The regency romances, p.58
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       The Regency Romances, p.58

           Laura Kinsale
 

  “Do you know him?” Colonel Cox asked in surprise.

  “Mr. Cambourne of Solinger Abbey,” she said. “He is my stepdaughter’s guardian.”

  “Oh?”

  There was a note in the colonel’s voice that made her look toward him. He was frowning a little. “You do not approve?”

  Colonel Cox made his chair squeak again, shifting uncomfortably. “It is not my place to approve! No doubt he is of excellent character. I cannot say I like the company he is in tonight.”

  “Who is it?”

  “Deep players, my dear. But this is of no interest.” He smiled. “Let me tell you what I heard today—the Duke of Cambridge wants us to believe that the Prince Regent’s headaches are a sign of weakness in his brain! What do you make of that?”

  Folie made nothing at all of it. She could barely keep herself from looking at Robert and the men with him as they made their progress toward the refreshment table, talking and greeting their acquaintance. He fit among them perfectly, with that casual satanic style of his, looking down upon the glittering crowd.

  “I beg you to accept my excuses, colonel,” she said, rising. “I must speak to Lady Dingley.”

  The colonel stood quickly, bowing. Folie left him, making her way to the door of the supper room. Her flight necessitated that she pass near where Robert stood with his party, but his back was turned. However, just as she gained the doorway, Lady Dingley met her coming in, Miss Jane and Cynth in tow.

  “Ah! Mrs. Hamilton.” She took Folie’s arm. “I have just heard that Mr. Cambourne is here. Really the girls must express their obligation for his hospitality at Cambourne House.” She patted Folie’s hand. “If you will be so good as to present them to him.” She lowered her voice. “I have left Melinda with Lord Christian—I did not insist that she come right away—an excellent parti, you know! But I must not leave them alone for long. You will understand.”

  Folie was not quite certain that she did, but Lady Dingley had already given her arm a squeeze and swept away, leaving the girls. Miss Jane’s eyes danced. She opened her fan and leaned near Folie’s ear.

  “I believe Mr. Cambourne is in Viscount Morier’s party,” she murmured. “Mama would not dare introduce us, but you may be guilty of any excess!”

  “Surely she does not wish you to meet this viscount?” Folie asked dubiously. “I understand he gambles immoderately!”

  “He will be the Duke of Eaton.”

  “Ah,” Folie said, with a little grimace.

  “Yes,” Jane said, nodding wisely. “Mama can be foolish, but I don’t think it will do us any harm. Beyond appearing so absurd as to suppose Morier might be interested in such a pair of rustic milkmaids!”

  Folie felt a surge of affection for pragmatic Jane. “Of course it will do you no harm! I only hope Lord Morier may fall madly in love with one of you on the instant, so that you can refuse him on account of his frivolous character and send him into a tragic decline.”

  “Oh, dear, must we refuse him only for that?” Jane pouted. “And I had so counted upon being a duchess!”

  “Come along,” Folie said. “Let us put it behind us.”

  She turned, taking Jane’s arm. Robert and his companions seemed to have stationed themselves at a strategic point near the refreshment table, the better to make mocking comments about everyone who passed in and out, Folie supposed. Several ladies stood with them, smiling and flirting languidly with their fans. She moved within a few feet of the group, into his line of sight, and dropped a curtsy.

  Robert lifted an eyebrow. “Mrs. Hamilton,” he said, turning to her with a short nod.

  “Mr. Cambourne.” She was aware that the gentlemen with him had fallen silent, watching. “I hope you are well.”

  “Perfectly well.”

  “I pray you will permit me to present Sir Howard Dingley’s daughters to you.”

  He bowed, glancing at the girls. “Please do me the honor.”

  “Miss Jane Dingley.” Jane made a curtsy and stood back. “Miss Cynthia.” Cynth bobbed and retreated. “This is Mr. Cambourne.”

  Both of the girls were as red in the cheeks as ripe apples. Cynth looked as if she might bolt at any moment, but Jane stood calmly, her moon-shaped face serene, her hands clasped. “We must thank you, sir, for inviting us to stay at Cambourne House.”

  “It is my pleasure.” He smiled with a warmth that surprised Folie. “I’m glad to see it full of girls and fun.”

  “Girls and fun?” echoed one of his companions. He lifted his quizzing glass, examining Folie and Jane. “Do present me, Cambourne!”

  Folie made a small curtsy as Robert introduced her to Lord Morier, a slightly built exquisite with heavy black brows over the eyes of a jaded hawk. She dutifully presented Miss Jane and Cynth. As expected, the heir to the dukedom barely glanced at them. He bowed to Folie. “Ah! The notable Mrs. Hamilton! Did you bring your ferret?”

  “No. I could not procure him a ticket,” Folie replied shortly.

  “My commiseration! I could hardly get one myself.”

  “Nay, my lord—you?” one of the ladies said ingratiatingly.

  “My wicked character,” his lordship said with a sad sigh, turning away to his friends.

  “I vow he cannot match that ferret for an evil character,” Robert murmured.

  “There is nothing evil about Toot!” Folie objected.

  He looked down at her. “A venal manner and a vicious disposition—clearly a member of the criminal classes. I am surprised you would associate with such riffraff, Mrs. Hamilton.”

  “Indeed!” she said. “And I am told that your companions are in the habit of gambling for large stakes.”

  “That is very much the case, ma’am.”

  “I might inquire what are you doing in such perilous company?’’

  “Why, gambling away Miss Melinda’s inheritance, of course,” he said. “And your jointure too. You have some objection?”

  Folie wrinkled her nose at him. “You might at least engage to double our stake instead.”

  “As you wish.” He bowed to her and the girls. “But I must not take up your time. Your gentleman friend is waiting for you at your table.” Without waiting for her reply, he turned and spoke to the viscount, visibly excluding her from the group.

  The brief encounter left Folie feeling flushed and vitalized, as if the whole dull company had come alive. She pursed her lips and conducted Jane and Cynth away with what composure she could muster. What a damnably irksome man. He must wake up every morning and decide to assume a wholly new character, the more unpredictable and inconsistent the better.

  The only certain thing Folie could say was that he made something inside her come alive. Frustrated, puzzled, alarmed, enticed. Absurd. And utterly alive.

  Colonel Cox stood up, moving to intercept her with a bow and a hope for that second rubber of whist. Glancing over her shoulder, she beheld a very beautiful lady touch Robert Cambourne’s sleeve lightly with her fan.

  So there. Let a female of that caliber tangle with him. He was quite out of Folie’s class and always had been. She took the arm of her future, a thousand safe, practical, sheltered nights of whist. And wished violently that he had never put a pen to paper in India so many years ago, so that she might not have known the difference.

  Robert handed in his card at Lady Melbourne’s door. He had determined to make himself as conspicuous as possible. Play the fox to invisible hounds: he found no other way to proceed but to try to draw them into the open. He was done with living his life in hiding. He had called on every associate or connection he knew from India, few as they were in London. Nothing. Nothing but polite reminiscence and well-worn complaints about the Company, talk more inane than sinister.

  He began to doubt himself. A cold fear was always with him, that he had been mad after all, imagined the bloody apron, imagined Kathy or Mattie or whatever her name might be. But he plunged ahead with his intention, moving into the world of the gaming hells, betting sums that would
draw the attention of anyone—and did. He found himself welcome at the tables where Morier and his crowd laid fortunes on the green baize every night; invited into high society by the back door.

  It should have been no surprise, of course, to see Folly at Almack’s. When the viscount had announced that his dear mama insisted that he put in an appearance at the sedate assembly rooms, Robert had not thought of it. But there she was, seated with an attentive officer, no doubt a solid rock of trustworthiness, to judge by the size and substantial aspect of him.

  Robert had intentionally kept a distance between himself and Cambourne House. If he drew any danger, he did not want to draw it there. He would not have wished to pay any particular attention to her in public for the same reason—but to stand by and watch her courted by some sensible and sound military man was more than he cared to support in any case. To have her take him to task over his disreputable companions made him burn.

  He did not really expect Lady Melbourne to receive him without an introduction, but the porter returned and bowed him inside. Apparently the lady kept a lively salon, for the drawing room was full of company and several callers were just leaving as Robert was announced.

  The statuesque Lady Melbourne received him with an absent wave toward an open chair, without ceasing to talk to an elderly man whose hand she held tightly. They seemed to be in the midst of some intense policy discussion. Robert watched with interest—he had never before encountered one of London’s famed political hostesses.

  He remained standing as he waited, looking idly about the room. Everyone seemed engaged in his or her own pursuits—conversation with the other callers, or even simply reading. He glanced down at a Morning Post that had been discarded on the side table. Columns of society gossip, marriages and deaths, letters, announcements of new novels— his eye stopped on the word Hindustani. Curious, Robert picked up the paper.

  The distinguished Dr. Edward Varley, specialist in treatment of the headache, is favored by His Majesty the Prince Regent with a request for attendance. The translator of a number of significant reference works, Dr. Varley is an authority on the Arabic, Hindustani, and Egyptian medical science. We are informed that Dr. Varley has enjoyed considerable success in curing intractable headache in his patients, and comes to the Prince Regent with the high recommendation of several noblemen.

  Robert looked up from the paper as a younger man joined in Lady Melbourne’s talk, his voice rising audibly. There, too, the topic appeared to be the prince’s health.

  “Nay, he is beyond any sympathy!” the newcomer exclaimed. “I don’t know how you can summon the least degree of feeling, ma’am.”

  “Well, when you are old and fat, my dear, perhaps you will have just a little more understanding of how lowering such things can be,” Lady Melbourne said kindly.

  “Perhaps so, ma’am, but when the prince has experience of famine, and knows for himself the pain of a meager belly and the weariness of hauling coals from sunup until midnight, then I shall pity him his headaches!”

  “We shall not hold our breath until that happens,” she replied briskly. “But I am more taken with the Duke of Cambridge’s evil rumors. What can he be about, to spread this idea that his brother suffers from delusions like the old King? Cambridge is no radical, nor in line to be regent in the prince’s place.”

  “Pure hatred,” the older man said, while Robert’s attention drifted. He had little interest in either royalty or democracy. He examined a tapestry of a medieval hunting scene while the man’s voice droned on. “They have always been at one another’s throats. And what do you make of Cumberland’s sanity? After that incident with his valet.”

  “A strange pass.” Lady Melbourne nodded wisely.

  “Strange enough! Cumberland all cut up from being attacked in bed—so we are told! And the guilty valet then conveniently slices his own throat! What a pack of hounds, our princes.”

  “You cannot paint the poor regent in Cumberland’s colors, though.”

  “Nay, he is a fat, stupid lapdog, not a hound. It will be no more than a hangnail keeps Prinnie to his bed, mark my words.”

  “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” the rebellious young gentleman said ominously. “They say he starts screaming like a baby, crying that he will fly away if they take him outside.”

  The words caught Robert’s attention. He stood looking at the snarling face of a woven boar.

  “I cannot but pity the man,” Lady Melbourne said, “if he has inherited his father’s madness.”

  “But if it meant he could be removed from the regency!” the fire-eater said eagerly.

  “Hush!” She shook her head, lowering her voice. “You are speaking nonsense.”

  “Nay, I only meant by an act of God.” He sounded sour. “I can’t drive the man mad merely to depose him, should I never so much approve the good Lord’s sagacity if He happened to take a hand in the matter.”

  Robert stared at the tapestry, a strange idea crystallizing in his mind.

  “Hmmpf.” The white-haired gentleman grunted. “And who would replace him, I ask you? There’s not a one of the princes worth a farthing.”

  The young man smirked. “Who could say? Perhaps—’’

  “None of your foolish reforming gabble here, sir!” Lady Melbourne said sharply. “I am a Whig, not an anarchist.”

  He bowed, smiling. “You know I only tease you, my lady!”

  “Tease you may, but my drawing room is open; here is Mr. Cambourne of Calcutta, you see, all ears!” She turned to smile at Robert. “What a time I have, preventing these young men from casting themselves in jail with their fatuous talk. Go away now, Mr. Hunt. Enough of the Prince Regent. We shall have at the East India Company! Mr. Cambourne.”

  Robert obeyed her beckoning hand, bowing over her plump, bejeweled fingers. The incredible notion that had just come upon him made his brain spin. The other gentlemen withdrew, but he could hardly concentrate on what she was saying.

  “...back from India?”

  “I beg your pardon, ma’am?” he asked.

  “Dear boy, I asked you how long you are returned from India?”

  “Many months. Mrs. Charles Hamilton mentioned to me that you wished me to call.”

  “Yes. Shall we keep her or get rid of her?”

  “Madam?”

  “India! We seem to have collected an empire while we weren’t looking. What is to be done about renewing the charter?’’

  “I suppose that depends upon what your interest is, ma’am. If it is riches for England, then get rid of her; she is an expensive mistress, dearly bought and costly to keep. If it is fortunes for a few, then keep her—now and again she smiles on a particular man.”

  “But perhaps it is expedient to parade her on our arm, loaded with jewels, to impress Napoleon and the rest of Europe, and keep her from Russia’s embrace?”

  He shrugged. “You are talking to the wrong man, my lady. I am neither a soldier nor a diplomat. This sort of question has never absorbed me.”

  “Ah. Mrs. Hamilton warned me that you were not political.” She took a sip of a green liqueur. “But your observations are not empty, I think.”

  “I spent my time in study of the religion and philosophy of the place, mostly.”

  “I see. And what did you learn, besides the expense of conquest? Which is not an ill lesson to master, by the by. I think Napoleon may come to grief over it in the end.”

  Robert smiled. “My teachers would agree with you.

  “Your teachers?”

  “The religious men. The guuruus and saints. They have a way of making all the sound and fury of the world seem no more than wind blowing across a silent rock.”

  “As I grow older, I can begin to understand the wisdom of that,” she said. Then she shook her head and lifted her hand, taking in the roomful of callers. “Though as you see, I am an old warhorse to the core, and the sound of the trumpets still stir me.”

  “That is your karma,” he said.

  “An
d what might that mean?”

  “It is the sum of all action, all that you have done in this life and all others. Your future fate and destiny determined by your past.”

  “Well, it is my character, at any rate.” She tilted her head, studying him with the piercing dark eye of an inquisitive raven. “But this is a delightful notion—can we never escape our folly, then?’’

  “I don’t think we can,” he said slowly.

  “Perhaps it is wiser not to try.”

  “They would say...” He frowned, shaking his head. “Perhaps we can transcend our past folly; with the right mind, the right effort.”

  “They are more sanguine than our Greeks, then, who would have every man’s fate written in the stars, immutable, twist and turn to avoid it as he will.”

  “Yes.”

  “And what do you believe, Mr. Cambourne?”

  “I don’t know,” he said.

  She smiled. “You are honest.”

  “It’s not much to show for the years I spent.”

  She gave a snort. “I am surrounded by gentlemen who are very certain of all that they know. You are refreshing. Tell me more of what you learned from these guuruus. Can they work magic and charm snakes, as we hear?”

  “Yes,” he said.

  She laughed. “Ah, now you cozen me.”

  “You may call them parlor tricks, if you like.”

  She nodded skeptically. “It is not real magic?’’

  “My lady, that is another thing I cannot say for certain. I’ve seen things—and learned things—that are not to be explained by any reasonable means.”

  “No, I will not have it. Come back some other day and bamboozle me with parlor tricks. And bring the ferret lady with you. Dear Mrs. Hamilton.” She turned, the black plume on her cap bobbing as she beckoned to another visitor.

  Robert bowed at his dismissal. He walked to the door of the drawing room, still turning his blinding new idea over and over in his mind.

  It could not be true. Too crazy, to suppose that there was some likeness between his own mental state and the Prince Regent’s. The old king was insane, had suffered spells of dementia for decades—what would be more reasonable than that his son should have inherited the same natural affliction? What more absurd than to suppose it could be—might be—induced by the same means Robert’s mind had been deranged?

 

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