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Charmed Life

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

Gwendolen gave vent to her fury in her room after dinner. She jumped on her bed and threw cushions about, screaming. Cat stood prudently back against the wall waiting for her to finish. But Gwendolen did not finish until she had pledged herself to a campaign against Chrestomanci.

"I hate this place!" she bawled. "They try to cover everything up in soft, sweet niceness. I hate it, I hate it!" Her voice was muffled among the velvets of her room and swallowed up in the prevailing softness of the Castle. "Do you hear it?" Gwendolen screamed. "It's an eiderdown of hideous niceness! I wreck their lawn, so they give me tea. I conjure up a lovely apparition, and they have the curtains drawn. Frazier, would you draw the curtains, please! Ugh! Chrestomanci makes me sick!"

"I didn't think it was a lovely apparition," Cat said, shivering.

"Ha, ha! You didn't know I could do that, did you?" said Gwendolen. "It wasn't to frighten you, you idiot. It was to give Chrestomanci a shock. I hate him! He wasn't even interested."

"What did he have us to live here for, if he isn't interested in you either?" Cat wondered.

Gwendolen was rather struck by this. "I hadn't thought of that," she said. "It may be serious. Go away. I want to think about it. Anyway," she shouted, as Cat was going to the door, "he's going to be interested, if it's the last thing I do! I'm going to do something every day until he notices!"

Once again, Cat was mournfully on his own. Remembering what Millie had said, he went along to the playroom. But Roger and Julia were there, playing with soldiers on the stained carpet. The little tin grenadiers were marching about. Some were wheeling up cannon. Others were lying behind cushions, firing their rifles with little pinpricks of bangs. Roger and Julia turned around guiltily.

"You won't mention this, will you?" said Julia. "Would you like to come and play too?" Roger asked politely.

"Oh, no thanks," Cat said hastily. He knew he could never join in this kind of game unless Gwendolen helped him. But he did not dare disturb Gwendolen in her present mood. And he had nothing to do. Then he remembered that Millie had obviously expected him to poke about the Castle more than he had done. So he set off to explore, feeling rather daring.

The Castle seemed strange at night. There were dim little electric lights at regular intervals. The green carpet glowed gently, and things were reflected in the polished floor and walls even more strongly than they were by day. Cat walked softly along, accompanied by several reflected ghosts of himself, until he hardly felt real. All the doors he saw were closed. Cat listened at one or two and heard nothing. He had not quite the courage to open any of them. He went on and on.

After a while he found he had somehow worked around to the older part of the Castle. Here the walls were whitewashed stone and all the windows went in nearly three feet before there was any glass. Then Cat came to a staircase which was the twin of the one that twisted up to his room, except that it twisted in the opposite direction. Cat went cautiously up it.

He was just on the last bend when a door at the top opened. A brighter square of light shone on the wall at the head of the stairs, and a shadow stood in it that could only belong to Chrestomanci. No one else's shadow could be so tall, with such a smooth head and such a lot of ruffles on its shirt front. Cat stopped.

"And let's hope the wretched girl won't try that again," Chrestomanci said, out of sight above. He sounded a good deal more alert than usual, and rather angry.

Mr.Saunders' voice, from farther away, said, "I've had about enough of her already, frankly. I suppose she'll come to her senses soon. What possessed her to give away the source of her power like that?"

"Ignorance," said Chrestomanci. "If I thought she had the least idea what she was doing, it would be the last thing she ever did in that line...or any other."

"My back was to it," said Mr.Saunders. "Which was it? Number five?"

"No. Number three, by the look of its hair. A revenant," said Chrestomanci. "For which we must be thankful." He began to come down the stairs. Cat was too scared to move. "I'll have to get the Examining Board to revise their Elementary Magic Courses," Chrestomanci called back as he came downstairs, "to include more theory. These hedge wizards push their good pupils straight on to advanced work without any proper grounding at all." Saying this, Chrestomanci came down around the corner and saw Cat. "Oh, hello," he said. "I'd no idea you were here. Like to come up and have a look at Michael's workshop?"

Cat nodded. He did not dare do otherwise.

