The regency romances, p.79
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       The Regency Romances, p.79

           Laura Kinsale
 

  Robert and the conjurer sat opposite her. Robert gave her a stiff smile. “Lander will do whatever is required, I’m sure.”

  Folie looked in bewilderment at the conjurer. He nodded reassuringly. “Once the subject’s will is broken, ma’am—it shouldn’t be difficult to discover the details of his crimes. I’ll wager that’s what Lander and his men are about at this moment.”

  “Oh,” Folie said.

  There was something she was not being told—something in Robert’s and the conjurer’s manner that caused all the rest of her questions to die in her throat. She understood that the elderly gentleman was Phillippa’s father—Robert’s own father-in-law. She understood that Robert would be shocked and grieved to discover who his enemy had been.

  It must be as if one’s own family had turned traitor and foe.

  “I really think that he is not quite sane, Robert,” she said. “Whatever he has done to you—I think it must have come from a sort of sickness in his mind.”

  Robert gave her a look, a long, intent glance, as if he wished to see inside her head. Folie looked openly back at him, puzzled.

  “To me?” he said. “What he did to me?”

  “Well, yes,” Folie said, tilting her head. “The drug. And the prison hulk. Sometimes, you know, when people grow old, their minds become feeble. In general, it’s not a vicious change, but I think your father-in-law fell in with wicked men. Perhaps he became confused, and grew malevolent towards you.”

  He studied her face. Then he smiled faintly, shaking his head a little. “Folly,” he said. He turned away to look out the window. “You do not know how much I need to know you are in this world.”

  The carriage rocked as Lander climbed inside. He pulled the door closed, sitting next to Folie, and yanked the check-strap to signal the driver. The horses began to move, pulling away from the curb into a street that had to come to life with early morning traffic.

  “The duke is not able to speak rationally,” he said without preamble, “but we’ve cobbled together quite a story from what we’ve got from the others.” He nodded toward the conjurer. “You were brilliant, man. How you discerned so quickly that Lady Dingley ought to play that daughter role instead of Mattie’s voice—” He shook his head. “It was a deep stroke. I could believe you’re a mind reader in truth. We could not have planned it.”

  “The early play with that Balfour fellow,” the magician said. “Mr. Cambourne fed us his first name. Nicely done, sir—always deal out as much information as you can in passing. And the antagonism—” He shrugged. “Well, one may conjecture these things. I could see that there was considerable emotion about the name Phillippa. And again, Mr. Cambourne let us know just who she was.”

  “But where were you?” Folie asked.

  The conjurer smiled. “In the service passage,” he said. “While Mr. Cambourne kicked down the door, I took the opportunity to remove the handle to the service door. If you were to look, you would find a very elegant brass knob fallen on the floor just behind the podium where you sat, ma’am. With a little private science worked on the other side, the lock case made a nice sepulchral voice box.” He looked pleased with himself. “Also, we were blessed with a fortunate acoustic. We could even hear you whisper about the smoke, ma’am. So I suggested to Lady Dingley that she talk a bit about burning.”

  “So what of the plot?” Robert asked abruptly. “You’ve found it out? And how the devil did you discover who was behind that big canvas?”

  “Ah!” A slow grin broke across Lander’s face. “I’m not so slow at the small details myself. His cane!”

  “Very sharp,” the conjurer said in an approving tone. He nodded. “Very sharp of you.”

  Lander laughed. “Sharp indeed! I first saw that double dragon’s head when I was still in short coats. One of my brothers stole it for a lark, off a gentleman who was visiting at Hursley. Got a whaling for it, delivered by the very gentleman in person, with his dragon stick. I’ll tell you, for a week after, my brother had a pair of dragons’ heads tattooed on his—” He glanced at Folie and paused. In the growing light of day, Folie could see him redden. “Ah. Well. It was the Duke of Alcester, you see.”

  “Your brother stole the Duke of Alcester’s cane?” she asked, her eyes widening. “My gracious, Lander—no wonder you’re so wretched at domestic service. You have not the family temperament for it.”

  He looked at her as if she had spoken in some foreign language. To clarify her point, Folie added, “Perhaps next time you ought to impersonate an army officer, or something more suited to a bold and enterprising nature.”

  “Thank you, ma’am,” he said solemnly. “I shall consider your advice.”

  “Shall I buy you an officer’s commission, Lander?” Robert asked, grinning. “God knows I owe you that much.”

  “Perhaps I’ll ask you for a different favor, sir,” Lander said, “at a more salutary time.”

  “You’ll have it.” Robert sat back on the seat. “But you were about to tell us what you’ve learned.”

  “One plot,” Lander said, “but several aims among the plotters, it would appear. This potion—or powder, rather— is some Indian brew used to induce religious visions, I gather. I’m not certain where the duke obtained his information about it—”

  “He had a number of correspondents in India,” Robert said. “He and my father were great cronies, and I know he had other friends high up in the Company. He used to put his money in some Indian and Chinese ventures, when my father advised him.”

  Lander nodded. “Yes, sir. Your father did well by him, it would seem. But after your father’s death, he seems to have gotten into some very bad investments.”

  “He wrote me. Afterward. Kept commanding me to increase Phillippa’s allowance.” Robert frowned. “I just told the secretary to give her whatever she wanted without ruining me entirely. But I wonder...”

  “Perhaps she sent funds to her father,” Lander said.

  “Yes...” Robert rubbed the shadow of beard beginning to show on his chin. “I didn’t pay it much mind—but. .. ten thousand a year. Even she couldn’t have been spending so extravagantly on herself.”

  “Ten thousand a year?” The conjurer made an overly dramatic face of astonishment. “You did not pay it much mind, sir?”

  “I didn’t spend a great deal of time at home,” Robert said shortly.

  “It makes sense,” Lander said. “Perhaps, sir, after your wife passed away, he could no longer appeal for money from that source.”

  “Oh, he appealed,” Robert said dryly.

  “Just so,” Lander said. “If you didn’t endear yourself to him by obliging with funds, he may not have felt much compunction toward you. He made some desperate financial moves—the details remain to be seen, but they must have been extreme, because his goal appeared to be the entire destruction of the East India Company.”

  Robert swore softly. He nodded. “The charter.”

  “The charter. Up for renewal before Parliament and Crown. By controlling the Prince Regent, he meant to see the monopoly broken. No renewed Company charter ever signed by the Crown—or, at least, delayed until the shareholders tore the Company apart.”

  “So he was drugging the Prince! Just as Robert said!” Folie exclaimed.

  “Yes, they’d infiltrated this Dr. Varley into Carlton House, and begun to administer their potion, just enough to cause the headaches that the excellent doctor knew precisely how to cure. They felt sure they knew how to measure their dosage—having tested it thoroughly on you, sir, before the first drop of the stuff ever left India. They knew how to induce visions and how to decrease the measure to relieve the hallucinations without the—subject—regaining his full acumen.”

  Robert closed his eyes and laid his head back. “A test.”

  “Yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir.”

  He drew a deep breath. “I don’t even remember. I remember her funeral. Time after that...a long time of just...everyday sorts of things.” He opened his eyes and
looked briefly at Folie. “Drifting, I suppose. As if I didn’t know what to do with myself. But I could not tell you when those visions began. Or how I ever got out of there.’’

  “You simply vanished,” Lander said. “General St. Clair believes you had friends among the natives, who spirited you away.”

  “Mr. Ramanu,” Folie murmured.

  Robert nodded slowly. “Perhaps. Yes.”

  “By that time, the duke had gotten Mr. Inman as an accomplice,” Lander said. “Which changed the color of things considerably. The duke’s intentions ended with blocking the charter, but Inman claims he wasn’t going to be satisfied with less than the whole ruin of the Government. He’s talking all sorts of mayhem—I think that clip on the head has dissolved whatever prudence he ever had. He despises the duke. But he couldn’t waive a chance to make the Prince Regent go mad as his father did—he’s even hinted that there may be another plot, still in motion if we can’t track it down, to assassinate the Prime Minister. Throw the Government into complete chaos.”

  No one spoke for a moment, absorbing this alarming news. A stray dog ran alongside the carriage, barking fiercely until they outpaced it.

