The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 16

Icould not be certain what was in Henry’s mind that night. I suspected that he had come to get the measure of me, to judge whether I might be about to disclose something of the circumstances of my departure from Godmersham to his sister. He walked with us back to Trim Street, where Cass and Mrs Austen were already in bed. Showing no inclination to leave, he stole the precious time I would have had alone with Jane. It wanted but half an hour till midnight when he offered to escort me back to the White Hart. I had intended to take a sedan but he waved that idea away. To my relief Jane insisted on coming with us. I avoided his eye as we said our farewells, dreading what he might say to Jane on the way home. Would he give his version of events to forestall anything I might say?

The thought of this robbed me of sleep for many hours. It would be so easy for Henry to turn Jane against me. I knew just how persuasive he could be. He had all but convinced me of his innocence that night in the library at Godmersham. How much more willing Jane would be to swallow what he fed her: what sister would not want to believe that she had been wrong about such a thing?

I turned it over and over in my mind. I reminded myself that Henry could have done all this months ago if he had chosen to. Why wait until now to sabotage my friendship with Jane? Did he underestimate the strength of the bond between us? Did he think that once I had left Godmersham I would be out of the way forever? Please, I whispered, don’t take her from me! I don’t know who I was entreating – Henry or God above – but I prayed that night as I hadn’t done since my mother died.

When at last I drifted off to sleep I dreamed not of Henry or Jane but of Mary Austen. She was with her sister Martha in the house at Worthing, stirring a pot that hung over the fire. When Martha turned away Mary dipped her finger in and smeared her lips crimson. They stretched wide open, revealing sharp white teeth like a cat’s. I knew that she was saying something but I couldn’t hear what it was. I had to guess the words from the shapes her lips were making. The painted mouth bunched into a tight red bud, slid out then gaped wide. Don’t tell Jane. Again and again she repeated the phrase and each time her lips swelled in size, sucking me towards them. The moment I entered the dark cave beyond her teeth I awoke with a start. The counterpane of burgundy damask had fallen over my face in the night and the sunshine piercing the curtains had set it all aglow. I threw it off and ran to the window, taking comfort in the sight of milkmaids and lamp snuffers going about their business.

The dream came back vividly as I sat before the looking glass, arranging my hair. The foxing on its silver surface gave me Mary Austen’s pock-marked skin. The reflection also held the pot of lip balm her sister had made for me. Without looking down, I reached for it and pulled off the lid. My finger touched the sticky red wax. You have a dangerous imagination. The voice in my head was as clear and alarming as the dream. I jumped to my feet, seized the little pot and ran to the window. The catch was stiff but I pulled with all my might. It gave with a shower of rust and I leaned out, hurling the pot as far as I could. It flew in an arc across the street and landed noiselessly in the still, blue shallows of the river.

I was too agitated to eat breakfast that morning. My stomach lurched every time the head waiter came near our table because I saw him delivering letters to other guests and I convinced myself he had a note for me from Jane. If Henry had done what I feared, Jane would lose no time in cancelling tonight’s rendezvous with me. She would, no doubt, be tactful and polite about terminating our friendship. Perhaps she would pretend to be ill and unable to admit any visitor to the house in Trim Street. This illness would persist for the whole week of my stay then, when I was safely back in Yorkshire, she would pack up for Southampton and neglect to inform me of her new address.

But by eleven o’clock that morning no note had arrived. I began to relax a little and managed to drink the coffee served to us in the lounge. Mrs Raike was reading the front page of the Bath paper aloud to me. She had got as far as the column that announced new arrivals to the town.

‘Oh,’ she said, pausing as she read out the names, ‘This man’s wife is a very dear friend of Miss Gowerton. They were out in India together. She has asked them to meet us in the Pump Room at midday.’

‘Who is the man?’ I asked.

‘Warren Hastings.’

‘Oh, is he come to Bath?’ I said, unable to conceal my surprise.

‘It will cause quite a stir, I am sure,’ Mrs Raike nodded, ‘but we must remember, he was acquitted from that bad business. There is no stain upon his character. Miss Gowerton assures me that no one speaks of it now.’

She had no idea, of course, that I had any knowledge of Mr. Hastings apart from what had been written in the newspapers. I thought of telling her that I had once met Eliza, his goddaughter, but decided it was too slight a connection to merit her attention. In any case, she had moved onto the subject of her dip in the warm bath, which she would take in half an hour’s time.

‘I will take a sedan, I think, my dear. I know it is only a short distance but at my age one can’t be too careful. I should not like to catch cold when I come out.’

That seemed a most unlikely eventuality, for when I stepped outside to hail a chair the brightness of the day made me blink. There were so many new buildings in Bath, all made from the same white limestone, that when the sun shone upon them the effect was quite dazzling. I shaded my eyes and scanned the streets, half afraid of spotting Henry lurking in some shop doorway, ready to pounce. But there was no one about save the hawkers and carriers. I told myself that my fears about him were groundless, that he must realise I had nothing to gain and much to lose by telling Jane the real reason for my departure from Godmersham. And that being the case, why would he risk telling her himself?

My errand accomplished, I hurried back upstairs to make Mrs Raike ready for her sedan. At a little before one o’clock she emerged from her sweating-in, all pink and smiling and ready for the rendezvous at the Pump Room. We spotted Miss Gowerton through one of the downstairs windows of the White Hart. She was standing on the steps beneath the colonnade, in conversation with a short, stout old gentleman whose coat buttons twinkled in the sun, and a woman in a bonnet for which at least half a dozen birds must have been sacrificed, so elaborately was it trimmed.

‘Oh! They are come already! We must make haste!’ Mrs Raike almost tripped on her gown, so eager was she to meet the man whose life, a decade earlier, had been chewed up and spat out for public consumption. ‘They say the trial ruined him,’ she whispered, as I took her arm to help her across the cobbles. ‘Miss Gowerton says it has taken him seven years to recover some measure of the fortune he once had. Of course, he was fabulously wealthy when he lived in India. They say that he bought his wife from a German baron on a boat to Madras!’

‘Bought her?’ I looked at her, astonished.

‘That is what they say, yes, and Miss Gowerton does not deny it, though, of course, she would be the last person to spread rumours about her friend. Apparently, they met when this lady entered his cabins by accident. Then Mr Hastings fell ill and she nursed him, staying at his bedside day and night. Before they reached Madras he was in love with her. So he summoned the husband, asked his price, and by the time they disembarked the bargain was made.’

‘And this lady is his wife still?’ This bizarre tale of romance on the high seas was very much at odds with the description Jane had given, of the greedy old dame who talked with her mouth full and pinched Eliza’s servants black and blue.

‘Indeed she is,’ Mrs Raike replied. ‘A strange way for a marriage to come about, I’m sure you are thinking, yet she has stuck to him through thick and thin.’

We were making our slow progress up the steps now and I could hardly wait to meet the woman with the aviary on her head. What must the young Eliza have made of her godfather’s strategy for finding a new wife, I wondered? Had she taken her cue from him in cooking up her plan to marry Henry?

‘They had no children of their own,’ Mrs Raike went on, gripping me tightly as we took the last step. ‘He adopted her two boys and they say he already had a daughter from an affair with a married lady in India.’

‘Really?’ I guided her around the colonnade and through the doors.

‘The child is still living, I believe, although of course, she is not a child any longer. Miss Gowerton says she married a French nobleman who went to the guillotine.’

With a shock of recognition I realised that she was talking about Eliza. I searched my memory for what Jane had said: something about Eliza’s mother being lucky to have a child because she had been married for many years when her daughter came along…

‘It is a good thing you are so tall,’ Mrs Raike was craning her neck, trying to see over the heads of the crowds of people in the Pump Room. ‘Leave me in this chair and come back for me when you have found them.’ I did as I was bid, although I had difficulty focusing on the sea of faces around me, so preoccupied was I with Mrs Raike’s revelation.

After a while I did spot Miss Gowerton and her companions sitting round a low table in one of the alcoves. I managed to convey my employer across the room without anyone treading on her poor feet and, as we drew near, Warren Hastings stood up with a little courtly bow. When he removed his hat I saw that the top of his head was completely bald, with just a few wisps of white hair at the side. This, I thought, is a man quite devoid of vanity, a man who could hide his pate with a wig but chooses not to. His blue-grey eyes were heavily pouched and sat beneath a pair of bushy brows. He smiled a greeting but there was a very wistful look about those eyes: not surprising, I supposed, for a man who had spent six long years on trial and seen his money guzzled by greedy lawyers.

His wife was the very opposite of what I had expected. From the distance of the inn it had been impossible to discern her features, but I now saw that despite her age, which must have been close to sixty, she was remarkably beautiful. Her hair, which peeped out from beneath the monstrous hat, was a rich auburn with not a strand of grey. She had wide slanting eyes of a striking emerald, and high cheekbones in a face that bore very few wrinkles. Yet when she smiled it was a cold smile; a snake’s smile.

The introductions over, Mr Hastings helped Mrs Raike into a chair and pulled one out for me beside his own. The three older ladies fell into conversation immediately; Mrs Hastings fanning herself with a set of feathers plucked from the same unfortunate creatures that adorned her hat. I sat there feeling very awkward in the presence of a man who was so well known but of whom I had just received the most scandalous intelligence. He must have sensed my unease, for he drew me into conversation with a smiling enquiry about my impressions of Bath, responding to everything that I said with a warmth and sincerity that seemed entirely genuine. Whatever he may or may not have done in the past, I thought, this is a man who has borne suffering and emerged the better for it.

We had moved on to the topic of the recent victory of the English fleet at St Domingo when I spotted Henry Austen over his shoulder. He appeared to be alone this time. He turned towards us and I dipped my head but it was too late. He was coming across the room. Obliged to dodge sideways by a group of elderly ladies who stepped into his path, he approached from a different angle and must have been very surprised indeed when he saw who it was that I conversed with.

‘Mr and Mrs.Hastings!’ He covered it very well, pretending that it was the gentleman and his wife he had sought out in the first place, ‘And Miss Sharp! What a pleasure it is to see you again! I had no notion that you were acquainted.’

I felt myself colour and my heart began to thud. I saw Mrs Raike’s brow lift with the question I knew she must ask, if not now, then later. But she had no need, for Warren Hastings did it for her.

‘My dear Austen!’ he said, rising from his chair. ‘How is my sweet Betsy?’

I gathered in the course of the conversation that followed that it was Eliza he was referring to. Then he turned to me with a smile and said: ‘Now, tell me, Miss Sharp, how comes a lady of your intellect and refinement to be acquainted with a rapscallion like this?’

‘We have met at Godmersham, sir,’ Henry cut in before I could say a word. ‘Miss Sharp was governess to my brother Edward’s eldest girl.’

I was looking directly at him as he said this and I swear there was not the slightest hint of embarrassment in his countenance. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the plumes on Mrs Hastings’ hat shift and shiver. She was whispering something in Miss Gowerton’s ear. A moment later, Henry bid us all adieu and disappeared into the crowd.

‘So, Miss Sharp,’ Mrs Hastings snapped her fan shut and jabbed the air with it, narrowly missing Mrs Raike’s left eye, ‘You have met Mrs Henry Austen?’ her accent put me in mind of a small, growling dog.

‘I…I have met her…once,’ I stammered, aware of the eyes of all the company upon me. ‘I found her very charming and refined; a most elegant lady.’ Mrs Hastings’ eyes narrowed at this. I wondered what lay behind her enquiry. Was she party to the gossip Mrs Raike had repeated? Was she jealous of Eliza’s place in her husband’s affections?

‘She is an excellent hostess, is she not, Mr Hastings?’ She turned her snake smile on him and he nodded. ‘The last time we were there, Miss Sharp, we met another member of the Austen family but it was not the one you worked for.’ She emphasised the last two words as if to draw attention to my lowly status. ‘It was one of the sisters, wasn’t it?’ She turned to him again. ‘What was her name?’

‘It was Jane,’ her husband replied. ‘Jane Austen. And we took her to the opera.’

‘So we did!’ Mrs Hastings flung her fan open and began beating the air. ‘What a queer creature she was! I think she spent more time watching the people in the audience than the ones on the stage. On the hunt for a husband, I suppose, poor thing.’ She gave me a smug look; the sort of look that only a woman who has had a surfeit of husbands could give.

Well, unlike you, madam, she’ll not end by selling herself to the highest bidder. That was what I wanted to say. But of course, I uttered no such thing. I took a deep breath and said: ‘You are quite right, Mrs Hastings, in observing that Miss Jane Austen is a truly original creature, but I fear you were mistaken in thinking it was husbands she was hunting at the opera: you see, she collects characters in the way that some people collect insects.’ I smiled brightly into those cold emerald eyes. ‘She pins down the vainest, the ugliest, the most ridiculously attired and stores them in her memory. Her powers of description and mimicry are such that when she brings her specimens out it is impossible to keep a straight face.’ I tried not to glance at the hat, although it was hard to resist.

