The regency romances, p.50
The Regency Romances, p.50Laura Kinsale
“Of course your things are still there; your clothing and so forth.”
“Yes,” Folie said. Her voice seemed to come out without any breath behind it.
“You must stay with us tonight.” Sir Howard turned toward the fireplace and yanked the tasseled bell rope. “Lander can return for your things.”
“Oh, no—we should not impose—that is beyond anything we can ask of you.” She glanced at Lady Dingley. “I’m sure there is an inn—”
“Nonsense,” Sir Howard said. “It is no imposition, my dear.” He leaned out the door to speak to the servant who answered his ring.
“It is beyond kind of you, but surely, ma’am,” Folie said to his wife, “you have not been feeling well. We had only wished to call briefly, not throw ourselves upon you! If we could be directed to an inn—”
“And how are you to pay for this inn?” Sir Howard demanded, closing the door. “You must pardon my plain speaking, but I doubt that you brought a full purse along on a morning call?”
That was entirely true; what money Folie had was still at Solinger, but before she could discover a reply amid the confusion and indecision in her mind, there was another scratch at the door. Lander entered and bowed.
“The ladies will not be returning to Solinger,” Sir Howard announced. “They desire that their things be packed and brought here.”
Lander looked toward Folie. His expression registered neither surprise nor dismay, only a quiet vigilance. She had never known quite what to make of him; too young to have charge of a large house, with more the aspect of some untamed gambling buck than a butler. With his long natural queue and muscular shoulders, he appeared perfectly capable of manhandling anyone who objected to his intentions.
“Ma’am?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “I think we must...depart Solinger today.”
“As you wish, madam,” he said calmly.
“I’ll send one of our men and a maid back with you; they can bring the baggage here in our gig,” Sir Howard said.
Lander made a brief bow, but kept his gaze fixed resolutely upon Folie. “This is permissible, ma’am? I will be pleased to return with it myself if you prefer, or make any arrangement you wish for your accommodation.”
Folie felt herself blushing. “You must be sure to—” She stopped, and then glanced at Sir Howard. “If you will forgive me for a moment?”
“Certainly!” Sir Howard said on the instant. He offered his hand to his wife. “Come, my dear, you should see to having the chambers made ready.”
“Indeed, yes.” Lady Dingley rose, smiling, but seemed almost to sigh inaudibly at the same time.
“You are too kind,” Folie said, “to take in a pair of strangers at no notice.”
“Oh, it is you who favor us, Mrs. Hamilton. I am so pleased for the girls to make your daughter’s acquaintance.”
She did not linger to expand upon this statement, which surprised Folie, as Lady Dingley had not seemed to take to Melinda at all. But she had no time to contemplate that, for Lander stood awaiting her instructions.
“I do not quite know how Mr. Cambourne will receive this,” she said hesitantly.
“Nor I, madam,” Lander said.
“Perhaps I should write a note,” she said.
He nodded slightly.
Folie looked about her, and sat down at the portable writing desk atop a table. She helped herself to the pen and paper inside—if she was to be so beholden to the Dingleys, what was a sheet of parchment?
Dear Mr. Cambourne, she wrote, and then found herself at a complete stand.
Dear Mr. Cambourne, your pigeons have flown. Dear Mr. Cambourne, I have had enough of your nonsense. Dear Mr. Cambourne, you are as mad as May-butter, so I fear we must take our leave...
She sighed. Here, away from the strange heated carvings and dark halls, it all seemed quite fatuous and unreal. And yet when she thought of entering the carriage again, she knew that she could not.
Dear Mr. Cambourne,
We must take our leave of you. Hereafter, it will be convenient to maintain our necessary correspondence through Mssrs. Hawkridge and James.
Lander was laughing, Robert thought, though the man’s face was austere. God knew, he would have laughed at himself; such an impotent fool he must appear. Robert crushed the note and tossed it into the fireplace under Phillippa’s looming portrait. “Where are they?”
“Lady Dingley has invited Mrs. Hamilton and her stepdaughter to stay at Dingley Court.”
“You took them there.”
Lander did not reply.
“Damn your insolence,” Robert muttered. He stared at the portrait. “I suppose...” He stopped, and then said with a bitter chuckle, “She is greatly relieved, doubtless. To escape my evil snare.”
“She said no such thing, sir.”
Robert gave him a satirical look. “She was in love with me once. Can you imagine that?” He lifted his face toward the ceiling. “Oh, God. Are you poisoning me, Lander?” He laughed, shaking his head. “Come, tell me that you are, and this is not really madness.”
Alarm rose in him as he spoke, for the peril of saying such words. He turned quickly toward his butler. “I jest, of course!” Robert said. “Indian humor.”
Lander’s gravity changed to attention. “Poison, sir?” he asked, without shock or bewilderment. “You hired me for your safekeeping, Mr. Cambourne. If you have some suspicion of poison, I hope you will speak plainly of it.”
Robert tightened his jaw. He focused fiercely on the gilded frame, avoided Phillippa’s face looking gaily down on him. He did not trust Lander. He could not bring himself to trust the man.
“I beg your pardon, sir.” The faintest trace of impatience touched Lander’s words. “How am I to provide the guard you desired if you will not confide in me?”
“Guard!” Robert snapped. “After I ordered you to prevent their leaving the grounds, you kindly provide a personal escort as they go!”
“Dismiss me for it if you will, sir,” Lander said grimly. “I’ll provide you with all the protections I am capable of rendering, as you engaged me to do, but I cannot participate in incarcerating ladies here against their will.”
“Fine words! And if you have put them into danger?”
“What danger?” Lander’s voice rose. “Tell me what danger!”
The edge in his voice matched Robert’s, hardly the tone of a servant to his master. Robert turned sharply, staring at him.
“Begging your pardon, sir.” Lander lowered his eyes, but there was still a doggedness about the set of his shoulders.
“I suppose if I hire a thief-taker out of Bow Street for a butler, I should not be astonished at his cheek,” Robert said.
“I beg your pardon, sir,” Lander repeated.
“I don’t know precisely what danger. I have told you all that I know.”
Lander gave him a clear-eyed look. “If you will give me leave to speak.”
Robert let go of a harsh breath and waved his hand. “Speak.”
“If you suspect poison in the house, even the slightest chance—surely the ladies are not safe here.”
Robert smiled sardonically. “And less so if it is not poison, eh? If I am only a—” His throat closed on the word madman. He did not say it, but it hung in the air.
Lander did not appear to hear the unspoken implication. In a quiet voice he said, “Those of the staff that I installed here I trust, but I cannot say with certainty that the others are beyond doubt. The cook and the charwomen are mine, though, and I see to it that I bring your meals myself.” He frowned. “You eat and drink next to nothing. With respect, sir—you will kill your own self that way, poison or no.” He paused, and then said, “If you have moments of—of confusion in your thoughts...” He did not meet Robert’s eyes. “ ‘Haps it is from starving yourself, sir. Begging your pardon.”
Aye, Robert thought, and if ‘tis you wh
“What do you suggest?” he asked coolly.
“If you do not trust me, sir,” Lander said, “and I see clear enough that you don’t, then go into the village and eat there. Buy a loaf, eat at the cookshop. Go alone, at some odd time, so that neither I nor another can touch what you swallow.”
“You don’t understand,” Robert said.
“No sir,” Lander said. “I don’t, for I don’t take you for a fool. I’m sure you have thought of this.”
“I cannot go out there.” Robert turned away from him. “I cannot go out.”
“But who do you fear? What is it?”
“Out there,” he shouted. He could not turn around to face the butler’s silence. He gripped the bedpost, staring at the game of chess that he played endlessly against himself on a bedroom table; black queen and white knights that never won and never lost.
“The outside?” Lander asked slowly. “You are afraid to go outside?”
