01 - 04کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 4
01 - 04
- زمان مطالعه 44 دقیقه
- سطح سخت
دانلود اپلیکیشن «زیبوک»
این فصل را میتوانید به بهترین شکل و با امکانات عالی در اپلیکیشن «زیبوک» بخوانید
متن انگلیسی فصل
I met him for the first time that very night, the night of William’s desecration, when Big Kit and I were summoned to the Great House to wait at the master’s table.
The strangeness of this request was alarming: a field slave was a black-skinned brute born for hard toil, certainly not a being to be brought inside. We did not know why the master should request us. What were we to him? Kit’s despair had over the hours grown into a silent fury at what she could no longer do to herself and to me. She now began to fear the master had discovered her intent, and that he meant us some cruel and grievous punishment.
Immanuel and young Émilie waded down the soft slope and into the sprawl of huts in their clean white-and-grey house clothes to summon us. Kit rose up from where she sat on a stone in front of our hut, shaking her head in anger.
“Don’t you send Wash up there,” she said. “I go. But you leave the boy.”
“The master he clear,” Immanuel said. “Both you.”
“Hello, Wash,” Émilie said shyly.
“Hello,” I said, my face growing warm.
“They eat before it get dark,” Immanuel said. “You be up right quick. Don’t make neither them wait.”
I had never, in all my childhood, passed through the shaded grove of frangipani and approached the master’s verandah. At dusk I followed Kit up the slope, feeling the pebbles, the cool grass on my feet for the first time. Kit stared stonily up at the house.
The doors stood open. A muscle in my throat fluttered, as if I’d swallowed a moth. I had once crawled under the great chimney in the laundry, twisting my neck to peer up its chute at the square of sky beyond and the clouds scuttling by. But the height of that seemed nothing in comparison with the ceiling here; and at the top, a large glass dome of a window, the faint evening light dropping in a long rope to the floor. Dust was adrift in the air. I saw carved scrollwork over the doors and heavy burgundy drapery, padded green chairs crouching on elegant curved legs. It struck me as impossibly beautiful.
“A fine, fine quiet,” Big Kit whispered, nodding. “Listen.”
We did not dare enter, not with our filthy feet and clothes, stinking—I think now—of sweat and dirt, insects in our hair. We stood uncertain, unhappy. As we had been summoned, we could not go back to the huts, but nor could we bang on the door to announce ourselves. We stared at each other.
At last Gaius, the house porter, came round the corner. I’d come to know him better in the weeks since Erasmus Wilde’s arrival, as he was sent out to the overseers more often with the master’s instructions. Gaius was tall, thin, old as driftwood. His gestures were deliberate and slow, and there was a grace to him we all of us in the huts admired and mocked because of our admiration. He had been handsome once, and in the strong cheekbones and clear forehead one could glimpse a kind of regal deportment, a man elevated beyond the ordinary. To my eyes, he was a kind of surrogate master, a man with the speech and breeding of a white man. I feared him.
He was stiff, unfriendly. But not unkind. “Good evening, Catherine. Young Washington.”
“Gaius,” Big Kit said warily. “Émilie and Immanuel come down to fetch us.” She faltered. “What do he want us for?”
“He the one.”
“Did Immanuel not tell you?”
Big Kit set a huge hand on the top of my skull. I could feel her tense; I knew she feared the master’s wrath. “He say we is to wait his table.”
Frowning, Gaius glanced past us at the twilight as though there might be someone else waiting there. “Then that is what you are to do,” he said. “I am sure he has his reasons. You will wait in the kitchens until you’re called.”
Neither of us moved.
At last Kit said, “Our feet.”
Gaius stared down at the filth caking our bare feet. Then, quite slowly, he opened his jacket and withdrew from the inner pocket of his waistcoat a huge white handkerchief, handing it to Big Kit. “Clean your feet,” he said. “Both of you. Either of you leave footprints on his marble, you’ll be sorry.”
We wiped off our feet, and then he turned and led us through the grand hall. On the far side, we stepped from the cold marble onto parquet flooring; I had never in my life seen such a thing, angles of wood braided to make a miraculous pattern. The air was cool, scented with mint. I felt my fears diminish a little. Big Kit, true, was not at ease. But I wanted to see everything, remember everything, to carry these wonders back with me when I returned to the huts. White lace, silver candlesticks, wood polished to so lustrous a sheen it looked like fresh bread. We moved past rooms filled with ancient rugs and tall old clocks and strange frozen creatures with tawny claws and outraged eyes. I stared and stared, hardly daring to blink.
