THE NEXT DAY, one of cold and sleet, Robert woke with a chill. His brow was hot and his speech was marred by delirium. ‘He’ll not be going anywhere today,’ said Olu, stroking his forehead and listening to his chest. His breathing was forced and irregular. ‘He must stay in his bed and keep warm. I will make something to ease his fever.’
‘Wait,’ he said, staying her hand as it reached for her bag. ‘You’re right, I’m sick, but in mind as much as body. Perhaps more – no? I heard what you said last night, every word.’
‘Robert! – you should have owned you were awake,’ said Nell embarrassed.
‘Never mind that now. I thought to hear her say it,’ he said to Olu, his grip on her hand tightening. ‘You should tell her about it, the secret of what you’ve been up to all these months. I feel ashamed that I knew and never said.’
‘You’re ill, Robert, lie still,’ said Olu, moistening the rag she’d taken from her pocket. Nell wanted to tell her that the bucket she’d dipped it in was the wrong one, that in the dark that still gloomed the air, she’d mistaken the piss bucket for their clean water.
‘Must have caught the colonel’s fever,’ he said, his hand closing again on hers as it dabbed his brow. ‘He says his doctor hasn’t been able to soothe him. I’d ask you to go to him if you hadn’t known him in another guise.’ His nostrils twitched as if he couldn’t stand the smell but presumed it was doing him good. ‘You do know him, don’t you Olu?’
‘I don’t understand,’ Nell intruded. ‘You know this Colonel Jenkins?’ Olu dropped her eyes guiltily. ‘Is he the secret Robert mentioned just now?’
‘This is bad fever,’ she said to distract her, leaning over and resting her ear to his febrile chest. She smelled the cloth now and realised her mistake. She discreetly re-soaked the rag, washing out the traces of piss. ‘The colonel’s just the same? – he have the same fever as you?’
Robert forced a nod with his aching head. ‘Why should you care? I doubt he even paid your accustomed rate.’
‘He paid, he enjoyed himself too much to skimp. And I enjoyed myself afterwards making him sick. I make them all sick, every last one.’ She looked at Nell. ‘All the others. I curse them for the pleasure they have and I not need magic to do it. A curse like that spreads so easy, like fire. And why shouldn’t I spread it? One of them infect me, I infect them all in my turn. So now you know why that man is bedridden and what true fever he has, a fever to go with all his puss and sores. I cured myself with my own remedies, but I’ll not cure him, why should I? Let him swallow his quicksilver that makes him suffer double, makes him heavy as lead. Makes him all one with his coffin to come.’
‘Olu, if you’re meaning what I think …’
‘Don’t! If you want to keep the peace between us, don’t! I’d forgiven you, till he opened up the wound.’ The dabbing now turned to slapping, and Robert’s jaws shook with a run of stinging blows. Again, as with the piss-soaked rag, he must have viewed it efficacious, as if she, not the patient, knew best.
‘Is that necessary?’ Nell asked, reminding her of his headache.
‘I’m sure it’s doing me good,’ said the naïve Robert, glad nonetheless when the gentle dabbing was resumed. ‘Olu, this is bad blood between you,’ he added, fighting his delirium, ‘you’ve got to let it out. And if you’ve got anything for this fever of mine, I’ll thank you to mix it up. I’m frightened.’
‘You’re always frightened,’ Nell snapped, more curious now on her own account than worried on his. ‘And you, Olu, must explain. If the fault be mine I need to know. Never mind if it strips the paint from the walls.’
‘Very well.’ Olu turned towards her briefly, one glance enough to accuse. A barrage of such looks, a prolonged stare, would have turned her to stone. ‘What’s to become of her? You remember that question? I do, I heard it often enough. I heard it from your maid, Betty, I heard it from Hector, I heard it from the Reverend and foul Mister Vine. I heard it from your brother, I heard it from yourself. I even heard it from you Robert,’ she said, stroking his head some more. ‘You ask it of each other, most of all you ask it of your father. You all ask it and no one answer. But I answer, I answer myself before it happen. To me the answer was obvious, with or without any wager, and I was only safe from its answer so long as you kept me under lock and key like a mad girl in a cobwebbed attic. Once I go out into the real world how must I earn my bread? You make it worse, not better. You give me fine way of talking, fine manners, fine expectations. But I’m black lady, not white, and have no family to help me. I must keep myself the only way I can.’
‘You became a whore,’ Nell said, owing her the bluntness.
‘Yes, I became a whore. Neither clothes nor money to make myself a quality one.’
