The news that Sir Robert Pomeroy was to marry Mrs. Dovedale was greeted in our village of Chitterton Fells with great excitement. Neither party was young, nor uncommonly handsome, as would seem required for heady romance. They were both widowed; the late Mr. Dovedale having passed to his reward in the fullness of a substantial Sunday lunch some years previously. Lady Kitty, as behooved her exalted position in the community, going out with a good deal more fanfare.
She had not been generally liked. “Interfering and uppity” being among the gentler epithets bestowed upon her. The vicar in extolling her ladyship’s virtues at the funeral looked hollow-eyed and worn to the bone as if having spent several sleepless nights before coming up with “thrifty and industrious.” It was, however, possible to legitimately address her death as a tragedy, in that Lady Kitty had been murdered. Many in the community voiced surprise that she had not been bumped off years before. But there were those who felt that in death her ladyship had finally added some lustre to her husband’s ancestral home, which heretofore had been sadly lacking in ghoulish tales of murder and subsequent hauntings.
Prior to Lady Kitty’s demise, visitors paying two pounds a head for the privilege of touring the house and grounds often voiced disappointment at not once glimpsing a spectral figure disporting itself on the ramparts. Pomeroy Hall, having been built in the reign of George III, possessed no battlements, dungeons or other gothic embellishments suited to the sensibilities of ghosts, a species known to be somewhat set in their ways. But the paying visitors failed to accept these architectural limitations as an excuse for the lack of headless spooks and the morose clanking of chains.
According to Mrs. Goodbody, the housekeeper at Pomeroy Hall, some thirty years previously one of the kitchen maids had taken it upon herself to invent a melodrama aimed at sending shivers down the spines of the susceptible. A shilling would pass hands and the fabrication told of a daughter of the house left to perish in a secret room behind the wainscoting in the library, for refusing to wed a dreadful old earl who ate nothing but hard boiled eggs and wore his nightshirt in public. Several people reported having heard the Undutiful Daughter’s piteous moans and to have seen books leaping off the library shelves. But all too soon the maid, whom Mrs. Goodbody charitably refused to name, was seen waylaying a group of visitors entering the gates, and was dismissed on the spot.
After that no stories of dark doings were told at Pomeroy Hall until the occasion of Sir Robert’s marriage to Lady Kitty. And that tale only involved a theft. Mr. Alberts who conducted the tours (being at other times the head gardener) did his best with the material at his disposal—stressing the fact that the purloined object had never been recovered. Still the visitors continued to hanker for a ghost. And when Lady Pomeroy’s body was discovered floating in the ornamental pond behind the west wing, the village waited with bated breath until the official word came that she had indeed been the victim of foul play. Naturally Sir Robert was suspected, but his name was quickly cleared when the murderer was caught and cheerfully helped the police in their inquiries by making a full confession.
The baronet looked suitably bereft at the funeral. His tie was crooked and his coat misbuttoned, as was to be expected after nearly thirty years of marriage to a woman who had sucked away his self-confidence to the point where he was barely capable of dressing himself, let alone having a thought to call his own. He was known to have spent a great deal of time playing with the model train set when he wasn’t patrolling the estate looking for poachers at his wife’s behest. Lady Pomeroy apparently had lived in hourly dread that old Tom Harvester would be overcome by a salivating desire for rabbit stew.
Poor Sir Robert! A sad excuse for a man was how the village long viewed him. But within weeks of becoming a widower he began to blossom. His face fleshed out and took on a ruddy hue. His tentative walk became a stride—one might even say a strut. He took to wearing sportier jackets and mustard cravats. It was said that he had not only taken up pipe smoking, but now had his moustache professionally styled. Certainly, the village began to see a good deal more of him. On and off the hunting field.
I got to know Sir Robert when he joined the Chitterton Fells Library League. Another of our members was Mrs. Dovedale who owned a grocer’s shop on the corner of Market Street and Spittle Lane. At first I thought I might be reading too much into the sideways glances that I often saw exchanged between her and the baronet during weighty discussions such as whether we should serve sandwiches in addition to cake at the annual meeting. But I soon got the scoop from Miss Whiston, the niece of Mr. Alberts who was still head gardener cum guide at Pomeroy Hall. And Evangeline Whiston was not someone to be readily doubted. Hers was a pious disposition which found outlet not only in endeavoring to get books “of a certain kind” banned from the library, but also in doing the flowers and polishing the candlesticks at St. Anselm’s Church with enthusiastic regularity.
