Across the Great Divide – Chapter Sixty-Three

the-bosky-magistrate-the-british-museum-1796THE MAGISTRATE Mr Sharp recommended had died last week and his office lay vacant for now. Hobson’s choice ruled instead, which meant their case was put to the first who’d condescended to see them.  Justice Leadbeater’s office in Chancery Lane was a large and echoing place, oak panelled and hung with sketches of anatomy.  He was a great admirer of Mr Hunter, the JP said, and enjoyed watching vivisections from the public gallery at Guy’s.  He also had a sense of humour few could understand but ignored at their peril.

He sat bewigged behind a large heavy desk piled high with paper and parchment. There was chaos among the order, he maintained, not the reverse as his clerk was fond of saying.  His clerk was a pinch-faced man in his late twenties with a stoop so pronounced he looked to have no spine.  The magistrate on the other hand was fatter than Toby Philpot, his face a bag of ruddy flesh punctured by brown sparkling eyes and a ravenous-looking mouth.  One ear was larger than the other and gave him more trouble than it was worth; he was thinking of asking Mr Hunter to remove it in return for a good dinner of cow’s udder, roasted parsnips and a generous sprinkling of black pepper.  All this before they’d got a word in edgeways about the help only he could give.

‘Let me get this straight as a dog’s hind leg,’ he said, fiddling with his troublesome ear, ‘you wish me to compel Lord Pemberton to set this slave girl free? You ask me to make him part with his property that for all you know he may have paid for out of his own pocket?  You tell me you’re honourable people?’

‘Indeed, upon my soul,’ said Joe, ‘all three of us are precisely that. My father is Sir George Cooper …’

‘Oh yes, the Sugar King himself, a fine gentleman so I hear. A man of means and mode.  Upon my soul, I do declare.  The two men are friends, are they not?  Why not apply to your father and let him sort this out? Gent to gent, so to speak.’

‘They are no longer friends, sir,’ said Joe, going on to tell of their fall out, how the bad-blood business of the marriage match had turned their relations sour. There was more too, which he didn’t enumerate – how Sir George’s present plight was unlikely to win him any battles.  But the JP had a point: Olu was still his property in law; he had a right to claim her – at law – but that would take time, a long time, if what they knew of the law was correct.  Someone in the meantime must secure the status quo; ensure Olu was safe pending official hearing.

‘No longer friends,’ mused the Justice, eyeing them as they stood before him in a line. ‘When great men are no longer friends some would say the wind is in the wrong direction.  Is the wind in the wrong direction?’

‘It blows from the north, sir,’ said Robert in all innocence. ‘It blows cold and it brings snow.  They say in the country the roads are impassable.’

‘Your father lives in the north, does he not Miss Cooper?’ said the Justice, feeding his small mouth with shelled almonds. ‘Is this slave an issue between them?’ he asked. ‘He holds her to spite him perhaps? If so, I wonder if it might not come to law.’

‘It may come to that in time,’ said Joe, ‘but time we don’t have.’

‘Yes, I see your point. All the same, pity it’s Lord Pemberton,’ said Leadbeater, crunching harder, ‘though His Lordship is a man who likes a joke. I also like a joke, which makes me a jocular magistrate – a contradiction in terms you might say.  But what of it?  What would life be like without jokes?’

‘What indeed, sir,’ Nell answered cagily. She knew all about Lord Pemberton’s jokes, and had more cause than most to dislike them.  She recalled what he’d said about making Olu his own.  Had she taken in jest what she ought to have taken gravely?

‘What would you say if I shared some jokes with you now? What if I said my propensity to help was in proportion to your degree of genuine laughter?’

‘I’d say that was most unusual, sir – but fair,’ said Joe, playing the game as well as he could.

‘Is that the consensus among you?’ They told him it was. ‘Then you won’t mind if I invite my clerk to make up the numbers?  His laughter is loud, and when added to yours will make quite a clamour.  One to annoy those miserable attorneys in the office next door.  And if the weather is bad, what better way to combat it than with good old fashioned fun?  Now, what shall I begin with?  Do you know, I’ve come over all serious of a sudden.’  He was holding the small bell which he used to summon his clerk.  ‘I feel sad, tearful, not at all jolly.’  He threw in another nut to see if that might help.  He crunched it quickly and swallowed with an audible gulp.  ‘Dear, dear, the wind is definitely from the north today, as it was yesterday and will be tomorrow, the weathercocks would say if they could speak.  And if they could do so and predict the weather, perhaps they could predict other things – such as when this war with the Americans will end.  It’s a dirty war and it will end like all dirty wars with the signing of a Peace of Shit.’  This was their cue to laugh, so they laughed and he rang his bell with instant result.  ‘Ah, Magill! come and join us, good to see you’ve climbed down from your stool.  I got him the highest one I could find, higher than in any office in the whole of London, and he being so small, it’s quite a spectacle to see him perched up there, perking at his books, looking every inch like a victim of Vlad the Impaler.  Interesting background, Mister Magill’s,’ he said, staring at Nell significantly.  ‘He looks all white but his father was black.  How do you make that out?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Then think about it. You should, but I can’t think why – can you?  I don’t want you to answer now, I want you to look at Mister Magill.  He hates me deep down but on the surface he’s oh so tender.  I wonder what that makes him?  Affectionhate?’

It was another joke, and they all laughed, Mr Magill the heartiest. ‘Good, not bad at all,’ said the Justice, applauding their efforts.  ‘You make me feel like the clown I so much want to be.’

‘Your are a clown Mister Leadbeater,’ said his clerk fawningly.

‘But am I crude enough?’ the other asked with a hopeful look. ‘True humour is always crude.  We are all men here but one.  Only the women can judge true crudeness. I like them but I don’t lick them.  I wish I did because I’d lick them well.  As for me, I’ve never been well licked by women or men. Or dogs either for that matter.’  His clerk was laughing dutifully, so they laughed again too.

‘But we mustn’t forget why these good people are here,’ said the magistrate, holding up his hand peremptorily. ‘This fall-out as you term it, between your father and his Lordship.  No chance of a make-up I suppose?  A Lord’s bowels move in mysterious ways.  What if Sir George pissed in a goblet and took it up to him in bed?  What if he said, handing it over, here you are, my old friend, I’ve brought you a piss offering?’

Better to be on the safe side, Nell led the laughter a fourth time, which almost matched the clerk’s. This time the JP laughed too, outdoing them all and wiping his eyes with his pocket handkerchief.  ‘Well that felt good I must say, it’s warmed my cockles, wherever they are.  Probably down Billingsgate – go and fetch them Magill and be quick about it!  You can get my goat while you’re at it, you’ll find that being slaughtered at Smithfield.  And fetch me some liver while you’re there, it reminds me of what I rarely get – a woman’s – guess the word and you’ll have your writ.’

‘Quim,’ Nell said, and he grinned with pleasure.

‘Quim, fanny – a cunt by any other name is a cunt, as the great bard himself might have said if he’d had my sense of humour.’ Nell had lost hers long ago and he knew he’d gone too far.  ‘But you’ll have your writ, I say, even though it rhymes with …’

‘Shit,’ said Robert, and while the clerk scurried out laughing, the JP smiled and said they were home and dry.

‘All right, you’ve passed my little test. Take this,’ he said, scratching a note with his quill, ‘and present it to his Lordship.’  He folded the paper twice, melted the bright red wax with the candle and sealed it neatly in the centre.  ‘It’s serious in tone, no hint of joking, and it says what you want it to say: stand and deliver, sit down and surrender, swing from the chandeliers if you have to, but let her go.  Mustn’t waste time beating about the bush, not when there’s a bird to be found in it – a black bird by the name of Olu.  You get the drift.  And he’ll get my drift likewise because he knows me – no hard feelings, I’ll tell him later over brandy and nuts.’

‘What if he refuses?’ asked Joe.

‘He won’t. He can’t.  Not even great men are above the law.  Now if you’ll excuse me, you’ve had quite enough of my time already.  I’m getting too tender-hearted in my old age.  On the other hand…’ – and here he broke wind and sighed with relief – ‘… perhaps I’m tender-farted.  And as the gaoler said as he farted on the prisoner’s food – the condemned man ate a farty breakfast.’

‘Come on,’ said Joe, ‘I’ve had enough of this.’

‘Well that’s gratitude I must say,’ said the Justice as they turned to leave. ‘Wait, wait!  Where are you going?’

‘To Lord Pemberton’s,’ said Joe, flapping the writ in the air.

‘No good, not worth the paper it’s written on,’ said the Justice, his bag face shuddering as he shook his head. ‘Not even good enough for wiping a man’s arse.  Certainly not my arse.  I prefer parchment myself, it gets the thick off like nothing else – now that’s wiped the smile off your face.  He’ll not be there to receive it,’ he said, secretly relieved they were sure.  ‘You see the house is all shut up and empty – apart from your girl of course, if that’s where she is.’

‘But …’

‘No buts, there’s too many in English law and I don’t mean butts for jokes. I mean rebutters, surrebutters – just ask next door, they make a living out of them.  Messrs and Cornwell and Dance, Attorneys-at-Law.’

‘That name sounds familiar,’ Nell said, turning it over in her mind.

The fat man rolled his eyes, and his cheeks and neck rolled with them. ‘All names do to somebody.  Stands to reason I expect.’

‘Mister Vine, my father’s attorney – Cornwell and Dance act as his London agents.’

‘Well such as he, a country attorney, will have no need to set foot in the capital, not with the likes of them to see to his affairs. Slippery characters, ardent pettifoggers and more besides.  I can’t prove anything of course, they’re a clever pair, don’t commit much to paper, certainly not parchment,’ he said, shuffling uncomfortably on his seat.  ‘They have friends in high places and there’s none to speak out against them.  To lay an information at their door is to lay one at the Devil’s himself.  Which brings us back to Lord Pemberton – you know it all seems to me like one big family.’

‘Cornwell and Dance are his Lordship’s attorneys too?’ Nell had guessed accurately.

‘When he’s in London yes.’

‘And when he’s in Yorkshire?’

‘Ah, sis,’ said Joe, ‘I was meaning to tell you about that but it didn’t seem important. There’s been a change by all accounts.  Lord Pemberton has swapped his man.’

‘Vine!’ she declared as the fog (or some of it) began to lift.

‘What’s going on here?’ asked a frustrated Joe. ‘Why does Pemberton want Olu and why is Mister Vine involved?  There’s more to this than meets the eye.’

‘You can’t take on the whole world,’ said Mr Leadbeater, more serious now.

‘No, but we can go home and take on Vine,’ Nell answered. ‘Where there’s a snake afoot only one solution presents itself – you must cut off the reptile’s head.’

At the mention of violence, Joe looked suddenly pale. ‘You think the three of us can handle this alone?’

‘Four of us,’ Nell replied abruptly, ‘four of us will handle it, and the fourth will feel like forty.  I am taking Olu with us.’

‘You’ll never take her and stay within the law,’ said Mr Leadbeater. ‘My hands are tied I’m afraid,’ for which they read secretly pleased. ‘His Lordship has every law in the land on his side.  And she’s an unclaimed runaway, his property in all but name.  No court would ever contest his claiming her as a windfall.  And yes, while there’s the Mansfield Judgement to stop him shipping her out against her will, he’ll have her bound as servant and beat the law that way.  Legally, my dear, you don’t stand a chance.’

Legally he was right, but Nell wasn’t thinking legally: her aim was to steal Olu from under his Lordship’s nose.

My new novel, Pride Before a Fall Through Time, was published 30 November 2016.

Posted in 18th Century Crime Fiction, Historical thrillers, Lawyers, Radicalisation, slavery, the law | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Across the Great Divide – Chapter Sixty-Two

_003WHAT SHE HADN’T counted on was their manner of doing business. The darkness helped, a cloying fog more grey than dark, and dismal as death.  They took him on the threshold of his master’s door, five or six, Nell couldn’t say, only that their leader was vengeful, at full strength of power and gall.  She followed them across the street into a small clearing overhung with leafless plane trees and broad beech that reminded her of home.  The fog, the dark, the tangled thicket of branches heavy with snow gave perfect cover for what they had in mind, and for what she’d delivered him to.  No quarter asked and none given, as the military men said, as Colonel Jenkins had shouted in the heat of many a battle.  They held him pressed against the ribbed bark of the wide-girthed trunk; they stripped him to the waist in the cold and began to beat his upper body with the implements they’d brought for the purpose.  They beat him for several minutes, his mouth gagged, before they put their single question: ‘Where is she?  You know who.’

To Hell with courage! To Hell with loyalty! Nell thought, when she saw it hadn’t worked. He was standing his ground on his trembling legs.  He wouldn’t yet, on account of his master, betray the means to please.  This was perversity indeed, and it earned him no rewards.  What now? she wondered, as out came a hammer and nails from the leader’s coat.

‘Hold his hands flat,’ he instructed.

Crucified dogs came to mind as Nell craned her neck towards Joe loitering across the road, patting himself against the bitter cold. Robert was beside him blowing on his hands – hands that were pained by frost, and how much more they’d suffer if nails and hammer were applied!  ‘Is this just?’ was the question on her lips that wouldn’t quite form.  Why? – why did she say nothing?

