SHE BREATHED HARD before she said it, summoning strength. In her mind’s eye to steel her were the twin faces of the Sharp brothers. Have no fear, they said, it was bound to happen sooner or later. ‘What Mister Vine means, Father, is that I’ve been going about my new business.’
‘Your new business? – what new business?’
‘Humankind.’ She’d already gripped the table edge and now she gripped it harder. ‘Black humankind.’ She looked to the slaves who stood back from the table but they weren’t to be drawn. They stared fixedly ahead at the gilded door, at the red embossed wallpaper, anything that chanced to be in vision, even the silver that showed their sorry plight in stark reflection. ‘It’s time to make a change. Father, I think we have done these people a great wrong.’ His face was so livid it gave off heat; his wig looked like tinder about to flare. Still she persisted: ‘They are human beings. They feel the same pain as we do and have the same right to happiness. We should make amends. Their freedom is the least we owe …’
‘Enough!’ Sir George shouted, hammering his fist on the table so his glass spilled, as it had at home that day. But this was all too public and to some extent the fault was his own. He’d underestimated the nature of her crime, expected a trifle, a misdemeanour of little account. ‘Not another word, Nell, not another word!’ He sank back in his chair fuming, his lips quivering with the shock of what he’d heard. ‘No more, do you hear?’ he added in a strangled voice of quietened fury. ‘This is a madness I hadn’t reckoned on.’ The young widow ventured to comfort him but he pushed her hand aside. His eye as he rose was fixed on Joe, whose luck, what there was of it, had also run out. And how much did you know about this? said the father’s accusing look. But he wouldn’t say more, and that napkin tossed across the table was the sign to leave. His portly host was gloating by now, munching an apple whose juice ran down his chin.
‘Of course Sir George must be excused. We shall all be thinking of him in his hour of need, it goes without saying that he has our sympathy.’
‘Your graciousness is appreciated I’m sure,’ said his guest, bidding him goodnight through the same clenched teeth. Joe was hurrying after him like a loyal hound and Nell, though burning with resentment, could do nothing else. The walk to the carriage demanded all her strength, Vine’s eyes boring through her back all the way. You’re just a girl, she bet he was thinking, an ineffectual girl whose knees are knocking louder than her shoes. Truth be told she did feel wretched; her spirit was fighting to be heard, though drowning at the same time. A pair of Sir Graham’s blacks lighted them to their carriage and clipped shut the door. She was inside with her father, where she’d dreaded to be.
‘Drive on!’ cried Sir George, knocking his cane on the roof.
Joe, interceding on his sister’s behalf, was cut short on his first word. ‘You, sir, have disappointed me – again,’ said the father, who’d started on Joe in preamble, maybe because it was easier. ‘You call yourself my son. I don’t know what was worse back there – her hysteria or your condolence of it.’
‘Father, I never …’
‘You are never anything sir!’
‘I am what I am, I can be no more.’
The father’s mocking laugh seemed to bounce off the fabric of the quilted seats. It certainly bounced off Vine, who welcomed it and added a chuckle of his own. Joe stared forlornly through the darkened glass at the streets beyond. The moonlight had lessened the blackness, washed it clean of all but shadows. Every shadow housed a dark secret, thought Nell, every shadow asked a different question. And all the while the rolling of the wheels sounded sharp and grinding; no peace to be had inside or out.
‘When I marry again…when I marry again!’ Sir George repeated for Joe’s benefit, ‘you may find yourself punished for your fatal flaws. Should I father another son, who’s to say he’ll not be my heir instead of you?’ he said, and his steward beside him, biting his nails sullenly, seemed to ponder this prospect without relish. ‘All your saintly endurance will be for nothing. It’ll be no more than you deserve for being such a poor first born. Can you bear that son?’
Joe’s breathing was audible above the rattle of the wheels. ‘I have the courage to do so, though my courage is not the type that you’d condone.’
‘You’re not a Dissenter by chance?’ said Vine, pretending to be amused. ‘They lead such godly lives without the assurance it will get them anywhere. Some are predestined for glory others for eternal damnation, none knows which it’ll be from one day to the next. They have to hope for the best, that all their piety hasn’t been for nothing. You see my meaning?’
‘Yes, Joe, do you see Archie’s meaning?’ asked Sir George, turning the screw a little further.
‘He sees your meaning,’ said Nell, deflecting her father’s wrath to where it belonged. ‘I see it even plainer. You enjoy making him suffer, it’s as if you’re punishing him for something too close to the bone. Something inside yourself that you do not like.’ He feigned a laugh as Vine had done but she knew she’d struck home. ‘What is it Father that you fear?’
‘I fear nothing, certainly no man,’ he said, gripping his cane with its Nigger’s head. He carried it with him always now, as if in defiance of what he’d done to Hector. ‘Nor will I tolerate disobedience. You shamed me tonight, Nell, humiliated me in front of those people. Do you take pride in laying me low? You don’t take after your mother, that is for sure.’
‘How would you know? You never gave her chance to be herself. Who knows what she might have been?’
‘Without me? – is that your vixen drift?’ The hand tightened further round the cane-head. The silver face was visible through his clenched knuckles. It was pressing into the skin, ready to draw blood.
‘Without any man,’ she said, to be reasonable. ‘There are few men who’ll give any woman her due.’
‘He might,’ he said, pointing the cane at Joe. ‘It’s very nearly woman to woman where he’s concerned.’ Suddenly the coach rocked and her father’s jowls shook ingloriously. She couldn’t help a stab of pity, the second of the evening if truth be told. His exit from the party had lacked its usual grace. His legs as she’d followed behind had looked bowed, and there were creases in his breeches and a dirty mark on his coat caused by some grease on his chair. She wasn’t alone in noticing the blotch; it was why he’d been laughed at secretly by their host and some of his guests. That his coat was white and the blotch was black was a sign that mud had been thrown, mud that was meant to stick. It was Nell who’d thrown it too and she knew she ought to feel ashamed.
She cared for him still, no doubt about it, but what did that say of her? She wished she didn’t love him, wished instead she hated him, as surely he deserved. If only it were so simple, if only Joe could help. For he too, despite everything, loved him yet. It was inconceivable in one sense, yet true in all others, all too deep to fathom. As if she needed proof, he leaned her way right now and said resolutely, ‘You know, sis, what you did tonight was inexcusable. They’re Father’s rivals in trade, he needs to stay ahead of them. Just look where your foolishness has got you.’ Sir George grunted and took the pinch of snuff that Vine offered him. ‘You should think of others sometimes, the others that matter,’ Joe continued. ‘We have a reputation to maintain.’ Isn’t that so Father? he was aching to say and get some thanks. ‘It’s not as if you’re deprived. You have everything a girl could wish for and …’
‘All right Joe, that’s enough,’ Sir George interrupted once more. ‘I’ve thought about it and I’ve made my decision. We’re going home – tomorrow. Archie here, I’m sure, will concur.’
‘Of course,’ was his quick reply.
‘I shall instruct the servants to have everything ready for the morning. London is palling on me. This is the worse season I can remember. Even the river looks out of sorts. Not that I’m pining for the sound of rooks, mind, it’s just that I think it’s for the best. As for you, young lady,’ he said, wagging his finger, ‘I want to hear no more of this nonsense. Some good clean Yorkshire air ought to put it all to bed,’ and Vine nodded knowingly as he caught Nell’s eye. ‘Your newfound friends will just have to manage without you. Abolitionists indeed. It’s them that needs abolishing.’
Joe allowed himself a grin she’d have liked to slap away. My sentiment entirely is what she’d expected to hear but he glanced at her when their father wasn’t looking and winked. I’ve done what I had to do, sis, no hard feelings said the wink, and who was she to make his misery worse? He wasn’t much of an ally but he was the only one she’d got.
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