[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.”