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The Golden Compass Chapter Four

Chapter Four

The Alethiometer

“I hope you’ll sit next to me at dinner,” said Mrs. Coulter, making room for Lyra on the sofa. “I’m not used to the grandeur of a Master’s lodging.

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You’ll have to show me which knife and fork to use.”

“Are you a female Scholar?” said Lyra. She regarded female Scholars with a proper Jordan disdain: there were such people, but, poor things, they could never be taken more seriously than animals dressed up and acting a play. Mrs. Coulter, on the other hand, was not like any female Scholar Lyra had seen, and certainly not like the two serious elderly ladies who were the other female guests. Lyra had asked the question expecting the answer No, in fact, for Mrs. Coulter had such an air of glamour that Lyra was entranced. She could hardly take her eyes off her.

“Not really,” Mrs. Coulter said. “I’m a member of Dame Hannah’s college, but most of my work takes place outside Oxford….Tell me about yourself, Lyra. Have you always lived at Jordan College?”

Within five minutes Lyra had told her everything about her half-wild life: her favorite routes over the rooftops, the battle of the claybeds, the time she and Roger had caught and roasted a rook, her intention to capture a narrowboat from the gyptians and sail it to Abingdon, and so on. She even (looking around and lowering her voice) told her about the trick she and Roger had played on the skulls in the crypt.

“And these ghosts came, right, they came to my bedroom

without their heads! They couldn’t talk except for making sort of gurgling noises, but I knew what they wanted all right. So I went down next day and put their coins back. They’d probably have killed me else.”

“You’re not afraid of danger, then?” said Mrs. Coulter admiringly. They were at dinner by this time, and as Lyra had hoped, sitting next to each other. Lyra ignored completely the Librarian on her other side and spent the whole meal talking to Mrs. Coulter.

When the ladies withdrew for coffee, Dame Hannah said, “Tell me, Lyra – are they going to send you to school?”

Lyra looked blank. “I dun – I don’t know,” she said. “Probably not,” she added for safety. “I wouldn’t want to put them to any trouble,” she went on piously. “Or expense. It’s probably better if I just go on living at Jordan and getting educated by the Scholars here when they’ve got a bit of spare time. Being as they’re here already, they’re probably free.”

“And does your uncle Lord Asriel have any plans for you?” said the other lady, who was a Scholar at the other women’s college.

“Yes,” said Lyra. “I expect so. Not school, though. He’s going to take me to the North next time he goes.”

“I remember him telling me,” said Mrs. Coulter.

Lyra blinked. The two female Scholars sat up very slightly, though their daemons, either well behaved or torpid, did no more than flick their eyes at each other.

“I met him at the Royal Arctic Institute,” Mrs. Coulter went on. “As a matter of fact, it’s partly because of that meeting that I’m here today.”

“Are you an explorer too?” said Lyra.

“In a kind of way. I’ve been to the North several times. Last year I spent three months in Greenland making observations of the Aurora.”

That was it; nothing and no one else existed now for Lyra. She gazed at Mrs. Coulter with awe, and listened rapt and silent to her tales of igloo building, of seal hunting, of negotiating with the Lapland witches. The two female Scholars had nothing so exciting to tell, and sat in silence until the men came in.

Later, when the guests were preparing to leave, the Master said, “Stay behind, Lyra. I’d like to talk to you for a minute or two. Go to my study, child; sit down there and wait for me.”

Puzzled, tired, exhilarated, Lyra did as he told her. Cousins the manservant showed her in, and pointedly left the door open so that he could see what she was up to from the hall, where he was helping people on with their coats. Lyra watched for Mrs. Coulter, but she didn’t see her, and then the Master came into the study and shut the door.

He sat down heavily in the armchair by the fireplace. His daemon flapped up to the chair back and sat by his head, her old hooded eyes on Lyra. The lamp hissed gently as the Master said:

“So, Lyra. You’ve been talking to Mrs. Coulter. Did you enjoy hearing what she said?”

“Yes!”

“She is a remarkable lady.”

“She’s wonderful. She’s the most wonderful person I’ve ever met.”

The Master sighed. In his black suit and black tie he looked as much like his daemon as anyone could, and suddenly Lyra thought that one day, quite soon, he would be buried in the crypt under the oratory, and an artist would engrave a picture of his daemon on the brass plate for his coffin, and her name would share the space with his.

