SHE MET WITH Granville Sharp as planned; she pledged her support through deeds and words. The little man in the chocolate-coloured suit, whose smile was even warmer than his brother’s, welcomed her at his bachelor’s rooms at The Temple, gave her tea and a soft wet kiss on each hand. The unsolicited visit of a girl such as Nell was a sign from heaven that the tide was turning, that the slaves’ long night was at last about to end. His religious imagery came thick and fast, though he assured her he was no more pious than the next man. Such language came of seeking favour from rich and godly folk pledged to his cause through religious fervour alone. What he needed was more men and women of rational conscience, whether high born or low. Nell being the daughter of Sir George Cooper, such a lion of the trade, was a real find, the best he’d had. He’d begun to think he was fighting his noble cause alone, that the slave traders and their black gold were winning hands down.
‘My father is not a slave trader,’ she said, ‘he is a slave owner.’ She couldn’t help splitting hairs on his behalf, as if the buying of human beings and working them to death was more excusable than trading them as merchandise. Old habits died hard, but she was trying.
‘My dear, it matters little which he is,’ said Mr Sharp, ‘as the end product is the same. Whether he buys or sells his human cargo, he helps perpetuate an unnecessary evil.’
‘And does that mean Father is evil?’
Mr Sharp sighed heavily and turned his face aside. She saw the family nose in profile, how his chin curled upwards to meet its downward hook like a witch or a crone. But the effect was not unkindly, no more so the cadaverously prominent jaw line, the hollow cheeks and deep set eyes. His work alone was what sustained him. And though the weight of business had aged him prematurely, there was a sparkle of alertness in his features, an eponymous sharpness to go with his name. He sat down and rose again all in the same motion. Nell’s question demanded a political answer from a man who, as he’d said himself, was no politician.
‘My dear, his like have to be defeated. Or to put it mildly, they have to be won over. They must see the error of their ways.’ He had been as diplomatic as he could.
‘Either way we have a fight on our hands,’ said Nell, stroking the frills of her shift and her sackback robe. Her clothes were the finest her father’s money could buy, but already she was thinking this: could she manage without them, could she wear something plain and be just as content? If she could do so here, in London, she could do so anywhere.
Granville Sharp, relishing that mention of a shared fight, kissed her hands a second time. They had, both knew it, reached an accord.
It was the first of several such talks in the space of a week. They talked in his chambers and in the houses of his friends (one of whom, a master tailor with a good heart, had taken Hector at his own expense); they talked in taverns frequented solely by the black fraternity. She saw more kindness in a handful of hours than she’d seen in her whole life; she saw cheeriness in the face of adversity; resignation before hardship, poverty and loss. Most of all she saw hope undiminished, a flame that would burn till liberation day. At her side throughout, explaining and advising, sat Mr Sharp, who never asked her for a penny of her money. Nor did she offer any, for the plain fact was she had none to give.
And so it continued. And so her resolve hardened. She was out for an hour or two each day, pleading excuses to her father, grateful to Joe for saying nothing, though it did his cause no good. She kept up appearances where she could, the tea parties, the shops and the endless idling strolls. The evenings were the worst. They were spent at receptions, balls and dinner parties where slavery was visible on every floor, and which, now it was under threat, was often a topic of conversation. The pro-slavery lobby was Sir George’s, and the same was true of his friends. More often than not Nell was in turmoil. It was only a question of time before she was found out. Night after night her tongue was bitten, till one night her tongue bit back and all the company heard.
The occasion was a gathering at the Grovesnor Square house of Sir Graham Plunkett, another rich planter who was more a rival of her father’s than a friend. Blanching moonshine, nearer blue than white, shone through the dining room windows, and with so much silver on show and so much gilt, Nell’s eyes grew sore with the dazzle. There was something foreboding in all that reflected light, some from the moon, some from the candles and the flame-leaping fire, which she’d felt from the start. They were past the main course of fricassee of rabbit, were dipping spoons into sloppy white syllabubs laced with rum and Demerara sugar while Sir George, lavishly dressed with too many frills and patterns, waxed lyrical on the beauties of Barbados. His audience listened intently and clapped appreciatively at the finish. He made a mock bow and drank another glass of blood-red wine from his host’s well-stocked cellar, sparring playfully with the buxom widow fresh out of mourning on his right. He whispered about the killing fevers in the Caribbean, how a fever burned in his head right now, and she was the cause. His hand was patting hers, and his face was straying nearer as if she might grant him a kiss. She didn’t need much coaxing, and her pink dress was the nearest thing to a blush as she fingered the stiff black bow appended to the back of his wig.
