La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1)(8)

by Philip Pullman

“Where’ve you been?” said his mother, but not crossly.

“Watching an owl. What’s for supper?”

“Steak and kidney pie. Wash your hands. Look at you! You’re soaking wet! You make sure you change into something dry after you’ve eaten. And don’t leave your wet things on the bedroom floor.”

Malcolm rinsed his hands under the kitchen tap and wiped them perfunctorily on a tea towel.

“Have they found Mr. Boatwright yet?” he said.

“No. Why?”

“They were all talking about something exciting in the bar. I could tell something was up, but I couldn’t hear any details.”

“There was a famous man in earlier. You could have waited on him if you weren’t watching your blooming owls.”

“Who was it?” said Malcolm, helping himself to mashed potato.

“Lord Asriel, the explorer.”

“Oh,” said Malcolm, who hadn’t heard of him. “Where’s he explored?”

“The Arctic mostly, so they say. But you remember what the lord chancellor was asking about?”

“Oh, the infant? If the sisters had ever had an infant to look after?”

“That’s right. It turns out it’s Lord Asriel’s child. His love child. A little baby girl.”

“Did he tell people that?”

“Course not! He never said a word about that. Well, he wouldn’t go blabbing about that in a public bar, would he?”

“I dunno. Prob’ly not. So how d’you know—”

“Oh, you just put two and two together! The story about how Lord Asriel killed Mr. Coulter, the politician—that was in the papers a month back.”

“If he killed someone, why en’t he—”

“Eat your pie. He en’t in prison because it was a matter of honor. Mr. Coulter’s wife had the baby, Lord Asriel’s baby, and then Mr. Coulter came charging down to Lord Asriel’s estate and burst in, threatening to kill him, and they fought and Lord Asriel won and it turned out there’s a law allowing a man to defend himself and his kin—that’d be the child, the baby—so he wasn’t put in gaol nor hanged, but they fined him all his fortune, near enough. Eat your pie—come on, for goodness’ sake!”

Malcolm was enthralled by this tale, and plied his knife and fork with only half his attention.

“But how d’you know he’s come here to put his infant with the sisters?”

“Well, I don’t, but it must be that. You can ask Sister Fenella next time you see her. And stop calling it an infant. No one talks like that. She’s a baby still. Must be—oh, six months old, I suppose. Maybe a bit more.”

“Why isn’t her mother looking after her?”

“Lord, I don’t know. Some say she never wanted anything more to do with the child, but maybe that’s just gossip.”

“The nuns won’t know how to look after her, if they’ve never done it before.”

“Well, they won’t be short of advice. Give me your plate. There’s rhubarb and custard on the side there.”

As soon as possible, which was three days later, Malcolm hurried to the priory to learn more about the child of the famous explorer. Sister Fenella was his first port of call, and as the rain flung itself against the window, they sat at the kitchen table and kneaded some dough for the priory’s bread. After Malcolm had washed his hands three times, making little change to their appearance, Sister Fenella gave up telling him.

“What is that in your fingernails?” she said.

“Tar. I was repairing my canoe.”

“Well, if it’s only tar…They say it’s healthy,” she said doubtfully.

“There’s coal-tar soap,” Malcolm pointed out.

“True enough. But I don’t think it’s that color. Never mind, the rest is clean enough. Knead away.”

As he pulled and pushed at the dough, Malcolm pressed the nun with questions. Was it true, about Lord Asriel’s baby?

“Well, and what have you heard about a baby?”

“That you’re looking after it because he killed a man and the court took all his money away. And that was why the lord chancellor was asking about it in the Trout the other day. So is it true?”

“Yes, it is. A little baby girl.”

“What’s her name?”

“Lyra. I don’t know why they didn’t give her a good saint’s name.”

“Will she be here till she’s grown up?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Malcolm….Harder with that now. Teach it who’s boss.”

“Did you see Lord Asriel?”

“No. I tried to peep along the corridor, but Sister Benedicta had the door firmly closed.”

“Is she the person who’s in charge of her?”

“Well, she was the sister who spoke to Lord Asriel.”

“So who looks after the baby and feeds her and all that?”

“We all do.”

“How do you know how to do all those things? I wondered because…”

“Because we’re all maiden ladies?”

“Well, it’s not the usual thing you get nuns doing.”

“You’d be surprised at what we know,” she said, and her elderly squirrel dæmon laughed, and so did Asta, so Malcolm did too. “But, you know, Malcolm, you mustn’t say anything about the baby. It’s a great secret that she’s here. You mustn’t breathe a word about it.”

“Lots of people know already. My mum and dad know, and customers…They’ve all been talking about it.”

“Oh, dear. Well, perhaps it doesn’t matter, then. But you’d better not say any more. Perhaps that would be all right.”

“Sister Fenella, did any men from the CCD come the other night? You know, the Consist—”

“The Consistorial Court of Discipline? Lord preserve us. What have we done to deserve that?”

“I don’t know. Nothing. There were some men, two of them, in the Trout the other night, and everyone was afraid of them. They were asking about one of the men who came with the lord chancellor. And Mr. Boatwright stood up to them and they were going to arrest him, but he disappeared. Probably ran away. He might be living in the woods.”

“Goodness me! George Boatwright the poacher?”

“You know him, then?”

“Oh, yes. And now he’s in trouble with the…Oh, dear. Oh, dear.”

“Sister, what does the CCD do?”

“I expect they do God’s work,” she said. “It’s too hard for us to understand.”

“Did they come here?”

“I wouldn’t know, Malcolm. Sister Benedicta would have seen them, not me. And she would have kept it to herself, like the brave lady she is, and not troubled anyone else.”

“I just wondered if they had anything to do with the baby.”

“Well, I wouldn’t know, and I wouldn’t ask. Come on, that’s enough with that dough.”

She took it from him and slapped it hard on the stone working surface. Malcolm could see she was troubled, and he wished he hadn’t asked about the CCD.

Before he left, Sister Fenella took him along to see Lyra. The baby was asleep in the nuns’ parlor, the room where they received visitors, but Sister Fenella said it would be all right if he was very quiet.

He tiptoed after her into the room, which was cold and smelled of furniture polish, and miserably gray in the light from the rain-washed window. In the middle of the floor stood a crib of heavy-looking oak, and inside it there lay a baby, asleep.

Malcolm had never seen a baby at close quarters, and he was struck at once by how real she seemed. He knew that would be a silly thing to say, so he held his tongue, but that was his impression all the same: it was unexpected that something so small should be so perfectly formed. She was as perfectly made as the wooden acorn. Her dæmon, the chick of a small bird like a swallow, was asleep with her, but as soon as Asta flew down, swallow-shaped too, and perched on the edge of the crib, the chick woke up and opened his yellow beak wide for food. Malcolm laughed, and that woke the baby, and seeing his laughing face, she began to laugh too. Asta pretended to snap at a tiny insect and thrust it down the baby dæmon’s gaping mouth, which satisfied him, making Malcolm laugh harder, and then the baby laughed so hard she got hiccups, and every time she hicked, the dæmon jumped.

“There, there,” said Sister Fenella, and bent to pick her up; but as she lifted the baby, Lyra’s little face crumpled into an expression of grief and terror, and she reached round for her dæmon, nearly twisting herself out of the nun’s arms. Asta was ahead of her: she took the little chick in her mouth and flew up to place him on the baby’s chest, at which point he turned into a miniature tiger cub and hissed and bared his teeth at everyone. All the baby’s dismay vanished at once, and she lay in Sister Fenella’s arms, looking around with a lordly complacency.

Malcolm was enchanted. Everything about her was perfect and delighted him.