The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 11

Jane’s ability to live in the moment, to snap out of the blackest of moods in the blink of an eye, was never more apparent than on that bleak September morning. She stuck her hand out from under the boat and announced that the rain had turned to drizzle. Then she stretched out her legs, rubbed them up and down and said:

‘Do you like lobster?’

‘I have only had it pickled’ I said, ‘and I could hardly distinguish it from crab.’

‘Oh, you have not lived until you have tasted fresh lobster! We had some last year at Lyme and the fisherman who caught them told us the very best way they should be cooked: you tie them to the spit alive, baste them with water and salt, till they look very red then baste them with butter and more salt. Then you put out little dishes of oyster sauce and melted butter, crack open the shells and dip the meat in.’

‘That sounds rather cruel,’ I said, ‘Like burning heretics at the stake.’

‘I thought so, too, but the fisherman said that shellfish feel no pain. I asked him in what language they had conveyed this intelligence to him, and for an answer he pinched one on its claw. “There!” he said. “Do you hear him complain?” I’m afraid to say that I allowed my palate to get the better of my brain that day and now the mere memory of the taste deadens all reason. So, come on!’ She rolled sideways and squeezed out between the wooden crates. I followed, and emerged with a twig of seaweed sticking out of my bonnet.

She said that we could buy lobster at the other end of the beach but the heavens opened within minutes of leaving the safety of the boat. We raced up the steps to the road and dived under the striped awning of a butcher’s shop. We were still far from the promenade with its grand tearooms but we discovered that there was a place above the butcher’s where cakes and hot drinks could be bought. Cold and wet as we were we decided this was too tempting a prospect to resist.

The wallpaper was flecked with mildew and the windows were so steamed that we couldn’t see the sea. However, the smell of gingerbread and plum cake made up for the dismal surroundings. The girl who served us commented on the rain having driven all the trade away and indeed, we were the only customers she had. When she had gone I took a bite of cake. Jane picked off a corner of hers but did not put it in her mouth. Her eyes were moving restlessly around the room. She picked up her teacup then put it down again.

‘Do you think Fanny knows?’

My mouth was full of cake, which prevented an immediate reply. I was glad of it, for it gave me a few seconds to choose my words. ‘I’m sure that she does not,’ I said, watching her face, ‘but sometimes she says things that make me wonder what she’s thinking: it’s as if she’s feeling around in the dark, trying to make sense of her surroundings.’

‘I’ve thought that, too,’ she said. ‘What sort of things has she said to you?’

‘Oh, nothing of any real consequence.’ I told her about the entries in the diary and the comments she had made about Henry’s clothes on the day of the ball. ‘She’s not a child any more, Jane: she’s beginning to notice things. She loves her uncle and she loves her papa; she loves her mother above everyone and wishes to be like her in every way. I think that it perplexes her.’

‘And the older she becomes the more she will understand.’ Jane raised her cup to her lips and stared into it before drinking. ‘She reminds me so much of myself, you know. I can remember exactly how I felt, watching Henry and Eliza that first Christmas at Steventon. It was like stealing sweetmeats: I knew I was in on something wrong but I found it absolutely compelling. Sometimes I would be in a room where they were rehearsing a scene from a play. The directions would require him to strike some pose or place his hand upon his heart and she would come behind him, wrapping her arms around him as she corrected his posture or clasping her hand over his to emphasise the move. I would watch his face, see the flash of desire in his eyes and the colour rising from his neck to his cheeks. I saw the power she had over him and the thrill it gave her to enslave him…’ she trailed off with a small, hopeless shake of her head.

‘Do you think that Henry and she were…’ I glanced at the steamed-up window. ‘You said he was only fifteen…and she was still married to the Comte…’

‘I don’t know.’ She gave a small sigh and sipped her tea. ‘Eliza has always been wild. She never allows anything or anybody to control her. Her cardinal rule is that a woman may do as she pleases as long as she is discreet. She told me this herself when I was sixteen years old.’

I thought of the woman who had received me in the gilded salon; of her undimmed beauty and her apparent disinterest in the comings and goings of her husband. Yes, I could easily imagine this woman seducing a handsome boy. Had she made Henry into the kind of man he now was? Had he learned from her example?

‘There’s something I don’t understand,’ I said. ‘If, as you say you now believe, Henry fell in love with your sister-in-law before he married your cousin, why did he marry her? Why would he marry anyone?’

‘For her money, of course.’ Jane put down her cup and looked directly at me. ‘He wanted the means to go into business and she offered it. It wasn’t only that, I admit: there always was passion between them. But it wasn’t the incandescent passion of that earlier time.’

‘So why did she agree to it? Surely not just for the sake of providing a father for her son?’

She shook her head. ‘She could have managed without Henry: she had Madame Bigeon, who was absolutely devoted to the boy. The fact is that she, too, was in need of money. When Henry came to see her to tell her about his broken engagement to Miss Pearson she’d been trying to get at the ten thousand pounds her godfather had put in trust for her. But there was an obstacle in her way.’

‘What obstacle?’

‘My father, to put it bluntly. He was one of two trustees Warren Hastings had appointed to manage the fund. When Eliza wrote to ask for it to be made over to her, she got a letter back saying that it couldn’t be done.’ She broke off a piece of plum cake and popped it in her mouth. ‘He pointed out that there was no absolute proof that her husband had met his death at the guillotine; that it had only been reported by the despots who ruled France at the time. “What if her husband should turn up one day and demand the money himself?” my father wanted to know. “We would be bound by law to pay it out again and where would that leave us?”’

‘Yes, I see,’ I said. ‘So what did Eliza do?’

‘She went to see my father and told him she only wanted the money for Henry’s sake. She said that they wished to marry and she wanted to set him up in business. Of course, it worked like a charm. My father forgot his objections and once he had signed the paper, the other trustee fell in line. Within a fortnight the money was hers. She and Henry were married a few weeks later by special license.’

‘And Henry told you all this?’ I was torn between admiration for the boldness of this scheme and distaste for the cool, calculated bargaining it had required.

‘No he did not,’ she said. ‘My father told me. I was at home when Eliza came to see him. I was the only one there because Mama and Cass were visiting James and Mary. Eliza was so unlike her usual self that I knew something was up. When she’d gone I wheedled it out of him. He made me swear not to say a word until the marriage had taken place.

‘Why not?’

‘Because my mother didn’t approve. She knew Eliza could never give Henry a child and she thought it a sad thing; a waste, she called it.’

‘Knew?’ I said, reaching for my tea, which was by now lukewarm. ‘How?’

Jane hesitated a moment before replying in a whisper: ‘Eliza had a miscarriage. It happened just after her mother died, when her husband came over from France for the funeral. He took her to Bath for a holiday which, according to her, was a disaster because they hardly knew one another after all that time. Then he had to return very suddenly because his lands were under threat. She found out she was pregnant but within three months she lost the child. She was staying with us at Steventon when it happened. The doctor said she must never try to have another because the consequences would probably be fatal.’

‘Oh!’ The implications of this were horribly clear. Henry had entered into the bargain in the full knowledge that no children could result from his union with Eliza. The world of marriage was a foreign country to me, but the scanty knowledge I possessed was enough to grasp the fact that Eliza’s condition was unlikely to bring about conjugal felicity. ‘How long after the…’ I broke off, trying to find a polite way to put it. ‘That business with Miss Pearson,’ I said, ‘how long afterward did the marriage take place?’

‘I know what you are thinking.’ She closed her eyes with a small shudder. ‘Elizabeth gave birth to little Henry in May 1797: Eliza came to see my father in the middle of August that year.’

So if Jane’s suspicions were correct, Henry had already known that he was a father when Eliza came up with her proposal. ‘Much easier, then, for Henry to agree to it…’ I said. The creaking of the treads on the staircase prevented any further speculation. The girl who had served us appeared round the door, wanting to know if we required more tea. When we said that we did not, she gave us a look that said: Well, hurry up and go, then. She stood in a corner after that, folding napkins and sorting cutlery with an accompaniment of loud sighs, which soon brought about the desired result.

We stepped outside into weak, watery sunlight. The quest for a lobster was resumed and before long we found a fisherman who sold them. I tried not to look at the squirming creatures in the weed-strewn crate as Jane stood bartering over the price. I heard the snap of rubber as the bargain was made. Wrapped in newspaper, the lobster continued to wriggle all the way back to the house. Jane talked to it from time to time. She urged it to stop struggling and enjoy the last few minutes of its life in peaceful repose; when it refused she peeled back the newspaper, held the creature out before her and began to recite Gray’s Elegy. By the end of the second verse it had entered a state of relative torpor. ‘There,’ she whispered, tucking it back under her arm, ‘I knew it would work: I use it on my mother when she’s irksome – it always sends her to sleep.’

I had a vision of the two of them sitting by the fire on a cold winter’s night in their lodgings in Bath. Mrs Austen would be stitching patchwork while holding forth on some well-worn topic, such as the dearth of eligible young men at last season’s balls, or the shocking display of naked bosoms occasioned by the latest London fashion. Jane would slyly reach for the poetry book and ask her mother if she cared to be read to while she sewed. Gray’s wheeling beetles and drowsy tinklings would act upon Mrs A. like a dose of laudanum, sending the patchwork slipping from her lap as she drifted into sonorous slumber.

