The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 21

Imade the journey to Jane’s village in the last week of September, having left Mrs Raike in London at the home of her cousin in Cheyne Walk. There was not much to see as the mail coach crossed the border into Hampshire, for a veil of low cloud hung over the trees and hedgerows, blurring the autumn colours. The horses slowed to walking pace as we drew near to Chawton. The Winchester road was a mess of mud and fallen leaves and a mizzle of rain had turned the roofs of the houses a darker shade of gold. Jane was at her usual post in the front parlour, where she was making some alterations to Emma. She spied me through the window and came running out of the cottage as I stepped down.

‘You look so well!’ She held me at arm’s length, her eyes fixed on mine. I caught my breath, for I could not return the compliment. She looked different in a way I couldn’t quite define: thinner in the face, perhaps; a little paler than usual. I put it down to the poor summer we had had and the strain of completing yet another novel.

Her writing slope was on a little table with the manuscript piled on top and I begged for a glimpse of the new book. ‘Later,’ she chided, steering me to a chair beside the fire. ‘You must get warm first: your fingers feel like dead eels.’ I frowned at my big, ugly hands, which were indeed white with cold. I wondered if they disgusted her. She saw my face and drew me to her, kissing me on my nose and forehead. ‘I have missed you,’ she whispered. ‘And Cass is going to Scarlets tomorrow so you shall have her bed.’

I murmured a silent prayer of thanks to the Leigh-Perrots for inviting Cassandra to stay this week of all weeks. I was sorry that I would see her only briefly, for she was good company and never jealous of my friendship with her sister, but the prospect of waking up with Jane each morning was as wonderful as it was unexpected.

The creaking hinges of the parlour door made us jump apart. A girl appeared with a tray of tea. She was a new maid called Jenny Butter, who blushed to the roots of her fair hair when Jane introduced us. ‘Miss Cassandra sent a note by William Parry,’ she said, backing out of the room with the tray. ‘She and Miss Martha are held up at Wyards with Mrs Lefroy. Nothing to worry about, she says, and she’ll be back in time for dinner.’

‘I still can’t get used to Anna’s new name,’ Jane said when the maid had gone. ‘It makes me feel very ancient, having a married niece. I shall be Great Aunt Jane in a few weeks, you know.’

I did know, for Anna had written to tell me of her pregnancy. She had been married a little less than a year. When the engagement was announced I couldn’t help wondering what Jane must feel, knowing that her niece was about to become what she had once hoped to be. Ben Lefroy was a young cousin of the Tom Jane had told me about; the handsome Irishman she had fallen in love with at twenty.

‘It’s such a pleasure to have her living so near,’ Jane went on. ‘She gets books from the circulating library and brings them here to read aloud. We have such fun, making the characters as ridiculous as possible: Cass laughs so much she has to beg us to stop, for she cries all over her sewing.’

I felt a momentary pang of envy. Anna had taken the very part I would have liked to play in Jane’s life. Rather spitefully, I said: ‘I suppose she will not be able to do that when the baby is born.’

‘No, poor animal! I fear she’ll be worn out before she’s thirty. But it’s all still too new for her to fear what the future may bring.’ She paused, pursing her lips. ‘I wasn’t sure about Ben at first; I never thought of Anna as a curate’s wife. He is as serious as she is saucy – but they don’t seem any more miserable than most married people.’

I returned her wry smile with a click of my tongue. ‘I was quite concerned when she told me she was getting married. I thought perhaps she was being a little hasty.’ I kept back what else had crossed my mind: that Anna was marrying the first eligible man who came along to get away from the stepmother she hated.

‘She was rather young,’ Jane nodded. ‘Ben doesn’t have much money and she spends it on the silliest things – but that will all have to change when the baby comes. Anyway,’ she leaned forward to top up my teacup, ‘we are all dining at the Great House tonight. Edward and his harem are staying there at the moment.’ I raised my eyebrows at this and she gave a little snort and a shrug. ‘He never travels without at least three female relatives for company,’ she said. ‘There is Fanny, of course, who has been like a mother to the little ones since Elizabeth died. Then there is Louisa Bridges, Elizabeth’s sister – do you remember her? Well, she lives at Godmersham now. And there is another addition to the Kent clan – her name is Charlotte and she is the widow of one of the Bridges brothers. The whole party arrived here last month, bringing the four youngest children, the governess and nineteen servants.’

I shook my head, although I was not surprised by the size of the entourage. ‘Has Edward never talked of marrying again?’

‘Why settle for one wife when you can have three?’ She gave me the kind of look I had seen at the ball in Bath when she spotted Mrs Hastings in her turkey hat. ‘He says that Fanny wouldn’t like it if he brought another woman in as stepmother to the children. But as it stands, he has her in that role and one of the aunts on his arm for everything else. Perhaps he will think about marrying when Fanny takes a husband – as she surely will before long – but he seems quite content with life for now.’

And what of Henry, I wanted to ask. She would have written to tell me, of course, if he had taken a new wife. It was more than two years since Eliza’s death and he was not the sort of man to be without a woman for any length of time. But I bit my lip as the question formed. A decade had passed since that summer of intrigue at Godmersham but Henry’s heart, I sensed, was still a slippery subject.

I heard the distant sound of bells from the village church and Jane’s hand went to the pocket of her gown. She pulled out a slim gold fob watch on a delicate chain and flipped it open to check the hour.

‘What a pretty thing!’ I leaned forward to take a closer look. The back showed a tracery of twisting roses with her name engraved in the centre. ‘Where did you get it?’

She hesitated a moment. ‘It was a gift to mark the publication of Mansfield Park,’ she said.

‘A generous gift indeed!’ I replied. ‘Did the publishers send it?’

‘No.’ she snapped the case shut and put it back in her pocket. ‘It was Henry. He bought it.’ She looked at me and blinked, as if she was bracing herself for an interrogation.

‘Well,’ I said, rather taken aback, ‘that was very kind of him, I’m sure.’ I wondered if this gesture had been made in memory of Eliza, who would certainly have been thrilled to the core by her cousin’s success. I was about to ask when Jane’s face warned me against it. There was an odd look in her eyes, like a dog guarding a bone. I turned my face to the window and made some stupid remark about the weather. When I turned back she was on her feet, halfway to the door.

‘I’m just going to rouse Mama,’ she said, ‘She’ll be so cross that she was asleep when you arrived – she’s been longing to see you.’

I had only seen the Great House from a distance. It lay at the western boundary of the village, surrounded by acres of pasture and woodland. To reach it we crossed the meadow that lay between the cottage and the barns flanking the estate. The light was beginning to fade but I could see the pattern of flints in the brickwork of the ancient building, with a cluster of late blooming roses hanging over the north door.

‘You’ll find it very different from Godmersham, won’t she Mama?’ Jane turned to help her mother as we climbed a narrow path that skirted the largest dovecote I had ever seen. ‘It’s all dark wooden panelling and Jacobean hanging staircases.’

‘Some of the chambers are rather dark,’ Mrs Austen nodded, panting a little, ‘but the dining room is splendid with a fire.’ A chorus of cooing broke out behind us, as if the pigeons were all in agreement about this.

‘It’s such a shame about the weather.’ Cassandra linked her arms through mine and Martha’s as Jane and her mother fell behind. ‘The parkland is so beautiful at this time of the year when the sun shines on the changing leaves: we must take you for a walk tomorrow, if the rain keeps off.’ She led us through a cluster of laurel bushes, which showered us with raindrops as we brushed past. ‘It’s rather dirty, this way, I know,’ she said, clicking her tongue at the rising tide of damp on the hem of my gown, ‘but it’s so much quicker than walking along the drive.’

I told her that it didn’t matter, that I would soon dry out by a good fire. But I was worried about Jane. She was shivering by the time we reached the steps that led through the stone arch to the front door. Cass had noticed it too. With a glance at Martha and a murmured apology to me she withdrew her arms and removed her shawl. Martha went over to Mrs Austen and engaged her in talk of Edward’s children while Cass took Jane aside and wrapped her up. Jane might have been her child, standing there still and uncomplaining, as this was done. I saw it more clearly than ever, then: that these were the roles they had slipped into; that Cass’s fulfilment in life came from nurturing her sister, whether it was Jane’s health or her writing that required it.

As we stood in the draughty vaulted porch waiting for admittance there was a clatter of hooves and a crunch of gravel. A carriage and four bowled up to the steps and as the driver reined in the horses I saw Anna’s face pressed against the window. I quite expected her to leap out, as she would certainly have done in years past, but I had forgotten her condition. When the footman came to open the door I was shocked at the change pregnancy had wrought on her body. I suppose I still thought of her as a child, so to see her like that, barely able to walk for the weight of her belly, made me catch my breath.

She had to stand sideways on to kiss me. Then she introduced me to her husband, who was dark-haired, stick-thin and very earnest. Someone was getting out of the carriage behind him. It was little Caroline, the half sister who had been born the year Jane and I met. At ten years old she was not as pretty as Anna had been; I saw that she had the same strong jaw and large frame as her mother, who was following her up the steps.

At that moment Edward’s voice boomed out from behind the door. The years had not been kind to him. Close to fifty now, his face was grown ruddier than ever and he looked almost as broad as Anna round the waist. I recognised the woman at his side as Louisa Bridges. Her eyes were very blue, like Elizabeth’s but she had a very different air now; quite prim in a plain grey gown with a white lace tucker covering her neck and shoulders.

Waiting in the Great Hall was another member of what Jane had so wickedly described as Edward’s harem. This woman I did not recognise, but Martha introduced her to me as Mrs Charlotte Bridges, wife of the late Reverend John Brook Bridges. She had red hair and a sprinkling of freckles and I was struck by how young she looked: not very much older than Anna, I thought. She seemed rather unsure of herself as she greeted me. I saw her smile at Edward as he handed Jane a glass of mulled wine and ushered her towards the roaring fire. Louisa was at the other end of the room, instructing one of the servants. I wondered how they got on, these two single women with their wealthy male protector.

‘She was married only two years when he died,’ Martha whispered as we moved away. ‘No children, sadly. But she dotes on Edward’s.’ I wondered then if Edward was grooming Charlotte to fill the role Fanny would have to forsake when she married and started a family of her own.

‘Where is your father?’ Mrs Austen’s voice startled me. She was standing behind me, and like many elderly people who are a little deaf, tended to speak very loudly in a crowd. Her question was addressed to Caroline, who was perched on a little stool so close to the fireplace she was almost in it.

‘In bed,’ the child replied. ‘Mama says he has one of his stomachs.’

I had to suppress a smile at this, for she had made James Austen sound like a cow, with several digestive organs at his disposal.

‘What have you been feeding him, Mary?’ Mrs Austen fixed a beady eye on her daughter-in-law, who was tugging at the shoulders of Anna’s gown in a bid to cover up her swelling bosom.

‘Feeding him?’ She frowned as she plucked a hatpin from her reticule. ‘Why, nothing at all! He won’t eat a thing: says the very thought of food makes him feel bilious.’ With a sudden stabbing movement she stuck the pin through the back of Anna’s bodice. ‘Don’t move!’ she hissed, as the girl flinched. ‘There! Now you look decent at last.’ Turning to her mother-in-law she said: ‘I told him, you know: “Your daughter is the one who is supposed to be bilious, not you,” I said. Such a sensitive soul, poor Austen: always was and always will be. He thinks it’s him having the baby, not her.’

Mrs Austen looked askance at this description of her eldest son. She opened her mouth but was prevented from delivering any kind of reply by the arrival of Fanny, who was a few minutes behind her father in coming to greet us. She looked very fine in a white sarsnet gown trimmed with silver and a silver ribbon braided through her hair. Seeing her beside Anna it was harder than ever to believe that they were of an age. Apart from gaining a few inches in height, Fanny looked much the same as she had at thirteen. She was not a beauty like her mother but her skin had all the fresh bloom of youth and when she caught sight of me her face lit up with a dazzling smile.

‘Miss Sharp! Is it really you?’ She put her arms round my neck and hugged me in just the same way as when she was a child.

‘Oh dear,’ I said, ‘Have I changed so much?’

‘Not a bit!’ she said kindly, ‘But I hope I have! And what do you think of Anna? A wife already and soon to be a mother!’ If she was envious of her cousin’s new status she hid it very well. We became so engrossed in catching up on the years that I failed to notice when the door of the Great Hall opened again.

‘Good Lord, Henry! What are you doing here?’ Edward gave a throaty chuckle as he clapped his brother on the back. I saw Fanny’s brow tense into a row of fine lines I hadn’t noticed before. She was looking at the new arrival, as was everybody else in the room. The only one who did not look surprised was Mary.

Henry was ushered towards the fireplace. I overhead him telling Edward that some unexpected business with the Alton branch of his bank had brought him to Hampshire on horseback. He had called at the cottage to find no one but the cook, Hannah Pegg, at home. It was she, he said, who had told him of the gathering at the Great House.

‘Trust you to arrive just in time for dinner!’ Edward was smiling broadly. ‘We shall have some sport tomorrow, if you can keep away from the counting house for a few hours: I took a brace of pheasants from Knickernocker Copse this morning.’

They fell to an earnest discussion of the relative merits of the shooting to be had at Chawton and Godmersham, upon which I eavesdropped with some amazement. There seemed to be no edge to the conversation; nothing to suggest that they were anything other than the best of friends. Apparently Edward had no suspicion that Henry had been anything other than a favourite brother-in-law to his late wife.

Their conversation was brought to an abrupt halt by the summons to the dining room. As we were eleven females and just three men, Henry and Edward were required to sit at opposite ends of the huge table. Ben Lefroy was seated in the middle, opposite Anna, who could barely get her chair close enough to eat in comfort, and the rest of us were arranged around them. Louisa Bridges was seated at Edward’s right hand and Fanny on his left. Charlotte Bridges was on Henry’s right and Mary Austen sat to his left. Jane and Mrs Austen were either side of Anna, with their backs to the fire, and Martha and I were opposite, with Ben in between us. Caroline squeezed in between Martha and her mother and Cass took a seat beside Jane.

Sitting in that room was like being transported into the imaginary world of Sense and Sensibilty, for the house reminded me very much of Colonel Brandon’s Delaford: a nice old fashioned place, full of comforts and conveniences. The gilded frames of portraits of Edward’s adopted ancestors reflected the warm glow of the fire; the polished mahogany table glimmered beneath the light cast by three towering candelabra. Nine steaming silver platters were arranged in a diamond formation, the largest one in the centre. The combined smells of buttered crab, stewed hare, roast goose and boiled oysters wafted around the room as the pot-bellied covers came off.

Anna announced that she was starving and her plate was soon piled high with crab and pickles, for which she said she had a particular craving. As she went to spear another morsel of claw-meat she knocked her butter knife off the table. It landed with a clatter somewhere between her chair and Mrs Austen’s. She bent to retrieve it, but her figure prevented it. Mrs Austen reached down but Henry got there before her. He bowed low to pick up the knife and from my vantage point directly opposite, I saw his eyes glide over Anna’s body as he straightened up.

‘We can’t have you and Mama cracking heads,’ he grinned. ‘Where have all the servants gone, Edward? Have you given them the evening off?’

During the genial banter that followed I glanced around the table, wondering if anyone else had caught what I had seen. Ben seemed unperturbed, and was well on the way to clearing his plate of the great mound of stewed hare heaped upon it. Jane was the wrong side of Anna to have noticed anything and so was Cassandra. Fanny was fiddling with her napkin and her eyes were downcast. Mary Austen was picking at the oysters on her plate but every so often she would steal a furtive glance at Anna. Was that resentment or concern in her eyes? I could not tell.

Henry was regaling Charlotte Bridges with some incident that had befallen him on the ride from London. Leaning back in her chair and fanning herself, she looked like a delicate flower that might wilt under the power of his beaming smile. At the opposite end of the table Edward was deep in conversation with Jane and Louisa about a review he had read of Mansfield Park. Louisa wanted to know when the next book was coming out and what its title would be. ‘Will there be a character with my name in it?’ she asked. ‘I should so love it if there was!’ Jane arched her eyebrows and said that she would just have to wait and see.

‘Beware of what you ask for,’ Edward said, wagging a finger at Louisa and cocking his head towards his daughter. ‘She might make you someone impossibly good, like Fanny Price.’

Fanny’s eyes narrowed at this. ‘Better to be impossibly good than truly vile, like Henry Crawford!’ Her head shifted just a fraction of an inch towards the other end of the table and her father roared with laughter.

‘Oh yes! Poor Henry! I had quite forgotten about him.’

Louisa was laughing too, now, and Cassandra, who had been talking across the table to Ben Lefroy, wanted to know the cause of their merriment. I watched them all in fascination. Jane, for once, seemed lost for words and Fanny was sitting back, arms folded, with a rather supercilious look on her face. How can Edward laugh? I thought to myself. Is he blind? Did he not recognise his brother on the pages of Mansfield Park?

If Henry overheard the conversation at the top of the table he affected not to notice. He had drawn Mary, Anna and Mrs Austen into his conversation with Charlotte, having hit upon possibly the only thing the four women had in common, which was that all either were or had been married to men of the cloth.

The hubbub at Edward’s end soon died down and Jane, I thought, looked relieved when Louisa started talking about plays instead of books. After several unsuccessful attempts at engaging Ben in conversation, I finally found some common ground in the subject of the education of young people, whereupon he told me at great length of his plans for the instruction of the new baby, who, it seemed, was going to be read extracts from the Bible as soon as it drew breath. It was a relief to me when Edward got to his feet and drank a toast to the ladies, which was our cue to withdraw upstairs.

Mrs Austen made a beeline for the fireplace, where she settled herself in an armchair and promptly fell asleep. The others gathered round the coffee tray – all except Fanny, who took herself off to a little alcove at the far end of the room. She stood at the window with her back to everyone, as if she was searching for something in the darkness.

‘Not much to see out there tonight,’ I said, setting a cup down for her on the window sill. There was no moon nor any stars in evidence, for the thick cloud had not dispersed. The drive was a ribbon of charcoal in a black landscape; even the tower of St Nicholas’ church, just a hundred yards distant, was hard to distinguish. I heard Fanny draw in a slow, deep breath, but she said nothing. I remembered this little routine. It meant that something was bothering her; something she wanted to talk about but wouldn’t unless she was pressed.

‘You don’t seem quite yourself this evening,’ I began. Another heavy sigh. ‘Has someone done something to upset you?’ Silence. I tried another tack. ‘It must be hard for you, being the eldest; having always to set an example to the little ones.’ I paused a moment, then said: ‘It must seem very unfair: Anna has had none of your responsibilities; if I was you I’m sure I would resent her.’

‘It is not Anna’s fault!’ Fanny’s voice was a hissed whisper. Ah, I thought, now we are getting somewhere. I fixed my eyes on the window pane, waiting for her to spill it out. ‘Didn’t you notice him? He was all over her! He can’t help himself, you know.’ There were only two men she could be talking about and I was pretty certain it wasn’t Ben Lefroy. ‘Don’t tell me you didn’t see it,’ she went on, ‘His eyes were out on stalks! There’s something about women when they’re with child: he was always hanging around my mother, you know – and Anna tells me he was just the same with Aunt Mary when she was expecting Caroline.’

‘Yes, I did see it,’ I said, trying to keep my voice neutral. Her words had sent a chill through my heart. I turned my face towards her but avoided her eyes.

‘Why do you think he does it?’ I saw her jaw flex as she clenched her teeth. ‘I’ve tried to make allowances because he’s my uncle and I’m meant to love him. I say to myself: He has no children of his own – and that could be the reason, I suppose, but I just find it so… revolting.’

I glanced over my shoulder before reaching out to squeeze her hand. The others were all looking at something Louisa was passing round. It looked like a miniature or a silhouette: from that distance I couldn’t tell. ‘I don’t think he realises he’s doing it,’ I whispered. ‘I’m sure you’re right about the reason: it’s a shame that he and your Aunt Eliza were never able to have children – he would have loved to be a father, wouldn’t he?’

‘Yes, I suppose he would,’ she sighed. ‘Why doesn’t he just marry someone else, though? Somebody younger than Aunt Eliza who could give him a child?’

There she had me. I murmured some platitude about grief taking a long time to heal, which, in Henry’s case, I did not truly believe. She had presented me with an entirely new reading of her uncle that disturbed me greatly. If her observations were correct, Henry was either a vile pervert whose obsession extended to his own niece, or a man of deep feeling whose own sense of loss made him overly attentive. I had to question every assumption I had made about him. Could I have mistaken what I saw that night at Godmersham for brotherly affection? Elizabeth had not looked as if she was with child at the time, but she might have been; for all I knew she could have suffered a miscarriage before it was generally known that she was expecting. Could Jane have mistaken the look that had passed between them that same night? Had Elizabeth been telling him of her condition as he helped her into the carriage? If a man wanted a child so badly, might his face display that kind of intensity, that kind of longing, when told of such a thing?

‘I’m surprised he hasn’t proposed to Aunt Charlotte.’ Fanny shook me out of the web of speculation I was spinning. ‘She’s only two years older than me, you know,’ she muttered, glancing over her shoulder. ‘She has those ugly freckles, of course, but she has pretty hair, don’t you think?’

‘Oh…er, yes,’ I stuttered, struggling to take in this new, unexpected twist. ‘Do…do you think they like each other?’

Fanny shrugged. ‘She’s very shy and quiet and he always tries to make her laugh when he comes to stay, which is nice, I suppose. But he’s nice to everyone, isn’t he? Prince Charming. That’s what Caky calls him.’ There was more than a hint of resentment in her voice.

‘Do you like Charlotte?’ I asked.

‘She is all right, I suppose.’ Fanny stuck out her bottom lip in the way I remembered so well. For a moment she was a sulky twelve-year-old again, not a woman of two-and-twenty. ‘The children seem to like her, although Lizzy doesn’t. But Lizzy doesn’t like anybody very much at the moment: that is why Papa sent her away to school.’

I was not surprised at this. Lizzy was the sixth of Edward’s children – the next eldest daughter after Fanny. I calculated that she must be almost sixteen now. She had been a little tomboy when I was at Godmersham; it wasn’t difficult to imagine her kicking against any new woman brought into the household after her mother’s death.

‘She’s at Mama’s old school in London,’ Fanny went on. ‘Uncle Henry takes her out sometimes, to an exhibition or a play.’ She gave me a sideways look and pursed her lips, as if to say: ‘Why can’t he find someone outside the family to go about with?’

