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.

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