04 - 10

کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 41

04 - 10

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10

OVER THE NEXT DAYS I could not get the hanging from my mind—the fear in Willard’s eyes before the hood was lowered; the vicious, feral crowd; the sight of Hazzard peering about as if he couldn’t understand how everyone could fail to accept that he was not guilty. There was but a thread between life and death, and he had stumbled blamelessly onto the wrong side of it. I felt for him, and was surprised at how intensely I felt for Willard also. He was a wretched man, a pox, but I did not rejoice at the brutality of his end, however well deserved. He too had been a boy once, desirous of understanding the world. And how he had wasted all his talents, all his obvious facility for learning, twisting every new fact and arranging it into senselessness and cruelty. He had spent years trying to cultivate an ethos, and despite possessing a clear intelligence, he had lived his whole life in avoidable savagery.

How easy it is, to waste a life.

I thought of the man I’d followed away, the one I’d thought was Titch. He had not, after all, been him. Given his blunt features I was astonished I could ever have believed it so. And yet the sight of his double had left a shadow on my thoughts, a stain.

I felt then, more strongly than ever, that I must go to Amsterdam.

Who knew what I would discover there. But I needed to do myself the justice of at least looking.

I told Tanna she needn’t accompany me, but she insisted, and despite my trepidation I was overjoyed. Amsterdam was a city we had heard much spoken of for its unusual aquatic specimens. And the thought of going away without Goff gave an extra excitement to the trip. We began to whisper of it as a lovers’ holiday.

We did not of course explain to Goff that Tanna was to come with me. Instead, Tanna told him of her desire to see her aunt Judith again—Goff’s other living sister after Henrietta. Tanna told Goff that she’d already written to Judith, and that her aunt had graciously invited her to stay at her house in the countryside. As usual she would be met at the station by Judith’s own manservant, an impoverished Hungarian count, and cared for in the utmost luxury and safety.

In all truth Tanna had written no such letter. She trusted that, Goff and Judith being distant in address if not in affection, the two would not meet for years.

I did not understand the pleasure this lie seemed to give to Tanna; but she laughed and was fast-tongued and buzzing with the secrecy of it, and I was delighted to see the return of her good spirits after the previous dark weeks.

And so Goff granted her permission to go to the countryside, and I promised to bring him back from Amsterdam the specimen of the two-headed cetacean, if indeed it existed. Tanna and I would leave separately and meet later at the port.

— IT WAS a rainy afternoon. The light had gathered like oil on the surface of the Prinsengracht, so that its waters held a lustreless glow, like tea. Tall, narrow houses lined the canal, and we walked before these through the cobbled streets, seeking out Peter Haas’s address. I had never received a letter back from him, and so it was with great apprehension that I wandered here, fearing in my heart he was dead. Tanna and I paced the narrow roads with their soaked trees, blinking against a rain that seemed to drain all colour from the landscape.

The journey had so far been miraculous. The day before, we had entered Kees Visser’s small laboratory, a shack edging the harbour, and found a man small and pale and grey-browed in his Bath chair, his gaze vicious as a bird’s. He had already laid out the specimen. As we approached the bare wooden table smeared with solvents, an instinctive silence fell over us. There, under the ashen light of a flickering lantern, lay the black glob of a stillborn nightmare: two harbour porpoises conjoined in utero, fetuses sharing a single body. They were like some impossible breach in the normality of life, like a sudden vicious murder. We stared in quiet shock at the black, rubbery flesh glistening there. Visser’s preservation methods had been flawless, so that the creature seemed as fresh as on the day he had first discovered it. We gathered it into a receptacle made especially for the task and, after much conversation about long-term preservation, returned it for safekeeping to our hotel.

Then, still reeling from the wonder of it, we went out to walk the great city.

So this, I thought, was Amsterdam—city of shadows, in which the Old Masters had sought to capture light as though it were a living thing. I remembered Titch’s description of the way those men had painted skin, especially women’s skin—the flesh so luminous it had the concentrated lustre of honey. I thought of my own art, of my desire to represent through force of line rather than shade. And I wanted to gather all of this light into myself, to remember and to draw it.

— FINALLY, like a plain face asserting itself in a crowd, Peter Haas’s house stood out—tall, blue, with a small garden in front. There was a fierce staircase, steep and narrow, and a door very like the door of a crypt, old and black. We glanced in nervousness at each other, dropped the knocker.

A manservant answered, and it was evident he was most unimpressed. He stared up at us with roaming, shining black eyes, and as he studied my scars, he seemed inclined to shut the door.

“Forgive our intrusion,” I said, “but we are seeking a Mister Peter Haas? I believe he might have lived here, once upon a time?”

The manservant moistened his colourless lips, frowned.

Someone entered the foyer behind him, a man impeccably and fashionably dressed: the master of the house, clearly, with his air of casual authority. He was very young, his face lineless, his eyes a little vacant-looking, his auburn hair combed in a high peak. Obviously, this was not my Peter House.

I felt sick, terribly embarrassed and disappointed. I did not know why I’d had any notion at all of finding the man here, given his silence at my letters. How far we had travelled for all this. I was struggling with how to explain our presence when Tanna spoke up.

