Warp and Weft
Esmeralda Pogue was keeping up most of the conversation as she and Sarah Slate crossed over the Thames via the New London Bridge to High Street and wound their way through Bermondsey to Rotherhithe. “Mr. Charles Howgill is a self made man. Although he has no title, his banker’s wife, who is a dear friend of mine, assures me that he has quite a tidy fortune. He lives in Hatton Garden,” not that Sarah had any idea what that implied, “but he can certainly afford a more stylish, up and coming neighborhood. All he lacks is the right sort of wife to raise him to the station which his good fortune affords him.” Sarah was quite certain she knew what that implied.
The carriage rattled past a series of foundries on Rotherhithe Lower Road before halting in front of a small, newly built cotton mill. It had a brick exterior and a small profile facing the road that was three stories high. It stretched far back from the street. The door through which they entered was unremarkable, rather like a mouse hole in the side of the enormous blank, brick wall whose only other opening at street level was an enormous wrought iron gate. Though the latter was more impressive in its size, it was as functional, yet undistinguished in design, as the one through which they entered. The only marking on the door was a street number. It gave no indication of what lay behind it.
Esmeralda rapped smartly twice and opened the door without waiting for a reply. Sarah was pleasantly surprised to discover that the interior was as plain and practical as the outside. But, it was not at all the sort of place that she would have expected her new friend, the elegant Miss Pogue, to frequent. But a frequent visitor she must have been because the clerk at the desk just inside the door greeted Esmeralda without need of introduction.
“Good morning, Miss Pogue.” His tone was bland, but his eyes hinted that he found her tedious. Fortunately, only Sarah was looking at his face. Esmeralda was gazing past the top of his head.
“Good day. Is Charles in?” Charles? Sarah squirmed a bit on the spot where she had planted herself. Esmeralda was obviously on very familiar, practically intimate, terms with Mr. Charles Howgill. Miss Pogue was even leaning toward the other door in the room as if she were not going to await permission. The clerk was the sort of man who took Shakespeare’s advice about the better part of valor to heart each day.
“Of course, Miss Pogue, you may see yourself in.” Esmeralda already had her hand on the knob by the time he finished. The interior room was only slightly larger and marginally better decorated than the exterior office. The middle-aged man behind the desk lifted his eyes, but not his head, from the ledgers spread out in front of him.
“Charles, dearest, may I have the pleasure of introducing you to my new friend, Miss Sarah Slate, from Connecticut? She has a keen interest in weaving.”
“Miss Slater, from Connecticut?” He was suddenly paying considerably more attention than when they entered, apprising Sarah’s features very carefully.
“Miss Sarah Slate, Mr. Howgill,” Sarah corrected him.
“My apologies for mistaking your name.”
Anxious to keep the focus of the conversation on her desired topic, the impatient Miss Pogue continued. “As, I was saying, Miss Slate has a keen interest in weaving. She believes she can design a loom to create clever cloth that presents itself differently when viewed from different directions.”
“I have proposed to Miss Slate that we should start a small concern together.” The look on Miss Slate’s face suggested that the use of past tense in the sentence was only accurate from the perspective that the sentence had just been uttered. “Closely acquainted as I am with the finest dressmakers of London and all of their fashionable patrons, I should be very successful at introducing it in all the right circles. It would almost certainly be even more desirable if it were priced dearly.”
“Interesting,” but the tone of his voice suggested that it was less so with each new utterance.
“Sarah, dearest, would you be so kind as to show Mr. Howgill your drawings?”
Sarah withdrew her notebook from her carpetbag, opened it to the page with the daisy drawing, and held it flat. “Do you see how the drawing is colored to reveal a different image when viewed from different angles?” She repeated the 90° rotation action with the level book. “You may have to squint to observe the desired effect as this is only paper and ink. The challenge with cloth is that warp and weft shift, disrupting the continuity of the directional pattern. I believe the stability of the pattern can be achieved with a blending of fibers to create slightly flattened threads rather than round ones. The sides of the threads are died different colors and a precise, tight weave prevents the threads from toggling.” She was practically breathless when she finished her explanation and her eyes were shining. She looked Howgill directly in the eyes, but could not read his expression. “Unfortunately, a mill that can spin such thread and create such a precise weave does not exist.”
“It does not exist yet. Although a moment ago when you were describing it, I could see it in my mind.” And now the expression on his face was perfectly clear. He was smiling for the first time since they had entered his office. Esmeralda cleared her throat, perhaps a tad petulantly.
“Can you imagine how fabulously striking a dress or costume made from such fabric would be? A costume of the sort that one might wear to a masquerade ball such as the one tonight at Kensington Palace?” She was dearly hoping he was getting her hint about the evening’s festivities, but his attention had wandered off in thought, as he stared fixedly toward the corner of the ceiling. When his attention returned to the room, he gave no indication that he had heard what she had just said.
“Miss Slate, are you familiar with the operation of a mill?”
“Would you like a tour of mine?”
“Why, yes, I would enjoy that very much!”
