La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1)(4)

by Philip Pullman

“Yes, I see,” said Sister Fenella. “That all makes sense. I think I really ought to tell Sister Benedicta, at least. She’ll know what to do.”

“I should think that if they were serious, they’d come and ask here. I mean, we see a lot in the Trout, but the real people to ask would be here, wouldn’t they?”

“Unless they didn’t want us to know,” said Sister Fenella.

“But they asked if I ever spoke to you, and I said I did, quite a lot, being as how I work for you. So they’d expect me to say something, and they didn’t ask me not to.”

“That’s a good point,” said Sister Fenella, and she dropped the last scraped potato into the big saucepan. “It does sound curious, though. Perhaps they’ll write to the Lady Prioress rather than call in person. I wonder if it’s really sanctuary they’re asking about.”

“Sanctuary?” Malcolm liked the sound of the word, and he could see how to spell it already, in his imagination. “What’s that?”

“Well, if somebody broke the law and was being hunted by the authorities, they could go into an oratory and claim sanctuary. That means that they’d be safe from arrest as long as they stayed there.”

“But that baby couldn’t have broken the law. Not yet anyway.”

“No. But it was for refugees too. People who were in danger through no fault of their own. No one could arrest them if they were in sanctuary. Some of the colleges used to be able to give sanctuary to scholars. I don’t know if they still do.”

“It wouldn’t be a scholar either—the baby, I mean. D’you want me to do all these sprouts?”

“All but two stalks. We’ll keep them for tomorrow.”

Sister Fenella gathered up the discarded sprout leaves and cut the stalks in half a dozen pieces and put them in a bin for stock.

“What are you going to do today, Malcolm?” she said.

“I’m going to take my canoe out. The river’s a bit high, so I’ll prob’ly have to be careful, but I want to clean it out and make it shipshape.”

“Are you planning any long voyages?”

“Well, I’d like to. But I can’t leave Mum and Dad, because they need my help.”

“They’d be anxious about you too.”

“I’d send letters.”

“Where would you go?”

“Down the river all the way to London. Maybe as far as the sea. I don’t suppose my boat’d be very good at a sea voyage, though. She might overturn in a big wave. I might have to tie her up and go on in a different boat. I will one day.”

“Will you send us a postcard?”

“Course I will. Or you could come with me.”

“Who’d cook for the sisters, then?”

“They could have picnics. Or eat at the Trout.”

She laughed and clapped her hands. In the weak light that came through the dusty windows, Malcolm saw how chapped and cracked the skin of her fingers was, how red and raw. Every time she puts them in hot water it must hurt, he thought, but he had never heard her complaining.

That afternoon, Malcolm went to the lean-to beside the house and hauled the tarpaulin off his canoe. He inspected it from stem to stern, scraping off the green slime that had accumulated during the winter, examining every inch. Norman the peacock came along to see if there was anything to eat, and shook his feathers with a rattle of displeasure when he found there wasn’t.

All the timbers of La Belle Sauvage were sound, though the paint was beginning to peel, and Malcolm thought he might scrape off the old name and go over it again, better. It was in green, but red would stand out more clearly. Maybe he could do a few odd jobs for the boatyard at Medley in exchange for a small tin of red paint. He pulled the canoe down the sloping lawn to the river’s edge and half thought of going down the river right then and bargaining, but put that aside for another day and instead paddled upstream a little way before turning right into Duke’s Cut, one of the streams that connected the river and the Oxford Canal.

He was in luck: there was a narrowboat about to enter the lock, so he slipped in beside it. Sometimes he’d had to wait for an hour, trying to persuade Mr. Parsons to operate the lock just for him, but the lockkeeper was a stickler for the regulations, as well as for not doing more work than was necessary. He didn’t mind Malcolm having a ride up or down if there was another boat going through, though.

“Where you off to, Malcolm?” he called down as the water gushed out at the far end and the level sank.

“Going fishing,” Malcolm called back.

