Within a short time, Alice was completely enveloped in proper funeral attire by the roughly competent hands of Mrs. Perkins. Feeling slightly dizzy from the process, Alice wavered at the door, uncertain whether she was indeed ready to meet the prying faces of the public. Her cousin, she noted, had already dressed appropriately. Well, such speedy changes left one in a muddle, she thought crossly, I could hardly remember everything about the day to come.
“Come now, child,” Mrs. Perkins said with a somewhat gentler tone than she had used while dressing Alice. “We need to help your mother on this difficult day, and a quiet,” Alice could not help noticing that the housekeeper laid some considerably emphasis on that word, “and obedient child will be a great assistance on such a troubling day.”
Alice resolved to be just such a child and dutifully trooped out the door behind Mrs. Perkins and Lizzie. They made their way to the sitting room which was already draped in black crepe. At the center of the room on a catafalque, lay the coffin holding Lord Mangrove. In and around the open coffin lay a profusion of blooms that threatened to quite overwhelm the perpetually silent lord of the house.
“Mr. Radley has outdone himself,” Lady Mangrove commented upon walking into the room. “I hope there are still some flowers left for the tea table.”
“My heartiest condolences for your sudden loss,” Mrs. Perkins said sadly with a subtle yet effective curtsey that managed to avoid the usual explosions of knee popping that so often accompanied her curtseys. She was nothing if not thoughtful about the ambience of the moment.
“You needn’t repeat that sentiment every time you see me, Mrs. Perkins,” Alice’s mother responded a tad testily. “Once will have done. Can you allow the trampling hordes of mourners in now? I believe we are ready to receive them at last.” Lady Mangrove was surely suffering from the sudden loss of her husband or she would not be so needlessly curt, Alice thought, ignoring her own lack of feeling with regard to the loss. Surely the arrival of the others would cheer her mother once again. Mother loved parties, Alice comforted herself.
In the few moments before the guests were to arrive, Lizzie managed to whisper a few hints to Alice about how she ought to behave. “Do not giggle, and do not employ your usual mode of conversation. Keep to brief acknowledgments of other people’s condolences. Remember to curtsey for older people and shake the hands of your peers.”
“What about Arthur?”
“Arthur should be greeted with a curtsey and handshake to indicate his special relationship with you.”
Alice bridled at this suggestion. “Perhaps with Father dead, I won’t have to marry him after all.”
Lizzie looked scandalized. “Perhaps not, but if your father’s ghost has made one appearance, it is possible he will make another. It often happens that way in novels. It would be best if we were to avoid such types of public displays at this time, my dear cousin. Think what people would say.”
Alice was tired of hearing this oft repeated refrain, but for the moment she thought it best to not to mention her fatigue at this juncture. “I suppose I should be crying, but somehow I think I feel very little desire to do so.”
“That is often the case at such events,” her wise cousin advised, “but there are ways to adapt. You should find in your right hand dress pocket a suitable black crepe handkerchief which can be as useful for drying your tears as it is for hiding your lack of them.”
Alice was delighted to find just such an item in her pocket. “Now why cannot my usual dresses have such convenient pockets?” she thought to herself, but at once employed the kerchief in the manner Lizzie indicated, dabbing at non-existent tears and fancying herself in the role of the mourner even as her mother idly looked through an old copy of Punch while awaiting the arrival of the cadre of sympathetic lamenters.
Just then, the door of the sitting room flew open and a shrill scream entered the room.