THE HOPE TAVERN was aptly named, and its inn sign of a man struggling through marshland on a stormy night fitted as an image to match. Inside, where an ashy fire smouldered in the hearth, thirty Negroes were gathered for recreation, or what passed for it. Nell wondered how the law operated here, how the writ of private property ran. Were these free blacks or slaves? Were they runaways? – what were they exactly? Their voices were low, mostly just whispers, though a woman in a feathered hat sang lustily of home in sweet counterpoint to an ill-tuned fiddle.
Heads turned as they entered, but they hadn’t caused a stir. The opposite was true – indifference, habitual fear of offending – and they were left to their devices. Nell wanted to be noticed nonetheless, she wanted to speak but wasn’t sure what to say. This wasn’t unusual: she rarely knew her words beforehand; she trusted them to make sense when her mouth opened. Who to approach was a question of intuition. The room was long and narrow, lit by candles guttering in a dozen different draughts. Behind a short wooden counter stood a middle aged black man with balding head. She’d made her choice.
‘Nell, be careful,’ said Robert but she brushed past him and strolled to the bar, kicking away the straw that caught in the buckles of her shoes.
‘Some gin, if you please sir, for my friend and I.’ The black man nodded and drew the liquor into pannikins from a small barrel behind him. ‘Mother’s Ruin, they call it,’ Nell said to Robert as they waited. ‘I’m no mother, just ruined, looking for that quick way out of London.’
‘I have a penny right here in my waistcoat,’ he said, clipping it down flat on the bar. ‘You can’t get drunk on a penny any more, or dead drunk for tuppence. But we may have this one drink and go.’
‘We’ll do nothing of the sort,’ Nell said. ‘I’ve come to talk to these people. Let them know we speak the same language.’
‘But that’s just it, Nell, we don’t speak it – yes?’ Robert said in a low voice. ‘Take a look around you. They’re all – what’s the phrase? – lost in their own world – what?’
‘Then we must knock and enter.’ She steered the penny across the counter and turned to face the group. How to introduce myself? she wondered, how to make their acquaintance?
‘You must excuse us,’ Robert was saying to the man. ‘My young friend insisted on coming. We mean no harm.’ He’d made it sound as if they’d come to peep at a freak show.
The man remained steadfast but didn’t seem offended. Nell was gladdened and coaxed him with a smile. ‘The people here,’ he said at length, ‘they want no trouble of their own making. They meet when they can, they talk. Some sing songs, as you hear. They come in their free time. They wait.’
‘For liberation?’ asked Nell. ‘Why do they wait, why don’t they do?’
‘You have ideas lady? – a grand plan? What do you expect from them? And who are you to ask?’
To answer felt curiously honest for once, and she’d earned, by the sweat of her brow, the right to say it: ‘I am a poor seamstress. I have nothing in this world other than what I earn by my own toil. Look at my fingers…’ – she showed them, slashed and dirty like a common journeyman’s – ‘…Now tell me straight – how do these people come to be here?’
‘Why not ask them yourself? Go among them like a priest and put your questions.’ On his tongue it had sounded very different – like putting them to torture. ‘You have a pencil and a note-book at your belt?’ he added accusingly.
‘No! What do you take me for?’
He leaned on the bar, relenting a touch. ‘Then what do you hope to gain? We have nothing here that can make your life better. No advice to give, no magic wand to wave.’
‘No black magic?’ said Robert without thinking. The man glowered, more in hurt than anger. ‘You must excuse me, I meant no offence, to be sure.’
‘We come here as friends, and wish nothing for ourselves,’ Nell said, trying to make amends.
‘Drink your gin, lady,’ said the man, wiping the swill from the bar, ‘feel it burn your pipes.’ He’d guessed rightly that she’d never tasted it before. Her coughing brought a smile to his face, and when she looked again he was drawing her another cup. ‘Tonight we have fresh supply,’ he said softening. ‘Out of my pocket you may drink another if you come in peace as you say. But you have mighty fine talk for a seamstress. He too is no common or garden snail,’ he added, jerking a thumb at Robert.
‘You are the landlord?’ he asked, unsure if he’d been insulted. ‘You own this establishment?’
‘I pay the rent. And yes, before you ask, I am free man. My last master free me – my last master mag-nan-y-mouse.’ He had mispronounced the word and isolated every syllable.
‘Others are free too?’ Robert persisted.
‘Free in their free time,’ was his clever answer. ‘In the free time they have, which not much, they wish to be among their kind. Hardly a felony, but some would make it so.’
‘There are no white people other than ourselves?’
‘See with your own eyes. Maybe later it be different. Often white man come to dance when his belly full of beer. White man like to dance with black lady. Black man stand back for fear of offending. Most not free, I tell you, just free in spare time.’
