The Curmudgeon


Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Voivode

An extract

It was the physician, Priglot, who saw Hades first. He was in the observatory as the ship approached the sphere of Venus, his left eye pressed to the small translucent pane in the window. He could not see Venus, because the captain had placed the ship so that the circle of adulterers, which the crewmen called the lovers' hold, was nearest the planet; the observatory was facing in exactly the opposite direction.

The great circular window was almost entirely opaque: a magnificent construction of stained glass depicting the star which had guided the wise men as it hovered over the stable. Priglot was staring through a much smaller, blue-tinted circle, set at the very centre of the star, surrounded by its golden radiations and the royal purple of the sky. Sometimes, particularly when he found himself restless during his sleep periods, Priglot would come up to the observatory simply to admire the window.

In order to view the cosmic mysteries beyond, it was necessary to ascend the sloping wall of the observatory, using the carven steps provided for that purpose, and to pull the lever which released the viewing-bed from its niche in the ceiling. The viewing-bed was really little more than a hinged plank, wide enough for a man to lie on, with one end close enough to the window for the occupant to see out through the translucent circle. It felt like a makeshift measure. The viewing-bed had been incorporated into the Persephone's design at a fairly late stage; Priglot had heard that the alteration had been made at the insistence of the church authorities, because it was not considered seemly that those looking through the centre of the star should have their feet on the same level as the image of the Saviour's birthplace.

Priglot shifted on the plank. He took his left eye away from the glass, rubbed it and placed his right eye there instead. He was watching the sun, and it was easy to grow tired. At the moment, strange to think, he was probably the only man on board who had eyes for the ship's destination. The rest of the crew would all have their eyes on Venus; at least, all those not directly involved in the manoeuvre that would catapult them on the next stage of their journey.

Priglot had seen and heard his fill of Venus during the weeks it had taken them to get here. The forty adulterers in the lovers' hold had seemed to grow more restive and more obscene with every day they travelled; recently they had been quieter, though not, it seemed to Priglot, from resignation to their fate. A sort of sensual languor had come over them; they were pallid and thin, yet their lips were red, their eyes sparkled. Some of the crew members detailed to look after them had come away almost hypnotised. Undoubtedly the planet's influence was to blame; and Captain Bloss, prompted no doubt by the monk, Father Christopher, had decreed that no-one but Priglot and his servant, or a crewman in company with Priglot, was to go anywhere near the lovers' hold. The arrangement had pleased the crew, who had long ago begun to find both of the ship's holds more unnerving than amusing; but it had not pleased Priglot, who besides his normal duties had to feed and water twenty men and twenty women, clean up after them and ensure that they were properly restrained; and all with the help of a single, usually dim-witted assistant. At Father Christopher's insistence, the men took turns accompanying Priglot, according to a rota drawn up by the monk; which meant that Priglot's helpers were as lacking in experience as they were inadequate in number.

Priglot sighed, and shifted on the plank. He had made protests to Captain Bloss, both in and out of Father Christopher's presence; but whatever the captain's nominal authority, it was the monk who commanded the ship. Without the blessing of his church, as everyone knew, the Persephone could never have left the ground. Father Christopher's position was like that of a priest of the wind gods aboard an ancient galleon; he would be unassailable unless something went wrong, and perhaps not even then. Priglot thought of the monk thrown overboard, into the airless void between the spheres. When they dragged him to the holds for jettison, where would the crewmen put him? When the captain pulled the lever and Father Christopher tumbled out, towards which of the planets would he fall?

It was upon this thought that Priglot observed a small dent in the edge of the solar disc. The smile which had creased his stubbly cheeks flattened out abruptly, and he took his right eye away from the window and put the left one back. Even after he had blinked several times, there was no doubt about it.

"There is no doubt about it," he informed his fellow officers - Captain Bloss, Father Christopher, First Mate Milin and Baloran the navigator - an hour after the lovers' hold had sent its troublesome cargo somersaulting towards Venus. The clatter of the opening doors had been followed by a brief, barely noticeable jolt, not violent enough even to shake Priglot from his precarious perch on the viewing-bed, as the Persephone's course altered towards Mars. Almost as soon as the ship was stable again, Priglot's servant had arrived with the expected summons to the captain's cabin, where he found the other officers engaged in mutual congratulation. After a tactful interval, Priglot felt obliged to broach the subject of his discovery.

