HER FATHER WAS still her father, and old habits died hard. Despite their growing differences, she was walking with him this morning as she used to do before his long stay on Barbados. Nell was pleased to be sharing an old pleasure, but her mind was elsewhere. She was remembering the night she’d spent with Mora in the ha-ha, staring at the stars and the swelling moon smudged with a halo of cloud. She’d never felt such thrills, lying there among the detritus of plants and trees, smelling the earth dry and oddly welcoming; alive with memories old yet familiar, culled from a time so distant it defied logic. She’d felt close to the black girl’s soul, as if they’d been friends in that olden time, fellow travellers in a different life. Nell’s body as she walked with her father tingled with unquenched remembrance, missing Mora so much it was a shame to end the wanting.
Sir George was wrapped up warm against the breeze, for he always felt the cold after the heat of the Indies. He was pensive again, as he’d often been of late. Every word he spoke sounded as though it troubled him; nothing eased his mind. ‘I like this path, Nell,’ he said with forced enjoyment. ‘I often think of it as our path.’
‘I walk it with Mora sometimes. She likes its snake-like feel.’ Being born with the sun in her blood, she also felt the cold, Nell might have added. She’d left her that morning curled up on a rug before the fire. Not at all ladylike, proof yet, if any were needed, that her father’s wager would be hard won. Much of it was Nell’s fault – not working hard enough to eradicate old habits, too attracted by them if truth be told.
‘Does she indeed?’ he answered. Nell was treating her more kindly than ever, but he no longer seemed to care. His change of manner was bewildering, likewise all that spying. ‘Then perhaps I should have it grassed over,’ he said, ‘or better still straightened. Did I tell you I’m having the river straightened? No, let me rephrase that – did I tell you I’m having a canal built? Not by myself, I hasten to add, but I’m investing most of the money. A man like me needs to keep up with the times. Inland waters are the way forward for trade. I have an eye on the future – it’s not sugar, Nell, it’s textiles, coal and iron. It’s the main reason I’m back. Mr Vine too, who will help me as he always does. We shall open mines soon – up there on those hills.’ He swept an arm towards the wooded slopes of ash and hazel stirring in the wind. ‘One day soon we’ll see the men crawling out of the ground like they were crawling from their graves. You’ll scarce believe they are human beings. Perhaps they’re not, they can’t be or they’d never do what they do.’ He wasn’t rambling for the sake of it; he was rambling to mask some painful thought.
‘Father, I wish I knew what you felt about her, what you really felt. You seem to blow hot and cold like the wind.’
‘That’s another reason to leave and never go back,’ he went on blindly. ‘They have hurricanes over there, winds that can flatten in one night all that a man has. His sugar crop ready for harvest, his slave huts that house his biggest investment. It’s happened, I have borne the loss several times, but it can’t go on that way.’
‘Not all your slaves live in huts,’ Nell reminded him.
‘Yes, Mora was a house slave not a field hand.’ It was there again, that flinching discomfort, as if her name was grown hateful. There was something else too that Nell had felt before, a whiff of jealousy, no other word would do.
‘A privileged position,’ she said.
His eye was on the hills again, hills that would soon turn white men black because they worked the coal beneath. And kept them black because they didn’t wash, those dirty people of no name – but English nonetheless and white underneath. ‘Only the drivers are privileged,’ Sir George temporized, ‘chosen from among the ranks to keep order on the ground. Yes, we put their own people in charge of them. It’s simple but ingenious. Of course, given that they outnumber the whites ten to one, you couldn’t leave them to it, there would always be a white overseer to supervise.’
‘And answerable to yourself.’
‘Not directly. Mr Vine was the man they answered to. I had little to do with day-to-day life in the fields. But Mr Vine – Archie – will be more useful to me here from now on.’
She’d got so far, and must go on. It was the first time he’d spoken about his affairs so freely. ‘Did you ever pity them? Working so hard from dawn till dusk. Worked to death, Mr Strong says,’ and she wished she’d bitten her tongue.
‘He says too much – still!’ the baronet snapped. ‘I’ve tolerated him long enough.’
‘Don’t be hard on him, Father. It is I that winkles things out of him.’
‘Well you shouldn’t. It’s not your place to question. It’s certainly not your place to judge.’
‘I’m not judging. It’s just that it makes you think, a phrase like that – worked to death. It sounds ghastly. Unimaginable. Working every minute of every day past the point of exhaustion. When I walk these grounds I sometimes feel as if I can’t go on, that I’ve walked too far, and yet if I had to keep on, if I couldn’t hold my hand up for a carriage to take me home. If I had to keep walking, and walking and walking.’
‘They’re not like us, remember. They are bred to back-breaking work in the damp and the heat.’
‘And yet I’ve heard it said that they are lazy – how can that be? It’s a contradiction surely.’
His firm set mouth twitched at this. ‘They easily resort to laziness, that is true. Hence the drivers to keep them in order. There must be order, Nell, rules, discipline. Punishments.’
‘What kind of punishments?’
He rode over her question: ‘They are little more than animals. Does a carthorse complain or a shire horse pulling the plough?’
‘There must be more to it than that. Animals don’t have souls.’
‘Neither does the Negro,’ he was quick to say. ‘Now let that be enough.’
But she wouldn’t be deterred, not yet: ‘I’m beginning to wonder what it is we dislike about them.’
He adjusted his calf-skin gloves and twirled his cane. ‘It’s like so much in life – if we knew why we did something we probably wouldn’t do it.’
‘It being slavery too.’
‘Yes, slavery. You’ll not find me ashamed of the word. You neither I hope. The work these Negroes do has made the world spin very fast this last hundred years, with England at the hub. The wealth that’s poured in, why it takes your breath away. It’s all down to slaving you know.’
‘No doubt,’ she said, gripping his arm tighter to keep him appeased. ‘But what is it about them we don’t like?’
He prodded the ground with his cane. ‘Very well, now that you ask, it’s the colour. I find it distasteful, ugly, even when it’s oiled and shiny on the auction block. I don’t like it and it’s my right not to like it. Ugliness is ugliness Nell.’
‘Mora isn’t ugly.’
Sir George turned aside and swished his cane. ‘Isn’t she? Well no, perhaps not. The French have a phrase – jolie laide – it means beautifully ugly. But I still say as a rule they are all ugliness. I’m not the only one to say so. Ask any white man in his senses. Ask Reverend Mortimer, and he’s a man of the cloth. If he can’t stomach it, who can?’
‘You’ve been talking with him again.’
‘Late into the night, my dear. He really is the best of company when he’s had a glass or two. Almost as much as Archie, he keeps me on the straight and narrow. Believe me, I need him just now. I’m not talking religion either. Between you and me I haven’t a lot of time for it, give or take that church of his I happened to endow.’
‘Neither has he by the sound of it.’
‘He fulfils his duties, which is all anyone can ask of a man of the cloth.’
‘His cloth is black, I find that – well, interesting.’
Her father laughed. ‘Black suits everyone – except a black person. That’s why we dress them in white.’
‘Is that one of the Reverend’s jokes? No, don’t tell me, I don’t wish to know what men laugh about when they’re together. I know that when women are together they talk and laugh without hurt, and there is no doing hurt. We women are the civilisers.’ His laugh coarsened. ‘We bring out the best in men, keep the worst at bay. With more of us out there on Barbados there would be less cruelty.’
He stopped suddenly and faced her. ‘You accuse me of cruelty? – towards the Niggers I suppose?’ The issue in general seemed to fox him so he turned instead to specifics. ‘You think me cruel to her? She couldn’t be blacker if she tried. God – or somebody worse – made her that way. It’s not fair, and it’s not right. Right goes with …’ – he broke off and left Nell to finish.
‘That’s right, white. Scratch her deep and she’ll still be black. Of course, if you took a sharp knife, peeled off every layer of skin …’
‘Have you seen it done, Father?’ she said, and saw him grit his teeth.
‘Archie is right,’ he said, ‘you are ceasing to know your place and need to be taught a lesson.’ He was about to say more when a noise reached them through the tangled thicket ahead. It was the sound of men’s voices raised in raucous enjoyment. A duller sound, as of a nail hammered into wood, broke the cheering in a clumsy, sullen rhythm.
‘Return to the house, Nell,’ said Sir George, ‘there may be danger.’
But Nell, who courted danger now, as her father ought to have known, was running towards the noise.
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