in the days that followed it became clear that the Specula Melitensis could not be reached, because Father Wanderdrossel, like Roberto, was unable to swim. The longboat was still over there in the inlet, but it was as if it did not exist.
Now that he had a strong young man at his disposal, Father Caspar could have constructed a raft and made a big oar but, as he had explained, all the tools and materials were on the Island. Without an axe they could not chop down the masts or the yards, without hammers they could not unhinge the doors and nail them together.
But Father Caspar did not seem excessively troubled by his long isolation; indeed, he rejoiced, as he could once again enjoy the use of his cabin, the deck, and some instruments of study and observation.
Roberto still did not understand what Father Caspar Wanderdrossel was. A sage? That, certainly, or at least a scholar, a man curious about both natural and divine science. An eccentric? To be sure. At one moment he let fall that this ship had been fitted out not at the expense of the Society but with his private funds, or, rather, the money of his brother, a rich merchant as mad as he was; on another occasion he confided, complaining, that some of his fellow Jesuits had “stolen many fecondissime ideas” after pretending to reject them as mere scribbling. Which suggested that back in Rome those reverend fathers had not grieved at the departure of this sophistic character. Considering that he was sailing at his own expense and there was a good chance he might be lost along those perilous routes, they may have encouraged him in order to be rid of him.
The company Roberto had kept in Provence and in Paris had been such as to make him skeptical of the assertions of physics and natural philosophy that he heard the old man now make. But as we have seen, Roberto absorbed knowledge to which he was exposed as if he were a sponge, and was not distressed at believing in contradictory truths. Perhaps it was not that he lacked a taste for system; his was a choice.
In Paris the world had appeared to him a stage on which deceptions were depicted, for the spectator wanted to follow and admire a different story every evening, as if the usual things, even if miraculous, no longer enlightened anyone, and only the unusually uncertain or the certainly unusual were able still to stimulate. The ancients had affirmed that for any question a sole answer existed, whereas the great theater of Paris offered him the spectacle of a question to which the most varied replies could be given. Roberto decided to concede only half of his spirit to the things he believed (or believed he believed), keeping the other half open in case the contrary was true.
If such was the disposition of his mind, we can then understand why he was not motivated to deny even the least plausible of Father Caspar’s revelations. Of all the tales he had heard, the one told him by the Jesuit was surely the most uncommon. But why consider it false?
I challenge anyone to find himself abandoned on a deserted ship, between sea and sky in a vast space, and not be ready to dream that in his great misfortune he at least has had the good fortune to stumble into the heart of time.
Roberto could also amuse himself by offering many objections to those tales, but often he behaved like the disciples of Socrates, who seemed to implore their own defeat.
Besides, how could he reject the knowledge of a now paternal figure who had suddenly removed him from the condition of stunned castaway to that of a passenger on a ship someone knew and controlled? Whether it was the authority of his cassock or his office as original lord of that marine castle, Father Caspar represented to Roberto’s eyes Authority, and Roberto had learned enough of the ideas of his century to know that to authority you must bend, at least in appearance. If Roberto did begin to have doubts about his host, the latter immediately took him to explore the ship again and showed him instruments that had previously escaped his notice, allowing him to learn so many and such important things, that his trust was won.
For example, the Jesuit showed him some fishing rods and nets. The Daphne was anchored in teeming waters, and it was not a good idea to consume the provisions on board when it was possible to have fresh fish. Wearing every day his smoked eyeglasses, Roberto quickly learned to cast the nets and lower the line, and with no great effort he captured creatures of such size that more than once he risked being pulled overboard by the power of their jaws as they snatched the bait.
He laid them on deck, and Father Caspar seemed to know the nature of each and even its name. Whether he then named them according to their nature or christened them at his own whim, Roberto could not say.
While the fish in his hemisphere were gray or at most a bright silver, these appeared pale blue with cherry-colored fins, they had saffron beards or scarlet snouts. He caught an eel with two heads, one at either end of its body, but Father Caspar showed him that, on the contrary, the second head was actually a tail so decorated by nature that, in flicking it, the animal could frighten its enemies also from behind. Roberto captured a fish with a maculate belly, inky stripes on its back, all the colors of the rainbow circling the eye, a goat-like muzzle, but Father Caspar immediately made him throw it back into the sea, knowing (from other Jesuits’ accounts, or his own experience as a voyager, or seamen’s tales?) that it was more poisonous than the mortal boletus.
Of another fish—yellow eyes, tumid mouth, teeth like nails—Father Caspar said at once that it was a creature of Beelzebub. It should be left to suffocate on deck until death took it, then away with it, to whence it came. Did he declare this through acquired knowledge or was he judging by the thing’s appearance? In any case, all the fish Caspar considered edible proved to be excellent—and, indeed, of one he was able to specify that it was better boiled than baked.
