The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth (Book of Dust, Volume 2) (36 page)

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Still no response.

“Your dæmon. Is she a ghost? There’s something strange about her. Oh, but of course, I forgot: you don’t believe in dæmons. She’s trying to pretend she’s not there, like you are. Too many ghosts, the girl said. Did she mean dæmons? Like me? Do they come at night or in the day? If you opened your eyes, could you see any now? What do they do? Do they talk to you? Do they feel your eyes and try and pull them open? Or maybe come right inside your eyelids and press themselves against your eyes? Can you fall asleep with them watching you all night?”

Finally Brande moved. He opened his eyes and swung around in his chair to look down at his dæmon. His expression was ferocious, and for the first time Pan felt a little afraid of him.

But he said nothing except to summon the dæmon: “Cosima! Cosima! Come with me.”

The dæmon stood up unwillingly, and keeping her head low and her tail tucked under her, she moved all around the edge of the room towards the door. Brande stood up to go with her, but then the door flew open with a crash.

It was the girl from the garden. The German shepherd dæmon flinched back and cowered, Brande glared at the girl without moving, and Pan sat down on the desk to watch.

“Ach!” said the girl, making a face, shaking her head. “This room is full of them! You should make them go away. You shouldn’t let them—”

“Silence!” growled Brande. “We shall not talk about such things. You have a disease of the brain—”

“No! No! I’m so
tired
of this!”

“Sabine, you are incapable of making rational judgments. Go to your room.”

“No! I won’t do that, I won’t! I came here because I thought you’d love me and be interested in me, and I can do nothing that pleases you except playing that stupid game with the ball. I hate it. I hate it.”

So she was called Sabine, and she thought he’d love her. Why would she think that? Could she be his daughter? Pan remembered so well the passionate exchange between Lyra and Lord Asriel in the luxurious prison the bears had built, and his head rang with echoes of what she’d said then.

The girl was trembling violently. Tears dashed from her eyes as she tugged the pins out of her hair and shook her head wildly so that the elaborate coiffure dissolved into a chaos of stormy blond.

“Sabine, control yourself. I will not have a display like this. Do as I tell you and—”

“Look at him!” she cried, pointing at Pantalaimon. “Another ghost out of the dark. And I suppose you pretended not to see him too, like all the others. I hate this life here. I won’t live like this. I can’t!”

Her dæmon became a wren and flew around her head, calling piteously. Pan looked at Brande’s dæmon again and saw her lying with her back to the girl, head under a paw. Brande himself looked tormented with misery.

“Sabine,” he said, “calm yourself. These are delusions. Put them out of your mind. I cannot reason with you if you behave like this.”

“I don’t want your reason! I don’t want that! I want love. I want affection. I want a little kindness! Are you completely incapable of—”

“I have had enough,” said Brande. “Cosima! Cosima! Come with me.”

The dog dæmon got to her feet, and immediately the wren flew at her like a dart. The dog howled and fled from the room, and Sabine cried out loud. Pan knew very well why: it was the heart-deep pain of feeling her wren dæmon leaving her as he tried to pursue the dog. Brande stood helplessly watching her clutch her breast and sink fainting onto the carpet, as Pan found himself standing in amazement: Brande and his dæmon could separate! The man showed no sign of the pain that had made Sabine cry aloud and reach out towards the little bird, trying to snatch him out of the air.

Finally the dæmon returned to her and fell into her hands. Meanwhile, Brande stepped past her and followed his dæmon out of the study and towards the stairs, and Pan left Sabine sobbing on the floor.

Brande can separate! Pan thought again with confusion as he scampered up the stairs after him. Were the professor and the German shepherd like him and Lyra, then? Did they hate each other? But it didn’t seem like that either. Something else was happening. Brande went into the bare little bedroom, and before he could shut the door, Pan darted through after him. The dæmon was cowering on the bare floorboards in front of the empty fireplace. Brande stood beside her and turned to face Pan. Now he looked haunted, and even tragic.

“I want to know about Dust,” said Pan.

That startled Brande. He opened his mouth as if to speak, and then seemed to recollect that he was trying to ignore Pan and looked away again.

“Tell me what you know about it,” said Pan. “I know you can hear me.”

“There is no such thing,” Brande muttered, looking at the floor.

“No such thing as Dust?”

“No—such—thing.”

“Well, at least you can talk now,” Pan said.

Brande looked at his bed, and then at the window, and then at the bedroom door, which was still open. “Cosima,” he said.

The dog dæmon took no notice.

“Cosima, please,” he said. His voice almost broke.

She buried her face even more deeply into her paws. Brande groaned; it sounded like genuine anguish. He looked at Pan again, almost as if begging a torturer for mercy.

Pan said, “You could pretend you could see me, and pretend you could hear me, and pretend to talk to me. That might work.”

Brande closed his eyes and sighed deeply. Then he moved towards the door and left the room. The dæmon stayed where she was, and Pan followed Brande as he crossed the landing and climbed another staircase, darker and steeper than the main one, and unfastened the latch on a door that led into a bare attic. Pan was close on his heels.

He went in, and once more Pan followed him before he could shut the door.

“Are you afraid of me?” Pan said.

Brande turned and said, “I am afraid of nothing. I do not acknowledge fear. It is not a valuable emotion. It is parasitic on human energy.”

There were three small windows in the attic, letting in the last of the daylight. Bare floorboards, bare rafters, heavy swags of cobweb, and dust—ordinary, everyday dust everywhere.

Pan said, “Tell me about Dust, now you can talk.”

“This is dust,” said Brande, sweeping his hand along a rafter and blowing on his fingers to disperse it. The grains whirled meaninglessly through the air and sifted down to the floor.

“You know what I mean,” said Pan. “You just refuse to believe in it.”

“It does not exist. Belief and disbelief are both irrelevant.”

“And the scientists who discovered it? Rusakov? And the Rusakov field, what about that?”

“A fraud. Those who claim such things are either deluded or corrupt.”

The man’s contempt was like a blowtorch that turned things to ice. Pan was afraid of the force of it, but he didn’t move. He was fighting for Lyra.

“What about imagination?”

“What about it?”

“Do you believe in that?”

“What does it matter what anyone believes? The facts are indifferent to belief.”

“You imagined the story of
The Hyperchorasmians.

“I constructed it from first principles. I built a narrative to show the logical outcome of superstition and stupidity. Every passage in the book was composed impersonally and rationally, and in a state of full awareness, not in some morbid dreamland.”

“Is that why the characters are so unlike real people?”

“I know more about people than you do. Most people are weak and stupid and easily led. Only a few are capable of doing anything original.”

“They don’t seem like real people at all. Everything that makes people interesting is just…it’s just not there.”

“You’re expecting the sun to describe shadows. The sun has never seen a shadow.”

“But the world is full of shadows.”

“That is not interesting.”

“Is Sabine your daughter?”

Brande didn’t answer. Throughout their conversation he had looked at Pan no more than three times, and now he turned completely to face the gloom at the other end of the attic, which was deepening steadily.

“She is, then,” Pan said. “And how did you learn to separate from your dæmon—what’s she called?—Cosima?”

The philosopher’s head dropped slowly onto his chest. Again he said nothing.

“I came here,” Pan said, “because reading your novel persuaded my Lyra that the things she believed in were false. It made her bitterly unhappy. It was as if you’d stolen her imagination and taken away her hope with it. I wanted to find them and take them back to her, and that’s why I came to speak to you. Have you got anything for me to tell her when I go back to her?”

“Everything is what it is and nothing else,” said Brande.

“That’s it? That’s all you have to say?”

Brande remained completely still. In the gloom he looked like an abandoned sculpture after a museum had been ransacked.

“Do you love your daughter?” said Pan.

Silence and stillness.

“She said she came here,” Pan went on. “Where did she live before that?”

No reply.

“When did she come? How long has she been here?”

Perhaps there was the slightest movement of the man’s shoulders, but it wasn’t enough to call a shrug.

“Was she living with her mother? In another city, maybe?”

Brande breathed deeply, with a very slight shudder.

“Who chooses her clothes? Who does her hair? Do you want her to look as she does?”

Silence.

