the story is as clear as it is dark. While little skirmishes followed one another, as in a game of chess where not a move but the mere expression that accompanies the hint of a move works to make the opponent renounce a winning opportunity, Toiras concluded that a more substantial sortie had to be attempted. Clearly the game was being played between spies and counterspies: at Casale rumor had it that the relief army was near, led by the king himself, while Monsieur de Montmo-rency was coming from Asti and the marshals de Crequi and La Force from Ivrea. Falsehoods, as Roberto learned from the wrath of Toiras when he received a courier from the north: in this exchange of messages Toiras informed Richelieu that he was now without victuals, and the cardinal replied that Monsieur Agencourt had in due course inspected the storerooms and determined that Casale could hold out excellently throughout the summer. The army would move in August, taking advantage along the way of the harvests just reaped.
Roberto was amazed when Toiras instructed some Corsi-cans to desert and go over to Spinola, reporting that the army was not expected until September. But then he heard the commander explain to his staff: “If Spinola believes he has time, he will take time to dig his tunnels, and we will have time to dig our own tunnels against his mines. But if he thinks reinforcements are about to arrive, what course is left him? Surely not to confront the French army, because he knows he hasn’t sufficient troops; not to wait for it, because then he himself would be besieged; not to return to Milan and prepare a defense of that region, because honor forbids retreat. So the only thing left for him is to conquer Casale at once. But since he cannot do that with a frontal attack, he will have to spend a fortune in purchasing betrayal. And from that moment on, every friend will become for us an enemy. So we will send spies to Spinola, to convince him of the delay of our relief, we will allow him to dig his tunnels for mines where they will not bother us too much, and we will destroy those that are really a threat to us, and we will let him wear himself out in this game. Signer Pozzo, you know the land. Where should we leave him undisturbed and where should we thwart him at all costs?”
Old Pozzo, without looking at the maps (which seemed to him too ornate to be accurate) and pointing with one hand out of the window, explained how in certain areas the terrain was notoriously treacherous, infiltrated by the waters of the river, and there Spinola could dig as long as he pleased and his sappers would choke to death on snails. Whereas in other areas digging tunnels was child’s play, and there they should hammer with the artillery and make sorties.
“Very well,” said Toiras. “Tomorrow we will force them to move and defend their positions outside the San Carlo bastion, and then we’ll surprise them outside the San Giorgio bastion.” The game was well prepared, with detailed instructions to all companies. And since Roberto had proved good at writing, Toiras kept him busy from six in the evening till two in the morning, dictating messages, then asked him to sleep, dressed, on a bench outside his room and receive and look over the replies, waking him if there were any contretemps. Which there were, and more than once, between two o’clock and dawn.
The next morning the troops were in readiness on the covered way above the counterscarp and inside the walls. At a signal from Toiras, who was overlooking everything from the citadel, the first contingent, fairly numerous, moved in the deceitful direction: a vanguard of pikemen and musketeers, with a reserve of fifty arquebuses closely following, and after them, shamelessly, an infantry corps of five hundred men and two companies of cavalry. It was a fine parade, and later everyone realized that this was precisely how the Spaniards had taken it.
Roberto saw thirty-five men who, obeying Captain Co-lumbat, scattered and attacked a ditch; the Spanish captain emerged from the barricade and gave them a great salute. Columbat and his men, out of politeness, stopped and responded with equal courtesy. After which, the Spaniards seemed ready to withdraw and the French marked time. Toiras ordered his cannon to fire at the trench from the walls, Columbat took the hint, ordered the attack, the cavalry followed him, assailing the ditch from both flanks, the Spaniards reluctantly resumed their position and were overrun. The French seemed crazed and some, as they fought, shouted the names of friends killed in previous engagements, “This is for Bessieres, this for the Bricchetto farm!” Their furor was such that when Columbat wanted to reassemble the squad, he failed. Some of the men were still fiercely striking the fallen, others turned towards the city, shaking earrings, belts, scalps, and other trophies on their raised pikes.
There was no immediate counterattack, and Toiras made the mistake of considering that an error of the enemy, whereas it was calculated. Believing that the imperials were bent on sending more troops to contain that assault, Toiras goaded them with more cannonades, but the men merely fired into the city, and one ball damaged the church of Sant’Antonio, quite near staff headquarters.
Toiras was content, and ordered another group to move out from the San Giorgio bastion. Only a few companies, but they were commanded by Monsieur de la Grange, lively as a stripling despite his fifty-five years. Sword extended before him, La Grange ordered a charge against a little abandoned church, alongside which the construction of a tunnel was already far advanced; but suddenly, from behind a gulley, the main body of the enemy army appeared, having waited hours for this rendezvous.
“Betrayal!” Toiras shouted, rushing down to the gate, where he ordered La Grange to fall back.
A little later, an ensign of the Pompadour regiment brought before Toiras a boy of Casale, his wrists bound by a cord. He had been caught in a little tower near the castle, signaling with a white cloth to the besiegers. Toiras had him laid on the ground; he stuck the thumb of the boy’s right hand into the raised cock of his pistol, pointing the barrel towards the boy’s left hand. After putting his own finger on the trigger, Toiras asked, “Et alors?”
The boy quickly realized the bad turn things were taking, and began to talk: the previous evening, towards midnight, outside the church of San Domenico, a certain Captain Gam-bero had promised him six pistoles, three in advance, if he would do what he then had done, at the moment when the French troops moved from the San Giorgio bastion. Indeed, not having grasped the military art, the boy seemed to demand the outstanding three pistoles, as if Toiras should be pleased with his service. At a certain point he saw Roberto and started shouting that this was the notorious Gambero.
Roberto was stunned, the older Pozzo fell on the slanderous wretch and would have strangled him if some gentlemen of the staff had not restrained him. Toiras immediately pointed out that Roberto had been all night at his side and that, though he was surely a fine-looking youth, nobody could mistake him for a captain. In the meantime others had ascertained that a Captain Gambero really did exist, in the Bassiani regiment, and they haled him, kicking and shoving, into Toiras’s presence. Gambero protested his innocence, and in fact the boy prisoner did not recognize him, but Toiras prudently had the officer locked up anyway. Capping the disorder, someone came to report that as La Grange’s troops were retreating, a man had fled from the San Giorgio bastion, reaching the Spanish lines, to be greeted with manifestations of joy. Not much could be said about him except that he was young, dressed in the Spanish style with a net over his hair. Roberto thought at once of Ferrante. But what made the deepest impression on him was the suspicion with which the French commanders looked at the Italians in Toiras’s train.
