The regency romances, p.49
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       The Regency Romances, p.49

           Laura Kinsale
 
Never enough. There was never enough for her. He could not make her happy. He could not stop her from hating him for it. He froze himself, congealed to ice, retreating to whatever safety he could make in his mind. He let her shriek and cry and smash what was in her reach; he managed to lose himself in the bazaars and his notes, and often enough even lose his patrol, too. So his father had disavowed him and John Company had removed him from any responsible office, which only drove her fury at his failures to a new height.

  But he had not cared, not by then. By then he had Folly. His Folly, the simple voice of reason and friendship. He had clung to her letters like a man drowning, loved her so that sometimes he slept at his desk with them beneath his hand, as if somehow he shared a physical bed with her that way. With his cheek pressed against the hard wood he dreamed hot ecstatic dreams of her body. From the guuruus he had learned an eroticism that consumed his mind with all the ways he could love her and please her. When Phillippa demanded why he never touched her, he looked through her and saw Folly, kissed Folly, lost himself inside her soft welcome.

  Her! Phillippa hissed. That common little tramp, homely as a goosegirl. And married, too! I dare swear she’s the village trollop, carrying on with any man who’ll give her a second glance.

  Robert’s lip curled. “Oh, Phillippa,” he murmured. “And you must know how that is.”

  The instant he allowed the thought to become words he regretted rising to her bait. She swelled with zealous eager wrath. That was your fault! she cried. If you had loved me; if you were a better man. I could not live without love. Why should I be lonely, why? You left me alone. You loved me once and then you left me alone. It’s your fault, you selfish little man. Go after your strumpet. Leave me, leave me; I can have any man I want.

  He stood in a marbled ballroom in the stifling heat, leaning on a column while she danced with Harrington and Storey and Mayer, the easy vivacious beauty she had once been with Robert. Still was, with anyone else, anyone but him. He stood there when she vanished; he did not move or look to see what officer was missing. He counted one hour before he left.

  Don’t touch me! Her voice was like a spitting cat’s when he opened the front door to her at three in the morning, having sent the servants to bed. Don’t touch me; I hate it, I hate it when you touch me.

  Robert found himself at the foot of the stairs. The carved beasts of Solinger regarded him silently.

  Slowly, he became aware that his butler was standing near the front door. They looked at one another. Lander made his bow that somehow always seemed to carry a faint air of disdain.

  “Call the carriage,” Robert said.

  “Yes, sir.” Lander turned immediately, leaving him alone in the hall.

  Robert gripped the head of the carved brute that coiled around the banister. Already he could feel his heartbeat rising. The very thought of going out there, of the huge sky above him and the wide lawns, brought a sweat to his palms and his chest. It was the worst of it all, this panic fear of the open. It stripped him of any claim to manhood; he was barely even human in its grip. When Lander returned to tell him that the carriage waited, Robert could only stand like some imprisoned maniac, held by invisible bars that seemed to press until they crushed his breath inside him.

  “I don’t need it,” he managed to say. “I don’t need it after all.”

  Lander no longer even looked surprised at such peculiarities. He bowed and walked back to the front door. Robert did not wait for him to open it; he turned and mounted the stairs in a desperate hunt for a place of safety, a place he knew he could not find.

  Folie was walking so fast that she could hear nothing but her heart and her own breath between her teeth. Her feet flung her sodden hem; it trailed and tugged at her ankles. She yanked it free every third step, clenching her skirt in her fists.

  The carriage was almost upon her before she even knew it was there. With a clatter of harness and wheels, the horses loomed suddenly in the drive, a pair of blood-red bays, their black hooves and legs splattered with mud. Folie took a hasty step to the side, panting with exertion, and stared up as the vehicle creaked to a stop.

  The door opened. Folie’s shoulders drew straight and stiff with hostility. She expected Robert Cambourne—but it was Lander who stepped lightly down from the carriage.

  “Here is your conveyance, ma’am,” he said. He did not look directly at her, but held the door with blank courtesy. “I’ll accompany you to Dingley Court.”

  There was no explanation, no excuse for the delay. The horses stood nodding. Their bits chimed. Folie tried to govern the uneven clouds of her breath.

  After a long moment, she looked around for Melinda and nodded. The two of them climbed into the carriage, aided by Lander. They were hardly fit to be seen in public, damp and bedraggled, but Folie had no intention of turning this opening aside.

  They sat facing the front, while Lander climbed up beside the driver. Folie said nothing to Melinda; she did not think she could speak without her voice shaking. The carriage lurched forward, moving slowly, too ponderous for a pair—it should have had four horses put to. But Folie was glad for any number. She heard Lander speak to the gatekeeper, the muffled words and the gatekeeper’s uncertain reply. From the corner of her eye, she saw Melinda’s hands squeeze tightly together, and realized that her own were clamped so hard that they hurt.

  At the clang of the gate latch, both of them exhaled as if they had been holding their breath. Folie tucked a stray lock behind her ear as the carriage rolled through. She smiled bravely at Melinda. “What a pack of servants he keeps!” she said brightly. “I daresay it was all some stupid blunder from the start.”

  “Yes, I daresay,” Melinda said. She leaned over, looking down at her wet shoes. “I shall be chagrined to call on Lady Dingley in such a state.”

  “Do you wish to return and change?” Folie asked.

  “Oh, no!” Melinda sat up straight. “No, I think not.”

  They had made one another as presentable as possible by the time they had reached Dingley Court. It was a house of the antique mongrel variety, anchored at one end by a tower with medieval slotted windows, and at the other by a matching addition that revealed its modernity in the fresh-cut stone and gleaming glass windows. In between, a sequence of additions appeared to mark a regular building impulse across the centuries, but somehow the whole had been appended in a pleasingly balanced manner. A swarm of young girls and dogs, all yelping equally with excitement, dropped their sticks and balls and came running down a lane of blossoming fruit trees to meet the carriage.

  Folie felt a wry gratification at the girls’ bedraggled presentation, as if it somehow made their own disarray less impossibly obvious. One of the children pulled open the door even before a footman could descend.

  “The Hamiltons!” she cried, her round face flushed with exercise and pleasure. “Tell us it’s so!”

  Folie smiled in spite of herself. “No, I am afraid I am the Princess Caroline, and this is my favorite lapdog.”

  “Mama!” Melinda protested calmly. “Yes, we are the Hamiltons; I am Melinda, and this my dear mama.”

  The girls stood back, laughing and smirking and pushing one another, as Lander held the door. Folie and Melinda stepped down to the graveled drive.

  “Papa, they are arrived!” one of the girls cried. Folie looked up from her muddy hem to see Sir Howard emerging from the door beside the great stained glass window that marked the hall.

  “What luck you’ve come now.” He strode to greet them. “Lady Dingley is just set to try out the new pianoforte. Do you play, Mrs. Hamilton?”

  “Indifferently, I assure you! But we shall be delighted to hear it.”

  “I daresay Miss Melinda will perform for us,” he said, with an engaging grin and a wink at her. “Come in, come in, and welcome.”

  In a motley procession, they entered the house, girls and dogs rushing ahead of them like a gay school of darting fish. Inside, a dim timber-framed passage led into a great hall, a surprise
of flooding light across a huge trestle table. Sir Howard ushered them past the tall leaded windows, their simple panes adorned only with three rows of armorial bearings in stained glass, the dark chairs covered with worn red cushions. After the frenzied ornamentation at Solinger Abbey, the plain, shabby English style was a relief. Folie felt her anxiety begin to dissolve.

  A toddler burst through the door at the end of the hall, crying and running headlong in her white pinafore into her father’s legs. He swung her up and deposited her in the arms of a nursemaid who hurried past, barely pausing to curtsy. The child’s screams rose to a crescendo, and then died away as the pair vanished up a flight of stairs.

  Sir Howard opened the door. “The Hamiltons to see you, my dear,” he announced.

  It was as if they walked from one century to another as they crossed the threshold from the Elizabethan hall to a pretty, apple-green room with delicate plaster ceilings picked out in white and cream. Tall damask drapes adorned the windows; a golden bird cage looked out upon the garden. A slim lady sat at the new pianoforte, picking at a note. She picked at it one more time without turning to them, and then slid off the bench.

