The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 22

The next day Jane and I were out in the garden after breakfast. The rain and low cloud had gone and the sun felt warmer than it had all summer. Mrs Austen was in her customary garb of labourer’s smock and stout boots, digging up potatoes and onions.

‘She’s marvellous for her age, isn’t she?’ Jane said with a wry smile.

‘How old is she, exactly?’ I whispered.

‘Seventy-six, I think, although she will only ever admit to being over sixty. She won’t let anybody else help with the garden, you know. I think she prefers vegetables to people nowadays – certainly she stays awake longer in their company than she does in ours.’

Martha came out to us then. She was carrying large bunches of dried flowers, which she had unhooked from a rack suspended over the range in the kitchen. She told us the names, but I can only remember one or two. There was feverfew and marigold, the one for headaches and the other for stopping infection in a cut, she said. And I think she mentioned pennyroyal, which is, I believe, principally used for what they call ‘procuring the menses’: in other words, you take it if you think you are with child and do not wish to be.

‘Will you come for a walk with us?’ Jane asked her. ‘We’re going up to the Great House to see the park.’

‘I will if I can,’ she replied. ‘I have to put these to steep, though; the weather has been so damp they’ve taken longer than usual to dry. Don’t wait for me – I’ll come and find you.’

The meadow was full of sheep that morning. They scattered as we approached, their feet rumbling like thunder. Chickens were pecking about outside the barns and a sudden rustling in the hedgerow heralded a pheasant, which came scuttling across the path in front of us. The sound of a shot made us both start. The bird had had a lucky escape, for a few moments later Edward emerged from a thicket above the dovecote, his gun slung over his arm and a brown pointer bitch at his heels.

‘I’m not going to kiss you in case you kill me by accident,’ Jane gave him a little shove as we drew level with him. ‘Have you slaughtered very many yet? I suppose we should take cover: no doubt Henry will come charging out of the bushes any minute with both barrels blazing.’

‘He’s not here,’ Edward replied, rubbing a splash of mud off the barrel of his gun with the sleeve of his coat. ‘He went off with Mary to Steventon last night: said he had some business to sort out with James before he goes back to London.’

‘I thought James was ill,’ Jane frowned. ‘Was Henry planning to drag him from his bed at midnight to talk about money? I hope he wasn’t after a loan: he’d get short shrift from James if he was.’

‘Who knows what goes on in that mind of his,’ Edward shrugged and shook his head. ‘I was surprised, I must say, for no one loves a day’s shooting like Henry. It must be something weighty, to take him away from these beauties. Excuse me, ladies!’ He wheeled round and took aim, felling a bird which had taken the same route across open ground as the one we had seen earlier. ‘Stupid thing! They really don’t deserve to live, do they?’ He whistled to his pointer, who went bounding off to collect it.

Jane shuddered at the sight of the dog returning, blood dripping from the limp creature held in its jaws. ‘Come on,’ she said, ‘I love to eat them but I can’t bear to see them killed. They look so pathetic, somehow, in all their finery.’

As we came in view of the house she stumbled a little. I caught hold of her arm and held it as we squeezed through the gap in the laurel bushes. ‘Are you sure your legs are better?’ I asked her. In bed that morning she had told me that the numbness had gone; that she was feeling like her old self again. Now I wondered if she was telling me the truth.

‘I’m fine, really,’ she replied. ‘It was a stone or a wet leaf or something: my foot just slipped.’ To show me my fears were displaced, she strode out ahead of me, past the east porch and round the side of the house to the terrace. ‘I want to show you the Wilderness,’ she called over her shoulder. ‘I used it in Mansfield Park.’

Martha waved to us across the lawn as we emerged from the dark, silent copse with its hidden pathways cut through groves of ancient ash and beech. ‘Fanny is waiting for you at the Great House,’ she said when she caught up with us. ‘She thought you might like some lunch after your walk.’ She was looking at Jane with an expression of undisguised concern, reinforcing my suspicion that Jane was underplaying the seriousness of whatever it was that ailed her.

‘Is it that time already?’ Jane pulled out her gold watch and consulted it. ‘We were going to see the deer park and the kitchen garden.’

‘There’ll be plenty of time for those another day.’ Martha took her by the arm and steered her towards the house, with an apologetic glance at me. I got the impression that she and Cassandra had a sort of pact between them: Martha, it seemed, took on the role of mothering Jane in Cass’s absence. There was no word of protest at this treatment. Once again, Jane silently complied; surrendering her body to the will of others like a bird with a broken wing.

Fanny was all smiles when she came to greet us, hardly recognisable as the girl who had flounced out of the ladies’ withdrawing room the night before last. ‘Would you like to see the children?’ she asked me. ‘They’re with Caky in the nursery. Marianne has been asking after you. I didn’t think she would remember – she was only about five when you left, wasn’t she? But she said: “Was Miss Sharp the one with the big hands, who used to hide hazelnuts behind her back and make us guess which one they were in?”’

I laughed at this. Yes, I thought, my hands really are the only remarkable things about me. But I felt unaccountably nervous as I climbed the stairs in Fanny’s wake. Marianne would be fourteen now and baby Louisa a girl of twelve; Cassandra Jane would be nine and Brook-John on the brink of his sixth birthday. As the nursery door opened the source of my unease hit me: I feared seeing Henry in their faces.

The person I saw first, though, was not one of the children. It was Sackree, bent over some mending, sitting by the window to catch the light. Well into her fifties now, she had hardly changed at all. Still in mourning black for the husband she had lost twenty years since, and still with that hawkish look in her eyes, even though it was a piece of muslin she was attacking.

‘Oh, you’ve come then,’ she said, without looking up. She might as well have said: Good day to you, Lady Muck: I suppose you think you’ve grown too fine for the likes of us?

Fanny’s face fell. Then she saw that I was smiling. I marched across the room and planted a kiss on Sackree’s forehead. ‘There, you old battleaxe,’ I said, ‘am I forgiven, now?’

Sackree rolled her eyes. ‘Pull that up,’ she said, gesturing to a child’s stool standing near the fireplace. ‘Make yourself comfortable, why don’t you?’

‘Where are the children?’ Fanny was puzzled by our performance, never having been party to the banter we exchanged in my Godmersham days.

‘Gone to the kitchen garden to pick flowers for madam here,’ Sackree replied. ‘A nice little bunch of Deadly Nightshade and Old Man’s Beard.’

With a little gasp of exasperation Fanny turned on her heel. ‘I’ll go and find them. Try to be civil to each other while I’m away.’

Sackree gave me a sly look when the door closed. ‘Well, Sharp, I see that your nose hasn’t got any smaller and your bosom hasn’t got any bigger.’

‘And I notice that you are as fat as ever, my dear Sackree.’ I leaned forward to pinch her arm and fell off the stool, landing in a heap on the carpet. She was shaking with laughter by the time I picked myself up. We both took deep breaths then in a bid to subdue the hysterics that overtook us each time one of us tried to say something.

‘I’m glad to see you looking happy,’ she managed at last. ‘I always thought you seemed so lost in that great big house.’

‘I was.’ I said, wiping my eyes. ‘I’m quite content in my new situation although I miss the company of children.’

She nodded and her face clouded. I asked her if she still missed her husband.

‘Not really.’ She tugged at the black collar of her gown. ‘I wear this for her, not him.’ Catching my blank look she said: ‘It’s for the mistress. I loved her like she was my own child.’ I had never seen such a look as she gave then; I swear her eyes changed colour, from pale blue to grey-green, like the sea on a showery summer day. ‘She was only two years old when I first had the care of her: I was thirteen and come to Lady Bridges as under nursery maid. I remember the first time I ever set eyes on her: such a beauty she was: like a little fairy, that’s what I thought.’

‘She was very beautiful.’ This I could say honestly, knowing I could not bring myself to utter any other compliment.

‘When she married and young Fanny was born she begged Lady Bridges to let me come to her.’ She let out a deep sigh and a single tear escaped her left eye, trickling down the side of her nose to land with a splash on the black bombazine bodice. ‘I never thought to lose her at six-and-thirty. She might have looked like a fairy princess but she was as strong as an ox in her confinements; I never saw such a brave one as she.’

I was framing some response about the awfulness of Elizabeth’s death when the door flew open and a little boy marched into the room with a huge bunch of chrysanthemums held out in front of him like a shield. I could not see much of his face, for the flowers obscured it.

‘Go on, Brook-John: give them to Miss Sharp!’ A pretty blonde-haired child, the very image of Elizabeth Austen, stepped round the door behind her little brother. She looked about eleven or twelve and I guessed that this must be Louisa. Following behind her was another, older girl, whom I recognised from her dark curls as Marianne, and an impish little redhead who could only be Cassandra Jane. Louisa, I noticed, had the distinctive Austen mouth; small and rosebud-like, and an aquiline nose. The other girls had wider lips and smaller noses. Brook-John, when he lowered the flowers, revealed a chubby face with eyes just like Jane’s. When he loses that little-boy softness, I thought, he will be another Henry.

‘These are for you, Miss,’ he said and with a little bow he handed the chrysanthemums to me. The others stood awkwardly in the doorway until Fanny shooed them forward. I reached for my reticule and, to my relief, saw that there was a shilling amongst the coppers that weighed it down.

‘Are you big enough to walk all the way to Alton, yet?’ I asked him.

‘Oh yes, Miss,’ the hazel eyes widened. ‘I went to the fair last week with Aunt Cass and Aunt Jane.’

‘Then you can buy some sweets for your sisters, can’t you?’ I pressed the silver coin into his hand and was rewarded with a smile that made my heart lurch in my chest.

We left the Great House in high spirits, for the children had Fanny and me racing each other around the courtyard with hoops and sticks. I was quite touched to hear them cheering so loudly as I took the lead, until I realised that the racket was made on purpose to provoke Sackree into tipping a jug of water from the nursery window.

‘Is your gown very wet?’ Jane was trying not to smile as we walked down the drive. ‘I should have warned you about them: they’re little devils. Edward’s decided to take them off to Paris tomorrow. He says he’s tired of all the rain and the mud.’ She reached for my arm and linked hers through it. ‘I don’t know why he thinks Paris will be any better; Madame Bigeon says the weather there is hardly any different to London.’

As we reached the end of the drive I saw someone waving over a garden wall. It was a man who looked about Edward’s age, but much thinner and longer in the face. He didn’t call out or come any closer, but carried on doing whatever he was engaged in, which, from the way his mouth opened and closed, appeared to be talking to his laurel bushes.

‘That’s Reverend Papillon,’ Jane hissed as we passed by. ‘He likes to rehearse his sermons in the garden. I am to marry him, you know.’ I turned to her, horrified. Seeing my face she snorted into her handkerchief. ‘I’m sorry,’ she mumbled, ‘I didn’t mean to alarm you. It’s been a joke in the family ever since we moved to Chawton. He lives with his maiden sister and I don’t think he would marry me if I was the last woman on earth.’ She winked at me over the white lace of the handkerchief. ‘I shouldn’t be mean about him: he actually went out and bought his own copy of Sense and Sensibility. After church the other day he asked me if he was the inspiration for Edward Ferrars. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I wrote it fifteen years before we came to live here.’

The cottage was just a few yards away now and I could see Mrs Austen walking up the path with a basket of carrots. I couldn’t help imagining how happy she would have been to see her daughter married to a parson, however laughable Jane made it sound. And to my shame I realised that I was jealous of the Reverend Papillon, for no other reason than that he was a man and I was not.

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