WHAT A RUM LITTLE fellow that was, thought Nell, as they headed up the box-lined path to the main entrance. They found it unlocked and climbed to the dingy passageway on the second floor. She knew her way now, how the passage wound right and left and right again till it reached Granville Sharp’s door. Here, where a bell chord hung, she rang loudly enough to wake the echoes. There was no swift answer and they thought he may have left for work. Presently the door opened, however, and the activist stood before them in his stocking feet.
‘Miss Cooper, this is a surprise,’ he said, trying to scratch the scalp hidden beneath his wig. ‘I never thought to see you again.’ Look at you, he seemed to say as he eyed her up and down, you are not what you were.
‘This is Mister Strong,’ she said, disappointed that he didn’t look pleased to see her. ‘He was my tutor at Belle Isle. We are both here for the same reason I fear.’
‘Fear,’ said the little man grimacing. ‘I know all about that, I fear.’ His pun appeared to pleasure him, and his grimace became a smile.
‘May we come in?’ asked Nell, wishing he’d have asked them first. It wasn’t a good start.
‘Yes of course,’ he said collecting himself. ‘Forgive me, you catch me at an awkward moment,’ he added as they followed him. ‘I’m still compelled to work for a living. I’m due at the office in an hour.’
‘It’s good of you to see us, sir,’ said Mr Strong, grateful for the warmth his rooms afforded. They were bachelor’s rooms, Nell had decided on her previous visits, and nothing had changed. A desk scattered with papers, an easy chair by the fireplace and shelves for his numerous books completed his sitting-room furniture. Beyond was the room where he slept, and opposite that another where he made his meals. His comforts were few, but to his visitors who were poor they were heaven.
‘I would offer you tea if there was time,’ said Mr Sharp. ‘No doubt you are tired and hungry after your long journey.’
They had already eaten, Nell informed him, and though they were tired he needn’t trouble himself. ‘Sir, I won’t prevaricate. We are here because we have nowhere else to go. For myself, I have neither relatives nor friends who will own me.’ She told him her story, how she’d come with just a few belongings and barely any funds besides.
‘My case is slightly different,’ said Mr Strong. ‘I have family but no prospects. In short, sir, I am as destitute as my companion here.’
‘So you’ve come to me for help?’ Mr Sharp asked when they’d seated themselves as directed.
‘Yes sir, whatever you can do, however modest,’ Nell said humbly. ‘I know we mustn’t be choosy.’
‘Indeed you must not,’ he said, slipping on his shoes that lay beside the hearth. ‘Excuse my brashness, it wasn’t meant. But you are right to read me as you do, Helen,’ as he liked to call her. ‘I am but a poor man these days. Indeed I have grown poorer – my commitment to the cause has cost me dear. These rooms you find yourself in –I live from one month’s rent to another.’ He gestured to the meagre furnishings, fingered his stockings from knee to ankle. They were not new, nearly threadbare in places. ‘There are those who’d rejoice to see me in a debtors’ prison.’
‘I’m sure it won’t come to that, sir,’ ventured Mr Strong, keen to show by hand and eye that the colour of his suit was the favoured black.
‘We must hope not,’ said Mr Sharp.
‘You spoke of your commitment to the cause just now,’ Nell reminded him. He folded his hands solemnly like a cleric. ‘May we not help you in your work? Here in the capital where it’s wanted most.’
‘Yes you may, but you’ll be needing recompense,’ said Mr Sharp. ‘I wouldn’t expect you to labour for nothing, though nothing is precisely what I could pay you. I could find you work elsewhere, but I doubt it would be to your liking.’
Mr Strong was frowning, as he’d used to do in class. ‘You’d have us work as crossing sweeps like that boy outside?’
‘And which boy would that be? – I’ve helped so many. But if he was here, you say, outside my door when the last I heard he was in Cheapside, I think I know the one you mean. He moves great distances on an empty stomach. Charlie is inimitable in that respect. He has his uses too, you know, he keeps his dirty ear to the ground. Mark it well in case you need it one day.’
‘He seemed to find it amusing that we’ve fallen on hard times,’ Nell said. ‘But it’s true in my case, the high and mighty has fallen.’