His clear bewilderment touched Robert at the core. Suddenly, wildly, the shame rose up in him to such a pitch that he could not contain it. He felt himself move; he felt as if his whole body was afire and acting beyond his own will. He seized the chessboard; flung it down. Carved pieces flew across the floor. The black queen smashed against a foot of the bed, bursting into two fragments.
Her headless torso came to rest at his boot. Robert reached down and picked up the broken chess piece. He closed his fingers, crushing the black queen in his hand.
“I am not afraid,” he said coldly and deliberately. He looked up at Lander. “Ready a horse.”
Lander did not obey. “You intend to go after them?’’ he asked in a strange, half-angry tone.
“What is it to you?” Robert snarled. “Get me a mount!”
Lander hesitated, standing between Robert and the door, his jaw working as if he would speak.
Robert’s hands shook. He felt the sudden red tide of passion receding, leaving him stranded, imprisoned under Phillippa’s portrait.
You won’t go, her voice taunted. Little man. You’re too frightened to go.
The chess pieces lay scattered across the floor. Robert ran his thumb across the sharp edge of the headless queen in his hand.
He moved, forcing Lander out of his path, striding furiously free into the void that awaited him.
After an awkwardly polite nuncheon with Lady Dingley and her oldest daughters, Sir Howard excused himself to estate business. A maid led Folie and Melinda up to the guest room. The chamber Lady Dingley had prepared for them held the musty, venerable scent of last having been used to accommodate some Royalist cavalier on the business of Charles the First. What weak sunlight that leaked through the leaded glass was soaked up by oak paneling that was shiny and almost black with age; Folie needed a candle just to brush out Melinda’s hair. The centerpiece, a monster of a bed with fat, carved posts and faded red and gold damask hangings, appeared to have bowed down the very floorplanks beneath it with ancient dignity.
Without Sally and their own dressing boxes, it was impossible for Folie to set Melinda or herself completely to rights. “Go and make yourself comfortable with the girls,” Folie told her, tying her stepdaughter’s bonnet in place as well as she might. “I shall go back down to Lady Dingley in a few moments.”
Melinda flitted away, already buoyant with new friends, the strained smile of Solinger vanished from her expression. But Folie lingered in the guest chamber, nervously smoothing down the fresh linen cloth that the chambermaid had lain across a heavy chest. She wandered the room, looking up at a pair of portraits painted onto panels over the hearth, some bygone master and mistress of Dingley, their faces almost obscured by the film of age. Folie tilted her head, trying to see some likeness to Sir Howard in the gentleman with the pointed beard and wide ruff. She could see none: Sir Howard was too uncompromisingly robust and plain-speaking to have anything in common with his lace-embellished and pearl-bedecked ancestor. It was the lady of the pair who appeared to bear the most resemblance to the present daughters of the house—even beneath the dim gauze of centuries, her square, honest face and searching eyes seemed familiar, looking out with the same frank curiosity that had met Folie and Melinda at the carriage door.
Folie gave the portrait a little fidgety curtsy. “We are much obliged to you for the hospitality,” she murmured. Then she turned away, squeezing her hands together, her heart having a troublesome tendency to stick in her throat. “Oh, you silly noodle—Folie, Folie—why did you ever let us leave Toot?’’
Here they were, without money, without belongings, among strangers they had no claim upon—what if the servants returned with nothing? What if he would not give up their possessions, what if he kept her purse? He had threatened as much—why should she expect that servants could wrest from him what he meant to have? All of Melinda’s wardrobe and enough of Folie’s savings to crush any hopes of even a few weeks in London, left there in her room at Solinger.
She sat down in a massive rocking chair, pushing hard with her feet to move it to and fro. The floor creaked. The ebony wood was slick beneath her damp palms, but she needed the motion and the noise to soothe her. A few more minutes to calm herself, before she went down and faced Lady Dingley again, before she had to conceal her fears and agitations. She had eaten little of the bread and cheese and gingerbread served at nuncheon, and now as the time approached that news could arrive from Solinger, her stomach felt empty and ill with dread.
She stopped rocking, her body paralyzed, when she heard a scratch at the door. “Come,” she said faintly.
A maid opened the door halfway. “Mr. Cambourne calls, ma’am,” she said calmly. “He requests the honor of your attendance.”
“What?” Folie sat up straight.
The maid dropped a curtsy. “Will you honor Mr. Cambourne?” she repeated mildly.
“Mr. Cambourne?” She could hardly squeak the name. “Mr. Cambourne from Solinger?”
The maid nodded, with a little lift of her brows, as if it was a delicious tidbit. “Yes, ma’am!”
Folie shook her head vigorously. “No, I—I am indisposed. I really cannot—” She began rocking powerfully. “If Lady Dingley will make my excuses,” she said faintly over the squeak.
The maid looked doubtful. “M’lady said she was certain you would wish to speak to him.”
“I cannot.” Folie shook her head again. Really, she felt quite ill. “I must lie down.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The chambermaid withdrew with another curtsy. Folie heard the door latch click. She had a demented idea of locking it, but a quick search of the drawers and tabletops revealed no key.
She went to the window, leaning on the cushion that padded the deep stone seat. She looked out, hoping to see Sir Howard’s horse, but all she saw was a stableboy walking a lean chestnut that steamed lightly in the chill. She recognized the mount from daily tours through the half-empty Solinger stables; she and Melinda had fed it lumps of sugar, one of their few diversions there.
She waited, her heart thumping, to see him leave the house in the wake of her refusal. She could not, would not speak to him—but she found that somehow she craved to see him one time...oh, one last time. Her throat ached with sudden longing, as if the days she had loved him in dreams had become reality again. As if, as if. It had always been “as if.” As if he were hers, as if he were there, as if falling in love was a tangible joy that could last longer than the flash of a salmon in a summer stream, longer than the wisp of breath from the chestnut’s muzzle; as if it could be more than this heart’s toll of yearning which was all that it had ever truly been.
She bent her head, turning from the window. She must let it go, that dream. How long and hard she had tried to let it go—and in the end she was running away from him, hunted by this alien reality, this intruder on her fantasy, running and running and somehow longing not to go, somehow still hoping she would find that her dream was real.
“Ah, you are not in bed,” she said calmly. “Perhaps it will not tax you too much to see Mr. Cambourne? I’ve brought him up, since you are not well enough to come down.”
There was a faint triumph in her mildness, but Folie hardly noticed it. She caught a glimpse of Robert Cambourne in the passageway, standing stiff and tall behind Lady Dingley. In a rush of mortification, Folie turned away.
There was no escape. She heard him come in; heard the door close. But she could not look up at him; she simply could not.
Silence stood between them. She took a step away from the window, turning her shoulder to him. The floorboards creaked; from the corner of her eye, she saw that he moved away from her, pointlessly, as if they were two magnets that repelled one another.
“I wished to apologize,” he said in a low voice, though there was little hint of regret in his harsh tone. “I should not have attempted to keep you at Solinger against your will.”
“No,” she said to her dirty slippers. “That was not well done of you.”
Having nothing to do with her hands, she took up one of the paper candle screws left on the bedside table and turned the scrap tighter and tighter, torquing it about itself until it began to tear in the middle.
“Will you stop Melinda’s allowance?” she asked abruptly, her voice as harsh as his.
Folie took a deep breath. She laid the paper screw down and dared a glance at him, but he was not looking at her. With a tentative new courage, she studied him. If he felt any of the confusion or unease that Folie did, he showed nothing of it. He seemed remote, his black eyebrows lifted in that expression of elegant disdain—directed, as far as Folie could tell, at the fire irons. He stood very straight, like a man at a funeral. For an instant he looked up; his eyes grazed past her and settled resolutely on the wash-stand.
The Regency Romances by Laura Kinsale / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes