‘COACHMAN YOU WILL go back with us now,’ Joe ordered.
‘When you’ve changed the horses,’ said Nell, while Robert rose beside her for extra numbers and Olu twirled her poker red at the end.
‘Who’s going to pay me for my trouble?’ said the driver as they headed out the door.
‘You could try the Leeds newspapers,’ she told him sourly.
‘This wouldn’t have happened in my grandfather’s day. Told what to do – by a woman!’ he grumbled into his hat, soaked through like the rest of him.
‘Times are changing,’ said Robert meaningfully. ‘A man like me knows it more than most.’
The landlady’s daughter, who’d offered to go with them, said they must travel four miles along the road they’d come by, then turn east the rest of the way on foot. The distance wasn’t great, just difficult for horse and wheels and what should have been an hour’s journey instead took nearer two. Then came the final leg, following the tracks of a carriage that had strayed from the road in the dark. At last the glow of lanterns was visible through the snowy murk, where the landlady, her two strongest stable hands and several men from neighbouring farms stood gathered on the edge of a crag.
‘There’s one down there alive but we can’t move him,’ she said when they’d joined her. ‘We’ve done all we can to make him comfortable.’
In the gulley below they could make out the broken outline of an upturned vehicle; one wheel was visible and oddly was spinning still. ‘Who is left alive?’ Nell asked as the snow stung her eyes like gravel.
‘The only one that counts,’ she answered. ‘The white one.’ Errands of mercy clearly had their restrictions, and there was no regret in her eyes when she noticed Olu’s colour. The girl was the lady’s slave, or if not what did it matter? – she was black, an object hardly worth a second thought.
‘You must tell me his name,’ Nell insisted.
‘He is Sir George Cooper of Belle Isle near Leeds. He is dying and he will die.’ The words in Nell’s ears sounded both distant and near, outside and within, real and unreal, but with a frenzied grief waiting to burst.
‘We have done all we can,’ the woman continued, ‘these men here are starved with cold. We have nothing to move him with, no doctor within ten miles. We’ve made him warm with blankets but it’s hopeless. His head’s broken. Don’t go down there, Miss, it’s dangerous!’
‘I’m his daughter, I must,’ and she plunged knee-deep down the snowy slope. Joe was behind her – ‘Be careful!’ – and Robert, outrunning him in a burst of conjured bravery, was at her side holding her hand as best he could. When she slipped, his grip was agonisingly tender; he wanted to share her danger, share her thoughts, which were these: why did the wheel keep spinning? and where had she seen it before? It was spinning with more propulsion that the wind could supply; it was spinning beyond its natural velocity; it was spinning with the force of another world, a world made real by the night that was black and the snow that was white. Her amazement was complete when she found Olu already there before her. She must have hurried down by a quicker route, though there were no marks of exertion and her breath came slow not fast. It was as if she had been there for hours, even days.
‘I see to this one first,’ she said, when Nell looked at her accusingly. ‘No one give him a thought but me.’ She meant the Chinaman, Kit, lying with his blood on the snow, and though she spoke the truth Nell didn’t care – why should she when her father was dying – and he would die.
‘You can’t do anything for him, Olu, though you might help my father. Please let me pass,’ she said, for she seemed to block her way.
‘You go in there, you might not like what you see. You might not like what you hear.’
‘That’s for me to decide,’ Nell answered as Olu stepped clear.
The upturned carriage had been propped up by a stout timber to enable the door to be opened. Sir George’s body was lying on the ceiling which was now the floor; it had a deathly pallor. His head was indeed smashed and lay on a cushion of blood congealed by the cold.
‘Fool that I am, Nell. Fool that you’re not,’ he said softly when he saw her face.
‘I am here, Father. Joe too.’
‘Yes, and there’s another,’ he said, endeavouring to see through the broken glass. ‘A doctor now, I hear. She tends him – Kit – does she hate me so that she’ll kiss a dead Chinaman before me? It’s my belief he drove us right over that cliff. I can guess too who told him to do it.’
