SPRING TURNED QUICKLY to summer, as Lord Pemberton said it would when he’d joked about the trees. The two girls were together now almost every day, and Nell’s feelings as complex as ever. She wanted to break Mora and tame her still, but also to love her. The attraction she felt was stronger than anything she’d known. She was feeling it now as they crossed the park, feeling too that she’d lost her self possession, every inch of advantage. Nothing seemed the same in her life, even the familiar. Those men cutting grass with their scythes for instance, many too old and unfit for work, their backs bent as they toiled rhythmically, made a scene which troubled her now. It was part of the change working within her, making her world more puzzling by the day. What was she to do? she wondered, staring at the vista before her bright with sunshine, green with foliage and the tall brown trunks of trees. All the while she walked, Mora’s skirts rustled at her side. Was it just duty that kept her here? Nell asked her, hoping it was something more.
‘I come because I know you need me.’ Just a smile from her was like gold, enough to make Nell’s heart leap like that golden carp just now from her father’s ponds. And then she heard them, the words that were on her mind: ‘You wish me to like you.’
‘You know I do,’ Nell said, gritting her teeth in defeat. ‘Oh why did you come here?’
‘Because your father brought me,’ Mora said simply.
‘Yes, and now that he has, what do you want from me?’
‘What do you want from yourself?’
‘From myself or for myself?’
‘You have everything already, everything a girl of your kind could wish for.’
‘And what is my kind, Mora?’ Nell was dizzy with thoughts she didn’t recognise. ‘I need your help, I think you could do me good. I’m in pain, and I don’t understand it – do you?’
‘I understand that you feel pain, but your pain is different from mine. You must survive, as I survive.’
Both girls had halted and Nell turned towards her. The short distance between them was barred by invisible fire. Nell felt the past in its heat. How did Mora stand it at all? Her legs had a sapling’s thinness, a shine at the shins, a knobstick crookedness at the knees. She looked elemental, yet broken; pitiful now as well as fascinating.
‘You’ve never told me – about the past. Your past.’
‘You’ve never asked.’
Nell hung her head then raised it again because she must. ‘I haven’t dared – till now. Well?’
She was spared the answer she’d dreaded, for just then, from the house, a light flashed. It was sunlight reflected off a spyglass. She saw her father’s figure at the window, followed by another at its side – Vine’s, she presumed, both men sharing the same glass. It meant the girls were being watched; the question now was why?
What Nell did know, was that she slept badly that night, and for several nights to come. The dreams in her shallow sleep frightened her, their images vague but abnormal, grotesque, like shapes glimpsed from a moving carriage along a road she’d never travelled. One night she woke to find the sheets soaked with sweat. There in her memory yet were those back-bowed men with scythes. No chains rattled, no bull whips cracked, for these were white men born free with wages for their labour. And yet they pointed an unwelcome comparison, how the lives of blacks on plantations could only be guessed at as one intractable nightmare. Flesh, black or white, was flesh; bone was bone, and blood was blood. She sat up wreathed in guilt, her pillow pressed to her chest. It felt hard and stiff, more like punishment than relief.
She remembered the conversation with His Lordship, the search for explanations that followed. She’d gone to Reverend Mortimer as suggested. Of course he recalled it, the year, the place, the event. ‘I have the details right here,’ he’d said, reaching from his shelves at the vicarage the Gentlemen’s Magazine for 1757. Robert – he had the same Christian name as Mr Strong – Damiens, tortured to death before a select public over several hours. ‘His crime?’ he’d answered, after carefully reciting each item of torment. ‘Why, to dare to harm the royal person of King Louis XV with the thrust of a penknife. Only his sleeve was torn, you say, only his arm was scratched – but this is a nation that believes in the Divine Right of kings, Miss Cooper, what do you expect?’ There was no sympathy for the victim, just scholarly observation cold as ice. It was cruelty in itself to be so detached, no more excusable than those who’d paid to enjoy the spectacle. At least Lord Pemberton had regretted it, at least he was haunted by what he’d seen. What passed for compassion on the Reverend’s part was to say that the French were no crueller a race than the English, merely more honest in their tastes. ‘But you won’t see that sort of thing in London, Miss Cooper. In fact I doubt the French would go quite so far now as they would 20 years ago. A man these days must go to the Caribbean to see real punishment.’
Now, as she lay in bed sweating, Nell guessed what truths lay with Mora. The sights she must have seen, endured. She hurried next door and shook her awake. She wanted the truth now, in the darkness with the owls hooting outside. ‘No more hints,’ said Nell. ‘I want to know this minute,’ and the clock on the dresser ticked louder as she said it.
‘I was in your dreams?’ Mora asked sleepily.
‘You were, but this in no dream.’ Nell watched as Mora rubbed the sleep from her eyes, her face bathed in the bluest moonshine she’d ever seen. It had dappled the coverlet and the sheets, even Mora’s face and hair. Lying there in the white of her nightdress she looked hallowed, blessed – but how could that be? thought Nell. Was her baptism paying dividends like one of her father’s funds?
‘You want my soul,’ said Mora. ‘Is my body not enough?’
‘Thanks to my father, your life now is easy,’ said Nell. ‘I make few demands on you.’ Still those calm, all-seeing eyes – damn the girl, would she never be tamed? ‘I could make things hard for you, very hard indeed.’ Like the pendulum of the clock, heavy with its deadbeat escapement, her feelings oscillated yet. ‘Tell me the worst you have witnessed and I swear I’ll never ask you again. Say it now and be done with it. But just tell me this first,’ she said, gagging Mora with her hand before she could begin, ‘did my father order it done?’
‘I doubt even he would have done that to a runaway, not if the other man hadn’t shown him how. You know that man as well as I.’
‘Would that I didn’t,’ said Nell, clenching both fists at the thought of Mr Vine. ‘A slave escaped and was recaptured?’ Mora nodded solemnly. ‘And was punished for his crime?’ No nod this time; it was the word crime, much too ironic. ‘He was tortured?’ The nod was back. ‘To death?’ The nod repeated. ‘Don’t tell me how, I don’t think I can bear it after all – but you bore it – at first hand. So did Father.’ No need to answer. ‘Then it’s the least I can do to hear it from your lips. Were you close to the deed?’
‘To the deeds,’ she emphasised. ‘The afternoon was well planned. A lawyer’s mind had planned it all. Yes, I was close. Close enough to feel the heat.’
Nell’s palms were sweating. She’d screwed the handful of sheet she was clutching into a ball. She was looking at Mora’s eyes, her mouth, her teeth – most of all at her closely- curled hair. All of her had been there within touching distance, witnessed a horror worse than any dream. And her father had been there too, done nothing to stop the proceedings which he’d watched like a Roman emperor, seen what Lord Pemberton had seen in Paris, maybe worse. ‘I don’t wish you to tell me any more. We must never speak of this again.’
‘Because it shatters your world? Too late for that now and you know it.’
Nell averted her face. A silence billowed between them like a breeze. Presently she felt a hand meet hers and her blood kindled. It was the roughness of the palm, the leathery – reptilian – texture. Nell shrank from it and yearned in one barbed urge. ‘What does it all mean?’ she asked feebly.
‘It means what you want it to mean.’ Mora was calm, dignified, no emotion on her face as it rested on the pillow bathed in moonlight.
‘But that’s the point – I don’t know!’ So many life-changing instances were coming Nell’s way, some right here on the estate, as real as she was; others in imagination – more powerful for that reason.
‘All things new have the power to shock,’ said Mora, her hand still resting on Nell’s. ‘And the power to change people if they’re worth changing.’
‘Am I worth changing?’ Nell asked, but she got no answer.
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