“You don’t know everything I do, Mrs. Moralizer,” Howl said. “Want me to write out a list before I go out another time? I have looked for Prince Justin. Courting isn’t the only thing I do when I go out.”
“When have you looked?” said Sophie.
“Oh, how your ears flap and your long nose twitches!” Howl croaked. “I looked when he first disappeared, of course. I was curious to know what Prince Justin was doing up this way, when everyone knew Suliman had gone to the Waste. I think someone must have sold him a dud finding spell, because he went right over into the FoldingValley and bought another from Mrs. Fairfax. And that fetched him back this way, fairly naturally, where he stopped at the castle and Michael sold him another finding spell and a disguise spell—”
Michael’s hand went over his mouth. “Was that man in the green uniform Prince Justin?”
“Yes, but I didn’t mention the matter before,” said Howl, “because the King might have thought you should have had the sense to sell him another dud. I had a conscience about it. Conscience. Notice that word, Mrs. Longnose. I had a conscience.” Howl conjured another wad of handkerchiefs and glowered at Sophie over them out of eyes that were now red-rimmed and watery. Then he stood up. “I feel ill,” he announced. “I’m going to bed, where I may die.” He tottered piteously to the stairs. “Bury me beside Mrs. Pentstemmon,” he croaked as he went up them to bed.
Sophie applied herself to her sewing harder than ever. Here was her chance to get the gray-and-scarlet suit off Howl before it did more damage to Miss Angorian’s heart—unless, of course, Howl went to bed in his clothes, which she did not put past him. So Howl must have been looking for Prince Justin when he went to Upper Folding and met Lettie. Poor Lettie! Sophie thought, putting brisk, tiny stitches round her fifty-seventh blue triangle. Only another forty or so to go.
Howl’s voice was presently heard shouting weakly, “Help me, someone! I’m dying from neglect up here!”
Sophie snorted. Michael left off working on his new spell and ran up and down stairs. Things became very restless. In the time it took Sophie to sew ten more blue triangles Michael ran upstairs with lemon and honey, with a particular book, with cough mixture, with a spoon to take the cough mixture with, and then with nose drops, throat pastilles, gargle, pen, paper, three more books, and an infusion of willow bark. People kept knocking at the door too, making Sophie jump and Calcifer flicker uneasily. When no one opened the door, some of the people went on hammering for five minutes or so, rightly thinking they were being ignored.
By this time Sophie was becoming worried about the blue-and-silver suit. It was getting smaller and smaller. One cannot sew in that number of triangles without taking up quite a lot of cloth in the seams. “Michael,” she said when Michael came rushing downstairs again because Howl fancied a bacon sandwich for lunch. “Michael, is there a way of making small clothes larger?”
“Oh, yes,” said Michael. “That’s just what my new spell is—when I get a chance to work on it. He wants six slices of bacon in the sandwich. Could you ask Calcifer?”
Sophie and Calcifer exchanged speaking looks. “I don’t think he’s dying,” Calcifer said.
“I’ll give you the rinds to eat if you bend your head down,” Sophie said, laying down her sewing. It was easier to bribe Calcifer than bully him.
They had bacon sandwiches for lunch, but Michael had to rush upstairs in the middle of eating his. He came down with the news that Howl wanted him to go into Market Chipping now, to get some things he needed for moving the castle.
“But the Witch—is it safe?” Sophie asked.
Michael licked bacon grease off his fingers and dived into the broom cupboard. He came out with one of the dusty velvet cloaks slung round his shoulders. At last, the person who came out wearing the cloak was a burly man with a red beard. This person licked his fingers and said with Michael’s voice, “Howl thinks I’ll be safe enough like this. It’s misdirection as well as disguise. I wonder if Lettie will know me.” The burly man opened the door green-down and jumped out onto the slowly moving hills.
Peace descended. Calcifer settled and chinked. Howl had evidently realized that Sophie was not going to run about after him. There was silence upstairs. Sophie got up and cautiously hobbled to the broom cupboard. This was her chance to go and see Lettie. Lettie must be very miserable by now. Sophie was fairly sure Howl had not been near her since that day in the orchard. It might just do some good if Sophie were to tell her that her feelings were caused by a charmed suit. Anyway, she owed it to Lettie to tell her.
The seven-league boots were not in the cupboard. Sophie could not believe it at first. She turned everything out. And there was nothing there but ordinary buckets, brooms, and the other velvet cloak. “Drat the man!” Sophie exclaimed. Howl had obviously made sure she would not follow him anywhere again.
She was putting everything back into the cupboard when someone knocked at the door. Sophie, as usual, jumped and hoped they would go away. But this person seemed more determined than most. Whoever it was went on knocking—or perhaps hurling him or herself at the door, for the sound was more a steady whump, whump, whump than proper knocking. After five minutes they were still doing it.
Sophie looked at the uneasy green flickers which were all she could see of Calcifer. “Is it the Witch?”
“No,” said Calcifer, muffled among his logs. “It’s the castle door. Someone must be running along beside us. We’re going quite fast.”
“Is it the scarecrow?” Sophie asked, and her chest gave a tremor at the mere idea.
“It’s flesh and blood,” Calcifer said. His blue face climbed up into the chimney, looking puzzled. “I’m not sure what it is, except that it wants to come in badly. I don’t think it means any harm.”
Since the whump, whump just kept on, giving Sophie an irritable feeling of urgency, she decided to open the door and put a stop to it. Besides, she was curious about what it was. She still had the second
velvet cloak in her hand from turning out the broom cupboard, so she threw it round her shoulders as she went to the door. Calcifer stared. Then, for the first time since she had known him, he bent his head down voluntarily. Great crackles of laughter came from under the curly green flames. Wondering what the cloak had turned her into, Sophie opened the door.
A huge, spindly greyhound leaped off the hillside between the grinding black blocks of the castle and landed in the middle of the room. Sophie dropped the cloak and backed away hurriedly. She had always been nervous of dogs, and greyhounds are not reassuring to look at. This one put itself between her and the door and stared at her. Sophie looked longingly at the wheeling rocks and heather outside and wondered whether it would do any good to yell for Howl.
The dog bent its already bent back and somehow hoisted itself onto its lean hind legs. That made it almost as tall as Sophie. It held its front legs stiffly out and heaved upward again. Then, as Sophie had her mouth open to yell to Howl, the creature put out what was obviously an enormous effort and surged upward into the shape of a man in a crumpled brown suit. He had gingerish hair and a pale, unhappy face.
“Came from Upper Folding!” panted this dog-man. “Love Lettie—Lettie sent me—Lettie crying and very unhappy—sent me to you—told me to stay—” He began to double up and shrink before he had finished speaking. He gave a dog howl of despair and annoyance. “Don’t tell Wizard!” he whined and dwindled away inside reddish curly hair into a dog again. A different dog. This time he seemed to be a red setter. The red setter waved its fringed tail and stared earnestly at Sophie from melting, miserable eyes.
“Oh, dear,” said Sophie as she shut the door. “You do have troubles, my friend. You were that collie dog, weren’t you? Now I see what Mrs. Fairfax was talking about. That Witch wants slaying, she really does! But why has Lettie sent you here? If you don’t want me to tell Wizard Howl—”
The dog growled faintly at the name. But it also wagged its tail and stared appealingly.
“All right. I won’t tell him,” Sophie promised. The dog seemed reassured. He trotted to the hearth, where he gave Calcifer a somewhat wary look and lay down beside the fender in a skinny red bundle. “Calcifer, what do you think?” Sophie said.