The regency romances, p.66
The Regency Romances, p.66Laura Kinsale
“Robert is amazing,” Folie said smugly. “He can tell what is in people’s minds.”
Robert snorted. “Of course I cannot. Not in truth.”
“Srí Ramanu said that you had a gift for it.”
“Why do you remember me saying that sort of rubbish, and can’t recall if you wrote a note about Vauxhall?”
“But you did it! With the superintendent of the prison ship.” She looked at Lander. “It was extraordinary. Robert knew precisely what the man was thinking.”
“Several fortunate guesses,” Robert said, “and a little observation. He had a tarot deck in his bookcase. A man such as that wants to believe.”
“But it was more than that,” Folie said. “I was there.”
Lander was watching them with interest. “You are gifted for that sort of deception, sir?”
“No. No, not really. I learned a few tricks in India, pickpockets’ and charlatans’ work. Nothing very helpful in this case, I assure you.”
“I wonder,” Lander said thoughtfully. “I wonder.”
At four in the afternoon the next day, Folie and Robert waited on the east side of the ancient Bow bridge, overlooking the River Lea. She sat on a bench beside the parapets, watching ducks pick along the river’s edge beneath the pretty bow-shaped arch of the bridge.
It was not quite a teeming spot, well outside the city bustle, but the traffic of hay carts, farm horses, and country squires driving their ladies to London in the dogcart created a steady ring of steel against stone as they crossed the bridge. Folie inspected every vehicle coming from the direction of London anxiously, watching for Lander and Melinda.
“It will be growing dark soon,” she said. “Do you suppose they will arrive before dark?”
Robert crumbled the crust of his supper loaf and tossed a few bits to the ducks, who rushed to do quacking battle for it. “We’ll wait inside the inn if they don’t.”
“In these clothes?” Folie asked, casting a glance at the elegant building of white stucco that graced the street beside the bridge. It appeared very genteel, and they looked like a farm couple, Robert in his baggy coat and a low-crowned hat belonging to Tucker Moloney; Folie in an apron, a scarf knotted under her chin, and the leftovers from Mrs. Moloney’s pork pie tied in a bundle on her lap.
“Must you have a private parlor, madam?” he asked in amusement. “We’ll sit in the back of the tap room like Mr. and Mrs. John Bull.”
“But have we any money left?”
“Lander brought me plenty,” he said. “We have no worries there.”
Folie turned again to watch the bridge. It was very strange to be with him, alone and on the road, far from any whiff of a respectable female companion. As long as they had been at the Highflyer, she had not thought of it, for Mrs. Moloney had added an air of honest country propriety—and in the hulk, modesty and decorum had been the last thing on her mind. But now it struck her that she was quite alone in the company of a gentleman, looking naturally to him for direction, something that had not occurred to her since her marriage. Although when she considered it, she was not sure she had ever really looked even to Charles for guidance; he had hardly paid her enough mind to offer it.
But since the prison ship, it seemed that she had placed her whole dependence on Robert. It felt odd and yet perfectly natural, as if she had been used to do it forever, instead of heading her own independent household for six years. There had been moments in the past few days when she felt as uncertain as Lady Dingley, and she had simply turned to Robert to make the decision. She supposed it was a woman’s customary inclination, to lean upon a man, until she tried to imagine placing her unquestioning reliance on Colonel Cox. Abruptly, she thought perhaps it was not such a strong female instinct after all.
“I wish I knew where Dingley has got to,” Robert murmured darkly.
Sir Howard had been gone from the Highflyer before the sun came up, without leaving any note. Once again, something seemed to flit through Folie’s mind, but she could not catch it before it disappeared. She blinked at the late sun sparkles as a breeze rippled the water.
“You don’t think he went to his family?”
“I hope he has the common sense to stay away from them, but I fear not. The faster Lander packs them all up to go home to Dingley, the better.”
Folie sighed. “What a dismal end to our season,” she said sadly. “It was to be so lovely.”
He sat down on the brick beside her. “I’m sorry, Folly. To ruin all your pleasure.”
“Oh, well.” She shrugged. “To be perfectly truthful, I’ve found Society to be rather dull. Nothing so diverting as breaking prison and swimming the Thames.”
“No doubt,” Robert said ironically. “I am a guardian of surpassing excellence.”
She gave him a sidelong smile. “But at least you are interesting.” She took a crust from his hands and cast it to the ducks. “I am obliged to say that, if you had not written to Charles, I don’t think I would have had a modicum of excitement in my whole humdrum existence!” She looked into the distance down the river. “For all that I hid in the greenhouse and wept my eyes out afterward.”
A small herd of sheep trotted briskly onto the bridge, their hooves on the stone like a cascade of pebbles. Folie watched a fat old ewe pause to grab a few bites of the new grass peeking up beside the stone bridge. The shepherd trilled and goaded his shaggy flock forward with a crook.
“Did you weep, my sweet Folly?” Robert asked softly.
“Oh yes,” she said, folding her hands. The shadows of the town’s buildings were beginning to creep down the riverbanks. The ducks paddled in and out of the bright arc of water beneath the bridge. She lifted her chin proudly. “Well, you would not understand. I suppose gentlemen never weep over their foolishness.”
“Perhaps not,” he said.
Folie bit her lower lip. She reached down and pulled a dry reed that had found its way up through the bricking.
“I think we walk ourselves to exhaustion, and if that does not suffice, then we drink ourselves into a stupor, and if that does not serve—then we take a pistol and put it to our heads,” he said.
Folie looked at him aside. He was staring across the river, but his bleak gaze saw a thousand miles beyond. She bent her head over her lap, splitting the reed carefully with her thumbnail.
“There are things locked so deep that tears cannot reach them, Folly,” he said quietly.
She pressed her lips hard together, working the reed until it bent into a circle in her fingers. She tied a bow in it.
“I am glad that I did not lose my shawl,” she said.
“So am I,” he said. He caught one end of her reed between his thumb and forefinger and tugged at it. Folie allowed him to draw the reed and her hand into his lap. He stroked his fingertips lightly over the back of her palm. “Folly—”
Iron-shod hooves clattered on the bridge. The heavy wheels of a laden carriage thundered onto the stone. Folie looked up as a fresh team of four galloped across, drawing a coach with window blinds drawn to conceal the occupants. But even before the vehicle turned off toward the inn yard, she knew who it must be.
“Melinda,” she whispered, and stood up.
“Not too fast,” Robert said, without rising. “Sit down. Let us make sure no one is following them.”
Folie sat down. She twisted the reed around and around her finger. But though they waited for what seemed an eternity, no one but a milkmaid swinging her empty pail crossed over the bridge after the carriage.
“Should I go now?” she asked in an undertone.
He took her arm and stood. “Folly—”
She was turning, but at the tone in his voice, she looked directly up at him. Suddenly it came into her mind that he would be parting from them here, returning to London to take up residence at Cambourne House and execute the plan they had concocted. It had seemed bizarre and clever when she and Lander and Robert had sat safely at the Highflyer and contrived the scheme, just daft enough to work, b
He was scowling down at her as if she angered him. But his hand was on her arm, holding tight.
Suddenly she reached up, put both palms on his shoulders, and in the midst of the street and the bridge and the river and the sinking sun, pressed her body against his.
He pulled her to him, his arms going urgently about her waist. Like a pair of countrified lovers, they hugged hard in full view of anyone who might be watching, but Folie did not care. She was trying to memorize him, trying to imprint the feel of his shoulders and his height and his chest and his very breath, to drink in the whole knowledge of his real living existence.
“Mrs. Godwin?” A voice called across from the innyard, the prearranged alias they had agreed upon for her. Folie pushed away from Robert. Golden angled sunlight glittered in her hazy eyes.
“Take care,” she whispered fiercely.
With a brief nod, he brushed his fist against her cheek. Folie let go of him and walked away. A few steps beyond, she heard him murmur something imperatively, but the words were not clear. She looked over her shoulder, pausing.
He opened his fist, turning his palm toward her as if he let her go like a small bird from his hand. “Deferred kiss,” he said between his teeth.
She nodded, wordless, and went quickly across the street.
The garden was in bloom, lilac-scented. Her blue shawl pulled about her, Folie walked there with Melinda as they had done every morning for two weeks. Pink and white tulips nodded over carpets of tiny violets.
One side of the garden enclosure ran along the high street of the village, though the wall was too tall and the geography too flat to allow any view of the street. A red brick church tower loomed over them, and farther away, a windmill’s white sails turned endlessly—the only points of viewing interest beyond the wall, unless she happened to catch sight of passengers on the roof of a stagecoach as it swept through. Sometimes just before dawn, as Folie lay waking, staring up into the blackness, she could hear the royal mail make its regular halt at the Spread Eagle for a change of horses.
Melinda had been amazingly docile about the ruin of her season. After her initial transports of relief and rapture upon Folie’s safe return, Melinda in fact had seemed so subdued that Folie had been worried about her health. And yet, she did not seem to mope. She had not wept once for London, or complained of boredom. But she was quieter, more thoughtful, than Folie had ever known her to be.
As they had driven in the closed coach to this house of safety, Lander had undertaken to explain their situation to Melinda. Folie was glad to let him do so. Ever since the hulk, she could not seem to gather her scattered thoughts for more than a moment at a time. She had no concentration, and forgot the most everyday things. Only this morning, on the garden step, she had discovered the withered blooms she had picked yesterday lying next to the pail of water she had never put them in.
The servants here were more the ordinary sort, the standard of service serene and efficient, really quite polished for a country village. Lander did not even maintain the illusion of being their butler—the staff deferred to him, but more as if he were the master of the house than the head steward. After their arrival, he had gone back to London by stagecoach, leaving early in the morning.
Folie sat down on a garden bench, pulling the shawl close. Melinda sat down with her.
“It doesn’t seem real,” Melinda said. “Everything is so peaceful here. It’s so hard to imagine danger.”
Folie shook her head. “Sometimes I can smell the river and the prison,” she said. “At night, it comes to me. And I can’t sleep. As if I have that water in my mouth and lungs still.”