It wasn’t just Nell who stayed mute. There was little talk, scarcely any, the whole spectacle played in dumbshow.  Yet in some ways it seemed so ordinary, beautiful too in the fog and snow and chilling air.  Still she watched; for posterity’s sake she didn’t want to miss a thing.  She wanted to remember, fix every detail forever though they’d plague her for life.  She’d remember the snow on the tree bark, upon the last stray leaves of autumn, upon the stiff grass where shoes crunched and buckles shone dully.  His body writhing stiffly with the first nail, a suppressed scream virtually silent.  The blood oozing thick and slowly like oil, not red but black in that dark light.  The faces of his torturers gathered like revellers round a festival tree that wanted only a brazier for roasting chestnuts.  And then carefully, when the first long nail was hammered in half its length, the leader repeated his question in a soft almost tender voice: ‘Where is she?  You know who.’

‘You go to fucking hell,’ his victim cried.

Undeterred the other, who was now his executioner for sure, extracted a second nail from his pocket and hammered it in without pause all the way to the hilt. ‘Look what you bring me to?’ he said, his face up close.  ‘You make this harder than it needs be.’

Nell stayed for the rest out of duty, out of curiosity and, because she’d seen murder before as committed by loved ones – a brother who had murdered a dog, and a father a slave – out of resignation. Still she loved them, her filial killers; such things were never simple, and in some ways there was neither right nor wrong, only forgiveness and a means to an end.  This man’s death was exactly that; an end that might be changed if he’d tell what they wanted to know.  His destiny was in his hands – literally, for he was nailed to a tree like Jesus.

They were about to start on his feet, were removing his boots, arguing whether two feet crossed or both feet separate was preferable. They might have been talking of a plant that needed training to a trellis.  And yet for victim and killers alike there could be no going back.  He would have to be finished now, for all their sakes.

‘Here, let me try,’ said Nell, stepping forward. The leader looked bemused yet angry and disappointed, not that she’d intruded but that his methods should have failed.  For all his hardness in the battle of life, he had a tempered streak unacknowledged for years.  Nell’s streak, far wider but of the same compassionate fibre, communed with his own at that deep, forgotten level.

‘Try then,’ he said, with more hope in his tone than resentment. ‘What can you do that we can’t?’

‘I can be his mother. All dying boys – and he is still a boy – as I am still a girl – need their mothers.  You know where she is, don’t you?’ she asked Caesar up close, enduring the blood on his breath, meaty as the shambles at York.  He nodded.  ‘Listen to me Caesar, you can’t help your master now.  These men have killed you, you do know that?’  Another nod, sadder than the first, the boy in him found at last.  ‘Do you believe in God?’

His answer came low and muffled, as if from the depths of the tree. ‘Don’t ask me that.’

‘You were brought up to believe.’

‘Baptised. Lady like you baptise me.’

‘It didn’t bring your freedom. Did you think it would?’

‘I free now.’

‘Yes, you’re free now. Very nearly.  I know you didn’t think it would end like this. But it has.  Think of what you might have been.  Think of the life you should have had.’  He was listening, his eyes said so.  ‘That man over there you call master, that man you served like a slave in imperial Rome.  You weren’t put on the earth for that.  You were put here to be free as a bird, to be respected for what you are.’  His eyes faded and rolled.  ‘Don’t die on me yet, I won’t allow it!’

‘I am dying, you say so yourself.’

‘Make peace with us then before you go.’

‘Why should I?’

‘Because I love you as a brother.’

He half laughed at this and the figures behind and at his side stirred uneasily. ‘Listen Caesar, I have heard the word of God,’ she said, tapping his simplicity, she hoped.  ‘He exists.  He has His reasons for all the suffering down here.  He’ll explain it to you soon enough. You’re going to Him this very night, you’re about to learn the last great secret.  You’ll learn it before I will, before these men who’ve done you to death.  It’s a kind of revenge, is it not?’ He grew proud in his misery till she nipped it in the bud: ‘But mark this, He’ll not want you without a last good deed in your heart.  A deed you can’t do yourself but can help me to do.  I want you to tell me where to find Olu.  Please Caesar, open your mouth and say it,’ she said in her most motherly tone.

She didn’t think it had worked; the eyes had fluttered again, the head had turned sideways like the Lord Himself on the cross until, ‘Prospect House, Berkeley Square.  You find her there under lock and key.’

Nell’s mind flew back and forth in a flurry. The house name was familiar, too familiar.  How?  Why?  ‘But that’s Lord Pemberton’s house,’ she said, more befogged than the fog icing her face.

His sigh was definitive, and so too was his dying. ‘He’s gone,’ said the leader. ‘He saved us trouble of breaking his legs.’

‘What will you do with his body?’ she asked as calmly as she could.

‘Leave it to us. All that remain will be holes in the tree.  They think it an early woodpecker.’

She heard later that they’d taken him down and carted him away, not for burial in a shallow grave as she’d presumed, but weighted and sunk in the mouth of the Thames like so many other unwanted corpses.  You could see the glow they made welling up from the murky depths on dark nights, said the credulous inhabitants of the lower banks, but Nell wouldn’t believe it, not till she’d asked Olu if such a thing could be true.  Not till she’d found her a third time and kept her safe for good.  Knowing her whereabouts was one thing, however; fighting authority was another.

My new novel, Pride Before a Fall Through Time, was published today 30 November 2016.

Posted in 18th Century Crime Fiction, Creative Writing Crime, Historical thrillers, Radicalisation, slavery, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Across the Great Divide – Chapter Sixty-One

filialpietyIT WAS NOT YET ten when they knocked on the colonel’s door in the deepening snow. Answer was a long time coming, and it came in the shape of a white woman no more than thirty.  ‘Where’s Caesar?’ Nell asked impatiently.

‘Out,’ she replied, ‘I know not where.’

‘And Colonel Jenkins?’

‘My employer is indisposed …’ was as far as the maid got. She tried to stop her but Nell pushed her aside and hurried up the stairs.

‘What do you want?’ asked the colonel in his sweat and anguish.

‘I think you know,’ she answered, seeing right through to his wizened heart.

‘Sir!’ cried his maid but it was no use; held fast in the doorway by the two men, she was unable to run for help. She threatened to scream till Joe mentioned the pistol at his belt.  That there was no pistol didn’t matter; the threat sufficed.

‘I can’t help you,’ said the colonel, pulling the sheet up around his throat.

‘No? How is your – what shall we term it? – engine?’  Nell felt for his knee-cap beneath the linen, which was cleaner than before.  ‘Still painful?’

