‘Mr Vine, you startled us.’
‘Just doing my duty, my lady. Ensuring you come to no harm.’
‘What harm could I come to?’
‘More than you could know. It’s my opinion …’
‘I never asked for your opinion,’ Nell interrupted.
‘No, but I’m giving it all the same. You’re going about this little experiment in the wrong way. I don’t think Sir George will be pleased with what I have to tell him.’ He kicked a dead fledgling across the carpet of twigs and stunted grass; he picked up a stray stalk and chewed the end. ‘He watches, you know, both of you. And when he can’t watch he asks me to do it for him. Now, little lady, I’d like to speak to you alone.’
‘Say what you’ve got to say before the two of us,’ said Nell. ‘Say it quickly and be gone.’
The edges of his mouth curled into a mock smile. ‘I like spunk in a girl. In a woman. I can see the woman in you, my lady. It’s budding like the fine spring we’ve just had, and by next year’s spring you’ll definitely be ripe for plucking. But some fruit is best plucked unripe.’
‘You disgust me, sir.’
He shrugged unconcerned. ‘I disgust a lot of people. It hasn’t stopped me getting what I want.’ His eyes strayed to Mora, who wouldn’t meet his gaze. ‘I don’t intend it to stop me now,’ he went on. ‘I’m an ambitious man. Indispensable at the same time. A powerful combination. And power has a habit of getting stronger, don’t you think?’
‘I think Father should have left you in the Indies.’
He shook his head. ‘Wrong. He’s come home and so have I. We’re like two peas in a pod. Ask her, she knows.’
Mora now turned to look at him. ‘You both love money, that’s no lie. You see nothing else. You stop him seeing anything else.’
Vine chuckled and spit out his straw. ‘What else is there to see?’ He laughed louder, found it hard to stop till he’d kicked away a molehill and slapped his hand against an oak trunk. The bark was ribbed and gnarled like a crocodile’s back. Like the steward himself, it looked ready to bite. ‘Want to know why I’m laughing?’ he said to Mora. ‘Because you’re a Nigger, it’s my privilege to laugh. To laugh at you is to defeat you. That’s my medicine, give or take a whip or two. To flog you, to laugh at you, there’s no better mixture for keeping your people down. And you must be kept down. God help us, if we ever let your sort have the whip hand. She knows what I know about her and her kind. What she was before she came here, to civilisation.’ He turned to Nell. ‘You think because your father kept her from the fields that he’d cured her of all that? It’s in their blood and can’t be mended. As for that physic of theirs, it’s for their ailments, their complaints. A lovely young white girl like yourself …’ – he turned back to Mora now – ‘ …you keep your black hands off her, do you hear?’
‘I know what you want,’ said Mora, ‘you want me to say the old time is gone now, but I won’t let it, the old time is mine, no one can take it away.’
Her insolence grated on Nell and the steward saw it. ‘See what you’re up against, my lady? Damned foolish wager if you ask me. Your father should let it go. Let her go into the bargain. Just make sure it’s you that does the talking and her the listening,’ he said as he turned away. ‘She’s the pupil, remember, not you.’
‘Reading and writing aren’t everything,’ said Mora, ‘and there are other things I know better.’
‘Then keep them to yourself,’ warned Vine over his shoulder. ‘Keep that Nigger shit under your filthy skin, do you hear? It’s what your father would want, my lady, he’s too much the gentleman to say outright. Not me, though, I’ll say it,’ and he said it again: ‘Keep that Nigger shit under your filthy skin.’
‘He fears it,’ muttered Mora as he walked away into the trees, slashing at the branches with his large hands, making no secret of his destination – Sir George’s study. ‘White men say they don’t believe it, but they all fear it.’
Nell was drawn to her even more, she couldn’t help it. Mora’s words were full of mystery, which pulled like a magnet. There was a hole Nell was straying towards, black and deep. She could feel the thrill of its pull, strong, sure and illicit. She wanted to jump but she knew she might regret it. ‘What does he fear, Mora? Tell me.’
‘He fears what black men know to be true, what black men won’t share with him, what they’d like to use against him. But that man is strong, he fights what black men know with all he knows. He fights with all his might because to lose means seeing himself as he really is. A man like him can’t bear to know.’
‘Will you share it with me? It being I don’t know what. Sorcery perhaps.’
Mora smiled and said she’d heard that word. It went with tall hats, black cats and broomsticks ridden like horses by old crones with long hooked noses and chins. But that was English sorcery, the sort you could learn from books. She’d seen a book like that, a book of spells and extraordinary delusions written by an eminent scholar. All false, all rubbish. ‘That book’s in your father’s library on Barbados. A foolish book written by foolish man with foolish face and wig. A man like Reverend Mortimer.’
Yes, the man who baptised you, thought Nell defensively, haunted by a vision of home, of order, of a world she was starting to lose.
‘The magic I learn is here inside,’ said Mora, tapping her breast. ‘I have medicine for life, medicine for death, medicine for the next world as well as this. I learn it at my momma’s knee. She learn it from her momma and her momma before her, one long thread back to the dawn of time, our time, not yours.’
