03 - 01

کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 20

03 - 01

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PART III

Nova Scotia

1834

1

IBEGAN TO CRY; the tears froze at once and pulled like sutures at the skin of my cheeks. Titch’s tracks had already blown clear, and I peered behind me, or what I thought was behind me, to find the white air churning. I turned and turned, my eyelids burning, my nose already dead and numb. A panic cut through me. I understood that I would not find my way from this place, that I would die.

What happened? I have little recollection: a hand on my arm, a sensation of being dragged, half-carried backwards through howling wind. The snow all around. And the light, how it seemed to break and dissipate into smoke, and the taste of frost in my mouth, like rust. How much of that was real?

I awoke in a smoky orange warmth. I rose up on one elbow, heard the rasp of my sealskin against a sleeping pallet. Mister Wilde was seated in the half-light of a smouldering lantern, sharpening a stake with a rude steel knife. I sat up.

“You’ll be sore for some days, boy,” said he, smiling bitterly. “But you’ll keep your toes and fingers.”

“Titch,” said I, my eyes fixed on the stake. I swallowed. “Is Titch—?”

He paused in his work, studied me with bright, hard eyes. “My fool of a son,” he began angrily. But he did not continue.

I shook my head, shivering. “Is Titch…is he still out there? In the storm? Mister Wilde, sir—”

But the old man continued carving methodically, slowly, at the stake. In the dim light I thought I caught something in his face—a downward turn of the mouth, a softening of his ire—that told me he understood more of Titch than I.

I grew uneasy; I became sharply aware that Titch was this man’s most-loved son.

“Was it you who pulled me to safety, sir?” I said at last.

He sat back on his haunches, regarded me a long moment before answering. “Not I,” he said finally. “Peter. You were born with a ring of luck around your neck, I will say that, boy. An hour more and you would have been buried in ice.” He went grimly back to scraping at his stake, his hands wrinkled and trembling. “The men have been out now some hours. I expect word to come soon.” He coughed, scratching at his whiskers.

I stared at Mister Wilde, his face stubborn as an Old Testament god’s, his eyes ferocious and damning, an old man stooped in a bad light, carving away at his worry.

My voice, when next I spoke, was soft. “How long has it been, sir? How long have I been asleep?”

He did not reply.

The hours passed. Mister Peter and the Esquimaux returned without Titch and rose again at first light to go back out. That day came and went and still there was no sign of him. I could see Mister Wilde growing more and more restless; he slept little and ate less, his hands working constantly at some small task. He did not visit the traps anymore, preferring instead to whittle at some object and stand guard at the entrance of his igloo, his eyes always on the horizon.

Then one morning he had had enough. He gathered all his tools of survival into a large green sack and, stepping his withered, bowed, hairless legs into a freshly oiled caribou skin, he set out under the enormous weight of his bag into the snowy wastes. The Esquimaux tried to discourage him, but he would not hear of it, roaring at them to be gone. Mister Peter gestured for them to let him go, and then, with a tenderness that was quite moving to me, though I could not explain it, he followed, keeping some fifty paces back, to ensure old Mister Wilde too would not be lost.

Mostly what I felt at the time, though, was worry. When every night the searchers had returned without Titch, my stomach twisted, and I’d sat fingering the edge of my tattered pallet, praying for his safe deliverance.

Several days passed before Mister Wilde and Mister Peter returned together, loping slowly over the scoured, bright plain. I could hear Mister Wilde’s breath before he even reached me, so raggedly did it pass through his lips, which were cracked and raw.

“You did not find sign of him?” I asked as he reached me at the mouth of the igloo.

It was as though I had not spoken. He passed me by, his face still fixed in a grimace against the bitter air, his body trembling softly. He entered the igloo, and I followed. In the smoky dimness he began to strip off his caribou skin and all the woollens beneath, crouching there bare-chested, his white ribs heaving. The sight of his sweat-laced skin shocked me, the ugly grey hairs matted there. I lowered my eyes.

“A damn foolish boy,” he cursed. He began to wipe himself down with his cast-off clothes. “Always running away. Even as a child. Always hiding in some tree or ditch or another before deciding to come back.” But I could see by the suppressed pain in his face that he did not believe his son would come back, not this time.

I turned my face away. For I understood in that moment I had well and truly been abandoned, and that no one but myself would see to my safety now. Titch, out there in the snowy wastes, would not be returning.

Mister Wilde cleared his throat. “I daresay you will be all right,” he said quietly. I startled at the rough grip of his hand on my shoulder. I peered up at him.

The pity in his eyes surprised me, the gleam of something there. It was not anger. He turned and began to dress in silence. I sat with my back resting against the igloo wall, my knees drawn to my chest.

“We have provisions enough,” he continued. “We have food. Clothing.” He coughed a racking cough, grunting against his fist. “Your sketch of the whale’s horn the other day was very faithful, very pretty. Perhaps you will do some more.” But he shook his head then, as though exhausted by these words, and, muttering something, turned away.

Some hours later he fell very ill. In the igloo he shared with Mister Peter he lay on his pallet, his thin, hairless old man’s body bundled in furs, shivering. At times he would half-rise and fling the furs away, his face ablaze and damp with fever. Then he would claw them back into place. Mister Peter came and went with a dull lantern, the rope of light swaying over the snow. To his companion he brought all manner of soups and potions and tinctures meant to kill the infection.

But the days passed, and as Titch failed to return, so did his father’s health. Though Mister Peter showed little emotion, as if nursing his friend was only one more duty, a restlessness crept into his pale eyes, and his body seemed to tense, contract. His gestures became abrupt. I went every morning with him to check the traps at the perimeter, but it was only to distance my mind from my troubles; we collected nothing and spent most of the hours walking silently, gazing out at the hardened cataracts of ice.

In the afternoons I watched over Mister Wilde as Mister Peter made his trips to the outpost. The old man lay there with his eyes pinched shut, breathing shallowly, his thin body bundled. What a shock he appeared: the inner hollows of his eyes dark blue, his cracked, bleeding lips upturned as though at some private pleasure, a smell like young butter coming from his skin. Observing the fine grey hairs lining his ears, I went and fetched my leads and sketchbook.

As I drew, I thought of Titch, of his lying alone out there. It seemed impossible that after all these days he should still be alive. I turned my mind to John Willard, and to Philip, and in a vision I saw him again—the abomination of him on the dark grass at the mountain’s base. It struck me that his single vicious gesture had granted me my new life. For Titch would never have risked taking me away were it not for the danger in which his cousin’s death had placed me. I would surely have continued on at Faith. And what would that existence have looked like, after Titch’s departure? A return to the fields, to the huts where I had come to be even more despised and pitied, a twisted black Englishman. To Big Kit, who had already replaced me with another. And all this only were I lucky enough to survive the master, when I was returned to him.

I glanced again at Mister Wilde, and paused. I could no longer hear his breathing. His face, turned towards me, had stilled, as if an invisible film had been stretched tight across his features. One yellowing arm was flung across his body. He was dead.

— HIS FABLED DEATH WAS now a true death; the new order Titch had sought to prevent was now reality. I stood in the cold as Mister Peter and the Esquimaux gathered up Mister Wilde from where he’d lain and carried him away. The hours passed; in the warm, dim glow of the igloo I sat staring at the thumbs of my torn mittens.

I did not want to stay in that place. All my life I had known only the warmth of the Indies, the fresh salt of the sea air. I felt shuttered up, boxed in, shuddering with a cold no blanket or animal hide or fire could keep out. Mister Peter and the Esquimaux would, I knew, do their best to keep me safe, but with both Titch and his father gone, I did not know for how long. And so, as the hours passed, I began to collect up my belongings, and in the evening, when Mister Peter returned, I told him of my intention to leave.

He had lost his dearest friend, the companion of his life—and yet that man was as stoic and as kind as when I had first laid eyes on him. He bid me take whichever of the Wildes’ possessions I most desired, and to the leather-bound treatise on marine life I selected he added several hand lenses of Mister Wilde’s. He also gave me the skin full of money Titch had left for me, and much good food and provisions. When finally I was ready to go, he gathered me up in his arms and crushed the breath from me. Then he and Hesiod propped me aboard a sled, and whipping at the dogs, they led me off into the cold white wastes.

At the outpost Mister Peter slapped my pack on my shoulder and gave me a stern look. I was turning from him when he gestured for me to wait and pulled suddenly from the folds of his clothes several small scopes. They were Titch’s self-made models, compact, with odd dark gears for knobs. Mister Peter placed them in my open mittens; then he gave me a strange clap on the side of my head, not hard, and was gone.

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