SHE FOUND HIM pacing the floor of his chamber at the end of the west wing.
‘Sis – you startled me,’ he said, his misery plain. His cheeks looked sunken and his eyes were puffed and raw.
‘So it’s true,’ Nell said. ‘He’s going to marry her.’
His hands were behind his back in a show of dignity. He turned and walked quickly to the window, as if the light were air that he needed breathe. ‘What is there to say?’ he said presently. ‘What will be, will be.
‘Joe, you are bleeding inside, I know it. Joe look at me. You’re no philosopher.’
His shoulders twitched beneath his satin coat; his fingers appeared at his neck, searching blindly for something, someone. She hurried towards him and clasped his hand. ‘I know he doesn’t love her,’ he said, his voice quavering. ‘Not like I love her. He wants her because he can. He says it’s the same with Mr Vine – he allows him liberties, such liberties, solely because he can. It’s in his power, his gift, you might say, to be hard or soft as caprice takes him. Nothing makes sense, sis. What am I to do?’ It was a real question now; the resignation in his tone was all gone.
‘But if she loves you and you love her …’
‘You think it is so simple? I’ve been to her room just now but she won’t see me. She says it is all change and I must accept it. It’s as if she were saying to me, Be a man. It’s what they all say.’ He fingered the ribbon that tied his silky brown hair. Its purple reminded Nell of her father’s spilled port. Joe’s body absorbed her shudder; it fused instinctively with one of his own just as strong, just as filled with meaning.
‘You know it’s not so simple,’ he went on, staring fixedly through the leaded pane.
‘They say that love may conquer all,’ Nell said breezily.
‘It cannot conquer our fathers, Nell,’ he said, turning suddenly. ‘They will do with us what they will – ours, Caroline’s.’
‘If we let them,’ she countered, surprising him with the force of the statement. Surprising herself.
Joe looked at her longingly. He took both her hands and kissed her softly on the forehead. It was a brother’s kiss, but it felt more like a father’s; no father’s she had ever known. ‘I thought I’d seen some things, I thought I’d experienced them. Life and so forth. I don’t mind telling you I had a hard time of it at school. I survived, I found a way. I’ll never tell you it all, I can’t, for pride’s sake. But I will say this Nell – though you’re but a girl – I wish I had your strength.’
‘My strength?’ she said laughing, more flattered than he could know.
‘It’s in your eyes,’ he continued, ‘it’s about you when you enter the room. I felt it just now when you came in. It agitates the air and puts me to shame, for my strength is less than a girl’s. Just ask Father. But you won’t need to. Don’t think I don’t know what he says behind my back. How he maligns me, hopes you’ll join in the fun.’
‘I never do. I always defend you, Joe.’
‘There you see? – strength. I told you so. It’s like charm, sis, when a person thinks he’s got it, he probably hasn’t. Like me. So you see, I’ve neither strength nor charm. I’m just a booby on his way to Barbados. I’m so miserable, sis, even my monkey senses it – he’s upped and fled.’
Like another monkey, her devilment said. ‘When do you sail?’
‘Does it matter? Not until the spring by all accounts. I have time to wait here and see him married. Have my nose rubbed in the dirt. She’ll be here under this roof, Nell, sleeping in his bed. It revolts me. And yet, God help me for thinking so, but I also find it exciting. How can that be, sis? I’m not only weak, I’m askew.’
‘Dear Joe,’ she said, touching his face with her finger, thinking how happy he’d looked last night by the great fireplace, a willing prisoner of the moment, blissfully unaware of the plotting all around him. ‘I’m sorry for you, truly I am,’ and he lovingly nibbled her fingertip, a single tear staining his face. She remembered the unspoken thought between her father and her. She had a duty to mention it now, however painful. ‘You know, Joe, that she may well give him sons. She’s young, healthy. She might have a full brood.’
‘The estate is entailed. I am still the eldest. I am the one who inherits the title.’ If you live so long, she was thinking, and so was he. ‘So don’t go worrying about me, sis, I’m resigned to the matter,’ he said, rallying himself as he poked the fire. ‘They say human beings can get used to anything. Well it’s true, and I’m living proof,’ he said, standing with his back to the heat. ‘I’m not sure about you, though – what ails you this cold morning?’
‘Do I look as if something ails me?’ she snapped. No longer distracted, her own problem washed over her like a cold wave. ‘If you must know, it’s Olu. She’s run away.’
‘Ah yes, I’d heard. Now look, sis, I’m sorry for your loss but …’
‘Have I said it’s a loss?’ she turned on him.
‘All right, steady on,’ he said, holding up his hands in surrender. ‘It’s just that you two, well, you seemed to be getting on just fine. Friends, I’d say, yes you looked like friends. The very best of friends.’
‘Did we?’ she asked, stabbed by renewed hope. ‘Did we really?’
‘Yes. Yes, you did. I’m not saying it could have worked out, given your circumstances, the nature of the relationship and so forth. That wager business, making a great lady of her. She was still black at the end of it. She’d no money of her own, I mean think about it, sis, what would have happened to her? Perhaps it’s for the best that she’s gone.’
‘Now where have I heard that before?’
His old awkwardness was back; he fiddled with the buttons on his coat, he sniffed repeatedly. He needed the prop of his marmoset, not fled as he supposed, but shot by the keepers who’d taken it for a tiny poacher. (Or so said Mr Vine, who thought it a laughing matter). Poor Joe, she daren’t tell him, not now, not in the mood he was in.
‘I suppose I’ve been a fool.’ She crossed to his bed with a sigh and sat down on its edge. It was higher than hers, strung tighter, and her feet were a foot off the ground. She felt like a child of a sudden, which didn’t suit. She folded her hands, drooping her head in misery. She wanted to grow up, wanted adulthood right there and then. She saw in a vision the adult state, saw it side-by-side, synonymous, with the loss of her virginity. She saw the two combined as strength-giving changes, each acquired quickly, simultaneously, even at the drop of a hat; she saw in the same picture bulls geldered into strong oxen, boys castrated into swelled and bald eunuchs, Mr Vine – somehow – the means and provider of it all. She saw herself on a woodland floor, her legs spread eager and waiting, her body unresisting, yet hating, brewing vomit in the pit of her stomach. Joe’s words about revulsion, excitement, were just as apt for her as for him. She was glad that they shared it, this anomaly, this quirk, this quibble.
If only she could be glad about the loss of Olu. If only missing her didn’t make her want to die. Surely a man would deal with this better, would be able to handle the pain. She was alone, crying inside all the way down to her feet. But how to express her feelings? The pain, the ache, both were intolerable. She didn’t deserve it; the illness she suffered felt squalid, cheap and low born. And overwhelming, too much for a body to bear. Where was she to turn? She loved Joe but he couldn’t ease her pain, couldn’t share just one grain of her torment. Because he wasn’t her. She knew he had his own hurt, which was a comfort of sorts. ‘Loss,’ she murmured, ‘my loss is a hole I’m sure it will take years to fill. It’s worse than anybody could have guessed.’
‘I don’t suppose you’ve told Father how you feel.’
‘I’ve told him she’s gone. He knew that already.’
‘Yes, and I can guess most of what he said.’ He smiled anxiously, his right hand twirling an invisible thread. ‘Look at it this way, sis, she must have been unhappy to fly like that. It’s what they’re doing in flocks apparently. I can’t say I blame them. Imagine it the other way round – how we’d feel. I always pitied that parrot you had.’
‘But we’re not like them,’ she said, reverting to her father’s talk.
‘That’s what they say. So why do they run? Because they’re ungrateful?’ he said, stealing her words. ‘It can’t be so simple, sis. It’s not so simple and you know it.’ His tone was stern now, unbrotherly, she thought. ‘Let her go. Don’t try to find her – don’t do it, will you sis?’
‘Of course not!’ she said. ‘I’m finished with her once and for all. I hate her as my enemy.’ He caught her eye as she said so; they both knew it wasn’t true.
Both my novels are available on Amazon, FREE TILL END OF JANUARY: