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J.K.Rîwling >> Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (page 8)


It was as though they had been plunged into a fabulous dream. This, thought Harry, was surely the only way to travel—past swirls and turrets of snowy cloud, in a car full of hot, bright sunlight, with a fat pack of toffees in the glove compartment, and the prospect of seeing Fred's and George's jealous faces when they landed smoothly and spectacularly on the sweeping lawn in front of Hogwarts castle.

They made regular checks on the train as they flew farther and farther north, each dip beneath the clouds showing them a different view. London was soon far behind them, replaced by neat green fields that gave way in turn to wide, purplish moors, a great city alive with cars like multicolored ants, villages with tiny toy churches.

Several uneventful hours later, however, Harry had to admit that some of the fun was wearing off. The toffees had made them extremely thirsty and they had nothing to drink. He and Ron had pulled off their sweaters, but Harry's T-shirt was sticking to the back of his seat and his glasses kept sliding down to the end of his sweaty nose. He had stopped noticing the fantastic cloud shapes now and was thinking longingly of the train miles below, where you could buy ice-cold pumpkin juice from a trolley pushed by a plump witch. Why hadn't they been able to get onto platform nine and three-quarters?

“Can't be much further, can it?” croaked Ron, hours later still, as the sun started to sink into their floor of cloud, staining it a deep pink. “Ready for another check on the train?”

It was still right below them, winding its way past a snowcapped mountain. It was much darker beneath the canopy of clouds.

Ron put his foot on the accelerator and drove them upward again, but as he did so, the engine began to whine.

Harry and Ron exchanged nervous glances.

“It's probably just tired,” said Ron. “It's never been this far before...”

And they both pretended not to notice the whining growing louder and louder as the sky became steadily darker. Stars were blossoming in the blackness. Harry pulled his sweater back on, trying to ignore the way the windshield wipers were now waving feebly, as though in protest.

“Not far,” said Ron, more to the car than to Harry, “not far now,” and he patted the dashboard nervously.

When they flew back beneath the clouds a little while later, they had to squint through the darkness for a landmark they knew.

“There!” Harry shouted, making Ron and Hedwig jump. “Straight ahead!”

Silhouetted on the dark horizon, high on the cliff over the lake, stood the many turrets and towers of Hogwarts castle.

But the car had begun to shudder and was losing speed.

“Come on,” Ron said cajolingly, giving the steering wheel a little shake, “nearly there, come on—”

The engine groaned. Narrow jets of steam were issuing from under the hood. Harry found himself gripping the edges of his seat very hard as they flew toward the lake.

The car gave a nasty wobble. Glancing out of his window, Harry saw the smooth, black, glassy surface of the water, a mile below. Ron's knuckles were white on the steering wheel. The car wobbled again.

“Come on,” Ron muttered.

They were over the lake—the castle was right ahead—Ron put his foot down.

There was a loud clunk, a splutter, and the engine died completely.

“Uh-oh,” said Ron, into the silence.

The nose of the car dropped. They were falling, gathering speed, heading straight for the solid castle wall.

“Noooooo!” Ron yelled, swinging the steering wheel around; they missed the dark stone wall by inches as the car turned in a great arc, soaring over the dark greenhouses, then the vegetable patch, and then out over the black lawns, losing altitude all the time.

Ron let go of the steering wheel completely and pulled his wand out of his back pocket

“STOP! STOP!” he yelled, whacking the dashboard and the windshield, but they were still plummeting, the ground flying up toward them...

“WATCH OUT FOR THAT TREE!” Harry bellowed, lunging for the steering wheel, but too late —

CRUNCH.

With an earsplitting bang of metal on wood, they hit the thick tree trunk and dropped to the ground with a heavy jolt. Steam was billowing from under the crumpled hood; Hedwig was shrieking in terror; a golf-ball-size lump was throbbing on Harry's head where he had hit the windshield; and to his right, Ron let out a low, despairing groan.

“Are you okay?” Harry said urgently.

“My wand,” said Ron, in a shaky voice. “Look at my wand.”

It had snapped, almost in two; the tip was dangling limply, held on by a few splinters.

Harry opened his mouth to say he was sure they'd be able to mend it up at the school, but he never even got started. At that very moment, something hit his side of the car with the force of a charging bull, sending him lurching sideways into Ron, just as an equally heavy blow hit the roof.

“What's happen -?”

Ron gasped, staring through the windshield, and Harry looked around just in time to see a branch as thick as a python smash into it. The tree they had hit was attacking them. Its trunk was bent almost double, and its gnarled boughs were pummeling every inch of the car it could reach.

“Aaargh!” said Ron as another twisted limb punched a large dent into his door; the windshield was now trembling under a hail of blows from knuckle-like twigs and a branch as thick as a battering ram was pounding furiously on the roof, which seemed to be caving in —

“Run for it!” Ron shouted, throwing his full weight against his door, but next second he had been knocked backward into Harry's lap by a vicious uppercut from another branch.

“We're done for!” he moaned as the ceiling sagged, but suddenly the floor of the car was vibrating—the engine had restarted.

“Reverse!” Harry yelled, and the car shot backward; the tree was still trying to hit them; they could hear its roots creaking as it almost ripped itself up, lashing out at them as they sped out of reach.

“That,” panted Ron, “was close. Well done, car—”

The car, however, had reached the end of its tether. With two sharp clunks, the doors flew open and Harry felt his seat tip sideways: Next thing he knew he was sprawled on the damp ground. Loud thuds told him that the car was ejecting their luggage from the trunk; Hedwig's cage flew through the air and burst open; she rose out of it with an angry screech and sped off toward the castle without a backward look. Then, dented, scratched, and steaming, the car rumbled off into the darkness, its rear lights blazing angrily.

“Come back!” Ron yelled after it, brandishing his broken wand. “Dad'll kill me!”

But the car disappeared from view with one last snort from its exhaust.

“Can you believe our luck?” said Ron miserably, bending down to pick up Scabbers. “Of all the trees we could've hit, we had to get one that hits back.”

He glanced over his shoulder at the ancient tree, which was still flailing its branches threateningly.

“Come on,” said Harry wearily, “we'd better get up to the school...”

It wasn't at all the triumphant arrival they had pictured. Stiff, cold, and bruised, they seized the ends of their trunks and began dragging them up the grassy slope, toward the great oak front doors.

“I think the feast's already started,” said Ron, dropping his trunk at the foot of the front steps and crossing quietly to look through a brightly lit window. “Hey—Harry—come and look—it's the Sorting!”

Harry hurried over and, together, he and Ron peered in at the Great Hall.

Innumerable candles were hovering in midair over four long, crowded tables, making the golden plates and goblets sparkle. Overhead, the bewitched ceiling, which always mirrored the sky outside, sparkled with stars.

Through the forest of pointed black Hogwarts hats, Harry saw a long line of scared-looking first years filing into the Hall. Ginny was among them, easily visible because of her vivid Weasley hair. Meanwhile, Professor McGonagall, a bespectacled witch with her hair in a tight bun, was placing the famous Hogwarts Sorting Hat on a stool before the newcomers.

Every year, this aged old hat, patched, frayed, and dirty, sorted new students into the four Hogwarts houses (Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin). Harry well remembered putting it on, exactly one year ago, and waiting, petrified, for its decision as it muttered aloud in his ear. For a few horrible seconds he had feared that the hat was going to put him in Slytherin, the house that had turned out more Dark witches and wizards than any other -but he had ended up in Gryffindor, along with Ron, Hermione, and the rest of the Weasleys. Last term, Harry and Ron had helped Gryffindor win the House Championship, beating Slytherin for the first time in seven years.

A very small, mousy-haired boy had been called forward to place the hat on his head. Harry's eyes wandered past him to where Professor Dumbledore, the headmaster, sat watching the Sorting from the staff table, his long silver beard and half-moon glasses shining brightly in the candlelight. Several seats along, Harry saw Gilderoy Lockhart, dressed in robes of aquamarine. And there at the end was Hagrid, huge and hairy, drinking deeply from his goblet.

“Hang on...” Harry muttered to Ron. “There's an empty chair at the staff table... Where's Snape?”

Professor Severus Snape was Harry's least favorite teacher. Harry also happened to be Snape's least favorite student. Cruel, sarcastic, and disliked by everybody except the students from his own house (Slytherin), Snape taught Potions.

“Maybe he's ill!” said Ron hopefully.

