Alice had a strange feeling of being out of time. The Duchesses pantry was much as she had left it earlier except that the once wood fired ovens were now gas operated, although how such a wonderful supply of coal gas originated was quite a puzzlement. Alice had seen the newfangled filament gas lighting on her recent trip to London and the marvel of the age was rapidly taking over from oil lamps but the vapors use for cooking was still quite the novelty. Being accustomed to more questions than answers Alice allowed the changes to pass unchallenged even when the poor Duchess herself seemed overly disconsolate.
“The universe is really not what it was child. Everything is faster, noisier, slicker, the Queen is even talking about replacing the executioner with a mobile guillotine.”
“That seems a little unnecessary doesn’t it?”
“Most certainly, unless she expects to be going through prisoners like cards in a game of baccarat.”
“I have never played that game I am afraid.”
“Just as well, nasty French sort of game, pulling cards out of shoes indeed, not at all hygienic.”
The Duchess often spoke in long sentences with oddly placed punctuation. It seemed her conversation was like honey drizzling from a jar, an almost endless stream impossibly difficult to halt without an unfortunate mess.
“I preferred the Queen of Hearts to this one, she was difficult its true but did smile occasionally.”
“A different Queen? Whatever happened to the other one?”
“It was all very sad and very sudden. One day we were still in a children’s story and the day after reality came to call. I quite like the modern conveniences, except for the smells, but I still hanker for the olden days when silliness was an excuse to be happy rather than a reason to be sad. The poor Heart army didn’t stand a chance you see. No good forming in hands and trying to win tricks when the other side have cannon and Gatling guns. This new sovereign is an Empress as well and has a huge Empire, whatever that may be. Seems a bit pointless to me to have lands you can never ever see in one lifetime.”
“Ah Victoria, or course. A sponge cake and a railway station.”
“Exactly my dear child exactly.”
“Good afternoon miss!”
“Why young prince Wilhelm, how lovely to see you. This is the famous Alice.”
The boy was a rather handsome child of average height but a very superior air. Alice noticed he seemed to stand at a very strange angle, as if hiding half of his body from view.
“Ah, the Alice of legend, I see. We will have such Alices in my country one day, perhaps more, no definitely more famous.”
“The prince is from Prussia you know Alice. Everything there is required to be decidedly better than anywhere else.”
“But not as big, never as big as in Mother Russia.”
“My dear prince Nicholas, how good of you to join our company. I was just introducing Wilhelm to…”
“Yes Alice. I heard. I am not deaf you know.”
Nicholas was a good deal taller than Wilhelm and much thinner, with a look that could easily freeze water. Alice noticed that for such a young lad the fingers of his right hand were very badly stained with nicotine. Alice disliked smokers, except perhaps for those who favored cigars.
“Well know, who is this rather good looking totty?”
Alice turned red faced to confront this new antagonist.
“Edwards the name, Wales is me country. You like a ride in the mountains or you prefer a little mining in the valleys?”
Alice had no idea what this fat creep meant but was almost certain it must be unsavory.
“Now, now Edward, that’s no way to address Miss Alice.”
The Duchess was very flustered. The prince of Wales had a reputation that was both infamous and embarrassing. To watch his slimy snaky slithering was quite reprehensible for a noble woman.
“Oh, Alice is it? Now you’re a girl who grasps the meaning of Wonderland.”
Edward had a most irritating way of laughing at his own remarks in a way totally inappropriate to their contained humor.
“My Uncle Edward is a little course I am afraid to say.”
That Wilhelm found the conversation disagreeable was an insight into his future puritanical nature. The boy was a stickler for good form simply because it proved his own God given superiority. Alice had finally realized that the poor boy suffered from an unfortunate affliction to his right arm that was withered to the point of almost uselessness in any practical capacity.
“Shut up Willy, you silly Kraut. Keep stumm till you have something worth saying.”
Willy literally bristled.
“You really should grow a moustache you know!”
The words just sprang from Alices mouth like golden fruit from a cornucopia. Wilhelm for his part had a look of almost religious fanaticism in his eyes as he stared his uncle down.
“Like a boar watching a lion.”
All three Princes stared at Alice open mouthed.
“What in the blazes is happening here then?”
A large beast of a man with a grizzled beard and dressed rather inappropriately in full highland attire almost bounded into the kitchen.
“Young Teddy is obviously being a cad, it’s about all he knows how to do and you two young lads are probably planning some way of oppressing your daddy’s subjects a little more cruelly.”
“I have told you before Brown you can’t talk to me like that. I am the Prince of Wales remember.”
“Oh and that makes you very high and mighty does it?”
Wales found himself picked up by the rather outlandish lapels of his jacket high enough that his toes just dangled inelegantly.
“Put me down at once, put me down I say.”
With some jocularity the highlander immediately released the prince who landed like a large overstuffed dumpling on the paved stone floor.
“I am going to tell mama; you see if I don’t.”
“Yes, yes my little wee chap you just run off and tell your mummy, but be quick about it because she just sent me to fetch Miss Alice straight to her.”
“It’s an outrage. A barbarity.”
Brown glanced at Wilhelm just long enough to shut his mouth before addressing Alice very politely.
“Her majesty would deem it a great honor if you would accept her invitation to high tea.”
Alice felt herself blush profusely and aimed to cover her confusion just a little by brushing down her apron.
“Well thank you kind sir for relaying the Queens invitation, I am of course at her service immediately.”
“You see young princes that the way a lady responds, not that Teddy has ever had a conversation with a real lady outside the court.”
“I talk to girls all the time!”
“Yes Teddy you do, all and every actress and dancer you can find no doubt. Certainly no ladies by my estimation.”
Brown reached into his sporran and produced a bottle of what Alice could only surmise was good malt scotch whisky.
“Mrs Brown would be most pleased if you could include a wee dram in your next Dundee cake.”
Taking the small bottle from his swarthy hand the Duchess removed the top and sniffed at the contents.
“Well most definitely Mister John Brown. It will improve the consistency of the mix quite miraculously.”
Alice took Browns proffered arm as he led her from the kitchens into the rose gardens beyond.