The regency romances, p.15
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       The Regency Romances, p.15

           Laura Kinsale

  Mr. Peale’s desertion left Merlin with a pursed mouth and a frown. She went back to work, and for a few moments continued scratching away with her pen. The writing began to slow. She looked up. Ransom watched. It came as it always did, that reluctant transition, as her eyes left the soft cloudy vistas of thought and focused on the world at hand. For the first time, she noticed him.

  She smiled. And it seemed suddenly to Ransom that the three weeks since he’d kissed her had been three lifetimes.

  He held out his hand and spoke gently, because she seemed fragile: pale and tense and worn thin as an overstrung wire. “Merlin,” he said. “Come here. We’re having tea and a bite to eat. I’d like you to meet a good friend of mine.”

  “I’m sorry,” she said. “I have to work.”

  “You can rest a few moments, don’t you think? We’d enjoy your company. The secretary wishes to hear about your flying machine.”

  “Oh.” She laid down her pen. “Of course.”

  She came out from behind the writing podium, dragging a stray coil of wire that had caught in her skirt. While approaching them, she passed in and out of rope-thin shadows. Sunlight kindled a gleam in her chestnut hair. Blythe leaped up and performed the introduction while Ransom was still frowning at Merlin, disturbed by the new, slender delicacy of her, the impression that she would snap and then crumble under a careless touch.

  Blythe poured tea when it arrived, as indifferent as the well-trained maid to the odd surroundings. Ransom took three extra scones onto his plate, returning a casual smile for his sister’s raised brows. He moved next to Merlin, who was already expounding on aviation to the secretary, and offered the scones.

  She glanced at him, shook her head, and went on talking. Ransom continued holding up the plate, and the secretary took one scone, eating it handily between eager questions.

  Ransom waited a few moments. He sipped his tea and watched Merlin. Behind him, Quin had engaged Blythe and Shelby in some sort of Irish blarney—which they seemed to be enjoying, if Shelby’s chuckles and Blythe’s huffing was any indication. The Reverend Mr. Peale had collared Jaqueline. To Ransom’s amazement, the two of them appeared to be content to argue the relative merits of aluminium wire and catgut at length.

  Ransom offered the scones to Merlin again. She paused in her dialogue and shook her head. “No, thank you.”

  The secretary took another one. “And the landing,” he said between bites. “How do you propose to accomplish that?”

  “Well, I’ve heard that Mr. Pemminey is using wheels.” Merlin frowned. “But I do believe that my skis provide more flexibility. There is the matter of wind resistance, though—”

  “I wish you would eat something,” Ransom said evenly.

  Merlin shook her head as he held up the plate again. “I’m not at all hungry. As for the wind resistance, I’m trying to calculate for that by—”

  “You look as if you haven’t had a meal for days.”

  She waved her hand. “Mr. Pemminey is preparing to test his model next week,” she said, as if that should be explanation enough.

  “Have you thought of a grapple?” the secretary asked. He took the last scone from Ransom’s offered plate. “Something like a ship’s anchor, if you see what I mean. You could throw it out and release the line as you descended.”

  “But there is the weight, you see.” She worried her lower lip. “Mr. Pemminey seems to have mastered that, since he plans to carry a passenger. But I’m afraid my design could not cope. I’m moving up my test to Monday next. I cannot imagine how Mr. Pemminey has managed to advance so far so fast—”

  “Mr. Pemminey be damned,” Ransom said under his breath. He set the empty plate down on a convenient intersection of strung wires. “I have a question, Miss Lambourne,” he announced.

  His determined tone overrode Merlin in the midst of her discussion. Everyone looked toward him.

  “I was just wondering,” he said casually, “exactly how you’re planning to get this apparatus out the door.”

  Merlin turned toward him. She opened her mouth. She closed it. She twisted to gaze up at the huge sweep of canvas with a look of pure horror transforming her expression.

  “Oooh,” she breathed. “Oh, nooo!”

  There was a moment of dead silence.

  “There’s a poser,” Shelby said. “Merlin, do you mean to tell you never thought of it?”

  Her throat worked. No sound came out.

  “Really,” Blythe exclaimed. “Then we did all this for nothing?”

