HE WAS DEEP in thought when she called on him in his gilded study. He looked up from his desk as she entered, his estate papers stacked in a pile. They didn’t look touched, even glanced at. Of more concern, it appeared to Nell, was the brace of pistols snug within their case. With one of these he had once killed a man in a duel, put the ball through his brain on a question of principle, he’d never said which. He had called it an affair of honour, though Nell hadn’t learned what the insult had been. If Father had shot him, he must have had his reasons. Such was her faith in his judgement, and with it her unquestioning love.
His face showed a pained welcome. For a few seconds the silence between them was absolute and Nell had no leave to break it. At first the guns did the talking, or so it seemed. He’d begun to fondle one of them – the killing one? He held it slackly by the inlaid handle, as if it were alive, an extra hand. Then, abruptly, he laid it on the desk, whose polished walnut caught the sun through the casement beyond. The reflected leaves from a nearby oak fluttered madly on the panelled wall.
‘So you’ve come about the girl,’ he said in solemn tones. ‘Be patient with her Nell. She’s – how shall I put it? – blessed with a certain animal charm.’ He reached for his pipe but couldn’t find his tinder box. And there was no fire to light a taper on account of the warm spring weather. His curse was low, barely audible. It included the word she.
‘You’ll be telling me next that she’s been through a lot, that I ought to understand.’
‘You are questioning my judgement?’
‘I need to know who is master. You of all people should understand that. She’s proud, I can feel it.’
‘It’s just that she’s new here, these things take time.’ The pistol was in his hand again and he was stroking the barrel, sniffing the pan and slapping the stock against his palm. ‘Will you be patient? Will you do it? – for me?’
She was about to answer when the door flew open. Had Joe forgotten he must always knock? ‘Not now!’ cried his father. ‘This doesn’t concern you!’
‘I just thought …’
‘But you don’t think sir, not as I’d like.’ Nell knew what he meant – that Joe, in his father’s absence, had shown no head for business, no cutting edge in estate management. The tenants were taking liberties with their leases, neighbours were extending their lands and poachers going unpunished – no wonder there were highwaymen afoot.
Whipped by his tone, Joe struggled for his dignity in the doorway. Soon he’d retreated with stooped shoulders, his eyes raking the portrait on the wall. It was their mother’s and the likeness was strong. Nell felt his hurt but she too resented his weakness. Why did he buckle so easily, never fight like the man Father wanted him to be, like the brother she needed to respect? And yet in truth she did respect him, for all the wrong reasons her father would say. Such was her dilemma, her only dilemma till Mora came along.
‘As I was saying,’ Sir George resumed irritably, ‘about the girl.’ He was breathing heavily, as if Joe’s presence had fouled the air. ‘I don’t like chaos, Nell, any more than I like weakness. I want harmony, continuity. Out there in the Indies it’s easier.’
‘Then why bring her to England? She’s change and chaos rolled into one.’
He avoided her eyes as he answered, ‘Because I’m not going back. My home is here as it should have been all along. I and Mr Vine are in agreement, that it’s for the best. ‘Tis a white man’s graveyard out there, even on higher ground. The heat, the flies, the disease.’
‘But she’s black not white. You’ve said yourself how much better they cope with the yellow fever.’
‘Not in her mother’s case. The …’ – he hesitated – ‘…the fever took her. The girl was left alone in the world. She was part of my household.’
‘Yet why bring her here?’ Nell asked again. ‘I don’t want her – and if there’s something you’re not telling me.’
His eyes glittered darkly. ‘If there is, it is mine not to tell. You push me too hard.’ He replaced the pistol in its box and snapped shut the lid. ‘I’ve done as any father would in my position. I’ve tried to please you as I always do. You’re never grateful.’
‘I am, Father, I am! It’s just that I’m not sure I like her. I’m used to animals, and it’s not the same. How should I tame her?’
‘Through kindness, Nell. Call it an experiment,’ he said leaning back in his chair, whose delicate back seemed about to break. ‘You know how I like to wager. If you must know, the girl herself is a wager. And when all is said and done, yes you’ve a right to know. I have made you part of that wager. Two birds with one stone you might say.’
‘She’s here as a wager? I don’t understand.’
‘Then let me explain,’ he said, getting up and pacing the floor. ‘It’s a convivial sort of wager, one meant to oil some wheels. I’m talking about the wheels of influence. How a man even in my position must attach himself to another’s coat tails.’ His movements were agitated. He stopped suddenly and chopped the air with his hand. ‘You know the way I work, Nell – you’ve a fine mind, for a girl. I sometimes think you are more of a son to me than Joe could ever be. You also know my hopes and dreams. They say a man must look to his sons if he can. If he can. You know Lord Pemberton of course, and you also know what’s imminent.’ He meant Joe’s engagement to his Lordship’s daughter, to his forthcoming marriage and all it would mean for father as much as for son. A seat in the Lords, and the eminent title that went with it was Sir George’s crowning glory, his sense of flying to the moon. It was possible too, within his grasp, he said, all it needed was an extra push. The wager was exactly that, so long as he won, didn’t look fond in the eyes of that well connected Tory.
‘Won? But you said it was a friendly wager. Convivial was the word you used.’
‘And it was, my dear,’ he was quick to add. ‘But also a reckless one, made in the spirit of drink. His Lordship was visiting his plantations, we were neighbours for a while. We spent time together, he was kind in extending an invite. It was in my interest to accept.’
‘Yes, the wedding,’ he said dismissively. ‘We had much to talk about, many common interests,’ he added, though Nell found that hard to believe – her father was many things, but not a cultured man. Lord Pemberton was a poet, a philosopher, a collector of Renaissance art. Not a rich one, however, not any more given his debts, and there lay the baronet’s opening as far as the marriage was concerned. ‘You’ve heard me say how hot the evenings can get out there. Too much rum and the scent of flowers whose fragrance is only smelt at night. It’s a heady mixture, Nell, it makes a man dream. Things were said, my dear, things were arranged, things you don’t need to know about – not yet.’
Anyone else but her father and she’d have made him get to the point. He seemed bent on deviation. Dissimulation too, as he pressed on regardless: ‘One night the slaves were as restless as the crickets, they were mourning the loss of one of their number. A woman. The girl’s mother for all I remember.’ He seemed pensive again. ‘Communing with her spirit no doubt. All that nonsense that curdles a man’s blood. They’re savages at heart, you see. Something less – a lot less – than us. They were my words and they were about to cost me dear. We’d got to talking in our cups man-to-man. “They can barely be tamed, never mind changed,” said his Lordship’s face grinning in the dark. The girl was serving us on the veranda. It just happened to be her, it could have been any of them. But she it was, and she became the wager.’
‘What wager? – tell me.’
‘A large one, not that the money is the issue. Well not for me. His Lordship perhaps.’
‘I didn’t ask the sum, I asked the issue.’
‘Sit down, Nell,’ he said at last, though he remained standing. He even turned his back and stared out the window. His troubled mind looked present in the fabric of his dove-grey coat, in the stiff black ribbon of his wig. ‘I’m not talking scrubbing or bleaching you understand,’ he said with a hint of jest. ‘I know she’s black – too black – but I thought, in drink, that it was possible – to refine her, give her the airs of a rich and respectable white girl, native born and bred.’ He scratched his head at the hairline where it met the wig. ‘I know I’ve got myself into a hole, I don’t need telling. And I can’t manage this without you, Nell.’
‘But I know nothing of teaching.’
‘If it’s the English you are worried about, the elocution, she can sit beside you when you’re with Mr Strong. In fact, I shall insist on it. So long as English is all he helps her with. Your tutor has a radical streak. He must stick to what I pay him for or else.’
‘And the rest?’
‘The rest you can teach her. You have many accomplishments, you know about etiquette and deportment – all that’s needed to cut a figure. You can teach her how to hold her fan and work its complex language, how to apply the smelling salts when she’s feeling faint. You must be her guide, Nell, at the drop of a handkerchief. It’s exactly that, the head, hand and foot of the thing that worries me most, the day to day running of the – of the experiment, I don’t know what else to call it. Try to see it as a challenge, it’ll certainly stop you getting bored. I’ll see Reverend Mortimer about her baptism. A little Holy Water may act as a primer for all the paint that’s to come. So long as it’s not too late,’ he added worriedly. ‘The mischief out there, it eats away their souls, you know – if they have one to start with.’
‘No, I don’t know, and I’m not sure I wish to know,’ though secretly she did: he shouldn’t have said so little, so little that was so much.
My new novel, Dark Satanic Mill, is now available on Amazon or from Rowanvale Books.