02 - 01

کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 13

02 - 01

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PART II

Adrift

1832

1

THE SQUALL STRUCK us not an hour out from the island. It fell upon us with sudden force, roaring, and I stumbled back against the oarlock, my arms outstretched as the small craft swung wildly from its ropes. Titch hurled himself across the Cloud-cutter and, fumbling with the ballasts, hollered at me in the darkness. But I could see very little, only the pale, lithe shape of his face, the shadow where his mouth should have been.

I think now that he was not so surprised as I. As we had sailed out into the blackness, I recall how he tapped at the barometer and exclaimed softly to himself; how he shuffled about on his knees in the bed of the Cloud-cutter, sifting through our packages; how he separated the least necessary into a pile at the stern. And I have not forgotten how, in the moments after the storm struck, Titch at once took up that small pile and hurled it over into the darkness.

He leaned in close to me, the winds flattening his hair, crying out, “We must try to get above it. We must go up!” He stabbed upwards with his fingers, as though I might have any notion as to how to manage this.

A strong wind suddenly buffeted us, and Titch was thrown backwards, seizing one of the guy ropes at the edge of the drop to steady himself. “It will not do, Wash! It will not do!”

I shut my eyes.

I felt us descending, plummeting through the storm. The rain came on now and it lashed at us, the coated fabric of the balloon crackling under the onslaught. Titch brought us down, the covered lantern still fixed madly to the prow of the Cloud-cutter. I gripped the edge and peered up over, could see now the distant, black, roiling waves of the ocean below us. We were falling fast.

“Titch!” I shouted. “Titch!”

He did not hear me, and I grabbed for his arm, gesturing at a far swell. A light seemed to be shimmering off the crests of the waves, and then it was gone, lost, everything so dark that I did not know if I had imagined it. A cavernous blackness rang out.

Titch leaned into the guide ropes, drawing the aerostat with all his might towards that darkness, steering us in. From between the wide, mountainous swells I glimpsed a leaning spike of wood. A silhouetted ship hove into view, rolling almost on its side, and then it crested and rode foaming down the swells to disappear again. A moment later it rose up. I swallowed and, turning, stared at the madman leaning soaked into his ropes. For I understood: Titch was aiming us directly for that ship.

We struck the mast at an odd angle and tilted, then smashed downward in a great splinter of wood. We lifted again and crashed again down, before the Cloud-cutter was dragged across the deck with a hissing screech, hopping gently into the air, then turned over upon itself in a bellow of splinters.

Dazed, I shook my head. Something warm was pouring over my face. I felt myself hanging upside down, and knew I was tangled in the Cloud-cutter’s ropes. And then I saw Titch’s face in the rain, upside down, shouting at me, and then I could see nothing again but darkness.

The Cloud-cutter groaned terribly, and started to slide towards the edge of the ship.

“Wash!” Titch cried. He was pulling at the ropes with a frantic energy, but I could not be freed. I could feel the Cloud-cutter pull away in the wind, light, boneless. My stomach lurched.

“Wash, free your hand!” Titch was shouting. He had set a boot against the Cloud-cutter’s prow, was leaning with all his might.

The ship rose again, vertically, coasting up a wall of water. I was staring upside down into the darkness, and it seemed the world had gone mad.

Then out of the rain and wind a figure appeared behind Titch, staggering. It shoved him to one side. A thick, bearded brute of a man, spray flying from his beard, dragging beside him an axe. He heaved back and swung, chopping the knot of ropes pinning my throat. I collapsed forward, free, onto all fours, gasping into the rain.

The deck was slick, cold. I half-lifted my face.

I could hear the man hollering something in a guttural tongue. Titch too was shouting.

A sudden gust of wind dragged the balloon crackling up into the air over the black waters. The Cloud-cutter lifted upright and scraped sharply backwards, making a terrible shriek. I watched it smash into a row of barrels in the fore-rigging and ricochet up, and then suddenly it was sucked out into the storm, leaving only wreckage and blackness. All the while the rain, silver by the ship’s lanterns, sliced painfully down upon us.

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