Song of songs, p.53
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       Song of Songs, p.53

           Beverley Hughesdon
 

  After lunch my parents wrangled over The Times announcement. Papa submitted to the simple, ‘of Ainsclough’ – ‘I will not have the whole world knowing that my daughter is marrying a man from Clegg Street,’ my mother spat. Papa continued with his draft and handed it to her. She exploded. ‘DCM, MM – do you have to proclaim to every casual reader that my future son-in-law was a common soldier? Cross them out.’ Papa might have given in, but Letty was adamant, and Mother finally retreated, worsted. So the notice was sent off with Ben’s decorations intact.

  The day it appeared Mother called me into her sitting room and thrust the open newspaper in front of me. ‘“Of Ainsclough”, Helena – “Benjamin Holden of Ainsclough!” Think what you are doing – while there’s still time to stop this nonsense. You may not have conceived – and even if you have, something can be arranged.’ I did not answer, and she moved closer to me. ‘Write to him and tell him that you have changed your mind – do it today, Helena.’ Her dark eyes glittered fiercely and I backed away; but I would not let her bully me. ‘No, Mother – the banns will be called again this week.’ As soon as I had spoken I turned and half-ran from her room.

  After that all her energies were directed towards arranging the largest possible wedding in the short time available. I did not know whether she intended to shame me into surrender at the thought of this massed congregation of Society’s leaders – or whether, in her own cruel but courageous way, she was indeed ‘putting a decent face on it’.

  Papa summoned me next. He stood behind his desk, ill at ease. ‘Helena, are you quite sure…? If you want to stop this whole business now, you’ve only to say the word.’ But I lowered my eyes and said no word. I heard his sigh, then the rustle of papers, and when he spoke again his voice was confident and businesslike. ‘I’ve been looking into Robbie’s affairs – your affairs now, Helena. Wilson, his agent, seems a good man - he acted for John, previously, and I know he thought highly of him. I would strongly advise you to retain his services.’

  ‘If you say so, Papa.’

  ‘Yes, I do. I’ve been through all the accounts and reports most carefully, and they’re in apple-pie order. Hyde has sent one of his assistants to inspect the properties, and he’s very satisfied. But of course, I’ll continue to keep an eye on things for you.’

  ‘Thank you, Papa.’

  ‘I shall arrange a current account for you to draw on at Ainsclough – if you insist on going ahead…?’ I said nothing. ‘I’ll see to that then, and have the chequebook with you before the seventh.’

  I said baldly, ‘Ben doesn’t know about Robbie’s property. I didn’t tell him.’

  ‘No, no – but that doesn’t matter at present. When the next tax year starts, if you’re still together, he’ll have to know then.’ I murmured an acknowledgement; that was a long way off – anything could happen… Papa continued, his voice low, almost as if he were speaking to himself. ‘Of course, your having this estate does make a difference. A woman takes her social status from her husband, there’s no avoiding that; but a substantial income does confer independence – except where the settlements have been carelessly drawn up – or the woman’s a fool and the man’s a bounder.’

  I said tightly, ‘Papa, I may be a fool, but Ben Holden is not a bounder.’

  ‘No, no Helena – I’ve no fears on that score – in any case…’ In any case, Papa had tied up this estate very securely, and there would be no carelessness of settlements where he was concerned; he had all the shrewd ability of a trained lawyer.

  I waited, but he seemed to have nothing more to add, so I asked, ‘May I go now, Papa?’

  He hesitated a moment before he replied. ‘Yes, Helena – I think that’s all. There will be some papers for you to sign, but we’ll see about that later.’ Then, as I began to move, he added, without looking at me, ‘As your mother says, divorce is becoming much more acceptable these days…’ I ran to the door and outside in the corridor I had to fight off the threatening hysteria. The wedding had not even taken place yet – and already my mother was talking of divorce! Sometimes I felt as though I were caught up in a nightmare – but then I would visit the graveyard and know that the nightmare had already come true – and that nothing mattered any more.

