IN THE CRUNCHING snow and slippery ice their conveyance skidded out of London with a lusty blow of clarion ten minutes late of the appointed hour. They had the carriage to themselves on such a wintry day and it went without saying that all that was found up top was the leather-bound bundles of London news and the driver who sat beside them. He was a large man in muffler and greatcoat, whose figure was a hunched white mound long before they’d reached Hertfordshire. Here, where the coach banged on the rutted roads as if it had no wheels, where the landscape beyond the frosted glass was one shapeless void of grey desolation, it was poor wager that they’d travel another mile of the Great North Road. This was the first coach out in days, a trial run to see if journeys were possible and links re-forgeable with the frozen north. It was possible, the cocky driver assured them; he’d driven through worse, while his grandfather, in the bleak winter of 1709, had driven through snow storms unknown to Russians, while birds fell dead from the sky. The key to getting through was outriders, he explained, and at the next inn, just beyond Ware, he promised to engage them and bill his employers for the cost. There might even be a reward if he got through. Those northerners at the Leeds newspaper offices were ravenous for the London gossip, not to mention the latest news from the front, and they would have it, he said, and pay handsomely for the privilege. But as Nell looked out again on the cold windswept scape, where the snow broke in pelting flurries against the rattling glass and caked its corners white, she began to question his optimism. She even wondered if he was there still upon his box, or whether he’d long departed and the coach bumped along unmanned on its ghostly way.
Foolish rather than brave, Joe saw no need to worry. ‘We’re going home, sis,’ he said, blowing on his hands, which he’d taken from his gloves to inspect. ‘It’s where we belong. All of us,’ he added, with a quick glance at Olu.
‘But what are we going home to?’ Nell asked, contending with her fear as a flock of winter thrushes flew past, their underwings red as blood. ‘If things are coming to a head, which I think they are …’ – she couldn’t say the rest, wasn’t sure what it entailed.
‘What will be, will be,’ said Olu softly. ‘We have all made our bed together.’
Joe’s eyes kindled and his tongue sought his lips in childish wonder. Again came that look he had given her a moment ago, a look of interest, maybe even of longing.
‘What’s to become of me? – that’s what I’d like to know,’ said Robert, picking at the seam of his threadbare coat. ‘At least you’ve all got a home to go to.’
‘You have a home too, Robert,’ Nell told him. ‘You have a family waiting.’
She felt his urge to speak his mind. ‘They expected me to make my fortune,’ was all he said. ‘I can’t go home poorer than I went.’
‘Have no fear, Robert,’ said Joe cheerily. ‘Something will turn up. I’ll see to it.’
‘You’ll see to it?’ Nell asked, shooting him a glance.
‘We’ll all see to it, together,’ he said, in hope. ‘Won’t we?’
They seemed a sorry party: the men feeble in their manhood, despairing, looking to the women to save them, while they, who felt the same despair, must hide it like mothers from their children. Nell was thinking of Olu and who felt worse – Olu because her fate was so uncertain, going home to the man who’d banished her and another who hated her for reasons yet unclear; Nell because she had no magic to count on, doubted there’d been any in the first place, all a chimera of her own making. Or perhaps Olu, sensing a bigger child than herself, had fed Nell’s sense of wonder like a sparrow feeds a cuckoo. She’d said nothing of her recent captivity, so Nell asked her now – because the intimacy of the carriage encouraged it – if her father had harmed her.
‘I not see His Lordship but I heard his instructions through his men: gentleness, kindness, not a hair of my head to be harmed. You find that strange?’
‘Only a little,’ Nell said, for the news in itself wasn’t startling. She remembered his allusions to Damiens’ terrible death, his attraction and regret when it came to extreme cruelty, his apparent mellowing with age. She wondered if Olu was a means of redress, as well as power and pleasure.
‘Well it’s not strange, it’s usual,’ Olu said to disabuse her. ‘A man like him wears two faces, one here in England, one over there. He not show his other self – his true self – till he gets me back where I came from. He do with me what he likes on his tropical island. There, five thousand miles away, he can be the beast to all his beauties.’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Joe as he looked at her, ‘you are a beauty. I’ve never really seen it till now.’
This time she returned his look, not with scorn as Nell expected, but with wary regard not at odds with her question: ‘Will you be the beast out there, sir? – when you go to his neighbouring island?’
‘Now steady on, damn it all,’ said Joe, caught unawares. ‘We’re not all animals, you know. Take my father even, he can be hard, he can be cruel – God knows, I know it more than most…’ – he broke off for he’d gone too fast – ‘…but with women – all women, he shows respect, behaves with impeccable decorum…He’s not your everyday cultured gentleman, not a man for lace cuffs and piquant repartee but…well I think you know what I’m saying. I’ve inherited at least that from him…I do hope.’
Nell was looking sideways at Olu, gauging her reaction to his muddle. She’d never said outright about Sir George’s behaviour in the Caribbean, when all civilising influences – and by that she meant the women – were gone. But she was struggling with herself, struggling with something.
‘You have still so many secrets, Olu, why not tell them at last? What harm can they do now? We’ve come so far together, we’ve come through so much, all made our bed together as you said so yourself. We are all friends…’ – she looked at the men and got their confirmation – ‘…you see? I rather think we’re the best friends you’ve ever had,’ and before she could take umbrage she added, ‘you’re certainly the best friend I’ve ever had.’
‘Mine too,’ said Robert, ‘most sincerely – yes?’
‘Yes…to be sure…mine too,’ said Joe fondly. ‘Can’t say I’ve ever had a proper friend, not even a fair weather one. But when I’m Lord of the Manor, who knows hey?’
‘If you Lord of the Manor,’ said Olu, and her meaning struck home. ‘All things coming to a head,’ she went on presently, ‘so no use thinking what might be till that head is faced. All will be clear one way or other. I promise you that,’ she said, with a sidelong glance at Nell, as if to even things. Nell saw the whole world in that glance, the whole world she had lived till that moment; she saw too the world as it might become, though the vision was blurred, as if the landscape outside had burst into the coach, black, snow-bound, scarred and ridden.
The weather cleared this side of Royston but it was only a welcome interlude. As they left the town behind, the dreary bleakness returned and the wind resumed its moaning monotony. They had the outriders now but progress was slow still and they reached their next inn at eleven at night. Here at the Dog and Gun close by Sandy in Bedfordshire the stable boys were loath to stir, and with only one lantern between them made fools of themselves slipping on the ice as they struggled with the harnesses. At length the horses were quartered in warm straw and the little party seated round a glowing fire in the inn’s cosy parlour. Joe called for meat and hot posset from the apple-cheeked girl whose mother, the landlady, was gone on an errand of mercy, taking along the stoutest men in her employ. News had come that a vehicle had been spotted turned over in the snow at the foot of a deep chasm. Speculation linked it with another machine which had passed earlier, a private carriage making for London at dangerous speed.
‘Poor devils, if they’re trapped down there on a night like this,’ said Joe, rising from the settle to warm himself at the fire. He drank his posset and lifted his coat-tails to let in the heat. ‘I say, you don’t think we should be lending a hand do you?’
‘We’ve only just got here,’ said Robert who sat beside Nell. ‘I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, and now the warmth of the fire has hit me I’m downright sleepy. And you want us to go back?’
‘But Joe’s right,’ Nell said. ‘We should go back. If the landlady has gone it’s the least we can do.’
‘Of course, I didn’t mean to sound uncaring – what?’ said Robert, quick to make amends. ‘You know how much I respect your judgement, Nell.’ Tiredness had lowered his guard, failed to hide his affection.
‘Thank you, Robert,’ she answered, moved by his sincerity, touched by something else, her instincts told her what. ‘You’ll come with me then?’
‘Of course I’ll come with you.’ He hesitated, fighting his cowardice. ‘I’d be delighted – no?’
‘You won’t get me going back, or my outriders,’ said the driver, who’d entered shaking snow from his bulk. ‘And if you go back alone, who’s to say we’ll be waiting when you return?’
‘You will wait,’ Nell said. ‘I order it.’
‘You order it?’ he asked amazed as he stood with his pie and porter in the doorway. ‘And who do you think you are?’
‘I am Nell Cooper, daughter of Sir George Cooper Baronet of Belle Isle. I didn’t think it needful to tell you before but I’m telling you now so you won’t forget.’
‘And I’m telling you that I’m that same baronet’s son, Joseph Cooper Esquire,’ Joe announced as he rose.
‘I’m – nobody very much,’ Robert volunteered with a humble shrug.
Olu, whose turn it seemed to speak, said nothing and stirred the fire with the poker. This, she seemed to be saying, is my answer, make of it what you will.
‘Wait, begging your pardon, Miss,’ said the landlady’s daughter, who’d bided her time, ‘but did I hear you say just now that you’re the daughter of a baronet?’
‘You did. What of it?’
‘It’s just that – it might be nothing you understand – it’s just that the man who came to tell us of the accident said there was a coat of arms on the side of the carriage, how he saw it distinctly in the glare from the lamplight as it shone on the snow. It was a fine gent’s coat of arms, a baronet’s if he wasn’t mistaken.’
‘This coat of arms,’ broke in Joe, ‘did he say how the crest was fashioned?’
‘Yes he did, sir. He said it was unmistakable, done as a pair of crossed foxes.’
‘It can’t be…can it?’ Nell asked, putting down her posset untasted. ‘But how? – why?’
‘There’s only one way to find out,’ said Joe, re-buttoning his coat.