SHE WAS CURIOUS, wanted to go where Olu had gone in such secrecy; a place where her ghost might roam yet or her scent linger still. She had to do it, walk all the way to the edge of the estate on its western side. It was a foolish act, sad and forlorn. She saw nothing when she got there, for what was there to see but the autumn landscape ready for the torpor of the year, when every bud and every leaf would hold itself in dreamless sleep? Aye, dreamless, where no monsters lurked of any description, no lovers, no friends, no servants or slaves.
A crow cawed from a copse nearby, its noise so protracted it bent the bird double. Here, in the image of a black creature vomiting its call, was more than the sum total of its notes; it was a goblin taunt, an instruction to look and learn, as the wily Vine would say. So she kept on watching, she kept on thinking, and she kept on walking back to the house. Servants and slaves – she’d tried Hector; it was time now to try Betty, to lay it on thick how badly she needed answers.
She summoned her that night by the bedside bell as she sat in her chamber with a book in her lap. Betty, who answered the summons with a light in her hand, completed the triumvirate of bell, book and candle, so redolent of mystery and the bitter-sweet memory of Olu.
‘It can’t be true, Betty, what Mr Vine is saying. He says Olu was meeting with highwaymen. He is lying, yes?’
The maid’s eyes, sheepishly averted said it all. ‘No Miss, he is not,’ answered Betty, as she placed her candle on the sill. ‘You’ve a right to know I expect,’ she added with a sigh. ‘I saw it for myself. I tried to tell you but I couldn’t. I thought it might get me into trouble. Or if not me then Hector, one black helping another is how they’d see it.’
‘You must tell me, Betty, tell me all you know.’
‘I know I must, Miss, for both our sakes,’ said Betty, sitting beside her mistress on the bed. She knew that she’d not want to hear, however, and took her time beginning. Eventually, when she’d nervously patted her cheeks, her bosom and her knees, this is what she’d got to say.
That the weather had been warm for the time of year; warm even for her, who’d worn just a cotton slip that trailed all the way to the ground. Betty, in following, had kept her distance, used the trees and bushes for cover. Olu was up ahead but she’d never lost sight of her. She’d kept her in view till she’d seen her stop. It was where the estate bordered a sunken road near the milestone for London –184 miles away. She had sat upon its rounded top waiting anxiously, her hand pressed to her brow to shield her eyes from the sun as she gazed along the dusty road. Presently a rider appeared from around the bend, his canter slowing to a trot. He was feeling the heat, and when he’d dismounted he removed his neck-band and wiped away the sweat from his face. He was a young man, no more than 25. They’d greeted each other curtly, but they weren’t strangers. They’d stood talking for 20 minutes before he’d reached something – it had looked like a letter – from his bag and placed it in her hand. Their talk grew more heated, with much gesturing. He’d worn a pistol at his belt and a sword at his hip but she hadn’t seemed afraid – more than once she’d pointed accusingly, and for a moment, small though she was, she’d looked as if she would strike him. For his part the man had turned away a few paces, strutting with his hands on his hips. Something was agreed in the end, reluctantly on his part, determinedly on hers. She’d looked ready to leave with him but she hadn’t; she’d returned the way she’d come. Betty had waited till she’d passed and followed her home.
‘Would she keep her secret? or would she share it – with me, a mere servant?’ said Betty, when she’d told her tale. ‘I thought to give her some time, and when you’d spent the afternoon together, playing at chess, practising duets on the harpsichord and walking again in the grounds like you loved to do, I thought to broach it myself when I found her alone. “Olu,” I began, “is there something you’d like to tell me?”
She lay on her stomach, tapping her foot against the bedpost. “If you ask I may answer. If I please.” Her tone was insolent, Miss, I don’t mind saying.
“I know you went out this morning, so don’t deny it,” I said. “Where did you go?”
“By your leave, I have a right to walk where I choose.”
“That may be true,” I answered, “but by her leave My Lady would like to know who you met with.”
“You already know, so why ask? Why not tell the truth that you crawled like a snake on my trail? I didn’t need to see you. I smell you downwind like a slave ship at sea. I know why you follow me, you think like Mr Vine, who say, I bad, bad trouble. He say that black bitch, she ready to run away with white man wanted by law.”
I tried again, more gentle, less threatening: “Who was he Olu? – that man you met. And why were you meeting him?”
It was no good Miss, she wouldn’t say. She was a better clam than any you’ll get at the coast. She told me only what I knew already: “He’s wanted by your letter of the law, by your judges, your magistrates, your gaols, your end of a noose. Same thing, no justice. He end up dead and nobody care except Satan.”
And here, Miss, I’m sorry to say I saw red. “That man deserves the full letter of the law,” I told her. “He’s a common highway robber. Why, he was the one who robbed Sir George’s guests at gun point!”
“To feed his family. The side of his family that’s not ashamed of him. The other side grows worried when he brings his shame too near home. Only one among them willing to help. Shall I tell you who?”
‘But I’d worked that out already, Miss,’ said Betty.
‘Mr Strong,’ Nell pre-empted.
‘I tried to tell you the night before the ball. I’d seen the trouble he’d been landed in. And look at the trouble he’s in now?’ She meant that he was gone, no one knew where –banished in absentia – blamed for everything, though the details were unclear. His precise dealings with the highwayman for instance, his agitation that night when Nell had spotted him among the guests, most of all his disappearance the same time as Olu. Had they planned their escape together? What must she believe? Whom was she to blame?
‘That will be all Betty,’ she said. ‘You must leave me alone now.’
‘Not to grieve, surely? She’s not worth it Miss, after all you’ve done for her look how she repays you?’
She was right of course, thought Nell, at least in part. Believing it was so was the best way to fight her hurt.
Both my novels are available on Amazon, FREE TILL END OF FEBRUARY: