Chapter One: Return to Golden House
Mary sensed there was something wrong as soon as they reached the house. There'd been more renovation work done while they'd been away and there were lights shining from one or two windows in the Elizabethan wing, which before would have been dark, but these minor changes excepted, everything seemed much as usual. Nevertheless, she felt uneasy as soon as she saw the place.
It was already dusk when Mr. Jenkins' car came to a halt on the drive. The trees were dark against a cloudy sky and a thin breeze was blowing down from the heights beyond Goldenwater.
"Wind from the west," Mr. Jenkins remarked, as he lifted their suitcases out of the trunk. "Winter's on its way. Now, you'll be all right? Regards to your uncle and aunt. I'll not stop. There's a Farmers' Union meeting tonight. I'll be late, if I don't get a move on. I sometimes think life is one long blooming meeting these days. Glad to have been of help. Call in and see us, if you get the time. Cheerio, then..." and he drove away into the dark, the rear lights of his car glowing red, until they disappeared from view around a twist in the drive.
Mary felt a wave of sadness envelope her as she went through the door and yet there was a fire burning in the hall grate and the welcoming smell of cooking issued from the kitchen.
"Where is everybody?" Alice said, running ahead and calling out, "Hello? We're here!"
Even Spot seemed strangely subdued as he came to meet them, and Meg, who appeared after him from the kitchen door with her arms outspread, was obviously nervous beneath her cheerful greeting.
"Here you are at last!" she said, fussing around them and drying her hands on her apron. "Your uncle should be back any minute. I'm afraid Phoebe's taken to her bed. Best not go until she calls. She's not feeling quite herself..." and, still chattering, she hurried them toward the fire and shut the door against the chill air.
Mary thought it was like watching a play, where everything is meant to be believed but at the same time you know that none of it is real. She confided these feelings to William and Alice as soon as they went up to their rooms to unpack and settle in, having refused a cup of tea because supper was, according to Meg, almost ready.
"I thought it was a bit funny that Mr. Jenkins came and met us at the station," William said, agreeing with her.
"No, it wasn't!" Alice protested, "if Phoebe isn't feeling well and Uncle Jack had to go into town. Honestly, you two! You're always looking for problems. I'm just glad to be back. I've hated this term, so far. I wanted to be here all the time."
She was sitting on the floor, with an arm around Spot, who sighed and gazed at her with sad eyes.
"I'm sure something bad's happened," Mary said, looking at her reflection in the mirror on the chest of drawers and rearranging her fringe with her fingers. "Has it, Spot?" she asked, and as she spoke, she turned and crossed to crouch on the floor in front of the dog, who continued to stare silently, using his "haughty" expression.
"It's always quite difficult to get him talking when we've just arrived, isn't it?" William said, sitting on the side of Mary's bed. "D'you remember last time? We thought the magic had stopped altogether."
"That wasn't last time, that was the spring holidays," Alice said, "and it hadn't, of course. It was just you. I knew everything would be all right. It always is, isn't it, Spot?" and she kissed the dog lovingly on the top of his head.
"All the same," William insisted, "it does take time. It's as though we have to get used to the magic all over again. As though we have to get back into the right frame of mind."
"But I am!" Alice complained. "I haven't thought about anything but being back here all term. That's why I've been getting such hopeless marks. I haven't been able to concentrate on anything else. Everything's so boring compared to the magic here."
"Yes, I know," William agreed. "But even so we have to sort of get back on to the Magician's wavelength. Something like that."
"Well, don't take too long about it," Spot growled, making them all jump with surprise.
"Oh, Spot!" Alice exclaimed, "It's working!" Then she hugged the dog again. "I've missed you so much. The Simpsons have a puppy called Tess, but I couldn't make her talk to me at all. She just yapped and scratched all the time and got quite impatient with me. I really did try. I stopped myself thinking...and everything....But it was useless. She probably thought I was quite mad."
"Not all animals are like us, you know," Spot said, disdainfully. "You can't go expecting every puppy you meet to have a conversation with you. It's we who are different. It's we who do the talking."
"And us," Alice insisted. "We talk to you as well."
"Animals have been able to understand humans for years," he told her. "But humans never bothered to listen to us until now, that's the difference." Then, getting up, he went quickly out of the room, saying, "I won't be a moment," and he disappeared onto the landing and down the staircase.
