CHANGE IS FRIGHTENING, and we’ll resist it if we can. Nell told herself that everything was normal, that all would be well, as the Reverend said. The ball was indeed coming, and that in itself had a homely logic. Or so she hoped.
‘I wonder who’ll be there tonight? – as if I didn’t know!’ she said as Betty helped her to dress that morning and Olu sat sowing closeby. ‘I think dear Joe is still sweet on Caroline, sweet to the point of bitterness. And why shouldn’t he be? – they’re to be married after all.’
‘Mind you don’t eat your words,’ said Betty as she pinned a hem.
‘What do you mean?’ Nell asked.
‘Nothing Miss, just a figure of speech,’ Betty said, storing the pins between her lips as if to seal them.
‘Or servants’ secrets,’ said Olu, and an odd look passed between them. This was interesting, thought Nell: the lowly people of the household had their secrets and codes, but were they really so different for black and white? It was an unwritten law of nature that they must be, a law she had never questioned – till now. And as for Betty, abnormal as she was, unconventional for a servant, she stayed so in the same unchangeable ways. Nell had found it comforting that her character was as fixed as the stars; it was another law she had never questioned – till now.
‘Well they’ll make a fine couple, I’m sure,’ she said, aiming to sound definitive.
‘Will they?’ queried Betty.
‘Yes of course, what on earth can you mean? Now listen, Betty, you go too far, it’s not your place to say.’
Betty apologised without sarcasm, and Nell gave her the benefit of the doubt. Her thoughts had turned to the evening and how predictable it would be (and not how wrong she could be).
The guests were gathered in the hall, in the drawing-rooms and on the stairs, quietly poking fun at her father’s taste, or rather his lack. Despite the garish excess of gilt, the over-lathering of the plasterwork, the broken rules of form and convention, the architect who had built Belle Isle had not demurred. He knew that Sir George was resolute, egged on as always by the ever faithful Vine.
Nell would rather be elsewhere, though at least she had Olu, in whose honour, perversely, the ball was thrown. The wager was won, for what it was worth, the victory hollow, predictable in its consequences – a black girl trained to be what she now was: a society beauty, the question what’s to become of her? ringing in the air like a badly cut bell. Sir George, seeming to be aware of this, said, ‘Leave us, Olu, I wish to be alone with my daughter.’ Nell watched her go, bowing respectfully as she went, her face an expressionless mask. ‘Nell,’ resumed her father, ‘you mark me down too much as a man devoid of compassion. I wish you to think well of me,’ he said, leading her aside, ‘to believe me when I say – and I’m not sure I can say it, though I’ve drunk enough – that I still value your good opinion of me.’
‘Rest assured, Father, you have it,’ she told him. ‘You always will.’
‘Then my life is your life, yes? My friends, your friends, my enemies likewise? It’s as it always was in the world, my dear – we should do as much good to our friends as we can, likewise as much harm to our enemies.’
‘Your friends being who I think they are? I see only one of them here tonight,’ she said with a swift glance at the Reverend, whose snout-like nose was level with a punch-bowl. Though there were many scattered about the room, he looked to have claimed a bowl for himself.
‘Archie is – otherwise engaged,’ Sir George answered. ‘He may join us later if he finishes the task I have set him.’
‘Are you sure he has not set it himself?’
‘You think he goes too far?’ he returned. ‘Be kind to him, Nell,’ he said softening, ‘show him some favour.’ He was urging his point too strongly, Nell thought. ‘Say you’ll do it Nell, it’s what I wish. I wish also that you’d be – how can I put it? – friends.’
‘It’s as you say, Father,’ she said to dissimulate. ‘We are kin, you and I. You make the rules and I obey.’ The statement, though he hadn’t noticed, had grated on she who’d uttered it.
‘I may hold you to your word sooner than you think,’ he said, and strolled away with a troubled air.
‘You think Father is harsh,’ Nell said, when Olu was back at her side.
‘Who am I to say?’ Her grip on Nell’s arm was tight, unexpected, as if they shared the same hurts. Nell wanted it to be so. She’d felt so proud of her tonight, proud of her black beauty. She was proving herself an accomplished debutante, accustomed to illustrious company, easier on the eye than the rest of her kind put together. Lady Green’s nigger looked ragged and smelly, while Lady Hackney’s, a present from her husband, was a sullen dwarf with pinched features. Olu was radiant beside them, the bonded star of the white folks’ ball. But for now, and Nell wondered why, she was having to steady her.
‘Something’s come over me,’ Olu said, asking to borrow Nell’s fan.
‘Not the heat, I’m sure,’ Nell said, watching her closely. Lord Pemberton was watching her too, an unexpected longing in the old man’s eyes. Nell remembered all he’d said that day, how his laugh still rang in her ears. She ought to thank him nonetheless; he was part of the change that had worked within her these last six months.
Olu sighed pensively. ‘No, it’s not the heat,’ she said, handing back the fan.
‘I see,’ said Nell, distracted by the heat of affection. She had spotted Joe and Caroline by the fireplace, his head leaning on hers, his mouth as close to her neck as decorum would permit. There was laughter between them, the nuzzling intimacy of young courtship; they were lost to each other like two doves on a quiet branch in springtime. And though it was autumn, with all its customary gloom, they were signalling their future together. Nell watched him keenly, Joe the brother she loved, his manhood vague and uncertain, repressed in his face but outing through his foot which knocked impatiently against the hearth and helped him forget his troubles. They were blooming with love and the heat of the room, their lips eager as they cooed silently in their sculptured pose.
The business between them looked signed and sealed, and when Nell saw Caroline walking with Sir George on the balcony she felt sure he was giving his blessing. It was odd that she didn’t look pleased, looked to stiffen at his touch. Her face had quivered as it turned away. She’d lost that radiance of an hour ago when love gazed upon love, as only young love knows how. She stood alone at the windows, staring down at the lighted cressets and the empty blackness beyond. Nell wondered what was out there, what evil lurked. What might be there by night that wasn’t there by day. But her thoughts were mainly with Caroline, trying to read her mind. Something was wrong, though she doubted it was serious. Had the date been set too early? or more likely, too late? Perhaps there were dowry issues, or problems with the marriage settlement? Perhaps – and she was sure it was this – her father had told her of his plan to send Joe to the Caribbean for his own good, to make him a better son, a better husband. Was she thinking that she ought to go with him because she loved him? – or, more likely, wait at home till his task was done? The phrase reminded Nell of Mr Vine, and what task he was about. She doubted it augured well, and her eyes searched out Joe to compensate; poor, dear weak Joe, who for his part saw none of this. Indeed, perhaps there was nothing to see, and not long after, Caroline was back on his arm, when all looked well as before. He was happy still when he joined his sister in a glass of punch. She’d never seen him happier, though in truth, like their father, he’d had a glass too much.
‘Dance with me, sis,’ he said with affected bow. ‘Show you love me yet, no matter what I do to our tenants’ dogs.’
She forgave him the drunken jest; in the scheme of growing ugliness his black deed ranked smaller by the day. ‘Of course I love you,’ and they went through their paces as they’d learned them from their dancing master when young, all so ordered, so genteel.
‘Mr Strong seems a bundle of nerves tonight, have you been upsetting him? You must have noticed his manner.’
‘Upset him? I am sure I have not,’ she replied, sighting the tutor for the first time slumped against the wall.
‘I wanted to laugh when I heard it, though I know I shouldn’t,’ he said, all the while his eyes searching for Caroline. ‘Sir Herbert and Lady Gough robbed at pistol point on their way here. She hasn’t a jewel to stand up in. They took the lot, those bold highwaymen, would have robbed her down to her garters if she’d been younger and prettier.’
