The regency romances, p.52
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       The Regency Romances, p.52

           Laura Kinsale
 

  There were only five beds, but the Dingley girls, accustomed to sharing their rooms, had already haggled out their distribution. Even the littlest, who had wept tragically when she discovered her nurse was not there to tuck her in, finally found a cozy spot in bed between Melinda and Cynth and drifted off to sleep.

  “What good girls you are,” Folie said warmly to Miss Jane, as they stood in the dim passage after seeing the eight-to-twelve-year-old contingent put in bed. “I believe you could have installed yourselves quite handily, without a bit of help!”

  Miss Jane grinned. “Oh, we often do for ourselves, Mrs. Hamilton. Perhaps we aren’t as elegant as our mother could wish, but we sleep on clean sheets!”

  “You are treasures. The gentlemen will want to snap you up in a trice,” Folie said.

  “Do you think so?” Her round face lit with pleasure. “We’re none of us very beautiful, you know,” she added humbly.

  Folie felt a little twinge at the base of her throat. “Piffle,” she said. “A woman’s beauty is in her soul.”

  “Oh, yes, certainly.” Miss Jane nodded, with a wry purse of her lips.

  Folie smiled. “A gentleman told me so.” She lifted the ferret from her shoulder, wrinkling her nose at it. “Of course, he had never laid eyes on me,” she added cheerfully. “But naturally I have held to it buckle and thong ever since!”

  Jane laughed and dropped a curtsy. “Then I shall, also! Good night, ma’am.”

  Folie turned away, carrying the ferret with her to the formal drawing room. This chamber held most of the furniture left in the house; the light of a single candelabra glinted on gold frames and mirrors, the smooth curves of chairs and sofas. Lady Dingley looked up from a graceful mahogany secretary, the desk before her covered with sheets of stationery. If she noticed the furry animal perched on Folie’s shoulder, she did not mention it.

  “Mrs. Hamilton!” she said, with more animation than Folie had ever seen her exhibit. “I have been searching my memory. I believe you and I may call upon Lady de Marley and Mrs. Whitehurst. Not with the girls, of course, until they have been presented at court. But I went to school with Catherine de Marley, and she begs me to visit every time she writes, so we need not stand upon ceremony there. And I am thinking...I don’t know...Lady Melbourne...” She pursed her lips. “I am afraid...Sir Howard might not quite like it, but...” She looked hopefully at Folie, as if she might have the answer to a difficult conundrum.

  “Lady Melbourne?” Folie said.

  “Yes, I—” She lowered her eyes. “She is my godmother.”

  “Oh, my Lord!” Folie put her hand over her breast, making no attempt to hide her awe. “Lady Melbourne! Oh, my dear! What famous news!”

  “Yes, it is an honor,” Lady Dingley said honestly. “I love her dearly; she is my mother’s cousin, and we were used to be great friends when I was a girl, but Sir Howard does not like me to write to her.”

  “But—”

  “She is a Whig, you know.” Lady Dingley dropped her voice to a whisper, as if Sir Howard might be hiding behind the door.

  “Oh,” Folie said. “Sir Howard dislikes her politics so much?”

  “He becomes livid on the subject. But!” Lady Dingley drew a deep breath. She clenched her fists. “Her daughter is Emily Cowper. One of the patronesses of Almack’s.”

  “Ahhhh.” Folie watched with intense interest as Lady Dingley’s face took on a look of militant determination. Tickets to the exclusive assemblies at Almack’s would be tickets into the highest society. It was something Folie had not even dreamed of for Melinda, having no acquaintance in such circles who might provide the precious vouchers.

  “I shall call upon her,” Lady Dingley announced. “She is my godmother.’’

  “Certainly you must,” Folie said firmly. “It would be the height of disrespect to come to town without seeing your godmother.”

  “Yes!” Lady Dingley exclaimed. “Precisely!” She sat up. “And any girl without a ticket to Almack’s may as well turn about and go home.”

  “Put on her spinster’s cap directly,” Folie agreed with emphasis, hiding a smile. “Her case beyond hope!”

