“Lord Dellus has passed,” Pearse said; the staff gasped and sighed, as if they had not known already from the cries that had haunted the house since evening last and had stopped so suddenly this morning. “Stopped without an echo,” Cook had said with heavy significance, and added, “That’s that, then,” as she did when a loaf went flat or a bird slipped from the spit to the ashes.
There had been no sighs then; the staff had exchanged weary nods and worried glances in the silence of a House without a head. And there had been a few curious glances toward Mel’s spot on the corner stool that had left Mel wondering what one was meant to feel, and if that dizzy burst of relief and fear was evident, was evil.
“In these difficult moments, we take guidance from the wisdom of tradition,” Pearse continued now. “The upstairs staff will see to the shades, and to the curtains in the conservatory. Ralph, the shutters, closed and latched, and then the front walk swept with the yew brush. The shrouds for the portraits may be found in the cabinet of the still room. The clocks must all be muffled, and a poppy placed on each mantle.”
The downstairs maid curtsied.
“Cook, a hare’s head for the dogs, a fresh one, if you please.”
Cook snorted—’as if I didn’t know,’ that meant—but quietly; Mel felt it more than heard it, a quaking of that vast thigh.
Pearse scowled thoughtfully at the wall; the panelling there was lighter, where a painting had been taken down and not replaced. “I believe those are the most immediate duties that custom and propriety demand of us. We shall convene at noon in the kitchen to discuss the period of mourning.”
Ralph the gardener cleared his throat. “The bees,” he prompted.
“Ah, yes, the bees,” Pearse said. “Where is the child?”
Ralph shuffled uncomfortably, and looked sideways at Neff. “It’s meant to be the youngest, ah, male in the household.”
Pearse acted, as usual, as if Neff was beneath his notice. “The child will do. Where is it?”
Cook rumbled with discontent, but placed her knuckles between Mel’s shoulder blades and pushed.
“Here, sir,” Mel said and stood straight, suddenly eager for the brightness of the gardens.
“You will come with me, boy.” Pearse glared from Ralph to Cook as if courting disagreement, and Mel’s expectation slumped to unease at that accustomed tension between the senior staff. “The Lord is dead. The bees will need telling.”