‘A lovely place, isn’t it?’ Mo put his arm round Meggie’s shoulders. ‘I know you like stories about robbers. See that ruined castle? A notorious robber band once lived there. I must ask Elinor about them. She knows everything about this lake.’
Meggie just nodded and rested her head against his shoulder. She was so tired that she felt quite dizzy, but for the first time since they had set off Mo’s face wasn’t looking grim with anxiety. ‘Where does she live, then?’ asked Meggie, stifling a yawn. ‘Not behind that spiky gate?’
‘Actually, yes. This is the entrance to her property. Not very inviting, is it?’ Mo laughed and led Meggie across the road. ‘Elinor is very proud of this gate. She had it specially made. It’s copied from a picture in a book.’
‘A picture of the Selfish Giant’s garden?’ murmured Meggie, peering through the intricately twining iron bars.
‘The Selfish Giant?’ Mo laughed. ‘No, I think it was another story. Although that one would suit Elinor pretty well.’
Tall hedges grew on both sides of the gate, their thorny branches hiding any view of what lay beyond. But even through the iron bars Meggie could see nothing promising except for tall rhododendron bushes and a broad gravel drive that soon disappeared between them.
‘Looks like you have rich relations,’ Dustfinger whispered in her ear.
‘Yes, Elinor is quite rich,’ said Mo, drawing Meggie away from the gate. ‘But she’ll probably end up poor as a church mouse because she spends so much money on books. I think she’d sell her soul to the Devil without thinking twice if he offered her the right book for it.’ He pushed the heavy gate open with a single movement.
‘What are you doing?’ asked Meggie in alarm. ‘We can’t just drive in.’ For there was a notice beside the door, still clearly legible even if some of the letters were partly hidden by the leaves of the hedge:
NO UNAUTHORISED ENTRY.
Meggie didn’t think it sounded very inviting.
Mo, however, only laughed. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, opening the gate wider. ‘The only thing Elinor guards with a burglar alarm is her library. She couldn’t care less who walks through this gate. She’s not what you’d call a nervous woman, and she doesn’t have many visitors anyway.’
‘What about dogs?’ Dustfinger peered anxiously into the strange garden. ‘That gate suggests at least three ferocious dogs to me. Big ones, the size of calves.’
But Mo just shook his head. ‘Elinor hates dogs,’ he said, going back to the van. ‘Right, get in.’
Elinor’s grounds were more like a wood than a garden. Once they were through the gateway the drive curved, as if taking a deep breath before going on up the slope, then lost itself among dark firs and chestnut trees which grew so close together that their branches made a tunnel. Meggie was just thinking it would never end when the trees suddenly receded, and the drive brought them to an open space covered with gravel and surrounded by carefully tended rose beds.
A grey estate car stood on the gravel in front of a house that was bigger than the school Meggie had been attending for the last year. She tried to count the windows, but soon gave up. It was a very beautiful house but looked just as uninviting as the iron gate. Perhaps it was only the evening twilight that made the ochre-yellow of the plaster look so dirty. And perhaps the green shutters were closed only because night was already falling over the surrounding mountains. Perhaps. But Meggie would have bet her last book they were seldom open even in the daytime.
The dark wooden front door looked as forbidding as a tightly closed mouth, and Meggie involuntarily reached for Mo’s hand as they approached it.
Dustfinger followed warily, with his battered rucksack over his shoulder. Gwin was probably still asleep inside it. When Mo and Meggie went up to the door he kept a couple of steps behind them, looking uneasily at the closed shutters as if he suspected that the mistress of the house was watching them from one of the windows.
There was a small barred window beside the front door, the only one not hidden behind green shutters. Below it was another notice:
IF YOU INTEND TO WASTE MY TIME
ON TRIVIA, YOU’D BETTER GO AWAY NOW!
Meggie cast Mo an anxious glance, but he only made an encouraging face at her and pressed the bell.
Meggie heard it ringing inside the big house, but nothing happened for quite a while. A magpie fluttered out of one of the rhododendron bushes growing near the house, and a couple of fat sparrows pecked busily at invisible insects in the gravel, but that was all. Meggie was just throwing them the breadcrumbs she had found in her jacket pocket – left over from a picnic on some long-forgotten day – when the door suddenly opened.
The woman who came out was older than Mo, quite a lot older – although Meggie could never be quite sure how old grown-ups were. Her face reminded Meggie of a bulldog, but perhaps that was more her ferocious expression than its features. She wore a mouse-grey sweater and an ash-grey skirt, with a pearl necklace round her short neck and felt slippers on her feet, the kind of slippers Meggie had once had to wear when she and Mo had visited an historic castle. Elinor’s hair was grey too. She had pinned it up, but strands were hanging down everywhere as if she had done it impatiently and in a hurry. She didn’t look as if she spent much time in front of a mirror.
‘Good heavens, Mortimer! What a surprise!’ she said, without wasting time on further greetings. ‘Where did you spring from?’ Her voice sounded brusque, but her face couldn’t entirely hide the fact that she was pleased to see Mo.
‘Hello, Elinor,’ said Mo, putting his hand on Meggie’s shoulder. ‘Do you remember Meggie? As you can see, she’s grown up quite a bit now.’
Elinor cast Meggie a brief, irritated glance. ‘Yes, so I see,’ she said. ‘It’s only natural for children to grow, wouldn’t you say? As far as I remember, it’s been some years since I last set eyes on either you or your daughter, so to what do I owe the unexpected honour of your visit today? Are you finally going to take pity on my poor books?’
‘That’s right.’ Mo nodded. ‘One of my library commissions has been postponed – you know how libraries are always short of money.’
Meggie looked at him uneasily. She hadn’t realised he could lie quite so convincingly.
‘And because it was so sudden,’ Mo continued, ‘I couldn’t find anywhere for Meggie to go, so I brought her with me. I know you don’t like children, but Meggie won’t leave jam on your books or tear out pages to wrap up dead frogs.’
Elinor muttered something suspicious, and scrutinised Meggie as if she thought her capable of any kind of disgraceful conduct, whatever her father might say. ‘When you last brought her we could at least put her in a playpen,’ she remarked coldly. ‘I don’t suppose that would do now.’ Once again, she looked Meggie up and down as if she were being asked to admit a dangerous animal to her house.
Meggie felt her anger make the blood rise to her face. She wanted to go home, or get back in the camper van and go somewhere else, anywhere, so long as she didn’t have to stay with this horrible woman whose cold pebble eyes were boring holes in her face.
Elinor’s gaze moved from Meggie to Dustfinger, who was still standing in the background looking awkward. ‘And who’s this?’ She looked enquiringly at Mo. ‘Do I know him?’