02 - 03

کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 15

02 - 03

توضیح مختصر

  • زمان مطالعه 19 دقیقه
  • سطح خیلی سخت

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3

NORFOLK STANK. Its docks stank of tobacco, of lead, of crushed reeds and especially of cotton, white bolls of it glowing like plucked eyes on their boughs. It stank of unwashed deckhands and mutton stew and offal steaming in the gutters along the harbour streets. It stank of mud and turpentine and stale perfumes oozing from the pores of the prostitutes in their greasy dresses. The pungency of it all after the long days at sea left me light-headed, and I stared all around me, slack-jawed, like a simpleton.

For what a grand city was Norfolk, despite all! The bustle and the clatter, the swarm of men at work, the scurrying about the streets, the towering three-storey brick warehouses facing the shipyards. How I longed to draw all this! There were horses pressing through stalled carts, and wagons with huge open beds, their drivers lolling drunkenly as they hollered casual profanities. Titch had told me of the fire that had burned the city in 1804, but I could see no evidence of it.

In the end we needn’t have feared the Kinasts, or so we came away believing. Certainly they had guessed at our history, but it became increasingly clear that Captain Benedikt cared more about having been lied to than about the actual substance of that lie. He was a man with his own fate to meet, and neither he nor his brother wanted to be waylaid by complications they had not themselves taken on. And so they asked only that we be discreet in departing their ship, and that we not mention their vessel or their names when speaking of how we’d arrived on American soil. They saw in our desperation something of their own childhood losses, and they did not want to hurt or make trouble for us.

Titch said, “It is still best to be cautious, Wash, to place as little trust as possible in strangers. Men forget themselves too quickly, and a mercy is often the first thing revoked.”

And so Titch and I stepped from the plank into port, stunned by the vast roar, the waters teeming with ships. Smoke rose from oily fires along the docks. Nets filled with crates were swung out over the black depths. And everywhere men walked their own destinies, uncompelled. So this, I thought in wonder, this is America.

Ah, but not all men went about in such freedom. Not men such as myself.

Titch and I drifted through the crowds at the darkened quayside, trying very hard not to be noticed. He believed if he made the correct inquiries he could find this “most interesting man” he had mentioned, a great friend and associate of his father’s, one Mister Farrow. We walked circumspectly as he considered his options. I had a bundle of sailor’s clothes and a hock of salted ham tied to my back, for we had been given goods, along with a few bright coins more, by the irritable Captain Benedikt, to better acquaint ourselves with the world of America.

Titch left me at the sunlit corner of a busy thoroughfare. He crossed the street to inquire at an inn that doubled as a postal office, passing into shadow. I watched him go, tall, rumpled, clutching a paper with his acquaintance’s address on it. Then I turned aside to wait under a shopfront overhung with a rotted wood sign, its purpose illegible, its interior in shadow. When a man with a tall white hat walked out of the next doorway, I raised my face in surprise. A harsh sweetness filled my nose, the very smell of my old life.

Sugar.

I stepped forward, cupping a hand and pressing my brow against the grimy display window. Boxes of bright, lumpy candies, yellow and golden and green, red candied discs on sticks, twists of black licorice that I had seen on my sole trip into Bridge Town. White fleeces of sugar frozen and set out in cones of paper. An early sun had warmed the pane, and against my face it felt like a human hand. I thought of Big Kit’s slow, soft palm.

“Take your face from there, boy!”

For a moment I felt myself between worlds, and I stayed where I was, my face pressed against that good warm glass.

I was struck on my side, and I stumbled, and gasped in shock. It was not the pain but the surprise that took me. A pale-eyed man with bleached mutton chops stood scowling. He wore a white apron, his shirtsleeves tied off. His teeth were orange in the front.

He made a curious shooing motion with his hand.

“You shove off now, nigger,” he said. “You don’t go pushing your goddamn nose up against my window, you hear?”

In the street a carriage rolled by, its wheels grinding over the cobblestones. Men and ladies pressed past, taking no notice.

I took a frightened step back.

He lifted his chin and peered over my back at the ham. “You steal that there, boy? You a runaway? Who you here with?” He took another step towards me. He was not a large man, but he lacked fear, and I had known such men on Faith Plantation. They were the most brutal. “What happened to your face? Someone burned you up right good.”

I was so frightened I closed my eyes, as if he might then disappear. I did not know where Titch had gone to, but I understood, in that moment, the terrible bottomless nature of the open world, when one belongs nowhere, and to no one.

I felt an awesome blow to my chest, and then another, and waiting to be struck again I felt only the absence of pain; when the third blow did not come, I opened my eyes in astonishment.

Titch shoved his way between us, his necktie askew, his hat in his hand as he gestured angrily down at me. “What is the meaning of all this?” He glared down at the small confectioner from his towering height. “What is this?”

“This your boy?” the confectioner said, uneasy.

“What has he done?”

The man cleared his throat, drew the back of his hand along his jaw. “My apologies. I had him mistook for a runaway.”

“Mistaken.”

“Come again?”

“The word is mistaken. And yes. You were.”

Just then a man in a cutaway strolled into the confectioner’s store. The shopkeep frowned and gave me a black look, saying, “You get your boy here some proper sack for carrying your goods. Looks like a fugitive, going round like that.” He nodded and, turning, stepped inside.

My terror was such that I desperately wished to sit down right there, in the muck of the street. But Titch slipped a hand under my elbow and, with a saddened expression, steered me clear of that place.

— TITCH DID NOT at first make mention that anything was wrong.

With a queer lightness of voice he explained how he had acquired directions to his associate’s address. The man’s name was Edgar Farrow, and he was the acting s@xton of St. John’s parish. The parish lay some ten miles to the west, in the rolling fields and woodlands along the course of the Elizabeth River. We walked awhile in the morning sunlight, the birds brisk and loud. Titch sank into preoccupation, not talking.

“You are nervous at meeting Mister Farrow again?” said I, guessing at his thoughts.

“I have never in all my life laid eyes on him. He started as my father’s associate, actually, from the Royal Society. Our own correspondence began only some years ago, but it very quickly became constant, fervent. His mind, Wash, oh, it is an absolute wonder. Brilliant. Brilliant.” Titch exhaled heavily from the walk. “Do not be alarmed by him. He has some rather idiosyncratic notions about the nature of the world and is seeking to learn how far they might go. In this, I expect, he is no different from any of us.” He paused. “Except his interests are not chiefly aeronautical. He is a necropsocist. A scholar of human decay.” And then, I suppose, in case I was not sufficiently disturbed, Titch added: “Mister Farrow has made a reputation for examining the ways and conditions under which human flesh rots.”

I gave Titch a look of displeasure. “He is a man of the Church.”

“You are correct,” he nodded, mistaking my meaning. “I think you will find him a man of many contradictions.”

We continued walking, the sun high and hot.

“You are uneasy,” said Titch.

“No,” said I. “Yes, perhaps.”

“You are thinking of Philip,” he said quietly.

I nodded.

Frowning slightly, Titch came to a stop on the red dirt path, taking from inside his pocket a tattered paper. “I did not want to show it to you. It was mounted in the postal office.” Glancing warily at me, he began to read:

A Reward of One Thousand Pounds will be paid for the capture of GEORGE WASHINGTON BLACK, a Negro Boy of small stature, his countenance marked with Burns; a Slave for life. His Clothing is a new Felt Hat, black Cotton Frockcoat and Breeches, and new Stockings and Shoes. He may be travelling alongside an Abolitionist White Man not his lawful owner, with Green Eyes and Black Hair, of tall stature. Whoever secures the Murderous Slave so that I get him Dead or Alive shall have ONE THOUSAND POUNDS Reward.

JOHN FRANCIS WILLARD, acting agent for ERASMUS WILDE

Faith Plantation, Barbadoes, British West India

I stood very still on the dirt path. I stared at the paper in Titch’s hands. What senselessness came over me then, what shock.

Titch took my arm, led me into the shade at the foot of a dogwood in flower. Above us, in the clear skies, tiny birds dipped and trilled.

“The postmaster was a talkative sort,” Titch said. “I asked after the man who had posted it, but he said he had given no name. I asked for a description of him, and how long ago he had come in. He said it was very recent, some days ago only. Described him as brown-haired, tan-complexioned, tall and rather plump, with brown eyes.”

I glanced sharply up, waiting for him to say what he knew.

“The description fits no one I know—a random man. But then I realized I recognized the name on the poster, the acting agent. John Francis Willard.”

“Who is he?”

“My brother hosted a series of formal dinners when first we arrived in Barbados. John Willard was twice in attendance.”

“He is a slave catcher?”

“Rather, a self-described righter of grievances.” Titch pinched his eyes shut, as though struggling to recall. “Very cultured, soft-spoken, manners beyond reproach. I remember he’d been the bookkeeper on a neighbouring plantation before becoming frustrated with it all. I understood he’d begun hiring out his services as a kind of transnational bounty man.” Titch shook his head. “It was odd, hearing him speak of it. It seemed woefully out of character. He talked of travelling large distances to catch men who had done nothing more than rack up gambling debts. He talked of tracking down errant slaves who’d made it off the island. He described the job with great obscenity, as if it thrilled him to be beyond the law of any nation. He recognizes no jurisdiction, you see, and he is never held to account.” He frowned, muttering. “I understood he’d done some terrible things.”

I fell silent, staring at my hands.

