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Nor Custom Stale

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Nor Custom Stale

Olive Stirling – Olive Stirling who hoped to be Olive Price, Olive Stirling whose engagement had gone on for far too long now and who was beginning to be very scared that her fiancé was getting cold feet – had been raised to know that she was the prettiest girl in Deerwood, and the brightest, and the most charming and the most beloved; and for all her life, Olive Stirling had lived in her cousin Valancy’s shadow.

Olive knew what Valancy thought of it, for all that Doss thought herself so subtle. She’d seen the envious, hangdog looks that Doss gave her whenever she came out in a new hat or a new dress, or shown a letter from a new admirer. She’d felt the wall of Doss’s dislike rising between them whenever they were forced to spend time together. She knew Doss thought that she engineered those situations on purpose in order to show herself to her best advantage. Since she was a child, she’d known all that without ever having to be told.

She also knew that no one understood what it was like for her at all.

Doss couldn’t know what it was like to come home crying, dirty and cut up because you’d fallen in a ditch, only to have your mother propel you into your room to be cleaned and changed and polished because out-of-town relatives were coming and Mother needed her beautiful daughter to show her beautiful manners – they’d been to see Amelia yesterday and heaven only knew what they’d made of Doss, but Olive would show them that not all the children in the connection were dull as sticks, wouldn’t she? And Olive would have to brush off the dirt and blood and press cold cloths to her eyes to take the redness away and be the perfect child by the time the guests arrived, because from the time she was a toddler she’d known how crucial it was for her to be everything Doss wasn’t. The lessons she’d been taught stood out as boldly as though they’d been etched in crayon: Don’t slouch that way, Olive, you look like Doss. For heaven’s sake smile, Olive, do you want to look as dull as Doss? What a dreadful curtsey, Olive, I swear you’re as awkward as Doss. Olive, you go right back upstairs and brush that hair properly, you look exactly like Doss. Olive thought that no one would ever really know how terrifying that phrase was: You look exactly like Doss.

Probably it was uncomfortable to be a colorless little nonentity like Doss, but Olive had little sympathy for that: she knew herself the fierce struggle it took, every day, to be a proper child, and she was perfectly certain that Doss had never made such an effort in her life. What was worse, Olive thought, was to have your every step and movement and mistake dogged by this image of total failure. Sometimes at nights she woke up from nightmares in which she found herself turned into Doss, all knobbly bones and sparse hair and flat features. In the dreams she stood in the middle of a chilly nowhere, thick-fogged and foreign, and yet her dressing-table stood in front of her in a bizarre touch of ordinariness. Her image in the mirror was clear and sharp, and there was always a moment of horror as she caught sight of herself, as she touched her body and hair and face to confirm what she saw. Olive had always thought that being plain and scrawny and graceless, like Doss, would be the worst fate in the world – surely she’d been told so often enough. But then the dream morphed into something worse, something that pressed more fear on her with every night that passed.

The worst of it was when her mother emerged from out of the mists. Olive ran to her in terror, seeking comfort in her mother’s embrace, but it seemed as though she ran right through the spot where her mother was standing. Wheeling around, she saw that on Mother’s face there was no sympathy or love, only an elaborate expression of horror and disgust; and, with a sharp gesture, the older woman turned her back and disappeared into the mist. With her mother’s departure the damp chill of the air redoubled, and she shrank pitifully into herself with the knowledge that the worst of all things had come true. She had become Doss, and she’d been left utterly alone. Her mother didn’t love her. There was no one else in the world, and no one would ever love her now.

Yes, she’d felt from the day she was born that her mother’s love was conditional, and Valancy had provided a handy yardstick for the condition: You must hold yourself above Doss, Olive. She’s awkward, she’s poor, she’s plain as porridge, she’ll certainly never catch a man. That’s what you have to measure yourself against. Be careful.

Now, in the space of a year, Olive’s life had been completely upended, and she was possessed by a cold fear that she could discuss with no one.

It was bad enough when Doss had been mad – talking senselessly, hiring herself out to a drunkard to work as a housekeeper and act as nursemaid to his ruined consumptive daughter – Olive knew that as early as that, Cecil had begun to question the wisdom of an alliance with the Stirlings. The Stirlings were rather a cut below the Prices socially, Olive knew; she’d needed all the charms she’d learned with such painful precision over the years to snare him, and she felt it grossly unfair that her charmless cousin, who’d been a burr in Olive’s side for all their lives, seemed poised to cut without so much as a thought this slender tie with happiness and security that Olive had managed to craft for herself. If Cecil left, what could Olive possibly do? She would have gone, in one step, from a happy young woman with a gorgeous diamond ring and every expectation of a glorious future to – an old maid. Olive flinched from the plain phrase even as she knew that it was completely true. If Cecil left her, she would be twenty-eight and unmarried, with no immediate prospects. The thought was enough to make her nauseous.

Then Valancy had married that jail-bird who had turned out to be no jail-bird at all, and things had become a hundred times worse.

Allan Tierney, for starters. The day Olive had heard about Allan Tierney, she hadn’t been able to leave her room for a full day and night. She’d pleaded a headache and spent afternoon, evening, and night in front of the mirror, pulling her skin one way and then the other, running her fingers over cheek-bone and jaw, peering as closely as possible to discern the tiniest of wrinkles. She smiled at herself over and over again, looking more and more strained each time until she was left with no more than a gruesome grimace, trying to keep her gums from showing. When night fell she held the candle at sharp angles around her face, casting her features into weird patterns of light and shadow, seeking reassurance of her beauty and finding herself more unbeautiful with every moment that passed. Her greatest childhood fear had come true: she was uglier than Doss. Do you want to be as dull as Doss? Do you want to look as awful as Doss? – the worst had finally come to pass. Olive still couldn’t see a speck of real beauty in Valancy’s pointy, triangular little face, but Allan Tierney had. And he was famed for his judgment of beautiful women.

(What Olive would never, ever tell anyone: Allan Tierney had seen her once as well, when her father had taken her for a motor-ride through Muskoka. His gaze had barely grazed over her before he’d looked away, apparently preoccupied with a pretty pattern of light shifting through the leaves behind him. Olive’s father hadn’t recognized him and she would never, never mention it. But a day rarely went by that she didn’t writhe at the memory. Allan Tierney had seen her and passed her over as a commonplace… but he was going to paint Valancy. Doss. He was going to paint Doss.)

And, of course, to top it all off, Doss was a millionaire now… but although the rest of the family had snatched greedily at the very thought of a millionaire in the connection, it was yet another source of fear for Olive. A patent-medicine company! Purple pills and hair tonic! Gaudy advertisements smeared over the sides of buildings, fulsome testimonials that stinted no details in their descriptions of the woes of dyspepsia or rheumatism – it was disgusting! And, again, not the sort of notoriety with which the Prices were accustomed to ally themselves. Doss had made them all laughingstocks. And Olive was terribly, terribly afraid that very soon, she would receive a letter from Cecil explaining, in curt terms, that he had no intention of spending the rest of his days yoked to a laughingstock.

Olive knew that Valancy had been jealous of her all their lives, but Olive’s emotions toward Valancy went deeper and hurt more than mere jealousy. Valancy’s figure had loomed larger than life for all of Olive’s childhood, loomed as a threat worse than any silly closet bogeyman. She’d been lectured forever on the dangers of becoming like Doss, only to find that Doss had done her one better, and Olive was now the nonentity. She’d spent her life learning to be perfect, gaining popularity among her peers and admiration from her clan and striving only half-successfully for the love of her mother, and now she was pallid and forgotten as a wilted cast-aside flower. Every single thing she’d worked for had been for nothing.

And she was so dreadfully afraid of receiving that letter from Cecil.

Her mother had asked her to go to the post office today. She’d been putting it off, but they would be closed soon and her mother would be angry if she forgot. She also needed to pick up a variety of ingredients for a recipe for an absurdly rich new kind of cake that her mother was planning to make for Aunt Amelia’s sewing circle next week. Ever since Valancy had come into money, the airs Mother tried to put on around Auntie were unbearable.

She would go to the grocery first, and she’d make sure to get every single thing her mother wanted, in the best quality and at the best prices. After that, she’d go to the post office. They might be closed by then.