“We were just asking after a Peter Haas. We believe he was the previous resident. Perhaps you might know where he went?”

The young man had been studying my face, taking in my burns, and he glanced now at Tanna, arrested suddenly. I understood the instant attraction—I had felt it once myself—the curiosity of her tan skin, her flinty eyes. He smiled almost imperceptibly, a false lack of interest in his face.

“I am Peter Haas,” said he in his thick accent, the voice rich, sonorous, deep.

Hesitation passed between us, and then he said, “My father is Peter Haas also.”

I stared at him, his fine good looks and his dazzling clothes, feeling still somehow unconvinced this could be the right home. “Do you know—did your father ever work with a Mister James Wilde?”

The man’s eyes drew sharply back to me, and he looked a long while. He spoke briskly with the servant, who turned and, with a courtly brush of the arm, whisked us in.

— THE DINING HALL WAS long and narrow, with age-darkened windows and mahogany panelling. I was surprised to find the table extravagantly laid as though we had been expected. There were game pies, pâtés, potted meats, roasted beef, cold fish. A large bowl of hock-negus shivered at the table’s centre.

“Forgive us, you are expecting company,” I said. “We shan’t stay long.”

The young man waved his hand. “It is only our usual lunch. Please, join us.”

Before we could say anything more, the young man followed the servant from the room. I glanced nervously at Tanna, listening to his rushed passage through the hall. The light in the room was greenish, and it streamed through the leaded windows with a weight almost like cloth. On the walls hung small oil portraits mounted without frames. The most arresting was of an older woman laid out in white silks in a casket. How stern her face looked, as if she had wrestled death to the last. There came now some noise from a side door, and the young man returned with an older man on his arm.

The older man’s eyes were a stark grey, his thin hands traced with veins dark as subterranean streams. On his long, pale face were the brutal brown moles I remembered so well from our days on the cold plains of the North, those bits of flesh that had sometimes struck me as the only spots of colour in an otherwise featureless place.

He grasped me in his arms, and his embrace was like slow-running water, it lacked all strength. He smelled strongly of wet wool. And I was taken back to the snow, the ferocity and the obliterating whiteness.

He stepped back, and began to sign furiously with his hands.

As if cued, his son orated. “You survived. My good dear Washington Black.”

I was jarred by this—to hear Peter’s words in this thick Dutch accent emanating from the other side of the room, as if the essence of his voice had drifted from his body and taken root outside him, in the form of this boy.

I kept my eyes on Peter’s face. “I am so shocked to find you,” I said, and it was as though I could barely get my breath. I stared and stared at the face so familiar yet so different. “I did not expect this.”

“I’m so glad you are come,” said the son, his eyes listing every few seconds from his father’s hands to Tanna’s face. “However did you find me?”

I explained the strange, halting search, how we had finally discovered him. He nodded and frowned in turn, his face the face of an ancient, a statue. He began to move his hands.

“I did not receive any letters,” the younger Haas said for his father. “How odd that they should all go astray.”

I shook my head; I could not myself account for it.

“Titch is not here,” he continued. “He did come a year and a half ago, or thereabouts, and stay some weeks. But he is long gone.”

The disappointment was bitter. “Where did he go?” I said.

With his long, rootlike fingers Peter gestured for us to sit at table. His thinness was astonishing, cadaverous, and it seemed a great irony that with the piles of food laid out here he should appear gaunt and starving. He settled slowly in the wooden chair with its embroidered cushion on the seat, and the rest of us joined him.

“Forgive me—may I present Tanna Goff?” said I. “Her father is G. M. Goff.”

Peter’s face lit up, and he went into great effusions about her father’s contributions to marine zoology, as I had myself once done upon meeting Goff. It was she who directed the conversation back to its source, back to Titch.

Peter sighed gravely. We sat in silence some moments, the room seeming to darken; it was as if he did not want to lift his hands to speak.

“He was not himself, when he arrived.” Again he paused. “Rather, he was a new self you would not easily recognize.”

I sat forward in my chair; it creaked plaintively beneath me, and it was as though the sound were emanating from inside myself. “His mother’s steward said something to the same effect, as did his friend Robert Solander of the Abolitionist Society in London. And yet neither could tell us how he was changed. Only that he was.”

“Why do you seek him out?” said Peter, frowning.

I hesitated. I felt Tanna’s eyes on me, which only increased my nervousness. “I thought him dead.”

Peter moistened his lips, but it was a while before he moved his hands. “That Titch, the one you knew—” He paused. “As I said, he is greatly changed.”

“How so, sir?” said Tanna, and her voice was like the sudden opening of a window, a shift in temperature.

Peter turned to her. “It is difficult to characterize.”

There came a silence in which the son looked openly at Tanna.

“I would say…” said Peter. “I would say that he passed from a place of inquiry to a place of uncontested belief.”

We waited for him to elaborate, but his silence was resolute.

“You are saying he became a man of faith?” said Tanna.

Peter smiled. “My dear, he was always a man of faith—his faith was simply in what was measurable. It lacked a god.”

“And now he has found one,” said I. “A god.”

