The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth (Book of Dust, Volume 2) (2 page)

ADS
6.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
READ BOOK DOWNLOAD BOOK

“Let me know as soon as you have those materials. Now, this other matter: the young woman. What do you know about her?”

“The alethiometer—”

“No, no, no. Old-fashioned, vague, too full of speculation. Give me facts, Marcel.”

“We have a new reader, who—”

“Oh yes, I’ve heard of him. New method. Any better than the old one?”

“Times change, and understandings must change too.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means that we’ve discovered some things about the girl that were not clear before. It seems that she is under certain protections, legal and otherwise. I would like to begin by taking down the network of defense around her, unobtrusively, quietly, one might say invisibly. And when she is vulnerable, that will be the time to take action. Until then—”

“Cautious,” said Binaud, standing up. “Too cautious, Marcel. It’s a big fault. You need to be decisive. Take action. Find her, acquire her, and bring her here. But have it your own way; I won’t overrule you this time.”

Delamare rose to shake his visitor’s hand and see him out. When they were alone, his dæmon flew to his shoulder and they stood at the window to watch the Chief Justice bustle away, one attendant carrying his briefcase, another holding an umbrella against the snow that had just begun to fall.

“I do dislike being interrupted,” said Delamare.

“I don’t think he noticed,” said his dæmon.

“Oh, he’ll be aware of it one day.”

* * *

The man coming from the railway station was moving quickly: in less than a minute he was almost at the tree, and as soon as he got there, the other men struck. One stepped out and swung a heavy stick to strike him at his knees. He dropped at once, grunting with shock, and then the other man was on him, chopping down with a short club, striking his head, his shoulders, his arms.

No one uttered a word. The victim’s dæmon, a small hawk, rose into the air, crying and fluttering violently, and kept falling down as her man weakened under the blows.

But then Pan saw a flash of moonlight reflected on a knife blade, and the man from the mail depot cried out and fell, but the other attacker struck again and again, and the victim fell still. Pan heard every blow.

The man was dead. The second man stood up and looked at his companion.

“What’d he do?” he said quietly.

“Cut my bloody hamstrings. Bastard. Look, I’m bleeding like a pig.”

The man’s dæmon, the mastiff-cross, was whining and writhing on the ground beside him.

“Can you get up?” The killer’s voice was thick and muffled, as if he was speaking through catarrh, and he had a Liverpool accent.

“What do you think?”

Their voices hardly rose above a whisper.

“Can you move at all?”

The first man tried to push himself up. There was another grunt of pain. The second man offered his hand, and the first managed to stand, but it was obvious that he could only use one leg.

“What we gonna do?” he said.

The moon lit them all brilliantly: the killer, and the man who couldn’t walk, and the dead man. Pan’s heart was thumping so hard that he thought they must be able to hear it.

“You stupid sod. Couldn’t you see he was holding a knife?” said the killer.

“He was too quick—”

“You’re supposed to be good at this. Get out the way.”

The first man hobbled back a pace or two. The killer bent down and picked up the dead man’s ankles, and hauled the body backwards and into the rushes.

Then the killer reappeared and impatiently beckoned the other man forward.

“Lean on me,” he said. “I got half a mind to leave you here on your own. Just a bloody liability. Now I gotta come back and deal with him meself, and that bleeding moon’s getting brighter all the time. Where’s his bag? Wasn’t he carrying a bag?”

“He never had a bag. He never had nothing.”

“He must’ve done. Sod it.”

“Barry’ll come back with you and help.”

“Too noisy. Too nervous. Give us your arm, come on, hurry up.”

“Oh Christ—be careful—aargh, that hurts….”

“Now shut up and move as fast as you can. I don’t care if it hurts. Just keep your bloody mouth shut.”

The first man put his arm around the killer’s shoulders and limped along beside him as they moved slowly beneath the oak tree and back along the riverbank. Pan, looking down, saw a patch of blood on the grass, shining red in the moonlight.

