The regency romances, p.44
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       The Regency Romances, p.44

           Laura Kinsale
 

  “I’m sure that my intentions are none of your affair, sir,” Folie said stiffly. “It was my stepdaughter’s prospects to which I referred!”

  He transferred his wintry gaze to Melinda. “I see.”

  “Then you will understand why a season in the city is required at this time.”

  “I’m afraid that I do not.”

  “Perhaps things are done differently in India—I have no doubt they are, but here a girl’s coming out and her first London season are essential, in particular for a girl like Miss Hamilton, whose—presence and breeding—recommend her more than her fortune. I need not scruple to mention this to you, as you are her guardian.”

  “I am aware of Miss Hamilton’s circumstances,” he said slowly. “But if it is money that makes London a necessity, then I can see no difficulty. I shall settle forty thousand on her myself. Will that suffice?”

  Melinda’s head lifted, her blue eyes growing wide.

  “Forty!” Both of them stared at him in astonishment. “I beg your pardon!” Folie murmured.

  “I think it will,” he said, calmly answering himself. “Things may be done differently here than in India, but not that differently.”

  Melinda watched in a bewildered silence as Lander placed a dish of vegetables beside her. She did not even move to serve herself. The high color in her cheeks made her extremely lovely, the candlelight gleaming on her yellow hair and bright skin. Folie saw their host observe her stepdaughter for a long moment, his attention fixed upon her as if he could not tear it away.

  A novel thought dawned upon Folie. Surely he could not, would not...would he want Melinda for himself? Her dower was modest, her connections the same as his.

  Why—but that she was beautiful; and young and gay and everything he was not?

  He turned, catching Folie staring at him. “I wish for you and Miss Hamilton to reside here. Permanently.”

  By now he could hardly surprise her any more. She tilted her head. “I beg your pardon, sir. Are you quite serious?”

  “Yes,” he said.

  “This is certainly sudden.”

  He merely made a faint shrug. “I believe it is for the best.”

  “And are we to have any preference in the matter?”

  “You would not like it?”

  “I have not had time to consider it.”

  “You said that your rooms are pleasant.” He gave her plate a glance. “I’ll change the chef if you like. You’ve hardly touched your food.”

  Folie belatedly took a bite of the trout that had been set before her. “I beg your pardon. I have been—so disconcerted.”

  He did not answer that. For a few minutes, they all ate in silence. Folie noticed that he took very little food himself. Melinda kept her face properly turned down to her plate, but Folie could see the hot pink emotion still burning in her stepdaughter’s cheeks, the fierce arguments stopped on Melinda’s tongue.

  “Are you not apprehensive to live alone?” he asked at length, while the fish was removed. “Two young ladies?’’

  “I daresay you mean it very kindly,” Folie said, a little mollified by being considered a young lady along with Melinda. “Perhaps things are done differently in India, but here it is quite acceptable.”

  One corner of his mouth tilted up in a wry grimace. “It’s perfectly true that things are done differently in India. They burn their widows, for one thing.”

  “How unprincipled of them!” she said lightly.

  “It is in regrettable taste.” He smiled slightly at her, which gave a strange new lightness to his arctic eyes. “My dear Folly. How fortunate that things are done differently here.”

  THREE

  “I will not endure it!” Melinda exclaimed, flinging her shawl across the bed in Folie’s room. Her stepdaughter had said nothing all the way out of the dining room and up the stairs, past the dragons and wyverns and carved beasties of all descriptions. It was no surprise when Melinda pursued Folie into her bedchamber.

  “I will not be cheated of my season, not after we have scrimped and saved and—”

  “Not even for forty thousand pounds?” Folie interjected, lighting another candle. It cast a pretty glow on the creamy gathers and folds of the bed canopy.

  “What good will forty thousand pounds do me, if I must live upon it as a spinster all my life?” Melinda sat down hard upon the dressing table bench, bouncing the stray curl that she had pulled artfully down on her cheek. “Besides, I don’t believe a word of that! You are perfectly right, Mama, the man is mad!”

  Folie smiled. “He does seem...eccentric.”

  “How am I to meet any eligible gentlemen if I am stuck away here?” Melinda wailed.

  “Well, he cannot keep us prisoners, darling. And he could certainly help us—help you—if only he can be brought to see that his ideas are not quite right.”

  “I wish you all the luck in the world at that. He appears to be tenacious! And I shall be nineteen, Mama. Nineteen! This is my only chance; I’ll be twenty next year!”

  “Come!” Folie smiled. “Perhaps other girls find themselves on the shelf at twenty, but your looks are not likely to wither so soon. If you don’t meet a suitable gentleman this season, then the next is soon enough, you may believe me.” At a scratch on the door, she opened it halfway. Their maid stood waiting in the dark passage, squeezing a candle nervously. “Go to bed, Sally,” Folie said. “You must be very tired! We shall take care of ourselves.”

  “Thank you, ma’am,” Sally whispered with a curtsy. “I aired your bedclothes; the sheets are quite dry.”

  “Excellent. Are you frightened to sleep alone?”

  “No, ma’am, they gave me a bed with a housemaid, just up the attic.” Sally’s mobcap dipped, a pale shape in the dimness as she looked back and forth. “But I don’t like walkin’ about with these awful creatures, ma’am, that I will say!”

  “You’ll soon grow accustomed,” Folie said. “They are only carved wood, and quite exquisite, really. Go on now.”

  “Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am!” Sally curtsied again and vanished in the shadows of the hallway.

  Folie closed the door and turned, leaning back against it, looking at Melinda. “And I will just give you a hint, my dearest, that an overabundance of anxiety on the matter of a husband is likelier to drive the gentlemen off than anything. They can scent that sort of desperation from a mile away.”

  A faint familiar pout appeared on Melinda’s lip, an echo of the mulish thirteen-year-old. For an instant, Folie felt her old helplessness, the dismay of being a parent when she had never really had a parent herself, of feeling as young and sensitive and inexperienced as the girl in her charge. At any moment, Melinda might fling at her the old bitter incrimination, “You’re not my mother!”

  “Of course,” she said to Melinda, “a mile is not such a very great circumference. We’ve only to dig a rather large moat about you, cover it over with branches, and let the bachelors view you from a safe distance. Then as they come charging in your direction, they will drop through, become hopelessly trapped, and you may take your pick at leisure.’’

  She could see the threatening lower lip quiver. Melinda looked down at her hands in her lap.

  “They may be a bit muddy, of course,” Folie said blandly, “and naturally they will create a great deal of unpleasant racket with their shrieks, but once we have them securely tied, then Sally can turn the laundry tub over them, and you shall have an excellent opportunity to examine your prospects.”

  Melinda refused to go so far as a giggle, but she wrinkled her nose, making a face. “Mama, you are quite silly.”

  “Lack of sleep,” Folie said, pulling pins from her hair. “It has stupefied my brain.”

  “I suppose that is a hint.”

  “Well, if you will sit here at the age of eighteen and bemoan your years of spinsterhood, my dear, you must expect people to nod off.”

  “Thank you very much!” Melinda stood up. “I shall go and cry myself to sleep i
n my lonely bed!”

  “Don’t forget to rub ashes in your hair,” Folie said pleasantly.

  “I vow I shall sleep on sharp nails. Then you will be sorry!” Melinda stopped, her hand on the doorknob. She opened it part way and peeked through into the passage. “It is certainly dark.” After a moment’s hesitation, she murmured, “Mama...”

  Folie picked up her candle. “I’ll walk you back to your room.”

  In her own way, Folie thought, she was as green and fussy as Melinda. She closed the door on her stepdaughter’s room and stood holding her light, gazing unhappily at a Chinese vase in a wall nook. Her light cast overwrought shadows on the peculiar tracery, making leaves and feathers tremble as if they were alive.

