IT WAS NOT YET ten when they knocked on the colonel’s door in the deepening snow. Answer was a long time coming, and it came in the shape of a white woman no more than thirty. ‘Where’s Caesar?’ Nell asked impatiently.
‘Out,’ she replied, ‘I know not where.’
‘And Colonel Jenkins?’
‘My employer is indisposed …’ was as far as the maid got. She tried to stop her but Nell pushed her aside and hurried up the stairs.
‘What do you want?’ asked the colonel in his sweat and anguish.
‘I think you know,’ she answered, seeing right through to his wizened heart.
‘Sir!’ cried his maid but it was no use; held fast in the doorway by the two men, she was unable to run for help. She threatened to scream till Joe mentioned the pistol at his belt. That there was no pistol didn’t matter; the threat sufficed.
‘I can’t help you,’ said the colonel, pulling the sheet up around his throat.
‘No? How is your – what shall we term it? – engine?’ Nell felt for his knee-cap beneath the linen, which was cleaner than before. ‘Still painful?’
His countenance reddened. ‘No, please, you wouldn’t,’ he said, feeling her encroaching paw. ‘I never meant for it to happen. I’d – grown grateful to your black friend. She has worked wonders down there, where a fire burned before…please take your hand away.’
‘Not till you tell me what I wish to know.’
‘I can’t …’
She squeezed and his screams were taken up by the maid till Joe slapped her to silence. His face when he’d done so showed an odd mix of pride and shame. ‘You wish me to hurt you again?’ Nell asked the crippled man.
His eyes were watering and his mouth was awry. Another squeeze would kill him, said his look, and how Nell wanted to do it. She felt like an evil milk-maid torturing a cow with full udder. ‘I want the whole story, not a drop missed,’ she said, squeezing harder.
‘Your father!’ he cried in agony.
‘What’s my father got to do with it? Speak,’ for her hand was ready a third time.
‘I’d written to him.’
‘I was hoping for a large reward – I told him you were here in London, your old tutor too. He didn’t want to know, wouldn’t pay a farthing.’
‘It’s not true, sis!’ called Joe. ‘Any letter this man sent never found him.’
‘That’s where you’re wrong,’ replied the colonel. ‘I have his answer beneath this mattress.’
Nell slid her hand where he’d pointed. She pulled out a bundle of letters, one of them marked with her father’s seal. But that’s where the likeness ended; the hand that had penned the curt note of refusal was not Sir George’s but Vine’s. The colonel’s face was grey with pain, his mouth was working but no sound came. Despite the coldness of the room his cheeks were burning hot. Nell poured him a glass of water from the pitcher at his bedside and held it to his cracked lips. ‘Now,’ she said, ‘you shall tell me the rest if you know what’s good for you. Don’t think I wouldn’t do it, raise your night-shirt and do for you properly.’
‘You should have been a man,’ he said, catching her eye. ‘You should have fought and done the dirty on our enemy, the French. Someone like you would have mutilated the wounded. You’d have cut their hands off and counted your kills.’
‘Yes,’ she couldn’t help saying, ‘I should have been a man. But about Olu …’
‘I am – grateful,’ he said weakly. ‘And I do feel some remorse. Death is near and I’m not the beast I was. Soon I shall meet my maker. I hope he’ll make the best of me.’
‘I doubt that very much,’ she said. ‘If there’s Heaven and Hell – and who’s to say there isn’t? – you’ll go down in the world not up.’
He laughed sardonically. ‘What a man you’d be.’
‘I want some information.’
‘And here was I thinking to make you sing for it.’
‘I’ll not sing but you might whine,’ she said, and again her hand was poised.
His breathing worsened; he coughed. Nell steadied him and administered more water to his parched throat. He nodded his thanks, his submission. ‘Very well. There was something planned, something afoot that you would call dastardly. But my part in it was over, I tell you. Your black girl put me on the road to recovery, the least I could do was leave her at liberty. Besides, the sum to be gained was a mere drop in the ocean given what debts I owe. And who knows? – I might have had to send for her again. And she’d have come, willingly and gratis, God knows why after what I did to her. No, I would have no part in the plans I’d helped to lay. Unfortunately someone else thought otherwise. Against my wishes he went ahead. Who knows what he’ll do now.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Don’t you? Well neither do I. He says he’s doing it for me.’
