The Subtle Knife Chapter Seven
Lyra woke early to find the morning quiet and warm, as if the city never had any other weather than this calm summer. She slipped out of bed and downstairs, and hearing some children’s voices out on the water, went to see what they were doing.
Three boys and a girl were splashing across the sunlit harbor in a couple of pedal boats, racing toward the steps.
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As they saw Lyra, they slowed for a moment, but then the race took hold of them again. The winners crashed into the steps so hard that one of them fell into the water, and then he tried to climb into the other craft and tipped that over, too, and then they all splashed about together as if the fear of the night before had never happened. They were younger than most of the children by the tower, Lyra thought, and she joined them in the water, with Pantalaimon as a little silver fish glittering beside her. She never found it hard to talk to other children, and soon they were gathered around her, sitting in pools of water on the warm stone, their shirts drying quickly in the sun. Poor Pantalaimon had to creep into her pocket again, frog-shaped in the cool damp cotton.
“What you going to do with that cat?”
“Can you really take the bad luck away?”
“Where you come from?”
“Your friend, he ain’ afraid of Specters?”
“Will en’t afraid of anything,” Lyra said. “Nor’m I. What you scared of cats for?”
“You don’t know about cats?” the oldest boy said incredulously. “Cats, they got the devil in them, all right. You got to kill every cat you see. They bite you and put the devil in you too. And what was you doing with that big pard?”
She realized he meant Pantalaimon in his leopard shape, and shook her head innocently.
“You must have been dreaming,” she said. “There’s all kinds of things look different in the moonlight. But me and Will, we don’t have Specters where we come from, so we don’t know much about ’em.”
“If you can’t see ’em, you’re safe,” said a boy. “You see ’em, you know they can get you. That’s what my pa said, then they got him.”
“And they’re here, all around us now?”
“Yeah,” said the girl. She reached out a hand and grabbed a fistful of air, crowing, “I got one now!”
“They can’t hurt you,” one of the boys said. “So we can’t hurt them, all right.”
“And there’s always been Specters in this world?” said Lyra.
“Yeah,” said one boy, but another said, “No, they came a long time ago. Hundreds of years.”
“They came because of the Guild,” said the third.
“The what?” said Lyra.
“They never!” said the girl. “My granny said they came because people were bad, and God sent them to punish us.”
“Your granny don’ know nothing,” said a boy. “She got a beard, your granny. She’s a goat, all right.”
“What’s the Guild?” Lyra persisted.
“You know the Torre degli Angeli,” said a boy. “The stone tower, right. Well it belongs to the Guild, and there’s a secret place in there. The Guild, they’re men who know all kind of things. Philosophy, alchemy, all kind of things they know. And they were the ones who let the Specters in.”
“That ain’ true,” said another boy. ‘They came from the stars.”
“It is! This is what happened, all right: this Guild man hundreds of years ago was taking some metal apart. Lead. He was going to make it into gold. And he cut it and cut it smaller and smaller till he came to the smallest piece he could get. There ain’ nothing smaller than that. So small you couldn’ see it, even. But he cut that, too, and inside the smallest little bit there was all the Specters packed in, twisted over and folded up so tight they took up no space at all. But once he cut it, bam! They whooshed out, and they been here ever since. That’s what my papa said.”
“Is there any Guild men in the tower now?” said Lyra.
“No! They run away like everyone else,” said the girl.
“There ain’ no one in the tower. That’s haunted, that place,” said a boy. “That’s why the cat came from there. We ain’ gonna go in there, all right. Ain’ no kids gonna go in there. That’s scary.”
“The Guild men ain’ afraid to go in there,” said another.
“They got special magic, or something. They’re greedy, they live off the poor people,” said the girl. “The poor people do all the work, and the Guild men just live there for nothing.”
“But there en’t anyone in the tower now?” Lyra said. “No grownups?”
“No grownups in the city at all!”