  “I would not have believed it,” Robert said. “My God. There were times when I was certain I must be insane, that it could be nothing else.”

  Lander nodded solemnly. “Aye, sir. And they meant to keep it that way. After you got away from them in Calcutta, they were intent upon tracking you, since they couldn’t be certain of what you knew, or might piece together. Once you made it to England, the duke insisted that you must be kept under the influence of the drug, to prevent anyone from taking you seriously if you did talk. You may thank General St. Clair for your life, because Mr. Inman thought that killing you would be much the simplest—they got into quite a dispute over it again just now. But at any rate, the general seems to have prevailed.” Lander scowled, an unhappy expression darkening his square face. “I don’t know quite how he became involved in this—he has a reputation as an excellent officer—but I suspect that he was in on some of the duke’s more—questionable—investments.”

  “Blackmailed into it,” Robert said.

  “Most likely. The prison hulk was his notion...Inman says even now that all three of you ought to have been ‘eliminated’ at Vauxhall.”

  “Eliminated!” Folie said, sitting up and leaning forward. “And Sir Howard!” she said fiercely. “He did pass that note to Robert, to lure him there, but I cannot conceive—why did he help them, even a jot?”

  Lander shook his head. “I can only conjecture at this point, ma’am. I think...perhaps...the maid, you know.” He gave her an embarrassed look. “Mr. Inman went to Solinger searching for someone he could coerce. I think—uh—that Sir Howard did not wish for his wife to, um, discover his—mistake.”

  “Oh,” Folie said. “Yes. I—yes.” She blushed. “I see.”

  “How love will make a fool of a man,” Robert remarked.

  “I do not think he made that ‘mistake’ out of love!” Folie said indignantly.

  “No,” Robert said. “But perhaps if he’d been less in love with his wife, he’d not have been so beef-witted as to knuckle to the likes of Inman just to keep her from finding out.”

  “I suppose she’ll forgive him,” Folie said, with a small frown. “Even now.”

  “Well, of course,” Robert said dryly. “Anyone but Dingley could see that. Which is why he’s a beef-wit.”

  “And I suppose you would shout it to the whole town rather than submit to blackmail, if you made the same mistake.”

  He lifted one eyebrow. “I do not intend to make that particular blunder, my dear.”

  “Good,” Folie said. She swept a regal glance about the carriage. “Perhaps you have all learned a salutary lesson from Sir Howard’s distress.”

  “Distress!” the conjurer said. “I should call it torture, myself.”

  “Purest agony,” Robert said.

  “I cannot even imagine the pain, ma’am,” Lander added humbly.

  “Yes, and I happen to know that you are all three incorrigible, irredeemable frauds,” she replied with a snort. “You need not suppose you can bamboozle me!”

  Cambourne House seemed silent, almost unfamiliar, as if everything that had happened since she had left for Lady Melbourne’s party had changed the house—and herself—in some irrevocable way. No one answered the door when they walked up the front steps. All of Lander’s hefty footmen were gone. Entering in the marbled hall, with its white pilasters and elegant chandelier, Folie felt like a child in a bedraggled party dress, wandering in off the street.

  She was not even certain, suddenly, if she was quite welcome here. Lander had not left the carriage with them, but gone on to make his report in Bow Street. Folie paused as Robert pulled the front door closed behind them.

  “Gracious,” she said, with a little laugh. And then felt exceedingly foolish.

  They both stood awkwardly, as if someone ought to tell them what to do next.

  He looked down at her from beneath his dark eyelashes. “You must be tired,” he said.

  “Oh, yes. Though I vow if I laid my head down I could not close my eyes. I must write a letter to Melinda. Or—or perhaps I should—I suppose—’’ She could not seem to reach the tail of the sentence. “Is it safe for me to return to her now?’’

  “You wish to?” he asked.

  “I wish to see her as soon as I may.”

  “I’ll take you there,” he said. “If that is what you would like.”

  Folie looked about at the staircase and the hall as the echo of his voice died away. She ought to be exhausted— she was—and yet the sun was coming up.

  “We are free, Robert,” she said wonderingly. “How strange it seems!”

  He had a fleeting way of smiling at her—she had always felt it, but just now recognized it as a particular smile, a strange tender amusement on his satanic features. The way a demon would look, she thought, if one ever caught it smiling with affection. “Yes,” he said. “We’re free.”

  “I don’t know what we will do with ourselves.”

  “Take you to Melinda. Go and get your things.”

  “Now?” Folie felt consternation. “But—you are not too fatigued?”

  “I’m no more ready to sleep than you. There’s nothing to stop us. Besides, after ruining her season, the least I can do is present her with an excellent parti as a suitor.”

  “A suitor! Who might that be?”

  “What do you think of Lander?”

  “Lander?” Folie squeaked. “I beg your pardon! He will not do!”

  “But I owe him a favor,” he said.

  “A favor! That is nothing to the point. I’m very sorry, but it is quite out of the question. I’ve never wished for her to marry an earl, or a marquess, or any such thing as that, but I cannot countenance her marriage to a man so far beneath her.”

  “He seems perfectly gentlemanly.”

  “Perhaps so, but what are his prospects? His connections? Why—where would he take her to live? In Bow Street? Has he spoken to you about it, or is this some absurd scheme of yours?”

  “I am her guardian, you know. I think Lander might do very well.”

  “She will not have him!” Folie said.

  “You don’t think she ought to be the one to decide?”

  “That is precisely what I mean. Melinda is far more of a stickler for her position than I am, I warn you! Why, she would not even consider him! It is very kind of you to think so much of Lander, and I’m sure he’s done more than we can ever repay, but—’’

  “Would it help any if he were the youngest son of the Marquess of Hursley?”

  She pursed her lips at him. “Robert Cambourne, you are a very odd man.”

  “Not half so peculiar as you, my dear.”

  “I am not at all peculiar. I am perfectly ordinary.”

  “Yes, you and your man-eating ferret. And since you see fit to pucker your lips in that provocative
fashion, madam, I rescind my offer to convey you to Melinda. You may convey yourself upstairs directly into bed.”

  “Oh?” Folie looked at him warily.

  He smiled again, in that diabolical way.

  “Robert,” she said, taking a step backwards.

  The hint of laughter in him vanished at her move. He pushed his hands into the pockets of his coat as the moody demon seemed to rise in a black scowl. “No. Never mind. Get your things,” he said in a flat tone. “We’ll go to Melinda.”

  Folie hesitated, bewildered by him. It was as if he went away, retreated into some far place inside himself where she could never go. And suddenly she wished to do the same herself. He made her angry, this way in which he enticed and teased her and drew her to him with the promise of warmth, and then as suddenly, for no reason she could ever seem to fathom, pulled back into his bleak solitude.

  She turned away. She meant to walk up the stairs, her back stiff—she could lock herself up, too; she could lock her bedroom door, if he supposed he had any access to it. She went as far as the foot of the stairs.

  Then she turned, her hand resting on the newel post. “Robert,” she said, staring at a corner of the hall, “we are married, but we need not live as man and wife. I find it very difficult to bear, this—this way you have. Of making me feel wanted—and then leaving me.”

  “Then don’t go away from me,” he said angrily, turning aside. “Don’t step back away from me.”

  Folie watched him standing with his eyes fixed on the floor like a sullen schoolboy. “I only did because—” She made a sound of despair. “I do not really understand it. Robert, I have not the nature to resist when I do not wish to do so. When you do that—when you go away just as...” She took a deep breath. “It is—humiliating.”

  “I know,” he muttered. “Believe me.”

  She sank down upon the step, resting her forehead in her hand. “I suppose we will never understand one another. I suppose we will be like the Dingleys. You will find some consuming interest—keeping prize red hens, or translating Hindu texts into Greek tragedies—and I’ll play the pianoforte very badly and stare out of windows.” She swallowed. “Only...only there won’t be any Robert far away for me to write to, and dream about—’’ Her voice cracked. She swallowed hard again. “Because you are the only man I’ve ever loved. Or ever will. Even if you are as beef-witted as Sir Howard. Perhaps even stupider.” She sniffed. “In my opinion.”

 
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