The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 17

Henry had commandeered a private salon for our meeting, a little room tucked away at the rear of the inn, behind the public bar. As I entered he snapped shut the lid of a silver snuff box, which he tucked into the pocket of his morning coat as he rose from his seat.

‘Good morning Miss Sharp.’ The smile was at its most brilliant. His eyes shone like a fox at a chicken coop. ‘Please forgive me for this intrusion: I hope that your employer has not been inconvenienced by my request to see you.’

‘What an eager interest you take in my concerns, Mr Austen!’ I seated myself by the window, in clear view of a couple of draymen rolling barrels across the yard. ‘But what a pity that you have not always been so solicitous of my welfare.’

Avoiding my eye, he paced across the room to the fireplace, where he turned to address me, one elbow braced against the mantelpiece. ‘You can be at no loss, Miss Sharp, to understand the reason for my wishing to speak to you alone. I was most alarmed to see you this morning in the company of Mr and Mrs Hastings. Pray tell me the nature of your connection with them.’

‘Alarmed, Mr Austen? I should not have thought a character such as yours to be susceptible to such extremity of feeling.’

‘Madam, if I have offended you in the past, I beg your pardon, but…’

‘If? Would you feign ignorance of your part in my dismissal from your brother’s house? Do not insult me with such dissembling!’

He hesitated a moment, then said: ‘I beg you to consider the matter from the other side. How would you behave if you felt that you had been wrongly accused?’

His vulpine gaze shook my confidence, made me doubt myself again. ‘Do you continue to deny it, then?’ I spat the words out, determined that he should not get the better of me.

‘I deny requesting your dismissal, yes. That was my sister-in-law’s decision and one for which I can hardly blame her. The reason for this audience is to prevent you from damaging another member of my family with your fanciful ideas.’

I stared at him, incredulous. ‘What on earth can you mean?’

He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, surveying me coolly. ‘I asked you the nature of your connection with Mr Hastings. Are you aware that he is my wife’s godfather?’

‘I am,’ I replied. ‘I suppose that you fear my repeating the intelligence about you and your sister-in-law to him, so that your wife will get to hear about it.’

‘No, Miss Sharp: as usual, you have it all wrong,’ he said, with an air of weary disdain. ‘My wife would not be the slightest bit interested in such accusations, I can assure you. The person I fear would be injured by your gossip is my sister Jane.’

‘Jane?’ This was beyond reason. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘I don’t suppose she will have told you,’ he said, in a very superior tone, ‘for it is something she likes to keep within the family. My sister writes books. Novels, to be precise. She has completed three of them and hopes for publication. Thus far, her expectations have been raised only to be dashed by delay and prevarication on the part of those to whom she has applied. On her behalf, I have found another publisher and am currently at a delicate stage of negotiations.’ Here he paused and nodded, seeing the effect his words had wrought on me. ‘This publisher is a client of mine, an investor in my bank. He is not the principal backer, however. That accolade is shared by two other gentlemen: namely my brother, Edward, and Mr Warren Hastings.’ My eyes skirted the room as I tried to make sense of what he was saying. The voices of the draymen pierced the silence, shouting oaths as a barrel slipped and thudded against the wall. ‘Do you understand, Miss Sharp? If you were to suggest to Mr Hastings…if you were to give any hint of a scandal, of a possible lawsuit brought by my brother against myself…’

Now I comprehended it. His banking empire depended on these two men. If Hastings got wind of Edward pulling out, he would no doubt do the same. Henry’s house of cards would come tumbling down, bringing his sister’s dreams with it. And yet she had not said anything about these novels to me; all I knew of her writing was the glimpse I had had of The Watsons – a book she said was not good enough to show me. I wondered for a moment if Henry had concocted the idea of Jane seeking a publisher as a device to ensure my compliance. She herself had said she thought him capable of almost anything. As if reading my thoughts, he reached into the pocket of his coat:

‘This is from one of the novels.’ He crossed the room and placed the sheet of paper on the table beside me. ‘I expect you will recognise the handwriting.’

