La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1)(9)

by Philip Pullman

“Better put you down again, sweetheart,” said Sister Fenella. “Shouldn’t have woken you, should we, darling?”

She laid the baby in the crib, tucking her up and taking the greatest care not to brush a hand against her dæmon. Malcolm supposed the prohibition against touching another person’s dæmon was true for babies as well; in any case, he would never have dreamed, after those few minutes, of doing anything to upset that little child. He was her servant for life.

In a comfortable study at the University of Uppsala, in Sweden, three men sat talking as the wild rain lashed the windows and the wind sent occasional puffs of smoke back down the chimney to disturb the fire in the iron stove.

The host was called Gunnar Hallgrimsson. He was a bachelor, a man of sixty or so, plump and sharp-witted. He was a professor of metaphysical philosophy at the university. His dæmon, a robin, stayed on his shoulder and said little.

One of his guests was a university colleague, Axel Löfgren, professor of experimental theology. He was thin, taciturn but amiable, and his dæmon was a ferret. He and Hallgrimsson were old friends, and their habit of teasing each other was usually in full flow after a good dinner, but it was moderated this evening by the presence of the third man, a stranger to them both.

The visitor was about the same age as Hallgrimsson, but he looked older; certainly his face bore the marks of more experience and trial than did the professor’s smooth cheeks and unlined brow. He was a gyptian of the people of Eastern Anglia, a man called Coram van Texel, who had traveled much in the far north. He was lean and of middle height, and his movements were careful, as if he thought he might break something inadvertently, as if he was unused to delicate glasses and fine tableware. His dæmon, a large cat with fur of a thousand beautiful autumnal colors, stalked the corners of the study before leaping gracefully to Coram’s lap. Ten years after this evening, and again ten years after that, Lyra would marvel at the coloring of that dæmon’s fur.

They had just dined. Coram had arrived that day from the north, with a letter of introduction from an acquaintance of Professor Hallgrimsson’s, the consul of the witches at the town of Trollesund.

“You’ll take some Tokay?” said Hallgrimsson, sitting down after looking through the window along the rain-swept street, and then pulling the curtains across against the draft.

“That would be a rare pleasure,” said Coram.

The professor turned to a small table no more than an arm’s length from his comfortable chair and poured some golden wine into three glasses.

“And how is my friend Martin Lanselius?” the professor continued, handing a glass to Coram. “I must say, I never thought he would end up in the diplomatic service of the witches.”

“He’s thriving,” said Coram. “In fine fettle. He’s making a study of their religion.”

“I’ve often thought the belief systems of the witch clans would reward investigation,” said Hallgrimsson, “but my own studies led me elsewhere.”

“Even further into the void,” said the professor of experimental theology, taking a glass from his host.

“You must excuse my friend’s absurdities. Your good health, Mr. Van Texel,” said Hallgrimsson, taking a sip.

“And yours, sir. By God, this is fine.”

“I’m glad you think so. There is a wine merchant in Buda-Pesth who sends me a case of it every year.”

“We don’t taste it very often,” said Löfgren. “Every time I see a bottle, there’s less in it than there was before.”

“Oh, nonsense. Now, what can we do for you here in Uppsala, Mr. Van Texel?”

“Dr. Lanselius told me about the instrument you have, the truth measurer,” said the gyptian. “I was hoping to consult it.”

“Ah. Tell me about the nature of your inquiry.”

“My people,” said Coram, “the gyptian people, are under threat from various political factions in Brytain. They want to restrict our ancient freedoms and limit the activities we can take part in—buying and selling, for instance. I want to know which of these threats can be dealt with by opposition, which by negotiation, and which can’t be dealt with at all. Is that the sort of question your instrument could answer?”

“In the right hands, yes. Given enough time, I could even make a rough attempt at interpreting it myself.”

“You mean you’re not an expert reader?”

“By no means expert.”

“Then—”

“Let me show you the instrument, and perhaps you will understand the problem.”

The professor opened a drawer in the little table and brought out a leather box, circular in shape and about the size of the palm of a man’s hand, and three fingers deep. Löfgren pulled out a tapestry-covered stool, and Hallgrimsson placed the box on it and lifted the lid.

Coram leaned forward. In the soft naphtha light, something gleamed richly. The professor adjusted the lampshade so that the light fell full on the stool, and took the instrument out of its box. His short stubby fingers were touching the instrument with what looked to Coram like the tenderness of a lover, as if he thought it was alive.

It was a clock-shaped device of bright gold, with a crystal face uppermost. At first, Coram could see little but a beautiful complexity, until the professor began to point things out.

“Around the edge of the dial—you see?—we have thirty-six pictures, each painted on ivory with a single hair. And around the outside we have three little wheels a hundred and twenty degrees apart, like the knobs you use to wind a watch. This is what happens when I turn one.”

Coram leaned closer, and his dæmon stepped off his lap and stood on the arm of the chair so that she could see too. As the professor turned the wheel, they saw a slender black hand, like a minute hand, detach itself from the complicated background and move around the dial with a series of clicks. The professor stopped when it was pointing at a tiny picture of the sun.

“We have three hands,” the professor said, “and we point each at a different symbol. If I were framing your question, I would probably include the sun in the three symbols I chose, because it stands, among other things, for kingship and authority, and by association, for the law. The other two”—he turned the other wheels, and the hands moved obediently round the dial—“would depend on which aspect of your question we wanted to deal with first. You mentioned buying and selling. Somewhere in the griffin range of meanings, those actions occur. Why? Because griffins are associated with treasure. I would also guess that the third hand should point to the dolphin, whose primary meaning is water, because your people are water dwellers, no?”

“That’s true. I begin to see.”

“Let’s try, then.”

The professor moved the second hand to the griffin and the third to the dolphin.

“And then this happens,” he said.

A needle so slender that Coram hadn’t seen it at all, and of a mid-gray color, began to move, apparently of its own accord, slowly, hesitating, and then swung round very quickly, stopping here and there before moving on again.

“What’s that doing?” said Coram.

“Giving us the answer.”

“You got to be quick, en’t you?”

“Your mental faculties have to be calm, but alert. I have heard it compared to the way in which a hunter will lie in wait, ready to pull the trigger at any moment, but without any nervous excitement.”

“I understand,” said Coram. “I’ve seen archers in Nippon do something similar.”

“Really? I would like to hear about that. But the mental attitude is only one aspect of the difficulty. Another is this: that each symbol has a very deep range of meanings, and they are only made clear in the books of readings.”

“How many meanings?”

“Nobody knows. Some have been explored to the depth of a hundred or more, but they show no sign of coming to an end. Perhaps they go on forever.”

“And how were these meanings discovered?” put in Löfgren.

Coram looked at the professor; he’d thought Löfgren was familiar with the alethiometer, as Hallgrimsson was, and believed in its powers, but there was a tone of skepticism in his question.

“By contemplation, by meditation, by experiment,” said Hallgrimsson.

“Oh. Well, I believe in experiment,” said Löfgren.

“I’m glad to hear you believe in something,” said his friend.

“These meanings—the relation between them—if they work by kinds of similarity,” said Coram, “they could go on a lot past a hundred. There’s no end to finding similarities, once you start looking for ’em.”

“But what matters is not the similarities your imagination finds, but the similarities that are implicit in the image, and they are not necessarily the same. I have noticed that the more imaginative readers are often the less successful. Their minds leap to what they think is there rather than waiting with patience. And what matters most of all is where the chosen meaning comes in the hierarchy of meanings, you see, and for that there is no alternative to the books. That is why the only alethiometers we know about are kept in or by great libraries.”

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