‘Come on,’ Jane said, hooking her free arm through mine, ‘let’s get him home before he wakes.’

I took to my room while she cooked the lobster – something she insisted on doing herself, despite protests from the cook – and though I cringed at the idea of eating the trembling, whiskery thing, the smell came wafting up the stairs to tempt me. It was every bit as delicious as she had predicted.

‘Now,’ she said, as we wiped our fingers, ‘you are my partner in crime. I have committed murder and you have helped me eat the evidence. How do you plead?’

‘Guilty,’ I said, returning her wry smile.

‘For which the appropriate sentence must be imposed.’ She reached for a clean napkin and set it upon her head. ‘It must be death, of course. Though there are some would say that hanging is too good for you; that you should be dispatched in the same manner as the hapless victim. What say you to that?’

I thought for a moment. ‘I would do as you do – that is, I would resort to poetry in my hour of need. Not Mr Gray’s verses, I think, but Mr Donne’s:

“Death be not proud, tho’ some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so,

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,

Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.”’

‘Bravo!’ Jane cast off her judge’s cap with a flourish, catching sight as she did so of a familiar face through the window. ‘My sister returns.’ Her face clouded. ‘You won’t repeat any of the conversation we had this morning, will you? Please, promise me that you will not speak of it.’ She took my hand in both of hers and clasped it to her. I felt that strange, warm liquefying of my insides again. It startled me. I withdrew my hand, nodding as I did so.

‘It would destroy Cass if she knew,’ Jane hissed. ‘She has attended the birth of seven of those—’ she broke off at the clanging of the doorbell.

‘Of course I won’t speak of it,’ I whispered back. ‘She will never hear it from me.’

Cassandra stepped into the room, her face rosy from the steaming heat of the warm baths. Jane’s mask was on in a trice. She demanded a description of the bodies on display at the baths and Cassandra laughingly obliged with details of the fattest and the ugliest.

As I watched them I wondered how long the awful secret could be kept from the rest of the family. I was thinking of Fanny, growing older and more knowing with every passing day. By this time tomorrow, I thought, she will be back at Godmersham; she will wave her father goodbye and see her mother’s smiles as Henry rides into the courtyard a few hours later. How long will it be before she works out what is really going on? That it is not just her father’s guns he is keeping warm when he comes for a week’s shooting?

A few days later a letter came for me from Fanny. It was mostly about her pets and the fact that baby Louisa had just taken her first steps. But a couple of paragraphs gave me cause for concern:

The weather was vile yesterday and I was so very dull without you. Uncle Henry came today, though, and he cheered me up by sending me off to Canterbury with money for a new dress. Sayce was going anyway to collect a length of jaconet for Mama, so I went with her in the carriage. The shops were very gay and it took me a long time to decide what to buy. In the end I chose a figured dimity cloth in a shade called wild rose.

It was nearly dark when we got back and it took me ages to find Uncle Henry to show him what I’d bought. It turned out he was fast asleep in his chamber. My knocking woke him up and when he opened the door his face was all sweaty, like someone with a fever. I asked him if he was ill and he replied that he had taken to his bed feeling rather unwell. Mama was looking after him, though. She brought a jug of water and some towels from his dressing room and bathed his forehead. He was quite all right by dinnertime.

I didn’t show the letter to Jane. Fanny wrote a joint letter to her aunts a few days later but there was no reference to the visit from Henry. This I knew because Cass read the letter aloud to Jane at breakfast. Why had Fanny told me about her uncle’s visit but kept her aunts in ignorance about it? Was this a veiled appeal for help? Had she already guessed what was going on? It dawned on me that to her, I was the only person who could help; the only person she trusted who was not a member of the family. Of course, she couldn’t know what the consequences of my intervention were likely to be.

I wrestled with my conscience for a long time. What was more important: to lose my post or protect Fanny? Either way the child was likely to suffer. And what of my own sufferings if I was cast out of Godmersham? I had nowhere to go and no more than a few shillings to my name.

After a few days something like a plan began to form in my mind. I reasoned that Henry loved his niece and would be horrified by any suggestion that he was hurting her. If I could somehow get him alone, appeal to that kinder, softer side I knew he possessed, perhaps I could make him see what damage he was doing. I would be taking a huge risk in confronting him with what I suspected but I clung to the belief that he was, at heart, an honourable man who, if he could not stop what he was doing, would at least see the wisdom in behaving more discreetly.

Jane never knew of this plan. I decided I had more chance of success with Henry if I could assure him that no one else was party to it. Perhaps that was naive; perhaps I should have realised that secrets of such magnitude cannot be boxed up and forgotten. Perhaps we should have gone together to confront him. Would it have made a difference to the awful events that followed? That is something I try not to contemplate, for I can never know the answer.

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