Jordan College was the grandest and richest of all the colleges in Oxford. It was probably the largest, too, though no one knew for certain. The buildings, which were grouped around three irregular quadrangles, dated from every period from the early Middle Ages to the mid-eighteenth century.
It had never been planned; it had grown piecemeal, with past and present overlapping at every spot, and the final effect was one of jumbled and squalid grandeur. Some part was always about to fall down, and for five generations the same family, the Parslows, had been employed full time by the College as masons and scaffolders. The present Mr. Parslow was teaching his son the craft; the two of them and their three workmen would scramble like industrious termites over the scaffolding they’d erected at the corner of the library, or over the roof of the chapel, and haul up bright new blocks of stone or rolls of shiny lead or balks of timber.
The College owned farms and estates all over England. It was said that you could walk from Oxford to Bristol in one direction and London in the other, and never leave Jordan land. In every part of the kingdom there were dye works and brick kilns, forests and atomcraft works that paid rent to Jordan, and every quarter-day the bursar and his clerks would tot it all up, announce the total to Concilium, and order a pair of swans for the feast. Some of the money was put by for reinvestment – Concilium had just approved the purchase of an office block in Manchester – and the rest was used to pay the Scholars’ modest stipends and the wages of the servants (and the Parslows, and the other dozen or so families of craftsmen and traders who served the College), to keep the wine cellar richly filled, to buy books and anbarographs for the immense library that filled one side of the Melrose Quadrangle and extended, burrow-like, for several floors beneath the ground, and, not least, to buy the latest philosophical apparatus to equip the chapel.
It was important to keep the chapel up to date, because Jordan College had no rival, either in Europe or in New France, as a center of experimental theology. Lyra knew that much, at least. She was proud of her College’s eminence, and liked to boast of it to the various urchins and ragamuffins she played with by the canal or the claybeds; and she regarded visiting Scholars and eminent professors from elsewhere with pitying scorn, because they didn’t belong to Jordan and so must know less, poor things, than the humblest of Jordan’s under-Scholars.
As for what experimental theology was, Lyra had no more idea than the urchins. She had formed the notion that it was concerned with magic, with the movements of the stars and planets, with tiny particles of matter, but that was guesswork, really. Probably the stars had daemons just as humans did, and experimental theology involved talking to them. Lyra imagined the Chaplain speaking loftily, listening to the star daemons’ remarks, and then nodding judiciously or shaking his head in regret. But what might be passing between them, she couldn’t conceive.
Nor was she particularly interested. In many ways Lyra was a barbarian. What she liked best was clambering over the College roofs with Roger, the kitchen boy who was her particular friend, to spit plum stones on the heads of passing Scholars or to hoot like owls outside a window where a tutorial was going on, or racing through the narrow streets, or stealing apples from the market, or waging war. Just as she was unaware of the hidden currents of politics running below the surface of College affairs, so the Scholars, for their part, would have been unable to see the rich seething stew of alliances and enmities and feuds and treaties which was a child’s life in Oxford. Children playing together: how pleasant to see! What could be more innocent and charming?
In fact, of course, Lyra and her peers were engaged in deadly warfare. There were several wars running at once. The children (young servants, and the children of servants, and Lyra) of one college waged war on those of another. Lyra had once been captured by the children of Gabriel College, and Roger and their friends Hugh Lovat and Simon Parslow had raided the place to rescue her, creeping through the Precentor’s garden and gathering armfuls of small stone-hard plums to throw at the kidnappers. There were twenty-four colleges, which allowed for endless permutations of alliance and betrayal. But the enmity between the colleges was forgotten in a moment when the town children attacked a colleger: then all the collegers banded together and went into battle against the town-ies.This rivalry was hundreds of years old, and very deep and satisfying.
But even this was forgotten when the other enemies threatened. One enemy was perennial: the brickburners’ children, who lived by the claybeds and were despised by collegers and townies alike. Last year Lyra and some townies had made a temporary truce and raided the claybeds, pelting the brick-burners’ children with lumps of heavy clay and tipping over the soggy castle they’d built, before rolling them over and over in the clinging substance they lived by until victors and vanquished alike resembled a flock of shrieking golems.
The other regular enemy was seasonal. The gyptian families, who lived in canal boats, came and went with the spring and autumn fairs, and were always good for a fight. There was one family of gyptians in particular, who regularly returned to their mooring in that part of the city known as Jericho, with whom Lyra’d been feuding ever since she could first throw a stone. When they were last in Oxford, she and Roger and some of the other kitchen boys from Jordan and St. Michael’s College had laid an ambush for them, throwing mud at their brightly painted narrowboat until the whole family came out to chase them away – at which point the reserve squad under Lyra raided the boat and cast it off from the bank, to float down the canal, getting in the way of all the other water traffic while Lyra’s raiders searched the boat from end to end, looking for the bung. Lyra firmly believed in this bung. If they pulled it out, she assured her troop, the boat would sink at once; but they didn’t find it, and had to abandon ship when the gyptians caught them up, to flee dripping and crowing with triumph through the narrow lanes of Jericho.
That was Lyra’s world and her delight. She was a coarse and greedy little savage, for the most part. But she always had a dim sense that it wasn’t her whole world; that part of her also belonged in the grandeur and ritual of Jordan College; and that somewhere in her life there was a connection with the high world of politics represented by Lord Asriel. All she did with that knowledge was to give herself airs and lord it over the other urchins. It had never occurred to her to find out more.
So she had passed her childhood, like a half-wild cat. The only variation in her days came on those irregular occasions when Lord Asriel visited the College. A rich and powerful uncle was all very well to boast about, but the price of boasting was having to be caught by the most agile Scholar and brought to the Housekeeper to be washed and dressed in a clean frock, following which she was escorted (with many threats) to the Senior Common Room to have tea with Lord Asriel and an invited group of senior Scholars. She dreaded being seen by Roger. He’d caught sight of her on one of these occasions and hooted with laughter at this beribboned and pink-frilled vision. She had responded with a volley of shrieking curses that shocked the poor Scholar who was escorting her, and in the Senior Common Room she’d slumped mutinously in an armchair until the Master told her sharply to sit up, and then she’d glowered at them all till even the Chaplain had to laugh.
What happened on those awkward, formal visits never varied. After the tea, the Master and the other few Scholars who’d been invited left Lyra and her uncle together, and he called her to stand in front of him and tell him what she’d learned since his last visit. And she would mutter whatever she could dredge up about geometry or Arabic or history or anbarology, and he would sit back with one ankle resting on the other knee and watch her inscrutably until her words failed.
Last year, before his expedition to the North, he’d gone on to say, “And how do you spend your time when you’re not diligently studying?”
And she mumbled, “I just play. Sort of around the College. Just…play, really.”
And he said, “Let me see your hands, child.”
She held out her hands for inspection, and he took them and turned them over to look at her fingernails. Beside him, his daemon lay sphinxlike on the carpet, swishing her tail occasionally and gazing unblinkingly at Lyra.
“Dirty,” said Lord Asriel, pushing her hands away. “Don’t they make you wash in this place?”
“Yes,” she said. “But the Chaplain’s fingernails are always dirty. They’re even dirtier than mine.”
“He’s a learned man. What’s your excuse?”
“I must’ve got them dirty after I washed.”
“Where do you play to get so dirty?”
She looked at him suspiciously. She had the feeling that being on the roof was forbidden, though no one had actually said so. “In some of the old rooms,” she said finally.
“And where else?”
“In the claybeds, sometimes.”
“Jericho and Port Meadow.”
“You’re a liar. I saw you on the roof only yesterday.”
She bit her lip and said nothing. He was watching her sardonically.
“So, you play on the roof as well,” he went on. “Do you ever go into the library?”
“No. I found a rook on the library roof, though,” she went on.
“Did you? Did you catch it?”
“It had a hurt foot. I was going to kill it and roast it but Roger said we should help it get better. So we gave it scraps of food and some wine and then it got better and flew away.”
“My friend. The kitchen boy.”
“I see. So you’ve been all over the roof – “
“Not all over. You can’t get onto the Sheldon Building because you have to jump up from Pilgrim’s Tower across a gap. There’s a skylight that opens onto it, but I’m not tall enough to reach it.”
“You’ve been all over the roof except the Sheldon Building. What about underground?”
“There’s as much College below ground as there is above it. I’m surprised you haven’t found that out. Well, I’m going in a minute. You look healthy enough. Here.”
He fished in his pocket and drew out a handful of coins, from which he gave her five gold dollars.
“Haven’t they taught you to say thank you?” he said.
“Thank you,” she mumbled.
“Do you obey the Master?”
“And respect the Scholars?”
Lord Asriel’s daemon laughed softly. It was the first sound she’d made, and Lyra blushed.
“Go and play, then,” said Lord Asriel.
Lyra turned and darted to the door with relief, remembering to turn and blurt out a “Goodbye.”
So Lyra’s life had been, before the day when she decided to hide in the Retiring Room, and first heard about Dust.
And of course the Librarian was wrong in saying to the Master that she wouldn’t have been interested. She would have listened eagerly now to anyone who could tell her about Dust. She was to hear a great deal more about it in the months to come, and eventually she would know more about Dust than anyone in the world; but in the meantime, there was all the rich life of Jordan still being lived around her.
And in any case there was something else to think about. A rumor had been filtering through the streets for some weeks: a rumor that made some people laugh and others grow silent, as some people scoff at ghosts and others fear them. For no reason that anyone could imagine, children were beginning to disappear.
It would happen like this.
East along the great highway of the River Isis, thronged with slow-moving brick barges and asphalt boats and corn tankers, way down past Henley and Maidenhead to Teddington, where the tide from the German Ocean reaches, and further down still: to Mortlake, past the house of the great magician Dr. Dee; past Falkeshall, where the pleasure gardens spread out bright with fountains and banners by day, with tree lamps and fireworks by night; past White Hall Palace, where the king holds his weekly council of state; past the Shot Tower, dropping its endless drizzle of molten lead into vats of murky water; further down still, to where the river, wide and filthy now, swings in a great curve to the south.
This is Limehouse, and here is the child who is going to disappear.
He is called Tony Makarios. His mother thinks he’s nine years old, but she has a poor memory that the drink has rotted; he might be eight, or ten. His surname is Greek, but like his age, that is a guess on his mother’s part, because he looks more Chinese than Greek, and there’s Irish and Skraeling and Lascar in him from his mother’s side too. Tony’s not very bright, but he has a sort of clumsy tenderness that sometimes prompts him to give his mother a rough hug and plant a sticky kiss on her cheeks. The poor woman is usually too fuddled to start such a procedure herself; but she responds warmly enough, once she realizes what’s happening.
At the moment Tony is hanging about the market in Pie Street. He’s hungry. It’s early evening, and he won’t get fed at home. He’s got a shilling in his pocket that a soldier gave him for taking a message to his best girl, but Tony’s not going to waste that on food, when you can pick up so much for nothing.
So he wanders through the market, between the old-clothes stalls and the fortune-paper stalls, the fruitmongers and the fried-fish seller, with his little daemon on his shoulder, a sparrow, watching this way and that; and when a stall holder and her daemon are both looking elsewhere, a brisk chirp sounds, and Tony’s hand shoots out and returns to his loose shirt with an apple or a couple of nuts, and finally with a hot pie.
The stall holder sees that, and shouts, and her cat daemon leaps, but Tony’s sparrow is aloft and Tony himself halfway down the street already. Curses and abuse go with him, but not far. He stops running at the steps of St. Catherine’s Oratory, where he sits down and takes out his steaming, battered prize, leaving a trail of gravy on his shirt.
