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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

That morning Mr.Amos had us all up on the ballroom floor, first in the great Banqueting Hall, learning how to lay it out for a formal dinner, and after that in the Grand Saloon, where he made half of us pretend to serve coffee and drinks to the other half. It did not go well. There was change after change, sideways jerk after sideways jerk, and each change caused someone to make a mistake. There was a golden footstool that turned up in so many places that even Mr.Amos noticed. I suppose it was hard to miss after Manfred had booted it across the room six times. Mr.Amos thought it was me playing practical jokes.

"No, no, you wrong the lad," Mr. Prendergast said, stepping up between me and Mr. Amos. "There is a ghost in this place. You need an exorcist, not a lecture. You need a divine with bell, book, and candle. As I have played the part of a bishop many times, I would be happy to stand in the role of cleric and see what I could do."

Mr.Amos gave him an even nastier look than he had been giving me. "There has never," he said, "been a ghost at Stallery, and there never will be." But he gave up lecturing me.

Despite what Mr.Prendergast said, the maids told me that they thought the ghost had been busy in the bedrooms all morning, making loud thumps on the walls and rolling soap about. Mrs.Baldock had had to go and lie down. The maids were scared stiff. And they may have been right, and it may have been the ghost. The trouble was, it was so difficult to tell, with all the changes. The sideways jerks seemed to be happening twice as often that day.

The maids crowded around and told me all about it when I went to the kitchens at lunchtime to fetch a tray of food for Christopher. I had to push my way through them. I knew that if I didn't take the food to Christopher quickly, then Fay or Polly would tell me I was being too humble and take the tray up herself. And either she would find Christopher looking perfectly healthy, or he would not be there at all.

Mr.Maxim handed me the tray with a wonderful domed silver cover on it and whispered, "You'll never guess! Mr. Avenloch has gone missing! The garden staff don't know what to do!"

"You mean, like the dog, Champ?" I asked.

"Just like that," Mr. Maxim said. "A real mystery!" He was loving it, I could see.

I rushed off to the lift with the tray before any of the actors could start acting in there. And it was just as well I took it. Christopher was not in our room. There was no sign of him anywhere in the attics. I wondered what to do for a while. Then it occurred to me that the silver dome would make Christopher ill anyway, and so would the silver cutlery Mr.Maxim had given him, so I might as well eat the lunch myself. I sat on my bed and ate it all, peacefully.

I was finishing with the trifle when there was a really big sideways jerk. I sat there feeling a little sick, wondering if the trifle had changed into something else on the way down. As long as it wasn't sardines! I was thinking, when I heard footsteps clattering on bare boards in the distance.

Christopher's back! was my first, rather guilty thought. I laid the tray on my bed and hurried out to explain that I had eaten his lunch, but he could pretend to get well and go down and eat mine. By the time I reached the bathroom on the corner, I could clearly hear that there were two separate sets of footsteps, one heavy and one lighter. "He's found Millie!" I thought. Now we're going to have problems!

I shot anxiously through into the forbidden middle of the attics. Mr.Avenloch, the head gardener, was there, along with the new gardener's boy, Smedley. They were clattering around, both of them looking tired, sweaty, and bewildered. " Now where have we got to?" Mr.Avenloch was saying, in an angry sort of moan. "This is different again!"

Smedley saw me. He shook Mr. Avenloch's earthy tweed sleeve. "Sir, sir, here's Conrad! We must be back in Stallery!" His face was bright red, and he was almost crying in his relief. "This is Stallery, isn't it?" he implored me.

"Yes, of course it is," I said. "Why? Where have you been?" I had a fair idea, of course.

"Half the morning outside a ruined castle," Mr. Avenloch said disgustedly. "With a lake to it, all weeds. Ought to have heen drained and replanted years ago, but I suppose there was no one there to do it. Can you show us the way down from here, boy? I was only ever in the undercroft before now."

"Certainly," I said, in my best flunkey manner. "This way." I took them along toward the lift, collecting the tray on the way. They thumped along after me in their great crusty boots.

"It wasn't only a castle," Smedley said. "It was never the same castle anyway. It kept turning different. Then it was a huge place made of glass..."

"All cracked and dirty," said Mr.Avenloch. "Such neglect I never saw."

"And after that there were three palaces with white marble everywhere," Smedley chattered on. I knew how he felt. He had been having the sort of experience you just have to talk about. "And then there was this great enormous brick mansion, and when we went inside, it kept changing all the time. Stairs in all directions. Old furniture, ballrooms..."

"Didn't you see any people at all?" I asked, hoping to get news of Christopher.

