The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth (Book of Dust, Volume 2) (5 page)

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

It wasn’t usual for a young lady to go into a pub on her own, but Lyra in her present mood was far from being a lady. In any case, she was looking for someone, and pretty soon she found him. The bar in the White Horse was small and narrow, and in order to be sure the person she was looking for was there, Lyra had to shove her way through the evening crowd of office workers as far as the little snug at the back. In term time it would have been packed with undergraduates, because unlike some other pubs, the White Horse was used by both the town and the gown, but the year was winding down, and the students wouldn’t be seen again till mid-January. But Lyra wasn’t gown now: this evening she was town, exclusively.

And there in the snug was Dick Orchard, with Billy Warner and two girls whom Lyra didn’t know.

“Hello, Dick,” she said.

His face brightened, and it was a good-looking face. His hair was black and curly and glossy; his eyes were large, with brilliant dark irises and clear whites; his features were well defined, his skin healthy and golden; it was the sort of face that would look good in a photogram, nothing blurred or smudged about it; and besides, there was a hint of laughter, or at any rate amusement, behind every expression that flitted over it. He wore a blue-and-white-spotted handkerchief around his throat, in the gyptian style. His dæmon was a trim little vixen, who stood with pleasure to greet Pan; they had always liked each other. When Lyra was nine, Dick had been the leader of a gang of boys who hung around the market, and she had admired him greatly for his ability to spit further than anyone else. Much more recently she and he had had a brief but passionate relationship and, what was more, parted friends. She was genuinely pleased to find him there, but of course would never show it, with other girls watching.

“Where you been, then?” Dick said. “En’t seen you for weeks.”

“Things to do,” she said. “People to see. Books to read.”

“Hello, Lyra,” said Billy, an amiable boy who had been following Dick around since they were in elementary school. “How you doing?”

“Hello, Billy. Is there room for me there?”

“Who’s this?” said one of the girls.

They all ignored her. Billy moved up along the bench, and Lyra sat down.

“Hey,” said the other girl. “What you doing butting in?”

Lyra ignored her too. “You’re not still working in the market, Dick?” she said.

“No, sod that for a lark. Heaving spuds around, piling cabbages up. I’m working at the mail depot now. What you drinking, Lyra?”

“Badger,” she said, inwardly delighted. She’d been right about his job.

Dick got up and squeezed out past one of the girls, who protested, “What you doing, Dick? Who’s she?”

“She’s my girlfriend.”

He looked at Lyra with a lazy sort of smile in his eyes, and she looked back, bold and calm and complicit. Then he was gone, and the girl picked up her handbag and went after him, complaining. Lyra hadn’t looked at her once. The other girl said, “What’d he call you? Laura?”


Billy said, “This is Ellen. She works in the telephone exchange.”

“Oh, right,” said Lyra. “What you doing now, Billy?”

“I’m with Acott’s in the High Street.”

“Selling pianos? I didn’t know you could play the piano.”

“I can’t. I just move ’em. Like tonight, there’s a concert at the town hall, and they got a lousy piano there, so they hired one from us, a good ’un. Took three of us to move it, but you get what you pay for. What you up to? You done your exams yet?”

“Not yet.”

“What exams? You a student?” said the girl.

Lyra nodded. Dick came back with a half pint of Badger ale. The other girl had gone.

“Oh, a half. Thank you for my half pint, Dick,” said Lyra. “If I’d known you were short of money, I’d have asked for a glass of water.”

“Where’s Rachel?” said the girl.

Dick sat down. “I didn’t get you a pint because there was this article in the paper,” he said. “It says women shouldn’t drink all that much at once, it’s too strong for ’em, it sends ’em mad with strange lusts and desires.”

“Too much for you to cope with, then,” Lyra said.

“Well, I could manage, but I was just thinking of the innocent bystanders.”

“Has Rachel gone?” said the girl, trying to peer through the crowd.

“You’re looking very gyptian tonight,” Lyra said to Dick.

“You got to show off your best features, en’t you,” he said.

“Is that what you call ’em?”

“You remember my grandad’s gyptian. Giorgio Brabandt. He’s good-looking too. He’ll be in Oxford later this week—I’ll introduce you.”

