The regency romances, p.41
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       The Regency Romances, p.41

           Laura Kinsale
 

  Dreams are very silly and powerful, are they not? How I should have recognized you in any case I do not know, but in my dreaming mind it seemed utterly certain that I would. You, sir, are not very forthcoming with your description of yourself! Outrageously terse and uninformative, in fact, reporting only enough to rouse more curiosity. Yet still I could feel you there in my sleep, as one can feel rain on the air. I only had to find you to make you real.

  While you are wandering in true bazaars, we of the Ladies’ Committee are constructing our own modest version. We hope to sell many pincushions and have embroidered handkerchiefs in every letter of the alphabet. Afterward, there will be a charitable assembly with dancing, the proceeds to benefit the Steeple Fund. I cannot hope to match anything as lovely as your shawl, but as I was in authority over P-to-T of the alphabet, when I came to the Rs I took it upon myself to add a C to a half-dozen handkerchiefs, enclosed. Also I enclose a miniature of myself. This was painted several years ago, upon my engagement, but Mr. Hamilton misplaced it shortly afterward. I have just this morning discovered it in an empty tobacco jar. If my face must repose in jars, I prefer it to be in some more intriguing vessel, so I send it to you to place in a convenient spice bottle.

  Your princess,

  Folie

  Bridgend House

  Herefordshire

  2nd February, 1804

  Oh, the postmaster is so vexing as to have actually sent my package away on the afternoon mail for once, so I cannot retrieve it. I must beg your pardon, I am ashamed of myself.

  I was a little put out when I found the miniature, and wrote in such a style as I should not have. It was very childish of me to send it away in my annoyance. If you please, will you return it when next you write?

  Folie, red-faced

  Delhi Garrison

  15 July, 1804

  My dear Folly,

  For that is how I think of you, you know. Not as the French spelling, Folie, although that is lovely, but for what it means in English. My Folly and my Fate. I am afraid that I cannot return your miniature. It does not seem that Cousin Charles’ tobacco jar will miss it, and I cherish it very much. You look just as I imagined, pretty and happy. Such smiling eyes—I could gaze into them forever. How strange, that from your first letter I have felt such a vivid connection to you. I think it is possible to say that there has not been one day since that I have not thought of you at least once, and some in which I could seem to think of nothing else. Your dream of India haunts me; you do not know how clearly I know the place you saw in it. Perhaps we are bespelled, my princess, how else could I wish so strongly that you had found me in your sleep?

  Sweet Folly, I can’t express to you what a profound change I’ve been experiencing since our correspondence began. Life looks better somehow. When I think about you, which is unbelievably often, I feel—well, it’s rather hard to describe. It’s just—good!

  Sometimes I wish I could just reach through the ether, through space and time, and pull you to me, feel you against me, look into your smiling eyes. In one sudden and blinding moment, I would crush this cage, make you feel my flesh and blood hands on you, my mouth against yours. I would cradle your face in my hands, place my lips very close to your ear, and breathe my thoughts and my feelings into you. And if I had the power, I would burn my image so indelibly into your mind and heart that you could never, ever forget me. And love, I just might be able to do it sometime. I’ve been working on it.

  Robert

  Bridgend House

  Herefordshire

  2 February, 1805

  I have thought a long time about your letter. I have hidden it; it frightened me, and yet I could not destroy it.

  I well know what I ought to do. I should not answer it. We should not write again.

  Red Fort

  Shajahanabad, Delhi

  22 June, 1805

  My dear Folly,

  Please. Please do not say I must not write to you. I promise to say no more to frighten you; you have my sworn word. I shall write nothing that you may not read aloud in your parlor.

  The weather has begun to be hot again. I have left the army garrison and moved here to a palace known as the Red Fort, an imposing edifice on a high rock overlooking the sacred river Jumna. The fort is quite beautiful, being a palace really, the seat of the Mughal emperor Shah Alam. It is full of open air arcades, long galleries of scalloped arches made entirely of white marble. There is a fountain shaped like an open lotus, its border inlaid with gold and silver. Thousands and thousands of red and yellow flowers in pots. (What is your favorite flower?) Persian carpets piled thick on top of one another, but no furniture, only cushions, except in my chamber there is a broken English chair, impossible to sit upon, but presented to me with such pride that I could hardly refuse it.

  I have my own elephant now. I like her; she has a tiny, merry eye; huge slow ears, a feminine taste for adornment, and an unpronounceable Hindustani name. If you would like to suggest one in English, I shall christen her immediately. In the meantime I just call her sweetheart. Although she can salaam and trumpet quite satisfactorily, her most pronounced talent is for finding her way home—it was her habit of meandering back there at any time she pleased that caused her to be such a bargain on the pachyderm market. But personally, I find it very reassuring to know I will always be home before dark.

  What else can I write about? Doubtless the monsoon rains will be heavy again this season. I am so afraid that you will not reply. I never wished to frighten you, my dear.

