TO BE FACED come rain or shine, he might have added. Or come more snow, of which there was much as the coach pulled away next day. Yorkshire, as they travelled through it at last, lay hushed beneath a vast cape of undulating white, and when they stopped now and then to stretch their legs, gone was the creaking of coach springs and the rolling drum of the wheels; in their place a silence so quiet it went beyond the silence of the night, went beyond the silence of the grave till it merged with a noise faint, pulsating and undefined. It was the noise of tortured thought.
Whether outside in the snow or huddled together in the cab, Nell was thinking of her father. What else was she to think of other than his loss, his warning of trouble ahead? Death, it seemed, was everywhere in that endless white below and endless blackness above. Death was king in all its glory, to be accepted with grace, not fought against or denied. Acquaint yourself with me, the inevitable, the immutable, resign yourself and don’t be afraid, said the landscape in its language of silent speech. Speech of Heavenly cold contending with the cold of Hell in an age-old battle of wills. It wasn’t clear which had won in the past, which was winning now and which would win in the future. Nor was it clear what was good or bad. Or whether living was better than death. Their only choice was to go on.
Home, then, having changed their carriage at Leeds and parted company with the Fly. Horseford itself lay snow-bound in the dark as they glided through on wheels that felt like runners on a sleigh. Each cottage, each workshop, every inn and tavern exuded glow of candle or fire, a sight not repellent yet oddly not inviting; wariness in every light, a challenge perhaps or a warning not made clear.
The carriage drive through the park with its snow-burdened trees was slow and dream-like, heavy with expectancy. Still no one spoke, each was alone with his thoughts, solitary as a clam. Lights from the house twinkled here and there through the laden branches overhead, dancing with the motion of the weather-beaten coach. The machine skidded as the driver applied his brake, reining his beasts with a raucous cry. His whip cracked, the horses neighed and stamped their feet with cold.
‘Is the master at home?’ he asked, opening the door and folding down the step.
‘The master is dead,’ said Joe before he could think.
‘Sorry sir, begging your pardon,’ said the driver, ‘no offence intended. Shall I ring for assistance?’
Nell, not Joe, told him to unload their things and consider his work done. ‘Very good, Miss,’ and when Joe had paid him and they stood with their belongings before the great Corinthian columns made whiter than white by snow, she was forced to contend with her tears, as Heaven and Hell had seemed to do upon on the frozen moors. She didn’t cry; something stopped her, good or evil, she didn’t know which. And whose face would greet them this wild night if greet was the right word? She was braced for the worst.
And rewarded by the best. ‘Betty!’ she cried, seeing her in her night cap, holding a candle in a little dish. She looked older, wiser, a greying mother to her former self.
‘Oh Miss, Miss, it’s you ! – how you frightened me! You too Master Joe – and who’s that you have with you?’ She lifted her candle. ‘It can’t be – can it? So many wanderers returned …’
‘Don’t say any more Betty, not till you’ve heard it all. You’ve plenty to tell us yourself no doubt.’
‘That I have, Miss, that I have,’ she said, holding the door so they might come in from the cold. ‘You look like four sheep dug out from a snow drift,’ she added, standing aside to look them up and down. ‘Lord above, what’s to become of you?’
‘Now listen Betty, we must get one thing straight at the outset. Have we anything to fear tonight? Is Vine inside?’
Betty drew them to the foot of the stairs, where she cocked her head to listen. Finding all was quiet, she said, ‘Oh Miss, you’ve no idea how things are here. That man crows like a cock night and day.’
‘Answer the question, Betty,’ said an impatient Joe. ‘Does he sleep at home this evening?’
‘No sir, he does not. There’s only me and the other servants, what’s left of ‘em. These walls have ears all the same, and they’re his ears. That man pleases himself just as he likes. It’s a wonder you didn’t see his light burning when you drove past his office just now. He works late there on all manner of papers. He’s getting things straight for himself if you ask me, straight for him and bent for you. Well he’s an attorney, isn’t he? Who knows what documents he got the master to sign them last few nights. He sat up late with him, you know, in his own room. When the master gets back …’
‘He’s not coming back, Betty,’ Nell interrupted. ‘Our father is dead. Kit too is dead. They died in the same accident.’
They escorted Betty to the drawing-room where the remnants of a good fire still threw off heat. ‘Oh Glory be,’ she said, her head in her hands as she wept. ‘Will all be well, Miss?’ she asked as a log snapped and crackled in the grate. ‘Can it be all well ever again?’
‘Our delightful Mister Vine, when do you expect him back?’ asked Joe, too fretful to sit. ‘You think he means to claim everything?’ he said before she could answer.
‘I’m sure of it, sir. He means you harm as well. There’s no one to stop him now.’