“Maybe he's left,” said Harry, “because he missed out on the Defense Against Dark Arts job again!”

“Or he might have been sacked!” said Ron enthusiastically. “I mean, everyone hates him—”

“Or maybe,” said a very cold voice right behind them, “he's waiting to hear why you two didn't arrive on the school train.”

Harry spun around. There, his black robes rippling in a cold breeze, stood Severus Snape. He was a thin man with sallow skin, a hooked nose, and greasy, shoulder-length black hair, and at this moment, he was smiling in a way that told Harry he and Ron were in very deep trouble.

“Follow me,” said Snape.

Not daring even to look at each other, Harry and Ron followed Snape up the steps into the vast, echoing entrance hall, which was lit with flaming torches. A delicious smell of food was wafting from the Great Hall, but Snape led them away from the warmth and light, down a narrow stone staircase that led into the dungeons.

“In!” he said, opening a door halfway down the cold passageway and pointing.

They entered Snape's office, shivering. The shadowy walls were lined with shelves of large glass jars, in which floated all manner of revolting things Harry didn't really want to know the name of at the moment. The fireplace was dark and empty. Snape closed the door and turned to look at them.

“So,” he said softly, “the train isn't good enough for the famous Harry Potter and his faithful sidekick Weasley. Wanted to arrive with a bang, did we, boys?”

“No, sir, it was the barrier at King's Cross, it—”

“Silence!” said Snape coldly. “What have you done with the car?”

Ron gulped. This wasn't the first time Snape had given Harry the impression of being able to read minds. But a moment later, he understood, as Snape unrolled today's issue of the Evening Prophet.

“You were seen,” he hissed, showing them the headline: FLYING FORD ANGLIA MYSTIFIES MUGGLES. He began to read aloud: “Two Muggles in London, convinced they saw an old car flying over the Post Office tower... at noon in Norfolk, Mrs. Hetty Bayliss, while hanging out her washing... Mr. Angus Fleet, of Peebles, reported to police... Six or seven Muggles in all. I believe your father works in the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office?” he said, looking up at Ron and smiling still more nastily. “Dear, dear... his own son...”

Harry felt as though he'd just been walloped in the stomach by one of the mad tree's larger branches. If anyone found out Mr. Weasley had bewitched the car... he hadn't thought of that...

“I noticed, in my search of the park, that considerable damage seems to have been done to a very valuable Whomping Willow,” Snape went on.

“That tree did more damage to us than we—” Ron blurted out.

“Silence!” snapped Snape again. “Most unfortunately, you are not in my House and the decision to expel you does not rest with me. I shall go and fetch the people who do have that happy power. You will wait here.”

Harry and Ron stared at each other, white-faced. Harry didn't feel hungry any more. He now felt extremely sick. He tried not to look at a large, slimy something suspended in green liquid on a shelf behind Snape's desk. If Snape had gone to fetch Professor McGonagall, head of Gryffindor House, they were hardly any better off. She might be fairer than Snape, but she was still extremely strict.

Ten minutes later, Snape returned, and sure enough it was Professor McGonagall who accompanied him. Harry had seen Professor McGonagall angry on several occasions, but either he had forgotten just how thin her mouth could go, or he had never seen her this angry before. She raised her wand the moment she entered; Harry and Ron both flinched, but she merely pointed it at the empty fireplace, where flames suddenly erupted.

“Sit,” she said, and they both backed into chairs by the fire.

“Explain,” she said, her glasses glinting ominously.

Ron launched into the story, starting with the barrier at the station refusing to let them through.

“...so we had no choice, Professor, we couldn't get on the train.”

“Why didn't you send us a letter by owl? I believe you have an owl?” Professor McGonagall said coldly to Harry.

Harry gaped at her. Now she said it, that seemed the obvious thing to have done.

“I—I didn't think—”

“That,” said Professor McGonagall, “is obvious.”

There was a knock on the office door and Snape, now looking happier than ever, opened it. There stood the headmaster, Professor Dumbledore.

Harry's whole body went numb. Dumbledore was looking unusually grave. He stared down his very crooked nose at them, and Harry suddenly found himself wishing he and Ron were still being beaten up by the Whomping Willow.

Title: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Author: J.K.Rîwling
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