Dearer than Eyesight
Copyright © 2003 Ceres Wunderkind
It was in Bodley's Library, on what we thought was going to be one of our better days, that Cordelia and I first came across the book, which was lying on a table in the middle of the Accessions Room.
Yes, you're absolutely right. There's really no room for surprise here, is there? The Bodleian keeps books – more than a few, they say. It's not so terribly unusual to go into Bodley's and to find a book or two there. They are kept on shelves, I believe. Word has it that it's possible to borrow books from their stock, take them back to your study, and read them at your leisure.
I realise that I haven't started my story very well; telling you that I found a book in Bodley's. There's every chance that you'll stop reading right here and now. Who know what statement of the utmost banality I may come up with next? "Ice-cream is a pleasant confection when the weather is hot." "You should not run while you are holding scissors." "There are milestones on the Dover Road."
Very well. I acknowledge your concern, and I promise that we will tell you more about his book that we found in a library, and I will try to write in a way that will hold your interest.
For a start; it smelled peculiar.
Most books – books that are more than a year or two old, anyway – smell musty. That's only to be expected. After all, what are books printed on? Paper. And what's paper made from? Trees and rags; shredded, boiled up, rolled out into flat sheets and dried. Paper is no more than old vegetation, when it comes down to it. I've no doubt you know what happens to old vegetation – it rots. That's what books do if you're not careful; they rot away. You have to keep them dry and well away from dust and mould if you want them to last for more than a year or two.
Now; some people enjoy the smell of old paper. That is certainly true of Cordelia and me. We're accustomed to it, and we absolutely love it. There's a characteristic variation from publisher to publisher, depending on where they buy their paper from, what glues they use to stick the book together and what material they bind it in. Ahhhh! The beautiful aroma of antique calfskin from the covers of a twentieth-century De Quincey from the Cantabriensis University Press! There was a publisher that knew the value of words and how to enhance the pleasure of the reader by adding the sensuous delight of handling a beautifully-made book to the intellectual joy of scanning its contents. We'll never forget the first time I ran my fingertips down the spine of a perfect first edition of Heavey's Diatribes. Heaven! I can say no more than that. Sheer heaven…
I'm sorry. We got a little bit carried away just now. About this book, then. As I said, it smelled funny. I'm no experimental theologian or thaumaturge, so I can't say exactly what went into it to make it smell the way that it did. All I can think of is this: Do you remember naphtha? It used to be used for lighting, back in your grandmother's time perhaps. You still find it occasionally; usually in tourist traps like the London Dungeon or the Brixton Caverns, where it lends what the proprietors probably think is an olde worlde atmosphere to their sordid little catchpenny establishments. If you have come across it, you'll know what I mean. Otherwise, I don't think I can help you – you'll just have to take my word for it that the book smelled of naphtha or something not too dissimilar from it.
Next there was the binding. As a rule, Bodley's only keeps books which have been made to last. Often a publisher will print up a run in two versions – one cheap one for general sale, and another one that is more soundly put together and is intended for libraries, where the book will be handled by many people and have to stand up to more wear and tear than it would if it was part of a private collection.
Bindings are usually made of cardboard, covered with a protective material. This means cloth of various different qualities for ordinary books, with a plain printed paper dust jacket wrapped around them; and leather for high-quality volumes. Both kinds of book have the title and the names of the author embossed on the spine and the front cover. This book, however, was covered neither in cloth nor in leather, but in some sort of extraordinarily smooth, slick, flexible material, dented in places, with a reproduction of what looked to be a coloured photogram of a curious round building printed directly onto it. Our curiosity was becoming more and more aroused. Where could this unusual book have come from?
I picked the volume up from the table, smelled it with the results that I have described, and then offered it to Cordelia to sniff at (her sense of smell is more delicate than mine). She wrinkled her nose, twitched her whiskers and sneezed twice.
'Ugh! That's horrible!' Cordelia has a wonderful way of reducing matters to their essentials. She was quite right – the book smelled most unpleasant. 'Let's take a closer look at it, shall we?' I said, stroking her coal-black fur.
The book weighed about what I would have expected for one of its size. It was in quarto format and, I suppose, about two inches thick. I held it carefully along the spine and opened it.
