The Taming of AnnabelleBy: Marion Chesney & M.C. Beaton
The Six Sisters 02
The only sign that the Armitage family was rising out of the mire of debt into which they had sunk the year before was the addition of two splendid hunters to the Reverend Charles Armitage’s stable and several highly bred hounds to his pack.
Rigorous economy was still practised in the vicarage. Meals were of the cheapest cuts of meat, and clothes were still darned and altered and handed down.
The vicar of St Charles and St Jude in the village of Hopeworth had eight children, six girls and twin boys. His eldest daughter Minerva, now twenty years of age, had only a month before announced her engagement to Lord Sylvester Comfrey, the Duke of Allsbury’s youngest son. The Armitage brood had somehow hoped this forthcoming noble alliance would immediately pour gold into the coffers of the vicarage. But although Lord Sylvester and his friend Peter, Marquess of Brabington, had generously lent the vicar money, and Lord Sylvester had lent him the use of his steward so that the tenant farms should flourish under professional guidance, no immediate signs of any affluence were to be felt.
The vicar had explained that the money must be paid back as soon as possible, not only to his daughter’s fiancé and to the Marquess, but also to Lady Godolphin for the expense that lady had incurred in bringing Minerva out.
The twins, Peregrine and James, aged ten, admittedly had their future education at Eton secured, but for the girls and Mrs Armitage life went on much as it had done before Minerva’s engagement.
Christmas passed quietly. Minerva was to be married in March and her younger sisters were already tearfully pleading for new gowns to be made for the wedding.
Apart from Minerva, there was Annabelle, seventeen, Deirdre, fifteen, Daphne, fourteen, Diana, thirteen, and Frederica, aged twelve.
Annabelle, the next in line, suffered from a nagging feeling of discontent which had nothing to do with her family’s straitened circumstances.
She had fallen in love at first sight with her sister Minerva’s fiancé, Lord Sylvester Comfrey.
The admiration of his lordship’s friend, the Marquess of Brabington, had been noticed by Annabelle and quickly discounted as unimportant.
At first, it had been the Marquess of Brabington who had occupied her dreams. He had descended on the vicarage to explain that he and Lord Sylvester Comfrey had decided to help the impoverished family out of their predicament by restoring the vicar’s land to good heart. The Marquess had given the vicar a generous loan and had then proceeded to win the hearts of the Armitage family in general and Annabelle in particular. He had walked with her about the village and the neighbouring countryside, implying by every look and gesture a closer, warmer relationship to follow. He had reluctantly left, telling Annabelle he must rejoin his regiment, but that he hoped to return as soon as possible.
But then Lord Sylvester had followed Minerva from London, Minerva who had run away – inexplicably, from all those sophisticated delights – and had proposed marriage. One look at Lord Sylvester, and the fond memory of the Marquess of Brabington shrivelled and died in Annabelle’s pretty head.
Her every waking minute seemed filled with thoughts of Lord Sylvester. She had not seen him since his monumental visit when the engagement was announced. Minerva and Mrs Armitage had departed for a month’s visit to Lord Sylvester’s parents’ home. But absence was turning love into an obsession. Annabelle felt that Lord Sylvester was making a dreadful mistake. Minerva would not make him a suitable wife.
Minerva was strict and prosy. How she had managed to capture a handsome and dashing rake like Comfrey was beyond any of Annabelle’s wildest imaginings. Admittedly, Minerva was very beautiful with her black hair and wide, clear, grey eyes. But she, Annabelle, knew that her own looks were startling. Fashion might decree that blondes were ‘unfortunate’ but Annabelle Armitage had learnt at an early age that the combination of golden hair, blue eyes, a trim figure and neat ankles had a delightful effect on any gentleman in the county of Berham.
Hadn’t she nearly been engaged herself and well before Minerva? But Guy Wentwater had turned out to be a slave trader and so the engagement had never come to pass. And then just as her feelings towards him were becoming warm again, he had mysteriously disappeared, and even his aunt, Lady Wentwater, swore she had not heard a word from him.