the coral had challenged Roberto. After discovering the extent of Nature’s capacity for invention, he felt bidden to a contest. Could he leave Ferrante in that prison, leave his own story only half-finished? Assuage his bitterness towards his rival and mortify his storyteller’s pride? No. But what could he make happen to Ferrante?
The idea came to Roberto one morning when, as usual, he had placed himself in ambush, at dawn, to catch the Orange Dove unawares. Early in the morning the sun struck his eyes, and Roberto had even tried to construct around the larger lens of his spyglass a kind of shield, using a page from the ship’s log, but at certain moments he was reduced to seeing only glints. When the sun finally did appear on the horizon, the sea mirrored it, doubling its every ray.
But that morning, Roberto was convinced he had seen something rise from the trees towards the sun, then melt into its luminous sphere. Probably it was an illusion. Any bird in that light would have seemed to glitter.... Roberto was convinced he had seen the Dove, and yet was disappointed at having lied to himself. In this contradictory mood he felt once again defrauded.
For a creature like Roberto, who by now had reached the point where he jealously enjoyed only what was stolen from him, it took little to dream that Ferrante had been given what to him was denied. But since Roberto was the author of this story and unwilling to grant Ferrante too much, he decided that the wretch would deal only with the other dove, the blue-green one. And this was because Roberto had decided, though without any certitude, that of the couple the orange must be the female, as if to say She. Since in the story of Ferrante the dove was not to represent the conclusion but, rather, the agent of possession, for the present the male fell to him.
Could a blue-green dove, which flies only over the South Seas, go and light on the sill of that window where Ferrante was pining for his freedom? Yes, in the Land of Romances. And anyway, could not the Tweede Daphne have returned only recently from these seas, more fortunate than her older sister, bearing in the hold this bird, now set free?
In any case, Ferrante, ignorant of the Antipodes, could not ask himself such questions. He saw the dove, first fed it a few bread crumbs merely to pass the time, then he wondered if it could not be used to further his own purposes. He knew that doves sometimes served to carry messages: of course, entrusting a message to that animal did not mean it would necessarily reach its destination, but in this total ennui the effort was worth making.
To whom could he appeal for help, he who out of enmity towards all, himself included, had made only enemies, and the few people who had served him were shameless, prepared to follow him only in good fortune and surely not in disaster? He said to himself: I will ask help of the Lady, who loves me
(But how can he be so sure? the envious Roberto wondered, after he invented that self-confidence).
Biscarat had left him writing materials, in the possibility that the night would bring counsel and persuade him to send a confession to the Cardinal. So on one side of the paper Ferrante wrote the address of the Lady, adding that whoever delivered the message would receive a reward. On the other side he wrote where he lay (he had heard a name spoken by his warders), victim of an infamous plot of the Cardinal, and he begged to be rescued. Then he rolled up the paper and tied it to the leg of the bird, urging it to fly off.
To tell the truth, he then forgot, or almost forgot, this action. How could he think that the azure dove would actually fly to Lilia? Such things happened only in fairy tales, and Ferrante was not a man to trust in tales. Probably the dove was shot by a hunter, to plunge among a tree’s boughs, losing the message....
Ferrante did not know that the bird instead was caught in the snare of a peasant, who thought to profit from what, judging by appearances, was a signal sent to someone, perhaps to the commander of an army.
Now this peasant took the message to be examined by the one person in his village who knew how to read, namely, the curate, who then organized everything properly. Having identified the Lady, he sent a friend to her to negotiate the delivery, deriving from it a generous offering for his church and a reward for the peasant. Lilia read, wept, sought out trusted friends for advice. Try to touch the Cardinal’s heart? Nothing easier for a beautiful woman of the court, but this woman frequented the salon of Arthenice, whom Mazarin distrusted. Satirical verses about the new minister were already circulating, and some said they came from those rooms. A precieuse who went to the Cardinal to implore mercy for a friend would be sentencing that friend to sterner punishment.
No, a band of brave men had to be assembled, who could be persuaded to mount a surprise attack. But to whom could she turn?
Now Roberto was at a loss. If he had been, say, a musketeer of the king or a cadet of Gascony, Lilia could have appealed to those men, brave, renowned for their esprit de corps. But who would risk the wrath of a minister, perhaps of the king himself, for a foreigner who spent his time among librarians and astronomers? And as for librarians and astronomers, it was best to forget them: though bent on continuing his novel, Roberto could not imagine the Canon of Digne or Monsieur Gaffarel galloping full tilt towards his prison—or, rather, the prison of Ferrante, who at this point everyone thought to be Roberto.
A few days later Roberto had an inspiration. He had set aside the story of Ferrante to continue his exploration of the coral reef. That day he was following a school of fish whose snouts bore a yellow vizor, like swirling warriors; they were about to enter a cleft between two towers of stone where the corals were the crumbling palaces of a sunken city.
Roberto imagined those fish were wandering amid the ruins of that city of Ys he had heard of, which presumably still existed not many miles off the coast of Brittany, where the waves had engulfed it. There, the largest fish was the ancient king of the city, followed by his dignitaries, and all were riding out in search of their treasure swallowed up by the sea....
But why recur to an ancient legend? Why not consider these fish the inhabitants of a world that has its forests, its peaks, its trees, and its valleys, and knows nothing of the world above the surface? Similarly, we live with no knowledge that the curved sky conceals other worlds, where people do not walk or swim but fly and navigate through the air. If what we call planets are the keels of their vessels, of which we see only the shining bottom, then these children of Neptune must see above them the shadow of our galleons and consider them heavenly bodies moving through their aqueous firmament.
And if it is possible that creatures live underwater, could not creatures also live under the earth, nations of salamanders capable of arriving, through their tunnels, at the central fire that animates the planet?
Reflecting in this way, Roberto remembered an argument of Saint-Savin’s: We think it is difficult to live on the surface of the moon, believing there is no water there, but perhaps water up there exists in subterranean hollows, and Nature has dug wells on the moon, which are the spots we see. How do we know that the inhabitants of the moon do not find refuge in those niches, to escape the intolerable proximity of the sun? Did not the first Christians live underground? And so the moon-folk live always in catacombs, which to them seem homely.
Nor is there any reason that they must live in the dark. Perhaps there are many holes in the crust of the satellite, and the interior is illuminated through thousands of slits; theirs is a night traversed by brilliant shafts, not very different from the interior of a church or the lower deck of the Daphne. Or perhaps, instead, on the surface there are phosphorescent stones that during the day soak up the sunlight, then release it at night, and the lunarians collect those stones at every sunset so that their tunnels are always more brilliant than any royal palace.
Paris, Roberto thought. Is it not a known fact that, like Rome, the whole city is underlaid with catacombs, where it is said that at night malefactors and beggars take refuge?
Beggars! Here was the idea for rescuing Ferrante! The Beggars, who, as the story goes, are governed by their own king and by a code of iron laws; the Beggars, a society of grim rabble living off thievery and misery, assassinations and extravagances, filth, villainy, and treachery, while they pretend to subsist on Christian charity!
An idea that only a woman in love could conceive, Roberto told himself. For her confidences Lilia did not approach courtiers or gentlemen of the robe, but, rather, the least of her maidservants, a woman engaged in unscrupulous traffickings with a waggoner who knew all the taverns around Notre-Dame, where at sundown the Beggars congregated after spending their day whining in doorways.... This was the path to take.
Now her guide conducts her, in the heart of the night, to the church of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, lifts a stone of the floor in the choir, and leads her down into the catacombs of Paris, advancing by torchlight in search of the King of the Beggars.
And this is when Lilia, disguised as a gentleman, a supple androgyne who passes through tunnels, down steps, and along low passages, where in the darkness she can discern here and there, huddled amid rags and tatters, legless bodies and faces marked with warts, pimples, erysipelas, scabs, impetigoes, boils, and cankers, all gaggling, with hand extended whether to ask for alms or to mime an invitation—with a chamberlain’s mien—”Proceed, forward, our master is expecting you.”
And there the master was, in the center of a hall a thousand leagues under the surface of the city, seated on a cask, surrounded by cutpurses, barrators, counterfeiters, and saltimbanques, a scum laureate in every abuse and corruption.
What could the King of the Beggars be like? Wrapped in a tattered cloak, his brow covered with tubercules, his nose gnawed by a tabes, his eyes of marble, one green and one black, a weasel’s gaze, brows sloping downwards, a harelip revealing wolfs teeth sharp and protruding, kinky hair, sandy skin, hands with stubby fingers and curving nails....
Having heard out the Lady, he replied that he had at his service an army compared to which the army of the French King was a provincial garrison. And far less costly: if these people were recompensed in an acceptable manner, say, twice the amount they could collect begging in the same period of time, they would have themselves killed for so generous an employer.
Lilia slipped a ruby ring from her finger (as is usual in such situations), asking with regal manner, “Is this enough?”
“Enough,” the King of the Beggars said, fondling the jewel with his vulpine gaze. “Tell us where.” And having learned where, he added: “My people do not use horses or carriages, but that place can be reached on barges, following the Seine.”
Roberto imagined Ferrante at sunset on the tower of the little fort conversing with Captain Biscarat, who suddenly saw them coming. They appeared first on the dunes, then spread out over the open field.
“Pilgrims for Santiago,” Biscarat remarked with contempt, “and of the worst sort, or the most unhappy. They go seeking health when they have one foot in the grave.”
In fact, the pilgrims, in a very long file, were advancing closer and closer to the shore, and Ferrante and Biscarat could discern a mass of blind men with extended hands, the maimed on their crutches, lepers bleared, abscessed, and scrofulous, a jumble of cripples mutilated, clad in rags.
“I would not want them to come too close, or to ask for shelter for the night,” Biscarat said. “They would bring only filth inside the walls.” And he ordered a few musket shots fired in the air, to make it clear that this little castle was not a place of hospitality.
But those shots seemed to act like a summons. As more rabble appeared in the distance, the leaders came nearer and nearer to the fortress, and already their animal mumbling could be heard.
“Keep them off, by God!” Biscarat shouted, and he had some bread thrown down at the foot of the wall, as if to say to them that such was the charity of the place’s master and they could expect nothing more. But the foul band, its ranks swelling visibly, drove its vanguard to the very walls, trampling that gift underfoot and staring upwards, as if seeking something better.
Now they could be seen one by one, and they bore no resemblance to pilgrims, or to unhappy wretches asking relief for their ailments. Beyond doubt—Biscarat said, worried— they were ragtag adventurers. Or so it seemed at least for a while, as it was now dusk, and the field and the dunes had become only a gray teeming of giant rats.
“To arms, to arms!” Biscarat cried, finally realizing that this was no pilgrimage, no alms-begging, but an assault. And he ordered shots fired at those who had already reached the wall. But, as if it was indeed a pack of rodents, more came, shoving the first, the fallen were trampled and used as a step for others pressing from behind, and now the first could be seen clinging with their nails to the clefts of that ancient fabric, digging their fingers into the cracks, setting their feet in the gaps, clutching the bars of the lowest windows, thrusting their sciatical limbs into the slits. Meanwhile another part of that crowd was swaying on the ground, heaving their shoulders against the portal.
Biscarat ordered it barricaded on the inside, but the sturdiest planks of those doors were beginning to creak under the pressure of that bastard force.
The guards continued firing, but the few attackers who fell were immediately trodden on by others of the horde; now only a seething mass was visible, from which eels of rope rose, flung into the air, and it was clear that they were iron grapples, and already some of them were hooked to the battlements. And no sooner did a guard lean out a bit to unfasten those hooked irons than the first attackers, who had hoisted themselves up, struck him with spikes and clubs, or caught him in nooses and pulled him below, where he vanished into the press of those diabolical fiends, his death-rattle drowned in their roar.
In no time, anyone following events from the dunes would have been unable to see the fort, only a teeming of flies over a corpse, a swarm of bees on a stalk, a confraternity of hornets.
