Mo looked first at him and then at Meggie. She did her best to look unafraid, so that he would think there was no need to worry about her – after all, she had always been a better liar than he was. But this time he saw through the lie. He knew that her fear was as great as the fear she saw in his own eyes.
Perhaps all this is just a story too, thought Meggie desperately. And any moment someone will close the book because it’s so horrible and scary, and Mo and I will be back at home and I’ll make him a coffee. She closed her eyes very tight, as if that would make her thoughts come true, but when she peered through her lashes Basta was still standing behind her, and Flatnose was rubbing his squashed nostrils and turning his dog-like gaze on Capricorn.
‘Very well,’ said Mo wearily into the silence. ‘I’ll read aloud to you. But Meggie and Elinor can’t stay in here.’
Meggie knew exactly what he was thinking. He was thinking of her mother, and wondering who might disappear this time.
‘Nonsense. Of course they stay here.’ Capricorn’s voice was no longer careless. ‘And you’d better get started before the book there in your hand falls to dust.’
Mo closed his eyes for a moment. ‘Very well, but tell Basta to put his knife away,’ he said hoarsely. ‘If he hurts a hair of Meggie or Elinor’s heads I promise you I’ll read the Plague out of a book to infect you and your men.’
Cockerell looked at Mo in alarm, and a shadow passed over even Basta’s face, but Capricorn just laughed.
‘Let me remind you, Silvertongue, that you’re speaking of a contagious disease,’ he said. ‘And it doesn’t stop short at little girls. So never mind the empty threats, just start reading. Now. At once. And I want to hear something out of that book first!’
He pointed to the book that Mo had just laid aside.
Squire Trelawney, Dr Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island … I take up my pen in the year of grace 17—, and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn, and the brown old seaman, with the sabre cut, first took up his lodging under our roof.
Robert Louis Stevenson,
And so Meggie heard her father read aloud, for the first time in nine years, in a draughty old church. Even many, many years later the smell of burnt paper would come back to her as soon as she opened one of the books from which he had read that awful morning.
It was chilly in Capricorn’s church – Meggie was to remember that later, too – although the sun must have been hot outside and high in the sky by the time Mo began to read. He simply sat down on the floor where he was, legs crossed, one book on his lap and the others beside him. Meggie quickly knelt down close to him before Basta could catch hold of her.
‘Here, get up these steps, all of you,’ Capricorn told his men. ‘And take the woman with you, Flatnose. Only Basta stays where he is.’
Elinor resisted, but Flatnose merely seized a handful of her hair and hauled her along after him. Capricorn’s men climbed the steps and sat at their master’s feet, Elinor among them like a pigeon with ruffled feathers in the middle of a mob of marauding crows. The only person who looked equally out of place was the thin reader, Darius, who was sitting at the very end of the row of black-clad men and kept fiddling with his glasses.
Mo opened the book on his lap and began leafing through it, frowning, as if searching the pages for the gold he was to read out of it for Capricorn.
‘Cockerell, you will cut out the tongue of anyone who utters the slightest sound while Silvertongue is reading,’ said Capricorn, and Cockerell drew a knife from his belt and looked along the row of men as if already selecting his first victim. All was so deathly quiet inside the red church that Meggie thought she could hear Basta breathing behind her. But perhaps it was only the sound of her own fear.
Judging by their faces, Capricorn’s men seemed to be feeling far from happy. They were looking at Mo with expressions of apprehension mingled with dislike. Meggie understood that only too well. Perhaps one of them would soon vanish into the book through which Mo was leafing so undecidedly. Had Capricorn told them that such a thing might happen? Did even he know it? What if she herself vanished, as Mo obviously feared? Or Elinor?
‘Meggie!’ Mo whispered to her, as if he had heard her thoughts. ‘Hold on to me tight any way you can.’ Meggie nodded, and clutched his sweater. As if that would be any use!
‘Yes, I think I’ve found the right place,’ said Mo into the silence. He cast a last glance at Capricorn, looked at Elinor, cleared his throat – and began to read.
Everything disappeared: the red walls of the church, the faces of Capricorn’s men, Capricorn himself sitting in his chair. There was nothing but Mo’s voice and the pictures forming in their minds from the letters on the page, like the pattern of a carpet taking shape on a loom. If Meggie could have hated Capricorn any more, she would have done so now. It was his fault that Mo had never once read aloud to her in all these years. To think of the magic he could have worked in her room with his voice, a voice that gave a different flavour to every word, made every sentence a melody! Even Cockerell had forgotten his knife and the tongues he was supposed to cut out, and was listening with a faraway expression on his face. Flatnose was staring into space, enraptured, as if a pirate ship with all sails set were truly cruising in through one of the church windows. The other men were equally entranced.
There was not a sound to be heard but Mo’s voice bringing the letters and words on the page to life.
Only one of his audience seemed immune to the magic of it. Face expressionless, pale eyes fixed on Mo, Capricorn sat there waiting: waiting for the clink of coins amidst the harmony of the words, for chests of damp wood heavy with gold and silver.
Mo did not keep him waiting long. It happened as he was reading what Jim Hawkins – a boy not much older than Meggie when he embarked on his terrifying adventure – saw in a dark cave:
… Georges, and Louises, doubloons and double guineas and moidores and sequins, the pictures of all the kings of Europe for the last hundred years, strange Oriental pieces stamped with what looked like wisps of string or bits of spider’s web, round pieces and square pieces, and pieces bored through the middle, as if to wear them round your neck – nearly every variety of money in the world must, I think, have found a place in that collection; and for number, I am sure they were like autumn leaves, so that my back ached with stooping and my fingers with sorting them out.
The maidservants were cleaning the last crumbs off the tables when coins suddenly came rolling over the bare wood. The women stumbled back, dropping their dish-cloths, and pressing their hands to their mouths as the coins tumbled and leaped about their feet. Gold, silver and copper coins jingled over the flagstone floor, clinking as they gathered in heaps under the benches – more and more and more of them. Some rolled as far as the steps. Capricorn’s men came to life, bent to pick up the glittering little things bouncing off their boots – but then snatched back their hands. None of them dared touch the magic money. For what else could it be? Gold made of paper and printer’s ink – and the sound of a human voice.