The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth (Book of Dust, Volume 2) (9 page)

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Dr. Hammond received her with great friendliness. He was silver-haired and slim, with rimless spectacles and a beautifully cut gray suit. His dæmon was a small and elegant lynx, who sat on the hearthrug with Pantalaimon and made easy and charming conversation. The Master offered Lyra sherry and asked her about her studies, about her schooling, about her life at St. Sophia’s College; he was interested to hear about her private study of the alethiometer with Dame Hannah Relf, and told Lyra of how he’d met Dame Hannah in Munich on some corporate business, and of how highly he’d esteemed her, and how she’d been instrumental in some complex negotiations that had eased the passage of an international trade deal with a dusty corner of the Near East. That didn’t sound much like Hannah, thought Lyra; she must ask her.

Over the meal, which was served by one of the Master’s private staff whom Lyra hadn’t seen before, she tried to ask the Master about his previous career, his background, and so on. She was really only making conversation for the sake of politeness; she’d already decided that the man was clever and courteous, but dull. She was slightly interested in whether he was single or widowed; there was no Mrs. Hammond in evidence. The old Master had been a bachelor, but it wasn’t a requirement that the Master should be unmarried. A pleasant wife, a young family, would have added a lot to the liveliness of the place, and Dr. Hammond was presentable enough, still young enough to have those desirable additions to his household; but he avoided answering Lyra’s questions with great skill and gave not the slightest hint that he thought them intrusive.

Then came dessert, and the purpose of the evening became clear.

“Lyra, I’ve been meaning to ask you about your position here at Jordan College,” the Master began.

And she felt the faintest little sensation, like a tremor in the ground.

“It’s a very unusual one,” he went on gently.

“Yes,” she said, “I’m very lucky. My father sort of put me here, and they just…well, put up with me.”

“You’re how old now? Twenty-one?”

“Twenty.”

“Your father, Lord Asriel,” he said.

“That’s right. He was a Scholar of the college. Dr. Carne, the old Master, was sort of my guardian, I suppose.”

“In a way,” he said, “though it doesn’t seem to have ever been made into a legally valid arrangement.”

That surprised her. Why would he have wanted to find that out? “Does that matter,” she said cautiously, “now that he’s dead?”

“No. But it might have a bearing on the way things move in the future.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“Do you know the origin of the money you’re living on?”

Another little earth tremor.

“I knew there was some money that my father left,” she said. “I don’t know how much, or where it’s been looked after. Those were things I never questioned. I suppose I must have thought that things were…all right. I mean, that…I suppose I thought that…Dr. Hammond, may I ask why we’re talking about this?”

“Because the college, and I as the Master, are, as it were,
in loco parentis
towards you. In an informal way, because you’ve never actually been
in statu pupillari.
It’s my duty to keep an eye on your affairs until you come of age. There was a sum of money put by for your benefit, to pay for your living expenses and accommodation and so on. But it wasn’t put there by your father. It was Dr. Carne’s money.”

“Was it?” Lyra was feeling almost stupid, as if this was something she should have known about all her life, and it was negligent of her not to.

“So he never told you?” the Master said.

“Not a word. He told me I would be looked after, and there was no need to worry. So I didn’t. In a way, I thought the whole college was…sort of looking after me. I felt I belonged here. I was very young. You don’t question things….And it was his money all the time? Not my father’s?”

“I’m sure you’ll correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe your father was living as an independent scholar, in a rather hand-to-mouth way. He vanished when you were—what, thirteen years old?”

“Twelve,” said Lyra. Her throat had tightened.

“Twelve. That would have been the point when Dr. Carne decided to put a sum of money aside for your benefit. He wasn’t a rich man, but there was enough. It was looked after by the college’s solicitors, who invested it prudently, paid over a regular sum to the college for your rent and living expenses, and so on. But, Lyra, I have to tell you that the interest on the capital sum was never quite adequate. It appears that Dr. Carne continued to subsidize it from his income, and the money he originally placed with the solicitor for your benefit is now exhausted.”

She put down her spoon. The crème caramel suddenly seemed inedible. “What…I’m sorry, but this is a shock,” she said.

“Of course. I understand.”

Pan had come up onto her lap. She moved her fingers through his fur. “So this means…I have to leave?” she said.

“You’re in your second year of study?”

“Yes.”

“One more year to go after this one. It’s a pity that none of this was made clear to you before, Lyra, so that you would be prepared.”

“I suppose I should have asked.”

“You were young. Children take things for granted. Not your fault at all, and it would be very unjust to expose you to consequences you could never have foreseen. This is what I propose. Jordan College will fund the remainder of your education at St. Sophia’s. As far as your accommodation outside term is concerned, you may, of course, continue to live here in Jordan, which is, after all, your only home, until you graduate. I understand you have the use of a second room as well as a bedroom?”

“Yes,” she said, finding her voice quieter than she had expected.

“Well, this presents us with a little problem. You see, the rooms on that staircase are really needed for undergraduates, for our young men. That is what they were built for, were always intended for. The rooms you occupy could accommodate two first-year undergraduates who currently have to live outside college, which is not ideal. We could at a pinch go back to asking you to use one room only, which would free the second room for one man, but there are matters of propriety, of modesty, one might say, which make it unsuitable….”

“There are undergraduates living on the same staircase,” Lyra said. “There always have been. It’s never been unsuitable before.”

“But not on the same landing. It would not work, Lyra.”

“And I’m only here in the vacation,” she said, beginning to sound desperate. “During term I live at St. Sophia’s.”

“Of course. But the presence of your belongings in that room would make it impossible for a young man to make the place properly his own. Lyra, this is what the college can offer. There is a room—a small one, I admit—above the kitchen, currently used as a storeroom. The Bursar will arrange for that room to be furnished and made available to you for the duration of your studies. You may live here as you have done all your life until you graduate. Rent, meals during the vacation, we shall cover all that. But you must understand, this is how things will be in the future.”

“I see,” she said.

“May I ask—do you have any other family?”

“None.”

“Your mother—”

“She vanished at the same time as my father.”

“And there are no relations on her side?”

“I never heard of any. Except—I think she might have had a brother. Someone told me that once. But I don’t know anything about him, and he’s never been in touch with me.”

“Ah. I’m sorry.”

Lyra tried to pick up a spoonful of her dessert, but her hand was shaking. She put the spoon down.

“Would you care for some coffee?” he said.

“No, thank you. I think perhaps I’d better go. Thank you for dinner.”

He stood up, formal, elegant, sympathetic, in his beautiful gray suit and silver hair. His dæmon came to stand beside him; Lyra gathered Pan up in her arms as she stood up too.

“Would you like me to move out at once?” she said.

“By the end of the vacation, if you could manage that.”

“Yes. All right.”

“And, Lyra, one more thing. You’ve been used to dining in Hall, to accepting the hospitality of the Scholars, to coming and going freely as if you were a Scholar yourself. It’s been put to me by several voices, and I’m bound to say I agree, that that behavior is no longer appropriate. You will be living among servants, and living, so to speak,
as
a servant. It would not be right anymore for you to live on terms of social equality with the academic body.”

“Of course not,” she said. Surely she was dreaming this.

“I’m glad you understand. You will have things to think about. If it would help at all to talk to me, to ask any questions, please don’t hesitate to do so.”

“No, I won’t. Thank you, Dr. Hammond. I’m in no doubt now about where I belong and how soon I shall have to leave. I’m only sorry to have troubled the college for so long. If Dr. Carne had been able to explain things as clearly as you can, I might have realized much sooner what a burden I was being, and that would have spared you the embarrassment of telling me. Good night.”

It was her bland voice, her wide-eyed, innocent look, and she was secretly glad to see they still worked, because he had not the faintest idea how to respond.

He gave a little stiff bow, and she left without another word.

* * *

She walked slowly back around the main quad and stopped to look up at the little window of her bedroom, close against the square bulk of the lodge tower.

“Well,” she said.

“That was cruel.”

“I don’t know. If there’s no money left…I don’t know.”

“I didn’t mean that. You know what I meant. The servant thing.”

“Nothing wrong with being a servant.”

“All right, those
several voices,
then. I don’t believe any Scholar in the college would want us treated like that. He was just deflecting the blame.”

“Well, you know what won’t help, Pan? Complaining. That won’t help.”

“I wasn’t complaining. I was just—”

“Whatever you were doing, don’t do it. There are things to be sad about. Like the rooms…We know that little room over the kitchen. There isn’t even a window in it. But we should have woken up before now, Pan. We haven’t even thought once about money, except the pocket money for polishing the silver and that sort of thing. There were bound to be
costs
…for meals and rooms, they cost money….Someone was paying all the time, and we just didn’t think about it.”

“They let the money run out and they didn’t tell us. They should have told us.”

“Yes, I suppose they should. But we should have thought to ask…ask who was paying. But I’m sure the old Master said that Lord Asriel had left plenty. I’m sure of it.”

As if her limbs had been weakened, she stumbled two or three times as she climbed the staircase to her bedroom. She felt bruised and shaken. When she was in bed, with Pan curled up on the pillow, she put the light out at once and lay still for a long time before she fell asleep.

Next morning, Lyra felt shy and nervous about going down for breakfast. She slipped into the servants’ dining room and helped herself to porridge, not looking around, just smiling and nodding when someone said hello. She felt as if she’d woken up in chains and couldn’t free herself, so had to carry them with her wherever she went, like a badge of shame.

After breakfast she drifted through the lodge, not wanting to go back up to the little rooms that had been her home, feeling too heartsick to do what she’d spoken about to Dick and go in search of a vacation job at the mail depot, feeling almost devoid of energy and life. The porter called her, and she turned.

“Letter for you, Lyra,” he said. “D’you want to take it now or pick it up later?”

“I might as well take it now. Thanks.”

It was a plain envelope, with her name in a clear, swift hand that she recognized as Dame Hannah Relf’s. A little spring of gratefulness gushed in her breast, for she thought that the lady was a true friend, but then it froze almost at once: Suppose she was going to say that Lyra would have to start paying for her alethiometer lessons? How would she manage that?

“Open it, stupid,” said Pan.

“Yes,” she said.

The card inside said:
Dear Lyra, could you possibly come to see me this afternoon? It’s important. Hannah Relf.

Lyra looked at it numbly. This afternoon? Which afternoon did she mean? Wouldn’t she have had to post the letter yesterday? But the date on the card was today’s.

She looked again at the envelope. She hadn’t noticed that there was no stamp, or that the words
By hand
were written in the top left corner.

She turned to the porter, who was putting other letters into a rack of pigeonholes. “Bill, when did this arrive?” she said.

“About half an hour ago. By hand.”

“Thanks…”

She put the letter in her pocket and wandered back through the quad and into the Scholars’ Garden. Most of the trees were bare, the flower beds seemed empty and dead, and only the great cedar looked alive, though it also looked asleep. It was another of those still, gray days when silence itself seemed to be a meteorological phenomenon, not just the result of nothing happening but a positive presence larger than gardens, and colleges, and life.

Lyra climbed the stone steps that led up the bank at the end of the garden to a spot overlooking Radcliffe Square, and sat on the bench that had been placed there a long time before.

“You know one thing,” said Pan.

“What?”

“We can’t trust the lock on our door.”

“I don’t see why not.”

“Because we can’t trust
him.

“Oh, really.”

“Yes, really. We had no clue that he was going to say that last night. He was all smooth and agreeable. He’s a hypocrite.”

“What did his dæmon say?”

“Glib, friendly, patronizing stuff. Nothing important at all.”

“Well, we haven’t got much choice,” she said, finding words hard to come by. “He needs our rooms. We’re not really part of the college. There’s no money left. He’s got to…got to try and…Oh, I don’t know, Pan. It’s all just so miserable. And now I’m worried about what Hannah’s going to say.”

“Well, that’s just silly.”

“I know it is. It doesn’t help, though, knowing it.”

He stalked to the end of the bench and then leapt across onto the low wall, beyond which was a thirty-foot drop to the cobbles of the square below. She felt a lurch of fear, but nothing would have made her admit it to him. He pretended to stagger and trip and totter on the stone capping, and then, getting no response from Lyra, sank down on his belly into a sphinx posture, paws extended in front, head held high, gazing forward.

