01 - 08

کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 8

01 - 08

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  • زمان مطالعه 38 دقیقه
  • سطح خیلی سخت

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8

TITCH COULD NOT begin his experiment without one last element, he said.

“Workers, Washington,” he explained to me. “Carriers, draggers, lifters, haulers, strong arms and strong wrists. We cannot carry the apparatus on our own, can we?”

And so we found ourselves in the entrance of Wilde Hall, quietly sweating. The air smelled of tea leaves, as if the house rugs had been recently cleaned. Titch had grown impatient; I watched him pace the scuffed parquet, the wood creaking faintly under his steps. He would then return to me and pause to lay a soft, tentative hand on my shoulder. His eyes kept drifting to the far corridor. Time seemed to slow, distend around us.

I do not know how long we waited. At last a silhouetted figure flitted distantly across a corridor. Titch called out to it.

His voice seemed to drift off into the shadows. There came a pause, then Gaius materialized from some unseen place, his uniform crisp as an English envelope. Seeing him, I thought he must possess more bones than the average man, so full of knots and angles was he. I imagined I could hear the light crack of his joints as he approached.

His fine, hard face stared up at Titch, betraying nothing.

“What is the holdup, man?” said Titch, his face red and tense. “We have waited fifteen minutes now without explanation. Or refreshment. Is my brother unwell?”

“No, sir.”

Titch snorted. “Well?”

“I did not know you were here, sir. I daresay Master Erasmus has not known of it, sir. Have you been received?”

“Would I be standing here if I had? Where is he?”

Gaius glanced at me, and for some seconds it seemed he did not know me. How did I appear to him now, after all these weeks away with Titch—had I changed at all? He gave no indication. I longed to inquire after Big Kit, but it was not possible. Abruptly, Gaius gave me a terse, almost invisible nod with his chin. To Titch, he said, “Master Erasmus is regrettably occupied this afternoon. We have been instructed to inform any callers that—”

“I am no caller,” Titch snapped. “I am his brother. Remind him for me.”

“Sir,” said Gaius, with a deferential dip of his head.

“Tell him if he does not greet us, he will very much regret his next dinner with me.”

“Very good, sir,” said Gaius.

But he had not moved, and stood still with his face averted. I understood he did not wish to risk the master’s wrath. A long silence passed.

“Oh, hang this,” Titch muttered. “Where is he? Is he upstairs? Come along, Washington.”

He strode from the reception hall deeper into the house. I jogged along behind him, past a sitting room heavy with velvets, the chairs undersized and delicate, the sideboards monstrous with detailed scrollwork.

We descended a wide, curving staircase and emerged into a corridor half-filled with shadow. At a small table against one wall stood a girl with a stringy rag in her fist, wiping at a blackened candlestick. I did not at first recognize her, with her newly softened posture, but then she turned, and I saw the beige richness of her skin, the strong cheekbones. It was Émilie, her face framed by the crisp white bonnet hovering like crumpled paper upon her hair. She paused at the sight of me, then shyly lowered her eyes.

My face grew hot and I glanced instinctively down, and that is when I saw it: her rounded belly, pressing against the starched fabric of her scullery whites.

I could not keep the shock from my face; I stared and stared. It was a common-enough occurrence at Faith for a woman to be taken with child, though actual births were rare, given the conditions in which the mothers toiled. But this I had never expected, Émilie being just eleven, and beautiful and inviolate and God’s own angel. It was a slap to me that the father might be any man on the land, even the master himself. I watched Émilie’s stilled hands on the brass candlestick, and I felt a wrenching inside, a sadness so bracing I had to look away.

Titch sensed nothing of our discomfort; he was impatient to get on with his day. “Well?” he demanded. “Where is he?”

Émilie turned and glanced very deliberately behind her at a door left ajar. A blade of light fell from it. Inside was a small, narrow room, a laundry, stinking bitterly of soda and wet wool. And at the far end of it, facing us but hunched over a creaking table, stood Erasmus Wilde.

He was wielding a large, black, hissing artifact, built of iron, leaning his weight into it. I saw, as we neared, that he was pressing it across a blue cotton shirt. It was then he glanced up.

