why, the reader may ask, have I been speaking, for a hundred pages at least, of so many events that preceded Roberto’s being wrecked on the Daphne, while on the Daphne itself I have made nothing happen. But if the days on board a deserted ship are empty, I cannot be held responsible, for it is not yet certain this story is worth transcribing, nor can Roberto be blamed. At most we can reproach him for having spent a day (what with one thing and another, it is barely thirty hours since he discovered the theft of his eggs) suppressing the thought of the one possibility that might have given his sojourn more flavor. As would soon be clear to him, it was a mistake to consider the Daphne too innocent. On that vessel there was someone or something, roaming or lurking in ambush, and not Roberto alone. Not even on that ship could a siege be conceived in its pure state. The enemy was inside the gates.
Roberto should have suspected it the very night of his cartographical embrace. Coming to, he felt thirsty, the pitcher was empty, so he went off to seek a keg of water. Those he had set out to collect rain were heavy, but there were smaller ones, in the larder. He went there, seized the closest to hand—on later reflection, he conceded that it was too close to hand—and, once in his cabin, he set it on the table, putting his mouth to the bung.
It was not water and, coughing, he realized that the keg contained aqua vitae. He did not know what kind, but good country boy that he was, he could tell it was not made from wine or juniper. He did not find the beverage unpleasant, and with sudden merriment he indulged to excess. It did not occur to him that if the kegs in the larder were all like this one, he should be worrying about his supply of drinking water. Nor did he ask himself why on the second evening he had drawn from the first keg of his store and found it filled with fresh water. Only later was he convinced that Someone had placed, afterwards, that insidious gift where he would grab it at once. Someone who wanted him in a state of intoxication, to have him in his power. But if this was the plan, Roberto followed it with excessive enthusiasm. I do not believe he drank much, but for a catechumen of his kind, a few glasses were already too many.
From the tale that follows we deduce that Roberto experienced the successive events in an unnatural state, and he would be in that state also during the days to come.
As is normal with the intoxicated, he fell asleep, but was tortured by an even greater thirst. In this thick sleep a last image of Casale returned to his mind. Before leaving, he had gone to say good-bye to Padre Emanuele and had found him in the process of dismantling and crating his poetic telescope, to return to Turin. But, having left Padre Emanuele, he encountered the wagons on which the Spanish and the imperials were piling the pieces of their obsidional machines.
It was those cogged wheels that peopled his dream: he heard a creaking of rusty locks, a scraping of hinges, and they were sounds that this time could not have been produced by a wind, since the sea was smooth as oil. Irritated, like those who, waking, dream they are dreaming, he forced himself to open his eyes and heard again that sound, which came from the lower deck or from the hold.
Rising, he felt a terrible headache. To treat it he could think of nothing better than to avail himself again of the keg, and when he left it, he was worse off than before. He armed himself, failing several times before he succeeded in thrusting his knife into its sheath, made numerous signs of the Cross, and staggered below.
Beneath him, as he already knew, was the tiller. He went farther down, to the end of the steps: if he turned towards the prow, he would enter the garden. Astern there was a closed door that he had never breached. From that place now came, very loud, a ticking, multiple and unsynchronized, like a superimposition of many rhythms, among which he could distinguish a tick-tick and a tock-tock and a tack-tack, but the general impression was of a tickety-tock-tackety-tick. It was as if beyond that door there was a legion of wasps and hornets, and all were flying furiously along different trajectories, slamming against the walls and ricocheting one into another. So he was afraid to open the door, fearing he might be struck by the crazed atoms of that hive.
After much hesitation, he made up his mind. He used the butt of his musket, broke the lock, and entered.
The storeroom received light from another gun-port, and it contained clocks.
Clocks. Water clocks, sand clocks, solar clocks propped against the walls, but especially mechanical clocks arrayed on various shelves and chests, clocks moved by the slow descent of weights and counterweights, by wheels that bit into other wheels, as those bit into still others, until the last wheel nipped the two unequal blades of a vertical staff, causing it to make two half-revolutions in opposing directions, its indecent wiggle moving, as balance, a horizontal bar fixed at its upper extremity. Spring clocks, too, where a fluted conoid played out a chain drawn by the circular movement of a little barrel that devoured it link by link.