“Once we’re out, we’re out,” he said. “We won’t be able to set foot in the place again. We’ll be strangers.”

“Yes, I know. I’ve thought it all through, Pan.”

“So what shall we do?”

“When?”

“When it’s all over. When we leave.”

“Find a job. Find somewhere to live.”

“Very easy, then.”

“I know it won’t be easy. Actually, I don’t know that. It might be very easy. But everyone has to do that. Move away from home, I mean. Go out and make their own life.”

“With most people, their home would always let them come back, and welcome them, and be glad to hear about what they’d been doing.”

“Well, good for them. We’re different. Always have been. You
know
that. But what we’re
not
going to do, not for a single second, you hear me, is make a fuss. Or complain. Or whine that we’re not being treated fairly. It
is
fair. He’s going to let us stay for another year and a bit, even though the money’s run out. He’s going to pay for St. Sophia’s. That’s more than fair. The rest is—well, it’s up to us. As it would have been, anyway. We weren’t going to live here forever, were we?”

“I don’t see why not. We’re an ornament to the college. They should be proud to have us.”

That made her smile, anyway, for a moment.

“But maybe you’re right about the room, Pan. I mean, locking it.”

“Ah.”

“The alethiometer…”

“That’s one of the things I meant. We’re not
at home
anymore; we’ve got to remember that.”

“One of the things? What are the others?”

“The rucksack,” Pan said firmly.

“Yes. Of course!”

“Suppose someone went in there looking around, and found it….”

“They’d think we’d stolen it.”

“Or worse. If they knew about the murder…”

“We need somewhere better than that. A proper safe.”

“Hannah’s got one. A safe, I mean.”

“Yes. But are we going to tell her?”

He said nothing for a few moments. Then he said, “Mrs. Lonsdale.”

“Alice. That’s another odd thing. All these things that are changing…like ice breaking under your feet.”

“We must have known her name was Alice.”

“Yes, but to hear
him
calling her Alice…”

“Perhaps they’re lovers.”

That was too silly to deserve a response.

They sat there for a few more minutes, and then Lyra stood up.

“Let’s go and make things a bit safer, then,” she said, and they set off back to their rooms.

* * *

When Lyra visited Hannah Relf, as she did every week during term and quite often during the vacation, she normally took the alethiometer with her, since that was the subject of their study. When she thought of the carefree way she’d carried it with her to the Arctic and out into other worlds, of how she’d thoughtlessly let it be stolen and how she and Will had stolen it back with such care and at such risk, she was amazed at her own confidence, her own luck. Her stock of those qualities felt low at the moment.

So, having made a few changes to the rucksack’s hiding place, and having pulled the table over the rug to discourage any search, she made sure the alethiometer was stowed away safely in her bag along with Hassall’s wallet before she set off to walk to Dame Hannah’s little house in Jericho.

“She can’t be wanting to give us another lesson,” Lyra said.

“And we can’t be in trouble. At least, I hope not.”

Although it was still early in the afternoon, Dr. Relf had lit the lamps in her little sitting room, giving it an air of welcoming cheer against the darkening gray outside. Lyra couldn’t even guess how many times she’d sat in this room, with Pan and Hannah’s dæmon, Jesper, talking quietly on the hearth while she and Dr. Relf pored over a dozen or more ancient books, and tried the alethiometer again, or simply sat and chatted….She loved this mild and learned lady, she realized, loved everything about her and her way of life.

“Sit down, dear. Stop fretting,” Hannah said. “There’s no reason to fret. But we do have something to talk about.”

“It’s been worrying me,” Lyra said.

“I can see. But now tell me about the Master—Werner Hammond. I know you had dinner with him last night. What did he say to you?”

Lyra shouldn’t have been surprised; the lady’s perceptions were so quick and accurate as to seem uncanny, or they would have done if Lyra hadn’t known of Hannah’s skill with the alethiometer. Nevertheless, this did shake her a little.

She gave an account, as full as she could make it, of her dinner with the Master. Hannah listened closely, saying nothing till Lyra had finished.

“But he said one thing I forgot till just now,” Lyra concluded. “He said he knew you. He’d met you in some diplomatic context. He wasn’t specific about it—he just said how clever you were. Do you know him?”

