Umbertoec o

A New Voyage Round the World

Download 1.94 Mb.
Size1.94 Mb.
1   ...   8   9   10   11   12   13   14   15   ...   25

A New Voyage

Round the World

the amaryllis sailed from Holland and called briefly at Lon­don. There, one night, it furtively took something on board, while the sailors formed a cordon between the deck and the hold, so Roberto was unable to see what the new cargo was. Then the ship sailed due southwest.

With amusement Roberto describes the company he found on board. It seemed the captain had taken the greatest care to choose wool-gatherers and eccentrics for his passengers, to serve as a pretext at departure, with no concern if he then lost them along the way. They fell into three categories: those who thought the ship would sail westwards, like the Galician couple who wanted to join a son in Brazil, or the old Jew who had made a vow to go to Jerusalem in pilgrimage by the long­est route; those who as yet had no clear idea as to the exten­sion of the globe, like some scapegrace youths determined to make their fortunes in the Moluccas, which they could have reached more comfortably by way of the Levant; and finally those who had been blatantly deceived, like the group of her­etics from the Piedmont valleys who meant to join the English Puritans on the northern coast of the New World and did not know that, in fact, the ship would head straight south, making its next call at Recife. Before the heretics became aware of the fraud, they arrived at that colony—then in Dutch hands— and agreed to be put ashore, in any case, at this Protestant port, fearing even worse trouble later among the Catholic Por­tuguese. At Recife the ship took on a Knight of Malta with the face of a freebooter, whose aim was to find an island some Venetian had told him of: it had been christened Escondida, he did not know its position, and no one else on the Amaryllis had ever heard the name. The captain apparently knew how to pick his passengers.

Nor was anyone else concerned about the well-being of that little company packed below deck: while they were crossing the Atlantic, there had been no shortage of food, and some provisions were acquired on the American shores. But, after sailing among long tufted clouds and an azure sky beyond the Fretum Magellanicum, almost all the passengers, except the privileged guests of rank, for at least two months had drunk water that caused the staggers and eaten tack that stank of rat piss. And some men of the crew, as well as many pas­sengers, died of scurvy.

In search of supplies, the ship sailed up the coast of Chile to the west and anchored at a desert island which the nautical charts called Mas Afuera. They stayed there three days. The climate was salubrious and the vegetation luxuriant, inspiring the Knight of Malta to say it would be a great stroke of luck to be shipwrecked one day on those shores, and to live there happily, with no wish to return to one’s native land—and he tried to persuade himself that this was Escondida. Escondida or not, if I had remained there—Roberto told himself on the Daphne—now I would not be here, afraid of an Intruder whose footprint I saw in the hold.

Later there were contrary winds, the captain said, and the ship, against all reason, turned northwards. Roberto had felt no contrary winds, quite the opposite: when the change of course was announced, the ship had been proceeding under full sail, and thus it had to come hard about. Probably Dr. Byrd and his men needed to proceed along the same meridian to perform their experiments. The fact is that they reached the Galopegos Islands, where they amused themselves turning huge turtles on their backs, then cooking them in their shells. The Maltese consulted certain maps of his at length and de­cided that this was not Escondida.

Resuming their westward course, descending below the twenty-fifth-degree latitude south, they replenished their water at an island of which the maps gave no indication. It offered no attractive features beyond its solitude, but the Knight— who could not bear the food on board and harbored a strong aversion to the captain—said to Roberto how beautiful it would be if a small band of good men, brave and reckless, would take possession of the ship, put the captain and any who wanted to stay with him in the longboat, burn the Am­aryllis, and settle on that land, far from every known world, to build a new society. Roberto asked him if this was Escondida; the man shook his head sadly.

Proceeding again northwest, abetted by the favoring Trades, they came upon a group of islands inhabited by savages with amber-colored skin, with whom they exchanged gifts, taking part in their merry festivities, animated by maidens who danced with the movements of the grasses that swayed on the beach almost at the water’s edge. The Knight, who had taken no vow of chastity, on the pretext of drawing portraits of some of those creatures (and he was an artist of some skill), certainly had occasion to have carnal congress with them. The crew wanted to do the same, so the captain moved forward the ship’s departure. The Knight hesitated about staying behind; spending his days sketching here seemed to him a splendid way to conclude his life. But then he decided this was not Escondida.

