In November of the year 1879, when my husband Charles was Captain and Adjutant of the Royal Engineers at Chatham, we were invited to spend the weekend with some friends, William and Eve Bontoft, at Billinghay, an old place of historic interest not far from Maidstone. We’d detected cracks in their marriage, so were pleasantly surprised to know all was presumably well. We drove over in our own carriage and the weather being cold and wintry we were glad of the warm bear rugs and robes we’d bought in Canada a few years previously.
Our breath misted in the air as our horse Blacklock made his way along the track leading to Billinghay Manor. We’d made good time, under three hours for the fifteen miles, but even with the thick rugs and blankets, the cold wintry weather was beginning to penetrate my bones.
“Come on, Blacklock,” called Charles, tugging on the horse’s reins, “afore we catch our deaths of cold.”
There was a thin crescent moon, low in the sky, and the stars were largely blotted out by ominous clouds, pregnant with snow. Blacklock’s clip-clop on the track into the village rang out into the hollow night like rifle shots. Apart from the occasional hoot of an owl, which made me jump, there was otherwise no sound in the suffocating darkness.
Distant church bells sounded six times as Blacklock pulled us into Billinghay but early as it was that winter evening the place seemed deserted. Save for a handful of candles burning in windows of dark, friendless houses there was no sign of a soul.
“Charles, I do believe I forgot to pack my toothbrush,” I said, my face flushing with embarrassment.
“Really, Sarah, how careless of you,” my husband admonished. “Well, perhaps William or Eve will be good enough to dispatch a servant to Maidstone in the morning to fetch you one. Unless they have a spare, of course.”
Blacklock blew through his nostrils, clouding the air, and pulled to a stop by two enormous gateposts carved in the shape of lions. A brass plaque above one lion’s head read Billinghay Manor. Above the other was a brass loop.
The horse stood panting as Charles got down from the carriage and pulled on the loop, doubtless sounding a bell somewhere in the great house, at present out of sight in the gloom.
“Well, Charles, I do believe it’s snowing,” I said, as white flakes began to blow around us. “I do hope we won’t have to wait long.”
As if in answer, there was the trot of a horse and the cheery sight of Saunders, the Bontofts’ faithful manservant, astride a giant chestnut beast. He jumped down to unlock the gate. “Good evenin’, Captain, good evenin’, Mrs Winterton. Looks like you got here just in time. This bloomin’ snow looks like it’s comin’ down in earnest. If you’ll just take your horse down to the stables, McCormack will look after him and unload your baggage. Mr Bontoft is lookin’ forward to seeing you very much.”
“Mr Bontoft?” I asked, wondering about Eve, but Saunders had already remounted and ridden off.
With the gate open, Blacklock pulled our carriage down the long drive in the swirling snow until we saw the cheerful lighted windows of Billinghay Manor.
We made ourselves comfortable in the bedroom and adjoining dressing room before heading down to dinner. William had greeted us profusely, but Eve was not with him, and he made no mention of her. It was somewhat embarrassing and neither of us felt bold enough to question him about her.
William sat at the head of the table, my husband at the other end, and I seated myself on one side, fractionally toward our host.
Saunders came around the table with a bottle of fine sherry, pouring it into our crystal goblets, whose facets reflected the light of the gas lamps like a kaleidoscope.
“To your good health,” said William.
“Cheers,” I replied, raising my glass toward him and taking a sip of the wonderful, syrupy nectar.
“Well,” exclaimed William, after some pleasantries, “no doubt you are wondering what has become of Eve?”
Charles and I exchanged glances. “Well, er, yes,” I said.
William put his glass down and his face took on a serious demeanour. “Alas, my dear wife has departed this earth.”
We both gasped.
“It was an unfortunate accident, last weekend.”
“What … what happened?” Charles let out.
William looked up at the ceiling. “It was a shooting accident. It is believed that Eve dropped her gun and by chance, it went off when it hit the ground.”
“Oh my God,” I exclaimed. “That’s awful.”
William took a sip of sherry. “Yes, it was a one-in-a-million chance that she would be fatally wounded by such a mishap. Saunders and McCormack were there. They told as much to the police.”
The door opened and Saunders appeared. “Cook is asking if you are ready for dinner to be served?”
William looked confused, and then his mind adjusted to the question. “Yes … yes, of course. Would you tell her twenty minutes? And bring the wine list for our guests if you would.”
When Saunders had gone, William fidgeted with his knife and fork. “Charles, Sarah, could I ask a favour?”
“But of course,” we said in unison.
“I would like to hold a vigil for my dear, departed wife. It is a week since the unfortunate … er, accident. I would be so happy if you would join me.” William stood up.
“What, now?” Charles asked.
“Yes, there are some overcoats in the rear hall, and candle holders too.”
Outside, the wind had died down and snow was falling heavily. The air was cold and black clouds filled the sky, seeming to press down upon us, three souls grasping candle holders, standing around a statue out there on the great, dark lawn.
The snow was settling on the grass now, a white blanket surrounding us, whilst heavy flakes dampened our overcoats and wetted my cheeks and eyelashes. I wondered why William had chosen this moment for the vigil. My candle fluttered within its glass enclosure, but the flame burnt bravely, throwing out a pool of yellow and gold. My eyes took in the statue, its white marble showing through a growing mantle of snow. It was a woman in a Greek or Roman style. In one hand she held up what looked like a piece of wood, and in the other, stretched forward, a dish of some kind. My heart missed a beat as I realised it was Clementia, the Roman goddess of forgiveness.
“What was that vigil all about?” asked Charles when we’d retired to our rooms after a sumptuous feast and half an hour of reminiscences about Eve.
“I don’t know. William’s story sounded odd to me. A gun going off like that. But if Saunders and McCormack witnessed it ….”
“If being the operative word ….”
For no reason, my fingers groped under my mattress and found a piece of folded paper. “Charles, look at this!”
He took it and read, “My dearest Will, I am so sorry for what I am about to do but as you know, since the miscarriage I have been tormented by demons of the mind and can no longer stand it. I will join the lost soul of our dear baby in Heaven. Forgive me. Your ever-loving wife, Eve.” Charles’s voice sounded tremulous, “We must show this to William at once!”
I took the paper from my husband’s hand and over to the flame of a candle in a sconce by the washbasin. “God bless William,” I said in a whisper. We watched as the message blazed like a firework. As the ashes fell into the sink, I turned the tap on to wash them away. “And God bless Eve.”