“Wash,” said Titch.

“A thousand pounds,” I breathed. I could not imagine such wealth.

Titch made a soft grunt. “I had thought something of this order beneath Erasmus,” he murmured. “Men are rarely what they seem, I guess.”

I said nothing. I stared at the iridescence of a fly scuttling across the hock of ham in my half-open sack.

“It is a considerable sum.” Titch shook his head. “And you know this is not the whole of it. Willard will already have been paid to begin the hunt, even if only in expenses. I expect if he delivers he will be taking away all this and more.” He turned to me. “You do understand that my brother does not actually believe you responsible, do you not? That all this is merely a means to get at me?”

If this was meant as some consolation, it failed miserably. A fierce nausea began to chew through me, as if some feral thing had lodged in my gut. “Can you not simply take me to England?” I said, my voice pale, thin. “Will I not be safer there?”

Titch eyed me uneasily. “This is a bounty, Wash. The law means nothing to a thief-taker out for his reward. And the reward, frankly, will be a lure to many. It is grotesquely large.”

I thought and thought. “Can you not simply pay it out yourself?”

“Pay off Willard, or some other madman? How would that work? He would simply pocket it and keep after you for the second thousand. And how many would we need to pay off? I have not such great funds at my disposal.” He shifted on the gravel, cleared his throat. “I am the second born, I have a small living only. I have not access to the family purse as my brother does.”

We sat a good long while in the heat, not speaking. When by chance a rickety cart passed, we were invited by the ancient driver to clamber up. Titch rode on the bench in front, I in the rear bed with a sack of leather and nails at my back, the large hock of ham set flatly down in the straw. The cart was drawn by a shaggy grey mare, with a single bloodshot eye rolling back at us. The driver, his cheek full of tobacco, leaned over and spat, wiping the back of his hand along his mouth before shaking the reins. On we cantered. I feared the driver would wish to speak for the company, but he said nothing, just spat occasionally and kept his own counsel.

It had happened so gradually, but these months with Titch had schooled me to believe I could leave all misery behind, I could cast off all violence, outrun a vicious death. I had even begun thinking I’d been born for a higher purpose, to draw the earth’s bounty, and to invent; I had imagined my existence a true and rightful part of the natural order. How wrong-headed it had all been. I was a black boy, only—I had no future before me, and little grace or mercy behind me. I was nothing, I would die nothing, hunted hastily down and slaughtered.

I watched as the green crept past in the sun, the great warm fields of springtime Virginia. I was startled by the vastness, the endless stretch of earth. When we passed a small grove, I was overwhelmed by the smell of tiny white flowers, the watery, soft perfume they gave off. I glimpsed, too, slaves in the fields, and as I stared upon their bodies, I was flooded with guilt and fear for myself.

At last we were set down at a fork in the road. The driver gestured us on eastward. With the sun already lowering at our backs, we walked the grassy roadbed with our shadows stretched out before us.

Just then we came around a bend in the slope and saw it: St. John’s.

It was a small white clapboard church with a single low spire, and a weather-bruised fence enclosing a graveyard to one side. There was a figure in black walking bow-backed among the graves as we climbed the hill. Titch took the ham from me and paused at the gate.

“Mister Farrow,” he called. “Mister Edgar Farrow, sir.”

The man tilted back the wide black brim of his hat, frowning. “We’ll buy nothing from you this day,” he called back. “But I can offer you shelter for the night.”

Titch smiled. “Oh, we’re selling nothing. But we’ll take the shelter all the same. You won’t know my face, Mister Farrow, though you might recognize my hand. I am Christopher Wilde, sir. We have corresponded on the potential for pressure shifts in aerostat ascents and its effects on the human body, these past two years now. My father, James Wilde, is your associate in the Royal Society.”

I saw the man straighten then, and lift off his hat. He looked suddenly rail-thin, with a large oblong head and limp black hair. He was balding somewhat, and beneath his heavy brows his eyes were round and black, ringed from a lack of sleep. His lips were bloodless, his expression flat. He came towards us quickly, skirting an opened grave.

“Christopher Wilde, in the flesh,” he said in a serious voice. “You are not in the West Indies, sir. Where is your Cloud-cutter?”

“At the bottom of the ocean, I fear,” Titch laughed. “We are put ashore here, sir.”

“Bottom of the ocean? What has happened to you, then?”

“A storm.”

“ ’Tis indeed the season for it,” said the s@xton, muttering. Then his eyes dropped on me, his black gaze unfocused. He gave a series of methodical blinks, as though he did not notice my standing there. He frowned suddenly in distaste, though when he spoke, it was with a curious lack of emphasis. “It is the season for storms, yes,” he repeated slowly. “And all manner of strangeness shall be blown in. Come, both of you. Let us speak inside.”

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