04 - 07

کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 38

04 - 07

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  • زمان مطالعه 9 دقیقه
  • سطح خیلی سخت

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7

THE NEXT WEEKS PASSED painfully, with the confirmation of Kit’s death still weighing on me, the acceptance that she was my mother. Tanna was overwhelmed in her concern for me; and her eagerness to heal me, to never let me alone, annoyed and distressed me. We fought bitterly all the next week, so that she began to avoid spending time in my cottage. I did not seek her out, knowing that any gesture begun in love inevitably turned to poison; every good speech, every clean overture, died on the air. I thought constantly of Amsterdam, but I was blind to myself; only a full week after speaking to Mister Solander did I realize I longed to write to Mister Haas, to seek him out—that indeed I was irritable precisely because I knew I needed to.

And so, one evening, after a full day’s work at Ocean House, I sat at my creaking desk and wrote out a long, searching letter. I posted it the next morning and still weeks later had received no response. And so I wrote again, following it quickly with a third letter—and again, nothing came. How disappointed I was, how shaken. I was desperate to speak of it, but did not feel I could confide in Tanna; I knew she would criticize me for putting so much effort into seeking out a man who after all might have been a ghost. Her contempt for Titch was obvious, though she had never met him. Her displeasure at my need to see him again was really her displeasure at what she perceived to be the worst of my faults: my habit of expending my energies on those things and people least worthy of them—herself and her father exempted. In my desperation to find Titch she saw a fear of accepting my own power, a mindless surrender. It disgusted her, though she never spoke so.

But then, gradually, miraculously, things began to clear between us. We were able to speak as we’d once done, with great love and little calculation. We began to go almost daily into the city together, to inspect new specimens or pieces of equipment. We sourced Portland and Roman cement to build artificial rocks, and purchased Thames river sand from a stone wharf to line the tanks’ bottoms. We sought out annelids and crabs; we talked constantly of light, its shifting properties throughout the seasons. The windows of Ocean House were very large and poorly blown, and we feared what the summer months would bring, when the solar rays would energize the plants but lay waste to the animals.

And finally the tanks for the main floor were completed, and we were invited to go to Wolcott and Sons to examine them. On our way there, we passed damp stone buildings abutting the road, the facades black with last night’s rain. As we entered Guilford Street, I finally spoke of my failure to reach Haas.

I steeled myself for Tanna’s disapproval. Instead she hesitated, and with some reluctance, as if she’d been hiding a secret, said, “Father has a distant colleague in Amsterdam, in Jordaan—Kees Visser. Some months ago Mister Visser wrote with news of a specimen he thought perfect for Ocean House but did not entrust to the post. He could not bring it himself, being permanently confined to a Bath chair. But he said he would cold-store it, in the hopes that Father might have a chance to go and collect it.” She peered warily at me. “If I’m only mentioning it now, Wash, it’s because Father had no notion of going. We do not know Mister Visser well, whether he is trustworthy or not. But the nature of his claim, it’s so unlikely. We get many such claims, as you know.”

I paused, absorbing this news. She stood before me nervous, as though expecting a dressing-down. Very calmly I said, “What does he say he has?”

“A two-headed cetacean.”

“Born live?”

“Stillborn.”

“It would be a triumph to display such a thing.”

“I myself do not believe him.”

“Conjoined twins do exist in nature, Tanna, though admittedly they are rare.”

“He says it is a beast of two heads yet one brain, with the limbic system divided perfectly between them.”

“Astounding.”

She made no reply, kept walking.

We continued some paces, a spit of rain now in the air. I was not angry with her for withholding this information; I understood the great risk she took in telling me. For here was what I had been awaiting, in my bones—a tangible, feasible reason to visit Amsterdam, something more concrete than the rumour of a lost man.

We shoved open the grimy door of Wolcott and Sons, the bell ringing tinnily. Wood shavings scuttled across the floor, pale as gull’s feathers. Almost instantly Mister Saunders stepped from behind the dark curtain, his hair flecked with lathe shavings, a smile on his pocked face. He was Wolcott’s son-in-law, a tall, lanky redhead from Midlothian, and though he spoke with no trace of accent, one had a sense of his difference. With a boyish wave of the hand he bid us pass through the curtains and led us mumbling to the workshop in back. In this large room stinking of burnt glue, its tables strewn with bottles of paste and great cement plates, a small, begrimed man in a black apron squinted quietly at his work.

“Good morning, Mister Wolcott,” Tanna called out.

Wolcott grunted but did not glance up. Yet we both saw the strong blush cross his cheeks, and were careful not to look at each other. The old man admired Tanna desperately, and in her presence he became abashed, abrupt. I had seen him once socially among only men and he was quite lively then, and talkative.

“And what do you think?” said Mister Saunders, leading us to the wall at the far back. In a tidy line our tanks sat stacked, clean and new and gleaming. They ranged in size from sixteen inches to nearly eight feet, their bottoms made of slate and their framework of iron.

“They are wonderful!” said Tanna, kneeling to touch at the glass, her skirts pooling on the wood shavings. “I wish I could live in one myself.”

Mister Saunders smiled, a single crooked tooth creeping over his bottom lip. “Said Mister Wolcott here, We must endeavour to get them right, Saunders. These are for Miss Goff.”

Wolcott frowned at his labours and did not look up.

“Well, I am ever so grateful for the extra care taken,” said Tanna. “I can already see the small worlds they will hold.”

“Ah now, we were glad of your business, dear. And we welcomed the challenge.” He laughed lightly. “The design I will say was quite complicated. I see you are very modern and do nothing by half measures.” Saunders glanced over to me. “You will take them away on Wednesday?”

“A week Wednesday,” said I. “We must return with the proper transport.”

“Aye, yes. Just as well, with that business out at Newgate. The streets will be black with people.”

“Another one?” frowned Tanna. “It is as though they mean to save on food, the rate they are dispensing with those poor men.”

“Indeed,” said Saunders. “But you mustn’t be so modern as to forget they are robbers and killers.”

“How many this time?” said Tanna. “What are their crimes?”

Saunders hesitated, as if he hated to speak so before a lady. Treading over the slippery wood shavings, he plucked a newspaper from a counter strewn with stained and discarded papers and handed it to me.

“Here, give this to Mister Goff,” he laughed. “It’s a father’s prerogative to tell a daughter, if he chooses.”

Tanna smiled politely, but in the dim light I could see Wolcott set his lips, as though he was displeased she should be exposed to such iniquities.

Tanna bade them good day and I led us out. Stepping into the cool, grey air, I felt I could breathe again, the breeze fresh and biting.

“You are happy with the tanks, I hope?” Tanna looked up at me, and a soft anxiety entered her face. “You are thinking of Amsterdam.”

But I was scanning the newspaper, and seeing his name I stopped short in the street and could find no words.

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