Murder in Highbury
First in a captivating new series, Jane Austen’s Emma Knightley entertains a different role in Highbury—going from clever matchmaker to Regency England’s shrewdest sleuth.
Less than one year into her marriage to respected magistrate George Knightley, Emma has grown unusually content in her newfound partnership and refreshed sense of independence. The height of summer sees the former Miss Woodhouse gracefully balancing the meticulous management of her elegant family estate and a flurry of social engagements, with few worries apart from her beloved father’s health . . .
But cheery circumstances change in an instant when Emma and Harriet Martin, now the wife of one of Mr. Knightley’s tenant farmers, discover a hideous shock at the local church. The corpse of Mrs. Augusta Elton, the vicar’s wife, has been discarded on the altar steps—the ornate necklace she often wore stripped from her neck . . .
As a chilling murder mystery blooms and chaos descends upon the tranquil village of Highbury, the question isn’t simply who committed the crime, but who wasn’t secretly wishing for the unpleasant woman’s demise. When suspicions suddenly fall on a harmless local, Emma — armed with wit, unwavering determination, and extensive social connections — realizes she must discreetly navigate an investigation of her own to protect the innocent and expose the ruthless culprit hiding in plain sight.
Emma Knightley fancied herself quite adept at managing awkward social situations. Murder, however, was not one of them, especially murder in their village church. Those circumstances struck her as particularly awkward.
“Is she dead?” Harriet Martin asked in a horrified whisper.
Emma took a hesitant step toward the crumpled heap lying on the shallow steps that led up to the chancel. Steeling herself, she leaned down to press two fingers to the woman’s exposed wrist, feeling for a pulse.
Hastily straightening up, she had to swallow twice before she could answer. “I’m afraid she is dead, Harriet. I cannot feel a pulse, and you can see there is quite a lot of blood.”
Mrs. Elton’s blond ringlets were dark with the sticky substance. A fair amount of blood was congealed beneath her head, and there was also something odd about the angle of her neck. As for her bonnet, the over-trimmed hat was decidedly askew.
Harriet dropped her wicker basket, spilling a flood of roses and larkspur onto the gray stone floor of the nave. “Mrs. Knightley, how can this be? Poor Mrs. Elton!”
“Indeed,” Emma replied, staring at the corpse of the vicar’s wife. “Poor Mrs. Elton.”
Never could she have imagined herself referring to her social nemesis as poor anything. Such, however, was the awful magnitude of the scene before them.
Harriet, wide-eyed and pale, pressed a trembling hand to her bodice. “How…how can you be so calm, Mrs. Knightley? I feel terribly sick and lightheaded.”
Emma didn’t feel the slightest bit calm. In fact, she wanted either to shriek so loud it would shake the old bell tower to its foundations or to cast up her crumpets. But since neither reaction would be helpful, she ordered her stomach back in place and tried to collect her scattered wits.
“No fainting, Harriett. I cannot manage two bodies at once.”
When her friend let out a curdled moan, Emma took her by the elbow and steered her to a pew. “Put your head down and breathe slowly, dear. You’ll feel better in a moment.”
Biddable girl that she was, Harriet sank into the pew and rested her bonneted head on her knees. Emma was very fond of her young friend, but Harriet often displayed an unfortunate excess of emotion when distressed, as well as a tendency to faint. Neither characteristic was welcome, under the circumstances.
With Harriet sorted for the moment, Emma could gather her thoughts and determine what must be done next. As mistress of Hartfield, her father’s manor house, and now Donwell Abbey since her marriage to George, she was used to making decisions. Still, while Emma generally trusted her judgment and intellect, a dead Mrs. Elton was a challenge that taxed even her ability to think clearly.
She glanced around the church—a cool, silent refuge on a bright summer’s day. Or, at least it would have been a refuge without a corpse lying in the middle of it.
