AND IN THE COMING days she moped about the house and grounds like a wounded dog. She carried her books, she carried her old dolls, she carried her sowing and her memories. The tunes she played on the harpsichord were all mournful, though they started jovial enough. She went for long walks to the farthest reaches of the estate. She went to the woods, to the fields, to the Dead Moor, which meant so much and was changed forever. She’d lose herself there for hours, lying on her back in the cold with the wind-blown clouds above. She’d welcome the tortuous journey home, sometimes in the dark when those treacherous bogs dared her to slip. She liked the danger that helped her to kill time, for she’d little at the house to draw her back. Just short days and long nights, and a bleak lonely winter ahead. And her hurt got worse, not better. Distance, perspective, all they showed her was need and yearning.
There were those who grew restless at her behaviour. Not her father or Joe or Mr Vine, whom she did her best to hide from with varying success. She had her guard up when she met them; between times it was down, for the effort of raising it cost her dear. The servants knew it, Betty in particular and, by association, Hector. Now there was a thought, for what else did he know?
She found him at the back by the stables and the carriage sheds. As was his duty every morning, he was polishing the gilt on Sir George’s coach. He worked diligently, his face intent on the task.
‘Miss Nell,’ he faltered, as she entered the shed. ‘I not see you come.’
‘Well here I am and I’ll get to the point. Did you help her escape? You know who I mean.’
‘No, Miss, I did not,’ he answered with a look of fear. ‘She – like to talk me, I won’t deny it. I …’
‘Well?’ It was starting to rain and the wind was blowing it inside.
‘She find things difficult here. Miss Nell, may I speak plainly?’
‘Please do.’ The rain was worrying him; it was getting heavier. Her father would be angry if he found the carriage wet. ‘Close the doors if it helps.’
‘Thank you, Miss.’ She watched his strong frame struggle with the closure, battling against the breeze on the other side as he rammed home the heavy bar. ‘You and me alone in here, Miss,’ he said, brushing the moisture from his hair. ‘I’m not sure it’s right. If your father catch us.’
‘I should stand up for you, Hector, have no fear,’ she assured him. ‘I trust you,’ she found herself saying and saw the surprise in his eyes.
‘Olushegan different,’ he began.
‘You knew her name? – you knew it before me?’
‘I think so, Miss Nell. Don’t be angry about that, now. It always the same. We tell each other real name if we know it. Then we keep it here inside. We make a new family in our hearts. No one can take it away.’
Nell felt jealous, resentful. ‘You were saying – about Olushegan.’
‘So much spirit. So wise for her years.’
‘I know. I felt it.’
‘She felt things too, Miss Nell, I’m sure. You and her, it so unusual. I never see it before, and it set me thinking dangerous thoughts. She thinking them too, Miss. If you ask me it’s why she went away. What you were becoming, what she was becoming – I don’t think I make it clear, I don’t think she knew it herself.’ He wiped his mouth hurriedly. ‘Maybe your father right, Miss Nell, it all for best that she go.’
There was no more to say, he added, though that was for Nell to decide. She didn’t like him closing the issue, though she understood his purpose. He’d been brave to say what he’d said, and the effort had cost him dear. His eyes were averted, hoping she’d leave now, though he felt her pain, she saw it in his face. She wanted more, however, a lot more. Her need was greater than his. He ought to help her if he could, never mind the risks.
‘I could make life difficult for you, you do know that?’
‘Yes, Miss.’ He looked at her directly now.
‘A word from me and Father would …Well, I’m sure you know what he’d do.’ She wasn’t sure herself, not sure she wanted to know. ‘Your relationship with Betty – I could end it right now, have you sold and sent away.’
His gaze dropped in easy defeat. ‘Yes, Miss.’
‘I don’t want to have to make him hurt you. You or Betty. In fact I don’t wish it one bit. I think you know I am a kind mistress. But you must understand, that if you have information …’
‘Miss Nell, I not know any more,’ he said, looking up in ambivalent misery. ‘That God’s truth, so help me.’
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