COLOUR OF NIGHT
The islands lay in a spiral curve, seeds scattered between the conjoined titans of North and South America; seeds that blossomed into verdant flecks of concentrated paradise, stuff of landlocked dreams; perfection only slightly marred by rainy seasons and the occasional hurricane.
Inevitably, they were ‘discovered’ by the relentless probing forces of civilised Europe: first the Spanish, toting their curious alloy of religious devotion & abject slavery; then the English, whose counter conquest changed nothing. Plantations were established, to feed the insatiable sweet tooth of the White Man, sustained by labour of the Black. Over time, in a process so subtle it was barely noticed, changes occurred to the native fauna – it began to disappear. From Cuba, Guadeloupe, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, peculiar little mammals and brilliant birds were inexorably extinguished, like candles. The term ‘fauna’ could be applied in its broadest sense, for even the indigenous people of these islands vanished: diseased and enslaved and ultimately crossbred out of existence.
That left one island, slightly detached from the others, a curved arrowhead like a porpoise swimming hopefully towards the welcoming shores of Mexico. By day, a mountainous fantasy of waterfalls and beaches, where parrots flashed amid palms. But by night – ah, by night ‘twas something very different…
From endless fields of ripening cane black men waved, though whether in deference, defiance or simple civility it was impossible to tell. After a time, it became easier to just ignore them, the way royalty learns to ignore common folk. Instead, Reverend Horatio Smythe settled back in the trap, breathed the sweet air and squeezed his wife’s hand. Though devout a Christian as they come, Horatio could not help but think there was an element of luck in his landing the parish of St James – ‘paradise parish’ as it was known throughout the broader Church. For a start, he had trouble reconciling God’s plan with the previous incumbent sustaining a fatal snakebite while on an impromptu moonlight ramble (vague hints of inebriation surrounded the whole unfortunate affair). And why him - just 22, still wet behind the ears, theologically speaking? ‘New blood’ was all the Bishop had said, in that obtuse way of his. Horatio couldn’t help feeling there was more to it than that, and for all his elation there was a certain indefinable anxiety.
The Councillor’s mansion shone in the sun like some latter-day palace, functional yet slightly overpowering. By its step stood a portly, impeccably dressed gentleman whose bearing suggested a precise blend of gravitas and jollity. He shook hands as though it were a wrestling move.
“Rev Smythe,” he boomed, “so good of you to come all the way from England to solve our spiritual crisis.”
“Councillor King,” replied Horatio, slightly taken aback. “Allow me to present my wife, Dinah.”
Horatio watched as the Councillor’s eyes flickered over his bride. He could never suppress a sense of deep pride when introducing his wife to anyone, especially men, for Dinah was by any standard a great beauty. Tall and stately, with a firm-jawed, subtly triangular face; soft cheekbones and a long, straight, dignified nose; recessed but vivid brown eyes fringed with dark lashes and washed over by sensuous brows; a voluptuously arched, taut little mouth. Dinah’s unpinned hair was a shoulder-length shower of platinum yellow, just unruly enough to make it interesting. Her physical form was as perfect as her face, save for one unusual flaw - fortunately that was a secret, known only to herself and her husband.
“Charmed, I’m sure,” said the Councillor, taking her hand. “My own good lady awaits us inside, so if you’d care to follow me, a servant will attend to your baggage.”
As he strolled inside, arm-in-arm with her, Horatio couldn’t help recalling their first meeting – surely that was God’s plan. Back in Wendale he hadn’t even been a vicar, just a glorified sidesman filling in because Rev Dee was sick. One wet Sunday afternoon, she had wandered in between services, apparently in the mistaken belief that an Anglican would take confessional. She broke down and wept in the pews, so he took her to vestry; made sweet tea and spoke to her for hours on matters of the utmost delicacy, all the while falling hopelessly in love. There was, admittedly, some friction about the union – she was three years older, and known to have ‘history’. But true love won out, and eventually all agreed she was the perfect prize. He resolved her problem, and in return she bestowed upon him the greatest happiness a man could imagine.
He was jerked rudely from his reverie, not so much by the fact that the Councillor was presenting his own wife, but by the wife herself. An English rose: with glowing cheeks, a dainty nose, lustrous brown eyes and hair the colour of loam; slender of form, with no discernible bust – she must have been less than half her husband’s age. Horatio was unable to stop his eyes flicking between the unlikely couple. The Councillor smiled genially.
“Perhaps I should explain: I became a widower some years ago. Sweet Nancy here did me the honour of filling the lonely void.”
Nancy glanced shyly at the newcomers, the most delicate blush fanning her exquisite cheek.
“Now,” said the Councillor, clapping his hands, “you are no doubt in need of refreshment. I anticipate the third member of our household joining us shortly.”
It was just like taking elevenses in England, if one could discount the jungle-covered mountains rising on one side, and the sparkling ocean below. They sat in semi-formal gardens: the men chatting freely while the women remained quiet, decorously detached.
“Of course, you’ll stay here until we can arrange proper quarters,” the Councillor was saying.
“I understood we were to move into my predecessor’s manse,” replied Horatio, puzzled.
“Ah now, there’s a bit of a problem with that. I’m afraid the manse isn’t really habitable just now.”
“Well, perhaps in the meantime we could lodge at the church itself – I think it’s important I make myself visible and accessible.”
For a moment it looked as if the Councillor were about to choke on his sandwich.
“Look, I… perhaps you haven’t been told quite the full story. It’s just - we have a bit of a situation here. I admit, I’ve tried not to publicise things too much, but… well, the church, you see, it’s…”
At that moment there was the unmistakable thunder of hooves approaching, and a horse whinnied. The Councillor sagged back in his chair with relief.
“Ah, here she is at last. Sir, Madam, you are about to encounter possibly the greatest achievement of my career out here in the Colonies. Her name is Verna.”
Into the garden stepped the most extraordinary creature Horatio had ever laid eyes on. So adept had he already become at failing to notice the brown-skinned figures attending their every action, that at first all he absorbed were a distinctly masculine riding jacket and jodhpurs occupied by an unquestionably female form – she even wore a cap. Then came the second shock: this man-woman had a skin the colour of strong tea; it glowed coppery and alien. For the first time, Horatio was obliged to actually study the face of a black – to his surprise it was not especially apelike. Certainly flattened and elongated by European standards, but the cheekbones were high and elegant; the nose daintily curved and flared; the chin small but prominent: the lips astonishingly full, curling back in a gleaming toothsome smile. Her eyes had a vaguely oriental caste, but they shone with intelligence; from beneath her cap hung stray hints of a riotous tangle of jet-black curls. With no hint of deference Verna approached the party, firing each one a decisive glance from those black-button eyes: a look of love for the Councillor; a look right through his wife; one of apparent disdain for Horatio’s collar; and finally one of intrigue as they alighted upon Dinah.
“You look an interesting woman,” she said.
Dinner was rather awkward. First, the food was evidently prepared along native lines, and Horatio found it hostile. There were vegetables that tasted sweet, like fruits; there were fruits that were spiced like meats: it all played havoc with his digestion, although Dinah, who had the constitution of an ox, coped admirably. Second, the Councillor ruthlessly controlled the conversation, expertly blunting all efforts to extract precise details concerning church and manse. He sat flanked by his beautiful wife (from whom Horatio found it increasingly difficult to take his eyes), and by the bizarre blackamoor girl, who had at least deigned to put on a fetching, brick red dress. The women were quiet, seemingly overwhelmed by the force of the Councillor’s speech, reduced to nodding and smiling at the requisite points. It did seem to Horatio, however, that Verna spent a deal of time gazing at his own wife, as if studying her – but then, he could in turn be accused of doing precisely the same with Nancy.
However, somewhere in the midst of all the bombast and bad food, some explanations were forthcoming.
“I look upon Verna here as a scientific experiment,” said the Councillor, patting her tousled head. “The poor girl was orphaned in infancy – dreadful business with a Pit Viper – so I felt obliged to take her under my wing. Many believe it’s not possible to raise a black fully civilised, but I brought up this one as if she was my own, and I think I’ve done a splendid job. Eh, Nancy?”
Mrs King smiled wanly at his expectant look, and not for the first time Horatio detected a certain friction. But he saw one last chance to steer the conversation.
“A viper, you say? Same fate that befell my unfortunate predecessor?”
The Councillor nodded. “Serpents are among our most pernicious problems. However, as an expert naturalist, I have hit upon a solution, which I intend to implement very soon.”
“That is excellent,” Horatio broke in, trying to press his opening, “but I still feel that my best course of action is to occupy the manse as soon as possible. The people of St James need to be assured God has not forsaken them.”
The Councillor set down his cutlery, face clouding.
“You’re right, of course. Forgive me, old boy, for not being completely straight with you – it’s your first day, and I didn’t want to spoil it. And by the same token, I’m not going to spoil such a convivial evening. Tell you what, first thing tomorrow I’ll take you out there – then you’ll understand precisely the nature of the problem.”
Their room was sumptuous, overwhelming. It made them undress in a tentative manner, as if they somehow detracted from the décor.
“You’re very quiet,” Horatio observed. “What do you make of our strange little family?”
“The Councillor seems jolly enough,” replied Dinah, “yet his wife appears terrified.”
“Hmm. And what about the so-called ‘daughter’?”
“I’m not normally interested in experiments, but I have to say I find her intriguing.”
“Yes, well – you certainly seem to intrigue her.”
Dinah frowned. “Really? I can’t imagine why.”
Horatio rummaged in his bag, and extracted a short length of fine silken cord. He dangled it before his wife’s face.
“Oh Darling, is that really necessary?” Dinah pouted. “It’s a fine bed, and I’m so tired after our journey – I’m sure I shall simply fall asleep.”
“Ah, but temptation stalks us even as we sleep, my dear. Really, it’s for the best that we keep up our practices, even in another’s home.”
Wearily, Dinah turned around, crossing her wrists at the small of her back. It was the work of a moment for Horatio to secure her hands with a taut, but not chafing knot. Then he looked on approvingly as she awkwardly shuffled up onto the bed, half-falling into a recumbent position. He dimmed the lamps before settling beside her.
“My darling, you are so beautiful,” he whispered, slowly drawing up the hem of her nightdress. Dinah flinched a little.
“Please Darling, do you mind if we don’t? I find it so very painful…”
“Your pain is a gift from God,” Horatio solemnly intoned, spreading her legs. “It shows you have gone beyond your deformity, your former sins; you are pure as a virgin, this night and forever.”
He mounted her, eyes piously closed, his potency massive and forceful. Bound as she was, Dinah could do little either to deny or encourage him. A blinding, tearing pain caused her to cry out.
“Almighty God,” the Reverend intoned, oblivious to her distress, “bless the union ‘twixt man and wife: may my seed find purchase. In the name of the Father, Son & Holy Ghost, amen.”
The trinity part was rather rushed, as Horatio’s crisis invariably came on quickly. He discharged with as much decorum as was possible in the circumstances, then rolled off his wife. A brief kiss goodnight, and he settled down to slumber. For her part, Mrs Smythe made herself as comfortable as she could with pinioned arms, and let silent tears seep onto the finest of pillows. Sometimes, saving one’s soul was difficult work.
Next morning, unfettered, she prowled the vast mansion. There seemed to be servants everywhere – they either bowed deferentially to her or simply merged into shadowed corners. But no sign of Mrs King, who had failed to attend breakfast.
Dinah found herself in a study, with pleasant views of the garden. Sturdy bookshelves bore the weight of legal and administrative tomes, but also some scientific volumes, natural history in particular. On the desk, amid a sea of official papers, stood two glass cases, each containing a stuffed bird: Dinah’s knowledge of ornithology was negligible, but even she could tell they were parrots. Both of them possessed wings of a metallic sky blue – still vivid even in death – which at first led her to conclude they were male and female of the same type. Closer inspection, however, disabused her of the notion. The first, which had a bright red head and tail, lime green body and a vivid yellow stripe down its back, had a markedly more massive beak than the other. This second specimen was less strikingly exotic than the first; nonetheless, with an overall crimson colour and patches of pale orange on top of the head and at the tip of the tail, it was a very pretty thing.
“He won’t appreciate your being in here,” said a voice, making Dinah start violently. Verna, again clad in mannish riding gear, beamed at her from the doorway. “This is his sanctum, his refuge – where he does his work, and where he plays at naturalist.”
Despite all that, she stepped easily into the room, lightly running a finger across a row of spines.
“I’m sorry,” Dinah muttered, “I was just admiring these parrots.”
“Macaws, to be precise. The one on the left is a Green-and-Yellow, shot by your husband’s predecessor in that very garden some thirty years ago. The other is the only known specimen of the Yellow-Headed – it is over 100 years old. The colours have faded, and we had to reconstruct the legs, but you get the idea.”
“You’re very knowledgeable,” said Dinah honestly. “They’re just parrots to me.”
Verna smiled. “I grew up with all this: fauna and flora, genera and species. Father is positively obsessed, so it’s hard to avoid.”
“Doesn’t it bother you when he refers to you as his ‘experiment’?”
