Miss Jacobson's Journey
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by Carola Dunn
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: Having refused the man her parents chose for her, Miriam Jacobson finds herself smuggling gold across Napoleon's France to Wellington in Spain, accompanied by two attractive young men, both of whom detest her--and each other. High adventure and romance in the best Regency tradition.
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 1992
eBookwise Release Date: July 2003
37 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [296 KB]
Reading time: 182-256 min.
"But I don't want to get married!" Miriam scowled mutinously at the gilt-framed mirror, where dark red ringlets were taking shape under the skillful hands of her abigail. "At least, not yet. It's less than two months since I finished school. I want to see the world. I want to dance and have fun."
"God willing, there'll be dancing aplenty at your wedding, Miss Miriam."
"Oh Hannah, I want to go to balls and assemblies. I told you, several of my schoolfriends have promised to invite me when the Little Season begins."
"Hold still now, child. It's fated that all men should be fools but a girl needs a husband and how are you to find one at your balls and assemblies, tell me? You'll meet none but goyim, for sure."
"Perhaps I shall marry a Gentile." Miriam remembered her best friend's brother, who once came to visit the Seminary for Young Ladies where she had been educated. Tall, blond, with twinkling blue eyes, he had driven up to the door in a dashing curricle and taken the two girls out to tea. She had dreamed for weeks of those broad shoulders, fashionably clad in wrinkle-less blue superfine. Even now the memory of his teasing grin made her feel weak at the knees.
Hannah's horrified exclamation banished the vision. "Marry a Gentile! God forbid. You'd never be able to bring up your children in the faith of their forefathers."
"I haven't precisely been brought up as a good Jew."
"More shame to them I won't name, sending you off to that goy school where they don't observe the Sabbath, let alone the Holy Days."
"They didn't make me go to church on Sunday."
"Nor to the synagogue on Saturday, more's the pity. It's my belief the master's repented of such ungodliness, and that's why he's so pleased with the young fellow the matchmaker's found for you. A real scholar he is, I've heard, studying to be a rabbi. Speaks Hebrew and knows the Torah by heart. And rich as King Solomon besides, for he's the only son of a moneylender in the City."
"So Mama told me." Sighing, Miriam wondered whether any of her schoolfellows, after their chatter of marquises and earls, would have to settle for a parson. Yet perhaps being a rabbi's wife wouldn't be too dreadfully dull, if the man her father had chosen turned out to be handsome and amusing and not too bound by tradition.
"You should be thanking God that he's a young man, not a greybeard. There now." With a last twirl of the hairbrush, Hannah stepped back to admire her handiwork.
"Thank you, Hannah dear." Miriam stood up and smoothed the skirts of her pale green mull-muslin morning gown. The finest Mechlin lace trimmed the demure high neckline and the cuffs of the long sleeves; bodice and hem were embroidered with darker green vine leaves, while a matching satin ribbon encircled the high waist and tied in a bow behind. Her stylish elegance gave her confidence.
"Pretty as the Queen of Sheba," the abigail observed with satisfaction. "To think the baby I rocked in her cradle is ready for a husband! Your bridegroom will fall in love with you at first sight, Miss Miriam, God willing. Just the jade earrings, now, and you'd best be off to show the mistress."
The delicately carved jade fastened at her ears, Miriam crossed the hall to her mother's dressing room, knocked, and entered.
"I am ready, Mama."
Mrs. Jacobson, seated at her dressing table in a lilac silk wrap, turned to inspect her daughter. The wife of a wealthy importer of furs, she was generally much occupied in entertaining her husband's associates and in charity work, to the detriment of her relationship with her only child. Miriam felt she hardly knew her, and was relieved when she nodded approval.
"Excellent. Only you are a trifle pale, my dear. Perhaps the tiniest dab of rouge--no, we must not forget that your suitor is a Talmudic scholar. Pinch your cheeks a little."
Miriam complied, but pointed out, "My complexion is naturally pale, Mama. I doubt it will leave any lasting effect."
"Then you must do it again just before the matchmaker arrives," said her mother sharply. "You have been instructed how to behave, Miriam, and I trust you will not use this occasion for a display of wilful temperament."
Bowing her head with apparent meekness, she listened in rebellious silence as the instructions were repeated, with a stress on the necessity for a modest, compliant demeanour.
"You are most fortunate," Mrs. Jacobson concluded, "that your father has gone to the trouble of finding you so excellent a match. You must strive to deserve his kindness, and to earn a like benevolence from your husband. Pray go down now and remind your uncle that he is to sit in the drawing room today. The rest of the family will arrive shortly. I must dress."
Miriam curtsied and withdrew. A lecture from her mother on female submissiveness was less than convincing, she decided as she made her way downstairs. The absence of the slightest speck of dust on the elaborate tracery of the wrought iron balusters bore witness to Mrs. Jacobson's absolute rule over her household. And though she verbally upheld her husband's authority and did not meddle in his business, he almost always deferred to her judgement in other matters. She even aspired to control her brother, though his gentle disregard of her suggestions frequently defeated her.
Thinking of Uncle Amos, Miriam smiled. She had grown fond of the kind, if absentminded, Doctor Bloom since her return from school had coincided with his unexpected arrival from the Continent. He had left England when she was a small child, to study medicine in Germany. Since then, occasional letters made their way through the turmoil of revolution and war in Europe to announce his receipt of his diploma, his marriage, his extensive travels. The sketchy accounts of his journeys in pursuit of medical research fascinated his young niece.
The Peace of Amiens and the death of the beloved wife who had sheltered him from the practical side of life had combined to bring him back to England. Since his homecoming, his more detailed accounts of his sojourns in far-off lands had whetted Miriam's appetite for adventure.
She grimaced as she opened the library door. No doubt marriage was going to put a stop to all hope of adventure.
As she expected, Uncle Amos was seated at the long table surrounded by sheaves of paper and open books. His patriarchal grey beard and gold-rimmed spectacles made him look older than his forty-odd years. Absorbed in his work, he seemed not to notice her entrance.
"Uncle, I beg your pardon for interrupting, but Mama asked me to remind you that she requests your presence in the drawing room."
Taking off his spectacles, he smiled at her vaguely. "I have not enough data to draw credible conclusions. I must go back to Russia, but how can I manage without my Shirah? If I have to make arrangements for transportation and food and lodging, as well as treating the sick, I shall have little time for collecting and collating information."
"Perhaps you ought to seek another wife, uncle."
He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, a deep sorrow crossing his face. "No, I shall never remarry. Perhaps you are too young to understand, my dear, but it would be disloyal to her memory. Now, what were you saying about the drawing room?"
"The matchmaker is bringing my suitor today."
"Ah yes, I remember. Mazal tov, Miriam. May you share as much happiness as I did with Shirah."
"Thank you, Uncle. It seems tradition dictates that all the family should gather to approve him--and to add to my embarrassment."
"If you prefer it, I shall stay here."
"Oh no, please come. It is my other uncles and aunts and cousins I could well do without, but you will be a support to me."
Smiling at her, he pushed back his chair, came round the table and kissed her cheek. "I wish you happiness," he said again, "and I shall do my best to support you."
They went through to the drawing room, a long, high-ceilinged room with tall windows overlooking the garden. Not for the first time, Miriam wished her mother had not chosen to decorate it in crimson and ivory. She was sure the rich reds of the curtains, the Turkey carpet, and the brocade-covered chairs made her hair look insipid brown, or worse, clashed with it. Her cheeks seemed the paler in contrast, too. Surreptitiously she pinched them. How dreadful if, instead of falling in love with her, her suitor took a dislike to her on sight!
Annoyed with herself, she recognized an unaccustomed nervousness. Where was the calm common sense her teachers had so often praised, even as they castigated her stubborn determination to go her own way? Her palms were damp and her mouth was dry.
She turned resolutely to Uncle Amos, catching him in the act of opening the book he had brought with him. "What information is it you need in Poland?" she asked.
"I told you, I believe, that I am investigating the incidence of diabetes in Jews? I have much data for Germany and Poland, and it seems clear that in those countries Jews are more prone than Gentiles to develop the disease. But when I was in Russia I failed to obtain the relevant numbers for Gentiles." He sighed. "I should have liked, also, to compare the Ashkenazim with the Sephardic Jews of Spain and the Mediterranean area."
