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Charmed Life

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

The same softness and silence were there when the red-haired Mary woke Cat the next morning and told him it was time to get up. Bright morning sunshine was flooding the curved walls of his room. Though Cat knew now that the Castle must be full of people, he could hear not a sound from any of them. Nor could he hear anything from outside the windows.

I know what it's like! Cat thought. It's like when it's snowed in the night. The idea made him feel so pleased and so warm that he went to sleep again.

"You really must get up, Eric," Mary said, shaking him. "I've run your bath, and your lessons start at nine. Make haste, or you won't have time for breakfast."

Cat got up. He had so strong a feeling that it had snowed in the night that he was quite surprised to find his room warm in the sun. He looked out of the windows, and there were green lawns and flowers, and rooks circling the green trees, as if there had been some mistake. Mary had gone. Cat was glad, because he was not at all sure he liked her, and he was afraid of missing breakfast. When he was dressed, he went along to the bathroom and let the hot water out of the bath. Then he dashed down the twisting stairs to find Gwendolen.

"Where do we go for breakfast?" he asked her anxiously.

Gwendolen was never at her best in the morning. She was sitting on her blue velvet stool in front of her garlanded mirror, crossly combing her golden hair. Combing her hair was another thing which always made her cross. "I don't know and I don't care! Shut up!" she said.

"Now that's no way to speak," said the maid called Euphemia, briskly following Cat into the room. She was rather a pretty girl, and she did not seem to find her name the burden it should have been. "We're waiting to give you breakfast along here. Come on."

Gwendolen hurled her comb down expressively and they followed Euphemia to a room just along the corridor. It was a square, airy room, with a row of big windows but, compared with the rest of the Castle, it was rather shabby. The leather chairs were battered. The grassy carpet had stains on it. None of the cupboards would shut properly. Things like clockwork trains and tennis rackets bulged out. Julia and Roger were sitting waiting at a table by the windows, in clothes as shabby as the room.

Mary, who was waiting there too, said, "And about time!" and began to work an interesting lift in a cupboard by the fireplace. There was a clank. Mary opened the lift and fetched out a large plate of bread and butter and a steaming brown jug of cocoa. She brought these over to the table and Euphemia poured each child a mug of the cocoa.

Gwendolen stared from her mug to the plate of bread. "Is this all there is?"

"What else do you want?" asked Euphemia.

Gwendolen could not find words to express what she wanted. Porridge, bacon and eggs, grapefruit, toast and kippers all occurred to her at once, and she went on staring.

"Make up your mind," Euphemia said at last. "My breakfast's waiting for me too, you know."

"Isn't there any marmalade?" said Gwendolen.

Euphemia and Mary looked at one another. "Julia and Roger are not allowed marmalade," Mary said.

"Nobody forbade me to have it," said Gwendolen. "Get me some marmalade at once."

Mary went to a speaking tube by the lift and, after much rumbling and another clank, a pot of marmalade arrived. Mary brought it and put it in front of Gwendolen.

"Thank you," Cat said fervently. He felt as strongly about it as Gwendolen - more, in fact, because he hated cocoa.

"Oh, no trouble, I'm sure!" Mary said, in what was certainly a sarcastic way, and the two maids went out.

For a while, nobody said anything. Then Roger said to Cat, "Pass the marmalade, please."

"You're not supposed to have it," said Gwendolen, whose temper had not improved.

"Nobody will know if I use one of your knives," Roger said placidly.

Cat passed him the marmalade and his knife too. "Why aren't you allowed it?"

Julia and Roger looked at one another in a mild, secretive way. "We're too fat," Julia said, calmly taking the knife and the marmalade after Roger had done with them. Cat was not surprised when he saw how much marmalade they had managed to pile on their bread. Marmalade stood on both slices like a sticky brown cliff.

Gwendolen looked at them with disgust, and then, rather complacently, down at her trim linen dress. The contrast was certainly striking. "Your father is such a handsome man," she said. "It must be such a disappointment to him that you're both pudgy and plain, like your mother."

The two children looked at her placidly over their cliffs of marmalade. "Oh, I wouldn't know," said Roger.

"Pudgy is comfortable," said Julia. "It must be a nuisance to look like a china doll, the way you do."

