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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 17 страничка


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“Now,” she said. And she turned on her seat and took both his hands in hers and raised them to her cheeks. She closed her eyes and bowed her head. “I do thank you, Ben, for all you have done for me. And I thank you for the past week. It has been a great pleasure. Has it not?” She turned her face up to his and tried to smile.

“It has,” he agreed. “Samantha—”

“If your travels ever bring you back to Wales,” she said hastily, “perhaps … No, that would not be a good idea, would it? I will remember with pleasure. I hope you will too.”

“I will,” he said, and he leaned toward her and set his lips to hers in a long, lingering kiss while they clung to each other’s hands.

“Goodbye, Samantha,” he said. “I will wait here until you are safely indoors with a lamp lit.”

He rapped on the front panel and the coachman appeared in the doorway to hand her down.

“Goodbye.” She drew her hands from his. “Goodbye, Ben.”

And then she was stepping down and dashing up the garden path and fumbling with the key in the lock and almost being bowled over by an exuberant Tramp. She lit a lamp in the sitting room with a trembling hand and darted to the window, desperate for one last sight of him. But the carriage door had been closed, and the coachman was up on the box, and the carriage was moving away. She could not see through the darkness into the interior.

“Oh, Tramp.” She collapsed onto the nearest chair, set her arms about him, and wept against his neck. Tramp whined and tried to lick her face.

Ben was down early to breakfast the following morning. Everything was packed, and he was eager to be on his way as soon as possible. He did not care what direction he took, though he had told his coachman last night that they would return the way they had come. All he really wanted was to put as much distance between him and Fisherman’s Bridge as he possibly could.

He was down early, but someone was earlier. Mr. Bevan rose from his place at a table by the window when Ben appeared, an open watchcase in his hand.

“Is this the time,” he asked, “that the idle rich normally break their fast?”

It was shortly after seven o’clock.

“I believe it is more the time they are going to bed,” Ben said, making his way toward the table and propping his canes against a chair before shaking the man by the hand.

“I have no right in the world to ask this,” Bevan said when they were both seated, “and you have every right in the world to refuse an answer, but here goes anyway. What are your feelings for my granddaughter, Major?”

Ben paused in the act of spreading his napkin across his lap. Here was a man who did not believe in wasting precious time on small talk, it seemed.

“Mrs. McKay,” Ben said, choosing his words with care, “lost her husband less than six months ago, sir. She needs time to recover from that loss. She needs time to adjust her life to her new home and circumstances. As she told you last evening, she needs to be alone. Not necessarily without all company, but without emotional entanglements. It would be presumptuous for me to have feelings for her stronger than respect. Besides, at present I have nothing of value to offer her except a baronet’s title and fortune.”

“At present,” Bevan said. “And in the future?”



“I was wounded six years ago,” Ben told him. “I have been well enough for the past three years to get my life in order and set on a new course, since the old one will serve no longer. But I have procrastinated. Until now. I am going to go to London. I am going to find something challenging to do.”

“Other than carousing all night?” Bevan smiled.

“That sort of life has never appealed to me,” Ben told him. “I must be doing something useful and meaningful.”

Neither of them spoke while the landlord set their food before them and exchanged a few pleasantries about the weather with them before withdrawing.

Bevan sat back in his chair, ignoring his food for the moment. “Tell me more about the way you used to be,” he said. “Tell me about being a leader of men. That is what you were, is it not? You were a major, which is not quite the same as being a general, of course, but nevertheless it put you in a position of considerable authority over men and actions and events. Tell me about that man.”

Ben picked up his knife and fork and thought a moment before cutting into his food. Where to begin? And why begin? Why had Bevan come here this morning?

“That man was happy,” he said.

He was not used to talking about himself. It was something he had never been comfortable doing. Even at Penderris he had talked less than any of the others, more content to listen to his friends’ problems than divulge his own. He had always assumed that he could not possibly be of any great interest to anyone else, that he would merely bore other people by prosing on about himself. But for the next fifteen or twenty minutes he did nothing but that, led on by skilled, persistent, probing questions and a look of genuine interest on the other man’s face. He talked about his dreams and ambitions, his war experiences, the feeling he had always had that he had been born to do just what he was doing. He talked about the battle in which he had been wounded, about his long fight for survival and his longer fight to restore himself to physical wholeness so that he could get back to the only life he knew or had ever wanted for himself. He talked about the past three years and his reasons for not going home, about his growing frustration and restlessness, about his corresponding determination to overcome lethargy and lowness of spirits by finding something to replace what he had lost.

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“I fought hard enough to live,” he said. “Now I have to prove to myself that the fight was for some purpose.”

“Women?” Bevan asked. “Have there been many?”

“None since I was hurt,” Ben said.

“Until now?”

Ben gave him a long, level look.

“You escorted my granddaughter here from the north of England,” Bevan said, “and you have been a good friend to her. Now you are about to leave, for reasons you have just given me. But you will not pretend to me that she is no more to you than a friend, Harper. Or, if you do, I will not believe you.” He smiled in a not-unfriendly manner.

“I will not pretend, then,” Ben told him curtly. “Yes, I have feelings for her. Inappropriate and pointless feelings. And I will be leaving this morning because there is no future for us, because she needs to be left alone to find herself and her place here. I believe she will. And I believe she has a chance for happiness. She has not had much of that in her life. And I will be leaving because I need to find myself and my place of belonging. I will do it. You need not fear that I will linger.”

“And I would not believe Samantha,” Bevan said, “if she told me that you are no more to her than a friend.”

“Pardon me,” Ben said stiffly, “but I am not sure you have the right to offer any opinion on this matter, sir.”

The older man’s eyebrows rose, and he picked up his knife and fork and tackled his breakfast. “I like you, Major,” he said. “You are a man after my own heart. And you are quite correct. I have no right whatsoever.”

He paused to eat, and Ben did likewise. He would excuse himself as soon as his plate was empty and be on his way. He did not know why Bevan had come except, perhaps, to warn him to leave without delay and never to return. He did not need to say it. He really did not have the right, anyway.

“I am sixty-six years old,” Bevan said, picking up the conversation again. “I am not an old man—at least, I do not feel like one—but I am not young either. If I had a son, I would be gradually transferring my responsibilities to his younger shoulders, provided he showed the necessary interest and aptitude, of course. It has been one of the enduring disappointments of my life that I have no son, but that cannot be helped now. I have able and trusted men in charge at the mines and at the ironworks. I have been fortunate in my employees. What I have longed for and actively searched for in the past four or five years, however, is an overseer, a supermanager, if you will, someone with the interest and energy and ability to take charge of all my industrial concerns. Someone I can trust, and someone who trusts me. Someone who is as like a son to me as possible. Someone to replace me, in fact, after I retire and until my death, and to be well compensated afterward. He would have to be a special kind of man, for it is not enough just to understand facts or to have ideas or even to have both together. It is not enough even to have organizational skills, though they are necessary. He would have to be someone who could get work done and ensure profits while not neglecting the safety and well-being of all the workers under him. He would have to inspire trust and loyalty and even liking while at the same time demanding the best efforts of his workers. He would have to take a personal interest in what he does as well as just a professional one. He would have to be someone rather like me, in fact. He has not been easy to find, Major. Or to find at all, in fact.”

Ben had stopped eating to look fixedly at the other man. “Are you offering me a job?” he asked.

Bevan set down his knife and fork and poured them each another cup of coffee before answering.

“I pride myself upon being a good judge of character,” he said. “I think it is one reason for my success. I sensed something about you as soon as I met you, even though I was predisposed to dislike you, having listened to some of the local gossip—which was not particularly vicious, I must add. I sensed something about you both then and last evening, and you have confirmed that impression this morning. You liked your men, Major? You were not the sort of officer who commanded obedience with a whip?”

“I never ordered or condoned the British army’s practice of whipping its soldiers,” Ben said. “Yes, I liked my men. Apart from a few irredeemable rogues, most soldiers are the salt of the earth and will give their best, even their lives, when called upon to do so.”

He was being offered a job. In Wales. Overseeing coal mines and ironworks. Could anything be more bizarre?

“Employment for me has always been about more than just making money,” the older man said. “I could have lived in great luxury on what my father left me. I could have appointed managers for the mines and given them no further thought. Indeed, I did just that during the years when I was drinking and feeling sorry for myself. Fortunately, I was not cut out for idleness of either body or mind, and that fact was perhaps my salvation. I believe that in many ways we are similar, Major.”

“You are offering me employment,” Ben said.

“Knowing that you do not need the money,” Bevan said, raising his coffee cup to his lips, “and that some gentlemen, maybe most, would find it demeaning to work around industry. But you do need to use your gifts and your skills, and you will never again use them in the army. I would rather you than anyone else I have met.”

Ben shook his head and laughed softly. Was he actually tempted? More than tempted?

“Everything I have will be Samantha’s one day,” Bevan said.

Ben sobered instantly. “Are you offering the job on condition that I marry Mrs. McKay?” he asked. Sudden anger curled like a tight ball in his stomach.

“On the contrary, Major,” Bevan said. “I offer the employment on condition that you leave here. An empire is not run from a country estate or even from a seaside cottage. I have homes in Swansea and in Merthyr Tydfil. You would live on site. And I do not offer permanent employment. Not yet. I do not know that you are capable of doing the job well. I do not know that it would suit you. Or if it would suit me to have you. We would need time to discover if we are a good fit for each other. As for my granddaughter, well, I will not deny that I sat up half the night thinking of how convenient it would be if you really did become my right-hand man, as capable and enthusiastic a manager as I have been, perhaps even with new, fresh ideas to bring to the task. And of how convenient it would then be if you were to marry Samantha. For then, eventually, everything would be yours as well as hers. It would be a storybook ending for an elderly man who long ago gave up all hope of happy endings. But I press nothing on you, Major Harper. Or on her. Indeed, I would insist that you leave here immediately.”

“Mrs. McKay might nevertheless feel that pressure was being brought to bear upon her if I were to accept your offer,” Ben said. “She might well believe that you and I were trying to manipulate her life and interfere with her newfound freedom. I have already taken my leave of her.”

“I cannot speak with her,” Bevan said. “She has not given me the right and perhaps never will. You must do it, then, if you feel you must. And if you accept my offer, which I believe you are inclined to do. But remember that the employment may never be permanent. There would have to be a trial period of several months before any contract can be drawn up or agreed to. When did Captain McKay die?”

“In December sometime,” Ben said.

“Then perhaps we can get together at Cartref sometime just before Christmas,” Bevan said, “to discuss our future association, if we are to have one.”

His meaning was unmistakable. Samantha’s mourning period would be over by then.

They gazed steadily at each other across the table.

Ben reached for his canes abruptly and pulled himself to his feet. “I need to do some thinking,” he said. “And, depending upon the outcome of that, I need to talk with Mrs. McKay. This would not be a decision for me alone to make even if I would not be living anywhere close to here. For she may not want anything more to do with you, and my working for you would seem like a betrayal. Even if she does wish to have a relationship with you, she may not want me running the businesses that will eventually be hers. It may seem like entrapment to her.”

“I perfectly understand, Major.” Bevan smiled and poured himself another coffee. “You will write to me if you do not come to see me?”

Ben nodded curtly and made his slow way out of the dining room and up the stairs to his room. He felt rather as though he had been bashed over the head and had his brains scrambled.

All his baggage had been taken down to the carriage already, he could see.

Samantha kept busy through the early part of the morning going through the linen closets with Mrs. Price, sorting out what was good, what was worth mending, and what was only good enough to be consigned to the rag bag. Tomorrow they would go through the china. Mrs. Price reported that all the cupboards were full to overflowing but that some of the pieces were mismatched or chipped or altogether not worth keeping.

She was going to go through simply everything, she decided, until the cottage felt entirely her own, until it felt like home, as Bramble Hall never had. She had not even realized that until now.

She was going to return the call of Mrs. Tudor and her daughter, who had already visited her, and she was going to make an effort to become acquainted with more of her neighbors and to discover ways of becoming active and useful in village life. She was going to ask about the availability of a tutor to teach her Welsh. Not that it was spoken a great deal just here, but she wanted to be able to speak it anyway or at least to understand it and perhaps read it. There were a few Welsh books in the book room, including a Welsh Bible. Perhaps she would even take music lessons. And perhaps …

And every moment of the time she thought of Ben driving away from the inn. But which direction would he have taken? She had not asked. That thought brought a moment of foolish panic. She did not even know where he was going. And where was he now, at this moment? How was he feeling? Was he thinking of her? Or had he turned his thoughts forward to the future, eager to begin something new, relieved to be away from here and away from her? Or, like her, was he thinking of the future and of her at the same time?

Would the pain lessen as time went on? But of course it would. And why was she even feeling pain? They had had a brief affair. They had agreed before it began that it would last just a week. She did not want him to stay. And he certainly would not want it. It was merely a leftover sexual passion she was feeling. Of course it would go away after a few days.

By the middle of the morning she could stay in the cottage no longer. She pulled on her old bonnet, called to Tramp, who was busy gnawing on an old soup bone in the kitchen, and went out. She hesitated only a moment at the garden gate before turning in the direction of the beach. There was no point in avoiding it unless she intended to do so for the rest of her life. Nevertheless, it felt painfully bleak to step through the gap between the rocks and onto the sand after removing her shoes.

She found a piece of driftwood to throw for Tramp and strolled along the top of the beach, trying to keep her eyes off the rock she had come to think of as theirs. She was on her way back, not far from the gap, when Ben stepped through it. She stopped, wondering for a dizzying moment if she was imagining him. And then she was filled with an unreasoning surge of hope.

“I thought you would have been long on your way by now,” she cried, hurrying toward him.

“I had breakfast with your grandfather,” he said. “He came to the inn.”

She stopped abruptly while Tramp came tearing up without his driftwood and panted and wagged his tail in front of Ben.

“Why?” she asked.

“He has offered me employment,” he said.

“What?”

“As manager of all his enterprises,” he said. “As someone to oversee them as he withdraws gradually into retirement.”

She gazed at him as anger balled inside her.

“You do not like the sound of it.” He half smiled.

“It is an insult,” she said. “You are a gentleman, a baronet. You have property and fortune. He is a—a coal miner.”

“An owner,” he said. “There is a difference.”

“He cannot be serious,” she said. “Did you tell him how insulted you were? Did you give him the set-down of his life? It is time somebody did.”

“I did not feel insulted.”

“And why you?” she asked. “Does he believe that by offering you employment he will be currying favor with me?”

She glared. He half smiled.

And a thought struck her.

“Why have you not set out on your journey?” she asked him. “Why did you come?”

“To say goodbye,” he said. “I had been delayed anyway and thought another hour would make no great difference. Goodbye, Samantha. Try not to think too hardly of him.”

She watched him turn and make his way back through the gap and move in the direction of the cottage. Tramp started to go after him and then turned to stare at her, his tail waving, waiting for her to come too.

To say goodbye.

I had been delayed anyway and thought another hour would make no great difference.

She went hurrying after him and caught up with him just above the rock where she had left her shoes.

“You came to tell me, did you not?” she said. “You have accepted his offer.”

“I have not,” he said. “I will be leaving as planned within the hour.”

“Oh, Ben,” she said, setting a hand on his arm. “Come to the house and sit down. Mrs. Price will bring us some tea. You came to ask me what I thought, then. You would not accept without my approval. Am I right?”

“I will not accept without your approval,” he said. “And you do not approve. That is the end of the matter.”

“No, it is not,” she said with a sigh as they reached the garden gate and she held it open for him. “I was insulted for you. But you were not insulted. You must tell me why not. And you must tell me why on earth you would consider taking employment with the owner of a coal mine.”

“Coal mines,” he said. “And ironworks.”

They went into the house, and Samantha went back to the kitchen to talk to Mrs. Price while he went on his way to the sitting room. It was only as she joined him there that it struck her fully—he was still here. She had thought never to see him again, but here he was seated in his usual chair, his canes propped beside it.

“Your grandfather claims to be a good judge of character,” he told her. “He believes I have the abilities and experience and qualities of character he has been looking for in an overseer. Apart from all the knowledge and experience I would have to acquire, being in charge of everything would have certain similarities to being a military officer.”

“All you ever wanted to do in life,” she said softly.

“And,” he said, “it is something I could do despite my disability.”

“Yes,” she said.

“I would not be here to trouble you,” he said. “I would have to live and work in Swansea and the Rhondda Valley. I need never come here again. If I accept the offer, I will be leaving immediately, just as I planned anyway.”

“Then why,” she asked him, “did you need my approval?”

“I would be working for your grandfather,” he said, “from whom you may choose to remain estranged. And … Samantha, you are his heir. If he were to die suddenly, I might be working for you until a replacement could be found.”

She sat back in her chair and gripped the arms. Her grandfather’s heir? But she would think of that later.

“Oh, Ben,” she said, “this is something you really want to do, is it not? And now I can see why. It was blind of me not to realize it immediately. It is just the sort of thing for which you have been searching.”

“I’ll not do it,” he said, “if it will make you uncomfortable.”

“Why did he offer you this?” she asked, frowning. “Was it just on this instinct he says he has to judge character? Or does it have something to do with me?”

He looked steadily back at her for a few silent moments. “He wants me to do it on a trial basis for a few months,” he said, “so that we can both decide if I am the right man for the job. He wants me to come to Cartref close to Christmas to discuss it and to draw up a contract if we both wish for it.”

She might see him again, then?

“Before setting the month,” he said, “he asked when your husband had died last year.”

She thought a moment. “My year of mourning will be over by then.”

“Yes.”

Mrs. Price came in with the tray, and Samantha got to her feet to cross to the window.

“He is manipulating us,” she said when the housekeeper had left.

“Yes,” he said. “I believe he is, though it is a benevolent type of manipulation. He wants me gone without delay. I daresay he is afraid of what gossip might do to you. At the same time, he believes we have feelings for each other—both of us.”

She turned her head to look back at him.

“And he genuinely believes I am the right man for the job,” he said.

“Do we have feelings for each other?” she asked.

“I cannot answer for you,” he said. “But yes, I have feelings.”

She waited, but he did not say what those feelings were.

“By Christmas,” she said, “everything will have changed—for you and for me.”

“Yes,” he agreed. “But nothing would work now, would it?”

Christmas was an eternity in the future. But not as long as his going away altogether and never coming back.

“You must accept the employment, Ben,” she said. “With my approval and blessing. I believe it will work wonderfully for you, though your family will think you have taken leave of your senses when they know. Go and be happy. And we will let Christmas take care of itself, shall we?”

“Yes. No commitments. No obligations.”

He got to his feet, and she noticed that she had not even poured the tea.

“Ben.” She hurried toward him, and he cast aside his canes in order to wrap his arms about her. “Oh, Ben. Be happy.”

“And you,” he said, his breath warm against her ear, his arms like iron bands around her.

They did not kiss.

And then he took up his canes again and made his way to the door.

“Shall I come out to the barn to see you on your way?” she asked.

“No.” He did not turn to look at her, but he smoothed a hand over Tramp’s head. “Take care of her, you great wretch of a hound.”

Tramp stood with his nose against the door after Ben had closed it on the other side, his tail wagging.

Samantha spread both hands over her face and drew a deep breath.

I have feelings.

She had not even said that much to him in reply.


22

Perhaps the most surprising and significant thing about the next few months, Ben thought later as he looked back on them, was that he commissioned a wheeled chair to be made for himself, one with which he could propel himself about. He used it a great deal and wondered why he had not done it years ago. He had been too stubborn, of course, to give up his dream of walking unassisted again. And he could not really fault himself for that dream. Without it he probably would not have walked at all ever again. But he was very much more mobile in his chair. In fact, it set him free.

He no longer thought of himself as crippled. He could ride, he could move about freely with his chair, he could and did walk, and he could swim. He tried to do it every day when there was the sea or a lake close by.

He enjoyed those months immensely despite all the hard work that was involved—or perhaps because of it. He started from a position of total ignorance and ended up knowing as much about the working of the mines and ironworks as anyone, his employer included. And his work was indeed the next best thing to being back with his regiment. He had always liked people. And he had always had a gift for getting them to like him, even those who were subordinate to him and subject to his command. He might well have been resented in his new role. He was English, he was of the privileged classes, he was half crippled, he was lamentably ignorant and inexperienced. And perhaps he was resented at the beginning. Wisely, he did not worry about whether he was popular or not. He did not set about being liked. And perhaps that was the secret of his success. For respect, liking, and loyalty came gradually as he earned them.

Mr. Bevan spent a good deal of time with him. Ben liked him and learned from him. Ben had ideas of his own too, mainly about transportation and shipping, for which Bevan hired outside companies at great expense. But he kept those ideas to himself at this early stage of his career. This was the time to listen and learn.

He did not write to any of his family or friends for several months. He did not want to hear or be influenced by their opinions on what he was doing. They were bound to be negative. And he did not want to confide in anyone until he was more certain about his long-term future. There was the whole question of Samantha too. He did not want to tell anyone about her until there was something to tell—if there ever was anything. He had told her he had feelings for her. She had not said she returned those feelings. And he had not been specific about his own.

He heard very little about her during those months. He made it a point never to ask Bevan about her, and sometimes he thought the man deliberately refrained from mentioning her himself. There were only a few stray snippets of information, tantalizing in their very brevity. She had had a pianoforte delivered to the cottage, Bevan mentioned on one occasion. How did he know? Had he seen the instrument? Or had someone told him about it? She had attended an assembly at the village inn in celebration of the harvest, but she had worn lavender to indicate mourning and had refused to dance. But had Bevan seen her there? Or had he been told?

Ben did not even know if she had a relationship with her grandfather. He did not know if time had erased him from her mind, or if she was glad he was gone. As for him, he had fallen in love during those brief weeks he had spent with her, and he remained in love, as he never had with any woman before.

Finally, in early November, Ben wrote three letters—to Calvin, to Beatrice, and to George at Penderris Hall. Calvin wrote back immediately and with a warmth Ben found surprising and rather touching. He and Julia had been frantic with worry, Calvin had written. Beatrice had informed them that he had gone traveling in Scotland, but as time had gone on and no one heard from him, they had been sick with apprehension, for they would not know where to begin looking for him if he never returned, and Scotland was a large country. Yet all the time he had been in Wales. He gave no opinion of what Ben had been doing with his time. His letter was filled with obvious relief over his brother’s safety and brief details of the harvest at Kenelston and other estate matters.

It seemed after all, Ben thought, that his brother loved him.


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