Nell frowned as if the light were too strong, which wasn’t true. Not a thousand candles could have made it bright; the night was dark and moonless, the sort that highwaymen loved. The pair Joe mentioned was growing more daring by the day. Last week they’d robbed a coach in broad daylight, shooting the driver in the hip as he’d reached for his blunderbuss. They were wicked men for sure, as everyone said, except Mr Strong. Nell had taken Betty’s hint to the schoolroom that day and put it to him straight. He’d tried to prevaricate but he’d let it slip, how sometimes men were made desperate, driven to do the unthinkable. He couldn’t condone what they’d done but he could understand it.
‘You mean if it keeps their families in bread?’
‘Yes and no,’ he’d answered, so she’d pressed him harder. She saw how he’d sweated – worse than Betty on a hot day. She had him on a hook, but which one? He said he was wrestling with his conscience, a matter of heart versus head. He didn’t say more, though Nell knew Betty was right – he harboured a secret, and she thought she knew what it was. Poor Mr Strong, to have a highwayman as a relative …
‘You’re right,’ she said to Joe, ‘he does look in low spirits.’
‘It won’t be long before they’re caught,’ Joe droned on, saying how Sir George had tripled the reward – hadn’t she heard him say so to the whole assembled company? She hadn’t, nor his intention to send out an armed party at dawn to avenge his outraged guests.
‘What about the fox hunt? All the men are expecting it. Some of the women too.’ She’d thought she might go herself.
‘He’ll not postpone it,’ said Joe laughing. ‘Nor will he miss it. Father would rather give up his sugar.’ Didn’t he know? – hadn’t he been told? Of course not, it stood to reason. She should have told him herself, and almost did, that sugar didn’t matter any more; Joe’s posting to Barbados was really an exile; all the new wealth would be made back home in coal and iron. His son and heir would be sent to preside over failure, over crumbling kingdoms better men than he would struggle to rule.
She looked at Mr Strong with all this and more swirling in her head. His eye as they met seemed to know her thoughts, or some of them. She thought she detected a pleading look – and if she wasn’t mistaken, a look of love.
‘He’s drinking plenty I’ll say that much,’ said Joe, his eye on his next dance with Caroline, who was nowhere to be seen. ‘As for Reverend Mortimer,’ he added, ‘the man looks glum from head to toe. What have you done with him, sis?’
‘Me?’ She looked worried. ‘Why nothing.’
‘It’s as if someone’s struck him in the face with a warming pan. If you ask me, he hasn’t recovered from what you sprung on him that day …’
How could he know, or even have guessed? ‘What – yesterday?’
He was too drunk to notice any shades of meaning. ‘No! months ago – I mean baptising your little black thing. It’s weighed heavy with him by all accounts, and seeing her here tonight in all her finery has done him no good at all. Just look,’ he said, pointing them out leaning against opposite walls. ‘Two scholars together – they make a perfect V for the drunken eye to behold. Father’ll be knocking their heads together before the night’s out.’
Nell wished that he would, and Mortimer come off worse. She’d heard him enquire earlier if Sir George would help strengthen the pro-slavery lobby at Westminster. There were more abolitionists afoot than ever, he’d said, and they must be stopped, with powder and shot if necessary. Her dislike of the man was renewed and she was glad they’d cursed him; he was, as Olu had said, a deserving case.
‘It’s such a long night,’ she said, as Joe twirled her gracefully.
‘Enjoy yourself, sis, and it’ll soon pass. Or failing that, count sheep and sleep your cares away. It’s what I do every night.’
‘Try telling that to Mr Strong,’ she said, watching him again, which she couldn’t help. He looked like a man brought low, pinned out on tenter-hooks like poor man’s cloth to dry. Indeed, his cloth looked poorer than ever tonight, mere fustian for his coat, while his shoes, buckled as they were at last, were buckled with different sizes. Not long after he picked up his hat and left. It was either that, Nell decided, or he’d burst into tears. She asked Olu to hurry after him, which she seemed reluctant to do.
‘What are you waiting for?’ Nell asked as she hesitated. ‘It’s for me to stay and you to go. Appearances – yes? I’m sure you understand.’
‘I understand very well,’ she said, as if they were strangers again, enemies. ‘If the wolf is out there, it is I who must face him.’ And with that she was gone, leaving Nell puzzled when she didn’t return.
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