SHE FOUND BETTY where she said she’d be, in the kitchen where Nell often sat while she worked. ‘That’s black lead you’re using, isn’t it Betty?’ she asked her maid, whose thick neck was red and filmed with sweat. Though she used a cloth to apply the noxious substance, her hands and arms were so stained they looked to be one with the pot.
‘That’s right, Miss,’ and she delicately applied another coat to the base and laboriously rubbed it in. ‘Filthy stuff as you can see. But very black, just what we need for all this blasted iron. I prefer cleaning copper as a rule.’ She nodded at the shining ranks of pans ranged upon the shelves according to size. They caught the glare from the fire and shone warmly, though it wasn’t the copper Nell was interested in; it was the iron and the black lead. They went together well, ominously so, enough to make her heart leap. She picked up a kettle and wiped it absently with her finger. She looked at the black stain the lead had left behind, so easily made, so easily extended.
‘Don’t do that, Miss, it’s not your …’ – all that dabbing of lead, and now Betty was dabbing her tears that came in a flood to defeat her.
‘What is it Betty? – what ails you?’
‘Oh Miss how could you? – how could you lie like that?’
So it was out at last, had she really thought to hide it? ‘What do you mean?’ Nell asked without conviction.
‘Hector’s dead, Miss, and you knew it all along. I heard your father talking to Mister Vine this morning. They were laughing together, making fun of his Nigger’s blood. I’m in hell Miss and you’ve kept me there in the dark!’
It was a mixed up outburst but it hit the mark. Nell looked at her servant’s face and knew it was true, truer than ever: the hatchet she might have buried would stay in her hand, sharper still, ready to wreak its havoc. ‘I thought to protect you,’ she said, blacking her hands as she fingered the metal in shame. They were black as coal, black as the Bible, black as the hell Betty was in. She’d blacked the white of her hands and she felt like blacking her whole face. It was a kind of homage, and what a spectacle it would make. Hadn’t Mr Sharp hinted at something of the sort in his last letter: ‘What we need is daring acts to shake this country out of its complacency. If you’re brave Nell, as I think you are …’ His last letter – the same that had mentioned Hector – how did her father know its contents?
‘You’re not listening, Miss!’ cried Betty. ‘Can’t you see what I’m going through? I ought to hate you for deceiving me so!’
‘I’m sorry, Betty.’
‘Are you? Are you sure you’re not sorrier for your father? Forgive me, Miss, I shouldn’t have said so.’
‘Yes you should,’ Nell said, glancing away ashamed. Betty had a right to chastise her, and even the weather looked to agree. Beyond the lattice snow was falling – snow the great leveller, snow that made them all equal, plunged them back to when there were no lords and ladies, when Adam delved and Eve span, and who was then the gentleman? The gentleman – she’d seen in the vortex of the swirling snowflakes the fleeting figure of a man and a disembodied wheel. The wheel was spinning fast but it and the man had soon disappeared. Just a phantom vision, surely, a trick of the wind-driven flakes? It had only been a flurry in the end, and that too now had stopped. ‘You were right to say it,’ she continued, ‘and I’m glad it’s out at last, my lie has been eating me away. The look in your eyes says more than I could have dreamed in my worst nightmares. I was protecting him …’ – she couldn’t say his name – ‘… I wanted his crime to be small, a misdemeanour, but it’s not possible, it’s not fair. Forsooth it’s a capital offence, or should be. Such hypocrisy, don’t you think?’ She looked at the maid’s stocky frame, trembling with tears, her lank hair unwashed and pitiable. ‘Those highwaymen Betty – were they really any worse?’
‘No, Miss, I’m sure they weren’t.’
‘And yet they still hung.’
‘They didn’t die easy neither, they rarely do.’ They’d hung them afterwards in cages, which the law said befitted their crime. They’d hung them where their robberies were most numerous – on the very edge of her father’s estate. And yet Sir George, a mystery indeed, had argued against it; he’d even argued at the trial – special pleaded said The Leeds Mercury – that mercy be shown to one of them at least, the black sheep relative of Mr Strong. ‘The merciful baronet,’ the paper had called him, and Nell felt a rush of pride. Such pride bred confusion; it meant vacillation, inertia. To be single-minded was the key – but the key to what?
‘Tell me how it happened, all of it,’ said Betty. ‘I need to know.’
And so Nell told her, without embellishment, without embroidery. She neither praised her part in events nor spared her father his. It was all there, every detail, and some would say it was all Nell’s doing – if she hadn’t pushed Hector to take her that night …
‘You weren’t to know how it would end,’ said Betty.
‘Then don’t forsake me Betty, you’re all I have. Say something cheerful. Tell me about your ambitions to be rich, the money box beneath your bed.’
‘I can’t Miss, not today,’ she said rising. ‘You must excuse me now. I have work to do. Work is a great healer, as your father would say.’
Nell heard the irony in her tone; it was with her still as she hurried upstairs to her room, eager for what she sought there but couldn’t find. The drawer to her bureau was open, the lock broken, her letters gone.
‘Are these what you’re looking for?’ asked her father from the doorway. He held the letters loose in their bundle like a pair of gloves, slapping them against his hip as he spoke. ‘Quite the little quill-pusher, aren’t you?’ He tore the ribbon that bound them, unfolded a page at random and began to read with a sneer: ‘This insidious practice of slavery…the barbaric iniquities of the three-way trade…the unmitigated evils of the plantation system…slave ship captains, brokers, factors, planters…Devils greater and lesser… My dear Mr Sharp, etcetera, etcetera…my dear sir, da-da, da-da, da-da, know that I am ever your humble and loyal servant, Nell Cooper. I’d say it’s a different sort of Devil you serve …’ He flung the letters in a fluttering arc across the room.
‘This must stop now or else. I give you warning, Nell, that the third time you defy me will be your last. You’ll be sacrificed for the good of all, just like she was…’ He’d broken off, his face flushed, his movements stiff with anger as he headed for a chair by the hearth. Needing time to compose himself, he sat down and stared into space, growing calmer by degrees. ‘You wish me to apologise for what I have done?’ he resumed. ‘I deal in slaves, so does the nation. You think the nation will ever apologise? Of course it won’t, and neither shall I. It pains me to speak to you thus, but must you rub my face in the dirt? – must you keep reminding me?’ A hand was pressed to his reddened cheek, keeping down a spasm in his jaw. ‘Must you keep reminding me?’ he repeated distantly.
‘Reminding you of what? – Hector?’ She wasn’t sure; he looked to be thinking of something else.
He didn’t answer her question: ‘You thought to get away with it? You thought to get past us all?’
‘I thought to deceive myself, I can’t think why. I’ve tried to find excuses for all you’ve done.’ She was thinking again of that highwayman, the one he’d tried to save – what did it mean? – what could it mean?
‘Nell, be reasonable and you’ll find that I can be reasonable too. Think of what you throw away when you play your part in this delusion. As your father, I have a right to be obeyed.’ Nell sat down also, without being asked; she was in her chamber after all. ‘You say nothing I see.’ He paused, contending with himself till he’d found a way to go on: ‘Let me show you life as it really is, Nell,’ and with elbows resting on the chair arms he said how he’d learned from his father everything that was worth knowing about the world. ‘We never change, you know, the damage is done very early on. We are what we are for life, till death parts us from ourselves.’ He’d hinted that his father never minced his words, never spared the rod in instilling his views, saying nothing, out of loyalty, of any pains and tears. Instead he cut straight to the benefits, how he’d learned that man must strive, search and most of all endure. He should get rich quickly any way he could, and provide for his family as copiously as possible. A man, even in silk and lace in 1777, was doing what men in the ancient wilderness had done – protecting his loved ones from harm, while bringing home food and fuel. Life was a hard race which only the strong survived. The weak must, by the nature of things, fall behind. Regrettable perhaps, but it couldn’t be helped. The race of life was linked to the race of peoples. The white race was superior in all respects; the white race alone was worthy of running the race. It was a truth so natural that it didn’t need to be questioned. In fact it mustn’t be questioned, for to do so was to disturb the balance of nature. Granville Sharp and his like were dangerous fools who must be resisted at all costs. It behoved a man like her father to upkeep white supremacy, to ensure the races never mixed.
‘Think of what it means to mix them, Nell.’ His face now was grown wild, not with hatred but with anguish. ‘Just how must they turn out? Can you imagine it? Can you predict it? Can you excuse it?’
‘Yes – yes I can’ – why did it feel like the answer he wanted to hear?
As if he couldn’t bear it, he was straight on the attack again: ‘What I have done, I have done for you, but should you persist in defying me you’ll find me an implacable foe. I mean it, Nell, I am giving you an ultimatum.’ He was on his feet again, finishing how he’d started – with manly aggression. ‘So, do I have your promise?’
There was no denying his power. No denying her bravery, though there are times when discretion is the better part of valour. She was biding her time still, which meant lying, playing the hypocrite, calling the kettle black. She was no coal miner, no sweep, no black-faced poacher flouting the Black Act as she chased the king’s deer; no Mr Garrick playing Othello at the Duke’s Theatre. But she turned black oh so easily, as Betty’s black lead had proved.
‘Yes, I’ll make you a promise,’ she said, without saying which.
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