The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth (Book of Dust, Volume 2) (8 page)

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

After she’d lugged her clean clothes back to Jordan and made a second trip to carry all the books she’d need for the vacation, she went to the market and spent some of her silver-polishing money on a box of chocolates, and called on Mrs. Lonsdale at a time when she knew the housekeeper would be taking tea in her parlor.

“Hello, Mrs. Lonsdale,” she said, kissing the housekeeper’s cheek.

“What’s the matter with you, then?” said Mrs. Lonsdale.


“Don’t try fooling me. Something’s up. That Dick Orchard giving you the runaround?”

“No, I’ve finished with Dick,” Lyra said, sitting down.

“Good-looking boy, though.”

“Yes,” said Lyra. “I can’t deny that. But we just ran out of things to say.”

“Yes, that does happen. Put the kettle on, dear.”

Lyra moved the old black kettle from the hearthstone to the little iron stand over the fire while Mrs. Lonsdale opened her box of chocolates.

“Ooh, lovely,” she said. “Maidment’s truffles. I’m surprised they had any left after supplying the Founder’s Feast. Now, what have you been up to? Tell me all about your rich and glamorous friends.”

“Not so rich now, some of them,” Lyra said, and told her about Miriam’s father’s trouble, and how she’d had another view of the same matter from Mr. Cawson the day before.

“Rosewater,” said Mrs. Lonsdale. “My granny used to make that. She had a big copper pan and she’d fill it with rose petals and spring water and boil it, and distill the steam. Whatever the word is. Run it through a lot of glass pipes and let it turn into water again, and there you are. She made lavender water as well. Seemed a lot of bother to me when you could buy eau de cologne at Boswell’s cheap enough.”

“Mr. Cawson gave me a little bottle of his special rosewater, and it was—I don’t know, so rich and concentrated.”

“Attar of roses, that’s what they call it. Or maybe that’s something different.”

“Mr. Cawson didn’t know why it was so hard to get hold of now. He said Dr. Polstead would know.”

“Why don’t you ask him, then?”

“Well…” Lyra made a face.

“Well what?”

“I don’t think Dr. Polstead finds me very easy.”

“Why not?”

“ ’Cause when he tried to teach me a few years ago, I was rude to him, probably.”

“What d’you mean, ‘probably’?”

“I mean we just didn’t get on. You’ve got to like your teachers, I think. Or if not like them, then feel something in common with them. I’ve got nothing in common with him at all. I just feel awkward near him, and I think he feels the same.”

Mrs. Lonsdale poured the tea. They gossiped for a while longer, about intrigues in the college kitchen involving a feud between the head chef and the pastry chef; about Mrs. Lonsdale’s recent purchase of a winter coat, and Lyra’s own need for a new one; about Lyra’s other friends at St. Sophia’s, and their adoration of the handsome pianist who’d just played in the city.

Once or twice Lyra thought of telling her about the murder, the wallet, the rucksack, but held back. There was no one who could help her with it but Pan, and it felt as if they wouldn’t be speaking much about anything for some time to come.

Every so often Mrs. Lonsdale glanced at Pantalaimon, who was lying on the floor pretending to sleep. Lyra could tell what she was thinking: What’s this coldness about? Why aren’t you two speaking? But that wasn’t something they could easily talk about in Pan’s hearing, and that was a pity, because Lyra knew that the housekeeper would bring some sharp good sense to bear on the subject.

They chatted for an hour or so, and Lyra was about to say goodbye and leave when there was a knock on the parlor door. It opened without waiting for an invitation to come in, which surprised Lyra, and then she was even more surprised, because the visitor was Dr. Polstead.

Several things happened at once.

Pan sat up as if he’d been shocked, and leapt onto Lyra’s lap, and she automatically put her arms around him. Dr. Polstead realized that there was a visitor and said, “Oh—Lyra—I do beg your pardon—” which suggested to Lyra that he was in the habit of entering this room, that the housekeeper was a close friend, that he expected to find her alone.

Then he said to Mrs. Lonsdale, “Alice, I’m sorry. I’ll come back later,” and she said to him, “Don’t be silly, Mal. Sit down.” Their dæmons—hers a dog, his a cat—were touching noses with great familiarity and friendliness. Pan was watching them fiercely, and Lyra felt an almost anbaric charge in the fur under her hands.