Gwendolen's blue eyes glared. She made a small sign under the edge of the table. The bread and thick marmalade whisked itself from Julia's hands and slapped itself on Julia's face, marmalade side inward. Julia gasped a little. "How dare you insult me!" said Gwendolen.

Julia peeled the bread slowly off her face and then fumbled out a handkerchief. Cat supposed she was going to wipe her face. But she let the marmalade stay where it was, trundling in blobs down her plump cheeks, and simply tied a knot in the handkerchief. She pulled the knot slowly tight, looking meaningly at Gwendolen while she did so. With the final pull, the half-full jug of cocoa shot steaming into the air. It hovered for a second, and then shot sideways to hang just above Gwendolen's head. Then it began to joggle itself into tipping position.

"Stop it!" gasped Gwendolen. She put up a hand to ward the jug off. The jug dodged her and went on tipping. Gwendolen made another sign and gasped out strange words. The jug took not the slightest notice. It went on tipping until cocoa was brimming in the very end of its spout. Gwendolen tried to lean out sideways away from it. The jug simply joggled along in the air until it was hanging over her head again.

"Shall I make it pour?" Julia asked. There was a bit of a smile under the marmalade.

"You dare!" screamed Gwendolen. "I'll tell Chrestomanci on you! I'll - oh!" She sat up straight again, and the jug followed her faithfully. Gwendolen made another grab at it, and it dodged again.

"Careful. You'll make it spill. And what a shame about your pretty dress," Roger said, watching complacently.

"Shut up, you!" Gwendolen shouted at him, leaning out the other way so that she was nearly in Cat's lap. Cat looked up nervously as the jug came and hovered over him too. It seemed to be going to pour.

But, at that moment, the door opened and Chrestomanci came in, wearing a flowered silk dressing gown. It was a red and purple dressing gown, with gold at the neck and sleeves. It made Chrestomanci look amazingly tall, amazingly thin, and astonishingly stately. He could have been an emperor, or a particularly severe bishop. He was smiling as he came in, but the smile vanished when he saw the jug.

The jug tried to vanish too. It fled back to the table at the sight of him, so quickly that cocoa slopped out of it onto Gwendolen's dress - which may or may not have been an accident. Julia and Roger both looked stricken. Julia unknotted her handkerchief as if for dear life.

"Well, I was coming in to say good morning," Chrestomanci said. "But I see that it isn't." He looked from the jug to Julia's marmalade-glistening cheeks. "If you two ever want to eat marmalade again," he said, "you'd better do as you're told. And the same goes for all four of you."

"I wasn't doing anything wrong," Gwendolen said, as if butter - not to speak of marmalade - would not have melted in her mouth.

"Yes, you were," said Roger.

Chrestomanci came to the end of the table and stood looking down on them, with his hands in the pockets of his noble robe. He looked so tall like that that Cat was surprised that his head was still under the ceiling. "There's one absolute rule in this Castle," he said, "which it will pay you all to remember. No witchcraft of any kind is to be practiced by children, unless Michael Saunders is here to supervise you. Have you understood, Gwendolen?"

"Yes," said Gwendolen. She gripped her lips together and clenched her hands, but she was still shaking with rage. "I refuse to keep such a silly rule!"

Chrestomanci did not seem to hear, or to notice how angry she was. He turned to Cat. "Have you understood too, Eric?"

"Me?" Cat said in surprise. "Yes, of course."

"Good," said Chrestomanci. "Now I will say good morning."

"Good morning, Daddy," said Julia and Roger. "Er...good morning," Cat said. Gwendolen pretended not to hear. Two could play at that game. Chrestomanci smiled and swept out of the room like a very long procession of one person.

"Telltale!" Gwendolen said to Roger, as soon as the door had shut. "And that was a dirty trick with that jug! You were both doing it, weren't you?" Roger smiled sleepily, not in the least disturbed.

"Witchcraft runs in our family," he said.

"And we've both inherited it," said Julia. "I must go and wash." She picked up three slices of bread to keep her going while she did so, and left the room, calling over her shoulder, "Tell Michael I won't be long, Roger."

"More cocoa?" Roger said politely, picking up the jug.

"Yes, please," said Cat. It never bothered him to eat or drink things that had been bewitched, and he was thirsty. He thought that if he filled his mouth with marmalade and strained the cocoa through it, he might not taste the cocoa. Gwendolen, however, was sure Roger was trying to insult her. She flounced around in her chair and stayed haughtily looking at the wall until Mr.Saunders suddenly threw open a door Cat had not noticed before and said cheerfully:

"Right, all of you. Lesson time. Come on through and see how you stand up to some grilling."

Cat hastily swallowed his cocoa-flavored marmalade. Beyond the door was a schoolroom. It was a real, genuine schoolroom, although there were only four desks in it. There was a blackboard, a globe, the pitted school floor, and the schoolroom smell. There was that kind of glass-fronted bookcase without which no schoolroom is complete, and the bartered gray-green and dark blue books without which no schoolroom bookcase is complete. On the walls were big pictures of the statues Mr.Saunders had found so interesting.

Two of the desks were brown and old. Two were new and yellow with varnish. Gwendolen and Cat sat silently in the new desks. Julia hurried in, with her face shining from soap, and sat in the old desk beside Roger's, and the grilling began. Mr.Saunders strode gawkily up and down in front of the blackboard, asking keen questions. His tweed jacket billowed out from his back, just as his coat had done in the wind. Perhaps that was why the sleeves of the jacket were so much too short for Mr.Saunders' long arms. The long arm shot out, and a foot of bony wrist with a keen finger on the end of it pointed at Cat.

"What part did witchcraft play in the Wars of the Roses?"

"Er," said Cat. "Ung. I'm afraid I haven't done them yet, sir."

"Gwendolen," said Mr.Saunders.

"Oh...a very big part," Gwendolen guessed airily.

"Wrong," said Mr.Saunders. "Roger."

From the grilling, it emerged that, Roger and Julia had forgotten a great deal over the summer but, even so, they were well ahead of Cat in most things, and far ahead of Gwendolen in everything.

"What did you learn at school?" Mr. Saunders asked her, in some exasperation.

Gwendolen shrugged. "I've forgotten. It wasn't interesting. I was concentrating on witchcraft, and I intend to go on doing that, please."

"I'm afraid you can't," said Mr.Saunders.

Gwendolen stared at him, hardly able to believe she had heard him right. "What!" she almost shrieked. "But...but I'm terribly talented! I have to go on with it!" "Your talents will keep," said Mr.Saunders. "You can take up witchcraft again when you've learned something else. Open your arithmetic book and do me the first four exercises. Eric, I think I'll set you going on some History. Write me an essay on the reign of King Canute." He moved on to set work for Roger and Julia.

Cat and Gwendolen opened books. Gwendolen's face was red, then white. As Mr.Saunders bent over Roger, her inkwell sailed up out of the socket in her desk and emptied itself over the back of Mr.Saunders' billowing tweed jacket. Cat bit his lip in order not to laugh. Julia watched with calm interest. Mr.Saunders did not seem to notice. The inkwell returned quietly to its socket.

"Gwendolen," said Mr.Saunders without turn-ing around. "Get the ink jar and funnel out of the bottom of the cupboard and refill that inkwell. And fill it properly, please."

Gwendolen got up, jauntily and defiantly, found the big flask and funnel, and started to fill her inkwell. Ten minutes later, she was still pouring away. Her face was puzzled at first, then red, then white with fury again. She tried to put the flask down, and found she could not. She tried whispering a spell.

Mr.Saunders turned and looked at her.

"You're being perfectly horrible!" said Gwendolen. "Besides, I'm allowed to do witchcraft when you're here."

"No one is allowed to pour ink over their tutor," Mr.Saunders said cheerfully. "And I'd already told you that you've given up witchcraft for the time being. Keep on pouring till I tell you to stop."

Gwendolen poured ink for the next half hour, and got angrier every minute of it.

Cat was impressed. He suspected that Mr.Saunders was rather a powerful magician. Certainly, when he next looked at Mr.Saunders, there was no sign of any ink on his back. Cat looked at Mr.Saunders fairly often, to see whether it was safe to change his pen from his right to his left hand. He had been punished so often for writing left-handed that he was good at keeping an eye on his teachers. When Mr.Saunders turned his way, Cat used his right hand. It was slow and reluctant. But as soon as Mr.Saunders turned away again, Cat changed his pen over and got on like a house on fire. The main trouble was that, in order not to smudge the ink with his left hand, he had to hold the paper sideways. But he was pretty deft at flicking his book straight again whenever Mr.Saunders seemed likely to look at him.

