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Charmed Life

Chapters 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Cat was alarmed by Miss Larkins. She was the daughter of Mr. Larkins at the junk shop. She was young and pretty and fiercely red-headed. She wore the red hair piled into a bun on top of her head, from which red tendrils of hair escaped and tangled becomingly with earrings like hoops for parrots to sit on. She was a very talented clairvoyant and, until the story of the cat became known, Miss Larkins had been the pet of the neighborhood. Cat remembered that even his mother had given Miss Larkins presents.

Cat knew Miss Larkins was offering to tell his fortune out of jealousy of Gwendolen. "No. No, thank you very much," he said, backing away from Miss Larkins' little table spread with objects of divination. "It's quite all right. I don't want to know."

But Miss Larkins advanced on him and seized him by his shoulders. Cat squirmed. Miss Larkins used a scent that shrieked VIOLETS! at him, her earrings swung like manacles, and her corsets creaked when she was close to. "Silly boy!" Miss Larkins said, in her rich, melodious voice. "I'm not going to hurt you. I just want to know."

"But...but I don't," Cat said, twisting this way and that.

"Hold still," said Miss Larkins, and tried to stare deep into Cat's eyes.

Cat shut his eyes hastily. He squirmed harder than ever. He might have got loose, had not Miss Larkins abruptly gone off into some kind of trance. Cat found himself being gripped with a strength that would have surprised him even in the Willing Warlock. He opened his eyes to find Miss Larkins staring blankly at him. Her body shook, creaking her corsets like old doors swinging in the wind. "Oh, please let go!" Cat said. But Miss Larkins did not appear to hear. Cat took hold of the fingers gripping his shoulders, and tried to prise them loose. He could not move them. After that, he could only stare helplessly at Miss Larkins' blank face.

Miss Larkins opened her mouth, and quite a different voice came out. It was a man's voice, brisk and kindly. "You've taken a weight off my mind, lad," it said. It sounded pleased. "There'll be a big change coming up for you now. But you've been awfully careless - four gone already, and only five left. You must take more care. You're in danger from at least two directions, did you know?"

The voice stopped. By this time, Cat was so frightened that he dared not move. He could only wait until Miss Larkins came to herself, yawned, and let go of him in order to cover her mouth elegantly with one hand. "There," she said, in her usual voice. "That was it. What did I say?"

Finding Miss Larkins had no idea what she had said brought Cat out in goose pimples. All he wanted to do was to run away. He dashed for the door.

Miss Larkins pursued him, seized his arms again, and shook him. "Tell me! Tell me! What did I say?" With the violence of her shaking, her red hair came down in sheets. Her corsets sounded like bending planks. She was terrifying. "What voice did I use?" she demanded.

"A...a man's voice," Cat faltered. "Sort of nice, and no nonsense about it."

Miss Larkins seemed dumbfounded. "A man? Not Bobby or Doddo...not a child's voice, I mean?"

"No," said Cat.

"How peculiar!" said Miss Larkins. "I never use a man. What did he say?"

Cat repeated what the voice had said. He thought he would never forget it if he lived to ninety.

It was some consolation to find that Miss Larkins was quite as puzzled by it as he was. "Well, I suppose it was a warning," she said dubiously. She also seemed disappointed. "And nothing else? Nothing about your sister?"

"No, nothing," said Cat.

"Oh well, can't be helped," Miss Larkins said discontentedly, and she let go of Cat in order to put her hair up again.

As soon as both her hands were safely occupied in pinning her bun, Cat ran. He shot out into the street, feeling very shaken.

And he was caught by two more people almost at once.

"Ah. Here is young Eric Chant now," said Mr.Nostrum, advancing down the pavement. "You are acquainted with my brother, William, are you, Young Chant?"

Cat was once more caught by an arm. He tried to smile. It was not that he disliked Mr.Nostrum. It was just that Mr.Nostrum always talked in this jocular way and called him Young Chant every few words, which made it very difficult to talk to Mr.Nostrum in return. Mr.Nostrum was small and plumpish, with two wings of grizzled hair. He had a cast in his left eye too, which always stared out sideways. Cat found that added to the difficulty of talking to Mr.Nostrum. Was he looking and listening? Or was his mind elsewhere with that wandering eye?