He waited till the men were out of sight, and then prepared to jump down; but before he could move, something stirred in the rushes where the man’s body lay, and something pale and bird-sized fluttered up, falling and flying up again, failing, dropping, but with a last burst of life making directly for Pan.

He was too frightened to move. If the man was dead…But this dæmon looked dead herself—so what could he do? Pan was ready to fight, to flee, to faint; but then she was right there on the branch beside him, struggling to stay there, almost falling off, and he had to reach out and catch her. She felt icy cold, and alive, but only just. The man wasn’t quite dead.

“Help,” she whispered raggedly, “help us—”

“Yes,” he said, “yes—”

“Quickly!”

She fell off and managed to flutter down to the rushes. In a moment Pan had flowed down the trunk of the oak and bounded across towards where she’d vanished, and found the man lying there in the rushes, still just breathing, with the dæmon pressing herself against his cheek.

Pan heard her say, “Dæmon—separate—”

The man turned his head a little and groaned. Pan heard the grating of bone against broken bone.

“Separate?” the man murmured.

“Yes—we learnt to do it—”

“My lucky day. Inside pocket. Here.” He raised a hand with enormous effort and touched the right side of his jacket. “Take it out,” he whispered.

Trying not to hurt him, and fighting the great taboo against touching another person’s body, Pan nosed the jacket aside and found a leather wallet in the inside pocket.

“That’s it. Take it away. Don’t let them get it. It’s all up to you and…your…”

Pan tugged, but the wallet wouldn’t come, because the jacket was caught under the man’s body, and he couldn’t move; but after several seconds of difficulty, Pan got it free and pulled it out onto the ground.

“Take it right away…before they come back….”

The pale hawk dæmon was hardly there now, just a wisp of white shadow fluttering and pressing herself to his flesh. Pan hated seeing people die, because of what happened to their dæmons: they vanished like a candle flame going out. He wanted to console this poor creature, who knew she was going to disappear, but all she wanted to do was feel a last touch of the warmth she’d found in her man’s body all their lives together. The man took a shallow, rasping breath, and then the pretty hawk dæmon drifted out of existence altogether.

And now Pan had to carry this wallet all the way back to St.Sophia’s College, and Lyra’s bed.

He gripped it between his teeth and pushed his way up to the edge of the rushes. It wasn’t heavy, but it was awkward, and what was worse, it was saturated with the smell of another person: sweat, cologne, smokeleaf. It was being too close to someone who wasn’t Lyra.

He got it as far as the fence around the allotment gardens, and then stopped for a rest. Well, he would have to take his time. There was plenty of night left.

* * *

Lyra was deep in sleep when a shock woke her up, like a sudden fall, something physical, but what? She reached for Pan, and remembered that he wasn’t there: so had something happened to him? It was far from the first night she’d had to go to bed alone, and she hated it. Oh, the folly of going out by himself in that way, but he wouldn’t listen, he wouldn’t stop doing it, and one day they’d both pay the price.

She lay awake for a minute, but sleep was gathering around her again, and soon she surrendered and closed her eyes.

* * *

The bells of Oxford were striking two o’clock when Pan climbed in. He laid the wallet on the table, working his mouth this way and that to relieve his aching jaw before pulling out the book with which she’d propped open the window for him. He knew it: it was a novel called
The Hyperchorasmians,
and Pan thought Lyra was paying it far too much attention. He let it fall to the floor and then cleaned himself meticulously before pushing the wallet into the bookcase and out of sight.

Then he leapt up lightly onto her pillow. In the ray of moonlight that came through a gap in the curtains, he crouched and gazed at her sleeping face.

Her cheeks were flushed, her dark-gold hair was damp; those lips that had whispered to him so often, and kissed him, and kissed Will too, were compressed; a little frown hovered on her brow, coming and going like clouds in a windy sky—they all spoke of things that were not right, of a person who was becoming more and more unreachable to him, as he was to her.

And he had no idea what to do about it. All he could do was lie down close against her flesh; that at least was still warm and welcoming. At least they were still alive.

