There was probably nowhere, he thought, where anyone could learn so much about the world as this little bend of the river, with the inn on one side and the priory on the other. He supposed that when he was grown up he’d help his father in the bar, and then take over the place when his parents grew too old to continue. He was fairly happy about that. It would be much better running the Trout than many other inns, because the great world came through, and scholars and people of consequence were often there to talk to. But what he’d really have liked to do was nothing like that. He’d have liked to be a scholar himself, maybe an astronomer or an experimental theologian, making discoveries about the deepest nature of things. To be a philosopher’s apprentice—now, that would be a fine thing. But there was little likelihood of that; Ulvercote Elementary School prepared its pupils for craftsmanship or clerking, at best, before passing them out into the world at fourteen, and as far as Malcolm knew, there were no openings in scholarship for a bright boy with a canoe.
One evening in the middle of winter, some visitors came to the Trout who were out of the usual kind. Three men arrived by anbaric car and went into the Terrace Room, which was the smallest of all the dining rooms in the inn and overlooked the terrace and the river and the priory beyond. It lay at the end of the corridor and wasn’t much used either in winter or summer, having small windows and no door out to the terrace, despite its name.
Malcolm had finished his meager homework (geometry) and wolfed down some roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, followed by a baked apple and custard, when his father called him to the bar.
“Go and see what those gents in the Terrace Room want,” he said. “Likely they’re foreign and don’t know about buying their drinks at the bar. Want to be waited on, I expect.”
Pleased by this novelty, Malcolm went down to the little room and found three gentlemen (he could tell their quality at a glance) all standing at the window and stooping to look out.
“Can I help you, gentlemen?” he said.
They turned at once. Two of them ordered claret, and the third wanted rum. When Malcolm came back with their drinks, they asked if they could get a dinner here, and if so, what the place had to offer.
“Roast beef, sir, and it’s very good. I know because I just had some.”
“Oh, le patron mange ici, eh?” said the oldest of the gentlemen as they drew up their chairs to the little table. His dæmon, a handsome black-and-white lemur, sat calmly on his shoulder.
“I live here, sir. The landlord’s my father,” said Malcolm. “And my mother’s the cook.”
“What’s your name?” asked the tallest and thinnest of the visitors, a scholarly-looking man with thick gray hair, whose dæmon was a greenfinch.
“Malcolm Polstead, sir.”
“What’s that place over the river, Malcolm?” said the third, a man with large dark eyes and a black mustache. His dæmon, whatever she was, lay curled up on the floor at his feet.
It was dark by then, of course, and all they could see on the other side of the river were the dimly lit stained-glass windows of the oratory and the light that always shone over the gatehouse.
“That’s the priory, sir. The sisters of the Order of St. Rosamund.”
“And who was St. Rosamund?”
“I never asked them about St. Rosamund. There’s a picture of her in the stained glass, though, sort of standing in a great big rose. I ’spect she’s named after it. I’ll have to ask Sister Benedicta.”
“Oh, you know them well, then?”
“I talk to ’em every day, sir, more or less. I do odd jobs around the priory, run errands, that sort of thing.”
“And do these nuns ever have visitors?” said the oldest man.
“Yes, sir, quite often. All sorts of people. Sir, I don’t want to interfere, but it’s ever so cold in here. Would you like me to light the fire? Unless you’d like to come in the saloon. It’s nice and warm in there.”
“No, we’ll stay here, thank you, Malcolm, but we’d certainly like a fire. Do light it.”
Malcolm struck a match, and the fire caught at once. His father was good at laying fires; Malcolm had often watched him. There were enough logs to last the evening, if these men wanted to stay.
“Lot of people in tonight?” said the dark-eyed man.
“I suppose there’d be a dozen or so, sir. About normal.”
“Good,” said the oldest man. “Well, bring us some of that roast beef.”
“Some soup to start with, sir? Spiced parsnip today.”
“Yes, why not? Soup all round, followed by your famous roast beef. And another bottle of this claret.”
Malcolm didn’t think the beef was really famous; that was just a way of talking. He left to get some cutlery and to place the order with his mother in the kitchen.
In his ear, Asta, in the form of a goldfinch, whispered, “They already knew about the nuns.”
“Then why were they asking?” Malcolm whispered back.
“They were testing us, to see if we told the truth.”
“I wonder what they want.”
“They don’t look like scholars.”
“They do, a bit.”
“They look like politicians,” she insisted.
“How d’you know what politicians look like?”
“I just got a feeling.”
Malcolm didn’t argue with her; there were other customers to attend to, so he was busy, and besides, he believed in Asta’s feelings. He himself seldom had that sort of feeling about people—if they were nice to him, he liked them—but his dæmon’s intuitions had proved reliable many times. Of course, he and Asta were one being, so the intuitions were his anyway, as much as his feelings were hers.
Malcolm’s father carried the food in to the three guests and opened their wine. Malcolm hadn’t learned to manage three hot plates at once. When Mr. Polstead came back to the main bar, he beckoned Malcolm with a finger and spoke quietly.
“What did those gentlemen say to you?” he said.
“They were asking about the priory.”
“They want to talk to you again. They said you were a bright boy. Mind your manners, now. You know who they are?”
Malcolm, wide-eyed, shook his head.
“That’s Lord Nugent, that is—the old boy. He used to be the lord chancellor of England.”
“How d’you know that?”
“I recognized him from his picture in the paper. Go on now. Answer all their questions.”
Malcolm set off down the corridor, with Asta whispering, “See? Who was right, then? The lord chancellor of England, no less!”
The men were tucking into their roast beef (Malcolm’s mother had given them an extra slice each) and talking quietly, but they fell silent as soon as Malcolm came in.
“I came to see whether you’d like another light, gentlemen,” he said. “I can bring a naphtha lamp for the table, if you like.”
“In a minute, Malcolm, that would be a very good idea,” said the man who was the lord chancellor. “But tell me, how old are you?”
Perhaps he should have said my lord, but the ex–lord chancellor of England had seemed quite content with sir. Perhaps he was traveling incognito, in which case he wouldn’t like to be given his right form of address anyway.
“And where do you go to school?”
“Ulvercote Elementary, sir, just across Port Meadow.”
“What are you going to do when you grow up, d’you think?”
“Most probably I’ll be an innkeeper, like my father, sir.”
“Jolly interesting occupation, I should think.”
“I think it is too, sir.”
“All sorts of people passing through, and so on.”
“That’s right, sir. There’s scholars from the university come here, and watermen from all over.”
“You see a lot of what’s going on, eh?”
“Yes, we do, sir.”
“Traffic up and down the river, and such.”
“It’s mostly on the canal that there’s the interesting stuff, sir. There’s gyptian boats going up and down, and the horse fair in July—the canal’s full of boats and travelers then.”
“The horse fair…Gyptians, eh?”
“They come from all over to buy and sell horses.”
The scholarly man said, “The nuns in the priory. How do they earn a living? Do they make perfumes, anything like that?”
“They grow a lot of vegetables,” Malcolm said. “My mum always buys her vegetables and fruit from the priory. And honey. Oh, and they sew and embroider things for clergymen to wear. Chasubles and that. I reckon they must get paid a lot for them. They must have a bit of money because they buy fish from Medley Pond, down the river.”
“When the priory has visitors,” said the ex–lord chancellor, “what sort of people would they be, Malcolm?”
“Well, ladies, sometimes…young ladies…Sometimes an old priest or bishop, maybe. I think they come here for a rest.”