‘Ah Nell, come in,’ said the baronet, as she peered round the door, struck by the charged atmosphere. The air was thick, pulsing with all that had been said; all that was yet to be said. Sir George’s face was ruddy from the wine, his humour darkly flippant. The turban he wore to hide his shaven head was a crumpled velvet adjunct to his crooked smile. ‘A queer business,’ he said, when she’d shut the door, ‘the Reverend here has had an accident.’
The man in question stood leaning against the mantle. He was staring hard at her and she was forced to listen. ‘Come to pay a social call and bitten for my trouble,’ he said as he limped to his chair and picked up his glass of port. He gulped it down without spillage but slumped in the chair breathlessly. ‘The Devil’s in that animal I tell you. As if it could be otherwise.’
‘So it’s true,’ said Nell, ‘that Mora healed it.’
‘A salve applied to the wound,’ said her father knowingly. ‘Perhaps a mustard poultice. I’ve seen it before, quite effective if it’s done well. The girl is like her mother,’ he added, ‘she knows her craft.’
‘Witchcraft you mean,’ said the Reverend. ‘Savages, all of them. When they roll those goggle eyes who knows what’s possible? I’m wary of them, I tell you, and with good reason. I’m not talking skin here, or the black lard of their flesh, I mean what lurks beneath.’
‘Blood, bones, all that makes us live and breathe,’ said Nell, standing between them proudly.
‘No, you are wrong there young lady – excuse me for saying so Sir George,’ who nodded graciously. ‘My hatred of their race goes deeper than the skin it contends with. I think of the brain, the mind, the absence of soul.’
The baronet replenished the glasses. ‘Nell, the Reverend and I have been talking. We’re in agreement that something should be nipped in the bud.’
‘It’s witchcraft I say,’ the clergyman went on. ‘What else are we to call it?’
‘Medicine?’ said Nell. ‘The healing arts? A woman’s healing arts?’
The Reverend scoffed. ‘Healing is a man’s business. It’s certainly not a woman’s. As for a black woman’s. This is England I’ll have you know. But you say things are different out there?’ he said to her father. ‘I’ve read of such things, but you have witnessed them first hand?’
Sir George nodded. ‘They have their own ways. I try not to get involved. But I won’t have them here. No obeah, no damned zombies. I should have known it would come to this.’
The Reverend was muttering drunkenly all the while, writing something in his pocket-book. ‘Obeah,’ he said, licking his pencil, ‘from the antecedent Akan bayi, meaning sorcery, bewitched.’
‘Never mind its origins,’ the baronet said, ‘it’s got to stop. You have got to make it stop, Nell. We must civilise the girl or else.’
‘Forgive me for saying so, Sir George, but that you will never do. I didn’t like baptising her, as well you know. It’s blasphemy, a crime against the Almighty. There is no God of animals sir, no God of savages or Mr Swift’s Yahoos. She’s nothing but a Hottentot damned from birth.’
‘She’s my friend,’ Nell said outright. ‘I love her as my sister.’
‘What kind of talk is this?’ said the Reverend, putting away his book.
‘It’s not good,’ said her father, who’d coloured at the word love – but why? – was he jealous or appalled? ‘I’m beginning to wish I’d never brought her.’
‘My sentiment entirely,’ said the Reverend, slurping his next glass of port. ‘Why not send her back where she came from?’
‘Part of me would do just that.’
‘And the other part?’ Nell asked him abruptly.
‘The other part has a wager to win, and feels as you do that she’s …’ – he hesitated – ‘…worth saving.’
‘But what’s to become of her afterwards?’ asked the Reverend, shuffling uncomfortably in his chair. ‘It’s all very well civilising her but to what purpose? For argument’s sake, let’s say that you win your wager – what will happen next? Will you keep her here or turn her out on the streets?’
‘All in good time,’ said Sir George, looking wistful now.
‘Meanwhile you’ve got a battle on your hands. I say so sir and I mean it. Not that I won’t help …’
The door opened without a knock and cut him short. It was Vine, smelling keenly of the outdoors even at a distance. His large face looked straight at Nell and smiled its cloying smile.