Yet, she saw no other signs of disturbance. All was as it should be on a quiet Saturday, the day she and Harriet always brought flowers from Hartfield’s gardens to refresh the floral arrangements for Sunday services. As usual, the caretaker had left the main door in the south porch unlocked for them. Emma doubted anyone else was expected in the church, and certainly not Mrs. Elton. The vicar’s wife only set foot in the place for the Sunday service or the rare meeting of the altar guild, where decisions were made about the state of the linens and vestments. Even then, she usually left the details to others, deeming such tasks beneath a woman of her dignity. It had been so since her arrival in Highbury as Philip Elton’s bride early last year. Mrs. Elton had possessed a highly elevated sense of superiority, and so had believed that parish business was merely an irritation best ignored.
So why was she here on a Saturday afternoon, and who could have possibly…
Emma finally allowed that horrible thought to fully sink in. She dearly hoped she was wrong, but only a fool wouldn’t consider the possibility of foul play, given the odd disposition of the body and the distressing amount of blood. Perhaps she was overly imaginative, though. George had accused her of that particular flaw more than once in the past, and with some degree of merit, she was sorry to say.
She pressed a hand to her forehead, trying to think. Should she send for Mr. Elton? While this was his church, seeing his wife in so dreadful a state would be too great a shock. He might even descend into hysterics, and Emma was quite certain she couldn’t manage Mr. Elton in a state of hysteria. Managing Harriet was challenge enough.
You need George.
Emma’s still-racing heart started to settle. Her husband was the most intelligent and level headed person she’d ever met, and he always knew exactly how to proceed. As the local magistrate George would be responsible for managing this horrid situation, including breaking the news to Mr. Elton.
With that decision made, her mind turned in a more orderly direction. Death had come to their quiet corner of Surrey, and in a most unexpected fashion. It would be up to Mr. and Mrs. Knightley, as the first family of the parish, to see that all legal and social matters were conducted with as much care and delicacy as possible. The residents of Highbury would depend upon them for guidance and support, and Emma was determined not to fail them.
Looking away from the body because, really, it was easier to think without Mrs. Elton’s hideously blank gaze staring up at her, Emma turned to her friend.
“Harriet, are you feeling better? Do you think you might be able to exert yourself?”
With a shuddering breath, the girl pulled herself upright, her normally placid features taut with distress. Even though Mrs. Elton had always been rather cruel to her, Harriet possessed a sensitive nature easily overpowered by such a scene.
Mrs. Elton’s unkind behavior had stemmed from the fact that Harriet had been in love with the vicar whilst he was still a bachelor. Once apprised of that fact by her new husband—a most uncharitable deed, as far as Emma was concerned—Mrs. Elton had never passed up an opportunity to snub the poor girl. But kindhearted Harriet had rarely held it against her tormenter, which was a tribute to her sweet temperament.
Emma was forced to admit that she was neither as sweet nor as sensitive as Harriet, since she was already getting used to the fact that they’d stumbled upon a bloody corpse.
“But Miss Woodhouse…I mean, Mrs. Knightley,” Harriet said, her voice breathy with distress. “What is to be done?”
“First, we must fetch Mr. Knightley. He will take charge of this unfortunate scene.”
“Of course,” Harriet replied with immediate relief. “Mr. Knightley always knows what to do.”
Emma gave her an encouraging smile. “He is the magistrate, after all.”
“Should we fetch Robert, too? He would be happy to help.”
“We should leave that decision up to Mr. Knightley, dear.”
Harriet looked disappointed. No doubt she was longing for her husband’s support. And while Robert Martin was a very sensible young man and Donwell Abbey’s best tenant farmer, Emma was reluctant to involve others without her husband’s knowledge—especially if foul play had been involved.
“But we should fetch Dr. Hughes as well,” Emma added.
Harriet blinked. “But you said Mrs. Elton was…” She swallowed. “Dead. How can Dr. Hughes be of any help?”
Emma repressed an impulse to sigh and reminded herself that Harriet was still very rattled. “Dr. Hughes will know what to do with the…er, Mrs. Elton, since he is also our local coroner.”