‘You lost your virginity whoring,’ said Nell, her disgusted tone unintended.
‘Let’s just say I lose it,’ Olu said, turning back to her patient.
‘I’m in your hands, Olu,’ said Robert with his heavy-lidded eyes. ‘I trust you.’
‘You have no choice. You neither I think,’ as she held out her hand for Nell. ‘We are still friends, it’s what I want. I don’t come back here to end up as we were. What has been, has been.’ She began to busy herself with a mixture for Robert, a thinness of this, a thickness of that, a hissing, fizzing globule of something green Nell daren’t even question. ‘Drink,’ she said, supporting his head while she fed him the liquid. He coughed a little, but mostly just drank like an obedient child. ‘You’ll feel better soon,’ she said, though Nell found it hard to believe. ‘There’s nothing in your stomach but the goodness of the earth. I wouldn’t give you bad medicine.’
‘What about the colonel?’ asked Robert, when she’d laid his head down on the sweat-soaked pillow. ‘He is sick too, and I promised I would read to him today.’
‘I don’t like your Christian ways,’ Olu said. ‘All that Forgive them Lord, they know not what they do. All that turn the other cheek – where’s the sense in that? If trouble comes we know why it comes, and those that bring it should get their deserts.’
‘I never thought to call myself Christian,’ Robert said between coughs. ‘Never thought to call myself much at all. But the man looks bad – he might pay well for your services.’
‘I should let him die and make room for a better man,’ said Olu.
Robert managed a smile. ‘So speaks the fairer sex, the gentle sex.’
‘Perhaps you’re right,’ Olu conceded. ‘Perhaps because of Nell it is not so simple.’
‘Why me?’ asked Nell.
‘Because I hear what you preach, you speak a lot of sense on your tavern rounds. I hear what you say to black and white, that white should find the black inside it and black do the same for white. You mean it, I can tell.’ Had she really said that? Nell must have done but she couldn’t remember. Her words sounded alien, false, risible. Could Olu not see through her as she saw through herself? – the pretence, the downright lies, the means to an end that stood before her right now? Evidently not, and this was a truth that diminished Olu in some way, made her fallible and human, ordinary. Nell was disappointed; she wanted her always to be powerful, have one foot across the border in that remoter world. ‘Maybe it is time to start letting bygones be bygones,’ Olu said at the end, like a shark that had lost its teeth.
‘I never knew about his syphilis,’ said Robert, chewing on the shock in another lucid moment.
‘Well you know now. And you mustn’t look to me to cure that. I cure myself by chance and sheer effort of will.’
‘Can the two not go together?’ Nell asked, stretching her imagination – and why not? – a similar combination had brought back Olu into her life. ‘And if not, then let me ask about two things that don’t go together. You said you had just one choice to live by, yet you live now by another. Why not choose that one first? Why fall so low if you didn’t need to? – when you had your healing arts all along?’
The question rocked Olu unexpectedly.
‘Wait,’ said the gasping Robert wriggling on his back. ‘I think I can answer that, least I have an answer that makes sense …’
‘Hush! You think I need you to answer for me? Yes, I fall low, I sell myself when I not need to. Why do that? you ask. I tell you why – to spite others and to spite myself. And when I think I’ve had spite enough, when I’ve tired of it at last, I go from harming to healing. It’s like love and hate, Nell, there’s not much between them in the end.’ Who was speaking here, she or I? Nell thought with a tremor. She understood her exactly, how they were two of a kind when it came to breaking and mending, of mixing pleasure with pain.
‘Now if you wish me to treat your precious colonel I will go and treat him,’ Olu went on. ‘It will be worth it just to see the look on his face when he sees it is I who has come to give him physic. He was a strong-bodied man back then, he took me how he liked. Not any more – it’s my black face he have to look at now, not my black ass. To kill him by kindness, to kill him by shame – the pleasure in that is beyond words.’
‘Ah yes, well, this rather puts the man in a different light – what?’ Robert managed to say in his last wakeful seconds. The draught she’d given him was compounded by Morpheus; his eyes closed and off he drifted. This time his snoring was loud, sonorous, as if the mixture could alter character as well as break fevers. Mr Strong sounded stronger as he slept than they’d heard him sound awake; he sounded more of a man than he’d ever done. And by the time he woke, the same man or a different one, Olu and Nell would have met his colonel – together, not for reading, not for sex but for gentle healing. It sounded too good to be true.
My new novel is available on Amazon:
Eagle and the Lady-Killer, sequel to An Uncommon Attorney, http://tinyurl.com/h9tqhp2