The pox party, p.1
The Pox Party,
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or, if real, are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2006 by M. T. Anderson
Cover photograph copyright © 2011 by Peter Zelei/iStockphoto
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, transmitted, or stored in an information retrieval system in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, taping, and recording, without prior written permission from the publisher.
First adult electronic edition 2011
The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition as follows:
Anderson, M. T.
The Pox party / taken from accounts by [Octavian Nothing’s] own hand and other sundry sources ; collected by Mr. M. T. Anderson of Boston.
p. cm. — (The astonishing life of Octavian Nothing, traitor to the nation ; v. 1)
Summary: Various diaries, letters, and other manuscripts chronicle the experiences of Octavian, from birth to age sixteen, as he is brought up as part of a science experiment in the years leading up to and during the Revolutionary War.
ISBN 978-0-7636-2402-6 (hardcover)
[1. Freedom — Fiction. 2. Slavery — Fiction. 3. Science — Experiments — Fiction. 4. African Americans — Fiction. 5. Massachusetts — History — Revolution, 1775–1783 — Fiction. 6. United States — History — Revolution, 1775–1783 — Fiction.] I. Title.
[Fic] — dc22 2006043170
ISBN 978-0-7636-3679-1 (paperback)
ISBN 978-0-7636-5376-7 (adult paperback)
ISBN 978-0-7636-5178-7 (electronic)
ISBN 978-0-7636-5659-1 (adult electronic)
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[TABLE OF CONTENTS]
THE TRANSIT OF VENUS
THE POX PARTY
LIBERTY & PROPERTY
THE GREAT CHAIN OF BEING
I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees.
I recall, in the orchard behind the house, orbs of flame rising through the black boughs and branches; they climbed, spiritous, and flickered out; my mother squeezed my hand with delight. We stood near the door to the ice-chamber.
By the well, servants lit bubbles of gas on fire, clad in frock-coats of asbestos.
Around the orchard and gardens stood a wall of some height, designed to repel the glance of idle curiosity and to keep us all from slipping away and running for freedom; though that, of course, I did not yet understand.
How doth all that seeks to rise burn itself to nothing.
The men who raised me were lords of matter, and in the dim chambers I watched as they traced the spinning of bodies celestial in vast, iron courses, and bid sparks to dance upon their hands; they read the bodies of fish as if each dying trout or shad was a fresh Biblical Testament, the wet and twitching volume of a new-born Pentateuch. They burned holes in the air, wrote poems of love, sucked the venom from sores, painted landscapes of gloom, and made metal sing; they dissected fire like newts.
I did not find it strange that I was raised with no one father, nor did I marvel at the singularity of any other article in my upbringing. It is ever the lot of children to accept their circumstances as universal, and their particularities as general.
So I did not ask why I was raised in a house by many men, none of whom claimed blood relation to me. I thought not to inquire why my mother stayed in this house, or why we alone were given names — mine, Octavian; hers, Cassiopeia — when all the others in the house were designated by number.
The owner of the house, Mr. Gitney, or as he styled himself, 03-01, had a large head and little hair and a dollop of a nose. He rarely dressed if he did not have to go out, but shuffled most of the time through his mansion in a banyan-robe and undress cap, shaking out his hands as if he’d washed them newly. He did not see to my instruction directly, but required that the others spend some hours a day teaching me my Latin and Greek, my mathematics, scraps of botany, and the science of music, which grew to be my first love.
The other men came and went. They did not live in the house, but came of an afternoon, or stayed there often for some weeks to perform their virtuosic experiments, and then leave. Most were philosophers, and inquired into the workings of time and memory, natural history, the properties of light, heat, and petrifaction. There were musicians among them as well, and painters and poets.
My mother, being of great beauty, was often painted. Once, she and I were clad as Venus, goddess of love, and her son Cupid, and we reclined in a bower. At other times, they made portraits of her dressed in the finest silks of the age, smiling behind a fan, or leaning on a pillar; and on another occasion, when she was sixteen, they drew her nude, for an engraving, with lines and letters that identified places upon her body.
The house was large and commodious, though often drafty. In its many rooms, the men read their odes, or played the violin, or performed their philosophical exercises. They combined chemical compounds and stirred them. They cut apart birds to trace the structure of the avian skeleton, and, masked in leather hoods, they dissected a skunk. They kept cages full of fireflies. They coaxed reptiles with mice. From the uppermost story of the house, they surveyed the city and the bay through spy-glasses, and noted the ships that arrived from far corners of the Empire, the direction of winds and the migration of clouds across the waters and, on its tawny isle, spotted with shadow, the Castle.
Amidst their many experimental chambers, there was one door that I was not allowed to pass. One of the painters sketched a little skull-and-crossbones on paper, endowed not with a skull, but with my face, my mouth open in a gasp; and this warning they hung upon that interdicted door as a reminder. They meant it doubtless as a jest, but to me, the door was terrible, as ghastly in its secrets as legendary Bluebeard’s door, behind which his dead, white wives sat at table, streaked with blood from their slit throats.
We did not venture much out of the house and its grounds into the city that surrounded us. In the garden, we could hear its bustle, the horseshoes on stone cobbles and dirt, the conversation of sailors, the crying of onions and oysters in passageways. The men of that house feared that too much interaction with the world would corrupt me, and so I was, in the main, hidden away for my earliest years, as the infant Jove, snatched out of the gullet of Time, was reared by his horned nurse on Mount Ida in profoundest secrecy.
When we did go abroad, Mr. 03-01 warned me that I should not lean out at the window of the carriage, and should not show my face. He told me that, should I ever run away into the city, I would not return, but would be snatched up by evil men who would take me forever away from my mother. This was, I know now, but a half-lie.
I imagine that I was a silent and solemn child — as solemn as my mother was smiling and gay. The appearance of solemnity was much increased by the fact that, from my earliest youth, my head was shaved, and I was made to wear white wigs, so that even in childhood, I had the look of age. I was told that the hair for my wigs, and for my mother’s — for she too was shaved and wore white wigs, though hers were towering, and marked with jet-black ribbons — that this hair came from a pensioners’ home in Prague, where hair was farmed in exchange for soup and bread. Such wigs could not have been inexpensive; but they were simply one of the extravagant customs of that place, and I found them unsurprising.
In the parlance of that house, the master, Mr. Gitney, was called 03-01 because he was the
In the years as I grew, my mother must have perceived the peculiarity of our situation; but though she may have noted, she did not discover its irregularities to me by word, look, or gesture.
Or, by God — I reckon now, now that it is all gone — yea — mayhap she did discover it to me, in every gesture, in all looks, in the space between each word — and I, never knowing her elsewhere, did not know how to parse her warnings and subtility.
How would her smile have appeared, did we not live in that house? Would it have been the one I know as hers — the which I saw slow-spreading across her soft and radiant features to greet each gentleman who attended our musical soirées, of an evening? (For when the gentry would gather to hear her play upon the harpsichord, and hear me, no taller than her waist, play upon the violin, she smiled upon each and every one of them as they watched, wigged and fingering their canes.)
I did not ask why we were not numbered, as the others were; I suspected that it was due to my mother’s royal blood — for I was told from my earliest youth that she was a princess in her own kingdom, could she but get back to it from her exile. In her bearing, she was still a queen.
They called themselves the Novanglian College of Lucidity, and devoted themselves to divining the secrets of the universe, so praising the Creator, who had with infinite art manufactured such a dazzling apparatus; and each investigation into the incubation of tern-eggs or the mystery of sediment was but an ear pressed to the mechanism, the better to hear the click of gears, the swiveling of stars on cog and ambulating cam.
I was taught not merely the arts and knowledge of the physical world, but was given the strictest instruction in ethics, schooled in those virtues that must ever enflame each Christian heart: kindness, filial duty, piety, obedience, and humility.
Above all, brought up among the experiments and assays of these artists and philosophers, I was taught the importance of observation. They showed me how to be precise in notation, acute in investigation, and rational in inference. After I watched them pet a dog for some days, then drown it, and time its drowning; or after I watched them feed alley-cats to lure them so they could toss them off a scaffold and judge the height from which cats no longer catch themselves, but shatter; or, yea, after I saw the philosophers of this college acquire a docile child deprived of reason and speech, and, when she could not master the use of verbs, beat her to the point of gagging and swooning; after such experiments as these, I became most wondrous observant, and often stared unmoving at a wall for some hours together.
They quizzed me on what I had observed staring at these walls.
Once, at dinner, seated at the table, 03-01 asked me what I had noted in my hours spent immobile. I said, “Nothing, sir.”
He said that one could not observe nothing.
The girl deprived of reason — who had just been beaten — began to sob. The servants were weighing and recording my dinner.
I ventured that I had watched a daddy longlegs. He asked what hypotheses I had made in that time. The girl sobbed and beat the table. I looked down at my dinner, which was before me, now. I said that I wondered whether the daddy longlegs was a spider.
Mr. 03-01 said to me, “Prove that it is so. Through the exercise of logic. Is the daddy longlegs a spider?”
I hesitated. He nodded to his manservant, who came to my side and picked up my food, not yet touched, and passed it to 03-01, who held it suspended across the table and waited for my reply. I could not think, with the moaning of the unfortunate speechless girl. I was hungry.
“Come along,” said 03-01. “State your proposition as a three-part proof. A syllogism.”
My mother urged me, “Octavian? ‘One. Spiders have eight legs.’”
“Please observe silence, Your Majesty,” said 03-01 to her. “You shall not give him help.”
I repeated, “One. Spiders have eight legs.” Considering it, I continued: “Two. Daddy longlegs have eight legs. Therefore, three, daddy longlegs must be spiders.” I felt great relief. I looked covetously at my meal.
“I am afraid not,” said 03-01. “That is a faulty proof.” As he lowered my plate and fed my dinner to the dog, he explained kindly, “You exhibit an illicit process of the minor term. Your proof is invalid. The first phrase, supplied by your mother, was not suitable to your purposes.” The dog was lapping my dinner off the plate. “You might as well retire to your bedchamber,” he said to me. “You will get no food tonight at this table.”
