The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 18

There was great excitement on the final day of my visit to Bath, for Jane had arranged that we would attend a ball – the very last one of the season. We were to be accompanied by Cassandra and Mrs Austen, by James and Mary and, of course, by Henry.

Fanny and Anna were desperate to go too, but were considered too young to take part in a public ball such as this. As a compromise they were to be allowed to dress themselves in all their finery and watch the opening dances before being escorted home in Uncle and Aunt Leigh-Perrot’s carriage.

Mrs Raike very kindly arranged for my gown to be sent round to Trim Street so that Jane could help arrange my dress and my hair. ‘Be sure not to run off with any beaux,’ she smiled, as she bid me goodbye. ‘Tell them I cannot spare you!’ I laughed at the sheer absurdity of this. I had, as far as I knew, never attracted the admiration of any man. Neither would I have welcomed such attention. My parents had talked of marriage when I was about twenty years old, but seeing my disinclination for the subject, had let it go. They seemed content to keep me with them, and I wanted nothing more. Their loss left a gaping void that I simply could not imagine being filled by a husband. It had not occurred to me that I was capable of the kind of love my parents had for each other. Only in these past few months had that become clear to me. But my version of that love could never be celebrated, as theirs was; it could not even be acknowledged. I was fearful of what Jane stirred up in me; I told myself I was an oddity; an aberration. To tell Jane how I felt would be to risk losing her forever.

When I arrived at Trim Street Jane ushered me straight up the stairs to her chamber. ‘I have the irons ready for your hair,’ she said, by way of explanation, ‘so you must sit down and let me get to work.’

I sat very still as she applied the hot metal tongs and what I experienced was something close to torture. She did not burn me or pull my hair – she was far too deft for that – but the sensation of her fingers on my scalp was an agonising kind of pleasure. I craved her touch but dreaded the price I must pay for it, which was an overwhelming sense of self-loathing.

Unconscious of my anguish, Jane was absorbed in creating a coronet of ringlets that softened my brow and covered my rather large ears. She had procured a length of blue satin ribbon to match my gown, which she wound into my hair at the back in a most intricate style, finally fixing in three white ostrich feathers. She told me that when I stood up I must remember to bend my head to get out of the room, as the feathers gave me an extra foot in height.

Her own dress was white satin with a gold trim on the bodice and sleeves. Around her neck she wore a topaz cross, bought for her by her youngest brother Charles on one of his voyages in the Mediterranean. ‘Will you fix my hair inside this?’ she asked, taking a gold Mameluk cap from a bandbox. ‘Cass says it makes me look like a Turkish pirate – what do you think?’

I thought that no pirate could ever hope to look as handsome as she did, with her smooth, olive skin and mischievous, sparkling eyes. She took a bottle of lavender water from her dressing table and dabbed some on either side of my neck at the collarbone.

‘There! You are finished!’ She leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek. My hands moved without my permission, reaching out to gather her up. A rap on the door sent them swiftly back down again. Mrs Austen entered the chamber – or rather two peacock feathers appeared from behind the door, with the old dame attached to them. The feathers had been sewn onto the front of a snug-fitting satin cap of the same purple hue as the eye of the peacock. Her gown was of a similar shade and she carried a reticule adorned with shimmering silver sequins.

‘How well you look, girls!’ She leaned back a little, her gloved hands on her hips. ‘Do you know, Jane, it was forty-two years ago that I danced with your father at this very ball the week after our wedding?’

‘Yes, Mama, you have told me,’ Jane replied with a rueful grin at me.

‘Ah! Those were the days! So many young men asking me to dance! Your poor papa was fighting them off!’

‘And I suppose the young men today are nowhere near as handsome or gay, are they Mama?’ Jane’s face was all earnest inquiry, but her bosom quivered with suppressed mirth.

‘No indeed!’ her mother replied. ‘Your brothers are sure to be the only ones worth looking at this evening, more’s the pity. I don’t expect there will be anyone young enough to catch the eye of Fanny or Anna, but I cherish hopes for you girls and for Cassandra.’

Jane looked as if she was going to burst. She put a handkerchief to her mouth and made a kind of muffled snort.

‘You are not going down with a chill, I hope?’ Mrs Austen said. ‘All that tramping about the countryside in the night air! I never did hold with evening picnics.’ With that she made for the door. ‘Make haste now, girls. Cass is ready and Henry has arrived.’

When she had gone Jane fanned her pink face and turned to me with a helpless shrug. ‘Poor Mama! She never gives up!’

But what about you, Jane? I couldn’t help wondering how she felt about her mother’s all-too-obvious desire to see her married. It must have shown in my face for she said: ‘Someone did make a proposal once, you know. He was a neighbour when we lived in Hampshire. His sisters were great friends of mine and he had a large house and a fortune…’ she trailed off, staring at the rag rug upon which she stood. ‘I’d known him since he was a little boy and I loved him almost as much as I loved his sisters. But I knew that I could never love him in that way.’

I could not see her face for her head was still downcast. What did she mean? I wondered for a moment if she felt as I felt; that men held no attraction for her. But her wistful voice suggested that she was not as I was; that she did like men but had fallen for the wrong kind: the kind for whom a parson’s daughter with no money would not do, no matter how clever or captivating she may be.

I wanted to ask her if she had ever been in love but Mrs Austen bellowed from downstairs, urging us to hurry up. I forgot to duck and my feathers were a little lop-sided by the time I reached the hallway. I saw Henry’s eyebrows lift at the sight of me. I was not sure whether he was suppressing a grin at my headgear or simply surprised to see me there at all. Perhaps he had thought to frighten me off with his visit to the White Hart. If that was the case, I thought, grimly, he had underestimated me.

The ball was held in the Assembly Rooms and we found ourselves part of a crush of humanity so dense it was difficult to move beyond the entrance without getting poked in the face by high feathers or elbowed in the ribs by some fan-wielding matron. Mrs Austen spotted a friend sitting on one of the high benches that edged the ballroom and, with some determination, managed to push her way through the throng and take a seat beside her. She beckoned Fanny and Anna to join her, which they did willingly, for it afforded the best view of the assembled crowd.

Fanny was wearing a new gown of pale green taffeta, but Anna was wearing the same rather tight-fitting dress she had worn to the fireworks. I noticed that her father and stepmother were both splendidly and expensively attired. Mary wore an open-fronted gown of fuchsia silk edged with lace, worn over a white satin petticoat. On her head was a hat of the same deep pink, lined with white silk and trimmed with tiny beads of jet. Three ostrich feathers curled from the front: two white and one dyed to match her gown. The soft brim of the hat flattered her face, casting a shadow over the pockmarks.

She seemed very much the master of her husband, summoning him to her side with a flick of her fan when he got caught up with someone of his acquaintance. He wore a mauve waistcoat with a matching silk cravat – chosen, Jane told me, to complement his wife’s costume. Observing him at the fireworks display I had not been able to distinguish his face very well. I saw now that he had similar features to Jane and Henry but lacked the magic ingredient that lit up their faces. He had a look of bored resignation in his eyes, which, together with his unfortunate habit of walking about with his nose in the air, made him appear arrogant and irritable.

When the Grand March was called Mary took James firmly by the arm and propelled him to a place as near to the front of the procession as she could get. Henry escorted Cassandra, leaving Jane and I together. There must have been fifty couples at least, which made the business of walking around the room without treading on the hem of a gown very difficult indeed. As we reached the place where we must curtsey to the Master and Mistress of the Dance we turned to the left and I caught sight of Mrs Warren Hastings. She and her husband were only half a dozen places ahead of us but I could not see him because of the turban she was wearing. It was the size of a goodly pumpkin, but of a creamy hue, with a fountain of black feathers erupting from her forehead.

Jane had spotted her too. ‘Her head looks like a half-plucked turkey,’ she whispered, ‘and she will tickle all her partners till they sneeze.’

We squeezed each other’s arms in mirth when we saw Mr Hastings take out a handkerchief and wipe his nose. It happened during The Duke of York’s Fancy, for which each person retained their partner from the Grand March. The next dance saw Jane and I separated, for her card had been marked by Captain Jenkins, an elderly gentleman who lived next door to the Austens in Trim Street.

‘He smells of dogs and has only three teeth in his head,’ Jane grimaced as she showed me her card. ‘I rather hoped that he would ask Mama, but it seems that I am to be the lucky one!’ As the captain rolled up to claim his prize I saw Henry leading Cassandra to a seat on the bench near her mother. Then he took Anna’s hand and raised her to her feet. I saw a blush come to her cheeks and she would not look up, her long dark lashes attempting to mask the embarrassment her skin betrayed. I saw Henry beckon to his brother, who looked at Mary for approval before moving across the room to join his family. He took Fanny’s hand and the two men led the girls to a little alcove off the ballroom as the music announced the start of The Prince of Wales’ Favourite.

‘Henry is such a darling!’ Mrs Austen declared as I took the seat Anna had vacated. ‘He knows how much those girls were longing for a dance and he has found the very spot: a place where they can hear it all but not be seen by anyone save the musicians.’

Mary did not look in the least bit impressed by this gesture of Henry’s to her stepdaughter. She complained that he had taken James away for what was her favourite dance. Then she began to grumble about the price of the tickets.

‘It is all very well for you, living here,’ she said to her mother and Cassandra, ‘but the expense of visiting such a place is not to be borne! Austen and I have had to have six new outfits each, not to mention James-Edward’s new boots and coat and the baby carriage for Caroline…’ she trailed off into a litany of moans and groans, culminating with the observation that the Leigh-Perrots would do well to give away some of their money while they were still alive to see the benefit it would give.

I stole a glance at Mrs Austen, for it was her brother and his wife that Mary was discussing so disrespectfully. Her face bore a version of the weary irritation I had seen in her eldest son. I was reminded of the words Madame Bigeon had spoken in the kitchen at Henry’s house. Yes, I thought, James is married to a scold.

The dance ended and the girls returned from the alcove bright-eyed with excitement. Henry gave Anna a little bow as he released her and she flashed a shy smile at him. Then Mary was on her feet, getting between them and simultaneously seizing her husband by the hand.