Lyra woke up to hear the college clock striking eight. In the first few minutes of drowsy surfacing, before thought began to interfere, her sensations were delicious, and one of them was the warmth of her dæmon’s fur around her neck. This sensuous mutual cherishing had been part of her life for as long as she could remember.

She lay there trying not to think, but thought was like a tide coming in. Little trickles of awareness—an essay to finish, her clothes that needed washing, the knowledge that unless she got to the hall by nine o’clock there’d be no breakfast—kept flowing in from this direction or that and undermining the sandcastle of her sleepiness. And then the biggest ripple yet: Pan and their estrangement. Something had come between them, and neither of them knew fully what it was, and the only person each could confide in was the other, and that was the one thing they couldn’t do.

She pushed the blankets away and stood up, shivering, because St. Sophia’s was parsimonious where heating was concerned. A quick wash in the little basin where the hot water knocked and shook the pipes in protest before condescending to appear, and then she pulled on the tartan skirt and the light gray jersey that were more or less the only clean things she had.

And all the time Pan lay pretending to sleep on the pillow. It was never like that when they were young, never.

“Pan,” she said wearily.

He had to come, and she knew he would, and he stood up and stretched and let her lift him to her shoulder. She left the room and started downstairs.

“Lyra, let’s pretend we’re talking to each other,” he whispered.

“I don’t know if pretending’s a good way to live.”

“It’s better than not. I want to tell you what I saw last night. It’s important.”

“Why didn’t you tell me when you came in?”

“You were asleep.”

“I wasn’t, any more than you were just now.”

“Then why didn’t you know I had something important to tell you?”

“I did. I felt something happen. But I knew I’d have to argue to get you to tell me about it, and frankly…”

He said nothing. Lyra stepped out at the foot of her staircase and into the dank chill of the morning. One or two girls were walking towards the hall; more were coming away, having had breakfast, stepping briskly out to the morning’s work, to the library or to a lecture or tutorial.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she finished. “I’m tired of this. Tell me after breakfast.”

She climbed the steps into the hall and helped herself to porridge, and took her bowl to a spare place at one of the long tables and sat down. All around her, girls of her own age were finishing their scrambled eggs, or porridge, or toast, some chatting happily, some looking dull or tired or preoccupied, one or two reading letters or just eating stolidly. She knew many of them by name, some just by sight; some were friends cherished for their kindness or their wit; some just acquaintances; a small number not exactly enemies, but young women she knew she would never like, because they were snobbish or arrogant or cold. She felt as much at home in this scholastic community, among these brilliant or hardworking or gossipy contemporaries, as she did anywhere else. She should have been happy.

As she stirred some milk into her porridge, Lyra became aware of the girl opposite. She was called Miriam Jacobs, a pretty, dark-haired girl, sufficiently quick and clever to get by academically without doing more work than the minimum; a little vain, but good-natured enough to let herself be teased about it. Her squirrel dæmon, Syriax, was clinging to her hair, looking stricken, and Miriam was reading a letter, one hand on her mouth. Her face was pale.

No one else had noticed. As Miriam put the letter down, Lyra leant across the table and said, “Miriam? What is it?”

Miriam blinked and sighed as if she were coming awake, and pushed the letter down onto her lap. “Home,” she said. “Something silly.” Her dæmon crept onto her lap with the letter while Miriam went through an elaborate demonstration of not caring that was wasted on her neighbors, who hadn’t been watching anyway.

“Nothing I can help with?” asked Lyra.

Pan had joined Syriax under the table. Both girls could sense that their dæmons were talking, and that whatever Syriax told Pan would be in Lyra’s knowledge very soon. Miriam looked at Lyra helplessly. Another moment and she might burst into tears.

Lyra stood up and said, “Come on.”

The other girl was in that state in which any decisiveness, from anyone, is seized like a lifebelt in a rough sea. She went with Lyra out of the hall, clutching her dæmon to her breast, not asking where they were going, just following like a lamb.

“I’m sick to death of porridge and cold toast and dry scrambled eggs,” said Lyra. “There’s only one thing to do in a case like this.”

“What’s that?” said Miriam.

