The regency romances, p.75
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       The Regency Romances, p.75

           Laura Kinsale
 

  Folie turned toward them. “Ah!” she said warmly. “Is this an old friend?’’

  As she dropped into a deep curtsy, Robert tried to fight his way from the nightmare deadness that held his tongue. “Mrs. Cambourne,” he said—meaning Folie, of course, meaning only to introduce Folie, but in the instant that he spoke that name, Balfour looked into his eyes. Phillippa’s image was like a burning ghost between them.

  Robert could not speak. He shook his head.

  “Major John Balfour, ma’am. We was garrisoned together for ten years and more! Marched all over India with this gentleman.” Balfour seemed to be having no problem with his voice. But then, he never had.

  Before Robert could marshal any hope of composure, he recognized the next guest laboring up the staircase, a white-haired old lion in a resplendent dress uniform. St. Clair. Robert was suddenly an ensign again, called up the hill for a thundering upbraid.

  “Sir,” he said. He lifted his hand, aborted the salute midway, and said stupidly, “General St. Clair.”

  “Shabby as ever,” the general said with a great barking laugh. “This fellow was never meant for a military character, ma’am, I am sorry to tell you. Cambourne, you are a civilian to the bone.”

  He said it as if it were a joke. Folie smiled in appreciative innocence, not knowing that the general had just delivered a scathing insult to an army man. He gave Robert a fatherly slap on the shoulder, made an apologetic grunt, and bowed to Folie.

  “Have you come recently from India, sir?” she asked.

  “Ten days off the boat!” he said. “Retired! Can you believe it? I don’t know what to do with myself.”

  “You must come and visit us at Solinger Abbey,” she said, to Robert’s horror. She nodded toward Balfour. “And you, Major Balfour. I long to hear more of India.”

  “Thank you, my girl!” St. Clair gave a crooked smile. “Good of you.”

  Robert was relieved that his old nemesis said nothing more positive in reply. Neither did St. Clair offer Folie any congratulations before he and Balfour passed on into the house. Robert fervently hoped he would never have to lay eyes on either of them again in his lifetime.

  He had lost track of Dingley. Byron still lingered within view, the obvious target, ready to be plucked further. But even after Balfour and St. Clair had moved away, Robert felt shaken. He resolved to pass on any displays of his “power” tonight, then changed his mind and determined that he would not let unpleasant apparitions from his past deter him. The powdered servant at the foot of the stairs bawled, “Lord Brougham!”

  Robert drew a breath. He had to go on; there was no missing this opportunity, not for any mere failure of nerve.

  Lord Brougham was tall and energetic, the sort of man who moved in jerky pauses like a live marionette. As he stared at Folie with an eye that was bright and wild, he reminded her of Toot, restive and eager to sink his teeth into something interesting.

  She and Robert seemed to be the plaything he had targeted tonight. After they had greeted the guests and returned to Lady Melbourne’s throne in the drawing room, he wasted no time in cornering them.

  “The famous Mr. Cambourne!” he exclaimed, booming in an orator’s voice that seemed to catch the attention of the entire room. Folie could easily believe that he riveted a courtroom with his style. “I’ve been intending to see to you for some time now.”

  Folie took Robert’s arm. She did not like this man.

  “See to me?” Robert said calmly.

  “Look into this stuff and nonsense about divining thoughts and moving articles about the room. Come, prove it to me if you can.”

  Folie saw guests gathering closer. She noticed Lord Byron and Mrs. Witham-Stanley—and Lady Dingley, looking as white-faced and nervous as a rabbit.

  “Sir,” Robert said, hardening his jaw. “I have nothing to prove to you.”

  That was not what Folie had expected him to say. She had thought he would be anxious for a chance to perform before Lord Brougham.

  “What?” Brougham asked. “You will not press these claims before a man of reason and intelligence?”

  “I make no claims,” Robert said.

  “He never was worth a dog’s damn,” someone muttered among the guests. Folie saw General St. Clair shaking his head. “Stand up, man.”

  “Pshaw! Shame upon you!” Mrs. Witham-Stanley pressed forward. “Mr. Cambourne is not some quacksalver, who must trumpet his accomplishments up and down the street!”

