It was the sort of apple-crisp September day that tempted the villagers of Nether Monkslip out of doors on any pretext that could be manufactured. A trip to the shops to buy ground pepper and a knitting pattern might be drawn out into an all-afternoon event, rounded off with a stop for tea and biscuits at Elka Garth’s Cavalier Tea Room and Garden.
But the Reverend Max Tudor stood indoors in the amber glow of St. Edwold’s Church, the knuckles of one hand pressed hard against his mouth as he stared aghast at a just-delivered stained glass window. The small delivery lorry had driven away minutes before with cheery waves of farewell from Sam, the driver, and his young mate Robbie. Sam and Robbie had removed the window from its custom-made wooden encasement but had left the packaging untouched to await the glass installers, who were scheduled to mount the window into its wooden frame in a few days’ time.
Having seen the delivery team off, Max had torn the seal on the padded wrappings. After leaning the stained glass gently against the plywood currently boarding up the window, he’d stood back with great anticipation to assess the work. There was just enough light for him to see by from the flickering candles on the altar and from sunlight filtering in through the stained glass windows adjacent to the one being replaced. He stared for a long while, still and motionless, taking it all in, the church cat Luther mewling for attention at his feet until Max scooped him up and began idly ruffling the fur at his neck. But Max’s was not the enthralled, rapt gaze of the art enthusiast viewing a long-awaited treasure. Rather, a frown altered the handsome features of the vicar of St. Edwold’s into an expression conveying distress atop astonished disbelief. All he could think was that it would have to be redone. And at what cost?
The funds to recreate the old stained glass depiction of the Good Shepherd, which had been destroyed during a vicious storm by an uprooted tree driven through the window, had been donated by old Mr. Henslowe, now deceased. For the timeliness and generosity of his gift, Max was profoundly grateful, although it had to be said, for Leo Henslowe, the timing had been quite unexpected and rather awful. He had been the victim of a shooting accident while out with a hunting party on his eightieth birthday.
If not for the bequest he’d recently had attached as a codicil to his will, the sheet of plywood might have covered the window indefinitely while the village’s fundraising efforts dragged on and on. The villagers, after all, could only buy so many jars of preserves to help replace the stained glass, and there was a limit to the income generated from the sale of hand-knitted hats and booties and the like. The surplus fund for emergency repairs had been drawn down too many times in fixing the church’s old plumbing to allow for acts of God, which, ironically, were not covered by the church’s insurance policy.
But what was it, that creature surrounded by colorful shards of leaded glass in the iron frame? Surely…surely it was not a goat? The rather demented-looking crystal-blue eyes with their horizontal, rectangular pupils said that it was. It was either a goat or it was a lamb as designed by someone who had not been raised anywhere near a farm and had only the weakest grasp on animal husbandry. The eyes were goat’s eyes, with that blank, rather sinister stare of the goat. And surely the ears, too, were the wrong shape for a lamb. And weren’t those horns? And a beard? A goatee, in fact.
Max, settling the cat on a nearby pew, supposed he should have been more suspicious of the artist, who was famously eccentric, unconventional, and contrary as it suited him, which was often. Lucas Coombebridge had been plumping for a great unveiling of the new stained glass artwork, a ceremony to be held in front of all the village worthies, and he had often stated his wish that Max should be as surprised as anyone else in the audience. But Max had prevailed, insisting on seeing the work before it was revealed in a ceremonial presentation to the villagers. He knew Lucas’s character well enough to doubt him and his motives.
The trouble was that Henslowe had donated the money for the window conditionally, with strict instructions as to who the artist must be. He had also been specific as to the colors, the materials, and of course the theme. It must be a Good Shepherd to replace the one that was lost to the storm. When Henslowe had passed to his reward not long afterward—or rather, been blown sky high—his wishes had taken on added weight and authority. In fact, old Leo’s codicil dictated that extra funds be directed to the routine cleaning and upkeep of “his” window. After his death, his widow Netta had seized the fallen banner and run with it. Max thought the choice of Lucas as artist may in fact have been her idea, for Lucas famously had a way with the ladies, even ladies in their eighties.
Max took a judicious step back, and concluded that he was not being hasty in his judgment. The window was a fright. It was not just the goat, it was the whole thing. It was hideous. Incorrect by any biblical standard, and bordering on the blasphemous. Surely a goat draped about the neck of the Good Shepherd—the traditional image of a benevolent Jesus retrieving a lost lamb—was just plain wrong. Jesus, too, when it came right down to it, had a rather crazed look about him: the wide-eyed stare of the fanatic, the whites of his eyes showing all the way round. It was frightening, was what it was. And the Good Shepherd was most people’s favorite depiction of the gentle and compassionate man sent by God to save mankind. This man looked, in a word, insane. What had Lucas been thinking? Very likely he’d been thinking of all the commotion he could cause. Lucas was like that.
But the window, in addition to being a horror, was done and paid for and had been executed and delivered in accordance with the terms of the benefactor’s will. Max could refuse it and probably he would have to, but how awkward. Much better to see if the artist was amenable to making a few alterations.
Hah. The chances were slim but he had to try.
Max was rehearsing the request in his mind (“It looks as if it would be a matter of painting out the goat’s beard, you see, and doing something about the shape of the eyes…Of course, I’m no artist but I rather feel we’ve gone off in the wrong direction here…”) when the Rev. Destiny Chatsworth hauled open the heavy doors of the church and stepped briskly inside. She wore the large Birkenstock sandals she favored, making a splat-splat sound against the flagstones. Max knew it was Destiny without having to turn to look.
