Authors: Laura Kinsale
She was not even quite convinced that Mrs. Cambourne was dead. Folie had heard nothing of it from the lawyers, seen nothing in the papers, though she had never failed to read the news of births and deaths and marriages in India. Perhaps he had left her there. Perhaps she was spending the season in town. He had lied to Folie before.
Not lied. No. Not precisely lied.
Robert, her Robert—he was not here. That was all she knew for certain.
Somewhere far off in the house, she could hear a man’s voice. It began as a murmur, like an angry muttered undertone. Folie stood still. As she listened, it rose in volume, but she could not make out any words.
Their host, certainly. Scolding a servant, perhaps. The sound ceased suddenly.
Well, if he had poor service, it was hardly any surprise, considering the youth and lack of polish in his staff. Certainly the house showed no sign of a woman’s touch. In spite of the recent redecoration, a close inspection showed any number of rather slovenly practices. Folie had noticed fly specks on her dressing table mirror, and the whole place needed a good airing.
She had no experience in managing a house of this size, but she was quite sure she could make some significant improvements within a day or two. She wondered if he had any care for his surroundings. Gentlemen were liable to be rather odd about housekeeping. Charles had seemed to care nothing for neatness and order save in his greenhouse—for a long time, Folie had thought that he paid no mind to any household matter, but when they had changed maids and he had found an unmended sheet on his bed, he’d not been tardy about taking Folie to task on the matter. Then suddenly he had begun to notice and comment acidly upon every detail for a month, after which his interest had subsided with the same precipitous transience.
She wondered what Mrs. Cambourne had been like. Beautiful, no doubt. An excellent hostess, sweet and good: Folie knew all about these late wives. Perhaps that was what had changed her Robert into this saturnine madman, grief for his lost love.
these exemplary women; how did they manage to be lovely and competent and kind and true? Why did they never cut the wrong rosebuds or fall in love with fantasy men in letters? Married fantasy men at that!
“Well.” She made a face at a carved griffin. “At least I am alive.”
The griffin seemed to grin back fiercely, ugly and ardent, as if it would break free of the frozen wood and strike upward to the sky.
“So your little love is here,” Phillippa said in her sweet, insolent voice. “Are you happy now?”
“Leave me alone.” Robert did not pause as he walked toward the bizarre banister and stairs.
She followed him as she always did. “She’s very plain, poor thing! Quite mousy.”
He halted with his hand on the banister, closing his eyes. “I am going to bed.”
“I’m sure she would be delighted to join you. I doubt she has had many offers.”
“Not so many as you, I dare swear,” he said through his teeth.
“Your insane jealousy!” Phillippa said, with bitter delight.
Robert laughed and shook his head. He started up the stairs.
“You beef-witted fool,” she cried. “To choose that homely little nobody over me!”
“A thousand times,” he murmured under his breath.
“What did you say?” she demanded.
“Tell me what you said!”
“I said,” he snapped aloud, “that however lovely you may appear to your legion of admirers, you are Medusa to me.”
“I hate you,” she cried. “I
Robert’s hand left the banister as he pounded up the stairs. Her voice followed him, an echo in his head, though he slammed the door of his bedchamber on it. And she was there too, the portrait his father had commissioned in Bombay—it hung from the picture rail, leaning out against the wires as if she leaned to cleave to him, reaching out and screaming in his brain, “I hate you! Why don’t you love me, why don’t you come to me, I hate you, I hate you!”
He stared at her. The artist had caught her in a moment of quiet tenderness, her hand upon her little Chinese dog, her delicate smile, the hair he had once thought was like filtered sunlight upon the great tree trunks of the Indian forests, shadow brown and mystery.
“Don’t you think I’m beautiful?” she asked in her little-girl voice.
He hated it, he hated that high-pitched plea. “Good God,” he said, yanking open his cravat. He could not bear to have anyone near him now, not even a manservant to undress him.
“You loved me once,” she said fiercely.
“What of it?” he said. “I learned my mistake soon enough.”
“I never loved you. I don’t know why I didn’t listen when they told me how paltry you are. I must have been mad!”
“No doubt.” He pulled off his coat and sat down, kicking off his shoes. He was mad himself, utterly demented. It was all he could do to take off his clothes, crawl into the bed, and squeeze his eyes closed while his brain turned over and over in his head.
He felt Phillippa glide on top of him, a heaviness pressing down on his body. Malevolence filled the air he breathed.
“Love me, love me,” she whispered urgently. She was going to kill him, suffocate him. He tried to sit up, but her weight opposed him, pushed him back, a force in the center of his chest.
he roared, heaving her away, sending the bedclothes flying.
He stumbled from the bed and grabbed a chair. He yanked it to the window and sat down, gripping the arms, staring through the open curtains to the misted landscape outside. But he knew she was there. He could see her reflection in the glass. It grew clearer, so clear that he could not tell if she was in the room, leaning over his shoulder, or glaring at him from outside the window. He could hear his own breathing, harsh as a child trying not to weep.
“Love me,” she moaned, fingers at his throat. “Touch me! Oh, why can’t you love me?”
“I can’t!” he shouted, flinging himself from the chair. Blindly he seized the wardrobe, feeling for the handle, yanking open the doors. His coats brushed his face, solid and real as he pushed among them, tearing them down with him as he pressed his body in. He pulled the doors closed against her, sinking down to the floor, his shoulders cramped in the small space, his face pressed into a mass of woolen coats on his knees.
She could not reach him there, in a place barely large enough to hold his own body. Jammed awkwardly against the hard wooden walls of his prison and his safety, he could find refuge from his madness.
For a diversion on their third long day at Solinger, Folie and Melinda stood on a footbridge looking down into the water. The stream formed the boundary between the ancient forest and the rolling lawns, emerging clear from some unseen spring among the trees. Late afternoon sparkled on the surface, sliding and rippling across green moss. Folie tossed an oak leaf, dried from last autumn, and watched it spin away over the stones.
“Will you speak to him tonight?” Melinda asked, as if she had not asked the same thing five times already over the course of the day.
“Certainly I shall speak to him, if I have the opportunity,” Folie answered.
“Surely he will come down to dinner tonight.”
Folie gave a helpless shrug and tossed another leaf, then brushed a faint smudge from her fawn gloves.
“Mama, it has been three days! We have not set eyes upon the man in three
“What would you have me do, Melinda? Hunt him down all over his own house?”
“Perhaps he is ill,” Melinda said. “He might need help. Perhaps he is dying in his bedchamber!” She gave a little gasp, and then added, not without a tinge of hope, “Perhaps he is dead already!”
“Piffle,” Folie said. “I’m sure the servants would have taken note when they changed the sheets.”
“I suppose so.” Melinda’s lower lip turned sadly downward. She raised her head, looking into the distance along the boundary of the forest. “Perhaps you might—” She paused. “Look.”
Folie looked up. At first she saw nothing against the white sheen the sun threw on the water, but then as she followed Melinda’s gaze, she noticed a shadow moving slowly along the bank beneath the trees. “A deer,” she murmured.
“No...” Melinda had the better eyesight. “No, it is a man.”
Folie squinted. But the stream’s silver glare misted the detail of the woods. “I can’t see him.”
Melinda shook her head. “He’s gone now.” She frowned slightly. “Do you suppose it was him?”
“I couldn’t tell anything.”
“I believe he was there all along,” Melinda said uneasily. “I only noticed him when he moved.”
“Fishing, no doubt.” Folie smiled. “Now wouldn’t that be a typical gentleman for you, fishing for days while his houseguests languish?”
“Let us go in, Mama.” Melinda pushed away from the wall. “I wish to dash a note to Miss Vernon.”
Folie glanced at her. “If you like.”
Melinda swept her skirt up around her ankles. “I’ll race you to the door!” she cried gaily. Her bright hair bobbed beneath her pink and white straw hat as she began to run.
“Unfair! Head start!” Folie picked up her hem and pelted after.
Melinda’s idea of “dashing a note” was to spend three hours crossing and recrossing the pages of her letters to her droves of schoolroom friends. She sat at a desk in the drawing room, framed by a carved pagoda infested with chinamen and peacocks. While she bent her head in silent concentration over her voluminous correspondence, Folie toyed with a cup of tea. Folie had no one to whom she cared to write. Somehow she could not summon the desire to pen a note to the Misses Nunney. What was there to say, after all?
“Our rooms are quite pleasant. The house is outlandish, the host a madman, and we see no one but ourselves at breakfast, tea, and dinner. Give my regards to Pussy. (And pray keep her out of my vegetable garden!)”
There had been a time when she had thought of nothing but the letters she would write. Folie gazed out the tall window. The lawn and shrubbery gleamed green, faintly distorted by the glass panes, as cheerful and English as the room she sat in was dim and mysterious with its pagodas and silent Chinamen.
She smiled wistfully, remembering the days she had spent composing her letters to India in her mind, when such simple tasks as mending and polishing the plate had been infused with a new glamour as she thought of how she might describe them to him.
This is how I do it, first the whiting with the soft leather—we always use the same piece, as it gets better with time—the coating rubbed in hard and let to dry all dull and gray, and then with linen cloths I wipe it off, and polish round and round, so that a hundred silvery colors begin to gleam through.
She had always imagined him looking over her shoulder with great attentiveness as she executed these banal offices—as if he would be interested in such dull things! She had never actually written of those everyday occurrences, of course— but she had narrated her whole day to him in her mind. It had been a way of keeping him with her, walking beside her, a real presence in her world.