"There are both Ashkenazim and Sephardim in England, are there not? Can you not work right here at home?"
"The lines are too intermingled here. You see, the various comparisons are necessary to determine whether the high incidence is due to diet or to inherited factors. And there are other illnesses to be studied, such as the one that cripples and kills the children of Jews but rarely strikes Gentiles." He sighed. "So much work to be done!"
Miriam's father came in just then. A heavyset, good-humoured man with a bald patch and shaved chin balanced by luxuriant side whiskers, he kissed his curtsying daughter then took both her hands and looked her up and down.
"A beauty, just as your mother was. I hope this young man she has found is worthy of you, my love."
"I thought he was your choice, Papa." She should have guessed that her mother was responsible.
"No, no, it was all settled between your mother and the matchmaker, except for the financial side, of course. I've not even met your bridegroom, only his father. The settlements are most satisfactory, and you cannot do better than to wed a man with a true understanding and respect for the Torah and the Talmud. I have been remiss in my duties, I fear."
The tip of Miriam's tongue quivered with a tart and most unfilial question as to whether the sudden discovery of religion was his idea or her mother's. She managed to bite it back. Her parents' generation, she realized, busy with the worldly opportunities newly opening as society grew more tolerant, had let the religious observances of their forefathers lapse without much consideration. Perhaps her own generation would succeed in reconciling the demands of the modern world with the claims of the faith of Abraham and Moses.
Once again, she wondered whether her chosen husband was a strict follower or a liberal interpreter of all the endless rules and rituals. Perhaps he would utterly disapprove of her. The nervous agitation she had succeeded in banishing began to reappear.
It turned to irritation when, a few minutes after her mother's arrival, the butler ushered in a dozen relatives. Her unmarried female cousins flocked about her, giggling and offering envious congratulations. Their sparrowlike twittering almost drowned the butler's next announcement.
"Mrs. Weiss and Mr. Cohen."
Miriam scarcely noticed the matchmaker's vivid purple pelisse and the fruitbowl of matching grapes on her extraordinary bonnet. Of her words she heard only the excited, self-congratulatory tone. She was staring in horror at the black-clad apparition that sidled into the room after the woman.
In only one respect did he match her dreams: he was tall, or would have been if not for his stooped shoulders. He was also thin as a rake, pallidly sallow, with weak, lackluster, slightly red-rimmed eyes and dangling sidecurls. A wispy attempt at a beard adorned his chin, bearing out the impression that he was no more than two or three years older than Miriam--a mere youth, not a man.
Her father took her hand and began to lead her forward. She jerked away. "No! I will not." Looking round wildly, she saw Uncle Amos and rushed to his side in a swirl of skirts. She turned to face with defiance her aghast family, the flabbergasted matchmaker, and the gawky boy they wanted her to wed. "You cannot expect me to... I'm going to go to Europe with Uncle Amos, to look after him. His work is far more important than marriage."
As her furious mother bore down upon her, she saw the boy's face flush a painful red. For a moment her heart misgave her--how thoughtlessly cruel she had been to humiliate him so!--but then the expostulating crowd surrounded her, hiding him from her sight. Her attention turned to defending herself.
No one else was taking any notice of him, either. By the time Miriam had been persuaded at least to make his acquaintance, he was long gone.
One chilly morning towards the end of September, the crimson drawing room was the scene of a subdued farewell. After four weeks, Mrs. Jacobson still had not quite forgiven her errant daughter, but at the last moment she softened and folded Miriam in a warm embrace.
Miriam kissed her rose-perfumed cheek. "Don't worry, Mama. I shall take care of Uncle Amos and Hannah will take care of me. And this time next year," she couldn't resist adding, "when I come home, we shall set about looking for a bridegroom together."
Her mother sighed and at last reluctantly admitted, "You are very much as I was at your age. God preserve and bless you, my child."
Her father escorted her out to the luxurious travelling carriage he had provided, which was to go with them on the packet to Calais. Aaron Jacobson had a low opinion of French carriage-builders.
Handing her in, he leaned forward to tuck a fur rug around her knees and a heavy purse into her hand. "For fripperies," he whispered. "Your uncle has plenty for expenses."
