JOE HAD NO SOONER sent word to Sir George telling him he’d found them and they were coming home than he had to write again to say they’d been delayed. Good news had been followed by bad in that second letter, not his most fluent and penned in haste, but he’d hoped the drift was clear: Olu had been kidnapped in broad daylight on their own doorstep.
Witnesses were few and said little, save that her abduction had been swift and with a purpose dreaded among the black fraternity. It was Robert who’d brought Nell the news, his fever abated but his body still weak. He’d had it in turn from Charlie, who’d come from Mr Sharp’s. The abolitionist, through his contacts, had been quick to learn of the outrage and sent word that his help could be counted on.
‘The question now, is what’s to be done?’ said Joe, pacing the room as before, only this time it was a room of comfort, the best his tavern could offer. He’d called for claret just before they arrived, and he poured himself a glass and drank it greedily. ‘It was all progressing so well, but now this …’
‘Sir, these things are more common than you think,’ said Robert, wanting to sit down but waiting to be asked. ‘If we ask around she may turn up.’
‘Good God man, you make her sound like a lost glove. She’s a …’
‘Slave?’ Nell prompted. ‘Technically that’s all she is, and as such can be resold to the highest bidder. She’s as handsome as the profit she’ll make.’
‘Should they make the next tide, yes?’ Joe asked, nodding Robert to a seat.
‘I hope it’s not the next tide,’ Nell said, glancing out the window as if the sea were visible in the busy street.
‘The weather’s on our side, not to mention the season,’ said Robert, sweating anew from his sudden exertion. ‘Not much shipping puts out between now and the spring. It’s unlikely they’ll make sail before then.’
‘For the Indies?’ Joe enquired.
‘Yes sir, for the Indies,’ said Robert, fanning himself with his pocket handkerchief.
‘I see. Then perhaps we may sail together,’ Joe said cynically, for which Nell rebuked him. ‘I’m sorry sis, but one painful reminder chases another and humour is one weapon I’ve learned to wield,’ and when he’d emptied his glass he poured himself another. He was drinking more than usual, observed Nell, whose father’s bad example sprung to mind. ‘But perhaps you’re right – in this case it is inappropriate. So what’s to be done? Raise the hue and cry and go looking hell for leather?’
‘It’s not so simple,’ Nell said. ‘These men are clever, it’s how they make their living.’
‘But not so clever if they’ve struck so early,’ said Joe with another gulp of wine. ‘If, as you say, there’ll be no Atlantic crossing till March or April, what’s to be done with her till then? It’s a long time to keep her hidden.’
‘London is a big place,’ said Robert. ‘The docks are big enough alone to hide her for months. And you forget this is just one young black girl we are looking for. Who is there to help us? It is not the Prince of Wales who’s been abducted. We are on our own I think.’
‘On our own?’ enquired Joe. ‘You include me in this?’
‘Yes we do. Joe, how could you object?’ Nell said on a war-footing. He held up his hands in surrender, drank more wine and nodded. ‘Very well, it includes me. I sought you out for good or ill, the least I can do is cast my lot with your own. But where do we start? I’m such a novice in these matters.’
‘A wealthy novice,’ Nell said unrelenting, as she’d have herself be – the loss of Olu a second time was not to be tolerated; needle in a haystack or not, she must be found. ‘So long as your purse is at our disposal.’ He waved this away, as if to say Take it, spend it all, what little there is, Father – or someone – keeps me short as usual.
Minutes later they’d commenced their search but Robert, who was still feeble, had to be left behind. Joe was Nell’s chaperone, though in truth each chaperoned the other; he because he looked every inch the gallant gentleman he was not; she because she knew the secret of his manhood. Their first stop was Mr Sharp’s, and though the great man had cooled towards Nell following her behaviour in the autumn, he was happy to offer his advice. He’d seen many such cases before; he knew the patterns, the routines, the likely holding points and to whom to apply for writs of search and release.
‘It’s all a question,’ he said, ‘of leaving no stone unturned. Your friend Mister Strong is right in saying that time should be on your side.’
‘Should be?’ Nell countered, ‘can you not say will be?’
