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Charmed Life

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

Chrestomanci's study was a large, sun-filled room with books in shelves all around it. There was a desk, but Chrestomanci was not sitting at it. He was sprawled on a sofa in the sun, reading a newspaper and wearing a green dressing gown with golden dragons on it. The gold embroidery of the dragons winked and glittered in the sun. Cat could not take his eyes off them. He stood just inside the door, not daring to go any farther, and he thought: He has found out about the dragons' blood.

Chrestomanci looked up and smiled. "Don't look so frightened," he said, laying down his newspaper. "Come and sit down."

He pointed to a large leather armchair. It was all in his friendliest way but, these days, Cat was sure this meant precisely nothing. He was sure that the friendlier Chrestomanci seemed, the angrier this meant he was. He stole over to the armchair and sat in it. It proved to be one of those deep, sloping kind of chairs. Cat slid backwards down the slippery leather slope of its seat until he found he was having to look at Chrestomanci from between his knees. He felt quite defenseless. He thought he ought to say something, so he whispered, "Good morning."

"You don't look as if you thought so," observed Chrestomanci. "No doubt you have your reasons. But don't worry. This isn't exactly about the frog again. You see, I've been thinking about you..."

"Oh, you needn't!" Cat said from his half-lying position. He felt that if Chrestomanci were to fix his thoughts on something on the other side of the universe, it would hardly be too far away.

"It didn't hurt much," said Chrestomanci. "Thank you all the same. As I was saying, the frog affair set me thinking. And though I fear you probably have as little moral sense as your wretched sister, I wondered if I could trust you. Do you think I can trust you?"

Cat had no idea where this could be leading, except that from the way Chrestomanci put it, he did not seem to trust Cat very much. "Nobody's ever trusted me before," Cat said cautiously - except Janet, he thought, and only because she had no choice.

"But it might be worth trying, don't you think?" suggested Chrestomanci. "I ask because I'm going to start you on witchcraft lessons."

Cat had simply not expected this. He was horrified. His legs waved about in the chair with the shock. He managed to stop them, but he was still horrified. The moment Mr.Saunders started trying to teach him magic, it would be obvious that Cat had no witchcraft at all. Then Chrestomanci would start to think about the frog all over again. Cat cursed the chance that had made Janet draw in her breath and caused him to confess. "Oh, you mustn't do that!" he said. "It would be quite fatal. I mean, you can't trust me at all. I'm black-hearted. I'm evil. It was living with Mrs.Sharp that did it. If I learned witchcraft, there's no knowing what I'd do. Look what I did to Euphemia."

"That," said Chrestomanci, "is just the kind of accident I'm anxious to prevent. If you learn how and what to do, you're far less likely to make that kind of mistake again."

"Yes, but I'd probably do it on purpose," Cat assured him. "You'll be putting the means in my hands."

"You have it there anyway," Chrestomanci said. "And witchcraft will out, you know. No one who has it can resist using it forever. What exactly makes you think you're so wicked?"

That question rather stumped Cat. "I steal apples," he said. "And," he suggested, "I was quite keen on some of the things Gwendolen did."

"Oh, me too," Chrestomanci agreed. "One wondered what she would think of next. How about her procession of nasties? Or those four apparitions?"

Cat shivered. He felt sick to think of them.

"Precisely," said Chrestomanci, and to Cat's dismay, he smiled warmly at him. "Right. We'll let Michael start you on Elementary Witchcraft on Monday."

"Oh, please don't!" Cat struggled out of the slippery chair in order to plead better. "I'll bring a plague of locusts. I'll be worse than Moses and Aaron."

Chrestomanci said musingly, "It might be quite useful if you parted the waters of the English Channel. Think of all the seasickness you'd save. Don't be so alarmed. We've no intention of teaching you to do things the way Gwendolen did."

Cat trailed forlornly back to the schoolroom to find them having Geography. Mr.Saunders was raging at Janet for not knowing where Atlantis was.

"How was I to know it's what I call America?" Janet asked Cat at lunchtime. "Though, mind you, that was a lucky guess when I said it was ruled by the Incas. What's the matter, Cat? You look ready to cry. He's not found out about Mr.Biswas, has he?"