"Only the one," Mr.Avenloch said repressively, "and she in the distance all the time." I could see he thought Smedley was talking too much.

I thought nervously of the witch. "What, like an old woman in rubber boots?" I asked. "She seemed like a young girl to me," Mr.Avenloch replied, "and ran like a hare when we called out to her."

"That was what brought us up here," Smedley explained. "She ran away upstairs in the mansion - well, it was more like a cathedral by then - and we chased up after her, wanting to know what was happening and how to get out of there..."

We were at the lift by then. Its door slid aside to show Mr.Prendergast pretending to be Mr. Amos. I hadn't realized that Mr.Prendergast was such a good actor. He was tall and thin, and Mr.Amos was short and wide, but he had Mr. Amos's way of holding his head back and slowly waving one hand so exactly that I almost saw him as pear-shaped. Mr. Avenloch and Smedley both gaped at him.

"Lunch is served," Mr.Prendergast said. "I require you to be furniture against the wall. Furniture with legs of flesh." Then he did a Mr.Amos stare at Mr.Avenloch and Smedley. "And what are you doing with a rake and a wheelbarrow, Conrad, may I ask?"

"It's a long story," I said. Hugo was in the lift, too, behind Mr.Prendergast, grinning all over his face. "Can we come down in the lift with you?" I asked.

"Feel free," Hugo said. "He came up looking for you anyway."

Mr.Prendergast waved the two gardeners into the lift, like Mr.Amos ushering the Countess. "Enter. It is not your place to wait upon your fellow Improver, Conrad," he said to me, and I really felt for a moment as if it were Mr. Amos telling me off. "Enter, and place the rake in that corner and the wheelbarrow by the wall here. Hold your tray two inches higher. We will now descend." He pressed the lift button with a Mr.Amos flourish. "I will now," he said, "make use of our descent to instruct you upon the correct way to place chairs for a banquet. All chair legs must be exactly in line. Having placed them at the table, you must then crawl along behind them, measuring the distance of chair from chair, with a tape measure carried in the waistcoat pocket for the purpose."

He went on like this all the way down to the undercroft. Smedley could not help giggling - and kept getting a Mr. Amos glare, followed by "Know your place, wheelbarrow" - and even Mr.Avenloch began to grin after a while. Hugo was laughing as much as I was.

When we got to the undercroft, Mr. Prendergast announced, "Mr.Hugo will now repair to the Upper Hall, while I march Conrad off to his fate in the Middle Hall. You two implements..."

"Please, sir," Smedley interrupted imploringly, "have we missed our lunch, sir?"

"Take this tray," Mr.Prendergast said, removing it from me and dumping it on Smedley, "and proceed with your mentor to the kitchens, where you will find they have been anxiously awaiting your return. Off with you now." He pretended to look at his watch. "You have exactly two minutes before they feed your lunch to the dogs."

Smedley went racing off. Mr. Avenloch paused to say, "That was as good as a play. But don't let Mr. Amos catch you at it. You'd be in for it then."

"It's probably the one thing he wouldn't forgive me for," Mr.Prendergast agreed cheerfully. "Which is why I am rehearsing the part. Come, Conrad. Your lunch awaits."

I had to have another lunch. They really did not like me running after Christopher. And I really could not explain. I was half asleep for the rest of the afternoon, until around suppertime, when I was suddenly ravenous and wide-awake. And, I don't know why, I was quite convinced that Christopher was back. I sneaked off early to the kitchens and asked them to give me Christopher's tray now. I did not want Mr.Prendergast butting in again.

It was so early that the regular maids were all gathering there for their high tea. They told me that the ghost had been bouncing that red rubber ball up and down the corridors all afternoon. They weren't frightened by then, they said, just annoyed by it. Besides, who wanted to leave, one of them added, when there was a chance of getting to know Francis? Or Manfred, said another. A third one said, "Yes, if you want gravy poured down your neck!" and they all shrieked with laughter.

The men's end of the attics seemed very quiet after this. I went along to our room and got the door open - which is not easy when you're carrying a tray - and Christopher seemed to be there. At least he was in bed and asleep when I went in, but when I turned around from putting the tray on the chest of drawers, there was no one there. The bed was flat and empty.

"Oh, come on!" I said. "Don't be stupid. It's only me. What happened? Didn't you find Millie, then?" A girl's voice answered, "Oh dear. What's gone wrong? You're not Christopher."

I spun about, looking for where the voice came from. Christopher's bed was still flat and unused, but there was a dip in the edge of my bed, the sort of dent a person makes sitting on the very edge. She was obviously very nervous. I said, "It's all right. I'm Conrad. I work here at Stallery with Christopher. You're Millie, aren't you? He said you were an enchantress."

