The regency romances, p.62
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       The Regency Romances, p.62

           Laura Kinsale
 

  A golden guinea lay in his hand. Both Folie and the superintendent drew breath in sharply.

  “This is what will kill you,” Robert said. “This is how you are deceived.”

  “What do you mean?” the man exclaimed, staring at the coin. Even Folie could not conceive of how Robert had produced it.

  “You know what I mean,” Robert said. “You, better than any. The money will murder you.”

  “Nonsense!” the superintendent cried. “This is trickery.”

  “Here, then.” Robert held out the coin. “Take it.”

  The man thrust out his hand. He grabbed the guinea, as if in defiance. Robert looked down at the man’s closed hand with a smile that seemed demonic.

  “Hold it tight,” he said pleasantly. “Hold it as long as you can!”

  The superintendent shook his head. He stared at his fist. Then he began to breathe faster.

  “Hold it hard,” Robert said. “Don’t let go.”

  The man whimpered. His hand trembled. While Folie watched, he hissed air through his teeth.

  “It is your money. Don’t let it get away,” Robert said.

  The superintendent gave a choked cry and flung the coin from him. It hit the floor, flashing gold in the lantern light. He examined his palm, holding it up to his face, blowing on it as if he had burned his skin.

  “Now do you understand?” Robert asked.

  “I’m dying,” he whispered in a horrified voice. “I’m dying—because I took their money to imprison you.”

  “I want to help you,” Robert said softly. “Let me help you save yourself.”

  “What must I do?”

  “Tell me the names of the ones who did this to you.”

  The superintendent swallowed. “I don’t know their names! I swear I do not!”

  “Who brought you the money? Who did this to you?”

  “He gave no name. I never ask.”

  “Of course you do not. But they mean to snare you. This time it’s an entrapment. The men above you—they have never understood you or esteemed you. They mean to catch you out in corruption, with your hands red, and the gallows for you.”

  The man’s eyes widened. “By God!” he whispered. “By God!”

  Robert said no more. Folie waited, hardly daring to breathe. The river lapped gently against the hull, the only sound in the depth of the night.

  “I want you gone from here!” the superintendent exclaimed in a low voice. “Tonight.”

  Robert shook his head. “I don’t know how it’s to be done.”

  “Ha. I’ll do it. Good God, those blackguarding bastards! Catch me out, will they? As if they ain’t the prettiest bribe-mongers on earth themselves!”

  “It is always so, is it not?” Robert said.

  “By God, I swear that it is. You wait quietly now. Be ready—I’ll return directly.”

  Robert rested back against the door of the cell, his head turned to hear through the barred window. He said nothing to Folie. But she could not seem to look away from him. In the first faint light, his unshaven face was menacing, his eyes half-shut in a still concentration, as if he listened to the heartbeat of the ship itself.

  She might have been seeing him for the first time. Through the light-headed ache in her head, he seemed extraordinary.

  “I think you are a bit more than a natural pickpocket!” she whispered.

  He shook his head slightly, without opening his eyes. Folie understood that she was not to disturb him. She eased her head back, allowing herself to sink into the bewildered weakness that spun in her brain. Robert was there, awake. She felt a mysterious faith in him, a trust that seemed perfectly familiar, as if it had been in her all along, hidden beneath the confusion and doubt.

  He had confounded himself. Though he had seen Srí Ramanu lead many a skeptic on a merry dance, Robert had never supposed that he could do the same. But he had found easy game in the superintendent, he thought. Some people were primed and ready to believe, even though they would deny it vigorously to themselves and others. Robert had made a fortunate hit in his first attempt.

  But at any moment, the man might reconsider. Away from Robert’s voice and persuasive questions, from the subtle means of influence Srí Ramanu had taught him—the superintendent was liable to wake to a different notion. A true yogi like the Hindu priest might have real powers beyond the physical; Robert had never been quite certain of that, but he was utterly sure that he himself had nothing of the kind.

  Still, he could not afford to allow misgiving to beset him. The delicate communication; the posture; the open gaze, sweet and forceful at once; all the elusive aspects of this deceit—they required a pure and perfect conviction.

