The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 10

Istill see her as she was that day, her hair glittering with sea spray. She dived beneath the waves, as lithe and sleek as a fish, while I flailed about, not brave enough to follow. I waited agonising minutes then saw her body, pale and green, floating slowly to the surface. She burst from the water with a peal of laughter, beckoning me to swim with her to Fanny, who had already reached the rope at the boundary of the beach.

It was as if Jane had left her cares along with her clothes in the bathing machine. She seemed to have a knack of living in the moment, of shutting out the darkness. I was reminded of what Eliza had said about Henry: about his spirit being too bright to be dimmed for very long. Jane was different, though: she could flame like an ember in the bellows but could not sustain it. The darkness was never far away.

As for me, it was a day of pure joy. I suppose that I, too, was living in the moment, trying not to think of what must follow; for despite Jane’s reassuring words I feared that things would be very different when I opened my heart to her. While the water held my body I was free. I was not a skinny beanpole with hands like a man: I was a sea spirit. I was the companion of a mermaid. By ten o’clock the next morning Fanny and her parents had gone, taking Jane’s mother with them.

‘What a relief it will be to get back to Bath,’ Mrs Austen said as she bid us goodbye, ‘This sea air is the ruin of my face! Now, girls, you must all take care to stay indoors when the wind blows. Do you hear?’

We disobeyed her instructions at the first opportunity. After lunch Cassandra went to meet Miss Fielding at the warm baths and Jane and I set off for a walk across the sands.

The weather had turned much colder and the sea spat gobbets of foam at our feet as we made our way along the shoreline. Jane was laughing about her mother, telling me how she refused to go outdoors whenever there was frost on the ground because she believed cold air was what had made her front teeth fall out.

‘I did ask how she thought the Eskimos survived. “They must all starve to death,” I said, “trying to eat reindeer meat without teeth.” But she paid me no heed.’

I laughed with her but I couldn’t help feeling that the shield was going up again; that despite what she had said in the bathing machine she was dreading what I might have to tell her.

The wind was blowing so strongly now we had to hold on to our bonnets with both hands. The sea was the colour of slate and the sun sent spears of light through the gathering clouds, turning the air a menacing yellow.

‘It’s going to rain!’ As the wind whipped my words away I felt the first stinging darts upon my face. I glanced back the way we had come but the houses were a distant blur of colours. I looked the other way and spotted a clutch of upturned fishing boats. I pointed and began to run.

I could see a blue-painted hull sticking up at a different angle from the rest. It was propped up on two wooden crates, leaving a small gap for us to scramble under. The shingle beneath it was warm and dry. We crouched for a moment, panting like wet dogs. Then Jane said: ‘We really are alone now, aren’t we?’

‘No one can hear us, at any rate,’ I replied, echoing the nervous lightness of her voice, ‘and no one can see us, either.’

‘I can hardly see you in this gloom,’ she whispered. ‘What are you thinking?’

It was a long moment before I answered. The wind blew blackened fragments of seaweed into our shelter and the rain beat hard over our heads. ‘I am thinking of what you want me to say and how loathe I am to tell it,’ I said. ‘I am thinking of your face as it was two nights ago and how I should feel if I caused that look to return…’ I waited but she did not speak. I could not see her eyes, for they were cast in the deepest shadow. ‘Do you really want me to go on?’

‘Yes, I do.’ I felt her fingers on my arm. ‘Daylight makes me a coward, you see. Yesterday, in that dark little cocoon above the water, I felt safe. I could allow myself to think of it. And I feel safe here, like a snail coiled up in its shell. Do you think me strange?’

‘No,’ I said, ‘not strange. Just afraid, as anyone would be.’

‘But I must know the truth. Please, tell me what you have seen.’

‘Well, if you are sure…’ I pulled my knees up tight to my chest. ‘Before I begin, I must say this: I have seen or heard nothing that would stand up in a court of law as irrefutable proof of wrongdoing. I do not doubt that my testimony would be demolished by any lawyer worth his salt.’

She listened without interruption while I related it all, beginning with the scene on the stairs, then describing the fishing trip and Henry’s account of the incident with the buck in Chilham Park.

‘I think you underestimate your evidence.’ Her voice was unnervingly calm. ‘It was a gloved hand you saw round Henry’s waist? You are sure of that?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I went over and over it in my mind that night: my eyes might be weak but I am certain they did not deceive me.’

‘And the fishing trip: that was around the time of Elizabeth’s birthday, wasn’t it?’