Peter shook his head. “No, I would not say that.”

Tanna leaned to ask another question, but I interrupted softly.

“Where did Titch go, in the snow that day?” I said. “Did he say how he survived?”

“That is it, that is my very meaning,” said Peter. “We finally spoke of it when he came to Amsterdam all those months ago. He told me, when I asked him, that he was there.”

I paused. “Where?”

“He said he returned to us, that he was among us there, at our encampment.”

Tanna lifted a soft eyebrow at me.

“I do not understand,” I said.

“He did not understand it himself, but he said he was there, at the camp. As if he were returned there and yet not present, as though he lived alongside us in a second realm.”

The silence was thick then, as fog. I could smell the cold herring on the table between us, its reek of salt and dill.

“Absurd,” muttered Tanna. When we looked to her, she shrugged softly.

“I do not believe it myself,” said Peter. “Of course not. And yet he was able to speak with staggering accuracy of our days there after his disappearance—the long search through neighbouring encampments, his father’s worsening distress.” He turned his eyes to me, grey, sharp. “He spoke of you, Washington. He said that when James fell ill, you spent the afternoons drawing at his bedside. He said you were present at the moment of his last breath.”

A fine shiver rose up in me, and I could feel the chair biting into my thighs. I shifted on the seat and could not get comfortable.

“It is not possible, I know,” said Peter quietly.

“I do not understand.” I shook my head. “He was a man of science.”

“And still he is. I would argue that he is more invested in it now than ever before. And yet that interest is in the pursuit of something rather beyond us.”

I said nothing; I knew not what to say.

“Things were complicated by his brother’s death,” said Peter in his son’s low, clear voice. “His father’s he seemed to tolerate well enough, but Erasmus’s…” He shook his head.

“Where is he now?” said Tanna, and I felt a soft shock at her voice, as though she had arrived suddenly from some far-off place.

Peter studied her. “He became obsessed with capturing images on paper. He spoke on and on about light, about using sunlight to burn images of faces onto paper. Shadow grams, he called them. He wanted to use the process to capture astral features.” He paused, his smile dim. “Frankly, I could not follow the trail of all that he said—his ideas were frenzied and not entirely intelligible. I thought him very tired.”

“Did he mention where he was going?” I asked.

“Last I had a letter from him, he was in Morocco, in an area on the outskirts of Marrakesh. I have the address, you might write to him there. I do not know that he’s in any mind-set to offer a response, but it might be worth the trying.”

“Morocco,” said I, astonished.

“How long ago did you receive his letter?” said Tanna.

“Some eight or so weeks past. I imagine he is there still. He was very specific in his calculations about the best place to undertake the project.”

I peered solemnly about the room, and it was as though I did not recognize objects I had been staring at this long hour; the clocks, the tablecloth—all looked so very different.

“I have something for you,” Peter said, standing abruptly.

The three of us were left sitting rather uncomfortably: Tanna glancing from young Peter to me; Peter looking openly at Tanna; and me trying to keep my eyes from the both of them, staring at my chapped hands.

Peter returned carrying a large wood case in his fists. His son rushed to take it from him. “On the chance that you seek him out, please do give him this. It might prove useful to him, from the little I’d understood.”

“We are certainly not going to Morocco,” said I, baffled. “You would do well to hold on to it, sir.”

Peter smiled. “Keep it yourself, then. Please. So fine an instrument is useless in my care. And my son, for all his charms, is no man of science. It is wasted here.”

“What is it?”

His smile widened, so that I saw in his features again that impassioned man so devoted to Mister Wilde that he had lived out the entirety of his days in the great man’s affection, abandoning a young son and following the scientist through plains of heat and fields of ice into a final ennobled solitude that even a late forgiveness could not brighten.

“My first expedition as a young man,” said Peter, “was as a botanist on the Deliverance. We travelled to Tahiti, to study the Transit of Venus across the face of the sun. We needed to observe the precise second at which the silhouette of Venus entered, then exited, the sun’s disc. It was our chance to map the distance of the sun from the earth. Such an opportunity would not occur again for one hundred years.

“Well, the very night before the transit, our quadrant was stolen. Without it, we could not measure the astronomical angles—the whole expedition would be worthless. I resolved to go immediately in search of the thief.

“This, I tell you, was very unwise. Only the week previous there had been a misunderstanding between a member of our group and one of the Tahitians—a musket had been purloined, and a Tahitian nearly killed by one of our guards. The situation was perilous. We did not understand each other’s differing notions of property.

“And so I made my slow way, unarmed, through the narrow trails far up into the hills, accompanied only by an interpreter. The heat was dizzying, suffocating. Finally we reached a small village among the trees, and from each side the people poured out like smoke, jostling and yelling at us. I knew then we were in grave peril.

“By instinct, I drew about me a quick circle in the grass, and everyone began to crowd around, watching. Then, with my interpreter giving me voice, I began to negotiate, to ask and to explain. And wouldn’t you know? Very slowly, beginning with this heavy deal case, the quadrant was returned to me, piece by piece.” He thumped the large wooden box and grinned. “Me, the only man there without a voice. I spoke for us all. And it all came tumbling back.”

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