“Oh, yes, we’ve met. I saw enough of him to be very careful.”

“Why? Is he dishonest? Or dangerous, or something? I’m lost, really,” Lyra confessed. “I feel as if the floor has given way. I couldn’t argue with what he said; it was just such a shock….Anyway, what do you know about him?”

“I’m going to tell you some things I really ought to keep secret. But because I know you so well, and because I trust you to keep things secret if I ask you to, and because you’re in some danger…Ah—here’s someone I was expecting.”

She got up as the doorbell rang. Lyra sat back, feeling light-headed and shaky. Voices came from the little hall, and then Dame Hannah came back with—

“Dr. Polstead,” said Lyra. “And…Mrs. Lonsdale? You too?”

“Alice, you goose,” said that lady. “Things are changing, Lyra.”

“Hello, Lyra,” said Dr. Polstead. “Don’t move. I’ll perch here.”

Pan crept behind Lyra’s legs as Dr. Polstead sat on the sofa next to Alice, looking too large for the little room; his broad ruddy face, a farmer’s face, she thought, smiling warmly; his red-gold hair, the exact color of his cat dæmon; his big hands, fingers interlaced, as he leant forward with his elbows on his knees—she felt as if she were catching clumsiness from him, although he had never done anything clumsy. And she recalled the brief period a few years before when he’d been given the task of tutoring her in geography and economic history, and how it had been an embarrassing failure, with each of them clearly resenting this unsuccessful enterprise but neither wanting to say it. He should have acted sooner to bring it to an end, because he was the adult, after all, but she knew she’d been difficult and sometimes insolent, and that much of the blame was hers; they’d just rubbed each other the wrong way, and there was nothing to be done but call an end to it. Since then, they’d both been scrupulously polite and outwardly friendly, while being relieved to see each other for not a moment more than was necessary.

But what Alice had said about him the day before—and now, to see them both on terms of warm friendship with Dame Hannah, when none of them had ever seemed even to know about the others’ existence…Well, these last few days had exposed a lot of strange links and connections.

“I didn’t know you three knew one another,” she said.

“We’ve been friends for—oh, nineteen years,” he said.

“It was the alethiometer that told me how to find Malcolm,” said Hannah, coming into the room with a tray of tea and biscuits. “He must have been about eleven years old.”

“To find him? Were you looking for him, then?”

“I was looking for something that was lost, and it pointed me to Malcolm, who’d found it. We just fell into a sort of friendship.”

“I see,” said Lyra.

“It was very lucky for me,” he said. “Now, what have you said so far?”

“Lyra told me what the Master said to her last night. He told her that she’d been living not on her father’s money, as she’d thought, but on Dr. Carne’s. Lyra, that is true. The old Master didn’t want you to know, but he’d paid for everything. Your father didn’t leave a penny.”

“And did you know that?” said Lyra. “Have you always known that?”

“Yes, I have,” said Hannah. “I didn’t tell you because he didn’t want me to. Besides—”

“You see, I rather kind of
hate
this,” Lyra burst out. “All my life people have hidden things from me. They didn’t tell me that Asriel was my father and Mrs. Coulter was my mother. Imagine finding that out, and feeling that everyone in the world knew it and I was the only fool who didn’t. Hannah, whatever Dr. Carne said to you, whatever promise you made, it wasn’t a good thing to keep it from me. It
wasn’t.
I should have known. It would have woken me up. It would have made me think about the money and ask questions about it and find out that there was only a little left. Then I wouldn’t have been so shocked yesterday evening.”

She’d never spoken like that to her old friend before, but she knew she was right, and so did Hannah, who bowed her head and nodded.

Dr. Polstead said, “In Hannah’s defense, Lyra, we didn’t know what the new Master was going to do.”

“He shouldn’t’ve done that, though,” said Alice. “I never trusted him from the moment he arrived.”

“No, he shouldn’t,” said Hannah. “And in fact, Lyra, Alice was keen to tell you about all this while the old Master was still alive. She’s not to blame.”

“After your twenty-first birthday,” said Dr. Polstead, “when you’ll be legally able to manage your own affairs, it would have had to come out, and I know that Hannah was planning to speak to you in time for that. He forestalled us.”

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