“Is real, Gaius?” I whispered. “Them animals?”
Gaius stopped to glance at a huge white owl on a perch in an alcove. Its yellow eyes stared unseeing. It did not move. “They were once alive,” he murmured, almost inaudible. “Now they are dead and stuffed. The master is the same.”
“He once alive?” I whispered.
Gaius paused and studied me with his inscrutable expression. Just when I thought he would look away, he gave the faintest of smiles. “So it is said, young Washington.”
I had known Kit to be fierce, an explosive force. But here, walking the halls of Wilde Hall, she too seemed diminished, cowed, anxious. The change in her frightened me more than the frozen beasts in the hall, more than the strange, gleaming luxury surrounding us. I hurried to keep up as Gaius led us deeper into the house.
At last we entered the kitchen. It was a vast room with silver vats at a boil, a wall of heat shimmering in the air. The cook, Maria, turned startled to us, her face dusted in flour, her sleeves rolled up. There were two serving maids in the back, wrestling with an enormous canister. I searched for Émilie, but did not see her among the gusts of flour and stacks of gravy-stained dishes and large wooden blocks with cubes of peppers and yams. An enormous fire blazed in the great open fireplace, a glistening bird turning slowly on its chain as it cooked. I stared in amazement at the bounty, and felt something I had not known before wash over me—desire.
“Don’t you even do it, nigger,” Maria said sharply, as my eye caught a plate of pastries near the door.
I looked at her in fear, caught out. Something shifted in her face, softened.
“The time for that is later,” she said in a gentler voice. “When you is cleaning up, you can lick at what’s left over.”
“Is so?” I said.
“But only from the touched food, only when you are scraping their plates,” Gaius added. “It won’t do for you to eat up the fresh food.”
“We get to lick the plates, Kit,” I said, smiling up at her in wonder.
— THE TWO OF THEM were speaking as we shuffled in, Big Kit and I carrying trays of rolls and hot dishes of steaming vegetables. On a low buffet at the back wall were the dishes set out for serving that Gaius had described to us. He had warned us to be prompt, attentive, silent. That our hands, in their strange white gloves, should be always present, and our bodies always absent.
I could see how uneasy Big Kit was; she stood quietly furious, as if damning the obviousness of her body, clasping and unclasping her hands. The punishment for our plan to murder ourselves, she knew, would not be gentle. She tried to quiet her face, her gaze slow and inward.
I was terrified too, but I also could not prevent myself from glancing at the master’s plate as he ate, thinking of the sauces there, the hot yellow crusts he dropped in boredom.
I had not ever been so physically near to the master. Under the burnished candlelight he looked as he had in the field—waxy and ill, the same colour as the rind of hard cheese that lay on the table before them. His flesh was slack, tired. As I leaned in to pour the water, my hands shaking, a smell of wet paper seemed to come off his body. I noticed dried blood under his fingernails.
And yet it was to the second man that my eyes kept drifting. I had imagined he would be dark, frightening. He was not. His hair was at his shoulders; he wore a dark-blue frock coat. His fingers were long and thin, a jewelled ring on the index finger of each hand. His feet were planted wide and firmly under him where he sat, as though he might at any moment stand from his seat. And yet he sat very still as I poured the tepid water into his glass, and paused in his speech to give me a fragile smile. He ran a spidery finger down the bridge of his nose, large, arched, the nostrils slight as buttonholes, and continued in his low voice. “I have tried passing sulphuric acid over iron filings. I have tried animal bladders, silk stockings. Paper sacks. Even some of the more preposterous ones, to see if some merit was missed in them. But they were all abandoned quite rightfully, Erasmus. I think nothing works so well as hydrogen, simple hydrogen, and canvas. You should see the heights one can reach—why, ten, twenty thousand feet. It is truly spectacular. The world from up there is, well—it is God’s earth, man.”
The master was chewing and did not glance up from his meat. “But you have not been up.”
“Ah, no. Not myself. Not yet.”
“So you do not know.”
“I have read about it. Others’ reports.”
“And you imagine you will actually make it across the Atlantic in that thing.”
“I will have to undertake some test flights first, but yes.”
The master grunted. “Corvus Peak is a miserable climb. You will not like it in the heat of day.”
The second man, his eyes a stark green, made no answer.
