VINE GOT HER answer sooner than he’d bargained for, and in a manner he could never have expected. There was no point in waiting for a banquet that wouldn’t come, for a visit from Lord Bute that wasn’t to be. Even Lord Pemberton was gone, and he had taken his daughter with him; his good word too about Sir George, whose prospects of a peerage had markedly dimmed. Yet why let her plans be wasted?
The attorney had called to see her with her father’s permission; he was waiting for her in the saloon. Imagine his surprise when she’d gone to him dressed as she’d planned to be at her father’s wedding, smeared head to foot with black lead.
‘My God, just look at you!’ said Vine, springing up from his chair. ‘You’re bewitched still!’
‘But sane enough for this. You have waited for my answer, sir, and here it is: I would rather die than marry you.’
She had never seen him nonplussed, so stuck for words. He wiped his brow, casting about for the right response. ‘You don’t mean it, Nell – you’re overwrought. But what a sight it is for a white man to bear! I can feel the bile in my throat.’
‘You choke on your hatred, sir.’
‘Or my desire …’ It was there above all else, clamouring to be satisfied; she was dressed for ravishing, dressed to be used and abused. ‘Nell, listen to me …’ He drew nearer, his lust a third party, a separate beast, in the room. ‘Look at you,’ he repeated, ‘you’re all undone. Such mixtures, a potion no English chemist could concoct. But there’s still a way to stop all this. Put it right, back to normal – a good old English normal.’ His hand was upon her cheek, first one then the other; his fingers were between her breasts like a parent tickling an infant’s chin. He hoisted her rag of a dress all the way to her waist. He pressed himself against her, he kissed her neck, her throat, he licked her Adam’s apple, almost trapped it between his teeth. His breath was not the foetor she’d expected – was it that which stopped her screaming? ‘There’s time yet to reconsider. Do as I wish, Nell,’ he continued, ‘and we’ll forget all about this. All your secrets can be safe, even this one. Refuse me, and you’ll see what harm I can do.’
‘Unhand me, sir. You have left your dirty prints all over me.’
‘Coloured like that, you’ve forfeited the right to be treated as a lady,’ he said, pushing her aside at last.
‘I was never a lady, I know that now.’
‘And I was never a gent. But you refuse me still?’
‘Yes I refuse you. And I’ve saved myself from a fate worse than death.’
‘You think you can defeat me?’ His laugh was cruel, like the April wind blowing against the lattice.
‘One day I shall. But at a time of my own choosing. For now my loathing will suffice. I shall keep my dignity after all.’
‘Then so be it. We’ll see what your father has to say.’ His mood was bad when he left him, he said, and she’d be sure to make it worse. He took her by the waist and by the arm, by the neck and by the hair – any how he could to keep his grip and drag her next door.
‘Sir George, I give you your daughter,’ he said, throwing open his study door and nudging Nell forward.
The baronet was slumped upon a chair in the middle of the room, without shoes or stockings. His grey hair hung thin and lifeless; a long clay pipe poked out between his pensive lips. Its bowl wasn’t lit but he didn’t seem to care. The onion bottle resting in his lap almost empty was the cause.
‘Olushegan?’ His eyes had goggled in shocked surprise. He rose unsteadily with the bottle in his hand. ‘What’s the meaning of this?’ he said, when he’d gathered his wits but stood there swaying. ‘Must I suffer more?’
‘Tell him, Nell, what I tried my best to save him from,’ said Vine, now standing at her side.
‘Does my guise not speak for itself? My colour also?’
Her father fought question with question: ‘Have you lost your senses? – are you mad? – shall I ask Archie here to draw up a bill of lunacy?’
‘I have my wits, Father, all of them.’
‘Mark you use them then!’ he railed, as the bottle swung wildly in his hand.
‘She’d have used them against you, Sir George, no doubt about it,’ said Vine. ‘Consider what she meant to do if she got the chance.’ He proceeded to tell him all that she’d planned if the banquet and Lord Bute’s visit had gone ahead. All this he’d prised from Betty, right down to the message on her homespun placard. Sir George’s face had turned a blood-drained grey. The grey whitened to a ghastly pale when he’d heard of the witchery with Olu, how Vine had lingered on the vicarage stairs that day and learned about the curse. ‘Think what else she might have used against you one day,’ he said, rescuing the bottle that dangled by its squat neck. Without decorum he drained what was left and plugged in the cork he’d gathered from the floor.
‘I knew about their playing with fire,’ said Sir George, seeking his chair again like a man twice his age. ‘You kept this detail from me, Archie!’ he added, with a sudden angry turn.
‘For your own good, sir,’ said Vine. ‘For her good too. I thought to work on her in the meantime, make her a better daughter and save you both from disgrace. Look what I got for my pains. And the poor Reverend dead. I underestimated the other one’s power and for that I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t distress yourself, you’re not to blame. And I know you acted in my best interest.’ He pressed his hands to his face. ‘But what must I do with her – my own wayward daughter? Her letters and speeches weren’t enough. She has crossed me again when I’d given her fair warning.’
‘Sleep on it, sir, don’t make a rash decision you’ll wake to regret.’ But what Vine really meant was do something that your pride won’t allow you to regret.
Sir George had fallen into his trap. ‘You think me headstrong, sir? – you think I can’t reach a decision and stick by it? How I feel right now is how I shall feel tomorrow and the weeks and months after that. Aye, and the years! From this moment on, I wash my hands of my daughter. I’m done with her, do you hear?’
‘Yes sir, I hear,’ said Vine, a bubble of saliva all that escaped of his gloating. Nell realised at once that he’d wanted it to end this way. Now that she’d spurned him he’d changed his strategy to a different tack; she was more use to him lost for good.
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