Song of songs, p.78
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       Song of Songs, p.78

           Beverley Hughesdon
 

  Remembering, I said, ‘I had the figure of a boy then, Alice.’

  Alice nodded. ‘I suppose it would have helped. And he wanted children, he wanted them desperately – it could have worked – he would have played fair by you and you need never have known.’

  I looked down at my swelling breasts and full hips, and touched my curving belly. ‘And when he had got me with child, Alice – what then? Would he have come to me as a husband, the way I am now?’

  Alice looked at me for a long time, then slowly shook her head; her voice was sad. ‘No. I was wrong, Hellie, wasn’t I? He would have made some excuse about not harming the child and it would have sounded reasonable – but pregnant women aren’t reasonable are they? I remember when I was carrying my two – when I wasn’t being sick I was hot for Hugh, all the time. And dear Hugh, he never failed me.’

  She watched my face. Ben had said I must be rationed; ‘Not tomorrow’ he said each night – but when tomorrow became today… occasionally we had not come together, through my sickness or his shifts, but otherwise – no, he had never failed me, either.

  ‘Sorry, Hellie. I still saw you as my little sister, and that thought didn’t cross my mind. You’d have had to find somebody else.’

  ‘And once I did that – how long would it have been before Gerald cast his eye on a good-looking footman…?’

  Alice finished for me, ‘Or went back to Edward, as he did, of course.’

  ‘I know – I saw them together the last day of his leave.’ Poor Gerald, spending each morning at the hospital, then having to tear himself away from his lover to come to me – a jealous, demanding girl. ‘What happened to him, to Edward?’

  ‘He went back and was killed that summer in an attack near Festubert. Hugh said the story was that he behaved quite recklessly, as if he wanted to die – Gerald had been everything to him.’

  Poor Edward. I said softly, ‘Then I’m glad that at least they had that one last day together.’

  I stood up and walked out into the garden by the small door, and went round to the orangery, where the trees were heavy with fruit. I slipped in and sat down on the bench I had sat on while Gerald knelt before me and offered me his hand; Gerald, who had loved me as far as he was able. And now I let him go in peace.

  Then I got up and walked out, across the green velvet lawn. As I looked down over the park the child in my womb moved restlessly; I put my hand to my belly and murmured, ‘Patience, little one – your father will be here soon.’ And he quietened.

  Chapter Nine

  Soon Mother’s guests began to arrive. Conan came, and shortly after him Eileen Enscombe – who had been Eileen Fox on that long-ago day at Eton, and had been engaged to Guy and thrown him over. I wondered why Mother had invited her – not that Guy seemed to bear her any ill will – but then I noticed the look of satisfaction on Conan’s face as his eyes rested on her mass of glossy dark hair, and Alice, seeing the direction of my gaze, whispered, ‘It’s been going on for months – quite a record for Conan!’

  I overheard Eileen’s finely-modulated voice expressing her sorrow at her husband’s absence – ‘But the gas still affects his lungs, Lady Pickering – so I had to insist he stayed quietly at home.’

  ‘Such a shame, my dear’ – my mother allowed her eyes to stray for just that fraction of a second too long to where Conan lounged on the settee, then she murmured to her guest, ‘So sad for you.’

  Eileen’s lovely complexion did not even change colour as she echoed, ‘Yes, Lady Pickering – so sad.’ Lucky Guy.

  The drawing room was crowded that night, and Conan and I scarcely exchanged more than a few words, but the following morning he suggested a stroll in the garden before lunch. We walked slowly over the lawn, arm in arm – not saying much but happy in each other’s company; then I realized that he was leading me down to the maze. As we came up to the entrance I hung back – and he turned to me, smiling. ‘They should have let us be, that evening – shouldn’t they, Helena?’

  He was waiting for my answer, but I hesitated, before finally saying, ‘But – I might have fallen with a child – and we were very young.’

  ‘Then we’d have had a son of – what would it be – eleven, by now! Just imagine that, Helena.’

  I shifted a little, uneasily – before remembering what he had once told me, ‘But you must have a child of that age, Conan – the housemaid, who had to be married off to the groom…’

  ‘Good lord – so I must – I never thought of that. But I’d rather it had been your son, Helena.’

  I pulled his arm round; I was tired, I wanted to go back to the house. My son was in my womb now – and his father would be here tomorrow.

  Conan allowed me to lead him back up through the garden, without protest, but when we drew level with the magnolia tree he drew me under its boughs, and lifting my face to his, gently kissed me on the lips. ‘Goodbye, Hellie.’

  I was startled. ‘But – I thought you were staying all week – are you going so soon?’

  His smile was rueful. ‘I’m not going anywhere, Hellie – but you’ve already gone.’ Then he laughed. ‘I had some mad idea of one last romp in the maze – but you wouldn’t have come, would you?’

  ‘No, Conan – I wouldn’t.’

  His hand slipped down, clasped mine and squeezed it. ‘Besides, any tricks of that sort and that over-muscled husband of yours would rend me limb from limb and strew the pieces all over the Japanese garden! And I’m a coward, sweet Coz, you know that.’ He laughed again and this time I laughed with him; then we went back into the house.

  I went up to my room before the dressing bell that evening, and lay on my bed, resting. I dozed off and, half-waking up, reached out – only to realize that I was alone. I wondered where he was and what he was doing; I missed him. But he would come in the morning.

  I had to refuse most of the heavy meal – the child was pressing on my stomach. After dinner I sat in the brightly lit drawing room while clever, handsome people chattered and laughed and smoked all around me. I listened idly: ‘Harry said…’ ‘Horace and Betty…’ ‘No – not really – how too dreadful!’ It was not my world any longer but it was pleasant to sit on the fine brocade sofa, smelling the scents of the garden wafting in through the open window behind me, holding the fragile porcelain coffee cup in my hand.

  Cooper threw open the door. ‘Mr Holden, my lady.’ I jerked forward and the coffee cup bounced back on to its saucer – then I dumped them down anyhow and began to struggle to my feet. Ben – Ben was walking through the doorway – now I was standing – his face lit up as he saw me – I began to run down the length of the gilded room – straight into his arms.

  He held me tight, too tight – but I did not mind. ‘Ben – oh Ben – you came early!’

  His cheek was on mine, his arms hugging me. ‘Aye, lass – I swapped shifts with Jethro Yates, and I reckoned if I had everything ready and ran like hell in Manchester I should be able to do it. So here I am.’ He kissed me, and I clung to him, then he drew back, smiling. ‘Come on lass, we’d best sit down – we’re in road.’

  As he released me I glanced round – the babble of conversation was silenced, and the eyes of that whole smartly-clad throng were fixed on the two of us. My mother’s face was a mask; then she turned and picked up her conversation with Lady Maud and the room came alive again.

  Ben led me to a seat, settled a cushion behind my back and said, ‘I’d best say hello to the dragon, lass – and your pa.’

  Mother took his proferred hand, but her face was frigid; then her eyes flicked over his figure – he was wearing one of his new suits which fitted him well – and her expression softened a fraction. She beckoned to the waiting Cooper. ‘Tell Mrs Hill to have the bed made up in Lady Helena’s dressing room.’

  But Ben interrupted her. ‘That won’t be necessary, my lady – if her bed’s not big enough I’ll sleep on floor beside her.’

  Eileen Fox’s titter was distinctly audible. My mother’s eyebrows arched
as she looked at Ben, then she asked him, ‘Have you eaten?’

  ‘No, my lady – there weren’t time.’

  She turned to Cooper. ‘Mrs Hill need not bother with the dressing room, but ask her to send up some refreshments for my son-in-law.’

  When Cooper came back Ben held out his hand to me. I went with him to the morning room and sat down beside him at the big oval table; as soon as the butler had left us Ben said, ‘You’re not near enough, sweetheart,’ and pulled my chair closer to his. I leant on his shoulder and he put his arm round my waist and hugged me to him. ‘Reckon I can drink soup one-handed.’ The chicken soup smelt delicious; I could feel my nostrils quivering. Ben laughed. ‘Open your mouth.’ I did as he bid me and he tipped in a spoonful of the savoury liquid.

  He fed me alternate spoonfuls, and I sat with my lips parted ready, like a fledgeling. The door opened just as Ben was feeding me, and I swallowed quickly, embarrassed – but it was only Alice. ‘Don’t get up, Ben’ – she glided forward – ‘I just came to tell you that Letty’s arrived, she’ll be joining you in a minute – she had a breakdown at Derby and was delayed.’

  Letty came bouncing in shortly after. ‘Hello, Ben – how are you, Helena? Gosh, I’m starving – I was late starting as it was, and then that wretched motor of mine… The engine was misfiring – I thought it was just water in the petrol at first, but it was getting worse, so I had to stop and clean the pick-ups on the magneto – thank goodness that did the trick.’

  ‘I didn’t know you had a car, Letty?’

  ‘Oh yes – a nice little Morris Oxford, a late birthday present from Uncle Arnold, since he was abroad in the summer.’ She winked at me. ‘I’m not officially allowed to keep it while I’m in college, but I’ve made an arrangement.’ Yes, Letty would. Leaning against Ben’s shoulder, I listened while she chatted to him.

  Ben nudged me. ‘You’re almost asleep, sweetheart – time you were in bed. I’ll just go and say me goodnights and tell your ma I’m taking you straight upstairs.’ I imagined Eileen Fox’s titter when he delivered that message, but I did not care.

  As he left us Letty buttered another roll and asked, ‘Is Maud here?’

  ‘Yes, of course.’

  ‘So they’ve made it up, then.’

  ‘Made it up?’ I was puzzled.

  ‘There was an awful row in the summer – Maud caught Papa creeping out of Mother’s bedroom one morning – he’d been there all night!’

  I stared at her. ‘Not – Mother and Papa?’

  ‘Apparently – it does seem indecent, doesn’t it? Poor old Maud was in quite a state – she didn’t blame Papa, she said men were like that – but she was so hurt about Mother, they’ve always been such good friends, you see. I’m glad they’ve made it up. To tell you the truth I think Mother was quite upset by it too – she never thought she’d get found out. I guessed she was up to something at Easter – she had that smug she-cat look on her face – but I couldn’t think who it was – and she obviously thought she’d been covering her tracks. Still, even the cleverest operator makes mistakes occasionally, I should know that – I really am thrilled with this car!’

  Ben came back. ‘I’ve done the rounds and been polite to everybody.’ He was pleased with himself. ‘Up you get now.’

  In bed I nestled up against him. ‘Go to sleep now, lass.’

  ‘Ben…’

  ‘No, you’re tired out.’

  I slid my hand down. ‘But you want me, Ben.’

  ‘’Course I do, after three days – but that don’t mean I got to have you.’

  I was very sleepy but I had missed him; I wanted to feel him inside me, so I stroked him gently, ‘Please, Ben.’

  His arms tightened, then he whispered, ‘All right, sweetheart – come across me legs, then.’ He lifted me over his thighs and curled himself under my behind; I clasped him in my arms.

  Next morning he said accusingly, ‘You were asleep afore I’d finished.’

  I laughed and kissed his neck. ‘But I had nice dreams, Ben!’

  ‘I’ve got no control over you, my girl – no control at all. I’m ashamed to admit I were once a sergeant-major. Now, let’s see how youngster’s getting on.’

  Ben still had his ear pressed to my belly when the maid came in with the jug of hot water and the tea tray; she stared astounded at the enormous lump in the bed. Ben poked his head out, saw her and dived frantically back under the bedclothes again. ‘It’s eight-thirty, my lady – shall I draw the curtains?’

  ‘Thank you.’

  I shook with suppressed laughter as Ben choked against my belly. When the door clicked shut he emerged, red-faced and spluttering. ‘You might’ve told me she were coming – at least I’d have put me nightshirt on.’ Giggling, I put my arms around him. ‘You think you can kiss me and I’ll forgive you owt.’ When he took his mouth away he added, ‘Well, you’re right. Lass, I have missed you.’

  I put up my hand and gently stroked his face: his strong curved eyebrows, his neat straight nose. With the tip of my finger I traced the shape of his mouth; his blue-grey eyes held mine. The skin of his chin was rough to my touch as I brushed my cheek against him. I felt warm and soft and loving. His hand slipped inside my nightdress and began to caress my breasts. I whispered, ‘I missed you, too, Ben.’

  We were last down to breakfast; my mother looked up at us, her eyes narrowed. Ben beamed at her as he said his good mornings, then glanced at me with the ghost of a wink before leading me to a seat. ‘I’ll fetch you summat – you take it easy now.’

  Beside me Alice murmured, ‘Did the maid forget to wake you, Helena?’

  ‘Yes – I mean – no, she did bring the tea.’ I was blushing as Alice’s mouth curved into a smile, while her eyes rested on Ben’s broad shoulders, leaning over the hot-plate. I called to him, ‘Some devilled kidneys, please, Ben.’

  He grunted as he continued his exploration under the silver lids, but when he came back there was only scrambled egg and a crisp rasher of bacon on my plate. ‘Ben, I wanted…’

  ‘Aye, I heard you, sweetheart, but them’s too rich for you at present – you’ll only get indigestion. You eat what I’ve given you.’ I started to get up – he was right, but I did enjoy devilled kidneys – and felt a large hand come down on my shoulder. ‘No, lass.’ I sank back into the chair. Opposite me Eileen Fox looked astounded.

  I told him, ‘You’re a bully, Ben Holden.’

  ‘Aye, happen I am – and happen you need a bit of bullying sometimes.’ I felt his fingers move from my shoulder and begin to stroke the nape of my neck; turning my head I pressed my cheek against his warm hand – then I picked up my knife and fork and began to eat the scrambled eggs. He carefully carved two wafer- thin slices of kidney from those on his own plate and transferred them to mine. Slowly I ate his gift, savouring the strong, spicy flavour. As I reached for my cup I saw Eileen Fox watching me, her mouth pinched; then, turning to my cousin, she began to flirt with him, in her carefully tuned voice. Conan answered her politely, but his mind was obviously elsewhere.

  I remembered how once, long ago, I had envied Eileen’s quick wit and vivid presence; now she was pale under her rouge – poor Eileen, with a husband to be hoodwinked and a lover to be placated – I did not envy her any more. I felt Ben’s warm thigh press mine under the table, while his son kicked me hard so that I jumped a little in my chair – and my husband smiled at me in quick understanding.

  Papa wiped his mouth with his napkin and tossed it down beside his plate. ‘Do you fancy coming out to the butts this morning, Holden – try your hand at the partridges? I can fix you up with a gun.’

  Ben looked pleased. ‘Yes, I’d like that my lord – thanks.’

  I said quickly, ‘Didn’t you have enough shooting in the war?’

  ‘This is different – birds don’t shoot back!’ He winked at Conan and they both laughed. ‘Don’t you fret, sweetheart, I’ll not stay out all day. You put your feet up this morning and have a rest then I’ll be back at mi
dday to share a bite with you – and you can play me some songs this afternoon.’

  Soon after, he kissed me goodbye and left with the men; I wandered through to the music room and began to leaf through my old music. Alice came in while I was sitting with a couple of scores in front of the crackling fire and I smiled up at her. She drew up a chair opposite me, lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, watching me in silence for a few minutes; then she asked. ‘What are you looking for, Helena – love songs?’ I glanced at her in surprise as she continued, ‘I was wrong, wasn’t I? It wasn’t once in a lifetime for you, it’s happened a second time – you’re in love again.’

  I stared at her: whatever was she implying? Then I guessed what she meant and retorted defensively, ‘Conan and I are just cousins!’

  Her eyebrows arched in amazement, then she burst out laughing. ‘Oh Helena, you are priceless – of course you’re not in love with Conan, you never have been. It’s Ben Holden you’ve fallen in love with – your own husband!’

  ‘But – but I had to marry him – because…’ My voice trailed away, I was totally confused – Ben was just – Ben.

  ‘Silly little Helena! You should have seen your face yesterday, when you ran to him like that – the whole room was stunned into silence. I’ve never seen anything like it – and in your condition, too! You may have glowed like a candle with Gerald but with him you blaze up like one of those naphtha flares. You look as if you’d scorch anyone who came near you – except Ben of course – with him it’s all big soft eyes and lying on his shoulder.’ She stubbed out her cigarette, almost angrily. ‘You’ve been lucky, Helena – bloody lucky.’ She sprang to her feet and walked out. I sat on by the fire, shaking. I remembered Ben telling me so many times: ‘I love you, Helena, I love you’. But I had never said it to him, and suddenly it was very important that I should do so – I must go to him, say it to him – now.

 

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