“They wouldn’ dare, all right.”
But she had seen a young man up there. She was convinced of it. And there was something in the way these children spoke; as a practiced liar, she knew liars when she met them, and they were lying about something.
And suddenly she remembered: little Paolo had mentioned that he and Angelica had an elder brother, Tullio, who was in the city too, and Angelica had hushed him… Could the young man she’d seen have been their brother?
She left them to rescue their boats and pedal back to the beach, and went inside to make some coffee and see if Will was awake. But he was still asleep, with the cat curled up at his feet, and Lyra was impatient to see her Scholar again. So she wrote a note and left it on the floor by his bedside, and took her rucksack and went off to look for the window.
The way she took led her through the little square they’d come to the night before. But it was empty now, and the sunlight dusted the front of the ancient tower and showed up the blurred carvings beside the doorway: humanlike figures with folded wings, their features eroded by centuries of weather, but somehow in their stillness expressing power and compassion and intellectual force.
“Angels,” said Pantalaimon, now a cricket on Lyra’s shoulder.
“Maybe Specters,” Lyra said.
“No! They said this was something angeli.” he insisted. “Bet that’s angels.”
“Shall we go in?”
They looked up at the great oak door on its ornate black hinges. The half-dozen steps up to it were deeply worn, and the door itself stood slightly open. There was nothing to stop Lyra from going in except her own fear.
She tiptoed to the top of the steps and looked through the opening. A dark stone-flagged hall was all she could see, and not much of that; but Pantalaimon was fluttering anxiously on her shoulder, just as he had when they’d played the trick on the skulls in the crypt at Jordan College, and she was a little wiser now. This was a bad place. She ran down the steps and out of the square, making for the bright sunlight of the palm tree boulevard. And as soon as she was sure there was no one looking, she went straight across to the window and through into Will’s Oxford.
Forty minutes later she was inside the physics building once more, arguing with the porter; but this time she had a trump card.
“You just ask Dr. Malone,” she said sweetly. “That’s all you got to do, ask her. She’ll tell you.”
The porter turned to his telephone, and Lyra watched pityingly as he pressed the buttons and spoke into it. They didn’t even give him a proper lodge to sit in, like a real Oxford college, just a big wooden counter, as if it was a shop.
“All right,” said the porter, turning back. “She says go on up. Mind you don’t go anywhere else.”
“No, I won’t,” she said demurely, a good little girl doing what she was told.
At the top of the stairs, though, she had a surprise, because just as she passed a door with a symbol indicating woman on it, it opened and there was Dr. Malone silently beckoning her in.
She entered, puzzled. This wasn’t the laboratory, it was a washroom, and Dr. Malone was agitated.
She said, “Lyra, there’s someone else in the lab – police officers or something. They know you came to see me yesterday – I don’t know what they’re after, but I don’t like it. What’s going on?”
“How do they know I came to see you?”
“I don’t know! They didn’t know your name, but I knew who they meant – “
“Oh. Well, I can lie to them. That’s easy.”
“But what is going on?”
A woman’s voice spoke from the corridor outside: “Dr. Malone? Have you seen the child?”
“Yes,” Dr. Malone called. “I was just showing her where the washroom is…”
There was no need for her to be so anxious, thought Lyra, but perhaps she wasn’t used to danger.
The woman in the corridor was young and dressed very smartly, and she tried to smile when Lyra came out, but her eyes remained hard and suspicious.
“Hello,” she said. “You’re Lyra, are you?”
“Yeah. What’s your name?”
“I’m Sergeant Clifford. Come along in.”
Lyra thought this young woman had a nerve, acting as if it were her own laboratory, but she nodded meekly. That was the moment when she first felt a twinge of regret. She knew she shouldn’t be here; she knew what the alethiometer wanted her to do, and it was not this. She stood doubtfully in the doorway.
In the room already there was a tall powerful man with white eyebrows. Lyra knew what Scholars looked like, and neither of these two was a Scholar.
“Come in, Lyra,” said Sergeant Clifford again. “It’s all right. This is Inspector Walters.”
“Hello, Lyra,” said the man. “I’ve been hearing all about you from Dr. Malone here. I’d like to ask you a few questions, if that’s all right.”
“What sort of questions?” she said.
“Nothing difficult,” he said, smiling. “Come and sit down, Lyra.”
He pushed a chair toward her. Lyra sat down carefully, and heard the door close itself. Dr. Malone was standing nearby. Pantalaimon, cricket-formed in Lyra’s breast pocket, was agitated; she could feel him against her breast, and hoped the tremor didn’t show. She thought to him to keep still.
“Where d’you come from, Lyra?” said Inspector Walters.
If she said Oxford, they’d easily be able to check. But she couldn’t say another world, either. These people were dangerous; they’d want to know more at once. She thought of the only other name she knew of in this world: the place Will had come from.
“Winchester,” she said.
“You’ve been in the wars, haven’t you, Lyra?” said the inspector. “How did you get those bruises? There’s a bruise on your cheek, and another on your leg – has someone been knocking you about?”
“No,” said Lyra.
“Do you go to school, Lyra?”
“Yeah. Sometimes,” she added.
“Shouldn’t you be at school today?”
She said nothing. She was feeling more and more uneasy. She looked at Dr. Malone, whose face was tight and unhappy.
“I just came here to see Dr. Malone,” Lyra said.
“Are you staying in Oxford, Lyra? Where are you staying?”
“With some people,” she said. “Just friends.”
“What’s their address?”
“I don’t know exactly what it’s called. I can find it easy, but I can’t remember the name of the street.”
“Who are these people?”
“Just friends of my father,” she said.
“Oh, I see. How did you find Dr. Malone?”
‘”Cause my father’s a physicist, and he knows her.”
It was going more easily now, she thought. She began to relax into it and lie more fluently.
“And she showed you what she was working on, did she?”
“Yeah. The engine with the screen… Yes, all that.”
“You’re interested in that sort of thing, are you? Science, and so on?”
“Yeah. Physics, especially.”
“You going to be a scientist when you grow up?”
That sort of question deserved a blank stare, which it got. He wasn’t disconcerted. His pale eyes looked briefly at the young woman, and then back to Lyra.
“And were you surprised at what Dr. Malone showed you?”
“Well, sort of, but I knew what to expect”
“Because of your father?”
“Yeah. ‘Cause he’s doing the same kind of work.”
“Yes, quite. Do you understand it?”
“Some of it.”
“Your father’s looking into dark matter, then?”
“Has he got as far as Dr. Malone?”
“Not in the same way. He can do some things better, but that engine with the words on the screen – he hasn’t got one of those.”
“Is Will staying with your friends as well?”
“Yes, he – “
And she stopped. She knew at once she’d made a horrible mistake. So did they, and they were on their feet in a moment to stop her from running out but somehow Dr. Malone was in the way, and the sergeant tripped and fell, blocking the way of the inspector. It gave Lyra time to dart out, slam the door shut behind her, and run full tilt for the stairs.
Two men in white coats came out of a door, and she bumped into them. Suddenly Pantalaimon was a crow, shrieking and flapping, and he startled them so much they fell back and she pulled free of their hands and raced down the last flight of stairs into the lobby just as the porter put the phone down and lumbered along behind his counter calling out “Oy! Stop there! You!”
But the flap he had to lift was at the other end, and she got to the revolving door before he could come out and catch her.
And behind her, the lift doors were opening, and the pale-haired man was running out so fast, so strong –
And the door wouldn’t turn! Pantalaimon shrieked at her: they were pushing the wrong side!
She cried out in fear and turned herself around, hurling her little weight against the heavy glass, willing it to turn, and got it to move just in time to avoid the grasp of the porter, who then got in the way of the pale-haired man, so Lyra could dash out and away before they got through.
Across the road, ignoring the cars, the brakes, the squeal of tires; into this gap between tall buildings, and then another road, with cars from both directions. But she was quick, dodging bicycles, always with the pale-haired man just behind her – oh, he was frightening!
Into a garden, over a fence, through some bushes – Pantalaimon skimming overhead, a swift, calling to her which way to go; crouching down behind a coal bunker as the pale man’s footsteps came racing past, and she couldn’t hear him panting, he was so fast, and so fit; and Pantalaimon said, “Back now! Go back to the road – “
So she crept out of her hiding place and ran back across the grass, out through the garden gate, into the open spaces of the Banbury Road again; and once again she dodged across, and once again tires squealed on the road; and then she was running up Norham Gardens, a quiet tree-lined road of tall Victorian houses near the park.
She stopped to gain her breath. There was a tall hedge in front of one of the gardens, with a low wall at its foot, and she sat there tucked closely in under the privet.
“She helped us!” Pantalaimon said. “Dr. Malone got in their way. She’s on our side, not theirs.”
“Oh, Pan,” she said, “I shouldn’t have said that about Will. I should’ve been more careful – “
“Shouldn’t have come,” he said severely.
“I know. That too…”
But she hadn’t got time to berate herself, because Pantalaimon fluttered to her shoulder, and then said, “Look out – behind – ” and immediately changed to a cricket again and dived into her pocket.
She stood, ready to run, and saw a large, dark blue car gliding silently to the pavement beside her. She was braced to dart in either direction, but the car’s rear window rolled down, and there looking out was a face she recognized.
“Lizzie,” said the old man from the museum. “How nice to see you again. Can I give you a lift anywhere?”
And he opened the door and moved up to make room beside him. Pantalaimon nipped her breast through the thin cotton, but she got in at once, clutching the rucksack, and the man leaned across her and pulled the door shut.
“You look as if you’re in a hurry,” he said. “Where d’you want to go?”
“Up Summertown,” she said, “please.”
The driver was wearing a peaked cap. Everything about the car was smooth and soft and powerful, and the smell of the old man’s cologne was strong in the enclosed space. The car pulled out from the pavement and moved away with no noise at all.
“So what have you been up to, Lizzie?” the old man said. “Did you find out more about those skulls?”
“Yeah,” she said, twisting to see out of the rear window. There was no sign of the pale-haired man. She’d gotten away! And he’d never find her now that she was safe in a powerful car with a rich man like this. She felt a little hiccup of triumph.
“I made some inquiries too,” he said. “An anthropologist friend of mine tells me that they’ve got several others in the collection, as well as the ones on display. Some of them are very old indeed. Neanderthal, you know.”
“Yeah, that’s what I heard too,” Lyra said, with no idea what he was talking about.
“And how’s your friend?”
“What friend?” said Lyra, alarmed. Had she told him about Will too?
“The friend you’re staying with.”
“Oh. Yes. She’s very well, thank you.”
“What does she do? Is she an archaeologist?”
“Oh… she’s a physicist. She studies dark matter,” said Lyra, still not quite in control. In this world it was harder to tell lies than she’d thought. And something else was nagging at her. This old man was familiar in some long-lost way, and she just couldn’t place it.
“Dark matter?” he was saying. “How fascinating! I saw something about that in The Timesthis morning. The universe is full of this mysterious stuff, and nobody knows what it is! And your friend is on the track of it, is she?”
“Yes. She knows a lot about it.”
“And what are you going to do later on, Lizzie? Are you going in for physics too?”
“I might,” said Lyra. “It depends.”
The chauffeur coughed gently and slowed the car down. “Well, here we are in Summertown,” said the old man. “Where would you like to be dropped?”
“Oh, just up past these shops. I can walk from there,” said Lyra. “Thank you.”
“Turn left into South Parade, and pull up on the right, could you, Allan,” said the old man.
“Very good, sir,” said the chauffeur.
A minute later the car came to a silent halt outside a public library. The old man held open the door on his side, so that Lyra had to climb past his knees to get out. There was a lot of space, but somehow it was awkward, and she didn’t want to touch him, nice as he was.
“Don’t forget your rucksack,” he said, handing it to her.
“Thank you,” she said.
“I’ll see you again, I hope, Lizzie,” he said. “Give my regards to your friend.”
“Good-bye,” she said, and lingered on the pavement till the car had turned the corner and gone out of sight before she set off toward the hornbeam trees. She had a feeling about that pale-haired man, and she wanted to ask the alethiometer.
Will was reading his father’s letters again. He sat on the terrace hearing the distant shouts of children diving off the harbor mouth, and read the clear handwriting on the flimsy airmail sheets, trying to picture the man who’d penned it, and looking again and again at the reference to the baby, to himself.
He heard Lyra’s running footsteps from some way off. He put the letters in his pocket and stood up, and almost at once Lyra was there, wild-eyed, with Pantalaimon a snarling savage wildcat, too distraught to hide. She who seldom cried was sobbing with rage; her chest was heaving, her teeth were grinding, and she flung herself at him, clutching his arms, and cried, “Kill him! Kill him! I want him dead! I wish Iorek was here! Oh, Will, I done wrong, I’m so sorry – “
“What? What’s the matter?”
“That old man – he en’t nothing but a low thief. He stole it, Will! He stole my alethiometer! That stinky old man with his rich clothes and his servant driving the car. Oh, I done such wrong things this morning – oh, I – “
And she sobbed so passionately he thought that hearts really did break, and hers was breaking now, for she fell to the ground wailing and shuddering, and Pantalaimon beside her became a wolf and howled with bitter grief.
Far off across the water, children stopped what they were doing and shaded their eyes to see. Will sat down beside Lyra and shook her shoulder.
“Stop! Stop crying!” he said. “Tell me from the beginning. What old man? What happened?”
“You’re going to be so angry. I promised I wouldn’t give you away, I promised it, and then…” she sobbed, and Pantalaimon became a young clumsy dog with lowered ears and wagging tail, squirming with self-abasement; and Will understood that Lyra had done something that she was too ashamed to tell him about, and he spoke to the daemon.
“What happened? Just tell me,” he said.
Pantalaimon said, “We went to the Scholar, and there was someone else there – a man and a woman – and they tricked us. They asked a lot of questions and then they asked about you, and before we could stop we gave it away that we knew you, and then we ran away – “
Lyra was hiding her face in her hands, pressing her head down against the pavement. Pantalaimon was flickering from shape to shape in his agitation: dog, bird, cat, snow-white ermine.
“What did the man look like?” said Will.
“Big,” said Lyra’s muffled voice, “and ever so strong, and pale eyes…”
“Did he see you come back through the window?”
“Well, he won’t know where we are, then.”
“But the alethiometer!” she cried, and she sat up fiercely, her face rigid with emotion, like a Greek mask.
“Yeah,” said Will. “Tell me about that.”
Between sobs and teeth grindings she told him what had happened: how the old man had seen her using the alethiometer in the museum the day before, and how he’d stopped the car today and she’d gotten in to escape from the pale man, and how the car had pulled up on that side of the road so she’d had to climb past him to get out, and how he must have swiftly taken the alethiometer as he’d passed her the rucksack…
He could see how devastated she was, but not why she should feel guilty. And then she said: “And, Will, please, I done something very bad. Because the alethiometer told me I had to stop looking for Dust – at least I thought that’s what it said – and I had to help you. I had to help you find your father. And I could, I could take you to wherever he is, if I had it. But I wouldn’t listen. I just done what I wanted to do, and I shouldn’t…”
He’d seen her use it, and he knew it could tell her the truth. He turned away. She seized his wrist, but he broke away from her and walked to the edge of the water. The children were playing again across the harbor. Lyra ran up to him and said, “Will, I’m so sorry – “
“What’s the use of that? I don’t care if you’re sorry or not. You did it.”
“But, Will, we got to help each other, you and me, because there en’t anyone else!”
“I can’t see how.”
“Nor can I, but…”
She stopped in mid-sentence, and a light came into her eyes.
She turned and raced back to her rucksack, abandoned on the pavement, and rummaged through it feverishly.
“I know who he is! And where he lives! Look!” she said, and held up a little white card. “He gave this to me in the museum! We can go and get the alethiometer back!”
Will took the card and read:
SIR CHARLES LATROM, CBE
“He’s a sir,” he said. “A knight. That means people will automatically believe him and not us. What did you want me to do, anyway? Go to the police? The police are after me! Or if they weren’t yesterday, they will be by now. And if you go, they know who you are now, and they know you know me, so that wouldn’t work either.”
“We could steal it. We could go to his house and steal it. I know where Headington is, there’s a Headington in my Oxford too. It en’t far. We could walk there in an hour, easy.”
“Iorek Byrnison would go there straightaway and rip his head off. I wish he was here. He’d – “
But she fell silent. Will was just looking at her, and she quailed. She would have quailed in the same way if the armored bear had looked at her like that, because there was something not unlike Iorek in Will’s eyes, young as they were.
“I never heard anything so stupid in my life,” he said. “You think we can just go to his house and creep in and steal it? You need to think. You need to use your bloody brain. He’s going to have all kinds of burglar alarms and stuff, if he’s a rich man. There’ll be bells that go off and special locks and lights with infrared switches that come on automatically – “
“I never heard of those things,” Lyra said. “We en’t got ’em in my world. I couldn’t know that, Will.”
“All right, then think of this: He’s got a whole house to hide it in, and how long would any burglar have to look through every cupboard and drawer and hiding place in a whole house? Those men who came to my house had hours to look around, and they never found what they were looking for, and I bet he’s got a whole lot bigger house than we have. And probably a safe, too. So even if we did get into his house, we’d never find it in time before the police came.”
She hung her head. It was all true.
“What we going to do then?” she said.
He didn’t answer. But it was we, for certain. He was bound to her now, whether he liked it or not.
He walked to the water’s edge, and back to the terrace, and back to the water again. He beat his hands together, looking for an answer, but no answer came, and he shook his head angrily.
“Just… go there,” he said. “Just go there and see him. It’s no good asking your scholar to help us, either, not if the police have been to her. She’s bound to believe them rather than us. At least if we get into his house, we’ll see where the main rooms are. That’ll be a start.”
Without another word he went inside and put the letters under the pillow in the room he’d slept in. Then, if he were caught, they’d never have them.
Lyra was waiting on the terrace, with Pantalaimon perched on her shoulder as a sparrow. She was looking more cheerful.
“We’re going to get it back all right,” she said. “I can feel it.”
He said nothing. They set off for the window.
It took an hour and a half to walk to Headington. Lyra led the way, avoiding the city center, and Will kept watch all around, saying nothing. It was much harder for Lyra now than it had been even in the Arctic, on the way to Bolvangar, for then she’d had the gyptians and Iorek Byrnison with her, and even if the tundra was full of danger, you knew the danger when you saw it. Here, in the city that was both hers and not hers, danger could look friendly, and treachery smiled and smelled sweet; and even if they weren’t going to kill her or part her from Pantalaimon, they had robbed her of her only guide. Without the alethiometer, she was… just a little girl, lost.