Afterwards they again headed northwest and found an is­land with quite docile indigenes. In the two days and two nights they stayed there, the Knight of Malta took to telling stories: he told them in a dialect not even Roberto could un­derstand, still less the natives, but the speaker assisted himself by drawing in the sand, and he gesticulated like an actor, stirring the enthusiasm of his audience, who hailed him with cries of “Tusitala, Tusitala!” To Roberto the Knight said how fine he thought it would be to end his days among those people, telling them all the myths of the universe. “But is this Escondida?” Roberto asked. The Knight shook his head.

He died in the wreck, Roberto reflected on the Daphne, and perhaps I have found his Escondida, but I will never be able to narrate it to him, or to anyone else. Perhaps this is why Roberto wrote to his Lady. To survive, you must tell stories.

The Knight’s last fantasy was heard one evening, only a few days and no great distance from what would be the scene of the wreck. They were skirting an archipelago, which the captain had decided not to approach, inasmuch as Dr. Byrd seemed anxious to continue once again towards the Equator. In the course of the voyage it had been evident to Roberto that the captain’s behavior was not that of the navigators he had heard of, who took careful note of all new lands, per­fecting their maps, drawing cloud-shapes, tracing the line of shores, gathering native artifacts.... The Amaryllis proceeded as if she were the traveling lair of an alchemist bent only on his Opus Nigrum, indifferent to the great world opening before her.

It was sunset, the play between clouds and sky against the shadow of the island drew on one side what looked like emerald fishes drifting over the peak. On the other there were crumpled balls of fire. Above, gray clouds. Immediately after­wards, as a fiery sun disappeared behind the island, a broad pink stripe was reflected on the clouds, bloodied along the lower fringe. After a few seconds the fire behind the island spread, looming over the ship. The sky was all a brazier with only a few cerulean threads. And then blood everywhere, as if some impenitents had been devoured by a school of sharks.

“Perhaps it would be right to die now,” the Knight of Malta said. “Are you not seized by the desire to hang from the mouth of a cannon and slide into the sea? It would be quick, and at that moment we would know everything....”

“Yes, but at the instant we knew it, we would cease to know,” Roberto said.

And the ship continued its voyage, moving through sepia seas.

The days flowed by, incommutable. As Mazarin had fore­seen, Roberto could establish relations only with the gentle­men. The sailors were a gang of jailbirds: it was frightening to encounter one on deck at night. The passengers were starving, ill, praying. Byrd’s three assistants never dared sit at his table, and they glided by silently, carrying out his orders. The captain might as well have been elsewhere: by evening he was drunk, and besides he spoke only Flemish.

Byrd was a thin, dry Briton with a great head of red hair that could have served as a ship’s lantern. Roberto, who tried to wash whenever he could, taking advantage of the rain to rinse his clothes, had never seen the doctor change his shirt in all these months of sailing. Luckily, even for a young man accustomed to the drawing rooms of Paris, the stink of a ship was such that the stink of one’s fellows was no longer per­ceptible.

A hearty drinker of beer Byrd was, and Roberto had learned to keep up with him, pretending to swallow while leaving the liquid in his glass always more or less at the same level. Byrd, it seemed, had been taught to fill only empty glasses. And since his own was empty always, he filled it, raising it for a toast. The Knight did not drink: he listened and asked an occasional question.

Byrd spoke decent French, like every Englishman who in those days wanted to travel beyond his own island, and he had been captivated by Roberto’s stories about the growing of grapes in the Monferrato region. Roberto listened politely to how beer was made in London. Then they talked about the sea. Roberto was making his first voyage, and Byrd seemed not to want to talk too much about navigation. The Knight asked questions only about the possible location of Escondida, but as Byrd could offer no clue, he received no reply.

Since Byrd said he was making this voyage to study the flora, Roberto sounded him out on that subject. Byrd was not ignorant about botanical matters, and he could thus indulge in long explanations, which Roberto made a show of hearing with interest. At every landfall Byrd and his men actually col­lected plants, though not with the care of scholars who had undertaken the voyage for that purpose; still, many evenings were spent examining what they had gathered.

During the first days Byrd tried to learn about Roberto’s past, and the Knight’s as well, as if he suspected them. Roberto gave the version agreed on in Paris: a Savoyard, he had fought at Casale on the side of the imperials, had got into trouble first in Turin, then in Paris, after a series of duels; he had had the misfortune of wounding a favorite of the Cardinal, and thus had chosen the Pacific solution to put much water be­tween himself and his persecutors. The Knight narrated many stories; some took place in Venice, others in Ireland, still others in South America, but it was not clear which were his and which were not.

Finally Roberto discovered that Byrd liked to talk about women. The young man invented furious loves with furious courtesans, and the doctor’s eyes glistened as he vowed he would visit Paris one day. Then he recovered himself and ob­served that all papists were corrupt. Roberto pointed out that many Savoyards were practically Huguenots. The Knight made the sign of the Cross, and returned to the subject of women.
Until the landing at Mas Afuera, the doctor’s life seemed to unfold at a steady pace, and if he took any readings on board, it was while the others were ashore. When the ship was under sail, he lingered on deck during the day, sat up with his table companions till the small hours, and certainly slept at night. His cramped lodging adjoined Roberto’s, a pair of narrow cubicles separated by a partition, and Roberto lay awake to listen.

But once they had entered the Pacific, Byrd’s habits changed. After the call at Mas Afuera, Roberto saw the doctor go off every morning from seven to eight, whereas before, they had fallen into the way of meeting at that hour for breakfast. Then throughout the period when the ship was heading north, until it reached the island of turtles, Byrd vanished at six in the morning. When the ship again turned its prow westwards, the doctor advanced his rising to five o’clock, when Roberto would hear an assistant come to wake him. Then by degrees the doctor took to rising at four, at three, at two.

Roberto was able to check on him because he had brought along a little sand clock. At sunset, as if idly strolling, he would pass by the helmsman, where next to the compass floating in its whale-oil there was a little stick on which the pilot, after taking the latest bearings, marked the position and the presumed time. Roberto took careful note, then -went and turned over his hourglass, returning to repeat the operation when it seemed to him that the hour was about to end. And so, even lingering after supper, he could always calculate the hour with some assurance. In this way he became convinced that Byrd went off a little earlier each morning, and if he kept up that pace, one fine day he would rise at midnight.

After what Roberto had learned from Mazarin and Colbert and his men, it did not take long to deduce that Byrd’s dis­appearances corresponded to the successive passing of the me­ridians. So, then, it was as if someone sent a signal from Europe, every day at the noon of the Canaries or at some other fixed hour, which Byrd went off to receive. Knowing the hour on board the Amaryllis, Byrd was thus able to learn their longitude.

It would have sufficed to follow Byrd as he slipped away. But that was not easy. When the doctor disappeared in the morning, it was impossible to follow him unobserved. When he began moving in the hours of darkness, Roberto could hear the man leave, but he could not go after him at once. So he waited a little, then tried to discover the path he had taken. But every effort proved futile. I refrain from mentioning the many times when, essaying a route in the dark, Roberto ended up among the hammocks of the crew, or stumbled over the pilgrims; but more and more often he would encounter some­one who at that hour should have been asleep. So there were others keeping their eyes open.

When Roberto met one of these spies, he would mention his usual insomnia and go up on deck, managing not to arouse suspicion. For some time he had earned himself the reputation of an eccentric who dreamed at night, wide-eyed, and spent the day with his eyes closed. But when he found himself on deck, although he could exchange a few words with the sailor on watch, if they could make themselves understood, the night was lost.

So the months went by, Roberto was close to discovering the mystery of the Amaryllis, but had not yet found a way to stick his nose where he would have liked.
In addition, from the beginning he had tried to extract some confidences from Byrd. And he thought up a method that even Mazarin had not been capable of suggesting to him. To satisfy his curiosities, during the day he asked questions of the Knight, who was unable to answer. Roberto emphasized that the things he was asking were of great importance if the Knight was truly determined to find Escondida. And thus, at evening, the Knight would repeat the questions to the doctor.

One night on the bridge, they were looking at the stars, and the doctor remarked that it must be midnight. The Knight, prompted by Roberto a few hours earlier, said, “I won­der what time it is now in Malta.”

“That is easy,” the words escaped the doctor. Then he corrected himself, “Or, rather, that is very difficult, my friend.” The Knight was amazed to learn it could not be deduced from calculation of the meridians: “Does the sun not take an hour to cover fifteen degrees of meridian? So it would be enough to say that we are so many degrees from the Mediterranean, divide by fifteen then, and knowing our own time as we do, we would discover what time it is there.”

“You sound like one of those astronomers who have spent their lives poring over charts without ever navigating. Other­wise you would be aware that it is impossible to know on what meridian one is.”

Byrd answered more or less what Roberto already knew but the Knight did not. On this subject, however, Byrd proved loquacious: “Our ancestors thought they had an infallible method, based on the eclipses of the moon. You know what a lunar eclipse is: it is a moment when the sun, the earth, and the moon are on a single line, and the shadow of the earth falls on the face of the moon. Since it is possible to predict the day and exact hour of future eclipses, and it is enough to have at hand the Tables of Regiomontanus, you presume you know that a given eclipse should take place in Jerusalem at midnight, and you will observe it at ten o’clock. You will then know that you are at two hours’ distance from Jerusalem and therefore your observation point is thirty degrees west of that city.”

“Perfect,” Roberto said. “All praise to the ancients!”

“Yes, but this calculation is not always accurate. The great Columbus, in the course of his second voyage, calculated by an eclipse while he lay at anchor off Hispaniola, and he made an error of twenty-three degrees west, that is to say a difference of an hour and a half! And on his fourth voyage, again relying on an eclipse, he erred by two hours and a half!”

“Did he make a mistake or did Regiomontanus?” the Knight asked.

“Who knows? On a ship, which moves constantly even when it is at anchor, it is always hard to take bearings cor­rectly. You may also know that Columbus wanted to prove at all costs that he had reached Asia, and therefore his wish led him to err, to show he had gone much farther than he really had.... And lunar distances? They have been very fashionable over the last hundred years. The idea had—how shall I say—a certain wit. During its monthly course the moon makes a complete revolution from west to east against the sky of the stars, and therefore it is like the hand of a celestial clock that moves over the face of the Zodiac. The stars move through the sky from east to west at about fifteen degrees per hour, whereas during the same period the moon moves

fourteen and a half degrees. So the moon, with respect to the stars, is off by half a degree each hour. Now the ancients thought that the distance between the moon and a fixed star, as it is called, was the same for any observer from any point on the earth. So it sufficed to know, thanks to the usual tables or ephemerides, and observing the sky with the astronomer’s Cross—”

“The staff?”

“Exactly, with this ‘Jacob’s Cross’ you calculate the distance of the moon from that star at a given hour on the meridian of departure, and you know that at the hour of observation at sea, in such and such a city it is a certain hour. But ... ah...” And Byrd paused, to enthrall his listeners even more. “There are the parallaxes, a highly complex matter I dare not explain to you. They are due to the difference of refraction of the celestial bodies at different altitudes above the horizon. Now with these parallaxes the distance found here would not be the same that our astronomers back in Europe would find.”

Roberto remembered having heard from Mazarin and Col-bert something about parallaxes, and about that Monsieur Morin who thought he had found a way of calculating them. To test Byrd’s knowledge, he asked if astronomers could not calculate parallaxes. Byrd replied that it was possible but ex­tremely difficult, and the risk of error was very great. “And besides,” he added, “I am but a layman and know little of these things.”

“So the only thing is to seek a surer method?” Roberto then ventured.

“You know what your Vespucci said? He said: ‘As for lon­gitude, it is a very perplexing thing that few people understand, except those capable of sacrificing sleep to observe the con­junction of the moon and the planets.’ And he said: ‘It is for this determination of longitudes that I have often renounced sleep and have shortened my life by ten years....’ A waste of time, I say. But look, the sky is overcast so let us hasten to our lodging, and end our talk.”

Some evenings later, Roberto asked the doctor to point out the Pole Star to him. The doctor smiled: from that hemi­sphere it could not be seen, and other fixed stars had to be used. “Another defeat for the seekers of longitudes,” he re­marked. “This way, they cannot fall back even on the varia­tions of the magnetic needle.”

Then, at the urging of his friends, he broke again the bread of his learning.

“The needle of the compass should always point north, and therefore in the direction of the Pole Star. And yet, except on the meridian of the Isla de Hierro, in all other places it shifts from true north, moving now east, now west according to the climes and the latitudes. If, for example, from the Ca­naries you move towards Gibraltar, as any sailor knows, the needle turns more than six degrees of a rhomb towards north­west, and from Malta to Tripoli there is a variation of two thirds of a rhomb to the left, and you well know that the rhomb is one fourth of a wind. Now these deviations, it has been said, follow set rules according to the different longitudes. So with a good table of deviations you could know where you are. But...”

“Another but?”

“Yes, unfortunately. There are no good tables of the dec­linations of the magnetic needle. Those who attempted to make them all failed, and there are good reasons to suppose that the needle does not vary in a uniform way depending on the longitude. Furthermore, these variations are very slow, and at sea it is difficult to follow them, even when the ship is not pitching and thus disturbing the balance of the needle. Who­ever trusts the needle is a madman.”

Another evening, at supper, the Knight, brooding on a few

words Roberto had let fall with apparent nonchalance, said that perhaps Escondida was one of the Solomons, and he asked if they were close.

Byrd shrugged. “The Solomon Islands! Ca n’existe pas!”

“Did not the English Francisco Drako reach them?” the Knight asked.

“Nonsense! Drake discovered New Albion, in quite a dif­ferent place.”

“The Spaniards at Casale spoke of it as something well known, and said they had been the discoverers,” Roberto said.

“It was that Mendana who made the claim, some seventy years ago. But he said they lay between the seventh and elev­enth degrees of latitude south. As if to say between Paris and London. But at what longitude? Queiros said that they were fifteen hundred leagues from Lima. Ridiculous. You could practically spit from the coast of Peru and hit them. Recently a Spaniard said that they lay seven thousand five hundred miles from that same Peru. Too far, perhaps. But be so kind as to look at these maps, some of them newly revised, though they but reproduce the older ones, as well as some offered to us as the latest discovery. You see? Some put the islands on the two-hundred-and-twelfth meridian, others on the two-hundred-and-twentieth, others on the two-hundred-and-thirtieth, not to mention those who imagine them on the hundred-and-eightieth. Even if one of these was right, others would err by as much as fifty degrees, which is more or less the distance between London and the lands of the Queen of Sheba.”

“It is truly admirable, the number of things you know, doctor,” the Knight said, answering the prayers of Roberto, who was about to say as much himself. “As if for your whole life you have done nothing but look for longitudes.”

Dr. Byrd’s face, dotted with pale freckles, suddenly flushed.

He filled his mug with beer, drained it without taking a breath. “Oh, a naturalist’s curiosity. Actually, I would have no idea where to begin if I had to tell you our present position.”

“But...” Roberto thought he could speak up at this point. “By the tiller, I saw a chart on which—”

“Oh, yes.”—the doctor quickly recovered himself—”to be sure, a ship does not proceed at random. They prick the Card. They record the day, the direction of the needle and its dec­lination, the direction of the wind, the hour of the clock on board, the miles traveled, the height of the sun and of the stars, and therefore the latitude, and from that they deduce a longitude. You will have seen sometimes at the poop a sailor throwing a rope into the sea with a little piece of wood at­tached to one end. It is the loch or, as some call it, the Dutch­man’s log. The rope is let out, knotted at intervals for measurement, then with a clock you can calculate how much time it takes to cover a given distance. In this way, if everything proceeds regularly, you can determine how many miles you have sailed from the last known meridian.”

“You see? There is a method!” Roberto said triumphantly, already knowing what the doctor would reply. That the loch is something that is used only because there is nothing better, since it tells us how far a ship has gone only if it is proceeding in a straight line. But since a ship goes as the winds choose, when the winds are not favoring, it must move now to star­board, now to port.

“Sir Humphrey Gilbert,” the doctor said, “more or less at the time of Mendana, in the Terranova region, intending to proceed along the forty-seventh parallel, ‘encountered winds always so scant,’ winds—how shall I say it?—so lazy and fru­gal, that for a long time he sailed anywhere between the forty-first and the fifty-first, ranging over ten degrees of latitude, gentlemen, which would be as if an immense snake were to go from Naples to Portugal, first touching Le Havre with its head and Rome with its tail, then finding itself with its tail at Paris and its head at Madrid! So the deviations must be cal­culated before doing the sums, and one must be very careful —which a sailor never is. And you cannot have an astronomer ready at your side all day long. To be sure, estimates are pos­sible, especially if you are following a familiar course and con­sider all the discoveries previously made by others. For this reason from the shores of Europe to those of the Americas the maps give meridians that are fairly reliable. And then, obser­vation of the stars from land can produce some good results, and therefore we know the longitude of Lima. But even in this case, my friends,” the doctor asked gaily, “what happens?” And he looked slyly at the other two. “It happens that this gentleman,” and he tapped a finger on one of the maps, “places Rome on the twentieth degree east of the meridian of the Canaries, whereas this other,” and he waved his finger as if to admonish paternally the other cartographer, “this other gentleman sets Rome at the fortieth degree! And this manu­script contains also the report of a very knowledgeable Flem­ing, who informs the King of Spain that there has never been agreement on the distance between Rome and Toledo, por los errores tan enormes, como se conoce por esta linea, que mues-tra la differencia de las distancias, et cetera et cetera.... And here is the line: if you fix the first meridian at Toledo (the Spanish always think they live at the center of the world), Mercator believes Rome is twenty degrees farther east, but for Tycho Brahe it is twenty-two, and almost twenty-five for Re-giomontanus, and twenty-seven for Clavius, and twenty-eight for good old Ptolemy, and for Origanus thirty. All these errors, just to measure the distance between Rome and Toledo. Imag­ine what happens, then, on routes like this, where we are perhaps the first to reach certain islands, and the reports of other travelers are quite vague. And add that if a Dutchman has taken correct bearings, he will not tell them to the English, nor will they to the Spanish. On these seas the captain’s nose counts most, as with his poor loch he calculates, say, that he is on the two-hundred-twentieth meridian, and perhaps he is thirty degrees ahead, or behind.”

“But then,” the Knight suggested, “the man who found a way of calculating the meridians would be master of the oceans!”

Byrd flushed again, stared to see if the Knight was speaking with some ulterior motive, and smiled, as if he would have liked to bite him. “Why do you not try, the two of you?”

“Alas, I give up,” Roberto said, holding out his hands in a gesture of surrender. And that evening the conversation ended amid hearty laughter.
For many days Roberto did not consider it wise to steer the conversation again to the question of longitude. He changed the subject, and in order to do so he came to a brave decision. With his knife he wounded the palm of one hand. Then he bandaged it with strips of a shirt now worn threadbare by water and the winds. That evening he showed the wound to the doctor. “I am truly foolish. I had put my knife in my bag, unsheathed, and then as I was searching for something, I cut myself. And very painfully.”

Dr. Byrd examined the wound with the eye of a specialist, while Roberto prayed he would bring a basin of water to the table and dissolve some vitriol in it. Instead, Byrd merely said it did not seem serious and that Roberto should cleanse it well every morning. But by a stroke of luck the Knight came to the rescue: “Ah, here what is needed is the unguentum armanum!”

“What the devil is that?” Roberto asked. And the Knight, as if he had read all the books Roberto knew, began praising the virtues of that substance. Byrd remained silent. After the Knight’s superb throw, Roberto now cast the dice himself. “But those are old wives’ tales! Like the story of the pregnant woman who saw her lover with his head cut off and then gave birth to a baby whose head was detached from his body. Or like the peasant wife who, to punish a dog that has soiled the kitchen, takes a hot coal and thrusts it into the feces, hoping the animal will feel the fire in his behind! Sir, no person of sense believes in these historiettes!”

He had struck the right note, and Byrd could not remain silent. “Ah no, my dear sir, the story of the dog and his shit is quite true. I know a gentleman who resorted to the same measure when a spiteful rival shat on his doorstep, and I assure you the offender learned his lesson.” Roberto chuckled as if the doctor were joking, and then led him, piqued, to supply further arguments. Which proved to be more or less the same as d’lgby’s. But the doctor grew heated: “Ah yes, my dear sir, you who play the philosopher so much and despise the learn­ing of a mere chirurgeon. I will even say, since it is of shit we are speaking, that a man with bad breath should keep his mouth open over a dung-pit, and he will be finally cured: the stink there is much stronger than that of his throat, and the stronger attracts and carries away the weaker.”

“Why, these are extraordinary revelations, Dr. Byrd, and I am awed by your learning!”

“I can tell you still more. In England, when a man is bitten by a dog, the animal is killed, even if it is not rabid. It could become so, and the yeast of canine madness, remaining in the body of the person who was bit, would draw to itself the spirits of hydrophobia. Have you ever seen peasant women pour milk on embers? After it, they immediately throw on a handful of salt. Great wisdom of the vulgar! Milk, falling on the coals, is transformed into steam, and through the action of light and air, this steam, accompanied by the atoms of fire, spreads to the place where the cow that gave the milk is kept. Now the cow’s udder is a very glandulous and delicate organ, and the fire warms it, hardens it, produces ulcers and, since the udder is near the bladder, it stimulates that as well, provoking the anastomosis of the veins that flow into it, so the cow will piss blood.”

Roberto said: “The Knight mentioned this unguentum ar-marium as if it were some useful cure, but you lead us to believe that it could also be used to do harm.”

“Indeed, and that is why certain secrets should be kept from the plebs, so that they are not put to evil use. Ah, dear sir, the debate over what we English call the Weapon Salve is full of controversy. The Knight spoke to us of a weapon that, suitably treated, brings relief to the wound. But take the same weapon and place it by a fire, and the wounded man, even if miles away, will scream with pain. And if you immerse the blade still stained with blood into icy water, the victim will be seized with a fit of shivering.”

This conversation told Roberto nothing he did not already know, except that Dr. Byrd knew a great deal about the Pow­der of Sympathy. And yet the doctor’s talk had dwelt largely on the worst effects of the powder, and this could not be mere chance. The connection between all this and the arc of the meridian, however, was another story.
Finally one morning, taking advantage of a sailor’s bad fall from a yardarm, which fractured his skull, while there was great confusion on the deck and the doctor was summoned to treat the unfortunate man, Roberto slipped down into the hold.

Almost groping, he managed to find the right path. Per­haps it was luck, or perhaps the animal was whimpering more

than usual that morning: Roberto, more or less at the point where later on the Daphne he would find the kegs of aqua vitae, was confronted by a horrid sight.

Well shielded from curious eyes, in an enclosure made to his measure, on a bed of rags, lay a dog.

He was perhaps of good breed, but his suffering and hunger had reduced him to mere skin and bones. And yet his tor­mentors showed their intention to keep him alive: they had provided him with abundant food and water, including food surely not canine, subtracted from the passengers’ rations.

He was lying on one side, head limp, tongue lolling. On that exposed side gaped a broad and horrible wound. At once fresh and gangrenous, it revealed a pair of great pinkish lips, and in the center, as along the entire gash, was a purulent secretion resembling whey. Roberto realized that the wound looked as it did because the hand of a chirurgeon, rather than sew the lips together, had deliberately kept them parted and open, attaching them to the outer hide.

Bastard offspring of the medical art, that wound had not only been inflicted but wickedly treated so it would not form a scar and the dog would continue suffering—who knows for how long. Further, Roberto saw in and around the wound a crystalline residue, as if a doctor (yes, a doctor, so cruelly expert!) every day sprinkled an irritant salt there.

Helpless, Roberto stroked the wretch, now whimpering softly. He asked himself what he could do to help, but at a heavier touch, the dog’s suffering increased. Moreover, Ro-berto’s own pity was giving way to a sense of victory. There was no doubt: this was Dr. Byrd’s secret, the mysterious cargo taken aboard in London.

From what Roberto had seen, from what a man with his knowledge could infer, the dog had been wounded in England, and Byrd was making sure he would remain wounded. Someone in London, every day at the same, agreed hour, did some­thing to the guilty weapon, or to a cloth steeped in the animal’s blood, provoking a reaction, perhaps of relief, but perhaps of still greater pain, for Dr. Byrd himself had said that the Weapon Salve could also harm.

Thus on the Amaryllis they could know at a given moment what time it was in Europe. And knowing the hour of their transitory position, they were able to calculate the meridian!

The only thing to do was obtain proof. At that period Byrd would always leave at around eleven: so they were nearing the antimeridian. Roberto would await him, hidden near the dog, at about that hour.

He was fortunate, if fortune can be associated with the unfortunate chance that would lead that ship, and all those aboard it, to the nadir of misfortune. That afternoon the sea was rough, and so Roberto could convincingly complain of nausea and stomach upset, and seek his bed, deserting the supper table. At first dark, when nobody yet thought of setting up the watch, he slipped furtively into the hold, carrying only a flint and a tarred rope to light his way. He reached the dog and saw, above his bed, a platform laden with bales of straw used to replace the infested pallets of the passengers. He picked his way through these bales and made himself a niche, from whence he could not see the dog but could see anyone stand­ing beside him, and could certainly overhear all speech.

The waiting lasted hours, made longer by the moans of the hapless creature, but finally he heard other sounds and discerned lights.

A little later, he found himself witnessing an experiment taking place only a few steps from him, in the presence of the doctor and his three assistants.

“Are you taking notes, Cavendish?”

“Aye, aye, doctor.”

“We will wait then. He is whining too much this evening.”

“It is the sea.”

“Good dog, good old Hakluyt,” the doctor said, calming the animal with some hypocrite petting. “It was a mistake not to establish a set sequence of actions. We should always begin with the lenitive.”

“Not necessarily, doctor. Some evenings he is asleep at the proper hour and has to be wakened with an irritant.”

“Careful ... he seems to be stirring.... Good dog, Hakluyt... Yes, he’s upset!” The dog was emitting unnatural yelps. “They have exposed the weapon to the fire. Are you recording the time, Withrington?”

“It is almost half eleven.”

“Look at the clocks. About ten minutes should go by.”

The dog continued howling for an interminable time. Then he made a different sound, which after an arf arf grew gradually weaker until it was replaced by silence.