‘It was,’ I answered, wondering what direction her thoughts were taking.

‘What about the walk to Chilham? Do you remember the date upon which that took place?’ Now I guessed where she was going: I didn’t want her to make the connection I had made – but how could I withhold the truth when she had expressly asked for it?

‘It was some time in February, I think.’ This attempt at being vague did me no good.

‘Do you mean this year or last?’ she said.

‘Last year,’ I replied.

‘Early or late in the month?’

‘Around the middle, I think.’

‘Louisa.’ The name rang out like a shot in our wooden cell. My ribs and stomach contracted. I held my breath, wary of what I had unleashed. ‘I wonder how many of the others?’ She said it softly, as if she was holding a conversation with herself. ‘It could be as many as six out of the nine.’

Although I could not see her face I felt her eyes boring into me, as if the answer to this terrible conundrum could be found inside my head. The boat creaked as the wind changed direction. The rain hammered louder still on its barnacled hull. This was worse, far worse than I had imagined.

‘I never could understand why Miss Pearson jilted him; I thought she was jealous of Eliza. But now…’ she tailed off with a faint hiss.

I opened my mouth. My tongue was as dry as the shingle beneath me. ‘What are you saying?’

‘I think that this has been going on for years.’ She scooped up a handful of shingle. Broken shells came trickling through her fingers. ‘I didn’t tell you, did I, that Henry was engaged to someone else before he married Eliza? She was an admiral’s daughter. We had seen her miniature and she looked very beautiful. But when I met her I saw that the artist had taken a great many liberties in its execution.’ She twisted her knees round to the other side. I could see a little more of her face now. Her eyes were darting over the planks of the boat, as if a scene was painted upon them. ‘Henry was with the militia and we hadn’t seen much of him for a while. But that summer he was granted leave. He said he wanted the family to meet his new fiancée and of course, we were all dying of curiosity.

‘Cass and I were going to stay with Edward and Elizabeth. It was before they had Godmersham – they lived at a place called Rowling – and we thought we could call on Miss Pearson on the way. Edward came to Steventon to collect us but while he was there Henry sent him a letter. It said that we would find him at Rowling when we arrived. We naturally assumed that he had taken Miss Pearson to stay, so that we should not have to go via London to meet her. But he had not.’

‘He was there alone? With your sister-in-law?’

‘Well, when we arrived, other members of her family were dining at the house. I don’t know how long they had been there. Henry seemed as attentive to these relatives as he was to Elizabeth. But on the second day of our visit he took to his bed. He said he felt too unwell to go shooting with Edward and the other men. Elizabeth would often leave us all sewing while she went to see how he did, which was no more than any hostess would do and I thought nothing of it. After a week Henry went off to Great Yarmouth to see the army doctor and we went to London to meet Miss Pearson. Then, two months later, we heard that she had broken the engagement off.’

‘You think she knew? How could she have found it out?’

‘I don’t know. What I do know is that nine months after our visit young Henry was born.’

Henry. If she was right about this it was an audacity that beggared belief.

Jane must have known what I was thinking, for she said: ‘Of course, Elizabeth has a brother of the same name, so no one thought anything of it.’

‘But can it really be true?’

She dropped her head and gave a deep sigh. ‘You said that nothing you had seen amounted to proof of wrongdoing: that is exactly what I told myself. As I said to you, Henry has always been a horrible flirt; he can’t seem to help it. And I convinced myself that it was only flirting; that it didn’t mean anything.’

‘What makes you so certain that you were wrong? The verses in the card case?’

‘If I am honest, I knew before that,’ she replied. ‘I saw something the same night that you did, on the way back from Canterbury.’

‘What did you see?’

‘It was just a look, nothing more. He was helping her into the carriage and I was standing nearby, saying goodnight to some friends of Edward’s. I turned round and saw them both in profile. There was a lamp directly overhead. I could see their faces quite clearly. There was such ardour in their eyes: it was a look that only lovers would give.’

‘But do you really believe that he is capable of…’ I quailed at putting it into words. She had conjured up a terrible spectre: a man for whom adultery was a way of life; a man who had betrayed his own brother while making free with his hospitality; a man who was founding a dynasty of bastards with his own sister-in-law.

‘I have watched him,’ she whispered, ‘since I was no older than Fanny is now. And while I love him best of all my brothers, I have to own that he has always overstepped the boundaries. It is as if he breathes different air from the rest of us and sees the world in different colours.’ She closed her eyes and shook her head. ‘I am beginning to believe that he is capable of almost anything.’

Share your love