“Can one little rascal stop a whole army?” he heard his father ask, nodding towards the retiring French. “Forgive me, dear friend,” Pozzo said, addressing Toiras, “but here the idea is growing that, in our parts, we are all a bit like that rogue Gambero, or am I mistaken?” And when Toiras protested esteem and friendship, but in an absent tone, Pozzo went on: “Let it go. It seems to me everyone’s shitting his pants, and this business is more than I can take. I’ve had a bellyful of those lousy Spaniards, and if you don’t mind, I’ll knock off two or three just to show we can dance the galliard when we have to. And if we feel like it, we don’t bow down before anybody, mordioux!”
He then rode outside the gate and galloped like a fury, his sword raised, against the enemy host. He obviously didn’t mean to put them to flight, but it seemed proper to him to act on his own, just to show the others.
As proof of his courage, it was good; as a military action, very bad. A ball struck his forehead and he slumped onto the withers of his Pagnufli. A second volley rose against the rampart, and Roberto felt a violent blow to the temple, like a stone; he staggered. He had been grazed, but he freed himself from the arms of the man supporting him. Shouting his father’s name, he stood erect and glimpsed Pagnufli, bewildered, galloping with his master’s lifeless body across the empty field.
Once again Roberto thrust his fingers into his mouth and emitted his whistle; Pagnufli heard and came back towards the walls, but slowly, at a solemn little trot, so as not to unsaddle his rider, no longer imperiously pressing his flanks. The horse came in again, neighing his pavane for his dead master, returning the body to Roberto, who closed those still-wide eyes and wiped clean that face spattered with blood now clotted, while his own blood, alive, striped his cheek.
That shot may have touched a nerve. The next day, as soon as he came out of the cathedral of Sant’Evasio, where Toiras had decreed the solemn obsequies of the lord Pozzo di San Patrizio della Griva, Roberto could hardly tolerate the light of day. Perhaps his eyes were red from tears, but the fact remains that from then on, they continued to ache. Today students of the psyche would say that because his father had entered the shadows, Roberto also wanted to enter the shadows. He knew little of the psyche, but this figure of speech might have appealed to him, in the light—or in the shadows—of what happened later.
I consider that Pozzo died of punctilio, which seems superb to me, but Roberto was unable to appreciate it. All praised his father’s heroism to him; he should have borne his bereavement with pride, and here he was sobbing. Recalling how his father had told him that a gentleman must learn to bear, dry-eyed, the blows of adverse fortune, he apologized for his weakness to his parent, who could no longer call him to account, and repeated to himself that this was the first time he had been orphaned. He thought he would become accustomed to the idea, not yet understanding that it is useless to become accustomed to the loss of a father, for it will never happen a second time: might as well leave the wound open.
But to give some sense to what had happened, he could not help falling back, once again, on Ferrante. Ferrante, following him closely, had sold to the enemy the secrets he knew and then shamelessly had joined the adversary’s ranks to enjoy the well-earned reward. His father, who had realized this, wanted thus to cleanse the stained escutcheon of the family, and to bathe Roberto in the glow of his own courage, to purify him of that aura of suspicion just cast on him, who was blameless. To make sure his father’s death was not in vain, Roberto owed to him the conduct that all at Casale expected of the hero’s son.
He could not do otherwise: he found himself now the legitimate lord of La Griva, heir to the family name and possessions, and Toiras no longer dared employ him for little tasks—nor could he call on him for big ones. And so, left alone to sustain his new role of illustrious orphan, Roberto found himself still more alone, lacking even the comfort of action: at the heart of a. siege, released from all duties, he asked himself how he should spend his days as a besieged soldier.
The Curious Learning
of the Wits of the Day
arresting for a moment the wave of memories, Roberto realized he had evoked his father’s death not with the pious intention of keeping open that Philoctetes’ wound, but by mere accident, as he was summoning up the specter of Ferrante, elicited by the specter of the Intruder of the Daphne. The two now appeared to him as such obvious twins that he decided to eliminate the weaker in order to overpower the stronger.
In the final analysis, he said to himself, during those days of siege did I ever have any other hint of Ferrante? No. What happened then? I was convinced of his nonexistence by Saint-Savin.
Roberto had in fact made friends with Monsieur de Saint-Savin. He had seen him again at the funeral, and had received a demonstration of affection from him. When not prey to wine, Saint-Savin was an accomplished gentleman. Small of stature, nervous, brisk, and though his face was perhaps marked by the Parisian dissipation of which he spoke, he could not have been thirty.
He apologized for his excesses at that supper: not for what he had said, but for his uncivil way of saying it. He inquired about Monsieur Pozzo, and Roberto was grateful to him for at least feigning interest. Roberto told how his father had taught him what he knew of fencing; Saint-Savin asked various questions, waxed enthusiastic at the mention of a certain thrust, drew his sword right in the middle of a square and insisted that Roberto illustrate the action. Either Saint-Savin already knew it or he was very quick, because he parried it with dexterity, though admitting that it was an invention worthy of the haute ecole.
In gratitude he indicated only one stratagem of his own to Roberto. He put him on guard, they traded a few feints, he awaited the first attack, suddenly he seemed to slip to the ground, and when Roberto dropped his guard, speechless, Saint-Savin rose as if by miracle and snipped a button off his tunic—showing that he could have wounded him had he thrust harder.
“You like that, my friend?” he said, as Roberto saluted, conceding defeat. “It’s the coup de la mouette, the seagull thrust, as it’s called. If you go to sea one day, you will observe how those birds dive abruptly as if they were falling, but when they have barely grazed the water, they soar up again with their catch in their beaks. It is a move that requires long practice, and it is not infallible. In my experience, it failed once— for the braggart who invented it. And so he made me a gift both of his life and of his secret. I believe he was sorrier to part with the second than with the first.”
They would have gone on at length if a little crowd of civilians had not collected. “Shall we stop?” Roberto said. “I would not want someone to say I have forgotten I am in mourning.”
“You honor your father better now,” Saint-Savin said, “by remembering his teachings, than you did before, listening to that execrable Latin in church.”
“Monsieur de Saint-Savin,” Roberto said to him, “are you not afraid of ending up at the stake?”
Saint-Savin frowned for a moment. “When I was more or less your age, I admired a man who had been an older brother to me. Like an ancient philosopher I called him Lucretius, for he, too, was a philosopher, and moreover a priest. He ended up at the stake in Toulouse, but first they tore out his tongue and strangled him. And so you see that if we philosophers are quick of tongue, it is not simply, as that gentleman said the other evening, to give ourselves ban ton. It is to put the tongue to good use before they rip it out. Or, rather, jesting aside, to dispel prejudice and to discover the natural cause of Creation.”
“So you truly do not believe in God?”
“I find no reason to, in nature. Nor am I the only one. Strabo tells us that the Galicians had no notion of a higher being. When the missionaries wanted to talk of God with the natives of the West Indies, Acosta recounts (and he was also a Jesuit), they could use only the Spanish word Dios. You will not believe it, but no suitable term existed in the local language. If the idea of God is unknown in the state of nature, it must then be a human invention.... But do not look at me as if I lacked sound principles and were not a faithful servant of my king. A true philosopher never seeks to subvert the order of things. He accepts it. He asks only to be allowed to cultivate the thoughts that comfort a strong spirit. For the others, luckily there are both popes and bishops to restrain the crowd from revolt and crime. The order of the state demands a uniformity of conduct, religion is necessary for the people, and the wise man must sacrifice a part of his independence so that society will remain stable. As for me, I believe I am an upright man: I am loyal to my friends, I do not lie, except when I make a declaration of love, I love knowledge, and they say I write good verses. So the ladies consider me charming. I would like to write romances, which are so much in fashion, but though I think of many, I never sit down to write one....”
“What romances do you think of?”
“Sometimes I look at the Moon, and I imagine that those darker spots are caverns, cities, islands, and the places that shine are those where the sea catches the light of the sun like the glass of a mirror. I would like to tell the stories of their kings, their wars, and their revolutions, or of the unhappiness of lovers up there, who in the course of their nights sigh as they look down at our Earth. I would like to tell about war and friendship among the various parts of the body, the arms that do battle with the feet, and the veins that make love with the arteries, or the bones with the marrow. All the stories I would like to write persecute me. When I am in my chamber, it seems as if they are all around me, like little devils, and while one tugs at my ear, another tweaks my nose, and each says to me, ‘Sir, write me, I am beautiful.’ Then I realize that an equally beautiful story can be told, inventing an original duel, for example, a man fighting and convincing his adversary to deny God, then running him through so that he dies damned. Stop, Monsieur de la Grive, draw your sword once again, like that, parry, there! You set your heels along the same line: a mistake, for you jeopardize the steadiness of your legs. The head must not be held erect, because the space between the shoulder and the neck exposes an excessive surface to the blows of the adversary....”
“But I protect my head with the sword in my extended hand.”
“Wrong, in that position you are weaker. Besides, I opened with the German stance, and you placed yourself in the Italian position. Bad idea. When a ready position has to be countered, you should imitate it as closely as possible. But you have told me nothing of yourself, of your experiences before you turned up in this valley of dust.”
More than anyone, an adult able to dazzle with perverse paradoxes can fascinate a youth, who immediately wants to emulate him. Roberto opened his heart to Saint-Savin, and to make himself interesting—since the first sixteen years of his life offered scant material—he recounted his obsession with his unknown brother.
“You have read too many romances,” Saint-Savin said to him, “and you try to live one. But the purpose of a story is to teach and please at once, and what it teaches is how to recognize the snares of the world.”
“And what might I be taught by what you consider the romance of Ferrante?”
“A romance,” Saint-Savin explained to him, “must always have at its base a misconception—of a person, action, place, time, circumstance—and from that fundamental misconception episodic misconceptions must arise, developments, digressions, and finally unexpected and pleasant recognitions. By misconception I mean things like a living person’s reported death, or one person’s being killed in place of another, or a misconception of quantity, as when a woman believes her lover dead and marries another, or of quality, when it is the judgement of the senses that errs, when someone who appears dead is then buried, while actually he is under the influence of a sleeping potion; or else a misconception of relation, as when one man is wrongly believed the murderer of another; or of instrument, as when one man pretends to stab another using a weapon whose tip, while seeming to wound, does not pierce the throat but retracts into the sleeve, pressing a sponge soaked in blood.... Not to mention forged letters, assumed voices, messages not delivered in time or delivered to the wrong place or into the wrong hands. And of these stratagems the most celebrated, but too common, is that involving the mistaking of one person for another, the mistake being explained by the Double... The Double is a reflection that the character pulls behind himself or that precedes him in every situation. A fine machination, whereby the reader identifies with the main character, sharing his fear of an Enemy Brother. But you see how man is also machine, and it suffices to turn one wheel on the surface and other wheels then turn inside: the brother and the enmity are merely the reflection of the fear that each man has of himself, of the recesses of his own soul, where unconfessed desires lurk, or, as they are saying in Paris, unconscious concepts. For it has been demonstrated that imperceptible thoughts exist, affecting the soul without the soul’s being aware of them, clandestine thoughts whose existence is demonstrated by the fact that, however little each of us examines himself, he will not fail to remark that in his heart he bears love or hatred, joy or sorrow, while remaining unable to remember distinctly the thoughts that generated it.”
“Then Ferrante—” Roberto began, and Saint-Savin concluded: “Ferrante stands for your fears and your shame. Often men, rather than admit they are the authors of their fate, see this fate as a romance narrated by a fanciful and scoundrel author.”
“But what would this parable, which I have unwittingly constructed, mean for me?”
“Who knows? Perhaps you did not love your father as much as you think, you feared the harshness with which he wanted to punish your virtue, so for him you invented a sinner, to punish him not with your own sins but with those of another.”
“Sir, you are speaking to a son who is still mourning his most beloved parent! I believe it is a greater sin to teach contempt of fathers than contempt of Our Lord!”
“Come, come, my dear La Grive! The philosopher must have the courage to criticize all the false teachings that have been inculcated in us, and among these is the absurd respect for old age, as if youth were not the greatest good and the highest merit. Tell me frankly: when a young man is capable of conceiving, judging, and acting, is he not perhaps more skillful in managing a family than some sexagenarian dullard, with snow on his head that has frozen his imagination? What we honor as prudence in our elders is simply panic in action. Would you be subject to them when laziness has weakened their muscles, hardened their arteries, evaporated their spirits, and sucked the marrow from their bones? If you adore a woman, is it not perhaps because of her beauty? Do you continue your genuflections after age has made a phantom of that body, now apt to remind you of the imminence of death? And if you behave thus with your mistresses, why should you not do the same with your old men? You will say that this old man is your father and that Heaven promises you long life if you honor him. Who said so? Some ancient Jews who realized they could survive in the desert only by exploiting the fruit of their loins? If you believe that Heaven grants you a single additional day of life because you have been your father’s lap-dog, you are deceived. Do you believe a respectful greeting that causes the plume of your hat to sweep the ground at your parent’s feet can heal a malignant abscess or help you pass a stone? If that were so, physicians would not then prescribe their ghastly potions, but to rid you of the Italian sickness they would instead suggest four bows before supper to your lord father, and a kiss to your lady mother at bedtime. You will say to me that without that father you would not exist, nor he without his, and so on back to Melchizedek. But it is he who owes something to you, not you to him: you pay with many years of weeping for his momentary tickle of pleasure.”
“You cannot believe what you are saying.”
“Well, no. Hardly ever. But the philosopher is like the poet.
The latter composes ideal letters for an ideal nymph, only to plumb with his words the depths of passion. The philosopher tests the coldness of his gaze, to see how far he can undermine the fortress of bigotry. I would not have your respect for your father diminished, for you say he taught you well. But do not let memory make you melancholy. I see you weeping....”
