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Charmed Life

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

Gwendolen went down to the village to get her dragons' blood on Wednesday afternoon. She was in high glee. There were to be guests that night at the Castle and a big dinner party. Cat knew that everyone had carefully not mentioned it before, for fear Gwendolen would take advantage of it. But she had to be told on Wednesday morning because there were special arrangements for the children. They were to have their supper in the playroom, and they were supposed to keep out of the way after that.

"I'll keep out of the way, all right," Gwendolen promised. "But that won't make any difference." She chuckled about it all the way to the village.

Cat was embarrassed when they got to the village. Everyone avoided Gwendolen. Mothers dragged their children indoors and snatched babies out of her way. Gwendolen hardly noticed. She was too intent on getting to Mr.Baslam and getting her dragons' blood. Cat did not fancy Mr.Baslam, or the decaying pickle smell among his stuffed animals. He let Gwendolen go there on her own, and went to mail his postcard to Mrs.Sharp in the sweet shop. The people there were rather cool with him, even though he spent nearly two shillings on sweets, and they were positively cold in the cake shop next door. When Cat came out onto the green with his parcels, he found that children were being snatched out of his way too.

This so shamed Cat that he fled back to the Castle grounds and did not wait for Gwendolen. There he wandered moodily, eating toffees and penny buns, and wishing he was back with Mrs.Sharp. From time to time he saw Gwendolen in the distance. Sometimes she was dashing about. Sometimes she was squatting under a tree, carefully doing something. Cat did not go near her. If they were back with Mrs.Sharp, he thought, Gwendolen would not need to do whatever impressive thing she was planning. He found himself wishing she was not quite such a strong and determined witch. He tried to imagine a Gwendolen who was not a witch, but he found himself quite unable to. She just would not be Gwendolen.

Indoors, the usual silence of the Castle was not quite the same. There were tense little noises, and the thrumming feeling of people diligently busy just out of earshot. Cat knew it was going to be a big, important dinner party.

After supper, he craned out of Gwendolen's window watching the guests come up the piece of avenue he could see from there. They came in carriages and in cars, all very large and rich-looking. One carriage was drawn by six white horses and looked so impressive that Cat wondered if it might not even be the King.

"All the better," said Gwendolen. She was squatting in the middle of the carpet, beside a sheet of paper. At one end of the paper was a bowl of ingredients. At the other crawled, wriggled, or lay a horrid heap of things. Gwendolen had collected two frogs, an earthworm, several earwigs, a black beetle, a spider, and a little pile of bones. The live things were charmed and could not move off the paper.

As soon as Cat was sure that there were no more carriages arriving, Gwendolen began pounding the ingredients together in the bowl. As she pounded, she muttered things in a groaning hum, and her hair hung down and quivered over the bowl. Cat looked at the wriggling, hopping creatures and hoped that they were not going to be pounded up as ingredients too. It seemed not. Gwendolen at length sat back on her heels and said, "Now!"

She snapped her fingers over the bowl. The ingredients caught fire, all by themselves, and burned with small blue flames. "It's working!" Gwendolen said excitedly. She snatched up a twist of newspaper from beside her and carefully untwisted it. "Now for a pinch of dragons' blood." She took a pinch of the dark brown powder and sprinkled it on the flames. There was a fizzing, and a thick smell of burning. Then the flames leaped up, a foot high, blazing a furious green and purple, coloring the whole room with dancing light.

Gwendolen's face glowed in the green and purple. She rocked on her heels, chanting, chanting strings of things Cat could not understand. Then, still chanting, she leaned over and touched the spider. The spider grew. And grew. And grew more. It grew into a five-foot monster - a greasy roundness with two little eyes on the front, hanging like a hammock amid eight bent and jointed furry legs. Gwendolen pointed. The door of her room sprang open of its own accord - which made her smile exultantly - and the huge spider went silently creeping towards it, swaying on its hairy legs. It squeezed its legs inward to get through the door, and crept onward, down the passage beyond.

Gwendolen touched the other creatures, one by one. The earwigs lumbered up and off, like shiny horned cows, bright brown and glistening. The frogs rose up, as big as men, and walked flap, flop on their enormous feet, with their arms trailing like gorillas. Their mottled skin quivered, and little holes in it kept opening and shutting. The puffy place under their chins made gulping movements. The black beetle crawled on branched legs, such a big black slab that it could barely get through the door. Cat could see it, and all the others, going in a slow, silent procession down the grass-green glowing corridor.

