The only sound was the crunch of the pall-bearers' feet in the fresh snow. The small party of mourners around the waiting grave seemed to be holding their breath, and even the young priest, his cheeks glowing in the cold, appeared reluctant to break the silence.
All the color had gone.The graceful firs, those not huddling under a white blanket of their own, stood stark and black against the snow. The flowers left by dutiful relatives were long since buried, and the graves themselves were anonymous gentle humps.
With a sigh and a soft wet thud, a chunk of the white blanket slid off one of the sloping spruce branches, to be absorbed in the greater whiteness lying on the ground below.
As if it was the signal they had all been waiting for, the priest cleared his throat: "Im Namen des Vaters und des Sohnes und des Heiligen Geistes…”
His voice got no further. The expectant quiet was split apart by the bellow of a big engine, roaring invisibly towards them and stopping abruptly beyond the graveyard wall.
As the priest started again, he realized that he had lost his listeners. They were all looking more or less openly towards the gate, listening to the quick footsteps crunching towards it. There was a pause, during which the priest coughed sternly and started the service for the third time, and finally a figure came into sight through the gate. All in black, like those waiting, the stranger was glancing at a wristwatch on the arm that was going up to pull off the purple glitter-finish crash helmet.
The puzzlement in the mourners changed to outright surprise as the stranger shook her head and long golden hair cascaded down on to her shoulders.
Pretending to be unaware of the stir she had caused, she slipped into the little group around the grave gaping open like a raw brown wound, and appeared to concentrate entirely on the soothing words of the service. Most of the others in attendance, on the other hand, were still glancing surreptitiously at the outsider, their puzzled faces hinting at the questions in their minds. What they saw was a woman of about thirty, perhaps twenty-nine, thirty-one, with, for those closest to her, big green eyes. Her face was what one of the old women at the graveside was later to describe as 'pretty in a modem sort of way,' and what another, even older, was to call 'lovely bone shape, but spoiled with all that paint.' The rest of her was hidden in the glossy black leathers, so that any subsequent descriptions of her, over a warming glass of schnapps, were to be of the order of 'fairly tall, fairly slim.'
Glancing up from the open grave into which she had been staring, apparently lost in listening to the priest's closing words, the girl caught two of the women looking at her not only with the expected curiosity but also with a kind of sadness, a kind of fear. It was clear that it was not sorrow for the death they were all marking—and indeed no-one in the little group, herself included, was showing any outward grief— but rather a frightened wondering of where she fitted into the tragedy which had befallen their little community. It struck her at the same time that apart from herself and the five men to whom funerals were just a job, there was no-one present under the age of sixty.
The funeral was over. The girl remained standing for three long minutes, still staring down at the box which was so quickly and so finally disappearing under the shovelfuls of the bright brown clay, and by the time she looked up again she was alone.The other mourners appeared to have left almost at a run, as if there was something—she groped for an idea that would synthesize all the different hints she had felt—something unholy about this death and burial.
Not quite alone. Waiting halfway down the path which led back to the gate stood the young priest, a thick black cape over his vestments against the wind. Standing motionless, his face hidden inside the cowl, he looked like Death itself waiting to claim her.
"Balls,” she whispered to herself. "This place has given you the creeps."
She had reached the young clergyman, who held out his hand formally.
"You are of course the niece of the Professor Lenders. " he began in awkward English. "I am the father Nielsen, I was it who has called you."
"That was very kind."
"I am not quite know how – “
"If it would be easier for you..... " she interrupted quietly in fluent German.
"Danke schön. That's much easier. I wonder if I might talk to you for a moment. Perhaps I could offer you a cup of hot chocolate at the presbytery?"
The American woman was on the point of brusquely telling him to get through the platitudes out here so that they could both escape from the bitter wind and the gathering onslaught of snow, but something in the way he touched her arm and added "Please, just a few moments," stopped her.
"My car is just outside. Will you come with me, or follow on your own machine?"
“I’ll follow." Getaway machine.
The cough of the priest’s yellow Passat was instantly drowned in a deeper roar as she thumbed the starter button of the blue and silver BMW. The wheels sliding slightly under her, she pulled it round awkwardly, then followed the Volkswagen down the hill towards the village, both her booted feet off the footrests and dangling just above the ground.
The presbytery was one of the first houses in the village, and its living room was chintzy, overheated, and full of indoor plants.
"Here we are. After you. It's a bit warmer in here. Yes, put your helmet down there. May I hang up your jacket? This is a nice thick jacket. I suppose you need something so warm for such a fast motorcycle. I'll just go - er - sit - er - you sit down and I'll get - er - the chocolate, shall I?"
She smiled slightly. She had seen the stammering reaction before, although not for a long time. All she had done was straighten her shoulders from their hunched riding position, pull her sweater down tight and look down at herself approvingly, and the man of the cloth was as awkward as a teenager. Perhaps he was human after all.
He had evidently counted on her accepting his invitation, for there were two cups waiting neatly on the low coffee table. And two plates, and two cake forks: it was looking like a hallowed afternoon ritual, which she at once regretted agreeing to attend.There would be the murmurs of sympathy for the sudden death of her uncle, and the awed silences, broken by the admiring remarks about the lightness of the inevitable cake, and yes - just a little more whipped cream, just a little—and then another silence. It was going to be awful. Unless she could invent some pressing appointment back in Luxembourg. He'd see through that, surely? Too late...
“Here we are then, a nice cup of hot chocolate to drive away the cold. Sugar? Cream on top? Perhaps a slice of the Obsttorte, or would you prefer the Streusel? I can recommend them both, my housekeeper is a real talent."
It came to her abruptly that the role of the garrulous bachelor priest, old and fussy beyond his years and out of his depth this close to a sexually attractive woman, wasn't quite real, was overplayed. There was something else there, something that the role was supposed to disguise.