HER TUTOR WAS Mr Strong, whose name Nell had often pondered. He would never have made a soldier, though the war with America was raging still, and press-gangs were active in the towns. A poor catch if they caught him, physically and mentally. Not only was he feeble-bodied, his head swirled with all the wrong thoughts. Mr Strong was an enlightened man who had spent some time in France. He’d been influenced by some of the latest thinking, notably of the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom he claimed to have met. Nell wasn’t sure if she believed him; he had the look of a man who might lie to save his swarthy skin. She didn’t know what he believed, not deep down where it mattered. His radical thoughts seemed a burden, as if he wished – sorely – he’d never been bitten by the bug that harboured them.
And yet Nell liked him well enough; she knew he was vulnerable, at her mercy if she chose. And his views interested her, if only because they were different. Children, he said, learned best when left alone to be children, with minimum schooling before the age of twelve. And thought that everything, down to the buckles on his shoes, was rooted in politics. All this he’d let loose timidly, tangentially, in the privacy of the schoolroom, withdrawing what he’d said like insults he was sorry for, or jests he didn’t mean. She mustn’t take him seriously, he’d say in his soft-toned voice, and mustn’t breathe a word to anyone – not that it would make a difference. Walls have ears, and servants, when it pleases them, have loose tongues. The tutor’s views were common knowledge, especially to Sir George.
Who differed, and didn’t beg to do it. On this, as on all matters, his world view was fixed. Conformity was his watchword. He hated difference of any sort, honourably held or not. ‘He’s had it easy in my absence,’ he’d told Nell that morning, ‘takes too many liberties. The discipline of the classroom is a discipline for life. A boy must learn to be male, and a girl must learn to be female.’ That’s why Joe had gone to school at York, leaving Nell at home with humble, contrary, Mr Strong, whose eplace as tutor dangled by a thread, one that he’d spun himself quite by chance. Compelled to confess his beliefs before the baronet that morning, Mr Strong named his radicalism point by point. Sir George’s lips were parted in a scowl as he heard him through, but at this – Rousseau’s view that girls should be taught to be meek and submissive – his countenance lightened. ‘Very well then, that alone you may keep. Along with your situation – for now. But I shall be making enquiries for another master should I hear of anything untoward …’
‘You won’t, sir, and you won’t regret it,’ said Mr Strong, bowing repeatedly. He knew that Sir George’s was the hand that fed him, while his in turn fed his wife and children, with another on the way.
‘We shall see about that. Now go and prepare your schoolroom. You have two pupils from now on.’ The tutor’s shoulders hunched even further, his posture a human question mark. ‘Both of them girls, one black, one white,’ the baronet told his startled listener. ‘I wish you to tutor them side-by-side. The meekness, the submissiveness you mentioned –you may lay that on thick with a trowel. And mind you deliver it in good plain English. It’s important that your new pupil learns to speak well. Language, manners – those are the things that count in society.’ He had told him next about the wager. It was another burden for Mr Strong, who brought it with him to the schoolroom.
He closed the door behind him, something he never did. At 24 he stood with his usual stoop, cleared his throat in the usual way. He wore a black double-breasted coat like Reverend Mortimer, and his hat, like his, had a small crown and wide upturned brim. There, however, his resemblance to the clergyman ended, for Strong smiled often, and his face shone with simple kindness. Usually, that is, but not today; his face had a strained look, and his mouth was set in a frown. It might have been the fit of his silk stock, which was too tight at the neck. It may have been – and it was – something worse.
‘Your father, Nell, has agreed to Mora’s presence,’ he said, standing before the table where he’d placed his hat on the green leather surface. But though his hat was on the table, not all his cards lay beside it. His tone was even softer than usual, and more ambiguous. ‘In fact, strange as it may seem, he insisted on it. I have heard his reasons and I understand them. But it’s most surprising, most – irregular. Not that I’m complaining.’ He didn’t dare. More than once Nell had seen how he’d trembled, tongue-tied and awkward in her father’s company, frightened to press a single point. She’d seen other things too – the pain in her father’s eyes caused by the other man’s learning. Sir George had riches and power but the real winner was educated Mr Strong. Despite his attempts at book-learning, the baronet knew he’d never catch him; the humble tutor was a lifetime ahead.
