‘SHE LEFT IN the night,’ said Sir George when she went to his study in a temper grown worse by the minute. ‘That’s all I know. Now if you’ll excuse me, Nell, I have business to see to.’
‘Oh yes, I’ve heard about your business. Lord Pemberton is your business I presume?’
He looked up properly now, narrowed his eyes and made his brows meet in the middle. He could see how angry she was, but did he know why? She had her own business to see to, the business he’d foisted on her six months earlier. Misery and grief burst in on her anger, lessening its power.
‘Yet how could she treat me so? – with such ingratitude,’ she said, more to herself than to him. ‘I’d thought we were friends, or becoming so, I thought I’d narrowed the rift, made her love me just a little. To flee by night says it all.’
Sir George sighed. ‘I’m afraid it does.’ His tone was more happy than sullen, which perplexed her.
‘Have I been blind to reality?’
‘Yes, Nell, I think you have.’ He was the bellows she wanted; he was feeding her hatred like oxygen feeds fire. She hated her, she told herself, and called her all the names her father would approve. She said them in her head and then she said them aloud, with which he was heartily pleased. No, relieved is a better word. ‘Nell, it’s for the best, all is for the best in the end,’ he maintained. ‘It’s the new philosophy of the times – a fancy way of saying progress. You can apply it to everything – hurricanes, the Lisbon earthquake, the loss of the American colonies should it come to it. Now that would be something to wager on. As a betting man only, you understand,’ he said, holding up his finger. “To liberty in America triumphant!” – could you see me ever making such a toast? That tutor of yours I’ve sent packing perhaps. You should blame him as much as your precious charge.’
‘What? – you know this for certain?’ She tried to sit down but he wouldn’t let her; she knew he wanted her gone, and she knew better than to cross him.
‘Not for certain but I can hazard a guess. He was seen, lurking near the woods. She was with him by all accounts. She went after him.’
‘Yes, I sent her,’ Nell said, remembering her reluctance, realising now it was false to keep her off the scent. ‘But afterwards – you say they were seen? – seen by whom?’
‘Why by Archie of course. He sees everything that I don’t. And tells me everything that I need to know. It’s a most convenient arrangement. What would I do without him?’
More good in the world, is what came to mind, more clarity of thought and vision. ‘I told him last night that she was gone, that I was worried. How strange he didn’t mention that he’d seen her.’
‘Like me, Nell, he has your best interests at heart.’
‘At heart you say? I doubt that very much.’
‘He had a lot on his mind, as I did. Those highwaymen must be caught, they very nearly made a fool of me last night. Did you hear that Lady Gough was robbed? – almost got herself shot for refusing to surrender her jewels. They were not her best jewels, as it happened, but it was no mean haul for the blackguards. Mark my words I shall have them.’
He was prevaricating and she didn’t know why. Did he feel some guilt about Olu? – after all, it was he who had brought her here. ‘Please Father, tell me what to do. Betty says you’ll know.’
His eyes glittered dangerously. ‘Don’t mention your Betty to me, I’ve a mind to cut her loose. It’s unnatural, disgusting, shameful. You hear me? – do you? This mixing of the races, you should see how it turns out.’ He slammed his fist so hard on the desk that his ink-pot jumped and spilled. The black liquid leapt upon the white of his breeches in a single flying pool. ‘Now look what you’ve done! Look at me!’ he cried. ‘Just accept it, won’t you? She’s gone in the night, which suits her,’ and he gave a chuckle that stuck in his throat like glass. In the cough that followed she half expected blood.
She felt his spirit drawing her, demanding her allegiance. It seemed the easier option to give it, to say what he wanted to hear. ‘After all I did for her,’ she said, pursing her lips. He looked at her quickly, his ice melting. He was hoping what he saw was true – his spoiled child before him again, the thing he’d made in his own image, a thing to relish even though it were female. His face had brightened in the same instant as the sun broke through. A silver buckle flashed at his knee as it caught the light, yet Nell saw less of that than the other effect, how his silver-threaded waistcoat looked dull by comparison. That the light didn’t play upon him evenly was somehow significant but like an image in a dream it quickly faded and was gone. ‘After all I did for her,’ she repeated, just to please him.
