The Body in the Transept (Dorothy Martin Series #1)by Jeanne M. Dams
For Dorothy Martin, a widowed American who’s moved to the England she so loves, the Christmas service is painful enough. It is her first holiday without Frank. And stumbling over the body of Canon Billings does nothing to improve her mood. Of course, she does get to meet Chief Constable Alan Nesbitt, and a good mystery on a chilly English night does have some appeal . . .
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The Body in the Transept
A Dorothy Martin Mystery
By Jeanne M. Dams
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 1995 Jeanne M. Dams
All rights reserved.
I was struggling against more than wind and rain that night as I battled through the Cathedral Close, but I blamed my mood on the weather. This was not my idea of a proper English Christmas. The air ought to shiver in a frosty stillness broken only by church bells chiming with the peculiar clarity of sound carried on intensely cold air. The sweet piping of young carolers should catch at the throat. My mind's eye costumed the carolers in crinolines and fur muffs, greatcoats and stovepipe hats, and set them beside a gas streetlamp, gently falling snow sparkling in the soft amber light....
As I wandered happily in my nineteenth-century fantasy, I slipped on a wet, irregular paving stone and was rudely returned to reality. There were bells, to be sure, pealing away in cheerful discord. But the path was lit (more or less) by electricity, faint diesel fumes perfumed the air, and neat black-and-white plastic signs pointed my way. Not even the great medieval cathedral, looming out of the stinging rain, could transcend the twentieth century entirely; she wore an ugly modern veil of scaffolding over part of her ancient, crumbling face.
By exercising great care I reached the door to the south porch without turning an ankle or, more important, ruining my new hat. The thought of my Christmas hat cheered me considerably. It was a silly thing, really, a confection in bright green with red plastic holly berries dangling from a drift of white net, but I loved it. What did I care if it was entirely unsuitable for a woman my age? As I shook out my umbrella one of the berries detached itself and dropped wetly down my neck; it took a shake like a sheepdog's to dislodge it.
In keeping with time-honored English tradition the porch was at least as cold as the night outside, but it was reasonably dry. I jammed the umbrella into a tightly packed stand and hung up my coat, now soaking wet and useless. My tweed suit might be warm enough to keep me from freezing in the church. Hat resettled and glasses straightened, I moved into the nave.
The sight that greeted me lowered my spirits again. Sherebury Cathedral boasts one of the longest naves in England, indeed in the world, several hundred feet of glory from great west door to choir screen, with seating for thousands. Yet the flickering light from the candles in the huge chandeliers showed me only a few empty chairs at the very back. I was flabbergasted. The English, as this century staggers toward its death, don't share the convictions of the people of the Age of Faith who built the huge churches; the usual congregation at Sherebury fits nicely into the choir. Tonight, though, it seemed that half England had braved the weather to see Christmas in. Where in heaven's name was I to find a seat?
At least all those people made it almost warm, but I was wet and tired and my feet hurt. When a person is sixty-something and weighs more than she ought, she doesn't relish the prospect of standing through a long, late church service in festive shoes. I looked around vaguely for a verger, but they all seemed to be down near the choir screen in some sort of powwow, gesturing and arguing and paying not the slightest attention to their duties. Very well, I'd have to fend for myself.
I hoped I wouldn't have to settle for one of those chairs at the back, where I wouldn't see a thing. Sherebury's choir screen is a masterpiece, the pinnacle of the stone-carver's art, but I hadn't planned to spend the whole evening staring at it and getting a draft on the back of my neck in the bargain. Furthermore, the scaffolding up against one side of the screen disfigured the whole nave. Restoration is necessary, but I didn't want to look at it on Christmas Eve.
There was no point in just standing there; I sighed and began to look around for a small miracle. There might be someone I knew in all that crowd, with maybe an empty seat?
The trouble was, it wasn't like an American church with pews. You can almost always squeeze one more into a pew if you're willing to risk a few glares. Chairs are a different matter.
As I moved up the center of the nave I searched for familiar faces. I'd been in Sherebury long enough to know a number of people, at least casually. That's one of the beauties of the town. It's small, as cathedral towns go, and as in any small English town even today most of the residents know each other. An incoming American is enough of a curiosity to be noticed.
On the whole I had been treated well enough. People I knew from earlier visits had been kind and introduced me to their friends, and I'd been invited to tea and drinks. They didn't know quite what to do with me, though. I didn't fit into any of their patterns, circles revolving around the cathedral, or the university, or the families who had lived there time out of mind. That was perhaps why no one had invited me to come with them to midnight Mass. Then, too, Christmas tends to be a family affair, while I ... ah! There was Jane.
My next-door neighbor, Jane Langland, is my only real friend in Sherebury. It's easy to dismiss Jane as just a typical English spinster. She looks and sounds a good deal like Winston Churchill, and dispenses gallons of tea and oceans of gruff sympathy. It took me a while to discover that Jane is typical of no one but herself. Behind the brusque facade is a mind of diamond — and a heart of custard.
An extremely competent teacher recently retired from a local school, she knows every child in town. I wasn't surprised to find her sitting composedly in the midst of a crowd of giggling teenagers. Former students, except perhaps for one dark boy who drew attention to himself by his stillness. His blue jeans were frayed and much too tight, his shirt thin and worn. He looked older than the others, whom he ignored as he slouched in his chair, chin hunched into his chest, arms hugged in tightly. It occurred to me that the defiant posture might be due as much to cold as to bad manners. Evidently the same thought came to Jane, for she passed over her own tweed jacket. I was mildly surprised to see the young man take it and drape it over his thin shoulders, his blue eyes flashing a glance of thanks.
Jane looked up and saw me then. I couldn't hear her over the noisy kids, but the waves and shrugs said clearly enough that she'd be delighted to have me join them but she didn't see where one extra person could be put. I gestured my thanks and understanding, and moved on.
There was a seat! Alice Chambers seemed to be alone with an empty chair beside her, on the aisle, too, where I could see the procession, and close enough to the choir screen to afford me at least a glimpse of the activity at the altar. Alice was looking very attractive, dressed impeccably in soft blue wool, hair and nails lacquered to perfection, so she might be expecting someone. But then Alice always manages to look like that. I've long cherished a secret notion that she wears her pearls in the bath. More the dumpling type myself, I'm consumed with envy of Alice's effortless elegance.
I wouldn't have chosen her as a companion for the evening; she's always intimidated me. But my shoes were pinching and my options were limited.
"Merry Christmas, Alice!" My cheery greeting sounded put on, even to me. "Are you saving this seat for someone?"
"Oh, Dorothy! Merry Christmas! Sorry, it's for my husband, if he ever turns up." Alice allowed a tinge of exasperation to color her well-modulated voice. "George is late, as usual. He promised me quite faithfully he'd be here by ten-thirty on the dot so we could sit in the choir, and here it is after eleven and he's vanished. You've not seen him, have you?"
"No, I just got here myself." I sagged back to normal and tried to swallow my disappointment. "Stupid of me to be so late, but I didn't realize — I mean it's been years since I was here for Christmas Eve, and usually the place is half empty ..."
"Oh, dear, and here I am with an extra chair. I'm so sorry, I would offer it to you, but he said he would be here ..."
"And here he is, isn't he?" The genial voice came from behind us. "So sorry, my dear, got held up at my office. You knew I'd turn up sooner or later. Good evening, Dorothy, you're looking blooming."
So was George, and from the aroma wafting my way, his bloom was artificially induced; he wasn't usually so cordial to me. I wondered which pub George had holed up in while Alice fretted. Since when did the university have office hours on Christmas Eve? Well, best tend to my own business and leave them to have it out. "Thank you, George. Nice to see you both. Excuse me, I think I'm going to see if there's any room in the choir."
I hurried through the arch and scanned the stalls on either side of the aisle, beginning to get really anxious. This was the prime spot, of course, and would have filled up long ago, but there might be a chance, someone else who was late, or had changed his mind ...
A verger materialized next to me, talking while squinting up in outrage at the gorgeous brass chandelier, one of whose candles was dripping. "I'm sorry, madam, the h'empty stalls are reserved for the choir and clergy."
"Yes, I know." My voice was acid enough to attract his condescending attention.
"Oh, h'it's you, Mrs. Martin." There wasn't a lot of Christmas cheer in his manner, either.
"Good evening, Mr. Wallingford. I know it's hopeless, but I thought I might find a place to stand."
"Oh, but we can't 'ave standing in the choir on Christmas Eve, can we — too many candles h'about, we 'as to keep the h'exits clear. Danger of fire, you know." He sounded quite pleased about it, and I gritted my teeth. This was petty English officialdom at its worst, someone whose function was to serve the public taking delight in snubbing them instead.
"Well then, don't bother about me, I'll manage." I swept away in a burst of temper I regretted before I had taken two steps. The odious man might have helped if I'd played on his sense of chivalry instead of getting indignant. Assuming he had a sense of chivalry. As it was, those back rows of the nave were looking better all the time.
One last despairing glance at the choir stalls before I turned to leave — and my small miracle happened. I saw an empty stall, and actually in the second row!
"Excuse me, is someone sitting there?" It couldn't happen, could it? They would have gone to the bathroom, or to fetch a program, or ...
"Not as I know of. Me wife got sleepy and went 'ome. Dunno as you'll fit." The fat man in the next stall looked appraisingly at my own well-nourished contours; I felt a little like one of the farm animals I would bet were his daily companions. He was obviously displeased at the idea of a neighbor, but I was past caring. The seat was right in the middle of the row, so I pardoned and excused and squeezed my way past the knees and the hassocks and a few glares, smiled graciously at the fat man (which annoyed him still further), and slipped to my knees with a sigh of relief. So annoying to be late, but how lucky to have found a place at all, and it was only because I was alone. Most people wanted two seats together.
