01 - 10

کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 10

01 - 10

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  • زمان مطالعه 18 دقیقه
  • سطح خیلی سخت

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10

THE WEEKS CREPT past. Confined so long to my bed, an old ache rose in the ribs Kit had fractured; I kneaded them. My burnt face began to knot and blacken, and I could see more by my right eye. The pain faded and slowly the dark silhouettes of objects came into view. Titch bade me rest, anguished over his miscalculation, though he did not say it aloud.

While I drifted in and out of sleep in my sickroom, a basin of cool water beside the bed, Titch returned to Corvus Peak, to repair his apparatus. Some evenings he would come to tell me of the progress, relaying to me the careful measurements and construction of the cutter. I turned my face to the wall, listening in silence, not speaking. As I grew stronger, I began to rise and walk to the small library, and there I would take down Titch’s volumes on aquatic life and stare quietly at the illustrations. I sometimes tried to read the words but would falter at their difficulty. Instead, I pored over the lustrous watercolour sketches, the roaring vividness of them. My favourite was a tome on the nudibranch, a kind of mollusc that sheds its shell after the larval stage. They were creatures of wild and varying colours, ethereal and beautiful.

At last, one day I walked out onto the porch, squinting in pain at the blazing sunshine, and peered east towards Corvus Peak. And there I saw the eerie, otherworldly orb of the inflated Cloud-cutter, the long cables holding it fast, the great monstrosity of it hovering there. I turned and went back inside.

I feared my eye would not recover; I feared my face in all its new grotesqueness. But most of all, I feared that I had been burned beyond use, that I had been made a ruined creature.

Titch would not hear of it. He came to me, patient, gentle, and I found his solicitousness so strange that I did not know how to understand it. He told me that I was much improved, that soon I would return to my duties. He said my absence was much felt. He said he had not had a competent sketch in weeks.

I made no answer.

He then broached a question clearly troubling him since he’d first come to me after my accident. “When you first opened your eyes that day”—he hesitated—“you imagined you had died and woken up back in Africa?”

I was silent some moments, then slowly I began to explain of our ancient beliefs, of how a figure killed in captivity would in death be returned to his homelands.

Titch was very still, listening with great attention. When he spoke, it was with much gentleness. “But you were born here, Wash. This is your homeland.”

I told him that Kit had willed to bring me with her, to Dahomey.

He paused. “I did not expect this of you, Wash.”

I said nothing, pained by his disapproving tone.

“That is nonsense, Washington. When we die, there is nothing. Only blackness. Forever and forever.”

Something wrenched in my chest, and I had the panicked feeling of wanting to push everything away. I turned to the wall.

It was a kindness he felt he was offering; he was doing what he thought was a goodness.

— MISTER PHILIP WAS another matter. His first sight of my burns turned his face full white. I stood before him in the dark passageway, my knees touching each other, and I felt myself begin to tremble. He shook his head, solemn. “You are an ugly thing now, aren’t you,” he said, but there was no malice in his voice. He looked instead aggrieved, as if the sight of me caused him great emotional pain. “You should not have walked into the proximity when Mister Wilde instructed you otherwise,” he said softly. “When you are told to do something, it is best you do it. It is for your own safety, boy. Though I daresay you will not make such a mistake again.”

“Yes, sir,” said I.

“Very good,” he said, though he was still clearly suffering some disturbance. “Run along with you now.”

I did not know if it was guilt he felt, or some unrelated grief. But being Mister Philip, he soon enough turned his concerns to the cooking. To satisfy his anxieties Titch had one of his brother’s kitchen slaves sent over. The woman who arrived I knew only by name, and though I would catch her glaring at me with a hard kind of pity, when she spoke to me it was curtly and in evident disgust. She was called Esther. She bore a long white scar across her right cheek and over the bridge of her nose like a line of paint.

Mister Philip spat out the first dish she made, a fish soup, kicking back his chair and leaving the room. Her second dish, a breadcrust stuffed with cod and root vegetables, he dropped on the floor in disappointment. Her third dish he pushed rudely from the plate onto the table, and her fourth dish he forced her to sit and taste.

At last Titch would not stand for it. He held out a long, thin arm at Mister Philip, halting him before he rose from the table. “Tomorrow night you shall eat precisely what I eat, cousin. Or I shall send Esther back to Wilde Hall. And then it will be hollandaise every night.”

But in the event, Mister Philip was reprieved. An invitation arrived, to dine with Master Erasmus, who had finally recovered his strength after suffering several long weeks of fever. How disappointed I was to learn of his recovery; how many lives his sudden death might have spared. For I imagined that, whatever new arrangements Titch would have had to make at the plantation, the life would surely have been more merciful. But it was not to be.

