Sophia Makinoff had the perfect job.
Her students were brilliant, conscientious, and far too well-bred to consider cheating on an examination. Sophia could, without impunity, allow her attention to drift. She opened the window with a gentle push. A breath of air, damp with a hint of this morning’s rain and spiced with blooming lilacs, relieved the chalk-dust stuffiness of the classroom. Two flights below, a brisk clip-clip indicated a gardener neatening a hedge. From a distant music room came the strains of a Mozart sonata.
Behind Sophia, a student sighed.
The view was dominated by the east wing of the College, with its basement laundry, first floor dining hall, and second floor chapel, providing cleanliness, sustenance, and godliness. Across the lawn, a gasometer fueled lights throughout the College. To the southeast stood the gymnasium where Sophia had practiced calisthenics and learned the pastime of bowling, a game similar to the nine pins her father played at the garrison. She had walked the paths, attended lectures and concerts, visited the art gallery. But she had not left campus since Christmas.
Behind her, a petticoat rustled.
Above the trees, the cupola of Montgomery Hill glowed, a light to the world. On days like this, Sophia would serve tea on the veranda for diplomats and captains of industry, addressing topics from immigration to workers’ rights. In the front parlor, she would hold a salon as lively as any in Paris, discussing justice, reform, and an end to corruption in government.
Since the election of Rexford Montgomery to Congress, Sophia had made a regular practice of reading the newspapers. She could converse intelligently on subjects as varied as the Boss Tweed and William Belknap scandals, or the Grange Movement and Civil Rights. Now, if only New York’s youngest congressman would– “Mademoiselle?” Sophia bumped her head against the window frame. “Oui, Elizabeth?”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. Are you all right?”
“But of course. With this much hair, I am immune to injury.” She patted her chignon.
“How may I assist you?” “J’ai finie.” the student handed over her examination, then leaned toward the window. “Was there something outside?”
Something? Only a world in need of saving. Sophia cited the College’s doctor: “Fresh air strengthens the constitution.”
The bell rang. The rest of the students turned in their tests and hurried off. They were all involved in planning a celebration of the U.S. centennial. Sophia, however, was making other plans.
Rexford had been hinting all month. Last week he had mentioned the importance of spiritual compatibility to the marital partnership. She took the reference as a positive sign; they were members of the same church.
The geography teacher blocked the doorway with his corpulence and tweed. “Guest speaker in Chapel tonight. From the Board of Foreign Missions. Interested?”
“Unfortunately I have another obligation this evening.”
“Blasted Montgomery.” His lower lip returned to its bulldog position and he let her slip by. His attempts at courting would cease once her engagement was announced. In the meantime, it took all Sophia’s restraint to keep from shouting from the rooftops: I am to be the wife of a congressman!
She hurried to the suite she shared with one of the English teachers. The parlor was empty. In the bedroom, chemises and camisoles hung from Annabelle’s open drawers. Ribbons, lace, and jewelry lay scattered across the bureau. A stocking draped like a silk bookmark over the open dictionary.
If the Matron saw this, she would undoubtedly launch into her favorite lecture: the importance of housekeeping, setting an example for the students, doing one’s best in this grand experiment in female education.
Whimpering and sniffling would ensue. Annabelle was easily undone.
Where was she? Surely she couldn’t have forgotten they were dining with Rexford Montgomery?
Sophia exchanged her violet muslin polonaise for a satin dinner dress in sapphire that played up her eyes. The square neckline and Marie Antoinette sleeves framed her gold necklace and bracelet, family heirlooms from her mother’s side. The removal of a hairpin allowed a curl to corkscrew down her back.
The riding instructor awaited her in the corridor. He bowed. “Mademoiselle.” The Baron fancied them two of a kind, even though her father’s title had been awarded, not inherited.
“Good evening, Baron.”
“It is a beautiful evening for a ride, is it not? I could saddle Schatze for you.”
“Regrettably, I am otherwise occupied. You are too kind.” And too persistent. Could he not see she was dressed for an entirely different activity than riding? “Please excuse me.”
“That Montgomery gent, again?”
Such questions did not merit a response. He and the entire College would know soon enough.
Sophia hurried to the south wing, to the apartment of Professor Montgomery, and knocked. Her intended would answer the door with an armful of roses, then drop to one knee. No, he could not take her hand if his were full of flowers. The roses would be in a vase on the table. He would speak poetically and she would say “yes.”
But first, he had to open the door.
Sophia listened for footsteps on the carpet. Silence. She rapped with a trifle more authority, but no one answered.
Perhaps he had been detained and left a message. She would inquire at the clerk’s office on the first floor.
She headed for the main stairs, where she found her way blocked by a milling crowd of students and faculty. Sophia leaned over the balcony rail. Below, in the entrance vestibule, Congressman Montgomery addressed an assembly of faculty and students.
“. . . since you welcomed me within the bosom of this institution of female education. . .”
Sophia winced at his unfortunate juxtaposition of the words “bosom” and “female.”
“. . . the most worthiest of women. . .”
Oh dear. She must take up the task of polishing his speeches, lest his orations sink under the weight of florid sentimentality and improper grammar.
“Shouldn’t you go down?” the Latin teacher whispered.
Yes, it would be wise to put the man out of his misery.
“. . . whose grace and wit thoroughly enchanted me. . .”
The biology teacher glimpsed her pushing through and directed the students to clear a path. With a swish of petticoats and urgent whispers, the way opened. “Félicitations, Mademoiselle Makinoff,” someone murmured. “I’m so happy for you.”
Sophia arrived at the base of the steps as the congressman reached the end of his address.
“May I introduce the woman destined to become Mrs. Rexford Montgomery–”
Sophia took a deep breath, pasted a smile on her face, and stepped forward into the vast, empty space around Congressman Montgomery.
“Miss Annabelle Bedlington Smith.”
Too late. At that exact moment his fiancée stepped from the reception room into his waiting arms.
Gasps, murmurs, and giggles echoed around the hall.
In that weighted fraction of a second, as the blood rushed to her face, Sophia considered her options: retreat through the pitying crowd, stand and be the object of more pity, or move forward with all the poise expected of a graduate of St. Petersburg’s Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens.
Momentum propelled her across the floor. Decorum and a tight corset kept her upright. “Let me be the first to congratulate you.”
“Dearest!” Annabelle embraced her in an eye-watering cloud of perfume. “You’ll never believe what happened! Rex proposed!”
Annabelle was right: Sophia did not believe it.
Annabelle Bedlington Smith did not meet a single one of Rexford Montgomery’s requirements for a wife. She had no interest in government, spoke no foreign languages, hated travel. She never read the Bible, rarely attended church, and, in fact, dabbled in phrenology. And she was far too careless to run a house the size of Montgomery Hill.
Montgomery Hill. Sophia’s breath caught. No carriage rides ending in the porte cochère. No arranging flowers on the sideboard. No receiving the movers and shakers of this world.
Sophia pressed her fist to her lips and glanced over her roommate’s head. The man knew better than to meet her eye. He looked down at Annabelle and his chin disappeared into his neck. A weak jaw. Quelle horreur. How had she missed that?
“Oh, you’re speechless! He surprised me, too.” Were those diamonds swirling around Annabelle’s finger, or was
Sophia dizzy? “Let’s go to supper, Dearest. We have so much to talk about.”
Like engagement dinners and wedding dates. Trousseaux and bouquets. Receptions and honeymoon trips. Chaos in Annabelle’s inept hands.
“I am sorry. I was coming to tell you, we have a speaker in the Chapel and I must. . .my presence is required.”
“I hope they don’t need you to interpret, Dearest. You know what a headache that gives you.”
“I never get headaches.” Until now. “Please excuse me.”
But Annabelle would not release her. “Wait, Dearest. I’m going to need a bridesmaid. Would you do me the honor?”
Exile to Siberia would be preferable. “Perhaps you should consult your sisters.”
“Oh, of course! How could I forget!” She turned to Rexford. “I have three sisters.”
Sophia made her escape. She moved rapidly up two flights to the Chapel. Her hand pressed her heart, finding it bruised but not broken.
Rexford had made his choice. The suffering was his.
The geography professor cheered – or was it jeered? – when he spotted her. “Montgomery jilted you, did he?”
As the news of Annabelle’s engagement made its way through the College, she was in for weeks of hand-patting, tepid tea, and quel dommage. Sophia lifted her chin and turned to the Lady Principal. “How may I assist you?”
The principal assigned her to serve refreshments. The rhythm of pouring and passing offered a certain kind of solace. Just before the hour, students filed into the pews. Sophia perched on the back row, awaiting an opportunity to slip away.
The speaker, an elderly woman dressed head-to-toe in gray, had served as a missionary to the heathens in China. Spiritual and physical poverty beset the land. The men were bedeviled with opium. The woman had their feet bound.
Annabelle’s feet were no bigger than those of a child. So much about her was childlike. . .or, more accurately, childish. How would she manage, with her flights of fancy, to conduct a dinner party for twelve? She would never command the respect necessary to manage a household staff the size of Montgomery Hill.
“‘Study to show thyself approved unto God,’” the missionary quoted. “My daughters, students of the College, have you studied to be approved?” She stared right at Sophia.
No, she had not. She had studied to please Rexford Montgomery, had studied to be mistress of Montgomery Hill. And all along, he had thought of her not as a prospective bride, but merely as a convenient chaperone for Annabelle.
How foolish to look to a man for approval.
“How will they know lest we tell them?” the missionary went on. “Someone must share the Good News. Someone must speak the truth.” The truth. Pravda. Sophia’s father always spoke the truth. His military advice had earned him a place close to the Tsar. Alexander had even listened to Father’s advice on freeing the serfs. But when the Tsar took Sophia’s classmate as his mistress, the truth endangered her father’s life.
The missionary continued. “How many Chinese will be consumed by hell’s fire, because you would not leave your hearth fire? How many Chinese will die in ignorance and darkness because you were too afraid of the unknown? What will you give, out of your comfortable life, so that another may live?”
Sophia was the daughter of Constantin Ilia Makinoff, Master of the Horse Guards and Speaker of Truth, may he rest in peace. She was not afraid. She would speak the truth.
Her back straightened, resisting the lure of repose. Perhaps her work would not be so earthshaking as her father’s, but it might be more meaningful than teaching wealthy young women to better themselves with French.
And might she accomplish more as a missionary than as a congressman’s wife?
“Who among you,” the speaker continued, “is ready to go where the Lord sends? Who is willing to give up her life of ease for the rigors of mission work?”
China bordered Russia. Sophia could serve out her term, then return home. Surely the Tsar would have forgotten her father’s denouncement by then. Surely he did not blame Sophia. He was nearly her father’s age; he, too, might die.
Besides, what other choice did she have? Stay and watch Annabelle take her place at Montgomery Hill? Unthinkable.
The speaker raised her arms and her voice. “Who will go?”
For the second time that day, Sophia stepped forward.