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“Dead?” Alice said with wonder.
“Dead!” Mrs. Perkins was adamant.
“Are you sure?” Lizzie asked. After all, Lord Mangrove had been a man of legendary silences, and Lizzie was to be forgiven the doubts that prompted such an otherwise impertinent question. There was time not five years past when Lord Mangrove had gone without more than a harrumph for over six months. At that time Lord and Lady Mangrove had come to some rather ineffective disagreements about a parlour maid. It was perhaps the worst of their silent struggles, but it was far from the only one.
Mrs. Perkins, however,was not to be dissuaded. “Oh, child, I hate to give you the news in such a terrible manner,” she said, flustered, offering a perfunctory half-curtsey.
“It’s all right,” Alice soothed. “I hardly know what to feel. I do feel extremely odd and a bit queerly dizzy.”
“You must sit at once,” Mrs. Perkins and Lizzie said in tandem, both fearing that perhaps the young woman was about to faint. Alice followed their advice, collapsing into a sensible pine library chair. Dead! Her father was dead! Perhaps, Alice thought excitedly, she would not have to marry Mister Boylett after all.
“And how is Lady Mangrove?” Lizzie asked the faithful servant.
“She… she is rather shocked, as you might imagine, Miss,” Mrs. Perkins said, although Lizzie thought perhaps she was not offering the entire truth.
“What happened, Mrs. Perkins?” Lizzie demanded, artfully pulling out a second chair for the wearied servant. “Tell us from beginning to end.”
Mrs. Perkins sank into the proffered chair and a rough hand rubbed her troubled brow. “It was a most peculiar thing,” she began, “Not that people go on dying every day, child. Oh, and my greatest and most humble sorrow for your loss, miss.” She seemed on the verge of rising once more if only to curtsey, but Lizzie restrained her with a gentle gesture that belied her growing impatience with the strange mystery.
“Go on, Mrs. Perkins,” Lizzie encouraged, “How did it begin? Start there and then go to the end. Then stop.”
Mrs. Perkins drew in a breath. “I was just about to set to the kitchen, a million and one things to do as well you might guess – not that such work should be any worry of fine young ladies like yourselves,” she added patting Alice’s soft white hand. “All of the sudden I heard a horrible sound, like a wild bird’s squawk or something.”
“African? Or European?” Lizzie asked, but Alice shushed her with a waver of her hand and bad Mrs. Perkins to go on.
“I rushed to the door of the morning room and there such a sight awaited me! Your father, Miss Alice, was lying on the floor in a most peculiar disarray, arms clutching at the air and legs in a most ungainly crouching position, but him flat on his back like a puppy.”
Alice thought of the image and could not quite hide a smile. “It must have looked most… curious,” she finally said, coughing a little to cover up her involuntary merriment. Her cousin, she noticed, did not grin but looked ever more intently at Mrs. Perkins.
The shocked housekeeper did not notice Alice’s inappropriate mirth, but continued with her tragic tale. “Your mother looked up from her needlepoint with a most shocked appearance, her hands frozen in the air as if unable to move. Until I finally gasped and your mother at last said, and I shall always remember these terrible words: ‘Mrs. Perkins, I believe something has happened to my husband.’ Truer words were never spoken,” she added with a shudder.
“And are you sure — that is, have you truly ascertained, that he is… dead?” Lizzie said gently.
“I have sent young Master Spiggot for the doctor. We shall know soon enough now,” Mrs. Perkins intoned sagely, her composure returned.
Suddenly, there was a loud crash and a scream in the hall.