OCTOBER PASSED QUIETLY, and with it, Nell hoped, her wounded pride. It wasn’t easy being alone again, with no one to call friend except Betty, whose kitchen duties, at Sir George’s insistence, kept them apart more than ever. He was hoping to cure her of unnatural lust below stairs. It was his way of saying she can stay if it pleases you, Nell, but on my terms only. Hector too was kept busier for the same reason; to work him harder would weaken his ardour, he’d quipped, to impress Lord Pemberton when he called.
She still had Joe, of course, who stayed Joe; and she still had Vine and Mortimer, whose first names it galled her to prefix. Both deserved her enmity in generous measure. Mortimer was her tutor now, and she hated him from his stock to his stockings – his stockings so thick, his stock so tight – but not tight enough for her. Alone at her desk in the schoolroom she would watch him secretly, thinking back to the curse, wishing it would prove itself before her eyes. There was nothing to suggest it might, and this was the cruellest thought of all, that nothing extraordinary existed anywhere on earth, or even in heaven. It was why we craved the supernatural, wanted to believe the impossible, that all was not man-made, not mortal, incurably so, world with end.
What a thought to live with, that this was all we’d ever have, the mundane here and now. It was a thought doubly damning, for how was she, a mere slip of a girl, as Mortimer said, to live for herself, to please herself, to gather her rosebuds while she may? The task was a killing labour even to try. The best solution was to knuckle under, drain her heart of foolish dreams and kick no more against the pricks. She should settle for what she was and what she had. It was her only chance of happiness. Or, as Rousseau would say, contentment; which wasn’t the same thing but better than nothing.
That’s why she tried again to be a lady, to be the perfect daughter. There followed a period of polite frivolity, one that pleased her father greatly (and by the same token his trusted agent, Vine). She attended the neighbours’ houses for tea and cakes, she listened to music recitals with their guests at Belle Isle, she grew accomplished at cards. She drank more chocolate, more coffee and more than was good for her of sack, sherry and Madeira. Day in, day out, she did what girls did in society; all that they could hope to do. And all told she’d thought herself cured of her sickness, visited a spa of the mind and taken its restorative waters. If only she’d gone there for real, to Bath, to Buxton or Tunbridge Wells; if only, one month later, hadn’t travelled to London for the start of the winter season.
The weather was damp, greasy and chilly, with frequent rain that made the journey long and occasionally hazardous. November days tolled like a bell, slow and funereal, as they bumped and swayed in the carriage for hard-won mile after mile. Light relief from the dreariness was short but never sweet, for the coaching inns were as much to be desired as the roads they fronted. To say they had the best that money could buy is not to say much, and even Sir George’s bellowed orders couldn’t make pearls out of clay.
But London was his oyster and he knew it. People stopped and stared in the muddy streets; they thought it was the king going by in his royal coach. As well they might, for a conveyance of such quality was seen just as seldom. Like a king too Sir George distributed largesse; he tossed coins from his window at passing urchins, he leaned back on his velvet headrest and laughed at their grovelling. Joe who sat opposite laughed too, because his father expected it.
‘If we find it funny, so should you, isn’t that right Archie?’ he said, nudging the man at his side, too valuable to be left behind. The ubiquitous Vine had been invited to mix business with pleasure at his master’s expense. ‘Stay as long as you like,’ he’d told him, ‘as long as it takes to settle it.’ A legal matter, Nell supposed, one that merited the attorney’s attendance at the Court of Common Pleas. Or was it King’s Bench or Exchequer? She forgot which, only that his agents were mentioned, Messrs Cornwell and Dance of Chancery Lane. It was the ring of the name perhaps that fixed this detail in her memory, and there would come a day when she’d be thankful that it had.