Miss Whiston was, despite her prim manner, a woman who enjoyed telling a story. And she was quick to point out she was not such an antique at fifty that she had forgotten what romance was all about. Her account was that Sir Robert and Maureen Dovedale had shared a youthful passion. It had begun when he was a boy, home from boarding school for the holidays and would go into the grocery shop to buy sweets and bottles of fizzy drinks. His over-the-counter chats with Maureen about comic books and football matches had developed into something more when they reached their late teens. The two young people had begun to meet for Sunday walks along honeysuckle-scented lanes. Secretly. An alliance between a Pomeroy and a grocer’s daughter being unthinkable, however much they might both want it.
“Life is full of heartbreak,” said Miss Whiston. “A friend of mine that worked up at the hall told me how things were. When the time came Sir Robert did his duty and wed the woman his parents chose for him and a couple of years afterwards Maureen married Ed Dovedale. All very sensible. But who’s to say what will happen now that he and Lady Pomeroy are both underground?”
It was a question voiced with increasing frequency in Chitterton Fells, making Mrs. Goodbody the center of attention at many a Hearthside Guild meeting. As Sir Robert’s longtime housekeeper it was assumed she had to be in the know, and her insistence that her lips were sealed only fanned the flames of curiosity. But at last the word was out. Evangeline Whiston said she had it from the vicar that the wedding was to be on the first Saturday in March. And Tom Harvester boasted he’d had it straight from the horse’s mouth that Sir Robert didn’t give a damn what anyone thought. He’d already wasted half a lifetime and counted himself the most fortunate of men to have won the hand and heart of the woman he considered a pearl beyond price.
“I expect he be wishing he could give her the one what was stolen all them years ago.” Evangeline’s uncle, now approaching his eightieth birthday, looked soulful. He was one of a group of us who had gathered at the church hall for a special meeting of the Hearthside Guild to discuss what we could do as St. Anselm parishioners to prepare the church for the wedding. Naturally, those most closely involved with Pomeroy Hall were the ones who set aside other obligations to show up at short notice on a blustery winter evening. Other than myself, that is. I lived within a stone’s throw of the church, liked Maureen Dovedale a lot, and I’ll admit had been glad of the opportunity to leave my husband to put our three-year-old twins, Abbey and Tarn, to bed.
Mrs. Goodbody, Tom Harvester, Evangeline Whiston, and Mr. Chistlehurst—a wooden faced man who had been the estate manager until Sir Robert’s marriage to Kitty—all nodded knowingly when the old gardener mentioned the theft. But as a relative newcomer to Chitterton Fells I was eager for details. I knew of course that a pearl of a glorious purple had vanished some thirty years ago. This was the story recounted to visitors to Pomeroy Hall in an attempt to make up for the lack of a ghost on the premises. Until her ladyship was murdered and Tom Harvester—in return for being allowed to poach at will—had started the rumor which had soon become local lore. On moonless nights Lady Kitty’s spirit was now said to rise up from the pond in which she had drowned, thence to drift up to the house where she would check all the rooms to make sure the servants weren’t slacking off. Writing her initials in any dust on the furniture. But the theft of the purple pearl wasn’t myth. And it haunted me that I knew only the barest outline.
Mrs. Goodbody had always made it clear that she did not like to have it talked about and as she was a person held in considerable deference, her wishes on the subject were respected even when she was not present. Until now, that is. The excitement of Sir Robert’s impending marriage had loosened Mr. Alberts’ tongue, and Mrs. Goodbody did not silence me with a shake of the head when I pressed for more information.
