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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

The next couple of days were strange and hectic.

I hardly saw Anthea, except when she was dashing away from the Upper Hall after breakfast. She was out with Count Robert in his sports car almost all the time. I don't think she went into that library at all. And Count Robert didn't come in to meals, so I never set eyes on him either. Hugo, now, he was another matter. I seemed to run into him everywhere, wandering about, missing Lady Felice.

Because none of the Family were using the dining room, Mr.Amos used it to train the actor footmen in. He had me and Christopher and Andrew and Gregor in there all that first afternoon, sitting at the table, pretending to be Family, so that Manfred and the rest could pour us water into wineglasses and hand us plates of dried fruit and cold custard. To do those actors justice, they learned quickly. By the evening, Francis only dropped one spoon the last time he served me with custard, and Manfred was the only one still falling over things. But, none of us really fancied our supper.

Christopher summed up my feelings, too, when he poked his potato cheese with a fork and said, "You know, Grant, I find it hard not to see this as custard." The food turned into liver and cauliflower as he poked it. Christopher shot me a glum, guilty look. Since Mr.Amos had been giving the actors a hard time in the dining room all afternoon, we knew he had not been down to the cellar to push the shift button. So this change was Christopher's fault. I quite expected him to start persuading me to go to the cellar again with him that night. I was determined to say no. One time in that place was enough. The thought of its alien, technological magics made my flesh creep - and the thought of Mr.Amos discovering us there was even worse.

But all Christopher said was, "Things must be changing like this where Millie is, too. She could be lost for good if I don't get to her soon." And I half woke up in the night to hear him tiptoeing away to the forbidden part of the attics.

I don't know how long he stayed out there, but he was very hard to wake in the morning. "No luck?" I asked as we collected the shoes.

Christopher shook his head. "I don't understand it, Grant. There were no changes at all, and I sat there for hours."

Here the lift opened, and we found it crowded with actors acting a scene from Possession . This was the strange thing about actors. They loved acting so much that they did it all the time. They spoke in funny voices and imitated people if they didn't do scenes from plays. And the lift made a good place to act in, because Mr.Amos and Mrs.Baldock couldn't see them at it there. From then on, the lift was always liable to have a scene going on in it or someone saying, "No, darling, the best way to see the part is like this," and then doing it. In between, Hugo rode broodingly up and down looking as if he did not want to be disturbed. Christopher and I got used to taking the stairs instead.

The undercroft was crowded with the regular Staff, up early in hopes of catching one or other of the actors. The maids had all got it badly for the footmen. Francis was most popular, and Manfred next, because he looked dark and soulful, but even Mr.Prendergast got his share of giggles and fluttered eyelashes and shy requests for his autograph - and he was really odd-looking.

"It's something about greasepaint, Grant," Christopher said. "It acts like a love potion. What did I tell you?" he added as we ran into four of the regular footmen, Mr. Maxim, and the bootboy, who all wanted to know if we had seen Fay Marley that morning. "In the lift," Christopher told them, "pretending to be possessed by a devil or something."

Stallery echoed with rehearsals that day, not only actors acting, but with official ones. Mrs. Baldock and Miss Semple tore the maids away from the actor-footmen and the actor-maids out of the lift and drilled them all in their duties upstairs. Mr. Amos took Mr.Prendergast and all the footmen to the hall, where he trained them in how to receive the guests. Mr. Smithers was roped in to pretend to be a guest, and sometimes Christopher was, too. Christopher was good at grand entries. I was on the stairs, mostly, learning what to do with the dozens of empty suitcases Mr. Amos had found to be luggage for the pretend guests. Mr.Amos made me stack them in pairs in the lift and then take each one to the right bedroom. This always took ages. If Hugo was not in the lift, then it was two of the actresses, looking exhausted.

"If I have to make one more bed or lay out one more breakfast tray, I shall drop , darling!"

"Why does Miss Semple insist on counting everything? Does she think I'm a thief , darling?"