She became visible rather slowly, first as a sort of wobble in the air, then as a blur that gently hardened into the shape of a girl. I think she was ready to whip herself invisible again and run away if I seemed to be hostile. She was just a girl, nothing like as glamorous as Fay or Polly, and a bit younger than Christopher. She had straight brown hair and a round face and a very direct way of looking at a person. I thought she seemed nice. "Not that good an enchantress," she said ruefully. "You're that boy who was with Christopher on those stairs, aren't you? I made a real mistake getting into all those mansions. There never seemed to be a way to get outside them."

"It may have been the witch keeping you in," I said.

"Oh, it was ," she said. "I didn't realize at first. She was sort of kind, and she had food cooked whatever kitchen I got to, and she kept hinting that she knew all about the way the buildings changed. She said she'd show me the way out when things were ready. Then she suddenly disappeared, and as soon as she was gone, I realized that it was that knitting of hers - she was sort of knitting me in, trying to take me over, I think. I had to spend a day undoing her knitting before I could get anywhere."

"How did you get here?" I asked.

"Christopher shouted across those double stairs to go to the top and then find the room with his tie on the doorknob," Millie said. "I was so tired by then that I did."

"Then he's still out there?" I said.

Millie shrugged. "I suppose so. He'll be back in the end. He's good at that kind of thing - having nine lives and so on."

She seemed a bit cool about it. I began to wonder if the witch had grabbed Christopher instead, because he was stronger, and that this was how Millie got out. "Oh well," I said. "He's not here, and you are. He's supposed to be ill, and I'm supposed to bring his meals. Would you like this supper now I've brought it?"

Millie brightened up wonderfully. "Yes, please! I don't know when I've ever been so hungry!"

So I passed her the tray. She arranged it on the bedside table, which she pulled in front of the bed, and began to eat heartily. The food changed from egg and chips to cottage pie while she ate, but she hardly seemed to notice. "I had nothing to buy food with, you see," she explained. "And the witch only did breakfast. The last breakfast was days ago."

"Did you run away from school without any money, then?" I asked.

"Pretty well," Millie said. "Money from Series Twelve wouldn't work in Series Seven, so I only took what was in my pocket. I was going to be a parlormaid and earn some money. Except when I got inside those mansions, there was nobody there to be a maid for. But..." She looked at me very earnestly. I could tell she was wanting me to believe the next bit particularly. "But I had to run away from that school. It really was an awful place - awful girls, awful teachers - and the lessons were all things like dancing and deportment and embroidery and how to make conversation with an ambassador, and so on. I told Gabriel de Witt that I was miserable and not learning a thing, but he just thought I was being silly."

"And you told Christopher," I said.

"In the end," Millie said. "Only as a last resort - Gabriel never listens to him either. And Christopher was just as overbearing as I knew he would be. You know, "My dear Millie, set your mind at rest, and I will fix it," and this time he was worse. He decided we were going to go and live together on an island in Series Five. And when I said I wasn't sure I wanted to go and live all alone with Christopher - Well, would you want to, Conrad?"

"No," I said, very definitely. "He's far too fond of his own way. And the way he makes superior jokes all the time - I want to hit him!"

"Oh, doesn't he just!" Millie said.

After that, all the while Millie was eating the pudding - which started as jam roly-poly and then became chocolate meringue - we both tore Christopher's character to shreds. It was wonderful fun.

Millie, from having known Christopher for years, found two faults in him where I only knew one. His clothes, she told me, he fussed about his clothes being perfect all the time. He'd been like that for three years now. He drove everyone in Chrestomanci Castle mad by insisting on silk shirts and exactly the right kind of pajamas. "And he could get them right anyway by magic," Millie told me, "if he wasn't too lazy to learn how. He is lazy, you know. He hates having to learn facts. He knows he can get by just pretending to know - bluffing, you know. But the thing that really annoys me is the way he never bothers to learn a person's name. If a person isn't important to him, he always forgets their name."

When Millie said this, I realized that Christopher had never once forgotten my name - even if it was an alias. It suddenly seemed to me to be rather mean, talking about Christopher's faults when he wasn't here to defend himself.

"Yes," I said. "But I've never known him do anything really nasty. I think he's all right underneath. And he makes me laugh."

"Oh, me, too," Millie agreed. "I do like him. But you can't deny that he's maddening a lot of the time - Who's that?"

It was Mr.Prendergast again. We could hear him outside in the corridor, doing his Mr.Amos act. "Grant," he called out. "Conrad, stop lurking in sickrooms and descend to the undercroft immediately. Supper is being served!"