“I reckon there’s no way round it, Mrs. Haskell, the story’s bound to be dredged up now that Sir Robert is to remarry. And better you hear it from me than some of the tattle tongues that make up what they don’t know as they go along.” Mrs. Goodbody was a stout elderly woman, with hair as white as the collar and cuffs of the navy blue dresses she invariably wore. Drawing her chair closer into the table around which we were seated, she dropped her voice to a whisper and glanced around before continuing. “If Myrtle Bunting should walk in we’ll have to start talking about something else on the quick. Poor soul! She’s never got over it, and there’s not a day goes by that I don’t pity her from the bottom of my heart.”
The story so far ... As members of Chitterton Fells’ Hearthside Guild are discussing how best to prepare St. Anselm’s Church for the eagerly anticipated wedding of local lord of the manor Sir Robert Pomeroy and village grocer Maureen Dovedale, Mrs. Goodbody and company are regaling Ellie Haskell with the scandalous tale of The Purloined Purple Pearl ...
“It was the Pomeroy’s butler, Myrtle’s husband Horace, that was blamed when the pearl went missing,” Mrs. Goodbody raised her voice a notch to be heard above the wind rattling the windows, as if some embodiment of darkness demanded re-entry to the world of the living.
“Bear in mind this wasn’t just any pearl, Mrs. Haskell,” Mr. Chistlehurst informed me in his dry-as-toast voice, “it was famous. Immensely valuable. Incomparable. I have heard it said that Keats wrote ‘An Ode To A Purple Pearl,’ before his publisher advised him that one to a Grecian urn had more classical appeal. And would thus be more marketable.”
“I’ve never seen a purple pearl,” I said, hugging my cardigan around me.
“Well, that be old Mother Nature for you,” responded Mr. Alberts, looking more shriveled by the minute. “Always a one for her little surprises she is. I mind many’s the time I gone planted red roses and got white or yellow ones instead. And Lady Kitty didn’t half give me what for! A terrible temper that woman had,” eyeing Mrs. Goodbody through lizard lids. “If you speak true, my old friend, you’ll tell Mrs. Haskell here that it was her ladyship’s spitefulness that killed Horace Bunting.”
“Killed?” I forgot the cold.
“Her ladyship can’t be blamed for his death,” Mrs. Goodbody reproved the old gardener, then sighed deeply. “Still, there’s no getting round the fact that it was her hysterical carrying-on that got a good man dismissed on the spot. After him and his wife working at Pomeroy Hall for more years than most people can count. Of course Myrtle couldn’t stay on, not after what happened. Had one of those bad nervous breakdowns she did. And afterwards went to live with her daughter in Canada.”
“Mrs. Bunting only returned to Chitterton Fells last month,” contributed Mr. Chistlehurst. “Still not over the tragedy by the looks of her. I’m sure she never accepted the possibility that her husband was the thief. The only thing keeping her going is the hope that one day he will be exonerated and a public apology offered by the Pomeroy family. There is none so blind as a doting wife, but one cannot but feel for the woman.”
“Needs something to occupy her time does Myrtle Bunting,” Tom Harvester, who had made a career out of idleness, was always eager to put other people to work. “Let the past lie buried is what I say.”
“I still don’t know exactly what happened.” I tried not to sound plaintive.
“It was the Saturday before the wedding.” Mrs. Goodbody’s mouth was set in a grim line. “Lady Kitty—well, she was Kitty Cranshaw then, she’d come down for the weekend and it was one of those lovely summer days you mostly only get to read about in books. The sun was shining like it had just thought up the idea and the flowers, thanks to Mr. Alberts here, made the garden a real picture. So after luncheon I had the stable lad set up deck chairs on the lawn and everyone went and sat under the trees.”
“Well, let me see.” Mrs. Goodbody twined her blue-tinged hands together. “There was the engaged couple, and Mr. Robert’s parents—he hadn’t come into the title then, of course—and then there was you, Mr. Chislehurst ...”
“Quite so, I was always treated like one of the family, which is in fact the case.” His lips twisted into a smile but the eyes behind the rimless glasses gave nothing away. “I am in fact a third cousin to Sir Robert, the requisite poor relation; given a job on the estate and expected to be suitably grateful.”
“Now let me think,” Mrs. Goodbody’s furrowed brow cleared. “Ruby Estelbee was also there. She who’s now the church organist. At that time she was one of those sporty young women; leastways she was good enough to hit a ball over the net if the wind wasn’t blowing the wrong way. She often used to get invited up to the Hall to partner Mr. Robert who was keen on a game of tennis. But I think it wasn’t really meant for Ruby to come that day. I remember hearing Mr. Robert say he was sure he’d rung to put her off. Him and his intended had a real set-to about it, voices raised, doors slamming. I thought to myself well, the engagement’s off. Maybe it’s for the best. But of course bridegrooms the like of the Hon. Robert Pomeroy didn’t grow on trees.”
“And it weren’t like Lady Kitty was a bonny lass even with youth on her side,” supplied Mr. Alberts. “What’s more, she didn’t have what we called in my day the come-hither look. Not like Evangeline here. Led all the lads a dance in those days she did. The fellow Ruby Estelbee was courting broke things off, he was so mad for Evie.”
“Well, the row blew over between Mr. Robert and his bride-to-be,” Mrs. Goodbody got the story back on track, “or so it seemed when they went out in the garden. I was back and forth with mugs of lemonade and sunshades for his mother. I heard her say, ‘Son, why don’t you give Kitty the pearl now, after all you won’t be seeing her on the wedding morning. You know it’s tradition that it’s always presented before the marriage. I took it out of the wall safe in my bedroom before lunch; it’s in its box on my dressing table.’ ” :
“You have it down pat, Mrs. Goodbody.” Mr. Chistlehurst nodded over his steepled fingers. “Robert got up and went into the house, only to come back within minutes to say he had encountered Bunting in the hall and sent him up to fetch the box. I vividly recall, Mrs. Haskell, that the very air seemed charged with excitement as we waited for Bunting to parade in his dignified way, across the lawn. But I cannot claim to have sensed any portent of alarm. I had never seen the pearl. I know only that it was shaped like a bird’s egg and hung from a gold chain. But my eagerness to see it was nothing to that of Kitty.”
“Then the unthinkable happened,” Mrs. Goodbody shivered. “Mr. Bunting came across the lawn at a run—something total out of character for a man always so controlled in his deportment. He practically stumbled over to Mr. Robert and flung back the lid of the box. It was empty. Nothing inside but the red velvet lining.”
“All hell broke loose,” Mr. Alberts’ rheumy old eyes stared back into the past.
“You were there?” I asked.
“Clipping a hedge,” he said. “Not in view, you understand, but close enough to hear what was said, just as you was, Tom Harvester, hanging round the side door of the west wing.”
“Aye, so I was. It wasn’t rabbits I was after that day, but a mug of tea and perhaps a slice or two of bread and dripping from Mrs. Goodbody here, or Myrtle Bunting. Always a soft touch was Myrtle. Wouldn’t have minded marrying her myself, but from the time she was sixteen she never looked at any man but her Horace.”
“You get the picture, Mrs. Haskell,” Mr. Chistlehurst’s face became so wooden it could have sat on a mantelpiece. “There were several people who could have entered Robert’s mother’s bedroom that day. She was known to forget to replace pieces of jewelry in the wall safe. Her husband often chided her for leaving rings and necklaces on her dressing table tray, saying it was unfair to the servants—putting temptation in their way. But as she rightly said, the staff had been with them for years and there had never been any trouble.”
“I can vouch for that,” Mrs. Goodbody nodded her white head. “Not a hat pin lifted in all the years I’d been housekeeper. And I’d have noticed. It’s been a matter of pride with me to know if so much as an ornament was moved half an inch. Very strict I was—same as Mr. Bunting; but kind with it, I hope. That’s always the way to get the best out of your staff. But I’m not saying they shouldn’t all of them—myself included—have been put through the wringer when that pearl went missing.”
“The police were summoned immediately,” intoned Mr. Chistlehurst as if addressing us from the bench, “everyone who had access to the house that day was questioned. I imagine I placed high on the list of suspects, the resentful poor relation. Then there was Ruby Estelbee who may have harbored hopes that Robert would marry her. And might have decided that at least Kitty would not get the pearl. As for you, Tom Harvester ...”