‘I wish to know more,’ said Nell. ‘I wish to know everything. But you have a dancing lesson at two. Ever versatile Mr Strong will be waiting with his fiddle.’
Mora laughed at the incongruity, a low, mocking laugh that seemed to mock the world. ‘You speak of dancing and the things I know in same breath. They are as different as sea and land.’ She placed her hands on Nell’s shoulders. ‘Did it never occur to you that I might have my own dances? Quadrilles I don’t know, but other dances I do. Dances of heat and night and mixed purpose. Look at me, mistress. Look into my eyes. You are frightened, yes?’
‘Yes, but not as much as you think.’ It was true, what Nell felt mostly was a pulsing curiosity, an unquenchable urge to know more.
‘Then hear this: all things are more than they seem. That tree over there, this grass beneath our feet, that river beyond the fields – all is more than you see.’ She laughed again and removed her hands. ‘Yes, I could teach you. Teach you more than you teach me. A poor bargain, what I know for what you know. But I may just do it.’
‘Then why don’t you?’ Nell said, as they shared another smile, their warmest yet.
‘You want to be a white Nigger? You think your father wants that? And how would it work? I let you call me by that silly name. I learn your ways, all that music and dancing, all that holding myself with the right deportment. Learn to stitch, learn the language of the flapping fan. Drink tea from a dish and sniff the reviving salts. Learn to be that foil that sets off your pearl. And in return …’
‘In return I teach you my ways, I make you a white Nigger, which is what I’ll have made myself.’ She paused. ‘Maybe it not so bad, something for each of us – a dance for this, an elocution for that, a tinkle on your harpsichord for this, that and the other.’
Nell smiled. ‘Then we shall learn from each other and see what tomorrow brings,’ and from brings she went to strings, wondering who was pulling them.
They walked for another mile, then retraced their steps to the house. Crossing from the meadow to the park they saw Sir George’s spyglass flash from the upstairs window, saw the shadow of his fine clothes; a second figure, Vine’s of course, standing rigid beside him. He was telling him, as he’d said he would, all he’d seen and heard. Mora, as if to spite them, had stopped to look into the ha-ha, the sunken fence that kept the cattle from the lawns. ‘That ditch is deep,’ she said. ‘Good place to lie down and stare at the magical moon.’
‘You make it sound irresistible,’ said Nell, as they crossed the little hump-backed bridge gated at each end.
‘Yes, like my dark ways,’ said Mora, staring at the house now and Sir George’s flashing glass.
‘You mean your sorcery.’
‘Obeah. There – you have its name but not what it does. I could show you my own dances and more besides. I could fill your head with knowledge till it hurt. Make your head so full it never the same head again.’
Nell felt tempted, yet repulsed. ‘I want it. I want it not,’ she said, as Mora took her hand. Its feel was rough again but tender; a current of wrong and right, of truth and lies coursing through Nell’s frame, filling her with longing. The air felt suddenly fresher than it had ever done; her arms were wings, fins, sails, instruments of vast uncharted movement. And though her mind was still confused, vacillating from guilt to exhilaration, wishing to embrace her, but also to punish her, inflict the full measure of the law, she was already thinking of them lying together among the leaves and all the debris of windblown nature. Desire won, and they walked towards the house hand-in-hand.
Joe was out front, mounting the horse that Hector was steadying. He waved from the saddle. The horse, his favourite bay, snuffled as the slave struggled to stall it. The black man looked as worried on Mora’s account as Joe looked on Nell’s. Brother and sister didn’t speak but their eyes met. You go too far, sis, said Joe’s eyes – I know, said hers in return. It’s called defiance, Joe, and it feels good. You should try some for yourself. She knew from his posture he’d had another drubbing at their father’s hands, another shaming in front of his steward. She knew the cause was the same – his lack of manly show. Well never mind, Joe, she said to herself as she rushed up the house steps, sure-footed and nimble, I have enough for the two of us.
Luncheon was light and swift, just odds and ends – some broiled beef, cold mutton and potatoes. Then, true to plan, and in the yellow room that was her favourite, they danced to Mr Strong’s fiddle playing which, poor as it was, and anxious as he seemed (more than ever), served the purpose for every country dance Nell had learned. He followed them as they swung round the room, his bow groaning on the fret-board, first slow then fast, rising and dipping, stomping like a horse at the hunt. And as he tapped out time with his foot, Nell chanted it for good measure, ‘One two three, one, two three,’ twirling Mora’s supple body, weaving a path here, darting one there, evermore kicking at Mora’s feet to keep them to time, ‘one two three, one two three – and – stop.’ Tiring of this she watched her dancing with a chair, clapping the beat as the tutor followed with his fiddle.
Mr Strong said she was coming on fine, and what with the flute, the harpsichord, and the harp without sichord (a little joke he managed even when looking so glum), she was half way ready in the music stakes. This seemed optimistic, though when they’d played a rubber at cards and Mora won, and when her needlework that afternoon matched Nell’s even in double stitch, Nell began to think the tutor was right, not only about the music but everything else they’d worked on. She was almost a lady, almost like Nell in that respect; but what about the other respect, the one that couldn’t be changed, one that was changing Nell in ways she’d never imagined? How would it all end, she wondered, and who would be hurt the most?
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