“Oh, that is not sorrow. It must be my head wound, which has affected my eyes....”
“You should drink coffee.”
“I swear that in a short while it will be the fashion. It is a panacea. I will procure you some. It dries the cold humors, dispels wind, strengthens the liver, it is the sovereign cure for hydropsy and scabies, it restores the heart, relieves bellyache. Its steam, in fact, is recommended for fluxions of the eyes, buz/ing in the ears, catarrh, rheum or heaviness of the nose, as you will. And then bury with your father the cumbersome brother you created for yourself. And, above all, fall in love.”
“Better even than coffee. Suffering for a live being, you will allay the pain for a dead one.”
“I have never loved a woman,” Roberto confessed, blushing.
“I did not say a woman. It could be a man.”
“Monsieur de Saint-Savin!” Roberto cried.
“It is obvious you come from the provinces.”
At the height of embarrassment, Roberto took his leave, saying his eyes were too painful; and he put an end to that encounter.
To explain to himself all he had heard, he decided that Saint-Savin had been teasing him: as with duelling, Saint-Savin had wanted to show how many artifices they knew in Paris.
And Roberto had indeed come out looking like a provincial. And worse, in taking seriously that talk, he had sinned: which would not have happened if he had taken everything in jest. He drew up a list of the sins he had committed by listening to those many propositions against faith, morals, the state, familial respect. And, thinking of his lapse, he was seized by further anguish: he remembered that, dying, his father had uttered a blasphemy.
The Aristotelian Telescope
and so the next day he went back to pray in the cathedral of Sant’Evasio. He was also seeking refreshment: on that early June afternoon the sun beat down on half-deserted streets— as, at this moment, on the Daphne, he felt the heat spreading over the bay, the sides of the ship absorbed it, and the wood seemed red-hot. But then he had felt the need to confess both his own sin and his father’s. In the nave he stopped a religious, who first said he was not of this parish but, seeing the look in the youth’s eyes, consented and sat in a confessional to hear the penitent.
Padre Emanuele cannot have been very old, perhaps forty, and according to Roberto he was “florid, pink of face, regal, and affable,” and Roberto felt encouraged to confide all his sufferings. He told first of all about the paternal blasphemy. Was this sufficient reason to keep his father from reposing now in the bosom of the Father, to make him moan in Hell? The confessor asked a few questions and led Roberto to admit that no matter when old Pozzo died, that event would most likely have occurred while he was taking the name of the Lord in vain: cursing was a bad habit you pick up from the peasants, and the lords of the Monferrato countryside considered it a sign of superiority to speak, in the presence of their equals, with the words of their villeins.
“You see, my son,” the confessor concluded, “your father died while he was performing one of those grand & noble Acts through which a Man is said to enter the Paradise of Heroes. Now, while I do not believe such a Paradise exists, for I believe that in the Kingdom of Heaven both Beggars & Sovereigns, Heroes & Cowards live together in holy accord, surely our Almighty King will not have denied His Kingdom to your Father only because his Tongue slipped a bit at a moment when he had a great Enterprise on his mind, and I would dare say that at such moments a similar Ejaculation can even be a way of calling God as Witness & Judge of the great Deed. If you are still tormented, pray for the Soul of your Parent & have some Masses said for him, not so much to persuade the Lord to change his Verdict—as He is not a Vane that turns as the bigots blow—but, rather, for the good of your own Soul.”
Roberto told him then about the seditious talk of a friend to whom he had listened, and the priest opened his arms in a disconsolate gesture: “My Son, I know little of Paris, but from what I have heard I learn how many Malefactors, Climbers, Abjurers, Spies, Intriguers exist in that new Sodom. And among them there are False Witnesses, Robbers of Ciboria, Tramplers on Crucifixes, & those who bribe Beggars to make them deny God, & even people who in Mockery have baptized Dogs.... And this is considered following the Fashion of the Time. In the Churches they no longer say Prayers, but stroll and laugh, wait in ambush behind columns to entrap Ladies; there is constant Noise even during the Elevation. They claim to philosophize & they assail you with malicious Whys; why has God given Laws to the World, why is Fornication prohibited, why was the Son of God made Flesh; & they distort your every Reply to transform it into a Proof of Atheism. These are the Fine Wits of the Time: Epicureans, Pyrrhonians, Diogenians, & Libertines! So you must not lend your Ear to such Seductions, which come from the Evil One.”
As a rule Roberto does not abuse those capital letters in which the writers of his day excelled: but when he attributes sayings to Padre Emanuele, he employs many, as if the priest not only wrote but also spoke them, enforcing his words with special dignity—a sign that he was a man of great and attractive eloquence. And in fact, thanks to those words Roberto felt so relieved that, coming out of the confessional, he chose to linger awhile with the older man. He learned that the priest was a Savoyard Jesuit and surely not a negligible figure, for he was resident in Casale as observer and envoy of the duke of Savoy: a normal mission during a siege in those days.
Padre Emanuele carried out his mission gladly: the gloomy siege afforded him opportunity to conduct in a leisurely way some studies that could not have tolerated the distractions of a capital city like Turin. And, questioned as to his occupation, he said that he, too, like the astronomers, was constructing a telescope.
“You must have heard some talk about that Florentine Astronomer who used the Telescope, or Spyglass, that hyperbole of the eyes, to explain the Universe, & how with the Telescope he saw what the eyes had only imagined. I have great respect for this use of Mechanical Instruments to understand, as they say nowadays, the Res Extensa. But to understand the Res Cogitans, that is to say our way of knowing the World, we can use only another Telescope, the same that Aristotle formerly used, and which is neither a tube nor a lens, but a Weft of Words, Perspicacious Idea, because it is only the gift of Artful Eloquence that allows us to understand this Universe.”
Speaking thus, Padre Emanuele led Roberto out of the church and, strolling, they climbed up to the bastion, to a place that was calm that afternoon, as a muffled sound of cannon fire arrived from the opposite side of the city. They had before them the imperial encampments in the distance, but for a long stretch the fields were empty of troops and wagons, and the meadows and hills shone in the spring sun.
“What do you see, my boy?” Padre Emanuele asked Roberto, who, still lacking eloquence, replied, “Fields.”
“To be sure, anyone can see Fields down there. But you well know that, depending on the position of the Sun, the color of the Sky, the hour of the day & the season of the year, those fields can appear to you in varying Guise & inspire different Feelings. To the peasant, weary after his work, they appear as Fields & nothing more. Similar is the case of the savage fisherman terrified by those nocturnal Images of Fire sometimes visible in the Sky & frightening to behold; but as soon as the Meteorists, who are also Poets, dare call them Crined Comets, Bearded & Tailed, Goats, Beams, Shields, Torches & Thunderbolts, these figures of speech clarify for you the clever Symbols through which Nature means to speak, as she uses these Images as Hieroglyphics, on the one hand referring to the Signs of the Zodiac & on the other to past Events. And the Fields? You see how much you can say of Fields & how, as you speak, you see & comprehend more: Favonius blows, the Earth opens, the Nightingales weep, the leaf-crowned Trees swagger, & you discover the wondrous genius of the Fields in the variety of their strains of Grasses nourished by the Streams that play in happy puerility. The festive Fields rejoice with jaunty merriment, at the appearance of the Sun they open their countenance & in them you observe the arc of a smile, & they celebrate the return of the Star, intoxicated with the gentle Austral kisses & laughter on the Earth itself that expands in dumb Happiness, & the matutinal warmth so fills them with Joy that they shed tears of Dew. Crowned with Flowers, the Fields submit to their Genius & compose subtle Hyperboles of Rainbows. But their Youth soon learns it must hasten to death, their laughter is troubled by a sudden pallor, the sky fades & lingering Zephyr already sighs over a languishing Earth, so that on the arrival of the winter heavens’ first frowns, the Fields sadden & reveal skeletons of Frost. There, my son: if you had said simply that the Fields are pretty, you would have done nothing but depict for me their greening— which I already know of—but if you say the Fields laugh, you show me the Earth as Animate & reciprocally I will learn to observe in human Countenances all the refinements that I have perceived in the fields.... And this is the office of the supreme Figure of all: Metaphor. If Genius, & therefore Learning, consists in connecting remote Notions & finding Similitude in things dissimilar, then Metaphor, the most acute and farfetched among Tropes, is the only one capable of producing Wonder, which gives birth to Pleasure, as do changes of scene in the theater. And if the Pleasure produced by Figures derives from learning new things without effort & many things in small volume, then Metaphor, setting our mind to flying betwixt one Genus & another, allows us to discern in a single Word more than one Object.”
“But one must know how to invent metaphors, which is not something for a rustic like me, who in all his life has seen fields only as the place for shooting at birds....”
“You are a Gentle Man, & it will not be long before you become what in Paris they call an Honest Man, skilled in verbal joust as in that of the sword. And knowing how to conceive Metaphors, & thus to see a World immensely more various than it appears to the uneducated, is an Art that is learned. For, I must tell you, in this world where today all lose their minds over many & wondrous Machines—some of which alas, you can see also in this Siege—I construct Aristotelian Machines, that allow anyone to see with Words....”
In the days that followed, Roberto made the acquaintance of Signer della Saletta, who represented the city fathers in their dealings with Toiras. The commander was complaining, Roberto had heard, about the Casalesi, in whose loyalty he had little faith. “Do they not understand,” Toiras said, irritated, “that even in times of peace Casale is in no condition to allow one simple foot-soldier or a mere basket of victuals to enter without asking leave of the Spanish ministers? That the protection of the French is the city’s only guarantee of being respected?” But, now, from Signer della Saletta Roberto learned that Casale was not exactly comfortable with the dukes of Mantua either. Gonzaga policy had always been to put down any Casale opposition, and for sixty years the city had suffered the progressive reduction of many privileges.
“You understand, Signer della Griva?” Saletta said. “First we complained of too many taxes, and now we are bearing the expense of maintaining the garrison. We do not love having the Spanish in our midst, but are we expected really to love the French? Are we dying for our own sake, or for theirs?”
“And for whom did my father die?” Roberto asked. Signer della Saletta was unable to answer him.
Weary of political talk, Roberto went back to see Padre Emanuele a few days later, in the convent where he was staying. There, they directed Roberto not to a cell but an apartment reserved for the priest under the arches of a silent cloister. He found Padre Emanuele conversing with two gentlemen, one sumptuously dressed in purple with gold braid, a cloak with gilded trimming and lined with short fur, a doublet edged with a crocheted red stripe and a ribbon of little gems. Padre Emanuele introduced him as the ensign Don Caspar de Salazar, but from his haughty tone and the style of his moustache and hair Roberto had already identified him as a gentleman from the enemy army. The other visitor was Signer della Saletta. For a moment Roberto suspected he had fallen into a den of spies, then he realized, as I realize on this occasion, that the etiquette of sieges allowed a representative of the besiegers access to the besieged city for meetings and negotiations, just as Signer della Saletta had free access to Spinola’s camp.
Padre Emanuele said that he was just preparing to show the two guests his Aristotelian Machine, and he led all three into a room where the strangest imaginable piece of furniture was standing—nor am I sure I can reconstruct its form exactly from Roberto’s description of it to his Lady, as it was surely something never seen before or since.
The base consisted of a great chest or case whose front held eighty-one drawers—nine horizontal rows by nine vertical, each row in both directions identified by a carved letter (BCDEFGHIK). On the top of the chest, to the left stood a lectern on which a great volume was placed, a manuscript with illuminated initials. To the right of the lectern were three concentric cylinders of decreasing length and increasing breadth (the shortest being the most capacious, designed to contain the two longer ones); a crank at one side could then, through inertia, make them turn, one inside the other, at different speeds according to their weight. Each cylinder had incised at its left margin the same nine letters that marked the drawers. One turn of the crank was enough to make the cylinders revolve independently of one another, and when they stopped, one could read triads of letters aligned at random, such as CBD, KFE, or BGH.
Padre Emanuele set about explaining the concept that governed his Machine.
“As the Philosopher has taught us, Genius is simply the ability to perceive objects under ten Categories, and these are Substance, Quantity, Quality, Relation, Action, Affection, Position, Time, Place & State. The substances are the very subject of all reasoning & their ingenious Correlatives must be predicated. What the Substances are is noted in this book under the letter A, nor would my whole life suffice to make a complete List of them. In any case I have already collected several Thousands, taking them from the books of Poets and of wise men, and from that wondrous Regestus that is the Fabric of the World of Francesco Alunno. Thus among the Substances we may place, under Supreme Being: Divine Persons, Ideas, Gods of Fable, greater, middle & lesser, Celestial Deities, and the Aerial, Marine, Terrestrial & Infernal, the deified Heroes, Angels, Demons, Sprites, the Heavens and the wandering Stars, celestial Signs and Constellations, the Zodiac, the Circles & Spheres, the Elements, Vapors, Exhalations, and then—making no attempt to mention everything—Subterranean Fires & Sparks, Meteors, Seas, Rivers, Springs & Lakes & Cliffs.... And so on and so on through the Artificial Substances, with the works of each Art, Books, Pens, Inks, Globes, Compasses, Squares, Palaces, Temples & Hovels, Shields, Swords, Drums, Paintings, Brushes, Statues, Axes & Saws, and finally the Metaphysical Substances such as Genus, Species, Properties & Accidentals & similar Notions.”
