The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth (Book of Dust, Volume 2) (4 page)

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Lyra said, “Pan, if they hadn’t attacked him, where was he going? Where does the path lead to?”

They were standing at the southern edge of the allotments, where Pan had been when he first saw the men hide under the willow. The two trees were exactly ahead of them as they looked towards the river, about a hundred yards away. If the man hadn’t been attacked, the path would have taken him further along the bank, where the river curved around to the left. Without discussing it, Lyra and Pan moved slowly that way to see where he would have gone.

The path made directly along the bank towards a footbridge over the stream, which in turn led to the narrow streets of back-to-back houses around the gasworks, and the parish of St. Ebbe’s proper.

“So that’s where he was going,” said Pan.

“Even if he didn’t know it. Even if he was only following the path.”

“And that’s where the other man must have come from—the one who didn’t come from the mail depot.”

“You could get to anywhere from there,” Lyra said. “All those tangled old streets in St. Ebbe’s, and then St. Aldate’s and Carfax…Anywhere.”

“But we’ll never find it. Not by guessing.”

They both knew why they were talking like this, at the end of the footbridge over the stream. Neither of them wanted to go and look at the place where the man had been killed.

“We ought to, though,” she said, and he said, “Yes. Come on.”

They turned back and wandered along the bank of the river, making for the willow and the oak, where rushes grew thickly and the path was muddy. Lyra looked casually all around, but there was no one sinister or threatening: just some children playing by the stream further back, a few men working their allotments, and an elderly couple on the path ahead, walking arm in arm and carrying shopping bags.

They passed the old couple, who smiled and nodded when Lyra said, “Good morning,” and then they were under the oak tree. Pan leapt up from Lyra’s shoulder and showed her where he’d lain along the branch, and then sprang down again and flowed along the grass towards the willow.

She followed him, looking for signs of a struggle on the ground, but seeing only grass and trampled mud that was no different from the rest of the path.

“Anyone coming?” she said to Pan.

He jumped up to her shoulder and looked around. “A woman with a small child and a shopping bag coming over the footbridge. No one else.”

“Let’s look in the rushes. About here, was it?”

“Yes. Right here.”

“And he pulled the dead man down to the water?”

“In among the rushes, but not all the way down. Not when I was watching, anyway. He probably came back later and did that.”

Lyra stepped off the path and down the slope where the rushes grew. They were tall, and the slope was steep, and only six feet or so from the path she was invisible from anywhere in the meadow. It was hard to keep her footing and her shoes would be ruined, but she found her balance and crouched down low and looked around carefully. Some of the rushes had been bent over, their stems broken, and something had been pulled down over the mud, something that might easily have been the size of a man.

But there was no sign of a body.

“We can’t lurk about here too long,” she said, clambering out. “We really will look suspicious.”

“Station, then.”

As they walked along the path next to the mail depot, they heard the great bell of Cardinal’s College tolling eleven, and Lyra thought of the lecture that she should be attending just then, the last of the term. Annie and Helen would be there, though, and she could borrow their notes; and perhaps that good-looking shy boy from Magdalen would be sitting at the back, as before, and perhaps this time she could have gone to sit right next to him and see what happened; and everything would go back to normal. Except that as long as that locker key was in her pocket, nothing would be normal.

“It used to be you who was impulsive,” said Pan, “and me who kept holding you back. We’re different now.”

She nodded. “Well, you know, things change….We could wait, Pan, and go back to St. Aldate’s when that policeman goes off duty. Like this evening, about six, maybe. They can’t all be in a conspiracy with him. There must be someone honest there. This isn’t…this isn’t just shoplifting. This is murder.”

“I know. I saw it.”

“And maybe by doing this we’d be helping the murderer get away with it. By interfering with the investigation. That can’t be right.”

“That’s another thing,” he said.

“What?”

“You used to be optimistic. You used to think that whatever we did would turn out well. Even after we came back from the north, you used to think that. Now you’re cautious, you’re anxious…you’re pessimistic.”

She knew he was right, but it wasn’t right that he should speak to her accusingly, as if it was something to blame her for.

“I used to be young” was all she could find to say.

He made no response.

They didn’t speak again till they reached the railway station. Then she said, “Pan, come here,” and he leapt up at once into her hands. She put him on her shoulder and said quietly, “You’re going to have to look out behind. Someone might be watching.”