  “Ah! An advocate!” Lord Brougham bowed. “My dear lady, come and testify.”

  “With pleasure,” she said. “I have myself seen Mr. Cambourne work several cures and discover dreams and thoughts.”

  “Aye.” It was Lord Byron who spoke up. “He plucked a line right out of my mind,” he said dryly. “I should like to know how you did that, sir! I swear I should.”

  “It comes to me,” Robert said. “It comes to me sometimes.”

  “What comes to you?” Lord Brougham demanded.

  Robert ignored him. He stared at the poet. “Your work,” he murmured. “You have a strong light about you.”

  “I say.” Lord Byron cleared his throat.

  “Starry nights...” Robert said. “Midnight climes.” He seemed to look very far away. “Beautiful and dark-eyed.” He smiled at the poet. “Very beautiful. But you are not done with it.”

  The celebrated Lord Byron shook his head rapidly. “Good God. You make my spine tingle.”

  “Oh, come now. Come,” Brougham exclaimed. “What are you talking about?”

  Lord Byron drifted backward. “If you want to have your hair stand on end, then let him look into your brain!”

  “Nonsense. Stuff and nonsense.”

  “My dear Brougham,” Lord Byron said sharply. “I am no more gullible than the next man. He has just related lines I’ve shown to no man alive!”

  “Nay, I don’t believe it.”

  Byron gave him a cold look. “Do you give me the lie, sir?”

  Lord Brougham snorted. “ ‘Tis Mr. Cambourne I might give the lie, eh?”

  “Have a care, my dear,” Lady Melbourne said. “Mr. and Mrs. Cambourne are my honored guests.”

  “Why, I thought you invited me for the prosecution, my lady.” Brougham bowed deeply. “I cannot see why else I should have received a card to this delightful affair.”

  “I asked Lady Melbourne to invite you,” Folie said. “I hoped to have the opportunity to meet you.”

  “Oh?” Brougham turned his bright glance upon her.

  Folie gave him a pert smile. “Lord Byron should not have all the ladies at his feet.”

  “I cannot but agree,” he said. “But do you say you have chosen me instead? May I expect impassioned epistles, madam?”

  She curtsied. “I shall write you pages of fervid admiration for your brilliant defense of Free Speech,” she said demurely.

  “A bold female you have here, Cambourne.”

  “Cambourne adores brazen women,” Major Balfour said, raking a bow toward Folie. “Beautiful, brazen ladies.”

  She felt Robert’s arm tense under her fingers, but Lord Brougham was smiling like a mad cat. “Now there is an interesting topic. Tell me, Mr. Cambourne, if you can discover my thoughts—do I like or dislike impudence in a woman?”

  A silence fell. Folie was not quite certain if they were being deliberately insulted or if this was only meant as the sort of bloodthirsty flirtation that some London dandies favored. Robert’s face was stone.

  “Give me a few of your cards,” he said. “I’ll write it down.”

  “You’ve only to tell me. Look into my mind!”

  “Nay, what is to be proved by that? I’ll write your answer, and then you write it yourself, and we shall compare.”

  Lord Brougham smiled. He put two fingers inside his waistcoat pocket and drew forth a card case, flipping it open and holding it out. “Take all you like.”

  Robert took several visiting cards. He turned them over and wrote on one
of them inside his palm. He turned and handed the card to Lady Melbourne. “If you will hold this, madam, without looking at it, so that no one may say that you aided me somehow. Now, write your own answer, sir.”

  Lord Brougham chuckled. “Is this a yes or no question?”

  “Write what you think, sir—do you like impudent women?”

  The lawyer shook his head, writing, carefully concealing his pencil behind his hand. But Folie noticed now what she would not have before—that Robert stood just a little in front of Lady Melbourne, so that it was perfectly natural for him to take the card from Lord Brougham and pass it to her between two fingers, keeping the card face down, so that he could not see what was on it.

  The guests pressed closer, craning to see. His friends from India were part of the audience, looking even more absorbed than Robert himself, who seemed to Folie to be in an unsettled mood, as if Lord Brougham’s aggression angered him.

  “Let us get it all over with at once,” Robert said, “because you will say this is only luck. Your mind is hot with challenge—so give me another. Something that may be written down in a word or two, so that there is ‘proof.’ “ He sounded slightly disdainful. “It is solid evidence that you prefer, is it not?”

  “All right. Tell me then, in what year did I begin school?”

  Robert looked at him, then at Mrs. Witham-Stanley, who was standing anxiously beside Lord Brougham. He smiled, more amiable with her. “Are you thinking of a year too, ma’am?”

  “Oh!” she said. “Oh, yes, I am—the year I married! I am so sorry! Does it interfere?”

  Robert grinned and handed her a card. “Write it down.” He waited until she did, then took the pencil back. He wrote on two cards, looking first at Mrs. Witham-Stanley, then in turn at Brougham as he did it. He waited for Brougham to write his answer, and collected all the cards to pass to Lady Melbourne.

  “There, ma’am. You may turn them over and show them to us.”

  Lady Melbourne turned up the cards. On the first pair, “1788,” in Robert’s handwriting matched “1788,” in Mrs. Witham-Stanley’s. The lady gasped, and several of the guests standing about murmured appreciatively. “Amazing! How close!”

  But Folie saw that Robert frowned slightly at the cards. He glanced up, patently uneasy to Folie’s eyes, as if he expected that the audience must see through this.

  “The next pair, please ma’am,” he said in a stiff voice.

  On this pair, Lady Melbourne displayed, “1784” in Lord Brougham’s strong hand, and “1788” in Robert’s. Folie saw him look warily toward Brougham.

  “Humpf,” Lord Brougham said. “I cannot call that a match.”

  The spectators began to dispute among themselves whether 1784 and 1788 could be called a very close approximation.

  “Why, Mrs. Witham-Stanley, you are as strong as government interference!” Folie said gaily.

  This brought a shout of laughter, but she could see that Robert was disturbed. He did not take his eyes off of the last two cards in Lady Melbourne’s hand as she turned them over.

  No was writ large on Lord Brougham’s card. And on Robert’s, the word Perhaps. The guests groaned.

  “A clear miss,” Lord Brougham said. “Two out of three missed—I do not think I can call this very impressive.”

  “It is true, then, Lord Brougham?” Folie asked, turning down her lips in a saucy pout. She put her fingertips on his arm. “You really dislike impudent women?”

  “Oh, perhaps,” he said, smirking back.

  A look of self-surprise crossed his face. His brows snapped together.

  The spectators were silent for an instant, as if absorbing his reply. Then they burst into hoots. “A match! A match! A clear match!”

  But Robert looked far from happy. He ignored the congratulations, shaking his head, disengaging himself from the guests who squeezed around him entreating to have their thoughts divined.

  TWENTY-FOUR

  “You wrote ‘perhaps’?” The conjurer shook his head with a baffled look. “Whatever did you write ‘perhaps’ for? With yes or no, you’d have at least an even chance of a hit.”

  “I don’t know why,” Robert said. He sat in a half-lit corner of the drawing room, working a deck of cards on the table, cutting and shuffling aimlessly. “I lost my concentration. Besides, it made no difference at that point.”

  “You’ll always hit two out of three with that trick, if it’s done properly. And you have even odds for that third hit if you confine the answers to yes or no.”

  “I didn’t even make the first two marks,” Robert said sullenly. “Ask Folie.”

  “I thought it was quite successful,” she said.

  He cast her a skeptical glance, riffling cards past his thumb.

  “You hit Mrs. Witham-Stanley’s anniversary perfectly, and even if the school year was a bit off—you certainly caught him out with ‘perhaps’!” She made a disdainful snort. “He was obviously lying when he wrote his answer down—but you snared him anyway.”

  “Snared him!” Robert bowed the cards between his fingers until they burst into a chaotic pile. “My dear girl, I started into that trick and realized halfway through that I had it entirely backwards.” He ran his hand through his hair. “My God, what a bungle. In front of Brougham, too.”

  “It was not a bungle,” Folie said. “I don’t know why you insist that it was.”

  He gathered up the cards and went back to shuffling.