I did, of course. The title was First Impressions. Years later I was to recognise this page as the beginning of Pride and Prejudice. I read the first few lines and smiled inside. But it felt wrong to see her work in these circumstances, like sneaking a look at a private journal. I thrust it away and averted my eyes.

‘If you have any regard for my sister you will not tell her that I have let you in on her secret,’ Henry said, taking the paper from outstretched hand. ‘I pray you, Miss Sharp, guard your tongue when in company – not for my sake but for hers. Do not deny her the chance to fulfil a God-given talent.’

He had rendered me speechless. What was I to do? He had found my Achilles heel and pierced it. He knew that I loved Jane; perhaps he sensed what I was only just beginning to grasp: that my feelings for her went beyond what friendship would allow. I studied his face, brazen in victory, no hint of remorse in its expression. Barely able to contain my anger, I rose from my chair. ‘You have said quite enough, Mr Austen. Please leave me now.’

‘Certainly Madam,’ he replied with a little bow. ‘Forgive me for having taken up so much of your time and accept my best wishes for your health and happiness.’ And with these words he hastily left the room.

I returned to my chamber in an agony of mind. My chief instinct was to run from the White Hart to Trim Street and pour out everything to Jane. But I was not foolish enough to give way to that impulse. How humiliating for her to know what her brother had done! I would not subject her to such torture for the sake of revealing Henry’s machinations and calming the beat of my own heart.

I lay on my bed, his face filling the dark space in my head every time I closed my eyes. I saw him more clearly now than ever: saw that his easy, jovial air concealed a hard, ruthless side. That ability of his to spot vulnerability and to milk it for his own ends had obviously served him very well in the world of commerce. Now he was using it to command my allegiance.

That evening a picnic was planned. Jane and I were to walk to Beechen Cliff, taking Fanny and Anna with us. At five o’clock the air was as still and hot as a bake house. Mrs Raike said it was the warmest May she could remember. She was off to the theatre with Miss Gowerton and groaned at the thought of being inside a building with no windows. Desperate as I was to see Jane, I felt I should offer to stay with Mrs Raike and fan her while she watched the performance. But in the next breath she said that if she could stand lying swaddled in hot towels under an eiderdown for an hour, an evening at the theatre should be child’s play. And with that she shooed me off to Trim Street.

As I hurried through the town, passing chairs and peddlers, I carried an image of Jane before me. She was sitting in the library at Godmersham, her fingers stained black and a pen propped in the inkwell beside her. How I longed to ask her about the other novels she had written. How delightful it would have been to spend the evening talking of the characters she had created, the settings she had picked and the plots she had dreamed up. It hurt to think that she could have shown them to me but had chosen not to. Yet I remembered the excruciating agony of self-doubt I had experienced at the thought of showing my own half-written play to anybody else. How much worse it must be for her, I thought, to have come so close to getting published only to be fobbed off with false promises. No wonder she had kept quiet about it.

I had hoped to have Jane to myself for at least part of the evening but it was not to be. When I arrived at Trim Street Fanny and Anna were already there, helping their aunt and the cook to pack the picnic baskets. It was not until we were high above the gleaming white buildings and the lazy river that the girls left us behind, vying to outrun each other to the view point at the top of the cliff.

‘How has it been today?’ Jane asked, slipping her arm through mine. ‘Did you have to endure the Pump Room again? Having to look upon those insufferable people is bad enough, but having to smell them as well – how very vile in this heat!’ I laughed and told her that it had not been so bad. She was very much surprised when she heard to whom I been introduced. ‘I read in the paper that he was here,’ she said. ‘Did he bring his horrid wife?’

I described the feathered accoutrements and the snake smile but left out the spiteful comments about Jane’s want of a husband. I added that I had found Eliza’s godfather quite charming and that he had actually apologised to me for his wife’s bad manners.

‘She is a harpy,’ Jane smiled, ‘but she snared him with her beauty, I suppose. She hates Eliza, you know: she is desperately jealous of Mr Hastings’ regard for her.’

