AT SEVEN PRECISELY, the stage was set beneath the spreading branches of an ancient oak. The wind was light but icy sharp, pointed as the rapiers Vine would have brought had it been a duel of swords. But pistols it was, a pair to choose from on each side.
‘Remember, aim true,’ Nell said to Joe when she handed him his choice of guns balled and primed.
‘No, remember to stand firm, it’s all I can do,’ he replied, his hand shaking as he held the piece. ‘See?’ he said with a sniff. ‘How can I aim true with a hand like this? Look at his hand, his is not shaking. His face says it all. He’s like a gargoyle that’s had the cream.’
‘You mean a cat, Joe,’ she corrected him.
‘No sis, I mean a gargoyle, a cat is too handsome for him.’
It had come to this at last, and all Nell’s arguments were spent. He would fight after all; he wouldn’t run, as they’d wanted him to do while there was still time. They would go to a lawyer in Leeds, they’d said, and make good his claim. It would all end well, he needn’t bleed in the snow like this. But no, he wouldn’t be denied the martyrdom their father would expect.
‘Less noise over there!’ cried Vine, removing his coat though the cold shot through him with bullets of its own.
‘You don’t like what you hear then?’ Joe called to him, his voice cracked, his eyes distant with thoughts of coming death.
‘I’m done with listening. I’ve expected so much, waited so long, I won’t give it up now. You think to keep me from what’s mine, what I’ve worked so long to achieve? I’ve slaved for this,’ he said with a glance at Olu. ‘I’ve grovelled for it, toadied for it, but no more – this time I come to claim.’
‘Is that all that matters?’ Joes asked him.
‘Yes, that’s all – what else is there?’
‘Life. Humanity. Masculinity in its different guises, all of them valid,’ said Joe with unwonted eloquence. ‘Mine perhaps more than yours. I think you wonder deep down what it is to be a man. I think a man like me unsettles a man like you.’
‘You think I give a damn for your girlish heart?’
‘You would if you thought about it, about your own girlish heart, but you can’t. A man like you would fall apart if he studied himself too closely. But it’s there all right, the woman in you, I can see it behind your eyes.’
‘And what’s behind your breeches? that’s what I’d like to know. Have you a prick there or a quim? Let’s get this over with. Come up close, back-to-back so I can feel your sweat. That’s it, good boy,’ he said when he’d obliged. ‘Now say the words Mister Strong – cock your triggers, gentlemen. Thank you kindly for that small service. Now be good enough to count ten paces. You’re an educated man, it shouldn’t be too hard.’
Robert took a deep breath and started the count. The fall of seconds was uneven, the last one rushed, which threw Vine who fired prematurely and missed. His mouth twitched with suppressed rage then fell still. ‘We must do this right,’ he said. ‘Ask me if I’ll stand my ground – ask if I’m ready to receive his fire.’
‘Well do you? – are you?’ Robert asked, his forehead sweating despite the cold.
‘What do you think?’ countered Vine. ‘Look at me, I’m steady as a rock. Go on then!’ he urged Joe who hesitated. ‘Shoot! I don’t expect to be hit, not by a coward like you. See? I don’t even stand side-on to lessen your target. And when you’ve missed I shall go for my second piece. Shame to waste it when it itches to be fired.’
‘Kill him Joe, for all our sakes,’ said Olu, her tone dark and full of purpose.
‘Hold your tongue you Nigger whore …’
‘Yes, and whose Nigger whore? Tell them that!’
‘You tell them, I haven’t the…confound it!’ A blast of cold had made him shiver at last.
‘Haven’t the heart? For all those times you used me?’
Was this it then, her last great secret? Yes, and out it came, every sullied detail – her rape in the Indies, threats of death if she breathed the truth to Sir George, who may or may not have forgiven Vine, but he wouldn’t take the risk, not when ‘the black slut’ was the product of his loins.
‘Think I didn’t know the truth?’ shouted Vine. ‘He knew that I knew and it started to come between us. I had to work him round to my way of thinking, which was all for the best as he’d say. He’d thought he was rid of her for good, and so did I when I gave her a parting gift she’d not be likely forget. I’m not talking speedwell either.’ He’d meant her rape there, in those very grounds, the night she left for London.
‘Come on, fire whelp! Give us all some merriment!’ he baited Joe, who still trembled, still hesitated, but who had stood his ground, his task complete he’d hoped.
It might have ended yet in Vine’s favour had he not gone too far. He said how Olu had cried out not in pain but in pleasure when he took her hard as he liked with plenty of blows thrown in. ‘Just like the old times on Barbados, but with ground cold beneath her black buttocks instead of warm. I took her mother too when Sir George weren’t looking, the black bitch were carrying my brat not his when she hang …’
Imagination for Nell became reality; the gun was in her hand; she felt its weight, its balance, she pointed it and cocked it, placed her finger on the slim little trigger. They told her afterwards that she’d got up close, that his smiling eyes doubted her intent right till the last moment, when they’d suddenly kindled – curdled, said Robert, who’d taken the weapon from her (gently) when she’d put the ball through the attorney’s skull, nearer to laughter than tears. Yes, she’d been close when she killed him, close to the oak tree, so close that the ball remained embedded for years to come.