NELL’S MAID BETTY was no ordinary maid, and her character was as fixed as the stars. Nell had just finished breakfasting (not alone, as used to be her custom, but with Mora) when Betty came in grumbling as always. A long morning in the kitchens had made her sweat like an onion. Nell told her so, and that she smelled as meaty as a horse. Betty’s red face, round and smooth beneath the frilled mob cap, was trying not to smile. She’s angry with me, Nell was thinking, but not seriously; she knew Betty loved her young mistress as a maid should.
‘I’m sure that if Miss had worked as I’ve worked this morning she’d be sweating too – and smelling,’ said Betty. ‘Miss doesn’t have to slave like a …’ – Mora was listening resignedly – ‘ …like a Nigger. I might as well have a collar round my neck and be done with it.’
‘Oh Betty don’t exaggerate,’ Nell scolded gently.
‘I don’t have time to exaggerate. I’m at your beck ‘n’ call night ‘n’ day.’
Nell allowed her to rail at her. It was a secret between them that they’d each let off steam now and then, an arrangement that worked to their mutual advantage. But they were three now, and that was the problem. Nell caught Betty’s hand and squeezed it, tugged the frill of her cuffed sleeve and playfully pressed the front of her tight-fitting bodice. The maid quickly relented. ‘Get away with you, Miss. You’ll be telling me next that you don’t want me at Castle Pemberton this afternoon.’
‘But I don’t, Sweaty Betty,’ Nell said. ‘I thought you might enjoy some time to yourself. Why not let Mora attend me instead? After all, it’s high time I showed her off. What has all the training been for this last month? What do you say Mora?’ She was sitting stiffly in the new gown Nell had ordered from Mr Pears, the haberdasher at Otley. The tiny muslin cap trimmed with a bow sat daintily upon her head; the low square neckline was edged with a pleated frill. This like the rest was white, as were the sleeves and bodice embroidered with lace; and the looped skirt and satin undergarment with its quilted hem. Only the neck ribbon was black, so black against her skin that it barely showed.
‘What do you think of her today?’ Nell asked Betty. ‘Do you think she’ll turn some heads? – show Lord Pemberton his wager is already lost?’
‘I don’t know what I think,’ said Betty, curling Nell’s hair with the hot tongs. ‘What does she think of me? that’s what I’d like to know. What does a black ‘un ever think of a white ‘un? Why, it’s like asking what lies at the bottom of the ocean – the deepest one too I’ll be bound.’
‘We can ask her what she thinks of you, at least. Well Mora?’
‘I think she sweats too much as you say.’
‘Well upon my soul!’ exclaimed Betty, dropping the tongs with a clang. ‘Do you hear how she speaks to me?’
‘Feel how cold it is today,’ continued Mora, ‘there’s no reason to sweat even in the kitchens.’
‘But it’s almost summer,’ Nell said jovially.
‘Then why do I shiver though your fire is lit? And you only light it to heat the curling iron not because you are cold.’
‘Mora is used to warmer climes,’ said Nell, ‘we mustn’t blame her for that.’
‘Seems to me you don’t blame her for much,’ answered Betty, picking up the tongs and wiping them on her dress. ‘Look at her hands, they’re not as rough as mine I’ll have you know. Now how can that be when she’s the slave?’ There was a faint smell of scorching that took Nell back to her mother’s funeral, the day Betty had first curled her hair. And scorched her own dress, and gone on scorching it ever since …‘One thing’s for sure – she won’t need her hair curling,’ said Betty, interrupting Nell’s reverie. ‘Her hair’s like the wool on a black sheep. They say every family has one. Now take that tutor of yours, Mr Strong.’ Mora’s pose had stiffened at the name. ‘He’s going to need to be strong in my opinion.’
‘Betty, whatever can you mean?’
‘I mean there’s a black sheep in his family for sure, I just know it.’
Nell laughed. ‘Go on say it – that you feel it in your bones.’
‘She feels it there like I feel the cold,’ said Mora, and for the first time all three smiled together.
‘It would please me much if we all could be friends,’ said Nell, still thinking of her mother. And black gloves, black hat bands, black streamers on the horses – and that black band on Mora’s black neck. If only her colour were not so ominous, so odious – so beautiful – so – and this was a new thought entirely – unimportant. How could that be? – it had sounded like blasphemy, a slap in the face for her father and all he stood for.
‘And if I don’t agree,’ said Betty, ‘what must I do then?’
‘Now that’s up to you. By the way, Betty, how much have you saved in that box you keep under the bed?’
‘Never you mind, Miss, I haven’t saved enough that’s all you need to know.’
‘And when you do, will you leave me?’ Nell asked with mock forlornness.
‘I might. Might want to marry one day,’ and here Mora flashed her a look.
‘Well, well, well – two secrets to discover, first Mr Strong’s black sheep and now this – Betty in love,’ said Nell laughingly. ‘I wonder who it could be?’
‘Tell her, why don’t you?’ said Mora.
‘You shush! – do you hear?’ said Betty, giving her a poke with the scissors.
‘Cut me, I know you want to. But my blood’s as red as yours. Redder I shouldn’t wonder.’
‘There she goes again,’ said Betty. ‘Of all the sweet-tempered creatures in the world, you had to be landed with her. If your father paid her wages she’d be no happier, Miss. If she had a box to keep ‘em in under the bed she’d not be happy neither. She was born bitter that one, and it goes with the colour. She’ll be the same colour this afternoon, so best make sure she behaves herself. It’s Castle Pemberton you’re going to, not a cock fight in the town.’
‘Don’t tease her so,’ said Nell, patting Mora’s knee.
‘Why shouldn’t I tease her?’ said Betty, trimming Nell’s nails with the small silver scissors. ‘Seems to me she has a good life. What does she have to do but sniff behind you like a dog when you walk through the house? But at least I’m not owned,’ she added with pride. ‘I can leave any time I likes without notice. And if your father refused, I’d throw my bundle out the window at cock crow and take off across the fields. No, I’m not owned by no one,’ said Betty, now filing Nell’s nails. ‘You must look to her if it’s owning you want.’
But that’s just it, thought Nell, whose mood had switched abruptly, what do I want? She had everything a girl could wish for but it wasn’t enough. She wanted to try what men had, be a man in a girl’s body for a while. That meant mischief, recklessness. She wished for lingering sickness, a pact with the Devil to find a cure. She wanted to climb tall mountains, swim in the oceans deep; be alone with wild animals, unprotected, a pubescent Christian virgin in the Roman arena. She’d like to stare all night at the full moon, cold and hungry on the moors, the loneliest place she knew but not the saddest. She wished to exhume the dead, see what the earth and its hungry worms had done to human flesh – to her mother’s flesh in her mother’s tomb, for that was the saddest place of all. Saddest because the sadness was tinged with horror. It was why she’d never visited, never dared. She needed someone to understand. She hoped that person was Mora.
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