And he’s being watched. A lady in a long yellow-red fox-fur coat, a beautiful young lady whose dark hair falls, shining delicately, under the shadow of her fur-lined hood, is standing in the doorway of the oratory, half a dozen steps above him. It might be that a service is finishing, for light comes from the doorway behind her, an organ is playing inside, and the lady is holding a jeweled breviary.
Tony knows nothing of this. His face contentedly deep in the pie, his toes curled inward and his bare soles together, he sits and chews and swallows while his daemon becomes a mouse and grooms her whiskers.
The young lady’s daemon is moving out from beside the fox-fur coat. He is in the form of a monkey, but no ordinary monkey: his fur is long and silky and of the most deep and lustrous gold. With sinuous movements he inches down the steps toward the boy, and sits a step above him.
Then the mouse senses something, and becomes a sparrow again, cocking her head a fraction sideways, and hops along the stone a step or two.
The monkey watches the sparrow; the sparrow watches the monkey.
The monkey reaches out slowly. His little hand is black, his nails perfect horny claws, his movements gentle and inviting. The sparrow can’t resist. She hops further, and further, and then, with a little flutter, up on to the monkey’s hand.
The monkey lifts her up, and gazes closely at her before standing and swinging back to his human, taking the sparrow daemon with him. The lady bends her scented head to whisper.
And then Tony turns. He can’t help it.
“Ratter!” he says, half in alarm, his mouth full.
The sparrow chirps. It must be safe. Tony swallows his mouthful and stares.
“Hello,” says the beautiful lady. “What’s your name?”
“Where do you live, Tony?”
“What’s in that pie?”
“Do you like chocolatl?”
“As it happens, I’ve got more chocolatl than I can drink myself. Will you come and help me drink it?”
He’s lost already. He was lost the moment his slow-witted daemon hopped onto the monkey’s hand. He follows the beautiful young lady and the golden monkey down Denmark Street and along to Hangman’s Wharf, and down King George’s Steps to a little green door in the side of a tall warehouse. She knocks, the door is opened, they go in, the door is closed. Tony will never come out – at least, by that entrance; and he’ll never see his mother again. She, poor drunken thing, will think he’s run away, and when she remembers him, she’ll think it was her fault, and sob her sorry heart out.
Little Tony Makarios wasn’t the only child to be caught by the lady with the golden monkey. He found a dozen others in the cellar of the warehouse, boys and girls, none older than twelve or so; though since all of them had histories like his, none could be sure of their age. What Tony didn’t notice, of course, was the factor that they all had in common. None of the children in that warm and steamy cellar had reached the age of puberty.
The kind lady saw him settled on a bench against the wall, and provided by a silent serving woman with a mug of chocolatl from the saucepan on the iron stove. Tony ate the rest of his pie and drank the sweet hot liquor without taking much notice of his surroundings, and the surroundings took little notice of him: he was too small to be a threat, and too stolid to promise much satisfaction as a victim.
It was another boy who asked the obvious question.
“Hey, lady! What you got us all here for?”
He was a tough-looking wretch with dark chocolatl on his top lip and a gaunt black rat for a daemon. The lady was standing near the door, talking to a stout man with the air of a sea captain, and as she turned to answer, she looked so angelic in the hissing naphtha light that all the children fell silent.
“We want your help,” she said. “You don’t mind helping us, do you?”
No one could say a word. They all gazed, suddenly shy. They had never seen a lady like this; she was so gracious and sweet and kind that they felt they hardly deserved their good luck, and whatever she asked, they’d give it gladly so as to stay in her presence a little longer.
She told them that they were going on a voyage. They would be well fed and warmly clothed, and those who wanted to could send messages back to their families to let them know they were safe. Captain Magnusson would take them on board his ship very soon, and then when the tide was right, they’d sail out to sea and set a course for the North.
Soon those few who did want to send a message to what-ever home they had were sitting around the beautiful lady as she wrote a few lines at their dictation and, having let them scratch a clumsy X at the foot of the page, folded it into a scented envelope and wrote the address they told her. Tony would have liked to send something to his mother, but he had a realistic idea of her ability to read it. He plucked at the lady’s fox-fur sleeve and whispered that he’d like her to tell his mum where he was going, and all, and she bent her gracious head close enough to his malodorous little body to hear, and stroked his head and promised to pass the message on.
Then the children clustered around to say goodbye. The golden monkey stroked all their daemons, and they all touched the fox fur for luck, or as if they were drawing some strength or hope or goodness out of the lady, and she bade them all farewell and saw them in the care of the bold captain on board a steam launch at the jetty. The sky was dark now, the river a mass of bobbing lights. The lady stood on the jetty and waved till she could see their faces no more.
Then she turned back inside, with the golden monkey nestled in her breast, and threw the little bundle of letters into the furnace before leaving the way she had come.
Children from the slums were easy enough to entice away, but eventually people noticed, and the police were stirred into reluctant action. For a while there were no more bewitchings. But a rumor had been born, and little by little it changed and grew and spread, and when after a while a few children disappeared in Norwich, and then Sheffield, and then Manchester, the people in those places who’d heard of the disappearances elsewhere added the new vanishings to the story and gave it new strength.
And so the legend grew of a mysterious group of enchanters who spirited children away. Some said their leader was a beautiful lady, others said a tall man with red eyes, while a third story told of a youth who laughed and sang to his victims so that they followed him like sheep.
As for where they took these lost children, no two stories agreed. Some said it was to Hell, under the ground, to Fairyland. Others said to a farm where the children were kept and fattened for the table. Others said that the children were kept and sold as slaves to rich Tartars….And so on.
But one thing on which everyone agreed was the name of these invisible kidnappers. They had to have a name, or not be referred to at all, and talking about them – especially if you were safe and snug at home, or in Jordan College – was delicious. And the name that seemed to settle on them, without anyone’s knowing why, was the Gobblers.
“Don’t stay out late, or the Gobblers’11 get you!”
“My cousin in Northampton, she knows a woman whose little boy was took by the Gobblers….”