Initiating Roberto into the mysteries of that Solomonic sea, the Jesuit also became more precise in vouchsafing information about the Island, which the Daphne, on arriving, had circumnavigated completely. Towards the east the Island had some little beaches, but they were too exposed to the winds. Immediately after the southern promontory, where the crew had landed with the boat, there was a calm bay, but the water there was too shallow to moor the Daphne. This point, where the ship now lay, was the most suitable: closer to the Island, they would run aground, and farther away, they would find themselves right in a very strong current that ran through the channel between the two islands from southwest to northeast. It was easy to illustrate this to Roberto: Father Caspar asked him to throw the carcass of Beelzebub’s fish with all his strength into the sea to the west, and the corpse of the monster, while it could be seen floating, was violently yanked away by an invisible stream.
Caspar and the seamen had explored the Island, if not entirely, enough to allow them to decide that one hill, chosen as site of the Specula, was the best to command with the eye all that land, vast as the city of Rome.
In the interior there was a waterfall, and splendid vegetation which included not only coconuts and bananas but also some trees with star-shaped trunks, the tips of the star as sharp as blades.
As for the animals—some of which Roberto had seen on the lower deck—the Island was a paradise of birds, and there were even flying foxes. The crew had sighted pigs in the underbrush but had not been able to capture them. There were serpents, but none had proved venomous or fierce, while the varieties of lizards were innumerable.
But the richest fauna were found along the coral barbican. Turtles, crabs, and oysters of every shape, difficult to compare with those found in our seas, big as baskets, as pots, as serving platters, often difficult to open, but once opened, revealing quantities of white flesh, soft and fat; and they were genuine delicacies. Unfortunately they could not be brought on board ship: once out of the water, they immediately spoiled in the sun’s heat.
They had seen none of the great ferocious animals in which other Asian countries are so rich, no elephants or tigers or crocodiles. Or, for that matter, anything that resembled an ox, a bull, a horse, or a dog. It appeared that in this land every form of life had been conceived not by an architect or a sculptor but by a jeweller: the birds were colored crystal, the woodland animals were delicate, the fish flat and almost transparent.
It had not seemed to Father Caspar or to the captain or the sailors that in those waters there were Dog Fish, easily recognized even from a distance thanks to that fin keen as an axe. And yet in those seas they are found everywhere. The idea that there were no sharks around the Island was, in my opinion, an illusion of that inspired explorer. But perhaps what he argued was true, namely that, as slightly to the west there was a great current, those animals preferred to dwell there, where they were sure of finding more plentiful sustenance. However it may have been, it is well for the story that follows that neither Caspar nor Roberto feared the presence of sharks, otherwise they would not have had the heart to go down into the water, and I would have no tale to tell.
As Roberto listened, he became more and more captivated by the distant Island; he tried to imagine its shape, its color, the movement of the creatures Father Caspar described. And the corals? What were these corals, which he knew only as jewels that according to poets had the color of a beautiful woman’s lips?
Regarding corals Father Caspar remained speechless; he merely raised his eyes to Heaven with an expression of bliss. The corals of which Roberto spoke were dead corals, like the virtue of the courtesans for whom libertines employed that trite simile. On the reef, too, there were dead corals, and it was they that wounded anyone touching them. But they were nothing compared to living corals, which were—how to describe them?—submarine flowers, anemone, hyacinth, ranunculus, gilli-flowers—no, that gave no idea—they were a festival of galls, curls, berries, bowls, burrs, shoots, hearts, twigs—nO) no, they were something else: mobile, colorful as Armida’s vale, and they imitated all the vegetables of field, garden, wood, from cucumber to mushroom, even the frilled cabbage....
He had seen them elsewhere, thanks to an instrument constructed by a fellow Jesuit (and after some rummaging in his chest, he produced the instrument): it was a kind of leather mask with a great glass eyepiece, the upper orifice edged and reinforced; thanks to a pair of strings it could be bound at the nape, making the mask adhere to the face from brow to chin. In a flat-bottomed boat, which would not run aground on submerged sandbars, he had been able to lower his face until it was in the water, allowing him to see the bottom—whereas if he had immersed his bare head, there would have been only stinging of the eyes and he would have seen nothing.
Caspar thought that the device—which he called a Per-spicillum, Eyeglass, or Persona Vitrea (a mask that does not hide but, rather, reveals)—could be worn also by someone who knew how to swim among rocks. Sooner or later, the water did penetrate to the inside, but for a little while, holding your breath, you could continue observing. After which, the swimmer would have to emerge, empty the receptacle, and begin again.
“If you to schwimm would learn, you could these things see down there,” Caspar said to Roberto. And Roberto, mocking him, replied, “If I schwumm, my chest would a keg become!” And yet he reproached himself for his inability to go down there.
But at the same time, Father Caspar was adding, “On the Island there was the Flame Dove.”
“Flame Dove? What is that?” Roberto asked, and the eagerness in his question seems to us excessive. As if the Island for some time had promised him an obscure emblem, which only now had become radiant.
Father Caspar explained how hard it was to describe the beauty of this bird: you had to see it before you could talk about it. The very day of his arrival, he had glimpsed it through his spyglass. From a distance it was like seeing a fiery sphere of gold, or of gilded fire, which from the top of the tallest tree shot up towards the sky. Once he was on land, he wanted to learn more, and he taught the sailors to identify it.
It was quite a long ambush until they came to understand in which trees the bird lived. It emitted a very special sound, a sort of tock-tock, such as we can make by striking the tongue against the palate. Caspar found that if he imitated this call with his mouth or fingers, the bird would respond and, once in a while, let itself be descried as it flew from one bough to another.
Caspar returned several times, to lie in wait, but with a glass, and at least once he saw the bird clearly, almost immobile: the head was a dark olive color—no, perhaps an asparagus green, like the feet—and the beak, the color of lucern, extended like a mask to frame the eye, which was like a kernel of maize, the pupil a glistening black. It had a short bib, gold like its wingtips; but the body from breast to tail, where the feathers were fine as a woman’s hair, was—what?—red? No, that was the wrong word....
Ruddy, ruby, rubescent, rubedinous, rubent, rubefacient, Roberto suggested. Nein, nein, Father Caspar became irritated. Roberto went on: like a strawberry, a geranium, a raspberry, a cherry, a radish; like holly berries, the belly of a thrush, the wing of a redwing, the tail of a redstart, the breast of a robin... No, no, no, Father Caspar insisted, struggling with his own and other languages to find the proper words. Judging by the synthesis Roberto makes later—and it is hard to tell whether the vehemence is more in the informant or in the informed —it must have been the festive color of a Seville orange, it was a winged sun, in other words; when seen against the white sky it was as if the dawn had flung a pomegranate on the snow. And when it catapulted into the sun, it was more dazzling than a cherub!
That orange-colored bird, Father Caspar said, could live only on the Island of Solomon, because it was in the Song of that great king that a dove was spoken of, rising like the dawn, bright as the sun, terribilis ut castrorum acies ordinata. It had, as another psalm says, wings covered with silver and feathers with glints of gold.
Along with this animal, Caspar had seen another almost its equal, except that its feathers were not orange but greenish, and from the way the two were normally seen paired on the same branch, they must have been male and female. That they were doves was obvious from their shape and frequently heard cry. Which of the two was the male was hard to say; in any case Caspar had ordered the sailors not to kill them.
Roberto asked how many doves there could be on the Island. All Father Caspar knew was that each time he had seen only one orange ball dart towards the clouds, and only one couple among the high fronds: so on the Island there might be just two doves, and just one orange-colored. A supposition that made Roberto crave that rare beauty—which, if it was now awaiting him, had always been awaiting him since the day before.
For that matter, if Roberto chose, Caspar said, he could remain for hours and hours at the spyglass and see it also from the ship. Provided he removed those smoked spectacles. When Roberto replied that his eyes did not allow him to, Caspar made some scornful remarks about that milksop’s ailment, and prescribed the liquids with which he had treated his bubo (Spiritus, Olea, Flores).
It is not clear whether or not Roberto tried them, or if he gradually trained himself to look without the glasses, first at dawn and sunset and then in broad day, and we cannot say if he was still wearing them when, as we shall see, he tried to learn to swim; but the fact is that from this moment on his
eyes are no longer mentioned to justify any sort of flight or absence. So we may assume that gradually, perhaps through the therapeutic action of that balmy air or that sea water, Roberto was cured of a complaint that, real or imagined, had turned him into a lycanthrope for more than ten months (unless the reader chooses to insinuate that because from now on I need him on deck full-time, and finding no contradiction among his papers, I am freeing him from all illness, with authorial arrogance).
But perhaps Roberto wanted to be healed, at all costs, in order to see the dove. And he would have flung himself on the bulwarks and spent the day peering at the trees, if he had not been distracted by another unresolved question.
Having ended his description of the Island and its riches, Father Caspar remarked that all these delights could be found nowhere save on the antipodal meridian. Roberto then asked: “Reverend Father, you told me that the Specula Melitensis confirmed that you are on the antipodal meridian, and I believe it. Still, you did not stop and set up the Specula on every island you encountered on your voyage, but only on this one. So somehow, before the Specula told you, you must already have been sure you would find the longitude you were seeking!”
“You think very right. If I here were come without knowing here was here, I could not know I was here.... Now I explain you. Since I knew that the Specula was the only correct instrument to arrive where to try out the Specula, I had to use falsch methods. Und so I did.”
As roberto, incredulous, demanded to know what, and how useless, the various methods to find longitudes had been, Father Caspar replied that while all were erroneous when taken one by one, if taken together the various results could achieve a balance and compensate for the individual defects: “And this est mathematical”
To be sure, a clock after traveling thousands of miles could no longer tell accurately the time of its place of origin. But how many and various clocks, some of special and careful construction, had Roberto seen on board the Daphne] You compare their inexact times, study daily the responses of one against the assertions of the others, and you arrive at a kind of certitude.
What of the loch or the navicella, or whatever you choose to call it? The usual ones do not work, but here is what Father Caspar had constructed: a box with two vertical poles, one that wound as the other unwound a cord of fixed length equivalent to a fixed number of miles; and the winding pole was surmounted by many little blades, which as in a mill turned under the force of the same winds that swelled the sails: their movement accelerated or slowed—and therefore wound or unwound the cord—according to the strength and direction, straight or oblique, of the wind, recording meanwhile also the deviations due to tacking, or sailing against the wind. A method not much more sure than all the others, but excellent if someone compared its results with those of other soundings.
Lunar eclipses? To be sure, observing them during a voyage resulted in endless misunderstandings. But what about those observed on land?
“We must have many observers and in many places of the world, and well disposed to collaborate in the major glory of God, and not exchange insults or spitefulness or scorn. Listen: in 1612, the eighth of November, at Macao, the most reverend pater lulius de Alessis records an eclipse at eight-thirty that evening until eleven-thirty. He informs the most reverend pater Carolus Spinola, who at Nangasaki, in laponia, the same eclipse at nine-thirty of the same evening was observing. And the pater Christophorus Schnaidaa had the same eclipse seen at Ingolstadt at five in the afternoon. The differentia of one hora makes fifteen degrees of meridian, and therefore this is the distance between Macao and Nangasaki, not sixteen degrees and twenty, as says Blaeu. Verstanden? Naturally with these records you must guard against drink and smoke, have correct horologii, not lose the initium totalis immersionis, and maintain correct medium between initium and finis eclipsis, observe the intermediary moments in which the spots are dark, et cetera. If the places are distant, a very little error makes no gross differentia, but if the places are proximi, an error of a few minutes makes gross differentia.”
Apart from the fact that in the matter of Macao and Nagasaki it seems to me that Blaeu is closer to the truth than Father Caspar (which proves how complicated longitudes were at that time), this is how the Jesuits, after collecting and collating the observations of their missionary brethren, established a Horologium Catholicum, which—despite the name—was not a clock devoted to the Roman pope but a universal clock. It was in effect a kind of planisphere on which were marked all the headquarters of the Society, from Rome to the borders of the known world, and for each place the local time was marked. Thus, Father Caspar explained, he had not had to bear in mind the hour at the beginning of the voyage but only at the last outpost of the Christian world, whose longitude was beyond debate. Then the margins for error were greatly reduced, and between one station and the next they could also use methods that, in the absolute sense, offered no guarantee, such as the variation of the needle or calculation from lunar spots.
Fortunately he had brethren just about everywhere, from Pernambuco to Goa, from Mindanao to Porto Sancti Thomae, and if winds prevented the Daphne from mooring in one port, there would soon be another. For example, at Macao ... ah, Macao! At the very thought of that adventure, Father Caspar glowered. It was a Portuguese possession; the Chinese called the Europeans men of long noses precisely because the first to land on their shores were the Portuguese, who truly do have long noses, and also the Jesuits, who came with them. So the city was a single garland of blue and white fortresses on the hill, controlled by the fathers of the Society, who had to concern themselves also with military matters, since the city was threatened by the Dutch heretics.
Father Caspar had decided to head for Macao, where he knew a fellow Jesuit very learned in the astronomical sciences, but he had forgotten that he was sailing on a fluyt.
What did the good fathers of Macao do? Sighting a Dutch ship, they manned their cannons and colubrines. In vain Father Caspar waved his arms at the prow and immediately had the Society’s standard run up; those cursed long-noses, his Portuguese brothers in the Society, wrapped in the warrior smoke that invited them to a holy massacre, did not even notice, and they rained balls around the Daphne. It was the pure grace of God that the ship was barely able to strike its sails, come about, and escape to sea while the captain in his Lutheran language hurled anathema at those fathers of scant consideration. And this time he was right: sinking the Dutch is all very well, but not when there is a Jesuit on board.
Luckily it was fairly easy to reach other missions not far away, and they turned their bowsprit towards the more hospitable Mindanao. And so, from one port to the next, they kept watch over their longitude (and God help them, I add, considering that, having ended up practically in Australia, they must have lost track of every point of reference).
“Et hora we must novissima experimenta make, ut claris-sime et evidenter demonstrate that we are on meridian one hundred eighty. Otherwise the fratres of the Collegium Ro-manum will think I am a Mamelukke.”
“New experiments?” Roberto asked. “Did you not just tell me that the Specula gave you the utmost assurance of being on the one-hundred-eightieth meridian, off the Island of Solomon?”
Yes, the Jesuit replied, he was certain: he had set in competition the various imperfect methods found by others, and the accord of all these weak methods supplied a very strong certitude, as happens in the proof of God’s existence by consensus gentium, for while it is true that many men inclined to err also believe in God, it is impossible that all should be mistaken, from the forests of Africa to the deserts of China. So it happens that we believe in the movement of the sun and the moon and of the other planets, or in the hidden power of Chelidonium, or that at the center of the earth there is a fire; for thousands and thousands of years men have believed these things, and while believing them, they have been able to live on this planet and achieve many useful results from their reading of the great book of Nature. But an important discovery like this had to be confirmed by further proof, so that even the sceptics would surrender to the evidence.
Besides, science must be pursued not only for the love of learning but in the desire to share it with our brothers. So, since it had cost him such an effort to find the correct longitude, he now had to seek confirmation through other, easier methods, so that this knowledge could become the patrimony of all our brothers, “or at least of the Christian ones, or, rather, the Catholic brothers, because, as for the Dutch or English heretics—or worse, the Moravians—it would be far better if they never came to learn of these secrets.”
Now, of all the methods of taking longitude, two seemed sure to him. One, good for terra firma, was that treasure of all methods, namely the Specula Melitensis; the other, appropriate for observation at sea, was the Instrumentum Arcetri-cum, which lay below but had not yet been set up, because he first had to obtain through the Specula the certitude of their position, then see if the Instrumentum confirmed it, which was the most reliable way to proceed.
Father Caspar would have carried out this experiment long before if what happened had not happened. But the moment now had come, and it would be on that very night: the sky and the ephemerides said that now was the right occasion.
What was the Instrumentum Arcetricum? A device envisioned many years earlier by Galilei—but, mind you, envisioned, narrated, promised, never achieved, until Father Caspar set to work. When Roberto asked him if that Galilei was the same who had advanced a severely condemned hypothesis about the motion of the earth, Father Caspar replied yes, when that Galilei had stuck his nose into metaphysics and the Sacred Scriptures, he had said dreadful things, but as a mechanical he was a man of genius and very great. Asked whether it was not wrong to use the ideas of a man the Church had censured, the Jesuit answered that to the greater glory of God the ideas of a heretic also could contribute, provided they in themselves were not heretical. And we might have known that Father Caspar, who welcomed all existing methods, not swearing by any one of them but exploiting their quarrelsome conference, would exploit also the method of Galilei.
Indeed, it was highly useful both for science and for the faith to develop as soon as possible that idea of Galilei; the Florentine himself had tried to sell it to the Dutch, but fortunately, like the Spaniards a few decades earlier, they did not trust him.
Galilei had drawn some odd conclusions from a premiss that in itself was quite right, namely that of stealing the idea of the spyglass from the Flemings (who used it only to look at ships in port) and training that instrument on the heavens. And there, among the many things that Father Caspar would not dream of doubting, Galilei had discovered that Jupiter, or Jove, as he called it, had four satellites, that is to say four moons, never seen from the beginning of the world until that moment. Four little stars that revolved around it while it revolved around the sun—and we will see that for Father Caspar the idea that Jove revolved around the sun was admissible, provided the earth was left alone.
Now, it is a well-known fact that our moon, when it passes in the shadow of the earth, is eclipsed. Astronomers have long known when lunar eclipses would occur, and the ephemerides were authoritative. It was not surprising, then, that the moons of Jove also had their eclipses. Indeed, for us at least, they had two, one actual eclipse and one occultation.
In fact, the moon disappears from our sight when the earth comes between it and the sun, but the satellites of Jove disappear from our sight twice, when they pass behind it and when they pass in front, becoming united with its light; through a good spyglass you can easily follow their appearances and their disappearances. With the inestimable advantage that while the eclipses of the moon occur only very rarely and take a long time, those of the Jovian satellites occur frequently and are rapid.
Now let us suppose that the hour and the minutes of the eclipses of each satellite (each traveling in an orbit of different breadth) have been precisely established on a known meridian, and the ephemerides bear this out; at which point it is enough to be able to fix the hour and the minute when the eclipse is visible on the (unknown) meridian, and the calculation is quickly made, and the longitude of the point of observation can be deduced.
True, there were minor drawbacks, not worth discussing with a layman, but the enterprise would succeed for a good calculator who had at his disposal a measurer of time, namely a perpendiculum or pendulum, or Horologium Oscillatorium as might be, capable of measuring with absolute precision even to the second. Similarly, he would need two normal clocks that told him faithfully the hour of the beginning and the end of the phenomenon both on the meridian of observation and on that of the Isla de Hierro; and, using the table of sines, he could measure the quantity of the angle made in the eye by the bodies under examination—the angle that, if thought of as the hands of a clock, expressed in minutes and seconds the distance between the two bodies and its progressive variation.
Provided, it is well to repeat, he also had those good ephemerides that Galilei, by then old and infirm, had not been able to complete, but that the brethren of Father Caspar, already so good at calculating eclipses of the moon, had now perfected.
What were the chief flaws, over which Galilei’s adversaries had waxed so bitter? That these observations could not be made with the naked eye and the observer needed a strong spyglass, or telescope, as it was now more properly called? And Father Caspar had some of excellent facture such as not even Galilei had dreamed of. That the measuring and the calculating were not within the skill of sailors? Why, all the other methods for determining longitude, except perhaps the log, required the presence of an astronomer! And if captains had learned to use the astrolabe, which itself was not something within the grasp of any layman, they could also learn to use the glass.
But, the pedants said, such exact observations requiring great precision could perhaps be made on land, but not on a ship in motion, where no one could hold a glass fixed on a celestial body invisible to the naked eye.... Well, Father Caspar was here to demonstrate that, with a bit of skill, observations could be made also on a moving ship.
Finally, some Spaniards had objected that satellites in eclipse did not appear during the day, nor on stormy nights. “Perhaps these complainers believe that a man claps his hands and there, illico et immediate, lunar eclipses are at his disposal?” Father Caspar was irritated. Who ever said that observations had to be made at every instant? Anyone who has voyaged from one Indies to the other knows that taking the longitude cannot require a greater frequency than what is required for observing the latitude, and this, too, whether with astrolabe or Jacob’s cross, cannot be done in moments of great tumult of the sea. To measure it properly, this longitude, even only once every two or three days suffices; then, between one observation and the next it is possible to keep account of the time and the space covered, as was done in the past, using the astrolabe. But until now that was all they could use for months and months. “They seem to me,” the good father said, more indignant than ever, “like Huomo that in gross famine you assist with a basket of bread, and instead of saying gratia he is disturbed that also a roasted schweine or a fat rabbit you do not put on the table for him. Oh, Holy Wood! Would you perhaps throw into the sea the cannons of this ship only because, ninety times out of a hundred, the balls fall plop into the aqua?”
So then Father Caspar engaged Roberto in the preparation of an experiment that was to be performed on an evening like the one now ahead of them, astronomically opportune, with clear sky and with the sea in slight motion. If the experiment were done on an evening of calm, Father Caspar explained, it would be like doing it on land, and there—as was already known—it was bound to succeed. The experiment had to provide the observer with the semblance of calm on a hull moving from stern to prow and from side to side.
First of all they had to recover, from among the clocks so maltreated over the past few days, one still in proper working order. Only one, in this fortunate case, and not two: they would set it to the local hour after taking good diurnal bearings (which they did) and, as they were certain of being on the antipodal meridian, there was no reason to have another clock telling the time of the Isla de Hierro. It was enough to know that the difference was exactly twelve hours. Midnight here; noon there.
On sober reflection, however, this decision seems based on a vicious circle. Their position on the antipodal meridian was something the experiment was to prove, not something to take as a given. But Father Caspar was so sure of his previous observations that he desired only to confirm them, and then—
probably—after all the confusion on the ship there was no longer a single clock that still told the time at the other side of the globe, and they had to overcome that obstacle. Actually, Roberto was not so punctilious as to point out the flaw in this argument.
“When I say go, you look at the hour and write. And immediately strike the perpendiculum.”
The perpendiculum was supported by a little metal armature which acted as a gallows for a copper wand ending in a circular pendulum. At the lowest point of the pendulum’s course there was a horizontal wheel in which teeth were set, but shaped so that one side of the tooth was square and jutted above the level of the wheel, and the other oblique. Alternately moving in this direction and that, the pendulum struck with a protruding spike, a bristle, which in turn touched a tooth on its jutted side and moved the wheel; but when the pendulum returned, the little bristle just grazed the oblique side of the tooth, and the wheel remained still. If the teeth were numbered, it was possible, when the pendulum stopped, to count the number of teeth shifted, and thus calculate the number of particles of time that had passed.
“So you are not obliged to count every time one, two, three, et cetera, but in the end when I say sufficit, you stop the perpendiculum and count the teeth, verstanden? And write how many teeth. Then you look at the horologium and write this or that hora. And when I again say go, you a very strong push give it, and it begins again its oscillatio. Simple, even a parvulus can do.”
To be sure, this was not a great perpendiculum, as Father Caspar well knew, but debate on that mechanism was just beginning, and only at some future time would it be possible to construct perfected ones.
“Very difficult, and we must yet much learn, but if God
did not forbid die Wette—how do you say?—the pari...”
“Ah. If God did not forbid, I would bet that in the future all will go to seek longitudes and all other phenomena with the perpendiculum. But is very difficult on a ship, and you must make gross attention.”
Caspar told Roberto to arrange the devices, together with writing materials, on the quarterdeck, which was the highest observation point on the Daphne: there they would set up the Instrumentum Arcetricum. From the soda they had carried up the instruments Roberto had glimpsed while he was still pursuing the Intruder. These were easily transported, except for the metal basin, which the two men hoisted up on the deck with curses and ruinous failures, for it would not pass through the hatches. But Father Caspar, wiry as he was, now that he saw the imminent realization of his plan, revealed a physical energy equal to his will.
Almost alone, with an implement of his that tightened bolts, he mounted the armature of semicircles and little bars of iron, which turned out to be a round frame, and to this a circular canvas was fixed with some rings, so that in the end they had a kind of great basin in the form of half a spherical orb with a diameter of about two meters. It was necessary to tar it so it would retain the malodorous oil with which Roberto filled it, emptying keg after keg, complaining of the stench. Father Caspar reminded him, seraphic as a Capuchin, that they were not using the oil to fry onions.
“What is the use of it, then?”
“On this little sea we try an even more little vessel to put,” he said, and made Roberto help him place in the great canvas basin a metallic pan, almost flat, with a diameter only slightly less than that of its container. “You never heard say the sea smooth like oil? There, look, the deck tilts left and oil of the big basin tilts right, and vice versa, or, rather, so to you it seems; truly the oil in equilibrium stays, never up or down, and to the horizon parallel. It would happen also with water, but on oil the pan floats like on a calm sea. And I have already in Rome a little experiment done, with two little bowls, the bigger full of water and the little of sand, and in the sand I stuck a stylus, and I set the little afloat in the big, and I moved the big, and you could see the stylus erect like campanile, not bent like the towers of Bolonia!”
“Hora we take the pan, where we must in it a whole machine put.”
The bottom of the metal pan had some little springs on the outside so that, the Jesuit explained, once it was afloat with its cargo in the larger tub, it would remain separated by at least one finger from the bottom of the container; and if the excessive movement of its guest drove it too far down (What guest? Roberto asked; Now you will see, Caspar replied), those springs should cause it to rise to the surface again without shocks. To the inner pan they affixed a seat with a sloping back, which allowed a man to sit or, rather, recline, looking up, his feet on an iron bar that acted as a counterweight.
Having set up the basin on the deck, and having made it stable with some wedges, Father Caspar sat on the seat and explained to Roberto how to place on his back and fasten to his waist a harness of straps and bandoleers of canvas and leather, to which also a helmet with a vizor should be tied. The vizor had a hole for one eye, while at the level of the nose a rod protruded, surmounted by a small hoop. Through the hoop was inserted the spyglass, from which a little staff hung, ending in a hook. The Hyperbole of the Eyes could be moved freely until a given star was identified; but, once the star was in the center of the lens, the rigid staff was fixed to the pectoral bandoleers, and after that a steady view was assured, fixed against any possible movements of that Cyclops.
“Perfecto!” the Jesuit rejoiced. When the pan was set afloat on the becalmed oil, even the most elusive celestial bodies could be studied and no commotion of the sea in tumult could cause the horoscopant eye to be deflected from the chosen star. “This your Signer Galilei described, and I have made!”
“Very beautiful,” Roberto said, “but who will put all this in the tub of oil?”
“Now I untie myself and get down, then we put the empty pan in the oil, then I climb on again.”
“I cannot believe that will be easy.”
“Much more easier than moving the pan with me in it seated.”
Though with some effort, the pan with its chair was hoisted up and set afloat on the oil. Then Father Caspar, in helmet and harness, and the spyglass mounted on the vizor, tried to climb onto the scaffolding while Roberto held him, one hand clutching his hand and the other pushing his bottom. The attempt was repeated several times, but with no success.
