Michael left the workbench and went to the door. Sophie peered through the dust she was raising and saw that this time Michael turned the square knob over the door so that the side with a blue blob of paint on it was downward. Then he opened the door on the street you saw out of the window.
A small girl stood there. “Please, Mr. Fisher,” she said, “I’ve come for that spell for me mum.”
“Safety spell for your dad’s boat, wasn’t it?” Michael said. “Won’t be a moment.” He went back to the bench and measured powder from a jar from the shelves into a square of paper. While he was doing it, the little girl peered in at Sophie as curiously as Sophie peered out at her. Michael twisted the paper round the powder and came back saying, “Tell her to sprinkle it right along the boat. It’ll last out and back, even if there’s a storm.”
The girl took the paper and passed over a coin. “Has the Sorcerer got a witch working for him too?” she asked.
“No,” said Michael.
“Meaning me?” Sophie called. “Oh, yes, my child. I’m the best and cleanest witch in Ingary.”
Michael shut the door, looking exasperated. “That will be all round Porthaven now. Howl may not like that.” He turned the knob green-down again.
Sophie cackled to herself a little, quite unrepentant. Probably she had let the besom she was using put ideas into her head. But it might persuade Howl to let her stay if everyone thought she was working for him. It was odd. As a girl, Sophie would have shriveled with embarrassment at the way she was behaving. As an old woman, she did not mind what she did or said. She found that a great relief.
She went nosily over as Michael lifted up a stone in the hearth and hid the little girl’s coin under it. “What are you doing?”
“Calcifer and I try to keep a store of money,” Michael said rather guiltily. “Howl spends every penny we’ve got if we don’t.”
“Feckless spendthrift!” Calcifer crackled. “He’ll spend the King’s money faster than I burn a log. No sense.”
Sophie sprinkled water from the sink to lay the dust, which made Calcifer shrink back against the chimney. Then she swept the floor all over again. She swept her way toward the door in order to have a look at the square knob above it. The fourth side, which she had not seen used yet, had a blob of black paint on it. Wondering where that led to, Sophie began briskly sweeping the cobwebs off the beams. Michael moaned and Calcifer sneezed again.
Howl came out of the bathroom just then in a waft of steamy perfume. He looked marvelously spruce. Even the silver inlets and embroidery on his suit seemed to have become brighter. He took one look and backed into the bathroom again with a blue-and-silver sleeve protecting his head.
“Stop it, woman!” he said. “Leave those poor spiders alone!”
“These cobwebs are a disgrace!” Sophie declared, fetching them down in bundles.
“Then get them down and leave the spiders,” said Howl.
Probably he had a wicked affinity with spiders, Sophie thought. “They’ll only make more webs,” she said.
“And kill flies, which is very useful,” said Howl. “Keep that broom still while I cross my own room, please.”
Sophie leaned on the broom and watched Howl cross the room and pick up his guitar. As he put his hand on the door latch, she said, “If the red blob leads to Kingsbury and the blue blob goes to Porthaven, where does the black blob take you?”
“What a nosy old woman you are!” said Howl. “That leads to my private bolt hole and you are not being told where it is.” He opened the door onto the wide, moving moorland and the hills.
“When will you be back, Howl?” Michael asked a little despairingly.
Howl pretended not to hear. He said to Sophie, “You’re not to kill a single spider while I’m away.” And the door slammed behind him. Michael looked meaningly at Calcifer and sighed. Calcifer crackled with malicious laughter.
Since nobody explained where Howl had gone, Sophie concluded he was off to hunt young girls again and got down to work with more righteous vigor than ever. She did not dare harm any spiders after what Howl had said. So she banged at the beams with the broom, screaming, “Out, spiders! Out of my way!” Spiders scrambled for their lives every which way, and webs fell in swathes. Then of course she had to sweep the floor yet again. After that, she got down on her knees and scrubbed it.
“I wish you’d stop!” Michael said, sitting on the stairs out of her way.
Calcifer, cowering at the back of the grate, muttered, “I wish I’d never made that bargain with you now!”
Sophie scrubbed on vigorously. “You’ll be much happier when it’s all nice and clean,” she said.
“But I’m miserable now!” Michael protested.
Howl did not come back again until late that night. By th
at time Sophie had swept and scrubbed herself into a state when she could hardly move. She was sitting hunched up in the chair, aching all over. Michael took hold of Howl by a trailing sleeve and towed him over to the bathroom, where Sophie could hear him pouring out complaints in a passionate mutter. Phrases like “terrible old biddy” and “won’t listen to a word!” were quite easy to hear, even though Calcifer was roaring, “Howl, stop her! She’s killing us both!”
But all Howl said, when Michael let go of him, was “Did you kill any spiders?”