NELL’S CHOICE WAS the Hope Tavern for obvious reasons. To impress Olu further was the aim and keep her pledge intact. It was hard to believe she was here, harder still to believe she’d stay.
‘You have come here before,’ Olu said with admiration as they walked through the door. ‘I hear all about it,’ she added, and a coded glance passed between her and the landlord, who acknowledged Nell with a wary smile. Olu signalled their hunger by rubbing her belly, an act of dumbshow which, like the glance, was instantly understood. Nell on the other hand spoke their need, and remembered to ask for ale not gin.
‘Yes, I have ale now and I have wine.’ The landlord clenched his fists jokingly. ‘Gin makes the lady fight.’
‘It’s too early for drunken watermen,’ said Nell, with a glance round the empty room.
‘Too early or too late, it’s all the same since your last visit,’ he said, going to fetch their order.
‘What he means is, they’ve not been back,’ said Olu, walking to the table of her choice. ‘No more white faces till yours walk in just now.’
‘Then I’ve changed nothing,’ said Nell, as they took their seats in the corner.
‘You may have changed everything,’ said Olu. ‘It’s too early to tell.’
They talked of the past and what the future might hold. These were personal points, not the grand strategy of fighting slavery. Uppermost in Nell’s mind was Olu’s time alone, and of this she spoke frankly – but not as frankly as Nell would have liked. ‘That night when you ran away …’ Nell began till Olu’s finger at her lips stayed her. Its touch was just as she remembered, firm yet intimate, an illicit pleasure and a fearful delight.
‘I didn’t run away,’ she said, ‘it’s your mistake to think so.’
‘But surely,’ said Robert, ‘the fact that my brother helped you.’
‘Yes, he helped me get away but that don’t mean I was trying to escape.’ The emptiness of the tavern made her voice echo till she’d lowered its pitch. Her history grew strange indeed as they listened to the rest. She’d been summoned by Nell’s father the night of the ball and told to go. It was time, he’d said, to leave his life forever. No explanation was offered other than his mistake in bringing her to England in the first place. He accepted some blame there, not much, not sufficient to alter what he was about to do: send her forth in the world with little else than the clothes she stood in. But as she’d reached the door, too proud to question his motives, he’d called her to stop. From his desk he’d taken out a purse of money and this, rather than tossing with contempt, he’d risen to place in her hand. ‘There’s enough there to keep you from want,’ he’d said, closing her palm gently round the chinking bundle. ‘I feel I owe you at least that.’ She’d asked if she might say goodbye to his daughter but his eyes had flashed refusal. She was to go that minute, and never darken his door again. As to where she might go (London) he had more than an inkling; as to how he had definite knowledge, or so he thought. Vine was entrusted with the task of conveying her beyond the confines of the estate, beyond the county boundary if needs be, but that wouldn’t be necessary. The London coach would be passing at ten o’clock that evening.
Robert resumed where he’d left off: ‘But Vine didn’t do his job, did he Olu? – or else why should my brother be the one to find you?’
‘I don’t wish to say any more,’ she said, sipping her ale – which seemed to Nell such a comical sight. She wanted to ask her how she liked their English ale but the news she had not finished telling nagged and gnawed. Paramount was the false part her father had played. Why had he done what he’d done? What harm was Olu doing? – other than practising her black arts!
‘Is it a case of not wishing or not wanting?’ she asked gently. ‘There is a difference.’
‘No need to tell you the rest, unless we return to Belle Isle together. If that happens I will tell you all.’
‘Is that a promise?’ Nell asked, prepared to compromise for one reason alone – she wanted to believe they would return. She had a destiny to face, and she wanted Olu at her side.
‘It’s a promise. Should I ever have to face my demon, we will face it together. It’s your demon too I think.’
And now a second compromise, hard on the heels of the first. This was born of fear, fear of the truth. ‘Yes, it’s mine too,’ Nell said, hoping it was the odious steward she’d meant and not her father. Or even the two of them in league.
‘It’s not easy to drink to the past,’ said Robert, fingering his chin in thought. ‘Not this past. The present is worth drinking to but the present keeps moving on – no? So that just leaves the future – will you join me, ladies, in homage to a long, prosperous and mutually happy one?’
They clinked their mugs too eagerly, for there was spillage all round. What worried Nell more than the spillage itself was the colour and richness of the liquor. The landlord in his error had brought wine instead of ale, and its colour was red as blood.
My new novel is available on Amazon:
Eagle and the Lady-Killer, sequel to An Uncommon Attorney, http://tinyurl.com/h9tqhp2