‘Precisely,’ he said, patting her hand. ‘But it’s how they are, my dear, her kind – you cannot trust them, and you can’t expect them to be grateful. Not even when they’re bred to captivity and brought up with a good family. Give them half a chance and they’ll spit in your eye.’
‘What will you do?’ she asked expectantly.
‘Nothing, nothing at all,’ and her heart sank in spite of herself. ‘Normally I’d post a reward – it occasionally does the trick. But not for her, I don’t want her back. I shouldn’t have brought her, I see that now and regret it deeply. If I can stand the loss so can you.’
But what loss did he have to stand? – the loss was all Nell’s, and despite her anger it hurt her to the quick. ‘Betty thinks she’s gone to London.’
‘I wouldn’t be surprised,’ he said, pouring once more over the map sprawled across his table. ‘There’s quite a colony of them I understand. They’re known as the St Giles Blackbirds. Outcasts, as they deserve to be, just like the company they keep – gypsies, thieves and vagrants. The scum of the earth.’ He was running out of poisonous adjectives, which disappointed him. Surely there was one more that was more hurtful than the rest? ‘All those dirty people of no name,’ was what he settled for. ‘Beats me why the king’s troops don’t scatter them all with cannon and shot. But make them dig their own graves first, hey? Our soldiers’ time is too precious to be wasted.’ He was going as far as his dark side would permit, pushing at the boundaries. It was too much, unnecessary. Juvenile, and almost comical.
‘But she might not be there, she could be anywhere,’ Nell said thoughtfully.
‘Does it matter?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You should know! – know that no is the answer. Very well then, suppose it’s different –she could be lying dead in a ditch somewhere – all the better I say,’ and he turned again to his map, making inserts in pencil, as if apportioning lands for a sale or to isolate a gift. It was the latter, Nell supposed, for beside it on fine white vellum was another document. So this was it, she decided, the late night work of his steward and attorney Mr Vine. Written in large black lettering across the top was a title plain to behold: Marriage Agreement between …
He’d seen her looking and covered the names with his hand. She saw the veins blue and prominent, the hands themselves pale and smooth like the parchment they pressed. ‘Does this have something to do with his Lordship?’ she asked.
She saw by his eyes that it did, and it wasn’t what it should be. ‘Nell,’ he said, when he’d turned the document over so the writing lay face down. ‘Nell, there’s something I wish to say. And you’re right, it does concern Lord Pemberton. Please stay a while – I want your advice. No, I misspeak myself, not advice. Damn it all, Nell, I shouldn’t have to ask for your approval!’
‘I don’t understand …’
‘No, of course – why should you? – I haven’t told you yet. But I’m telling you now all right and I’ll say but this – I’m thinking of taking another wife.’ He laughed to himself and apologised. And then he laughed again as he poured more port and chewed another mouthful of nuts. She saw it then, the other bottle empty on the floor next his foot. She saw the white of his stocking stained purple. So this was a new one, and it was only half full. And so early in the day, so hard on the heels of the night before. Why was he drinking so hard? If she hadn’t didn’t know better, she’d have said he was drinking to forget. ‘You know I loved her – your mother,’ he said tearfully to the carpet. ‘Too much!’ He gestured with the squat onion bottle. ‘She was a fine woman, pity you never knew her. Joe knew …’ He stopped short and sighed. ‘Joe’s part of the problem. A son should be part of his father’s solutions, not his difficulties. Do you like Joe?’ he suddenly asked, his face shimmering in the firelight.
‘I love him – with all my heart.’
‘Then you’re a fool,’ he said, as a log settled with a great uprush of sparks. ‘He’s not half the man that I am. No, not a quarter. Or what even comes before a quarter. Ciphers were never my strong point. But I know wheat from chaff!’ he said, spilling his drink now on those same nankeen breeches. ‘Damn!’ he cursed, ‘I look like I’m bleeding at the loins. A man can be born with this colour on his face, you know. Or in his guts – where it doesn’t show for the blemish that it is. Your brother has that blemish. It’s what’s made him soft like a girl. He’s softer than you, Nell, it’s why I love him less. It’s a parent’s privilege to have favourites. Some choose to disguise it, I don’t. I’ve never been a liar, Nell, not about that. About some things perhaps …But not about loving you more than Joe.’
