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A burning scrap of paper drifts down out of the rain. A magic carpet on fire. It falls with a hiss to the wet stones of the street.
The colonel dismounts from his horse and stands holding the reins, his eyes raised to the sky. The light rain that began as he entered the town has drawn off. The grey clouds are shredding away to reveal patches of deep blue twilight. Wind moans from within the black hole that was once the building's entrance, like the sound from a shell held to the ear.
There is a flicker of candlelight deep within the shadows of the bombed-out ruins. There shouldn't be. Sheltering in such places has been forbidden by decree of the governor.
The colonel ties his horse to a nearby rail and climbs a ridge of fallen brick to enter the building. The smoke, the drifting ash tell him that the bomb struck quite recently. Only a few hours ago, if his judgement of these things is correct.
A wigwam of smouldering timbers fills the middle of the narrow main floor, and he has to walk along the wall to proceed any deeper into the shop, for a shop of some kind it seems to have been, stepping carefully over wet and treacherous wooden wreckage. He feels a drop of rain on his face and glances up to see luminous patches of cloud through a cross-hatching of scorched and amputated beams.
A bookshop. Three of four huge glass-fronted bookcases that once lined the long walls have been smashed open, the books they contained scattered about the room. The one case that remains standing now leans backward as if half-sunk into the wall, its glass panels gone but a few of the books still intact on its shelves. Along the side walls ancient stonework appears in the places where plaster has fallen loose.
Two men are browsing through the books that remain on the shelves. They glance at the colonel, take in his uniform, put down the books they were examining and hurry out with furtive backwards glances. Looting has become a hanging offense in the abandoned town.
In the waning light the colonel gazes in wonder at the bizarre volumes issued by destruction. Books without covers. Covers without books. Books still smouldering, books reduced to mounds of cold, wet ash. Shredded, riddled, and bisected books. Books with spines bent and snapped, one transfixed by a jagged black arrow of shrapnel. In one dark corner lies the multi-volume set of an outdated atlas, fused into a single charred mass. The gold lettering on the spines has somehow survived the fire and glows eerily from the shadows.
Why is the world so made, the colonel wonders, that whatever is damaged shines?
As he steps forward the colonel's foot strikes another volume, one without a cover. It lies splayed open, its uppermost pages lifting and falling with the gusts of evening wind. A huge grey moth, sealed in its unknowable moth self.
Further back, where the roof is still intact, he finds the source of the light he saw from the street. Candles everywhere, in brackets, in crevices and holes blasted through the masonry.
At the back of the shop, in the midst of the light, a young woman crouches amid a great heap of splintered wood, picking up and setting down one piece after another, as if searching for something. Above her on wires strung across the room large sheets of blank paper stir in the wind like ragged sails.
The colonel watches her from the shadows. She is dressed in a tradesman's clothes: worn shirt, breeches, a coarse green apron. Her pale russet hair is tied back: he can see the slender white column of her neck. A girl, really, who should not be alone in an exposed ruin like this, at night. He clears his throat.
Mademoiselle? Do not be alarmed. I am an officer.
She speaks without surprise, making it obvious she knew he was there watching her.
I saw you come in, she says, turning. Well, I saw your wig, anyway.
The colonel laughs, relieved. This may be someone, one of the few in this benighted land, that he can talk to. He steps forward, pleased with the smart sound his new boots make on what is left of the floorboards.
Everyone wonders, he says, how I manage to keep powdered and polished in the midst of a siege. The truth is, I have a truly dedicated barber. Neither cannon, nor musket, nor dreadful scalping knife cows his spirit.
The young woman tosses a jagged stick back on the pile, rises and turns to him, studies him with steady blue-green eyes that belie her youth. Her face and hair are streaked with dust. Her right wrist is bound in a strip of white cloth. Was she here when the bomb fell? For the first time in a long while the colonel finds himself awkwardly searching for words.
I was riding through the town on my way to meet with the Marquis. I saw lights and thought I should investigate. Did you know there were a couple of looters in the shop just now?
They weren't looters, she says. They're old customers. They stare in the window every night after I lock up.
He is vaguely disturbed at her casual response to everything. The bomb, the intruders, him. This encounter is not going quite as he anticipated.
My name is Colonel de Bougainville, he says, doffing his tricorn.
The name seems to have impressed her, he thinks. Or the rank. She looks at him more closely.
You wrote a book, she says.
I did indeed, but
About the integral calculus.
This is a first, he thinks. He's known in this country for his military exploits, his friendship with the Iroquois, his conquests of the heart. He himself sometimes wonders who it was that wrote that forgotten book with his name on it.
It's true, he confesses. Don't tell me you've read it.
I had a copy here. It may still be in one piece, somewhere out in the shop. But I have read about the calculus. In volume seven of the Libraria Technicum, page two hundred and three.
You've memorized an entire encyclopedia of science?
No, just volume seven.
Remarkable. It must be terrible for you, what has happened to your father's shop.
This is my shop, she says.
Bougainville smiles warily. This would not be the first lunatic he has encountered since arriving in the colony. War can collapse wits as quickly as buildings.
Be that as it may, he says, you really should not be here alone.
I'm not, any more. You're here.
