"And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountain green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark satanic mills?" - William Blake
"I am afraid, my dear, you will find Killerton quite a change of pace after Sunston's sedate ways." The former-parson Lawson Tooker offered his pretty young ward, Rey, an apologetic smile.
"I should imagine I will soon get used to it," the young woman replied, smiling and squeezing his hand. She knew he'd been uneasy about taking her so far from the place she'd come to know and love as her home. But she'd known hardship before and of a much worse kind. "Have you forgotten where you found me?" She knew well that he hadn't nor ever would.
Her adopted father nodded thoughtfully as he slipped into silent reverie.
Abandoned to the London streets as a young child, Rey ended up scratching a living as a mudlark. Uriah Plutt had found her begging for scraps and set her to work for him. Happy to reap the rewards from the youngsters he sent to toil in the dirt, he did nothing to prevent them from an early grave. Plutt and the thugs he kept company had helped more than a few people towards a watery end - if the rumours were to be believed. However, the compassion of a local clergyman had saved Rey from a harsh life of scavenging along the mud banks of the River Thames for a cruel master.
Reverend Tooker often took a walk along the riverside when making a social call to a friend of his, Admiral Ackbar, a retired naval commander who lived in the city. He'd often wished to do more for the poor wretches he saw sifting through the mud than throwing them the odd silver coin. The fated meeting leading to Rey's salvation occurred under unexpected circumstances. After taking tea with his old friend, Reverend Tooker had proceeded along the river to where he usually hired a carriage to take him home. He found, upon going to check the time, his pocket watch no longer hung from its chain. Sure he'd still been in possession of it when seated in his friend's parlour, and when he left the house, the reverend knew not at which point during his walk alongside the Thames it had gone astray. All thoughts of retracing his steps were abandoned when it began to rain. A few days later, he approached Uriah Plutt to see if any of his mudlarks had found his watch. Well practised in spotting guilty looks on the faces of his parishioners, the reverend noted the evasiveness of one of the plump master's ragamuffins when ordered to present her hoard. The child, a girl of around twelve years of age, was as thin as a rail and had long brown hair tied back in three messy buns. As he walked away empty handed, Reverend Tooker resigned himself to the fact that if the girl had found his watch, she'd decided not to declare it. Her need was greater than his, he reminded himself. He hoped God would forgive her for her dishonesty and resolved to pray for her soul. However, he'd not gone far when he heard light footsteps chasing after him. He turned around to find the girl with her grimy hand outstretched and his silver pocket watch resting on her palm. "Plutt would make you pay through the nose to get your own property back and it wouldn't be right," she'd said smiling. The reverend had been so touched, especially when she asked for nothing in return, he could think of little else that day. After talking the matter over with his wife, Honoria, they agreed to offer the girl a place in their home. The good lord had not blessed them with children and, although they had long passed the age of hoping for such blessings, the empty space in their hearts had never quite been filled.
Reverend Tooker returned to the river bank early the next morning. He found the girl battered, bruised and half-starved. Uriah Plutt had been spying from a distance when she'd given the parson his watch back. Her punishment of a beating and the withholding of her meagre daily food rations had left her pale and weak. After recommending Plutt for God's harshest judgements, Reverend Tooker asked the girl her name and promised her a place in his home for as long as she should need it. Rey couldn't remember her last name and she wasn't completely sure about her first one, but she'd known no other. Sometimes, she heard a man's voice speaking to her in her dreams. She fancied he was her father and he would call her his little ray of sunshine. He promised he would come back for her, one day. Her memories of early childhood had been lost to the mists of time, and all that remained were fragments which could not be put together into any recognisable order. The Tookers were convinced Rey had too noble a bearing to have come from the slums. Her parents or guardians may have fallen on hard times but might wish to reclaim her if their circumstances had changed. Notices had been put out in other parishes, appealing for any known relations to come forward. But as the years rolled by, none did. If Rey had ever been called by another name in another place, they never uncovered it. Reverend Tooker eventually entered her into the parish records under his name, baptising her and officially making her his ward. The Tookers had become as dear to her as any birth parents could be and she to them as if she were their own blood.
The train carriage rocked steadily along the track taking them closer to their new home. Ominous grey clouds gathered in the skies above, and although Rey remained determined to embrace the change, she couldn't stop an air of wistfulness for the blue skies they'd left behind from overtaking her. The fresh blooms of summer had given way to autumn's golden decline in Sunston but the days were still warm and mellow. Darkshire's moorlands had rugged beauty and mystery, she couldn't deny, even if the weather appeared to be less than welcoming. Raindrops started to pitter-patter against the window as the smoking stacks of Killerton came into view.
Mr. Tooker noted her melancholy expression with concern. "You do understand why we had to leave the south don't you, my dear?"
"Yes, father and all will be well, I'm sure," Rey forced a smile sorry to have added to his worries.
The former reverend had broken with the church but not with all of its teachings. "Things will never be as they were before but I hope we may find contentment in our new home."
After the recent death of his wife of over thirty years and the resulting crisis in his faith, Mr. Tooker felt he could no longer, in all good conscience, continue in his living as a village parson. A former student, who had become an old friend from his college lecturing days, had written suggesting a change of scene could be just the thing. Uprooting at his time of life didn't seem sensible at first but then he thought it might do him good. Mr. Skywalker had promised to put the word around regarding his intention to offer private tutoring. Money wasn't a pressing concern but his annual allowance would go further in the north than in London. Mr. Tooker also had to think of the possible advantages to his young ward, she would have no one to care for her after his passing. Between them, they estimated her age to be nineteen or twenty years. Making a good marriage would be an ideal solution to the problem, but Sunston had nothing to offer in the way of eligible bachelors. Killerton, with its enterprising men, had to be a fair prospect for a pretty young woman to find a suitable husband. It might not have been her design in moving there, but Mr. Tooker hoped to see her well settled before he succumbed to old age and infirmity.
The train chugged slowly into the station at sunset. Blazing gas lamps lit their way and a porter was engaged in unloading their baggage.
"My friend, Mr. Skywalker, promised to send a carriage for us," the former reverend said as he looked around the bustling platform.
A man of around thirty with a cloth cap pulled snugly over wavy brown hair jostled his way through the crowd. "Might you be Mr. Tooker?" He inquired his lips curved in a good-natured smile, "And Miss Tooker?" The man added with a twinkle in his eye. After introducing himself, Mr. Dameron told them simply to call him Poe as everyone else did. The young man then led them to the waiting carriage. Their belongings were soon loaded on board and they were ready to proceed to their lodgings. Rooms had been found for them with an aged widow by the name of Mrs. Kanata.
Rey blushed as Poe handed her into the carriage with a wink. She wasn't accustomed to the attentions of handsome young men. The males they'd left behind in Sunston belonged mostly to two camps; those closest to the cradle or nearest to the grave. None who could earn a better living in the city stayed past the age of schooling. There were a few farmhands in their teens and twenties but their paths seldom crossed with Rey's. In Killerton, she had already spied a dozen or so young men going about their business, and it seemed everyone was in a rush to get somewhere. She tried to take in as many of the local sights as she could as they proceeded down the main thoroughfare. The barrows in the market square had been emptied for the night and the wares packed away. A few unscrupulous traders remained selling off spoiled goods to those who could afford no better. With the daylight almost faded, Rey decided she would have to undertake a proper exploration of the place the next morning.
Mr. Tooker stifled a yawn; it had been a long day of travelling. He yearned for a hot meal and a comfortable bed. The carriage wheels seemed to hit every cobblestone on the road and his bones ached. "I do hope we will soon arrive at our new home," he sighed and his young ward fretted to see him looking so tired.
After rattling through a procession of narrow streets, the driver turned the horses towards the river. In crossing over the bridge, it brought them to a less populated area with a park and tree dotted hill. At the end of the road, there stood a singular sort of house. It differed in construction from the many grey-bricked buildings they'd passed, in that it looked more like a small castle complete with two pointed turrets. Poe tapped the window of the carriage to signal they had arrived at their destination. Beyond the trees, perched ominously on top of the hill, Rey could see the many-windowed buildings of one of Killerton's cotton mills. The town had four of them in total, as Mr. Skywalker had informed her father in one of his letters. The Skywalker family owned one and had done so for two generations, while the other three were owned by Lord Snoke. He also owned similar businesses and properties in neighbouring towns and villages.
"That'll be Killerton North," Poe said making her start as she didn't realise he'd been stood behind her. "It's the biggest of Lord Snoke's cotton mills. You will be able to see the smokestacks of Killerton East and West when the sun rises. Hope Mills, where I work, is five miles to the south of the river. Mr. Skywalker would like both of you to visit him and his sister for dinner there tomorrow if you're up to it. I'll come with the carriage after six if you've no objections."
Mr. Tooker gave his assent eager to get inside his new lodgings.
A woman, diminutive in height, came out of the odd house to greet them. She wore thick round glasses and her clothing appeared masculine in style. On her head, she wore a colourful scarf which didn't appear to be hiding much in the way of hair. Obviously, Mrs. Kanata was every bit as unconventional as her home. She greeted her new paying guests with friendly gusto ushering them inside to escape the cold evening air. As Poe and the carriage driver unloaded the Tooker's belongings, Mrs. Kanata showed them into the sitting room.
"First things first," she said gesturing that they should make themselves comfortable, "let's have a nice big cup of tea." A large pot had already been brewed and she set about pouring it. "I've got plenty of lamb stew and freshly baked bread when you're ready to take dinner."
The woman might have been as old as the hills but she had a youthful energy about her. Mr. Tooker rallied himself as best as he could to keep up with her mostly one-sided conversation. The tea had revived him a little, although he still longed for his bed. Rey kept the chat going when he wilted and helped Mrs. Kanata to serve up the stew. Poe declined to stay for a bowl, sorely as he was tempted because he had to see the carriage safely returned to Hope Mills. He bid them farewell and reminded them he would call at six the next evening to convey them all to the Skywalker residence. Mrs. Kanata had been included in the party as an old friend of the family. Rey found the old widow to be compassionate and good-natured, if rather direct. She seemed to be well acquainted with the intimate business of her neighbours but there was no malice in her gossip. However, the old woman's questions regarding beaus Rey might have left behind in Sunston made her blush. There would have been no time or opportunity for such dalliances, even if she'd sought them. She had nursed her ailing adopted mother for most of the year until Mrs Tooker's passing. Before and after, her time had been taken up helping out at the parsonage and doing charitable works in the parish.
"I'm sorry, child, I didn't mean to embarrass you," Mrs. Kanata said taking note of her discomfort. "But I am sure a pretty girl, such as you are, won't be short of suitors for long. There are some well set up gentlemen in Killerton and quite a few of them at a ripe age for matrimony. Why Mr. Skywalker's own nephew lives but a short walk up the hill. He'll be almost thirty now and still unwed."
Mr. Tooker had been about to take his leave of them for the night. However, at the mention of Mr. Skywalker's nephew, he shifted uneasily in his armchair and frowned with concern. "As I understand it, the gentleman severed all ties with his family six years ago and is now living under the auspices of Lord Snoke. I visited Killerton the year before Queen Victoria's coronation and I met the boy once or twice. Mr. Skywalker had taken it upon himself to school Master Solo in the ways of business and the world, but he didn't care for his uncle's teachings. He was too much like his late father, as I recall. Anyway, I dare say he won't remember me and I've no wish to renew his acquaintance. We shall have no reason to call on him as I'm sure he will pay us no mind."
Rey understood her father's meaning, he wanted her to have nothing to do with this black sheep. It surprised her somewhat because Mr. Tooker wasn't one to think ill of anybody without good reason. She hadn't heard a word spoken about Mr. Skywalker's nephew before tonight from her father or anyone else. Forbidden fruit always held the strongest temptation, and she couldn't deny the mystery around the man intrigued her.
Mrs. Kanata gave Rey a knowing glance as if she could read her mind. "You will have to take care where you wander, child," she said less as a warning and more for her information. "Mr. Solo can often be seen walking through the park on his way to call on Lord Snoke at Dreadston Hall, which is but a mile from here."
Surely it wouldn't be going against her father's wishes if she were to catch a glimpse of Mr. Solo from afar, Rey mused. She couldn't be expected never to walk in the park when she'd been so used to countryside life. It would merely sate her curiosity to know something of the man, and she need never meet him face to face. What harm could come of it?
"Turn again, O my sweetest,-turn again, false and fleetest:
This beaten way thou beatest, I fear is hell's own track."
"Nay, too steep for hill mounting; nay, too late for cost counting:
This downhill path is easy, but there's no turning back."
― Christina Rossetti
Rey had been at work all morning unpacking her and her father's belongings. There wasn't much as they'd always lived modestly but she felt reassured to be surrounded by familiar keepsakes again. Mrs. Kanata did all she could to put them at ease in their new home and both were grateful for her consideration. Her strange house wasn't particularly spacious, although it stood four stories high, and the rooms were mostly small and narrow. But no one could fault the meticulous housekeeping or the furnishings, which were cheery and comfortable. Mrs. Kanata employed a local girl called Jessie who helped with the housework and brought in fresh flowers. The yellow roses were a welcome sight indeed to her new tenants. Rey found herself picturing the gardens back in Sunston with their colourful flowerbeds and borders. She chided herself for getting wistful again. Those things belonged to the past now, and it wasn't as if she'd always been fortunate enough to know such luxuries. Her time as a mudlark would always haunt her memory; the beatings at the hands of Uriah Plutt and his goons, the gnawing hunger, spending long, cold nights afraid and alone, those were horrors not easily forgotten. But her time in Sunston had afforded her the chance to be part of a family and a community, although Rey still secretly yearned to know from whence she'd sprung. She also wondered if the man whose voice she heard in her dreams would return for her one day, as she felt sure he'd promised to do. After the death of her adopted mother, Rey came to fear being left alone and friendless in the world once again. Mr. Tooker kept in good health for a man in his seventh decade but there could be no holding back the sands of time. She determined she would find some way to survive when the worst happened.
The morning weather had been misty and damp but midday saw the sun finally break through the clouds. Rey wanted to see what Killerton looked like in the daylight and get the measure of the place. Her bedroom window faced out onto the hill and Killerton North Cotton Mill beyond it. She would have had a pleasant enough view were it not obscured by the thick sooty air. It smelled and tasted faintly of the black smoke she saw belching from the tall chimney stacks which towered above the trees. Rey's thoughts returned to the mysterious Mr. Solo. Mrs. Kanata had informed her over breakfast, and out of Mr. Tooker's earshot, that he was the master at Killerton North. Beyond a fanciful notion he might resemble Heathcliff from her recently purchased copy of Wuthering Heights, she didn't know what to make of him. Lord Snoke owned the mill, as he did the ones in the east and west, but being decrepit, he'd entrusted their management to Mr. Solo and another gentleman named Hux. The two smaller mills were under the latter's management, although he kept mostly to Killerton West. Unusually for the times, the day to day operation of Killerton East was mainly overseen by a woman. Mrs. Kanata spoke of Miss Phasma as being both of formidable height and temperament. Rey conjured up images of the three individuals based on how they'd been described to her and became all the more curious about them. Killerton wasn't so large a place that their paths wouldn't cross at some point, despite her father's apparent keenness for her to avoid Mr. Solo. She took a tray of tea and cake to Mr. Tooker, who had settled in the library. He seemed happy enough in his own company and so she decided to take a walk about the town.
When she stepped out of Mrs. Kanata's front door, Rey intended to head for the market square. She thought about buying some fresh seasonal fruits for her father. Perhaps pears would do as they'd had their own row of pear trees in Sunston. But as soon as her gaze fell upon the well-worn path leading into the park, she found she couldn't resist it. The trees were dazzling in their autumn gowns and Rey felt happy to be close to nature again. As she walked, she couldn't help but compare Killerton's hardier varieties of plants and shrubs to the more delicate flora and fauna in Sunston. Every flower and bush seemed to have thorns or spikes and she almost got her foot caught in brambles on a couple of occasions. She supposed the northern climate bred everything tougher, be it plants or people. Rey had softened in her life as a clergyman's daughter and she needed to toughen up again if she intended to thrive in Killerton. But it wasn't the chilly breeze that caused a shudder to pass through her as she glanced through a parting in the trees. The Gothic arches and pointed spires of Dreadston Hall loomed ominously in the distance. A more forbidding house she had never had the misfortune to set eyes on. Mrs. Kanata said Lord Snoke had the appearance of an Egyptian mummy, and so it seemed fitting his house should put her in mind of a mausoleum. She thanked God that, owing to her lowly social standing, she would likely never receive an invitation to the wretched place.
It wasn't a large park, not by the standards of somewhere like the one at Greenwich which she'd visited during a visit to London, and it hadn't been as finely sculptured, but Rey didn't doubt it would become a haven to her living amidst Killerton's soot-stained industrial heartland. She turned in the direction of the nearby mill, its tall stacks spewing their black smoke up into the sky. An area of woodland blocked most of the main buildings from her view and curiosity got the better of her. She knew nothing of the workings of a cotton mill and wanted to take a closer look. Steam engines had always held a fascination for her, and such a place might be her only means of supporting herself once her adopted father succumbed to old age. As Rey made her way along the narrow woodland path, she got lost in her imaginings of what lay beyond. Deep in thought, she completely failed to notice the dark figure approaching her on the path from the opposite direction. The man, his mind also occupied with other matters, strode towards her at a brisk pace. When she happened to glance up, the distance between them had been reduced to a few feet. Shock brought her to a sudden halt as she guessed the likely identity of the man before her. Dressed in black from head to foot, excepting his crisp white shirt collar, and with distinctive good looks, it had to be the mysterious Mr. Solo. He sported a fearsome scowl and appeared to be making no move to deviate from his present course. Rey was forced to take a step to the side to let him pass. He finally noticed her then, too late, as her heel got snagged by a bramble. She let out a yelp as she tumbled to the ground, twisting her ankle at an awkward angle in the process.
"You should pay more mind to where you're going, girl," the tall man scolded as he peered down at her with a sour expression.
His attention hadn't been on the path, either, but he wouldn't apologise. Not to a willful young woman who should have better things to do than impede him in his important business.
Rey glared up at him aghast at his display of ill manners. The pain in her ankle was momentarily forgotten as she issued a fierce rebuke. "If you were a gentleman, I wouldn't have been forced to take such an action. A gentleman would have stepped aside so the lady could pass."
His narrowed brown eyes appraised her and evidently found her lacking. "A lady wouldn't be scampering about in the woods dressed like a housemaid."
Her straw bonnet had gone askew revealing the oddest hairstyle he'd ever seen; three messy buns escaping their hairpins. It certainly wasn't the fashion among ladies of his acquaintance. Her cream floral print dress and knitted shawl had both seen better days.
Rey bristled under his disdainful scrutiny. These weren't the best clothes she owned but she wasn't ashamed of them. With a proud set to her jaw, she attempted to ease herself off the ground using a nearby tree trunk for support. She refused the man's offer of his hand, determined to do it on her own. It took great effort but Rey managed to stand supported by her good leg. To her dismay, her injured ankle proved too tender to bear any weight. She pressed her lips together to stop her cries of pain from escaping upon every attempt to take a step. If the man had been in possession of a walking cane, she would have asked to borrow it. As it was, there didn't appear to be any way for her to get back to Mrs. Kanata's house without assistance. "If you could get a message to my father, I'm sure he will be able to send help," she pleaded, hating having to ask anything of him when Mr. Tooker had been so against her meeting Mr. Solo in the first place, but she could see no other option.
"I haven't time to act as your errand boy," the tall man sneered. Still, the girl had attracted his curiosity. Her hazel eyes were ever changing pools of emotion and he thought he recognised something of himself in them.
Rey curled her lip in anger, hot tears springing forth from the pain and frustration of her situation. "It's not far and it is your fault -" she began but before she could get another word out, he scooped her up into his arms. "Sir, please, put me down this instant. What if someone should see?" Rey shrieked and tried to wriggle from his grasp.
He merely let out a sigh of exasperation holding her aloft as if she weighed nothing at all. "Where do you live, girl?" The man inquired his full lips now alarmingly close to her ear. She didn't have a local accent nor did she sound as if she hailed from anywhere in the north.
"This isn't proper," Rey continued to object as he instructed her to put an arm around his neck.
"Proper or not, I certainly wouldn't be a gentleman if I left you sitting lame among the toadstools," he grumbled. "Now, I hope you were being truthful about your home being but a short distance from here. I have urgent business to attend to and I really don't have the time to be rescuing clumsy housemaids."
She took offence at his assumptions and determined to correct them. "My name is Rey Tooker and I reside with my father at Mrs. Kanata's house on Hill Road. I'm not a housemaid or any other kind of domestic servant for that matter."
He said nothing in reply and continued to stride with haste along the path. For want of an occupation, she found herself studying his distinct profile. She judged his features to be best described as striking. He didn't disappoint in appearing dark and mysterious, like a man with many secrets. If he noticed her staring, he didn't comment on it. His scowl enough to deter her from letting her gaze linger too long and she was glad when they neared the edge of the park. He kept a firm hold on her, meaning his broad chest was pressed up against hers. Rey had never been close enough to a man before that she could feel how his muscles worked under his clothing. He hadn't even broken a sweat from the effort of carrying her.
"My name is Benjamin Solo," he announced all of a sudden as if she hadn't already guessed as much, his deep voice making her start.
"You're the master at Killerton North," she said making him aware she had some knowledge of him. "I should like to see the workings of a cotton mill. I once visited a farm that had a steam-powered thresher. It was quite something to observe it in operation. Steam engines are the wonder of the modern age, are they not?"
The young woman in his arms became more intriguing by the second. She'd appeared before him like a woodland sprite and now she spoke of machinery with more than a passing interest. He had a suspicion he might know her father, or perhaps, grandfather. The name Tooker sounded familiar to him as being the same as an old friend of his uncle's, but he didn't know the gentleman had any family beyond his wife. Reverend Tooker had once visited Killerton and the clergyman made no mention then of a daughter.
In no time at all, they reached the low entrance to Mrs. Kanata's house. The old widow must have seen them approaching because the door sprung open before Rey could knock at it.
"Be so kind as to remove my hat," Mr. Solo requested as he already stood over six feet tall and his hat added almost another foot on top.
Rey tentatively reached up to take it. His near-black hair fell down in thick waves that half covered his prominent ears. She couldn't help but admire its glossy appearance and silky feel as the ends brushed against her fingers. He ducked through the low doorway his head almost brushing the ceiling as Mrs. Kanata led them silently into the sitting room. Depositing Rey carefully on the chaise, he stepped back to a respectable distance. She might have mourned the loss of his strong arms around her had Mr. Tooker not appeared with a look of disappointment on his face.
"What is the meaning of this?" He questioned as he glanced between his adopted daughter and the young man.
"Father, I took a bad step while walking in the park and this gentleman kindly came to my assistance," Rey hastily explained, leaving out the particulars of their encounter.
"Mr. Solo, I presume," the former reverend couldn't mistake him as his appearance wasn't much changed; he wore the same sullen expression now as he did then.
Ben nodded in acknowledgement. "Reverend Tooker, I wasn't aware you'd taken up residence in Killerton, or that you had a daughter."
"I am no longer with the church, sir," the older man said, curtly. "It was at your uncle's suggestion that I came to settle here with my daughter. But as you have cut off all communication with your family, it is small wonder you know nothing of these matters."
Mr. Solo appeared both taken aback and annoyed by his words. Rey frowned; she wasn't accustomed to her father speaking to a guest in such an uncivil manner. The young man had done her a kind service, even if he had been the one largely responsible for her injury in the first place. However, the sharp pain in her ankle and his lack of apology didn't exactly make her feel well disposed towards him. Mrs. Kanata sent Jessie out to fetch the doctor. She made an offer of tea in hopes of breaking the tense atmosphere that had settled over the sitting room. Her remark to Ben about how long it had been since she'd seen him last did nothing to ease the tension. His mother happened to be one of her oldest and dearest friends, and Mrs. Kanata could have said a great deal more about the hurt his six-year estrangement from his family had caused, but she held her tongue. By the way she looked at him, Ben had a good idea of her thoughts and did not care to linger lest she gave voice to them. As he took his leave, Mr. Tooker recovered his manners enough to offer the young man grudging thanks for the safe return of his daughter. Rey began to wish she'd never set eyes on Mr. Solo. Her father had been made uneasy by his presence and she hated that it was all her doing. It had been a foolish endeavour to try and catch sight of the man and no good had come of it. Realising she still had hold of Mr. Solo's hat; she almost threw it at him in her haste to be rid of it.
He took it from her with a scowl at the sudden coldness in her demeanour. "Goodbye, Miss Tooker," he said before giving a curt nod to the others.
"Goodbye, Mr. Solo," and good riddance, she added to herself, her curiosity about the man well and truly sated.
Ben returned to the path he'd been walking before fate interceded. Try as he might, he couldn't banish the girl from his mind. A pair of hazel eyes and a warm sunny smile haunted him every step of the way. Rey; the most captivating and spirited young woman he'd ever met. She wasn't at all like the ladies he regularly encountered at society events. Those women were educated only to catch husbands and designed to be ornamental. With her natural beauty, Rey had none of that froth and nonsense about her. She wore her hair in the oddest style and her clothing had him mistaking her for a maid at first. He wouldn't have found her any less appealing had she been dressed in rags. Ben knew he had to see her again. Her father didn't approve and Mrs. Kanata would be sure to mention the whole affair to his mother and uncle, but he couldn't bring himself to care. However, he would have to be careful not to incur Lord Snoke's disapproval. Ben couldn't afford to lose favour with him. It was his daily visit to Dreadston Hall that had consumed his thoughts and set him on a collision course with Rey in the first place. His interest in her would have to be kept from the old man's notice at all costs.
Just as Margaret Hale and John Thornton's first meeting differed vastly from page to screen (at least in the 2004 TV adaptation), I too have gone in another direction with Rey and Ben. I hope you all like it. Please do let me know and thank you for choosing to read this story. - Mrs. P
"Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favour fire." - Robert Frost
Doctor Lucas pronounced Rey's ankle sprained but not fractured. For the pain, he prescribed an opium tincture and plenty of rest. The patient wasn't much in favour of either. Laudanum made her feel queer, even in small doses. And as for rest, she hated to be idle. With the use of a walking cane, which once belonged to Mrs. Kanata's late husband, Rey found she could manage to cover short distances without too much trouble. Mr. Tooker wanted to cancel their dinner at Hope Mills, but his daughter knew how much he'd been looking forward to it. She assured him she would be fine and that all should proceed as planned. Mrs. Kanata sent a message on ahead of them so their hosts would be properly prepared for their arrival. When six o'clock came around, Poe promptly arrived and helped Rey to the carriage. She did suffer some discomfort but sought to hide it from her father's notice. At regular intervals during their journey, especially if the carriage wheels hit a rough patch of road, Mr. Tooker would glance at her with an expression of concern. Rey managed bright smiles every time to placate him. Once they arrived at Hope Mills, she became absorbed with the new sights around her which stopped her from dwelling on the pain.
Mr. Skywalker and Mrs. Solo lived in a modest four-story house adjacent to the mill. Despite its location, it appeared pleasantly situated next to a mature oak tree. To the side, a small herb garden added some colour. A stone wall separated the house from the yard with its carts and waggons. Their hosts came out to meet them upon their arrival. Poe helped Rey from the carriage and Mr. Skywalker and Mrs. Solo greeted her so warmly she was immediately disposed towards liking them. Brother and sister were as different as night and day in looks, she noted, Mr. Skywalker having greying golden hair and blue eyes while his sister had dark brown hair streaked with grey and brown eyes. Her father had told her how they were brought up separately after their mother died in childbirth. Both had lived overseas which accounted for their accents, Luke with an aunt and uncle and Leia with her adopted parents. The siblings were finally reunited in America when they were nineteen.
Rey delighted in discovering their home reflected the warmth of its occupants. There wasn't a speck of dust to be found despite their proximity to the mill. Everything sparkled and shone, and the curtain laces were whiter even than Mrs. Kanata's. A blazing fire burned in the hearth and the light floral papers on the walls added to the brightness of the sitting room. There were interesting ornaments scattered about the place which Mr. Skywalker had picked up on his travels. Rey listened enraptured with his tales of riding elephants in India, crossing deserts in Africa by hot air balloon, and learning to sword fight on the continent. Everything possible was done to secure her comfort, including the placement of a pillow to rest her injured foot on. She was taken aback by their hospitality and generosity. Nothing seemed to be too much trouble, not that she would dream of taking advantage. What a contrast their obliging good manners were to those of Mr. Solo. Rey couldn't see any resemblance either in his mother and uncle's looks or their characters. True, she barely knew him or them, but her first impressions were seldom wrong. A portrait above the fireplace caught her eye. It depicted a handsome older man with a fine head of grey hair and certain facial features that reminded her of Mr. Solo.
"That is my late husband, Han," Mrs. Solo explained handing her a cup of tea. "My son does have a look of his father about him," she acknowledged her warm brown eyes brimming with sadness.
Rey wanted to offer her some comfort but wasn't sure how best to proceed. The afternoon's events involving her and Mr. Solo had been explained in the note Mrs. Kanata sent to her dear friend. However, the estrangement of the gentleman from his family was clearly a sensitive subject and Rey didn't want to speak out of turn.
"It did my heart good to hear some news of Ben." Mrs. Solo smiled though her eyes glistened with unshed tears. "My boy may dwell a mere five miles from here but he might as well be the other side of the world for all I see of him," she lamented, the agony of their separation written in the lines of her face.
In that moment, Rey hated him for causing such grief to his mother. She didn't know what had transpired between them but felt sure the fault must have been on his side.
"I should imagine running a mill is time-consuming work," she eventually said, not intending it to be taken as an excuse for her son's poor behaviour, but merely as an observation of fact.
"It is a heavy responsibility," Mrs. Solo agreed. "I do wonder if Ben finds it a burden, he certainly showed little enthusiasm for the cotton trade as a boy. Han didn't help, always filling Ben's head with fanciful notions when he should have been learning the family business."
Rey wondered if his unhappiness in his work accounted for his near constant scowl, but she said nothing about it. His mother didn't need anything adding to her list of concerns about her son's welfare. He had appeared in robust health and as strong as an ox, judging by the ease in which he'd carried her. Her heart fluttered in her chest as she recalled the feeling of being in his arms. Although she'd taken strongly against him due to his ill-treatment of his mother and uncle, she couldn't deny her pulse quickened whenever she called to mind his striking features. But good looks didn't make up for a bad character, and she reaffirmed her resolve never to seek him out again.
The rest of the evening passed in fine dining and good conversation. Rey was happy to see her father renew his friendship with Mr. Skywalker. He often spoke fondly of him and with his friends in Sunston and London now confined to communication by letter, it meant all the more to have someone with whom he could discuss any number of topics in person. Old, good-natured arguments about Greek philosophers were picked up as if there had been no leave of absence between them. The matter of Mr. Solo wasn't raised again and Rey was glad of it. She would make sure their paths did not cross in future.
Ben had come to dread his visits to Lord Snoke. Despite his ever-expanding business empire, the old man wouldn't be satisfied until all the mills in Killerton were under his control. For years, he'd employed underhand tricks designed to crush Luke Skywalker into submission. Hope Mills produced better cotton, maintained better working conditions, and paid its workers more generously than he did. The whole thing was bad for business and there had been mutterings among the union agitators about strikes. Lord Snoke demanded that a solution to the problem be found. He pressed Ben upon every meeting for something he could use against his uncle. Small wonder his mind had been otherwise occupied when he'd collided with the girl that afternoon. He'd been on his way to Dreadston Hall with a heavy heart, knowing his excuses about his lack of progress in acquiring Hope Mills were wearing thin with his patron. But something far worse than a reprimand from Lord Snoke awaited him on his arrival, the old man's ward; an exotic looking young woman by the name of Bazine Netal had arrived directly from a finishing school in Switzerland. It had been rumoured that she was his lordship's illegitimate daughter, the product of an affair he'd had during his travels to South America. In any case, she had completed her education and was now in the market for a suitable husband, or so Snoke informed his young protégé during afternoon tea. It wasn't stated outright that he expected Ben to marry her but the hints were unmistakable. For her part, Miss Netal simpered and flattered just as she'd been instructed. He received her attentions with all the politeness he could muster. She wasn't unattractive, and had he met her before that day, he might even have enjoyed the flirtation. But Bazine couldn't hold a candle to Rey. She had already captivated him, and no other woman stood a chance.
The walk back to Killerton North gave Ben time to ponder on how to deal with Lord Snoke's demands. Firstly, he needed to find some weakness in the running of Hope Mills. Lord Snoke would not relent on the matter of driving his uncle and mother out. It wasn't a task he relished but he had to do his lordship's bidding. The best he could do for them would be to secure them a fair price. Once Snoke finally got what he wanted, it might bleed him of his bitterness towards the Skywalkers. Hope Mills belonged to him once before and he'd been bought out by Ben's grandfather and his then business partner as a result of losing money on a risky a speculation. His lordship almost ended up in a debtor's prison. If he hadn't been less than scrupulous about the type of people he did business with, he might have lost everything. As it was, a distant relation of Snoke's died soon after leaving him a sizeable share in one of the richest cotton plantations in the American Deep South. It forced him to travel and even live out there for a time. He cared not for the welfare of the slaves forced to tend the cotton fields and gained a reputation as a cruel master. Some years later, he returned to England with his fortunes restored.
The other matter weighing heavily on Ben's mind as he trudged back to his office was how he could avoid being married off to Lord Snoke's ward. He would endeavour to make himself as disagreeable to her as possible, but Miss Netal wasn't likely to be easily put off. She wouldn't go against her guardian and Ben couldn't risk defying his lordship. He only knew he had to try and find some way out of it. Then there was Rey, he found his thoughts drifting to her almost unconsciously. He resolved to visit her the next day and take her a gift, perhaps exotic fruit or something from the confectioners. It frustrated him not to know her likes and dislikes but he imagined she'd like something sweet. Her injury and his part in it would at least give him an excuse to inquire after her health. What Ben really needed was a reason to keep visiting her without being mistaken for a suitor. His true intentions would have to be buried for the time being. Lord Snoke had spies everywhere and would not stand for him slighting Miss Netal for the daughter of a former-clergyman.
Once Ben got back to his office at the mill, he sent his man out to make discreet inquiries about Mr Tooker and his daughter. Mr. Mitaka returned a couple of hours later with information of great value. He'd worked for Mr. Solo for the best part of six years and was always reduced to a bundle of nerves around him. His master was quick to anger and his rage legendary. The office wall still bore an ink stain from where Mr. Solo threw a pot against it so violently, upon receiving bad news about an order, it shattered into a thousand pieces. Mr. Mitaka knocked sheepishly on the office door and a deep voice bid him enter. The master awaited him with an expectant glare from behind his desk.
On this occasion, Mr. Mitaka felt confident that his news would be well received, but he hovered close by the door all the same. "I have it on good authority that Mr. Tooker is offering his services as a tutor. Mr. Marley, the money-lender, said the gentleman had been recommended to him when he'd expressed a wish to improve his eldest son's education. It is said he is taking on pupils of all ages."
Ben suppressed a smile, he had the excuse he needed to keep visiting with the Tookers. He'd had decent enough schooling but areas beyond business and his father's flights of fancy had been neglected. It wouldn't hurt to broaden his intellectual horizons and have a valid reason to be in Rey's company at the same time. If the latter mattered more to him than the former, he would nevertheless endeavour to be a good student. "Thank you, Mitaka, you have done well," he said bestowing rare praise upon the man.
He stood agog as his grateful master dismissed him with a wave of his hand. In his surprise, he hadn't finished imparting all he'd overheard about the former-reverend. "There is one more thing, sir," he began, "regarding the girl -"
"What of her?" Ben snapped almost making poor Mitaka jump out of his skin.
The young man regretted opening his mouth. For all he knew, the gossip had no merit or foundation. He couldn't escape telling it now, though. "I passed through the marketplace and saw a young woman there who I believe works for Mrs. Kanata. She had stopped to chat to an acquaintance and was telling them all about the new arrivals at her mistress's house. Apparently, the girl isn't the natural daughter of the Tookers, she was adopted by the then reverend and his wife some years ago. Before that time, it is rumoured she was a street urchin." He gulped as he awaited his master's response.
Mr. Solo sat a moment in quiet contemplation. "You may go," he roared, "And do not speak a word of this to anyone else, do you understand?"
Mr. Mitaka offered a frantic nod and hurried out of the door.
Ben hadn't been expecting such news. Rey took offence when he mistook her for a housemaid, and now it appeared her origins were even more humble. He had spied a hint of wildness about her; something feral in her hazel eyes. But she spoke well and had obviously received some degree of education, though perhaps not of the usual kind for a young lady. His interest in her wasn't diminished by her lowly origins. If anything, it served to further whet his appetite. She might be glad of his attentions, grateful even, to have caught the attention of a man of his standing.
Rey wished she hadn't caught sight of her reflection in the looking glass. Her pale complexion and the shadows under her eyes were quite alarming. Mr. Tooker had gone out early to meet with a prospective student, and she'd been glad of his absence at breakfast. If he'd seen her looking so unlike her usual self, it would only have caused him worry and distress. As it was, she hoped spending an easy morning of drinking tea and resting by the fire would set her to rights. The clock struck ten and Rey settled into an armchair savouring the peace and quiet. Mrs. Kanata had gone out to buy wool for her sock knitting and Jessie wasn't due until after midday. The warmth of the hearth coupled with her weariness soon sent her into a doze. A loud knock at the front door awoke her a short time later and she fumbled for her walking stick. Cursing the intrusion into her quiet solitude and the renewed pain in her injured ankle, she made slow progress to the front hall. The knocking started again in earnest just as she reached the door.
"Miss Tooker, it's good to see you up and about." Mr. Solo offered her a cheery greeting as he stood outside clutching a confectionary box tied with red ribbon.
Shock stole her voice for a moment before anger animated her again, "Up and about?" She repeated with incredulity. "I hardly got a wink of sleep last night and it might take a week or more before I can walk unaided."
Ben frowned with concern as he noted how tired she looked. His face was a good deal paler than hers but she had lost some colour. She had lived in the south and her skin knew the kiss of the sun. Although her golden tan would fade over time, it hadn't yet done so. Rey moved aside to allow him entry and he followed her slow progress back to the sitting room. He hovered awkwardly in the doorway as she lowered herself into the armchair with as much grace as she could muster.
"Won't you sit, Mr Solo?" She invited her exasperation creeping through in her sharp tone.
He obliged her by taking the seat opposite hers only to spring up like a jack-in-a-box two seconds later, thrusting the pretty parcel tied with a ribbon at her. "I almost forgot, these are for you," Ben explained with an awkward smile. "I came here today to inquire after your health and to speak with your father."
Rey accepted his gift and set it aside not caring to discover its contents. "I will be better once my ankle is mended," she said throwing him a pointed glare. "As for my father, he has gone out and I do not know when to expect his return."
Mr. Solo merely nodded at the news and made no offer to leave. "Did Doctor Lucas not give you something to relieve the pain? He is usually excessively attentive in these matters," he inquired unable to contain his anxiety for her health.
"Laudanum causes such odd dreams," Rey complained. "I did relent and take a few drops in a glass of water but I wish I hadn't. I dreamt of fighting a tall black wraith in a snow covered forest. His sword burned red with blood and fire. My blade flashed ice blue as we fought up to the edge of a precipice." Rey came to a stop and fell into silence made uneasy by the intense gaze of her guest. She hadn't meant to unburden herself to a near-stranger and although he appeared far from disinterested, she felt she'd said more than enough.
To her relief, her father arrived home, sparing her the trouble of starting another topic of conversation.
Mr. Solo sprang to his feet as the older gentleman came into the sitting room. "Sir, I hoped to speak with you regarding my employing your services as a tutor."
The former-reverend had not expected to see the young man again so soon, if at all. To arrive back at the house and find him there with his daughter, and her unchaperoned, came as a shock to him. Now, Mr. Solo wished to become his pupil and he had been quite unprepared for such a turn of events. "I was under the impression that your uncle had provided you with a well-rounded education. I'm not sure what I could teach you," he said hoping to deter the man.
Ben would not be put off, vexed though he was at the mention of his uncle's efforts to school him. "I'm afraid I didn't give certain subjects, such as the classics, the attention due to them. I know the cotton business inside and out but a mind can grow stagnant when occupied by only one subject, don't you agree?"
Mr. Tooker found he couldn't disagree, no matter how much he would have liked. He wondered if he might have judged the young man too harshly for his friend's sake. He didn't know the particulars of the quarrel that existed between Mr. Skywalker and his nephew, or between Mrs. Solo and her son, for that matter. If he could, in the course of their professor and student relationship, foster some kind of family reconciliation it would be all to the good. He may no longer serve the church but it remained his Christian duty to do what he could to restore peace and harmony to those in need of it. "Very well, if you are in earnest, we can begin whenever it is mutually convenient."
