AS MARCH TURNED to April Sir George got wind of his peerage. The wind was blowing fair, said Lord Pemberton, whose daughter’s marriage rehearsal was planned for later that day. And for the real thing at the weekend he would be joined by Lord Bute, the king’s former tutor and a man of great influence at court. Their Lordships loved a spectacle and the Sugar King would not disappoint. Twenty separate courses were planned, including swan and peacock and great-crested grebe. For entertainment musicians and fire-eaters, clowns and tumblers with scurrilous messages to His Majesty’s Opposition; even a naked lady hidden inside a giant cake of sugar. There’d be so much frolicking, so much carousing the noise would mask a siege, distract the escape of a whole army. But there would be only Nell, who’d slip away with less notice than a mouse.
‘I’ve thought of everything, Betty,’ Nell told her as the maid brushed the tangles from her hair. ‘I shall have in my bag the pot of black lead, a stout chain and a riveted collar. I shall go in my bare feet, clad in Olu’s old white dress, clipped short at the knees and elbows, and ripped open at the chest. My skin and hair I shall daub black, and while everyone is feasting I shall walk through the village dragging my chain behind me. When I reach the square I shall fasten myself in the stocks. And when Father has seen the sign hanging round my neck his humiliation will be complete.’
‘And what will the sign read, Miss?’
‘See for yourself, it’s in that cupboard over there.’ Betty left off brushing and went to where Nell pointed. ‘Well?’
‘I don’t know, Miss – what does it mean?’ she said, as she stood there puzzling at the words.
‘It means exactly what it says, Betty: I am the Nigger of my Sex. All women are Niggers if only they could see it.’
‘Begging your pardon, Miss, it may have escaped your notice but I’m white, always was, always will be. You too were white last time I looked.’
‘It’s irony, Betty! Oh put it back where you found it, won’t you? Confound you, you’re the most annoying soul when you wish to be.’ She watched her stow the sign in the cupboard again and shut the door. ‘You’re the only person who knows, Betty. You will keep my secret? Do I have your promise?’ She was sounding like her father when he’d pressed her in that very room. Betty’s reply, however, was pleasingly unambiguous: ‘You can depend on me, Miss, to see you right, though I hope you know what you’re doing.’
It was the future that was ambivalent, not the action in itself. She went downstairs to the strangest news. Joe’s face when she met him in the hall was a mask of bewildered fear. ‘Sis, there’s been an accident,’ he said, steering her outside. ‘You’ll need air for what I have to tell you.’ Her first thought was for her father. ‘No, rest assured, he’s quite well,’ he said when she’d voiced her fears. ‘Out of temper yes, but only because of what’s occurred.’
He proceeded to tell how their father’s carriage had drawn up at the church at three o’clock, with no sign of untowardness. They might have walked but the weather being inclement still, Sir George, worried about Caroline taking a chill, had insisted on the carriage, his gilded one at that. ‘Inside were the couple to be and our friend Mister Vine. I also was there,’ said Joe, ‘to have my nose rubbed in the mire, I could only presume. Has he not hurt me enough? But this is not about me, sis,’ and went on to tell of Lord Pemberton’s arrival, attended by several of his servants. ‘He was in a lazy mood, drank brandy from a flask, reclined on a pew to watch the proceedings, jesting all the while as he’s wont to do. His tongue was coarse, sis, and in a house of God. Maybe that’s the cause of it all, his profanities brought down the Lord’s wrath.’
‘Steady Joe,’ said Nell, as he grimaced at the memory. He could hardly speak, so she told him to take his time. The couple were at the altar, he said at length, and all was going to plan, a mere formality. And then it happened, no sooner than the prayer book was opened at the page for the marriage ceremony.
‘You can’t imagine what I saw, what we all saw,’ said Joe, clasping his sister’s arm. ‘The vicar’s hand was scratching at his throat. It was as if the stock was burning into his flesh, growing ever tighter.’ It was Nell who trembled now, and Joe who steadied her. ‘His screams were unbearable, ineffable. He died in agony, sis, clutching his throat right to the end. It was like a fire, an inner fire. Just a seizure I expect, but it started there, in his throat.’
‘I need to sit down, Joe, even here on the wet steps.’
‘I had to tell someone …’ He took her hand again as they sat together, Nell’s skirts splayed like an ungainly bird. She wanted her fan, her smelling salts. She wanted Olu. Her consolation, her explanation.
‘I never liked him, of course,’ said Joe, sniffing hard. ‘Beats me, though, how a man could deserve that.’
‘You never wished him harm, not even in your blackest moments?’ She would have blamed Joe just then; anyone but herself.
‘Upon my word, no,’ he said, kicking idly at a pebble, stretching out his leg to reach another. The action had torn his breeches at the crotch but he didn’t seem to care. eHH‘I wouldn’t have wished that on anyone. What the inquest will make of it, I don’t know. There’s sure to be one, you know, and Father, as local magistrate, will have to preside. I shall be called as a witness. Just what must a man say?’
Nell was scarcely listening; she needed reassurance that she wasn’t to blame but how could she get it? She could only hint at her predicament: ‘Many a time I have wished him ill. Half in jest, mostly in anger. You know the sort of anger I mean, you say things, but you don’t mean them, not deep down.’
‘Be easy on yourself, sis, this is not your doing. The very thought!’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘the very thought. Perhaps it was the very thought that killed him.’
Joe laughed. She was doing him good, being his listener; how little he knew what it cost her.
‘Come now, maybe it was brewing for some time. Something inside him had gone wrong – or gone bad. Unexplainable perhaps even to physicians. I suppose I should even be grateful. Now that is a wicked thing to say!’
She wanted to ask him where the body was, wanted to know about her father’s reaction, what was the effect on Lord Pemberton, on Caroline, even Sir George’s new Chinaman, Kit, who had driven the coach as Hector used to do. She was curious too about Joe’s gratitude. She got it all in one unsolicited statement:
Sir George was visibly shaken. Caroline was in the arms of two ladies-maids, her smelling bottle applied to revive her. Her father called it a bad business all round. He wasn’t a religious man but he knew the power of religion. He knew a sign when he saw one. It was an omen, he said, a message from God that this marriage was not meant to be. In short, it had been postponed indefinitely. ‘It doesn’t mean I’m any nearer to winning her of course,’ Joe reasoned, ‘but I can’t help thinking my prospects are on the up again. It’s early days, barely an hour since it happened. The body is still at the altar where we left it. The Chinaman is standing guard. Poor choice if you ask me. So full of superstition, God knows what he thinks we get up to on dark nights. All this fascination for chinoiserie, I can’t see it myself. It’s just like Father to be in on the latest mode …’
How he rambled. ‘Is the church locked?’ she asked to silence him.
‘Who knows, sis, you want to take a look at the body? Damn it all, what kind of girl are you?’
‘I don’t know, Joe,’ she said. ‘Going up there now might enable me to find out.’
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