La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1)(13)

by Philip Pullman

She ordered a cheese sandwich and a glass of pale ale and sat outside on the terrace, which wasn’t crowded by any means but wasn’t deserted either. Most people had probably decided to play it safe with the weather and stay indoors.

Hannah ate her sandwich slowly, ignoring the attentions of Norman (or Barry) and reading a book. It was nothing to do with work: it was a thriller, of the sort she liked, with a mysterious death, skin-of-the-teeth escapes, and a haughty and beautiful heroine whose function was to fall in love with the saturnine but witty hero.

She had finished her sandwich, to Norman’s disgust, and was just draining the last of her beer when, as she’d hoped, a boy appeared.

“Can I bring you any more to eat or drink, miss?” he said.

His tone was polite and interested, slightly to her surprise, as if he really wanted to help. He was about eleven, she guessed, a stocky, strong-looking boy, ginger-haired. A nice boy, friendly, intelligent.

“No, thanks. But…” How should she say it? She’d rehearsed it often enough, but now her voice sounded thin and nervous. Quiet, she thought, quiet.

“Yes, miss?”

“Do you know anything about an acorn?”

It had an extraordinary effect. The color drained out of his face, and his eyes seemed to flash with understanding, and then fear, and then determination. He nodded.

“Don’t say anything now,” Hannah said quietly. “In a minute I’m going to leave, but I’ll forget this book and leave it on my chair. You’ll find it and look for me, but I’ll be gone. My address is inside the cover. Tomorrow, if you can, bring it to my house in Jericho. And…and the acorn. Can you do that? We can talk there.”

He nodded again.

“Tomorrow afternoon,” he said. “I can do it then.”

He had recovered his color: ruddy, or even lionlike, she thought. She smiled and went back to reading as he gathered up her plate and glass, and then she went through a pantomime of putting on her coat, looking for her purse, leaving a tip, gathering her bag, and going out, leaving her book on the chair pushed under the table.

The next day, she could hardly settle to anything. In the morning she fussed with her little garden, pruning this, repotting that, but her mind wasn’t on it. Then it started to rain, so she went inside and made some coffee and did what she had never done in her life: tried the newspaper crossword.

“What a stupid exercise,” said her dæmon after five minutes. “Words belong in contexts, not pegged out like biological specimens.”

She threw the paper aside and lit a fire in the little hearth, and then found that she’d forgotten her coffee.

“Why didn’t you remind me?” she asked her dæmon.

“Because I’d forgotten it too, of course,” he said. “Settle down, for goodness’ sake.”

“I’m trying,” she said. “I seem to have forgotten how.”

“It’s stopped raining. Go and finish pruning the clematis.”

“Everything will be drenched.”

“Do the ironing.”

“There’s only one blouse to do.”

“Write some letters.”

“Don’t want to.”

“Bake a cake to give that boy a slice of.”

“He might come while I’m still making it, and then we’d have to make conversation for an hour and a half till it was ready. Anyway, we’ve got some biscuits.”

“Well, I give up,” he said.

At midday, she toasted a cheese sandwich in her mother’s blackened old device that hung by the fire. Then she made some more coffee and drank it this time, and then she felt a little more on top of things and managed to read for an hour or so. The rain had started up again.

“He might not come at all if it’s pouring like this,” she said.

“Yes, he will. He’ll be too curious not to.”

“You think so?”

“His dæmon changed four times while we were speaking to him.”

“Hmm,” she said, but there was something in what Jesper had observed. Frequent changes of shape in a child’s dæmon, and a wide variety of forms to assume, were a good indicator of intelligence and curiosity. “And you think…”

“He’ll want to know what it means.”

“He was frightened. He went pale.”

“Only for a moment. Then his color came back, didn’t you see? Sort of ruddy.”

“Well, we’ll know in a few minutes,” she said, seeing him at the gate. “Here he comes now.”

She stood up even before the door knocker rapped, and put her book down on the little side table before smoothing her skirt and touching her hair. For heaven’s sake, what was there to be nervous about? Well, quite a lot, actually. She opened the door.

“You must be soaking wet,” she said.

“Well, I am a bit,” said the boy, shaking his waterproof coat outside before letting her take it. He looked at the neat carpet, the polished floorboards, and took his shoes off too.

“Come in and get warm,” she said. “How did you get here? You didn’t walk?”

“In my boat,” he said.

“Your boat? Where is it?”

“She’s tied up at the boatyard. They let me leave her there. I thought I better bring her up on the bank and turn her upside down, because if she gets full of water, it takes ages to bail her out. She’s called La Belle Sauvage.”

“Why?”

“That was the name of my uncle’s pub. My dad’s brother was an innkeeper too, and he had a pub at Richmond and I liked the name.”

“Was there a nice sign?”

“Yes, it was a beautiful lady, and she’d done something brave, only I don’t know what that was. Oh—here’s your book. Sorry it’s a bit wet.”

They were sitting on either side of the fire, and he was steaming prodigiously.

“Thank you. Perhaps you’d better put it on the hearth.”

“It was a good idea to leave it like that so I knew where to come.”

“Tradecraft,” she said.

“Tradecraft? What’s that?”

“A way of…oh, passing messages, that kind of thing. By the way, what’s your name?”

“Malcolm Polstead.”

“And…the acorn?”

“How did you know to ask me?” he said, not moving.

“There’s a way of…There’s an instrument….Well, I found out by myself. No one else knows. What can you tell me about the acorn?”

He reached into an inside pocket. Then he held out his hand, and the acorn was resting in his palm.

She took it tentatively, thinking he might snatch it back, but he didn’t move. What he did was watch closely as she unscrewed it. Then he nodded.

“I was watching,” he said, “to see if you knew which way it unscrewed. It fooled me at first because I never came across anything that unscrewed clockwise. But you knew straightaway, so I reckon this must be for you.”

And he brought out the tightly folded sheet of India paper just as the two halves of the acorn fell apart in her hands, showing it to be empty.

“If I’d tried to unscrew it the wrong way…,” she said.

“Then I wouldn’t have given you the paper.”

He handed it to her, and she unfolded it, scanned it quickly, and tucked it in the pocket of her cardigan. Somehow the boy seemed to be in charge, which hadn’t been her intention. Now she had to decide what to do about it.

“How did you come across this?” she said.

He told her the whole story, from the moment Asta had spotted the man under the oak tree to the story Mrs. Carpenter in the chandlery had shown him in the Oxford Times.

“My God,” she said. She had gone pale. “Robert Luckhurst?”

“Yes, from Magdalen. Did you know him?”

“Slightly. I had no idea he was the one who…We’re not supposed to know each other, and I’m certainly not supposed to tell you this. What happened usually was that he’d put the acorn in a dead-letter drop and I’d collect it from there, and then put it back in another place when I’d written a reply. I never knew who put it there or collected it.”

“That’s a good system,” he said.

She wondered if she’d already said more than she should. She hadn’t expected to tell him anything, but then she hadn’t expected him to know so much.

“Have you told anyone else about this?” she said.

“No. I don’t think it’s safe.”

“Well, you’re right.” She hesitated. She could thank him and send him away now, or…“Would you like something hot to drink? Some chocolatl?”

“Oh, yes, please,” he said.

In the little kitchen she put some milk on to boil and then looked at the message again. Was there anything compromising in it? It was quite clear that the alethiometer was involved, and the identities of the alethiometer specialists in Oxford were no secret. As for Dust, it meant big trouble.

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