The regency romances, p.59
The Regency Romances, p.59Laura Kinsale
The only rational defense he could summon for such a suspicion was that there were far more people with obvious motivation to wish the Prince to appear insane than there were to make Robert seem so. Hardly a convincing justification.
He shook his head, standing on the pedestrian pavement outside Melbourne House. Robert’s frustration with his inability to do or learn anything was affecting his common sense. He could see plots and enemies everywhere—even in that young rebellious gentleman from Lady Melbourne’s drawing room who still lingered, leaning upon a lamppost across the street.
As Robert turned to walk along the pavement, the young man pushed upright and began to walk the same way. Robert took the length of the street at an easy pace. When he paused at the busy crossing, sweeping boys crowded up to him. He tossed a coin to one of them. Glancing up, he saw the young man pause. They looked directly at one another between the passing carriages and pedestrians.
The other man turned in the opposite direction and disappeared into the passing flow. And Robert thought he was either still insane or in grave danger of his life. He was not quite certain which he fancied.
Folie pulled the blue kashmir shawl about her, huddling over a steaming tisane in the drawing room at Cambourne House. Toot curled in her lap, tucked into a sapphire fold. She had dug the shawl out from the bottom of a trunk—on the few occasions when she felt a little ill, it was the only one she could bear to have about her—soft as goosedown; light and warm round her aching shoulders.
She was not concerned that her ailment would last more than a disagreeable evening. She was never sick or feverish. When all about her were lowered by the influenza, Folie had never succumbed to more than a few hours of the headache and shivers. Still, she would be glad to have it behind her.
There was at least one benefit—she was not obliged to attend the opera with Colonel Cox’s party. She had sent Melinda and the girls off with Lady Dingley, attended by a rather recalcitrant Lander, who seemed lately to take his duty as a guard dog as something more irrationally holy than ever. Faced with a division of his territory, he had been most disturbed, going so far as to suggest to Folie that the whole household should remain home. But Folie had dismissed that, dreading the prospect of Melinda’s attentive endeavors to nurse her. She liked to keep to herself when she felt indisposed; Melinda was well-meaning but unable to comprehend any disposition but her own, which fancied tender petting and constant care.
Sitting with her hot drink and Lord Byron’s scandalous new poem, Folie was happy enough. The tisane—or the poem—did her so much good that she was startled out of a nap by the knock at the drawing room door.
“Sir Howard Dingley has arrived, ma’am,” one of the footmen said apologetically. “He means to see Lady Dingley, he said. Shall I have him wait downstairs?”
“Oh!” Folie sat up, trying to gather her thoughts, dizzy from a dream of Childe Harold weeping while trying to find Toot amid the confusion of an Indian bazaar. “No. No, of course not. Ask him if he will come up and sit by the fire. I do not think he need worry about contagion.”
Folie straightened herself, tucking her hair back under her cap. Sir Howard entered, still in his hat and coat. He bowed, his cheeks very pink beneath the leathery skin. He took an extra step as he straightened—Folie realized that he was a little affected by strong drink.
She was not accustomed to dealing with gentlemen in their cups, but she invited him to sit down across the room, warning him with a smile that he would not wish to venture too close to her.
“I should not suppose any female would wish me to venture too close,” he said, sitting down heavily and tossing his hat to the floor.
Folie did not know quite what to make of that—her mind was none too sharp at the moment. She wished now that she had not bid him join her, but she had not been thinking clearly. “I am sorry that Lady Dingley and the girls are not at home. We had no idea to expect you tonight, I’m afraid.”
“No,” he said with a glum look. “Of course not.”
They sat for a long moment.
“Have you come direct from Dingley Court?” she asked. “Have you had supper?”
“No, I—” He stopped abruptly.
“Shall I ring for something? I’m sure there is a cold chicken.”
He shook his head. “Mrs. Hamilton—”
A thought swam into her dulled mind. Sir Howard standing in the street with a weeping girl. Folie pulled the shawl about her and sat up very straight.
“Mrs. Hamilton, I must confess something—”
“Please do not!” she said. “I’m sure you must be famished.” She stood up. Toot made a wild leap, disappearing underneath the sofa.
“No. I need nothing to eat.” He reached over and poured himself a glass from a decanter of brandy on the side table. Folie realized for the first time that the tray and single glass was set out there every night, though no one ever drank from it. She resumed her seat, folding her hands under the shawl.
He sat there staring into the crystal glass, half slumped in the chair, looking worn and sad.
“I hope all is well at home,” she said.
“Oh, aye, well enough.” He turned the glass in his hands. The firelight winked off the crystal. “Do you go out every night?”
“Oh, yes,” Folie said. “We are gay to dissipation, as Miss Jane puts it.”
He took a drink and stood up. “I suppose she is all in raptures, being here in London!” he said bitterly.
“Jane? Well, I suppose—”
“My wife!” He swung across the room, taking a stance before the fire. “My dear wife.”
“Oh. Yes, I...I would say that she enjoys it very much.”
He chuckled, glaring into the coals. “I would never bring her to town,” he said thickly. “How she has detested me for it.”
Folie was silent. If she had not seen him on the street corner, she might have felt some sympathy.
“She has no sense!” he muttered, almost to himself. “What, was I to bring her here and let her fall in love with some fine buck oozing polished manners? She is a fool for a fashionable dandy. She has no sense!”
“I beg your pardon,” Folie said, nettled. “But I don’t think that is at all true!”
He leaned on the mantel, looking at her over his shoulder. “No? Certainly she has told me often enough that I have no refinement. No elegance, no graces.” He made a mocking lilt with his fingers.
“I don’t think that signifies that she would fall in love with a man of fashion!”
“No? She warned me of it herself. That I could not trust her here.”
Folie shook her head, bewildered at this image of Lady Dingley, so at odds with what Folie knew of her. “I think I had better ring for another tisane.”
“To my face!” he said, as if Folie were arguing with him. “Not to trust her!”
She eyed him dubiously as he poured another brandy. “I cannot imagine that Lady Dingley said any such thing. I’m sure you misunderstood her. I’ve not had an opportunity to thank you for providing us with such excellent horses. We have ridden in the park several times.”
He shook his head with a dismissive gesture. “It’s nothing. My pleasure. Did she try the little long-tailed gray?”
“No...no, Lady Dingley does not ride with us.”
He made a disgruntled sound. “Of course not.”
“But the younger girls have ridden the gray,” she added. “They seem to like him very much.”
With a dejected shrug, he sat down again. “A beautiful animal,” he said. “I wish—I had meant—” He thrust his hands into his pockets. “But what the devil is the use?”
“Perhaps you might have stayed with us a day or two,” Folie murmured. “Lady Dingley seems to be a rather timid rider.”
“Ha.” He lifted his eyes from the floor. “She made it clear enough that I am not welcome.”
For an instant, their glances met and h
“You don’t understand,” he said in a harsh tone. “What is a man to do? You don’t know what it’s like.”
Folie said nothing. She braided the fringe of the shawl between her fingers.
“I do love her,” he said.
“Yes,” Folie murmured.
“She wants no more children.” He pushed himself out of the chair. “Who can blame her? But I—” He made an anguished sound. “Oh God, look what’s happened. Look what has happened. I never meant it this way.” Brandy sloshed out of the glass onto his fingers. He stared down at them.
Folie bit her lip. “Perhaps you have had a little too much to drink.”
“Not enough.” He closed his eyes with a pained laugh. “Not nearly enough.”
“Please have something to eat. You would not wish Lady Dingley and the girls to come home and discover you in this state.”
He looked intensely at Folie. “I believe she is dead,” he whispered.
“Dead?” Folie was beginning to become a little frightened of him.
“The girl. The one you saw.”
She gazed at him wordlessly.
“That was the first time I ever did it—I swear, the first time.” He swallowed the whole glass of brandy. “God.”
“You have not killed her!” Folie gasped.
“No! For God’s sake—” He blew air between his teeth. “I am not that much a monster. No, she was the first—my first—the first time—” He shook his head violently. “My God, I regret it. It was nothing, a passing moment. But I did not want Isabelle to find out. I couldn’t bear for her to know. And then the girl followed me to London—” He shut his eyes. “My God, I regret it, I regret it. When I looked up and saw you in that carriage!”
“Of course I have said nothing,” Folie murmured stiffly.
He looked at her, a strange, long stare. A strand of his graying hair fell across his forehead. “God forgive me,” he muttered.
“I don’t believe Lady Dingley saw you.”
He rubbed his hand across his face. “I don’t know what to do.”
Folie’s head was aching. She pulled the shawl tight about her. These visitations by irrational gentlemen were wearing. “I am afraid I cannot advise you,” she said. “Beyond suggesting that some cold meat and coffee might make things seem brighter. A little snack will often do so.”
“No.” Suddenly he reached down and collected his hat. “I was a fool to come here. A great, stupid, criminal fool. I must go.”
Before Folie could gather herself to rise, he had walked to the door. “Wait,” she said. “Where are you staying? If Lady Dingley should wish to communicate with you?”
“I cannot imagine that she will,” he said caustically. “But I am at Limmer’s Hotel.” He opened the door and was gone.
Folie’s head was pounding when Lady Dingley tiptoed into her bedchamber.
“Mrs. Hamilton,” she whispered. “Are you awake?”
Folie sat wearily up among the pillows. “Yes.” She had been unable to sleep for the pain in her head and Sir Howard’s strange visit going round and round in her mind. “How was the music?”
“Oh, it was delightful.” Lady Dingley came and sat on the edge of the bed, shielding her candle. She was still dressed in her opera finery, a pale cream ostrich feather curling down beside her cheek and a single diamond glittering at her throat.
“You look very pretty,” Folie said, sitting up a little.
“Thank you. How are you?”
“I will survive,” Folie said.
“The servants tell me that Sir Howard was here.” Lady Dingley’s voice was low, but Folie thought there was a note of eagerness in it.
“Yes. But he was—very weary from his journey, and decided not to wait. I’m sure he will be back in the morning.”
Lady Dingley sighed. “Did you tell him that he might stay here?’’
“Well,” Folie said. “To be quite honest—he did not seem to think he would be welcome.”
“Oh no, oh no,” Lady Dingley moaned. “How could he think so? I so wanted him to come!”
Folie lay back on her pillow. “I need a cold compress.”
“Oh—” Lady Dingley half rose. “Let me ring.”
“No...no. I was only funning.” Folie smiled a little. “Dear me. I’m afraid that you and Sir Howard are not quite comprehending one another.”
Lady Dingley looked contritely down at her lap. “I should not bother you; you do not feel well.”
“I’m in no case to be a very good go-between,” Folie said. “He is at Limmer’s Hotel—perhaps you will write him a note in the morning and ask him to remove here.”
Her face flushed hot. “I could not!”
“No?” Folie echoed helplessly.
“I have never—it would seem as if—’’ She put her hand to her cheek. “As if I wanted him to stay!”
“I thought you did!”
“Yes, but—it would be so...immodest! To ask him!”
Folie made a faint groan. “I suppose it would not be immodest if I were to do it for you.”
“Would you?” Lady Dingley grasped her hand. “Mrs. Hamilton, you are so good at these things. You can make him understand.”
“I don’t know that I speak English any better than anyone else,” Folie said, feeling like pulling the covers over her head.
“Mrs. Hamilton...” It was just Melinda’s tone of voice, that soft plea.
Folie sighed. “Yes, yes, yes. In the morning. I will write a note.”
“Oh, you are a peach!” She hopped up from the bed like one of her teenaged daughters. “I hope you are feeling better very soon.”
No doubt, Folie thought, turning over and pulling the coverlet up to her throat. The light from Lady Dingley’s candle vanished as she pulled the door shut softly. Toot kissed Folie’s nose and curled up next to her pillow.
“Do you suppose you will be up to Vauxhall Gardens?” Melinda asked anxiously at breakfast.
Folie sipped her steaming chocolate. “Yes, I feel much better. And nothing would persuade me to miss the fireworks!”
“You must stay inside all day,” Melinda said. “Just to make certain you are perfectly recovered.”
“I vow I shall do nothing but coddle myself.”
“Perhaps you will write letters,” Lady Dingley said.
Folie smiled wryly. “Yes, certainly I shall. The Misses Nunney must be wondering what has become of us!”
“I have not forgot!” Folie said. “Or perhaps you would prefer to dictate?”
“Oh, no!” Lady Dingley made flustered gestures with a slice of toast. “No, no, I have complete faith in you.”
“Of course!” Miss Jane exclaimed. “She got us an introduction to Lord Morier.”
“And she got us this house!” Cynth added.
“And a ferret!” one of the younger girls cried.
“Mama can do anything,’’ Melinda said proudly.
“Yes, I am serving the moon on a silver platter for supper tonight. What will you have for dessert?”
“An elephant!” the youngest shrieked, laughing.
“You must apply to Mr. Cambourne for an elephant,” Folie said. “I believe he has several in his stables. As to the rest—” She made an elaborate bow in her chair. “Your wish is my command.”
But later, as she sat at her desk overlooking the back garden, the blue shawl still pulled close about her shoulders, she found herself at a complete loss in delivering Sir Howard to Lady Dingley. She had tried several times to explain his wife’s modesty to him, but it all appeared so ridiculous when she attempted to write it down, and she felt like such an inexcusable meddler, that she finally decided that such things could only be said in person—if at all.
At last, all she wrote was, We have a box reserved this ev
She folded it, sealed it with a Cambourne House wafer, and went to summon a footman.
Robert looked up from the newspaper at a knock on his door. For the past several days, he had been poring over every periodical in London, looking for any mention of the Prince Regent’s condition. There were several; he had marked and saved them.
The prince was certainly incapacitated—he had not appeared lately anywhere in public. The reasons given ranged from “the Prince is presently engaged with religion, and reads daily a chapter or two of the Bible with Lady Hertford,” in the Tory papers, to a scathing description in the progressive Examiner that accused the regent of being a libertine, a despiser of domestic ties, a gambler, in debt, and—worse—corpulent. Everything but mad.
“Who is it?” he called through the door, running his finger down the columns.
“Boots, sir,” a boy’s voice piped. “Message for you.”
Robert had taken care to recognize the hotel servants. He knew this one, and opened the door, digging for a shilling. The envelope was blank outside, gummed shut. “Who brought this?” he asked, handing the boy a shilling.
“Dunno, sir. Porter give it me.”
Robert closed the door, sat down again and opened the packet. The letter inside was sealed; he instantly recognized his own crest on the wafer.
The handwriting sent an electric surge through his veins.
We have a box reserved this evening for the fireworks at Vauxhall. Number 23 in the Grove, at seven. If you can come there, we will speak in private to your advantage, I believe. F. H.
He pulled his watch from his waistcoat. It was already quarter past six. How she had known where to find him, he had no notion, but the very idea that she had gone to the trouble to discover it made his heart lift in the most absurd way. He had not hidden his new whereabouts: one of the best suites at the elegant Clarendon. Perhaps she had asked Morier, or Lander had tracked Robert down for her.
The Regency Romances by Laura Kinsale / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes