Sunday, January 28, 2007


Alice could hear the crisp sound of the wheels of the phaeton ahead of her, mingling with the rougher tread of the hearse. She began to wave to Mrs. Perkins as they pulled away, then glanced worriedly over at Lizzie to see if that was in fact proper behavior, but Lizzie remained disconsolate, so Alice sank back into the seat and wondered how long the trip to the cemetery would take at this slow pace.

She was in danger of becoming bored.

As they turned the corner from the manor onto the road, a number of the local farmers could be seen gathered into a respectful clump as the hearse passed by. Alice was amazed at the stoic faces set in grim masks of no doubt great feeling as they wheeled past. She found herself surprised that her father might awaken such emotion in the hearts of others when such sensations were hard put to find purchase in her own heart. Alice thought perhaps she was quite wicked girl and the thrill of horror this supposition gave her proved to be very warming, restoring a little of her usual rosiness to her cheeks.

Yet she could not wholly dismiss the persistent concern that she had missed something important in her father’s personality all these long years. “Lizzie,” she said, forgetting her cousin’s distraction, “Was my father much beloved by the farmers? Did he have a special bond with them that they mourn him so?”

Lizzie drew her penetrating gaze away from the soft mists of memory and brought it to bear upon her cousin, an act that never failed to make young Alice quail. All too often that look hinted at scorn and judgment, two attitudes that were no favorites of the young woman.

“Why on earth would you say such a thing?”

Alice blushed, which added to her rosiness of cheek, perhaps going a bit too far from rosy to red and diminishing her loveliness ever so slightly. “The farmers, they were gathered at the gate to pay father their respects. They looked quite sad, I think.”

“Of course they looked sad, my dear,” her patient cousin counseled. “They all owe their livings to the family lands. They are uncertain how Lady Mangrove will handle things in the wake of Lord Mangrove’s death. There are many stories over the years of bereaved women turning unstable and causing all manner of fuss. They will not look happy until there has been some assurance that all will continue as it has been for many years, without rents being raised or land redeveloped in some modern way.”

Alice thought about these words. One can only imagine it to be due to the shock of her circumstances, the gravity of death, and perhaps the boredom of the carriage ride, that she did so, but Alice did ponder the issue, albeit briefly and with only the slightest of concerns. “I cannot imagine Mother doing much to change the arrangements. She doesn’t particularly like to have anything at all to do with the lands. In fact, she is quite happy dealing with her garden which, now that Father is away,” Alice waved her hand to demonstrate that she was well aware that this euphemism was precisely that, but also that she found it admirably suitable to the alternative, namely that he was quite nearby but lying in the rather fanciful coffin not twenty yards away, “She may replant as she has desired without interference.”

“That is exactly the kind of way that it starts,” Lizzie said gravely. “A woman suddenly loosed from the heavy bonds of matrimony may become quite giddy with the heady perfume of freedom. Countries have fallen for less cause.”

Alice frowned. “You hardly sound interested in the idea of marriage. While I do not wish to be pledged to Mr. Boylett, I certainly have every faith that marriage will be an awfully big adventure.”

Lizzie positively glowed. “While I may seem averse to the idea, I am not. In fact, if I reveal to you this letter’s contents,” she remarked as she drew the much glimpsed missive from her sleeve, “you will see that I have much excitement to reveal- -”

“Lizzie,” Alice exclaimed, her cousin’s entreaty unheard, “there he is again!”

Sunday, January 21, 2007


The awkward exit from the parlour did not match the peculiar antics of the crowd’s entry into the room, but it seemed to have an untoward air of haste that Alice thought most unbecoming to the scene as she folded Mrs. Martin’s lovely fan negligently in her hand. Lizzie took the opportunity to disengage herself from Aunt Susan’s mournful wails, and slipped her hand around Alice’s elbow, hastening their exit from the house.

“By all rights,” Lizzie muttered somewhat peevishly, “we ought to have been allowed a little more time for expressing our grief, rather than being hustled off so expeditiously.”

Alice reflected. “Perhaps it is to move us more quickly to recovery.”

