NELL’S HEART WAS heavy and their route back was long and circuitous, as it needed to be. They travelled by way of Bloomsbury and Tottenham Court Road on a morning breaking colder than the night that preceded it. By the time they reached Mayfair their limbs were chilled and weary. Sleet was falling, its wind-blown flakes stinging their faces.
It was stinging her father’s too, not that he cared. His stiff figure in its long grey cloak was visible by the gate as they crossed the square. His arms were folded and the sleet fell steadily on the crown and brim of his three-cornered hat. Even at a distance his anger was visible.
‘Leave this to me,’ said Nell, hiding her fear. ‘You’ve done nothing I didn’t command you to do.’
‘Begging your pardon, Miss Nell, but he’ll not see it that way.’
‘He will,’ she said, hoping to reassure him. ‘I can make him understand.’ But she wasn’t so sure …
They drew near yet still he didn’t move one muscle; he seemed a stone extension of the gate post he was leaning against. Hector watched him keenly and, remembering what he’d said – three paces behind, never fewer – withdrew his hand from Nell’s and fell back.
She reached the gate, which was blocked by her father’s bulk. Be tactful, she told herself, beseech him, win his favour – her task seemed hopeless but she knew she had to try: ‘Father, I am to blame for everything. I ordered Hector to take me on an errand. We ran into some trouble…he protected me.’
‘I care not for your adventures. The fact is, you went out into the night without my permission. You left me to fret on your account. As for you, my Nigger friend, you have betrayed my trust. Worse, you have taken my daughter on a perilous journey God knows where.’
‘Master I …’
‘Be quiet! – there’s nothing to be said, you understand?’ Hector lowered his head. ‘Go inside Nell, now, this instant. I’ve given you an order – you disobey me?’ he said when she hesitated. He looked indomitable, inscrutable, every inch what the world took him to be. There was no vulnerability now, nothing but the steel that would welcome flint. She saw at a glance all that he had made himself, all that could never be relinquished; the price to his dignity was too high.
Yet still she stood there silent and stubborn, watching his anger rise like a damned stream.
‘You think I care a fig for your girlish pride? Stay then if you will,’ he said, dragging Hector through the gate and slamming it shut behind him. Breathless with the rage, his teeth gritted, he pulled a pistol from his cloak and struck Hector a blow. The gash above the eye was deep, spouting blood, but it didn’t deter him: he struck again, and again, beating him to the ground. Next he aimed a kick to his stomach, walked away, walked back and kicked him again – in the face this time, striking both nose and mouth. The speed of the assault was murderously fast, with only Nell’s screams in defence. This, then, was her real father, the one who’d fought a duel on a matter of honour. But what kind of honour that left a man bleeding and barely conscious? Was it not instead mere pride, intemperance and vicious disposition? And was Nell to be his only judge? for though the servants had appeared, curious at the commotion, Joe, who’d joined them, faced a conflict of duty.
‘Oh God, sis, what a mess,’ he said, leaning down beside her. Hector’s face was red and swollen, unrecognisable. Nell’s cloak showed the blood matted against the darkness of the cloth; the lace at her cuffs was soaked from her efforts to staunch the flow. ‘He says he must go from his employment this instant. What will you do?’
‘Joe,’ she despaired, ‘must I solve this alone?’
‘No, no of course not,’ he stammered, looking down at Hector whose blood bubbled at his lips. ‘Such a big man, yet he went down so easily.’
‘He’d neither chance nor choice. Do you hear him breathe?’ she asked the young boots listening at Hector’s chest.
‘Yes Miss, but only just. I wonder he ain’t killed him.’
‘He wouldn’t care if he had,’ Nell answered without thought.
‘Sis,’ said Joe, ‘mark the company.’
‘I’m marking it very well,’ she said. ‘So ought you.’
‘But Nell, you shouldn’t have left as you did…in the night and all.’
‘Forget that now. Look at Hector, look at him! No wonder they hate us. We must get him to a surgeon, or have one come to us.’
‘Not wise for one to come here,’ said Joe, who’d thrust his hands in his pockets, not through cold but predicament.
‘Oh yes, I was forgetting – there’s our reputation to keep.’
‘I don’t like the look on him, Miss,’ said the boots, cradling Hector’s head. ‘His throat’s making a strange noise.’