She didn’t know Dr. Hughes very well, because her family had always relied on Mr. Perry, the village apothecary, for their doctoring. But George had consulted with Highbury’s physician on a few legal matters over the years when a coroner’s opinion was needed.
“Would it not be better to fetch Mr. Perry?” Harriet asked. “That’s who Mr. Elton always relied on for health matters, I think.”
“The coroner will need to determine the cause of death.”
Harriet frowned, obviously confused. “Surely she must have slipped on the steps and hit her head.”
Emma turned again to peruse the body, ignoring the squeamish sensation in the pit of her stomach. “If Mrs. Elton simply slipped, she might certainly have received a nasty knock to the head. But a fatal injury? I think not.”
The fact that Mrs. Elton’s neck was at such an angle seemed too odd for a simple slip and fall on the chancel steps. She also looked quite disheveled, and for all her bad sartorial taste she would never dream of stepping out her door without every frivolous bow and too-large button firmly in place.
Emma frowned and took a step forward to get a closer look. Mrs. Elton was garbed in a bright blue gown and matching spencer, the top button undone so her neck was partially exposed. Normally, the woman wore a necklace or some sort of choker, but today her throat was bare.
She crouched down a bit. “Are those marks on her neck?” she asked, more to herself than to Harriet.
Her friend crept up beside her. “What did you say, Mrs. Knightley?”
Emma pointed. “Look at her throat, Harriet.”
She hadn’t initially noticed any bruises there, but now the marks were quite evident on a closer inspection.
Harriet clutched Emma’s arm. “Why would she have bruises on her throat?”
“Mrs. Elton usually wore a necklace. Perhaps someone took it and injured her in the process.”
“Mrs. Knightley, I do think I’m about to be sick!”
“You most certainly will not,” Emma said in a firm voice. “We have too much to do.”
She took Harriet by the arm and steered her back down the nave.
“Harriet, you need to find Dr. Hughes and tell him to come to the church. Then, go to the Crown Inn and ask one of the stables boys to run for Mr. Knightley. Simply say that I need to see my husband as soon as possible on a matter of urgent church business.”
“But what do I tell Dr. Hughes?”
“Simply say there’s been an accident, and that he’s needed at the church immediately.”
“So you do think it’s an accident?” Harriet asked in a hopeful voice.
Emma hesitated. “I don’t know, Harriet.”
In the past, she’d too-often let her imagination run away with her. It had resulted in a number of unhappy misunderstandings, including the belief that Mr. Elton returned Harriet’s affections. But in this fraught situation, she was determined to rely on reason over imagination. After all, what did she know about murder? There might be a perfectly rational explanation for Mrs. Elton’s unfortunate demise.
Firmly ignoring her mind’s efforts to conjure up lurid scenarios, she escorted Harriet to the vestibule. The door was still open, and sunlight streamed into the old stone porch that sheltered the entrance. Birds flitted between the majestic oaks that stood guard over the tombstones in the graveyard, and a marbled white butterfly danced past, landing on a lavender bush. Outside, all appeared ordinary and peaceful in Highbury.
For a moment, she was tempted to march out of the church and into the sunlight. Inside lurked a nightmare, and a hideous intrusion into the tranquility of daily life. If she tried very hard, perhaps she could pretend it hadn’t happened at all. Pretend that Mrs. Elton was alive and well, her usual supercilious self, snubbing Emma the first chance she got.
“Mrs. Knightley? Are you unwell?” Harriet asked.
Emma had never thought of herself as a coward or someone unequal to dealing with even the most vexing of challenges, including a possible murder. She would indulge in a bout of nerves later, alone in the privacy of her bedroom.
“I’m well, Harriet. Now, you’d best be off. First to Dr. Hughes, and then to the Crown.”
Harriet nodded and started down the path toward the street. Then she stopped and spun around.
“But Mrs. Knightley, what are you going to do while I’m gone?” Her eyes had grown as round as tea saucers. “Surely you cannot stay here by yourself, with the…with Mrs. Elton.”
