01 - 09

کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 9

01 - 09

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  • زمان مطالعه 15 دقیقه
  • سطح خیلی سخت

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9

AND SO THE WEEKS passed much as they had before, except that we had among us an unending hunger in the form of a living man. The master finally returned from his business across the island, but he came back ill and shivering, and shut himself away at Wilde Hall. When his newly arrived cousin and his brother came to call, they were turned gently away by Gaius. There were rumours of putrid fever, of the master’s possible death. I prayed they were true.

My nightly readings with Titch continued, broken occasionally now by Mister Philip’s brooding presence, and I struggled still to identify the words without difficulty. I could take only the most rudimentary dictation in the field, but Titch was pleased with my progress. I realized then that he had selected me with only the barest hope of my actual success, and seeing now my abilities, he felt happy, confirmed in his choice.

The men and women continued their labours on Corvus Peak, hauling the crates and lumber and ropes up the crumbling hill. We would inspect their progress daily, Mister Philip accompanying us in the heat some afternoons, Titch with a satchel of instruments slung over one shoulder, me with our provisions in tow. At last, on an infernal afternoon, all the pieces of the apparatus were collected in their entirety, finally ready for assembly.

Titch was in excellent spirits. He kept slapping at the back of his neck with a cloth he had brought for the task. “We shall have to celebrate, cousin,” he called breathlessly back to Mister Philip. “Look at this sight.” He turned grinning to me. “Wait until my father hears about this. He swore it could not be done.” He placed a damp hand on my shoulder. “What a great venture lies in wait here.”

“A blasted fool venture,” gasped Mister Philip as he came over the crest.

There, on the top of Corvus Peak, lay dozens of crates and boxes and coils of rope. There was the bright wicker frame like an enormous toppled hat stand; a heap of odd beige cloth; rolls and rolls of new wood for the gondola, pale as skimmed butter. I crouched in the hot dirt, unslung our bag of provisions, began to massage my shoulder. All had been carefully arranged in a semicircle around the flattest expanse of the peak, and there, in the centre, lay the colossal rubberized mass of the aerostat itself. We had in the previous days carefully examined every inch of its surface, Titch and I, seeking any imperfection or possible leak. I did not, it is true, quite comprehend the nature of his Cloud-cutter, but I understood his directions well enough.

I shuffled closer to Titch, lowered my voice. “I do not doubt your father would be most impressed.”

Mister Philip was standing with his hand at his chest, peering around him in mild interest. He mopped at his sweating face. “What do you imagine Erasmus would say to see all this mess?”

With a tight smile, panting softly, Mister Philip drifted off to examine the view from the western edge of the peak. Titch began pacing, muttering and frowning against the dreadful sun. It was a windless day, and up here the heat felt as clotted as smoke. He touched a black-streaked handkerchief to his glistening brow.

“The Arctic is a very great distance?” I said.

Titch walked some paces, and the light fell differently upon his body, so that he looked now dark against the glaring blue of the sky. “A very great distance, yes.” He coughed. “Father is renowned for his specimen collection, most of which he donates to Montagu House.” I could hear the stifled pride in his voice. “He is a Fellow of the Royal Society, you know, and the recipient of both the Copley Medal and the Bakerian lectureship. High, high honours.”

Titch moved past me, kneeled beside the rubbery cloth. “This canopy we shall attach to that frame over there. From the bottom of the frame we shall hang our gondola, mounted with the navigational wings and oars.”

“And they will keep it in the air.”

“They will give it direction, allow it to steer its course. What will keep it in the air is the gas. The hydrogen.”

I looked at him, curious. He had spoken very little about the hydrogen gas.

Titch was rooting through the light wooden parts of the frame, the rods clicking against each other like knuckles. I fingered the rigid fabric. The cotton had been coated in a thick rubber film, giving it the feel of something once alive, of corpse flesh.

“That is the envelope we shall fill with hydrogen gas. The gas, you see, is of lower molecular weight than the surrounding atmosphere, and that is what will allow for ascendancy.” The skin at the edge of his hairline was purple as a bruise from the constant sun. “Here, look, shall I give you a demonstration? Philip!” he called out.

His cousin turned, raised a hand to shield his eyes.

“Shall I give you a demonstration of the gas?” Titch called.

Mister Philip waved a hand, trudged stolidly back over.

“You must wait over there,” said Titch to his cousin. “And you, Washington, you wait there with him.”

I joined Mister Philip some fifteen paces away, while Titch kneeled beside a large metal canister outfitted with levers.

Mister Philip turned slowly to me, as though it pained him to move in the heat. “Where are the sandwiches, boy?” he said.

“I beg your pardon, sir?” said I.

“The sandwiches. Where did you set them?”

I glanced back, towards where Titch was working with the hydrogen gas chamber. Some five feet from where he kneeled the provisions satchel lay in the dry yellow grass. Looking up at Mister Philip, I found him staring expectantly at me. I glanced at the fields below, the rows of bright cane, hearing the levers clink like a tray of rattling glasses. From this height the trees appeared spindly, like thread on the landscape. We had ascended Corvus Peak several times now, but each climb filled me with wonder all the same. I went at a quick half run towards the satchel, thinking I could collect it and be returned to Mister Philip before Titch was ready to begin his display.

But from behind me came a great whoosh, and I turned towards Titch in surprise, the air exploding suddenly in a glistening swarm, as if a cloud of glass bees had burst forth. Then my face was afire, and I was lifted and thrown back in the shuddering milk-white flash of light, my head striking the ground. A distant roaring filled my ears, a sound as of great wings beating the air.

Then all went silent and dark.

— HOW LONG did I remain in darkness? Little felt familiar to me, and I turned on my right side, my ribs aching. My breath was loud in my ears. I felt a cool pressure on my eyes; I could not open them.

