The Amber Spyglass Chapter 24 Mrs. Coulter In Geneva

The Amber Spyglass Chapter 24 Mrs. Coulter In Geneva

Mrs. Coulter waited till nightfall before she approached the College of St. Jerome. After darkness had fallen, she brought the intention craft down through the cloud and moved slowly along the lakeshore at treetop height. The College was a distinctive shape among the other ancient buildings of Geneva, and she soon found the spire, the dark hollow of the cloisters, the square tower where the President of the Consistorial Court of Discipline had his lodging. She had visited the College three times before; she knew that the ridges and gables and chimneys of the roof concealed plenty of hiding places, even for something as large as the intention craft.

Flying slowly above the tiles, which glistened with the recent rain, she edged the machine into a little gully between a steep tiled roof and the sheer wall of the tower. The place was only visible from the belfry of the Chapel of the Holy Penitence nearby; it would do very well.

She lowered the aircraft delicately onto the roof, letting its six feet find their own purchase and adjust themselves to keep the cabin level. She was beginning to love this machine: it sprang to her bidding as fast as she could think, and it was so silent; it could hover above people’s heads closely enough for them to touch, and they’d never know it was there. In the day or so since she’d stolen it, Mrs. Coulter had mastered the controls, but she still had no idea how it was powered, and that was the only thing she worried about: she had no way of telling when the fuel or the batteries would run out.

Once she was sure it had settled, and that the roof was solid enough to support it, she took off the helmet and climbed down.

Her daemon was already prizing up one of the heavy old tiles. She joined him, and soon they had lifted half a dozen out of the way, and then she snapped off the battens on which they’d been hung, making a gap big enough to get through.

“Go in and look around,” she whispered, and the daemon dropped through into the dark.

She could hear his claws as he moved carefully over the floor of the attic, and then his gold-fringed black face appeared in the opening. She understood at once and followed him through, waiting to let her eyes adjust. In the dim light she gradually saw a long attic where the dark shapes of cupboards, tables, bookcases, and furniture of all kinds had been put into storage.

The first thing she did was to push a tall cupboard in front of the gap where the tiles had been. Then she tiptoed to the door in the wall at the far end and tried the handle. It was locked, of course, but she had a hairpin, and the lock was simple. Three minutes later she and her daemon were standing at one end of a long corridor, where a dusty skylight let them see a narrow staircase descending at the other.

And five minutes after that, they had opened a window in the pantry next to the kitchen two floors below and climbed out into the alley. The gatehouse of the College was just around the corner, and as she said to the golden monkey, it was important to arrive in the orthodox way, no matter how they intended to leave.

“Take your hands off me,” she said calmly to the guard, “and show me some courtesy, or I shall have you flayed. Tell the President that Mrs. Coulter has arrived and that she wishes to see him at once.”

The man fell back, and his pinscher daemon, who had been baring her teeth at the mild-mannered golden monkey, instantly cowered and tucked her tail stump as low as it would go.

The guard cranked the handle of a telephone, and under a minute later a fresh-faced young priest came hastening into the gatehouse, wiping his palms on his robe in case she wanted to shake hands. She didn’t.

“Who are you?” she said.

“Brother Louis,” said the man, soothing his rabbit daemon, “Convener of the Secretariat of the Consistorial Court. If you would be so kind – “

“I haven’t come here to parley with a scrivener,” she told him. “Take me to Father MacPhail. And do it now.”

The man bowed helplessly and led her away. The guard behind her blew out his cheeks with relief.

Brother Louis, after trying two or three times to make conversation, gave up and led her in silence to the President’s rooms in the tower. Father MacPhail was at his devotions, and poor Brother Louis’s hand shook violently as he knocked. They heard a sigh and a groan, and then heavy footsteps crossed the floor.

The President’s eyes widened as he saw who it was, and he smiled wolfishly.

“Mrs. Coulter,” he said, offering his hand. “I am very glad to see you. My study is cold, and our hospitality is plain, but come in, come in.”

“Good evening,” she said, following him inside the bleak stone-walled room, allowing him to make a little fuss and show her to a chair. “Thank you,” she said to Brother Louis, who was still hovering, “I’ll take a glass of chocolatl.”