"A new planet?" Captain Bloss, goblet in hand, stared at Priglot with his small unwavering eyes. "Could it hinder us?"
"We cannot be certain at this stage whether it really is a planet, properly speaking," Priglot said modestly. "It may be a moon, or a comet. Certainly it is too small to be seen from earth, assuming it passes regularly in front of the sun. In order to determine its size and behaviour, I shall have to make further observations. Now that Providence has relieved me of some of my other responsibilities," he inclined his large head respectfully towards Father Christopher, "I hope that I shall be able to expedite this new task with efficiency."

Father Christopher sipped water and said nothing. Milin, the First Mate, told Priglot that the crew had cheered lustily when the lovers' hold was opened, and several of them had rushed to the portholes to try and see the adulterers spinning off towards Venus as the ship moved away. There had been no sign of the lassitude and superstitious fear which had afflicted so many crewmen since the launch; all of which, thought Priglot, only went to prove that the burden of his onerous chores during the past few weeks had been nothing more than a vindictive monkish whim.

"I am happy to hear that their spirits are quite restored," he told the First Mate. "Perhaps, at some moment convenient to you both, you might make the good news known to Father Christopher."

Milin saluted and turned away, looking hurt. The effect of the adulterers on certain of the men had annoyed him almost as much as it had Priglot; he had taken it as a slight upon his authority, and he had accompanied Priglot with a will whenever his turn on the rota came up, by way of setting an example. But the Mate was as omen-ridden as any sailor, and more pious than most: he had expressed grave disquiet about the lovers' hold, about the Turks' hold and about launching the Persephone on the eve of All Hallows, papal blessing or none; and he spent entirely too much time in the company of the monk.

Baloran, the white-bearded navigator, told Priglot that the Persephone's distance from earth had not resulted in any detectable shift in the apparent position of the stars, and that if matters continued after this fashion it might one day be possible to use the stars for interplanetary navigation. Priglot nodded politely and hoped that Baloran would not begin speculating about the possibilities inherent in the presence of a newly discovered heavenly body. Baloran was the oldest of all the crew; he had written several books on the subject of navigational theory, and Priglot, who had read none of them, sometimes suspected that his conversation consisted largely in reciting them from memory.

"The manoeuvre today went well, I understand," Priglot said, as soon as Baloran paused to sip his wine.
"Indeed, yes," Baloran said. "Captain Bloss is to be congratulated. We opened the hold at exactly the proper distance, as calculated by the good Father and myself. It was all very satisfactory."
"Master Milin has told me something of the crew's satisfaction," Priglot said. "Did you chance to see anything of the sinners as they fell?"

The monk heard that, as Priglot had intended. Father Christopher hovered behind Baloran as the navigator mumbled about having been too busy consulting with the captain. "I saw them," Father Christopher said; "or some of them, at least. Like your discovery at the sun, they were silhouetted against the planet as they fell."
"You didn't see their faces, then?"
"No," said Father Christopher; "only their shapes, and those only briefly. They disappeared into the clouds around the planet. But supposing I had seen their faces, Doctor; would they have told us anything of use? I should hate to think that my lack of observation had deprived the expedition of some valuable knowledge."
"I merely wondered if there were any anomalies, any changes," Priglot said. "We know so little of conditions out here; the most seemingly insignificant fact may be of incalculable value."
"It seems to me that, however small our knowledge, with the help of heaven we are progressing rather well," said Father Christopher; and, as always, Priglot had no choice but to bow his head in humble accord. As the church's envoy, invested with full rights to convert, crusade, absolve, anathematise and otherwise treat with any of God's creatures whom they might meet upon their way, Father Christopher had been given the exemplary privilege and trial of personally lighting the fires for the act of faith that bore the Persephone away from earth. Having set the flames at north, south, east and west, in order to board he had climbed up the column on which the ship rested; climbed up the tallest structure ever created by man, climbed through the thickening smoke and the screams and wails of the embedded heretics, whose purifying agonies would bear the ship aloft.

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