Excerpt of The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt
(Page 3 of 4)
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"Don't do that."
"I can't help it. It's the dust."
They crept on, took a left, took a right, had to force their way between thickets of what Tom thought were tomb railings, surmounted by jaunty female angel-busts,with wings and pointed breasts. Julian said they were cast-iron radiator covers, commissioned from an ironmaster in Sheffield. "Cost a packet, down here because someone thought they were obtrusive," he whispered. "Which way now?"
Tom said he had no idea. Julian said they were lost, no one would find them, rats would pick their bones. Someone sneezed. Julian said
"I told you, don't do that."
"I didn't. It must have been him."
Tom was worried about hunting down a probably harmless and innocent boy. He was also worried about encountering a savage and dangerous boy.
Julian cried "We know you're there. Come out and give yourself up!"
He was alert and smiling, Tom saw, the successful seeker or catcher in games of pursuit.
There was a silence. Another sneeze. A slight scuffling. Julian and Tom turned to look down the other fork of the corridor, which was obstructed by a forest of imitation marble pillars, made to support busts or vases. A wild face, under a mat of hair, appeared at knee height, framed between fake basalt and fake obsidian.
"You'd better come out and explain yourself," said Julian, with complete certainty. "You're trespassing. I should get the police."
The third boy came out on all fours, shook himself like a beast, and stood up, supporting himself briefly on the pillars. He was about Julian's height. He was shaking, whether with fear or wrath Tom could not tell. He pushed a dirty hand across his face, rubbing his eyes, which even in the gloom could be seen to be red-rimmed. He put his head down, and tensed. Tom saw the thought go through him, he could charge the two of them, head-butt them and flee down the corridors. He didn't move and didn't answer.
"What are you doing down here?" Julian insisted.
"I were hiding."
"Why? Hiding from who?"
"Just hiding. I were doing no harm. I move carefully. I don't disturb things."
"What's your name? Where do you live?"
"My name's Philip. Philip Warren. I suppose I live here. At present."
His voice was vaguely north country.Tom recognised it, but couldn't place it. He was looking at them much as they were looking at him, as though he couldn't quite grasp that they were real. He blinked, and a tremor ran through him. Tom said
"You were drawing the Candlestick. Is that what you came for?"
He was clutching a kind of canvas satchel against his chest, which presumably contained his sketching materials. Tom said
"It's an amazing thing, isn't it? I hadn't seen it before."
The other boy looked him in the eye, then, with a flicker of a grin.
"Aye. Amazing, it is."
Julian spoke severely.
"You must come and explain yourself to my father."
"Oh, your father. Who's he, then?"
"He's Special Keeper of Precious Metals."
"Oh. I see."
"You must come along with us."
"I see I must. Can I get my things?"
"Things?" Julian sounded doubtful for the first time. "You mean, you've been living down here?"
"S'what I said. I got nowhere else to go. I'd rather not sleep on t'streets. I come here to draw. I saw the Museum was for working men to see well-made things. I mean to get work, I do, and I need drawings to show . . . I like these things."
"Can we see the drawings?" asked Tom.
"Not in this light. Upstairs, if you're interested. I'll get my things, like I said."
He ducked, and began to make his way back amongst the pillars, crouching and weaving expertly. Tom was put in mind of dwarves in mine-workings, and, since his upbringing was socially conscientious, of children in mines, pulling trucks on hands and knees. Julian was on Philip's heels. Tom followed.
Excerpted from The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt Copyright © 2009 by A.S. Byatt. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.