The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 15

My first sensation of Bath was the noise. As we bowled across the River Avon a cacophony of sound invaded the carriage. Above the thunder of wagons, heavy laden with baggage or produce, were the raucous cries of tradesmen and milkmaids, chairmen and fishwives. And accompanying these, like the drumming of hail on a window pane, was the endless rhythm of pattens on the pavements.

Living in a remote country house with not even the sound of children to break the silence, my ears were unprepared for such an assault. I alighted from the carriage in a daze, blinking in the bright sunshine as I took in my new surroundings. Mrs Raike had taken rooms for us at the White Hart Inn, chosen for its close proximity to the Pump Room. It stood opposite the Abbey churchyard, just a stone’s throw from the river and, judging by the throng of people coming and going, was at the very hub of life in the city of Bath.

Poor Mrs Raike was almost knocked over when a stout gentleman in an ostentatiously caped coat shouted: ‘Chair! Chair!’ and half a dozen wicked-looking fellows with thick wooden poles in their fists descended like crows on a carcass. ‘At your service, m’lud,’ one shouted, only to be drowned out in his negotiations by another bawling: ‘No! I was first!’ and shaking his pole menacingly while a third man shoved him from behind. I had sometimes spotted sedan chairs in London but in Bath, I discovered, they were the favoured mode of transport. As we made our way to our rooms, Mrs Raike explained to me that they were narrow enough to pass through the doors of buildings, so that a person could travel to the baths in complete privacy, without the need to undress upon arrival. On the homeward journey they would be swathed in blankets to retain the heat and delivered to bed by the chairmen, who would then retire from the room to allow the occupant to sweat peacefully for an hour or two.

My room at the inn was small but comfortable, with a view of the river and the Pulteney Bridge. I would far rather have stayed with Jane, of course, but it would have been impossible to explain that to Mrs Raike without offending her. To my eternal gratitude she had arranged our visit to coincide with that of a cousin of hers, Miss Gowerton, and she had encouraged me to make what arrangements I pleased for the evenings, when she would take her dinner with this lady. It was almost the end of the season, so the time for balls and public entertainment was drawing to a close. Nonetheless, Jane had promised me the spectacle of fireworks in Sydney Gardens on my first evening, with many more treats to follow.

She had written in her last letter that Fanny might be in Bath at the same time as me – a prospect that filled me with a mixture of joy and trepidation. For Jane had not said whether Fanny was coming alone or with her parents. I had sent word of my plans to the child, but her reply had not reached me before my departure from Yorkshire.

Jane, of course, had no notion of how awkward it would be for me to see Elizabeth again. I was not sure what I would do if Fanny and her mother were invited to any of the outings Jane had planned for me. I consoled myself with the thought that Elizabeth would find herself thrust into as awkward a situation as myself, for she would not be able to betray the animosity she felt for me, given that she had told the world that we had parted on amicable terms.

But it was not Elizabeth who made my visit to Bath uncomfortable. On that first day, as I sat beneath the gilded Corinthian columns in the Pump Room sipping cloudy, sulphurous water with Mrs Raike and Miss Gowerton, I caught sight of someone whose familiar profile froze my blood.

I shrank back, thankful for the breadth of the brim on my new cambric muslin bonnet. Miss Gowerton, who was of the same small stature as my employer but twice her girth, was holding forth about the deliciousness of Bath buns, and promising to take her cousin to Molland’s of Milsom Street, which, she proclaimed, was the best pastry shop in town. As she described the heavenly confections to be found there, I stole another glance at the man in the pearl grey morning coat and hussar boots. It was Henry. And he was deep in conversation with a woman. The lady in question was neither Eliza nor Elizabeth, but a dark-haired, large-boned woman who had none of their delicate prettiness. As she angled her face towards me I saw that it was scarred by smallpox. And yet Henry had that unmistakable look about him as he leaned forward, one hand resting on a silver-topped cane: he was flirting with this woman – of that there was no doubt. And the simpering smile on her face told me that she was enjoying every minute of it.

