The regency romances, p.57
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       The Regency Romances, p.57

           Laura Kinsale
 

  Robert wiped his mouth and tossed the rest of his bread to the birds. The butler crossed and entered the park. Robert waited until he caught his servant’s eye, and then with a faint gesture signaled him to follow.

  As usual, Lander appeared to make nothing of the singular meeting. “Good morning, sir,” he said, as Robert stopped beneath a budding tree.

  They were out of range to be overheard. Robert nodded briefly. “I don’t want you to be gone from the house long,” he said. “I cannot say that I trust you utterly, but I have no choice.”

  The man betrayed no flicker of reaction. His eyes were so dark that they seemed black, but his hair was almost blond, tied back neatly. Robert thought he must be a seasoned gambler, from his square, inexpressive face.

  “I have discovered that my fears at Solinger were well-founded,” Robert said, plunging into it. “I was in the political service in India. Something has followed me here, something pernicious. I have reason to believe that my—indisposition—at Solinger was the result of deliberate poison. I am convinced that it was an attempt to discredit my wits. It would appear that I am in possession of some knowledge—or someone thinks I am—something extremely valuable. I don’t yet know what it may be, but it’s consequential enough that they’ll kill for it.”

  The only change in Lander’s expression was an increasing concentration on Robert’s face. They were not quite of a height, but he did not have to look up by much.

  “Perhaps you do not believe me,” Robert said stiffly.

  “I believe you, sir,” Lander said without hesitation.

  Robert lifted his brows. He had not expected to be taken seriously without considerable argument. “I am gratified.”

  “I can see that you are in possession of yourself now,” he said. “I do not know how the poison reached you, for I did my best to watch. I beg your pardon; it was my failing.”

  The relief of being believed was astonishing. For a moment, Robert was at a loss for words. He shrugged, scowling. “Never mind. Did you know a girl named Kathy—a housemaid at Solinger?”

  “Kathy, sir?” Lander shook his head a little. “No, sir.”

  “Brown hair, freckles, perhaps eighteen. She was increasing, she said. In trouble. They promised to take care of her if she did it.”

  Lander looked off thoughtfully. “That could be the gardener’s girl,” he said. “Mattie.” He frowned. “Could you have mistaken her name?’’

  “Doubtless,” Robert said ironically. “I was raving out of my mind at the time.”

  “I think—she might have been in distress. Now that I think of it, perhaps I saw her with red eyes. It’s hard to know; I made nothing of it at the time.”

  “I think she is dead,” Robert said.

  Lander’s eyes widened just a little. “Sir?”

  Robert told him what he had found in his hotel room. The butler’s jaw grew tight. “It was Solinger linen, sir?” he asked.

  “I don’t know.” Robert cursed. “I didn’t know you could tell.”

  “It would have SA woven into the waistband.”

  “I threw it in the river. Frankly, I didn’t want to be accused of murder myself, if I was found with it.”

  “No, sir.” Lander nodded. “Should I make discreet inquiries of Mattie in Buckinghamshire?”

  “No, I want you here in London.”

  The butler said, “Then I shall remain, sir. But it is possible to inquire, I believe, without my leaving here.”

  “Make any inquiries you can, then—but keep them concealed, and do not leave here. I haven’t told you all. My journals were stolen from my rooms.”

  Lander nodded alertly. “They want something you had written in them, sir?”

  “God only knows. They’re mostly full of rubbish.” Robert gave a wry smile. “My wise observations on Hindu culture and religion, some descriptions of odd cults.” He paused. A thought tugged at the back of his mind.

  “No information from your political post, sir?”

  The thought vanished as Robert laughed. “My political post consisted of a few pillows and a broken chair. I was no Elphinstone parleying with the Afghans, I assure you.” He shook his head. “Unless it is some secret nefarious sect that has taken the trouble to follow me here, which I heartily doubt. One thing I have seen little of in England are gentlemen in turbans and loincloths, with beards to their knees.”

  “Still, sir. Might it be a native reprisal for some accidental transgression? I understand that primitive peoples can be deeply moved by apparently minor acts.”

  “Those I studied were no primitive people, Lander. Believe me. However peculiar their appearance, they live in the realms of highest consciousness. Light and kindness are their creed. Cutting a maid’s throat? No—I think this is no Hindu plot against me. If I were still in India, I might suppose I had embroiled myself unknowingly in some conspiracy—we have bandit princes and rajahs by the dozens, all at John Company and one another’s throats, but I can’t conceive that such thing would follow me here, and I don’t know what it would be in any case. I can recall nothing political, nothing at all. Sometimes I saw our people in the bazaars. I recognized them, but we never spoke.”

  “Perhaps you saw someone who did not wish to be seen.”

  Robert leaned his shoulder against the tree. “Yes. That is possible.” He cast a sidelong look at Lander. “You have quite a mind for intrigue.”

  The manservant shrugged slightly.

  “What are you?” Robert asked suddenly. “You are no butler.”

  Lander stood with his hands clasped behind his back, his eyes lowered.

  “And no commoner, either,” Robert said. “You speak like a bloody aristocrat.”

  “I beg your pardon, sir. I have not always been in household service, no.”

  He volunteered nothing further, and Robert did not press him. Likely as not, he would only get a pack of fabrications. He suspected that Lander was some nobleman’s younger son who had disgraced himself—such fellows were thick on the ground in India, and in spite of the submissive “sirs” and “I beg your pardons,” he had something of the same air of the highbred rowdy about him.

  “Well, I believe you are a gentleman,” Robert said, “whatever may have brought you to this point. And I ask you, on your honor as a gentleman, to keep your own counsel on what I mean to tell you. I would not speak of it, but I want you to understand why I must have you always on guard here. I have your word?”

  “As it concerns nothing criminal, sir—you have my sworn word.”

  “Not criminal—not against the law, at least—unless it is against the law to write letters to a married lady.”

  “Of course I shall say nothing about such a matter, on my honor as a gentleman,” Lander said.

  Robert crossed his arms and looked at the ground. “Mrs. Hamilton and I exchanged letters for some time while I was in India.” He lifted his face, squinting into the distance. “Anyone who read them would ascertain that I have—a great depth of feeling for her. I kept them in my journals. They have been taken also.”

  “I understand you, Mr. Cambourne,” Lander said. “May I say that I am glad, sir, to have some clearer idea of the situation. At Solinger—I could not tell—I’ll admit that I was concerned and—puzzled.”

  “I was not myself there. I do not wish more to be said of it, ever.”

  “Is Mrs. Hamilton aware of the danger?”

  “I tried to warn her.” Robert gave a humorless smile. “I have succeeded only in convincing her for certain that I’m fit for Bedlam.”

  “She was not alarmed?”

  “Only by my presence, as far as I could discern.” Robert pushed away from the tree trunk. “Go back to the house now. You’ve been absent long enough. They’ll be stirring.”

  Lander bowed. “Yes, sir. How shall I expect to hear from you?”

  Robert shook his head. “I can’t say as yet. Be vigilant. Note any odd thing. If you receive a message marked ‘Kali,’ it will be from me.


  “‘Kali,’ sir?”

  “The Hindu goddess of destruction.” Robert paused. “Speaking of which—I left that cursed ferret of hers on the back stoop.”

  “Yes, sir,” Lander said.

  TWELVE

  By their third Wednesday night assembly, Folie had developed a positive aversion for Almack’s. She hid it, of course. Never in her most ambitious dreams for Melinda had she supposed they would be mingling at this level of Society. She was eternally grateful to Lady Melbourne and Lady Cowper for the priceless voucher, and to Lady Dingley for her steadfast sponsorship. Upon entering the handsome assembly hall for the first time, Folie had felt she must burst with pride to see that Melinda was so much more beautiful than the other girls—perhaps it was a bad year, but the nobility seemed to have produced little better than a collection of snub noses, rabbity teeth, and thin hair in their female offspring. The crowd of young girls carried themselves gracefully, danced beautifully, sipped their orgeat with refinement, but in her white gown—last year’s periodical pattern sewn up by Toot’s best seamstress—Melinda outshone them all by simply standing in a corner.

  Folie was not the only one who thought so. Things seemed to happen in a slow motion at Almack’s; the dancing was stately, the conversations modulated and deliberate, the introductions careful. Folie and Melinda stood with Lady Dingley and her daughters along the wall. They were ignored at first, but then the languid notice began to come.

  Old acquaintances of Lady Dingley found her out—matrons and weighty gentlemen, solemn sons who made desultory comments about the heat in the room and asked the Misses Dingley to dance.

  But Folie saw how they glanced at Melinda even as they took Jane or Cynth out on their arms. And politeness allowed that, after a dance with Lady Dingley’s progeny, the lesser members of the party might be recognized. By the second week, Melinda was dancing every set—an earl’s fourth son, an Irish baronet, the brother of one of Wellington’s ADCs—even a viscount. Mr. Brummel spoke with her briefly. He was known to have complimented her faultless complexion, enough to bring any debutante into fashion.

  To Folie’s astonishment, even she had her own share of admirers—seldom while Melinda danced was Folie left without a more mature gentleman’s company or an invitation to play cards. Everything was going perfectly, a thousand times better than anyone could have hoped.

  Folie hated it.

  Somehow she had imagined that London society would have more brilliance. More wit. More...something.

  She could not quite put her finger on it. Certainly the women were beautifully dressed; the men exquisite in knee breeches, chapeau-bras tucked under their arms. Lady Dingley was in raptures over the success of their reception. Folie had discussed the weather in London, the weather in Herefordshire, the weather in Buckinghamshire, the weather in France. Indeed, it was a most foggy spring. Or a dry spring, a wet one, an ordinary one, depending on the opinion of her confidant. It would no doubt rain this Sunday; she would be well advised to carry a rain umbrella. It would no doubt be quite pretty this Sunday; she would be advised to carry a sun parasol.

  Society began to seem like a very large version of a meeting of the Ladies’ Committee in Toot.

  “Now, what causes you to smile so mysteriously, Mrs. Hamilton?’’ Colonel Cox asked, making his chair creak as he shifted his broad shoulders.

  She sorted her hand at whist. “I was speculating if my head would fit into a bucket of sand.”

  He looked at her oddly, and then produced a hearty laugh; he was a widower with children, one of Folie’s foremost devotees. “I vow, you are so droll. Is she not, Lady Walron?”

  “Indeed!” Lady Walron said absently, laying down a card. “Do you follow suit, Mrs, Hamilton?”

  Folie played her hand. Colonel Cox complimented her and vowed she would be his partner for the next rubber. He was quite a large, muscular man; he spoke with a gritty hush, as if to deprecate his considerable physical presence. He had lost three fingers at the battle of Talavera. He was pleasant and kind, but try as she might, Folie could not seem to think of much to say to him. He had a way of replying to each attempt at conversation by commending her wit or her wisdom—flattering, but hardly conducive to a dialogue. She had said, “Thank you,” so often that she had finally resorted to a simple nod instead.

  The music in the ballroom came to a conclusion. Supper time. Folie calculated that it was another two hours before they might leave.

  “Ah, there is Miss Hamilton,” she said, locating Melinda among the crowd of dispersing dancers. Her stepdaughter disengaged herself from the arm of a young man and went immediately to join Jane and Cynth as they came through the door, her discarded partner following with puppy-like resolve. So far, Melinda did not seem to take a particular interest in any of her admirers. Perversely, she seemed more determined to match-make for Folie than to concentrate on her own expectations.

  “No, no, Mama,” she said, as Folie and the colonel rose from the card table. “Don’t stop your game.”

  It was Melinda who had first informed her stepmother that Folie also had serious marital prospects in London. Where this intelligence had sprung from, Folie did not know, but Melinda was already making her own circle of friends, young and old. At first, Folie had been inclined to call the idea nonsensical; she had neither money nor beauty nor youth to recommend her, but she had not counted upon the gentlemen of a certain age who had been bereaved of their wives and left with young children to raise. She had not thought anything of it until several of these gentlemen began to pay calls at Cambourne House. After a few assemblies, Folie could not deny that a genteel widow, barely out of her twenties but with the experience of bringing up a daughter and no encumbering children of her own, seemed to be an object of some moderate interest.

  Colonel Cox was obviously attentive; he had called twice already and invited their party to the opera two nights hence. Most significantly, he never complimented Melinda, or mentioned her to Folie. Now he held out his arm to her. “May I have the honor of taking you down to supper, ma’am?”

  Under Melinda’s merry look, Folie accepted. She could only hope that if Colonel Cox actually were to propose, she could stay awake long enough to notice.

  But it was quite unjust and wrong of her, she thought as they sat through the tea and thin slices of bread and butter. Lady Dingley had made inquiries. Colonel Cox was a well-respected man, with a solid income and substantial property in Norfolk. He was gentle of manner and courteous. Folie began to think that she was possessed of some demon, that she could not bring herself even to take an interest in whether or not he would propose.

  Certainly it would be a practical course, to marry again. Having no available suitors in Toot, she had been careful to avoid serious contemplation of such an unlikely circumstance, but there were numerous advantages—provided she chose wisely—and few reasons to regret a life lived alone on a moderate income. There had been moments—not often, but now and again, deep in the night, when she had looked ahead to the existence before her and grown so desolate that she had had to rise and take to the cordial like a gazetted old lady.

  And yet here she was, in the midst of London, looking at an excellent hope of eschewing that dismal future—and all she could seem to think of was how soon she might with courtesy abandon his table.

  What do you want, ma’am? she asked herself in exasperation. For she did want something. To travel, perhaps. To go...to go...somewhere. There seemed to be an intensity inside her that pressed for a voice, for motion, for talk of something besides weather and cards and people she had never met. Something that did not want to be careful and proper, and say only the right things.

  “Perhaps I shall write a book,” she said.

  “A book!” Colonel Cox said. “What sort of book?”

  “Far places. Perhaps there will be a lost princess in it.”

  “Oh. A novel.” The colonel appeared dubious.

  Folie supposed it would please him better if she wrote
a collection of household hints. “The heroine will be excellent at mending sheets,” she offered generously. “In fact, perhaps that is how she became lost; she was examining the linen for holes, when suddenly...” She paused, considering the alternatives.

  “I am sure you are funning,” he said indulgently.

  “Of course,” Folie said, and let the subject drop. She took a sip of tea.

  There was a slight commotion near the entry. Heads turned idly. At the doorway, several gentlemen strolled in, dressed by the code demanded at Almack’s, formal breeches and three-cornered hats, but carrying with them an air of cool rebellion.

  “The night must be dull at the gaming hells,” someone murmured nearby.

  Folie was astonished to see Robert Cambourne walk in with the party. She set down her teacup with a slight clatter.

  He did not notice her. The rakish gentlemen who accompanied him paused to pay compliments to several ladies; Folie watched as he was introduced. Oddly, she felt herself blushing, hoping not to be noticed, as if she had been caught out in some misdemeanor.

  “I wonder who that fellow is,” the Colonel said.

  Folie turned her teacup, lowering her face.

  “Been in the tropics, I dare say,” Colonel Cox added. “They say it only rains at night there.”

  The room was not large enough that Folie could hope to go unnoticed for long. When she looked up again, Robert was just turning.

  However he might have seemed at their latest meeting, or the ones before, he appeared far from demented now. She saw him recognize her, a pause in his survey of the room. Their eyes met.

  All of Folie’s indifference in the company had vanished the instant she had seen him. She had not heard a word from him since that extraordinary visit in her bedchamber. He seemed to have vanished, leaving her between worry and provocation; the only evidence that he had been there at all was Toot’s new cage and indestructible lock.

  He glanced at the colonel and then inclined his head to her, chilly courtesy. Folie took a deep a breath and nodded in return. He turned away.

 
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