THE CHURCH WAS open as she’d hoped, as she’d dreaded. A single candle flickered at the altar, left there by accident or design. There was no wind yet the flame burned unevenly, drunkenly was the word that came to mind. A drunken candle, it was laughable, but there on the floor was no laughing matter. She shivered, though not with cold. Was this really their doing – hers and Olu’s?
‘A fine business, is it not?’ said a voice echoing down the aisle. She didn’t need to look to realise whose.
‘You startled me Mister Vine – yet again,’ she answered, trying to remain calm. The Chinaman was with him, his thin young frame trembling with fear. He stood as close to Vine as he dared, and as the steward edged nearer he followed like his shadow. ‘Who would have thought it, hey? – that what we have there used to be a man. A man I called friend.’
‘I doubt a man like you has any friends,’ she said, shrinking from his presence, which was somehow worse than the dead priest’s remains. Self-blame, self doubt, self preservation contended inside her. She was a murderess, she told herself, yet no one need know. She must protect herself. She hadn’t been accused. She didn’t want to be accused. It wasn’t her fault…oh but it was! He hadn’t deserved it, not this, but there was no going back. She had made her dead and must lie of it.
‘I like a woman with a strong stomach, I know that much,’ he said, gesturing to Kit to retreat. ‘Wait for me outside. Don’t you be scared now, don’t start whining or I’ll beat your slit-eyes round.’
‘Yes, sir,’ Kit said, backing away bowing, then out front in a bolt, his long pigtail wagging.
‘The yellow skin’s like me – he knows what’s what when it comes to this stuff,’ said Vine, pointing at the corpse. ‘He knows what killed him. You know it too. And I’d wager the Reverend had an inkling when he stood there writhing at the end. You’re tough,’ he said nodding, ‘and I like that. But you’ve too much conscience. You blame yourself for being complicit. I’ve no idea how it was done, I don’t want to know. But done it was and I’ve seen it done before – never in England but there’s a first time for everything. I’m a worldly man, Nell. Unshockable. I also know that nothing matters much in this world and most things don’t matter at all. But you matter, and I’m willing to forgive and forget.’ Somehow he appeared kinder, she daren’t think why. ‘I care about you, Nell,’ he went on, ‘it’s why I follow you night and day. Aye night and day, I’ve seen what you get up to. Including this.’
‘You saw? And yet you said nothing?’
He shrugged and stepped nearer. ‘I’m saying something now. I could say it to the whole world.’
‘No one will believe you,’ she forced herself to say.
‘Who can blame them? It flies in the face of belief. But there’s one who’ll believe, if I work on him. I haven’t done half of what I could do. I think you know the reason why. I want you, Nell, and your father will allow me to love you.’
She swallowed this like a bitter truth. ‘He has said so?’
‘Not in so many words. But I see it in his face, feel it in the air and on his breath. His breath is good around me.’
‘I smell it foul of late. It’s your breath on him that I’m smelling. You wish to marry me, to honour me?’
‘I do, as they say. And I’d have said so to him if he’d lived,’ he said, looking at the body on the floor. ‘No matter, the words will save till your father finds a replacement.’
‘And what else would you like? To take me like a common bitch anywhere you please. Right here near this altar if I’m not mistaken.’
He drew off his gloves as she’d seen her father do – but who had aped who? she wondered. ‘Nothing would give me greater pleasure. You’ve no idea how many birds that would kill with one stone. You won’t surrender to me, I realise that. And I could still take you, I could,’ he added, a stray finger of his glove chancing to point at his crotch. ‘It would be sweet to take you before the wedding night. I never did much hold with such things. Look what happens when you do?’ he said, glancing again at the Reverend’s remains. ‘Besides, I’d rather you were well greased beforehand.’
She faced him head on. ‘You’ll never have me. Willingly or otherwise. I’d kill myself first.’
‘Mind it doesn’t come to that,’ he said without jest, and with a long deep sigh that had its own peculiar echo. He sat down in a pew – his own, the one he never used. He wasn’t praying but he was thinking. ‘Be reasonable, Nell. I’ve waited a while, I’m willing to wait a while longer.’
‘Wait as long as you like,’ she scoffed. ‘You are still only a servant.’
‘A very special servant, ma’am,’ he said, lifting his eyes abruptly in a mocking stare. ‘And the mood your father is in right now he’ll believe anything I tell him. Each day that goes by you tighten the noose on yourself. I offer you one last chance. I’ll give you a few days to think about it.’
‘A few days,’ she mused aloud with another glance at Mortimer. ‘At least he can’t harm me any more.’
Vine shook his head and laughed. ‘I always acted alone as far as you were concerned. For all his book learning, he was never clever enough to harm you. He was all huff and puff, if you’d pricked him with a bodkin he’d have farted himself to death.’ He laughed louder and more raucously. ‘Maybe that’s what happened, you pricked him and bang he went! Poor, poor Reverend, I’ll miss him much. But I shall look out a plot for him as I pass through the graveyard.’ He rose laughing louder still, his feet heavy on the stone floor as he walked back down the aisle. ‘Now where’s that Chinky got to?’ and he left the door swinging as he barged his way through, whistling for Kit like a dog as he went.
Nell thought to pray but she didn’t. She sat down in a pew, the same one vacated by Vine, and wept. Her weeping was long and from the heart. There was so much inside it that needed purging. She was crying mainly for herself, for what she’d become – a girl too proud to accept blame. Crying because her pride was her father’s pride, and all it entailed. Crying because she was what she was, whatever that may be. Crying because she didn’t wish to know herself, feared to know what she might find. Her crying wouldn’t stop, for when she thought it had, back it came, sharp and relentless, a free-flowing dysentery of the eyes. Her tears even smelled bad, as from a blackened soul, and where else to admit to one than in a house of God, before a dead man wont to serve Him, in name if not in deed? Could she ever stoop lower? Could she ever feel lower? Where must she go from here but to more of the same?
Strange to say, that she didn’t feel repentant, didn’t feel an abject, worthless sinner. To say that weeping can be good for you is not to lie, and she knew all about lying just now. She had taken a certain road, didn’t know where it was leading but knew there was no going back.
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