  “Exactly what have you done, Blythe?” Shelby demanded. “Nothing Woodrow couldn’t have accomplished twice as fast on his own.”

  “Woodrow is a child. I was asked to monitor the accuracy of his work,” Blythe said stiffly. “And I certainly wouldn’t have wasted my time if I’d known Miss Lambourne hadn’t accounted for so simple a thing as transporting her apparatus outside the room!”

  “It is a terrible oversight, my dear,” said Mr. Peale. “I apologize sincerely if I’ve encouraged you to spend your precious time unwisely.”

  “But sure, it’s no problem at all.” Quin gestured toward the row of huge windows that overlooked the formal garden. “’Tis only a wee bit o’ wall blockin’ the way.”

  Ransom gave the Irishman a sardonic smile. “Don’t even think it.”

  Merlin covered her face. She sank down onto an overturned whiskey keg. “Oh, no,” she moaned. “Oh no, oh no, oh no.”

  The twins rushed to her side. “Don’t cry, Miss Merlin! Uncle Demmie will know what to do!” Aurelia patted Merlin’s cheek. “Uncle Demmie always knows what to do.”

  “Of course.” Merlin’s head came up. Her drawn face shone with relief and hope as she looked toward him.

  In the expectant silence, he cleared his throat. “I can’t help you this time, I’m afraid.”

  The clamor of protest made him scowl. He looked away from Merlin’s stricken countenence.

  “Uncle Damerell?” a timid young voice asked. “Excuse ma-ma-ma…me, ba-ba-ba—I have an idea.”

  Ransom turned to Woodrow and struggled to lighten his expression when the boy gripped his hands together and cast down his eyes. “Yes?”

  “The wings,” Woodrow said. He took a deep breath. “The wings. We ca-ca-ca…could change them, ca-ca-couldn’t we? Here.” He pointed. “And over there. Ma-ma-ma-make those joints ma-ma-metal. Hinges and…screws…sa-so they would fold up and…down. Then if you only…took out one window…”

  “Yes!” Merlin cried. “I can do that!” She leaped up and smothered Woodrow in a hug. “Oh, thank you. Thank you so much! You’re the smartest person I ever, ever met!”

  Ransom was preparing to declare that a window would be removed at Mount Falcon over his dead body when Woodrow emerged from Merlin’s embrace. The boy was scarlet with confusion and pride.

  “My pleasure, Miss Lambourne,” Woodrow said, without a single trip over a “p” or an “m.”

  He didn’t even seem to notice the lack of stutter. But Ransom did. With a sigh, the master of Mount Falcon consigned one of its century-old Vanbrugh windows to an ignoble fate.

  Merlin rushed back to her writing table, grabbing up the pen and dragging out diagrams and notes from the piles of vellum scattered across the floor. She muttered to herself, making little moans and occasional lamentations, such as: “This will throw me back a month,” or “Blast, blast, I can’t cut the skeleton there…but wait! Could I possibly…no—it won’t work. It would never stand the strain. It will have to be in the third quarter…Mr. Peale! Mr. Peale, where is that Johnson book on integral calculus? Page two hundred and twenty, I believe it was…Oh, do hurry—we have no time, no time at all!” Mr. Peale, with profuse apologies to Blythe, promptly went back to work. Ransom’s sister stood looking after her admirer, holding the teacup he had handed her, the corners of her mouth turned down in little white pinches.

  “Does he desert you so easily, darlin’?” Quin sauntered up and took the teacup from her hand. He
lifted her fingers to his lips. “I find his priorities baffling.”

  The pinches at Blythe’s mouth grew deeper and whiter as a pink flush suffused her face. When Quin lingered with his lips brushing her skin, she snatched her hand away. “I shall not stand for your continued impudence.”

  “Forgive me, Your Ladyship.” Quin bowed contritely. “I can’t seem to help meself.”

  “Nonsense,” Blythe said. She turned away.

  “Let’s go on the cat’s seat now, Uncle Demmie!” Augusta clutched Ransom’s hand and pulled. Aurelia abandoned her impromptu game of skittles with Jaqueline and added her pleas. Ransom allowed himself to be drawn back toward the workbench, but his attention was divided between Merlin and the secretary, who had decided to take his leave and was already speaking to Blythe.