  “Indeed, yes!” She looked at Folie excitedly. “You explain it all so well, Mrs. Hamilton—perhaps you will speak to Sir Howard.”

  “I!” Folie laughed. “No, no. It is not my place!”

  “Oh, but I can never seem to make him understand anything.” Lady Dingley stood up in agitation. “He is so—he does not listen.”

  Folie looked at her sympathetically. “I know a little of what that is like. But I am already too much in your husband’s debt. I shan’t impose more on him with requests that won’t please him.”

  Lady Dingley sank down again with a look of despair.

  “Oh, it is hopeless. He will never see.” Her mouth quivered a little. “Whatever I say, he must have it be silly and unreasoned, just because it was I and not he who thought of it!”

  A depressed silence descended on the room. Lady Dingley rustled her papers together listlessly.

  “Perhaps...” Folie strolled along the row of exquisite arched windows, watching her own reflection pass in the panes. “Perhaps you need not decide what to do right away,” she said casually. “La, things are so topsy-turvy here, I daresay you’ve not a moment to think of Lady Melbourne.”

  “I can think of nothing but!”

  “Sir Howard has said he must return to Dingley Court tomorrow, has he not?”

  “Of course he will go. He can’t abide female—” She stopped suddenly. Her body was still, but her eyes flickered and grew wide. She turned a look on Folie.

  They began to smile at one another.

  Folie found out from Mrs. Cap that she was to sleep alone in a fine, cold room, one of the two best bedchambers. Folie pushed open the door and put her candle down on a desk beside the window, glancing briefly up at the elegantly plastered ceiling. Her trunk, still packed, sat at the foot of a florid tent bed crowned by cupids and flower garlands and draped in rose chintz. There were no curtains. Why the former inhabitant had not taken the yards of tent fabric with her also, Folie could not guess, but the bed appeared comfortable enough, if excessively floral.

  She held up the ferret, looking into its masked face. “And what am I to do with you, now that I am so foolish as to have you?” she asked.

  The little animal took her chin between its paws, sniffing at her. Folie smiled at the tickle. The juggler had sold them a small cage for another half crown, but when she set the creature on the bed, it instantly ran up to the pillows, curled between them, and began grooming itself industriously.

  “What shall I name you?” she mused. It appeared to have no opinion on the matter, but finished its task and rolled itself into a ball with its tail over its nose, looking at her for a moment and then closing its eyes with a faint sigh.

  “I’ll call you Toot,” she said. “I am a little homesick, you know, though it wouldn’t do to admit it.” She sat down at the desk, pulling her shawl close in the chill. The coal fire had been started, but seemed to have gone out before it really caught. Folie stared out the window. She could not really see what it overlooked, but she thought it must be the garden and the stables. All was quiet and dark.

  That’s how it would be.

  She watched her reflection, thinking of his voice.

  There had not been one communication between them since she had heard it; only that stiff letter that began, “Mrs. Hamilton.”

  “Never mind,” she said to her pale image in the glass. “Never mind. Some things you are well out of, my dear.”

  She stood up briskly and opened the desk. She took all the rich stationery that was in it and crumpled the pages, stuffing them under the dead coals. With the tinderbox on the mantel, she set them alight, and when the fire was well started, she threw the quill pen on it, too.

  A servant brought Robert his meal in the dining room. He presided alone at the head of the table, his face in his hands. The smell of food
both seduced and nauseated him. He sat there in self-imposed torture, under the icy eyes of the carved dragons, refusing to retreat.

  She had been gone for a week. A week. They would be in London by now. They must be. Every day he expected to hear from Lander.

  Half-drunk on cider, he stared at the food on his plate, and then looked up. A maid stood at the sideboard to wait on him. She curtsied, watching him uneasily.

  Robert gave a chuckle. He felt a black mirth at the apprehension in her face. “How do you do?” he asked. “Who the devil are you?”

  She hesitated. “Kathy, sir.” She bobbed again.

  He took a small bite of the curried fruit. He looked down the table at the empty chairs. She had been there. He had touched her—God, her warm body beneath him, the scent of her on his hands. Somehow he had reached her, driven by demons; somehow in his crazy need he had kissed her and laid her out, and if he thought more of it, he would go wild.