  Strangely, Robert had no real doubt that he could influence the man. His incredulous thoughts seemed to exist on some plane outside the present, ideas to be considered later perhaps, irrelevant to the moment. He had triggered deep fears in the superintendent, ancient fears of conspiracy and death and illness, of persecution from above. Powerful forces. He had only to wait for them to do their work.

  So he hoped.

  Folie jerked awake out of a half-dazed dream. Robert’s hand was on her arm. She looked up into his eyes, those gray wolf eyes, light and haunting, and waited mutely for him to tell her what to do.

  He thrust a pile of clothing into her lap—a heavy red coat, a shirt, and breeches. The early morning light was stronger now, the creaking of the hulk punctuated by the cries of shore birds. He had shaved, or at least scraped his beard down to a dusky shade, and his manacles were off, heaped in a corner. She could smell something cooking, but even in her famished state she could not call it appetizing.

  Robert turned away, leaning down to buckle a pair of black gaiters over the same sort of pale breeches Folie held in her lap. She stood up and reached behind herself, attempting to find her buttons. The pretty yellow dress she had worn to Vauxhall was ruined beyond repair, but the laces and buttons, sewn so carefully by Folie and Melinda through a long winter of anticipation, did not give way easily. She had never expected to be undressing without Sally’s help. Merely lifting her arms so high made her head pound.

  She made an involuntary sound of distress. Robert turned around. Without hesitation, he moved to assist her, opening the buttons and pulling the laces on her stays free. She felt cold air on her back. Modesty seemed a foolish aside at the moment, and yet she grew flustered, making ineffectual attempts to help. All she did was manage to tangle her fingers with his.

  He pushed them away impatiently. The next thing she knew, he was tugging her gown upwards, pulling it over her head. Her loosened corset fell to the floor. Folie stood in her shift, shivering from cold and nerves and embarrassment. But if Robert noticed her nakedness, he made no indication; he swept up the shirt and put it over her head as if she were a toddling child. Folie had the presence of mind to pull the straps of the shift down beneath it before she put her hands through the sleeves.

  The shirt came down to her knees. She sat down on the cot, wriggling into the breeches. They felt strange and rough against her bare legs, but she tucked the shirt tails inside and buttoned up the front panel. Robert was waiting with the red coat. It weighed her down, the heavy material and facings far thicker than anything she was accustomed to. He picked up a pair of white leather straps and crisscrossed them over her shoulders and breasts. A silver plate clipped them together in the center. Feeling like a harnessed pony, Folie waited while he knelt and buckled on her sword and gaiters, which wanted to fall down around her calves.

  He held a pair of black shoes next to her foot, shook his head, and left her with her evening slippers.

  He rose. They both had black hats, oddly fashionable, with deep curly brims and huge plumes. Folie pulled her hair up, tucking it high as well as she could, and settled the military hat gingerly on her head. Her hair filled it out, but it balanced precariously, top-heavy. When she was done, she turned to Robert.

  His mouth twisted with amusement. Folie squared
her shoulders and lifted her chin in what she imagined must be a more military air. The hat fell off backwards.

  Robert shook his head again. As Folie stuffed her hair back under the hat, wincing, someone tapped at the door. She froze. After a breathless moment, she heard a faint scrape. A key slid quietly beneath the door.

  Robert picked it up. He cast a sidelong look at Folie, his eyes traveling up her breech-clad legs, his face sinister in the shadowy light. Then he winked, blew her a kiss, and put the key in the lock. Folie’s heart was thumping. All her skin felt pink.

  He supposed that the superintendent, convinced that Robert knew his thoughts, reckoned it unnecessary to communicate the plan in actual words. The uniforms had been pushed through the window in the cell door and the key provided with no further instructions.

  Robert wasted no time in idle speculation. It was getting toward full light; the denizens of the hulk were stirring— a thump of feet on the decks, the occasional shrill sound of women arguing. Folie made a ridiculous excuse for a soldier, but at least the blood on the side of her face and her blackened eyes distracted from her feminine countenance. He thought she might just pass for an adolescent who had recently experienced the worst brawl of his young life.

