‘Quiet!’ breathed Elinor, pulling her into her bedroom. Meggie saw that her fingers were shaking as she locked the door.
‘Don’t!’ Meggie dragged Elinor’s hand away, and tried to turn the key. She wanted to shout that she must help her father, but Elinor put a hand over her mouth and pulled her away from the door, hard as Meggie struggled, hitting and kicking. Elinor was strong, much stronger than Meggie.
‘There are too many of them!’ Elinor whispered as Meggie tried to bite her fingers. ‘About four or five, big strong men, and they’re armed.’ She hauled the struggling Meggie over to the wall by the bed. ‘I’ve told myself a hundred times – oh, a thousand times! – I ought to buy a revolver!’ she muttered, pressing her ear to the wall.
‘Of course it’s here!’ The voice carried through the wall without Meggie’s having to strain to hear it, rasping like a cat’s tongue. ‘Shall we fetch your little daughter from the garden to show us just where? Or would you rather find it for us yourself?’
Meggie tried to pull Elinor’s hand away from her mouth. ‘Stop it, for goodness’ sake!’ Elinor hissed in her ear. ‘You’ll only put him in more danger, do you understand?’
‘My daughter! What do you know about my daughter?’ That was Mo’s voice.
Meggie sobbed aloud, and Elinor’s fingers were instantly back over her face. ‘I tried to call the police,’ she whispered in Meggie’s ear. ‘But the lines are all down.’
‘Oh, we know all we need to know.’ The other voice again. ‘So where’s the book?’
‘I’ll give it to you!’ Mo’s voice sounded weary. ‘But I’m going with you, because I want that book back as soon as Capricorn has finished with it.’
Going with them? What did he mean? He couldn’t leave just like that! Meggie tried making for the door again, but Elinor held her fast. Meggie did her best to push her away, but Elinor simply wrapped her strong arms around her and pressed her fingers to Meggie’s lips once more.
‘All the better. We were told to bring you anyway,’ said a second voice. It had a broad, coarse accent. ‘You’ve no idea how Capricorn longs to hear your voice. He’s got great faith in your abilities, Capricorn has.’
‘That’s right – the replacement Capricorn found for you makes a terrible hash of it.’ The rasping voice again. ‘Look at Cockerell there.’ Meggie heard feet scraping on the floor. ‘He’s limping, and Flatnose’s face has seen better days. Not that he was ever much of a beauty.’
‘Don’t just stand there talking, Basta, we haven’t got for ever. How about it – do we take the kid as well?’ Another voice. That one sounded as if the speaker’s nose were being pinched.
‘No!’ Mo snapped at him. ‘My daughter stays here or I won’t give you the book!’
One of the men laughed. ‘Oh yes, Silvertongue, you’d give it to us all right, but don’t worry. We weren’t told to bring her. A child would just slow us down, and Capricorn’s been waiting for you long enough already. So where’s that book?’
Meggie pressed her ear against the wall so hard that it hurt. She heard footsteps, and then a sound like something being pushed aside. Elinor, beside her, held her breath.
‘Not a bad hiding-place!’ said the cat-like voice. ‘Wrap it up, Cockerell, and take good care of it. After you, Silvertongue. Let’s go.’
They left the library. Meggie tried desperately to wriggle out of Elinor’s arms. She heard the sound of the library door closing, and then steps moving away, getting fainter and fainter. After that, all was still. Quite suddenly, Elinor let go of her. Meggie rushed to the door, unlocked it, sobbing, and ran down the corridor to the library. It was deserted. No Mo. The books stood ranged tidily on their shelves, except in one place where there was a wide, dark gap. Meggie thought she saw a hinged flap, well hidden, standing open among the books.
‘Incredible!’ she heard Elinor saying behind her. ‘They really were after just that one book.’ But Meggie pushed her aside and ran along the corridor.
‘Meggie!’ Elinor called after her. ‘Wait!’
But what was there to wait for? For the strangers to take her father away? She heard Elinor running after her. Elinor’s arms might be stronger, but Meggie’s legs were faster.
There was still no light in the entrance hall. The front door stood wide open, and a cold wind blew in Meggie’s face as she stumbled breathlessly out into the night.
‘Mo!’ she shouted.
She thought she saw car headlights come on where the drive disappeared into the trees, and an engine started. Meggie ran that way. She tripped and fell, grazing her knee on the gravel, which was wet with dew. Warm blood trickled down her leg, but she took no notice. She ran on and on, limping and sobbing, until she had reached the big wrought iron gate. The road beyond it was empty. Mo was gone.
What the Night Hides
A thousand enemies outside the house
are better than one within.
Dustfinger was hiding behind a chestnut tree when Meggie ran past him. He saw her stop at the gate and look down the road. He heard her calling her father’s name in a desperate voice. Her cries, as faint as the chirping of a cricket in the vast black night, were lost in the darkness. And when she gave up it was suddenly very quiet, and Dustfinger saw Meggie’s slim figure standing there as if she would never move again. All her strength seemed to have forsaken her, as if the next gust of wind might blow her away.
She stood there so long that Dustfinger eventually closed his eyes so as not to have to look at her, but then he heard her weeping and his face turned hot with shame. He stood there without a sound, his back to the tree trunk, waiting for Meggie to go back to the house. But still she didn’t move. At last, when his legs were quite numb, she turned like a marionette with some of its strings cut and went back towards the house. She was no longer crying as she passed Dustfinger, but she was wiping the tears from her eyes, and for a terrible moment he felt an urge to go to her, comfort her, and explain why he had told Capricorn everything. But Meggie had already passed him, and had quickened her pace as if her strength were returning. Faster and faster she walked, until she had disappeared among the black trees.
Only then did Dustfinger come out from behind the tree, put his rucksack on his back, pick up the two bags containing all his worldly goods, and stride off towards the gate, which was still open.
The night swallowed him up like a thieving fox.
‘My darling,’ she said at last, ‘are you sure you don’t mind being a mouse for the rest of your life?’
‘I don’t mind at all,’ I said. ‘It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like so long as somebody loves you.’
Elinor was standing in the brightly lit doorway of the house when Meggie came back. She had put a coat on over her nightdress. The night was warm, but a cold wind was blowing from the lake. How desperate the child looked – and lost. Elinor remembered the feeling. There was nothing worse.
‘They’ve taken him away!’ Meggie’s voice almost choked in her helpless rage. She glared angrily at Elinor. ‘Why did you hold me back? We could have helped him!’ Her fists were clenched as if she wanted to hit out blindly.