Mr. Solo shook Mr. Tooker's hand to seal the agreement. It was decided he would come for his lessons twice a week, beginning five days hence on the following Tuesday. He would arrive at seven in the evening. The running of Killerton North had to be his first priority, but with the night's drawing in, his daily business could be concluded by six-thirty. Lord Snoke would doubtless have something to say on the matter, and for that, he had a plan. Ben glanced over at Rey, who had remained a silent observer since her adopted father's return. After meeting his mother and uncle, her opinion of him had sunk low. However, his eagerness to learn new things did make her a little less inclined to think ill of him. But she remained a long way off liking him.
Mr. Solo prepared to take his leave. "I hope you enjoy the candied fruits, Miss Tooker."
Rey had forgotten about the unopened box tied with red ribbon. "Yes, thank you," she muttered in a feeble attempt at gratitude.
Ben appeared oblivious to her lack of enthusiasm, being entirely too pleased with himself at the success of his scheme. He hadn't yet left her and already he longed to be in her company again. Smiling, he said, "Until next Tuesday, then."
"Our deeds still travel with us from afar,
And what we have been makes us what we are." - George Eliot
After a few days of keeping to light chores, Rey found her ankle greatly improved. She could stand for longer periods without discomfort and had been glad to help Mrs. Kanata with her jam making. Jessie had taken ill with a breathing complaint that morning and Mr. Tooker had hired a carriage to take her home. It had been a shock for them to see a girl of scarcely nineteen fighting to draw breath. She had coughed so violently and clutched a handkerchief to her lips, which came away with specks of blood on it, leaving Rey afraid the young woman might die. Mrs. Kanata later explained Jessie had worked in one of Lord Snoke's mills from the age of six to sixteen. During that time, she had got fluff on her lungs from something called the cotton carding process. When the tangled mass of cotton fibres got brushed into straight strands, fine loose threads would fly off into the air and get inhaled by the workers. Some mill owners, such as Mr. Skywalker, paid out five or six hundred pounds for the installation of a large wheel to blow away the cotton fluff. Lord Snoke didn't see the profit in such a thing when sick workers could easily be replaced at a fraction of the cost.
Rey decided once her ankle was fully mended she would visit Jessie at home if the young woman remained too unwell to work. She lived in an area known as the Rebelton District with many of Snoke's mill workers and their families. Conditions were poor and the houses no better than slums, but it was the best they could afford. Hope Mills had its own separate housing community for the families who worked there. Mr. Skywalker had offered to give her a tour of the place once she could walk unaided again. Her thoughts drifted to Mr. Solo with anger as she imagined the harsh conditions he presided over at Killerton North. His downtrodden workers couldn't be blamed for their talk of strikes, or so Mrs. Kanata had heard from the local gossips.
"Thank God for a bountiful harvest," the old widow said as she stirred the pot of simmering berries. "There will be many hungry mouths to feed if there is a strike."
Rey hated the idea those who already had so little might soon have even less. "It makes my blood boil to think of his lordship, and the mill masters who do his bidding, living in luxury while those who break their backs and block their lungs for him go without," she seethed.
"Such is the way of the world, child," Mrs. Kanata let out a weary sigh, "But there are those who seek to change things for the better."
Mr. Skywalker and Mrs. Solo were first in her mind as being both philanthropic and enterprising people. "It's a shame Mr. Solo isn't one of them," Rey said her tone bitter.
Mrs. Kanata looked to be contemplating something in her sage-like way, her eyes appearing more than twice their size behind her thick glasses. "Don't judge him too harshly, child. All may not be as it seems."
Rey frowned with confusion, all she knew was he'd thrown his lot in with Lord Snoke instead of doing some good alongside his family. "How do you mean?" She inquired wondering what the old widow knew that no one else did.
Mrs. Kanata left the jam to simmer on the range and poured out two cups of tea. "Come, child, let us sit by the fire," she said cutting them each a large wedge of cherry cake. "I have a tale to tell you, and it may take some time."
The old woman settled into the wooden rocking chair as Rey took the stool by the hearth. She listened in rapt attention to the tale of Han Solo's exploits as a dashing sea captain, occasional smuggler, lucky gambler, and loveable scoundrel. Born and bred in America, he met and married his wife there. The Solo's only child had also been born and raised in Virginia until just after his tenth birthday when his mother decided the family should move to Killerton. Her brother had taken on the running of Hope Mills after the death of their estranged father but Leia had been bequeathed a half share. Luke Skywalker had declared it unlikely he would ever take a wife and named his nephew as his heir, which meant the boy would one day inherit the entirety of the family business. Han hadn't wanted to move to England, nor did he want his son to be the master of a cotton mill. Before his marriage and starting a family, he had lived a life on the ocean waves and, as much as he loved his wife and son, he had never been entirely at ease on land. In an effort to escape the dreary northern climate, Han sought to start his own small shipping business with his friend since childhood, the mostly mute, Mr. Chewy.
Mrs. Kanata got up to refill their tea cups before continuing, "Mr. Snoke, for he wasn't a lord then, returned from living abroad at around the same time as the Solos. He bought Dreadston Hall and set about rebuilding his empire in Darkshire. Snoke has been trying to get his hands back on Hope Mills for years. His numerous plots have been thwarted by Mr. Skywalker and Mrs. Solo's keen business sense, but he managed to take something even more precious from them. On the day of his death, Han and his son travelled to London on urgent business. When they returned to Hope Mills, the two of them engaged in a heated quarrel. Mr. Skywalker interceded just before Han fell to the ground clutching at his chest. Ben went to get the doctor but it was too late. By the time he returned, his father's heart had stopped and Han could not be revived. In her grief, his mother lashed out at her son, blaming him for his father's death. Ben refused to say what they'd quarrelled about or what business had taken them both to London that day. He packed up his belongings before his father's corpse was even cold and departed for Dreadston Hall. As to the reason for the dramatic shift in his loyalties, well, I have no proof only whispers. It is rumoured that Han Solo amassed sizeable debts due to failed speculations. His shipping company was in desperate need of capital, and he always did like to gamble. He had travelled to London twice in the months before his death. Lord Snoke also journeyed there often in those days to visit with his banker and to play the gaming tables. It is my suspicion that Snoke purchased the promissory notes for Han's debts and used them to blackmail his son. With his lordship's deep-seated hatred of the Skywalkers, formed when Ben's grandfather purchased Darkshire Mills from under him, which Luke later renamed Hope Mills, I suspect he wanted to deal them the cruellest blow possible. Snoke could have demanded immediate satisfaction of Han's debts and forced the sale of Hope Mills for his wife's half-share in it, but it is my belief he went after his son instead. I think Ben swore loyalty to Snoke in return for his lordship not demanding the promissory notes be paid. Han Solo was many things, a sea captain, a smuggler, a gambler, and some might say a scoundrel, but he was a good man at heart. He would want his son to return home."
Mrs. Kanata paused to drink her tea. Rey, for her part, was too shocked to do anything but ruminate. She didn't know what to make of it all after placing the blame on Mr. Solo for his family's heartache. If the whispers were true, it would mean the fault wasn't his and he'd been forced into abandoning his mother and uncle. Six years ago, he had made a deal with the devil and seemingly no one knew it, except Mrs. Kanata. But perhaps the old widow had been mistaken and Mr. Solo went to Snoke for less altruistic reasons, as she'd previously assumed.
"Do Mr. Skywalker and Mrs. Solo know of these matters? Surely they wouldn't stand by if the debts could be settled and Mr. Solo released from the hold Lord Snoke has over him." Rey found it perplexing that such an injustice could be allowed to go unchallenged.
"As I said before, I have nothing but whispers from the shadows. I could not be so cruel as to raise my dear friend's hopes in regard to her son for it all to be in vain." Mrs. Kanata took a huge bite of cherry cake appearing oddly untroubled by the whole affair. It was as if she knew more than she let on, or, at the very least, already had a plan in motion.
Rey frowned, a sense of wariness creeping over her. "I hope you will not think me impertinent, but why impart these whispers to me? Honoured as I am to have so readily gained your trust, you have not known me a week."
Mrs. Kanata smiled, the girl was sharp, and the faith she had in her surely wasn't misplaced. "Mr. Solo is soon to be a regular visitor to this house," she said mischief dancing in her magnified eyes. "It did occur to me you might engage him in conversation and attempt to gain his confidence."
"Oh, I don't know about that," Rey objected doubting she possessed the necessary guile for such a task.
"Think of Mrs. Solo and Mr. Skywalker," Mrs. Kanata implored knowing how to work on her conscience. "My dear friend has barely set eyes on her son since the day of Han's death. Lord Snoke has kept Mr. Solo away from his family and old acquaintances for six long years. He didn't even permit the boy to attend his father's funeral. This is the first glimmer of hope to present itself in all that time. If evidence of blackmail could be uncovered or details of the outstanding debts, then something might be done about it."
Rey remained sceptical, but for the sake of Mrs. Solo and Mr. Skywalker, who she already knew to be the best and kindest of people, she couldn't refuse. "I could try, I suppose. Although I'm sure Mr. Solo will have little interest in conversing with me. After all, he is coming here to see my father and to talk Plato and Aristotle. I'm certain I will bore him rigid in two seconds flat."
Mrs. Kanata chuckled; her plan had begun to take shape the day Mr. Solo brought Rey home in his arms. She noted how taken the young man appeared to be with Miss Tooker. The fact he had returned a day later bearing a gift for her and sought to engage her father as his tutor, only served to spur the old widow on. "God willing, and if Lord Snoke doesn't find some way to put a stop to it, you will get your chance to test Mr. Solo's boredom threshold soon enough."
Ben rarely went to church on Sundays or any other day, for that matter. His guilty conscience couldn't support it. However, he felt sure the Tookers would be attending the service and was desperate to see Rey. With Mr. Tooker being, until recently, a clergyman, it seemed fair to assume he observed the Sabbath and all its traditions. Sure enough, as Ben entered the church to take his pew, he spotted the former reverend and his adopted daughter sitting near to the altar. She wore a pale green silk dress with a paletot jacket a darker shade of the same colour on top. He secured a seat a couple of rows behind them, his gaze fixed on Rey's slender neck beneath her straw bonnet. With every movement of her head, no matter how small, the forest green feather which hung low on her hat would flutter and brush against her skin. He became quite fascinated with it. So much so, he missed the entrance of Lord Snoke and his ward, until Miss Netal took a seat beside him. Ben greeted them as warmly as he was able; hoping he'd sufficiently masked his surprise and displeasure. Upon hearing his voice, Rey turned to look in his direction. She managed a weak smile, greatly troubled by what Mrs. Kanata had told her. When she saw the expensively attired and beautiful young woman at his side, her smile faded altogether. The old man sat to the woman's right, who she assumed to be Lord Snoke, fixed her with a penetrating glare. Rey shuddered, hastily returning her attention back to her father.
"Had I known you would be attending the service, I would have called at Dreadston Hall on my way here," Ben said making every effort to be obliging.
"It has not been my habit to strictly observe the Sabbath in recent years. Nor, I believe, has it been yours," Lord Snoke noted his sharp eyes watching his protégé like a hawk. "But the oddest of reasons can drive a man into a church, can they not?"
It was as if the old man could see into his head, exposing all his deepest secrets and desires. Ben shifted uneasily in his seat. "Nothing odder than doing our Christian duty, I am sure," he said feigning innocence.
His lordship gave him a knowing look as the reverend appeared in his pulpit. The sermon on temptation was a little too on the nose for Mr. Solo's tastes, particularly when he yearned to steal a glance in Rey's direction. He did, however, hope Miss Netal would take something from the lesson. She had shuffled closer to him on the pew than was acceptable in polite society. Her hand brushed against his knee as she reached for her bible, and he felt sure, from her enticing smile, it hadn't been accidental. The service seemed to last an eternity, the reverend dragging out each word and verse. Ben suffered silent agonies; Rey was so near and yet so far. He couldn't risk raising Snoke's suspicions any further by betraying his interest in her. When finally the last prayer had been said, duty obliged him to escort his lordship and Miss Netal to their carriage. He hoped to send them swiftly on their way back to Dreadston Hall so he could catch the Tookers before they headed for home.
"You will accompany us, of course, and stay for dinner," Snoke insisted in a tone that brooked no refusal.
Ben watched in dismay as the object of his desire faded from view, unable to offer the Tookers nothing more than the briefest acknowledgement as they passed by. Miss Netal gathered up her voluminous crinoline petticoat to make room for him to sit beside her. But, with him being such a large man and the carriage being so small, she practically ended up sitting in his lap. He scowled only to find his lordship enjoying his discomfort.
"If you felt your education had been lacking, you should have spoken to me about it. I know some excellent tutors and would have taken care to engage someone suitable."
Snoke knew about his arrangement, then. Ben took a deep breath, he had practised his argument. "It is assisting you in acquiring Hope Mills that concerns me, my Lord. Mr. Tooker is a close personal friend of my uncle and the two spend much time in each other's company. I am using all possible means at my disposal to discover a weakness in Skywalker's business affairs and his friend could be of use in that regard. Under the guise of concern for my family's welfare, I'm sure I could gain his confidence. The only other option I can think of to gain such intimate knowledge of my uncle and mother's affairs would be for me to affect a mock reconciliation with my family." His lordship blanched at the suggestion just as Ben hoped he would. "I hesitate to even mention such a scheme, but desperate times call for desperate measures. However, with your guidance, I'm sure I can get all we need from Mr. Tooker."
Through narrowed sunken eyes, the old man scrutinised him. He knew a checkmate situation when he saw one. The moment he played his trump card and called in Han Solo's debts, he would lose a far greater asset than gaining a mill could ever compensate for. If he could buy Skywalker out at a knockdown price, he'd get everything he wanted and still keep the ace up his sleeve. He had spotted one potential fly in the ointment, though. "The girl, your tutor's supposed daughter, I hear he found her as a street urchin scavenging in the mud. I suppose being exposed to society more refined than mudlarks has given her ideas above her station." Snoke didn't hide his disdain; he intended for it to be plainly understood he wouldn't tolerate fraternisation of any kind between them.
"She is no concern of mine, no matter what ideas she might have," Ben insisted. "I doubt I shall even see the girl unless she's called upon to serve tea." If there was one place he could be sure his lordship had no spies, it was inside Mrs. Kanata's house.
"Very well," Snoke said. "I need not remind you of the penalty for going against my wishes. If Hope Mills is not mine by Christmas, I shall want to know the reason why."
Ben gave his assurance the plan would work. However, it would leave him less than four months to come up with an alternative, including making Rey his and building a true reconciliation with his family. He had borne his situation with stoicism until now, allowing his malaise to keep him inert. Angry with his father for dying in such debt and bitter about his mother and uncle imagining the worst of him when he'd left home, he'd convinced himself they deserved to be punished, however unjustly. Now, he longed only to see them again and once more know the loving embrace of his mother. Ben knew Snoke dealt with criminals and received money from dubious sources such as racketeering, but he had no proof. His lordship kept his business and finance dealings fiercely protected. It would take a lot longer than three and a half months to find solutions to all his problems, Ben feared. Hope Mills might have to be sacrificed in the short term, as long as he could get Snoke to pay his uncle and mother a fair price for it. He would have to keep playing the villain in public, and for that, his family might never forgive him. As for Rey, how could he woo her while appearing to destroy his family business? No one could know of his true intentions until he found something to use against Lord Snoke.
This chapter was rather plot-heavy so I hope you didn't find it too confusing. Thank you for choosing to read this story and please do leave a comment if you have the time. - Mrs. P
"When you compare the sorrows of real life to the pleasures of the imaginary one, you will never want to live again, only to dream forever." - Alexandre Dumas
Rey slept fitfully and despite waking to a bright Tuesday morning, she felt too weary to be grateful for the sun. After spending the morning helping Mrs. Kanata with the lace curtains, which needed frequent washing due to the sooty air, she planned to visit Jessie. The poor young woman remained too ill to work and Mrs. Kanata had prepared a basket of bread, jam and fresh fruit for her. Rey preferred to keep busy to prevent her from dwelling on the guest they were expecting that evening. Her father didn't mind her sitting in on his lessons, as long as the student didn't object, and she could see no other way of engaging Mr. Solo in lengthy conversation without arousing his suspicions. She knew enough of Plato and Aristotle not to disgrace herself. The previous day, Mr. Tooker had taken her to Hope Mills. Mr. Skywalker had shown her enough of the cotton making process for her to be able to advance some discussion in that area if called for. The smell of oil and the constant clatter of the machinery in the mill made her head hurt. But her heart had been warmed by the community spirit among the workers and their simple but pleasant living conditions. Mr. Chewy, Han's old friend had taken an instant shine to her. A big furry bear of a man, he stood at a formidable seven feet tall and he helped with the heavy labour such as hauling bales of raw cotton from the delivery wagons. His roaring had alarmed her at first, but Rey soon came to recognise he used different patterns and pitch to communicate. For all his lack of words, she found she understood Mr. Chewy perfectly. She'd imagined he'd be a pitiful creature before she met him, but he had such intelligence in his soft brown eyes, she quickly realised her sympathy wasn't required. Mrs. Solo told her how Ben delighted in being carried around on Mr. Chewy's shoulders as a small boy. Rey's heart ached for her, having nothing but old memories of her son to hold onto. She made a silent vow to do all in her power to reunite mother and child.
Thoughts of a day spent in pleasant company carried her through the dusty streets of Killerton. Rebelton was situated on the east side of town, past the mill run by Miss Phasma. As she approached the gates, the sound of a disturbance met her ears. A male voice cried out in pain as Rey came to halt horrified by the scene before her; two brutes were roughhousing a young dark skinned man, punching and kicking him to the ground. To the side, a tall woman with unusually short platinum blonde hair, watched impassively as her orders were carried out.
"In god's name, stop," Rey pleaded as she ran into the yard and sought to shield the young man from further blows.
"Who on earth are you?" The blonde woman inquired her expression one of haughty disdain.
One of the brutes attempted to manhandle her and she dealt him a swift kick to the shin. He yelped in pain and staggered back as the other stepped forward to grab her.
"My name is Rey Tooker and if you lay one finger on me you will be sorry," she warned as the second ruffian approached.
The tall blonde woman smirked, "That won't be necessary," she said calling off her attack hound. "Miss Tooker, my name is Gwendolyn Phasma and I am responsible for the day to day running of this mill. I will thank you not to interfere in matters you know nothing about."
Rey ignored her in favour of offering a helping hand to the young man on the ground. He gazed up at her in shock, one of his eyes had started to swell and his bottom lip was split and bleeding. "Can you stand, sir?" She asked frowning with concern.
He nodded and did so without her assistance.
"Go on, get out of here, the pair of you," Miss Phasma commanded, "And don't come back."
Throwing the woman a defiant glare, Rey picked up her basket and followed the young man out of the gates. He hurried on ahead of her but she matched his pace and caught up to him.
"Thank you," he said meeting her gaze for a brief moment before looking away.
"What is your name?" She inquired.
"They call me Finn," the young man replied. "I came to these shores known only by a number."
Rey cast him a pitying glance. Slavery had been abolished, but for many their lives had not been much improved. "Do you live in the Rebelton District? I'm on my way there to visit Jessie Pava, do you know her?"
"Yes, she's a friend of mine. You'll be the reverend's daughter, then," Finn said obviously having heard some local gossip.
"Former reverend," Rey corrected him. "What happened back at the mill? Why were those men beating you?"
The young man used his cuff to wipe the blood from his lip. "Miss Phasma found out I'd been involved in planning for the strike. Snoke's mills pay a pittance and there's working men, women and children starving and living no better than rats," he railed his anger raw. "All we want is an honest day's pay for an honest day's work."
It sounded fair enough to her but Rey wasn't surprised Miss Phasma had taken a different view. "I'm acquainted with Mr. Skywalker at Hope Mills; I could inquire if he has a position for you. The pay and conditions there are vastly superior to anything you'll find anywhere else in Killerton, I'll wager."
Finn halted in his tracks and turned to her with gratitude shining in his warm brown eyes "That's very kind of you, Miss Tooker, but I should go and ask him myself."
She nodded, recognising he wished to preserve his pride. "Please, call me Rey, and mention my name when you go. Tell Mr. Skywalker you are a friend of mine."
"A friend?" The young man repeated with a smile.
"Yes, indeed," she said returning the gesture. "Now, if you will walk with me to find Jessie, we can get to know one another a little better."
Happy to oblige, Finn led her into the Rebelton District. The place was even grimmer than she'd imagined; grey and damp, the smell of it hit her first and she covered her nose with her sleeve.
"It can get pungent," her friend admitted with obvious mortification. "We're so close to the canal here."
Rey felt ashamed about her reaction, she'd once been a mudlark on the banks of the River Thames for goodness sake. She had lived for years in fragrant surroundings but the miasma of the London waterways wasn't easily forgotten. "It's not so bad," she insisted removing her hand from her face.
The sound of howling babies and weeping women followed them around every corner. Desperation and hunger haunting the eyes of all they met. Ragged children, too young or sickly to work in the mills were helping to wash clothes and collect up firewood. Some were scavenging in the dirt as she once had. The streets were narrow and cluttered with bits of broken down furniture and other detritus. It truly felt as if she'd descended into hell.
"Jessie lives just around the next corner," Finn said hoping to lessen her unease.
In a few more steps, they were outside her door. It took her so long to answer, Rey began to fear the worst. But she eventually appeared, clutching a threadbare shawl to her breast and shivering in the damp air. Thankfully, she did have a little more colour in her cheeks than when she'd taken ill in Mrs. Kanata's kitchen.
"Miss Tooker, it's kind of you to come all the way down here," Jessie smiled touched by the gesture. "What the blazes has happened to you?" She exclaimed as Finn stepped forward with his swollen eye and split lip.
"Phasma's hoodlums," he explained. "She found out I'd been drumming up support for the strike. It doesn't matter, though, because there's too many in favour for it to be stopped now. Snoke's mills will grind to a halt on Friday, you see if they don't."
Rey cared not a jot for his lordship's fortunes, but she did worry for those who would suffer because of the strike. Over a pot of weak tea and slices of Mrs. Kanata's leftover cherry cake, she and her new friends sought to forget the woes of the world for a short while. Hopes and dreams make for a more pleasant topic of conversation. Jessie dreamed of being invited to a party with a fine feast and everyone dressed in their finery. Finn wanted to travel and see the world. Rey wanted only to be useful and help others whenever she could. For herself, she hoped if she ever married it would be for love.
Mr. Tooker decided to greet his pupil in the sitting room. He had thought to use the library for teaching but with the crowded bookshelves and other clutter, he found it too distracting. The volumes he needed had been selected and brought downstairs in preparation for Mr. Solo's arrival. Rey returned from visiting Jessie at just after six in the evening. Although her spirits had been buoyed by making a new friend, her ankle ached from the long walk and the events of the day had left her fatigued. Mrs. Kanata stopped her from nodding off by the kitchen hearth with preparations for their guest. The old woman had been fretting about Lord Snoke's ward and, although she dismissed Miss Netal's ribbons and lace finery as butter upon bacon, she did badger Rey to change out of her dowdy brown dress into something more flattering. She resisted, not wanting Mr. Solo to get the wrong impression. If she put on her Sunday best for him, he might think she was trying to catch his eye and that would not do at all. However, Mrs. Kanata wouldn't let the matter drop. Finally, she relented, but only because she feared the dust and stench of Rebelton might still be clinging to her. Rey chose a pink and violet plaid patterned dress for its cheery appearance, even though she'd never liked it. Scarcely had she returned downstairs when there was a knock at the door. Mr. Solo had been due at seven but he'd arrived a good ten minutes early. He stood dressed in his customary black and smiled, almost shyly, as Rey invited him in.
"Miss Tooker, how delightful to see you again," he said removing his hat and offering a slight bow of his head.
She watched in fascination as his raven tresses fell over his face. He had generously proportioned hands, she noted as he used his long fingers to sweep his hair back into place. He followed her into the sitting room where her father greeted him cordially, if not warmly.
"I thought we would begin with Plato if that is agreeable?" Mr. Tooker inquired as he reached for his well-thumbed copy of The Republic.
Ben gave his assent, hardly caring what they studied as long as he got to spend time in Rey's company. Mrs. Kanata brought in a tray of tea and fruitcake setting it down on the table by the fireplace. She left with a sly wink in the direction of the girl on whom she'd placed such big hopes.
"Father doesn't mind me sitting in on lessons but if it makes you uncomfortable…" Rey began, hesitant to take a seat on the chaise.
"No," he said rather too eagerly and then attempted to affect disinterest, "that is, I doubt I shall even notice you once I am engrossed in Greek philosophy."
She couldn't help feeling wounded by his easy dismissal of her presence. He spoke as if she might as well be invisible for all the difference it would make to him. Rey would rather be considered a nuisance and have him ask her to leave, anything but invisible. The warmth from the fire caused her fatigue to resurface, and as she listened to her father and Mr. Solo read passages of interest aloud, she found herself slipping into a light slumber. The events of the day swirled through her mind; Finn and Jessie's dreams for the future made for an odd mix with Plato's words of wisdom.
"He who commits injustice is ever made more wretched than he who suffers it."
Her eyes flew open and she found Mr. Solo gazing at her. He looked amused and she blushed to have been caught dozing.
"I'm afraid we are boring Miss Tooker," he said struggling to suppress his smirk.
"Not at all," she protested getting up to refill their teacups. "I have seen my share of injustice today and I should like to believe Plato is right. The poor souls in the Rebelton District were certainly wretched enough."
"It is rather grim," Mr. Tooker agreed. "I hear there's talk of a strike, too."
Mr. Solo scowled; threatened strikes were never a good thing but this one couldn't have come at a worse time. Mr. Hux and Miss Phasma had been doing their part to spread fear among the workers with talk they'd be replaced by Irishmen if they dared to walk out. He'd considered getting Mitaka to do his dirty work but he wouldn't give way to cowardice. Besides, Lord Snoke demanded loyalty and he couldn't show his hand yet. He spoke confidently despite his misgivings. "It is my hope the strike can yet be avoided."
Rey thought about what Finn had said, and how he'd been beaten because of his support for action. "I wouldn't be so sure," she interjected and then regretted it because she didn't want to reveal the source of her information.
Mr. Solo fixed her with his penetrating gaze. "Oh, and what makes you say that?" No doubt she'd heard mutterings in Rebelton. What she'd been doing in such a godforsaken place, he couldn't imagine.
His sneering tone angered her, and despite the promises she'd made to Mrs. Kanata, she couldn't abandon her principles to curry favour with him. "If a man works hard and over long hours, he should earn enough money to provide life's essentials for himself and his family. His children shouldn't be crying from hunger and his wife in fear of losing what meagre shelter they have. Your uncle, Mr. Skywalker, was kind enough to show me around Hope Mills the other day. I saw none of the deprivation there that is sadly abundant in Rebelton among Lord Snoke's workers. I cannot blame any man who would take action to gain an honest day's pay for an honest day's work," Rey said echoing Finn's sentiments.
"How do you know those you met aren't frittering their money away in the gin shops or the ale halls?" Ben questioned obliged to defend Snoke even if he saw some merit in her arguments. "I can assure you, his lordship pays the going rate for mill workers in Darkshire. He cannot be blamed for how those who earn that money choose to spend it. As for my uncle, I fear for the long-term prosperity of his business with the fluctuating price of raw cotton and the running costs of a sizeable mill."
"As his lordship sets the wages across much of Darkshire, I dare say he thinks he can do as he pleases when only the likes of Mr. Skywalker stand in opposition to him," Rey fumed, her tone enough to earn a disapproving look from her father. But she wouldn't be subdued, not in the face of such inequity.
As much as he admired her passion, Ben couldn't let her assertions go unchallenged. "I hardly think one visit to a cotton mill qualifies you as an authority on the matter."
"Perhaps not," Rey said irked by his derisive tone; the fire in her eyes turning to ice as she recalled the harsh realities of her former life "But I do know something of desperation and working long hours for a cruel master for little or no reward."
Ben grieved that she had known such hardships, but she simply did not appreciate the difficulties of running a mill. It didn't surprise him that she would take the side of the workers but he couldn't let his fancy for her prevent him from explaining the situation from the position of a master. He would make some changes regarding pay and conditions if Killerton North were under his sole control. However, it wouldn't do to bankrupt any business through being over generous to its employees. A line had to be drawn somewhere. "If there is a strike, it will be those in Rebelton who suffer most for it. Lord Snoke's mills will lose orders if they don't have workers enough to fulfil them, and so when the strike is over, there will be fewer jobs on offer for those who want to return. The workers who go all out for a higher wage will likely find themselves with none and what good would that do them?"
Rey understood his reasoning; however, she couldn't help thinking if those at the top took a little less for themselves, then everyone might be satisfied. "As I understand it, the workers will put the matter to a vote and I'm sure they will take all outcomes into consideration. But if all of his lordship's mills are run like Killerton East, I expect they'll be beaten into submission regardless of the ballot." Her anger over Finn's treatment at the hands of Miss Phasma's thugs had only grown in the hours since her intercession.
Mr. Tooker had heard a brief account of the incident from her. "Yes, it was a bad business and you were very courageous, if a little foolish, to place yourself in harm's way," he gently chided.
Mr. Solo grew alarmed; he knew the methods his fellow masters used to subdue dissenters. "What happened?"
Rey found his gaze too intense to hold for more than a couple of seconds. "I passed by Killerton East on my way to visit a friend in Rebelton and I witnessed a young man being set upon. Miss Phasma had ordered him to be beaten for supporting the strike."
"What became of the young man?" Ben asked, a note of anxiety creeping in his voice. He hoped to God she hadn't witnessed the worst of his colleague's practices.
"I ran into the yard and begged them to stop beating him. Miss Phasma told us both to leave, and so I walked the rest of the way to Rebelton with my new friend." Rey thought it best not to mention Finn by name, even if he was no longer employed by Snoke.
Ben didn't like the idea of her being in the company of another man, especially one she'd rescued. "I don't employ such methods myself," he said, "but every master has their own way of dealing with traitors." Much as he baulked at using brute force, it did occasionally become necessary.
"You may brand him a traitor," Rey scoffed with disgust, "I shall continue to regard him as a man of honour who wasn't afraid to do the right thing, no matter what it cost him."
Mr. Solo abruptly stood up and prepared to take his leave. He could feel his temper flaring and did not wish her to witness the excesses of it. "I should go," he said striding out into the hall in search of his hat and cloak.
"You will return on Thursday though, won't you?" Mr. Tooker inquired having unexpectedly enjoyed their lesson and left saddened by its hasty conclusion.
Rey wasn't sorry to see Mr. Solo depart. Now, more than ever, she felt sure Mrs. Kanata must be mistaken about his character. He had defended Lord Snoke's foul practices with such passion, he certainly didn't sound like a man suffering under coercion.
With a short glance in her direction, Ben nodded. "I will," he vowed.
He left feeling deflated. It had felt akin to walking on air as he'd followed the path from Killerton North to Mrs. Kanata's house. All he'd thought about for days was seeing Rey again, only for it to turn so sour at the end. She'd regarded him with such contempt before their parting; he could hardly bear to look in her fierce hazel eyes. Oh, how those eyes haunted him. He wished she could see his true colours and not the part he'd been forced to play. In frustration, he slammed his fist into a thick tree trunk and repeated the action until his knuckles were bloody. Nothing hurt like being hated by the woman he adored.
Thank you so much to everyone who has taken the time to leave a comment or award kudos. Also, thank you if you didn't do either of those things but are reading and enjoying this fic. I would probably keep writing anyway because it helps keep me sane, but it is nice to know you're out there reading (and hopefully liking) it. - Mrs. P
"Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive! " - Sir Walter Scott
As promised, Jessie returned to work bright and early Wednesday morning. Rey greeted her at the door glad to see a healthier bloom to her cheeks. As much as it pleased her to have her new friend near, she couldn't help but be grateful for an excuse not to be alone in Mrs. Kanata's company. The old widow had made plain her disappointment regarding the events of the previous evening and Rey's attitude towards Mr. Solo. It wasn't that Mrs. Kanata disagreed with her arguments regarding the strikers or faulted her principles, but their plan would succeed by pillorying the young man into making a hasty retreat. Ben had promised to return on Thursday. Mrs. Kanata hoped Rey would be more welcoming of him then and seek to engage him in less controversial topics of conversation. She could make no promises. It vexed her to even think of Mr. Solo and she wished some other method could be found to uncover Snoke's dark deeds. Perhaps he had no shocking secrets to uncover, beyond making himself rich at the expense of his workers, which was hardly a rare practice among men of great wealth and property. Rey took refuge from Mrs. Kanata in the library. Mr. Tooker had gone to visit Mr. Skywalker and she wished she'd accompanied him, mostly to see Mr. Chewy again and to ascertain if Finn had found employment in Hope Mills. Jessie told her that he'd left Rebelton before sunrise and it would have taken him a couple of hours or more to walk there, she hoped his journey had not been in vain.
Faced with the choice of staying indoors where she could be accosted again at any moment about Mr. Solo, or going with Jessie to fetch groceries for dinner, Rey chose the latter. As it transpired, Mrs. Kanata had been planning on walking into town to inquire about curtain fabric she'd ordered from the drapers. The shop owner had given assurances it would be delivered that morning but it had not yet arrived. Rey volunteered to go in her place. The autumn winds were brewing up a storm as she walked with Jessie to the market square. It did nothing to clear the streets of soot and dust but the air tasted fresher. Clumps of fallen leaves dotted the pavements and Jessie delighted in kicking them, encouraging her friend to do the same. Rey hadn't engaged in the activity since childhood but she soon rediscovered the simple pleasure, making her forget her concern that it wasn't ladylike behaviour. She left Jessie to haggle over the price of potatoes while she crossed the square to Mr. Kipps' Drapery Shop. The bell jangled above her head as she opened the door causing the patrons inside to turn and see if anyone of importance had entered. Their interest soon waned and Rey waited at the counter for an assistant to become available. A short while later, she saw a carriage pull up outside the shop. Two ladies stepped out of it; the first, an attractive young woman with ebony drop curls peeking out from beneath her exotic feathered bonnet, Rey recognised from the church as Miss Netal, Lord Snoke's ward. The second lady, a sturdily built older woman with a severe expression dressed all in black, followed on the younger woman's heels as they entered the shop.
Miss Netal immediately made a beeline for her. "Miss Tooker isn't it?" She inquired with false jollity. Rey answered politely and briefly as she continued in a clipped accent which occasionally betrayed her more exotic roots. "I'm so glad to have met you here today. I believe, like me, you are also a recent arrival to this dirty smoky town."
Rey confirmed her assumptions, although she suspected it wasn't purely guesswork on the other woman's part, her actions and words were too rehearsed. An awkward silence fell between them when she did not seek to advance the conversation any further; she had no interest in bettering their acquaintance. Rey had already made some good friends during her short time in Killerton and nothing about Miss Netal suggested she'd like to add her to that list. There was artfulness in the young woman's manners which put her on her guard. The draper's assistant dashed past her and Rey tried to catch his attention to spare her from having to linger too long in such unpleasant company.
"I don't know a soul in the town outside of my own little circle," Miss Netal lamented. "I've got dear Mrs. Kloda to watch over me, of course," she said gesturing towards her older companion who gave a curt nod in acknowledgement, "But it would be nice to occasionally meet with young ladies closer to my own age. Perhaps you could join me at Dreadston Hall for afternoon tea tomorrow at three o'clock if it's convenient?"
Rey's heart sank as she stuttered her response. The unexpected nature of the invitation left her unable to come up with a single excuse not to accept. Once her assent had been given, Miss Netal turned her attention to browsing dress patterns and showed no further inclination to make idle chatter. Rey beat a hasty retreat, forgetting all about Mrs. Kanata's curtain fabric in the process. As soon as she left the shop, she thought of a dozen or more reasons she could have given not to visit Snoke's lair, but they all came too late. Rey shuddered at the idea of spending even one second in such loathsome company. Rejoining Jessie, she let out a sigh of relief to be back in the presence of a true friend.
Thursday dawned with the strike ballot looming over it like a dark cloud. Ben had done his best to convince the workers at Killerton North not to vote in favour of action, but his efforts were undermined by the actions of his fellow masters and Lord Snoke's obstinacy. When afternoon came, he set out for Dreadston Hall sure the strike would be inevitable. In need of something to lighten his step, Ben found himself unconsciously wandering off course towards Mrs. Kanata's house. His thoughts had been on the coming troubles but Rey always haunted his mind in one way or another. He'd barely slept a wink on Tuesday night for thinking about her. When he did close his eyes he saw hers, burning with hatred for him. How he longed for them to burn with desire instead. Ben lingered by the park entrance desperate for a glimpse of her. When he'd almost given up hope, Rey emerged from the house wearing a mauve coloured dress with a matching coat and bonnet. He watched spellbound until he realised with alarm that she was headed in his direction. Taking quick strides, he sought to get back on the path before she caught him loitering. After all, he did have urgent business at Dreadston Hall for which he was already late. Ben hadn't gone far when he heard her calling out to him.
"Mr. Solo, please wait." Rey decided, upon seeing him that she should try and build some bridges after their last encounter. Both of them were likely headed in the same direction, and she welcomed the distraction from what awaited her at the end of her journey.
Ben halted, his heart pounding in his chest, "Miss Tooker, where are you bound?"
"Miss Netal has invited me to afternoon tea," she explained unable to hide her dismay, his height necessitating her to glance upwards to meet his gaze.
He frowned, suspecting some mischief on the part of Lord Snoke and his ward. As they walked side by side, Ben longed to offer Rey his arm, although she would doubtless refuse to take it. He tried to be content with having her close enough to him that their hands might accidentally brush. She wasn't wearing gloves, he'd noted. He did not dare to remove his for fear she'd see his bruised knuckles and mistake the evidence of him striking a tree in frustration for something more sinister.
"Do you walk to Dreadston Hall every day?" Rey inquired noting his sullen expression.
"Most days," he confirmed, his spirit dulled by the joyless nature of the task. "His lordship likes to keep a close eye on his assets."
Despite her earlier misgivings, she couldn't overlook the double meaning in his words; Snoke considered Mr. Solo his property. "I'm sorry we quarrelled the other evening," Rey said to his surprise. "I cannot help having sympathy for the workers, but I do concede I know little about the cotton industry. You must forgive my ignorance if I cannot understand why masters and workers, two classes entirely dependent on each other for their mutual prosperity, cannot come to terms."
Ben gazed into her earnest hazel eyes, his heart bursting with love for her. How he longed to gather her up in his arms and claim her lips in a tender kiss.
Rey mistook his impassioned silence for contempt and her goodwill towards him evaporated. "Have no fear, I shall hereafter keep my opinions to myself and leave you and father to your lesson this evening," she promised, knowing Mrs. Kanata would try and coax her to do otherwise.
"No, please don't," he cried with more than a hint of desperation. Taking a breath to calm himself, he continued, "I found our last discussion most stimulating."
It surprised Rey to hear Mr. Solo describe their exchange in such a fashion, and she couldn't stop the smile that formed on her lips. "It certainly stimulated you to take your leave," she chuckled.
He couldn't help joining in with her mirth, and the sound of his rich laughter made her stomach flutter in an odd way.
"I am concerned for the strikers, though," she said soberly, her merriment vanishing. "Mr. Skywalker was able to find employment for my new friend, the one I met at Killerton East, but he doesn't have the extra capacity to take on any more workers or orders."
Ben realised the information she had unwittingly imparted to him could be valuable. He hated having to act in such an underhand manner. But to assuage Snoke, he would have to try and wheedle more out of her. "As I recall, Hope Mills had amongst its holdings some unoccupied or ill-used buildings. Surely my uncle could utilise those to increase his capacity. Indeed, I don't understand why he hasn't done so already."
Rey thought back over her recent tour of the place. "Mr. Skywalker and Mrs. Solo have already found other purposes for those once empty properties. There is a schoolhouse for the children and a canteen where the workers can get a hot meal every day. Doctor Lucas calls once a week to administer to the sick and there is a dedicated hospital building too. Mrs. Solo explained that even though these things do not seem profitable on the surface, the workers are healthier and more productive as a result."
"All very commendable, I'm sure," Ben said concerned his family were about to bankrupt themselves due to over-generosity, "but surely profits could have been put towards expanding the business. There is land attached to the mill which is ripe for development."
"I do not pretend to know or fully comprehend how such things work, but my father did say Mr. Skywalker would happily add more machinery and employ more men if he had the means to do so." Rey fell silent, uneasy about divulging such details and realising she'd already said too much.
Mr. Solo's interest in their conversation had definitely increased when she mentioned his uncle. He'd been hanging on her every word, so much so, she actually felt relieved to have reached the gates of Dreadston Hall. Her reticence soon returned as they proceeded towards the entrance. A stern looking butler answered the doorbell and she wanted to turn and flee. Mr. Solo gestured for her to go in ahead of him and, hesitantly, she stepped into the surprisingly opulent hallway. It may have looked like a mausoleum from the outside but the red and gold decor inside was anything but grave.
"His lordship is awaiting you in the drawing room," The butler announced to the gentleman before turning to the lady, "Miss Tooker, Miss Netal has requested that afternoon tea be served in her private quarters," he said instructing her to follow him.
Rey determined, when she set out from Mrs. Kanata's house, she wouldn't be intimidated. However, surrounded by the splendour of tapestries and artworks on every wall, her resolve began to falter and she felt increasingly out of her depth. She gathered her wits enough to bid a brief farewell to the man at her side.
"Until this evening, Miss Tooker," Ben said taking his leave of her. He watched her walk away before returning his attention to the purpose of his visit.
His fellow mill masters were already in the drawing room when he made his entrance. Mr. Hux stood by the mantelpiece, his pinched features set in a familiar state of displeasure. Seated on a settee too low to comfortably accommodate her tall frame, Miss Phasma appeared uncharacteristically ruffled.
Snoke sat in his high-backed armchair, an expression of fury twisting his cadaverous features. "I will not be dictated to by the rabble," he roared in a tone that belied his physical frailty.
"Of course not, my Lord," Hux began in his usual obsequious manner, "Although, I'm afraid it may take a few weeks until we can gather together sufficient Irishmen to keep all three mills in operation."
Snoke slammed his fist down upon his armrest sending a cloud of dust motes flying into the air. "No, it will not do. I want them here within the fortnight no matter what the cost. Have you at least made the necessary security arrangements with the local militia?"
"Everything has been taken care of in that regard," Miss Phasma assured him, "And we have our own men on hand should there be any violent uprisings."
"I know the kind of men you employ," Ben said unable to hide his disdain. "Administering beatings to strike organisers will only strengthen their resolve."
Miss Phasma threw him an icy glare. "Has your little mudlark been gossiping? She shouldn't have stuck her freckled nose into my affairs."
Ben glowered at her angered by the derogatory way she spoke of his beloved. He did not trust himself to say anything in her defence and so he turned to Mr. Hux, whose hardheaded approach, although sanctioned by Lord Snoke, had led in no small part to their current predicament. "Perhaps if you had been a little more judicious in relation to the handling of the union men as I advocated, we wouldn't be faced with this impending strike. As there never was any intention to accede to the workers' demands for a five percent increase in wages, an early rebuttal might have stemmed the rising tide of resentment."
"Do you dare to criticise my methods?" Mr. Hux questioned his rising ire evident by the redness of his face; it almost matched his fiery hair.
"My Lord," Ben began, feeling the glare of his disapproval on him and knowing he had ventured into a perilous territory, "would it not be more prudent to offer the men two or three percent to prevent the strike? The expense of bringing in the Irishmen alone…"
"Enough," Snoke bellowed, "I do not care if I have to pay out ten times what a wage increase would cost me, I will not give those impudent wretches a penny more."
There would be a strike and Ben could do nothing to prevent it. Furthermore, he had been unwise to provoke the old man when he occupied such an uncertain position. In order to restore his place in his lordship's good graces, he was forced to relay the information Rey had imparted to him about Hope Mills. It turned his stomach to do so but the news that Luke Skywalker would be no impediment to their handling of the strike did the trick. Snoke rubbed his hands together in glee knowing the workers would have nowhere else to turn. He even mused that he might be able to cut wages when the men came begging for their jobs back. Ben hoped the strike would be over in a fortnight at the most. Poor men had nothing to sustain them through hard times, and the sooner they returned to work, the better it would be for all of them.
"You will wish to send your regards to Bazine, of course," Lord Snoke said as Ben prepared to take his leave. "I'm sure you meant to inquire after her."
"Yes, of course," the young man spluttered, not having given the woman a second thought.
"She will be sorry to have missed you, but I'm sure she and Miss Tooker have plenty to gossip about. These young ladies will have their little secrets." His lordship smiled in a way that chilled Ben's blood.
He returned to Killerton North with a heavy heart, his workers had pledged to serve out the next working day and then the mill would grind to a halt. As much as he craved Rey's company, he considered cancelling his lesson with Mr. Tooker. She wouldn't be happy about the strike and he didn't think he could bear her disapprobation, not when he already despised himself for being complicit in Snoke's malicious schemes. However, when it came to writing a note to excuse his absence at Mrs. Kanata's that evening, Ben found he couldn't do it. Nothing in life gave him as much pleasure as Rey's sunny smile. If he could earn one, all his troubles might be forgotten, at least for a while.
Rey sat stiffly on the ornate mahogany settee in Miss Netal's private sitting room. The deep red velvet upholstery was more luxurious than anything she'd ever seen, much less sat on. She hardly dared to drink her tea for fear of spilling a drop on the plush fabric. When she did risk picking up her bone china cup and saucer with its gold leaf design, it took a deal of effort to stop her hands from shaking. Platters of small sandwiches cut into pretty shapes, fancy sweet treats and exotic fruits, laid out on the table went untouched. As mouth-watering as they appeared, Rey could sense her host judging her for gazing at them with longing. She picked at a loose thread on her cuff in agitation, woefully aware of the humbleness of her clothing next to the other woman's silken finery.
"Do you play the piano, Miss Tooker?" Miss Netal inquired to break the awkward silence that had settled between them. She had a fine instrument by the window, its ivory keys shining in the afternoon sunlight.
"I'm afraid not," Rey answered. "I haven't had the opportunity to learn but I am fond of music."
"What a pity," Miss Netal said in a scornful not compassionate tone. "I hardly know what I should do with myself if I did not have a piano. My teacher used to say that music feeds the soul and I am always nourished when I play. Heaven knows, there is little enough culture to be had in this grimy town."
"Killerton has its charms." Rey felt obliged to defend the place, although she'd had her own reservations about it in comparison to Sunston. Since her arrival, the town and its people had grown on her. "There are some pleasant parks if you are fond of walking."
"When one can afford to keep a carriage, one seldom has the need to go anywhere by foot," Miss Netal said her critical gaze shifting to her guest's well-worn boots.
Rey wondered again why this haughty young woman had sought her out if only to belittle her and remind her of her inferior social standing. She needn't have gone to the trouble of inviting her for tea to do that.
As if knowing her train of thought, Miss Netal rose from her chair and came to sit beside her on the settee. "I hope you won't consider it impertinent of me, given our short acquaintance, but I hoped I might seek your advice on a delicate matter," she confided. Rey's eyes widened in surprise as she continued, "As the daughter of a former clergyman, I suppose you must have often heard your father counsel his parishioners on the subject of matrimony."
"Well, um, yes, occasionally I would overhear things when I brought in the tea," she stuttered. "I'm not sure what help I can be to you in that regard, though."
Miss Netal leant in closer to her, speaking in a voice no higher than a whisper. "I promised I wouldn't say a word to another living soul, not until we are at liberty to declare our love for the entire world to hear, but I feel I can trust you to keep a secret."
Rey didn't particularly desire to be taken into her confidence, despite some curiosity in the matter. However, the woman seemed determined to tell her whether she wanted to know or not.
"Mr. Solo and I have fallen passionately in love with each other," Miss Netal declared in hushed tones. "My dearest Benjy is already talking about marriage. But I fear Lord Snoke may not approve, and I could never go against my guardian. What should I do?"
Rey didn't know what to say, she found herself aghast and oddly bereft at the news. As she contemplated the matter, she couldn't think why his lordship would object when he could consolidate two assets under one roof. But then, it was said that love conquered all, and she hadn't exactly taken a romantic view of their potential union. Eventually, with a wistful sigh, she gave her advice. "My father would tell you to honour your father and mother, or in your case, Lord Snoke. As for what I would do, I've never been in love so I'm ill-qualified to offer any suggestions. But I think if you've been lucky enough to find someone you want to spend the rest of your life with, you should follow your heart." It's what she hoped she would have the courage to do.
Miss Netal appeared pleased with her counsel. She started prattling on about wedding dress fashions and floral arrangements while Rey sat in silent despair, unsure exactly why she felt as if something precious had been lost to her.
Thank you all for taking the time to read this story. Please do leave a comment if you have one. It helps to know what you think and all constructive criticism is welcome. I have got this story tightly plotted out and I don't foresee making any changes, but sometimes reader opinions can put a different complexion on matters. Thanks again - Mrs. P
"Endless conflicts. Endless misunderstanding. All life is that. Great and little cannot understand one another." - H.G. Wells
Rey tidied up the library before Mr. Solo arrived for his lesson. Her father had spoken of his wish to instruct his pupils in there if it could be restored to order. After her visit to Dreadston Hall, she needed to keep busy as she often did when something weighed heavily on her mind. The library could only comfortably accommodate two people at a time and, although Rey had promised Mr. Solo she would be present for his lesson, she was glad of a reason to be excused. To satisfy Mrs. Kanata, she would offer him brief salutations on his arrival and departure, anything beyond that would be a trial. As she reorganised her father's books, Rey couldn't stop her thoughts from drifting to Mr. Solo and she imagined him gifting her with one of his rare smiles. He had slightly crooked teeth, she'd noticed. But she liked his smile; it put her in mind of the sun breaking through storm clouds. For reasons she refused to dwell on, Miss Netal's confession of her reciprocated love for Mr. Solo pained her whenever she thought of it. Rey had been sworn to secrecy and wouldn't break the confidence, despite her growing unease over it. Her assumption had been that Snoke would look favourably upon the match, but if married Miss Netal against his lordship's wishes, he or his family might face some kind of retribution. She realised the safer path would have been to counsel caution. There were factors to consider beyond desires of the heart. It certainly complicated matters further in regard to uncovering Snoke's hold on Mr. Solo. Overwhelmed by the impossible nature of the situation, Rey rubbed her aching head. Promises had been made she wasn't sure could be kept and tears of frustration sprang into her eyes. She wiped them away with her cuff, pondering the tangled mess she did not know how to begin to unravel.
The news about the mill workers voting in favour of strike action had become the talk of the town. Mr. Tooker heard it from another passenger on the omnibus during his journey back from visiting Mr. Skywalker. It gave Rey another cause to feel gloomy as she awaited the arrival of Mr. Solo. It occurred to her he might cancel his lesson on account of the ballot result and she couldn't decide if she wanted him to or not. In the event, no apology note came and Mr. Solo arrived a quarter of an hour earlier than expected. He seemed in remarkably high spirits in light of the strike. Rey frowned as he stepped into the hall, his warm smile fading in disappointment at her dispiriting welcome.
"I trust you had a pleasant afternoon with Miss Netal," he inquired as she took his hat and cloak.
Rey had hated every second of it. However, she didn't think he'd take kindly to her speaking ill of the woman he loved, and so she lied. "Yes, most pleasant, thank you."
Ben wasn't convinced; she looked pale and out of sorts. He'd worried there might be some sinister intention behind Miss Netal's invitation and now he feared it to be the case. If Snoke or his ward had threatened her in any way, he would not stand for it. He had borne many injustices in his lordship's name but he could not bear that. "It seems to me an unlikely friendship, I must confess," Ben said attempting to press her for more details. "You and Miss Netal are as different as night and day."
"Why, because she is beautiful and well educated whereas I am coarse and ignorant?" Rey retorted letting her emotions get the better of her.
"No, of course not," Ben replied shocked she would even think such a thing. "I certainly didn't mean that at all." Despite an expensive education, Bazine didn't have half as much sense as her, or beauty.
"Father is waiting for you in the library," Rey curtly informed him, refusing to be drawn into a further discussion.
She led him onwards in silence, his eyes burning into her every step of the way. More than once, he thought of capturing her in an embrace and confessing to her his undying love. Upon reaching a carved wooden door, she opened it to reveal a room with more length than width filled from front to back with neatly arranged bookshelves. At the far end, two armchairs were situated next to the fireplace along with an old oak desk. Mr. Tooker had been sat reading and he stood up to greet them. Rey expected Mr. Solo to step around her but he lingered in the doorway.
"You promised to stay," he said refusing to let her pass.
"There are only two chairs," she protested, hoping her father would excuse her or at least send her to fetch some refreshments. As she threw him a hopeful glance, she noted a freshly steaming pot of tea along with three cups and saucers. Mrs. Kanata had outmanoeuvred her again.
"There's a chair in the corner," Mr. Tooker said pointing to a double Windsor made from polished oak.
Rey heaved a weary sigh, she had only herself to blame for uncovering it when she'd tidied up. Previously, it had been buried under a pile of books and old junk. She walked over to the chair and grudgingly sat down. Mr. Solo had offered to swap seats with her but she refused, fearing the wooden spindles might splinter under his solidly built frame. The two men talked briefly about the strike as she poured out the tea, neither wanting to dwell on it. Unbeknownst to Rey, an idea had been forming in her adopted father's head. His opinion of his new pupil had improved considerably since their first lesson, and his hopes for reuniting the young man with his family began to prosper. Knowing nothing of Lord Snoke or Miss Netal's machinations, he could see Mr. Solo had the look of a man in love whenever in the company of his daughter. He had often worn the same expression when courting his late beloved wife. It became his fondest hope that Rey's goodness would light the way towards Mr. Solo becoming a better man, healing the wounds of the past with his mother and uncle. For his own peace of mind, Mr. Tooker wanted to see his daughter happily settled, and if the young man proved himself worthy, he wouldn't be sorry to see her return his affections.
"Now then," he addressed his pupil as he picked up a book from the desk, "we were discussing Plato's Republic and matters relating to justice during your last lesson. However, when I returned from visiting Mr. Skywalker, my daughter asked if I believed in the concept of soul mates," he turned to Rey, "and I've been pondering the matter ever since. Plato's Symposium might be able to help in that regard, my dear, if Mr. Solo has no objections to us investigating the matter further."
Ben could scarcely believe his ears but he readily gave his assent. Dare he to hope she had him in mind when she made her inquiry?
She felt her cheeks heat up as her eyes met his. It wasn't something she'd meant her father to share with Mr. Solo, but it was his love affair with Miss Netal which had sparked her interest in the subject. Perhaps it would ease her conscience regarding the advice she'd given that afternoon if he let slip something to confirm his feelings were as strong as Miss Netal's. As much as Rey didn't want to hear him waxing lyrical about his beloved, she would suffer it in the spirit of Christian charity.
Mr Tooker picked up his book and read out a passage. "According to Greek mythology, humans were originally created with four arms, four legs and a head with two faces. Fearing their power, Zeus split them into two separate parts, condemning them to spend their lives in search of their other halves. Love is the name for our pursuit of wholeness, for our desire to be complete."
As the older man spoke, the younger one stole glances at Rey. She was his missing half; he knew it with unshakable certainty. From their first meeting, as incongruous at it seemed at the time, he had felt a connection to her. It was just as Plato described, without her he would be forever incomplete. Their eyes met and he searched desperately for some sign she felt it too. Her gaze, as determined as his, peered into the depths of his soul as if looking for the answer to the same question. Ben opened his mouth, on the brink of declaring the secrets of his heart when he stopped short; he wasn't yet at liberty to make her an offer of marriage. At the beginning of the week, he'd sent out a letter to an old associate of his father's, a man with links to the kind of underground circles that might hold proof of Lord Snoke's illicit activities. No reply had yet been forthcoming. As much as he longed to make Rey his wife, he needed to exercise restraint.
"Did you wish to make an observation?" Mr. Tooker inquired, having noticed Mr. Solo's attempt to speak.
"Well, I -" Ben faltered under Rey's scrutiny, he didn't want to disappoint her hopes by being too timid and yet, he couldn't openly declare his intentions. "It is a happy notion," he said, "the idea of finding the missing half that makes one whole again."
His answer seemed to satisfy her and she gave him a smile. It wasn't the sunny kind he treasured but it had enough warmth in it to make his own full lips curve upwards.
Mr. Tooker regarded the scene before him with satisfaction. He knew for certain he hadn't mistaken Mr. Solo's affection for his daughter, it was written all over the man's face. It also appeared, from her glowing expression, that she might return the sentiment. "Neither family, nor privilege, nor wealth, nor anything but Love can light that beacon which a man must steer by when he sets out to live the better life," he offered a pertinent quote from Plato praying the young man took heed of it.
Rey grew convinced Mr. Solo was indeed a man in love. He'd taken on such a starry-eyed look since her father began his reading, she could only surmise he'd been thinking of Miss Netal. Again, she felt strangely bereft at the idea. She should be glad for them, but perhaps it was her concern over how Lord Snoke would take it that left her so unsettled. "Even soul mates may not always be free to follow their hearts," she mused with a meaningful glance in Mr. Solo's direction. He nodded as if he understood her reservations. It gave her some relief that he saw the need for caution.
"It is true a man - or woman - may be under certain obligations which prevent them from uniting with their missing half. But the obstacles can be overcome, I'm sure. If both parties are prepared to wait." Ben could barely contain his elation, and to think he'd contemplated cancelling his lesson. As he gazed intently into the eyes of the woman he adored, he looked for some sign she comprehended his meaning. She smiled and his heart soared. Patience, my beloved, he silently implored her, eager for the day he could proclaim his love for her loud enough for the whole world to hear.
The rest of the lesson passed pleasantly enough. All three were contented in their own way, not realising they had been at crossed purposes. Mrs. Kanata, blissfully unaware of the misunderstandings, invited Mr. Solo to stay for dinner. He happily accepted and spent the rest of the evening mooning over Rey to the old widow's delight. The young woman, for her part, had grown too fatigued to do anything beyond the bare minimum required to be civil. Ben attributed her reserve to a desire to keep their love a secret, and he attempted to act accordingly. However, when the time came to take his leave, he wanted to make some small gesture to demonstrate the depth of his devotion to her. It wasn't an unusual practice in the north for a man to take a woman's hand upon parting. He hadn't dared attempt it before; sure she would reject such an advance. Not since their first meeting when he'd carried her in his arms had they touched, the memory of which he cherished. As he anticipated, Rey didn't object to his handshake. She'd grown familiar enough with the local custom not to be offended by it. She did find his reluctance to let go of her hand slightly odd as his long fingers brushed softly against her smaller ones. It wasn't that she found the experience unpleasant, quite the contrary. Mr. Solo departed with the same cheery smile he'd worn on his arrival. Love made him forget his troubles, Rey supposed, completely oblivious to the fact she was the one who'd put a spring in his step.
The strike soon began to take its toll on the residents of Killerton, and Rey did all she could to alleviate the suffering of those most affected by it. An air of gloominess pervaded almost every part of town. The Market Square was a good deal quieter with so many having no wages to spend. Five shillings a week from the union was only a fraction of a working man's pay. Most of them had struggled to make ends meet before the strike and their desperation grew day by day. Rey took baskets of groceries to Rebelton and Jessie helped her distribute them to those most in need. To her eyes, there were none that weren't in need. The cries of starving children rung in her ears long after she'd returned home to her own comforts. It did no good to feel guilty that she had a hot meal waiting for her, but it curbed her enjoyment of Mrs. Kanata's beef stew all the same. Mr. Solo had attended his lessons as usual the first week of the strike. He'd rounded on her charitable efforts, saying she was doing more harm than good by helping the men prolong their action. The sooner the strikers returned to work, the sooner everyone's lives could get back to normal, he'd argued. But Rey couldn't turn away from those who might die from hunger without the little she could offer them. When Mr. Solo sent his apologies the following week for both of his scheduled lessons, she thought he wished to avoid further confrontations on the matter. However, Mrs. Kanata heard whispers in town that Lord Snoke wanted to reopen his biggest mill. Some said Killerton North was to receive an influx of Irish workers any day and preparations were being made for their arrival. First thing every morning, Rey would look out of her bedroom window to see if the chimney stacks had started smoking again. The strikers were keeping watch too. There had been rumours of wagon trains arriving under the cover of darkness bringing in the Irishmen. Anger among the residents of Rebelton began to mount.
Jessie arrived at Mrs. Kanata's at the beginning of the third week of the strike in an agitated state. "I've heard talk of riots," she whispered as if saying it any louder would bring the hordes out onto the streets. "If Killerton North starts operating again with outside workers, there'll be trouble."
On her walk into the Market Square, Rey saw a union man addressing a growing crowd. The gathering grew increasingly animated and a few of the strikers were calling for action. Finn had warned her it might come to violence. She and her father had dined at Hope Mills the previous evening, and she'd met with her new friend upon her arrival. He had found lodgings in one of the worker's cottages with Poe Dameron and had returned to Rebelton that morning to fetch his meagre belongings. Finn told her some of the men wanted to return to work but the union leaders were urging them to hold out. The whole situation was a powder keg of simmering resentment and it wouldn't take much to ignite it. As she listened to the angry shouts from the crowd, Rey felt compelled to go to Killerton North and alert Mr. Solo to the danger. She turned on her heel and headed for the mill.
Miss Netal had been the one to deliver his note of apology when he'd been unable to attend his lessons the week before. The rules of polite society dictated Rey had to return her invitation to afternoon tea, and she'd arrived half-an-hour late with insincere apologies brandishing the note, the ink on it barely dry. Miss Netal explained Mr. Solo could not leave Lord Snoke's side at such a fraught time, especially for something as frivolous as Greek philosophy. She didn't stay long, not with Mrs. Kanata casting her frosty glances at every opportunity. But before she departed, Miss Netal took Rey aside and told her, with a sickly sweet smile, to expect an engagement announcement by Michaelmas or soon after.
As she made her way through the park and up the hill to Killerton North, she was relieved to find the path quiet and peaceful. However, when she saw smoke belching forth from the chimney stacks, she realised with horror it would only be a matter of time before the angry mob were snapping at her heels. Rey hitched up the hem of her dress and hurried towards the closed gates. "Hello, is anyone there?" She cried as she pounded against the solid wood. "Please, let me in."
A young man with short dark brown hair drew back the bolt and opened the gates just wide enough to peek through the gap. "Miss Tooker, isn't it? What can I do for you?"
"Is Mr. Solo here? I must speak with him on a matter of great urgency," Rey explained, desperate to get inside.
"I'm Mr. Mitaka, the overseer here, I can assist you with whatever you require," the man said making no move to let her enter. He started at the sound of heavy footsteps approaching from behind.
"I thought I instructed you not to unlock the gates," Mr. Solo reprimanded him, his stern expression turning to surprise when he saw Rey. "Miss Tooker, what brings you here today?" He ushered her inside, leaving his man to secure the yard. An unsaid command seemed to pass between master and servant, the latter nodding in response.
"There is unrest in the Market Square," she began as he led her towards the door of his residence which was situated adjacent to the mill. "I fear the strikers are on their way here to do violence." Her sympathy for their cause hadn't diminished but she couldn't support them resorting to brute force. Their anger wasn't without justification, though. "Have you brought in Irishmen?" She questioned, his guilty look answering her without the need for words.
"Lord Snoke insisted," he explained to her glaring disapproval. "If we cannot meet our orders the buyers will go elsewhere. I hoped the men would see sense before it came to this and return to work, but they didn't."
"If his lordship had loosened his purse strings and paid the men their due, there never would have been a strike in the first place," Rey raged, having seen too much suffering in Rebelton to be reasonable on the matter.
Mr. Solo had no wish to reopen old arguments and instead invited her into his modest home. With its dark decor and scant furnishings, she thought it perfectly suited to a bachelor and idly wondered what changes Miss Netal would make. A matronly looking maid appeared offering to take her coat and bonnet. She hadn't planned on staying but Mr. Solo would brook no refusal, insisting she should remain there until the danger had passed. He ordered the servants to bar the doors and shutter the lower windows. The strikers wouldn't hurt her, Rey felt sure, when she'd been a benevolent friend to them.
"I sorely missed my lessons last week and Plato's wisdom," he said as she stood glancing anxiously out of the window.
Rey swung round to face him, "Miss Netal told me you'd no time for such frivolities." She felt slighted on her father's behalf when he put so much work into his tutorials.
"What would she know about it?" Mr. Solo countered annoyed at the mere mention of the woman. Her unwanted attentions towards him had escalated to an intolerable level.
It surprised Rey to hear him speak in such a harsh tone about the woman he supposedly loved. Perhaps they'd quarrelled, she reasoned, deciding to let the matter drop. While her mind had been otherwise occupied, he'd moved to stand beside her. Her senses tingled to have him so close she could feel his hot breath on her skin.
"I swore I would keep my struggles to myself," Ben said leaning in closer still, "but it has been agony to be denied your company for so long."
It seemed for a moment as if he might kiss her. Rey froze in shock. What did he mean by making such advances when he and Miss Netal were practically engaged? Before she could take him to task over it, the sound of angry shouts and a thunderous assault upon the gates diverted their attention.
Ben sought to comfort her as the commotion outside grew louder. "Do not fear, the soldiers are encamped close by and my man has gone to fetch them."
The high wall around the mill might not be easily scaled but the wooden gates, as sturdy as they were, could not withstand such a battering. Rey watched in horror as they began to buckle and splinter and the angry mob came crashing through. She recognised so many faces from Rebelton, contorted in rage though they were and driven wild by desperation. The men turned towards the mill door and started to pound at it.
"Oh no, whatever will become of the poor Irishmen?" she cried, fearful they would bear the brunt of the strikers' rage.
"Keep up your courage, the soldiers will be here soon." Ben certainly hoped that would be the case. He had a sword hanging over the fireplace, which once belonged to his grandfather, and he would use it to defend Rey if necessary.
She watched helplessly as the strikers kept up their assault on the mill door. As frenzied as they were, she could see no option but to beg for order. "Someone has to try to pacify them," she argued as she hurried for the stairs.
Mr. Solo rushed after her, horrified she would put herself in danger. "I won't let you go out there," he said barring her way as they reached the door.
"Then you should go and speak with them," Rey challenged, "Those innocent Irishmen shouldn't have to suffer for Lord Snoke's greed."
Ben couldn't bear to disappoint her. He would do as she asked whatever the cost to him. As he pulled back the bolt and opened the door, she grabbed his arm, "do take care," she pleaded as she let him go.
The mob gathered around the bottom of the stone steps where he stood, screaming their grievances up at him. Nothing Mr. Solo said could calm them and Rey feared for his life. She saw the younger lads arming themselves with whatever they could use as missiles. Someone threw a boot which narrowly missed hitting the hated master. Rushing out to stand in front of him, Rey appealed to the crowd to disperse before the soldiers arrived. There might have been a time when they would have listened to her but they were too far gone. The men surged forward and Mr. Solo tried to jostle her inside to safety. One of the lads picked up a sharp stone and sent it flying through the air. Rey shielded its intended target and her forehead took the force of the blow. It left her pale, dazed, and bleeding. As she slumped unconscious into Mr. Solo's waiting arms, most of the crowd fell silent in horror.
He shook with rage as he snarled at them, "Look at what you've done, you miserable wretches. This young woman has shown you nothing but compassion and you've struck her down."
The men began to turn on each other. Some of them decided to retreat and were heading for the broken down gates when Mr. Mitaka arrived with the soldiers. The crowd railed in vain as they were dragged away.
"Fetch Doctor Lucas," Mr. Solo barked at his man as he swept Miss Tooker up into his arms and carried her indoors. "Oh, my precious Rey," he howled clutching her to his chest. "Do not leave me, my love, you own my heart now and forevermore."
I worked really hard on this chapter to try and do the final scene justice. I'm not sure if I succeeded, to be honest. Anyway, please do let me know what you think. Thank you to each and every one of you who takes the time to read this fic and leave a comment or kudos. When I have moments of self-doubt and think I should erase everything I've ever written because it's just *that* bad, your kind words keep me going, so thanks - Mrs. P
"For where thou art, there is the world itself, and where thou art not, desolation." - William Shakespeare
The noise outside from the vanquished mob and the soldiers began to fade. Ben's anger did not ebb away with it, instead, it grew fiercer. If he hadn't been carrying such a precious cargo, he would have gone after the lad who threw the stone and made him sorry for it. Rey, usually a picture of glowing health, hung limp and pale in his arms. His heart clenched in his chest to see her as still as the dead. The trickle of blood from the cut above her brow stood out vividly against her wan complexion. Ben carried her upstairs to the sitting room and placed her carefully on the sofa.
Her eyes fluttered open and she gazed up at him with confusion. "Where am I?" she cried.
Before he could make any reply, she succumbed to another fainting fit.
Ben fell to his knees and reaching for her hand, he brought it to his lips. "My sweet Rey, light of my life, I love you so and no one shall ever harm you again," he vowed.
Agnes, the matronly housemaid, rushed into the room in a state of agitation. "Oh, my heavens!" she exclaimed at the sight of the injured young woman. "Mary, fetch water and a cloth," she called out to the mousy maid hovering by the door. "Has the doctor been sent for, master?"
"It's been taken care of," Mr. Solo said not looking up or stirring from Rey's side. For the sake of propriety, he knew he should put a respectable distance between them. But what care could he have for the conventions of society when she had thrown herself into the path of danger for his sake? How deep her love for him must be for her to risk so much on his account. To think he'd once presumed she would be grateful for his attentions; he wasn't worthy of such an angel but he wanted her all the same. It sent a thrill through him when he recalled how her body had been pressed up against his. Her reputation would not be tainted by the brave and uninhibited display of her regard for him. He would do right by her, the rest be damned.
"Let us tend to her, master," Agnes begged as Mary returned with a basin of warm water.
Ben reluctantly released Rey's hand from his and got to his feet. She had no more colour in her cheeks than when he'd carried her inside and he wished the doctor would hurry. As the older maid cleaned her wound, she winced in pain but her eyes remained closed. Her senses began to return to her, although she did not yet feel capable of speech or movement. The warm cloth mopping her brow soothed her. It brought back memories of her adopted mother watching over her when she'd fallen ill with a fever as a child. Tears welled under her eyelids and she felt them running down her cheeks. It cut Ben to the quick to see her in distress as he watched, helpless to ease her suffering.
The sound of someone knocking on the door below startled the maids, their nerves already frayed after the unrest. Mr. Solo bade them continue ministering to Rey as he hurried down the stairs.
"Sir, it is Mr. Mitaka," the call came from outside.
Ben flung the door open expecting to find his overseer waiting with the doctor, but he stood alone. He explained that Doctor Lucas had been detained with another patient and had promised to come as soon as he was able. Mitaka told him the Irishmen sheltering in the mill were demanding his attention. The angry mob had scared them half to death and many of them wanted to go home if safe passage could be arranged. Ben couldn't concern himself with their plight when he longed to return to Rey. He would have gone directly to her had not a messenger arrived from Lord Snoke at that very moment. News had reached his lordship of recent events and he demanded an explanation from Ben in person. Try as he might, he could not escape his duty and went first with Mr. Mitaka to subdue the Irishmen. In his distracted state of mind, he didn't much care if they stayed or not. His thoughts were on Rey alone and nothing else truly mattered to him. He had already begun plotting a way to make her his wife without delay.
The maids were gossiping in the absence of their master. With the young woman on the sofa appearing to be insensible, they spoke freely of what they'd witnessed that day.
"Did you see how Miss Tooker clung to Mr. Solo?" Mary inquired appearing scandalised.
"Well, the master has been making regular calls to Mrs. Kanata's, and I don't think he's been putting on his Sunday best for an old widow and a former-parson, do you?" Agnes reported her insinuation clear.
Mary gave a resigned sigh, "She'll be the mistress of the house before too long, then."
Rey heard all that passed between them and her heart sank; her defence of Mr. Solo had been interpreted as an act of love. She hadn't meant it as such. It had been instinctual and nothing to do with her having a special regard for him for she would have done the same to protect anyone from harm. However, it had obviously been interpreted as a romantic gesture by his servants and perhaps by the gentleman in question. Salacious tittle-tattle of that sort would spread about the town like wildfire. Rey forced her eyes open and attempted to get up.
"You've had a terrible blow, miss," Agnes fretted. "You should rest a while."
"I'm fine, really," she insisted. "It was the shock of it, that's all."
The atmosphere inside the room began to stifle her. To be surrounded by Mr. Solo's personal effects felt too intimate, she didn't belong there. Her thoughts were drawn back to the moment before the angry mob invaded the yard, he might have kissed her if not for the disturbance. Confusion reigned in her mind, for she'd believed him to be in love with Miss Netal. He'd talked of missing her company and said he'd been in agony at not seeing her. The sound of knocking startled her out of her reflective state.
"Doctor Lucas is here," Mary announced as he entered the room seeking his patient.
"I'm feeling much better now," Rey informed him as he inspected the small wound on her forehead. "I would rather be at home."
Some colour had returned to her cheeks. The doctor looked into her eyes and helped her to her feet so he could test her balance. "I would advise rest but I see no signs of serious injury," he concluded.
"I will rest when I get back to Mrs. Kanata's house," Rey promised.
"Very well, I have a carriage waiting outside, I shall take you home," Doctor Lucas said offering her his arm to keep her steady.
"Don't you want to wait until the master returns?" Agnes inquired worried how he'd react to finding her gone; the best china couldn't withstand another of his outbursts.
Rey insisted on leaving without delay, hoping to depart before he came back. Her head hurt as much from puzzling over his behaviour towards her as from the blow she'd suffered. "I'm sure Mr. Solo has important business to attend to, and I would prefer to be with my own people," she said thanking the maids for their consideration as the doctor led her to the waiting carriage. Anxiously, Rey kept watch in case Mr. Solo reappeared before she made her escape. Only when the carriage pulled away from the broken mill gates with no sight of him did she allow herself to breathe easy.
Ben had been upset upon returning to the house to find Rey gone. He resolved to call on her at the earliest opportunity. But first, he needed to see Lord Snoke. His lordship had summoned him and he'd delayed long enough. On his walk to Dreadston Hall, he mulled over what had transpired that day. His carefully laid plans had been completely upended. The butler showed him into the sitting room upon his arrival to where Lord Snoke awaited him.
"So, you have deigned to grace me with your presence, at last, have you?" His lordship sneered with a scornful glare.
"Apologies, my Lord, the Irishmen were in an uproar." Ben didn't get the chance to explain any further.
"To hell with them," Snoke roared. "I knew that mudlark had set her cap at you, and her actions today prove it. I dare say there's hardly a soul left in Killerton by now who hasn't heard how she threw herself at you. People can romanticise it all they want but I see the truth."
Rage boiled in Ben's veins; how dare his lordship to speak so of his beloved? Rey, with her pure heart and goodness, deserved no such censure. There had been occasions when he'd had true respect for the old man and his way of doing business, but all he could feel for him now was disgust. In a moment of darkness, he imagined grabbing the poker from the fireplace and dashing out his lordship's brains with it.
Snoke glowered at him almost daring him to try it. The young man did not want to end up swinging from a rope, he had better plans for his future. His lordship continued, "We must nip this in the bud. You will cease all contact with the Tookers forthwith. From now on, I expect you to begin courting Bazine in earnest. She has received an extensive education," he said with a suggestive leer. "Before I decided she would make a good wife for you, I had her schooled as a prospective courtesan. Her virtue is intact but she'll know how to best please you when the time comes."
Ben could barely hide his disgust. He didn't want anything of that kind from Miss Netal, but he couldn't help feeling a stab of pity for her. She might yet end up being passed from man to man until her looks and spirit faded. Before he had any chance to set the record straight, the door opened and the butler announced the arrival of Mr. Hux.
The ginger haired man swept into the room appearing even more self-satisfied than usual, which was quite a feat. "My Lord, the strike is officially over," he declared throwing a smirk in his fellow masters' direction. "Once word got about of the incident at Killerton North, the men lost their fighting spirit. Your little mudlark is well liked among the rabble-rousers and they have no appetite for further violence."
"Miss Tooker," Ben began by emphasising her name as Hux refused to use it, "takes a genuine interest in the welfare of the workers. Despite what occurred at the mill, I'm sure she will be glad some good came out of it."
"How well you seem to understand the young lady," Snoke mocked. "Her meddling has been to our advantage on this occasion, I cannot deny. However, my orders stand and you will obey or suffer the consequences."
It was a well-used threat, and Ben understood perfectly what it would mean for him and his family if he went against his lordship. However, he had come to the decision it couldn't be avoided. All he could think of was Rey and how she'd risked everything for him. The least he could do was to return the favour, she deserved no less. As his lordship droned on about the arrangements for sending back the Irish and reopening the mills, he began to plan a future free of the burden he'd carried for the past six years.
Rey sat by the kitchen hearth with a world of cares on her shoulders. She had returned from Killerton North, still reeling from all that transpired there and expecting news of it to have reached home, to find her father confined to his bed. Mr. Tooker had taken ill with a cold after one of his tutoring sessions. Rey regretted sending Doctor Lucas away and almost went out after him. He had wanted to escort her into the house and she'd refused, not wishing to draw any unnecessary attention. She'd discovered the small wound on her head could be concealed by adjusting her hair, and thankfully, her father and Mrs. Kanata didn't seem to notice anything amiss. Mr. Tooker shunned her offer to fetch the doctor and insisted he would be as right as ninepence after a day or two of rest. Rey couldn't help fretting as he'd always been in such robust health. The unwelcome reminder of his mortality turned her thoughts to the future. During her last visit to Hope Mills, Mr. Skywalker mentioned he'd been thinking of training someone up to do the bookkeeping. She resolved to go there first thing and ask if he'd consider teaching her.
Mrs. Kanata noted Rey's pensive mood. The old widow didn't comment on it but she suspected something beyond her father's health was troubling her. In their short acquaintance, she had come to recognise the young woman's need to find tasks to occupy her when she had something on her mind. Brewing up herbal remedies and making soup for Mr. Tooker had kept Mrs. Kanata away from the town gossips. However, Rey grew aware of her silent scrutiny and knew she wouldn't be able to conceal what had happened at Killerton North from her for long. She hadn't wanted to dwell on it. Every time she recalled how she'd thrown herself into the path of danger on Mr. Solo's account, her cheeks burnt with shame. No wonder his maids presumed her to be in love with him. To liking his smile and admiring his striking profile, Rey would own, but anything beyond that - well, he loved another woman, didn't he? Her head ached and she resolved to tell Mrs. Kanata all, hoping that between them they could make some sense of it. Before she could begin, the sound of loud knocking sent her hurrying to the door. Her father had taken an age to get comfortable and fall asleep, and she didn't want the noise to wake him.
"I must speak with you," Mr. Solo implored as she stood gawping at him like a fool.
"I - it's late, and my father is ill," Rey spluttered her face growing hot. "I don't want him disturbed. Could it not wait until tomorrow or the next day?"
"I am very sorry to hear Mr. Tooker is unwell but there are things I have to say to you." His eyes pleaded with her to invite him inside.
Conscious of her blushes, she could not hold his gaze, "Please, I beg you, go home. We have provided the town gossips with enough fodder for one day, don't you think?"
"Oh, Miss Tooker," Ben lamented, "must I fall to my knees before you on the doorstep?"
Rey stood frozen in shock wishing the ground would open beneath her and swallow her up.
Mrs. Kanata came out of the kitchen curious as to the identity of the caller. "Mr. Solo, you will stay for tea, won't you?" Glad he'd returned after his lengthy absence, she wasted no time in ushering him inside. The old widow appeared only too happy to let the young couple go into the sitting room while she attended to the refreshments.
Rey took a seat on the settee, disquieted by the way Mr. Solo's gaze followed her every movement. She assumed he'd settle in one of the armchairs, and she drew back in surprise when he sat down beside her.
"How glad I am to see your healthy glow restored," he smiled reaching out his hand towards her cheek.
"Mr. Solo, please, how would it appear if someone came in?" Rey objected shrinking from his touch.
"We are past the point of concealment," he argued taking her hand firmly in his despite her protests, "After what occurred this morning, I must be allowed to openly confess to you my gratitude and my love."
She gasped in astonishment at his behaviour and tried to free herself from his grasp. "I fear there has been some kind of misunderstanding."
Ben had been so confident of her returning his affections. But, upon seeing her distress, uncertainty began to creep in. His courage faltered and he released her hand. "You do not love me?" He asked not daring to meet her gaze for fear his doubts would be confirmed.
Rey's lips parted in shock, "I - what about Miss Netal?" How could he ask her such a question when he had all but promised himself to another?
He frowned in confusion, "What of her?"
Her temper flared at his feigned ignorance, "I don't understand how you can be practically engaged to her and then speak to me of love."
The penny dropped, Ben realised Bazine had been filling her head with lies, no doubt at Lord Snoke's instigation. His anger stilled at the prospect of denying the old man his victory. "I will never marry Miss Netal, no matter what she has told you. It is true his lordship wishes to see us wed, but I do not love her and never could. My heart belongs to you and you alone."
Rey didn't fight him when he took her hand in his once again. She could see it all clearly now; how he'd responded to her during their conversation on the subject of soul mates. No wonder he'd formed the impression she harboured romantic feelings for him, especially after her actions at Killerton North that morning. As she looked into his intense eyes, eyes that were not quite brown or entirely green, she contemplated whether she might love him. What did she know of such things? Only what she'd read in books. After all their disagreements, she wasn't even sure she liked the man let alone anything else.
"Before Mrs. Kanata returns, I have something I need to ask you," Ben said as he lowered himself down on one knee. "Rey, light of my life, will you do me the great honour of agreeing to be my wife?"
She stared at him aghast.
"We shall have to elope, of course, and start a new life abroad. I have some money saved and I thought America might suit us. It is the land of my birth, after all," he explained.
If she'd been in danger of getting swept up in the moment and accepting his proposal, the idea of running away with him soon brought her back to her senses. "You would leave your mother and uncle to face Lord Snoke's wrath?" The idea disgusted her. "I know he has some hold over you or you wouldn't have been dancing to his tune for the last six years."
Ben got up off of his knees and began to pace about. "My father left behind substantial debts. I've carried the burden all this time, serving as his lordship's whipping boy to spare my family from ruin, I can bear it no longer. I want a bride of my own choosing. I want you."