“Grief does not disappear in a day,” Lizzie said simply, but her cousin blushed to recall that Lizzie had lost both parents unexpectedly at the same time and had never ceased to miss them. She could hardly imagine the same feelings arising in her own breast for the strange and capricious man who had been her father, but she endeavoured to reflect the more gracious expression her cousin exhibited and thus earn some sympathy if not in fact the trappings of true grief, beyond of course the lovely new fan she had liberated from her former tutor.

The profusion of carriages that met them set the two young women into momentary confusion. They did not remain in that state long, for the nigh on invisible Mr. Bird appeared, ushered them to the second carriage, then just as silently and swiftly disappeared. Lizzie and Alice looked out the window to see the remainder of the party sort themselves between the various carriages according to rank, need and propriety. Alice’s mother, encumbered by a weeping Aunt Susan, stood clear-eyed, waiting for the coffin to be placed in the hearse, whose gin-infused driver swayed like a poplar at the heads of his horses. The creatures seemed to wonder at the curious smell their master exuded, although certainly as a hearse driver, it could not have been all that unusual. Yet even the horses turned their heads curiously to observe the arrival of the coffin.

“Oh dear,” Lizzie thought helplessly as she caught her first glimpse of the procession of Lord Mangrove’s final earthly remains. It was indeed an unfortunate sight, one that would have infuriated his lordship, had he still had the means to become irate -- and certainly recent events suggested that such temper was still possible. Perhaps this was one of the matters keeping his spirit from equanimity and rest, Lizzie happened to think, as she watched the mismatched crew of pall bearers stagger along.

It was not simply that the various heights of the men in question veered greatly from the moderate stature of Doctor Ponsonby to the demi-stature of Rector Chancel, then upward to the imposing figure of Lord Dagenham, although this did cause the coffin to rest at an unbecomingly rakish angle and undoubtedly, Lizzie mused, squashed the fragile remnants of Lord Mangrove into one end of the coffin. There was, however, the additional factor of the pristine sarcophagus itself, covered with any number of admirably detailed designs, ornate accouterments reflecting the wealth and distinction of its interior dweller, ringed with gold and, popular this year the funeral director had insisted, a nautical design that included a fantastical ring-prow that would elicit looks of envy as the hearse drove through the village, assuring that the fine sense of privilege of the Mangrove clan would remain intact.

However, the additional weight of these items cast considerable taxing duty upon the pall bearers who, try as they might, found it difficult to maintain an elegant pace on their walk toward the hearse, instead listing lurchingly first to the left, then to the right, depending entirely upon whether the rector managed to keep up with the gait of his taller compatriots, or whether he did in fact stumble in his attempts to do so. Fortunately it was only a short number of steps to the hearse from the front entrance, although one serious stumble did make Lady Mangrove reach out involuntarily toward the remains, the casket’s forward momentum was halted by the surprisingly quick hand of Lord Dagenham whose elegant glove proved both swift and sure. In another moment the coffin was slipped into the glass enclosure of the hearse and the gentlemen could be forgiven for using their mourning handkerchiefs to mop their brows like common workmen. Alice could not help feeling strong admiration for Lord Dagenham despite her never having noticed him before other than a place setting card on the dinner table. Her unremitting admiration was dampened, however, when she saw him take a nip of gin from the flask offered by the driver in a congratulatory way, for she had inherited from her mother very strong feelings about spirits.

But there was no time to wrestle with her conflicting thoughts. Lady Mangrove used the proffered hand of that man to alight to the phaeton, which she had insisted upon using despite the brisk air. No doubt she felt it important to show herself and her grim grief to the lowly folk of the village and provide an example of their betters. Alice felt a fleeting sense of admiration even as she bundled up, feeling more cold by contrast, before she felt the lurch of the carriage taking off. With Lizzie brooding beside her, Alice stared out the window as they headed toward the cemetery.

Sunday, January 14, 2007


[Having been remiss in her jottings the previous week -- due to untoward gallivanting around the globe -- your humble author begs pardon before commencing this week’s missive.]

Alice was immediately enveloped in the arms of many long-loved kin who weepily conveyed their sorrow for her loss and their own, then headed quickly for the buffet table smartly decorated with an abundance of flowers rivaling the coffin where Lord Mangrove reposed. Through their tears they marveled at the sweetness of the scones, the tartness of the black currant tarts and the delectability of the funeral meats. Mrs. Perkins had outdone herself as usual, rearranging cook’s treasures to their best appearance, and soon the table was enclosed by a murmuring throng that only minutes before had stoppered the door.

This arrangement left Alice free to suffer the attentions of her former tutor, the former Miss Travers, while Lizzie merited the copious tears of consideration from Aunt Susan, who wailed on with remarkable perseverance. Lady Mangrove had taken refuge behind the catafalque to distance herself from that performance.

“Alice, dear child, how good it is to see you!” the former Miss Travers crowed quite unaccountably cheerfully. “It has been weeks, has it not?”

Alice nodded with what she hoped was a measured sense of grief-ridden poise. It was hard to tell. She may only have appeared to had a stiff neck. To feel more confident, she pulled her lovely handkerchief out and dabbed delicately at one eye then the other as she had seen many of the more experienced mourners do. It seemed to have the desired effect of reminding Miss Travers (or, she quickly corrected herself, Mrs. Martin) of the gravity of the occasion.

Indeed, Mrs. Martin pulled out a similar handkerchief and patted likewise at her blue orbs which had so far remained stubbornly tear-free disregarding the depth of feeling she was sure she felt for Lord Mangrove, despite the fact that most of her memories of him were of his rumbling shout of annoyance when he tripped over one of her various fascinating art projects for her young charge that usually involved copious amounts of plaster of Paris and string, suffusing the house with the less than enchanting scent of drying gypsum. Poor Miss Travers (as she was then) lived in mortal terror of Lord Mangrove then, often shaking so much at the tea table that she would drop her spoon into the marmalade or treacle and bring upon herself further impassioned bellows of annoyance that made her cringe upon her seat and attempt to hide behind the tea cosy.

“Oh, my poor poor Alice!” she cried with renewed vigor as her husband stood silently by with an unaccountably pleasant look on his face.

Just as if he were gazing out on the fields like one of his cows, Alice thought rather uncharitably. Mr. Martin’s cows were a bit of sticking point with Alice, who had entertained rather grand thoughts of marrying off her sweetly vague tutor to someone of rank and privilege, and though this was a bit to expect from the young woman who once dwelt upon the bonny shores of Lyme Regis, Alice had had hopes of raising Miss Travers (now Mrs. Martin) to a stature somewhat beyond that birth had chosen to allot her. She could hardly bear to imagine that Miss Travers had become the wife of this farmer with not only resignation but a considerable amount of pleasure. It was disappointing, to say the least.

Oblivious to Alice’s chagrin, Mr. Martin dutifully nodded to his wife’s former charge and commented, “The flowers look quite nice, Miss Alice, not to say abundant as well. Look at the head on that one! Why I wonder what ol’ Radley’s using for mulching these days?”

Alice could feel her sight dimming, but Mrs. Martin swiftly grabbed the young woman’s elbow and began fanning her with a lovely black mourning fan that Alice could not recall having seen before and at once wished to have. Mrs. Martin, guessing the reason for her young friend’s delicacy, turned back to her husband to admonish him, but charmed once more by his plain and affable face, merely twittered, “Perhaps you should step into the solarium and inquire. I’m certain he would love to share some of his secrets with you, my dear.”

With a nod to Alice, Mr. Martin did just that, turning on his heel, angling over to the funeral buffet to grab a scone, he walked down the hall toward the solarium with a confident tread. As if he had lived here all his life, Alice thought crossly. It was the chief aspect of Mr. Martin that had riled the hopeful young woman: his refusal to acknowledge his social inferiority. Alice would not have minded the farmer quite as much had he been more willing to bow and scrape to his betters, but she could have been no more happy to have Miss Travers pass up any number of more suitable attachments (regardless of their apparent lack of interest in the scatter-brained tutor) to marry this man who seemed to find joy in all he did, even patiently milking his cows every morning. The mere thought of this abominably physical activity threatened to make Alice swoon again. Mrs. Martin recognized the signs and steered her young friend toward one of the parlour chairs heavily draped with black crepe and Alice sank gratefully into it.

“Oh, Miss Travers -- I beg your pardon, my dear, Mrs. Martin -- whatever shall I do? How bereft I feel without the comforting presence of my own papa!”