“I cannot leave her alone, Harriet.”
Harriet rushed back and grabbed Emma’s hands. “But you cannot! It would be simply too dreadful.”
While Emma did not relish the notion of sitting alone with a corpse—possibly a murdered one at that—she knew George would wish her to keep people out of the church until he arrived. Besides, if Mr. Elton were to come, she must try to prevent him from entering. He must not be allowed to see his wife without adequate preparation.
“Harriet, you must calm yourself. I’ll be perfectly fine.”
Of course, her robust imagination chose that exact moment to cast up images of desperate villains lurking in the vestry or the bell tower, waiting to pounce on the next unsuspecting victim.
“But surely Mr. Knightley would be shocked if I left you alone,” Harriet exclaimed.
“He would be even more shocked if we left poor Mrs. Elton alone. Truly, Harriet, there is no need to worry about me.”
Her friend adopted an uncharacteristically stubborn attitude. “No, I cannot leave you, Mrs. Knightley. If you can be brave, then I will be brave, too.”
Emma repressed a flare of impatience. “That’s very kind, but one of us must go and fetch help. And I must remain here, just in case Mr. Elton comes by.”
“I forgot about Mr. Elton.” Harriet fell to wringing her hands. “Poor Mr. Elton. Whatever will he do when he finds out?”
“You’re not to think of that now. I am relying on you, Harriet, as no doubt will Mr. Elton. We must do everything in our power to help him in this dreadful situation.”
Harriet gave her a tremulous smile. “You’re right, Mrs. Knightley. You are always right. I will run to the Crown—”
“No, go to Dr. Hughes first, and no running. You must be calm. We do not wish to raise the alarm, at least not just yet.”
Harriet turned to go, but then spun around again. “But what if something dreadful and evil did happen to Mrs. Elton? And what if a dreadful person is still lurking about?”
“Really, Harriet, your imagination is even worse than mine. If there was foul play, I’m sure the perpetrator is long gone by now.”
“I promise to stand just at the door, right here. If I see or hear anything to alarm me, I will rush off immediately.” She turned Harriet and gave her a gentle shove. “Now, please go. We’re wasting time.”
“Yes, yes. You’re right.”
Harriet took off down the path, her skirt and petticoat flying.
“No running, dear,” Emma called after her.
Harriet, oblivious, pelted out to the street.
“Drat,” Emma muttered.
Well, it was a very warm day, so she could only hope the street would be quite deserted, and that Harriet wouldn’t bump into Miss Bates.
Miss Bates and her elderly mother lived in a small set of apartments overlooking the high street. And although she was a dear and kind woman, Miss Bates relished nothing so much as sharing news and gossip as widely as possible. If she were to get wind of this hideous situation, half the village would know of it within minutes and no doubt descend upon the church.
While she pondered that alarming thought, Emma stood in the doorway of the porch, diligent to her word to remain out of harm’s way. But as the minutes crept by, she found it almost impossible to remain still. Too many questions troubled her. Why had Mrs. Elton come to the church? How could she possibly slip and fatally injure herself? The chancel steps were shallow and covered in a sturdy red carpet. Mrs. Elton was not infirm to any degree, nor was she particularly clumsy. And how could a simple fall account for those marks on her neck?
As abhorrent as the idea might be, she had to acknowledge the likelihood that Mrs. Elton had met with foul play. But from whom and why? Had she arranged to meet someone and fallen into some sort of dispute? But, really, what sort of dispute could lead to her murder? While generally disliked by the locals, she was the vicar’s wife. And while Emma had no patience for Mr. Elton—he’d made an exceedingly forward marriage proposal to her the Christmas before last, and had responded quite nastily when she’d refused him—the vicar was a well-regarded man. As far she knew, he had no enemies.
When she glanced toward the street, there was no sign of anyone. George was likely at his estate at this time of day, so no doubt it would take time to fetch him. But unless Dr. Hughes was out on a call, Harriet should be returning with him very soon.
