The regency romances, p.78
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       The Regency Romances, p.78

           Laura Kinsale
 

  She looked straight ahead, without answering.

  “Cambourne wasn’t in the house,” Sir Howard said quickly. “But we can use her to lure him.”

  “Mr. Cambourne is certainly a slippery fellow.”

  “But he’ll come after her,” Sir Howard said. “He’ll come after her, when and where we tell him to come.”

  “I’m a little disturbed by his absence. Might it be one of these tricks of his?’’

  “How could it be?” Sir Howard’s voice rose and cracked. “I took her out of the house at the point of my gun. The servants meant to stop me if they could.”

  “You were not followed?”

  “Of course not. We drove around London five times before we came here. I’m no fool!” Sir Howard said. “I’ve done your dirty work. Now give me my daughters and let me out of this.”

  “Your daughters are quite safe,” the man behind the canvas said.

  “You told me that—”

  “You ought to have brought Cambourne to us, my dear Dingley, and these points would not be at issue.”

  “I could not—damn you!” Sir Howard’s voice quivered. Folie held her breath, but he managed to get control of himself. “I’ve brought you the bait. Set the trap for him yourself.”

  “We appear to have no choice now,” the guard said, his voice harsh even through his mask, “thanks to your mismanagement.”

  “Mr. Inman,” the man behind the canvas chided his guard gently. “Even you could not successfully breach the house. Do not throw stones at Sir Howard. I think the situation can be turned to good account.”

  Inman, Folie thought. It was the man Lander had called a terrorist. She thought of the smallest Dingley girls and felt as if she could readily hold a gun between his eyes and pull the trigger. It amazed her that Sir Howard did not do it.

  She heard herself speak, a breathy, scared pitch. “It’s my husband you want,” she said. “If you let Sir Howard go away with the children, I’ll do what is necessary.”

  No one answered her. It was as if one of the statues had come to life, they all seemed so startled by her words.

  “Bravely spoken, madam,” the gentleman behind the screen said. “Perhaps we can work with that.”

  “You must let him have the children. Or I shall do nothing. I shall lie to you about everything. You will not get what you want short of murdering me.”

  “Which is not at all what I desire to do,” he said. “Give me a moment to consider what will be best for all concerned—”

  A thunderous echo arrested his words, the crash of wood splintering, a door exploding open. Metal tinkled as it hit the floor. Folie jumped so hard at the smashing sound that she pulled one hand free of her bonds. Through her mask she saw Robert standing in the doorway, his pistol trained into the room.

  Quickly she stuffed her wrist back within the rope, her breath harsh and frantic. Robert was here, Robert was here. She swallowed a gulp of air, trying to keep her sense and watch for what she ought to do.

  But there was nothing she could do. While he stood in the door, before he even spoke, before Folie could cry out a warning, a man stepped into view behind him. His face was hidden like the others, wrapped in black. He held a gun to Robert’s head.

  In an instant, her hope of rescue turned to irretrievable calamity. Folie’s throat closed with fear.

  “Cambourne!” Improbably, General St. Clair began to laugh. “Good God, man, did I never teach you to watch your flank?”

  Robert sent an agonized glance toward Folie. Gradually, reluctantly, he lowered his pistol and gave it up to the man behind him.

  “Robert?” Folie asked uncertainly, as if she could not see him. She had no need to dramatize to make her voice sound fearful. She could barely force it from her throat.

  “Come in!” said the elderly voice from the screen, ironically cordial. “Mr. Robert Cambourne, is it? Just the gentleman we wished to entertain.”

  Robert’s captor prodded him with the gun. He walked forward, down the steps, stopping below her pedestal in the center of the room. Folie had been sure he would not come alone—that he would bring Lander or at least Martin— someone, anyone, to guard his back.

  Surely he had not tried to come alone. Yet he stood under the bright studio lamps with his face lowered, as if he were ashamed, except for a sideways glance like a dagger toward the Indian officers.

  “The honorable John Balfour,” he said, his lip curling. “I knew you would be here.” He lifted his head and stared at Sir Howard. “And Dingley, of course. I should have left you to rot in the bottom of that bilge.”

  “Ah, but this is precisely what we must discuss with you,” the man said from the screen. “What you know—and what you don’t know.”

  Robert turned toward the screen. “Ask me,” he said shortly. “If you suppose it will do you any good.”

  “Then tell me,” their unseen enemy said, “how came you to find us in this place?”

  Robert gave a dark chuckle. “I looked.”

  After a short silence, the man said, “Lives are at stake— your charming wife’s among them. How did you come here?”

  Robert shook his head a little. “I knew. I looked.”

  “Dingley told you!” Balfour exclaimed suddenly. “How else?”

  “I told him?” Sir Howard said on a squeak. Then he snorted convincingly. “Do you suppose I’m a fool?”

  “I hope you are not,” General St. Clair said. “But perhaps you might take his gun away, Balfour. In case.”

  “Oh, you’re all quite safe from Dingley,” Robert said, as Balfour reached for Sir Howard’s gun. Robert made a quick motion with his hand, as if he caught a fly from the air. The masked guard behind him thrust the gun into his back, grunting a warning, but Robert only opened his palm. A white powder-wad and a leaden ball lay in it. “I’ve unloaded his pistol for you.”

  Sir Howard gave him a look of consternation. Robert held out his hand and let the ball and wad tumble from his palm onto a table next to him.

  “You’ve unloaded it, eh?” Balfour said, lifting his chin in challenge. He aimed the pistol at Robert. “You’d better hope.”

  “Hold your fire!” the general snapped. “You young jackass.”

  “Nay, go ahead,” Robert said, staring at Balfour down the pistol’s muzzle. “I know what’s in your mind.” He smiled slightly. “So kill me. For Phillippa’s sake.”

  “Balfour!” General St. Clair half-rose from his seat.

  “I do not want him killed,” the hidden man said loudly. “For the moment.”

  Balfour narrowed his eyes and shrugged. He lifted the gun, aiming just above Robert’s head, and pulled the trigger. Folie’s muscles contracted involuntarily.

  The hammer fell with a dead click.

  “Johnnie,” a woman’s voice whispered.

  It was so soft and unexpected that Folie was not certain that she had really heard it. But Balfour’s head turned sharply. He looked up toward General St. Clair. “What was that?”

  “What was what?” the general said, scowling.

  “That voice!”

  “Voice!” the general grumbled. “Don’t let go your grips, my dear fellow.”

  “It’s Phillippa,” Folie said. “Robert! I heard her!”

  “Inman! St. Clair.” The man behind the screen spoke sharply. “Inspect the room. Be quick about it.”

  While Balfour stood staring up after them, the two men mounted the tiers into the shadows of the studio, their feet thumping heavily.

  “It was Phillippa,” Folie said, allowing her voice to rise, trembling. “I heard her, Robert. I heard her again.”

  He looked toward her. Folie lifted her hands, as if she were straining at the bonds, and made the brief, simple hand gesture that the conjurer had taught them, the one that signified, I’m ready, go ahead.

  He showed his teeth and laughed, raising his voice on a strange wild note. “Phillippa, my darling wife! Of course she’s come. Look who’s here to greet her!


  The screen shook, as if someone took hold of it with an invisible hand.

  “There’s no one here,” General St. Clair said in a loud voice from the dark heights of the room.

  “I want...” The woman’s ethereal whisper came again, loud enough to be unmistakable this time. “I...want…” The yearning sound of it was ghastly. Folie felt the hair rise on her neck. She did not mean to let the illusion take her in too, but when Balfour made a strangled sound in his throat, she could hardly blame him.

  “Cambourne!” Balfour exclaimed savagely. “Stop!”

  “Do you think I can stop it?” Robert asked. “You gave me this genius. This is what it’s done to me. I can’t stop it now.”

  “What genius, Cambourne?” the man demanded from behind the screen. His voice was harsh and strained. “Do you claim you can call the dead?’’

  Folie’s heart was beating rapidly. She stared down at Robert and the man who held the gun on him, ransacking her brain for more hints to give out of what little she knew. As she looked, she noticed the guard’s sandy-colored hair under the black scarf and hat—realized that a long queue was tucked down beneath his collar.

