The regency romances, p.54
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       The Regency Romances, p.54

           Laura Kinsale
 

  His early notes were simple enough; he could see nothing in them of particular interest—short passages on the great Hindu triad: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, Shiva the Destroyer, about as sophisticated as a schoolboy’s essay. Anyone who scratched the surface of religion in India would discover this stuff. It was not until he had become acquainted with Srí Ramanu that he had begun to penetrate the Hindu philosophy and its views of life and suffering. But long before he had grasped anything of karma or maya or moksa, he had discovered a great deal about suffering.

  He could almost feel pity for the bewildered boy he had been—pathetic fool, floundering in love and writing grave descriptions of Indian ritual. His first mention of Phillippa, after the blank space and religious reports, was the single line, She is still afraid. God help me.

  For Phillippa, he had discovered after their wedding—in spite of her passionate kisses, her heated caress—Phillippa was afraid of childbirth. Or so she said. She would lie down with him; slowly her modesty lessened and she answered his desire with her own; she let him go farther and farther until he could touch her, kiss her anywhere. She would pant and arch and reach for him, pull up her own gown and draw his body against her until she died blissfully in his embrace, but he was never allowed the same release. Any attempt to enter her met instant stiffness and panic. She would roll away and weep, accusing him of being unfeeling.

  She drove him mad with it. He could not speak of such things, he could not reason with her or threaten her. So he would silently retreat, leaving her asleep in her bed and walking out into the bazaars and alleyways to cool his blood.

  He flicked past the pages, forcing himself to read each one. Here was his first meeting with Srí Ramanu, carefully recorded from one of those uneasy night walks. Ramanu perceives in my soul a deep distress, he had written earnestly. Robert rolled his eyes to the ceiling. At the sound of a knock, he gladly marked his place and closed the volume.

  His food gave him an excuse to rise from his chair and leave the diary shut. But he had revived the memory now; he could not escape it. He thought of the night he had lost his head, driven by Phillippa’s delicious body and blind lust. When he had felt the shudder of ecstasy come over her, he had not rolled away; he had not obeyed her hands pushing him off. He could not. The more she had fought him, the more despair and fury had made him fierce—he had thrust himself in, deaf to her cries, handled her as the soldiers handled their whores, without mercy.

  He had gone to the bazaars that night with her hysterical weeping still ringing in his ears. Srí Ramanu had seemed to find him—certainly Robert had not been looking for the guuruu. He had been on the edge of tears himself, in no state to conduct rational investigations or interviews. But Srí Ramanu had only bid him rest and be still. Robert had knelt, while Ramanu sat with his legs crossed in the fashion of yogis. And after a long time, sitting there watching Srí Ramanu in silent contemplation, Robert had felt strangely lifted out of himself. It was as if the anger and doubt and emotions boiling in him had died down, burned away to ashes by the guuruu’s luminous gaze. He could feel tears running down his face, but he felt no grief or guilt, or even any very clear sense of himself at all; only a great stillness and radiance from everything about him.

  How long ago and impossible it seemed now. Robert did not have to look in the diary to know what he had written after that night. Srí Ramanu is an extraordinary man.

  Perhaps, Robert thought, as he ate fried potatoes and toast, he should have joined Ramanu’s disciples after all. Let his hair grow long and don a loincloth and live in that celestial radiance for the rest of his life.

  But he could no more believe in it then than he could now. He remembered the experience with an intense clarity, but he could never repeat it or even accept its ultimate reality, though Phillippa had accused him many times of aspiring to become a Hindu mystic. He did not deny it, or blame her for holding him back; he would have if it had been in his power. But he could not cut himself off from the world, from his earthly dreams and passions. Even when they tore his soul to shreds, he could not let them go.

  And so he had studied instead, committing Srí Ramanu’s teachings and rituals to paper, where the brilliance of that night became no more than scribbles of ink. He had followed rumors and stories, observing esoteric cults and tracking them down with a kind of yearning fixation, a hope he never even admitted to himself, that in one of them he would find the way back to that intangible sensation, that one transcendent night with Srí Ramanu. He watched wild dances and sat enveloped in smoke and incense, writing every detail.