  It was her own inner vision that had created the Robert Cambourne she had expected, was it not? The Robert that her heart insisted upon. From paper and daydreams she had conjured him—a girl’s invention, really—the perfect gentleman, witty and loving and handsome, someone she could depend upon, someone who cherished her, who thought just as she did and offered just what she needed. A fantasy man.

  It was hard to admit that. It was hardest of all to discover that he did not exist, that he had never existed. Easier almost to believe that this Robert Cambourne was an impostor.

  Never real, her own sweet Robert. Never real at all.

  A lump of something tender and bruised seemed to swell in her throat. He had been real to her. She felt as if he had died; the ache of grief was the same, the anxiety to change it, to wake up and find that it was not true.

  She stood in the passage, unafraid of the shadows and grotesque carvings. They seemed insignificant to her, interesting but artificial. She was caught in a different twilight, an uncomfortable place in her mind where truths did not quite conform.

  His letters were real; she could walk now to her room and touch the beribboned bundle. He was real; he had sat at the dinner table, certainly no dream or illusion. But the man at the table and the man who had written—they were not the same. How could they possibly be the same? Or was it simply that she could not overcome her own illusions? Expecting another face, an honest smile; admitting to herself now that hope and excitement had driven her here as much as any resignation to the inevitable.

  She was not even quite convinced that Mrs. Cambourne was dead. Folie had heard nothing of it from the lawyers, seen nothing in the papers, though she had never failed to read the news of births and deaths and marriages in India. Perhaps he had left her there. Perhaps she was spending the season in town. He had lied to Folie before.

  Not lied. No. Not precisely lied.

  Robert, her Robert—he was not here. That was all she knew for certain.

  Somewhere far off in the house, she could hear a man’s voice. It began as a murmur, like an angry muttered undertone. Folie stood still. As she listened, it rose in volume, but she could not make out any words.

  Their host, certainly. Scolding a servant, perhaps. The sound ceased suddenly.

  Well, if he had poor service, it was hardly any surprise, considering the youth and lack of polish in his staff. Certainly the house showed no sign of a woman’s touch. In spite of the recent redecoration, a close inspection showed any number of rather slovenly practices. Folie had noticed fly specks on her dressing table mirror, and the whole place needed a good airing.

  She had no experience in managing a house of this size, but she was quite sure she could make some significant improvements within a day or two. She wondered if he had any care for his surroundings. Gentlemen were liable to be rather odd about housekeeping. Charles had seemed to care nothing for neatness and order save in his greenhouse—for a long time, Folie had thought that he paid no mind to any household matter, but when they had changed maids and he had found an unmended sheet on his bed, he’d not been tardy about taking Folie to task on the matter. Then suddenly he had begun to notice and comment acidly upon every detail for a month, after which his interest had subsided with the same precipitous transience.

  She wondered what Mrs. Cambourne had been like. Beautiful, no doubt. An excellent hostess, sweet and good: Folie knew all about these late wives. Perhaps that was what had changed her Robert into this saturnine madman, grief for his lost love.

  Who were these exemplary women; how did they manage to be lovely and competent and kind and true? Why did they never cut the wrong rosebuds or fall in love with fantasy men in letters? Married fantasy men at that!

  “Well.” She made a face at a carved griffin. “At least I am alive.”

  The griffin seemed to grin back fiercely, ugly and ardent, as if it would break free of the frozen wood and strike upward to the sky.

  “So your little love is here,” Phillippa said in her sweet, insolent voice. “Are you happy now?”

  “Leave me alone.” Robert did not pause as he walked toward the bizarre banister and stairs.

  She followed him as she always did. “She’s very plain, poor thing! Quite mousy.”

  He halted with his hand on the banister, closing his eyes. “I am going to bed.”

  “I’m sure she would be delighted to join you. I doubt she has had many offers.”

  “Not so many as you, I dare swear,” he said through his teeth.

  “Your insane jealousy!” Phillippa said, with bitter delight.

  Robert laughed and shook his head. He started up the stairs.

  “You beef-witted fool,” she cried. “To choose that homely little nobody over me!”

  “A thousand times,” he murmured under his breath.

  “What did you say?” she demanded.

  “Nothing.”

  “Tell me what you said!”

  “I said,” he snapped aloud, “that however lovely you may appear to your legion of admirers, you are Medusa to me.”

  “I hate you,” she cried. “I hate you!”

  Robert’s hand left the banister as he pounded up the stairs. Her voice followed him, an echo in his head, though he slammed the door of his bedchamber on it. And she was there too, the portrait his father had commissioned in Bombay—it hung from the picture rail, leaning out against the wires as if she leaned to cleave to him, reaching out and screaming in his brain, “I hate you! Why don’t you love me, why don’t you come to me, I hate you, I hate you!”

  He stared at her. The artist had caught her in a moment of quiet tenderness, her hand upon her little Chinese dog, her delicate smile, the hair he had once thought was like filtered sunlight upon the great tree trunks of the Indian forests, shadow brown and mystery.

  “Don’t you think I’m beautiful?” she asked in her little-girl voice.

  He hated it, he hated that high-pitched plea. “Good God,” he said, yanking open his cravat. He could not bear to have anyone near him now, not even a manservant to undress him.

  “You loved me once,” she said fiercely.

  “What of it?” he said. “I learned my mistake soon enough.”

  “I never loved you. I don’t know why I didn’t listen when they told me how paltry you are. I must have been mad!”

  “No doubt.” He pulled off his coat and sat down, kicking off his shoes. He was mad himself, utterly demented. It was all he could do to take off his clothes, crawl into the bed, and squeeze his eyes closed while his brain turned over and over in his head.

  He felt Phillippa glide on top of him, a heaviness pressing down on his body. Malevolence filled the air he breathed.

  “Love me, love me,” she whispered urgently. She was going to kill him, suffocate him. He tried to sit up, but her weight opposed him, pushed him back, a force in the center of his chest.

  “Get off!’’ he roared, heaving her away, sending the bedclothes flying.

  He stumbled from the bed and grabbed a chair. He yanked it to the window and sat down, gripping the arms, staring through the open curtains to the misted landscape outside. But he knew she was there. He could see her reflection in the glass. It grew clearer, so clear that he could not tell if she was in the room, leaning
over his shoulder, or glaring at him from outside the window. He could hear his own breathing, harsh as a child trying not to weep.

  “Love me,” she moaned, fingers at his throat. “Touch me! Oh, why can’t you love me?”

  “I can’t!” he shouted, flinging himself from the chair. Blindly he seized the wardrobe, feeling for the handle, yanking open the doors. His coats brushed his face, solid and real as he pushed among them, tearing them down with him as he pressed his body in. He pulled the doors closed against her, sinking down to the floor, his shoulders cramped in the small space, his face pressed into a mass of woolen coats on his knees.

  She could not reach him there, in a place barely large enough to hold his own body. Jammed awkwardly against the hard wooden walls of his prison and his safety, he could find refuge from his madness.

  For a diversion on their third long day at Solinger, Folie and Melinda stood on a footbridge looking down into the water. The stream formed the boundary between the ancient forest and the rolling lawns, emerging clear from some unseen spring among the trees. Late afternoon sparkled on the surface, sliding and rippling across green moss. Folie tossed an oak leaf, dried from last autumn, and watched it spin away over the stones.

  “Will you speak to him tonight?” Melinda asked, as if she had not asked the same thing five times already over the course of the day.

  “Certainly I shall speak to him, if I have the opportunity,” Folie answered.

  “Surely he will come down to dinner tonight.”

  Folie gave a helpless shrug and tossed another leaf, then brushed a faint smudge from her fawn gloves.

  “Mama, it has been three days! We have not set eyes upon the man in three days!’’

  “What would you have me do, Melinda? Hunt him down all over his own house?”

  “Perhaps he is ill,” Melinda said. “He might need help. Perhaps he is dying in his bedchamber!” She gave a little gasp, and then added, not without a tinge of hope, “Perhaps he is dead already!”

 
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