this? Asking to speak to Robert? What nonsense!" She sprang up. Count Robert got up, too. "Sit down," she said to him. "There must be some mistake. I'm in charge here. I'll speak to this courier."
She pushed Count Robert aside and marched to the door. Manfred tried to make up for his mistakes by rushing to open it for
her, but he slipped in the spilled soup and sat down with a thump. Christopher whisked the door open instead, and the Countess sailed out.
Count Robert simply shrugged, and while Francis and Christopher were hauling Manfred up, he walked around the struggle and went to talk to Lady Felice. She was sitting with her head hanging, looking really miserable. I didn't hear most of what
Count Robert said to her, but when Gregor shoved me over to wipe up the soup from the floor, the Count was saying, "Bear up. Remember she can't force you to marry anyone. You can say no at the altar, you know."
Lady Felice looked up at him ruefully. "I wouldn't bet on that," she said. "Mother's a genius at getting her own way."
"I'll fix something," Count Robert said.
The Countess came back then, very crisp and angry. "Well!" she said. "Such impertinence! I soon sent that man packing."
"What did he want, my lady?" Mr.Amos asked.
"There's a Royal Commissioner coming to the district," the Countess said. "They want me to entertain him as a guest at Stallery, of all things! I told the man it was out of the question and sent him away."
Mr.Amos went a little white around his pear-shaped jowls. "But, my lady," he said, "this must have been a request from the King himself."
"I know," the Countess said as Andrew pulled her chair out for her and she sat down. "But the King has no right to interfere with my plans."
Mr.Amos gulped. "Forgive me, my lady," he said. "It is mandatory for peers of the realm to extend hospitality to envoys of
the King when required. We would not wish to annoy His Majesty."
"Amos," said the Countess, "this person wishes to plant himself here, in my mansion, at the precise time when we have a house full of eminent guests. Lady Mary, the Count's fiancйe, will be here with all her family and the people I have chosen to meet her. All the guest rooms will be full. The valets and lady's maids will be filling both upper floors. This Commissioner has a staff of ten and twenty security men. Where, pray, am I supposed to put them? In the stables? No. I told them to go to a hotel in Stallchester."
"My lady, I think that was most unwise," Mr. Amos said.
The Countess looked stonily at her soup and then across to the chops Andrew was fetching from the food lift. "I don't want this," she said. She slapped her napkin down and stood up again. "Come, Felice," she said. "We'll set off for Ludwich now . I'm not going to stay here and have my authority questioned all the time. Amos, tell them to bring the cars round to the door in five minutes."
She and Lady Felice hurried away in a brisk clacking of heels. Suddenly everyone else was rushing about as well. Andrew raced off with a message to the garage, Christopher was sent to fetch the two Lady's Maids, who were going to Ludwich, too, and the other footmen rushed away to bring down the luggage. Mr.Amos, looking thunderously upset, turned to Count Robert. "Will you wish to continue lunch now, my lord, or wait until the ladies have departed?"
Count Robert was leaning on the back of a chair, and I swear he was trying not to laugh. "I think you should go and lie down, Amos," he said. "Forget lunch. No one's hungry." Then, before Mr.Amos could send me off to the kitchens, he turned and beckoned me over to him. "You," he said, "go to the library and tell the young lady waiting there to meet me in the stable yard in ten minutes."
As I left, he was giving Mr. Amos a sweet, blank smile.
I found Anthea in the library sitting rather crossly in front of a computer screen. "They were quite right about the disturbances here," she said to me.
"Everything keeps hopping sideways, and when I get it back, it says something quite different."
When I gave her Count Robert's message, she jumped up, beaming. "Oh good! How do I find the stables in this barracks?"
"I'll take you there," I said.
We went the long way around, talking the whole way. I told her about the screens Christopher and I had found in the cellar. "And I think your computer went wrong when Christopher pressed the shift button," I said. "It felt magic to me."
"Very probably," she said. "So it's that pear-shaped butler messing up the world's finance, is it? Thanks. Robert will be very glad to know that."
"How did you meet Count Robert?" I asked.
My sister smiled. "At university, of course. And Hugo, too - though he was always popping off to visit Felice in her
finishing school. I met Robert at a magic class on my first day, and we've been together ever since."
"But," I said, "the Countess says Count Robert has to marry a Lady Mary Something who's coming here soon."
Anthea smiled, happily and confidently. "We'll see about that. You'll find Robert's just as strong-minded as his awful mother. So am I."
I thought about this. "And what do I do, Anthea? I can't stay on here as an Improver, and Uncle Alfred won't let me go to school, because I didn't use the cork like he said - anyway, he'll know I know he's told me all those lies now. What do I do?"
"It's all right, Conrad," Anthea said. "Just hang on. Hang on and wait. Robert will make everything all right. I promise."
Then we got to the stable yard, where Count Robert was waiting in his red sports car. My sister rushed over to it, waving happily. I went away. She had an awful lot of faith in him. I didn't. I couldn't see someone like Count Robert ever sorting out this mess. Anthea's faith was just love, really.