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

Chapter 15

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"We're sony to see you go, Madame," said Jenkins as he held open the low gate, admitting Madelaine to the realm of desks and files.

"I am sorry to leave," said Madelaine with as much sincerity as good manners. "I have truly enjoyed my stay here."

"Yes," said Jenkins, going on a bit too smoothly. "Mr. Sherman has your account information ready, if you'll just step into his office?"

Madelaine was a bit startled to hear this. "Very well," she said, and turned to walk toward the door at the end of the aisle between the desks. She had to steel herself against seeing Sherman this last time, and she waited a long moment before she knocked on the door.

"Enter," came the crisp order.

She obeyed, making herself smile as she went up to his desk. "I've come to say good-bye, Mr. Sherman. And to pick up my account records and traveling money."

Sherman had risen, but he did not take her proffered hand; instead he rummaged through a stack of papers on his desk. "I have your account information here, Madame de Montalia, and the funds you requested," he said in a voice that did not seem to belong to him.

"Thank you," she responded.

"I wish I could persuade you to carry less gold and cash with you." Concern roughened his tone. "You are not on the boulevards of Paris, Madame, and any signs of wealth are likely to attract attention you cannot want." His face was set in hard lines, but his eyes were full of anguish.

"I know something of the dangers of travel, Mr. Sherman, although I am grateful for your warning. I will heed your admonitions to the extent that circumstances allow." How formal and stiff she sounded in her own ears; she wanted so much to weep, and could not. It would not be seemly, she told herself, even if it were possible, and added aloud, "I will take all the precautions I can."

"Yes," he said. "Be sure you keep a loaded pistol to hand at all times. If you need one, you will need it instantly."

"I'll do that," she said, delaying taking her file of material into her hands, for that would be more final than closing the door.

"You will be wise to learn as much as you can about those you hire to guide you. Many of the men in that profession are scoundrels and not to be trusted." He spoke crisply, yet all the while his eyes revealed suffering he could not admit.

"I will be careful, Mr. Sherman," she promised him.

Sherman coughed twice, short, hard coughs that might signal an asthma attack. "Don't trouble yourself, Madame," he said brusquely, waving her away, although she had not moved. "It will pass. And I have a vial of your medicine, if it does not."

Madelaine had to stop herself from going around his desk to his side, to comfort him. "Well," she said rallyingly, "do not let pride keep you from using it."

"I won't," he said, and stared down at his desk in silence for several seconds, then asked, "Do you think you will ever come back to San Francisco, Madame?"

"Ever is a long time, Mr. Sherman," she pointed out. "I do not plan to now, but in time, who can tell?"

"Who, indeed," he said. "And we knew when you came that you would leave, didn't we?"

She nodded. "Soon or late, I would go."

"Off to study America," he said, trying to be jaunty; his voice cracked.

"Yes." She bit her lip to keep from saying more. With an ef-fort, she remarked, "I suppose your children must be glad that their mother is coming home."

"Oh, yes," he said, grateful to have something safe to say. "Both of them are delighted."

"I'll think of them kindly," said Madelaine.

"You're very good." He fumbled with a square envelope, then held it out to her. "Here. I want you to have this."

"What is it?" Madelaine took the envelope cautiously, as if she expected something untoward from it.

"A sketch I did. Of you." He looked her directly in the eye, a world of longing in his gaze.

"OhJ" Madelaine said softly. "May I open it?"

"Not here, if you please," he said, his standoffishness returning. "I couldn't keep it with me, much as I wanted to. It… it is very revealing—oh, not of you, of me. If Ellen ever saw it, she—" He cleared his throat. "It is enough that one of us should have a broken heart. I will not chance giving such pain to her."

Madelaine nodded, unable to speak; she slipped the envelope into her leather portfolio which she had brought to contain her account records.

'This is too difficult," Sherman whispered as he took the file and thrust it toward her. "If you do not leave now, I don't think I will be able to let you go. And let you go I must."

"Yes," said Madelaine as she took the file and put it into the portfolio.

"And your cash and gold," he went on with ruthless practicality, handing her a heavy canvas sack with Lucas and Turner stenciled on its side. "Be careful where you stow this."

"I will," she said, and turned to leave.

"Madel—am," he said, halting her. "I wish, with all my heart, you… your stay here wasn't over."

"You're very kind, Mr. Sherman," said Madelaine, struggling to retain her composure.

"As it is," he went on as if unable to stop. "I will think of you each… often."

"And I of you," said Madelaine, wishing she could kiss him one last time and knowing she must not.

"If only you and I…" He let his words falter and stop.

Madelaine backed away, reaching behind her for the door. "Our… our friendship is not at an end simply because we part," she told him, forcing herself to speak steadily. She pulled the door open, readying herself to leave the bank.

His reply struck her with the full weight of his constrained emotions, as if he wanted to impart to her all that he could not say: "I know, Madelaine; I know."

Presidio de Santa Barbara, 14 November,

We have found an inn near the Presidio itself, and I am assured we will be safe here… This pan of California is much more Spanish than the north, more like Mexico; I suspect it is because there are fewer men willing to prospect in the deserts than in the mountains. Perhaps the hold of the Spanish landlords is stronger here than in the North, as there are fewer newcomers to challenge their rule and their Land Grants. Thanks to gold, San Francisco has become quite an eclectic place, what with miners arriving from every pan of Europe and America. But here, I am told, it is not so dramatically changed. For the most pan, the Camino Real, which our guide calls the Mission Road, is well enough maintained that we made good progress along it, and lost only one day to rain. Our average progress has been a respectable ten to twelve miles a day, although we did slow in our climb through the mountains around San Luis Obispo. Generally, however, we have traveled swiftly, and at this pace, we should reach San Diego by Christmas, from whence we will turn east.

I have sent two letters back to Tecumseh, though 1 have had no replies and expect none; I have not yet found a way to thank him sufficiently for the sketch he made of me and gave me the morning I left. He is right: it is too easily read for him to keep it by him, where it might be discovered and understood. In execution it is simple enough: he has drawn me seated on a fallen log, my hat in my hand, in all considerations a most innocuous pose—but there is something about it that smolders, so that I half expect the paper to burst into flame. He included a shon note which said he would have to carry my likeness burning in his heart; that is very gallant of him, as well as being very nearly accurate, if this sketch is any indication of his sentiments. lam surprised to discover how strong the bond between us is, though why I should feel so, I cannot think.

I wonder if Saint-Germain is right, and I am developing a weakness for Americans?

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