The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 14

Idon’t remember the words I used as I left Elizabeth’s parlour. Neither do I remember walking back to the schoolroom, nor the conversation I had with Fanny when I got there. I know that I attempted to teach her some French irregular verbs. I can still recall her voice as she recited them, struggling with the unpredictable endings. And I stood with my back to her, my eyes hot with tears, contemplating the hurt I was about to cause this child with the ending I had brought about.

I felt utterly wretched. My attempt to protect Fanny had backfired on both of us. Elizabeth’s parting words had given me reason to believe I was right about what had been going on and if that were the case, it would have been difficult to remain at Godmersham even if she had not dismissed me. But I could not be certain I was right. I could not rule out the awful possibility that I had sacrificed Fanny’s happiness and my own future for a baseless case built on whispers and shadows.

I ached with regret for my arrogance. What a fool I had been to try to take on a man like Henry: a man who had made a fortune from his ability to manipulate rich and powerful men. I wondered if Elizabeth really believed I had been planning to blackmail him. Then it occurred to me that I could have tried to outmanoeuvre her with the very thing she had accused me of: I could have threatened to go to Edward and tell him what I suspected. But I had no reason to think he would believe me. The way he looked at her, his whole demeanour towards her, spoke of his devotion. Yes, I had seen him look at other women with admiring eyes, but I sensed that, in Edward’s case, looking was all it amounted to. I think he loved Elizabeth as a starving dog loves a butcher: she was more than he ever expected; more than he thought he deserved. He was a parson’s son and she was a baronet’s daughter – and unlike Henry, I don’t think he ever forgot that.

At lunchtime that day Fanny was given the same excuse Elizabeth had already given to her husband: that my eyes were beginning to fail me again and I could no longer continue as governess at Godmersham. Fanny came running into the schoolroom, tears streaming down her face, begging me to tell her it wasn’t true.

‘Please don’t go!’ She wrapped her arms around me, squeezing so tight I nearly lost my balance. I dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief still damp with my own tears. ‘Your eyes can’t be that bad,’ she pleaded, when her sobbing subsided. ‘You were sewing yesterday, weren’t you? What’s the difference between that and reading books?’

I made up some story about the letters on a printed page making my eyes go out of focus. I said that there was no knowing if they would get better and it was not fair on her to be without instruction while I waited for what could be many months for my sight to recover. She believed me, of course, and her solicitude made me cry more bitter tears. She came knocking on my door early the next morning, full of a plan to keep me at Godmersham.

‘You can work in the dairy!’ she announced. ‘You don’t need good eyesight to churn butter!’

I didn’t want to tell her any more lies. I couldn’t allow her to go on hoping like this. I told her as gently as I could that I would not be accepted by the servants if I tried to live among them, because I was educated and they were not. ‘How would you feel,’ I asked her, ‘if you were a dairymaid and someone came to work alongside you who could speak French and wanted to talk about books you couldn’t even read?’

‘I would feel very stupid, I suppose,’ she replied. ‘And I would probably be envious.’

‘Exactly. So do you see, now, why I can’t stay?’

She gave me a long, sorrowful look, then a little nod. ‘But who will teach me? All my other governesses have been either horrible or hopeless!’

I could give no answer to this. She didn’t ask where I would go when I left her. She promised to write to me even if I could not see well enough to write back. Write back? Her words mocked me. In her innocence it never occurred to her that I had nowhere to go. How on earth was I going to find another position before the month was out? My nightmares were peopled with beggars and streetwalkers; I saw myself ragged and dirty with holes in my boots, huddling in some alleyway as snow drifted round my feet. I had no idea how to go about finding employment. The only certainty was that I would never be able to work as a governess again: Elizabeth’s letter of reference, left in the schoolroom a few hours after my dismissal, made it clear to any prospective employer that the only work I was fit for was that which did not involve reading, writing or close work of any kind.

As that long, dreadful week wore on and the old year gave way to the new, another spectre rose up before me. I had not received a letter from Jane for three weeks. Usually she wrote once a fortnight. I had no reason to suspect Elizabeth of telling Jane what she had not told her own husband, yet I feared that somehow she had found out. Could Henry have told her, I wondered? I could just imagine him relating what had happened in the library: painting me as a waspish creature always ready to see the worst in people; a foolish woman who had been tripped up by a family joke. And I could picture Jane listening to him, saying nothing, because he was effectively making her choose between himself and me. There was no doubt in my mind of the result: he was, as Elizabeth had so smugly pointed out, Jane’s favourite brother.

I tortured myself with this idea for many days and it came as something of a shock when Fanny brought a letter to me on the sixth day of January. ‘Shall I read it to you?’ she asked, ‘It’s from Aunt Jane – I recognise her writing.’

I sat down suddenly, my limbs weak with a mixture of hope and terror. I wanted to read it myself, whatever it may contain – indeed I was afraid of what it might say – and yet I must keep up the pretence about my eyesight for Fanny’s sake. I sat there, paralysed, for a moment; at a loss for what to do.

‘I wrote and told her you were leaving.’ Fanny settled herself in a chair next to me and broke the seal on the letter. ‘I thought you probably wouldn’t be able to write to her yourself.’

The tender concern this act displayed moved me greatly. I swallowed hard, determined not to upset Fanny all over again. ‘That was very kind of you,’ I murmured. Whatever was in the letter, Fanny was going to have to hear it.

‘“My dearest Anne,”’ she arched her eyebrows, ‘“I was so alarmed to receive Fanny’s letter. As you will probably have to have this one read aloud to you, I will keep it brief and to the point. I am terribly sorry to hear about your eyes. I suppose that you were so overjoyed at the prospect of being able to read again after six long weeks of abstinence that you have overtaxed yourself. It is to be hoped that your sight will eventually improve, but I quite understand that it would not be fair on Fanny for her to have to go without her lessons for the time that it may take for you to recover. In the meantime I am most concerned about what you will do and where you will go. Perhaps you have already found some employment and I am being over-anxious – but if not, may I offer a suggestion? The Times has a list of situations vacant: employment of a respectable nature for both men and women. I know that Edward takes the paper and I’m sure that Fanny would oblige by reading this particular page aloud to you—”’

‘Oh yes, of course I will!’ Fanny broke off with a sweet, earnest smile. I pressed my lips together, struggling to contain my emotion.

‘“I realise, of course, that you will be limited as to the nature of the employment you are now able to engage in,”’ Fanny read on, ‘“But having cast my eyes over this column many times in the past, I believe you may find something suitable therein. I only wish that I could offer you a place with us here in Bath, but our own situation does not improve: we are to move to a smaller house very soon and we cannot even accommodate poor Martha any longer – she is to move to separate lodgings until we can settle on somewhere less expensive than Bath to call home.”’

‘Oh! They are moving again – I didn’t know that,’ Fanny broke in. ‘Sorry – there are just a few lines more: “Please let me know, via Fanny if necessary, where you will be going when you leave Godmersham. I shall send her my new address as soon as I have it and I cherish the hope that we will find a way of continuing to correspond, despite your predicament. Your letters mean so much to me: I can hardly bear the thought of their ceasing. I remain, dearest Anne, your most affectionate friend J. Austen.’

A wave of relief swept through me. She did not know what had taken place at Christmas: the warmth of her letter made that quite plain. ‘Your most affectionate friend.’ Her words fanned an ember of yearning inside me. I felt that I could bear the ordeal that lay ahead, knowing that she still cared for me.

‘I’m going to fetch the paper this minute!’ Fanny jumped out of her chair and bounded towards the door. ‘It’s not that I want you to find another job,’ she glanced back at me, shamefaced, ‘but Mama says I shall have a new pony to console me when you’ve gone.’

I was pessimistic about the chances of finding anything in The Times that Elizabeth’s reference would not debar me from. But after weeding out all the advertisements for governesses, secretaries and clerks, Fanny came up with a species of employment I had never heard of before:

‘“Companion required for elderly lady in Yorkshire. Must be well-educated, convivial and strong of body…” That’s you!’ She thrust the newspaper up to my face. ‘Can you see it? It says you have to send a letter of application with a reference to Mrs Raike of The Bourne, Doncaster.’

I could see the advertisement quite clearly, though I had to make a pretence that it was difficult to decipher. ‘But wouldn’t she want me to read to her?’ I said. ‘She would find me a pretty useless companion in that case.’

‘Just because she’s old doesn’t mean she is blind!’ Fanny replied. ‘It says “well-educated and convivial” – that means good company, doesn’t it – so what she wants is a clever person she can talk to. And “strong of body” probably means she’s a bit doddery on her legs, like old Mrs Owens the blacksmith’s mother. She’ll probably want you to carry her about like he does when she gets tired.’

I had to smile at this image she conjured of me heaving the poor old lady out of her chair and striding through the village carrying her like a baby, as the well-muscled Mr Owens was frequently seen doing. ‘I may be tall,’ I said to her, ‘but I fear I’m not as strong as all that. Do you really think I should apply?’

‘Of course you should! And anyway,’ she swished the paper against the arm of the chair as if she was swatting a fly, ‘it’s the only job in here that doesn’t need someone with good eyesight.’ She stood before me, hands on hips, like a mother chiding a wilful child. ‘I’ll get my writing things. You can dictate the letter to me and I’ll make sure it goes off tomorrow.’

It was a great surprise when the old lady responded by return of post. Fanny had been uncannily accurate in her assessment: Mrs Raike was far more interested in the aptitude I had professed for discussing and debating a wide variety of subjects than my ability to read to her. She expressed the wish that I should commence my new employment at the earliest opportunity.

I went to see Elizabeth to ask if she would release me before the end of the month. I dreaded entering the parlour, certain that she would not let me leave without delivering a brace of parting insults. But I was in luck, for Edward was sitting beside her. I had not spoken to him since the news of my departure had reached him and he was full of concern for my ‘predicament’, as he called it. Listening to his kind words I felt fraudulent and ashamed, as I felt with Fanny. But I could not help noticing Elizabeth’s face during the exchange between her husband and myself. She looked as if she had bitten into an apple and found a worm. I don’t know if it was Edward’s praise for my achievements with Fanny or his wish that I should continue my friendship with his sister that discomfited her most: I think that if she could have, she would have had me ejected from the house that very instant. As it was, we agreed that I should leave on the seventeenth of January – two weeks earlier than her original deadline.

Only Fanny and Sackree were there to see me off on that raw, dark morning. Elizabeth had avoided me completely during my last few days at Godmersham and Edward was away, visiting the estate in Hampshire. I had heard no mention of Henry from either Fanny or the servants. I wondered if he was biding his time, waiting until I was out of the way before resuming his intimacy with Elizabeth. For Fanny’s sake I hoped he would stay away but I sensed that this was probably beyond him. I hoped, therefore, that he would at least conduct himself with more discretion.

The horses’ breath plumed like smoke in the frosty air. I shivered when the footman took my trunk. Fanny took my gloved hands in hers and rubbed them hard. Sackree punched me on the shoulder and told me I had better get used to such weather, going so far up north to live among people she clearly regarded as little better than savages.

‘Let’s hope they’ll fatten you up a bit with all them Yorkshire puddings,’ she whispered in my ear. ‘Men like something to grab hold of – ’specially on frosty nights – and there’ll be plenty o’ them where you’re going!’ I’m sure she meant there would be many cold evenings, not an overabundance of lecherous males, but her words made me smile all the same. She was a curmudgeonly old thing but she had my best interests at heart: how could she know that a man’s arms were certainly not something I would crave however chilly the bed?

The footman opened the door and I gave Fanny a last, long hug. ‘I will see you again,’ I said. ‘Aunt Jane will make sure we all meet – not here, perhaps, but somewhere – so you mustn’t cry, do you hear?’ I was saying this to myself as much as to Fanny, fervently hoping for it to be true. The footman cleared his throat, impatient to be off and not willing to suffer the cold for the sake of a mere employee – or former employee, as I had now become. The faces faded into the darkness. The last image I had was of Sackree pulling the child to her, comforting her as she had always done. And there was some comfort for me in seeing it. Sackree had cared for Fanny from the time she was born and for her mother before her. Whoever replaces me, I thought, Fanny will always have her nurse.

