All things considered, Jay and I made an executive decision not to take the book back to Val yet. We carried it instead to my favourite study carrell, which happened to be safely situated two large rooms and a corridor away.
It was pleasant to tuck back up in there again. It’s a modest place — just a desk (albeit a splendidly well-preserved nineteenth-century example, all mahogany and mother-of-pearl), and a chair (ditto), placed in a concealed alcove off one of the reference rooms. I’ve spent untold hours there with stacks and stacks of books, researching one obscure topic after another. It’s undoubtedly my study nook.
Jay took to it at once, for I caught him glancing around with an admiring, speculative look.
‘Mine,’ I told him.
I put the book carefully down upon the desk and — checking first to make sure nobody was too near to us — I opened it again.
‘Good morning, madam,’ said the book. ‘Good morning, sir.’
‘You can call me Jay,’ said Jay.
‘That would be an improper mode of address, sir, particularly in view of the fact that we have not yet been introduced.’
I summoned my best manners, and formally introduced Jay to the book. Jay made a decidedly courtly bow, which impressed me no end.
Then he introduced me, and I felt it incumbent upon me to match his exquisite etiquette with a curtsey.
It was an odd business.
The book was kind enough to overlook the irregularities in our behaviour, mostly because, as he said himself: ‘I am not fortunate enough to have a large acquaintance here. In fact, I know no one else except for the odd, vulgar woman with the green hair, whose identity remains a mystery.’
Jay stifled his laughter — barely. ‘You have no objection to Ves’s pink hair?’
‘The arrangement of Miss Vesper’s hair might be highly irregular, but there is nothing to fault in her manners.’
I was glad he’d said that, for I was quite attached to my hair colour of the day. Rose pink (the dusky, antique shade), and perfectly curled. ‘Thank you, Bill,’ I said, beaming.
‘We can’t call him Bill anymore,’ said Jay.
‘An unnecessarily abbreviated name,’ agreed the book.
‘We can still call him Bill,’ I offered. ‘Darcy’s first name was Fitzwilliam.’
‘Bill Darcy it is.’
The book objected, but I overrode him. ‘Matters are not as they were when you were written, Bill,’ I unhappily had to inform him. ‘You had better get used to our unnecessarily abbreviated modes of address.’
‘If you insist, Miss Vesper.’
I gave up. The secret truth is that I rather enjoyed being called “Miss Vesper.”
Jay, however, did not take so enthusiastically to “Mr Patel”. ‘That is my father,’ he said sternly. ‘Jay, please.’
The book heaved a resigned sigh, and capitulated.
Having got the formalities out of the way, it was time to do as Zareen had suggested, and launch a clever and subtle interrogation of Bill. I began with: ‘Where does your map lead, Bill?’
‘To the grave of my mistress. She was buried near the town of Lavenham in the year 1485.’
‘She?’ said Jay.
‘Buried?’ said I.
Jay began to laugh. ‘So much for treasure.’
‘I do not at all understand the modern fixation upon “treasure”,’ said Bill in disgust. ‘It was all that green woman would talk of.’
‘That’s acquisitions specialists for you,’ I said by way of apology. ‘The hearts of magpies, all of us.’
‘To return to my mistress,’ said Bill stonily, ‘She was the greatest sorceress of the age, and my noble creator. In this respect, perhaps, she was a far greater treasure than any mere gold.’
This was interesting. ‘Go on. Why did she make you?’
‘I was to serve as her grimoire, but of a far cleverer design than any that had yet been created. My task was to absorb not only my mistress’s knowledge but anything else that should come in my way, and to repeat it upon command.’
‘That is clever!’
‘I believe I did save my mistress a great deal of time and trouble,’ said Bill modestly. ‘And won for her no small number of esoteric secrets, besides.’
Jay brightened at the word “secrets”. So did I. Occupational hazard. ‘We,’ I said to Bill, ‘are going to get along very well, I think.’
‘It is my dearest wish that we should, Miss Vesper.’
‘He definitely likes you,’ muttered Jay.
I awarded the book a tender little pat of approval. ‘What about the map?’ I asked. ‘And your first few pages? They were not written by your mistress, clearly.’
Bill bristled with indignation, his pages curling in a bookish grimace. ‘Her death was sudden—’
‘How did she die?’ interpolated Jay.
‘A form of plague.’
‘Thank you. Her death was sudden, and I was lost for some years among a number of other, lesser volumes from her collection. We were lodged for a time in the library of the great house, until one day we were stolen by a deplorable varmint of the name of John Wester. If you have read those pages, madam, then you will have already experienced his disgraceful mode of expressing himself and I need not elaborate.’
‘I haven’t, yet, but you did give a rather excellent demonstration of them.’
The book looked a trifle sheepish, and shuffled about upon the desk. ‘I did not, at first, trouble myself to speak much to Wester. I was delighted to be removed from the dusty shelf upon which I had so long languished, and entertained some hopes of finding my new master congenial. And I was curious as to his reasons, for he took only two books from the house’s collection, both from my mistress’s former possessions: a slim treatise upon the most ancient and respectable practices of star-magick, of which my mistress was a devotee. And me. But if I hoped that his second choice, at least, indicated that he understood some part of my value, I was to be disappointed. He had noticed only that my pages were apparently blank, and secured me in order to serve as a receptacle for his own records. My dignity was sunk indeed.
‘The matter which absorbed all his curiosity was the search for my mistress’s grave. He was under the impression that some article of great value had been buried with her. He was, in other words, a treasure-hunter. He had received some hint of the grave’s location, but I understood that, by the time in question — some many years after her death — its precise situation was no longer known.’
‘What kind of thing was buried with her?’ I said, greatly intrigued.
‘That I never learned from him. I am not convinced that he knew it himself, with any precision. He was an opportunist and an adventurer, and not at all averse to taking a chance.’
‘Grave-robbers and thieves, plagues and dark sorceresses,’ said Jay. ‘This is getting good.’
‘Zareen will be delighted.’
Bill gave a slight, polite cough. ‘I have almost finished, madam, sir.’
‘My apologies. Do go on.’
‘I did not particularly take to John Wester,’ Bill continued, rather unnecessarily. ‘Particularly since the free use he made of my early pages seeped into my consciousness, as was inevitable, and my turn of phrase inevitably adapted itself to his. I made rather free use of his more vulgar vocabulary, and abused him with such spirit every time he dared to approach me that he soon gave up the endeavour. To my great satisfaction, he rid himself of me by selling me to that rare form of travelling merchant who understands when he has met with an object of true worth. I was sold for a mere few shillings, which was a source of some embarrassment to me, but since I afterwards was placed, through a series of subsequent trades, into the grand collections at the Court of the Trolls, I was able to recover my dignity in time.’
‘And there you stayed for three and a half centuries, until Jay rescued you.’ I beamed at Jay, who smiled uncertainly back.
‘I am appalled to learn that my sojourn there was of such extended duration,’ said Bill. ‘I believe I must have slept through most of it.’
‘Very likely.’ I fell into a reverie of reflection for a little while, pondering Bill’s extraordinary tale. Some few questions stood out, at the end of my musings. ‘Did they know what you were, at Farringale? Did you speak to them?’
‘Scarcely at all, madam. I knew my vocabulary and general speech to be most unsuited to a place of such vaunted learning.’
‘A pity, perhaps. All your potential has been wasted.’
‘Until now, Miss Vesper. I have some hopes of enjoying a second spring of activity.’
‘How charming you are.’
‘What became of John Wester, I wonder?’ said Jay. ‘Did he ever find the grave?’
‘And was there anything of interest in it? Good question. Sadly it seems history has forgotten the answers, though perhaps Val might know something.’
Bill gave his polite cough again. ‘I wonder if my apologies might be conveyed to the green woman? I have been disgracefully rude both to her and about her, but it strikes me that, without her interference, I would be still condemned to express myself with all the excessive vulgarity of John Wester’s turn of phrase.’
‘Her name is Zareen—’ I began.
‘—or Miss Dalir, if you prefer,’ Jay put in.
‘—and I have no doubt she will forgive you, for she enjoyed the mystery you presented very much indeed.’
‘She might be disappointed to learn that you aren’t a treasure map, though,’ Jay cautioned.
‘I doubt it,’ I disagreed. ‘Given the choice, Zareen would always go for a good disinterring over a treasure hunt.’
Jay looked faintly appalled.
‘She always was a trifle macabre that way.’ I picked up Bill, cradling him in my arms — I was growing rather fond of him by then, I admit — and squared my shoulders. ‘No help for it. It’s time to see Val. But we’ve such a fine story to tell that I hope she won’t disembowel us too badly.’
‘Disembowelling is pretty absolute,’ Jay said. ‘You either lose your entrails or you don’t.’
‘I’m hoping Bill can be relied upon to present his side of the story with such style as to spare us that fate.’
‘I shall be happy to, madam,’ said Bill, slightly muffled.
It occurred to me to be grateful even for John Wester’s highly questionable behaviour. If he had not stolen Bill back in the sixteenth century, then the book may never have ended up at Farringale, and he would never have come to us. Even if he had, without Wester’s journalising the book would have retained his original turn of phrase, which I imagined to be extremely civilised — in a Chaucerian kind of way. Middle English is not precisely my strong point.
‘You’re quite wonderful, Bill,’ I said with fervour.
‘Thank you, madam.’
‘It’s an unusual name,’ said Valerie, some half an hour later. ‘I can’t even decide how to pronounce it.’
‘Medieval,’ said Jay, as though this was both explanation and apology enough.
Val apparently agreed, for she merely nodded.
Our initial half-hour in the library had been a bit sticky. While Val was relieved to find our Bill so tidily reformed, she was every bit as horrified by the manner of its accomplishment as I had feared.
‘Ten years in the dungeons!’ she hissed, and began searching through her desk drawers for her phone.
‘The House has dungeons?’ Jay repeated, awed.
‘Excellent ones,’ I said. ‘They’re only cellars really, but “dungeon” sounds much more impressive and indeed, there are signs with one or two of them that they might have been built to serve as dungeons in the first place. One of them even has something of the oubliette about it, which is fascinating considering—’
‘You’re babbling, Ves,’ said Jay.
I was. ‘Sorry,’ I babbled. ‘Val, don’t murder Zareen. She did us a favour.’
‘I’m not going to murder her, I’m going to throw her in the oubliette.’
‘She’ll love that.’
Val looked uncertain, and stopped searching for her phone. ‘She will, won’t she? I’ll have to think of something else.’
‘Disembowelment,’ suggested Jay helpfully.
Val’s face set into steely lines, and her dark eyes glittered. ‘With a spoon.’
‘What did I tell you?’ I said. ‘Stop helping, Jay.’
‘Listen,’ I commanded, and put Bill down upon the desk. ‘Tell her, Bill.’
‘I am in Miss Dalir’s debt,’ said Bill obligingly. ‘Her methods may have been invasive and uncouth, but the results are so much to my taste that I cannot long hold her coarseness against her.’
Overwhelmed by this display of generosity mixed with disdain, and all couched in such elegant terms, Val could only blink at the book in amazement. ‘He really is reformed,’ she said.
‘Oh, completely,’ said Jay. ‘He delivers his insults in such stately style, now.’
‘He’s a refined, sophisticated book,’ I objected, ‘and did not enjoy turning the air blue any more than we enjoyed hearing it.’
Val gave me an odd look.
‘He admires and loves Ves,’ said Jay. ‘Ardently.’
‘Apparently it’s mutual.’ Val’s eyebrows went up.
So did Bill.
‘Anyway,’ I said brightly. ‘Bill’s creator?’
‘I’ll see what I can come up with,’ Val promised.
‘The name doesn’t ring any bells?’
I wasn’t sure what “not quite” meant in this context, but it sounded more promising than “none whatsoever.” So I scooped up Jay — not Bill, unfortunately, for Val claimed him for research purposes — and whisked him off. ‘It’s high time we reported to Milady.’
‘The gruelling climb,’ Jay groaned.
‘It’s good for your health.’
‘Tell that to my knees when I’m ninety-five.’
I pictured Jay at ninety-five, wizened and white-haired and still grumbling about the stairs. I had to laugh.
‘Your sympathy is touching,’ said Jay. We had by that time arrived at the first of the several flights of stairs — stone-cut, narrow and winding, naturally — that led up to Milady’s aerie tower, and I laughed even harder as Jay visibly braced himself.
I did not really suspect him of deliberately hamming it up. Not until I noticed a secret half-smile just vanishing from his face as he marched away from me, moving upwards at a smart pace.
‘You’re teasing me,’ I said with strong disapproval, and made sure to overtake him at once.
It was Jay’s turn to laugh.