The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 12

Those next few weeks passed too quickly for me. Jane never once alluded to what we had discussed beneath the boat. What I had failed to grasp thus far was that a person whose tongue could be so sharp could inhabit a skin so thin. I didn’t fully understand this until she sent me, some nine years later, the first edition of Mansfield Park. ‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery,’ she wrote in the final chapter, ‘I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can…’ It was the chapter that reported the adultery of a married woman with a man named Henry. What her family made of that I cannot know, but I believe the book was a way of releasing the pent up rage she felt at what she believed her brother had done. I do not think that rage is too strong a word, although no one would have guessed it that autumn at Worthing.

In the middle of October, when the mornings misted up my bedroom window, Martha Lloyd, maker of potions, came to join us for the last fortnight of our holiday. Jane told me that Martha’s mother had died earlier in the year, an event which had left her homeless as well as bereaved. It had been decided that Martha would join Jane, Cassandra and their mother as a fourth member of their household in Bath, bringing a small income which would help pay the rent.

In looks and character Martha reminded me very much of Madame Bigeon. She was small and round and very solicitous; a person whose sole concern seemed to be the comfort of others. She was ten years older than Jane but this made no difference to their affinity for one another. I might have been jealous but it was impossible to bear such a woman any malice.

‘Her sister is closer to me in age,’ Jane told me while Martha was unpacking her trunk, ‘But I like Martha much better. She is like us: she loves books. Mary thinks reading is a waste of time: she would far rather count James’ money than look at his sermons.’

Although I was a stranger, Martha treated me with as much regard as her two friends. When I told her that Jane had made me a wash for my eyes from her book of remedies, she took my face in her hands and studied it closely. ‘Your eyes look much recovered but your lips are a little cracked. Are they sore?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘the sea air has not been kind to them.’

‘I will make you a salve, if you like,’ she said. ‘Is there an apothecary in Worthing? I need alkanet root; the other ingredients I think I will find in the kitchen.’

I watched her later as she busied herself in the kitchen, gathering butter, beeswax and claret to boil over the fire. As she reached for the pestle and mortar she turned to me and said: ‘Is Jane happy, do you think?’

‘Well, I think so…’ I hesitated, wondering what had prompted this. ‘Certainly she has been enjoying the holiday in Worthing.’ I paused for a moment, watching her deft movements as she peeled the alkanet root. ‘Do you have reason to think she may be unhappy?’ I ventured. ‘Apart from the loss of her father, I mean?’

‘I know that she hates living in Bath,’ Martha replied without looking up, ‘and that she dreads returning. She has never really settled since she left Steventon, you know, and that was five years ago.’

‘Oh?’ I said, ‘She never told me that she hated it; I would have thought it a most enlivening place to live, judging from the tales she tells about the balls and the card parties and the gatherings in the Pump Room.’

‘I think that is her way of making it bearable.’ Martha sliced up the root and dropped the pieces into the mortar. ‘She despises most of the people she meets there. She would go back to Hampshire in a moment if she was able.’

‘She always talks of her old home with great affection,’ I said. ‘Why did they leave it?’

‘Her father decided it was time that he retired. Her mother has relatives in Bath and it is thought to be a good place for husband-hunting.’ She glanced at me, eyebrows raised. I wondered if this was the real reason for Jane’s dislike of the place. Perhaps she had fallen in with her parents’ plans only to be disappointed in her expectation of a marriage proposal. ‘I was with her when her parents gave her the news,’ Martha went on. ‘She had been staying with me and we returned to the rectory just before Christmas. No sooner had we crossed the threshold than her mother said: “Well, girls, it is all settled: we have decided to leave Steventon and go to Bath.” Jane was so shocked she actually fainted on the spot.’

I would never have imagined Jane to be a person prone to fainting fits; she seemed far too robust a character for that. But, as I have said, I was still getting to know her. There was no doubt that I underestimated her sensibility.

Martha pounded the alkanet until it bled white juice. ‘What made it all much worse was that my sister and her husband moved into the rectory,’ she said. ‘James was the curate at Deane but as soon as his father retired he was entitled to the living at Steventon. Jane’s parents insisted on selling nearly everything in the house and what didn’t sell was given to James and Mary.’ She shook the contents of the mortar into the pan. ‘Jane thought this terribly unfair,’ she went on, spooning in the beeswax and the butter. ‘Although Mary is my own sister I couldn’t help but agree. I remember the week we spent sorting through all the books in her father’s library: there were close on five hundred volumes and James got most of them for a pittance. Jane was absolutely furious.’ She poured a pint of claret into the pan and stirred it over the heat. ‘That same month was James and Mary’s wedding anniversary. They invited Jane to join the celebration but she refused to go.’

A bittersweet aroma wafted from the pan. I pictured Jane, seething at the injustice of leaving her childhood home and all the old familiar things that were so dear to her. It reminded me of my own anguish when the bailiffs had arrived on the doorstep. I wondered how she had managed to remain on civil terms with her eldest brother and his wife. For the sake of her niece, perhaps, I thought. To Martha I said: ‘Little Anna is a lovely child; her aunt is very fond of her, I think.’

‘Oh, yes,’ she replied. ‘She and Cassandra were like mothers to her when she was small. It has been difficult for her, learning to love a new mama and sharing her father with a new brother and sister.’

‘And how does your sister and her baby? Both are well, I hope?’ I found it hard to visualise this sister of Martha’s: her disdain for books, her love of money, her bitter jealousy of Eliza and her coldness to Anna – these traits all warred with the sunny image of a new mother nursing her baby.

‘Very well, thank you.’ She took the pot off the stove and poured the steaming contents into a muslin bag set over a bowl. ‘She won’t be having any more children, though: she managed a space of seven years between James-Edward and Caroline and she says that two is quite enough.’

I wondered how she could prevent it, short of turning her husband out of the marriage bed for good, for how else could she be so sure of avoiding the pains and perils of childbirth a third time? As I watched Martha squeezing the muslin bag to extract the last precious drops of her concoction another possibility occurred to me. I had heard of women taking all manner of things to prevent or terminate a pregnancy: was Martha the source of her sister’s confidence?

‘What’s this witches’ brew, Martha?’ It was Jane, peering round the door with her nose in the air, sniffing loudly. ‘Are you teaching Miss Sharp the black arts?’

‘Not exactly,’ Martha smiled, setting the bowl to the window sill and lifting the latch. ‘I am making her a salve for her lips. Would you like some?’

‘Not if it contains hen’s dung or boar’s grease: I shouldn’t like either of those on my lips, thank you.’ Jane tugged at her friend’s apron strings as she turned round. Martha was transformed into a ship in full sail as the calico billowed out in the draught from the window. She took a swipe at Jane, who ducked away, grinning. ‘Gracious, what a colour!’ Jane was now bending over the dark, congealing liquid in the bowl. ‘I declare that you mean to turn my friend into a ruby-lipped temptress!’

Martha gave a small sigh and smoothed down her apron. ‘It is not so red when it is rubbed in,’ she said. ‘If you don’t want any I shall pack up two pots for Miss Sharp to take back for Elizabeth and Fanny.’

With a heavy heart I remembered that it was less than a week before I was due to return to Godmersham. The happy anticipation I would naturally have felt at being reunited with Fanny was muted by apprehension at the thought of confronting Henry. I wondered if he would be there when I returned. I hoped that he would not. I found myself willing something to happen, some event of such moment that it would end the affair without my intervention.

I must have shuddered at the thought of what lay ahead, for Jane reached across to close the window. ‘I think it will set all right now,’ she said to Martha. ‘And I will have some, if you please. I’m sure Cass has need of a pot, too, so there won’t be any left to send to Godmersham, will there?’

On the day that Jane and I were to part I woke up with a start. I’d been dreaming of the time we sat on the riverbank at Godmersham, cocooned in the branches of the weeping willow. She had the bowl of strawberries in her lap. I watched as she bit into one, swallowing half then reaching towards me, smearing my lips with what was left. Suddenly the willow leaves parted and Henry materialised, a knowing smile on his face. This is the ruby-lipped temptress, he hissed, stepping aside to let Elizabeth see my stained mouth.

My eyes snapped open and I threw off the covers, my skin hot and sticky. I stared at the familiar objects on the dressing table. Everything looked grey. I suppose it was the wintry dawn light filtering through the blind that made them so. But it looked as though my body had put out tongues of flame as I slept, turning everything to ashes.

I was ashamed of the dream, I suppose. It stirred up the same feelings of guilt and confusion I had experienced in the bathing machine. Jane and I had known each other only four months; less than half a year; and yet I dreaded the thought of being without her. I tried to pick my feelings apart. Was it the shared secret of Henry and Elizabeth that had brought us so close? No, my heart answered, you know it’s more than that. But I struggled to name what lay at the root of the strange kind of longing she provoked in me.

Later that morning, when our trunks were packed in separate coaches, I hovered on the steps like an awkward child. ‘You will come and visit us in Bath, won’t you?’ She went to kiss me goodbye and I tensed as her lips brushed my cheek, half afraid to kiss her back. ‘I’m going to write to you as soon as I get home.’ This last was said with a determined nod and an inflection of the eyebrows. What was I to read into it? Was she trying to convey feelings similar to my own; feelings she couldn’t express in front of Martha and Cassandra? Or was it something more prosaic: that she was relying on me to act as her spy in the coming months?

Martha was my travelling companion on the journey home. She was to accompany me as far as Rye, where she had arranged to stay for a few days with an old friend of her mother’s before travelling home to Bath. I was glad of her presence, for my heart felt like a lead weight as I clambered into the carriage.

She did not mention Jane at all in the first hour or so of the journey and I wondered if she had guessed how downcast I felt and was trying to distract me from the cause of it. But suddenly she leaned across the space between us and touched my hand with hers.

‘You are like me, my dear, aren’t you?’ Her eyes, small and brown, darted over my face. She had the penetrating look of a bird searching for a worm. I felt a ripple of fear. What did she mean? Had she read my mind and recognised herself on its pages? Did she harbour the same guilty longing for Jane that I did?

Seeing my consternation she gave a small sigh. ‘I thought as much. You have lost your parents and your home, haven’t you? Just as I have. I know how wretched that feels.’

My shoulders and my spine sank into the velvet back of the seat. I nodded in dumb relief, which she mistook for suppressed anguish and clasped my hand tighter, telling me to cry if I felt like it, for there was no one but herself to hear. This made me feel doubly guilty. I said that it was all right; I had cried enough tears to flood the Thames when my parents died.

‘Can you talk about it?’ she asked.

I shook my head and told her it still pained me to recall it. I asked what it had been like for her and after a slight hesitation she said that if it had not been for Jane and Cass she would certainly have killed herself.

‘I had the means to do it,’ she whispered, looking not at me now but out of the window at Pevensey Bay, where the wind whipped white horses across a charcoal sea. ‘I walked out into the woods the morning my mother died and I picked enough Friar’s Cap to send a whole village to sleep.’

I watched her face. Her eyes no longer had that sharp, birdlike expression; they were clouded with invisible images that overlaid the sea and sky and the gulls swooping past the carriage window. ‘I slept in a chair that night beside Mama’s body. The notice to quit the house had been delivered while I was out in the woods. I decided I would take the draught as soon as the funeral was over and Mary returned to Steventon. I had written a letter explaining it all. But as I walked to the post office there was Jane stepping down from the mail coach. She said she’d come to fetch me: to take me home.’

I murmured something like: ‘What a blessing,’ or some such inadequate remark. I couldn’t help wondering why Martha’s own sister had not offered to take her in. How awful, I thought, that this poor woman would have killed herself if Jane had not come to her rescue.

‘Did you never think of it?’ Martha turned her eyes on me. They were filmy with tears that she blinked away.

‘No, I did not.’ I heard the surprise in my own voice as I answered. It was true: in all the anguish that followed my father’s death, all the horror of losing home and possessions, it had never crossed my mind that I would be better off dead. Now I asked myself what instinct had prevented such a possibility forming in my mind. Perhaps it was only that I knew of no quick or painless method of achieving it. Throwing myself in the Thames would, I suppose, have been the most obvious choice – but that might not have been quick; indeed, it might not have worked at all. What if I had had the kind of knowledge Martha possessed, though? Would I have swallowed poison as the bailiffs battered at the door?

‘I’m glad of that.’ Martha gave a wan smile. ‘It’s a wicked thing to contemplate. There is so much joy to be found in life; in other people.’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘though in the darkest times that can be hard to remember.’ I was thinking of Jane as I said it; remembering how it felt when her hair touched my skin in the shadowy warmth of the hut with its wheels in the sea. Her parting words echoed in my head as the coach rattled through the streets of Rye and shuddered to a stop at the market cross.

Before she bade me farewell Martha said: ‘Jane sets great store by your judgment, you know. She says she never came across anyone so aptly named as you.’

I feasted on this crumb of comfort as the coach trundled across the boundary between Sussex and Kent. Gratifying as it was to hear that Jane valued my intellect, it was adoration, not admiration that I craved. That much at least I knew.

As we drove through Ashford I realised that I must try to put Jane out of my mind and focus on what awaited me. I was longing to see Fanny, who had written half a dozen letters to me while I was away. Plainly she was bored. I wondered how she had been passing the days, with the three eldest boys away at school and only the little ones for company.

When the carriage bowled up the drive she came running out to greet me, despite the fact that it was nearly dark. Before I could step inside the house she dragged me off to see the new pets she had acquired in my absence. These were two young badgers, tumbling about like a pair of prize-fighters in a straw-lined box in a corner of the stables.

‘Uncle Henry found them,’ she said, plucking one out and holding it up to my face. ‘Can you see? Their mother was attacked by dogs. He brought them home in his hat.’ She looked at me with big, earnest eyes. ‘If they were left on their own they would die because they’re not old enough to find their own food. I’ve been giving them bread and milk and Uncle Henry says I must dig up worms for them. He wants me to look after them until he comes back, then we’re going to release them.’

‘Oh,’ I said, putting out my hand to stroke the wriggling creature, ‘When did Uncle Henry find them?’

‘Last Friday,’ she replied. ‘He was keeping Mama company till Papa came back from Chawton.’

She was looking at the badger cub, not at me, so I couldn’t read her eyes as she said this. ‘When will Uncle Henry return?’ I asked her.

‘After Christmas, I think,’ she replied.

So, I had six weeks at least in which to plan my little speech; six weeks in which to fret over the right way to appeal to a man engaged in something so very far from my own experience that I struggled to put myself in his shoes. Whenever I tried to imagine him pining after Elizabeth I saw Jane’s face, not his, in my mind’s eye. I saw her walking through the streets of Bath – streets that I had never seen, only fancied – and then I would spy my own self, running behind her but never quite catching her up. This scene would come back to me in dreams, where I would be calling her name but no sound would come from my lips. When I awoke my heart would be hammering at my ribs and I would lie awake for ages afterward, wondering if she ever dreamed about me.

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