MR STRONG TOLD them next morning that he was leaving sooner than he’d thought. He’d merely come for his things, he said, when they found him in the schoolroom packing his books. ‘My time here was coming to an end, as you know, but something has happened to hasten matters – a private affair I’m unwilling to speak of. You will see me again before I leave. In spite of everything I’m expected at the ball.’
‘What ball?’ asked Nell.
‘Why, the one your father has planned for – for Olu.’ Not for the first time some unspoken thought passed between them; a secret shared, but whose and on what subject? ‘Sir George says she is ready for society,’ the tutor continued. ‘I’m sorry, Nell, but I haven’t the inclination to find out more. You must ask him yourself – yes? I have my own burden to bear – no?’ He looked gaunt and moth-eaten about the eyes. He was shabby and hungry-looking, and the buckles on his shoes flopped loose where the stitching had worn. ‘It’s time I was gone,’ he said, shuffling away. They followed him to the entrance hall and watched him leave with his box of books. He looked so small, dwarfed by the tall doors with the statues (Mars and Neptune) towering either side. There was something of war in the air, something of the sea that seemed to beat him on, wanted to swallow him whole. He didn’t look equal to any task, least of all that private matter he’d left to face. Nell recalled what he’d said about knowing her own heart, how one day she’d take a stand on matters. Were those matters what she thought they were? Yes, said the tiles beneath her feet, blacker and whiter than ever. They were challenging her to show where she stood; to walk upon one colour and ignore its neighbour, as she’d done in anger the other night. Even now, in broad daylight, there was no mix to be had, which seemed the fairest path to take. She must take sides and, in the absence of a mast, nail her colours to the tiles. That colour, under no circumstances, must be grey. She was beginning to sound like Mr Vine.
‘If there’s something you aren’t telling me,’ she said to Olu, as the footman closed the doors on the tutor’s exit. ‘About you and Mr Strong.’
Olu’s expression was unflinching, full of meaning like her name and just as unfathomable. ‘There is nothing,’ she answered, turning towards Joe who was coming down the stairs with a worried look.
He spoke quickly, keeping his voice low: ‘I told you not to meddle last night, Nell. It seems they’ve made decisions. Father, Mortimer and Vine, they’re a sort of triumvirate now, it’s all happened so quickly. Along with other things. God knows where it’s leading. Those two …’ – he lowered his voice further – ‘…those two blackguards have carte blanche to do as they like. Vine is Lord of all Stewards and more besides. I can’t begin to think what. Well, yes, I can and that’s the problem. I’d watch my back if I was you, sis. As for me, Father seems to want me out of the way and the mood he’s in right now, I daren’t go near him. And there’s you also, my little friend …’ He broke off with a familiar sniff.
‘Don’t concern yourself about me,’ said Olu.
‘There,’ Nell said, ‘you have her answer. And by the way, I call her now by her true name: Olu. It’s short for Olushegan, like Joe for Joseph and Nell for Helen.’
Joe shrugged. ‘Olu,’ he repeated flatly. ‘Well Olu, I’m not sure what they’ve planned for you. This wager thing doesn’t seem to matter any more. Perhaps it never did. If it was down to me, you could live here always. And when I am master …’ – he paused – ‘…if I am master.’ There was a landscape upon the wall depicting the estate. His eye was drawn to a solitary horse, forlorn in its posture on a bleak hillside. The horse was peeing, Betty had once joked, but its pose now, as Nell studied it, was anything but comical. It looked bereft, alone without a friend in the world. ‘I still have my life here,’ resumed Joe, ‘such as it is, so long as it lasts. Live and let live is what I say,’ and his eyes sought out Olu’s over the lace of his cuff. It wasn’t as white as usual and he didn’t seem to care that the women in the laundry hadn’t done their job. ‘I’ve said enough. I do my case no good standing here with you. I have a mare to ride, providing Hector has saddled her.’
‘You are going to visit your betrothed?’ Nell asked.
Joe looked sadder still, if that were possible. ‘No, Father has forbidden it for the time being. Nothing makes sense any more. I may as well ride away and never come back. They say there are bogs up on Dead Moor that will swallow a man whole as easy as a Frenchman swallows wine. I also hear that you swallowed wine yourself, sis. A lot of wine. And where were you last night? Betty said you were not in your chamber. No, don’t tell me,’ he said, raising his hand, ‘I’m not sure I wish to know.’ He left with his whip raking his breeches, his hat on his head prematurely, each a faint protest at their father, Nell presumed.
He’d no sooner left than in sprung Reverend Mortimer on his spindly legs. His long-tailed coat flapped as he walked and his shoes squeaked on the polished floor.
‘I am here to discuss terms with your father,’ he said to Nell in passing. ‘I’m to be your tutor sooner than we’d thought. I trust you will find me free of fanatical cant.’ It had sounded a profanity on his tongue. ‘We will have a happy ship, young lady, which I’ll not have holed below the waterline.’ He pointed at Olu but wouldn’t look at her. ‘The time has come for it to take its rightful place in the world – in other words, its cess pit. You’ve treated it like a sister, when it’s just the turd under your shoe.’
‘How dare you, sir?’
‘I dare – it’s as simple as that. You see, Nell, I have your father’s permission to say exactly what I wish. Turd,’ he said again, ‘turd under all our shoes,’ and rubbed his own for good measure on the tiles – a white one, Nell took care to note as he hurried away to her father’s study, expected, favoured. How she hated the vicar at that moment, the ruddy shine of his wintry face, his small bright eyes like fragments of glass, his long thin legs, not human but insectile.
‘Joe’s right, I was drunk last night,’ said Nell, ‘but I meant every word. Including the harm I’d like to do to that bile-infected clergyman. He is no Christian.’
‘Neither am I,’ said Olu. ‘Nor you either any more.’ It was true, Nell was ripe for change, for new religions, if such there were. She wanted to surprise herself, surprise everybody. Why should men have everything? Even Joe had more than her.
‘Come,’ said Olu, ‘the good Reverend lives close by I think. Does he have a housekeeper?’
‘Yes, but she’s visiting her family at Kingston-upon-Hull.’
‘Good, then while he’s here with your father we can come and go unseen. No matter what that man says, he fears me and believes in my power. His God won’t protect him and he knows it.’
They left through the sandstone archway with its wrought iron gates made by Walker of Rotherham. It was their first time together in the village. People knew better than to throw insults – Sir George was feared and so was his steward – but they stared rudely nonetheless.
And what of the girls’ mission? Nell never believed it would work. She was here for excitement, the make-believe of revenge. They reached the churchyard by the village green. Its graveyard was dark even in the sunshine; the lych-gate creaked on its hinges as Nell nudged her way in. There’d been a shower earlier and the old gravestones flat upon the ground were slippery. Puddles lay along the muddy path and where the grass was criss-crossed by the tread of mourners. The parsonage stood behind the church, a two-storeyed building modest in size, its stonework dark, its windows small and mullioned. Above the door rested a lintel carved with unicorns and griffins and marked with a date: 1587. To the right was a stable for a horse that the Reverend struggled to ride; on the left a carriage-shed without a carriage. Reverend Mortimer had need of neither; all he wanted was here in the village – his books, his church and his friendship – Nell struggled to call it that – with Sir George.
‘He has no fear of robbers,’ she said, finding the door open. Perhaps its iron studs were enough, sufficient to deter all devils, human or otherwise. Or so he hoped.
‘He knows your father will hang them high,’ said Olu, following her across the flagstone floor. Sir George as magistrate could hang no one, Nell might have told her; he could only recommend, refer, assign. She wondered at the difference all told, and couldn’t find it. Those highwaymen for instance, should they come before him he would surely press for execution, and it wouldn’t end here in the peace of an English country churchyard. They’d be buried without ceremony in unhallowed ground; in fact they might not be buried at all: it was said they would hang in chains, food for crows that would pick their bodies clean.
They crossed the panelled hallway and peered at the books in the study – a thousand volumes, the Reverend boasting he had read them all.
‘What now?’ Nell asked.
‘I should like to go upstairs where he keeps his clothes.’
They climbed the musty staircase one behind the other, Olu now leading the way. She had in her hands – Nell had just noticed – a glass phial of ointment, mustard in colour, thick and stiff at the top, transparent like water at the bottom. She was looking for an item of clothing, she said, something close to his face.
Winter was coming and Nell suggested a muffler. Olu said no. ‘A hat then?’ Nell said as they entered his cold chamber. Several hats, all low-crowned, hung upon pegs on the back of the door, and she found one more, three-cornered, labelled For special occasions in his closet by the window. The same window afforded a view of his commodious garden with its cluster of well-fruited apple trees. Their rosiness was visible at a distance, ruddy like the Reverend’s complexion, the sky above as grey and flinty as his eyes. She was feeling some unexpected pity, for to be here in his chamber, among his private things, felt wrong. It humbled the man, diminished him. Most of all it was that simple note to himself – For special occasions – a little piece – perhaps a big piece – of his dignity and pride. At least they were only playing at harming him, Nell consoled herself, nothing they did could be of note.
‘That thing he wears round his throat, I forget what it’s called,’ said Olu, her eyes searching the room.
‘A stock, a choker. It’s always something stiff and hard with him. I’ve never seen him in a soft lace cravat. Though perhaps on special occasions…’
‘A stock, a choker,’ Olu repeated, twirling the pot of liquid in her hand. ‘Find me one of those.’
His chest of drawers furnished Nell with what she sought, for in the first drawer was an array of such items. She picked one out, more cream than white, studded at the back like the studs in his door. Keeping the Devil outside – it was something he’d thought about often, and now the Devil was here, or so he’d say.
‘I see by your eyes that you have doubts,’ said Olu, pulling out the stopper of her jar. Did she mean the justice of the deed or its power? ‘It’s as much in the thought as the potion,’ she added, shaking the jar gently, mixing the thick and the thin. One seemed to fight with the other, contend fiercely before yielding. Nell shrank from the liquid, which resembled some putrid life beyond every known element. She watched as Olu dipped her finger in the ointment and dabbed it on the stock. Hardly a trace was visible, just the faintest stain. It was on the inside, mistakable at first for an errant mark of clerical sweat. ‘Like his hats and his wigs, he has a lot to choose from,’ Olu said, handing the stock to Nell to place in the drawer. ‘He may not wear it for many months, but when he does …’
‘Why not finish the sentence?’
‘The sentence,’ she mused, as she thrust back the stopper in the jar. ‘We will see – or you will.’
She seemed to be hinting that they wouldn’t see the result together. Is that what she’d meant? Nell was about to ask when footsteps sounded in the hall. They were moving with familiar creak and they were moving fast.
‘Quick,’ said Nell, ‘we should hide.’
‘I don’t feel like hiding,’ answered Olu.
‘It’s not too late,’ Nell pleaded. ‘Under his bed – look, there’s room! Quickly, Olu, he’s coming!’
‘It’s not important any more. We have done what we came to do. I’ve a mind to put his hat on and dance.’
There was no more time to think. The Reverend was in the doorway and they were standing each side of his bed.
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