‘Fanny, dear, you must come and have a look at this!’ Louisa was beside us. With a conspiratorial glance at me she took Fanny’s arm and tugged it. The girl followed her unwillingly across the room, where the others were waiting with smiles on their faces. I saw Cassandra hand the picture they had all been examining to Fanny. She frowned for a moment and passed it on to me. It was a miniature of a man with wide, rather vacant-looking eyes and a Roman nose. His brown hair was styled in the current fashion but it was tinged grey at the temples.

‘Who is he?’ Fanny asked.

‘Sir Edward Knatchbull,’ Louisa replied. ‘He is the eldest son of a baronet and he is looking for a wife.’

‘He looks very old.’ Fanny wrinkled her nose. ‘He must be even uglier than he is painted if he has not managed to find a wife by now.’

‘I would not call four-and-thirty old, would you, Jane?’ Louisa was trying not to smile too broadly as she said this: she and Jane were almost the same age, which was half a decade more than this gentleman. ‘Anyway,’ she went on, ‘he did have a wife but she died last year.’

‘Oh?’ Fanny looked hardly more interested than before. ‘I suppose he has a gaggle of children, then?’

Louisa folded her arms across her chest. ‘I believe there are children, yes.’ Her face told me that his wife had probably died giving birth to the youngest. She would not say so, of course, for fear of upsetting her niece.

Fanny let out a great sigh and turned to me and said: ‘You see what they are trying to do to me?’ She looked about her. ‘How many are we in this room? Ten women altogether. And how many of us have husbands?’ She glanced at Mrs Austen, who was snoring gently in her armchair, then at Mary, who was staring into space. Her head moved slowly from left to right, taking us all in before she fixed her eyes on Anna. ‘Just two out of ten live in the married state. What do you say, Anna? If you could turn the clock back by one year, would you marry Ben again? Or would you choose a single life?’

Anna, who was already flushed from the food and the heat of the fire, turned a deeper shade of red. ‘How can you ask me such a thing?’ she said, spreading her hands over her stomach. She looked about her for some word of support but an uncomfortable silence had fallen over the room.

‘I’m sorry, Anna.’ Fanny swooped down and kissed her cousin rather roughly on the forehead. ‘I shouldn’t have. But I just can’t help feeling I’m being pushed out of this family by people who haven’t the courage to do the thing they are urging me to do!’ With a glare at her aunts she stomped out of the room, slamming the door as she went.

‘Was that a gun?’ Mrs Austen sat bolt upright, her eyes wide with fright and her toothless mouth gaping. The others fussed round her, glad, I suppose, of the distraction.

‘Should I go after Fanny, do you think?’ I whispered to Jane.

‘She’s better left alone,’ she replied. ‘The problem is that she wants to marry but she’s terrified of having children. She’ll go up to the nursery now and climb into bed with little Brook-John or Cassandra Jane and cry herself to sleep.’

There was no chance to talk to Jane alone that evening, but the next night, when Cassandra had gone away, we sat before the fire in Jane’s bedroom, discussing the occupants of the Great House. We talked mostly about Fanny, whose outburst had greatly disturbed me. ‘She’s so grown-up in some ways, isn’t she,’ I said, ‘but I suppose it’s a terrible strain for her, having always to be an example to the others.’

Jane leaned forward in her chair and poked the fire. A tongue of orange light shot up the chimney. ‘You know that she actually saw her mother drop down dead at the dinner table?’

‘No, I did not.’ Little wonder, then, I thought, that the girl has such a morbid fear of giving birth: how awful to see your own mother collapse and die while you, a helpless child, stood watching it happen. ‘It must have been very hard for her,’ I said, ‘stepping into her mother’s shoes at such a young age. I’m sure it would be a terrible wrench for her to have to leave the family before they are all grown. But Louisa seems very keen to marry her off.’

‘I know what you’re thinking.’ Jane stretched out her hands to the flickering coals. ‘But I don’t believe Louisa has designs on Edward. I think Fanny’s observation was quite astute, actually: Louisa has never struck me as the type who would marry. I think she has the perfect situation at Godmersham – all the trappings of married life with none of the encumbrances.’

‘It would not be very seemly, anyway, would it, for him to marry his dead wife’s sister?’

‘I’m sure James would not approve: I’ve heard him give at least one sermon about the immorality of such things, although I don’t see the harm in it myself: who better to take on the care of motherless children than their own aunt? And why should that aunt be forbidden from marrying her brother-in-law because of some arcane verse in the Old Testament? It’s not as if it was enshrined in something weighty, like the Ten Commandments.’

I nodded agreement. ‘It leads to so much pretence, and there is enough of that in the world already,’ I said. ‘I suppose that if Louisa is happy with things as they are, she has a vested interest in keeping Edward from marrying anybody else.’ I leaned closer to the fire, my outstretched hands casting shadows that swallowed the ones she made. ‘Was Louisa playing a game with Fanny?’ I asked, ‘Championing Sir Edward Knatchbull because she knew her enthusiasm would have the opposite effect?’

‘I wouldn’t be at all surprised:’ Jane replied. ‘Louisa is much deeper than she looks. Ten years ago she was a poor, shy little thing; a pale imitation of Elizabeth. But look at her now: she has everything that once belonged to her sister.’

‘Yes, I suppose she does,’ I frowned. ‘What about Charlotte, though? Is she interested in your brother, do you think?’

‘Not that one.’ She turned onto her side, propping her head on one hand. I couldn’t see her eyes, for they were cast in pools of shadow. ‘She has had a lucky escape, I think. Elizabeth’s brother died before he managed to get her with child. Otherwise she might have become another poor animal.’

‘Is that the way she sees it, do you think?

‘She has never said that, exactly, but when I watch her in company I see someone who shies away from men as if they carried some dangerous disease. Edward is the exception: with him she feels safe, because of his loyalty to Fanny. And in that respect, she and Louisa are exactly alike.’ She moved her hand to her chest and coughed a little. Then she bent over and rubbed her legs. ‘I don’t know why it feels so cold in here. It would be warmer, I think, if we got into bed.’

I hung back as she eased herself out of the chair. I watched her untie the dimity ribbons that held back the drapes, uncertain what she wanted me to do. I saw her reach under the pillow for her nightgown. ‘Will you undo my buttons?’ she said, turning her back to me. ‘Cass usually does them for me, but…’ she trailed off, standing there, patiently waiting. Like a child. The thought intensified the guilt I felt in wanting her beside me. I fixed my eyes on the ceiling as the dress slid from her body; turned away as she stepped out of her underclothes. I heard her shiver as she pulled on her nightgown. I took a step towards Cassandra’s bed. Then I felt her hand on my arm. ‘Hurry up and get undressed,’ she whispered. ‘I need you to warm me up.’

I could have refused, I suppose: made some excuse about being too tired to stay awake. But I didn’t want to exile myself to that other bed – even if the agony of her closeness kept me awake all night.

‘My legs are like icicles,’ she said, as I slid under the covers. ‘Will you rub them for me?’ She winced as I touched her. Her skin was very cold; unnaturally cold, I thought, for one who had spent the evening next to a fire. She lay on her back as I worked away. ‘What wonderful hands you have,’ she sighed, ‘so strong and warm!’ She could not see the wry expression her words provoked. Nor could she have guessed what torture it was to rub her limbs like a butcher salting meat when what I wanted was to caress them.

After a few more minutes she said she felt better and I settled down onto the pillow, forcing myself to turn away from her. I felt her hand go round my waist as I tucked my back into the curve of her body. She was quite unaware of the powerful sensation this caused. As I lay there, stock still, the image of that other hand, encased in its white glove, swam before me in the darkness. It stayed with me as I drifted in and out of consciousness, twisting and stretching and melting into a face. It was a woman’s face, and she was trying to tell me something. I remember nothing more, for sleep took me to a place where there was no one but Jane and me; a place where we could lie like this for all eternity.

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