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Authors: Diana Norman

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BOOK: Taking Liberties
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Nevertheless Oliver detected a note of uneasiness in the editorial. It spread itself happily enough on the subject of French perfidy but was careful not to cast similar obloquy on the cause the French were joining. The Frogs were an old enemy and if they wanted war Newcastle was happy to oblige them. America was a different matter—on that subject the town was deeply divided. Indeed, when the proclamation of war with America had been read from the steps of the Mansion House two years before, it had been greeted with silence instead of the usual huzzas.
A strong petition had been sent to the government by the majority of Newcastle's magistrates offering support in the prosecution of the war but the burgesses, under Sir George Saville, had sent an equally strong counter-petition deprecating it. And Sir George was not only a popular man, he was also an experienced soldier.
‘It's civil war,' he'd told Oliver's father, ‘and no good will come of it. For one thing, we can't maintain a supply line over three thousand miles for long.'
‘For another, it's wrong,' Andra Hedley had said.
At that stage, the majority of Americans would have forgone independence—indeed, still regarded themselves as subjects of King George III—for amelioration of the taxes and oppressive rules of trade which had caused the quarrel in the first place. ‘But they'll not get it,' Andra had prophesied. ‘The moment them lads in Boston chucked tea in t'harbour, Parliament saw it as an attack on property and yon's a mortal sin to them struttin' clumps. No chance of an olive branch after that.'
And he'd been right.
Oliver put the mail and the newspaper in his pocket as he went down the hill in his usual hopscotch fashion to keep his boots from muck evacuated by mooing, frightened herds on their way to the shambles. Under the influence of the sun, which was beginning to roll up its sleeves, the strong whiff of the country the animals brought with them would soon be overlaid by the greater majesty of lime, smoke, sewage and brewing. Coal- and glassworks were already sending out infinitesimal particles of smitch that, without the usual North Sea breeze—and there was none today—would add another thin layer to the city's dark coating.
He hurried past new buildings noisily going up and old buildings equally noisily coming down, past clanging smithies and factories, past street-traders and idlers gathered round the pumps, all of them shouting. Weekday conversations in Newcastle-upon-Tyne had to be conducted at a pitch which suggested deafness on the part of those conversing. A lot of them
were
deaf, especially those (the majority) who spent their working lives in its foundries, metal yards and factories with their eardrums pounded by machinery that roared day and night. Consequently, they shouted.
Clamour reached its climax at the river, Newcastle's artery. Cranes, coal rattling into the cargo holds of keels, ironworks, shipyards, anchor-makers . . . But, as he walked along the Quay, the cacophony assaulting Oliver's ears was overridden by his stepmother's high, feminine, gull-like squawk twisting through it like a Valkyrie swerving through battling soldiers to reach the dead.
There was always something. Today a careless wherry carrying pottery upriver had knocked into one of Makepeace's keels and caused damage—luckily above its waterline.
She was staving off the wherryman's murder at the hands of the keel's skipper by holding back the keelman with his belt and remonstrating with the offender at the same time.
‘Whaat d'ye think ye're playin' at, ye beggor, tig'n' chasey? Ah'll have ye bornt alive, so ah wull. Howay ta gaffor an' explain yeself, ye bluddy gobmek. Hold still, ye buggor'—this was to the keelman—‘divvn't Master Reed telt ye 'bout tuen the kittle?'
Oliver shook his head in wonder. Tyne watermen were renowned for their ferocity; this skinny little woman was dealing with savages in their own language and subduing them. While a new spirit of philanthropy was bringing charity, education and Sunday schools to Newcastle it had seemed impossible that such enlightenment could touch the dark souls of those who worked on its river. His stepmother, however, had forced the men who shipped her coal to join a benefit society, the Good Intent, where godliness, rules and, in the last resort, fines were having a favourable effect on their swearing, drinking and fighting. The popular Newcastle maxim that keelmen feared nothing except a lee shore had been altered to: ‘Nowt but a lee shore—and Makepeace Hedley.'
The wherryman having been dispatched to the Quay to report to her rivermaster, and the keelman, sulkily, to his repairs, Makepeace waved to her stepson and came ashore to kiss him.
Possibly the richest woman in Northumberland, she resembled what her mine manager called ‘an ambulatin' sceercraa'. Her long black coat was old and the tricorn into which she bundled her red hair even older. She'd told Oliver once that femininity was a handicap in a masculine world; to be accepted by other coal-owners as well as by her subordinates she had to play a
character
. Men liked to make a mystery of business, she said, and the fact that any woman of intelligence could master it maddened them. But as long as she seemed an oddity, she said, men didn't resent her intrusion, or no more than they would resent a male competitor; she was merely a quirk of nature, an act of God, to be accepted with a resigned shrug. Eccentricity, she said, was sexless.
He supposed she was right. Newcastle had a surprising number of successful female entrepreneurs—the printer from whom he'd just bought his newspaper among them—and he wouldn't want to bed any of them.
Nevertheless, Oliver appreciated beauty and was offended by his stepmother's aesthetic crime. Not that Makepeace was beautiful; she was approaching forty and her red hair was beginning to sprout the occasional strand of grey, but, dressed up and with a prevailing wind, she could look extremely presentable. Her smile, when she used it—and she was using it now as she came towards him—was better than beautiful, it was astounding.
He owed a great deal to this woman, not just his father's happiness in marriage but the wealth brought to them all by her accidental ownership of the land on which coal was now being mined on a vast scale.
For Makepeace and Andra Hedley, their unsought meeting was the stuff of legend, to be recalled again and again: she, a benighted American-born widow with only a title deed won at the gaming tables to her name, asking for shelter at the moorland house of Andra Hedley, a widower, equally impoverished but with the knowledge to capitalize on her one asset.
Together they'd exploited the rich seam of coal that lay beneath her land. Thanks to her, Andra, a former miner himself, had been able to build a village for miners that was a model of decent living.
Thanks also to her, the Hedley shipping office here on the Quay was a new and graceful building, employing clerks who worked in the light of a great oriel window that ran three storeys from roof to ground. And thanks to her, he, Oliver, had been raised from the position of a young lawyer with few clients to the directorship of one of the biggest mining companies in Newcastle, able to own a fine house and fill it with fine things.
More than that, this stepmother had been prepared to love him from the first, and he'd come to love her.
Lately, though, he'd begun to fear that her means were becoming her ends. The difficulties and setbacks she'd faced in a crowded life had given Makepeace the right to admire herself for overcoming them but now the determination that had enabled her to do so was becoming overbearing. Her boast that she spoke her mind was more often than not a euphemism for rudeness. She expressed an opinion on everything and showed little respect for anyone else's. She was in danger of becoming an autocratic besom.
Missing Dada, Oliver thought. The harshness he'd noticed in Makepeace had become prevalent in the three months since Andra Hedley had taken himself off to France to work with the chemist Lavoisier on investigating the properties of air.
Oliver knew himself to be more than capable of running the shipping end of the Hedley enterprise—very much wanted to—and his uncle Jamie, Andra's brother, was equally capable of overseeing the mining operation up at Raby. Makepeace, however, refused to give up control of either and was exhausting herself and everybody else in the process.
His father and only his father, as Oliver knew, could have made her take a holiday—nobody else would dare—but since Andra was not there and she missed him badly, his absence merely added to her self-imposed burdens and her tendency towards despotism was compounded.
Her smile faded as she closed in. ‘What?'
‘It's war, Missus. The French have declared.' He took her hands and she clutched them for support.
‘And no word from your dada, I suppose.'
‘No. At least, I don't think so . . .' He was, he realized, holding an unexplored bundle of the day's mail under his arm and together they hurried into the office and up to her room to riffle through it.
There was no letter from France. And now there wouldn't be; the ports were closed for the duration of the war.
Makepeace began striding up and down the room. ‘I told him. Didn't I write that mule-headed goober? Come home, I said. There'll be war, I said. You'll get fixed like a bug in molasses. You wait 'til he gets back, I'll larrup that damn man 'til he squawks . . .'
When she wasn't scolding her employees in broad Northumbrian, Makepeace could speak English without an accent but in times of distress she reverted to pure American.
Oliver sat down while she tried, through rage, to dissipate a worry he considered needless; it was inconvenient that Andra Hedley should be in Paris at such a time but he was in no danger. The position held by the people he was with would ensure nothing happened to him.
Sun coming in through the great window provided the rare luxury of warmth to a spartan office, its new oak panelling still undarkened by the Newcastle air. Apart from an escritoire with its pigeon-holes neatly docketed, there was a table, only one chair—it was to his stepmother's advantage to make her visitors stand while she sat—and a good, but worn, Isfahan rug on the floor.
Oliver started sorting through the letters while Makepeace raved on: ‘I'll go fetch him myself, that's for sure. I'll get one of the colliers to take me over to . . . to . . . where's somewhere neutral? Flushing, I'll go to Flushing and get a coach to Paris and drag him home. I'll give that goddam Frenchman . . . what's the name of the bugger? Lavabo?'
‘Lavoisier.'
‘I'll give him gip, him and his experiments.'
‘Missus.' Oliver's voice was gentle.
‘What?'
‘I doubt the pair of them are even aware war's been declared. They're scientificals, they'd not notice a thunderbolt. Even if Dada does know, he won't think it's important compared to what he's doing. If he can find a way to stop explosions from fire-damp . . .'
She quietened. ‘I want him home, Oliver.'
Did she think he didn't? His father was one of those rare people whose very presence made one feel safe, possibly because Andra Hedley wanted everybody to be safer, especially those who worked in coal mines. As a child, Oliver had learned that he had to share his father's attention with his father's obsession to find a way to neutralize the gases that caused underground explosions.
Now Makepeace was having to do the same. Correspondence with the French chemist who'd discovered oxygen had drawn Andra to France, convinced that the disastrous coming-together of gas and flame might be overcome if he could understand the properties of the air that carried them.
‘We all miss him, Missus,' Oliver said, ‘but he'd be worse off crossing the Channel than staying where he is. So would you—a collier'd be taken by the privateers quicker than spit. Then there's the borders, they'll close those. And the Dutch and the Flemings ain't any too fond of us just now, what with the navy stopping their ships . . .'
‘What's to do then?' She was irritable.
‘Howay, lass,' he said, imitating his father. He got up to put his arm round her. ‘The war can't last much longer.'
‘Be over by Christmas, will it?
Another
Christmas? We've damn well had two already.'
He'd never quite known where she stood on the war; his father was all for granting America her independence, and so was he, but Makepeace never joined their discussions. Perhaps she agreed so strongly that it didn't need saying, perhaps she had reservations—it was American patriots who had driven her out of Boston. But on one thing she never wavered: America couldn't be beaten. ‘King George ain't going to hold that country if it don't want to be held.'
Oliver wasn't so sure; viewed from the industrial ramparts of Newcastle the ill-equipped farmers who made up General Washington's army appeared as men fighting for a medieval inheritance. This, however, was not the time to say so. He sought inspiration, and found it.
‘Ben Franklin,' he said.
Andra Hedley and Benjamin Franklin had become mutual admirers when they'd met in London before the war began and hostilities between their two countries had not lessened their regard, nor had their correspondence ceased when Franklin moved to Paris to become America's agent in France. It was Franklin, indeed, who'd put Andra in touch with Lavoisier.
‘Oliver, you ain't the cabbage-head you look.' He'd won his stepmother's approval. ‘Diplomatic channels, that's the ticket. They won't stop those. I'll get young Ffoulkes to contact Ben and set up a lazy . . . what is it?'
‘Laissez-passer.'
‘One of them. Get him back under a flag of truce. We'll have him home quicker'n Hell scorches feathers.'
BOOK: Taking Liberties
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