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The Twilight of Magic

Book 1

1 Giles and Anne

One evening long ago, two children lay in bed in an attic. From downstairs the noise of rattling knives and forks came up to them. And the youngsters, as they often did, were guessing what guests their mother and father had invited for supper. They knew most of their parents’ friends by name and sight; but they themselves were not yet old enough to be allowed to take supper with the grown-ups—except at Christmas time and on birthdays. For in those times life was much stricter for young people than it is now. The boy’s name was Giles. The girl’s name was Anne. They were twins, nine years old.

They could hear, too, the tinkle of the bell which their father rang when he wanted the maid to come in and change the plates. It was fun to try and tell from the smells of the food, and from the noises of glasses, china and silver, which dishes were being served.

‘They are having the pudding now,’ whispered Anne. ‘Didn’t you hear that oven door slam just then, Giles?’

‘Sh!’ growled the boy. ‘Not so loud—with our own door open and all. We’re supposed to be asleep. No, they’ve finished the pudding. I can hear Father cracking nuts—or else it is that grumpy old Doctor Seymour. His voice is hard to mistake. Besides, I heard Mother say something about his coming tonight.’

‘How late the light lasts!’ said Anne. ‘How can they expect us to sleep while the setting sun still glows on the window-pane?’

‘And how hot it is!’ said Giles, throwing back a blanket from his bed. ‘I’m going to open that other window. One is not enough on a night like this.’

He stepped quietly out of bed and, moving over to the dormer, gently opened the latch and swung the casement outwards. He gazed down into the street. Hardly anyone was abroad. The town clock chimed the half-hour—half-past seven. On the tiles of the opposite roof a black cat stretched himself lazily in the last of the red sunlight.

‘Listen, Anne,’ whispered the boy. ‘Come over here—but quiet now.’

‘What is it?’ asked his sister. Noiselessly she glided from her bed and across the floor to his side.

‘It’s the Applewoman,’ said Giles. ‘Don’t you hear her? She’s away down the street around the corner. Soon you’ll see her.’

‘I don’t hear anything,’ said Anne. ‘Only the cracking of the nuts downstairs. I wish I had some. It makes me hungry to listen to them.’

‘Stop talking,’ said her brother, ‘and then you’ll hear. It is she, I tell you. A long way off. But you can catch it. “Apples! Fine pippins for sale!” It’s what she always cries.’

‘The Applewoman!’ said little Anne thoughtfully. ‘I wonder why grown-up people don’t seem to like her, Giles? Do you know?’

‘Oh, pshaw!’ said her brother. ‘I don’t believe they know themselves. They don’t understand her, I reckon. People are nearly always afraid of what they can’t understand—except the very brave ones, maybe. I never could see anything wrong with the Applewoman—though it’s true I’ve never spoken to her. “Shragga the Witch!” What a name to call her! But have you noticed, it is only the grown-ups who call her that? To the children she is always just “Agnes the Applewoman”. I don’t believe that woman ever did a bad deed in her whole life—for all her ugly looks.’

‘Shragga the Witch!’ murmured Anne. ‘It is indeed a terrible name to fasten upon anyone. Yet she is queer, Giles. Do you know what Mary Seymour says about her? She says she’s a mind-reader.’

‘What on earth is that?’ asked Giles.

‘She can read a person’s thoughts—or so Mary says. She can tell what you’re thinking about without your saying a word.’

‘Oh, I don’t believe that,’ said Giles. ‘Maybe she just guesses—and guesses right.’

‘But if she guesses right all the time,’ said Anne, ‘it would be the same as doing it, wouldn’t it?’

‘Humph!’ her brother muttered. ‘I’d like to see her do it. I think of a whole lot of things in one day. It would be very hard to guess my thoughts.’

‘Listen, she’s nearer now,’ whispered Anne. ‘She must be just around the bend. Goodness! I wish that noise of clattering plates would give over for a moment down below!’

‘Yes,’ said Giles. ‘But anyhow we’ll see her in a second or—Goodness, Anne! Look at the cat!

On the roof opposite, the black cat was indeed behaving strangely. Still glowing with the rosy light of the evening sun, it was now bounding up and down in the queerest way, while the long flat shadows behind it leapt still more wildly on the sloping tiles.

