01 - 05

کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 5

01 - 05

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  • زمان مطالعه 15 دقیقه
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5

WHEN I AWOKE, at first dawn, I was still clutching that nail.

I understood at once two things. First, that I would not be returning to Kit, and our hut, and her dark, powerful presence. And second, that she had known this even then, the night before, as I was being drawn away.

I stood in the half dark of the strange, small room, my skin pimpling with cold, feeling very small and alone. The air stank of sap, as though green timber had once been housed there. I rubbed my bare shoulder, my joints strangely out of place. The linens lay tangled in a grey twist. In all my years I had slept on nothing but a dirt floor, and throughout the night I had kept jolting awake, startled by the soft collapse of the mattress.

The strange house might have been deserted. I arose, and went to press my ear to the door. I took a step back, and stood waiting in the centre of the room with my arms at my sides. For I was alarmed by the calm, waiting for the door to bang open, for the man Titch to bark instructions at me. The minutes passed; no one came.

To the right of the door, on a stand, sat a basin of water. Its surface was flecked with dust, a silvery-green fly floating in it. Just beside the bowl lay a small white cloth, along with a little wooden stick with bristles in it, and a tin with a fanciful picture of cherries. I slid a fingernail under the rusting lid and sniffed: a chalky, scratchy smell, like when two warm rocks are pounded together.

I was an innocent, true, but I was no fool. I understood I was to clean myself and make myself presentable, as the house slaves must do; but these very instruments appeared torturous in their mystery. At last I picked up the linen and, wetting it, wiped at my face.

I was astonished at the brownish-red grime that came off. I scrubbed harder: along the walls of my nose, behind my ears, I squatted and washed between my toes and stood and rubbed the folds of my neck. The water had turned a quite beautiful, quite astonishing black. I stared at it in wonder, my skin tingling.

Still no one came for me. I felt an increasing dread. Surely my presence was required someplace, surely I was late for some task?

I slipped the long fang of the nail under the mattress for safekeeping and went out into the corridor.

“Mister Titch, sir?” I called, my voice too loud in the stillness. “Sir?”

The air was still and hot, and smelled of some nutty substance, earthy and edible, and of freshly washed stone. Peering down the hall, I saw a bright room already filling with sun, dust turning in the white light. A window glowing with sunlight. I entered the room, and the tattered burgundy rug under my naked toes was like some stiff, dead creature. I shuddered. Stepping back, I moved quietly to the next doorway.

And then I saw him.

He stood alone in his shirtsleeves, in the bare kitchen, his back to the window. A plate of greyish eggs sat on the table beside him. How tall and thin he looked, how pink. He was reading an opened sheaf of papers, and in his slender hands he rotated and picked apart the shell of an egg. He did not sense my presence. I was afraid to interrupt him, and so I stood, gaping, nervously observing his thicket of black hair, the way he popped the peeled egg into his mouth, his quick, irritable chewing. He had, I noted, a fine white scar cutting up from either corner of his mouth and across his cheeks to his ears, as if a thread had been set on his tongue and yanked upwards. It gave the impression of a crack.

He looked sharply up.

“Washington,” he said.

I flinched, smiling in alarm.

He clapped his hands together, bits of eggshell falling from his fingers onto a chopping block. “Well? Are you quite rested?”

I began to nod in apology, but he was already speaking again.

“Very good, then. Come, come. Are you skilled at all in laundering? No, I’d thought not. I have sent for one of Erasmus’s domestics to deliver your livery this morning, and I shall request she take the time to school you in the laundry, among other things. I do not suppose you to have any knowledge of English cuisine? Oh, how blessed you are. That is a joke, Washington. I prefer a French kitchen myself, but I understand it to be beyond the means of Bridge Town. Therefore, we must make do with the English. There is one salvation, one meal for which I had all the ingredients: I have taken the liberty of preparing for us this morning a light hollandaise. It is one of my most skilled recipes. My secret? The juice of two limes and a touch of Ceylon ginger. I wager you will taste no finer hollandaise in Amsterdam herself. Now, listen, I brought back many spices from my journeys in the East—these you will find in the cupboards. You must use them liberally. I have grown so dependent—I can eat nothing without them. Everything here has the taste of walking stick.” He paused. “I make only one restriction. And that is, you are never to use sugar. I will not abide it. You will find none in my larder, and I want none brought over from my brother’s residence.”

What was I to make of this stream of language? Mister Titch took me by the shoulder and firmly—if gently—steered me into the adjoining room, which had been set with a large mahogany table and six mismatched chairs. I stared at the two white plates, set facing each other.

“Sit,” he gestured, and, seeing my confusion, smiled in vague exasperation and sat himself. “I do not intend to dine while you watch, Washington, hovering over me like a murderer. Sit. It is not a request.”

Moistening my lips, I sat at table in the soft, monstrous upholstered chair, across from a white man who possessed the power of life and death over me. I was but a child of the plantation, and as I met his gaze with my own, my mouth soured with dread.

He took up his fork; I took up mine. I held it clumsily, in a loose fist.

An eerie, pale orb of sauce lay at the centre of each of our plates.

Mister Titch began to eat, very deliberately, as if to school me. “Erasmus has loaned you to me for the duration of my time here. I trust this suits you.” He paused, nodded with seriousness to the fork in my hand, and waited.

I scooped up a dollop of the hollandaise, ate it. I did not betray my disgust.

He smiled. “How shocked my mother would be to see you seated at table with me.” He laughed a single sharp laugh at the thought of her imagined reaction. “Well. I’ve hardly brought you here only to dine. You shall become my assistant. I am hoping you will have intelligence enough to grasp a few simple skills that will be useful to me.”