Now the master raised his face. “You will be wanting for me to spare some slaves to carry your apparatus, I expect. What?”
The dark-haired man furrowed his brow.
“What? Speak up, man.”
The man paused, his knife and fork held above his plate. He met the master’s eye. “These potatoes,” he said instead, “they are most unusual, do you not find? The flavour is passable, but I do prefer our white varietal in Hampshire.”
“Well, I am pleased you consent to break with convention and dine at this lesser table.” The master wiped at his mouth with the edge of the tablecloth.
“You are too easily offended, Erasmus. It is potatoes.”
“My potatoes,” the master scowled. “Potatoes selected by me. It always was your passion to thumb your nose at all of my preferences. You and Father were always alike in this way. Damned judgmental.”
I was surprised at this mention of a father, and glanced at the second man. I had not thought he bore any sort of relation to the master, but now the resemblance rose to sight, like a watermark: the brisk, bright-coloured eyes, the oddly plump lower lips, the way each man punctuated the ends of certain phrases with a languid sweep of the hand, as if the gesture were being performed underwater.
The master caught the second man glancing uneasily across at Big Kit, and he laughed a sharp laugh. “What? The sow? My language cannot offend her. She has no sensibilities to offend, Christopher.”
The second man set his knife and fork quietly down.
“No matter,” said the master, waving a slow, impatient hand. “You were speaking of your improvement on Father’s air balloons, the great heights you will reach.”
“Well, they are not exactly air balloons. But yes—”
“And now you want great weights.”
The brother laughed easily, a strange sound. “I do require a second man to ride the contraption with me. For the ballast, you see. It cannot be done alone.”
“And it is my great weight you require?” The master’s eyes had soured.
“Erasmus, your greatness extends to all of your attributes.”
“You are saying I am fat, then?”
The man paused, met the master’s eyes.
“Perhaps you require something of lesser weight.” The master turned sharply; he gestured at me where I stood. I felt the water pitcher in my hands begin to tremble. I dared not meet his eye. “Why not take a nigger calf up with you? He should be light enough.”
“Leave it be, Erasmus.”
“Would that be suggestion, or instruction?”
The man took a long, slow breath. “I will never understand why you seek offence in everything I say. It is only the two of us here, and I have come for a limited stay. Would our time not be better enjoyed if we tried to understand each other?”
“Do I lack understanding?”
“What you lack,” the brother began, but then he broke off and did not continue his thought. Instead, he said, “I would not have this conversation now, in front of the help.”
“They are not the help, Titch. They are the furniture.”
The brother exhaled, rolling his eyes slightly.
“You are too soft, little brother. How is it you expect to get through a whole year here if already you are weeping at profanities used before a nigger? Heavens. All Father’s regard for you would dry up at once if he saw how soft you are become. Indeed, why did you insist on following me to this wretched place at all, given your convictions? Do you mean to steal away all my slaves while I am asleep?”
The man smiled irritably. “I have asked you to leave it.”
I was astonished to see the master suddenly smile also, and start to laugh. “So there is a man in you somewhere after all. More claret?”
His laughter, I believe, was genuine. In that moment I understood I would not ever make sense of the master, for there was not sense to be made.
As he was extending the decanter of claret, he spilled a slow red stain onto the white tablecloth. I watched it spread, like blood, seeping outwards. The colour of it, its deep redness, seemed horrifying and beautiful to me. But Big Kit shuffled silently forward, a large, dark shadow, and began dabbing at the stain at once with a white towel.
The master took no notice.
The brother cleared his throat. “I have gone through three shirts today so far. It is a devil’s climate.”
The master only gave a slight puff of his cheeks. He had not finished his thought. “This is rough work. It requires veins of steel. What, was it some fourteen, fifteen years ago only, the Easter Rebellion? Niggers set the whole bloody island afire. Vigilance is paramount, Titch. Why, I went into Bridge Town this afternoon with John Willard, he and I went up to the club.”
“The man at dinner the other night? The plump one with the red, sweating face?”
“Nay, the shorter one, the yellow-haired one in spectacles. He was a bookkeeper at Drax but found himself frustrated there—did more hunting down of the niggers than keeping ledgers, I think. He still has strong words for the management there. Why keep feeding a man of fifty who can scarce stand, when a boy of ten can cut twice the cane? said he. Willard is a man of very economical turn, I think. It is a question of wastage, said he. Indeed. The best-respected planter can walk out amongst his slaves with a ledger under his arm and just the sight of it can make a nigger skunk his drawers. He has seen it himself. You, boy. Tell me, would you soil yourself to see my brother here with a ledger?”