Mrs Hastings pursed her lips. Then, without another word to me, she turned to Miss Gowerton and Mrs Raike and started talking about a performance of The Rivals that she had seen at the Theatre Royal.

Mr Hastings leaned towards me and whispered: ‘Pay no heed to my wife, Miss Sharp. She is a Russian, from a city called Archangel, where they spear fish for breakfast.’ He gave a smile that crinkled the pouches under his eyes. ‘She can be rather brutal without realising it.’ I smiled ruefully back at him. I was thinking of the sisters with the bad breath; of the lady with the fat neck and the pink husband; and I was wondering if Jane’s victims would use such words to describe her.

The Pump Room emptied at lunchtime. The vile-tasting spa water seemed to have had a miraculous effect on Mrs Raike, for no sooner had the Hastings and Miss Gowerton departed than she had me almost flying across the cobbles to the White Hart.

‘Well, my dear,’ she gasped as she sank onto a dining chair, ‘What a drama! I knew the child was called Betsy, but I had no idea she had married again – and to the brother of your old employer!’ She looked over her shoulder then, lowering her voice, said: ‘She is the one, you know: the one I was telling you about!’

I didn’t want to snuff out her excitement by letting on that I had already grasped this, so I affected some surprise and said: ‘Does Mrs Hastings know, do you think?’

Mrs Raike’s eyes widened like a child spying sweetmeats. ‘I think she must know the substance of it, even if her husband has withheld the details. According to Miss Gowerton it was the talk of all India.’ She leaned a little closer. ‘She told me that Lord Clive was so outraged by the behaviour of the woman that he forbade his wife from having anything to do with her when they returned to England.’

‘Oh?’ I said, ‘And did Miss Gowerton reveal the name of this woman?’

Mrs Raike shook her head. That is something, at least, I thought. How awful for Jane to have her aunt’s name bandied about in the Pump Room by the likes of Miss Gowerton and Mrs Hastings. ‘Do you think Mrs Hastings resents her husband having this secret daughter?’ I asked. ‘She seemed very discomfited by my having met her.’

‘I would say that she had no reason to be jealous unless there was a question of inheritance,’ Mrs Raike replied. ‘If Mr Hastings were to leave Daylesford to his natural daughter rather than to his wife’s two sons, then I should think she would be most aggrieved. My cousin says it’s one of the finest houses in Gloucestershire.’

I could imagine the look in those snake eyes if such a thing came to pass. Then something occurred to me. ‘Does she know, I wonder?’

‘Who, dear?’

‘Mrs Henry Austen. Does she know that Mr Hastings is her real father?’

Mrs Raike stroked her chin. ‘I really have no idea. Miss Gowerton never said.’

Jane would know. This thought struck me suddenly and forcefully. Eliza had told Jane all about her mother sailing off to India to find a husband; she had told her things that, at the time, Jane was probably too young to know about. From all that I had heard, Eliza sounded like the sort of person who would positively revel in a secret of this sort, especially as she had hardly known the man she called Papa.

‘I must lie down, now, dear.’ Mrs Raike raised a shaky hand to her heart, which conveyed to me that she was fagged beyond endurance. ‘Will you have some luncheon sent up to my room?’ I concealed a smile as I helped her to her feet. However tired she was, Mrs Raike never liked to miss a meal.

When I had settled her I went to my own room, for I had no desire to eat alone in the dining room. No sooner had I closed the door than I heard knocking. It was one of the young boys the inn employed as porters.

‘A message for you, Miss,’ he said, thrusting a card into my hand with a saucy grin. ‘The gentleman awaits you downstairs – shall I tell him you are coming?’ I turned over the card. The name Henry Austen Esq. stood out in bold black letters. My first instinct was to tear it in two and send the boy back with a tart reply. But I had seen enough of Henry to realise he was unlikely to be deterred by that. No doubt he would bribe the boy to get me downstairs on some other pretext. Unless I was to spend the rest of the day imprisoned in my room, I had better go and hear what he had to say.

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