  “Gone, gone, gone,” he muttered. He ate again, pushing his hair from his eyes like a proper madman.

  He had let her go away. It was best. She wanted to go. Wanted to go, wanted to go.

  Left you, Phillippa whispered.

  “Of course,” he exclaimed, lifting his wineglass in a mock toast and taking a deep drink. “Why should she not go? What am I to her?” He slammed the glass down. “A sham Robert. A fiendish gentleman. A stranger. She is in love with...” He smiled and looked around the table and nodded his head, as if to honor an imaginary guest. “Why, with you, sir! The other Robert Cambourne.” He flicked his finger against the wineglass, making it ring. “Lucky fellow.”

  He and the wary maidservant stared at one another. Robert dropped his eyes. Bite by bite, he ate all of the fruit. What difference did it make? She was gone. He was lost.

  “Phillippa. I am yours now, my dear.” He laughed. “Yours alone.”

  He felt himself drifting. It began to rain hard. The monsoon.

  Can I trust that devil Lander? he said to himself, again and again. Vaguely he recognized it as a fixation, something that had been running through his mind for days. Can I trust him? I have no choice. Can I trust him? I have no choice.

  “I shall make a song out of it,” he said out loud. “Shut the windows, Kathy. It is raining.”

  “It’s not raining, sir,” she said.

  He looked at her. She was a maid like any other maid, brown hair tucked under a cap, a few freckles, perhaps a little plump about the waist.

  “I hear it,” he said. “Bring me more wine.”

  She curtsied, lifting the decanter from the sideboard. “The windows is all closed, sir.”

  “Kathy,” he said reasonably. “It is time to kill me. I know it’s raining. I can hear it. Don’t let Phillippa have me.”

  “Sir, sir—” Her voice held a strange note. “You are all right?”

  Robert looked at her as she bent over, filling his glass. Her hand was shaking visibly. He could not hear over the roar of rain in his ears, but he thought she was panting from the way her starched bodice trembled.

  He laughed, toying with his fork. “Just—have mercy on me. There is poison in this food, Kathy. I know it. Just give me enough to kill me.”

  The bottle slipped from her hand. She gasped and caught it before it hit the table, but a splatter of wine spilled across the cloth. Instantly she began to sponge it with her towel, her motions jerky. “I’m sorry, sir. Pardon, sir, beg pardon.”

  Robert felt himself move. He trapped her hand, locking her wrist down on the table.

  “Beg pardon!” Her voice cracked. “I didn’t mean to, sir. I didn’t mean to!”

  She began to sob, standing with her hands pressed down on the towel. Robert gripped her wrist until he could feel the bones in it. The reverberation in his head was like thunder. Slowly, weeping, she sank to her knees.

  “Oh, sir. I got a baby in me, sir,” she mumbled. “I didn’t know what to do. And he said he’d see me taken care of, and he give me a guinea, and said he’d kill me if I failed him, an’ I didn’t know what to do, sir, I swear I didn’t know what to do—”

  “Who?” Robert squeezed her arm until she whimpered.

  “I didn’t know him, sir!” She tried to pull free. “I swear. I only saw him the once. There was a crown every Sunday under the flowerpots by the drain.”

  “Not Lander?” Robert was leaning close to her; now he could hear her panting desperately through the clamoring devils and the rushing monsoon.

  “No, sir,” she whimpered. “No, sir.”

  “The truth!” he hissed.

  “‘Tis the truth, ‘tis the truth.”

  He let go of her. She scrambled to her feet. Robert could not gather his wits enough to stop her as she ran from the room. For an infinity of time he stared at the red wine stain spreading across the cloth, his eyes fixed on it as if it were the gates of hell. His mind tumbled and howled.

  He must move. He could not remain here. But he could not move. He looked at his hands locked on the table edge; it did not seem that they were his. As if his will influenced someone else’s body, he saw his arms shove his chair back from the table. He stood up.

  The house seemed to pass before his eyes. The drawing room, the staircase hall—he went through it shouting, “Ka-thy!”

