Howl's Moving Castle (Howl's Moving Castle 1) - Page 51

“What’s all this, now?” said Howl, arriving in the shop. He bent over the bucket and sniffed. “You seem to have some rather efficient weed-killer here. How about trying it on those weeds on the drive of the mansion?”

“I will,” said Sophie. “I feel like killing something!” She slammed around until she had found a watering can, and stumped through into the castle with the can and the bucket, where she hurled open the door, orange-down, onto the mansion drive. Percival looked up anxiously. They had given him the guitar, rather as you gave a baby a rattle, and he was sitting making horrible twangings.

“You go with her, Percival,” Howl said. “The mood she’s in, she’ll be killing all the trees too.”

So Percival laid down the guitar and took the bucket carefully out of Sophie’s hand. Sophie stumped out into a golden summer evening at the end of the valley. Everyone had been too busy up to now to pay much attention to the mansion. It was much grander than Sophie had realized. It had a weedy terrace with statues along the edge, and steps down to the drive. When Sophie looked back—on the pretext of telling Percival to hurry up—she saw the house was very big, with more statues along the roof, and rows of windows. But it was derelict. Green mildew ran down the peeling wall from every window. Many of the windows were broken, and the shutters that should have folded against the wall beside them were gray and blistered and hanging sideways.

“Huh!” said Sophie. “I think the least Howl could do is to make the place look a bit more lived in. But no! He’s far too busy gadding off to Wales! Don’t just stand there, Percival! Pour some of that stuff into the can and then come along behind me.”

Percival meekly did as she said. He was no fun at all to bully. Sophie suspected that was why Howl had sent him with her. She snorted, and took her anger out on the weeds. Whatever the stuff was that had killed the daffodils, it was strong. The weeds in the drive died as soon as it touched them. So did the grass at the sides of the drive, until Sophie calmed down a little. The evening calmed her. The fresh air was blowing off the distant hills, and clumps of trees planted at the sides of the drive rustled majestically in it.

Sophie weed-killed her way down a quarter of the drive. “You remember a great deal more than you let on,” she accused Percival while he refilled her can. “What did the Witch really want with you? Why did she bring you into the shop with her that time?”

“She wanted to find out about Howl,” Percival said.

“Howl?” said Sophie. “But you didn’t know him, did you?”

“No, but I must have known something. It had to do with the curse she’d put on him,” Percival explained, “but I’ve no idea what it was. She took it, you see, after we came to the shop. I feel bad about that. I was trying to stop her knowing, because a curse is an evil thing, and I did it by thinking about Lettie. Lettie was just in my head. I don’t know how I knew her, because Lettie said she’d never seen me when I went to Upper Folding. But I knew all about her—enough so that when the Witch made me tell her about Lettie, I said she kept a hat shop in Market Chipping. So the Witch went there to teach us both a lesson. And you were there. She thought you were Lettie. I was horrified, because I didn’t know Lettie had a sister.”

Sophie picked up the can and weed-killed generously, wishing the weeds were the Witch. “And she turned you into a dog straight after that?”

“Just outside the town,” said Percival. “As soon as I’d let her know what she wanted, she opened the carriage door and said, ‘Off you run. I’ll call you when I need you.’ And I ran, because I could feel some sort of spell following me. It caught up just as I’d got to a farm, and the people there saw me change into a dog and thought I was a werewolf and tried to kill me. I had to bite one to get away. But I couldn’t get rid of the stick, and it stuck in the hedge when I tried to get through.”

Sophie weed-killed her way down another curve of the drive as she listened. “Then you went to Mrs. Fairfax’s?”

“Yes. I was looking for Lettie. They were both very kind to me,” Percival said, “even though they’d never seen me before. And Wizard Howl kept visiting to court Lettie. Lettie didn’t want him, and she asked me to bite him to get rid of him, until Howl suddenly began asking her about you and—”

Sophie narrowly missed weed-killing her shoes. Since the gravel was smoking where the stuff met it, this was probably just as well. “What?”

“He said, ‘I know someone called Sophie who looks a little like you.’ And Lettie said, ‘That’s my sister,’ without thinking,” Percival said. “And she got terribly worried then, particularly as Howl went on asking about her sister. Lettie said she could have bitten her tongue off. The day you came there, she was being nice to Howl in order to find out how he knew you. Howl said you were an old woman. And Mrs. Fairfax said she’d seen you. Lettie cried and cried. She said, ‘Something terrible has happened to Sophie! And the worst of it is she’ll think she’s safe from Howl. Sophie’s too kind herself to see how heartless Howl is!’ And she was so upset that I managed to turn into a man long enough to say I’d go and keep an eye on you.”

Sophie spread weed-killer in a great, smoking arc. “Bother Lettie! It’s very kind of her, and I love her dearly for it. I’ve been quite as worried about her. But I do not need a watchdog!”

“Yes you do,” said Percival. “Or you did. I arrived far too late.”

Sophie swung round, weed-killer and all. Percival had to leap into the grass and run for his life behind the nearest tree. The grass died in a long brown swathe behind him as he ran. “Curse ev

eryone!” Sophie cried out. “I’ve done with the lot of you!” She dumped the smoking watering can in the middle of the drive and marched off through the weeds toward the stone gateway. “Too late!” she muttered as she marched. “What nonsense! Howl’s not only heartless, he’s impossible! Besides,” she added, “I am an old woman.”

But she could not deny that something had been wrong ever since the moving castle moved, or even before that. And it seemed to tie up with the way Sophie seemed so mysteriously unable to face either of her sisters.

“And all the things I told the King are true!” she went on. She was going to march seven leagues on her own two feet and not come back. Show everyone! Who cared that poor Mrs. Pentstemmon had relied on Sophie to stop Howl from going to the bad! Sophie was a failure anyway. It came of being the eldest. And Mrs. Pentstemmon had thought Sophie was Howl’s loving old mother anyway. Hadn’t she? Or had she? Uneasily, Sophie realized that a lady whose trained eye could detect a charm sewn into a suit could surely even more easily detect the stronger magic of the Witch’s spell.

“Oh, confound that gray-and-scarlet suit!” Sophie said. “I refuse to believe that I was the one that got caught with it!” The trouble was the blue-and-silver suit seemed to have worked just the same. She stumped a few steps further. “Anyway,” she said with great relief, “Howl doesn’t like me!”

This reassuring thought would have been enough to keep Sophie walking all night, had not a sudden familiar uneasiness swept over her. Her ears had caught a distant tock, tock, tock. She looked sharply under the low sun. And there, on the road which wound away behind the stone gate, was a distant figure with outstretched arms, hopping, hopping.

Sophie picked up her skirts, whirled round, and sped back the way she had come. Dust and gravel flew up round her in clouds. Percival was standing forlornly in the drive beside the bucket and the watering can. Sophie seized him and dragged him behind the nearest trees.

“Is something wrong?” he said.

“Quiet! It’s that dratted scarecrow again,” Sophie gasped. She shut her eyes. “We’re not here,” she said. “You can’t find us. Go away. Go away fast, fast, fast!”

“But why—?” said Percival.

“Shut up! Not here, not here, not here!” Sophie said desperately. She opened one eye. The scarecrow, almost between the gateposts, was standing still, swaying uncertainly. “That’s right,” said Sophie. “We’re not here. Go away fast. Twice as fast, three times as fast, ten times as fast. Go away!”

And the scarecrow hesitantly swayed round on its stick and began to hop back up the road. After the first few hops it was going in giant leaps, faster and faster, just as Sophie had told it to. Sophie hardly breathed, and did not let go of Percival’s sleeve until the scarecrow was out of sight.

Tags: Diana Wynne Jones Howl's Moving Castle Fantasy
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