Mrs Davinier woke up with less of a start and more of a trip. She had been drowsing on her sofa – at forty, unforgivably old-ladyish. The absence of her three sons, away at school, had allowed her to become indulgent. The servant, who was pretending not to know that she had roused her mistress, deposited the tray of tea and the message that Mrs Wilson had arrived.
Belle inferred from this that Mrs Wilson had been invited, presumably by Belle herself. Why she should have made this decision she could not discover, even on the ferocious interrogation she submitted her mind to during the minute or so before Mrs Wilson was shown in.
As Mrs Wilson entered the room, looking for all her twice-turned finery, like someone had snipped off all but one string off a puppet, Mrs Davinier’s heart softened towards her, as it always did. There was nothing that one could call wicked, nothing that one could call sinful or unchristian or cruel. There was a lot that could be called small-minded, irrational and decidedly irritating, however.
“My dear Mrs Davinier, it is so good of you to see me, I know exactly how busy you are. You are not like us normal wives who sit at the bidding of our families. You are your own spirit, which brings great responsibility, I am sure.”
Mrs Wilson enjoyed the delusion that she was ever devoted housewife, while Belle was a lady who gallivanted about exposing herself to the world. Whereas, in truth, they were both equally committed, inspired and excited by their work assisting those ex-slaves and slave-decendents.
Mrs Wilson’s voice was as genteel as the most supercilious of London servants – a caricature of accents. Mrs Wilson had been raised by her mama, the mistress of an admiral in the navy, to be almost her mother’s complete opposite. Rigidly correct, she wore her colour like a boy of fifteen wears his pimples – embarrassed, and hopeful that through an unusual expenditure of effort to be charming and cheerful it might be overlooked.
“It is always a great pleasure to see you, my dear Maria. How does Mr Wilson do? And the young misses?”
“The young misses are young misses! Indeed, they get on very well, Charlotte is making great efforts on the piano and Jane paints such delightful watercolours.”
“And how does Susan do? Such a wit, I do recall.”
“Susan does very well.” Mrs Wilson’s tone indicated that the subject was closed.
The quiet lives of genteel industry did not match up to the busy grocers shop that Mr Wilson, a former sailor now reduced to three limbs and a shoddy pension, kept. He was certainly a man that everyone should respect (although many did not), but the girls (and there were no sons) must be fully employed in keeping the business going in these precarious times. The pressing need for good marriages was felt like the need for fresh air in the sickroom. The girls had no hope of the higher ranks of service that would be acceptable to their education, such as a senior nursemaid or companion, as what Englishman (however liberal his opinions) would take a negress into the bosom of their home?
Belle had bitten her tongue at hearing this stated with such quiet acceptance about one’s own daughters. It had hurt for a week. But, dear Mrs Wilson’s life had shown this to be true. For the most part, so had Belle’s. Perhaps it had been the few exceptions she had met that made outrage sit easier.
“My husband is in the best of health – but then you know he always is.” Mrs Wilson, feeling the social distance between the two women by every intangible inch, never enquired as to how Belle’s family were. She filed her visits to Mrs Davinier’s house (infrequent as they were) as calls of business regarding those who Mrs Wilson thought the good lady could assist with her largesse. Mrs Davinier’s calls to her property were the calls of equals. Mrs Wilson had spent many sleepless nights (the reader may be reassured to note that they were sleepless for other reasons) trying to decide why she made this distinction in her mind. Perhaps it was because she felt comfortable in her own nice little parlour – small but refined. It may not be fashionable, but it was beautifully decorated with her daughters’ delightful work, embroidery covering almost every surface.
Belle had not given it much thought.
After a little more discussion of family matters and the shocking weather Mrs Wilson finally came to the point.
“It is regarding young Josiah Welsham.”
The two ladies sighed. As a narrative, written down or heard second-hand, one could not but pity the life of Black Joe (as he was known to his associates in St Giles) – and the Mrs Wilson and Davinier had heard of many childhoods that were bereft of comfort or joy.