“Yes, Mister Titch, sir.” I had no idea of his meaning; I offered him, simply, what I hoped he expected to hear.

He took up an enormous forkful of hollandaise. “Excellent,” he said, his mouth full.

I made no response.

“Your old master, Richard Black—he was our uncle, our mother’s elder brother,” he continued. “When he passed away, all his estates came down to my brother, including Faith Plantation. Erasmus had hoped, I suppose, that my father might be around to offer his counsel. But Father, he is a true man of science. It is not in his nature to be running estates, getting after tenants’ rents, the like. Indeed, even when he was home, at Granbourne, that task had already fallen to Erasmus. Father spends much of his time away on research trips. At this very moment, in fact, he is on an extensive voyage to the Arctic. He has been from home a year already, and will stay away two more at least.” He sighed. “I don’t suppose Erasmus actually enjoys his responsibilities. But he has a good head for numbers and a winning way with people when he makes the effort, which, I confess, is rarely.”

Mister Titch took two swift bites, swiping at his mouth as he chewed. “With Uncle Richard now gone, Erasmus has to run not only our Granbourne, but Uncle’s Sanderley, and his Hawksworth also. Faith Plantation, too. It is my brother’s plan, I think, to spend most of his time here, in West India, with only periodic trips back to England. It is Faith which needs the most nurturing, says he. Which simply means that it is Faith that supplies the others their money.”

I blinked and blinked, and did not fully meet his eye. I was surprised by his great need to talk, as though he had gone several years without companionship.

“Our family fortunes have been in decline some years now, given the expense of Father’s scientific pursuits. But lo and behold, Uncle Richard’s entailment has brought us wealth again.” He sighed bitterly.

I could understand almost none of this. Mister Titch sensed this, and set down his fork with a frown.

“Yes?” said he.

I said nothing, terrified.

“Go on,” he said more gently.

I dipped my head, but I did not speak.

“You are wondering, I think, why I have come when clearly I do not have to be here,” he said, though I had wondered no such thing. “Well, now I am come, I wake every day asking that very thing.” He smiled. “A joke, Washington. In truth, I wanted to run away, and I needed a place to run to. So one morning I simply packed my things and set out for Liverpool without telling anyone. I knew Erasmus would be sailing before month’s end, and I stormed his rooms and made the case for allowing me to join him. The West Indies—how much there is to learn! What a rare and miraculous opportunity! I had done much research about wind currents in the northwestern hemisphere, and it occurred to me that here might be the perfect place to launch the aerostat I’d half-heartedly designed. And so I revisited the designs in earnest, and spent the weeks before the crossing amassing the materials for transport.”

He ate several more bites, chewing slowly. “It helps that I require very little in the way of creature comforts to survive—just my instruments, a little food now and again. Shelter needn’t be fancy, and I can get on quite well without manservants, providing I have an able assistant at hand. Indeed, before coming here, I was in Istanbul some seven months with only a local boy to attend me. Do you know that in Istanbul the ladies veil their faces? I tell it true. Quite bewitching.”

What an odd man this was, who had a mother and yet so little regard for her, and still seemed to me warm enough in his person.

“Now, on to more practical matters,” Mister Titch continued, slapping his slender hands together over his empty plate. “Cooking, laundry—these are not to be neglected. But your true work, as I have mentioned, will be to aid me in my experiments. You are precisely the size for my Cloud-cutter. Ballast is key, you understand. I can see by your intelligent eyes that you might be able to learn a fact or two, though I understand my intellectual questions are not so easily absorbed. Yes, we shall get along together rather fine, I think. You will do very well. In fact—” He rose suddenly, and strode over to the sideboard, where he snatched up a paper and came to my end of the table, leaning close.

I could hear the whistle of breath in his throat, smell the cuttlefish stink of soap on his wrists. I thought of the black nail, lying like a fine blade under the mattress.

But Mister Titch only smoothed out the paper on the table before me, the onionskin crackling as he ran his fingers along it. And then he did something wonderful.

From somewhere within the lining of his clothes he withdrew a small stub of pencil. He drew, very quickly, an enormous smooth ball in a kind of webbing. I had never seen anything like it. He sketched in the shadows and the light, and the ball seemed to lift from the page. There were ropes falling from it, and beneath the orb he drew in a fantastical boat, with two fronts, and oars hanging out into the air.

I had never seen such artistry. I stared at the paper in amazement. And suddenly I knew that I wanted—desperately wanted—to do it too: I wanted to create a world with my hands.

When I raised my eyes, Mister Titch’s own were shining. “What say you?” he said.

It is a wonder, I thought, an absolute wonder. I said only, “Nice, sir.”

“I have been re-engineering it some three years.” He took the paper from me and held it up to the light. “My father hazarded a similar design some thirty years ago, but he never troubled beyond an initial conception. My father has, well—he would be much astonished at what I have fashioned here. He thought his own creation too unstable. The gases, you see. But how the science of aerostation has changed since his day. I believe mine will actually fly, and for a goodly distance.”

He turned suddenly to me, making a noise low in his throat. “Ah, but of course—you are unlettered. Well, we must attempt to remedy that, if we possibly can. You can hardly assist me without your letters. I will need you to record measurements, equations, outcomes, I will need you to read them back to me in the evenings.”

“Yes, Mister Titch, sir.”

He paused, frowned at me. “Come now. What did I say about that? What are you to call me?”

“Titch?”

“Very good. All right.”

I stared up at his glistering green eyes, the lashes matted, black as the legs of flies. And my smile was a smile of terror.

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