It's a habit of mine always to check the flyleaf first when I look at an old book. You'll often find a seller's stamp or sticker there, and that tells you something about the book's provenance. And, of course, you may find the previous owner's name, either written by hand or printed on an ex libris label. If the book was a gift or a school prize, you can learn interesting things about the owner and the presenter. Prize labels can be fascinating and are a study in themselves, but I digress. It was immediately apparent to us that this particular book was a gift. The flyleaf bore a handwritten dedication which was, in its way, as odd as everything else about it. Let me explain: You know how, when you write with a pencil, it leaves an indentation in the sheet of paper, caused by the downward pressure you have to exert, especially if the pencil is of a hard grade? And how, contrariwise, if you write with a quill it leaves no such mark, because if you press down too firmly the pen splits and ink flies all over the place? Well, this inscription looked as if it had been made with a combination of both – it was written in ink but the pen, or whatever it was, had left a groove in the paper. It read:
To Peter and Viola from his friend John and Rosalind, in memory of a summer's afternoon on the Downs.
May the Force be with you!
The first part made perfect sense. Neither Cordelia nor I have ever understood the second part; not then, nor at any time since.
'Tom?' I called out to the curator's assistant who had admitted me earlier that afternoon.
'What's this?' I held the book up so that he could see it. Tom put down his work, tucked his pencil behind his left ear, got up from behind his desk and shuffled over to where we stood. His Celia stayed behind, perched on the back of Tom's chair, causing me to shudder briefly. Tom likes to do this – it's like a party piece for him, showing how far apart he and his daemon can stray. Neither Cordelia nor I enjoyed it at all; it made us feel ill. A daemon sticks closely to her human; that's the way it's always been and that's the way it's meant to be.
Tom took the book from my hand and peered at the spine.
'Oh yes, the funny one. I thought you might notice it. I've got the receipt over here, if you'd care to take a look.'
Cordelia and I followed him slowly back across the room.
'Ah, now. Where did I put it?' Tom opened the top drawer of his desk and Celia and he rummaged about inside. 'Best filing system in the world, you know, this drawer. You can't lose anything, or misplace it. Everything's in here somewhere.' We agreed with him – it was the best thing to do under the circumstances. Tom took out cards and envelopes and papers one after another, looking at each one carefully, and for a moment we thought that he was going to pull the drawer completely out of the desk and empty it all over the floor, but at the very last moment he stopped his searching and gave a cry of triumph.
'Eureka! I told you!' He held up a pink flimsy. 'Here it is! Never fails!' He handed the paper – it was a bill of sale, we could tell – over to Cordelia and me and we took it to the window so that we could examine it better. It was immediately apparent to me that this slip was not the receipt from the latest seller to Bodley's for the present acquisition of the volume. I turned to Tom, who had resumed his place at his desk. 'Where's the…' Tom and Celia knew what I was asking before I could finish the question.
'Job lot. One of a batch from a house-clearance. I've got the bill for the whole collection if you…'
'No, no, that's all right.'
So, the book had turned up in a warehouse or junk shop somewhere. I knew that Bodley's had agents who prowled around the second-hand shops looking for rarities. So did Blackwell's, and Thornton's, and many of the other Oxford bookshops. You see; every now and then something slips past the executors of an estate, or the auctioneers they call in when someone dies and the deceased's house and its contents are broken up and sold off. Everyone in the book business dreams of finding something exquisite buried at the bottom of a pile of something worthless – Bleighton, Rawling, Poolmaan, Talkin, Loovess; that sort of stuff. I know that you're not supposed to be able to find jewels on dung heaps, but all the same it has happened. Why, I myself once found a signed copy of Woolfe's Latro Remembers being used as a doorstop in a butcher's shop in Summertown!
I could not tell yet if the book which Tom had replaced on the table was a valuable rarity, a commonplace edition (with an admittedly unusual binding) or merely the product of one of the many vanity presses with which the world of publishing is disfigured. Please don't mention vanity publishers to me, as it will only make us angry. I regard them as disgusting parasites; preying on the hopes and dreams of the incompetent. They pick you up, they tell you how wonderful your writing is and how you're only at the start of a very promising career and that once the reviewers have seen your first real book you'll have Chapman and Hall coming up from London and offering an enormous advance against your next slim volume. Then they take five hundred guineas from you, print up twenty cheaply-made rag-books, and send you on your way with no legal recourse. No reviewer worth mentioning ever reads anything from the likes of the Regency Press or Utopia Ltd, believe you me.