But in person, he was so rude, saucy, blasphemous, so seldom sober, so incapable of knowing when a good thing was coming his way, so capable of offending all those who might help him (of any colour) that one forgot pity, and longed to box his ears.
But then, when one stormed out of the room or prison cell or public house, and went for a brisk walk and calmed down, one was struck with a blow of feeling. Admiration – you could not help but admire him, with his drive and bravery.
Josiah did not wear the weight of his childhood like a stone around his neck. It was like a fire that was at his feet, forcing him to be forever jumping up at slights and pounding against the viciousness that had haunted his life even since his father had exercised his rights over his mother. Perhaps it was due to his father granting him and his mother the gift of freedom on his birth, or perhaps it was because he had been put on this Earth to try the patience of do-gooders.
“He has been arrested.”
“What has he done now, Mrs Wilson?”
“Well, he has been arrested for trying to arrest a slave-owning merchant.”
“Trying to arrest-”
“He stopped the carriage of a Mr Robert Shedden, and tried to clap him in irons. Fortunately, Mr Shedden’s man got help before he could do anything violent.”
“Where did he get the irons? No, that is not important. Good lord.”
“We must pray for forgiveness and patience in the face of his mischief.”
“We could try praying for wings, that is about as likely.”
Mrs Wilson sniffed.
Belle did not beg Mrs Wilson’s pardon, as she knew how much Mrs Wilson enjoyed being superior in manners.
There was but one thing to do. Belle sighed at the sight of the packages for new mothers yet to made up, the letters yet to be written. The ladies put on their hats.
Mrs Davinier and Mrs Wilson were not unaccustomed to visiting prisoners in their work with the relief organisation. But the weight of sorrow and grief and fear (even if one could examine one’s conscience and find it spotless) that oppressed one like a foul-smelling poultice always came as a surprise.
Josiah was as he always was. He was a tailor by trade, one of the few positives of his spell in the navy, and his clothes were as usual well-made and fashionable. They were also covered in dirt.
“Ladies, I do not doubt your kindness is coming, but you have made a wasted journey if you think I shall listen quietly to-”
“We have come to help you, Joe. And to reassure ourselves that you are unharmed.”
Like a cat, Joe stretched himself to show his general level of health – and was unable to keep from wincing.
“I am well – please, madam, no womanish fussing.”
Mrs Wilson pursed her lips.
Belle interrupted before the discussion could become side-tracked.
“Mr Welsham, I believe that we have advised you, a man being watched by the police, of the wisdom of not engaging in acts of such undoubtable heroism.”
“Were you ever beaten madam?”
“Did you ever have to carry your mother after she had been beaten unconscious? Though she was a freewoman, they beat her still. She did not show due deference. She spoke out against cruelty and they beat her. They beat in front of me. They wished to teach me fear, madam. They only taught me anger.”
Belle took a deep breath. “Anger is wise. I am angry too. But anger that is allowed to go unchecked, anger that is not moderated by sense or wisdom or justice-”
“Justice, d--- your eyes madam, I will not be called unjust. I was trying to enact justice!
“I see the nigger-beggars in the streets, madam.” Belle stiffened at the word, with an instinct that was equal parts priggish and gut-deep fear. “I see them with their wooden legs, and their smiling faces. Hopeful. Then gratitude when a crust is chucked their way. We have nothing to be grateful for. If we are given anything it is only because we fight twice as hard as the white man would have to fight for. I would rather that they scowl and get no bread, aye, I should rather that every black man on the streets died tonight if only they could show their just wrath.”
“Joe – you are not sober. Mrs Davinier and I shall leave you and return tomorrow if you carry on in this impertinent poetical way.”
Mr Welsham advised them to go the place that does not freeze.
Mrs Wilson rose, her very hat shaking with outrage, and looking so ridiculous that Belle had to cover her face with her handkerchief.
Mrs Davinier did not follow her out the room. The young man, it could not be denied, had a talent for speaking.