“I’m fed up with this,” the girl said to Billy.

“Ah, come on, Ellen…”

“I’m going with Rachel. You can come or not, as you like,” she said, and her starling dæmon flapped his wings on her shoulder as she got up.

Billy looked at Dick, who shrugged; so Billy got up as well.

“See you, Dick. Cheers, Lyra,” he said, and followed the girl out through the crowded bar.

“Well, fancy that,” said Dick. “We’re all alone.”

“Tell me about the mail place. What is it you do?”

“It’s the main sorting office for the south of England. Stuff comes in on the mail trains in sealed sacks and we open them and sort the post into regions. Then we take it back out in boxes, different colors for different regions, and load ’em onto other trains, or on the zeppelin for London.”

“And that goes on all day?”

“All day and night. Round the clock. What you want to know for?”

“I got a reason. Maybe I’ll tell you, maybe I won’t. What shift are you on?”

“Nights this week. I’ll be starting at ten tonight.”

“Is there a man who works there—a big hefty man—who was working on Monday night, yesterday night, and who hurt his leg?”

“That’s a peculiar question. There’s hundreds of people working there, specially this time of year.”

“I suppose so….”

“But as it happens, I think I know who you mean. There’s a big ugly bugger by the name of Benny Morris. I heard off someone earlier today that he’d hurt his leg falling off a ladder. Pity it wasn’t his neck. Funny thing is, he was working last night, first part of the shift anyway, then he cleared off partway through. At least, no one saw him after about midnight. Then this afternoon I hear he’s broken his leg, or summing like that.”

“Is it easy to get out of the depot without anyone knowing?”

“Well, you couldn’t get out the main gate without someone seeing you. But it’s not hard to jump over the fence—or to get through. What’s going on, Lyra?”

Dick’s dæmon, Bindi, had jumped lightly up on the bench beside him and was watching Lyra with bright black eyes. Pan was on the table near Lyra’s elbow. They were both following the conversation closely.

Lyra leant in and spoke more quietly. “Last night, after midnight, someone climbed out the depot over the gate by the allotments, and walked along by the river and joined another man, who was hiding among the trees. Then a third man came along the path from the station, and they attacked him. They killed him and hid his body down among the rushes. It wasn’t there this morning, because we went to look.”

“How d’you know that?”

“ ’Cause we saw it.”

“Why en’t you told the police?”

Lyra took a long sip of her beer while keeping her eyes on his face. Then she put it down. “We can’t,” she said. “There’s a good reason.”

“What were you doing down there anyway, after midnight?”

“Stealing parsnips. It doesn’t matter what we were there for. We were there, and we saw it.”

Bindi looked at Pan, and Pan looked back, as bland and innocent as Lyra herself could be.

“And these two men—they didn’t see you?”

“If they had, they’d have chased us and tried to kill us too. But this is the point—they weren’t expecting him to fight back, but he had a knife and he cut one of them on the leg.”

Dick blinked in surprise and drew back a little. “And you saw them shove his body in the river, you said?”

“Down into the rushes, anyway. Then they went off towards the footbridge over to the gasworks, the one helping the other whose leg had been hurt.”

“If the body was just in the rushes, they’d’ve had to go back later and get rid of it properly. Anyone could find it there. Kids play along the bank, there’s people going to and fro along the path all the time. During the day, anyway.”

“We didn’t want to stay and find out,” Lyra said.


She finished her beer.

“Want another?” he said. “Get you a pint this time.”

“No. Thanks, but I’m going soon.”

“That other man, not the one that was attacked, the one that was waiting. Did you see what he was like?”

“No, not clearly. But we heard him. And that’s”—she looked around, and saw that they were still unobserved—“that’s why we can’t go to the police. ’Cause we heard a policeman talking to someone, and it was the same voice. The exact same voice. The policeman was the man who killed him.”

Dick shaped his lips to whistle but didn’t blow. Then he took a long drink. “Right,” he said. “That is awkward.”

“I don’t know what to do, Dick.”

“Better do nothing, then. Just forget about it.”

“I can’t.”

“That’s ’cause you keep thinking about it. Think of something else.”

She nodded. That was as good as his advice was going to get. Then she suddenly did think of something else.

“Dick, they take on extra workers at Christmas, don’t they, the Royal Mail?”

“Yeah. You fancy a job?”

“Well, I might.”

“Just go along the office and ask ’em. It’s a good laugh. Hard work, mind. You won’t have time to go round being a detective.”

“No. I just want to get a feel for what the place is like. It wouldn’t be for long, anyway.”

“You sure you won’t have another drink?”

“Quite sure.”

“What you doing for the rest of the evening?”

“Things to do, books to read…”

“Stay with me. We could have a good time. You chased them other girls away. You going to leave me all on me own?”

“I didn’t chase them away!”

“You scared ’em stiff.”

She felt a jolt of shame. She began to blush; she was mortified to remember how unpleasantly she’d behaved to the two girls, when it would have been so easy to be friendly to them.

“Another time, Dick,” she said. It wasn’t easy to speak.

“You’re all promises,” he said, but quite good-naturedly. He knew it wouldn’t take him long to find another girl to spend the evening with, a girl who had nothing to be ashamed of and who was happy with her dæmon. And they would have a good time, as he’d said. For a moment, Lyra envied this unknown other girl, because Dick was good company and considerate as well as more than good-looking; but then she remembered that after only a few weeks with him, she’d begun to feel confined. There were areas of her life about which she cared passionately, and which he was indifferent to or simply unaware of. She’d never be able to talk to him about Pan and separation, for example.

She stood up, and then bent down and kissed him, which took him by surprise. “You won’t be waiting long,” she said.

He smiled. Bindi and Pan touched noses, and then Pan leapt to Lyra’s shoulder and they moved away through the bar and into the chilly street.

She began to turn left, but stopped, and thought for a second, and then crossed the street instead and went into Jordan.

“What now?” said Pan, as she waved to the porter in the lodge window.

“The rucksack.”

They climbed the stairs to their old room in silence. Once she’d locked the door behind them and switched on the gas fire, she rolled back the rug and prized up the floorboard. Everything was as they’d left it.

She retrieved the rucksack and took it to the armchair, under the lamplight. Pan crouched on the little table while Lyra unfastened the buckles. She would very much have liked to tell Pan how uneasy she felt, part guilty, part sad, part overwhelmingly curious. But talking was so difficult.

“Who are we going to tell about this?” he said.

“Depends what we find.”


“I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t depend on that. Let’s just…”

She didn’t bother to finish the sentence. She folded back the top of the rucksack and found a neatly folded shirt that had once been white and a sweater of coarse dark blue wool, both much darned, and under them a pair of rope-soled sandals, badly worn down, and a tin box about the size of a large Bible, held shut with a couple of thick rubber bands. It was heavy, and the contents didn’t move or make a noise when she turned the box around in her hands. It had once contained Turkish smokeleaf, but the painted design was almost worn away. She opened it and found several small bottles and sealed cardboard boxes tightly packed in with cotton fibers.

“Botanical stuff, maybe,” she said.

“Is that all?” said Pan.

“No. Here’s his toiletry bag or something.”

It was made of faded canvas and contained a razor and shaving brush and a nearly empty tube of toothpaste.

“There’s something else,” Pan said, peering inside the rucksack.

Her hand found a book—two books—and brought them out. Disappointingly, they were both in languages she couldn’t read, though one looked from the illustrations like a textbook of botany, and the other, from the way it was laid out on the page, a long poem.

“Still more,” said Pan.

At the bottom of the rucksack she found a bundle of papers and brought them all out. They consisted of three or four offprints from learned journals, all concerning botany; a small battered notebook that at a quick look contained names and addresses from all over Europe and beyond; and a small number of handwritten pages. These were creased and stained, and the handwritten words were in a pale pencil. But whereas the journal offprints were in Latin or German, she saw at a quick glance that the written pages were in English.

“Well?” he said. “Are we going to read them?”

“Of course. But not here. The light in here’s dreadful. I don’t know how we managed to do any work at all.”

She folded the pages and put them in an inside pocket, and then replaced everything else before unlocking the door and getting ready to leave.

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