He turned around and settled as she climbed the steps to the entrance. “Don’t go straight to the lockers,” he murmured. “Go and look at the magazines first. I’ll see if there’s anyone just hanging about watching.”

She nodded and turned left inside the station doors and wandered over to the bookstall. While she flicked through one magazine after another, Pan looked at all the men and women queuing for tickets, or sitting at tables drinking coffee, or checking the timetables, or asking something at the inquiry desk.

“Everyone seems to be doing something,” he said quietly. “I can’t see anyone who’s just hanging about.”

Lyra had the locker key ready in her pocket. “Shall I go?” she said.

“Yes, go on. But don’t hurry. Just walk naturally. Look at the time or the departures and arrivals board or something….”

She replaced the magazine and turned away from the bookstall. It seemed to her that a hundred pairs of eyes could have been watching, but she tried to look nonchalant as she sauntered across the floor to the other end of the booking hall, where the left-luggage lockers stood.

“All right so far,” said Pan. “No one’s watching. Just do it now.”

Locker number 36 was at waist height. She turned the key and opened the door, and found a battered canvas rucksack inside.

“Hope it’s not too heavy,” she murmured, and lifted it out, leaving the key in the door.

It was heavy, but she swung it over her right shoulder with no difficulty.

“I wish we could do what Will did,” she said.

He knew what she meant. Will Parry had a power of becoming invisible that had astonished the witches of the north, who used to vanish from sight in the same way: by reducing what was interesting about themselves until they were almost unnoticeable. He had practiced it all his life, in order to avoid being spotted by people such as police officers and social workers who might have asked what this boy was doing out of school, and started to make inquiries that would have ended by separating him from his beloved mother, who was troubled by all kinds of unreal fears and obsessions.

When Will had told Lyra about the way he’d had to live, and how difficult it had been to remain unobserved, firstly she’d been astonished that anyone could live in such a solitary way, and secondly she had been moved by his courage, and thirdly she wasn’t surprised at all that the witches esteemed his skill so highly.

She wondered, as she did so often, what he was doing now, and whether his mother was safe, and what he looked like these days…and Pan murmured, “Good so far. But go a little bit faster. There’s a man on the station steps looking at us.”

They were on the station forecourt already, where taxis and buses set down passengers and picked them up. Thinking about Will, Lyra had hardly noticed how far they’d come.

“What’s he look like?” she said quietly.

“Big. Black woolly hat. Dæmon looks like a mastiff.”

She moved a little faster, making for Hythe Bridge Street and the center of the city.

“What’s he doing?”

“Still watching…”

The quickest way back to Jordan would have been the straightest, of course, but that was also the most dangerous, because she’d be visible all the way along Hythe Bridge Street and then George Street.

“Can he still see us?” she said.

“No—the hotel’s in the way.”

“Then hold on tight.”

“What are you—”

She suddenly darted across the road and ducked under the railings around the coal wharves, where the canal boats came to unload. Ignoring the men who stopped to watch, she ran around the steam crane, behind the Canal Board building, and out across the narrow street into George Street Mews.

“Can’t see him,” said Pan, craning his neck to look.

Lyra ran on into Bulwarks Lane, a pathway between two high walls no further apart than her own outstretched hands. She was out of sight entirely here: no one to help if she ran into trouble…But she came to the end of the lane and turned sharp left along another mews that ran behind St. Peter’s Oratory, and then out into New Inn Hall Street, which was busy with shoppers.

“So far, so good,” said Pan.

Across the street, and into Sewy’s Lane next: a dank little alley next to the Clarendon Hotel. A man was filling a large dustbin and taking his time over it, with his lumpish sow dæmon sprawled on the ground beside him, gnawing a turnip. Lyra leapt over her, causing the man to start backwards and drop the cigarette out of his mouth.

“Oy!” he cried, but she was already out into the Cornmarket, the main shopping street of the city, crowded with pedestrians and delivery vehicles.

“Keep looking,” Lyra said, nearly out of breath.

She darted across the road and down an alley next to the Golden Cross Inn, which led to the Covered Market.

“I’m going to have to slow down,” she said. “This is bloody heavy.”

She walked at a normal pace through the market, watching everyone ahead as Pan was watching behind, and trying to slow her breathing down. Only a short way now: out into Market Street, then left into Turl Street, only fifty yards away, and there was Jordan College. Less than a minute to go. Controlling every muscle, she strolled calmly along to the lodge.

Just as they entered, a figure stepped out of the door into the porter’s room.

“Lyra! Hello. Have you had a good term?”

It was the burly, red-haired, affable Dr. Polstead, the historian, who was not someone she wanted to talk to. He’d left Jordan some years before and moved to Durham College, across Broad Street, but no doubt he had business that occasionally brought him back here.

“Yes, thank you,” she said blandly.

A group of undergraduates came through at the same moment, on their way to a class or a lecture. Lyra ignored them, but they all looked at her, as she well knew they would. They even fell silent as they went past, as if they were shy. By the time they’d gone through, Dr. Polstead had given up waiting for any fuller response from Lyra and turned to the porter, so she left. Two minutes later, she and Pan were in her little sitting room at the top of Staircase One, where she puffed out her cheeks with relief, dropped the rucksack on the floor, and locked the door.

“Well, we’re committed now,” said Pan.

“What went wrong?” demanded Marcel Delamare.

The Secretary General was standing in his office at
La Maison Juste,
and the person he was addressing was a casually dressed young man, dark-haired, slim, tense, and sulky, who was leaning back on a sofa with his legs stretched out and his hands in his pockets. His hawk dæmon glared at Delamare.

“If you employ bunglers…,” said the visitor.

“Answer the question.”

The young man shrugged. “They messed it up. They were incompetent.”

“Is he dead?”

“Seems like it.”

“But they didn’t find anything. Was he carrying a bag, a case of some sort?”

“Can’t see that sort of detail. But I don’t think so.”

“Then look again. Look harder.”

The young man waved a hand languidly as if shooing the idea away. He was frowning, his eyes half closed, and there was a faint sheen of sweat on his white forehead.

“Are you unwell?” said Delamare.

“You know how the new method affects me. It puts a severe strain on the nerves.”

“You are paid very well to put up with that sort of thing. In any case, I’ve told you not to use this new method. I don’t trust it.”

“I’ll look, yes, all right, I’ll look, but not now. I need to recover first. But I can tell you one thing: there was someone watching.”

“Watching the operation? Who was that?”

“No idea. Couldn’t tell. But there was someone else there who saw it all.”

“Did the mechanics realize?”

“No.”

“That’s all you can tell me about it?”

“That’s all I know. All it’s possible to know. Except…”

He said no more. The Secretary General was used to this mannerism and kept his patience. Eventually the young man went on:

“Except I think maybe it could have been her. That girl. I didn’t see her, mind. But it could have been.”

He was looking closely at Delamare as he said that. His employer sat at the desk and wrote a sentence or two on a piece of headed paper before folding it and capping his fountain pen.

“Here you are, Olivier. Take this to the bank. Then have some rest. Eat properly. Keep up your strength.”

The young man opened the paper and read it before putting it in his pocket and leaving without a word. But he’d noticed something he’d seen before: at the mention of the girl, Marcel Delamare’s mouth trembled.

* * *

Lyra put the rucksack down on the floor and sank into the old armchair.

“Why did you hide when Dr. Polstead came through?” she said.

“I didn’t,” said Pantalaimon.

“You did. You shot under my coat as soon as you heard his voice.”

“I just wanted to be out of the way,” he said. “Let’s open this and have a look.” He was peering closely at the rucksack and lifting the buckles with his nose. “It’s certainly his. Same smell. Not the sort of cologne that Miriam’s father makes.”

“Well, we can’t do it now,” she said. “We’ve got twenty minutes to get back to St. Sophia’s and see Dr. Lieberson.”

It was a meeting that each undergraduate had with her tutor near the end of term: an appraisal, a warning to work harder, a commendation for good work done, suggestions for vacation reading. Lyra had never missed such a meeting yet, but if she didn’t hurry…

She got up, but Pan didn’t move.

“We’d better hide this,” he said.

“What? No one comes in here! It’s perfectly safe.”

“Seriously. Think of the man last night. Someone wanted this enough to kill him for it.”

Lyra saw the point, and pulled back the worn carpet. Under the floorboards there was a space where they’d hidden things before. It was a tight squeeze, but they got the rucksack in and pulled the carpet back. As Lyra ran downstairs, she heard the Jordan clock chime for eleven-forty-five.

* * *

They made it with a minute to spare, and had to sit hot and red-faced through Dr. Lieberson’s appraisal. Apparently Lyra had worked well and was beginning to understand the complexities of Mediterranean and Byzantine politics, though there was always the danger of thinking that a superficial mastery of the events was as good as a fundamental understanding of the principles at work underneath. Lyra agreed, nodding hard. She could have written it herself. Her tutor, a young woman with severely cut blond hair and a goldfinch dæmon, looked at her skeptically.

“Make sure to do some reading,” she said. “Frankopan’s good. Hughes-Williams has a very good chapter on Levantine trade. Don’t forget—”

“Oh, trade, yes. Dr. Lieberson, the Levantine trade—sorry to interrupt—did it always involve roses and perfumes and things like that?”

“And smokeleaf, since it was discovered. The great source of rose oil, attar of roses, in medieval times was Bulgaria. But the trade from there suffered from the Balkan wars and the duties the Ottoman Empire imposed on traffic through the Bosphorus, and besides, the climate was changing a little and the Bulgarian rose growers found it harder to cultivate the best sort of plants, so gradually the trade moved further east.”

“Do you know why it might be suffering now?”

“Is it?”

Lyra told her briefly about Miriam’s father and his problem with obtaining the supplies for his factory.

“That’s interesting,” said Dr. Lieberson. “History’s not over, you see. It’s happening all the time. The problem today would mainly be regional politics, I imagine. I’ll look into it. Have a good vacation.”

* * *

The end of the Michaelmas term was marked by a number of ritual occasions, which varied from college to college. St. Sophia’s took a narrow-eyed view of ritual in general, and with an air of “If we really must” produced a slightly better dinner than usual when celebration was unavoidable. Jordan, on the other hand, held a Founder’s Feast of great splendor and culinary excess. Lyra had always looked forward to the Founder’s Feast when she was younger, not because she was invited (she wasn’t) but because of the chance it gave her to earn a few guineas polishing the silver. This task had become a tradition of its own, and after a quick lunch with some friends at St. Sophia’s (during which Miriam seemed to have cheered up a great deal), Lyra hurried to the pantry at Jordan, where Mr. Cawson, the Steward, was getting out the dishes, the bowls, the plates, the goblets, and the large tin of Redvers’ powder.

The Steward was the senior servant in charge of all the college ceremonies, the great dinners, the silver, the Retiring Room and all its luxuries. Lyra had once been more terrified of Mr. Cawson than of anyone else in Oxford, but recently he’d begun to show signs of quite unsuspected humanity. She sat at the long table with its green baize cloth and dabbed a damp cloth into the tin of powder and polished bowls and dishes and goblets until their very surfaces seemed to swim and dissolve in the naphtha lamplight.

“Good going,” said Mr. Cawson, turning a bowl over between his palms and scrutinizing the flawless gleam.

“What’s it all worth, Mr. Cawson?” she said, taking up the very biggest dish, a shallow platter fully two feet across with a bowl-shaped depression in the center.

“Priceless,” he said. “Irreplaceable. You couldn’t buy anything like this now, because they don’t make ’em anymore. They’ve lost the skill. That one,” he said, looking at the great dish Lyra was polishing, “that’s three hundred and forty years old and as thick as two guineas. There’s no money value that would make any sense in connection with that. And,” he said, sighing, “this Feast is probably the last time we shall use it.”

“Really? What’s it for?”

“You’ve never attended a full Feast, have you, Lyra?” the old man said. “Dined in Hall any number of times—High Table often enough—but never a full Feast, am I right?”

“Well, I wouldn’t be invited,” said Lyra piously. “It wouldn’t be right. I’d never be allowed in the Retiring Room afterwards, never mind anything else.”

“Hmm,” said Mr. Cawson, without any expression at all.

“So I’ve never seen what this big plate’s for. Is it for truffles, at dessert?”

“Try and put it down.”

Lyra laid it on the baize, and because of its rounded bottom, the dish tipped over and lay awkwardly to one side.

“It looks uncomfortable,” she said.

“Because it’s not for putting down, it’s for carrying. It’s a rosewater dish.”

“Rosewater?” Lyra looked up at the old man, suddenly more curious.

“That’s it. After the meat, and before they change places for dessert, we take around the rosewater dishes. Four of ’em, and this is the finest. It’s for gentlemen and their guests to dab their napkins in, rinse their fingers, whatever takes their fancy. But we can’t get the rosewater anymore. We’ve got enough for this Feast, and that’s it.”

