The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 13

As Christmas approached I tried to carry on as I had before the summer. My days were busy enough, teaching Fanny, helping Sackree with the younger children when she was tired and sometimes, if a servant was ill or absent, performing sundry duties about the house. My new spectacles meant that I could, once again, fill my evenings with reading. But nothing was the same. Jane’s presence had sweetened my life like sugar in tea and now I must always feel the want of it.

‘Bath is every bit as grey and dispiriting as I left it,’ she wrote, a few days after our separation. We drove back in a fog that lingers in the streets like wet cobwebs. I ventured out yesterday to find the pastry shop in Milsom Street full of fat old men with crumbs in their whiskers. The widows, meanwhile, were devouring all manner of confections, concealing the act of mastication behind open fans. It is not their gluttony that shames them: they do it merely to conceal their rotten teeth. Mama may be similarly afflicted – having lost both teeth and husband – but you would never catch her simpering in pastry shops with a mouth full of lemon tart.’

With such delightful snippets she buoyed me up. But beyond wishing I could see what she described for myself she expressed none of the longing I felt for her. I tried to keep my replies light, with no mention of my feelings – or of the forthcoming visit from Henry. She may have known of his plans but if she did she made no reference to him.

On the day before the solstice, when the servants brought the holly and ivy into the house, Fanny announced that her badgers had grown too fat for their box. ‘I must build them a run,’ she said. ‘Will you help me? If Uncle Henry sees how squashed they are he will be cross. We have a se’nnight – do you think that’s enough time?’

‘Yes,’ I said, aware of my heart quickening. In seven days it would be the twenty-seventh of December: Edward and Elizabeth’s wedding anniversary. They were sure to hold a special celebration, as they had last year. Was Henry really planning to come on that day of all days? Was he really so careless of his brother’s feelings that he would trespass on a day so sacred? And what of Eliza? What on earth must she make of this, I wondered? Unless, of course, he was planning to bring her too.

‘Will Aunt Eliza be coming this time?’ I reached out to stroke one of the badgers as I said it, trying to appear unconcerned.

‘Aunt Eliza?’ Fanny gave me a look of the utmost incredulity. ‘How? She can only breathe London air – didn’t you know that?’

‘Oh, that’s what Uncle Henry says, is it?’ I had to smile, although there really was nothing to smile about.

‘Not just him: Mama says it too. And Papa. I’ve heard both of them say that Aunt Eliza starts to sneeze the minute she crosses the Thames.’

I was not sure if this was a real ailment or some longstanding family joke. Whichever it was, it served Henry’s purpose only too well. It occurred to me, as we crouched over the furry bundles in the stable, that I could use it for my purpose too. I had been racking my brains for a way of initiating the conversation I meant to have with Henry: this would provide me with just the pretext that I needed.

Henry did not come on the day of the anniversary: he arrived at eight o’clock the morning after. This seemed to me to be so lacking in any kind of subtlety that I wondered Edward did not mark it. If he failed to, however, his daughter did not. She came to find me in my room, where I was to pass the day sewing and reading while the family continued their yuletide festivities.

‘Uncle Henry must have set off when Aunt Eliza was still asleep,’ she said. ‘Do you think she minds him leaving her all alone in London when everybody else is enjoying themselves?’

I cast about for a suitable answer but could find none. I pretended to concentrate on threading my bodkin.

‘Mama says Aunt Eliza loans him out like they do with the books in the circulating library at Ashford.’

The piece of thread I was moistening flew out of my mouth.

‘What’s the matter?’ Her face was as straight as the needle in my fingers. ‘Did I say something wrong?’

I couldn’t decide if her expression was a mask of innocence or the real thing. Was she testing me out? Seeking confirmation of what she herself suspected? Or was she just a trusting little girl, repeating the words of her mother without reading anything into them? ‘It seems a funny thing,’ I said, ‘to compare Uncle Henry to a book. What do you think he would say to that? Would it make him smile, do you think?’

‘Well, I don’t know,’ she frowned. ‘With a book that you borrow, you read it and give it back, don’t you? You don’t keep taking the same one out over and over again.’

‘That is quite right, Fanny. We should find a better simile, shouldn’t we? Let me see: if Uncle Henry was something other than a person, what would he be?’

She looked at me very solemnly for a moment. ‘I think that he would be a cuckoo,’ she said, ‘because he likes our nest better than his own.’ Without pausing for breath she bobbed down to kiss me on the cheek. ‘I’ve got to go now: Grandmama Bridges wants me to play cards with her.’

She left me to my sewing, which I cast aside, too agitated to concentrate. If the things Jane and I had speculated about beneath the boat at Worthing were correct, Fanny’s cuckoo analogy was bitingly accurate. Was this just a coincidence? Or had she been thinking along the same lines as me and her aunt? My resolve in the matter of tackling Henry – which had wavered in the weeks of his absence – was suddenly strengthened. Fanny’s young mind was my responsibility: how could I stand by and watch this deceit take root in it?

It began to snow just after midday and Elizabeth’s mother and younger sisters were forced to depart early for fear of their carriage becoming stuck in a drift on the way home. Edward took to bed after dinner with one of his increasingly frequent attacks of the gout and Elizabeth was called up to the nursery to sit with Louisa, who had chicken pox and would allow none but her mama to dab lotion onto the pustules. The older children took advantage of this distraction to scurry off to the stables to make sure that the badgers were cosy for what promised to be a bitter night ahead.

I saw Henry heading for the library and I decided to follow him. There were two fires burning in the long, lofty room and the curtains had been drawn against the twilight. On one of the tables at the far end a candelabra cast a pool of yellow light. Of Henry there was neither sight nor sound, until the soft thud of a book being closed up told me that he was behind a row of shelves that jutted out from the wall between the two farthest windows.

‘Hello?’ I called. My voice sounded very small in that enormous room.

‘Miss Sharp!’ He emerged from the bookshelves with his hand shielding a single candle. The light threw deep shadows onto his face, distorting his smile and making him look much older. ‘I’m sorry if I frightened you – did you think I was an intruder?’

‘No,’ I replied, thinking how appropriate was the word he had unwittingly used. I must not forget, I thought, that his presence in this house is an intrusion of the worst possible kind; I must not allow myself to be won over by his charm. ‘Actually,’ I lied, ‘I thought one of the children might have strayed in here.’

‘No,’ he said, setting down the candle on the nearest table, ‘there is nobody here but me, more’s the pity. I was hoping to read A Winter’s Tale to them all tonight but there is no one left to hear it.’

‘Yes, it is a pity,’ I agreed, desperate to recall the opening line I had rehearsed a hundred times. ‘You…I mean your…er, wife…’ My tongue tripped on the word. ‘She…she was so gracious to me. When I stayed at your house, I mean…but Fanny tells me she is not well enough to accompany you: I am sorry to hear it.’

Deep frown lines appeared on his forehead. ‘Not well? She was quite well when I left her.’

‘Fanny said that she was unable to breathe the air here,’ I went on, attempting a tone of innocent enquiry, ‘She said that it would make your wife sneeze.’

‘Oh! That old joke!’ A black chasm opened in his face as he chuckled. ‘Poor little Fanny takes everything so seriously!’

He had fallen right into the trap that I had fumblingly succeeded in setting. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘She does, doesn’t she? Sometimes it’s quite harmless to tell her half-truths but there are other things she really shouldn’t know about.’

‘What do you mean?’ I heard the change in his voice. His eyes glinted in the flickering light. I kept silent, hoping to increase his unease by making him wait for an answer. ‘What should she not know about?’ His voice sounded very loud in the quiet, book lined room.

‘I think you know very well what I mean,’ I said softly.

‘Madam, I assure you I do not!’ I felt his breath on my face. ‘Explain yourself, I pray you!’

‘Very well, I will spell it out if I must.’ I was glad he could not see me very clearly, for I felt my limbs begin to tremble. ‘Fanny showed me a note she found in her mama’s card case.’ I watched his face as the lie unfolded. ‘She recognised the hand as yours and she wanted to know what it meant.’ I paused for a moment to give my next sentence all the punch that it required: ‘It was an extract from the “Song of Solomon”: the words of a lover to his mistress.’

‘Oh.’ It was a small sound, like the useless puff of a pair of broken bellows. The fire nearest to us crackled and spat. The wind whipped the skeleton fingers of a bush against the window. In this broken silence I could almost hear Henry’s brain grasping for some excuse, for some innocent explanation of the damning evidence I had presented.

‘I’m afraid that you – and she – have fallen victim to another of our family jokes.’ He pulled out a chair and sat down heavily. ‘Elizabeth and I have perhaps allowed it to go too far but we are guilty of nothing more than that, I can assure you.’