I turned to my mother. “Mother?” I said. “Mater?”
She sat staring imperiously across the table at no one — at a portrait, perhaps, on the wall. Her hands were poised near her fork and knife, but she did not raise them to eat.
03-01 said, “Your mother advised you poorly. This is not to deny her considerable charms; but in future, you would be well advised to attend less carefully to her every word.”
She protested, “He is my son.”
“Let us say rather,” said 03-01, “that he belongs to all of us.”
Thus, having observed, I retired; and I began to wonder who held power in that house, and who had none.
Still do I struggle to remember the moral precepts I was taught in that place. Kindness, humility, piety, respect for other human creatures — these are the great desiderata of all who pursue virtuous action, and it matters not whether those who preach them heed their own advice. Right thinking is ever a battle, and often I cast my mind back to these early lessons and pursue these early ideals, though now the ghastly purpose of that dim college has been made clear to me; and he who ran it appears to me not like a man but some monster who instructed me, some beast endued with the speech of a man, as the centaur Chiron wrote out lessons for young Achilles with his human hands, and spake his lectures with his human mouth, while his glossy hindquarters dropped fæces upon the Senate lawn.
It boots us nothing to feel rage for things that long ago transpired. We must curb our fury, and allow sadness to diminish, and speak our stories with coolness and deliberation. “Animum rege, qui nisi paret, imperat,” quoth the poet Horace. “Rule thy passion, for unless it obeys, it rules you.” I ask the Lord God Jehovah for strength to forgive. Whatever I have felt about those men, I have much to thank them for. They lavished luxuries upon me. They supported my every interest and encouraged my curiosity. They instructed me in the Christian religion. They taught me the tongues of the Greeks and the Romans and opened for me the colonnaded vistas of those long-forgotten empires, in this, the dawning of a new empire. They schooled me in music, which is my greatest delight. These are not little things.
I do not believe they ever meant unkindness.
In another early recollection, I remember taking the food Mr. 03-01 had prepared for my dog down to the woodshed, that I might delight the creature and enjoy his company for some minutes before my lessons. The dog was a stray, though sweet enough in disposition once fed, and for two weeks it had been my constant care and practice to nurse him as a special pet. I was perhaps five or six years of age; the dog was named Cloud. I entered the woodshed to find him unmoving.
I rearranged his legs, but still he would not stir.
I recall no emotion on this occasion; nor do I recall emotion from many of the circumstances that formed the early passages of my life, for which nullity I have no explanation; for I know that such instances as this melted my heart and battered my sensibilities; but I have no memory of those inward commot
It is indicative of the rigors of scrutiny to which I have always subjected myself that though I can recall none of the tremors of my breast, none of the calamity of spirit this must have occasioned, I do recall the floods of tears I shed as I ran through the house — the scolding I received from a footman — and at last the complaint I made to Mr. 03-01.
Mr. 03-01 swore and followed me to the woodshed to examine the body; there, I stood by the body of the dog as he examined it, and I gave myself over to silent weeping.
It was not for many years that I read an article he penned on that occasion, and found that Cloud had been memorialized; and, furthermore, grew to understand through this brief chemical treatise, frank in its disclosure of experimental methodology, that I had murdered my dog by my own hand; for that excellent and affectionate creature had been poisoned by the same food I gave him daily, Mr. 03-01 admixing an experimental mercurious compound into the meat and rice to determine whether it was fatal to mammals.
This I did not know when I was five; I merely knew a hollowness, as best I can recall it, so windy and sharp I could not stop weeping. Mr. 03-01, noting my sorrow, took me into the experimental chamber and sat me upon his knee. “Octavian,” he said, “why do you feel sorrow?”
I could not formulate an answer.
“Do you think that Cloud hath passed to another world?” he asked.
I nodded, and he asked me what that place might resemble; and in my answer I described a paradise of dogs; upon which he inquired whether dogs have a soul, and this, too, I answered.
So I sat on his lap and told him what he wished to know; and carefully, nodding, he transcribed my answers for study, comment, and future publication.
At the head of the stairs in that gaunt house there was a painting of a pleasant woodland in the Golden Age of Man, that sweet epoch when nude nymphs and youths would meet on the greensward in the cool of the morning to discuss architecture, the affections, or trigonometry. The painting was executed by one of our guests, Mr. 07-03, a young man with wild, unkempt hair, a passionate disposition, and prodigious talents: He had engraved a series of plates depicting the flora of the New World, and had, as well, published articles on the pursuits of the woodpecker, the musk of the bear, and the motion of electricity through water, the last of which experiments left him with a permanent jitter and no sense of smell. He painted the picture to represent Mr. 03-01’s dream of a perfect world, one where all men and women, united in rationality, pursued knowledge together beneath the green leaves of summer and the distant blue of sacred mountains. Such, said the men who raised me, was their hope for our nation.