But how astonishing to see him like that, engaged in so low a labour, his face strangely attractive in its distraction, the full bottom lip, the eyes colourless as a glass of water. I glimpsed a sort of brittle prettiness in his features, a delicacy.

But then the master smiled a sudden, tight smile, and the moment passed. “Christopher,” he said softly. “You have been waiting.”

“I have.”

The master shrugged. With two hands he lifted the iron monstrosity to one side of the shirt. “I instructed that Gaius boy to dismiss you. I ought to crush his skull and find better help.”

“He did warn us you were occupied,” Titch said, wrinkling his forehead. “Do not fault him. I had not realized how pressing your business was.”

“Ah, very droll,” said Master Erasmus. But he did not smile. “You are surprised to see me so engaged?”

“Nothing surprises me,” said Titch. “It is my iron constitution.”

“Wonderful,” said the master. “Amusing.”

We stood, no one speaking for a long moment. Steam gasped from the iron’s underside.

“Well?” said Titch.

“I am waiting to see if your wit is quite worn itself out. Now what is it you want of me?”

“Not laundering, certainly.”

“That is what your nigger calf is for,” the master said pleasantly. “Why else did I lend him?”

Titch nodded, raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. “Now you have struck on my very purpose. I am here because I require more hands.”

“Indeed,” said the master. “For your balloon contraption, I assume?”

“My Cloud-cutter, yes. It is as you foresaw.”

The master tipped the black-faced iron up and spat onto its surface; it gave but the faintest hiss. The smell of rusted metal filled the room. “You have killed my heat,” he said distractedly.

“I ask but fifteen men only. I will accept strong women among them, if it would serve you better. Fifteen workers, Erasmus. And I will need them only for the time it takes to transport and assemble the cutter on Corvus Peak. A week. Perhaps two.”

“Corvus Peak?”

“Its altitude will do nicely, I think.”

“Corvus Peak is no small expedition, little brother.”

“Which is why I ask for the additional labour.”

The master pursed his lips. “This Cloud-cutter, as you call it—remind me, now. It is rather dangerous, is it not?”

Titch paused. “Dangerous?”

“Mm.”

“Anything is dangerous without proper precautions. Riding in a carriage is dangerous.”

“Hardly to the same degree.”

“It will be tethered at each ascent, Erasmus. And only myself and the boy will go up in it. I expect the risk should prove minimal to any others.”

“The boy is my property.” This the master said without even a glance at me. “Did you not tell me once this contraption could prove explosive?”

“Previous models have, yes,” said Titch, a wariness entering his voice. “Not my own design, not this design. The gas is relatively stable, so long as it is carefully handled.”

“And you trust the niggers to handle it so.”

“The men will be supervised, brother.”

The master spread his empty arms wide, shrugged. “Regretfully, it cannot be done,” he said simply. “I cannot lose fifteen niggers. The field hours alone make it impossible. No.”

Titch did not appear surprised. “How many?”

“How many what?”

“How many men can you spare?”

“I tell you it is considerable revenue that would be lost. I could part perhaps with one.”

“Not sufficient. Did you not say that while I was here I would have use of some of your resources for my experiments? Did you not say that?”

The master grunted. “I did not mean to the detriment of profitability.”

“Profitability,” Titch scoffed.

Master Erasmus made a sharp gesture at me. “Watch your tone.”

“Do you believe them capable of understanding, then?”

“I believe them capable of mischief. I believe them capable of malice.”

The bolts of the ironing table creaked plaintively as the master began to fold his shirt. In the dust-swarmed room I could suddenly hear the high, nervous humming of Émilie at work in the outer hall.

“Twelve, then,” said Titch.

“Two niggers, no more.”

“Ten men.”

The master gave a long, tired exhale, as if struggling to keep his patience. “We are not exchanging apples in Madame Aileen’s orchards, Christopher. We are not seven years old.”

“Ten men and women, Erasmus, and I shall ask nothing more of the field labour.”

“Ten niggers, then. But only at the end of their workday.”

