The regency romances, p.40
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       The Regency Romances, p.40

           Laura Kinsale
 

  “Hmmpf,” she said. “You always know.”

  “Oh, always. I’m infallible.” Ransom nibbled at the curve of her ear and then said softly, “I do have one question, though, Wiz,”

  “What?”

  His arms tensed a little around her shoulders. He laid his cheek on her hair. “Merlin, when are you going to start working to rebuild your flying machine?”

  “My flying machine?” She half-turned in his arms. “Oh, I wasn’t going to rebuild it.”

  He held her away from him and peered into her face. “You weren’t?” There was the faintest trace of hope in his voice.

  She shrugged. “I’m finished with that. I said I would build a machine that would fly, and I did. I flew. I’ve forgotten that first time—I never can seem to remember anything about that day at all—but you and I flew in a machine that I designed.”

  “And that’s it?” He sounded stunned. “That’s all you wanted?”

  She nodded.

  “You’re sure?”

  She nodded again.

  “Thank God.” Air came out of him in a whoosh. He drew her close and hugged her. “Oh, Merlin, thank God for that. I was going to try not to interfere; I swear I was, but I’ve been dreading it worse than death by slow degrees.”

  She smiled. She could just see his eyes in the moon-shadow, pale gold in the metallic light. She stood on tiptoe and met his kiss, felt his arms grow taut around her. For a long, long moment all she thought of was Ransom, of his body and his arms and his kiss—all pressed hard against her—and the assurance of pleasures to come that those things promised.

  When he let her go, she turned around in his arms to look back out the window at the sky. She tucked his hands up between her own and intertwined their fingers. She liked the feel of him at her back, solid and warm, so much larger than herself. He tightened his hold, exerting a steady pull on her to draw her toward the bed.

  She patted his hand. “No, you have nothing at all to worry about. I’m quite done with the flying machine. I have something else in mind.”

  He squeezed her. In a husky murmur, he said, “So do I, Wiz.”

  She relaxed in the velvet strength of his hold, allowing herself to be pulled along backward on her heels. “Yes,” she announced complacently as she was towed across the floor. “Now I’m going to start building a rocket to the moon!”

  Author’s Note

  The battle of Trafalgar predates by a century both Reginald Fessendon’s radio broadcast from Brant Rock, Massachusetts, on Christmas Eve, 1906, and the Wright Brothers’ controlled flights in Glider Number Three at Kitty Hawk. In light of these facts, Merlin’s achievements may seem wildly unrealistic. But in 1805, the elements of radio communication and heavier-than-air-craft flight existed. An electric current made magnetic fields. The wind provided lift for birds’ wings according to the laws of aerodynamics. Countless amateur and professional scientists dreamed dreams and flew models and sent currents through the wires.

  The names we remember today—Wright, Marconi, Morse, Cooke, and Wheatstone—are legend. They had genius, and more than that: the luck to have it at the right time. In the shadows behind them stand all those who tried and failed…or tried and might have succeeded, only to be ignored by a complacent world.

  In 1816, eleven years before Cooke, Wheatstone, and Morse entered their claims of inventing the electric telegraph, a young aristocrat named Francis Ronalds sent a memorandum to the Lords of the Admiralty. He offered them his plans for the first practical, effective electric telegraph, which he had erected in his garden. After being denied an interview with Lord Melville, Ronalds received a letter from the Secretary of the Admiralty, which stated: “…telegraphs of any kind are now wholly unnecessary, and no other than the one now in use will be adopted.”

  I like to think the Lords had their reasons…concealed deep in the Admiralty’s secret files.

  Ad astra per aspera.

  L.K.

  My Sweet Folly

  PROLOGUE

  Cambourne House, Calcutta

  15 October, 1800

  My dear Cousin Charles,

  I disturb your peace at my father’s behest. He wishes me to investigate the progress of a lawsuit concerning the proper location of a hedgerow. Knowing and caring nothing of this hedgerow except that it languishes, properly or improperly, in Shropshire, I beg you will do me the favor of not replying to this inquiry.

  Your servant,

  Lt. Robert Cambourne

  1 Bttn. 10th Regt.

  Bengal Infantry

  P.S. However, if by chance you should happen to send me a copy of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, I should be forever in your debt, as my own has been appropriated by a mongoose. You may apply to the East India Company offices in Leadenhall Street to cover the expense.

  Bridgend House

  Toot-above-the-Batch

  Herefordshire

  20 April, 1801

  My Dear Lieutenant Cambourne,

  As my husband, Mr. Charles Hamilton, suffers from a severe attack of greenfly to his roses, it falls to me to acknowledge your inquiry. He tells me that you are a third cousin of his, so I am afraid, sir, that in the name of familial duty we cannot in conscience comply with your request to ignore you. You may inform your father that the hedgerow is still in Shropshire, and shows every intention of remaining there as long as the lawyers have a breath left to make out their bills.

  From your petition concerning the Malory, I deduce that you are an admirer of King Arthur and his Round Table? I delight in encouraging these notions of chivalry amongst the gentlemen, in hopes that someday some particularly astute knight errant will at last discover that under my paisley shawl and mobcap I am actually a royal princess in disguise. With this ambition in mind, and it being a slow day in Toot-above-the-Batch, quite flat after the elopement of the cook’s piglet with the blacksmith’s goose (they were missing overnight and found disporting themselves in a most disgraceful manner under the bridge, I am sorry to say, and so the piglet’s reputation is in shambles), I took it upon myself to pursue the matter of your Malory. I walked to Tetham to see if I might discover a copy. I am most pleased, gallant knight, to present to you a fine edition, well-bound, as you will see. Never mind Leadenhall Street, you are to consider it a birthday present—I feel quite sure you must have a birthday. I send it with great satisfaction in the notion that it will travel from Tetham to Toot to some dark Indian jungle, perhaps transported upon elephants, or balanced on the head of a Native. I must warn you to keep your armor well-polished in such conditions, as humidity will be the worst thing for it.

  Your cousin-in-law,

  Folie Hamilton

  Ft. William, Calcutta

  17 September, 1801

  My dear Cousin Folie,

  What a pretty name you have! The Malory arrived (in a sepoy’s pack, rather than upon an elephant, but I assure you that he was an excessively fierce and exotic-looking fellow in a turban). Thank you. I did not actually expect you to trouble yourself. My feelings are a little difficult to convey, I find. I am not a hand at letters. Thank you. I am keeping my armor brightly polished.

  Your Knight,

  Robert Cambourne

  Ft. William, Calcutta

  19 September, 1801

  My dear Cousin Folie,

  A Brahmin mystic and magician has informed me that your birthday is the 20th of March. I even have some unreasonable confidence that this will reach you in time. I thought it was rather pretty, like your name. The pearl is from the China Sea; it came in a pirate ship. I hope that I may have the pleasure of continuing to write to you.

  Your Knight,

  Robert Cambourne

  Bridgend House

  Toot-above-the-Batch

  Herefordshire

  20 March, 1802

  Dear Knight,

  I think your Brahmin must be a powerful conjurer, for your present arrived precisely upon my birthday. I am twenty today, and I have never been past Tetham in my lif
e, but now I have a pearl that has come all the way round the world to me, as your letters do. How I shall treasure them both! This morning I have put on my best blue dimity dress, pinned the bodice with your pearl stick and pranced all about the village, ruthlessly lording it over Miss Morpeth, who considers herself cosmopolitan because she has been twice to Shrewsbury. Even your cousin Melinda, who frowns upon me as only an eight-year-old can frown upon her stepmother, has admitted that I am a passable sight today, while our gardener has handsomely pronounced me “done to a cow’s thumb.” I must tell you, sweet knight, that Mr. Hamilton calls me a sad flirt, and says that gentlemen who send me pearl stickpins had better guard their hearts or they will find themselves helplessly caught in my toils. You are therefore requested and required to avoid falling in love with me, my dear Lieutenant Cambourne, and under those terms you may send me all the letters and pearls that you like. Indeed I do hope you will write to me again, and tell me about what you see from your window, or your tent, or wherever you may be. Tell me the color of the sky, and the feel of the air, and the sounds you hear, for I should like to know it all. Tell me what you did this morning. Did anyone make you angry? Did anything make you laugh? I so wonder what your life is like in that place, sweet knight.