I could feel the master’s pale eyes on me.
“Boy,” he barked.
I did not lift my face. “Yes, sir.”
The master made a flustered noise, as if my answer did not please. “My point is, without a little grit, I will have mayhem. My task, Christopher, is to contribute to the grit. I care nothing of your science, so long as it does not interfere with my running of the estate.”
“How near are we to Haiti?” the brother asked, distractedly scraping at his plate. “The first lighter-than-air craft was launched from there—the first launch of such a craft in the Americas, I believe.”
The master paused, frowning. “Do you imagine this is how I wanted to pass my life? Fussing after niggers’ filth, stinking of sugar all day? I did not seek the responsibility out, but it found me all the same. Unlike you, I am not Father’s favourite and cannot simply roam about the world dreaming up silly contraptions. I must actually do what family duty demands.”
“You are the eldest,” the man Christopher said. “It does fall to you, brother.”
“At breakfast”—the master narrowed his eyes—“something you said then…it comes to me. Tell me—does Mother know you’re here?”
The brother paused, and stared steadily across at the master.
“You know she will go out of her wits, don’t you? All this time we have been together, and you have said nothing. All this time. Well, you simply cannot keep disappearing on her like this. Where does she think you are?”
“How can I presume to know anything that woman thinks?” The brother shrugged. “Paris, perhaps. London. I might have mentioned something about visiting Grosvenor.”
The master faintly shook his head, laughed in disgust.
“She would have poisoned me off the idea, wouldn’t she?”
“And so you thought you’d simply catch me at Liverpool and sail out? Just like that? No word of notice at all?”
“Sometimes one needs to disappear a little. It is good for the soul.”
“All this suffering, just for your damned flying rag.”
The man gave the master a level look. “It is not a rag, Erasmus. It is a Cloud-cutter.”
“And what purpose does it serve? Will it cure mankind of its ills? Will it release me from the bounds of this godforsaken island?” Big Kit was still dabbing at the stain on the tablecloth, her eyes carefully averted, and now the master noticed her. “Leave off with that,” he snapped.
Big Kit, nervous, took a few last swipes at the stain.
“I said leave off!” The master reached for his plate and, half-standing, struck Big Kit full in the face with it.
A tremendous crack rang out, blood and shards of china everywhere.
My bones jumped up in me, and I just caught the water urn before it slipped from my fingers. I stared at the master’s hands, the fresh blood on his thumb. I wanted to rush to Kit’s side but only stood gripping the jug, the lemon seeds inside clicking like teeth.
“Oh hell, I have cut myself,” said the master, swiping his hands on the tablecloth. Dropping the broken plate, he turned and strode from the room. “Maria! Maria! Heaven’s sake, where are you?”
The silence was terrible. I could hear the blood dripping through Big Kit’s fingers, where she held her face.
The second man, the brother, hesitated. At last he stood and came over to Kit, his napkin held out before him. “Here, lower your hands.”
Big Kit lowered her hands.
“Turn your head. There. Like so.”
The man was taller than any white man I had seen, as tall as Big Kit herself, and I felt his eyes pass over me as he dabbed at Kit’s face. “What is your name?” he said to me.
I glanced helplessly at Kit, met her steady, dark eyes, glanced back.
I heard rustling in the doorway, and I dropped to my knees and began picking up the bloody shards of plate. I kept my eyes on the mess on the parquet.
“For heaven’s sake, Christopher, leave it,” the master said. “Don’t make a mess of yourself. They’ll clean it up. It’s what they do.” He sounded almost pleased now, relaxed. “Listen, the custard and tansies will be along shortly. I have some hope that they will be passable. Come, man, sit down.”
— BIG KIT’S NOSE was broken.
I did not cry. Together we mopped up her blood in silence, my eyes on the floor, listening to the master absently scrape his shoes over the parquet to clean the mess off them.
