La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1)(16)

by Philip Pullman

“If they en’t taking precautions past Abingdon already,” said Dougie, “they bloody oughter be. All them villages down there—they’re all vulnerable. See, if they’d dug two or three big reservoirs higher up, the water wouldn’t be wasted either. It’s a precious resource, water.”

“Yeah, it would be in the Sahara Desert,” said Mr. Anscombe, “but what’re you going to do? Send it there by post? There’s no shortage of water in England. It’s the river depth that’s the problem. Dredge it all out proper, and it’ll flow down to the sea good as gold.”

“The land’s too level this side the Chilterns,” said someone else, and began to explain more, but Malcolm was called away to take some beer to the Conservatory Room.

The first thing Malcolm heard that was worth reporting came not from the Trout but from Ulvercote Elementary School. Long periods of rain were the teachers’ despair, as the children couldn’t go out and the teachers had to supervise indoor play, and everybody became frustrated and fretful.

In the crowded, noisy, stuffy playtime classroom, Malcolm and three friends had turned two desks around back to back and were playing a form of table football, but Eric’s dæmon had some exciting and mysterious news that Eric wasn’t trying very hard to suppress.

“What? What? What?” said Robbie.

“I’m not supposed to say,” said Eric virtuously.

“Well, just say it quietly,” said Tom.

“It’s not legal to say it. It’s against the law.”

“Who told you, then?”

“My dad. But he told me not to repeat it.”

Eric’s father was the clerk of the county court and often passed on news of particularly juicy trials to Eric, whose popularity increased in proportion.

“Your dad’s always saying that,” Malcolm pointed out, “but you always tell us anyway.”

“No, this is different. This is really secret.”

“He shouldn’t have told you, then,” said Tom.

“He knows he can trust me,” said Eric, to a chorus of jeers.

“You know you are going to tell us,” said Malcolm, “so you might as well do it before the bell goes.”

Eric made a great performance of looking around and leaning in close. They all leaned in too.

“You know there was that man who fell in the canal and drowned?” he said.

Robbie had heard about it, Tom hadn’t, and Malcolm just nodded.

“Well, there was his inquest on Friday,” Eric went on. “And everyone thought he’d drowned, but it turned out he was strangled before his body entered the water. So he never fell in. He was murdered first, and then the murderer chucked him in the canal.”

“Wow,” said Robbie.

“How’d they know that?” said Tom.

“There was no water in his lungs. And there was marks on his neck where the rope had been.”

“So what’s going to happen next?” said Malcolm.

“Well, it’s a police case now,” said Eric. “I don’t suppose we’ll hear any more till they catch the murderer and he goes on trial.”

At that point, the bell went, and they had to put their game away and turn the desks around and settle down, sighing heavily, to French.

Malcolm made straight for the newspaper when he got home, but there was no mention of the body in the canal. The Body in the Library, however, was gripping, and he finished it after he was supposed to put his light out. It was a good deal less horrible, somehow, despite the violence done to the victim in the book, than the thought of that poor man who’d lost the acorn: unhappy, frightened, and, finally, strangled to death.

Once that thought had got hold of Malcolm, he found it hard to struggle loose. If only he and Asta had offered to help at once! They would have found the acorn, the man would have got away quickly, the CCD men wouldn’t have arrested him, he’d still be alive….

On the other hand, the CCD men might have been watching all the time. They might have been going to arrest him whatever happened. It was the loneliness of his death that upset Malcolm most.

After school the next day, Malcolm went to the priory to see how the baby was. The answer was that she was fine, and currently asleep, and no, he couldn’t see her.

“But I’ve got a present for her,” said Malcolm to Sister Benedicta, who was working in the office. Sister Fenella was busy elsewhere, apparently, and couldn’t see him.

“Well, that’s very kind of you, Malcolm,” said the nun, “and if you give it to me, I’ll make sure she gets it.”

“Thank you,” said Malcolm. “But maybe I’ll leave it till I can give it to her myself.”

“As you please.”

“Is there anything I can do while I’m here?”

“No, not today, thank you, Malcolm. Everything’s fine.”

“Sister Benedicta,” he persisted, “when they were deciding whether to put the baby here, was it the ex–lord chancellor who decided? Lord Nugent?”

“He had a part in the decision, yes,” she said. “Now, if—”

“What’s the lord chancellor’s job?”

“He’s one of the chief law officers of the Crown. He’s the Speaker of the House of Lords.”

“Why was it his job to decide about this baby, then? There must be loads of babies. If he had to decide where each of them should go, he wouldn’t have time to do anything else.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” she said, “but that’s the way it was. Her parents are important people, mind you. That had something to do with it. And I hope you haven’t been talking about it. It’s supposed to be confidential. It’s certainly private. Now, Malcolm, I really must get these accounts in order before Vespers. Off you go. We’ll talk another day.”

She’d said “Everything’s fine,” but it wasn’t. Sister Fenella should have been cooking by now, and there were sisters he didn’t know very well hurrying along the corridors, looking anxious. He’d have worried about the baby, but Sister Benedicta always told the truth; all the same, it was troubling.

Malcolm went outside into the drizzle of the dark evening and saw a warm light glowing in the workshop. Mr. Taphouse, the carpenter, must still be there. He knocked on the door and went in.

“What’re you making, Mr. Taphouse?” he said.

“What’s it look like?”

“Looks like windows. That one looks like the kitchen window. Except…No, they’re going to be shutters. Is that right?”

“That’s it. Feel the weight of that, Malcolm.”

The old man stood the kitchen-window-shaped frame upright in the middle of the floor, and Malcolm tried to lift it.

“Blimey! That’s heavy!”

“Two-inch oak all round. Add the weight of the shutter itself, and what’ll you have to be sure of?”

Malcolm thought. “The fixing in the wall. It’ll have to be really strong. Is it going inside or out?”

“Outside.”

“There’s nothing but stone to fix it to there. How are you going to do that?”

Mr. Taphouse winked and opened a cupboard. Inside, Malcolm saw a new piece of large machinery, surrounded by coils of heavy wire flex.

“Anbaric drill,” said the carpenter. “You want to give me a hand? Sweep up for me.”

He closed the cupboard and handed Malcolm a broom. The floor was thick with shavings and sawdust.

“Why…,” Malcolm began, but Mr. Taphouse was too quick for him.

“You may well ask,” he said. “Every window shuttered to that quality, and no one tells me why. I don’t ask. I never ask. Just do what I’m told. Doesn’t mean I don’t wonder.”

The old man lifted the frame and stood it against the wall with several others.

“The stained-glass windows too?” asked Malcolm.

“Not them yet. I think the sisters believe they’re too precious. They reckon no one’d try and damage them.”

“So these are for protection?” Malcolm sounded incredulous, and he felt it too: Who on earth would want to hurt the nuns, or break their windows?

“That’s my best guess,” said Mr. Taphouse, putting a chisel back into its rack on the wall.

“But…” Malcolm couldn’t think how to finish.

“But who’d threaten the sisters? I know. That’s the question. I can’t answer it. There’s something up, though. They’re afraid of something.”

“I thought it felt a bit funny in there just now,” said Malcolm.

“Well, that’s it.”

“Is it anything to do with the baby?”

“Who knows? Her father’s made hisself a nuisance to the Church in his time.”

“Lord Asriel?”

“Thassit. But you want to keep your nose out of that sort of thing. There’s some things it’s dangerous to talk about.”

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