“I should have made time before now for a talk with you, Lyra,” he said after a few moments. “I was intending to do so in any case, but it seems that time is further on than I thought. You have been safe here in Jordan, my dear. I think you’ve been happy. You haven’t found it easy to obey us, but we are very fond of you, and you’ve never been a bad child. There’s a lot of goodness and sweetness in your nature, and a lot of determination. You’re going to need all of that. Things are going on in the wide world I would have liked to protect you from – by keeping you here in Jordan, I mean – but that’s no longer possible.”

She merely stared. Were they going to send her away?

“You knew that sometime you’d have to go to school,” the Master went on. “We have taught you some things here, but not well or systematically. Our knowledge is of a different kind. You need to know things that elderly men are not able to teach you, especially at the age you are now. You must have been aware of that. You’re not a servant’s child either; we couldn’t put you out to be fostered by a town family. They might have cared for you in some ways, but your needs are different. You see, what I’m saying to you, Lyra, is that the part of your life that belongs to Jordan College is coming to an end.”

“No,” she said, “no, I don’t want to leave Jordan. I like it here. I want to stay here forever.”

“When you’re young, you do think that things last forever. Unfortunately, they don’t. Lyra, it won’t be long – a couple of years at most – before you will be a young woman, and not a child anymore. A young lady. And believe me, you’ll find Jordan College a far from easy place to live in then.”

“But it’s my home!”

“It has been your home. But now you need something else.”

“Not school. I’m not going to school.”

“You need female company. Female guidance.”

The word female only suggested female Scholars to Lyra, and she involuntarily made a face. To be exiled from the grandeur of Jordan, the splendor and fame of its scholarship, to a dingy brick-built boardinghouse of a college at the northern end of Oxford, with dowdy female Scholars who smelled of cabbage and mothballs like those two at dinner!

The Master saw her expression, and saw Pantalaimon’s polecat eyes flash red.

He said, “But suppose it were Mrs. Coulter?”

Instantly Pantalaimon’s fur changed from coarse brown to downy white. Lyra’s eyes widened.

“Really?”

“She is by way of being acquainted with Lord Asriel. Your uncle, of course, is very concerned with your welfare, and when Mrs. Coulter heard about you, she offered at once to help. There is no Mr. Coulter, by the way; she is a widow. Her husband died very sadly in an accident some years ago; so you might bear that in mind before you ask.”

Lyra nodded eagerly, and said, “And she’s really going to…look after me?”

“Would you like that?”

“Yes!”

She could hardly sit still. The Master smiled. He smiled so rarely that he was out of practice, and anyone watching (Lyra wasn’t in a state to notice) would have said it was a grimace of sadness.

“Well, we had better ask her in to talk about it,” he said.

He left the room, and when he came back a minute later with Mrs. Coulter, Lyra was on her feet, too excited to sit. Mrs. Coulter smiled, and her daemon bared his white teeth in a grin of implike pleasure. As she passed her on the way to the armchair, Mrs. Coulter touched Lyra’s hair briefly, and Lyra felt a current of warmth flow into her, and blushed.

When the Master had poured some brantwijn for her, Mrs. Coulter said, “So, Lyra, I’m to have an assistant, am I?”

“Yes,” said Lyra simply. She would have said yes to anything.

“There’s a lot of work I need help with.”

“I can work!”

“And we might have to travel.”

“I don’t mind. I’d go anywhere.”

“But it might be dangerous. We might have to go to the North.”

Lyra was speechless. Then she found her voice: “Soon?”

Mrs. Coulter laughed and said, “Possibly. But you know you’ll have to work very hard. You’ll have to learn mathematics, and navigation, and celestial geography.”

“Will you teach me?”

“Yes. And you’ll have to help me by making notes and putting my papers in order and doing various pieces of basic calculation, and so on. And because we’ll be visiting some important people, we’ll have to find you some pretty clothes. There’s a lot to learn, Lyra.”

“I don’t mind. I want to learn it all.”

“I’m sure you will. When you come back to Jordan College, you’ll be a famous traveler. Now we’re going to leave very early in the morning, by the dawn zeppelin, so you’d better run along and go straight to bed. I’ll see you at breakfast. Goodnight!”

“Goodnight,” said Lyra, and, remembering the few manners she had, turned at the door and said, “Goodnight, Master.”

He nodded. “Sleep well,” he said.

“And thanks,” Lyra added to Mrs. Coulter.

She did sleep, finally, though Pantalaimon wouldn’t settle until she snapped at him, when he became a hedgehog out of pique. It was still dark when someone shook her awake.

“Lyra – hush – don’t start – wake up, child.”

It was Mrs. Lonsdale. She was holding a candle, and she bent over and spoke quietly, holding Lyra still with her free hand.

“Listen. The Master wants to see you before you join Mrs. Coulter for breakfast. Get up quickly and run across to the lodging now. Go into the garden and tap at the French window of the study. You understand?”

Fully awake and on fire with puzzlement, Lyra nodded and slipped her bare feet into the shoes Mrs. Lonsdale put down for her.

“Never mind washing – that’ll do later. Go straight down and come straight back. I’ll start your packing and have something for you to wear. Hurry now.”

The dark quadrangle was still full of the chill night air. Overhead the last stars were still visible, but the light from the east was gradually soaking into the sky above the Hall. Lyra ran into the Library Garden, and stood for a moment in the immense hush, looking up at the stone pinnacles of the chapel, the pearl-green cupola of the Sheldon Building, the white-painted lantern of the Library. Now that she was going to leave these sights, she wondered how much she’d miss them.

Something stirred in the study window and a glow of light shone out for a moment. She remembered what she had to do and tapped on the glass door. It opened almost at once.

“Good girl. Come in quickly. We haven’t got long,” said the Master, and drew the curtain back across the door as soon as she had entered. He was fully dressed in his usual black.

“Aren’t I going after all?” Lyra asked.

“Yes; I can’t prevent it,” said the Master, and Lyra didn’t notice at the time what an odd thing that was to say. “Lyra, I’m going to give you something, and you must promise to keep it private. Will you swear to that?”

“Yes,” Lyra said.

He crossed to the desk and took from a drawer a small package wrapped in black velvet. When he unfolded the cloth, Lyra saw something like a large watch or a small clock: a thick disk of gold and crystal. It might have been a compass or something of the sort.

“What is it?” she said.

“It’s an alethiometer. It’s one of only six that were ever made. Lyra, I urge you again: keep it private. It would be better if Mrs. Coulter didn’t know about it. Your uncle – “

“But what does it do?”

“It tells you the truth. As for how to read it, you’ll have to learn by yourself. Now go – it’s getting lighter – hurry back to your room before anyone sees you.”

He folded the velvet over the instrument and thrust it into her hands. It was surprisingly heavy. Then he put his own hands on either side of her head and held her gently for a moment.

She tried to look up at him, and said, “What were you going to say about Uncle Asriel?”

“Your uncle presented it to Jordan College some years ago. He might – “

Before he could finish, there came a soft urgent knock on the door. She could feel his hands give an involuntary tremor.

“Quick now, child,” he said quietly. “The powers of this world are very strong. Men and women are moved by tides much fiercer than you can imagine, and they sweep us all up into the current. Go well, Lyra; bless you, child, bless you. Keep your own counsel.”

“Thank you, Master,” she said dutifully.

Clutching the bundle to her breast, she left the study by the garden door, looking back briefly once to see the Master’s daemon watching her from the windowsill. The sky was lighter already; there was a faint fresh stir in the air.

“What’s that you’ve got?” said Mrs. Lonsdale, closing the battered little suitcase with a snap.

“The Master gave it me. Can’t it go in the suitcase?” “Too late. I’m not opening it now. It’ll have to go in your coat pocket, whatever it is. Hurry on down to the buttery; don’t keep them waiting….”

It was only after she’d said goodbye to the few servants who were up, and to Mrs. Lonsdale, that she remembered Roger; and then she felt guilty for not having thought of him once since meeting Mrs. Coulter. How quickly it had all happened! But no doubt Mrs. Coulter would help her look for him, and she was bound to have powerful friends who could get him back from wherever he’d disappeared to. He was bound to turn up eventually.

And now she was on her way to London: sitting next to the window in a zeppelin, no less, with Pantalaimon’s sharp little ermine paws digging into her thigh while his front paws rested against the glass he gazed through. On Lyra’s other side Mrs. Coulter sat working through some papers, but she soon put them away and talked. Such brilliant talk! Lyra was intoxicated; not about the North this time, but about London, and the restaurants and ballrooms, the soirees at embassies or ministries, the intrigues between White Hall and Westminster. Lyra was almost more fascinated by this than by the changing landscape below the airship. What Mrs. Coulter was saying seemed to be accompanied by a scent of grownupness, something disturbing but enticing at the same time: it was the smell of glamour.

The landing in Falkeshall Gardens, the boat ride across the wide brown river, the grand mansion block on the Embankment where a stout commissionaire (a sort of porter with medals) saluted Mrs. Coulter and winked at Lyra, who sized him up expressionlessly.

And then the flat…

Lyra could only gasp.

She had seen a great deal of beauty in her short life, but it was Jordan College beauty, Oxford beauty – grand and stony and masculine. In Jordan College, much was magnificent, but nothing was pretty. In Mrs. Coulter’s flat, everything was pretty. It was full of light, for the wide windows faced south, and the walls were covered in a delicate gold-and-white striped wallpaper. Charming pictures in gilt frames, an antique looking-glass, fanciful sconces bearing anbaric lamps with frilled shades; and frills on the cushions too, and flowery valances over the curtain rail, and a soft green leaf-pattern carpet underfoot; and every surface was covered, it seemed to Lyra’s innocent eye, with pretty little china boxes and shepherdesses and harlequins of porcelain.

Mrs. Coulter smiled at her admiration.

“Yes, Lyra,” she said, “there’s such a lot to show you! Take your coat off and I’ll take you to the bathroom. You can have a wash, and then we’ll have some lunch and go shopping….”

The bathroom was another wonder. Lyra was used to washing with hard yellow soap in a chipped basin, where the water that struggled out of the taps was warm at best, and often flecked with rust. But here the water was hot, the soap rose-pink and fragrant, the towels thick and cloud-soft. And around the edge of the tinted mirror there were little pink lights, so that when Lyra looked into it she saw a softly illuminated figure quite unlike the Lyra she knew.

Pantalaimon, who was imitating the form of Mrs. Coulter’s daemon, crouched on the edge of the basin making faces at her. She pushed him into the soapy water and suddenly remembered the alethiometer in her coat pocket. She’d left the coat on a chair in the other room. She’d promised the Master to keep it secret from Mrs. Coulter….

Oh, this was confusing. Mrs. Coulter was so kind and wise, whereas Lyra had actually seen the Master trying to poison Uncle Asriel. Which of them did she owe most obedience to?

She rubbed herself dry hastily and hurried back to the sitting room, where her coat still lay untouched, of course.

“Ready?” said Mrs. Coulter. “I thought we’d go to the Royal Arctic Institute for lunch. I’m one of the very few female members, so I might as well use the privileges I have.”

Twenty minutes’ walk took them to a grand stone-fronted building where they sat in a wide dining room with snowy cloths and bright silver on the tables, and ate calves’ liver and bacon.

“Calves’ liver is all right,” Mrs. Coulter told her, “and so is seal liver, but if you’re stuck for food in the Arctic, you mustn’t eat bear liver. That’s full of a poison that’ll kill you in minutes.”

As they ate, Mrs. Coulter pointed out some of the members at the other tables.

“D’you see the elderly gentleman with the red tie? That’s Colonel Carborn. He made the first balloon flight over the North Pole. And the tall man by the window who’s just got up is Dr. Broken Arrow.”

“Is he a Skraeling?”

“Yes. He was the man who mapped the ocean currents in the Great Northern Ocean….”

Lyra looked at them all, these great men, with curiosity and awe. They were Scholars, no doubt about that, but they were explorers too. Dr. Broken Arrow would know about bear livers; she doubted whether the Librarian of Jordan College would.

After lunch Mrs. Coulter showed her some of the precious arctic relics in the institute library – the harpoon with which the great whale Grimssdur had been killed; the stone carved with an inscription in an unknown language which was found in the hand of the explorer Lord Rukh, frozen to death in his lonely tent; a fire-striker used by Captain Hudson on his famous voyage to Van Tieren’s Land. She told the story of each one, and Lyra felt her heart stir with admiration for these great, brave, distant heroes.