His countenance reddened. ‘No, please, you wouldn’t,’ he said, feeling her encroaching paw.  ‘I never meant for it to happen.  I’d – grown grateful to your black friend.  She has worked wonders down there, where a fire burned before…please take your hand away.’

‘Not till you tell me what I wish to know.’

‘I can’t …’

She squeezed and his screams were taken up by the maid till Joe slapped her to silence. His face when he’d done so showed an odd mix of pride and shame.  ‘You wish me to hurt you again?’ Nell asked the crippled man.

His eyes were watering and his mouth was awry. Another squeeze would kill him, said his look, and how Nell wanted to do it.  She felt like an evil milk-maid torturing a cow with full udder.  ‘I want the whole story, not a drop missed,’ she said, squeezing harder.

‘Your father!’ he cried in agony.

‘What’s my father got to do with it? Speak,’ for her hand was ready a third time.

‘I’d written to him.’


‘I was hoping for a large reward – I told him you were here in London, your old tutor too.  He didn’t want to know, wouldn’t pay a farthing.’

‘It’s not true, sis!’ called Joe. ‘Any letter this man sent never found him.’

‘That’s where you’re wrong,’ replied the colonel. ‘I have his answer beneath this mattress.’

Nell slid her hand where he’d pointed. She pulled out a bundle of letters, one of them marked with her father’s seal.  But that’s where the likeness ended; the hand that had penned the curt note of refusal was not Sir George’s but Vine’s.  The colonel’s face was grey with pain, his mouth was working but no sound came.  Despite the coldness of the room his cheeks were burning hot. Nell poured him a glass of water from the pitcher at his bedside and held it to his cracked lips.  ‘Now,’ she said, ‘you shall tell me the rest if you know what’s good for you.  Don’t think I wouldn’t do it, raise your night-shirt and do for you properly.’

‘You should have been a man,’ he said, catching her eye. ‘You should have fought and done the dirty on our enemy, the French. Someone like you would have mutilated the wounded.  You’d have cut their hands off and counted your kills.’

‘Yes,’ she couldn’t help saying, ‘I should have been a man. But about Olu …’

‘I am – grateful,’ he said weakly. ‘And I do feel some remorse.  Death is near and I’m not the beast I was.  Soon I shall meet my maker.  I hope he’ll make the best of me.’

‘I doubt that very much,’ she said. ‘If there’s Heaven and Hell – and who’s to say there isn’t? – you’ll go down in the world not up.’

He laughed sardonically. ‘What a man you’d be.’

‘I want some information.’

‘And here was I thinking to make you sing for it.’

‘I’ll not sing but you might whine,’ she said, and again her hand was poised.

His breathing worsened; he coughed. Nell steadied him and administered more water to his parched throat. He nodded his thanks, his submission.  ‘Very well.  There was something planned, something afoot that you would call dastardly.  But my part in it was over, I tell you.  Your black girl put me on the road to recovery, the least I could do was leave her at liberty.  Besides, the sum to be gained was a mere drop in the ocean given what debts I owe.  And who knows? – I might have had to send for her again.  And she’d have come, willingly and gratis, God knows why after what I did to her.  No, I would have no part in the plans I’d helped to lay.  Unfortunately someone else thought otherwise.  Against my wishes he went ahead. Who knows what he’ll do now.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Don’t you? Well neither do I.  He says he’s doing it for me.’

‘Blind loyalty,’ said Robert. ‘He’s like a dog trying to please its master. It’s the only life he knows.’

The colonel shrugged. ‘True or not, he can’t understand that this won’t please me any more, that it won’t win him any medals, let alone his freedom.  He could take that for himself any time he liked but he won’t.  His sort don’t want to be free.’ Suddenly his eyes grew heavy, and drowsiness like a dark flood drew him down on to his pillows.

‘I don’t like the look of him,’ Nell said. ‘If he dies on us now …’

He glanced wryly, a gallows humour in his fishy eyes. ‘I’ll not die yet, I’ve too much hate.  Look at my face, young lady, the hate is written in every line, every blemish.  Look at my teeth – aren’t they the perfect image of cruelty?’  He bared them, long, thin, cannibalistic.  They matched his fingernails, which were equally long but brown not white, and curled at the ends like an ageing Mandarin.  ‘Don’t say you excuse it because I won’t believe you.’

‘I don’t excuse it. I despise it.’

‘That’s better, you abhor me through and through, I know. We understand each other.  What an Amazon you are.’  He called to the men and repeated it: ‘What an Amazon she is, your dear Miss Cooper!’

They were too preoccupied to answer; the maid, whom they still held pinioned, was struggling afresh till Joe struck her sharply across the mouth. He was enjoying himself, his mind adrift with dubious pleasure.  Nell didn’t like what she saw – the woman’s blood – but she wouldn’t protect the slovenly nursing bitch.  She was, in her own white way, every bit the servile black – the chewed heel.

‘And now the rest if you please,’ she said to the colonel. ‘I’ll tell you afterwards if this morsel of kindness has made a difference, if your one good deed has softened a single line of cruelty around your mouth.’

‘I could tell you to go to the Devil,’ he said, but looked intrigued nonetheless. ‘I could say go to the docks. The Tumble-Down at Rotherhithe. It’s a warehouse. You know it?’

‘No, but I’ll find it.’

‘No doubt you would. It’s not called Tumble-Down for nothing. A hotchpotch of clapperboard wood, most of it rotten.  But it’s tall, and its intricate, a labyrinth of winding passages and collapsed ceilings.  He’s been holding her there pending a ship and a definite agreement with a third party – only he knows who, though I’ve heard it’s quite a surprise.  But you’d need to be careful, make sure you approached at low tide and with a bright lantern.’

She looked at his face glowing with the fever, thinking that might do instead if they took him along.  ‘We shall go, now,’ she said rising, only to be halted by his wheezy laugh.

‘You’ll do nothing of the sort. You didn’t listen to my diction girl,’ he said, battling against the pain of mirth.  ‘I said had been holding her there.  She’s not there now, he’s moved her.  He’s clever in that way.  He wants to hold on to his prize.  Still thinks to please me like a good boy seeking favour.’

‘So where is she?’ she asked, more desperate than ever.

‘I don’t know. You’ll have to ask him yourself.  I tried to stop this business before it went any further but it’s no good.  He’s gone ahead regardless, says my illness is robbing me of my senses, that I’ll come round fine when he’s brought the money home like a dog bringing the bacon.’

‘He’s coming back then?’ asked Joe.

‘Yes, he’s coming back, he’ll not desert me. I’m the master he loves – some of them are like that, you know. I don’t know when it will be.  In his own time I expect.’

‘Don’t protect him,’ Nell turned on him bluntly. ‘When will he be back?’  Again the hand was ready to squeeze; it wanted only half a chance.