‘It is high time you were going home, girls,’ she said, in a voice that defied any appeal that might be forthcoming. ‘Clarkson is waiting for you over there. Off you trot!’ With a wave of her fan she dismissed them. ‘Now, James,’ she went on, ‘you must take your sister for the next. She pushed his hand towards Cassandra and took Henry by the arm. ‘Brother, do you like The Royal Meeting?’

‘I do indeed, Sister,’ he replied with a wide smile, ‘but I fear I cannot be your partner, for I have promised this dance to Jane.’ With that he set off to claim her from the octopus arms of Captain Jenkins.

James was already on his way with Cassandra and Mrs Austen had gone to see Fanny and Anna off. That left me alone with Mary, who looked as peevish as a cat turned off a cushion. There was noise and movement all about but the silence between us was oppressive. I was racking my brains for some suitable topic of conversation when, to my great surprise, Warren Hastings appeared at my side.

‘Would you do me the honour, Miss Sharp?’ He was holding out his hand to me. From the corner of my eye I saw Mary Austen’s frown deepen.

‘Why, thank you Mr Hastings,’ I said, grateful for this unexpected chance of escape. As he led me away I heard Mary Austen muttering to herself. I could not tell what she said but no doubt it was something spiteful.

For an old gentleman Mr Hastings was very light on his feet. Before long I spied his wife dancing with an admiral whose brass coat buttons looked as if they might fly off with the strain of holding his stomach at bay. He was not sneezing, although he did look very red in the face. She wore a fixed smile and was obliged to shift this way and that to avoid being bumped by his belly. She did not look happy.

After complimenting me on my gown and remarking on the exceptional weather, Mr Hastings revealed the motive for his act of chivalry to me. ‘Tell me, Miss Sharp,’ he said, ‘how was my Betsy when you saw her?’

‘Oh,’ I replied, ‘she looked very well to me. We spent a most pleasant afternoon together.’

‘Was her husband there?’ There was a flicker of something dangerous in his faded blue eyes.

‘Not that afternoon, no,’ I said, cautiously, ‘but he dined at home in the evening.’ I thought it best not to say that Eliza had left the house before he returned. I was mindful of Henry’s warning about the implications for Jane of stoking any suspicions Warren Hastings might already have formed about the marriage.

‘I suppose you saw him more often at Godmersham?’ He smiled as he said it, but I was certain he was fishing.

‘When I worked there, yes,’ I replied.

‘I hear that it is a very fine house indeed,’ he went on. ‘If I had a brother with such a place I daresay that I would be a very frequent visitor.’ I said nothing in reply to this, hoping that a puzzled sort of smile would put him off. It did not. ‘Did Betsy visit much while you were there?’

As luck would have it, the dance demanded a star formation at this point and I was required to turn away from him as we joined our right hands with the couple opposite. The circular walk we next performed gave me time to think of a suitably evasive reply. ‘I’m afraid that I was not always aware of visitors,’ I said, as we came together again. ‘I did not enjoy very good health while I worked at Godmersham. I was sent away to convalesce for several weeks on account of my eyesight. That, in the end, was why I had to quit my post as governess.’

‘Ah,’ he nodded, ‘I am sorry to hear it.’ To my relief he abandoned the subject of Henry, having apparently decided that a woman with bad eyes was a hopeless sort of witness to interrogate. The dance ended and his wife was upon us in a moment, her feathers twitching like the feelers of an ant. She touched her hat with the folded tip of her fan in a gesture that perfectly conveyed her opinion of me and her impatience with him. He bowed and took his leave. As I made my way back across the floor I felt Jane’s hand on my arm. I turned to see Henry standing beside her.

‘Well, Miss Sharp – a distinguished partner indeed!’ His eyes searched mine. ‘I trust that Mr Hastings did not overtax you with conversation? The Royal Meeting is such a vexing dance to perform correctly, is it not?’ Just like Mrs Hastings with her fan, Henry’s message was crystal clear.

‘He was a most considerate partner,’ I replied. ‘Alas, I am not as practiced as he, but I was able to play my part without too much disgrace, I think.’ I saw a smile of relief spread across his face. Jane saw it too and cast me a curious look. But before another word could be spoken James came bustling up to us.

‘Where is Mary?’ he asked, his face agitated. ‘I cannot find her anywhere!’

His inquiry caused us all to go off in different directions, searching inside and out to no avail. When we came together at the high bench we found him talking to his mother.

‘She came running out as the carriage was departing,’ Mrs Austen said. ‘She felt unwell and decided to go home with the girls.’

‘What was wrong with her?’ James frowned.

‘She did not say,’ his mother replied with a shrug. ‘It is vastly hot in here: I expect she felt faint from the dancing. I’m sure that I should have felt so at five-and-thirty with a child not a twelvemonth old!’

I saw someone else approach our little party then. It was Warren Hastings, who had seen our confusion and wanted to know the cause.

‘It was my brother, sir,’ Jane told him. ‘He had lost his wife.’

‘Is that so?’ Mr Hastings inclined his head very slightly and fixed his eyes on James. Then he looked at Henry. With a sage sort of nod he said: ‘You Austen men really should take better care of your wives!’

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