NIGHT HAD FALLEN hours ago, fallen on the house, the park, the woods, fields and village, whose lights twinkled dully through the trees. It had fallen on the hills, wooded and bare alike, and on the moors that lay open to the stars. All that remained was for darkness to fall figuratively on the eyes of Sir George’s guests and make them think of sleep.
But Nell didn’t sleep, notwithstanding the comfort of fresh linen sheets, and ropes drawn tight as the chords on that bodice Vine had admired. She slept badly, intermittently, more awake than in slumber, and the reason was clear: Olu was not in her chamber: Olu was not in the house. By morning the truth was out – she was gone, fled, and it was Betty who brought her the news, the same Betty who had changed Olu’s sheets and made up her bed so finely, with a fire to warm the room.
‘But she can’t have! I don’t believe you!’ It was like the news of a loved one’s death – to deny it was pointless.
‘I’m sorry, Miss,’ and Betty seemed genuinely so as she sat beside her on the bed, comforting and kind, as she always used to be. ‘But it’s true. I had it from cook who had it from Hector who …’
‘So the blacks knew first then? The niggers…’ – she’d reverted to maligning them, wishing them flogged as slaves deserved – ‘…the niggers were the first to know? Damn their black blood.’
‘It would seem so. If news is fire then yes, it spread among them first. But if you think that means anything, I’m sure it doesn’t.’
‘They stick together, don’t they?’
‘She stuck with you I’d say. It’s what everyone says. You were inseparable.’
‘Look where it got me. Abandoned, you say.’
‘I didn’t say abandoned, just gone.’
‘It amounts to the same thing. The ungrateful wretch. I expect you’re glad,’ Nell said with a darting look. ‘It means you’re back in favour.’
‘If it pleases you to say so Miss, but begging your pardon, I never felt out of it. Not really. And besides, I’ve mellowed. Not jut towards her but to all of them. They’re no worse than us, no more deserving of suffering, I’m sure.’
‘The pot – the kettle – what calls what black here, Betty?’ Nell asked, turning miserably on her side and watching the rain on the window. It fashioned scratches on the glass, short and evenly spaced like the scratches on her heart, though they were deeper and would leave scars. ‘She’s out in the rain then,’ and she almost said good. ‘Gone, you say. Gone where?’
‘Who knows, Miss? Just gone. You can’t keep a wild bird caged. Remember that linnet you once …’
‘But why Betty, why? I treated her well.’
‘I don’t know, Miss.’ She fiddled needlessly with her cap strings, her cuffs, a running thread on her smock which matched the snag on her worsted stocking.
‘Are you sure she’s gone, I mean really sure. Who saw her go?’ Nell was eager now, sitting bolt upright in bed, demanding what seemed an easy answer to an easy question.
‘Best to talk to your father, Miss. If he doesn’t know any more than me – which I doubt – he’ll certainly know what to do. Trouble is, it seems there’s all sorts afoot this morning. It’s not just Olu.’
‘Don’t call her that. Not any more, not without my permission. Besides, it was only ever for me to use. She’s to be called now – well, called whatever you feel like calling her if what you tell me turns out right. That she’s gone without a word, without so much as a by your leave.’ She turned her head aside and watched the rain again. It was coming harder now, the scratches turned to gashes, running one into the other like running sores. It was only water but might as well have been blood. ‘If you only knew what we’ve been through together, how far we went. Oh God, how far!’ She looked at the bed where they’d lain together only yesterday; she thought of the moors, the mausoleum, the vicarage. ‘Betty, it would make your hair stand on end. What there is of it.’ She’d focused her malice on her maid’s premature ageing.
‘What do you mean? – what there is of it? Are you saying I’m losing my hair?’
‘Well, aren’t you?’
‘No, I am not! I work hard, I fret, but my hair’s my own and it’s all there. I’ll have you know that I’ve more hair than some of those fine ladies with their grey and blue wigs!’
‘Don’t mind me, Betty, it’s best you go before I lash you further. Or lash my father. If he’s behind this I’ll …’
‘Why should he be?’ she said, laughing off the charge.
‘I don’t know but I mean to find out. There’s lots more that’s afoot you say? What kind of lots?’
‘There’s Lord Pemberton for one thing. Something’s happened, I don’t know what. Whatever it is, there’s to be no hunt and it’s not like your father to cancel it. Go and talk to him, Nell, that’s what I’d do. None of it’s for me to say. I’m in his black books enough already.’
‘Why is black such a troublesome colour Betty? Black books, black looks, black anything you can think of, none of it easy on the mind.’
‘White is easy on the mind.’
‘Yes, now that must mean something, it has to. The colour white which rhymes with …’
‘Betty! I was going to say right!’
‘I’m sorry Miss, it just came out. Shite does, you know,’ and Nell laughed in spite of herself, joined her in the gutter and laughed some more. It was as if she’d made her see it in a blink, what she was underneath, what her family had once been. All that came between them was fine clothes, a rambling mansion and the tricks of the trade of refined manners and deportment. It was all make-up, all make believe. ‘Besides, I meant the name, not the colour,’ Betty went on. ‘He’s not shite to my mind, no matter what the others might say. You might as well know I suppose.’
‘That I’m in your father’s black books because I’ve taken a fancy to Hector. We’re a pair, I expect that’s what I should call us. It hasn’t been going on long but it feels that way. We’re like the old couple in the song – Darby and Joan. Only this Joan’s white and her Darby’s black. What a rum pickle, hey?’
‘Hector has no money, Betty, he hasn’t even got his freedom. You’ll have to save for both of you.’
‘It’s not about money, not this time. He’s tall and I’m short, that’s the long and the short of it. I’m fat too, where he’s thin. The others say I’m feeding on him. I am getting fatter but I’m blaming love not food. I’m like new milk to his coffee, not that either of us have tasted such luxury. We serve it, that’s all. But I know that milk turns coffee brown, Miss, and I think that says a lot about Hector and me. We can share the brown we’ll one day make between us. I hope that doesn’t shock you, make your stomach turn.’
It did, but Nell didn’t say so. ‘I’m happy for you, I’m sure,’ she said ironically as she leapt out of bed. ‘But you’re a breed apart, remember, don’t make yourself sick at heart with your milky coffee. You’re going against the grain, making the twain meet. I was watching our blacksmith the other day, and from where I was standing he was hammering a square peg into a round hole. There were too many sparks for my liking, though the metal was white hot. I think that says a lot for the world as it is, how it was meant to be.’ There was much here that she didn’t mean, not deep inside if she challenged herself, asked herself how she’d feel, if she were Betty, if she were Hector, if she were – Olu. But for the moment her compassion was flown, along with her black bird.
‘Don’t turn against the blacks,’ Betty said, helping her dress in so much haste they were fair wrestling on the bed. Nell got the feeling – just faintly – that she’d have liked to punch her where it would hurt – in the heart perhaps, to get new life pumping, to drain the bad blood away.
‘You have changed your tune,’ said Nell. ‘You have switched your answer from no to yes, as if to change it so now is the law of the land. Does no mean yes now Betty? – does yes mean no? And do I say yes or no to Father?’
‘Depends what he asks you, Miss. Do as your conscience says, but make sure it is your conscience answering and not your urge for revenge.’ They were mingled for sure, and Nell hardly knew which was which, nor which she preferred.
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