The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 9

I stared dumbly at her stricken face, the words of the passage echoing through my head. Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister…How fair is thy love, my sister… Now it had a horribly sinister ring. Henry had used words from the Bible to charm a forbidden woman who was, indeed, his sister by marriage. And she had left it in a place where her own daughter might have discovered it. A spasm of recall brought back the postscript of Elizabeth’s letter to Fanny: Remind him to read his Bible every day. Was that some sort of coded message to Henry? Could she really have thought of using her child in that way?

The chinking of glass pierced the black silence. Jane’s hand was on the decanter, shaking violently as she pulled out the stopper. No sooner had she got it out than she thrust it back in and slumped forward onto the open book, cradling her head in the crook of her elbow. Instinctively I ran to her but my hands froze in mid-air. I stood there like a thing made of stone, afraid to touch her; at a loss for what to say. I gave up a terse, voiceless prayer for the right words to come.

‘Jane, please,’ I began, ‘it might not be what you think.’ I hesitated, unable to think of any innocent explanation for what she had found in the card case. Jane let out a low moan, like an animal in pain. I cursed Henry, cursed Elizabeth, for bringing her so low, for ruining everything. And then I cursed myself for my selfishness, for thinking even fleetingly of my own happiness when she was wretched.

‘It could be nothing,’ I tried. ‘You know what Henry is like; how he loves to perform. Why, only last week he was reading Shakespeare to us all in the library. I expect he copies all manner of texts for evenings of that sort: what if this was something he left lying about the place? Perhaps she found it one evening when she was playing cards and tucked it away without a second thought. Have you considered that?’

I didn’t think I could believe this but I hoped it might convince her. She raised her head an inch or two from the table and I dropped down beside her so that my eyes were level with hers. I could see that she wanted to grasp this straw that I had cast upon the water; that she was desperate to restore Henry to the cherished place he held in her heart.

‘Do you…’ she faltered, her lower lip trembling. She bit down on it then tried again: ‘Do you really think that is possible?’ I could not look into her eyes as I replied that yes, it was entirely possible. ‘But there have been other things; other times when I have thought that all was not…as it should be. You have been living in that house for more than a twelvemonth: have you never seen anything that made you…wonder?’ She sucked in her breath and I wondered what was coming. ‘That night of the ball, when I saw you near the stairs…you saw something then, didn’t you?’

The ghost had chased me all the way from Godmersham; it was hovering between us, demanding recognition. I rose to my feet, avoiding Jane’s gaze, for I couldn’t, wouldn’t, tell an outright lie. The fire spat out a glowing cinder as a cold draught blew across the room.

Where is everybody? Have I missed dinner?’

I turned to see Mrs Austen, her cap slightly awry and a shawl draped over her nightclothes, standing in the doorway with a puzzled look on her face.

The next day was Sunday. Fanny and I awoke to the sound of pealing bells competing with the cries of the seagulls. Jane did not come down to breakfast and the first sight I had of her was when the whole household assembled for church.

She looked a little paler than usual but otherwise there was nothing amiss with her face. I had heard no sound from her room during the night save the soft tread of Cassandra, back very late from her visit to Miss Fielding. There was no knowing whether Jane had disclosed anything to her sister but I suspected that she had not: judging by the way she had rallied when her mother appeared at the door, I felt that her relatives were the last people she would wish to know of her discovery.

Elizabeth did not accompany the rest of the family and the servants to church. She kept to her bed, complaining of sickness. Edward said that the fish served at the Johnsons’ dinner table had disagreed with her but I couldn’t help wondering if she was in the early stages of another pregnancy.

The rain had cleared up, leaving Worthing basking in sunshine once again, and Fanny was cross about having to sit through a service when she might have been on the beach. As soon as it was over she ran to her father, tugging at his arm as we walked through the churchyard. She was clamouring for a final dip in the sea.

‘But it’s our last day, Papa!’ she grumbled when Edward suggested a walk to Herstmonceaux Castle instead. ‘I don’t want to go for a boring old walk! I can do that at home – but I can’t go in the sea at home, can I?’

‘What?’ Edward turned to his sisters with a grin. ‘She has a private stretch of river to swim in any day of the week and yet she pleads to splash about with hordes of unwashed strangers! What an odd little creature she is!’

I watched Jane’s face as she listened to her brother baiting Fanny. He was talking about turning the bathing house into an extra potting shed for the gardeners because it was so little used. Jane stooped to examine a gravestone, letting Edward and Fanny walk on. I wondered if she, too, had her suspicions about what had been going on in the bathing house of late.

‘Uncle Henry will be very cross if you give it to the gardeners, Papa!’ Fanny stuck out her bottom lip, determined not to be beaten. My heart missed a beat. Edward’s teasing smile had been replaced by a beady frown.

‘Oh! Uncle Henry will be cross, will he?’ he said, mocking his daughter’s childish lisp. ‘Pray, tell us, Fanny, why would that be?’

I glanced at Jane, wondering if she could hear the conversation from where she was standing. Cassandra and Mrs Austen were smiling at Fanny, waiting for her answer, clearly oblivious of the imminent danger.

‘Because he likes to go swimming in the river, of course!’ Fanny gave a theatrical sigh. ‘He took the boys in while you were at the Canterbury races and he goes in on his own nearly every day when he stays with us; I’ve seen him.’

‘Seen him?’ Edward’s eyebrows shot upwards. ‘I sincerely hope that you have not!’

‘Not seen him bathing, silly Papa! I’ve seen him going down the path: the one that leads to the river. And when he comes back his hair’s all wet, so I know that’s where he’s been. Anyway, he told me himself: he says he loves swimming more than anything.’

‘Does he indeed?’

I was relieved to see that Edward was smiling again. ‘More than fishing and shooting? I can’t believe it!’

‘It’s true, Papa!’ Fanny jabbed her father in the ribs. ‘Now can I go in the sea? Please!’

Edward grunted his assent with a playful swipe at Fanny’s head. Jane came noiselessly up the path behind us, casting me a brief smile as she caught up with her mother and sister. There was no chance to ask her how she did, for Fanny was in a state of high excitement, tripping over my skirts in her rush to get us all home and off to the beach.

The house was very quiet when we returned. A dread feeling overtook me as we entered it, for such was my state of mind after the events of the previous night that I imagined Elizabeth’s sickness was just a pretence; that Henry had ridden to Worthing and slipped into the house while we were all at church.

There was no sign of Elizabeth, or Henry, of course. She appeared a few minutes before we set off for the beach, saying that her sickness had passed and the fresh air would do her good. Edward fussed round her, organising all manner of comforts, and she spent the day stretched out on a deck chair, shaded by a huge parasol, while he sat at her feet like a slave.

Mrs Austen fell asleep in the sun with her bonnet over her face and Cassandra took her sketch-pad to the water’s edge to capture a pretty sailboat anchored a little way off. Fanny was asking her father for money for a bathing machine and once he had obliged, she skipped across to where Jane was unfolding a blanket, begging her to go in the sea. Jane looked across at me.

‘Oh, yes! You’ll come too!’ Fanny danced across the sand, seizing my arm and pulling me over to where Jane stood.

‘Fanny, you cannot order Miss Sharp to go in the sea!’

‘It’s all right,’ I laughed, ‘I watched Fanny swimming the other day and I thought I might like to try it.’

‘Very well,’ Jane smiled. ‘I hope you will not regret it. They say that the sea is warmer now than in summer but that is rather like saying Greenland is warmer than the North Pole.’ She glanced at her mother, who was snoring open-mouthed beneath her bonnet, revealing the cavernous gaps in her teeth. ‘I don’t think that Grandmama will mind not being invited: perhaps she will have caught a fish or two by the time we return.’

Female bathers were confined to a small stretch of the water at the westerly end of the beach. The bathing machines were clustered around a little hut behind the ropes that kept curious male eyes at a safe distance. Fanny raced ahead, eager to make the transaction with the attendant without any assistance from me or her aunt.

I glanced at Jane. This was my first opportunity to speak to her without being overheard. But she kept her head down, as if her mind was on nothing more than dodging the tangled heaps of seaweed that lay across our path.

‘I’m sorry I could not be of more use to you last night,’ I began. ‘It grieved me to see you go off to bed like that.’

‘No,’ she said, without looking up, ‘you helped enormously: you were the voice of sense, the voice of reason.’

This brought me up short. It seemed that she had decided to accept the flimsy explanation I had dreamed up. Her pace quickened as mine slowed. Her very gait conveyed an unwillingness to discuss the matter any further. I stumbled after her, catching up as we reached the bathing machines.

‘This is ours!’ Fanny cried, stretching out her arm to pat the nose of a chestnut mare with three white socks. ‘Her name is Clover and she likes sugar lumps, don’t you, Clover?’

Jane and I clambered into the bathing machine while Fanny bribed the horse. Soon we were bumping our way across the beach. Fanny would not sit down. As the wagon lurched into the water she started pulling off her clothes.

‘Come on, Aunt Jane! Come on, Miss Sharp! I’ll be in the sea hours before you if you don’t hurry up!’

‘The sea is not going anywhere,’ Jane replied, ‘and if you insist on stripping off while we’re still moving you are likely to acquire a most inelegant splinter.’

‘No, I won’t, for I shan’t sit down,’ Fanny grinned, casting off her petticoat with a flourish, ‘I shall ride into battle standing up, like Boadicea in her chariot!’ A moment later she had shed the last stitch of clothing, for those were the days when people still bathed naked in the sea.

‘Anna has a black feather down here.’ Fanny swept her hand across her thighs. ‘Aunt Mary forbade her from swimming in our river – that was mean, was it not?’

‘I am sure Aunt Mary had her reasons,’ I said, glancing at Jane.

‘Anna says the baby made her fat and grumpy and jealous.’ Fanny grabbed the side of the wagon as the horse came to a sudden halt.

‘Fanny! You really should not repeat such disrespectful…’ Before I could get the sentence out she leapt onto the ledge, lifted the canvas and jumped into the water.

Jane shrugged at me and kicked off her shoes. ‘It is a pity about Anna,’ she said. ‘Cass and I had the care of her when her mother died. We adored her, of course, but then James married Mary.’ These few words made her feelings quite plain. Jane was on Anna’s side: she did not like this new sister-in-law. I was anxious to know how she now felt about her other sister-in-law; whether she had decided to treat last night’s discovery as a mere misunderstanding. But I dared not ask.

‘Will you help me?’ She was on her feet, reaching for the buttons of her dress. As I fumbled with the tiny, muslin-covered things I felt ham-fisted. I could hear Fanny calling, urging us to hurry up, but she sounded very far away. A wave came and the wagon shuddered. For a second I clutched Jane to me, fearing we would both lose our balance. My face brushed her neck and I breathed in the scent of her skin and hair. Then the strangest sensation overtook me. Something slid through my belly like warm treacle down a spoon. I had never felt such a thing before. It was dizzying, bewildering and thrilling and I sensed that it was wrong; that it was not how I was supposed to feel. All I knew in that moment was that I felt connected to Jane in a way that I had never felt connected to anyone before.

Another wave rocked the little wagon. The horse gave a snort and pulled at its harness. I heard the woman talking to it, soft and low, as she might coax a sweetheart. The horse settled itself and the sea became calm. Jane smiled as she unpeeled my hands from her arms. The movement sent her dress slipping to the floor. I found myself staring at the white curves of her shoulders. She bid me turn around and I stood, still as a statue, feeling her breath on the back of my neck as her fingers undid my gown.

‘I know that you have something you want to tell me,’ she whispered. My skin tingled where she touched it. For a brief moment I thought she had read my mind. ‘If I seemed ungracious on the beach it was only because there was no time to talk properly. You mustn’t hold anything back out of loyalty to Elizabeth.’ She brushed aside a lock of my hair that had fallen in her way and I shivered as if someone had stepped upon my grave. ‘You are cold,’ she said. ‘Are you sure you want to go in the sea?’

‘I’m not cold – honestly,’ I replied, pulling my arms out of my sleeves.

She murmured something inaudible and I turned to see that she was pulling her shift over her head. She stood before me, quite unabashed. I suppose she was used to taking off her clothes in front of her sister but it was the first time that I had seen a woman naked and I fear it must have shown in my eyes.

‘Don’t be afraid,’ she said, mistaking the source of my unease. ‘There is nothing you can tell me that can make the misery any worse. Remember – you are not the one who has caused it.’

She stepped forward to help me out of my under clothes. Her face was very close to mine. For a second it was Henry that I saw. Jane must have felt me flinch. She said nothing but took my arm, leading me to the wagon’s edge. ‘Hold your breath,’ she said, ‘We’ll jump in together.’

Share your love