It was not that the metal frame supporting the larger tub could not support also an occupant, but it denied him reasonable footholds. And if Father Caspar tried, as he did many times, to set only one foot on the rim, immediately placing the other inside the minor circle, this latter, in the disturbance of the embarkation, tended to glide over the oil towards the opposite side of the basin, making the priest’s legs part like a compass as he emitted cries of alarm until Roberto seized him by the waist and drew him closer, that is to say onto the relative terra firma of the Daphne—cursing meanwhile the memory of Galilei and extolling his persecutors and killers. At that point Father Caspar sank into the arms of his savior, assuring him with a groan that those persecutors were not killers but most worthy men of the Church, bent only on the preservation of the truth, and that with Galilei they had been paternal and merciful. Then, still cuirassed and immobilized, his gaze towards the sky and the spyglass perpendicular to his face, like a Pulcinella with a mechanical nose, he reminded Roberto that Galilei, at least with this invention, had not erred, and it was just a matter of trying and trying again. "Und so mein lieber Robertus," he then said, "perhaps you have me forgotten and believe me a tortoise, captured with belly oben? Come, push me again, there, help me touch that rim, there now, for man is proper the statura erecta."
Through these several unhappy operations the oil did not remain smooth as oil, and after a while both experimenters found themselves oleate and, what was worse, oleabund—if the context allows the chronicler this coinage without imputation of the source.
When Father Caspar had begun to despair of ever occupying that seat, Roberto observed that perhaps it was necessary first to empty the container of oil, then install the pan, then have the priest climb onto it, and finally pour in the oil again, which, as its level rose, would raise also the pan and, with it, the observer, all floating together.
So it was done, amid praise from the master lavished on his acute pupil, as midnight was approaching. Not that the apparatus gave a great impression of stability, but if Father Caspar took care not to move unduly, they could hope.
At a certain moment Father Caspar triumphed: "I see them!" The cry caused him to move his nose, and the glass, rather heavy, began to slip out of the circle: he moved his arm to arrest it, the movement of the arm jerked his shoulder, and the pan was on the point of capsizing. Roberto abandoned paper and clocks, supported Caspar, re-established the equilibrium of the whole and bade the astronomer remain motionless, allowing only his eyepiece to make very prudent shifts, and above all without expressing emotions.
The next announcement was made in a whisper which, magnified by the great vizor, seemed to resound as hoarse as a Tartar trumpet: “I see them again,” and with a measured gesture he fixed the spyglass to the pectoral. “Oh, wunderbar! Three little stars east of Jupiter, one alone west... The closest seems smallest and is ... wait... yes, at zero minutes and thirty seconds from Jupiter. Write. Now it is about to touch Jupiter, soon it will disappear. Careful and write exactly the time it disappears....”
Roberto, who had left his place to assist his master, again picked up the tablet on which he was to mark the times, but sitting, he had the clocks behind him. He turned abruptly, knocking over the pendulum. The wand slipped from its notch. Roberto seized it and tried to replace it, but he failed. Father Caspar was already shouting orders to note the time, Roberto turned towards the clock and, in moving, he struck the inkwell with his pen. Not thinking, he set the well upright, to save some of the liquid, but he knocked over the clock. “Did you take the hour? Go! The perpendiculum!” Caspar was shouting, and Roberto replied, “I cannot, I cannot!”
“How can you not, dumbhead?” And hearing no reply, he kept on shouting, “How can you not, foolish? Have you written, have you made note, did you push? It is disappearing. Go!”
“I have lost, no, not lost, I have broken everything,” Roberto said.
Father Caspar moved the spyglass away from the vizor, peered sideways, saw the pendulum in pieces, the clock overturned, Roberto’s hands stained with ink. Beside himself, he
exploded with a “Himmelpotzblitzherrgottsakrament!” that shook his whole body. In that unfortunate movement, he caused the pan to tilt too far, and he slid into the oil of the basin, the spyglass slipping from his hand and his hauberk; then, as the ship pitched, the glass rolled across the quarterdeck, bounced down the ladder, and struck the main deck before it was flung against the breech of a cannon.
Roberto did not know whether to succor first the man or the instrument. The man, flailing in that rancidity, shouted magnanimously to save the spyglass, Roberto rushed down to the elusive Hyperbole, and found it, dented, both lenses broken.
When Roberto finally removed Father Caspar from the oil, the Jesuit, who looked like a piglet ready for the oven, simply said with heroic stubbornness that not all was lost. There was another telescope, equally powerful, mounted on the Specula Melitensis. They had only to go and fetch it from the Island.
“How?” Roberto asked.
“But you told me you cannot swim, nor should you, at your age....”