It was late morning when Alice heard the distinctive sound of horses’ hooves on a well-trod road. She turned on the sunny bench where she had slumbered in the afternoon light and shaded her eyes to see who was coming up the lane. Two young gentlemen on fine steppers, cutting very fine figures indeed, were trotting toward the garden bower. Alice squinted even though she knew it was not to her best advantage to be seen that way, as she was not able to discern who was coming her way looking so corky.
“It’s those two young gentlemen,” her father said unhelpfully as he continued to poke at the roots of the forsythia. “Those two dangling after you, not quite right, either of them. Ought to set them down.” He made as if to get up from his semi-recumbent position, but Alice shushed him with her fan and rose herself to greet the two gentlemen.
“Don’t make a cake of yourself,” Lady Mangrove said sharply from behind the fairy fountain, her head hidden by a satyr’s trumpet. “No mawkish trifles, now.”
Alice was stung both by the unkindness of her mother’s words and by her undignified use of cant. What is the world coming to, Alice thought peevishly, if one’s parents try to use the latest slang? It was entirely wrong, she could not help thinking, it was as bad as imagining her parents suddenly playing croquet with herons for mallets. Once she had put the image in her head, it refused to leave for some interminable moments.
She only succeeded in throwing it aside when she suddenly realized that the one young man was no other than the mysteriously handsome Kit Barrington, who was once more restored to vivid glory before her eyes. It is hard to believe that his brief absence had seemed so long, Alice thought in an agony of regret. How could she have forgotten those handsome black curls, those piercingly blue eyes and the jaw that promised firm decisiveness. Alice could see now that he rode magnificently upon his steed with a certain attitude that showed he had pluck to the backbone. How wonderful that he was calling on her.
It was another moment before she realized that Arthur Boylett rode beside him on a horse of far less striking beauty and without that set of the shoulders that presaged decisive boldness. If Mr. Barrington were the pinkest of the pink, then surely Arthur was the grey. Alice felt her smile withdraw into a frown of disappointment, until she recognized that it must be making her a shade less attractive. Her smile sprang back like a fresh young sapling in the wind. Mr. Barrington must find her to be admirably agreeable.
“The ants are returning,” Mr. Radley said by the wisteria, a trowel in one hand and a bottle of gin in the other. Alice was momentarily distracted. If Mr. Radley were taking to the gin that would be the end of their famed garden. Perhaps he was only using it to tease the ants. She had to think -- did ants drink gin? Would it lure them within range of the trowel?
“Alice!” It was Kit Barrington. Alice turned back, but he seemed farther away now. He and Arthur were riding at the same pace, but they seemed to be retreating from her nonetheless. Alice furrowed her brow, heedless of its unattractive pull at her features. She decided to walk toward the gentlemen as if she happened to be going that way, trying not to let her panic show.
Yet each step seemed to slow her further. The wisteria was spreading far too quickly, flopping across her path and impeding her progress with gentle insistence. “The seeds pods are poisonous,” Mr. Radley was saying somewhere in the distance but Alice was unable to hear his additional pronouncements on the progress of the ants. The elusive Mr. Barrington was nearly out of sight, yet his voice was becoming clearer all the time, calling “Alice, Alice!”
It was with great sadness and frustration that Alice opened her eyes to behold her cousin offering a plate of comestibles for a late breakfast. Alice sulked as she chewed on some jerky and did not notice the dark circles rounding Lizzie’s gentle eyes.