‘ONE O’CLOCK on a fine frosty night!’ the bellman called as she stole out into the street. She was wearing a fur-trimmed cape against the cold, and saw that Hector was cloaked too as she spied his figure up ahead.
‘Quickly, Miss,’ he urged, ‘there’s a coach waiting.’
They hurried along the street in the darkness, the frost on the cobbles sparkling at their feet. The air was still and icy; a blaze of stars drew the eye in wonder and Nell almost slipped as she looked. Hector caught her arm and she didn’t resist, not even when he kept his grip. Mistress and slave they may be, but what did it matter in the darkness beneath an all-knowing sky?
‘There’s our man,’ he said, as they neared the end of the street where the hackney-coach stood. ‘It cost you more than I like to pay.’
‘Never mind the money,’ she said. ‘You’ve done well, Hector, very well.’
They headed towards the coach with its flickering lamps and mud-caked wheels. The horse’s breath smoked copiously on the night air; likewise the driver’s as he puffed on a short clay pipe. He craned his neck as they neared, pulling his collar up close to his hat. He acknowledged them with a grunt, cleared his throat and spat. Hector opened the door and helped Nell on to the footplate.
‘Quickly,’ he said, climbing in behind and shutting them tight inside. ‘He knows where to go,’ he explained, knocking on the ceiling. ‘And he better know to wait when we get there.’
The coach was badly sprung, a bone-shaker on the bumpy streets. ‘How long?’ Nell asked, unable to see him in the dark.
‘Streets all deserted. God willing, we be there in an hour.’
She wondered how to pass the time as they sat together in the chilly dark. They were sharing territory new to them both. She mustn’t forget her place, nor he his. She’d made up her mind to travel in silence, maybe doze a little, till he broke it with a question: ‘Miss Nell, may I ask you something?’
‘Of course,’ she replied startled. It was the tone he’d used, so like a friend’s. It didn’t feel right; that levelling sky with all its stars was hidden now; here in this confined space she was one thing and he another.
‘You know I’d never hurt you, Miss Nell.’ The voice seemed alien in the darkness, barely human yet kind and beseeching.
‘I know that Hector.’
‘Miss, I hate that name.’
‘Oh – do you? And what name would you prefer? I’m sure Father chose it carefully.’ She was flustered, floundering; she’d taken his name for granted, like so much else in his life. Was this the price she must pay for engaging his services? Must she descend a peg or two? ‘You must not presume,’ she said. ‘You must not take liberties because we share a secret. I want that understood between us. You are still Cooper property. You are Hector Cooper.’
‘Yes, Miss Nell,’ he said neutrally but what did his face betray? She leaned forward to see but the darkness was too thick. So thick she might have cut it with a knife. The darkness suited him, she believed, it gave him power that was free and for the taking. Their knowledge that it was so oppressed the atmosphere. It also sharpened her curiosity. She didn’t know Hector, not deep down, didn’t know if she could really trust him. He might murder her if he wished – did he wish? – and take off into the night. ‘You have another name then?’ she said to lessen the tension.
‘Yes, I have other name.’
‘Then pray tell me if it pleases you.’
Again came the silence, and then: ‘Another time I think.’
‘As you wish,’ said Nell. ‘Perhaps it’s for the best.’ It was easy to forget that they were here for a purpose, just passing the time on a difficult journey. Pass it they did, however, and at length the coachman reined in his horse and fetched it to a halt. The machine drew up with a sudden jerk, cracking their knees together. ‘I’m sorry, Miss Nell,’ she heard him say.
‘No matter, it was an accident,’ she said, rubbing at the hurt, wondering that his knee should be so thin yet so hard.
‘It’s time,’ he said, ‘and may God be with us.’
He helped her down from the coach. The night smelled of frost and woodsmoke. ‘You be here when we get back!’ he called to the driver, who puffed on his pipe unheeding. ‘That man not care for my orders,’ he said, as they turned away into the night. ‘I think we both know why.’ Nell’s feet were slipping again on the frozen ground. He took her arm and steered her towards an alley, a mere gap in the wall, a gap without end as far as Nell could see. The passage was dark and narrow. There was a new smell here, and it worsened with every step.
‘Don’t be afraid, remember I am with you,’ said Hector, fingering the wall like a blind man feeling his way.
His words reminded her of Jesus, the psalms, the Valley of Death. And when she asked about the smell he told her straight: it was the dead. Even on a cold night like this you could smell them, he said. Too many bodies for the soil and none buried deep enough. And these were white bodies; poverty in London was no respecter of colour.
What he’d said was simple but profound, and when the night was out she would think on it some more. That and the feeling of equity beneath the stars. That and a certain line of the burial service, we bring nothing into this world and we take nothing out. It made nonsense of man’s earthly strivings in between, showed lives as they might have been lived instead of how they were. Meantime she put her handkerchief to her face to ward off the stink, whose strange sweetness was hard to bear. She didn’t like to ask what she was treading on, though she guessed it leaked from under the wall. Whatever it was, it wasn’t yet frozen and squelched beneath her feet. For cover of darkness she was thankful now, glad that they’d brought no lantern, not even a dark one.
‘I doubt we shall stay long,’ she said, half wishing they hadn’t come.
‘Where we go, Miss, you not want to stay long …’
She knew why he’d stopped; something had rustled beyond the wall. It was big yet light of foot. ‘An animal?’ Nell whispered. Whatever it was now stalked them, its tread hidden but growing heavier, bolder. It was either human or other worldly; Nell wondered which was worse in a place like this.
‘When good men sleep, Miss Nell, bad men wake.’
‘Footpads?’ she asked, wondering who he meant by good men, whether he included her father.
But this was no time for deference, and Hector drew a knife from his coat. ‘A precaution, Miss, that’s all. I took it from the kitchen drawer.’ He readied himself as he walked, brushed aside his cloak to free his hands. ‘Stay by my side and do as I say. You be safe then.’ She felt the comfort of his bluff; it was the bluff of a parent who hides his fear before a child.
They emerged from the passage into a small court enclosed on all sides. The houses that formed it were tall and teetering, top-heavy like ragged nests of stone. Suddenly, from behind, a man appeared cudgel-in-hand. His fingers flew to his lips in a shrill whistle. Men sprang from holes and crevices, advancing towards them on the slimy cobbles. It was a gang, a canting crew, well used to ambush.
‘What have we here?’ said the first man, whose hair hung in greasy strands. He wore dirty white breeches and a long rough coat. The coat hung open, showing pistols at his belt. His hat was crumpled and thrust back from his forehead. A single feather fluttered above some tattered braid. There was fever in his cheeks. ‘Put the knife down, Nigger. I won’t tell you twice.’
‘Do it,’ Nell urged him.
‘You’d be wise to listen to her,’ said another, sliding his knife across his own throat and clicking his teeth.
‘Oh ain’t that sweet?’ the first man said. ‘He wishes to defend the lady’s honour. She owns you, black boy, skin and bone, yet you’d die for her. You must have cow shit for brains.’
‘Please do as he says,’ Nell said, and she heard it at last, a stunted tinkle on the ground.
‘That’s better, now we can get to business. What do you say lads? – I’d call this a puzzle,’ he said, scratching his bristly chin. ‘Let’s see what we’ve got? – one big strapping Nigger, one pretty lady with skin white as milk. Why are they here at this hour? Do they want to be robbed and left for dead?’
‘Go ahead and rob us, we’ve nothing to take,’ said Nell.
‘Robbery’s the least of your troubles’ he answered, swaggering nearer with a pistol drawn. ‘So many larks to be had, and no one to care how it ends.’
‘Wait! Do you know who I am?’ Nell cried. ‘More importantly, do you know who my father is?’
‘Lady, you can be Princess Charlotte for all we care. We fear no one round here, that’s why no one ever comes. None that leaves alive, that is. Out of the way, Nigger,’ he said, when Hector blocked his path. ‘Over your dead body hey? You want to join the stink over that wall?’
‘We wish to pass,’ said Nell. ‘We wish to find the blackbirds of St Giles. You know them?’
The man halted. ‘Aye, we know them,’ he answered. ‘And they know us. Let’s just say we have an understanding. But let’s get this straight, you want the runaways’ camp? To do what? – join them? Only one can do that, and we both know which.’
‘We wish to talk to them, to find someone.’
‘Another one like him?’ he said, prodding Hector in the chest with his gun. ‘I see you keep this one quiet. Has your father removed his tongue?’
‘I have a tongue,’ said Hector. ‘Mine’s not so free as yours.’
‘I know, it’s called slavery, my black friend. There’s no freedom to be had for the likes of you.’
‘There is in those fields beyond,’ said Hector. ‘I doubt they live much worse than this.’ He glanced round at the woeful ruin, the crumbling walls and blighted ground.
‘Ah, so he does have a tongue. I wonder where he uses it. On that juicy little quim of yours?’
‘Please allow us to pass,’ said Nell, telling herself their filth was beneath her.
‘Too late for that,’ he said, wiping his mouth as he looked her up and down. ‘Too late even to piss. You go into a spider’s web, you’re going to get stuck.’ He cocked his pistol and turned it on Hector. ‘You first, Nigger. I haven’t shot anything for a whole week. Not even a rat, and we get a lot of them round here. Open wide,’ he said, waving the gun in front of his mouth. ‘Let’s see those thick lips wobble, those goggle eyes roll. Show us that pink tongue your master’s spared you for now. This is where the fun starts.’
‘Only one of us is laughing,’ said Hector, clasping the muzzle and turning the pistol aside. The weapon discharged harmlessly, but the man broke free and called on his pack to kill. ‘Run Miss Nell!’ shouted Hector, interposing himself to buy her time. Two pistols trained upon him were about to fire. She did what he’d done for her, she leapt in front and made a shield. Her bravery stalled the shots. She saw how it was immediately –they’d have shot a Nigger all right but shooting a lady was different, even for them.
‘Shoot her, you fools!’ cried the leader, who was made of sterner stuff. He was priming his second weapon, ramming down the ball in a whipping frenzy. He’d have shot her for sure if someone hadn’t shot him first. He fell down dead on the spot, the rest of the gang bewildered, a few scattering, wondering if the traps had come. Nell didn’t mind who had come so long as they were saved. A figure beckoned from the narrow doorway.