There we are. That's got it off my chest.
The pink paper told me very little. It appeared that the book had once belonged to a Mrs Joyce and Richard and that she had sold it to Mr Burnaby and Isabella of Shoe Lane, Oxford. The receipt was signed over a one-and-sixpenny postage stamp which, by my best estimation, made the date of the sale about twenty years previous to the present day. This was confirmed by closer inspection of the signature and the date printed next to it. What else was there? The slip looked as if it had been torn out of a common receipt book, such as is used by small businesses like shops or jobbing craftsmen. There was no indication of the name of the shopkeeper or tradesman, however. Still, it might be possible, by means of some detective work, to track down the seller. The address of the buyer – Shoe Lane – was a good start. Twenty or thirty years ago, Shoe Lane had been the centre of a thriving neighbourhood of artisans' workshops and tailors' premises, dressmakers' rooms and restaurants. That was all gone now of course, swept away in the name of progress.
I returned the slip to Tom, and he replaced it in his infallible filing system. Wordlessly he handed me the Loans Register and I filled in the date, our name and the title of the book, promising to return it in the same condition that I had received it within four weeks from date. We have to be terribly careful about making sure that all our borrowings are properly recorded, otherwise misunderstandings can arise. I am sure that you understand what we are saying and why we are saying it.
Did I say that I took the book home on Thursday, September the twenty-third? No? I do apologise. It's terribly important, I think, to be as precise as possible when it comes to matters of fact, without going to extremes, of course. I could be utterly precise about the time that Cordelia and I pushed open the door which led out from the Bodleian, but let's settle for half-past three, shall we?
There's a pathway that leads from the southern entrance of the Bod and takes you to Turl Street. It passes between the massive bulk of Jordan College to the north and the slightly less imposing seventeenth-century structure of Brasenose on the other side. Cordelia rode in my right-hand coat pocket, poking her nose out and blinking in the light which, although I was always careful to keep her out of the direct rays of the sun, still caused her some discomfort. We emerged into Turl Street and I hesitated for a moment. Should we go southwards, to the busy High Street and the Cornmarket and the site of the old Shoe Lane, or northwards, to the Broad and St Giles and thence to our home? A gust of wind, laden with a suspicion of rain to come, decided us. Shoe Lane would have to wait. First, we'd go home and take a closer look at the book which was bulking out my left-hand pocket.
The first serious drops started to fall as we entered St Giles. Townsfolk and undergraduates alike were taking cover under the shop-awnings, disappointing the tradesmen by facing outwards into the roadway to keep an eye on the weather, rather than inwards so that they could examine the contents of the windows. I turned up my collar, made sure that the flaps of my coat-pockets were protecting both Cordelia and the book, and trudged up the pavement, turning left into Little Clarendon Street, continuing along Walton Crescent and turning right again into Albert Street.
The houses in this part of Oxford (which is known as Jericho) are more domesticated, as it were, than they are in those areas that are on display to the general public which, these days, includes a large number of sightseers. We prefer it this way, having lived in our fair share of large establishments in the past. If your needs – and means – are modest it is possible to rent a portion of a house, even if it is not a particularly large one. The house, I mean, not the portion, though that was small enough too. Cordelia and I had been granted permission to occupy a bed-sitting room on the ground floor of Number Two, Albert Terrace, where our landlady was a Mrs Figgins and Brutus. I presumed that she had been placed on a register of suitable owners of property by the City Authorities, for she was the person to whom we were directed when we first came to Oxford.
The rattle of my key in the lock and the pushing open of the front door (in a hurry – the rain was falling steadily now) produced the usual depressing result. That is; Mrs Figgins sprang from her armchair in the front room and manifested herself in the hall. I could hear the blaring of the oversized AV set in the room behind her. I don't watch it myself, except for very special occasions such as the Opening of the Great Parliament or a Royal Address, but I am informed that of all the presentations that are shown on the AV network, those which are put on in the afternoon are by far the lowest in quality. The baa-ing of what I supposed to be a studio audience (but could just as easily have been a flock of sheep) assaulted my hearing. Mrs Figgins's face bore what I suppose she thought was a friendly, engaging expression, only marred by the churchwarden pipe which depended from the side of her mouth. She must have seen me wince at the noise of the set, for she sent Brutus, panting slightly with his tongue hanging out, back into the room to turn the sound down a little. How could she bear that separation?
