THAT NELL WAS PERVERSE by nature, spent too much time arguing black was white and white was black, was hard for Joe to understand. ‘Black is black, and white is white,’ he said more for Robert’s benefit than hers: he wanted an ally, and Robert, as they sat together that evening in Joe’s room at the tavern, seemed just that. Some of his strength had returned. He’d drunk his beef tea with relish, and eaten his share of a good mutton dinner, all at Joe’s expense. He was enjoying his port, an excellent vintage, said Joe, who claimed to know about such things. Both men were drinking quickly, drinking more than was good for them. Their characters worsened with every gulp, releasing the man each secretly wished to be.
‘Nell, you’ll notice, drinks nothing,’ said Joe, his feet on the table and his stockings rolled down like the tired young rake in Hogarth’s painting. Something in his posture marked his preference, as if a decadent figure was worth cutting should he ever get the chance. ‘Perhaps it’s the colour she doesn’t like – reminds her of the blood of murdered Negroes. Am I right there, sis?’
‘It’s nothing to do with the colour. I prefer the reality that sobriety brings. It makes me think better. We should be out there searching still. Time may not be on our side.’
‘No more tonight, sis,’ Joe said wearily, ‘I feel like getting drunk.’
‘You are drunk. You too Robert are not so far behind.’
‘Damn it all, sis, you’d deny us a little pleasure of an evening? I’ve tramped the streets all day looking for that girl of yours, I’m entitled to some rest before it starts all over again.’
‘So you will look again, on the morrow?’ Robert asked.
‘Of course – what choice do I have? If she wills it, I’ll do it.’
‘You know, Joe, you’re more Father’s son than you realise. He’d be proud to see you now, dissolute, incorrigible, caring only for yourself.’
‘Sis, have pity,’ he called, affecting a wounded heart while all the time purring satisfied. ‘And pity our poor father, he knows not his own mind any more.’ There was a triumph in his tone, a certain gloating.
‘I do pity him,’ she said, ‘from the bottom of my heart. But I see how it is with you, you feel the game is almost won, that the worst is over.’
‘I most certainly do not! You forget what I must endure.’
Robert, more addled than a minute ago, asked, ‘What must you endure exactly?’
‘That’s my affair, not yours,’ Joe answered condescendingly. ‘Don’t get above yourself, you are only a tutor. An ex-tutor at that.’
‘My apologies, I’m sure.’
‘Did I detect some sarcasm there?’ Joe asked, leaning his way drunkenly. ‘I won’t tolerate it, you know, I won’t be mocked, not by you, not by anyone. Not tonight, anyway. Why can’t I be perverse for once? She’s like it all the time,’ he said, spilling his drink as he gestured with his glass. ‘Living as you’ve lived, you know, it really isn’t the done thing.’
‘If you think …’
‘Oh yes, there’s that too!’ he said, as Robert coughed and looked away. ‘I wasn’t thinking of it just then but I might – soon. I should, if I’m a good brother, who minds how his sister lives.’ He turned to her, eyes glazed and watery. ‘I hear you lived by plying your needle, didn’t you loathe the work?’
‘Of course I loathed it. But I had no choice.’
‘No, don’t suppose you did.’ He was gaping dreamily now at a portrait on the wall. The sitter was young and female from a hundred years before, her flaxen hair curled in tight ringlets over a broad white collar. Joe’s face, as he stared, was a picture of lust. It was the first time on her brother’s face that she’d noticed such a look.
‘You find that face appealing?’
‘Yes, why shouldn’t I? And I’ve enough money in my pockets to go and find myself one just like it. Perhaps Robert would like to join me? I’ve heard the Rose Tavern in Covent Garden is the place to be. If I put the word out maybe I could get a pair of doxies to come here to my room.’
Robert hid his face in his glass. ‘Is that so Robert?’ Nell asked him. ‘Would you like to find yourself a doxy? Both you and my brother must be starved in such matters.’
‘Please Nell, you mustn’t speak like that,’ Robert answered, his face averted still.
‘Yes, why not?’ added Joe, almost falling from the couch as he bent to fill his glass. ‘Stands to reason, he being male and all, that he’ll want his needs appeasing. Come man, at least say that you’re tempted – that your breeches are swelling at the prospect.’
‘And what of me?’ Nell asked. ‘It would seem that my brother here is out to debase me. Has he been taking lessons from Mister Vine?’
‘Now look here, sis,’ said Joe colouring.
‘No, you look here – and see how you’re behaving!’
He fell silent for a space, contending with himself. ‘But has he? – has Vine debased you?’ he asked at length. He looked suddenly sobered, cut by his own cowardly conscience. ‘Please, sis, answer me. You must.’
‘What difference would it make if he had? What would you care to do about it?’
He sat up abruptly and tried to put his glass on the table, knocking it over so it thudded and rolled on the carpet. ‘Sis, forgive me, I should have known better.’
‘Not at all, quite the contrary. You needed to be yourself for a while. I understand. I’d like to be myself all the time. I’m sure it’s the same for you.’
‘I struggle with who I am, sis, you know I do. I’ve no secrets from you, none worthwhile.’
‘I think that I too struggle with something,’ said Robert, sipping his drink ashamed. ‘I felt it in the air just now, something bad yet deeply attractive. Irresistible – what? You had the power to take me where you wanted. I’d have gone willingly – sir – should I call you sir?’
Joe dismissed him with a languid wave. ‘No matter, call me what you will,’ though his face said otherwise, that he liked this owning of his power. Nell saw it in his eyes, how he fought his enjoyment with false modesty and remorse. ‘I wouldn’t really have sent for those doxies. Least I don’t suppose I would,’ he said, the enjoyment winning hands down.
‘You almost did,’ she said. ‘It was what you wanted. Send for them still, see if I care.’
‘Sis, you should care!’
‘I should care about a lot of things. There are things you presume I care about but I don’t. Least not so much as you think. I care only on my own terms.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Send for those girls, lay with them right in front of me. I might even help with proceedings. Wouldn’t you like that? All five of us tumbling together like Romans of old?’
‘I feel sick,’ said Robert, his face white as he rose and lumbered to the wall. He stood there leaning against the flower-patterned paper, stroking the embossed petals and stems. ‘She’s quite a creature, your sister. I haven’t the measure of her, and that’s plain.’
‘Me neither,’ said Joe defeated. ‘It was always thus and always thus shall be. A man reaps what he sows. I brought us to this low point, I take full responsibility. I too feel nauseous.’
‘Liar. You feel tempted. Still.’ She had her hooks in him and wouldn’t let go; when it came to perversity she was queen. ‘Remember what you said that day when you thought of Father with Caroline? Yes, you remember. How would it please you if I lay with Robert right now before your eyes? All I need do is click my seducing fingers.’
‘No, please stop this,’ cried Robert. ‘See what you’ve done?’ he called to Joe. ‘You’ve unleashed her devil – it’s never far away.’
It was unleashed and Nell was glad. It hadn’t seen daylight for weeks. They’d done it, summoned it; it was their fault not hers. She unbuttoned her bodice, not too slowly either. She lifted her dress and showed the flesh above her gartered hose. ‘Look what you can have, Robert, look! I’m such a fine lump of feminine meat.’
‘Stop it, you’re disgusting!’ shouted Joe, on his feet now striding towards her. ‘You must keep yourself covered, for shame, sis, for shame!’ He had her in his arms pinioned tight. Her hand broke free, ready to grab him where it hurt when …
‘Listen!’ called Robert. ‘The door!’ His relief was plain, he was gasping from it but not for long; he was growing frightened.
The knock came again, firm and resolute. ‘Not whores, surely,’ said Joe, attending to his hair, sweat-soaked and tangled. ‘We must compose ourselves. Whoever’s behind that door is devilishly insistent,’ he added, as the knock repeated. He crossed the floor in two phases, the first fast and headlong, the second slow and measured. ‘Who can it be?’ he muttered. ‘Better find out I suppose.’ He wiped his fretted brow and opened the door.
My latest novel is available on Amazon:
Eagle and the Lady-Killer, sequel to An Uncommon Attorney, http://tinyurl.com/h9tqhp2