03 - 10

کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 29

03 - 10

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10

SOME DAYS LATER it came to me.

I’d awoken that morning to a dreadful chill in my room, feeling strange, unhappy. I hobbled down the hall to the water bucket, shirttails drooping. There I splashed my face and armpits, trying to take no notice of the sounds emanating from the room directly opposite. Its occupant was a tiny, sway-backed man with no teeth who smoked incessantly, and every morning he would wake to the world with a violent, racking cough.

I returned to my rooms, tending to the seedlings I grew in soup platters on my windowsill. I was pouring out the greening water from my stoneware cask when all at once it struck me. I started to tremble. I set the cask down with a click and, without even fastening my waistcoat, went out to the shores to dredge specimens. When I returned, my apartment was dark, smelling of chalk and damp. I placed the rotifera and infusoria I had gathered, along with some sea water, in my cask, by the window. After much nurturing I was crestfallen to find them dead two days later. But then I thought it through, and went again to the shores to collect more sea organisms and plants, placing them this time in an entirely clear glass receptacle.

For what had struck me was this: marine animals absorb oxygen and exhale carbonic acid; plants do the opposite—absorb carbonic acid and throw off oxygen. So perhaps, then, the way to make them thrive in captivity was to house them together.

What had been missing from my first experiment, with the clay urn, was light. In the clear glass tank, the vegetation could get what it needed for synthesis.

In this way my new specimens survived a long while. The natural decay and excretions of both the plants and the animals were fended off by my occasional stirring and syringing out of the tank’s salt water.

I held off rushing to the Goffs. Instead, on one of Medwin’s trips to Halifax, I travelled in the safety of his company to the constructions on the main square there. Trundling across the dirt and fallen lumber of half-erected warehouses, I began to ask after their builders. At a warehouse some two blocks from the ocean a foreman walked out from the shadow of a cast-iron frame and irritably agreed to answer my questions. It did not take long for his impatience to turn to curiosity. We conversed nearly an hour, and I went happily away to make calculations.

I am no great mathematician. But the Cloud-cutter had required some very precise mensuration, and with this knowledge I was able, over the coming days, to design what I thought might be a viable large-scale tank. I drew plate-glass walls of several dimensions, with parallel sides to prevent distortion. I experimented with many bonding putties, deciding finally on a mixture concocted of white lead.

It took me three evenings to build. I spoke to no one outside work and ate little and laboured until the joints of my hands clicked painfully. I built a tank two feet long, one and a half feet wide and a half foot deep; for the base I used a one-inch slab of slate. Medwin brought me some cast-off birchwood from his friend’s lumber operation, and this I lathed into pillars with knobs at the top, joining them with a bar. I attached everything together, then sought out a glass-blower who owed Medwin money and had him cut me four pieces of glass at no charge. These I slid into grooves notched into the slate and the wood, securing them with my white-lead putty. I was careful, however, knowing how murderous lead was to sea life: when it had set, I filled up the tank with shell-lac dissolved in naphtha to make a paste with whiting. When the mixture solidified, it would stop the water from coming into contact with the lead, which constantly gives off small doses of oxide.

I held my breath and prayed it would all come together, prayed that in the end I could give her something to draw out the astonishment in her fine, sharp face.

— AN EARLY DUSK WAS FALLING when I left the dry goods store the next evening. Crisp leaves rasped in the wind, and I noted with surprise that autumn was upon us again. There was a charge in the air; it smelled strongly of damp, of mud. I passed many cancelled-out lodgings, the windows black, and I passed also many brightly lit ones, so that I could see in clear detail the pleasure or the irritation or the disappointment in the gestures of the people at their windows. I passed a home in which a man sat at a crude pine desk, his head in his hands.

Nearing a coloured grill-house, I paused, inhaling the scent of burnt onions and spiced meat. Impulsively, I counted the money in my billfold, then went inside.

It was a rundown little establishment, the air hazy with grease, the tables filled with men hunched over plates in which their faces were reflected greyly back up at them. I trod over the flaking wooden boards to an empty stool at the far edge of the bar, feeling the slow weight of men’s stares on my burns. It was always so, especially in eateries. And though I had long grown used to it, I felt no less alien and apart.

I withdrew a small ledger from my satchel and began to make calculations to do with water composition and temperature and volume. The barman approached to take my order of hodgepodge and went away again. I glanced at the spattered windows at the end of the dining room. The light was darkening, cooling. I rubbed at my eyes, wondering, not for the first time, if I was in need of ocular assistance. I sighed, my gaze drifting to a tall, corpulent man in a clean new suit just as he glanced up and met my eyes. He was a stranger to me; I looked quickly away.

My stew came, and I ate absently, chewing on one side of my mouth, scratching away at the ledger. I was reaching for my spoon when there came a damp click on the counter and I saw by the side of my eye a glass of clouded whisky. I shifted slightly on my stool, making space for the man settling in beside me. I drew two columns on the page, tallying, frowning. In the far corner a drunk barked out ugly laughter.

“You enjoy equations,” said the man beside me.

The voice so obviously belonged to a Scotsman that I looked up in puzzlement.

It was a white man.

“I used to fiddle with numbers myself,” said he, and I froze to see those eyes behind their smudged spectacles, so light they were nearly colourless. “I still do have the fascination of it. Calculations, proofs.” He paused. “I suppose one never loses the knack of a childhood passion.”

I had the feeling of being slowly submerged underwater, as if I wore the weight of the diving suit, though I was light-headed, dizzy. I stared at him, and I was astonished at how different it all felt from how I had supposed it would be, how quiet and familiar.

The barman watched us warily.

The white man paid the barkeep no heed, only peered gently at me from behind his lenses, curious. He wore his sooty blond hair pomaded into place, his side part severe as a scar above his right ear, and his face was tanned, calm, a trace of purple veins in his cheeks. It was a thin face, a pleasant face, with high cheekbones and a slow, lipless mouth shadowed by a line of tidy blond hairs. He appeared relaxed, at ease.

“Please do not get up,” he said softly, though I had made no move to do so, not risen at all. “Go on with your meal, eat.”

I swallowed; it was as though sand had caught in my throat. Even seated, I could see he was much shorter than myself, Goff’s height perhaps, and he was lean and rangy, his forearms hard with veins.

“Please,” he said again, and there was the faint suggestion of a smile. His left eye squinted nearly shut then, and the defect was off-putting, as if his eye had never properly formed. “You need your sustenance.”

I would never have imagined such a voice. Light, soft, but not effeminate. Rather, he sounded like a man easily respected, a man who need not press his will to be heard. He could not, I thought, be more than forty years old.

“What would you recommend of the food?” he said, unhooking his spectacles. “I do not eat fish.”

I only stared, feeling the punch of my heart in my ribs.

“You can vouch for nothing? Well, now. That stew of yours smells good.”

When I made no answer, he slowly took up his whisky and drank. I could see through the smudged glass a mouthful of bright, crooked teeth. Despite the shiver in my hands a hard calm came over me, as with Philip in the clearing all those years ago. The noise of the eatery—knives scraping, coughing, muttering—grew sharper, icier. I was filled with a bitter sense of inevitability.

My eyes came somehow to rest on his clothes. I noticed threads hanging from his left cuff and the patched elbow of his very poor suit, the fabric cheap and threadbare. It was as though he had lately been brought down in the world, and fallen hard.

He chuckled softly to see me take his measure. “My tailor died, if you can believe it. Now, there was a fine man. He knew his craft as men today don’t care to. Every seam, every stitch had its name and its purpose. Such men pass from the world and are replaced by dilettantes. Dabblers. I tell you, there are few of this new generation who have the patience to learn an art truly. And so nothing lasts, and all crumbles and is impermanent. The world rots before our eyes.” He smiled, his eye squinting. “I sound old.” He shrugged. “I am old. Or so my daughter tells me. I do not see the changes myself.”

I did not even glance at the exit, knowing I could never reach it. I gripped my ledger, the paper cutting into my hands, thinking of this man’s daughter, trying to picture a new line with the same colourless eyes, the same rough red chin.

“Of course, she was born with every advantage,” he said, studying his drink. “Cotillions, fine dresses. Me, I was a St. Joseph’s boy. Raised in the spike. You don’t know work until you know the spike.” He shook his head imperceptibly. “There is nothing, nothing worse than it. No greater anguish.”

I recalled my last moments with Philip, his conclusion that my life was easy, simplified by slavery. I peered stiffly ahead.

“I suppose modernity will have its way, whatever our desires.” He paused, thoughtful. “Have you seen the new steam locomotives? The Stockton and Darlington rail?”

I stared at his small eyes, said nothing.

He smiled dryly. “Don’t you talk? I asked, have you seen the new public rail lines of England?”

“I have not,” I said, hearing the brittleness of my voice, the suppressed contempt.

“Oh, as a lover of equations you would surely find them wonderful. The calculation involved. The art. They are true marvels of propulsion. But mark my words when I say they will bring about the desecration of all that we know and rightly hold sacred. Distances grow ever shorter, the lands are more closely drawn together, and distinctions become blurred.” He spoke slowly and with great measure, so that I almost could not hear him. “I myself will always go by carriage, even when it ceases to be fashionable and other men accept strange means of conveyance—steam engines and such. Unholy aerial contraptions.”

I studied him quietly; he was speaking of the Cloud-cutter, of course. Behind me a man cried hoarsely out for more drink and was hissed down by his companion. A glass clattered to the floor but did not break.

“I made the most fascinating journey recently, in America. I passed for hours through the countryside. Outside, the grass was grey and dry, went on for miles and miles. You see, one misses such things when one travels by other means—you don’t get the sense of dimension. I had always supposed America to be a land of mountains. Well, I tell you, that is not so. Not always. This I have witnessed with my own eyes. You can rumble about for days without seeing so much as a bearded hill. So much as a bump.

“I came to a final stop in a village I did not know. I hadn’t wanted to disembark, but the driver would no longer have me. It was full dark, and I began to walk but saw no landmarks. I was well and truly lost. I noticed then a figure on a far-off bench—a lady in dark skirts. How odd, I thought, a lady out alone at night. I called out to her, but she did not answer, and so I approached.

“Imagine my surprise. She was not human; she was a doll, life-sized, sewn up out of sacking with little black rocks for her eyes. The deeper I walked into that village the more dolls I came upon, as though some deranged old woman had spent a lifetime sewing them. I saw no living soul. A village inhabited only by scarecrows.”

I felt my grip giving on my ledger and I adjusted my wet palms.

“What do you make of that?” said he.

I did not answer. Behind me a man coughed softly.

“At an inn some two miles beyond the village,” he continued, “I found a living man to tell me the story. It was strange, sad, as such stories usually are. Some twenty years before, the village’s children had begun to sicken. At first it had seemed the usual maladies: headache, grippe, sore bellies. But then came the bruising, the boils, the fits. It was as if some perverse disturbance were playing itself out, a shift unnatural and not right. The local doctor’s knowledge did not extend to these mysteries. And so the children were sent away, to be cared for elsewhere.

“They never returned. Only the old were left. And they began to die off. Those who did not die left the village by other means. In the end there was only one widow left, a dressmaker, and she began to sew the visages of those who had vanished. She hand-stitched the bodies and the clothes; she perfected the faces. Each and every doll was a precise replica of someone who once lived there.”

He stared quietly down at the table. “And so it is that the true and the living disappear, and in their place rise the disfigured and the unnatural and the damned.”

He paused, raising to me eyes calm and water-blue. He seemed to be awaiting some answer.

“That is a fine fable,” I said.

“It is no fable.”

I glanced at the exit.

“Do you think it is natural, what I have said?”

“I think it is unnatural that you have said it.”

He gave a vague smile. “Your manner of speech, even.” He shook his head. “In the dark you might be taken for an Englishman.” He paused. “Is that natural, Mister Black?”

I stared steadily at him. I betrayed no alarm, no fear.

“Is it natural to sever low beings from their true and rightful destinies? From their natural-born purpose? To give them a false sense of agency? As if some creatures are not put here in the service of others. As if cows don’t exist to be eaten.” He turned his glass in his hands. “Nothing is accidental in the works of nature. Do you know who said that? Aristotle. He said, Nothing is accidental, everything is, absolutely, for the sake of something else.”

I smiled bitterly. I knew I should better hide my contempt, but the man struck me as ridiculous, beyond fraudulent, memorizing fine quotations from the Greeks in order to twist their meaning. I glanced at his face. The sight of his clear, placid eyes made my stomach plummet.

“Do I amuse you?”

I made no comment.

“Do you know Aristotle?”

I did not answer.

“He was a great thinker. A European.”

Again I said nothing, studying his face.

“It is not for you that I have come,” said John Willard softly, and it was as if in speaking it he was unsettled anew by the fact, the oddness of it. “You could not be further from my thoughts these days.”

“You have been to my rooming house,” said I.

And then this man whom I had feared, this hunter from my past, smiled vaguely, so that his crooked white incisor peeked over his thin lip. “I did not even know you were in the country, Mister Black.”

I wondered what to make of this.

“I am in insurance now,” said he.

I almost failed to take his meaning, so outlandish did this strike me. I searched his face for irony.

“Erasmus Wilde is dead. Though I will say he was getting more and more difficult to work for. You might imagine how the work dried up after that.”

I was shocked, taken aback; I could not speak, though the truth of it seemed plain. And yet a part of me would not believe it.

“I am still an investigator of, shall we say, human errors, but for a business venture that insures cargo being shipped overseas. It is fine work.”

“How did he die?” said I. “Master Wilde, I mean?”

“Of course, you would be surprised at how many attempt fraudulent claims. It is rampant. Men lying about the cheapest of goods.”

“How did he die?” I said again.

“Some illness or other, I do not know. Putrid fever, perhaps. It has been two years now.” He shrugged. “I earn more money in insurance than was ever paid me scrambling after niggers and misfits.”

I recalled Erasmus, his thatch of white hair and his pale eyes like steel shavings, the refined, almost cultured cruelty. I did not understand how he could be granted so merciful a death as a fever. However painfully it had struck him down, the release seemed too easy—like a betrayal of the countless men and women and children whose fates he had ended on a whim, because the sky on that day was too blue or they moved too slowly through the field or the moon had kept him up the night previous.

“I was shocked to discover you here, in Nova Scotia,” he continued. “Imagine. To leave the docks after hours of inspection and encounter you at once, right in the street, strolling about like you owned all creation. Now, mind, you almost don’t look like yourself, grown so old now—I will admit that at first I was not certain. But that scar will betray you each and every time. Lord. For years I looked for you. Years. And when I finally give it up? You appear.”

He glanced sidelong at me, his pupils flinty, black and fine. “You caused me a lot of embarrassment, you and your master,” he said with a dim smile. “I was told, dead or alive. You can take apart a piece of furniture and pack it up in a crate, or you can transport it whole, it’s all the same. But you must acquire it first.” He stared at his glass without expression. “What does a boy like you know of the world? What can you understand of its workings? You should have been easier to find than a spoon in a bowl.

“I did not hold such a fine reputation after losing you and your master.” His voice was soft. “I was not, shall we say, sought after. I lost considerable business. When I was last in England, Mister Wilde himself passed me in the street without so much as a glance. For years I hunted the two of you. For years that man ran from me. In the end? I might have been a street sweeper, for all his acknowledgement.” He paused, thoughtful. “If that is not failure, I do not know what is. If that is not defeat—” He fell silent.

I was slow to take in his words. “Christopher?” I said. “You mean Christopher?”

“Your owner,” said he.

“Christopher,” I said again. “He is in London?”

“Liverpool. I was inspecting a cargo of mahogany chests arrived from the Indies. March of last year—no, two years ago. I would not have remarked upon him at all but that I heard someone talking loudly to himself in the street, and I glanced up to see if he might be avoided.”

A heat radiated through my chest, a weight warm and almost liquid.

Willard was studying me. “You did not know,” he said.

I was picturing the impossibility of Titch shuffling the streets of that unknown city mumbling to himself—alive, saved, whole.

“Did you run from him too, once you were clear of Faith? Is that what happened?” Willard gave me a curious look. “Oh, do not tell me he released you?” He shook his head. “Erasmus was right. There was always a madness in that man.”

I sat in a haze, hearing his lips on the glass of whisky, the moist sound of his swallowing.

A long moment seemed to pass between us.

“The moon has a strange aspect here,” Willard said, setting down his glass. “It is so different from how it appears in the southern hemisphere.” He peered beyond me to the window. “When it touches stone, it has the quality of water. Of dirty water.”

I glanced at the window, at the hard yellow light pooled on the gravel path. Calmly, Willard set his spectacles on his small nose, pushing them into place with his thumb. He stood, and with great delicacy placed change enough for his drink on the counter, arranging it with his tan, veined hands.

“I’ll leave you to your meal,” said he.

And he stepped between the tables and was gone.

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