‘Here, drink this, I’ve brought some brandy,’ Nell said, bringing the bottle to his bloody mouth. ‘It will stop you shivering,’ she added, tucking in the blankets the landlady had brought.
‘No, I am warmer than I’ve ever been. I’m warmer in the heart, Nell, where it matters. I want you to forgive all the wrong I’ve done you. I want you to share my last moments. She must come too, you must know the truth – I think she may know it already. It’s why she stays out there.’
‘Shall I call her?’
‘Yes, it’s all for the best – I mean it this time.’
‘And Joe? And Mister Strong?’
A weak smile escaped his lips. ‘Everyone, why not? The horses too. No, I heard them shoot those. I wish they’d have shot me. My head is bursting. No, no, don’t distress yourself, I can bear it a while yet. It will only be a while.’
‘We’ll move you, I’ll get ropes, a litter …’
He stayed her with a freezing hand. ‘Nell, it’s over. I’m ready to die.’
‘Don’t say so!’
‘It’s true. I’ve breath only for what matters. We’ve found each other for a reason. Think about it, out here at night like this – who would have wagered on its odds?’
‘You and your wagers,’ she teased, reaching for his gory brow then halting. So much blood, so much pain – what could she hope to achieve with her meagre comforts? ‘Before you ask, I forgive you my darling. I forgive you everything. You’re my father.’ His blood was spilled and he was right, at least in part – it was thicker than water; his blood was her blood and she ought to be proud. ‘I’ve been a haughty, foolish girl.’
‘You did what you thought was right, for that I respect you. As for myself, I make no apologies for what I’ve been in life. I dealt in human flesh, it made me rich. We must strive for what we have in this world. There’s no room for weakness. But no…’ – he tried to shake his head – ‘…I lie, it was not so simple in the end. I’m sure it never was.’ He surprised her with a memory she hadn’t known they’d shared. A one-legged blackbird whose plight had touched her deeply last winter had touched him too when he’d spotted it through his casement. In its sweet voice towards dusk one day in spring he’d heard its notes unquestioningly pure and innocent. All it wanted, all it expected, was to live and sing, and in its yellow beak, black plumage and fluting call he’d felt the whole of humanity, black and white, tapping at the door of his heart. Its death when it came – he found it lying in the park – stood for the death of everything that had ever lived. It was a moment of change, of revelation that every living thing was connected one with the other in an endless chain.
‘So did it make you regret – like John Newton – your part in the slave trade? And what now of the death of poor Hector?’
But just then Joe’s face appeared at the upside door; it was all so topsy-turvy just like the picture in the Pemberton house. And still the wheel spun silently – no, with the faint whirring of a spinster’s wheel or the whoosh of the sails on a small boat. The gentle sound was drawing their father to his death, to everlasting peace Nell hoped.
‘Come in Joe,’ she said, ‘there’s room I think.’
He joined her and they crouched before him, doing homage at his makeshift bed. ‘You did your duty well, Joe,’ his father told him, ‘you found my girls.’ Joe’s shoulders stiffened in sheer delight. ‘I give you my blessing at the end, though I leave you with a fight on your hands. I think you know which. I’ll be looking down on you if He gives me the chance, I’ll be making a wager on you winning. I’ve never welcomed long odds, but in your case I’ll make an exception.’
‘Thank you,’ said Joe, unsure if he’d heard a complement. ‘But Father, you said girls, you thanked me for finding your girls.’
‘Please, if you can, make room for Olushegan. You see I’ve always known her name.’ His eyes were grown glassy. There was no time to lose, yet they didn’t know what to expect.
‘Olu – you must join us,’ Nell called, watching her chant her secret prayers over Kit’s dead body; it was stiff in the snow-light, shining like polished wood.
Reluctantly, but without protest, she crawled in and made it four. Robert, whom no one invited, had pressed his face to the glass behind her, not presuming to intrude. ‘Now,’ Sir George began, ‘I must get to the end in a number of senses. I shall die here, not the best of places but it can’t be helped. I shan’t go till I’ve told what I came so far to tell. It’s fitting that you’re all here to hear it, against the odds once again, so there must be a reason.’
