From behind the door Caroline Alice Mangrove could hear the unaccustomed sounds of disagreement between her parents; which is to say, she heard her father’s throat clear and her mother’s gentle weeping. Lord and Lady Mangrove had been arguing in near silence for many days on end. Alice (as she had been called since childhood when her nurse trembled before the three syllables of her initial name and, struck dumb, failed to speak again until the child was weaned) feared that the topic of their disagreement was likely to be her impending marriage. To whom she had been given was not yet clear. Her parents had come to some sort of impasse and the meaningful glances exchanged that morning at breakfast could only signal that things had worsened to nigh on a fever pitch. When she heard her father rustle his newspaper, Alice’s wide blue eyes brimmed with tears and she fled the chaos to take refuge in the solarium.
The gentle green fronds of the ferns and orchids soon soothed her troubled nerves. Life was a harrowing prospect when you were seventeen, unmarried and wealthy. It was a very dangerous age—almost too old but still in the realm of possible. Her parents had been too protective, she thought for the hundredth time. As if to chastise her for this disloyalty, the bland face of Mr. Radley, the gardener, appeared before her.
“Evening, Miss,” he said, pulling at his cap, oblivious to the fact that it was only mid-afternoon. “Mind the orchids, they’re a bit stroppy today. Forgot to water them yesterday.”
“Yes, Mr. Radley, I won’t be a moment,” Alice said hastily, gathering up the pages she had spread before her and blushing with embarrassment that he might see what she had. Why do dresses seldom have pockets, she thought crossly, folding the papers roughly.
“The philodendrons are all right,” Mr. Radley called, but Alice had already scurried for the library, hoping to encounter a sanctuary at last. But as she opened the door, whom should she find but her cousin Elizabeth Jane, whom everyone called Lizzie. Well, not the servants, obviously—they in fact called her Miss Elizabeth Jane. As if to demonstrate the fact, Mrs. Perkins stepped in behind her and said “Miss Elizabeth Jane, a letter has come for you.”
Alice was unprepared for the sudden change in her cousin, whose handsome face had blanched white. While she remained unmarried still at the age of twenty, there were those in the family who held out hope for the lively woman. To be fair, there were probably more who held that her very spirited nature was completely antithetical to the notion of marital union. Alice’s own father had set his seal upon her cousin’s fate at the St. Stephen’s banquet not three years past, when he had taken in his niece’s most recent witty retort and said, “Good god, woman, no decent man will marry you.” For some in the family, that was that.
Alice emerged suddenly from her reverie as her cousin gasped. Lizzie clutched the letter to her breast. “It’s from the King!”