Meanwhile, from below, the crash of the great door was heard as it gave way, then a tumult in the yard. Biscarat and his men rushed to the other end of the platform—no longer concerned with Ferrante, who flattened in the arch of the door that gave onto the stairs, not very frightened, for he had a presentiment that these attackers were somehow friends.
Which friends, at this point, had reached and passed the battlements. Prodigal with their lives, falling at the last rounds of musket fire, heedless of their exposed breasts, they passed the barrier of drawn swords and horrified the guards with their villainous eyes, their frenzied faces. Thus the Cardinal’s guards, otherwise men of iron, dropped their weapons, imploring mercy from Heaven against what they now believed a band from Hell, and the hellions first felled them with blows of their clubs, then flung themselves on the survivors, laying about, slapping, cuffing, smiting, thwacking, and they tore open throats with their bare teeth, quartered with their claws, they overwhelmed by spitting bile, they committed atrocities on the dead, and Ferrante saw one cut open a man’s chest, grab the heart, and devour it amid shrill cries.
The last survivor was Biscarat, who had fought like a lion. Seeing himself finally defeated, he stood with his back to a parapet, drew a line on the ground with his bloody sword, and cried: “Icy mourra Biscarat, seul de ceux qui sont avec luy!”
But at that instant a one-eyed man with a peg leg, brandishing an axe, emerged from the stairs, gave a signal, and put an end to the butchery, ordering Biscarat to be tied up. Then he saw Ferrante, recognized him by the very mask that was to have made him unrecognizable, greeted him with a broad gesture of his armed hand, as if to sweep the ground with the plume of a hat, and said, “Sir, you are free.”
He drew a message from his jerkin, with a seal Ferrante knew at once, and handed it to him.
It was she who advised him to make free use of that army, horrid but trustworthy, and to await her there, as she would arrive at dawn.
To begin with, Ferrante, once freed from his mask, released the pirates and signed a pact with them. They would regain the ship and sail under his orders, asking no questions. Their recompense: a share of a treasure as vast as a dozen Eldorados. True to his character, Ferrante had no thought of keeping his word. Once he found Roberto again, it would be enough to denounce his own crew at the first port of call, and he would have them all hanged, remaining master of the vessel.
He no longer needed the beggars, and their leader, an honorable man, told him they had received payment for this undertaking. He wished to leave the area as soon as possible. They scattered inland and returned to Paris, begging from village to village.
It was easy to board a shallop kept in the basin of the fort, reach the ship, and fling into the sea the two men who guarded it. Biscarat was chained in the hold, since he was a hostage who could be bartered advantageously. Ferrante granted himself a brief rest, returned ashore before dawn, in time to welcome a carriage from which Lilia stepped, more beautiful than ever in her male garb.
Roberto felt that he would suffer greater torment at the thought of the two greeting each other with reserve, not giving themselves away before the pirates, who believed their passenger to be a young gentleman.
They boarded ship. Ferrante made sure everything was ready to sail and, as the anchor was weighed, he went down to the chamber he had ordered to be made ready for his guest.
Here she awaited him with eyes that asked for nothing save to be loved; in the fluent exultation of her hair, now released over her shoulders, she was ready for the most joyous of sacrifices. O errant locks, locks gilded and beloved, locks unlocked that fly and play and, in playing, err—Roberto rhapsodized on Ferrante’s behalf.
Their faces were close, to reap a harvest of kisses from a past sown with sighs, and at that moment Roberto drank, in thought, at that lip of fleshy pink. Ferrante kissed Lilia, and Roberto imagined himself in that act and in the thrill of biting that true coral. But then he felt she was eluding him like a gust of wind, he lost the warmth he thought he had felt for an instant, and he saw her, icy, in a mirror, in other arms, on a distant bridal bed on another ship.
To protect the lovers he lowered a curtain of jealous transparence, for those bodies, now bared, were books of solar necromancy, whose holy accents were revealed only to the two elect, who uttered them in turn from mouth to mouth.
The ship sailed away swiftly, Ferrante its master. In him she loved Roberto, into whose heart these images fell like sparks on a bundle of dry twigs.