Melinda locked her arm through Folie’s, squeezing, saying nothing.
“To think there are those poor people there now,” Folie said. “Perhaps when this is concluded, and we can go home, I shall form a Prisoners’ Relief Committee.”
“I don’t know if the ladies will join you, Mama,” Melinda said gently. “Perhaps they will not understand that criminals might need relief.”
“Then it will be a committee of one.” She smiled wryly, watching a flock of robins hunting through a patch of overturned soil. “I don’t think I can go on embroidering handkerchiefs for a church steeple that will undoubtedly fall down long before we ever collect enough money to repair it.”
“A committee of two. I’ll be on it with you,” Melinda said loyally. “I don’t ever want to leave you, Mama.”
Folie laughed, hugging her. “I don’t think you need resign yourself to a life of spinsterhood and good works yet, my love.”
Melinda bowed her head. She smoothed her gown over her lap. In a small, shy voice, she said, “But perhaps you will marry Mr. Cambourne?”
Folie could feel the blood rush to her face. “Wherever did you conceive of that notion?”
Melinda’s lips puckered gaily. “Oh—perhaps it was when I peeked out of the carriage and saw you kissing him in the street!”
“I did not kiss him!” Folie said, flustered. “It was merely—an affectionate embrace. If not for him, I would not be alive.”
“Oh,” Melinda said. “I see.”
“It was a perfectly natural thing. You should not weave such a great flight of fancy from such a small circumstance.”
“Oh, no,” Melinda said, nodding. “Certainly not.”
“Melinda!” Folie lamented. “Do not tease me on this point.”
“You don’t like him?”
Folie turned her face away, watching a robin capture some hapless insect. She thought if she said one word about how much she was in love with Robert Cambourne, still in love with him, in love with him again, frightened for him, puzzled and scared and aching—if she said one word, she would burst into silly tears.
“I will be sorry for him if you don’t,” Melinda said, “because he seems to like you very much.”
“There is a great deal you do not know of life, Miss Melinda,” Folie said sternly. “Mr. Cambourne and I like one another, certainly. But marriage is another matter.”
“Of course that is true,” Melinda said, in her most adult tone. “We must take into account his prospects. His income. His family.” She reached down and picked a tulip from beside the bench. “He is single.” She plucked a petal. “He is wealthy.” She pulled another. “His family is perfectly respectable.” She pulled a third. “Now tell me what liabilities you see in this match.” She handed Folie the flower.
“Well—” Folie said, plucking all the rest of the petals at once, tossing them to the wind, “he has not asked me!”
“He will,” Melinda said smugly. “You don’t know the way he looked after you as you walked away from him!”
“You are a nonsensical, romantic, naive child,” Folie said irritably, standing up. “I’m sorry that I ever pulled you from that gutter and gave you a home!”
Melinda looked up at her with a smile so loving that it made Folie feel quite wobbly inside. “Perhaps I shall marry him myself,” she said, “as a reward for restoring you to me.”
“And puffed-up beyond measure!” Folie exclaimed. “A reward? I wash my hands of you. You may return to the workhouse.” She swept away with a brisk step, wondering when this rampant tendency to weeping would leave her.
Robert began his first foray at the Malmsbury ball by modestly bowing out of a game of cards, where he had won a single hand for tuppence, apologizing that he could not take advantage of his opponents. Naturally this had led to some curious inquiry into his skill as a player, since his opponents, several aristocratic matrons, considered themselves no mean amateurs at a hand of piquet.
He deprecated his expertise, upon which they began to be a little suspicious, accusing him teasingly of being a Captain Sharp who wanted to lull them into complacency and then fleece them. But as Robert firmly refused to play, for money or not, they let him go—with some mystification.
He parlayed that carefully, taking his time, watching the play at another table, speaking to no one. He took note of one of the ladies at the first table watching him idly. Suddenly he turned full face to her, staring hard into her startled eyes, frowning.
Of course she averted her look, glancing down at her cards. Robert crossed the room and leaned down over her shoulder. “Ma’am,” he said urgently. “I beg your pardon, I—” He stopped speaking and stood back. He shook his head with a faint laugh. “I beg your pardon. It is nothing.”
He withdrew, leaving her whole party looking after him curiously. But he made certain to cast her a few looks while he conversed with other guests. She was quite plump and elderly, so that he could not be accused of flirtation—at least of the usual kind. But this was a darker sort of seduction; Phillippa had once told him, with a nervous laugh, that he had the most dreadfully wicked eyes when he looked at her just so.
He imagined Phillippa sitting where the matron did, and watched the lady grow more and more uneasy as her game went on. Finally, at the end of a rubber, she laid down her cards. As soon as Robert saw it, he added a comment to the avid conversation about boxing that was going forward among the gentlemen he observed. So their attention was upon him when his pigeon arrived.
He turned to her. “I am glad you came to me,” he said intensely.
“Why, sir!” she said, putting her hand over her bosom. “You’ve been near to giving me the evil eye this quarter hour past!”
The Regency Romances by Laura Kinsale / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes