The hem belonged to Elizabeth Shaff. Elizabeth belonged to the sort of society that attended balls, did tea, had lessons, went riding and sent correspondence. She had enough money that she never needed to work. Her life was spent buying great gowns that swept the floor and attracted the attention of other people, young suitors, with money.
It was that last ball in August, and everyone was there at the great ballroom. Elizabeth had arrived fashionably late.
At the time Elizabeth lived it was considered scandalous to show off a woman’s ankles. The only equivalent today would be to have someone drop their pants. So Elizabeth had made certain no man had ever seen her ankles.
Unbeknownst to Elizabeth, the workman who had put in the grand stair in the ballroom had used a piece of wood with dry rot in it. Dry rot is when a wood is eaten away and weakened where the rot has set in. The spot of dry rot was very small, and it would take an exact blow from a high heel to pierce the stair.
Elizabeth was announced with her aunt Mildred who was there to chaperone Elizabeth. Tonight two of Elizabeth’s suitors were present, one she liked and one who liked her. The one who liked her had money, the one she liked did not. Everyone said Elizabeth should choose the one with money, because matching money with money was the thing to do.
Being announced meant that everyone in the ballroom turned to watch Elizabeth and her aunt descend the great stairs. Elizabeth did so gracefully, her great golden gown flowing down the stairs like water. Then Elizabeth’s violet high heel struck the dry rot of the stair precisely and stuck fast. It stuck so fast that eventually a carpenter had to be called to remove it with pliers. But Elizabeth didn’t know that yet.
Seeing her niece pause, Elizabeth’s aunt inquired if anything was wrong. Elizabeth shook her head, all the while wiggling her foot madly under her dress to free her heel.
Behind them, another couple was announced. They also wanted their turn to descend the grand staircase and Elizabeth was holding up the line. Already people were commenting behind fans all around the ballroom, wondering at the hold up.
The couple behind Elizabeth stopped. To brush by her would have been a social slight, something that would have been talked about for days. The elderly woman inquired of Elizabeth if anything was wrong. Elizabeth had failed to free her shoe and half-considered abandoning both shoes and continuing barefoot just to avoid the pile-up. But then her shoes would be left on the stairs, unsightly and the stuff of gossip. In desperation, Elizabeth turned to her aunt and the older woman. “My shoe is stuck.”
“Oh dear,” said the older woman. “We’ll go ahead and send someone up.” The two of them threaded their way around Elizabeth and her aunt.
As they went by, Elizabeth thought she could use the distraction to reach down and free her shoe. At the time, such an action was as odd as unbuckling one’s pants. So every eye, particularly every male eye, was drawn to the sight of Elizabeth rummaging in the folds of her dress for her shoe. They all hoped to catch a flash of ankle, a quick glimpse of that most forbidden of views.
At this point, it should be mentioned that Elizabeth was human. Like all humans, no matter well trained, she was prone to forget the world around her for the sake of accomplishing the little task she was focused on.
It occurred to Elizabeth that if she could just see her shoe, she might free it. She failed to notice that the elderly couple no longer blocked her from view. So she lifted her dress to view her shoe, fully exposing her ankle and the pretty hem above it.
Only when she heard the collective gasp from the ballroom did Elizabeth look up and realize her error. She had exposed her ankle in public, something that only an ill-bred street hussy would do. In embarrassment Elizabeth abandoned her shoes and fled back up out of the ballroom barefoot.
Of course, after her display of ankle, Elizabeth could not be wed to anyone with money. Instead she gratefully accepted the offer of marriage from her penniless suitor.
Together they immigrated to the U.S. where their descendents form part of the workforce for the industrial midwest. One of her grandchildren worked for an animation company, and penned a version of the Cinderella story for that company based on his grandmother‘s error. Eventually the part about the exposed ankle was deemed too controversial and the story just mentioned the loss of the shoes.
So sometimes a hem, a simple ruffled hem, can change history.
If you enjoyed this story, you will like the new book, Page Turner: Avarice and The Arcane, available from Amazon.
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