‘Is she not the most beautiful black girl you have ever seen?’ asked Nell, turning to Mora who stood at her side.
‘She is the first black girl I’ve seen,’ said Caroline, fanning herself in the warm room while glancing at Joe. She was fluttering her fan just beneath her eyes, the meaning being, for those who understood its language, I am available – but only to you. For Joe’s sake Nell hoped she was sincere; there was something about Caroline today that was shallow, untrustworthy; too much her father’s daughter for her own good. She told herself it was all nonsense, like Betty’s feelings in her bones.
‘She’s my first too, aren’t you Mora?’ said Nell, taking the fan which the slave had carried. ‘The poor creature’s been cold all day. The heat in here suits her I think.’
‘But not the company, I see,’ said Caroline, trailing Mora’s eye to Mr Vine who resented being watched. He was there as Sir George’s right hand man, for this was a business trip for the gents as much as a soiree for the ladies. Only Joe seemed excluded, more at home among the women than the men. He was swapping gossip with Lady Pemberton, who mothered him a little and patted his arm now and then. But Mora had eyes only for the hateful Vine. ‘I see it in her face she despises him,’ continued Caroline. ‘The feeling is mutual, I’ll warrant. Yet Mr Vine is close to your father, is he not? A pity,’ she said, when Nell confirmed it, ‘she has made an enemy of the wrong man. She progresses well nevertheless. I fancy your father’s wager is all but won.’
Her flippant tone was the last thing Nell heard. She was overcome with a fainting fit caused by the closeness of the room. Mora broke her fall, lay her gently on the floor and revived her with smelling salts. Lord Pemberton himself ordered her carried to his wife’s boudoir in the west wing, there to convalesce by the open window. She thought he’d left her alone there, enjoying the view of the terraced garden, when he joined her from a small ante-chamber. Its door merged so seamlessly with the painted panels she hadn’t known it was there. Exist it did, however, and the Viscount entered in his spangled satin coat wearing his habitual smile. It was a smile at variance with the vicious light in his eyes.
‘I trust you are well, my dear, lying there like Venus herself? Bacchus is here to entertain you if you’ll permit him that honour. Bacchus is at home in his pile – you do like Castle Pemberton? How could you not on a day like today? Summer is just around the corner – just beyond those trees I have planted as a wind break – or should I say break wind? I’ve a mind to as it happens, eaten too quickly as usual.’ He checked Nell for a smile and seemed disappointed to find none. ‘You know, I can smell summer in the air today – it reminds me of the smell of a good woman. A woman I can smell right down to her – well, I think you get my drift.’ He came and stood at the window beside her, his flaccid face close to the glass, admiring the trees he’d planted. ‘I have a fine park do I not? I have a fine everything, but I’m not grateful for any of it.’ He’d touched a chord here, and he knew it. ‘I’m a greedy boy, Miss Cooper, who knows the value of nothing. My aim in life is to laugh at it. Can you believe that? Of course you can, you wouldn’t doubt the word of a peer of the realm, on friendly terms with the king.’
Nell studied him cautiously. ‘I hardly know you, sir.’
‘All the better I think. Stranger to stranger is best, especially when the strangers are strange.’
‘You think me strange?’ Nell asked.
‘Oh yes indeed, and it’s what I like in a woman, white or black. I live for pleasure, Miss Cooper, but how is a man to excite himself when everything worth tasting has been tasted?’ He turned to her with a broad grin though his eyes remained the same, glittering dangerously. ‘Life is a comedy to a man like me. Imagine seeing it the other way round – as a tragedy. I don’t feel, you see, I merely think. I’m a true aristocrat in that respect. It’s what comes of a long pedigree.’
First a chord touched and now a nerve – that for all its wealth, all its finery, Sir George’s family had come from trade; mere barrel-makers at one time, if their Cooper name didn’t lie. Yet what, wondered Nell, did this business of pedigree really mean? None of it was God-given; it was all the result of luck, power and brute force. By any other name ill-gotten was ill-gotten, yet to think so was dishonourable.
‘And my father, sir? – is he not a true aristocrat in the making?’ she asked in atonement.
His Lordship’s face darkened as the grin receded. ‘That remains to be seen. I like your father, Miss Cooper, and while I won’t deny the attraction of his wealth I won’t debase myself more than I have to. And yet you read him wrong, I think. I see a man who feels, not thinks. Who knows how a man like that may turn out? How he might surprise you one day. We used to talk, you know, man to man. Well, I talked and he listened mostly. But it was the way he listened, most illuminating. Most – prophetic you might say. By the way – I ought to tell you – I have come here in secret. They think I’ve gone to tend my horses. All but one believed me.’
‘She was most persistent. She’s not what a slave should be, you know.’ He wagged a flabby finger, whose ruby ring caught the light.
‘So speaks a man who wishes to win a wager,’ said Nell, pleased by Mora’s loyalty.
‘And what wager would that be? I make so many, you see. They help relieve the monotony of my tedious life.’
‘The one you made with my father in the Caribbean when you were talking man to man. You do recollect its subject about making Mora a lady?’
‘Why yes – for sure,’ he said. ‘And should Sir George win, we can all look forward to seeing her flutter her fan. You needed a fan downstairs, did you not? Your skin is still flushed, my dear, would you like me to fan you now?’ – and a lot more besides, said his look.
‘No thank you I am quite all right. In fact I’m sufficiently recovered.’ Yet at 63 this lewd old man fascinated her. It wasn’t that she trusted him or believed him sincere – he was far too deadly charming, far too wily to be either; but she wanted to know more; she couldn’t stop herself. ‘Do you think only of pleasure, sir?’
His smile vanished now. ‘Only its opposite – pain. I blame all that ancient art and sculpture I collect. All that love of Rome. The Romans had a taste for cruelty, you know. I too have that taste, but the Lord is my judge, I feel so guilty afterwards.’
‘Yes, I understand that,’ she said, with a home-truth that fixed her to the sofa, wanting more, and dreading it. Just what had he seen, this man who was a slaveholder like her father? Just what had he condoned?
‘I’ve not been the same since ’57,’ he continued. ‘That’s when it started, and I paid for my baptism in someone else’s blood. I won’t tell you all, I can’t. In fact to relate any of what I saw that day would do more harm than good. The menu was well planned. None was disappointed. Only the man who suffered.’
‘Suffered how? – tell me.’
‘I can’t,’ he said, turning away. ‘Ask that clergyman friend of your father’s to enlighten you instead. If only because he wasn’t there and would like to have been if he is honest with himself. But he’ll know about it all right, he’s a learned man. Just say Damiens, Paris, 1757, and I’m sure he’ll give you the rest.’
‘But why won’t you tell me yourself?’ she persisted.
‘Because you shame me, Miss Cooper, for being what you are – young, trusting and innocent. Your sweet face reflects the excesses I’ve enjoyed. You shame me to the quick just by being you.’
‘Women civilise their menfolk, without us you are barbarians.’
‘Yes and no – there are women and women as there are men and men,’ he said, reminding Nell of Joe, who fitted his point exactly. ‘There were women cheering every bit as loudly when they did those things to Damiens. Things that I still can’t tell you – because we are too alike – we taste the regret that pleasure leaves in all its forms. Damiens will have to wait for the good Reverend, but what I’ll give you in the meantime is some advice.’
‘You think I need it? Don’t presume, sir, that I am like all other women, you’ve said as much already.’
‘And I meant it Nell – may I call you Nell at last? I speak to you with less guard than I’ve ever spoken to anyone in my life. But such whims – and I am full of whims – are dangerous in a man who has power, very nearly the power of life and death. I have that power, your father too. Letting someone in can be the death of you, the heel that was the death of Achilles. There can come a time when that one person can’t be done without. They become the parasite that eats you away.’
‘I take it you mean Mora – that she is my parasite, my Achilles’ heel.’
‘More than likely,’ he said, his odd smile returning as he helped her to rise. ‘Failing that, she’s the Devil on your shoulder. And failing that – but only if you’re lucky – she’s your Guardian Angel. We all must have one, must we not?’ He opened the secret door and held it open while she rustled through. ‘She’s quite a girl for a slave. So pretty that I’ve a mind to make her mine one day. But I think you know by now how whimsical I can be.’
Both my novels are available on Amazon: