The Subtle Knife Chapter Nine
First they went back to the caf?¦, to recover and rest and change their clothes. It was clear that Will couldn’t go everywhere covered in blood, and the time of feeling guilty about taking things from shops was over; so he gathered a complete set of new clothes and shoes, and Lyra, demanding to help, and watching in every direction for the other children, carried them back to the caf?¦.
Lyra put some water on to boil, and Will took it up to the bathroom and stripped to wash from head to foot.
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The pain was dull and unrelenting, but at least the cuts were clean, and having seen what the knife could do, he knew that no cuts could be cleaner; but the stumps where his fingers had been were bleeding freely. When he looked at them he felt sick, and his heart beat faster, and that in turn seemed to make the bleeding even worse. He sat on the edge of the bath and closed his eyes and breathed deeply several times.
Presently he felt calmer and set himself to washing. He did the best he could, drying himself on the increasingly bloodied towels, and then dressed in his new clothes, trying not to make them bloody too.
“You’re going to have to tie my bandage again,” he said to Lyra. “I don’t care how tight you make it as long as it stops the bleeding.”
She tore up a sheet and wrapped it around and around, clamping it down over the wounds as tight as she could. He gritted his teeth, but he couldn’t help the tears. He brushed them away without a word, and she said nothing.
When she’d finished, he said, “Thank you.” Then he said, “Listen. I want you to take something in your rucksack for me, in case we can’t come back here. It’s only letters. You can read them if you want.”
He went to the bedroom, took out the green leather writing case, and handed her the sheets of airmail paper.
“I won’t read them unless – “
“I don’t mind. Else I wouldn’t have said.”
She folded up the letters, and he lay on the bed, pushed the cat aside, and fell asleep.
Much later that night, Will and Lyra crouched in the lane that ran along beside the tree-shaded shrubbery in Sir Charles’s garden. On the Cittagazze side, they were in a grassy park surrounding a classical villa that gleamed white in the moonlight. They’d taken a long time to get to Sir Charles’s house, moving mainly in Cittagazze, with frequent stops to cut through and check their position in Will’s world, closing the windows as soon as they knew where they were.
Not with them but not far behind came the tabby cat. She had slept since they’d rescued her from the stone-throwing children, and now that she was awake again she was reluctant to leave them, as if she thought that wherever they were, she was safe. Will was far from sure about that, but he had enough on his mind without the cat, and he ignored her. All the time he was growing more familiar with the knife, more certain in his command of it; but his wound was hurting worse than before, with a deep, unceasing throb, and the bandage Lyra had freshly tied after he woke up was already soaked.
He cut a window in the air not far from the white-gleaming villa, and they came through to the quiet lane in Headington to work out exactly how to get to the study where Sir Charles had put the alethiometer. There were two floodlights illuminating his garden, and lights were on in the front windows of the house, though not in the study. Only moonlight lit this side, and the study window was dark.
The lane ran down through trees to another road at the far end, and it wasn’t lighted. It would have been easy for an ordinary burglar to get unobserved into the shrubbery and thus to the garden, except that there was a strong iron fence twice as high as Will, with spikes on the top, running the length of Sir Charles’s property. However, it was no barrier to the subtle knife.
“Hold this bar while I cut it,” Will whispered. “Catch it when it falls.”
Lyra did as he said, and he cut through four bars altogether, enough for them to pass through without difficulty. Lyra laid them one by one on the grass, and then they were through, and moving among the bushes.
Once they had a clear sight of the side of the house, with the creeper-shaded window of the study facing them across the smooth lawn, Will said quietly, “I’m going to cut through into Ci’gazze here, and leave the window open, and move in Ci’gazze to where I think the study is, and then cut back through to this world. Then I’ll take the alethiometer out of that cabinet thing and I’ll close that window and then I’ll come back to this one. You stay here in this world and keep watch. As soon as you hear me call you, you come through this window into Ci’gazze and then I’ll close it up again. All right?”
“Yeah,” she whispered. “Both me and Pan’ll look out.”
Her daemon was a small tawny owl, almost invisible in the dappled shadows under the trees. His wide pale eyes took in every movement.
Will stood back and held out the knife, searching, touching the air with the most delicate movements, until after a minute or so he found a point at which he could cut. He did it swiftly, opening a window through into the moonlit land of Ci’gazze, and then stood back, estimating how many steps it would take him in that world to reach the study, and memorizing the direction.
Then without a word he stepped through and vanished.
Lyra crouched down nearby. Pantalaimon was perched on a branch above her head, turning this way and that, silent. She could hear traffic from Headington behind her, and the quiet footsteps of someone going along the road at the end of the lane, and even the weightless movement of insects among the twigs and leaves at her feet.
A minute went by, and another. Where was Will now? She strained to look through the window of the study, but it was just a dark mullioned square overhung with creeper. Sir Charles had sat inside it on the window seat only that morning, and crossed his legs, and arranged the creases in his trousers. Where was the cabinet in relation to the window? Would Will get inside without disturbing anyone in the house? Lyra could hear her heart beating, too.
Then Pantalaimon made a soft noise, and at the same moment a different sound came from the front of the house, to Lyra’s left. She couldn’t see the front, but she could see a light sweeping across the trees, and she heard a deep crunching sound: the sound of tires on gravel, she guessed. She hadn’t heard the car’s engine at all.
She looked for Pantalaimon, and he was already gliding ahead silently, as far as he could go from her. He turned in the darkness and swooped back to settle on her fist.
“Sir Charles is coming back,” he whispered. “And there’s someone with him.”
He took off again, and this time Lyra followed, tiptoeing over the soft earth with the utmost care, crouching down behind the bushes, finally going on hands and knees to look between the leaves of a laurel.
The Rolls-Royce stood in front of the house, and the chauffeur was moving around to the passenger side to open the door. Sir Charles stood waiting, smiling, offering his arm to the woman who was getting out, and as she came into view Lyra felt a blow at her heart, the worst blow since she’d escaped from Bolvangar, because Sir Charles’s guest was her mother, Mrs. Coulter.
Will stepped carefully across the grass in Cittagazze, counting his paces, holding in his mind as clearly as he could a memory of where the study was and trying to locate it with reference to the villa, which stood nearby, stucco-white and columned in a formal garden with statues and a fountain. And he was aware of how exposed he was in this moon-drenched parkland.
When he thought he was in the right spot, he stopped and held out the knife again, feeling forward carefully. These little invisible gaps were anywhere, but not everywhere, or any slash of the knife would open a window.
He cut a small opening first, no bigger than his hand, and looked through. Nothing but darkness on the other side: he couldn’t see where he was. He closed that one, turned through ninety degrees, and opened another. This time he found fabric in front of him – heavy green velvet: the curtains of the study. But where were they in relation to the cabinet? He had to close that one too, turn the other way, try again. Time was passing.
The third time, he found he could see the whole of the study in the dim light through the open door to the hall. There was the desk, the sofa, the cabinet! He could see a faint gleam along the side of a brass microscope. And there was no one in the room, and the house was silent. It couldn’t be better.
He carefully estimated the distance, closed that window, stepped forward four paces, and held up the knife again. If he was right, he’d be in exactly the right spot to reach through, cut through the glass in the cabinet, take out the alethiometer and close the window behind him.
He cut a window at the right height. The glass of the cabinet door was only a handsbreadth in front of it. He put his face close, looking intently at this shelf and that, from top to bottom.
The alethiometer wasn’t there.
At first Will thought he’d got the wrong cabinet. There were four of them in the room. He’d counted that morning, and memorized where they were – tall square cases made of dark wood, with glass sides and fronts and velvet-covered shelves, made for displaying valuable objects of porcelain or ivory or gold. Could he have simply opened a window in front of the wrong one? But on the top shelf was that bulky instrument with the brass rings: he’d made a point of noticing that. And on the shelf in the middle, where Sir Charles had placed the alethiometer, there was a space. This was the right cabinet, and the alethiometer wasn’t there.
Will stepped back a moment and took a deep breath.
He’d have to go through properly and look around. Opening windows here and there at random would take all night. He closed the window in front of the cabinet, opened another to look at the rest of the room, and when he’d taken careful stock, he closed that one and opened a larger one behind the sofa through which he could easily get out in a hurry if he needed to.
His hand was throbbing brutally by this time, and the bandage was trailing loose. He wound it around as best he could and tucked the end in, and then went through into Sir Charles’s house completely and crouched behind the leather sofa, the knife in his right hand, listening carefully.
Hearing nothing, he stood up slowly and looked around the room. The door to the hall was half-open, and the light that came through was quite enough to see by. The cabinets, the bookshelves, the pictures were all there, as they had been that morning, undisturbed.
He stepped out on the silent carpet and looked into each of the cabinets in turn. It wasn’t there. Nor was it on the desk among the neatly piled books and papers, nor on the mantelpiece among the invitation cards to this opening or that reception, nor on the cushioned window seat, nor on the octagonal table behind the door.
He moved back to the desk, intending to try the drawers, but with the heavy expectation of failure; and as he did so, he heard the faint crunch of tires on gravel. It was so quiet that he half-thought he was imagining it, but he stood stock-still, straining to listen. It stopped.
