La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1)(15)

by Philip Pullman

“I think they all could in the Middle Ages. There’s only one that still maintains the right to do that.”

“Which one is that?”

“Jordan. And they’ve used it too, quite recently. Mainly for political reasons these days. Scholars who’ve upset their governments can claim scholastic sanctuary, like seeking asylum. There’s a sort of formula: they have to claim the right to sanctuary in a Latin sentence, which they speak to the Master.”

“Which one’s Jordan?”

“The one in Turl Street with the very tall spire.”

“Oh, I know….D’you think those men could have been asking for sanctuary—for the baby, I mean?”

“I don’t know. I really don’t know. But it’s given me an idea. And I’m going to contradict what I said just now, because I’d like to keep in touch with you, Malcolm, after all. You like reading, don’t you?”

“Yeah!” he said.

“Well, let’s pretend this: I left my book behind and you brought it back to me—that’s perfectly true. You saw all my books, we got talking about books and reading and so on, and I offered to lend you some. To be a sort of library. You could borrow a book or two and bring them back when you’ve finished and choose some more. That would be a good reason for coming here. Shall we pretend that?”

“Yes,” he said at once. His dæmon, a squirrel now, sat on his shoulder and clapped her paws together. “And anything I see or hear—”

“That’s right. Don’t go looking—don’t put yourself in any danger at all. But if you do overhear something interesting, you can tell me about it. And when you come here, we’ll talk about books anyway. How’s that?”

“That’s great! It’s a brilliant idea.”

“Good. Good! Well, we might as well start now. Look, here are my murder mysteries—d’you like that sort of thing?”

“I like all kinds.”

“And here are my history books. Some of them might be a bit dull—I don’t know. Anyway, the rest are a mixture of all sorts. Take your pick. Why not find one novel and one something else?”

He got up eagerly and scanned the shelves. She watched, sitting back, not wanting to force anything on him. When she was a young girl, an elderly lady in the village where she grew up had done the same for her, and she remembered the delight of choosing for herself, of being allowed to range anywhere on the shelves. There were two or three commercial subscription libraries in Oxford, but no free public library, and Malcolm wouldn’t be the only young person whose hunger for books had to go unsatisfied.

So she felt good at seeing him so keen and happy as he moved along, picking out books and looking at them and reading the first page and putting them back before trying another. She saw herself in this curious boy.

At the same time, she felt horribly guilty. She was exploiting him; she was putting him in danger. She was making a spy out of him. That he was brave and intelligent made it no better; he was still so young that he was unconscious of the chocolatl remaining on his top lip. It wasn’t something he could volunteer for, though she guessed he would have done so eagerly; she had pressured him, or tempted him. She had more power, and she had done that.

He chose his books and tucked them away tightly in his knapsack to keep them dry, they agreed when he should come again, and he went out into the damp, dark evening.

She drew the curtains and sat down. She put her head in her hands.

“No point in hiding,” said Jesper. “I can see you.”

“Was I wrong?”

“Yes, of course. But you had no choice.”

“I must have.”

“No, you had to do it. If you hadn’t done it, you’d have felt feeble.”

“It shouldn’t be about how we feel—guilty, feeble—”

“No, and it isn’t. It’s about wrong and less wrong. Bad and less bad. This is about as good a cover as anyone could find. Leave it at that.”

“I know,” she said. “All the same…”

“Tough,” he said.

Malcolm decided to tell his parents about the scholar whose book he’d returned, and about her offer to lend him others, so that he wouldn’t be hiding anything except the most important thing of all. He showed his mother the first two books as she dished up the lamb stew that was his supper.

“The Body in the Library,” she read, “and A Brief History of Time. Don’t bring ’em in the kitchen, though. They’ll get all spotted with grease and gravy. If someone lends you something, you have to look after it.”

“I’ll keep ’em in my bedroom,” said Malcolm, tucking them back in the knapsack.

“Good. Now hurry up—it’s busy tonight.”

