The sampler above the fireplace was a beautiful lie. Everything about the silkwork picture was a fantasy, from the house and trees at the bottom to the inscription stitched at the top: With utmost care I’ve wrought this piece according to my skill. Anna Winters, daughter of Charles and Hannah Winters, in the fourteenth year of her age 1764.
The six girls stitching earnestly beneath it did not know. To them it was the standard of excellence to which they aspired. Their parents certainly did not know. For them, it was a symbol of the status they hoped to acquire for their daughters. A good dame school could teach a girl to sew, to spell, to darn, and to mend, but finishing academies like Anna’s offered more: a polite education for females, acquisition of the ornamental domestic and social skills that materially improved a provincial girl’s marriage prospects.
The picture was a lie, but Anna delivered on its promises. She taught the daughters of New York’s wealthy merchants embroidery, mathematics, geography, decorative painting, and drawing in charcoal and pastel. For extra tuition her charges could attend the Tuesday-morning dance class where Mr. Sodi taught the minuet, the louvre, and the allemande. For another fee they could study voice, composition, and the harpsichord with Mr. Biferi.
It was a complete education for ladies, and the finest available in New York, sufficient to make an American girl show to good effect in even a London drawing room, but Anna’s visitor was not impressed.
“Geography is an unusual discipline for a finishing school,” said her neatly attired guest, observing the scene in the parlor. Anna could not tell if she approved or not. Then she added, “But you offer an otherwise narrow curriculum, and a deceptive one”—her eyes moved from the silk picture on the wall to the girls stitching below it—“when life’s hardest lessons are sure to be learned outside these walls.”
Anna had heard similar sentiments from parents before, particularly those in the more volatile trades whose fortunes were at the mercy of the changing market, although something about this woman’s manner suggested that money was no obstacle.
“Education,” replied Anna smoothly, “is an investment in a woman’s future. It is a dowry that cannot be squandered by a spendthrift husband. It is an evergreen inheritance that can be passed to her children no matter the condition of her husband’s estate.”
“And if the times call for a woman who can do more than dance and sew?”
That was not one of the usual questions.
It forced Anna to turn and examine her visitor. They had been talking for a quarter of an hour. Anna had led her on a tour of the house, shown her the parlors and garden and a selection of her most advanced students’ works in progress, but somehow in that time Anna had failed to look at her guest closely.
The woman had given her name as Ashcroft. Anna had addressed her as “Miss,” and the woman had not corrected her. Miss Ashcroft was young, probably the same age as Anna, in her middle to late twenties; too young to have daughters old enough for finishing school, but not too young to be entrusted with the education of a sister or a niece.
From a short distance, Miss Ashcroft was pleasant-looking, but she wouldn’t turn heads on the street. Her linen gown was that shade of beige that blends into every background. Her straw hat was practical and plain. But the face beneath it . . . Anna was forced to take a closer look.
Miss Ashcroft was more than pleasant-looking. She had flawless skin, Cupid’s bow lips, and wide, dark brown eyes. The hair tucked into her plain straw hat was a rich chestnut. The body beneath the dun-colored linen was classically proportioned.
Miss Ashcroft was in fact beautiful, but it was not the sort of beauty that advertised. She wore no paint or powder, no rouge to color her cheeks. She did nothing to court attention, and everything to divert it away from her.
The simple costume struck Anna all at once as a disguise. Her heart skipped a beat. She had only ever known one woman capable of such artful subterfuge, and the Widow was dead. That dangerous lady had taken her secrets—and Anna’s—to the grave with her, and this enigmatic stranger could not possibly know the truth.
“We offer Latin and French to girls who will need it,” said Anna, putting the Widow and the treacherous past from her mind.
Miss Ashcroft turned her penetrating gaze on Anna, and their eyes met. “And what about Dutch?”
Anna’s heart raced. This woman knew. It did not matter how much she knew. When you lived beneath layers of secrets piled like blankets against the cold, losing a single covering meant you’d freeze to death. She pulled them close around her now and brazened it out as her late mentor, the woman who had shaped the path her life had taken, would have done.
“There is no demand for it,” Anna said. “The Dutch rarely marry outsiders, and they only speak their language amongst themselves.”
“But you speak it fluently,” said Miss Ashcroft.
Anna could feel all the color drain from her face. The girls went on stitching as though nothing had happened while Anna’s carefully constructed world fell down around her ears.
With it went all hope of safety. Anna Winters, English gentlewoman of disappointed hopes and modest means, mistress of Miss Winters’ Academy, did not speak Dutch, but Annatje Hoppe, fugitive from the law, the girl she had once been, did.Donna Thorland