“I know,” the other man looked none abashed, “a layabout like me! Truth is I’ve made me mark in life as the local suspicious character, and it was humbling in its way not to be singled out from the rest. But I heard one of the coppers say, ‘It won’t be Tom, the old goat’s happy with a sack for a blanket and a shed roof over his head.’ ”
“I wasn’t what you could call put through the wringer.” Mr. Alberts shifted in his chair. “I’d helped my father in the gardens at Pomeroy from the time I was big enough to push a toy wheelbarrow. And the family had been good to me, letting me live in the old lodge at the gates when I married the Missus. But what the police didn’t ask and I didn’t bring up was that I’d felt some hard feelings toward the family for a couple of years.”
“Uncle!” Miss Whiston who had appeared lost in thought, pressed a hand to her lips.
“I know, Evie, but with everyone here talking so straight forward. Let’s bring it out in the open. Mrs. Goodbody’s always been good about making sure none of the staff let on it was you that ...”
“Well, I felt I owed that in part to you, Mr. Alberts,” said that lady. “And I do try to be a Christian.”
Mr. Alberts reached out a trembly hand and laid it on his niece’s shoulder. “It had nowt to do with theft, but many’s the day I’ve blamed myself for not letting on that I hadn’t felt quite the same towards the Pomeroys since. After what they done to you, Evie. Just a young lass larking about. And as I told at the time, it wasn’t like you kept those shillings the visitors gave you telling them ghost stories. Always put them in the church collection, didn’t you, lass? Never doubted your word on that, I didn’t.”
“Miss Whiston,” I stared at her in awe—trying and failing to picture her as a mischievous imp, still in her teens. “You were the maid who was dismissed for making up the tale of the Undutiful Daughter? I’ve always thought that was so enchanting, apart from the part where you were caught and dismissed on the spot.”
“Sir Robert’s father was a hard man. He prided himself that was why his staff toed the line as they did.” Something sparkled in Evangeline Whiston’s eyes. Anger? Or something as strong as hatred. Then her face softened and I caught a glimpse of how she might have looked years ago. “Mr. Bunting was kindness. He said he’d speak up for me, explain that I was a good worker—one of the best. I was crying and he put his arm around me and stroked my hair. Someone must have seen and said something because that was one of the things Lady Kitty brought up against Mr. Bunting. That he was a faithless husband. And a man who would deceive his saint of a wife was likely to be a thief as well.”
“That wasn’t a day I thought ever to see at Pomeroy Hall,” Mrs. Goodbody reached into her handbag for a handkerchief to dab her eyes, but resisted the weakness. “All the staff, along with Tom here, huddled in one room and the family and visitors in another. It wasn’t just the shame of being searched,” her voice cracked, “the worst part was knowing that if that pearl wasn’t found, a cloud of suspicion would hang over every one of us for the rest of our days. And of course that’s what happened. The house was ransacked from top to bottom and every inch of the grounds gone over, but from then to now there has been no sign of the purple pearl.”
“How did Mr. Bunting come to be accused of the crime?” I asked.
“He wasn’t by the police,” Mr. Chistlehurst replied. “I was present when the detective inspector informed the family that there was no reason to assume the butler did it. Bunting could have entered Lady Pomeroy’s bedroom, just as he said, and upon seeing several jewelry boxes on the dressing table opened each of them to make sure he had the right one. None contained the pearl and—ominously one was empty. It was agreed that he was in and out of the house in minutes. And of course, his person was searched. But there was no reasoning with Kitty. She was vicious in her attack of the man, insisting she had heard he had been carrying on with one of the maids. That he was a sneaking hypocrite attending church every Sunday morning—when he should have been attending to the preparation of luncheon—just to throw everyone, especially his long-suffering wife, off the scent as to the villain he really was. Mr. Robert spoke up for him—-he was still able to face off against Kitty in those days. But his father sided with her. The upshot being that Bunting was escorted from the house as soon as the police left.”