Malcolm sat down to his supper.

“Mum,” he said, “when I leave Ulvercote Elementary, am I going to senior school?”

“Depends what your dad says.”

“What d’you think he’d say?”

“I think he’d say eat your supper.”

“I can eat and listen at the same time.”

“Pity I can’t talk and cook, then.”

The next day, the nuns were busy and Mr. Taphouse was at home, so Malcolm had no excuse to go to the priory. Instead, he lay in his bedroom reading the books one after the other, and then when it stopped raining, he went out to see if it was dry enough to paint the boat’s name in his new red paint, but it wasn’t. So he went moodily back to his bedroom and set about making a lanyard with his cotton cord.

During lunchtime he carried drinks and food to customers in the bar as usual, and when he was attending to the fire, he happened to see something that surprised him. Alice, the washer-up, came into the bar with two handfuls of clean tankards and was leaning forward to put them on the bar when one of the men sitting nearby reached out and pinched her bottom.

Malcolm held his breath. Alice didn’t show the slightest reaction at first, but made sure the glasses were safely on the bar before she turned round.

“Who done that?” she said calmly, but Malcolm could see that her nostrils were flared and her eyes narrowed.

None of the men moved or spoke. The man who had pinched her was a plump middle-aged farmer called Arnold Hemsley, whose dæmon was a ferret. Alice’s dæmon, Ben, had become a bulldog, and Malcolm could hear his quiet growl, and saw the ferret trying to hide in the man’s sleeve.

“Next time that happens,” Alice said, “I won’t even try and find out who done it; I’ll just glass the nearest one of yer.” And she took a tankard by the handle and smashed it on the bar, leaving a jagged edge of handle in her bony fist. The shards of glass fell on the stone floor in the silence.

“What happened here?” said Malcolm’s father, arriving from the kitchen.

“Someone made a mistake,” said Alice, and she tossed the broken handle into Hemsley’s lap. He pulled away in alarm, tried to catch it, and cut himself. Alice walked away indifferently.

Malcolm, crouching in the fireplace with the poker in his hand, heard Hemsley and his friends muttering together. “She’s too young, you bloody fool— She wants to watch herself— It was a stupid thing to do; she en’t old enough— Deliberately provoking me— She wasn’t, en’t you got no sense?— Leave her alone, she’s old Tony Parslow’s girl….”

But his father told him to sweep up the broken glass before he could hear any more, and the men soon stopped talking about it anyway, because all anyone really wanted to talk about was the rain and what it had been doing to the water levels. The reservoirs were full, and the River Board had had to release a lot of water into the river and keep the sluice gates open. Several meadows were flooded around Oxford and Abingdon, but that was nothing unusual; the trouble was that the water wasn’t draining away, and further down the river a number of villages were under threat.

Malcolm wondered whether to make notes of all this in case it was important, but decided not to. There’d be conversations like this in every pub on every river in the kingdom. It was strange, though.

“Mr. Anscombe?” he said to one of the watermen.

“What’s that, Malcolm?”

“Has it ever been as wet as this before?”

“Oh, yeah. You look at the lockkeeper’s house at Duke’s Cut. On the wall there they’ve got a board showing how high the water came in the floods of— When was it, Dougie?”

“It was 1883,” said his companion.

“No, more recent than that.”

“Then ’52, was it? Or ’53?”

“Summin’ like that. Every forty, fifty years or so there’s a monstrous flood. They oughter get it sorted out by now.”

“What could they do, though?” said Malcolm.

“Dig more reservoirs,” said Dougie. “There’s always a demand for water.”

“No, no,” said Mr. Anscombe, “the problem is the river. They oughter dredge it proper. You seen them dredgers at work down by Wallingford—little flimsy things. They en’t man enough for the job. They’d be swep’ away theirselves if a really big flood come along. The problem is when you get a big mass of water coming down off the hills, it’s held up by the riverbed not being deep enough, and it spreads out instead.”