And when I arrived in the right bedroom with my empty luggage, Mrs.Baldock usually grabbed me and trained me in all the other things I might have to bring to people's bedrooms. I was made to carry in trays, newspapers, drinks, and towels. Mrs. Baldock seemed to think she had as much right to me as Mr. Amos did. I several times caught myself thinking that this must be my Evil Fate at work - in fact I kept thinking it and then realizing all over again that Uncle Alfred had probably invented it. It gave me a strange, hectic feeling at the back of my mind all day. On top of that, I kept waiting for Mr.Amos to discover that Christopher had pressed that shift button.

Luckily, Mr.Amos was too busy in the hall just then. I came back to my station on the main stairs to find a full-scale rehearsal just starting.

"Right, go!" Mr.Amos shouted. He was standing in the middle of the hall like the director of a film.

The great doorbell solemnly clanged. At this signal, footmen in velvet breeches and striped waistcoats and stockings came rushing from behind the stairs and formed up in two slanting rows on either side of the front door.

"Like a flipping ballet ," Mr. Prendergast said, gloomily standing beside me with his arms folded and too much wrist showing beyond the sleeves of his smart dark coat.

Mr.Amos paced solemnly toward the front door. He took hold of the handles. He stopped. He called over his shoulder, "Prendergast! Where are you this time?"

"Coming, coming," Mr.Prendergast called back, walking slowly and importantly down the stairs.

"Hurry it up, can't you?" Mr.Amos boomed up at him. "Do you think you're the King, or something?"

Mr.Prendergast stopped. "Ah, no indeed," he said. "It's these stairs, you see. No actor can ever resist a fine flight of stairs. You feel you have to make an entrance."

Mr.Amos, for a second, seemed about to burst. "Just... hurry... up," he said, slowly, quietly, and carefully.

Mr.Prendergast went on down the stairs, in a sort of royal loiter, and crossed the hall to stand behind Mr. Amos's left shoulder.

"My right shoulder, you fool!" Mr. Amos practically snarled.

Mr.Prendergast took two measured steps sideways.

"Now!" said Mr.Amos, and threw open the two halves of the door. Francis jumped forward and grabbed one half and Gregor took the other and they each dragged their half wide open. Mr.Amos bowed. Mr.Prendergast did a much better bow. And Mr. Smithers edged apologetically indoors. Christopher followed him, airily strolling, looking every inch an important guest...

But here one of the sideways changes happened, and the show broke down. Everyone was suddenly in a different position, milling around, with Mr.Amos in the midst of the chaos almost screaming with rage. "No, no, no! Francis, why are you over there? Andrew, it is not your job to fetch luggage in. You take Mr. Smithers's coat."

Mr.Amos really did not seem to see that there had been a change. It began to dawn on me that he might be as insensitive to the shifts as Mr. Maxim was. It was an odd thing, because Mr.Amos must have been some sort of a magician, and I would have thought he ought to have known when his own magic machinery was working, but I could see that he didn't. That was a relief! Christopher was looking at Mr. Amos consideringly, as if he was thinking the same things as me. Beside him, Mr. Smithers stared around anxiously for the right footman to hand his imaginary coat to.

"Start again," Mr.Amos said. "And try this time."

"I try, I try!" Mr.Prendergast said, arriving beside me again. "I am exercising every thew and sinew to persuade that man to give me the sack, but will he?"

"Why?" I said.

"The union must have been right when they told me that a reasonable-looking underbutler was very hard to find at short notice," Mr.Prendergast said dolefully.

"No, I meant why do you want to be sacked?" I said.

Mr.Prendergast grabbed each of his elbows in the opposite hand and hitched his face mournfully sideways. "I don't like the man," he said. "I don't like this house. It strikes me as haunted."

"You mean the changes," I said.

"No," said Mr.Prendergast. "I mean haunted. As in ghosts."

And the strange thing was that by lunchtime everyone was saying that Stallery was haunted. Several agitated people told me that that someone - or something - had thrown a whole shelf of books on the library floor. I tried to find Anthea to ask her, but she was out with Count Robert. By teatime all the maids were saying that things in the bedrooms kept being moved. Some of them had heard strange hammerings and knockings there, too. By the end of the day Mr.Prendergast was not the only actor who was talking about leaving.