“It was a terrible thing,” Mr. Alberts sat head hunched into his shoulders, “and I suppose I took it particular hard after what was done to Evie—her being the daughter and the wife I never had. All these years I’ve tried to be grateful that at least her name wasn’t dragged through the mud. We was able to put it about that she gave up working at the hall so she could take care of our own patch of garden. And it was her taking flowers up to the church regular that got the old vicar to feel a soft spot for her. She went to work at the vicarage typing his sermons and letters and such a couple of days a week. After a while she was able to get a good paying job as a proper secretary.” Pride gleamed in Mr. Alberts’ eyes, but quickly faded into sorrow. “Poor Mr. Bunting, he didn’t get no second chances. He was killed the very evening he was give the sack, hit by a bus crossing the road to his house.”
“Don’t suppose he was looking where he was going, poor devil, all wrapped up in his sorrow.” Tom Harvester produced a grubby handkerchief and blew his red nose. “Small wonder if Myrtle Bunting thinks her man was murdered by the Pomeroys.”
“What I find amazing,” I said, “is that with people so eager for a haunting at Pomeroy Hail, word didn’t spread of the shadowy figure of a butler being glimpsed gliding down the corridors with a silver tea tray.”
“My dear Mrs. Haskell,” Mr. Chistlehurst’s wooden demeanor became even more pronounced. “The family would quickly have nipped talk like that in the bud. It would hardly have reflected well upon them, especially Kitty. There were certainly those who believed she had leaped at the excuse to be rid of Bunting because she resented Robert’s dependency on him, in such matters as delivering messages not so long before to Maureen at her father’s shop. Kitty had to know Robert was in love with someone else, and given her temperament she was not averse to venting her venom on any one who had played even a small role in helping that romance along.”
“The staff was ordered not to discuss it on or off the premises,” Mrs. Goodbody leaned in to say. “And Myrtle Bunting going to pieces like she did—well, she wasn’t in a state to do any talking. She went into one of those psychiatric hospitals the night her Horace died. When she came out she went straight to their daughter in Canada. But now she’s back and Mr. Robert’s going to marry Maureen Dovedale. So it’s a new beginning of sorts, which is why I finally felt free to talk about what happened.”
“Put the past where it belongs,” Mr. Alberts nodded. “I’ll admit I’ve relished talking to paying visitors about the missing pearl—not mentioning Mr. Bunting of course, because that would have cost me my job. But knowing all the while I was a thorn in Sir Robert’s as well as his lady wife’s side. But time comes to move on. And I’d like to see Maureen Dovedale happy and the Hall back to its old self.”
“Lady Kitty was all into Danish modern and stainless steel.” Mrs. Goodbody came as close to turning up her nose as was possible for a woman of her restraint. “All the wonderful antiques went up into the attics and the silver and brass got put away in drawers—except for that candelabra, the one that was given to the church in celebration of Reverend Marshwind’s twenty-five years at St. Anselm’s. It always does my heart good to see how beautifully you keep it polished, Evangeline.” The kindly housekeeper reached out to squeeze Miss Whiston’s hand. “And Mr. Bunting would be more pleased than anyone; most particular he was about the silver. Did most of the cleaning himself, and always supervised the rest.”
“Speaking of cleaning,” I looked up at the wall clock and saw that a couple of hours had passed, “does anyone have any suggestions as to how we can spruce up the church for the wedding?”
“I do my very best to keep our house of worship looking its best,” Miss Whiston sounded just a little resentful. “In addition to doing the flowers, I make any necessary repairs to the altar cloths and, as Mrs. Goodbody just said, I polish the candlesticks ...”
“Your contribution is invaluable,” Mr. Chistlehurst continued briskly, “we are all most appreciative of the time you devote to St. Anselm’s. But what we are talking about here is in the nature of a spring cleaning. Something every church needs every three or four hundred years. And it seems to me that there is something symbolically important in such an undertaking, given the fact that in essence Mr. Robert is cleaning house—-emotionally speaking—by marrying Maureen Dovedale.”
“What I think would be best of all,” said Mrs. Goodbody, “would be if we could get the new covers for the kneelers finished. If we all plied our needles a bit faster they could be ready for the wedding.”