Limefield House was the color of warm honey, and half of its front was covered in Virginia creeper. It stood in a large, well-tended garden, with shrubbery at one side and a gravel drive sweeping up to the front door. The Rolls-Royce was parked in front of a double garage to the left. Everything Will could see spoke of wealth and power, the sort of informal settled superiority that some upper-class English people still took for granted. There was something about it that made him grit his teeth, and he didn’t know why, until suddenly he remembered an occasion when he was very young. His mother had taken him to a house not unlike this; they’d dressed in their best clothes and he’d had to be on his best behavior, and an old man and woman had made his mother cry, and they’d left the house and she was still crying…
Lyra saw him breathing fast and clenching his fists, and was sensible enough not to ask why; it was something to do with him, not with her. Presently he took a deep breath.
“Well,” he said, “might as well try.”
He walked up the drive, and Lyra followed close behind. They felt very exposed.
The door had an old-fashioned bell pull, like those in Lyra’s world, and Will didn’t know where to find it till Lyra showed him. When they pulled it, the bell jangled a long way off inside the house.
The man who opened the door was the servant who’d been driving the car, only now he didn’t have his cap on. He looked at Will first, and then at Lyra, and his expression changed a little.
“We want to see Sir Charles Latrom,” Will said.
His jaw was jutting as it had done last night facing the stone-throwing children by the tower. The servant nodded.
“Wait here,” he said. “I’ll tell Sir Charles.”
He closed the door. It was solid oak, with two heavy locks, and bolts top and bottom, though Will thought that no sensible burglar would try the front door anyway. And there was a burglar alarm prominently fixed to the front of the house, and a large spotlight at each corner; they’d never be able to get near it, let alone break in.
Steady footsteps came to the door, and then it opened again.
Will looked up at the face of this man who had so much that he wanted even more, and found him disconcertingly smooth and calm and powerful, not in the least guilty or ashamed.
Sensing Lyra beside him impatient and angry, Will said quickly, “Excuse me, but Lyra thinks that when she had a lift in your car earlier on, she left something in it by mistake.”
“Lyra? I don’t know a Lyra. What an unusual name. I know a child called Lizzie. And who are you?”
Cursing himself for forgetting, Will said, “I’m her brother. Mark.”
“I see. Hello, Lizzie, or Lyra. You’d better come in.”
He stood aside. Neither Will nor Lyra was quite expecting this, and they stepped inside uncertainly. The hall was dim and smelled of beeswax and flowers. Every surface was polished and clean, and a mahogany cabinet against the wall contained dainty porcelain figures. Will saw the servant standing in the background, as if he were waiting to be called.
“Come into my study,” said Sir Charles, and held open another door off the hall.
He was being courteous, even welcoming, but there was an edge to his manner that put Will on guard. The study was large and comfortable in a cigar-smoke-and-leather-armchair sort of way, and seemed to be full of bookshelves, pictures, hunting trophies. There were three or four glass-fronted cabinets containing antique scientific instruments – brass microscopes, telescopes covered in green leather, sextants, compasses; it was clear why he wanted the alethiometer.
“Sit down,” said Sir Charles, and indicated a leather sofa. He sat at the chair behind his desk, and went on. “Well? What have you got to say?”
“You stole – ” began Lyra hotly, but Will looked at her, and she stopped.
“Lyra thinks she left something in your car,” he said again. “We’ve come to get it back.”
“Is this the object you mean?” he said, and took a velvet cloth from a drawer in the desk. Lyra stood up. He ignored her and unfolded the cloth, disclosing the golden splendor of the alethiometer resting in his palm.
“Yes!” Lyra burst out, and reached for it.
But he closed his hand. The desk was wide, and she couldn’t reach; and before she could do anything else, he swung around and placed the alethiometer in a glass-fronted cabinet before locking it and dropping the key in his waistcoat pocket.
“But it isn’t yours, Lizzie,” he said. “Or Lyra, if that’s your name.”
“It is mine! It’s my alethiometer!”
He shook his head, sadly and heavily, as if he were reproaching her and it was a sorrow to him, but he was doing it for her own good. “I think at the very least there’s considerable doubt about the matter,” he said.
“But it is hers!” said Will. “Honestly! She’s shown it to me! I know it’s hers!”
“You see, I think you’d have to prove that,” he said. “I don’t have to prove anything, because it’s in my possession. It’s assumed to be mine. Like all the other items in my collection. I must say, Lyra, I’m surprised to find you so dishonest – “
“I en’t dishonest!” Lyra cried.
“Oh, but you are. You told me your name was Lizzie. Now I learn it’s something else. Frankly, you haven’t got a hope of convincing anyone that a precious piece like this belongs to you. I tell you what. Let’s call the police.”
He turned his head to call for the servant.
“No, wait – ” said Will, before Sir Charles could speak, but Lyra ran around the desk, and from nowhere Pantalaimon was in her arms, a snarling wildcat baring his teeth and hissing at the old man. Sir Charles blinked at the sudden appearance of the daemon, but hardly flinched.
“You don’t even know what it is you stole,” Lyra stormed. “You seen me using it and you thought you’d steal it, and you did. But you – you – you’re worse than my mother. At least she knows it’s important! You’re just going to put it in a case and do nothing with it! You ought to die! If I can, I’ll make someone kill you. You’re not worth leaving alive. You’re – “
She couldn’t speak. All she could do was spit full in his face, so she did, with all her might.
Will sat still, watching, looking around, memorizing where everything was.
Sir Charles calmly shook out a silk handkerchief and mopped himself.
“Have you any control over yourself?” he said. “Go and sit down, you filthy brat.”
Lyra felt tears shaken out of her eyes by the trembling of her body, and threw herself onto the sofa. Pantalaimon, his thick cat’s tail erect, stood on her lap with his blazing eyes fixed on the old man.
Will sat silent and puzzled. Sir Charles could have thrown them out long before this. What was he playing at?
And then he saw something so bizarre he thought he had imagined it. Out of the sleeve of Sir Charles’s linen jacket, past the snowy white shirt cuff, came the emerald head of a snake. Its black tongue flicked this way, that way, and its mailed head with its gold-rimmed black eyes moved from Lyra to Will and back again. She was too angry to see it at all, and Will saw it only for a moment before it retreated again up the old man’s sleeve, but it made his eyes widen with shock.
Sir Charles moved to the window seat and calmly sat down, arranging the crease in his trousers.
“I think you’d better listen to me instead of behaving in this uncontrolled way,” he said. “You really haven’t any choice. The instrument is in my possession and will stay there. I want it. I’m a collector. You can spit and stamp and scream all you like, but by the time you’ve persuaded anyone else to listen to you, I shall have plenty of documents to prove that I bought it. I can do that very easily. And then you’ll never get it back.”
They were both silent now. He hadn’t finished. A great puzzlement was slowing Lyra’s heartbeat and making the room very still.
“However,” he went on, “there’s something I want even more. And I can’t get it myself, so I’m prepared to make a deal with you. You fetch the object I want, and I’ll give you back the – what did you call it?”
“Alethiometer,” said Lyra hoarsely.
“Alethiometer. How interesting. Alethia, truth – those emblems – yes, I see.”
“What’s this thing you want?” said Will. “And where is it?”
“It’s somewhere I can’t go, but you can. I’m perfectly well aware that you’ve found a doorway somewhere. I guess it’s not too far from Summertown, where I dropped Lizzie, or Lyra, this morning. And that through the doorway is another world, one with no grownups in it. Right so far? Well, you see, the man who made that doorway has got a knife. He’s hiding in that other world right now, and he’s extremely afraid. He has reason to be. If he’s where I think he is, he’s in an old stone tower with angels carved around the doorway. The Torre degli Angeli.”
“So that’s where you have to go, and I don’t care how you do it, but I want that knife. Bring it to me, and you can have the alethiometer. I shall be sorry to lose it, but I’m a man of my word. That’s what you have to do: bring me the knife.”