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The Escape is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or 19 страничка


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Ben took a seat—he was using his canes this evening—and looked around at it all. His eye paused on a few sprigs of mistletoe hanging from some of the window recesses, and he smiled.

Samantha stood inside the door with her grandfather, receiving the guests. Ben recognized a few of them. She looked nothing short of stunning tonight in her royal blue gown, her hair piled high in elaborate curls and ringlets. His eyes moved down her shapely figure. He had waited for her letter for a month or two after leaving here, but it had never come. He had been glad of it, though part of him had been disappointed too.

She seemed to know everyone. She was flushed and laughing, and she occasionally turned to say something to Bevan. Ben was glad she had not held aloof from him out of some sense of loyalty to her mother. She needed him. Her husband’s family had offered her no love. Neither had her half brother or any of her relatives on her father’s side.

She looked happy. The thought gave him a bit of a pang.

Someone was beaming down at him, hand extended.

“Major Harper,” the Reverend Jenkins said. “This is a pleasure.”

His wife, wearing a hideous headful of plumes, beamed and nodded at his side.

No London hostess would be entirely pleased, Ben thought when everyone had arrived and the orchestra members were busy tuning their instruments. The gathering could hardly be called a grand squeeze. Nevertheless, the ballroom was pleasingly crowded and everyone would have space to dance, while those who sat or stood on the sidelines would have a clear view of the dancing.

And the first set was forming.

Bevan led out Mrs. Morris, while a young man Ben did not know led out Samantha. She stood in the line of ladies, smiling across at her partner. She was to have her wish at last, then, Ben thought a little wistfully.

I want to dance, she had once told him, a world of yearning in her voice. She had been dressed in her heavy, ill-fitting blacks at the time and standing in the gloomy, darkened sitting room of Bramble Hall. A long time ago—a lifetime.

Ben watched her perform a series of lively country dances over the next hour. Meanwhile, he did not skulk in his corner. He got to his feet a few times and moved about, exchanging greetings with people he had met in Fisherman’s Bridge early in the summer and comments with his fellow guests.

He would wait until tomorrow, he decided. Or the day after. Would she be returning to her cottage? Perhaps he would call on her there. Tonight’s setting, though wondrously festive, even romantic, was quite unsuited to him. He fought a return of the old frustration with his condition.

He was laughing over a story the landlord of the inn had just told him when someone touched his sleeve. He turned, and there she was.

“Ben,” she said.

“Are you enjoying yourself?” He smiled at her and tried to look as if he was. Well, it was not difficult, was it? On a certain level he was enjoying himself. He liked this place and these people.

“Come and sit with me,” she said. “The next dance is a waltz.”

“You do not want to dance it?” he asked her.

She shook her head slightly and turned to lead the way to a deep alcove at one end of the ballroom. It was the mirror image of the orchestra alcove at the other end, though without the dais. Heavy velvet curtains had been pulled across it, though they had been looped back tonight so that anyone sitting within—there was a long velvet couch there—could watch the dancing. But no one was there.



She sat on the couch, and he seated himself beside her and propped his canes against the arm.

“Is this the first time you have danced?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Do you remember what you once said to me about dancing?” he asked her.

She nodded. “And I remember what you said to me.”

Ah. He had told her he wanted to dance too.

“I meant,” he said, “that I wanted to run free. Now I ride free in my chair.”

She smiled at him. “But you were talking about dancing,” she said.

The orchestra struck an opening chord, and the lilting music of the waltz filled the ballroom. Soon couples were twirling past the alcove.

“I always thought,” she told him, “that the waltz was the most romantic of dances.”

“But you do not want to dance it tonight?”

“Oh, I do,” she said. “I want to dance it with you.”

He laughed softly. “Perhaps,” he said, “we can close our eyes and imagine it. Like rising above the rain clouds in our hot air balloon.”

She wanted to waltz with him, he thought.

“Stand up, Ben.” She got to her feet.

He gathered his canes and stood. Did she imagine he could dance? She took the canes from him, just as she had done with one of them when he had stepped into the sea with her, he remembered, and set them aside.

“Put your right arm about me,” she said.

He set it about her waist and took her hand in his. She did not set her other hand on his shoulder but about his own waist to support him, and she gazed into his eyes, laughter and perhaps anxiety in her own.

Good Lord, she was serious.

And they waltzed.

They danced one whole turn about the alcove while it seemed the music became part of them and her eyes lost both the laughter and the anxiety and they simply gazed at each other and into each other.

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Reality was still reality, of course. They did not, as they might have done in a fairy tale, suddenly waltz out from the alcove to twirl all about the ballroom while everyone else watched in wonder. But … they had danced. They had waltzed. Together.

Something drew Ben’s glance upward. A sprig of mistletoe hung from the ceiling at the very center of the alcove.

“Ah,” he murmured to her while he could still stand. “And for this I do not even have to beg permission. Christmas has handed me its own special permit.”

He kissed her, wrapping both arms about her waist while she twined her own about his neck. And then they smiled at each other, and for the moment he felt invincible. But only for a moment.

“If I do not sit down immediately or sooner,” he told her, “someone is going to have to scoop me up from the floor and bear me ignominiously hence.”

And then they were sitting side by side again, their shoulders touching, hand in hand, their fingers laced. And they were both laughing as she tipped her head sideways to set her cheek against his shoulder.

“That was probably the shortest, most ungainly waltz ever danced,” he said.

“And that was perhaps the shortest, most glorious kiss ever enjoyed beneath the mistletoe,” she said.

He rested his cheek briefly against her dark curls. “I loved you before I left here in the summer, Samantha,” he said. “I did not mean to fall in love with you. It did not seem quite fair when I came with you to protect you. But it happened anyway. And my feelings have not changed.”

“Oh, you provoking man,” she said after several moments of silence between them while the waltz proceeded in the ballroom beyond their little haven. “How dare you stop there. You cannot stop there, Ben.”

He turned his head and grinned down at her. “I was giving you the chance to stop me if you did not want me to embarrass myself further,” he said.

“Oh, no,” she said. “I want you to embarrass yourself.”

“Wretch,” he said. “Will you marry me?”

He heard her swallow.

“Hmm,” she said, her voice a little higher-pitched than usual. “Let me see. I will have to think about this.”

“Right,” he said. “I will go away for another six months while you do so.”

She laughed softly and lifted her head so that she could turn her face to his. Her eyes were shining, he could see in the light of the chandeliers beyond the alcove. Shining with unshed tears.

“Yes,” she said.

“Yes?”

“Yes.”

They gazed at each other for a few moments, and then they were in each other’s arms again and laughing—oh, yes, and shedding more than a tear apiece too.

“I love you,” she said, her breath warm against his ear. “Oh, Ben, I have missed you. I have missed you so very much.”

He drew back his head and smiled at her.

Samantha. His love.

Ah, the wonder of it.

“Am I forgiven?” he asked her.

She raised her eyebrows.

“For ripping up at you the day we met,” he said, “and swearing most foully. You never said I was.”

“I will think about it,” she told him, and laughed.


24

They considered waiting for a more clement time of year, but neither wanted to put off their wedding until June or July or even May. They considered Kenelston as a venue, but it had not really been Ben’s home since childhood despite the fact that he owned it, and it never would be home now.

They settled upon Wales at the end of January, specifically upon the church in Fisherman’s Bridge, with the Reverend Jenkins officiating. Samantha, after insisting that she would leave for her wedding from her cottage, realized that she had hurt her grandfather though he did not say so, and changed her mind. She would marry from the big house with her grandfather to accompany her and give her away. Ben would move to the village inn on the eve of the wedding. A grand wedding breakfast would be held in the ballroom at Cartref.

It was the very worst time of the year in which to expect guests to travel from any distance, but invitations were sent out anyway.

Beatrice and Gramley were the first to reply. They would come, though Beatrice reported that her husband was now quite sure his brother-in-law had taken leave of his senses. A letter came from Calvin the next day. He and Julia would also be coming. After that, while the banns were already being read at the village church, a steady stream of replies were delivered, all but one of them acceptances. Amazingly, all the Survivors were going to venture into the darkest bowels of Wales—Flavian’s description—to attend Ben’s nuptials. The exception was, of course, Vincent, whose wife was close to her time of confinement.

I will not leave Sophie, he had written, though she has urged me not to miss your wedding, Ben.

It was obvious that his wife had written the letter for him, for there followed a brief message in parentheses: (Vincent is more nervous than I am about the coming event, Sir Benedict. It would be cruel for me to try insisting that he go to Wales when he is so anxious for my sake. You will come here in March, though, for the annual gathering of the Survivors’ Club, will you not, even though you will be so recently married? And you will bring Lady Harper with you? Please? I so very much want to meet all of Vincent’s friends.)

On a separate sheet of paper, enclosed with the letter, was a charcoal drawing—a very fine caricature indeed—of a man who bore a remarkable resemblance to Vince, pacing with his head down and his hands clasped behind his back, droplets of sweat falling from his brow, and generally looking very worried indeed while a little mouse in one corner gazed kindly up at him.

“I am so sorry,” Ben said, taking Samantha’s hand in his as they sat together on the couch in her sitting room at the cottage one afternoon a week before the wedding. “All the outside guests will be mine.”

“Ah,” she said, “but all the inside guests will be mine, you see. All my friends and neighbors will be about me on what I expect to be the happiest day of my life. And Grandpapa will be there to give me into your keeping.”

He squeezed her hand.

“Besides,” she said, turning her head so that he could see that her eyes were twinkling, “I had a very civil letter from Matilda today.”

“You did?” His eyebrows rose in some surprise.

“Indeed,” she said. “She congratulated me upon having snared a very eligible husband for the second time despite my origins.”

“Your shady Gypsy past?”

“That,” she said, “and the fact that my grandfather is in coal. It does sound very murky and dusty, does it not? She hopes—no, she fervently hopes and prays—that I have learned my lesson and will not lead you a merry dance as I did her poor dear Matthew.”

“No!”

“All very civil,” she said. “Though she did sink just a little into spite at the end, Ben. She took leave to give it as her opinion that it would be no less than you deserve if I do lead you a dance, since you appear to be the type of man who believes it quite unexceptionable to ride out with a widow when she is in deepest mourning.”

“We deserve each other, then?” he asked her.

“It would appear so,” she said with a sigh. “Oh, she is not, by the way, coming to our wedding. Neither are the Earl and Countess of Heathmoor. I was rather surprised by that announcement, since my letter to them was merely to explain that I will be remarrying and was in no way an invitation.”

The next day Samantha was surprised by another letter. The Reverend John Saul, her half brother, was pleased to hear that she had settled well in Wales and was happy there with her mother’s people. He felt it incumbent upon himself to honor his late father by attending the wedding of the daughter of whom his parent had been so obviously fond. His dear wife would not be accompanying him.

Samantha, alone in her book room when she read the letter, unabashedly wept over it, its stiff pomposity notwithstanding.

“I will have an outside guest of my own,” she said, thrusting the letter into Ben’s hand when he drove over from Cartref with her grandfather during the afternoon.

And she turned and wept all over again in her grandfather’s arms while he patted her back and read the letter over Ben’s shoulder.

The preparations for the wedding were all made. All that remained was to await the arrival of those who would be traveling from England during one of the potentially most inclement months of the year. They would all acquire cricked necks, Ben remarked on one occasion, if they gazed skyward much more than they did. It was a cold month, and the wind, which blew almost constantly, was what Mrs. Price called a lazy wind.

“It can’t be bothered to swerve around you,” she explained. “It just blows straight through.”

But the sky remained blue much of the time, and when there were clouds, they were high and unthreatening. There was no snow. There rarely was in this part of Wales, but the key word was rarely. They would all have relaxed a bit more, perhaps, if it had been never. Snow was not the only threat, of course. Rain could be just as bad or worse. It did not take a great deal of it to turn the roads to mud and sometimes to quagmires. And rain was common in this part of the world, especially at this time of year.

But the weather held.

And the guests began to arrive.

All the guests from England stayed at Cartref at Mr. Bevan’s insistence, though Ben removed to the inn a little earlier than planned to make room for them all. Calvin, who was to be his best man, came there the evening before the wedding to stay with him.

All the Survivors came with him just for the evening, to the great pleasure of the landlord and the equal consternation of his wife, who had discovered not only that the lady and all the gentlemen were titled, which was bad enough, but that one of them was actually a duke.

“And there is only that much,” she whispered to her husband even though they were in the kitchen and two closed doors stood between them and the gathered company, “between a duke and a king.” She held her forefinger a quarter of an inch from her thumb.

George Crabbe, Duke of Stanbrook, meanwhile was asking Ben about his wheeled chair. “It seems a sensible notion,” he said, “but you have always been quite adamantly set against using one.”

“I have nothing more to prove,” Ben told him. “I can and do walk. I have danced. Now I can be sensible and move around as fast as any other man.”

“One is t-tempted to challenge you to a race along the village street, Ben,” Flavian, Viscount Ponsonby, said. “But one would not wish to make a s-spectacle of oneself.”

“Or lose ignominiously to a man in a wheeled chair, Flave,” Ralph, Earl of Berwick, added.

“You will be able to race against Vince in March, Ben,” Hugo, Lord Trentham, said. “He is having a race track built about the outer boundary of his park. Had you heard? That will be a sight to behold.”

“A blind man and a c-cripple,” Flavian said. “Heaven defend us.”

“Call me that again, Flave,” Ben said cheerfully, “and you may find yourself being beaten about the head with a cane.”

“It might cure his stammer,” George said.

“Ben.” Imogen, Lady Barclay, was looking intently at him. “You have danced?”

“Waltzed, actually.” He grinned at her. “There is an alcove at one end of the ballroom at Cartref. I waltzed all about it with Samantha during a ball just before Christmas.”

“Was that wise, Ben?” Calvin asked him. “I have always thought you may do more harm than good to your legs by insisting upon walking on them. But dancing? I worry about you, you know. All the time.”

But the Survivors were all beaming at him.

“Bravo,” the duke said quietly.

“I s-suppose,” Flavian said, “this alcove is the size of an egg cup, Ben?”

“Probably a thimble, Flave,” Ralph said, grinning and winking at Ben.

“It does not matter if it is the size of a pin, you fatheads,” Hugo said, holding out one huge hand and giving Ben’s a hearty shake. “Good for you, lad. My Gwendoline dances too, and you have all seen how she limps when she walks.”

Imogen bent to kiss Ben’s cheek. “It was your dream to dance one day,” she said. “Everyone ought to have a dearest dream come true.”

Ben caught her hand in his. “And what is yours, Imogen?” he asked her.

He immediately regretted the question, for everyone fell silent to listen to her reply, and she gazed back at him, her eyes large and luminous. Something flickered in them and then died.

“Oh,” she said in her soft, cool voice, “to meet someone tall, dark, and handsome and be swept off my feet, of course.”

He squeezed her hand and held it to his lips for a moment. He wanted to apologize, but that would be to admit that he knew she had not answered his question.

“I am sorry, Imogen,” Hugo said, “but I am already taken.”

“She said handsome, Hugo,” Ralph said.

They all laughed and the moment passed.

“There must have been something in the air in Cornwall last spring,” George said as the landlord came into the room with a loaded tray. “Three of our number married within the year. And my nephew too.”

“The heir?” Ben asked.

“Julian, yes,” George said. “And all love matches, it seems to me. One has only to look at you and Mrs. McKay, Ben, to smell May blossoms. You have done well. You will have a wife for whom you obviously care deeply and a way of life that seems to have been custom made for you, all in one neat package.”

“And all in the d-darkest bowels of the wild country,” Flavian said. “I expected savages to j-jump out at me from behind every r-rock as I traveled here, Ben, intent upon slitting my throat.”

“It is more likely,” Ben said, “that they would want to kidnap you so that they could sing to you, Flave. You should hear the miners’ choir where I work. It would be enough to make you weep sentimental tears.”

“S-spare me,” Flavian said faintly.

Hugo had a tankard of ale in his hand. “We must not keep Ben from his beauty sleep tonight of all nights,” he said, “and we will not try to get him foxed. But we will drink a toast to you, Benedict. That all your life your heart will dance as your person did in that alcove before Christmas.”

“Oh, the devil!” Flavian said, getting to his feet and holding aloft his glass of port. “Marriage is t-turning Hugo embarrassingly poetic. But he has the r-rights of it, Benedict, my boy. M-may you be happy. It is all we have ever w-wanted for one another.”

“To you, Benedict,” Imogen said, lifting her glass of wine. “And to Samantha.”

“To your happiness, Ben,” Ralph said, “and Mrs. McKay’s.”

“To you, brother,” Calvin said. “I always admired you greatly. You knew what you wanted and you went after it and did superbly well. It almost killed me when you were so badly hurt so soon after Wallace was killed. But then I learned to admire you more than I ever had. And I still do even if you do cause me worry when you won’t come home and let me look after you and when you insist upon walking and even dancing, for the love of God. To you, brother—all the happiness in the world and to Samantha too.”

Ben, smiling at him, felt rather as if he were seeing his brother for the first time.

“And may you always ride your wheels as fast as we can run, Benedict,” the duke said.

They all drank, and Ben laughed.

“If you do not want to see me turn into a watering pot,” he said, “and if you do not want to find the doors of Cartref locked against you, you had better leave. I will see you all in the morning.”

“One word of advice, Ben,” Hugo said as they were taking their leave. “Get your valet to tie your neckcloth looser than usual tomorrow. There is something about being at the front of the church when you are a bridegroom waiting for your bride to arrive that makes the neck expand.”

“And he is not lying, Ben,” Calvin told him.

Samantha’s half brother arrived the day before her wedding. She had already moved into the big house and greeted him there on his arrival. They shook hands and conversed politely. She asked about her sister-in-law and nephews and nieces. He asked her about her home and her connections in the village. He shook hands with Ben and conversed politely with him.

But it was all done in company with others. Samantha was touched that he had come so far and at the worst time of the year for her sake. But he seemed more like a stranger she had once known than someone who was close to her. She hoped he would not regret coming. But she supposed he would not. He had come out of a sense of duty to their father, not out of any fondness for her.

Ah, life was difficult sometimes.

It was not until the following morning that she finally saw him alone.

She was dressed for her wedding. She had chosen a simply styled dress of warm white velvet with a gold chain and locket about her neck and gold earrings. A small gold-colored bonnet hugged her head. Her heavy cloak, which was flung over the back of a chair in her dressing room, was also of white velvet with gold frogged fasteners at the front and fur lining.

She had considered various bright colors but had rejected them all in favor of white. She wanted simplicity. She wanted just herself on display to her bridegroom, not the brightness of her clothes.

“Ooh,” Gladys said when she had fitted the bonnet carefully over Samantha’s curls and tied the ribbons in a bow to one side of her chin, “you were right and I was wrong, Mrs. McKay. White is your color. Every color is your color. But you look perfect today. The major is going to eat you up, he is, when he sees you. Not that he’d better do it, mind, not when—”

But her monologue was interrupted by a knock on the dressing room door and she went to see who was there.

“Thank you, Gladys,” Samantha said. “That will be all.”

She smiled at John. She had thought everyone had left for the church by now.

“You look very fine,” he said, his eyes moving over her. He was frowning. “I have always thought of you, you know, as your mother’s daughter. I would never think of you as my father’s too. But you were—you are. You look like your mother, of course—well, a bit like her, anyway. I was always thankful about that, for I am like my father. I can see it when I look in a glass. But you do too. Not in obvious ways. Just sometimes in a turn of the head or a fleeting expression—not anything I can put my finger on exactly. But you are his daughter. Not that I ever doubted it. I just ignored it.”

“John.” She stepped forward and extended her right hand. “You have come all this way and I am touched. I know it was hard for you when our father married my mother.”

“You are my sister,” he said. “I had to come and tell you that, Samantha. Not that you did not know it, but … Well, everyone needs family, and I know you have always been denied half of yours and didn’t know about the other half until recently. I am glad you have discovered that half. Bevan seems a decent sort as well as being as rich as Croesus.”

“John,” she said hesitantly, hoping she was not about to introduce a discordant note into their meeting, “why did you keep his letters from me and all of Mr. Rhys’s except the one you sent soon after Papa’s death? Why did I not know about the money my aunt left me or all the gifts my grandfather sent?”

He frowned. “I knew nothing of any gifts or money,” he told her. “I do know that when our father was dying he had me find two bundles of letters and burn them while he watched. He told me your mother had not wanted you to have anything to do with her Welsh relatives, that they had treated her badly and must not be allowed to bother you. He wanted to honor her wishes, especially as you had made such an advantageous marriage. All I ever had was letters asking what you wanted to do about the cottage. Father had said it was just a run-down building, not worth anything. I sent the one letter on to you after answering it myself—I thought perhaps you ought to see it so that you could send an answer of your own if you wanted. You did not write back, and your husband was in a bad way, and I didn’t bother you with the other few letters that came. But they did not mention any money, Samantha—only the cottage. I had no idea it was the house it is.”

“Me neither,” she said, smiling at him. “As it has turned out, John, it is a good thing I knew nothing, but discovered the truth only when it would mean most to me.”

“You are marrying a good man,” he said, “even if he is half a cripple.”

“There is no one less crippled than Ben,” she said. “But thank you, John. I wept, you know, when I knew you were coming.”

“You did?”

“I did.” She smiled and looked beyond his shoulder.

Her grandfather had come to fetch her. He was beaming at her and then smiling genially at John.

“The bridegroom will have heart palpitations if we are late,” he said. “Bridegrooms always do. It is a hazardous thing to be.”

“I know.” John smiled at him and looked so much like their father that Samantha’s heart turned over. “I see enough of them. And I was one myself once.”

He turned back and took a step closer so that he could kiss Samantha’s cheek.

“Be happy,” he said. “Our father loved you very dearly, you know.”

“I do know,” she said softly. “Just as he loved you.”

He hurried away, and Samantha looked at her grandfather.

“Oh, dear God, girl,” he said, “but you look like my Esme. Except that I never saw her in white. It was a color she never wore. You are beautiful. And what an inadequate word that is. Come, let me help you on with your cloak, and we will go rescue the major from death by heart failure, shall we?”

“Oh, by all means, Grandpapa,” she said. “But I must not forget my muff.”

It was her wedding day, she thought, and felt a flutter of almost unbearable excitement in her stomach.

It had been decided at Christmastime that Ben would take three months during which to get married and enjoy a wedding trip and a stay with his fellow members of the Survivors’ Club. After that, as Mr. Bevan’s grandson-in-law rather than simply as his employee, he would gradually take over the running of the mines and ironworks while Bevan himself relaxed into a semi-retirement. The newly wedded couple would live at the cottage, though the invitation to take up their residence at Cartref was an open one. There would be homes in Swansea and the Rhondda Valley too.

All of which was satisfying, even exciting to consider, Ben thought as he sat beside his brother at the front of the church in Fisherman’s Bridge while his family and friends and Samantha’s murmured in soft conversation behind him. But in the meanwhile there was today.

His wedding day.

He had not really expected to be nervous. How could one feel any anxieties when one was so entirely happy? But he knew what Hugo had meant about his neckcloth. And he could not stop himself from fearing that he would drop the wedding ring just when he was about to slide it onto Samantha’s finger. Indeed, he had woken up more than once during the night with just that fear. He would have to let someone else crawl around on hands and knees to retrieve it, and then he would have to go through the ordeal all over again.

“You are in pain, Ben?” Calvin asked, his voice full of concern.

“No.” Ben looked at him in some surprise, but he realized he had been rubbing his hands over his upper thighs. “Make sure I have a good grip on the ring, Cal, before you let it go.”


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