“No,” said Dr. Polstead. “It can wait. I’ll see you later.”

Lyra’s presence embarrassed him, that was clear, and his dæmon was now gazing at Pan with a strange intensity. Pan was trembling on Lyra’s lap. Dr. Polstead turned and left, his big frame almost too large for the doorway. His dæmon followed. When the door closed, Lyra felt the anbaric charge leave Pan’s fur, like water draining out of a basin.

“Pan, what is going on?” she said. “What’s the matter with you?”

“Tell you later,” he muttered.

” Lyra said, turning to Mrs. Lonsdale. “What’s all that, then?”

“Never you mind.”

Lyra had never seen Mrs. Lonsdale embarrassed before. She’d have sworn it wasn’t possible. The housekeeper was even blushing as she turned away and attended to the fire.

“I didn’t even know your name was Alice,” Lyra went on.

“I’d have told you if you’d asked.”

“And Mal…I didn’t see him as a Mal. I knew his initial was M, but I thought it was Methuselah.”

Mrs. Lonsdale had regained her composure. She sat back in her chair and folded her hands in her lap. “Malcolm Polstead,” she said, “is the bravest and the best man you’ll ever know, girl. If it wasn’t for him, you wouldn’t be here now.”

“What d’you mean?” Lyra was baffled.

“I told him often enough we ought to tell you about it. But the time was never right.”

“About what? What are you talking about?”

“Something that happened when you were very young.”


“Let me talk to him first.”

Lyra scowled. “If it’s something about me, I ought to be told,” she said.

“I know. I agree.”

“So why—”

“Leave it to me and I’ll talk to him.”

“And how long will that take? Another twenty years?”

The old Mrs. Lonsdale would have said, “Don’t take that tone with me, child,” and accompanied her words with a slap. The new one, this Alice person, just shook her head gently. “No,” she said. “I could tell you the whole story, but I shan’t till he agrees.”

“It’s obviously something he feels awkward about. Not as awkward as I do, though. People shouldn’t keep secrets about other people from them.”

“It’s nothing to anyone’s discredit. Get off your high horse.”

Lyra stayed a little longer, but the friendly mood had passed. She kissed the housekeeper goodbye and left. As she crossed the dark quadrangle of Jordan, Lyra thought of going across the road to Durham College and confronting Dr. Polstead directly, but the thought had no more than entered her mind when she felt Pan tremble on her shoulder.

“Right,” she said. “You’re going to bloody well tell me what’s the matter, and you’ve got no choice about it.”

“Let’s get inside first.”


“You don’t know who might be listening.”

The college bell tolled six as she shut the door of her old sitting room behind them. She dropped Pan on the carpet and sat down in the sagging armchair, switching on the table lamp to make the room spring warmly into life around them.

“Well?” she said.

“The other night when I was out…didn’t you feel anything? Didn’t you wake up?”

She thought back. “Yes, I did. Just for a moment. I thought it was when you saw the murder.”

“No. I know it wasn’t then because I would have felt you waking. It was after that, when I was coming back to St. Sophia’s with the man’s wallet. It was…I…Well, someone saw me.”

Lyra felt her heart become heavy all at once. She’d known this would happen. He quailed at the look on her face.

“But the thing is, it wasn’t a person,” he said.

“What the hell d’you mean? Who was it, then?”

“It was a dæmon. Another dæmon, separated, like us.”

Lyra shook her head. This made no sense at all. “There isn’t anyone like us except the witches,” she said. “And that dead man. Was it a witch’s dæmon?”


“And where was this?”

“In the Parks. She was…”


“She was Dr. Polstead’s dæmon. The cat. I forget her name. That’s why just now—”

Lyra felt breathless. She couldn’t speak for a moment.

“I don’t believe it,” she said finally. “I just don’t believe it.
can separate?”

“Well, she was on her own. And she saw me. But I wasn’t sure it was her till he came into the room back there. You saw the way she looked at me. Maybe she wasn’t sure it was me till then either.”

“But how can

about separation. Other people. The man who was attacked, when his dæmon got me to come to him, she told him I was separated. And he knew what it meant and he told me to take the wallet to my…to you.”

Another blow to Lyra’s heart, as she realized what Dr. Polstead’s dæmon must have seen.

“She saw you running back to St. Sophia’s, carrying the wallet. She must have thought you’d stolen it. They think we’re thieves.” She sank back into the chair and put her hands up to cover her eyes.

“We can’t help that,” he said. “We know we’re not, and they’ll have to believe us.”

“Oh, just like that? When are we going to tell them?”

“We’ll tell Mrs. Lonsdale, then. Alice. She’ll believe us.”

Lyra felt too tired to speak.

“I know it’s not a good time…,” Pan said, but didn’t finish.

“You’re not kidding. Oh, Pan.”

Lyra had never felt so disappointed, and Pan saw it.

“Lyra, I—”

“Were you
going to tell me?”

“Yes, of course, but—”

“Don’t bother now. Just don’t say anything. I’ve got to get changed. I could really, really, really do without this.”

She moved listlessly into the bedroom and picked out a dress. They had a dinner with the Master to get through before they’d speak again.

* * *

During the vacation, or on evenings like this, dinner at Jordan College was a less formal affair than during term. Sometimes, depending on how many Scholars were present, it wasn’t even served in Hall but in a small dining room above the Buttery.

Lyra generally preferred to eat with the servants anyway. It was one of the privileges of her unique position that she could move in any of the circles that made up the complex ecology of the place. A full Scholar would have felt, or been made to feel, she thought, a little ill at ease in the company of the kitchen staff or the porters, but Lyra was just as much at home with them or the gardeners or the handymen as with the higher servants like Mr. Cawson or Mrs. Lonsdale, or with the Master and his guests. Sometimes these guests—politicians or businesspeople or senior civil servants or courtiers—brought with them a breadth of knowledge and a world of experience quite different from the academic specialisms of the Scholars, which were deep indeed, but narrow.

And not a few of these outside visitors were surprised by the presence of this young girl, so apparently confident, so eager to hear what they had to say about the world. Lyra had discovered how to listen, how to respond and encourage these people to say a little more than they meant to, to be indiscreet. She was surprised to find how many of these shrewd and worldly men—and women too—seemed to enjoy the sensation of giving away little secrets, little glimpses into the background of this political maneuver or that business merger. She did nothing with the knowledge she gained in this way, but she was aware that sometimes a Scholar of the college, listening nearby, perhaps an economist or a philosopher or an historian, was grateful to her for unlocking a small revelation or two that they would never have managed to open themselves.

The only person who seemed uneasy about her diplomatic skill, and sometimes even about her presence, was the Master of the college: the new Master, as some still thought of him (and perhaps always would). The old Master, who had taken a particular interest in her and had always been firm about her right to live this strange life in the college but not of it—or of it, but not always in it—had died a year before, very old, greatly esteemed, and even loved.

The new Master was Dr. Werner Hammond: not a Jordan man, or even an Oxford man, but a businessman from the world of pharmaceuticals who had had a distinguished career as a scholar of chemistry before becoming chairman of one of the great medical corporations and enlarging its powers and revenues considerably. Now he had returned to the academic sphere, and no one could say he didn’t belong there; his scholarship was impeccable, his command of five languages complete, his tact flawless, his conscientious immersion in the history and traditions of Jordan beyond reproach; but there were some older Scholars who found him a little too good to be true, and wondered whether his Mastership of the college was the real culmination of his career or a stepping-stone on the way to something even grander.

The one thing he had not completely understood about Jordan College was Lyra. Dr. Hammond had never known anything like this strange young self-possessed figure who inhabited the college as if she were a wild bird that had chosen to make her nest in a corner of the oratory roof, among the gargoyles, and was now regarded with protective affection by everyone in the place. He was interested in how this had happened; he made inquiries; he consulted senior members; and the week before the end of term, he sent a note to Lyra inviting her to dine with him in the Master’s lodging on the evening after the Founder’s Feast.

She was a little puzzled, but not much concerned. Of course he would want to talk to her, or listen, more likely. No doubt there were all kinds of things she could tell him that it would be useful for him to know. She was a little surprised to learn from Mr. Cawson that she was to be the only guest, but he could tell her nothing about the Master’s intentions.

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