“Whyever can’t you get it? They grow roses everywhere. The Master’s garden is full of roses! Surely you could make some rosewater? I bet I could. I bet it’s not hard to do.”

“Oh, there’s no shortage of English rosewater,” said the Steward, lifting down a heavy flask from a shelf above the door, “but it’s thin stuff. No body to it. The best comes from the Levant, or beyond. Here—sniff this.”

He took the stopper out of the flask. Lyra bent over the open vessel and found the concentrated fragrance of every rose that had ever bloomed: a sweetness and power so profound that it moved beyond sweetness altogether and out of the other side of its own complexity into a realm of clear and simple purity and beauty. It was like the smell of sunlight itself.

“Oh!” she said. “I see what you mean. And this is the very last of it?”

“The very last I could get hold of. I think Mr. Ellis, the Chamberlain at Cardinal’s, has a few bottles left. But he guards himself close, Mr. Ellis. I shall try to wheedle my way into his affections.”

Mr. Cawson’s tone was so dry that Lyra was never sure to what extent he was joking. But this rosewater business was too interesting to leave alone.

“Where did you say it came from, the good stuff?” she said.

“The Levant. Syria and Turkey in particular, so I understand; there’s some way they can detect the difference between them, but I never could. Not like wine, not like Tokay or Porto—there’s a wealth of tastes in every glass, and once you know your way round ’em, there’s no mistaking one vintage for another, far less one kind of wine for a different one. But you’ve got your tongue and your taste buds involved with wine, haven’t you? Your whole mouth’s involved. With rosewater, you’re just dealing with a fragrance. Still, I’m sure there’s some that could tell the difference.”

“Why is it getting scarce?”

“Greenfly, I expect. Now, Lyra, have you done ’em all?”

“Just this candlestick to go. Mr. Cawson, who’s the supplier for the rosewater? I mean, where do you buy it from?”

“A firm called Sidgwick’s. Why are you suddenly interested in rosewater?”

“I’m interested in everything.”

“So you are. I forgot. Well, you better have this….” He opened a drawer and took out a tiny glass bottle no bigger than Lyra’s little finger, and gave it to her to hold. “Pull the cork out,” he said, “and hold it steady.”

She did, and Mr. Cawson, with the utmost care and the steadiest hand, filled the tiny bottle from the flask of rosewater.

“There you are,” he said. “We can spare that much, and since you’re not invited to the Feast and you’re not allowed in the Retiring Room, you might as well have it.”

“Thank you!” she said.

“Now hop it, go on. Oh—if you want to know about the Levant and the east and all that, you better ask Dr. Polstead over at Durham.”

“Oh yes. I could. Thank you, Mr. Cawson.”

She left the Steward’s pantry and wandered out into the winter afternoon. Unenthusiastically she looked across Broad Street at the buildings of Durham College; no doubt Dr. Polstead was in his rooms, no doubt she could cross the road and knock on the door, and no doubt he’d welcome her, full of bonhomie, and sit her down and explain all about Levantine history at interminable length, and within five minutes she’d wish she hadn’t bothered.

“Well?” she said to Pan.

“No. We can see him anytime. But we couldn’t tell him about the rucksack. He’d just say take it to the police, and we’d have to say we couldn’t, and…”

“Pan, what is it?”

“What?”

“There’s something you’re not telling me.”

“No, there isn’t. Let’s go and look in the rucksack.”

“Not now. That’ll keep. We’ve got proper work to do, don’t forget,” Lyra reminded him. “If we make a start on it today, there’ll be that much less to do later on.”

“Well, let’s take the rucksack with us, at least.”

“No! Leave it where it is. It’s perfectly safe. We’ll be back here for the vacation soon, and if it’s with us at St. Sophia’s, you’ll be nagging me to look at it all the time.”

“I don’t nag.”

“You should hear yourself.”

When they got back to St. Sophia’s, Pan pretended to go to sleep while Lyra checked the references in her final essay and thought again about the rucksack; and then she put on her last clean dress and went down to dinner.

Over the boiled mutton, some friends tried to persuade her to come with them to a concert in the town hall, where a young pianist of striking good looks was going to play Mozart. This would normally have been tempting enough, but Lyra had something else in mind, and after the rice pudding she slipped away, put on her coat, and went down to Broad Street and into a pub called the White Horse.

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