The regency romances, p.64
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       The Regency Romances, p.64

           Laura Kinsale

  Mrs. Moloney laughed. “That is good news. Haps you ain’t to expire of pneumonia after all.”

  “Not I,” Folie said. “I am never ill.”

  “I’ll gladly acquaint your gentlemen with that news. I told ‘em ye looked pretty stout to me, after ye got warmed through, but they’ve been in agonies, a’worritin’ on ye. One would have the doctor, and the other would not hear of it, havin’ a mortal horror of leeches, which I commiserate with that! I’ll tell you, me love, they have not let up on each another for one living moment.”

  “Oh dear,” Folie said. “I thought I heard them disputing.”

  “Ach, just a little,” Mrs. Moloney said dryly.

  “We have had a terrible adventure.” Folie found that settling back into the soft bed was rather necessary after all. “Do you think I might have a bath?”

  The landlady chuckled again. “Aye, that’s the fit end to a terrible adventure. I’ll have my girl bring up the tub as soon as she gets the sheets in. You rest now. And we’ll start you with some broth—haps your stomach’s not so bold as your mind, missy!”

  Folie nodded, already drifting back to sleep.

  It was several naps later before Folie could find the vigor to bathe, but the faint fetid scent lingering on her skin finally drove her to insist that Mrs. Moloney allow her to attempt it. Clean at last, Folie dressed in one of Mrs. Moloney’s Sunday gowns, tucked up behind and tied with crossed apron strings, with a crisp lace cap over her carefully washed and tenderly braided hair.

  “Well, ye look the veriest ragamuffin in that getup,” Mrs. Moloney said, “but better than the King’s red coat, at any rate! Come sit down to the commons—since you took that broth well enough, you may have some bread and meat. We’ve no private parlor here, so ye must meet your gentlemen in the taproom, I’m afraid.”

  Folie followed her into the public room. Robert and Sir Howard stood up simultaneously from an isolated cubicle tucked into the corner by the fire. They both bowed, incongruously elegant in the borrowed, shapeless dark coats of farmers. Sir Howard’s graying hair was tied neatly back, but Robert’s shorter mane fell black and shaggy on his neck, giving him a more feral wolfishness than ever.

  “We have been beside ourselves, my dear,” Sir Howard said gently, offering his hand. “Sit down here, sit down. You must not overexert yourself.”

  “I’m really quite all right,” Folie said, sinking onto the bench. “Aside from a little dizziness. I believe we can go home now. Have you heard yet from Melinda?”

  Sir Howard sat back, crossing his arms. He gave Robert a scowling look. “We have not. Mr. Cambourne insists that we remain here.”

  His tone of voice was faintly sneering, as if this were an example of flagrant cowardice. Folie looked toward Robert questioningly. He sat deep in the back of the booth, returning Sir Howard’s insinuation with a cold glance.

  “Perhaps we’d not be so lucky as to end in the hulks next time,” he said, very low. “I believe it would be the bottom of the river.”

  Folie gazed at him. After a long moment, she nodded slowly. She remembered the river, cold and choking.

  Mrs. Moloney hustled up to the table, setting down a steaming pie with a flourish. “There you are, my pretty girl. Just hot out of the oven, as fine a pork pie as you’ll ever see. I left out the curry,” she said, aside to Robert, “as she might not be up to it.”

  “Very wise,” Robert said. “We are in your debt.”

  “La! You’ve paid me a gold guinea—I’m still owing you change. Ring if you need anything, child. I’ve got my eye on some chickens roasting for you gentlemen.”

  As the landlady retired to her kitchen, Sir Howard leaned over the table. “A guinea! Where the dickens did you get any money?”

  “I stole it,” Robert said coolly.

  “Oh, of course.” Sir Howard sat back. “I dare swear you’ll end up back in the hulks.”

  “No doubt one of us will,” Robert replied.

  Folie pursed her lips and cut into the pie. “This smells delectable!” she said brightly. “How is the food here?”

  “Excellent,’’ Robert said, at the same time that Sir Howard muttered, “Adequate.”

  She took a bite. “It tastes marvelous,” she said, and then added, “Though I’m sure I’d think anything edible quite marvelous at this point.”

  Robert smiled slightly. “Fence-sitting?”