‘A joke?’ The contents of my stomach turned to ice.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘It’s been going on for as long as I can remember: a sort of game in which we try to outdo each other in finding the most obscure and inappropriate quotations to send to one another. It has amused us very much in the past but I can see, now, how easily it could be misinterpreted.’ I told myself that he must be lying; that such a game could not be concocted by innocent minds. But he said it with such conviction, with such a look on his face… Oh God, I thought, have I got this all wrong?

No, you have not. It was Jane’s voice that replied. I saw her with my mind’s eye, sifting the shingle through her fingers, telling me what she had seen on the night of the Canterbury ball.

Henry shifted in his seat. ‘Tell me something: you and my sister Jane are very close, are you not? Have you spoken any word of this to her?’

‘No, sir, I have not.’ I clenched every muscle in my body, praying that I might convince him. ‘She was not here when the note was found.’ That at least was not a lie, I told myself.

‘Very good,’ he said, rising up again. ‘We shall say no more about it tonight. But I would ask you to consider very carefully what I have said to you: consider it very carefully indeed. And now you must excuse me.’ The smile he gave was no different to the one he had greeted me with at the start of the encounter. Like the sister whose features he shared, he was adept at putting on a mask. ‘Goodnight, Miss Sharp.’

He took the candelabra from the table, leaving me nothing but the one guttering stub of candle and the glow of the coals to lighten the darkness. My legs suddenly gave way like saplings in a gale and I grasped the edge of the table for support. He had made it sound so plausible. Could Jane and I both have imagined what our eyes and our instincts told us? How I wish that you were with me. The breath my words drew forth put out the candle. Now there was only the fire. It flared and spat as the wind gusted down the chimney. Stupid, stupid, it hissed.

When I woke from fitful sleep in the grey light of the morning he had gone. The snow had not prevented him from riding his horse through the park to the Canterbury road. Fanny said she had heard the grooms talking when she went to see to her badgers. Apparently, Henry had been warned not to make the journey but had ignored their advice. I was glad that I would not have to face him but I shuddered to think that I might now have his death on my conscience.

I did not have long to dwell on this thought, however, as I was summoned to Elizabeth’s parlour soon after breakfast. I should have guessed what was coming but, stupidly, I did not. As I entered the room she gave me a look as cold as the north-east wind.

‘I understand that you have been interfering in matters you have no right to interfere in.’ She leaned forward like a cat about to pounce. I stood absolutely still, paralysed by the dawning horror of my situation. ‘How dare you accuse my brother-in-law of such…’ she tailed off, her icy eyes piercing mine. ‘How dare you suggest that I—’ She brought down her fist, sending tea cascading over the sides of the Wedgwood cup on the table beside her. ‘What would Fanny say if she knew what evil, twisted thoughts her governess harboured?’

‘I beg your pardon, ma’am, but it was for Fanny’s sake that I spoke out.’ My voice squeezed out of my chest as weak and puny as a newborn lamb.

‘For Fanny’s sake? For your own profit, more like! How much were you planning to extort from my husband’s brother for this piece of wickedness?’

‘Pray you, listen to me ma’am…you have it all wrong! I only—’

‘You only what?’ She cut me short. ‘You only thought that you could get away with blackmail! And Henry, who has been so kind to you – who has put you up in his own home, no less – seemed like an easy target, I suppose!’ She did not pause long enough for me to protest. ‘I should have known you were not to be trusted! Edward foisted you on me and I should never have allowed it; your father disgraced himself and you have proved no better! Do you think I didn’t notice the way you tried to worm yourself inside this family? Well, your precious Jane won’t save you now! What do you think she would say if she knew what her so-called friend had tried to do to her favourite brother?’

By now I was quite unable to speak. I was going to lose everything. Everything. I began to tremble and my eyes would not focus. Elizabeth’s face became a blur of eyes and lips. I could hear sounds from the courtyard below: the scrape of spades shifting snow from the cobbles; the voice of a dairymaid calling to the men as she tramped across to the kitchen. It seemed impossible that outside this room, everything was normal; nothing had changed.

I don’t know how long we sat there in silence. When Elizabeth spoke again, I detected a change in her voice. ‘I want you gone by the end of January,’ she said. ‘I would send you away this instant but that would require an explanation. I shall tell my husband that the spectacles have not improved your eyes; that you are finding book work too taxing and must seek a position that does not require much reading. No doubt you will find work of some sort. I will furnish you with letters if you need them.’

These words were spoken very quickly and quietly but to me their significance was profound. She’s going to lie to Edward about the reason for getting rid of me. Why would she do that if she were innocent?

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