  “It was not a bungle,” she said to Lander and the conjurer.

  Robert blew air through his teeth. “Don’t patronize me,” he said in an ugly tone.

  “I am not—” Her voice choked. “Well, never mind. I don’t know what is wrong with you.” She went to mending her pen with clumsy strokes, her head bent over the desk.

  Well, so he had upset her, Robert thought brutally. Best that she discover the truth now. He was not the clever, brave and heroic fellow that she—and Robert himself—had begun to suppose he might be.

  Never was worth a dog’s damn. If Robert had not supposed he was beneath the brigadier’s scorn, he would think St. Clair had intentionally made that mumbled insult loud enough for Folie to hear.

  But it was for the best, no doubt, that his old commander had casually set the record straight. Everything had gone so perfectly—so terrifyingly well. It was a fantasy that he could not sustain. And yet Folie’s disillusionment was more than he thought he could bear.

  I don’t know what is wrong with you. How many times had Phillippa said that to him?

  “We shall have another go at Brougham,” Lander said. “From what you describe, Mrs. Cambourne, he was more than ordinarily belligerent. We’ll goad him into a misstep if we can.”

  “A challenging adversary,” Robert’s tutor said soberly. “You’ll have to keep your wits more about you the next time.”

  “I do not propose that there will be a next time,” Robert said.

  He began to play solitaire. Silence reigned.

  “Sir?” Lander asked uncertainly. “You are not serious.”

  “Deadly serious. I am putting a halt to this. Tonight.”

  “I do not understand you. A halt?”

  “No more of these tricks and exhibitions of sham powers. I’m done with it.”

  “Why, because you botched one trick?” the conjurer exclaimed. “Grow up, my boy—you’ll botch ten thousand more before you’re through.”

  “No doubt I would,” Robert said coolly. “But I am through now.”

  “But we’re making amazing headway—” Lander protested. “And from the way Mrs. Cambourne says you saved that trick with Brougham—they must be frothing at the mouth to discover the truth of things.”

  “If it’s your courage that fails you, my friend,” the conjurer said, “you needn’t worry that they’ll try to rid themselves of you again. Just consider—if their drug has given you the second sight, they’ll be terrified that it could do the same to the Prince Regent. They’ll have to know for certain
and your life is secure until they do.”

  “I’m not in fear of my life,” Robert snapped. “The whole thing is a stack of cards, that’s all. It will never work.”

  “It has been working. Everyone but the poor mad king himself knows of you now,” Lander said. “We’re closing in on our quarry.”

  “No we aren’t,” Robert said. “We’ve nothing but mist and smoke to show for our efforts. Tell me one concrete fact that we have discovered.”

  “Brougham wants you discredited. Badly.”

  “So?” Robert snorted. “He appears to be the sort of man who lives to discredit everyone but himself.”

  “Sir Howard Dingley—why was he there?”

  “Yes, I thought something great of that myself,” Robert said dryly, “until Folie informed me that his wife is Lady Melbourne’s goddaughter, not to mention the person who introduced her at Melbourne House. What more natural than that the Dingleys are invited guests to a party in Folie’s honor? It would be strange if they weren’t.”

  “Did Dingley say anything to you, ma’am?” Lander asked Folie.

  She shook her head. “Nothing out of the way. He acted as if nothing had ever happened.” She wrinkled her nose. “Though I would vow I could still smell the river on him.”

  “In truth, sir,” Lander said. “I don’t think we ought to change our strategy now. We would lose all that we’ve gained.”

  ‘‘What have we gained, Lander?’’ Robert demanded. “I am now a trained bear for the hostesses to exhibit. If there is a plot against the regent, we know nothing specific of it, not who or what or where or why.” He slapped a card down. “Like as not the whole idea was no more than a demented illusion. You saw me—you and Folie did. Can you say I was in possession of my reason? It was dementia. A natural dementia, no doubt, and I’ll be fortunate if I don’t end up bound in a strait waistcoat like the old king.”

  “The prison ship was no dementia,” Folie said.

  “A coincidence,” Robert said. “We were robbed in the park. They could not let us go, so they dumped their victims aboard that ship, rather than murder us outright.”

 

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