02 - 05

کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 17

02 - 05

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5

WAS THAT a turning point? Not an evening since that fated night in Virginia have I not revisited the choice. What would my life have looked like had I gone with those men? What happened to them, in the end—did they use their freedom wisely or foolishly? I do not know what fate met Ezekiel and Adam, what they left behind, whom they dreamed of as they slept at night, or if such longings dulled or faded with the years. I know for myself they have not. I miss all those I had once known as friends. And there are few of them still alive.

Titch and I returned to Norfolk from Mister Edgar’s churchyard the following morning. There seemed little sense in remaining, and Titch was eager to find a charter heading to the Arctic basin.

It was anger I felt, betrayal. I could not have said it at the time, so strange was the sensation to me. But I did not speak to Titch the entire journey back to Norfolk, nor would I meet his eye. I understood he had been seeking safety for my person, some assurance of my deliverance. And yet to my boyhood sense of justice it felt like a casting off. I chafed at the idea that he desired to rid himself of me, I who had been his most faithful companion. An outlandish conclusion in retrospect, perhaps, but you must remember that I had been raised on chains and blood, suffering for even an unmeant kindness. And into that life had walked Titch, and he had looked upon me with his calm eyes and seen something there, a curiosity for the world, an intelligence, a talent with images I had until then been unaware of. I did not know what lay on that route to Upper Canada with those men; I had already some notion of what a life with Titch could be. It was a choice. I had only moments. I made it.

Would I choose so again? Well, now that is a question. I will only say that if I have acquired any wisdom from Big Kit, it is to live always with your eyes cast forward, to seek what will be, for the path behind can never be retaken.

We sought our passage north and were eventually taken aboard the Calliope, a vessel of some lesser tonnage than the Ave Maria but newer in her fixtures. She was captained by a man called Michael Holloway, no slaver but still with a strong code of distinction between Negroes and whites. He had been born and raised in Chattanooga, with little good to say of the place. He was short, but stocky and bullish. He did not drink and kept instead always a steaming snifter of tea by his side.

His second, a fellow named Jacob Ibel, was strangely free of the captain’s prejudices, though the men had been close since boyhood and indeed were raised in the same street. He spoke to me as if I were a human being and often came in search of me to play whist and pinochle. He had a thick black moustache and a very pale, grey mouth, as if his lips suffered for sunlight. I liked him very much but did not trust either man.

Before boarding their ship, Titch had us stop to purchase clothing, provisions and equipment with money given him by Mister Edgar. We set sail two days later by light of dawn, under the push of a strong wind. As we stood at the railing, the ship groaning mournfully from port, I noticed on the boardwalk the figure of a short-statured man there, staring out at the boats, at me.

He was portly and fat-bellied, his light brown hat battering softly across his forehead. He wore an impeccable dark suit of clothes and though his eyes were blurred by the distance, I imagined them cruel, hawkish, without mercy. My breath caught in my chest; I gave two quick tugs at Titch’s sleeve. By the time Titch leaned out over the wet railing to see, the man had already turned into the crowd.

— WE WERE CLEARING the chop of American waters, working our steady way north, when the sun at last rose fully. Titch and I were accommodated in hammocks. Though I did not ask, he explained that the captain had accepted his offer of substantial payment to make a detour in their plans and drop us at an outpost in Hudson Bay. He grinned at this, his eyes bright, his lips crooked, and I found myself, however reluctantly, smiling back.

And so what followed was the long, languid rising and falling of the vessel, day after day, as we continued our journey north. It did not occur to me that some part of Titch despaired to discover his father alive, or that he might be frightened of Mister Willard. I trusted him yet, for I was still but a boy. I believed that only in his keeping would I be safe.

Was it happiness I began to feel, unexpectedly, as we set out from Norfolk? All around us lay the green swells of the ocean, and the swoop of white seabirds in our wake. The high sails crackled with the wind, and the days, the days were still fine and not yet what they would soon become.

— WE WERE somewhere off Labrador, in black waters, when Titch at last raised the question.