Growing a trifle bored, which showed an unfortunate lack of sensibility on her part, Emma stepped back into the church. Surely there could be no harm in seeking respite from the hot sun. Even if Mrs. Elton had been murdered, the perpetrator was certainly long gone, leaving a mystery that George would be called upon to manage and help solve. Her husband already had so many responsibilities. Donwell Abbey, the Knightley family seat, greatly occupied his time, and there were also his duties as magistrate. George was so busy that sometimes Emma barely saw him until they sat down to dinner at Hartfield.
And now this murder in the church would cause a terrible uproar in their village. Vulgar speculation would abound, along with a degree of hysteria that would make life more difficult for Emma’s already overworked husband.
When it came down to it, Mrs. Elton was proving to be just as difficult in death as in life.
Emma mentally winced, ashamed to hold such an ugly thought. It wasn’t Mrs. Elton’s fault that she was now an undignified heap on the steps of the chancel. After suffering such a terrible death, to be left alone on a cold stone floor seemed an additional insult.
She squared her shoulders, refusing to lurk like a frightened rabbit at the back of the church. Although she and Mrs. Elton had cordially despised each other, the least she could do was keep watch over the unfortunate woman’s corpse until George and the doctor arrived.
Marching up the aisle, she came to a halt by the body. Mrs. Elton’s face had turned a mottled shade of gray, and her lips a ghastly shade of blue. As for her eyes…
Sinking down into the nearest pew, Emma struggled to catch her breath. Mrs. Elton’s eyes seemed to bulge from their sockets in a fixed glare, as if she were tremendously offended. Since Mrs. Elton had been a woman who had been frequently offended in life, Emma supposed it was only natural that she would feel equally put out to meet such an undignified end.
Still grappling with a sense of disbelief, she glanced around their pretty little church. Questions and secrets lingered in the air like dust motes in a sunbeam. Her gaze alighted on the stained glass window on the south side of the church with its commanding depiction of St. Michael, a sword of justice in one hand and the scales on which to weigh souls in the other. It was an ironic counterpoint to the scene in front of her, and she couldn’t help thinking that the archangel looked almost as offended as poor Mrs. Elton.
If only he could speak.
Had Mrs. Elton simply been unlucky and encountered a thief? Yet nothing seemed to be missing. The large brass candlesticks were still on the altar, and the linens were undisturbed. Of course, a thief could have gone into the vestry, where the cupboards contained some excellent silver, including an antique chalice and paten.
Emma rose and headed up the steps onto the chancel. She could at least take a quick peek into the vestry and ascertain if anything was missing.
She stopped when, from her left, came the sound of a quick footstep and then a door clicking shut. It was the vestry door, the only other entrance to the church. She froze on the top step, trying to think over the pounding of her heart. Was her overwrought mind playing tricks on her? Because if not, it meant that someone had indeed been in the vestry, possibly for the entire time she’d been in the church.
Glancing behind her down the nave, she recalled her promise to Harriet. At the first sign of trouble, she was to leave the church immediately. Hesitating, though, she strained her ears. A deep silence once more settled over the church.
Nothing ventured, Emma.
Ignoring the warning voice in her head—which sounded remarkably like her husband’s—she hurried up to the altar and grabbed one of the brass candlesticks. It was so heavy that she almost dropped it. Still, it might make for an effective weapon, if need be.
She fervently hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
Creeping across the remaining distance to the vestry, she darted a look inside the room.
It was empty, and the door leading outside was half-open. The latch had obviously not caught. Mr. Elton had complained more than once about the faulty latch that needed to be repaired.
Emma hurried across to the door. It opened onto a gravel path that led around the back of the church to the lych gate. That gate was now swinging in the gentle breeze. She rushed over to it, but there was no one in sight. The graveyard was deserted, as was the path that led out to the street.
After a brief internal debate, she decided it was pointless to attempt a pursuit. Whoever had been hiding had too great a start on her, and had no doubt already disappeared. Besides, rushing down the street brandishing a candlestick would certainly attract just the sort of notice she was trying to avoid.
