La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1)(17)

by Philip Pullman

“Why? I mean, in what way?”

“That’s enough. When I say that’s enough, that’s enough. Don’t be cheeky.”

Mr. Taphouse’s dæmon, a ragged-looking woodpecker, clacked her beak crossly. Malcolm said no more, but swept up the shavings and the sawdust and tipped them into the bin next to the offcuts, from which Mr. Taphouse would feed the old iron stove the next day.

“Good night, Mr. Taphouse,” said Malcolm as he left.

The old man grunted and said nothing.

Having finished The Body in the Library, Malcolm returned to A Brief History of Time. It was harder going, but he expected it to be, and the subject was exciting even if he didn’t understand everything the author said about it. He wanted to finish it before Saturday, and just about managed it.

Dr. Relf was replacing a broken pane of glass in her back door when he arrived. Malcolm was interested at once.

“How did that happen?” he said.

“Someone broke it. I bolt the door top and bottom, so they wouldn’t have been able to get in anyway, but I think they were hoping the key was in the lock.”

“Have you got some putty? And some glazing sprigs?”

“What are they?”

“Little nails without heads that hold the glass in place.”

“I thought the putty did that.”

“Not by itself. I can go and get some for you.”

There was an ironmonger’s in Walton Street, about five minutes’ walk away, which was one of Malcolm’s favorite places after the chandlery. He’d cast a quick glance at Dr. Relf’s tools, and she had everything else necessary, so it wasn’t long before he returned with a little bag of glazing sprigs.

“I seen—I saw—Mr. Taphouse doing this once at the priory. He’s the carpenter,” he explained. “What he did was— Look, I’ll show you.” To avoid bashing the glass with the hammer as he tapped the glazing sprig into the frame, he put the sprig along the glass with its point in the wood, then held the side of a chisel against the other end of it so he could tap the hammer against that to drive it home.

“Oh, that’s clever,” said Dr. Relf. “Let me have a go.”

When he was sure she wouldn’t break the glass, Malcolm let her finish while he softened and warmed the putty.

“Should I have a putty knife?” she said.

“No. An ordinary eating knife’ll do. One with a round end’s best.”

He’d never actually done it himself, but he remembered what Mr. Taphouse had done, and the result was perfectly neat.

“Wonderful,” she said.

“You have to let it dry and get a bit of a skin before you can paint it,” he said. “Then it’ll be all weatherproof and everything.”

“Well, I think we deserve a cup of chocolatl now,” she said. “Thank you very much, Malcolm.”

“I’ll tidy up,” he said. That was what Mr. Taphouse would have expected. Malcolm imagined him watching, and giving a stern nod when everything was put away and swept up.

“I’ve got two things to tell you,” he said when they were sitting down by the fire in the little sitting room.

“Good!”

“It might not be good. You know the priory, where they’re looking after the infant, the baby? Well, Mr. Taphouse’s making some heavy shutters to go over all their windows. He doesn’t know why—he doesn’t ask why anything—but they’re so heavy and strong. When I was there the other day, the sisters were kind of anxious, and then I found him making the shutters. You could do with some here. Mr. Taphouse said the nuns were probably afraid of something, but he couldn’t guess what it was. I don’t know if I asked him the right questions….Maybe I should’ve asked if one of the windows had been broken, but I didn’t think of that.”

“Never mind. That is interesting. Do you think they were protecting the baby?”

“Bound to be, partly. But they got all sorts of things to protect there, like crucifixes and statues and silver and stuff. If it was just burglars they were worried about, though, I dunno if they’d bother with the sort of shutters that Mr. Taphouse was making. So maybe they’re worried about the baby mostly.”

“I’m sure they would be.”

“Sister Benedicta told me that it was Lord Nugent, the ex–lord chancellor of England, who decided to put the baby there. She didn’t say why, and sometimes she gets cross if I keep on asking. And she said the baby was confidential as well. But so many people know about her already I thought it wouldn’t matter much.”

“I expect you’re right. What was the other thing?”

“Oh, yes…”

Malcolm told her what Eric’s father, the clerk of the court, had passed on about the man in the canal. Her face grew pale.

“Good God. That’s appalling,” she said.

“D’you think it might be true?”

“Oh. Well—don’t you?”

“The thing is, Eric does exaggerate a bit.”

“Oh?”

“He likes to show off about what he knows, what his dad’s heard in court.”

“I wonder if his dad would have told him that sort of thing.”

“Yes, I think he would. I’ve heard him talk like that about things that have happened, trials and that. I think he’d be telling the truth to Eric. But maybe Eric…I dunno, though. I just think that poor man—he looked so unhappy….”

To Malcolm’s intense embarrassment, his voice shook, his throat tightened, and he found tears flowing from his eyes. When he’d been moved to tears at home, when he was much younger, his mother had known what to do: she gathered him into her arms and rocked him gently till the crying faded away. Malcolm realized that he’d wanted to cry about the dead man since the moment he’d heard about him, but of course he couldn’t possibly tell his mother about any of this.

“Sorry,” he said.

“Malcolm! Don’t say sorry. I’m sorry that you’re mixed up in this. And actually, now I think we’d better stop. I’ve got no business asking you to—”

“I don’t want to stop! I want to find out!”

“It’s too dangerous. If anyone thinks you know anything about this, then you’re in real—”

“I know. But I am anyway. I can’t help it. It certainly en’t your fault. I’d have seen all those things even if it weren’t for you. And at least I can talk to you. I couldn’t talk to anyone else, not even Sister Fenella. She wouldn’t understand at all.”

He was still embarrassed, and he could tell that Dr. Relf was embarrassed too, because she hadn’t known what to do. He wouldn’t have wanted her to embrace him, so he was glad she hadn’t tried to do that, at least, but it was still an awkward little moment.

“Well, promise me you won’t ask anything,” she said.

“Yeah, all right, I can promise that,” he said, meaning it. “I won’t start any asking. But if someone else says something…”

“Well, use your judgment. Try not to seem interested. And we’d better get on and do what our cover story says we’re doing, and talk about books. What did you think of these two?”

Malcolm had never had a conversation like the one that followed. At school, in a class of forty, there was no time for such a thing, even if the curriculum allowed it, even if the teachers had been interested; at home it wouldn’t have happened, because neither his father nor his mother was a reader; in the bar he was a listener rather than a participant; and the only two friends with whom he might have spoken seriously about such things, Robbie and Tom, had none of the breadth of learning and the depth of understanding that he found when Dr. Relf spoke.

At first, Asta sat close on his shoulder, where she’d gone as a little ferret when he had found himself crying; but little by little she felt easier, and before long she was sitting beside Jesper, the kind-faced marmoset, having their own quiet exchange while The Body in the Library was discussed and A Brief History of Time touched on with wary respect.

“You said last time that you were a historian of ideas,” said Malcolm. “An historian. What sort of ideas did you mean? Like the ones in this book?”

“Yes, largely,” she said. “Ideas about big things, such as the universe, and good and evil, and why things exist in the first place.”

“I never thought about why they did,” said Malcolm, wondering. “I never thought you could think things like that. I thought things just were. So people thought different things about ’em in the past?”

“Oh, yes. And there were times when it was very dangerous to think the wrong things, or at least to talk about them.”

“It is now, sort of.”

“Yes. I’m afraid you’re right. But as long as we keep to what’s been published, I don’t think you and I will get into much trouble.”

Malcolm wanted to ask about the secret things she was involved with, and whether they were part of the history of ideas, but he felt that it was better to stick to books for now. So he asked if she had any more books about experimental theology, and she found him one called The Strange Story of the Quantum, and then she let him scan the shelves of murder stories, and he picked out another by the author of The Body in the Library.