“Ah, there you are Max,” she said. “I’ve been looking all o—what in God’s name is that?” The window actually stopped her in her tracks, her mouth falling open in a gratifying little “o” of astonishment. The untamable spirals of her hair seemed to spring even further out from her head in surprise. Max did not feel so alone in his assessment of the art, like some philistine unable to appreciate greatness when it was set before him. It was as shocking as he had thought. Nether Monkslip would be a laughing-stock.
“Lucas. He was commissioned to replace the old window, you know. Leo Henslowe gave rather explicit instructions in his bequest. And this is what Lucas turned up with.”
Echoing Max’s earlier reaction, she stepped back to attempt a more judicious gaze. Finally she said, “Did he not submit a design for approval?” “He did, actually,” Max replied with a touch of asperity. “Of course he did. In the design he submitted the lamb looked like a cute fuzzy toy, and the Christ did not look like, like…”
“Like a serial killer?”
“If that’s not going too far to say so, yes. He looked like, well, normal. Gentle and kind. Like you’d expect the Good Shepherd to look.”
“At least Lucas gave his shepherd dark hair,” she offered cautiously. “Jesus looks Swedish in so many renderings.”
“What a shame,” she said. “It was wonderful to think of that window being repaired at last. Perhaps you could pass it off as a modern interpretation of the scriptures?” The glass on an earlier occasion had nearly been blown out of its frame by an explosion detonated by a lunatic set on the destruction of Max’s happiness, but some act of Providence had largely preserved it then. While the criminal was safely in prison now, it looked like his mission was continuing, with Mother Nature and Lucas now in charge.
Max aimed lifted eyebrows in Destiny’s direction.
“No, I suppose not,” she said. “We’d have to come up with an entire new theology to explain this. ‘The Lord is my goatherd’ doesn’t have the same ring somehow.”
“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
“Me either. You said you had been looking for me. Was there something in particular you wanted to tell me?”
“Yes, and it is rather an odd coincidence,” said Destiny. “There’s been another death in the village. It happens to be Mrs. Henslowe this time.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that,” said Max, thinking it was a relief she hadn’t lived to see how her husband’s bequest had been spent. “Her heart, was it? She was a nice woman.” This was patently untrue but Max felt when someone died it is hardly the moment to start listing their shortcomings. “It’s not surprising—she was eighty last spring, as I recall—but even so.”
“Lots to go wrong at eighty. Her eyesight and hearing had been fading for years. Still, up until about a year ago she could get around fairly well—she rode her bicycle everywhere, nearly knocked me down a few times. Never could be bothered to apologize or ring the bicycle bell in the first place: One was supposed to just know one was in her way. Sometimes I’d see her walking to the shops, all dressed up and her hair done just so. It seemed to take her an hour to buy a loaf of bread, but she’d get there in the end. Her gooseberry jam was still a fixture at the Harvest Fayre, however. Fought over, it was. It was thought she made limited quantities so she could drive up the price, but that’s a story Miss Pitchford likes to put about.”
“A bit of jealousy there, between those two.” Max nodded sagely. “Going back decades. It’s understandable, really. Miss Pitchford could never match Netta for her gooseberry jam. And Netta was said to be a famous beauty in her prime. I believe—now don’t quote me—but I believe Miss Pitchford may have fancied old Leo for herself, when they were all young together. But he only ever had eyes for Netta.”
“That may be. Well, as I say, Netta Henslowe seemed to be doing all right, if only all right for her age. Perhaps getting a bit paranoid; she was always rather suspicious by nature and it does seem to me as we get older basic traits get more ingrained. But her heart was giving her trouble, especially after Leo passed. People do die of broken hearts.”
“There are no surviving children but there’s a grandson. I suppose he’s been notified?”
“Colin Frost. Right. Both his parents have passed already. He’s been working over in Saudi Arabia. Something to do with oil. Or some sort of computer thing they use in the oil fields. Cyber security, is it? Don’t ask—I’m sure I couldn’t explain it even though Colin tried to tell me, several times. Everything over there is something to do with oil or banking. Anyway, yes, he’s on his way home already. Netta was actually living with Colin’s wife and daughter, you know. To be precise, they were living with her—she has that good-sized cottage with the thatched roof on the outskirts of the village. Beautiful little place it is.”
“Hawthorne Cottage, yes. I go past it all the time on my way to take the services at Chipping Monkslip.”
“Mrs. Henslowe refused ever to go into a nursing home and the two women and the girl all seemed to shove along well enough, so it was a good arrangement.”
“Doctor Winship has been in attendance on Netta?”
“Oh, yes—he’s been her doctor for ages. She went suddenly, though, and that’s a shame—she had specifically asked for unction if and when she started to fail. There just wasn’t time for me to get there—I live closest to her cottage. She went peacefully in her sleep.” “It’s a blessing of sorts. I considered getting her to intervene over this once I saw it—” and here he waved his hand in the direction of the offending artwork, averting his eyes. “But perhaps it’s just as well. I am rather glad she didn’t live to see her husband’s last wishes carried out in such a…well, such a strange way.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Cover it up, for now. I’ll get on to the artist and see what can be done.”
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