'Good afternoon, Prof. How are you today?'
Oh Gracious Magdelena, how we hated that. For a start, I wasn't a Professor. Secondly, if I had held a Chair at the University we would have expected to have been addressed as "Sir Professor". Mrs Figgins knew that very well, we are sure.
'We're feeling ever so sprightly today, Mrs F. In the pink, you might say.'
'You're very wet.'
'So it is, Prof. How silly of me not to notice. Look, you're dripping all over my carpet. Give me your coat, I'll take it away to dry.' She pulled at my sleeve without warning and immediately, terrifyingly, the panic which, as it had been one of our better days, had not troubled Cordelia and me very much leaped up and struck us.
'Don't do that!' I was shaking, gasping, trembling with fear. 'Don't – let go of me!'
'No need to shout, Sir.' Mrs Figgins stepped back, not in the slightest alarmed by my reaction so far as we could tell. Of course she wasn't worried. She'd done this to us before a number of times over the past two or three years. She knew that there was nothing I could do about it; that she could subtly insult me with impunity and – in the guise of offering help – threaten to take my precious Cordelia away from me.
Like an old man with the ague I emptied the pockets of my coat, my hands unsteady and my breathing irregular and ragged. I tucked the book under my left arm and gathered Cordelia into the crook of my right elbow. Her nose quested towards the light, which was emitted by a feeble lamp hanging in the centre of the ceiling of the hall.
'Poor dear, she can't see a thing, can she?' Mrs Figgins' hand strayed towards Cordelia (how dare she!) and I hastily shrugged off my sodden coat and practically hurled it at the woman.
'Thank you, Mrs F. You're very kind.' We fled into my room wishing, as ever, that it were permitted to fit a bolt, or at least a chain, to the door. From the other side of the hall came the bellow of what sounded like a quiz show, with the volume control turned back up to maximum.
'Perhaps she'll go deaf.' Cordelia, close to me again, nuzzled my cheek.
'Perhaps we'll… no. We won't, will we?'
'No, my love. We won't.'
It was ten minutes before we had calmed down sufficiently that we could begin to think straight. It had been bad for a moment, but it was looking as if the crisis had passed and we were going to be all right. Then we did what we would have done before, if we had felt able to trust ourselves with gas, lucifers and boiling water. We made ourselves a pot of tea and lit the gas fire, as the room had become chilly.
When it had brewed, and I had poured a myself a cup (Darjeeling, in my best Limoges china) and sat down by the fire, and was beginning to see the world in a more rational light, and turned on the wireless (tuned to the Third Programme), and let the music (the Tartar composer Martensen's Fourth Symphony) soothe our frightened nerves a little, I clicked on the reading light, picked the book up from the side-table where I had deposited it and opened it to the title page. The name of the book meant absolutely nothing to me. Nor had I ever heard of the writer although he had clearly been very prolific, judging by the number of pages, which I estimated to be over one thousand. But there it was, emblazoned across the page above a woodcut which we presumed to be a representation of the author's physical appearance.
Straight away, I realised that there was something very, very badly wrong with this book, and the disabling feelings of terror which we had battled successfully in the hall outside our room and, in a milder form, earlier that afternoon in Bodley's Library came back to us, stronger than ever. We saw the terror – had been seeing it for as long as we could remember – as a black dog, stalking Cordelia and me, red of eye and jaw and voracious of appetite. We had been trying to fight it off for all our lives, but we were not able to fight it off this time. I wish – oh I wish – that we had put the book back on the table and left it there, but we did not, could not. Horrified, fascinated, disgusted, compelled, unable to look away, we began to turn the pages. We never heard the knock on the door, nor did we see who entered our room.
The Radcliffe Infirmary
We are being held here against our will; for our own good, they tell us. We say, against our will, but we am not sure that it means anything any more; to speak of our will, as if we were capable of making rational judgements or leading what is called a normal life.
I think they are arguing over us, those doctors. Some of them, the ones who come with pills and needles and straps, contend that we are incurable. They say, officially in case conferences and unofficially in the hospital corridors, that we are a hopeless case. They talk about how they found us in the hallway of Mrs Figgins' house, of our limited prognosis, of their recklessness in attempting to de-institutionalise Cordelia and me without proper medical supervision.
They are the hard men, the practical men, the seekers of quick and effective solutions to insoluble problems. Then there are the others, whom they call dreamers. These others say look; look at how Cordelia and I led a normal life in Oxford for more than three years. Look at the whole-hearted way we took up the intellectual life which had been denied us in the other place and which suited us so well. They suggest that Mrs Figgins' house might not have been the best place for us to live; that she was unqualified to take care of people such as us and that it was unfair to expect her to do so. In this matter they agree with the first group.
In other ways they disagree. They believe that, with the right kind of care, we could return to society; that this unfortunate incident was an aberration which is unlikely to be repeated. It is not necessary, they say, for Cordelia and me to be kept locked up behind iron bars for the rest of our life. The first group counters with an unanswerable argument; someone has been badly hurt and – the clincher – it would be too expensive to care for us beyond the bounds of a properly run facility. There are insufficient funds available. They will win, we are sure, and we have little doubt that we will soon be taken back to Berkshire, and returned to our old accommodations in Crowthorne.
Neither group knows about the book, and the part it played in what happened. We do not have it any more. We expect that it will soon be disposed of, together with the other possessions which we acquired in our three years of freedom. We hope that it will be returned to Bodley's. We should mention it to the nurse, the next time she comes with food, or medication, or to turn me over in the bed.
Bodley's would be the best place for it. Either that, or an incinerator. But no, it should be saved, for we are coming to the realisation that it must be unique – an irreplaceable artefact. If it is to be preserved, then it will have to be kept under lock and key, in the Reserved Section, for it is dangerous and, if the word still means anything in this newly secular age, heretical.
We had thought that the picture of the writer that we had found on the title page had been damaged, for it was incomplete. His daemon was missing. This happens sometimes, due to an accident or the carelessness of the artist. It is also sometimes a coded indication that the pages to follow contain a particularly low and vicious form of pornography; in which the protagonists behave as if they had no daemons, in an utterly depraved and corrupt manner. We had never read such material, but we had heard of it – whispers, no more, and it was totally repugnant to us.
Can you imagine it? A man, daemon-less? He would be an animal – worse than an animal, in fact, for he would still appear to be human. Stop and think for a moment – how often have you been tempted to commit a greater or lesser wrong, and been set back on the path of righteousness by the promptings of your daemon? What would you become if it were not for her? What kind of person would want to read about that terrible, unimaginable condition of living without your gentle guide constantly next to you, touching you, being close, and near, and warm, and kind? And is that not the meaning and the lure of pornography – the free expression of our basest lusts, with no warning voice of correction or fear of consequences?
Had the book, and the plays and poems it contained, been an object of such a kind we would have had no hesitation in destroying it as a loathsome thing. We would have told Tom at the Bodleian of what we had done, and it would most likely have been forgotten. But as we read it came to us with increasing force, page by page, that the people whose stories were being told were not depraved, not corrupt, not bestial but real, living, breathing, feeling, loving human beings. This man without a daemon, this William Shakespeare, was worse than a pornographer, for he had drawn a picture – a diabolically convincing picture – of a world without daemons that was every bit as good, or bad, as our own; and we could not bear that. To be told that our daemons were not necessary – no, that was an idea that we could not accept. It was inconceivable to us that we should permit ourselves to look at this terrible book any longer, so we knelt down close to the fire in our room and stared at the glowing bars until they faded from our sight. It upsets us very much to tell of it here, but we must.
We will let them take us away, and we will try to forget the book, and be content. We will be together in the dark for always; my precious, my darling, my inseparable one, my lover, dearer than eyesight, my Cordelia, my all.
Author's notes: A year or two ago, when I was Jopari, I committed review suicide by posting anHDM story – The Raid – which featured no characters whatsoever from His Dark Materials. The present tale provides conclusive evidence that I am constitutionally incapable of learning from my own mistakes.
If you wish to learn how it was that a copy ofThe Collected Works of William Shakespeare came to Lyra's world, you can find the answer in my stories The Clockmaker's Boy and Time and Peter Joyce. I first mentioned Jesus Christ's daemon, the Magdelena, in The Reliquary.
In our world, Crowthorne is the location of Broadmoor Hospital; a secure facility for the criminally insane.
This new version contains minor geographical changes which I have made in the light of new information gleaned fromLyra's Oxford.