For now, though, she dismissed it for the tedium that it seemed. Wrapped in her blanket and shawl she slumped against the upholstery feigning sleep, though real slumber was impossible. The street sounds intruded through the thin partition, a persistent roar broken by cries and occasional screams. She listened without choice to the hissing of the wheels, the sharp bowling as they spun across a dry patch of ground or drummed upon the granite cobbles. She shivered guiltily, knowing that someone else shivered even harder. Above the trotting of the horses, there in all weathers, was Hector, driving the coach and doing all else besides. The rest of the staff had been left behind, Betty included, no doubt to weaken Hector’s ardour some more. They were to have new servants in the capital; Sir George’s banker in Change Alley had arranged it all, along with the furnishing of the property he had helped him buy. Choose lavish and expensive, he’d instructed him, all in the latest vogue. Mix it up any old how, he might have added, for that was the Sugar King’s way – he must have everything, no matter that nothing matched.
They were here at last. His new town house was in a fashionable quarter of Mayfair, and its size and favourable lease befitted his status. Built narrow-fronted in yellow-brown brick, it stood three storeys tall in the middle of a row with good views of the spacious square. Tall chimneys smoked their welcome, and Nell tried in vain to look pleased. For how could she when her old turmoil was back so virulently? It had crept upon her with every passing mile and now it was swimming in her blood. Her feet were about to touch London, where she was. The forbidden was merging again with the lawful, so she hardly knew which was which. So much for being a lady, accepting her lot, now and forever! She might as well not have tried; arrival in the city had shed her efforts like a feeble skin. Something had snapped inside; something was broken: her willingness to be what others required.
‘Take my arm, Joe,’ she said as they alighted from the coach, ‘I need it more than you know.’
Arm-in-arm they walked together to the front gates. They were made of iron, ornately wrought in black and gold like the gates at Belle Isle. Did she want to go home already? Yes, said her head, to avoid the trouble that’s sure to come; no, said her heart, there’s something you know you must do.
‘Be careful there!’ shouted Sir George, and his words seemed suddenly apt. But he’d meant the servants struggling with the luggage. Should they drop anything in the mud he would murder them, he said, though his bark was worse than his bite, surely? Yet with Vine at his side, he looked capable of anything. To see them together was to see the devil in each; it was to see also who was the greater devil, Vine made incarnate in the other, eating away his soul till nothing good remained.
Nell watched her father by the gates, leaning haughtily on his cane. He stood with his legs apart and his lips pursed, the cut-away curves of his pea-green coat fluttering in the breeze. He looked as stern and mighty as ever, the Sugar King come to town, come to oil some wheels that might land that prized peerage. Yes, thought Nell, Father is still Father all right, in look and speech as well as deeds. But mark the rise of his underling, the unquestioned liberties he now takes as a matter of course: ‘Hold your head up high, Joe, don’t stoop,’ Vine told him as he followed behind. ‘Let them know you’re a Cooper, your father’s son.’
At the top of steps Nell paused before the door. If only its colour were not black! She pulled her hand from her muff and stroked the woodwork, next the half pilasters (white!) on either side. Their fluted stone was cold as the grave. Cold as the air on Dead Moor. All the old feelings had returned; she’d fought them all the way but she hadn’t defeated them – they had beaten her. London, if only it weren’t London. Knowing she was here in the same city was unbearable; the miles between them had narrowed to under ten, perhaps to fewer than three or four. She cursed her loneliness, the grief of desertion that was still upon her fresh as the hour it was dealt. What a lie she’d lived, what a foolish, pointless lie. She had everything before her and nothing at the same time. The balance in her life was gone a second time and the cause was the same. The same cause that was also the solution. She was here for a purpose, and it wasn’t what her father thought. The pains she felt were the pains of transformation she’d tried so hard to deny. Suppressed, ignored, they’d been there all along, working their quiet magic, irresistible, irrefutable, undefeatable. To acknowledge them was to free their accrued power, to unleash it with such propulsion it made her glad the doorframe was there to support her. She caught Hector’s eye as she rested her weight, saw the burden of his sad life. Even in his misery he pitied her. And in her misery she pitied him. They’d barely spoken since that day in the carriage shed. There’d been no need; she’d convinced herself it was all over; that what had hurt her so badly was all in the past. She knew now as she looked at him that she was wrong. Nothing had changed but the weather.