Rey spoke with a firm resolve, "No," she said.
"No," he repeated coming to a halt before her.
"No, I will not be your wife. How could I marry a man who would abandon his family in such a way, knowing what fate would befall them?" She could tell from his determined gaze he wouldn't give up if he thought there was a chance she'd change her mind. "Besides, I don't love you and I never have," she added out of the need to be blunt.
Ben felt her rejection keenly as if she'd plunged a dagger through his heart. "But the way you placed yourself between me and the baying crowd this morning, was that not an act of love?" He questioned, pitiful in his desperation for any crumb of hope she could throw him.
"I would have done the same for anyone to spare them from harm," Rey insisted but upon seeing him so grief struck, she wished she could take it back. "I'm sorry, and I do not desire to cause you any pain. I simply thought it best to speak plainly in light of our previous misunderstandings."
Mr. Solo stood with his head bowed, a sorrowful pout upon his lips. His eyes glistened in the candlelight and she had a great urge to get up and throw her arms around him to offer comfort. However, as such previous impulses had contributed to his present misery, she stayed in her seat.
"You'll be happy to hear the strike is over," he informed her in a bitter tone. "Your actions have spared those you do care about from further suffering, at least."
Ben couldn't bear to stay in her presence a second longer. It wasn't because her refusal had soured his feelings for her. In fact, he feared he loved her now more than ever. But it pained him to look at what he could not have. He'd been a fool to believe someone so good and pure would ever want him.
"Mr. Solo, wait," Rey begged as he headed for the door, she wasn't without compassion and she did want to help him. "Let us not part on bad terms. We may still meet as friends and as for the business with Lord Snoke..."
"No," he snapped, not turning back to face her, "alone I have been and alone I shall stay. My situation with his lordship is none of your concern. For your own sake, please stay out of it."
She hated to be the cause of his despair and had to stop herself from running after him. Upon hearing the front door slam, Mrs. Kanata came scurrying out of the kitchen but Rey couldn't face an inquisition. The day's events had exhausted her and she needed to rest her aching head. "Mr. Solo had business to attend to and was forced to leave. If you'll excuse me, I must retire to bed," she said running up the stairs without a backwards glance tears filling her eyes. Once inside her room, she fell upon her bed and sobbed until her chest hurt. If she didn't love the man who'd offered her his heart, why did hers feel as if it was breaking?
I'm so grateful for the amazing response and wonderful comments I've received for this fic. Thank you, everyone!
"It is difficult to know at what moment love begins; it is less difficult to know it has begun. A thousand heralds proclaim it to the listening air, a thousand messengers betray it to the eye. Tone, act, attitude and look, the signals upon the countenance, the electric telegraph of touch - all these betray the yielding citadel before the word itself is uttered, which, like the key surrendered, opens every avenue and gate of entrance, and renders retreat impossible." - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Rey slept fitfully and her dreams were haunted by Mr. Solo's pale, sorrowful face. At one point, she dreamt of a wedding. The man who had proposed marriage to her stood at the altar awaiting another bride, and when at last she came, he lifted the veil to reveal Miss Netal. A piercing scream from she knew not where filled the church and when she woke, her cheeks were wet with tears. His offer to elope had been most unexpected and she bitterly regretted her handling of the whole affair. Rey wished she could have found a gentler way to disappoint him. But she had never contemplated marriage with any seriousness before or considered prospective suitors. Mr. Solo needed to understand she completely disavowed the idea of them running away together. However, she hadn't meant to leave him with the notion he was friendless, not that she had particularly regarded him as a friend. She wasn't sure what he was to her but her father seemed to be fond of him and enjoyed his visits. Furthermore, the feeling appeared to be mutual. Mr. Solo might feel obliged to put an end to his lessons after what occurred between them, and Rey didn't want to be responsible for depriving either man of a connection they'd come to value.
The gloomy skies did nothing to lift her spirits as she peered out of her bedroom window. It had been reasonably mild for the latter end of September but she sensed a distinct chill in the air. The anticipation of the dark winter days ahead added to her melancholy. As much as she loved the colours of autumn, it always made her a little sad to see all the wilting, withering leaves and flowers. The reds and golds soon faded until only dull browns remained. Rey heaved a wistful sigh and went to check on her father. To her relief, his colour was much improved and he declared himself on the mend. He'd slept comfortably and had already been furnished with a hearty breakfast and a fresh pot of tea courtesy of Mrs. Kanata. She left him to his newspaper and went in search of the old widow, to offer thanks and to apprise her of what happened with Mr. Solo. The cares of the previous day hung heavily on her and, as much as she wanted to circumvent the town gossips, she also hoped a trouble shared would be a trouble halved.
"Goodness me, child, you do look peaky this morning," Mrs Kanata fretted as she entered the kitchen. "I hope you haven't caught a chill."
"I'm well enough in body, it is in spirit I am lacking," Rey lamented as she sat down at the kitchen table. "I have something I ought to tell you if you can spare the time." She hadn't fully shaken off the ill effects of the blow she'd suffered and the restless night's sleep hadn't helped. Tears sprang to her eyes as she thought again of the man she'd disappointed.
"What is it?" The old widow joined her at the table and clasped hold of her hand. "Is it something to do with Mr. Solo?"
"What have you heard?" Rey questioned, fearing the gossips had outwitted her after all.
"I've seen no one this morning or yesterday, for that matter," Mrs. Kanata frowned. "Jessie hasn't come in as yet, and I fear she may have taken ill again."
On any other day, such troubling news about her friend would have sent her dashing out on a mercy mission to Rebelton, but Rey couldn't go anywhere until she'd unburdened herself. She began by recounting the previous morning's events at Killerton North, and then decided she needed to go even further back to include Miss Netal's meddling. By the time she reached the incident that sent Mr. Solo running from the house like the devil was at his heels, the ever self-possessed Mrs. Kanata simply nodded.
"I see," she said, calmly pouring out a cup of tea as if she'd suspected the truth all along.
"I've made such a mess of things, and after I promised to do all I could to help free Mr. Solo from Lord Snoke's clutches," Rey wailed her hot tears splashing on the wooden table top.
"There, there, child," Mrs. Kanata soothed as she patted her hand. "All's not lost, far from it. We have confirmation of the debts Han left behind and I recently received a letter from an old friend who might be able to help us further with our quest."
The correspondence, which arrived a few days previously, had come from a most unexpected source, nevertheless, it been most welcome and timely, as it turned out. The gentleman, although scoundrel might be a more accurate description of him, didn't trust the information he had to a letter. He expressed a hope they might arrange to meet in person. The location of any such rendezvous would have to be in London, to be seen together in Killerton would be far too conspicuous for both of them. There were places in the capital where they could meet among the crowds and not draw any unnecessary attention.
"But what of Mr. Solo?" Rey questioned sniffing back her tears. "He was so downcast when he left last night, and I'd hate to be the cause of him severing his tutelage with my father."
"Are you sure you do not love him?" Mrs. Kanata had been convinced it wasn't all on his side.
Rey frowned in contemplation fearing she didn't know her own heart. Did love strike out of the blue like Cupid's arrow or did it grow and blossom over time? Perhaps she'd been too preoccupied with Mr. Solo's faults to appreciate his virtues. "If you'll pardon my impertinence for inquiring, how did you know you loved Mr. Kanata?"
The old widow got lost in reverie for a moment before bursting into a hearty chuckle in fond remembrance of her dear departed husband. "He was a rare one, my Walter. He had a wooden leg and a heart of gold. And, although he was twenty years my senior, he had the vigour of a man half his age," she sighed her eyes misting over at the memories. "The first time we met, I was disguised as a cabin boy. I was orphaned at the age of ten, and I had to do what I could to survive. I wanted to see the world, and so I joined the crew of a merchant's vessel. Walter was the ship's cook; he saw straight through my disguise but he never said a word. We became friends and he used to regale me with colourful tales from his past, including the time he invented a pudding made of suet and raisins, which we now know as spotted dick, for Lord Nelson. It was a hard life but Walter made it bearable. I knew I'd fallen in love with him when he saved up his marmalade ration for me just because he knew I liked it."
"Mr. Kanata sounds like quite a character," Rey smiled. "I wish I could have met him."
"Now then, what about Mr. Solo? Did you not admit the idea of him being enamoured with Miss Netal grieved you?" The old widow pressed sure she'd sensed a mutual attraction between them.
Rey exhaled in exasperation, her dream of him with that woman as his bride returned to haunt her. "I don't know how being in love with someone should feel," she cried. "All I know is I cannot get the image of the last time I saw him from my mind. He looked so lost and lonely, and I can't bear that I was the cause of it."
Mrs. Kanata nodded with satisfaction as she handed the young woman a handkerchief. "What would you say to you and me taking a trip to London? The sooner we can go the better if we are to help free Mr. Solo from that beast."
"I would gladly go but what about my poor father? I can't leave him while he's unwell," Rey fretted.
Before another word could be spoken, Jessie burst into the kitchen full of apologies for her tardiness. There had been such uproar in Rebelton since the strikers voted to return to work, she'd been kept up for half the night by the fighting and shouting in the streets outside. Lord Snoke had decreed his mills wouldn't reopen until after the weekend, which meant the men would be short of another day's wages. Mrs. Kanata bid the young woman sit down and take some breakfast with them. Mr. Tooker was on the mend and she planned to ask Jessie to stay at the house and take care of him while she and Rey went to London. With any luck, their business could be concluded in a few days, a week at the most. Mrs. Kanata determined she would write to her old friend without delay detailing the arrangements for their meeting. She prayed he wouldn't let her down.
Ben sat listlessly at his desk after a sleepless night, staring down at the papers laid out before him. With a dull aching head, he couldn't concentrate on the task at hand. He cared not one whit for the cotton business in his despondent state and, in any case, there wasn't much to be done until the workers returned on Monday. The Irishmen had been herded back onto the trains that brought them into town, some were returning to Ireland and others were going to work in Lord Snoke's other northern mills outside Killerton. Mr. Mitaka had been on tenterhooks all morning as he scurried in and out of the office. He almost preferred the occasions when Mr. Solo's infamous temper erupted instead of this strangely calm and quiet mood. It unnerved him all the more, like waiting for the thunder crack after the lightning. The overseer thought his master's behaviour most odd given the strike had ended in their favour. But he didn't appear quite as put together as usual with his raven hair unkempt and his deep-set eyes wild. Even in moments past, when he'd lost control of his anger, he retained a certain commanding presence. Now, he looked almost pitiful.
"I thought you might want to review the order book, sir." Mr. Mitaka hesitantly placed the ledger down on the desk.
All at once, Mr. Solo sprang from his seat, "I must away," he said sweeping out of the room in a dramatic fashion.
"Sir, what's to be done with the correspondence from Lord Snoke?" Mr. Mitaka called after him to no avail.
Ben could spare no attention for anything but the young woman who had consumed his every conscious and unconscious thought from the moment of their first meeting. He proceeded away from his office and through the empty mill until he reached the broken down gate. With a brief glance of defiance in the direction of Dreadston Hall, he passed through it and kept on walking. Where he might be bound, Ben neither knew nor cared. However, upon reaching the road where Mrs. Kanata's house stood, he came to a stop. He hadn't intended to find his way there, but the pull he felt towards Rey had not been diminished by her rejection of him. As he'd tossed and turned through the night, unable to find any rest, he'd told himself it would be better for him to hate her. If he regarded her as deserving of his contempt and unworthy of what he'd offered her, perhaps it might ease his suffering. But it would be a lie when he knew her to be a beacon of light in whose flame he would gladly burn to ashes. He may never again hold her in his arms nor his lips ever kiss her, but he would not forget how she'd clung to him in front of the angry mob. Her warm hazel eyes might never burn with desire for him, nonetheless, Ben swore he would love her until his dying breath. Rey might be looking out on him now, unseen from behind a window, and he wanted to stand obstinately where she could see him to let her know he could no sooner stop the sun from rising and setting than he could stop himself from loving her. But he still had sense enough to realise no good would come from it. So he marched onwards through the market square and busy streets, and only when he'd wandered far out onto the moors above Killerton did he allow himself to rest awhile. He found a rock to sit upon as he pondered his situation. Rey was right, he couldn't run away. If she'd accepted his proposal, he would have done anything to keep her by his side. However, he did understand why she'd baulked at the idea of eloping; she was everything to him and he was nothing to her. His plan to leave his mother and uncle to suffer Snoke's wrath was a bad one, and the guilt would have been a heavy burden to carry, but the idea of having Rey as his wife had eclipsed everything else. Ben wanted to be a better man, a man worthy of her love, even if she could never give it to him.
The letter he'd sent out weeks ago to his father's old associate had gone unanswered. He'd written twice more since then and all to no avail. Perhaps he had the wrong address; it had been many years since last they'd seen one another. Mr. Chewy or his mother might know the man's whereabouts but he couldn't ask them. It did cross his mind that the correspondence might have been intercepted somehow by Lord Snoke; although he'd taken measures to ensure it would remain a private matter. If only he could get to London and seek out the man in person, but he could think of no reason his lordship would accept for him taking such a trip. Ben grimaced as one possibility occurred to him; Miss Netal had been wittering on for weeks about wanting to see the Great Exhibition. He didn't relish the idea but something had to be done to break the hold Snoke had over him and his family. His lordship might agree to let him escort Bazine and her chaperone, Mrs. Kloda, to London if he thought it would serve his interests. Like it or not, it was his only hope.
He set off walking back to Killerton North with a renewed sense of purpose. As he passed through the market square, he saw the barrows of fresh fruit and he stopped to purchase a selection of succulent purple grapes, plums, oranges and red apples. Ben recalled Rey mentioning her father was unwell. He'd been too preoccupied with other matters to pay the old man much mind, but he decided he would take the basket of fruit to Mrs. Kanata's house and inquire after his health. It might be a long time before he could visit with them again, and despite what had passed between him and Miss Tooker, he wanted to say his farewells in person. Lord Snoke had commanded he sever the connection and he must obey, for now. Ben glanced at his pocket watch as he'd no notion of the time and discovered it was late in the afternoon. He picked up the packed basket and set a swift pace towards his destination. When he arrived, his courage faltered and he hesitated a moment before knocking. A pale young woman with hair a similar shade to his own opened the door.
"I have come to see Mr. Tooker, if he's up to receiving visitors," Ben explained.
Jessie invited him into the hall as Rey appeared from the sitting room. She had been engaged in a vain attempt to do some needlework, casting it aside at the sound of Mr. Solo's voice, she'd rushed to greet him.
"I've brought a gift of fruit for your father," he said holding up the basket.
Her heart fluttered wildly in her chest at the sight of him. "Thank you, I did not expect - that is, it's most kind of you." She couldn't help being flustered given the awkward circumstances. Rey reached for the basket and passed it to Jessie instructing her to take it to the kitchen. Once alone with Mr. Solo, she wanted to tell him about her regret for the way she'd refused him but no words would come. He looked tired and careworn and it gave her pain to think she might be responsible for it. In shame, she turned her face away.
In case her unease arose from a fear he would renew his proposal to her, Ben got to the purpose of his visit, "If Mr. Tooker could see me, even if it's for a few minutes, I would be grateful. I have something I must say to him and I would prefer not to have to do it by letter." He knew it would sting to see her so soon after her rejection, but he wouldn't have forfeited the chance to be near to her again for anything.
It was as Rey had feared; he intended to put an end to his lessons. "Mr. Solo, I beg you not to act in haste," she beseeched her eyes meeting his. "You are father's favourite student and he would be extremely sorry to lose you."
She said nothing of her own feelings on the matter, he noted, not that he expected any different. "If you're concerned I intend to leave my family in the lurch, you needn't be. Lord Snoke feels I should devote my full attention to the management of Killerton North, and I must oblige him," Ben explained hoping she would know what he meant by it.
Rey did understand and she couldn't bear it. For a moment, she imagined taking him by the hand and declaring she would run away with him, just as he'd asked her to do the night before. He had come bearing a gift in spite of her harsh words to him and the moment her gaze fell upon him holding the basket of fruit, she'd known for certain that she loved him. She wanted to tell him all about her plans to visit London with Mrs. Kanata and how he wasn't friendless against Lord Snoke, but it would be cruel to get his hopes up if it came to nothing. Rey gestured for Mr. Solo to follow her, avoiding his gaze lest she should let her true feelings show. "Father is in the library," she said.
Mr. Tooker greeted the young man warmly, pleased to see him after all his missed lessons. His daughter didn't stay in the room; she excused herself as soon as she'd announced their guest. Ben put her glum appearance down to his continued presence in the house. He wouldn't stay much longer; it wasn't his desire to cause her discomfort. With regret, he delivered his news and took his leave, wishing Mr. Tooker good health. Rey met him on his way out, her eyes red-rimmed as if she'd been crying. He hadn't expected her to come and say goodbye, it surprised him to see her waiting in the hall.
"Have no fear, I won't be troubling you again," Ben vowed his tone colder than he intended despite having some justification for it.
Rey pressed her lips together to stop them quivering. Perhaps he now regretted his offer to her and had realised he didn't love her after all. She took a deep breath and held out her hand to him. He looked bewildered and she feared he wouldn't take it, but he did. "I wish you well, Mr. Solo," she said her voice trembling with emotion.
Overwhelmed, he could only nod in response. She didn't pull away and he savoured the feel of her hand clasped in his. Ben didn't want to let her go but he knew he must. With a swift brush of his lips against her fingers, he went out into the street, "Goodbye, Miss Tooker."
As the door closed, Rey fell to her knees weeping, "I love you," she whispered to the empty space he'd left behind.
The idea for the tall tale Walter told Mrs. Kanata came from the fact that Lord Nelson asked to be supplied with more suet and raisins for his men a week before his victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. I don't know if he did have them made into a pudding but it amused me to think of him feasting on spotted dick.
Thank you to everyone who takes the time to leave a comment. I'm sorry I can't reply to you all individually but every single one is much appreciated.
Whene'er the fate of those I hold most dear
Tells to my fearful breast a tale of sorrow,
O bright-eyed Hope, my morbid fancy cheer;
Let me awhile thy sweetest comforts borrow:
Thy heaven-born radiance around me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o'er my head! - John Keats
Rey kept herself busy in the hope it would prevent her pining for Mr. Solo. During the daytime, she could find plenty of distractions. However, at night when sleep claimed her, he haunted her dreams, tempting her into sin with forbidden kisses. Mrs. Kanata had been her confidante and a kind one at that, but she thought it best not to speak of her true feelings for Mr. Solo to another soul. There were more pressing matters at hand, and she decided she alone must bear the burden. It took the best part of a week for them to make the arrangements for their trip. Mrs. Kanata wanted to make sure they would have suitable lodgings on their arrival, and to that end, she sent a letter to an old friend from her time at sea. The old Seadog now ran an inn and she hoped he would be able to accommodate them. Mr. Tooker had gladly given Rey his blessing to travel to London, keen for her to experience the delights of the Great Exhibition. He made her promise she would tell him all about it on her return. She felt terrible for deceiving him about the true purpose of their journey, although Mrs. Kanata did say they could visit the Crystal Palace if their other plans permitted it. Rey had read a pamphlet which detailed the various exhibits and she longed to see some of the technological wonders on display. Trinkets such as the Koh-i-Noor diamond didn't hold much interest for her, but all the new mechanical inventions and working silk looms would be a sight to behold. Amid such distractions, Rey reminded herself the main purpose of their journey south was to find something incriminating on Lord Snoke. It would all be for nothing if they came home empty handed. The day before their departure, she grew concerned about her father's health and almost begged a delay. Mr. Tooker kept insisting he'd fully recovered from his illness and had seldom felt better, he didn't want her to change her plans on his account. He resumed seeing his remaining pupils and did appear to be back to his old self. Once or twice, Rey thought him unsteady on his feet and she saw him cling to the furniture for support. He'd been careful to shield the worst of his dizzy spells from her view, not wishing to cause her further concern. When challenged, he would say such things were to be expected for a man of his advanced years and she wasn't to fuss over him. Mr. Tooker did not intend to give way to infirmity if he could help it. He had thought he might live long enough to see his adopted daughter happily united in matrimony to Mr. Solo, but his hopes had seemingly been dashed on that score since the young man ceased his visits. Time was against him, and so he set his mind to making other arrangements to secure her future.
Since Mr. Solo put an end to his lessons with her father and vowed not to trouble her again, Rey hadn't caught so much as a glimpse of him but he never wandered far from her thoughts. She hadn't ventured into the park since their last meeting, for as much as she longed to see him, she also feared it. He might be cold and distant or refuse to acknowledge her at all. When she closed her eyes, she could almost feel his lips brushing against her knuckles. Rey doubted he would ever kiss her hand again in greeting or in parting, and she wanted to preserve the memory of it for as long as possible. Heaving a wistful sigh, she tugged her gloves on and chided herself for her foolishness. As she alighted from the omnibus in the southern part of Killerton, she wondered if he might be the reason for her reluctance to call at Hope Mills. It had been her intention to go there at the earliest opportunity to ask Mr. Skywalker if he would consider training her as his apprentice bookkeeper. However, between nursing her father back to health and helping Mrs. Kanata prepare for their forthcoming journey to the capital, she'd kept postponing her visit. Mr. Chewy greeted her at the gates with a cheerful howl, throwing his hairy arms around her in a warm embrace. Rey chuckled and let him know she was happy to see him too, regretting that she'd felt the need to stay away. Finn and Poe were hard at work and they paused just long enough to wave to her with wide smiles. But when the mistress of the house came out to meet her, the reason for her hesitancy became clear; every time she looked into Mrs. Solo's earnest brown eyes, all she could see were those of her son.
Mr. Skywalker had been obliged to travel to Liverpool on a matter of urgent business and Rey judged it best to make her excuses and return home. With reluctance, she allowed herself to be persuaded to stay for afternoon tea. Mrs. Solo begged her company while she waited for her brother to return. It seemed they'd received bad news from their suppliers and finding another source of raw cotton could be costly. Hope Mills had been flourishing of late and picking up orders that might otherwise have gone to Snoke's Mills which made it all the more imperative for them to secure fresh supplies. Rey shifted uneasily in her seat as Mrs. Solo began to talk about how the strike ended and the rumours of what occurred at Killerton North. After all the tears she'd shed over Mr. Solo, reliving recent events in the company of his mother was the last thing she needed much as she understood that Leia wanted to hold onto the hope her son wasn't lost forever. It pained Rey to note how the older woman's gaze kept drifting to the portrait of her late husband. Mrs. Solo had created a strong and loving community around her at the mill, but it couldn't fill the void left by her late husband and missing son. As much as she longed to, Rey could offer no assurances he would be returning to the fold anytime soon. However, she gave what little comfort she could to his mother by telling her of his acts of kindness, such as the fruit basket he'd brought as a gift for her father.
Leia watched the younger woman thoughtfully as she sipped her tea. "It is not my habit to pay attention to idle gossip, except for when it concerns my son, but I've heard Ben has been seen out with Lord Snoke's ward. Despite our estrangement, I really cannot see him being taken in by someone with such obvious charms. He's too much like his father in that way, and Han fell in love with me because I didn't let him get away with anything. My son needs someone with spirit, someone who will challenge him but who also possesses a tender heart. He needs a wife who's not afraid to tell him when he's wrong but will love him fiercely, faults and all."
Rey fought to hold back her tears; she might have been that and more to him. The previous day, Jessie had gone into town on an errand to the draper's shop and she'd reported seeing Mr. Solo and Miss Netal pass by the market square in his lordship's carriage. She hadn't been prepared for the pain such news would bring. Perhaps her rejection of him made him reconsider the other woman's merits, she couldn't discount the possibility. Miss Netal had beauty and education, if not breeding. But her bloodline hardly mattered with Lord Snoke pushing for their union, and Mr. Solo wasn't in a position to disappoint the old man or his ward. Rey feared the imminent announcement of their engagement. Even if, by some miracle, she and Mrs. Kanata could help free him from his father's debts, he may already be shackled to a wife he didn't love. Worse still, he might come to see Bazine as a better choice of bride for him. If nothing else, Mr. Solo would surely fulfil his duties as a husband and produce an heir to the family business. It stung her to imagine another woman at his side as his wife and the mother of his children. With Leia's scrutinising gaze on her, Rey decided it would be wise to make her exit before she gave herself away. As she did have some final preparations for her forthcoming journey to attend to, she didn't feel too guilty about cutting her visit short. For Mrs. Solo's sake and her own, she hoped she could soon return with good news.
Ben glanced around the table with scorn at the other guests Lord Snoke had summoned to dine with him. How he had come to despise these people. He gazed at his wine glass, wishing he could at least dull the experience with strong drink. But unfortunately, he needed to keep his wits about him. His gaze fell upon Armitage Hux; the preening popinjay had been attempting to engage his Lordship's Darkshire banker, Mr. Peavey, in conversation. The man wore a pinched expression which being his natural look, he could hardly help, but every word from the ginger-haired fellow at his side made his lips purse even tighter. Miss Phasma came to his aid, furtive glances passing between her and Hux indicated to Ben his suspicion they were lovers had proven to be correct. Their tedious small talk drove him to distraction but he listened intently, in case the banker dropped any further information about Snoke's finances. He had managed to overhear a snippet of a private conversation between Mr. Peavy and his lordship when he arrived for dinner. The accounts of the three Killerton mills had taken quite a battering during the strike and some of their largest orders either went elsewhere or were cancelled. Mr. Peavy had been expressing his concerns about the future of his lordship's northern businesses but Snoke wasn't the least bit perturbed. He promised his London financier would cover the shortfall if it came to it. The old man didn't travel south much these days. However, once a month a shady looking individual with a Cockney accent would call at Dreadston Hall for a private audience with his lordship. He always wore a finely tailored suit which seemed at odds with his otherwise rough appearance. The man never disclosed his name, although Ben had met him in passing on a couple of occasions. He intended to seek him out by means of the distinctive tattoo of a shining sun with a heart in the centre which he'd noted on the back of the man's right hand.
"Benjy, can we visit the zoo in Regent's Park during our sojourn to London?" Bazine cooed in his ear. "I hear they have a hippopotamus."
He had almost succeeded in forgetting about the woman seated at his side. The sound of her voice served as an unpleasant reminder and he nodded his assent to her request with a tight smile. As distasteful as he found the company around the table, he was glad not to be dining alone with Miss Netal. He reminded himself that his present actions were in service of a greater good, but it made it no easier for him to swallow than his clear mock turtle soup. Rey wouldn't approve, and he had vowed to be a better man for her. However, she'd rejected him and he couldn't sit idly by while Snoke took away everything he held dear. Setting down his spoon, he clenched his hands into tight fists under the dining table. It took a great effort for him to sustain the charade of wooing Bazine. But time was of the essence, and he couldn't think of another way to get his Lordship's permission to take a journey south without raising undue suspicions. He wasn't proud of himself for the deception, especially as he suspected her interest in him might be genuine. However, it wasn't as if he'd made any romantic declarations or promises he couldn't keep. He had merely paid her a small compliment on her piano playing and her vanity had done the rest. Bazine didn't love him, she wasn't sentimental enough for that. But he assumed she regarded him as the most appealing of her limited options. As the wife of a respectable businessman, she would enjoy a place in society not guaranteed to a courtesan. There were advantages and compensations to being a paid mistress, but the threat of falling out of favour or growing too old to be desirable would be ever present.
Lord Snoke appeared in uncharacteristic good humour as he picked up his wine glass and took a deep swallow. His lordship's cheerful mood wasn't unexpected when the strike ended, but almost a week later, it had begun to disquiet those around him. It certainly pleased him to see Mr. Solo engage in a proper courtship of his ward, even though he'd ordered the young man to do it. Still, he'd consented to Ben taking Miss Netal and Mrs. Kloda to London to see The Great Exhibition. Such an excursion could hasten their engagement if his ward put her education to creative use. Lord Snoke also saw a business opportunity in the trip as representatives of the cotton industry had been invited to give presentations at an exhibit demonstrating the cotton making process. Mr. Solo would be taking a selection of specially selected samples of their wares with him in a bid to attract new investors. Samples which, in truth, did not accurately represent the overall quality of their output. But what successful businessman didn't seek to present his product in the best light possible? No one could fault them for that. His lordship raised a toast to the continued success of his mills which Mr. Peavey, Mr. Hux, Miss Phasma and Miss Netal enthusiastically echoed. Ben lifted his glass but he did not take a drink; he had no stomach for it. His tepid response did not go unnoticed, however, Lord Snoke was inclined to overlook it for the time being. He had yet to reveal the main reason for his good cheer and he wouldn't let that announcement pass without celebration.
"As you are all aware, it has been my ambition for some time now to acquire Hope Mills."
Ben stiffened in his seat at his lordship's mention of his family business. Once again, he regretted passing on the information from Miss Tooker regarding his uncle's finances. It had been his ambition to bring Snoke down before he got his hands on that mill but it looked like he'd been thwarted.
His lordship continued, "I have it on good authority that Skywalker purchased his cotton at below the current market rate from an Egyptian source. With cotton prices from America and the Caribbean rising all the while, he must have assumed he'd made a good deal, until this morning, when he received news of his supplier's bankruptcy. He has since travelled to Liverpool in an attempt to find another."
"He will find little joy there, I'll wager," Hux sneered amused by their competitor's misfortunes.
Ben glowered at him, wishing he was at liberty to speak his mind.
"Our man at the docks has sent word that Skywalker will have to pay well over the odds to secure any supplies at such short notice. With his finances already stretched, I'm sure it won't be too long before he's forced to consider selling. I shall make him an offer when the time is right and he is desperate enough not to refuse." Snoke once again lifted his wine glass, a foul smile upon his face. "Here's to Hope Mills returning to its rightful owner."
With his Lordship's unforgiving eye on him, Ben couldn't escape joining the toast, although he feared he might choke on it. Bazine continued her animated chatter about their London trip. In two days hence, he would get his chance to seek out Snoke's ruin, and he couldn't afford to fail.
The rhythmic rocking of the train carriage lulled Mrs. Kanata to sleep with her knitting in her lap. Left to her own company, Rey gazed out at the ever changing landscape. The smoking stacks of Killerton had long since faded from view and green fields now replaced grimy cobblestones. It had taken a weight off her mind to see her father looking rosy cheeked and bright eyed when they'd set out for the station. His illness caused her much anguish as she couldn't recall him ever having so much as a sniffle when they lived in Sunston. It seemed as if whole years had passed since they'd said goodbye to their old home when in reality it had only been a matter of weeks since they'd boarded the northbound train. Her time there seemed as fleeting as a dream when she looked back on it. Each season had significance in the church and the farmlands; Spring brought the blessings of new life, with Summer came feasts and celebrations, in Autumn they gave thanks for the harvest, and Winter gave Christmas cheer. But nothing that good could last forever, and so it proved to be. So much had changed in the weeks since she'd left with Mr. Tooker for a new life in the north. The most significant development being that she'd fallen in love for the first time and not even realised it until it had been lost. But for his sake, she had undertaken the task of travelling to London, a place she'd known both in good times and in bad. Rey didn't like to dwell on the latter but when she closed her eyes, she saw Uriah Plutt standing over her, leather belt in hand and ready to deliver a lashing. The grinding brakes of the train jolted her out of her painful reverie and back to the present. Grateful for the interruption, she met Mrs. Kanata's concerned gaze.
"Are you well, child? The motion of the train isn't making you feel ill, is it?" The old widow asked reaching inside her bag for a bottle of tonic, which her young companion politely declined. "Did you know, it was once feared that a woman's body could be irreparably damaged by train travel," Mrs. Kanata imparted before taking a swig of the tonic. "We weren't built to go at fifty miles an hour, they said, and our uteruses would fly right out of our bodies. Some did say we would melt all together at such a speed, or the rocking motion of the train would rattle our brains so hard, we would go insane."
"Oh, no, I didn't know that," Rey frowned looking vaguely horrified as the carriage bumped along on the tracks. She couldn't believe such a fine feat of engineering could be so harmful.
Mrs. Kanata chuckled, "I've travelled back and forth to London by train more times than I can count, and I haven't melted yet." And with a wink, she added, "But I do lace up my corset extra tight beforehand, just in case."
Rey couldn't help but join in her laughter, although she wondered if the bottle the old woman kept taking sips from contained something stronger than a medicinal tonic. The rest of their journey passed smoothly and they arrived at Euston Station in the late afternoon. Both were in dire need of refreshment and they considered finding a tea room before hiring a carriage to take them to the Covent Garden area. But with nightfall upon them, and as they were unaccompanied, they decided it best to head straight for their lodgings. The Black Swan Inn belonged to Mr. Tuggs, an old friend of Mrs. Kanata and her late husband from their time on the merchant ships. He and his wife were a jolly middle-aged couple and they offered a warm welcome. Mrs. Tuggs showed them to their rooms and afterwards provided the two guests with a hot meal which, after their long journey, had been gratefully received. The next day, refreshed and rested after a good night's sleep, they set out to find the man they'd travelled all that way to meet. Mrs. Kanata warned her young companion to be on the lookout for pickpockets as the streets were crowded and they were venturing into places of ill repute. Rey clutched her umbrella to her, ready to set upon anyone who would dare to try robbing them. It had been years since she'd been in such a position but, thanks to her mudlark days, she knew how to fight. She kept her wits about her as they passed through a busy marketplace and into an alley, at the end of which stood a ramshackle public house called The Falcon. Mrs. Kanata showed no compunction about going inside, despite being a lady of advanced years in a place exclusively populated by males in varying states of inebriation. Rey followed close behind, her eyes darting all around them for any sign of danger.
"Lando Calrissian," Mrs. Kanata bellowed as a dark-skinned man with a grey moustache turned around to face them.
So much for them being discreet, Rey fretted, but no one appeared to pay them any mind.
"Maz Kanata, it's good to see you, old friend," Mr. Calrissian beamed as he stepped forward to greet her and her companion. With a roguish twinkle in his eye, he reached out to take the younger woman's hand. "And who do we have here?" He questioned giving her a charming smile.
"I'm pleased to meet you, sir, my name is Rey Tooker," she replied as she took in his appearance. The man looked to be almost as old as her father. He'd obviously been handsome in his youth and still cut quite a dash in his blue top coat and trousers with a matching cape around his shoulders.
Without further ado, he ordered a large jug of beer and invited them to take a seat as he told them all he knew about Lord Snoke's connections to the criminal underworld.
Firstly, I would like to apologise, faithful readers, for the long wait between updates. I've got a lot going on in life at the moment and I hope you'll forgive me. But I have never abandoned a story and I don't intend to start now.
Thank you to everyone who has so kindly left a comment and/or kudos, they are all very much appreciated. Please, do keep the feedback coming.
The things Mrs. Kanata tells Rey about train travel were genuine fears in the Victorian era. However, I think those concerns had more to do with trying to limit the independence of women by making them afraid to travel rather than with health.
The Great Exhibition/London interlude does not happen in the book version of North And South, only in the 2004 TV adaptation. But I thought it would be fun to get Rey and Ben there and it does serve the plot too.
Thanks again for your patience - Mrs. P
As though 'twere by a wizard's rod
As blazing arch of lucid glass
Leaps like a fountain from the grass
To meet the sun.
A quiet green, but few days since;
With cattle browsing in the shade,
And lo! long lines of bright arcade
In order raised!
A palace as for a fairy prince,
A rare pavilion, such as man
Saw never since mankind began,
And built and glazed. - William Makepeace Thackeray
It hardly seemed like autumn at all in the blazing morning sun. After spending much of the previous day inside drinking establishments of varying reputations, Rey had leapt at the opportunity to visit The Great Exhibition. So far, their quest hadn't been as successful as they'd hoped. Mr. Calrissian understood their wish to help Mr. Solo if at all possible as the young man himself had written to him directly to request similar assistance some weeks previously. Knowing of his estrangement from his family and current position under Snoke, Mr. Calrissian would not risk sending a reply to Mr. Solo. Instead, he wrote to Mrs. Kanata seeking her counsel on the matter and sought to gather what information he could through his various contacts in the criminal underworld. How he came to know such dubious characters, Rey didn't inquire, although she understood from Mrs. Kanata that Lando hadn't always conducted his business on the right side of the law. He told them Lord Snoke had purchased Han Solo's debts from a man known as 'King' Prana. Prana had come to London several years earlier from an undetermined overseas location and, passing himself off as foreign royalty, he had set up shop as an investment banker. Renown for his lavish parties and extravagant lifestyle, he'd managed to attract a great many investors from all echelons of society with his grand schemes. He also offered loans at a high rate of interest which had driven more than a few desperate men to bankruptcy and worse. Where Lord Snoke came into it, Mr. Calrissian could not prove. He'd heard whispers his Lordship had given a substantial amount of money to King Prana in exchange for a share of future profits from his investments and the promissory notes to Han Solo's debts. There were also a number of illegal gambling dens and other unwholesome establishments which were said to be part of the Prana business empire. Anyone who asked too many questions about such matters tended to disappear never to be heard from again. However, Mr. Calrissian heard tell of a lawyer who'd been looking into the suspicious death of one of his clients. The unfortunate gentleman had apparently invested a large sum of money in one of King Prana's schemes and had been found dead a short time later, floating face down in the River Thames. Lando had arranged a meeting with the lawyer later that afternoon and told Mrs. Kanata he would send word to her if he discovered anything relevant to their interests.
The journey to Hyde Park had been cramped and uncomfortable as Mrs. Tuggs decided to accompany them at the last minute. All her friends had visited the exhibition and she didn't want to be the odd one out. Unfortunately, she happened to be a rather plump woman and the Hansom cab Mrs. Kanata hired wasn't particularly spacious. Rey had been forced to pull down the window to alleviate the stifling atmosphere. She leant her head outside the carriage as the Crystal Palace came into view, her mouth gaping open in wonder. The great glass structure stood proudly above the trees sparkling brightly in the Autumn sunshine. Men, women, and children were milling about the entrance as a steady queue of people streamed in and out. The gathered crowd demonstrated it had lost none of its appeals in the five months since the grand opening by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Only a few weeks of the exhibition remained before it closed its doors for good and no one wanted to miss out for the price of a shilling. Rey hadn't been prepared for the scale of the place, although she recalled reading St. Paul's Cathedral could fit inside it six times over. Flanked by Mrs. Kanata and Mrs. Tuggs, she walked through the main concourse. The variety of marble statues, coloured fabrics of every kind, animal skins, porcelain, machinery and all manner of other curiosities left her spoiled for choice as to which exhibits to go to first. For most of her life, Rey had been more concerned with survival than exploration and she supposed this was the closest she would come to seeing the wonders of the world. The idea of travelling to far flung places such as India or Africa seemed to be something she could only dream about, notwithstanding Mr. Solo's recent offer to run away to America with him. For a short while at least, she had an opportunity to savour the delights on display from the furthest reaches of the British Empire. Mrs. Kanata and Mrs. Tuggs soon had their fill of Chinese vases, Indian rugs, Spanish lace and the like, and the pair of them retired to one of the refreshment areas nestled amidst some of the Hyde Park trees the Crystal Palace had been built so high to accommodate. Rey declined to take tea with her companions as she wanted to go and see the machinery exhibits, which they'd deemed too noisy to visit. Beyond the hydraulic press and steam engines, she watched paper printing, the fabric dyeing process and wool and cotton looms in action. As she progressed through the vast room, she noticed people gathering at the far end where representatives from various industries were taking turns to address the crowd. She had no money to buy their wares and intended to make her way back to the refreshment area when a familiar voice stopped her in her tracks.
"As you can see, the cotton making process has been greatly refined during the last seventy years and our technological advancements are the envy of the world. Other countries may produce cotton, but there's none to match what we make here in our towns and cities. The samples I have brought today from our mills in Killerton demonstrate the quality and variety we manufacture on a daily basis. A man who puts his money into cotton can be sure he is making a wise investment in a profitable and growing industry."
Mr. Solo's speech sounded stilted and over rehearsed. He had removed his tall hat, and on a couple of occasions, Rey noted him sweeping strands of his sleek dark hair away from his face. She'd seen him perform the same action before when nervous or uncomfortable. His cheeks and the tips of his ears turned a deep shade of red as he answered inquiries from the crowd. She hung back, not wishing to be seen by him but unable to tear herself away. How handsome he looked in his long black topcoat and matching trousers, Rey observed his red necktie the only dash of colour upon him. He concluded his address and she took a tentative step forward, coming to a sudden halt when she spied Miss Netal and Mrs. Kloda approaching Mr. Solo from the opposite direction.
"Oh, Benjy, you were marvellous," Bazine enthused as he politely received her praise.
Rey's heart sank as she watched Miss Netal fuss over him. On attempting to flee the scene, she found the crowd had grown around her. The only option open to her was to move forward, which would bring her to the attention of those she so keenly wished to avoid. As she searched for another way out, she couldn't help overhearing as Miss Netal tried to coax Mr. Solo to go with her and her companion to view the Koh-i-Noor diamond. He would not be tempted and begged leave to remain and speak with potential investors as Lord Snoke expected him to do. Rey bided her time until the two ladies departed and then she followed on behind them at a safe distance. She bowed her head and prayed her hat would be enough to shield her from being recognised by Mr. Solo. Thankfully, a couple of gentlemen stepped forward to engage him in conversation and with his attention elsewhere, she hoped to slip past him unnoticed. The jostling of the crowd brought her to within inches of where he stood, her sleeve almost brushing against his, she ducked her head lower not daring to risk an upward glance.
