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Charmed Life

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

Gwendolen refused to tell Cat what she was going to do. This meant that Cat had rather a melancholy time. After a wholesome lunch of turnips and boiled mutton, they had lessons again. After that, Gwendolen ran hastily away and would not let Cat come with her. Cat did not know what to do.

"Would you care to come out and play?" Roger asked.

Cat looked at him and saw that he was just being polite. "No, thank you," he said politely. He was forced to wander around the gardens on his own. There was a wood lower down, full of horse chestnuts, but they were not nearly ripe. As Cat was halfheartedly staring up into one, he saw there was a tree house in it, about halfway up. This was more like it. Cat was just about to climb up to it when he heard voices and saw Julia's skirt flutter among the leaves. So that was no good. It was Julia and Roger's private tree house, and they were in it.

Cat wandered away again. He came to the lawn, and there was Gwendolen, crouching under one of the cedars, very busy digging a small hole.

"What are you doing?" said Cat.

"Go away," said Gwendolen.

Cat went away. He was sure what Gwendolen was doing was witchcraft and had to do with teaching Chrestomanci a lesson, but it was no good asking Gwendolen when she was being this secretive. Cat had to wait. He waited through another terrifying dinner, and then through a long, long evening. Gwendolen locked herself in her room after dinner and told him to go away when he knocked.

Next morning, Cat woke up early and hurried to the nearest of his three windows. He saw at once what Gwendolen had been doing. The lawn was ruined. It was not a smooth stretch of green velvet any longer. It was a mass of molehills. As far as Cat could see in both directions, there were little green mounds, little heaps of raw earth, long lines of raw earth and long green furrows of raised grass. There must have been an army of moles at work on it all night. About a dozen gardeners were standing in a gloomy huddle, scratching their heads over it.

Cat threw on his clothes and dashed downstairs.

Gwendolen was leaning out of her window in her frilly cotton nightdress, glowing with pride. "Look at that!" she said to Cat. "Isn't it marvelous! There's acres of it too. It took me hours yesterday evening to make sure it was all spoiled. That will make Chrestomanci think a bit!"

Cat was sure it would. He did not know how much a huge stretch of turf like that would cost to replace, but he suspected it was a great deal. He was afraid Gwendolen would be in really bad trouble.

But, to his astonishment, nobody so much as mentioned the lawn. Euphemia came in a minute later, but all she said was, "You'll both be late for your breakfast again." Roger and Julia said nothing at all. They silently accepted the marmalade and Cat's knife when he passed them over, but the sole thing either of them said was when Julia dropped Cat's knife and picked it up again, all fluffy. She said, "Bother!" And when Mr.Saunders called them through for lessons, the only things he talked about were what he was teaching them. Cat decided that nobody knew Gwendolen had caused the moles. They could have no idea what a strong witch she was.

There were no lessons after lunch that day. Mr. Saunders explained that they always had Wednesday afternoons off. And at lunchtime, every molehill had gone. When they looked out of the playroom window, the lawn was like a sheet of velvet again.

"I don't believe it!" Gwendolen whispered to Cat. "It must be an illusion. They're trying to make me feel small."

They went out and looked after lunch. They had to be fairly cautious about it because Mr.Saunders was taking his afternoon off in a deck chair under one of the cedars, reading a yellow paperback book which seemed to amuse him a great deal. Gwendolen sauntered out into the middle of the lawn and pretended to be admiring the Castle. She pretended to tie her bootlace and prodded the turf with her fingers.

"I don't understand it!" she said. Being a witch, she knew the close, smooth turf was no illusion. "It really is all right! How was it done?"

"They must have carted in new turf while we were having lessons," Cat suggested.

"Don't be stupid!" said Gwendolen. "New turf would all be in squares still, and this isn't."

Mr.Saunders called to them.

Gwendolen looked, for a second, more apprehensive than Cat had ever seen her. But she hid it fairly well and led the way casually over to the deck chair. Cat saw that the yellow book was in French. Fancy being able to laugh at something in French! Mr.Saunders must be a learned magician as well as a strong one.

Mr.Saunders laid the book facedown on the once-more-beautiful grass and smiled up at them. "You two went away so quickly that you never gave me time to dish you out your pocket money. Here you are." He handed them each a large silver coin. Cat stared at his. It was a crown piece - five whole shillings. He had never had so much money to spend in his life. Mr.Saunders added to his amazement by saying, "You'll get that every Wednesday. I don't know whether you're savers or spenders. What Julia and Roger usually do is to go down to the village and blow it all on sweets."

"Thank you," said Cat, "very much. Shall we go down to the village, Gwendolen?"

