As she tiptoed past the proud and smug-faced geese, the Baroness caught Annie by the arm and whispered to her, the older woman’s words sending a chill down her spine.
“I will speak with you in a moment, child.” She said.
Annie walked up the cold staircase as slowly as she dared. She knew that the Baroness would be waiting for her when she came downstairs and dreaded what the great widow would say to her.
The vice-like grip of anxiety grew tighter around her chest as she desperately tried to remember what she might have done wrong and how she could make amends by the time she returned with the cigar box. For all that she racked her mind for the solution; however, no answers came to her.
She eventually reached the dim, empty study and began drawing the blinds down over the solitary window. Above the trees to the east, a huge mass of dark clouds was gathering beneath a starless jet black sky, ready to descend on the quiet fields and lonely cottages of rural western Oxfordshire.
Turning away from the window, she saw the cigar box resting on the corner of His Lordship’s writing desk. It was crafted from Spanish cedar, apparently the best wood for storing tobacco, and varnished to a smooth finished so that light reflected on its surface even in the gloomy study. Curious, Annie gently lifted the wood, plucked out one of the fat, leafy sausages within and held it gingerly under her nose.
“What do you think?”
Annie spun on her heels and backed into the desk with fright. A jolt of pain ran down the back of her thighs. The Baroness stood in the open doorway, silhouetted by the light in the entranceway below. She seemed tall, angular and sinister, more like a vulture than the goose that Annie had pictured her as before.
With her haughty face cast in shadow, Annie could not see the smile which was playing on the older woman’s lips. She had no sense of how comical she looked with her mouth hanging open in fear, her eyebrows raised and a plump cigar thrust over her upper lip like a carefully groomed moustache.
“Pardon me, Your Ladyship.” Annie said, stuttering the first syllables of each word.
“I refuse to pardon you because you haven’t done anything wrong. Now, tell the truth, how does it smell?”
She inhaled the scent of the cigar and wrinkled her nose in surprise. Annie had lived in the countryside for all of her life and the smell was one which she was familiar with. Her eyes met those of the baroness and she decided that it was better to tell the truth than to be caught out in a lie.
“It smells like a cowpat, Your Ladyship.”
“I agree. Have you ever smoked, girl?
“I never have, Your Ladyship.”
“It’s better to try things once and be done with them than to go through life not knowing.”
With these confusing words, the Baroness drew a small tube of paper from somewhere beneath her shawl and held it out to Annie. Taking the odd little stick, she saw that it was filled with chips of tobacco.
Growing tired of watching her stare at the cigarette, the Baroness took it from her hand and stuck it into Annie’s mouth. A box of matches then emerged from the same hiding place, one was struck and the old lady applied it to the end of the paper.
“There you are. Tell me what sort of face old Charlie makes when you take in the cigars. Now, what was it that I wanted to talk to you about? Yes, I remember. I’ve decided that this house, with its male influences and disgraceful warmongering guests, is no place for a young lady. How old are you now?”
“Eleven years.” Annie mumbled, sending out small puffs of blue-grey smoke with each word. She was unsure of what to do with it except to keep it in her mouth.
“And where are your parents?” The Baroness asked.
“They died in a fire.” Five more tiny clouds of smoke rose towards the ceiling.
“Then you shall come with me to New York. I have need of a good, English servant to look after me in my old age. Those American girls are so very insolent, always talking about forming unions and Lord knows what else.”
Annie nodded her head and flicked a loose strand of dark hair away from the tip of the cigarette before it caught alight. She did not know where New York was, except that it was somewhere in America.
It would make sense for it to be somewhere in Yorkshire and, although that was quite far away, she was excited by the prospect of living somewhere other than the manor house for a while. A sudden thought came to her and brought a frown to her pale face.
“Your Ladyship, what about Cookie? Will she be alright staying here with all the-” She tried to remember how the Baroness had phrased it. “Will Cookie be alright with all the male influences warmongering things?”
“Child, I’d put good money on Cookie against any of those old walruses downstairs. Bare-knuckled or otherwise, she’d break them in a minute.”
Annie understood that to mean that Cookie would survive alone in the house with Mr O’Riley, Sir Charles and whatever guests came to dine. As she excused herself and began heading down the staircase with the cigarette box, her mind wondered at the change which had come over the Baroness since the gentlemen left the table.
While they ate she had been every inch the dignified English aristocrat, but in the study there had been an unusual twang to her voice and a straightforwardness of speech which took Annie by surprise. The effect was not that it grated on her ears as such, in fact it put her at ease, but it was nothing like the Yorkshire accents that she had heard in the past.
Every face in the musty room turned with a good-humoured smile towards the girl who shuffled around the billiard table offering the box of cigars to guests, sending up puffs of blue smoke. Annie felt like a small, dainty steam locomotive and took no notice as the jackals in black dinner jackets snarled to each other about alliances, mass mobilisations and the growing threat in Europe.
Later in her life, Annie would wish that she had taken the men’s lit cigars and set their coat tails alight. That might have taught them how foolish they were for speaking so carelessly about the events which came to rip all of their worlds apart.
But in that moment, she lived in a child’s universe where wars were things which happened in faraway places, and the soldier was a thing spoken of by old men in armchairs when they wished to give a lecture on gallantry and the greatness of the Empire.
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