Everybody knew that there was something odd about that house. It was pleasant enough on the outside: A stately modern mansion, with tall windows and turrets so high up you could see the sea if you were sitting in one. There were shiny black spires on the rooftops, stained glass in purples and reds and golds, a lovely wide porch on the ground floor, and a smaller one on the floor above. There was even a small docking port at the very top, where a small airship could attach itself to pick up or drop off passengers. (Larger ships, of course, had to dock at the sky port in the nearby town of Shifford.)
In the front garden, a white wooden swing swayed gently from a branch on the tree. The house’s color was a steely blue, the trim a creamy white, and pink roses climbed up the sides, nearly to the rooftop. There were flowers everywhere. Indeed, the front garden was a living bouquet of purples, blues and yellows, and in the back, more roses of every shape, color and size. No, it was not the house’s appearance that caused people to keep away—it was what was inside.
As a little girl, Annabel Pickering had known to always cross the street to avoid walking in front of that house, lest she be cursed by the crazy spinster who lived there with her even crazier niece. The neighbors said the woman never slept, that very strange noises came from the house in the dead of night. They all knew that the girl wasn’t right in the head, and young girls were warned that if they didn’t behave properly, they might end up like the old spinster: all alone . . . and quite mad.
As it happened, Annabel rather liked being alone. She was thirteen years old, nearly fourteen, and lived with her mother and father, along with their very old, very fat, longhaired cat, Mathilde. Unlike most of her friends, Annabel had no siblings. She often wished that she did have a sister to share her games and adventures with, although judging by the hostility her friends expressed for their own brothers and sisters, she thought that perhaps she was better off without one.
Her family lived in a lovely house with a beautiful garden on the same street as the great steely-blue one: Chestnut Lane. She spent long hours reading by herself, in the little spire on the fourth floor (where no-one ever went, but where she could sit surrounded by windows on three sides), or out in the garden listening lazily to insects buzzing by, and watching the tiny dirigibles, air ships, and occasional hot-air balloons dotting the skies high above her. Sometimes she would play a game with herself watching for a particular color of ship. Most of the air ships were dull grey or brown, at best shiny silver. But some of the newer carriers were trying to drum up business for themselves by bringing out brighter and cheerier colors. Annabel would give herself one point for a blue ship, two for red, and three for yellow, purple, or green. She didn't get any points for balloons, as they always tended to be colorful anyway.
Like most girls of her age, Annabel collected pictures of the Queen and had a few on the walls of her room. One in particular, her favorite, showed Her Royal Highness seated, not on the throne but on an ordinary chair, with a photographer’s background behind her. The background had a hint of pink to it that perfectly complemented the tones in the Queen’s cheeks and lips, and she wore a tremendous flowing gown of sparkling pale blue satin all the way down to her ankles, which were barely covered. Her shoes were also satin, but silvery, and she wore brilliant sparkling strands of diamonds and silver around her neck and a slender diamond tiara in place of her usual regal crown.
Annabel supposed that she liked this picture best because it made the Queen seem as if she could be any proper young lady and not the ruler of the free world. It made it seem possible that one day a similar picture might be taken of Annabel, wearing a dress just as beautiful.
Annabel was a spindly and very serious girl. Her parents said that when she had been very little, she had always looked as if she had just been startled. She had large brown eyes and long straight brown hair. She was strong, from summers spent riding ponies at The Chelsea Bridge School of Riding and Horsemanship, yet slight of build, with a lightly freckled face topped by those wide inquisitive eyes and a sharp little nose perched high above a thin line of a mouth—all of which came together to give her the appearance of a very intent little bird.
On occasion, adults had referred to her as “sullen,” and once or twice Annabel had overheard them. She’d thought then that they must be very foolish people indeed, to believe they could understand what was going on inside a person simply by looking at the face. In fact, she was not “sullen” at all. She simply did not smile as much as other girls her age tended to, and that was usually because she was busy thinking.