‘Lift his head, that’s a good fellow,’ said Joe, getting his breeches wet (he would do that for him at least) as he knelt on the flagstones. ‘Not good, I must say. Perhaps you were right about that surgeon. The hour’s still early, however …’
‘There is someone who’ll treat him, Miss,’ said the boots, ‘and it shouldn’t cost a penny.’
‘It’s not the money,’ she said outraged. ‘I will get the money – I don’t care what Father says. I hardly care what he says any more.’
‘Sis!’ cried Joe.
‘Don’t sis me – assist me. Put your prized inheritance on one side and think of others. Even a black others.’ The boots was looking at her in wonder. ‘This surgeon you mentioned – what’s his name? – where’s he to be found?’
‘His name’s William Sharp, Miss. He lives in Mincing Lane, just off Fenchurch Street. ‘
‘Do you know the way? – will you drive us there?’
The youth shrank from the question; he didn’t want to risk the same fate. ‘It’s easy to find Miss, it ain’t far from The Tower.’
Nell turned to Joe, who was sniffing repeatedly. ‘Will you drive us there instead? Will you Joe?’
The sniffing came harder still. ‘Me? I don’t know if I should sis, you know how it is.’
‘You think Father will beat you too is that it?’
‘No, of course not but …’
‘But what? You don’t know the way?’
‘Yes, I know the way.’
‘Then please Joe, or I’ll drive the carriage myself. He’s bleeding to death – look at the ground, it’s more red than white and look again! – there are lumps of flesh that are quite detached.’
‘I’ll get a bucket and clean up, Miss,’ said the boots.
‘No, you won’t! – you’ll help Joe here hitch up the horses.’
‘Yes, Miss,’ he said, and with the help of the housemaid who’d come with a blanket and a pillow, they made Hector as comfortable as they could in the meantime.
When the carriage was ready they lifted the wounded man through the door. He was big and heavy as Joe had said, but the four of them managed and Joe agreed to drive. Sir George was watching from an upstairs window as they drove away. His face showed the same pride, the same fury, though not entirely. There was something else as well, repressed but insufficient to mask it: it looked like pain, but pain from what? Surely not guilt, surely not regret? It was wishful thinking on Nell’s part as she wondered at his thoughts.
She’d no need to wonder at the other man who stood beside him. Mr Vine, who drank ale as he watched; Mr Vine, whose hold on his master grew stronger by the day, had enjoyed the spectacle to the full. But not quite: that someone – Nell in particular – should take such pains over a Nigger had robbed him of the icing on his cake. For that at least she was thankful.
As Joe worked the reins and Nell comforted Hector who slid about on the seat, they talked through the flap Joe had opened in the roof. ‘If you’d seen his bravery last night, how he stood against those ruffians, then seen by comparison how he allowed Father to beat him senseless.’
‘He knows his place like a good dog,’ said Joe, more callously than he’d meant and forced to shout to be heard. ‘I’ve seen how they are before a master, many a time. They find it hard to lift a finger.’
‘Well it’s time things changed.’
‘Dangerous talk, sis, and you know it,’ was Joe’s reply. ‘I don’t like how they’re treated any more than you, but we’re stuck with things as they are. It’s like holding a wolf by the ears, you don’t like it but you daren’t let go.’
‘I doubt they’ll beat us to the ground,’ she said, wiping away some fresh blood with her handkerchief. Hector’s eyes were still closed but his breathing came easier. It was the damage Nell couldn’t see that worried her most; those blows to the skull had been heavy and his thick curls hid the marks.
‘You know, sis, you’re beginning to sound like the man we’re going to visit.’
‘You know him then?’
‘I know of him. Or rather his brother. A certain Granville Sharp, he’s one of those abolitionists we keep hearing about. Making quite a name for himself in the courts and newspapers. An unpopular man in some quarters, I think you can guess which. Seems someone challenged him to a duel a few years back, though he did the wise thing and refused to fight.’
‘Not Father I presume?’ and at last they shared a joke. ‘I’d like to think he’s got it all out of his system,’ she said, soothing their patient as best she could. ‘An attack like that, how many must a man make before he can call himself a man?’
‘Who knows, sis? Some men need blood like they need wine.’
Just then Hector groaned, and the blood ran swiftly down his nose. ‘Hurry Joe,’ cried Nell, ‘I think he’s fading!’
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