Excerpt of The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt
(Page 4 of 4)
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"Come in," said the grimy boy, at the opening of a small storeroom, making a welcoming gesture, possibly mocking, with an arm. The storeroom contained what appeared to be a small stone hut, carved and ornamented with cherubim and seraphim, eagles and doves, acanthus and vines. It had its own little metal gate, with traces of gilding on the rusting iron.
"Convenient," said Philip. "It has a stone bed. I took the liberty of borrowing some sacks to keep warm. I'll put 'em back, naturally, where I found them."
"It's a tomb or shrine," said Julian. "Russian, by the look of it. There must have been some saint on that table, in a glass case or a reliquary. He might still be in there, underneath, his bones that is, if he wasn't incorrupt."
"I haven't noticed him," said Philip, flatly. "He hasn't bothered me."
Tom said "Are you hungry? What do you eat?"
"Once or twice I got to help in the tea-room, moving plates and washing them. People leave a lot on their plates, you'd be surprised. And the young ladies from the Art School took notice of my drawings and sometimes they passed me a sandwich. I don't beg. I did steal one, once, when I was desperate, an egg-and-cress sandwich. I were pretty sure the young lady had no intention of eating it."
"It isn't much," he said. "I'm hungry, yes."
He was rummaging behind the tomb in the shrine, and came out with another canvas satchel, a sketch-book, a candle stub and what looked like a roll of clothing, tied with string.
"How did you get in?" Julian persisted.
"Followed the horses and carts. You know, they turn in and drive down a ramp into these underground parts. And they unload and pack things with a deal of bustle, and it's easy enough to mingle wi' them, wi' the carters and lads, and get in."
"And the upstairs door?" Julian queried. "Which is meant to be locked at all times."
"I came across a little key."
"Aye. Came across. I'll give it back. Here, take it."
Tom said "It must be horribly frightening, down here alone at night."
"Not near so frightening as t'streets in t'East End. Not near."
Julian said "Please come with me now. You must come and explain all this to my father. He's talking to Tom's mother. This is Tom. Tom Wellwood. I'm Julian Cain."
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.