Lady's Slipper

Lady's Slipper

3.6 12
by Deborah Swift
     
 

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1660. King Charles II has returned from exile, but memories of the English Civil War still rankle. There are old scores to settle, and religious differences threaten to overturn a fragile peace. When Alice Ibbetson discovers a rare orchid, the Lady's Slipper, growing in a wood belonging to Richard Wheeler, she is captivated by its beauty-- though Wheeler, a Quaker,

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Overview

1660. King Charles II has returned from exile, but memories of the English Civil War still rankle. There are old scores to settle, and religious differences threaten to overturn a fragile peace. When Alice Ibbetson discovers a rare orchid, the Lady's Slipper, growing in a wood belonging to Richard Wheeler, she is captivated by its beauty-- though Wheeler, a Quaker, is determined to keep the flower where God intended it to grow. Knowing that the orchid is the last of its kind, she steals the flower, little dreaming that her seemingly simple act will set off a chain of events that will lead to murder and exile, and change her life forever…

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Civil War in England has left tempers high as King Charles II returns from exile in 1660 in Swift's uneven debut. Having seen the horrors of war, Richard Wheeler converts to Quakerism, an unpopular religion. His neighbor, Alice Ibbetson, is so taken with the Lady's Slipper, a rare orchid that grows on his land, that she steals it, drawing the two of them into a complicated web of politics, lies, and violence at the hands of local landholder Geoffrey Fisk. The Quakers, whose concept of all men being equal, infuriates Fisk and he wants to see them eliminated, starting with Richard. Swift has a difficult time creating believable characters; Alice's obsession with the orchid is so extreme as to be laughable, Richard is an awfully bland hero, and Geoffrey is the requisite broadly-drawn villain. While the writing moves swiftly, too many plot lines and too little historical context make it hard for those unfamiliar with the period to understand the underlying class and religious tensions.
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Sara Wilson
The Civil War and its aftermath have finished and the King is back on his throne, but the memories of the awful conflict are never far from people's minds. In Westmoreland, Alice Ibbetson mourns the death of her young sister and takes solace only in the painting and propagating of wild plants. To this end she steals the almost mystical orchid known as the lady's slipper from land belonging to Richard Wheeler.

Wheeler, an ex-soldier and Quaker, is drawn to Alice, but longs for the return of his orchid as a token of his faith. At the same time he is being drawn into the political maelstrom again when the Quakers start to make a stand against oppression. But Alice and Richard are not the only ones with their eyes on the prize. Sir Geoffrey Fisk believes that the lady's slipper will restore his fortune and his health. Wise woman Margaret Poulter is also drawn to its reputed medicinal powers.

Then a murder takes place and Alice finds herself fighting for her freedom and her life. With so many people turning against her, Alice finds that the one person she can trust is the one she has been lying to all along.

The Lady's Slipper is a fabulous debut novel from Deborah Swift. Using prose that is remarkable for its simplicity, clarity and beauty - her attention to detail is commendable - she effortlessly evokes the early years of the Restoration and the beginnings of the Quaker movement. The novel grips from the opening lines and carries the interest throughout. The several plot strands are seamlessly blended and come together in a wholly satisfying conclusion. Her characters are so real that they linger in the mind long after the book is back on the shelf.

Highly recommended.

Library Journal
A lady of waning wealth, Alice Ibbetson develops a fierce passion for a rare orchid, the Lady's Slipper, found on the property of her Quaker neighbor, Robert Wheeler. When she steals the orchid in hopes of breeding it, her actions have far-reaching consequences. She must soon contend with the machinations of a power-hungry maid, the intimidating demands of the local medicine woman, and the threatening presence of her partner in crime, the wealthy and ruthless Geoffrey Fisk. A murder, a good dose of 17th-century politics, and an increasingly complicated relationship between Alice and the upright Robert round out Swift's debut novel. VERDICT Though written at a slightly plodding pace with long sections of tedious prose about the politics and history of the time, loosely disguised as dialog or character musings, The Lady's Slipper has all the characteristics of well-received historical romance. Recommended for fans of Philippa Gregory and Rose Tremain, as well as students of the English Civil War. [Library marketing campaign.]—Therese Oneill, Monmouth, OR

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780230746862
Publisher:
Trans-Atlantic Publications, Incorporated
Publication date:
06/18/2010
Series:
Macmillan New Writing
Pages:
448
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.70(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Alice tiptoed into the hallway. Perhaps it was a blessing she was still in mourning, for there would be less risk of being seen. Wheeler would be watching out, and his eyes were sharp as pikes–he would spot any movement, any slight shift in the features of the landscape.

She reached up to the peg for her black bonnet and put it on, pulling the lace veiling down so it hid her face. Regretfully, she looked down at her narrow feet, shod now in pale yellow sateen. This was her favourite pair of shoes, in a style considered far too fancy these days. They were one of the few pretty things she had saved from the fire and she was loath to get them wet and muddy. But her leather bootees made too much noise; even on tiptoe the irons would clang against the flagstones in the hall. These shoes were silent, and outside would leave hardly a trace if she was careful to tread where it was dry. There must be no mishaps. This was the only night with no moon, and the orchid would fade fast, so it had to be tonight.

The basket stood ready by the back door. She had prepared it earlier with a lining of soaked green moss and dampened sackcloth. A bunch of fresh herbs was waiting in the pantry for her return: parsley, salvia, rosemary; they would be her excuse if Thomas were to wake and ask her where she had been. She glanced over towards the fireplace where he snored lightly, his mouth drooping open and his arm dangling over the edge of the chair. As usual, his boots were almost in the embers.

At the door she leaned her shoulder against the jamb, to ease the latch out of its socket; the door swung open silently and she stepped out into the night air. She heard the latch clack gently into place behind her.

The night was a soot-black tunnel. She listened, senses quivering. Her heart beat loudly as if caught in her throat; her breath came in sharp little puffs. She gathered herself. Soon she would have it, and though Wheeler might suspect her, he would never be able to prove it.

She felt her way down the path with an outstretched hand on the fence, for Wheeler must not see any glimmer of her presence, and a lantern would surely draw his eye like bait to a fish. Her foot stubbed against a wooden milk churn and she momentarily lost her balance. She lurched for the gate with her hand and shuddered as she felt the wet body of a slug on its night-time foray for food.

Her eyes strained to accustom themselves to this new, lightless world. Thank the Lord she had rehearsed the route. In the daylight she had practised with eyes closed, opening them again as she passed close to Wheeler’s house, for in the dark of the moon she knew it would be hard to find her way. Becoming more sure-footed, she followed the smell of wood-smoke from the village chimneys until she saw the lights of Wheeler’s house and the barely perceptible outline of the kissing-gate to Helk’s Wood.

The house lay directly next to the gate, with a window that over-looked the path. From here Wheeler could keep watch on anyone coming or going. Lights flickered in the downstairs room. She stopped short.

He was awake–and probably at his vantage point at the window.

A lozenge of yellow light slanted across her path. She reconsidered her route; she dare not risk passing the window. Instead, she felt along the hedge for a gap.

A bramble wound its thorny teeth round her ankle and she winced as she tore free. She stumbled forward and found herself in a cut cornfield. She walked faster, despite the scratchy stubble, which snagged on the silk of her shoes and caught at her under-skirt. The dew was already heavy, her dress damp–the sodden hem swung over her ankles.

Above her the stars were fixed points of light, too faint to reach the shadows under the stooks, too faint to touch the flurry of a hare as it leapt into the hedge’s black underbelly. She felt for the wall to the wood. Here, she could hide and keep away from Wheeler’s gimlet eyes. The wall had substance, solidity–so she kept her hand there. As she listened, the ancient presence of the woodland loomed beyond; the trees were watching, and the grasses, even the stones in the wall. They were conversing with each other in an unknown silent language. She shivered and withdrew her hand.

Beyond the wall the trees were shapes distorted by the dark. Each one grew into the next; one dim shape concealing another, brooding. A crawling sensation curled at the top of her spine. From nowhere a chill breeze swept through the branches making the mounds of creamy meadowsweet float like ghostly clouds against the hedge. In the night air their smell was sickly and cloying.

But there was another smell, fainter, more familiar. Alice sucked in her breath. It was a smell she knew, something sweet and musty, like peat. Instantly she dropped down behind the wall. Tobacco. There was someone smoking close by.

Her back pressed against the stones, she pulled the veil of the bonnet down over her face and undid the ribbons, straining her ears for the least sound. A cough, and then the sound of boots approaching. She heard the ring of them on the stones, and the slight squelch as they landed in the muddy wheel tracks. With consternation Alice saw a light getting closer. From her hiding place she saw the leaves of the trees in the canopy flare into colour and then disappear into the dark. She shrank further into the shadow of the wall. She knew only one man who smoked that tobacco. Wheeler.

He must be guarding the wood.

The footsteps got nearer, until she heard what must be the buttons of his long coat scratching against his boots.

Silence.

She put a hand over her nose lest the steam of her breath should betray her. She heard a dull hiss as a taper caught light. The corn near her feet was illuminated as he drew on his pipe. She crouched low, head bent forward, hands now clutching the fabric of her gown about her. The smoke drifted over the wall and fogged above her head, like the creeping mist near the river.

What would he think if he knew she was only inches away, spying on him from behind the wall? The situation struck her suddenly as absurd. She suppressed an unaccountable urge to laugh. Mirth began to bubble up inside and she had to quash it by stuffing her sleeve over her mouth and nose.

Wheeler must not see her here. He was such a serious man–so serious he made her feel like a fool. If she were to give herself away, he would know straightway what she was about, and would have none of it. He would be incredulous to think she could consider doing such a thing.

Presently the footsteps moved away up the path. She listened to them fade away and let out a long exhalation. All desire to laugh had disappeared. When she was certain he had gone, she stood up stiffly, aware that the hour was passing and she must hurry if she were not to make trouble at home. Finding a place where the wall had tumbled down, she hitched up her skirts and climbed over, landing softly on the path below. She walked until she felt the ground become springy under her feet–a mossy clearing.

A breeze blew up again, a soft muttering of leaves, a swing of shadows, the branches moving silver-limbed against the sky. Her eyes had opened out to the dark. She stopped a few feet away and looked.

The pale globe of the flower shone out like Venus in the night sky. She tiptoed closer. Indeed, silence came easily. It was a natural response to something so exquisite.

She knelt down in front of the plant so she could look inside the fragile petal bowl and see the tiny stigmata of maroon and pink, appearing blue-black in the darkness. Reaching out a finger, she caressed the edge of a fleshy leaf.

‘Cypripedium.’ She whispered the Latin name softly, caressingly, as if calling for it to come home, feeling the taste of the words on her tongue.

Squatting down she started to dig around it, her movements precise and delicate, careful not to disturb the roots. She worked quickly with the trowel to prise away the heavy soil, not noticing that the dirt was forced up into her fingernails. In one deft movement she plucked the whole plant and lowered it gently into the basket of damp moss.

A movement made her startle. An owl flew overhead, pale faced, wings beating quiet as breathing. Again she shivered and looked over her shoulder. There was nobody there, yet she could not shake off the feeling that someone was watching, unseen in the cold shadows.

She stood up and regarded the empty hole, wondering whether to fill it in or disguise it in some way. But then she had an idea. She reached into her handkerchief pouch and pulled out a few coins. She tossed them into the hole, hearing them chink at the bottom. There, she thought, I have paid you for it. She repressed a small chuckle as she imagined Wheeler’s face when he returned in the morning. He was always so keen on the idea of everything having its price.

She picked up the basket and, confident now, followed the same route she had come. She turned to look back. Behind her, another dark human figure melted into the shadow of the undergrowth.

When she passed Wheeler’s house she trod softly, for although his lights were still lit, it was even more vital to be invisible now. But the only sound was the chek, chek of the corncrakes in the meadow and the distant lowing of a cow.

She went straight to the summerhouse and gently took out the orchid to stand it upright in a small pot of earth. It looked small and insignificant, almost insipid, next to the pink curling papers of the flowering geraniums. She felt a pang of remorse. The orchid looked somehow less, out of its woodland setting.

It was for the best, she convinced herself. She knew she had the skills to divide it, whatever Wheeler might think; soon there would be lady’s slippers growing in abundance. She watered it, just a few drops. Not because it was dry, but because she wanted to tend it–to make amends for uprooting it and bringing it to a strange place. After hiding it out of sight under the table, she locked the door with the little bronze key and crept into the house.

She need not have worried. The fire was barely aglow, and Thomas’s wheezing snores told her he was still sleeping. Only now did she allow herself a sigh of relief. She thought of her dear sister, Flora, and her delight if she could have seen it. She could not wait to tell Geoffrey, and looked forward to his expression when he saw it for the first time. He would understand her excitement, and she knew she could trust him to keep her secret.

Her cuffs were brackish-brown and there was a quantity of dirt under her nails, so she washed in the scullery, out of Thomas’s earshot, by the light of a lantern. She soaped and drubbed the cuffs until the water ran clean; they would dry overnight. Looking down at her shoes she could see they were ruined–the fabric soaked through and scuffed with mud, but worse, the deep scratch on her ankle had bled and dribbled over the embroidery in a dark red stain.

She carried the shoes to the kitchen and wrapped them in brown paper. It would be difficult to explain their condition to Thomas so they would need to be disposed of. She dare not pass him, in case he should wake. For the moment she pushed the shoes right to the bottom of the turnip sack. Her bare feet padded softly on the stairs as she made her way to bed. Thomas slept on–his snores loud above the ticking clock, while the embers grew cold.

THE LADY’S SLIPPER Copyright © 2010 by Deborah Swift.

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