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Charmed Life

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

By the time Janet had laced both her boots, Cat was sure it was lunchtime. He hurried Janet back to the private door. They had nearly reached it when a thick voice spoke among the rhododendrons.

"Young lady! Here a minute!"

Janet gave Cat an alarmed look and they both hurried for the door. It was not a pleasant voice. The rhododendrons clashed and rustled indignantly beside them. A fat old man in a dirty raincoat spilled out of them. Before they had recovered from the surprise of seeing him, he had scuttled around between them and the door, where he stood looking at them reproachfully out of drooping red eyes and breathing beer-scented breath over them.

"Hallo, Mr.Baslam," Cat said, for Janet's benefit.

"Didn't you hear me, young lady?" Mr.Baslam demanded.

Cat could see Janet was frightened of him, but she answered as coolly as Gwendolen might have done. "Yes, but I thought it was the tree speaking."

"The tree speaking!" said Mr.Baslam. "After all the trouble I been to for you, you take me for a tree! Three whole pints of butter I had to buy that butcher to have him bring me in that cart of his, and I'm fair jolted to bits!"

"What do you want?" Janet said nervously.

It's like this," said Mr.Baslam. He pulled aside his raincoat and searched slowly in the pockets of his loopy trousers.

"We have to go in for lunch," said Cat.

"All in good time, young gentleman. Here we are," said Mr.Baslam. He held his pale, grubby hand out towards Janet with two twinkling things in it. "These."

"Those are my mother's earrings!" Cat said, in surprise and for Janet's benefit. "How did you get those?"

"Your sister give them to me to pay for a little matter of some dragons' blood," said Mr.Baslam. "And I dare say it was in good faith, young lady, but they're no good to me."

"Why not?" asked Janet. "They look like...I mean, they're real diamonds."

"True enough," said Mr.Baslam. "But you never told me they was charmed, did you? They got a fearsome strong spell on them to stop them getting lost, these have. Terrible noisy spell. They was all night in the stuffed rabbit shouting out "I belong to Caroline Chant," and this morning I has to wrap them in a blanket before I dares take them to a man I know. And he wouldn't touch them. He said he wasn't going to risk anything shouting the name of Chant. So have them back, young lady. And you owe me fifty-five quid."

Janet swallowed. So did Cat. "I'm very sorry," Janet said. "I really had no idea. But...but I'm afraid I haven't any source of income at all. Couldn't you get the charm taken off?"

"And risk inquiries?" said Mr. Baslam. "That charm's deep in, I tell you."

"Then why aren't they shouting now?" said Cat.

"What do you think I am?" said Mr.Baslam. "Could I sit in the joints of mutton shouting out I belonged to Miss Chant? No. This man I know obliges me with a bit of a spell on account. But he says to me, he says, 'I can't only shut them up for an hour or so. That's a real strong charm. If you want it took off permanent, you'd have to take them to an enchanter. And that would cost you as much as the earrings are worth, besides getting questions asked.' Enchanters are important people, young lady. So here I sits in them bushes, scared to death the spell's going to wear off before you comes by, and now you say you've no income! No - you have them back, young lady, and hand over a little something on account instead."

Janet looked nervously at Cat. Cat sighed and felt in his pockets. All he had was half a crown. He offered it to Mr.Baslam.

Mr.Baslam backed away from it with a hurt, drooping look, like a whipped St.Bernard. "Fifty-five quid I ask for, and you offer me half a crown! Son, are you having a joke on me?"

"It's all either of us has got," said Cat, "at the moment. But we each get a crown piece every week. If we give you that, we'll have paid you back in..." He did hurried calculations. Ten shillings a week, fifty-two weeks in a year, twenty-six pounds a year. "It'll only take two years." Two years was an appalling time to be without money. Still, Mr.Baslam had got Gwendolen her dragons' blood, and it seemed fair that he should be paid.

But Mr.Baslam looked more hurt than ever. He turned away from Cat and Janet and gazed mournfully up at the Castle walls. "You live in a place like this, and tell me, you can only get hold of ten bob a week! Don't play cruel games with me. You can lay your hands on no end of lucre if you puts your minds to it."

"But we can't, honestly," Cat protested.

"I think you should try, young gentleman," said Mr.Baslam. "I'm not unreasonable. All I'm asking is twenty quid part payment, interest of ten percent included, and the price of the shutting-up spell thrown in. That should come quite easy to you."

"You know perfectly well it won't!" Janet said indignantly. "You'd better keep those earrings. Your stuffed rabbit may look pretty in them."

Mr.Baslam gave her a very whipped look. At the same time, a thin, singing noise began to come from the palm of his hand where the earrings lay. It was too faint for Cat to pick out the words, but it put paid to any notion that Mr.Baslam had been lying. Mr.Baslam's drooping look became less whipped. He looked more like a bloodhound hot on the trail. He let the earrings slide between his fat fingers and fall on the gravel.

"There they lie," he said, "if you care to stoop for them. I may remind you, young lady, that trade in dragons' blood is illicit, illegal, and banned. I've obliged you in it. You've fobbed me off. Now I'm telling you that I need twenty quid by next Wednesday. That should give you time. If I don't get it, then Chrestomanci hears of the dragons' blood Wednesday evening. And if he does, then I wouldn't be in your shoes, young lady, not for twenty thousand quid and a diamond tiara. Have I made myself clear?"

He had, appallingly. "Suppose we give you the dragons' blood back?" Cat suggested desperately. Gwendolen had taken Mr. Baslam's dragons' blood with her, of course, but there was always that huge jar of it in Mr.Saunders' workshop.

"What would I do with dragons' blood, son?" said Mr.Baslam. "I'm not a warlock. I'm only a poor supplier, and there's no demand for dragons' blood around here. It's the money I need. Twenty quid of it, by next Wednesday, and don't forget." He gave them a bloodhound nod which flapped his eyes and his cheeks, and edged back into the rhododendrons. They heard him rustling stealthily away.

"What a nasty old man!" Janet said in a shaken whisper. "I wish I really was Gwendolen. I'd turn him into a four-headed earwig. Ugh!" She bent and scrabbled the earrings up off the gravel.

Immediately the air by the door was filled with high, singing voices. "I belong to Caroline Chant! I belong to Caroline Chant!"

"Oh dear!" said Janet. "They know."

"Give them to me," said Cat. "Quick. Someone will hear."

Janet poured the earrings into Cat's palm. The voices stopped at once. "I can't get used to all this magic," said Janet. "Cat, what am I to do? How can I pay that horrible man?"

"There must be something we can sell," said Cat. "There's a junk shop in the village. Come on. We must get to lunch."

They hurried up to the playroom, to find that Mary had already put plates of stew and dumplings in their places.

"Oh, look," said Janet, who needed to relieve her feelings somehow. "Nourishing fattening lunch. How nice!"

Mary glared at both of them and left the room without speaking. Julia's look was quite as unpleasant. As Janet sat down in front of her stew, Julia pulled her handkerchief out of her sleeve, already knotted, and laid it in her lap. Janet put her fork into a dumpling. It stuck there. The dumpling was a white pebble, swimming with two others in a plateful of mud.

Janet carefully laid down her fork, with the pebble impaled on it, and put her knife neatly across the mud. She was trying to control herself but, for a moment, she looked like Gwendolen at her most furious. "I was quite hungry," she said.

Julia smiled. "What a pity," she said cosily. "And you've got no witchcraft to defend yourself with, have you?" She tied another smaller knot at the end of her handkerchief. "You've got all sorts of things in your hair, Gwendolen," she said as she pulled it tight. The twigs sticking in Janet's hair writhed and began dropping on the table and over her skirt. Each one was a large, stripy caterpillar.

Janet was no more bothered by wriggly things than Gwendolen. She picked the caterpillars off and put them in a heap in front of Julia. "I've a good mind to shout for your father," she said.

"Oh, no, don't be a telltale," said Roger. "Let her be, Julia."

"Certainly not," said Julia. "She's not getting any lunch."

After the meeting with Mr.Baslam, Cat was not really very hungry. "Here," he said, and changed his plate of stew with Janet's mud. Janet started to protest. But, as soon as the plate of mud was in front of Cat, it was steaming stew again. And the looping heap of caterpillars was simply a pile of twigs.

Julia turned to Cat, not at all pleased. "Don't you interfere. You annoy me. She treats you like a slave and all you do is stick up for her."

"But I only changed the plates!" Cat said, puzzled. "Why...?"

"It could have been Michael," Roger suggested.

Julia glowered at him too. "Was it you?" Roger blandly shook his head. Julia looked at him uncertainly.

"If I have to go without marmalade again," she said at length, "Gwendolen's going to know about it. And I hope the stew chokes you."