"No, but it's quite as bad," said Cat, and he explained.

"This was all we needed!" said Janet. "Discovery threatens on all sides. But it may not be quite as bad as it seems, when I think. You might be able to work up a little magic if you practiced first. Let's see what we can do after school with Gwendolen's books that the dear, kind girl so obligingly left us." Cat was quite glad when lessons started again. He was sick of changing plates with Janet, and Julia's handkerchief must have been worn to rags with the number of knots tied in it. After lessons, he and Janet collected the two magic books and took them up to Cat's room. Janet looked around it with admiration.

"I like this room much better than mine. It's cheerful. Mine makes me feel like the Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, and they were both such sickeningly sweet girls. Now let's get down to work. What's a really simple spell?"

They knelt on the floor, leafing through a book each. "I wish I could find how to turn buttons into sovereigns," said Cat. "We could pay Mr.Baslam then."

"Don't talk about it," said Janet. "I'm at our wits' end. How about this? "Simple flotation exercise. Take a small mirror and lay it so that your face is visible in it. Keeping face visible, move around widder-shins three times, twice silently willing, the third time saying: "Rise little mirror, rise in air, rise to my head and then stay there." Mirror should then rise..." I think you ought to be able to manage that, Cat."

"I'll have a go," Cat said dubiously. "What's widdershins?"

"Anticlockwise," said Janet. "That I do know."

"I thought it meant crawling," Cat said humbly.

Janet looked at him consideringly. "I suppose you're quite small still," she said, "but you do worry me when you go all cowed. Has anyone done anything to you?"

"I don't think so," Cat said, rather surprised. "Why?"

"Well, I never had a brother," said Janet. "Fetch a mirror."

Cat got the hand mirror from his chest of drawers and laid it carefully in the middle of the floor. "Like that?"

Janet sighed. "That's what I mean. I knew you'd get it if I ordered you to. Do you mind not being so kind and obedient? It makes me nervous. Anyway..." She took up the book. "Can you see your face in it?"

"Almost nothing else," said Cat.

"Funny. I can see my face," said Janet. "Can I do it, too?"

"You're more likely to get it to work than I am," said Cat.

So they both circled the mirror, and they said the words in chorus. The door opened. Mary came in. Janet guiltily put the book behind her back.

"Yes, here he is," Mary said. She stood aside to let a strange young man come into the room. "This is Will Suggins," she said. "He's Euphemia's young man. He wants to talk to you, Eric."

Will Suggins was tall and burly and rather handsome. His clothes looked as if he had brushed them carefully after working in a bakery all day. He was not friendly. "It was you turned Euphemia into a frog, was it?" he said to Cat.

"Yes," said Cat. He dared say nothing else with Mary there.

"You're rather small," said Will Suggins. He seemed disappointed about it. "Anyway," he said, "whatever size you are, I'm not having Euphemia turned into things. I take exception to it. Understand?"

"I'm very sorry," said Cat. "I won't do it again."

"Too right you won't!" said Will Suggins. "You got off too light over this, by what Mary tells me. I'm going to teach you a lesson you won't forget in a hurry."

"No you're not!" said Janet. She marched up to Will Suggins and pushed "Magic for Beginners" threateningly towards him. "You're three times his size, and he's said he's sorry. If you touch Cat, I shall..." She took the book out of Will Suggins' chest in order to leaf hastily through it. "I shall induce complete immobility in the legs and trunk."

"And very pretty I shall look, I'm sure!" Will Suggins said, much amused. "How are you going to do that without your witchcraft, may I ask? And if you did, I daresay I could get out of it fast enough. I'm a fair warlock myself. Though," he said, turning to Mary, "you might have warned me he was this small."

"Not so small where witchcraft and mischief are concerned," said Mary. "Neither of them are. They're a pair of real bad lots."

"Well, I'll do it by witchcraft then. I'm easy," said Will Suggins. He searched in the pockets of his slightly floury jacket. "Ah!" he said, and fetched out what seemed to be a lump of dough. For a moment he shaped it vigorously in both powerful hands. Then he rolled it into a ball and threw it at Cat's feet. It landed on the carpet with a soft plop. Cat looked at it in great apprehension, wondering what it was supposed to do.

"That'll lie there," said Will Suggins, "until three o'clock Sunday. Sunday's a bad time to be at witchcraft, but it's my free day. I shall be waiting for you then in Bedlam Field, in the form of a tiger. I make a good tiger. You can turn yourself into something as large as you like, or small and fast, if you prefer, and I'll teach you that lesson whatever you are. But if you don't come to Bedlam Field in the form of something, that lump of dough will start to work and you'll be a frog yourself - for as long as I feel like keeping you that way. Right, Mary. I'm through now."

Will Suggins turned and marched out of the room. Mary followed him, but she was unable to resist putting her head back around the door to say, "And see how you like that, Eric!" before she shut it.

Cat and Janet looked at one another and then at the lump of dough. "What am I going to do?" said Cat.

Janet threw her book onto Cat's bed and tried to pick up the lump of dough. But it had grown to the carpet. She could not shift it. "You'd only get this up by cutting a hole in the floor," she said. "Cat, this gets worse and worse. If you'll forgive my saying so, I've stopped loving your sugar-coated sister even one tiny bit!"

"It was my fault," said Cat. "I shouldn't have lied about Euphemia. That's what got me in this mess, not Gwendolen."

"Mess is not a strong enough word," said Janet. "On Sunday, you get mauled by a tiger. On Monday, it comes out that you can't do magic. And if the whole story doesn't come out then, it will on Wednesday, when Mr.Bedlam calls for his money. Do you think Fate has something up its sleeve for Tuesday too? I suppose if you go to meet him on Sunday in the form of yourself, he can't hurt you much, can he? It's better than waiting to be turned into a frog."

"I'd better do that," Cat agreed, looking at that ominous lump of dough. "I wish I really could turn into things, though. I'd go as a flea. He'd scratch himself to bits trying to find me."

Janet laughed. "Let's see if there's a spell for it." She turned around to fetch Magic for Beginners and hit her head on the mirror. It was hanging in the air, level with her forehead. "Cat! One of us did it! Look!"

Cat looked, without much interest. He had too much else on his mind. "I expect it was you. You're the same as Gwendolen, so you're bound to be able to work spells. But changing into things won't be in either of those books. That's "Advanced Magic"."

"Then I'll do the spell to get the mirror down," said Janet. "Not that I want to be a witch. The more I see of witchcraft, the more it seems just an easy way to be nasty."

She had opened the book, when there was a knock at the door. Janet seized the chair beside Cat's bed and stood on it, so as to hide the mirror. Cat hastily dropped to one knee on top of the lump of dough. Neither of them wanted any more trouble.

Janet doubled Magic for Beginners inside out so that it could have been any book, and waved it at Cat. "Come into the garden, Maud," she proclaimed.

Taking this as an invitation, Miss Bessemer opened the door and came in. She was carrying an armful of things, with a chipped teapot hanging off one finger. "The furnishings I promised you, loves," she said.

"Oh," said Janet. "Oh, thanks very much. We were just having a poetry reading, you know."

"And I made sure you were talking to me!" Miss Bessemer said, laughing. "My name's Maud. Will these be all right on the bed?"

"Yes, thanks," said Cat.

Neither of them dared move. They twisted around to watch Miss Bessemer dump the armful on the bed and, still twisted, they thanked her profusely. As soon as Miss Bessemer had gone, they dived to see if, by any blessed chance, any of the pile was valuable. Nothing was. As Janet said, if they really had wanted to play houses, two stools and an old carpet would have been just the thing, but from a selling point of view, they were just a dead loss.

"It was kind of her to remember," Cat said as he packed the heap into his cupboard.

"Except that now we'll have to remember to play houses with them," Janet said morosely. "As if we hadn't enough to do. Now, I will get this mirror down. I will!"

But the mirror refused to come down. Janet tried all three spells in both books, and it still stayed hanging in the air level with her head.

"You try, Cat," said Janet. "We can't leave it there."

Cat roused himself from gloomily staring at the ball of dough. It was still round. There was no sign that he had knelt on it, and that alarmed him. He knew it must be a very strong charm. But when Janet appealed to him, he sighed and reached up to pull the mirror down. His experience with Julia had taught him that a simple spell could usually be broken quite simply.