This was a project that had been occupying the Hearthside Guild for the past five years. A St. Anselm’s parishioner had visited another small country church where the kneelers had been recovered in needlepoint, each incorporating in its design words taken from a Biblical verse. As our red plush covers were getting threadbare it had been agreed that the Hearthside Guild would supply canvas and thread to anyone who knew a needle from a haystack.
My canvas, which I had decided would say ‘Behold the Lilies’ and include a graceful flower or two, had not progressed well. Fortunately my mother-in-law had paid a recent visit and, after brightening visibly at my ineptitude, had offered to take the lop-sided bunchily stitched rectangle home with her. I was sure she would unpick every stitch and return the finished piece so perfectly sewn that it would be impossible to tell the back from the front.
Thus, I was able to say, with just enough hesitation to ensure I wouldn’t be asked to take on another one, that I believed my cover could be finished in time for the wedding. Mr. Chistlehurst was more frank. He admitted to having paid another parishioner to do his for him in addition to her own. Miss Whiston said that she had already completed three covers and would be happy to take on another couple if necessary. Mr. Alberts reminded us that he had made a financial contribution to the enterprise. And Tom Harvester proudly announced he was coming along nicely doing an inch a night.
As we were all buttoning our coats, Mrs. Goodbody asked, “Who shall we have do the upholstering? This is just a suggestion, but how would it be if I were to ask Myrtle Bunting? She did a beautiful job recovering the dining room chairs when she worked at Pomeroy Hall. I think it might give her an emotional lift as well as putting some money in her pocket.”
It was agreed, without dissent, that Mrs. Goodbody should immediately get in touch with Myrtle Bunting. Mr. Chistlehurst was leading the way toward the church hall door, when it flew open, and a figure in a flapping coat charged into our midst. A woman recognizable to all of us, even though her face was distorted with fury. She was the church organist, Ruby Estelbee, who had been one of those on the scene when the purple pearl was stolen. Her fury was directed at Evangeline Whiston. Who as young Evie had caught the eye of the man who had been previously courting Miss Estelbee.
“It was you!” she cried, stabbing a finger in Evangeline’s direction. “It’s always you that leaves the church door unlocked, so that when I go in to practice I never know if some deranged maniac is lurking in the vestry or up in the choir loft ready to slit my throat. You have a key! I have a key!” The words came spitting out of Ruby Estelbee as she strode toward Evangeline Whiston. “But only one of us ever remembers to use it upon shutting the door.”
“Isn’t it rather late for you to begin practicing?” Mrs. Goodbody stepped between the raging inferno and Evangeline. “And on such a nasty night, too. We’re all,” eyeing the rest of us, “eager to be off home.”
As the angry color drained from Ruby Estelbee’s face, it was possible to see that she was still a handsome woman and might have appeared to even better advantage if she had known how to look pleasant. Was it possible, I wondered, that she still harbored feelings for Sir Robert and her display of temper sprang partly from a raging disappointment that he was to marry Maureen Dovedale? Evangeline said primly that if she occasionally forgot to lock the door it was because she was sometimes overly fatigued after working at her secretarial job all day—before fulfilling her church obligations. Her uncle took her arm and they both marched out into the night and the rest of us trailed after her, Ruby Estelbee taking up the rear, then watching to make sure Mr. Chistlehurst locked the door.
In the weeks that followed, I often thought about the purple pearl and the tragedy it had brought to Myrtle Bunting. Mrs. Goodbody did speak to her about doing the upholstery work on the church kneelers, and she agreed to do it free of charge. A couple of weeks before Sir Robert and Maureen’s wedding, she came to a Hearthside Guild meeting to collect the new needlepoint covers. She was a thin woman with a sad, gentle face and clear, sweet voice. It was only because she was standing at my elbow that I was able to hear her telling Mr. Chistlehurst she had never blamed Sir Robert for what had happened to her husband. Was she a saint? Or did she secretly rejoice that Lady Kitty was to be replaced with such a public display of enthusiasm on the part of the inhabitants of Chitterton Fells? I was inclined, feeling suddenly humble on meeting her quiet gaze, to believe that Myrtle Bunting was indeed one of those rare people whose hearts may break but whose souls remain intact.
After coffee and cake, we presented her with our completed covers. Mine was quite beautiful, thanks to my mother-in-law. Bordered with lilies, the wording was exquisitely stitched in lavender and rose. The others were also spectacular—except for the one proudly handed in by Tom Harvester. His needlepoint wasn’t bad, but it was almost entirely composed of big letters stating “Esau Was a Hairy Man.” Before the close of the evening it was agreed that we would meet at the church a couple of evenings before the wedding to return the kneelers to the pews.
Mrs. Goodbody phoned me the afternoon of that meeting to ask if I would bring a thermos of coffee, as a couple of the others were doing. It would be chilly in the church even with our coats on. And she mentioned during the conversation that Myrtle Bunting might still be working on the last of the kneelers, because she’d had a bad cold earlier in the week and was a little behind schedule.
Even with my coat buttoned to the chin and a woolly hat pulled down over my ears, I shivered as I made my way down the path that divided the churchyard with its sagging gravestones from the vicarage garden. It was only seven o’clock, but it might have been midnight. The moon peered out from the clouds like a frightened face and an owl hooted. At least I hoped it was an owl, and not Lady Kitty risen from her grave, trying to attract my attention.
It was all too easy to imagine Sir Robert’s first wife with lumps of earth in her hair and a face whitened to bone, slinking after me to enter the church and lurk in the shadows waiting with the patience known only to the dead until the wedding morning arrived and the vicar spoke the words, “Does anyone here know of any impediment why these two should not be joined together?” At which point her ladyship would rise up in all her foul splendour and bride and groom would drop dead on the spot.
I was so completely trapped in the nightmare of imagination that I was halfway down the aisle before I realized I was the last of the group to arrive. They were gathered by the vestry door: Mrs. Goodbody, Mr. Chistlehurst, Tom Harvester, Mr. Alberts and Evangeline Whiston. The odd thing was they didn’t look real. They all wore the same expression. And it didn’t match any of their usual faces. Their heads jerked and their eyes blinked as if pulled by invisible strings. Then as a unit they looked down. It took me a minute, but somehow I found the strength to do likewise.
Myrtle Bunting lay dead on the floor. No possibility that she was pretending, even had she been the sort of person to pull such a nasty stunt. Her hair was matted with blood and her eyes gazed full square into eternity. Beside her lay an overturned kneeler, the old plush-covered cushion pried half out of the wooden frame. Next to it—just inches away—was the silver candelabra that usually stood on a table beneath a plaque dedicated to the memory of one of the Pomeroy forebears. Like the kneeler, the candelabra wasn’t all of a piece. The upper part that formed the two branches had separated from the stem.
“Someone clobbered her with it.” Tom Harvester’s voice seemed to come at me from the rafters instead of his mouth.
“I was the first one here.” Mrs. Goodbody aged ten years with every word. “The lights went out for a few moments and I almost stepped on the poor soul in coming down the aisle. Thank God, Mr. Chistlehurst arrived just minutes after or I think I would have fainted, something I’ve never done in my entire life.”
“Someone must have crept up behind her when she was working on the kneeler.” Mr. Alberts’ knees buckled and he groped his way to a pew to stand clutching the post. “But why her? A woman that never did no harm to nobody?”
“Perhaps it was the other way round,” Mr. Chistlehurst suggested in an expressionless voice. “It could be that Myrtle walked in on someone attempting to steal the candlestick, who struck her down before fleeing the scene. You may have been lucky, Mrs. Goodbody. It occurs to me that the lights may not have gone out because the electricity failed. The killer could still have been in the church when you arrived and flipped off the nearest switch in order to slip away unnoticed.”
“But they came on again! Why would anybody making their escape bother with that?” Miss Whiston was almost as glassy-eyed as the corpse.
“To make us think that whoever did this wasn’t one of us?” I heard myself talking, but it was as though I were somewhere else, safely back at home with my husband and children. And I knew it was the same for the others. Their physical beings were here, but their minds had run for cover.
A voice crashed through our collective daze, a voice attached to a face we struggled to bring into focus.