ROBERT’S CHARGE that she was playing at being poor had stung Nell more than he knew. It was true that she’d thought her plight temporary, that light would follow darkness and all in the end would be well. Meantime she had taken pleasure in her suffering, endured it willingly. Solitary aesthetics of old had come to mind, men who’d denied themselves everything but their faith. Unlike them, Nell hadn’t needed to pray; she’d had hope, expectation instead. And though, for the first time in her life, she’d had no lady’s-maid to attend to her whims, she’d embraced, even relished, her inadequate shelter, her meagre food and drink, the pinch of the cold, the absence of water for all her bodily needs.
From where did her optimism spring if not from her father? This was the crux of it, the reason she thought of him daily, hourly, by the minute. What was he doing, what was he thinking? Did he think of her? – did he pine for her? This was the crux of the crux, the heart of the heart that was his and hers entwined. Though she knew him well, better than herself, she hoped his eagle pride would relent one day, that he’d try to find her and make his peace. She had pride enough of her own not to beg, and if she waited long enough there’d be no need. It was all a question of time, time to be bided and killed. This alone had been enough to sustain her.
But not any more; her hopes, like her youth, had lost their gilding. That new life she had played at was now for real; it was the only one she had. For discovering this she had Mr Sharp to thank, if thank is the right word.
‘How goes it, Helen?’ he asked, casting about the room one May morning for a sign of spring cheer. ‘You must excuse me, I’ve been meaning to call. Your friend Mister Strong is at his work?’ he said, sitting down in her old wicker chair.
Nell lay her stitching aside, and folded her hands in her lap. ‘Yes, he’s with his colonel. He is reading him The Iliad today. Or is it Odysseus? Something Greek at any rate,’ she found the humour to add.
‘All is well there I trust? Only I hear things, you know. He’s very close, as they say, our Colonel Jenkins. A moneyed man, though you’d never think it, the way he scrimps and saves. As for that Negro of his, I do wonder at my naivety sometimes. What is it to be human, Helen, white and black?’
He wouldn’t elaborate and it was left to Nell to puzzle it out. She supposed he was hoping for a better standard of humanity among the black population. To her this was naïve; he took it hard that there must be bad in every race, whatever its colour. Nevertheless he had worried her, if only superficially. ‘Should we fear this colonel?’ she asked. ‘Should we fear his black man?’
‘Why should you fear them?’ he was quick to rejoin. ‘What harm can they do? And why should they want to?’ He was looking at her carefully now. He didn’t like what he saw. ‘Your eyes, Helen, you will ruin them,’ he said, taking up a candle to see her better, for even in daytime there was little light. ‘The red rims, the heavy circles beneath. To your credit you have learned a trade, but this is no life for you. I must shift myself to find you something better. Forgive me, I never knew it was this bad.’ She could see that he wanted to say more, that something was troubling him. ‘I never expected it to last. I saw you working like this only for a matter of weeks. I thought you’d be back at Belle Isle in no time.’
Nell’s heart leapt at this reminder but she didn’t show it. ‘I was here in earnest. I told you so.’
‘Yes of course, begging your pardon, Helen. I’m being gloomy again, things will look up, to be sure.’
‘You have something on your mind?’
‘No, it’s nothing, nothing at all,’ he said, brushing his thighs in an awkward gesture. ‘You’ve been out and about I hear. The Hope Tavern to be exact. I have my spies.’
‘Charlie?’ she asked teasingly.
‘Charlie,’ he conceded shamefaced. ‘He tells me what’s what without my asking, and makes himself very useful. That was quite a stand you made the other week. Bizarre in the extreme, but brave, taking on one of those strapping young watermen as you did. I can’t say it surprised me. Just your sort of thing, I’d say,’ he said, leaning forward with a jolly smile. ‘I admire your courage, Helen. Why, if you’d been a man…well, best you stay as you are, hey? There’s enough of us men in the world. I think we make all the problems, always have and always will. A few good men can make a difference, however. Perhaps just a small one, a mere drop in the ocean, but a difference. I do try.’
‘I know you do, sir. I admire you greatly.’
‘It would seem that we admire each other. Helen, I was harsh, dismissive when you came to me that day. I had my reasons. I – didn’t tell you at the time.’ He shook his head and laughed. ‘I’d been threatened the night before.’
‘Rest assured, it came to nothing, and it wasn’t the first time. I had a far worse time of it in the first case I handled.’
‘Yes, Jonathan Strong. The same surname as your friend. Well I’m not strong, not in that sense.’
‘Neither is Robert.’
‘It’s good to know I am not alone but I can only speak for myself. More woman than man when it comes to physical courage. Any swordsman or pistol shooter worth his salt can tell that just by looking at me. So why challenge a man you know you could kill without a shadow of doubt? You may as well tie up a sheep and fire a blunderbuss at ten paces.’
‘There are many types of courage, sir,’ she said to reassure him. ‘You are a Sampson of moral courage. You fight lions heart to heart.’
‘I see the same qualities in you, Helen.’
‘Do you?’ she asked, thinking but I’d like to fight like a man, fence with that sword, shoot that pistol. I may have killed by proxy but never direct: how would it feel to look him in the eyes while you stabbed him, shot him? (it would have to be a him). Good, she decided, so long as her victim deserved it. Justice was revenge, she said again, if not in whole at least in part – her father had taught her well.
‘Yes I do. In fact I’ve been thinking on that very head, how I should like to offer you some different work. For your Mister Strong – your Robert – I can do no more, he must shift as best he can under the care of Colonel Jenkins. But for you, I’m sure I could run to something more appropriate than this.’ He eyed with distaste the piles of cloth, the different coloured bobbins in neat rows, the small glass tool, a marvel of optics, that gave her extra light. ‘Should I write to your father once more I’d …’
He’d stopped short and Nell seized upon his closure. ‘You have written to my father?’
His palms were busy on his thighs again, brushing at invisible dust. ‘Just to let him know how you are, you understand.’
‘How many times have you written?’
He hesitated. ‘Six. No, seven. Possibly eight.’
‘And he has answered you?’ she asked excitedly.
‘No, not once. Helen, I hadn’t meant to tell you but it’s out now. I even tried writing to your brother under separate cover. Nothing.’ The shock was potent, unmediated. No going back, then, not ever. Her father was dead to her, Joe too because her father would insist on it. She really was alone now, with nothing to stop her falling. Indeed, she had already fallen, fallen hard; she’d simply refused to own it. The reality filled her lungs with unwholesome air. It was the stink of fate, the stink of the squalid room come to claim her as its own. She wasn’t just among the poor any more, she was one of them. Really, truly, inevitably. ‘I’m sorry, Helen,’ he said. ‘I see at a glance how it is with you. You’re upset, it’s only natural. But think of it this way, as one door closes another opens.’
‘You refer to the role you are offering me?’ she said, thinking of the proverb otherwise – as one door closes another closes.
‘As my secretary. I couldn’t pay you anything, but I would feed you and house you. And the work you did would be other than this.’ Again he gestured with distaste. ‘Paper and quill work, tramping the streets, meetings, petitions, the lobbying of men that matter. Invading the House of Lords if you have to. Women have a way with such things, it’s my belief they’ll end up running the abolitionist movement before too long.’
‘You are too kind, sir, really you are. But Robert…I would be leaving him here by himself?’
‘I’m afraid so, Helen. There’s no other way. I can’t house him too.’
‘I doubt he’d survive. He’s a child in so many ways, and I …’
‘You owe him nothing,’ he said, misconstruing.
‘I owe him much,’ she retorted. ‘I owe him the debt of companionship, of shared hardship. He was my tutor three times a week till my father dismissed him into poverty. His children are dying for want of proper care. And as if that wasn’t enough, they hanged his brother.’
‘For what crime?’
‘Highway robbery. Yet he it was, a white man, who helped Olu to London.’ The loss of her – and her close proximity right here in the city – washed over her again in a wave of sadness. A sadness compounded by no father, no Joe: just poor Robert Strong.
‘A common footpad,’ Mr Sharp mused aloud.
‘The lowest of the low,’ she endorsed, ‘a man who would have killed sooner or later, but a man with a vein of goodness in his heart. You spoke earlier of what it is to be human. It’s not all black and it’s not all white, not in any sense.’
‘Yes, yes it’s a fascinating story I agree.’
‘So don’t you see, that without Robert, who was his brother, I would have died here I think. Yes there was yourself, but he’s been here beside me while you have not. I do not blame you, sir, but I cannot abandon him to his fate. How will he live?’
‘I can’t take the two of you, it’s impossible.’ He removed his wig and scratched his bald head vigorously. ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way I suppose. Trouble is, I can’t see one at present. Do you – have feelings for this man?’
‘Not those feelings!’ she cried reddening. ‘There is only friendship between us. We live quietly here, like brother and sister.’
Mr Sharp sighed and replaced his wig. ‘But you’re too high born for this life of squalor, it really has to stop. There is a way, but it’s not Christian. What would you say, Helen, to a little corruption?’
‘A little corruption? How little?’
‘Enough for you to live on as you do now, without the spoiling of your eyes. Enough to free you to work with me. Enough for some clothes perhaps, a little better than you’re wearing now. It’s really only trifles when all is said and done. The bribes at Westminster amount to thousands every year. What would I be purloining but a few pence a day in a good cause?’
The proposition he outlined worked like this: he had in his possession from time to time certain donations from certain individuals. People like himself only richer. A lot richer. People like his brother, whom some would say he robbed already. The money paid for lawyers mainly, and everyone must have their fee where they were concerned. So much was wasted, ill spent. To channel a little Nell’s way on a regular basis would be small beer. Hardly a crime, barely misdemeanour.
‘Enough to hang you if you were caught?’
‘I shouldn’t think so. They only hang a certain kind. Your Mister Strong’s brother for instance.’
‘Then my conscience is pricked only on that score. The word compunction doesn’t come to mind for this. Not for robbing the rich to give to the poor.’
His eyes brightened. ‘And look at it this way, Helen – both of the men in your life will get their girl. Their woman. The girl in you is disappearing fast. I sometimes doubt she was ever there.’
‘Then it’s as good as done.’
‘Good girl! – woman,’ and his face met hers in a smile.
‘I have made an old man happy?’
‘Indeed you have, but not so very old, I hope?’ he asked with mock hurt.
‘Just old enough to be my father,’ she said, with more meaning than he could know.
My new novel is available on Amazon:
Eagle and the Lady-Killer, sequel to An Uncommon Attorney, http://tinyurl.com/h9tqhp2