He was nearer than we realized. The next moment he flung the door open and stood looming in the doorway. Millie made a sort of movement, as if she was thinking of turning invisible, but then realized that it was too late, and stood up instead. Mr.Prendergast hitched his face sideways at her, and his eyebrows traveled up and down his forehead like two sliding mice. He looked at me, and then at the tray.

"What is this?" he said. "Is Christopher really a girl?"

"No, no," I said. "This is Millie."

"She's not another wheelbarrow," Mr.Prendergast said. "Is she?" And when Millie simply looked completely confused, he narrowed his eyes at her and said, "So where are you from, young lady?" For a moment he looked so utterly serious that he made goose bumps come up on my arms. Millie probably felt the same. "Er, from Series Twelve, really," she admitted.

"Then I think I don't want to know," Mr.Prendergast said. He hitched his face the other way, and I remembered, with great relief, that he was simply a very good actor. "I think," he said to me, "that she'd better be a feather duster."

"What are you talking about?" Millie said, exasperated and frightened, but almost laughing, too. This was the effect Mr.Prendergast seemed to have on people.

"We can't have Conrad embarrassed," he said to her, "and he would be if you went on sharing his room like this. So I think you'd better come downstairs and get turned into another new housemaid. Luckily there are so many just now that one more will hardly be noticed. Come along to the lift, both of you. No, let her carry the tray, Conrad. It makes her look the part more."

Hardly able to believe it, we followed Mr. Prendergast to the lift. Hugo was in it. He stared at Millie with gloomy surprise.

"New feather duster," Mr.Prendergast told him airily. "She's the child star of Baby Bunting - you won't know it yet, it's on trial in the provinces, but it'll be a hit, I assure you."

Millie went bright red and gazed hard at her tray, biting her lip. I think she was trying not to laugh.

Mr.Prendergast said nothing more until the lift was nearly at the undercroft. Then he said suddenly. "By the way, where is Christopher?"

"Around," I said.

Millie added, "He went to the bathroom."

"Ah," said Mr.Prendergast. "Indeed. That accounts for it, then."

Rather to my surprise, he didn't ask any more. He just stalked with us to the Middle Hall, where he took Fay aside and murmured a few words to her. It was like magic, really. Fay and Polly and two other girls instantly took charge and hurried Millie off to the maids' cloakroom. When they came back, Millie was wearing a brown-and-gold-striped dress just like the other girls, and a proper maid's cap. She sat and chatted to them and the other actors while the rest of us had supper.

Fay and Polly must have found somewhere for Millie to sleep that night. When I saw her at breakfast the next morning, she had her hair up on top of her head, under her cap, and Fay or someone had done things to her face with clever makeup, so that Millie looked rather different and quite a bit older. I think she was enjoying herself. She had a surprised, happy look whenever I saw her.

I kept out of Millie's way on the whole. I dreaded the moment when Miss Semple spotted Millie. Miss Semple's mild, serious, distracted eyes didn't miss much, and I was sure she would realize that Millie was not a real maid before long. Then the fat would be in the fire, and Mr.Prendergast would probably get the sack. I was fairly sure he had made Millie into a feather duster in order to get sacked.

But Miss Semple - nor Mrs.Baldock - did not notice Millie all day. Some of the reason was the ghost. It distracted people by playing pranks, dragging the sheets off all the newly made beds on the nursery floor, smashing tooth glasses, and bouncing that red rubber ball down flights of stairs. It had done something new every time Mrs.Baldock took me over to train me upstairs. But some of the distraction was due to the changes Christopher had started by pressing that button in the cellar. Everything kept moving about, so that when you put something down and then turned around to pick it up again, it wasn't where you'd left it. Most people who noticed - and it was hard not to notice before long - thought this was the ghost's doing, too. They just sighed. Even when all the sheets and towels got shifted to quite different cupboards on different floors, they said it was the ghost again and sighed.

But no one could blame the ghost when, late in the afternoon, all our uniforms suddenly changed color. Instead of gold and brown stripes, we were suddenly wearing bright apple green and cream.

Miss Semple was really distressed by that change. "Oh Conrad!" she said, "what is going on? These are the colors we had in my mother's day. My mother changed them because they were thought to be unlucky. Green is, you know. Things had gone wrong then until Stallery had barely enough money to buy the new colors. Oh, I do hope we aren't in for any more bad luck!" she said, and went rushing off past me in her usual way.

We were all still rushing about exclaiming, when the Countess and Lady Felice came back unexpectedly.

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