"Miss Tooker," his deep voice close to her ear made her freeze on the spot. "It is you," he gasped his eyes wide in surprise as she turned to face him.
Rey parted her lips in an attempt to offer a perfunctory greeting, but no words came and she got lost in his intense gaze. She took a step closer to him, her feet moving almost of their own accord, the pull she felt towards him magnetic and too strong to be denied.
"I should go," she eventually managed to utter.
Before she could summon up the will to leave, Ben blocked her path. He hadn't recovered from the shock of their unexpected meeting but he needed to find an excuse to prolong their encounter. "Are you here with your father?" He asked craning his neck to catch sight of Mr. Tooker. "I should like to give him my warmest regards,"
"No, my father is at home," Rey curtly informed him. Her hurt had been replaced by anger, she'd travelled hundreds of miles on his account only to find him as good as in the arms of another woman. Logically, she knew refusing his offer of elopement had left him at Lord Snoke's mercy. He'd told her how it would be and his family would suffer if he refused to follow orders. As she'd been the one to scold him for suggesting he would leave his mother and uncle to face his Lordship's wrath, she could hardly fault him for staying and doing his duty. But having to witness it unfolding before her eyes proved to be more than she could bear.
"You cannot be here unaccompanied, surely?" Mr. Solo questioned frowning with concern.
She huffed in exasperation, "I came with Mrs. Kanata and her friend, they are taking tea in the refreshment department. I should be getting back to them," she insisted, attempting to leave, but he refused to let her go.
Ben, increasingly alarmed at the idea his sweet Rey had journeyed to the capital in the company of an aged widow, couldn't help voicing his disapproval at the arrangement. He feared for her safety with no suitable male relation or guardian to protect her. "London is no place for a young lady to to be wandering about unchaperoned."
"I don't see what business it is of yours where I go or with whom," she snapped, taking exception to his insinuation she couldn't take care of herself. "I spent most of my childhood alone in this city, as I'm sure you are well aware. The rest of the population of Killerton certainly seem to be well informed about my days as a Mudlark."
The crowd had begun to thin out and she seized her chance to escape.
"Rey," he croaked almost too low for her to catch over the chattering din of the other visitors.
She did hear, though, and spun around. The only time he'd addressed as anything other than Miss Tooker had been when he'd asked her to marry him.
Encouraged and emboldened by the look of tenderness in her eyes, Ben reached out his hand to her.
Rey glanced down at it, her gaze following the stitching on his black leather glove. Before she could think better of it, her palm met his and he interlaced his fingers with hers. She savoured his touch for a moment, even through the leather it felt warm. But no good could come of it now, she bitterly acknowledged, he had other obligations. "We should both return to our companions," she argued attempting to break free.
"Bazine is a means to an end, that's all. I care nothing for her," he swore refusing to relinquish his hold on her. "You are my only love."
Rey misunderstood his intentions and her anger flared. "I did not refuse your offer of marriage so I could enter into an illicit arrangement. My origins may be lowly, but do not imagine I would ever lower myself to that."
"I would never…that you could imagine..." Ben stuttered in shock as he released his grip on her hand. She pulled away, weaving her way through the crowds before he could recover his composure.
Rey had fallen into a contemplative state after leaving Hyde Park. Mrs. Kanata kept throwing concerned glances in her direction as they travelled back to their lodgings. She had excused her behaviour by saying the exhibition had left her overwhelmed but she could tell the old woman wasn't satisfied with her explanation.
Mrs. Tuggs took it upon herself to fill the silence. "It had what I would call an embarrassment of riches," she said, as being a practical woman with no tolerance for trumpery, she'd already declared herself unimpressed with the Crystal Palace and its contents. "All that fuss about Queen Victoria's big fancy diamond and it turned out to be a dull bit of old rock in a parrot cage."
"I liked the statues," Mrs. Kanata revealed, "particularly the Greek Slave." She had found it both beautiful and moving, the chains around the wrists of the nude female signified her bondage, but the cross she held onto showed her spirit and faith remained unbroken.
"What was your favourite exhibit, my dear?" Mrs. Tuggs asked the young woman sat opposite her.
Rey could focus on little besides her encounter with Mr. Solo. Everything else faded into insignificance next to it. "I liked the gallery with the stained glass windows," she said naming the first thing that sprang to mind in the hope of being left in peace thereafter. She had been dazzled by the multi coloured light show when the sun streamed through the glass so it wasn't a lie.
To her relief, Mrs. Tuggs and Mrs. Kanata didn't press her any further. Both commented on how tired she looked and proceeded to gossip amongst themselves. Before long, they arrived back at the Black Swan Inn. As it was late in the afternoon, Rey wondered if there would be a note from Mr. Calrissian waiting for them. She wasn't too disappointed to discover there wasn't as the events of the day had left her exhausted and with an aching head. Excusing herself, she went upstairs to rest. Mrs. Kanata promised to send the maid up to wake her if a letter came with news of any significance. She hadn't expected to fall asleep with her mind so occupied with Mr. Solo but she awoke with a start to find the room in darkness except for the light from the gas lamps outside the window. Unsure of how much time had passed since she retired to her bed, Rey poured a small amount of water into the wash bowl and splashed some on her face. She wiped the sleep from her eyes and brushed her hair, it had come loose from its three bun style and she decided to leave it down. Straightening her dress and putting a thin shawl around her shoulders, she proceeded downstairs in search of Mrs. Kanata. As she entered the bar room, she saw the old widow in the far corner huddled over a table with Mr. Calrissian. The pair were deep in conversation and didn't appear to have noticed her come in. Hesitant to disturb them, she contemplated going back upstairs to her room. She had almost decided to do so when she happened to glance through the window, there on the street outside lurked a familiar dark figure. He seemed to be attempting to make his mind up whether to come inside or not. Before he got to the door, Rey hastened through it, after first checking that Mrs. Kanata and her friend hadn't caught sight of either of them.
"Mr. Solo, what on earth are you doing here?" She questioned as he stood aghast at their second unexpected meeting of the day.
He had never seen her hair free of its usual constraints and he couldn't tear his gaze from her. It cost him a deal of effort to affect haughty disinterest. "I might ask you the same thing."
Rey glared at him in exasperation, why did they have to keep encountering each other in such awkward circumstances? "Mrs. Kanata and I are staying here for a few days. Are you in search of a bed for the night?" she inquired and then blushed at how he might interpret such an inquiry in light of their earlier conversation.
His cheeks also took on a pink tinge as he too recalled her harsh words to him that afternoon. "I'm looking for an old friend of my father's. He is usually to be found in a pub called The Falcon. However, as he wasn't there, I decided to try a few of the other places he's been known to frequent."
He had to be looking for Mr. Calrissian, Rey realised. The night air had a chill to it and she shivered with only a thin shawl to keep out the cold. Mr. Solo gave her a glance of concern and began to undo the clasp of his woollen cape. Without asking her permission, he carefully swept her hair aside and draped it around her shoulders.
"Thank you," she grudgingly mumbled secretly thrilling at how the cloth still held the warmth from his body.
After a moment of awkward silence, he moved towards the door.
"If it's Mr. Calrissian you've come in search of, he is inside talking to Mrs. Kanata," Rey informed him.
Mr. Solo scowled, "What business does she have with him?"
"I suppose they are reliving times gone by," she said not wishing to reveal too much when she didn't know his purpose in seeking out his father's old friend.
He threw a disdainful glance at the inn. "I did hope you would be returning home to your father after visiting the exhibition, not keeping company with blaggards and drunkards."
His disapproval provoked Rey to unleash a jibe, "And where is Miss Netal while you're out taking the night air?"
Mr. Solo glowered at her before his features softened once more, they were already standing close together and he moved in closer still. "Before our earlier unfortunate misunderstanding, I did dare to imagine you were pleased to see me." Rey made to protest but he continued, "I will not press my suit again, not while I am still indebted to Lord Snoke. However, if you could but give me some small hope for the future, I would move heaven and earth for a chance to win your heart."
"Now is hardly the time to be making promises neither of us may ever be in a position to keep," she cautioned, though her feelings were torn. Her resolve when she'd refused his proposal must stand. "And what of Miss Netal? She presumably has expectations, as Lord Snoke does. If he insists the two of you marry, how can you refuse?"
He gave out a weary sigh, "My situation is desperate, it's no use pretending otherwise. In truth, I am here to seek some way to break the hold his Lordship has over my family before all is lost."
Rey noted for the first time since their reunion how tired and careworn he looked. Her jealousy of her supposed rival and way she'd misread his intentions had blinded her to the weight of his burden. For now, she would be his friend. He need not suffer alone when they shared the same aim regarding Snoke. She held out her hand to him, an action which had become so familiar to them, and he did not hesitate to take it. "Come, let us go inside," she said, praying Mr. Calrissian had brought with him some news to lift their spirits.
Rey and Ben meet at The Great Exhibition! I could never do justice to the number of exhibits housed in the Crystal Palace within a few paragraphs, and that's not what this story is about. But I did read a lot about it, and I chose to mention a few things such as the Koh-i-Noor diamond which was presented to Queen Victoria in 1850. Many visitors expressed disappointment with it when they visited the exhibition because it wasn't cut to sparkle. Prince Albert sent it to be recut in 1852 which greatly reduced its size. Owing to the supposed curse that it's bad luck for a man to own it, only female members of the Royal Family have ever worn it, and it is now set in the front of the Queen Mother's Crown.
The Greek Slave is a marble statue by American sculptor Hiram Powers. Six full-size copies of it were made and one was displayed at The Great Exhibition. Four of the others are currently on display at various places across the US, including Yale University Art Gallery.
Thank you all for your continued support and please do leave a comment if you have time - Mrs. P
"There is no disguise which can hide love for long where it exists, or simulate it where it does not."
― François de La Rochefoucauld
Ben arrived back at the hotel in Mayfair in a considerably better mood than when he'd departed from it. Rey would only go as far as to call him a friend but he wasn't downcast, how could he be when she'd held his hand and gifted him with such tender glances as to make his heart sing? She did not have to speak of returning his love, her actions were proof enough of her feelings. His stoic facade had threatened to crumble with the discovery she and Mrs. Kanata had travelled all the way to London for his sake. To know the woman he loved so fiercely would go to such lengths on his account had filled him with elation and gratitude. It also greatly troubled him that, by their endeavours, they might have placed themselves in harm's way. Mr. Calrissian spoke of mysterious disappearances and suspected murders of those who meddled in King Prana's affairs. Lando recognised the description of the flaming sun and heart tattoo Ben had seen on the hand of Snoke's mysterious visitor. He had seen similar markings on the hands of men rumoured to be involved in the running of Prana's criminal empire. Mr. Jinn, the lawyer Lando met with, told him that although most of society had been fooled, at least one member of the aristocracy had been willing to listen to his suspicions regarding the legitimacy of King Prana's investments. Lord Ransolm Casterfo, an old friend of Mr. Jinn's recently deceased client, had offered his assistance in exposing the fraud. Having secured an invitation to Prana's latest grand party, which would be held the following evening in Grosvenor Square, his Lordship intended to pose as a potential investor. Good men and women had already been taken in and lives, as well as livelihoods, had been lost too. The death of Lord Casterfo's friend had been ruled a suicide, but he would not believe it and swore to bring those responsible to justice. Ben wondered if he could somehow contrive to get himself invited to the party. The house King Prana kept in Grosvenor Square was but a stone's throw away from his hotel. At this point in the social calendar, the aristocracy would usually have retired to their country estates. However, The Great Exhibition and its associated soirées had kept many of them in London out of season. He resolved to set out the next morning after breakfast in an attempt to make the man's acquaintance.
Throughout the evening, Ben found his attention wandering to Rey's radiant hazel eyes. He'd already studied them well enough during their past acquaintance to be able to call to mind every brown fleck amid the green of her irises, but he couldn't seem to help himself. In truth, he welcomed the distraction from dwelling on darker matters, returning to London for the first time since the ill-fated day he'd travelled there with his father had stirred up some unpleasant memories. During their train journey, Han had been forced to confess to his son about the debts he'd accrued and that Lord Snoke now held the fate of their family in his hands. His Lordship had summoned the elder Mr. Solo to meet with him in London and requested Ben accompany him. Han had been in no position to refuse as he didn't have the money to repay what he owed. Snoke told his father he would accept Leia's share in Hope Mills as payment in full; Han refused. He might not have cared for the family business but he knew how much it had come to mean to his wife. His Lordship shrugged off his disappointment and turned his attention to Ben, offering to defer the repayment of his father's debts if he agreed to cut off all ties with his family and work for him. Han would not hear of it and promised to find the money somehow. He was granted three days to pay up or face ruination. It had been an impossible situation which led to a bitter quarrel when Ben suggested he should take Snoke's offer if only to buy the time to raise sufficient capital. When his father unexpectedly collapsed and died later that day, he felt he'd been left with no choice but to beg his Lordship's mercy and save what remained of his family from ruin. He had to swear absolute loyalty and obedience to Snoke, who promised in return not to collect his due as long as Ben adhered to his long list of conditions. He grudging signed the prepared agreement, but his Lordship kept pushing the boundaries of their arrangement and would not cease in his ambition to reclaim Hope Mills. Snoke considered himself to be more than generous, willing as he was to pay a fair price for it when he could get it by less charitable means. To his eternal shame, Ben couldn't be sure he would have chosen his present course of action if not for Rey. If she hadn't stumbled into his life and awoke his heart from its bitter slumber, he might have continued to be Lord Snoke's puppet, left dangling on ever shortening strings.
It was getting on for midnight when Ben climbed the stairs to his room. The candles had burned low in their holders and the place had fallen quiet. Everyone must be asleep, he reasoned, bemoaning the creaking floorboards on the landing in case they should rouse Miss Netal or Mrs. Kloda from their slumber. He glanced warily at the door beside his own, listening keenly for any stirrings. Thankfully, he heard nothing and entered his room grateful he could now come to rest. As reluctant as he'd been to part company with Rey, Ben couldn't deny his weariness. Plagued by insomnia and night terrors for as long as he could remember, he never managed more than a few hours of untroubled sleep. He sank down onto the bed without bothering to light the candle on the dresser and pulled his necktie loose. Unfastening the buttons on his shirt, he made short work of disrobing and changed into his night attire before slipping under the bedcovers. In the dark, he rested his head on the cool pillow picturing Rey's smile as he'd wished her farewell before leaving The Black Swan Inn. Before long, he began to drift off to sleep. When he felt the mattress dip beside him, he had the notion he must be dreaming. The sensation of something soft and warm brushing against his lips brought him back to his senses, and he opened his eyes to flickering candlelight. In a state of confusion, he met Miss Netal's seductive gaze and forgetting his exhaustion, he immediately leapt out of the bed.
"You should not be in here," he chided hoping his stern glare would deter her from making further advances.
"Oh, Benjy, you were gone so long on your walk, I wanted to be sure you'd returned safely," she cooed, her bosom almost heaving out of her nightdress.
He glanced at the door wondering if he'd forgotten to secure it in his state of exhaustion. The key sat on the dresser where he'd set it down before retiring.
"It's a skeleton key, the same as mine," Bazine explained holding it aloft. "Yours would open my lock too."
Ben cleared his throat and, conscious of being clad only in his nightshirt, he reached for his dressing gown. "I thank you for your concern," he said with barely concealed annoyance at the unwelcome intrusion. "Now, I must bid you goodnight, Miss Netal." The door would not open and he realised she must have locked it again when she entered.
Bazine grabbed his key from the dresser and slipped it under the pillow she'd rested upon along with her own. "Mrs. Kloda takes a sleeping draft every night before bed, she won't hear a thing," she purred holding out her hand to him in invitation.
He strode over to the bed with a fierce look of intent which she mistook for passion. Ignoring her open arms, Ben hauled her aside so he could retrieve his key. She tried to grab it before he could but wasn't fast enough.
"It wouldn't be a sin, Benjy, not when we will soon be man and wife," Bazine tempted as she began to undo the lace at the front of her nightdress.
"I beg you, do not continue," he implored turning his face away in horror and disgust. "Return to your own room at once and we shall speak no more of this."
She tried to cajole him but he marched towards the door and unlocked it, "Go," he commanded.
Bazine slowly rose from the bed, she refused to run out like a scolded child. She paused on the threshold and turned to him, "We will be married, make no mistake about that," she vowed. "I do hope you don't intend to disappoint me on our wedding night."
Ben shook with rage as she disappeared into her own room. He would do himself an injury rather than submit to such a marriage. Alone at last, he turned the key and left it in the lock. He thought about pushing the dresser up in front of the door but he didn't want to make further commotion at such a late hour. All hopes of a good night's sleep were lost as he trudged back to bed. Like a fishing boat tossed around on stormy seas, he'd been doomed to flounder upon the rocks. He laid back against the pillows with a weary sigh and closing his eyes, he once again pictured Rey, her warm smile a lighthouse amid the tempest. "Rest now, my love," she whispered pressing a soft kiss to his heavy brow. Glad to obey her, he drifted deep into slumber and dreams of his sunshine.
Rey awoke in a state of hopeful anticipation. What seemed impossible only a day ago could now be achievable. She wanted to believe it could be so for Mr. Solo's sake if nothing else. As for her own desires, she refused to dwell on them. Her past experiences had made her practical, not romantic, and she couldn't afford to get lost in fantasies when so much remained unresolved. She had already chided herself for being so unguarded in her affections towards Mr. Solo the previous evening. He'd been in such low spirits when she'd first encountered him, Rey could not help showing him kindness, justifying it as her Christian duty. But it was much more than that and she knew it. She had held his hand as they'd entered the inn, making sure to let go before Mrs. Kanata and Mr. Calrissian caught sight of them. However, his cloak still hung about her shoulders as they'd taken a seat at the table. She'd swiftly returned it to him with a blush which did not go unnoticed by their companions. The chat continued late into the night and Rey hadn't been able to stop herself from stealing glances in Mr. Solo's direction. To her delight and embarrassment, she'd found him doing the same to her. He beamed when their eyes met and she'd returned the gesture, honoured he'd gifted her with a smile when he scowled at everyone else. She had been disappointed he didn't kiss her hand when he took his leave, but they'd warmly wished each other goodnight. It pleased her, after their recent misunderstanding, that they'd been able to part as friends.
When Rey arrived downstairs for breakfast, she found Mrs. Kanata waiting for her with a letter in hand. Lord Casterfo had invited them to tea and would send his carriage to collect them at noon. She thought it odd as neither of them could tell him anything he didn't already know about King Prana, but they were grateful for his offer of assistance. Mr. Calrissian and Mr. Jinn would also be there, and the invitation had also been extended to Mr. Solo. He had already explained during the previous evening, he would have difficulty in extricating himself from his companions without arousing suspicions. Lord Snoke had only given him leave to be away from Killerton North for three days and Miss Netal would no doubt be reporting back to him on their return. Mrs. Kanata paid a messenger to go to Mr. Solo and see if he could accompany them to Hyde Park Corner, but he was forced to send his apologies. In his hastily written note, he said he hoped to meet with them again before he left London, although he could make no firm arrangements at present.
After breakfast, Rey returned to her room to prepare for the meeting with Lord Casterfo. Mr. Calrissian knew next to nothing about the man except what he'd learned from Mr. Jinn who could only tell him he was nouveau riches, his father having made the family fortune through iron manufacturing. She supposed he had to be a gentleman of integrity and feeling to want to save others from suffering his late friend's fate. Rey frowned as she opened the wardrobe, she didn't know what to wear for such an occasion. The dresses she'd brought with her were good enough for her current company, but she wasn't sure they would do for meeting a lord. He would have to take her as he found her, she eventually decided, changing into her best green dress which she often wore to church.
The carriage Lord Casterfo sent for them was everything of the finest with plum velvet seats and gold gilt adornments. Mrs. Kanata declared it a coach fit for Queen Victoria herself as they made their way along the route they'd taken the previous day towards Hyde Park. She judged that his Lordship had the same fault as most of the nouveau riches, in that what he lacked in noble blood he made up for in ostentatious displays of wealth. Rey fidgeted with the ribbon on her bonnet, her thoughts drifting to Mr. Solo. The old widow at her side hadn't asked her directly about the gentlemen or her feelings for him since their latest encounter, but she sensed the topic couldn't be avoided for long. She kept her remarks to the weather as a thick fog had descended over the city in a stark contrast to the sunshine they'd enjoyed the day before. It added to the mystery of their outing as they both wondered what their host would be like. After passing the Crystal Palace, which looked significantly less dazzling in the fog, the carriage pulled up outside a white stucco 4-story Regency terrace. The footman attended them and they were escorted to the entrance hall which had been decorated in a military motif. There were two full suits of shining armour standing guard on either side of the door and all kinds of weaponry hung on the walls. His Lordship's butler met them and guided them directly into the drawing room. He announced their arrival to the tall, fashionably dressed gentleman inside who stood up to offer his greeting. Lord Casterfo had a charming smile and kind blue eyes. His wavy collar-length golden hair had been carefully styled to hide his slightly protruding ears and swept back from his thin but handsome face. Rey didn't consider him as striking as Mr. Solo, who he looked to be the same age or slightly older than. She preferred Ben's raven tresses, sharply angled profile, and brown/green eyes. However, she could appreciate that many a young lady would swoon at the sight of Lord Casterfo.
"My dear ladies, I'm so pleased to meet you," he said ushering them towards the plushly upholstered sofa.
No sooner had they taken a seat than the butler appeared again, this time with Mr. Calrissian and Mr. Jinn in tow. The introductions were made and pleasantries exchanged as the maid brought in the tea, Lando remarked on the military paraphernalia which adorned the walls. His Lordship pointed out a few favoured pieces, including a Roundhead helmet from the English Civil War and unused cannon balls manufactured in his own iron works which were aboard the HMS Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar. The conversation turned to King Prana and Mrs. Kanata noted Lord Casterfo gazing at Miss Tooker with a curiosity to which the young woman appeared oblivious.
"Shall your lady wife be accompanying you to the party this evening?" The old widow inquired her main purpose to discover his marital status.
His Lordship looked quite flushed all of a sudden, and he set down his teacup with a guilty expression on his face. "I'm afraid I have a confession to make," he began to the surprise of his guests. "I had an ulterior motive in inviting you here today," he said returning his attention to Rey. "When Mr. Jinn told me about you an idea began to form in my mind. It is my hope you will accompany me to King Prana's residence this evening." She opened her mouth to object but he continued, "I have no wife or female acquaintance I should feel comfortable taking to such an event, and as you know the particulars of the suspected fraud, it is possible you might observe something I would otherwise overlook."
The scheme had some merit, Rey couldn't deny, but she hadn't come to London equipped for what was sure to be a lavish party. "Flattered as I am, I'm sure I should look quite out of place in such esteemed company," she blushed, although her humble station in life wasn't something which caused her shame it still pained her to acknowledge its limitations.
Lord Casterfo had already anticipated her objections. "Nonsense, you will be the belle of the ball. I can have a dressmaker here within the hour, if you'll permit me, of course." He could see her wavering but pride stood in the way. "Please say you will, and keep in mind it is not for pleasure we go but for a more noble purpose."
Mrs. Kanata urged her to accept. Their time in London would soon be at an end and they had yet to find anything to put a stop to Lord Snoke's deplorable machinations. Rey found herself outnumbered as Mr. Jinn and Mr. Calrissian added their support for his Lordship's proposal. She reluctantly gave her assent. For Mr. Solo's sake, she would suffer it.
The dressmaker had done wonders at short notice adjusting an off-the-shoulder pale blue silk gown. Rey looked the part, she couldn't deny, but she didn't feel it. Her hair had been styled into long ringlets at the sides and pinned in a spiral knot at the back with flowers to match her dress. Lord Casterfo tried to persuade her to wear a pearl necklace with matching earrings which had once belonged to his late mother. But she politely declined, feeling enough of a fraud as it was in her other borrowed finery. Mr. Calrissian and Mr. Jinn had done their best to school her on what she should be on the lookout for and his Lordship told her what to expect from a gathering of high society. Rey was to be presented as a distant Casterfo country cousin and had been given a potted history of iron making lest anyone should quiz her on the matter. All the subterfuge set her nerves on edge and she barely managed to speak two words during the carriage ride to King Prana's house. Once inside, they were announced to the curiosity of their fellow guests and their host stepped forward to greet them. Mr. Calrissian said he was rumoured to be Anglo-Indian extraction and Rey could well believe it. Prana had hair as dark as Mr. Solo's and sharp blue eyes, his tan complexion certainly suggested a Far Eastern origin. He spoke English like a native barring the occasional odd inflection on certain words. His home was exotically decorated with oriental fabrics and ornamentation to match what The Great Exhibition had to offer. The man wasted no time in spiriting Lord Casterfo away to talk to fellow guests who'd already invested their money in one of the King's schemes. Rey took the opportunity to sample the expertly prepared dishes on offer, King Prana had spared no expense in providing a feast for his guests. Due to spending the afternoon in a state of anxiety, she hadn't eaten anything for hours. Her borrowed gown had been sewn so tight she feared bursting out of it if she indulged in so much as a spoonful of blancmange, but fainting from hunger became of greater concern. Conscious as she was that she hadn't come to eat pheasant, Rey reasoned it would be easier to concentrate her mind if her stomach wasn't rumbling. She soon found another advantage to sating her appetite, it deterred gossipy female guests from attempting to engage her in conversation. Her enthusiastic manner of eating left a lot to be desired and she drew scornful glances as she consumed a generous slice of Game pie. Rey assumed all the invited guests had already arrived, but as she chewed on a tough piece of meat, the butler appeared at the door to announce a latecomer.
"Mr. Bail Organa."
Rey almost choked on her pie as a familiar figure entered the room. Ben's eyes widened in surprise as his gaze fell upon her as she coughed and spluttered at the dining table. He hurried to her side offering his assistance.
"A glass of water would be just the thing," she croaked taking his arm and leading him out to a quiet spot where they could speak in private. Finding a secluded alcove away from the scrutiny of the crowd, she turned to him with a frown of disapproval. "What are you doing here, and under a false name too, I thought you couldn't get away."
Ben had never seen her in a dress which exposed so much flesh. Her neck and shoulders were usually hidden under layers of cloth and he couldn't help drinking in the sight of her tanned freckled skin. "I - Bail Organa was the name of my mother's adopted father," he explained attempting to clear his mind of impure thoughts before continuing. "I met King Prana earlier today at a Gentlemen's Club he frequents in Hanover Square, and I ingratiated myself to him under the guise of a rich industrialist looking to invest my fortune. I could not give my real name lest he should know of my connection to Lord Snoke. Miss Netal thinks I'm dining with businessmen interested in putting their money into cotton." Her attempt to seduce him had turned into a blessing in disguise as he'd been able to use it as justification to put distance between them.
Rey unconsciously bit her lower lip as she allowed herself to appreciate the sight of Mr. Solo in his black evening suit. The nook they'd crammed themselves into away from prying eyes meant they were standing in close proximity. For a moment, his gaze lingered on her mouth and she imagined him leaning in for a kiss.
"I certainly did not expect to find you here," Ben said startling her back to her senses.
"Lord Casterfo asked me to accompany him, he's talking with King Prana now," she explained as her companion's eyes narrowed with suspicion. "I should go and find him in case he's wondering where I am."
She made a move to leave but Mr. Solo caught her hand in his, turning his heated gaze upon her. "Tell me you are my love," he pleaded, anguished at the idea of her on another man's arm.
Rey let out a sigh as he entwined his fingers with hers. "You must know I'm here for your sake. Please don't press me to say anything more at present." She tried to pull away but Ben didn't want to let her go. He longed to take her in his arms and keep her there forever.
"Mr. Solo, I beg you, I must return to his Lordship."
Reluctantly, he released her. "For tonight, I am Bail Organa, are you still my Rey?"
She huffed in exasperation and declared, "I am Rey Tooker, masquerading as a distant cousin of Lord Casterfo, and I belong to no man."
He gave her a wounded look and she took pity on him.
"Come, let us see what we can winkle out of King Prana and his company," she said taking his arm and giving it a gentle tug.
Ben nodded in resignation and followed her back into the main room. He had come to the party with a fixed purpose and he needed to set matters of the heart aside. It pained him to see Rey with a young and handsome man, regardless of her playing a part, but he could not let his envy of Lord Casterfo distract him from the task at hand. She caught his eye and smiled. It was her special sunny smile, the one she reserved for him alone. Ben took strength from it. Rey might not belong to him yet but she would, as soon as he could free himself from Snoke.
Thank you all for your continued support.
"You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it may be too late." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Tell me you are my love…"
Rey gave a huff in irritation as she tossed and turned in her bed. Sleep continued to elude her and she got up and pulled the curtains back to let the silver moonlight flood in. She wasn't as diligent in saying her prayers as the adopted daughter of a former-clergyman should be, and so she offered one up as she glanced towards the heavens. As matters stood, she needed all the help she could get. Dark clouds rolled across the moon but at least the fog had lifted, carried away by the gale that had begun to blow. It rattled the windowpanes and drops of rain hit the window in a battering crescendo. Somewhere inside the inn, a clock chimed three times and she gave a weary sigh, the night had ended in disappointment in more ways than one. Mr. Solo turned cold towards her after they'd rejoined the rest of the party guests. He wouldn't meet her eye while she was in the company of Lord Casterfo and he barely managed to be civil when they were formally introduced as supposed strangers by King Prana. As the evening wore on, she watched Mr. Solo work his way around the room, keeping up the charade of being Bail Organa, a businessman with money to invest. His Lordship did likewise while Rey pretended to be attending to the society gossip as she eavesdropped on the conversation of nearby gentlemen instead. To her great disappointment, she heard nothing of note to aid them in their quest. In a desperate bid to salvage something from the evening, she attempted to explore the house under the guise of availing herself of the privy. However, the rooms not in use were locked and she found nothing except more evidence of the host's lavish spending on decor, no doubt financed by his ill-gotten gains. Lord Casterfo tried to raise her spirits, assuring her he had managed to gather some information worthy of further inquiry. But the fact remained, they had uncovered no irrefutable proof of King Prana's dishonest dealings or his ties to Lord Snoke. No magistrate would hear them without solid proof of some kind. If Mr. Solo had fared any better, Rey didn't know it, because he'd left the party without a word to her. It was most unlike him not to seek her out and offer a valediction in parting.
The fire had burned low in the small fireplace of her rented room, she got back under the bedcovers and pulled them tight around her. How comforting it would be to have a pair of strong arms to hold her and a warm body to nestle against, she mused. Her scandalous fantasy did the job of heating her cheeks if nothing else. She heaved a weary sigh, she should have told Mr. Solo - Ben, how she felt about him, propriety and prudence be damned. As to why she hadn't, Rey could never quite rid herself of the underlying dread that all the good things in her life were temporary. It had taken her a long time to believe the Tookers wouldn't realise they'd made a terrible mistake and turn her out of the house when they'd first taken her in. She recalled living in fear of being forced from the only home she'd ever known. Their patience and affectionate persistence gradually eased her mind in that regard. However, as one worry diminished another told hold. During those early months in Sunston, she'd kept an anxious vigil, expecting Uriah Plutt to appear and drag her back to the gutter. He never let her keep anything of value during her mudlarking days. On the rare occasions she attempted to hide things from him, he would always know and make her turn it over before giving her a nasty beating for her trouble. The feeling that everything she held dear could be taken from her in an instant hadn't really gone away, even after years spent in the loving care of the Tookers. Possessions didn't matter, fine things were only valued for what they were worth. But people, friends who cared if she lived or died and loved her, Rey could hardly breathe when she imagined losing them. Her adopted father could not be dearer to her if he'd been her own blood, and as for Ben, he was the only man she could ever picture as her husband. If she lost him now it would break her heart. She should have told him she was his love and always would be, even if fate conspired to keep them apart. She'd convinced herself not confessing her true feelings shielded them both from hurt, unfortunately, it wasn't true. Her rebuff had pained him. So much so, he couldn't bear to look at her thereafter. At first light, she determined to steal away to the hotel in Mayfair where he'd rented rooms and try to see him before he returned to Killerton. Ben had already told them Snoke expected him to be back in town before sunset. He would have to leave soon after breakfast to make it on time. Rey knew she would have to take care to make sure Miss Netal and Mrs. Kloda didn't see her. Perhaps the risk was too great and she should wait until she too returned home for them to arrange a clandestine meeting. She closed her eyes and Ben's mournful face appeared before her, a now familiar anguished plea on his lips, "Tell me you are my love." "Always," she whispered into the darkness.
She didn't expect to fall asleep with the wind howling outside her window, but she did. When she opened her eyes, the storm had passed. The fog had settled over London once more, fooling her into thinking she hadn't slept long because of the dull light. A glance at the clock told her otherwise and her heart sank, Mr. Solo would already be on the northbound train. Perhaps it was for the best, she contemplated as she attended to her daily ablutions. Grand romantic gestures weren't really her style, and besides, one of them would have been sure to say something to upset the other. It seemed they couldn't meet without some misunderstanding occurring or offence being given. Rey frowned, maybe they weren't soulmates after all. He was her opposite in almost every way. She was the day to his night, light to his dark, sun to his moon; one always chasing the other but destined to remain apart. But why then did she feel complete when in his company? At that very moment, he was on a train travelling away from her and she ached to be near him. She missed her father too and all her new friends in Killerton. If nothing more could be done to expose King Prana, there wasn't much point in remaining in the capital. Rey tied her hair up in its usual three knots and went in search of her travelling companion.
"I set aside some breakfast for you," Mrs. Tuggs said ushering her into the kitchen. "I did knock earlier but you must have been dead to the world. I expect you were tired after being out so late with your gentleman friend."
"I got back before midnight," Rey protested sure the woman must already be aware of the fact as it was her husband who'd let her in when she returned. As to the inference regarding Lord Casterfo, she felt obliged to set the record straight as to the business nature of their acquaintance. Before she could begin, Mrs. Kanata appeared at the door.
"There you are, child," she exclaimed as she took a seat beside her at the table and poured out a cup of tea. Taking two letters from her bag, she held them out to her. "The top one arrived for you first thing this morning and Mr. Tuggs has just this minute taken delivery of the other. I hope there is nothing of urgency in them."
Rey hadn't been expecting any correspondence and she feared it might be news of her father, informing her his health had taken another bad turn. She didn't know whether to be relieved or not when she recognised the handwriting on the first envelope as belonging to Mr. Solo. The script on the second envelope wasn't familiar to her at all. Glancing again at the first, her heart leapt and she clutched it to her bosom desperate to know what Ben had written and, at the same time, unwilling to share it with her present company. However, she noted Mrs. Kanata's expectant gaze upon her and realised she had no choice but to open it then and there and report anything which might pertain to their investigation of King Prana. She drew out the process of breaking the seal, her cheeks red in anticipation of what he might have written as the other two women watched with mounting interest. Unfolding the thick sheet of paper, she could see the letter had been written in haste with smudged blots of ink in places.
"Well, don't keep us in suspense, what does Mr. Solo have to say for himself?" Mrs. Kanata questioned, as she set down her teacup to give the missive her full attention.
Rey blushed deeper as she glanced over his words. She couldn't possibly read it out in full, she would have to summarise the points of general interest. "He apologises for leaving the party without a farewell," she began, skipping over his endearments. "It seems he spotted a man known to Lord Snoke among the guests and did not wish to risk discovery, given he was there under an assumed name. As he is required to be back at Killerton North before the close of business this evening, he sends his regrets for not delivering this message in person." She swiftly folded the paper tucked it down the sleeve of her dress. The rest of what he'd written was meant for her eyes only and she certainly wasn't going to share it with two notorious gossips.
The other letter turned out to be from Mr. Jinn, the lawyer. A tall and kindly man with long brown hair greying at the temples and an Irish lilt to his voice, he'd been fascinated by Rey's story during their visit to Lord Casterfo's house the previous afternoon. She had confessed to spending much of her childhood as a mudlark in the hopes it would make his Lordship think twice about taking her to King Prana's party. However, it served to have the opposite effect to the one she intended as the gentlemen ended up awed by her courage and dignity in transcending her squalid past. During the course of their conversation, Mr. Jinn idly wondered if the parish notices her adopted father sent out, which appealed for her birth family to come forward and claim her, had ever drawn any interest. In his letter, he asked if Rey would mind sending him her address on the off chance he should hear anything relating to her long-lost relations during the course of his work in wills, probate and inheritance. It wasn't likely and he didn't want to raise false hopes, but if there were no objections, he promised to do what he could to be of service. It was a kind offer and Rey did not have any opposition to it, although she expected it would all come to nothing.
Mrs. Kanata raised the matter of them returning home as soon as it could be arranged. With no reason to extend their stay in London given their investigation into King Prana's financial dealings hadn't borne fruit and as they were no closer to uncovering his or Lord Snoke's misdeeds, there seemed little point in lingering. Rey didn't object, eager to be reunited with her father and to be near Ben once more, even if he could no longer risk calling on her. She wolfed down her late breakfast in no time at all and excused herself to begin making preparations for their departure. Once inside her room, she sat down on the bed and plucked the envelope from her sleeve eager to read her letter from Mr. Solo again in private.
I wish I was a poet that I might write you odes and sonnets about your bewitching hazel eyes or the sunlight in your smile. Alas, I cannot find the words to woo you with verse. Once again, all I can say, plainly and simply, is - I love you. No doubt it would be easier for both of us if I didn't, but you are in my heart now and there you shall stay until it beats no more.
Lord Snoke is an old man, he cannot live forever. I would wait for you until the end of time. Please say you would wait for me too...
A teardrop dripped from her nose and hit the paper with a splash. Rey pressed her lips softly to the place where Ben had signed his name. She couldn't stop loving him, either. Once she got back to Killerton, she had to find a way to meet with him in secret. It wasn't that she sought to incite him to commit a desperate act nor would she consent to run away with him, as tempting as the idea had become. But she wanted him to know he wasn't alone in his suffering and to swear she would marry no man but him.
It had been a most uncomfortable train journey in a cramped carriage. Rey rejoiced when, at last, Killerton station came into view. She woke Mrs. Kanata, who had somehow managed to slumber through the din of their fellow travellers. Their last day in London had concluded with a sumptuous dinner at Lord Casterfo's invitation. He promised he would continue his efforts in regards to exposing King Prana, and said he'd already spoken to a few investors who'd expressed concerns about the value of the shares they'd been sold. With a little more time, he felt sure he could unravel all the King's schemes. His Lordship had been kind and obliging at every turn and they had no doubt of his honour and integrity, however, they still left the capital in low spirits. The odds of them finding something to use against Snoke were never all that high but they'd hoped against hope they'd strike gold only to end up disappointed. It was a glum carriage ride to Mrs. Kanata's house and the dark clouds that had been chasing them all day finally made good on their threat of rain. Soaked to the skin, tired and miserable, Rey attempted to paint on a smile for her father's sake. Mr. Tooker greeted them at the door, ignoring his daughter's pleas not to go out in the bad weather as he insisted on helping with their baggage. Jessie rushed to get the kettle on the boil so they might at least have a cup of tea to warm them. Sometime later by the heat of a blazing fire and with a dry set of clothes on, Rey felt able to count her blessings. Her father and Jessie had been enraptured by her account of The Great Exhibition. Their secondhand wonder made her ashamed that she hadn't fully appreciated how privileged she'd been to witness it at the time. In the drab days of winter which lay ahead, she would no doubt be glad of the colourful memories. Her encounter with Mr. Solo ended up overshadowing the splendour of the exhibits, but she was glad she'd been given the chance to visit the Crystal Palace, an opportunity not afforded to all.
Mr. Tooker appeared to be in good health, although Rey saw signs of frailty in him she'd not noticed before. Perhaps it was looking at him with fresh eyes after their short separation or perhaps she'd simply been refusing to acknowledge how old he'd become, which, in retrospect, she deemed the most likely explanation. Jessie also had more colour in her cheeks despite her ever-present cough. She put her good health down to a change of air due to being away from Rebelton for the best part of a week, Rey lamented having to send her back to it. But now they had returned from their trip, Jessie wasn't required for anything except her usual duties. If she had a room and more money to spare, Mrs. Kanata would have offered her the position of a live-in maid in a heartbeat. However, as it was, she could do no more than inviting Jessie to stay for one more night, provided she didn't mind sleeping in the rocking chair by the kitchen fireplace. Darkness had long since fallen and the old widow wanted to catch up on all the latest gossip. Mr. Tooker had already told them he hadn't seen Mr. Skywalker or Mrs. Solo since they'd left for London. He was to have dined with them the evening before last but Poe Dameron delivered a note of apology in the afternoon begging a postponement. The rumours about Hope Mills being in trouble had soon spread about the town. Jessie explained she'd seen Finn in the market square and he said Mr. Skywalker had been forced to ask the workers if they'd take a temporary cut in wages. Rey already felt wretched over their failure to find anything against Lord Snoke, and now she fell into deeper despair knowing he'd be the one to profit if Hope Mills went under. She listened intently for a mention of Mr. Solo, not daring to inquire about him directly. Her desperation to see him grew as she imagined the agonies he must be suffering. In the morning, she would steal away in the direction of Killerton North and wait for him in the woods. He had to walk to Dreadston Hall at some point during the day, she would conceal herself behind a tree until she caught sight of him.