Turning back, she caught a flutter of white fabric in the grass by the gate. Frowning, she stooped to pick it up. It was a fine handkerchief made of lawn and edged with a particularly elegant stitch. It obviously belonged to a woman, and Emma had the feeling she’d seen the handkerchief before, or at least one with a similar sort of handiwork. She closed her eyes for a moment, pursuing the elusive wisp of memory that floated just beyond her grasp.
With a mental shrug, she finally opened her eyes and tucked the handkerchief into her sleeve. She’d give it a more thorough inspection later.
Returning to the vestry, a quick check showed that nothing was disturbed, and the cupboards were intact and locked.
As Emma went into the chancel to replace the candlestick, her gaze fell on its partner. It was not in its usual place, appearing to have been shoved to the altar’s edge, almost against the back wall. She reached out to move it back into position. Just as she was about to wrap her fingers around the shaft, she jerked back, almost losing her balance. She caught herself and then leaned a steadying hand on the altar. Stretching up a bit, she peered at the candle plate at the top of the shaft.
And horror swept through her. She recoiled, breathing hard against the lurch of her stomach.
Blood smeared, as if someone had hastily tried to wipe it off the candlestick. Any lingering doubts were now removed. Any question that Mrs. Elton had indeed been murdered was gone, now that Emma had found what was obviously the murder weapon.
Sickened, she made her way back to the nave. For several moments, she concentrated on taking slow, steady breaths to bring her erratic heartbeat under control. Once more she forced herself to look at the crumpled body on the chancel steps. Beyond the terrible sadness in her breast, Emma felt a growing sense of outrage. To come to such a horrible end, and before the altar of her husband’s church…
Mrs. Elton’s murder cried out for justice.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “You did not deserve such a cruel fate.”
At the sudden sound of a quick, hard bootstep, she nearly jumped out of her skin.
“Good God, what’s happened?” Her husband’s long stride ate up the length of the nave. “My Emma, are you all right?”
When George opened his arms, she flung herself into the safety of his encompassing embrace. Tears threatened, but she blinked them away. Her husband was here, and she was perfectly safe. Crying would only worry him. Worse yet, they would waste his time when there were far more important matters at hand.
Like finding a killer.
She pulled back but kept her hands braced on his forearms. His tall, masculine presence and his quiet strength chased away ghosts and fears, bringing reason and comfort in their wake. George would manage everything. Of that, Emma had no doubt.
“I’m perfectly fine,” she said, as calmly as she could manage. “You mustn’t worry about me. But, George, Mrs. Elton…how positively dreadful.”
He let her go and crouched down beside Mrs. Elton, studying the body for several minutes while Emma impatiently waited. Then he rose and turned to her, his features grimly set.
“This cannot be simply an unfortunate accident,” he said. “Far too much blood, among other things.”
“Yes, the marks on her neck, too, as if someone tried to…”
Throttle her, Emma didn’t say. It was the first time she’d formed that specific thought in her mind. To put one’s hands around a woman’s throat, squeezing hard enough to leave bruises? It was an image too horrifying to contemplate.
When George briefly cupped her cheek, the warmth of his palm brought her back to herself.
“Try not to think about it,” he said. “At this point, we don’t know what happened.”
Emma did know, at least in part, but she simply nodded.
“Harriet was to join you today,” he added. “Was she here when you discovered the body?”
“Yes. She was quite overcome.”
“One would imagine so.” A faint smile briefly lifted the corners of his mouth. “Not you, though.”
“It would hardly help Mrs. Elton if both of us were to succumb to the vapors.”
“I presume it was Harriet who sent that boy from the Crown to fetch me.”
“Yes, and I also sent her to find Dr. Hughes. I cannot imagine what’s keeping her, though. It was shortly after two by the tower clock when we found Mrs. Elton.”
His dark eyebrows shot up. “You’ve been here by yourself for half an hour?”
“Not that long, because it took me some minutes to calm Harriet down and convey the proper instructions.”
“It was wise to send for Dr. Hughes instead of Mr. Perry.”
She shrugged. “There was nothing Mr. Perry could do and Dr. Hughes is the coroner, after all.”
“Yes, and as such I would have been required to send for him immediately.” George checked his pocket watch. “Hughes must be visiting a patient, or else he’d be here by now.”
“And Harriet must have gone there after him.”
Her husband looked dubious. “I trust you impressed upon her the need to be discreet and cautious.”
“I did, although she was very rattled. But since neither Miss Bates nor anyone else has descended upon us, we can assume that Harriet has so far managed to keep what she has seen to herself. You were at Donwell, I take it?”
“I was walking back to Hartfield when the boy found me.”
She suddenly gasped and pressed a hand to his chest. “You didn’t stop at Hartfield, did you? Please tell me the boy didn’t stop there first.”
Her father was a kind but fretful man who greatly depended on Emma for his daily comfort and peace. Any sort of upset or change, even a minor one, was enough to cut up his nerves and bring on a bout of ill health. George, unwilling to cause her father any distress, had therefore moved into Hartfield after their marriage. Since her father loved George like a son, he had gratefully welcomed him into their home rather than losing his daughter to Donwell.
Because her father remained fretful and easily overset, Emma dreaded the deleterious impact the murder of someone he knew would have on his health.
“The boy bypassed Hartfield and took the way to Donwell,” her husband replied. “Your father knows nothing. Of course, it will be difficult breaking the news to him, but we cannot worry about that now.”
She gathered herself. “You’re right. We cannot leave Mrs. Elton here all day, and there is Mr. Elton to consider as well.”
“Hughes will take charge of the body and conduct a proper examination, and I’ll break the news to Elton.” Then he frowned. “Emma, why didn’t you wait outside? I cannot be happy that you stayed in here by yourself.”
She spread her hands wide. “I couldn’t leave her alone, George. It just didn’t seem right. Besides, I was perfectly safe.”
Or perhaps not.
“I trust you saw or heard no one else the entire time?”
When she hesitated a second, alarm flared in his dark gaze and he took a step closer. “Emma, what aren’t you telling me?”
“I must show you something.”
She led him to the altar and pointed to the blood-smeared candlestick. George leaned in to inspect it. Then he quickly pulled a handkerchief from an inside pocket and wrapped it around the base, picking it up for a closer look.
“I think that must be…” Emma wriggled a hand.
“The murder weapon?” George starkly replied.
“That seems quite clear.”
He carefully put the candlestick back down. “Did you hear or see anything else that gave you pause?”
“Beside the corpse lying on the chancel steps?”
Her husband sighed. Emma’s sense of the absurd sometimes surfaced at inappropriate times, a habit she couldn’t seem to break. Fortunately, George rarely held it against her.
“I did hear something,” she admitted. “I believe there was someone in the vestry.”
For a moment, he gaped at her. “While you were in the church?”
“Of course, George. How else could I have heard the noise?”
“Good God, Emma.” He grimaced. “What did you do then?”
“I went to see who it was.”
He took a hasty step forward, looking horrified. “Did it not occur to you that it was very likely the person who murdered Mrs. Elton?”
“Of course it did. That’s why I took the other candlestick, in case I had to defend myself. A good thing, too, because when I put it back I noticed the blood on the other one.”
George was apparently struck speechless, an unusual state for him.
“Truly, dearest, I was perfectly safe,” she earnestly added. “The sound I heard was someone leaving the vestry, which I thought quite odd. Why would a murderer hang about here instead of leaving right away?”
“I can think of one reason,” he tersely replied.
Instead of answering, he turned on his heel and stalked off to the vestry. Emma followed, unsurprised that he was upset. The lives of the Knightley and Woodhouse families had been intertwined for as long as she could remember, and George had been watching over her since she was a little girl. The notion that she might have been in danger would be bound to cause him dismay.
