Alice could not stifle the laughter that bubbled forth from her lips. In fact, the exquisite tension of the perilous journey from her room to this spot gave power to the merriment and her chortles took wing and grew very swiftly into guffaws, which made her clutch her middle because of their force. It had been many a year since the carefree young woman had laughed quite that hard and it made Alice quite giddy.
From the floor below, Judith extricated herself from the sputtering kidnapper with as much decorum and dignity as she could manage. She seemed puzzled to see his arm pass through her skirts without effect, but drew herself up to her full height once more, the better to express her disapprobation.
"You, sir," Miss Wychwood said with a strong tremor of emotion, "are no gentleman."
The fellow in question, however, seemed to take no notice of her severity, continuing to mutter nearly inaudibly and pat the parquet around him in search of something. "The fiend seize it! If I have lost my sliver of Edmund's tree—"
A strange sensation seized Alice. Her body went rigid. A flush painted her cheeks. I know that voice! She hurried down the steps toward the figure on the floor and the bewildered Miss Wychwood and snatched the kerchief from the man without the slightest blink of fear.
"I knew I recognised that voice!" Alice announced with triumph.
Arthur Boylett cowered back in surprise. "Miss Mangrove, I—I—" but there he stopped for Miss Mangrove had never looked so very much like her mother, though towering at least a good half a foot higher, which made her a rather imposing figure indeed.
Alice had never imagined herself to be capable of so much indignation. It flared through her veins like a fire, as if she had swallowed a large spoonful of laudanum, the sort Miss Travers used to give her on particularly warm summer afternoons when they had both gravitated toward a internecine peevishness that had no outlet in propriety. "Arthur Boylett, I demand you tell me what on earth you have been doing! Deceiving me! Holding me captive—and with what possible purpose?!"
Miss Wychwood's face shone with admiration for her friend and she, too, rounded on the would-be kidnapper. "You mountebank! How dare you treat the lovely Miss Mangrove with such roughness and ill-will! I am shocked and appalled by your inconsiderate behaviour." The latter phrase gave the young insubstantial woman a real sensation of quickness and she appeared to grow a trifle more tangible.
For his part, Arthur had continued in vain to locate the lost saint's relic—a sliver of wood upon a wood floor after all being much in the same position as a jade earring in a clover field, he was not having much in the way of success—while gaping with growing irritation at his would-be fiancée. "It is really most provoking, Alice—"
"Miss Mangrove," Alice corrected, her voice reaching a register of frigidity unheard of below the polar regions.
"I mean to say, Miss Mangrove," he said with due emphasis on the latter two words, "that give your mother's recalcitrant nature and downright hostility to me, I feared that she would not allow our engagement."
"Hostility!" Alice said, straightening her back even further as her indignation soared. "How very rude you are being, Arthur."
He halted his fruitless search and looked up at her with patent affront. "You did not hear the unkind words she decided to fling at me that day."
Alice closed her eyes and did not deign to regard him. "My mother would not be anything but the soul of propriety. If she used unkind words, as you say, they were doubtless required by the situation." She looked down at Arthur then, folding her arms across her chest. "It makes me wonder what unseemly language you used." Alice hoped that her look was as severe as her mother's could be behind her best lorgnette. The surge of pride she experienced for her remaining parent suddenly filled her with an exquisite mixture of anger and loss. "How dare you insult my mother!"
Arthur grimaced as he strove to rise to his feet. "She did shoot me, you will recall, Miss Mangrove."
"That's no excuse!" Miss Wychwood squeaked with acute indignation, for she felt the pangs of Alice's distress most heartily.
"Who's there?" Arthur asked with some consternation and not a little fear.
"That's Miss Wychwood," Alice said with a sigh. "She tripped you."
Miss Wychwood gave a stiff curtsey, acceding to politeness but making her disapproval evident.
Arthur stared. "Where?"