Miss Beckett Changes Her Mind: Chapter Three

Detective Superintendent Ernest Lilley, retired, received the sandwiches and tea from Josephine with a relieved nod and smile.

“That’s more like it, thank you, Miss Beckett. A decent sandwich and a good cup of tea. I daresay I’m old-fashioned but I don’t hold with all that fancy foreign stuff they serve nowadays at smart cocktail parties, and I do say, a good plain ham sandwich and a good strong cup of tea is just what anyone needs after a sad occasion like a funeral. And this is as sad an occasion as I’ve ever known.” He paused, and seeing Josephine bow her head, biting her lip to keep herself from breaking out weeping again, he patted her arm. He had daughters of his own, and even granddaughters now, and he knew how they took things to heart. “There, there, Dear, don’t take on. She was a fine, upstanding woman. A real lady, too. Refined, educated, but moral, very moral. And I don’t say we didn’t have our differences of opinion now and again, because we did, but her heart was in the right place and she was a true friend. And helped us out on no end of occasions.”

“Hear, hear!” said Frank Andrews. He drew up a chair to complete their little group in the corner, and Josephine, smiling through her tears, listened to anecdotes and reminiscences for the rest of the afternoon.

Another indifferent evening with Martin at the pictures left her feeling vaguely depressed as she got into bed that night. After the funeral and the long lunch she hadn’t really felt in the mood for a film, and would have preferred a quiet dinner followed perhaps by a walk, and an early night, but Martin was showing signs of temper and she didn’t feel up to pacifying his sulks all the evening, so in the end it was just easier to go along with his plans. Even so she had difficulty getting him to take her home at the time she wanted to go, so that by the time she slipped thankfully between the sheets in her own quiet room, it was almost midnight.

She lay there waiting for sleep to come, but her thoughts ran round and round her head, driving drowsiness away. She thought back over the day, and felt that the bright points had been the kindness of her great aunt’s friends, the two policemen. Well, she corrected herself, the retired Superintendent and the Chief Inspector.

She had always known of course that her great aunt had been a detective—or as Auntie Maud herself had termed it, a private inquiry agent. Josephine had even, as a young girl, heard little snippets from her cases. But never, ever had she dreamed that the frail and elderly lady she remembered so well, so lovingly, had been so closely involved with such a wide variety of cases: some of them extremely dangerous.

Something Mr Andrews—Frank—had said now stood out in her mind. What had it been? She pondered for a moment then it came back to her. Ah yes. That was it.

“You know all those photos she had in her flat? Little silver and wooden frames all over the place?”

She had said she did. She recalled them now. Young couples, mainly, and babies. Lots of babies. The photos had seemed to crowd every surface.

“Those are photos of all the people she helped. All those young couples would never have been brought together if it had not been for your great aunt. It’s doubtful those babies would have ever been born if Maud Wentworth had not intervened in some case or other, or otherwise ensured a crime was detected, and a criminal unmasked so that those young people could have long and happy lives together.”

Josephine felt that she may have heard this a long time ago, but somehow she had forgotten it. As a child or adolescent, she had not stood there and seriously considered the full import of that information. All those people. And there were so many. Men and women, some older, but mostly about her own age or a few years older. All those lives that owed so much to her dear great aunt. She said to Frank, “I had forgotten. I think I thought they were pupils of hers from when she was a governess?”

“One or two were,” Frank had said, “even the Chief Constable of Ledshire was a former pupil and an old favourite of hers.”

“Glass-fronted,” Ernest Lilley had said at this point. “It was as if she could look at someone and see right through them, she could see into their hearts and minds like no one else I ever knew. Many’s the time she come to me with something she’d discovered, something we police had no chance of ever finding out. I realise now I didn’t always appreciate her help. She could turn around an investigation I was about to close with one of her little bits of information she picked up discussing knitting patterns, and that didn’t half put me on the spot sometimes. We won’t see her like again. She was a remarkable woman. Remarkable.”

All her life, Josephine had heard the stories, had seen the photos, but only now did she truly realise the significance of what they represented. There were dozens and dozens of those photos, she thought, remembering Auntie’s sitting room. On the mantelpiece, on little tables, on shelves.

Could Auntie Maud have possibly helped so many people?

“And me,” Josephine thought to herself drowsily. “She helped me too, and the boys of course. But it was she who encouraged me to go to college. It was she who encouraged me to begin my training as a teacher, even when Father said education was wasted on girls. Then there were all those little vests and jumpers and skirts she knitted for me. Only last year, she made me that lovely peach-coloured cardigan. She was a prolific knitter. And, it seems, an even more prolific solver of crimes. What a wonder she was.”

And having reached this happy conclusion, Josephine drifted off into sleep.

 

The next morning at ten o’clock precisely, Josephine met some of the closest members of her family at the office of Messrs Whitely, Cave and Stanton, solicitors. In addition to Josephine there was the youngest and dearest of her three brothers, Roger; her middle brother Derek and his wife Mavis, and her eldest brother John with his wife Barbara hanging onto his arm; and then there were the twin cousins, Edward and Christina, who were the elder son and daughter of Josephine’s uncle and aunt, Jim and Dorrie Wentworth. They were all there for the reading of the will of their great aunt Miss Maud Wentworth.

Mr Stanton, a cheerful little man, with his gentle but friendly tone seemed to Josephine more like a vicar than a solicitor. He gave them the main points quickly and in simple terms.

“Miss Wentworth’s jewellery, of which there are a few attractive pieces dating from an older style, is to be divided between each of the six nieces and nephews here today. Her best china tea-service is bequeathed to Mr John Beckett. Her pictures from the sitting room are left to Mr Derek Beckett, who was, I understand, particularly fond of The Stag At Bay. The personal papers contained in Miss Wentworth’s desk in the sitting room, she has left to Miss Josephine to sort and retain. She may make use of anything if she so wishes, Miss Wentworth’s only stipulation being that if there is anything Miss Beckett feels she does not wish to keep, that she should burn it.

“The flat itself is to be cleared for sale, and so anyone may take any items they would care to keep for their own use. Anything not wanted, along with the flat itself, is to be sold, with the proceeds of the sale being divided equally between the six nieces and nephews assembled here. There are a few small items left to your other cousins which I will personally attend to on behalf of the family.

“Miss Wentworth also originally made a number of further bequests; however, sadly only those to your aunt, Mrs Gladys Robinson, and to Mr and Mrs James Wentworth are still valid, due to the—er—the sad passing of the other legatees. Mrs Robinson is to receive a sum of £500, and the same amount is left to Mr and Mrs James Wentworth. I, of course, am only too happy to take care of those disbursements too.

“As to the rest, there are a few additional small legacies, and one or two small outstanding bills to be dealt with, and I’m happy to state that the residue of Miss Wentworth’s estate will also be divided between the six of you.”

At this point, John Beckett’s wife Barbara made a dainty little cough, indicating she wished to speak. Mr Stanton turned an enquiring glance in her direction.

“Yes, Mrs Beckett?”

She smiled the little self-deprecating smile that always made Josephine want to slap her, because if ever there was anyone to whom self-deprecation was a stranger it was Barbara Beckett. In Josephine’s opinion, the woman was a great stage-manager.

“Oh well, only, you know, I don’t want to be a nuisance or anything, but it did just cross my mind to wonder, you know…” She allowed her voice to trail away, and Mr Stanton asked again,

“Yes, madam? What can I do for you?”

“Well, just about the equal shares bit, really. I mean, Roger and Josephine, and of course Dear Ted have smaller calls on their resources. John and I have a home and two children to provide for, and of course, Dear Derek and cousin Tina also have their own homes although no children as yet.” She came to a halt once more, as if her point was obvious. To Josephine, at least, it was true that whatever her sister-in-law was trying to say, without actually saying anything, was indeed perfectly clear. However, Mr Stanton still appeared to be all at sea. Barbara went on to clarify her point, with a slightly embarrassed look, as if she didn’t feel it was very nice to be talking about money in this sordid manner. But having started she couldn’t very well back out now.

“I just wondered if it was perhaps a teeny bit unfair to only give the married people the same amount as those who are single and with no responsibilities. Shouldn’t our share be proportionally larger, you know, as it’s obviously got to go further?”

There. She’d said it. She looked around at those she was counting on to support her. She ignored Josephine whose cheeks flamed with embarrassment, and Roger who looked at the carpet, the tips of his ears bright red, and the twins who exchanged odd looks she couldn’t fathom. Instead she focussed on her husband’s brother and his wife, whom she knew would, as always, support her. She received a little smile and the briefest of nods from Derek and Dear Mavis. Bravo, Mavis seemed to be saying. And John proudly patted her hand, unseen by the rest of those in the room. Yes, Barbara thought. She had done her duty, and her husband was pleased.

Josephine glanced around her. No one said a word. Everyone was waiting to hear what the solicitor had to say. In cases such as this there really ought to be a large, old-fashioned clock, Josephine thought, that would tick loudly to mark the silence and discompose everyone. But there was nothing to be heard beyond some stifled traffic noises from outside. Mr Stanton seemed a little flustered by Mrs John’s question. No one spoke for a moment or two and Mr Stanton quickly composed a response in his mind. But it was Josephine who spoke.

“I—I don’t mind letting them have my share. It’s not as if I need a lot of money.”

Roger, standing beside her, stirred suddenly. “Don’t be so damned stupid, Jo.”

Before anyone else could respond, the solicitor cleared his throat and when they all looked at him, he said in kindly tones with just a hint of steel behind them, “I’m so sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but Miss Wentworth’s terms are very clear. Her assets are to be divided into six equal shares between the four Beckett and the two Wentworth siblings. I’m afraid no one is able to donate his or her share to anyone else, nor to ask anyone else to donate monies to themselves.”

There was a slight pause, and Josephine felt she detected a slight chill in the air. The solicitor continued, “Now I have here the keys to Miss Wentworth’s flat. I suggest you all decide on a convenient time to view the flat and its contents, and make arrangements to remove any items you wish to keep. Then I will make arrangements for the sale of the flat and any residual property.”

With some sulkiness, the two eldest Becketts and their wives agreed a time with the Wentworth twins, and Roger and Josephine, as expected, fell in line with these arrangements. The solicitor, feeling the interview had gone on long enough, stood up.

“Well, thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your time. Allow me once again to offer you my deepest…”

“And how much do you think our shares will amount to? Roughly, I mean…” Barbara asked.

Mr Stanton pressed his lips together very firmly before saying, “I should think each share will amount to approximately twenty-five thousand pounds. That is necessarily a conservative estimate, I believe it may be a little more than that once everything is finalised, but at the moment I can’t be more exact, I’m afraid.”

Josephine gasped and exchanged a look with Roger. The others merely nodded at each other, pleased, and left without further comment.

Josephine and Roger, and the twins, shook Mr Stanton’s hand and received his condolences in the proper spirit.

Once outside, the two youngest Becketts and the two Wentworths said their farewells—the Wentworths had to dash off to as Tina had to catch her train home. She had little ones and a husband to see to, and Ted was accompanying her to the station. Alone with Josephine, Roger suggested elevenses at a nearby tea-room, and Josephine, feeling as if she had gone through a terrible ordeal, was glad to agree.

***