I can abide neither a liar nor a cheat, but you may be wont to think me such while I here relate my little tale. Were I not your humble narrator, even now I would scarce believe it anything but mere fiction. I take pen in resolute hand to assure you that what I am about to recount is truth, not the least of which involves heartbreak, joy, a Chinese translation of the Gospel According to St. Luke, and, oh yes, a rather large sword.
Perhaps it is best that I start where my journey of a thousand miles began, not with a single step but with the dearest pair of pink silk slippers.
Soft as rose petals they were and embroidered with a bit of curious white design on the toes. They looked quite lovely peeping from beneath my new white muslin dress with a pink ribbon encircling just below . . . oh dear, let me simply say high above my waist. My modiste assured me the dress was the finest in the county and that during the party no one would be my peer.
I was, after all, preparing for social battle. “This dress will accomplish the task,” I said, twirling on the stool set in front of the mirror. “You do me proud, Flora.”
My modiste tugged on the hem to allay my motion. She looked up from where she knelt before my stool, mouth full of pins. “I do not know why you asked me to stitch this in such a hurry. If you do not cease your movements, Miss Isabella,” she mumbled, “’twill not be finished in time for the Ransoms’ party tonight. Be still, child.”
“Child?” I laughed. “I have five and twenty years, as well you know, and you have been with me for all of them.”
Flora removed the pins from her mouth to permit an angelic smile. “And now the only child in attendance is when little Lewis visits with Frederica.”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Would I never cease hearing about my older sister’s child? My nephew was a creation of God, indeed, but he was also quite possibly the most disagreeable baby upon which I had ever set eyes. Not only did he wail piteously whenever I attempted to hold him, but he also possessed some rather curious physical traits. It had been my limited experience that most babies lose the red, wrinkled skin and expression so common to them (and their mothers!) soon after birth. But this child—pronounced hale and hearty by the doctor—persisted in retaining the most distressingly mottled skin and ungainly form.
Shall I describe the child’s face? In deference to his mother, I think not.
“You are far behind your sister. She already has a babe, yet you do not even have a husband.”
Touché. The battle had already begun, and with Flora, no less! She had long been concerned with my future, since my mother and father passed away soon after my birth. A distant relative hired to care for Frederica and me, Louisa Florey had served as our nursemaid, governess, modiste, and confidante. “Miss Florey” had been shortened to Flora long ago.
Now that Freddie was happily wed, Flora had turned her attention fully to me. She often suggested particular young men in Oxford as potential husbands, never even attempting to cloak her matchmaking as idle speculation. Fortunately, I had learned to overlook her plainspokenness, for its source was always love.
“No one is more aware of my solitude, thank you,” I said. “But I am not yet past hope of being wed.” I would be happy with even a disagreeable baby . . .
Readjusting her position, Flora bumped against the stool, scattering the pins. “Only see what I have done!” She got down on her hands and knees, sighing. “That is probably my punishment for my insensitive words,” she mumbled to herself as she hunted near the mirror and around the stool. “It is quite one thing for me to be a spinster, but you . . .” She looked up and smiled, determined to soften her words. “It is as you say, dear Miss Isabella. You are not yet past hope.”
I smiled. “Then this should please you. Catherine Ransom told me there would be an extra guest tonight.” I paused for best effect. “A male guest.”
“So that was the reason for a new gown. And now, I suppose, that you with your spontaneous notions have already begun to contemplate the wedding.”
In truth I had pictured myself standing beside an elegant groom at Christ Church’s chapel, but I feigned shock. “Why, Flora! I only wanted a chance to show off your beautiful handiwork.”
“Pah. It is my French blood. Only the French know how to sew a proper fashion.”
“You are but one-quarter French, I believe.”
She let out a dolorous sigh. “To think what fame could be mine if my ancestors had taken more care with my lineage.”
I smiled and slipped an arm around her shoulder. “Were Napoleon himself your father, you could not be a better seamstress.”
“Were Napoleon my father, I would refer to myself as fully British,” she said. “Let us pray then that my work shows off to your advantage tonight. Do you like the new slippers?”
I wiggled my toes happily. I had small, delicate feet, about which I confess to an equally small, delicate vanity.
“They are beautiful, Flora, and the fit most comfortable. Not like that last pair that pinched to no end.”
“That is peculiar, for the shoemaker used the very same pattern for this pair.” Flora brightened. “Perhaps it is a difference in the silk. When I inquired after his best fabric, he made sure that no one was watching, then he drew out a small bolt of this pink silk. ‘Newly arrived from the Orient,’ he said. ‘It put me right in mind of your Isabella Goodrich, and no one else should have it,’ he said. Then, when the slippers were finished, I saw that his wife had added the embroidery. I could not bear to refuse to pay, because the poor woman is near blindness. The white stitching does look lovely . . . though a trifle peculiar.”
I bent to stroke one of the slippers and felt an odd little thrill. The design on the toes must be some sort of Chinese symbol, then, if the fabric was Oriental silk. I could envision Solomon’s wife painstakingly copying the patterns, and I was touched by her efforts. “Did he say why he thought of me, in particular?”
Flora shrugged. “I never know why old Solomon says what he does. One cannot trust everything he says. After all, he is not French, for all that he tries to fashion shoes.” I covered a smile.
“Did Catherine Ransom say anything about this mysterious stranger that is to visit tonight?” Flora said.
I shook my head, and she sniffed. “Thankfully she is already married, though I would not put it past her to steal this man’s attention too.”
“Flora! She is a lady, after all. As well as my friend.”
She sighed. “I am sorry to speak of it, Miss Isabella, but she is no friend to you. I cannot find it in my heart to forgive her. Or Mr. David.” She waggled her finger in my direction. “And I do not doubt for one moment that Catherine Ransom has some other mischievous plan tonight. It is far too suspicious that she would advise you about a male visitor to tonight’s party—she who has never had your interests at heart!”
Studying the mirror, I adjusted a dark ringlet at my cheek.
“She wants only to pair me for the evening with someone suitable. Is that implausible?”
Flora’s reflection scowled at mine.
“Very well,” I said, turning to face her. “I will be en guard tonight against Catherine Ransom and her wiles.”
Flora cocked her head. “Truly? Do you pledge it?”
“I do,” I said firmly, with the certainty that one day soon—surely!—I would be repeating that expression in the matrimonial setting for which it was properly intended.