He withdrew as Hannah climbed in on the opposite side and handed Miriam her huge grey muff of rare chinchilla furs from South America. Uncle Amos joined them, carrying a book, with his gloved finger marking his place. The carriage started moving.
Miriam looked back, waving to her father until they turned the corner of the street. Then she settled back on the bottle-green velvet squabs, straightened her chinchilla-trimmed pelerine, and beamed at her uncle.
"At last," she said, her brown eyes sparkling, "on the way to adventure!"
"God willing," said Hannah.
The diligence from Lyon lurched and jolted at a snail's pace through the outskirts of Paris. The younger of two shabbily dressed women turned from the grimy, rattling carriage window and addressed her grey-haired companion in a foreign language. Their weary fellow-passengers took no notice; Napoleon's empire brought all sorts of strangers to his capital city.
"Do you remember the first time we drove into Paris, in my father's carriage?" Miriam said in Yiddish. "How comfortable it was!"
"And a nice price it brought when you managed to persuade your uncle to sell it. Ah, all men are fools but Amos Bloom was a sainted fool, may his name be a blessing."
Hannah spoke Yiddish with a strong English accent, but her French and German were even worse. It was not safe to speak English. The resumption of the French war with England in 1803 had prevented their planned return home, and Napoleon's subsequent conquest of most of Europe had made their mother-tongue a private luxury.
"I miss him so." Miriam sniffed unhappily.
Hannah patted her hand in its darned woollen mitten. "As well you may, child, for what we are to do without him only God knows."
"I want to go home." She fell silent, her mind ranging back over the memorable years of travel. She had seen most of the continent, and she didn't regret a moment, but that was over now. Scarce a month had passed since Uncle Amos, always careless of his own health, had succumbed to an inflammation of the lungs. Losing him changed everything. Now Miriam longed to settle down, to marry and bring up a family.
England's blockade and Napoleon's Continental System were porous, she knew. Now and then on arriving in a new city they had found money awaiting them, credited to her father for Canadian beaver or South American chinchilla furs smuggled across the Channel. Yet she had no idea how to go about contacting smugglers. Her only hope was that Monsieur Benjamin would be able to advise her.
At last the diligence turned into the rue du Bouloi and thence into the coach yard. The door opened, the step was let down. Miriam descended and turned to help Hannah, who moved stiffly after six days on the road. Their boxes were unloaded, and Miriam, in fluent French, arranged for them to be kept until she sent for them.
Only an hour or two remained of the chilly March day. What she would do if the Benjamins were away from home she didn't dare to think.
The narrow streets of Paris were as filthy as she remembered them. The central gutters stank, and pedestrians huddled to the walls to avoid being trampled by horses hooves, only to find themselves dodging piles of garbage outside every door. Piles of rubble still showed where the abandoned hôtels of the ancien régime had been demolished a dozen years ago, and wide areas of the town had been razed to make room for new splendours. Yet everywhere the new public buildings and monuments stood shrouded in rusting scaffolding, work at a halt as the Emperor's attention focussed on conquest.
By the time Miriam and her faithful servant reached the rue du Mont-Blanc, their shoes and hems were black with glutinous mud. Here at least some attempt had been made to provide a pavement down each side of the street.
"This is the place, isn't it? It seems familiar." Miriam paused outside a milliner's shop, gazing with envious eyes at the elegant creations in the window. "Yes "Chez Fleury'. Look at that bonnet, Hannah, the one with the striped ribbons."
"No use pining for what you can't have. There's the door, Miss Miriam, squeezed in before the next shop."
The narrow passage was dark and dingy, shared by the rich on the first floor, the paupers in the garrets, and everyone in between. Two flights of steep stairs brought them to their destination. Miriam knocked and then held her breath, straining to hear the sound of approaching footsteps.
The door swung open, and there was fat Berthe in her black dress and spotless white apron.
"Mam'selle Jacobson! And Hannah!" She bustled them into the spacious vestibule, closing the door firmly on the squalid landing. "But where is the good doctor? Ah, que madame sera ravie de vous revoir, mademoiselle."
"Monsieur and madame are at home, Berthe?"
