A light dusting of snow provided a stark contrast to the black of mourning for The Hon. Miss Margaret Howard. Jet horses pulled her carriage hearse, family in procession. The good burghers had turned out in force. Wreaths lined the long path up to the brick lined porch. The flint knapped tower looked down on the sad congregation. St Edmund’s had stood here since the time of Edward The Confessor and had witnessed all the happiness’ and sorrows that Man and Woman could endure in their short span. Within the Nave there was a 15th Century font, so typical of the area, the ornate cover having been donated by the Bessingham family themselves in memory of one of their own who had been Rector there in the early 1800s. Connections ran deep in these parts, duty and respect were entwined. There would be no gravedigger’s fee today, beloved daughter, sister and cousin being laid to rest, not beneath the cold earth, but in the family crypt. Thus rank was protected in the Afterlife as it awaited Judgement Day.
The awkward questions never came Simmonds’ way so he took comfort in the thought that the progress made to date was acceptable. He knew though not to translate this into complacency.
‘Quite odd’ said Simmonds as he and Piccolo left the church, arm-in-arm, out into the chill afternoon. ‘I had the impression Lady B was a devout Catholic. Strange then the family is staunchly C of E’. His wife was only half listening being consumed by the melancholy of the day in the way the artistic temperament was prone to do. An usher at the door informed them that they were both invited back to the Hall.
There was little opportunity for Simmonds and Piccolo to mingle at the wake. They weren’t local and didn’t know anyone there socially. It would have been unseemly for the Inspector to go bungling into a group of strangers with questions about the case at this time. He did think however that he would chance his arm with Charles.
‘Do you know Eric the barkeeper at The Lynn?’ Simmonds asked him.
‘Well no doubt he’s served me many times’ replied Charles ‘but I don’t know him as such. Why, should I?’ Charles had clearly already had quite a few drinks, nevertheless he helped himself to another as it was carried past on a tray. You could not fault the Bessingham hospitality – there was a spread to feed an army.
‘And what about Agnes, one of the chambermaids?’ asked Simmonds.
‘Good Lord, Inspector, have I been implicated in something?’ replied Charles, mocking seriousness. ‘Is it anything exciting? A ménage a trois?’
‘Just dotting some i’s and crossing some t’s, sir’
‘Well strictly entre nous, Inspector’ said Charles feigning a whisper ‘a maid wouldn’t be my thing, if you get my drift’. He then excused himself, calling after some person over the other side of the room and receiving a few looks of disgust in the process at his disrespectful exuberance at such a sombre gathering. Simmonds doubted he cared.
‘Well that solves one problem’ said Piccolo. ‘If Charles is a homosexual he would hardly be cavorting around with his sister’.
Lord Bessingham came over and Simmonds introduced his wife. They exchanged a few pleasantries. He’d even heard of her novels. Simmonds thought she was somewhat a cat with the cream having her work recognised by the aristocracy, but he said nothing. Bessingham could obviously be a charmer.
‘Oh by the way’ said His Lordship ‘I’ve waived your bill at the hotel – least I could do, especially for a veteran of Jutland. Now you’ll stay on for dinner this evening? I’m not a man to say ‘no’ to!’ He disappeared into the throng before any reply could be given.
‘But we’re not dressed for dinner’ Piccolo said to her husband — but as it transpired that was not to be an issue. ‘Are you alright, darling?’ she said, sensing something was wrong.
‘No. I mean yes. Sorry. Mention of the war’. Piccolo knew to stop. His nightmares had lasted a long time.
By the time dinner was over the weather had worsened considerably and it was now impossible for Simmonds and Piccolo to return to town. Lord B said they ‘must stay the night’. The Hall was spacious so finding a spare bedroom was not a problem. Toiletries were provided. Miss Edith lent Piccolo a pair of Chinese embroidered silk pyjamas which fitted perfectly, Simmonds having to make do with a flannel night shirt from one of the footmen. A fire was lit in their room and copious blankets and pillows supplied. The couple had been the only guests at dinner with the family. There had been little talk at the table and they had been relieved to retire.