‘Oh?’ I affected surprise, for I had not told her of the encounter with Henry and the look Mrs Hastings had given me when she realised we were acquainted.

‘She tried to marry Eliza off to her eldest son when the Comte went to the guillotine,’ Jane went on, ‘because she fears that Mr Hastings will leave Eliza all his money.’

‘And Eliza refused?’

‘Absolutely. Charles Imhoff is a cruel, talentless oaf. Henry served alongside him in the militia. He told me some awful tales of the way Charles treated his men.’

I thought of Eliza, resplendent in her gilded drawing room, showing off her home to the embittered Mrs Hastings, whose husband was now funding the man Eliza had chosen over her own son. No surprise, then, that the lady had made herself so disagreeable at the musical evening, pinching the servants and criticising the players.

I wanted to tell Jane what Mrs Raike had whispered on the way to the Pump Room: ask her if it was true that Eliza was the natural daughter of Mr Hastings. But my concern for her was far greater than my curiosity. If Jane was ignorant of the gossip, I reasoned, it would come as a terrible shock to her, and if she was not, it would be humiliating for her to know that her cousin was being whispered about in such a public place. But to my surprise, she raised the subject herself.

‘I suppose that you will have heard, if Miss Gowerton is a close friend of Mrs Hastings, what they say about Eliza’s parentage?’

I hesitated a moment before owning it, but she saw it in my face. She gave a little sigh as I repeated what Mrs Raike had said. ‘Is it true,’ I asked her, ‘or just a spiteful rumour from a jealous tongue?’

‘I don’t know,’ she replied. ‘Nobody knows: not even Eliza herself. My Aunt Philadelphia would never discuss it, even when Eliza demanded to know. When she died Eliza found letters – not love letters, exactly, but enough to suggest a deep attachment.’

‘What about Mr Hastings? Surely he could give her the substance of it?’

Jane shook her head. ‘Eliza told me she is afraid to ask. It is a case, I think, of not wanting to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.’

At that moment Anna came bounding up to us, Fanny trailing in her wake. Anna had matured so much since the previous summer that she could easily have been mistaken for a woman of twenty, though she was only three weeks past her thirteenth birthday. Her dark curls twisted over her pink cheeks as she hung her head, breathless from running. I thought how pretty she was. Difficult for the stepmother, I thought, for Mary Austen could never have been a beauty such as this, with her scarred face and her masculine jaw. I remembered what Fanny had said in the bathing machine: about Mary being grumpy and jealous during her last confinement. Beholding Anna now I could well believe it. It was unlikely that Mary’s own daughter would grow to be such a beauty.

We settled ourselves on a patch of short grass sheltered by blossoming gorse bushes and began unpacking the picnic baskets. The sun was still well above the horizon, its golden glow not yet turned amber. Jane tapped Fanny on the wrist when she tried to pluck a sweetmeat from beneath the cloth that covered them. Leaning back on the rug with a pout, Fanny said:

‘Aunt Jane, what is Criminal Conversation?’

Jane’s eyes darted towards mine with a look of surprise tinged with suspicion. ‘Why ever do you ask me that, Fanny?’

‘I saw it in the Bath paper. Aunt L.P. lets me read it, you know,’ she replied, with an air of self-importance. ‘It said: “Lord Craigavon is suing Sir Frederick Sissons for Criminal Conversation with his wife, Lady Diana Craigavon, nee Archbold.” What does it mean?’

‘Well,’ Jane said slowly, ‘it means just what it says, doesn’t it?’ She glanced at me again but before I could think up anything eligible she said: ‘Evidently Sir Frederick and Lady Craigavon have been talking about things that should only be discussed by husband and wife.’

I nodded vigorously and pulled the cloth off the hardboiled eggs. ‘Have one of these, Fanny dear,’ I said. ‘Would you like some cucumber with it?’

‘But surely you can’t take someone to court for just talking!’ the child persisted. I saw her cast a sly glance at Anna. Apparently she had a pretty good idea what the term meant but wanted the sport of embarrassing her aunt. In this, however, she was to be disappointed, for Jane was about to deliver more than her niece had bargained for.

‘Actually, Fanny, you can: although that is a different matter altogether and is called slander. What you have read about is something the Bible teaches. Do you know the Ten Commandments?’

‘Er…yes,’ Fanny blinked at her, uncertain now where this was leading.

‘And what is the seventh commandment?’

Fanny glanced at Anna again, but her cousin was staring determinedly at the hard boiled eggs. ‘Thou shalt not….’ She bit her lip. ‘Thou shalt not commit…adultery.’ A deep blush was spreading from her neck to her cheeks.

‘Exactly right!’ Jane clapped her hands together in mocking applause. ‘And can you explain to us all what that word means?’

‘I…no…not really…’ Fanny stammered, all confusion now the tables had been turned. I almost felt sorry for the child, although she had brought it on herself.

‘Well I suggest you pay more attention when you are in church, then,’ her aunt replied, ‘for if it is human wickedness you are interested in, you will learn more from the Old Testament than from any newspaper.’

Fanny went silent then and everybody fell to eating. But after a few minutes Anna ventured a question on the same theme. ‘What will happen to Lady Craigavon,’ she asked, her lips shedding yellow crumbs of egg. ‘Will she be whipped in the street?’

‘I very much doubt that, as she is the wife of a Lord,’ Jane replied. ‘But I expect that her husband will divorce her when the trial is over. That is what wealthy men do if their wives displease them.’

Anna looked thoughtful as she swallowed the last of the egg. ‘So then she can marry Sir Frederick?’

‘Well…yes…if he does not have a wife already, that is.’ Jane said.

‘Well, if he does, his wife would divorce him, wouldn’t she?’ Fanny piped up. Both she and Anna were looking intently at their aunt, as if they had planned all along to bring her to this point.

‘It is not that simple,’ she replied, picking at a clump of daisies and scattering the heads. ‘A man can divorce his wife for Criminal Conversation but she cannot divorce him for the same reason.’

‘What? Even if she is rich?’ Fanny sank back on her heels, her arms crossed over her chest.

‘She may be as rich as Croesus but she must find some other evidence that he is an unsuitable husband. She would have to prove that he has beaten her or committed some other act of immorality.’

The girls turned to each other with arched brows. ‘That is not fair, is it, Aunt Jane?’ Fanny said. ‘Must a woman feign blindness to her husband’s wrongdoing? Must she forgive him everything even if he makes her hate him?’

‘When was the lot of a woman ever fair?’ Jane shrugged.

‘I know what I would do.’ Anna looked all innocence but her voice was as treacherous as ice on a pond. ‘If I married a man like that I would poison him. I would do it slowly and secretly, so no one would ever know.’

‘Anna!’ Fanny stared at her, open-mouthed. ‘Then you would go to hell when you died.’

‘What would be the difference?’ her cousin replied. ‘To be forced to live with someone you hated, with no prospect of escape, would be hell enough. But if you were clever, if you did not get caught, you could have many years of heaven on earth.’

‘I do not know what books you have been reading, Anna, but I think your papa would be very shocked to hear you talk thus.’ Jane sounded stern but if I was not mistaken, there was a glimmer of approval in her eyes. ‘Apparently you have scant regard for what he preaches.’

‘That may be true, Aunt,’ the girl replied, with a glance at her cousin, ‘but I am not the only one in this family who is guilty of it.’

Her veiled accusation hung as heavy as the gold-laden gorse boughs. Of whom was she speaking? Was it her stepmother? Her uncle Henry? Aunts Elizabeth or Eliza? Jane did not ask and neither did Fanny. Perhaps each was afraid of what they thought she might reveal.

I busied myself with pouring out lemonade, trying to ease the tension with talk of the comings and goings at the White Hart Inn. Jane was quick to respond and before long the girls were absorbed in making daisy chains. Watching their intent, guileless faces it was hard to recall that other, shadow side that Anna had displayed so artlessly just half an hour since. I could not have known it then but the words she had spoken on that sultry spring evening would haunt me just as powerfully as the ghost that had followed me from Godmersham.

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