The regency romances, p.55
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       The Regency Romances, p.55

           Laura Kinsale
 

  “You have forgotten our letters,” he said in a low voice.

  It was the first time the letters had been openly mentioned between them. Folie felt a thickening in her throat.

  “I have not,” she said. “But I do not believe it would be wise to place a great deal of confidence in that as a basis for any particular affinity between us at present. I was quite young when our correspondence took place.” She was astonished at how assured her voice sounded. “We have matured. We are entirely different people now.”

  He said nothing. She did not suppose he could argue.

  “It has become clear to me that we never knew one another well, Mr. Cambourne,” she added. “That was an illusion.”

  “Perhaps so,” he said.

  “We grow beyond the many foolish fancies of youth.” She ventured a glance at him. “Maturity brings about a notable alteration in one’s life and character.”

  “I begin to believe it can render someone unrecognizable.”

  Folie returned her gaze to the bookshelves. It was safer to look there. A newsboy’s piercing cry touted headlines in the street below. Carriages growled along the stones. Somewhere in the distance, a donkey brayed in harsh complaint. The silence in Mr. James’ chamber was profound.

  “Will you take tea?” Folie asked.

  Without waiting for an answer, she poured him a cup, set it on the desk, and left it there.

  “Thank you,” he said. He added four lumps of sugar and poured in a quantity of milk. Folie watched him. I drink tea, it is called chai here, with a great deal of milk and sugar, he had written. As if she could ever forget a single line.

  Folie drew a breath. She sat down and picked up her teacup. “I am charged by Lady Melbourne to command you to call on her.”

  “Lady Melbourne?” he repeated, politely blank.

  She had confounded him, at least. And changed the subject, too. “Yes, she wishes to hear your opinion on the recent conquests in Sind and the renewal of the Company charter.”

  “Sind?” He sounded more bewildered. “We have made no conquests in Sind.”

  “Well, then you had better set her straight on the matter. We would not wish for the Whigs to be misinformed.”

  “If they are that misinformed, it is no wonder they are out of power.” He seemed willing, even relieved, to allow the talk to dwell on impartial topics. “Who is Lady Melbourne?”

  “Very highborn, married into the Lambs. She has been a great society hostess for decades. All the political gentlemen of the Whig party gather at her parties.” Folie repeated Lady Dingley’s summary. “Amazing kind,” she added on her own behalf. “And acute. She knew precisely who you were, merely from your name.”

  “Did she?”

  “She said that you could not be in Sir James Cambourne’s direct branch, and named your sister, Lady Ryman.”

  He shrugged. “Sir James was my uncle. I only met him once, when I came up to London as a schoolboy.” His brow creased with a faint frown. “I don’t know why she should know so much of him.”

  “Was he in the government? A Whig?”

  “A Whig? My God, I should think not. He was a company director.” His expression grew reflective. “He took me to Westminster to watch the opening of the Hastings impeachment trial. There was a great affair. As good as a circus.”

  “Oh? I don’t think it was reported upon in the Toot Tattler.”

  “It was long ago. While you were still busy with your ABCs.”

  “And you saw it? Who was on trial?” she asked curiously.

  “Ah.” He smiled at her. “That I do know, for all my father said I never had a proper appreciation for Company history. Warren Hastings, my dear, first Governor-General of India. They waited until he retired and came home, and then dragged him before the Lords to pay for all his erstwhile sins. He is still alive, I believe, but he must be an old man now. I was twelve, perhaps, or thirteen.”

  “What did you think?’’ She leaned forward a little.

  “Think?”

  “Of Parliament? Was it interesting, or a terrific bore?”

  “It was quite extraordinary that day. The place was crammed—it was in Westminster Hall. I barely understood a word at the time. All I remember is that poor old gentleman on trial—how mild and serious he was—sitting there while those fellows dripped withering scorn on his head. “‘I impeach him in the name of the people of India!’“ he intoned in a dramatic voice, lifting his arm like a public speaker. ‘‘‘I impeach the common enemy and oppressor of all!’“ He lowered his hand and smiled. “Whig prosecutors.”

  “Was he an oppressor?”

  “He didn’t look one to me. Courteous little man. He did well enough by India, I think—and he never made any money out of it, like most of ‘em. It’s the money brings on the dogs, you know. They were after John Company in truth, convinced we were all pirates.” He smiled ironically. “Which is true enough, in its way.”

  “Perhaps they were jealous, and wished a fair chance to be pirates themselves.”

  “You are shrewd. Of course they wanted to tear the heart out of the East India Company, open up trade—abolish her privileges and let their own friends have a go at the booty. Still do, no doubt. And my uncle in tears of rage. If we had met a Whig on the street, I believe he would have thrust his cane-sword through ‘em then and there. I think I might have myself. They spoke beautiful rhetoric—Fox and Sheridan and Burke, I’ll never forget them—but not a one knew a beggar’s scrap of India or what they were saying of that poor devil Hastings.”

  “Oh, yes...oh! I remember now. Mr. Warren Hastings. Did he fight a duel?”

  “Yes. Probably with a Whig.”

  Folie laughed. “I think Lady Melbourne will like you,” she said.

  “I had rather you liked me.”

  She lowered her face, taking a sip of cold tea.

  “I have not often been able to talk to anyone this way,” he said.

  “What way?” she asked in surprise.

  “This way. A conversation.” He looked down at her through his long black lashes. “It is pleasant.” The corner of his mouth lifted.

  “I am happy that you think so. But it is not difficult, you know. One simply opens one’s lips and speaks.”

  “Ah, but the words make all the difference. You don’t bark orders or catalog my deficiencies.”

  “Well, I don’t have a talent for barking, and if I begin upon your deficiencies, there is always the risk that you will start in with mine.”

  “Would I?” He tilted his head. “If only I could think of any.”

  “Now you are absurd,” she said.

  He shrugged, smiling slightly. “None at all come to mind.”

  “I have all sorts of deficiencies.”

  “No. If you had, I would have noticed.”

  “In a moment you will have me listing them myself,” she said tartly. “Very crafty of you!”

  He grinned. “Ah, my sweet Folly.”

  “Please do not do that!”

  “What—don’t call you aloud what I have called you every day in my heart these five years past?”

  “Do not. Do not.” She turned her face down, picking at the ends of her gloves.

  “Folly.” An intensity came into his voice. “Will you not trust me? Can you not?”

  She stood up. Without looking at him, she bent down to pull the muff from under the chair. She rose again, blowing air from her cheeks. “On what do you propose that I base this trust?” She looked him in the eyes. “On your frankness and candor? On your stability and sound mind? On your gallant and civil behavior toward the ladies under your protection? Pray inform me, Mr. Cambourne, in what manner you have earned my trust?’’

  His face went bleak as she spoke, as dark and still as the water beneath a winter lake. Folie fumbled with the muff, uncoiling her shawl.

  “Four years ago, upon receiving your last letter to me,” she said, “I discovered that I had been living in a fantasy. A daydream. A foolish
, foolish, foolish dream. I do not reproach you for this. I have only myself to blame for what I allowed—that is, for my...” She lost her voice. After a moment, she swallowed the squeak in her throat and said, tolerably evenly, “For the emotional attachment that I allowed to occur in my own mind. It was utterly wrong of me.” She looked away. “And I paid for it. I paid, to what felt like the last drop of blood in my heart. That is enough. I will not pay more.” She shook her head. “No. I will not trust you, Mr. Cambourne. Not in the way that you imply. Never again, you or any other gentleman.”

  Quickly she walked toward the door, still trying to disentangle the shawl. Toot poked his head out, struggling to escape, nipped her glove when she tried to push him back in, and then snagged his paws in the crochet. While she stood beside the door, fighting tears and trying to unravel the ferret from the wool, she heard the sound of familiar voices from below—Lander and Melinda returned for her at last. She had no hand free to open the door. “Oh, you odious creature!” she muttered furiously.

  “What the devil is that?” Robert asked in a peculiar voice.

  “A ferret!” she cried. “Oh—here!” She thrust the wriggling shawl and muff at him. “Take it, give it away, it only cost a guinea. I must go. I must go.”

  The thing bit him immediately. Robert yelped, juggling the ball of woolen wrap. He dropped it on the desk, cursing and sucking his finger. The muff tumbled about as if it had a life of its own, scattering the neat stacks of paper. He tried briefly to rescue them and then abandoned the desk to its destruction, walking out onto the stair landing in time to see the front door shut on Lander’s back.

  Robert stood looking at the closed door, gripping his bleeding cut between his fingers.

  After a moment, he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wrapped it around the cut. He went back into Mr. James’ office.

  The muff and shawl had ceased their frantic motion. From inside a hopeless snarl of yarn, the ferret stared at him intensely. Robert bent down, retrieving the strewn papers and stacking them carefully on the desk. He checked his finger. When the bleeding seemed to have stopped, he pulled on his gloves, wincing at the sting. Gingerly, he picked up the ball of wool and fur. Without pausing to take his leave of Mr. Hawkridge, he went down the stairs and let himself out the door.

  On the pavement, he stowed the muff and ferret under his arm and began to walk.

  “Where is Toot?” Melinda asked, as Folie climbed into the carriage.

  “I have given him away,” Folie answered shortly.

  “Oh.”

  “He was a considerable nuisance,” Folie said. She squeezed into the place that Lady Dingley made for her and nodded at Lander to shut the door. “An embarrassment, frankly.”

  A chorus of disappointment and censure met her announcement.

  “The little girls will be crushed,” Lady Dingley said.

  Folie said nothing. She could not and would not go back in there and retrieve Toot from Robert Cambourne. It was only a ferret, she thought fiercely. A silly little animal; a nuisance, a pest, a bother. She reached up and yanked the check string vigorously, signaling the driver to move on. The carriage jerked forward.

  “Mama!” Melinda protested. “Lander has not yet got upon the box!”

  The vehicle bounced, the familiar sensation of a servant springing onto the footman’s rest. “There,” Folie said. “He’s up behind now.”

  “He might have been hurt.”

  “Lander?” Folie snorted. “I doubt a shipwreck on an iceberg could kill the man.”

  Melinda’s mouth took on a mulish set. She did not reply, but turned to look out the window. Folie suffered the silent reproof, in no mood to cajole for a smile. She had not thought Melinda was so attached to the ferret.

  “We have had great success!” Lady Dingley said, proffering a package hopefully. “Look at this pretty blonde lace, Mrs. Hamilton!”

  ELEVEN

  Robert had no notion where he was. He had walked unseeing, passing among crowds of strangers, carried by the traffic across a river bridge, chagrin and a vehement shame striding with him. He could not have said if he was wandering in London or a Delhi market. He could not stop—if he paused, it seemed as if they might see through him, see inside to a whole futile lifetime spent in hiding.

  He walked. But there was no Srí Ramanu, no alien temple to attract him, no place to go with his anger and humiliation. Only dusk falling on a field beyond the last house, aproned housewives arguing on a stoop, the road beneath his feet no longer paved.

  He was hungry. The evening wind cut through his cloak. There was a blister on his heel from a pair of new boots.

  “I don’t suppose you are a homing ferret,” he said to the muff.

  There was no answer from the creature under his arm. Robert peered into the fur. He squeezed it a little, wondering if the thing had smothered itself. Nothing moved.

  He poked his gloved finger inside.

  “Christ!” He jerked back from the hard nip. It went right through the leather. Robert dropped the bundle and stood nursing his hand. “No doubt you learned this technique from your mistress.”

  A deep-throated horn heralded the approach of a stagecoach along the dirt road. Robert retrieved the muff, keeping his hands carefully clear of the openings, and stepped out of the way. After the coach had passed, he stood in the quiet village street. He had hardly been aware of leaving the city. He could see the chimneys and smoke behind him, and smell it too, like the breath of a great panting black dog crouched on the horizon.

  A sign creaked on its hinges. “The Highflyer” was lettered in red beneath a painting of a carriage with absurdly tall, light wheels. The advertised inn was hardly so elegant as its namesake, with a lowering thatch roof that hung nearly to the ground and a stone threshold worn so deeply concave that water puddled in it. The bowed tilt of the half-timbered walls seemed almost to defy gravity.

  But a warm light fell from the single window onto a tiny garden in bloom with yellow daffodils. Robert’s head ached from lack of food. He pushed open the garden gate and ducked inside the door.

  Inside, a portly woman looked up from her knitting. “Good even’, fine sir. What will ye?”

  “Dinner?” he asked.

  “Aye, that she can.” The woman stood up, setting her work aside. “Cold pork pie, or a mulligatawny soup?”

  “Mulligatawny?” Robert echoed in pleased surprise.

  “Aye, ‘tis a curry dish, for me son Tucker,” she said apologetically. “It be main tasty, but full o’ spice. That Tucker Moloney, he got such a relish for the peppery morsel off there in India! Maybe ye’d take to the pie better.”

  “Keep the pie.” He grinned. “I’m an old Qui Hai myself.”

  “Oh, you won’t think I know them words, but I do! I do!” The tip of her nose turned red when she laughed. “A gentleman of Bengal, aye. My Tucker taught his old mother a good bit o’ that talk. I could listen to him go on for hours, I could.”

  “Tenth Regiment, Bengal Infantry,” Robert said approvingly. “You are an excellent student. Where was your son?”

  “Madras,” she said promptly, and then added with a wink, “A Mull. But I’ll have your soup up in a blink, sir—you look some weary and leer. Ale for you?”

  Robert nodded. He settled in an age-blackened booth beside the fire, looking up at the cutlass hung below a native havildar’s foraging cap. A cheerful shepherd dog nosed up to him, black and white tail wagging, and sat down with an ecstatic sigh under Robert’s stroke.

  “What pleasing manners,” he murmured. “Not like some ferrets I might name.”

  The landlady’s white cap bobbed up from the depths of a staircase. She carried a steaming bowl and a spoon. “Get away now, Skipper,” she said, nudging the dog with a foot. “There’s your pepper-water, sir. Take care with it.”

  Robert smiled a little. “So I shall.” He took a bite, watching Skipper move obediently away and curl up on the hearth.

  His hostess brought him
ale and bread and sat down in her rocker. “You must tell me how ye likes it.”

  “Superb,” Robert said. It was fairly spiced, as she had warned, full more of potatoes than of meat. But he was glad enough to taste curry again. He ate slowly, gazing at the dog.

  Her knitting needles clacked. “Do ye miss the place, then?” she asked.

  Robert glanced up at her. He shrugged. “Not really.”

  “Ye had such a sad far look just then,” she said.

  “I was thinking of the dog, I suppose.” He took a deep swallow of ale. “I had a dog named Skip.”

  “Ah,” she said, shaking her head sympathetically. “A good ‘n?”

  Something about the quiet room, the easy way she rocked, made him speak of Skip. “He was just a pariah dog—the yellow sort. Ugly.”

  “It don’t matter how they look, do it?”

  Robert took a hot bite of curry. His eyes ran. He shook his head.

  “A mite spicy?” She gave a happy laugh. He nodded, turning his face down so that she could not see him.

  “‘Tis the way me son will have it.”

  Robert soaked his bread in the golden broth and ate.

  “Not many of the gentlemen from town stops here,” she said. “You come afoot?”

  “Yes. Just walking.” Robert pulled out a clean handkerchief and blew his nose. “Do you have a room for the night?”

  “Surely,” she said. “Very wise of you, sir. It’s late. You won’t want to walk back alone. We have the footpads now and again, so close to town. Bad times, it is.” Her needles paused. She gave him a quizzical look. “And I believe you are low.”

  Robert wiped his eyes. “It is the curry.”

  “Oh, aye,” she said, nodding.

  “I don’t know what has got into you this afternoon, Mama!” Melinda said, following Folie into her bedroom.

  “I am having a fit of the dismals, if you please,” Folie snapped, tossing her bonnet onto the dressing table. “Kindly go away and leave me to it.”

 
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