In the Face of Death (Madelaine de Montalia #2)

Chapter 10

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"As it should be," he agreed in self-disgust.

"The more so because you have taken all the responsibility upon yourself, as if you were the only person who might protect me," said Madelaine, her understanding of him making this a precarious revelation.

"But I am… your lover," he protested. "You yourself say there is a bond between us."

"And so there is," she said, "which is why I do not hold you in the contempt you dread and hope I might. My sensibilities are not so delicate that I must have constant reassurance for my—"

His supplication gave way to aggravation. "For heaven's sake, Madame, get angry with me. Denounce me for my desertion. Rail at me for not coming to you before now. Tell me what a poltroon you think I am."

"But I don't wish to do any of those things," she said reasonably as she attempted to move nearer to him without upsetting him. "I think you are what you say you are—a father who is worried about his family."

He nodded, the first dawning of hope in his steel-colored eyes. "There is some truth in that."

"The more so because you have castigated yourself for things I have not held against you. The accusations you make against yourself are of your own creation, not mine. I do not hold you to the account you hold yourself. And just as well, given the catalogue of offenses you have conjured for yourself." She went and stood next to him, not quite touching him. "You have assumed I would not recognize your desire to protect your family, and would expect you to devote yourself to me."

"As I should have done," he interjected harshly.

"You may think so; I do not." She put her hand on his shoulder, noticing again how wet he was, then looked up into his face. 'Tecumseh, listen to me: I will not deny that I would like to have you here with me, for I would."

"It would be poor recompense to tarnish your reputation." He put his hand over hers where it rested on his shoulder. "I am taking a chance coming here now. Your housekeeper might—"

"My housekeeper will not be back until late tonight. I have told her she need not look in on me; she may go directly to her apartment and retire. My man-of-all-work is dining with his cousin's family." She smiled at him.

He did not return the smile. "You mean they left you alone?" he demanded. "What kind of servants do you have, Madame, that they leave you by yourself?"

"I have servants who do as I instruct them." Now Made-laine grew impatient. "What nonsense you talk, Tecumseh," she said with asperity. "You would think I am a hothouse flower, incapable of fending for myself, when you should realize I have managed on my own for decades."

"Visiting Indians," he said, determined to make his point.

"Among others," she responded, refusing to be dragged into yet another dispute with him.

"Oh, yes; those travels in Egypt," he grumbled. "Hard going, no doubt."

"They were," she said. "Some of the time. The expedition was a small one, and we were four hundred miles up the Nile." She recalled the endless heat and sand; she remembered the Nile at flood, and the profusion of insects and vermin that came with the water; she saw the faces of Falke and Trow-bridge and the Coptic monk Erai Quran, and the death of Professor Baudilet.

"What is it?" Sherman asked, reading something of her memories in her face. "What's the matter?"

"Nothing," she said. "It's all in the past, all behind me." She shook off the hold of the memories and made herself pay closer attention to him. "Your hand is like ice," she said. "You're wet to the skin. You may not want any food, but you need to get warm and clean once again."

"It's not important," he claimed.

"It is if you are taken ill because of it," she said briskly, and slipped her hand from under his, but only to seize it and lead him through the gloom of her house to the curtained alcove off the kitchen where her bathtub was kept. "I will start heating water right now," she declared as she went to the stove, opened the tinderbox, and stirred the embers to life. She pulled two split logs of wood from the box near the stove and put them, one on top of the other, on the glowing coals. "This will be hot shortly, the kitchen will be warm, and your bath will be ready in a half hour." She paused to hold out her hand to him again. "Do this for me, Tecumseh."

Sherman regarded her tenderly. "A bath. I wish I could stay for it," he said in a rueful voice, his fingers lacing through hers.

"Do you tell me you will not?" she asked.

"I fear I must," he said by way of apology.

She closed the stove grate and put her hands on her hips. "And why can't you? And no farragoes, please, about my reputation. No one saw you come, and only I know you are here."

He looked somber. "My children are—"

"Your nurse is more than competent to care for them," said Madelaine, who had met the woman several times and had been impressed with her reliability. "And don't tell me you have never got home later than expected."

"But—" he began, only to be cut short.

"You need to get warm and dry before venturing out into that weather; I will supply you with an oilskin against it. You would tell me the same if I had paid you a visit, and well you know it, you need not bother to say otherwise." She stared at him, waiting for his answer.

"What would be the point?" Sherman said. "You wouldn't believe me if I did. And neither would I."

"Good; at least you admit that much: we make progress," said Madelaine as she lifted the side of the curtain and took the first of four large pots from the shelf next to the bathtub. She carried this to the pump at the sink and began to work the handle to fill the pot.

"You're never going to be able to lift that," said Sherman, reaching out to heft it for her. "Let me."

It was tempting to let him take the pot, but Madelaine kept her hold on the two handles and hoisted the eight-gallon pot from the sink to the stove without effort. "Unnecessary; I can do it, thank you. I told you those of my blood acquire extra strength; this pot is a minor thing," she said, unwilling to permit him to claim otherwise, even if there were no reason for it other than good manners.

"But it isn't fitting," Sherman protested as Madelaine reached for the second pot. "No, Madelaine. No, I can't allow it. You should not have to do such menial work, not while I am here to help you."

"Why not?" Madelaine asked, setting the pot in the deep sink and starting to work the pump handle once again. "What is the vice in menial work that you think I should disdain it? Why should anyone feel shame, doing necessary work? Don't tell me you never filled a pot, or carried one, before now?"

"Of course I've done both," he blustered. "That's different."

"Because you did it?" Madelaine guessed, and shook her head. "Where did you learn such intolerance?"

He glared. "It is what everyone expects of well-bred men and women."

"Isn't that a bit… extreme?" Madelaine asked. "To require well-bred men and women to become dependent puppets requiring the labor of servants to make their way in the world?"

He did not answer her question, and stood, with an expression of distant blankness, staring at the two windows at the rear of the kitchen. The anemic light filtering into the room banished most of the colors, turning the figures of both Sherman and Madelaine a ghostly, washed-out shade of sepia with pale beige faces. As if to be rid of this perception, Sherman shook himself and found the nearest kitchen lamp and a box of lucifers to go with it. As the flame rose, the kitchen seemed to warm with the return of color. "There. That should make your task easier."

Madelaine did not point out that the increasing dusk made little difference to her; she saw in darkness almost as well as she saw in moderate light. Instead, she nodded her thanks and carried the second pot to the stove while Sherman took the third from the shelf and set it in the sink under the pump, and started to ply the handle with vigor. "The wood is catching; that will make everything more comfortable," she remarked as she glanced at the tinderbox of the stove.

Sherman continued to fill the third pot of water, then carried it to the stove, setting it in place with care. "Since you are determined to do this, I suppose I ought to lend my assistance."

"If you like," said Madelaine, handing him the fourth pot and saying, "Just fill it with water." She then tugged the curtain aside so that the bath alcove was completely open, revealing the large enameled-copper tub and a wall of shelves where the various requirements for bathing were placed. "I have set out bath salts, if you want them. And I have a razor and shaving supplies, if you need them."

"You are always prepared," he said, intending it as a complaint, but making it into a compliment. "Yes, I will rid myself of this stubble," he said, and went on slyly, "or I might have to explain where all the scratches on your body came from. Since you insist on doing this, I shall do it properly. Perhaps I should grow a beard again."

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