THE DRIVER HAD stopped reluctantly, saying his conveyance was full. She hadn’t paid the fare at the coach office, so why should he take her, late as he was and forced to miss his breakfast? Gone was the time when her name alone would open doors. She was dressed too plainly to make it count even if she tried. From now on she was plain Nell Cooper, of no fixed abode. But she was also female, and that counted for something in a coachful of men.
‘We can manage one more surely – what?’ said a voice half buried at the back. Muffled it may have been, and drowned by grunts, she recognised it immediately. It belonged to her old tutor, Mr Strong, bound for London too, he said, as she squeezed into the corner beside him.
‘I’m sorry for your troubles Nell,’ he said, when she’d told him of her exile. ‘Have you anyone you can stay with in London?’
‘None that I can count on. What about you?’
‘No one. Though I’m hopeful of finding work – no?’ he added breezily. ‘There must be plenty of ignorance that needs enlightenment. I shall rent a room and fill it with eager pupils. And when my prospects are brighter I shall send for my wife and children. Who knows? – the city air might do for their health what the country has failed to achieve –what?’
She asked after them, her commiserations sincere regarding his loss. She’d meant his brother the highwayman but he’d had some other grief. ‘My little one is dead and buried. It was only a matter of time. One less mouth to feed,’ he said to make light, ‘but with no roof over our heads to feed who’s left.’
‘None to call our own. We had taken temporary lodgings with my wife’s sister at York. It’s far from ideal and things are not so simple as you think,’ he said, feigning to look out the window, though the sky was so leaden there was little to see, just the tree-tops bent double by the wind. ‘No, things are not so simple – yes?’
‘That we are both outcasts? – Oh but I think it is.’
Still he wouldn’t look at her. ‘You misunderstand. My name has been blackened for miles around. I could get no work anywhere.’
‘You have waited a long time to leave. Forgive me, I shouldn’t have asked. I am sorry.’
‘Not as much as I,’ and he looked out the window again. They were crossing the bridge at Briggate, where the Aire was swollen by rain. ‘I waited for him, of course,’ he said at length. ‘Gibbets, chains, cages. And to think this coach passed by the very place. Fate is crueller than cruel at times.’
‘Tell me what you know of Olu,’ she said to change the subject. Tired as she was and her spirits low as they sat pressed together in the fetid air, she’d much to ask him that couldn’t wait. It would ease her heart to talk, and her sorry plight stripped her of all niceties. ‘You left that night and never came back – why?’
She’d gone from one sore point to another. ‘You think I am part of her flight – what? Part of some conspiracy – no? I shall tell you this much: I was not involved in her escape. Not directly.’ In the darkness of the coach, she demanded the rest. ‘I was never to Sir George’s liking. My dismissal had been coming for some time. There’s more to it than that, however. Your father suspected me, Nell. He believed he had cause. I don’t mean my radical sympathies. Someone was spying on me. They saw me meet with my brother and introduce him to Olu.’
‘I bet this spy was all too willing to tell.’
‘Willing and clever, you must never underestimate that man. He lays snares, entangles a man – his name Vine suits him well – what? He knew I gave her money, the little I had, he knew my brother would have taken her all the way to London if she’d wished. But she didn’t wish, Nell, and that’s the truth. I ought to have left things as they were. I thought she was unhappy at Belle Isle but I was wrong.’
It was just as Betty had said. It was a joy to hear, yet shrouded in doubt. ‘Then why did she leave? You say your brother’s help was refused? How else could she get away?’
‘Yes, that’s the puzzling part. You see, I’ve heard since that he did help her but not in the way we think. It was the back of his mare that got her part of the way and his money that paid for the rest. That and the little I’d given her. He found her wandering in the woods that night of the ball, lost and sobbing. I never learned why. I’m not sure my brother knew for certain, and there was little time to tell it all. I saw him only once after he was taken. Little more than to say our goodbyes.’
‘I understand now why you stayed so long.’
‘Yes, and to know the outcome of his trial.’
‘I saw the outcome,’ she said. ‘I touched it – to steel myself for this journey. I thought it might bring me luck.’
‘You surprise me,’ he said, not hiding his revulsion. ‘The common people and their customs …’
‘Are we not of the common people now, Mister Strong?’
‘Yes,’ he said with a sigh, ‘perhaps we are. Or soon will be. Black and white together, all as poor as church mice. You will look for Olu?’
‘I already have. She spurned me. I don’t know why, not if what you say is true.’ She told him how she’d gone at night to St Giles-in-the-Fields, gone there in mortal danger to no avail.
‘Then you did a brave thing,’ he said.
‘But that’s not all I did. I took Hector with me – made him go with me. I doubt you heard how it ended. Father beat him so hard he never recovered from his wounds.’
‘You’re right, I didn’t know,’ he said. ‘But why such a vicious attack?’
‘Because he could. And because Vine was watching, expecting.’
‘Surely there was more. It’s not what I know, you understand, just what I think. It’s not what I used to think either, that your father believed it was Hector working towards her escape, that black is thick with black and so on. What is for sure, is that when Hector helped you that night he saw red, yet not for a reason that’s simple. The way I see it he was punishing him on a deeper level. He’s not an ordinary man, Nell, certainly not a simple one.’
‘Now where have I heard that before?’ she said, thinking again of Vine, as if the two men were really one.
‘Though he lacks learning his make-up is complex. All men are complex deep down,’ he said with unwonted smugness.
‘Us women too, Mister Strong, are far from simple,’ she said archly.
‘Point conceded,’ he said, and hemmed himself into silence. ‘Just think on this,’ he resumed presently, ‘about your father, I mean. I wrote him a letter and its contents may disabuse you about one mystery at least. Though I think it may open another. I told him all my brother had done for Olu. I presented it as pure kindness, you understand. It was pure kindness too – my brother, for all his waywardness, had a good heart. I wanted your father to know. You see, Nell, from what I can gather Olu didn’t escape, she was exiled like you. I don’t know why and perhaps I never will. What I do know is that your father gave her money and thought her safe and sound. That is not how my brother found her. Quite the opposite.’
‘I see. Hence his speaking out at the trial.’
‘Yes, why else would he do so?’
‘I don’t know, it’s been there all along but I can’t put it into words. I just know there’s more to this than meets the eye.’ She was looking at him in the hope he’d help her fathom it. He might not be tough but he was clever.
‘You mustn’t blame yourself,’ he said gently. ‘Not for what happened to Olu, not even for what happened to Hector. It was your father’s moment of madness. He’s a hard man. Unforgiving.’
‘You think I don’t know it?’
‘He knows his own mind, though, Nell,’ he said in a change of tone, ‘he has that strength of conviction. You can’t help but admire him. All I do is talk and dream, he’s a man of deeds.’
‘What you did for your brother, that was a deed,’ she reminded him.
‘Not much of one, and look what good it did – yes? And how can I be sure that what I did was right? You see? – I’m in two minds where your father would have just one. You have one mind too, Nell – it’s why you’re here in this coach right now. It’s why you’re going to London.’
‘And you with your two minds are going with me.’ She yawned, feeling sleepy now and eager to sleep in the cramped and stinking cab. She wanted to forget, she wanted to sink into dreamless slumber, for if she dreamed she would dream of her father – his choices, his excuses, the shades of grey that were cause to forgive. They were more alike than she’d realised, not least in the pride that would keep them apart forever.
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