"They are walking in the Luxembourg gardens. Monsieur has felt himself very well since Doctor Bloom adjusted his diet. The uncle follows you closely, mademoiselle?"
Berthe was overcome by the news of Doctor Bloom's death. Her double chins quivered and she wiped her eyes with her apron. When they came home, the elderly Monsieur and Madame Benjamin were no less distressed. Monsieur promised to recite Kaddish, the mourners' prayer, at the synagogue next Sabbath.
In her renewed grief, Miriam found comfort in the thought of God's praises and prayers for peace being said in her uncle's name. In Milan, too, where he had died, and in Lyon, where she and Hannah had stayed a few days with friends, Kaddish would be spoken for him. Amos Bloom had made himself loved wherever he went.
"Mais, la vie continue," said Madame at last. "What are your plans now, ma chère?"
Miriam explained that all she wanted was to go home to England. Monsieur promised, doubtfully, to make enquiries. Though retired, he had many contacts with merchants of all sorts, including importers and exporters, but he would have to be careful. By then, Miriam was too tired to worry. After a hot bath--a real luxury in a city without a proper water supply--and a superb meal, she sank into the soft embrace of a feather bed and instantly fell asleep.
The reverberating boom of a cannon woke her next morning. Snuggling beneath the warm covers she counted the reports, hoping they didn't signify a victory over the English army in the Peninsula: one, two, three... twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two... From the street outside came shouts and cheering. Twenty-three, twenty-four... Miriam lost count.
Berthe came in, beaming, with a tray of hot chocolate and rolls. "I was sure the noise must have wakened mam'selle." She set the tray on a bedside table and drew the curtains at the window, admitting the sounds of rejoicing as the cannon's thunder at last came to an end.
"What is it?" Miriam sat up. "What has happened?"
"Twenty-one for a girl, a hundred and one for a boy. The Empress has borne a son. At last we have an heir to the throne, mam'selle. Today there will be grande fêtein the streets. See, already the shops are closing, the crowds are dancing."
Slipping out of bed, Miriam went to join the corpulent maid at the window. Apprentices were putting up shutters on the shops on the other side of the rue du Mont-Blanc, while from the upper windows people leaned, shouting and waving. In the street, some enterprising person had produced a banner painted with bees, Bonaparte's symbol, and the words, "Vive le roi de Rome!" Someone else sang: "Et bon, bon, bon,
In no time the chant was taken up by the swirling crowds and the walls echoed to the sound.
Miriam was torn by conflicting feelings. The Emperor Napoleon had opened ghettos and emancipated the Jews as he marched across Europe, but he had brought death and destruction, too, and he was her country's bitter enemy. She watched in silence, until Berthe glanced down at her bare feet and exclaimed in horror.
"You will catch a cold, mam'selle. Return to bed this instant!"
To Miriam's disappointment, Madame advised against an expedition to see the celebrations. Fountains running with wine, she pointed out, were scarcely calculated to lead to decorous behaviour among the lower classes, and even at the best of times the soldiers quartered in Paris were a rowdy lot. Miriam was unpersuaded, but Hannah's refusal to set foot out of doors settled the matter.
Instead, while Hannah unpacked, cleaned and mended their scanty wardrobes, Miriam opened the scuffed red leather box containing her uncle's papers.
One day, she had promised him, she would set them in order and do her best to get them published. For the moment, she simply wanted to reduce the quantity as much as possible. Though she had helped Uncle Amos with his work and knew which documents could be spared, she hated to throw anything out, but she and Hannah might have to leave in a hurry and travel light.
She smiled as the little portraits she had drawn in the margins reminded her of old friends and patients. Uncle Amos had a tendency to forget names, but he never forgot a face.
For several days the labour of love kept her from dwelling on their difficult situation. The Benjamins, kind hosts, provided every comfort and showed no impatience to see them gone. Nonetheless, as time passed and Monsieur had no luck with his enquiries, Miriam began to think of seeking employment.
They had been in Paris for a week when Monsieur came home looking smug and announced, "At last, a possibility. There is a young man recently arrived here from Frankfurt, a Monsieur Jakob Rothschild, who, I have heard, is in close touch with his brother in London."
"In touch?" Miriam asked dubiously. "Do you mean he might be able to transfer some money from my father?"
"Better than that." He lowered his voice and glanced over his shoulder. "Monsieur Rothschild, on dit, occupies himself with bringing gold from London to Paris. Our Minister of Finance has reported to the Emperor that the British government fears being weakened by the outflow of bullion, so Monsieur le Ministre will not attempt to stop it."
"And you believe that where gold crosses the Channel in one direction, people may cross in the opposite direction?"
"Précisément. I have arranged that you will call on Monsieur Rothschild at 5, rue Napoléon, tomorrow morning. I shall send for a fiacre to pick you up at ten o'clock. All I ask, ma chère Miriam, is that you are discreet."
"I shall not mention your name, monsieur, I assure you." Miriam went on to express her deep and sincere gratitude for his efforts in her behalf, but secretly she was disturbed. The thought of begging favours from those who were bleeding England of gold repelled her.
Later that evening, she mentioned her disquiet to Hannah.
"Now, Miss Miriam, you're not going to spoil everything!" said her abigail in alarm. "God forbid you should help England's enemies, but letting them help you's nothing to carp at."
"No, I suppose you are right. Wait, I have it! If they do send us by the same way the gold is coming here, I shall keep my eyes open and when we reach home I'll report all I see. Papa knows people in the government. Perhaps we'll be instrumental in stopping the wretches."
"Just don't you let on how you feel about them, or it's us'll be stopped in our tracks," groused Hannah, but she knew her mistress too well to try to dissuade her.
On the morrow, Miriam had Hannah arrange her hair in ringlets, instead of the practical coiled braids she usually wore. She dressed in her best morning gown, an aging periwinkle-blue silk she had had made in a small town in Germany that was never less than three years behind the Parisian modes. A grey woollen cloak completed the depressing ensemble. Hannah, in serviceable brown, clomped after her down the stairs to the fiacre.
Stepping into the dirty, dilapidated vehicle, Miriam wrinkled her nose, wishing her old-fashioned host had ordered one of the new, open cabriolets she had seen dashing about the town. However, she had more important matters on her mind. As they rattled through the streets, she rehearsed her carefully prepared appeal.
"If only I knew more about Jakob Rothschild," she said. "Monsieur Benjamin described him as a young man, but that might mean anything up to forty, I daresay."
"You're not thinking of flirting with him to get him to do your bidding!" Hannah scolded.
"Of course I shall, if necessary. We certainly don't have enough money to tempt him, so I must use the only weapon I have."
"One of these days you'll land yourself in trouble, that you will."
"Come now, you know I never go beyond the line of what would be acceptable in the drawing room of the fiercest dowager. My schooling taught me that, at least. How long ago it seems, and how differently my life has turned out from anything I ever expected." She laughed. "Much more interesting!"
A few minutes later they reached the rue Napoléon. For a nerve-racking quarter of an hour they waited in a luxurious marble-floored vestibule, until Monsieur Rothschild's secretary came to ask their business.
"I wish to speak privately with monsieur," Miriam said as haughtily as her shabby attire permitted.
"Monsieur speaks only German and Yiddish, mademoiselle. You may tell me..."
"I speak both languages. My business with Herr Rothschild is private," she insisted.
With a slight bow he departed, returning a moment later to usher them into an elegantly appointed drawing room.
"Monsieur will join you shortly, mademoiselle."
Glancing round at the elaborately ornate Louis XV furniture, the delightful Fragonard hanging over the rococo mantelpiece, Miriam felt shabbier than ever. Herr Rothschild would laugh at the pittance in her reticule. She must rely on her feminine wiles.
She pinched her cheeks and went to warm her hands at the fire. Hannah stayed by the door.
It opened and in came a short, slim, red-haired youth, clad in the latest Parisian fashion--the English swallow-tail coat as influenced by French military uniforms. He bowed gracefully.
Miriam stared in dismay as she curtsied. He was far too young for her to flirt with, no more than eighteen or nineteen, with a boyish spring to his step and an air of scarce-suppressed energy. Surely this was not the man she had come to beg for passage to England!
But it was. He introduced himself in excellent Hessian German: "Jakob Rothschild, at your service, Fräulein."
