WAITING FOR THEM patiently in the one good chair of the room was Joe. He looked at Nell, threw a quick glance at Olu and the sleeping Robert on the floor, and turned his gaze back.
‘Joe…’ was all Nell could manage.
‘Hello, sis,’ he said, knocking his hat to the floor in his eagerness to rise. ‘I hope the shock won’t kill you. I’m no ghost, though I think you might be.’
They met in a tight embrace that brought her the feel of him, warm and welcome. She pulled free only to kiss his cheeks, his neck, his throat, more like a lover than a sister. How she’d missed his familiar smell, made better not worse by the crisp London air and the brandy he’d used to fortify himself.
‘I needed courage to come, but come I must,’ he said when they’d got their breath and he was looking round the room. ‘You live here? – like this? You live here too Olu? And poor Mister Strong who sleeps like the dead?’
‘Robert has a fever,’ Nell said more sternly than she’d meant.
‘Your pardon, sis, I make no judgements,’ he said timidly as he retrieved his hat. The fine cut of his clothes, his scent and deportment, every inch the gentleman, all of it forgotten – almost. His place in Nell’s heart was there still, and that’s why she was crying.
‘Sit down, Joe,’ she said, seeing him standing so awkwardly, clutching his hat before him as if to hide his nakedness.
Olu busied herself with the fire, which needed kindling. He watched her, uneasy in her presence as always but with a fondness that was new and surprising. ‘The room is large, you have only the one fire to heat it,’ said Joe, to be saying something. ‘At home – remember, sis? – when we wanted fire in one room we’d get the servants to take some on a shovel from the fire already burning next door.’
‘I don’t live that way any more. There are no servants here.’ She was remembering Betty, however, and would ask after her when the time was right.
‘No, no of course not. Matters have changed – considerably. In all respects. Some that you couldn’t know. Sis, I’m here on a number of accounts …’
‘January – the winter season. Father is here too no doubt?’ She had said this more easily than she felt it.
‘No, Father is not here…’ – he glanced at the chair he’d vacated – ‘….please, may I sit down as before?’
‘As you wish,’ she said formally, and saw the hurt in his eyes. He wanted her to sit beside him, but she kept her distance at the other side of the hearthstone. News of her father had done it, that he’d stayed away and Joe had come alone.
More nervousness on Joe’s part, more need of diversion. ‘Not so very ill I hope?’ he asked with another glance at Robert. ‘His complexion isn’t good.’ He shifted back in his chair a little, as if he feared the cause.
‘He have a fever, nothing more,’ said Olu, working the bellows as she crouched on the floor. ‘He will live. I will see to it.’
‘I’m glad to hear it, for sure,’ said Joe, stroking his hat again which rested on his knees. Nell wondered about the monkey he used to have, how well it would have served him for distraction. The hat had to serve instead, just the hat; he twirled it on one knee and then the other; he raised it chest-high and let it fall again into his lap. Next he turned to his cuffs, picking at the lace, and when he’d done there he picked at his cravat.
‘Please speak your mind, Joe,’ Nell said when he’d started to sniff. ‘And you may say it all before Olu. I think you know that we have no secrets.’
He was staring at each of them warily now, recalling perhaps what he’d seen in Church that day when Mortimer had preached his last. And yet there was kindness still in his tangled look, a sense of injustice and perplexed regard. ‘I heard she’d come back to you. One hears things, you know, and not always in the order they happen. Sometimes you hear a good deal of things all at once. I had no news of you for months, sis, it was as if you had died and all I could hope for was that ghost I mentioned earlier. And then the floodgates opened, I had a deluge to consider.’
‘Your brother speaks in riddles,’ said Olu, watching the jagged flames leap and dance.
‘If I do, I have my reasons,’ he replied. ‘Sis, there is so much to say I hardly know where to begin.’ He decided to stand; it was less painful to stroll about the room, his heavy top-boots making the boards creak. Now and then he would stop and sigh, stroke his hat and resume his prowling.
‘Say it, Joe, say what you’ve come to say,’ said Nell, throwing out a hand for him to clasp. ‘There can be little now that can harm me.’
‘Yes, sis, I expect you’re right,’ he said, halting so close to Robert he nearly pinned his ear to the floor. ‘Very well, it’s Father. There’s been a change there I should say. Quite remarkable in some ways. But he’s proud still, so proud.’ He went on to say that Nell’s leaving had affected him greatly. At first there was little change, just a deepening of his scowl, a lengthening of silence when dark thoughts lingered longer than usual. Gradually, however, as the weeks passed he took more to his room, first on an evening and then during the day, stirring less till he never stirred at all. HehEHe had lost his head for business, his inclination for life in any form. All was left, Joe added with spiteful emphasis, in the capable hands of Mr Vine. ‘That man runs things up there now, sis, not Father, who’s a mere shadow of his former self. No longer is Vine just land steward and personal attorney, but manager of all he surveys.’
‘You said manager as you might say owner.’
‘It’s almost come to that,’ he said between sniffs. ‘He holds the purse-strings, hires and fires, frightens like thunder, more than Father ever did. Your lady’s-maid Betty, who had some pluck – and sends you her warmest regards – even she scatters like a mouse when he walks through the door.’
‘And he frightens you,’ Nell said low but meaningful.
Joe hung his head. ‘Yes, sis, and he frightens me. He says I’m to sail for the Indies come the spring. Nothing has changed there I’m afraid.’
‘He says? – he says?’ for she felt her blood boiling, scalding her heckles as they rose.
‘It’s as I say, sis, he controls everything. I won’t say there are no advantages,’ he added coyly. ‘The marriage match between Father and Caroline for instance. If it wasn’t off before, it certainly is now. Mister Vine has seen to that. It’s dead and buried I’m sorry to say. Well no, that’s just it – I’m not sorry, as you can guess. If I survive this Indies business, as I intend to do, then I’ll come back and wed her. She’s agreed, and I’m sure her father can be won round again when I’ve plucked up the nerve to ask.’
‘You talk about survival out there in the Indies,’ said Olu, looking up sharply. ‘Mister Vine will see to it that you don’t survive. He aims to have everything for himself. Don’t you see? – he planned it this way all along. You’re as good as dead and buried.’
‘Now look here,’ said Joe rattled, ‘there’s no call to damn a fellow prematurely. Why all this gloom for my future? I shall do my stint and come home.’
‘She speaks the truth, Joe, and you know it. You will not come home, and even if you do there’ll be nothing to come home to. There is a viper in the nest.’
‘Then who is there to stop him?’
‘Oh no, you can’t think …’ for he was looking at Nell forlorn and desperate, his hat on the floor again.
‘If only you could be reconciled with Father, I’m sure we could win the day. I’ve heard him in his chamber of an evening, it’s making him ill because he’s so proud. Proud as an oak tree that won’t be cut down. But he’s sent me sis, me – can you believe it? – to find you on his behalf. He’d have sent me before, or come himself if he’d known where to look.’
‘How did you know where to look?’
‘A single letter, sis. But there were more, a lot more. I’ve just come from Mister Sharp, for he it was who wrote it – them – in his inimitable hand.’
‘I know, he told me.’
‘But did he tell you how many? Sixteen in all over a period of eight months, but Father and I saw only the one. I think you can guess who had the others. This one came into my hands only by chance. I met the frozen post-boy on the Leeds road and took it from him to save him a journey. Otherwise it would have gone the way of the rest. I took it straight to Father. I read it to him as bid and saw his tears. He was battling with himself, sis, fighting his will like George fought the dragon. He couldn’t quite kill the beast but he could quieten it, say a few words from the heart and out of ear-shot of the man who works him like a puppet. I was to find you, sis, and bring you home. You too, Olu – he’s asked to see you.’
‘Why me?’ she asked, turning from the fire. ‘The man sent me away.’
‘It’s your forgiveness he seeks. He knows you are here together again, the letter made that clear.’ Olu’s face was stony; Nell wished for better though she had no right. ‘I shall write him immediately,’ continued Joe, ‘to say the first half of my task is done – I have found you both safe and well. I shall write to him again, hard on that letter’s heels, should you see fit to grant his wish. I don’t expect you to make a decision now, this minute. You’ll need time to think, of course.’
‘Dear Joe,’ Nell said rushing to take his hand.
‘I never asked, but I expect he’s sorry for him too,’ he said looking down at Robert, his fever breaking at last.
‘And so he should be,’ said Olu, moistening her patient’s lips with some water from a cup.
‘Yes, well, it’s as I say,’ said Joe, his awkwardness resumed, ‘he’s sorry for so much. Who knows, he may even be sorry for me?’ Poor Joe, he’d intruded long enough, he said, and would call again tomorrow. Should they need him in the meantime, he was to be found at the Mitre Tavern in Fleet Street gathering his thoughts. And gathering his hat with a trifle more confidence he bid them adieu and left.
Nell listened to his footfall on the rickety stairs, heard the door bang below, drowned by habitual noises. Clearest of all was the baby crying in the room across the landing. It wasn’t that the noise was new, only that she listened in a new way. The cry went beyond a solitary infant’s voice; it was the cry of the oppressed poor, black and white, throughout the London, throughout Britain, throughout the world and through all time. But what of it when blood was thicker than water, when only blood mattered? as her father would say. She’d thought herself beyond his narrow view of life, believed herself part of a single human kind. It wasn’t quite so; like it or not, he had helped to make her what she was, what she had always been and always would be – the sum total of all her past, good and bad.
‘You are deep in thought,’ said Olu. ‘You struggle with yourself. I understand your struggle. It’s my struggle now.’
‘And mine,’ said the feeble-voiced Robert not to be left out.
‘You will go back I know,’ Olu said simply. ‘There’s nothing to discuss. You might have told him so before he left.’
‘Is it so easy?’
‘You know it is. And yes, before you ask, I shall go with you. I will ask the old dog what he means by begging my forgiveness.’ There was a smile on her lips, which ran to Nell’s and made them smile in turn.
‘Old dog he might be,’ she said, ‘but there’s a new dog running things now. We both know that dog’s name.’
‘Every dog have its day but no dog have it forever,’ she assured her.
‘But how will we end his day? Who is there to fight him? You said yourself your powers are useless where he’s concerned.’
She drew close and took Nell’s hand. ‘Do you love me, Nell? I see your face and I think you do.’
‘You know I love you.’
‘How do you love me?’
‘I don’t know, does it matter?’ Truth was, she really didn’t know.
‘Perhaps not. But love is strong Nell, as strong as hate, as I tried to prove this morning. That Mister Vine, he full of hate, just like Colonel Jenkins. We fight his hate – we fight all hate – with love. Love can shame, love can weaken, love can break down walls. I have heard you say so to many others. And I believe it because you speak from the heart, poor as nature made you.’ She was quoting Nell’s words now, which Nell knew to be false. She was a cheat, a charlatan – why couldn’t she see through her? – had her own magic really worked so well?
My new novel is available on Amazon:
Eagle and the Lady-Killer, sequel to An Uncommon Attorney, http://tinyurl.com/h9tqhp2