And then they went shopping. Everything on this extraordinary day was a new experience for Lyra, but shopping was the most dizzying. To go into a vast building full of beautiful clothes, where people let you try them on, where you looked at yourself in mirrors…And the clothes were so pretty….Lyra’s clothes had come to her through Mrs. Lonsdale, and a lot of them had been handed down and much mended. She had seldom had anything new, and when she had, it had been picked for wear and not for looks; and she had never chosen anything for herself. And now to find Mrs. Coulter suggesting this, and praising that, and paying for it all, and more…

By the time they’d finished, Lyra was flushed and bright-eyed with tiredness. Mrs. Coulter ordered most of the clothes packed up and delivered, and took one or two things with her when she and Lyra walked back to the flat.

Then a bath, with thick scented foam. Mrs. Coulter came into the bathroom to wash Lyra’s hair, and she didn’t rub and scrape like Mrs. Lonsdale either. She was gentle. Pantalaimon watched with powerful curiosity until Mrs. Coulter looked at him, and he knew what she meant and turned away, averting his eyes modestly from these feminine mysteries as the golden monkey was doing. He had never had to look away from Lyra before.

Then, after the bath, a warm drink with milk and herbs; and a new flannel nightdress with printed flowers and a seal’ loped hem, and sheepskin slippers dyed soft blue; and then bed.

So soft, this bed! So gentle, the anbaric light on the bed’ side table! And the bedroom so cozy with little cupboards and a dressing table and a chest of drawers where her new clothes would go, and a carpet from one wall to the other, and pretty curtains covered in stars and moons and planets! Lyra lay stiffly, too tired to sleep, too enchanted to question anything.

When Mrs. Coulter had wished her a soft goodnight and gone out, Pantalaimon plucked at her hair. She brushed him away, but he whispered, “Where’s the thing?”

She knew at once what he meant. Her old shabby overcoat hung in the wardrobe; a few seconds later, she was back in bed, sitting up cross-legged in the lamplight, with Pantalaimon watching closely as she unfolded the black velvet and looked at what it was the Master had given her.

“What did he call it?” she whispered.

“An alethiometer.”

There was no point in asking what that meant. It lay heavily in her hands, the crystal face gleaming, the golden body exquisitely machined. It was very like a clock, or a compass, for there were hands pointing to places around the dial, but instead of the hours or the points of the compass there were several little pictures, each of them painted with extraordinary precision, as if on ivory with the finest and slenderest sable brush. She turned the dial around to look at them all. There was an anchor; an hourglass surmounted by a skull; a chameleon, a bull, a beehive…Thirty-six altogether, and she couldn’t even guess what they meant.

“There’s a wheel, look,” said Pantalaimon. “See if you can wind it up.”

There were three little knurled winding wheels, in fact, and each of them turned one of the three shorter hands, which moved around the dial in a series of smooth satisfying clicks. You could arrange them to point at any of the pictures, and once they had clicked into position, pointing exactly at the center of each one, they would not move.

The fourth hand was longer and more slender, and seemed to be made of a duller metal than the other three. Lyra couldn’t control its movement at all; it swung where it wanted to, like a compass needle, except that it didn’t settle.

“Meter means measure,” said Pantalaimon. “Like thermometer. The Chaplain told us that.”

“Yes, but that’s the easy bit,” she whispered back. “What d’you think it’s for?”

Neither of them could guess. Lyra spent a long time turning the hands to point at one symbol or another (angel, helmet, dolphin; globe, lute, compasses; candle, thunderbolt, horse) and watching the long needle swing on its never-ceasing errant way, and although she understood nothing, she was intrigued and delighted by the complexity and the detail. Pantalaimon became a mouse to get closer to it, and rested his tiny paws on the edge, his button eyes bright black with curiosity as he watched the needle swing.

“What do you think the Master meant about Uncle Asriel?” she said.

“Perhaps we’ve got to keep it safe and give it to him.”

“But the Master was going to poison him! Perhaps it’s the opposite. Perhaps he was going to say don’t give it to him.”

“No,” Pantalaimon said, “it was her we had to keep it safe from – “

There was a soft knock on the door.

Mrs. Coulter said, “Lyra, I should put the light out if I were you. You’re tired, and we’ll be busy tomorrow.”

Lyra had thrust the alethiometer swiftly under the blankets.

“All right, Mrs. Coulter,” she said.

“Goodnight now.”

“Goodnight.”

She snuggled down and switched off the light. Before she fell asleep, she tucked the alethiometer under the pillow, just in case.

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