“George’s.”

“But I’ve got a lecture—”

“No. The lecturer’s got a lecture, but you haven’t and I haven’t. And I want fried eggs and bacon. Come along, step out. Were you a Girl Guide?”

“No.”

“Neither was I. I don’t know why I asked.”

“I’ve got an essay to do—”

“Do you know anyone who hasn’t got an essay to do? There are thousands of young ladies and gentlemen
all
behind with their essays. It would be bad form to be anything else. And George’s is waiting. The Cadena’s not open yet or we could go there. Come on, it’s chilly. D’you want to get a coat?”

“Yes—just quickly then…”

They ran up to get their coats. Lyra’s was a shabby green thing that was a little too small. Miriam’s coat was of navy cashmere and fitted her perfectly.

“And if anyone says why weren’t you at the lecture or the seminar or whatever, you can say that you were upset and nice Lyra took you for a walk,” Lyra said as they went out through the lodge.

“I’ve never been to George’s,” said Miriam.

“Oh, go on. You must have.”

“I know where it is, but…I don’t know. I just thought it wasn’t for us.”

George’s was a café in the Covered Market, much used by market traders and workers from round about.

“I’ve been going there since I was young,” said Lyra. “I mean,
really
young. I used to hang around outside till they gave me a bun to go away.”

“Did you? Really?”

“A bun or a clout. I even worked there for a bit, washing dishes, making tea and coffee. I was about nine, I think.”

“Did your parents let— Oh God. Sorry. Sorry.”

The only thing Lyra’s friends knew about her background was that her parents were people of great family on both sides who had died when she was young. It was understood that this was a source of great sorrow to Lyra and that she never talked about it, so naturally their speculation flourished. Now Miriam was mortified.

“No, I was in the care of Jordan by then,” Lyra said cheerfully. “If they’d known, I mean if the Jordan people had known, they’d have been surprised, I suppose, but then they’d have forgotten about it and I’d have kept on going there anyway. I sort of did what I wanted.”

“Didn’t anyone know what you were doing?”

“The housekeeper, Mrs. Lonsdale. She was pretty fierce. I was always getting told off, but she knew it wouldn’t do any good. I could be quite well behaved when I needed to be.”

“How long were you— I mean, how old were you when— Sorry. I don’t mean to pry.”

“The first thing I remember is when I was taken to Jordan for the first time. I don’t know how old I was—probably just a baby. I was being carried by a big man. It was midnight and stormy, with lightning and thunder and pouring rain. He was on a horse, and I was wrapped up inside his cloak. Then he was banging on a door with a pistol, and the door opened and it was all warm and light inside, and then he handed me over to someone else and I think he kissed me and got on his horse and rode away. He was probably my father.”

Miriam was very impressed. In truth, Lyra wasn’t sure about the horse, but she liked it.

“That’s
so
romantic,” Miriam said. “And that’s the first thing you remember?”

“The very first. After that, I was just…living in Jordan. Have been ever since. What’s the first thing you remember?”

“The smell of roses,” said Miriam at once.

“What, a garden somewhere?”

“No. My father’s factory. Where they make soap and things. I was sitting on his shoulders, and we were in the bottling plant. Such an intense sweet smell…The men’s clothes used to smell of it, and their wives had to wash them to get it out.”

Lyra was aware that Miriam’s family was rich, and that soaps and perfumes and such things were behind their wealth; Miriam had a vast collection of scents and fragrant ointments and shampoos, and it was a favorite occupation of her friends to try out all the new ones.

Suddenly Lyra realized that the other girl was weeping. She stopped and took Miriam’s arm. “Miriam, what is it? Was it that letter?”

“Daddy’s bankrupt,” Miriam said shakily. “It’s all over. That’s what it is. So now you know.”

“Oh, Miriam, that’s awful!”

“And we won’t—they can’t—they’re selling the house, and I’ll have to leave college—they can’t afford…”

She couldn’t go on. Lyra held out her arms, and Miriam leant against her, sobbing. Lyra could smell the fragrance of her shampoo, and wondered if there were roses in that too.