The journey to Yorkshire took the best part of two days. The first part – from Godmersham to Ashford – was by far the most comfortable. After that I was on my own, Edward’s splendid carriage replaced by a succession of mail coaches, all crowded, all stinking of sweat and stale breath. I slept at a coaching inn at Northampton, sharing a bed with a mother and daughter who made it quite clear that I was an unwelcome addition to the chamber they regarded as theirs, having arrived half an hour before me. They revenged themselves by snoring all night long. As I lay awake listening to this hogs’ chorus, I tried not to dwell on what I had left behind and the unknown life that awaited me. The only way to push these thoughts from my mind was to imagine Jane. I relived all the best moments from our time together in Worthing. I conjured her face all lit up with sparkling droplets of seawater; the scent of her hair as I undid the buttons of her dress; the warmth of her skin on mine as we jumped into the lapping waves.

I must have fallen asleep at some point. I woke up thinking I was back in Worthing, with Jane just the other side of the wall. The sight of those unfamiliar faces, mouths open like fishes, brought me back to grim reality. At least I will have my own room tonight, I thought. I told myself that I should not fear my new employer: that there was no reason to suppose she would be as cantankerous as these bedfellows. Just let her be civil, I murmured, that is all I ask.

I was put down from the mail coach at Doncaster, having travelled the last few miles through countryside unlike any I had seen in Kent or Sussex. It was nearly dark when I alighted, so I had only a vague impression of the town itself. A man had been sent to meet me. He stepped forward and grunted some kind of introduction. The only words I caught were ‘Mrs Raike’ and ‘the Bourne’. These were enough to reassure me and I climbed into the carriage, spreading myself out in blessed relief at having the whole thing to myself.

This last leg of the journey was not a long one. The Bourne was a large stone-built house on the outskirts of the town, hidden from the road by woodland. To reach it we had to cross a tumbling stream by a bridge that was only just wide enough for the carriage. It seemed a very lonely spot. No wonder she needs a companion, I thought. My spirits dived just then, wondering what on earth I had come to.

The driver left me at the door. He did not trouble himself to wish me goodnight, merely unloaded my trunk and set it down on the doorstep before disappearing off into the darkness. I could see lanterns through the hall window. A young girl in cap and apron appeared at the door. As she pulled it open a wonderful smell of scones, still warm from the oven, wafted out to greet me.

The maid was as uncommunicative as the coachman. She took my things and showed me into the drawing room, where Mrs Raike – a tiny, birdlike woman with a patchwork blanket over her knees – was waiting. A fire blazed and a table beside her was set with teapot, cups and a mouth-watering variety of cakes.

‘Welcome to the Bourne, my dear.’ Clutching the blanket with a clawed hand, she raised herself with the aid of a walking stick. ‘I thought you might be hungry after that long journey. Please, make yourself at home.’

If someone had told me when I alighted at Doncaster that I would not get to bed until after eleven o’clock that evening I probably would have climbed back into the mail coach. As it was, the cakes and the conversation with Mrs Raike so revived my spirits that when she asked me, two hours later, if I was tired I could honestly answer that I was not. Her voice belied the frail-looking body that contained it. And the opinions she expressed were surprisingly modern. If I had closed my eyes I could have fancied I was talking to someone my own age.

We dined at eight o’clock, served by the quiet little creature that had met me at the door. Mrs Raike explained that she was mute and had been so from childhood. ‘Rebecca has lived here since she was a baby. She’s the daughter of the coachman who brought you from Doncaster. She took over as cook and housemaid when her mother died and she and her father manage things so well between them I find I need no other help in the house.’ She lifted her glass in a toast. ‘To you, my dear: I hope you will be very happy here.’

After dinner she read aloud to me from the newspaper, stopping now and then to ask my opinion of this and that. She asked me nothing about my background or the life I had left behind, for which I was grateful. I went to bed that night in better spirits than I would have thought possible. I lay awake for only a short time, thinking of all that I had left behind. I pictured Fanny fast asleep – tucked up in bed with one of the younger children, no doubt, for that was what she always did when in need of comfort. Did I miss anything about Godmersham other than its younger occupants? Certainly I would not miss Elizabeth, who, in the two years I had bided there, had not displayed one ounce of the warmth Mrs Raike had shown me in a single evening. Neither would I miss Henry, whom I sincerely hoped I would never set eyes on again. But Jane was never far from my thoughts as I contemplated all this. I tried not to calculate the distance that now lay between us.