  She touched her raven hair, though it was tucked perfectly under her cap, and did not look at her husband. “How do you do? Mrs. Hamilton? I am Isabelle Dingley.”

  Folie introduced Melinda. They all sat down in elegant chairs while Sir Howard reached for the bell. His wife was one of those ladies whose regular features could not be faulted, but could not be called remarkable. She had a vague air about her, as if her mind were on some grave problem elsewhere.

  “What charming girls you have,” Folie said, hoping to draw her more to the present. “Full of fun!”

  A slight, wry smile touched Lady Dingley’s lips. “Oh, yes, full of fun.”

  “Where are Jane and Cynth?” Sir Howard demanded. “They must meet Miss Melinda.”

  “Riding,” Lady Dingley said with a hopeless shrug. “I had hoped they might take an interest...” She waved uncertainly toward the instrument and then fell silent.

  “I knew t’would be a waste of money,” Sir Howard said. “But you must have the thing!”

  “They ought to learn to play,” Lady Dingley said faintly.

  “Our girls?” Sir Howard snorted. “Who is to teach them, pray?”

  “I was used to play.” Lady Dingley looked out the window as she spoke.

  “Yes, I remember.” He gave a short nod. “Lovely it was, too. But you were a girl yourself then.” He turned a warm smile on Folie and Melinda. “Perhaps Miss Melinda will play for us, and show ‘em the way!”

  “Oh, no,” Melinda said modestly. “I only know what I was taught at school.”

  “At school! Well, then, you are far in the lead! Come, you must.” He reached for her hand, so that she had no choice but to rise. She glanced uncertainly at Folie.

  Folie gave a faint nod, seeing no alternative. Melinda played beautifully, as she did everything well, but this did not seem the best time to exhibit her talent. Sir Howard was adamant, however, and seated her at the instrument with a gallant flourish.

  Melinda closed her eyes for a moment, and when she placed her fingers on the keyboard, Folie noticed that they were not quite steady. Several of the early notes of the Scarlatti sonata went awry, but then the sprightly tune started to carry itself. Folie thought it a wonder Melinda could play at all with her nerves strung so tight.

  The notes filled the room, enlivening the little chaffinch in the cage. It fluttered from its perch to the bars and back again as Melinda’s playing gained spirit. The prelude flowed into a bright arpeggio. Her head nodded softly in time to the animation of her fingers. Folie smiled; she loved to watch Melinda play. For herself, she could pick out a simple country dance or two that her governess had drummed into her, but had never had the patience or discipline to master the rilling keyboard cascades herself. Her fingers stumbled over one another as if they were frantic farmboys all trying at once to throw water on a burning haystack.

  Folie glanced at Sir Howard. His attention was entirely engaged on Melinda; his foot tapped slightly in time as he gazed at her. Lady Dingley was still staring out the window.

  Folie’s smile faded. There had been days of marriage that she had stared out of her own window, perhaps with the same unblinking aspect, as if looking at someplace or something far beyond the birdcage and the garden. Was it impossible to hope that Melinda would not know it too, that sense of living alone even in the midst of a household? Or worse, that she would take that furious ride to the heights of infatuation and suffer the same unhappy fall that Folie had endured?

  There were times, looking back, that Folie wondered how she had lived through it. Hiding in the greenhouse, where Charles’ roses had gone to a thorny tangle; sitting on the bench and weeping until she thought she had no more tears left. Weeping for a dream. How a dream could take such a hold on her spirit that she grieved for it as if for a real man, she had never fathomed. Even still, after all the shocks of disillusionment, it seemed as if Robert, her own loving Robert, was alive somewhere, such was the grip that mirage had upon her brain. But everything this Robert Cambourne of Solinger had done was a jarring contradiction, a shattering of the delusion; a solid proof that she had misjudged and misinterpreted and fallen in love with a chimera of her own making. No sweet lover, but a petty selfish oddity, determined to imprison them and deprive Melinda, to have his own cold way at any cost to those under his care.

  How Folie hated him! He had no heart, he had no character; he did not even have a sense of humor. If he had been anyone else, she would have been dismayed and bewildered enough, but that he was Robert—Robert who had written that he loved her...who had lured her to give her love to him, asked her not to forbid him to write to her, taken her in like the silly openhearted country miss she was! Never again would she succumb to false hopes and fantasies. She would live alone till the day she died to avoid it.

  The tune came to an end as Folie was contemplating the many advantages of becoming a nun. A lusty applause broke the silence after the last note—Sir Howard clapping loudly, Lady Dingley patting her hands together. As Folie turned, she saw two girls of Melinda’s age standing beside the door clapping as enthusiastically as their father.

  “Come in, come in,” Sir Howard said, motioning. “Mrs. Hamilton—Miss Jane Dingley and Miss Cynthia, my oldest pair.”

  As a maid left a tea urn, bundled their red cloaks over her arm, and vanished out the door, Miss Jane and Miss Cynthia came forward and dropped curtsies to Folie. They brought a scent of horse with them in the full navy blue skirts of their riding habits. Miss Jane, the eldest, returned Folie’s smile with an engaging grin that might have been her father’s own. Miss Cynthia glanced at her older sister and then gave a smile that was more subdued, but still sweet. “What a pretty tune!” she said, turning to Melinda as she rose from the instrument.

  “Let these girls get acquainted among themselves!” Sir Howard said, drowning Melinda’s thank you. “Off with you; there’s a fire in the back hall.”

  “Oh, Papa, we cannot take her there—” Miss Jane began to protest, but her father only shook his head.

  “Your know your mother doesn’t like you in all your dirt. Off, before you give us all the headache! Miss Melinda, you do not mind.”

  “Not at all, I—” Melinda began a polite assent as Miss Jane took her arm. Miss Cynthia fell in behind. The three of them went out the drawing room door, already employed in friendly questions before they disappeared.

  “There!” Sir Howard sat down. “Mrs. Hamilton, will you do us the honor of pouring?”

  Folie filled saucers of tea from the urn. Lady Dingley accepted hers with an indistinct murmur. Sir Howard took his cup in a strong, well-shaped hand, smiling up at her.

  “How did you leave things at Solinger?” he asked as Folie sat down with her tea. His tone was merely polite, but he looked at her keenly as he spoke.

  Folie took a brief sip to clear her voi
ce. “Much as last night,” she said uncomfortably. “You must pardon our bedraggled appearance, Lady Dingley. There was some confusion about the carriage at first, and we set out to walk before we knew how far it would be.”

  “Confusion?” Sir Howard asked quickly.

  Folie hesitated. He set down his cup and leaned forward in his chair.

  “You need not scruple to be frank, ma’am,” he said. “Lady Dingley and I would stand as friends to you, if you will allow us. Not one word will leave this room; I sent the girls away with that thought.” He turned to his wife. “I’m sure you agree, my dear.”

  “Yes, of course I agree,” Lady Dingley said, stirring her cup.

  “Well, I—” Folie hesitated between embarrassment and the desperate desire to lay her troubles and fears on someone’s shoulders.

  “There was confusion about the carriage?” Sir Howard prompted. “I dare say it was hardly a morning to set out to walk five miles.”

  “No,” Folie said. She took another sip, stared down at her cup a moment, and then said in a low voice, “The servants were informed we were forbidden to use the carriage, or even to leave the grounds.” She looked up quickly. “But perhaps it was all a simple misunderstanding. Lander came at last with the carriage, and accompanied us. He is here now.”

  Sir Howard nodded. “So I saw.”

  A silence descended. The songbird made a small whistle and rustled in the cage.

  “I think,” Folie said slowly, with a sense of unreality as she spoke, “that we ought not to return to Solinger.”

  She found herself staring at Sir Howard, as if she had never seen him sitting there before that moment. She could hardly believe she had uttered such a thing, and yet she knew with a blinding certainty that she could not put Melinda and herself into the carriage and allow the gates of Solinger to close behind them again.

  “I don’t know what we shall do!” she exclaimed.

  Sir Howard stood up. He nodded briefly, as if she had opened an important matter of business that he had expected. Lady Dingley put down her saucer and watched her husband with unblinking eyes, an expression of impartial expectation.

 
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