  She kept trying to hold her head up under the hat, fingering the sword and scowling with her chin thrust out. He suddenly realized that she was attempting to appear manly.

  Robert felt a rush of love and fear for her. He wanted to pull her into his arms and hold her safe; to kill dragons; to sprout wings; to vanish from this place in a magical puff of smoke.

  But he faced instead a narrow passage and a monumental bluff. He pushed open the door and stepped out, closing and locking it behind Folie. She put her hand on his arm and leaned close to his ear.

  “Sir Howard!” she whispered.

  Robert groaned inwardly. He had meant to make straight for the upper deck, in hopes that the superintendent expected that. Dingley could hang, for all Robert cared. But her fingers pressed into his arm, and their urgency sent a spike of envy through him.

  He nodded, pushing off her hand. He had no idea where Dingley was being held. At the end of this passage was a companionway that led upward—to what, Robert did not know. The other way was a dead end.

  There was nothing for it but to go. He motioned Folie to come behind, and headed for the stairs.

  At the foot of them, he looked up. They led onto the open deck, a thickly befogged morning, where ghostly figures moved back and forth in purposeful activity. Robert assumed an equally decisive demeanor, climbing the stairs without wavering.

  At the top, he reached out and stopped the first figure that passed, an aproned scullion carrying an empty tub. “Where the devil is the solitary confinement?”

  The boy looked startled. “Sir?”

  “I’m to transfer a prisoner from solitary—” Robert flicked his key up between his thumb and forefinger. “Can’t find the bloody solitary cell in this hellhole! It’s not down there where they told me.”

  The boy gave him a queer look. “I’m sorry, sir. Wait here and I’ll show ye.”

  Robert nodded. He had no choice now but to stand still, in the open, while the boy vanished in the soupy fog. He could see the cookhouse, dripping dew from the eaves, and a dark bulk in front of him that he guessed was the poop and the official quarters.

  A great thudding of feet and drag of chains came through the mist, and then a line of men loomed into view, marching sullenly. There was a guard at their head, and another at the end of the line, swinging bludgeons casually from their hands. They stared at Robert as they passed, the same distrustful look that the scullion had given him, as if he were an unwelcome conundrum that had appeared out of the fog. He could feel Folie edge behind him.

  Robert merely looked back at them soberly. He lifted his hand in a casual salute.

  After a pause, the rear guard saluted back. The line of prisoners trudged ahead, lining up outside the cookhouse, each one holding his tin mug. The same scullion reappeared, moving down the line with his tub, ladling some ugly-looking liquid into the mugs. The men downed it eagerly.

  Robert and Folie were near the head of the line. After finishing his breakfast, an unshaven prisoner grinned at them. “Belted in some rough ‘n tumble, eh, boy?”

  The head guard cuffed him lightly. “Respect your betters!”

  “Betters!” The prisoner chuckled unrepentantly, showing yellow teeth. “What, that little shaver?”

  Robert heard a faint growl. He turned to see Folie lift her lip and snarl. She sounded about as ferocious as an angry kitten.

  The whole line of prisoners began to laugh. Robert judged it wise to join in with a smirk, though he could see that Folie was turning red as fire under the bruising. She held herself stiffly, glaring at her tormentors.

  The guard put his truncheon hard against the prisoner’s chest. “Any honest man is your better, Norris. Better make your amends.”

  “Oh, sar!” Norris said in a high-pitched voice, as he feigned a curtsy. “Oh, sar, I do be so sorry to offend ye! But you look pretty as a girl, can I help it?”

  Robert saw her eyes widen. Before she could speak or do anything more foolish, he raised his voice. “Come, I’ve not got all day to be amused by a lot of jailbirds—where’s this fellow Hurst kept?”

  “Hurst?” the head guard asked.

  “He’s lookin’ for the solitary cell,” the scullion muttered. “I was going to show him.”

  “Well, show ‘im, for the love of God,” the guard said. “The man’s got a duty.”