“You think you are better than me, Madam Davinier, wife of that gentle lawyer who looks on us blackamoors with such pity. You may have all the manners and money, but we are both damned by our very own blood.”
“If I may Mr Welsham, that is the one thing we are not. Our blood may cause us any number of woes on this earth (and you have suffered a great deal more than I, I do not deny that). But they do not damn us in God’s eyes.”
Mr Welsham’s language surpassed even his earlier outburst.
Mrs Davinier thought to leave.
“We are damned by scoundrel fathers.”
“My father was a good man.” The words came from a deep, hot place.
“He took your mother. Even if he took her with soft words and a promise of freedom, he took her. She could not have refused him.”
“My father was a good man. You know not of what you speak. He allowed me every luxury, every comfort, to live with his family-”
“Allowed you! Allowed! That is the curse madam, that we all fall under. Especially us mullattoes. We are cursed by having half our souls being owned by the oppressor.”
He took a deep breath.
“Thank you for your kindness in coming madam. But I have no wish for your help.”
“You probably have a wish for my food.”
He did not respond to the bread and cheese and porter she handed to him. He only nodded at she took her leave.
Belle spent her carriage ride home calling Mr Welsham every bad thing she could think. But when she returned home and explained her tears to Mr Davinier and he called Josiah Welsham a scoundrel, she called her dear husband (a man who was only saved from sainthood by his tendency to snore) a hypocrite.
They quarrelled, or rather Belle quarrelled with John, and John cross-examined Belle. Belle could not explain – but there was something about the way the young man had said the word ‘allowed’.
John slept in his dressing room that night, and took his morning coffee in the library. When he encountered his wife at luncheon, they spoke with such an icy politeness, that it was only Belle’s confusing melee of emotions (anger, sadness, self-disgust) that kept her laughing.
He left with only a perfunctorily goodbye on some business Belle deliberately did not enquire about.
She had a hundred small tasks to complete – writing letters to find a suitable place for a negro groom (only able to find the roughest work, despite his skills and to the detriment of his already poor health), calculating how many toys would be needed for the Christmas boxes of the children on her books, and looking at the sample circulars for that same yuletide appeal. Instead of doing this vital, interesting, important work, Belle felt an irrational urge to ride to Bristol and buy her sons a ha’penny bun and listen to them chatter as though they were still small boys who could be protected from the world.
She was interrupted by John.
“Good day, my dear.”
Her husband let out his breath. “I beg your pardon.” He paused, perhaps as though he hoped his wife might respond in kind.
At her silence, he ploughed in regardless. “Perhaps there is some sensibility to your father that I have not noticed … or-”
“Mr Welsham is good man, for all that he is a scoundrel. He is also worrying perceptive. I beg your pardon for I was angry with myself for being uncharitable to him.”
“I was also uncharitable. A great many good and just men consider me to be priggish, perhaps the same must be true for you.”
At this insult, Belle took his face in her hands and kissed him.
The second time she was interrupted that day was just before dinner, but on hearing the name given, Belle gave orders for the visitor to be shown up.
“I have not come to apologise.”
Belle owned that she had not expected that.
“Nor have I come to say I swear never to do anything rash and dangerous and provocative.”
“And I should neither expect, or want, you to lose your fire and courage.”
“Mrs Davinier. You and are bound by our mixed blood. By our degraded status. That does not mean that we must agree. But your courage, and your good works do mean that any wise person must respect you. And I must learn to be wise as well as brave.”
“I am to become a father.”
There was no Mrs Welsham.
“There are a few matters to be attended to yet.”
“Well, I wish you great joy.” And for your children to be as unlike you as possible.
“Perhaps, Mrs Davinier, your father was a good man. Perhaps.”
“Perhaps. I wish I had been given the chance to find out.”
“Thank you. For your time today and your kindness, everyday. Especially to those who deserve it more than me.”
As he left, Belle felt (of course) thoroughly annoyed. But, unusually, this was more at herself. For she had just realised that he no longer simply admired Joe Welsham, she respected him.