IF SIR GEORGE THOUGHT the country would cure his daughter of her ‘ills’ he was wrong. If he thought the abolitionist movement was purely metropolitan he was wrong about that too. She hadn’t given up, and there was much to occupy her. She didn’t regret it, and she said as much to Caroline Stroud, who came to call a few weeks later. A new year had dawned – 1777 – with its run of sevens many said was unlucky. That aside, she thought she could trust Caroline, or was reckless enough to try. They were drinking tea together, a strong type called Gunpowder which Caroline liked.
‘An explosive mix,’ joked Nell’s mother-to-be, sipping daintily as they sat at the table in the yellow saloon. She looked radiant in her bright blue dress, smiling at Nell as she looked up from her China tea cup. Caroline had dimples when she smiled, which Nell found appealing. She also admired her eyes, hazel in colour, almond in shape, though it was her teeth she envied most, so white and even. ‘You were explosive too I hear,’ she added, flicking her finger against the cup and making it ring. ‘Caused quite a stir,’ and she stirred in some sugar to make her point. ‘My father heard all about it when he came to London and it put him quite out of sorts.’
‘I spoke my mind,’ said Nell, ‘I had no choice. ’
‘And I admire you,’ said Caroline, sincerely Nell hoped. ‘I doubt I should be so brave. In fact I know I am not brave,’ and both knew to what she alluded.
‘You think the cause a noble one then?’
‘Oh I wouldn’t go that far,’ Caroline answered quickly, ‘but I think it’s – how shall I say? – exciting.’
‘And growing stronger I hear – even here in Yorkshire.’ Nell spoke generally. She hadn’t told her of the secret letters from Granville Sharp, of her visits to a Quaker house in Cookridge and to a Methodist chapel – in reality just a barn – in a field on the outskirts of the village. Both housed meetings for the cause as well as prayers; both had names on the same petition, including Nell’s. And though she hadn’t helped to hawk the document from one side of the Riding to the other, she had spoken her mind from the front pew when the spirit of reform moved her. It was only a start but she meant to do more. She was of one the brotherhood now, and humanity, black and white, was her business. She possessed such fervour, such enthusiasm – and she refused to believe it wasn’t genuine.
‘My emotions are involved, I feel so strongly that what I am doing is right,’ she told Caroline eagerly.
‘I doubt your father will see it that way,’ and she stirred her tea some more.
‘No,’ Nell answered, for crossing him was still the cross she must bear. ‘And you must tread carefully yourself I expect.’
Caroline’s countenance darkened as she stared at the parquet floor. ‘I must do what others see fit. I have no choice.’
‘But you do have a choice! You can say no, you can …’
‘He loves you, you’re his heart’s desire.’ She was trying to read her mind. ‘Till you broke his heart like a stone upon glass.’
‘Now look here, Nell, you know as well as I that we must deny ourselves when others ask it. Our fathers who …’
‘Art not in heaven,’ Nell improvised. ‘They are earthly men who do each others’ bidding. What about our needs and desires? Is a slave not a man and a brother? Am I not a woman and a sister? Our cause is all one when you think about it.’
‘I can’t manage on mere words, Nell,’ said Caroline, rising stiffly with a rustle of skirts. ‘And your words hurt and unsettle. You must be careful what you wish for, as my father would say. I’m beginning to think he is regretting some of his wishes.’ Nell was about to query this when she added, ‘If you are looking for support you ask too much. Is there not enough sorrow in the world?’
‘Too much, that’s why I wish to change it.’ Nell was trusting her in spite of herself. She very nearly told her about Betty, who ever grumbled and moaned but shared her sense of injustice; who chaperoned her on the sly to Methodist meetings, Nell’s rod and Nell her staff in return. And all this without the facts of Hector’s plight. He’d run away of his own accord, Nell had told her, he’d taken his chance and slipped the leash. She’d lied to protect her from the truth, to save her tears. But that wasn’t all: she’d done it so that her father’s crime might be minimised, not reflected in all its horror in Betty’s judging face. Cowardly perhaps, and far from noble yet now, with that news from Mr Sharp, who was to say she was wrong?
‘No Nell,’ Caroline was saying, ‘you must live as best you can and find some happiness if you are able. Life is too short to be melancholy.’
‘You sound just like Joe,’ said Nell, who saw her dart hit home. ‘Have you seen him since you arrived? He’s upstairs in his chamber too sorry for himself to come down. He licks his wounds all day like a dog with a sore paw.’
‘What an imp you are,’ said Caroline relenting. ‘You play with fire right under your father’s nose. But since you have mentioned Joe, I shan’t go out of my way to avoid him. I shall put him straight, make him see it’s all for the best.’
All for the best, Nell reflected, thinking of her father’s words. ‘I’m sure you’ll do your utmost to mother him,’ she said, unable to resist the jibe. ‘You’ll be mothering me also I’m sure, and have much to teach me. Those two extra years you’ve spent in the countryside, all that shelter on your father’s estate.’
‘You are mocking me, Nell,’ she said. ‘Be careful what you do. You will be needing friends soon …’
‘I have need of them now!’ she broke out. ‘I have no one!’ – only Quakers and Methodists, she nearly said, those Dissenters Vine had mocked in the carriage that day, predestined for reward or damnation at God’s whim. How dull they were, how straight-laced and cramped. Regarding the Methodists for instance, she had listened to the visiting preacher and bitten her lip trying not to laugh: she’d seen the hole in his breeches, the skin painted black to hide it; she’d wondered, seeing another hole sprouting at his crotch, if he’d painted something else black too.
‘Then mark what you say – and not only to me,’ said Caroline, still on the subject of friends. She was making to leave now but Nell called her back. ‘How can you marry him? He’s my father. He’s so – old.’
‘Must we go through it all again?’ said Caroline with a tired sigh. She walked quickly to the window, where the winter sun shone bright between the beech trees, smudging the grey trunks with an orange glow. Here, beneath the casement, was the cushioned seat where Nell had sat with Olu. She felt a pang as Caroline leaned her skirts there, awkwardly, fretfully, as if her body was willing to fly but her well-schooled head wouldn’t let her. She was a prisoner, a tragic prisoner of her situation. One that determined her future, would make her a fixture in that very house.
‘You don’t love him, you can’t,’ said Nell one last time.
‘Love is not the issue and you know it.’ She move away from the sill. ‘Look Nell, I came here today to make matters easier between us. Do you think Joe is the only one to feel hurt?’ She was nibbling her finger as she spoke, and Nell saw, just for a second, the girl she was hoping to lay bare. ‘These things are never black and white.’
‘Aren’t they?’ Nell asked, crossed purposes making her smile. She rose and placed her hand on Caroline’s arm. ‘But we can still be friends can’t we? I know I’m younger – by only two years…’ – it was another snipe which she couldn’t help – ‘…but I’ve always felt a bond between us.’
‘Yes, Nell,’ Caroline said, ‘we can still be friends. I see no point in being otherwise. But take care, do you hear? You will make enemies in all the wrong circles. Most of all, you will make an enemy of your father. Where will that leave us then?’
‘At opposite ends of the country on the day of your wedding,’ Nell joked, little knowing she was tempting fate.
‘Mark it doesn’t come to that,’ said Caroline, half serious.
‘But will you keep my secret?’ Nell asked with all her charm.
‘You trust me to keep it when Lord Pemberton is my father?’
‘Why not? After all, I am keeping yours. That you still love Joe as much as he loves you.’
She was about to answer when Joe came in. He stood in the doorway, propping open the doors with an air of feigned nonchalance. But his outstretched arms suggested crucifixion, which was far more apt. ‘I thought I’d break the ice,’ he said. ‘No hard feelings and so on.’
‘Thank you,’ said Caroline, the ice breaking on her side too. Her look as it did so said everything – that she cared for him still but what could it matter?
‘I was just leaving,’ said Nell. ‘I’m sure you have a lot to talk about. Is Father still in his study?’ Joe nodded abstracted. ‘Good,’ she said as she brushed past, ‘then I shall make sure he leaves you in peace.’
Such was her purpose but only in part. She was going to him in the old daughterly way, to try to rekindle what she knew she had lost. She knew it was hopeless, but old habits died hard.
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