This particular morning, Annabel Pickering was sullen. It had been a difficult week at school, made worse by bad news at home. Something had changed recently, something between herself and the small group of girls she spent the most time with, and to whom the rest of the school looked up with awe and a little envy. She couldn’t quite put her finger on when she had started to feel a coldness in her stomach whenever she saw Daphne and Rose Ellen and the other girls.
Daphne and Rose Ellen were the most popular, the best-dressed and (for some reason Annabel did not quite understand) the most sought-after girls in the school. They were the undisputed leaders of a small and select group, who flitted through the hallways fully aware that all eyes were upon them. They were both nearly a year older than Annabel, and she had never been sure why she had been accepted into their group, but she had never questioned it and had been happy for the company (and, if she was honest about it, the attention).
All of the other girls wore their prestige with an air of practiced indifference and partial smiles, very conscious that they were bestowing upon those around them some precious gift, merely by virtue of their presence. Annabel had not yet mastered these airs, but managed to get along by imitating her friends’ demi-smiles, attempting to walk at all times as if simply gliding along on the air just above ground, and most of all keeping any of her own thoughts or comments quietly to herself.
For a long while, this had been enough. But this past week she could tell that it was not enough. Something was very different about the other girls’ demeanor: Annabel had the feeling they were all enjoying a private joke at her expense, but were stopping just short of laughing in front of her.
As if that were not enough, the night before, she had had an argument with her mother. The school year was coming to a close, and as Annabel was now nearly fourteen, it was time for her to put aside her more childish pursuits and begin to become educated in ways more becoming to a young lady. Without her mother even saying the words, Annabel knew what this meant: No more riding.
Every summer, since she was a very small girl, Annabel had taken riding lessons at the Chelsea Bridge School of Riding and Horsemanship. During the school year, she rode every Saturday. Now, this was to come to an end. Annabel felt her face growing red with rage, and hot tears racing to the edges of her eyes. Polly, who had been her nanny when she was younger and now cleaned and managed the household, stood nearby, and Annabel did not want her to see her cry. But there was nothing to be done. And so, as the tears poured forth without her consent, she unleashed her rage.
"How can you!” she screamed at her mother. “How can you take from me the one thing that means more than anything? How can you?” She screamed so loudly and so hard that her voice did not seem like her own.
"My darling,” Annabel’s mother pleaded with her. “You must understand! It is time to start thinking of your future! Horsemanship is all well and good for young girls, or for young ladies who live on country estates. But if you are to marry well and become a proper, respected lady in society, you will have to start working hard, and that means focusing on your studies, the sciences especially!”
"You’re no different from all the other parents!” Annabel screamed right into her mother’s face. “You pretend to respect my free will! You pretend you don’t care about convention, or other people’s opinions! You always say my happiness is what matters . . . And now look! Look what you’ve done!” She could barely control her own movements and she waved her arm wildly, as if to reveal the great swath of destruction her mother’s words had wreaked.
“Annabel, please . . .” Her mother was visibly stricken by her daughter’s words. Annabel was not the type of girl to engage in histrionics. She was soft spoken, clear headed. She always chose her words carefully. But this? Mrs. Pickering knew her daughter was very upset indeed. But what could she do?
“Annabel be reasonable,” she tried to explain. “It is simply not possible for you to continue living your life as a little girl. You will be a young lady soon, and young ladies have responsibilities . . .”
Annabel had stopped screaming. She was breathing heavily now, collecting her thoughts. Her eyes were dark. She looked from her mother to Polly, who stood motionless at the foot of the staircase. She looked back at her mother, whose soft brown eyes pleaded with her, and then spoke clearly, precisely, her eyes boring straight into her mother’s:
“I. Don’t. Want. Those. Responsibilities.”
And with that, she turned on her heel and dashed up the stairs to her room.
Mrs. Pickering turned to her husband, her eyes desperate and almost in tears. He sighed and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. The two stepped into the library.