He waited to get his breath, to swallow some blood, then told the salient points. He cut to the heart of what he knew would shock – shock them all except Olu, for she alone, the object of what he had to say, looked unmoved. She was his daughter, born if not in love then at least in something that swam in the same sea. He had cared for her mother as far as he was able. He couldn’t help it that he found her colour distasteful, poor substitute for what he valued so highly – a white woman’s skin. Not that he’d tasted much, if any, beyond the confines of the marriage bed: he wasn’t, when all was said and done, a passionate man. His sense of shame had been strong, less so for coupling with a Negress than for sullying the reverence in which he’d held his wife.
As for Olu, she was, like it or not, his daughter. She was, like it or not, his responsibility. She was, like it or not – and this was the hardest part – half himself. As the years passed he couldn’t ignore it, and when the time came to quit Barbados for good, he hadn’t the heart to leave her behind. Hence the need for excuses to hide his shame, hence the spurious wager, hence the ruse of exotic gifts. He’d hoped nonetheless to make her a lady, as far as was feasible for one of her kind. What he hadn’t bargained on was his jealousy when he saw the growing closeness between the two girls. To find himself displaced, reduced to second best in Nell’s affections put pay, or so he’d thought, to his sense of duty towards his black daughter who was, when all was said and done, unexpectedly black. He excused himself with the old hatreds of her culture, her magic and her skin. In all this he was encouraged by Vine, who sharpened every barb of his life-long guile to mould him the way he liked. And so in the end he had banished her, thinking it was for good. And later he had banished a second daughter, thinking that was for good too.
‘But that man, Vine,’ Nell beseeched him, ‘why did you let him get so close?’
He smiled again in spite of himself. ‘I let in only one, just him. My creation, my monster. I don’t expect you to understand. He came from so little, like me. He was ambitious, so I helped him. But my protégé got the whip hand.’
‘And Lord Pemberton? It seems they worked together at the end.’
His smile grew weaker and finally disappeared. ‘His Lordship always wanted Olu, I knew that. I saw how he looked at her. Another sin, I’m afraid – I made her part of the marriage match, to sweeten it like the sugar that made me rich. And there lay another way to be rid of her. Another way to regret.’ His glance at Olu was full of sorrow. ‘I thought the business done with, but I was wrong. The deal was off but His Lordship still claimed his sweetness. And why? Spite I expect, spite and endless desire.’
‘I’ve been all at sea, Nell,’ he said at the finish. ‘I still am and will die that way. All I know is what I’ve come to know these last few weeks – that I feel such love in my heart as to make me sick with grief. I must admit some wrong, even now I can’t admit all of it, but I must admit some. I want – need you all to forgive me. All of you…’ – he held out his hands – ‘…I wish to die in peace, the only peace I deserve.’
Nell took his hands, both of them, the gesture went without saying. Joe too, because he’d craved this moment all his life, did the same. Robert outside was also nodding; he understood now his own ill treatment at the baronet’s hands; likewise that defence of his highwayman brother, the reasoning being that any kindness shown to Olu placed in stark relief a father’s callousness towards his charge.
There remained only Olu, reticent as always yet changed by her time in London. Mechanical though her action was, she reached out and added her hands to the complex clasp. There was no love, no forgiveness in her eyes, but neither – and it was the most any of them could hope for – was there hatred. In her single glance was hope; hope that the human race in all its colours might one day live in something – something that swam in the same sea as love.
‘Now go,’ were his final words, ‘go home and face what you all must face. I wish you well and all the luck I’ve known. All told, I’ve had more than my fair share.’
He died where he lay, and he couldn’t be moved for several days. Kit neither of course, whose death, as Olu insisted, should also be mourned. Joe and Nell arranged with the landlady to have the bodies sent north for burial and to forward the bill for her costs. They daren’t stay beyond a few miserable hours; as their father had said, they had something to face: his creation, his monster.