“The Gobblers’ve been in Stratford. They say they’re coming south!”
“Let’s play kids and Gobblers!”
So said Lyra to Roger, one rainy afternoon when they were alone in the dusty attics. He was her devoted slave by this time; he would have followed her to the ends of the earth.
“How d’you play that?”
“You hide and I find you and slice you open, right, like the Gobblers do.”
“You don’t know what they do. They might not do that at all.”
“You’re afraid of ’em,” she said. “I can tell.”
“I en’t. I don’t believe in ’em anyway.”
“I do,” she said decisively. “But I en’t afraid either. I’d just do what my uncle done last time he came to Jordan. I seen him. He was in the Retiring Room and there was this guest who weren’t polite, and my uncle just give him a hard look and the man fell dead on the spot, with all foam and froth round his mouth.”
“He never,” said Roger doubtfully. “They never said anything about that in the kitchen. Anyway, you en’t allowed in the Retiring Room.”
‘”Course not. They wouldn’t tell servants about a thing like that. And I have been in the Retiring Room, so there. Anyway, my uncle’s always doing that. He done it to some Tartars when they caught him once. They tied him up and they was going to cut his guts out, but when the first man come up with the knife, my uncle just looked at him, and he fell dead, so another one come up and he done the same to him, and finally there was only one left. My uncle said he’d leave him alive if he untied him, so he did, and then my uncle killed him anyway just to teach him a lesson.”
Roger was less sure about that than about Gobblers, but the story was too good to waste, so they took it in turns to be Lord Asriel and the expiring Tartars, using sherbet dip for the foam.
However, that was a distraction; Lyra was still intent on playing Gobblers, and she inveigled Roger down into the wine cellars, which they entered by means of the Butler’s spare set of keys. Together they crept through the great vaults where the College’s Tokay and Canary, its Burgundy, its brantwijn were lying under the cobwebs of ages. Ancient stone arches rose above them supported by pillars as thick as ten trees, irregular flagstones lay underfoot, and on all sides were ranged rack upon rack, tier upon tier, of bottles and barrels. It was fascinating. With Gobblers forgotten again, the two children tiptoed from end to end holding a candle in trembling fingers, peering into every dark corner, with a single question growing more urgent in Lyra’s mind every moment: what did the wine taste like?
There was an easy way of answering that. Lyra – over Roger’s fervent protests – picked out the oldest, twistiest, greenest bottle she could find, and, not having anything to extract the cork with, broke it off at the neck. Huddled in the furthest corner, they sipped at the heady crimson liquor, wondering when they’d become drunk, and how they’d tell when they were. Lyra didn’t like the taste much, but she had to admit how grand and complicated it was. The funniest thing was watching their two daemons, who seemed to be getting more and more muddled: falling over, giggling senselessly, and changing shape to look like gargoyles, each trying to be uglier than the other.
Finally, and almost simultaneously, the children discovered what it was like to be drunk.
“Do they like doing this?” gasped Roger, after vomiting copiously.
“Yes,” said Lyra, in the same condition. “And so do I,” she added stubbornly.
Lyra learned nothing from that episode except that playing Gobblers led to interesting places. She remembered her uncle’s words in their last interview, and began to explore underground, for what was above ground was only a small fraction of the whole. Like some enormous fungus whose root system extended over acres, Jordan (finding itself jostling for space above ground with St. Michael’s College on one side, Gabriel College on the other, and the University Library behind) had begun, sometime in the Middle Ages, to spread below the surface. Tunnels, shafts, vaults, cellars, staircases had so hollowed out the earth below Jordan and for several hundred yards around it that there was almost as much air below ground as above; Jordan College stood on a sort of froth of stone.
And now that Lyra had the taste for exploring it, she abandoned her usual haunt, the irregular alps of the College roofs, and plunged with Roger into this netherworld. From playing at Gobblers she had turned to hunting them, for what could be more likely than that they were lurking out of sight below the ground?
So one day she and Roger made their way into the crypt below the oratory. This was where generations of Masters had been buried, each in his lead-lined oak coffin in niches along the stone walls. A stone tablet below each space gave their names:
SIMON LE CLERC, MASTER 1765-1789 CEREBATON
REQUIESCANT IN PACE
“What’s that mean?” said Roger.
“The first part’s his name, and the last bit’s Roman. And there’s the dates in the middle when he was Master. And the other name must be his daemon.”
They moved along the silent vault, tracing the letters of more inscriptions:
FRANCIS LYALL, MASTER 1748-1765 ZOHARIEL
REQUIESCANT IN PACE
ICNATIUS COLE, MASTER 1745-1748 MUSCA
REQUIESCANT IN PACE
On each coffin, Lyra was interested to see, a brass plaque bore a picture of a different being: this one a basilisk, this a serpent, this a monkey. She realized that they were images of the dead men’s daemons. As people became adult, their daemons lost the power to change and assumed one shape, keeping it permanently.
“These coffins’ ve got skeletons in “em!” whispered Roger.
“Moldering flesh,” whispered Lyra. “And worms and maggots all twisting about in their eye sockets.”
“Must be ghosts down here,” said Roger, shivering pleasantly.
Beyond the first crypt they found a passage lined with stone shelves. Each shelf was partitioned off into square sections, and in each section rested a skull.
Roger’s daemon, tail tucked firmly between her legs, shivered against him and gave a little quiet howl.
“Hush,” he said.
Lyra couldn’t see Pantalaimon, but she knew his moth form was resting on her shoulder and probably shivering too.
She reached up and lifted the nearest skull gently out of its resting place.
“What you doing?” said Roger. “You en’t supposed to touch em.”
She turned it over and over, taking no notice. Something suddenly fell out of the hole at the base of the skull – fell through her fingers and rang as it hit the floor, and she nearly dropped the skull in alarm.
“It’s a coin!” said Roger, feeling for it. “Might be treasure!”
He held it up to the candle and they both gazed wide-eyed. It was not a coin, but a little disc of bronze with a crudely engraved inscription showing a cat.
“It’s like the ones on the coffins,” said Lyra. “It’s his daemon. Must be.”
“Better put it back,” said Roger uneasily, and Lyra upturned the skull and dropped the disk back into its immemorial resting place before returning the skull to the shelf. Each of the other skulls, they found, had its own daemon-coin, showing its owner’s lifetime companion still close to him in death.
“Who d’you think these were when they were alive?” said Lyra. “Probably Scholars, I reckon. Only the Masters get coffins. There’s probably been so many Scholars all down the centuries that there wouldn’t be room to bury the whole of ’em, so they just cut their heads off and keep them. That’s the most important part of ’em anyway.”
They found no Gobblers, but the catacombs under the oratory kept Lyra and Roger busy for days. Once she tried to play a trick on some of the dead Scholars, by switching around the coins in their skulls so they were with the wrong daemons. Pantalaimon became so agitated at this that he changed into a bat and flew up and down uttering shrill cries and flapping his wings in her face, but she took no notice: it was too good a joke to waste. She paid for it later, though. In bed in her narrow room at the top of Staircase Twelve she was visited by a night-ghast, and woke up screaming at the three robed figures who stood at the bedside pointing their bony fingers before throwing back their cowls to show bleeding stumps where their heads should have been. Only when Pantalaimon became a lion and roared at them did they retreat, backing away into the substance of the wall until all that was visible was their arms, then their horny yellow-gray hands, then their twitching fingers, then nothing. First thing in the morning she hastened down to the catacombs and restored the daemon-coins to their rightful places, and whispered “Sorry! Sorry!” to the skulls.
The catacombs were much larger than the wine cellars, but they too had a limit. When Lyra and Roger had explored every corner of them and were sure there were no Gobblers to be found there, they turned their attention elsewhere – but not before they were spotted leaving the crypt by the Intercessor, who called them back into the oratory.
The Intercessor was a plump, elderly man known as Father Heyst. It was his job to lead all the College services, to preach and pray and hear confessions. When Lyra was younger, he had taken an interest in her spiritual welfare, only to be confounded by her sly indifference and insincere repentances. She was not spiritually promising, he had decided.
When they heard him call, Lyra and Roger turned reluctantly and walked, dragging their feet, into the great musty-smelling dimness of the oratory. Candles flickered here and there in front of images of the saints; a faint and distant clatter came from the organ loft, where some repairs were going on; a servant was polishing the brass lectern. Father Heyst beckoned from the vestry door.
“Where have you been?” he said to them. “I’ve seen you come in here two or three times now. What are you up to?”
His tone was not accusatory. He sounded as if he were genuinely interested. His daemon flicked a lizard tongue at them from her perch on his shoulder.
Lyra said, “We wanted to look down in the crypt.”
“The…the coffins. We wanted to see all the coffins,” she said.
She shrugged. It was her constant response when she was pressed.
“And you,” he went on, turning to Roger. Roger’s daemon anxiously wagged her terrier tail to propitiate him. “What’s your name?”
“If you’re a servant, where do you work?” “In the kitchen, Father.” “Should you be there now?” “Yes, Father.” “Then be off with you.”
Roger turned and ran. Lyra dragged her foot from side to side on the floor.
“As for you, Lyra,” said Father Heyst, “I’m pleased to see you taking an interest in what lies in the oratory. You are a lucky child, to have all this history around you.” “Mm,” said Lyra.
“But I wonder about your choice of companions. Are you a lonely child?” “No,” she said.
“Do you…do you miss the society of other children?” “No.”
“I don’t mean Roger the kitchen boy. I mean children such as yourself. Nobly born children. Would you like to have some companions of that sort?” “No.”
“But other girls, perhaps…” “No.”
“You see, none of us would want you to miss all the usual childhood pleasures and pastimes. I sometimes think it must be a lonely life for you here among a company of elderly Scholars, Lyra. Do you feel that?” “No.”
He tapped his thumbs together over his interlaced fingers, unable to think of anything else to ask this stubborn child.
“If there is anything troubling you,” he said finally, “you know you can come and tell me about it. I hope you feel you can always do that.” “Yes,” she said.
“Do you say your prayers?”
“Good girl. Well, run along.”
With a barely concealed sigh of relief, she turned and left. Having failed to find Gobblers below ground, Lyra took to the streets again. She was at home there.
Then, almost when she’d lost interest in them, the Gobblers appeared in Oxford.
The first Lyra heard of it was when a young boy went missing from a gyptian family she knew.
It was about the time of the horse fair, and the canal basin was crowded with narrowboats and butty boats, with traders and travelers, and the wharves along the waterfront in Jericho were bright with gleaming harness and loud with the clop of hooves and the clamor of bargaining. Lyra always enjoyed the horse fair; as well as the chance of stealing a ride on a less-than-well-attended horse, there were endless opportunities for provoking warfare.
And this year she had a grand plan. Inspired by the capture of the narrowboat the year before, she intended this time to make a proper voyage before being turned out. If she and her cronies from the College kitchens could get as far as Abingdon, they could play havoc with the weir….
But this year there was to be no war. Something else happened. Lyra was sauntering along the edge of the Port Meadow boatyard in the morning sun, without Roger for once (he had been detailed to wash the buttery floor) but with Hugh Lovat and Simon Parslow, passing a stolen cigarette from one to another and blowing out the smoke ostentatiously, when she heard a cry in a voice she recognized.
“Well, what have you done with him, you half-arsed pillock?”
It was a mighty voice, a woman’s voice, but a woman with lungs of brass and leather. Lyra looked around for her at once, because this was Ma Costa, who had clouted Lyra dizzy on two occasions but given her hot gingerbread on three, and whose family was noted for the grandeur and sumptu-ousness of their boat. They were princes among gyptians, and Lyra admired Ma Costa greatly, but she intended to be wary of her for some time yet, for theirs was the boat she had hijacked.
One of Lyra’s brat companions picked up a stone automatically when he heard the commotion, but Lyra said, “Put it down. She’s in a temper. She could snap your backbone like a twig.”
In fact, Ma Costa looked more anxious than angry. The man she was addressing, a horse trader, was shrugging and spreading his hands.
“Well, I dunno,” he was saying. “He was here one minute and gone the next. I never saw where he went….”
“He was helping you! He was holding your bloody horses for you!”
“Well, he should’ve stayed there, shouldn’t he? Runs off in the middle of a job – “
He got no further, because Ma Costa suddenly dealt him a mighty blow on the side of the head, and followed it up with such a volley of curses and slaps that he yelled and turned to flee. The other horse traders nearby jeered, and a flighty colt reared up in alarm.
“What’s going on?” said Lyra to a gyptian child who’d been watching open-mouthed. “What’s she angry about?”
“It’s her kid,” said the child. “It’s Billy. She probly reckons the Gobblers got him. They might’ve done, too. I ain’t seen him meself since – “
“The Gobblers? Has they come to Oxford, then?”
The gyptian boy turned away to call to his friends, who were all watching Ma Costa.
“She don’t know what’s going on! She don’t know the Gobblers is here!”
Half a dozen brats turned with expressions of derision, and Lyra threw her cigarette down, recognizing the cue for a fight. Everyone’s daemon instantly became warlike: each child was accompanied by fangs, or claws, or bristling fur, and Pantalaimon, contemptuous of the limited imaginations of these gyptian daemons, became a dragon the size of a deer hound.
But before they could all join battle, Ma Costa herself waded in, smacking two of the gyptians aside and confronting Lyra like a prizefighter.
“You seen him?” she demanded of Lyra. “You seen Billy?”
“No,” Lyra said. “We just got here. I en’t seen Billy for months.”
Ma Costa’s daemon was wheeling in the bright air above her head, a hawk, fierce yellow eyes snapping this way and that, unblinking. Lyra was frightened. No one worried about a child gone missing for a few hours, certainly not a gyptian: in the tight-knit gyptian boat world, all children were precious and extravagantly loved, and a mother knew that if a child was out of sight, it wouldn’t be far from someone else’s who would protect it instinctively.
But here was Ma Costa, a queen among the gyptians, in a terror for a missing child. What was going on?
Ma Costa looked half-blindly over the little group of children and turned away to stumble through the crowd on the wharf, bellowing for her child. At once the children turned back to one another, their feud abandoned in the face of her grief.
“What is them Gobblers?” said Simon Parslow, one of Lyra’s companions.
The first gyptian boy said, “You know. They been stealing kids all over the country. They’re pirates – “
“They en’t pirates,” corrected another gyptian. “They’re cannaboles. That’s why they call ’em Gobblers.”
“They eat kids?” said Lyra’s other crony, Hugh Lovat, a kitchen boy from St. Michael’s.
“No one knows,” said the first gyptian. “They take ’em away and they en’t never seen again.”
“We all know that,” said Lyra. “We been playing kids and Gobblers for months, before you were, I bet. But 1 bet no one’s seen ’em.”
“They have,” said one boy.
“Who, then?” persisted Lyra. “Have you seen ’em? How d’you know it en’t just one person?”
“Charlie seen ’em in Banbury,” said a gyptian girl. “They come and talked to this lady while another man took her little boy out the garden.”
“Yeah,” piped up Charlie, a gyptian boy. “I seen ’em do it!”
“What did they look like?” said Lyra.
“Well…l never properly saw ’em,” Charlie said. “I saw their truck, though,” he added. “They come in a white truck. They put the little boy in the truck and drove off quick.”
“But why do they call ’em Gobblers?” Lyra asked.
‘”Cause they eat ’em,” said the first gyptian boy. “Someone told us in Northampton. They been up there and all. This girl in Northampton, her brother was took, and she said the men as took him told her they was going to eat him. Everyone knows that. They gobble ’em up.”
A gyptian girl standing nearby began to cry loudly.
“That’s Billy’s cousin,” said Charlie.
Lyra said, “Who saw Billy last?”
“Me,” said half a dozen voices. “I seen him holding Johnny
Fiorelli’s old horse – I seen him by the toffee-apple seller – I seen him swinging on the crane – “
When Lyra had sorted it out, she gathered that Billy had been seen for certain not less than two hours previously.
“So,” she said, “sometime in the last two hours there must’ve been Gobblers here….”
They all looked around, shivering in spite of the warm sun, the crowded wharf, the familiar smells of tar and horses and smokeleaf. The trouble was that because no one knew what these Gobblers looked like, anyone might be a Gobbler, as Lyra pointed out to the appalled gang, who were now all under her sway, collegers and gyptians alike.
“They’re bound to look like ordinary people, else they’d be seen at once,” she explained. “If they only came at night, they could look like anything. But if they come in the daylight, they got to look ordinary. So any of these people might be Gobblers….”
“They en’t,” said a gyptian uncertainly. “I know ’em all.”
“All right, not these, but anyone else,” said Lyra. “Let’s go and look for ’em! And their white truck!”
And that precipitated a swarm. Other searchers soon joined the first ones, and before long, thirty or more gyptian children were racing from end to end of the wharves, running in and out of stables, scrambling over the cranes and derricks in the boatyard, leaping over the fence into the wide meadow, swinging fifteen at a time on the old swing bridge over the green water, and running full pelt through the narrow streets of Jericho, between the little brick terraced houses and into the great square-towered oratory of St. Barnabas the Chymist. Half of them didn’t know what they were looking for, and thought it was just a lark, but those closest to Lyra felt a real fear and apprehension every time they glimpsed a solitary figure down an alley or in the dimness of the oratory: was it a Gobbler?
But of course it wasn’t. Eventually, with no success, and with the shadow of Billy’s real disappearance hanging over them all, the fun faded away. As Lyra and the two College boys left Jericho when suppertime neared, they saw the gyptians gathering on the wharf next to where the Costas’ boat was moored. Some of the women were crying loudly, and the men were standing in angry groups, with all their daemons agitated and rising in nervous flight or snarling at shadows.
“I bet them Gobblers wouldn’t dare come in here,” said Lyra to Simon Parslow, as the two of them stepped over the threshold into the great lodge of Jordan.
“No,” he said uncertainly. “But I know there’s a kid missing from the market.”
“Who?” Lyra said. She knew most of the market children, but she hadn’t heard of this.
“Jessie Reynolds, out the saddler’s. She weren’t there at shutting-up time yesterday, and she’d only gone for a bit of fish for her dad’s tea. She never come back and no one’d seen her. They searched all through the market and everywhere.”
“I never heard about that!” said Lyra, indignant. She considered it a deplorable lapse on the part of her subjects not to tell her everything and at once.
“Well, it was only yesterday. She might’ve turned up now.”
“I’m going to ask,” said Lyra, and turned to leave the lodge.
But she hadn’t got out of the gate before the Porter called her.
“Here, Lyra! You’re not to go out again this evening. Master’s orders.”
“I told you, Master’s orders. He says if you come in, you stay in.”
“You catch me,” she said, and darted out before the old man could leave his doorway.
She ran across the narrow street and down into the alley where the vans unloaded goods for the covered market. This being shutting-up time, there were few vans there now, but a knot of youths stood smoking and talking by the central gate opposite the high stone wall of St. Michael’s College. Lyra knew one of them, a sixteen-year-old she admired because he could spit further than anyone else she’d ever heard of, and she went and waited humbly for him to notice her.
“Yeah? What do you want?” he said finally.
“Is Jessie Reynolds disappeared?”
‘”Cause a gyptian kid disappeared today and all.”
“They’re always disappearing, gyptians. After every horse fair they disappear.”
“So do horses,” said one of his friends.
“This is different,” said Lyra. “This is a kid. We was looking for him all afternoon and the other kids said the Gobblers got him.”
“The Gobblers,” she said. “En’t you heard of the Gobblers?”
It was news to the other boys as well, and apart from a few coarse comments they listened closely to what she told them.
“Gobblers,” said Lyra’s acquaintance, whose name was Dick. “It’s stupid. These gyptians, they pick up all kinds of stupid ideas.”
“They said there was Gobblers in Banbury a couple of weeks ago,” Lyra insisted, “and there was five kids taken. They probably come to Oxford now to get kids from us. It must’ve been them what got Jessie.”
“There was a kid lost over Cowley way,” said one of the other boys. “I remember now. My auntie, she was there yesterday, ’cause she sells fish and chips out a van, and she heard about it….Some little boy, that’s it…I dunno about the Gobblers, though. They en’t real, Gobblers. Just a story.”
“They are!” Lyra said. “The gyptians seen ’em. They reckon they eat the kids they catch, and…”
She stopped in midsentence, because something had suddenly come into her mind. During that strange evening she’d spent hidden in the Retiring Room, Lord Asriel had shown a lantern slide of a man with streams of light pouring from his hand; and there’d been a small figure beside him, with less light around it; and he’d said it was a child; and someone had asked if it was a severed child, and her uncle had said no, that was the point. Lyra remembered that severed meant “cut.”
And then something else hit her heart: where was Roger?
She hadn’t seen him since the morning….
Suddenly she felt afraid. Pantalaimon, as a miniature lion, sprang into her arms and growled. She said goodbye to the youths by the gate and walked quietly back into Turl Street, and then ran full pelt for Jordan lodge, tumbling in through the door a second before the now cheetah-shaped daemon.
The Porter was sanctimonious.
“I had to ring the Master and tell him,” he said. “He en’t pleased at all. I wouldn’t be in your shoes, not for money I wouldn’t.”
“Where’s Roger?” she demanded.
“I en’t seen him. He’ll be for it, too. Ooh, when Mr. Cawson catches him – “
Lyra ran to the kitchen and thrust her way into the hot, clangorous, steaming bustle.
“Where’s Roger?” she shouted.
“Clear off, Lyra! We’re busy here!”
“But where is he? Has he turned up or not?”
No one seemed interested.
“But where is he? You must’ve heard!” Lyra shouted at the chef, who boxed her ears and sent her storming away.
Bernie the pastry cook tried to calm her down, but she wouldn’t be consoled.
“They got him! Them bloody Gobblers, they oughter catch ’em and bloody kill ’em! I hate ’em! You don’t care about Roger – “
“Lyra, we all care about Roger – “
“You don’t, else you’d all stop work and go and look for him right now! I hate you!”
“There could be a dozen reasons why Roger en’t turned up. Listen to sense. We got dinner to prepare and serve in less than an hour; the Master’s got guests in the lodging, and he’ll be eating over there, and that means Chef’11 have to attend to getting the food there quick so it don’t go cold; and what with one thing and another, Lyra, life’s got to go on. I’m sure Roger’11 turn up….”
Lyra turned and ran out of the kitchen, knocking over a stack of silver dish covers and ignoring the roar of anger that arose. She sped down the steps and across the quadrangle, between the chapel and Palmer’s Tower and into the Yaxley Quad, where the oldest buildings of the College stood.
Pantalaimon scampered before her, flowing up the stairs to the very top, where Lyra’s bedroom was. Lyra barged open the door, dragged her rickety chair to the window, flung wide the casement, and scrambled out. There was a lead-lined stone gutter a foot wide just below the window, and once she was standing in that, she turned and clambered up over the rough tiles until she stood on the topmost ridge of the roof. There she opened her mouth and screamed. Pantalaimon, who always became a bird once on the roof, flew round and round shrieking rook shrieks with her.