“This way to the blowing room.” He opened the side door of his office that led directly to the first floor of the factory, motioning for Sarah to precede him. He very nearly followed immediately behind her when the sound of Miss Pogue’s heels marching smartly toward him reminded him of her presence. She smiled tightly at him as she also passed through the door. There was no way she was giving up that easily on an eligible suitor and a business opportunity.
When Miss Pogue and Mr. Howgill rejoined Miss Slate, she was looking about, but with more of an assessing eye than a look of wonder. When her gaze settled on the cotton bale breaker, she stopped, put her hand to her mouth, and frowned in frustration.
Howgill approached. “Is there a problem, Miss Slate?”
“No. I was just thinking that there is not enough room in here for the unpacking of the other fibers alongside the bale breaker.”
“This is my only factory in London, but I have another larger, more up to date one in Carlisle. And I own more land immediately adjacent on which another mill could be built.” Esmeralda made a mental note about the accuracy of the information provided by the banker’s wife. And then she sneezed from the cotton dust in the air.
Sarah nodded at Howgill in understanding and continued surveying the blowing room. She stopped and cocked her left ear toward the bale breaker. She listened for several seconds before turning to face him. “One of the bearings in the bale breaker is wearing out.”
He opened his eyes wide in astonishment. “You have very perceptive ears! We have ordered new parts that should be delivered tomorrow. I think we should be fine until then.”
“I don’t share your certainty on that point, Mr. Howgill. The pitch of the whine has changed since we entered a few moments ago.”
He opened his mouth to dismiss her concerns, but stopped himself. “Are you quite certain?” She sniffed a couple of times. He thought that a rather rude way to answer his question. And then, even more strangely, she whirled around on the spot before dashing behind the willowing machine. She emerged with a bucket of water, the contents of which she immediately dashed into the exit chute of the bale breaker.
The foreman rushed over to disengage the machine from the belt drive while unleashing an unholy stream of curses. Howgill screamed, “Good lord, woman, have you lost your mind? Do you know what it will cost me to repair that machine, not to mention the lost productivity?”
The foreman was frantically yanking handfuls of sodden clumps of cotton out of the exit chute. After freeing more than a dozen handfuls he pulled out one that was singed along one edge. Howgill’s mouth dropped open. “Oh, Miss Slate, I owe you an apology. You have just saved my factory from going up in flames! How can I ever repay you?” Esmeralda swallowed hard. She did not like the direction this was going. “There is a masquerade ball this evening at Kensington Palace. Your friend, Miss Pogue, and I have invitations, but I confess I have been less than enthusiastic about attending. Would you do me the honor of being my guest? Perhaps as a small repayment of the debt I owe you?” The minor conflagration in the bale breaker might have been extinguished, but there was smoke pouring out of Esmeralda’s ears.
“How very kind of you, Mr. Howgill, but I haven’t anything appropriate to wear.”
“I’m sure Miss Pogue can help. Esmeralda, dear, do you have something suitable that Miss Slate may borrow?”
Esmeralda snapped open her fan and began flipping it frenetically to cover her face, hoping to hide the fact that her complexion was turning the same shade of purple as the fan. The nerve! He had never before referred to her in the familiar manner, but now he had deigned to do so to ask a favor for a woman she would not have considered worthy to be a rival for his affections. She nearly choked as she responded, “Of course.”
“Very kind of you. Miss Slate, I will collect you this evening at 6 pm. Where shall I call?”
“I am lodging at McCreary’s Boarding House for Respectable Single Ladies.”
“I will collect you there. And now if you ladies will excuse me, I must see to repairs of my bale breaker, but thankfully, not my entire factory.” He beamed at Sarah as he took her hand and deposited a light kiss on the back of it. Esmeralda felt like she was going to faint.
The ride back across the Thames passed in stony silence. Esmeralda was seething and Sarah was so dazed by the whirlwind of the day’s events that she failed to notice. When the carriage deposited Sarah at the boarding house, Esmeralda said, “I’ll have the dress and mask delivered presently,” and drove off without another word. Once the carriage was a block away, she leaned out the window and said to the coachman, “Bingham, we’ll be stopping at Maricela’s Trapeze on the way home.”
The costume that Bingham delivered later that day was like nothing Sarah had ever seen before. The teal silk taffeta perfectly complemented her dark hair and fair skin. The bustle had a clever little pocket that accommodated the spray of peacock feathers packed into a separate box along with a domino encrusted with blue, green, and hazel crystals to mimic the “eye” in the peacock tail feathers. The effect on the mask was made perfect by the attachment of some wispy brown barbs from more feathers. The box contained two other marvelous gems: a fascinator with a single peacock feather anchored by a stylized brooch in the shape of a peacock feather bejeweled with the same crystals as the domino, and a fan of the same taffeta as the dress, not surprisingly hand painted to look like a peacock tail when opened. Despite her elation at the elegance of the costume, she spared a moment of sympathy for the poor peacock that must have given up absolutely all of its feathers for the making of the ensemble, and another moment to be grateful that Esmeralda hadn’t sent along a peahen costume that would have been more appropriate for her sex.
Sarah struggled a bit to descend the stairs at ten minutes before 6. She was unaccustomed to maneuvering in such voluminous skirts and petticoats, and Esmeralda was a tad taller than she. She was congratulating herself on her safe arrival in the brightly lit foyer when the landlady bustled in dressed in attire that was even more colorful than Sarah’s, if such a thing were possible. Sarah wondered if such a shade of red were appropriate for a woman of Mrs. McCreary’s age, but it certainly matched her mood.
“My dear, you are a vision of splendor. Are you off to some fabulous soiree?”
“So it seems. It’s a masquerade ball at Kensington Palace.”
“Darling, that is the very definition of fabulous! Have you arranged for a cab?”
“No. Mr. Charles Howgill, the industrialist should be calling for me on the hour.”
“Mr. Charles Howgill, the industrialist? He sounds positively eligible.”
“Yes, so I hear. He is very nearly betrothed to my friend, Miss Esmeralda Pogue.”
Mrs. McCreary winked at Sarah in her vibrantly colored splendor. “Perhaps not after tonight.” And then she pinched Sarah’s cheek for good measure. Precisely on the hour there was a crisp tapping on the door. The landlady handed Sarah a key. “If you should return late, please be quiet. I need my beauty sleep. If you don’t return until early, please make plenty of noise so I can be elsewhere and pretend I didn’t know you were out past a respectable hour.” She winked conspiratorially at Sarah before opening the door. After quickly sizing up the properly dressed gentleman on the front porch, she stepped back to reveal her tenant hidden behind her.
Howgill stood stock still, staring at Sarah in rapt amazement. “Miss Slate, you are absolutely stunning.” He held out his elbow for her to take. Neither of them noticed Mrs. McCreary smiling knowingly at their backs as they made their way to the carriage.
It seemed to Sarah that there were more servants than guests at Kensington Palace: two footmen to help her out of the carriage, another one to hold the umbrella to shield her from the evening drizzle for the few feet between the carriage and the awning, a bevy of ladies maids taking ladies cloaks and their male compatriots relieving gentlemen of their hats and coats. Another servant floated toward them carrying an ornately embellished tray cramped with flutes of goldenly bubbling champagne. Charles turned to her, “Would you care for a glass of champagne?”
“I can’t say as I’ve never tasted it.”
“Then nothing else will do.” He retrieved two glasses as the tray with the servant drifted past. “I advise a modicum of caution. I find the bubbles go right to my head.” He watched her take a gingerly sip, focusing all of his attention on her. As she looked back at him, she considered that she might have misjudged his age when she met him that morning. He seemed not much past 30 years now that she looked at him closely.
Growing a might uncomfortable with his fixed attention, she began searching for something distracting. She spied a gentleman dressed in relatively unremarkable clothing, but wearing a strikingly sinister mask. It had a protruding brow and a long, upward swept nose with flaring nostrils. Its deep red color gave it a devilish aspect. It also matched the dress of the woman standing next to him. Rather than wearing a mask on her face, the woman was wearing a dainty hat with a harlequin mask affixed to it. Sarah nodded in their direction, “Do you know who the man in the red mask is?”
“It would be almost impossible to say given the completeness of the mask, but the woman next to him is Lady Amethyst, the noted crypto-zoologist.”
“Are you acquainted with her?”
“Sadly, no, but she published an excellent article last month in ‘The Zoologist.’”
She was struggling to think of another suitable topic when a wave of silence followed by a murmur rippled from the entrance toward them. They both turned to face the source of the crowd’s fascination directly. The assemblage parted to reveal Miss Esmeralda Pogue in a costume immediately recognizable as Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Certainly she wasn’t naked, but her dress was nearly the exact shade or her alabaster skin and the outline of Venus was hand painted on the silk of her dress and the bottom tier was a ruffled sea foam green. Her long red hair was somehow fastened around the dress to cover the painting on the dress as it did in the original work. A soft pink, patterned drape flowed from her left shoulder. A pair of tiny winged angels bobbed from a wire frame whose base was hidden under her hair. An enormous scallop shell fanned out from her bustle, necessitating the parting of the crowd. Her escort wasn’t wearing a costume per se. Only a madman would have come to such a gathering impersonating an admiral of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy. The uniform was undoubtedly real and several people in the room recognized him, although Sarah wasn’t one of them.
Sarah suddenly felt very plain as Venus washed in on her half shell. Esmeralda and her escort halted their promenade immediately in front of Sarah and Charles. Charles stood up very straight and looked her directly in the eye. “Miss Pogue, you certainly have a talent for drawing attention to yourself.” He turned to the admiral and shook his hand firmly. “Sir, I trust you will have a pleasant evening. The Perrier-Jouët is a marvel.” Sarah noticed, much to her relief, that Charles had deftly, but politely dismissed the new arrivals who moved on. Neither of them noticed a dark haired, dark skinned man in a kurta and turban closely observing the exchange from the cover of the more elaborately disguised guests. Charles turned back to Sarah.
“Sarah, may I call you Sarah?”
“As you wish.”
“Sarah, have you ever been to Cumbria?”