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.