Nothing had been offered, and she knew how insulting it was to treat him like a servant, but his manner was so abject that he deserved it. The President nodded, and Brother Louis had to leave and deal with it, to his great annoyance.

“Of course you are under arrest,” said the President, taking the other chair and turning up the lamp.

“Oh, why spoil our talk before we’ve even begun?” said Mrs. Coulter. “I came here voluntarily, as soon as I could escape from Asriel’s fortress. The fact is, Father President, I have a great deal of information about his forces, and about the child, and I came here to give it to you.”

“The child, then. Begin with the child.”

“My daughter is now twelve years old. Very soon she will approach the cusp of adolescence, and then it will be too late for any of us to prevent the catastrophe; nature and opportunity will come together like spark and tinder. Thanks to your intervention, that is now far more likely. I hope you’re satisfied.”

“It was your duty to bring her here into our care. Instead, you chose to skulk in a mountain cave – though how a woman of your intelligence hoped to remain hidden is a mystery to me.”

“There’s probably a great deal that’s mysterious to you, my Lord President, starting with the relations between a mother and her child. If you thought for one moment that I would release my daughter into the care – the care! – of a body of men with a feverish obsession with sexuality, men with dirty fingernails, reeking of ancient sweat, men whose furtive imaginations would crawl over her body like cockroaches – if you thought I would expose my child to that, my Lord President, you are more stupid than you take me for.”

There was a knock on the door before he could reply, and Brother Louis came in with two glasses of chocolatl on a wooden tray. He laid the tray on the table with a nervous bow, smiling at the President in hopes of being asked to stay; but Father MacPhail nodded toward the door, and the young man left reluctantly.

“So what were you going to do?” said the President.

“I was going to keep her safe until the danger had passed.”

“What danger would that be?” he said, handing her a glass.

“Oh, I think you know what I mean. Somewhere there is a tempter, a serpent, so to speak, and I had to keep them from meeting.”

“There is a boy with her.”

“Yes. And if you hadn’t interfered, they would both be under my control. As it is, they could be anywhere. At least they’re not with Lord Asriel.”

“I have no doubt he will be looking for them. The boy has a knife of extraordinary power. They would be worth pursuing for that alone.”

“I’m aware of that,” said Mrs. Coulter. “I managed to break it, and he managed to get it mended again.”

The President wondered why she was smiling. Surely she didn’t approve of this wretched boy?

“We know,” he said shortly.

“Well, well,” she said. “Fra Pavel must be getting quicker. When I knew him, it would have taken him a month at least to read all that.”

She sipped her chocolatl, which was thin and weak; how like these wretched priests, she thought, to take their self-righteous abstinence out on their visitors, too.

“Tell me about Lord Asriel,” said the President. “Tell me everything.”

Mrs. Coulter settled back comfortably and began to tell him – not everything, but he never thought for a moment that she would. She told him about the fortress, about the allies, about the angels, about the mines and the foundries.

Father MacPhail sat without moving a muscle, his lizard daemon absorbing and remembering every word.

“And how did you get here?” he asked.

“I stole a gyropter. It ran out of fuel and I had to abandon it in the countryside not far from here. The rest of the way I walked.”

“Is Lord Asriel actively searching for the girl and the boy?”

“Of course.”

“I assume he’s after that knife. You know it has a name? The cliff-ghasts of the north call it the god-destroyer,” he went on, crossing to the window and looking down over the cloisters. “That’s what Asriel is aiming to do, isn’t it? Destroy the Authority? There are some people who claim that God is dead already. Presumably, Asriel is not one of those, if he retains the ambition to kill him.”

“Well, where is God,” said Mrs. Coulter, “if he’s alive? And why doesn’t he speak anymore? At the beginning of the world, God walked in the Garden and spoke with Adam and Eve. Then he began to withdraw, and he forbade Moses to look at his face. Later, in the time of Daniel, he was aged – he was the Ancient of Days. Where is he now? Is he still alive, at some inconceivable age, decrepit and demented, unable to think or act or speak and unable to die, a rotten hulk? And if that is his condition, wouldn’t it be the most merciful thing, the truest proof of our love for God, to seek him out and give him the gift of death?”

Mrs. Coulter felt a calm exhilaration as she spoke. She wondered if she’d ever get out alive; but it was intoxicating, to speak like that to this man.

“And Dust?” he said. “From the depths of heresy, what is your view of Dust?”

“I have no view of Dust,” she said. “I don’t know what it is. No one does.”

“I see. Well, I began by reminding you that you are under arrest. I think it’s time we found you somewhere to sleep. You’ll be quite comfortable; no one will hurt you; but you’re not going to get away. And we shall talk more tomorrow.”

He rang a bell, and Brother Louis came in almost at once. “Show Mrs. Coulter to the best guest room,” said the President. “And lock her in.”

The best guest room was shabby and the furniture was cheap, but at least it was clean. After the lock had turned behind her, Mrs. Coulter looked around at once for the microphone and found one in the elaborate light-fitting and another under the frame of the bed. She disconnected them both, and then had a horrible surprise.

Watching her from the top of the chest of drawers behind the door was Lord Roke.

She cried out and put a hand on the wall to steady herself. The Gallivespian was sitting cross-legged, entirely at his ease, and neither she nor the golden monkey had seen him. Once the pounding of her heart had subsided, and her breathing had slowed, she said, “And when would you have done me the courtesy of letting me know you were here, my lord? Before I undressed, or afterwards?”

“Before,” he said. “Tell your daemon to calm down, or I’ll disable him.”

The golden monkey’s teeth were bared, and all his fur was standing on end. The scorching malice of his expression was enough to make any normal person quail, but Lord Roke merely smiled. His spurs glittered in the dim light.

The little spy stood up and stretched.

“I’ve just spoken to my agent in Lord Asriel’s fortress,” he went on. “Lord Asriel presents his compliments and asks you to let him know as soon as you find out what these people’s intentions are.”

She felt winded, as if Lord Asriel had thrown her hard in wrestling. Her eyes widened, and she sat down slowly on the bed.

“Did you come here to spy on me, or to help?” she said.

“Both, and it’s lucky for you I’m here. As soon as you arrived, they set some anbaric work in motion down in the cellars. I don’t know what it is, but there’s a team of scientists working on it right now. You seem to have galvanized them.”

“I don’t know whether to be flattered or alarmed. As a matter of fact, I’m exhausted, and I’m going to sleep. If you’re here to help me, you can keep watch. You can begin by looking the other way.”

He bowed and faced the wall until she had washed in the chipped basin, dried herself on the thin towel, and undressed and got into bed. Her daemon patrolled the room, checking the wardrobe, the picture rail, the curtains, the view of the dark cloisters out of the window. Lord Roke watched him every inch of the way. Finally the golden monkey joined Mrs. Coulter, and they fell asleep at once.

Lord Roke hadn’t told her everything that he’d learned from Lord Asriel. The allies had been tracking the flight of all kinds of beings in the air above the frontiers of the Republic, and had noticed a concentration of what might have been angels, and might have been something else entirely, in the west. They had sent patrols out to investigate, but so far they had learned nothing: whatever it was that hung there had wrapped itself in impenetrable fog.

The spy thought it best not to trouble Mrs. Coulter with that, though; she was exhausted. Let her sleep, he decided, and he moved silently about the room, listening at the door, watching out of the window, awake and alert.

An hour after she had first come into the room, he heard a quiet noise outside the door: a faint scratch and a whisper. At the same moment a dim light outlined the door. Lord Roke moved to the farthest corner and stood behind one of the legs of the chair on which Mrs. Coulter had thrown her clothes.

A minute went by, and then the key turned very quietly in the lock. The door opened an inch, no more, and then the light went out.

Lord Roke could see well enough in the dim glow through the thin curtains, but the intruder was having to wait for his eyes to adjust. Finally the door opened farther, very slowly, and the young priest Brother Louis stepped in.

He crossed himself and tiptoed to the bed. Lord Roke prepared to spring, but the priest merely listened to Mrs. Coulter’s steady breathing, looked closely to see whether she was asleep, and then turned to the bedside table.

He covered the bulb of the battery light with his hand and switched it on, letting a thin gleam escape through his fingers. He peered at the table so closely that his nose nearly touched the surface, but whatever he was looking for, he didn’t find it. Mrs. Coulter had put a few things there before she got into bed – a couple of coins, a ring, her watch – but Brother Louis wasn’t interested in those.