Then I heard the sound of feet approaching, a door opening. I turned my face from side to side.

“Is this Dahomey?” I called out softly. “Are we there, Kit?”

There came a long silence.

“Kit?”

“Wash,” said Titch, and I tensed. For a moment I feared I was between worlds, that my death had not been complete and I’d been left suspended and weightless, lost. “How are you feeling?” he continued, and I knew then I was unmistakably still at Faith, all of me, and that I had not died.

The bed buckled, and Titch shifted his weight. He did not talk, merely breathed there in the dark. Then, clearing his throat, he said, “I am afraid there was an unforeseen complication. I had supposed the altitude sufficiently poor in oxygen for a demonstration. I was wrong.” And very softly, in halting language, he told of how he had released the hydrogen into the atmosphere, and how the air began to boil, and then a sharp blast hurled both of us clear. Titch’s frock coat had caught fire, but he had scrambled to his knees and managed to shrug it free in time, suffering but the mildest of burns on his wrists and hands. Then he had looked across, his ears ringing, and seen me. It seems, in my confusion, I had turned to face the very brunt of the explosion.

“Your body,” said he, quietly, “was mercifully unharmed.”

I tried to speak, but paused, alarmed. The skin of my lips felt seamed shut, so that I could not open the right side of my mouth. I raised a tentative hand to my bandaged face.

“You are rather lucky. The explosion might have killed you.”

I said nothing. Swallowing was painful.

“What were you standing so close for? I sent you back to observe with Philip. He was not harmed. You should have been with him. I sent you back, Wash.”

And then I remembered Mister Philip, his desire to eat. I remembered the flash of light, the pain like a sunrise in my skull.

I could feel now a weight on my neck, a strange blunt numbness. When I turned my cheek, I noticed a damp spot on my pillow, pus or blood. I tried to wet my lips. “The sandwiches.”

“What’s that?” he said softly. “What did you say?”

I tried again to moisten my lips; they began to throb. “He asked me to fetch the sandwiches.”

Titch was silent some moments. “I see.”

I stilled my lips, hoping the pain would subside. It did not. With great difficulty, I said, “I want to see. I want to know what is there.”

I heard Titch breathing quietly there above me, considering. “It is too soon. Be patient. Let it heal.”

“Please, Titch.”

He paused. “Wash,” he said softly. “I should not.”

“Please,” I said, my voice breaking.

What did he hear in me then? More silence passed. Finally I felt him bend close and, with his rough fingers, begin to unwind the gauze.

Oh, how painful this was. Such a moment I will never in all my life forget. First the creaking of the pus-encrusted bandage, the catch of it on my raw flesh. Then the final unpeeling, the rush of light and air. My left eye winced at the brightness of the room. But in the right I saw shadows, as if the bandage were only partially shifted.

I could see Titch’s face, lined, sun-browned, his bright eyes creased and old. He gave me a weak smile. “Science has left its mark on you now, Wash. It has claimed you.”

“I would like to see myself, Titch.”

“I will not lie to you. It is a grave change.”

“May I see?”

“You should wait.”

“Titch.”

He hesitated, then went out, returning some minutes later. He held the small mirror some six inches from my face, my image shivering there before me.

What a grotesque creature peered back at me. I raised a hand, and shuddered at the touch of my cheek. It felt like meat. The right side had been partly torn away. I could see into the flesh of my cheek, a strange white patch marbled with pink, like a fatty cut of mutton. Old black scabs edged the wounds, along with fresher ones, clots pale as boiled oatmeal. My right eye was full of blood. I could still see foggily by it, but the pupil looked lunar, bluish white. I saw it and thought of the raw, cursing eye of a duppy.

Titch cleared his throat. “I am told it will continue to heal. I am told it will improve with time.” He took from his pocket a white handkerchief and wiped under my eye.

“I am crying?” I asked. I did not even feel it.

“The wound is weeping,” he said gently. “That is all.”

— I HAD BEEN WOUNDED many times before, though none were so grievous as this. The last time it had been Big Kit herself who had done it.

It had happened during the cooler months, when her crab-yaws would flare up and she’d be taken off the great gang to toil with us weaker beings on the second gang. We were working the fields together when she accidentally cut me with the tip of her machete. I told her to be mindful.

Her eyes, with their curious orange colour, narrowed. “How that, boy?”

I swallowed. “Your knife, Kit. You clip my leg.”

I remember the strange stillness in her face then. The driver was somewhere to the left of us, crying hoarsely out there. In the dry, hot field, a smell like burning sugar filled the air. Kit was standing with her head cresting the tops of the cane, staring down at me with a calm, wholly possessed expression.

My heart stuttered in my chest.

She took a heavy step forward; suddenly my breath was knocked from me, a vicious pain raged under my ribs. I staggered backwards, gasping, and hit the ground with my ears ringing. I could smell the heat radiating from the soil, tasted blood in my teeth. In the fierce sun I watched the shadows of the women pass over me, calling out to each other. Then, very slowly, I was lifted onto a wooden plank, and I felt myself being carried across the bright fields.

Three cracked ribs. Her kick had been that harsh, that swift. I refused to tell the overseers who had done it, and in this way Kit was spared. But the pain was immense and suffocating, and I was several nights in the hothouse before returning again to our huts.

She avoided my eye as I was led in, my chest still in bandages.

That evening, as I drifted into sleep, there came a touch at my face. I heard soft weeping, and realized with alarm it was Big Kit. She was running a cold palm across my forehead, whispering.

“Oh my son,” I heard her say, over and over again. “My son.”

I understood then that she had not meant to strike me so hard, and that my days away had pained her greatly. I closed my eyes, feeling the coolness of her skin on my brow.

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