  Your cousin,

  Folie

  P.S. However weirdly exotic you may be, I’m quite sure you have nothing to match Mrs. Nettle’s new hat.

  Ft. William, Calcutta

  25 October, 1802

  Dear Folie,

  My dear girl! I could never fall in love by letter. Though I have no doubt you are a notorious breaker of hearts, not to mention a princess in disguise, and if I were a few miles closer to Toot-above-the-Batch I would be in great danger. From the safe distance of another continent, I will admit to a modest desire to see how your pearl becomes you, even to know the color of your hair and eyes, but this is mere curiosity, I assure you. I have been reading the Malory since early this morning. You have guessed a disgraceful secret of mine. I believe I was born many centuries after my proper time; when I see the far mountains on our horizon, I confess to a burning desire to desert John Company, ride off to the bannered castles hidden there and live the life of a knight errant. This is a private confidence, my pretty princess, to be kept between us, if you will. Perhaps you are aware that my father is a director of the East India Company and a paymaster-general of Bengal. He and my superior officers are fond of accounts. Regrettably, I am not. In truth I am hard put to it to keep count of my dragon-slayings.

  However, you ask of India and my life here. The air smells of dust and charcoal smoke this morning, perhaps a bit spicy, the cookstalls turning out dosas and samosas. I have read your letter three times, and smiled each time. I drink tea, it is called chai here, with a great deal of milk and sugar. When I pause and think of what to describe to make this real to you, I realize suddenly how noisy it is. The air beyond the cantonment is full of cries and squabbles and the lowing of cattle and the shouts of the sepoys laughing. I am presently in my office, with a reasonable breeze from the windows. The view is not inspiring—I can see nothing but an empty parade ground and the compound wall, which is of mud. Apart from knightly heroics and poor arithmetic, I occupy myself with an investigation of the local religion. This is a very interesting topic to me, princess, but perhaps it will not seem so to you. I will just give you a brief account of the guuruu with whom I have established a friendship—he is a Hindu spiritual teacher, an ancient gentleman with a wild white beard and hair to his waist. As an adept of the discipline of yoga, Srí Ramanu is able to stand on one hand or twist his limbs into knots that I really feel must rival Mrs. Nettle’s hat for oddness. He spends days at a time with his feet in the air and his head buried in sand, but I must admit that this seems to have given him an uncommonly amiable disposition; he is a great friend of all living things, exceedingly wise, and if you are not careful you will find yourself declared guardian of a flea which he has removed from his person but declined to dispatch out of benevolent principles. He tells me that all is Fated, and it is useless to struggle. There are times when I feel inclined to agree with him, and others when his philosophy only seems an excuse to lie down and give oneself up to die. This is a country where death is always close, so perhaps—

  Forgive me, princess, I find myself rambling. I have no sense of direction at all, in letters or in life. Hand me a map and I will look it over, squint and puzzle on it, turn it upside down, and soon have myself lost beyond recall. What an exemplary knight errant!

  Your servant,

  Robert Cambourne

  Bridgend House

  Toot-above-the-Batch

  Herefordshire

  1 March, 1803

  Sweet Knight,

  I should think a tendency to lose your way would be the best possible talent for a knight errant. How else are you to find adventures and bespelled ladies like myself? I assure you that we are not planted alongside the road; you must wander about dark forests and climb unscalable cliffs which no one would ever climb if they were not lost. As a knight of the errant persuasion, surely you must be meant to put yourself in the hands of Fate, as your guuruu tells you, not to lie down and die but to discover where Fate will lead you.

  You see, I am quite the philosopher myself, am I not? It comes of spending so many mornings at the Ladies’ Church Committee, where one must develop resignation as a veritable creed. Perhaps I shall carry a bucket of sand along tomorrow and bury my head in it.