"It's just the changes," Christopher said as we climbed the stairs that night; the lift was full of a courtroom drama just then, with Mr.Prendergast as the judge and a very glamorous dark girl called Polly Varden being accused of murdering Manfred. "Actors are some of the most superstitious people there are."

"I'm glad Mr.Amos doesn't seem to notice the changes," I said.

"It is lucky," Christopher agreed. Here he began looking very anxious and raced ahead to the attics.

He didn't go into our room at all. I think he spent all night out in the forbidden part of the attics. I woke up to find him already dressed and bending over me urgently. "Grant," he said, "there were no changes last night either. I think that fat swindler turns his machines off before he goes to bed. I'm going to have to look for Millie by day. Be an absolute cracker and cover up for me, will you?"

"How do you mean?" I asked sleepily.

"By saying I'm ill. Pretend I'm up here covered in green and yellow spots. Please, Grant." Christopher had been learning from the actors. He went down on one knee and raised his hands to me as if he were praying. "Pretty please, Grant! There's a witch out there - remember?"

I woke up enough to start thinking. "It won't work," I said. "Miss Semple is bound to come up and check on you, and when you're not there, I'll be in trouble, too."

Christopher went, "Oooh!" desperately.

"No, wait," I said. "The way to work it is for you to show Mrs.Baldock that you're really not well. Can't you work some magic to make yourself look ill? Give yourself bubonic plague or something? Then stagger into her room looking like death."

Christopher stood up. "Oh," he said. "Thanks, Grant. I wasn't thinking, was I? It's easy, really. All I have to do is to get hold of some silver, and Series Seven will do the rest. But you'll have to be the one who brings meals and medicines to my sickbed. Will you do that, Grant?" "All right," I said.

So, when we took the boots and shoes down, we took them by way of the big main staircase. There was no one about to see us at that hour. This made it all the more puzzling when we found a big red rubber ball, which must have come from the nurseries, bouncing slowly down the stairs in front of us.

"I wonder if there is a ghost after all," Christopher murmured.

We were too busy with our plan to get hold of something silver to bother much about it. When the ball rolled away across the black marble floor of the hall, we simply dumped our baskets of footgear outside the breakfast room and sneaked in through the door. Christopher went on a rapid search of the sideboard in there. In no time he selected a very small silver spoon from one of the big cruet sets and stuffed it into his waistcoat pocket. "This'll do," he said.

The effect was almost instant. His face went bluish white, and by the time he was back at the door, his legs were staggering. "Perfect," he said. "Come on."

We dodged out into the hall again, where, as far as I could see, the red rubber ball had vanished. But I didn't have any opportunity to look for it because Christopher was now - honestly and completely - too weak to carry his basket. He panted and he wavered and I had to carry one handle of it for him.

"Don't look so concerned, Grant," he told me irritably. "It's only a sort of magical allergy."

Actually, I was staring anxiously after the vanished rubber ball with shudders creeping up my back, but I didn't like to say so. I helped Christopher to the undercroft, and to dump the baskets in the bootroom, and then to the Middle Hall for breakfast. By the time everyone else arrived there, he was looking like death warmed up.

All the actors exclaimed. Fay Marley took Christopher along to Mrs.Baldock herself, and Mrs. Baldock believed he was at death's door like everyone else did. Christopher reappeared in the Middle Hall doorway, blue pale and staggering between Fay on one side and Mrs.Baldock on the other.

"I must have Grant!" he gasped. "Grant can take me upstairs!"

I knew he meant that we had to put the silver spoon back before Mr.Amos noticed it was missing. I jumped up at once and draped Christopher's arm artistically across my shoulders. Christopher collapsed against me, so that I staggered, too.