  But she did not respond. Other servants gathered around him, flustered and frightened faces.

  “Where is Kathy?” he demanded. “Where is Kathy?”

  “Who, sir?” a footman asked.

  “The maid, the maid!” he shouted. “Kathy! Where is she, for the love of God?”

  All he received were bewildered looks. He went through the house, down the back stairs to the kitchen, shaking off the hands of servants who tried to help or detain him, he did not know which or care. In the kitchen, he grabbed the cook by the neck-strap of her apron. “Where is she? I want Kathy!” The woman tried to curtsy, but Robert yanked her close. “The serving maid!”

  “W-we have no Kathy, sir!” the cook babbled, her eyes wide with terror.

  “She served my dinner!” Robert yelled. “Where did she go?”

  “Foster took your dinner up,” the cook stammered. “Foster...him just there, sir.”

  Robert turned to see a red-faced footman nodding vigorously.

  “No,” Robert said, letting go of the cook. “There was a girl.”

  “I give it directly into Foster’s hands, sir,” the cook said, wringing her apron. “By Mr. Lander’s instructions.”

  Robert’s head was aching. “There was a girl!” he shouted. “I am not mad!”

  They stared at him, silent. Robert could not seem to find enough air. He pushed past the servants and plunged up the stairs.

  NINE

  “I am so glad you came with me, Mrs. Hamilton,” Lady Dingley whispered, as four tall and dignified footmen ushered them into the hall of Melbourne House.

  Folie only nodded. She had resisted to the last, feeling it too forward of her to join Lady Dingley in such a personal call on an old and distinguished friend. She wished even more now that she had not come, for the rich livery and number of attendants made her feel impossibly dowdy in a dress made up from a pattern out of a three-year-old copy of Ladies’ Quarterly.

  “Lady Dingley and Mrs. Charles Hamilton,” the footman intoned, bowing them through the drawing room door.

  “My darling Belle!”

  Even before Folie could locate their hostess behind a Chinese screen, Lady Melbourne’s voice drew them like a sweet siren into the room. The source of this melodic utterance proved to be a dark-eyed lady, tall and very stout, holding out her hands to Lady Dingley as she rose from her chair.

  “Oh, do not stand, dearest Godmother!” Lady Dingley cried, taking her hands and sinking into a deep curtsy. “Please do not trouble yourself.”

  Lady Melbourne chuckled. “I will not stand for long, I assure you, or you would have to hold me up! But how shall I not take you in my arms after such an absence?” She enveloped Lady Dingley’
s slight figure in a deep hug, patting her back with a feathered fan. “Now! Do not weep! What will Emily think of you?”

  “Indeed, I shan’t!” Lady Dingley stood back and helped her godmother into her chair. “I am too happy! Lady Cowper!” She curtsied to the smart young woman who sat across from her godmother. “How do you do?”

  For one of the fearsome patronesses of Almack’s, Emily Cowper seemed absurdly youthful, a fawn-like creature with an impish rosebud mouth and masses of dun curls. She greeted Lady Dingley in a small, warm voice, and nodded toward Folie.

  “Do present your companion to us,” Lady Melbourne said.

  “Godmother, Lady Cowper, this is Mrs. Hamilton.” Lady Dingley gave a nervous laugh. “We must thank her, for it was she who insisted to Sir Howard that he must allow us to call.”

  “Then I do so!” Lady Melbourne exclaimed. “These ironclad Tories! What shall we do with them? Bless you, indeed, child, if you succeeded in turning his mind even ten degrees from its true north!”

  Folie curtsied, feeling blood rise in her face at Lady Dingley’s barefaced prevarication. She had not said a word to Sir Howard. “Please, ma’am,” she said quietly. “I deserve no esteem on that score, I assure you.”

  “Mrs. Hamilton’s late husband was a cousin of the Cambournes,” Lady Dingley said quickly, placing Folie in her small plot on the social landscape. “We are staying at Cambourne House for the season.”

  “Sit down, sit! Both of you—place a chair for Mrs. Hamilton,” Lady Melbourne ordered the footman. “She is connected to the Cambournes, you say?”

 
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