“Does it bother you when people call you a ‘vicar’s wife’? It’s what I am, after all: black of skin but white of character.”
“Do you ever miss your real parents?”
“I never even knew them. Besides, any cane workers stupid enough to get themselves killed by a Pit Viper didn’t deserve to have me as a daughter. Anyway, I’m not here to chat: I came to ask if you fancied a ride?”
Dinah demurred with a shake of her head. “Thank you, perhaps some other time. This morning I am to accompany Horatio on his inspection of the Manse.”
Verna sinuously curled a voluptuous eyebrow.
“Oh, so Father has finally summoned the courage to show you, has he? Well I warn you, you’re not going to like it.”
In the full glare of mid-morning, they took in the horror with their own eyes. Dinah blanched and turned away while Horatio stepped forward, open-mouthed.
“Dear God,” he breathed, “who could do such a thing?”
The manse had been burned out, utterly gutted, reduced to a blackened frame resembling a charcoal sketch of a building. The church itself had also suffered, though not quite to the same extent – it, at least, looked salvageable.
“I’m really sorry, old boy,” said the Councillor. “I just didn’t know how to break it to you, especially as you seemed so enthusiastic - fact is, every so often we get a spot of bother with the nignogs. Daft as it sounds, that bloody civil war in the Old Colonies got them all stirred up, thinking they were about to be enslaved again. I told them so long as they live under Britannia’s rule they’ll be free, but they would insisting on protesting, stopping work and such, so I had to call in the militia. Things have been generally quiet, but unfortunately your predecessor somehow got involved in the latest flare-up – I suspect that’s what set him to drinking that fateful night.”
Dinah moved to her husband’s side, holding him briefly, tenderly. Then Horatio drew himself erect as a soldier, stepping up to the bruised house of God. He lightly touched one blackened wall.
“I shall need men,” he said decisively, “and lumber.”
As befitted a man of his position, the Councillor sprang quickly into action. Runners were despatched throughout the parish, seconding a portion of workers from each plantation to assist with the restoration project. With a flamboyant sweep of his pen, funds were allocated, and as early as mid-afternoon, the scene of sad dereliction had been transmogrified into a hive of activity. The remains of the manse were razed in a matter of minutes, creating an ashen pile of rubble from which a future phoenix might rise. Meanwhile the church structure was stabilised and preliminary repairs effected – Horatio had vowed to reopen for services that very Sunday.
The blacks worked with happy rhythm, evidently pleased to have a break from toiling amid the rustling cane. Horatio, as was his wont, rolled up his sleeves and pitched in among them: assisting, encouraging and praising. They were impressed enough by that, but there was a palpable sense of awe when Dinah, who had traded demure dress for borrowed coveralls, fetched up to begin her share of manual labour. Of the innumerable qualities Horatio had unearthed in the course of knowing his wife, quite the most compelling was her capacity for work. Though perfectly decorous most of the time, there was in Dinah strength and energy that could shame a farmhand or scullery maid: she seemed to take pleasure in mundane tasks, the more demanding the better. No doubt it was, to her, part of her penance; indeed in other circumstances Horatio might have considered it unseemly, but the talent had proven too useful for him to even consider disabusing it.
Not everyone came to help, however. As word spread, inevitable gawpers came to sullenly spectate: a loose non-affiliation of idle blacks and richer, but even idler whites. The Councillor scurried with great industry between the site and his mansion, but scrupulously avoided getting his hands dirty. And then there was the creature, Verna – Horatio could not stop himself thinking of her as such. She trotted haughtily by at regular intervals, watching with amused, almost sneering detachment, only taking a keener interest when Dinah began to toil. At one point Horatio tried coaxing her into participating, but all he got was a dismissive glare and sight of a horse’s rear disappearing in dust.
By early evening progress naturally began to slow. Amid cheers Horatio eventually called a halt, and blacks and whites flowed immediately in different directions, like oil fleeing water. Back at the mansion the Councillor had arranged an impromptu celebratory reception, and Rev Smythe was gladdened – perhaps inordinately – to see Nancy putting in a public appearance. Even so, the guests of honour couldn’t help disappointing their host, as sheer exhaustion forced them to an early bed. Indeed, so tired was Horatio that he botched the ritual binding of his wife – Dinah knew she could easily slip free of the loose and feeble knot if she desired. But of course she did not desire it – she was beyond all that now.
