‘Mo doesn’t think so!’
Dustfinger straightened up and stared at the library door. ‘Yes, I know,’ he murmured. ‘That’s the trouble. And so,’ he said, putting both hands on Meggie’s shoulders and propelling her towards the closed door, ‘so now you’re going to go in there, the picture of innocence, and find out what the pair of them are planning to do with that book. OK?’
Meggie was about to protest, but before she knew it Dustfinger had opened the door and pushed her into the library.
Only a Picture
For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him.
Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain, crying aloud for mercy, and let there be no surcease to this agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails … and when at last he goeth to his last punishment, let the flames of hell consume him for ever.
Curse on book thieves,
from the monastery of San Pedro,
They had unwrapped the book. Meggie saw the brown paper lying on a chair. Neither of them noticed that she had come in; Elinor was bending over one of the reading desks with Mo beside her. They both had their backs to the door.
‘Amazing. I thought there wasn’t a single copy left,’ Elinor was saying. ‘There are strange stories about this book going around. A second-hand dealer from whom I buy quite often told me that three copies were stolen from him a few years ago. All on the same day too. And I’ve heard much the same story from two other booksellers.’
‘Really? Yes, very strange,’ said Mo, but Meggie knew his voice well enough to know that he was only pretending to be surprised. ‘Well, anyway, even if this wasn’t a rare book it means a lot to me, and I’d like to be sure it’s in safe hands for a while. Just till I come back for it.’
‘All books are in safe hands with me,’ replied Elinor, sounding cross. ‘You know that. They’re my children, my inky children, and I look after them well. I keep the sunlight away from their pages, I dust them and protect them from hungry bookworms and grubby human fingers. This one shall have a place of honour, and no one will see it until you want it back. I don’t really welcome visitors to my library. They just leave fingerprints and stray hairs in my poor books. Anyway, as you know, I have a very expensive burglar alarm system.’
‘Yes, that’s extremely reassuring!’ Mo’s voice sounded relieved. ‘Thank you, Elinor! I really am most grateful. And if anyone comes knocking at your door in the near future asking about the book, please will you make out you’ve never heard of it, all right?’
‘Of course. I’d do anything for a good bookbinder, and anyway you’re my niece’s husband. I really do miss her sometimes, you know. I expect you feel the same. Your daughter seems to be getting on all right without her, though.’
‘She hardly remembers her mother,’ said Mo quietly.
‘Well, that’s a blessing, wouldn’t you say? Sometimes it’s a good thing we don’t remember things half as well as books do. But for them we probably wouldn’t know anything for very long. It would all be forgotten: the Trojan War, Columbus, Marco Polo, Shakespeare, all the amazing kings and gods of the past …’ Elinor turned round – and froze.
‘Did I fail to hear you knock?’ she asked, staring so angrily that Meggie had to summon up all her courage not to turn round and slip quickly back out into the passage.
‘How long have you been there, Meggie?’ asked Mo.
Meggie stuck her chin out. ‘She can see it, but you hide it away from me!’ she said. Attack, she knew, is the best form of defence. ‘You never hid any book from me before! What’s so special about this one? Will I go blind if I read it? Will it bite my fingers off? What terrible secrets are there in it that I mustn’t know?’
‘I have my reasons for not showing it to you,’ replied Mo. He looked very pale. Without another word he went over and tried to lead her to the door, but Meggie tore herself away.
‘Pig-headed, isn’t she?’ remarked Elinor. ‘It almost makes me like her! Her mother was just the same, I remember. Come here.’ She stepped aside and beckoned Meggie over. ‘Look, you can see there’s nothing very exciting about this book, at least not to you. But see for yourself. We’re always most likely to believe the evidence of our own eyes. Or doesn’t your father agree?’ She cast Mo an enquiring glance.
Mo hesitated, then resigned himself and nodded.
The book was lying open on the reading desk. It didn’t seem particularly old. Meggie knew what really old books looked like. She had seen books in Mo’s workshop with their pages spotted like leopard-skin and almost as yellow. She remembered one with a binding that had been attacked by woodworm. The traces of their jaws had looked like tiny bullet holes, and Mo had got out his book block, carefully fixed the pages back together, and then, as he put it, gave them a new dress. Such a dress could be made of leather or linen, it might be plain, or Mo might imprint a pattern on it with his tiny decorative stamps.
This book was bound in linen, silvery green like willow leaves. The edges of the pages were slightly roughened, and the paper was still so pale that every letter stood out clear and black. A narrow red bookmark lay between the open pages. The right-hand page had an illustration on it, showing women in magnificent dresses, a fire-eater, acrobats, and a man who looked like a king. Meggie turned the pages. There weren’t many illustrations, but the first letter of each chapter was itself a little decorative picture. Animals sat on some of these initial letters, plants twined round others, one ‘F’ burned bright as fire. The flames looked so real that Meggie touched them with one finger to make sure they weren’t hot. The next chapter began with an ‘N’. An animal with a furry tail sat perched in the angle between the second and third strokes of the letter. No one saw him slip out of town, read Meggie, but before she could get any further with the story Elinor closed the book in her face.
‘I think that’ll do,’ she said, tucking it under her arm. ‘Your father’s asked me to put this book somewhere safe for him, and so I will.’
Mo took Meggie’s hand again, and this time she followed him. ‘Please forget that book, Meggie!’ he whispered. ‘It’s an unlucky story. I’ll get you a hundred others.’
Meggie just nodded. Before Mo closed the door behind them, she caught a last glance of Elinor standing there looking at the book lovingly, the way Mo sometimes looked at her when he put her to bed in the evening.
Then the door was closed.
‘Where will she put it?’ asked Meggie as she followed Mo down the corridor.
‘Oh, she has some very good hiding-places for such things,’ replied Mo evasively. ‘But they’re secret, as hiding-places ought to be. Suppose I show you your room now?’ He was trying to sound carefree, and not succeeding particularly well. ‘It’s like a room in an expensive hotel. No, much better.’
‘Sounds good,’ murmured Meggie, looking round, but there was no sign of Dustfinger. Where had he gone? She had to ask him something. At once. That was all she could think of while Mo was showing her the room and telling her that everything was all right now; he just had to do his bookbinding work, then they’d go home. Meggie nodded and pretended to be listening, but her mind was full of the question she wanted to ask Dustfinger. It burned on her lips so fiercely that she was surprised Mo didn’t see it there.