  Lander.

  Robert laughed, the sound echoing crazily. “Call the dead? The dead call me. I can’t get away from ‘em now, or what they tell me.”

  She swallowed, closed her jaw and lowered her face. Through her unmoving lips, she said Lander’s name. He did not seem to hear her. Folie was afraid to raise her voice more. “Lander,” she whispered, barely enunciating each syllable under her breath. “Say—you—smell—smoke.”

  “What do they tell you?” the hidden man asked, his voice strangled and loud, as if the words were choked from him.

  “Nay, sir—” Another voice spoke from behind the screen, authoritatively calm. “This must be nonsense. I’ve never known any such thing to occur before with this drug. Never.”

  “Examine him, examine him! That’s why we’re here!” The elderly gentlemen seemed frenetic, almost as if he might weep. “Lord! Oh, Lord.”

  “Doctor,” Robert said, as a tall man emerged from behind the canvas. The man paused, lifting his concealed face.

  “The prince...the prince...” The woman’s moan whispered through the shadows of the room. ‘ ‘The prince...must go mad. . .”

  Nothing—no one—moved as the sound died away.

  “Come and examine me,” Robert said invitingly. “Come and discover what you’ve done.”

  “What I’ve done?” the tall man demanded.

  “What you’ve made of me. You don’t know what you toy with.” Robert shook his head. “Who told you about that potion, little Englishman? It’s not meant for an unknowing mind. It should have killed me.”

  “You tested it, Varley!” the elderly man quavered from his hiding place. “You said it worked on him! It was only to make him lose his wits.”

  “Aye, it made me lose my wits!” Robert said fiercely. “I see dreams. I hear voices. I’ll never be what I was before. I can do things now—I open my empty hand and something is there. I look at a thing and it moves toward me. And I hear Phillippa when she comes. You should have given me enough to kill me, but it’s too late now.”

  “Drawing room tricks,” the doctor sneered. He swept away the bullet and wad from the table.

  “Varley!” the man cried helplessly behind the screen. The canvas rocked. His hand appeared, gesturing excitedly with the cane. Silver light glanced off a pair of dragon heads on the handle. “Are you sure? What have you done? What if it does the same—”

  “Quiet! I’ve not given the prince as much. Not nearly as much,” the doctor said quickly.

  Folie saw Lander stiffen. He butted the gun several times into Robert’s back, a gesture so obvious and excited that she was amazed no one detected it.

  Then Lander drew a deep, audible sniff. He turned his head, covering his face and pulling at his mask as if he drew it away from his nose. “Balfour,” he said in a troubled tone. “Do you smell smoke?”

  “No—” But Balfour’s face changed.

  Robert’s breathing quickened. “She’s burning,” he said through his teeth. “She’s always burning.

  “Lord, oh Lord,” the old man moaned. “What have we done?”

  “Look!” Lander exclaimed, staring toward the top of the room. Folie watched every man in the room succumb to a trick even a child knew. While they turned to the shadows, she saw Lander lean against Robert’s back and whisper in his ear.

  Robert’s body went rigid. For a long moment, as the others searched the top of the room, he did not move. Even when Balfour said, “I saw it—I saw it!” Robert did not speak or react.

  “What did you see? What?” the man behind the screen shrieked.

  “I’ve seen nothing, I smell nothing!” General St. Clair exclaimed. He strode toward Folie. “I think this woman’s naught but a ventriloquist!” The next she knew, St. Clair tore the blindfold up off her head. With a firm hand, he retied it about her mouth. “Now let us see if dead women speak!”

  Folie looked helplessly down at Robert and Lander. Robert slowly shook his head. “Nay, sir,” he said, almost as if he felt sorry for the general’s ignorance. He seemed distracted now, lifting his hand in a dismissive gesture. “She will speak to her papa. She’ll tell the truth.”

  “No!” The canvas vibrated. “Phillippa!”

  “Papa!” the woman’s voice whispered through the room. “I’m in Hell.”

  “Noooo, Phillippa.” The gentleman gave a terrified sob. “My little girl. My little girl.”

  “I’m waiting for you, Papa. You will...come...”