  “Yes, I am devoted to peaceable pursuits. I’ve had enough of adventure lately.” She felt odd and frivolous, almost blithe. As if in the release of tension, the terrors of the night dissolved in this flighty, light-spirited relief. “But when can we send word to Melinda? And Lady Dingley? Please. They’ll be frightened out of their wits.”

  “Folly—” He fingered a flat-bladed knife that lay on the table, looking up at her. “Tell me what you remember of the note that you wrote.”

  She paused with a bite poised. “Note?”

  “The note about Vauxhall.” He glanced toward Sir Howard, and back at her. “The one that came to me.”

  Folie ate more of the pie. She shook her head, frowning. “It’s all a blur. Vauxhall—I remember the fireworks. But...did I write a note to you?’’

  “You told me—on the ship. Do you remember that? You said that you had written it to him.” He nodded toward Sir Howard.

  Folie looked doubtfully at Sir Howard. He said nothing, giving her no aid. “Did I?” She frowned down at the steaming gravy on her plate. “I suppose...” She chewed her lip. When she tried to concentrate on the recent past, her memory seemed a confusion of vivid, distinct pictures, like frozen scenes lit by the bursting rockets at Vauxhall. “I don’t remember a note. Are you sure that I wrote it?”

  “Utterly,” Robert said.

  “How so?” Sir Howard demanded. “Perhaps it was a forgery. It makes no sense whatsoever, that she wrote a note to me, only to have it delivered to you!”

  “It was not a forgery,” Robert said with certainty.

  “Oh, are you so very familiar with Mrs. Hamilton’s handwriting?” he asked mockingly.

  “Yes, Dingley,” Robert said with some exasperation, “I am.”

  “Still—handwriting may be imitated.”

  “She wrote it.”

  “What makes you so sure—”

  “Because it smelled like her letters, for God’s sake!” Robert snapped. “Trust me, Dingley. I know she wrote it.”

  Folie bit her lip, lowering her face and applying herself to her dinner. Then she looked up. “Robert!’’ she gasped. “My shawl! I wore it to Vauxhall!”

  He nodded. “I know.”

  “You don’t have it? It wasn’t with me?”

  Robert shook his head. “No. Nor your jewelry. I’m afraid they are all gone for good.”

  “Oh!” Folie cried, her heart sinking, “I’ve lost my blue shawl!” She hunched in the booth, trying to absorb the belief that her beautiful kashmir shawl was really gone. Now that they were safe, her emotions seemed to ride up and down on ungovernable waves. Somehow it seemed a greater disaster than anything else, all out of proportion to reason. She felt tears burn the back of her throat, and a wild urge to go back to the hulk to retrieve her loss.

  “No doubt Cambourne stole it,” Sir Howard said.

  Folie turned on him. “What a disagreeable thing to say! Of course he didn’t steal it! He gave it to me.”

  Sir Howard looked nonplussed. “Cambourne?” He glanced between the two of them. “I beg your pardon. Perhaps I am unaware of the true circumstances here. Is she your—”

  “And you need not make odious, vulgar intimations,” Folie exclaimed. “He sent it to me years ago, from India.” Her posture sagged again. She picked at her plate with her fork. “It was my very favorite shawl—I always wore it whenever I felt low.” She glanced shyly at Robert. “I always loved the scent of it.”

  “My, my, what a pair of noses the two of you have!” Sir Howard said.

  “To our misfortune,” Robert retorted, “consid
ering your stench after we rescued you from the bilge.”

  Folie’s humor rose irrationally. She smiled in spite of herself, touching Sir Howard’s shoulder. “Oh dear! You really were awful.”

  “Thank you! I shall not pull you from the Thames next time!”

  Folie put her hand over her mouth. She stared at him in dismay. “And I had forgot! Truly I had—I am so worried about Melinda—and my mind has been so bewildered! Oh, Sir Howard, I’ve not even given you a word of thanks! Forgive me! You must forgive me! You saved my life!”

  “It was nothing,” he said gruffly.

  “Indeed it was! You saved me! All I remember is that wicked boy pushing me against the gate, and the water like ice, and that coat dragging me down, and then you were there. God bless you, Sir Howard. I owe you my life. How you held us both up I shall never know.”

  He shrugged off her effusions of gratitude modestly. “I’m a strong swimmer. We were used to bathe all summer in the lake at Dingley when I was a boy. I taught all my girls to swim before they could walk.”

  “I have never been in anything larger than a copper tub!” Folie said. “I cannot swim at all. Thank God you were there.”

  “You must learn, for your own safety’s sake,” Sir Howard said. “I’ll teach you. This summer, if you like. We could all go down to Brighton–”

  “Let us return for a moment to our predicament, before you make plans for the summer,” Robert said dryly.

  “Yes—oh, yes—” Folie turned anxiously to him. “We must get word to Melinda directly. I cannot be easy until she knows we’re safe.”

  Robert nodded, but before he could speak, Mrs. Moloney returned with the roasted chickens. After setting out a generous table of vegetables and meat along with the fowl, inspecting Folie’s plate and announcing that she ought to eat another portion of pie, or take a slice of roast chicken, she went away again.

  “I believe I can send word safely to Cambourne House,” Robert said low, “but if Folie cannot account for that note, then we have no lead at all as to who did this to us.” He looked at her. “Until I’m certain we won’t be attacked again, I can’t allow you to go back. None of us should appear there alive.”

  Sir Howard made a dissenting sound, but offered no alternative.

  “But Robert—” Folie said in a whisper. “Have you no idea what it all means? None whatsoever?”

  He rubbed his fingers over his eyes, and then leaned on his hand. “You will think me mad again if I tell you what I suspect.”

  “Nay—we’ll only think you criminally careless to allow Mrs. Hamilton to be involved,” Sir Howard said.

  Robert lifted his head. “Dingley,” he said, “if I don’t kill you before we’re through this, remind me that I mean to do it.”

  “With pleasure,” Sir Howard said.

  “Oh, what a pair of—of—lobcocks!” Folie exclaimed, using a word she had overheard aboard the hulk.

  They both looked at her as if she had just dropped her garter in Lady Melbourne’s drawing room. “What?” Robert said.

  “A pair of lobcocks,” she repeated gamely. “Why, is it a very bad word?”

  “Oh, perfectly applicable to him,” Robert said graciously. “But don’t trot it out to describe him in polite company.”

  “Robert Cambourne,” she exclaimed. “Here we are, in danger of our very lives, and the two of you must act a pair of eight-year-olds. You are both lobcocks, whatever that may mean, but I hope it signifies that you have straw in your silly heads.”

  He looked a little abashed. “I did not mean that as it sounded.”

  “Yes, that is what you always say,” Folie admonished.

  “I do?”

  “Whenever I remark that you have been particularly spiteful.”

  “Spiteful!” he said in surprise.

  “Spiteful,” Folie said firmly. “I don’t know where you learned to say such mean, clever things. It is not like you.”

  He looked into the corner with a reflective expression, as if he were staring at some far horizon. Then he glanced back at her. “How do you know it isn’t like me?”

  Folie gave a small shrug. “I just know.”

  Sir Howard grunted irritably. “So let him cut at me with his sour tongue—we’ll meet over a pair of good pistols and discover who is the cleverest.”

  “That you will not,” Folie said, rolling her eyes. “Now—kindly tell us what you suspect, Robert. However mad it may seem. We are clearly in no case for common sense.”

  Robert sat back in the corner. “I believe this is a plot to make the Prince Regent appear insane,” he said simply.

  After a pregnant pause, Sir Howard threw back his head and began to howl with laughter. He gasped and chortled, then put his face down on his crossed arms, his shoulders shaking.

  Robert watched him cynically. “I expected this.”

  Folie poked Sir Howard hard with her elbow. “Sit up and be still. Be still!”

  Sir Howard choked with muffled laughter. After several jabs from Folie, he finally sat up, his face red and splotchy. “Oh, God give me strength,” he snorted. “A plot to make Prinnie insane! A plot to make Pr-prinnie insane!”

  “I apprehend that it seems unlikely,” Robert said.

  “Downright demented!” Sir Howard went off into sputters again, gasping for air. “What does the—what does the Pr-prince have to do with anything? More like it’s a plot to make y-you insane, Cambourne. And it seems to have succeeded.”

  Robert looked at Folie, ignoring Sir Howard. “Well, that is what I think, frankly. That I was drugged, to make me appear mad, and the same thing is being done to the Prince.”

  “Come, come, you ninny, where’s your proof of this?” Sir Howard asked.

  “I have no proof as to the Regent. As to myself—I have the word of a girl named Kathy, or perhaps Mattie, that she added something to my food at Solinger. After she told me, she vanished. I believe she was murdered.”

  Sir Howard’s chuckling ceased. He picked up his knife and fork and began to carve his chicken as if he were attacking it. His cheeks were flushed bright red.

  “I think that somewhere in my Indian journals, I made some record of this—drug, or poison—whatever it might be.” Robert still did not look at Sir Howard, but spoke directly to Folie. “I can summon no specific memory, but I wrote hundreds of pages, on a number of guuruus and peculiar rites. Some of them used potions to induce eccentric mental states.”

  “And this stuff was added to your food, you say?” Sir Howard asked in a tone of disbelief. “How, pray, do you propose one of these guuruus managed to get it from India into your plate in Buckinghamshire?’’

  “I think someone went to the devil of a lot of trouble to get it there,” Robert said. “And therefore had a damned good reason.”

  “But what, Robert?” Folie asked. “I can’t see any purpose to it.” She frowned. “Not that my mind seems very sharp today,” she admitted. “I’m all about in my head.”

  He smiled at her. “Sweet Folly. You have been a remarkable heroine. I can only conjecture that someone believes me to know much more than I do, and wished to render me incapacitated—and make sure that if I did speak, no one would take me seriously.”

  Folie blushed. It was the second time he had called her that, sweet Folly. It seemed to make her heart dance about in her chest, and invoke the most airy fancies. She smiled back at him bashfully. She ought to tell him not to address her so, she knew—particularly before Sir Howard. But she did not.

  “Still, I cannot see it,” Sir Howard said. “You say that Mattie confessed?”

  Robert looked up at him swiftly. “You know her? Mattie?”

  “I—certainly, yes, I know her. Mattie Davis. She is a Dingley village girl, you know. I know the Dingley people. I keep up with them. In fact I recommended her father take the gardener’s position at Solinger when you returned. I suppose she went to serve up at the house? A good church-going family. Salt of the earth. I can’t believe the girl wo
uld knowingly poison a puppy!”

  Robert looked at him for a long moment. “She gave me reason enough that she might.”

  “What reason?” Sir Howard asked, his voice strident and curious.

  “She had a babe in her, and no husband.”

  Beneath his queue, the back of Sir Howard’s neck turned beet-red. He took a large bite of chicken and shook his head. “You gaby—will you say such things before a lady?”

  “The girl is dead, Dingley,” Robert said, still looking directly across the table. “Is propriety all that concerns you?’’

  Sir Howard chewed sullenly. He took a long swig of ale. “God rest her soul, if that is true. Which I take full leave to doubt, sir.”

  Something tugged at Folie’s erratic memory, slipping away even as she thought of it. She frowned a little. She lifted her hand—then lowered it, uncertain.

  “I hope you may be right,” Robert said. “I devoutly hope you may be right.”

  “Then you don’t know for certain,” Sir Howard said quickly. “What makes you suppose she is murdered?”

  “I found her apron. Bloodstained.” Robert glanced at Folie as if he did not wish for her to hear. “Gruesome,” he said briefly. “I need not go into it. But I think she’s dead.”

  There was a short silence. Folie bit her lower lip.

  “Well. I cannot sit here twiddling my thumbs any longer,” Sir Howard said, pushing himself to his feet. “I’m going to take a walk.”

  “Don’t go to London,” Robert said.

  “I am not yours to command, sir,” he said coldly. “I beg your pardon, Mrs. Hamilton. You must excuse me.” Sir Howard bowed.

  Folie nodded, but he had already turned away, shoving open the taproom door and ducking through. Robert made a small flick with his hand, as if to say, “Good riddance.” He picked up his fork and ate a few bites, then looked at Folie.

  “Do you still suppose I’m mad?”

  “No,” she said quietly. “The world seems mad, perhaps.”

  “I didn’t want you in this. Folly, I didn’t know what to do. I was so...” His intense voice trailed off. He looked down at his plate. “Well. Never mind.”

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