Father Gerotte emerged from below-deck and his view immediately alighted upon Leopold, who was stamping about on the ship’s forecastle like a discontented pony. He was feeling much better since the becalming, but was unable to claim the same for his friend, who seemed to become more irritable with each day that passed. As Leopold had not seen him, Gerotte took the opportunity to gaze at him a little.
As man of science as well as religion, Father Gerotte liked to study faces. This is why from the very first time that he had seen Leopold, he had known that he was no ordinary man. Leopold was not tall, in fact he looked almost dwarfish – like a creature from a Teutonic fairytale – with over-large hands and a face framed by grizzled side-whiskers. Thus, as soon as Leopold had told him about his lampworking, Gerotte could instantly imagine his friend behind a large workbench wearing an apron, his eyes bent upon a curious detail of an object that he turned round carefully in his hands. Leopold Blaschka had one of those sullen, lipless mouths that lent him a rather serious expression, which his habit of wearing spectacles and his ample philosopher’s forehead did nothing to diminish. Indeed, the atmosphere of gravity and severity that clung to him, as well as his solitude, suggested to the curé that Leopold was a very intelligent man, but also a man deeply afflicted by some deep personal trauma. Yet his friend’s reserve was belied by his natural goodness – Gerotte had himself witnessed the kindly and avuncular manner that he played with the steerage passenger’s children.
“Hey-ho!” Gerotte called from the main mast.
Leopold swivelled on his heels and turned to look at his friend.
“Ho! Guten morgen!”
Gerotte turned the collar up on his coat and walked towards him. It was cold even if the wind was not up.
“What fine weather we have! God is good to us today,” he said when he was within ear-shot.
He smiled; he felt his face warmed by the sun. He had now drawn parallel with Leopold and the men stood shoulder to shoulder, staring out past the bowsprit to sea. Leopold muttered something inaudible.
“Leopold! How could a man grumble on such a morning? Especially when they rise as early as you do.”
Leopold was not amused by his friend’s jocular tone.
“Choice does not come into it. I rise early because I have difficulty sleeping, not to enjoy the ephemeral pleasures of the morning time at sea.”
Gerotte tutted; Blaschka was not in a good mood.
“I do not know how things are in Bohemia, but did you know that in Germany, we have are highly enamoured of the morning-time? There is even a form of poetry dedicated to it: the aubade. It is when two lovers sing to each other after the pleasures of the night are over; they sing in alternating voice.”
“And to think I thought that you were a man of the church!” managed Blaschka, evincing a wry chuckle.
“Granted,” Gerotte replied, “but I am also a man.”
He grinned good-humouredly, Leopold raised his eye-brows. His expression was disapproving but Gerotte could see that he was amused.
Gerotte looked down at the crupper chain lashed to the side of the ship’s prow, where its metal sutures ground and bumped against each other as the packet lilted gently up and down. He saw that Blaschka was also looking in this direction but at the bare-breasted figurehead, the Atlantic herself, whose pale, snowy skin seemed to goose-pimple in the brisk, frosty air. As the sailors had still not woken and the majority of passengers were below deck, the silence that surrounded them was immense.
“It’s strange, really, when you think about it,” Gerotte continued, “that a ship is normally considered female, and its medallion,” he gestured towards Atlantic, “is generally a rather scantily-clad female one. Why should the symbol of a ship, a figure of bravery, of iron-endurance and men’s bravery be embodied in such a vulnerable, fragile form?”
“She is not a woman,” Blaschka replied. “She is a siren, a mermaid. And according to mythology, these creatures are notoriously more powerful than men."
“But even so,” continued Gerotte, “I used to think that the figurehead was a kind of sea-borne idolatry; a matter of wish-fulfilment, embodying all the yearnings of love-starved sailors.”
Leopold did not answer. Gerotte could see that he was irritated, perhaps it was all the talk of women.
“Come, come Leopold,” he said getting to the point, “as you know, ocean travel is changing. We are now at the mercy not of waves, but of sheets,” he shot a glance up at the flaccid, agitating surface of the top-gallant sails. “Travel by packet has always been the same: the same dangers and disadvantages … becalming is one of them. Instead of thinking of this as an inconvenience, you should think of it as an opportunity. What business could you have in New York that is so pressing? After all, one of the things that I have daily need to remind my parishioners of is that God works in mysterious ways…”
Leopold shot him an angry look, had his dissatisfaction been so plain? Gerotte could tell that he was talking too much, but he could not resist one final question.
“I know my own disposition, perhaps I am still a little romantic. If I may ask: why did you choose to travel by packed rather than ocean liner? You could have crossed the Atlantic in five days.”
“Do you really want to know?” Leopold was defeated; he wanted the conversation to end.
Gerotte inclined his head.
“Because I am following the recommendation of my doctor.”
Leopold did not wait for Benoît to answer. Instead he slowly trotted off in the direction of the mizzen mast. Gerotte knew that his friend was not being deliberately fractious, only that he was indicating that for the time being he wished to be alone.
End of Extract