Cat found it hard to concentrate on lessons that afternoon. He had to watch Janet like a hawk. Janet had decided that the only safe thing was to be totally stupid - she thought Gwendolen must have been pretty stupid anyway - and Cat knew she was overdoing it. Even Gwendolen had known the twice-times table. Cat was worried too, in case Julia started knotting that handkerchief of hers when Mr.Saunders' back was turned. Luckily, Julia did not quite dare. But Cat's main worry was how to find twenty pounds by next Wednesday. He could hardly bear to think of what might happen if he did not. The very least thing, he knew, would be Janet confessing she was not Gwendolen. He thought of Chrestomanci giving him that scathing stare and saying, "You went with Gwendolen to buy dragons' blood, Eric? But you knew it was illegal. And you tried to cover up by making Janet pretend to be Gwendolen? You show touching concern, Eric." The mere idea made Cat shrivel up inside. But he had nothing to sell except a pair of earrings that shouted that they belonged to someone else. If he wrote to the Mayor of Wolvercote and asked if he could have twenty pounds out of the Fund, the Mayor would only write to Chrestomanci to ask why Cat wanted it. And then Chrestomanci would stare scathingly and say, "You went with Gwendolen to buy dragons' blood, Eric?" It was hopeless.

"Are you feeling well, Eric?" Mr.Saunders asked several times.

"Oh, yes," Cat replied each time. He was fairly sure that having your mind in three places at once did not count as illness, much as it felt like it.

"Play soldiers?" Roger suggested after lessons.

Cat would have liked to, but he dared not leave Janet on her own. "I've got to do something," he said.

"With Gwendolen. I know," Roger said wearily. "Anyone would think you were her left leg, or something."

Cat felt hurt. The annoying thing was that he knew Janet could have done without her left leg more easily than she could have done without him. As he hurried after Janet to Gwendolen's room, he wished heartily it was really Gwendolen he was hurrying after.

Inside the room, Janet was feverishly collecting things: Gwendolen's spell books, the ornaments on the mantelpiece, the gold-backed brush and hand mirror off the dressing table, the jar on the bedside table, and half the towels from the bathroom.

"What are you doing?" said Cat.

"Finding things we can sell. Is there anything you can bear to spare from your room?" said Janet.

"Don't look like that. I know it amounts to stealing, but I get so desperate when I think of that horrible Mr.Bisto going to Chrestomanci that I don't care anymore." She went to the wardrobe and rattled the clothes along the rail. "There's an awfully good coat in here."

"You'll need that on Sunday if it turns cold," Cat said drearily. "I'll go and see what I've got - only promise me to stay here until I come back."

"Sho' ting," said Janet. "I daren't move widd-out you, bwana. But hurry up."

There were fewer things in Cat's room, but he collected what he could find, and added the great sponge from the bathroom. He felt like a criminal. Janet and he wrapped their finds in two towels and crept downstairs with their chinking bundles, expecting someone to discover them any minute.

"I feel like a thief with the swag," Janet whispered. "Someone's going to shine a searchlight any second, and then the police will close in. Are there police here?"

"Yes," said Cat. "Do shut up."

But, as usual, there was no one about near the private door. They crept down the shiny passage and peeped outside. The space by the rhododendrons was empty. They crept out towards them. Trees that would hide Mr.Baslam would hide them and their loot.

They were three steps outside the door when a massed choir burst into song. Janet and Cat nearly jumped out of their skins. "We belong to Chrestomanci Castle! We belong to Chrestomanci Castle!" thundered forty voices. Some were deep, some were shrill, but all were very loud. They made a shattering noise. It took them a second or so to realize that the voices were coming from their bundles.

"Creeping antimacassars!" said Janet.

They turned around and ran for the door again, with the forty voices bawling in their ears.

Miss Bessemer opened the door. She stood tall and narrow and purple, waiting for them to come through it. There was nothing Janet and Cat could do but scuttle guiltily past her into the passage, where they put their suddenly silent bundles down on the floor and steeled themselves for trouble.

"What an awful noise, my loves!" said Miss Bessemer. "I haven't heard the like since a silly warlock tried to burgle us. What were you doing?"

Janet did not know who the stately purple lady was. She was too scared to speak. Cat had to say something. "We were wanting to play houses in the tree house," he said. "We needed some things for it." He was surprised how likely he made it sound.

"You should have told me, sillies!" said Miss Bessemer. "I could have given you some things that don't mind being taken outside. Run and put those back, and I'll look you out some nice furnishings for tomorrow."

They crept dismally back to Janet's room. "I just can't get used to the way everything's magic here," Janet moaned. "It's getting me down. Who was that long purple lady? I'm offering even money she's a sorceress."

"Miss Bessemer. The housekeeper," said Cat.

"Any hope that she'll give us splendid castoffs that will fetch twenty quid in the open market?" Janet asked. They both knew that was unlikely. They were no nearer thinking of another way to earn twenty pounds when the dressing gong went.

