SHE PATTED the stool beside her where she’d made some space. ‘Come and sit while I play for you,’ Nell beckoned, tinkling a few notes on the harpsichord which stood in a corner of the green-walled saloon. The instrument was made in Milan, fashioned in shining cypress. Nell ran her fingers across the double keyboard, tapping out a tune with her broken nails. There was blood where the nails met the quick, its colour silky bright, matching the green walls like berries on holly. Her poor nails! she’d taken to biting them like a boy and well knew why – it was the sudden burden, the sudden earthquake Mora had become.
She sat at her side, as requested. Her maid Betty had dressed her in a taffeta gown, silver and white to offset her colour. Her ears were ringed with pearls, of which there were more round her slender neck, though her feet as yet were bare. Nell had never seen feet so large, not even on a man. No shoes in the house would fit, which meant a trip to the village to have a pair made. It would be their first outing together, and Sir George, breaking off from estate matters that morning, said he hoped it wouldn’t be their last. In other words, she was not to lose her.
‘Be kind to her, Nell,’ he repeated, though his steward and attorney, Mr Vine, who’d returned with him from abroad, offered some advice of his own – ‘Why not have her branded on the cheek as a mark of ownership? This isn’t Barbados any more, no small island with nowhere to run. There are towns, cities. You’ll need something distinctive on the Wanted notice. You might pull a tooth while you’re at it – a top one where the gap’ll show.’
‘Mr Vine may be right, dear,’ said her father as his eyes met Nell’s then looked away. Just what had she read in addition? – it had seemed like relief at her abhorrence.
‘You might settle for a riveted collar instead,’ the big-faced steward resumed. ‘We could engrave it with her name if you liked.’ His steely grey eyes were a match for all metals; his hands, round a girl’s neck, would have made the collar pleasant by comparison. Vine repulsed her, and though he knew it was so he wouldn’t accept it. He was a thick-skinned dogged man in every respect: dogged in his service to Sir George; dogged in his will to succeed. Dogged at meeting her gaze and staring at her heaving bosom. He would have her know that his hopes were high, that his prospects for rising in the world were good, for he had in his hands the management of the whole estate, and her father’s legal work combined. And Sir George trusted him much, arguably too much. ‘Think about it,’ he said, with a questionable wink.
She told him there was no need, she’d already made up her mind.
‘There, you have your answer,’ said her father, who looked secretly pleased. ‘Let that be the end of the matter.’
Yes, thought Nell, but is it the end of Mora’s pride? Somehow she doubted it.
‘Now, what would you like?’ she asked her, ‘a little Handel perhaps? Or some Scarlatti – yes, let’s have that!’ She stamped down the pedal with the heel of her shoe, startling Mora with the sudden loudness. ‘Too jaunty for your tastes? Then we’ll try Bach,’ and she played a motet in a minor key as sombre as the end of life. She played on through her repertoire which, like her talent, was limited. In fact she’d no gift for music at all. Not that Sir George could judge; he’d listen to her play of an evening with his face in raptures even when the notes were wrong.
‘You like the harpsichord?’ Nell enquired. ‘Or do you prefer the violin? – they say it’s the Devil’s own instrument. Mr Devil was black like you. His wife too I suppose, if he had one. Do you think he had a wife? I do wish you’d speak, even just monkey-talk from your family’s old home in Africa. Come then, if you’re still in a sulk, let us sit down by the window and read. It’s another lovely day, not a cloud in sight.’
They moved to the window seat, where the sun picked out the fabric, delicately rough to the touch. The woven scene was a rustic one: a stag bounding through a wooded glade chased by a man on horseback. ‘Robinson Crusoe, now here’s a tale,’ Nell said, opening a book at random. ‘Reminds you of home I expect. Your Caribbean home where my parrot came from, God rest his feathered soul. Man Friday was a most interesting character for a savage. The cannibals tried to eat him, you know, till Crusoe rescued him from the pot. It was a Friday, and he decided to name him after it. Today is Friday too, Mora. We always have fish on Friday. Not that we’re Catholics, you understand. But how much do you understand? Part of me thinks you understand everything.’ Her long blonde locks had brushed Mora’s face, and to Nell’s surprise she reached out and touched them. Her smell was musky sweet, warm like summer earth, and familiar – how could that be? ‘Let’s go to the looking-glass,’ said Nell. ‘You can brush my hair as a treat.’
‘You like my hair?’ she said when Mora had begun. ‘I should think so, yours being such a pickle. Methinks I should grow quite morbid having hair like yours.’ She could see Mora’s face reflected as she worked. It wore a look of deep concentration. ‘Not that mine is the best I might have. If it were not for the curling tongs I’d have no curls at all. You know, I do hope we can be friends,’ she added presently. ‘I get so lonely here. And life is so tedious. It comes of answering my own questions. You frustrate me so much. I think you might be a dummy after all, as Betty said. Damn your eyes, I want to know you as well as own you!’ She stamped her heel as she’d done on the pedal, stamped it so hard she dinted the floorboard.
‘You wake the dead – is that what you wish?’ said Mora, watching Nell’s reflection in the glass.
‘Ah, so the monkey speaks at last. For the moment I thought the slave driver had got your tongue. I’ve heard they do that, tear them out to stop them wagging. But what do you mean – wake the dead? I expect your sort can.’
Mora resumed her brushing, teasing out a tangle with expert care. ‘If there’s dead to wake.’
‘There’s your mother for one. I hear she died of fever.’ Nell wanted to hurt her, if only to feel some remorse. Remorse brought pleasure, just a little, and the same was true of grief. She’d grieved for her own mother and, in part, enjoyed it. What did that say about her? she’d wondered. Was she twisted at heart? – abnormal? There was no one to ask but Mora, though perhaps there was no one better.
‘You hear wrong,’ the girl was saying now. ‘Momma took own life.’
‘But she can’t have …How?’ Nell asked, for her father wouldn’t tell a lie.
‘She put a halter round her neck,’ said Mora, and as the clock ticked louder in the silence, this: ‘From a rafter in the barn where the cane was stored. I helped her down after it were done. Her face was black and blue. That Mr Vine find it funny and laugh, black and blue Nigger, he say.’
Nell’s burden was growing by the second – did God regard her so little that He’d brought such trials to her life? ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘truly I am. Do you know why she killed herself?’
Her care of Nell’s locks was no less tender. ‘Because she was sad at heart like a songbird in a cage. She didn’t want to live any more.’
Nell was on the verge of tears; she couldn’t help it. ‘My mother’s dead too. She died in childbirth. Both her and my baby sister were taken at the same time. Betty says she’s never seen so much blood,’ and when Nell’s hand reached behind, Mora clasped it in both her own. It felt wrong – too much power on the black girl’s side; too much might that wasn’t right. Yet the task of making it four hands to even things out seemed churlish. So three it remained – asymmetrical, incomplete, as wrong as the colours of their friendship.
‘I’m not ready for this,’ said Nell. ‘I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you are.’
‘We all have fears.’
‘I don’t fear you.’
‘I think you do. I’m your liberation.’
‘Don’t be absurd! What do I need liberating from?’
‘Yourself. This world you live in.’
‘You’d show me the trammels of my life? You go too far.’
‘Do I? Your freedom is like hate that pretends to be love …Or love that pretends to be hate.’
‘What do you mean by that?’
‘Only that you a have lot to learn.’
‘I don’t need you to instruct me! It is for me to instruct you! And how can you say that you don’t fear me? I think it’s time, as Father says, that you were baptised.’
But the other’s silence said it all: baptism altered nothing.
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