Mrs. Martin patted one of Alice’s pale hands comfortingly. “Ah, but he’s right here, Alice -- at least for a little while.” She smiled uncertainly, somehow realizing that this was perhaps not the right thing to say. The former tutor had a heart of gold and a head of a rather comparatively dense metal of some kind. Struggling for a better comment, she ventured to say, “And he will always be in our hearts.” Mrs. Martin felt a shock of surprise at having come up with an admittedly thoughtful comment and lapsed into a grateful silence.

“I suppose,” Alice at last answered with some reluctance. While her father had never taken up residence there previously, there was always a chance that it might occur now that he was at least somewhat beyond the mortal coil, although his appearance in the garden rather cast that thought into doubt. What on earth could it mean, this insistence on her marrying Arthur? Of course, there was the wish he had had prior to his death, but surely one could not feel strongly enough about a subject like that (or a person like Arthur) to actually journey back from the land of reward to insist upon the point.

However, Alice’s musings were cut short when her mother, reacting to the sudden and silent appearance of Mr. Bird, drew the attention of the buffet gathering with her announcement, “It is time to ride to the cemetery! Do please gather your things.”

Monday, January 01, 2007


The scream was closely followed by Aunt Susan, who swept toward Lady Mangrove with outstretched arms, clasped her in a warm embrace, sobbing “I cannot believe he is gone! You must be so bereft, my dear Millicent! Whatever will you do?!”

Lady Mangrove did her best to withstand the smothering while nevertheless maintaining her sense of dignified poise, but eventually sought to extricate herself from the octopusian arms of her sister-in-law. “Dear Susan, how lovely to see you. Perhaps you should comfort poor Alice,” she suggested a little icily. For the thousandth time, she marveled again that this fluttering creature was actually a sibling to her taciturn husband. Late husband, she amended though no one had heard her thoughts.

Susan took the hint and wrapped her considerable arm-lengths around a startled Alice who had not even begun to practice using her new black lace-trimmed handkerchief. “Poor, fatherless child! What will become of you?! I cannot believe he is really gone.”

Lady Mangrove nodded approvingly and looked around for Mrs. Perkins. As usual, she was there at once, as if summoned by her mistress’ desire to employ her in an essential task. She curtseyed in her practiced way, but remembering her earlier chastisement, refrained from expressing her sorrow at Lord Mangrove’s sudden departure, although surely it was still uppermost in her mind. Anything that shifted the routine and balanced relationships of the house were sure to cause disturbing ripples in the normally calm waters of the manor. The frightening spectre of the late Lady Mangrove, mother to the recently departed was ever in the back of her mind (not unlike the very visible spectre of her son lingered in the garden earlier). When her husband had likewise departed the mortal coil unexpectedly one summer day, Mrs.Perkins, then her lady’s maid, had been scandalized to find her mistress take to playing cards in the afternoon shortly thereafter. She shuddered at the very memory. Consequently, she was already on the watch for such radical changes in behavior in the current lady of the house.

She needn’t have worried -- Lady Mangrove despised the playing of cards, as Mrs. Perkins well knew, and the shock of her husband’s untimely death did nothing to change the status of that frivolous activity.

“Mrs. Perkins, has the hearse arrived already?”

“Indeed it has, Lady Mangrove.”

“I thought I detected the scent of gin,” Lady Mangrove said disapprovingly. Like many of her class, she loathed that particular elixir, the scourge of the working classes. But doubtless Mr. Bird, the seldom seen butler, was lubricating the waiting coachmen to ease the burden of standing around while the mourners gave genteel vent to their grief. Indeed, the expected gaggle of mourners had arrived more or less en masse, none desiring to be the first (although of course Aunt Susan had had no qualms about that). However, their mass arrival proved to be a problem as the murmuring throng had bottlenecked at the parlour door, none able to enter without proper deference to the others in an unending roundabout of politeness that threatened to continue until the turn of the next century.

A raised eyebrow from Lady Mangrove was all that was necessary to send Mrs. Perkins forth and with effortless efficiency, she popped the cork, so to speak, and the mourners streamed in full of appropriately cheerful expressions of profound grief and regret, so that they were quite unable to resist bursting into leaky tears which were at once dabbed away by a variety of stylish mourning handkerchiefs.

Alice was impressed.