He pointed now to the drawers in his construction, and opening them, he showed how each contained square sheets of very thick parchment, the kind used for binding books, aligned in alphabetical order: “I must tell you, each vertical row refers, from B to K, to one of the other nine Categories, and for each of them one of the nine drawers has gathered families of Members. Verbi gratia, for Quantity is recorded the family of the Quantity of Volume, whose Members comprise the Small, the Great, the Long or the Short; or the family of
Numeral Quantity, whose members are Naught, One, Two &c, and Many or Few. Under Quality you will find the family of the qualities associated with seeing, such as Visible, Invisible, Beautiful, Deformed, Clear, Obscure; or with Smell, such as Aroma & Stink; or the Qualities of Affection, such as Happiness & Sadness; and so on for each category. And each sheet represents a Member. I then consider all the things affected by it. Is that clear?”
All nodded with awe, and the priest continued. “Now we will open at random the great Book of Substances, and we will pick any one at all.... Here: Dwarf. What could we say, before initiating any scholarly discussion, of the Dwarf?”
“Que es pequeno, little, petit,” ventured don Caspar de Sala/ar, “y que es feo, e infeliz, y ridicule...”
“True,” Padre Emanuele granted, “but still I do not know what to choose, and if I were required to speak not of a Dwarf but rather, say, of Corals, could I be sure of finding equally salient features so promptly? And besides, Smallness has to do with Quantity, Ugliness with Quality, and where then should I begin? No, better to trust in Fortune, whose Ministers my Cylinders are. Now I make them move & I obtain, as random dictates, the triad BBB. B in the first Position is Quantity, B in the second Position bids me look along the line of Quantity, in the drawer of Volume, and there, at the very beginning of the B sequence, I find Small. And in this sheet devoted to Small I find that the Angel is small, as it stands on a pin, & so is the Pole small, the fixed point of the Sphere, & among elementary small things are the Spark, the Drop of water & the Scruple of Stone, & the Atom, of which, according to Democritus, all things are composed. In Human Things here is the Embryo, the Pupil, the Astragal; for Animals the Ant & the Flea, for Plants the Twig, the Mustard Seed & the Crumb; for the Mathematical sciences the Minimum Quod Sic, the
Letter I, the book bound in 16°, or the Apothecary’s Dram; for Architecture the Coffer or the Pivot; or for Fables the Psycha-pax general of Mice against the Frogs & the Myrmidons born of Ants.... But we must stop here, for I could already call our Dwarf a Coffer of Nature, Puppet of a Youth, Crumb of a Man. And pray note that if we try turning the Cylinders again and obtain instead—here we are—CBF, the letter C would refer me to Quality, the B would send me to look for my Members in the drawer of that which affects Sight, and then the letter F would have me encounter as Member the being Invisible. And among the Invisible Things I would find —ah, wondrous conjunction—the Atom & the Point, which would allow me now to define my Dwarf as Atom of Man or Point of Flesh.”
Padre Emanuele turned his cylinders and searched through his drawers, fast as a conjuror, so the metaphors seemed to arise for him as if by enchantment, without anyone’s noticing the mechanical gasping that produced them. But he was still not satisfied.
“Gentlemen,” he continued, “the Ingenious Metaphor has to be far more complex! Every Thing that I have found so far must be analyzed in its turn from the aspect of the ten Categories, and as my Book explains, if we consider a Thing that depends on Quality, we should see if it is visible & and at what distance, what Deformity or Beauty it has & what Color; how much Sound, how much Odor, how much Taste; if it is sensible or tactile, if it is rarefied or dense, hot or cold, & of what Form, what Affection, Love, Art, Learning, Health, Infirmity, & if any Science of it exists. And I call these questions Particles. Now I know that our first essay has led us to deal with Quantity, which includes Smallness among its Members. Now I turn the cylinders again and I obtain the triad BKD. The letter B, we have already determined, must refer to Quantity; if I consult my book, it tells me that the first Particle apt to express a Small Thing is to establish With What it is Measured. If I consult the book to find to what Measure refers, it sends me back to the Quantity drawer, under the Family of Quantities in General. I go to the page for Measure & there choose the thing K, which is the Measure of the Geometric Finger. And here I would be able to compose a quite clever Definition, as, for example, that wanting to measure that Puppet of Youths, that Atom of Man, a Geometric Finger would be an Immeasurable Measure, which, uniting to Metaphor also Hyperbole, tells me much of the Misfortune & Ridiculousness of the Dwarf.”
“What a marvel,” Signer della Saletta said, “but, in the second triad obtained, you have not yet used the last letter, the D....”
“I expected no less of your perception, sir,” Padre Eman-uele said smugly, “but you have touched the Wonderful Point of my invention! This letter is left over (and I could discard it if it bored me, or if I considered I had already achieved my aim); it allows me to resume my search! This D allows me to begin again the cycle of the Particles, looking into the category of State (exempli gratia, what garb befits them, or if they can serve as emblem of something), & from there start over, as I did earlier with Quantity, turning the cylinders again, using the first two letters & retaining the third for yet another trial, and so on ad infinitum, for millions of Possible Conjugations, though some may seem more clever than others, and it will be my Wisdom that distinguishes those more apt to generate Amazement. But I would not lie to you, Gentlemen, I had not chosen Dwarf at random; only last night I applied myself with the greatest care to deriving the maximum possible advantage from this Substance.”
He waved a page and began to read the series of definitions with which he was suffocating his poor dwarf, a little man shorter than his name: embryo, fragment of homunculus, such that the corpuscles that arrive with the light from the window seem much greater, a body that with millions of his similars could tell the hours through the neck of an hourglass, the complection in which the foot is close to the head, the carnal appendage that begins where it ends, the line that clots in a point, the tip of a needle, a subject to be spoken to with caution for fear that your breath would blow it away, a substance so small that it is not penetrable by color, a mustard spark, a bodikin that has nothing more or less than what it never had, matter without form, body without body, pure being of reason, invention of wit so minute that no blow could ever find it in order to wound it, able to escape through every fissure and feed for a year on a single barley seed, to be so epitomized that there is never any telling whether it is seated, prone, or erect, capable of drowning in a snail’s shell, seed, granule, grape, dot of i, mathematical individual with arithmetical nothing....
And he would have continued, for he possessed the material, if those present had not stopped him with applause.
roberto understood now that Padre Emanuele behaved essentially as if he were a follower of Democritus or of Epicurus: he accumulated atoms of concepts and composed them in various guises to make many objects of them. And as the Canon sustained that a world made of atoms was not in conflict with the idea of a divinity who disposed them according to reason, so Padre Emanuele from that powder of concepts accepted only the truly acute compositions. Perhaps he would have done the same if he had taken up creating scenes for the theater: do not playwrights derive improbable and clever events from passages of probable but insipid things, so that they may be satisfied with unexpected hircocervi of action?
And if this was so, did it not perhaps happen that in the concurrence of circumstances creating both his shipwreck and the condition in which he found himself on the Daphne—the smallest detail being lifelike: the reek and creak of the hull, the smell of the plants, the cries of the birds—all collaborated in forming the impression of a presence that was nothing but the effect of a phantasmagory perceived only by the mind, like the laughter of the fields and the tears of dew? So the phantom of a hidden intruder was a composition of atoms of action, like that of the lost brother, both formed with fragments of his own countenance and of his desires or thoughts?
And as he began to hear against the panes a light rain cooling the noonday heat, he said to himself: It is only natural, I—and no other—am the one who has climbed aboard this ship as an intruder, I disturb this silence with my footsteps, and so it is that, as if afraid of having violated another’s sanctum, I constructed another self who roams beneath the same decks. What evidence have I of his existence? A few drops of water on the leaves? But is it not possible that, as it is raining now, it rained last night, however briefly? The feed? But could not the birds, pecking at what was already there, have scattered it, making me think someone had thrown new grain? The absence of eggs? Why, only yesterday I saw a gyrfalcon devour a flying mouse! I am populating a hold I have not yet visited, and I am doing this perhaps for reassurance, as I am terrified at finding myself abandoned between sky and sea. Signer Ro-berto della Griva, he repeated to himself, you are alone and you may remain alone until the end of your days, and this end may also be near. The food on board is plentiful, but for a period of weeks, not months. Go therefore and set on the deck some vessel to collect all the rainwater you can, and learn to fish from the bulwarks, tolerating the sun. And one of these days you must find a way to reach the Island, and live there as its sole inhabitant. This is what you should be thinking about, not stories of Intruders and Ferrantes.
Braving the light, now filtered through clouds, he collected some empty barrels and arranged them on the bridge. In performing this task, he realized he was still very weak. He went below again, lavished the animals with food (perhaps so that no one else would be tempted to do it in his stead), and once again gave up the idea of descending still farther. He came back, spent a few hours lying down, while the rain showed no sign of letting up. There were gusts of wind, and for the first time he realized that he was in a floating house, which rocked like a cradle, as a slamming of doors enlivened the considerable bulk of that wooden womb.
He savored this metaphor and wondered how Padre Eman-uele would have read the ship as a source of Enigmatic Devices. Then he thought of the Island and defined it as unattainable proximity. This fine conceit showed him, for the second time that day, the dissimilar similitude between the Island and the Lady, and he stayed awake into the night to pen the pages I have drawn on for this chapter.
The Daphne pitched all night, but its motion, like the waves of the bay, grew calm at first dawn. Through the window Roberto saw the signs of a cold but clear morning. Remembering those Hyperboles of the Eyes recalled the day before, he reminded himself that he could observe the shore through the spyglass he had seen in the adjoining cabin; the lens itself and the narrow field would temper the sun’s glare.
He set the instrument on the frame of a window in the gallery and boldly gazed at the farthest confine of the bay. The Island seemed pale, its peak tufted with a patch of wool. As he had learned on the Amaryllis, ocean islands retain the humidity of the Trades and condense it in cloudy puffs, so that sailors often recognize the presence of land before they can see the shores, from the clumps of the airy element that it holds as if they were anchored there.
It had been Dr. Byrd who told him about the so-called Trade Winds, in French les alisees. Over those seas there are great winds that decree hurricanes and calms, but the Trades joke with them, capricious winds whose movement is depicted on maps in the form of a dance of curves and currents, raving carols and graceful deviations. They penetrate the course of the greater winds and disrupt them, cut across them, race with them. They are lizards that dart along unexpected paths, as if in the Sea of the Contrary only the rules of art count, not those of nature. They have the form of artful things, and resemble not the harmonious arrangements of Nature, such as snow or crystal, but, rather, those volutes that architects impose on domes, capitals, and columns.
That this was a sea of artifice Roberto had long suspected, and it explained why down here cosmographers had always imagined creatures contrary to nature, who walked with their feet in the air.
To be sure, the artists of the courts of Europe, who built grottoes encrusted with lapis lazuli, fountains operated by secret pumps, had not inspired nature in her invention of the lands of those seas; any more than it was the nature of the Unknown Pole that inspired those artists. The fact is, Roberto said to himself, both Art and Nature are fond of machination, and that is simply what the atoms themselves do when they aggregate in this way or in another. Is there any more artificed wonder than the tortoise, work of a goldsmith of thousands and thousands of years past, who fashioned this Achilles’ shield patiently nielloed, imprisoning a serpent with its feet?
At home, he continued his musing, everything that is vegetal life has the fragility of a leaf with its veins and of the flower that lasts the space of a morning; whereas here the vegetal is like leather, a thick and oily matter, a scaly sheath prepared to resist the rays of mad suns. Every leaf—in these lands where the wild inhabitants surely do not know the art of metals or of clays—could become instrument, blade, goblet, spatula, and the petals of the flowers are of lacquer. Everything vegetal here is strong, while everything animal is weak, to judge by the birds I have seen, spun from varicolored glass,
while at home we have the strength of the horse, the stubborn sturdiness of the ox...
And what of fruits? At home the complexion of the apple, ruddy with health, denotes its friendly taste, whereas the livid mushroom betrays its hidden venom. Here, on the contrary, as I saw yesterday and during the voyage of the Amaryllis, there is the witty play of opposites: the mortuary white of one fruit guarantees vivid sweetness, whereas the more russet fruits may secrete lethal philters.
With the spyglass he studied the shore and glimpsed between land and sea some climbing roots that seemed to leap towards the open sky, and clumps of oblong fruits that revealed their treacly ripeness by appearing as unripe berries. And he recognized on some other palms coconuts yellow as summer melons, whereas he knew they would proclaim their maturity by turning the color of dead earth.
So to live in this terrestrial Beyond—he had to remember, if he was to come to terms with its nature—he should proceed in the direction opposite to his instinct, for instinct was probably a discovery of the first giants, who tried to adapt themselves to the nature of the other side of the globe. Believing the most natural nature was that to which they had become adapted, they thought nature naturally born to adapt herself to them. Hence they were sure the sun was small, as it seemed to them, whereas certain leaves of grass were immense, if they looked at them through eyes close to the ground.
To live in the Antipodes, then, means reconstructing instinct, knowing how to make a marvel nature and nature a marvel, to learn how unstable the world is, which in one half follows certain laws, and in the other half the opposite of those laws.
He heard again the birds waking, over there, and—unlike the first day—he realized how artful those songs sounded if
compared to the chirping of his native land: whistles, gurgles, crackles, grumblings, duckings, whimperings, muffled musket shots, whole chromatic scales of pecking; and sometimes he heard something like a croaking of frogs squatting among the leaves of the trees, in Homeric parley.
The spyglass allowed him to see spindles, feathery bullets, black shudders or other shudders of indistinct hue, who flung themselves from a taller tree aiming at the ground with the insanity of an Icarus eager to hasten his own destruction. Suddenly it seemed to him even that one tree, perhaps a kumquat from China, shot one of its fruits into the air, a skein of bright crocus that quickly vanished from the round eye of the glass. He convinced himself it was the effect of a glint and gave it no further thought, or so at least he believed. We shall see later that when it came to unconscious concepts, Saint-Savin was right.
He thought those birds of unnatural nature were the emblem of the Parisian coteries he had left behind many months past. In this universe without humans, where, if not the only living creatures, certainly the only speaking creatures were the birds, he found himself as in that salon where, on first entering, he had caught only a vague chattering in an unknown language, whose scent he shyly perceived—though I would say he must have finally absorbed the sense of that scent, otherwise he would not have been able to reason about it as he now did. But, remembering that it was there he had met the Lady—and hence if one place stood supreme above all others, it was there and not here—he concluded that they did not there imitate the birds of the Island, but, rather, here on the Island the animals tried to equal that most human Language of Birds.
Thinking of the Lady and of her distance, which the day before he had compared to the insuperable distance to the land westward, he looked once more at the Island, of which the spyglass revealed to him only wan and circumscribed hints, yet like those images seen in convex mirrors, which, reflecting a single side of a small room, suggest a spherical cosmos, infinite and stupefying.
How would the Island seem to him if he were to reach it one day? To judge by the landscape he saw from his vantage-point, and by the specimens which he had found on the ship, was it perhaps the Eden where milk and honey flow in streams, amid abundant trophies of fruit and flocks of meek animals? What more, in those islands of the opposing south, were the brave men seeking as they navigated there, defying the tempests of an illusory pacific ocean? Was this not what the Cardinal had wanted, in despatching him on a mission to discover the secret of the Amaryllis: the possibility of taking the lilies of France to a Terra Incognita that would finally renew the offerings of a vale untainted by the sin of Babel or by the Flood or by Adam’s Fall? The human beings there must be loyal, dark of skin but pure of heart, caring nothing for the mountains of gold and the balms of which they were the heedless custodians.
But if this was so, would he not be repeating the error of the first sinner if he chose to violate the virginity of the Island? Perhaps Providence had rightly wanted him to be a chaste witness to a beauty that he should never disturb. Was this not the manifestation of the most perfect love, such as he professed to his Lady, loving from afar, renouncing the pride of dominion? Is aspiration to conquest love? If the Island were to be one with the object of his love, he owed the same nicety to it that he had shown to her. The same frenzied jealousy he had felt every time he feared another’s eye threatened that sanctuary of reluctance was not to be interpreted as a claim to any right of his own, no, it was a denial of rights to anyone, a duty his love imposed on him, the guardian of that Graal. And to that same chastity he must feel bound with regard to the Island: the more he wished it to be rich in promises, the less he should want to touch it. Far from the Lady, far from the Island, he should only speak of them, wanting them immaculate as long as they could keep themselves immaculate, touched only by the caress of the elements. If there was beauty somewhere, its purpose was to remain purposeless.
Was the Island he saw really like that? Who was encouraging him to decipher the hieroglyph in this way? It was known that from the time of the first voyages to these islands, situated vaguely on the maps, mutineers were abandoned there, and the islands became prisons with bars of air, in which the condemned were their own jailers, punishing one another reciprocally. Not to arrive there, not to discover the secret, was, more than a duty, a right, a reprieve from endless horrors.
Or perhaps not. The only reality of the Island was that in its center stood, tempting in delicate hues, the Tree of Oblivion, whose fruit, if Roberto ate it, could give him peace.
To disremember. So he spent the day, apparently slothful but highly energetic in his effort to become tabula rasa. And, as happens to those who set themselves to forgetting, the more effort he made, the more his memory was fired.
He tried to put into practice all the suggestions he had formerly heard. He imagined himself in a room crammed with objects that reminded him of something: his Lady’s veil, the pages where he had made her image present through his laments on her absence, the contents of the palace where he met her; and he pictured himself throwing all those things out of the window, until the room (and, with it, his mind) became bare and empty. He made immense efforts, dragging to the windowsill crockery, tapestries, cupboards, chairs, and panoplies, but—contrary to what he had been told—as he gradually wore himself out in this labor, the figure of the Lady was multiplied, and from different corners she followed him in his spasms with a sly smile.
Thus, passing the day in dragging furniture, he forgot nothing. Quite the opposite. These were days when he thought of his own past, his eyes staring at the one scene he had before him, that of the Daphne; and the Daphne was transformed into a Theater of Memory, as such theaters were conceived in his day, where every feature recalled to him an episode, remote or recent, in his story: the bowsprit, his arrival after the wreck, when he realized he would never see his beloved again; the furled sails, his long hours of staring at them and dreaming of her lost, lost; the gallery, from which he explored the distant Island, and Her distance.... But he had dedicated to her so many meditations that, as long as he remained there, every corner of that seagoing house would remind him, moment by moment, of everything he wanted to forget.
He realized this truth as he came out on deck to seek distraction in the wind. This was his forest, where he went as unhappy lovers go into forests; here was his invented nature, plants planed by the shipwrights of Antwerp, rivers of rough canvas in the wind, tarred caverns, astrolabe-stars. And as a lover, revisiting a place, recognizes the beloved in every flower, in every rustling of leaves, every path, here, now, he could die of love, caressing the mouth of a cannon....
Did poets not celebrate their lady, praising her lips of ruby, her eyes of coal, her breasts of marble, her heart of diamond? Then he, too—locked in that mine of now-fossil firs—would have only mineral passions, hawsers beringed with knots would seem to him her locks, shining bosses her forgotten eyes, the sequence of eaves her teeth dripping scented saliva, a creaking capstan her neck adorned with necklaces of hemp, and he would find peace in the illusion that he had loved the work of a master of automata.
Then he regretted his hardness in imagining her hardness; he told himself that in petrifying her features he was petrifying his desire—which, on the contrary, he wanted living and unsatisfied—and, as evening fell, he turned his eyes to the broad conch of the sky dotted with undecipherable constellations. Only in contemplating celestial bodies could he think the celestial thoughts proper to one who, by celestial decree, was sentenced to love the most celestial of human creatures.
The queen of the forest, who in snowy dress whitens the woods and silvers the countryside, had not yet appeared above the peak of the Island, covered in mourning. The rest of the sky was ablaze and visible, and, at its southwestern extremity, almost level with the sea beyond the greater land, he discerned a clot of stars that Dr. Byrd had taught him to recognize: it was the Southern Cross. And, in the words of a forgotten poet, some of whose verses his Carmelite tutor had made him memorize, Roberto recalled a vision that had fascinated his childhood, that of a pilgrim in the realms of the Beyond who, emerging into that same Terra Incognita, saw those four stars, never glimpsed before unless by the first (and last) inhabitants of the Earthly Paradise.