I felt a tingle of triumph. Perhaps my confrontation with Henry had not, after all, been in vain; perhaps he had heeded my words and cooled his relationship with Elizabeth. Was this woman a new diversion? It certainly appeared so, and while I could not condone his seeking yet another affair outside his marriage, surely this must be the lesser of two evils?

And the lavender cake, my dear! It simply melts in the mouth!’ Miss Gowerton’s high, piping voice cut across my thoughts. ‘You really must come too, Miss Sharp.’ I tried to affect an interest in what she was saying, nodding earnestly and murmuring my approval of her invitation, but my mind was firmly fixed on Henry and his companion. If he was here with her, it followed that Elizabeth was not in Bath; perhaps Henry had escorted Fanny from Godmersham, using the trip as an excuse for a rendezvous with this new amour? I wondered where he was staying. Not at Jane’s home, I hoped, for I had been invited to dine there before the firework display that evening.

My eyes darted back to the couple. They were on the move, strolling back towards the entrance to the Pump Room. I saw Henry’s hand move up to the woman’s shoulder, touching her so briefly that he might have been brushing off a fly or a crumb of cake. She turned and batted her eyelashes at him, in what looked like a mixture of delight and embarrassment. I wondered who she was and where he had found her. Certainly she was not in the first flush of youth; I guessed that she was about my age – possibly a little older. I hoped that she was not married. But then, if she was single and had marriage on her mind she stood to be sorely disappointed. Poor woman, I thought, if only she knew what she was letting herself in for.

The rest of the afternoon passed pleasantly enough. I wheeled Mrs Raike the short distance to Milsom Street in one of the invalid chairs that were available for hire. This was not only cheaper than a sedan, but allowed the occupant an open view and a good deal more fresh air than the musty-smelling boxes on poles.

Milsom Street was all bustle and gaiety, the shops laid out as elegantly as any in London’s Bond Street. There were tailors, milliners, confectioners and tobacconists; libraries, galleries and music shops. It was a veritable feast for the eyes, designed to satisfy the most fastidious appetite. Miss Gowerton was waiting for us in Molland’s the pastry cook’s shop, which appeared to rival the Pump Room as a place of gathering for visitors to the town. For one so delicate, Mrs Raike had a mighty appetite. She managed a Bath bun, a slice of rosewater cake and a macaroon, despite the fact that it wanted only a couple of hours until dinner.

Having seen her safely back to her room I made myself ready to walk across town to Jane’s house. I forced all thoughts of Henry from my mind, concentrating only on the pleasure of seeing my friend again. If he was there, I told myself, I would just have to bear it as best I could.

Washing the sticky traces of cake from my fingers, I put on the new white dimity gown made for me by Mrs Raike’s own dressmaker. I pinned on the same silver brooch I had lent Jane for the ball in Canterbury and tied a band of green silk around my cambric bonnet. A shawl of emerald kerseymere completed my outfit. With a deep breath I reached for my reticule and made for the door.

Dodging the chairmen waiting to pounce on every person who emerged from the White Hart, I crossed the street and passed under the archway. Jane’s house was in Trim Street, and I had spotted the sign on the way back from the shops. It was but a short walk across Cheap Street and up Union Passage to reach it. Jane had warned me that her lodgings were far inferior to others they had occupied in Bath. Her letters said that Cassandra, in particular, detested Trim Street. But in the reduced circumstances in which they found themselves after her father’s death, Jane said, there was little choice left to them.

She had made no mention of how she felt about me staying at the White Hart rather than with her. It was difficult for either of us to express our true feelings through letters at that time, knowing that our words would be read or written by Mrs Raike. Living in so remote a place I had no hope of writing secretly to Jane: Rebecca’s father was my only means of reaching Doncaster and as his brother was the postmaster, any correspondence written in my own hand would certainly have been noticed.

As I turned in to Trim Street I felt suddenly afraid. I had been living for this moment, aching for the sight of her face and the sound of her voice. I wondered if she had dreamed of me as I had dreamed of her. Did she truly miss my company or was she just being compassionate? Would she have invited me to stay if I had not lost my position at Godmersham? Was I someone she pitied rather than loved?

I had my answer the instant the door opened. She flung her arms around me and kissed my face. ‘Oh, it’s been such a long time! Come inside: I want you all to myself for a while!’ I made no reply, for I was overcome with emotion. Fearing she would think me quite idiotic, I blinked back the tears that pricked my eyes and held out my hand, letting her lead me into the house like a tame animal.

‘We have only one servant, I’m afraid,’ she whispered as she took me down the narrow hallway. ‘She is very old and smells of mothballs but she makes the best scotch collops I have ever tasted!’ Then, as she ushered me into the parlour, she asked me how I liked Bath. I replied that what I had seen thus far had impressed me very favourably. ‘Ah,’ she said, ‘it is vastly well to be here for a short visit but I can assure you, you would not want to live here.’ She told me how much she had come to hate the place; how she despised the dandified gentlemen and rouged ladies who paraded up and down Royal Crescent and around the Orange Grove. ‘And most of them are so old,’ she said. ‘Bath has become God’s waiting room: full of retired admirals and whiskery widows.’ She stepped forward, seizing both my hands in hers. ‘How wonderful it is to see you! You look as fresh as a snowdrop.’

I gave her a wry smile for her compliment. ‘Is your mama well?’ I asked, ‘and your sister?’

She nodded. ‘They will be here presently. Mama is sleeping off one of her headaches and Cass has gone to fetch Fanny.’

‘Oh! She has come, then!’

‘Yes. She arrived yesterday. Henry brought her.’

I tried to look surprised. ‘Where are they staying?’

‘Fanny is with my Aunt and Uncle Leigh-Perrot at their house in the Paragon. My brother James is there, too, with his wife and children. There was no room for Henry, so he lodges at the Sydney Hotel.’

I breathed a small sigh of relief that he had not chosen the White Hart. How convenient for him, I thought, to be out of sight of his family while conducting this new affair.

‘We have only half an hour before Fanny comes,’ Jane said, ‘I want to hear all about your Mrs Raike – is she really as saintly as your letters would have me believe? I suppose you cannot tell the whole truth when she writes them at your dictation. I beg to hope she has at least one odious habit. Does she keep a little dog that she feeds from her plate? Does she pick her teeth with her fingernails? Perhaps she does both at the same time…’ she tailed off with a twisted grin.

‘No!’ I laughed, shaking my head at this horrible image, ‘I will not allow you to mock her! I would not be here now were it not for her goodness.’

‘Hmmm. Very well, then – we must drink to her health. Will you take a glass of orange wine?’

We fell swiftly back into our old, easy manner of conversation and so absorbed did we become that we failed to hear the front door opening and the footsteps in the hall.

‘Miss Sharp!’ A human whirlwind hurled itself across the room. Fanny was now thirteen years old and seemed to have grown at least three inches in the few months we had been parted. Cassandra was not able to get in a word of greeting to me, nor was Mrs Austen when she came downstairs, for Fanny was intent on telling me everything that had happened to her since I left Godmersham. She had made only passing references to her new governess in her letters – mindful of my feelings, I have no doubt – but now she told me the woman had packed up and gone.

‘Mama sent her away last week,’ she said. ‘She pretended she knew French but she was hopeless at it: even worse than me. Someone else is coming when I get back. I wish I could go to school like the boys. Mama went to school; I don’t know why she won’t send me.’

‘I expect she had as bad a time as we did.’ Jane glanced at her sister. ‘Believe me, Fanny, you would not wish for school if you knew what it was like.’