He turned to her again, and then he saw what he was looking for, uttering a soft hiss between his teeth. Lord Roke could see his dismay: the object of his search was the locket on the gold chain around Mrs. Coulter’s neck.

Lord Roke moved silently along the skirting board toward the door.

The priest crossed himself again, for he was going to have to touch her. Holding his breath, he bent over the bed, and the golden monkey stirred.

The young man froze, hands outstretched. His rabbit daemon trembled at his feet, no use at all: she could at least have kept watch for the poor man, Lord Roke thought. The monkey turned over in his sleep and fell still again.

After a minute poised like a waxwork, Brother Louis lowered his shaking hands to Mrs. Coulter’s neck. He fumbled for so long that Lord Roke thought the dawn would break before he got the catch undone, but finally he lifted the locket gently away and stood up.

Lord Roke, as quick and as quiet as a mouse, was out of the door before the priest had turned around. He waited in the dark corridor, and when the young man tiptoed out and turned the key, the Gallivespian began to follow him.

Brother Louis made for the tower, and when the President opened his door, Lord Roke darted through and made for the priedieu in the corner of the room. There he found a shadowy ledge where he crouched and listened.

Father MacPhail was not alone: Fra Pavel, the alethiometrist, was busy with his books, and another figure stood nervously by the window. This was Dr. Cooper, the experimental theologian from Bolvangar. They both looked up.

“Well done, Brother Louis,” said the President. “Bring it here, sit down, show me, show me. Well done!”

Fra Pavel moved some of his books, and the young priest laid the gold chain on the table. The others bent over to look as Father MacPhail fiddled with the catch. Dr. Cooper offered him a pocketknife, and then there was a soft click.

“Ah!” sighed the President.

Lord Roke climbed to the top of the desk so that he could see. In the naphtha lamplight there was a gleam of dark gold: it was a lock of hair, and the President was twisting it between his fingers, turning it this way and that.

“Are we certain this is the child’s?” he said.

“I am certain,” came the weary voice of Fra Pavel.

“And is there enough of it, Dr. Cooper?”

The pale-faced man bent low and took the lock from Father MacPhail’s fingers. He held it up to the light.

“Oh yes,” he said. “One single hair would be enough. This is ample.”

“I’m very pleased to hear it,” said the President. “Now, Brother Louis, you must return the locket to the good lady’s neck.”

The priest sagged faintly: he had hoped his task was over. The President placed the curl of Lyra’s hair in an envelope and shut the locket, looking up and around as he did so, and Lord Roke had to drop out of sight.

“Father President,” said Brother Louis, “I shall of course do as you command, but may I know why you need the child’s hair?”

“No, Brother Louis, because it would disturb you. Leave these matters to us. Off you go.”

The young man took the locket and left, smothering his resentment. Lord Roke thought of going back with him and waking Mrs. Coulter just as he was trying to replace the chain, in order to see what she’d do; but it was more important to find out what these people were up to.

As the door closed, the Gallivespian went back into the shadows and listened.

“How did you know where she had it?” said the scientist.

“Every time she mentioned the child,” the President said, “her hand went to the locket. Now then, how soon can it be ready?”

“A matter of hours,” said Dr. Cooper.

“And the hair? What do you do with that?”

“We place the hair in the resonating chamber. You understand, each individual is unique, and the arrangement of genetic particles quite distinct… Well, as soon as it’s analyzed, the information is coded in a series of anbaric pulses and transferred to the aiming device. That locates the origin of the material, the hair, wherever she may be. It’s a process that actually makes use of the Barnard-Stokes heresy, the many-worlds idea…”

“Don’t alarm yourself, Doctor. Fra Pavel has told me that the child is in another world. Please go on. The force of the bomb is directed by means of the hair?”

“Yes. To each of the hairs from which these ones were cut. That’s right.”

“So when it’s detonated, the child will be destroyed, wherever she is?”

There was a heavy indrawn breath from the scientist, and then a reluctant “Yes.” He swallowed, and went on, “The power needed is enormous. The anbaric power. Just as an atomic bomb needs a high explosive to force the uranium together and set off the chain reaction, this device needs a colossal current to release the much greater power of the severance process. I was wondering – “

“It doesn’t matter where it’s detonated, does it?”

“No. That is the point. Anywhere will do.”

“And it’s completely ready?”

“Now we have the hair, yes. But the power, you see…”

“I have seen to that. The hydro-anbaric generating station at Saint-Jean-les-Eaux has been requisitioned for our use. They produce enough power there, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yes,” said the scientist.

“Then we shall set out at once. Please go and see to the apparatus, Dr. Cooper. Have it ready for transportation as soon as you can. The weather changes quickly in the mountains, and there is a storm on the way.”

The scientist took the little envelope containing Lyra’s hair and bowed nervously as he left. Lord Roke left with him, making no more noise than a shadow.

As soon as they were out of earshot of the President’s room, the Gallivespian sprang. Dr. Cooper, below him on the stairs, felt an agonizing stab in his shoulder and grabbed for the banister; but his arm was strangely weak, and he slipped and tumbled down the whole flight, to land semiconscious at the bottom.

Lord Roke hauled the envelope out of the man’s twitching hand with some difficulty, for it was half as big as he was, and set off in the shadows toward the room where Mrs. Coulter was asleep.

The gap at the foot of the door was wide enough for him to slip through. Brother Louis had come and gone, but he hadn’t dared to try and fasten the chain around Mrs. Coulter’s neck: it lay beside her on the pillow.

Lord Roke pressed her hand to wake her up. She was profoundly exhausted, but she focused on him at once and sat up, rubbing her eyes.

He explained what had happened and gave her the envelope.

“You should destroy it at once,” he told her. “One single hair would be enough, the man said.”

She looked at the little curl of dark blond hair and shook her head.

“Too late for that,” she said. “This is only half the lock I cut from Lyra. He must have kept back some of it.”

Lord Roke hissed with anger.

“When he looked around!” he said. “Ach – I moved to be out of his sight – he must have set it aside then…”

“And there’s no way of knowing where he’ll have put it,” said Mrs. Coulter. “Still, if we can find the bomb – “

“Shh!”

That was the golden monkey. He was crouching by the door, listening, and then they heard it, too: heavy footsteps hurrying toward the room.

Mrs. Coulter thrust the envelope and the lock of hair at Lord Roke, who took it and leapt for the top of the wardrobe. Then she lay down next to her daemon as the key turned noisily in the door.

“Where is it? What have you done with it? How did you attack Dr. Cooper?” said the President’s harsh voice as the light fell across the bed.

Mrs. Coulter threw up an arm to shade her eyes and struggled to sit up.

“You do like to keep your guests entertained,” she said drowsily. “Is this a new game? What do I have to do? And who is Dr. Cooper?”

The guard from the gatehouse had come in with Father MacPhail and was shining a torch into the corners of the room and under the bed. The President was slightly disconcerted: Mrs. Coulter’s eyes were heavy with sleep, and she could hardly see in the glare from the corridor light. It was obvious that she hadn’t left her bed.

“You have an accomplice,” he said. “Someone has attacked a guest of the College. Who is it? Who came here with you? Where is he?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about. And what’s this…?”

Her hand, which she’d put down to help herself sit up, had found the locket on the pillow. She stopped, picked it up, and looked at the President with wide-open sleepy eyes, and Lord Roke saw a superb piece of acting as she said, puzzled, “But this is my… what’s it doing here? Father MacPhail, who’s been in here? Someone has taken this from around my neck. And – where is Lyra’s hair? There was a lock of my child’s hair in here. Who’s taken it? Why? What’s going on?”

And now she was standing, her hair disordered, passion in her voice – plainly just as bewildered as the President himself.

Father MacPhail took a step backward and put his hand to his head.

“Someone else must have come with you. There must be an accomplice,” he said, his voice rasping at the air. “Where is he hiding?”

“I have no accomplice,” she said angrily. “If there’s an invisible assassin in this place, I can only imagine it’s the Devil himself. I dare say he feels quite at home.”

Father MacPhail said to the guard, “Take her to the cellars. Put her in chains. I know just what we can do with this woman; I should have thought of it as soon as she appeared.”

She looked wildly around and met Lord Roke’s eyes for a fraction of a second, glittering in the darkness near the ceiling. He caught her expression at once and understood exactly what she meant him to do.