“Hush,” she said. “You know there are bursaries and special funds and…You won’t have to leave, you’ll see!”

“But everything’s going to change! They’re having to sell everything and move to…I don’t know…And Danny will have to leave Cambridge and…and it’s all going to be horrible.”

“I bet it sounds worse than it is,” said Lyra. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Pan whispering to Syriax, and she knew he was saying just the same sort of thing. “Course it was a shock, learning about it in a letter over breakfast. But people survive this sort of thing, honest, and sometimes things turn out much better than you think. I bet you won’t have to leave college.”

“But everyone will know….”

“So what? It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Things happen to people’s families all the time and it’s not their fault. If you cope with it by being brave, people will admire you for it.”

“It’s not Daddy’s fault, after all.”

“Course not,” said Lyra, who had no idea. “Like they teach us in economic history—the trade cycle. Things that are too big to resist.”

“It just happened, and no one saw it coming.” Miriam was fumbling in her pocket. She brought out the crumpled letter and read: “ ‘The suppliers have simply been so unreasonable, and although Daddy has been to Latakia again and again, he can’t find a good source anywhere—apparently the big medical companies are buying everything up before anyone else can—there’s absolutely nothing one can do—it’s too awful….’ ”

“Suppliers of what?” said Lyra. “Roses?”

“Yes. They buy them from the gardens over there and distill them or something. Attar. Attar of roses. Something like that.”

“Won’t English roses do?”

“I don’t think so. It has to be roses from there.”

“Or lavender. There’s lots of that.”

“They—
I
don’t know!”

“I suppose the men will lose their jobs,” Lyra said as they turned into Broad Street, opposite Bodley’s Library. “The men whose clothes smelled of roses.”

“Probably. Oh, it’s awful.”

“It is. But you can cope with it. Now, when we sit down, we’ll make a plan of what you can do, all the options, all the possibilities, and then you’ll feel better at once. You’ll see.”

In the café, Lyra ordered bacon and eggs and a pint of tea. Miriam didn’t want anything except coffee, but Lyra told George to bring a currant bun anyway.

“If she doesn’t eat it, I will,” she said.

“Don’t they feed you in that college?” said George, a man whose hands moved faster than anyone’s Lyra had ever seen, slicing, buttering, pouring, shaking salt, cracking eggs. When she was young, she’d greatly admired his ability to crack three eggs at once into a frying pan with one hand and not spill a drop of white, or break the yolk, or include a fragment of shell. One day she got through two dozen trying it herself. That had earned her a clout, which she had to admit she deserved. George was more respectful these days. She still couldn’t do the egg trick.

Lyra borrowed a pencil and a piece of paper from George and drew three columns, one headed
Things to do,
the next
Things to find out,
and the third
Things to stop worrying about.
Then she and Miriam, and their two dæmons, filled them in with suggestions and ideas as they ate. Miriam finished the currant bun, and by the time they’d covered the paper, she was almost cheerful.

“There,” said Lyra. “It’s always a good idea to come to George’s. St. Sophia’s breakfasts are very high-minded. As for Jordan…”

“I bet they’re not austere like ours.”

“Socking great silver chafing dishes full of kedgeree or deviled kidneys or kippers. Must keep the young gentlemen in the style to which they’re accustomed. Lovely, but I wouldn’t want it every day.”

“Thank you, Lyra,” said Miriam. “I feel much better. You were quite right.”

“So what are you going to do now?”

Other books

The Secret Tree by Standiford, Natalie
A Fatal Stain by Elise Hyatt
Unholy Nights: A Twisted Christmas Anthology by Linda Barlow, Andra Brynn, Carly Carson, Alana Albertson, Kara Ashley Dey, Nicole Blanchard, Cherie Chulick
Saint Or Sinner by Kendal, Christina
Christmas Runaway by Mimi Barbour
Wild Aces by Marni Mann
The Gate by Dann A. Stouten
Boldt by Ted Lewis
Hell Is Always Today by Jack-Higgins