Countess Alexandra Gladstone returned to her bedroom after tea. The fog that shrouded London for days showed no sign of relenting. Underneath the Sept. 27, 1870 copy of The Times on her nightstand, she found the letter that arrived nearly a week ago. The heavy parchment and the envelope’s large seal of black wax featuring the letter B offered clues that the author was a man of refinement. His handwriting was impeccable, a trait that Alexandra associated with gentlemen possessing minds of precision. She read the letter for the third time, intent on gleaning whether there were any veiled motives in its unusual offer. She did not find any.
I am honored to have received your correspondence. You have a most treasured reference in Lady Blaylock. I have had the honor of making boots for her since she was a child, and that good fortune is what has helped earn me the moniker, ‘The Bootmaker.’ I am interested in not only making a pair of boots for you, but a style that no lady has ever worn, to my knowledge. I present this opportunity because Lady Blaylock has confided in me that you are a rare woman with an open mind. Your inquiries of my methods and honorable practice would be welcomed. Because of my advancing age, I must respectfully request your presence on Oct. 18 at my Hall in Blackpool. I have requested that Lady Blaylock share the directions with you if this is agreeable.
Yours in appreciation,
Alexandra, having memorized the letter’s contents, placed it into the fireplace. If the letter fell into the wrong hands, she had no illusions about how it would be perceived in a society in which the use of the word “leg” was deemed risqué by most.
As Mr. Brunel noted, Alexandra had learned of him through her close friend, Lady Blaylock. While visiting Lady Blaylock’s residence, Alexandra had noticed her boots, just above the ankle and with a heel.
“My new boots have your attention,” said Lady Blaylock, offering Alexandra her choice of elaborate bite-sized sandwiches on a silver tray. Alexandra, who had just turned 21 years old, felt her face flush with embarrassment. “You are observant, Alexandra. It is a trait that will serve you well.”
Lady Blaylock’s late mother had discovered Mr. Brunel, but Lady Blaylock did not know the particulars. At that time, he had a small shop in London. Lady Blaylock even had a small painting of it that Mr. Brunel gave her when she turned 16. She walked to her bureau to show it to Alexandra. It was painted from the perspective of an alley, a three-story narrow building with dashes of yellow capturing the candle-lit workshop on the third floor.
“This rendition takes me back to my mother accompanying me on cold, starry nights to be fitted for the boots that Mr. Brunel has made for me for so many years. I treasure this painting especially because his shop no longer exists. It was demolished to construct a factory in 1861. Mr. Brunel, heart-broken, moved to his family’s mansion in Blackpool, Brunel Hall,” said Lady Blaylock, who was 30 years old.
Alexandra asked what material he used to make the boots.
“Kid leather; we’ve never inquired as to where he obtains it,” replied Lady Blaylock, whose rare beauty was matched with an impressive intellect. “He did not discuss his technique. It would take several months, even a year or more, for him to make a pair. It was not the material or even his skill that made his boots of such high quality, he often would tell us. It was his measurements, the work he would do to capture the gentle contours.
“As a young girl, I would close my eyes, like my mother did, when he would politely ask me to bare my ankle. His hands were gloved and I can assure you he never did anything untoward,” Lady Blaylock said.
Alexandra sipped her tea and chose a salmon sandwich from the tray that rested on the table in front of them. She wondered how Lady Blaylock’s boots would feel on her and what it would be like to possess a pair that was not ill-fitting as the ones with the flat heel that she wore.
“There was something special about him, Mother said. She had tried many bootmakers over the years and none possessed his skills, not even close, she told me.
“I have shared his name with friends with like minds and dear Alexandra, I consider you to be such. Do you have any interest in inquiring whether Mr. Brunel would make a pair of boots for you?”
Alexandra smiled at her friend’s kindness and nodded. She was about to ask if he would make her a pair.
“I would only request that from here on out, you do not utter his name. We will refer to him by his nickname, `The Bootmaker,’ to prevent anyone possibly bent on betraying our confidences,” said Lady Blaylock, who stood and walked over to her desk.
“Do you have a particular concern for those out to invade this gentleman’s privacy?” Alexandra asked.
“Yes, the Ladies’ Collective for the Preservation of Chastity. Have you encountered them?”
“I have not,” replied Alexandra, shocked by Lady Blaylock’s reference to a shadowy threat.
“I will write his address down for you, so you can correspond with him,” Lady Blaylock offered. “Please keep his letters in a hidden place until you memorize the details – and then burn them. He is a gentleman who prides his privacy over almost everything. And pray not be disappointed if he does not respond promptly or communicates that he is too busy at the moment.”
Alexandra said she would feel fortunate to get a response from such a sought-after craftsman. Lady Blaylock kissed her on the cheek in parting.