‘He said not much shipping puts out between October and March, he didn’t say none. If you push these men into a corner they will take their chances on a stormy passage. Or someone will on their behalf. It all depends if there’s a middleman, who may or may not be the captain of the vessel they employ. The upshot is, you must make your enquiries with discretion, Helen. Make them as if you trod on egg-shells, the slightest crack echoing for miles.’ He reminded her of the good work she’d done, of the many friends she’d made, of whom several should be trustworthy never mind their haunts. He’d meant the low inns and taverns of the poorer quarters, some north of the river and some on the Southwark side. He suggested starting at the Crown and Anchor below London Bridge, close to where the ships sailed for the Indies. Recommended too was a visit to a certain magistrate, who had acted favourably on the issue of runaways and abductions. There remained only the civilities of parting, whereupon he wished them God speed and promised to do what he could.
His advice was not to be ignored but Nell’s instincts led her straight to the Hope Tavern, where she’d made her first friends among London’s black poor. The landlord welcomed her; Joe too when she told him he was her brother. Joe looked at the man, expecting a bow or some other salutation but all he got was a nod that was friendly – just. He knew why they’d come; news indeed travelled fast. That he had some information and wouldn’t say was clear from his eyes; the way they shifted and darted at trifles – the gin casks not in demand at that early hour, the small bow window no dirtier than usual, the bar counter chipped and worn as always. She reminded him how little he missed, how a landlord, even a black one, was privy to more gossip than most.
‘Please be so kind as to tell us what you know,’ she said. ‘Would a little money help to ease it from your lips?’
‘You think I want your bribes?’ the landlord asked insulted. ‘I am not an honourable man, you think?’
‘Then if you have honour tell us what you know,’ said Joe, leaning on the bar and wetting his elbow in the process.
‘I have honour but it’s not the same as yours. What you mean by honour is swords and pistols at dawn. But that is your white man’s honour, I never understand it.’ His words had injured Joe, and only Nell knew how.
‘Must I put up with this?’ Joe asked, wiping his sleeve irritably.
‘Calm yourself, brother. You do our case no good.’
‘None at all – sir,’ said the landlord with a teasing edge.
‘Now look here …’
‘Be quiet Joe,’ Nell told him. ‘Leave this to me.’
The landlord smiled, happy to see the high born male tamed so easily. ‘You know what she call herself once for all to see? A Nigger as well as a woman.’
‘Please, not now,’ Nell interrupted, oddly embarrassed in front of Joe. ‘All this is getting us nowhere.’
‘I agree. Come, will you take some gin with me?’ the landlord asked, thinking he had ruffled them enough.
Joe shrugged at the lowly offer but gave in without a fight. They accepted the gin and sat in a corner by the meagre fire, just a few sticks crackling noisily. The landlord joined them with his cup, seating himself on the rocky chair with his portly legs astride. Nell was drawn – she couldn’t help it – not by his bare feet but by the split in his breeches that graced his generous crotch. She’d heard the tales about the size of black male endowments. From her vantage point the rumour looked true. Meantime the landlord, who’d seen her looking, smiled knowingly and sipped his gin.
‘I too would like Olu found, it goes without saying,’ he said in a quiet voice. ‘I do know something, but whether it amounts to anything is for you to decide. There was a man here the other night, a man who knows another man. Or used to know him. They slaved together once for fine rich gentleman like yourself – sir,’ he said, baiting Joe again with mock respect. ‘That fine gentleman not so fine now. Not fine enough for keeping two blacks any more, only the one, who never leave him though he could and should, for his own sake. And for the sake of his kind.’ He pointed his roughened finger. ‘I tell you this in confidence, I tell you because I respect you,’ he said to Nell direct.
‘And is that all you have to tell her?’ asked Joe impatiently. ‘It isn’t much.’
‘But we are grateful, both of us,’ said Nell, nudging Joe in the ribs. ‘Tell him Joe.’
‘Damn it all, sis…Very well, we are grateful. Both of us.’
‘Good,’ said the landlord, ‘because there’s more, just a little for a grateful gent. The man this man talked of is a man we have name for. We call him a chewed heel. You know what that means, Miss Nell?’
Miss Nell – she hadn’t heard that for some time; it reminded her of Hector and almost brought tears to her eyes. Hector, who’d died on her account. Hector, murdered by her father on her account. The same father she’d pledged to return to. She was hot with self-doubt, trepidation, mangled conscience. Twisted love. Such thoughts must be suppressed – how could she think of them for more than a second without going mad with doubt? Mood always played its part, however, and she knew that a bad thought revisited was not so bad second time around.
‘Why you not answer? You not like to know that some men bugger their own?’
‘Now look here, my sister’s a lady and …’
‘Shush Joe, don’t interfere. My honour is not offended. I have heard the name,’ Nell told the landlord, ‘there was no need to spell it out. So then,’ she said presently, ‘the mist is clearing but I still can’t see. Perhaps I’m not looking hard enough. Can you not help me further?’
He finished his gin, smacking his lips and then the table with the dinted pannikin. ‘It’s not a riddle I’ve spun for you. It’s home truth none of us here can stomach. We just have to accept it, that we have bad apples too.’
‘This particular bad apple – how might we find him?’
‘I have no more to say. And have a tavern to run,’ he said, as a customer walked through the door. He was shivering with cold, brushing from his shoulders the tell-tale marks of a snow flurry.
‘There’s nothing more to be learned here, sis. We should go now,’ said Joe, who’d not looked comfortable for one second.
‘Very well,’ she said, thinking how hopeless it all looked, and if the weather were on the turn, bringing wind and snow, their plight looked more desperate still. They’d reached the door, about to face the elements, when the landlord called them back.
‘Wait!’ he said, joining them in the draughty doorway. ‘There’s one more thing and I want you to mark it well – when you find this man, this chewed heel, you’ll find his paymaster is white. That is all I can tell you. I bid you good day, Miss Nell. You too –sir,’ and when Joe left in a huff she followed him into the snowy street.
That the man hadn’t hidden his disrespect seemed more important to Joe than the reason they had come and what they’d learned. ‘How you spoke to him, sis. How he spoke to you. How he spoke to me!’ he said, his temper rising with every step. The cold made his teeth chatter; it had worsened by several degrees during the short time they’d spent in the tavern. ‘Is it like that now all the time? Are his people forgetting their station?’
‘Some are forgetting it,’ she answered, as they turned towards St Paul’s. ‘Slavery is withering away, but it’s got such a sting in its tail. It might all end in bloodshed yet.’
‘When people stand to lose what they’ve held for so long they won’t take its loss lying down.’
‘I don’t know whose side you’re on, Joe. Your words disturb me at times.’
‘I’m on your side, sis,’ he replied, more to please her, she thought, than through genuine heart. ‘But what did he mean back there? – about you and that Nigger woman thing? It sounds to me as if you’ve carried on in London where you left off at home. Only to be expected I suppose.’
She skirted round in front of him on the slippery cobbles. ‘Joe,’ she said, fixing her hands on his frosted shoulders, ‘dear Joe. Collect yourself, your thoughts, your heart, your conscience. Think inside and beyond yourself at the same time. Try to see the world as I see it.’
‘What would become of me then? Am I not woman enough?’ His cheeks, pinched red with cold, looked young and cherubic. She couldn’t see how or where his future lay, nor how he’d survive – cruel nature, in the guise of broiling Barbados, would kill him just as surely as the cold-hearted morals of his homeland.
‘I’ve told you before, sis,’ he said as they walked on arm-in-arm, ‘I can’t be you even if I wanted.’
‘You do want, you’ve said so before.’
‘I want your strength, who wouldn’t?’
‘And combined with your soft and tender mercies it would make you a god on earth. Women would follow you, men too if we could educate them.’
‘I’m yet a man for all my flaws.’
‘But what does it mean to be a man? No man knows, not deep down. Nor do they wish to know, for if they did the whole edifice of manhood would tumble down.’
‘And womanhood?’ he asked brusquely. ‘It’s your turn to answer. What does your own sex mean?’
Truth was, she didn’t know; wasn’t sure that she wanted to know. ‘The snow’s coming down harder,’ she said to change the subject, ‘I hope it won’t settle. Will it be snowing at home do you think? I have a sense of foreboding that won’t go away. I never felt such things till I met with Olu. She taught me to think and feel beyond the ordinary. It’s either a gift that had lain dormant since birth or it’s a skill I’ve learned. Either way it’s a curse. It’s like knowing the future.’
Joe swallowed a mouthful of cold air. ‘Chin up, sis,’ he said, when he’d stopped coughing, ‘it’s a new year without those unlucky sevens. The future might not be so bleak.’ She looked at him to see if he was smiling. He wasn’t, and all he could do was sniff.
My latest novel is available on Amazon:
Eagle and the Lady-Killer, sequel to An Uncommon Attorney, http://tinyurl.com/h9tqhp2