  Your Cousin,

  Robert

  Bridgend House

  Herefordshire

  17 November, 1805

  Dear Robert,

  Here I am, writing. Now we see what force circumspection plays in my character! None whatsoever. You are to name your homing elephant after me, of course. It would be much better if you had a ship to name after me, but we must make do as we can.

  I have thought and thought—how painful and knotty the world becomes, at the same time it is turned topsy-turvy and beautiful because you are in it. I wake each morning and my first thought is of you. I walk along the river Wye and see our white-faced cattle standing knee-deep and a salmon flash beneath the pool, and wish to tell you of it. I wonder at dinner if you prefer almond cheesecakes or apple tarts. How shall I say you must not write; how shall I look every day at my ink and pen and paper, feel my heart fill, and do nothing?

  I do not know how. I come to no conclusion. I am perhaps a little dishonest in my life; I pretend to love my stepdaughter, I pretend to love my husband—and it is not quite that I do not love them, but that they really do not love me, and so I cannot seem to hit upon what will please them. Actually I do not seem to see them very often; Melinda is at her academy for young ladies, being polished to a high sheen; and Mr. Hamilton is a crusading amateur florist and hybridizer. He is creating a new rose. He spends a great deal of time in travel on account of this endeavor, and the rest of it in his hothouse. We feel that a blue ribbon is infallibly in our future, as long as I do not make the mistake again of using the wrong buds for the dinner table as I did last year. I am very much ashamed of this; it was a cruel blow to Mr. Hamilton’s cutting schedule. I knew better, truly! Very stupid of me; I admit that I did not listen closely, or forgot; I hardly know. But it is a difficult thing for Mr. Hamilton to forgive, and I am still in disgrace. So I go about in the happy illusion that at least I must please you, sweet knight, you being at such a distance that I could hardly manage not to do so! It is a great comfort to me, you cannot know how deep and real my feelings for you run, my dear friend.

  I had never imagined anything of this sort would happen to me. It is harder than I had ever fancied.

  Your Folly

  P.S. My favorite flower is the yellow rose. I am not fastidious as to the subspecies. Fortunately for the future safety of his buds, Charles now specializes in a pink variety of the Ayrshire rose, which is a seedling hybrid from our Rosa arvensis.

  Red Fo
rt

  Shajahanabad, Delhi

  12 April, 1806

  My sweet Folly,

  If you were mine…

  Searching for parlor chat—the weather has become hot again. The monsoon is still months away. My work is interesting; politics and religion. I have been learning to make scale drawings of the architecture, and collecting recipes and superstitions from the guuruus. Certainly I shall have a book out of this eventually. I ride out every day, but my homing elephant dependably returns me to our abode by sunset.

  If you were mine, sweet Folly, I should not leave you, not for a moment, not for any rose or any riches.

  Robert

  Bridgend House

  Herefordshire

  9 May, 1806

  Dear Cousin Robert,

  My husband, your cousin Charles Hamilton, died suddenly of a seizure on the 6th of May. He was visiting with friends in Surry; I am told that his passing was brief and painless.

  Mrs. Charles Hamilton

  Bridgend House

  Herefordshire

  17 May, 1807

  Dear Robert,

  I have received no letter from you for a long time; perhaps it was lost. Life is much as usual here. You will know of course that your father was named Melinda’s guardian in Mr. Hamilton’s will—at first I was concerned that communication to India would make this very awkward, but Mssrs. Hawkridge and James seem to have all necessary authority to act in his place. Mr. Hamilton left both myself and his daughter comfortably off, although Melinda’s marriage portion is by no means as well-endowed as one could hope. She is, however, growing so beautiful that I have no doubt of her future. She returned from the young ladies’ academy to live at home after her father’s death, and I am pleased that we have become better friends lately.

  I watched the cattle drinking in the river this morning and thought of you, sweet knight. I hope you will write again soon. If you do not, I feel that perhaps I shall do something wild and absurd, such as traveling out to Delhi to view this homing elephant for myself.

  Your Folly

  Red Fort

  Shajahanabad, Delhi

  10 October, 1807

  My dear sweet Folly,

  I am sorry. You received no letter because I have not written. I am married. All along, I have been married. Folie—I am sorry. You must not think of coming here.

  Robert

  ONE

  Herefordshire

  1812

  “He is a disgrace!” Mrs. Couch said. “A disgrace to the country, I say!”

  Folie, her mind having drifted to the wind-whipped apple blossoms outside the window, thought for an instant that her caller was referring to the disreputable object at which Mrs. Couch was staring in indignation. Folie sought vainly for an appropriate reply—certainly Master George Couch was a disgrace, but to agree with his vehement mother on this point seemed a trifle hazardous. Mrs. Couch was no feeble dame.

  George, uncowed by his mother’s fury, turned to Folie and said confidingly, “Yes, ma’am, and his water is purple!”

  “George!” Mrs. Couch gasped, turning an interesting shade of that color herself. “You must not—Oh!”

  Folie realized that the topic was rather to do with mad old King George than His Majesty’s untidy namesake regaling himself on lemon cakes in her parlor. “That is not drawing room talk, you know, George,” she said, with a sidelong glance at the boy. “We shall all swoon.”

  “Oh, I say! I should like that!” George asserted.

  “Yes, and Mama would adore it, so pray do not encourage her!” Melinda said, tossing her bright honey curls back.

  “I thought Mrs. Hamilton would like to know,” George said. “She’s interested in that sort of—”

  “George!” Mrs. Couch snapped.

  Folie smiled. “You may tell me later, George, out behind the dustbins.”

  “Mama!” Melinda said, in much the same warning tone that Mrs. Couch had used with her son.

  Folie merely replied with a superior smirk. For a full ten seconds Melinda, having matured to a beautiful and demure maiden of eighteen, managed to maintain a disapproving expression. Then her perfectly straight Grecian nose twitched, and she dropped her eyes to her lap. Several faint tremors disturbed her otherwise modest bosom.

  Fortunately Mrs. Couch, their primary hope for entree into Society for Melinda’s debut season, did not appear to notice this fall from grace. “It was the Prince Regent to whom I referred, George,” Mrs. Couch said firmly, and then lowered her voice to a heroic whisper. “If he should go mad like his father, I know not what we shall do!”

  “The first thing,” Folie mused, “if they do lock him up, would be to make sure our Ladies’ Committee gets supervision of the church bazaar. He owns such a number of extravagant objects, I vow we could rebuild the steeple this very year on a single estate sale.”

  Melinda properly ignored such disrespect toward the Prince Regent. “The papers say it is merely that he fell and sprained his ankle,” she said. “He has taken to his bed to recover.”

  Mrs. Couch began to argue that this certainly proved the regent’s mind to be weak, since any sane man of his enormous bulk must know that he could not accomplish a Highland Fling with any degree of safety. Folie watched the postman wander from door to door of the village’s main street, his collar blown up against his neck and his scarf tails whipping in the spring wind. She did not expect him to cross to her door. When he did, her eyebrows lifted.

  She stood up. “Now where is that Sally with more hot water for the tea? Do pardon me while I find her!”

  Closing the drawing room door on Melinda’s look of inquiry, she ran down the stairs in time to find the housemaid bidding the postman good day. There were two letters in Sally’s hand, a thin one and a fat packet.

  The cook, just coming up from the kitchen, gave Folie a dry look. “You make good speed on the stairs, ma’am, for a lady of your age.”

  Folie stuck out her tongue. “Just because I am thirty today! And refused to have a great number of cakes and a party, so that you have no opportunity to tell me that I eat too many sweets for my mature widow’s digestion!”

  “Perhaps there is a special birthday greeting, ma’am!” Sally said, proffering the post shyly.

  “Perhaps it is! From our solicitors!” Folie gave the packet a mock grimace. “Always so attentive, dear Mssrs. Hawkridge and James.”

  She looked down at the address on the letter. For an instant she held the paper between her two hands, frowning at it. Then her face grew still. She slipped the letter into her pocket, grasped the banister, and ran up the stairs. She paused at the landing and whispered, “Pray, Sally—tell Mrs. Couch that I’ve taken a blinding headache and must lie down!”

  Four years and three months it had been since she had seen that particular handwriting, that blue seal, the unmistakable Mrs. Charles Hamilton, the distinctive curl of the F in My dear Folly. She sat at her desk overlooking the red tulips and peeking green leaves in the back garden, smoothing open the paper.

  My dear Folly.

  She stared at her own name for a moment. For some reason, she hardly knew what, tears blurred the letters. She sniffed and blinked, looking up at the tulips. “Really, ma’am,” she murmured reprovingly to herself.

  It was nostalgia. It took her back so vividly. Four years ago, she had been just out of mourning for Charles. Good kind steady Charles, gone much too early at sixty-one. For five years before that, a married woman, she had smiled whenever she’d seen this handwriting in the post; smiled and grown as breathless as if she were falling from a high cliff, and run up the stairs to this desk just as she had today.

  My dear Folly,

  I have left you languishing on your lilypad for a criminal length of time, princess. Can you forgive me? A dragon distracted me, just a small one, nothing to worry about, but I pursued him into an uncommonly sultry desert (you know how India is) and seem to have lost my way there. To be candid, I recall very little of it—I have no
sense of direction, which is a great trial for a knight errant—but in the end I seem to discover myself in England. I think there was a magic door or a key or something of that sort involved. At any rate, I am at Solinger and you and Miss Melinda are commanded to repair here directly. On the instant. I am her guardian, you know, since my father’s death. So I may command these things. And I do.

  Your Knight,

  Robert Cambourne

  Folie shook her head. She read it again, and laughed angrily, giddily, to herself. “You must be mad!” she whispered.

  An investigation of the fat packet and its contents showed that the travel plans and expenses had all been arranged by the efficient and attentive Mssrs. Hawkridge and James.

  The bedroom door opened. “Whatever is it?” As Folie turned, Melinda slipped in, her pretty face clouded with worry. “What’s the news?”

 
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