To my surprise, everyone protested. "You're not his servant!" several actors said. Most of the others added, "Let Fay help you take him!" and Gregor said, "I could probably carry him." Mrs.Baldock said anxiously, "Are you sure you're strong enough, Conrad? He's a big lad. Let someone else try."

"Grant!" Christopher insisted expiringly. " Grant !"

"Not to worry," I said. "I can get him as far as the lift, and we can go up in that."

They let us go, rather doubtfully. I heaved Christopher along to the lift, which was about as far as I could manage. Christopher was looking so unwell by then that I was quite alarmed. I took the spoon out of his waistcoat pocket and put it in mine, before I opened the lift, in case anyone was listening for me to do that. Hugo was in the lift, sitting on the floor with his arms around his knees, staring at nothing. So I shut the lift again. When I turned to Christopher, there was color back in his face and he was standing on his own - it was as quick as that.

"Keep tottering," I said, and we pretended to stagger to the lobby.

We met Anthea there, dashing past us from the stairs. "What's wrong with him?" she wanted to know.

"Muscular dysfunctional debilitation," Christopher said. "MDD, you know. I've had it from the cradle."

"You look pretty healthy to me," Anthea said, but she was, luckily, in too much of a hurry to ask any more.

We tottered artificially on, up into the hall and across it to the breakfast room, where Christopher took a swift look around to make sure that nobody was there. "You put it back, Grant," he said. "I have to get going." And he went dashing away up the main stairs.

I was a bit annoyed, but I sighed and slipped into the breakfast room.

As soon as I was inside, I was quite positive there was a ghost in there. The room had a heavy occupied feeling, and the air seemed thicker than it ought to be. It smelled of damp and dust instead of the usual coffee and bread smell. I stood for a moment wondering which was worse, facing a ghost or being accused of stealing the silver. Facing Mr.Amos, I thought. Definitely worse. But my back shuddered all over when I finally made myself scuttle over to the sideboard. As quick as I could, I laid the shiny little spoon back where I thought it came from.

There was a thudding sound behind me.

I whirled around to see the big bowl of fruit in the middle of the table in the act of tipping over. The thud had been the orange that tipped out first. It was followed by apples, pears, nectarines, and more oranges, which went rolling across the table and off its edges, while the bowl stood on its edge to shake out a floppy bunch of grapes.

"Don't do that!" I shouted.

The bowl thumped back to its right position. Nothing else happened. I stood there for what must have been five minutes, feeling as if my hair was trying to pull itself up by its roots. Then I made myself scramble to pick up the fruit and put it back.

"I'm only doing this because of what Mr. Amos will say," I said as I crawled after apples. "I'm not helping you. Go and annoy Mr.Amos, not me. He's the one that needs a fright." I crammed the last handful of apples in anyhow, on top of the grapes, and then I ran. I don't remember anything on my way to the Middle Hall. I was too scared.

The next thing I remember is being in the Hall and being greeted merrily by the actors. "Come and sit down," they called. "We saved your breakfast. Do you want my sausage?"

Polly Varden said, "I'm glad you're not ill, too. We enjoy having you here, Conrad."

"But you're too humble with Christopher, you know," Fay Marley said. "Why did it have to be you who hauled him to the attics?"

I couldn't answer that. All I could think of to say was, "Well, Christopher's...er...special."

"No, he's not, no more than you are," Francis said.

"Darling, he just thinks of himself as a star," Fay said. "Don't get taken in by the posing."

And Mr.Prendergast explained, "A person may have the quality, but he still has to earn his right to be a star, see. What has young Christopher done that makes him so special?"

"It's...more the way he was born," I said.

They didn't like that either. Mr.Prendergast said he didn't hold with aristocracy, and the rest said, in different ways, that it was work that made you a star. Polly made me really embarrassed by saying, "But you don't put on airs, Conrad. We like you."

I was quite glad when it was time to go and stand against the wall while Count Robert bolted his breakfast - he seemed to be in as much of a hurry as Anthea. The ghost was still in there. I think it was the ghost that made Manfred drop a steaming squashy haddock on his feet - but it could have been Manfred on his own, of course.

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