Nell opened her desk and took out pencil and paper. Mora did the same, listening to a voice that even now said more than it ought: ‘I think you are happy in her company, Nell. I see it in your face,’ he said, straightening the map on the wall. It showed the world as they knew it then, no sign yet of Australia, New Zealand and countless uncharted islands. A small world for sure, though hardly a better one. His speech ran on unchecked: ‘I would like us to share this little schoolroom in harmony. I would like our hours here to be enlightening.’ He was struggling to say what he meant, perhaps to mean what he said. He was looking for trust, loyalty, confirmation. He looked so earnest Nell wanted to laugh. ‘But you do seem pleased with Mora,’ he persisted, sweating now as his voice quaked. ‘She has brought you pleasure.’ This took Nell aback; she hadn’t yet decided whether Mora was plus in her life or minus – or just a flat ineffectual neuter. But might he be seeing what she couldn’t, or refused to see? ‘I know your heart, Nell, better than you know it yourself,’ he said, pacing the room with uneven strides like a man wrestling with his conscience. ‘One day you will take a stand on matters – yes?’ He had that way, when excited, of affixing a question to his statements – an older man’s habit that didn’t suit him.
He stopped and sighed, smoothing his shock of black hair tied with a splash of ribbon. His lips were cracked and dry, as if he hadn’t drunk for days. He ran his tongue along them in turn. ‘You wish me to elaborate but I won’t. As your father has reminded me, I have a situation to keep. But in spite of everything there is something I must say. It is this: what will become of her when this wager is won or lost?’ He was staring at Mora now, resting his hands on her desk. A current of thought linked them; along it passed questions, accusations, a mutual struggling for answers.
‘Yes, what will become of me?’ said Mora. Her voice was deep and silky, marked by elements unmistakably African.
‘Your diction is better than I’d thought. But how? – where did you learn your English?’
‘From my mother. On the plantation. Not in the fields cutting cane but at the house, where there was always coming and going of fine gentlemen talking their fine words. And if a certain gentleman takes an interest …’
‘Did Father take an interest?’ Nell was dreading the answer.
‘No,’ she said, but Nell saw how her fists had clenched, how her knuckles turned white. ‘Before your father buy my momma she was a year on St Kitts. There she learned English from her master and her master’s wife by mouth, by book and by example. They teach her and then they sell her.’
‘No explanation?’ asked Nell.
‘They wouldn’t have needed any,’ Mr Strong answered on her behalf. He was reading in Mora’s eyes something unsaid. Something that worried him deeply. ‘I …I was about to tell you about life in ancient Greece,’ he said, resuming the lesson abruptly. ‘Slavery was common there – yes?’ he added, unable to avoid the subject. ‘Accepted, you know, like olives, wine and cheese. They didn’t make an issue of it, not the Athenians, certainly not the Spartans. And they were a classical race with an eminent civilisation. We have much to thank them for, perhaps everything. Along with the Romans – no?’ and he was pointing at the vellum map and slapping it with his hand, running the same across the length and breadth of the Mediterranean, the Aegean, and the landmasses around and between. ‘They had slavery too. It made their world go round – what?’
They sat on in silence as he rambled, Mora all the while clutching the table, her knuckles still white. Pinch her, squeeze her, turn her inside out, thought Nell, and maybe she’s as white as I. A rum thought indeed, for rum was what she’d helped to make. And that same rum, along with sugar and molasses had made her father rich. ‘Don’t forget who you are, Nell, and where you come from,’ she told herself opportunely. ‘Never think badly of Father, not even for a moment. Everything he does, and has done, is for the best – isn’t it?’ Surely it was nothing, but for the first time she’d felt some doubt.
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