The mirror refused to descend an inch. But it slid about in the air. Cat was interested. He hung on to it with both hands, pushed off with his feet, and went traveling across the room in a most agreeable way.

"That looks fun," said Janet.

"It is," said Cat. "You try."

They played with the mirror for some time after that. It could go as fast as they could push it, and it took the weight of both of them easily. Janet discovered that the best ride was to be had by standing on the chest of drawers and jumping. Then, provided you kept your feet up, you could swing across the room and land on Cat's bed. They were whirling together across the carpet, tangled up and laughing a good deal, when Roger knocked at the door and came in.

"I say, that's a good idea!" he said. "We've never thought of that. Can I have a go? And I met a peculiar cross-eyed man in the village, Gwendolen, and he gave me this letter for you."

Cat dropped off onto the carpet and took the letter. It was from Mr.Nostrum. Cat recognized the writing. He was so pleased that he said to Roger, "Have twenty goes if you want!" and rushed up to Janet with the letter. "Read it, quick! What does it say?"

Mr.Nostrum could get them out of their troubles. He might not be much of a necromancer, but he was surely able to turn Cat into a flea, if Janet asked him nicely. He would certainly have a charm that could make Cat look as if he could do magic. And though Mr.Nostrum was not rich, his brother William was. He could lend Cat twenty pounds, if he thought he was helping Gwendolen.

Cat sat on the bed beside Janet and they read the letter, while Roger trundled about the room dangling from the mirror and chuckling placidly at what fun it was. Mr.Nostrum wrote:

"My dear and favorite pupil,

I am here, domiciled at the White Hart Inn. It is most important - I repeat, of the utmost importance - that you come to me here on Saturday afternoon, bringing your brother to be briefed by me.

Your affectionate and proud teacher, Henry Nostrum"

At this, Janet looked nervous and mystified and moaned gently.

"I hope it's not bad news," Roger said, sailing past with his feet hooked up behind him.

"No, it's the best news we could have had!" Cat said. He dug Janet in the ribs to make her smile. She smiled dutifully, but he could not make her see that it was good news, even when he had a chance to explain.

"If he taught Gwendolen, he'll know I'm not her," she said. "And if he doesn't know, he won't understand why you want to be turned into a flea. It is an odd thing to go and ask, even in this world. And he'd want to know why I couldn't do it to you. Couldn't we tell him the truth?"

"No, because it's Gwendolen he's fond of," Cat explained. Something told him that Mr.Nostrum would be almost as little pleased as Chrestomanci to find that Gwendolen had departed for another world. "And he's got some kind of plans for her."

"Yes, this briefing," Janet said irritably. "He obviously thinks I know all about it. If you ask me, Cat, it's just one more damned thing!"

Nothing could convince Janet that salvation was at hand. Cat was quite sure it was. He went to sleep rejoicing, and woke up happy. He still felt happy, even when he trod on the lump of dough and it was cold and froglike under his foot. He covered it up with "Magic for Beginners". Then he had to turn his attention to the mirror. It would keep drifting out into the middle of the room. Cat had to tether it to the bookcase with his Sunday bootlace in the end.

He found Janet less happy than ever. Julia's latest idea was a mosquito. It met Janet as she came into breakfast, and it kept with her, whining in and biting, all through lessons, until Cat swatted it with his arithmetic book. What with this, and nasty looks from both Julia and Mary, and then having to meet Mr.Nostrum, Janet became both peevish and miserable.

"It's all right for you," she said morbidly, as they tramped down the avenue on their way to the village that afternoon. "You've been brought up with all this magic and you're used to it. But I'm not. And what scares me is that it's forever. And it scares me even more that it isn't forever. Suppose Gwendolen gets tired of her new world and decides to move on again? When that happens, off we shall be dragged, a whole string of us doubles, and I'll be having to cope in her world, and you'll have all your troubles over again with a new one."

"Oh, I'm sure that won't happen," Cat said, rather startled at the possibility. "She's bound to come back soon."

"Oh, is she?" said Janet. They came through the gates, and again mothers snatched children out of their sight, and the village green emptied as they reached it. "I wish I was back at home!" Janet wailed, almost in tears at the way everyone ran away.

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