Dinah was awakened by something seemingly crawling across her cheek. Fear gripped her, and she instinctively flicked up a hand to brush it away, whereupon things fell into place instantly. She had been untied, and the rope was being dangled in her face. She lifted her head, whereupon a hand was clamped over her mouth. All that could be seen of her assailant was the pale glowing crescent of a smile.
“Get up,” hissed Verna. “Don’t make a sound.”
Automaton-like Dinah did as commanded, being forcibly propelled from the room before the hand was released. She took a deep breath, and propriety finally asserted itself.
“Horatio,” she hissed. “What about…?”
“Forget him,” Verna countered. “He’s dead to the world until morning.”
Indeed, through the door Horatio could be heard snoring like an aroused bullfrog. Still unsure this was not a dream Dinah was led downstairs, through the eerily dark and silent house, towards a discreetly unfamiliar exit. En route Verna grabbed a wrap and flung it around her shoulders.
“Here – in case you get a chill. Don’t bother about shoes – you won’t need them.”
They padded across a courtyard, to where the faint yellow gleam of a lantern outlined a primitive cart, its horse and driver hulking and silent as tombstones. With impertinent pushing and prodding Verna manoeuvred Dinah onto the rickety vehicle, and they set off creakily into the enveloping night.
“Would you mind telling me what in God’s name is going on?” Dinah blurted, as the mansion receded behind them.
“I’m keeping a promise, to you and to them,” Verna replied enigmatically. “I must admit I wasn’t sure about you, but once I saw you working like a nigger, that clinched it. It got their attention, too: they’re interested to see you.”
“You’ll find out.” And from then on Verna was silent as a sage. Dinah slumped back, snuggling into the wrap as best she could, and wondering how on earth she’d ended up in this ludicrous situation. Above, billions of stars shivered against a backcloth of deepest blue: she felt she could reach up and pull a handful from the sky, but didn’t dare move her hands. Lulled by the gentle swaying of the cart, she drifted into a fragile sleep.
A sudden stop jerked her awake, whereupon Dinah found herself transported to another world. Above a softly sighing ocean hung a brilliant crescent moon, its reflection splintered crazily upon the restless waves. Upon the wide, smooth, faintly luminescent beach, fires crackled in searing hues of orange and yellow, while lanterns hung prettily from the overhanging palms. And in the flickering glow, to the insistent rhythm of unseen drummers, there danced a legion of blacks. Elusive silhouettes, nebulous as shadows, they moved with indolent, hip-swinging grace. The place crackled with easy bonhomie: here and there people ate and drank; their laughter bubbled on the sweet night air, captivating as a breath of honeysuckle. Mutely, Dinah allowed herself to be led through the throng, and the sea of dark bodies parted before her. Men tipped their hats, women curtseyed, but not from servility: no, it was more respect, perhaps even awe, that lay behind their gleaming ivory smiles. Nervously, Dinah sat down on the sand, Verna settling easily beside her.
“I can’t quite believe this,” Dinah muttered. “ Lord, I’m trembling – I must look a frightful mess.”
“You’re not bad for someone who’s just been dragged out of bed, trust me. Here,” she handed over a cup of something dark and mysterious, “this’ll calm you down.”
“What is it?” Dinah sniffed the concoction cautiously.
“I suppose you’d call it ‘rum punch’,” Verna smiled. “What we call it isn’t fit for a lady’s ears.”
Dinah sipped tentatively. The initial flavour was very sweet, but on swallowing gave way to a sudden burning rush. Dinah gasped, and tears sprang to her eyes as Verna giggled. By the third sip she had gained a measure of control, and there was pleasant warmth in the pit of her stomach. She looked about her at the vibrant scene.
“Why did you bring me here?”
“I told you: they wanted to see you. Besides, I wanted to show you the beach at its most magical.”
“All these people: what do they want me to do?”
“They don’t want you to do anything – they just want you here. Rules are for our White masters -tonight, we do as we please. Eat, drink, laugh, cry, dance, sleep, make love or just sit and watch the waves: it’s up to you.”
“But why me?” Dinah protested. “Surely, Horatio did all the work – it’s his vision to rebuild the church, after all.”
“P’shaw,” spat Verna dismissively. “We know all about men like your husband, with their starched collars and starchier ways. The last one used to threaten us with the fiery pit for all our simple pleasures – I doubt your ‘Horatio’ is any different.”
“He’s a good man,” said Dinah feebly. “I love him.”
“Is that why you let him tie you up?”
Despite the heat wafting from the fires, Dinah blanched, closing up like a trap. In a long, awkward silence she drained her cup, which left her feeling fuzzy and bewildered.
“Come on,” Verna eventually snapped, “let’s dance.”
Dinah protested, but was nonetheless hauled to her bare feet. Strangely detached, she blundered into the gyrating throng, which swallowed her up like a tunnel ingests a train. The sound of the drums washed over her, seeming to invade her very pores: she moved with twitching, spastically uncoordinated clumsiness, to the delight of all present.
“Go on, Mrs Whitebread,” Verna shouted. “Work those builder’s muscles.”
Dinah threw back her head and giggled at her own ludicrousness, surrendering to it. Another cup found its way into her hand, and she drained it in one sustained gulp, savouring the sickly burn. Figures blurred in and out of her perception: she was dancing with a jolly old man, then with a voluptuously fat woman; there seemed to have been no transition between them. Time slowed, and she could not tell if she twisted and shook for minutes or hours: all she knew was, when she flopped down exhausted, the sea and sky seemed to be spinning about her.
“I do believe I’m intoxicated,” she said seriously, suppressing a hiccup.
“It suits you,” Verna replied, sitting next to her. “And if you are, maybe it’ll loosen your tongue enough to answer my question. Your husband, precious ‘Horatio’ – why do you let him bind your wrists?”
Perhaps it was the drink, perhaps it was her instinctive trust of this strange woman: either way, at that moment Dinah’s deepest secrets seemed absurd, fragile things, easily dispensed.
“It’s for my own good,” she muttered darkly. Verna’s quizzical expression demanded further exposition, so she leaned in conspiratorially and whispered, “I am deformed.”
“Deformed? How so?”
“Down below,” Dinah swallowed, “I am not as other women. My anatomy is abnormal.”
Verna studied her intently a moment, as though ascertaining this was not a joke.
“Show me,” she said at last.
“Father’s interest in the natural sciences is very broad – he has a wide range of anatomical texts, and I’ve studied all of them. I could easily tell if something was truly amiss.”
“There is no question of my showing you,” snapped Dinah indignantly. “I have shown no-one but my dear husband.”
“I still don’t see why he has to tie you up at night.”
Dinah drew a deep breath. “When I was younger, I… had a habit: a truly revolting thing. It almost destroyed my life, my very soul. But Horatio found a cure; enabled me to function as a true woman. The rope is merely a precaution, to prevent any relapse. There: now you know all my secrets.”
“That I doubt,” replied Verna archly. They drifted into silence, serenaded by the sibilant sea. Around them the fires began to dwindle as the people drifted away, melding with the night like shadows of fragmented dreams. At length Verna rose decisively.
“It’s getting late, and I have to return you to the marital bed.”
On the way back, the lurching of the cart had an altogether unfortunate effect on Dinah, obliging her to lean over the side and vomit copiously into the darkness below. Verna infuriatingly managed to be at once sympathetic and highly amused about the whole episode. The night had been one long, confused, surreal experience: and it was to have one last twist. As Verna was leading her across the yard towards the black-eyed, sleeping house, something flickered rapidly across her perception, so fast it barely registered. She was just about to dismiss it some liquor-inspired aberration, when it happened again.
“What is that?” she gasped.
“What is what?”
“I saw something: a bird, or a bat perhaps. I don’t… there it is again!”
“I do not see it.”
“No – it’s gone now. I’m sure I saw it. What on earth could it have been?”
“As you’ve seen, the night here has its own people,” replied Verna sagely. “Why shouldn’t it have its own creatures, as well?”
Evidently well versed at skulking in the dark she steered Dinah to the scullery, cleaning her up and administering citrus-water to remove the clinging taste of bile. Then they crept to the staircase.
“Here,” hushed Verna, dropping the length of cord into Dinah’s palm. “Tell your husband it slipped off in the night – it was an abysmal knot, anyhow.”
“I don’t know how to thank you,” Dinah whispered. “This has been the strangest, most magical night of my life.” She might well have been addressing a ghost - nothing of her strange new friend was visible, not even the whites of her eyes.
“My understanding is, if one has had a convivial evening, a goodnight kiss is acceptable.’
And before Dinah knew it, soft billowing lips were brushing her own, still faintly dusted with sea-salt. She froze, jolted as though by electricity, too stunned to even breathe. Then Verna was gone, silent and elusive as a shadow, her only trace a not unpleasant tingle upon the lips. Dinah ascended the stairs tentatively, the damp nightdress slung over her arm, no longer certain of her steps without a guide. Turning a corner, a candle flared suddenly in front of her, blinding– she bit off a scream.