‘We went to two schools,’ Cass nodded, ‘both run by women who were very proficient with a needle but knew next to nothing about the modern languages or Shakespeare. There was not enough to eat and we slept five or six to a bed. Your Aunt Jane nearly died of a fever at one of them.’

‘Were they really that bad?’ I asked. I had never attended school, having had the good fortune to be educated by my father, who, for all his other faults, was an excellent teacher.

‘They were terrible,’ Mrs Austen replied. ‘If we had known how bad they were we would never have sent the girls away.’

Fanny, of course, wanted all the details about these dreadful establishments. She was only halted by the ring of the dinner bell, and even then she had difficulty keeping quiet long enough to eat the steaming palpatoon of pigeons with marrow pudding and apricot fritters set out before us.

‘You must forgive her,’ Cassandra whispered as she topped up my glass, ‘It is the first time she has travelled such a distance without her mother and she is over-excited. There is another baby on the way so Elizabeth has stayed at home.’ I nodded silently. Jane had not mentioned a baby. Perhaps, I thought, it is a subject still too painful for her to talk about.

A little after eight o’clock we set out for Sydney Gardens, leaving Mrs Austen and Cassandra behind. ‘Neither one of them can stand the noise of fireworks,’ Jane said as we walked down Trim Street, ‘I myself find it greatly preferable to the sound of singing, which, thankfully, will be over by the time we arrive. Why the organisers of these events insist on holding a concert first is beyond my understanding: you never heard such a caterwauling; such a scraping of strings and squeaking of reeds. Thankfully the gardens are very large, which is just as well for the poor souls caught unawares: it is just possible to get out of earshot without quitting the place entirely.’ She stepped off the pavement to avoid a lamplighter, who was halfway up a ladder with his taper at the ready. ‘James and Mary said they would meet us on the bridge over the canal. They’re bringing Anna and James-Edward. Caroline is too young, of course.’

‘I am grown taller than Anna now,’ Fanny cut in, taking my arm as we crossed the river by the Pulteney Bridge. ‘And she is jealous because my Mama is going to have another baby and hers will not.’

I set my gaze on the cobbles, fearful of catching Jane’s eye. ‘How exciting,’ I said, trying to sound bright. ‘Another baby! I wonder what it will be this time?’

‘Well, if it’s a girl she will be named Cassandra Jane, Papa says.’ Fanny beamed up at her aunt. ‘That’s very pretty, don’t you think?’

How very telling, I thought: Cassandra Jane, not Jane Cassandra. It was a clear indication of the way the two sisters were regarded by Elizabeth.

‘Look!’ Fanny gasped, pointing down Pulteney Street. ‘Can you see the lights? Aren’t they amazing?’ As we drew closer I could see that the trees were hung with hundreds of tiny lamps with orbs of coloured glass that glittered like jewels among the foliage and blossom. Between the trees were strings of Chinese lanterns, glowing sunset red against the darkening sky. Throngs of people were gathered in the gardens, their clothes and faces dappled with a rainbow of colours.

‘I can’t see any sign of James,’ Jane said as we approached the little bridge that spanned the canal. ‘Will you stay here with Fanny, while I go and look for them?’

We watched her disappear into the crowd, which was growing larger by the minute. ‘How do you like it at your great aunt Leigh-Perrot’s house?’ I said, batting away an insect that had settled itself on Fanny’s bonnet.

‘It’s all right, I suppose,’ Fanny replied, pushing out her lower lip. ‘But Aunt L.P. spoils James-Edward to death. He is her favourite and she never tires of telling Anna and me that one day he will inherit all her money.’

‘Oh?’ I smiled, ‘And is this aunt very rich?’

‘Not quite so rich as Papa, I think, but very nearly: they have a place in the country called Scarlets which is nearly as big as Godmersham, but not so fine.’

‘And how is it that young James-Edward will come into all this?’ I asked, intrigued.