And at the thought, with no warning, depression possessed me utterly. It was like that. It always struck unexpectedly, when I had forgotten, before I could put up my defenses. It would lie in wait for a chance to remind me that I was — alone. That only a year ago I had been celebrating Christmas with Frank, vigorous, apparently healthy Frank, looking forward to retirement in June, the two of us planning our move to the England we adored. This should have been a moment to enjoy together, our first Christmas in our new home. Instead I was congratulating myself on finding a single seat. A widow's seat.
I squeezed my eyes tight shut, but too late. A tear worked its way out and rolled down my cheek, and the more I tried to will the demon away, the more insistent became its jabs. I knew force never worked against it. Anyway, what was the good of resisting? All the courage in the world wouldn't change anything. I was alone. What an idiot I'd been to think about leaving familiar surroundings for a place where everyone tried to be kind, but no one really understood. No one spoke my language. Oh, I had plenty of acquaintances, but they had a different sense of humor, different ways of doing things. I'd never be one of them.
As the tide of self-pity rose to drown any other thought, any hope of comfort, I stopped trying to say my prayers. There was plainly no point. No, I would sit there and wallow in misery. Despising myself, and adding despicableness to the roster of my woes, I creaked back into the hard, upright seat, sniffed, and raised my chin in martyrly fashion.
And the cathedral took over. Far above my head it soared — the cathedral by candlelight. An unimaginable weight of flamegilded stone, defying gravity, rushed skyward and spread, lacelike, into the miracle of England's finest fan-vaulted choir. Rank on rank of wood and stone saints and kings and apostles looked down on me from choir stalls and niches, carved draperies swaying a little, features shaping into half-smiles or reproving frowns with the flicker of candles far below. Five centuries of worship, seeping from ancient stones, embraced me in the warm arms of faith and tradition. The heady scents of incense and evergreen, the subdued, exciting bustle of voices, light and color and movement, all spoke of something to come, something cosmic and magnificent.
Awestruck, senses sated and numbed with beauty, I forgot to be unhappy. I was even able to grin at myself as I mopped away the silly tears. The demon wouldn't appreciate being overcome by architecture, but it didn't stand a chance here, not for long. I couldn't be miserable even when I tried, not on Christmas Eve in the most beautiful church in the world.
"I beg your pardon." The voice at my elbow sounded apologetic. I had an uncomfortable feeling that this diffident man in tweeds had been trying to get my attention for some time. "Sorry to bother you, but I believe we're meant to take one of these." He held out a box full of slender candles and small cardboard circles, carefully not looking at me.
Oh, dear. He'd seen me crying. I felt a blush rising, but I couldn't very well explain myself to a total stranger. "Of course," I murmured, not looking at him, either. "Thank you." I took a candle and drip- catcher from the box and passed it along to the fat man, who grunted.
As I slid the disk onto the bottom of my candle, I chanced a sideways glance at the man in tweeds. He was a big man, not flabby like my fat neighbor on the other side, but tall and substantial, with lots of soft, wavy gray hair. As my look slid up to his kind but firm- looking face, my eye caught his and I looked away in embarrassment.
"I do beg your pardon, but are you by any chance Mrs. Martin?" His solid, comfortable voice sounded just the way his face looked.
I turned back to him and stared. Aside from a strong resemblance to Alistair Cooke, his features were completely unfamiliar. I was sure I'd never seen him before. "Why yes, I am, but ..."
He smiled. "No, it isn't second sight. I know your neighbor, Jane Langland, and she's mentioned you to me. Especially your — er — taste in hats. I quite like this one, if I may say so." The smile broadened slightly, although he was much too polite to let it turn into a chuckle.
I relaxed and laughed. "I know it's an extremely silly one — but thank you very much, I like it too, Mr. —?"
"Nesbitt. Alan Nesbitt." He shook my hand.
"And how do you know Jane?" I was genuinely curious. Jane's orbit did not, as far as I knew, include many distinguished-looking men, except for the cathedral staff, and I knew most of them by sight.
"I met her on official business a year or so ago."
I looked blank.
"Sorry, I should have explained I'm chief constable for this county. Miss Langland's house was burgled last year, and she came to me in great distress, convinced we had the wrong man. She was quite right, in fact. She gave me no peace until we caught the real villain."
Excerpted from The Body in the Transept by Jeanne M. Dams. Copyright © 1995 Jeanne M. Dams. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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Self-righteous old American expat, wearing silly hats and sticking her nose amateurishly into murder in an English village. Shades of Miss Marple without any of the charm. Not recommended..