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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

Middle Hall was crowded that evening.

Mr.Smithers and quite a few Upper Maids were sent to eat with the actors, because Upper Hall was filled with valets and lady's maids who had come with the guests. They had to help the guests get dressed, of course, so they had supper later. Mrs. Baldock was holding a special cocktail party for them in her Housekeeper's Room before that. Polly, Fay, Millie, and another girl had to bolt their food in order to race off and wait on Mrs. Baldock and her guests. The rest of us hardly had time to finish before bells began pealing and Miss Semple came rushing in.

"Quick, quick, all of you! That's Mr.Amos ringing. The company will be down in five minutes. Mr. Prendergast, you're in the Grand Saloon in charge of drinks..."

"Oh, am I?" Mr.Prendergast said, unfolding to his feet. "Menial tasks, nuts, and pink gin, is it?"

"...with Francis, Gregor, and Conrad," Miss Semple rushed on. "All other menservants to the Banqueting Hall to make ready there. Maids to the ballroom floor crockery store and service hatches. Hurry!"

The undercroft thundered with our feet as we all raced away.

The part in the Grand Saloon is a bit of a blur to me. I was too anxious and upset to notice much, except that Mr.Prendergast plonked a heavy silver tray in my hands, which made my arms ache. The guests were mostly a roar of loud voices to me, fine silk dresses and expensive evening suits. I remember the Countess graciously greeting them all, in floating blue, with a twinkly thing in her hair, and I remember Count Robert coming and snatching up a glass from my tray, looking as if he really needed that drink - and then I noticed that the glass he had taken was orange juice. I wondered whether to call out to him that he had made a mistake, but he was off by then, saying hallo to people, chatting to them and working his way over to the door as if he expected Lady Mary to come in any minute.

Lady Mary didn't arrive until right near the end. She was in white, straight white, like a pillar of snow. She went to Count Robert almost at once and talked to him with her head bent and a shy smile. I could hardly believe she had spent the afternoon complaining and casting spells and making her maid cry.

"That," Mr.Prendergast said, looming up beside me, "is a classic example of a glamour spell. I thought you might like to know."

"Oh," I said. I wanted to ask Mr.Prendergast how he knew, but he said, "Your tray's slanting," and surged away to fetch Gregor a fresh soda siphon.

Lady Felice arrived, wearing white, too, and looking horribly nervous. She went nearly as white as her dress when Mr.Amos flung the door open and boomed, "The Mayor of Stallchester, Mr.Igor Seuly."

Mr.Seuly looked really out of place. He was just as well dressed as everyone else, but he seemed smaller somehow, a little sunken inside his good clothes. He walked in trying to swagger, but he looked as if he was crawling, really. When the Countess rustled graciously up to him, he took hold of her hand with a grab, as if she was rescuing him from drowning. Then he caught sight of me and my tray and came and took the largest glass as if that was a rescue, too. "Have you found out how they pull the possibilities yet?" he asked me in a whisper.

"Not quite," I said. "I, er, we..."

"Thought not," Mr. Seuly said. He seemed relieved. "Not to worry now," he said. "When I'm spliced to Felice, I'll be part of the setup, and I'll be able to handle it for you. Don't you do anything until then. Understand?"

"But Uncle Alfred said..." I began.

"I'll fix your uncle," Mr. Seuly answered. Then he turned around and marched away into the crowd.

Shortly after that, Mr.Amos unfolded the double doors at the end of the room and said, in his grandest manner, "My lords, ladies and gentlemen, Dinner is served."

Everyone streamed slowly away into the Banqueting Hall, and it got quite peaceful. While Francis, Gregor, and I were clearing up spilled nuts and piling glasses on trays to give to Polly and the other maids at the door, Mr. Prendergast stretched himself out with a sigh along the most comfortable sofa.

"An hour of peace at least," he said, and lit a long black cigar. "Pass that ashtray, Conrad. No, make that nearly three hours of peace. I'm told they're having ten courses."

The double doors opened again. "Prendergast," Mr.Amos said. "You're on front hall duty. Get on down there."

"But surely," Mr.Prendergast said, sitting up protestingly, "everyone's arrived who's going to arrive."

"You never can tell," Mr.Amos said. "Events like this often attract poor relations. Stallery prides itself on being prepared."

Mr.Prendergast sighed - it was more of a groan, really - and stood up. "And what do I do in the unlikely event that penniless Cousin Martha or drunken Uncle Jim turn up and start hammering at the front door? Deny them?"

"You use your discretion," Mr.Amos growled. "If you have any. Put them in the library, of course, man, and then inform me. And you - Gregor, Francis, Conrad - in the Banqueting Hall as soon as you've finished here. Service is slower than I would like. We need you."

So, for the next two and a half hours, I was hard at it, fetching dishes for other footmen to hand over elegant shoulders and carrying bottles for Mr.Amos to pour. Manfred had done quite well and only dropped one plate, but Mr. Amos would not let Manfred or me do any of the actual waiting at table. He said he was taking no chances. But we were allowed to go around with cheese boards, near the end. By this time the chinking of cutlery and the roar of voices had died down to a mellow rumble mixed with the occasional sharp tink. Mr.Amos sent Andrew back to the Grand Saloon to make coffee. And after I had carried around special wine for the speech and the toasts, he sent me to the Saloon, too. Mrs.Baldock and Miss Semple were there, arranging piles of chocolates enticingly on silver plates. Mrs.Baldock seemed a little unsteady. I thought I heard her hiccup once or twice. And I remembered Christopher saying the first night we were here that he thought Mrs.Baldock drank - although she had just given a party, I suppose. I reached out to sneak a chocolate, thinking of Christopher. There had been no changes for hours now. Mr.Amos must have switched off his equipment, so Christopher was stuck for yet another night. Here Miss Semple slapped my reaching hand and brought me back to reality. She sent me hustling up and down the huge room, planting the piles of chocolates artistically on little tables. So I was able to snitch a chocolate anyway, before Andrew called me over to help him rattle out squads of tiny coffee cups and ranks of equally tiny glasses.

I was thinking of Christopher, so I said what Christopher might have said. "Are we having a dolls' tea party?"

"Liqueurs are served in small glasses," Andrew explained kindly, and showed me a table full of round bottles, tall bottles, triangular bottles, flat bottles, red, blue, gold, and brown bottles, and one big green one. He thought I didn't know about liqueurs. If he had been Christopher, he would have known I was joking. "The big round glasses are for brandy," Andrew instructed me. "Don't go making a mistake."

Before I could think of a Christopher-type joke about this, the Countess came sailing in through the distant doors, saying over her shoulder to a stout man with a beard, "Ah, but this is Stallery, Your Grace. We never have new brandy!" Other guests came slowly crowding after her.

Mrs.Baldock and Miss Semple vanished. Andrew and I went into furniture mode. The rest of the guests gradually filtered out across the room and settled into chairs and sofas. Mr. Seuly had a lot of trouble over this. He kept trying to sit in a chair next to Lady Felice, but Lady Felice always stood up just before he got to her and, with a sad, absentminded stare, walked away to another chair in another part of the room. Count Robert somehow got buried in the crowd. He was never anywhere near Lady Mary, who was sitting on a golden sofa beside her mother, looking lovelier than ever.

Then Mr.Amos arrived. He closed the double doors on a violent crashing - Manfred was dropping plates again, I think, as the rest of the footmen cleared away the feast - and beckoned me and Andrew over to the table with the coffee cups. I was kept very busy taking around tiny clattery cups. The main thing I remember about this part is when I had to take coffee to Lady Mary and her mother. As I got to their sofa, the mother put out her hand to take one of the chocolates on the table beside them. Lady Mary snapped at her, in a little grating voice, "Mother! Those are bad for you!"

The mother took her hand back at once, looking so sad that I was sorry for her. I handed Lady Mary a cup of coffee, and managed to make it rattle and clatter so much that Lady Mary put out both hands to it and turned to give me a dirty look. Behind her, I saw the mother's hand shoot out to the chocolates. I think she took about five. When I handed the mother her coffee, she gave me a look that said, Please don't give me away!

I was just giving her a blank, furniture look in reply that said, "Give away what, my lady?" when the door to the service area behind us opened and Hugo and Anthea came quietly into the Saloon. They were wearing evening dress, just like the guests. Hugo looked good in his, and far more natural than Mr. Seuly. My sister was in red, and she looked stunning.

Nobody seemed to notice them at first except me. They walked slowly side by side out into the middle of the room, both looking very determined. Hugo was so determined that he looked almost like a bulldog. Then Anthea made a small magical gesture, and the Countess looked up and saw them. She sprang up and swept toward them in a swirl of silky blue.

"What is the meaning of this?" she said in a fast, angry whisper. "I will not have my guests disturbed in this way!"

At this, Lady Mary looked up, looked at Anthea, and looked venomous. Beside my sister's black hair and glowing skin, Lady Mary hardly seemed to be there. She was like a faded picture, and she knew it.

Across by the little cups and glasses, Mr.Amos looked up, too. He stared. Then he glared. If looks could have killed, Hugo would have dropped dead then, followed by Anthea.

But Lady Felice was now standing up, slowly and nervously. She was so obvious in her white dress that most of the guests turned around to see what she was doing. They looked at her, and then they looked at Hugo and Anthea. The talk died away. Then Count Robert stood up and walked forward from the other end of the Saloon. Everyone stared at him, too. One lady got out a pair of glasses on a stick in order to stare better.

"I apologize for the disturbance," Count Robert said, "but we have a couple of announcements to make."

The Countess whirled around to him and began to make her "Why, dear?" face. She was sweetly bursting with rage. By the look of him, so was Mr.Amos, only not sweetly. But before either of them could speak, the main door at the far end of the Saloon opened and Mr.Prendergast stood and loomed there.

