THE ADVENTURE OF THE LOST ALETHIOMETER
It was, as I recall, late one October evening in the year 20--. I was at home; reading and considering retiring to bed, while my friend Mr Sherlock Holmes was deep in the study of some recondite matter involving, I believe, the properties of certain rare earths. The amber light of a desk-lamp was reflected from the brass tube of the microscope though which he was making his observations. From time to time he looked away from the instrument and made notes in a morocco-bound notebook by its side.
I put aside my volume and addressed my friend. Ayesha, his kestrel-daemon, looked up sharply from the table beside him.
I really think I should be turning in now,' I said to him.
Perhaps you might like to wait a moment longer,' he replied. I believe we may be receiving a visitor shortly.'
I had been sharing our apartments at 221b Baker Street with the famous detective for many years. I knew that if he made such a statement it would not be mere speculation on his part, but be based on sound observation.
Indeed it was; for not five minutes later our housekeeper Mrs Hudson knocked on the door, her Pekinese-daemon fussing at her feet, and announced that there was a young person downstairs who wished to speak urgently to Mr Holmes.
Show the young lady in,' he said, and Mrs Hudson ushered in a girl of some sixteen or seventeen years of age. She was modestly dressed in a brown cloak over a nondescript outfit of a somewhat unflattering shade of emerald green. She held her daemon, a pine marten, tightly in her arms. Holmes invited her into the room and she sat down in the visitor's chair under the light, with her daemon on her lap and her hands clasped together.
And how may I be of assistance to you, young lady?' enquired Holmes. I perceive that you are in trouble with your teachers and that you have lost something of very great value to you, although you are not short of money. You have, I think, an adventurous nature. I also notice that you are that very rare thing, an alethiometrist; possibly only the second or third such person I have met in my life. You may speak freely,' he added, this is my invaluable colleague and friend, Dr John Watson.'
The girl's daemon glanced at Ayesha and my own Persian cat-daemon, Celestine.
Go on, Lyra,' he said. We can trust them.'
Yes, Pan, I know we can,' she said. Well Mr Holmes, what you say about me is perfectly true. Clearly I am wearing school uniform and I should not normally be allowed out at this time of night, so if I am not in trouble with my teachers already, I soon shall be. But I must say that I am at a loss to know how you have discovered all those other things about me.'
It is a simple matter of observation, Miss–'
Silv- I mean, Belacqua'
Miss Belacqua, then. You are wearing the uniform of St Sophia's School in Oxford, which is known for its exclusivity and high fees. Therefore either you, or more likely your guardian, have access to ample funds. Furthermore, to set out all by yourself from Oxford to find Dr Watson and me at this late hour betokens the adventurous nature to which I referred. Clearly you would not have done so had you not some urgent matter to bring to our attention. As for your loss,' and, remarkably, Holmes' voice softened as he spoke, You conceal it well, but I can see that you have indeed lost something of great value to yourself.'
The young person lowered her eyes and she clutched her daemon tightly.
That you are an alethiometrist, I see by the involuntarily movement of your fingers as you sit. That particular way of turning the three dials of the instrument is unique to alethiometry. Is it concerning an alethiometer that you have come to see Dr Watson and myself tonight?'
Yes!' she cried. I didn't know what else to do. I lost it twice before, and getting it back was desperately hard both times; not just for me but for everybody else who was involved.'
She paused for a moment to gather herself together.
I carry it around with me everywhere I go, in a little bag. At night, I always sleep with it under my pillow. Pan or I would know if it was taken from there, I'm sure. But this morning when I woke up it was gone. I thought it had slipped under the bed – it did once before and I was frantic – but it wasn't there. It wasn't anywhere. I've been in an awful panic about it all day. I daren't tell anyone – I shall get into the most frightful trouble. They told me to leave it in Dame Hannah's care, but I refused. I need to have it with me all the time, even though I'm not very good at reading it yet. Look, I still have its bag with me now.'
She showed us an old and badly worn rucksack, of the kind used by campers and casual hill-walkers. Inside was a draw-string pouch of dark blue velvet.
Holmes turned to me. I should perhaps explain to you, Watson, that the alethiometer is a theological instrument which is used to ascertain truth. You will recognise the Greek derivation of the name, no doubt. To read an alethiometer requires great skill and many years of study. To find one in the hands of a schoolgirl is unusual, to say the least. Most unusual'
He returned to the young lady.
Did you notice anything out of the ordinary when you awoke this morning – apart from the missing alethiometer, of course?' he enquired.
' No, it was a perfectly normal morning otherwise. The dormitory window was open – Felicia's terribly keen on fresh air, even in October – and I could hear the organ playing and smell the incense blowing up from the oratory.'
Holmes was silent for a moment. He rested his long chin in the palm of his left hand.
I see. Then, thank you, Miss Belacqua. Watson, would you kindly ring for Mrs Hudson and ask her to give the young lady some chocolatl and arrange a put-up bed for her downstairs. We shall all travel up to Oxford early tomorrow and see if we can resolve this matter.'
Mrs Hudson took the young person down with her and Holmes and I were left alone again in our sitting-room.
Just one thing before bed, Holmes,' I said. How was it that you knew that we were shortly to expect a visitor?'
Quite simple,' he replied. The new anbaric street lights outside our door are well-shaded and cast their light downwards so that we are not inconvenienced by their shining into our rooms. It is late and there are not many people about in Baker Street at this hour. When the young person moved into the light, a certain amount was reflected up to our window. Ayesha saw it and alerted me. Now; I must send a couple of anbarograms before retiring. Good-night, Watson.'
- 0 -
Miss Belacqua and I breakfasted together the following morning. Just as we were finishing our toast and marmalade, Holmes strode into the morning-room.
Ah Watson, Miss Belacqua, you are ready – let us depart at once. I have reserved three seats for us on the eight o'clock dirigible to Oxford.'
I say, Holmes,.' I said, is this absolutely necessary? Surely the train would be perfectly adequate, not to mention quicker.' I must confess that I distrust airships. I saw too many of them lost, with too many good men on board, in the Hindi campaign of 1992 when I served as an army surgeon.
Air travel stimulates us, my dear Watson. Besides, I wish to speak further with Miss Belacqua.'
We took a motorised growler to Falkeshall Gardens boarded the airship and thence travelled to Oxford. The journey was, I am relieved to say, quite uneventful. Holmes and Ayesha and the young lady and her daemon Pantalaimon were deep in earnest conversation throughout the trip, while Celestine and I sat by the window and looked down as the fields and villages of Brytain passed slowly below us. I stroked my daemon's tense arched back and she nuzzled my left leg all the way north.
After we had landed, Holmes took me to one side for a moment. His face was flushed and he appeared to be unnaturally excited. That girl has seen things in her short life that I would hardly have suspected could have existed, Watson. She knows more about the nature of Rusakov particles, from her own practical experience, than our greatest scholars – certainly far more than I do. It is all quite astounding.'
- 0 -
From the aërodrome we took a fiacre to the pleasant north Oxford suburb where Miss Belacqua's school was located. St Sophia's School occupied a villa in a quiet road backing onto the river Cherwell. There were playing fields and tennis courts nearby, and I observed that the school indeed had its own chapel, or small oratory.
We were admitted and conducted immediately to the Headmistress's study. Miss Maylin was a formidable lady, straight-backed, with a candid, intelligent gaze and a kindly manner that nevertheless made it clear that she would not put up with any nonsense. To be frank, I was slightly terrified of her – she reminded me so much of my own schooldays.
She first addressed the young person. Lyra, have you had breakfast this morning?'
Yes, Miss Maylin.'
Then please go directly to Miss Boorman's room. You will be just in time for her Practical Theology class.'
The girl left quickly, relieved to have been treated so leniently. Miss Maylin turned to Holmes. Unlike me, he seemed completely at his ease with her.
Mr Holmes, you have my undying thanks for bringing that foolish girl safely back to our school. We were just starting to become very worried about her when last night's anbaric message arrived. It was very kind of you and Dr Watson to accompany her back here.'
Her robin-daemon fluttered its wings on the desk. Silly girl, silly girl!' it chirruped.
Sherlock Holmes acknowledged Miss Maylin's thanks on behalf of us both and went on to repeat Miss Belacqua's story to her.
Such a strange girl!' the Headmistress said. So secretive. She tries hard to join in with all our activities, and she has plenty of friends, but really, Mr Holmes, there is something distinctly odd about her. It's no surprise, I suppose, in view of her background. She's an orphan, you know, of aristocratic parentage. She lived wild in Jordan College for years and years and then disappeared for several months before just popping up again, with a crowd of gyptians, would you believe! Dame Hannah Relf – she's the Head of our parent college, you know –' Holmes nodded, knows more about her background, I think, but she won't tell me anything. Then; there's this wretched alethiometer. It's quite, quite priceless, and she's permitted to carry it around as if it were a toy! Dame Hannah tells me that she is making good progress with it, but really! Is alethiometry an appropriate field of study for a girl of her age?'
If what she has told me is to believed; then yes, it is,' replied Holmes.
She has always been strictly truthful with me, Mr Holmes. I'm not sure, however, that that has always been the case with everybody with whom she has spoken.'
Holmes' daemon Ayesha and the robin exchanged glances. My Celestine watched, amused.
I should like, with your permission of course, Miss Maylin, to inspect the girl's dormitory. I have a certain hypothesis which needs to be tested before I can bring this case to its resolution.'
We proceeded up the stairs to the first floor. Miss Maylin showed us the dormitory while extolling the virtues of St Sophia's – its high academic standards, its excellent sports facilities, its private oratory and Father Reilly, the chaplain – almost as if we were parents proposing to entrust our own children to her care. She opened the door to Miss Belacqua's dormitory and held it for us. It was a small, bare room with a wooden floor, containing little more than four iron-framed beds, four bedside cabinets, a large linen press and a wardrobe. Clearly the school fees, which were doubtless substantial, were directed more towards the girls' education than their physical comfort.
Holmes took out his magnifying glass and examined the cabinet surfaces, while Miss Maylin, Celestine and I waited by the door. We knew better than to risk disturbing his investigations. Meanwhile his kestrel-daemon used her keen eyes to examine the floor. Holmes examined every square inch with close concentration and gathered up a small quantity of grey dust which he placed in an envelope. Finally he strode to the window and threw it wide open. The slate roof of the chapel was directly beneath.
Thank you, Miss Maylin,' he said. My investigations are now complete.'
But don't you wish to talk to the staff or the other girls in the dormitory?' said Miss Maylin, in great astonishment.
No, Miss Maylin. I anticipate that Miss Belacqua and her alethiometer will be reunited very soon now.'
We were shown to the gate and a taxicab summoned for us. Tell Miss Belacqua,' said Holmes to Miss Maylin as we left, to take courage – it will all turn out well.'
- 0 -
We were driven into the centre of Town where I took rooms for us at the Randolph Hotel, while Holmes despatched some more abarograms from the Post Office. We then spent a very agreeable afternoon inspecting the tourist sights: the camera-obscura at Jordan College, an hour punting on the Isis – pleasant despite the cool late-autumn air – and afternoon tea in a delightful teashop near the Botanic Garden.
Upon returning to the Randolph, we repaired to our rooms. I spent another enjoyable hour smoking and reading while Celestine groomed herself by the fire. The old-fashioned naphtha lamps were lit in the room and in the street outside. Then unexpectedly, as I was not anticipating going down to dinner for another half-an-hour and wasn't yet dressed, Holmes knocked at my door. Come Watson, get your cape. I have a cab waiting at the side door. The hunt is on!'
Shall I bring my service revolver, Holmes?' I said.
No, Watson, that will not be necessary.'
We hurried down the stairs to the entrance where a taxicab, horse-daemon drawn as is common in provincial towns, stood waiting for us. I was not at all surprised when we set off in the direction of St Sophia's School.
We stopped about fifty yards short of the school entrance. Holmes paid the driver and we walked along one of the side roads which lead down to the river Cherwell, near one of the many establishments that hire out punts to the general public. From there we proceeded along the bank in an upriver direction until we were, as I estimated, more or less adjacent to the school grounds. The night was clear, with a half-moon just beginning to rise.
Holmes motioned me to the ground. He waved his hand once, why I could not tell, in the direction of the trees on the opposite bank. We waited, for how long I cannot be sure. Perhaps it was for only half-an-hour, maybe for a whole hour. I wrapped my cape around me against the growing cold.