Abandoning her prepared opening, she said bluntly, "I understand that you have connections in London, Herr Rothschild. I am anxious to travel to England, and I hoped you might be able to help me."
"You are Engish?" he enquired, suddenly intent. "You speak German well. Bitte, setzen Sie sich, Fräulein Jacobson."
She took a seat on a gilt and brocade chair by the fireplace. "I spent the last several years traveling around Europe with my uncle. I speak several languages."
"French, of course." He stood opposite her, leaning against the mantel with a natural elegance. "Spanish?"
"A little, and some Italian."
The latter he brushed aside as of no account. "You know the south of France? The Pyrenees?"
"My uncle and I spent some time among the Jews of that region," she admitted with some caution, beginning to wonder at his interest. "I have crossed the Pyrenees more than once." Twice, actually; once in each direction.
He gazed at her consideringly. "But you are an Englishwoman. You would like to help your country?"
"Miss Miriam!" Hannah stepped forward, an urgent warning on her lips.
"It's all right, Hannah. Mein Herr, at present my only wish is to return to my country."
To her surprise, the young Rothschild laughed. "So, you have heard that I and my brother Nathan are smuggling gold from England against the wishes of the government. I believe I must trust you with the truth, Fräulein, for you appear to be the very person I need."
"The truth?" she asked, bewildered. "You need me?"
"The truth is that Nathan, who is a naturalized Englishman, has been commissioned by the British government to convey a very large sum of money to General Wellington in Portugal. I have received the gold here in Paris and now it must be transported through France and across the Pyrenees."
"I'm delighted to hear that you are working for the British government, but what has it to do with me?"
"You have asked a favour of me, now I shall ask a favour of you. I need a guide to assist in this venture. You speak French and Spanish, you know the country. Help me in this and I shall see that you reach England safely."
"Surely you can hire someone!"
"For this task, I cannot trust anyone I might hire in France."
"I suppose not," Miriam unwillingly agreed.
"You see, Fräulein, your government sent a guardian with the shipment, an English goy to make sure that we Jews do not cheat. But this gentleman," he said the word in English, "Lord Felix Roworth, knows nothing of France. There is also Nathan's agent, who must accompany the gold so that he can take Wellington's receipts back to my brother. He too is unfamiliar with the route. What am I to do?"
In the pause that followed this plaintive question, the fall of a log in the grate sounded loud. Her unseeing gaze on the rush of sparks up the chimney, Miriam recalled that one of the reasons she had insisted on accompanying Uncle Amos on his travels was a desire for adventure. The years had been interesting, she felt she had been useful to him, but there had not, really, been any adventure worth mentioning. A bubble of excitement swelled within her.
Hannah read her mind. "Miss Miriam, you wouldn't..."
"Your patriotic duty," Jakob Rothschild interrupted. "General Wellington is in desperate need of funds to pay the British Army."
"You will send us home as soon as we return to Paris?"
"From Bordeaux, if you wish it, Fräulein." Suddenly he was all business. "You brought your luggage with you?"
"No, but we packed in case we needed to leave quickly."
"Give me the direction and I shall send for it. You leave today."
"But I have not take proper leave of my hosts," Miriam protested, "and I am not dressed for travelling."
"You may change your clothes when your boxes arrive, and write to your hosts in the meantime. I shall see your letter delivered. There are writing materials in my office. Come this way, please. You must make the acquaintance of your travelling companions while I complete the arrangements."
He led the way through a connecting door into a large room furnished with a desk, a huge iron safe, a number of straight wooden chairs and three or four plain leather-covered armchairs. Two of the latter were occupied. The occupants rose to their feet and bowed as Miriam entered.
"Lord Felix Roworth." Jakob Rothschild indicated the tall, broad-shouldered gentleman with golden hair and blue eyes. Immaculate in a coat of snuff-brown superfine, elegantly simple cravat, dove-grey waistcoat, skintight buckskins and white-topped boots, he appeared to be in his late twenties. "Isaac Cohen," Herr Rothschild continued the introductions. "Mees Jacobson."
Miriam glanced at the second man and nodded, but she scarcely saw him. Her gaze swung back at once to Lord Felix. He was the very embodiment of her schoolgirl dreams.