  Then he went home to Phillippa, who was fervently interested in his advancement and wanted to invite all the important officers and supervisors to balls and picnics. All the men he loathed. She would not let him into her bed again. But she would kiss him still, and beg prettily to be allowed to give a ball. She so wanted them to recognize his ability—he was being overlooked; he was too modest; in England it was expected that a gentleman would entertain on a scale appropriate to his station in life. Her adored papa the duke was so very disappointed in him.

  Robert sipped his coffee with a saturnine smile. Oh, his station in life. He opened the diary again, peeling the orange with his thumb. Twice he had gone to his father to borrow against his allowance for Phillippa’s balls. Twice had been two times too many. She did not seem to realize that his real station in life was enslavement to the Company and his father, to accounts and the Cambourne repute; or understand how deeply he hated it all. He did not truly realize it himself until he had stood before his father the second time, and heard how he must learn to control his wife, for as charming as she was, she was a little too saucy, and beginning to make a spectacle of herself in the stiff upper echelons of Calcutta society.

  Have put my foot down, the diary said, with a fool’s optimism. She seemed to take it quite well. Kissed me. The sweet pleading and caresses had been difficult to resist, but he had only to think of facing his father again to defy them.

  Missed dinner, did not hear the servant call me.

  He had not seen the storm warnings for what they were at first. They were only minor entries scattered among his notes. Delay this morning to pacify the laundress and cook. Phil forgot to distribute the wages I gave her yesterday.

  Spent the day pasting and recopying; Phil cut up the January brigade accounts to take a design off a pattern-doll. She did not realize what the paper was, for God’s sake.

  Robert chuckled darkly. From this time and distance, he could almost appreciate her artistry. But he had been too thick-witted to hear the message then...or perhaps he had heard it clearly enough, somewhere beneath his waking thoughts, but had no useful answer. So he had taken his notebook and closed the door on their bungalow and slipped away to his noisy incense-scented refuge in the alleyways and temples. Slipped away from the knowledge of her budding affair with John Balfour; from the cool disgust of his brigadier general, who called him a useless idle blot on the Union Jack; from his father’s verdict, which matched General St. Clair’s; from the Duke of Alcester’s letters demanding some alleviation of his daughter’s wretched unhappiness. More clothes. More parties. More money. And why was there no child yet—was Robert impotent? He slipped away from it all to be alone.

  He turned the page. And there, tucked firmly into the spine, a little dark around the edges from folding and refolding, was Folly’s first letter to him.

  Robert did not open it. He only traced his forefinger lightly across his name and direction, and turned another page.

  TEN

  Folie sat very straight in her chair, sipping tea and exchanging polite greetings with Mr. Hawkridge. She was seated alone before the desk, having managed to convince Lander that she was quite safe from attack within the solicitors’ chambers. She had sent him on with Lady Dingley and the girls for their first visit to the milliners.

  “Specifically what are Mr. Cambourne’s powers?” Mr. Hawkridge murmured, repeating Folie’s question. “I s
hould have to refer to the will, of course, but I believe the terms are not unusual. Trustee over a competent livelihood for the wife of lands and tenements, to take effect upon the death of the husband for the life of the wife. Both you and Miss Melinda are to be maintained in genteel circumstances.” He smiled kindly, a large, jowly man in an old-fashioned bagwig. “Cambourne House would seem to qualify there! Lander has already presented us with several bills for fitting out the rooms with furnishings, to be settled on Mr. Cambourne’s personal account. Has a difficulty arisen?”

  “No,” Folie said. She moistened her lips. “No, I cannot say so—”

  He looked at her quizzically.

  “There is no clause in the will that might grant some independence—at least to myself?’’ she asked in a rush.

  He cleared his throat. “Ah. If you should remarry, of course. Your husband then would assume the responsibility of administering your freehold jointure for your lifetime, after which the remainder would revert to Miss Melinda.”

  “I see,” Folie said. She paused, and then said, “But if— if...ah...generally speaking, what occurs in the case of a trustee who is not...competent?”