‘Tonight,’ he said, knowing she meant it. ‘He’ll be back tonight.  He doesn’t like sleeping in the cold.  There, done, you’ll get your man. But mark you have a measure of his size. He’s as strong as an ox.  Unlike the eunuchs, he was born that way, no one – not even I in my crueller days – thought to rob him of his balls.  You think these two coxcombs will hold him?’  He gestured with his long fingernail at Robert and Joe.  ‘You – a girl – would stand more chance.’

Not that it mattered in the end; Nell knew that his own kind would do the deed.


My new novel, Pride Before a Fall Through Time, is published today, 30 November 2016.

Posted in 18th Century Crime Fiction, An Uncommon Attorney, Historical thrillers, Radicalisation, slavery, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Across the Great Divide – Chapter Sixty

hector-3NELL KNEW THE FACE in a second, its slouch hat too: it was the man who’d saved her (Hector also, much good it did) that night in the back streets of St Giles.

‘How did you get up here without being stopped?’ was Joe’s first question when the man had entered dusted thickly with snow.

‘She’d say it was magic,’ he said pointing at Nell.  ‘But magic I’ve no need of.  I walk right up like a gentleman.  See? – tonight I have a fine suit and a cloak.’

‘So you have,’ said Joe drawing nearer with a branched candlestick to inspect. ‘I expect you stole them,’ he added, still emboldened by drink.

‘Joe, that’s enough!’

‘Don’t mind him lady, don’t mind me – I hear worse. And kill men for less,’ he said, producing a pistol from deep in his coat.  ‘You dare to speak to me like that?’ he went on as Joe backed away.  ‘You address me like the shit on your shoe?  Bang!’ he shouted, and Joe leapt back, his masculinity routed.

‘Won’t you sit down Mister…?’ Robert ventured, though he’d slinked to the far side of the room.

‘I won’t hear my name, not from the likes of you.’

‘If it’s money you require…’ said Joe, his voice trailing off.

‘If I’d wanted money I’d have taken it by now.’ He held the gun more loosely, then weighed it in his hand. ‘I carry this for a different reason, I hope it might save her.’

‘Olu, you know where she is?’ Nell asked him eagerly.  ‘Are you the one the landlord spoke of at the Hope Tavern? – the one who used to work for a certain rich white man?’

‘I may be, what does it matter? You know me, you know how I see the world.  It didn’t please me knowing she came back to you – look where it’s got her?  You lose her twice, how many more times you lose her?’

‘If you know where she is, tell us.’

He remained silent, breathing hard through nostrils permanently flared.

‘I see this just how it is,’ said Joe. ‘The landlord was right after all.  There is a bad apple among you and you don’t like it.  Well, well well, things are not straightforward, hey?  You wish they were, but they’re not.  Mark my words, friend, it’s human nature, white or black.’

‘No, I don’t like it – why should I? When a man fuck his own kind, it no laughing matter.’

‘Now listen here,’ said Joe, trying to be brave.

The Negro laughed malevolently as if he’d heard it all before. ‘Ah yes, pardon me. There’s a lady present – what was I thinking of?’

‘Tell us what you know – yes?’ asked Robert seriously. ‘If you know where she is, speak – a problem shared, you know, is a problem halved.’

‘I don’t know where she is. Nor who’s holding her.’

‘But you do know something,’ Nell said. ‘Why else would you come on a night like this at such trouble to yourself?’

‘You think I care about trouble? You think I care about coming here in snow as white as you?  But yes, I do know something.  The question is, should I tell you?  You’re all fools here, I see that now.’

‘I’m no fool,’ Nell said, ‘and you know it.’  The eye she turned on him was sharp and unflinching, enough to command respect.

‘You’re not so naïve as you were, I’ll give you that.’

‘You mean the night I came to St Giles? You forget there was one more naïve than me.  One of your kind.’

He didn’t like this. ‘Be careful.  He serve you loyally that is all.  He thought he have no choice.’

‘And did it give him pleasure to serve?’ said Nell. ‘I rather think it did.’

‘He died for it by God! Your own father beat him to death with one of these.’  He held up the gun, wiped the stock for show, as if it were blood-stained and tough to clean.  ‘Yes, you see, we hear everything that happens to one of our kind.  We also hear about you and what you do to make amends.  You try to bring us together, poor black and poor white, all living in shite.  You expect us to be grateful for your efforts but it don’t wash, lady – how can it?  What you do, you do for your own enjoyment.’

He’d struck her sorely but she pressed on regardless. ‘You’re a disappointed man, I can tell.  You have found out something you find hard to swallow.’

He shifted from one foot to the other, his boots squeaking on the boards where they’d left their slushy puddles. ‘I don’t know where she is, I don’t know who’s got her but I know who does know.’

‘The bad apple,’ said Joe, ‘the chewed heel.’

‘The chewed heel,’ the man repeated with contempt.  ‘A fine term is it not?’

‘What does it mean?’ asked Robert. ‘I don’t understand.’

It was canting talk for Judas, Nell explained.

‘Black canting talk, we have our own now.’

‘Black cant, white cant – what does it matter when it’s all cant? It’s the meaning that matters.  Will you take a glass of port, sir?’ asked Joe, reaching for the bottle.

‘I’m particular who I drink with,’ said the man, who put away his pistol at least. ‘I should be on my way now.’

‘But you haven’t given us a name,’ Nell insisted.

‘It’s a name you already know,’ he said stiffly. ‘Both of you,’ he added, wagging his finger at Robert.

‘Caesar,’ Nell broke in. ‘Colonel Jenkins’ man.’

He didn’t answer, he didn’t need.

‘What?’ cried Robert. ‘You have proof?’

‘You have your man, I tell you. Find him and you find your girl.’

‘Not my girl,’ Joe corrected him, ‘hers. But we all want her found,’ he said before he could take offence.

‘Find her then,’ the man instructed Nell. ‘Find her a third time and keep her safe for good.’

‘Won’t you and your people help?’ she pleaded. There was a hint, just a hint, that his dark pride had been flattered.

‘Find him first, ask your colonel where he gone, and you shall see,’ he said, turning to leave.

‘Now what?’ asked Joe when he’d gone.

‘No more drink, no more talk of doxies,’ said Nell, pacing back and forth.

‘Agreed,’ said Robert. ‘I say we sleep a while and call on the colonel at cock crow.’

‘Not cock crow,’ Nell replied. ‘Now.’

Neither Robert nor Joe thought fit to argue.


My latest novel is available on Amazon:

Eagle and the Lady-Killer, sequel to An Uncommon Attorney,

Posted in 18th Century Crime Fiction, An Uncommon Attorney, Historical thrillers, Radicalisation, slavery, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Across the Great Divide – Chapter Fifty-Nine

drunksTHAT NELL WAS PERVERSE by nature, spent too much time arguing black was white and white was black, was hard for Joe to understand. ‘Black is black, and white is white,’ he said more for Robert’s benefit than hers: he wanted an ally, and Robert, as they sat together that evening in Joe’s room at the tavern, seemed just that.  Some of his strength had returned.  He’d drunk his beef tea with relish, and eaten his share of a good mutton dinner, all at Joe’s expense.  He was enjoying his port, an excellent vintage, said Joe, who claimed to know about such things.  Both men were drinking quickly, drinking more than was good for them.  Their characters worsened with every gulp, releasing the man each secretly wished to be.

‘Nell, you’ll notice, drinks nothing,’ said Joe, his feet on the table and his stockings rolled down like the tired young rake in Hogarth’s painting. Something in his posture marked his preference, as if a decadent figure was worth cutting should he ever get the chance.  ‘Perhaps it’s the colour she doesn’t like – reminds her of the blood of murdered Negroes.  Am I right there, sis?’

‘It’s nothing to do with the colour. I prefer the reality that sobriety brings.  It makes me think better. We should be out there searching still. Time may not be on our side.’

‘No more tonight, sis,’ Joe said wearily, ‘I feel like getting drunk.’

‘You are drunk.  You too Robert are not so far behind.’

‘Damn it all, sis, you’d deny us a little pleasure of an evening? I’ve tramped the streets all day looking for that girl of yours, I’m entitled to some rest before it starts all over again.’

‘So you will look again, on the morrow?’ Robert asked.

‘Of course – what choice do I have? If she wills it, I’ll do it.’

‘You know, Joe, you’re more Father’s son than you realise. He’d be proud to see you now, dissolute, incorrigible, caring only for yourself.’

‘Sis, have pity,’ he called, affecting a wounded heart while all the time purring satisfied. ‘And pity our poor father, he knows not his own mind any more.’  There was a triumph in his tone, a certain gloating.

‘I do pity him,’ she said, ‘from the bottom of my heart. But I see how it is with you, you feel the game is almost won, that the worst is over.’

‘I most certainly do not! You forget what I must endure.’

Robert, more addled than a minute ago, asked, ‘What must you endure exactly?’

‘That’s my affair, not yours,’ Joe answered condescendingly. ‘Don’t get above yourself, you are only a tutor.  An ex-tutor at that.’

‘My apologies, I’m sure.’

‘Did I detect some sarcasm there?’ Joe asked, leaning his way drunkenly. ‘I won’t tolerate it, you know, I won’t be mocked, not by you, not by anyone.  Not tonight, anyway.  Why can’t I be perverse for once? She’s like it all the time,’ he said, spilling his drink as he gestured with his glass.  ‘Living as you’ve lived, you know, it really isn’t the done thing.’

‘If you think …’

‘Oh yes, there’s that too!’ he said, as Robert coughed and looked away. ‘I wasn’t thinking of it just then but I might – soon.  I should, if I’m a good brother, who minds how his sister lives.’  He turned to her, eyes glazed and watery.  ‘I hear you lived by plying your needle, didn’t you loathe the work?’

‘Of course I loathed it. But I had no choice.’

‘No, don’t suppose you did.’ He was gaping dreamily now at a portrait on the wall.  The sitter was young and female from a hundred years before, her flaxen hair curled in tight ringlets over a broad white collar.  Joe’s face, as he stared, was a picture of lust.  It was the first time on her brother’s face that she’d noticed such a look.

‘You find that face appealing?’

‘Yes, why shouldn’t I? And I’ve enough money in my pockets to go and find myself one just like it.  Perhaps Robert would like to join me?  I’ve heard the Rose Tavern in Covent Garden is the place to be.  If I put the word out maybe I could get a pair of doxies to come here to my room.’

Robert hid his face in his glass. ‘Is that so Robert?’ Nell asked him. ‘Would you like to find yourself a doxy?  Both you and my brother must be starved in such matters.’

‘Please Nell, you mustn’t speak like that,’ Robert answered, his face averted still.

‘Why not?’

‘Yes, why not?’ added Joe, almost falling from the couch as he bent to fill his glass. ‘Stands to reason, he being male and all, that he’ll want his needs appeasing. Come man, at least say that you’re tempted – that your breeches are swelling at the prospect.’

‘And what of me?’ Nell asked. ‘It would seem that my brother here is out to debase me.  Has he been taking lessons from Mister Vine?’

‘Now look here, sis,’ said Joe colouring.

‘No, you look here – and see how you’re behaving!’

He fell silent for a space, contending with himself. ‘But has he? – has Vine debased you?’ he asked at length.   He looked suddenly sobered, cut by his own cowardly conscience.  ‘Please, sis, answer me. You must.’

‘What difference would it make if he had? What would you care to do about it?’

He sat up abruptly and tried to put his glass on the table, knocking it over so it thudded and rolled on the carpet. ‘Sis, forgive me, I should have known better.’

‘Not at all, quite the contrary. You needed to be yourself for a while.  I understand.  I’d like to be myself all the time.  I’m sure it’s the same for you.’

‘I struggle with who I am, sis, you know I do. I’ve no secrets from you, none worthwhile.’

‘I think that I too struggle with something,’ said Robert, sipping his drink ashamed. ‘I felt it in the air just now, something bad yet deeply attractive.  Irresistible – what?  You had the power to take me where you wanted.  I’d have gone willingly – sir – should I call you sir?’

Joe dismissed him with a languid wave. ‘No matter, call me what you will,’ though his face said otherwise, that he liked this owning of his power.  Nell saw it in his eyes, how he fought his enjoyment with false modesty and remorse.  ‘I wouldn’t really have sent for those doxies.  Least I don’t suppose I would,’ he said, the enjoyment winning hands down.

‘You almost did,’ she said. ‘It was what you wanted. Send for them still, see if I care.’

‘Sis, you should care!’

‘I should care about a lot of things. There are things you presume I care about but I don’t.  Least not so much as you think.  I care only on my own terms.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Send for those girls, lay with them right in front of me. I might even help with proceedings. Wouldn’t you like that?  All five of us tumbling together like Romans of old?’

‘I feel sick,’ said Robert, his face white as he rose and lumbered to the wall. He stood there leaning against the flower-patterned paper, stroking the embossed petals and stems.  ‘She’s quite a creature, your sister.  I haven’t the measure of her, and that’s plain.’

‘Me neither,’ said Joe defeated. ‘It was always thus and always thus shall be.  A man reaps what he sows.  I brought us to this low point, I take full responsibility.  I too feel nauseous.’

‘Liar. You feel tempted.  Still.’  She had her hooks in him and wouldn’t let go; when it came to perversity she was queen. ‘Remember what you said that day when you thought of Father with Caroline?  Yes, you remember.  How would it please you if I lay with Robert right now before your eyes?  All I need do is click my seducing fingers.’

‘No, please stop this,’ cried Robert. ‘See what you’ve done?’ he called to Joe.  ‘You’ve unleashed her devil – it’s never far away.’

It was unleashed and Nell was glad.  It hadn’t seen daylight for weeks.  They’d done it, summoned it; it was their fault not hers.  She unbuttoned her bodice, not too slowly either. She lifted her dress and showed the flesh above her gartered hose.  ‘Look what you can have, Robert, look!  I’m such a fine lump of feminine meat.’

‘Stop it, you’re disgusting!’ shouted Joe, on his feet now striding towards her. ‘You must keep yourself covered, for shame, sis, for shame!’  He had her in his arms pinioned tight.  Her hand broke free, ready to grab him where it hurt when …

‘Listen!’ called Robert. ‘The door!’  His relief was plain, he was gasping from it but not for long; he was growing frightened.

The knock came again, firm and resolute. ‘Not whores, surely,’ said Joe, attending to his hair, sweat-soaked and tangled. ‘We must compose ourselves.  Whoever’s behind that door is devilishly insistent,’ he added, as the knock repeated.  He crossed the floor in two phases, the first fast and headlong, the second slow and measured.  ‘Who can it be?’ he muttered.  ‘Better find out I suppose.’   He wiped his fretted brow and opened the door.


My latest novel is available on Amazon:

Eagle and the Lady-Killer, sequel to An Uncommon Attorney,

Posted in 18th Century Crime Fiction, An Uncommon Attorney, Historical thrillers, Radicalisation, slavery, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Across the Great Divide – Chapter Fifty-Eight

trade-1JOE 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,


Posted in 18th Century Crime Fiction, An Uncommon Attorney, Historical thrillers, Radicalisation, slavery | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Across the Great Divide – Chapter Fifty-Seven

162_314125-wWAITING FOR THEM patiently in the one good chair of the room was Joe. He looked at Nell, threw a quick glance at Olu and the sleeping Robert on the floor, and turned his gaze back.

‘Joe…’ was all Nell could manage.

‘Hello, sis,’ he said, knocking his hat to the floor in his eagerness to rise. ‘I hope the shock won’t kill you.  I’m no ghost, though I think you might be.’

They met in a tight embrace that brought her the feel of him, warm and welcome. She pulled free only to kiss his cheeks, his neck, his throat, more like a lover than a sister. How she’d missed his familiar smell, made better not worse by the crisp London air and the brandy he’d used to fortify himself.

‘I needed courage to come, but come I must,’ he said when they’d got their breath and he was looking round the room. ‘You live here? – like this?  You live here too Olu?  And poor Mister Strong who sleeps like the dead?’

‘Robert has a fever,’ Nell said more sternly than she’d meant.

‘Your pardon, sis, I make no judgements,’ he said timidly as he retrieved his hat. The fine cut of his clothes, his scent and deportment, every inch the gentleman, all of it forgotten – almost.  His place in Nell’s heart was there still, and that’s why she was crying.

‘Sit down, Joe,’ she said, seeing him standing so awkwardly, clutching his hat before him as if to hide his nakedness.

Olu busied herself with the fire, which needed kindling. He watched her, uneasy in her presence as always but with a fondness that was new and surprising.  ‘The room is large, you have only the one fire to heat it,’ said Joe, to be saying something.  ‘At home – remember, sis? – when we wanted fire in one room we’d get the servants to take some on a shovel from the fire already burning next door.’

‘I don’t live that way any more. There are no servants here.’  She was remembering Betty, however, and would ask after her when the time was right.

‘No, no of course not. Matters have changed – considerably.  In all respects.  Some that you couldn’t know.  Sis, I’m here on a number of accounts …’

‘January – the winter season. Father is here too no doubt?’  She had said this more easily than she felt it.

‘No, Father is not here…’ – he glanced at the chair he’d vacated – ‘….please, may I sit down as before?’

‘As you wish,’ she said formally, and saw the hurt in his eyes. He wanted her to sit beside him, but she kept her distance at the other side of the hearthstone. News of her father had done it, that he’d stayed away and Joe had come alone.

More nervousness on Joe’s part, more need of diversion. ‘Not so very ill I hope?’ he asked with another glance at Robert.  ‘His complexion isn’t good.’  He shifted back in his chair a little, as if he feared the cause.

‘He have a fever, nothing more,’ said Olu, working the bellows as she crouched on the floor. ‘He will live.  I will see to it.’

‘I’m glad to hear it, for sure,’ said Joe, stroking his hat again which rested on his knees. Nell wondered about the monkey he used to have, how well it would have served him for distraction.  The hat had to serve instead, just the hat; he twirled it on one knee and then the other; he raised it chest-high and let it fall again into his lap.  Next he turned to his cuffs, picking at the lace, and when he’d done there he picked at his cravat.

‘Please speak your mind, Joe,’ Nell said when he’d started to sniff. ‘And you may say it all before Olu.  I think you know that we have no secrets.’

He was staring at each of them warily now, recalling perhaps what he’d seen in Church that day when Mortimer had preached his last.   And yet there was kindness still in his tangled look, a sense of injustice and perplexed regard.  ‘I heard she’d come back to you.  One hears things, you know, and not always in the order they happen.  Sometimes you hear a good deal of things all at once.  I had no news of you for months, sis, it was as if you had died and all I could hope for was that ghost I mentioned earlier.  And then the floodgates opened, I had a deluge to consider.’

‘Your brother speaks in riddles,’ said Olu, watching the jagged flames leap and dance.

‘If I do, I have my reasons,’ he replied. ‘Sis, there is so much to say I hardly know where to begin.’ He decided to stand; it was less painful to stroll about the room, his heavy top-boots making the boards creak.  Now and then he would stop and sigh, stroke his hat and resume his prowling.

‘Say it, Joe, say what you’ve come to say,’ said Nell, throwing out a hand for him to clasp. ‘There can be little now that can harm me.’

‘Yes, sis, I expect you’re right,’ he said, halting so close to Robert he nearly pinned his ear to the floor. ‘Very well, it’s Father.  There’s been a change there I should say.  Quite remarkable in some ways.  But he’s proud still, so proud.’ He went on to say that Nell’s leaving had affected him greatly.  At first there was little change, just a deepening of his scowl, a lengthening of silence when dark thoughts lingered longer than usual.  Gradually, however, as the weeks passed he took more to his room, first on an evening and then during the day, stirring less till he never stirred at all. HehEHe had lost his head for business, his inclination for life in any form.  All was left, Joe added with spiteful emphasis, in the capable hands of Mr Vine. ‘That man runs things up there now, sis, not Father, who’s a mere shadow of his former self. No longer is Vine just land steward and personal attorney, but manager of all he surveys.’