The master looked thin, thinner than usual, and paler in the face, dark rings around his eyes. But he seemed in fine spirits, and welcomed his guests with a sharp tongue. I accompanied Titch at his urging, and stood burnt and gruesome behind his chair. But he had instructed me to tend to nothing, to not strain myself. For there were other slaves in attendance, some field hands brought in to serve, and I was reminded as I watched them of that night long ago, when Big Kit and I had served here, in this room. There was an older slave, a tall, heavy-set, grey-haired woman I did not know, along with a small boy, and I saw in them a glimpse of how we must have looked. The older slave had suffered some horrific brutality upon her person; the bulb of her right shoulder had been crudely severed off, so that she seemed always to be shrugging. She walked with a lurching gate and kept glancing at me, so that I felt uncomfortable. When my eyes did drift to her, I noticed how careful she was with the child; she would take the heavier dishes and leave him with the easier task, always, just as Kit had tried to do for me. She smiled gravely at me once, when her back was turned to the masters, such a quick flash I was uncertain I’d even seen it. I turned away from her, trying not to remember my Kit.

There was among these slaves a frightened air. I watched their shadows fall across the white tablecloth as they shuffled past, trying to bump neither the table nor each other. A vague scent of sweat and soil came off their skin, the soft green smell of fresh-cut cane. The boy spared no glance at me, the monster, the burnt creature. In the foreground, like a carriage, the masters’ conversation rattled on.

“Have you given any thought to redecorating, cousin?” said Mister Philip, not bothering to lift his face between bites. “There is a fine German proportioning to the room. It would not be difficult.”

The master frowned. “To what end? So the niggers could track their filth through it?”

“You might send for a decorator from London. I know a man, a brilliant eye. Redecorated half of Grosvenor in thirteen months.”

The master gave a long, luscious yawn, and a hank of his cloud-white hair dropped across his brow. “Christopher,” he said, turning to his brother. “I will say, I am shocked to find you still in residence, after all these months. You have the fighting spirit, little brother. You may actually see out the year.”

Mister Philip scraped his plate. “Mussels were a tad overdone, what.”

“Well. Things are progressing so well with my cutter,” said Titch, tipping back the last of his wine.

“Indeed?” The master drew out the word, and it was impossible to say what he thought of the matter. He turned abruptly, his bright eyes seeking me out. He studied me a long moment, then turned very slowly back to the table. “What did he do, anyway, for you to punish him so?”

“It was an accident, brother.”

The master made a gesture of concession. “It is difficult to hold one’s temper in check when dealing with them. I know it myself.”

Titch stared irritably across at Mister Philip. “Philip was present. Why do you not ask him?”

Mister Philip was absorbed in running a finger along his empty plate to lick. “What?”

“The accident. The boy’s face.”

“Oh, yes. Quite. Damn shame, that.”

“Tell me,” the master continued, “in his state, what is the point of your keeping him?”

“And what would you have me do?” said Titch.

Mister Philip set down his fork. “Very well, very well,” he said quickly, and he wiped his oily fingers on a fold of the tablecloth, leaning back in his chair. “Christopher. Erasmus. There is something I would speak to you both about.”

Titch turned to Mister Philip in mild surprise, and I could not help but do so myself. Was he truly going to lay bare his role in my disfigurement?

Mister Philip glanced down at his plate, as though steeling himself. “It concerns your father.” He made a nervous clearing of the throat. “Your father,” he repeated, then fell silent.

“Yes, well, out with it,” the master said sourly. “What of him?”

Mister Philip glanced down again, as if all he wished to say were scripted on the dull patina of his dinner knife. The tall, maimed, grey-haired slave began refilling his glass, and he gestured sharply for her to stop. She melted at once back to the wall.

“What is it?” said Titch.

Mister Philip hitched back his lips. “Your father has, I fear, passed away.”

I shifted my heels soundlessly on the floor, I stood up straighter.

The master was frowning at his cousin. “Passed away.”

“I regret to tell you, yes. There was an accident, at his outpost in the Arctic. I do not know the particulars.”

Titch was blinking very quickly. He seemed to be searching for words. “I do not understand.” He glanced in perplexity at the master, turned once again to Mister Philip. “You are telling us our father is deceased?”

“I am sorry,” Mister Philip said with a look of anguish. “Indeed, it is the very reason for my visit. I bring a letter from Granbourne. Your mother has written all the details. I shall fetch it for you after the last course.”

Titch and the master looked silently at each other. The master’s face, already sunken with illness, had turned a deathly pallor.

For some moments the only sound in the room was the dry rag of the slave woman wiping down the sideboard.

