Book of Minstrelsy
The day passed slowly. Meggie saw Mo only in the afternoon, when Elinor came back from doing her shopping and half an hour later gave them spaghetti with some kind of ready-made sauce. ‘I’m afraid I’ve no patience with toiling over a stove,’ she said as she put the dishes on the table. ‘Perhaps our friend with the furry animal can cook?’
Dustfinger merely shrugged his shoulders apologetically. ‘Sorry, I’m no use to you that way.’
‘Mo cooks very well,’ said Meggie, stirring the thin, watery sauce into her spaghetti.
‘Mo’s here to restore my books, not to cook for us,’ replied Elinor sharply. ‘What about you, though?’
Meggie shrugged. ‘I can make pancakes,’ she said. ‘Why don’t you get some cookery books? You have books of every other kind. I’m sure you’d find cookery books a help.’
Elinor didn’t even deign to reply to this suggestion.
‘And by the way, there’s a rule for night-time,’ she said, when they had all been eating in silence for a while. ‘I won’t have candlelight in my house. Fire makes me nervous. It’s far too greedy for paper.’
Meggie gulped. She felt caught in the act, for of course she had brought candles with her. They were on her bedside table upstairs, where Elinor must have seen them. However, Elinor was looking not at Meggie but at Dustfinger, who was playing with a box of matches.
‘I hope you’ll take that rule to heart,’ she said to him. ‘Since we’re obviously going to have the pleasure of your company for another night.’
‘Yes, if I may impose on your hospitality a little longer. I’ll be off first thing in the morning, I promise.’ Dustfinger was still holding the matches. He didn’t seem bothered by Elinor’s distrustful gaze. ‘I’d say someone here has the wrong idea about fire,’ he added. ‘It bites like a fierce little animal, admittedly, but you can tame it.’ And with these words he took a match out of the box, struck it, and popped the flame into his open mouth.
Meggie held her breath as his lips closed around the burning matchstick. Dustfinger opened his mouth again, took out the spent match, smiled and left it on his empty plate.
‘You see, Elinor?’ he said. ‘It didn’t bite me. It’s easier to tame than a kitten and almost as easy as a dog.’
Elinor just wrinkled her nose, but Meggie was so amazed that she could hardly take her eyes off Dustfinger’s scarred face. She looked at Mo. The little trick with the burning match didn’t seem to have surprised him. He shot a warning glance at Dustfinger, who meekly put the box of matches away in his trouser pocket.
‘But of course I’ll keep the no-candles rule,’ he was quick to say. ‘That’s no problem. Really.’
Elinor nodded. ‘Good,’ she said. ‘And one more thing: if you go out again as soon as it’s dark this evening, the way you did last night, you’d better not be back too late, because I switch the burglar alarm on at nine-thirty on the dot.’
‘Ah, then I was in luck yesterday evening.’ Dustfinger slipped some spaghetti into his bag. Elinor didn’t notice, but Meggie did. ‘Yes, I do enjoy walking at night. The world’s more to my liking then, not so loud, not so fast, not so crowded and a good deal more mysterious. But I wasn’t planning to walk this evening. I have other plans for tonight, and I’ll have to ask you to switch this wonderful system of yours on a bit later than usual.’
‘Oh, indeed. And why, may I ask?’
Dustfinger winked at Meggie. ‘Well, I’ve promised to put on a little show for this young lady,’ he said. ‘It begins about an hour before midnight.’
‘Oh yes?’ Elinor dabbed some sauce off her lips with her napkin. ‘A little show. Why not in daylight? After all, the young lady’s only twelve years old. She should be in bed at eight o’clock.’
Meggie tightened her lips. She hadn’t been to bed as early as eight since her fifth birthday, but she wasn’t going to the trouble of explaining that to Elinor. Instead, she admired the casual way Dustfinger reacted to Elinor’s hostile gaze.
‘Ah, but you see the tricks I want to show Meggie wouldn’t look so good by day,’ he said, leaning back in his chair. ‘I’m afraid I need the black cloak of night. Why don’t you come and watch too? Then you’ll understand why it all has to be done in the dark.’
‘Go on, accept his offer, Elinor!’ said Mo. ‘You’ll enjoy the show. And then perhaps you won’t think fire’s so sinister.’
‘It’s not that I think it’s sinister. I don’t like it, that’s all,’ remarked Elinor, unmoved.
‘He can juggle!’ Meggie burst out. ‘With eight balls.’
‘Eleven,’ Dustfinger corrected her. ‘But juggling is more of a daylight skill.’
Elinor retrieved a string of spaghetti from the tablecloth and glanced first at Meggie and then at Mo. She looked cross. ‘Oh, very well. I don’t want to be a spoilsport,’ she said. ‘I shall go to bed with a book at nine-thirty as usual and put the alarm on first, but when Meggie tells me she’s going out for this private performance I’ll switch it off again for an hour. Will that be time enough?’
‘Ample time,’ said Dustfinger, bowing so low to her that the tip of his nose collided with the rim of his plate.
Meggie bit back her laughter.
It was five to eleven when she knocked at Elinor’s bedroom door.
‘Come in!’ she heard Elinor call, and when she put her head round the door she saw her aunt sitting up in bed, poring over a catalogue as thick as a telephone directory. ‘Oh, too expensive, too expensive!’ she murmured. ‘Take my advice, Meggie: never develop a passion you can’t afford. It’ll eat your heart away like a bookworm. Take this book here, for instance.’ Elinor tapped her finger on the left-hand page of her catalogue so hard that it wouldn’t have surprised Meggie if she had bored a hole in it. ‘What a fine edition – and in such good condition too! I’ve been wanting it for fifteen years, but it just costs too much money. Far too much.’
Sighing, she closed her catalogue, dropped it on the rug and swung her legs out of bed. To Meggie’s surprise, she was wearing a long, flowered nightdress. She looked younger in it, almost like a girl who has woken up one morning to find her face wrinkled. ‘Ah, well, you’ll probably never be as crazy as I am!’ she muttered, putting a thick pair of socks on her bare feet. ‘Your father’s not inclined to be crazy, and your mother never was either. Quite the opposite – I never knew anyone with a cooler head. My father, on the other hand, was at least as mad as me. I inherited over half my books from him, and what good did they do him? Did they keep him alive? Far from it. He died of a stroke at a book auction. Isn’t that ridiculous?’
With the best will in the world, Meggie didn’t know what to say to that. ‘My mother?’ she asked, instead. ‘Did you know her well?’
Elinor snorted as if she had asked a silly question. ‘Of course I did. It was here that your father met her. Didn’t he ever tell you?’
Meggie shook her head. ‘He doesn’t talk about her much.’ ‘Well, probably better not. Why probe old wounds? And you’re not particularly like her. She painted that sign on the library door. Come on, then, or you’ll miss this show of yours.’