La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1)

by Philip Pullman

Three miles up the river Thames from the center of Oxford, some distance from where the great colleges of Jordan, Gabriel, Balliol, and two dozen others contended for mastery in the boat races, out where the city was only a collection of towers and spires in the distance over the misty levels of Port Meadow, there stood the Priory of Godstow, where the gentle nuns went about their holy business; and on the opposite bank from the priory there was an inn called the Trout.

The inn was an old stone-built rambling, comfortable sort of place. There was a terrace above the river, where peacocks (one called Norman and the other called Barry) stalked among the drinkers, helping themselves to snacks without the slightest hesitation and occasionally lifting their heads to utter ferocious and meaningless screams. There was a saloon bar where the gentry, if college scholars count as gentry, took their ale and smoked their pipes; there was a public bar where watermen and farm laborers sat by the fire or played darts, or stood at the bar gossiping, or arguing, or simply getting quietly drunk; there was a kitchen where the landlord’s wife cooked a great joint every day, with a complicated arrangement of wheels and chains turning a spit over an open fire; and there was a potboy called Malcolm Polstead.

Malcolm was the landlord’s son, an only child. He was eleven years old, with an inquisitive, kindly disposition, a stocky build, and ginger hair. He went to Ulvercote Elementary School a mile away, and he had friends enough, but he was happiest on his own, playing with his dæmon, Asta, in their canoe, on which Malcolm had painted the name LA BELLE SAUVAGE. A witty acquaintance thought it amusing to scrawl an S over the V, and Malcolm patiently painted it out three times before losing his temper and knocking the fool into the water, at which point they declared a truce.

Like every child of an innkeeper, Malcolm had to work around the tavern, washing dishes and glasses, carrying plates of food or tankards of beer, retrieving them when they were empty. He took the work for granted. The only annoyance in his life was a girl called Alice, who helped with washing the dishes. She was about sixteen, tall and skinny, with lank dark hair that she scraped back into an unflattering ponytail. Lines of self-discontent were already gathering on her forehead and around her mouth. She teased Malcolm from the day she arrived: “Who’s your girlfriend, Malcolm? En’t you got a girlfriend? Who was you out with last night? Did you kiss her? En’t you ever been kissed?”

He ignored that for a long time, but finally rat-formed Asta leapt at Alice’s scrawny jackdaw dæmon, knocking him into the washing-up water and then biting and biting the sodden creature till Alice screamed for pity. She complained bitterly to Malcolm’s mother, who said, “Serves you right. I got no sympathy for you. Keep your nasty mind to yourself.”

From then on she did. She and Malcolm took not the slightest notice of each other; he put the glasses on the draining board, she washed them, and he dried them and took them back to the bar without a word, without a glance, without a thought.

But he enjoyed the life of the inn. He especially enjoyed the conversations he overheard, whether they concerned the venal rascality of the River Board, the helpless idiocy of the government, or more philosophical matters, such as whether the stars were the same age as the earth.

Sometimes Malcolm became so interested in the latter sort of conversation that he’d rest his armful of empty glasses on the table and join in, but only after having listened intently. He was known to many of the scholars and other visitors, and was generously tipped, but becoming rich was never an aim of his; he took tips to be the generosity of providence, and came to think of himself as lucky, which did him no harm in later life. If he’d been the sort of boy who acquired a nickname, he would no doubt have been known as Professor, but he wasn’t that sort of boy. He was liked when noticed, but not noticed much, and that did him no harm either.

Malcolm’s other constituency lay just over the bridge outside the tavern, in the gray stone buildings set among green fields and neat orchards and kitchen gardens of the Priory of St. Rosamund. The nuns were largely self-sufficient, growing their vegetables and fruit, keeping their bees, sewing the elegant vestments they sold for keenly bargained gold, but from time to time there were errands a useful boy could run, or there was a ladder to be repaired under the supervision of Mr. Taphouse, the aged carpenter, or some fish to bring from Medley Pond a little way down the river. La Belle Sauvage was frequently employed in the service of the good nuns; more than once Malcolm had ferried Sister Benedicta to the Royal Mail zeppelin station with a precious parcel of stoles or copes or chasubles for the bishop of London, who seemed to wear his vestments very hard, for he got through them unusually quickly. Malcolm learned a lot on these leisurely voyages.