‘I, as she has implied, have less far to fall,’ said Mr Strong, ‘but fall I have nonetheless if sweeping the streets is what I must come to. I’m a tutor by trade, I know Greek and Latin and ancient history – what? To be happy in one’s work, sir, is what we all desire – no?’
‘Yes, assuredly so,’ said Mr Sharp, as a large ginger cat leapt into his lap purring. The philanthropist’s hands, large and smooth, stroked the animal rhythmically. Its purring grew louder with each application. ‘My cause makes me fretful, it is my white man’s burden. Oh to be a cat and be truly happy.’
‘The fact remains,’ Nell resumed, ‘that we are both in need of a situation. Do you know of anything, however menial?’ She realised how little they’d have to settle for. It was the cross they must bear without complaint.
Mr Sharp leaned back in his chair and exhaled loudly. The buttons on his coat seemed a drab extension of the buttons on the brown-upholstered chair. The thumb of one hand strayed towards the pocket of his cream waistcoat and hung there slackly, by a thread it seemed. His sunken cheeks had sunk further since Nell saw him last; there were dark pouches below his eyes and the lashes were rimmed with a flaking redness. ‘Can you sew, Helen?’ he asked gently. ‘And you, Mister Strong, can you read your classics aloud for hours on end to one who would welcome it and pay you a trifle for your trouble?’ They looked at each other, wondering at the mystery. ‘The nation is at war, Helen, as you are doubtless aware. It is a war I am opposed to in every degree. Its cause is pernicious on our side. Hear me out!’ he said, raising his hand to silence her. ‘Be that as it may, there is work to be had. Our armies are in need of uniforms. There is a shortage of seamstresses here in the capital.’
‘But I have no skill!’
He stayed her once more. ‘You will have practised embroidery like all idle ladies of your station.’
There was insult here, which Nell parried. ‘I have all the accomplishments you’d expect,’ she said sarcastically.
‘Sewing is sewing, is it not?’
‘A man may say so.’
‘I like your answer. You are a spirited girl, who learns fast no doubt.’
‘I can vouch for that,’ said Mr Strong, though she’d like to have kicked his presumption.
‘If I could find you a teacher – not of the classics I hasten to add. A nimble-fingered girl who could teach by example – her name’s Nelly, not unlike your own, and you could sit beside her as the saying goes. She even has a garret you might share. It would put bread on the table, my dear, and it wouldn’t be for long. It will at least keep the wolf at bay.’
‘And what of my wolf?’ asked Mr Strong.
‘I know of a colonel who is too sick to fight. An odd contradiction, but there you have it. He has a penchant for your beloved classics. I think his heart might be soothed by the healing balsam of the Latin tongue. It would be enough to pay the rent on some modest accommodation.’ His cat, as he stroked it, seemed to concur. ‘Believe me, if I could do more I would do it forthwith. Something better will turn up soon, I’m sure of it. Meanwhile, there is much to be said for quiet suffering. Just ask our black brothers.’
‘I’ve heard they’ve enlisted some to fight in the war,’ Nell said. ‘They have promised them their freedom in return.’
‘Then you heard correctly,’ said Mr Sharp, gently squeezing a curl in his wig. ‘If they live to see their freedom. Have you heard how they are using them on the battlefield? Ten black men killed for every white. They send them in at the first charge to soak up the enemy’s fire. And will the country be grateful for their sacrifice?’
‘We know it will not,’ said Nell. ‘And yet you’d have me sew their uniforms. I may as well sew their winding sheets.’
‘And I shall be reading the classics to a man who’d be ordering their deaths if he could,’ said Mr Strong shaking his head.
‘We cannot change the world, much as we would like,’ the abolitionist observed. ‘We must do good where we can and tolerate the bad between times. There are so many wrongs to be righted. I have given my life to rectifying just one of them. I’ve achieved just a fraction of what I’d like to achieve. I do so much that I’d rather not, but if it furthers my cause just one inch,’ and he showed the measure between his slender fingers.
‘I understand,’ Nell said. ‘Your cause is mine now. It’s was mine while rich and it’ll be mine while I’m poor.’
‘Well said, Helen. Nobility of the heart is where it matters,’ said Mr Sharp, as if feeling for that organ in the body of his cat. ‘I’m sure your reward will come.’
‘This side of the tomb I hope,’ said Mr Strong suitably grave.