TO MEASURE the change she’d undergone, to test its power and put back the clock if she could, Nell turned again to Robinson Crusoe, foregoing as before the dullness of his early life to dwell on the story post-shipwreck on a tropical island. Not Barbados as it was in her time, but how it might have been before the first Europeans, an uncorrupted Eden with Robinson as Adam and Friday his Eve. No place for mortals, we might say, for one of them was alone before the other came, just sand so white and sea so blue, with no one to share its beauty. Robinson’s loneliness was Nell’s loneliness till his Friday – his Mora – came along. It was difficult at first, as it was for the original pair, but surely if they persevered; if each tried hard to make the other learn, till tutor and pupil became companions, friends, and who knew what besides?
Belle Isle was their home, their island, with all that that entailed. No longer did Nell view the book as she’d viewed it before, reinforcing her sentiments of what it meant to be white and British; she saw only two people sharing their problems through necessity. In such circumstances, perhaps in all circumstances, Friday was Crusoe’s equal, as Mora was Nell’s. One was no more civilised than the other, no more or less the savage; in fact she no longer knew what the terms meant.
She told Mora all about it when she joined her for breakfast in the small lounge. ‘It’s all there in black and white,’ she said, holding up her copy of the book.
‘Black and white,’ Mora repeated. ‘There’s no grey then?’
‘But that’s just it – there is. Aside from the black print on the white page I think it might be all grey. I’m thinking about the world in a new way and you’re here to help me. Where it’ll takes us I’ve no idea, but it’s so exciting don’t you think?’
Mr Strong’s entry interrupted such heady thoughts. ‘My two young ladies in ardent discussion – I trust the subject is a learned one?’ he asked awkwardly, as if he didn’t welcome the answer.
‘Very learned, Mr Strong, it concerns the rights and wrongs of colour,’ said Nell.
‘Then I think the schoolroom is the place, don’t you?’ he said with an anxious look.
They’d soon joined him there, as they did every morning. They had shared many classes by now, their tutor uncomfortable as ever, no more so than today. He sat at the front, scratching his head in silence. He rose and looked out of the window, returned to his desk and sharpened his quill for the second time. That he was wrestling with some problem was plain to see.
‘Nell, I would like you to know that I am pleased with your progress,’ he finally began. ‘Yours too, Mora,’ he said, trying not to look at her. ‘May I say it? – yours most of all?’ Nell had never seen him so agitated. At one point he even put on his hat and tugged it down low. He exhaled noisily between sentences, as if he struggled to get his breath. His speech was peppered with non-sequitors about the weather, about the state of the house chimneys, about the price of coals, though no fire purred in the grate on yet another hot day. Presently, and unexpectedly, he opened his heart to the girls and told them about the strains in his life. His youngest was sick with the flux, his house was damp, while his wife, he added, shaking his head, was distracted by grief on account of something unmentionable.
‘On account of your youngest?’ said Nell, and he nodded unconvinced. He was looking at Mora as he spoke, muttering under his breath, ‘No, on account of me I think. I am a troubled soul of late, a fish out of water. Fish are good to eat – yes? – even those from your father’s ponds? Tench, perch, mischievous eels – what? Forgive my trespasses,’ he said, though what he meant was transgressions.
Mora had taken her Euclid from her desk and was reading quietly. ‘She is studious, is she not?’ said Mr Strong. ‘An academy girl, if there was any such thing. No academies for girls black or white. Such much wasted learning.’
‘She learns quickly,’ said Nell. ‘She’s like me in that respect.’
‘Yes, you are inordinately clever,’ he said to flatter her, his eyes filled with unfamiliar longing. Nell didn’t like it, yet didn’t quite hate it. He was a man in mind and body, who’d fathered children; men, and the whole sexual process, intrigued her. Virginity was something to be lost, if only to say just that – there, I have lost it! It hardly seemed important who took it, so long as it was gone, done with. Any man would do, even Mr Strong. Society would call her a whore – even Betty – but why, in spite of everything, was such a thought attractive? ‘In fact,’ continued Mr Strong, ‘I’d go so far as to say you are the cleverest young lady it has been my pleasure to teach – what? Apart from Mora,’ he added in tortured afterthought. ‘Yes, Mora is clever too. I shall tell your father all about it. The two of you clever together, getting on like blazes. Never a cross word, wager almost won – no?’ He was writhing on a hook of his own making; Nell could have made it worse but she was merciful. She nodded, smiled, took out her books and quill ready to write.