  Mr. Hawkridge shuffled papers with a thoughtful air. Then he said, “Would you care for more tea? I wish you had allowed me to call upon you at Cambourne House, Mrs. Hamilton. I should have been honored to do so.”

  “I preferred a little more privacy,” she said. “No more tea, I thank you.” She began to rise. “It is of no consequence. I will not trouble you longer.”

  “My dear madam, it is no trouble. Please stay a moment. I feel that you are not quite comfortable with Mr. Cambourne’s authority?”

  Folie lifted her eyebrows. “Have you met Mr. Cambourne?” she asked, sinking back into her chair.

  “Alas, I regret to say that I have not met him in the flesh, no. I understand that you and Miss Melinda spent a week at Solinger Abbey. I trust that all went well?”

  She smiled wryly. “Mr. Hawkridge, I do not like to speak ill of people, but you may take my word, you would not wish to encounter Mr. Cambourne on Midsummer’s Eve.”

  He tilted his head. “I fear I do not quite take your meaning.”

  “Let me be blunt, then,” Folie said briskly. “He is queer as Dick’s hatband, as we would say in Toot-above-the-Batch.”

  “Indeed? A little eccentric?”

  “Quite raving mad,” Folie said cordially.

  “Mrs. Hamilton, I note that you seem to be carrying a ferret upon your shoulder.”

  “Yes, that is so.” Folie raised her chin.

  “I have not had reason, over the several years of our correspondence, to suppose you anything but a sober and well-informed young lady. However, when you arrive in my office, accompanied by said ferret, and tell me Mr. Cambourne is raving mad, I confess you render me a little uneasy.”

  “My mind is perfectly clear, Mr. Hawkridge. I am simply carrying a ferret on my shoulder. Mr. Cambourne, however, is in another category altogether. I suggest that you make his acquaintance and judge for yourself.”

  He smiled. “As it falls out, I shall have that happy occasion in a few minutes—he is expected at three.”

  “Here?” Folie exclaimed.

  “Yes. I must say that my clients are uncommonly obliging today, to call upon me in my chambers.”

  “I must go!” Folie said, standing up.

  Mr. Hawkridge rose, coming around the desk to bow over her hand. Folie had promised to remain at the solicitors’ office until Lander returned for her, but she could not stay now. Hurriedly she accepted the lawyer’s parting compliments and went down the stairs. Fortunately she had not relinquished her cloak and muff when she had come in, as the muff was Toot’s preferred refuge from the cold. She lifted the ferret off her shoulder and encouraged it into the furry nest as a servant opened the front door.

  A cab stood at the curb. The passenger was just handing up his fare to the driver. He turned, his hat brim pulled down, his face lowered. But she recognized him instantly.

  Folie went quickly down the steps, hoping against hope that he would walk right past her, seeing only her toes and hem. He stood aside at the foot of the stairs. She turned away from him onto the pavement.

  “Mrs. Hamilton.”

  Folie increased her stride, pretending not to notice.

  “Mrs. Hamilton!” His voice was commanding. Before she had gone two yards, he caught her elbow.

  Folie stopped. She thought wildly of pretending not to know him, but it was too impossibly witless. She turned her head slightly, barely looking at him under her bonnet. In his tall black hat, pulled so low, and a dark cloak with many shoulder-capes, he looked positively wicked. She thought that if she were to scream, some passerby might come to her rescue on the strength of his evil air alone.

  “Folly,” he said, in a voice so at odds with his baneful appearance that she bit her lip. “It’s Robert.”

  “Yes. I know.” She stood with her eyes on the pavement.

  He held her arm for a moment, and then released it. “Where is Lander?” His tone changed, hardened.

  “He is with Lady Dingley and the girls, shopping.”

  He gave a soft curse. “You were not to go out without him.”

  “He did accompany me here,” she said. “I sent him on with them.” She could not quite meet his eyes. “If a guardian is a necessity, it seemed more reasonable that he should escort them about the streets. I did not feel that anything really dreadful could befall me in a solicitor’s office.”

  “You are not, I perceive, in a solicitor’s office,” he said darkly.

  She fiddled with the braid on her reticule. Pedestrians brushed past them as they stood on the curb. Her cheeks were burning.

  “You are not to walk out alone,” he said. “I’ll wait with you until they return.”

  “Oh, no,” she protested. “Pray do not trouble yourself. You have an appointment with Mr. Hawkridge.”

  “You knew that?”

  “Mr. Hawkridge mentioned it.”

  “I see,” he said dryly. “Come inside.”

  Like a chastened child—or a recovered prisoner—she turned back and mounted the steps. He followed. Inside, the clerks and servants bowed and fawned, identifying him without a card. To Folie’s infinite chagrin, Mr. Hawkridge came down the stairs himself.

  “Come up, come up directly, Mr. Cambourne!” He bowed to Folie. “I see that you encountered Mrs. Hamilton—we were just having a most pleasant visit.”

  Robert Cambourne nodded briefly. “Sir.” He glanced toward Folie. “I must take a few minutes here, madam—I trust you will await me,” he said. “Is there a comfortable place she might sit, Mr. Hawkridge?”

  “Certainly! If you will just come into Mr. James’ room, Mrs. Hamilton—he is in the country for a few days. Can I persuade you to take tea?”

  She kept her face down, but that only caused her to be looking at Robert’s hands when he pulled off his gloves— his dark, strong hands that had been in her hair and on her throat and...she could hardly find her breath for the rush of blistering mortification. “Thank you,” she said, stifled. “Yes. Tea. I believe I will.”

  He did not take long with Mr. Hawkridge. Not nearly long enough. Folie had attempted to stow Toot and the muff underneath her chair, but the ferret took one of its notions and insisted upon exploring the office. Just as she caught him back from an investigation of the lowest row of legal volumes in Mr. James’ bookcase, Toot made a slithering twist between her fingers and skimmed beneath the desk. A scratch at the door signaled her tea. Folie straightened quickly, hissing a dire warning under the furniture. She sat down, smoothing her skirts and composing herself for the benefit of the clerk who brought the tray. After he left, she dropped to her knees and dragged Toot bodily from where he was playing among the dustballs beneath the solicitor’s desk. She stuffed the struggling ferret into the muff and wrapped her crocheted shawl about it. Toot poked his nose through the open knit like a tiger in a mini
ature zoo, but ceased his attempts at escape.

  She had hardly steadied her hands enough to sugar her tea before she heard the door open behind her. Robert Cambourne stepped inside, closing it behind him. He made a formal bow.

  “I’m glad we encountered one another here, Mrs. Hamilton,” he said, with the air of a prepared opening. “For reasons I shall not go into, I cannot call at Cambourne House, but I wished to...” He paused. “I have not been— perfectly myself. At Solinger—at Dingley Court, I behaved in an ungentlemanly—” He cleared his throat. “A reprehensible manner.”

  Folie stirred her tea vigorously in the silence.

  “Well,” he said. “Will you look at me, at least?”

  Folie lifted her face resentfully. It was the most irksome thing, the way she was agitated by his physical presence, as if all her wits scattered to the four winds. He might be as handsome as Lucifer, as Melinda claimed, but that was not what perturbed her. She could not say what it was. Even before he had kissed her and touched her, she had felt completely at sea with him, constantly out of her depth. He did not appear quite so gaunt and diabolic as Folie remembered from Solinger. She stared at him with considerably more aplomb than she felt, her brows lifted in cool expectation.

  “I was not myself,” he repeated, resting his fingertips on the desk, tapping them slightly on the smooth wood. “I would like...I wonder if it would be possible—for us to...begin afresh.”

  “Afresh in what sense?” she asked.

  “I don’t know.” He glanced toward the window, looking out on the grim brick wall of the building across the way. “Perhaps that we might–” He gave a shrug. “We were friends once.”

  Folie stood up abruptly. She turned her back on him.

  “Were we not, Folly?” he asked.

  She read the spines of legal tomes. Proceedings of the 12th Circuit court, 1797-1800. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Commentaries on the Laws of England, by Blackstone.

 
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