It was what he usually said, and sometimes it was true. Today, though, he couldn’t get that tin of red paint out of his mind, and he thought he’d paddle along to the chandlery in Jericho, just to get an idea of the price. Of course, they might not have any, but he liked the chandlery anyway.

Once on the canal, he paddled steadily down past garden allotments and school playing fields until he came to the northern edge of Jericho: small terraces of brick houses where the workers from the Fell Press or the Eagle Ironworks lived with their families. The area was half-gentrified now, but it still held old corners and dark alleys, an abandoned burial ground and a church with an Italianate campanile standing guard over the boatyard and the chandlery.

There was a towpath on the western side of the water—Malcolm’s right—but it needed clearing. Water plants grew thickly at the edge, and as Malcolm slowed down, his eye was caught by a movement among the reeds. He let the canoe drift to a halt and then silently slipped in among the stiff stems and watched as a great crested grebe scrambled up onto the towpath, waddled ungracefully across, and then dropped into the little backwater on the other side. Keeping as quiet as he could and moving very slowly, Malcolm wedged the canoe even deeper into the reeds and watched the bird shake its head and paddle across the water to join its mate.

Malcolm had heard that there were great crested grebes here, but he’d only half believed it. Now he had proof. He’d definitely come back a little later in the year and see if they were breeding.

The reeds were taller than he was as he sat in the canoe, and if he kept very still, he thought he probably couldn’t be seen. He heard voices behind him, a man’s and a woman’s, and sat like a statue as they walked past, absorbed in each other. He’d passed them further back: two lovers strolling hand in hand, their dæmons, two small birds, flying ahead a little way, pausing to whisper together, and flying on again.

Malcolm’s dæmon, Asta, was a kingfisher just then, perching on the gunwale of the canoe. When the lovers had passed, she flew up to his shoulder and whispered, “The man just along there—watch….”

Malcolm hadn’t seen him. A few yards ahead on the towpath, just visible through the reed stems, a man in a gray raincoat and trilby hat was standing under an oak tree. He looked as if he was sheltering from the rain, except that it wasn’t raining. His coat and hat were almost exactly the color of the late afternoon: he was almost as hard to see as the grebes—harder, in fact, thought Malcolm, because he didn’t have a crest of feathers.

“What’s he doing?” whispered Malcolm.

Asta became a fly and flew as far as she could from Malcolm, stopping when it began to hurt, and settled at the very top of a bulrush so she could watch the man clearly. He was trying to remain inconspicuous, but being so awkward and unhappy about it that he might as well have been waving a flag.

Asta saw his dæmon—a cat—moving among the lowest branches of the oak tree while he stood below and looked up and down the towpath. Then the cat made a quiet noise, the man looked up, and she jumped down to his shoulder—but in doing so, she dropped something out of her mouth.

The man uttered a little grunt of dismay, and his dæmon scrambled to the ground. They began to cast around, looking under the tree, at the edge of the water, among the scrubby grass.

“What did she drop?” Malcolm whispered.

“Like a nut. About the size of a nut.”

“Did you see where it went?”

“I think so. I think it bounced off the bottom of the tree and went under the bush there. Look, they’re pretending not to look for it….”

They were too. Someone else was coming along the path, a man and his dog dæmon, and while the man in the raincoat waited for them to pass, he pretended to be looking at his watch, shaking his wrist, listening to it, shaking his wrist again, taking the watch off, winding it….As soon as the other man had gone past, the raincoat man fastened the watch on his wrist again and went back to looking for the object his dæmon had dropped. He was anxious—it was easy to see that—and his dæmon had apology in every line of her body. Between the two of them, they looked the picture of distress.

“We could go and help,” said Asta.

Malcolm was torn. He could still see the grebes, and he very much wanted to watch them, but the man seemed as if he needed help, and Malcolm was sure Asta’s eyes would find the thing, whatever it was. It would only take a minute or so.