04 - 17

کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 48

04 - 17

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17

WE SAT ON opposite sides of the floor, drinking mint tea in the near dark. Outside, the wind had picked up, blew in powder-white gusts against the windows. The boy had wandered sleepily inside, lay snoring softly on the floor in the far corner.

Titch dredged a bent spoon through the leaves in his glass, silent. We had lit a single candle, its flame so little that our hands and faces were just visible. I noticed a sore on the back of his thin white hand, saw he had been troubling it much; it looked weeping and raw.

“How far are we from Dahomey?” said I.

He yawned, rubbed at an eye. “Dahomey?” He paused, searching my face.

“What is it?”

“When your face was injured,” he said softly. “I remember you mentioning Dahomey. You thought you had been reborn there.” He sensed he had embarrassed me, and ventured, “It is not near. The journey would be most dangerous for one such as you. I would not risk it.”

We were silent some moments. He gave a great yawn.

“You should go to bed,” I said.

He regarded me sleepily some moments. “Do you remember Mister Edgar Farrow?”

“I do.”

“He is dead. I only just had the news.”

I struggled to remember that strange man’s face. I recalled his kindness, how it bore no correlation to his darker, unsavoury hobbies. “I am very sorry.”

“He had been ill. Indeed, I was surprised to find him still able in body when we last saw him.”

“He did look ill.”

“He was a great man. All that he did for people.”

Silence passed. Then, in some surprise at myself, I began to speak of Ocean House, of what I hoped it would be, in the end. And I knew then, in my very mention of it, that I would return to London and fight to undo the expunging of my name, that I would devote myself wholly to the project and seek some credit for it.

As he listened, I could see in Titch’s face something of the ferocious interest of his days at Faith, when the sight of even a beetle sent him rushing for his magnifiers, to lose the whole day following its trail on an ironwood leaf. “I know you do not desire my affirmation, Wash,” he said, “but what you are building—it sounds astonishing.”

I looked momentarily down at my hands, glanced back up.

Titch was hesitating. “When I said outside that you were family—” He paused. “That was always my feeling towards you, at least. I hadn’t any idea of mistreating you. I tried to be kind.”

I looked at his tired, anxious face, saying nothing.

It seemed as if he would speak something more, but he fell silent.

“John Willard died,” I said.

Titch glanced up warily. “I had heard that as well. And that it was no pretty death.”

“You hear much here at the edge of the world.”

“Indeed—I am more abreast of things here than I ever was in England.”

I thought of his father, Mister Wilde, at his outpost in the North. How long ago that life seemed. “I was there, at John Willard’s hanging.”

Titch looked surprised. “You might have spared yourself, Wash.”

“It was as though I had been fated to see it.” I stirred my tea, felt the soft resistance of the mint leaves. I raised my eyes. “I thought I saw you there. In the crowd. I even followed you.”

He smiled exhaustedly. “Perhaps it was my spirit,” he said, and I thought of what he’d told Peter Haas, his explanation for where he had gone in the snow.

“Peter Haas gave me his old quadrant to give to you.”

“But that is much too large an instrument to transport. However did you manage it?”

“I didn’t. It’s back in Amsterdam, I’m afraid. As you said, it was simply too big. I paid to have it delivered back to him.” I shrugged. “It did not seem right to take it from him, in any case. Even if he will never use it, it marks his life.”

Titch took a slow sip of his tea. “And how was he?”

“Very well.” I hesitated, adding, “Concerned for your sanity, I think.”

Titch appeared surprised.

“Robert Solander, too. He said your clothes were too tight.”

“My clothes too tight? What the devil?”

And I described what Solander had said, about his arriving at the Abolitionist Society wearing what seemed to be another’s clothes. Titch began to laugh.

“I had sent my luggage ahead to Amsterdam, in anticipation of my visit to Peter,” Titch said. “I was left only with what was on hand at Granbourne. As I had been many years away, not much fit me. I was forced to make do.”

“That is just what a madman would argue to save face.”

Titch smiled again, though it did not touch his eyes. “All the while I was wearing them, I kept thinking, What would Philip think to see me dressed so? He who prized his clothing so much.”

Hearing that name, I was flooded with images: The slow white fingers on the hunting rifle; the way, after a great meal, he would lick those same fingers thoughtfully, as if considering again each herb and spice and vinegar. The tiredness of his ever-darkening face throughout the days of autumn. The look of him on the field that evening.

I did not know why Titch would mention him, if not to wound me. But I could see now, in his face, the desire to explain.

“Earlier, outside, you asked about the North, what happened.” He rubbed at the sore on his hand. “I was not myself, walking into that storm, I did not feel myself at all. I was so—” He paused as though he knew not how to begin. “Erasmus, Philip and I—we were very close as boys. We played together like brothers all three. And yet Erasmus and I, we did not quite see Philip as our equal. His family was poorer, his manners less refined—all the things boys find to twit each other over. We teased him mercilessly.” He lifted his eyes, abashed. “But then things seemed to go rather beyond that.”

I peered across at him, silent.

“It was little things, at first. We’d speak of Granbourne being haunted, then lock him up in one of the disused rooms overnight. We’d take him off into the woods on the estate as if on a leisurely hike, then suddenly we’d turn on him, demanding he remove all his clothing. When he began to cry, we would strip him bare and leave him to walk naked home.” He looked uneasily at me. “I am not proud of this.

“Things, they began to take a grimmer turn. We began to beat him, Erasmus especially, he would punch and punch and punch and Philip would drop to the ground, and Erasmus would kneel and keep beating him. Only when Philip lost consciousness would it all come to an end.

“We had the taste of it, we simply could not stop. The violence was in us. I sometimes wonder if that is not where it all began for Erasmus, with Philip.”

I shifted on the floor where I sat, said nothing.

“Me, I never felt I understood Philip. He seemed always a being from another world. As we age, most men solidify, become more of what they are. Not so Philip. He seemed to only grow more obscure. There were so many odd things about him, so many details that made no sense. After he died, we had many surprises, things no one had ever suspected of him. Every month he donated half his income to a ladies’ aid society that had established a home for orphaned children. Why? I cannot begin to fathom. And this while he owed significant gambling debts in Whitechapel, debts that could easily have been repaid with his charitable contributions. Why did he do it—did he secretly have children somewhere? I do know that he used to brag about being engaged to a widow in Lisbon, but she turned out to be a phantom—no record was ever found of her. He loved fine food and fine clothes but frequented the most disreputable clubs, places one could never mention in daylight. He socialized, spent wildly. He had not a friend in the world.

“We were so awful to him.” Titch glanced at me, but would not let his eyes come to rest. “On the very night his father would die, Erasmus and I insisted Philip join us on an outing to a public house, though he resisted and resisted. His father had been sick for weeks, you see, and Philip never left his bedside. Well, finally we convinced him. Philip returned to Grosvenor that night half-blind with drink, to learn his father had passed.

“When he took his life at Faith—” Titch shook his head, let the sentence drop away.

I sat in the blackness on the hard stone floor, feeling the events of the past shift and splinter. I remembered Titch’s silence on that night I’d run to him in his study, speechless and shaking and drenched in blood. How responsible I had felt for that death, though I had laid no hand on Philip. I had felt so helpless at what I could not stop.

“Retrieving his body from the field that night,” Titch said, “I could not do it, I could not touch him. I thought only, these pieces, this flesh, this is not Philip.” He shrugged softly. “It suddenly seemed that the physical properties of the world were not all there is, that there is more.”

The boy stirred in the corner. I spared him no glance. I looked instead to my hands, thinking of the years spent running, after Philip’s death. And I thought of what it was I had been running from, my own certain death at the hands of Erasmus. I thought of my existence before Titch’s arrival, the brutal hours in the field under the crushing sun, the screams, the casual finality edging every slave’s life, as though each day could very easily be the last. And that, it seemed to me clearly, was the more obvious anguish—that life had never belonged to any of us, even when we’d sought to reclaim it by ending it. We had been estranged from the potential of our own bodies, from the revelation of everything our bodies and minds could accomplish.

“You are disgusted to hear how awful I was,” said Titch. “As you should be.” He looked at me, his face lost in the dark.

I glanced at him, silent.

“We were so cruel to him.”

I looked at the dusty floor some moments. “What is the truth of any life, Titch? I doubt even the man who lives it can say.” I raised my face. “You cannot know the true nature of another’s suffering.”

“No. But you can try your damnedest not to worsen it.”

We fell silent. Then, with little sound, I rose to my feet. Titch did not glance up. I went towards him and, very slowly, very gently, placed a soft hand on his shoulder.

— WIND BATTERED the house. I stepped away, letting my hand drop. Titch sat silent some moments. We both said nothing. Finally he rose and, setting his cup on a tower of books piled at the window, went and lay down to sleep beside the boy. I sat quietly there in the dark, my mind blank, empty. Within minutes Titch was asleep, breathing exhaustedly. In the outer dark, the sand hissed against the windows like human whispers.

I thought I could hear Tanna stirring in the other room, but then I knew it was only the wind. I raised myself up to a crouch. The windows held a soft orange glow, as if the sun were trying to rise through the roar of sand. I watched shadows beat like black birds at the panes. There came a long howl from the east, and then a clicking, as though pebbles had been thrown at the glass.

How astonishing to have discovered Titch here, among these meagre possessions, his only companion the boy. His guilt was nothing to do with me—all these years I had lain easy on his conscience. But what did it matter anymore. He had suffered other sorrows. And these wounds had arrested him in boyhood, in a single draining urge to re-create our years at Faith, despite their brutality. Someone else might have looked upon his life here and seen only how different it was from all that had come before. I saw only what remained the same: the scattered furniture, as if no real home could ever be made here; the mess of instruments that would only measure and never draw a single conclusion; the friendship with a boy who, in days, months, years, would find himself abandoned in a place so far from where he had begun that he’d hardly recognize himself, would struggle to build a second life. I imagined the boy nameless and afraid, clawing his way through a world of ice.

There came a sound from the other room, and I thought I heard Tanna rising, her soft, girlish steps. I stilled myself, waiting for her to come through the doorway, but she never arrived. At the window I could see the great sky emptying, as though it could no longer sustain anything—no bird, no cloud.

Through the badly nailed boards of the door a hissing threaded in like voices. Exhausted, I rose unthinkingly to my feet. I pressed my palm to the door, felt its vibrations. And then I was dragging it open, so that the grand yellow air rose before me, buzzing. A tree’s branch whipped past, splintered apart against the harsh stone house. The wind was furious, rasping and singing over the pale ground, whipping sprays of sand into the whitening east. There was no trace of human presence anywhere, neither trail nor footstep. It was so cold I expected to see my breath.

I stepped out onto the threshold, the sand stinging me, blinding my eyes. Behind me I thought I heard Tanna call my name, but I did not turn, could not take my gaze from the orange blur of the horizon. I gripped my arms about myself, went a few steps forward. The wind across my forehead was like a living thing.

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