JOE CALLED TO the horses to quicken them, applied the lash thickly as they headed down Ludgate Hill. The carriage jerked with the sudden spurt, which meant more misery for Hector. Nell stroked his clotted brow, recalling what she’d heard that a patient might be soothed by tender words even when unconscious.
‘I wish I knew your name – your real name,’ she said. ‘Please don’t die without letting me know.’ The plea must have coursed through her fingers, for when she stroked Hector’s cheek he opened his eyes. They rolled a little at the sight of her, then found some focus. ‘Miss Nell,’ he said in a thin voice, ‘you gentle angel.’
‘Avenging angel,’ she countered, as they passed by Pudding Lane and the Monument to the Fire. She wanted to burn brightly herself from now on; she wanted to light the fire of her sex. ‘I won’t let you die, nor will I see you homeless if you live – no, when you live.’
He nodded feebly and tried to smile. His teeth were red with blood; it was the saddest sight she’d seen. ‘You still love your father,’ he said, and his eyes closed again sleepily.
Why had he said so? She was glad not to answer, that he’d spared her the need. But when she touched his face again, and his eyes reopened, there came another unsettling remark: ‘Don’t hate him for what he done, Miss Nell.’ This, she was sure, was Hector’s nature speaking as slavery had forged it; what a lifetime of bondage had made him, too late to be anything else. He wasn’t guileless exactly, but he wasn’t vengeful either; he simply accepted life as it was. And being unable to drive the coach back to Yorkshire on account of his injuries, he was feeling guilty for letting his master down.
They’d rattled into a courtyard by now and Joe had brought the horses to a stop. It was not yet seven and all was in darkness still. The first birds were sounding in the bushes that skirted the yard; icicles hung from the gutters of a fine red-brick house, pointing accusingly at the porch below – just like Sir George’s pistol at his loins that day – the same pistol, for all Nell knew, that had broken his poor slave’s head.
Joe, who’d leapt down from the box, was standing before the fluted columns of a small portico. ‘I fear we shall have to wake him,’ he said. ‘I hope he’s not the sort to take umbrage. Such an incongruous role he plays – surgeon to King George no less, and doctor gratis to the poor.’ It was some minutes before he made himself heard, and a snowy head appeared in the doorway with a lighted candle. A servant, Nell decided, not the master. He and Joe stood in close discussion, Joe wagging his finger at one point. Presently the man disappeared, and Nell joined her brother on the doorstep.
She was anxious for Hector, though just a few minutes elapsed till Mr Sharp appeared with his dressing gown close-wrapped around him and his servant’s candle in his hand. He was a slightly built man of around 50, his grey hair loose about his oval face. His pointed nose looked enquiringly from one to the other, and his thin lips broke into a tired smile as he glanced at the heavens. ‘I must be held in poor regard up there to be woken at this hour. You have a patient for me I expect? What ails him?’
‘A blow to the head,’ said Joe hesitantly.
‘Several blows,’ Nell insisted. ‘All done with a pistol butt. And he was kicked repeatedly, though the damage was done by then.’
‘Can you get him inside?’ the surgeon asked.
‘With your help, sir. He’s a dead weight, if that’s not tempting fate.’
The doctor’s slight frame made them think he wasn’t strong, but he put them to shame with his speed and energy. He did the work of three as he helped drag Hector clear of the carriage, sharing the burden as they carried him across the yard into the house. ‘The surgery is at the rear,’ he said, puffing now as they manoeuvred their charge down the narrow hall. Joe’s shoulder dislodged a picture from the wall but their host pooh-poohed the accident, even breaking into song when they’d reached the back parlour.
Here amid the bottles and jars and gallipots, Hector was rested in an armchair at the head of a long table. There was blood on the table, visible even in the dark, and a bowl of bloody water on the flags beneath. ‘Please excuse the cold,’ said Mr Sharp, opening his box of instruments that lay on the sill. ‘My manservant doesn’t light the fires for another hour as a rule. And it’s an hour after that before the house is warm, if it’s ever warm in winter. But your patient is not forgotten, you’ll find something to cover him in those drawers.’ He indicated a chest in the corner which Nell quickly opened. A thick woollen blanket was soon across her arm and draped round Hector’s shoulders.
Mr Sharp took his candle and lit several more. These he arranged on the table behind the patient’s head, instructing Nell to light the others in their sconces on the wall. He shone the original candle in the wounded man’s eyes, waving it from side to side as he scrutinised his face. ‘As he woken since the attack? I presume it was an attack and he didn’t beat himself about the head? I get all sorts here. The London poor, you know, you’ve no idea what they get up to. And should they hail from St Giles …’
His jocular tone was disquieting, though Joe seemed to like it. ‘He woke briefly in the carriage,’ Nell answered. ‘His mind seemed clear enough for the short time he was conscious.’
‘And did you see the whites of his eyes? – more white than you’d normally see on a black man?’
‘For a short while, but they soon became focused. They were looking right at me.’
‘Well that’s a good sign at least,’ he said, bringing the candle so close to Hector’s hair they thought he would singe it. ‘Hold this,’ he told Nell, and as she took the candle his hands fell softly upon the battered scalp. He caressed, he pressed, he searched with his fingers from ear to ear and from nape to crown. Next he fingered the cheek bones, working his way along the jaw-line, gently prodding above the lips and the skin at the sides of the nose.
‘Well?’ Nell asked impatiently.
‘History repeating itself, I’d say. Poor, poor Jonathan.’
‘I don’t understand. Is he going to live?’
‘Hard to say,’ said the surgeon. ‘The nose is broken, the skull is most probably fractured,’ he added, scratching his own head. ‘It’s what I can’t see that worries me. There may be bleeding behind the bone. A bruised brain – it moves around inside the head when it’s taken such a blow. If only he’d speak.’
‘You could try talking to him as I did in the carriage,’ she said eagerly. ‘I’ve heard it said they can hear, that it can do some good.’
‘Yes,’ he said, surprised by her knowledge, ‘I have heard that too. It’s a radical idea, part of the new thinking. Not tried and tested, you know, like the old remedies. I have colleagues at St Bartholomew’s who would tell me to bleed him some more. I have leeches in my jars but that’s where they’ll stay.’
‘You must be able to do something. You’re a surgeon.’
‘Yes, I am – aren’t I?’ he replied ambiguously. ‘But I cannot work miracles. I can only do what my art has taught me.’ He began uncorking bottles; an astringent, some yellow basilicon ointment to treat the superficial wounds. He made up a poultice of mustard and honey; he applied it to a dressing and patted it down on Hector’s head, applying another to the gash above his eye. ‘The rest is supplied by providence. He needs rest, lots of it. As for myself, I need a large draught of brandy if I’m to get through the day.’ He opened an oak cabinet in the corner and took out a bottle and glass. ‘Would you care to join me?’ he said to Joe, reaching for an extra glass. ‘We have some talking to do.’
‘Yes, I will join you,’ said Joe tiredly. ‘My sister too if she’s a mind. She does have a mind, a very good one for …’
‘You may as well say it, Joe – for a girl.’ Nell screwed up her face in mock annoyance. ‘As for the brandy you may keep it. Men’s drink is like men’s talk – it takes a lot to be desired.’
‘My sister means no harm, Mister Sharp,’ said Joe, averting his eyes embarrassed.
‘She is entitled to her opinion,’ said the surgeon, offering Nell a smile. ‘But then again, my view of the world is not conventional. I am not like most men.’
Joe considered this, nodding in thought. The surgeon had struck a chord which the young man was loath to acknowledge. Nell sensed the quandary he was in, and knew it concerned their father – and by the same token all that Joe stood for in the world, and all he would have to stand, the loss of Caroline included.
Mr Sharp poured two generous measures and handed one to Joe. ‘Come, we will leave our patient to sleep a while longer, it can do harm. If you’d care to join me in the front parlour,’ he said, already on his way.
They followed him back down the corridor to a comfortable room overlooking the yard. Scenic prints of London interspersed with anatomy drawings hung from the green-painted walls; an eight-day clock in mahogany ticked loudly on the mantelpiece.
He sat down with a grunt in a high-backed chair near the fireplace and sipped his brandy. His long nose looked intently at his slippered feet, as if to ask their thoughts. ‘How did you know to come?’ he said at length, before answering his own question: ‘How do any of them know? I’ve become a kind of refuge for wounded animals. They’re here every day in all weathers. They’ll be here today come nine o’clock on a cold, inclement morning. I have a reputation, you see,’ he said with his warm smile. ‘I and my brother. You don’t have to tell me if you don’t wish – how it happened.’
They looked at each other as the surgeon stretched and yawned. ‘Sir, you have a right to know,’ Nell said, wanting to yawn too, and sleep for hours though the house was cold. ‘It was our father who beat him.’
‘Sis!’ Joe interrupted.
‘But it’s true, why hide it? Besides, who will blame him? – who will judge him? No one would dare, not for a mere slave.’
‘And your father is?’ asked Mr Sharp flatly.
‘Sir George Cooper Baronet,’ Joe interceded. ‘No doubt you have heard of him.’
The other nodded slowly. ‘Yes, I have heard of him. One of the sugar lobby, one of 40 MPs who hold this country to ransom. Then I am in illustrious company indeed.’ Whether compliment or sarcasm it was hard to tell. He pursed his lips, sniffed his brandy and drank half the measure. The burning liquid looked more pain than comfort as it reached his chest. ‘I see the matter plainly enough,’ he said. ‘It’s a pattern repeating itself up and down the land. Your father has beaten his property for reasons best known to himself, he has thrown it out as useless as a consequence. What is unusual with people of your rank is your generosity of spirit in bringing him here.’
‘What’s to be done with him?’ asked Joe with a guilty frown.
‘If he dies, as well he might, I shall have him buried decently – at your expense if you can bear it. Should he live, as well he might – that becomes a problem in itself.’ Nell’s eyes narrowed at the seeming coldness of his tone, but his winsome smile disarmed her yet again. ‘My brother, whose case this will become, is not a rich man. I, wealthy as I am, can only help so far. But don’t despair. Friends help friends, they know of this person or that person who has a room, a situation – in your man’s case, one that’s not too strenuous – he won’t be fit for much for a long time to come. If at all.’
‘We may leave him with you then?’ said Joe, as if it were settled.
‘You may,’ said Mr Sharp, sensing his desperation. ‘I relieve you of your burden.’
‘I don’t wish to be relieved,’ Nell said. ‘It’s too late for that. Things have gone too far.’
‘Sis!’ cried Joe, but she ignored him. ‘I want to meet with your brother. It’s he, isn’t it, who works so tirelessly for the slaves’ cause?’
‘My brother is…’ – he held up his hands in fond despair – ‘…my brother. Unique. There never was a man like him since ancient times. I call him the clerical Spartacus. He does it all from behind a desk, you know, takes on the high and mighty of the realm and has their guts for garters. His quill is not to be fenced with, his will is not to be bent by powder and shot. He angers me, he exasperates me, but I love him. Blood is thicker than water, Miss Cooper.’
That blood indeed was thicker than water, that it kept brother loving brother, brother loving sister and children loving fathers, was for Nell a truth too real to be questioned. But what about their fellow humans’ blood? – that of their friends, their different sort of brothers? It wasn’t that they should love their families less, only that they should love others more. This was it, she believed, her new creed, and when they came away a few minutes later, she thought her Rubicon was crossed. Determined to break with her past, to do what she thought was right, she’d asked for a meeting with Granville Sharp at his chambers in the Temple. Joe, as he handed her into the carriage, had seen the storm gathering in her eyes. He said nothing yet, hoping the drive back to Mayfair would quell her tempestuous thoughts.
‘No Joe,’ she answered, as he helped her out at the other end. ‘My mind is made up. I have as much right to make my way in the world as you have.’
‘My path is not open to you,’ he said, slamming the carriage door.
‘I wouldn’t want it if it were,’ she replied. ‘I couldn’t enjoy it, not while others were suffering.’
‘Please sis, reconsider,’ he said, squeezing her hand as they passed through the gate. ‘Think of Father – of the reputation he must keep, and his love for you. Sis, if you persevere in this perversion …’
‘You talk to me of perversion? You defend Father without reservation after all he’s done? And not just to Hector but to you.’
‘We may not stay friends, sis,’ he said, avoiding the question, ‘it may not be possible.’
‘Is that a threat?’ she asked, poised on the threshold.
He hesitated, contending with himself as he doffed his hat and kicked the slush from his heels. ‘No, of course it’s not a threat. But is there not enough pain indoors as it is?’ he asked, glancing up at Vine who stood at the window watching them yet. ‘Must you make more?’
‘I must go inside and sleep,’ she said.
‘Yes,’ he said, settling for this as they strolled indoors. ‘I know how tired you must be. You are overwrought, it is making you irrational. Sleep on it, why don’t you? I’m sure things will look different.’
But they didn’t, not one bit. Nell knew now what she must do with her life, and where and when it must be done. Doing is one thing, however, and what she didn’t know, and didn’t want to know, was the truth of why she was doing it.
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