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Seven

WHAT HAPPENED AT THE FRONT DOOR

“NOW, SLAVE, HOW LONG AM I TO WAIT for my chariot?” thundered the Witch. Uncle Andrew cowered away from her. Now that she was really present, all the silly thoughts he had had while looking at himself in the glass were oozing out of him. But Aunt Letty at once got up from her knees and came over to the center of the room.

“And who is this young person, Andrew, may I ask?” said Aunt Letty in icy tones.

“Distinguished foreigner—v-very important p-person,” he stammered.

“Rubbish!” said Aunt Letty, and then, turning to the Witch, “Get out of my house this moment, you shameless hussy, or I’ll send for the police.” She thought the Witch must be someone out of a circus and she did not approve of bare arms.

“What woman is this?” said Jadis. “Down on your knees, minion, before I blast you.”

“No strong language in this house if you please, young woman,” said Aunt Letty.

Instantly, as it seemed to Uncle Andrew, the Queen towered up to an even greater height. Fire flashed from her eyes: she flung out her arm with the same gesture and the same horrible-sounding words that had lately turned the palace-gates of Charn to dust. But nothing happened except that Aunt Letty, thinking that those horrible words were meant to be ordinary English, said: “I thought as much. The woman is drunk. Drunk! She can’t even speak clearly.”

It must have been a terrible moment for the Witch when she suddenly realized that her power of turning people into dust, which had been quite real in her own world, was not going to work in ours. But she did not lose her nerve even for a second. Without wasting a thought on her disappointment, she lunged forward, caught Aunt Letty round the neck and the knees, raised her high above her head as if she had been no heavier than a doll, and threw her across the room. While Aunt Letty was still hurtling through the air, the housemaid (who was having a beautifully exciting morning) put her head in at the door and said, “If you please, sir, the ’ansom’s come.” “Lead on, Slave,” said the Witch to Uncle Andrew. He began muttering something about “regrettable violence—must really protest,” but at a single glance from Jadis he became speechless. She drove him out of the room and out of the house; and Digory came running down the stairs just in time to see the front door close behind them.

“Jiminy!” he said. “She’s loose in London. And with Uncle Andrew. I wonder what on earth is going to happen now.”

“Oh, Master Digory,” said the housemaid (who was really having a wonderful day), “I think Miss Ketterley’s hurt herself somehow.” So they both rushed into the drawing-room to find out what had happened.

If Aunt Letty had fallen on bare boards or even on the carpet, I suppose all her bones would have been broken: but by great good luck she had fallen on the mattress. Aunt Letty was a very tough old lady: aunts often were in those days. After she had had some sal volatile and sat still for a few minutes, she said there was nothing the matter with her except a few bruises. Very soon she was taking charge of the situation.

“Sarah,” she said to the housemaid (who had never had such a day before), “go around to the police station at once and tell them there is a dangerous lunatic at large. I will take Mrs. Kirke’s lunch up myself.” Mrs. Kirke was, of course, Digory’s mother.

When Mother’s lunch had been seen to, Digory and Aunt Letty had their own. After that he did some hard thinking.

The problem was how to get the Witch back to her own world, or at any rate out of ours, as soon as possible. Whatever happened, she must not be allowed to go rampaging about the house. Mother must not see her. And, if possible, she must not be allowed to go rampaging about London either. Digory had not been in the drawing-room when she tried to “blast” Aunt Letty, but he had seen her “blast” the gates at Charn: so he knew her terrible powers and did not know that she had lost any of them by coming into our world. And he knew she meant to conquer our world. At the present moment, as far as he could see, she might be blasting Buckingham Palace or the Houses of Parliament: and it was almost certain that quite a number of policemen had by now been reduced to little heaps of dust. And there didn’t seem to be anything he could do about that. “But the rings seem to work like magnets,” thought Digory. “If I can only touch her and then slip on my yellow, we shall both go into the Wood between the Worlds. I wonder will she go all faint again there? Was that something the place does to her, or was it only the shock of being pulled out of her own world? But I suppose I’ll have to risk that. And how am I to find the beast? I don’t suppose Aunt Letty would let me go out, not unless I said where I was going. And I haven’t got more than twopence. I’d need any amount of money for buses and trams if I went looking all over London. Anyway, I haven’t the faintest idea where to look. I wonder if Uncle Andrew is still with her.” It seemed in the end that the only thing he could do was to wait and hope that Uncle Andrew and the Witch would come back. If they did, he must rush out and get hold of the Witch and put on his yellow Ring before she had a chance to get into the house. This meant that he must watch the front door like a cat watching a mouse’s hole; he dared not leave his post for a moment. So he went into the dining-room and “glued his face” as they say, to the window. It was a bow-window from which you could see the steps up to the front door and see up and down the street, so that no one could reach the front door without your knowing. “I wonder what Polly’s doing?” thought Digory.

He wondered about this a good deal as the first slow half-hour ticked on. But you need not wonder, for I am going to tell you. She had got home late for her dinner, with her shoes and stockings very wet. And when they asked her where she had been and what on earth she had been doing, she said she had been out with Digory Kirke. Under further questioning she said she had got her feet wet in a pool of water, and that the pool was in a wood. Asked where the wood was, she said she didn’t know. Asked if it was in one of the parks, she said truthfully enough that she supposed it might be a sort of park. From all of this Polly’s mother got the idea that Polly had gone off, without telling anyone, to some part of London she didn’t know, and gone into a strange park and amused herself jumping into puddles. As a result she was told that she had been very naughty indeed and that she wouldn’t be allowed to play with “that Kirke boy” any more if anything of the sort ever happened again. Then she was given dinner with all the nice parts left out and sent to bed for two solid hours. It was a thing that happened to one quite often in those days.

So while Digory was staring out of the dining-room window, Polly was lying in bed, and both were thinking how terribly slowly the time could go. I think, myself, I would rather have been in Polly’s position. She had only to wait for the end of her two hours: but every few minutes Digory would hear a cab or a baker’s van or a butcher’s boy coming round the corner and think “Here she comes,” and then find it wasn’t. And in between these false alarms, for what seemed hours and hours, the clock ticked on and one big fly—high up and far out of reach—buzzed against the window. It was one of those houses that get very quiet and dull in the afternoon and always seem to smell of mutton.

During his long watching and waiting one small thing happened which I shall have to mention because something important came of it later on. A lady called with some grapes for Digory’s Mother; and as the dining-room door was open, Digory couldn’t help overhearing Aunt Letty and the lady as they talked in the hall.

“What lovely grapes!” came Aunt Letty’s voice. “I’m sure if anything could do her good these would. But poor, dear little Mabel! I’m afraid it would need fruit from the land of youth to help her now. Nothing in this world will do much.” Then they both lowered their voices and said a lot more that he could not hear.

If he had heard that bit about the land of youth a few days ago he would have thought Aunt Letty was just talking without meaning anything in particular, the way grown-ups do, and it wouldn’t have interested him. He almost thought so now. But suddenly it flashed upon his mind that he now knew (even if Aunt Letty didn’t) that there really were other worlds and that he himself had been in one of them. At that rate there might be a real Land of Youth somewhere. There might be almost anything. There might be fruit in some other world that would really cure his mother! And oh, oh—Well, you know how it feels if you begin hoping for something that you want desperately badly; you almost fight against the hope because it is too good to be true; you’ve been disappointed so often before. That was how Digory felt. But it was no good trying to throttle this hope. It might—really, really, it just might be true. So many odd things had happened already. And he had the magic rings. There must be worlds you could get to through every pool in the wood. He could hunt through them all. And then—Mother well again. Everything right again. He forgot all about watching for the Witch. His hand was already going into the pocket where he kept the yellow ring, when all at once he heard a sound of galloping.

“Hullo! What’s that?” thought Digory. “Fire-engine? I wonder what house is on fire. Great Scott, it’s coming here. Why, it’s Her.”

I needn’t tell you who he meant by Her.

First came the hansom. There was no one in the driver’s seat. On the roof—not sitting, but standing on the roof—swaying with superb balance as it came at full speed round the corner with one wheel in the air—was Jadis the Queen of Queens and the Terror of Charn. Her teeth were bared, her eyes shone like fire, and her long hair streamed out behind her like a comet’s tail. She was flogging the horse without mercy. Its nostrils were wide and red and its sides were spotted with foam. It galloped madly up to the front door, missing the lamp-post by an inch, and then reared up on its hind legs. The hansom crashed into the lamp-post and shattered into several pieces. The Witch, with a magnificent jump, had sprung clear just in time and landed on the horse’s back. She settled herself astride and leaned forward, whispering things in its ear. They must have been things meant not to quiet it but to madden it. It was on its hind legs again in a moment, and its neigh was like a scream; it was all hoofs and teeth and eyes and tossing mane. Only a splendid rider could have stayed on its back.

Before Digory had recovered his breath a good many other things began to happen. A second hansom dashed up close behind the first: out of it there jumped a fat man in a frock-coat and a policeman. Then came a third hansom with two more policemen in it. After it, came about twenty people (mostly errand boys) on bicycles, all ringing their bells and letting out cheers and cat-calls. Last of all came a crowd of people on foot: all very hot with running, but obviously enjoying themselves. Windows shot up in all the houses of that street and a housemaid or a butler appeared at every front door. They wanted to see the fun.

Meanwhile an old gentleman had begun to struggle shakily out of the ruins of the first hansom. Several people rushed forward to help him; but as one pulled him one way and another another, perhaps he would have got out quite as quickly on his own. Digory guessed that the old gentleman must be Uncle Andrew but you couldn’t see his face; his tall hat had been bashed down over it.

Digory rushed out and joined the crowd.

“That’s the woman, that’s the woman,” cried the fat man, pointing at Jadis. “Do your duty, Constable. Hundreds and thousands of pounds’ worth she’s taken out of my shop. Look at that rope of pearls round her neck. That’s mine. And she’s given me a black eye too, what’s more.” “That she ’as, guv’nor,” said one of the crowd. “And as lovely a black eye as I’d wish to see. Beautiful bit of work that must ’ave been. Gor! ain’t she strong then!”

“You ought to put a nice raw beefsteak on it, Mister, that’s what it wants,” said a butcher’s boy.

“Now then,” said the most important of the policemen, “what’s all this ’ere?”

“I tell you she—” began the fat man, when someone else called out:

“Don’t let the old cove in the cab get away. ’E put ’er up to it.”

The old gentleman, who was certainly Uncle Andrew, had just succeeded in standing up and was rubbing his bruises. “Now then,” said the policeman, turning to him, “what’s all this?”

“Womfle—pomfy—shomf,” came Uncle Andrew’s voice from inside the hat.

“None of that now,” said the policeman sternly. “You’ll find this is no laughing matter. Take that ’at off, see?”

This was more easily said than done. But after Uncle Andrew had struggled in vain with the hat for some time, two other policemen seized it by the brim and forced it off.

“Thank you, thank you,” said Uncle Andrew in a faint voice. “Thank you. Dear me, I’m terribly shaken. If someone could give me a small glass of brandy—”

“Now you attend to me, if you please,” said the policeman, taking out a very large note book and a very small pencil. “Are you in charge of that there young woman?”

“Look out!” called several voices, and the policeman jumped a step backward just in time. The horse had aimed a kick at him which would probably have killed him. Then the Witch wheeled the horse round so that she faced the crowd and its hind-legs were on the footpath. She had a long, bright knife in her hand and had been busily cutting the horse free from the wreck of the hansom.

All this time Digory had been trying to get into a position from which he could touch the Witch. This wasn’t at all easy because, on the side nearest to him, there were too many people. And in order to get round to the other side he had to pass between the horse’s hoofs and the railings of the “area” that surrounded the house; for the Ketterleys’ house had a basement. If you know anything about horses, and especially if you had seen what a state that horse was in at the moment, you will realize that this was a ticklish thing to do. Digory knew lots about horses, but he set his teeth and got ready to make a dash for it as soon as he saw a favorable moment.

A red-faced man in a bowler hat had now shouldered his way to the front of the crowd.

“Hi! P’leeceman,” he said, “that’s my ’orse what she’s sitting on, same as it’s my cab what she’s made matchwood of.”

“One at a time, please, one at a time,” said the policeman.

“But there ain’t no time,” said the Cabby. “I know that ’orse better’n you do. ’Tain’t an ordinary ’orse. ’Is father was a hofficer’s charger in the cavalry, ’e was. And if the young woman goes on hexcitin’ ’im, there’ll be murder done. ’Ere, let me get at him.” The policeman was only too glad to have a good reason for standing further away from the horse. The Cabby took a step nearer, looked up at Jadis, and said in a not unkindly voice:

“Now, Missie, let me get at ’is ’ead, and just you get off. You’re a Lidy, and you don’t want all these roughs going for you, do you? You want to go ’ome and ’ave a nice cup of tea and a lay down quiet like; then you’ll feel ever so much better.” At the same time he stretched out his hand toward the horse’s head with the words, “Steady, Strawberry, old boy. Steady now.” Then for the first time the Witch spoke.

“Dog!” came her cold, clear voice, ringing loud above all the other noises. “Dog, unhand our royal charger. We are the Empress Jadis.”

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