Chrestomanci seemed quite friendly, however, and so did Mr. Saunders when Chrestomanci ushered Cat into the room at the top of the stairs. "Hello, Eric," he said in his cheerful way. "Have a look around. Does any of this mean anything to you?"

Cat shook his head. The room was round, like his own, but larger, and it was a regular magician's workshop. That much he could see. He recognized the five-pointed star painted on the floor. The smell coming from the burning cresset hanging from the ceiling was the same smell that had hung about Coven Street, back in Wolvercote. But he had no idea of the use of the things set out on the various trestle tables. One table was crowded with torts and limbecks, some bubbling, some empty. A second was piled with books and scrolls. The third bench had signs chalked all over it and a mummified creature of some sort lying among the signs.

Cat's eyes traveled over all this, and over more books crammed into shelves around the walls, and more shelves filled with jars of ingredients - big jars, like the ones in sweet shops. He realized Mr.Saunders worked in a big way. His scudding eyes raced over some of the labels on the huge jars: Newts' Eyes, Gum Arabic, Elixir St. John's Wort, Dragons' blood (dried). The last jar was almost full of dark brown powder. Cat's eyes went back to the mummified animal stretched among the signs chalked on the third table. Its feet had claws like a dog's. It looked like a large lizard. But there seemed to be wings on its back. Cat was almost sure it had once been a small dragon.

"Means nothing, eh?" said Mr. Saunders.

Cat turned around and found that Chrestomanci had gone. That made him a little easier. "This must have cost a lot," he said.

"The taxpayer pays, fortunately," said Mr.Saunders. "Would you like to learn what all this is about?"

"You mean, learn witchcraft?" Cat asked. "No. No thanks. I wouldn't be any good at it."

"Well, I had at least two other things in mind besides witchcraft," Mr. Saunders said. "But what makes you think you'd be no good?"

"Because I can't do it," Cat explained. "Spells just don't work for me."

"Are you sure you went about them in the right way?" Mr.Saunders asked. He wandered up to the mummified dragon - or whatever - and gave it an absentminded flick. To Cat's disgust, the thing twitched all over. Filmy wings jerked and spread on its back. Then it went lifeless again. The sight sent Cat backing towards the door. He was almost as alarmed as he was the time Miss Larkins suddenly spoke with a man's voice. And, come to think of it, the voice had been not so unlike Mr.Saunders'.

"I went about it every way I could think," Cat said, backing. "And I couldn't even turn buttons into gold. And that was simple."

Mr.Saunders laughed. "Perhaps you weren't greedy enough. All right. Cut along, if you want to go."

Cat fled, in great relief. As he ran through the strange corridors, he thought he ought to let Gwendolen know that Chrestomanci had, after all, been interested in her apparition, and even angry. But Gwendolen had locked her door and would not answer when he called to her.

He tried again next morning. But before he had a chance to speak to Gwendolen, Euphemia came in, carrying a letter. As Gwendolen snatched it eagerly from Euphemia, Cat recognized Mr.Nostrum's jagged writing on the envelope.

The next moment, Gwendolen was raging again. "Who did this? When did this come?" The envelope had been neatly cut open along the top.

"This morning, by The postmark," said Euphemia. "And don't look at me like that. Miss Bessemer gave it to me open."

"How dare she!" said Gwendolen. "How dare she read my letters! I'm going straight to Chrestomanci about this!"

"You'll regret it if you do," said Euphemia, as Gwendolen pushed past her to the door.

Gwendolen whirled around on her. "Oh, shut up, you stupid frog-faced girl!" Cat thought that was a little unfair. Euphemia, though she did have rather goggling eyes, was actually quite pretty. "Come on, Cat!" Gwendolen shouted at him, and she ran away along the corridor with her letter. Cat panted behind her and, once again, did not catch up with her until they were beside the marble staircase. "Chrestomanci!" bawled Gwendolen, thin and small and unechoing.

Chrestomanci was coming up the marble staircase in a wide, flowing dressing gown that was partly orange and partly bright pink. He looked like the Emperor of Peru. By the suave, vague look on his face, he had not noticed Gwendolen and Cat.

Gwendolen shouted down at him. "Here, you! Come here at once!" Chrestomanci's face turned upwards and his eyebrows went up. "Someone's been opening my letters," said Gwendolen. "And I don't care who it is, but I'm not having it! Do you hear?"

Cat gasped at the way she spoke. Chrestomanci seemed perplexed. "How are you not having it?" he said.

"I won't put up with it!" Gwendolen shouted at him. "In future, my letters are going to come to me closed!"

"You mean you want me to steam them open and stick them down afterward?" Chrestomanci asked doubtfully. "It's more trouble, but I'll do that if it makes you happier."

Gwendolen stared at him. "You mean you did it? You read a letter addressed to me?"

Chrestomanci nodded blandly. "Naturally. If someone like Henry Nostrum writes letters to you, I have to make sure he's not writing anything unsuitable. He's a very seedy person."

"He was my teacher!" Gwendolen said furiously. "You've no right to!"

"It's a pity," said Chrestomanci, "that you were taught by a hedge wizard. You'll have to unlearn such a lot. And it's a pity too that I've no right to open your letters. I hope you don't get many, or my conscience will give me no peace."

"You intend to go on?" Gwendolen said. "Then watch out. I warn you!"

"That is very considerate of you," said Chrestomanci. "I like to be warned." He came up the rest of the marble stairs and went past Gwendolen and Cat. The pink and orange dressing gown swirled, revealing a bright scarlet lining. Cat blinked.

Gwendolen stared vengefully as the dazzling dressing gown flowed away along the gallery. "Oh no, don't notice me, will you!" she said. "Make jokes. You wait! Cat, I'm so furious!"

"You were awfully rude," said Cat.

"He deserved it," said Gwendolen, and began to hurry back towards the playroom. "Opening poor Mr.Nostrum's letter! It isn't that I mind him reading it. We arranged a code, so horrid Chrestomanci will never know what it's really saying, but there is the signature. But it's the insult. The indignity. I'm at their mercy in this Castle. I'm all on my own in distress and I can't even stop them reading my letters. But I'll show them. You wait!"

Cat knew better than to say anything. Gwendolen slammed into the playroom, flounced down at the table, and began at last to read her letter.

"I told you so," said Euphemia, while Mary was working the lift.

Gwendolen shot her a look. "You wait too," she said, and went on reading. After a bit, she looked in the envelope again. "There's one for you too," she said to Cat, and tossed him a sheet of paper. "Mind you reply to it."

Cat took it, wondering nervously why Mr. Nostrum should write to him. But it was from Mrs.Sharp. She wrote:

"Me dear Cat,

Ow are you doin then me love? I fine meself lonesum an missin you both particular you the place seems so quiete. Thourght I was lookin forward to a bit peace but missin yer voice an wishin you was comin in bringin appels. One thing happen an that was a gen-nelman come an give five poun for the ole cat that was yerfidel so I feel flush and had idear of packin you up a parsel of jinjerbredmen and mebbe bringin them to you one of these days but Mr.Nostrum sez not to. Spect your in the lap of luckshury anyhows. Love to Gwendolen. Wish you was back here Cat and the money means nothin.

Your loving, Ellen Sharp"

Cat read this with a warm, smiling, tearful feeling. He found he was missing Mrs. Sharp as much as she evidently missed him. He was so homesick he could not eat his bread, and the cocoa seemed to choke him. He did not hear one word in five that Mr.Saunders said.

"Is something the matter with you, Eric?" Mr.Saunders demanded.

As Cat dragged his mind back from Coven Street, the window blacked out. The room was suddenly pitch dark. Julia squeaked. Mr.Saunders groped his way to the switch and turned the light on. As he did so, the window became transparent again, revealing Roger grinning, Julia startled, Gwendolen sitting demurely, and Mr.Saunders with his hand on the switch looking irritably at her.

"I suppose the cause of this is outside the Castle grounds, is it?" he said.

"Outside the lodge gates," Gwendolen said smugly. "I put it there this morning." By this, Cat knew her campaign against Chrestomanci had been launched.

The window blacked out again.

"How often are we to expect this?" Mr.Saunders said in the dark.

"Twice every half hour," said Gwendolen.

"Thank you," Mr.Saunders said nastily, and he left the light on. "Now we can see, Gwendolen, write out one hundred times, I must keep the spirit of the law and not the letter and, Roger, take that grin off your face."

All that day, all the windows in the Castle blacked out regularly twice every half hour. But if Gwendolen had hoped to make Chrestomanci angry, she did not succeed. Nothing happened, except that everyone kept the lights on all the time. It was rather a nuisance, but no one seemed to mind.

Before lunch, Cat went outside onto the lawn to see what the blackouts looked like from the other side. It was rather as if two black shutters wereflicking regularly across the rows of windows. They started at the top right-hand corner and flicked steadily across, along the next row from left to right, and then from right to left along the next, and so on, until they reached the bottom. Then they started at the top again. Cat had watched about half a complete performance when he found Roger beside him, watching critically with his pudgy hands in his pockets.

"Your sister must have a very tidy mind," Roger said.

"I think all witches have," said Cat. Then he was embarrassed. Of course he was talking to one...or at least to a warlock in the making.

"I don't seem to have," Roger remarked, not in the least worried. "Nor has Julia. And I don't think Michael has, really. Would you like to come and play in our tree house after lessons?"

Cat was very flattered. He was so pleased that he forgot how homesick he was. He spent a very happy evening down in the wood, helping to rebuild the roof of the tree house. He came back to the Castle when the dressing gong went, and found that the window-spell was fading. When the windows darkened, it only produced a sort of gray twilight indoors. By the following morning it was gone, and Chrestomanci had not said a word.

Gwendolen returned to the attack the next morning. She caught the baker's boy as he cycled through the lodge gates with the square front container of his bicycle piled high with loaves for the Castle. The baker's boy arrived at the kitchen looking a little dazed and saying his head felt swimmy. As a consequence, the children had to have scones for breakfast. It seemed that when the bread was cut, the most interesting things happened.

"You're giving us all a good laugh," Mary said, as she brought the scones from the lift. "I'll say that for your naughtiness, Gwendolen. Roberts thought he'd gone mad when he found he was cutting away at an old boot. So Cook cuts another, and next moment she and Nancy are trying to climb on the same chair because of all those white mice. But it was Mr. Frazier's face that made me laugh the most, when he says "Let me" and finds himself chipping at a stone. Then the..."

"Don't encourage her. You know what she's like," said Euphemia.

"Be careful I don't start on you," Gwendolen said sourly.

Roger found out privately from Mary what had happened to the other loaves. One had become a white rabbit, one had been an ostrich egg - which had burst tremendously all over the bootboy - and another a vast white onion. After that, Gwendolen's invention had run out and she had turned the rest into cheese. "Old bad cheese, though," Roger said, giving honor where honor was due.

It was not known whether Chrestomanci also gave honor where it was due because, once again, he said not a word to anyone.

The next day was Saturday. Gwendolen caught the farmer delivering the churn of milk the Castle used daily. The breakfast cocoa tasted horrible.

"I'm beginning to get annoyed," Julia said tartly. "Daddy may take no notice, but he drinks tea with lemon." She stared meaningly at Gwendolen. Gwendolen stared back, and there was that invisible feeling of clashing Cat had noticed when Gwendolen had wanted her mother's earrings from Mrs.Sharp. This time, however, Gwendolen did not have things all her own way. She lowered her eyes and looked peevish.

"I'm getting sick of getting up early, anyway," she said crossly.

This, from Gwendolen, simply meant she would do something later in the day in future. But Julia thought she had beaten Gwendolen, and this was a mistake.

They had lessons on Saturday morning, which annoyed Gwendolen very much. "It's monstrous," she said to Mr.Saunders. "Why do we have to be tormented like this?"

"It's the price I have to pay for my holiday on Wednesday," Mr. Saunders told her. "And, speaking of tormenting, I prefer you to bewitch something other than the milk."

"I'll remember that," Gwendolen said sweetly.

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