The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth (Book of Dust, Volume 2) (7 page)

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A note at the end, in a different hand, said:

Later that night Strauss's Cariad arrived. She was exhausted, fearful, damaged. Next day she and Strauss went inside the red building, and I returned with Chen. Trouble coming closer. Ted Cartwright and I agreed that I should set off at once with what little knowledge we have. Pray God I find Strella, and that she will forgive me. R.H.

Lyra put the pages on the table. She felt light-headed. She felt as if she'd caught a glimpse of a long-lost memory, something intensely important that was buried under thousands of days of ordinary life. What was it that had affected her so much? The red building—the desert around it—the guards who spoke in Latin—something buried so deeply that she couldn't be sure if it was true, or a dream, or a memory of a dream, or even of a story she'd loved so much when she was a little child that she'd insisted on it again and again at bedtime, and then put away and forgotten entirely.
She knew something about that red building in the desert.
And she had no idea what it was.

Pan was curled up on the table, asleep, or pretending. She knew why. Dr. Strauss's description of separating from his dæmon, Cariad, had brought back immediately that abominable betrayal of her own on the shores of the world of the dead, when she had abandoned Pan to go in search of the ghost of her friend Roger. The guilt and the shame would still be as fresh in her heart on the day she died, no matter how far away that was.

Perhaps that wound was one reason they were estranged now. It had never healed. There was no one else alive to whom she could talk about it, except for Serafina Pekkala, the witch queen; but witches were different, and anyway she hadn't seen Serafina since that journey to the Arctic so many years before.

Oh, but…

“Pan?” she whispered.

He gave no sign that he'd heard. He seemed to be fast asleep, except that she knew he wasn't.

“Pan,” she went on, still whispering, “what you said about the man who was killed…The man this diary's about, Hassall…He and his dæmon could separate, isn't that what you said?”

Silence.

“He must have found her again when he came out of that desert, Karamakan….That must be a place like the one the witches go to when they're young, where their dæmons can't go. So maybe there are other people…”

He didn't move; he didn't speak.

She looked away wearily. But her eye was caught by something on the floor by the bookcase: it was the book she'd used to prop the window open, the one Pan had thrown down in distaste. Hadn't she put it back on the shelf? He must have thrown it down again.

She got up to replace it, and Pan saw her and said, “Why don't you get rid of that rubbish?”

“Because it's not rubbish. I wish you wouldn't throw it about like a spoilt child just because you don't like it.”

“It's poison, and it's destroying you.”

“Oh, grow up.”

She laid it on the desk, and he sprang down to the floor, his fur bristling. His tail swept back and forth across the carpet as he sat and stared at her. He was radiating contempt, and she flinched a little but kept her hands on the book.

They said not another word as she went to bed. He slept in the armchair.

She couldn’t sleep for thinking of the journal, and the meaning of the word
akterrakeh.
It meant something to do with the journey to the red building, and possibly something to do with separating, but she was so tired that none of it made sense. The man who’d been murdered was able to separate, and it seemed from what Dr. Strauss had written that no one could make the journey if they were intact. Was
akterrakeh
a word in one of the local languages for separation?

The best way to think about it would have been by talking with Pan. But he was unreachable. Reading about the separation of the two men from Tashbulak upset him, angered him, frightened him—perhaps all of those things—just as it did her, but then there’d come the distraction of the novel that he hated so much. There were so many things they had to disagree about, and that book was one of the most toxic.

The Hyperchorasmians,
by a German philosopher called Gottfried Brande, was a novel that was having an extraordinary vogue among clever young people all over Europe and beyond. It was a publishing phenomenon: nine hundred pages long, with an unpronounceable title (at least until Lyra had learnt to pronounce the
ch
as a
k
), an uncompromising sternness of style, and nothing that could remotely pass for a love interest, it had sold in the millions and influenced the thinking of an entire generation. It told the story of a young man who set out to kill God, and succeeded. But the unusual thing about it, the quality that had set it apart from anything else Lyra had ever read, was that in the world Brande described, human beings had no dæmons. They were totally alone.

Like many others, Lyra had been spellbound, hypnotized by the force of the story, and found her head ringing with the hammer blows of the protagonist’s denunciation of anything and everything that stood in the way of pure reason. Even his quest to find God and kill him was expressed in terms of the fiercest rationality: it was irrational that such a being should exist, and rational to do away with him. Of figurative language, of metaphor or simile, there was not a trace. At the end of the novel, as the hero looked out from the mountains at a sunrise, which in the hands of another writer might have represented the dawn of a new age of enlightenment, free of superstition and darkness, the narrator turned away from commonplace symbolism of that kind with scorn. The final sentence read, “It was nothing more than what it was.”