"No! Hang on a minute, Spot!" William called, following him. "Don't go! There's masses we have to talk about..."
"Who are you yelling at?" Jack asked, appearing on the landing in front of him. "Sorry," he said, following William back into the girls' room and speaking breathlessly, as if he'd run up the stairs. "I had to go into town. I thought Phoebe was going to fetch you?but this bug thing must have got the better of her," and, as he spoke, he hugged Mary and swung Alice right up off the floor as he planted a kiss on her cheek. "Oh, it's lovely to have you back! Thank goodness Mr. Jenkins was in! If Meg hadn't been able to reach him, you'd all still be sitting at Druce Coven!"
"How did she?" William asked suddenly.
"Who? What?" Jack asked, turning and giving him a hug as well.
"How did Meg ask Mr. Jenkins to come, and collect us? If you'd already gone into town?"
"Ah! The great event! Of course, you haven't heard! What if I was to say 314 to you?"
"I don't know what you're talking about, Uncle Jack," Alice said and, as she spoke, she stifled a yawn. It had been a long journey. She and Mary had come from London and changed trains at Bristol. Then, when they'd reached Druce Coven Halt, they'd discovered that William's connection at Manchester had been delayed and they'd had to sit in Mr. Jenkins' car for almost half an hour, waiting for him to arrive. Alice was tired and hungry. She wanted her supper and bed.
"Come on. Think!" Jack was saying. "314. What is it?"
"A number of some sort," Mary said, trying not to let her voice sound bored. She'd forgotten that Jack had an unfortunate habit of sometimes treating them as if they were children.
"And what does a number suggest?"
"You've had a telephone put in," William said.
"Brilliant, William! You obviously inherited the brains for the entire family!"
"Uncle Jack! Please!" Mary said, sounding as though she was talking to a silly child. Then she added, "It's an awfully short number. Are you sure there aren't more figures than that?"
"Masses," Jack said. "There's the whole dialing code -- but I haven't learned them yet! Anyway, we're on the phone, at last! It was put in last week. Since when no one has called us -- not one solitary person! We sit there staring at the thing, willing it to ring...and nothing happens!"
"Maybe that's because no one knows you've got it," William said.
"Yes," Jack said, laughing, "that could have something to do with it! Oh, I am glad you're all back! We've really missed you."
"We're not here for long, though," Alice sighed. "Half term holidays are really far too short."
"Never mind, a week's better than nothing!"
"It's ten days, actually," Mary said.
"Even better! So -- supper in five minutes! Meg's done the cooking tonight..."
"Is Phoebe very ill?" Mary asked.
"No," he said, cheerfully, then he frowned. "It's just a bug, I expect. She'll be over it in no time, now you're here. Come on down as soon as you're ready."
Jack went out on to the landing and they heard him speak to Spot as they squeezed past each other on the narrow spiral staircase. A moment later the dog bounded into the room. He was carrying something dangling from his mouth that glittered in the electric light.
"That was close!" he exclaimed, dropping the object on the floor in front of Mary. "If Jack had seen this he'd have wanted to know where I got it."
"The pendulum!" Mary exclaimed, picking up the solid gold lump on its thin chain that the Magician had left with them during the summer holidays and which they had entrusted to Spot's safekeeping when they had returned to school. "Look! It's the Magician's pendulum. Where did you hide it, Spot?"
"I never reveal my hiding places," Spot replied. "Once you do they cease to be of any use."
"How is Mr. Tyler?" William asked, feeling a tingle of excitement as he looked at the pendulum hanging from Mary's hand.
"Don't know," Spot shrugged. "We've not seen him since you were last here."
"I expect you will, now we're back," Alice said.
"I hope so," the dog growled quietly. "We really need him at the moment. Jasper will come and see you later. He said to tell you to expect him."
"What about Cinnabar?" William asked eagerly. "Does he know we're back?"
"Probably. Jasper will have spread the word through the forest," Spot replied. "But it's not a good time for the fox just at present. The Hunt will be meeting soon. He'll have to go carefully!"
"What's been happening while we've been away, Spot?" Mary asked. "I've got this awful feeling that something is wrong."
"It's the humans," Spot explained.
"Which humans?" William asked, feeling immediately apprehensive.
"Jack and Phoebe."
"What about them?" Mary said.
"They don't like each other anymore," Spot growled and, before they could question him further, he turned and slunk out of the room with his tail between his legs.