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Lizzie could barely contain herself until MaryAnn curtsied and ever so slowly wandered out of the room. It was as if she were lingering for some specific purpose that Lizzie could not imagine. She had no more than turned the handle and closed the door before Alice’s cousin could no longer contain her excitement.
“Alice, can you imagine?!”
Alice could easily imagine many things. Ask her to imagine the finest feast the cook could devise and she would be quickly immersed in delectable mental pictures that varied from cream buns to the very tastiest lemon tarts. Or ask her to imagine the very finest clothes and she could picture herself awash in crisp crinolines and silks from the East. Or ask her to imagine the very cutest of small animals and she could at once see herself surrounded by the most adorable of puppies and the most precious little kittens, with lovely little colts and fillies prancing around the gathering and even an utterly adorable baby wombat beside her (she had once seen a drawing of an adult creature and could only guess that an infant would be too charming for words). Yes, she could imagine.
However, her cousin was in fact asking a rhetorical question and well aware of her young relative’s easy ability. In fact, what she had in mind was revealing a secret heretofore locked in her own private breast without the knowledge even of her guardians. I’ll give you a hint that it has much to do with the King of Naples, but unfortunately, at the moment Lizzie was about to divulge this momentous mystery, a most peculiar thing happened.
Far below them in the garden came a singular sound of alarm. Alice and Lizzie’s eyes met and like one woman (though they were in fact still two) they ran to the window. They unlatched the window and thrust themselves out, leaning precariously over the sash to take in the scene below.
Alice’s mother stood transfixed, a pair of gardening shears in her hand, the other hand shading her view from the morning sun. Arthur stood stock still, his mouth agape (a look which did little to credit him to either young woman, although perhaps Alice more particularly, for she saw in him the progenitor of a bevy of slack-jawed children that she dreaded to be the mother of in any consequential way). A small number of rather sweet honey bees droned on without alarm, nestling in the fading flowers of the honeysuckle, tasting perhaps the last dregs of what had been until lately a rather fine late spring.
Alice and Lizzie, however, gasped in horror as the ghost of Alice’s father sternly beckoned from the rhododendron (or should that perhaps be rhododendra? Alice could not help wondering, confusing her Latin and horticulture). As in life, he was nigh on wordless but grim and formidable. Clearly, he had a mission today, important enough to drag him away from the parlour where his lifeless body lay awaiting the funeral photos and cortege of reluctant mourners.
“Millicent!” Lord Mangrove intoned with a sonorous boom.
Alice could be forgiven for wondering for a moment who on earth he might be addressing. However, it did not take her very long to recall that her mother’s given name was in fact Millicent, a fact the latter often neglected to recall herself.
“Millicent,” Lord Mangrove's ghost continued, “You must obey my dying wish!”
Lizzie heard Alice’s involuntary intake of breath. What could it be?! The mystery hung before them like a small rain cloud waiting for the words of Lord Mangrove to dispel it.
“Do you mean about the azaleas?” Lady Mangove asked hopefully.
Lord Mangrove's ghost was quick to respond. “Not the azaleas! Alice!”
Alice’s attention perked up considerably at that remark, as you can easily imagine. She was always more interested in conversations about herself.
“Oh dear,” Lady Mangrove grumbled, “You don’t mean to say --”
“Indeed I do!” Lord Mangrove's ghost countered rather irritably. “Alice must marry Mr. Boylett!”