The regency romances, p.77
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       The Regency Romances, p.77

           Laura Kinsale
 

  “No,” she said. “You did not wish to see him, I presume?”

  He stood facing her, not even looking at his wife. His mouth was pale; quivering. Folie’s heart began to pound in her throat. She could see his hand behind his hat—hidden.

  “H-howard?” Lady Dingley said unsteadily.

  He turned his head. But still he did not move, or take his eyes from Folie. She wondered if she could pull open the door and race out fast enough to escape him.

  “Are the g-girls still asleep?” Lady Dingley asked in a small, shaky voice.

  His face worked, his mouth tight and his eyes wide. He began to look as wild as a silent madman. He stepped forward, seizing Folie’s arm just as she yanked at the door. His hat rolled away on the floor, leaving him holding a gun openly, but he did not aim it. Instead he squeezed her arm until she squealed, the pistol clutched in his white fist. He was panting like a dog. “You’re hiding him!” he exclaimed. “Tell me where he is!”

  “I don’t know!” Folie cried. “He left the house! He’s gone!”

  Sir Howard stared at her. As Folie watched, a disintegration seemed to overtake him. His menacing stiffness failed; he let go of her. His limbs seemed to give way—he fell to his knees on the floor.

  “Oh, my God,” he whispered. “God save me.”

  “Howard?” Lady Dingley whispered. “What is it?”

  He shook his head, lifting the pistol in his hand, covering his face.

  “What is it?” Lady Dingley cried. “What is that? Put it down! Put it down!” Folie held her breath. Sir Howard knelt on the floor, the gun at his head. She saw his hand tighten on the handle, aiming the muzzle toward himself.

  “Howard,” Lady Dingley said, in a voice that had suddenly gone icy and clear. It was as if someone else in the room had spoken. Some voice like a cold angel, a ruthless guardian. “You cannot do that. Your daughters need you.”

  Sir Howard began to shake all over.

  “We need you,” his wife whispered, her own quavering self again.

  Sir Howard make a choked sound. He closed his eyes and laid the gun down on the carpet. Silent tears ran down his face.

  “Please,” he mumbled. He opened his eyes and looked up at Folie. “Please help me. I can’t do this. My little girls—” His eyes widened again and his jaw grew rigid in that maddened look. “I need help!”

  “The girls?” Lady Dingley asked, her voice peaking to a panic.

  He never took his eyes from Folie. “They have my little girls,” he said, barely audible. “I have to bring Cambourne back.”

  “Who has them?’’ Lady Dingley cried. She grabbed her husband’s arm, dragging at him. “Who has them?”

  Folie stared back at him as a clear, terrible understanding dawned. “You came for Robert,” she whispered. “You staged this all to get in.”

  “What?” Lady Dingley tugged at him frantically. “What is it? Who has my girls?”

  “Quiet!” Folie said, dismay adding a biting command to her voice. “Get up. Get up and tell me everything.”

  Sir Howard rose, ignoring his frenzied wife. “I must have Cambourne by dawn,” he said. “They are holding the girls until dawn.”

  Lady Dingley turned to Folie, gone mute now, holding her husband’s arm with a grip like death.

  “I tried to refuse,” he said. “I told them I’d have nothing to do with it. I never from the beginning wanted anything to do with it!”

  Folie gazed at him, her body as still as the silent street outside.

  “Please help me,” he said. His voice broke. “I’ve tried to handle it; I thought I could handle it. I never wanted Belle to find out. I could handle it alone. But they just—whatever I do, they want more.” He looked down at the gun at his feet. “I could not do this. I told them I would not do this. But my girls. My girls.” He made a deep sob and closed his eyes. “Pray God, please help me.”

  “Yes,” Folie said. Her mind was racing wildly. “Let me think.”

  TWENTY-FIVE

  The sale horses at Tattersall’s Repository dozed and nibbled hay and snorted softly. Even deep in the night, the trading stable was alive with gentle rustling; now and then the deep thud of a hoof sounded against a stall partition. Robert sat on a stool tilted up against the wall, watching the night grooms roll dice and clean leather tackle.

  He was not the only gentleman who had wandered in out of the rain. In the far corner, two drunken young lords leaned against one another, having fallen fast asleep in the midst of an argument over what horse had come in fifth last season in the Hundred Guineas at Ascot. A veterinarian came in and out, checking every hour on a horse that seemed like to colic, shooting dice in the intervals to keep himself awake. The grooms addressed a nod and a civil word to whoever rambled in, and scrupulously avoided any illicit monetary bets on their devil’s bones.

  Robert had spent countless nights this way, sheltered among tolerant strangers. He had not gone far away from Cambourne House—his retreat had taken him only as far as Hyde Park Corner, a few streets off, before rain and hard reflection drove him to take cover in the auctioneer’s stable.

  He sat there a long time, locked in his rusted armor. The image she had evoked was so vivid that he felt almost physically frozen, benumbed and unable to move.

  He had fallen in love with his sweet Folly so long ago that it hardly mattered when it had happened. Fallen in love with her stories of wayward geese and pigs, with her dreams of knights and her embroidered “R. C.” on a handkerchief—with the way the stitches were not quite even toward the right-hand side, as if she had grown impatient to finish and send it off. He had fallen in love with her fears and her sorrows, her life that had come to him through her letters—in love with a grown woman who called in a solicitor’s office with an evil-tempered ferret wrapped in a shawl.

  There was so little in all of that to fear, and yet he was terrified. It was as if his heart skidded down an endless drop and he could not see the bottom.

  Are you afraid? Lander demanded, with such an unbelieving look.

  Of course I’m not afraid, Robert thought hotly.

  But he was. Afraid of failing. Afraid of falling back into madness. Afraid of losing Folly.

  So what did he do? He failed his task. He claimed the madness for reality—there was no plot, no enemy; only his irrational mind. He walked away and left her. Point by point, he insisted that what he feared must be the truth, even if he had to make it true.

  But still he sat frozen, caught between going away and going back.

  A gray tabby cat slipped into the stable and moved among the shadows, keeping close to the wall. The animal was missing an ear and walked with the stiff hind legs of advanced age. Its fur was drenched, its white paws muddied.

  The horse doctor murmured, “Kitty, kitty,” but the cat only glanced at him warily and sat down at the edge of the light. It began to groom itself carefully, starting with its remaining ear.

  “Kitty, kitty,” the doctor said again, gently. The cat gave him an aloof look and moved farther away, into a half-lit corner.

  “Cool old campaigner,” one of the grooms said. “Won’t have no truck with a kind word.”

  Sitting alone, the cat worked its fur. When it had cleaned and dried itself, it looked out from its safe corner, slowly waving the tip of its kinked tail.

  When the veterinarian had gotten up again to examine his horse, and the grooms were absorbed in their game, Robert felt something rub against his leg. The old tabby leaned against him. It began to purr.

  Robert pushed it away with his knee. In response, the cat lifted a white paw and tentatively touched his leg. Then with a graceful spring it came into his lap. It curled up and lay down, purring so loudly that he could feel the vibrations in his belly.

  He picked it up and deposited it on the floor. The cat, undaunted, rubbed its leg and rose on its haunches, placing both front paws on its thigh.

  “No,” he said irritably. “I can’t keep you.”

  The an
imal ignored him, leaping up into his lap again in sublime confidence. He thought of Skipper, lost—he thought of Phillippa; he thought of Folie.

  I love you, Robert.

  I can’t keep you.

  I can’t keep you; I can’t bear to lose you. It’s because I’ll lose you that I can’t...I can’t...

  Rusted. Rusted solid in his armor.

  Robert looked down at the old cat settling in his lap. Lander was wrong; his magician-tutor was wrong. It was not his life Robert feared to lose. It was his life that he feared to live.

  Folie’s stomach had that quivery, light, sick feeling of too little sleep and too much tumult. But her mind was abnormally clear. She sat in the carriage, blinded by a scarf about her eyes, her hands bound in her lap.

  The rain had stopped. As the vehicle drew to a halt, she heard a distant watchman call two o’clock. Sir Howard laid his hand over hers and gave a hard squeeze. “Are you ready?”

  Folie nodded in return. He held the muzzle of the unloaded pistol against her ear. She could feel it trembling. Once they had embarked upon their program, Lady Dingley, with the difficult role of staying behind to await Robert or Lander, had undertaken her task with a rigid determination. She was a mother intent on saving her children, and Folie did not fear for an instant that she would crack. Sir Howard was another matter. He was gone beyond logic or judgment, like a man half-drowned, allowing himself to sink the last time without even attempting to struggle. But Folie’s plan of action and Lady Dingley’s determined self-possession had seemed to rally him. Folie could only hope that he could hold up to play his part.

  A wash of chilly, damp air rushed into the carriage as the door opened. The vehicle rocked a little. Strong hands grasped her arms and pulled her forward. Someone clapped a palm over her mouth. Folie took a deep breath and did not resist. She was half-urged and half-dragged down onto the pavement. In utter silence, her unseen captors hustled her up the stairs.

  Inside, the building smelled of dust and linseed oil. They did not take her far—turning her into one of the rooms on the ground floor. The sound of footsteps echoed on a wooden floor. Folie stumbled against a table and gave a little sob. A hand on each arm steadied her. They pressed her forward.

  “Stairs,” Sir Howard said. “Down.”

  One by one, she descended three steps, feeling forward with her foot like a blind person. In fact, she could see quite well once there was sufficient light—her blindfold was a trick that she had learned from Robert’s conjurer, a scarf rolled and tied just so about her head. The bindings on her wrists were not impossible to escape, either.

  She was led up another set of steps and seated by her captors on an odd sort of pedestal. A strong, bright light shone down from above, though she could not see its source through the slit in her blindfold. Before her rose several tiers of seats and tables—a studio classroom for artists, lined by rows and rows of plaster busts mounted on the walls. The windows were shuttered and sealed. Scattered about the room, half-finished canvases leaned against easels, casting long, rectangular shadows over the drapery of Greek statuary.

  The Royal Academy. Folie felt a small flicker of relief— Sir Howard had told the truth of that much. But still, her shakiness was not completely feigned. She might have walked into this voluntarily, but she was frightened beyond her wits. There was no predicting what would happen—her plan ended with giving Sir Howard a captive to trade for his daughters. And hoping that Robert or Lander would find some way to rescue her.

  “What the devil have you done, Dingley?” a man demanded in a low voice. It was vaguely familiar, but Folie did not recognize it. With her field of vision limited, she had yet to see who else was in the room. “Where’s Cambourne?”

  “I had no choice,” Sir Howard hissed. “But we have him. Mark my words. This is—”

  “I can see who it is, damn you!”

  “I had no choice,” Sir Howard repeated, more agitated. “He wasn’t at the house.”

  “You’ve hashed it, Dingley.”

  “No. When he returns and finds her gone...” Sir Howard let his voice trail off suggestively. “I left him a note. That he’d hear from us.”

  A silence met this information. Folie turned her head, lifting her chin slightly to give herself a clear view.

  Her eyes widened behind the bandage. It was one of the Indian officers she had just met at Melbourne House—the younger of those two old friends of Robert’s. She could not remember his name...something Norman or French.

  “My daughters—” Sir Howard said.

  “We’ll have to see what he says,” the officer muttered. “I’ve sent for him.”

  Who? Folie wanted to cry. Who would do this?

  “How long will it take?” Sir Howard demanded. “I want my daughters safe. I was told they would be safe.”

  “You were supposed to bring Cambourne,” the other man said.

  “We can get to him easily through her. It worked before.”

  “Yes, true,” the officer conceded. “But a bird in the hand, my friend, is worth two little girls in the bush, I should say.”

  “You blackguard,” Sir Howard exclaimed. “I hope you burn.”

  “Well, I don’t want anything to happen to ‘em either. You should have done what you were told.”

  “For God’s sake! I tried!” Sir Howard passed in and out of Folie’s view, walking in jerky strides across the studio floor. She realized that she was seated on the model’s pedestal in the center of the room. “You said to get into the house! I got in! He wasn’t in the damned house!”

  “Maybe he knew you were coming,” another man said. Folie involuntarily turned toward the new voice. St. Clair. General St. Clair, she remembered that one’s name. He was sitting in the second row of the student tiers, his white hair curled and gleaming, the harsh light casting shadows in the wrinkles on his face. He chuckled deep in his chest. “Maybe he divined your thoughts.”

  “Don’t say that sort of thing, sir,” the younger man said. “It’s not wise.”

  “Fiddle of a rod, Balfour. Cambourne’s a buffoon.”

  “Aye, that’s so. But you don’t know what that concoction might do to a man.”

  “It ain’t going to turn a clown into a sharp,” the general said dryly.

  “He isn’t so sure,” Balfour replied.

  “If Cambourne’s transformed into such a clever fellow, then why’d he leave his wife alone, hmm? To own frankly, it’d be just like him to forget all about her and wander off to watch some fakir levitate goats. Swallowed so much of that mystical pap that he’s begun to believe he can do it himself.”

  “Aye,” the younger man said bitterly. “I hate the bastard. The way he treated her.”

  “She were none too kind to him,” the general said.

  “She was an angel,” Balfour said.

  “I’ll say she was an angel to look upon,” St. Claire agreed. He nodded in Sir Howard’s direction. “Had all the young fools like Balfour here at her feet. But I never saw such a strange temper as that girl had.”

  “Women,” Sir Howard said hollowly.

  “There be women and women,” the general said. “Phillippa Cambourne was a devil’s daughter.”

  Folie realized they were speaking of Robert’s late wife. “That’s not true!” Balfour exclaimed. “You didn’t know her heart.”

  “What about the fire?”

  “She did not start that fire! That’s a damned lie. Cambourne spread that lie.”

  Folie could see the white-haired general shake his head. “Nay, that’s one thing he didn’t do. I had my best jemadar investigate. Her own dubashee swore he saw her put that candle to the foot of Cambourne’s bed—”

  “A cursed native!” Balfour’s voice held a high note of fury. “A sneaking servant! It’s a lie. It’s a lie!”

  “Shut up,” Sir Howard said. “Keep your voices down.”

  “Aye, he’s right. You hold your wits about you, Balfour. I hope she went straight to Heaven, if it m
akes you and him happy, but that’s all water under the bridge.”

  Balfour muttered something Folie could not understand, but he said no more. She sat still, folding and unfolding her fingers in her lap. It was the first report she had ever heard of Robert’s wife—the first time Folie had even learned her name. The strange conflict in their description of her seemed in keeping with the insanity of everything else.

  A clock struck half past two. They waited in silence for whoever was to arrive.

  Robert, Robert, she thought. She squeezed her fingers together and closed her eyes, praying that she and Sir Howard had done the right thing.

  But what choice had there been?

  In the shades and phantoms of the studio, the artworks seemed to have a frozen life of their own. Each time someone moved in the room, their long shadow flickered motion across a plaster hand or made a portrait seem to shift. The largest work was a great canvas or paper mural tilted against the wall, the life-size cartoon only partially sketched in pencil. It appeared as if it was to be a battle scene, with a horse and officer in the foreground, though Folie could not make out the drawing clearly enough to be sure.

  The clock had chimed another hour when she heard a door open and close. A man with a white scarf tied over his mouth and nose came into her vision. He gave no greeting, only walked up to the mural and stood it upright, balancing it in some way she could not discern. He turned toward them, made a slight, ironical bow, showing nothing of his face for the scarf and his hat pulled low over his eyes.

  The door opened again, and a slightly built figure walked into Folie’s line of view, a man of some age—possibly older than General St. Clair. He carried a cane with an ornate silver head, but walked nimbly, disappearing so quickly behind the huge canvas that she did not get a clear view of him, but she thought she had never seen him before. Another man, taller, his face disguised by a scarf like their escort, followed him into seclusion behind the screen. Their guard stood attentively beside it.

  “Mrs. Folie Elizabeth Cambourne.” After a moment, the pleasant voice came from behind the canvas. It could have been the voice of any distinguished older gentleman she had met at any drawing room or soiree or Wednesday night ball at Almack’s. “A most unusual name.”

 
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