‘Blind loyalty,’ said Robert. ‘He’s like a dog trying to please its master. It’s the only life he knows.’
The colonel shrugged. ‘True or not, he can’t understand that this won’t please me any more, that it won’t win him any medals, let alone his freedom. He could take that for himself any time he liked but he won’t. His sort don’t want to be free.’ Suddenly his eyes grew heavy, and drowsiness like a dark flood drew him down on to his pillows.
‘I don’t like the look of him,’ Nell said. ‘If he dies on us now …’
He glanced wryly, a gallows humour in his fishy eyes. ‘I’ll not die yet, I’ve too much hate. Look at my face, young lady, the hate is written in every line, every blemish. Look at my teeth – aren’t they the perfect image of cruelty?’ He bared them, long, thin, cannibalistic. They matched his fingernails, which were equally long but brown not white, and curled at the ends like an ageing Mandarin. ‘Don’t say you excuse it because I won’t believe you.’
‘I don’t excuse it. I despise it.’
‘That’s better, you abhor me through and through, I know. We understand each other. What an Amazon you are.’ He called to the men and repeated it: ‘What an Amazon she is, your dear Miss Cooper!’
They were too preoccupied to answer; the maid, whom they still held pinioned, was struggling afresh till Joe struck her sharply across the mouth. He was enjoying himself, his mind adrift with dubious pleasure. Nell didn’t like what she saw – the woman’s blood – but she wouldn’t protect the slovenly nursing bitch. She was, in her own white way, every bit the servile black – the chewed heel.
‘And now the rest if you please,’ she said to the colonel. ‘I’ll tell you afterwards if this morsel of kindness has made a difference, if your one good deed has softened a single line of cruelty around your mouth.’
‘I could tell you to go to the Devil,’ he said, but looked intrigued nonetheless. ‘I could say go to the docks. The Tumble-Down at Rotherhithe. It’s a warehouse. You know it?’
‘No, but I’ll find it.’
‘No doubt you would. It’s not called Tumble-Down for nothing. A hotchpotch of clapperboard wood, most of it rotten. But it’s tall, and its intricate, a labyrinth of winding passages and collapsed ceilings. He’s been holding her there pending a ship and a definite agreement with a third party – only he knows who, though I’ve heard it’s quite a surprise. But you’d need to be careful, make sure you approached at low tide and with a bright lantern.’
She looked at his face glowing with the fever, thinking that might do instead if they took him along. ‘We shall go, now,’ she said rising, only to be halted by his wheezy laugh.
‘You’ll do nothing of the sort. You didn’t listen to my diction girl,’ he said, battling against the pain of mirth. ‘I said had been holding her there. She’s not there now, he’s moved her. He’s clever in that way. He wants to hold on to his prize. Still thinks to please me like a good boy seeking favour.’
‘So where is she?’ she asked, more desperate than ever.
‘I don’t know. You’ll have to ask him yourself. I tried to stop this business before it went any further but it’s no good. He’s gone ahead regardless, says my illness is robbing me of my senses, that I’ll come round fine when he’s brought the money home like a dog bringing the bacon.’
‘He’s coming back then?’ asked Joe.
‘Yes, he’s coming back, he’ll not desert me. I’m the master he loves – some of them are like that, you know. I don’t know when it will be. In his own time I expect.’
‘Don’t protect him,’ Nell turned on him bluntly. ‘When will he be back?’ Again the hand was ready to squeeze; it wanted only half a chance.
‘Tonight,’ he said, knowing she meant it. ‘He’ll be back tonight. He doesn’t like sleeping in the cold. There, done, you’ll get your man. But mark you have a measure of his size. He’s as strong as an ox. Unlike the eunuchs, he was born that way, no one – not even I in my crueller days – thought to rob him of his balls. You think these two coxcombs will hold him?’ He gestured with his long fingernail at Robert and Joe. ‘You – a girl – would stand more chance.’
Not that it mattered in the end; Nell knew that his own kind would do the deed.
My new novel, Pride Before a Fall Through Time, is published today, 30 November 2016.