  Augusta dropped Ransom’s hand. She skipped to the end of the bench and bent over. The secretary was moving toward them when the floor lurched beneath Ransom’s feet. He grabbed at the nearest thing, a dangling rope, and felt it go taut beneath his fingers. At the same time, an unfamiliar creaking clank began a rapid rhythm.

  He looked down. His jaw clenched in alarm. The six square feet of planking on which he and the twins and the bench rested had begun to rise from the rest of the floor.

  Chapter 10

  It was pride and the secretary’s amused gaze that prevented Ransom from stepping off when stepping was still possible. He gripped the rope, expecting the contraption to grind to a halt. It did not. His feet passed the level of the secretary’s generous paunch. Now, Ransom thought, watching the other man’s feet appear to grow closer together as his perspective changed. Step down now.

  His body tensed. It did not obey him.

  He only held the rope harder. A sweep of canvas and catgut entered the top of his peripheral vision and began to pass smoothly downward, growing larger as the tools and papers and scraps of canvas on the floor grew smaller. Now, he thought again, and again his feet did not move.

  His boots topped the secretary’s head.

  “Jolly clever device, eh?” the politician cried. “I believe I’ll stay long enough for a ride myself, Damerell.”

  Ransom wanted to swallow, but not even his throat would obey him. The twins sat still on the far end of the bench, making little whimpers of pleasure and excitement. He noticed with growing panic that their weight was not enough to counterbalance his, and the square platform tilted alarmingly toward his corner. Everyone in the room was looking up, resembling a group of foreshortened mushrooms with faces oddly white in the gloom beneath the flying machine.

  A festoon of rope and wing glided down the side of Ransom’s field of vision. He saw his reflection passing in the huge mirror above the mantel, a stranger in a dark coat and neat cravat, looking utterly poised and nonchalant as he leaned against the tautened rope. In the mirror, the tilt of the platform looked to be a few inches, no more. To Ransom it felt like a sickening incline.

  “Isn’t it fun, Uncle?” one of the twins asked, her voice dim through the pounding of blood in his ears.

  Ransom could not look toward them. He tried to move his head and found his muscles paralyzed. The edge of the wing passed him. The upper surface of the canvas spread out to view in a downward, dizzying pitch.

  His hand slipped a fraction, slick with sweat. A jolt of terror went from his stomach to his brain. He could no longer look down. His body seemed to have passed from his control, he stared at the far wall as the frescoed murals on it slipped downward. His lips were stiff, but behind them his thoughts clamored a silent prayer. Oh God dearest God deliver me I’m going to fall I’m going to fall I don’t want to fall oh God oh God let me down let me down let me down.

  Something large and shapeless swam into view, descending more rapidly than the rest of the surroundings. For an instant it seemed to Ransom the thing would smash into their fragile perch, and then it passed smoothly in front of his eyes, looking like a giant moth wrapped in a spider’s silk and dangling by a dark thread. Belatedly, his mind recognized the limbless torso of a statue that had toppled off its garden perch in the last hard frost of winter. The thing was bound in a net of hemp and hung from a rack of pulleys: the counterweight to his treacherous elevator.

  He could see the ceiling now, looming down like a huge umbrella, its mythic figures in grotesquely strained perspective.

  “Is this high enough, Uncle Demmie?” a twin asked. “Should we stop?”

  He could not even make his tongue move to answer that, though his mind screamed, Yes yes yes!

  “No, no!” cried the other twin. “Let’s go higher! Miss Merlin never let us go this far.”

  “All right. We’re not even to the tip of the wing yet.”

  One of the little girls stood up. The platform trembled and began to swing. A low sound came out of Ransom’s throat, a violent, wordless, animal sound.

  “Hullo, Miss Merlin!” one of the girls called. Her voice made a thin echo above the creaking mechanism. “Hullo, Woodrow—do you see how high we are?”

  On top of Ransom’s own dread was the added terror that the twins might slip off. When the one who had stood up—he could not turn to see which—moved again, Ransom managed a frantic snarl. “Sit down! Sit down and don’t get up!”

  “Yes, sir.”

  From the corner of his eye, he saw the movement of pastel skirls. There was a thump, and the platform dipped and swayed like a living thing.

  Oh God oh God oh God let me down.

  He kept his eyes on the painted wall, moving slowly past in a pendulous swing. The ceiling began to curve down to meet the vertical. He looked at the paint, at the colors, at the brushwork and cracks in the plaster that he had never seen and never wanted to see.

  Get me down please God please get me down.

  The mechanism creaked to a slow halt. Silence filled the hall. The platform began a sluggish spin.

  Damn damn damn damn God damn I can’t take this I can’t stand it I can’t I can’t I can’t oh God.

  He heard voices below. There was a thump and a loud crash, and the boards beneath his feet jumped. He clung to the rope. Blackness threatened around the edges of his vision.

  The creaking began again. The platform dropped from under him…caught…and dropped again.

  Ransom lost himself then. His heart simply stopped, along with his mind. The blackness turned to nothing, the soft moaning sounds in his ears went dumb. There was only one thing: there was the rope, and he held on to it. He held on to it for his life and his soul and all the saints in Heaven and the demons in Hell. He held on to it until his fingers went numb and then began to burn. He held on to it while he died, seventy-seven separate deaths, each time the platform jerked and dropped, and jerked and dropped, until a voice somewhere just below his right ear was saying, “So how did you like it, Damerell? Quite a sight from up there, eh?”

  It felt as if Ransom were opening his eyes, except that they already seemed to be open. The veil of terror slowly dissolved, leaving him able to see again. He found himself a foot away from Shelby, who was wiping perspiration from his forehead with a handkerchief, his other hand still resting on the wheel and crank where an equally-winded Quin was lashing a rope securely.

  Blythe and Jaqueline and Woodrow and the secretary were all looking at Ransom with expectant smiles. A little further away, Merlin and Mr. Peale still bent together over work on their equations.

  “Isn’t it wonderful, Uncle Demmie? The cat’s seat?” Augusta demanded. “Miss Merlin built it, all by herself! She said we should take you up on it. She said we should be sneaky, and if we ever could get you to try it, you would see why she wants to fly.”

  Ransom amazed himself. He was not trembling. He was not weak in the knees as he shouldered Quin aside and strode toward Merlin. His hands didn’t shake. His anger seemed to have wiped out the fear, but in the end his body betrayed him. He opened his mouth to speak, and the only sound that came out was, “D—”

  He stopped. His throat worked. To his
horror, he could tell that the curse was not going to emerge as a single word, but as a maimed caricature of a word, a stammering collection of nonsense sound like the rising babble of hysteria inside him.

  For an instant he was not himself but someone else. Someone who stuttered.

  Another instant and that long-forgotten boy was gone, shoved down the deep well of history by adult pride and adult ruthlessness. Ransom drew his lips back in a grimace as he looked at Merlin’s pale cheeks and the weariness etched around her long lashes and gray eyes.

  “Enough,” he said, the word as clear as winter ice. “No more of this folly. You’re driving yourself to exhaustion. I won’t permit it. I won’t stand by and watch you make yourself ill over nonsense. It’s time you abandoned your absurd ideas and grew up. You are going to learn how to go on in the world, Miss Lambourne.” He turned, sweeping the room with a freezing gaze. “The ballroom is locked and barred from this instant. To everyone.”

  Without waiting for a response he strode out the door and down the long series of corridors and into his own room. He threw the door closed behind him and went into the dressing room, grabbing a porcelain basin from the wash stand.

  He put one hand out to the wall. His legs gave way. He sank to his knees and bent over the basin and was very, very sick.

  Merlin did not take Ransom’s ultimatum seriously. No one came to banish them all from the ballroom after Ransom left. He had been angry with her, that was all, his temper aroused and then dissipated in intimidation and threats, as it always was.

  She worked until three that morning, and rose again at six, but after breakfast there was no sign of Ransom in the Great Hall. Merlin paused until she realized she was looking out the window for him. Then she frowned and hurried down the corridors to the ballroom.

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