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Charmed Life

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

By this time, Cat was as bewildered as the strange girl seemed to be. "Chant?" he thought. Chant? Has Gwendolen a twin sister she hasn't told me about? "But my name's Chant too," he said.

"Is it, now?" said Janet. She knelt up in bed and scrubbed her hands thoughtfully about in her hair, in a way Gwendolen never would have done. "Truly Chant? It's not that much of a common name. And you thought I was your sister? Well, I've put two and two together about a hundred times since I woke up in the bath, and I keep getting five. Where are we?"

"In Chrestomanci Castle," said Cat. "Chrestomanci had us to live here about a year after our parents died."

"There you are!" said Janet. "My mum and dad are alive and kicking...or they were when I said good night to them last night. Who's Chrestomanci? Could you just sketch your life history for me?"

Puzzled and uneasy, Cat described how and why he and Gwendolen had come to live in the Castle, and what Gwendolen had done then. "You mean Gwendolen really was a witch!" Janet exclaimed.

Cat wished she had not said was. He had a growing suspicion that he would never see the real Gwendolen again. "Of course she is," he said. "Aren't you?"

"Great heavens, no!" said Janet. "Though I'm beginning to wonder if I mightn't have been, if I'd lived here all my life. Witches are quite common, are they?"

"And warlocks and necromancers," said Cat. "But wizards and magicians don't happen so often. I think Mr.Saunders is a magician."

"Medicine men, witch doctors, shamans, devils, enchanters?" Janet asked rapidly. "Hags, fakirs, sorcerers? Are they thick on the ground too?"

"Most of those are for savages," Cat explained. "Hag is rude. But we have sorcerers and enchanters. Enchanters are very strong and important. I've never met one."

"I see," said Janet. She thought for a moment and then swung herself out of bed, in a sort of scramble that was more like a boy's than a girl's, and again quite unlike the way Gwendolen would have done it. "We'd better have a hunt around," she said, "in case dear Gwendolen has been kind enough to leave a message."

"Don't call her that," Cat said desolately. "Where do you think she is?"

Janet looked at him and saw he was miserable. "Sorry," she said. "I won't again. But you do see I might be a bit cross with her, don't you? She seems to have dumped me here and gone off somewhere. Let's hope she has a good explanation."

"They spanked her with a boot and took away her magic," Cat said.

"Yes, you said," Janet replied, pulling open drawers in the golden dressing table. "I'm terrified of Chrestomanci already. But did they really take away her magic? How did she manage to do this, if they did?"

"I don't understand that either," Cat said, joining in the search. By now, he would have given his little finger for a word from Gwendolen - any kind of word. He felt horribly lonely. "Why were you in the bath?" he said, wondering whether to search the bathroom.

"I don't know. I just woke up there," said Janet, shaking out a tangle of hair ribbons in the bottom drawer. "I felt as if I'd been dragged through a hedge backwards, and I'd no clothes on, so I was freezing."

"Why had you no clothes on?" Cat said, stirring Gwendolen's underclothes about, without success.

"I was hot in bed last night," said Janet. "So naked I came into this world. And I wandered about pinching myself - especially after I found this fabulous room. I thought I must have been turned into a princess. But there was this nightdress lying on the bed, so I put it on..."

"You've got it on back to front," said Cat.

Janet stopped scanning the things on the mantelpiece to look down at the trailing ribbons. "Have I? It won't be the only thing I'm going to get back to front, by the sound of it. Try looking in that artistic wardrobe. Then I explored outside here, and all I found was miles of long green corridor, which gave me the creeps, and stately grounds out of the windows, so I came back in here and went to bed. I hoped that when I woke up it would all have gone away. And instead there was you. Found anything?"

"No," said Cat. "But there's her box..."

"It must be in there," said Janet.

They squatted down and unpacked the box. There was not much in it. Cat knew that Gwendolen must have taken a lot of things with her to wherever she had gone. There were two books, Elementary Spells and Magic for Beginners, and some pages of notes on them. Janet looked at Gwendolen's large, round writing.

"She writes just like I do. Why did she leave these books? Because they're First Form standard and she's up to O Levels, I suppose." She put the books and notes to one side and, as she did so, the little red book of matches fell out from among them. Janet picked it up and opened it, and saw that half the matches were burned without having been torn out. "That looks suspiciously like a spell to me," she said. "What are these bundles of letters?"

"My parents' love letters, I think," said Cat.

The letters were in their envelopes still, stamped and addressed. Janet squatted with a bundle in each hand. "These stamps are penny blacks! No, it's a man's head on them. What's your King called?"

"Charles the Seventh," said Cat.

"No Georges?" Janet asked. But she saw Cat was mystified and looked back at the letters again. "Your mother and father were both called Chant, I see. Were they first cousins? Mine are. Granny didn't want them to marry, because it's supposed to be a bad thing."

"I don't know. They may have been. They looked rather alike," Cat said, and felt lonelier than ever.

Janet looked rather lonely too. She tucked the little book of matches carefully inside the pink tape that tied together the letters addressed to Miss Caroline Chant - like Gwendolen, she evidently had a tidy mind - and said, "Both tall and fair, with blue eyes? My mum's name is Caroline too. I'm beginning to see. Come on, Gwendolen, give!" And saying this, Janet tossed aside the letters and, in a most untidy way, scrabbled up the remaining folders, papers, writing sets, pen wipers, and the bag with Souvenir from Blackpool on it. At the very bottom of the box was a large pink sheet of paper, covered all over with Gwendolen's best and roundest writing. "Ah!" said Janet, pouncing on it. "I thought so! She's got the same secretive mind as I have." And she spread the letter on the carpet so that Cat could read it too. Gwendolen had written:

"Dear Replacement,

I have to leave this terrible place. Nobody understands me. Nobody notices my talents. You will soon see because you are my exact double so you will be a witch too. I have been very clever. They do not know all my resauces. I have found out how to go to another world and I am going there for good. I know I shall be Queen of it because my fortune was told and said so. There are hundreds of other worlds only some are nicer than others, they are formed when there is a big event in History like a battle or an earthquake when the result can be two or more quite diferent things. Both those things hapen but they cannot exist together so the world splits into two worlds witch start to go diferent after that. I know there must be Gwendolens in a lot of worlds but not how many. One of you will come here when I go because when I move it will make an empty space that will suck you in. Do not greive however if your parents still live. Some other Gwendolen will move into your place and pretend to be you because we are all so clever. You can carry on here making Chrestomanci's life a misery and I shall be greatful knowing it is in good hands.

Your loving

Gwendolen Chant

P.S. Burn this.

P.P.S. Tell Cat I am quite sorry but he must do what Mr.Nostrum says."

Having read this, Cat knelt wanly beside Janet, knowing he really would never see Gwendolen again. He seemed to be stuck with Janet instead. If you know a person as well as Cat knew Gwendolen, an exact double is hardly good enough. Janet was not a witch. The expressions on her face were nothing like the same. Looking at her now, Cat saw that, where Gwendolen would have been furious at being dragged into another world, Janet was looking as wan as he felt.

"I wonder how Mum and Dad are getting on with my Dear Replacement," she said wryly. Then she pulled herself together. "Do you mind if I don't burn this? It's the only proof I've got that I'm not Gwendolen who's suddenly gone mad and thinks she's this girl called Janet Chant. May I hide it?"

"It's your letter," said Cat.

"And your sister," said Janet. "God bless her dear little sugar-coated shining soul! Don't get me wrong, Cat. I admire your sister. She thinks big. You have to admire her! All the same, I wonder if she's thought of the clever hiding place where I'm going to put her letter. I shall feel better if she hasn't."

Janet bounced up in her un-Gwendolen-like way and took the letter over to the gilded dressing table. Cat bounced up and followed her. Janet took hold of the gold-garlanded mirror and swung it towards her on its swivels. The back was plain plywood. She dug her nails under the edge of the plywood and prised. It came free quite easily.

"I do this with my mirror at home," Janet explained. "It's a good hiding place - it's about the one place my parents never think of. Mum and Dad are dears, but they're terribly nosy. I think it's because I'm their only one. And I like to be private. I write private stories for my eyes only, and they will try to read them. Oh, purple-spotted dalmatians!"

She raised the wood up and showed Cat the signs painted on the red-coated back of the glass itself.

"Cabala, I think," said Cat. "It's a spell."

"So she did think of it!" said Janet. "Really, it's hell having a double. You both get the same ideas. And working on that principle," she said, sliding Gwendolen's letter between the plywood and the glass and pressing the plywood back in place, "I bet I know what the spell's for. It's so Gwendolen can have a look from time to time and see how Dear Replacement's getting on. I hope she's looking now."

Janet swung the mirror back to its usual position and crossed her eyes at it, hideously. She took hold of the corners of her crossed eyes and pulled them long and Chinese, and stuck her tongue out as far as it would go. Then she pushed her nose up with one finger and twisted her mouth right around to one cheek. Cat could not help laughing. "Can't Gwendolen do this?" Janet said out of the side of her face.

"No." Cat giggled.

That was the moment when Euphemia opened the door. Janet jumped violently. She was much more nervous than Cat had realized. "I'll thank you to stop pulling faces," said Euphemia, "and get out of your nightdress, Gwendolen." She came into the room to make sure that Gwendolen did. She gave a croaking sort of shriek. Then she melted into a brown lump. Janet's hands went over her mouth. She and Cat stared in horror as the brown lump that had been Euphemia grew smaller and smaller. When it was about three inches high, it stopped shrinking and put out large webbed feet. On these webbed feet, it crawled forward and stared at them reproachfully out of protruding yellowish eyes near the top of its head.

"Oh dear!" said Cat. It seemed that Gwendolen's last act had been to turn Euphemia into a frog.

Janet burst into tears. Cat was surprised. She had seemed so self-assured. Sobbing heavily, Janet knelt down and tenderly picked up the brown, crawling Euphemia. "You poor girl!" she wept. "I know just how you feel. Cat, what are we to do? How do you turn people back?"

"I don't know," Cat said soberly. He was suddenly burdened with huge responsibilities. Janet, in spite of the confident way she talked, clearly needed looking after. Euphemia clearly needed it even more. If it had not been for Chrestomanci, Cat would have raced off to get Mr.Saunders to help that moment. But he suddenly realized that if Chrestomanci ever found out what Gwendolen had done this time, the most terrible things would happen. Cat was quite sure of this. He discovered that he was terrified of Chrestomanci. He had been terrified of him all along, without realizing it. He knew he would have to keep both Janet and Euphemia a secret somehow.

Feeling desperate, Cat raced to the bathroom, found a damp towel, and brought it to Janet. "Put her down on this. She'll need to be wet. I'll ask Roger and Julia to turn her back. I'll tell them you won't. And for goodness sake don't tell anyone you aren't Gwendolen...please!"

Janet lowered Euphemia gently onto the towel. Euphemia scrambled around in it and continued to stare accusingly at Janet. "Don't look like that. It wasn't me," Janet said, sniffing. "Cat, we'll have to hide her. Would she be comfortable in the wardrobe?"

"She'll have to be," said Cat. "You get dressed."

A look of panic came over Janet's face. "Cat, what does Gwendolen wear?"

Cat thought all girls knew what girls wore. "The usual things - petticoats, stockings, dress, boots...you know."

"No, I don't," said Janet. "I always wear trousers."

Cat felt his problems mounting up. He hunted for clothes. Gwendolen seemed to have taken her best things with her, but he found her older boots, her green stockings and the garters to match, her second-best petticoats, her green cashmere dress with the smocking and - with some embarrassment - her bloomers. "There," he said.

"Does she really wear two petticoats?" said Janet.

"Yes," said Cat. "Get them on."

But Janet proved quite unable to get them on without his help. If he left her to do anything, she put it on back to front. He had to put her petticoats on her, button her up the back, tie her garters, fasten her boots, and put her dress on a second time, right way around, and tie its sash for her. When he had finished, it looked all right, but Janet had an odd air of being dressed up, rather than dressed. She looked at herself critically in the mirror. "Thanks, you're an angel. I look rather like an Edwardian child. And I feel a right Charley."

"Come on," said Cat. "Breakfast." He carried Euphemia, croaking furiously, to the wardrobe and wrapped her firmly in the towel. "Be quiet," he told her. "I'll get you changed back as soon as I can, so stop making that fuss, please!" He shut the door on her and wedged it with a page of Gwendolen's notes. Faint croaking came from behind it. Euphemia had no intention of being quiet. Cat did not really blame her.

"She's not happy in there," Janet said, weakening. "Can't she stay out in the room?"

"No," said Cat. Frog though she was, Euphemia still looked like Euphemia. He knew Mary would recognize her as soon as she set eyes on her. He took Janet's resisting elbow and towed her along to the playroom.

"Don't you two ever get up till the last minute?" said Julia. "I'm sick of waiting politely for breakfast."

"Eric's been up for hours," said Mary, hovering about. "So I don't know what you've both been up to. Oh, what's Euphemia doing?"

"Mary's beside herself this morning," Roger said. He winked. For a moment there were two Marys, one real and one vague and ghostly. Janet jumped. It was only the second piece of witchcraft she had seen and she did not find it easy to get used to.

"I expect it's Gwendolen's fault," said Julia, and she gave Janet one of those meaning stares.

Janet was very put-out. Cat had forgotten to warn her how much Julia had disliked Gwendolen ever since the snakes. And a meaning stare from a witch is worse than a meaning stare from an ordinary person. Julia's pushed Janet backward across the room, until Cat put himself in the way of it.

"Don't do that," he said. "She's sorry."

"Is she?" said Julia. "Are you?" she asked, trying to get the stare around Cat to Janet again.

"Yes, horribly sorry," Janet said fervently, not having the least idea why. "I've had a complete change of heart."

"I'll believe that when I see it," said Julia. But she left off staring in order to watch Mary bringing the usual bread, the marmalade, and the jug of cocoa.

Janet looked, sniffed the cocoa steaming from the jug, and her face fell, rather like Gwendolen's on the first day. "Oh dear. I hate cocoa," she said.

Mary rolled her eyes to the ceiling. "You and your airs and graces! You never said you hated it before."

"I...I've had a revulsion of feeling," Janet invented. "When I had my change of heart, all my taste buds changed too. I...you haven't any coffee, have you?"

"Where? Under the carpet or something?" Mary demanded. "All right. I'll ask the kitchen. I'll tell them your taste buds are revolting, shall I?"

Cat was very pleased to hear that cocoa was not compulsory after all. "Could I have coffee too?" he asked, as Mary went to the lift. "Or I prefer tea, really."

"But you waited to say so until Euphemia goes missing and leaves me all on my own!" Mary said, getting Very put-upon.

"She never does anything anyway," Cat said in surprise.

Mary flounced crossly to the speaking tube and ordered a pot of coffee and a pot of tea. "For Her Highness and His Nibs," she said to it. "He seems to have caught it now. What wouldn't I give for a nice normal child in this place, Nancy!"

"But I am a nice normal child!" Janet and Cat protested in unison.

"And so are we - nice, anyhow," Julia said comfortably.

"How can you be normal?" Mary demanded as she let down the lift. "All four of you are Chants. And when was a Chant ever normal? Answer me that."

Janet looked questioningly at Cat, but Cat was as puzzled as she was. "I thought your name was Chrestomanci," he said to Roger and Julia.

"That's just Daddy's title," said Julia.

"You're some kind of cousin of ours," said Roger. "Didn't you know? I always thought that was why Daddy had you to live here."

As they started breakfast, Cat thought that this, if anything, made the situation more difficult than ever.

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