‘I shall stop him. I must,’ said Joe, who looked in agony.
‘You can’t mean to fight him,’ Nell said. ‘He’s a crack shot with a pistol and a flashing blade with a sword. You aim to choose between the Devil and the deep blue sea?’
‘I mean to stay and fight one way or another. I think at last I have something to fight for.’
‘We all have something to fight for,’ Nell said with meaning.
‘He never thought to see you again, Miss, I’m sure,’ said Betty. ‘You neither Olu.’
‘I’m sure he didn’t,’ said Nell knowingly.
‘He means to claim all this for himself, he’s said so more than once.’
‘You seem to forget that I am master now,’ said Joe, drumming his fingers on the table. ‘Father is dead. I am his heir.’
‘That you are, sir,’ said Betty to appease him. ‘I never meant no harm. And you’ll have me to serve you, have no fear. I’ll not be going nowhere.’
‘Me neither,’ piped up Robert, warming himself at the fire. ‘Only…only if there’s fighting to be done, I think I should go home and make my peace with my family first.’
Betty was looking at him from under her brows. ‘You’ll be meaning with your wife, sir? It’s just that…well.’
‘Come on, woman, spit it out.’
‘It’s only what I hear, and it’s not for me to say sir, not outright in front of everyone like this. You should go and find out for yourself.’
‘On a night like this?’ said Nell. ‘No Robert, you must stay here.’
‘But what does she mean?’
‘Betty, you must say what you know. You too, Olu,’ Nell added, ‘there’s no time left for holding back. We are home, where we all mean to stay. There must be no secrets now, only the truth can give us strength.’
‘You hear everything soon enough,’ said Olu. ‘When the moment is right.’
‘Well I wish to hear what she knows now,’ said Robert, pointing at Betty. ‘If Vine comes back full of murderous intent I may not live to find out.’
‘Very well, it’s your wife sir. Another man sleeps where you once slept. Rumour has it she never expected you back. Rumour has it, she never wanted you back.’
‘That’s enough Betty, you go too far,’ Nell said, watching Robert walk slowly across the room. He halted where his misery took him, beneath a portrait of Nell’s mother.
‘It’s all right,’ he said, feeling Nell’s touch on his shoulder. ‘Deep down I half expected it. She stopped loving me a long time ago. That business with my brother didn’t help. It shamed her, made her feel unclean. As for me, I still blame myself for not doing enough to save him.’
‘What else could you have done, dear Robert? Don’t blame yourself, not for that nor what your wife has done.’ His hand now rested on Nell’s. She saw the tear on his cheek and wiped it away with her finger. When he glanced her way she licked it and smiled. ‘Salty,’ she said, ‘like the sea.’
He gave her a tender look. ‘I hope there’s no sea between us.’
‘None that I know of,’ Nell said, conscious of the others and their shared embarrassment. Only Olu was looking away, namely at the window where she’d risen to look. Just what was she watching out there in the snowy dark?
‘Come back to the fire,’ Nell said to Robert in sterner tones. ‘We must talk strategy for this fight with Vine. You’re the closest thing we have to a lawyer, do you think he’ll have stitched things up so wrong for us?’
‘Depends what he got your father to sign,’ he said, biting back his hurt. ‘The way I see it, if the estate is entailed to Joe he’ll be hard put to make it all stick.’
‘But if he kills us all, every one of us,’ Nell said only half in jest.
‘Miss, may I recommend that you all eat something then try to get some sleep?’ said Betty, rising with the candle she’d placed on the floor beside her.
‘No food for me, Betty,’ said Joe, ‘but you may bring some brandy, for I’ve a need to fortify myself. What about you Robert?’
‘Yes, brandy, why not? Dutch courage and all that – what?’
‘Nell – Olu – will you drink with us?’ asked Joe.
‘No we will not,’ Nell said.
‘She’s right, Master, without a clear head the morning will be worse for you,’ said Betty.
‘Bring it for them, you hear?’ Olu snapped without turning round. ‘Let them find some peace while they can. You think he’s not out there this minute?’ She was staring out the window still. ‘See it, that light in the grounds? It’s his lantern. He hears the carriage wheels and he comes to look. He knows we’re back Why does he hesitate? – is he playing like the cat with the mouse?’
‘The law, surely we can call on it?’ said Robert.
‘Father was the law round here,’ said Joe. ‘The only magistrate for miles around. I wish he’d come now and get it over with. If I’m to die, why should I wait till morning?’
‘You’ll not die, Joe,’ Nell told him. ‘Even he won’t shoot you down in cold blood.’ But she knew the result would be the same: Joe was a gentleman, and gentlemen were bound by a certain code. A code which for Joe was a death sentence.