Will I ever see you again? My voice, though only a whisper, sounded very loud in that silent house.

*

Life at the Bourne soon settled into an uneventful but pleasant routine. Mrs Raike was not an early riser and the mornings were mine to spend as I pleased. For breakfast Rebecca brought hot chocolate on a tray to my chamber. I had the luxury of drinking it in bed whilst reading. I had to conceal both book and spectacles until after she had left me, of course, for I had to keep up the pretence about my eyesight for a while yet. I had not yet worked out how Rebecca managed to communicate with Mrs Raike but the smooth-running of the household suggested that she had devised some way. Mute she may be but her eyes spoke with great eloquence. I didn’t want to give her any clue to the fact that I was deceiving her mistress.

On my fifth morning at the house Rebecca brought something extra on the tray. I could see that it was a letter and as she laid the tray down my heart leapt. The handwriting was Jane’s. It was all I could do to keep from grabbing it and breaking the seal right away. But Rebecca was still in the room, pulling back the curtains and seeing to the fire. When she had gone I plucked the letter from the tray and stared at the blob of blood red wax that kept its contents from me. If I broke the seal Rebecca would know that I had read it. But how could I wait the three long hours before Mrs Raike presented herself downstairs? And how could I bear to hear Jane’s precious words at second hand?

In a moment I had come up with a solution. I would tell Mrs Raike that my excitement at receiving a letter had made me open it and try to read the contents – which had proved impossible. I would hand it over to her and react as if I was hearing the words for the first time. And so, clumsy with anticipation, I broke the seal:

Dearest Anne, I hope that you are settling into your new home and that your eyesight is beginning to improve – but in case it is not, I expect there is someone who will be kind enough to read this on your behalf (my thanks to this person, whose name I will perhaps come to know). It is a little early to be enquiring about holidays, I know, so I beg forgiveness from your employer for asking, but ask I must if you are to visit me in Bath before I quit it for good. Mama, Cassandra, Martha and me will be moving to Southampton in June. My brother Frank’s ship anchors there and he is looking for a house for us all to rent. I do hope you will be able to visit before we leave here – it would be so good to see you again. Cass has agreed to go to Martha’s lodgings for a few days if you are able to come, so there will be a bed for you. It will be rather a squash, as our room is very small, but if you don’t mind that, all will be well.

If you are still unable to write, please ask for help – I long for your answer! Yours ever truly, Jane Austen.

I hugged the letter to my chest. I could feel my heart thudding through my ribs. I read the sentence with the underlining a second time…so good. Those two small words had me bursting with joy. But what was I to do? She was leaving Bath in just four months’ time. How could I ask for a holiday so soon? I counted myself far too fortunate to have found such an employer to make any such untimely request; and yet I longed with all my heart to see Jane.

It was Rebecca who brought a solution to this dilemma. When she came to collect my tray she passed me a note, written in capital letters. It was from Mrs Raike, who apparently marked the delivery of the post from her bedroom window: DO YOU NEED HELP TO READ YOUR LETTER? IF SO, DO NOT HESITATE TO ASK.

The boldness of this enquiry made me smile. Plainly she wanted to know who it was from but she had cloaked her curiosity with this seemingly innocent offer. In doing so she made it easy for me. I would simply revert to my original plan of handing the letter over and pretending I had been unable to decipher it. This would clear me of any offence Jane’s request might cause.

I took the letter down with me to the drawing room, where Mrs Raike was already waiting. After reading it she smiled and said: ‘Bath! What a wonderful idea! I’ve been meaning to go and take the waters ever since my poor husband passed away, you know, but the idea of travelling so far put me off. Now we shall go together! There will be no need to squash yourself into your friend’s house: I shall take rooms for both of us at one of the inns. Fetch me a pen, dear – I shall write back to her immediately!’

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