‘Come in Archie and join us,’ said Sir George. ‘Help yourself to port – a fresh bottle – this one’s about done.’
‘Thank you kindly,’ said the steward, still looking at Nell as he untied the ribbon in his iron-grey hair. His loosened locks were long and thick, resting heavy on his broad shoulders. ‘Look,’ he seemed to say, ‘look at the man in me – your Sampson in attorney’s garb.’
He crossed the floor to the cabinet beneath the window, his arm brushing Nell’s deliberately as he passed. ‘Begging your pardon, Miss,’ he whispered then laughed, uncorking the bottle noisily with much chinking of glass. He took such liberties, thought Nell, even with her father present. Not that Vine was alone in this. They were there together in the same room, the two worst influences on her father’s character. Both aspiring, climbing, winding like parasites round a marble column. ‘Perhaps Miss Nell would like to join me?’ said Vine, holding up two glasses as the bottle hung limply at his side.
Sir George leaned back in his chair and ran his thumb across his chin. His eyes were glazed and puffy, almost swollen shut. ‘Why not?’ he said. ‘She listens to men’s talk, speaks her mind as an equal – so why not drink with us?’
‘Some girls need bloodying too,’ said Vine pointedly.
‘You might be right,’ said the baronet, as if the thought were a trifle. The atmosphere was weighted of a sudden, the air heavy as lead. The males were chortling gutturally, as they would over good food. And Nell, who felt like their meat, richly sauced, knew she was being toyed with, instructed in their black arts. It was just as Joe had said, they were taking her down a peg.
‘I was just saying, Archie,’ said the Reverend, ‘that what you have on your hands with this black bitch is a battle.’
‘She deserves your respect!’ Nell asserted.
‘Perhaps he meant the dog, Miss,’ said Vine, holding out that second glass. ‘A bitch too, and black. It’s my belief she recognised one of her own on that tree.’
‘Take the port, dear, be a good sport,’ coaxed her father. He was drunker than she’d realised, for when he rose to fetch his pipe he nearly fell. ‘I need the piss-pot,’ he said. ‘Thing is, dare I piss in front of my daughter?’ He was giving her a lesson in true male manners, showing a side of himself she’d not forget. You’ve asked for this, he was saying, on your head be it, my piss included if you don’t mind your tongue. Meantime Vine had seated himself on the sofa and was patting the space beside him, just like Nell that day when Mora joined her at the harpsichord. This was worse, surely – another liberty in front of a lady – but when she looked to her father he waved dismissively. ‘If the heat’s too hot Nell, there’s the door,’ he said, and the Reverend laughed into his glass. ‘Now, about that piss-pot – expect I’ll have to go behind the curtain.’
‘Come on Nell, join me over here,’ said the steward, swigging from the bottle. ‘I’m not pissing, I’m drinking.’
‘Now, now, show a little decorum, there’s a good fellow,’ said Sir George without conviction.
‘Forgive me, Miss,’ said Vine, with mock grace and dainty sipping. ‘I was dragged up, not brought up, and a rough man’s ways are hard to shake off. If my lawyer’s training couldn’t do it, what hope is there now, eh?’
‘Go on, Nell, drink with him and be merry,’ shouted her father from behind the screen. ‘The company is convivial, is it not?’
In spite of it all, Nell wanted to match them, prove she could hold her own. She drank the port half down and sat with the glass upon her knee. Vine poured her more, as she knew he would. He was also pressing close. ‘I have plans for us, Nell,’ he leaned across to whisper. ‘The Reverend over there, he’ll marry us one day.’ Nell looked at the spiteful Mortimer, laughing to himself in drink. The drumming nose beyond the curtain was clearly audible, which made him laugh some more. What must she do? – her own father was lost to her; she wanted to call him to his senses – but how?
‘We’ll live together in luxury,’ his agent went on. ‘I’ll plough your furrow every night if I’ve a mind. I’ve certainly the ardour,’ and he glanced at the bulge in his breeches, unbuttoned his long leather waistcoat so it showed even more. ‘A fine figure of a man, am I not?’ Repulsed as she was, Nell felt his earthy charm. ‘Your land’s not barren Nell and my plough’s long and sharp with plenty in the casks to oil it. The laws of fertility, eh? You’d give me sons, I know you would.’ He was topping up her glass overfull, which seemed his intention. His fingers were stroking her cheek, working away an errant curl from her brow. ‘Do you like the feel of me, Nell?’ She was rigid with fear – or was it curiosity? ‘Don’t move a muscle or you’ll spill it. Wine stains you know, like blood.’
‘I could throw it in your face.’
‘But you won’t do that. You’ll be making an exhibition of yourself for no reward.’
‘Your father will say nothing. I’ve arrived Nell. His world is my oyster.’ His fingers strayed towards her chin, her neck. His touch was cold and clammy. ‘Such a beautiful neck, which I long to lick. Along with the rest of you,’ and his tongue darted, yellow and furry. ‘I’ve waited a lifetime for this, I can wait a little longer. But not too long.’
‘If I could turn my neck, I could see what’s going on over there,’ shouted the Reverend. ‘But I can’t – it’s stiff.’
‘Stiff you say?’ called back Vine. ‘I know the feeling! He’s a good man is the Reverend,’ he slobbered in Nell’s ear. ‘Close as a clam when you get to know him. And when he sees evil, he speaks out against it. That black bitch for instance. You know I don’t mean the dog.’
‘Her name’s Mora.’
‘I don’t care what her name is, he shouldn’t have brought her here. I tried to warn him, but would he listen? Now she’s here, she’s clouding his judgment. She’s certainly clouding mine,’ he said, swilling the wine in his glass. ‘I don’t like grey, Nell, I like my colour like the best law – all black and white. And there’s only one winner between those two.’
‘You may think it does you credit to speak plainly sir, but it doesn’t hide what you are.’
‘I know what I am. I’m your father’s trusted factor, his brains even. I’m in his pockets, and if I’d been a woman I’d have been in his bed. It’s a marriage of sorts, one of convenience. But this thing he’s brought over, it’s getting in the way.’
‘Father wants her here.’
‘Does he? You really think so? Then ask him now, while he’s in his cups. Hey Sir George! Your beautiful daughter has a question to ask,’ he said, pulling away but not too swiftly as the other returned.
‘So you’ve been talking about me?’ said the baronet, unsteadier than ever.
‘If we’d sat in silence we’d have heard your piss filling the pot. Is that what you wanted?
The Reverend laughed and poured himself another port. Their disrespect was obvious but Sir George, drunk as the Lord he wished to be, snatched the bottle from the cleric and filled his glass. He gulped hastily and wiped his mouth. ‘What, pray, is my daughter’s question?’ he asked, crashing back down in his chair.
‘It’s Mora, Father, I wish to know she’s still welcome.’
‘The trouble with you, Nell,’ he said, settling back against the head-rest, a leg cocked rakishly over the arm, ‘is that you wish me to speak the truth – always. But will you not permit me to lie now and then? There are black lies and there are white lies,’ and again the Reverend chuckled.
‘But why lie at all, Father? And why not tell me why she is really here? You’re never the same about her one day to the next, it’s as if you, of all people, can’t make up your mind.’
The Reverend looked suddenly sober as he leaned across with his hands on his knees. ‘Yes, the girl has a point Sir George – why is she here? And why is that dog barking?’ The creature was at the window, leaping up with drooling jaws. ‘Good Lord, it’s got eyes the size of saucers!’
‘That fucking black bitch!’ cried Vine, spilling port in a dark pool on the carpet.
‘Ah, but which one?’ asked the Reverend, for Mora’s black face was next the dog’s. ‘How dare she spy on us? You allow her to do that?’
‘Aye that, and many other things,’ said Vine, ‘but not much longer. Wait here, I’ll see to this …’
‘No you won’t,’ said Nell, ‘I’ll see to it. Go back to your sofa and wait till Doomsday. That’s how long till I marry you.’
She ran out past the portraits of her ancestors; she ran across the black and white tiles, keeping only – she couldn’t help it – to the black ones. It was a drunken act streaked with sober defiance; a turning point of delayed but unimaginable consequences.
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