  Which reminds me that I shall begin to feel guilty if I do not set you straight upon a certain point. While I am indeed a princess, gallant knight, I fear I am not precisely pretty. Mr. Hamilton once mentioned I am quite passable when I smile, so of course I married him immediately. Our engagement was a great shock to Toot, as the late Mrs. Hamilton was known to be the greatest beauty in three counties, and Mr. Hamilton naturally dotes upon her memory. His daughter Melinda bids fair to surpass her mother, so I find it convenient to smile often and avoid mirrors.

  I hope this news is not a severe disappointment to you. If you wish to withdraw from the lists as my knight, you must feel perfectly free to do so. I am afraid I do like to flirt a little, a pastime which Mr. Hamilton seems to find amusing in me, when he takes time from his roses to notice. He is very good to me, very generous and obliging, but I find that it is sometimes a little difficult to converse with him after we have exhausted the black leaf spot and beetles. Mrs. Nettle says that is because he is an older gentleman, but I believe it is rather that he misses the late Mrs. Hamilton very much. Sometimes in the morning, I see the surprise in his face when he opens his eyes and discovers that I am not her. Then I feel sad for him, and wish I were a little prettier, or at least a better stepmother to Melinda.

  But how melancholy I am! You will want to toss me out of my tower window for tedium. Please write me more of India and your guuruu. And of yourself. How old you are, do you wear spectacles, any little thing will interest me, I assure you! Please do write to me whenever you like, do not wait upon my answers; the intervals are so very long between. Somehow I think of you as a special friend. I say a little prayer for you every night, sweet Robert, in your dusty land so far away.

  Folie

  Camp, near Delhi

  25 September, 1803

  My dear Folie,

  I must take strong exception to this notion that you are not pretty. It is impossible that you are not; there is such life and spirit in your letters that I know you would light up any darkness. Perhaps your face is not in the mode that is presently most admired in England, but these things are simply fleeting fashions. For instance, the Indian idea of beauty is quite far from the English, and in China a woman is not lovely unless her feet are bound up in a deformity that seems horrible to me. A woman’s beauty is in her soul. As to me, no, I do not wear spectacles. I am twenty-six, six feet two inches, and weigh thirteen or fourteen stone. (We are always bickering over weights and measures in India; everyone has his own opinion as to what a s
tone and a quart and a bushel should be, so to be perfectly clear, as my colonel would advise me, I will render that more exactly as 190 lbs., and hope that I have multiplied and rounded correctly.)

  Lately I have been out of the cantonments more than usual, the army having given up on my soldiering abilities, for which I can hardly blame them after I thrice lost the way back to Delhi from Lahore with my patrol. (The wife of a Pathan robber very kindly led us into Ambala.) On account of my father, they cannot quite cashier me, but I have been assigned to the much-despised political side, which seems to consist of a lot of talk and roaming in bazaars, which suits me well enough. My father has warned me never to darken his door again. I suppose that suits me also. I believe that soon I will have collected enough knowledge of the local cults to write a book. Perhaps I shall send you the drafts. No, no, I am joking, I would not subject you to that, pretty princess. I should not write to you at all.

  Well, I believe I should close now.

  Your Knight,

  Robert

  P.S. Enclosed is a prize from my wanderings, a shawl of Kashmir. For your birthday.

  Bridgend House

  Toot-above-the-Batch

  Herefordshire

  1st February, 1804

  Sweet Robert,

  What admirable taste you have, sir! The blue is heavenly, and the wool as soft as a baby’s cheek—so soft that after wearing it on my shoulders all morning, I decided to spread it over my pillow. I promptly fell asleep upon it in midday and missed the Ladies’ Committee meeting! Surely there is some spell upon this shawl. It has a little smoky scent of something pleasant about it—perhaps a magic perfume, for I dreamed of India with an intensity that was almost frightening. I dreamed of walking through bright alleyways of cloth, of many colors and sounds like wind chimes and bells. The wind blew silky material about me, and there were Indians and guuruus with strange twisted bodies daubed in white clay, not benevolent men like your Sir Ramana, but wicked somehow. I tried to find you—I knew that you were there, but you were not to be seen, and then I became afraid; I looked among many passageways and tangled things, always sure you would be down the next. But I never found you; I woke before I could.

 
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