“Entertaining, was she?” said a soft, sour voice. The pale face behind the flame came gradually into focus.
“Mrs King,” Dinah exhaled tremulously. “I was just…”
“I know what you’ve been doing,” the Councillor’s wife hissed. “I know all about that monster’s moonlight flits. Be warned: she can only bring you trouble.”
The light was abruptly extinguished, and once again Dinah was alone, with the implacable conviction that she had just communed with spectres. Trembling violently, she nonetheless managed to slip into the guestroom, where Horatio appeared soundly somnolent. Carefully she inserted herself between the sheets, and her husband did not stir. In the dismal small hours she lay there, exhausted but febrile, and not knowing slumber until grey dawn crept beneath curtained windows.
Inevitably, Dinah overslept. She awoke to an empty bed and a sensation like a hot poker stabbed between her eyes. She dressed hurriedly and guiltily, coming down to a cleared breakfast table where Horatio sat with ill-concealed temper.
“I’m very disappointed in you, Dinah,” he said sternly. She sat down opposite him, hanging her head in appropriate rectitude, but said nothing – possibly he was unaware of the full extent of her nocturnal adventure.
“I knew you’d left our bed,” he continued. “I assumed you were slaking a thirst, or at most reading your Bible, but I learn from Mrs King you’ve been sneaking around with that black girl like a common thief.”
Dinah’s eyes snapped up. “She told you?”
Horatio nodded. “I spoke to her at length, and also to the Councillor, who is disciplining his‘daughter’ as we speak. It really won’t do, Dinah – I thought we’d overcome your rebellious tendencies.”
“It was only a party on the beach,” she tried to protest. “They wanted to thank me…”
“That’s not the point!” Horatio barked, a touch excessively. “The fact is, you have publicly consorted with the blacks, which puts me in an invidious position.”
“But they’re your parishioners, Darling.”
“They’re blacks. Councillor King, a man of science I might add, subscribes to the theory that they are of a different species, and I tend to agree. I can minister to their spiritual needs, because that is my calling; but I can no more save their souls than open Heaven to a monkey, or a bear.”
Despite her guilt, Dinah’s look across the table was positively venomous.
“You can’t possibly believe that,” she whispered.
“I do. And I think it wise if you adjusted to the reality of where we are: this is not England, and it will be harder to overlook any waywardness on your part. Anyway, I’m going to the church -consider yourself confined to this house until I deem otherwise.”
And away he went, leaving his wife cold and stranded as a shipwreck. A servant, who thankfully had not been privy to this exchange, eventually cobbled together breakfast for her. She ate sullenly, everything tasting like cardboard, then set off in the vague direction of their room. Reaching the main staircase, she was stunned to intersect with Verna, gaily striding in full riding trim. Her smile of greeting was dazzling as sunlight off a mirror.
“I thought…” Dinah began, then broke off.
“You thought what?”
Dinah swallowed. “I thought you were being‘disciplined’. For last night.”
Verna shrugged indolently. “Oh, that: it’s true Father was a mite peeved I’d involved you in my nocturnal ramblings, but I was able to talk him round. I told him you’d seen a Pauraque.”
“It’s a type of nightjar – very rare. He’s tremendously excited by the prospect, and no doubt will quiz you exhaustively over dinner.”
“But I don’t know what I saw,” Dinah protested. “It might not even have been a bird.”
“Doesn’t matter: all I care about is not having my riding privileges revoked, no thanks to Mrs Will-o’-the-Wisp sticking her nose into other people’s business. Just ‘cause she has no fun, she feels a need to spoil everyone else’s.”
“But what about me? My husband has confined me to this house.”
Verna stared in disbelief a moment, then threw back her head and laughed uproariously.
“Dear Lord, what is it with these Reverends? Isn’t having Almighty God on their side enough?” Her face suddenly turned serious. “Still, he’s out, so’s Father; and Ghostwoman is safely shut in her room: that gives us a perfect opportunity.”