‘As for today,’ he said, gathering his thoughts with another glance at Mora, ‘I wasn’t aware it was Greek we were studying.’
‘It isn’t,’ Nell said, ‘it’s History.’
‘History of our own time perhaps?’ he asked shrugging. ‘I wonder what we’ll make of ourselves in years to come? The wonderful stories of modern Britannia – what? I have a feeling we won’t like to hear it,’ he said, folding his arms self-consciously. ‘The sea, the sea, the air, the air, the land, the land, the land. And the people, the people, the people – if only it were that simple.’ And then he launched into History as though it were a refuge, though Nell couldn’t see how – for he treated the past – and the recent past at that – like a butchers’ shambles, never straying far from its blood and thunder. Timid as he was, he fell short of outright condemnation of this man or that, but they were left with the impression that might – even in the case of the great Robert Clive – was not always right. Finally, that the Americans had rebelled, was presented as the logical consequence of unwarranted oppression with a long dark history of its own.
Sir George, who’d been listening at the door, took him aside at the end and asked if he were well. Nell dallied in the corridor listening to his answer: ‘Yes sir, very well. A domestic matter. A little sleeplessness of late, nothing more – yes?’
‘Nothing more is what it may come to, sir,’ said Sir George, who then enquired about Mora in a tone that was equally sharp. Mr Strong told him of her progress, her quickness of mind, her eagerness for knowledge of all things – all things that mattered to Sir George, he remembered to add. The baronet was scarcely pleased; it was clear that his keenness for their friendship, for Nell’s care and attention on Mora’s behalf had cooled. Whether it was the content of their studies or something else Nell couldn’t say. Only when he took her aside later and told her a new tutor was in the offing did the thing become clearer.
‘I have asked Reverend Mortimer to take over,’ he said. ‘The dear fellow has promised to start before the autumn.’
‘Please, Father,’ said Nell, her hand on his arm in that old way she had of winning him over. ‘Give Mr Strong another chance. He means no harm.’
‘My mind is made up,’ he said, shaking her off to break the spell. ‘Mr Vine and I are agreed it’s for the best. Strong has three months to find a new position, if he doesn’t blotch his copybook beforehand. He might – I can see it coming.’
When Nell told her, Mora looked worried. It was so unlike her. ‘You will miss him, then, as I will?’ Nell said as they walked the grounds as usual, choosing the Serpentine Path whose snake-like course Mora loved because it touched her African soul.
‘I will miss his wisdom.’
‘You don’t find him illogical, hare-brained and full of whimsy?’
‘Quite the contrary,’ she said, turning a polite phrase Nell had taught her. ‘What shall I do without him?’
‘You’ll have me.’
‘Yes, I’ll have you.’
She was smiling more warmly than she’d ever done; pure balsam to Nell’s heart. ‘When you look at me like that I could half believe we’ll be true friends one day.’
‘Given time,’ Mora said, ‘who knows what is possible?’ She took Nell’s arm without prompting, and they crossed the park by a different route. This time they avoided the fishponds, clearing the ha-ha and skirting a copse of wych elm, oak and hazel with its floor of nodding bluebells. It brought them to clearing dominated by a Greek folly. Some of the trees here were pollarded by a woodsman’s axe. They reminded Nell of bones, of bodies torn limb from limb. She was thinking of their talk the other night, one of understated torture and death. She wanted to broach the subject again but didn’t know how. Their relationship remained tenuous, delicate like glass. Nell wanted it stronger, less ephemeral.
‘Tell me about Barbados,’ she said, but what she really meant was, tell me how it felt to be a slave there.
‘Think of your English winter,’ answered Mora, ‘think of the dark that swallows the light of your feeble candles. Think of that darkness in your heart forever. That is how it feels to be a slave. But you don’t want to know how it feels, not deep down, I saw it in your eyes that night when you came to my room. You not like the pain it brings. But if you don’t have the pain you can’t have the medicine.’
‘What do you mean – medicine?’
They heard a branch snap and then a voice: ‘Stop right there. I wouldn’t ask that if I was you.’
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