The regency romances, p.63
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       The Regency Romances, p.63

           Laura Kinsale
 

  The boy whimpered, his eyes rolling wildly.

  “You won’t make trouble?” Robert demanded.

  “No, sir. No, sir.”

  Robert let him go. He should have kicked the little weasel down the stairs, he knew, but it was not in him. “Watch out for him,” he said to Folie.

  She nodded, her face pale and set, absurdly delicate. With her sword, she motioned the scullion to go in front of her. Robert silently swore to himself that if they made it out of here, he would kiss every bruise from her skin.

  When they made it out. He had a deep uneasiness in the pit of his stomach, for how easy it had been so far.

  The journey back up onto the open deck was nerve-wrackingly uneventful. Dingley smelled like the Fleet Ditch, and looked worse. He stumbled into the foggy daylight, squinting, his hands and legs still chained together.

  The superintendent was waiting, a heavy figure looming in the mist. Robert felt a surge of dread, that the man had changed his mind. But he only gave Sir Howard a sharp look, and then jerked his head toward the rail. “Get him in the boat, then.” He turned and walked back into his office.

  The three-decker hulk had an ugly notch cut in her railing, set with a spiked iron gate. A guard unlocked it, wrinkling his nose at Sir Howard’s stench.

  Steep stairs ran all the way down the side of the three-decker hull to the water. Robert judged it nearly thirty feet down to the rowboat tied at the foot of the steps. The scullion stood by the gate, tugging at his forelock with a toady’s bow. “I’ll steady the boat for ye, sir.”

  “No need,” Robert said briskly. “Stand aside.” He nodded to Folie to go first, but she was watching the scullion fiercely, as if she expected him to make a pounce. Robert caught up Dingley’s manacles, affecting to prevent any escape, and nudged with his sheathed sword.

  Sir Howard moved out onto the landing. It was broad and sturdy, with head-high railings and another spiked gate opening off the outer edge, rigged with a heavy pulley and line for loading freight. Robert ducked to follow him.

  “Hold there!” A booming voice made him freeze. “Stop!”

  Robert’s heart turned to ice. He looked back. Striding through the mist came a scowling man, tall and menacing, his fist clenched around a sword handle.

  “What’s going forward here?” he demanded, glaring at Robert. “I wasn’t told any prisoners were to be taken off this morning!’’

  “You may apply to the superintendent, sir!” Robert snapped back. “Nor was I informed that I had to notify every man aboard while I go about my orders!”

  “This is entirely irregular! I’ll not have it!” He stepped forward, his face red with outrage, and caught Dingley’s manacles, dragging him back onto the ship. Robert had a wild and fleeting thought of making a mad break for freedom, but Folie was too far away to reach, and they would never survive it.

  “Take your hands off my prisoner!” he said vehemently.

  “Nor will I! You won’t leave this ship if I have anything to say to it!”

  “Apply to the superintendent,” Robert said, trying to prevent desperation from entering his voice. “I have my orders! Already I’m cursed late, but I’ll wait five minutes while you speak to him.”

  “To the devil with the super,” the man bellowed. “I’ll manage this, by God! I know your sort! I’ve had enough of these deceits and dodges to get away!” He dragged Dingley close, bending over, running his fingers down the chain links. Robert could see Folie standing rigid, looking toward him with terrified eyes.

  “Deceit!” Robert exclaimed savagely. “Who do you suppose you are, sir, to accuse me of deceit?’’

  “I, sir, am the purser.” He held up the lock triumphantly. “There! Do you see the number engraved? These are our irons! Remove them this instant!”

  Robert hesitated, confounded. “Remove them?”

  “Aye! You are to bring your own restraints—have you never escorted a prisoner off before, you red-coated lobcock? Why, what do you suppose would happen if I let every man take his chains away with him? We should have none left aboard!”

  “I beg your pardon, sir,” Robert said. He kept his lower lip determinedly stiff. “I was not informed of this.”

  “Well, that is your misfortune,” the purser said balefully. “I cannot allow you to take these irons. They must be removed before you leave the ship. Here.” He pulled a vast set of keys from under his waistcoat. “This is one of the Westport locks. That master should work.” He twisted a key from the ring and handed it to Robert with distaste. “My God, what a stink. You do it.”

  Silently Robert released Dingley from his bonds. He rose from unlocking the ankle iron and leaned close. “Don’t give me any trouble now,” he growled. “Or I’ll run you through.”

  Dingley nodded, his eyes trained straight ahead.

  “There you are, sir.” Robert tossed the key to the purser. “Come, boy,” he said to Folie. “Make haste, we’re already an hour behind time. Close up here—keep your sword point at this man’s back.”

  He ducked under the iron gate again, pulling Dingley with him by the elbow, checking to see that Folie was right behind, then moving as fast as he could without actually running down the stairs. They were going to make it.

  Five steps down, he heard her shriek—a sound that curdled his blood. Dingley ran into him as he turned on the stairs. Something splashed heavily below. Folie was nowhere—the cargo gate was swinging wide open over the water. Robert had a glimpse of the scullion’s aproned figure fleeing back onto the misted deck.

  Before he could react, Dingley tore free of his hold, pounding up the stairs. The purser and guard were crowding in, but Sir Howard barreled into them, flinging them both back with the strength of a desperate man. He grabbed the rail and launched himself overboard off the open gate.

  Robert turned, racing down into the thickening fog at the waterline. He leapt into the rowboat tied at the foot of the stairs. It tilted and yawed under his weight as he frantically threw off the painter. He could hear them splashing, though he could only see a yard or two ahead in the mist. The men above had come after him, their shouts echoing off the water and the hull so badly that he could not tell which voice was which or the true direction of any sound. By the time they reached the foot of the steps, Robert was rowing out.

  “Launch another boat!” someone yelled. “We’ll get him back!”

  “Quiet! Quiet!” Robert roared. He pulled at the oars, straining to hear as his own voice died away.

  There was sudden silence. Faintly, he heard water splash. He sent the boat in that direction with a strong pull, then let it ride its own momentum. But the river’s current was taking him; he began to spin and drift at some speed he could not discern.

  “Folly!” he shouted. “Can you hear?”

  The answer came indistinctly, a cry for help. Robert rowed quickly toward it. He saw something dark floating— skimmed close, found it was her red coat adrift and empty.

  “Folly!” he bellowed.

  “Help!” It was Dingley’s voice that answered, hoarse and breathless. He made a vigorous splashing. “Help us! Here!”

  Robert had to pull strongly against the current, but he could hear the splash clearly now. He cursed the fog. He was afraid the river was carrying his boat faster downstream than it was carrying them.

  “Where?” he yelled, and got Dingley’s weakening reply.

  But suddenly they were on the opposite side from what he had thought—his boat was riding right down on them. Robert shouted, yanking on an oar to turn and hold long enough to reach out to Dingley.

  Sir Howard was swimming strongly, his arm about Folie’s chest, holding her before him. They both went under as he held out his free arm, but Robert dragged him up. Folie was sputtering, reaching for the boat. It spun around, the oars thumping in their locks. Robert was afraid she would panic and drag the boat over, but she only grabbed the gunwale with both hands and held on, her chin lifted above the water.

  “At the
stern, the stern,” Sir Howard gasped.

  Folie edged toward the back of the boat while Robert pulled on the oars to keep it steady. He could not aid her— if he moved too near, the rowboat would capsize from both their weights, so he had to sit helplessly and watch as Dingley pushed at Folie, helping her. She struggled and gasped and floundered one leg over, then with a great push from Dingley, came rolling in with a flood of cold water.

  “Move forward,” Sir Howard ordered her, working hand over hand toward the stern. Folie shifted, holding out her trembling hands as if to pull him in. But Dingley ignored her, heaving himself up on both arms, climbing aboard with one swift, balanced move. The boat barely tipped.

  “Come,” he said to Folie, drawing her shivering body back against him as he settled in the stern. “Give her your coat, Cambourne.”

  Robert pulled it off. Dingley took it, spreading it over her, diving his hands underneath it and pulling her to his chest. She was shivering, her teeth chattering audibly, her wet hair straggling down her face.

  A great boom carried through the fog, cracking and echoing off the unseen horizon. Folie started up, her eyes wide and terrified. “What is that?”

  “A ship’s gun,” Robert said. “They’re signalling an escape. Or a drowning.”

  “Get us to dry land,” Dingley ordered. “Be quick about it.”

  SIXTEEN

  Robert rowed. But his sense of direction, never strong, was utterly perplexed by the featureless fog. Even the direction of the current was no help—he knew the tide could make the river flow upstream at certain times of the day, and he had no idea if this was one of them.

  He could sense Dingley’s exasperation. Things seemed to loom upon them out of the mist—larger boats and fishing weirs, cattails and mudflat islands—everything but somewhere they might land and walk ashore without sinking to their waists in marsh. And the entire time Robert had to watch Sir Howard hug Folie to him, her face pressed tenderly into the curve of his throat. He hauled doggedly on the oars, glancing behind himself now and then to check the channel ahead.

  “For the love of God,” Dingley said at last, “we must be going in circles!”

  “You may row if you like,” Robert said shortly.

  Dingley wiped a dribble of water from his forehead and looked off into the fog. Folie seemed beyond hearing. She clutched the red coat and Dingley’s wet sleeve, her eyes shut.

  Robert rowed.

  The river traffic seemed to be increasing as the mist lifted, but he was not sure. No vessel came close enough to hail. Their dark shapes appeared and vanished like silent specters. The mist gathered in chill dew on Robert’s face and hands.

  “Watch out!” Dingley yelled, just as the rowboat struck hard.

  Robert nearly lost the oars as the boat sheered. He grabbed them back, pushing off the black timber that thrust above the river. Folie sat up, the coat clutched around her.

  Robert squinted up at the thing they had hit. With a crosspiece nailed to it akimbo, it jutted up alone as if it were a watery gallows, but through the fog he caught a glimpse of a derelict pier.

  Robert shoved them off the piling and worked the boat along the old structure. Slowly, a dim shape through the mist resolved into a fisherman hauling in his net. He looked up at the rowboat as if it were some malevolent phantasm that had materialized before him. Rapidly he began to drag at his net, backing up in retreat.

  Robert hailed him. “We need help!” He shipped the oars, putting out his hand to grab the weed-encrusted pier.

  The fisherman hesitated, peering at them. “Soldiers?” he demanded querulously.

  “Aye, the King’s own.” Robert gestured toward the river. “Did you hear the great gun? We’re on a chase after that convict. Almost had him, but the boat went over with us. Couldn’t find our way back to the prison ship in this soup!”

  “Oh aye,” the fisherman said, letting go his net. “Best wait’ll it lifts. Another hour.”

  “Nay, I need to get my men ashore. This boy’s half-drowned, and like to take a mortal ague.”

  “Now then!” their languid savior said, peering down. “He looks a bad way, right enough. Well, if you go along of the dock here—can’t see ‘em now, but there’s some stone steps—take ‘em up on top, and ye can find the way along the dike into the village. Mind you don’t stray off the dike, or you’ll be the wetter for it.”

  Robert thanked him, poling further along the pier with his oar. They found the steps, looming up out of the water onto a low bank, going from nowhere to nowhere, it seemed, but once Robert climbed them, he could discern a line of stepping stones among the coarse rushes.

  “Come on.” Robert turned back, reaching to help Folie out of the boat, but Dingley was already handing her onto the steps. She clung to him, taking the stairs slowly, not looking up at Robert as Dingley led her past.

  They caught a ride, perched among turnips, for the price of Folie’s cheap army sword. The farmer would take them all the way to Westminster Bridge, six miles on, but Robert thought Folie would be dead of pneumonia by then. She was already fading, leaning hard against Dingley’s side, making small, watery coughs. The fog had lifted, but the day was yet cold and clouded when the oxcart rolled into a village.

  Robert did not know what might await them in London. To walk into Cambourne House alive was impossibly dangerous as long as he did not know who wanted him silenced. And Folie had become irrevocably involved. He could no longer hope they might ignore her or leave her safe. Even Dingley was entangled in it now—if he had not been embroiled up to his arrogant chin anyway.

  But for the moment, Robert knew he must find shelter and dry warmth for her. He scanned the village. There appeared to be little to it, beyond a vague familiarity. The road was muddy, the houses small and warped with age. Chickens strutted in the ditch. Inside one garden gate, yellow daffodils nodded their gay heads, defying the dismal day.

  He stared at the flowers. And then Robert recognized the place with a start.

  He called to the driver to stop. The cart creaked to a halt right under the sign of The Highflyer. Robert said a short, silent prayer of thanks for one small blessing.

  “We’ll stop here,” he said, sliding down to the muddy road.

  “Are you mad?” Dingley exclaimed. “We must get her to town and a doctor!”

  “Come down. We stop here.”

  “No.” Sir Howard turned to the farmer. “Drive on!”

  “Folie,” Robert said.

  She lifted her head weakly, looking at him. Her hair clung to her bruised face, dark limp strands. Her eyes seemed huge and tormented.

  “Folly,” he said in a quiet voice. “It’s best to stop here.”

  She nodded, holding out her hands. Robert reached up and helped her down. Her whole body was quivering.

  “This is madness,” Dingley said. “You are responsible for this, Cambourne!”

  “Dingley,” Robert said. “Shut yourself up.”

  He led Folie into The Highflyer, past the little garden where the yellow daffodils brightened the gray day. To his relief, the same landlady looked up from her knitting with the same placid, cheerful smile that he recalled.

  “Ma’am,” he said.

  She stood up hastily from her chair. “The Calcutta gentleman!”

  “Ma’am,” he said, “do you remember the lady of the letters? The lady I love?”

  She stood, nodding in wonderment, just as Folie’s trembling figure went limp, collapsing into him. Robert startled, barely catching her as she fainted. He lifted her in his arms, the red coat trailing.

  “This is she,” he said wryly.

  “Good God!” The landlady hurried forward. “Whatever have you done to her? God bless us, sir—It’s no wonder the poor girl won’t have ye!”

  Folie had no idea how long she had slept, but she woke in a warm, soft bed, so comfortable that it seemed dream-like. She did not know where she was, but gradually realized that the dark images rising and vanishing in her dazed
mind were no nightmare. The prison hulk had been real, the river and the smell—she could still taste it in the back of her mouth.

  But there was a bright stream of sunlight through the leaded glass windowpane, casting a sparkle of prismatic colors across the white quilt, and next to the bed a gay bouquet of daffodils gave out the sweet scent of spring.

  She sat up, finding herself in a voluminous gown that was not her own. Beneath an unfamiliar nightcap, she seemed to have a head bandage wrapped firmly about her skull. Gingerly she felt the lump on her head, wincing. Beneath the cap and bandage, her hair was in such wild disarray that she did not suppose she would ever get a comb through it again.

  Melinda! she thought suddenly, and threw off the counterpane. As she stood up, a wave of dizziness struck her, but she leaned on the bedpost until it passed and then shuffled out of the room into a low-ceilinged passage.

  Immediately she could hear voices raised in contention. The short passage opened into a common room, where a fire crackled and a great number of bottles and mugs and a pair of kegs adorned the walls. Robert and Sir Howard sat at one of the tables in the center, arguing.

  She did not discern the subject, since they both fell silent instantly upon looking up at her. Robert rose. A black and white shepherd dog trotted over to nose at her hem, wagging its plumed tail.

  “You should not be out of bed!” he said, and turned to call, “Mrs. Moloney!”

  “We must tell Melinda we are safe!” Folie exclaimed.

  Sir Howard rose, coming to take Folie’s hand and turn her back. “We are just preparing to do so, my dear. But you must lie down.”

  A stout woman trotted briskly up from the cellar stairs. “Ah, she is awake. And walkin’ about barefooted in her night rail, the child! Turn about, me dearest; it’s back to bed with you! You don’t want your gentlemen to see you so immodest, now!”

  Before she could protest, Folie was bustled back into the bedchamber. Mrs. Moloney threw back the covers. “Are you ready to take a little broth?”

  “I am famished,” Folie said, sitting down on the bed. Her brain felt giddy. “I believe I could eat a roast!”

 

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