Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In one spirit meet and mingle.
Why not I with thine?
(Percy Bysshe Shelley, Love’s Philosophy, 1819)
‘CLOSE YOUR EYES NELL,’ said Sir George, his white wig glinting like a crown of polished silver. ‘You’re not to open till I say.’ He’d been gone two years but old habits died hard – she obeyed him without question, didn’t dream of fighting him, not even in her petulant moods. Of which there were many back then.
In her blindness she could hear him shuffling by the door. His coat swished; his shoes squeaked on the polished boards. But there were too many sounds for one person, enough for two when – ‘Open them now!’ Her present last time was a parrot. This time it was a girl black as coal.
‘Don’t be disappointed Nell. She’s come a long way, just like me.’
‘I’m not, it’s just that …well, what a thing to bring!’
He removed his hands from her shoulders and sighed. His grey eyes matched his ambiguous tone: ‘Yes, Nell, what a thing to bring.’ His lips on her cheek felt cold, yet his skin, when she kissed him back, was hot and moist. Something had made him uneasy. It couldn’t have been the expense though such blackness didn’t come cheap – as much as a hundred pounds. Observe that the young ones are very black, she’d heard him instruct his factor, who traded on the Guinea Coast. And make sure they are free from disease.
This one, he now told her, was bred in captivity. On the plantation they’d called her Mora – from black Moor or black Muslim, and her dress was spun of cloth that sounded similar (muslin) but the cloth itself was white.
‘Of course you must find your own name, she’s your pet.’ Nell looked at her pet, its arms limp at its side, its head still proudly unbowed. Exotic she may be, but she had a wilful stare. ‘Greek and Roman names are still the vogue,’ continued the father, who’d named his coachman Hector. ‘Along with the comic ones, of course,’ his footman White being a case in point. ‘Lord Pemberton calls his new one Joke – his black joke, very witty I’m sure.’ His laugh became a cough which flushed his thin face. The pipe he smoked did him more harm than good. She could see it upon the table behind him, next his gloves made of calves’ skin, next his hat with its excess braid. ‘I do hope you’ll like her,’ he said, his eyes saying look at her, Nell, a gift to be proud of. She was about her size – five foot three – and roughly her age – 16. But not her colour, though the whites of her eyes outwhited a pearl. It didn’t seem right, for white, as her father had said, was right in every sense. Black was the colour of lies, the colour of poison and deceit. A colour not to be trusted.
All this and more Sir George seemed to ponder as he looked at Mora’s slender neck, her neat round shoulders and dimpled arms. ‘We can improve her, of course. We must,’ he said with a frown. ‘The clever ones perform like monkeys when they’re trained. But it’s not all fun and games, my dear. I am home now and there are customs to be followed. Out there their strange ways hindered my Christian duty. We must have her baptised in a proper church without delay. Should she live so long, that is. They’ve been dying on me like flies of late.’
Nell was sorry to hear it. His wounds were hers, his wrongs too – he’d told her often enough. It was the first lesson of her catechism, and this was the second: she must never cross him, for Sir George was a masterful man. His arrival just now had caused the usual stir, made the great house tremble. Every servant was busy with his orders. The luggage train sailed past the window in an endless line, hands clasping tightly what they daren’t drop. A new coach stood gleaming out front, gold-painted Nell had heard the cook gasp. But that was Father all over – ‘rich as an Indiaman’ and wanting the world to know it. At 42, Sir George Cooper was one of the wealthiest men in England; king of sugar in Barbados, prince of rice, tobacco and spices there and on neighbouring islands. His father – and his father before him – was a merchant in a Yorkshire town. Now Sir George owned the town and not a small slice of the county. He owned a seat in parliament too, and was looking to buy another. He was a lavish spender all right, but many thought he lacked taste. That coach was proof, they’d say, also his gaudy dress. And like clothes, like house, its fluted columns propping up a whole (called Belle Isle) that was white like sugar itself, outside and in – except for the black chequered tiles in the hall.
‘She’ll have duties to perform,’ Sir George said, nudging Mora nearer. ‘No doubt you’ll instruct her. I’ve improved her English but she’s a way to go yet.’ He turned away now, as his frown returned. ‘You must come to my study this afternoon. I have more to say, which only you should hear. Meanwhile take her for a walk, why don’t you? Joe’s in the grounds with the marmoset I’ve brought him, such an ugly little fellow, you really ought to see him hopping about with a cup in his hairy hand. Like a miniature Nigger says our good Mr Vine,’ and he left the room how he’d entered – smiling falsely.
Nell took Mora by the hands and pulled her close. ‘You’re not really a monkey, are you? Rather pretty all told. For a black, I mean. But where to begin? Can you speak our English tongue?’ She wondered what she was feeling, whether she were happy or sad. Whether her sort could be either. ‘Speak to me – that’s an order.’ She lifted her chin on the end of her finger. It rose stiffly at first, then yielded. Her skin was soft as an infant’s. And her ears were small and pierced, the lobes long. Nell parted the thick lips, saw the pinkness of her tongue, the whiteness of her teeth. But the rest so black! ‘Do you know your Bible?’ she asked, reaching hers from the table. ‘It says in here, quite early on I think, that black skin was a punishment inflicted on Ham. Poor Ham – do you know his story? I’d like to hear your story – when you condescend to speak.’
‘What a task to make a friend of you!’ she said, her fit of pique transporting her to the window in six rapid strides. Outside was a fine April day, the noon sun high in the sky above the landscaped park and grounds. The smooth trunks of the beech trees either side of the carriage drive were a sun-blessed dappled grey stretching tall into the distance, echoing in their coming foliage the Corinthian columns of the house front. In the foreground just before the ha-ha was Joe, accompanied, as Sir George had said, by his little creature, the sun glinting on its harness. Joe was three years older. Apart from her father, he was all she had (she took riches for granted, along with her loneliness, her moodiness, the need to have her own way). She loved him, pitied him, and feared for his future. He was not the man his father wished him to be, not even half. She sighed heavily, shielding her eyes from the sun that shone through her fingers with dazzling confection. White as milk being the fashion, sunshine was not to be courted – not if you were vain, as Nell was, friend of every mirror in the house.
‘I don’t suppose your skin minds the sun,’ she said, turning on Mora who hadn’t moved from her spot. She wasn’t even looking at her, which angered Nell. Should she get something straight between them at the start? – slap her face while her blood was up? But the girl had looked at her now and eye-to-eye Nell read something – hurt perhaps or a sense of hardship, certainly a truth of sorts, a hidden knowledge. ‘Are you hungry? – thirsty?’ she asked, and this time for sure there was a shake of the head. ‘I knew you understood!’
‘I understand enough.’ Her voice was soft and feminine, yet oddly deep. ‘I understand how lady is angry.’
Nell wagged her finger under her nose – an ape’s nose, she decided, with nostrils flaring at the loss of her jungle home, a place where dragons breathed fire at the edges of the known world. She had heard such things and half believed them. ‘It was you that made her angry. Yes, you,’ she added when her eyes queried it. And then this, an unexpected confession when her temper was quiet: ‘The lady’s name is Nell, though you have no leave to call me familiar. Nell was my mother’s name. My looking-glass tells me I’m like her. But not as much as I’d wish. I think I’m quite ugly really – inside where it matters – there, I’ve said it. I’m not at all what I would like to be. Not that it’s any business of yours.’
‘No, Miss.’ Mora’s stare, full of dignity and pride, unblinking, felt too strong; Nell was the dog out-stared by its master. She felt foolish, naked and defeated – all at one stroke. That they were linked as mistress and slave suddenly seemed irrelevant, with Nell the one in thrall. How was she to fight such a power? And why should a baronet’s daughter have need? That talk with her father couldn’t come soon enough.