La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1)(12)

by Philip Pullman

He came to only a few moments later, in a sudden silence. Apart from himself and Sophie, the alley was empty. His head was spinning. He tried to sit up, but Sophie said, “Lie down. Let the blood back in your brain.”

“Have they gone?”

“They ran away. Well, he did. I don’t think she’ll ever run again. He was carrying her, and she was mad with pain.”

“Why…” He couldn’t finish, but she understood.

“You’ve lost a lot of blood,” she said.

He hadn’t felt much pain till she said that, but then he felt the line the bullet had made through his scalp suddenly reminding him of itself, and the warm wetness on his neck and shoulders beginning to turn cold as the fighting passion subsided, and he lay back to gather his strength. Then he sat up carefully.

“You hurt bad?” he said.

“I would have been. If those jaws had closed, I don’t think they’d ever have opened again.”

“We should have finished him. Damn, they were good, though. Think he was a Muscovite?”

“No. Don’t ask me why. Maybe…French?”

Coram stood up, holding on to the wall. He looked out towards both ends of the alley and said, “Come on, then. Back to bed. I don’t think we did very well there, Sophie.”

His ribs hurt furiously; he thought one of them might be broken. His scalp was bleeding thickly and felt as if a red-hot iron had been pressed against it. He scooped up his dæmon and she attended to the scalp wound, licking and cleaning him tenderly as they walked back to their boardinghouse.

After a wash in the only water available, which was icy cold, he put on a clean shirt and sat down at the little table. By the light of a candle, he composed a letter, saying everything as briefly as possible.

To Lord Nugent:

The lady came to Uppsala to consult the professor of experimental theology, Axel Löfgren. She asked him “several very perceptive questions” about the Rusakov field and its relation to human consciousness. He suspects she was acting on behalf of the CCD. Furthermore, she wanted a Professor Hallgrimsson to use his alethiometer to tell her where her child was. He either could not or would not, but in any case he did not. Apparently, the lady had heard that the child was the subject of a witches’ prophecy, but she did not know what it foretold. You will remember our good friend Bud Schlesinger. I spoke with him at the house of Martin Lanselius in Trollesund. He has gone further north to ask about this among some witches he knows and will contact you as soon as he returns. One further matter: I was followed from Novgorod by a man whose dæmon was a hyena. I did not recognize him, but he bore himself like a thoroughly trained agent. We fought and he got away, though the dæmon is wounded. I am curious about him.


Then he set about the laborious task of transcribing it into code and addressed it in an ordinary envelope to an insignificant part of central London. He carefully burned the original, and then he went to bed.

Dr. Hannah Relf sat up and pressed her hands into the small of her back, stretching painfully. She had been sitting for too long; she wanted to walk briskly for half an hour, but time with the Bodleian alethiometer was limited: there were half a dozen other scholars using it, and she couldn’t afford to waste some of her precious allocation in exercising. She could take a walk later.

She bent from side to side, loosening her spine, stretched her arms above her head and rotated her shoulders, and eventually felt a little less stiff. She was sitting in Duke Humfrey, the oldest part of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and the alethiometer lay on the desk in front of her among a scatter of papers and a heap of books.

The work she was doing was threefold. There was the part she was supposed to be doing, the part that justified her time with the instrument, which was an investigation into the hourglass range of meanings. Already she had added two more floors, as she thought of them, to the levels of significance reaching down into the invisible depths, and she was on the track of a third.

But second, there was the secret work she was doing on behalf of an organization known to her as Oakley Street; she supposed from its address, though there wasn’t an Oakley Street in Oxford, so it was possibly in London. She’d been recruited for this two years before by a professor of Byzantine history named George Papadimitriou, who had assured her (and she believed him) that the work was both important and on the side of liberalism and freedom. She realized that Oakley Street was a branch of some sort of secret service, but since all she did was interpret the alethiometer on their behalf, she knew very little more. However, she read the papers, and it wasn’t hard for an intelligent person to see what was going on in the politics of her country. The questions Oakley Street asked her were varied, but a lot of them had recently trod closely towards subjects that were forbidden by the religious authorities; she knew quite well that if the CCD, or anyone like it, were to find out what she was doing, she would be in serious trouble.

