The regency romances, p.60
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       The Regency Romances, p.60

           Laura Kinsale
 

  He touched the familiar double period at the end of the second sentence, and held the note up to his face, taking a deep breath. Patchouli. He smiled fiercely.

  She might have decided to believe him. She might.

  Folie shivered, sitting in the supper box. They had taken a boat across the Thames to Vauxhall, joining a pretty procession of little vessels just at sunset, with a spring breeze rippling the water. But the breeze had turned chilly as the sun went down, and though she delighted in the festoons of lanterns and the music, she was glad she had brought the kashmir shawl. The gardens were much larger than she had expected, crowded with people strolling and admiring the lights, parties large and small. She hoped that Sir Howard would be able to locate them. She had written the note with no very clear idea of the nature of the place.

  She also had no very clear idea of what she was going to say to him, or how she would arrange any privacy, either. She was not overly enraptured with her role as mediator. But Lady Dingley kept glancing at her expectantly, as if somehow Folie might produce Sir Howard out of thin air.

  Melinda suggested that they take a turn around the Grove, the area enclosed by the long colonnades. Folie hesitated, but Lander gave her such a frown that she relented and joined Melinda and the girls under his protection. Lady Dingley said she would stay with their maid to hold the box. Folie brightened at that. She hoped that Sir Howard would just stroll up and speak to his wife, and they could settle it all between themselves.

  Amid the brilliant lights and the promenading crowds, it was easy to lose track of her own party. Lander, she could see, was almost beside himself when any of them lingered or wandered out of the main path. She smiled encouragingly at him—as annoying as he could make himself with his mother-hen worries, it was rather charming of him. At least Folie did not have to do the shepherding. She could relax and enjoy the scene.

  It was truly lovely, like nothing she had ever seen before. From the rotunda, outlined in lights, the lilting strains of Handel filled the air with joyful sound. Melinda’s face lit with an ecstatic smile. She stopped. When Lander put a gentle hand on her elbow to urge her to keep up with the party, she turned to him, lifted her arms and twirled him about in a light dance step, smiling up with such an enchanting expression that Folie saw him dazzled for an instant, before his face turned to stone and he stepped back with a servant’s stiff bow. Melinda just laughed at him and curtsied, drifting ahead, dancing alone. It was all so beautiful and dream-like that Folie did nothing to discourage her, only made a note that she ought to remind her stepdaughter not to be thoughtless with the servants, Lander in particular, who had stood as their good friend so often.

  Robert walked down the long row of boxes under the colonnade, reading numbers. He was not certain how he could signal Folie privately in this crowd, so he held back, trying to locate her before any of the rest of the party saw him. But when he finally came upon Box 23, only Lady Dingley and a maid sat inside it.

  Robert paused, moving back until he became part of the throng gathered before the orchestra. He was partly concealed by the trees and the curved and ornamented flank of the orchestra’s rotunda, but from there the sparkle of lights and harsh shadows beneath the colonnade made detail difficult to see.

  He drifted toward the darker part of the garden, reckoning that he might observe better from outside the central colonnades. Once, he thought he caught a glimpse of Melinda, but if he had, she was swallowed up in the slow stirring crowd before he could be sure.

  The place was certainly not a good choice for a private meeting—at least for anyone but clandestine lovers, who could take full advantage of the maze of dark garden walks beyond the blaze of illumination. Robert took up a post beneath an unlit tree, where he could just see the box through the entrance to the colonnade. But the people passing in and out blocked his line of sight except for momentary views. He crossed his arms and sighed.

  Folie looked at Lady Dingley when they returned to the box, but there was no sign of particular pleasure on her face, or any evidence of Sir Howard. Their supper was laid out. The crowd began to settle into their places for the fireworks.

  She had hoped that he would make an appearance early, so that she might get the thing over with and enjoy herself. But perhaps he would not come at all. Perhaps he was too cowardly after all even to speak to Folie.

  The walk had warmed her a little, but her fingers were stiff and chilly as she ate. Almost before they had finished the delicate pies and puddings, the music was reaching a crescendo.

  A crack of sound made them all jump in their chairs. With a great sigh of awe from the audience, a rocket flew upward from the trees, trailing gold and bursting in the air, scattering a shower of blue sparks. It was followed by a cloud of squibs and corkscrew serpents, crackling glitter across the sky over their heads. Folie forgot all about her cold hands and Sir Howard, sitting back with her mouth open while the garden and the heavens turned to colored lightning and fire.

  Robert watched them in the box, debating whether he should wait until the fireworks were over or try to approach her under cover of all the sound and brilliance. He could see her entranced face, lit by the blaze of a spinning and fizzing Catherine wheel. The crowd moaned its approval as another pyrotechnic lit the sky with red and blue and green. Robert pushed away from the tree.

  Something icy cold touched the back of his neck. He froze, feeling hands grab his arms from behind.

  “Come or die here,” someone hissed close to his ear. “A gunshot will never be heard.”

  The truth of it was already burning in his brain. Robert stared for an instant at the box, at Folie and Melinda and Lander, illuminated and shadowed by the bursts of fireworks. The gun pressed hard into his neck.

  Robert nodded silently. He let his unseen captor pull him backward into the black garden.

  “Well, that was quite stirring!” Folie exclaimed in satisfaction. The gardens smelled of acrid powder, multicolored smoke drifting through the trees. “I’ve never seen anything like!”

  The music had resumed, sounding peculiarly muted after the noise and fury of the fireworks. People in the boxes began to gather their belongings.

  “Oh, I wish it had never ended!” Melinda said. “That was better than a ball!”

  The girls gushed and giggled while they collected shawls and reticules. When everything had been accounted for, they stepped out of the box, joining the flow of people headed for the river landing.

  “I hope we can obtain a boat!” Lady Dingley said fretfully.

  “Oh, Lander will see to it,” Melinda said. “Mama, do you want my shawl, too? The water breeze is quite cool!”

  Folie denied that she needed anything more than her blue kashmir. As they stood waiting with the growing knot of people on the landing, Lander made his way to the front to negotiate a passage. Folie turned back for one last look up at the gleaming garden lights.

  Silhouetted figures moved against them, most walking toward the quay, others seeming to dart this way and that in the tricky light. She squinted, then looked closer at a man striding across the path.

  Sir Howard! She had completely forgotten him. And obviously he was searching for them; he had that determined hunting pace, looking about him as he went.

  “I’ll be back in just a moment,” she said, touching Melinda’s arm. “Hold the boat for me!”

  Tucking her shawl about her, Folie hurried up the slope, leaving Melinda’s puzzled protest behind. She caught a glimpse of Sir Howard’s hat, and then lost him. Annoying man! Folie was of half a mind to leave him to his own devices. Why hadn’t he come sooner, to their box? At least shown himself to Folie, if he would not approach Lady Dingley.

  Folie paused at the entrance to the colonnade. She thought that she had lost him, but then saw him walk briskly through the opposite entrance. She lifted her skirt and ran after, calling.

  He disappeared beyond the light. Folie dodged people walking toward her, determined by now to drag him back to Lady Dingley b
y main force if necessary. It was completely nonsensical, she thought, that two people who appeared to love one another deeply should entangle themselves in such a debacle that they required an interpreter between them.

  Just past the colonnade, she saw him walking up one of the shrub-lined garden alleys. Folie increased her pace. She started to call out again, but people were looking at her oddly as she hastened past, so she remained silent, her slippers patting the ground softly.

  Folie had almost caught up when he turned onto a side path. She stopped abruptly, thinking that that was rather odd. Surely he could not expect to find them there, so far into the unlit garden. A cold doubt came over her—perhaps he was here for some furtive assignation with his housemaid.

  She stepped into the shadowy path, leaning forward a little. If she saw him with a female, that would be sufficient—she washed her hands of the whole sordid intrigue.

  As her eyes adjusted, she heard his voice, pitched low and urgent, from just beyond the shrubbery. “What the devil do you mean by this?’’

  Another voice answered, a man’s. “Damn your eyes, Dingley! Why’d you come back here?”

  “Never mind that!” Sir Howard said strongly. “What have you done to him?”

  Folie shivered, pulling the shawl close. This was surely nothing she wanted to be involved in. She started to back away.

  “That’s Cambourne!” Sir Howard exclaimed, his voice low but clearly audible. “Oh my God, my God—if you’ve murdered him—’’

  Folie stopped. Her heart seemed to congeal in her chest.

  Suddenly Sir Howard came plunging onto the path from the shadows. He saw Folie, pulled up short, and then without a word grabbed her elbow and turned her. She felt him jerk her with him just as another firework exploded right inside her head—bright, violent pain and sparkling blackness.

  FOURTEEN

  Robert held her head in his lap. Somewhere deep inside him was terror—that she was dying in his arms—but it seemed far away, overlaid by a strange calm. All over her hair and ear was blood; he left it, not attempting to use any of the filthy water and rags the guard had left.

  His mind seemed uncannily clear, now that the thing he had feared was happening. He was on a ship, chained by one ankle and wrist to a bulkhead. One of the prison hulks moored in the Thames, he guessed. They appeared to be in a former dining cuddy of the dismantled ship. There was a table bolted to the deck. Beneath its scratched and warped surface he could see Sir Howard chained to the opposite wall. The man’s eyes were red-rimmed; his hair straggling down over his forehead. He stared straight ahead, never looking toward Robert and Folie.

  Robert had never seen who had brought them here. Only voices, the gun in his back, and a blindfold and gag so tight that he had kept losing consciousness. By the time he had regained his wits sometime in the night, the gag had been replaced by chains, and his coat and boots were gone. He had thought he was imprisoned alone. Only at dawn, when a dim green light leaked through the porthole, did he realize with horror that Folie was lying in an inert heap at his feet.

  He had struggled up, leaning over her, breathing dread deep into his lungs. She was dead; he had been certain. Her skin was chalk white, the blood like a black mat across her temple and cheeks, scattered over her gown. The blue kashmir shawl she had worn at Vauxhall was missing.

  But bending over, he could feel her breath. He felt an irregular pulse. As he had tried to ease her into a less twisted position, the door had opened and a red-coated guard ducked into the cabin.

  “Raikes?” he demanded, dropping the pail of water and the foul rags on the deck beside Robert. “William Raikes? She dead yet?”

  Robert looked up into his ugly face. “She’s not,” he said.

  The guard squatted down beside her. “Pretty gal,” he said, not unkindly. “Tried to escape off the quay, I hear.”

  He did not answer. When the guard moved to touch her, Robert put out his hand and blocked it fiercely.

  “Well, it’s too bad. It’s too bad—but better for her if she passes on now,” the guard said.

  Robert made a sound deep in his throat. The man glanced at him. He shook his grizzled head. “Nay, put your mind to it, man. Take my word. You don’t want her to suffer what’s coming.’’

  “What’s coming?”

  The guard shrugged and stood. “Fortnight, maybe, or a year down in the belly of this hulk picking oakum and gathering ballast, only God can say. Depends on the wind. Ten months under decks to Botany Bay, if you make it that far. I always reckoned transport better’ n hanging, until I sailed guard on board one of them convict ships. You think the stench bad here—open the hatch after six months out on one o’ them things. For a man, it may do, but a woman—aye, and one like your poor wife here, scent of quality on her—you let ‘er go now, or see her made a whore down there while you watch, and then die o’ putrid fever.”

  Robert stared at him. “Who brought us here?’’

  “Newgate warden, I reckon. I weren’t aboard when you come. There’s a chamberpot—you’ll have a biscuit later, visit with the prison master ‘fore you’re sent below. Do you want to request the surgeon, Raikes?’’

  Robert could only look down at Folie’s limp hands, benumbed.

  “Oh, a good man, our surgeon.” He chuckled. “He’ll kill her for certain.”

  “Keep him out of here,” Robert said.

  She dreamed of drowning and pyrotechnics. And Robert Cambourne’s voice. She could not be sure if it was the real Robert, her own Robert. She had no way to tell. She did not know his voice. Everything about him was fading, lost to her, lost forever, supplanted inexorably by this dark man who spoke to her in such a soft, bleak voice.

  “Robert?’’ she whispered, attempting to touch the throbbing pain in her head.

  “I’m here,” he said, but everything was black. She could hear water, smell sour river-smell and sewage, hear stranger’s voices with a bizarre hollow echo about them.

  “Where?’’ Her voice squeaked. She reached toward the sound of his voice, but her wrists felt so heavy that she could not lift them.

  There was a sound of metal. A firm hand gripped hers. “Here. Right here.’’

  She felt him lean close, felt his breath on her face. She realized that she was lying on a hard floor. “I can’t see you,” she whimpered.

  “You can’t?” His voice was very gentle. “Right here. It’s rather dark. You’ll see me in a moment.”

  Folie waited, squinting hard. Her head hurt terribly. She tried to quell the panic rising in her. “I can’t see you. Can you see me?”

  He did not answer. Folie dug her fingers into his hand.

  “Can you see me?” she repeated. “Where are we?”

  “Folly.” He spoke in a serious voice. “Don’t try to move. Just listen. We’re in one of the prison hulks.”

  “What?” She started to sit up, but pain flashed in her head and he put his hand against her shoulder. The metallic sound came again, and something heavy slid across her breast.

  “Don’t move. You’ve been badly hurt; hit in the head. Just listen.” He touched her face and gently turned her head to one side. “Do you see the porthole there?”

  “No.”

  He was silent.

  “Should I see it?” she asked frantically. “Can you see it?”

  “Be calm. My brave Folly. Yes, I can see it.”

  Folie began to pant. “What’s happened? What’s happening?”

  “Close your eyes.” She felt his fingers over her eyelids, a soft rhythmic stroke, first one side and then the other.

  “What is it?” she whispered, holding tight to his hand in the blackness.

  He said nothing in reply. Folie bit her lip and held his hand very tightly. She could hear men talking, but it was all muffled, as if they were isolated behind thick walls.

  He touched her face. “We are a Mr. and Mrs. Raikes, it seems—convicts. We are sentenced to be held on this hulk ship until transported to Botany B
ay.”

  “Dear God.” She felt a strong wave of nausea rise in her throat. “Oh, I am going to be ill.”

  “Turn over—” He supported her as she leaned on her elbow, dry heaves racking her body. Spikes of lightning went through her head with each spasm.

  She moaned, opening her eyes. Briefly, she saw moldy straw under her hand, the floor tilting like a nightmare, and then everything went black again.

  Robert sat silently, watching Sir Howard. Still the man had not spoken, and Robert said nothing to him. When a boy brought a biscuit and small ale, Sir Howard flicked the dry bread contemptuously onto the floor.

  He looked up, meeting Robert’s eyes, and then away again.

  “I don’t know how you and she were entangled in this,” Robert said.

  Sir Howard did not appear inclined toward explanations. He merely stared straight ahead at the deck between his bare feet.

  “I’m sorry for it,” Robert said.

  Sir Howard closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wood. His face was set in an angry sneer. Robert sat still, trying to put together what had happened at Vauxhall. He did not think Folie had received that wound while sitting in her box in the middle of the brilliantly-lit colonnades. He could not fathom Dingley’s presence.

  “Why was she not with Lander?” he asked Sir Howard. “I sent him to guard her.”

  But the man just shot him a scathing glare. Another suspicion began to congeal in Robert’s mind: the gardens of Vauxhall were notorious for lovers’ assignations.

 
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