ALL NELL COULD THINK about was the night Olu had left, how little she’d done to stop her. She should have gone to search but she’d stayed at the ball, standing there on the fringes, sipping punch made from her father’s rum. It was all there still in her mind, the fiddles that shrieked and groaned with peaks and troughs of melody; the dancing that had seemed interminable, an endless procession stiffly gliding on the shimmering floor. She heard it yet, the rustling of the garments; felt the heat, smelled the wax from the candles, tasted the salt of her own sweet sweat. There’d been nothing to keep her, so why had she stayed? It didn’t make sense, or perhaps it did, perfectly.
There was so much now that unsettled her, attracted and repelled in the same measure. She saw the equal and opposite in everything, the good and the bad, the black and the white. It was there in humble things, even the wildlife of the woods and fields. It was there in the people she knew, or was coming to know. Mr Vine for instance, a man who frightened her like no other. And yet who’d held her there of her own free will the night Olu had gone.
And was holding her again today, having come upon her unawares in the woods, his demeanour more relaxed than ever as he idly scraped his cudgel along the estate wall, adjusting with the other hand his hair which was pushed through an eel-skin queue. His small, lashless eyes as he looked at Nell were bright with some hidden meaning.
‘I though you might like some company,’ he said, strolling her way. ‘And some advice.’
‘I haven’t asked for any,’ said Nell, determined to stand her ground.
‘Well I’m going to offer some just the same. It’s time you lost your graveyard look. You should forget that slave of yours.’ The word slave jarred with Nell; she hadn’t thought of her in that light for some time. ‘I don’t miss much as you know,’ he said, as he walked beside her. ‘If ever you feel yourself getting lonely in your grief, you know where I am. I can make that little house of mine hot when I need to, even on a chilly night.’ He meant the Grange, the house Sir George had given him opposite the gates of his estate. Part office, part residence, it was a fine property in its own right, reward for services rendered, and services yet to come. But was it enough? Nell wondered. What else had he set his sights on?
‘You take liberties I think.’
‘I don’t think, I know. And I could teach you a thing or two. Better you learn them from me than some powdered coxcomb too eager with his sporting gun. That first time, with an older man, you could learn a lifetime’s knowledge in a single afternoon. Think about it, why don’t you? Think how much you’ll be able to please your husband in the bedchamber.’
‘I don’t want a husband.’
‘It’s what all you women aspire to. It’s what makes you whole. A man like me could put you on the right track. The right smell, the right taste, the right touch. There’s something you’ve got that I’d like to see, something I’ve got that I’d like to show. As for the sounds you’d make when one thing met the other – sheer music to my ears.’
‘My father tolerates you. I can’t think why.’
‘But I can. I’m the one that keeps him on his toes, keeps him up with the times that are always changing. Like a jester I can tell him unkind truths, make him laugh at himself just a little. I have been his mirror and more besides. He needed something out there, where all he had was too much rum in the sun. We all know where that leads.’
‘And where does it lead? Tell me.’ She knew the truth lay across the sea, if only she could find it.
He brushed against her deliberately; she felt the charge of his manhood strike down the side of her body. ‘I’d rather tell you about myself. How I was raised right here in this village. How I had a cruel father, which is common. A cruel mother too – now that’s not so common.’ His sideways glance was stinging her cheek. ‘You remind me of her. More beautiful for sure, but you have her look when you’re vexed. You have a taste for things you shouldn’t, things you try to repress.’
‘You know nothing about me.’
‘I think I do, and what’s more you know that I do. We are more alike than you think.’
‘I am nothing like you,’ she said, though she secretly feared it might be true. Both were fighters for one thing; both would struggle against the odds. He was saying as much now in explaining his escape from poverty, hoping to impress her. He’d worked hard, he said, and was cruel to those that deserved it. Archibald Vine, Attorney-at-Law, had served his articles with Mr Wormald of Otley. Five years sweeping the office floor till he’d condescended to take him on without a premium. Later Wormald had taken his own life, drowned himself in the Aire when the river was swelled. Vine had known the games he played, the pies he’d had his fingers in. He laid traps in those pies for his fingers to snag upon. And then, when the moment was right, he’d exposed him to those who could reward him. One thing led to another, just like the fairy stories – and then, and then, and then – all the way to the end, which for Vine, like the best, was yet to come. But when his goose laid its golden egg he’d be waiting. He would end up where he wanted to be, living happily ever after with someone sweet to share it.