"The Honorable Mrs.Franconia Tesdinic," he announced, in his ringing actor's voice.

Then he backed out of the room, and my mother came in.

My mother looked even more unkempt than usual. Her hair was piled on her head in a big, untidy lump, rather like a bird's nest. She had found from some cupboard, where it must have hung for twenty years or more, a long yellow woolen dress. It had turned khaki with age. I could see the moth holes in it even from where I was. She had added to the dress a spangled bag she must have bought from a toy shop. And she sailed into that huge room as if she were dressed as finely as the Countess.

I have never been so embarrassed in my life. I wanted to get into a hole and pull it in after me. I looked at Anthea, sure that she must be feeling at least as bad as I was. But my sister was gazing at our mother almost admiringly. With an affectionate grin growing on her face, she said to Hugo, "My mother is a naughty woman. I know that dress. She saves it to embarrass people in."

My mother sailed on like a queen, through the room, until she came face-to-face with the Countess. "Good evening, Dorothea," she said. "You seem to have grown very fine since you married for money. What became of your ambition to go on the stage?" She turned to the lady with the glasses on a stick and explained, "We were at school together, you know, Dorothea and I."

"So we were," the Countess said icily. "What became of your ambition to write, Fanny? I don't seem to have read any books by you."

"That's because your reading skills were always so low," my mother retorted.

"What are you doing here?" the Countess demanded. "How did you get in?"

"The usual way," my mother said. "By tram. The lodge keeper remembered me perfectly well, and that nice new butler let me into the house. He said he had had instructions about poor relations."

"But why are you here?" the Countess said. "You swore at my wedding never to set foot in Stallery again."

"When you married that actor, you mean?" said my mother. "You must realize that only the most pressing reason would bring me here. I came..."

She was interrupted by Mr.Amos. His face was a strange color, and he seemed to be shaking as he arrived beside my mother. He put a hand on her moth-eaten arm. "Madam," he said, "I believe you may be a little overwrought. Would you allow me to take you to our housekeeper?"

My mother gave him a short, contemptuous look. "Be quiet, Amos," she said. "This has nothing to do with you. I am here purely to prevent my daughter from marrying this Dorothea's son."

"What?" said the Countess.

From the other end of the room, Lady Mary said, "WHAT?" even louder and sprang to her feet. "There must be some mistake, my good woman," Lady Mary said. "Robert is going to marry me."

Count Robert gave a cough. "No mistake," he said. "Or only slightly. Before the three of you settle my fate between you, I'd better say that I've already settled it myself." He went over to Anthea and pulled her hand over his arm. "This is one of the announcements I was about to make," he said. "Anthea and I were married two weeks ago in Ludwich."

There were gasps and whispers all over the room. My mother and the Countess stared at each other in almost identical outrage. Count Robert smiled happily at them and then at all the staring guests, as if his announcement was the most joyful thing in the world.

"And Hugo married my sister, Felice, this morning in Stallstead," he added.

"What?" thundered Mr.Amos.

"But she can't, dear," the Countess said. "I didn't give my consent."

"She's of age. She didn't need your consent," Count Robert said.

"Now look here, young lord," Mr.Seuly said, getting up and advancing on Count Robert. "I had an understanding..."

Mr.Amos cut him off by suddenly bellowing, "I forbid this! I forbid everything!"

Everyone stared at him. His face was purple, his eyes popped, and he seemed to be gobbling with rage.

"I give the orders here, and I forbid it!" he shouted.

"He's mad," some duchess said from beside me. "He's only the butler."

Mr.Amos heard her. "No, I am not!" he boomed. "I am Count Amos Tesdinic of Stallery, and I will not have my son marry the daughter of an impostor!"

Everyone's faces turned to the Countess then, my mother's very sardonically. The Countess turned and stretched her arms out reproachfully to Mr. Amos. "Oh,Amos!" she said tragically. "How could you? Why did you have to give us all away like this?"

"Too bad, isn't it?" Hugo said, with his arm around Lady Felice.

Mr.Amos turned on him, so angry that his face was purple. "You...!" he shouted.

Goodness knows what might have happened then. Mr.Amos threw a blaze of magic at Hugo and Lady Felice. Hugo flung one hand up and seemed to send the magic back. Lady Mary joined in, with a sizzle that shot straight at Anthea. My mother whirled around and sent buzzing lumps of sorcery at Lady Mary. Lady Mary screamed and hit back, which made my mother's bird's nest of hair tumble down into hanks on her shoulders. By then Mr.Seuly, Anthea, Count Robert, and some of the guests were throwing magics, too. The room buzzed with it all, like a disturbed wasps' nest, and there were screams and cries mixed in with it. Several chairs fell over as most of the guests tried to retreat toward the Banqueting Hall.

Mr.Prendergast threw open the door again. His voice thundered over the rest of the noise.

"My lords, ladies and gentlemen, your attention, please! Pray silence for the Royal Commissioner Extraordinary!"

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