‘The worst meaning you can imagine and it will still be short of the mark,’ said Olu. ‘Not even hot irons could get the truth out of me – and you, a man of the cloth – would not dream of torture. Or would you? – in your dreams – in the books you read – there must be many things you’ll take with you to the grave. You have Holy soil out there in your yard – do you think you are worthy of it?’
‘Your father, Nell, when he hears of this …’ he said, trailing off.
‘What will you tell him?’ Nell asked. ‘He’ll want to know how we came to be alone in your chamber. What could it mean? Bible study? – I doubt it. We could cry all kinds of hurts, none of them innocent.’
Mortimer laughed in outrage. ‘Are you blackmailing me? Because if you are it won’t work. And should you think to tempt me with your flesh.’ He was looking at Olu, whose feet were bare, whose breast tops showed where her cloak was undone.
‘The very thought makes us vomit,’ said Nell. ‘But I might tell him that it happened, that we tempted you and you didn’t know which to pick.’
‘I will put the record straight, I tell you.’
‘Will you?’ Olu asked. ‘How?’
They could see how worried he was and Nell wondered if they’d punished him enough. She stared at the chest of drawers, focusing on the top drawer, the killer drawer, if Olu’s potion wasn’t bogus, just water and good old English mustard, nothing more potent than his clergyman’s sweat. Of which now, upon his forehead and at his neck, there was ample.
‘He’s to throw a ball tomorrow, you do know that?’ the Reverend said, non sequitir it seemed. ‘He has enough to occupy him, or believe me I’d go straight back to Belle Isle this instant. So much will be clearer by tomorrow night.’
‘State your meaning, sir,’ said Nell, confused by his talk.
‘It is not my place. I have the care of souls, nothing more. I do what I think is right and that is enough for me. Whatever she says I have a clean conscience. Your family, I have served it well. Why, I baptised you, Nell. You too!’ it pained him to add, glancing at Olu. ‘I did as I was bid. And I buried your mother, my dear, and your younger kith and kin. Soon I shall have a marriage to perform.’
He waved the point away. ‘I’ll have been through them all, every rite of passage your father has required. I have served him to the best of my ability, so don’t be wayward young lady. Don’t get in our way.’
‘You make yourself sound like family!’
‘I very nearly am. Ask your father. He thinks so. I’m his – spiritual advisor, and believe me he needs one right now. But I say too much, I think. It’s not right that you should place me in such a position. Two mere slips of girls.’
‘In your bedchamber, ready to cry rape,’ said Olu mercilessly.
‘My God, you think I could rape you?’ The distaste on his tongue was real. ‘I am above carnal matters. Not that I should have to explain myself.’
‘But you are explaining yourself, and it’s interesting to hear,’ Nell said. ‘You obviously feel the need.’
‘I am under duress!’
Back it came, that rush of pity at finding him on his dignity. She thought of him as a child, a baby in his crib. He’d had no vestments then, no book learning, just his wet nurse’s milk. Perhaps if he’d had his mother’s, perhaps if she’d loved him more. But she was making excuses, and shouldn’t. ‘I wish to know what hold you have on my father.’
‘None that I’m aware of,’ he said, baring his hands palms outwards. ‘But between us – Archibald and I – we aim to make him whole again. He needs it, Nell.’
Vine was the bigger villain by far, no question. They were playing with a small fish here, one that was easy to fry. Nell doubted it was worth frying him, save for the views he held. They were views that her father shared, and it wasn’t clear which of the pair was most blameworthy. They fed on each other’s fears and hatreds, blessed, they believed, by church and state. ‘You think him damaged then?’
‘This business you have with her – whatever you call her …’
‘Olushegan. I call her by her name now, her real name.’
He shook his head incredulous. ‘He was close to Bedlam bringing her here. It was a lunatic’s move. They’re damned degenerate savages, all of them.’ So this was it then, what made him tick like the clock audible from the hall. His inveterate hatred for blacks was essential to his being, hatred rational to his mind and backed by scholarly thought.
‘You hate them, don’t you? – blacks, niggers, Hottentots.’
‘Yes, I hate them,’ he answered through his palsied mouth.
‘Why not look at me and say so?’ asked Olu, now at Nell’s side.
And yet he wouldn’t turn to her and say; instead he turned back to her father’s madness. ‘We have kept him out of Bedlam, Nell. He oughtn’t to have made that foolish wager. No sense in bringing her here at all save as a poison chalice.’
‘Poison,’ said Olu ambivalently, ‘how that word smarts on your tongue. And so it should. If only you could see the future.’
The clergyman did his best to ignore her, to pretend she wasn’t there. ‘Mr Vine counselled your father before he set sail. Both of us are counselling him now. Between us we have averted disaster. He will appear at his ball tomorrow night as if nothing has changed. As if all is normal. As it very nearly is. We have overhauled everything, talked long and hard …’
‘Into the night,’ Nell interrupted and saw him start. Her presumption, her nerve, it unsettled him, she, a mere slip of a girl.
‘All will be well, I’m sure,’ but he didn’t look sure; he trembled visibly and the sweat was thicker on his brow. Nell thought of the sweat at his neck thickening too, and though she’d gone off the boil towards him just a little, didn’t quite hate him as she had done, she saw in her mind’s eye his wearing that stock one day. And choking.
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