La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1)(3)

by Philip Pullman

“For a rest?”

“That’s what Sister Benedicta told me. She said in the old days, before there was inns like this, and hotels, and specially hospitals, people used to stay at monasteries and priories and suchlike, but nowadays it was mostly clergymen or maybe nuns from other places and they were convales—conva—”

“Convalescing,” said Lord Nugent.

“Yes, sir, that’s it. Getting better.”

The last man to finish his roast beef put his knife and fork together decisively. “Anyone there at the moment?” he said.

“I don’t think so, sir. Unless they’re indoors a lot. Usually visitors like to walk about in the garden, but the weather en’t been very nice, so…Would you like your pudding now, gentlemen?”

“What is it?”

“Baked apple and custard. Apples from the priory orchard.”

“Well, we can’t pass up a chance to try those,” said the scholarly man. “Yes, bring us some baked apples and custard.”

Malcolm began to gather their plates and cutlery.

“Have you lived here all your life, Malcolm?” said Lord Nugent.

“Yes, sir. I was born here.”

“And in all your long experience of the priory, did you ever know them to look after an infant?”

“A very young child, sir?”

“Yes. A child too young to go to school. Even a baby. Ever known that?”

Malcolm thought carefully and said, “No, sir, never. Ladies and gentlemen, or clergymen anyway, but never a baby.”

“I see. Thank you, Malcolm.”

By gathering the wineglasses together, their stems between his fingers, he managed to take all three of them as well as the plates.

“A baby?” whispered Asta on the way to the kitchen.

“That’s a mystery,” said Malcolm with satisfaction. “Maybe an orphan.”

“Or worse,” said Asta darkly.

Malcolm put the plates on the draining board, ignoring Alice as usual, and gave the order for pudding.

“Your father,” said Malcolm’s mother, dishing up the apples, “thinks one of those guests used to be the lord chancellor.”

“You better give him a nice big apple, then,” said Malcolm.

“What did they want to know?” she said, ladling hot custard over the apples.

“Oh, all about the priory.”

“Are you going to manage those? They’re hot.”

“Yeah, but they’re not big. I can do ’em, honest.”

“You better. If you drop the lord chancellor’s apple, you’ll go to prison.”

He managed the bowls perfectly well, even though they were getting hotter and hotter. The gentlemen didn’t ask any questions this time, just ordering coffee, and Malcolm brought them a naphtha lamp before going through to the kitchen to set the cups up.

“Mum, you know the priory has guests sometimes? Did you ever know them to look after a baby?”

“What d’you want to know that for?”

“They were asking. The lord chancellor and the others.”

“What did you tell ’em?”

“I said I didn’t think so.”

“Well, that’s the right answer. Now go on—get out and bring in some more glasses.”

In the main bar, under cover of the noise and laughter, Asta whispered, “She was startled when you asked that. I saw Kerin wake up and prick his ears.”

Kerin was Mrs. Polstead’s dæmon, a gruff but tolerant badger.

“It’s just ’cause it was surprising,” said Malcolm. “I ’spect you looked surprised when they asked me.”

“I never. I was inscrutable.”

“Well, I ’spect they saw me being surprised.”

“Shall we ask the nuns?”

“Could do,” said Malcolm. “Tomorrow. They need to know if someone’s been asking questions about ’em.”

Malcolm’s father was right: Lord Nugent had been lord chancellor, but that had been under a previous government, a more liberal body than the present one, and ruling at a more liberal time. These days the prevailing fashion in politics was one of obsequious submissiveness to the religious authorities, and ultimately to Geneva. As a consequence, some organizations of the favored religious kind found their power and influence greatly enhanced, while officials and ministers who had supported the secular line that was now out of favor had either to find other things to do, or to work surreptitiously, and at continuous risk of discovery.

Such a man was Thomas Nugent. To the world, to the press, to the government, he was a retired lawyer of fading distinction, yesterday’s man, of no interest. In fact, he was directing an organization that functioned very like a secret service, which not many years before had been part of the security and intelligence services of the Crown. Now, under Nugent, its activities were devoted to frustrating the work of the religious authorities, and to remaining obscure and apparently harmless. This took ingenuity, courage, and luck, and so far they had remained undetected. Under an innocent and misleading name, Nugent’s organization carried out all kinds of missions, dangerous, complicated, tedious, and sometimes downright illegal. But it had never before had to deal with keeping a six-month-old baby out of the hands of those who wanted to kill her.

On Saturday, Malcolm was free, once he’d done his morning tasks at the Trout, to cross the bridge and call at the priory.

He knocked on the kitchen door and went in to find Sister Fenella scraping some potatoes. There was a neater way to deal with potatoes, as he knew from his mother’s example, and given a sharp knife, Malcolm could have shown the good nun, but he held his peace.

“Have you come to help me, Malcolm?” she said.

“If you like. But I was really going to tell you something.”

“You could prepare those Brussels sprouts.”

“All right,” said Malcolm, finding the sharpest knife in the drawer and pulling several sprout stalks across the table in the pale February sunlight.

“Don’t forget the cross in the base,” said Sister Fenella.

She had told him once that this put the mark of the Savior on each sprout and made sure the Devil couldn’t get in. Malcolm was impressed by that at the time, but he knew now that it was to help them cook all the way through. His mother had explained that, and said, “But don’t you go and contradict Sister Fenella. She’s a sweet-hearted old lady, and if she wants to think that, don’t upset her.”

Malcolm would have put up with a good deal rather than upset Sister Fenella, whom he loved with a deep and uncomplicated devotion.

“Now, what were you going to tell me?” she said as Malcolm settled on the old stool beside her.

“You know who we had in the Trout the other night? There was three gentlemen taking their dinner, and one of them was Lord Nugent, the lord chancellor of England. Ex–lord chancellor. And that’s not all. They were looking across here to the priory and they were ever so curious. They asked all kinds of questions—what sort of nuns you were, whether you had any guests here, what kind of people they were—and finally they asked if you’d ever had a baby staying—”

“An infant,” put in Asta.

“Yeah, an infant. Have you ever had an infant staying here?”

Sister Fenella stopped scraping. “The lord chancellor of England?” she said. “Are you sure?”

“Dad was, because he saw his picture in the paper and recognized him. They wanted to eat by theirselves in the Terrace Room.”

“The lord chancellor himself?”

“Ex–lord chancellor. Sister Fenella, what does the lord chancellor do?”

“Oh, he’s very high up, very important. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had something to do with the law. Or the government. Was he very grand and proud?”

“No. He was a gentleman, all right, it was easy to tell that, but he was nice and friendly.”

“And he wanted to know…”

“If you’d ever had an infant staying at the priory. I ’spect he meant staying here to be looked after.”

“And what did you tell him, Malcolm?”

“I said I didn’t think so. Have you, ever?”

“Not in my time. Goodness me! I wonder if I ought to tell Sister Benedicta.”

“Prob’ly. What I thought was, he might be looking for somewhere to put an important infant, if it was convalescing, maybe. Maybe there’s a royal infant that we don’t know about because it was ill, right, or maybe got bitten by a snake—”

“Why bitten by a snake?”

“ ’Cause its nursemaid wasn’t paying attention, prob’ly reading a magazine or talking to someone, and this snake comes along and there’s a sudden scream and she turns round and there’s the baby with a snake hanging off it. She’d be in awful trouble, the nursemaid—she might even go to prison. And when the baby was cured of the snakebite, it’d still need convalescing. So the king and the prime minister and the lord chancellor would all be looking for somewhere to convalesce it. And naturally they wouldn’t want a place that had no experience of babies.”