Authors: Jane Feather
Bryony gasped at this betrayal—no, this rejection. He could not bear to have her near in his moment of trial. Her father stopped, stared, his expression livid. “What the devil are you thinking of, girl? Get back to the house!”
“But, Papa—” she began, taking a step forward.
“If you cannot take charge of your daughter, Paget, I will,” Ben interrupted in glacial accents, moving toward her with a lithe, springing step that declared his purpose. Bryony swung on her heel and left, her heart hammering with mingled fright and fury. That was the second time in twenty-four hours that Ben had banished her from a situation that touched her to her core, and she didn’t know whether he had done so because he wished to protect her or because she would be in his way.
Gathering up her skirt, she ran round the path to the far side of the green, where she knew the shrubs had been thinned by old Matt in the hopes that they would grow back stronger and fuller. As she had hoped, it was an easy matter to part the leafy branches, providing her with a bird’s-eye view of events on the green below. How could Ben possibly imagine that she would be able to survive the waiting, minding her own business in the house, pretending like the other women that nothing was happening on the bowling green? Pretending—until someone brought them the news of one man’s death. He was either insensitive beyond belief or unutterably selfish. Or maybe afraid that her presence might detract from his concentration …? If that was it, then she had
been the selfish, insensitive one, but there would be time enough later for apologies and explanations. Dear God, there would be, wouldn’t there? Please! Prayers were tumbling from her lips, apposite or not, she did not care. Her hands were clutched together so tightly that they went numb, but Bryony noticed nothing, her eyes riveted on the play being acted out before her on the green stage in the soft cool of early morning.
The two duelists, having saluted each other with impeccable formality, were taking the pistols from the seconds, holding them with muzzles pointed to the ground as they stood back to back. The seconds had retreated to eight paces, and the tableau was for an instant frozen. Then Sir Edward’s voice called, “Twenty-five paces, gentlemen.” Bryony felt sick with near-unbearable tension as Ben and Martin paced with slow deliberation, each step counted by her father. At twelve and a half, they stopped, still with their backs to each other.
“Turn.” Paget held up a white handkerchief, which hung inert in the still air. The two men turned, standing sideways to minimize the target area. “All’s ready.” So slowly that Bryony thought she would pass out from the agony of suspense, they raised the pistols, taking aim. The white handkerchief fluttered suddenly, and two shots rang out, one a bare fraction of a second after the other.
To Bryony’s wild imagining, an eternity passed and nothing happened. Then Roger Martin seemed to crumple, a black shape etched on the grass. Benedict remained on his feet, and Bryony began to shake violently and uncontrollably, her teeth chattering so loudly that she was sure they could hear her. She sank down onto the grass, burying her head in her knees as wave after
wave of dizziness washed through her, leaving her too weak to move.
The doctor bent over the fallen man, one finger at the carotid artery in the neck. He straightened slowly, shaking his head. “He does not need my services, Sir Edward.” He glanced at Benedict, who still had not moved. Blood dripped from his arm, but he made no attempt to stanch it, just stood, a faraway look in his eyes that brought the doctor over to him in a few quick steps. “You were hit, Mr. Clare?”
Ben shook himself free of his reverie and glanced down at his forearm. “A nick only.” He pushed the torn sleeve up to his elbow.
Sir Edward came over, his hand outstretched. “A fine, clean shot, Clare.” It was the quiet acknowledgment that Ben had avoided inflicting the true horror of the dueling ground—the agonizing, fatal wound that would bring a lingering death. They had all seen what happened to gut-shot men.
Hands were shaken, little further was said. The physician bound the flesh wound, and Ben, with a word of excuse, walked away to the guesthouse.
Now that it was over, he was conscious of nothing but a creeping numbness that blotted out all emotion. There was no pleasure, no satisfaction, just the sense of an overdue task accomplished, a debt called in. He had imagined feeling relief, relief from the burden of bitterness once the score had been settled, yet the bitterness was still there, no longer directed at the specific individual but at all those who made the inhuman exploitation of their fellow man possible, at those who believed championing the exploited was treason. Every man in this house would have sentenced Benedict Clare to a
traitor’s fate had they been on the bench in Ireland, for all that they had shrunk in horror from the accusations of Roger Martin. They had not been able to believe such a tale. But had the duel gone the other way, had he been disabled, they would have strung him to the nearest tree and lashed him to within an inch of his life without compunction, believing it their duty.
He was packing his belongings as these thoughts tossed in his head. He had not made a conscious decision to leave but knew, as his hands performed the task they had begun without instruction, that he must go at once. He now had his excuse for a breathing space before joining up with Ferguson’s Tories. A man who has just killed another in a duel is entitled to some privacy. By the time they wondered why he had not reappeared, he would be well on his way to General Gates. And Bryony …
No, he could not think of her. To do so would cloud the real issues. He had a war to fight. She belonged here, in this sheltered, privileged world where bondsmen kept to their assigned places; here, protected by her father’s love and all that was safe and familiar to her. She did not belong with an escaped convict, opposed to everything she held dear—prepared to fight to the death for his beliefs.
But he owed her an explanation, a farewell, at least. Ben folded a shirt with extreme care, his movements suddenly slowed. He could not face her. It was as simple as that. She had saved his life with that quicksilver intervention when he had been standing, defenseless, terror-struck, looking into the future that would be his. She knew of his servitude. Could she guess at the humiliations he had accepted, the degradations he had learned to endure without a murmur of protest? She had observed
the conditions of servitude, had grown up with it as an intrinsic part of her life. Of course she knew what it would have done to him. And he could not bear the thought that she knew.