And her surroundings. The door had opened and there on the other side, in the gloom, floated a dozen pairs of eyes. More servants, Nell presumed, eager to please at the outset. She and Joe were shown to their rooms, while Vine and Sir George went about their business. Nell was left alone, as she wished, having for sustenance a dish of chocolate which she sipped by the window overlooking the square. Though the air was cold she lifted the sash to look out. In the street below hawkers were peddling their wares. She saw a carriage pass, not half as grand as theirs yet more appealing in its modesty. She saw a lone rider, a gentleman and his lady on foot. Nell envied their look of togetherness, their easy gait. The man tipped his hat to a passer-by; the lady nodded and smiled. This was their world, effortless, assumed, unchallenged; Nell’s world too if she wanted, as well she ought. But how to embrace it when she felt so lost? So different, so removed. Her heart raced and she knew the cause was fear, desire, necessity. Quo Vadis? said the bible on her dresser when she opened it for comfort, but its relevance was too stark. She knew only too well where she would go.
And in the meantime? What lay in store for their party was three long months of foppery and frippery; of trips to the theatre and the fashionable homes of the wealthy. Food and drink and gossip, an eternity of pipe smoke, cards and fans. To break the monotony there’d be Kew’s botanical gardens, the exotic wonders of the British Museum, Bedlam’s lunatics. And they might, as they’d done before, take in a hanging at Tyburn. Sir George liked a good hanging; in fact he agreed with Vine that there was no such thing as a bad one. Nell sided with Joe; she took no pleasure in lolling tongues, throttled cries and soiled breeches. The experience had left her disgusted, and not a little ashamed.
She unrolled the three months before her like a carpet. The only bit worth treading upon was the bit that led to Olu. What she’d say to her when she found her, what she’d do with her, she knew not, though she hoped she would know when the moment came. And the moment would come. Rashness was a fault she admitted but it didn’t stop her being rash. Only a week had passed when she called Hector to her room.
‘I have a favour to ask,’ she said, watching him remove his hat. ‘I think you know what it is.’
He clasped his hands together and placed them behind his back. ‘I hope you not ask, Miss Nell. Not that,’ he said, running his teeth across his lip.
‘I have to ask,’ she insisted. ‘It’s my right.’ She wasn’t sure what she meant but she’d hit the mark nonetheless.
He shook his head, struggling with himself and breathing through his nose. It was a flat nose, with flared nostrils, not repulsive just different – handsome if you looked hard enough. ‘Well?’ His discomfort was obvious but her feelings came first. ‘You know where she is, don’t you?’
Silence, more hurried breathing and then, ‘It no great secret she in London, Miss Nell. Even your father guessed it.’
‘The parish of St Giles. Or a certain part of it. You know that certain part?’ She was pressing him as a parent presses a child. ‘You’ve been there perhaps? You could take me?’
He paced the room back and forth a stretch. ‘Miss Nell asks too much. What excuse do I make for taking you alone there? What if your father finds out?’
‘He won’t,’ she said. ‘Trust me.’
He knocked his head gently against the wall. The pattern of the wallpaper, she’d noticed with revulsion, was vines. He stroked his chin and shuffled. One of the buckles on his shoes was wagging loose, a symbol of defeat. ‘Evening the best,’ he said. ‘When the house is asleep. Like thieves, we can be back by cock crow.’
‘How will we travel?’ she asked swiftly.
‘Master’s carriage is too noisy,’ he said considering. ‘Too showy. Hackney coach better. Leave it to me, Miss Nell, I try to arrange it.’
‘Here,’ she said, taking a guinea from her purse, ‘take this and use it how you will.’
He bowed his thanks, and she left him to close the door. Her heart beat quickly but the beat was pleasurable now. She had hope, the sort that springs eternal in a young girl’s breast.
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