SHE WAS NO ordinary secretary; she’d no wish to be, and soon Mr Sharp was regretting his offer. Still he came bearing gifts, some meat perhaps or some cheese and, because he came via Covent Garden, he once brought her a single rose. But with it came a frown at her unmitigated fervour, another plea for moderation. Like Robert that night, whose words still rankled, he had questioned her motives, which she didn’t like. She wouldn’t even question them herself. To do so might make her new philosophy fall apart, like a tower of cards idly erected on a gaming table. She aimed to dispel his doubts by actions rather than words. She told herself she had nothing to lose; her boats leading her home had all been burned. And when summer came to London with its stifling heat she knew for sure that she was trapped. Trapped with all the rest of the city’s poor. The fresh air of the country was not for the likes of her any more; she had nowhere else to go.
She worked hard, zealously and without complaint. She went beyond tiredness, entered new realms of pleasurable exhaustion. Never mind the heckling and the threats, she was proud of herself; she had a name, a reputation, all in a matter of weeks. Her approach was singular, and the seed had been planted that night when she’d challenged the foul-breathed waterman in the Hope Tavern. She aimed to bring black and white together in a single unified front. Robert helped her find them of an evening – the low haunts frequented by the poor of each colour. She took white people to black inns and black folk to white. She introduced them to one another, had them share tales of common woe. She was a matchmaker too, agent of common law marriages across the racial divide.
And so it went on. Men pooled pennies from their hard-earned wages to found a small Benefit Society. It paid out money when providence turned cruel, and it had in addition a political function that was votes for all men and freedom from slavery in the same reforming breath. She gathered signatures on street corners, knocked on doors to badger and persuade; threw pamphlets into passing coaches like Quakers of old, who’d done the same with Bibles. The energy that had once existed only for herself, that peevish spoiled child who’d wanted for nothing, was harnessed instead to the cause. She had purpose undreamed of, an unwavering sense of right.
She was impatient, however, hungry for results. An orthodox approach was not enough, she decided. New methods were called for, the more eccentric the better. She dared to be different, had the nerve to shock and Mr Sharp knew it. Their relationship grew more strained. She was too eager, too extreme; he tried to distance himself from her bizarre tactics. Not the harmless ones of messages in bottles, the missives launched by small gas-filled balloons; it was the meddlesome kind that irked him, the sort to land her in gaol and get an old dog like him a bad name.
‘You go too far, Helen,’ he told her one evening, embarrassed to be seen with her on the streets.
‘Not far enough for my tastes,’ she replied, unloosening her bonnet as they trod the parched greenery of Hyde Park bathed in simmering heat. Cannon would be fired here tomorrow, and there’d be hats waved and voices made hoarse on Constitution Hill. She was on a mission of reconnaissance, surveying the route the royal couple planned to take on their way to Windsor, where a banquet would be held on occasion of the king’s birthday. He would be 40 years-old, and she didn’t wish him well. Here was a man who hedged his bets on the slavery question, played to both galleries, pro and con, till he knew which way the wind blew for good.
‘Tomorrow I shall go further than I’ve ever done,’ but she wouldn’t say more. She’d been planning it for days, the resumption of what she’d left unfinished back home. She’d arrived at her decision by the same process, thrilled at the thought of riding naked through the streets. To be naked and white, however, might send a different message from the one she had in mind. Her message must be clear, her white-skinned sex an advantage not a drawback. She wasn’t afraid; she was swimming outwards in ever deepening waters, in ever spreading ripples of dare and be damned. It had come again, the chance she had missed at Belle Isle. This time there would be nothing to stop her, no strange death of an ungodly reverend, no change of heart by a whimsical Lord, no ubiquitous Vine.