And third, and most urgent, there was a question she had been asking for a week: Where was the acorn? She had no idea how the message in its little carrier had always arrived so dependably behind the stone in the University Parks, or wherever she was to collect it, but it should have appeared some time ago. And now she was becoming anxious.

Hence the question she was asking. It hadn’t been easy to frame, and the answer wasn’t easy to interpret, but then they never were, though she was becoming more sure-footed among the levels of meaning than she used to be.

But this afternoon, as the gray light faded outside the six-hundred-year-old windows of Duke Humfrey and the little anbaric lamp above the desk glowed more warmly, she thought she had the final part of an answer. After a week’s labor, she had the three stark images: boy—inn—fish. If she was a really practiced reader, she thought, each of those ideas would be surrounded by a phalanx of qualifying detail, but there it was: that was all she had to go on.

She pulled a clean piece of paper towards herself and drew lines downwards to divide it into three columns. The first one, Boy, she left blank. She knew no boys, except her sister’s four-year-old son, and it wasn’t going to be him. She left the Inn column empty too. How many inns did she know? Not many, actually. She liked to sit in a beer garden with a companion and a glass of wine, but only in good weather. Fish: that was probably the easiest to start with. She wrote down as many names of fish as she could think of: herring, cod, stingray, salmon, mackerel, haddock, shark, trout, perch, pike…What else was there? Sunfish—flying fish—stickleback—barracuda…

“Chub,” said her dæmon, who was a marmoset.

Down it went, though it didn’t help. Her dæmon knew no more than she did, of course, though each sometimes remembered things the other had forgotten.

“Tench,” he said.

As far as her official work went—the extension of the hourglass range—she could discuss it with five or six other scholars, but her secret work was secret, and not a word about it passed her lips, except to her dæmon. This question was a part of that, so silence had to reign here too.

She yawned, stretched again, stood up, and walked slowly down the length of the library and back again, thinking as strongly as she could of absolutely nothing. That didn’t work either, but when she sat down again, there came into her mind the image of a peacock on a river terrace, and herself among a group of friends, and the peacock’s effrontery in snatching a sausage roll out of the very fingers of her neighbor and then trying to run away with it, encumbered by his ridiculous tail. That had happened years ago, when she was an undergraduate. Where had that happened? What was the name of the inn? Was it an inn, or a restaurant, or what?

She looked up at the staff desk. The assistant was checking some request slips, and there was no one else around.

Hannah got up and walked along to her without hesitation, because if she’d hesitated, she wouldn’t have done it.

“Anne,” she said, “I think I’m going gaga. What’s the name of that pub with the river terrace and the peacocks? Where is it?”

“The Trout?” said the assistant. “It’s at Godstow.”

“Of course! Thanks. Stupid of me.”

Hannah tapped her forehead and went back to her desk. She carefully folded up the paper she’d begun to make the list on and put it in an inside pocket. She’d destroy it later. Her trainers had been very severe about not leaving behind any written clues to what you were doing, but she had to have paper to think with, and so far she’d been meticulous about burning it.

She worked for another half an hour and then returned her books and the alethiometer to the desk. Anne put the books on the reserved shelf and pressed a buzzer, which would sound in the senior assistant’s office. The alethiometer was kept in a safe in there, and the senior assistant had to put it away himself, which he did with an air of solemnity that Hannah enjoyed very much.

But she didn’t stay to watch this time. She gathered her papers together, put them in her bag, and left the library.

The Trout, she thought. Tomorrow.

The next day was a Saturday, and a rare dry day with occasional bursts of sunlight. Towards midday, Hannah found her bicycle, and having pumped up the tires, she rode up the Woodstock Road and turned left at the top for Wolvercote and Godstow. She rode briskly, her dæmon sitting in the basket on the handlebars, and arrived at the Trout feeling a little out of breath and warm enough to take her coat off at once.