“Five weeks,” said Titch in a voice so pale he was barely audible. He lifted his drained face. “Five weeks you have been here. Eating my food. Taking my leisure.”

“I meant to inform you at once. I did.” Mister Philip hesitated. “But I thought it wrong to tell you, Titch, without also telling Erasmus.” He turned to the master. “But you were from home when I first arrived. And then, when you returned, you were so ill you would allow no visitors until this night. This is the first opportunity I’ve had.”

“You withheld this deliberately,” snapped the master. “You vengeful, duplicitous bastard. You are getting your revenge. You are worse than a dog. You are sh@t.

How strange to hear the master damn a white man so. I lowered my face, did not dare look at him.

“It was not deliberate, cousin. You cannot imagine how it has oppressed me, not being able to speak it.”

“My pity for you is boundless,” the master hissed.

“I only meant that—” Mister Philip stopped, dropping his gaze to his hands. “I am very sorry for you both. It is hard news indeed. And I do sympathize with your fate—having to leave Faith when you are only just settled. How dispiriting.”

“Leave Faith?” said Titch.

“Naturally, Erasmus will have to leave Faith.” Mister Philip glanced uneasily across at the master. “You are needed in Hampshire, Erasmus, to sort out your father’s affairs, to run Granbourne on site for some time, I imagine. A year. Two. Until such time as everything is settled. Your mother has written it all in her letter, I am sure. She gave me to understand that you are to return with me. Indeed, your passage has already been booked.”

The master turned a harsh eye upon his cousin, but some of his rage had eased. He seemed to be weighing the sudden reprieve of a return to England.

Titch stared without expression at the tablecloth, his skin drained of all colour in the yellow candlelight. Behind his chair, the slaves flitted back and forth like vapours.

“But what of Faith, in my absence?” said the master, his voice calm.

“Well, Christopher is here, what. Your mother thought that perhaps he might manage things in your absence. What a blessing, said she, that he has run to precisely where he is needed. It is God’s hand. Erasmus will return and sort out Sir James’s affairs. Faith, said she, might be passably run for two or three years by Christopher. Hopefully he can do it profitably; we have no doubt you can do it profitably, cousin. In any case, Erasmus will untangle any messes upon his eventual return.”

The master was evidently mulling this over. “It is an idea,” he said.

“It is all in the letter,” said Mister Philip.

Very quietly, Titch backed his chair out, causing the child slave to scurry out of the way. With his mouth set very tight and his eyes distant, Titch took the napkin from his lap and placed it on his gravy-stained plate. Without looking at anyone, he started for the door.

“Oh come, brother,” called the master. “Please come back. Such grave news, Christopher, we must weather together. Let us comfort one another.”

But Titch did not turn. We all watched him go, the slaves with their heads gently bowed, Mister Philip looking solemn and remorseful. When Titch passed me, I lifted my head, but he did not look at me.

He left the door standing wide.

I felt I should follow, but did not want to draw the master’s attention. I watched the old grey-haired slave turn, and meeting her powerful golden eyes I was suddenly flooded with pain, horrified and confused.

It was Big Kit.

— HOW COULD I not have known her? Had I not all these months prayed for her deliverance each night, imagined for her a life beyond the blood-blackened fields of Faith? When I had first come to live with Titch, it was Kit’s iron nail that had kept me from despair; waking into darkness after the gas explosion, it was Kit I had believed at my bedside, her hand on my brow.

She was much changed, it was true, maimed terribly, grown thinner, the hair at her temples silver as flies’ wings. Aged, now, as though decades had separated us. But I was the more changed; that was the uglier truth.

I gripped anxiously at my hands, staring at Kit’s tall figure. How solicitous she was with the boy. I saw now how she kept a careful eye on his posture, his manners. I knew instinctively what this meant, the great angry love she held that boy inside, like a fist. I tried to imagine what he might be like. He could not have been older than six or seven years, I thought. I wondered at the sudden pain coming up in me.

The master and Mister Philip stood from the table; Mister Philip placed a steadying hand on his cousin’s cowed shoulders. He instructed Gaius that they would take their port and pipes in the drawing room. I tried to catch Kit’s eye, but by then she had been instructed to leave, and so I watched her retrieve a fork from the sideboard and turn, slouching from the room with the boy following.

I stared after her diminished form, a dryness in my throat, feeling desperate.

Just then there fell a twisting grip on my collarbone, and I glanced up at the veiny, shifting eyes of the master.

“You are still here, nigger?” said he. I could see deep into his wet scarlet mouth, and felt very afraid. “My brother is gone. Off with you, boy, go on.”

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