“Before you ask,” said Howl, “it’s really just a disused stable. This way.”
They walked through the streets, looking at least as fine as any of the passersby. Not that many people were about. Kingsbury was a long way south and it was a bakingly hot day there. The pavements shimmered, Sophie discovered another disadvantage to being old: you felt queer in hot weather. The elaborate buildings wavered in front of her eyes. She was annoyed, because she wanted to look at the place, but all she had was a dim impression of golden domes and tall houses.
“By the way,” Howl said, “Mrs. Pentstemmon will call you Mrs. Pendragon. Pendragon’s the name I go under here.”
“Whatever for?” said Sophie.
“For disguise,” said Howl. “Pendragon’s a lovely name, much better than Jenkins.”
“I get by quite well with a plain name,” Sophie said as they turned into a blessedly narrow, cool street.
“We can’t all be Mad Hatters,” said Howl.
Mrs. Pentstemmon’s house was gracious and tall, near the end of the narrow street. It had orange trees in tubs on either side of its handsome front door. This door was opened by an elderly footman in black velvet, who led them into a wonderfully cool black-and-white checkered marble hall, where Michael tried secretly to wipe sweat off his face. Howl, who always seemed to be cool, treated the footman as an old friend and made jokes to him.
The footman passed them on to a page boy in red velvet. Sophie, as the boy led them ceremoniously up polished stairs, began to see why this made good practice for meeting the King. She felt as if she were in a palace already. When the boy ushered them into a shaded drawing room, she was sure even a palace could not be this elegant. Everything in the room was blue and gold and white, and small and fine. Mrs. Pentstemmon was finest of all. She was tall and thin, and she sat bolt upright in a blue-and-gold embroidered chair, supporting herself rigidly with one hand, in a gold-mesh mitten, on a gold-topped cane. She wore old-gold silk, in a very stiff and old-fashioned style, finished off with an old-gold headdress not unlike a crown, which tied in a large old-gold bow beneath her gaunt eagle face. She was the finest and most frightening lady Sophie had ever seen.
“Ah, my dear Howell,” she said, holding out a gold-mesh mitten.
Howl bent and kissed the mitten, as he was obviously supposed to. He did it very gracefully, but it was rather spoiled from back view by Howl flapping his other hand furiously at Michael behind his back. Michael, a little too slowly, realized he was supposed to stand by the door beside the page boy. He backed there in a hurry, only too pleased to get as far away from Mrs. Pentstemmon as he could.
“Mrs. Pentstemmon, allow me to present my old mother,” Howl said, waving his hand at Sophie. Since Sophie felt just like Michael, Howl had to flap his hand at her too.
“Charmed. Delighted,” said Mrs. Pentstemmon, and she held her gold mitten out to Sophie. Sophie was not sure if Mrs. Pentstemmon meant her to kiss the mitten as well, but she could not bring herself to try. She laid her own hand
on the mitten instead. The hand under it felt like an old, cold claw. After feeling it, Sophie was quite surprised that Mrs. Pentstemmon was alive. “Forgive my not standing up, Mrs. Pendragon,” Mrs. Pentstemmon said. “My health is not good. It forced me to retire from teaching three years ago. Pray sit down, both of you.”
Trying not to shake with nerves, Sophie sat grandly in the embroidered chair opposite Mrs. Pentstemmon’s, supporting herself on her stick in what she hoped was the same elegant way. Howl spread himself gracefully in a chair next to it. He looked quite at home, and Sophie envied him.
“I am eighty-six,” Mrs. Pentstemmon announced. “How old are you, my dear Mrs. Pendragon?”
“Ninety,” Sophie said, that being the first high number that came into her head.
“So old?” Mrs. Pentstemmon said with what may have been slight, stately envy. “How lucky you are to move so nimbly still.”
“Oh, yes, she’s so wonderfully nimble,” Howl agreed, “that sometimes there’s no stopping her.”
Mrs. Pentstemmon gave him a look which told Sophie she had been a teacher at least as fierce as Miss Angorian. “I am talking to your mother,” she said. “I daresay she is as proud of you as I am. We are two old ladies who both had a hand in forming you. You are, one might say, our joint creation.”
“Don’t you think I did any of me myself, then?” Howl asked. “Put in just a few touches of my own?”
“A few, and those not altogether to my liking,” Mrs. Pentstemmon replied. “But you will not wish to sit here and hear yourself being discussed. You will go down and sit on the terrace, taking your page boy with you, where Hunch will bring you both a cool drink. Go along.”
If Sophie had not been so nervous herself, she might have laughed at the expression on Howl’s face. He had obviously not expected this to happen at all. But he got up, with only a slight shrug, made a slight warning face at Sophie, and shooed Michael out of the room ahead of him. Mrs. Pentstemmon turned her rigid body very slightly to watch them go. Then she nodded at the page boy, who scuttled out of the room too. After that, Mrs. Pentstemmon turned herself back toward Sophie, and Sophie felt more nervous than ever.
“I prefer him with black hair,” Mrs. Pentstemmon announced. “That boy is going to the bad.”
“Who? Michael?” Sophie said, bewildered.
“Not the servitor,” said Mrs. Pentstemmon. “I do not think he is clever enough to cause me concern. I am talking about Howell, Mrs. Pendragon.”
“Oh,” said Sophie, wondering why Mrs. Pentstemmon only said “going.” Howl had surely arrived at the bad long ago.
“Take his whole appearance,” Mrs. Pentstemmon said sweepingly. “Look at his clothes.”
“He is always very careful about his appearance,” Sophie agreed, and wondered why she was putting it so mildly.
“And always was. I am careful about my appearance too, and I see no harm in that,” said Mrs. Pentstemmon. “But what call has he to be walking around in a charmed suit? It is a dazzling attraction charm, directed at ladies—very well done, I admit, and barely detectable even to my trained eye, since it appears to have been darned into the seams—and one which will render him almost irresistible to ladies. This represents a downward trend into black arts which must surely cause you some motherly concern, Mrs. Pendragon.”