The bag was packed. His horse was in the stable. He had only to make his farewells, and those he could make discreetly to Sir Edward, with a word for Ferguson and Dawson. There would be no need to venture near the drawing room, where the women would be congregated, whispering well out of earshot of their menfolk, who would be dealing with the unpleasant business of a dead body and messages that must be taken to the Martin plantation in Georgia. Bryony would be keeping out of the way, presumably. Sir Edward had made no attempt to hide his fury at her shocking and embarrassing presence on the scene, and Ben’s angry reaction had been considered perfectly appropriate under the circumstances. It was much better this way. A clean break, a clean death—as clean as he had given Martin.
Picking up his bag, Benedict left the guesthouse and went to the stable to order his horse.
ow dared you do such a thing?” Sir Edward spoke to his daughter with a cold ferocity to which neither of them was accustomed. “Such arrant interference! Never have I been so shamed!”
They were in his small study at the front of the house, with no witnesses to the confrontation. Bryony kept her eyes on the floor. The only excuse she had was not one she could use: I love Benedict Clare; we are lovers; there is no life for me without him. All quite valid reasons for needing to witness the moment when that man faced death. Even though the man in question had not himself accepted them.
The angry words broke over her head until, defeated by her lack of response, Sir Edward fell silent.
“I am sorry, Papa. It was thoughtless and I cannot imagine what led me to do such a thing,” she said in a wooden voice, still not lifting her eyes.
Paget looked at the bent head in sudden confusion. This was not the daughter he knew. “What’s to be done
about young Cullum?” he asked gruffly, as if the previous few minutes had never taken place.
Bryony raised her head, accepting the change of subject without faltering. “He must do what he believes is right. I’ll not stand in his way.”
“No, of course not.” He picked up a letter opener from the tooled leather desktop and tapped it against the palm of his hand. “Every able-bodied young man is needed for this final effort. But it will mean further delay of the wedding.” He did not add that the postponement could prove terminal.
“Yes,” Bryony agreed quietly.
“Why do you not wish to marry him, child? There is no hostility between you, you cannot pretend that.”
Bryony sighed. “I don’t love him. I am deeply fond of him, but we do not love each other.”
“Love,” her father pronounced, “is not a factor in marriage. You have liking already. Attachment will grow from that as you share the joys and sorrows of marriage. Marriage is a duty. If you wish for more, you will only store up unhappiness for yourself.” It was said with a degree of sympathy, but Bryony was aware that sympathy was all she would receive. Anyway, the matter was already settled, although her father did not yet know it.
“Major Ferguson will be leaving with his new recruits within the next few days?” she asked reasonably, following the same subject but with a change of tack designed to indicate her acceptance of her father’s statement. She also needed to know, since Benedict seemed disinclined to share his plans with her, what he had said to the others.
“He will leave the day after tomorrow,” her father informed her casually. “Francis will go with him to join his
troop quartered near Gloucester. I understand that Mr. Clare will meet up with them there.”
Her heart began that painful hammering again. “Has Mr. Clare left, then?”
“He had business of his own to attend to,” Sir Edward said briefly. “It is only to be expected under the circumstances. He left an hour since.”
Without a word! He had walked away from her without a word. It defied belief. It certainly defied understanding. However, Bryony found to her amazement that she was relatively unperturbed by the information. Ben was always doing things that she didn’t understand, and he always had his own complicated reasons for them—reasons that she didn’t necessarily have to accept. It was now quite clear that she was just going to have to take matters into her own hands. There was no possibility of pulling the coals out of this fire in any conventional fashion, as she had hoped. She could hardly seek her father’s blessing on the union when the prospective bridegroom was so reluctant that he had absented himself. It was clearly a case of the mountain having to go to Mohammed.
Bryony left the study and went in search of Francis. She didn’t know why she should be so certain that Benedict had gone to the cabin in the clearing, but somehow she knew that in the peace of the backwoods, performing the elemental tasks of survival, Ben would heal himself, put the duel into perspective and then behind him, and gather strength for the next move in the game he played. And he was not going to make that next move without her!
She ran Francis to earth in the library perusing the
He looked up and she gestured with
her head toward the open terrace door. He gave a near-imperceptible nod and returned to the paper. Bryony wandered out onto the terrace and strolled in the direction of the thicket.
“Your talent for the clandestine improves hourly,” Francis said when he joined her a minute or two later. “Why could you not simply suggest we take a walk in the garden?”
“I don’t know,” Bryony returned with a smile. “Secrecy becomes a habit. I need your help, my friend.”
Francis stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Tell me in what way before I make any rash promises.”
Bryony couldn’t help chuckling at this caution, which she had to admit was justified. “Benedict has left.”
“Without you,” Francis agreed. “I had noticed.”
“Yes, and I do not know why. Probably because of some absurd scruple about—” She stopped herself just in time. About having been a bondsman, she had been about to say. She was now quite convinced that that had been behind his earlier insistence on the impossibility of their having a shared future—the fact about himself that he had said she could not know. “About the duel,” she resumed as smoothly as possible. “So I must go to him.”
“I suppose I expected it.” Francis sighed. “You will have it out in the open, then? No excuses, no frills to obscure the hard facts?”
“There seems no other way.” She brushed her hair away from her face and looked him in the eye. “I will leave a letter for my father, telling him the truth. You will be relieved of your obligation then. There will be no need to go to war.”