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Sometimes circumstances, our peers, and our betters force us into a role that at first we don't want to play. But after a time it becomes a habit.
Take the plight of Lady Annie Sinclair, youngest daughter of the Earl of Crammarth. All she seemed to hear was "Annie is such a sensible little thing. Not a beauty like Marigold. But then she has brains."
This view was held by her mother, the countess, the servants, her grim old nanny, and her vague governess. What her father, the earl, thought of her was a mystery. Annie sometimes wondered if he knew she existed.
Inside, she knew herself to be dreamy and romantic. But gradually, on the outside, she came to behave the way that was expected of her. She was never Anne, always Annie--practical, level-headed little Annie. Lady Marigold, her sister, was a beauty to break hearts. Everyone assumed that Marigold, therefore, had a beautiful soul, and did not seem to notice that she was spoiled almost past reclaim.
Annie had been born in the castle of Crammarth, a romantic, chilly barn of a place, but, for all that, it was a place to dream in. Three years ago the earl had taken his family to their town house in Edinburgh while the castle was razed to the ground and replaced by a modern, neo-Georgian structure that was warm, luxurious, and ugly.
He had just moved them all back again into the new house, and life was an endless succession of house parties where guests exclaimed over "how up-to-date" everything was.
Annie was eighteen years of age and her sister, Marigold, nineteen. Marigold had masses of that nut-brown color of hair that was so fashionable and wide blueeyes set in a heart-shaped face. Her skin was perfect, and her hourglass figure owed nothing to art or padding. She was slightly above average height and moved with willowy grace.
Annie was small and wiry. She, too, had large eyes, but they were gray and made her small face seem thinner than it was. She was neat and brisk in her movements.
Her hair was red. It was not copper or Titian or auburn. It was plain red, without the usual coarse quality that goes with that color. Fine and silky, it kept falling loose from its pins when she experimented putting her hair up. Nanny Simpkins said crossly that it was just as well that Annie had not made her coming-out and therefore could not wear her hair up.
Nanny Simpkins was full of remarks like that. She was one of those irritating old family retainers who hide behind the role of "character" so that no one quite noticed that she was just plain rude. "Our dear Simpers," the countess called her. "So wise."
The Earl and Countess of Crammarth had married when the earl was forty-five and his bride, thirty. The earl's friends were mostly middle-aged or elderly, and so there were very few young men at the endless house parties. Those that did come were too interested in the earl's excellent shooting, hunting, and fishing to pay much attention to the females of the house.
At last the house parties stopped. It was the middle of winter and a great silence lay over the frozen countryside. Frost rimed the leaves of the evergreens in the drive, furred the shaggy grass of the lawn, and glittered on the long, brown snakes of the plowed fields. The sky was leaden and the ornamental lake like polished steel.
Wrapped in a long tweed coat, with her head covered by a repellent black felt hat, Annie was skirting the edge of the home wood, luxuriating in the peace and quiet. When she returned home, there would be no hearty guests to entertain. Mama had even said that, just for this one evening, they would not bother dressing for dinner.
Annie liked being alone. She felt that she could drop the character that had been manufactured for her and dream in peace. Dream all those lovely romantic dreams of love and marriage.
The house shone with a horrible newness against the soft folds of the Perthshire countryside. No Georgian would have recognized it, neo or not. It was a huge, sprawling edifice with steep, tiled roofs and huge bay windows, rather like shop windows, on the ground floor. Little circular windows had been cut into the stone at random on the upper floors, no doubt to give the supposed Georgian effect.
It was very cold. The deer nuzzled at bundles of hay on the grass. The sky was a uniform gray. The birds were silent. Thin columns of smoke rose from the chimneys, straight up into the frosty air. Her boots left neat, little, pointed footprints on the whitened grass.
Suddenly a great wind seemed to spring out of nowhere and set the landscape to dancing. Little frozen waves with miniature whitecaps raced across the surface of the lake. The deer tossed their heads and scampered for safety. A cloud of rooks rose from the trees and wheeled against the darkening sky. The branches of the trees above her head moaned and rattled in the wind. And then snow began to fall, hissing down on the hard ground, falling in tiny frozen pellets, whipping through the bushes and across the lawns, falling faster until the house was almost lost to her view.
Annie huddled into her coat and began to hurry home.
She could never enter the new house without a small feeling of shock. In the old castle, a huge open fire would have been blazing in the hall. But this new hall only had a small fire burning in a tiny grate under an enormous pilastered mantelpiece that looked like a piece of a church, soaring in all its chilly mahogany glory to the ceiling as if it had nothing to do with the little blaze at its feet.
She gave her hat and coat to the butler and went into the drawing room where the family gathered for their predinner sherry. Marigold was pouting in a corner; her mother and father were arranged in front of the fireplace--pseudo-Adam--as if posing for their portrait; Nanny Simpkins was snoring over her knitting in an easy chair by the window; and Miss Higgins, the governess, with her habitual look of an anxious rabbit, eyes and teeth protruding, was standing in the coldest corner of the cold room.
And the drawing room was cold. The lower part of the walls were of deep blue, glazed tiles, and the floor was of green and white marble.
The architect had flattered the earl by suggesting that his lordship's collection of souvenirs from his travels in the South Seas be displayed in glass cases in the drawing room. And so it was rather like sipping sherry in a museum. Sinister little carved gods with quite enormous phalluses stared out through the glass at the family. Marigold and Annie did not find these carvings in the least embarrassing, merely thinking that the gods of the South Seas were mysteriously endowed with an extra leg.
The absence of guests made Annie realize anew how very silent her parents were. The earl was a small, stout man with an enormous waxed moustache and a monocle in one eye. His sparse gray hair was carefully greased and combed over his bald spot. The countess was a stately woman with a sculptured figure. Her face bore the lines of years of discontent. At one time she had been a great beauty, like her daughter Marigold.
It was only during the past year that the girls had been allowed to join their parents for dinner. Before that they had had nursery tea with Nanny and the governess in the schoolroom. When they were considered old enough for dinner, somehow Nanny and the governess came, too, provided there were no guests.
The earl and the countess prided themselves on never retiring a servant, and quite a number of the staff were old and creaky. Annie felt privately that it would have been more humane to have pensioned some of them off.
"I've been thinkin'," began the earl. Annie looked up in surprise. His voice sounded very loud in the silent, chilly room. "Marigold here should be thinkin' of gettin' married."
Marigold's pout became more pronounced. "Who to, Papa?" she drawled. "Everyone who comes here's in his dotage."
Coming from Annie, a remark like that would have been treated as the height of impertinence. But no one ever listened to Marigold. They only looked.
"So Lady Crammarth and I have decided to send Marigold to London for a season. That's where the money is." The earl always gave his wife her title, even when talking to his daughters.
"London," breathed Marigold, her pout disappearing among the dimples.
"Of course, Annie will go with you. Not much hope of her makin' a good marriage, but she's got her head screwed on the right way and she'll see you don't run off with anyone unsuitable, Marigold."
"But I'm older than she is and I'm quite able to take care of myself," protested Marigold.
"You can't have everything," her father said reasonably. "You've got the looks and Annie's got the brains. The fact is, a good marriage would be just the thing. All this entertaining's cost more than I ever imagined it would. Lady Crammarth won't be bringin' you out. Your Aunt Agatha will be doin' the honors."
"Oh, goodie!" cried Marigold, clapping her hands while Annie's heart plummeted down to her button boots.
Aunt Agatha, Miss Agatha Winter, was a lacquered fashion plate of a woman who patronized Annie quite dreadfully on her mercifully infrequent visits north.
Dinner was an animated affair that evening for all but Annie.
Marigold basked in the admiration of her small court. Nanny Simpkins swore that she would be engaged to a duke before the first month of the Season was over; Miss Higgins, the governess, smiled mistily and prophesied that Marigold would be the reigning belle and men would stand up in their carriages in the park to see her going past as they had done for Lilly Langtry, the Jersey Lily. The earl leaned forward to pat Marigold's curls. Only the countess seemed to feel that Annie was being left out of things and comforted her daughter with the remark, "Of course, when all this fuss is over, I'll be delighted to have you back with me again, Annie. You are such a help in running the house!"
The dining room was as cold as the drawing room had been, and Annie felt her future was as bleak as the weather had been that day. Until this moment, she had not realized how very bored she was with the dull routine of her days.
By the time Annie and her sister retired to the schoolroom, as was their custom after dinner, Annie's head was aching and she longed to run away to her bedroom and escape between the covers of the bed and the cover of one of the latest romances.
But Marigold wanted an audience. She flopped down in a chintz-covered armchair and thrust her legs out in front of her and stared at the pointed toes of her openwork shoes. "At last!" she exclaimed. "I thought I would end up married to some creaking septuagenarian. To think of all my beauty being wasted on this desert air." She raised her eyes to Annie, who was standing by the fireplace, poised for flight. "Oh, sit down, do! You're always scampering about, Annie. Do you know why Papa has decided on this move?"
"Well, I suppose he thinks you're of an age to get married," said Annie.
"No. He wants me to marry a rich man because he's spent so much money on this dump and on entertaining all his senile friends, that he's run into debt."
"Oh, come, Marigold, some of his friends are very nice and not all that old. Anyway, what makes you think he's in debt? Papa never discusses money."
"I listened at their bedroom door last night and I heard Papa telling Mama." Marigold giggled. "You'd never guess what the old dears get up to in there. Quite sweet, really. Why, only the other night..."
"Marigold!" Annie's eyes were wide with shock. "You shouldn't listen at doors."
"Who are you to tell me what not to do, Miss Prunes and Prisms? I shall pinch you for that."
Annie tried to escape, but her stronger sister had hurtled out of the armchair and seized her by the arm.
"Let me go!" Annie twisted in Marigold's grasp.
"I'll pinch you, and pinch you, and pinch you," said Marigold, suiting the action to the words.
Annie seized her sister's golden hair and gave it a hard tug. To her relief, Marigold immediately let go and started to sob.
"How dare you, Lady Annie!" cried Miss Higgins from the doorway. Annie sighed. She should have known that Marigold's about-face was because she had seen the governess.
"I don't know why you can't be more like your sister," Miss Higgins went on. "Of course, it must be upsetting to know that the family's hopes are pinned on Lady Marigold making a successful marriage. But you must count your blessings, Lady Annie, and thank God for what he has seen fit to give you. Your turn will come, I am sure."
"Oh, don't prose on so, Higgins," said Marigold, with sudden spite. "Can't I talk to my sister without having to listen to your moralizing? You won't be coming with us, anyway. I'll make sure of that."
The end of Miss Higgins's long nose twitched with embarrassment.
"Don't be nasty, Marigold," said Annie.
"Lady Marigold was not being nasty," said Miss Higgins. "Lady Marigold was merely expressing her views."
"Good-bye," murmured Marigold, with a lazy smile.
Miss Higgins fled.