When Alexandra received the letter from Mr. Brunel, she sent a card to Lady Blaylock’s residence.
The response was prompt, a card decorated with flowers and delivered by one of Lady Blaylock’s servants.
Please join Lady Blaylock for a stroll in Hyde Park at noon today.
Alexandra arrived by hackney at the Victoria Gate, where the servant had said Lady Blaylock would meet her. She wore a dress of ivory muslin with violet flowers. She wore her amber hair in a crimped updo.
It was a beautiful day in early autumn, the sky devoid of clouds after what felt like weeks of dreary clouds and persistent rain. Lady Blaylock’s home was nearby, on the northern edge of Kensington Gardens. Alexandra had read in a book that her Majesty, Queen Victoria, had ordered construction of the gate “with the view of affording increased accommodation to the nobility and gentry whose dwellings border its northern boundary.”
Lady Blaylock’s carriage arrived. She wore a powder blue walking gown with velvet trim. Her light brown hair was tied back in a neat bun.
As they slowly strolled through the meadow, Alexandra could sense that Lady Blaylock was building up to a sensitive topic. It did not alarm her, but Alexandra braced for whatever emotions that could be dredged up. Lady Blaylock’s line of inquiry soon revealed itself, the tragic death of Alexandra’s husband, Viscount Charles Gladstone.
“Alexandra, do you ever dream of Charles?” asked Lady Blaylock, who carried a parasol which matched her walking gown. “I hope you do not feel as if I am prying.”
“Of course not, Lady Blaylock. I do dream of Charles. He comes to me on occasion in visions, always deep in the night, a shimmering presence at the foot of my bed. And when I speak, he vanishes and so I no longer utter a word. His presence is fleeting and he does not speak,” Alexandra explained.
Lady Blaylock said she asked the question because The Bootmaker might inquire.
“Whatever for, Lady Blaylock?” She genuinely sounded shocked. Lady Blaylock could understand why, but The Bootmaker had pleaded with her to make the inquiry.
“He read about your husband’s passing in the newspapers. He has an interest in the supernatural, specifically ghosts,” she responded.
Alexandra’s husband, Charles, had been killed in a dirigible accident, nearly three years to the day. He had chosen a faster means of transportation to tour a factory in Manchester he recently had purchased with four of his associates. Extreme wind had felled the airship mid-course. Alexandra reflected that this topic raised by Lady Blaylock was too painful for her to bear.
Alexandra could not speak. She tried to find words, but to no avail. She could not obscure her tears from Lady Blaylock, who was mortified that she had gone down this path with her close friend.
“Please forgive me for posing these personal questions; it’s unseemly,” Lady Blaylock said, holding Alexandra’s face with both of her gloved hands. “Should I advise The Bootmaker to not raise this topic?”
Alexandra fought her urge to remain silent, telling Lady Blaylock there was no need to apologize.
“And please do not tell The Bootmaker to limit his questions in any way. It has been three years since my husband has departed and I have been advised that my grief will not relax its grip on me if I refuse to discuss him. As you can see, I am struggling with this reality,” Alexandra said.
Lady Blaylock nodded. She, of course, knew more. But she absolutely could not discuss those things with Alexandra, The Bootmaker had told her. Lady Blaylock reflected on a gentleman unlike any other she had met – a gentleman with varied interests that went beyond the supernatural to the practical challenges of mathematics and science, a circumstance that Alexandra only could learn from being in his presence.
The Bootmaker had arranged for a coach to deliver Alexandra from the rail station to Brunel Hall. Alexandra contented herself with viewing the landscape, fields of green that stretched to the coast. The Hall rested on a cliff, resembling a sentinel forever studying the changing moods of the sea.
The driver assisted Alexandra in stepping out of the coach and advised her the front door of the mansion would be open. She walked slowly to the entrance, fascinated by the Hall’s Jacobean architecture. A butler opened the large wooden door and welcomed her. She followed him through the darkened hallway, to a drawing room where the wood in the large fireplace glowed orange.
The Bootmaker sat in a large wooden chair with purple velvet backing. He faced the fire and Alexandra could not see his face from the doorway. Her first impression was she never had encountered a gentleman so tall. His head was hairless and he had a long, narrow face with a sharp chin. Alexandra called out “Sir,” but he did not move or respond. She slowly approached him, careful to not walk directly behind his chair for fear of scaring him. She initially thought he might be asleep, but she realized otherwise as he uttered her name when she came into his sight.
“Countess Gladstone, I would welcome you in a more cordial fashion, but as you can see I am of an advanced age,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. “I must conserve my energy.”
The Bootmaker did not react to the shocked expression on Alexandra’s face. He was accustomed to eliciting an extended, silent gasp when someone encountered him for the first time. When he spoke, Alexandra noticed that his teeth were small and jagged and his eyes were light, almost bordering on white. She could not estimate his age. He wore a large dark gray robe with black velvet trim that concealed his body, with the sole exception of his hands. She studied his long fingers as he urged her to sit next to him, so he could hear her well.
“I want to express my appreciation for you making such a long journey. I hope that my efforts will be worth the inconvenience,” he said.
“I have heard of your superior skills as an artisan from Lady Blaylock and seen first-hand the quality of her boots. She has told me of your long history with her family and how it’s been treasured over the decades.”
“She is too kind.”
The Bootmaker shifted slightly in his chair and asked Alexandra if she needed food or a drink. She said she did not and thanked him.
He was a man who always got to the point and had been told he often did it brusquely. He did not disagree.
“I have acquired a rare supply of leather in a shade of olive green. I made a reference to this in my letter -- a style that no lady has ever worn, to my knowledge. The pair I would make for you would be very different from the current style,” he said.
Alexandra asked how.
“The top of the boot would end well above the ankle. It would stop two inches below the knee – and the heel would be twice the current style of two inches. The high heel would be supported by a black platform attached to the bottom of the boot.
A servant entered the drawing room and Alexandra waited to respond. The Bootmaker requested a glass of whisky. Alexandra asked for a glass of water. As the servant departed, she asked for the rationale behind the height of the boot and the heel.
“Isn’t the quality of the leather sufficient?”
The Bootmaker smiled. “In London, yes. But I am aiming for high society in Paris and Vienna. The lower limb will remain unseen by gentlemen and ladies, but they will not see the top of the boot like one that stops at or just above the ankle. They will ponder where the boot ends and perhaps learn that only in the boudoir.”
“Is that not inviting non-pure thoughts?” Alexandra asked. The Bootmaker did not respond. He held his hands in almost a prayerful pose.
Alexandra watched the flames die down in the fireplace. She wondered if The Bootmaker measured time by how long it took for the large logs to become embers. The servant returned with the glasses of whisky and water. She watched as The Bootmaker sipped and noticed his face color slightly after swallowing the yellow liquid. His voice seemed to grow in volume.
“You said in your letter that Lady Blaylock said that I am `a rare woman with an open mind.’ I do not want any misunderstanding. I will not countenance any impropriety,” she said.
“There is no danger. I am glad you have made your thoughts clear, but your concern is redundant. I never would entertain such a thing.”
He asked if she was ready for the fitting. She said yes, her wariness slipping away as he spoke firmly.
The Bootmaker stood, spreading out his robe. As Alexandra had guessed, he was thin, his body swallowed by the garment.
Taking her left hand, he guided her into the hallway, toward a stairway that descended.
“My workrooms are in the basement.”
Unlocking the first room on the left with a large key, The Bootmaker turned to Alexandra and smiled. This was the moment when most women lost their nerve and politely begged off, even if they had travelled from afar. He could feel his heart beating, hoping Alexandra would be different.
“Do you have any questions, last-minute concerns, desire to return to the rail station?”
“I do not.” She watched as The Bootmaker carefully slipped on tight-fitting black gloves, a type of which Alexandra never had seen. It appeared they were made of rubber.
He asked her to sit in the chair in the center of the room. The walls were made of granite and as The Bootmaker lit a candle, Alexandra watched his shadow on the far wall as he knelt in front of her. He removed her left ankle boot and then the right. He measured her toes first, recording the numbers in a notebook he kept on a foot stool to his right. The Bootmaker moved to the arches of her foot and made an illustration, spending almost 20 minutes on each foot to make sure of the accuracy of the sketches.
As The Bootmaker had anticipated, Alexandra had beautiful feet, exquisitely shaped in a way that only a woman’s could be.
“Will these boots be close-fitting?” she inquired.
“Yes, with high gold buttons,” The Bootmaker replied in an even voice.
“I am ready to go beyond your foot to your ankles and lower limbs? Are you in agreement?”
Alexandra nodded her approval as The Bootmaker watched her grip the sides of the chair. He asked if she was encountering any difficulty. He could tell she could not speak from how he had touched her feet. No one, not even her late husband, had touched them like that.
She felt her sex throb and nipples grow hard under her whalebone corset.
“May I bind your hands to the chair? It’s not uncommon in such a delicate situation,” he added, in what he offered as a white lie.
Alexandra’s yes was muffled by her right hand. She needed the restraints to keep her from lightly rocking the chair.
The Bootmaker attached the black leather cuffs to her wrists, then the cuffs to the sides of the chair. Alexandra succeeded in calming her body. The Bootmaker slowly raised the first layer of Alexandra’s six petticoats.
His mind wandered for a moment. In a large chamber down the hallway, he was in the first stage of building a machine, to be powered by steam.
Could it be he was building this machine for Alexandra?
Continues in chapter two