It fit. If fit better than anything I had ever worn, and I thanked Mary for her efforts. ‘It is a lovely color, Mary.’
‘The green matches your eyes, miss. I couldn’t help but notice.’
‘Green! You call this green! It is emerald; it is the sea; it is the forest primaeval. But how could you find this?’
‘Oh, that was easy. Miss House told me to go to her dressmaker and see if they had anything that would suit you. It’s actually parts of two different dresses, three if you count the pelisse, which I thought you might like, being it’s cool tonight.’
‘You are a wonder, Mary, and a very clever girl.’
‘Please miss, don’t move, I need just a few more stitches to make sure you don’t pop out all over. There, done!’
I admired myself in the mirror and couldn’t help but think of the shift in my fortunes.
‘You’d better hurry. I’m sorry it took me so long to make those changes,’ Mary said.
‘You are right. I shall have to run to make it in time.’
‘Run? No, a sedan chair is waiting outside. We can’t have you running.’
Mary hurried me out and the chairmen brought me swiftly to the Assembly Rooms with time to spare. Miss House and Mrs. Fitzhugh were waiting for me just inside.
‘My dear, you are a vision,’ Mrs. Fitzhugh said.
‘I agree,’ Miss House said. ‘Clearly Mary has outdone herself.’
‘Thank you both. I feel … I feel …’
‘Yes, my dear,’ Mrs. Fitzhugh prompted.
‘I feel that anything is possible.’
‘And so it is,’ Miss House confirmed.
‘Let us go in,’ Mrs. Fitzhugh said. ‘There is dancing.’
Her words proved to be an understatement. I had never seen so many people in one place for this was the height of the season; and the day and the clemency of the weather ensured that all of society gathered in this one room. We entered as the couples marched before the start of the country dance, unfortunate timing as it might mean that we would be denied partners for a full thirty minutes, but I did not mind. I enjoyed watching the leading couple as they assuredly set the tone of the dance and feared I would never match their skill and grace. But Miss House was eager to claim seats and she firmly held my hand as we navigated the room.
I was soon glad of her firm hand as we threaded our way through the crowd and claimed what looked to be the last two seats available. We were only barely seated, however, when Mrs. Fitzhugh returned with a pleasant young man in tow. We rose and Mrs. Fitzhugh said, “Miss Woodsen, may I introduce Mr. Harrington, a very nice young man whose family I have known since the Flood.’
He bowed and I returned the favor. ‘Charmed, Miss Woodsen.’
Turning to the gentleman, our companion said, ‘And you, of course, know Miss House.’ They acknowledged each other as well and exchanged pleasantries before Mr. Harrington addressed me again. ‘Miss Woodsen, may I have the pleasure of the next dance?’
Obliged as I was, I stole a look to Miss House for I also felt an obligation to her and did not wish to precede her enjoyment. She quickly nodded her assurance with a smile and I returned my attention to the gentleman.
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘I look forward to it.’
And the course of the evening was set. I danced the cotillion and the reel and to my relief but not my surprise Miss House was not unaccompanied, though she towered over one partner. We several times exchanged smiles and I laughed at the pleasantries of my partners and clapped at the success of the dances.
The room grew ever hotter and we retired for refreshment and joined a group obviously well known to my friends. Mrs. Fitzhugh especially knew everyone, and soon Miss House and she were exchanging confidences with those at the table.
After a time Miss House returned her attention to me. ‘I’m sorry, my dear, I’ve ignored you.’
‘No, I am glad of a moment to enjoy my own thoughts.’
‘I’m glad you are enjoying yourself then. But if I may ask a favor, would you decline the next dance? I had promised that you would see the outcome of your efforts this morning.’
‘Yes,’ I said, louder than I had intended. ‘I wish to know what you are about.’
‘Good. Mrs. Fitzhugh, might we return and attend to our friend in need?’
Mrs. Fitzhugh agreed and we returned to the ballroom, which by this time had quieted somewhat in favor of dances that would allow the participants to cool themselves. Thus our progress through the room was quicker and we soon found ourselves in a corner where a family was seated. They rose as we approached.
‘Mr. Williams, Mrs. Williams, Miss Williams, Mr. Wallace, may I introduce …’
Etiquette and Mrs. Fitzhugh were ignored however, when Mrs. William asked, ‘Do you have them, Miss House?’
Seeing her distress, my friend quickly said, ‘I do. All is well.’
‘Thank God!’ Mrs. Williams cried loudly, drawing everyone’s attention, but as I was closest to her, I saw Miss Williams swoon. I rushed to her side, however her weight was unsupportable and I staggered. Suddenly I felt strong arms holding me upright and then the gentleman, Mr. Wallace, was carrying Miss Williams to a chair.
‘Thank you sir,’ I said to Mr. Wallace, who merely nodded to me, his attention to the young lady. Her mother, however, pushed him aside and sat beside her.
‘Catherine, it is all right, we are saved,’ she told her daughter, patting her hand. Catherine opened her eyes and smiled faintly at her mother. The tension was drained from our group. Within a few minutes everyone was smiling and they thanked Mrs. Fitzhugh and my friend. Mr. Wallace, however, turned to me.
‘I apologize Miss …’
‘Woodsen … Jane Woodsen,’ I said.
‘John Wallace,’ he said in return and bowed, and I curtseyed.
‘I apologize for …’ and he made a vague gesture with his hands. His discomfiture was quite becoming in contrast to his sturdy, capable appearance.
‘There is no need. Thank you for …’ and I made a similar gesture.
He started to laugh but was cut short by a voice.
‘You! Miss House!’
I turned and saw Lady Dalrymple approach, trailed by the woman I took to be her niece.
‘Lady Dalrymple, so good to see you,’ Miss House said, and curtseyed, followed by myself and Mrs. Fitzhugh, but not Mrs. Williams, who returned hostility with hostility. Mr. Wallace and Mr. Williams bowed but I could tell they did not like it.
‘I thought I made clear that the matter is at an end,’ Lady Dalrymple, oblivious to our presence, told Miss House.
‘But the world turns regardless of your wishes, Lady Dalrymple, and your saying black is white does not make it so. And if your nephew chooses to marry Miss Williams and she chooses to accept, then you can have no objection, for there is no impediment to their union. I repeat, there is no impediment. If there ever had been one, it no longer exists.’
She was magnificent. Boadicea herself could not have appeared more magnificent. Lady Dalrymple shrank. She opened her mouth to speak and thought better of it after noticing the attention her words had attracted. She turned quickly, almost colliding with her companion, and walked away.
The Williamses again thanked Miss House, and Mrs. Fitzhugh and me, although they could not have known what little part I played. Hands were pressed and kisses were exchanged — Mr. Wallace was excessively charming — and when it was over, we three watched the Williamses, now a happy party, leave.
Miss House leaned her head toward me and said quietly, ‘And that is my employment, Miss Woodsen. That is what I do.’