Some of the clocks concealed their works behind rusted ornament and corroded chasing, displaying only the slow movement of their hands; but the majority exhibited their gnashing hardware, and recalled those dances of Death where the only living things are grinning skeletons that shake the scythe of Time.
All these machines were active, the largest hourglasses still gulping sand, the smaller now almost filled in their lower part, and for the rest a grinding of teeth, an asthmatic chewing.
To anyone entering for the first time, this place must have seemed to go on to infinity: the far wall of the little room was covered by a canvas that depicted a suite of rooms inhabited only by other clocks. But even after overcoming that spell, and considering only the clocks present, so to speak, in flesh and blood, there was enough to stun.
It may seem incredible—to you who read this with detachment—but imagine a castaway, amid the fumes of aqua vitae, on an uninhabited vessel, finding a hundred clocks almost all in unison telling the tale of his interminable time; he must think of the tale before thinking of its author. And this is what Roberto did as he examined those toys one by one, those playthings for the senile adolescence of a man sentenced to a very long death.
The thunder of Heaven came afterwards, as Roberto writes, when emerging from that nightmare he bowed to the necessity of discovering a cause for it: the clocks were functioning, thus someone must have set them in motion, even if their winding had been designed to last a long time. And if they had been wound before his arrival, he would have heard them already, passing by that door.
If it had been a single mechanism, he could have thought that it had been somehow set and needed only a starting tap; this tap could have been provided by a movement of the ship, or else by a sea bird entering through the gun-port and lighting on a lever, on a crank, initiating a sequence of mechanical actions. And does not a strong wind sometimes stir church bells, and has it not happened that bolts have snapped backwards when not pushed forward to their full length?
But a bird cannot in one blow wind dozens of clocks. No. Ferrante may or may not have once existed, but on the ship an Intruder did exist.
He had entered this room and had wound the mechanisms. Why he had done so was the first but less urgent question. The second was where had he then taken refuge.
So it was necessary to descend into the hold. Roberto told himself he now could no longer postpone it, though in reasserting his firm proposal, he further delayed its execution. He realized he was not entirely himself; he climbed up on deck to bathe his head in rainwater, and with a clearer mind set to pondering the identity of the Intruder.
The Intruder could not be a savage come from the Island or a surviving sailor, either of whom might have done anything (attack him in broad daylight, try to kill him in the dark, beg for mercy) but not feed chickens and wind clockworks. So on the Daphne a man of peace and learning was concealed, perhaps the occupant of the room with the maps. Then—if he was here, and since he had been here first—he was a Legitimate Intruder. But this nice antithesis did not allay Roberto’s angry anxiety.
If the Intruder was Legitimate, why was he hiding? In fear of the illegitimate Roberto? And if he was hiding, why then
was he making his presence obvious by creating this horolog-ical concert? Was he perhaps a man of perverse mind who, afraid of Roberto and unable to face him, wanted to destroy him by driving him to madness? But to what end would he do this, inasmuch as, equally shipwrecked on this artificial island, he could derive only advantage from an alliance with a companion in misfortune? Perhaps, Roberto said further to himself, the Daphne concealed other secrets that He was unwilling to reveal to anyone.
It was the evocation of the Islands of Solomon that brought Roberto a kind of revelation. Why, of course, the clocks! What were so many clocks doing on a ship headed for seas where morning and evening are defined by the course of the sun, and nothing else need be known? The Intruder had come to this remote parallel also to seek, like Dr. Byrd, el Punto
Surely this was it. By an extraordinary coincidence, Roberto, having set out from Holland to follow, as the Cardinal’s spy, the secret maneuvers of an Englishman, almost clandestine on a Dutch ship, in search of the Punto Fijo, now found himself on the (Dutch) ship of Another, from God knows what country, bent on discovering the same secret.