“Is it not early in the season to be sailing north?” he said one day, at luncheon in the captain’s quarters. It was, as always, the four of us: Captain Holloway, Mister Ibel, Titch and myself. The captain had softened somewhat and would now suffer my presence, though I was never invited to speak and it was clear my burns disturbed him still. It was Mister Ibel who always addressed me, in his mild, laughing way. We had been sailing into colder climes some days now and the sun was low in the sky. I had taken to wearing all three of my shirts and a thick coat provided by the bosun at all times, even while I slept.

“Early, aye,” said the captain, cutting a bulb of sausage. “We aim to be the first in these waters.”

Titch took a sip of rum. “I know very little of such matters, gentlemen. But I do understand the ice retreats haphazardly. Is it quite safe?”

“I never heard of a reward without a risk,” said Captain Holloway. “Did you ever hear of a reward without a risk, Ibel?”

“I never did,” said Mister Ibel.

There was the rasp of knives on plates. Titch shook his head. “What sort of expedition is it, gentlemen, that you are embarked upon? If I may inquire?”

“It’s a no-business-of-yours sort,” said Captain Holloway.

Titch nodded. “That is true.”

“I think it hardly matters now, Michael,” said Mister Ibel. He furrowed his brow. “We are at sea. Surely it hardly matters.”

The captain stroked his beard, scowling.

“We are seeking the wreck of a whaler,” Mister Ibel said abruptly, taking his friend’s silence for agreement. “The Magnolia Lion. She was crushed in the ice off Baffin Island some two Novembers ago.”

Titch expressed no surprise. “But surely it will not still be there? Surely the ice has carried it north?”

Captain Holloway narrowed his eyes. “So you know how the ice moves, do you?”

Titch shook his head. “Only that it moves. I do not know the currents.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Mister Ibel. “The crew unloaded the barrels before they set out. They took them to a small island near the wreck and buried them under a shelter. The oil will be precisely where it was left. Islands do not move, Mister Wilde.”

“Aye,” said Captain Holloway.

Titch smiled, a quick, happy smile. “Then you gentlemen will do very nicely for yourselves, I expect. It might prove a most profitable undertaking.”

“We aim it to be so,” said Captain Holloway.

“An old man came to my attention, more than a year past,” said Mister Ibel, “a man with an unfortunate swelling in his knee. He was, it seems, an old friend of my father’s. Also a seaman, he was. He had been trapped in the snows and suffered a severe frostbite. His toes had already been taken from him. This man, this Mister MacBane, was a Scotsman shipped out of Yorkshire on a whaler, the aforesaid Magnolia Lion. He told me of the wreck, and of the oil, stranded in the white wastes, and of its worth. I thought no more of it.”

“Until…” prompted Captain Holloway. He waved a rough hand at his friend.

“Until I was summoned to his bedside. His leg had grown worse, had grown septic from an injury suffered in a public house one night. Mister MacBane was dying; I could see this at once. He was attended by an ancient widow, a woman in black, his sister. Agnes was her name. I pitied him; I asked if there was nothing I could do for the man. She left me alone in their second room while she tried to speak to her brother, and it was there I noticed a curious handwritten map.”

“A map to the wreck,” said Captain Holloway.

“And to the barrels of oil,” said Mister Ibel. “Although I did not know it at the time. Agnes returned to me and saw me reading it. She told me of its import. She said she could explain the markings and that her brother, a navigator by trade, had kept a precise eye as they struggled south on the constellations. She said his map was accurate. She said any ship could find their way to the oil that knew where to look.”

“All this she offered to you?” said Titch, interested.

“All this she offered to me, with the condition that I concede a portion of the profits to her.”

“I should be very interested in his directions,” Titch said. “How did he annotate the stars in their seasonal displacements?”

“Oh, maybe we’ll just take out the map and give it over to you,” scoffed Captain Holloway.

Titch raised his shoulders in a shrug. “I have no desire for money.”

“Seven hells,” said Mister Ibel. “Everyone has desire for money, sir.”

“So you are sailing to the wreck,” Titch said. “You mean to steal the barrels?”

“Not steal,” Captain Holloway said sharply. “Claim.”

Titch raised an eyebrow.

“Aye, there’s the beauty of it,” said Mister Ibel. “The insurance is already paid out. The company’s men can’t claim it now.”

“But would it not belong to the insurance company, then? By rights?”

Captain Holloway snorted. “Not by the laws of salvage. It’s a wreck. Any vessel can collect flotsam and jetsam.”

“Do barrels of good oil stacked under a shelter count as flotsam?” asked Titch.

From the expressions on their faces I did not think it likely.

“You are missing the cardinal point, Mister Wilde,” said Mister Ibel with a dry smile. “Let them try to collect it from us. We shall have them sold at a profit before any claim can be made.”

“And that claim wouldn’t be worth the sh@t in a gull, neither,” said Captain Holloway, grinning.

“A lengthy court dispute, to what end?” agreed Mister Ibel.

“Well,” smiled Titch, taking up a last piece of hardtack from his plate. “I should think we are exceedingly lucky to have met with you, then. First ship of the season indeed.”

And he took a great happy bite of the hardtack and sat crunching it, smiling at each of us in turn, immensely satisfied.

— THE AIR CLENCHED to ice, stinging our cheeks. It began to pinch. Sailing, we glimpsed in the passing black waters eerie, exquisite cathedrals of ice. I had not ever seen ice before, not in its immensities: I stared into the refracted light like a creature entranced. How beautiful it was, how sad, how sacred! I attempted to express the awe of it in my drawings. For it felt very much as though we were leaving the world of the living and entering a world of spirits and the dead. I felt free, invincible, beyond Mister Willard’s reach. We sailed past the mouths of glaciers; enormous, violent bergs were calving, rocking in the foaming water. We sailed slowly along those channels, half in dread of some underwater collision.

Whales surfaced, snorting thick gusts of spray then sliding back under the cold waters. I walked the deck, dressed heavily in all I had brought, clapping my hands for the cold, a small black boy bundled until he was quite rotund and waddling. The sailors laughed and called me their penguin and their mascot, and when Mister Ibel showed me an etching of a penguin in a book, I too laughed.

On our third week out from Norfolk we passed a battered brig sailing southward. Mister Ibel muttered some quiet imprecation, and Captain Holloway spat, but we did not slow down, did not hail them. Titch explained they would have wintered over somewhere in the Bay and would now be eager to return to warmer waters.

“They will not have taken the captain’s barrels, then?” I said.

Titch smiled down at me, his breath visible in the cold. “I expect not, no.”

We did not speak of it, but with every league through those waters a sense of lightness, of freedom, took hold in us. It was as though the great emptiness allowed us to forget. Sometimes our eyes would meet, and we’d give a quiet laugh, with no sense or reason for it.

And so onward we went, northward. Titch had arranged our passage to a trading company’s outpost on the western line of Hudson Bay. The weeks passed, and the sunlight lay dazzling on the ice, the snow dunes sculpted into strange feathered shapes by the wind. Seeing them, I began to feel strangely solitary, alone. It seemed we all did, for the four of us, Titch, Captain Holloway, Mister Ibel and I, seemed to turn away from each other in that icy climate, as though the cold had entered more than just our flesh; as though we longed for a solitude unreachable in the tight confines of that ship. My mind kept casting itself back, and I found myself thinking of Mister Willard, of Mister Philip, of my long years at Faith—the way the red dust would gather in my throat, the itch of sweat in the small of my spine as I hacked at the cane, the feel of Big Kit’s hot hand gripping my shoulder in affection.

— FINALLY WE NEARED the Bay, and the trading post.

The black waters were calm and still speckled with chunks of ice. Titch bade Captain Holloway and Mister Ibel good fortune, heartily shaking hands. Then we climbed into a small cutter that rocked as we disentangled ourselves from the rope ladder.

We were rowed towards the miserable, leaning wood shacks that made up the post.

Inside the trading post a young white-haired trader greeted us, reeking strongly of whisky. He leaned his thin arms on the plank before him, the skin at his wrists cracked and scabbed with rash. He narrowed his glassy pink eyes at us. “Who did you say?”

Titch stepped forward, his clothes rasping with ice. “James Wilde, the Englishman, the naturalist. He was said to have died at one of the westernmost outposts. I am not certain it is so.”

The trader swiped at his running nose. “What?”

Titch frowned in impatience. “Wilde. James Wilde. Surely there are not so many gentleman naturalists in these parts?”

The trader grunted; he peered roughly at us. “Is it he you are meaning, or some other body?”

“Wilde,” Titch said sharply. “Wilde. Now if you will direct me to the location of his last encampment, I will be grateful.”

The trader stared silently at us, his eyes a fierce pink in the hazy glow of the lanterns.

Titch glanced at me in exasperation, then back at the man. “Did you hear me?”

Without speaking, the trader turned suddenly around, and in a loud bark called to a lone man standing some paces outside in the snow. “Him,” said the trader, slurring his words at us, “he knows the way like he knows his own arse. He won’t take you wrong.”

Titch looked nervous, caution in his eyes. He watched as the dark figure absorbed our glances, suddenly aware of our attention. Slowly, like a shadow unattached to any entity, he began to drift towards us.

“He won’t take you wrong,” the trader repeated. “He and the old hermit have an understanding.”

“An understanding?” Titch murmured in distraction, his gaze still fixed on the man crunching closer through the snow. He appeared to be a tall Esquimau with a long knife tucked into his belt.

The trader ran a thick, rash-riddled wrist under his leaking nose. “This one’s his slave, I think. Or his wife. It’s something like that. Been here so long he’s half-savage himself. You can’t think like a savage and still be a man.”

He said this cheerfully, not sparing me a glance.

Titch, to my surprise, thanked the man, and began to walk backwards over the snow.

Without another glance the man returned to his drinking.

I rushed after Titch. In dread I watched the far-off man approach, his thick, slow steps puncturing the crust of snow. I glanced up at Titch, hoping for some sign that we might run, but he only paused in the cold, brutal air, his eyes narrowed against the wind.

How alarming the stranger was! How large and spectral. His oiled caribou skin creaked with ice, the reek of old frost and mud coming off him. He was tall and reed-thin, his cadaverous cheeks chapped with wind, a livid beard of grey hairs raging from his face. His complexion was mottled with fleshy brown moles, and to the right of his high-arched nose stood a vicious, glistening boil that looked painful and full of poison. His eyes were as grey as his hair, and they regarded Titch with a blunt, vicious judgment that unsettled me.

And then all at once Titch was gripping the man’s hands, and with a look of shock and even anguish the man grabbed back at him, and they held on, laughing quietly to each other. The man’s laugh was like a seal’s bark, sharp and pleasant. He did not speak and Titch also said nothing.

It was Peter House himself. By chance he had been at the outpost collecting goods. I watched Titch step away from him and begin to make strange, elegant gestures with his hands. The man gestured back, slapping at his chest and torquing his fingers into wondrous shapes. His hands were wrinkled, with a spray of grey hair matting the knuckles. Titch nodded and nodded his understanding. I stood like a simpleton, staring at both in wonder.

Titch blinked viciously, swiping at his eyes. But I could see he was relieved, even happy, and I knew then that the death was a lie.

Before I could say any word, Peter House was frowning down at me, assessing me with frank, pale eyes. He smiled brusquely so that I almost did not see it, and reached for the sack in my hands, which held all our provisions. Then he turned and began crunching through the sullied snow towards a sled in the distance, the pack slung over his shoulder.

“Peter will take us to the camp,” said Titch as we followed him. “Wash, my father is alive. He is alive.”

Hearing it spoken aloud, I shivered at the eeriness of it. “But did he tell it to you, the man?”

“Peter is dumb, Wash, he does not speak. He talks with his hands.”

His voice was tinged with relief, and yet there was an air of exhaustion and sadness to him, as if the revelation had drained all his energies. He placed a cold, thin hand on my shoulder, staring ahead at the awaiting sled. In the distance we had not noticed the dark-faced Esquimau guide standing there. At our approach he acknowledged us with quiet, intelligent eyes, and took the pack from Mister Peter to lash it fast to his sled. Then he bade us climb on, like baggage ourselves.

The guide cried out a command to the enormous dogs. We lurched sharply forward, and then we were on our way, into the great, echoing domes of snow.

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