‘I don’t want to hear,’ said Nell. ‘Please, Father, I wish to go now.’
‘You’ll stay there till I say otherwise!’
His bellowing brooked no resistance, as usual. She stood rooted to the carpet that came all the way from Persia. The colour was purple, like the port, and patterned with geometrical devices. Her father was looking at them now, as if he didn’t understand them and wished he did. Geometry, ciphers, all manner of learning that he’d never had and sorely missed. He rolled down his stockings and unbuttoned his waistcoat, loosening his cravat with one hand and wiping his brow with the other. His hiccupping was worsening, becoming loathsome. ‘As for the name of my bride to be. Her name is – well you know her name well enough. It’s a pity someone else has tried to turn her pretty head. We both know who. Yet the simple fact of the matter is, that she’s turned mine too. I need a wife, Nell, and yes, yes, yes, before you say so, I know she’s barely old enough to be your mother. Though your first mother was the same age when I married her, I’ll have you know – eighteen. Eighteen summers in bloom …’
His voice had trailed off. He hadn’t taken his own bait; that he was eighteen too then, but that was twenty-four years ago. ‘It’s my right to take her,’ he said, reaching his snuffbox from the desk and taking a generous pinch.
‘You mean Caroline, don’t you? But what does this mean, Father? How could you even think such a thing?’
‘Because I must, damn you!’ and he slammed down his fist again. ‘Don’t presume to question me Nell, it’s not your place.’ He sat back a while, his nostrils dilating as he calmed himself. ‘She hasn’t agreed formally, but her father will see that she does. This document …’ – he patted it gently – ‘… is the seal on our arrangement. He’s in my pocket, you know, or rather in my debt. I’ve bought him with all the things he likes.’
‘So you didn’t need him drunk after all,’ she observed coolly.
‘The drink helped. He’s been wavering of late, putting off the inevitable. It’s not that it’s me, you understand, instead of Joe.’ He meant that other thing, which he didn’t like to hear – his new-found wealth, his absence of pedigree and tradition. ‘He’s got the title, the connections, little else,’ he continued. ‘He needs me, as I need him. It’s a marriage of convenience in every sense. He gets my money, as much as he requires, I get my name noticed in high places. It’s the deal as it was with Joe plus this – I also get some sons of my own making.’ He took out his handkerchief and blew his nose. The colour he inspected with interest; it was the same as the nuts he was eating. ‘So I mean to have her and that’s that.’
‘You seem to forget that you already have a son. What about Joe?’
‘Joe can – whistle for his supper, Joe can go to Hell.’
‘You have told him?’
‘Yes, I’ve told him. He knows where he stands. He may go to any pond he likes and cast his rod. He’s young, he’s rich – thanks to me – and the ponds hereabouts are well stocked.’
‘The Caribbean is a sea, not a pond. And it’s a long way off.’
‘Archie and I are agreed that going there will harden him. The loss of Caroline will harden him further.’
‘Or kill him. Is that what you wish, Father? To be rid of him in the heat and the flies while you find yourself a new heir?’
She didn’t want him to answer. Neither of them, it seemed, was quite ready to think the inevitable. ‘It’s all for his own good,’ he said, without conviction. ‘Besides, it doesn’t do to set your heart on something and drool like a dog while you wait. So it’s settled, and you’re happy about it. Aren’t you?’ he asked when she hesitated. ‘Say it Nell, say that you’re happy.’
What could she say but this: ‘If it makes you happy, Father.’
‘That’s the spirit,’ he said, and filled his glass to the brim. She knew, as she walked away, that he’d added to the spillage on his breeches. If Joe were more of a man, she imagined him thinking, he’d make me pay for what I’ve done, make my legs run with real blood, my head too if he’d the guts. But he hasn’t, and we both know it.
He knew too where she’d go next – straight in search of Joe.
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