She speaks French very well, he notes. He cannot place the accent. There is something strange in her look, the pale, translucent gleam of her skin, but the girl is not mad. His instinct for people is certain on that point. And she is pretty enough. Riding through the wet streets his thoughts had been as bleak and cheerless as the charred, deserted houses on either hand. He weighs the matter and decides he will linger here, for a while, a diverting interlude before the heavy task of bringing the Marquis more bad news about the doings of the English.
The young woman wipes her charcoal-blackened hands on her apron, pulls a chair towards her, and stands beside it as if waiting for the colonel's permission to sit.
There couldn't have been a lot of business left here for you, Bougainville says. Most of the merchants have closed up and gone.
This is my home. I have nowhere else to go.
Bougainville unbuckles his swordbelt and hangs it from the back of a chair opposite the young woman's.
He lifts the wings of his blue velvet coat, seats himself, and she does likewise. Her next words are another salvo from an unexpected quarter.
Do you like to read, Colonel?
A little of everything, I suppose. I particularly enjoy narratives of travel. I confess I have an ambition, once this war is over, to visit far-away places. Perhaps even discover an unknown island or two. And you, mademoiselle? Do booksellers read their books?
I used to, she says. Now most of them will become fuel, I suppose.
Yes, it looks like it will be a cold winter, Bougainville says. I'm sure, being of the nobility, you're not accustomed to this kind of hardship.
That surprised her, he registers with satisfaction. Once again, his intuition proves itself.
One can tell these things, mademoiselle, he says. You are very self-possessed, it seems to me, for such a young woman. And alone, as you are here, amid all this destruction.
Do you think the siege will end soon, Colonel?
Alas, not even my barber, sagacious as he is, can answer that question.
The people I've talked to lately are very disheartened. They think it's only a matter of time before the English make a successful assault.
This is not a subject he wished to have brought up. Especially by a girl who doubtless knows nothing of the art of war.
Time, he says with a soft huff of derision. Yes, well, time is one thing the gallant Major-General Wolfe has very little of any more. His chances of turning this siege into a conquest are withering with the autumn leaves. Soon it will be winter, and if he doesn't withdraw his ships they'll be frozen and crushed in the river ice. The cliffs are his last hope, but as the Marquis said to me the other day, we need not suppose the enemy have wings. In the few places where we have not posted sentries, the heights are unassailable even the farmers who live along them say so. They cannot be scaled, especially by troops hauling artillery.
Her eyes hold his for a long moment.
Not everyone believes that, she says. Some say that the English will take Quebec, and when they do the world will surely end.
And what do you reply to such superstitious nonsense?
I tell them that whatever happens a world will end. And another one will begin.
You're wise beyond your years, I see.
I've had good teachers.
From the darkening street outside drifts the far-off frantic barking of a dog. Bougainville remains still, not wishing to betray himself, but when the sound dies away at last he sees that his hand has reached for his sword hilt.
It's so quiet this evening, the young woman says. Isn't this just the kind of night they would make an assault?
Is she taunting me? he wonders, and decides that a jest would be the best response.
What irony that would be. I see, mademoiselle, that you have read a few novels. Or you did, until today.
There's one book the bombs didn't touch, she says.
No, another book. One I haven't read yet. A book I'd like to read.
I'm intrigued, he says, feeling the chill night air on the back of his neck. He shivers, leans closer to the warm glow of the candles. Why don't you tell me about it, then, this ideal book. I'm curious to know what sort of a book you would like to read.
It could take all night, Colonel. I'm sure you have duties...
Well, let us call this an interrogation, then, since I have found you here, a young woman, alone in what looks like an abandoned shop. With no proof that you are who you say you are.
Who did I say I was?
Bougainville takes a deep breath, eases back in his chair. This is getting better by the moment. The little ballet of swordpoints before the duel begins in earnest.
Come now. I doubt any book could take an entire night to describe.
The girl looks down, examines the palms of her hands.
It's not that simple. I would also have to tell you about the books that this book might be. And the books that it is not. It could go on forever, really.
The colonel draws his chair closer.
Begin, please, and let's see where we end up.
She closes her eyes.
Well, I think every reader imagines this book a different way. Mine is slightly larger than pocket-size. Narrower.
Her pale hands trace a shape in the gloom.
The cover is sealskin, dyed dark green, and the pages...
She brings her hands together until her palms and the tips of her fingers touch. Her eyes open.
The pages are very thin. Almost sheer, weightless. When I close the book it's like a beetle's wings folding back under its wingcase.
You do know some science. Pardon me. Go on. Tell me what happens when you open the book.
I can't read the words at first. The text is like a slender black door. This could be any book.
A treatise, Bougainville suggests. A history.
Or a novel, the girl says. I can open it anywhere, even to the last page, and find myself at the beginning of a story.
And where will you start this time?
The girl gazes slowly around the ruin of the shop.
This time...this time the book opens out into a marvellous castle, with paper walls and ceilings and floors that fold and collapse and slide at the touch of a finger. There are cardpaper wheels that revolve and change what you see. And panels that slide open to reveal hidden passageways to other pages. You can get lost there...
And does this wondrous castle have a name?
It does. But you see? Already it is happening.
In order to tell you about the book, I have to tell you about the castle. But to tell you about the castle, I have to begin somewhere else.
And where would that be?
With a siege, like this one. And a battle.
Copyright © 2001 by Thomas Wharton