“Of course, nothing will happen,” said the Archbishop’s special envoy, although his left eyelid twitched and a large boil had sprouted on his sallow neck above the expensive white lace.
“Nothing will happen,” he repeated for emphasis, “but the Archbishop desires to have his palace clock and the Pražskÿ Orloj strike six at exactly the same instant — and then he wants some bell ringing. Possibly some cannon fire…
“It is extremely important that the Archbishop’s clock is seen to show the correct time, and that all is well before we sit down to breakfast.”
Jan Kilian knew for a fact that for all his fine ways, the priest had come up from rural Odolina Voda. He had seized the opportunity to climb very high.
“Thank you, your Grace,” he replied dutifully, suppressing a groan as he picked up his wooden toolbox and rose to his feet, knees aching.
He left the envoy’s office and walked back through the vast halls of the palace, passing men wearing the capes and high-crowned hats of foreign cities, arguing excitedly in Viennese and several other languages, with many Latin words he recognised thrown in. He would have liked the opportunity to converse with them but there was no time for talk.
Lately he had made the journey to the Archbishop’s palace daily, with many stops along the way to adjust the clocks in his care. His head was full of clicking and clacking, clappers striking, bells pealing and tolling — he heard them day and night – the sound ran through his dreams.
Even with his five sons, good men all, he could not meet the city’s demand for accuracy. According to the people of Prague it had never been more important to know, to the pars minuta prima, the correct time, the exact hour.
So, the six of them were hurrying through the streets, from castle to church, palace to townhouse, mending, adjusting, replacing. A nudge here, a crimp there. They climbed stairs and ladders into clock towers and belfries, frequently crawling across rough-hewn rafters, gathering splinters along the way.
The largest, most important, machines were reserved for Jan Kilian as the city’s most senior clockmaker. Although at his age he lacked the physical strength to effect major repairs alone.
After all, the weight suspended from the Pražskÿ Orloj exceeded one hundred and eighty pounds. These days, he supervised the winding when he could. It took two strong men to wind the ropes around the capstan and they worked with care under his stern oversight.
Normally, Jan Kilian loved the clock; loved the lung-bursting two hundred and seventeen steps it took to reach it; loved the brutal wrought iron strength of the ancient machines driving it. Loved especially the precision of the engraving on the astrolabe and the orderly movements of the stars and planets it illustrated.
He had looked after the Pražskÿ Orloj for more than forty-two years — two-thirds of his life — they represented but a brief moment in the clock’s remarkable history.
Now, as May turned into June, he felt as though this clock and all the others in the city were crushing him under the weight of their tics and flaws. For weeks his workshop had been overwhelmed with notes demanding his services. Clock owners crammed into his shopfront every morning or sent their servants, shouting commands — beseeching, begging, threatening. He missed his Jewish customers, prudently remaining behind locked doors.
Adjust the clocks! Fix time! We must have accuracy, there is no room for error!
Decades ago, under mad King Rudolph, the city had been a magnet for charlatans and tricksters, the merely deluded and the simply mad. Astrologers and Magicians, Alchemists and Sorcerers, Fortune-Tellers and Wizards could be seen on every corner. Even now, after all the troubles and reversals, the new faces in power, the old ones wouldn’t go away. They had brought a feverish belief in omens to the city and it had spread among the townspeople like a sickness.
Jan Kilian was a man of numbers, of mechanical precision. He had no time for visions and portents. He had lost count of the number of signs that had been reported in recent weeks: falling stars, fleeing rats, florins lost and ducats found, ghosts seen walking along the castle walls.
No. He was sure in his gut that six ante meridiem on the sixth day of June — this briefly palindromic moment — would be followed, as usual, by seven ante meridiem.
He recited silently in his head his own, dangerous, catechism: Hell is not going to open up and engulf the sinners. God is not going to appear and fly the saved up to Heaven. This outrageous statement was always followed quickly by: What is the sign of a true Catholic? The cross.
Everything would continue just as it always had.
If only the people of Prague shared his certainty, then they wouldn’t put such terrible pressure on the Pesina family to mend their clocks.
Even his unmarried granddaughters, lovely girls all, had been quietly pressed into service. They sat in the back rooms and worked on ornate carriage clocks and watches brought in by worried owners. Their delicate fingers were ideally suited to the work and it was safe as long as no one saw them doing it. After all, they deserved to find good husbands.
As he trudged back over the bridge towards the Klementinum, a swan floated past him.
He recognised it as the one always getting in the way of the riverboats, causing general annoyance, and seemingly uncatchable. He felt in his pocket for a crust and threw it at the swan, not much caring where it landed. The swan caught the bread with a neat snap of its beak. The sun seemed to glow with extra intensity behind its head.
“Thank you, Jan Kilian,” said the swan. It had a shrill voice like steam escaping from a kettle. The voice tickled unpleasantly at the back of his head.
“You’re welcome,” said Jan Kilian automatically. He glanced around furtively to see whether this had attracted notice. He was relieved to see that no one was paying any attention to him at all.
It was a warm evening — beautiful, in fact. The kind of evening he would have relished as a younger man. The kind of evening made for elegantly attired citizens to stroll along the golden streets. If he hadn’t been so busy, he would have enjoyed sitting in his courtyard with a glass of good wine, watching the sun go down. Instead, he was walking across the bridge, with many clocks left to adjust, speaking to a talking swan.
“Jan Kilian, have you ever considered that it might all be true?”
“What are you talking about, Swan?”
“That the world might end as soon as the hand of the clock touches the six.”
“No. Now go away before I decide to roast you for my dinner.”
The swan paddled a little further out of reach. “What will they do to you, if you fail to make the clocks strike at the same time?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“This town is bad for clockmakers. Stay away from windows, Jan Kilian, and protect your eyes,” the swan glided away from him. “Just sayin’…”
Jan Kilian finally reached the sprawling halls and towers of the Klementinum and its wondrous library, still pondering the vividness of his daydream on the bridge and the strange way the bird had of speaking. Talking swans? Ridiculous.
The monks at the university had been generous with their knowledge once they recognised the depth of Jan Kilian’s skill and dedication. He had formed a deep friendship with Father Tomasz, the cleverest man in Bohemia. He looked forward to visiting the old priest and reading the letters he received from other men of great learning throughout the world.
“Prophecies and malignant dreams, old wives’ tales, predictions and prognostications all will come true,” read Father Tomasz from a pamphlet so recently printed he could smell the ink.
“A strange greeting, Father.”
“Strange times, friend. We are men of science, are we not? We study calendar-making and astronomy, telescopes and microscopes, geometry, hydraulics and geography.”
“Yes, indeed. We give no credence to mischievous reports of signs and visions.”
The monk threw the pamphlet on to the fire and absent-mindedly wiped his ink-stained fingers on his robe. “I understand that you had an audience with the Archbishop’s special envoy today?”
“He wants to make sure that the Archbishop’s clock and the Pražskÿ Orloj both strike six at exactly the same instant. ‘To display authority in the matter of the sixth hour of the sixth day,’” he mimicked the envoy accurately.
“But you will take the time from the sundial at the top of the Klementinum’s observatory?”
“Oh, yes, Father. The Archbishop’s man has still not correctly aligned his sundial.”
“And therefore, his clock is not quite the authority he thinks it is.”
Jan Kilian shook his head. “No, Father. The ancient one is still more accurate.” He leaned wearily on the sturdy old table. “You know there will be a complete cacophony of strikes and clappers and bells from all the clocks in Prague. Some will be early and some will be late, just as they always are.
“Then there are plans to fire a cannon or two, to add to the noise, which will be indescribable. There will be general bell-ringing and kettle-bashing as soon as the two main clocks strike the hour, and general ringing in our ears for two days after that.”
“Both clocks are inaccurate. How do you propose to make them strike at the same time?”
“My oldest, Vilem, has been working to find two clocks that run closely in tandem. We’ll set one in each clocktower at midnight, wind them and let them run. My sons will help hold back the hands of the Archbishop’s clock and the Pražskÿ Orloj until as near to the sixth hour as we can, then let them strike simultaneously.”
“Admirable. And you have no concerns?”
“No, Father. We have also taken the precaution of setting sundials within view. The sun will rise just before the fifth hour. There will be no doubt. ”
The old Jesuit peered at him. He was so close that Jan Kilian could see the pupils in his milky blue eyes and the red veins across his cheeks.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
How well did he really know Father Tomasz? Jan Kilian took a half-step backwards, half-formed thoughts and questions pounding at his temples. Wanting to trust him, to believe.
As a youth, he had seen twenty-six good men die for their beliefs. Guards had herded the townspeople into the Old Town Square and forced them to stand and watch in shocked silence as the executioner did his work. It had taken four hours and four swords to behead them all, the bodies left where they fell. The blood seeped through the raw boards of the newly-erected wooden stage and fell to the ground below, lapping around the base of the enormous wooden crucifix positioned at the front of the platform.
He had never seen so much blood. Even now, so many years later, he was unable to cross the square without the hairs on the back of his neck prickling. The event had made him curb his tongue — until now.
He took a deep breath. If he was to die, he would die having asked the question.
“It’s not the hour, Father, we know the hour — take it from the sun and as long as the dials are properly aligned, it’s always right. But what about the date?
“We’ve been using Pope Gregory’s calendar for more than eighty years. Now, I’m not arguing with his Holiness — of course not — but how do we know that in the sixteen hundred and sixty-six years since the birth of the Christ child, someone didn’t miss a day, or even a week? What if the actual sixth day of June was yesterday — or next month? How would we know?”
He closed his eyes waiting for the Jesuit’s response.
There was a long pause before Father Tomasz replied. “We are men of faith as well as reason, Jan Kilian. We can’t know: we have to believe. That is the truth.”
Warm relief flooded his body. “Yes, Father. Thank you… and Father?”
“What do you know about swans?”
It seemed the swan was waiting for him. It had been resting by the riverbank with its head under a wing and now it glared at him side-on from one black eye. Jan Kilian tried to hurry past without looking at it.
“Don’t mess up, now,” it said. “Tick-tock.”
Early the next morning, Jan Kilian and his sons climbed the two hundred and seventeen worn, uneven, steps to the Pražskÿ Orloj, the day’s heat already rising. His heart pounded with the exertion.
It would take three of them to stop each clock. He prayed they would be able to start them again.
Jan Kilian continued to breathe heavily. He worried about the possible damage they could be about to inflict on the ancient machine. His youngest, Hans, built like an ox and not very bright, braced himself to take the weight and stop it from falling. Mattias, his next youngest and much cleverer son, was also wedged into the tight space under the clock, rope in hand to help pull.
Jan Kilian climbed above them, perching on a short, unsteady ladder, which enabled him to reach over into the innards of the clock. Giant black wheels with viciously sharp teeth rotated below him.
None of the men had slept well. During their walk through the darkened city they could see that the people had been awake all night, feasting or praying, making love or beating their wives, holding their children close or sitting alone, drinking themselves senseless. The queues for confession wound out of the churches and into the streets as the priests tried to deal with a sudden, urgent, demand for absolution.
Vilem and his brothers had shaken hands with their father before they parted to cross the bridge and climb up to the Archbishop’s palace. There was much gentle banter amongst the younger men.
Almost as if we were going to war.
Jan Kilian watched one of Vilem’s chosen clocks balanced on the beam in front of him. The mechanism was a marvel and he was proud of the skill it had taken to produce. The pendulum will be next, he thought. But I am not the man to put a pendulum on the Pražskÿ Orloj. That will take a younger man. A man who is ready to stand up to the city fathers and insist on modernisation. I am too old, and I like my Pražskÿ Orloj just the way it is.
He knew this to be true, even though when Father Tomasz first showed him a diagram of a pendulum, bought at great cost, his entire body lit up in an explosion of joy. The drawing was so right, so beautiful, he felt he had always known the truth it revealed.
Vilem and Mattias were secretly working on new mechanisms, fully aware that the Church did not automatically accept innovations. Hans had not understood the mathematical calculations involved and probably never would. But he was a good father and would be happy enough to learn to set up a pendulum without having to know how it worked.
It was time.
“Now, lads,” he called.
Hans and Mattias reached down through the trapdoor and took the strain of the ropes suspending the enormous weight. The clock stopped moving the instant the weight was no longer turning the wheel. Jan Kilian carefully moved the ancient hour-hand into position at the number six.
Each man held his breath and waited, sweating quietly in the stifling heat of the clocktower.
I am a man of punctuality and order, of verges and escapements, of the click and the clack.
Jan Kilian looked at the huge cogwheels of the clock, now still. The sun pierced the narrow arrow slits and cast a single beam across the yellow hair of his sons, waiting below.
For a moment he allowed himself to imagine the world ending. Would God really tear apart the fabric of sky and stars and cast all the sinners into Hell? Or would he stand aside, delegating the work to a pack of demons who, presumably, would relish it? He thought of all the sins he had committed in the course of his long life. Minor, petty things — occasions when he had not behaved as well as he should — mild criticisms of the Church, rarely voiced, but thought. And the occasional tiny, timid doubt about whether, in the end, it really mattered how the people of Bohemia worshiped God, for all the notice he appeared to take.
Besides, weren’t the sinners always other people?
An unexpected image of the Blessed Virgin entered his head. Jan Kilian was a man uncomfortable in the presence of women but he had always appreciated Mary’s even temper, her passivity, her apparent lack of desire. She did not clatter around the kitchen or bustle through the house commanding and demanding. The image intensified, strangely oppressive. It was as if he could not unsee it. Eyes closed or open, she filled his vision and his head to bursting point.
The pressure moved to his chest, his lungs filled. His heart made a strange crump-crumping sound, rather than the strong regular beat he was used to. He struggled to catch his breath.
Then Mary faded and the world went black.
Was this it? Was this really the end? In the dark? He wasn’t going to die, surely? He was so busy, he had so many things to do!
He was terrified, unable to move, unable to breathe. His mind gabbled idiotic prayers — don’t let it hurt, hide, hide, please don’t kill me!
“Father!” Mattias’s voice, so faint and far away. “Father! It must be time — we’re going to lower the weight!”
“No, don’t,” croaked Jan Kilian, his voice a dry thread in the darkness. “Please don’t!”
He knew they couldn’t hear him. His precious sons were not sinners. He dared to pray that they were among the saved, using the words of his childhood.
And then immediately apologised.
Blessed Mother, please don’t let Him come!
Mattias and Hans grunted with effort as they slowly and gently lowered the weight until once again, it was pulling the rope on the capstan. The cogs and wheels started moving, roughly coming together at first with a horrible screech of metal on metal, then eventually fitting together cleanly.
The clapper struck one… two… three… The bells roared.
On the fourth strike, Jan Kilian’s vision began to clear, his breathing eased slightly. He could hear other clocks nearby striking, bells ringing, people shouting.
Five — the noise intensified as the townspeople used whatever they could to make a noise to drive out the Devil — and six!
The evil minute passed. The hour hand moved a fraction. The cannons fired. The people outside cheered and screamed with a wild joy not normally heard from the sedate inhabitants of Prague.
The weight lifted from his chest but he was weak — so weak he could hardly stand — and deafened by the clamour inside and out. His head ached with the waves of noise beating against his skull.
Mattias and Hans clapped each other on the shoulder, laughing with relief. They reached up to help Jan Kilian down the ladder.
Through the arrow slit he saw something madly flapping outside the clock-tower and, at first, thought it was a flag. Then he saw sunlight bouncing off the tips of brilliantly white wing feathers.
“Told you,” hissed the swan inside his head.
“You did not! You did not tell me anything!” he bellowed, outraged, but shockingly no sound came out. He tried to take another step up the creaking ladder and his legs wobbled.
“Later!” laughed the swan and flew away.
Jan Kilian could see Mattias and Hans looking up at him in bewilderment as his legs buckled. He could not explain about the swan, about the Virgin Mary, about any of it.
He staggered, lost his balance — arms flailing for something to cling to — and fell, headlong into the workings of the ancient clock.