Sophie found she was crying as well. She hurriedly dropped her bundle and led Fanny to the chair. She pulled the stool up and sat beside Fanny, holding her hand. By this time they were both laughing as well as crying. They were most powerfully glad to see one another again.
“It’s a long story,” Sophie said after Fanny had asked her six times what had happened to her. “When I looked in the mirror and saw myself like this, it was such a shock that I sort of wandered away—”
“Overwork,” Fanny said wretchedly. “How I’ve blamed myself!”
“Not really,” said Sophie. “And you mustn’t worry, because Wizard Howl took me in—”
“Wizard Howl!” exclaimed Fanny. “That wicked, wicked man! Has he done this to you? Where is he? Let me at him!”
She seized her parasol and became so very warlike that Sophie had to hold her down. Sophie did not care to think how Howl might react if Fanny woke him by stabbing him with her parasol. “No, no!” she said. “Howl has been very kind to me.” And this was true, Sophie realized. Howl showed his kindness rather strangely, but, considering all Sophie had done to annoy him, he had bee
n very good to her indeed.
“But they say he eats women alive!” Fanny said, still struggling to get up.
Sophie held down her waving parasol. “He doesn’t really,” she said. “Do listen. He’s not wicked at all!” There was a bit of a fizz from the grate at this, where Calcifer was watching with some interest. “He isn’t!” Sophie said, to Calcifer as much as to Fanny. “In all the time I’ve been here, I’ve not seen him work a single evil spell!” Which again was true, she knew.
“Then I have to believe you,” Fanny said, relaxing, “though I’m sure it must be your doing if he’s reformed. You always did have a way with you, Sophie. You could stop Martha’s tantrums when I couldn’t do a thing with her. And I always said it was thanks to you that Lettie only got her own way half of the time instead of all the time! But you should have told me where you were, love!”
Sophie knew she should have. She had taken Martha’s view of Fanny, whole and entire, when she should have known Fanny better. She was ashamed.
Fanny could not wait to tell Sophie about Mr. Sacheverell Smith. She launched into a long and excited account of how she had met Mr. Smith the very week Sophie had left, and married him before the week was out. Sophie watched her as she talked. Being old gave her an entirely new view of Fanny. She was a lady who was still young and pretty, and she had found the hat shop as boring as Sophie did. But she had stuck with it and done her best, both with the shop and with the three girls—until Mr. Hatter died. Then she had suddenly been afraid she was just like Sophie: old, with no reason, and nothing to show for it.
“And then, with you not being there to pass it on to, there seemed no reason not to sell the shop,” Fanny was saying, when there was a clatter of feet in the broom cupboard.
Michael came through, saying, “We’ve shut the shop. And look who’s here!” He was holding Martha’s hand.
Martha was thinner and fairer and almost looked like herself again. She let go of Michael and rushed at Sophie, shouting, “Sophie, you should have told me!” while she flung her arms round her. Then she flung her arms round Fanny, just as if she had never said all those things about her.
But this was not all. Lettie and Mrs. Fairfax came through the cupboard after Martha, carrying a hamper between them, and after them came Percival, who looked livelier than Sophie had ever seen him. “We came over by carrier at first light,” Mrs. Fairfax said, “and we brought—Bless me! It’s Fanny!” She dropped her end of the hamper and ran to hug Fanny. Lettie dropped her end and ran to hug Sophie.
In fact, there was such general hugging and exclaiming and shouting that Sophie thought it was a marvel Howl did not wake up. But she could hear him snoring even through the shouting. I shall have to leave this evening, she thought. She was too glad to see everyone to consider going before that.
Lettie was very fond of Percival. While Michael carried the hamper to the bench and unpacked cold chickens and wines and honey puddings from it, Lettie hung on to Percival’s arm in an ownerlike way that Sophie could not quite approve of, and made him tell her all that he remembered. Percival did not seem to mind. Lettie looked so lovely that Sophie did not blame him.
“He just arrived and kept turning into a man and then into different dogs and insisting that he knew me,” Lettie said to Sophie. “I knew I’d never seen him before, but it didn’t matter.” She patted Percival’s shoulder as if he were still a dog.
“But you had met Prince Justin?” Sophie said.
“Oh, yes,” Lettie said offhandedly. “Mind you, he was in disguise in a green uniform, but it was obviously him. He was so smooth and courtly, even when he was annoyed about the finding spells. I had to make him up two lots because they would keep showing that Wizard Suliman was somewhere between us and Market Chipping, and he swore that couldn’t be true. And all the time I was doing them, he kept interrupting me, calling me ‘sweet lady’ in a sarcastic sort of way, and asking me who I was and where my family lived and how old I was. I thought it was cheek! I’d rather have Wizard Howl, and that’s saying something!”
By this time everyone was milling about, eating chicken and sipping wine. Calcifer seemed to be shy. He had gone down to green flickers and nobody seemed to notice him. Sophie wanted him to meet Lettie. She tried to coax him out.
“Is that really the demon who has charge of Howl’s life?” Lettie said, looking down at the green flickers rather disbelievingly.
Sophie looked up to assure Lettie that Calcifer was real and saw Miss Angorian standing by the door, looking shy and uncertain. “Oh, do excuse me. I’ve come at a bad time, haven’t I?” Miss Angorian said. “I just wanted to talk to Howell.”
Sophie stood up, not quite sure what to do. She was ashamed of the way she had driven Miss Angorian out before. It was only because she knew Howl was courting Miss Angorian. On the other hand, that did not mean she had to like her.
Michael took things out of Sophie’s hands by greeting Miss Angorian with a beaming smile and a shout of welcome. “Howl’s asleep at the moment,” he said. “Come and have a glass of wine while you wait.”
“How kind,” said Miss Angorian.
But it was plain that Miss Angorian was not happy. She refused wine and wandered nervously about, nibbling at a leg of chicken. The room was full of people who all knew one another very well and she was the outsider. Fanny did not help by turning from nonstop talk with Mrs. Fairfax and saying, “What peculiar clothes!” Martha did not help either. She had seen how admiringly Michael greeted Miss Angorian. She went and made sure that Michael did not talk to anyone but herself and Sophie. And Lettie ignored Miss Angorian and went to sit on the stairs with Percival.
Miss Angorian seemed rather quickly to decide that she had had enough. Sophie saw her at the door, trying to open it. She hurried over, feeling very guilty. After all, Miss Angorian must have felt very strongly about Howl to have come here at all. “Please don’t go yet,” Sophie said. “I’ll go and wake Howl up.”
“Oh, no, you mustn’t do that,” Miss Angorian said, smiling nervously. “I’ve got the day off, and I’m quite happy to wait. I thought I’d go and explore outside. It’s rather stuffy in here with that funny green fire burning.”