Canon Harrison lifted his hand to calm the small but hugely shocked congregation. “Please bear with us. There appears to be a slight problem.”
Harrison being a renowned master of understatement, the canon’s pronouncement did nothing to assuage anyone’s concerns. People had got onto their feet, craning their necks to see what was going on. The tenor who’d shouted out—now white as a sheet and being supported by a fellow choir member—opened and closed his mouth like a goldfish, although nothing emerged. Anybody might have reacted similarly had his fellow tenor suddenly retched all over his service book before falling down, especially since it looked like the man concerned was stone dead.
And, despite the second reading having related the story of Lazarus, there appeared to be no way Bert Talbot was coming back.
A local doctor among the congregation went up to the choir stalls, while everyone else was instructed to remain seated and keep calm. Not so easy to achieve, given that Mrs Talbot was wailing from her pew.
“He always said his heart would finish him! I thought he was making a fuss over nothing, as usual. He’s made himself quite ill the last few weeks, worrying about the moles attacking his precious lawn. Why didn’t I notice the signs, Mary?”
Her companion patted the newly widowed woman’s hand, making soothing noises. “Shh. There’s nothing you can do for him by blaming yourself. He’d have wanted you to be strong.”
Someone in the front pew asked Canon Harrison if she could fetch Mrs Talbot a drink of water, which was permitted, but a request from another parishioner that they be allowed to go home was turned down. An aside from the doctor, inaudible from the body of the abbey, had clearly changed the situation. Murmurs broke out once more in the congregation, low voices hinting at there being more to this than simple heart failure.
It took a cherubic boy alto—hardly a babe or suckling but the nearest thing to one present that evening—to articulate what everyone was thinking. “Coo. Dead as a dodo. Has Mr Stokes murdered him at last?”