  The sounds from behind the canvas were wretched. Everyone listened, transfixed, as the man there snuffled and moaned. “Don’t, don’t. I must not!”

  “Come to me here...Papa! Come...burn with me!”

  “It’s unnatural, child; I must not, I mustn’t,” he muttered, a hideous gibbering to himself.

  “The truth...Papa!”

  “No, don’t tell, don’t tell, my sweetest, don’t speak of it! You love me! You love me too much!”

  “The truth...” the woman’s voice whispered. “The truth...only you and I...know...”

  “You must not tell!” the old man screamed.

  “I’m dead, Papa...I’m burning. You must say it, Papa...”

  “It’s unnatural sin, I must not. Unnatural, unnatural— Phillippa darling, my darling girl, my sweet.”

  Inman backed away from the screen, staring at it. He came to halt against the desk near Sir Howard, never taking his eyes from the canvas frame.

  “Tell it, Papa...” the voice whispered inexorably. “Tell them what we know...”

  “You are a wicked temptress!” he shrieked. “I’ll kill you if you tell!”

  Folie was riveted, gazing at the screen like everyone. But when Robert made a wordless noise, she looked down and saw that he was moving his head back and forth, as if he were denying something.

  “No,” he said, taking a step back. “No. Stop. Now.” He turned to Lander with a wild look, as hunted as the hidden man seemed to be.

  And to Folie’s bewilderment, Lander nodded. Just at the moment she was sure the old man was about to confess everything, Lander turned. He aimed his firearm toward General St. Clair, who was standing next to him. In the same instant, Robert had a gun in his hand, pointing it toward the doctor and the canvas screen. Sir Howard glanced back at them as it all happened—instantly he seized his unloaded pistol from the desk and swung his arm in a wide arc, slamming the butt into the back of Inman’s head, following with a vicious kick. Inman stumbled into the screen. It tilted and swayed as he dropped, hit the wall and bounced, falling back upon him in a smash of canvas and wood as it came down.

  No one moved. A corner of the broken frame revealed a small gentleman who sat with his hands folded tight together over his cane, his head bent, rocking back and forth and mumbling to his dead daughter as if he did not even know the screen w
as gone.

  Lander whistled a shrill signal. While Inman groaned, the door opened and the room filled with scarlet-uniformed guardsmen and tough-looking fellows in red waistcoats. It all happened so quickly and quietly that there was no sound but the thump of boots on the wooden floor and the old man’s plaintive whispering.

  “What’s the meaning of this?” the doctor said loudly, but no one answered his bluster as a Bow Street Runner fastened handcuffs about his wrists. The two Indian officers did not say anything at all. The entire arrest proceeded in silence, as if everyone had been struck dumb.

  “Is it done?” the whispery woman’s voice asked.

  “It’s done, ma’am,” Lander said firmly.

  “Where are my girls?” Her voice rose to a dreadful chilling note, reverberating all around the room. “Find my girls! Are they hurt?’’

  “I’d never hurt you, darling,” the old man said, lifting his face.

  “Your daughters are safe, Lady Dingley.” Lander looked up from conferring with one of the guardsmen. “They have been located upstairs. Sound asleep.”

  Sir Howard tilted his head back and released a long breath. He sank onto a chair, burying his face in his hands.

  “Our thanks to you, m’lady,” Lander addressed the air. “You were superb.”

  No one answered him. Folie pulled her hands free of their loose bonds and yanked off the stifling scarf. From the corner of her eye, she thought she saw Lady Dingley’s figure hurry past in the dim passageway outside.

  As two guardsmen took the old man’s unresisting arms and escorted him toward the door, Robert stood still, watching. He said nothing. But his face was white and set. There was nothing of triumph or relief in his expression. He looked instead as if he were watching someone drown before his eyes.

  TWENTY-SIX

  “I don’t quite understand,” Folie said, as they waited in a carriage outside the Royal Academy’s premises in Somerset House. The streets held the first hint of dawn, a rain-soaked gray, with wisps of smoke from a few chimneys rising somberly into the clouds. “I rather thought— Lander wished for a confession? It seemed as if he was near to confessing. That little man.”

 
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