The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 19

Iwish that I could dwell on the joy of dancing with Jane that last night in Bath, of breathing her in as I held her in The Duke of Kent’s Waltz. I took a bottle of lavender water back to Yorkshire to remind me of the scent of her, and to relive the days we spent together during the long, dark months when work and family ties kept us far apart.

I wish, indeed, that I could continue this memoir as I originally intended it to be: an honest portrayal of Jane and her family and the depth of my attachment to her. But a few days after recording my memories of the ball I made a discovery that transformed my perception of the tragic events that unfolded in quick succession of my visit to Bath. Suspicion has weighed so heavy on my mind that I have been unable to write anything for a long, long time. In taking up my pen again there is a sea change in my motivation; a pressing need to clarify thoughts that are too dangerous to voice.

There was a brief lull before these calamities began, during which my life in Yorkshire continued much as before the trip to Bath. I decided that enough time had elapsed to claim an improvement in my eyesight and before long I was reading novels to Mrs Raike every evening. One night I happened to get up during the reading to close a window that had been left ajar and I spied Rebecca, tucked behind the door, listening. She ran off in tears when she realised I had seen her. It took me a while to comprehend what the matter was but, with the aid of a paper and pencil, I managed to persuade her to draw pictures of what troubled her. The explanation was quite simple: she could not speak but she could hear quite clearly – and she loved to listen to the stories we read aloud each night.

With Mrs Raike’s encouragement, I began trying to teach her to read. It was more of a challenge than anything I had ever attempted but she was an eager pupil. Within a month she had mastered the alphabet and was able to draw pictures of a hundred words whose written shape she recognised. It was a wonderful thing for me to behold her progress. I had missed teaching more than I realised and Rebecca gave a new dimension to my life, a sense of purpose.

Before long she was able to write sentences as well as read them. She would sit alongside me sometimes when I wrote letters, copying passages from the Bible or a favourite book. Sometimes I read snippets of Jane’s letters aloud to her, for if she found something amusing it seemed to stick in her brain all the better.

‘It will be two months on Friday since we left Bath for Southampton,’ Jane wrote to me in August. ‘What happy feelings of escape! I do not think I told you what happened the night before we left: Captain J. came from next door to bid us all adieu but when he arrived Mama and Cass were still upstairs packing. I was forced to entertain him in the parlour while we waited. As I went to pour him a glass of wine he said: “Well, Miss Austen, I suppose this is my last chance?” whereupon he seized the bottle from my hand and tried to kiss it (my hand, not the bottle, I should say). I did not wish to wound the poor old gentleman – in body or in mind – but this surprise attack produced the strongest reaction from me. I swung my other hand at his head and caught him on the nose (which, being fat and purple, was an easy target). Mama and Cass appeared at that moment to find him bleeding all over Martha’s rag rug. He told them he had tripped over it and banged his face on the mantelpiece. I did not want to add to his humiliation by contradicting this: I only hope that his new neighbours will not be a gaggle of husband-hunters – the excitement could prove fatal.’

I laughed with Rebecca over this, although I have to admit that the thought of anyone trying to claim Jane, however unlikely their chances, made me jealous. I squirreled away every fond word, every tender phrase that she bestowed on me. And when I wrote back I tried not to betray myself. Her letters were full of the other people in her life while I, with a much smaller cast of characters to draw on, filled up the page with my opinion of some new book or volume of poetry I had acquired. I itched for news of her novels but I dared not reveal what Henry had told me.

Of him there was no mention in her letters. I wondered whether she regretted confiding her fears about him to me and sought, by silence on the subject, to expunge it from my memory. The only intelligence I received about Henry in the months that followed was from my correspondence with Fanny and Anna and each of them referred to him only indirectly.

Anna wrote in her usual, direct fashion of her fury at missing a trip to London: ‘I am so angry today I can hardly control my pen. Last week I received an invitation from Aunt Eliza. She said that Uncle Henry was coming to Hampshire on business at his bank and would like to bring me back with him for a fortnight’s visit. She promised trips to the theatre and the shops, and, as you can imagine, I was only too eager to accept her invitation. But what do you think? My stepmother took it upon herself to write back on my behalf, turning the offer down flat. She said I had recently suffered a cold and was still weak; the excitement would be too much for me. This, of course, is utter rot. I am as strong as a horse.’ Evidently Mary Austen’s jealousy of Henry’s wife burned as bright as ever.

Fanny, on the other hand, wrote me a very cheerful letter announcing that Uncle James and Aunt Mary were to visit Godmersham for the first time in ten years. ‘I’m so looking forward to seeing Anna again,’ she wrote, ‘and it will be most interesting to see how James-Edward and little Caroline get on with my brothers and sisters. Uncle Henry is sure to come during their visit, so it is a good thing that Aunt Eliza cannot cross the Thames, for there would certainly be war in our house if she and Aunt Mary found themselves under the same roof.’

The next letter I received from Fanny described all the fun the children had had together, although she did not include herself and Anna in this description as both were now in their fifteenth year and thought themselves young ladies. ‘Papa took Aunt Mary and Uncle James to Southampton at the end of their visit,’ she wrote. ‘They all spent a week with Grandmama Austen and Aunts Jane and Cassandra. Uncle Henry stayed behind to keep Mama company.’

I raised my eyebrows at this, conscious of the fact that Fanny had made no attempt to qualify this arrangement: on the contrary, she had stated it quite baldly when she need not have mentioned it at all. Alarmingly, the letter following this one informed me that her mother was expecting yet another child. Her last-born, Cassandra Jane, had not yet reached her second birthday. Once again I had to wonder if Henry was the natural father of this coming baby.

A few months later I went to stay with Jane in Southampton. I anticipated the visit with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Jane had written that Cassandra, her mother and Martha Lloyd would all be away when I arrived, so we could spend the whole week together undisturbed.

‘The wind from the sea makes the house rather cold, I’m afraid,’ she added, ‘but we can share my bed if you like.’ I had shared a bed many times with my cousins. The memory of Catherine and Constance laughing with me late into the night was something I cherished. But the thought of lying beside Jane was as far from that image as the moon is from the sun. I had no idea how it would feel; how it should feel.

Jane’s bed was a wonderful tented creation of white dimity which, with the curtains drawn, reminded me of a ship in full sail. When I climbed in beside her I was trembling and, thinking I was cold, she wrapped her arms around me. I lay there very still until she said: ‘Are you asleep already?’ She tickled me and made me laugh so much I forgot to be afraid. Then we lay with our arms entwined, talking until the bell in the castle square rang two o’clock.

The next two nights followed a similar pattern. I began to feel easy enough to stroke her hair as she stroked mine, to kiss her when we said goodnight. For that brief time I allowed myself to believe what I wanted with all my heart to be true. If what I felt inside was a sin, then I was prepared to face hell and all its demons. The words spoken by Anna at the picnic in Bath came back to me as I lay in her arms: You could have many years of heaven on earth before that.

But on the third night, with a single sentence, Jane snuffed out that flickering hope. ‘I have loved only two men in my life.’ She was lying on her back, her profile a barely discernable silhouette in the dark space we shared. ‘The first was called Tom. He was Irish, the cousin of our friends the Lefroys. We were both twenty years old and we met at a ball in Hampshire.’

‘What happened?’ My question floated up to the canopy. I felt as if my soul was taking leave of my body.

‘We flirted outrageously.’ I could not tell if she smiled as she said it. ‘It went on for about a week, until his aunt put a stop to it.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I had no money and he had a tribe of dependant sisters. They packed him off to London and I never saw him again.’

‘Oh.’

‘Oh, indeed.’ I heard her give a little sigh. ‘I hear of him sometimes. He married well and had three children, I think, at the last count.’

I hesitated a moment, trying to gauge her mood. He breathing was regular. Was she upset by this memory? Did she still yearn for this lost love? I could not tell. ‘What about the second?’ I ventured.

‘I met him on holiday in Sidmouth,’ she said. ‘It was the summer after we left Steventon. He was a curate and he had a brother who was a doctor. They were visiting the town together.’ She did not reveal his name and her voice told me that it still pained her to think of him. ‘We made an arrangement during the holiday,’ she said. ‘We were going to meet there again the following year.’

I was afraid to ask what happened next. I lay there in silence, waiting for her to go on.

‘Papa had a letter from his brother a few weeks after we parted,’ she said at last.

‘What did it say?’ I held my breath.

‘That he was dead,’ she said simply. ‘I want no husband now.’ She reached for me in the darkness, her hand finding mine and squeezing it tight. ‘A little companionship and a dance now and then will suit me very well.’

I kissed her cheek and found it wet with tears. I wiped them dry with the sleeve of my nightgown. Then I told her that I had never loved a man; that I had never truly thought of marriage. I did not tell her about the client of my father’s who had thrust his hand under my skirts as I reached for a book he had requested from the highest shelf; I did not describe the revulsion and self-loathing this had caused me, nor the dread it had engendered of any man’s touch. I have no doubt that such a confession would have provoked the most sincere and tender concern from Jane– but it was not her sympathy I wanted. It was clear, now, that she did not crave what I craved. If I was to keep her close, I must never, ever, give away my true feelings.

‘You are so wise,’ she whispered. ‘When I look about me and see what slaves most women become I think that though I will never be rich, I am happier than many. What an awful thing it must be, to await a confinement: to write those parting letters to friends and family.’

‘Yes,’ I murmured, thinking of the letter Elizabeth had entrusted to me: the letter that had shamed me with its heartfelt expression of love and intrigued me with its postscript about Henry. I wondered if she wrote such letters anew each time a lying-in approached.

Echoing my thoughts, Jane said: ‘I imagine that Elizabeth must have a whole cupboard full of them.’ When she uttered these words, she could not have known of the dreadful event that had occurred just hours before.

She had informed me, upon my arrival, that Elizabeth had been safely delivered of her child, a boy, who had been named Brook-John. There was no reason to suppose that the confinement had been anything other than satisfactory and the mother was evidently recovering well. But on the fourth morning of my visit a letter arrived by express, informing us that Elizabeth had fallen violently ill after eating her evening meal and within half an hour of her collapse she was pronounced dead. She was but thirty-six years old.

The letter had been sent by Cassandra, who had gone to Godmersham to assist with the birth. The following day we received another, which described the terrible suffering the death had wrought on the family. Edward was beside himself with grief, saying that he could not bear to attend the funeral and see his beloved wife laid in the ground. Poor Fanny was clinging to her aunt for comfort while trying to be a mother to the little ones. And then there was Henry, who had apparently arrived within twenty-four hours of Elizabeth’s death. When Jane told me this I had to look away for fear of showing my expression. How on earth could Henry have got there so quickly? It suggested that he had one of the servants in his pocket, primed to inform him of any sudden turn of events. Highly likely, I thought, if he had a personal interest in the birth of Elizabeth’s child.

Jane’s reaction to the death of her sister-in-law, once the shock had subsided, was not quite what I expected. Evidently she was uncertain how to respond, for as we sat writing letters of condolence, she asked me for my opinion of the reply she had made to Cassandra. In it she expressed concern first of all for the children, but after just four sentences she asked if Cassandra had seen Elizabeth’s dead body. ‘I suppose you see the corpse,’ she wrote, ‘how does it appear?’ I wondered why she should ask such a thing but I did not want to make what had no doubt been a difficult task harder by querying her words. I suggested she might add a few lines in praise of her late sister-in-law, but this she rejected outright.

‘How can I eulogise a woman who despised me?’ she demanded. ‘That would be hypocrisy indeed!’

In the end she added a sentence about Elizabeth’s devotion to her children. I thought she had written more than that, but when she gave it to me I saw that most of the new paragraph was about her concern for Edward, and whether or not, when it came to it, he would attend the funeral after all. Then Henry’s name caught my eye. ‘Of Henry’s anguish, I think with grief and solicitude,’ she had written, ‘but he will exert himself to be of use and comfort.’

Anguish. With that one word she had acknowledged Henry’s special place in Elizabeth’s heart. What would become of him now, I wondered? If any of those children were his, he would certainly wish to keep up his frequent visits to Godmersham – but how painful for him, with her gone! In spite of everything that had passed between us, I could not help but feel for him.

But it was Fanny, of course, whose feelings were uppermost in my mind. I could hardly bear to think what it must be like for her, grieving for her mother while having to put on a show of fortitude for her younger brothers and sisters. It was a mercy Cass was there, I thought; between them, she and Sackree would get Fanny through this awfulness.

It never occurred to Jane or to me to question what had happened to Elizabeth. There was nothing unusual about a woman dying in childbirth, even if she had come through many previous confinements without mishap. With hindsight I can see that to murder a woman in the days following her lying-in would be shockingly easy – both in the execution of the crime and its concealment. If someone had asked me at the time if Elizabeth had any enemies, anyone who hated her enough to wish her dead, only one name, I think, would have sprung to mind. And it would have been the wrong one. I have to repeat that to myself in the darkness that descends on me so often now; I have to tell myself that even if I had suspected something was not right, I could not have prevented what followed.

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