"Yes-yes, I've met your brother," Cat reminded Mr.Nostrum. Mr.William Nostrum came to visit his brother regularly. Cat saw him almost once a month. He was quite a well-to-do wizard, with a practice in Eastbourne. Mrs.Sharp claimed that Mr.Henry Nostrum sponged on his wealthier brother, both for money and for spells that worked. Whatever the truth of that, Cat found Mr.William Nostrum even harder to talk to than his brother. He was half as large again as Mr. Henry and always wore morning dress with a huge silver watch-chain across his tubby waistcoat. Otherwise, he was the image of Mr.Henry Nostrum, except that both his eyes were out of true. Cat always wondered how Mr. William saw anything. "How do you do, sir," he said to him politely.

"Very well," said Mr.William in a deep, gloomy voice, as if the opposite was true.

Mr.Henry Nostrum glanced up at him apologetically. "The fact is, Young Chant," he explained, "we have met with a little setback. My brother is upset." He lowered his voice, and his wandering eye wandered all around Cat's right side. "It's about those letters from - -You Know Who. We can find out nothing. It seems Gwendolen knows nothing. Do you, Young Chant, perchance know why your esteemed and lamented father should be acquainted with - with, let us call him, the August Personage who signed them?"

"I haven't the faintest idea, I'm afraid," said Cat.

"Could he have been some relation?" suggested Mr.Henry Nostrum. "Chant is a Good Name."

"I think it must be a bad name too," Cat answered. "We haven't any relations."

"But what of your dear mother?" persisted Mr.Nostrum, his odd eye traveling away, while his brother managed to stare gloomily at the pavement and the rooftops at once.

"You can see the poor boy knows nothing, Henry," Mr.William said. "I doubt if he would be able to tell us his dear mother's maiden name."

"Oh, I do know that," said Cat. "It's on their marriage lines. She was called Chant too."

"Odd," said Mr.Nostrum, swirling an eye at his brother.

Odd, and peculiarly unhelpful," Mr.William agreed.

Cat wanted to get away. He felt he had taken enough strange questions to last till Christmas. "Well, if you want to know that badly," he said, "why don't you write and ask Mr.... er... Mr.Chres..."

"Hush!" said Mr.Henry Nostrum violently.

"Hum!" said his brother, almost equally violently.

"August Personage, I mean," Cat said, looking at Mr.William in alarm. Mr.William's eyes had gone right to the sides of his face. Cat was afraid he might be going off into a trance, like Miss Larkins.

"It will serve, Henry, it will serve!" Mr.William cried out. And, with great triumph, he lifted the silver watch-chain off his middle and shook it. "Then for silver!" he cried.

"I'm so glad," Cat said politely. "I have to be going now." He ran off down the street as fast as he could. When he went out that afternoon, he took care to turn right and go out of Coven Street past the Willing Warlock's house. It was rather a nuisance, since that was the long way around to where most of his friends lived, but anything was better than meeting Miss Larkins or the Nostrums again. It was almost enough to make Cat wish that school had started.

When Cat came home that evening, Gwendolen was just back from her lesson with Mr.Nostrum. She had her usual glowing, exulting look, but she was looking secretive and important

"That was a good idea of yours of writing to Chrestomanci," she said to Cat. "I can't think why I didn't think of it. Anyway, I just have."

"Why did you do it? Couldn't Mr.Nostrum?" Cat asked.

"It came more naturally from me," said Gwendolen. "And I suppose it doesn't matter if he gets my signature. Mr.Nostrum told me what to write." "Why does he want to know anyway?" Cat said.

"Wouldn't you like to know!" Gwendolen said exultingly.

"No," said Cat. "I wouldn't." Since this had brought what happened that morning into his mind, which still made him almost wish the Autumn term had started, he said, "I wish the horse chestnuts were ripe."

"Horse chestnuts!" Gwendolen said, in the greatest disgust. "What a low mind you have! They won't be ready for a good six weeks."

"I know," said Cat, and for the next two days he carefully turned right every time he left the house.

They were the lovely golden days that happen when August is passing into September. Cat and his friends went out along the river. On the second day, they found a wall and climbed it. There was an orchard beyond, and here they were lucky enough to discover a tree loaded with sweet white apples - the kind that ripen early. They filled their pockets and then their hats. Then a furious gardener chased them with a rake. They ran. Cat was very happy as he carried his full, knobby hat home. Mrs.Sharp loved apples. He just hoped she would not reward him by making gingerbread men. As a rule, gingerbread men were fun. They leaped up off the plate and ran when you tried to eat them, so that when you finally caught them you felt quite justified in eating them. It was a fair fight, and some got away. But Mrs.Sharp's gingerbread men never did that. They simply lay, feebly waving their arms, and Cat never had the heart to eat them.

Cat was so busy thinking of all this that, though he noticed a four-wheel cab standing in the road as he turned the corner by the Willing Warlock's house, he paid no attention to it. He went to the side door and burst into the kitchen with his hatful of apples, shouting, "I say! Look what I've got, Mrs.Sharp!"

Mrs.Sharp was not there. Instead, standing in the middle of the kitchen, was a tall and quite extraordinarily well-dressed man.

Cat stared at him in some dismay. He was clearly a rich new Town Councillor. Nobody but those kind of people wore trousers with such pearly stripes, or coats of such beautiful velvet, or carried : tall hats as shiny as their boots. The man's hair was dark. It was smooth as his hat. Cat had no doubt that this was Gwendolen's Dark Stranger, come to help her start ruling the world. And he should not have been in the kitchen at all. Visitors were always taken straight to the parlor.

"Oh, how do you do, sir. Will you come this way, sir?" he gasped.

The Dark Stranger gave him a wondering look. And well he might, Cat thought, looking around distractedly. The kitchen was in its usual mess. The range was all ash. On the table, Cat saw, to his further dismay, Mrs. Sharp had been making gingerbread men. The ingredients for the spell lay on one end of the table - all grubby newspaper packets and seedy little jars - and the gingerbread itself was strewn over the middle of the table. At the far end, the flies were gathering around the meat for lunch, which looked nearly as messy as the spell.

"Who are you?" said the Dark Stranger. "I have a feeling I should know you. What have you got in your hat?"

Cat was too busy staring around to attend properly, but he caught the last question. His pleasure returned. "Apples," he said, showing the Stranger. "Lovely sweet ones. I've been scrumping."

The Stranger looked grave. "Scrumping," he said, "is a form of stealing."

Cat knew that as well as he did. He thought it was very joyless, even for a Town Councillor, to point it out. "I know. But I bet you did it when you were my age."

The Stranger coughed slightly and changed the subject. "You haven't said yet who you are."

"Sorry. Didn't I?" said Cat. "I'm Eric Chant - only they always call me Cat."

"Then is Gwendolen Chant your sister?" the Stranger asked. He was looking more and more austere and pitying. Cat suspected that he thought Mrs.Sharp's kitchen was a den of vice.

"That's right. Won't you come this way?" Cat said, hoping to get the Stranger out of it. "It's neater through here."

"I had a letter from your sister," the Stranger said, standing where he was. "She gave me the impression you had drowned with your parents."

"You must have made a mistake," Cat said distractedly. "I didn't drown because I was holding on to Gwendolen, and she's a witch. It's cleaner through here."

"I see," said the Stranger. "I'm called Chrestomanci, by the way."

"Oh!" said Cat. This was a real crisis. He put his hat of apples down in the middle of the spell, which he very much hoped would ruin it. "Then you've got to come in the parlor at once."

"Why?" said Chrestomanci, sounding rather bewildered.

"Because," said Cat, thoroughly exasperated, "you're far too important to stay here."

"What makes you think I'm important?" Chrestomanci asked, still bewildered.

Cat was beginning to want to shake him. "You must be. You're wearing important clothes. And Mrs.Sharp said you were. She said Mr.Nostrum would give his eyes just for your three letters."

"Has Mr.Nostrum given his eyes for my letters?" asked Chrestomanci. "It hardly seems worth it."

"No. He just gave Gwendolen lessons for them," said Cat.

"What? For his eyes? How uncomfortable!" said Chrestomanci.

Fortunately, there were thumping footsteps just then, and Gwendolen burst in through the kitchen door, panting, golden and jubilant. "Mr.Chrestomanci?"

"Just Chrestomanci," said the Stranger. "Yes. Would you be Gwendolen?"

"Yes. Mr.Nostrum told me there was a cab here," gasped Gwendolen.

She was followed by Mrs. Sharp, nearly as breathless. The two of them took over the conversation, and Cat was thankful for it. Chrestomanci at last consented to be taken to the parlor, where Mrs. Sharp deferentially offered him a cup of tea and a plate of her weakly waving gingerbread men. Chrestomanci, Cat was interested to see, did not seem to have the heart to eat them either. He drank a cup of tea - austerely, without milk or sugar - and asked questions about how Gwendolen and Cat came to be living with Mrs.Sharp. Mrs.Sharp tried to give the impression that she looked after them for nothing, out of the goodness of her heart. She hoped Chrestomanci might be induced to pay her for their keep, as well as the Town Council.

But Gwendolen had decided to be radiantly honest. "The town pays," she said, "because everyone's so sorry about the accident." Cat was glad she had explained, even though he suspected that Gwendolen might already be casting Mrs. Sharp off like an old coat.

"Then I must go and speak to the Mayor," Chrestomanci said, and he stood up, dusting his splendid hat on his elegant sleeve. Mrs.Sharp sighed and sagged. She knew what Gwendolen was doing too. "Don't be anxious, Mrs.Sharp," said Chrestomanci. "No one wishes you to be out of pocket." Then he shook hands with Gwendolen and Cat and said, "I should have come to see you before, of course. Forgive me. Your father was so infernally rude to me, you see. I'll see you again, I hope." Then he went away in his cab, leaving Mrs.Sharp very sour, Gwendolen jubilant, and Cat nervous.

"Why are you so happy?" Cat asked Gwendolen.

"Because he was touched at our orphaned state," said Gwendolen. "He's going to adopt us. My fortune is made!"

"Don't talk such nonsense!" snapped Mrs.Sharp. "Your fortune is the same as it ever was. He may have come here in all his finery, but he said nothing and he promised nothing."

Gwendolen smiled confidently. "You didn't see the heart-wringing letter I wrote."

"Maybe. But he's not got a heart to wring," Mrs.Sharp retorted. Cat rather agreed with Mrs.Sharp - particularly as he had an uneasy feeling that, before Gwendolen and Mrs.Sharp arrived, he had somehow managed to offend Chrestomanci as badly as his father once did. He hoped Gwendolen would not realize that. He knew she would be furious with him.

But, to his astonishment, Gwendolen proved to be right. The Mayor called that afternoon and told them that Chrestomanci had arranged for Cat and Gwendolen to come and live with him as part of his own family. "And I see I needn't tell you what lucky little people you are," he said, as Gwendolen uttered a shriek of joy and hugged the dour Mrs. Sharp.

Cat felt more nervous than ever. He tugged the Mayor's sleeve. "If you please, sir, I don't understand who Chrestomanci is."

The Mayor patted him kindly on the head. "A very eminent gentleman," he said. "You'll be hobnobbing with all the crowned heads of Europe before long, my boy. What do you think of that, eh?"

Cat did not know what to think. This had told him precisely nothing, and made him more nervous than ever. He supposed Gwendolen must have written a very touching letter indeed.

So the second great change came about in Cat's life, and very dismal he feared it would be. All that next week, while they were hurrying about being bought new clothes by Councillors' wives, and while Gwendolen grew more and more excited and triumphant, Cat found he was missing Mrs.Sharp, and everyone else, even Miss Larkins, as if he had already left them. When the time came for them to get on the train, the town gave them a splendid send-off, with flags and a brass band. It upset Cat. He sat tensely on the edge of his seat, fearing he was in for a time of strangeness and maybe even misery.

Gwendolen, however, spread out her smart new dress and arranged her nice new hat becomingly, and sank elegantly back in her seat. "I did it!" she said joyously. "Cat, isn't it marvelous!"

"No," Cat said miserably. "I'm homesick already. What have you done? Why do you keep being so happy?"

"You wouldn't understand," said Gwendolen. "But I'll tell you part of it. I've got out of dead-and-alive Wolvercote at last - stupid Councillors and piffling necromancers! And Chrestomanci was bowled over by me. You saw that, didn't you?"

"I didn't notice specially," said Cat. "I mean, I saw you were being nice to him..."

"Oh, shut up, or I'll give you worse than cramps!" said Gwendolen. And, as the train at last chuffed and began to draw out of the station, Gwendolen waved her gloved hand to the brass band, up and down, just like Royalty. Cat realized she was setting out to rule the world.

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