But that is our time, I thought. The sole waking hours that belong to us. I remembered those short hours as the calmest time of day in the huts. We all of us would gather to eat, tell stories.

Titch was shaking his head. “That is un-Christian, brother, the Negroes need their rest like anyone. What good would it do them to work for me in the dark? There would be injuries. And what good would they be to you during the day, tired from working twice, half of them injured—”

“And so?”

“Nine, then. But relieved entirely from other duties for the duration of my project.”

“You seem rather sanguine about how hard you will be working them yourself, Titch. Where is your famous conscience now?”

“I will be answerable to that. Will you lend them?”

“Five, was it?”

“Nine.”

The master sighed. He frowned at his iron, pausing a long while. He seemed to be slowly recalling something. Clearing his throat, he said, “Yes, nine, so be it. You are nothing if not persistent, little brother. Listen to me, there is a matter of real importance I have been meaning to raise with you.”

Titch cocked his head, peering down at his brother. He waited.

“Five evenings ago I received a letter postmarked Kingston. What business could be coming from Kingston, said I. Well, it seems cousin Philip could be coming from Kingston. He threatens us with his imminent arrival.”

“Philip?” Titch’s eyes narrowed, and he fell abruptly silent. It was as if he had been told a visitation were upon him, as though a ghost, not a man, would appear. “Philip is here? Whatever for? Philip. My god.”

“Indeed.”

“Did he write of his purpose? He would not have sailed for pleasure.”

“Nothing gives him pleasure. I’m sure we shall learn of it soon enough.”

“Philip in Kingston.” Titch closed his eyes, a faint line of worry rising between them. He shook his head. “And this is the first you are hearing of it? It is a mighty risk he takes, waiting so long to inform us of his arrival.”

“Ah.” The master smiled a cruel smile. “He did write some weeks ago, but I did not believe his intentions serious. It appears I was mistaken. He did not move so fast when we were boys.”

Titch frowned at his brother, said nothing.

“Fat as a Liverpool wharf rat, he was.” The master laughed. “And so dour, so morose. Good god, I hope the poor man doesn’t attempt to kill himself. I would rather he killed me—I’d no longer have to suffer his moods.”

“He comes by it honestly, in any case,” Titch said a little sharply.

“Well,” said the master. “I shall require you to collect him in Bridge Town when he arrives.”

“Consider it done. Is that all?”

“And I shall require you to lodge him.”

Titch stood blinking some moments. “Have you not a single room to spare among the five wings of Wilde Hall?”

“They are all under repair, brother.”

“I see.”

“He will eat and eat and brood and eat and he will be sick every morning. I have not space enough for the drama.”

“Erasmus.”

“I could always lodge him with the niggers,” the master grinned.

Titch did not smile at that. “He is to stay how long?”

“I am told three months. I do not believe it.”

“He will not last a fortnight,” said Titch thoughtfully. “Deliver me those nine men and you can consider the matter settled. I will welcome Philip with a full plate and bottles of wine.”

“He does love a spectacle, our cousin,” said Master Erasmus, distractedly running a hand over his pressed shirt. “Now, may I continue with my day unmolested?”

— THE FOLLOWING MORNING Erasmus Wilde delivered, as promised, nine wasted slaves, his sickliest possessions.

Titch began the venture by granting them a day’s rest, offering them a simple meal of maize and cod and clean, cooled water. Then, the next morning, he set them the task of cutting a workable trail through to the base of Corvus Peak, and only then did they begin to carve out a path halfway up the scree. A rough pulley system was constructed and set into place for hauling the instruments and heaviest objects the last of the distance to the top. Titch now spent his days among them. I would see them always from the corner of my eye as I worked at Titch’s various ongoing experiments. I would be fishing worms in a field, my nape stinging with sun, and I would see by the side of my eyes women and men flickering on the slope, carrying on their heads rolls of wicker, baskets of cloth, newly forged iron bolts that winked against the blueness of the sky. And though they were far away, I imagined I could hear them talking, the scorch of their bronzed voices. I thought of Big Kit. But she was not among them.

Of the nine, most of whom knew me and who averted their eyes from my person, I spoke only to James Madison, “Black Jim” as he was known. But when I asked after Big Kit, if she had no secret missives for me, he stared silently back with dark, pebble-like eyes. I understood then that to his thinking I had been swallowed whole by the white man’s world as even Gaius and Émilie were not. My eyes burned with the shame and anger of his rejection. The pain of it was bracing.

Slowly the trail was cut, and the strange, monstrous parts of the Cloud-cutter began to be transported towards Corvus Peak. I watched as heavy crates were hauled away by four people at a time, as sacks filled with iron ingots were thrown over shoulders. There were long ropes of varying thickness, and boxes of glass instruments that could not be dropped, and tarpaulins and oilcloths and great twists of fabric. I observed it all in wonder.

But all work ceased on the morning of Mister Philip’s arrival, for Titch did not trust his workers beyond earshot. The night before, Titch had eaten in preoccupied silence, and then, exhaling harshly, glanced at me in surprise and asked me to dust and make up an extra room. I felt a sudden dread; I had feared from the first that this odd, peaceable domesticity with Titch must end. I understood now, no matter his cousin Philip’s temperament, there would be less tolerance and more severity with another white master in the house. I felt a rope of fear uncoil in my stomach.

We set out in the carriage after breakfast, Titch insisting I ride inside with him. “You do not take up very much space, Washington, it is all right. Do close the door firmly.” He wore on his face the pinched gaze of a man meeting a punishment directly.

“Is he so very bad, Titch?” I asked.

Titch smiled in alarm. “Bad? Oh, Washington, have you been troubled all this while? Heavens no. Philip is a fine sort. A little melancholy, it must be said—well, very melancholy—but on the whole a rather sporting fellow.”

Titch fell to staring out the window at the passing fields; he did not appear entirely at ease. The carriage bumped and rattled along the roadway. He fixed his green eyes on me. “We three, Erasmus, Philip and myself, we played together and entered society in the same years. But a distance grew up between us as our lives and duties took over.”

Titch’s shoulders swayed as the carriage rounded a corner and began a slow descent. The sun was baking in through the windows. They did not open.

“Philip is very decent, very decent.” He smiled to himself, a distracted, sad smile. “For a long time now he has refused to shake hands, so frightened is he of being touched. Molecules, you see. He believes there are molecules about that will make him ill. My mother is the same way. No, Philip is lovely, on the whole. Only somewhat low-spirited, perhaps, and with a hearty appetite. If I hesitate, I suppose it is only from a general dread of company. We all of us wish for it, in our solitude, but on the eve of a great visit, we shudder.”

He drew out a slow breath, and in the silence there was the clatter of hooves on the dirt road. It was a beautiful day, the light blaring out over the rustling crops.

“Mine is a strange family, Washington, stranger than most, I think.” Titch clasped his hands in his lap, his hat upended on the seat beside him. His dark hair was mussed. I glanced out at the passing slave huts, dirt-hued and roofless. “I think I mentioned that Mother and Father are not well-suited. It is not the fate of my class to marry for affinity. We all have our duties, and must fight for our freedoms.” He looked at me, and blushed. “Well.” He was silent a moment. “My father takes a mechanical view of the world. He believes that man can know everything there is to know if only he can unlock nature’s secrets. And he has discovered much, it’s true, but the one thing that has defied all his powers of inquiry is my mother’s heart. He simply cannot begin to understand her. This I have much sympathy for, as I cannot fathom her either. She is almost irrationally headstrong. She claims it is because she was born in the north of the country, where the rain is very cold and does not let up all year.”

I tried to imagine the cold north of Titch’s country. I could not. “Is that where your cousin is from also?”

“Ah, indeed, no—Philip is my father’s cousin’s boy, our second cousin. For many decades now their branch of the family has resided in London. They keep townhouses in Grosvenor Square.”

“He is from London,” I repeated.

Titch reached forward, squeezed my shoulder. “It does you no credit to fret so, Washington. Philip is a gentle-enough character. You shall see.”

— AS THE CARRIAGE entered Bridge Town, I sat up higher on the bench, pressing my brow to the hot glass. I had not once visited its streets; such a privilege was granted only to select slaves, never a field cutter. I stared in wonder. So many buildings. Their wooden slats silvered from decades of hurricane weather, and before them, pale, brightly dressed people bustled through the streets. Swells of dust boiled up off the roads. Horses trotted past, heads low in the heat, flies swarming. We clattered past a sailor on a street corner blowing through some bizarre knot of pipes, while beside him a second danced along to his own fiddle, his fingers flying like shadows over the strings. We stopped in the sudden traffic; through the carriage oozed the stink of overripe fruit carted in from the port, and of immense slabs of tuna starting to turn in the heat. At a passing market stall I glimpsed their fishy eyes, fissured with blood as they gawked on beds of cool leaves.

All this I wanted to remember, on that first trip into the town; all this I wanted to hold in my mind to draw later. The carriage rattled softly under us as the horses jogged across a kind of boardwalk. And then you could not help but see it, your eyes rising: there, above the hills of the town, among the dark trees, flashed an endless white swarm of enormous windmills. I leaned forward, pressing my hands against the glass.

“But you have seen windmills, Washington, powering your own sugar mills,” Titch said, surprised at my interest. “I suppose it is that you have never seen so many all at once like this. Well, it is a monstrous spectacle.”

Bridge Town seemed to extend forever, to my innocent eye. I kept trying to imagine the rooftops I had glimpsed from Corvus Peak, but could not do so. As we descended towards the water, I saw groves of lemons, limes, oranges. I glanced up. Gun batteries loomed over the entrance to the harbour. When at last we reached the wharf, Titch swung open the carriage door and unfolded himself down into the street. He set his hat carefully on his head.

“No need for you to brave this heat, René,” he called to the driver. “I shall fetch my cousin myself.”

Out he went into the throng of people, his elbows slightly raised the better to get by. I climbed down and brushed off the folding step to stand at the carriage door; it would not do to be seen waiting inside, seated like a master’s son. I saw we had pulled up on the landward side of a wide wooden boardwalk. Piers, platforms and gangways ran alongside the harbour, great wooden vessels moored high overhead. Everywhere people called out, their voices bright and harsh; luggage thundered down gangplanks; sweating black porters hoisted above their heads crates of pale new wood. There was everywhere much colour, and great motion.

We waited. René stood with a hand on the harness, near the horses. He did not speak to me.

At last Titch was wending his way back through the crowds, his arm around the shoulders of a dark-haired man. I felt my heart flutter into my throat; my legs seemed to thrum. For though the man shared Titch’s finely boned face, the same black hair and jade-coloured eyes, he was far thicker through the waist, and his face was set differently, so that he appeared flinty, and cautious. I did not like the look of him.

Behind them came two porters, rolling the visitor’s large leather trunks. I stepped forward at once and began instructing them about how and where to set each on the carriage’s roof. Titch’s cousin took no notice of me, but stepped past and into the carriage, waving his hat before his face for the heat. The flies were biting. And I saw that while the man was portlier than Titch, he was by no measure enormous. All their talk of his eating had given me to think he’d be gargantuan. He was not even half of Big Kit’s girth. His arms, awkwardly thin, folded oddly out from his body. A strange creature indeed.

I double-checked the knots to be certain the man Philip’s baggage would not be lost during the dusty ride back to Faith Plantation. Then I scrambled back down and climbed up into the carriage. I swung the door shut with a satisfying bang.

Mister Philip stared. “Rides in here with you, does he?”

“Excuse me,” said Titch, gesturing to me. “This is Washington. My assistant.”

“Washington?” Mister Philip said with soft displeasure. “I’d rethink that name if I were you, Titch. Makes a mockery of the poor creature.”

“I did not choose it, Philip. It is his name.”

“Well, rename him, then, for goodness’ sake. However did he get such a name?”