The hour came. Her dress was clipped short at the knees and elbows, ripped open at the chest, frayed and tattered at the hem like Cinderella’s. She daubed her skin with black lead as she dragged her chain behind her in the full glare of the midday sun. On reaching the place she had in mind, trailing by this time a small crowd, she proceeded to hitch herself to the railings of a fashionable house and snapped shut the padlock with a satisfying click. Around her neck with its thick leather collar hung a sign. Its message was simple, a variation on a theme: Am I Not a Nigger and a Woman?
Presently it happened; the king passed by in his coach, a bare hand, white and puffy waving at his subjects, his round bewigged face craning its neck to look. He’d read her sign all right; she’d thought the coach would stop, but it hadn’t, nor his soldiers mounted on their tall horses. But she’d made her protest, been noticed by royalty itself, who would no doubt mention it over dinner. She knew all about such dinners, how things said even in jest were often serious at heart.
Meanwhile the crowd grew abusive and ugly. She was ordered to move by some angry youths. but she’d thrown away the key. One man threatened to cut her loose, and not care what else he cut in the process. She called his bluff and told him to get on with it, glad all the same to see a young boy standing there with gaping mouth. It was Charlie the crossing sweep, told by Mr Sharp to follow her. He’d done better than that though; he’d pelted back to fetch him from his office. The abolitionist was right behind him, accompanied by a blacksmith. ‘Do your work,’ he told the man, ‘and be quick about it.’ The blacksmith didn’t bother with the lock; he took a heavy pair of shears from his bag and applied them to the chain. It took him longer than he’d hoped, compounding Mr Sharp’s embarrassment.
‘Helen, are you not ashamed?’ he said as he helped her to her feet. ‘You have not behaved like a lady. But come, I have a coach nearby. You must not be seen like this.’
Inside the coach she asked him what he’d found so offensive. She put him all at sea, he said, shook his sense of pride and propriety. She flew in the face of his upbringing, the world he had come to know with all its imperfections. ‘I ought to have seen how it would turn out, I should have known you for what you were – a firebrand among women. You do too much too soon, Helen,’ he said, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. ‘You alienate the very people whom I’m trying to cultivate.’
‘The people of quality,’ she said with derision.
‘Yes, and some of the middling sort. They are becoming just as much of a voice and many have the money to go with their mouths. But they are not so very different from the people they ape, they want peaceful persuasion Helen, a gradual erosion of institutions. Slavery is no exception. They won’t be won over by cheap tricks and outrageous stunts.’
‘Society is a boat, then, that shouldn’t be rocked?’
‘Rocked yes, but not capsized! Most of its occupants cannot swim, they’re frightened that no one will throw them a line. I need them to believe that the line will always be there, that they’ve no fear of drowning. Not at my hands, anyway.’
She leaned into the corner of the jolting machine, sighing with relaxed defiance. ‘I enjoyed myself, exceedingly.’
‘I know you did, I saw it in your face. Your black face. What a sight it is.’ He held out his handkerchief. ‘Here, will you not wipe yourself clean?’
‘Why? – does it offend you?’
He stroked his corrugated brow. ‘I don’t know what it does, that’s the problem. But what I do know is that I see the work of a fanatic. It makes your eyes sparkle unnaturally like the last stages of consumption. Perhaps it is an illness and it’s the same with all fanatics. I see the same look in Mister Wesley’s eyes and in those of his brother, the hymn writer. Am I Not a Nigger and a Woman? – what did you mean by that exactly? You fight two causes in one, is that your way?’
‘Why not? – and why not three together? – slavery, women and poverty. But I’m no fanatic,’ she said. She was feeling uncomfortable now; his browbeating had gone to her heart and found it wanting. If he probed any further she might be more honest with herself, and that would do no one any good.
Yet still he persisted: ‘But why do what you did just now? – ask yourself that? – what were you trying to prove? What were you hoping to achieve?’
Her answer was ambiguous but it was the best she could do: ‘I don’t know,’ she said with a sigh. ‘I’ll know soon enough I expect.’
My new novel is available on Amazon:
Eagle and the Lady-Killer, sequel to An Uncommon Attorney, http://tinyurl.com/h9tqhp2