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

Chapter 4



San Francisco, 6 June,

It is still in his eyes. When Mr. Sherman and I met at the soiree given by General Hitchcock, I saw him watching me; never have I experienced so searching an expression, as if he wanted to fathom me to the depths. It is not like Saint-Germain, who looks at me with knowing: Sherman is questing. This considered inspection had nothing to do with the soiree: the fare was musical, for the General has some talent on the flute, and he, with the accompaniment of Mrs. Kent at the piano, regaled his guests with a variety of airs by Mozart and Handel, all very light and pleasant. Yet for all his watching me, Sherman hardly spoke to me during the evening. If he seeks to avoid gossip in this way, he will not succeed, for his Russian friend, deStoeckl asked me why Sherman was making such a cake of himself, an old-fashioned question I cannot answer…

I have been given descriptions of three houses Mr. Sherman thinks would be suitable for my needs. One is on Shotwell Street; there is a second house on Franklin, somewhat larger than the first—it is quite modem and comes with many furnishings included. The third is on Bush Street, where the hill becomes steeper; it is not as well situated as the other two. I will go inspect them in the next few days, to make up my mind…

The rooms in the house on Franklin Street echoed eerily as Madelaine made her way from the front parlor to the withdrawing room.

"I am sorry that the landlord has not carpeted the place," said Sherman, walking slightly behind her. "I have discussed the matter with him, and he is willing to make an adjustment in the rent charged because of the lack. You will be expected to provide the carpets, as well as the draperies and the bed. The rest is as you see," he added, indicating the furniture all swathed in Holland covers.

"Actually, I don't see," said Madalaine. "But I know the furnishings are here." She continued through the withdrawing room to the hall leading through the dining room to the kitchen and pantry beyond. "And the servants' quarters? Where are they? Upstairs?"

"They are in the rear of the house," said Sherman, the roughness in his voice not entirely due to a recent attack of asthma. "A detached cottage with three apartments."

Madelaine paused in the door to the kitchen, thinking that having the servants' quarters out of the house could be a real advantage. "Are they adequate? Do they have sufficient heat? If the summers are as chilly as you say they are, Mr. Sherman, it will be necessary to provide heating for them, even in July."

"There are stoves in each of the apartments," Sherman said stiffly. "That will be sufficient to their needs."

"And they will dine in the kitchen?" she said, looking into that room.

"Naturally," said Sherman, and veiled a cough.

"What of the location? Is it… acceptable?" she asked.

"Well enough," answered Sherman, and added, as if against his will, "I have only recently moved from Green Street to a fashionable house on Rincon Hill. To please my wife."

"Who is visiting her family," Madelaine finished for him.

"Yes." He waited until the silence was too laden with unspoken things; he then chose the most trivial of them to break it. "There are so few areas where reputable women may live safely alone in this city, though this comes as close to being that as any neighborhood might do. The location is not the most fashionable, but it is not inappropriate for a single woman keeping her own house, conserving her money, and assuring her good character in society."

"All of which is important." Madelaine turned to him. "I will need to find a good draper. I will need heavy curtains and draperies for the windows in the front parlor and the withdrawing room, as well as for the front bedrooms."

"Which face west," he said, looking impressed by her resolution. "You have not yet seen the third house, Madame de Montalia."

"Why should I waste your time and my own when this suits my needs so well?" Madelame asked, coming toward him.

Again he masked a cough, a sign of discomfort in him. "You haven't seen the bedrooms upstairs. They might not suit your purposes, or you could decide that the withdrawing room will not serve you well as your study," he pointed out. "I do not want you to contract for this house and then complain to me later that it is not what you wanted."

Madelaine smiled at him, annoyed that he would not admit she knew her own mind, and decided to enjoy herself at his expense. "Dear me, Mr. Sherman, are you always so hesitant yourself?" She could see that he was uneasy with this challenge, and she pressed her advantage, feeling his uncertainty about her as if there were a third person in the house with them, a silent judge who evaluated all that passed between them. "From what General Hitchcock told me the other afternoon, I thought you were of a decisive nature. Captain Buell says the same thing about you."

Stung, Sherman regarded her through narrowed eyes. "What do you mean, Madame?"

"I mean that you doubt my capacity to choose that which suits me," she answered, coming closer still to him. "This house will do well. The cellar is large enough and secure enough for my purposes, the rooms are pleasant, the location is satisfactory, and it requires very little attention from me, once I select the carpets and draperies. You tell me the rent is not too high for the house. Since it has so much to recommend it, I am willing to take it on a lease through… shall we say September?"

"You will have your book written in that time?" He flung this back at her, his face nearly expressionless.

"The greater part of it, certainly," she answered, unflus-tered; she enjoyed the awkwardness he felt in response to her emerging confidence.

He shrugged, making it plain that he washed his hands of the whole affair. "Be it on your head then, Madame." His eyes belied the indifference of his demeanor. "I will arrange for the lease to be drawn up this afternoon; you may sign it at my office this evening, if that is convenient."

"Excellent," she said. "And perhaps you can recommend a firm to move my things to this house at the beginning of next week? We might as well be about this as soon as possible."

He offered her a small salute. "Certainly, Madame."

"When I have established myself here, you must advise me how best to entertain, so that I will not offend any of the important hostesses in San Francisco." She meant what she said, and was reh'eved that for once Sherman seemed convinced.

"If my wife were here…" he began, then let his words trail off as he stared at her.

"If your wife were here, we should not be having this conversation, Mr. Sherman," said Madelaine, being deliberately provocative, and wondering what it was about him that so intrigued her, aside from his apparent fascination with her.

"No," he said, and looked away toward the vacant window and its view of the street beyond.

San Francisco, 10 June,

I am now in my house on Franklin Street, near the intersection of Grove Street, and very pleasant it is, too. The draper is making up curtains, draperies, and valences for me; they will be installed by the day after tomorrow, or so he has assured me, which will do much to make the place more comfortable during the day. With my chests of native earth in the basement, and my mattress and shoes relined, I am already quite at home. In a •week or so, all should be in order. I think I shall go on very well here.

This afternoon I interviewed over thirty applicants for my three staff positions, and have chosen a housekeeper-cum-maid who has but recently arrived from Sweden, a woman of middle years named Olga Bjomholm. I have also found a man-of-all-work named Christian van der Groot who came here to find gold but realized that he could do better helping to build houses and guard them than panning in the mountain rivers, and so here he is. I have yet to hire a cook for the household, but I have found a coachman to drive for me as needed.

I am reluctant to ask Mr. Sherman for more assistance, for I sense that his attraction is deepening, which causes him distress. It is apparent when he speaks to me that he does it with confusion springing from his attrac-

tion. If only my attraction were not deepening as well. It has been so long since I have let myself be loved knowingly; for the last decade I have taken my pleasure— such as it has been—in the dreams of men who have been interesting to me, and interested in me. And that has sufficed; it is gratification but not nourishment. For that, there must be intimacy without fantasy. And I cannot help but long for that intimacy, for knowledge and acceptance—although why I believe I should find either from William T. Sherman, I cannot tell, except for what is in his eyes.

Madelaine arrived at the French Theatre on Montgomery Street and found herself in a crush of carriages trying to get into position at the front of the theatre, where the sidewalk was broader and two wide steps were in place for those leaving their carriages. Ushers were at the edge of this boardwalk helping the arriving audience to alight.

"I don't think I can get much closer, Madame, not in another ten minutes, and you would then be late," said Enrique, her coachman, as he looked over the line of vehicles waiting to discharge their passengers. "It is less than a block from here."


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