"We may as well," Gwendolen agreed. She was divided between a defiant desire to stay at the Castle and face whatever trouble was coming over the moles and relief at an excuse to get away. "I expect Chrestomanci will send for me as soon as he realizes it was me," she said as they walked down the avenue of trees.

"Do you think it was Mr.Saunders who put the lawn right?" Cat asked.

Gwendolen frowned. "He couldn't have. He was teaching us."

"Those gardeners," suggested Cat. "Some of them could be warlocks. They did turn up awfully quickly to forbid us things."

Gwendolen laughed scornfully. "Think of the Willing Warlock."

Cat did, a little dubiously. The Willing Warlock was not much more gifted than Mrs.Sharp. He was usually hired for heavy carrying jobs, or to make the wrong horse win at the races. "All the same," he argued, "they could be specialists - garden warlocks."

Gwendolen only laughed again.

The village was just beyond the Castle gates, at the foot of the hill where the Castle stood. It was a pretty place, around a big green. Across the green, there were shops: a beautiful bow-fronted baker's and an equally beautiful sweet shop and post office. Cat wanted to visit both, but Gwendolen stopped at a third shop, which was a junk shop. Cat did not mind going into that either. It looked interesting. But Gwendolen shook her head irritably and stopped a village boy who was loitering near it.

"I was told a Mr.Baslam lives in this village. Can you tell me where he lives?"

The boy made a face. "Him? He's no good. Down there, at the end of that alley, if you really want to know." And he stood looking at them, with the air of someone who has earned sixpence for his pains.

Neither Cat nor Gwendolen had any money beside their crown pieces. They had to go away without giving him anything. The boy shouted after them.

"Stuck-up little witch! Mingy little warlock!"

Gwendolen did not mind this in the least, but Cat was so ashamed that he wanted to go back and explain.

Mr.Baslam lived in a shabby cottage with an ill-written notice propped in one window: Eggsotick Serplys. Gwendolen looked at it rather pityingly as she hammered on the door with the dingy knocker. When Mr.Baslam opened his door, he proved to be a fat person in old trousers which sagged to make room for his fatness, and with red, drooping eyes like a St.Bernard's. He started to shut the door again as soon as he saw them.

"Not today, thank you," he said, and a strong smell of beer came out with the words.

"Mr.Nostrum sent me," said Gwendolen. "Mr.William Nostrum."

The door stopped shutting. "Ah," said Mr.Baslam. "Then you better both come in. This way." He led them into a poky room containing four chairs, a table, and several dozen cases of stuffed animals. There was hardly room for all the cases of stuffed animals. They stood higgledy-piggledy, one on top of another, and they were all very dusty. "Sit down then," said Mr.Baslam, rather grudgingly.

Cat sat down gently and tried not to breathe too deeply. Beside the beery smell from Mr.Baslam, there was a faint rotting smell and a smell like pickles. Cat thought that some of the stuffed animals had not been properly cured. The smell did not seem to bother Gwendolen. She sat looking like a picture of a perfect little girl. Her cream-colored dress spread crisply around her and her broad hat becomingly shaded her golden hair. She looked at Mr.Baslam with severe blue eyes.

"I think your notice is spelled wrong."

Mr.Baslam drooped his St. Bernard eyes and made gestures that were meant to be joking. "I know. I know. But I don't want to be taken serious, do I? Not on the very threshold, as it were. Now what was you wanting? Mr.William Nostrum don't tell me too much of his plans. I'm only a humble supplier."

"I want some supplies, of course," said Gwendolen.

Cat listened, rather bored, to Gwendolen bargaining for the materials of witchcraft. Mr.Baslam fumbled in the backs of stuffed animal cases and fetched out newspaper screws of this and that - newts' eyes, snakes' tongues, cardamom, hellebore, mummy, niter, seed of moly, and various resins - which probably accounted for the unpleasant smell. He wanted more for them than Gwendolen would pay. She was determined to lay out her five shillings to the best possible advantage. Mr.Baslam seemed to resent it. "Know your own mind, don't you?" he said peevishly.

"I know how much things should cost," said Gwendolen. She took her hat off, packed the little screws of newspaper carefully into its crown, and put it neatly back on her head again. "And last, I think I shall be wanting some dragons' blood," she said.

"Ooooh!" said Mr.Baslam, dolefully shaking his head so that his hanging cheeks flapped. "Dragons' blood is banned from use, young lady. You ought to know that. I don't know as I can manage you any of that."

"Mr.Nostrum - both Mr.Nostrums - told me you could get anything" said Gwendolen. "They said you were the best agent they knew. And I'm not asking for dragons' blood now. I'm ordering some."

Mr.Baslam looked gratified at being praised by the Nostrum brothers, but he was still dubious. "It's a fearful strong charm needs dragons' blood," he said plaintively. "You won't be doing anything that strong yourself, a young lady like you, now."

"I don't know yet," said Gwendolen. "But I think I might. I'm on Advanced Magic, you know. And I want dragons' blood in case I need it."

"It'll come dear," Mr.Baslam warned her. "It's costly stuff. There's the risk to pay for, you see. I don't want the law on me."

"I can pay," said Gwendolen. "I'll pay in installments. You can take the rest of the five shillings on account."

Mr.Baslam was unable to resist this. The way he looked at the crown piece Gwendolen handed to him made Cat see vividly a long row of frothing pints of beer. "Done," said Mr.Baslam. Gwendolen smiled graciously and got up to go. Cat thankfully leaped up too. "What about you, young gentleman?" Mr.Baslam asked wheedlingly. "Aren't you going to try your hand at a bit of necromancy at all?"

"He's just my brother," said Gwendolen.

"Oh. Ah. Urn. Yes," said Mr.Baslam. "He's that one, of course. Well, good day to you both. Come again, any time."

"When will you have the dragons' blood?" Gwendolen asked him on the doorstep.

Mr.Baslam thought. "Say a week?"

Gwendolen's face glowed. "How quick! I knew you were a good agent. Where do you get it from so quickly?"

"Now that would be telling, wouldn't it?" said Mr. Baslam. "It has to come from another world, but which one is a trade secret, young lady."

Gwendolen was jubilant as they went back along the alley. "A week!" she said. "That's the quickest I've ever heard. It has to be smuggled in from this other world, you know. He must have awfully good connections there."

"Or he's got some already, inside a stuffed bird," said Cat, who had not liked Mr.Baslam at all. "Whatever do you want dragons' blood for? Mrs.Sharp says it costs fifty pounds an ounce."

"Be quiet," said Gwendolen. "Oh, quick! Hurry, Cat! Get into that sweet shop. She mustn't know where I've been."

Out on the village green, a lady carrying a parasol was talking to a clergyman. She was Chrestomanci's wife. Cat and Gwendolen bundled themselves into the shop and hoped she had not seen them. There, Cat bought them a bag of toffee each. Millie was still there, so he bought some licorice too. Millie was still talking to the clergyman even then, so he bought Gwendolen a pen wiper and himself a postcard of the Castle. Millie was still there. But Cat could not think of anything else to buy, so they had to come out of the shop.

Millie beckoned to them as soon as they did. "Come and meet the dear vicar."

The vicar, who was old, with a weak and wandering look, shakily shook hands with them and said he would see them on Sunday. Then he said he really must be going now.

"And so must we," said Millie. "Come on, my dears. We'll walk back to the Castle together."

There was nothing to do but walk beside her under the shadow of her parasol, across the green and between the lodge gates. Cat was afraid she was going to ask them why they had been visiting Mr.Baslam. Gwendolen was sure she was going to ask her about the moles in the lawn. But what Millie said was, "I am glad of a chance to talk to you, my loves. I haven't had a moment to see how you were getting on. Are you all right? Are you finding it very strange?"

"A...a little," Cat admitted.

"The first few days are always the worst, anywhere," said Millie. "I'm sure you'll soon find your way around. And don't hesitate to use the toys in the playroom if you want. They're for everyone. Private toys are in one's own room. How are you liking your rooms?"

Cat looked up at her in astonishment. She was talking as if moles and witchcraft had never existed. Millie beamed back at him. Despite her elegant ruched dress and her lacy parasol, she was a most ordinary, kind, good-natured lady. Cat liked her. He assured Millie that he liked his room, and his bathroom - particularly the shower - and explained that he had never had a bathroom to himself before.

"Oh, I'm glad. I did so hope you'd like it," said Millie. "Miss Bessemer wanted to put you next to Roger, but I thought that room was so dull - and it doesn't have a shower. Look at it sometime and you'll see what I mean."

She walked on up the avenue, chattering away, and Cat found himself doing all the rest of the talking. As soon as it was clear that Millie was not going to mention either lawns or exotic supplies, Gwendolen began to despise her. She kept up a scornful silence, and left Cat to talk. After a while, Millie asked Cat what thing about the Castle he was finding strangest.

Cat answered shyly, but without hesitation, "The way everyone talks at supper."

Millie let out such a yell of despair that Cat jumped and Gwendolen was more scornful than ever. "Oh dear! Poor Eric! I've seen you looking! Isn't it awful? Michael gets these enthusiasms, and then he can talk of nothing else. It should be wearing off in a day or so, though, and then we can have reasonable talk again and make a few jokes. I like to laugh at dinner, don't you? I'm afraid nothing will stop poor Bernard talking about stocks and shares, but you mustn't take any notice of that. Nobody listens to Bernard. Do you like eclairs, by the way?"