“Good,” Dr. Byrd was saying. “Now what time is it, With­rington?”

“It should correspond. A quarter before midnight.”

“We cannot cry victory yet. We must wait for the con­trol.”

Another interminable wait, and then the dog, who had apparently dozed off with relief, yowled again, as if someone had stamped on his tail.

“Time, Withrington?”

“The hour is past. Only a few grains of sand are left.”

“The clock already says midnight,” a third voice an­nounced.

“That seems enough to me. Now, gentlemen,” Dr. Byrd said, “I hope they stop the irritation at once. Poor Hakluyt cannot bear it. Water and salt, Hawlse, and the cloth. Good dog, Hakluyt, now you’re better.... Sleep... listen to your master... it’s over.... Hawlse, the sleeping draught in the water.”

“Aye, aye, doctor.”

“There, drink this, Hakluyt.... Good boy, yes ... drink the nice water...” A timid little whine, then again silence.

“Excellent, gentlemen,” Dr. Byrd was saying. “If this cursed ship did not toss so indecently, we might say we have had a good evening. Tomorrow morning, Hawlse, salt on the wound, as usual. Let us sum up, gentlemen. At the crucial moment, here we were close to midnight, and from London they sig­naled us that it was noon. We are on the antimeridian of London, and therefore on the one-hundred-ninetieth of the Canaries. If the Islands of Solomon, as tradition has it, are on the antimeridian of the Isla de Hierro, and if we are at the correct latitude, sailing towards the west with a following wind, we should land at San Cristoval, or however we choose to rebaptize that ghastly island. We will have found what the Spaniards have been seeking for decades, and at the same time we will hold in our hand the secret of the Punto Fijo. Beer, Cavendish, we must drink a toast to His Majesty, may God keep him always!”

“God save the King!” the three said in one voice—and all four were obviously stout-hearted men, still loyal to a mon­arch who, in those days, had not yet lost his head though he was on the point of losing his throne.

Roberto put his mind to work. That morning, seeing the dog, he had noticed that the animal, when stroked, grew calmer but, touched more roughly, he yelped with pain. It took very little, on a ship tossed by the sea, to provoke various sensations in a sick body. Perhaps those villains believed they were receiving a message from far away, while on the con­trary the dog suffered or experienced relief as the waves alter­nately jarred or lulled him. Or if, as Saint-Savin used to say, unconscious concepts existed, then Byrd by moving his hands caused the dog to react according to the doctor’s own uncon-fessed wishes. Had he himself not said of Columbus that the man had erred, wishing to prove he had traveled farther? Was the destiny of the world thus affected by the way these mad­men interpreted the language of a dog? Could a grumbling in the poor animal’s belly make the villains decide they were approaching or moving away from a place desired by Spanish, French, Dutch, and Portuguese, all equally villainous? And was not he, Roberto, involved in this adventure in order one day to tell Mazarin and young Colbert how to populate the ships of France with tortured dogs?

The others by now had left. Roberto came out of his hiding place and stopped, in the light of his tarred rope, before the sleeping dog. He touched the creature’s head gently. In that poor animal he saw all the suffering of the world, the furious tale told by an idiot. His slow education, from the Casale days to this moment, had brought him to this truth. Oh, if only he had remained a castaway on the desert island, as the Knight had wanted, or if only, as the Knight had also wanted, he had set fire to the Amaryllis, if only he had stopped at the third island, among those natives the color of burnt sienna, or on the fourth, where the Knight became the bard of that people. If only he had found Escondida, to hide there from all the assassins of this merciless world!

He did not know then that fate had in store for him, soon, a fifth island, perhaps the Last.
The Amaryllis seemed mad, and Roberto, clinging to ev­erything along the way, returned to his cabin, forgetting the sickness of the world as he suffered instead the sickness of the sea. Then came the shipwreck, of which we have told. He had carried out his mission with success: sole survivor, he bore with him Dr. Byrd’s secret. But he could no longer reveal it to anyone. And besides, it was perhaps a secret of no worth.
Was it not true that, having emerged from an unhealthy world, he had found true health? The wreck had granted him the supreme gift, exile, and a Lady whom no one could now take from him....

But the Island did not belong to him and remained distant. The Daphne did not belong to him, and Another claimed pos­session of her. Perhaps in order to continue experiments no less brutal than those of Dr. Byrd.

Download 1.94 Mb.

Share with your friends:
1   ...   8   9   10   11   12   13   14   15   ...   25

The database is protected by copyright © 2022
send message

    Main page