THE FIRST FACE she saw when she’d reached the clearing in the wood was Joe’s, the excitement of battle in his drink-reddened eyes. Others belonged to sons of neighbouring landlords, all enjoying the spectacle.
‘Go home, sis,’ said Joe, blocking her path, ‘this is not for your eyes.’ Nell pressed forward but he pushed her back. His anguished mouth looked to be tasting vinegar – more so because their father was there now, cane-on-ground, hand-on-hip, watching expectantly. ‘Go home, sis,’ he repeated, his eyes pleading with mingled shame and love. A glimpse had been enough to show their sport. The animal, a tenant’s dog which had strayed on to Cooper land, had been spiked to a tree – alive. Yet strangely silent in its suffering, as if its master’s will was always right. Nell knew more than ever that it wasn’t; she wanted to shout out the lie. Yet who would listen? She turned to her father, whose look said I warned you not to meddle, can’t you see this is all for your brother’s good? The modicum of admiration encouraged Joe, who fought against his own good nature. That the fight was hard was the reason he was tugging at his cuffs.
‘How could you, Joe?’ said Nell.
He scraped the tree with the toe of his top-boot, pushing back his hat with a feigned show of arrogant ease. ‘We were trying to prove a theory – that every dog is indeed guileless.’ It was an answer that pleased the man who mattered most. Grudgingly given as it was, Joe had got it at last – some paternal regard. But this enjoyment of blood and suffering, reflected back through Nell, his sister, his judge, was the price to be paid. She gave him nothing but disapproval, and when she stayed there rigid, silent, looking him in the eye, he said in a whisper, ‘Leave us, sis – go!’
He was starting to sniff and she knew she was close to breaking him in front of his friends, his father. For his sake, and his only, she left.
Late that evening Joe came to her chamber. The candle he bore was to light his way, though it looked like a peace offering, a semblance of something holy. ‘Nell, I …’
‘I Nell,’ she turned back at him. ‘I, Nell, have a mind Joe, a mind of my own.’
He sat down on her bed with a sigh, his stockings puckered and the buttons loose at the knee. He was slovenly on her behalf, harried by his conscience. ‘Nell, you’d no business acting as you did. I was with friends.’
‘All persons of quality no doubt.’
‘Most certainly and …’
‘Save me your apologies.’
‘I am not apologising,’ he said rising. ‘Apologise for being a man? Sis, be reasonable,’ he said, his hand on her shoulder. She loved him but shrank from his touch; his manliness. Yet this was the side of his manhood she’d hoped for, the side of womanhood she’d sought in herself; proof that fantasy is one thing, reality another. ‘One day, you’ll understand,’ he continued.
‘Yes Nell, you will. Men fight, they go off to war. The army, the navy, the King’s service. Even out of uniform I must get my share of such things. Father is pleased with me for once. He says men do what they have to do. It’s the …’
‘Way of the world? You forget that I’ve heard it all before. We share the same father.’ The same fate she very nearly said.
‘Well then,’ he replied, as if she’d a lesson before her which she knew she ought to learn.
‘You know the virtues he wishes me to espouse – those aristocratic virtues he sees as so important. Recklessness, tradition.’
‘What tradition?’ she scoffed. ‘Our grandfather was a draper in Bradford!’
‘All the more reason to distance ourselves, and the quicker the better.’
‘This isn’t you speaking, it’s Father.’
‘I know what I must do: be brave.’
‘Another aristocratic virtue?’
‘Yes,’ he said defensively, ‘along with honour, respect for nature, awareness of the cycle of life and death. Hence the hunt, hence the hare-coursing, hence the shooting, the trapping, getting oneself bloodied. That’s what I’ve done Nell, bloodied myself and I tell you it feels good.’ She turned her face to the wall in protest. ‘Damn it all, sis,’ said Joe breaking her silence, ‘it was just some peasant’s mangy cur! It’s like the peasant who owns it – it doesn’t feel pain as we do.’
‘Now where have I heard that before?’ she asked, but he missed her point.
‘But it’s true I think. And even if it does…well …’ He was floundering, sniffing, hiding his mouth with his hand. He knew he couldn’t defeat her. He was telling her about their father’s face just now, the faintest flicker of change towards him, a lambent look of pride amid the cold hard loveless stare. ‘Don’t be sour, sis. Father e Hefatherhas made me an offer. He wishes me to run his affairs out there on Barbados. I’d be in sole command. Say you’re pleased for me.’
‘The question is, are you pleased for yourself?’ She recalled what her father had said that morning, how his Indies affairs were dwindling, a thing of the past. Joe would be captain of a sinking ship, a mark of his father’s true regard. As for his marriage to Caroline – how many brides had followed their husbands to a land of heat and disease? But perhaps Lord Pemberton wouldn’t mind – it was only a daughter after all, not a treasured son, which Joe in his father’s eyes certainly wasn’t.
‘I should go of course,’ he said, in answer to more silence. ‘It’s a fine opportunity.’ His sadness and disappointment, which she knew he was hiding, made her ache with familiar pity. She felt like his mother, whom she doubted would have done what Nell had done – crossed his pride when there’d been so little to cross. She’d been harsh, she decided, rubbed salt in the wounds her father had inflicted.
But the dog was still an issue. ‘And is it dead at last?’ she asked him bluntly.
The change of mood was unexpected. His look was perplexing and his answer told her why: ‘God knows it should be. Better it be dead than resurrected. It’s the strangest thing, sis. Puts the wind up a man just to think of it.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘That slave of yours, they say she’s worked her magic. I’ve seen the result with my own eyes. A dog walking, very nearly talking. Healed like a dog Lazarus, like a dog Jesus taken down from the cross. Mortimer says it’s the Devil – he’s with Father right now. I wouldn’t disturb them if I were you, they’re at their wine and I heard what they said …Come back sis, it’s all planned, they want to bring you down a peg!’
It was too late, however, she was already through the door.
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