Cat had warned Janet what dinner was like. She had promised not to jump when footmen passed things over her shoulder, and sworn not to try and talk about statues with Mr.Saunders. She assured Cat she would not mind hearing Bernard talk of stocks and shares. So Cat thought that for once he could be easy. He helped Janet dress and even had a shower himself, and when they went into the drawing room, he thought that they both did him credit.

But Mr.Saunders proved at last to have worn out his craze for statues. Instead, everyone began to talk about identical twins, and then about exact doubles who were no relation. Even Bernard forgot to talk about shares in his interest in this new subject.

"The really difficult point," he boomed, leaning forward with his eyebrows working up and down his forehead, "is how such people fit in with a series of other worlds."

And, to Cat's dismay, the talk turned to other worlds. He might have been interested at any other time. Now he dared not look at Janet, and could only wish that everyone would stop. But they talked eagerly, all of them, particularly Bernard and Mr.Saunders. Cat learned that a lot was known about other worlds. Numbers had been visited. Those which were best known had been divided into sets, called series, according to the events in History which were the same in them. It was very uncommon for people not to have at least one exact double in a world of the same series - usually people had a whole string of doubles, all along the set.

"But what about doubles outside a series?" Mr. Saunders said. "I have at least one double in Series Three, and I suspect the existence of another in..."

Janet sat up sharply, gasping. "Cat, help! It's like sitting on pins!"

Cat looked at Julia. He saw the little smile on her face, and the tail end of her handkerchief above the table. "Change places," he whispered, feeling rather tired. He stood up. Everyone stared.

"All of which makes me feel that a satisfactory classification has not yet been found," Mr.Saunders said, as he turned Cat's way.

"Do you think," said Cat, "that I could change places with J...Gwendolen, please? She can't quite hear what Mr.Saunders is saying from there."

"Yes, and it's rivetingly interesting," Janet gasped, shooting from her chair.

"If you find it essential," Chrestomanci said, a little annoyed.

Cat sat in Janet's chair. He could feel nothing wrong with it. Julia put her head down and gave him a long, unpleasant look, and her elbows worked as she crossly untied her handkerchief. Cat saw that she was going to hate him too, now. He sighed. It was one thing after another.

Nevertheless, when Cat fell asleep that night, he was not feeling hopeless. He could not believe things could get any worse - so they had to get better. Perhaps Miss Bessemer would give them something very valuable, and they could sell it. Or, better still, perhaps Gwendolen would be back when he woke up, and already solving all his problems.

But when he went to Gwendolen's room in the morning, it was still Janet, struggling to tie her garters and saying over her shoulder, "These things are probably very bad for people. Do you wear them too? Or are they a female torture? And one useful thing magic could do would be to hold one's stockings up. It makes you think that witches can't be very practical."

She did talk a lot, Cat thought. But it was better than having no one in Gwendolen's place.

At breakfast, neither Mary nor Euphemia were at all friendly and, as soon as they left the room, one of the curtains wrapped itself around Janet's neck and tried to strangle her. Cat took it away. It fought him like a live thing because Julia was holding both ends of her handkerchief and pulling hard on the knot.

"Oh, do stop it, Julia!" he begged her.

"Yes, do," Roger agreed. "It's silly and it's boring. I need to enjoy my food in peace."

"I'm quite willing to be friends," Janet offered.

"That makes one of us," said Julia. "No."

"Then be enemies!" Janet snapped, almost in Gwendolen's manner. "I thought at first that you might be nice, but I can see now that you're just a tedious, pigheaded, cold-hearted, horny-handed, cross-eyed hag!"

That, of course, was calculated to make Julia adore her.

Luckily, Mr.Saunders appeared earlier than usual. There had only been time for Janet's marmalade to turn to orange worms, and change back again when Cat gave her his instead, and for Janet's coffee to become rich brown gravy, and turn to coffee again when Cat drank it, before Mr.Saunders stuck his head around the door. At least, Cat thought it was lucky, until Mr.Saunders said, "Eric, Chrestomanci wants to see you now, in his study."

Cat stood up. His stomach, full of charmed marmalade as it was, made an unusually rapid descent to the Castle cellars. Chrestomanci's found out, he thought. He knows about the dragons' blood and about Janet, and he's going to look at me politely and - Oh, I do hope he isn't an enchanter!

"Where...where do I go?" he managed to say.

"Take him, Roger," said Mr.Saunders.

"And - and why?" Cat asked.

Mr.Saunders smiled. "You'll find out. Off you go."

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