“How d’you make them parcels so neat, Sister Benedicta?” he said one day.

“Those parcels,” said Sister Benedicta.

“Those parcels. How d’you make ’em so neat?”

“Neatly, Malcolm.”

He didn’t mind; this was a sort of game they had.

“I thought ‘neat’ was all right,” he said.

“It depends on whether you want the idea of neatness to modify the act of tying the parcel, or the parcel itself, once tied.”

“Don’t mind, really,” said Malcolm. “I just want to know how you do ’em. Them.”

“Next time I have a parcel to tie, I promise I’ll show you,” said Sister Benedicta, and she did.

Malcolm admired the nuns for their neat ways in general, for the manner in which they laid their fruit trees in espaliers along the sunny wall of the orchard, for the charm with which their delicate voices combined in singing the offices of the Church, for their little kindnesses here and there to many people. He enjoyed the conversations he had with them about religious matters.

“In the Bible,” he said one day as he was helping elderly Sister Fenella in the lofty kitchen, “you know it says God created the world in six days?”

“That’s right,” said Sister Fenella, rolling some pastry.

“Well, how is it that there’s fossils and things that are millions of years old?”

“Ah, you see, days were much longer then,” said the good sister. “Have you cut up that rhubarb yet? Look, I’ll be finished before you will.”

“Why do we use this knife for rhubarb but not the old ones? The old ones are sharper.”

“Because of the oxalic acid,” said Sister Fenella, pressing the pastry into a baking tin. “Stainless steel is better with rhubarb. Pass me the sugar now.”

“Oxalic acid,” said Malcolm, liking the words very much. “What’s a chasuble, Sister?”

“It’s a kind of vestment. Priests wear them over their albs.”

“Why don’t you do sewing like the other sisters?”

Sister Fenella’s squirrel dæmon, sitting on the back of a nearby chair, uttered a meek “Tut-tut.”

“We all do what we’re good at,” said the nun. “I was never very good at embroidery—look at my great fat fingers!—but the other sisters think my pastry’s all right.”

“I like your pastry,” said Malcolm.

“Thank you, dear.”

“It’s almost as good as my mum’s. My mum’s is thicker than what yours is. I expect you roll it harder.”

“I expect I do.”

Nothing was wasted in the priory kitchen. The little pieces of pastry Sister Fenella had left after trimming her rhubarb pies were formed into clumsy crosses or fish shapes, or rolled around a few currants, then sprinkled with sugar and baked separately. They each had a religious meaning, but Sister Fenella (“My great fat fingers!”) wasn’t very good at making them look different from one another. Malcolm was better, but he had to wash his hands thoroughly first.

“Who eats these, Sister?” he said.

“Oh, they’re all eaten in the end. Sometimes a visitor likes something to nibble with their tea.”

The priory, situated as it was where the road crossed the river, was popular with travelers of all kinds, and the nuns often had visitors to stay. So did the Trout, of course, and there were usually two or three guests staying at the inn overnight whose breakfast Malcolm had to serve, but they were generally fishermen or commercials, as his father called them: traders in smokeleaf or hardware or agricultural machinery.

The guests at the priory were people from a higher class altogether: great lords and ladies, sometimes, bishops and lesser clergy, people of quality who didn’t have a connection with any of the colleges in the city and couldn’t expect hospitality there. Once there was a princess who stayed for six weeks, but Malcolm only saw her twice. She’d been sent there as a punishment. Her dæmon was a weasel who snarled at everyone.

Malcolm helped with these guests too: looked after their horses, cleaned their boots, took messages for them, and was occasionally tipped. All his money went into a tin walrus in his bedroom. You pressed its tail and it opened its mouth and you put the coin in between its tusks, one of which had been broken off and glued back on. Malcolm didn’t know how much money he had, but the walrus was heavy. He thought he might buy a gun once he had enough, but he didn’t think his father would allow him to, so that was something to wait for. In the meantime, he got used to the ways of travelers, both common and rare.