IT WAS A BATTLE of wills between them, a battle of pride and headstrong disposition. That the father saw himself in his daughter, and was secretly glad, was true; but he thought he could defeat her; she was just a girl, soft flesh and delicate bones, with blood too easily chilled. She needed a man’s guidance, not just a father’s but a husband’s too. He said so openly now, and she knew who he had in mind. More than ever Vine’s name was poison on her tongue but in that, as in so much else, she would bide her time, she would stoop to conquer. Though he thought he could break her, he underestimated her strength; she was far more rock than he’d bargained for, and what had simmered below the surface invisible was soon to come to the boil.
The change in her had worked its magic, or worked itself through like a purgative. The end result was the same: she no longer lived to please him; if anything she lived to defy him, it was the only pleasure she had. She was a stranger in her own home; perhaps she always had been. From now on she would be what she chose to be, convinced she was right to do so. The portraits of female ancestors which hung about the house told her as much, that none had amounted to anything but wifedom, motherhood and early death. They had been dolls to grace the table, dolls to take the air on fine days, dolls to wave their hands through carriage windows.
She wanted to be free, to run across the fields naked if needs be, or ride through the town on horseback like Lady Godiva. That her hair was too short to cover her was no demerit; she’d hope to cause twice the stir. She had nothing to lose and everything to gain. She wasn’t afraid, quite the contrary: she had a cause, something to live for other than herself. There was suffering in the world and she wished to cure it. She sought a hurt greater than her own.
And so her work continued. She wrote letters to Mr Sharp and other prominent men favourable to the cause, smuggling them out to the carrier who’d take them to Leeds and thence to London. She put her name to a dozen petitions, blackened her fingers with ink – there was something that kindled here – and reddened her eyes with fatigue. With sense of living on borrowed time she crept out with Betty on dark nights to meetings in the little chapel at Cookridge. Betty, tired from her long day’s work, would not be deterred. Bitten like her mistress by the bug of reform, she wished to hear the speakers. Once it was John Wesley himself, his lean face lit by some inner light as he railed about death, damnation and denial of eternal life to all who dealt in human cargo. He even mentioned Sir George by name. Nell didn’t blame him, and it didn’t lessen her ardour. She was self-righteous in her commitment, she was bloody-minded. But what she was doing was not enough; she needed to be more daring.
One thing she wasn’t short of was provocation. The Reverend Mortimer for example, who watched her closely and tried, as he put it, to make a window in her soul. On weekdays they studied the Bible together, till the hours grew weary even for him, and he shuffled round the schoolroom, sighing and yawning. Rather than leave his charge to mischief, however, he would keep to his appointed hours, interlarding the Scriptures with some other worthy tract, such as The Pilgrim’s Progress or, better still, the racially-motivated works of Edward Long. Nor did his vigilance end there. In Church on Sundays (where her father had insisted she go) his hell-fire message seemed meant just for her. He would lean outwards from his pulpit stiff as a puppet in his dull black suit, filling his cheeks with air and blasting his message against the thick stone walls. Afterwards he would take Nell aside and test the effects of his rhetoric. That Sunday in March for instance, when so much was working inside her: ‘I trust you had food for thought this morning, I trust your heart is seeking forgiveness.’
‘My heart is patient,’ she said, as they stood together near the altar when the service was done. It wasn’t quite the answer he’d wanted, nor quite enough to condemn her. But he wasn’t done yet, and he’d sensed her vulnerability that morning. Having Betty along would have helped to steel her, but the maid’s duties had kept her below stairs. The clergyman feared the doughty maidservant, which was why he never looked her in the eye. Her rough Yorkshire grit unsettled him, her sexual appetites appalled him. He’d alluded to it often enough, her abominable union with a Nigger, of which she’d failed to repent. But the souls of the lower orders were not worth saving. Any pains he took of a spiritual nature were reserved only for the better sort of people, of which Sir George, with all his wealth, was definitely one. The Baronet had praised him for his efforts with his daughter, and Mortimer, who’d enjoyed it, wanted more.
‘The question then is this,’ he said, looking at her from under his thick brows, ‘is your soul beyond redemption?’ He glanced around his sturdy little church, its granite walls proof against every draught. But what was the draught she had just felt? – and was that Vine’s shadow lurking near the door? ‘Your evil cat has fled, has she not?’ the Reverend continued, as if for the shadow’s benefit. ‘I hear she has spurned you, thrown all your kindness back in your face. And still you have not learned your lesson. There must be order on earth, conformity, an absence of change. What you have toyed with – what you are toying with yet for all I know – will bring blood to the streets of England, first in streams and then in torrents. Rivers of blood, Miss Cooper, not immediately perhaps but they will come, as sure as night follows day. They are ten thousand strong already, and who’s to say their number won’t grow? Imagine what will happen if your precious Negro has equality. You think it will stop there? You think he won’t want your house and home? Your seats of power and learning?’ She heard the applause of the hidden watcher, his clapping resounding in the echoing space like a bird flapping its wings. Not a bird, however, but a man; a man of the law allied to a man of the cloth, both in league with her father, cemented by a common bond of the vilest mix. ‘I see you have no answer to my charge. A charge of treason, for that’s what it is in all but name.’
She let the power of silence do its worst, staring at the altar where soon he would pronounce her father and Caroline man and wife. A rehearsal of the ceremony was planned for the following week, a week that would change Nell’s life forever.
‘I have said all I wish to say,’ said Mortimer.
Then go, you will not change me, said Nell’s look as she watched him turn away. His legs as he crossed the floor brought a smile to her face. She’d never seen them from behind, their outward bend at the knee; how they resembled – without the fur – the hind legs of a dog. In spite of everything, his cunning, his guile, his twisted heart, she almost pitied him. But it was only a passing whim; she wished him deader than ever.
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