on the night of June 29th a great noise wakened the besieged, followed by a rolling of drums: the enemy had managed to explode the first mine beneath the walls, blowing up a lunette and burying twenty-five soldiers. The next day, towards six in the evening, something like a storm was heard to the west, and in the east a cornucopia appeared, whiter than the rest of the sky, with a tip that extended and retracted. It was a comet, which upset the soldiers and led the local inhabitants to lock themselves in their houses. Over the next weeks other parts of the wall were blown up, while from the ramparts the defenders fired back in vain, for now the enemy moved underground, and the countermines were unable to dislodge him.
Roberto lived in this wreck like an alien passenger. He spent long hours discussing with Padre Emanuele the best way to describe the fires of the siege, and he saw more and more of Saint-Savin to develop with him similarly appropriate metaphors to depict the fires of his love—whose failure he had not dared confess. Saint-Savin provided him with a stage whereon his amorous story would be happily enacted; in silence he submitted to the ignominy of drafting, with his friend, further letters, which he then pretended to deliver, rereading them every night instead, as if the diary of all those longings were addressed to him from her.
He envisaged situations in which La Novarese, pursued by Landsknechts, fell overcome into his arms as he routed the assailants and led her, exhausted, into a garden where he enjoyed her wild gratitude. On his bed he abandoned himself to such thoughts, recovered his senses after long swoons, and composed sonnets for his beloved.
He showed one to Saint-Savin, who remarked, “I consider it of an extreme repugnance, if I may say so, but console yourself: in Paris the majority of those who are called poets produce worse. Do not poetize about your love; passion deprives you of that divine coldness that was the glory of Catullus.”
Roberto found himself of melancholic humor, and said as much to Saint-Savin. “Rejoice,” his friend remarked. “Melancholy is not the lees but the flower of the blood, and it generates heroes because, on the border of madness, it spurs them to the bravest of actions.” But Roberto did not feel spurred to anything, and he became melancholy because he was not melancholic enough.
Deaf to cries and cannon fire, he heard rumors of relief (the Spanish camp is in turmoil, they say the French army is advancing), and he rejoiced because in mid-July a countermine had finally succeeded in slaughtering many Spaniards; but meanwhile many lunettes were being evacuated, and in mid-July the enemy vanguard could already fire directly into the city. He learned that some Casalesi were afraid to fish in the Po, and, not worrying that he might be taking streets exposed to enemy fire, he ran to look, afraid the imperials might shoot at La Novarese.
He forced his way among the soldiers, who were discontent because their contract said nothing about the digging of trenches; but the Casalesi refused to do it for them, so Toiras had to promise his men extra pay. Like all the others, Roberto was delighted to learn that Spinola had fallen ill of the plague, and pleased to see a group of Neapolitan deserters enter the city, abandoning in fear the hostile camp threatened by the disease, though he heard Padre Emanuele say that the arrivals could themselves become a source of contagion....
In mid-September, when the plague appeared in the city, Roberto still paid no attention, except to fear that La Novarese might fall ill. Then he woke one morning with a high fever. He managed to send someone to inform Padre Emanuele, and was secretly borne to his convent, avoiding one of those makeshift lazarettoes where the sick died without fuss so as not to distract the others engaged in dying of pyrotechnics.
Roberto did not think of death: he mistook his fever for love and dreamed of touching the flesh of La Novarese, while he rumpled the folds of his pallet or fondled the sweating, aching parts of his body.
In the grip of an exuberant memory, that evening on the Daphne, as night advanced, as the sky performed its slow motions, and the Southern Cross disappeared on the horizon, Roberto no longer knew whether he was burning with revived love for the warrior Diana of Casale or for the Lady equally far from his sight.
Yearning to know where she could have fled, he rushed into the cabinet of nautical instruments, where he seemed to recall there was a map of those seas. He found it: large, colored, and incomplete, as many maps then were incomplete out of necessity; the navigator, coming upon a new land, drew the shores he could see but left the rest unfinished, never knowing how and how much and whither that land extended. Hence the maps of the Pacific often seemed arabesques of beaches, hints of perimeters, hypotheses of volumes, and only the few circumnavigated islands were defined there, like the course of the winds learned from experience. Some cartographers, to make an island recognizable, simply drew with great precision the form of the peaks and the clouds hanging over them, to render them identifiable, as you might recognize a man by his hat brim or his halting gait.
Now, on this map, the outlines of the two facing shores were visible, divided by a channel running from south to north. One of the two shores, with irregular curves, practically defined an island, and it could be his Island; but beyond a broad stretch of sea there were other groups of presumed islands of very similar formation, which could equally represent the place where he was.
We would err if we thought that Roberto was gripped by a geographer’s curiosity. Padre Emanuele had trained him only too well to reverse the visible through the lens of his Aristotelian telescope; and Saint-Savin had taught him too well to foment desire through language, which can turn a maiden into a swan or a swan into a maiden, the sun into a ladle or a ladle into the sun! Late in the night we find Roberto daydreaming over the map now transformed into the desired female body.
If it is a lover’s error to write on the sands of the shore the beloved name, which is only to be washed away then by the waves, how prudent a lover Roberto felt himself, having entrusted his beloved’s body to the arcs of grottoes and gulfs, her hair to the flow of the currents through mazy archipelagoes, the summer moisture of her face to the glint of the waters, the mystery of her eyes to the blue of a vast desert— and the map repeated many times the features of that beloved body, in various attitudes of bays and promontories. Desirous, he was wrecked with his mouth on the map, he sucked in that ocean of voluptuousness, tickled a cape, hesitated to penetrate a strait; his cheek pressed against the page, he breathed the breath of the winds, he would have liked to savor the pools and the springs, fling himself thirsting to drink the streams dry, become sun to kiss the banks, tide to caress the secret estuaries....
However, he was to enjoy not possession but, rather, privation. While, raving, he touched that vague prize of an erudite pen, Others perhaps, on the real Island—where it reclined in charming poses the map had not yet been able to capture— were biting into its fruits, bathing in its waters.... Others, stupefied and ferocious giants, extended at that moment a rough hand to its breast; misshapen Vulcans possessed that delicate Venus, grazed her mouths with the same ignorance of the fisherman of the Island Not Found who, beyond the last horizon of the Canaries, foolishly discards the rarest among pearls....
She in another’s loving hands.... This thought was the supreme intoxication, in which Roberto writhed, howling his rapier impotence. And in this frenzy, as he groped on the table as if to seize at least the hem of a skirt, his gaze slipped away from the depiction of that softly waved pacific body to another map, where the unknown author had sought perhaps to portray the fiery conduits of the volcanoes of the western land: it was a portulan of our entire globe, all plumes of smoke at the summits of projections of the crust or inside a tangle of dried veins; and he felt suddenly the living image of that globe, he moaned, exuding lava from every pore, the lymph of his unsatisfied satisfaction erupting, as he lost also his senses— destroyed by arid hydropsy (so he writes)—over that longed-for austral flesh.