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Charmed Life

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

Cat watched his moment and, when Mr.Saunders called them to lessons, he caught Roger's arm and whispered, "Look, Gwendolen's turned Euphemia into a frog and..."

Roger gave a great snore of laughter. Cat had to wait for him to stop.

"And she won't turn her back. Can you?"

Roger tried to look serious, but laughter kept breaking through. "I don't know. Probably not, unless she'll tell you what spell she used. Finding out which spell without knowing is Advanced Magic, and I'm not on that yet. Oh, how funny!" He bent over the table and yelled with laughter.

Naturally, Mr.Saunders appeared at the door, remarking that the time for telling jokes was after lessons. They had to go through to the schoolroom. Naturally, Cat found Janet had sat in his desk by mistake. He got her out as quietly as he could and sat in it himself, distractedly wondering how he could find out which spell Gwendolen had used.

It was the most uncomfortable morning Cat had ever known. He had forgotten to tell Janet that the only thing Gwendolen knew about was witchcraft. Janet, as he had rather suspected, knew a lot, about a lot of things. But it all applied to her own world. About the only subject she would have been safe in was simple arithmetic. And Mr.Saunders chose that morning to give her a History test. Cat, as he scratched away left-handed at an English essay, could see the panic growing on Janet's face.

"What do you mean, Henry the Fifth?" barked Mr. Saunders. "Richard the Second was on the throne until long after Agincourt. What was his greatest magical achievement?"

"Defeating the French," Janet guessed. Mr.Saunders looked so exasperated that she babbled, "Well, I think it was. He hampered the French with iron underwear, and the English wore wool, so they didn't stick in the mud, and probably their longbows were enchanted too. That would account for them not missing."

"Who," said Mr.Saunders, "do you imagine won the Battle of Agincourt?"

"The English," said Janet. This of course was true for her world, but the panic-stricken look on her face as she said it suggested that she suspected the opposite was true in this world. Which, of course, it was.

Mr.Saunders put his hands to his head. "No, no, no! The French! Don't you know anything, girl?"

Janet looked to be near tears. Cat was terrified. She was going to break down any second and tell Mr.Saunders she was not Gwendolen. She did not have Cat's reasons for keeping quiet. "Gwendolen never knows anything," he remarked loudly, hoping Janet would take the hint. She did. She sighed with relief and relaxed.

"I'm aware of that," said Mr.Saunders. "But somewhere, somewhere inside that marble head there must be a little cell of gray matter. So I keep looking."

Unfortunately, Janet, in her relief, became almost jolly. "Would you like to take my head apart and look?"she asked.

"Don't tempt me!" cried Mr.Saunders. He hid his eyes with one knobby hand and fended at Janet with the other. He looked so funny that Janet laughed. This was so unlike Gwendolen that Mr.Saunders lowered his hand across his nose and stared at her suspiciously over it. "What have you been up to now?"

"Nothing," Janet said guiltily.

"Hm," said Mr.Saunders, in a way which made both Cat and Janet very uncomfortable.

At last - very long last - it was time for Mary to bring the milk and biscuits, which she did, with a very portentous look. Crouched on the tray beside Mr. Saunders' cup of coffee was a large, wet-looking, brown thing. Cat's stomach seemed to leave him and take a plunge into the Castle cellars. From the look of Janet, hers was doing the same.

"What have you got there?" said Mr.Saunders.

"Gwendolen's good deed for today," Mary said grimly. "It's Euphemia. Look at its face."

Mr.Saunders bent and looked. Then he whirled around on Janet so fiercely that Janet half got out of her seat. "So that's what you were laughing about!"

"I didn't do it!" said Janet.

"Euphemia was in Gwendolen's room, shut in the wardrobe, croaking her poor head off," said Mary.

"I think this calls for Chrestomanci," Mr.Saunders said. He strode towards the door.

The door opened before he got there and Chrestomanci himself came in, cheerful and busy, with some papers in one hand. "Michael," he said, "have I caught you at the right...?" He stopped when he saw Mr.Saunders' face. "Is something wrong?"

"Will you please to look at this frog, sir," said Mary. "It was in Gwendolen's wardrobe."

Chrestomanci was wearing an exquisite gray suit with faint lilac stripes to it. He held his lilac silk cravat out of the way and bent to inspect the frog. Euphemia lifted her head and croaked at him beseechingly. There was a moment of ice-cold silence. It was a moment such as Cat hoped never to live through again. "Bless my soul!" Chrestomanci said, gently as frost freezes a window. "It's Eugenia."