Then he heard the front door open.
He went at once to the sofa again, and crouched behind it, next to the window that opened onto the moon-silvered grass in Cittagazze. And no sooner had he got there than he heard footsteps in that other world, lightly running over the grass, and looked through to see Lyra racing toward him. He was just in time to wave and put his finger to his lips, and she slowed, realizing that he was aware Sir Charles had returned.
“I haven’t got it,” he whispered when she came up. “It wasn’t there. He’s probably got it with him. I’m going to listen and see if he puts it back. Stay here.”
“No! It’s worse!” she said, and she was nearly in a genuine panic. “She’s with him – Mrs. Coulter – my mother! I dunno how she got here, but if she sees me, I’m dead, Will, I’m lost – and I know who he is now! I remember where I seen him before! Will, he’s called Lord Boreal! I seen him at Mrs. Coulter’s cocktail party, when I ran away! And he must have known who I was, all the time…”
“Shh. Don’t stay here if you’re going to make a noise.”
She mastered herself, and swallowed hard, and shook her head.
“Sorry. I want to stay with you,” she whispered. “I want to hear what they say.”
Because he could hear voices in the hall. The two of them were close enough to touch, Will in his world, she in Cittagazze, and seeing his trailing bandage, Lyra tapped him on the arm and mimed tying it up again. He held out his hand for her to do it, crouching meanwhile with his head cocked sideways, listening hard.
A light came on in the room. He heard Sir Charles speaking to the servant, dismissing him, coming into the study, closing the door.
“May I offer you a glass of Tokay?” he said.
A woman’s voice, low and sweet, replied, “How kind of you, Carlo. I haven’t tasted Tokay for many years.”
“Have the chair by the fireplace.”
There was the faint glug of wine being poured, a tinkle of decanter on glass rim, a murmur of thanks, and then Sir Charles seated himself on the sofa, inches away from Will.
“Your good health, Marisa,” he said, sipping. “Now, suppose you tell me what you want.”
“I want to know where you got the alethiometer.”
“Because Lyra had it, and I want to find her.”
“I can’t imagine why you would. She is a repellent brat.”
“I’ll remind you that she’s my daughter.”
“Then she is even more repellent, because she must have resisted your charming influence on purpose. No one could do it by accident.”
“Where is she?”
“I’ll tell you, I promise. But you must tell me something first.”
“If I can,” she said, in a different tone that Will thought might be a warning. Her voice was intoxicating: soothing, sweet, musical, and young, too. He longed to know what she looked like, because Lyra had never described her, and the face that went with this voice must be remarkable. “What do you want to know?”
“What is Asriel up to?”
There was a silence then, as if the woman were calculating what to say. Will looked back through the window at Lyra, and saw her face, moonlit and wide-eyed with fear, biting her lip to keep silent and straining to hear, as he was.
Finally Mrs. Coulter said, “Very well, I’ll tell you. Lord Asriel is gathering an army, with the purpose of completing the war that was fought in heaven eons ago.”
“How medieval. However, he seems to have some very modern powers. What has he done to the magnetic pole?”
“He found a way of blasting open the barrier between our world and others. It caused profound disturbances to the earth’s magnetic field, and that must resonate in this world too… But how do you know about that? Carlo, I think you should answer some questions of mine. What is this world? And how did you bring me here?”
“It is one of millions. There are openings between them, but they’re not easily found. I know a dozen or so, but the places they open into have shifted, and that must be due to what Asriel’s done. It seems that we can now pass directly from this world into our own, and probably into many others too. When I looked through one of the doorways earlier today, you can imagine how surprised I was to find it opening into our world, and what’s more, to find you nearby. Providence, dear lady! The change meant that I could bring you here directly, without the risk of going through Cittagazze.”
“Cittagazze? What is that?”
“Previously, all the doorways opened into one world, which was a sort of crossroads. That is the world of Cittagazze. But it’s too dangerous to go there at the moment.”
“Why is it dangerous?”
“Dangerous for adults. Children can go there freely.”
“What? I must know about this, Carlo,” said the woman, and Will could hear her passionate impatience. “This is at the heart of everything, this difference between children and adults! It contains the whole mystery of Dust! This is why I must find the child. And the witches have a name for her – I nearly had it, so nearly, from a witch in person, but she died too quickly. I must find the child. She has the answer, somehow, and I must have it.”
“And you shall. This instrument will bring her to me – never fear. And once she’s given me what I want, you can have her. But tell me about your curious bodyguards, Marisa. I’ve never seen soldiers like that. Who are they?”
“Men, that’s all. But… they’ve undergone intercision. They have no daemons, so they have no fear and no imagination and no free will, and they’ll fight till they’re torn apart.”
“No daemons… Well, that’s very interesting. I wonder if I might suggest a little experiment, if you can spare one of them? I’d like to see whether the Specters are interested in them.”
“Specters? What are they?”
“I’ll explain later, my dear. They are the reason adults can’t go into that world. But if they’re no more interested in your bodyguards than they are in children, we might be able to travel in Cittagazze after all. Dust – children – Specters – daemons – intercision… Yes, it might very well work. Have some more wine.”
“I want to know everything,” she said, over the sound of wine being poured. “And I’ll hold you to that. Now tell me: What are you doing in this world? Is this where you came when we thought you were in Brasil or the Indies?”
“I found my way here a long time ago,” said Sir Charles. “It was too good a secret to reveal, even to you, Marisa. I’ve made myself very comfortable, as you can see. Being part of the Council of State at home made it easy for me to see where the power lay here.”
“As a matter of fact, I became a spy, though I never told my masters all I knew. The security services in this world were preoccupied for years with the Soviet Union – we know it as Muscovy. And although that threat has receded, there are still listening posts and machines trained in that direction, and I’m still in touch with those who run the spies.”
Mrs. Coulter sipped her Tokay. Her brilliant eyes were fixed unblinkingly on his.
“And I heard recently about a profound disturbance in the earth’s magnetic field,” Sir Charles continued. “The security services are alarmed. Every nation that does research into fundamental physics – what we call experimental theology – is turning to its scientists urgently to discover what’s going on. Because they know that something is happening. And they suspect it has to do with other worlds.”
“They do have a few clues to this, as a matter of fact. There is some research being done into Dust. Oh, yes, they know it here as well. There is a team in this very city working on it. And another thing: There was a man who disappeared ten or twelve years ago, in the north, and the security services think he was in possession of some knowledge they badly need – specifically, the location of a doorway between the worlds, such as the one you came through earlier today. The one he found is the only one they know about: you can imagine I haven’t told them what I know. When this new disturbance began, they set out to look for this man.”
“And naturally, Marisa, I myself am curious. And I am keen to add to my knowledge.”
Will sat frozen, with his heart thudding so hard he was afraid the adults would hear it. Sir Charles was talking about his own father!
But all the time, he was conscious of something else in the room as well as the voices of Sir Charles and the woman. There was a shadow moving across the floor, or that part of it he could see beyond the end of the sofa and past the legs of the little octagonal table. But neither Sir Charles nor the woman was moving. The shadow moved in a quick darting prowl, and it disturbed Will greatly. The only light in the room was a standard lamp beside the fireplace, so the shadow was clear and definite, but it never stopped long enough for Will to make out what it was.
Then two things happened. First, Sir Charles mentioned the alethiometer.
“For example,” he said, continuing what he’d been saying, “I’m very curious about this instrument. Suppose you tell me how it works.”
And he placed the alethiometer on the octagonal table at the end of the sofa. Will could see it clearly; he could almost reach it.
The second thing that happened was that the shadow fell still. The creature that was the source of it must have been perched on the back of Mrs. Coulter’s chair, because the light streaming over it threw its shadow clearly on the wall. And the moment it stopped, he realized it was the woman’s daemon: a crouching monkey, turning its head this way and that, searching for something.
Will heard an intake of breath from Lyra behind him as she saw it too. He turned silently and whispered, “Go back to the other window, and come through into his garden. Find some stones and throw them at the study so they look away for a moment, and then I can get the alethiometer. Then run back to the other window and wait for me.”
She nodded, then turned and ran away silently over the grass. Will turned back.
The woman was saying, “…the Master of Jordan College is a foolish old man. Why he gave it to her I can’t imagine; you need several years of intensive study to make any sense of it at all. And now you owe me some information, Carlo. How did you find it? And where is the child?”
“I saw her using it in a museum in the city. I recognized her, of course, having seen her at your cocktail party all that time ago, and I realized she must have found a doorway. And then I realized that I could use it for a purpose of my own. So when I came across her a second time, I stole it.”
“You’re very frank.”
“No need to be coy; we’re both grown-up.”
“And where is she now? What did she do when she found it was missing?”
“She came to see me, which must have taken some nerve, I imagine.”
“She doesn’t lack nerve. And what are you going to do with it? What is this purpose of yours?”
“I told her that she could have it back, provided she got something for me – something I couldn’t get myself.”
“And what is that?”
“I don’t know whether you – “
And that was the moment when the first stone smashed into the study window.
It broke with a satisfying crash of glass, and instantly the monkey shadow leaped from the chair back as the adults gasped. There came another crash, and another, and Will felt the sofa move as Sir Charles got up.
Will leaned forward and snatched the alethiometer from the little table, thrust it into his pocket, and darted back through the window. As soon as he was on the grass in Cittagazze he felt in the air for those elusive edges, calming his mind, breathing slowly, conscious all the time that only feet away there was horrible danger.
Then came a screech, not human, not animal, but worse than either, and he knew it was that loathsome monkey. By that time he’d gotten most of the window closed, but there was still a small gap at the level of his chest. And then he leaped back, because into that gap there came a small furry golden hand with black fingernails, and then a face – a nightmare face. The golden monkey’s teeth were bared, his eyes glaring, and such a concentrated malevolence blazed from him that Will felt it almost like a spear.
Another second and he would have been through, and that would have been the end. But Will was still holding the knife, and he brought it up at once and slashed left, right, across the monkey’s face – or where the face would have been if the monkey hadn’t withdrawn just in time. That gave Will the moment he needed to seize the edges of the window and press them shut.
His own world had vanished, and he was alone in the moonlit parkland in Cittagazze, panting and trembling and horribly frightened.
But now there was Lyra to rescue. He ran back to the first window, the one he’d opened into the shrubbery, and looked through. The dark leaves of laurels and holly obscured the view, but he reached through and thrust them aside to see the side of the house clearly, with the broken study window sharp in the moonlight.
As he watched, he saw the monkey leaping around the corner of the house, scampering over the grass with the speed of a cat, and then he saw Sir Charles and the woman following close behind. Sir Charles was carrying a pistol. The woman herself was beautiful – Will saw that with shock – lovely in the moonlight, her brilliant dark eyes wide with enchantment, her slender shape light and graceful; but as she snapped her fingers, the monkey stopped at once and leaped up into her arms, and he saw that the sweet-faced woman and the evil monkey were one being.
But where was Lyra?
The adults were looking around, and then the woman put the monkey down, and it began to cast this way and that on the grass as if it were scenting or looking for footprints. There was silence from all around. If Lyra was in the shrubbery already, she wouldn’t be able to move without making a noise, which would give her away at once.
Sir Charles adjusted something on his pistol with a soft click: the safety catch. He peered into the shrubbery, seeming to look directly at Will, and then his eyes traveled on past.
Then both of the adults looked to their left, for the monkey had heard something. And in a flash it leaped forward to where Lyra must be, and a moment later it would have found her –
And at that moment the tabby cat sprang out of the shrubbery and onto the grass, and hissed.
The monkey heard and twisted in midair as if with astonishment, though he was hardly as astonished as Will himself. The monkey fell on his paws, facing the cat, and the cat arched her back, tail raised high, and stood sideways on, hissing, challenging, spitting.
And the monkey leaped for her. The cat reared up, slashing with needle-paws left and right too quickly to be seen, and then Lyra was beside Will, tumbling through the window with Pantalaimon beside her. And the cat screamed, and the monkey screamed, too, as the cat’s claws raked his face; and then the monkey turned and leaped into Mrs. Coulter’s arms, and the cat shot away into the bushes of her own world and vanished.
And Will and Lyra were through the window, and Will felt once again for the almost intangible edges in the air and pressed them swiftly together, closing the window all along its length as through the diminishing gap came the sound of feet among twigs and cracking branches –
And then there was only a hole the size of Will’s hand, and then it was shut, and the whole world was silent. He fell to his knees on the dewy grass and fumbled for the alethiometer.
“Here,” he said to Lyra.
She took it. With shaking hands he slid the knife back into its sheath. Then he lay down trembling in all his limbs and closed his eyes, and felt the moonlight bathing him with silver, and felt Lyra undoing his bandage and tying it up again with delicate, gentle movements.
“Oh, Will,” he heard her say. “Thank you for what you done, for all of it…”
“I hope the cat’s all right,” he muttered. “She’s like my Moxie. She’s probably gone home now. In her own world again. She’ll be all right now.”
“You know what I thought? I thought for a second she was your daemon. She done what a good daemon would have done, anyway. We rescued her and she rescued us. Come on, Will, don’t lie on the grass, it’s wet. You got to come and lie down in a proper bed, else you’ll catch cold. We’ll go in that big house over there. There’s bound to be beds and food and stuff. Come on, I’ll make a new bandage, I’ll put some coffee on to cook, I’ll make some omelette, whatever you want, and we’ll sleep… We’ll be safe now we’ve got the alethiometer back, you’ll see. I’ll do nothing now except help you find your father, I promise…”
She helped him up, and they walked slowly through the garden toward the great white-gleaming house under the moon.