I should have said nothing about my feelings for Constance Fairchild but the cheap ale loosened my tongue, and my brother goaded me into my confession.
“She is an angel,” I declared, “So out of my reach that even my dreams taunt me.”
“Angels are for statues in churches, cold stone and hard hearts. All the fair Constance needs is a slight nudge and she will fall into your embrace. And I have just the thing.”
Conspirators, our minds not quite muddled enough, we hatched our plan.
If I wish that I had kept silent about Constance, there was so much I wish I had said to her the following week. I should have insisted she stay at home. I should have said we didn’t want her company.
“It’ll be a lark,” said silly Lizzy Penthurst. My brother persuaded me that we needed Lizzy as bait, or Constance would not come. The two of them, Lizzy and Constance, were so often linked about the arms, that you never saw one without the other. Not two halves of a whole, Constance was the sun whilst Lizzy was merely the moon, shining with a borrowed light.
Constance climbed into the boat, a cocoon of green silk, soft skin and ribbons wrapped around her innocence. She smiled, holding my hand, as I steadied her, and settled her into her seat. I generously tucked a woollen blanket over her knees.
The East India dock was a concoction of sounds and smells. The air hummed with the fragrance of salt water and spices, sweat and something else indefinable. Sails slapped against the sides of masts, and flags snapped as the breeze tugged at the flagpoles. Shouts and laughter, mixed with swear words, stung our ears, as sailors swung cargo from ship to dock. Water swirled in dark eddies between the ships as we rowed our way around the dock.
We were heading toward the hulk of a ship that stood a little way off from the others. A wall of black wood towered above us as we drew near. The ship was shrouded in silence. There was no activity on board. A smell of something rotten bled from its wooden desk, cloying and sweet, oppressive and lingering.
“Yer cummin’ aboard ‘en?” The invitation came from a sailor, whose teeth had seen better days. He let down a sturdy ladder that rested on the edge of the boat.
Lizzy shook her curls, clutching a white handkerchief up to her nose. She shuffled uncomfortably as if to plant herself more firmly on her seat. My gaze was quite scornful. All I could think was if Lizzy didn’t come neither would Constance. The plan would come to nothing.
Constance surprised me by taking a firm hold of the ladder. She was climbing upwards, swathed in her dress billowed out about her. She looked magnificent.
“What is this place?” she asked.
“It’s a slave ship, Ma’am,” answered the sailor, dragging his filthy cap from his head, and tying it in nervous knots in his hand. “It’s just back from the East Indies.”
William Wilberforce, the politician, had been presenting anti-slavery bills and petitions to Parliament for the last couple of years, without success. Taking a boat out to a slave ship had been his way of forcing people to touch the reality of the slave trade. A tour of the hold, with its chains, and coffin sized berths, shocked their consciences. Their clean and antiseptic lives were infected with the stories the sailors told. They heard of dead bodies thrown over board to lessen the spread of disease and of men, women and children who lay in claustrophobic closeness, drenched in other people’s vomit and filth.
Constance insisted on the tour. She held the chains in her hands, smeared with dried blood. She trailed a finger alongside one of the berths. She frowned as the sailor recounted his accounts of slave brutality. He looked ashamed, his cockiness drained from him and he began to stumble over his words.
The plan had been for Constance to be overcome by the horrors of it all. I was supposed to be close enough to catch her falling body. She didn’t fall.
I watched. From her chrysalis of green silk and ribbons there was emerging a quite different woman. The softness of innocence was disappearing. An angel of stone perhaps, Constance took on a determination and purpose that dismissed frivolity.
“Can I sign Mr Wilberforce’s petition, please?”
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