‘COME,’ HE CALLED when she’d knocked. His study reeked of Caroline’s scent, for she’d called there already to talk of the marriage. The fragrance was so strong it smelled of her flesh beneath; a smell carnal, virginal, mixed with an earthy essence that was her father. The sickness Nell felt was oddly pleasurable, a revulsion that was nearer excitement. She knew now what Joe had meant that day when he spoke of the two of them together: unnatural yet erotic, and she was looking at their father who’d made it happen. His smile was wistful as he sat with his accounts. He was dressed in a plain grey coat which suited him, though his tight cream breeches were unbuttoned at the knee, an example of the slovenliness which had crept into his dress since returning from London.
She closed the double doors and rustled towards him. Even now she would have taken his hand if he’d asked, thrown her arms around him and kissed him lovingly on the cheek. But she knew that he wouldn’t welcome it; her caresses would be grudgingly received. To deny her affection was his way of punishing her, to make her see the error of her ways. He’d done it before but never so ruthlessly. His closed mind was closed even tighter, a padlocked chest sat upon by a certain insidious pair – and fed poison through cracks that ought to have let in light.
‘You are well I trust?’ he asked, flicking through the ledger put in order by Vine.
‘Very well Father,’ she replied. ‘My health thrives in this cold clear weather.’
‘And you have seen Caroline? There’s no reason for you not to be friends – but more distantly now, I think. Needs must, you know.’ He looked at her suddenly before she could answer. ‘You have left her alone, however?’
‘No, she’s with …’ She hadn’t bargained for this, and was lost for words.
‘Come, say it, that she’s with Joe. Why look so worried? It’s fitting that they get used to each other in their altered states – there is no alternative. I need harmony in this, not discord.’ He went back to his books, wetting a finger as he turned another page. ‘Now, what was it that you wanted? I take it you are finally finished with all this abolitionist nonsense?’ Nell agonised about her answer – should she lie, tell a half-truth or the whole? ‘You’ve been quiet as a mouse since our return,’ he went on. ‘I’ve spoken with Archie who tells me you’ve grown quite dull. I’m not sure that he likes you dull.’
‘I don’t care what he likes.’
‘But I’m not sure that I like you dull either Nell.’
‘I’m not sure I like myself,’ she said, sensing he’d got his answer; his presumption proved, even if the terms were not the best he could hope for, her loyalty being what it was, just a lack of opportunity.
‘Though I expect I should be grateful. To have you dull is not to have you insolent. The whole of London must have heard of your foolishness, not forgetting the fool you made of me. But no matter, London is fickle, one man’s misfortune is soon over ridden by the next. Christmas is the season for fools, and this New Year is full of sevens. But things are different in the country, you can do no harm worth speaking of.’ How little he knew, and silence was again her friend. ‘I have ambitions, Nell,’ he proceeded. ‘Ambitions I find it hard to forego. No no, before you say anything hear me out. I – know I haven’t always been the best of fathers. I know you have your opinion of me…confound it, but this is difficult enough to say without you staring so!’
‘I am listening’ – melting was a better word; she loved him dearly when he showed his weaker side: he reminded her a little of herself, her odd mix of cruelty and kindness, the will to hurt, the urge afterwards to be sorry, like a schoolyard bully with a plaguing conscience. Unlike him, however, she was keener to harness her better side, put pay to the worst in the interests of common decency. Was this the woman in her that would always defeat the man? – just like the man in him that would always vanquish the woman? Poor Hector had come to mind, so beaten, bruised and spoiled, almost certainly for good, said Mr Sharp in his last letter. He’d taken a turn for the worst, was too ill to run errands for the kindly tailor who’d employed him. He languished in a hospital bed at the Sharps’ expense, the end expected any day. His parting message to Nell had been his real name, which he’d promised to give. He was born and named Serebandjougou, who had he not been shipped across the Atlantic in a stormy middle passage aged six, would have been like his father before him, an eminent prince of the Mandika tribe. Hector in his own land, in his own culture, had amounted to royalty.
There’d been a last message for Betty too – that he had loved her across the great divide, that he wasn’t ashamed of his love, and hoped it had not shamed her. Here was another secret to keep, one that must be added to the first. To know that he’d be dead by now (the letter was a fortnight old), to know he’d been of princely blood, to know that his love had been pure – how much worse would her father’s deed appear? Betty would judge him, as was her right; Betty would see him as he really was. To keep Nell’s hope alive and with it her love, she, and only she, might judge him, judge him in a light that was best kept murky.
Yet did her father, who had never spoken of Hector, feel regret? The answer to that was probably no. Here was a man who must rue nothing, not a morsel, for that would be a chink in his armour, one that could only widen. To regret something, to acknowledge mistakes and feel remorse would shatter his self-made image; it might even mark his ruin. But it wasn’t easy, this inner fight; there was a grain in his wood which couldn’t be altered, whose course ran a compassionate way. This was the grain Nell clung to; it’s what gave her hope, kept her love alive – though for how long?
At last he looked at her. ‘Nell, your mother and I – I did love her in my way. The only way I knew. The same way I still know. And as for you, I see in you the same things I see in myself. I feel them, Nell, things a man shouldn’t feel. Not when you’re a man like me.’ He picked up his gold ink-pot, a present from Lord Pemberton who’d bought his support in a recent enclosure bill – bought it cheaply too, for Sir George had his own favours in mind and was trying hard to please. The trinket said more than its weight in gold; what men gave to men to win their favour was just as shallow as fine knacks for fair ladies; mere baubles that were never the measure of true faith, nor love neither. ‘I blame myself for what’s happened,’ he continued. ‘If only I hadn’t brought her here.’
‘You mean Olu?’
‘I can hardly bring myself to say her name. I know it was the name her mother gave her. Her real name. I should have left her where she was raised, the only place she knew. After all she was just a slave, just one among a thousand. But it wasn’t so simple. I meant to please you with the prettiest playfellow you’d ever owned. I knew you were lonely, I was activated solely by the love I feel for you. You do know I love you, it’s such a small word and yet such a hard one for me to say.’
‘Yes Father, I believe you do love me.’ He was looking at her expectantly so she said it: ‘But not as much as I love you.’
There was pleasure in his features, alongside the anguish and the doubt. If she loved him on his terms only, he was thinking, then that might mean very little; here was a man whose love was ladled thin. ‘I wasn’t sure you’d take to her,’ he resumed, ‘her being so black. She ought to have been a Mulatto but it’s not so easy to settle these things.’ It should be, Nell was thinking, you’ve dealt in them long enough. ‘A present is a present,’ he pursued, ‘and I wanted you to have the best. Full black is what’s still in vogue you know, no half baked measures.’
‘But was everything above board, Father? You like the cards more than most men, but did you keep some secret beneath the table?’
He met her gaze with difficulty. ‘No secrets, Nell, merely worries. I was worried you’d cast her aside, leave her untutored as well as black. But you excelled yourself there,’ he said with irony. ‘You went beyond what was natural. You held her hand, you broke bread with her. Some say you shared the same bed. You’ve no idea how that turns my stomach.’
She said it, she couldn’t help it: ‘We did share a bed, and I hoped to enjoy it. I hoped the feel of her body would be wonderful. But it wasn’t.’
His face seemed visibly to crack. ‘And you’re surprised? Do you know how this wounds me?’
In for a penny, in for a pound, she reasoned, hanged for a sheep instead of a lamb, as those two highwaymen might say. They’d taken them at last, she’d heard, and would try them at the March Assizes. Sir George, as a principal witness, would be out to make them swing. He would want revenge for infesting his roads and terrorising his guests. With all this swirling in her head she went much further than intended: ‘As for Hector, I wish I’d lain with him too. I wish he’d taken my virginity. I thought about it, I did!’ though the thought had just sprung to mind. She began to think that if he’d touched her in that dark carriage she shouldn’t have stayed his hand, she should have guided it to the place it sought. And should he have refused – as well he might, being such a loyal and gentle soul – more gentleman than Vine could ever be – she would have ordered him to do it. And felt such guilt when it was over that the blame would have been all his; which being the case, her father’s violence would have been undiminished, with this the moral at the end: that good deeds were at the mercy of mood, fortune, or maybe just the hand of fate.
‘God forbid Nell, go wash out your mouth!’ Like a man on the verge of a seizure he walked round the room to get his breath. ‘You see now why it’s best that she’s out of your life forever?’
What must she answer? He was treading on a wound not yet healed and his anger was feeding her grief. ‘There was more, you might as well admit that too,’ he said, wringing his hands together so she almost heard them grind. ‘Mister Vine – Archie – the best man I have – the only man I trust – swears it’s true. She was teaching you her wicked ways and you were listening, learning. You were going against our agreement. Excelling yourself yet again.’
‘It was you who came to me with your precious wager. I must make her a lady, make her pass for white.’
‘You let her go too far! She was harming you Nell and you couldn’t see it. She was making you one of them, the whole process was in reverse. If you ask me, she ran away to hide her shame. Whatever the reason it’s good riddance Nell, very good riddance indeed.’ He calmed himself by an act of will; he slowed his breathing, left off kneading his hands. ‘Say you didn’t love her, Nell, not as a sweetheart, not as a sister…I don’t know which is worse.’ She saw it for the first time, his jealousy, inexplicable to her and surely so to him. ‘Say it, Nell, say it, but you can’t can you?’ He was willing her to say it, to smash the glass between the three of them forever, no matter what the pain. He was right in one sense: she didn’t understand; right too in another: she couldn’t say the fatal words.
‘But why so much hatred?’ was all she said.
‘You’re young and foolish. You haven’t lived as I have lived, you don’t know the world as it really is.’
‘I’m sorry if I’ve offended you, Father – again,’ she said. ‘My feet seem large lately…’ – like Olu’s, she was thinking with a pang – ‘…they keep stepping where they shouldn’t. I’m like a bull surrounded by your best China.’
And there the matter rested, for now. It wasn’t yet time for their final fight: she wasn’t ready and neither, she doubted, was he. She had the feeling that he’d tried to make amends, tried to meet her half way, but it had all come to nought. The river that was slavery, the gulf that was Olu and Hector combined, were much too wide to cross.
My new novel is available for free on Amazon: