WHAT SHE HADN’T counted on was their manner of doing business. The darkness helped, a cloying fog more grey than dark, and dismal as death. They took him on the threshold of his master’s door, five or six, Nell couldn’t say, only that their leader was vengeful, at full strength of power and gall. She followed them across the street into a small clearing overhung with leafless plane trees and broad beech that reminded her of home. The fog, the dark, the tangled thicket of branches heavy with snow gave perfect cover for what they had in mind, and for what she’d delivered him to. No quarter asked and none given, as the military men said, as Colonel Jenkins had shouted in the heat of many a battle. They held him pressed against the ribbed bark of the wide-girthed trunk; they stripped him to the waist in the cold and began to beat his upper body with the implements they’d brought for the purpose. They beat him for several minutes, his mouth gagged, before they put their single question: ‘Where is she? You know who.’
To Hell with courage! To Hell with loyalty! Nell thought, when she saw it hadn’t worked. He was standing his ground on his trembling legs. He wouldn’t yet, on account of his master, betray the means to please. This was perversity indeed, and it earned him no rewards. What now? she wondered, as out came a hammer and nails from the leader’s coat.
‘Hold his hands flat,’ he instructed.
Crucified dogs came to mind as Nell craned her neck towards Joe loitering across the road, patting himself against the bitter cold. Robert was beside him blowing on his hands – hands that were pained by frost, and how much more they’d suffer if nails and hammer were applied! ‘Is this just?’ was the question on her lips that wouldn’t quite form. Why? – why did she say nothing?
It wasn’t just Nell who stayed mute. There was little talk, scarcely any, the whole spectacle played in dumbshow. Yet in some ways it seemed so ordinary, beautiful too in the fog and snow and chilling air. Still she watched; for posterity’s sake she didn’t want to miss a thing. She wanted to remember, fix every detail forever though they’d plague her for life. She’d remember the snow on the tree bark, upon the last stray leaves of autumn, upon the stiff grass where shoes crunched and buckles shone dully. His body writhing stiffly with the first nail, a suppressed scream virtually silent. The blood oozing thick and slowly like oil, not red but black in that dark light. The faces of his torturers gathered like revellers round a festival tree that wanted only a brazier for roasting chestnuts. And then carefully, when the first long nail was hammered in half its length, the leader repeated his question in a soft almost tender voice: ‘Where is she? You know who.’
‘You go to fucking hell,’ his victim cried.
Undeterred the other, who was now his executioner for sure, extracted a second nail from his pocket and hammered it in without pause all the way to the hilt. ‘Look what you bring me to?’ he said, his face up close. ‘You make this harder than it needs be.’
Nell stayed for the rest out of duty, out of curiosity and, because she’d seen murder before as committed by loved ones – a brother who had murdered a dog, and a father a slave – out of resignation. Still she loved them, her filial killers; such things were never simple, and in some ways there was neither right nor wrong, only forgiveness and a means to an end. This man’s death was exactly that; an end that might be changed if he’d tell what they wanted to know. His destiny was in his hands – literally, for he was nailed to a tree like Jesus.
They were about to start on his feet, were removing his boots, arguing whether two feet crossed or both feet separate was preferable. They might have been talking of a plant that needed training to a trellis. And yet for victim and killers alike there could be no going back. He would have to be finished now, for all their sakes.
‘Here, let me try,’ said Nell, stepping forward. The leader looked bemused yet angry and disappointed, not that she’d intruded but that his methods should have failed. For all his hardness in the battle of life, he had a tempered streak unacknowledged for years. Nell’s streak, far wider but of the same compassionate fibre, communed with his own at that deep, forgotten level.
‘Try then,’ he said, with more hope in his tone than resentment. ‘What can you do that we can’t?’
‘I can be his mother. All dying boys – and he is still a boy – as I am still a girl – need their mothers. You know where she is, don’t you?’ she asked Caesar up close, enduring the blood on his breath, meaty as the shambles at York. He nodded. ‘Listen to me Caesar, you can’t help your master now. These men have killed you, you do know that?’ Another nod, sadder than the first, the boy in him found at last. ‘Do you believe in God?’
His answer came low and muffled, as if from the depths of the tree. ‘Don’t ask me that.’
‘You were brought up to believe.’
‘Baptised. Lady like you baptise me.’
‘It didn’t bring your freedom. Did you think it would?’
‘I free now.’
‘Yes, you’re free now. Very nearly. I know you didn’t think it would end like this. But it has. Think of what you might have been. Think of the life you should have had.’ He was listening, his eyes said so. ‘That man over there you call master, that man you served like a slave in imperial Rome. You weren’t put on the earth for that. You were put here to be free as a bird, to be respected for what you are.’ His eyes faded and rolled. ‘Don’t die on me yet, I won’t allow it!’
‘I am dying, you say so yourself.’
‘Make peace with us then before you go.’
‘Why should I?’
‘Because I love you as a brother.’
He half laughed at this and the figures behind and at his side stirred uneasily. ‘Listen Caesar, I have heard the word of God,’ she said, tapping his simplicity, she hoped. ‘He exists. He has His reasons for all the suffering down here. He’ll explain it to you soon enough. You’re going to Him this very night, you’re about to learn the last great secret. You’ll learn it before I will, before these men who’ve done you to death. It’s a kind of revenge, is it not?’ He grew proud in his misery till she nipped it in the bud: ‘But mark this, He’ll not want you without a last good deed in your heart. A deed you can’t do yourself but can help me to do. I want you to tell me where to find Olu. Please Caesar, open your mouth and say it,’ she said in her most motherly tone.
She didn’t think it had worked; the eyes had fluttered again, the head had turned sideways like the Lord Himself on the cross until, ‘Prospect House, Berkeley Square. You find her there under lock and key.’
Nell’s mind flew back and forth in a flurry. The house name was familiar, too familiar. How? Why? ‘But that’s Lord Pemberton’s house,’ she said, more befogged than the fog icing her face.
His sigh was definitive, and so too was his dying. ‘He’s gone,’ said the leader. ‘He saved us trouble of breaking his legs.’
‘What will you do with his body?’ she asked as calmly as she could.
‘Leave it to us. All that remain will be holes in the tree. They think it an early woodpecker.’
She heard later that they’d taken him down and carted him away, not for burial in a shallow grave as she’d presumed, but weighted and sunk in the mouth of the Thames like so many other unwanted corpses. You could see the glow they made welling up from the murky depths on dark nights, said the credulous inhabitants of the lower banks, but Nell wouldn’t believe it, not till she’d asked Olu if such a thing could be true. Not till she’d found her a third time and kept her safe for good. Knowing her whereabouts was one thing, however; fighting authority was another.
My new novel, Pride Before a Fall Through Time, was published today 30 November 2016. tinyurl.com/gtd8jc6