MORA COOPER: her baptism was swift; just a sprinkle of water, barely a drop, from Reverend Mortimer, who didn’t like getting his hands wet, not till she’d left his church. Nell heard later how he’d scrubbed them with a shoe brush at the pump, crossing himself like a Papist as he went indoors on his bandy legs. The day had been stormy – a judgement from God to the Reverend’s mind. No wonder he’d chosen (with her father’s consent) the most distant of his three livings, not the nearest in Horseford village to which Sir George had the right of advowson, but his Bradford incumbency that he seldom visited. Even there, matters would be left to his curate had that been an option; but the consumptive young man had taken to his bed coughing blood.
Still the job was done, which was all that mattered to Sir George. And Joe, whom he’d left in charge, had done his duty; his father, for once, had nothing to reproach him with. Joe looked pleased with himself as they rode home, the rain slanting across the countryside, beating like pebbles against the carriage windows. He joked how the rain had done its work better than Reverend Mortimer. ‘She’s had quite a soaking. To look at her you’d think it was a fountain rather than a font.’ His marmoset seemed to agree as it ran from shoulder to shoulder, squeaking like a rat in a trap.
‘Can’t say she looks any cleaner,’ he said, fair throttling the animal as he brought it to heel. ‘She could climb a chimney and not look any blacker.’
‘You insult her,’ said Nell.
‘How do you know? You think you can tell just from looking at her face? I for one see no blush.’
His words were not meant to hurt. Joe was mouldable still, not the rock their father would have him be. There was softness yet which showed in his face, especially the eyes that said so much when he laughed. Nell saw in them what might have been, what should have been – a young man who was happy, naturally so on every level. She knew him too well, how he hid behind his mask of false bravado. And that habit of sniffing to hide his shyness, the monkey now an added distraction. ‘Don’t suppose she knows much English,’ he went on presently. ‘Stands to reason I expect.’ She was about to tell him how wrong he was when she caught Mora’s eye. She was staring fixedly at a beaded strip just below the ceiling.
‘Beats me, sis, where you’d begin teaching someone like that,’ Joe said absently. ‘How did you manage the parrot?’
‘I repeated words still it started to copy. I didn’t get far. It died prematurely, remember.’
‘You could do the same with her I suppose, and see what luck you have,’ he said, leaning forward with his hands on his knees. ‘No time like the present. Jo-seph, Jo-seph,’ he emphasised, pointing at himself. ‘Ne-ll, Ne-ll,’ he added, pointing at his sister. And then he stabbed his finger, saying ‘Mora, Mora – watch my lips if you want to learn.’ He looked ashamed of himself when he’d finished, and the sniffing and stroking were resumed. Yet more pronounced than ever was his way of looking at Mora from beneath his brows, which had started the moment he saw her.
‘Don’t tease her,’ said Nell, feeling suddenly protective. ‘She may not like it.’
‘I’m not sure like comes into it. She’s yours, sis, your merchandise. Your chattels as the law says. You can do with her what you wish. Would you like me to spell it out?’
‘No, I would not,’ said Nell. She too was looking at that strip. She was wondering about the lash and whether Mora had felt it. Perhaps not, but she must have witnessed it on others. Nell had only to ask of course, but wouldn’t – couldn’t. There was comfort in knowing she was only a Nigger, that Niggers, as her father had said, were different when it came to pain. And they could work tenfold harder than white folk and never feel its effects. Nell had read it was so in books by learned authors; it was all there in black and white. So what of Mora? She couldn’t expect to be idle, though her father didn’t seem to mind. You might even say he encouraged it. She wasn’t used to heavy work, he’d said, to the gruelling toil of the cane-fields. She and her mother were household slaves; life had been easy by comparison. So easy, Nell reflected, that the mother had killed herself. She’d asked him last night and he’d said it was true, he hadn’t wished to alarm her. The world was cruel and harsh, and she, his damsel kith and kin, he would always protect if he could.