  As the days drifted past other people made decisions for me – it was a relief not to have to think for myself. Papa gave me papers to sign; Mother talked to Letty of the wedding arrangements; Ben wrote to say he had found a house. I had no interest in any of these things – events had passed out of my control and I did not care.

  Then, on the second Saturday, the day before Ben was due, a cable arrived from Canada. It read simply: ‘Helena, come to us and share our nursery. Guy, Pansy and Nanny Whitmore.’ The last name blurred before my eyes – Nanny – Nanny would forgive me, Nanny would take my child and nurse it and scold it and love it, just as she had nursed and scolded and loved myself and my brothers. But even as I longed for her I hesitated – my brothers, Robbie – could I weep on her broad bosom and not tell her of what I had done to Robbie? I wanted to go, oh how I wanted to go – to Guy, so loyal and loving; to Pansy, who would be uncomprehending, even reproachful at first – but she would forgive me – and there was Nanny.

  I would go. Ben would be relieved; he had done what he thought right, but now I could release him. Little Emmie was there, waiting – she would soon take the place I had so briefly usurped, and I would become only a fleeting memory; it was better so. I folded the cable and put it safely into my pocket; I would tell him tomorrow, before I telegraphed my acceptance.

  But at lunch when Mother said, ‘Maud has sent a very handsome present – and she’s bringing Juno and Julia,’ I felt suddenly confused – the wedding had gained a momentum of its own now. And the afternoon post brought yet another letter from Ben, asking anxiously after my welfare – and I was touched and realized again that this man had every right to be concerned. Then I remembered his silent sympathy as he had held my hand in the little park in Ainsclough and became even more uncertain.

  Chapter Twelve

  But when I read the cable again next morning, I knew I would go. I felt its comforting presence in the pocket of my dress as I sat in the drawing room watching the hands of the clock crawl round. Then Letty looked in at the door. ‘Isn’t it time you left, Helena?’

  ‘Left?’

  ‘For the station – to meet Ben.’ I looked at her in surprise and she said, ‘For goodness’ sake – you are going to meet him, aren’t you? The poor man must be shaking in his shoes – it’s the least you can do. I’ll ring for your hat.’

  I dragged myself to my feet; I did not want to go and meet Ben, but it was always easier to give in to Letty than to try to argue with her.

  She was soon back. ‘The motor will be round in five minutes – you should just make it. Get a move on, Hellie.’

  Ben was first out of the station entrance – he looked about him, spotted the car and came quickly towards it. Barnes sprang to attention and swung the door open, Ben climbed in and the door closed on us with a subdued click. I stared through the glass partition as the chauffeur jumped back into his seat, fixing my eyes on his gauntleted hand as he reached for the gear lever. I could not look at the man at my side; waves of embarrassment washed over me. Neither of us spoke.

  We were running through the park gates before Ben cleared his throat with a rasping sound and asked, ‘How are you, La – lass – Helena?’

  I whispered, ‘I’m – quite well, Ben – thank you.’

  ‘Oh – ah – good.’

  The Delaunay-Belleville purred to a halt outside the front entrance. Barnes came quickly round to open my door and I stepped out; Ben shuffled across the seat and followed me – out of the same side. I glanced at the chauffeur’s face but it was impassive. Cooper had the tall front door already open. ‘Luncheon will be served in five minutes, my lady.’

  ‘Thank you, Cooper.’

  ‘Your hat, sir.’ Ben surrendered his cap and stood awkwardly in the h
allway. Then Letty came running down the stairs. ‘Ben – how nice to see you. How do you do?’ She put out her hand and he shook it vigorously. ‘How was your journey – did you have to wait long for your connection at Manchester?’ And as she chattered I saw the overwhelming relief on his face – suddenly I felt bitterly ashamed of myself.

  I stepped forward and put my hand through his arm. ‘Mother and Papa will be in the drawing room – I’ll take you through.’ And so we walked in side by side.

  Mother did not speak after her frosty, ‘How do y’ do?’ but Papa was polite. ‘Pleased you could come, Holden – good journey? Good, good – I expect you fancy a spot of lunch now, and here’s Cooper to announce it.’

  It was Letty and Papa who kept the conversation moving. Ben’s answers were monosyllabic, Mother swallowed every mouthful as though it were laced with arsenic, and I barely touched each course.

  At last the ordeal came to an end. As he stood up Papa said, ‘Perhaps you’d care to come to my study for a little chat, Holden?’

  Ben answered baldly, ‘Yes, sir – I would,’ and followed him out without a backward glance. We ladies retired to the drawing room. As soon as the footman shut the door Mother rounded on me. ‘Helena – how could you, how could you?’ Her nostrils flared as she flicked out her skirts and sat down, ramrod straight, with her back to the door.

  Letty, her cheeks flushed with anger, exclaimed, ‘Helena – you should be ashamed of yourself – why on earth couldn’t you be more gracious to the poor man? After all, on your own admission you virtually seduced him!’ I stared down at my shaking hands – I had no answer for either of them.

  After what seemed an interminable time Ben came back, his mouth set. Mother turned her head away, but Letty smiled warmly at him before saying to me, ‘Hellie – it’s such a lovely afternoon, why don’t you take Ben for a walk in the garden?’

  Mother’s voice stung like a whiplash. ‘Yes, Helena – why not show him the maze?’ I almost ran to the door.

  I took Ben out through the side entrance and we walked in silence along the gravelled path and down into the rhododendron garden. I was desperate to hide from the Hall, with its rows of blank, accusing windows.

  When we reached the first hidden seat I dropped down on to it and began to cry. Ben sat quickly down beside me and put his arm round my shoulders and pulled me close against him. He held me tight and stroked my hair until I was still. ‘I’m sorry, lass. I suppose your ma’s been putting you through it.’

  I drew away from him and dried my cheeks and then sat up straight. I knew I should say something about Guy and the cable from Canada, but I did not know how to begin. Then he began to speak, telling me about the house he had found. ‘The foreman at shed put me on to it – I were lucky, it’s not easy to find houses these days, and this ’un’s a nice sound little place, rent very fair considering. They moved on Sunday so I’ve been in already – I got Mrs Scholes from next door but one to give it a good scrub-out – not but what it were clean, no bugs or owt like that, I checked careful afore I took it. And Royds Street’s a good street, very respectable. I’ve been round to Bert’s – he has a little second-hand business on the side and he let me have some odds and ends of furniture, just to be going on with – he said his missus ’ud see to kitchen, fetch in what you’ll need like. It’s got a scullery built on – I’ve whitewashed that, and closet – and range is a good ’un, Mrs Scholes says, she had it lit for hot water and it drew well.’

  As I listened to the tale of his careful preparations Guy’s cable burnt a hole in the pocket of my frock. At last he stopped, and seemed to expect a reply. ‘You’ve – you’ve been very busy, Ben.’

  ‘Well, we ’aven’t got much time. There’s something else –’ He looked away from me, red in the face. ‘When I spoke to your dad just now, I told him straight out – I can’t keep her in the manner to which she’s accustomed, I said, but I have got a good steady job. Why, last week I drew over five pound – I were lucky, I got driving turns, and of course I did full Sunday shift. I’ll not be offering for Sundays once we’re married – there’s plenty of others as’ll be glad of money. But even without much overtime I can get three or four pound every week, regular. And I got a fair bit put by – I saved up me wages in war, and then there was me DCM gratuity. So I can support a wife, no doubt about that – and any youngsters that come along.’ I flushed and looked down at my lap. ‘Your dad started to talk about his money, but I told him I’m not taking any cash with you and that’s final. If you bring a few towels and sheets that’s fair enough – but I’m not expecting even that.’

  I said helplessly, ‘But settlements are quite normal, Ben – even if, even if I had married Lord Staveley – Papa would have settled an income on me.’

  ‘They may be normal here, but they’re not normal where I come from.’ His tone was final.

  I remembered Mr Hyde’s clipped voice as he had read: ‘And all my real and personal estate not otherwise disposed of by this my will I bequeath unto my beloved sister…’ and ventured, ‘Did he – did he say anything after that?’

  ‘Only to suggest as he could get me an office job. What would I be wanting with an office job? – I’m a skilled man. So I told him “No” and he knew I meant what I said, so he shut up after that.’ Yes, he would – Papa had always been a coward, just as I was.

  Ben began to fumble in his jacket pocket. He looked at me, and his eyes had softened. ‘So that’s enough of business – and now I got something for you.’ He took out a small box and held it out to me. I did not move, and he repeated, ‘It’s for you, lass, here, I’ll show you.’ He carefully pressed the catch and pushed up the lid, and there, nestling on its satin bed, was an engagement ring. I looked down at the three small diamonds and my eyes blurred with tears. ‘Put it on then, sweetheart.’ I pushed the ring over my knuckle and it glinted on my finger – where Gerald’s sapphire had once flashed fire. ‘Give us a kiss then, lass.’ I held up my face to him and his warm mouth covered mine. He was breathing heavily as he drew back, then he jumped quickly to his feet. ‘How about showing me that maze your Ma spoke of? I’ve never been in one of them afore.’ I opened my mouth to refuse, then closed it again and stood up – after all, what did it matter now?

  He stopped me at the entrance and said, ‘I want to see if I can find me own way in. Don’t you say nothing.’ He took my hand and tugged me forward and backward through the narrow green aisles, frowning when he came to a dead end, and beaming with pleasure when we progressed. He never made the same mistake twice, and quite soon we were in the centre.

  He stood warily by the hedge, looking carefully round the clearing – and suddenly I realized I was seeing him as my brothers had seen him – Holden, the careful sergeant-major, sizing up the ground, inspecting the available shelter – and I felt a slight easing to the tightness in my chest and smiled as I asked, ‘Will it do, Ben?’

  He grinned back at me. ‘Aye, it’ll do – come and sit down, then.’

  He pulled me forward and dropped down on to the carved wooden seat outside the small pavilion – and before I realized what he was at I was tumbled on to his lap. ‘Ben!’

  He laughed. ‘We got some courting to catch up on, lass.’ He bent to kiss me and my body felt the warmth of his and responded to the male scent of him. When he took his mouth away I put my arms around him and pushed my face into his neck. He said simply, ‘I’ve missed you, lass – and I’ve been worried about you. I nearly came over one evening unexpected like – but, well, I thought it might make things worse for you.’ Then he put his large hand on my behind and pulled me round a little, so that my belly pressed against his. He whispered in my ear, ‘And he’s missed you, too.’ For a moment I was bewildered, then I felt it, his maleness, swollen and throbbing – for me. I lay against him, feeling the steady beat pushing at my belly. His breath tickled my ear as he murmured softly, ‘Now he knows way in he wants to pleasure himself again.’ I lay very still. Then he lifted his damp cheek from mine a
nd looked straight down into my eyes. ‘Can I take you now, lass?’ I did not answer, I could not answer. His gaze held mine. ‘Tha can tell I’m more ’an ready for thi – but tha can say “nay”, Helena. Will tha say nay?’ He bent his head and found my mouth, and now I felt the pressure of his tongue on my lips, and I opened my mouth under his so that he could fill it. And as I felt the urgency of his need I knew I could not deny him.

  But at last he drew back away, and held me a little from him. He was panting, and his face was damp with sweat. ‘Aye, tha’ wouidna’ stop me – but it wouldn’t be right – not a week afore wedding. It’s not so long now – I mun be patient. I’ll have to put you away from me now – I’m that worked up I can hardly control myself.’ He pushed himself up, dumped me down on the seat, walked away and stood looking at the pavilion. And as I gazed at the breadth of his shoulders and remembered the powerful thrust of his hips as he had taken me before, I shivered, but I did not know whether it was in fear – or excitement.

  It was a long time before he turned to look at me, then he smiled and said, ‘I’d best let you face your mam with a clear conscience. Come on, my lass, let’s see if I can get you safe out of this maze.’ He held out his hand and I went to him and took it. He led me towards the exit from the clearing, turned the right way and set off. At each choice he stopped, narrowed his eyes, then moved on again. And we came straight out of the maze without one false step.

 
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