The custards appeared in a warm, sugary glow. While the master ate heartily, his brother pushed his plate away, requesting instead another glass of claret. Night deepened at the windows, and I glanced up to see our reflections there, illuminated and clear, as if some other slaves stood miserable and stone-faced across from us. I searched for my eyes but could not recognize them in the boy who stood in my place, white-gloved, still. When at last the master and his brother had retired, and we had helped scrub out the enormous vats down in the scullery and stacked the steaming dishes to dry, Gaius allowed us to pick through the half-eaten food scraped onto a large platter. I had lost my enthusiasm for it, but Big Kit threw me a furious glance and then began eating fast, scooping the food with two forked-out fingers and chewing crookedly with one side of her mouth. She would wince as she did so, then open her eyes in angry surprise, then lean forward again to scoop up more food. I tasted little. I stared at her nose, refusing to forget.
Only later, as Big Kit and I descended through the blare of moonlight to the huts, did she start to talk. “Don’t you never not take what yours,” she hissed. “You was promised that food. So you take it.”
“He shouldn’t have hit you, Kit.”
“This?” She lifted her face. The nose was bleeding again. “I thought he throw us in the scullery fire for trying to get back to Dahomey. This, this nothing, boy. You never seen a bit of blood?”
Of course I had. We had lived in blood for years, my entire life. But something about that evening—the gleaming beauty of the master’s house, the refinements, the lazy elegance—made me feel a profound, unsettling sense of despair. It was not only William’s mutilation that day, knowing his head stared out over the fields even now, in the darkness. What I felt at that moment, though I then lacked the language for it, was the raw, violent injustice of it all.
“Is that it, then?” I said in a rough voice. I turned to look up at her in the moonlight. “We don’t get to go to Dahomey together?”
She paused and looked at me, very still.
“Kit? We just give in, then?”
“That’s right,” she said. “And you forget I ever said anything. Put it out your mind.”
I nodded, confused by her anger, feeling I had done something wrong. “Our shirts is a mess, Kit,” I said miserably. “We going to get in some trouble for it.”
It was then we heard, at the same moment, a rustling along the path behind us. We turned as one, Big Kit stepping slightly in front of me.
But it was only Gaius, still dressed in his fine service clothes, making his stiff way uncertainly down in the dark. When he saw us, he gave a quick, polite nod, his face unreadable.
“Gaius,” Big Kit muttered. “Don’t tell me they is sitting down to eat again?”
He shook his head. “The master has retired. He is inebriated.” When we stared at him blankly, he added, “Drunk. Master Erasmus is quite drunk. How is your nose, Catherine?”
“Still attach to my face.”
A moment passed. Big Kit said, “You ain’t come down here to ask after my nose. You lost now?” She ran a tired hand over her neck, her shoulder.
“Ah. No. You should go on to sleep now, Catherine. Your night is finished.”
She started to turn away, and I with her. Then, setting a big hand on my shoulder, she turned back. “My night finish? Wash’s night ain’t?”
Gaius gave me his strange, cold, unreadable stare. “It would seem not.”
“Mister Wilde has asked for him. He has asked you to attend to him in his rooms, Washington. This evening. Now. Do you understand?”
I did not. “The master?” I said, staring up in fear. What could he want with me?
“Not the master,” Gaius said calmly, “the master’s brother, Mister Wilde. The other man at table this evening, the dark-haired one. He wishes for you to go out to his quarters.”
“You tell him the boy is sleeping, Gaius,” Big Kit said sharply. “You say you never did find him.”
Gaius wet his lips. “I can’t do that, Catherine. You know I can’t.”
She stepped forward. “He ain’t goin’ up.”
She stared at Gaius, but he did not flinch, only looked coolly up into her face, waiting. At last he said, softly, “It isn’t for us to stop, Catherine. I’ll be needed back at the house, but you make sure Washington comes up.” And then to me he did something most strange: pinching up his fine trousers, he squatted on his haunches to look me square in the face. “Don’t keep Mister Wilde waiting, Washington. He is the master’s brother. You do not want him unhappy with you.”
“I never give him no reason to be.”
“What do he want of him?” said Kit.
“What do they ever want?” Gaius said softly, bitterly. “He wants him to do what he says and not ask why.” He rose and started to go, but then he looked back at Big Kit and said, mysteriously, “It’s an opportunity, Catherine. The boy has a chance to find safe harbour. If Mister Wilde grows fond of him—”
“Don’t you even finish that thought,” Kit said, but her voice was low, pinched.
“It gives the boy a chance,” Gaius said. His face was lost in shadow, and though I could not be certain, he sounded rather sad.
“Just get, Gaius,” Kit said. She took a threatening step towards him. “You just get now.”
The man left.