The Pickering’s library was not grand by any means. It was just large enough to house all of the family’s books, in narrow shelves that went all the way up to the ceiling. There was of course a rolling ladder for reaching the topmost shelves, and there was a small polished wooden cabinet containing an index, on small cards, of all of the books in the library. Annabel’s mother had created the indexing system herself, and it allowed anyone to locate any book in their library, searching by author, title, or subject. Mrs. Pickering was quite proud of her little system, and several of the Pickering’s friends and colleagues had adopted it.
Both of Annabel’s parents were scientists. Her father was employed by Wheatstone Audiological Enterprises, where he worked to develop new kinds of sound basins and other audiological equipment. Her mother had a position at the local university teaching physics, which allowed her enough time to also oversee the household and her daughter’s education.
Her father never tired of telling Annabel that scientific discovery was the future, and if she wanted to be a part of the future she would need to master the sciences. And her mother would go on and on about what life had been like before steam power, before mechanized production, before the flying machines.
“You really have no idea,” she would tell her. “It was so much more difficult before. You’re very spoiled, you know!”
But Annabel had grown weary of hearing about it. She did well in all of her schoolwork, but wasn’t especially interested in science, did not want to build steam engines, and certainly wasn’t interested in marrying anyone just yet. The only thing she knew she wanted was to be able to spend her weekends and summers riding her piebald pony Nutmeg in the open sunshine, to feel his soft nose nuzzling her hand for carrots, and to smell saddle leather on her hands at the end of the day.
Once inside the library, Mr. Pickering closed the door, and stepped over to the little audio basin that sat atop its stand a few feet in front of the great French doors leading out to the garden. He knelt down and opened the stand's cabinet, revealing several little shelves filled with tiny blue, green, and brown bottles, all with labels. He selected a blue bottle and stood up again, pulled out the dropper, lifted the lid of the basin, and let three drops fall into the faintly vibrating oil. As music began to fill the room, Mrs. Pickering sighed and collapsed into one of the scarlet overstuffed chairs.
“She’s not like you,” said Mr. Pickering, as he selected a pipe from a stand close to the door, opened a pouch and began to put tobacco into the pipe’s bowl. The library was the only room in the house where Mrs. Pickering permitted pipes to be smoked, and she did not mind him smoking now. Indeed, she almost wished she had a taste for it herself.
“I know she’s not like me,” Mrs. Pickering sighed. “But even so, she must realize that she cannot be a child forever!”
Mr. Pickering puffed at his pipe. For a moment, neither of them spoke.
“Even if she doesn’t want to become a scientist herself,” Mrs. Pickering spoke more calmly now, “she still needs to take her education seriously! No worthy suitor is going to take any interest in a young lady who is not well-versed in the scientific and technological advances of the day!”
Her husband laughed slightly. “You mean in our circles, surely?”
“Well yes, of course I mean in our circles!” She snapped. “Did you think I was talking about Royal Society?” And then, after reflecting for a moment, “I mean, yes, of course, if we were talking about Royal Society, she wouldn’t need all of that. She could get along on her beauty and girlish wiles alone.”
“Well,” Mr. Pickering chuckled, “she doesn’t seem terribly interested in that either.”
"It’s no laughing matter!” exclaimed his wife. “She must be able to make her way in society! Of course I would be thrilled if she wished to follow in my footsteps, I admit it. It would please me no end if she shared my passions and my interests. But if she doesn’t, then she must do her best to succeed on the more traditional path. And that means marrying well!”
Mr. Pickering puffed some more on his pipe.
“Your father,” he said finally, “was a very unusual man.” His wife looked at him quizzically. “Not many fathers back then would have encouraged their daughters to study physics, biology, chemistry . . ."
"If you have a point,” said his wife dryly, “I’m sure you will arrive at it soon . . ."
“My point,” said Mr. Pickering, “is only that your own path has been a very unusual one. There are precious few women scientists even today, and you didn’t get here because your parents believed they had to adhere to tradition. I am only saying that perhaps there are more than two possible paths available to Annabel. Perhaps there are possibilities we cannot even conceive of. And perhaps we ought to be a bit more patient.”
Mrs. Pickering thought about that for a long while before answering: “I only wish we could.”