  “Lemme finish. Do you want me to do me own job or not?” the boy asked nastily, pitching the dregs from his tub into a cask on the deck.

  “Make some haste then, saucebox,” the guard said. He poked the first prisoner in line. “Off with you, too. Look alive!”

  As the convicts shuffled and clattered past them, the scullion wiped his hands on his apron. “Come on, this a’way.”

  Robert followed him, not a difficult task, as the boy’s idea of haste was a listless saunter, plucking at the hanging rings of steel on the bulkheads and swiping his hand along the wet railing as he went. Robert thought his nose had grown accustomed to the smell, but as they descended into a stairwell, and then went down to another, deeper deck, the stench of closely confined humanity grew appalling.

  The solitary cells were in the very bilge itself, it seemed. On a dark open deck, full of convicts chained in long rows to the floor, the scullion stopped at last, leaning down to grab a hatch door. Robert leaned over and helped him heave it open. The mixed odor of sewage, putrid water, and rotting wood that drifted up was overpowering. The scullion grinned and motioned for Robert to go ahead.

  He felt Folie’s hand tug at the back of his coat. When he looked back, she was holding her hand over her mouth and nose, shaking her head.

  He was afraid she would swoon. “Stay here with the boy,” he said with a grimace. Though it was she who wanted to save Dingley’s hide, he thought cynically.

  Robert took a breath of fetid air and climbed down into the hole. Rats scurried away from the dim square of light that illuminated the ribbed floor of the bilge. He had to stand for a moment to let his eyes adjust. Gradually he could make out planks laid across the hulk’s ancient ribs, over the dank water pooling in the bilge, and three wooden boxes the size of shipping crates.

  He felt a sick amazement as he realized that these were the solitary cells. Solitary rat traps, more like. A man could not stand straight in them; he would have to sit on the floor. It was difficult to take a breath in the thick atmosphere.

  For an instant, the light failed. Robert looked up. To his horror, the hatch door was closing. He started to shout, but the deck above his head erupted in thumping and yells. There was a quick shriek, and the hatch fell open again with a thundering crash.

  Robert stared upward, his heart in his throat. But to his vast relief, Folie’s face peered down at him. She waved, urging him on. He had no idea wha
t had happened, but he wanted out of here fast.

  “Dingley!” he hissed, knocking on the first box.

  Thankfully, Sir Howard’s voice answered, a querulous, wary echo from inside the cell.

  “It’s Robert Cambourne.” He slid the key in the lock.

  “Get me out,” the voice moaned. “Get me out, get me out.”

  “Hurry.” Robert opened the door. It was too dark to see much of the figure that crawled from the box, which Robert considered a blessing. “Keep your wits about you, and do what I tell you.”

  Dingley leaned heavily on the box. He pushed away, looking toward Robert, the whites of his eyes uncanny in the dark hold.

  “We’re walking out,” Robert said, very low. “Say nothing. Don’t speak, no matter what.”

  Sir Howard made a coughing assent, nodding vigorously. Robert moved back and looked up the hatch. No one appeared to be there.

  “On guard,” Robert shouted. “I’m sending him up.”

  He hoped Folie would have the presence of mind to unsheathe her sword, although he didn’t suppose she would look very threatening if she did. Dingley started up before him, climbing the ladder so quickly in his chains that his feet slipped, but he caught himself and hauled upward through the hatch. Robert followed.

  When he reached the convicts’ deck, Folie was standing with her sword point in the scullion’s apron. Every prisoner on the deck was staring at them, silent.

  “He tried to shut you in there!” she whispered hoarsely.

  “T’were only a joke!” the boy cried, holding his bleeding arm. “He cut me!”

  Robert nodded to Folie. “Excellent judgment. Move on, Hurst! March! Shut that hatch yourself, boy, if you’re so anxious to do it.”

  “I’ll report you for this!” The boy skittered past them. “I’ll see that you—”

  Robert grabbed his shoulder and hauled him backwards, holding him over the open hatch by his hair. “Shut up,” he growled, “or you’ll find yourself down there in the dark.”

 

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