"Where are they going?" he whispered.

Gwendolen chuckled. "I'm sending them to the dining room, of course. I don't think the guests will want much supper."

She took up a bone next, and knocked each end of it sharply on the floor. As soon as she let go of it, it floated up into the air. There was a soft clattering, and more bones came out of nowhere to join it. The green and purple flames roared and rasped. A skull arrived last of all, and a complete skeleton was dangling there in front of the flames. Gwendolen smiled with satisfaction and took up another bone.

But bones when they are bewitched have a way of remembering who they were. The dangling skeleton sighed, in a hollow, singing voice, "Poor Sarah Jane. I'm poor Sarah Jane. Let me rest."

Gwendolen waved it impatiently towards the door. It went dangling off, still sighing, and a second skeleton dangled after it, sighing, "Bob the gardener's boy. I din't mean to do it." They were followed by three more, each one singing softly and desolately of who it had been, and all five went slowly dangling after the black beetle. "Sarah Jane," Cat heard from the corridor. "I din't mean to." "I was Duke of Buckingham once."

Gwendolen took no notice of them and turned to the earthworm. It grew too. It grew into a massive pink thing as big as a sea serpent. Loops of it rose and fell and writhed all over the room. Cat was nearly sick. Its bare pink flesh had hairs on it like a pig's bristles. There were rings on it like the wrinkles around his own knuckles. Its great sightless front turned blindly this way and that until Gwendolen pointed to the door. Then it set off slowly after the skeletons, length after length of bare pink loops.

Gwendolen looked after it critically. "Not bad," she said. "I need one last touch though."

Carefully, she dropped another tiny pinch of dragons' blood on the flames. They burned with a whistling sound - brighter, sicker, yellower. Gwendolen began to chant again, waving her arms this time. After a moment, a shape seemed to be gathering in the quivering air over the flames. Whiteness was boiling, moving, forming into a miserable bent thing with a big head. Three more somethings were roiling and hardening beneath it. When the first thing flopped out of the flames onto the carpet, Gwendolen gave a gurgle of pleasure. Cat was amazed at how wicked she looked.

"Oh don't!" he said. The three other somethings flopped onto the carpet too, and he saw they were the apparition at the window and three others like it. The first was like a baby that was too small to walk - except that it was walking, with its big head wobbling. The next was a cripple, so twisted and cramped upon itself that it could barely hobble. The third was the apparition at the window - pitiful, wrinkled, and draggled. The last had its white skin barred with blue stripes. All were weak and white and horrible. Cat shuddered all over.

"Please send them away!" he said.

Gwendolen only laughed again and waved the four apparitions towards the door.

They set off, toiling weakly. But they were only halfway there when Chrestomanci came through the door and Mr.Saunders came after him. In front of them came a shower of bones and small dead creatures, pattering onto the carpet and getting squashed under Chrestomanci's long, shiny shoes. The apparitions hesitated, gibbering. Then they fled back to the flaming bowl and vanished. The flames vanished at the same time, into thick, black, smelly smoke.

Gwendolen stared at Chrestomanci and Mr. Saunders through the smoke. Chrestomanci was magnificent in dark blue velvet, with lace ruffles at his wrists and on the front of his shirt. Mr.Saunders seemed to have made an effort to find a suit that reached to the ends of his legs and arms, but had not quite succeeded. One of his big, black patent-leather boots was unlaced, and there was a lot of shirt and wrist showing as he slowly coiled an invisible skein of something around his bony right hand. Both he and Chrestomanci looked back at Gwendolen most unpleasantly.

"You were warned, you know," Chrestomanci said. "Carry on, Michael."

Mr.Saunders put the invisible skein in his pocket. "Thanks," he said. "I've been itching to for a week now." He strode down on Gwendolen in a billow of black coat, yanked her to her feet, hauled her to a chair, and put her facedown over his knee. There he dragged off his unlaced, big black boot and commenced spanking her with it hard and often.

While Mr.Saunders labored away, and Gwendolen screamed and squirmed and kicked, Chrestomanci marched up to Cat and boxed Cat's ears, twice on each side. Cat was so surprised that he would have fallen over, had not Chrestomanci hit the other side of his head each time and brought him upright again.

"What did you do that for?" Cat said indignantly, clutching both sides of his ringing face. "I didn't do anything."

"That's why I hit you," said Chrestomanci. "You didn't try to stop her, did you?" While Cat was gasping at the unfairness of this, he turned to the laboring Mr.Saunders. "I think that'll do now, Michael."

Mr.Saunders ceased swatting, rather regretfully. Gwendolen slid to her knees on the floor, sobbing with pain, and making screams in between her sobs at being treated like this.

Chrestomanci went over and poked at her with his shiny foot. "Stop it. Get up and behave yourself." And, when Gwendolen rose to her knees, staring piteously and looking utterly wronged, he said, "You thoroughly deserved that spanking. And, as you probably realize, Michael has taken away your witchcraft too. You're not a witch any longer. In future, you are not going to work one spell, unless you can prove to both of us that you are not going to do mischief with it. Is that clear? Now go to bed, and for goodness sake try and think about what you've been doing."

He nodded to Mr.Saunders, and they both went out, Mr.Saunders hopping because he was still putting his boot back on, and squashing the rest of the dead creatures as he hopped.

Gwendolen flopped forward on her face and drummed her toes on the carpet. "The beast! The beasts! How dare they treat me like this! I shall do a worse thing than this now, and serve you all right!"

"But you can't do things without witchcraft," Cat said. "Was what Mr.Saunders was winding up your witchcraft?"

"Go away!" Gwendolen screamed at him. "Leave me alone. You're as bad as the rest of them!" And, as Cat went to the door, leaving her drumming and sobbing, she raised her head and shouted after him, "I'm not beaten yet! You'll see!"

Not surprisingly, Cat had bad dreams that night. They were terrible dreams, full of giant earthworms and great, slimy, porous frogs. They became more and more feverish. Cat sweated and moaned and finally woke up, feeling wet and weak and rather too bony, the way you do when you have just had a bad illness or a fearsome dream. He lay for a little while feeling wretched. Then he began to feel better and fell asleep again.

When Cat woke again, it was light. He opened his eyes on the snowy silence of the Castle and was suddenly convinced that Gwendolen had done something else. He had no idea what made him so sure. He thought he was probably imagining it. If Mr.Saunders had truly taken Gwendolen's witchcraft away from her, she could not have done a thing. But he still knew she had.

He got up and padded to the windows to see what it was. But, for once, there was nothing abnormal about the view from any of them. The cedars spread above the lawn. The gardens blazed down the hill. The day was swimming in sun and mist, and not so much as a footprint marked the pearly gray-green of the grass. But Cat was still so sure that something, somewhere, was different that he got dressed and stole off downstairs to ask Gwendolen what she had done.

When Cat opened the door of her room, he could smell the sweet, charred, heavy smell that went with witchcraft. But that could have been left over from last night. The room was quite tidy. The dead creatures and the burned bowl had been cleared away. The only thing out of place was Gwendolen's box, which had been pulled out of the painted wardrobe and stood with its lid half off near her bed.

Gwendolen was a sleeping hump under the blue velvet bedspread. Cat shut the door very gently behind him, in order not to disturb her. Gwendolen heard it. She sat up in bed with a bounce and stared at him.

As soon as she did, Cat knew that whatever was wrong, it was wrong with Gwendolen herself. She had her nightdress on back to front. The ribbons which usually tied it at the back were dangling at the front. That was the only thing obviously wrong. But there was something odd about the way Gwendolen was staring at him. She was astonished, and rather frightened.

"Who are you?" she said.

"I'm Cat, of course," said Cat.

"No you're not. You're a boy," said Gwendolen. "Who are you?"

Cat realized that when witches lost their witchcraft, they also lost their memories. He saw he would have to be very patient with Gwendolen. "I'm your brother, Eric," he said patiently, and came across to the bed so that she could look at him. "Only you always call me Cat."

"My brother!" she exclaimed, in the greatest astonishment. "Well, that can't be bad. I've always wanted a brother. And I know I can't be dreaming. It was too cold in the bath, and it hurts when I pinch myself. So would you mind telling me where I am? It's a Stately Home of some kind, isn't it?"

Cat stared at her. He began to suspect that her memory was perfectly good. It was not only the way she spoke and what she said. She was thinner than she should be. Her face was the right pretty face, with the right blue eyes, but the downright look on it was not right. The golden hair hanging over her shoulders was an inch longer than it had been last night.

"You're not Gwendolen!" he said.

"What a dreadful name!" said the girl in the bed. "I should hope not! I'm Janet Chant."

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