Home > The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials #1)(14)

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials #1)(14)
Author: Philip Pullman




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.”

“Whatever for?”

“The…the coffins. We wanted to see all the coffins,” she said.

“But why?”

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?”

“Roger, Father.”

“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.

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