‘Sir George is as poetic as ever on the subject that has made us all rich,’ said his rival breaking off to belch at the head of the table. ‘To our great West Indies which Columbus thought were in the east!’ he added, raising his glass as they echoed his smiling toast. Mr Vine, ever the calculating minion, raised his glass independently, toasting his employer as the wiliest businessman ever to plant sugar, the wilier still for knowing just when to diversify, to show his northern grit in putting his money where the dirt was dusted with gold. They were to mark his words well that soon it would be coal that was king, with Sir George crowned King Coal. They should all be following his lead, eager to buy shares in that different blackness called the North Country. There were fortunes to be made by them all, so long as he could draw the conveyances at a guinea per inch of the best quality parchment! Roars of laughter and much banging of tables, while Sir George, who had downed more wine, smiled smugly.
‘I agree with Archie wholeheartedly,’ he said, as one of the Negroes refilled his glass. ‘Trade,’ he continued, lacing his ringed fingers together as his elbows rested on the polished mahogany, ‘is the true muse of poetry. Trade makes money and money makes us all poets.’
Lady Needles wiped away some sweat from her neck and declared how much she agreed with him. Uncomfortable as ever with her highly-sprung teeth, she was remembering his kindness in rescuing them from the drawing-room floor. ‘So very well put, Sir George, so very well put indeed,’ she said, her teeth whistling as she spoke. Her neighbour Lady Stuart whinnied in agreement and laughed with cream-stained lips. She stirred her syllabub with her finger and laughed some more, trying to catch Sir George’s eye. What a catch he was, rich and single to boot. News of his attachment to Caroline Stroud was a secret still, and he was enjoying the flattery too much to spoil it. No doubt Lord Pemberton, whose daughter’s marriage was fixed for the spring, would disabuse them all in good time. Gout had confined him to Yorkshire, but he hoped to travel south in time for the Christmas celebrations. Till then at least, Sir George might flirt unfettered.
‘To money and all who make her!’ said Vine, raising a second toast.
‘Hear, hear!’ was the cry but the speaker’s face wore a frown. ‘And yet, Ladies and Gentlemen, there are those who’d take it all away from us if they could. There are those who wish us ill.’ Amid the murmurs of approval he was looking at Nell, his large red face sweating visibly beneath his wig. ‘What say you to that Miss Cooper?’
‘Why ask me?’ she answered softly.
‘I’m asking you because you clearly have an opinion on the matter.’
Joe’s eyes flashed at his sister worriedly. Keep quiet, say nothing, he was thinking, while their father, his face pickled by drink, was yet to grasp the point.
‘I trust she has plenty of shoes to furnish all that walking,’ the attorney continued. ‘And mantles and muffs galore for one chilly journey follows another.’
Sir George was getting there at last. ‘Sir, you have a crow to pick? You think my daughter is out of doors too much?’
‘There’s nothing amiss in good plain English air,’ his rising star answered, ‘even the smoky air of London. But if there’s treachery afoot for all to see. If certain company she keeps is like the dirt on our shoes – that same dirt that’s being kicked in our faces as I speak, after all we’ve done for the nation.’
‘Hear, hear!’ they chanted again round the table.
‘Speak plainly sir if you please,’ said Sir George, sitting up straight.
‘I was wondering if we gentlemen might care to retire – have a game of billiards,’ interposed Joe. ‘I know it’s not my place to …’
‘Be quiet, Joseph,’ said his father, ‘something needs clearing here and it’s not the table. If there’s an accusation to be made against my daughter I want to hear it.’
‘Perhaps in private Sir George,’ said Vine, lowering his voice confidentially.
‘Here and now if you please,’ said the Baronet, too far gone for decorum. ‘What has she to hide?’
‘Why not let the girl speak for herself?’ said Vine, resting his case like the trained lawyer he was.
‘Well Nell?’ and as the other women tittered at the rhyme, her father’s eyes narrowed to two sharp points. They had done so with an anger she knew too well.
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