‘But what about Mora’s mother?’ she’d persisted though he hadn’t liked it. He’d poured himself some brandy and seen it off in one gulp. ‘A sorry business, Nell.’ There was nothing he could put his finger on – ‘Just one of those things that happen on plantations.’ He’d seen it before, the sapping of the spirits, the enervation, but it was usually the men who killed themselves. The women were stronger, more focused. They had their children to live for, he supposed. A thing of instinct, like birds and animals.
‘Evidently Mora wasn’t worth living for,’ Nell had said
‘Evidently not.’ All the more reason to be lenient, he’d said, to treat her as he treated Nell – with kid gloves. She was truly her pet to pamper, and be pampered herself in turn. And though she didn’t know why, that’s how she wanted it from now on: reciprocal, mutual, conjoined. But when she’d told him so his frown had returned. ‘Yes, that’s all well and good but remember the experiment, the wager that must be won.’
He had smiled then, if smile it was. ‘The Sugar King …’ – it was the name he’d come to be known by – ‘…has a beautiful daughter,’ he said softly, ‘whatever would he do without her?’ He’d tweaked her cheek as he liked to do, then stooped to kiss her forehead. ‘Would that you were always so dutiful. Being dutiful, loving only your father, is what makes you lovable yourself. One is a condition of the other, they go together like hand into glove. I love you deeply, Nell, but I’m proud. I think you understand me when I say so.’
‘Yes, Father,’ she’d said, thinking of the mother who’d never crossed him, never dared. And who was loved by him for that reason – maybe only for that reason – till the day she’d died.
There was something she was missing in all this, but what? – and did she really wish to know? It was Nell who sought diversion now. She looked again at Joe, who seemed pensive. He liked to deny her his thoughts, she who was just a girl, and she wondered where that placed Mora. No higher than a dog, she presumed, but was that what Joe was thinking? No, there was more on his mind, a more that had killed his good humour. ‘Penny for them,’ she ventured, and he glanced her way and smiled. She was too inquisitive for her own good, he said, and didn’t she know, that as a gentleman, his thoughts ran only to drinking, gaming and hunting the fox? ‘Oh, and to girls, sis, I know I must make room for those. One in particular,’ he added with a sniff. Nell too liked Caroline Stroud, and the thought of the match pleased them both. She would be good for Joe in all the right ways: she was gentle, submissive, all that a girl should be. All that Nell was not. She teased him about it, and again he sought distraction. It was his turn, Nell decided, as if it were a game they were playing.
A poorer man might have made her dowry food for thought. But Joe knew full well that Caroline’s money was not the issue. The marriage was favourable on grounds of connection, not wealth. Her father, Lord Pemberton, was known at court, connected on both sides, Whig and Tory, and their father, who hoped for a peerage from a king with a penchant for creating them, might find himself His Lordship sooner than he’d hoped.
She was staring at Joe still and smiling. He couldn’t bear it. Once more he turned to Mora, whose eye caught his and flicked away. ‘Ah!’ he exclaimed, ‘was that a note of recognition? I think she’s aware at least that I hail from the opposite sex.’
‘Do you find her pretty?’
‘Pretty ordinary as a matter of fact. She’s no great looker, and yet …’
‘And yet what?’ Nell asked, as the coach hit a pothole and swayed. Joe’s grasp of the straps was simple and innocent, almost foolish; it told her in a flash how much she loved him.
‘Hard to put your finger on,’ he said, stroking his creature, which nibbled his hand. He feigned to throttle it again, tickled its face and continued, ‘There’s something about her, I don’t know what. Father calls her spirited. I think I know now what he means. Mark how you deal with her, sis. She’s a deep one. I think it’s true of a good many of them. The things you hear …’
‘What sort of things?’
Joe shrugged. ‘Oh, just things. Things not worth talking of – if you’ve any sense, that is.’
He wouldn’t say more and Nell didn’t ask. But she would ask Mora when the time was right, for her list of questions grew longer by the day.
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