The evening sky was awash with peach, apricot, cream: tender little ice-cream clouds in a wide orange sky. The spires and towers of Oxford stood around them, level but no higher; the green woods of Chateau-Vert and White Ham rose on either side to the east and the west. Rooks were cawing somewhere, and bells were ringing, and from the oxpens the steady beat of a gas engine announced the ascent of the evening Royal Mail zeppelin for London. Lyra watched it climb away beyond the spire of St. Michael’s Chapel, as big at first as the tip of her little finger when she held it at arm’s length, and then steadily smaller until it was a dot in the pearly sky.
She turned and looked down into the shadowed quadrangle, where the black-gowned figures of the Scholars were already beginning to drift in ones and twos toward the buttery, their daemons strutting or fluttering alongside or perching calmly on their shoulders. The lights were going on in the Hall; she could see the stained-glass windows gradually beginning to glow as a servant moved up the tables lighting the naphtha lamps. The Steward’s bell began to toll, announcing half an hour before dinner.
This was her world. She wanted it to stay the same forever and ever, but it was changing around her, for someone out there was stealing children. She sat on the roof ridge, chin in hands.
“We better rescue him, Pantalaimon,” she said. He answered in his rook voice from the chimney. “It’ll be dangerous,” he said. ‘”Course! I know that.”
“Remember what they said in the Retiring Room.” “What?”
“Something about a child up in the Arctic. The one that wasn’t attracting the Dust.”
“They said it was an entire child….What about it?”
“That might be what they’re going to do to Roger and the gyptians and the other kids.”
“Well, what does entire mean?”
“Dunno. They cut ’em in half, probably. I reckon they make slaves out of ’em. That’d be more use. They probably got mines up there. Uranium mines for atomcraft. I bet that’s what it is. And if they sent grownups down the mine, they’d be dead, so they use kids instead because they cost less. That’s what they’ve done with him.”
“I think – “
But what Pantalaimon thought had to wait, because someone began to shout from below.
“Lyra! Lyra! You come in this instant!”
There was a banging on the window frame. Lyra knew the voice and the impatience: it was Mrs. Lonsdale, the Housekeeper. There was no hiding from her.
Tight-faced, Lyra slid down the roof and into the gutter, and then climbed in through the window again. Mrs. Lonsdale was running some water into the little chipped basin, to the accompaniment of a great groaning and hammering from the pipes.
“The number of times you been told about going out there – Look at you! Just look at your skirt – it’s filthy! Take it off at once and wash yourself while I look for something decent that en’t torn. Why you can’t keep yourself clean and tidy…”
Lyra was too sulky even to ask why she was having to wash and dress, and no grownup ever gave reasons of their own accord. She dragged the dress over her head and dropped it on the narrow bed, and began to wash desultorily while Pantalaimon, a canary now, hopped closer and closer to Mrs. Lonsdale’s daemon, a stolid retriever, trying in vain to annoy him.
“Look at the state of this wardrobe! You en’t hung nothing up for weeks! Look at the creases in this – “
Look at this, look at that…Lyra didn’t want to look. She shut her eyes as she rubbed at her face with the thin towel.
“You’ll just have to wear it as it is. There en’t time to take an iron to it. God bless me, girl, your knees – look at the state of them….”
“Don’t want to look at nothing,” Lyra muttered.
Mrs. Lonsdale smacked her leg. “Wash,” she said ferociously. “You get all that dirt off.”
“Why?” Lyra said at last. “I never wash my knees usually. No one’s going to look at my knees. What’ve I got to do all this for? You don’t care about Roger neither, any more than Chef does. I’m the only one that – ” Another smack, on the other leg.
“None of that nonsense. I’m a Parslow, same as Roger’s father. He’s my second cousin. I bet you didn’t know that, ’cause I bet you never asked, Miss Lyra. I bet it never occurred to you. Don’t you chide me with not caring about the boy. God knows, I even care about you, and you give me little enough reason and no thanks.”
She seized the flannel and rubbed Lyra’s knees so hard she left the skin bright pink and sore, but clean.
“The reason for this is you’re going to have dinner with the Master and his guests. I hope to God you behave. Speak when you’re spoken to, be quiet and polite, smile nicely and don’t you ever say Dunno when someone asks you a question.”
She dragged the best dress onto Lyra’s skinny frame, tugged it straight, fished a bit of red ribbon out of the tangle in a drawer, and brushed Lyra’s hair with a coarse brush.
“If they’d let me know earlier, I could’ve given your hair a proper wash. Well, that’s too bad. As long as they don’t look too close…There. Now stand up straight. Where’s those best patent-leather shoes?”
Five minutes later Lyra was knocking on the door of the Master’s lodging, the grand and slightly gloomy house that opened into the Yaxley Quadrangle and backed onto the Library Garden. Pantalaimon, an ermine now for politeness, rubbed himself against her leg. The door was opened by the Master’s manservant Cousins, an old enemy of Lyra’s; but both knew that this was a state of truce.
“Mrs. Lonsdale said I was to come,” said Lyra.
“Yes,” said Cousins, stepping aside. “The Master’s in the drawing room.”
He showed her into the large room that overlooked the Library Garden. The last of the sun shone into it, through the gap between the library and Palmer’s Tower, and lit up the heavy pictures and the glum silver the Master collected. It also lit up the guests, and Lyra realized why they weren’t going to dine in Hall: three of the guests were women.
“Ah, Lyra,” said the Master. “I’m so glad you could come. Cousins, could you find some sort of soft drink? Dame Hannah, I don’t think you’ve met Lyra…Lord Asriel’s niece, you know.”
Dame Hannah Relf was the head of one of the women’s colleges, an elderly gray-haired lady whose daemon was a marmoset. Lyra shook hands as politely as she could, and was then introduced to the other guests, who were, like Dame Hannah, Scholars from other colleges and quite uninteresting. Then the Master came to the final guest.
“Mrs. Coulter,” he said, “this is our Lyra. Lyra, come and say hello to Mrs. Coulter.”
“Hello, Lyra,” said Mrs. Coulter.
She was beautiful and young. Her sleek black hair framed her cheeks, and her daemon was a golden monkey.