“I’m quite certain that nothing has been taken,” she said as he prowled around the room. “And the cupboards are still locked. I thought at first Mrs. Elton might have surprised a thief, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.”
“It’s too early to speculate.” He took her by the elbow and steered her back to the chancel.
“I do wonder where Harriet is,” she said. “She should have been—”
Harriet suddenly burst into the church. She was flustered and red-faced, with her bonnet hanging by its ribbons from her neck.
“Mrs. Knightley, Dr. Hughes will come as soon as he can, but I just saw Mr. Elton on the street. He asked me if I was going to the church to attend to the flowers. I didn’t know what to say. I…I just picked up my skirts and ran here to tell you. He was coming right behind me.”
Emma led her to a pew. “Sit and rest, Harriet. Mr. Knightley will attend to Mr. Elton.”
George was already striding down the nave to intercept the vicar. He stopped when Mr. Elton hurried into the church, looking both puzzled and harassed.
“Mr. Knightley,” he exclaimed, “what are you doing here? I just saw Mrs. Martin in the street, and she was acting in a most irregular fashion.”
“Oh, no,” Harriet whimpered.
Both taller and more broad-shouldered than the vicar, George tried to block his view of the body. “Mr. Elton, why don’t we step outside? There is something I must tell you.”
“Why can you not tell me here?” Mr. Elton replied with a frown. He leaned left, and his gaze darted toward Emma and Harriet. “This is my church, and I insist—”
He broke off, his eyes widening with horror and disbelief as he spotted the body. “Augusta? Is that my Augusta?”
George placed his hands on the vicar’s shoulders. “My dear Philip, if you would step out—”
Mr. Elton barged past him, almost tripping in his rush to the chancel steps. He stared down at his wife for a few seconds and then dropped to his knees.
“Augusta, Augusta,” he moaned as he rocked back and forth. “What has happened to you?”
When he clutched at his wife’s hands, looking like he would throw himself onto the body, George strode forward.
“Come, Mr. Elton.” He took him by the arm and more or less hoisted him up. “It would be best to leave her until Dr. Hughes arrives.”
“No, I will not! Not till I know how this could be!”
When George cast her a glance, Emma joined them.
“Come, Mr. Elton,” she said, touching his arm. “Why don’t you sit with me in one of the pews? Dr. Hughes should be here—”
Mr. Elton suddenly turned and threw himself upon her, exploding into sobs. Naturally, Emma wished to make allowances for the poor man’s shock, but having a distraught vicar hanging about her neck was decidedly awkward.
Gingerly patting his back, Emma cast an imploring gaze at her husband, who was looking rather stunned.
“Help,” she mouthed.
He sprang into action, gently pulling the vicar away from her. “Come, sir. Please sit down. Dr. Hughes will be here shortly to attend to your wife.”
Mr. Elton subsided into a pew and pulled out his kerchief with trembling hands. He blotted his cheeks as he gave Emma a woebegone look.
“Dear Mrs. Knightley,” he quavered. “Please forgive my outburst. But to see my poor Augusta like that…how can this possibly be?”
He buried his face into his kerchief and wept.
“Dear sir, please think nothing of it.” She straightened her mangled bodice and then sidled up to her husband. “Perhaps Mr. Elton should wait outside for Dr. Hughes. This is far too distressing a scene for him.”
George nodded and again helped Mr. Elton to his feet. He guided him down the aisle, speaking in calm, comforting tones as he led the vicar outside.
Harriet gazed after them, looking quite woebegone herself. “Mrs. Knightley, I do not understand any of this. Who would wish Mrs. Elton dead?”
Emma pondered her friend’s question for several moments. Mrs. Elton was possibly the most disliked person in Highbury. More than a few residents could barely stand to be in her presence—Emma being one of them.
So it seemed to her that Harriet was asking the wrong question. There were a number of people who might wish Mrs. Elton ill, or even dead. The correction question therefore was, who would actually perform the foul deed of murder?