I stood a long while beside Big Kit in the bright light of the moon. At last we started walking. She seemed distressed, and I thought she must be angry because of her nose, because she did not want me to be struck also. To ease her fears I said, “Don’t you worry, Kit. He hit my nose, I won’t cry or nothing. I be just like you. You see.”
But this did not seem to help. In the water barrel behind the huts, I splashed my face and arms, rubbed at my hair, felt the fine coolness of the night-chilled water on my skin. When I opened my eyes, I saw Kit, looming up in the darkness of the hut’s shadow. She stepped forward.
“He try to touch you, Wash,” she whispered, “you put this through his eye and just keep on pushing.”
I felt her press something into my palm. I looked down. It was a nail. A long, thick, heavy iron nail hammered out in the smithy. I stood with my hand open, the nail on it warm from the heat of her fist. I glanced up at Kit, but she was already turning away.
— I CARRIED THAT nail like a shard of darkness in my fist. I carried it like a secret, like a crack through which some impossible future might be glimpsed. I carried it like a key.
I walked slowly, my heart pounding. I knew what Big Kit would have me do, but the thought of it terrified me. The path led around to the back field of Wilde Hall and into the unlit waste there at the edge of the trees. The master’s brother had taken up residence in an old overseers’ quarters—a long, low wooden building with a deep cellar that had been used for storing goods and had not been inhabited for many years. Some of the slaves would tell stories of past horrors there. Some said on moonless nights cries could be heard from that cellar still.
I was shaking. Lanterns had been lit at the edge of the verandah, and I stopped in the open doorway, peering in, hesitant, afraid to call out. No servant came to greet me. I gripped that nail tightly, staring. In the large whitewashed rooms beyond, not an uncluttered surface was to be found. On every table, on every inch of floor space, in piles, sat strange stick-like contraptions, long-spined scopes with legs like grasshoppers, plates hanging from chains.
At last, when nothing happened, I knocked softly, my hand trembling. A moth battered against one of the lanterns hanging from the ceiling.
“Who is it?” a voice called sharply. “Is that you, boy? Come. Come in here.”
I took a hesitant step in. And then I saw him, Mister Wilde, standing at the far window of the long room. He was not facing me; he was bent double, his shoulders hunched. I let my eyes take in the strangeness of his house, the windowsills strewn with velvet-lined boxes, their lids flipped open, gleaming instruments laid out within. Some held wooden cylinders with lenses at each end, like the spyglass used by the old ship’s captain who had worked as an overseer for a time—but these were stranger, different. As I passed a dining table, I saw vials of seeds, jars of ordinary dirt, powders in spills across the mahogany. The floor creaked under me as I approached, papers strewn everywhere.
“Mister, sir?” said I.
My fist clamped tight around the iron nail.
And it was this Mister Wilde saw, at once. He nodded from his terrible height. “What is it you have there? A blade? A nail?” He frowned down at me.
I started to tremble. Of course he knew. The masters knew everything.
“Well, set it down and approach. Set it there.” He pointed to a stack of papers on the floor beside me.
What could I do? I set the nail down. Knowing the fact of it, there, undeniable, was worth my life.
“Closer,” he said, impatient. “Here, hold this steady, like so. We haven’t much time.”
He try to touch you, Wash, Big Kit’s voice came back to me. Through his eye. Just keep on pushing.
I wanted to run. But he had already turned his attention back to whatever was before him.
“Make haste,” he called. “Tell me, child, have you ever witnessed a harvest moon through a reflector scope?”
My voice seemed to stick to my ribs.
He looked up from his labours and his green eyes fixed me in place. “You must see it to believe it. The moon is not as we think it to be. Here.” He shifted to one side. On a golden stand sat a long wooden cylinder angled out the window. The near end was tipped in glass.
“Set your eye here.”
I did as I was told. What I saw was a terrible blackness. Kit had explained, as I had readied myself to come here, the unspeakable acts done to boys by the overseers; and as I bent down and set my eye against the cold brass rim of the object, I felt exposed, terrified. I did not know what ugliness must follow, but I understood what Big Kit did not—that I could not fight this man, who was so much bigger than I, that violence was not in my blood. I shut my eyes, and waited.
I felt his breath, soft, near to my ear. He said, “Do you see it, boy?”
What could I say? I did not know his meaning.
“Yes, Mister Wilde, sir,” said I.
“Stunning, is it not?”
“Oh, yes, Mister Wilde, sir,” said I.