“Does she have any opinion about that sort of thing? Have you ever asked her? Does she go to school? What’s happening about her education? Has she got any friends? Do you allow her outside the house and garden?”

Brande began to move as if he were carrying a great burden. He shuffled towards the far corner of the attic, where it was now almost completely dark, and sat down on the floor and drew his knees up, and then put his face in his hands. He was like a child who thinks that if he hides his eyes, he won’t be seen by anyone else. Pan felt a wave of compassion begin to build up in himself and tried to resist it, because of what this man’s ideas had done to Lyra; but then he realized that she’d have felt the same compassion, and that Brande’s ideas had failed.

The door into the attic was still open. Pan went silently out and down the stairs. At the foot of the main staircase, in the hall, the girl was sitting, tearing up a sheet of paper into little pieces and dropping them like snowflakes.

She looked up when Pan came past and said, “Have you killed him?”

“No, of course not. Why is his dæmon like that?”

“No idea. They’re both stupid. Everyone’s stupid. This is hateful.”

“Why don’t you leave?”

“Nowhere to go.”

“Where’s your mother?”

“Dead, of course.”

“Haven’t you got any other relatives?”

“None of your bloody business. I don’t know why I’m bothering with you. Why don’t you just piss off?”

“If you open the door, I will.”

With a snort of contempt, she did. He went down the steps into the street, where the gaslamps glowed through a gathering mist. If there had been anyone passing by, their footsteps would have been muffled, their outlines vague, their shadows full of possibility, threat, and promise, but of course the sun would have seen nothing of that.

He didn’t know where to go next.

At the same time, only a few streets away, Olivier Bonneville was disembarking from the ferry.

At the same time, Lyra was in a railway carriage on the outskirts of the city of Prague. She had found it quite easy to buy a ticket in Paris without arousing too much suspicion, and it seemed that her imitation-of-Will method was working. Either that or the citizens of the European towns she passed through were unusually incurious, or unusually polite. Or preoccupied: there was a tension in the streets, and she’d seen more uniforms like those she’d encountered on the ferry—groups of black-dressed men guarding a building, or standing in discussion on corners, or speeding out of underground garages in patrol cars with harsh air-cooled engines.

Or perhaps it was that a person with no visible dæmon wasn’t unimaginable. She had seen a woman in Amsterdam without one, beautiful, dressed in the height of fashion, confident, even arrogant, and indifferent to the curiosity of passersby; and a man in Bruges had no dæmon, and made it worse for himself by the shameful, unhappy, self-conscious way he moved along a busy street, hugging the shadows. She learnt from both those examples, and bore herself with modesty and calm confidence. It was far from easy to do, and from time to time, when she was alone, she gave way to tears; but no one would know that.

She’d been brought to Prague by the flicker of a memory that darted into her mind as she saw the name of the city on a railway timetable. She and Pan had once, some years before, spent an evening poring over an old street map of the place, mentally constructing an image of it, building by building. This was where the alethiometer had been invented, after all; and when she saw the name again, she recognized the little spark of memory as the secret commonwealth at work. She was becoming sensitive to these half-whispered promptings, getting better at recognizing when they were not guesswork.

In Prague, though, she would have to make a decision. At the city was a junction of the Central European Railway Company, where lines of one gauge went north and east towards Kiev and Muscovy, and lines of a different and broader gauge went south through Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria towards Constantinople. The northern route would be the obvious one to take if she were going straight on to Central Asia and Karamakan; but that would do her no good, because she needed to find Pan before she tried to reach the place where the roses grew.

And he was—where? The Blue Hotel was the only clue she had, and its Arabic name suggested it lay a good deal further south than Muscovy. If she took the northern route and changed trains at Kiev, she could take a different route south to Odessa and cross the Black Sea by ferry to Trebizond and make her way south from there to Arabic-speaking lands; but without a stronger clue she might as well stick a pin in the atlas. The southern route through Constantinople was less complicated but might take longer—or it might be quicker; and she didn’t know what her destination was in any case, except for the Arabic name of al-Khan al-Azraq.

What was more, the alethiometer was little help. The new method had such unpleasant physical consequences that after her first success she’d only tried it once again, and learnt nothing. She could make a little progress with her existing knowledge of the symbols, but without the books it was like trying to thread a needle while wearing boxing gloves.

The only idea she had about what to do next if she did manage to find Pan was bound up with the phrase
the Silk Road,
the route of the ancient camel trains that led directly into Central Asia. But the Silk Road wasn’t a railway. It wasn’t even a single road: it was a multitude of different routes. It wouldn’t be swift and easy; she would have to go at the walking pace of whatever animals they used for transport—camels, no doubt. It would be a long journey, and unless she and Pan were somehow reconciled, it would be a hard one.

She’d been thinking about it for some time. She hadn’t spoken to anyone since she’d said goodbye to the Welsh miners in Bruges—anyone, that is, except for waiters and railway officials. She longed for her dæmon; even the unfriendly Pan of recent months was at least another voice, another point of view. How hard it was to think when half of your self was missing!

It was already dark when the train drew into the station in the heart of Prague. She was glad of that, and she thought it might not be too unusual to see a young woman traveling alone, because Prague was a sophisticated city, and students of music and other arts came from all parts of Central Europe, and beyond, to study there.

She handed in her ticket at the barrier and moved away from the rush-hour crowd of passengers to look for an information office where she might find timetables and, if she was lucky, a map. The main concourse was built and decorated in a flamboyant baroque style, with sculptures of naked gods and goddesses holding up every window frame or gaslamp, and stone vegetation twining around every column. Every wall was set with pilasters and niches. There was hardly a surface that was plain and clear, and Lyra was glad of that, because she felt safer in all the visual confusion.

She made herself look firmly at a point ahead of her and walk towards it with confident determination. It didn’t matter if it was a coffee stall or the steps to the administrative offices: anything would do; she just had to look as if she made this journey every day.

And she was successful. No one stopped and stared; no one shouted out in angry fear to denounce this freakish young woman with no dæmon; no one seemed to notice her at all. When she reached the end of the concourse, she looked around for the ticket office, where she hoped to find someone who spoke English.

Before she saw it, however, she felt a hand on her arm.

She jumped with alarm and instantly thought: Wrong! I mustn’t look fearful. The man whose hand it was stood back, himself alarmed at causing such a reaction. He was middle-aged, spectacled, dressed in a dark suit and a discreet tie, carrying a briefcase: every inch a law-abiding and respectable citizen.

He said something in Czech.

She shrugged, trying to look rueful, and shook her head.

“English?” he said.

She nodded reluctantly. And then, with an even greater shock than she’d felt a moment ago, she realized that, like her, he had no dæmon. Her eyes widened, her mouth opened to speak, she glanced over his shoulder, to left and right, and then she shut her mouth again, uncertain what to say.

“Yes,” he said quietly. “We have no dæmons. Walk calmly with me, and we will not be noticed. Pretend you know me. Pretend to talk.”

She nodded and fell into step beside him as he walked through the rush-hour throng, making for the main exit.

“What is your name?” she said quietly.

“Vaclav Kubi
č
ek.”

Something about that was familiar, but the impression came and went in a second.

“And yours?”

“Lyra Silvertongue. How did you know I…Did you just see me and decide to speak to me on impulse?”

“I was expecting you. I didn’t know your name or anything about you except that you were one of us.”

“One of…one of who? And how were you expecting me?”

“There is a man who needs your help. He told me you were coming.”

“I…Before we do anything else, I need a railway timetable.”

“Do you speak any Czech?”

“Not a word.”

“Then let me ask for you. Where do you want to go?”

“I need to know the times of the trains to Muscovy, and those of the other railway to Constantinople.”

“Please come with me. I shall get those for you. There is an information bureau through that door,” he said, pointing to the corner of the great concourse.

She went with him. Inside the bureau he spoke rapidly to the official behind the desk, who asked him something in return. Kubi
č
ek turned to Lyra and said, “Do you desire to travel all the way to Constantinople, if you go that way?”

“Yes, all the way.”

“And similarly, all the way to Moscow?”

“Beyond Moscow. How far does the line go? Does it go on through Siberia?”

He turned to translate. The official listened, and then swiveled round in his chair to take two leaflets from the rack beside him.

Kubi
č
ek said, “He was not very helpful. But I do know that the Muscovy line goes as far as Irkutsk on Lake Baikal.”

“I see,” said Lyra.

The official slid the leaflets across the desk, his eyes tired and unseeing, and then went on with the work he’d been doing. Lyra put the leaflets in her rucksack and then turned away with Kubi
č
ek, thinking that this man was clearly practiced at Will’s art; perhaps she could learn from him.

She said, “Where are we going, Mr. Kubi
č
ek?”

“To my house in the old city. I shall explain as we walk.”

They left the station and stood facing a busy square where traffic was flowing swiftly. The shopfronts were brightly lit; there were cafés and restaurants thronged with people; trams went past with a smooth humming from the anbaric wires above them.

“Before you say anything else,” said Lyra, “what did you mean when you said that I was one of us? Who is
us
?”

“Those whose dæmons have deserted them.”

“I had no idea—” Lyra began, but then the traffic lights changed, and Kubi
č
ek set off quickly across the road, so she had to say no more until they reached the other side. She began again: “Until recently I didn’t realize that this could happen to anyone. Anyone other than me, I mean.”

“You felt alone?”

“Desperately. We could separate, but of course, we kept that secret as far as we could. Then in recent months…I don’t know how to describe it to you. I don’t know you at all.”

“There are some of us in Prague. A small number. We met by chance, or by hearing about one another from those who are not afraid of us—we do have a few friends—and we have discovered other networks of acquaintanceship in other places. It is a secret society, if you like. If you tell me where you are going next, I can give you names and addresses of some people like us in that place. They will understand and help, if you need it. If I might suggest…we should move away from this light.”

She nodded and walked on beside him, marveling at what he’d said.

“I had no idea,” she said again. “I knew nothing about this way of being. I was sure people would see it at once and hate me for it. Some did, in fact.”

“We have all experienced that.”

“When did your dæmon leave? Is that a question it’s polite to ask? You see, I know so little.”

“Oh, we can talk of this very openly among ourselves. One thing I should say is that before she left, we knew that we could separate.”

He glanced at Lyra, who saw and nodded.

“I think that is common among us,” he went on. “There is a sudden danger, or an emergency, some absolutely compelling reason, and you separate for the first time. It is agonizing, of course. But you survive, no? And then it is easier. In our case, we came to disagree about many things, and to find that we were unhappy together.”

“Yes…”

“Then one day she must have decided that we would be less unhappy if we were apart,” he went on. “She may have been right in her case. Anyway, she left. Maybe there is a secret society of dæmons too, as there is of us. Maybe they help one another, as we do. Maybe they watch us. Maybe they have forgotten all about us. We manage to live, all the same. We are quiet; we attract very little attention. We do no harm.”

“Have you tried to find her?”

“Every time I open my eyes, I hope she will be there. I have walked down every street, every alley; I have looked in every park, every garden, every church, even in every café; but we all do this, we all begin by doing this. It is my dread that I will see her with a man who is me, who is my double. But so far…nothing.

“But I did not find you in order to tell you about myself. Earlier this week, something else happened. A man arrived in our city and came to my house, who…I would describe him to you, but I cannot find the words, in Czech or English or Latin. He is the strangest person I have ever known, and his predicament is appalling. He knows about you, and he says that you will be able to help. I agreed to invite you to meet him and listen to what he has to say.”

“He said I— But how did he know about me?”

And she’d been thinking that she could move across Europe and on into Asia unnoticed, unsuspected.

“I don’t know. There is much about him that is mysterious. He too has lost his dæmon, but in a different manner….It is very hard to describe, but you will understand at once when you see him. You will understand, but perhaps you will not believe what you see. Possibly this is something that we in Prague would find easier to believe than those who live elsewhere. The hidden world exists, with its own passions and preoccupations, and from time to time its affairs leak through into the visible world. In Prague, maybe the veil between the worlds is thinner than in other places—I don’t know.”

“The secret commonwealth,” said Lyra.

“Indeed? I did not know that expression.”

“Well, if I can help, I will. Of course. But my most important task is to go east.”

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