‘It sees her,’ whispered Anne. ‘It can see around the bend from here, while we can’t ... Oh, Giles, let’s go back to bed! I’m afraid. Don’t let Agnes see us here! Maybe the grown-ups are right, Giles. Maybe ... maybe she is a witch!’

2 Shragga the Witch

For a moment or two Giles did not answer. Very still he stayed at the window, frowning across the street. The cat’s antics seemed now to have become almost a mad, jumping dance, growing wilder and wilder as the singing voice of the woman drew nearer.

Apples! Apples! Fine pippins for sale!

And then at last the children saw her. The cracking of nuts could still be heard from the parents’ table on the ground floor. The children for a while were silent. Seeing the old woman was more important than talking. She had a long, very wrinkled face—a clever face, a wise one—but not unkind. She pushed her apple barrow before her with strong, even shoves, stopping once in a while to raise her hand to the side of her mouth while she made her call: ‘Apples!

‘I don’t believe it,’ repeated Giles. ‘Reading people’s thoughts! If she could do it, why couldn’t anyone? If I stuck my head under a pillow, could you tell me what I was thinking?’

‘Of course I couldn’t,’ Anne whispered. ‘But that is what Mary Seymour said: all Agnes has to do is to look at you and she knows what is passing through your mind.’

Apples! Apples! Fine pippins for sale!

The old woman’s voice rang out nearer and louder. She still stared straight ahead of her along the street, looking neither to right of her nor to left. At last she stopped beneath the children’s window, seemingly tired of crying to an almost empty street.

Anne craned her neck out through the casement.

‘Oh, Giles, what beautiful apples! I’m hungry.’

Giles smacked his lips and grunted, ‘Umph, look at that enormous red one, almost at the end of her barrow, Anne. I’d like that one, wouldn’t you? Um ... my!’

And then, for the first time, suddenly, Agnes the Applewoman looked up, straight at the children’s window. A kind and almost beautiful smile spread over her funny old wrinkled face. Without turning her eyes aside she reached out and grasped an apple, and with a queer quick twist of the wrist threw it straight up into the dormer window. It landed gently in Giles’s hands.

‘It’s the very one,’ whispered the boy. ‘The red one I chose!’

Apples! Apples! Fine pippins for sale!’ On went the Applewoman, on went the barrow.

The cat had disappeared from the roof; and as Agnes passed out of sight around the bend of the street, they saw the animal following at her heels.

Apples! Apples! Fine pippins for sale!’ The voice was now soft and distant.

‘Oh, my goodness, Giles!’ (Anne’s face was quite pale as she turned to her brother and pointed to the rosy fruit lying in his hands.) ‘The woman picked out the very apple you were longing for—the one you were already chewing in your mind. And she couldn’t possibly have heard a word you whispered. If that isn’t reading people’s minds, I’d like to know what is. Do you believe it now?’

3 Luke

The apple had been divided and eaten. It was now past midnight, and yet the children were not asleep. Doctor Seymour’s deep voice mumbled on downstairs. And still Giles was arguing in whispers that what they had seen had been nothing more than a happy accident; and still Anne stuck to it that Agnes’s thought-reading had been clearly proved.

And so it was two very weary-eyed children who came down to breakfast next morning. But they were at the table before their parents. When their father appeared it was Giles who first noticed that he wore a worried look. This later troubled Anne also, but in those days children were supposed to be seen and not heard, so she did not speak of it then. And as soon as the meal was over the youngsters went out into the garden.

‘What do you think is the matter with Father, Giles?’ asked Anne when they were well away from the house.

‘I’m not quite certain,’ said Giles. ‘But after you fell asleep last night I crept down the stairs a little way. And from what I heard I believe Father owes Doctor Seymour—and others, too—a lot of money. I had thought that Father had money enough for his needs, but it seems he has been borrowing from the Doctor and the Doctor wants him now to pay it back.’

‘Is it very much?’ asked Anne.

‘Yes,’ said Giles seriously. ‘I imagine it would be very much more than he could pay now. And Doctor Seymour was almost rude. He must have it within the week, he said—needs it to pay his own bills. Then a long talk followed, Father saying he couldn’t possibly pay it in so short a time and the Doctor almost shouting he must have it. This money bu ...