That phrase was a sort of touchstone of progressive thinking among Lyra’s peers. It had become fashionable to disparage any sort of excessive emotional reaction, or any attempt to read other meanings into something that happened, or any argument that couldn’t be justified with logic: “It’s nothing more than what it is.” Lyra herself had used the phrase more than once in conversation, and felt Pan turn away in disdain as she did so.

When they woke up the morning after reading Dr. Strauss’s journal, their disagreement about
The Hyperchorasmians
was still alive and bitter. As Lyra dressed, she said, “Pan, what’s got into you this past year? You never used to be like this.
We
never used to be like this. We used to disagree about things without this monumental everlasting sulk—”

“Can’t you see what it’s doing to you, this
attitude
you’re affecting?” he burst in. He was standing on top of the bookcase.

“What
attitude
? What are you talking about?”

“That man’s influence is baleful. Haven’t you seen what’s happening to Camilla? Or that boy from Balliol—what’s his name, Guy something? Since they started reading
The Hypercolonics
or whatever it’s called, they’ve become arrogant and unpleasant in all kinds of ways. Ignoring their dæmons, as if they didn’t exist. And I can see it in you too. A sort of absolutism—”


What?
You’re not making sense at all. You refuse to know anything about it, but you think you have the right to criticize—”

“Not the
right,
the
responsibility
! Lyra, you’re closing your mind. Of course I know about the bloody book. I know exactly what you know. Actually, I probably know more, because I didn’t shut down my common sense, or my sense of what’s right, or something, while you were reading it.”

“You’re still fretting because his story does away with dæmons?”

He glared at her and then leapt down to the desk again. She moved back. Sometimes she was very conscious of how sharp his teeth were.

“What are you going to do?” she said. “Bite me till I agree?”

“Can’t you
see
?” he said again.

“I can
see
a book I think is extremely powerful and intellectually compelling. I can
understand
the appeal of reason, rationality, logic. No—not the appeal—I’m
persuaded
by them. It’s not an emotional spasm. It’s entirely a matter of rational—”

“Anything emotional has to be a spasm, has it?”

“The way you’re behaving—”

“No, you’re not listening to me, Lyra. I don’t think we’ve got anything in common anymore. I just can’t stand watching you turn into this rancorous, reductive monster of cold logic. You’re
changing,
that’s the point. I don’t like it. Damn it, we used to warn each other about this sort of—”

“And you think it’s all the fault of one novel?”

“No. It’s the fault of that Talbot man too. He’s just as bad, in a cowardly sort of way.”

“Talbot? Simon Talbot? Make your bloody mind up, Pan. There couldn’t be two more different thinkers. Complete opposites. According to Talbot, there’s no truth at all. Brande—”

“You didn’t see that chapter in
The Constant Deceiver
?”

“What chapter?”

“The one I had to suffer you reading through last week. Evidently you didn’t take it in, though I had to. The one where he pretends that dæmons are merely—what is it?—psychological projections with no independent reality. That one. All argued very prettily, charming, elegant prose, witty, full of brilliant paradoxes. You know the one I mean.”

“But you haven’t got any independent reality. You know that. If I died—”

“Neither have you, you stupid cow. If I died, so would you.
Touché.

She turned away, too angry to speak.

Simon Talbot was an Oxford philosopher whose latest book was much discussed in the university. Whereas
The Hyperchorasmians
was a popular success that was dismissed as tosh by critics and read mainly by the young,
The Constant Deceiver
was a favorite among literary experts, who praised its elegance of style and playful wit. Talbot was a radical skeptic, to whom truth and even reality were rainbow-like epiphenomena with no ultimate meaning. In the silvery charm of his prose, everything solid flowed and ran and broke apart like mercury spilled from a barometer.

“No,” said Pan. “They’re not different. Two sides of the same coin.”

“Just because of what they say about dæmons—or don’t say—they don’t pay you enough tribute—”

“Lyra, I wish you could hear yourself. Something’s happened to you. You’re under a spell or something. These men are
dangerous
—”

“Superstition,” she said, and she truly felt contempt for Pan just then, and hated herself for it, and couldn’t stop. “You can’t look at anything calmly and dispassionately. You have to throw insults at it. It’s childish, Pan. Attributing some kind of evil or magic to an argument you can’t counter—you used to believe in seeing things clearly, and now you’re all bound up in fog and superstition and magic. Afraid of something because you can’t understand it.”