When the half hour was over, Mr.Saunders, without turning around, told Gwendolen to stop pouring ink and do sums. Then, still without turning around, he said to Cat, "Eric, what are you doing?"

"An essay on King Canute," Cat said innocently.

Then Mr.Saunders did turn around, but by that time the paper was straight and the pen in Cat's right hand. "Which hand were you writing with?" he said. Cat was used to this. He held up his right hand with the pen in it. "It looked like both hands to me," Mr.Saunders said, and he came over and looked at the page Cat had written. "It was both."

"It doesn't show," Cat said miserably.

"Not much," Mr.Saunders agreed. "Does it amuse you to write with alternate hands, or something?"

"No," Cat confessed. "But I'm left-handed."

Then, as Cat had feared, Mr. Saunders flew into a towering rage. His face went red. He slammed his big, knobby hand down on Cat's desk so that Cat jumped and the inkwell jumped too, sending ink splashing over Mr.Saunders' great hand and over Cat's essay. "Left-handed!" he roared. "Then why the Black Gentleman don't you write with your left hand, boy?"

"They... they punish me if I do," Cat faltered, very shaken, and very perplexed to find Mr.Saunders was angry for such a peculiar reason.

"Then they deserve to be tied up in knots and roasted!" roared Mr. Saunders, "whoever they are! You're doing yourself untold harm by obeying them, boy! If I catch you writing with your right hand again, you'll be in really serious trouble!"

"Yes," Cat said, relieved but still very shaken.

He looked mournfully at his ink-splashed essay and hoped Mr.Saunders might use a little witchcraft on that too. But Mr. Saunders took the book and tore the page right out.

"Now do it again properly!" he said, slapping the book back in front of Cat.

Cat was still writing all over again about Canute when Mary came in with a tray of milk and biscuits and a cup of coffee for Mr.Saunders. And after the milk and biscuits, Mr.Saunders told Cat and Gwendolen they were free till lunch. "Though not because of a good morning's work," he said. "Go out and get some fresh air." As they went out of the schoolroom, he turned to Roger and Julia. "Now we'll have a little witchcraft," he said. "And let's hope you haven't forgotten all that too."

Gwendolen stopped in the doorway and looked at him.

"No. Not you," Mr.Saunders said to her. "I told you."

Gwendolen whirled around and ran away, through the shabby playroom and down the corridor beyond. Cat ran after her as hard as he could, but he did not catch up with her until they came to a much grander part of the Castle, where a big marble staircase curled away downward and the light came from an elegant dome in the roof.

"This isn't the right way," Cat panted.

"Yes it is," Gwendolen said fiercely. "I'm going to find Chrestomanci. Why should those two fat little fools learn witchcraft and not me? I've got twice their gifts. It took two of them just to levitate a jug of cocoa! So I want Chrestomanci."

By a stroke of good fortune, Chrestomanci was coming along the gallery on the other side of the staircase, behind a curly marble balustrade. He was wearing a fawn-colored suit now, instead of the imperial dressing gown, but he looked, if possible, even more elegant. By the look on his face, his thoughts were miles away. Gwendolen ran around the head of the marble staircase and stood herself in front of him. Chrestomanci blinked, and looked vaguely from her to Cat. "Was one of you wanting me?"

"Yes. Me," said Gwendolen. "Mr.Saunders won't give me witchcraft lessons, and I want you to tell him he must."

"Oh, but I can't do that," Chrestomanci said absentmindedly. "Sorry and so on."

Gwendolen stamped her foot. It made no noise to speak of, even there on the marble floor, and there was no echo. Gwendolen was forced to shout instead. "Why not? You must, you must, you must!"

Chrestomanci looked down at her in a peering, surprised way, as if he had only just seen her. "You seem to be annoyed," he said. "But I'm afraid it's unavoidable. I told Michael Saunders that he was on no account to teach either of you witchcraft."

"You did! Why not?" Gwendolen shouted.

"Because you were bound to misuse it, of course," said Chrestomanci, as if it were quite obvious. "But I'll reconsider it in a year or so, if you still want to learn." Then he smiled kindly at Gwendolen, obviously expecting her to be pleased, and drifted dreamily away down the marble stairs.