‘You said manager as you might say owner.’

‘It’s almost come to that,’ he said between sniffs. ‘He holds the purse-strings, hires and fires, frightens like thunder, more than Father ever did.  Your lady’s-maid Betty, who had some pluck – and sends you her warmest regards – even she scatters like a mouse when he walks through the door.’

‘And he frightens you,’ Nell said low but meaningful.

Joe hung his head. ‘Yes, sis, and he frightens me. He says I’m to sail for the Indies come the spring.  Nothing has changed there I’m afraid.’

‘He says? – he says?’ for she felt her blood boiling, scalding her heckles as they rose.

‘It’s as I say, sis, he controls everything. I won’t say there are no advantages,’ he added coyly.  ‘The marriage match between Father and Caroline for instance.  If it wasn’t off before, it certainly is now.  Mister Vine has seen to that.  It’s dead and buried I’m sorry to say.  Well no, that’s just it – I’m not sorry, as you can guess.  If I survive this Indies business, as I intend to do, then I’ll come back and wed her.  She’s agreed, and I’m sure her father can be won round again when I’ve plucked up the nerve to ask.’

‘You talk about survival out there in the Indies,’ said Olu, looking up sharply.  ‘Mister Vine will see to it that you don’t survive.  He aims to have everything for himself.  Don’t you see? – he planned it this way all along.  You’re as good as dead and buried.’

‘Now look here,’ said Joe rattled, ‘there’s no call to damn a fellow prematurely. Why all this gloom for my future?  I shall do my stint and come home.’

‘She speaks the truth, Joe, and you know it. You will not come home, and even if you do there’ll be nothing to come home to. There is a viper in the nest.’

‘Then who is there to stop him?’

‘Oh no, you can’t think …’ for he was looking at Nell forlorn and desperate, his hat on the floor again.

‘If only you could be reconciled with Father, I’m sure we could win the day. I’ve heard him in his chamber of an evening, it’s making him ill because he’s so proud.  Proud as an oak tree that won’t be cut down.  But he’s sent me sis, me – can you believe it? – to find you on his behalf.  He’d have sent me before, or come himself if he’d known where to look.’

‘How did you know where to look?’

‘A single letter, sis. But there were more, a lot more.  I’ve just come from Mister Sharp, for he it was who wrote it – them – in his inimitable hand.’

‘I know, he told me.’

‘But did he tell you how many? Sixteen in all over a period of eight months, but Father and I saw only the one.  I think you can guess who had the others. This one came into my hands only by chance.  I met the frozen post-boy on the Leeds road and took it from him to save him a journey.  Otherwise it would have gone the way of the rest.  I took it straight to Father.  I read it to him as bid and saw his tears.  He was battling with himself, sis, fighting his will like George fought the dragon.  He couldn’t quite kill the beast but he could quieten it, say a few words from the heart and out of ear-shot of the man who works him like a puppet. I was to find you, sis, and bring you home.  You too, Olu – he’s asked to see you.’

‘Why me?’ she asked, turning from the fire. ‘The man sent me away.’

‘It’s your forgiveness he seeks. He knows you are here together again, the letter made that clear.’  Olu’s face was stony; Nell wished for better though she had no right.  ‘I shall write him immediately,’ continued Joe, ‘to say the first half of my task is done – I have found you both safe and well.  I shall write to him again, hard on that letter’s heels, should you see fit to grant his wish.  I don’t expect you to make a decision now, this minute.  You’ll need time to think, of course.’

‘Dear Joe,’ Nell said rushing to take his hand.

‘I never asked, but I expect he’s sorry for him too,’ he said looking down at Robert, his fever breaking at last.

‘And so he should be,’ said Olu, moistening her patient’s lips with some water from a cup.

‘Yes, well, it’s as I say,’ said Joe, his awkwardness resumed, ‘he’s sorry for so much. Who knows, he may even be sorry for me?’  Poor Joe, he’d intruded long enough, he said, and would call again tomorrow.  Should they need him in the meantime, he was to be found at the Mitre Tavern in Fleet Street gathering his thoughts.  And gathering his hat with a trifle more confidence he bid them adieu and left.

Nell listened to his footfall on the rickety stairs, heard the door bang below, drowned by habitual noises. Clearest of all was the baby crying in the room across the landing.  It wasn’t that the noise was new, only that she listened in a new way.  The cry went beyond a solitary infant’s voice; it was the cry of the oppressed poor, black and white, throughout the London, throughout Britain, throughout the world and through all time. But what of it when blood was thicker than water, when only blood mattered? as her father would say.  She’d thought herself beyond his narrow view of life, believed herself part of a single human kind.  It wasn’t quite so; like it or not, he had helped to make her what she was, what she had always been and always would be – the sum total of all her past, good and bad.

‘You are deep in thought,’ said Olu. ‘You struggle with yourself.  I understand your struggle.  It’s my struggle now.’

‘And mine,’ said the feeble-voiced Robert not to be left out.

‘You will go back I know,’ Olu said simply. ‘There’s nothing to discuss.  You might have told him so before he left.’

‘Is it so easy?’

‘You know it is. And yes, before you ask, I shall go with you.  I will ask the old dog what he means by begging my forgiveness.’  There was a smile on her lips, which ran to Nell’s and made them smile in turn.

‘Old dog he might be,’ she said, ‘but there’s a new dog running things now. We both know that dog’s name.’

‘Every dog have its day but no dog have it forever,’ she assured her.

‘But how will we end his day?  Who is there to fight him?  You said yourself your powers are useless where he’s concerned.’

She drew close and took Nell’s hand. ‘Do you love me, Nell?  I see your face and I think you do.’

‘You know I love you.’

‘How do you love me?’

‘I don’t know, does it matter?’ Truth was, she really didn’t know.

‘Perhaps not. But love is strong Nell, as strong as hate, as I tried to prove this morning.  That Mister Vine, he full of hate, just like Colonel Jenkins.  We fight his hate – we fight all hate – with love. Love can shame, love can weaken, love can break down walls. I have heard you say so to many others.  And I believe it because you speak from the heart, poor as nature made you.’  She was quoting Nell’s words now, which Nell knew to be false.  She was a cheat, a charlatan – why couldn’t she see through her? – had her own magic really worked so well?



My new novel is available on Amazon:

Eagle and the Lady-Killer, sequel to An Uncommon Attorney,

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