SHE INTERPOSED HERSELF in the narrow space between them; it was her white face the man was seeing now instead of the black. His eyes, kindled by lust and hate, blinked with puzzlement; he was like a dog whose bowl had vanished.
‘Kill me if you dare,’ she said into his slavering mouth, feeling the pressure of his penis through dress and petticoat alike. He didn’t draw back, and still the rock was pressing against her belly. Behind her she could feel the woman’s breath at her neck, her fear unvoiced but palpable through every pore of Nell’s skin. What happened next was in the hands of fate.
But fate, via the man, had hands of its own; one was on her shoulder, the other at her throat. He might have rung her neck like a chicken’s, taken just seconds as measured by his time-piece, for that was pressing too through his fob. She thought of her father, and whether he’d be proud, anxious, fretted to the point of a seizure if he saw her now. Or if he’d simply be glad that her pride was humbled once and for all. Those words she wanted to say, would their meaning come beforehand or only when she spoke? She opened her mouth, which was no longer gagged by his filthy hand. With his sweat in her nostrils and his spittle on her face, with the press of his penis still erect and swollen, she said, calling out to his friends as witness, ‘I demand your respect. For this woman here and for myself.’
His brute eyes darted, his nose twitched and his mouth tightened. A pulse flickered in his cheek which he tried to stay with his hand, the one he’d held at Nell’s throat. ‘You – a white girl here,’ he said, breathing heavily. ‘Ain’t right.’
‘You are here,’ she said. ‘You are white.’ It was sinking at last, his stiffened prick, his cock, his engine – she’d heard them all, those guttural names so illicitly exciting, mixed now with the smell of his body, the smell of the seed in his balls. It was back again, twice in one night, an animal desire unladylike, more male than female. She must fight it all the harder, do what decency demanded – rise above the level of common beasts that knew no better. ‘You mustn’t take their women just because you can,’ she said, as he backed away at last, ‘just because the law won’t stop you. Can’t you see that we should all stand together? You, I, and them. Black and white are poor alike.’ Some of these people earn wages just like you, she thought to add, but that might anger him afresh. She buried the thought too that when black and white worked together for the same remuneration, enjoyed the same rights in every walk of life, that’s when the real trouble might start. Was that how this man saw it, ignorantly bovine though he was? And if he did, and he was right, did that not make him more of a visionary than she? His friends stood about in a ragged group, unsure what to do. His name was Hiram, and they were calling for him to leave. ‘I think you should stay,’ Nell said emboldened, ‘and beg this lady’s pardon.’
‘Lady,’ he retorted. ‘You call her lady?’
‘Black lady, white lady, what does it matter? White man, black man – is there any difference there either? Think of your life, think of the women you’ve left back home –the women who don’t know what you do, where you go – are you not all, black and white, in the same rotten boat, holed for good below the waterline? These people, all of them…’ – she gestured about her – ‘…you are just as oppressed as they are. What do you have in life? – think about it, I ask you. You have no rights – a white skin and nothing besides. What does that make you but a man with a white skin?’
The passion of her words had done it rather than the words themselves. But she had triumphed all the same; a mere slip of a girl, a girl David with a ringable neck had brought these Goliaths low. They didn’t quite hang their heads, but they had no answer either. They looked shamed beneath the skin, their hearts touched – scraped, Nell hoped – by a blade of truth. The man Hiram, his pride too strong to beg the woman’s pardon, condescended a begrudged nod as he scratched his cropped head. He looked confused; like a man who couldn’t remember if he’d entered wearing a hat. ‘Let’s get out of here,’ he said to his friends and left without any swagger, just an urge to be gone.
As they walked home Nell welcomed Robert’s arm, more in shock at her own bravery. But she’d been encouraged by the night’s events and hoped to fight on, conquer the world if needs be.
‘Not drunk for a penny,’ he said, when they sat again by candlelight in their gloomy room, ‘but drunk you were, and drunk on more than you can afford. More than we can afford.’ He meant that she’d left them short for victuals, for candles, for fuel and rent and thread.
‘Don’t think I take pleasure in living this way,’ she told him straight.
‘I sometimes do think it.’
‘How? – speak your mind.’
‘Have you really burned your boats with home?’
‘You know I have!’
‘I mean deep down where it matters. One day you might find yourself in clover again. It’s perfectly possible, you know, should your father relent. In which case, you are merely between riches. If you believed it was so, in your heart of hearts, then …’
‘Then what? I play at being poor in the meantime? Is that what you think?’ She suspected he did, and hoped it wasn’t true. But she had the inkling that it might be, for why else should she feel such hurt? Yes, she knew a home truth when she heard it.
My new novel is available on Amazon:
Eagle and the Lady-Killer, sequel to An Uncommon Attorney, http://tinyurl.com/h9tqhp2