“I understand it perfectly. The trouble is that you don’t. You think those two charlatans are profound philosophers. You’re hypnotized by them. You read the absolute drivel they write, both of them, and you think it’s the latest thing in intellectual achievement. They’re lying, Lyra, both lying. Talbot thinks he can make truth disappear by waving his paradoxes around. Brande thinks he can do it just by bullheaded denial. You know what I think’s at the bottom of this infatuation of yours?”

“There you go again, describing something that doesn’t exist. But go on, say what you want to.”

“It’s not just a
position
you’re taking up. You half believe those people, that German philosopher and the other man. That’s what it is. You’re clever enough on top, but underneath you’re so bloody naive that you half believe their lies are true.”

She shook her head, spread her hands, baffled. “I don’t know what I can say,” she said. “But what I believe, or half believe, or don’t believe, isn’t really anyone else’s business. Making windows into people’s souls—”

“But I’m not anyone else! I
am
you!” He twisted around and sprang up onto the bookcase again, from which he looked down at her with blazing eyes. “You’re making yourself
forget,
” he said with bitter anger.

“Well, now, I don’t know what you mean,” she said, genuinely lost.

“You’re forgetting everything important. And you’re trying to believe things that’ll kill us.”

“No,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady. “You’ve got it wrong, Pan. I’m simply interested in other ways of thinking. It’s what you do when you study. One of the things you do. You see ideas, try to see ideas, with someone else’s eyes. You see what it feels like to believe the things they do.”

“It’s contemptible.”

“What is? Philosophy?”

“If philosophy says I don’t exist, then yes, philosophy is contemptible. I
do
exist. All of us, we dæmons, and other things too—other
entities,
your philosophers would say—we
exist.
Trying to believe nonsense will kill us.”

“You see, if you call it nonsense, you’re not even
beginning
to engage with it intellectually. You’ve already surrendered. You’ve given up trying to argue rationally. You might as well throw stones.”

Pan turned away. They said nothing more as they went to breakfast. This was going to be another silent day. There had been something he’d wanted to tell her about that little notebook from the rucksack, the one with the names and addresses, but now he’d keep that to himself.

* * *

After breakfast, Lyra surveyed the pile of clothes that needed washing, and sighed heavily, and began to do something about it. St. Sophia’s had a laundry room full of machines where the young ladies could wash their own clothes, an activity felt to be better for their characters than having them washed by servants, which was the way of things for the young gentlemen of Jordan.

She was alone in the laundry room because most of her friends were going home for Christmas, and so would be taking their clothes back with them for washing. Lyra’s status as an orphan whose only home was a men’s college had aroused the sympathy of several friends in the past, and she’d spent various Christmases in the houses of different girls, interested to see what a family home was like, being made welcome and giving and receiving presents and being included in all the family games and outings. Sometimes there was a brother to flirt with; sometimes she had felt alienated from the close and overemphatic jollity; sometimes she had to put up with a lot of intrusive questioning about her unusual background; and always she came back to the calm and quiet of Jordan College, where only a few Scholars and the servants remained, with pleasure. That was her home.

The Scholars were friendly enough, but remote and preoccupied with their studies. The servants paid attention to important and immediate things, like food, or manners, or little jobs by which she could earn a bit of pocket money, such as polishing the silver. One of the Jordan College servants whose relationship with Lyra had changed over the years was Mrs. Lonsdale. She was called Housekeeper, which wasn’t a position that existed in most colleges; but part of her duties had included making sure that the child Lyra was clean and neatly dressed, that she knew how to say please and thank you, and so on, and no other college had a Lyra.

Now that her charge could dress herself and had learnt enough manners to get by, Mrs. Lonsdale had mellowed a good deal. She was a widow—she had been widowed very young and had no children—and she had become so much a part of the college that it was impossible to imagine the place without her. No one had ever tried to define her role exactly or list all her responsibilities, and it would have been impossible to try that now: even the energetic new Bursar, after one or two attempts, had had to retreat graciously and acknowledge her power and importance. But she never acquired power for its own sake. The Bursar knew, as did all the servants, as did all the Scholars and the Master, that Mrs. Lonsdale’s considerable influence was always used to strengthen the college and to look after Lyra. And by the time she was entering her twentieth year, Lyra herself had begun to realize that too.

So she had fallen into the habit of visiting Mrs. Lonsdale in her parlor from time to time and gossiping, or asking for advice, or taking her little presents. The woman’s tongue was no less caustic than it had been in Lyra’s childhood, and of course there were things that Lyra could never have told her, but as far as it was possible, the two of them had become friends. And Lyra noticed with Mrs. Lonsdale, as she’d done with other people who had seemed grand and all-powerful and ageless when she was young, that the housekeeper wasn’t that old at all, really. She could easily have children of her own still. But that, of course, was a conversation they would never have.

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