‘Because Aunt and Uncle L.P. are very old and have no children.’ Fanny spoke slowly and clearly, as if I was the child and she the adult. ‘Uncle L.P. is Grandmama Austen’s brother, so Uncle James, being her eldest, gets all the money when they die and he, of course, will leave it to his son.’

‘Ah!’ I nodded, ‘What a fortunate young fellow!’ I couldn’t help thinking of Henry, growing up in the rectory at Steventon with the dawning knowledge that he had lost out badly in the lottery of life. If he had only been born first or second he need never have worried about money. Edward was rolling in it and James had the prospect of plenty to come – and before very long if Fanny’s assessment of the Leigh-Perrots’ advanced age was anything to go by.

‘Oh, look!’ Fanny cried, ‘There they are! Aunt Jane must have missed them.’

Coming through the crowds was a slight man in a coat with a collar so high it almost touched the brim of his black beaver hat. He held his head as if there was a bad smell beneath his nose and wielded his crystal-topped cane like a weapon. Behind him was Anna in a pink muslin frock with a tight-fitting bodice that showed off her burgeoning figure. She held the hand of a boy of about eight years old. As they grew closer I caught my breath, for the child looked like an exact miniature of Henry.

‘Where is Aunt Mary?’ Fanny demanded.

‘Just coming,’ Anna replied. ‘She stopped to buy some sweetmeats from a stall.’

‘There she is!’ The little boy turned and pointed to a figure in a pale, shimmering dress and black gauze cloak advancing across the bridge. Her bonnet shaded her features, but as she drew level with her husband the light from a Chinese lantern cast a red glow over her face. I stared at Mary Austen in utter confusion. There was no mistaking the masculine nose and jaw and the pitted marks on her skin. It was the woman in the Pump Room; the woman I had seen with Henry.

There was an explosion of what sounded like gunfire from the canal bank below us. Plumes of jewel coloured sparks lit up the night sky. A flotilla of punts sent up fiery cascades that burst overhead with a fearsome crackle. There were cheers and sighs of awe as faces turned to the heavens. My thoughts were all disordered. Each soaring sky-rocket, each fizzing Roman candle and whirling Catherine wheel was a merciful distraction. While the fireworks sparkled and spat I was relieved of the burden of making polite conversation with Jane’s brother and his wife.

I stole a glance at them as the crowd oohed and aahed at a spurting, many-coloured volcano. She had taken his arm and, although taller than him by an inch or more, he was reaching across with his other arm to grasp her wrist, as if offering protection from the raging firestorm. What had I been thinking of, to imagine that this woman was Henry’s latest amour? Was my judgement so awry that I saw flirtation where nothing more than familial friendship existed? What, after all, could be more natural than a man accompanying his sister-in-law to the Pump Room and keeping her amused while, perhaps, her husband took a warm bath next door?

My eyes fell on young James-Edward, who was jumping up and down to get a better view. Yes, he had a definite look of Henry: the same nose, the same eager, smiling countenance. He looked nothing like his father or his mother. But that was not so unusual, was it? I had come across it before, a child more closely resembling the brother or sister of one of its parents than either of the parents themselves.

As the firework display reached its finale, with a pergola of golden arrows arching across the canal, I determined to stop taking the least interest in anything involving Jane’s family, other than what politeness demanded. Let this be a lesson to you, I said to myself, thinking what a mercy it was that I had not told Jane of the encounter in the Pump Room.

‘Good evening Miss Sharp! I did not expect the pleasure of your company again!’ The voice was behind me, so close it made me jump.

‘Uncle Henry! I thought you weren’t coming!’ It was Fanny who saw him first and darted around me to claim him before the others spotted him.

‘Well, Fanny, I wasn’t going to – but when I heard that your dear old governess was come to town I thought I must come and pay my compliments.’

I couldn’t see his face, for I had not yet turned around. But I imagined him looking the picture of innocence as he said it.

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