“I’m just leaving, my good beast!” Sophie cried, hopping herself round frantically.
Zip! Back to the mansion. Zip! to
. Zip! and there was the castle yet again. She was getting the hang of it. Zip! Here was Upper Folding—but how did you stop? Zip!
“Oh, confound it!” Sophie cried, almost in Marsh Folding again.
This time she hopped round very carefully and trod with great deliberation. Zip! And fortunately the boot landed in a cowpat and she sat down with a thump. Michael sprinted up before Sophie could move and dragged the boot off her foot. “Thank you!” Sophie cried breathlessly. “There seemed no reason why I should ever stop!”
eart pounded a bit as they walked across the common to Mrs. Fairfax’s house, but only in the way hearts do when you have done a lot rather quickly. She felt very grateful for whatever Howl and Calcifer had done.
“Nice place,” Michael remarked as he hid the boots in Mrs. Fairfax’s hedge.
Sophie agreed. The house was the biggest in the village. It was thatched, with white walls between the black beams, and, as Sophie remembered from visits as a child, you walked up to the porch through a garden crowded with flowers and humming with bees. Over the porch a honeysuckle and a white climbing rose were competing as to which could give most work to the bees. It was a perfect, hot summer morning down here in Upper Folding.
Mrs. Fairfax answered the door herself. She was one of those plump, comfortable ladies, with swathes of butter-colored hair coiled round her head, who made you feel good with life just to look at her. Sophie felt just the tiniest bit envious of Lettie. Mrs. Fairfax looked from Sophie to Michael. She had seen Sophie last a year ago as a girl of seventeen, and there was no reason for her to recognize her as an old woman of ninety. “Good morning to you,” she said politely.
Sophie sighed. Michael said, “This is Lettie Hatter’s great-aunt. I brought her here to see Lettie.”
“Oh, I thought the face looked familiar!” Mrs. Fairfax exclaimed. “There’s quite a family likeness. Do come in. Lettie’s a little bit busy just now, but have some scones and honey while you wait.”
She opened her front door wider. Instantly a large collie dog squeezed past Mrs. Fairfax’s skirts, barged between Sophie and Michael, and ran across the nearest flower bed, snapping off flowers right and left.
“Oh, stop him!” Mrs. Fairfax gasped, flying off in pursuit. “I don’t want him out just now!”
There was a minute or so of helter-skelter chase, in which the dog ran hither and thither, whining in a disturbed way, and Mrs. Fairfax and Sophie ran after the dog, jumping flower beds and getting in one another’s way, and Michael ran after Sophie crying, “Stop! You’ll make yourself ill!” Then the dog set off loping round one corner of the house. Michael realized that the way to stop Sophie was to stop the dog. He made a crosswise dash through the flower beds, plunged round the house after the dog, and seized it by two handfuls of its thick coat just as it reached the orchard at the back.
Sophie hobbled up to find Michael pulling the dog away backward and making such strange faces at her that she thought at first he was ill. But he jerked his head so often toward the orchard that she realized he was only trying to tell her something. She stuck her face round the corner of the house, expecting to see a swarm of bees.
Howl was there with Lettie. They were in a grove of mossy apple trees in full bloom, with a row of beehives in the distance. Lettie sat in a white garden seat. Howl was kneeling on one knee in the grass at her feet, holding one of her hands and looking noble and ardent. Lettie was smiling lovingly at him. But the worst of it, as far as Sophie was concerned, was that Lettie did not look like Martha at all. She was her own extremely beautiful self. She was wearing a dress of the same kind of pinks and white as the crowded apple blossom overhead. Her dark hair trailed in glossy curls over one shoulder and her eyes shone with devotion for Howl.
Sophie brought her head back round the corner and looked with dismay at Michael holding the whining collie dog. “He must have had a speed spell with him,” Michael whispered, equally dismayed.
Mrs. Fairfax caught them up, panting and trying to pin back a loose coil of her buttery hair. “Bad dog!” she said in a fierce whisper to the collie. “I’ll put a spell on you if you do that once more!” The dog blinked and crouched down. Mrs. Fairfax pointed a stern finger. “Into the house! Stay in the house!” The collie shook himself free of Michael’s hands and slunk away round the house again. “Thank you so much,” Mrs. Fairfax said to Michael as they all followed it. “He will keep trying to bite Lettie’s visitor. Inside!” she shouted sternly in the front garden, as the collie seemed to be thinking of going round the house and getting to the orchard the other way. The dog gave her a woeful look over its shoulder and crawled dismally indoors through the porch.
“That dog may have the right idea,” Sophie said. “Mrs. Fairfax, do you know who Lettie’s visitor is?”
Mrs. Fairfax chuckled. “The Wizard Pendragon, or Howl, or whatever he calls himself,” she said. “But Lettie and I don’t let on we know. It amused me when he first turned up, calling himself Sylvester Oak, because I could see he’d forgotten me, though I hadn’t forgotten him, even though his hair used to be black in his student days.” Mrs. Fairfax by now had her hands folded in front of her and was standing bolt upright, prepared to talk all day, as Sophie had often seen her do before. “He was my old tutor’s very last pupil, you know, before she retired. When Mr. Fairfax was alive, he used to like me to transport us both to Kingsbury to see a show from time to time. I can manage two very nicely if I take it slowly. And I always used to drop in on old Mrs. Pentstemmon while I was there. She likes her old pupils to keep in touch. And one time she introduced this young Howl to us. Oh, she was proud of him. She taught Wizard Suliman too, you know, and she said Howl was twice as good—”
“But don’t you know the reputation Howl has?” Michael interrupted.
Getting into Mrs. Fairfax’s conversation was rather like getting into a turning skipping rope. You had to choose the exact moment, but once you were in, you were in. Mrs. Fairfax turned herself slightly to face Michael.
“Most of it’s just talk, to my mind,” she said. Michael opened his mouth to say that it was not, but he was in the skipping rope then and it went on turning. “And I said to Lettie, ‘Here’s your big chance, my love.’ I knew Howl could teach her twenty times more than I could—for I don’t mind telling you, Lettie’s brains go way beyond mine, and she could end up in the same league as the Witch of the Waste, only in a good way. Lettie’s a good girl and I’m fond of her. If Mrs. Pentstemmon was still teaching, I’d have Lettie to her tomorrow. But she isn’t. So I said, ‘Lettie, here’s Wizard Howl courting you and you could do worse than fall in love with him yourself and let him be your teacher. The pair of you will go far.’ I don’t think Lettie was too keen on the idea at first, but she’s been softening lately, and today it seems to be going beautifully.”
Here Mrs. Fairfax paused to beam benevolently at Michael, and Sophie dashed into the skipping rope for her turn. “But someone told me Lettie was fond of someone else,” she said.
“Sorry for him, you mean,” said Mrs. Fairfax. She lowered her voice. “There’s a terrible disability there,” she whispered suggestively, “and it’s asking too much of any girl. I told him so. I’m sorry for him myself—”
Sophie managed a mystified “Oh?”
“—but it’s a fearsomely strong spell. It’s very sad,” Mrs. Fairfax wound on. “I had to tell him that there’s no way someone of my abilities can break anything that’s put on by the Witch of the Waste. Howl might, but of course he can’t ask Howl, can he?”
Here Michael, who kept looking nervously to the corner of the house in case Howl came round it and discovered them, managed to trample through the skipping rope and stop it by saying, “I think we’d better be going.”