Then we saw a crouching figure leave the school buildings, creeping by the hedge, carrying, it appeared, a small parcel. I realised that Holmes had deduced that someone in the school had taken the alethiometer and was trying to escape with it, presumably to sell it. The person made his or her way down to the bank where there was, I now saw, a small rowing boat moored up. Holmes stood up, ready to call out to the thief.
Suddenly there was a cry of No, no, stop!' from the direction of the school buildings and another, smaller, person ran down through the grounds and towards the dark figure. The first person leapt into the boat and started to untie it. We dashed across the lawns towards him, but it was too late, the boat had left the bank and was floating freely on the water. The other person – the moonlight caught her face, revealed her to be Miss Belacqua – threw herself from the bank and landed in the boat, nearly upsetting it.
The two of them – the girl and the man - fought and the boat rocked dangerously from side to side, drifting into the middle of the stream. It was clearly an unequal struggle. Father Reilly!' shouted Holmes, It is no good. You cannot escape now. My name is Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street and I am accompanied by Doctor Watson, late of the Brytish Army. Let go of the girl immediately and return to the river bank.'
Never!' replied the chaplain. This child is an abomination in the sight of God! She deserves to die and to suffer all the torments of Hell many times over. This alethiometer belongs to Mother Church. We will never surrender it again!'
How I wished that I had had not listened to Holmes' advice and brought my revolver with me! I am not sure, though, that I would have trusted my aim in the moonlight. I need not have feared, however.
Holmes called out Now!' and there was a flash of pale light in the darkness. Father Reilly fell out of the boat and into the river with a splash, pierced through the heart by an arrow. I did not see his daemon disappear in the darkness, but I could tall that he had been mortally wounded. As the water subsided a slender black-clad person flew out of the trees, caught Miss Belacqua as she fell, and carried her to the bank where she gently laid her down.
Miss Belacqua looked up to the dark figure. Serafina Pekkala!' she cried. You have saved me yet again – how shall I ever repay you?' She rose to her feet and the two embraced as if they were dear sisters.
Holmes and I and Ayesha and Celestine walked slowly over to the pair. Be properly respectful, now,' said Holmes, for you are in the presence of a queen; Queen Serafina Pekkala of the witch-clans of Lapland.' I kissed her outstretched hand and marvelled that I was at last seeing with my own eyes one of the fabled witches of the north. They embraced and kissed, and I wondered if the stories that I had heard were true; that the witches took men such as Holmes as lovers. That was certainly an aspect of my friend's character that I had never considered before.
Serafina,' said Miss Belacqua after a while, Father Reilly had the alethiometer. It fell in the river with him and sank and it's still lost. Must I always be losing the things that are most precious to me?'
Have no fear,' replied the witch-queen. Kaisa has recovered it.' A great grey goose whose head was crowned with a white plume flew up from the water with something gleaming golden in his bill. I remembered the other thing I had been told about the witches; that their daemons can live and thrive much further away from them than our own may.
Miss Belacqua took the instrument and held it to her chest, ignoring the river-water which was streaming down from it and soaking her cloak. She and Serafina Pekkala held each other closely once more for a very long time. At last they parted.
Remember, Lyra, that I will always be here to help you when you need me,' the witch-queen said. You, and Iorek Byrnisen,' she replied, and Mr Holmes and Dr Watson.All my friends!' Holmes and I looked at each other and smiled.
Farewell!' cried Serafina Pekkala, and leapt into the air. We watched her and her goose-daemon disappear into the dark skies, heading north.
Miss Belacqua – Lyra – turned to face us. Thank you, Mr Holmes and Dr Watson, for recovering the alethiometer from Father Reilly, and for everything else you did to help. I knew it was him who took it, but I still don't know how I knew. It was you who called Serafina, wasn't it?'
Yes', replied the detective. It is amazing whom you can contact via the anbarograph these days. Even the witches' consulate in Trollesund is connected to the network. Go back inside now. We will speak to Miss Maylin and make your excuses for you. Go on.'
Holmes,' I said as we watched the girl walking up the lawns to the school. I have just realised something which I had not noticed in all the confusion just now. Where is Lyra's daemon? He should be with her. Surely she is not a witch, too?'
Sherlock Holmes smiled at me.
No, Watson, she is not a witch. She cannot fly and she will live no longer than any of us. But she has had many strange experiences, as I told you at the aërodrome, and some of them have changed her very deeply indeed.'
He would say no more, and I was left in wonder.
- 0 -
Later, after supper in the Randolph, I spoke to Holmes about the case. I'm beginning to suspect, Holmes, that you knew the identity, if not the actual name, of the thief before we even left Baker Street'
That is quite correct, Watson. I see you understand my methods, even if you do not yet comprehend them in detail.
The significant fact in this case was the incense that Miss Belacqua said that she could smell on the morning after the theft. The incense used in oratorial services is commonly based on attar of roses or sandalwood. The fact that neither she nor her daemon noticed the removal of the alethiometer, although they would normally have been expected to be extremely sensitive to its absence, was very suggestive to me. You saw me take samples in the dormitory. I am, as you no doubt remember, an expert in residua; specifically wood-ash, of which I can readily identify two hundred and twenty-four different varieties. It was not at all difficult for me to analyse the sample and identify the cedarwood that was the base of the incense used by Father Reilly to drug the daemons of all the girls in the dormitory and enable him to remove the alethiometer with, as he thought, impunity.'
Did Queen Serafina Pekkala's daemon call you back to St Sophia's School from the Randolph?' I asked him.
Yes, Serafina was keeping watch for us from the sky. She saw lights and movement in the chapel. I expect Father Reilly had hidden the alethiometer there after he stole it from the girls' dormitory.'
And the Church wanted it so much that they were prepared to kill Miss Belacqua if necessary to get it,' I said.
Yes indeed. They already possess at least one out of the original six that were made. Miss Belacqua has one, and I believe King Ogunwe has the care of another.'
That leaves three still missing,' I observed.
Not quite,' Sherlock Holmes replied. The fourth is kept in an iron-bound oak box concealed behind the Pharmacopoeia Naturae in the library at Baker Street. I achieved a considerable facility with it in my youth, but eventually decided that, in the end, to use my own powers of careful observation and informed logical deduction would stand me in much better stead. Good night, Watson.'
When this story was originally published a reviewer asked me why Sherlock Holmes was in it. I flippantly replied that this was because Lord Peter Wimsey was too busy at the time.
But, actually, why is Sherlock Holmes here? There are a couple of answers:
1) I wanted to write a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. I have learned since that Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective is the most popular character of all among the writers of literary pastiches. Conan Doyle's style and its characteristic mannerisms are great fun to play with. In addition, Doctor Watson is a superb narrative voice.
2) He fit.
The second point is the more interesting one in terms of exploring the nature of Lyra's world. What is it really like? The common view is that Lyra's Brytain is basically Victorian England with daemons and particle physics bolted on. Hansom cabs and gaslights.Fog in Baker Street. Look a little deeper, though, and you discover that it's not quite as simple as that. The authority of the Church and its various arms is much greater than it was in our own Victorian times. It is unified, monolithic, not split into many different denominations and sects. Specifically; it is an independent Great Power, not amalgamated into the government of Brytain or, so far as we know, any nation. However, it is not a replacement for the government – there is a King and he has a Party, of which Lord Asriel has been a senior member.
Philip Pullman drops hints from time to time in the text about the differences between Lyra's world and ours. To take just one example, girls don't wear trousers there. For another, the days of the months vary from ours. Also, it has become clearer since the publication of Lyra's Oxford that Will's world is not necessarily the same world that you and I live in.
All the same, I found when writing this story that Sherlock Holmes quite simply fit (Actually, I think Lord Peter would have slotted in quite well too, except that he is suffering from what we would now call post traumatic stress disorder throughout most of Dorothy Sayers' stories, which are set in the 1920s. He was buried in a collapsed dugout during the Great War). One possible reason for this may be that Philip Pullman has written a Sherlock Holmes play himself.
Whatever. The Adventure of the Lost Alethiometer came to me while I was dozing through a business meeting of the most unutterable tedium. I wrote the basic notes for it while pretending to take the minutes of the meeting. The story was quick and easy to write – too quick, too easy, maybe – and the pay-off final paragraph simply fell into my lap. I didn't have to think it up – it was there in the story all along, just waiting for me to run into it and write it down.