She took Dinah by the wrist, pulling her along like a child’s toy, up the stairs and off into an unfamiliar wing. They entered a place that until this moment Dinah had not given a moment’s thought – Verna’s bedroom. In size and splendour it outshone the one she and Horatio currently shared, and yet it had a cluttered, slightly ramshackle feel. Its colours were overbearingly vibrant; its walls hung with primitive, vaguely African artefacts, cheek by jowl with delicate lithographs of wild animals and plants. The room described Verna much as she described herself – a collision of two worlds. Dinah found herself drawn to a pair of cases containing stuffed specimens far less striking than those in the Governor’s study: the first was a substantial, reddish-brown bird with disproportionately large, splayed feet; the other a tiny rodent, equally rufous, delicate ears high and prominent.
“Uniform Rail and Rice Rat,” Verna announced, in response to Dinah’s questioning glance. “Both live down by the rivers, or at least they used to. Don’t see them much nowadays.”
“Seems to me that all the creatures on this island have become scarce,” Dinah mused.
Verna nodded uncertainly, as if the possibility had not occurred to her. “Yes, I suppose. Except for serpents, of course. Serpents and White people– they still thrive.”
“Why did you bring me here?” Dinah wanted to know.
“To examine you, of course. If you would be so kind as to take off your skirt and hitch up your petticoats…”
Dinah’s face drained of colour so fast she feared she would faint.
“You’re not serious,” she breathed.
“Of course I’m serious. You assert, merely on your husband’s say-so, that you are deformed. I assert that I have the expertise to tell if this is the case, or not. Don’t you want to know?”
Dinah considered, suddenly feeling very cold. She glanced about her, as if there might be persons hiding in the room.
“Occupied elsewhere,” Verna countered firmly. “Besides, they wouldn’t dream of coming in here without permission. We have absolute privacy.”
Dinah took a deep breath, and tremblingly began to divest. She was aware of Verna pretending not to look, glancing at her unnervingly, and almost lost her resolve. But despite burning face and cold fingers, and the terrible sense of exposure, she bared her pale legs to the world.
“Lie on my bed,” said Verna, her manner that of a kindly matron. Dinah did so, gathering her petticoat about her waist and staring fixedly up at the ceiling. Verna knelt next to her, gently but firmly parted her legs, and leaned forward to peer intently. It seemed to take an inordinately long time.
“Well?” she squeaked, unable to bear the suspense.
“Medically speaking, your labia are pronounced, and your clitoral hood is prominent,” Verna announced detachedly. Dinah groaned, fighting back tears.
“I knew it– I’m hideous, aren’t I?”
“On the contrary: you are female. And if you are‘deformed’, then so are some fifty per cent of the women on God’s green earth. Frankly, a connoisseur of such things would proclaim you extremely beautiful. Perhaps, even, irresistible.”
And Verna dropped her head, lightly kissing Dinah’s clitoris. Had it been a fist direct to her solar plexus, it could not have produced a more dramatic effect. It was only the speed with which breath was driven from her body that prevented Dinah screaming. Her whole body went rigid, numbly frozen save for the guilty spot that throbbed with sudden, shrieking intensity. She scrabbled into a sitting position, throwing her petticoat defensively across her thighs.
“What in the name of God are you doing?” she squealed, her cheeks glowing balls of outrage on a face otherwise colourless. For her part, Verna seemed more amused than taken aback.
“Steady on, Whitebread– I’m only proving how irresistible you are.”
She leaned forward, an overt attempt at a kiss. Dinah recoiled, and despite her helpless quivering summoned enough strength and fury to slap Verna hard across the face.
“You beast,” she spat. “To think I trusted you…” the lump in her throat choked off further words. With a coolness that bordered on epic Verna lightly touched her stung cheek, looking at Dinah with an almost charitable expression.
“You don’t have to stay,” she said softly. Dinah flung herself off the bed, scooping up discarded clothing like a washerwoman, before exiting the room with all the dignity she could muster, which in these circumstances was precious little.
Outside, on the landing, she dressed: an epic task as her fingers were uncontrollable and she was struggling to fend off tears that, once started, might never stop. And worst of all, there was a terrible, aching throb from deep within her, deep down in the sinful places she’d fought so long to deny: it was like an old hunger reawakened, ravenous and raw. She needed her husband: needed him more than ever; needed his reassurance, his discipline: perhaps even his violence. But to go and seek him – would that not simply compound the trouble she was already in? Her addled mind could construct but one coherent notion – to go to their room, to find some trace of his presence to cling to until the man himself might return, to save her yet again. But there was to be a second intersection: it too, would scupper her plans. At the head of the stairs, clad in a voluminous nightgown that made her look like a doll packed in silk, stood Mrs Nancy King. As if waiting.