The Countess and Lady Felice were not expected until the next morning, just before all the guests arrived. But they had finished their shopping early, it seemed, and now there they were, in three cars drawing up outside the great front entrance.
Their arrival caused a general stampede. I had just arrived in the kitchens for my cookery lesson, but Mr.Maxim sent me away again, because he had to help get together a proper dinner for the ladies in a hurry. He told me to go and help in the hall instead. Hugo shot out of the lift as I went by and raced to the garage to find out where Count Robert had gone with Anthea, and to get him back if he could. In the black-floored hall, there was the main stampede, for what Mr.Prendergast called "the dress rehearsal for the real show tomorrow." Footmen raced down from the attics and up from the undercroft, and the marvel was that we all arrived there just as Mr.Amos - with Mr.Prendergast haunting his right shoulder like a skinny black scarecrow - threw open the huge front doors and Francis and Andrew pulled them wide.
The Countess sailed inside with a new fur wrap trailing from her shoulders. As she handed the wrap off to Manfred, she gazed around at us all with gracious satisfaction, but she seemed, for a second, a little puzzled to see us all in our green-and-cream stripes. "Amos..." she began.
Mr.Amos said, "Yes, my lady?"
"I forgot what I was going to say," said the Countess. Evidently she was as insensitive to the changes as Mr.Amos was. "Has all been well?"
"Naturally, my lady," said Mr.Amos. He turned and looked at the red rubber ball that came trundling out of the library as he spoke. Then he looked at me. I picked it up - and it felt just as if I was wrenching the ball out of someone's resisting hand. I shuddered and shoved it into the library and shut the door on it.
"Then where is Count Robert?" the Countess demanded.
"Mr.Hugo is currently searching for him, my lady," Mr.Amos replied.
"Oh," the Countess said ominously. She marched away to the stairs, saying, "See to the luggage, will you, Amos."
It needed all of us to see to it. The three cars were stuffed with boxes, carrier bags, and parcels. I could not believe that two ladies could have bought so much in such a short time - though I suppose there were four ladies at it, really. The two Lady's Maids came in with armfuls of parcels and made a great pother about things being handled gently and being carried right way up . You could see they had been enjoying themselves. But Lady Felice, who hurried through while we were all handing parcels and carrier bags along like a bucket chain, did not look happy. She kept her head down, but I could see she had been crying.
She still looked that way when I was waiting on the Family at Dinner that night. This was such a magnificent meal that you
would never have guessed that the Great Dictator and Mr.Maxim had been taken by surprise like the rest of us and had - so Mr.Maxim told me - made it up as they went along, wrestling also with the way chickens became salmon and cream became parsley as the food was fetched to the kitchens. The changes were quite bad that evening.
"You know I never notice," Mr.Maxim told me, "but Chef does, and he sorrowed, Conrad."
It struck me as a pity that neither Lady Felice nor Count Robert seemed to feel much like eating. Count Robert, who arrived back from some inn outside Stallstead, had certainly had supper with my sister before Hugo found him. He pushed food about on his plate, while the Countess told him that he should have been in the hall to meet her and how discourteous he was not to be there. He didn't even point out that she had come home a day early. But he stopped even pretending to eat when she went on to describe all the things he was expected to do and say when Lady Mary Ogworth arrived tomorrow.
So much for Anthea's chances! I thought, standing against the wall on my own. Christopher was still missing, and I was beginning to worry about him. With all these changes happening, he could be in castles and towers and mansions moving farther and farther away from Stallery all the time, and if the witch had not caught him yet, she would catch him if he was stuck out there again whe Mr.Amos turned his machines off for the night. But there seemed nothing I could do...
"As for Felice," I heard the Countess say, "the very least I insist on is that she be polite to Mr.Seuly."
At this, Lady Felice threw her fork down with a clatter.
Count Robert leaned forward. "Mother," he said, "does this mean that you've made some kind of arrangement for this Mr.Seuly to marry Felice?"
"Of course, dear," said the Countess. "We called on him on our way to Ludwich, and we had a long talk. He has made a very
handsome offer for Felice, financially speaking."
"As if I was a horse!" Lady Felice said violently.
The Countess ignored this. "As I keep telling Felice," she said, "Mr. Seuly is even richer than Lady Mary Ogworth."
"Then," said Count Robert, "why don't you marry him yourself?"
This caused an astonished silence. Mr.Amos stared, the Countess stared, Gregor's mouth came open, and even Lady Felice raised her face and looked at her brother as if she could not believe her ears. At length, the Countess said, in a fading, reproachful whisper, "Robert! What a thing to say!"
"You said it first. To Felice," Count Robert pointed out. And before the Countess could pull her wits together, he went on, "Tell me, Mother, why are you so very set on your children marrying for money?"
"Why?" gasped the Countess, with her eyes very wide and blue. "Why? But, Robert, I only want the best for you both. I want to see you properly settled - with plenty of money, naturally - so that if anything happens, you'll both be all right."
"What do you mean, "if anything happens"?" Count Robert demanded. "What do you imagine might happen?"
The Countess looked to one side and then to the other and seemed not to know how to answer this. "Well, dear," she said
finally, "all sorts of things might happen. We might lose all our money...or...or... This is a very uncertain world, Robert, and you know Mother knows best." She was so much in earnest, saying this, that big tears trembled on the ends of her eyelashes. "You've hurt me very much," she said. "My heart bleeds," Count Robert answered.
"At all events," the Countess said, in a sort of imploring shriek, "you have to promise me, darlings, both of you, to behave properly to our guests!"
"You can count on us to behave," Count Robert said, "but neither of us is going to promise more than that. Is that clear?"
"I knew I could count on you!" the Countess announced. She smiled lovingly from Count Robert to Lady Felice.
They both looked confused. I didn't blame them. It was really hard to tell what anyone had promised by then. I looked at Mr.Amos to see what he thought. He was scowling, but that might have been because he could see a speck of dust on the glass he was holding to the light. I wished Christopher were there. He would have known what was going on underneath this talk.
But Christopher was not there that night, and he did not turn up in the morning either. I had to make two journeys to collect all the boots and shoes. I was annoyed. After that I was working almost too hard to remember Christopher. But not quite. People are wrong when they say things like "I didn't have time to think." If you're really worried, or really miserable, those feelings come welling up around the edges of the other things you're doing, so that you are in the feelings even when you're working hard at something else. I was thinking - and feeling - a lot all the time the guests were arriving. Thinking about Christopher, worrying about Anthea, and feeling for myself, stuck here without even an Evil Fate to account for what I was doing.
The guests began arriving from early afternoon onward. Very stately people rolled up to the front doors in big cars and came in past the lines of footmen, wearing such expensive clothes that it seemed like a fashion parade in the hall. Then Mr.Prendergast would give out calls of "Lady Clifton's luggage to the lilac room!" or "The Duke of Almond's cases to the yellow suite!" and I would be rushing after Andrew and Gregor, or Francis and Manfred, with a heavy leather suitcase in each hand. When no guests were arriving, Mr.Amos had us measuring the spaces between the chairs at the banquet table to make sure they were evenly spaced. He really did that! And I'd thought Mr.Prendergast had been joking! Then the bells would clang, and it would be back to the black marble hall to carry more luggage.
And all the time I was more miserable and wishing Christopher would get back. Millie was quite as worried about him by then, too. I kept meeting her racing past with trays or piles of cloths. Each time, she said, "Is Christopher back yet?" and I said, "No." Then, as things got more and more frantic, Millie simply said, "Is Christopher?" and I shook my head. By the middle of the afternoon, Millie was just giving me a look as we shot past each other, and I hardly had time even to shake my head.
This was when Lady Mary Ogworth arrived. She came with her mother - who reminded me more than a little of the Countess, to
tell the truth. Both of them were wearing floaty sort of summer coats, but the mother looked like just another guest in hers. Lady Mary was beautiful. Up till then I'd never expected to see anyone who was better-looking than Fay Marley, but believe me, Lady Mary was. She had a mass of feathery white-fair curls, which made her small face look tiny and her big dark blue eyes look enormous. She walked like a willow tree in a breeze, with her coat sort of drifting around her, and her figure was perfect. Most of the footmen around me gasped when they saw her, and Gregor actually gave out a little moan. That was how beautiful Lady Mary was.
Count Robert was in the hall to meet her. He had been hanging about beside Mr.Prendergast on the stairs, fidgeting and shuffling and pulling down his cuffs, exactly like a bridegroom waiting by the altar for the bride. As soon as he saw Lady Mary, he rushed down the stairs and across the hall, where he took Lady Mary's hand and actually kissed it.
"Welcome," he said, in a choky sort of way. "Welcome to Stallery, Mary." Lady Mary kept her head shyly bent and whispered
something in reply. Then Count Robert said, "Let me show you to your rooms," and he took her, still holding her hand, across the hall and away up the stairs. He was smiling at her all the way.
Gregor had to poke me in the back to remind me to pick up my share of her luggage. I was staring after them, feeling horrible. "Anthea doesn't have a chance!" I thought. She's deluding herself. Count Robert has simply been fooling about with her.
As soon as I'd dumped the suitcases, I sneaked to the library to find my sister, but she wasn't there. The ghost was. A book sailed at my head as soon as my face was around the door. But there was no sign of Anthea. I dodged the book and shut the door. Then I went to look for Anthea in the undercroft, but she was nowhere there either. And the undercroft was in an uproar because Lady Mary never stopped ringing her bell.
"Honestly, darling," Polly said, flying past, "you'd think we'd put her in a pigsty! Nothing's right for that woman!"
"The water, the sheets, the chairs, the mattress," Fay panted, flying past the other way. "This time it was the towels. Last time it was the soap. We've all been up there at least six times. Millie's up there now."
Miss Semple rushed down the stairs to the lobby, saying, "Mr.Hugo's fixed her shower - he thinks. But... "
Then the bell labeled Ldy Ste rang again, and they all cried out, "Oh, what is it now?"
Miss Semple got to the phone first and made soothing Yes madams into it. She turned away in despair. "Oh, I do declare! There's a spider in her water carafe now! Fay - no, you're finding her more shoe trees, aren't you?" Her mild, all-seeing eye fell on me. "Conrad. Fetch a clean carafe and glasses and take them up to the lady suite on one of the best gilt trays, please. Hurry."
If I had been Christopher, I thought, I would have found an amusing way to say that my arms had come out of their sockets from carrying luggage. As I was just me, I sighed and went to the glass pantry beside the green cloth door. While I loaded a tray with glittering clean glassware and took it up in the lift, I decided that it must be the changes that were upsetting Lady Mary. They were going on remorselessly now. Before I got to the second floor, the lift stopped being brown inside and became pale yellow. It was enough to upset anyone who wasn't used to it. The lift stopped and the door slid back. Millie, still looking very smart and grown up in her maid's uniform, was waiting outside to go back down. She gave me
another of her expressive looks. "No," I said. "Still no sign of Christopher."
"I didn't mean that this time," Millie said. "Are you taking that trayful to Lady Mary?"
"Yes," I said. "Fay and them have had enough."
"Then I don't want to prejudice you," Millie said, "but I think I ought to warn you. She's a witch."
"Really?" I said as I got out of the lift. "Then..." Millie turned sideways to go past me. I could see she was angry then, pink and panting. "Then nothing!" she said. "Just watch yourself. And, Conrad, forget all the mean things I said about Christopher - I was being unreasonable. Christopher never misuses magic the way that...that...she does!"
The lift shut then and carried Millie away downward. I went along the blue moss carpet and around the corner to the best guest suite, thinking about Christopher. He could be very irritating, but he was all right, really. And now I considered, he had set off to rescue Millie like a knight errant rescuing a damsel in distress. That impressed me. I wondered why I hadn't thought of Christopher that way before. I wished he would come back.
I knocked at the big gold-rimmed double door, but no one told me to come in. After a moment I knocked again, balanced the tray carefully on one hand, and went in.
Lady Mary was sitting sprawled in a chair that must have come from another room. Everything in the huge frilly room was pink, but the chair was navy blue, with the wrong pattern on it. Fay or Polly or someone must have lugged it in here from somewhere else. Lady Mary was clutching its arms with fingers bent up like claws and scowling at the fireplace. Like that, she looked almost as old as the Countess and not very beautiful at all. There was a half-open door beyond her. I could hear someone sobbing on the other side of it - her lady's maid probably.
"Oh, shut up, Stevens, and get on with that ironing!" Lady Mary snarled as I came in. Then she saw me. Her big blue eyes went narrow, unpleasantly. "I didn't say you could come in," she said.
I said, very smoothly, like Mr.Prendergast imitating Mr.Amos. "The fresh carafe and glasses you rang for, my lady."
She unclawed a hand and waved it. "Put them down over there." She waited for me to cross the room and put the tray on a small table, and then snapped, "Now stand there and answer my questions."
I was glad Millie had warned me. The hand waving must have been a spell. I found myself standing to attention beside the table, and the door to the corridor seemed a mile off. Lady Mary waved her hand again. This time I felt as if there was a tight band around my head, so tight that it somehow gave me pins and needles down both arms. I couldn't loosen it however hard I tried. "Why are you doing that?" I said.
"Because I want to know what I'm taking on here," she said, "and you're going to tell me. What do you think of Count Robert?"
"He seems nice enough...but I really hardly know him," I said. By this time I was panting and sweating. The pressure around my head seemed to be worse every second. "Please take this off," I said.
"No. Is Count Robert a magic user?" Lady Mary said.
"I've no idea...I don't think so," I said. " Please!"
"But someone here is," she said. "Someone's using magic to change things all the time. Why?"
"To make money," I found myself saying.
"Who?" Lady Mary asked.
I thought of Christopher pressing that shift button. I thought of Mr.Amos. I thought my head was going to burst. And at the same time I knew I wasn't going to tell this horrible woman anything else. "I don't...I don't know anything about magic," I said.
"Nonsense," Lady Mary said. "You're stuffed with talent. For the last time, who?"
"Nobody taught me magic," I gabbled desperately. My head was going to crack like an egg any moment, I thought. "I can't tell you because I don't know!"
Lady Mary screwed her mouth up angrily and muttered, "Why don't any of them know? It's ridiculous!" She looked at me again
and said, "What do you think of the Countess?"
"Oh, she's awful," I said. It was a relief to be able to tell her something.
Lady Mary smiled - it was more of a gloating grin really. "They all say that," she remarked. "So it must be true. I'll have to get rid of her first thing then. Now tell me..."
A change came just as she said this. I never thought I'd be glad of a change. The tightness around my head snapped - ping! - like a rubber band that had been stretched too much. I staggered for a moment, pins and needles all over, eyes all blurry, but I could just see that the carafe and glasses on the tray had turned into a teapot, an elegant cup and saucer, and a plate of sugary biscuits.
I took a look at Lady Mary. She was behaving as if the rubber band had snapped itself in her face, blinking her big eyes and gasping. "Enjoy your tea, my lady," I said. Then I turned and ran.
I went down in the lift feeling awful. The pins and needles went away, slowly, but they left me feeling very miserable indeed. Lady Mary was obviously going to take over Stallery the moment she was married to Count Robert...or maybe even sooner. She would give me the sack at once, because I knew what she was like. I had no idea what I would do then. It was no good asking Anthea - she was as badly off as I was. And Christopher was not here to ask.
That was the good thing about Christopher. He never seemed to think anything was hopeless. If something went wrong, he made one of his annoying jokes and thought of something to do about it. I really needed that at the moment. I stopped the lift and sent it upward instead, just in case the changes had brought Christopher back. But our room was empty. I looked at Christopher's tie dangling from the doorknob and felt so lost that I began to wonder if Uncle Alfred was right after all about my Evil Fate. Everything went wrong for me all the time.