‘But their leads are getting longer,’ Nell said. ‘One day those leads will be cut,’ and she wondered by whom.
‘You said most are not free,’ enquired Robert. ‘What do you mean exactly?’
‘I mean that some work for wages now. They slaves with wages. Masters pay them to stop them running away.’
Where London leads, one day other towns will follow, thought Nell, looking about the room, thinking of the concept – a contradiction in terms – of a slave with wages. It felt ambiguous, like a true lie, or an honest liar, and for the first time too in a long while she thought tangentially but deeply of Olu, whether she and her like in the runaways’ camp would swop their lives for waged employment in a white man’s house. The issues she’d thought so clear were clouding: it wasn’t so simple as liberation from above; some blacks were freeing themselves by striking individual deals with their owners, becoming in the process – because anything else was untenable – free. Such a process might become cumulative, and combined as it would be with many single acts of flight might lead one day to the end of slavery (in Britain at least) without any need for the statute book. Without any need, she hoped – and perversely at the same time didn’t hope – of anyone firing a shot. She found it hard to stomach that an institution built upon blood could, or should, end without the spilling of more. It flew in the face of justice, for justice, to Nell’s mind, should be just as much revenge as retribution. These were not mere words she was toying with; they were the product of reason and personal ruin: she’d listened to Olu, watched her at work, been complicit in her ways and means upon the moors, at the vicarage, at the tomb that held her mother’s dust. Most of all she had on her hands, as much as she, the blood of an ordained priest, killed she didn’t know how and didn’t choose to know. She’d come so far it was hard to go back; indeed, going back wouldn’t wash away her sin, if that’s what it was. For two pins of her seamstress’s craft she would go forward and kill again; for the same two pins her wickedness, if that’s what it was, would stop. There really was a hair’s breadth between the two.
‘Mainly they come here to hope,’ the landlord continued. ‘They exchange news, they gossip. They listen to a paper or a pamphlet read out loud by them that can read. They watch carefully what happen in the courts. They hope King George set them free, and mean it this time.’
His visitors knew what he meant; knew all about the Mansfield Judgement of ’72 occasioned by the kidnapping of one James Somerset. Lord Mansfield, a slave-owner himself, had ruled diplomatically, and tentatively, not that slaves were now free, only that it was no longer legal to ship them back to the Indies against their will. It didn’t stop even that of course, and many were still lost to unscrupulous snatchers anxious for a quick profit.
Nell let the drink take its predictable course. She drank more than she should, and she doubted she’d be sewing so early next day. Robert, who was never a drinking man, drank no more than one small cup; he was there as Nell’s counsel, her arm to lean on, the chaperon to take her home when this odd venture was done.
They were still talking an hour later when in came the white boys, as the landlord termed them with muted derision. There were more than usual (six) and they had come earlier and with more drink than their heads could handle. Their right to upbraid the fiddle-player, their right to dance with the women, their right to take what wasn’t on offer, was plain to see. No for an answer was unacceptable, and the carousing and swearing led to molestation rather than dance. It would have stopped there for most of them, but for one man it served for something else, something that wasn’t drinking, wasn’t talking, was no laughing matter except to his friends.
His victim was old enough to be his mother, but pretty-faced and smooth-skinned, with a brightly-coloured head-dress that resembled a turban. She was pinioned by a single muscular arm, her feet made fast, her back arched across the wobbling table. He had no shame, and when she tried to resist he struck her with the back of his hand and swung her round to face him. The top of her bodice opened like paper, while her friends, her kinsmen for all Nell knew, kept a cowed distance like so many beasts in a barn. ‘Shoo!’ he might have cried, and they’d have dashed to their stalls with a scattering of hooves.
‘He goes too far,’ Nell said to the landlord, who was fear and aversion rolled into one.
‘He does as he pleases. There’s no one to command his respect.’ His voice was feeble, as if he’d seen too much and nothing surprised him any more.
‘But look at him! He’s about to take her there and then!’ He
Robert was biting a fingernail, his face raw with worry. ‘Is there nothing that can be done? Surely if we called for a Bow Street Runner?’
‘There’s no time for that,’ said Nell. ‘The only people to stop him are in this room.’
‘You mustn’t intervene, Nell,’ said Robert, reading the look in her eye. ‘I told you we shouldn’t have come. It’s time we left.’
‘He’s right – you should go,’ the landlord added. But Nell wasn’t listening; she was striding across the room.
My new novel is available on Amazon:
Eagle and the Lady-Killer, sequel to An Uncommon Attorney, http://tinyurl.com/h9tqhp2