‘This is Dustfinger, a … a friend of mine.’ Perhaps only Meggie noticed Mo’s hesitation. ‘He wants to go on south, but maybe you could put him up for a night in one of your many rooms?’
Elinor folded her arms. ‘Only on condition his name has nothing to do with the way he treats books,’ she said. ‘And he’ll have to put up with rather Spartan accommodation in the attic, because my library has grown a great deal over the last few years. Nearly all my guest bedrooms are full of books.’
‘How many books do you have?’ asked Meggie. She had grown up among piles of books, but even she couldn’t imagine there were books behind all the windows of this huge house.
Elinor inspected her again, this time with unconcealed contempt. ‘How many?’ she repeated. ‘Do you think I count them like buttons or peas? A very, very great many. There are probably more books in every single room of this house than you will ever read – and some of them are so valuable that I wouldn’t hesitate to shoot you if you dared touch them. But as you’re a clever girl, or so your father assures me, you wouldn’t do that anyway, would you?’
Meggie didn’t reply. Instead, she imagined standing on tiptoe and spitting three times into this old witch’s face.
However, Mo just laughed. ‘You haven’t changed, Elinor,’ he remarked. ‘A tongue as sharp as a paper-knife. But I warn you, if you harm Meggie I’ll do the same to your beloved books.’
Elinor’s lips curled in a tiny smile. ‘Well said,’ she answered, stepping aside. ‘You obviously haven’t changed either. Come in. I’ll show you the books that need your help, and a few others as well.’
Meggie had always thought Mo had a lot of books. She never thought so again, not after setting foot in Elinor’s house.
There were no haphazard piles lying around as they did at home. Every book obviously had its place. But where other people have wallpaper, pictures, or just an empty wall, Elinor had bookshelves. The shelves were white and went right up to the ceiling in the entrance hall through which she had first led them, but in the next room and the corridor beyond it the shelves were as black as the tiles on the floor.
‘These books,’ announced Elinor with a dismissive gesture as they passed the closely-ranked spines, ‘have accumulated over the years. They’re not particularly valuable, mostly of mediocre quality, nothing out of the ordinary. Should certain fingers be unable to control themselves and take one off the shelf now and then,’ she added, casting a brief glance at Meggie, ‘I don’t suppose the consequences would be too serious. Just so long as once those fingers have satisfied their curiosity they put every book back in its right place again and don’t leave any unappetising bookmarks inside.’ Here, Elinor turned to Mo. ‘Believe it or not,’ she said, ‘I actually found a dried-up slice of salami used as a bookmark in one of the last books I bought, a wonderful nineteenth-century first edition.’
Meggie couldn’t help giggling, which naturally earned her another stern look. ‘It’s nothing to laugh about, young lady,’ said Elinor. ‘Some of the most wonderful books ever printed were lost because some fool of a fishmonger tore out their pages to wrap his stinking fish. In the Middle Ages, thousands of books were destroyed when people cut up their bindings to make soles for shoes or to heat steam baths with their paper.’ The thought of such incredible abominations, even if they had occurred centuries ago, made Elinor gasp for air. ‘Well, let’s forget about that,’ she said, ‘or I shall get overexcited. My blood pressure’s much too high as it is.’
She had stopped in front of a door which had an anchor with a dolphin coiled around it painted on the white wood. ‘This is a famous printer’s special sign,’ explained Elinor, stroking the dolphin’s pointed nose with one finger. ‘Just the thing for a library door, eh?’
‘I know,’ said Meggie. ‘Aldus Manutius. He lived in Venice and printed books the right size to fit into his customers’ saddlebags.’
‘Really?’ Elinor wrinkled her brow, intrigued. ‘I didn’t know that. In any case, I am the fortunate owner of a book that he printed with his own hands in the year 1503.’
‘You mean it’s from his workshop,’ Meggie corrected her.
‘Of course that’s what I mean.’ Elinor cleared her throat and gave Mo a reproachful glance, as if it could only be his fault that his daughter was precocious enough to know such things. Then she put her hand on the door handle. ‘No child,’ she said, as she pressed the handle down with almost solemn reverence, ‘has ever before passed through this door, but as I assume your father has taught you a certain respect for books I’ll make an exception today. However, only on condition you keep at least three paces away from the shelves. Is that agreed?’
For a moment Meggie felt like saying no, it wasn’t. She would have loved to surprise Elinor by showing contempt for her precious books, but she couldn’t do it. Her curiosity was too much for her. She felt almost as if she could hear the books whispering on the other side of the half-open door. They were promising her a thousand unknown stories, a thousand doors into worlds she had never seen before. The temptation was stronger than Meggie’s pride.
‘Agreed,’ she murmured, clasping her hands behind her back. ‘Three paces.’ Her fingers were itching with desire.
‘Sensible child,’ said Elinor, so condescendingly that Meggie almost went back on her decision. But then they entered Elinor’s holy of holies.
‘You’ve had the place renovated,’ Meggie heard Mo say. He added something else, but she wasn’t listening any more. She was just staring at the books. The shelves on which they stood smelled of freshly sawn wood. They went all the way up to a sky-blue ceiling with tiny lights in it, hanging there like stars. Narrow wooden stepladders on castors stood by the shelves, ready to help any reader up to the top shelves. There were reading desks with books lying open on them, held in place by brass chains that shone like gold. There were glass display cases containing books with pages stained by age but showing the most wonderful pictures. Meggie couldn’t resist moving closer. One step forward, a quick glance at Elinor, who luckily had her back turned, and she was right beside the display case. She bent lower and lower over the glass until her nose was touching it.
Prickly leaves twined around pale brown letters. A tiny red dragon’s head was spitting out flowers over the stained paper. Riders on white horses looked at Meggie as if scarcely a day had passed since someone painted them with tiny marten-hair brushes. A man and woman stood beside them, perhaps a bridal couple. A man with a bright red hat was looking angrily at them.
‘You call that three paces?’
Meggie spun round in alarm, but Elinor didn’t seem too angry. ‘Yes, the art of illumination,’ she said. ‘Once only rich people could read, so the pictures painted round the letters were to help the poor to understand the stories too. Of course no one planned to give them pleasure – the poor were put into the world to work, not to have a nice time or look at pretty pictures. That kind of thing was only for the rich. No, the idea was to instruct the poor. Usually the stories came from the Bible and everyone knew them anyway. The books were put in churches, and a page was turned every day to show a new picture.’