“My uncle Richard, I imagine,” said Titch. “Richard Black. Indeed, most of the slaves were given fairly benign names, but others seem to have been christened rather queerly. René, after Descartes, Immanuel, after Immanuel Kant, Émilie, after Émilie du Châtelet.”

I jolted softly at her name. So many weeks had passed since I’d last glimpsed sight of her at Faith that only now, in the cloistered warmth of our carriage, did I realize I had given up searching. She was clearly no longer at Wilde Hall. Where had she gone, then, so heavy with child? Was the baby now born? I understood I would likely never find out, for those who disappeared from Faith were never, not ever, seen again.

“Richard Black,” said Mister Philip, shaking his head. “Heavens. The man was a lunatic.” Mister Philip flitted his green eyes at a lady passing outside, her bonnet reeling back from her face in a slap of wind. He glanced suddenly back at me. “What a smell in here.”

“It smells fine,” frowned Titch.

Mister Philip shrugged, crossing his legs, shifting his bulk. “I did always find that lot insufferable, the Blacks. All their hymns and sermons. I should sooner suffer a charnel house than visit good Felicia Black’s dinner table yet again.”

“I thought them rather clever. Bookish branch of the family.”

“Well, you can keep them.”

“Heaven keeps them now.”

“Heaven does. Making better use of the afterlife, one hopes. Lord knows they wasted their time down here. Cornelius Black wore out his miserable knees in their little chapel.”

“Blasphemer,” smiled Titch.

“Ought to have worn out his wife’s knees, that would have been heaven. Or holier. If you take my meaning.”

“Good god, man!”

“Come now. You wouldn’t argue your aunt Amelia hadn’t a heat to her cheeks, would you?”

Titch was very studiously examining the dust on the rattling pane. “She was very handsome, yes.”

“Died looking like a sack of chicory, what. But in her prime? Oh.” Mister Philip closed his eyes theatrically. “Your failing, good cousin, was always a lack of appreciation for the world’s bounty. You would rather suffer the grotesque than know beauty first-hand.”

Titch laughed. “The grotesque?”

“All your scientific nonsense. It’s a pity, really.”

“Some pity. My father and I are satisfied enough.”

“Yes,” said Mister Philip, and something shifted in his face. It was difficult to say, but he looked almost guilty. “Well. In any case. I see you are in fine health. Erasmus is well too, I hope? I am ever so eager to see him again.”

“Erasmus has business at another plantation. Indeed, he will be the whole week away, even two, perhaps. He truly did want to be present at your arrival, but I understood it was a matter of some urgency.”

“I see,” said Mister Philip, and I thought I glimpsed a dim anxiety beneath his easy, relaxed smile. “Well.” He was silent some moments. “Well.”

Titch glanced from the window back to his cousin. “And how is my mother?”

Philip sighed. “You are sorely missed in Hampshire, Christopher. It took the poor lady an age to ferret out your whereabouts. Erasmus, apparently, sent along a letter. Said you’d gone soft-witted and chased him all the way to this godforsaken wasteland, instruments in tow. I cannot say she took it very well. Nearly went half-mad herself.”

“So then she is fully there,” Titch muttered, but a flush rose slowly in his cheeks. “But she is generally well?”

“Your mother is forever ailing and she will outlive us all, I daresay. Outlive England herself, perhaps.”

Titch smiled. “A fine observation from you, man. Have you not her same fear of molecules?”

“It has passed,” Mister Philip murmured, “the molecules.”

We rolled onto Broad Street, and I raised my face to see a series of large hardwood cages, silvering and flaking in the sun. Within them, slaves sat or paced or rested their sun-sore faces against the bars. The ground at their feet was strewn with cast-off clothes and their own horrid waste, and drifting slowly by we could smell the obscene yellow reek of it.

Mister Philip did not ask about them. But I knew these to be runaways. The house slaves had often mentioned this makeshift street prison with a dark pleasure at having witnessed it. No man would raise his face, and I was relieved to catch no one’s eye. I stared at a short, thickly built man, his muscles draped in stained rags. His face was expressionless, as though he had outlived his urges, or lost the very memory of desire. He might yet be retrieved by his master, and maimed, and allowed to live.

I flattened my palm against the sun-warmed pane, a dark apparition of a boy gliding by in his fine service linens.

“Such a dreary place,” said Mister Philip, yawning against his fist. “I cannot imagine how you tolerate it.”

— I COULD NOT have described him so then, but Mister Philip was merely a man of his class, nothing more. His great passions were not passions but distractions; one day was but a bridge to the next. He took in the world with a mild dissatisfaction, for the world was of little consequence.

He was often, it is true, in a grey, grey mood. On these days he could be silent for hours, as if mulling over a problem of exquisite difficulty. He liked to walk the scrub hills with Titch on our collecting expeditions, but he would bring a shotgun, and attempt to hunt as we went. This shotgun was a source of some teasing from Titch, as Mister Philip took much finer care of it than even his own appearance. In dress he was expensive but hastily tossed together, always some button or string dangling. His gun and his stomach were his chief obsessions, and in the nurturing of these he was fanatical. He had little hunger but much appetite, and was thoughtful but decisive in his requests for dishes. He would eat fried plantain and sweet potatoes by the pound, would graze on salted cod and turtle stew. He ate cassava topped with raw oysters, marlin eyes stewed in hollandaise. He devoured glass after glass of mobby, bowl upon bowl of custards. In the mornings he slept late; in the afternoons he would be found slumped in a cane rocking chair on the verandah of our quarters, a lemon water in his hand. He spoke little to me, beyond soft commands. But one day, as I sketched alongside Titch before a dish of Scotch bonnet snails, he glimpsed my drawing and, grunting, took the paper from me, holding it out in amazement.

“You have seen this, cousin?” he said.

Titch glanced up, smiling. “Washington has a rare gift, does he not?”

Mister Philip shook his head. “You have put ideas in a slave’s head, Christopher. You should be more careful. No good ever came of it.”

“You sound like Erasmus.”

“I have read my Gibbon. You would do well to read it again.”

Titch frowned. “The Romans did not collapse because their slaves learned to draw.”

Mister Philip returned the paper to me. “Everything begins somewhere.”

Despite his general mildness, I feared him, of course. He wandered the halls of Titch’s residence with the lost expression of a ghost, his exquisite frock coats straining across his chest, the heat plastering his hair to his forehead.

“Boy,” he would call softly to me in the evenings as I kneeled polishing the dark mahogany floors with coconut husks. I would freeze in the rope of light from the nearby window, feeling the shudder of his steps crossing the boards. He had never struck me, but the possibility floated between us like a thread of music. “You are not an artist when it comes to food,” he said gently, like a disappointed father. “This night’s chicken was not good. Too much salt, too much ginger, what. You must do better tomorrow.”

I nodded, even as his dark form retreated.

As the days passed, however, I began to understand that he would not make blistering use of his fists, as the master would. In fact he seemed, on certain afternoons, to be startled by the sight of the labouring slaves, as if their shadows were a sudden darkness marring the picturesque island holiday he’d imagined for himself. “Well,” he’d say somewhat cheerlessly, sounding strained, “no progress without blood, I suppose.” Then he’d turn rigidly from the sight, as though a chill had entered him, and make his slow, considered way back to Titch’s quarters.

Over the weeks, my fear of Mister Philip eased, though my wariness of him remained. Some nights, when the eating proved too much, Mister Philip would remove himself to the east-facing sitting room and collapse upon a chaise. On these occasions I would creep into the room with my leads and tattered sketchbook. There he’d lie, his mouth slackening back to reveal a dark-pink gullet, wheezing out the smell of sweet milk. And I would begin to draw his form, starting with the ferocious roots of his toes, stockingless and gnarled on the rug. Then I would go up, up, ending in the white, chick-like down at his temples.

These sketches were some of the softest I ever drew. True, I had done technically better ones, ones in which a flower looked so powdery it seemed the paper might break apart at a touch. But these secret etchings of the glutton were strangely vivid, underlit with a tenderness I did not understand. I showed them to no one, Titch least of all.

Each night in my room I tore them up, burned them piece by piece in the candle’s flame.

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