As the shower of gold stopped, at the very moment when Mo closed the book, Meggie saw there was a little sand among all the gleaming, glittering money. A few iridescent blue beetles scuttled away, and the head of an emerald-green lizard emerged from a heap of tiny coins. It stared around with fixed eyes, tongue flicking out of its sharp little mouth. Basta threw his knife at it, as if he could skewer not just the lizard but the cowardice that had seized them all. However, Meggie gave a warning cry, and the lizard darted away so fast that the tip of the blade struck the stones. Basta ran over to his knife, picked it up, and pointed it threateningly in Meggie’s direction.
Capricorn rose from his chair, his face still as cold and blank as if nothing worth getting excited about had happened, and clapped his ringed hands graciously. ‘Not bad for a start, Silvertongue!’ he said. ‘See that, Darius? That’s what gold looks like – not the rusty, dented metal you’ve read out of books for me. But now you’ve heard how the thing is done I hope you’ll have learnt from it. Just in case I ever require your services again.’
Darius did not reply. His eyes were fixed on Mo with such admiration in them that it wouldn’t have surprised Meggie had he flung himself at her father’s feet. When Mo straightened up, Darius approached him hesitantly.
Capricorn’s men were still gazing at the gold as if they didn’t know what to do next.
‘What are you standing there for, gaping like a lot of sheep?’ cried Capricorn. ‘Pick it up. Go on.’
‘That was wonderful!’ Darius whispered to Mo, while Capricorn’s men cautiously began shovelling the coins into bags and boxes. His eyes were gleaming behind his glasses like the eyes of a child who has just been given a much-wanted present. ‘I’ve read that book many times,’ he said, in a voice that shook, ‘but I never saw it all as vividly as I did today. And I didn’t just see it … I smelled it, the salt and the tar and the musty odour of the whole accursed island …’
‘Treasure Island! Heavens above, I was petrified!’ Elinor appeared behind Darius, pushing him impatiently aside. Flatnose had obviously forgotten her for the moment. ‘He’ll be here any minute, that’s what I kept thinking. Long John Silver will be here, lashing out at us with his crutch.’
Mo just nodded, but Meggie could see the relief on his face. ‘Here, take it!’ he told Darius, handing him the book. ‘I hope I never have to read out of it again. One shouldn’t push one’s luck.’
‘You said his name not quite right every time,’ Meggie whispered.
Mo tenderly stroked the bridge of her nose. ‘Ah, so you noticed,’ he whispered back. ‘Yes, I thought that might help. Perhaps the savage old pirate won’t feel we’re calling to him then, I told myself, and he’ll stay where he belongs. Why are you looking at me like that?’
‘Why do you think?’ said Elinor, answering instead of Meggie. ‘Why is she looking so admiringly at her father? Because no one ever read aloud like that – even apart from the money. I saw it all, the sea and the island, as clear as if I could touch it, and I don’t expect it was any different for your daughter.’
Mo had to smile. He kicked aside a few of the coins on the floor in front of him. One of Capricorn’s men picked them up and surreptitiously pocketed them. As he did so, he looked at Mo as uneasily as if he feared a word from him might turn him into a frog, or one of the beetles still crawling around among the coins.
‘They’re afraid of you, Mo!’ whispered Meggie. She could see the trepidation even on Basta’s face, although he was doing his best to hide it by assuming a particularly bored expression.
Only Capricorn seemed to be left cold by what had happened. Arms folded, he stood there watching his men pick up the last of the coins. ‘How much longer is this going to take?’ he asked finally. ‘Leave the small change where it is and sit down again. And you, Silvertongue, open the next book!’
‘The next book!’ Elinor’s voice almost cracked with indignation. ‘What on earth’s the idea of that? The gold your men are shovelling up there is enough to last you at least two lifetimes. We’re going home now!’
She was about to turn round, but Flatnose, who had finally remembered he was meant to be guarding Elinor, seized her arm roughly. Mo looked up at Capricorn.
Basta, smiling unpleasantly, laid his hand on Meggie’s shoulder. ‘Get on with it, Silvertongue!’ he said. ‘You heard. There are still plenty of books here.’
Mo looked at Meggie for a long time before bending to pick up the book he had chosen first: Tales From the Thousand and One Nights.
‘The book that goes on and on forever,’ he murmured, opening it. ‘Did you know the Arabs say no one can read it right through to the end, Meggie?’
She shook her head as she sat down beside him on the cold flagstones. Basta let her, but he planted himself right behind her. Meggie didn’t know much about The Thousand and One Nights, except that it was really a book in many volumes. The copy that Darius had given Mo could only be a small selection. Were Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves in it, and Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp? Which story would Mo read?
Meggie thought she saw contradictory feelings on the faces of Capricorn’s men: fear of what Mo might bring to life and, at the same time, a wish, a yearning almost, to be carried away by his voice once more, transported far away to a place where they could forget everything, even themselves.
There was no smell of salt and rum when Mo began reading this time. The air in Capricorn’s church grew hot. Meggie’s eyes began to burn, and when she rubbed them she found sand sticking to her knuckles. Once again, Capricorn’s men listened to Mo’s voice with bated breath, as if they were turned to stone. Capricorn alone seemed to feel nothing of the magic. But his eyes showed that even he was spellbound. They were fixed on Mo’s face, as unmoving as the eyes of a snake. His red suit made his pupils look even more washed out, and his body seemed tense, like a dog scenting its prey. But this time Mo disappointed him.
The words offered up no riches, none of the treasure chests, pearls and swords set with precious stones that Mo’s voice conjured up, shining and sparkling, until Capricorn’s men felt as if they could pluck them from the air. Something else slipped out of the pages, though, something breathing, a creature made of flesh and blood.
A boy was suddenly standing between the still smouldering braziers where Capricorn had burned the books. Meggie was the only one to notice him. All the others were too absorbed in the story. Even Mo didn’t see him, far away as he was, somewhere in the sand and the wind as his eyes made their way through the labyrinth of letters.
The boy was some three or four years older than Meggie. The turban round his head was dirty, his eyes dark with fear in his brown face. He blinked and rubbed them as if he could wipe it all away – the wrong picture, the wrong place. He looked round the church as if he had never seen such a building before, and how could he? There wouldn’t be any churches with spires in his story, or green hills like those he would see outside. The robe he wore went down to his brown feet, and in the dim light of the church it shone blue as a patch of the sky.
Meggie wondered: what will happen when they see him? He’s certainly not what Capricorn was hoping for.