La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1)(10)

by Philip Pullman

“How many are there, then?”

“We think there were six made. We know where five of them are: there is this one in Uppsala, there is one in Bologna, one in Paris, the Magisterium has one in Geneva, and there is one in Oxford.”

“Oxford, eh?”

“In the Bodleian Library. It is a remarkable story. When the Consistorial Court of Discipline was gathering its power in the last century, the prefect of the court heard of the existence of the Bodleian alethiometer and demanded its surrender. The librarian refused. The convocation of the university, the governing body, ordered him to comply. Instead, what he did was to conceal the instrument in the hollowed-out pages of a work of experimental theology, of which they already had several identical copies, and place it on the open shelves in plain view—but, of course, impossible to find among the million or more volumes in the library. That time the Consistorial Court gave up. Then they came a second time. The prefect sent a body of armed men to the library and threatened the librarian with death if it was not given up. Again the librarian refused, saying that he had not taken up his office in order to give away the contents of the library, and that he had a sacred duty to conserve and protect them for scholarship. The officer in charge ordered his men to arrest the librarian and bring him out into the quadrangle to be shot. The librarian took his place in front of the firing squad and faced the officer for the first time—they had negotiated only by messenger previously, you see—and they recognized each other as old college friends. The officer was abashed, the story says, and would not give the order, and instead stood his men down and went to drink brantwijn with the librarian. The outcome was that the alethiometer remained in the Bodleian Library, where it is still, the librarian retained his position, and the officer was ordered back to Geneva, where shortly afterwards he died, apparently by poison.”

The gyptian gave a long, low whistle.

“And who reads the Oxford one now?” he said.

“There is a small body of scholars who have made it their object of study. I have heard there is a woman of great gifts who has made considerable progress in the principles….Ralph? Relph? Something like that.”

“I see,” said Coram, sipping his wine and looking closely at the alethiometer. “You said there were six of these, Professor, and then you told me the whereabouts of five of ’em. Where is the sixth?”

“Well might you ask. No one knows. Well, I daresay somebody knows, but I don’t think any scholar knows. Now, if we could come back to your question, Mr. Van Texel: it’s a complicated one, but that’s not the main problem. The problem is that our leading scholar is not here. He is in Paris, spending a sabbatical term in the Bibliothèque Nationale. I am too slow and clumsy to find my way from one level to another, and to see the connections and estimate where I should look next in the books. I would read it for you if I could, of course.”

“Despite the danger?” said Coram.

The professor said nothing for a few moments. Then he said, “The danger of…”

“Of summary execution,” said Coram, though he was smiling.

“Oh, yes. Aha. Well, I think those days are behind us, fortunately.”

“Let’s hope so,” said Löfgren.

Coram took another sip of the golden wine and sat back in the chair as if he was contented and comfortable. The fact was that the alethiometer, pretty though it was, had little interest for him, and the question he had posed to Professor Hallgrimsson was a blind: the gyptians were perfectly capable of working out the answer for themselves, and indeed they already had. Coram was up to something else altogether, and now he had to maneuver the conversation towards a different matter.

“I daresay you have a lot of visitors,” he said.

“Well, I don’t know,” said the professor. “No more than most universities, I suppose. Of course, we do specialize in one or two areas, and that brings interested scholars from quite some distance. Not only scholars either.”

“Explorers, I expect.”

“Among others, yes. On their way to the Arctic.”

“I wonder if you’ve met a man called Lord Asriel. He’s a friend of my people, a notable explorer in that part of the world.”

“He has been here, but not recently. I did hear…” The professor looked awkward for a second, and then his eagerness overcame his reluctance. “I don’t listen to gossip, you understand.”

“Oh, neither do I,” said Coram. “Sometimes I overhear it, though.”

“Overhear!” said Löfgren. “That is very good.”

“Yes, I overheard a remarkable story about Lord Asriel not long ago,” Hallgrimsson said. “If you have just come from the north, perhaps it won’t have reached you yet….It seems that Lord Asriel has been involved in a murder case.”

“Murder?”

“He had a child with a woman who was married to someone else, and then he killed the woman’s husband.”

“Good God!” said Coram, who knew the story well already. “How did that come about?”

He listened to the professor’s version of the tale, which differed only slightly from the one he knew, waiting for the opportunity to steer the conversation the way of his question.

“And what happened to the child?” he said. “With its mother, I expect?”

“No. I think the court has custody. For the moment, at any rate. The mother is a remarkably beautiful woman, but not one in whom, shall we say, the flame of motherhood burns very brightly.”

“You speak as if you’ve met her.”

“Indeed we have,” said Hallgrimsson, and if Coram had had to describe his expression, he would have said that the scholar was preening himself just a little. “We have dined with her. She visited us just a month ago.”

“Did she really? And was she off exploring too?”

“No, she came to consult Axel here. She is a remarkable scholar herself, you know.”

This was the moment.

“She came to consult you, sir?” said Coram to the experimental theologian.

Löfgren smiled. Coram noticed that his bony face was actually showing a faint blush.

“I used to think my old friend here was immune to the charms of the fair sex,” said Hallgrimsson. “In years gone by, Mr. Van Texel, he would hardly have noticed that she was a woman. But this time I think the dart of Cupid might actually have penetrated his carapace.”

“I don’t blame you, sir,” said Coram to Löfgren. “Speaking for myself, I’ve always found great intelligence in a woman a highly attractive feature. What did she want to consult you about, if I may ask?”

“Oh, you won’t get anything out of him,” said Hallgrimsson. “I’ve tried. Anyone would think he had signed an oath of secrecy.”

“Because you would make a joke of it, you old buffoon,” said Löfgren. “She came to ask me about the Rusakov field. Do you know what that is?”

“No, sir. What is it?”

“You know what a field is, in natural philosophy?”

“I’ve got a vague idea. It’s a region where some force applies. Is that it?”

“That will do. But this field is like no other we know of. Its discoverer, a Muscovite called Rusakov, was investigating the mystery of consciousness—human consciousness—that is, of why something entirely material, such as a human body—including the brain, of course—should be able to generate this impalpable, invisible thing, awareness. Is it material, this consciousness we have? We can’t weigh it or measure it. Is it something spiritual, then? Once we use the word spiritual, we don’t have to explain anymore, because it belongs to the Church then, and no one can question it. Well, that’s no good to a real investigator of nature. I won’t go into all the steps Rusakov took, but he finally arrived at the extraordinary idea that consciousness is a perfectly normal property of matter, like mass or anbaric charge; that there is a field of consciousness that pervades the entire universe, and that makes itself apparent most fully—we believe—in human beings. Precisely how is a question that is now being investigated with urgent excitement by scientists in every part of the world.”

“Every part of the world, that is, where they are allowed to,” said Hallgrimsson. “So you see, Mr. Van Texel, how easily this must attract the attention of the Consistorial Court.”

“I do, sir. It must have shaken the Church to its foundations. And this was what the lady came here to ask about?”

“It was,” said Löfgren. “Mrs. Coulter’s interest was unusual in someone who was not a professional scholar. She asked several very perceptive questions about the Rusakov field and human consciousness. I showed her my results, she absorbed everything I could tell her with instant understanding, and then she seemed to lose interest in me, to my sorrow, and started to flatter my colleague here.”

“Had she heard about this wine, then, sir?” said Coram.

“Ho ho! No, it wasn’t the wine, and it wasn’t my many personal attractions. She wanted to consult the alethiometer about her daughter, Mr. Van Texel.”

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