After a fitful night's sleep, which left her insufficiently rested after her travels, Rey dressed in haste. She wanted to be done with breakfast and out of the house as soon as possible. Her hair, she left unpinned. Ben seemed to like it when she'd worn it down before and so she brushed out the knots and decided to wear a hooded cloak instead of a bonnet. The dark clouds above looked ominous and she prayed the rain would hold off. Mrs. Kanata mercifully didn't question her as to where she might be going, and Rey sensed the old widow somehow already knew. She pulled her hood up over her head and set off in the direction of the woodland park. The trees didn't quite have the skeletal appearance of winter yet, but many of them were looking tattered and past their prime. Around them lay a blanket of leaves covering the ground soft from the recent rain. The path was slippery and she chose not to keep to it, her boots and the hem of her dress were already coated in mud. To her dismay, the heavens opened and she considered turning back rather than meeting Mr. Solo looking as if she'd just crawled out of a swamp. Before she could think twice about it or take the precaution of hiding behind a tree, a familiar dark clothed figure appeared in front of her.
"Miss Tooker, what on earth are you doing out in this weather?" Ben chided. "You will catch your death."
"I came in the hope of seeing you," she said clutching the edges of her cloak together in a vain attempt to keep the rain from soaking her dress.
"I was on my way to call on you," he explained his pained expression implying he took no pleasure in the task.
Rey furrowed her brow in confusion, "What if Lord Snoke were to hear about it?"
Ben clenched his jaw before replying, "He knows of my intentions. It was he who informed me of your return to town yesterday evening."
"I don't understand, I came to tell you that I - I..." she couldn't find the words and he took advantage of her hesitation to suggest they should get out of the rain.
"Please, let us find shelter first and then I will explain all," he said offering his arm to her.
Perhaps he had succeeded where she and Mrs. Kanata failed and found something damning on Lord Snoke, Rey mused. She snuck another glance at him, his black brows were knitted together in a fierce scowl and there were dark circles under his eyes. If he had managed to turn his fortunes around, he didn't look happy about it. He led her in the direction of his house and she didn't object, they were more likely to be able to speak with some modicum of privacy there. No doubt the servants would be listening at the keyhole, but it was better than having her father and Mrs. Kanata hovering over them. When they reached the door, she scraped as much mud from her boots as possible. Rey had a mind to remove them altogether and continue in her stocking feet. However, as Mr. Solo paid no mind to the state of his boots, she followed him without giving the matter another thought. The housemaid who'd tended to her after her brush with the strikers took her cloak and asked the master if she should bring tea. He dismissed her in an unnecessarily sharp tone, telling her he would ring the bell if they required anything else. Rey would have welcomed a cup of tea to warm her, but she said nothing. Grateful for the roaring fire in the sitting room hearth, she took the seat nearest to it when offered. Mr. Solo did not sit beside her, he continued to pace in front of the fireplace. She might have blurted out her feelings for him had her courage not deserted her in the face of his odd behaviour. Instead, she remained silent waiting for him to speak. When he finally turned to look at her, she swore she could see tears in his eyes.
"What is it?" She leapt up from her seat to rush to his side.
"No," he said keeping her at arm's length, "you are not and never can be mine. It is all too late." His voice was close to breaking with emotion.
Rey reached for him, tears spilling down her cheeks. "Please, Ben, I must speak," she begged, taking him by the hand. He tried to pull away but she clung on tightly. "I am your l..."
"No, don't, not now," he cried wrenching himself away from her before she could say another word. "One month from today, I must marry Miss Netal. If I refuse, everyone I hold dear will suffer for it."
More angst... yay! ;-) To get the rainbows you've got to have the rain, right?
Thank you for all the kind comments and the kudos - Mrs. P
"For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: 'It might have been!'" - John Greenleaf Whittier
It seemed as if everything had come to a standstill, from the ticking of the Grandfather Clock to the beating of her heart. Rey faltered and, taking a shuddering breath, she retreated back to the armchair. Never one to succumb to fainting fits, in that moment, she could not trust her shaking legs to hold her upright.
"I wanted to call and see you last night or, at least, send a note. But his Lordship kept me at Dreadston Hall until after ten and I did not wish to disturb the household at such a late hour," Ben began, aggrieved at the sight of her pained expression. His grip on the mantlepiece tightened to such a degree his knuckles turned white. He would not lose control of his temper in Rey's presence and cause her even more distress. His office had already taken the brunt of his anger, leaving splintered chairs and shelving in his wake for the long-suffering Mr. Mitaka to set to rights.
On his return from London, he discovered Snoke knew all that had transpired there. His Lordship clearly had spies other than Miss Netal and Mrs. Kloda reporting to him. The man with the distinctive tattoo on his hand that Ben had spotted at King Prana's party must have seen him there too and passed along the information. It came as a crushing blow, on top of the news about the increasingly desperate financial situation at Hope Mills, that his endeavours had been for naught. His blood boiled as Snoke taunted him with tales of his mother being forced to sell some of her finest jewellery in an effort to keep the bailiffs from the door. The gossips about town reported that his uncle had gone cap in hand to his workers, begging them to take a cut in salary. To Ben's fury, his Lordship wore an ugly expression of delight as he'd imparted the information, obviously taking pleasure in his rival's misfortune.
"The letter I sent to you - I really did convince myself we could weather the storm together. I held onto the hope we would find a way to stop Lord Snoke or that we could wait until the passage of time removed the problem once and for all, but he's a bitter old man. He means to do his worst. It was foolish of me to believe I could gain the whip hand over him, of course he would uncover my scheming. On my return from the capital, his Lordship awaited my arrival at Dreadston Hall with his lawyer in attendance. There was no use in denying my plotting against him when he had evidence of it, I could do nothing but own up to my folly and accept the consequences."
Lord Snoke hadn't lost his temper, he'd remained unnervingly calm, declaring he'd always expected Ben to betray him. But as the opportunity had presented itself for the old man to get exactly what he wanted, he intended to seize it.
"There were documents on the table I hadn't given notice to until his Lordship drew my attention to them. He explained that if I persuaded my uncle and mother to sell Hope Mills to him and agreed to marry Miss Netal in one month's time, he would gift me the promissory notes of my father's debts to do with as I pleased. The money would no longer be owed and my family would get to keep what he paid them for the mill and not end up in Debtor's Prison. His Lordship's lawyer is to keep the notes in a sealed envelope which will be handed to me after the wedding ceremony. Lord Snoke made it clear if I refused the offer, he would make sure the bailiffs took everything. I could see no other choice but, in my anger, I told him I knew what he'd been up to with King Prana and that one day both of them would get their comeuppance. It was at that point, his Lordship made a veiled threat against you, your father, and Mrs. Kanata. He told me he knew all about your trip to London and your movements during your stay. The point was emphasised to me that King Prana does not take the matter of people prying into his affairs lightly and that his reach extends far beyond the capital. I've already written to Lando to caution him and his associates to be on their guard."
Rey glanced up at him in horror, fearing not for her own safety but for those she loved and those she had come to regard as friends.
Ben's expression hardened as he chastised her. "You should have heeded my warning not to involve yourself in my dealings with Snoke."
"So all this is my fault?" she cried her already tear-filled eyes glinting in the candlelight.
He couldn't bear to see her cry and knelt down beside her. "Of course it's not your fault, my love," he said taking her hand and pressing a tender kiss to it. "But you must know I would do anything to keep you from harm."
Rey gave a heavy sigh as she rested her head on his shoulder.
"I know what I have to do but I don't know if I have the strength to do it," Ben wailed as he wrapped her tightly in his arms. "I love you so much."
She had visited a Debtor's Prison in London some years previously with her father during one of his missions of mercy. An old friend of the then Reverend Tooker had fallen on hard times due to some bad business dealings and had ended up at the Fleet. The prison was riddled with lice, fleas and rats. It was filthy and damp, sending a chill to the heart whatever the weather or time of year and they'd visited at the height of summer. Many of the prisoners were suffering from a disease or were battered and bruised as a result of rough handling at the hands of disappointed creditors. Rey couldn't imagine a more miserable existence than the one she saw within those walls. It truly had been hell on earth. The idea that Mr. Skywalker and Mrs. Solo might end up in such an awful place horrified her. Whatever the cost, they had to be spared.
She pressed her lips to Ben's wet cheek before meeting his sorrowful gaze. "I love you and I always will, nothing can change that. For the sake of your family, we must take courage, even though it means sacrificing the happiness we could have shared together."
It was on the tip of his tongue to again beg her to elope with him, but he knew her answer would be the same as the one she'd given before. He wished his resolve could be as immutable as hers. Rey was all he'd ever wanted, one word from her and he would defy the devil himself. He had never been worthy of such a kind and selfless soul. How dark and empty his life would be without her, much as it had been before her, but it was so much worse now he knew what he'd been missing. Somehow, he had to find the strength to let her go. His sad eyes flitted to her mouth; he mused that perhaps one stolen kiss with his soulmate might sustain him through a loveless marriage.
Rey sensed his intentions and her stomach flipping in anticipation. She had never been kissed before and she wanted so much to share her first one with him. He cupped her chin in his generously proportioned hand and slowly, he closed the gap between them. His lips were so soft against hers, they were barely touching before he drew back. Much as he wanted to savour the experience, he realised it was a selfish act. She deserved to be kissed by someone who could give her all the things he could not.
"Forgive me," he murmured pulling away from her in shame.
Rey threw her arms around his neck, holding on tightly as she pressed her mouth to his. Their noses bumped and their teeth clacked together but it didn't matter. It was perfect in its imperfection and their lips soon found a natural rhythm. Together, they were whole. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Ben realised he had to put a stop to it before he completely lost all semblance of self-control. Her hair was matted from the rain and he threaded his fingers through the damp strands as they paused to catch their breath. She mirrored his actions, her thumbs gently tracing over the shell of his ears. He felt his cheeks heating up, he'd always been self-conscious about their size but Rey's touch was reverential.
"I want to preserve every tiny detail in my memory," she explained as her hands worked their way through the thick glossy waves of his hair. In place of a lifetime together full of such moments, she would only have a few pages instead of volumes to draw upon. Her eyes mapped every line and blemish on his face and then she tenderly pressed kisses along the bridge of his nose. She adored how he blushed under her scrutiny as her fingers moved over his full lips. With a heated glance, he grasped her hand and pressed his mouth to hers for one last time. It couldn't go on forever, much as they wished it could and Rey gave a wistful sigh as he released her. Ben helped her up from the floor, his touch lingering before putting a respectable distance between them. Neither seemed to know what to do or say next. In the end, the only thing left was to say goodbye. He escorted her to the door where one of the servants reunited her with her damp cloak.
Rey's eyes were gleaming with unshed tears as she took her leave of him. "Please, try to find some happiness in your situation," she implored relying on the fortitude that had carried her thus far in life to keep her from falling apart.
Ben took her hand and pressed a burning kiss to it. "Anything for you, if you promise to do the same," he vowed, although he knew in his heart he would never be happy again.
She stepped out into the rain and made no attempt to shield herself from it. Misery was her companion now and Rey wept in a way she hadn't done since childhood. Her love was forever lost to her. She would never marry, doomed to end as she began, alone.
In the week following her painful parting from Ben, Rey did her best to do as she'd always done in times of emotional turmoil. She buried her heartbreak and busied herself to the point of exhaustion. Whether it was helping Mrs. Kanata and Jessie prepare the larder for winter by making all manner of pickles and preserves, or helping her father prepare lessons for his students, she had to fill every second of every day. If she had time to think or feel, all would be lost. The news of Mr. Solo's engagement to Miss Netal soon spread throughout the town. Rey had already explained the circumstances to Mrs. Kanata, urging her not to involve herself any further in the matter. With threats against their well-being, there could be no wisdom in continuing their investigation into King Prana and Lord Snoke's financial dealings. She and Mrs. Kanata would have to content themselves with the knowledge Ben was doing what he must to secure the future solvency of his mother and uncle. The bargain had already been struck and Snoke had won.
The next evening, the Tookers accepted an invitation to dine at Hope Mills. A few days had passed since Ben had been forced to go to his mother and uncle to persuade them to sell their business to Lord Snoke. Leia's elation at seeing her son soon evaporated once she knew the reason for his unexpected visit. She attempted to maintain her usual stoicism in front of her guests but the burden of knowing her son's predicament weighed heavily on her. Mr. Skywalker scarcely spoke at all, despite the best efforts of his sister and Mr. Tooker to engage him in conversation. All he could do was bemoan the unfulfilled dreams he'd had for Hope Mills and worry about how his workers would fare under Lord Snoke. His nephew had promised to do what he could to ensure the future running of the business continued to follow his example, but they both knew his Lordship wouldn't adhere to that kind of ideal, not with profits at stake. Both Leia and her brother had stubbornly refused to consider selling until Ben explained about Han's debts and his Lordship's intention to see them all in Debtor's Prison if they declined to accept his offer. With great reluctance and sorrow, they'd agreed to the sale but would sign no documents until the promissory notes had been placed into Ben's hands. Snoke was not to be trusted and Leia refused to let her family pay so high a price for nothing. Her son would be bound in marriage to a woman he despised in place of the one she suspected he loved. He had not confessed his feelings for Rey to her but she'd long suspected his attachment to the plucky young lady. After all, he was his father's son. It broke her heart to see him so cruelly denied the one woman she was sure could make him happy. As they dined together, Mrs. Solo saw the flash of pain in Rey's eyes whenever she made mention of Ben and her sorrow doubled. She should be welcoming this young woman into the family and offering to help with her bridal trousseau. Leia doubted Miss Netal would seek her counsel on such matters. Her son had already informed her that Lord Snoke intended him and his new wife to live at Hope Mills, once she and her brother had vacated the premises. The place would be renamed Killerton South and Ben would assume management of it along with his other responsibilities at the northern mill. As Mrs. Solo drank brandy with her guests in the drawing room, she seethed at the recollection of the call her future daughter-in-law had paid on her that morning. It had ostensibly been to better their acquaintance but she'd quickly noted Miss Netal casting a critical eye over the fittings and fixtures. A man would be dropping by to take measurements for new drapes and such, Bazine informed Leia as she took her leave. The contrast with the young woman sitting opposite her couldn't have been more stark, Rey always found something in every room to admire or compliment her on. If she were to be the new lady of the house, she wouldn't seek to remove every trace of its former occupants, especially when they were her husband's closest family.
Rey returned to Mrs. Kanata's house with her father feeling bone-tired. It wasn't only that she'd had to endure constant mentions of Mr. Solo from his mother and uncle, she'd also had to listen to Finn, Poe and some of the other mill workers curse his name without being able to speak in his defence. She'd felt compelled by her strong sense of compassion to call on her friends in their time of need, despite her own troubles. As expected, she found them anxious and angry at the news they would soon be working for Lord Snoke. Those who had previously toiled in his other mills were especially enraged, knowing as they did the low regard in which he held his employees. The prospect of welcoming Mr. Solo as their new master was met with equal abhorrence. Rey promised to return to Hope Mills in the coming weeks to help Mrs. Solo pack up her treasured possessions for their removal to a new home. One had yet to be located, but Leia hoped to find something far enough away from Hope Mills that she wouldn't have to see it every day and be reminded of what had been lost. Mr. Skywalker spoke briefly of travelling again. He wasn't sure what he would do with himself with much of his life's work gone and had a notion of retiring to Ireland. Rey didn't relish having any part in helping to make way for the future Mrs. Ben Solo, but she couldn't turn her back on her friends, no matter how heavy a toll it took on her. At bedtime, when she had no one to please except herself, she let sorrow take hold of her. As she dreamed of the man she loved and the precious kisses they'd shared, her pillow soaked up her tears without judgement. Once or twice, Rey felt an almost magnetic pull towards the woodland path with the secret hope of catching a glimpse of Ben as he walked to or from Dreadston Hall. But she would stop herself at the last minute forcing her feet to change course and go in the opposite direction. Jessie had reported seeing Mr. Solo pass by in a carriage the previous morning. However, Rey mercifully managed to avoid him. How anxious she had been to leave London and return to the place she'd come to regard as her home, and now she wished herself a thousand miles away from Killerton. Seeing Miss Netal in the Market Square had been painful enough, with all her false platitudes and crowing exultation, but at least Ben hadn't been with her. When Sunday came around, Rey dutifully accompanied her father to church. She had contemplated excusing herself as a feeling of unease overtook her as she dressed for the occasion. However, she pushed her qualms aside not wanting Mr. Tooker to have to go on his own. As she sat on the hard wooden pew three rows behind Lord Snoke, Miss Netal and Mr. Solo, Rey wished she'd paid heed to her misgivings. Better to have stayed at home than suffer the look of triumph on the faces of his Lordship and the young woman beside him when the banns of marriage were read out, she ruefully thought. Ben did not so much as give a glance in her direction. He kept his head bowed throughout the service, appearing as defeated as she felt.
Upon leaving the church, her father cast his worried gaze upon her. Mr. Tooker had once been convinced Mr. Solo loved his daughter and he now suspected she held the young man in a similar regard. Her unhappiness had been plain to see as she watched Lord Snoke and the soon-to-be happy couple climb aboard their carriage. The recent turn of events had come as a shock to him, but to his shame, he hadn't considered the young lady's feelings on the matter until now. He did not know how best to broach the subject, anxious not to say anything that would bring her further distress. Rey brushed off his tender concerns, unable and unwilling to give voice to the depths of her anguish. Ben would soon be married to another woman and no amount of talking would change that fact. She had to find some way to come to terms with it.
The next morning, Rey came down to breakfast to find her father reading a letter from Admiral Ackbar with an invitation for the former reverend to visit him at his home by the River Thames. Mr. Tooker was hesitant to accept with his daughter in such low spirits, although he missed the company of his old friend and their conversations. Mr. Skywalker couldn't offer much in the way of either at the present time and he had few other social opportunities in town. Rey persuaded her father to accept and privately wished she could accompany him. The change would do him good, she reasoned. He had been looking tired and worn of late, it would reinvigorate him to be reunited with the Admiral. The two of them always had so much to talk about and they enjoyed walking along the more picturesque parts of the riverside. She helped Mr. Tooker to pack his trunk and prepare for the train journey. He would be met by the Admiral's carriage once he arrived at the station in London, no expense would be spared by his friend to ensure his comfort. Rey would miss him dreadfully but it would mean one less person for her to put on a show for, especially as her father knew nothing of the true extent of what had actually passed between her and Mr. Solo. He had pressed her again on the subject the previous evening but she decided not to confess her love for Ben to him. It would only pain him to know of her heartbreak when nothing could be done to mend it. Mrs. Kanata was on hand to offer a sympathetic ear if required, but she rarely sought it. There was no point crying over spilt milk, she told herself, although it didn't stop the nightly tears on her pillow. Little did she know, her sorrows would soon multiply.
Apologies for the delay in updating, a combination of life events and feeling as if I'd lost the ability to write scuppered me.
Thank you all for staying with this story and for your kind comments. We are deep in angst-ville and things will get worse before they get better. But rest assured, I am an HEA kind of gal!
Thanks again, and please do keep the feedback coming - Mrs. P
"I cannot be more lonely,
More drear I cannot be!
My worn heart beats so wildly
'Twill break for thee-" - Emily Jane Brontë
November fast approached and soon there would be a wedding. Rey couldn't seem to escape reminders of it wherever she went. In the drapers, she overheard the assistants gossiping about it as they finished wrapping the linens she'd gone to collect for Mrs. Kanata. An order of Honiton lace had just arrived all the way from Devon. There hadn't been time to have the design custom made, not with a month to sort out the arrangements, but Miss Netal insisted on having the same type of lace as Queen Victoria had for her marriage to Prince Albert. It would be used to make her bridal veil and to trim the flounces of her gown. The draper commented on how fortunate they'd been to procure the required amount at such short notice. Rey found herself gazing at the delicately patterned edging with longing, the ornate rose motif had been beautifully rendered. For a moment, her admiration of it let her forget the purpose for which the lace had been purchased, but then she noticed the first letters of the bride and groom's Christian names had been sewn into the design. Ben and Bazine; she could not deny there was a certain poetry to it. Tears sprung to her eyes, and she turned away until the assistant handed her the wrapped linens she'd been waiting for. From the draper's Rey proceeded to the butcher's shop to pick up the mutton for Mrs. Kanata's stew. As she approached the counter, she heard the butcher and his wife discussing the particulars of a large order which had recently been placed with them. To their delight, they had been tasked with supplying a variety of the finest cuts of meat and game birds for the forthcoming wedding feast at Dreadston Hall. With the drabness of winter settling over Killerton, she supposed she couldn't blame the townsfolk for embracing an event which would bring much-needed business and cheer to so many. In the grand scheme of things, her misery didnt count for much. Rey hooked the basket of groceries over her arm and set off on the road back to Mrs. Kanata's house. As she reached the bridge, a carriage approached and she glanced up to see Ben's mournful face through the window. He looked paler than usual giving him a sickly appearance, the contrast with his skin made starker by his raven hair and the dark shadows under his eyes. His blank stare did not alter to register that he'd seen her as she stood and watched the carriage pass by. The horses churned up the mud on the road and her cloak took the brunt of the spray. With a wistful sigh, Rey turned and carried on walking.
The next day, she went to Hope Mills to continue assisting with packing up the house contents. Mrs. Solo had found a vacant cottage on the edge of town which met her and Mr. Skywalker's requirements. During the past week, they had gone from room to room working their way from the top to the bottom of the house. The morning had been largely spent in the dusty attic picking through old trunks full of memories from happier times. There were worn wooden toys which were boyhood favourites of Ben's and his Christening bonnet and gown carefully folded and wrapped in muslin. Leia blinked back tears as she clutched it to her breast. She had intended to hand it down to her son when he had a child of his own, but she now doubted that would happen. Even if it did, she couldn't see the child's mother wanting to honour the family tradition. Rey said nothing, she could imagine what Mrs. Solo was thinking and she couldn't afford to let her mind wander down that path. However, in spite of herself, she got lost in a daydream of cradling a raven haired babe with vibrant hazel eyes and familiar plump lips. She sniffed back her tears drawing the attention of her companion.
"Oh, Rey, forgive me," Leia cried crestfallen at having caused the young woman distress. "The last thing I wanted to do was upset you. And although neither you or my son have spoken of it out loud, I would have to be blind not to see..."
"It's the dust," Rey cut in with a forced a smile, she should have known that Mrs. Solo with her astute senses would uncover what she'd tried so hard to conceal. "If you'll excuse me, I'll go and summon Finn and Poe to move these heavy trunks," she said practically bolting for the door.
Leia wanted to say more but she held her tongue and let her go on her way. An idea had been germinating in the back of her mind for the past week, and she decided to act on it. She left the attic and went to her room to retrieve the small box she had set aside. For the remainder of the afternoon, she continued to sort through her possessions deciding what she wanted to keep and what could be consigned to the dust. Rey dutifully assisted and tried not to tie herself up in knots when asked her opinion on whether a particular thing should be packed or given away, all the time praying the conversation would not turn back to Ben. The effort exhausted her and made her footsteps heavy, she was glad when Mrs. Solo suggested they should rest and take tea. After a few fortifying sips from her cup, she looked up to find Leia watching her with a thoughtful expression.
"You've been a godsend to me this past week and there is something I would like you to have," she said reaching inside her embroidered reticule to produce a small velvet box. "Under different circumstances, it would have been yours anyway."
Rey protested no gift was necessary and she didn't expect anything in return for helping a friend. Mrs. Solo insisted and so she reluctantly took it. Upon opening the box, her eyes widened in shock. "I - I can't accept this," she gasped her gaze fixed on the elegant rose-cut diamond ring inside.
"It belonged to my birth mother and I want you to have it." Leia would brook no refusal. "Ben's fiancé wanted rubies and he gladly obliged because he did not want to give her his grandmother's ring. I know in my heart that if he could, he would have given it to you."
The tears she'd managed to hold back earlier in the day could be contained no longer, and Rey pressed her lips together in a tight line to stop herself breaking into sobs. Her vision blurred but she could still see the twinkle of the diamond in the candlelight.
Mrs. Solo wished she still possessed the fortitude of her youth. If circumstances were different, she would gladly have braved Debtors' Prison and worse for her son's sake so he could marry for love, not money. "My brother and I have tried every way we can to raise the necessary funds. But with Han's debts on top of what we owe for the mill, well, Snoke is going to exact his pound of flesh one way or another."
Rey tore her gaze away from the ring, her eyes full of sympathy. "Ben explained the situation to me and I know there is no other way. He would not see you bankrupt, and neither would I."
Leia's heart ached all the more for what could never be. Gifting the brave young women before her with what should rightfully be hers was the least she could do. "Try it on," she goaded.
Rey turned her attention back to the small velvet box. The voice in her head told her she shouldn't, but with shaky movements, she plucked the ring from its cushion and slipped it on the third finger of her left hand. It fit her as if it had been made to measure and she gave a gasp of surprise. For a moment, she let herself imagine Ben had placed it there. She pictured him as he'd looked the last time she saw him when he'd told her the news that shattered all her hopes and dreams. It broke the spell and, with a sharp tug, she pulled the ring from her finger and placed it back in its box.
"No," Rey declared with resolve. "This has to stop. Ben will marry Miss Netal and I will continue on as I've always done. I truly thank you for your kindness but I hope you understand why I cannot accept this gift."
Leia intended to argue, but upon seeing her stubborn expression and the proud set of her chin, she gave a nod of resignation and reluctantly took the box from her.
"Ben might have a daughter one day, and that ring should go to her." Rey choked back her tears as she tried unsuccessfully not to picture a little girl with a perfect mix of her features and his.
Not another word was spoken as she and Mrs. Solo returned to drinking their tea.
The result of working herself to exhaustion the previous day meant that Rey fell asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow. She did not dream and had thankfully been too tired to dwell on matters of the heart. The rest did her good and she awoke with a renewed determination to put the past behind her. There would be no more moping over Ben Solo and what might have been. She and his mother parted on good terms the previous evening but the atmosphere between them did turn awkward after the business with the ring. It didn't surprise her when Mrs. Solo spoke of asking some of the men and women from Hope Village to assist her with the remainder of the packing. Since they had sorted through her personal effects, the rest was merely a matter of moving furniture and boxes which she didn't want to burden her with. Rey was no stranger to hard work, and under different circumstances, she would have been only too happy to volunteer her services. However, she appreciated Mrs. Solo giving her the opportunity to step away without it being a slight on either side. It would help with her endeavour to start anew without seeing reminders of her lost love at every turn.
She got dressed and prepared to start the day. There had been a hard frost overnight and the world outside her window sparkled under a covering of white ice. Bright sunshine gave a deceptive impression of warmth, and Rey shivered as she pulled her shawl tightly around her shoulders. Mrs. Kanata had been teaching her how to knit and she wanted to make something for her father for the cold winter months ahead, perhaps some woollen socks or a scarf. He didn't like to be coddled but she wanted to do all she could to ward off the risk of him catching another chill. Mr. Tooker had written to her upon his arrival in London expressing his delight at being back in the company of his old friend, the Admiral. Rey hoped he would return with some of his old vigour restored. For the first time in weeks, she managed to spend a good portion of the day sitting by the fireside with Mrs. Kanata with nothing but the click of knitting needles and occasional light conversation to occupy her. She stood by her resolve to let go of her heartache and her spirits rallied admirably. All was well until late in the afternoon when Rey peered out of the parlour window to see the lawyer, Mr. Jinn, approaching the house dressed in a black suit. He barely had time to knock before she flung the door open, a heavy feeling of dread in her stomach.
"Miss Tooker…" he began.
"Is it father?" She asked before he could say anything more.
His grim expression said it all and she went cold, the impact hitting her like a body blow. "I think we should go inside," he suggested leading her gently by the arm as Mrs. Kanata appeared in the passage and pointed the way to the sitting room.
"Sit by the fire, child," the old widow instructed, noting her shivering as she poured out a cup of tea and dropped in two lumps of sugar. She did the same for their guest as Rey sat staring blankly into the hearth.
Mr. Jinn explained that Admiral Ackbar had wanted to come and break the sad news to her himself, but he hadn't been up to travelling such a long distance. In his stead, he asked his lawyer if he would undertake the task. Upon hearing the names of the persons involved, Mr. Jinn readily accepted and set off on the next train headed north. It appeared Mr. Tooker had taken ill in the night and died peacefully in his sleep. The maid went to deliver his morning tea and, after receiving no response to her greeting, discovered him still and cold with a serene expression on his pale features.
"The funeral will be held in London on Friday. Unless you wish to make alternative arrangements." Mr. Jinn looked to Rey for her response, but she did not make one. Her face had drained of colour and she could not seem to move or speak. "Admiral Ackbar has insisted on bearing the entirety of the expense. He hopes you will accompany me back to the capital and stay as long as you want as his guest." Mr. Jinn gave her a small smile of reassurance and took a grateful sip of tea as he awaited her reply. He had thrown a few things into his leather bag and hastened to the train station without taking his usual midday refreshment. It had turned as black as night outside the window, although it had only just gone five, and the idea of travelling back to London on the midnight train wasn't particularly appealing. Perhaps it would be best if he found lodgings and they set off for the capital first thing in the morning.
Rey had slipped into reverie and found herself recalling a street fight she'd once witnessed as a child. A small scrappy looking man had beaten a larger thicker built man into submission. He kept throwing punches while his opponent stood, swaying slightly as if in a stupor. It's was exactly how she felt at that moment, as if she'd taken one too many blows to the head and would soon be out for the count. She had always prided herself on her resilience and her ability to withstand adversity, but to lose her father while still coming to terms with losing Ben, it was all too much. What would become of her now, she fretted. With no kith and kin to care for her, and friends with woes enough of their own without hers to burden them. She buried her face in her hands, her shock crumbling into despair.
"Now, now, child," Mrs. Kanata cooed as she patted the younger woman's shoulder and passed her a clean handkerchief. "I don't want you worrying your head about a thing. You will have a home here with me for as long as you have need of it."
"I couldn't impose on you," Rey wailed. "I don't have a penny to my name."
"Your father made some provision for you, I'm sure," Mr. Jinn interjected with as much assurance as he could muster. Unpracticed as he was in offering succour to young ladies in distress, he did feel the utmost compassion for her situation. "If there is a will, I would be glad to assist in any way I can regarding settling Mr. Tooker's affairs."
"Thank you," Rey croaked, managing a watery smile as the pain of her loss welled up inside her. The dam holding back her tears was about to burst and she leapt up from her seat, gesturing in horror towards her floral patterned dress. "Please excuse me, I must put on my mourning clothes." With that, she ran out of the room and up the stairs before collapsing onto her bed in helpless sobs. Not even a day had gone by since she'd sworn to stop wallowing in self-pity, but it couldn't be helped. She cried for her father, her friends, and her lost love. For a short and precious time, she had been been part of a family, and now she would never know that feeling again.
Mrs. Kanata contemplated going to her to offer comfort but decided it best to let her have her cry out. In the meantime, she escorted their guest to the kitchen for something more fortifying than tea. Mr. Jinn gratefully devoured a bowl of mutton stew with a chunk of freshly baked bread while the old widow went to look for Mr. Tooker's box of private papers. She had been entrusted with its location when she'd tended to him through his recent illness. If the need should arise, he'd said, she would find all his legal documents within it.
Rey emerged from her bedroom sometime later with red puffy eyes, dressed in her black bombazine and crape gown. The stiff fabric rustled as she made her way down the stairs. It wasn't the done thing to keep the same mourning clothes from one bereavement to another, people believed it to bring bad luck. However, having a practical and thrifty nature, she didn't see the sense of leaving a perfectly serviceable dress to moulder. It had been bought new on the occasion of her adopted mother's passing and it would do just as well for her father's funeral and beyond. Mr. Tooker didn't favour long mourning periods. Life goes on, he'd said, and she supposed it did whether those left behind liked it or not. Mrs. Kanata met her in the hallway and ushered her into the kitchen, insisting she should attempt to eat something. Mr. Jinn had gone into town to the local inn to find a bed for the night. He promised to return at first light to escort her to Admiral Ackbar's residence in London. It occurred to Rey that her father would probably have liked to be buried with his wife in Sunston. But as his friend had volunteered to bear the expense of his funeral and she couldn't afford to take matters into her own hands, she would have to politely defer to other people's arrangements. Mrs. Kanata apologised for not offering to accompany her. The cold weather aggravated her rheumatism and she couldn't endure the cramped conditions of a long train journey. She had sent word of Mr. Tooker's passing to Mr. Skywalker and Mrs. Solo, hoping one of them might be able to spare the time to pay their respects. Rey forced down a few spoonfuls of stew but could stomach no more. Her usually robust appetite had disappeared lost amid her grief. Mrs. Kanata tried unsuccessfully to tempt her with a slice of her favourite cherry cake. However, she could rouse no interest in food or conversation and retired to bed early to make her preparations for her unexpected trip to London. It had only been a few weeks since her last visit and yet it seemed to her as if a whole lifetime had passed. How hopeful she'd been then and how hopeless she felt now. Rey let out a weary sigh and sank down on the bed; she would be leaving for a funeral and returning to a wedding; unless she could stay away longer than a few days. Perhaps she could find work in the capital and never come back, she mused. Of course, she would miss the friends she'd made in Killerton. But if she left for good, she wouldn't have to run the risk of seeing Ben about the town with his new bride. She could spare herself the extra misery. The streets of London were once her home, and maybe they could be again.
"Benjy, you've barely touched your goose, is it not to your liking?"
Bazine's voice sounded shrill to his ears and his expression soured. "It isn't the food," he muttered under his breath.
She either didn't hear or pretended not to and proceeded to prattle on about the wedding arrangements. He stabbed at the meat on his plate, attempting to focus his mind on anything other than his forthcoming nuptials. Snoke appeared to be taking perverse pleasure in his discomfort, which infuriated him all the more. How he despised his present company and the idea of enduring night after night of the same hell. His Lordship didn't care how he treated Bazine, her happiness mattered not one whit to him. "Be as cruel to her as you like. Beat her if you must, as long as you do it as man and wife." Ben shuddered in disgust as he recalled their conversation. He had no intentions of ever raising his hand to a woman. It was cruel enough to make him marry her when he loved another. For the sake of his family, he would go through with it. But it would be a marriage in name only. He would not bed his bride on his wedding night or any other. There would be no consummation or procreation, his obligation didn't extend to that. If he could not have Rey for his wife, he would stay true to her and forsake all others, even the woman to whom he was wed. The family name would die with him.
The butler entered the dining room and presented a letter to his Lordship upon a small silver platter. Snoke took it, using his knife to slit the top of the envelope. His eyes darted over the paper and, whatever he read, brought a small smile to his face. Ben knew that smile and had come to loathe it. Whatever brought happiness to Snoke always meant misery for some other poor soul. He folded the letter up and set it down on the table next to him.
"Is all well, my Lord?" Ben inquired, fearing it might be something about Hope Mills or his family. The bargain they'd struck, as bad as it was, could still change for the worse.
Snoke turned his sharp gaze on him, an unspoken warning in his milky eyes. "All is well for us," he said his sickening smile returning. "Mr. Jinn is in town, the lawyer you met in London, I believe."
"What business can he have here?" Ben grew alarmed, he'd cautioned Lando and his associates against continuing the investigation into His Lordship's financial dealings in the strongest possible terms. It could mean danger for Rey if they'd defied him.
"He's come to deliver some bad news," Snoke sneered. "Poor Miss Tooker has been orphaned again."
"Mr. Tooker is dead?" Ben felt a sharp pang of loss for the old man he'd come to know and respect through their lessons together.
"He died in his sleep while visiting an old friend in London, apparently." His Lordship signalled his boredom with the topic by barking at the housemaids to clear away the dinner plates.
His poor Rey, how devastated she would be. Ben knew he had to see her as soon as he could but he dared not refuse Snoke's customary offer to take a brandy with him before departing for the evening. Miss Netal reluctantly bid him goodnight as she was forced to take her leave. He gave her a polite nod and grudgingly kissed her hand when she insisted on presenting it to him. His lips barely made contact with her skin as he performed the task with barely concealed disgust. Snoke watched with interest but said nothing, taking a sip of his brandy instead. Ben listened to the ticking of the nearby grandfather clock, anxiously watching the hands move. The hour grew late and he was desperate to get to Mrs. Kanata's house.
"Perhaps your little mudlark will fly back home to London," Snoke mused as if reading the direction of his thoughts. "There can be nothing and no one to keep her in Killerton now."
Ben made no response, gripped as he was by terror at the idea of Rey leaving town and him never being able to set eyes on her again. He had no claim on her. In less than a fortnight, he would be married to another woman and it might be the kindest thing for both of them if she went away. But still, he couldn't bear it.
His Lordship droned on and on about the price of cotton and ideas he had for increasing capacity and productivity at all of his Mills. He noted his guest watching the clock and, to spite him, he aimed to draw out the evening for as long as possible. The young man he'd sought to educate and mould in his image had been captivated by a mere slip of a girl and it threatened to upturn all of his carefully laid plans. She had to go.
When at last Ben was able to take his leave due to Snoke's physical frailty getting the better of him; the old man had almost dozed off mid-sentence forcing him to call an end to the evening, he hurried through the woods to Mrs. Kanata's house. No trace of candlelight could be seen through any of the windows and he heaved a weary sigh. Turning on his heel, he resolved to return first thing in the morning.
Rey watched him go. She hadn't been able to sleep and had been stargazing instead. When she saw him approaching, she ducked behind the curtains to avoid being seen. Her candle wasn't lit and so she skulked in the shadows, fighting the urge to fling open the bedroom window and call out to him. He must have heard about her father and sought to offer comfort in her time of need. To know he would risk Snoke's wrath for her sake was enough. It had to be.
I know, more angst! The tables will start turning soon, though, I promise.
Thank you to everyone out there reading this story and to everyone who has left a comment, it's much appreciated. - Mrs. P
"Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." - Seneca the Younger
Mr. Solo thundered stern-browed through the house causing his jittery servants to run for cover. He had already sent his water jug and wash bowl crashing to the floor and slammed his teacup down with such force it had shattered the saucer. After yet another night of fitful sleep, he'd been angered by the receipt of a note from Lord Snoke instructing him to go directly to Hope Mills to collect the inventory his uncle had been told to prepare for them. He wasn't in the mood to see his family. Any joy his reunion with them might have brought got crushed under the weight of the sacrifice he would soon be making for their sake. To hold it against them might have been unjust, but there was no escaping the fact they were the prime reason for his forthcoming marriage to a woman he could barely tolerate. Without the fates of his mother and uncle to consider, he felt sure he could have convinced Rey to elope with him. He would have taken her to America or one of the colonies to start a new life away from Killerton and Snoke. His heart ached for her, to imagine how she must be suffering after the loss of her father. He should be by her side, not subject to the whims of a bitter old man who seemed to delight in torturing him. Ben caught his gaunt reflection in the mirror and flinched, he hadn't been taking proper care of himself and it was starting to show. He worked long hours, missed meals, and didn't get anywhere near enough sleep. It worried him that his appearance might give Rey cause for concern when she already had troubles aplenty to occupy her, but it didn't stop him putting on his hat and cloak and setting out for Mrs. Kanata's house.
It seemed to be the kind of Winter's day where sunlight could not vanquish the gloom and the morning mists failed to clear. There had been no overnight frost but the biting cold air made the flesh tingle. Ben strode through the woodland with single-minded determination, not caring if he kept to the path. The weather matched his sombre mood. He had dressed all in black for many years now, mourning the life that should have been his, at least he was properly attired to deliver his condolences. When he pictured Rey, he always imagined her adorned in bright colours to match her smile. Alas, she had nothing much to be cheerful about now but he had no doubt she would look as beautiful as ever in her mourning dress. In his few hours of restless sleep, he had dreamt of her wearing a white dress with a crown of orange blossoms on her head. His dreams were taunting him with visions of what could never be, and yet, he didn't want to awaken from them. When he'd been pulled from his fitful slumber and the arms of the wife he should have had, he vented his anger at the shattering of his fantasy on the nearest things to hand, which turned out to be his water jug and wash bowl. The state of despondency he'd slipped into after his return from London gave way to occasional bouts of destructive rage, but he remained a prisoner of circumstance. If Rey decided to leave Killerton for good and never come back, he didn't know what he would do. Ever since the previous evening when Snoke mentioned the possibility, Ben had been consumed with fear at the prospect of losing her forever. He knew it was selfish of him to want to keep her near when they could be nothing to each other but nodding acquaintances, but he feared for his sanity if he didn't know where she was or with whom. Overcome with an almost visceral need to see his only love, Ben hastened his already brisk pace to offer her what small comfort he could in her grief.
As Mrs. Kanata's house came into view, he watched as a carriage pulled away from outside the gate. It was surely too early for callers, he frowned. He would have delayed his own visit until a more respectable hour if he didn't have other urgent business pressing upon his time.
"Oh, my goodness," Mrs Kanata exclaimed as she answered the knocking to find Mr. Solo stood on the doorstep. "Ben, what a surprise to see you."
"I heard the sad news about Mr. Tooker and have come to pay my respects to his daughter," he said removing his hat as he did so. "May I see her?"
"Rey isn't here," she informed him to his astonishment. "She left for the train station not five minutes ago. You may have seen the carriage."
Indeed he had, and he would have chased after it if he'd known it contained such a precious cargo.
Mrs. Kanata took in his pale and drawn appearance with concern. "Won't you come inside and take some tea? I could cook you some breakfast too." The young man stared out into the distance as if he might still be able to catch sight of the carriage somehow. He did tower a good two feet over Mrs. Kanata, but she doubted even he could see that far. "Come, you look half-starved, my boy."
"Is she going to London with Mr. Jinn?" Ben had the wild notion of catching up with her. If he could hire a carriage, he might be able to get to the station before the train departed.
The old widow caught the impulsive glint in his eye and sought to advise him against doing anything hasty. She had never seen Rey looking so fragile as when she came down from her room at dawn's first light. It had been an unsettled night for her and her face was white and tear-swollen, having cried through most of it. Her broken heart could not withstand another shattering blow. "If you've got it in your head to go after her, I beg you, let her be," Mrs. Kanata beseeched. "Mr. Tooker is to be buried in Kingston-upon-Thames on Friday and, unless you intend to defy Lord Snoke, you won't be able to accompany her as her father is laid to rest."
Ben had caught sight of a hansom cab coming down the main road towards the bridge and made ready to chase after it. Money was no object, he would pay whatever it took to get him to the station as quickly as possible. He turned on his heel with apologies for leaving so abruptly. The old woman meant well, he was sure, but he couldn't be dissuaded from his fixed purpose. "I must see her," he insisted as he hurried after the carriage.
"Don't make things any worse for her than they already are," Mrs. Kanata implored as he ran down the garden path and through the gate.
With the cab halted, Ben offered more than the man at the reins would usually earn in a week to get him to the train station without delay. The horses were soon galloping as if the devil were after them. It was an uncomfortable journey with the carriage rattling violently as its wheels hit every bump and dip in the roads along the way. When at last they arrived at the station, Ben watched helplessly as the London bound train chugged out of view, he'd got there too late. With a despairing sigh, he paid the driver what he'd promised and stood outside the gates not knowing what to do next. A short walk of a mile or so down the lane would take him to Hope Mills, and he supposed he should go and collect the inventory from his uncle. Briefly, he glanced at the timetable and gave fleeting consideration to buying a ticket for the next train to the capital, but rationality won out in the end. As much as he wanted to hold his sweet Rey in his arms again and tell her he would always be there for her, he could not. Anger flared inside him once more and Ben's thoughts turned to his own father, whose death had left him bound to his present fate. He hadn't been there to see Han Solo buried nor had he visited his grave since. The need to remonstrate with his father's bones overtook him and he set off down the lane towards Hope Village churchyard. Sleet began to fall and the chill made his eyes sting as he walked among the gravestones until he located the one he'd come to find. As he stood staring at the half-dozen fresh white roses laid upon the frozen ground which had undoubtedly been left by his mother, he recalled the man he'd longed to connect with but who'd always remained elusive in one way or another. Han Solo was as much a stranger to him as a father; his frequents travels to far-flung lands often took him away from home and the larger-than-life persona he adopted kept those around him at arm's length, even his family. Ben stood over the grave until his face grew numb from the cold, his anger gradually ebbing away. The moisture on his cheeks couldn't be entirely blamed on the weather, and he took a moment to compose himself before turning and heading towards the mill.
Rey sat staring blankly out of the train window as the scenery outside passed by in a blur. Mr. Jinn had been talking to her about her father's financial affairs almost non-stop since he arrived to take her to the station. Her head was muddled with it all and she hadn't really taken in anything he'd said. Between barely having slept a wink and her mind being scattered with grief, she was grateful when the lawyer noted her exhaustion and took up the newspaper he'd purchased at the station instead. Her eyes kept shutting and she must have fallen asleep at some point because she awoke sometime later with a start as the train came to a juddering halt.
"Have we arrived at Euston Station already?" Rey blinked in surprise.
"You looked so peaceful I didn't like to wake you," Mr. Jinn smiled as he got to his feet and held his hand out to her.
The London crowds were too much for her in her fragile state and she was glad when they found a vacant cab to convey them to Admiral Ackbar's house. Rey tried to engage with her companion's efforts at making conversation. He talked of the enquiries he'd been making into the parish notices her father sent out long ago to try and discover any family she might have. None of his letters had yet brought forth any replies, and Mr. Jinn expressed his dismay. As she never expected anything to come of his investigation, Rey couldn't bring herself to feel any disappointment; the only family she would ever know was gone. Her thoughts turned to Ben and how he'd come to the house and stared up at her window the previous night. In her grief, she'd imagined being wrapped in the comfort of his strong arms as he pressed a tender kiss to her forehead. A shiver passed through her and she pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders, she had nobody to comfort her now. The world could be a cruel place and she would just have to get used to being all alone in it once more.
"You should be left with around two hundred pounds once Mr. Tooker's remaining debts are settled," Mr. Jinn frowned as he shuffled through the papers he'd taken out of his bag. "Heaven knows, it's not much for a young woman such as yourself to live on. But Mrs. Kanata won't be asking a king's ransom for your room and board, and there may be suitable work to be found in Killerton or a husband - if you're so inclined."
"I shall never wed," Rey declared as the mention of matrimony snapped her out of her reverie.
Mr. Jinn knew some of what had occurred between her and Mr. Solo and he didn't want to press the subject. She was still at that tender age when being disappointed in love could make one feel as if it was the end of the world. When a few more years had passed by, she might come to see the advantages of a husband who could offer her a comfortable home and a steady income. Love rarely entered into the equation when practical considerations took precedence.
Admiral Ackbar must have been on the lookout for their arrival because he came out of the house as soon as the cab pulled up at the gate. Dressed in his black mourning suit, he stood to attention displaying his military bearing, the sorrow he felt at Mr. Tooker's passing etched upon his face. In truth, Rey had always found his appearance slightly odd; him being somewhat bug-eyed and trout-faced, and without a single hair on his domed head. She imagined, with his piscine features, he must have been quite at home during his years at sea. The man possessed a gentle soul and Rey would be eternally grateful for his generosity. He greeted her with warmth and compassion, telling her she must treat his home as her own for the duration of her stay. When the Admiral informed her he had arranged for her father to be buried in Sunston alongside his late wife, she collapsed into helpless tears and thanked him profusely for all the trouble he'd gone to on her and Mr. Tooker's behalf. She would never be able to repay him for his kindness and begged him to tell her if she could be of service to him in any way. Admiral Ackbar kept a relatively small house with four bedrooms, the smallest of which had been given over to the housemaid he employed to cook and clean for him. Rey hoped to make herself useful during her stay but her host would not hear of her taking on any domestic tasks, even though she argued it would help her to be kept busy and distract her from dwelling on her loss. However, he insisted she was his guest and would be treated as such.
The next couple of days passed in a whirl of funeral preparations and correspondence with old friends and acquaintances. Mr. Skywalker and Mrs. Solo sent their apologies, saying they couldn't possibly leave Killerton when they were so close to handing over Hope Mills to Lord Snoke. Rey understood and hadn't really expected either of them to make the journey south when they had trouble enough of their own to contend with. Ben sent a short letter of condolence which he'd signed with love always. She had excused herself and gone to her room to read it knowing she would not be able to keep her emotions in check, and sure enough, she'd wept for hours afterwards.
The day before the funeral, she took a walk by the Thames. Being close to it again brought some of her earliest memories flooding back and she recalled wading through the mud on the riverbank from dusk till dawn in search of hidden treasure. It had all seemed like a game at first when Uriah Plutt explained to her what she had to do in order to get her daily meals. He didn't mention what would happen if she fell short, she found that out the hard way. Rey stood and watched as a small group of half-starved looking children in ragged clothing ill-suited to winter weather made their way along the river's edge. She couldn't offer them the lifeline Mr. Tooker had given her, but she called out to the smallest girl with her dirt-streaked hair and handed her a shiny penny, tears clouding her vision as she continued on with her walk. When she got past the coal barge unloading at the docks, she could have sworn she saw the plump figure of Uriah Plutt disappearing into a nearby inn. Her heart stuttered in her chest and she turned about and headed back to the Admiral's house as fast as her feet could carry her. On the way, Rey reasoned it probably wasn't him at all and her mind had simply been playing tricks due to being in old familiar places, but she didn't slow her pace.
Admiral Ackbar spent the early part of the afternoon regaling her with tales of when he'd first known her father. Some of the stories were so long-winded, she found herself battling the urge to nod off by the warmth of the fire. If Lord Casterfo hadn't unexpectedly called at the house with Mr. Jinn, she might have fallen asleep in the chair. As it was, Rey started with shock to see his plush carriage pull up outside. He expressed his sympathy at her father's passing and asked if he could be of service in any way. It appeared he hadn't given up his pursuit of King Prana and spoke vaguely of interesting developments ahead. Rey presumed he intended his visit to lift her spirits, but she'd long since given up any hopes of bringing Snoke's empire crashing down around him. It puzzled her somewhat that Lord Casterfo had taken the trouble to come in person instead of sending a note, given their previous short acquaintance, and Rey couldn't help wondering if he had an ulterior motive. However, she had no reason to regard him as anything other than a kind and noble gentleman of honour. His good wishes, she gratefully accepted, but she did not require his pity or his charity.
The day of the funeral dawned, and as much as Rey wished her return to Sunston could have been under happier circumstances, it did gladden her heart to be back in the place that had been her first real home. On the surface, it hadn't altered much in her absence. There had been a change of season and she did feel an oddness about seeing her former home occupied by another family, but it was all otherwise the same. The holly bushes around the parsonage were thick with red berries, bringing a welcome splash of colour now the summer blooms were long gone. Some of her father's old parishioners came to the church and the vicar who'd taken his place spoke warmly of his predecessor, having taken pains to gather together some moving anecdotes about Mr. Tooker's years of ministering to the community. Reverend Wexley was a staunch advocate of the temperance movement but he still made mention of how her father's homemade cider was fondly remembered by the locals. Harvest Festival wasn't the same without it, they said. Mr. Tooker used to press the windfall apples from the trees in the parsonage gardens and would serve it in jugs after the service. It wasn't that he encouraged insobriety, he merely acknowledged the simple pleasure taken by many in a tankard of ale or such at the end of a hard day's work. Rey had worried when they set out that there would be a poor showing at the graveside, but Mr. Tooker's former parishioners did him proud. There wasn't a dry eye as he was laid to rest beside his beloved wife. He had truly come home.
Mrs. Brackett, the landlady of the local inn, invited Rey and Admiral Ackbar to take refreshment with her before they returned to London. Both of them gratefully accepted and they spent the early part of the afternoon listening to the latest village gossip while feasting on a rustic lunch of bread, cheese, and cold meats, followed by a slice of pound cake. In the few short months since she'd departed for Killerton, it appeared there had actually been a great many changes. Mrs. Brackett's daughter Hetty, who'd been a cleaning maid at the parsonage, had lately married and moved closer to the town where her husband worked as a bank clerk. The landlady said she'd found herself short-handed on account of it and wondered aloud if Rey might be seeking employment. The young woman was taken aback by the suggestion at first, but the more she turned the idea over in her mind, the more it made sense. Mrs. Brackett offered to provide her with room and board on top of a modest salary if she could start work as soon as possible. What did she have to go back for in Killerton? Not Ben. In a matter of days, he would be wed to another woman. Rey would miss Mrs. Kanata, Jessie, and her friends at Hope Mills, but it wasn't as if she'd see much of them once Mr. Solo and his new bride took up residence at the place. All things considered, she decided it would be for the best if she accepted Mrs. Brackett's offer. Admiral Ackbar urged her to take some time to mull it over but her mind was made up. She would go back with him to retrieve her bag and the few items her father had left behind, and she'd write to Mrs. Kanata about what was to be done with her and her father's belongings. Perhaps Jessie would be kind enough to pack up her clothes and some small keepsakes, she could collect them at a later date or send money to cover the cost of parcel delivery. Sunston would soon be her home once again.
The next morning, there wasn't much to be done as Rey had already packed her bag and written her letters. Admiral Ackbar promised to personally deliver her note to Mr. Jinn when next he saw him. She went out to post the other two, which were addressed to Mrs. Kanata and Mrs. Solo before the carriage arrived to take her back to Sunston. It was a crisp and sunny winter's morning and she found her walk along the riverside less troubled with memories of times past than the previous day. She needed to look to the future now. As she dropped her letters into the mailbox, Rey pondered again if she should have written directly to Ben, instead of tasking his mother with delivering the news that she wouldn't be returning to Killerton. However, she'd decided a clean break would be best for both of them and she meant to stick to it. As unhappy as he was to be marrying Miss Netal, he might be able to reconcile himself to it sooner without her presence as a constant reminder of what might have been. It could never be and that was an end to it. Rey got so lost in her thoughts, she didn't hear the sound of heavy footsteps following close behind her. Not until a meaty palm landed heavily upon her shoulder, did she realise the danger.
"Unhand me, sir," she protested squirming in his grasp to free herself. Twisting around, she saw the grotesque figure of Uriah Plutt staring back at her.
"We've got unfinished business, girl," he growled. "You owe me."
"I don't owe you anything," she hissed in pain as he dug his fat fingers into her arm. "Let me go."
Plutt laughed in her face, his blubbery chin wobbling. "I hear the old Parson has kicked the bucket leaving you all alone. But don't worry your pretty head, I can find plenty of work for you down on the docks."
Rey shuddered, she knew well enough the kind of employment he found for girls who'd outgrown mudlarking. After dark, the older ones would be taken to meet the sailors and merchants as they disembarked from their various voyages. She would hear some of them softly weeping at night upon their return, often nursing cuts and bruises and other wounds not visible to the eye. Her anger and disgust rising, Rey raised her boot and drove the heel down hard on her captor's foot. "I already have a job, thank you," she sneered as Plutt let out a mighty yelp.
He released her from his grasp and hopped around in agony as he roared, "Come back, you little guttersnipe!"
She ran all the way back to the Admiral's house, not once pausing to look over her shoulder. The carriage had not yet arrived and she hovered around anxiously at the front parlour window keeping a lookout for it.
"Are you sure you won't reconsider and stay here a while longer?" Admiral Ackbar asked frowning at her with fatherly concern.
Rey didn't mention her unpleasant encounter with Uriah Plutt but it had made her all the more determined to leave. "Thank you again for everything you've done," she smiled. "But I must go, I belong in Sunston, I believe it's what father would have wanted." She knew the Admiral wouldn't mount an argument against Mr. Tooker's wishes. He nodded his head in resignation and resumed drinking his tea.
The carriage arrived a short time later, and after a brief farewell, Rey climbed aboard and headed off to start her life anew.
Elsewhere, in a fashionable part of London, someone else had begun making plans for a fresh start. The news, when it broke, would send shockwaves not only through the capital but far north of it, too.
I had hoped to get this fanfic finished before The Last Jedi, but alas, it hasn't worked out that way. I'm not sure when the next chapter will get posted with Christmas on the horizon. I have got it partly written but it's full of revelations that need careful plotting. In case I don't get it done in the next week, I hope you all enjoy The Last Jedi whatever it brings. I shall be seeing it on the 14th and I can't wait. Fingers crossed for lots of Reylo!
Thank you all for your continued support and please do leave a comment if you can - Mrs. P
"It is singular how soon we lose the impression of what ceases to be constantly before us. A year impairs, a luster obliterates. There is little distinct left without an effort of memory, then indeed the lights are rekindled for a moment - but who can be sure that the Imagination is not the torch-bearer?" - Lord Byron
Mr. Jinn glanced down in disbelief at the letter in his hands. He shuffled through the pages, reading them twice over to make sure his eyes hadn't been playing tricks on him. It was the second day in a row he had received an unexpected communication among his morning post. The previous day, he got a note from Miss Tooker, informing him of her return to the country. In spite of their short acquaintance, he'd grown fond of the young lady and he much admired her spirit. It grieved him that his enquiries into her past had come to nothing. Alas, he knew only too well that abandoned children were not uncommon but it would have given him great pleasure to be able to reunite her with any relatives still living, especially since she had been left all alone in the world. However, Mr. Jinn acknowledged it unlikely he would ever uncover her origins - it was the equivalent of looking for a needle in a haystack. Therefore, to receive a letter which could hold the key to uncovering Miss Tooker's true identity came as a great shock to him. He wasn't given to flights of fancy about the nature of coincidences but it did strike him as serendipitous all the same.
A solicitor in Kent by the name of Mr. Mundy - who'd been tasked with finding the missing heiress to a late client's estate, had stumbled upon an item of interest among the records of a local Parson. One of the notices sent out by Mr. Tooker during his efforts to locate any living relatives of his adopted daughter had been tucked between the pages of an old parish diary. Her age and description seemed to fit with those of the person sought by Mr. Mundy and he wasted no time in writing to the parsonage in Sunston. After years of fruitless searching, he hoped to confirm his suspicion that Rey and the heiress were one and the same. She would, of course, need to produce some proof of her identity to support any claim. There was one item in particular, the details of which he'd included in his correspondence, which would go a long way in that regard. Mr. Jinn marvelled again at his having received Mr. Mundy's letter at all, let alone so swiftly, as it had been forwarded to him by Reverend Wexley, Mr. Tooker's successor in Sunston. However, as promising as it sounded, Miss Tooker had told him she couldn't really remember anything about her life before she'd been abandoned near the River Thames. He glanced again at the lengthy missive on his desk, it might all come back to her once she'd heard what Mr. Mundy had written, he reasoned. With that, he put on his hat and cloak set off for Sunston without delay.
Rey had been up since before the break of dawn cleaning and doing the laundry before going out to feed the animals. Mrs. Brackett kept a small collection of livestock in the yard around the back of the inn and she liked having creatures to care for. The water troughs had frozen over in the night and she used a broom handle to break the surface of the ice so the pig and cow could take a drink. Half a dozen chickens eagerly pecked at the corn she threw on the ground outside their coop. As Rey gazed across the acres of farmland which stretched as far as the eye could see beyond the garden wall, she couldn't help comparing it with the view from her bedroom window in Killerton. In the few short months she'd lived there, the place had somehow worked its way into her affections. Perhaps it was less the place than the people she missed, Rey mused, and Ben most of all. She shook her head in dismay at how readily her thoughts returned to him when she'd vowed to keep the door to her past firmly closed. With a sigh, she went back to tending to the animals. The rest of the morning, she spent up to her elbows in flour, baking bread and pies for the hungry patrons who came to The Red Lion in search of a good meal. Mrs. Brackett's late husband had wisely chosen to build the inn next to a busy road which brought travellers to and from London. Situated not more than thirty miles outside the capital, it became a popular spot to break long journeys and take refreshment. As the afternoon wore on and the inn began to quieten, Rey took a rest from clearing up at Mrs. Brackett's insistence. She didn't like to see her going without a hot meal after spending hours serving food to other people. Grateful as she was to have employed such a hard worker, it wouldn't do for the girl to exhaust herself on her first day.
Her appetite hadn't quite recovered since news of her father's death reached her, and so Rey picked halfheartedly at a piece of rabbit pie as she stared into the dancing flames of the logs burning in the hearth. Before she could stop herself in the quiet of the kitchen, her mind began to wander. She imagined being back in Ben's arms, next to the fireplace in his sitting room, and the feel of his soft lips on hers.
The sudden intrusion of Mrs. Brackett's voice startled her out of her reverie. "I'm sorry to disturb your dinner but there's a gentleman here to see you," she said.
For a moment, Rey's heart leapt and she foolishly hoped to see a certain tall, dark, gentleman. The anticipation lasted until she stepped into the bar room to find Mr. Jinn stood waiting for her. "What a surprise!" She exclaimed, swallowing her disappointment as she pondered on what on earth had brought him to Sunston. He had promised to write when he'd done settling Mr. Tooker's financial affairs but she hadn't expected to see him again so soon.
No amount of money could compensate for the loss of her adopted father. He and her adopted mother had given her so much during their lifetimes, she couldn't bear the idea of profiting from Mr. Tooker's death in any way. That wasn't to say a little nest egg wouldn't be a useful thing for a young unmarried woman to have, but accepting it would still grieve her. As she took in the serious expression on Mr. Jinn's face, she wondered if perhaps he'd discovered a stack of unpaid debts and had felt obliged to break the news to her in person. Mr. Tooker had always been sensible with his income, but not frugal. However, the lawyer soon set her mind to rest on that score. He requested a tankard of ale and they settled at a table in a quiet corner of the inn so he could explain in full the reason for his visit. She listened intently as he disclosed to her the contents of the letter he'd received from the solicitor, Mr. Mundy.
"It concerns the estate of the late Sir Obadiah Kenobi," Mr. Jinn continued. "Perhaps you've heard the name before as the gentleman was once a business partner of Mr. Solo's grandfather, Anakin Skywalker."
Rey shook her head in bemusement, she couldn't place the name. Neither Ben, Mr. Skywalker or Mrs. Solo had mentioned him as far as she could recall. What any of it had to do with her, she could not fathom. She couldn't possibly be the missing heiress to a fortune left by a man she had never heard of before. Her objections were set aside as Mr. Jinn begged to be allowed to read the contents of the letter to her in full. He explained his hope of it rekindling memories she didn't know she possessed. As she had completed most of her daily chores and no patrons were in need of attention, Rey agreed to listen. She found the Irish lilt to his voice pleasing and oddly soothing. It turned out Sir Obadiah Kenobi had led an interesting life and she soon got caught up in his story. Aside from his mentoring of, and later business partnership with, Ben's grandfather, which ended with them duelling in a non-fatal sword fight, he'd also lost his one true love under tragic circumstances.
In his youth, Obadiah had met and fallen in love with a French aristocrat named Satine Kryze. She had come to stay for the summer with English relations at their country estate. He had recently joined the army and was encamped nearby with his regiment. Stolen moments were all they could share as circumstances soon forced them apart. Obadiah and his regiment were posted to India and Satine had to return to France. Over the years, they exchanged letters in the hope they would one day meet again, and then came the French Revolution. A few months earlier, Obadiah had left the army and set up in business with Anakin Skywalker, he begged Satine to seek sanctuary in England, but she would not leave her people behind. In 1790, he chartered a small sailboat and set out for France, hoping to persuade her to return with him across the Channel and agree to be his wife. Unfortunately, just moments before Obadiah could reach Satine, she was captured by the mob and taken to the guillotine. Heartbroken as he was, he did manage to help her fifteen-year-old nephew, Korbin Kryze, to escape.
The boy returned to live with him in the north of England where he completed his education and apprenticed for a while in the cotton industry. In his twenties, Korbin went to live in South America after receiving a letter from an old school friend inviting him to join in a gold mining venture. Sometime later, he married a local woman named Violeta and they were soon blessed with a daughter. Five years after the birth of his only child, Elena, Korbin died in a mine collapse. Left grief-stricken, Violeta accepted an invitation from the recently knighted Sir Obadiah Kenobi for her and daughter to stay with him at his home in Derbyshire. Unaccustomed to the changeable English weather, Violeta caught a chill during her first winter in the country which swiftly turned to pneumonia. She died shortly after, leaving her young daughter an orphan.
Sir Obadiah made little Elena Kryze his ward and she remained under his care until the age of sixteen, when a ne'er-do-well by the name of Arthur Bright seduced her away from her home. Obadiah vehemently disapproved of her attachment to the young man and tried to separate them by sending her to Switzerland to complete her education. But instead, she had eloped with Arthur and wedded him in secret at Gretna Green. Obadiah instigated a search for his ward, hoping to persuade her to return home with him. But after months of trying, he could find no trace of her or her husband beyond the Scottish Borders. A year later, he received a letter from Elena telling him she'd given birth to a baby girl. She and Arthur had named the child Audrey. There was no forwarding address given, but she promised to write again.
Four years passed before she wrote to Obadiah begging him for help. Arthur had got them into deep trouble with his gambling and drinking. He owed money to some shady characters and she feared he might end up dead if he couldn't pay his debts. Obadiah immediately set out for the address in London she'd given to him. He took with him a gold locket ring which once belonged to Elena's mother. It contained a likeness of her late father and she was delighted to be reunited with it. She attached it to a chain which hung around her daughter's neck, tucking it under the child's tattered dress to conceal it. Arthur had already taken the few items in their possession of any value to the pawn shop and she didn't want to lose that too. Obadiah begged Elena to return to Derbyshire with him and bring her daughter, but she would not leave her husband. From her pale, sickly appearance and the empty bottles in the kitchen, he feared she'd taken solace in gin. She angrily denied being a slave to the demon drink and told him to go if he didn't believe her. With much sorrow, Obadiah gave her the three hundred pounds she'd asked for and, after telling her his home would always be open to her and her daughter, he left. The subsequent letters he sent went unanswered and, months later, when he returned to the address in London where last they'd met, Arthur, Elena, and Audrey were gone. He never saw them again.
A short time later, Obadiah received a letter from a Parson in Kent. He had recently buried a young vagrant couple in a pauper's grave and the woman had been carrying a piece of paper inscribed with his name and address. The description the Parson gave of the couple matched Elena and Arthur. No one knew what had become of Audrey, the little girl they affectionately referred to as Rey.
Her eyes grew wide at the mention of her name. It couldn't be her, she wasn't Audrey Bright, the missing heiress. Her childhood memories had faded to almost nothing, including the faces of her parents. She closed her eyes and tried to picture them but all she could see were two silhouettes, shadows from a life she couldn't remember. Sometimes, she would hear the echo of a man's voice in her dreams. Her father, perhaps. The papa who'd called her his little ray of sunshine and falsely promised to come back for her one day.
"I know this must have come as a shock to you," Mr. Jinn said taking in her bewildered expression. "I could hardly believe it myself. Sir Obadiah tried for years to find Audrey, convinced she had to be out there somewhere. When he died, he left his entire fortune in trust for her in the hope she might still be found. Mr. Mundy has in his possession a portrait of Elena, painted on the occasion of her sixteenth birthday. If you would come with me to meet him, there might be a family resemblance strong enough to satisfy any doubts. He requests you also bring with you the locket ring - assuming you still have it, that is."
The talk of the locket ring sparked an old memory to resurface, and in her mind's eye, Rey saw Uriah Plutt towering over her, his face set in a malevolent scowl. As a frightened child, she had known that look only too well.
"No one gets anything for free around here, girl. Let's see what you've got for me or there'll be no food for you."
She remembered letting out a shriek of protest as he'd ripped a chain from around her neck. The gold ring hanging from it had slipped off and made clinking sound as it hit the ground.
"I don't have any idea where that ring is now," Rey admitted meeting Mr. Jinn's inquisitive stare. "But I know a man who might."
It still seemed too absurd to be real, that she could actually be the missing heiress. All those long nights she'd spent wondering where she came from, and the answer might finally be within her grasp. Audrey Bright - she liked the name, it sounded right somehow. She had to try and find out the truth, even if it meant begging time off from her new job and going in search of a brutish oaf she'd run away from not two days ago. Mr. Jinn listened as she told him of her unpleasant encounter by the docks with Uriah Plutt. He promised she would be under his protection and that if she didn't want to, she wouldn't have to see Plutt again. Rey didn't want to see him, but if he knew anything about her parents, she needed to hear it from his own lips. If he gave her just cause, she could always gift him with another kick in the shins.
Some things never changed, and Uriah Plutt spending his afternoons in The Old Ship Tavern was one of them. He wasn't a particularly heavy drinker, not in the daytime at any rate, but the pub kept a blazing fire in the hearth and his ageing bones needed to be warmed. It was close enough to the river for him to keep an eye on his band of young mudlarks without the necessity of standing outside in the cold. He sat hunched over a table with a steaming bowl of stew before him, slurping down spoonfuls in between sips from his tankard of ale. The business had been slow of late and his most recent money-making opportunity had been thwarted by a slip of a girl who'd never known her place. A man with a tattoo on his hand had offered him two hundred pounds if he kept Rey from returning to Killerton, but she'd escaped his grasp again.
After he'd eaten his fill, Plutt picked up the remains of his bread crust and went to the door of the tavern. He had tasked one of the older boys in his employ to watch over the others in his absence. The tall gangly youth, looking like Death's head on a mop stick, stood by the riverbank. The rest would get nothing to eat until after dark if they were lucky, but Plutt tossed the half-eaten crust at his lookout.
"Don't spare the rod if you catch them slacking," he ordered the half-frozen boy before returning to his cosy spot by the fire.
He must have dozed off for a moment because when he opened his eyes, he saw a familiar figure entering the tavern. She was flanked by two men, one tall and broad-shouldered, dressed like a gentleman. The other, short and stocky, with arms like ham shanks. The short man went to get a drink while the other two sat down at his table uninvited.
"What do you want?" Plutt growled refusing to be intimidated by the young woman's two companions as they threw him warning glares.
Rey made no attempt to hide her disdain for him. "When you found me, I had a chain around my neck with a ring attached to it. You took that ring in exchange for a crust of stale bread and I want to know what you did with it." Her cold and composed exterior did not betray the turmoil swirling inside her as her certainly began to falter. What if her mind had been playing tricks? It might have been imagination not memory, concocted from her need to belong somewhere.
"I don't know what you're talking about, girl," he sneered.
Her confidence took a further dip, but then she saw the mocking glint in his eye. She raised her umbrella and delivered a sharp jab to his chest with the pointed wooden end. "I'm talking about you, taking things that don't belong to you." She punctuated the end of the sentence with another hard jab and he grunted in pain, attempting to grab the makeshift weapon from her hand.
Mr. Jinn leaned forward on his stool, his voice calm yet menacing, "I strongly suggest you give the lady her property back."
Plutt refused to comply, his expression one of contempt. "She's no lady," he snorted. "Her parents were a couple of hopeless dipsos, desperate for money to spend at the nearest Gin Palace. If I hadn't been in a generous mood and thought her worth a few shillings, she could've been green fruit for the picking. There are plenty around these parts who have a use for unwanted children and there are worse fates than mudlarking. You should get on your knees and thank me, girl."
Rey curled her lips in disgust. "You knew my parents, then?" She asked her eyes filling with tears as the harsh truth sunk in; her mother and father had bartered her away for drinking money.
"I wouldn't say I knew them, but I might be able to help you find that ring." Plutt considered the two hundred pounds he'd missed out on, and added, "for a small reward." He couldn't prevent her from doing as she pleased, including returning to Killerton, while she was so well protected, but he could make sure he received his due. For two hundred and fifty pounds, she could have the ring and the broken chain it had hung on. Why he'd kept it, he could not say, but it had proved to be a profitable decision on his part.
Mr. Jinn agreed to pay him what he asked, although Rey protested. The idea of giving Uriah Plutt anything after all she'd suffered at his hands, made her feel nauseous. But she did want to be reunited with a small part of her family history, it was all she had left of them. The exchange was set for the following morning. If the ring proved to be the one Sir Obadiah Kenobi gave to Elena, Mr. Jinn would write to Mr. Mundy and arrange a meeting to discuss the unclaimed legacy. The value of the estate left to Audrey Bright had only been described in the letter as substantial, no amount had been given. Rey didn't care about the money, she only wanted to see the portrait of her mother. She needed to look into the eyes of the woman who'd brought her into the world and then left her alone in it.
Two days later, she sat clutching the locket ring in her lap as she and Mr. Jinn travelled to Maidstone. Mr. Mundy had sent an immediate reply to Mr. Jinn's letter and invited them to come to his office in Kent as soon as could be arranged. Rey kept stealing glances at the small picture of her grandfather inside the locket ring. It wasn't as finely detailed as a larger portrait would have been and it had faded with time, but she fancied she could see something of herself in him. By the time they arrived in Maidstone, she began to feel the emotional toll of the past few weeks catching up with her and her limbs were heavy with exhaustion. She took occasional sips from the cup of sweet tea she'd been given to fortify her as Mr. Mundy and Mr. Jinn went through all the legal documents. When the portrait of sixteen-year-old Elena was unveiled to her, Rey couldn't hold back her tears, it was like looking in a mirror. She sat transfixed, studying her mother's face, desperately hoping it would revive some forgotten memories. None were forthcoming and she wept all the harder. In her state of distress and fatigue, she barely registered the fact she'd just inherited the sum of eighty thousand pounds. When Mr. Mundy repeated the amount to her, the world around her faded to black as she fell into a swoon.
I apologise for taking so long to update this story but it's been a busy couple of months.
Quite a reversal of fortune for Rey! I'm OK with her not being connected to anyone 'famous' in canon, but for the purposes of this story, she needed to inherit a large fortune from somebody. In the next chapter, someone else will also see a big change in their fortunes. Plus, a day long-dreaded by Ben finally arrives... There are only 3 more chapters to go. Hopefully I'll get them finished and posted ASAP. Thank you all for bearing with me and for the kind words you've sent my way, it's much appreciated. - Mrs. P
"He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have." - Socrates
Ben hoped in vain this day would never come. If he had Rey as his bride, he would have been counting the hours. But the prospect of marrying Bazine filled him with nothing but dread and despair. The woman who owned his heart had left town with no intention of ever returning. His mother broke the news to him as gently as she could but he couldn't pretend to be unperturbed that Rey had written to his mother to say her farewells and not to him. It pained him to be left to his hollow existence while she embraced a new life. He didn't want to begrudge her a chance to find happiness but, because of his selfish need to be near her always, he did. If only he could see her once in a while, he felt sure it would fortify him and give him the strength to go on. Without her, everything seemed pointless. He dressed with all the enthusiasm of a man on his way to the gallows and reluctantly combed his unruly mane into a style more befitting a bridegroom. The maid knocked and entered with his breakfast, but he waved her away before the urge overtook him to take the tray and smash it against the wall. He had no appetite and he couldn't begin his day as he usually did when nothing would ever be the same again.
The original plan had been for the official handover of Hope Mills - in exchange for a modest sum of money and the promissory notes for Han's debts, to be done after the marriage service. However, Mrs. Solo declared she would not be at ease until the business had been concluded and requested they should do it before the ceremony. To everyone's surprise, Lord Snoke agreed. As much as he would have enjoyed prolonging their misery, the prospect of finally holding the deeds to Hope Mills in his hands proved irresistible. He already had his triumph and would savour his victory with or without the presence of Mr. Skywalker and his sister at the wedding feast.
For once, Ben travelled to Dreadston Hall by carriage. Bazine had insisted that as a gentleman, he shouldn't be seen so frequently going about on foot. Walking was for the lower classes, in her opinion. Under normal circumstances, he would be obtuse about it, but being weary from nights spent desperate to sleep and finding no rest for his tortured soul, he wasn't inclined to argue. Mr. Skywalker and Mrs. Solo were disembarking from their carriage when Ben arrived outside Dreadston Hall, all three wearing grim expressions as they met each other in an exchange of greetings.
"You look tired," Leia observed frowning as her son bent down to kiss her cheek.
He could have said the same to them, noting his mother's wan complexion and the weary droop of his uncle's shoulders, but he held his tongue. Both of them were dressed in iron grey and other dull colours more befitting a funeral than a wedding. His mother always managed to look regal, no matter what the circumstances. Ben matched their sombre appearance in his customary black attire. He had steadfastly refused to entertain a blue or mulberry frock coat, as was the style for bridegrooms, his only concession to current fashions being a dark claret waistcoat and matching cravat. The colour reminded him of dried blood.
Luke broke the awkward silence that had descended on them. "Let's get this over with, shall we?" He said holding out his arm for his sister to take.
The sound of clopping hooves caught their attention as they proceeded to the entrance hall. In quick succession, four white horses trotted into view pulling the bridal carriage behind them. Ben swallowed thickly, his emotions threatening to burst forth. It was really happening. Within the hour, he would be stood before the church altar pledging himself until death to a woman he could never love.
The Butler stood ready to receive them as soon as they reached the door. In the hallway, they passed a multitude of servants who were rushing this way and that, carrying dishes of food and bouquets of flowers into the dining room in preparation for the wedding feast. The Butler deftly sidestepped them leading the guests into the drawing room where Lord Snoke, Mr. Canady, his lawyer, and Mr. Peavey, his Darkshire Banker, were awaiting their arrival. The two gentlemen stood up in greeting, they knew the owners of Hope Mills as passing acquaintances, being of a similar age and frequenting some of the same social circles.
His Lordship did not rise to his feet. He wore an ostentatious gold embroidered topcoat with a similarly elaborate waistcoat, cravat, and fawn coloured trousers, amusement dancing in his blue eyes as he beckoned them in. "Ah, Mr. Skywalker and Mrs. Solo, how good it is to see you."
Leia beheld him with disdain, judging his attire to be ridiculously ostentatious. "You may dispense with the pleasantries," she said with a wave of her hand before making her way to the round card table where the legal documents had been laid out.
Mr. Canady moved aside to allow Mr. Skywalker and Mrs. Solo to read through the sale agreement. He cleared his throat as if embarrassed before he spoke, "Once we have your signatures, we will proceed directly to the official handing over of the Hope Mills deeds."
Ben skulked behind his mother and uncle, eyeing the promissory notes which had also been placed on the table.
Lord Snoke remained by the fireside in his armchair looking for all the world like a king on his throne, his enjoyment of the situation evident for all to see. "I trust everything is in order?" He inquired, knowing full well his offer fell far short of the market value of the land and property, not to mention the machinery and stock of raw materials. However, he considered it more than generous in light of him agreeing to set aside Han Solo's debts.
Luke drew in a deep breath; the gravity of the situation pressing heavily on him as he stood ready to sign away over thirty years of his life's work. He had tried his hardest to build a lasting legacy and to do good in the community as well as to run a successful business. His workers weren't simply cogs in the machinery of industry, to be ground into the dirt for profit. Every man, woman and child mattered to him, but he'd failed them. He couldn't save them from Snoke, he couldn't even save his own nephew from a miserable fate. With a heavy heart, he picked up the pen and dipped the nib into the ink pot ready to add his signature to the agreement. But before he could put pen to paper, an unholy commotion from the hallway stilled his hand.
"What is the meaning of this?" Snoke bellowed as a man with a tattooed hand burst forth through the door.
The butler entered on the heels of the intruder, muttering an apology. "I'm so sorry, my Lord, but this gentleman refused to wait."
All eyes in the room turned to the interloper. Ben knew him as the man who had made regular covert visits to His Lordship, and the same individual he'd seen lurking about at King Prana's London residence.
"As you can see," Snoke glared at the intruder as he gestured around the room, "I have important business to conclude here. You may wait outside."
"We've got important business to conclude," the man insisted his lip curling in anger at his rude reception. "I ain't going anywhere."
His Lordship ignored him and turned to his butler, "Escort this gentleman to my study and wait there," he ordered.
Mr. Skywalker had set down the pen in bemusement and Mrs. Solo placed the sale agreement back upon the table. While the others were distracted, Ben kept his eye on the promissory notes, glancing between them and the burning fire in the hearth as he estimated his chances of being able to destroy them before anyone could intercede.
The man with the tattooed hand stood his ground despite repeated attempts by the butler to jostle him out of the door. "I want what I'm owed," he growled as he shrugged off further efforts to eject him. "Who's to say you won't do a vanishing act like the King the minute my back is turned?"
Lord Snoke's eyes grew wide and his cadaverous features paled still further - it couldn't be true.
The man with the tattooed hand deduced from his shocked expression he had not yet heard the news and took it upon himself to enlighten him. "The King has done a moonlight flit and taken everything of worth with him. You won't be getting any more of your little dividends from the south."
Mr. Peavey, who had been observing the spectacle from his seat by the fireplace, got to his feet. "The King?" he questioned with a deep frown. He had heard mention from some of his other clients of dubious schemes and speculations offered by a man proclaiming himself to be foreign royalty. In his experience, if a deal sounded too good to be true, it usually turned out to be the case. His Lordship could scarcely afford to buy Hope Mills as it was with his mounting debts, and the Darkshire Bank had only agreed to lend him the money at a high rate of interest because he hadn't yet defaulted on any of his previous loans. If he'd lost money in a risky venture, it didn't bode well for him being able to pay back the considerable sum he already owed.
"King Prana has disappeared off the face of the earth," the man with the tattooed hand continued. "No one has seen hide nor hair of him since Friday last. He left word at his club to say he'd gone to the country with a friend. But his house in Mayfair has been cleaned out from top to bottom and all the staff let go. There is a rumour he boarded a merchant ship bound for Calcutta. No one can say anything for certain, only that he's gone."
Had King Prana dared to betray him? Lord Snoke brought his fist down on the arm of his chair with a thump, his face twisting in fury. "It's nothing to me. Proceed with the business at hand," he demanded.
"Perhaps we should delay," Mr. Peavey interjected. "If your financial situation has in any way been compromised -"
"I said, proceed," His Lordship bellowed, a sharp pain lancing through his chest at the exertion.
The man with the tattooed hand tried to get closer to Snoke but was prevented by the butler. "I want what I'm owed or else," he threatened his eyes blazing as he was finally dragged from the room.
In the commotion, Ben rushed over to the table edging the lawyer out of the way and snatched up the promissory notes. "I knew you were in deep with King Prana," he cried making a dash for the fireplace. "You're ruined, and I'm not letting you drag my family down with you." It didn't matter how fervently the old man denied it, Ben knew he was as good as finished. Whatever the nature of his involvement with Prana, Snoke had been in receipt of substantial sums of money from interests outside of his cotton industry for years. The Killerton North accounts had been slipping sharply into the red ever since the strike. With the rising costs of raw materials coupled with falling orders, a healthy balance sheet would be needed to weather the coming storm, and he knew West and East Killerton weren't any better placed. The strike had wiped out their surpluses too.
Mr. Canady scrambled to block his path, preventing him from getting close enough to cast the papers into the flames. He continued to guard the fireplace as he took the promissory notes back into his possession.
"Young fool," Snoke spat leaning forward in his armchair and wagging a bony finger in his direction. "Your family are already as good as bankrupt and I'll have the bailiffs sent for this instant - unless your mother and uncle sign that agreement and give me the deeds to Hope Mills."
Mr. Peavey interceded stepping in between the two parties. "My Lord, on behalf of the Darkshire Bank, I strongly advise you to withdraw your offer. If you cannot repay what you already owe -"
"No," His Lordship roared. "You cannot withdraw the support of the bank now."
"I can and I will," Mr. Peavey asserted as he made his way towards the door. "If you refuse to delay your purchase of Hope Mills until your financial situation can be reassessed, you leave me no option but to act in the best interests of the bank by rescinding the offer of the loan we made to you."
"You will regret this," Snoke warned through clenched teeth, his anger mounting.
The banker would not reconsider and took his leave, ignoring the shouted threat that followed him.
Mrs. Solo exchanged glances with her brother and son as they weighed up their options. Their debts had to be settled one way or another. She turned to address Lord Snoke, "If you cannot pay what we agreed upon, it would seem we have nothing further to discuss. We have the right to seek another buyer," she said signalling their intention to leave.
Snoke would not be denied one final victory, he knew what King Prana's betrayal meant for him and his businesses but he wanted Hope Mills above all else. It had been the work of decades to get this close to taking it back into his possession and he couldn't let it slip through his fingers now. "I'm changing the terms of the agreement," he declared. "I want Han Solo's debts settled and I will accept the deeds to the land and property as payment in full."
"You can't do that," Mrs. Solo and Mr. Skywalker objected in unison as Mr. Canady snatched up the document from the table before either of them could get their hands on it.
"We should discuss this matter in private," the lawyer suggested but an unyielding glare from His Lordship soon silenced him.
"Nothing has been signed," Snoke said leaning forward in his armchair. "I'm within my rights to demand settlement of debts that have been outstanding for six years."
Ben fumed, seeing no reason to uphold his end of the bargain if Snoke refused to honour his."If you are changing the terms, so am I. There will be no wedding, today or ever. You will have no further claim on me or my family and all connection between us will be at an end from this day forward."
"You would disappoint my dearest Bazine?" The old man cared nothing for the feelings of his ward, but he knew the young man who stood before him wasn't without a conscience.
Ben would not be guilted into honouring his word. If he were a free man again - no, he couldn't let his mind wander in that direction, not yet. "I do not love Miss Netal, and never have."
"What has love to do with marriage? You would have married that nothing of a mudlark, I dare say." Snoke said with an ugly sneer.
"Rey isn't nothing," Ben protested. "Not to me."
Leia looked over at her brother and could see, from his steely resolve, he would stand with her, as always. She went to her son and gently placed her hand on his arm glancing up into his stormy eyes. "Come, we shall seek another buyer."
Lord Snoke gripped the arms of his chair, "No," he said shaking with fury and desperation.
"We will put the mill up for auction at the earliest opportunity, you'll get your money," Mrs. Solo promised, unimpressed by his outburst.
It was never about the money for him, he wanted them to suffer. "Send for the bailiffs," he directed. As Mr. Canady made haste to obey him, Snoke launched into another tirade, "I won't be denied, I will have that mill if it's the last thing I do." A sudden splitting headache blurred his vision and his voice faltered. He gasped as a sharp pain began to blossom in the place where his heart should be. His chest heaved as he struggled to draw breath and he made an awful gurgling sound in his throat. With eyes wide, he clutched at his chest.
"My Lord?" Mr. Canady had not yet reached the door and he spun on his heel to return to the old man's side. He couldn't get there in time to prevent him from slumping to the floor. "Send for the Doctor," he shouted as he worked on loosening His Lordship's golden cravat.
Mr. Skywalker seemed to be the only other person in the room capable of movement, and he hurried off in search of one of the servants. But it was all too late, Lord Snoke would not rise again.
Mrs. Solo looked on in horror. In death, the old man's face had been frozen in a mask of surprise, his mouth wide open and his tongue protruding out. Leia couldn't summon any pity for him, not after what he'd done to her family, but she had lost too many people over the years to rejoice in the passing of another. She clung to her son's arm as all around them descended into chaos. Ben stood in stunned silence, he had witnessed the event as if in a dream and he found he could do nothing except let it play out. He wasn't in the least bit sorry for what had happened, he'd wished the old man dead plenty of times in the past, but he never expected to see it unfold before his eyes. Once he had gathered his wits, he contemplated his next course of action. Mr. Canady still had the promissory notes to his father's debts tucked securely inside his topcoat, he would have to set upon the man to get his hands back on them. The bailiffs could still be sent for, he supposed. But it seemed as if the lawyer would have more pressing concerns after Lord Snoke's demise with his other business affairs to settle.
Mr. Canady bid them stay until the Doctor arrived but Mrs. Solo would not be persuaded. She reaffirmed her intention, with Mr. Skywalker's blessing, to put Hope Mills up for auction and told him to do what he must in regard to her late husband's debts.
"Let us leave this horrible place," Leia said as she took her brother's arm, both of them grey and weary as they made their way out of the drawing room. She expected her son to follow on behind but he told them to proceed directly to their carriage and go home. While he felt no remorse for calling a halt to his wedding, especially under the current circumstances, he did consider it the decent thing for him to be the one to break the news to Bazine.
Ben took one final lingering glance in Snoke's direction as he left to go in search of his would-be-bride. A housemaid passed him in the hall and he halted her in her tracks, ordering her to go and summon Miss Netal. He impatiently repeated his instruction as she stood staring at him like a startled deer until his harsh tone sent her scurrying. A short while later, a figure in white appeared at the top of the staircase, her bridal veil made from Honiton lace already draped over her head.
"Benjy, it's bad luck for the groom to see the bride before the wedding," Bazine chided as she shrunk back from his view.
"I'm afraid it's too late for that," he said.
She stepped forward, lifting up her veil to peer over the bannister, "What do you mean?"
Her hands flew to her face as he informed her of Lord Snoke's demise, her dark brown eyes blown wide and her lips trembling. "Oh, whatever is to become of us now?" She wailed.
When Ben told her, as gently as he was able, he would not be marrying her on that day or any other, Bazine let out an unearthly shriek. "No, you can't do this, I won't let you," she cried lifting the hem of her dress and dashing down the stairs in pursuit of his retreating form, the crown of orange blossoms on her head coming loose as she gave chase. Her pleas for him to stop fell on deaf ears and the sight of the bridal carriage set her off weeping as Mrs. Kloda appeared at her side to offer comfort.
Ben strode out through the courtyard without a backward glance. A new beginning awaited him, and he found it to be both an exhilarating and terrifying prospect.
An eventful morning gave way to an afternoon which proved to be no less chaotic. The news of Lord Snoke's death had started to spread about the town, along with various rumours regarding King Prana's disappearance and the cancellation of Mr. Solo and Miss Netal's wedding. After leaving Dreadston Hall, Ben returned to Killerton North where he packed up his few possessions, including a small wooden chest which contained the money he'd saved, and sought to bid a respectful farewell to the domestic staff. None of them seemed particularly grieved to see him go, and he supposed he couldn't blame them. He had been a bad-tempered master, more inclined to bark angry orders and break the furniture than utter pleasantries or express gratitude for their service. On taking his leave, Ben attempted to make some amends by thanking the housemaids individually for their trouble, especially as they'd already spent days preparing a room for the bride he had rejected. He felt no sorrow at his departure, the place held no happy memories for him, except for the brief moments he'd shared there with Rey. The memory of kissing her by the fireplace burned bright and he lingered over the spot where he'd held her in his arms before turning his back on the place forever.
From the house, he went to the office to find Mr. Mitaka. The young man seemed to wear a permanently worried expression and the news about Lord Snoke only deepened his frown lines. Ben could offer the mill workers no assurances about their future. He did not know who stood to inherit His Lordship's estate as the old man had frequently made changes to his will. Most, if not all of his fortune, would be swallowed up by the debts he'd left behind and his mills would likely end up being auctioned off. His own family were no better off. The little savings Ben had might be enough to pay off some of what his mother and uncle owed, but they would need to get a good price for Hope Mills to clear the rest. He intended to send out enquiries for employment at the earliest opportunity. His mother had already sold almost everything she owned to stave off bankruptcy and he would not see her or his uncle in the poorhouse.
Mr. Hux and Miss Phasma pulled up in their carriage outside the gates of Killerton North just as Ben was leaving. The news of Snoke's demise had reached them and they were on their way to Dreadston Hall.
"Were you with His Lordship when he - - expired?" Hux asked glaring at him through narrowed eyes.
"It appeared to be an apoplectic attack," Ben explained. "I believe he suffered a minor stroke some years previously, accounting for the weakness down his left side."
"What's to become of us and the mills, that's what I want to know?" Miss Phasma queried self-interest breeching her usual cold facade.
Hux noticed the case by Mr. Solo's side. "What's all this?" He inquired giving the matter closer scrutiny. "I heard you'd called off your wedding. You're not running off with that young harlot Rey-what's-her-name, are you?"
In a flash, Ben had his hand wrapped tightly around Hux's pale throat. "Never let me hear you speaking of her again," he warned squeezing hard until the other man turned a violent shade of red and nodded his assent. With that, he released the ginger-haired weasel leaving him spluttering and shaken as he fell back upon his seat.
Miss Phasma gave Ben a furious glare and pulled up the carriage window. He watched as they departed hoping he wouldn't have to set eyes on either of them ever again.
The cottage his mother had let was too cramped for three people to share, especially one of his proportions. Ben had only been inside the place for an hour and already he'd bashed his head against the low ceiling beams on more than one occasion. His uncle had gone to arrange the auction of Hope Mills and to inform the workers of what was happening now Lord Snoke would no longer be their master. Leia had felt too weary to accompany him after the morning's events and had gone to take afternoon tea with Mrs. Kanata instead. The old woman was a proper church-bell but she would make sure the other Killerton gossip-mongers got their facts straight. Ben had been left alone to ponder his future. His first instinct had been to go to Sunston, find Rey, and ask her to marry him. However, as he considered his financial situation and family obligations, he began to doubt the wisdom of it. He wasn't in a position to support a wife or any children she might bear him. Rey had already known so much hardship in her young life, it wouldn't be fair of him to ask her to marry into a family beset by debt and potential poverty. In despair, Ben hung his head. He was no better placed to pursue his dream of happiness now than when he'd been under Snoke's thumb.
Poor, virtually penniless Ben! Whatever will he do? Fortunes have been reversed and there are only 2 more chapters to go...
Thank you all for taking the time to read this story and please do leave a comment if you can. - Mrs. P
"The pain of parting is nothing to the joy of meeting again" - Charles Dickens
Rey awoke to unfamiliar surroundings forgetting where she was for a moment. After Maidstone, Mr. Jinn took her to Lord Casterfo's residence and he insisted on her staying with a friend of his, Lady Amilyn Holdo. Such a state of fatigue had come over her, she could raise no objections. For once, at least temporarily, she was content to let others decide where a young heiress with no family to protect her might be best placed. Inheriting a sizeable legacy proved to be a peculiar experience. Never in her life had she sought wealth, to be rich in friends and family had been her only desire. Money hadn't given her the sense of security she hoped for, she still felt alone and adrift. It might in time buy her a house and nice things to put inside it but it couldn't get her what she really wanted.
The maid knocked and came in to tell her breakfast would be served in half an hour. Rey passed so bad a night torturing herself with thoughts of Mr. Solo's wedding, she would rather have stayed in bed. But she was a guest in Lady Holdo's house and the woman had been kindness itself to her thus far, she didn't want to appear ungrateful for Her Ladyship's hospitality. It wasn't by any means a conventional household but that was no excuse to display bad manners. Lady Holdo had embraced the Bohemian lifestyle, eschewing the popular ladies fashions of the day for long flowing silk dresses without hoops and voluminous petticoats. Her hair had been tinted a shade of lavender and she styled it shorter than the usual length for a lady, arranging it in waves which hung just past her chin. Around her wrists, she wore silver bracelets, and on her head, an ornamental comb which gave the appearance of an angel's halo. She was of the same generation as Mrs. Solo and had known Leia since they were young girls. Lady Amilyn had never married, although she seemed uncommonly close to Dora, her young and pretty housemaid, Rey observed without judgment.
"I thought I might travel to Sunston after breakfast to collect my belongings," Rey said as she poured out her second cup of tea. "I feel awful for leaving Mrs. Brackett in the lurch after her kindness in providing me with honest work and a roof over my head."
"You're not to worry about a thing," Lady Amilyn assured her with a smile. "Mr. Jinn knew of a young widow in need of employment and a place to live and sent her to The Red Lion under his recommendation."
Rey was relieved to hear alternative arrangements had been made, but she still wanted to go and fetch her things and give thanks to Mrs. Brackett in person. Lord Casterfo had invited them to dine with him that evening at eight and she promised she would return well before then. She planned on hiring a Hansom cab but Lady Holdo wouldn't hear of it, insisting she must take the carriage and her footman as an escort. Apparently, she had not entirely dispensed with the trappings of high society. The roads were covered in ice and they could not travel too fast for risk of the horses losing their footing or the carriage overturning. Rey reconsidered the wisdom of setting out at all in such conditions but she needed a distraction from her torment. After spending the previous day in a state of absolute misery over events taking place hundreds of miles away in Killerton, she had to put a stop to her imaginings of how Ben and Bazine might be spending their first full day as man and wife. If only she'd come into her inheritance sooner, she could have freed him and his family from the debts and obligations that bound them to Lord Snoke. But it was all too late now and it did no good to torture herself with thoughts of what might have been. As much as Rey wished to have Ben as her husband, he had made a promise to another and she wasn't sure, in good conscience, she could have asked him to break such a promise. He would have done it in a heartbeat, of that she had no doubt, but her gain would be another's loss. She cursed her inheritance for coming too late and resented her innate goodness for not wanting to injure a woman who would not have thought twice about doing her harm.
To her relief, Mrs. Brackett met her with a smile when, at last, Rey arrived at The Red Lion Inn. The young widow sent by Mr. Jinn had proved to be popular with the patrons and almost as hardworking as she had been. Blonde haired and buxom Sally could even make much better pies and bread than her, even if Mrs. Brackett was too polite to say so. Rey could taste the difference when she was given a plate of bread and butter with her tea. Her visit was of short duration and she kept the details of her recent windfall to herself, saying only that her circumstances had changed unexpectedly. It didn't take long for her to pack up her belongings, she had become quite practised in the art of late. Just as she prepared to take her leave, the early afternoon post arrived and with it, a letter addressed to her from Mrs. Kanata. The old widow had marked the envelope as urgent and Rey considered it fortuitous she had been there at the right time to receive it. Not wishing to delay her return to London with the roads so treacherous, she bid her farewells and her bag was put onboard the carriage. Once she had got comfortable in her seat, she broke the seal on the envelope and pulled out the letter inside which had obviously been written in haste. Mrs. Kanata didn't have the neatest handwriting at the best of times and it took some effort to decipher at first. As Rey progressed through the pages she entered a state of astonishment, her eyes growing wider with each new paragraph, until finally, she burst into happy tears. It all sounded too good to be true. She had to get to the nearest train station, and from there to Killerton, without delay.
Ben awoke in a foul mood. Not only had he been forced to share a bed already far too narrow for his frame with his uncle, but said uncle had kept him awake with his thunderous snoring for most of the night. He pulled forcefully at the blankets taking more than his share to cover himself, thrashing his long limbs about haphazardly in the process.
"If this is how you conduct yourself in the bedchamber, Miss Netal had a lucky escape," Luke grumbled sleepily as he tugged the blankets back to his side.
His uncle's unwelcome attempt at humour exhausted the last of his patience and Ben threw back the covers with a puff of exasperation. "And it's a good thing you remained a bachelor," he retorted as he stood up, pulled on his trousers, and then stormed out of the room.
He found his mother busy in the small kitchen with the kettle steaming over the hearth. The first light of dawn had only just begun to creep through the windows and she looked as if she'd been awake for hours. There was bread baking in the oven and as soon as she saw him, she began fussing over breakfast. It was strange for him to have company at such an early hour, he'd grown accustomed to his solitude and had savoured the quiet mornings before going to the mill or Dreadston Hall. The changes to his circumstances had come about so abruptly, Ben had not yet had time to adjust.
"You look as if you haven't slept a wink," his mother fretted as she put a plate of eggs and bacon down in front of him.
"I didn't," he complained as he stabbed halfheartedly at his food.
"Luke snores loud enough to raise the roof!" Leia exclaimed as she sat down beside him at the table. "His bedroom was on the opposite side of the house at Hope Mills, but this cottage is so small and the walls as thin as paper."
"I may end up smothering him in his sleep," Ben said only half-joking. "Although I don't believe your restlessness can be blamed entirely on my uncle's nocturnal rumblings, any more than mine can."
Leia reached over with uncertainty at first due to their years of estrangement and laid her much smaller hand atop his larger one. "My dear mother used to say - Hope is like the sun. If you only believe in it when you can see it, you'll never make it through the night. We've seen some dark days but we must keep the faith. The auction will take a few weeks to arrange but Luke is considering tutoring and I still have some jewellery to sell." She gave a wistful sigh as she looked down at the gold band on her finger.
"No, not your wedding ring." Ben knew how much it meant to her. It might fetch a good price and they were in dire need of every farthing they could scrape together, but some things were worth more than pounds, shilling and pence. "I shall go out after breakfast and I will not return until I've found employment," he vowed.
Leia nodded and managed a weak smile. The two ate in companionable silence until their plates were empty and the teapot needed refilling. "Did you find the writing paper and the ink pot? Luke used the last of the stamps but I intend to call in at the post office when I go out to get something for dinner. I can post your letters while I'm there, it will save you the bother." His mother gave him an expectant look. She didn't want to pry too deeply into his personal affairs but he hadn't mentioned Rey at all since he'd called off his wedding and she longed to know if he'd written to her.
Ben got up to go and shave and make himself presentable before he went out to seek work. "I haven't written any enquiries as yet," he said assuming it was to that correspondence she had been referring. "I hope meeting in person will prove more persuasive, or at least make it difficult for the mill masters of my acquaintance to turn me away without consideration."
"Oh, I see," Leia began, she'd half expected her son to be on the first train he could get to Sunston, but he'd shown no sign of doing so. Hard pressed as they were for money, she wouldn't have begrudged him a chance to be reunited with the women he loved and who loved him in return.
"What is it, mother?" Ben inquired matching her frown with one of his own.
She decided to be bold and ask him outright, her only concern being his happiness and that of the girl she'd come to care for almost as a daughter. "Have you no letter for Rey?"
His frown deepened and his hands clenched tightly by his sides. "She is better off where she is," he grunted and turned to walk away.
"But she loves you," his mother protested, "and you love her."
He heaved a deep sigh as he stood with his back to her, his shoulders hunched. "Can a person live on love? What have I to offer her now when I do not even have a home or a bed to call my own?"
"Mrs. Kanata has rooms to let and she wouldn't ask much in the way of rent for them. You and Rey could begin your married life there and who knows what the future might hold? There are many who would value your knowledge of the cotton industry, I'm sure, and pay good wages for it." Leia and her old friend had more or less planned it all out between them the previous afternoon. Mrs. Kanata missed the company of her young friend and as good as said she would have Ben and his bride living with her rent-free if it could only be arranged.
"Rey deserves a home of her own and a husband who can give it to her. I will not have a wife and any children she might bear me living in rented rooms." Ben was adamant. "Speak no more of it, mother, I beg you," he pleaded before stomping off to his shared bedchamber.
Leia sank down into the wooden rocker beside the fireplace overcome with weariness and sadness. All present hope extinguished.
Ben began his long walk into town forgetting the road would take him past the railway station until he heard the clatter of an approaching train on the track. He hadn't realised he had come to a standstill until he saw the guard on the platform staring back at him.
"Are you wanting the eight o'clock train to London, Sir?" The man inquired.
There were no direct trains to Sunston from Killerton, he would have to change at London Bridge. He couldn't believe he was even contemplating it after the conversation he'd had with his mother. But as the train chugged into the station, he found himself waiting on the platform ready to step aboard it. The idea of seeing Rey again had taken root and he shook off his misgivings as he handed over the money for his ticket and found a seat in a near-empty compartment. If she was contented in her new life, he would let her be, the choice would be hers to make. Ben wanted nothing more than to be in her company, even if it turned out to be for one last time.
The train made slow progress on the snow-dusted tracks and it had gone past noon by the time he arrived in the capital. It seemed everything was against him as he could find no carriage to hire and was forced to go to London Bridge on foot. Fortunately, he did not have long to wait for the next train to Sunston. Upon his arrival at the small village station, he sought directions to The Red Lion Inn, hoping he'd remembered the name correctly from the letter Rey had sent his mother. After walking for some way, out through the village square and past the parsonage which had once been home to the Tookers, he finally set eyes on his destination. The church bell chimed twice as Ben paused outside the inn. He imagined Rey inside, hard at work, and his courage faltered. What if she wasn't pleased to see him? He took a deep breath and pushed the door open, his eyes darting around in hopes of catching sight of her before she saw him. But instead of his beloved's hazel eyes, he met the sky blue gaze of a buxom young woman with blonde hair and a ready smile.
"What's your pleasure, sir?" She asked with a saucy wink.
"I, um - - may I speak with Rey Tooker, please?" Ben blushed.
An older woman entered the bar room, she looked him up and down with a gleam of approval. "I'm afraid you've just missed her. She left here about an hour ago and I dare say she'll be halfway back to London by now."
He glared at the woman in confusion. "What business has Miss Tooker in London?" he questioned.
Mrs. Brackett narrowed her eyes as she guessed at his intentions towards the young woman. He had introduced himself as Mr. Benjamin Solo, a friend of Miss Tooker's from her time in Killerton. In his well-tailored black topcoat, trousers and crisp white shirt, he certainly gave the appearance of a respectable gentleman. "She is staying with a Lady Amilyn Holdo in Mayfair if you'd like to call on her there," the widow explained.
Ben did not know what to make of the news but thanked her for her trouble despite his state of bewilderment. He politely declined her offer of refreshment and began his walk back to the village station. Mrs. Brackett could not furnish him with any further details, other than to say Miss Tooker had recently been visited by Mr. Jinn and thereafter had experienced a sudden change in her circumstances. Ben knew of Lady Holdo through his mother, although it had been many years since last he saw her. As he recalled, she was a kind-hearted soul, if a little rebellious when it came to the rules of society. When he and his family lived in America, she would visit the house often. He had been a small boy at the time, prone to emotional outbursts and breaking things in his temper. It wasn't as if he'd outgrown such displays, he mused with shame.
On the train journey back to London, Ben decided his impulsive expedition had been ill-judged. He would return to Killerton and speak nothing about where he'd been. Whatever the reason for Rey's sudden upheaval, he convinced himself she would be better off staying with the benevolent Lady Holdo than following him into a life of hardship. In time, she might write to his mother again with news of her change in circumstances. He would be content to hear she'd found a good situation and had money enough to live in comfort. However, it was with a heavy heart that he made his way to Euston Station and his northbound journey home.
The trains were running late due to the snow showers and Ben decided to take some refreshment while he waited. As he sat inside a bustling tea shop adjacent to the station, he reached inside his topcoat to retrieve a sprig of mistletoe he'd plucked from a silver birch outside the parsonage in Sunston. It had been an impulsive act and as Ben regarded it, twirling it about between his thumb and forefinger, he wasn't sure why he'd felt compelled to reach up and break it off from the clump which hung from the bare branches of the tree. He wasn't expecting any kisses, not now.
It was early evening before the imminent departure of the Killerton bound train was announced. Bags of coal were still being loaded into the tender as the passengers were summoned to the platform. Ben had no baggage to slow him down. He discarded the newspaper he'd been reading with its copious pages devoted to those facing ruination due to what had become known as The King Humbug Scandal, and made his way towards the train. The din from the crowd made his head pound and he closed his eyes wishing they would all disappear. When he opened them again, his mouth gaped wide in shock to find Rey standing before him. Tears were streaming down her cheeks and she pressed her trembling lips together as her chin wobbled with the effort of reining in her sobs. For what seemed like an eternity, Ben could only stare at her, the surprise of seeing her having rendered him immobile. But then all at once, they were in each other's embrace, neither sure who had moved first.
"Oh, Ben," she cried her arms clasped around his neck.
"My light, my Rey," he gasped as he held her tightly to his chest, all his misgivings forgotten.
His lips sought hers without regard for propriety. He kissed her with a passion that drew expressions of both admiration and disapproval from the surrounding crowd. Both were breathless when they broke apart and incapable of forming a coherent sentence. A gentle and tender kiss followed, full of the love neither were capable of giving voice to at that time. No words were needed. The station announcer temporarily broke the spell as he blew his whistle and shouted "All aboard!"
Ben glanced down to see Rey had two small bags at her feet. "Are you coming home to Killerton with me?" He questioned still awed to have her close to him once more and not quite able to believe his good fortune.
She nodded as he picked up her bags with one hand and offered the other to her. Without hesitation, she entwined her fingers with his. "I have such a tale to tell you," she beamed as he helped her aboard the train.
"And I have much to tell you," Ben replied as he found an empty compartment for them to sit in.
After being swept away by the joy of seeing her again, his doubts resurfaced when she told him of her newly inherited fortune and he wondered aloud what he could possibly have left to offer her. She took his hands in hers and told him he could give her the only thing she had ever wanted - a loving family to call her own. The next few hours were filled with exchanging news, many more kisses (both agreeing it would be a shame to let the mistletoe go to waste) and finally, peace, as they fell asleep in the comfort of each other's arms.
Gah, that's the penultimate chapter done and dusted!
The Victorians did like their scandals and King Humbug seemed like an amusing term for a swindler of the era.
I could have ended the story here as it would have fitted with the BBC adaptation of North and South where Margaret and John Thornton are reunited on a station platform and return to Milton together, the eventual marriage and happily ever after implied. The book ending is slightly different, concluding in a similar fashion when Margaret and John meet again at her Aunt's house in London. But I have decided to bring my version of this story to an end with one more chapter. Among the tieing of loose ends, Rey will receive an education from Mrs. Kanata and her soon-to-be-mother-in-law on what a bride should expect on her wedding night... It will be handled with delicacy (and humour!)
I hope you all enjoyed Ben and Rey's reunion. Thank you for your continued support - Mrs. P
"Where thou art, that is home." - Emily Dickinson
Rey gently drifted out of slumber, her cheek warm from where it rested on Ben's broad chest. She closed her eyes once more to better savour the moment, a sigh of contentment escaping her as she listened to the steady beating of his heart. He did not stir from his sleep and she could feel the puffs of his soft snores where his lips blew against her hair. It wasn't considered proper for a lady to dwell on such things, but the thought of all the nights she would spend nestled in Ben's strong arms after their marriage sent a thrill of anticipation through her. Both of them were eager for their wedding to take place as soon as it could be arranged. Rey didn't mind exchanging her newly discovered birth name of Audrey Bright for Mrs. Solo in the least. The former belonged to her unhappy past whereas her married name signified her future happiness.
Ben murmured in his sleep and her heart swelled with love for him. How surprised she'd been to reunite with him at Euston Station instead of in Killerton as she'd expected. It had been a welcome shock but a shock nonetheless. After reading Mrs. Kanata's letter, telling her all about Lord Snoke's demise and the cancellation of Mr. Solo's wedding to Miss Netal, she knew she had to go to him. First, she had to return to Lady Holdo's house to collect her belongings and express her gratitude for the hospitality she'd been shown from someone who, until a few days earlier, had been a perfect stranger. She then wrote a farewell note to Lord Casterfo, sending apologies for not being able to dine with him and thanking him for his many kindnesses. From there, she went to see Mr. Jinn to inform him of her intention to return to Killerton and use part of her inheritance to save Hope Mills.
Ben had been uneasy regarding the money when she told him about it. He knew the law decreed that once they were married her assets would become his, but he insisted his family's debts should remain his responsibility alone. Rey would have none of it. Almost everyone she cared about in the world had a vested interest in the future prosperity of Hope Mills, from her fiancé to her friends, and she could think of no better use for her new found wealth. She also wished to start a philanthropic venture to help orphaned children. The faces of the children toiling for Uriah Plutt haunted her and she tasked Mr. Jinn with finding out what could be done for them.
Killerton came into view and the train began its approach into the station. Rey craned her neck to press a soft kiss to Ben's lips, marvelling again at her freedom to do so after all the time she'd spent lamenting their lost love. He came to in a daze and it took him a moment to collect himself.
"I feared it was a dream," he gasped his face pained. "But here you are." His anguished expression turned to awe and he kissed her soundly.
Once they alighted onto the platform, Ben turned his attention towards finding them a carriage for hire. Mrs. Kanata had told Rey she would be welcome at any time of the day or night if she decided to return, and as it was past ten o'clock in the evening, she hoped the old widow had meant what she'd said. For his part, Ben intended to escort her safely to her destination and seek lodgings at the nearest inn. One night of sharing a bed with his uncle had been quite enough. He would send a messenger to his mother to put her mind at ease in regards to his absence. The news of his engagement and the identity of the saviour of Hope Mills, he would break to her in person the following morning with Rey at his side. That had been their vow to each other; they would never be alone again. It would be the two of them together in every aspect of life from business to family. There wasn't anything he wanted more.
By chance, Ben spotted Captain Nunb passing by outside the station and he called to him. The man owned a small cottage near to the one his mother and uncle had rented. After serving in the military for many years, he now lived quietly on the outskirts of the town. From the smell of ale on his breath, Ben deduced Captain Nunb had visited the nearby tavern. But the man did not appear to be any the worse for the drink and readily agreed to deliver Mr. Solo's message to his mother. It pained him to imagine her spending another night worrying about the future and fretting over him not returning from his quest to find employment when he had found so much more than that. First and foremost, Captain Nunb had been instructed to tell Mrs. Solo Hope Mills was saved and her son would return in the morning to explain all. Ben couldn't wait to see his mother's face when he arrived with Rey on his arm.
Once he secured a hired carriage, he wasted no time in getting his fiancée and her baggage onboard and out of the frosty night air. It was a tight squeeze but neither of them minded huddling close for warmth and comfort. The journey to Mrs. Kanata's house passed swiftly and Rey was relieved to see candles still burning in the windows as the carriage came to a halt outside. Ben paid the driver and soon they were standing at the door waiting for their knock to be answered.
"Well, bless my soul!" Mrs. Kanata exclaimed as she threw open the door and bid them enter.
After a warm embrace, they were taken into the kitchen and given a hearty meal and copious cups of tea to wash it down with. The old widow listened attentively to all their news before delivering some of her own. She had it on good authority that Lord Snoke had died in worse debt than anyone knew and Dreadston Hall, the mills, and all his other assets were to be auctioned off as soon as could be arranged. According to one of His Lordship's former maids, under the cover of darkness, Miss Netal and Mrs. Kloda gathered up as much jewellery and gold as they could carry and had fled abroad, most likely to Germany. Mr. Hux and Miss Phasma had also been seen leaving town. It was rumoured that they'd gone to his rich father in order to beg the money for them to buy the mills in East and West Killerton. Ben attended politely to Mrs. Kanata's gossip, although he cared not one jot for Miss Netal or any other of his former acquaintances from the dark years he spent under Snoke. He attempted to excuse himself on more than one occasion to go and secure a bed at the local inn. But was, in the end, persuaded to take Mr. Tooker's old room for the night. It wasn't customary for engaged couples to sleep under the same roof, but Mrs. Kanata assured them there was no harm in it. There would be a solid wall between them. She also made sure to mention how badly the upstairs floorboards creaked, in case either of them should have cause to wander out of bed in the small hours. The young couple both blushed at the insinuation to the old widow's amusement. She would never hear anything anyway as she slept like the dead.
The morning dawned without anyone's virtue being compromised. Ben had been too weary to pay much mind to the fact his fiancée was sleeping in the room next door. It was enough for him to have her near, he could wait until their wedding night for his other desires to be sated. Rey had retired for the evening glowing with happiness in the knowledge only a wall separated her from her one true love. Until Ben Solo came into her life, she had given little thought to ever becoming a bride. She had expected to nurse her adopted father in his dotage and end a spinster. As she lay in bed, her eyes resting on the wall that divided them, she realised her knowledge of what transpired between a man and wife in the privacy of their chamber was sorely lacking. During her mudlarking days, Rey would often go with the other children to where the river ran clearest in the summer months. When they had stripped down to bathe, she could plainly see the anatomical differences between girls and boys. In Sunston, she had visited enough farms to get an idea of how things worked in the animal kingdom. But for all his size, she would hardly compare Ben to a bull.
Such thoughts had no place at the breakfast table. Her fiancé glanced over at her and caught her staring at him. Ben gave her a smouldering look and Rey blushed into her teacup. Perhaps she could find a delicate way of broaching the topic with Mrs. Kanata when they had a moment alone. She had no mother to ask, and Mr and Mrs Tooker certainly never discussed such things, although they were open in their affection for each other. There were pamphlets on the subject, she'd heard. But where one acquired them, she dared not ask.
Mrs. Solo and Mr. Skywalker were ecstatic at the news of Ben and Rey's engagement. Leia remained determined her son's fiancée should have her birth mother's ring. When it was presented to her for the second time, Rey happily accepted it. She couldn't take it when Leia had made the original offer, reasoning it should stay in the family. But now, she would be family and she might one day have a daughter or granddaughter to whom she could bequeath it. Ben slipped the rose-cut diamond onto her finger and it fitted as if it had been made for her. He held her hand in his and brought it to his lips, kissing her with such tenderness it brought tears of joy to her eyes.
The resurrection of Hope Mill's fortunes also gave Mrs. Solo, Mr. Skywalker, and many others, cause to rejoice. There was much to be arranged, not least the wedding. With Christmas so near, Mrs. Solo suggested it might be best to hold off until Spring when the weather might be more agreeable and the happy couple could spend a few days by the sea. Rey had never been to the coast and she liked the idea of experiencing it for the first time with her husband. But the idea of waiting months to be wed instead of weeks didn't appeal to either of them. Ben favoured a Christmas wedding and promised he would take his new bride to a hotel with a sea view as soon as business and the weather permitted. She agreed without hesitation and they went to call on the Parson. Mrs. Solo set about arranging for all their belongings to be moved back to Hope Mills. Many of the larger pieces of furniture had never been taken out of the house as the cottage could not accommodate them. Miss Netal had planned on replacing everything, but Rey liked the decor as it was and did not intend to make any major changes. Mr. Skywalker decided he would like to take a small cottage in Hope village and leave the main house to the newlyweds. Mrs. Solo would live with them but she intended to go and stay with her old friend Lady Holdo for a while after the wedding. Her son and his fiancée told her she need not go. However, Leia had made her mind up. She promised she would return to help with the birth of her first grandchild and, to that end, she did not want to hinder the likelihood of such an event taking place.
The matter of procreation continued to weigh on Rey's mind as her wedding day approached. She and Ben were to be married the day before Christmas Eve which left only a few weeks to make all the arrangements. Every minute of every day seemed to be filled with either setting Hope Mills to rights or getting things in order for the wedding. There wasn't much time to be spared for conversations about matters other than cotton manufacturing, bridal gowns, flower arrangements and food for the breakfast feast. When Leia suggested a trip to London to buy Rey's bridal trousseau, the young woman leapt at the chance and Mrs. Kanata decided to accompany them. Ben wasn't happy about them travelling without a chaperone and tried to persuade his uncle to go with them. In truth, there was too much work to be done at the mill for Luke to be absent and besides, his mother argued a man would only get in their way. Lady Holdo promised to meet them at the station and they would stay with her in Mayfair for a couple of days. Ben could not deny his bride-to-be anything when she set her mind on it, and so the excursion was agreed upon.
Lady Holdo knew where the finest linens could be purchased and she had already set her best dressmaker to the task of procuring French silk and lace for the bridal lingerie. Rey had been waiting for an opportunity to bring up the subject of her wedding night but her courage kept faltering and she wasn't sure it was something Ben's mother would want to even consider. Noting Rey's puzzled expression as she looked over the designs for her night attire, Mrs. Kanata introduced the topic she'd been longing to discuss, although her blunt approach hardly spared the young woman's blushes.
"You look confused, child, is all well?"
Rey examined the samples of sheer silk and lace left by the dressmaker as she studied the pattern for her new nightdress. "These designs seem somewhat - revealing," she said her voice high pitched and her cheeks turning a dark shade of pink.
"The French fashions do have something of the bordello about them but I'm sure you'll discover your new husband won't complain," Mrs. Kanata tittered as Mrs. Solo and Lady Holdo made noises of agreement.
"It just doesn't look very practical," Rey observed her continued bemusement evident, " - or as if it will provide much warmth in the winter months."
"If all goes as it should, it won't be the nightgown keeping you warm of a night," the old widow chuckled.
Her companions couldn't hide their mirth at her naivety but they did sympathise too. Mrs. Kanata and Mrs. Solo could appreciate how a girl largely raised as a parson's daughter might consider such garments to be scandalous. In the absence of a mother to explain to her the facts of life, they took it upon themselves to prepare her for her wedding night and beyond. All would be well, Mrs. Kanata promised if both husband and wife were patient and approached the act with tenderness. Mrs. Solo maintained that the marriage bed could be a pleasure and not just a spousal chore or duty, to which Mrs. Kanata readily agreed. Both had been fortunate in their choice of husbands and had married for love which had endured right up to the end. Rey found their candour a little embarrassing, but she was grateful not to be entering the state of matrimony in complete ignorance of such matters. Ben's gentle yet passionate attentions during their brief courtship had already hinted at the delights to come. She smiled to herself certain the marriage bed would be a pleasure for her.
Ben quivered with anticipation as he stood before the church altar; his bride would be arriving soon. It wasn't too long ago he'd feared this day would never come. He had offered to forego his customary black attire but Rey cared only for his comfort. She didn't want him to be anything other than he was. On the inside, he felt lighter than he had done for years. Since childhood, really. However, he had grown accustomed to wearing black and, although he might entertain a necktie of a cheerier colour from time to time, he felt no need to go overboard. What a contrast to his other wedding day, he thought, and then chided himself for comparing the two occasions. There was no comparison. When he faced being bound to Miss Netal, he had not slept a wink the night before due to his revulsion at what the dawn would bring. This time around, his slumber had suffered only because he longed for morning to come and he kept waking up to look for the sunrise. Ben did worry he wasn't as prepared for wedlock as he might be in certain areas. His father had taken the view his son should be educated in all the ways of the world when he came of age. But Han Solo ended up spending most of Ben's formative years on other continents. He hadn't had the time or inclination to seek out female companionship until he met Rey. When he kissed her, it all felt so natural as if they were meant to be joined as one.
The sound of the church organ jolted him out of his reverie, and he turned to towards the entrance waiting for his bride to appear. Her beaming face as Mr. Chewy led her down the aisle made his heart leap. He just knew everything would be perfect on their wedding night and thereafter. Mrs. Kanata's maid, Jessie, led the procession as the only bridesmaid in attendance on the arm of the groomsman. Rey had insisted, remembering the young woman's dreams of attending a fancy party dressed in finery. And with but a few weeks to prepare for the wedding, one bridal gown and a singular bridesmaids dress had been as much as the dressmaker could handle in the allotted time. Mrs. Solo assured Rey they had everything they needed, and so they did. Lady Holdo and Mr. Jinn had travelled up from London to be among the Killerton guests, which included Poe, Finn and his new lady friend, Rose, and Mrs. Kanata. Before accepting his nephew's request for him to be the groomsman, Mr. Skywalker had offered to walk Rey down the aisle, but she'd already asked Mr. Chewy if he would do her the honour. He had been so happy to see her on her return from the south, she made sure to call on him every morning when she arrived at Hope Mills to see Ben.
The Parson declared them husband and wife, their lips meeting in a kiss to seal the union as in Roman times. She was his and he was hers; two halves of the same soul. Their first act as a married couple was to sign the parish register. Rey barely had the chance to get acquainted with her maiden name and now it existed only as a matter of public record. But she would mourn for the past no longer. Ben Solo was her future, and in him, she had found everything she'd been looking for.
"Shall we, Mrs. Solo?" He held out his hand to her as the church bells rang.
Rey nodded entwining her fingers with his, her smile as dazzling as the sun. "We certainly shall."
It is done! Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read this story and for all your kind words along the way. I hope you all enjoyed the ending. - Mrs. P