In which Charmain is volunteered to look after a wizard's house
"Charmain must do it," said Aunt Sempronia. "We can't leave Great-Uncle William to face this on his own."
"Your Great-Uncle William?" said Mrs. Baker. "Isn't he—" She coughed and lowered her voice because this, to her mind, was not quite nice. "Isn't he a wizard?"
"Of course," said Aunt Sempronia. "But he has—" Here she too lowered her voice. "He has a growth, you know, on his insides, and only the elves can help him. They have to carry him off in order to cure him, you see, and someone has to look after his house. Spells, you know, escape if there's no one there to watch them. And I am far too busy to do it. My stray dogs' charity alone—"
"Me too. We're up to our ears in wedding cake orders this month," Mrs. Baker said hastily. "Sam was saying only this morning—"
"Then it has to be Charmain," Aunt Sempronia decreed. "Surely she's old enough now."
"Er—" said Mrs. Baker.
They both looked across the parlor to where Mrs. Baker's daughter sat, deep in a book, as usual, with her long, thin body bent into what sunlight came in past Mrs. Baker's geraniums, her red hair pinned up in a sort of birds' nest, and her glasses perched on the end of her nose. She held one of her father's huge juicy pasties in one hand and munched it as she read. Crumbs kept falling on her book, and she brushed them off with the pasty when they fell on the page she was reading.
"Er . . . did you hear us, dear?" Mrs. Baker said anxiously.
"No," Charmain said with her mouth full. "What?"
"That's settled, then," Aunt Sempronia said. "I'll leave it to you to explain to her, Berenice, dear." She stood up, majestically shaking out the folds of her stiff silk dress and then of her silk parasol. "I'll be back to fetch her tomorrow morning," she said. "Now I'd better go and tell poor Great-Uncle William that Charmain will be taking care of things for him."
She swept out of the parlor, leaving Mrs. Baker to wish that her husband's aunt was not so rich or so bossy, and to wonder how she was going to explain to Charmain, let alone to Sam. Sam never allowed Charmain to do anything that was not utterly respectable. Nor did Mrs. Baker either, except when Aunt Sempronia took a hand.
Aunt Sempronia, meanwhile, mounted into her smart little pony-trap and had her groom drive her beyond the other side of town where Great-Uncle William lived.
"I've fixed it all up," she announced, sailing through the magic ways to where Great-Uncle William sat glumly writing in his study. "My great-niece Charmain is coming here tomorrow. She will see you on your way and look after you when you come back. In between, she will take care of the house for you."
"How very kind of her," said Great-Uncle William. "I take it she is well versed in magic, then?"
"I have no idea," said Aunt Sempronia. "What I do know is that she never has her nose out of a book, never does a hand's turn in the house, and is treated like a sacred object by both her parents. It will do her good to do something normal for a change."
"Oh, dear," said Great-Uncle William. "Thank you for warning me. I shall take precautions, then."
"Do that," said Aunt Sempronia. "And you had better make sure there is plenty of food in the place. I've never known a girl who eats so much. And remains thin as a witch's besom with it. I've never understood it. I'll bring her here tomorrow before the elves come, then."
She turned and left. "Thank you," Great-Uncle William said weakly to her stiff, rustling back. "Dear, dear," he added, as the front door slammed. "Ah, well. One has to be grateful to one's relatives, I suppose."
Charmain, oddly enough, was quite grateful to Aunt Sempronia too. Not that she was in the least grateful for being volunteered to look after an old, sick wizard whom she had never met. "She might have asked me!" she said, rather often, to her mother.
"I think she knew you would say no, dear," Mrs. Baker suggested eventually.
"I might have," Charmain said. "Or," she added, with a secretive smile, "I might not have."
"Dear, I'm not expecting you to enjoy it," Mrs. Baker said tremulously. "It's not at all nice. It's just that it would be so very kind—"
"You know I'm not kind," Charmain said, and she went away upstairs to her white frilly bedroom, where she sat at her nice desk, staring out of her window at the roofs, towers, and chimneys of High Norland City, and then up at the blue mountains beyond. The truth was, this was the chance she had been longing for. She was tired of her respectable school and very tired of living at home, with her mother treating her as if Charmain were a tigress no one was sure was tame, and her father forbidding her to do things because they were not nice, or not safe, or not usual. This was a chance to leave home and do something—the one thing—Charmain had always wanted to do. It was worth putting up with a wizard's house just for that. She wondered if she had the courage to write the letter that went with it.
For a long time she had no courage at all. She sat and stared at the clouds piling along the peaks of the mountains, white and purple, making shapes like fat animals and thin swooping dragons. She stared until the clouds had wisped away into nothing but faint mist against a blue sky. Then she said, "Now or nothing." After that she sighed, fetched her glasses up on . . .
Excerpted from House of Many Ways by Diana Jones Copyright © 2008 by Diana Jones. Excerpted by permission.
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