CLOSE ON MIDNIGHT, when musicians were exhausted and dancers fagged, the steward appeared, condescending to bless them with his presence. He looked windswept, bedraggled yet elegantly dressed in a mixture of satin and velvet. His colours were purple, very nearly black – Olu’s skin in reverse, Nell found herself thinking as she missed her, peeved all the same that she’d left in a huff. Vine’s complexion in the radiance of the chandeliers looked damp and waxy. Nell pictured him melting in the pleasures of planned triumphs. His immediate wish seemed apt, to slake his thirst, and his first choice was ale, not punch. Thus replenished by a large foaming mug he snatched a cup of the stronger liquor and came Nell’s way. Crossing the floor where the last quadrille was taking its course, he had the look of a man just coming awake, more at home in the short hours than the long.
‘My dear Nell, you look more beautiful than ever in this light. I am late, and the only reason I am here is right before me.’
‘You have finished the task my father set you?’
‘Oh yes,’ he answered with mock earnestness. ‘That task is well and truly done. And one of my own besides.’ He suppressed a belch and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
‘And what, pray, were they?’
‘Mere trifles for a man like me,’ and he waved away the question with a chop of his hand.
‘Coal mines?’ she asked.
‘Yes, a shaft to be sunk,’ he answered with a smile. ‘But enough of that, you have heard about the highwaymen I suppose?’
‘Have you been a chasing them with your gun?’
‘All in good time,’ he said, seeing off his punch till the strands of fruit hung about his mouth like pithy whiskers. ‘You must make such things work for you if you can, not against you. Every problem must become an opportunity. They are such an opportunity.’
‘It seems I am missing some people, I wonder if you could help me.’
‘Those people being – ah, don’t tell me – is one of them your bonny black hare?’
‘I think you know it is so.’
‘And the other?’ He glanced ostentatiously round the room. ‘I see your brother, it can‘t be him. He looks sad, with good reason I expect.’
‘He’s missing Caroline.’
‘That he is,’ he said smugly, and buried his nose in his cup. ‘And he’ll be missing her a lot more.’
‘I know about the Indies, sir.’
‘But what else do you know about?’ He craned his neck again and said, playfully, ‘Surely it’s not our dear Reverend you’re missing. It can’t be, he’s over there looking like Mr Punch. He’s drunk so much it’s twisted his face and made his chin all curled and shiny. I swear if he had a wife he’d be beating her black and blue this instant.’
‘But why, when he has his Bible to beat?’ The steward threw back his head and laughed, but not sincerely. ‘If you must know, the other person I am missing is Mr Strong.’
‘I shouldn’t worry on his account, he’s no doubt instructing some oak tree called Wilkes on the merits of life and liberty. But I can tell you are missing him. The bonny black hare too. You wish to go on a search? – with me? – out there in the dark? By lantern of course, and in the full glare of the house lights,’ he added, before she could take offence. Yet it hardly seemed to matter any more, that knife-edge between insult and respect.
‘No sir, I do not.’
‘I’m the man to lead you. I’m the only man in this room.’
‘I am glad to know that my father is not included in your reckoning,’ for it was only now that she’d noticed a fourth absence.
‘You wish to know his whereabouts? There is no secret there, I believe. He is with Lord Pemberton, sitting by his bed with goose-quill and parchment. I too shall shortly be joining them. I thought to come here first and see you, my pretty. I like to know how the land lies – tell me, is it still bumpy between us? You see, Nell, things are changing fast, too fast for my liking. I am not as happy as I should be tonight. A slight hindrance to my plans. But no matter, love will find a way. Failing that – hate.’
‘You go too far as always.’
‘If only I could, tonight, this minute, with you. If only I was better connected, like Lord Pemberton.’
‘I saw his Lordship carried out drunk.’
The wily attorney chuckled as he eyed the dancers. There were ankles to be seen in brightly-coloured hose, flesh dimpled on arms and slender at the neck, so long as the girl was young. But there weren’t many of those, he was thinking, so much heat and exertion, all for nothing that he could see, for there was only one to turn his head. Vine hated dancing, always had, always would, but for Nell he would go through the motions; for Nell he would do much that he’d rather not. And would soon cease to do, like dropping a heavy load, when he’d got what he wanted.
‘Yes, you will have seen him drunk,’ he said, ‘but there’s much to be done with a drunken man that’s not to be done when he’s sober. And when he is sober,’ he continued, ‘and he sees the ink barely dry on his promises of the night before…too late then of course even for the high and mighty when witnessed by a lawyer,’ and he drew his finger across his throat, where his neck-cloth was torn and soiled. Odd in itself that it should be so, and it put Nell in mind of Reverend Mortimer getting his just deserts. Vine deserved them more, a lot more, but Olu was right – he was too clever by half, a mixture of the fox, the lion and the worst of cunning men. He was worldly enough for his own good, too worldly for the good of others. ‘Least that’s the theory,’ he went on. ‘It was I who drew up the document in the finest law-hand. I can word it how I wish, and hope for a change of heart on one side or the other. I have played it as safe as I can.’
‘My father wishes him to sign something?’ Nell asked, trying to keep to one track.
‘Much,’ was his single reply, as a servant glided past with a tray of punch-cups, and he swapped his empty for a new. ‘Ah – a moment – would you mind?’ he said, handing her the cup while he turned and buttoned his breeches at the crotch. ‘In my haste to be here I left some details unattended,’ he said, gauging her reaction, hoping it betokened much. There was a delay – it seemed like minutes – before he held out his hand for the cup, eyeing its fullness with malevolent humour. ‘Thank you kindly. My cup runneth over,’ he said, with another ambivalent line, intrigued by her stubbornness to stay. Yet still she didn’t move, she was rooted to the polished floor by a mixture of interest, revulsion and something – she didn’t know what – that moved beyond the realms of both. She didn’t like it, this attraction; she felt like a moth near a candle-flame, like a fly near a spider’s web. She saw her hand, slender and delicate in easy reach of his own, so thick, so hard, and so large. It could crush the life out of hers, smash its bones to dust. In brute strength he was her lord and master. But not in will, she wouldn’t permit that. The battle wasn’t lost, or if it was, he would need more than one victory to win the war. She gathered her strength, all of it, the fibrous spiritual stuff found in a woman’s soul, but the price she paid was sweat and a heaving bosom. Vine liked what he saw, and made a point of looking. He drew close, peered into her bodice like a boy at a nestful of eggs. Her two eggs, small and firm, were distorted upwards, made large and fulsome by the power of chord and starch. He’d like to feel them, crush them. She was his sparrow, his thrush, his black bird, though he had some choice there – Oh where was Olu!
‘I too will have my day, Nell, all dogs do,’ he said, putting her out of misery and walking away at last. But he’d left her – and how she hated it – with her bosom heaving still.
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