‘And what of your life in the Caribbean, were you cruel there too?’ Nell asked, meeting his stare which was unremitting.
‘I was raised cruel, as I’ve said. The cruelty out there never bothered me. Just the strangeness. The other worldliness. It takes some getting used to. But I did it, and by doing it, I made myself serviceable. More than he could have hoped. It’s like I said, Nell, Sir George needs me. And over here just as much as over there. Old habits die hard. It’s safer all told.’
Nell halted abruptly, and Vine stopped too. ‘What do you mean – safer?’
‘She’d have known what I mean.’ He jerked his thumb as if Olu were there between the trees. ‘It’s why she gave me the evil eye, she knew how much I know, and what a hard nut I am to crack. She knew in truth who enslaved who out there. Who still enslaves who over here. I saw it starting all over again.’ He began cutting at the bark of a tree with his pocket knife, tearing off whole strips then setting to work delicately, with precision, like an expert torturer who knew how pain worked. ‘You’re well rid of her, if you want my advice,’ he said at length.
‘But I don’t want it.’
‘Well I’m giving it,’ he said, notching a letter in the bark. ‘Let’s just say I have a vested interest. I know which side my bread is buttered, like a good lawyer should.’
‘Or a good spy. It was yours, wasn’t it? – that face at the window just now.’
‘The cause was a good one. Your father has asked me to watch over you. He’s worried what you might do. There…’ – she looked at the letter he’d carved – N for Nell – ‘…I’ve even carved your name to remind me. Not that I need reminding. I have a duty.’
‘Does that include watching me undress?’
‘Coincidence, but a happy one. You saw the look of enjoyment on my face perhaps? I won’t tell you what I’d got in my hand. You’ve worked that out already, clever girl that you are.’
‘You disgust me.’
‘I was watching over you. All right, so I took some pleasure in it – where’s the harm in that? You saw nothing, and I kept my enjoyment quiet. It wasn’t the first time I’d done it, just the first time I’d got caught. I wasn’t on my guard any more, I knew there was nothing lurking in the next chamber.’ He put the knife away but with a look in his eyes of cold hate. ‘I saw his mistake in bringing her over. I advised against it but he wouldn’t listen. I wish I knew why. A clever man like me, you’d expect me to know. Perhaps you can work it out Nell, you being clever yourself, not like your father at all in that respect. He wants to be clever and it hurts him that he’s not. It makes him spiteful and revengeful. I think you should love him all the more.’
It was a strange remark but he was right: her father’s hurt drew her pity like a sting, and where there was pity there was love.
‘Would it help to talk? We could sit down if you liked. Or rather you could sit on me, which I’d like. I promise I’d be gentle. You’d hardly feel me going in.’ There was a bulge now in his breeches, his lips were moist with saliva. ‘You’re curious – you must be – and I’m dying of lust.’
‘I don’t wish to know.’
‘At least feel my ardour, it may move you to tears.’
‘I shall tell Father,’ she warned him as she turned away at last.
‘No you won’t!’ he called after her, his lustful laugh beating at her back. He’d started to follow, first walking then running. He ran fast, dipping among the trees and came upon her from the front, panting hard but smiling, slapping his knees in mirth at her shocked expression. ‘I’m not going to hurt you,’ he said, his hands on her shoulders gripping her firm. ‘I’d like to, I’d like to jump on you right now as I’ve done in my dreams, but I can’t, not yet. Even I can only go so far.’
‘Let me go …’
‘Tell me where you’re going, first, as if I didn’t know. To mope over your black whore, yes? How did she get away? – wouldn’t you like to know? Then look no further than the edge of the estate. It’s where she went often enough. You might have seen for yourself who she met with if you’d bothered to look.’ He began to sing, Out sprung two bold highwaymen with weapons in their hands …’
‘What have highwaymen to do with it?’
‘Too late to ask your jolly black girl, who was so jolly in their company. I’ve seen her talking with them separately, even together. Maybe that’s how she liked to fuck with them – one at a time or together, as the fancy took her.’
‘Why should I believe you?’
‘Because I speak the truth. And if you don’t believe me, ask that maid of yours. She too is good at keeping secrets.’
He’d let her go by now but the damage was done; she felt she was being lied to on every side. And by Betty of all people, the one person whom she’d though she could trust.
Both my novels are available on Amazon, FREE TILL END OF FEBRUARY: