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Balogh / THE ESCAPE
The hour was approaching midnight, but no one was making any move to retire to bed.
“You are going to find it mighty peaceful around here after we have all left, George,” Ralph Stockwood, Earl of Berwick, remarked.
“It will be quiet, certainly.” The Duke of Stanbrook looked about the circle of six guests gathered in the drawing room at Penderris Hall, his country home in Cornwall, and his eyes paused fondly on each of them in turn before moving on. “Yes, and peaceful too, Ralph. But I am going to miss you all damnably.”
“You will be c-counting your blessings, George,” said Flavian Arnott, Viscount Ponsonby, “as soon as you realize you will not have to listen to Vince scraping away on his v-violin for another whole year.”
“Or the cats howling in ecstasy along with the music it creates,” Vincent Hunt, Viscount Darleigh, added. “You might as well mention that too, Flave. There is no need to consider my sensibilities.”
“You play with a great deal more competence than you did last year, Vincent,” Imogen Hayes, Lady Barclay, assured him. “By next year I do not doubt you will have improved even further. You are a marvel and an inspiration to us all.”
“I may even dance to one of your tunes one of these days, provided it is not too sprightly, Vince.” Sir Benedict Harper looked ruefully at the two canes propped against the arm of his chair.
“You are not by any chance harboring a hope that we will all decide to stay a year or two longer in- stead of leaving tomorrow, George?” Hugo Emes, Lord Trentham, asked, sounding almost wistful. “I have never known three weeks to pass by so quickly. We arrived here, we blinked, and now it is time to go our separate ways again.”
“George is far too p-polite to say a bald no, Hugo,” Flavian told him. “But life calls us hence, alas.”
They were feeling somewhat maudlin, the seven of them, the members of the self-styled Survivors’ Club. Once, they had all spent several years here at Penderris, recuperating from wounds sustained during the Napoleonic Wars. Although each had had to fight a lone battle toward recovery, they had also aided and supported one another and grown as close as any brothers—and sister. When the time had come for them to leave, to make new lives for themselves or to retrieve the old, they had gone with mingled eagerness and trepidation. Life was for living, they had all agreed, yet the cocoon in which they had been wrapped for so long had kept them safe and even happy. They had decided that they would return to Cornwall for a few weeks each year to keep alive their friendship, to share their experiences of life beyond the familiar confines of Penderris, and to help with any difficulty that may have arisen for one or more of them.
This had been the third such gathering. But now it was over for another year, or would be on the morrow.
Hugo got to his feet and stretched, expanding his already impressive girth, none of which owed anything to fat. He was the tallest and broadest of them, and the most fierce-looking, with his close-cropped hair and frequent frown.
“The devil of it is that I do not want to put an end to any of this,” he said. “But if I am to make an early start in the morning, then I had better get to bed.”
It was the signal for them all to rise. Most had lengthy journeys to make and hoped for an early departure.
Sir Benedict was the slowest to get to his feet. He had to gather his canes to his sides, slip his arms through the straps he had contrived, and haul himself painstakingly upward. Any of the others would have been glad to offer a helping hand, of course, but they knew better than to do so. They were all fiercely independent despite their various disabilities. Vincent, for example, would leave the room and climb the stairs to his own chamber unassisted despite the fact that he was blind. On the other hand, they would all wait for their slower friend and match their steps to his as they climbed the stairs.
“P-pretty soon, Ben,” Flavian said, “you are going to be able to do that in under a minute.”
“Better than two, as it was last year,” Ralph said. “That really was a bit of a yawn, Ben.”
They would not resist the urge to jab at him and tease him—except, perhaps, Imogen.
“Even two is remarkable for someone who was once told he must have both legs amputated if his life was to be saved,” she said.
“You are depressed, Ben.” Hugo paused midstretch to make the observation.
Benedict shot him a glance. “Just tired. It is late, and we are at the wrong end of our three-week stay. I always hate goodbyes.”
“No,” Imogen said, “it is more than that, Ben. Hugo is not the only one to have noticed. We all have, but it has never come up during our nightly sessions.”
They had sat up late most nights during the past three weeks, as they did each year, sharing some of their deeper concerns and insecurities—and triumphs. They kept few secrets from one another. There were always some, of course. One’s soul could never be laid quite bare to another person, no matter how close a friend. Ben had held his own soul close this year. He had been depressed. He still was. He felt chagrined, though, that he had not hidden his mood better.
“Perhaps we are intruding where no help or sympathy is wanted,” the duke said. “Are we, Benedict? Or shall we sit back down and discuss it?”
“After I have just made the herculean effort to get up? And when everyone is about to totter off to bed in order to look fresh and beautiful in the morning?” Ben laughed, but no one else shared his amusement.
“You are depressed, Ben,” Vincent said. “Even I have noticed.”
The others all sat again, and Ben, with a sigh, resumed his own seat. He had so nearly got away with it.
“No one likes to be a whiner,” he told them. “Whiners are dead bores.”
“Agreed.” George smiled. “But you have never been a whiner, Benedict. None of us has. The rest of us would not have put up with it. Admitting problems, asking for help or even just for a friendly ear, is not whining. It is merely drawing upon the collective sympathies of people who know almost exactly what you are going through. Your legs are paining you, are they?”
“I never resent a bit of pain,” Ben said without denying it. “At least it reminds me that I still have my legs.”
George had not himself fought in the wars, though he had once been a military officer. His only son had fought, though, and had died in Portugal. His wife, the boy’s mother, perhaps overcome with grief, flung herself to her death from the cliffs at the edge of the estate not long after. When he had opened his home to the six of them, as well as to others, George had been as wounded as any of them. He probably still was.
“I will walk. I do walk after a fashion. And I will dance one day.” Ben smiled ruefully. That had always been his boast, and the others often teased him about it.
No one teased now.
“But—?” It was Hugo this time.
“But I will never do either as I once did,” Ben said. “I suppose I have known it for a long time. I would be a fool not to have done so. But it has taken me six years to face up to the fact that I will never walk more than a few steps without my canes—plural—and that I will never move more than haltingly with them. I will never get my life back as it was. I will always be a cripple.”
“A harsh word, that,” Ralph said with a frown. “And a bit defeatist?”
“It is the simple truth,” Ben said firmly. “It is time to accept reality.”
The duke rested his elbows on the arms of his chair and steepled his fingers. “And accepting reality involves giving up and calling yourself a cripple?” he said. “You would never have got up off your bed, Benedict, if you had done that from the start. Indeed, you would have agreed to allow the army sawbones to relieve you of your legs altogether.”
“Admitting the truth does not mean giving up,” Ben told him. “But it does mean assessing reality and adjusting my life accordingly. I was a career military officer and never envisaged any other life for myself. I did not want any other life. I was going to end up a general. I have lived and toiled for the day when I could have that old life back. It is not going to happen, though. It never was. It is time I admitted it openly and dealt with it.”
“You cannot be happy with a life outside the army?” Imogen asked.
“Oh, I can be,” Ben assured her. “Of course I can. And will. It is just that I have spent six years denying real- ity, with the result that at this late date I still have no idea what the future does hold for me. Or what I want of the future. I have wasted those years yearning for a past that is long gone and will never return. You see? I am whining, and you could all be sleeping peacefully in your beds by now.”
“I would r-rather be here,” Flavian said. “If one of us ever goes away from here unhappy because he c-couldn’t bring himself to confide in the rest of us, then we m-might as well stop coming. George lives at the back of beyond here in Cornwall, after all. Who would want to c-come just for the scenery?”
“He is right, Ben.” Vincent grinned. “I would not come for the scenery.”
“You are not going home when you leave here, Ben,” George said. It was a statement, not a question.
“Beatrice—my sister—needs company,” Ben explained with a shrug. “She had a lingering chill through the winter and is only now getting her strength back with the spring. She does not feel up to moving to London when Gramley goes up after Easter for the opening of the parliamentary session. And her boys will be away at school.”
“The Countess of Gramley is fortunate to have such an agreeable brother,” the duke said.
“We were always particularly fond of each other,” Ben told him.
But he had not answered George’s implied question. And since the answer was a large part of the depression his friends had noticed, he felt obliged to give it. Flavian was right. If they could not share themselves with one another here, their friendship and these gatherings would lose meaning.
“Whenever I go home to Kenelston,” he said, “Calvin is unwilling to let me to do anything. He does not want me to set foot in the study or talk to my estate agent or visit any of my farms. He insists upon doing everything that needs to be done himself. His manner is always cheerful and hearty. It is as if he believes my brain has been rendered as crooked as my legs. And Julia, my sister-in-law, fusses over me, even to the point of clearing a path before me whenever I emerge from my own apartments. The children are allowed the run of the house, you see, and run they do, strewing objects as they go. She has my meals served in my private apartments so that I will not have to exert myself to go down to the dining room. She—they both go a fair way, in fact, toward smothering me with kindness until I leave again.”
“Ah,” George said. “Now we get to the heart of the matter.”
“They really do fear me,” Ben said. “They fairly pulsate with anxiety every moment I am there.”
“I daresay your younger brother and his wife grew accustomed to thinking of your home as their own during the years you were here as a patient and then as a convalescent,” George said. “But you left here three years ago, Benedict.”
Why had he not at that time taken possession of his own home and somehow forced his brother to make other provisions for his own family? That was the implied question. The trouble was, Ben did not have an answer, other than procrastination. Or out-and-out cowardice. Or—something else.
He sighed. “Families are complex.”
“They are,” Vincent agreed with fervor. “I feel for you, Ben.”
“My elder brother and Calvin were always very close,” Ben explained. “It was almost as if I, tucked in the middle, did not exist. Not that there was any hostility, just . . . indifference. I was their brother and they were mine, and that was that. Wallace was only ever interested in a future in politics and government. He lived in London, both before and after our father’s death. When he succeeded to the baronetcy, he made it very clear that he was not in any way interested in either living at Kenelston or running the estate. Since Calvin was interested in both, and since he also married early and started a family, the two of them came to an arrangement that brought them mutual satisfaction. Calvin would live in the house and administer the estate for a consideration, and Wallace would pay the bills and draw on the proceeds but not have to bother his head about running any of it. Calvin did not expect—none of us did—that a loaded cart would topple onto Wallace near Covent Garden and kill him outright. It was too bizarre. That happened just a short while before I was wounded. I was not expected to survive either. Even after I was brought back to England and then here, I was not expected to live. You did not expect it, George, did you?”
“On the contrary,” the duke said. “I looked into your eyes the day you were brought here, Benedict, and knew you were too stubborn to die. I almost regretted it. I have never seen anyone suffer more pain than you. Your younger brother assumed, then, that the title and fortune and Kenelston itself would soon be entirely his?”
“It must have been a severe blow to him,” Ben said with a rueful smile, “when I lived. I am sure he has never forgiven me, though that makes him sound malicious, and really he is not. When I am away from home, he can carry on as he has since our father died. When I am there, he no doubt feels threatened—and with good reason. Everything is mine by law, after all. And if Kenelston is not to be my home, where will be?”
That was the question that had been plaguing him for three years.
“My home is full of female relatives who love me to distraction,” Vincent said. “They would breathe for me if they could. They do everything else—or so it seems. And soon—I have already heard the rumblings of it—they are going to be forcing potential brides on me because a blind man must need a wife to hold his hand through all the dark years that remain to him. My situ- ation is a little different from yours, Ben, but there are similarities. One of these days I am going to have to put my foot down and become master of my own house. But how to do it is the problem. How do you talk firmly to people you love?”
Ben sighed and then chuckled. “You are exactly right, Vince,” he said. “Perhaps you and I are just a couple of dithering weaklings. But Calvin has a wife and four children to provide for, while I have no one besides myself. And he is my brother. I do care for him, even if we were never close. It was a sheer accident of birth that made him the third-born son and me the second.”
“You feel g-guilty for having inherited the baronetcy, Ben?” Flavian asked.
“I never expected it, you see,” Ben explained. “There was no one more robust or full of life than Wallace. Besides, I never wanted to be anything but a military officer. I certainly never expected Kenelston to be mine. But it is, and I sometimes think that if I could simply go there and immerse myself in running the estate, perhaps I would finally feel settled and would proceed to live happily ever after.”
“But your home is occupied by other people,” Hugo said. “I would go in there for you if you wanted, Ben, and clear them all out. I would scowl and look tough, and they would toddle off without so much as a squeal of protest. But that is not the point, is it?”
Ben joined in the general laughter.
“Life was simple in the army,” he said. “Brute force solved all problems.”
“Until Hugo w-went out of his head,” Flavian said, “and Vince lost his sight and every b-bone in your legs got crushed, Ben, not to mention most of the bones in the rest of your body too. And Ralph had all his friends wiped off the m-map and his pretty looks ruined when someone slashed his face, and Imogen was forced to make a d-decision no one ought ever to have to make and live with her choice f-forever after, and George lost everything that was dear to him even without leaving Penderris. And half the w-words I want to speak get stuck on the way out of my mouth as though something in my brain needs a d-dab of oil.”
“Right,” Ben said. “War is not the answer. Life only seemed simpler in those days. But I am keeping you all from your beauty rest. You will all be wishing me to Hades. I am sorry, I did not mean to unburden myself of all these petty problems.”
“You did so because we invited you to, Benedict,” Imogen reminded him, “and because this is precisely why we gather here every year. Unfortunately, we have not been able to offer you any solutions, have we? Except for Hugo’s offer to remove your brother and his family from your home by force—which fortunately was not a serious suggestion.”
“It never matters, though, Imogen, does it?” Ralph said. “No one can ever solve anyone else’s problems. But it always helps just to unburden oneself to listeners who really listen and know that glib answers are worthless.”
“You are depressed, then, Benedict,” the duke said. “Partly because you have accepted the permanent nature of the limitations of your own body but do not yet know where this acceptance will lead you, and partly because you have not yet accepted that you are no longer the middle brother of three but the elder of two, with certain decisions to make that you never expected. I do not fear that you will despair. It is not in your nature. I believe my ears are still ringing from the curse words you used to bellow out when the pain threatened to get past your endurance in the early days. You could have achieved the peace of death then, if you had only had the good sense to despair. You have only upward to go, then. You have, perhaps, rested upon a plateau overlong. Moving off it can be a frightening thing. It can also be an exciting challenge.”
“Have you been rehearsing that speech all d-day, George?” Flavian asked. “I feel we ought to stand and applaud.”
“It was quite spontaneous, I assure you,” the duke said. “But I am rather pleased with it. I had not realized I was so wise. Or so eloquent. It must be time for bed.” He laughed with the rest of them.
Ben positioned his canes and went through the slow rigmarole of getting to his feet again while everyone else stood.
Nothing had changed in the last hour, he thought as he made his slow way upstairs to his bedchamber, Flavian at his side, the others a little ahead of them. Nothing had been solved. But somehow he felt more cheerful—or perhaps merely more hopeful. Now that he had said it aloud—that his disabilities were permanent and he must carve out a wholly new life for himself—he felt more able to do something, to create a new and meaningful future, even if he had no idea yet what it would be.
But at least the immediate future was taken care of and did not involve one of those increasingly awkward and depressing visits to his own home. He would start out for County Durham in the north of England tomorrow and stay for a while with his sister. He looked forward to it. Beatrice, five years his senior, had always been his favorite sibling. While there with her, he would give some serious thought to what he was going to do with the rest of his life.
He would make some plans, some decisions. Something definite and interesting and challenging. Something to lift him out of the depression that had hung over him like a gray cloud for far too long.
There would be no more drifting.
There was really something rather exhilarating about the thought that the rest of his life was his for the making.