"Yes," said Cat.

"Oh good!" said Millie. "I've ordered tea for us on the lawn, since this is your first Wednesday and I didn't want to waste this lovely weather. Isn't it funny how September's nearly always fine? If we slip through the trees here, we should be on the lawn as soon as tea is."

Sure enough, they followed Millie out of the shrubbery to find a whole cluster of deck chairs around the one where Mr.Saunders was, and footmen putting out tables and carrying trays. Most of the Family were gathering among the deck chairs. Gwendolen followed Millie and Cat over, looking nervous and defiant. She knew Chrestomanci was going to speak to her about the lawn now and, to make matters worse, she was not going to have a chance to take the exotic supplies out of her hat before he did.

But Chrestomanci was not there, though everyone else was. Millie pushed between stocks-and-shares Bernard and Julia, and past the old lady with mittens, to point her parasol sternly at Mr.Saunders. "Michael, you are absolutely forbidden to talk about Art during tea," she said, and spoiled the sternness rather by laughing.

The Family evidently felt much the same as Cat. Several of them said "Hear, hear!" and Roger said, "Can we start, Mummy?"

Cat enjoyed the tea. It was the first time he had enjoyed anything since he came to the Castle. There were paper-thin cucumber sandwiches and big squashy eclairs. Cat ate even more than Roger did. He was surrounded by cheerful, ordinary chat from the Family, with a hum of stocks and shares in the background, and the sun lay warm and peaceful on the green stretches of the lawn. Cat was glad someone had somehow restored it. He liked it better smooth. He began to think he could almost be happy at the Castle, with a little practice. Gwendolen was nothing like so happy. The newspaper packets weighed on her head. Their smell spoiled the taste of the eclairs. And she knew she would have to wait until dinner before Chrestomanci spoke to her about the lawn.

Dinner was later that night because of the tea. Dusk was falling when they filed into the dining room. There were lighted candles all down the polished table. Cat could see them, and the rest of the room, reflected in the row of long windows facing him. It was a pleasing sight, and a useful one. Cat could see the footman coming. For once he was not taken by surprise when the man thrust a tray of little fish and pickled cabbage over his shoulder. And, as he was now forbidden to use his right hand, Cat felt quite justified in changing the serving things over. He began to feel he was settling in.

Because he had not been allowed to talk about Art at tea, Mr. Saunders was more than usually eloquent at dinner. He talked and he talked. He took Chrestomanci's attention to himself, and he talked at him. Chrestomanci seemed dreamy and good-humored. He listened and nodded. And Gwendolen grew crosser every minute. Chrestomanci said not a word about lawns, neither here nor in the drawing room beforehand. It became clearer and clearer that no one was going to mention the matter at all.

Gwendolen was furious. She wanted her powers recognized. She wanted to show Chrestomanci she was a witch to be reckoned with. So there was nothing for it but to begin on another spell. She was a little hampered by not having any ingredients to hand, but there was one thing she could do quite easily.

The dinner went on. Mr.Saunders talked on. Footmen came around with the next course. Cat looked over at the windows to see when the silver plate would come to him. And he nearly screamed.

There was a skinny white creature there. It was pressed against the dark outside of the glass, mouthing and waving. It looked like the lost ghost of a lunatic. It was weak and white and loathsome. It was draggled and slimy. Even though Cat realized almost at once that it was Gwendolen's doing, he still stared at it in horror.

Millie saw him staring. She looked herself, shuddered, and tapped Chrestomanci gently on the back of the hand with her spoon. Chrestomanci came out of his gentle dream and glanced at the window too. He gave the piteous creature a bored look, and sighed.

"And so I still think Florence is the finest of all the Italian states," said Mr.Saunders.

"People usually put in a word for Venice," said Chrestomanci. "Frazier, would you draw the curtains, please? Thank you."

"No, no. In my opinion, Venice is overrated," Mr.Saunders asserted, and he went on to explain why, while the butler drew the long orange curtains and shut the creature out of sight.

"Yes, maybe you're right. Florence has more to offer," Chrestomanci agreed. "By the way, Gwendolen, when I said the Castle, I meant of course the Castle grounds as well as indoors. Now, do carry on, Michael. Venice."

Everyone carried on, except Cat. He could imagine the creature still mouthing and fumbling at the glass behind the orange curtains. He could not eat for thinking of it.

"It's all right, stupid! I've sent it away," said Gwendolen. Her voice was sticky with rage.

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