Written by Sir John M——, from his own journals.
The First Day: Our Departure, and My First Encounter with the Duke.
WE SET SAIL from the greenish coasts of home on the last day of spring in the year ——, and I do truthfully believe the whole country had turned out to see our departure;—though whether in delight at the new thing we were attempting or in eagerness to be rid of us I cannot say. There was certainly feasting and drunkenness enough on both sides of the affair, among those of us who went and those who stayed. I myself refused most of the wine that flowed so prodigiously, so that I might retain enough of my senses to enjoy the sight of our mighty Leviathan drifting away from the shore for the first time.
That nothing like our expedition has ever been attempted, and that nothing like it will ever be attempted again: of these two things I am equally sure. For the common sense of the scribblers and the talkers at court is that we failed. Yet of that I am not entirely certain. I suppose the memory of our ignominious return is fresher in most minds than the memory of our departure. But our departure was glorious. In all our thousands of years of history, no human eye had ever beheld such a spectacle. We were doing a thing that our wisest heads had told us could never be done; and if we did not make it to the end of our journey, remember that it was the beginning that was said to be impossible.
When at last the gigantic signal flags unfurled and gave the command, and two thousand giant oars, worked in perfect unison by the most ingenious contrivance, began to beat the water with a mighty roar, the cheer that erupted from six thousand throats on our floating city was nearly deafening. Yet it was not so loud that we could not hear the even greater cheer from the land. And when, after perhaps a quarter-hour of rowing, the great sails began to billow, we could still hear the cheering from the coast. Bank after bank of sails unfurled, all brilliantly colored according to their functions, so that the hardy seamen charged with maintaining them could find their way in the forest of canvas. There were red sails, yellow sails, blue sails, and white sails, thousands of them, and as they caught the wind our Leviathan surged forward with a majestic deliberateness that well became her. The cheering on the coast continued, but from us there was only awed silence.
I must have stood silently admiring the spectacle for a good half hour. I might have stood longer, but a carriage arrived with a summons for me to speak with the Duke. One does not refuse the Duke’s invitation, of course, so I immediately boarded the carriage.
The driver took us slowly up the port promenade, stopping often to wait for the milling crowds to part. We passed the houses of the minor nobility and the prosperous merchants, then the cafes and theaters, finally coming to the palaces of the greater nobles, and at the very end of the promenade the residence of the Duke himself. A footman greeted the carriage and opened the door for me, then led me to the door of the Duke’s palace. From there a butler led me through the entry hall (which was as grand as the limited space assigned to even the Duke would allow) to the drawing room, where the Duke himself immediately greeted me.
“Sir John! We are honored by your visit.”
“The honor is certainly mine,” I replied.
“Yes, I suppose it is. Still, good of you to come. I’ve been wanting to meet you personally for some time now. You’re our senior diplomat, as I understand.”
“That is true, your grace.”
“And I’m told you’re something of a wizard with languages.”
“I usually am able to pick up at least the rudiments of a new language fairly quickly.”
“Splendid,” he said. “We’ll need that. Say something in French for me.”
He caught me off guard, so I strung together the first few words of French that came into my head: “J’aime bien les haricots.”
“Marvelous! Certainly sounded like French to me. I don’t actually know the language myself, but then that’s rather the idea of having someone like you with us, isn’t it? Well, I see no reason why I shouldn’t have every confidence in you. It really was very good of you to drop in. Thank you so much.”
And that, it appeared, was the end of our interview. I learned from the butler on my way out that the Duke had done the same thing to three other men before me that day.
“I certainly can understand if the Duke’s mind is distracted by the weight of his responsibilities,” I said.
“No, sir,” the butler said. “The Duke’s mind is merely distracted. Shall I send for the carriage to take you back?”
“Thank you, but I think I’ll walk. It’s a beautiful day.”
“It is that, sir. My apologies for the Duke’s distraction, but one soon becomes accustomed to it.”
I decided to stroll down the central boulevard on my way back, since there were no other demands on my time. Except for the wood planks under my feet, I might well have been on the high street of one of our more prosperous provincial cities. The houses and shops made the sea invisible, and nothing short of a cyclone could cause our great ship to rock noticeably. First I passed the houses of the lesser nobility (for the greater nobles all had their houses along the outer promenades), small perhaps by land standards, but tastefully built and ornamented by our leading architects. After them came a sudden change in the aspect of the street; it was lined with small shops and bustling with servants and workmen’s wives. Then came another abrupt change; the street broadened, and the shops were grander. When I reached the exact center of the city, the boulevard broadened again into the Great Square, as it was called, a broad piazza or forum as capacious as it could be made considering the limited space, and surrounded by the public buildings necessary in any city (even a floating one): the courts, the guild halls, and—on the starboard side of the square—the public market, bustling with servants and tradesmen’s wives. After that, there were more grand shops; and from there the aft end of the boulevard was something of a mirror image of the fore end. For the wisdom of our architects had decreed that the various orders of persons should be distributed and balanced through the Leviathan, so that factions might be discouraged. At last, turning to the right through a narrow side street, I made my way to the port promenade, and finally to my own comfortable little house, where my man Aelfric was awaiting my instructions for supper. There was something altogether comforting about the little ceremony of giving him the same instructions I gave him every evening: “So long as it’s good plain food, Aelfric, I’ll leave the matter to your judgment.” I sensed for the first time how much trepidation I had felt in setting out on our voyage; but there was great reassurance in seeing that my simple household routine continued unaltered.
After supper I walked to the starboard promenade to admire the sunset; then I retired and read Henricus on the Book of Job until my eyelids grew heavy.