The regency romances, p.53
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       The Regency Romances, p.53

           Laura Kinsale
 
“Mr. Hamilton’s mother was Sir James Cambourne’s youngest sister,” Lady Dingley said. “Mr. Robert Cambourne is Miss Melinda Hamilton’s guardian.”

  “Robert?” Lady Melbourne asked alertly. She patted her cheek with the fan. “That will not be Sir James’ direct branch.” She shot an inquiring glance at Folie. “No...Robert Cambourne would be Lady Ryman’s younger brother, I think. They are most of them out in Calcutta or some such.”

  “Yes, ma’am,” Folie said. “Mr. Cambourne has only recently returned from India.”

  “Direct him to call upon me, Mrs. Hamilton!” Lady Melbourne said. “The Company charter is up for renewal next session. I should like to hear his opinions on the matter of these conquests in—what, Sind, was it? Or Java?’’

  Folie pressed her lips together. “I beg your pardon, ma’am. I doubt Mr. Cambourne will have opinions on it.”

  “Not a political animal, is he?” Lady Melbourne asked indulgently. “Well, he must call, at any rate, and speak to me of elephants and cobras; you are to tell him so.”

  “Certainly, ma’am. I’ll be happy to do so, but—” She paused. “He has not been quite well, and remains in Buckinghamshire.”

  Lady Melbourne shook her head. “Convey my best wishes for his full recovery. India! It has slain more good young men than any heathen place has a right to do. What is that upon your shoulder, Mrs. Hamilton?”

  Folie’s cheeks burned. “It is a ferret, ma’am.” She glanced at Lady Dingley, who had pledged that her godmother would relish the circumstance of a caller with a ferret. Toot was seldom still, but popped back and forth, peering out from beneath one side of Folie’s bonnet and then the other.

  “Yes, so I thought,” Lady Melbourne said. “I daresay it will not be parted from you.”

  “It is loathe to leave my person, ma’am,” Folie admitted.

  “Will you allow it into Almack’s, Emily?”

  “I think not, Mama,” Lady Cowper said with a smile.

  “But you will find my darling Belle some vouchers?”

  “With pleasure. How many will you require, my dear?”

  “How kind of you!” Lady Dingley exclaimed, as if it were the greatest surprise. “Only Miss Jane and Cynthia will be out in society, you know. They will be in raptures!”

  “Three, then .. . and Mrs. Hamilton?”

  Folie had hardly dared hope; she had lectured Melinda fiercely on the wisdom of cherishing no unwarranted expectations. If she had beauty, then Miss Jane and Cynthia had tickets to Almack’s; it was only just.

  “You are too good,” she said faintly. “My stepdaughter Melinda would be so happy to receive one.”

  “And you must be admitted too, of course,” Lady Melbourne said. “You will both be made acquainted with the proper society there.”

  “Thank you, Lady Melbourne. I confess I know so few people in London that it is the greatest blessing I could imagine.”

  Behind them, the door opened. The footman announced, “Lord Byron.”

  “Ah!” Lady Melbourne’s eyes grew mischievous; suddenly it was clear where her daughter had inherited the gypsy sparkle. “Now, Mrs. Hamilton, you shall be made acquainted with the improper society!” she whispered.

  A gentleman drifted into the room, moving so slowly that at first Folie thought him ill, for his pale complexion and weary air. But at the sight of Lady Melbourne, the derisive twist of his mouth transformed into a smile. He went forward without looking at anyone else, bowing deeply over her hand. “Madam! The day begins!”

  Folie watched him curiously. She had no idea who he might be, but Lady Dingley showed considerable signs of agitation, glancing over at Folie and then down at her hands and up at Folie again. She seemed so flustered that for an instant Folie entertained the wild idea that there was some sort of secret connection between them.

  “Our beloved poet,” Lady Melbourne said, laughing. “I entreat you to allow me to present you to these ladies.”

  He glanced at Folie and Lady Dingley. “If you contract with me that they will not swoon,” he said coolly.

  “Make no such pacts, ma’am,” Folie said, instantly on her mettle with this scornful stranger. “I have not yet had my morning fainting fit.”

  He lifted his eyebrows. He looked Folie over, taking in Toot on her shoulder and her unfashionable gown in an impudent appraisal. “Now that one you must present to me, certainly.”

  It was a condescending examination, but really, Folie felt that Robert Cambourne could have shown him the way when it came to an air of naturally aloof arrogance. A little too overdrawn, this poet.

  “George, Lord Byron, my dears,’’ Lady Melbourne said. “Pay him no mind; his Childe Harolde is all the kick this week, and it has made him insufferable.”

  He made a bow. As he straightened, he smiled at Folie— a sudden, startling charm. “Try me again next month. I shall endeavor to be humble by then.”

  “You undeserving boy, I have the honor of making you known to Lady Dingley, my goddaughter, and Mrs. Hamilton,” Lady Melbourne said, with a graceful turn of her wrist.

  “Very pleased,” Lady Dingley said in a stifled voice, rising. “Really we must go, Godmother. Lady Cowper. Sir. Pray excuse us.”

  “Of course,” Lady Melbourne said. She accepted Lady Dingley’s kiss on the cheek. “Call on me again, Mrs. Hamilton. Any woman who can twist an unyielding Tory like Sir Howard about her finger must be esteemed here. And do bring your ferret. I prefer a little absurdity in my visitors.”

  “Do not whisper a word of it!” Lady Dingley exclaimed as the carriage rolled away from Melbourne House. “Have mercy on us! Lord Byron!”

  “Who is he?” Folie asked.

  “He is—” Lady Dingley dropped her voice, “—a voluptuary.”

  “A voluptuary?” Folie echoed.

  “Yes, that is what Sir Howard says.”

  “Oh!” Folie cleared her throat. “I am not quite sure—what is a voluptuary?”

  “Well, I am not perfectly certain myself, but I assure you that he is a horrid poet and not a true gentleman. How rude and arrogant he was! I cannot comprehend why my godmother would receive him.”

  “She prefers a little absurdity in her callers, as you know.”

  “Did you dislike her?” Lady Dingley asked anxiously. “I know she is somewhat...quaint in her character.”

  “Certainly not!” Folie smiled. “I liked her very much! I only hope I may be as engaging when I am equally seasoned in years.”

  “She liked you also, or she would not have asked you back, you know.”

  “I am honored. And Almack’s!” Folie stood Toot up and pretended to dance with his forepaws on her fingers. “I’m so sorry you cannot be admitted, sir, but your lineage is disgraceful. And I believe you have a reputation as a voluptuary.”

  The ferret did not seem to find this overly amusing, gnawing on Folie’s glove instead of applying itself to a minuet. Neither did Lady Dingley appear to detect any humor; she put her hand on Folie’s wrist and said, “You must not say that word abroad, you know!”

  “No, no,” Folie said meekly. She was too grateful to embarrass anyone. “I shall be very good! I am resolved!”

  Lady Dingley gave her a dubious look. Folie returned Toot to his cage on the forward seat and gazed out at the street, watching the pedestrians. The Dingley’s carriage was picking and lurching its way across a busy intersection. Having two of Lander’s imposing footmen up behind to protect them from any highwaymen or French infantry to be found in Mayfair, they had earlier agreed to progress to Conduit Street after their calls, to seek out a milliner recommended by Lady de Marley. Lady Dingley thought that this was better done without the girls, at least on the initial visit.

  After nearly a week in London, Folie was growing accustomed to the swarms of people out in the street at any hours, but she found it all endlessly fascinating to watch. So many strangers! In Toot-above-the-Batch a new face had been a cause for commotion—here she did not see a person she knew outside the
house. But she had noticed that people seemed to come in types, with faces and forms that somehow resembled one another, though one might be the coal porter pouring his fuel into a hole in the sidewalk, and another might be the casually-dressed gentleman speaking to a maid on the corner. In profile and frame they both rather favored Sir Howard’s type, leaning forward, intent in their concentration.

  The carriage halted in the middle of the intersection, while the driver shouted at some blockage. Folie watched the coal porter straighten, rubbing his back. He looked toward the corner, and she saw that in full-face he hardly favored Sir Howard at all. But the other man...in the moment she had to study him, he glanced up from under his hat.

  Folie blinked. She sucked in her breath silently. Instinctively she looked away, just as he jerked his hat down and turned. With her heart pounding, she glanced at Lady Dingley, but she was gazing calmly out the other window. She had not seen her husband.

  Folie looked back. The woman was still on the corner where he had left her. She had a shawl pulled over her head; she glanced about her, and Folie received another strange shock. Not only was her face red with weeping, but Folie knew her. Before that realization quite dawned, though, the girl had begun to hurry away in the direction Sir Howard had gone. The carriage lurched forward, leaving the intersection behind.

  It all happened so swiftly and silently that it hardly seemed real. Sir Howard was in Buckinghamshire; having seen to the horses and stabling he had departed London, with a great show of relief, the day after their arrival. She could almost think she had imagined seeing him. Another gentleman, perhaps, with that sort of passing resemblance she had just been pondering. There were so many people on the street.

  And yet—the look upon his face when he had seen the Dingley carriage. Folie frowned down at Toot, who was earnestly attempting to pick the lock of his cage. That girl...

  She had a country look, her skirt showing her boots and her shawl tied under her chin, unlike these smart London maids. But Folie was quite certain she was not from Toot, or even Tetham, which pretty well covered the possibilities, unless she was a serving girl from Solinger or Dingley Court. Neither was impossible—it was not the housemaid who had tended their chambers at Solinger, surely, but another girl had once or twice served them tea in the library there, though Folie had paid her face little mind, and there were so many maids and nurses and laundresses at Dingley Court that Folie had made no attempt to sort them out.

  “There! Hookam’s Library.” Lady Dingley exclaimed, touching Folie’s hand. “You were asking where it was.”

  “Ah!” Folie said, leaning over to look out the window.

  “Sir Howard has a membership there. I am sure you may use it if you like.”

  “Thank you,” Folie said.

  “I must say, I do not miss him at all.” Lady Dingley pulled her cloak about herself and lifted her shoulders. “I thought I would. But we are having quite a jolly time on our own, I think!”

  “Yes. Consorting with voluptuaries.”

  Lady Dingley giggled and slapped Folie’s wrist with the ribbon of her reticule. “Don’t you dare say a word!”

  “Indeed not,” Folie said. She sat back straight on the seat. “No. My lips are sealed.”

  Robert had chosen the only hotel he knew in London, a stuffy haunt of clergymen and scholars. It was little changed from his Etonian days, when his tutor and keeper had brought him into town for edifying visits to the museums and galleries. There would be no one to recognize Robert there; the audacious gentlemen in the service of John Company were hardly the sort to frequent Hubbard’s Hotel in Clifford Street.

  The beginning of the journey from Solinger had harrowed him, an act of will and domination over the demons in his head. He had not gone straight toward his destination; had taken no route at all, simply begun riding alone in any chance direction, losing himself among anonymous village inns and towns for a sennight, finally coming upon the Great North Road and turning toward London amid the coaches and wagons, loaded donkeys, and goosegirls with their flocks.

  Yet now, as he finished a turtle soup, half a roast duck, a cutlet, a fresh salad, and a chocolate cream provided from the hotel kitchen, he began to believe that his mind was sufficiently clear to begin a rational inquiry into what was happening to him.

  His diaries from India lay before him, twelve volumes of densely written notes and sketches. He was not a neat scribe. His own handwriting gave him a headache, and his vague notions of one day producing a book had always evaporated when he contemplated transcribing the scribble into something organized. It had always seemed more interesting to investigate the next temple or teacher; the next Sanskrit poem; to wonder at the ancient dreams and strange phenomena; to walk the multicolored borderland between purity and dirt that was India.

  But he had no other place to begin. He knew the volumes contained something important.

  What?

  He sat back in his chair, staring into the candle flame. He could not trust his memories. Or his friends, such as they were.