"Euphemia, Daddy," said Julia.

"Euphemia," said Chrestomanci. "Of course. Now who did this?" Cat wondered how such a mild voice could send the hair pricking upright at the back of his head.

"Gwendolen, sir," said Mary.

But Chrestomanci shook his smooth black head. "No. Don't give a dog a bad name. It couldn't have been Gwendolen. Michael took her witchcraft away last night."

"Oh," said Mr.Saunders, rather red in the face. "Stupid of me!"

"So who could it have been?" Chrestomanci wondered.

There was another freezing silence. It seemed to Cat about as long as an Ice Age. During it, Julia began to smile. She drummed her fingers on her desk and looked meditatively at Janet. Janet saw her and jumped. She drew in her breath sharply. Cat panicked. He was sure Janet was going to say what Gwendolen had done. He said the only thing he could think of to stop her.

"I did it," he said loudly.

Cat could hardly bear the way they all looked at him. Julia was disgusted, Roger astonished. Mr.Saunders was fiercely angry. Mary looked at him as if he was a frog himself. But Chrestomanci was politely incredulous, and he was worst of all. "I beg your pardon, Eric," he said. "This was you?"

Cat stared at him with a strange misty wetness around his eyes. He thought it was due to terror. "It was a mistake," he said. "I was trying a spell. I...I didn't expect it to work. And then...and then Euphemia came in and turned into a frog. Just like that," he explained.

Chrestomanci said, "But you were told not to practice magic on your own."

"I know." Cat hung his head, without having to pretend. "But I knew it wouldn't work. Only it did, of course," he explained.

"Well, you must undo the spell at once," said Chrestomanci.

Cat swallowed. "I can't. I don't know how to."

Chrestomanci treated him to another look so polite, so scathing, and so unbelieving, that Cat would gladly have crawled under his desk had he been able to move at all. "Very well," said Chrestomanci. "Michael, perhaps you could oblige?"

Mary held the tray out. Mr.Saunders took Euphemia and put her on the schoolroom table. Euphemia croaked agitatedly. "Only a minute now," Mr.Saunders said soothingly. He held his hands cupped around her. Nothing happened. Looking a little puzzled, Mr. Saunders began to mutter things. Still nothing happened. Euphemia's head bobbed anxiously above his bony fingers, and she was still a frog. Mr.Saunders went from looking puzzled to looking baffled. "This is a very strange spell," he said. "What did you use, Eric?"

"I can't remember," said Cat.

"Well, it doesn't respond to anything I can do," said Mr.Saunders. "You'll have to do it, Eric. Come over here."

Cat looked helplessly at Chrestomanci, but Chrestomanci nodded as if he thought Mr.Saunders was quite right. Cat stood up. His legs had gone thick and weak, and his stomach seemed to have taken up permanent quarters in the Castle cellars. He slunk towards the table. When Euphemia saw him coming, she showed her opinion of the matter by taking a frantic leap off the edge of the table. Mr.Saunders caught her in midair and put her back.

"What do I do?" Cat said, and his voice sounded like Euphemia croaking.

Mr.Saunders took Cat by his left wrist and planted Cat's left hand on Euphemia's clammy back. "Now take it off her," he said.

"I...I..." said Cat. He supposed he ought to pretend to try. "Stop being a frog and turn into Euphemia again," he said, and wondered miserably what they would do to him when Euphemia didn't.

But, to his astonishment, Euphemia did. The frog turned warm under his fingers and burst into growth. Cat shot a look at Mr.Saunders as the brown lump grew furiously larger and larger. He was almost sure he caught a secret smile on Mr.Saunders' face. The next second, Euphemia was sitting on the edge of the table. Her clothes were a little crumpled and brown, but there was nothing else froggish about her. "I never dreamed it was you!" she said to Cat. Then she put her face in her hands and cried.

Chrestomanci came up and put his arm around her. "There, there, my dear. It must have been a terrible experience. I think you need to go and lie down." And he took Euphemia out of the room.

"Phew!" said Janet.

Mary grimly handed out the milk and biscuits. Cat did not want his. His stomach had not yet come back from the cellars. Janet refused biscuits.

"I think the food here is awfully fattening," she said unwisely. Julia took that as a personal insult. Her handkerchief came out and was knotted. Janet's glass of milk slipped through her fingers and smashed on the pitted floor.

"Clean it up," said Mr.Saunders. "Then get out, you and Eric. I've had enough of both of you. Julia and Roger, get out magic textbooks, please."

Cat took Janet out into the gardens. It seemed safest there. They wandered across the lawn, both rather limp after the morning's experiences.

"Cat," said Janet, "you're going to be very annoyed with me, but it's absolutely essential that I cling to you like a limpet all the time we're awake, until I know how to behave. You saved my bacon twice this morning. I thought I was going to die when she brought in that frog. Rigor mortis was setting in, and then you turned her back again! I didn't realize you were a witch too..no, it's a warlock, isn't it? Or are you a wizard?"

"I'm not," said Cat. "I'm not any of those things. Mr.Saunders did it to give me a fright."

"But Julia is a witch, isn't she?" said the shrewd Janet. "What have I done to make her hate me so...or is it just general Gwendolenitis?"

Cat explained about the snakes.

"In which case I don't blame her," said Janet. "But it's hard that she's in the schoolroom at the moment brushing up her witchcraft, and here I am without a rag of a spell to defend myself with. You don't know of a handy karate teacher, do you?"

"I never heard of one," Cat said cautiously, wondering what karate might be.

"Oh well," said Janet. "Chrestomanci's a wonderfully fancy dresser, isn't he?"

Cat laughed. "Wait till you see him in a dressing gown!"

"I hardly can. It must be something! Why is he so terrifying?"

"He just is," said Cat.

"Yes," said Janet. "He just is. When he saw the frog was Euphemia and went all mild and astonished like that, it froze the goose pimples on my back. I couldn't have told him I wasn't Gwendolen - not even under the most refined modern tortures - and that's why I shall have to stick to you. Do you mind terribly?"

"Not at all," said Cat. But he did rather. Janet could not have been more of a burden if she had been sitting on his shoulders with her legs wrapped around his chest. And to crown it all, it seemed as if there had been no need for his false confession. He took Janet to the ruins of the tree house because he wanted something else to think about. Janet was enchanted with it. She swung herself up into the horse chestnut to look at it, and Cat felt rather as you do when someone else gets into your railway carriage. "Be careful," he called crossly.

There was a strong rending noise up in the tree. "Drat!" said Janet. "These are ridiculous clothes for climbing trees in."

"Can't you sew?" Cat called as he climbed up too.

"I despise it as female bondage," said Janet. "Yes, I can, actually. And I'm going to have to. It was both petticoats." She tested the creaking floor that was all that remained of the house and stood up on it, trailing two different colors of frill below the hem of Gwendolen's dress. "You can see into the village from here. There's a butcher's cart just turning in to the Castle drive."

Cat climbed up beside her and they watched the cart and the dappled horse pulling it.

"Don't you have cars at all?" Janet asked. "Everyone has cars in my world."

"Rich people do," said Cat. "Chrestomanci sent his to meet us off the train."

"And you have electric light," said Janet. "But everything else is old-fashioned compared with my world. I suppose people can get what they want by witchcraft. Do you have factories, or long-playing records, or high-rise buildings, or television, or airplanes at all?"

"I don't know what airplanes are," said Cat. He had no idea what most of the other things were either, and he was bored with this talk.

Janet saw he was. She looked around for a change of subject and saw clusters of big green horse chestnut cases hanging all around them at the ends of the branches. The leaves there were already singed-looking around the edges, suggesting that the chestnuts could not be far off ripe. Janet edged out along a branch and tried to reach the nearest cluster of green cases. They bobbed at the tips of her fingers, just out of reach. "Oh, dachshunds!" she said. "They look almost ripe."

"They aren't," said Cat. "But I wish they were." He took a lathe out of the wreckage of the house and slashed at the chestnut cases with it. He missed, but he must have shaken them. Eight or so dropped off the tree and went plomp on the ground below.

"Who says they're not ripe?" said Janet, leaning down.

Cat craned out of the tree and saw brown shiny chestnuts showing in the split green cases. "Oh, hurray!" He came down the tree like a monkey, and Janet crashed after him, with her hair full of twigs. They scooped up the chestnuts greedily - wonderful chestnuts with grain on them like the contours in a map.

"A skewer!" Janet moaned. "My kingdom for a skewer! We can thread them on my bootlaces."

"Here's a skewer," said Cat. There was one lying on the ground by his left hand. It must have fallen out of the tree house.

They drilled chestnuts furiously. They took the laces out of Gwendolen's second-best boots. They discovered the rules of the game were the same in both their worlds, and they went to the formal garden and held a battle royal there on the gravel path. As Janet firmly smashed Cat's last chestnut and yelled, "Mine! Mine's a sevener now!" Millie came around a corner past a yew tree and stood laughing at them.

"Do you know, I wouldn't have thought the chestnuts were ripe yet. But it's been a lovely summer."

Janet looked at her in consternation. She had no idea who this plump lady in the beautiful flowered silk dress could be.

"Hallo, Millie," said Cat. Not that this helped Janet much.

Millie smiled and opened the handbag she was carrying. "There are three things Gwendolen needs, I think. Here." She handed Janet two safety pins and a packet of bootlaces. "I always believe in being prepared."

"Th-thanks," Janet stammered. She was horribly conscious of her gaping boots, her twig-filled hair, and the two trailing strips of petticoat. She was even more confused by not knowing who Millie was.

Cat knew that. He knew by now that Janet was one of those people who are not happy unless they have an explanation for everything. So he said fulsomely to Millie, "I do think Roger and Julia are lucky, having a mother like you, Millie."

Millie beamed and Janet looked enlightened. Cat felt dishonest. He did think that, but he would never have dreamed of saying it but for Janet.

Having gathered that Millie was Chrestomanci's wife, Janet was quite unable to resist going on and gathering as much more information as she could. "Millie," she said, "were Cat's parents first cousins like..I mean, were they? And what relation is Cat to you?"

"That sounds like those questions they ask you to find out how clever you are," said Millie. "And I don't know the answer, Gwendolen. It's my husband's family you're related to, you see, and I don't know too much about them. We need Chrestomanci here to explain, really."

As it happened, Chrestomanci came through the doorway in the garden wall at that moment. Millie rustled up to him, beaming.

"My love, we were needing you."

Janet, who had her head down, trying to pin her petticoats, glanced up at Chrestomanci and then looked thoughtfully down at the path, as if the stones and sand there had suddenly become rather interesting.

"It's quite simple," Chrestomanci said, when Millie had explained the question. "Frank and Caroline Chant were my cousins - and first cousins to one another too, of course. When they insisted on getting married, my family made a great fuss, and my uncles cut them off without a shilling in a thoroughly old-fashioned way. It is, you see, rather a bad thing for cousins to marry when there's witchcraft in the family. Not that cutting them off made the slightest difference, of course." He smiled at Cat. He seemed thoroughly friendly. "Does that answer the question?"

Cat had an inkling of how Gwendolen had felt. It was confusing and exasperating the way Chrestomanci would seem friendly when one ought to have been in disgrace. He could not resist asking, "Is Euphemia all right?"

Then he wished he had not asked. Chrestomanci's smile snapped off like a light. "Yes. She's feeling better now. You show touching concern, Eric. I believe you were so sorry for her that you hid her in a wardrobe?"

"My love, don't be so terrifying," Millie said, hooking her arm through Chrestomanci's. "It was an accident, and it's all over now." She led him away down the path. But, just before they went out of sight behind a yew tree, Chrestomanci turned and looked over his shoulder at Cat and Janet. It was his bewildered look, but it was far from reassuring.

"Hot-cross bun-wrappers! Jiminy purple creepers!" Janet whispered. "I'm beginning to hardly dare move in this place!" She finished pinning her petticoat. When Millie and Chrestomanci had had nearly a minute in which to walk out of hearing, she said, "She's sweet - Millie - an absolute honey. But him! Cat, is it possible Chrestomanci is a rather powerful enchanter?"

"I don't think he is," said Cat. "Why?"

"Well," said Janet, "partly it's the feeling he gives..."

"I don't get a feeling," said Cat. "I'm just frightened of him."

"That's it" said Janet. "You're probably muddled anyhow from having lived with witches all your life. But it isn't only a feeling. Have you noticed how he always comes when people call him? He's done it twice now."

"Those were two complete accidents," said Cat. "You can't build ideas on accidents."

"He disguises it quite well, I admit," said Janet. "He comes looking as if it was something else he was doing, but..."

"Oh, do shut up! You're getting as bad as Gwendolen. She couldn't stop thinking of him for a moment," Cat said crossly.

Janet pounded her open right boot on the gravel. "I am not Gwendolen! I'm not even really like her! Get that into your fat head, will you!"

Cat started to laugh.

"Why are you laughing?" said Janet.

"Gwendolen always stamps when she's angry too," said Cat.

"Gah!" said Janet.

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