He made a noise of pleasure. “Do you see the markings? The craters? It is an entire planet, son, hanging in our field of gravity. Imagine walking that ground, pacing the edges of those craters. No foot has walked that ground before us, ever. It is innocent of all we are.”
He tapped my shoulder then, that I should step back, and squinted his own eye against the eyepiece. And then the strange man laughed.
“But you have seen nothing,” he said.
His face was still screwed to the contraption, and now he reached around to a small dial and began to turn it with the tips of his fingers. “It is a reflector scope,” he said, “of my own design. Based, of course, on the fine Dutch models of the sixteenth century. But rather more compact, I think. Now, there,” he said, stepping back. “Have a look now.”
Oh, what I saw then. The moon was huge, as orange as the yolk of a goose egg. And clearly etched upon it were deep craters and ridges, just as Mister Wilde had said. It was, I would later think, a land without tree or shrub or lake, a land without people. An earth before the good Lord began to fill it, an earth of the third day.
I could not stop myself, and breathed a sigh of amazement.
Again Mister Wilde laughed, this time pleased. “Now, boy, tell me. Why does a harvest moon rise thirty minutes later each day, as opposed to the fifty we are accustomed to seeing at other times of the year?”
He regarded me, expressionless.
“Tell me, do you think it is because its orbit is parallel to the horizon at this time of year, so that the earth does not have to turn as far?” said he.
I stared at him, anxious. I sensed that very gently, very faintly, he was mocking me.
“Ah,” he went on. “But what a conundrum.”
We were both still standing at the open window, but now he turned and began to write very quickly in a large open ledger on a stand at his elbow. He was silent a moment, and then, with his hand still scribbling, he said, “What is your name, boy?”
I lowered my face. “Wash, sir.”
“Washington. George Washington Black, sir.”
He looked up from his ledger. “I had an uncle ransomed by the Americans when they were fighting for their republic. Came to quite admire them, he did. Well, young George Washington, shall we cross our Delaware?”
When I continued to stare at him, uncomprehending, he made some further notes in his ledger, chuckling to himself. “Our Delaware,” he mumbled happily. He double-checked the positioning of the dial on his scope and wrote something else. He raised his eyes again. “Christopher Wilde,” he said, offering, I understood, his own name. “But you will call me Titch. It is what I am called by those closest to me. I was ill as a boy, you see, and became very tiny for a period—in any case, the name stuck. Over the years I have grown to embrace it. It will be strange to you at first, I am sure, but it is a fine sight more fitting than Mister Wilde. Mister Wilde is my father. And, as I have been constantly reminded by my mother, I am not he. Have you brought your things? Are they still on the porch?”
I could not imagine his meaning.
“Did the man not tell you? Well.” He gave a quick, faint smile and lowered his hands from the ledger. “You must be wondering what on earth you are doing here at this hour. You are to live here with me, Washington, as my manservant. There is much to be organized, I grant you. But you will find me an easy man to satisfy. Your real task, you see, will be to assist in my scientific endeavours. Do not concern yourself about them now. Not tonight. Tonight we shall get you settled. In the morning you shall clean all this somewhat and then we will set to.”
I must have worn a look of absolute confusion, for he paused.
“You do not object to these arrangements?” he said.
The very notion of objecting to anything had never, of course, crossed my mind. I stared at him in horror. “No sir, Mister Titch, sir,” I whispered.
“Titch,” he corrected. “Just Titch will do.”
“Excellent.” He gave me a swift, assessing look. “Yes. Yes, you are precisely the size that I need. The weight, you see, that is the key to the Cloud-cutter.”
I had hardly dared to breathe, desperately imagining he had forgotten the nail. But no sooner had he finished making this last strange remark than he crossed to the nail and picked it up.
“Ferrous,” he murmured, and then peered up at me with an unfathomable look. “We learned to work iron rather late, I have been told. A good friend of mine in the Royal Society believes we worked the purer metals first. It makes some sense, does it not? And yet we do not value iron as we value the pure metals.”
He lifted the nail into the candlelight and held it delicately. “This will be of some use, I am sure. It could be used to nail me to my cross.”
When I made no answer, he smiled, and the strangeness of that smile, its lack of malice, left me confused. And because I did not understand, I felt a deep, cold fear.
“That will be all, Washington.” Distracted, he started turning back to his ledger. But then he paused and, coming towards me, very gently handed me the nail.
“There is a bed in the far room, Washington,” he said. “Sleep easy. Sleep well.”
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