  During his farcical years in the political service, plots and intrigues had abounded. His colleagues had conspired with princes and spied upon everyone from illegal missionaries to Pegu ponies, but Robert had never paid serious attention to any of that. No one confided in him, or gave him any responsibility, which had suited him admirably. His job had never been defined, beyond a vague directive to “collect information on the engineering of the major buildings and temples in the locale.” He had never even known which “locale” he was to scrutinize, so he had simply explored whatever ground took his fancy, kept his notes, and assumed that if someone wished to see them, they would ask. In truth, his reputation as a careless buffoon was not undeserved; he had no patience for sober and disciplined pursuits such as writing reports to his superiors. At least his wanderings had kept him out of the compound, and away from Phillippa.

  At the thought of her, a curl of dread and loathing tightened in his belly. He listened to the silence in the room, waiting.

  She did not speak. His chamber was a quiet one, at the back of the hotel. Through the shuttered windows, he heard only the sound of pigeons gurgling on the sill.

  “Are you gone?” he sneered aloud.

  A drop of hot wax slid down the side of his candle, puddling in the holder.

  He made a growl and flipped open his first volume. The entries began so long ago that he hardly thought there could be anything of use there, hut he was determined to examine every detail. With pen and paper ready to note whatever seemed pertinent, he began to read.

  By half past midnight, he regretted ever having started. It was a humiliating experience. Amongst the observations on Indian culture and religion were the shards and fragments of his life, the whole anguished tale of his marriage, beginning with his first wild infatuation with the girl his father had brought out from England for him to marry, complete with such effusions as O God she is the sweetest, loveliest creature in Heaven or Earth, I cannot comprehend a word she says for staring at her. Would that he had paid more attention to her conversation. But he had been consumed with jealousy, filling whole pages with entries about how he would call out Captain More if the devil kept it up, or put a glove across Balfour’s cheek for his impertinence.

  Robert squeezed his eyes shut and groaned. What a greenhorn. He had barely turned twenty, but surely that was old enough to have more sense.

  He could not even bring himself to read the page written the night before he had proposed. Robert had rebelled against his father all his life, but in that one fatal moment he had cooperated gladly. In spite of the unspoken understanding that the Duke of Alcester’s daughter had traveled out to Calcutta not only to visit her doting godfather but to marry into the Cambourne fortune, he was frantically afraid that she would turn him down. Any eligible British female at all in India was feted and courted with high intensity, and Phillippa had been so beautiful and nobly bred, so truly charming, that the fervor rose to impossible heights. Eve
ryone admired her, adored her, was her devoted slave for eternity. He saw now how it had gone to her head, how she had come to live for the worship and attention, but then he had known only that he must vie for her against the competition of men who seemed to be everything he was not.

  But she had said yes.

  YES!!!! he had written across the whole of a page.

  He turned past that and skimmed a few more pages of high-minded ecstasy about her. Then there was a long interval, nearly a year represented by one blank space, and the serious entries on Hindu cults began.

  Robert expelled a slow sigh and rubbed his eyes. He supposed there must have been some happiness, but he could not remember it now. She had not been cold; she would kiss him and tease him prettily until he grew so agitated that he could hardly think, but he was shy with her—afraid of her, frankly—afraid that he loved her so much that he would lose himself in it. At first he had been exhilarated by complying with her requests, hurrying to do whatever she bid, elated when he won her smile. But slowly he had begun to believe he should not allow himself to be consumed by this. It was alarming. She was alarming; an aristocratic English girl, exacting in her many feminine needs.

  Ah, but then she would kiss him. He did remember that. As long as he responded ardently, as long as he told her, over and over, how beautiful she was, as long as he declared his devotion in fresh and glowing terms, she rewarded him with passionate caresses. And yet, after each avowal of his love, she would look up at him with a faint air of expectation, as if he had not said quite enough, or quite the right thing, and she was waiting.

  It began to chill him, that pregnant look. Hidden in it was a threat and a misgiving—that some other man could love her better—that she had mistaken him.

  Robert shook his head. He marked his place and rang the bell, summoning a sleepy bootboy to his door. He ordered coffee and fried potatoes, for a bit of a snack, then on consideration, added a request for toasted cheese, a minced pie, and an orange. He would have enjoyed rice and a good curried stew, in the mulligatawny style, but Hubbard’s did not cater to East Indian tastes, and he had no intention of calling undue attention to himself. He felt safe ordering from the hotel’s kitchen.

 

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