Gwendolen kicked the marble balustrade and hurt her foot. That sent her into a rage as strong as Mr.Saunders'. She danced and jumped and shrieked at the head of the stairs until Cat was quite frightened of her. She shook her fist after Chrestomanci. "I'll show you! You wait!" she screamed. But Chrestomanci had gone out of sight around the bend in the staircase and perhaps he could not hear. Even Gwendolen's loudest scream sounded thin and small.

Cat was puzzled. What was it about this Castle? He looked up at the dome where the light came in and thought that Gwendolen's screaming ought to have echoed around it like the dickens. Instead, it made a small, high squawking. While he waited for her to get her temper back, Cat experimentally put his fingers to his mouth and whistled as hard as he could. It made a queer, blunt noise, like a squeaky boot. It also brought the old lady with the mittens out of a door in the gallery.

"You noisy little children!" she said. "If you want to scream and whistle, you must go out in the grounds and do it there."

"Oh, come on!" Gwendolen said crossly to Cat, and the two of them ran away to the part of the Castle they were used to. After a bit of muddling around, they discovered the door they had first come in by and let themselves outside through it.

"Let's explore everywhere," said Cat. Gwendolen shrugged and said it suited her, so they set off.

Beyond the shrubbery of rhododendrons, they found themselves out on the great smooth lawn with the cedar trees. It spread across the entire front of the newer part of the Castle. On the other side of it, Cat saw the most interesting high sun-soaked old wall, with trees hanging over it. It was clearly the ruins of an even older castle. Cat set off towards it at a trot, past the big windows of the newer Castle, dragging Gwendolen with him. But, halfway there, Gwendolen stopped and stood poking at the shaved green grass with her toe.

"Hm," she said. "Do you think this counts as in the Castle?"

"I expect so," said Cat. "Do come on. I want to explore those ruins there."

However, the first wall they came to was a low one, and the door in it led them into a very formal garden. It had broad gravel paths, running very straight, between box hedges. There were yew trees everywhere, clipped into severe pyramids, and all the flowers were yellow, in tidy clumps.

"Boring," said Cat, and led the way to the ruined wall beyond.

But once again there was a lower wall in the way, and this time they came out into an orchard. It was a very tidy orchard, in which all the trees were trained flat, to stand like hedges on either side of the winding gravel paths. They were loaded with apples, some of them quite big. After what Chrestomanci had said about scrumping, Cat did not quite dare pick one, but Gwendolen picked a big red Worcester and bit into it.

Instantly, a gardener appeared from around a corner and told them reproachfully that picking apples was forbidden.

Gwendolen threw the apple down in the path. "Take it then. There was a maggot in it anyway."

They went on, leaving the gardener staring ruefully at the bitten apple. And instead of reaching the ruins, they came to a goldfish pond, and after that to a rose garden. Here Gwendolen, as an experiment, tried picking a rose. Instantly another gardener appeared and explained respectfully that they were not allowed to pick roses. So Gwendolen threw the rose down too. Then Cat looked over his shoulder and discovered that the ruins were somehow behind them now. He turned back. But he still did not seem to reach them. It was nearly lunchtime before he suddenly turned into a steep little path between two walls and found the ruins above him, at the top of the path.

Cat pelted joyfully up the steep path. The sun-soaked wall ahead was taller than most houses, and there were trees at the top of it. When he was close enough, Cat saw that there was a giddy stone staircase jutting out of the wall, more like a stone ladder than a stair. It was so old that snapdragons and wallflowers had rooted in it, and hollyhocks had grown up against the place where the stair met the ground. Cat had to push aside a tall red hollyhock in order to put his foot on the first stair.

No sooner had he done so than yet another gardener came puffing up the steep path. "You can't go there! That's Chrestomanci's garden up there, that is!"

"Why can't we?" said Cat, deeply disappointed.

"Because it's not allowed, that's why."

Slowly and reluctantly, Cat came away. The gardener stood at the foot of the stair to make sure he went. "Bother!" Cat said.

"I'm getting rather sick of Chrestomanci forbidding things," said Gwendolen. "It's time someone taught him a lesson."

"What are you going to do?" said Cat.

"Wait and see," said Gwendolen, pressing her lips together in her stormiest way.

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