WHAT CAME TO PASS next morning was exactly what Vine had wished. Sir George, nursing a headache on a damp and overcast day, was implacable. Nothing was changed; she’d pushed him too far, and all her chances were gone. She was to leave forthwith –disinherited, impoverished, and banished from the family home.
‘Please, Father, won’t you reconsider?’ Joe pleaded in the hall as Nell waited with her bags watching the rain lash the windows.
‘I’ve said all that I’m going to say,’ he said, standing with his legs apart and his hands on his hips. His feet bestrode the chequered tiles, placed firmly on the white and not the black. ‘The London coach passes within the hour. Pray see that she’s on it.’
‘But she’s your daughter!’ Joe did his best to say. His throat was dry from the stand he was taking. He loosened his cravat and leaned against the marble balustrade. He was sniffing so hard Nell thought he would swoon.
‘No daughter who calls herself such would behave as she has done. She has broken her promise to her father, is there anything worse?’
‘Yes,’ Nell said to damn herself, ‘there is murder that goes unpunished.’
‘You see – she would have me tried and convicted if she could. And for what? – for something less cruel than hunting the fox.’ His new servant, Kit, was in earshot and couldn’t hide his fear. Sir George knew this and tempered his words with a rare compassion. ‘But if it’s any consolation, I didn’t intend his death. I was angry, more than you could know. Not that I should be made to regret it. Certainly not lose any sleep – and I have by Jove!’
‘How can you speak so lightly? Hector was a human being, he was my friend!’
‘Go and live with his kind then. Go to your beloved Olu, I’m sure she’ll welcome you with open arms.’
‘No, Father, she will not. She has her freedom now and with it her pride. I’m not worthy of her. She’s as good as told me so.’
‘Not worthy of her? I think you are mad. It’s a wonder you’ve washed off the black and put on your normal clothes. You may starve on the streets for all I care.’
‘I have too much pride for that.’ He saw it in her posture, how she stood with her own legs apart, choosing a pair of black tiles to counter his white. Their poses were like the pieces in a human chess game.
‘If she begs, Father, would you change your mind?’ pleaded Joe anew. ‘If she went down on her knees, the ones you said were pretty when she was a child. And she’s still a child, if she were only to beg …’
‘She will not beg. And it would do her no good if she did. My mind is made up. I never change it, as I said last night.’
‘May you be happy in the life you’ve chosen,’ Nell told him. ‘I see in your face what little good it does you. Your heart is twisted, Father. I pity you.’
‘See how she insults me yet?’ His hands were at his sides, behind his back, on his hips again but not for long: it was as if his skin were too hot to touch. ‘Go – now!’ he commanded. ‘Darken my door no longer. I shall never look upon your face again.’
‘Kiss me Joe,’ she said, fighting back the tears as her father strode away. ‘Till we meet again – and I promise we will.’
‘How can you be so sure? Oh sis, what’s to become of you?’
She forced a smile. ‘I shall make my way in the world, just you see. I shall become famous or die in the process.’
‘Come, I’ll see you to the carriage,’ he sad sadly. ‘Even Father won’t deny you that.’
‘And I know why. A carriage will rid him of me quicker than walking,’ she said as they went out into the rain. The vehicle stood waiting and Kit sat drenched up top. There was no sign of Betty and Nell’s heart sank as she climbed into the cab. She wished to forgive her and say goodbye. ‘Joe?’
‘You wish for Betty, I know. And here she is, reading your mind,’ he said, as she ran from the house with a coat over her head to keep it dry.
‘Oh Miss, you can’t go like this!’ she cried, when Nell had lowered the window. ‘I’m sorry for telling, truly I am, but he made me’
‘It’s all right Betty, I know.’
‘No it’s not all right. Look at you, you’re more penniless than me!’ She held out her wooden money box and told Nell to take it. It was no use to her now, though she knew how much she’d miss it, and was not likely to get so much again no matter how hard she saved, and it really would be the greatest sacrifice she could make …
‘Shush Betty, I’ll hear no more about it. You must keep your money for your own future.’
‘What future is there, Miss, without you?’
‘I’ve nothing to offer you any more. You should stay here Betty and make of your life what you can.’
‘But do you forgive me, Miss? Please say you do, I couldn’t bear you leaving me under a cloud, and just look at those clouds! – see how it rains! Oh Miss, you’re going to be drowned!’
‘Of course I forgive you, and will think of you often. And when I write to Joe I shall put a line in for you. Now goodbye Betty, you must be strong.’
‘Here, sis, take this,’ said Joe, folding her hand round a small leather purse. ‘It’s not much but it’ll tide you over for a while.’
‘Thank you Joe, but you too have your way to make in the world. I know you will stay with him despite everything.’
‘Don’t be hard on me, sis. I don’t have your strength,’ he said, a slick of raindrops running down his handsome cheek. ‘I can’t be Father and I can’t be you. I can only be me. I’m not proud of what I am. I’m weak, sis, and I’m sorry for it. I must be full of Mother.’
The carriage lurched forward, driven by the sodden Kit. She clasped both Joe’s hands as he walked alongside the machine. ‘Being full of our mother is nothing to be ashamed of,’ she said. ‘There’d be less pain in the world if all men were like you.’ But what if all women were like me? she couldn’t help thinking.
She squeezed his hands tighter, and kissed him farewell. There were tears mingled with the rain and, when he stood waving as the carriage pulled away, the tears were winning hands down. Not even Betty was beating him there, no matter that her shoulders twitched and her whole body convulsed. Only two men were tearless, and only one of them was visible, watchful as ever. He was upstairs, dry, looking out the window, toasting her departure with a glass of something strong. It’s not my house yet, she could hear him thinking, but that day will come.
Soon they were gone from sight, down the carriage drive, through the gates and past the tumbledown houses of the village till there was only the wet landscape of field and tree and moor. Just once before, the day of Olu’s baptism, had she seen it so drab, so much like a watery grave. All was gloomy and grey; everything hunched, bowed or flattened. Kit drew up at the fingerpost on the Halifax Road. It was a windswept lonely spot, close by the gallows where the two young highwaymen hung in chains. Nell knew they’d been tried, knew they’d been executed the very next day. What she hadn’t known – or refused to know – was where their bodies were displayed – here at the crossroads, where most of their robbing was done. And where Olu had talked of escape – just there, beside the humpbacked milestone where Nell alighted from the carriage. She turned up her collar against the cold. To her left the boggy road stretched away, black and narrow towards London, which attracted and repelled in the same measure. Just like those bodies gently swaying, never quite still.
‘Big coach not long now,’ Kit said miserably through the dim light. ‘You like me to wait, yes?’ he added without zest. ‘Stay dry in carriage till big coach come?’
She guessed the corpses were bothering him; he was restless with the spell he believed they’d cast. He wasn’t like the local people who came to touch and stroke, hoping for a cure for this, an easement of pain from that. They even held up their infants for a healing kiss, or as a charm against evil, never mind the evil done in the name of justice. It was hard to believe the pair deserved their fate. They’d robbed and wounded but they hadn’t killed – those were her father’s words at the trial, so out of character, so different from what she’d expected. He’d argued for clemency and it didn’t make sense. And it didn’t help her to hate him. She shouldn’t be missing him already, she shouldn’t be trying to excuse. But she was, she was thinking of his kindness to Lady Needles that night, thinking of his childhood, hard, rigid, cruel, hostile to male gentleness. It was to his credit he had any left at all, even a crumb. She looked at Kit, whom he’d seemed to shelter from the blood he’d shed in London. Another kind gesture she could do without.
Kit, for his part, had other things on his mind – the dead highwaymen. The wind whistled through the cages that fastened them; like grotesque children they swung in a hellish moment of play. Yet like any other fear, they must be faced head on. Their severity must be limited, lessened, converted into pleasure if that would do the trick. She fixed her gaze on their crow-picked sockets, their heads wry-necked by the noose, the strands of hair flattened against the hard stiff flesh that clung to the skull. Ham’s curse was upon them dead, for these were white men turned black by the pickling process their bodies had endured. She walked over and stood beneath them, she wasn’t sure why. Just inches away their corpses swayed in the breeze; she could see the undersides of their jutting chins, the rippled heels of their leathery feet. They looked pickled indeed, giant gurkins with giant walnuts for heads
‘Miss, don’t!’ cried Kit as she reached up to touch one.
‘It’s for luck!’ she called back. ‘When a man’s luck has turned this bad, it’s high time it changed for the better. They won’t be needing it where they’ve gone. Besides,’ she said, remembering Olu’s words, ‘I have a feeling that the dead can’t hurt us. Only the living can do that.’
Kit’s horses had taken an ill turn; his fear was running down the reins to their haunches, flanks, and fetlocks caked in mud. His fear made their harnesses jangle. It made their straps creak and their hooves flash. They were kicking up their legs and tossing their manes, snuffling hard. The spindly wheels were lifting, the cab was rocking like a huge expensive cradle. And then, as if time had suddenly jumped, Nell saw a vision of the carriage turned on its side, a single wheel spinning madly in the night air. It was the second time such a vision had appeared. This time it seemed real, three-dimensional, and it stayed in view for several seconds on earth that was white with snow and, before it vanished, pointed at by the outstretched arms of the hanged men. Till time flew backwards just as abruptly and all became as before, the carriage upright but rocking violently, the horses whinnying between the shafts and the driver in despair. Still he wouldn’t leave without her command.
‘I’ll be all right!’ she called, more intrigued by the vision than frightened. Olu had schooled her well, taught her to see in a dozen different darks that stirred the current of her blood. ‘All will be well – go!’
He didn’t wait to be told twice. He cracked his whip and spun the carriage round the way they’d come. Nell was alone, with only the dead for company.
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