The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 23

To my surprise and delight Jane was sitting beside me when the mail coach carried me away from Chawton at the end of the week. Her publisher had written to ask for a meeting to discuss the changes she had been making to Emma. We spent the evening before our departure planning all the things we could do together in London.

‘Do you think dear old Mrs Raike will let you out?’ Jane was propped up on her elbows on the bed watching me undress in front of the fire.

‘I’m sure she will, as long as Miss Gowerton is there to keep her company.’ I hesitated a moment. Her colour had not improved during my stay and I was worried about the stiffness in her limbs that she complained of. I longed to have her with me in London but I feared the trip might be too much for her. Eventually I said: ‘Are you sure you won’t be too fagged? The roads are very bad at this time of the year and London is such a frantic place.’

She laughed as if I had said something quite insane. ‘I’m not an invalid! If my legs are a little weak it’s because they are far too idle: walking about London will do me no end of good!’

‘Well, if you are certain…’ I slipped into bed beside her, all too ready to accept this assurance. I rubbed her cold feet while she read the final chapter of Emma aloud to me. We had been reading it together during the week and now she wanted my comments on it before the meeting with her publisher.

‘Well,’ she said, leaning back on the pillows, ‘I want your honest opinion. You are the only one I really trust, you know. My family are far too afraid of my bad temper.’

‘And you think that I am not?’ I poked her gently in the ribs.

‘No,’ she laughed, wriggling away, ‘but you do not have to live with me – that is the difference.’

I fell silent then, for I would have given the world to live with her, temper or no temper.

‘Come on,’ she coaxed, ‘what did you think of it? Does it match up to P. & P.? Is it better or worse than Mansfield Park?’

I took a deep breath. ‘I like it better than Mansfield Park but not so well as Pride and Prejudice. Emma is a very original heroine and Mr Knightley is really delightful; Mrs Elton is wonderfully wicked and Mr Woodhouse endearingly silly; my only real dissatisfaction is with Jane Fairfax: she doesn’t strike me as the sort of person who would have the courage and boldness for a secret engagement to a man like Frank Churchill.’

To my relief, Jane laughed at this. ‘I knew it! I felt it in my bones as I was writing but nobody would tell me: no one else is courageous or bold enough, you see! And you, above all others, know what a governess should be like.’

After much heated discussion about how Jane Fairfax could be altered, we agreed to await the comments of Mr Murray, Jane’s publisher.

The next day, as the mail coach neared London, she told me of her plans for the next novel.

‘I’m going to begin writing it as soon as I get back,’ she said. ‘I shall set it in Bath and Lyme Regis and you will be in it, but I shan’t tell you who you will be: you’ll just have to wait until it’s finished!’ Of course, I couldn’t let her get away with that. I quizzed her all the rest of the way to London, although it did me no good. I was none the wiser about my role in the new book when she took her leave of me. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow,’ she squeezed me tight and planted a kiss on my cheek. ‘Come to Hans Place at about six: I’ll ask Henry what’s worth seeing at the theatre.’

It was nearly dark when I arrived the next evening. Henry’s new house was in Chelsea, not far from Miss Gowerton’s in Cheyne Walk. Jane had not said why he had moved: I suppose it was because his old home held too many memories of Eliza. Number twenty-three Hans Place looked even grander than the house in Brompton.

Madame Bigeon flung her arms around me when she opened the door. ‘Mademoiselle Sharp! Vous nous avons bien manqué!’ Marie Marguerite came running down the hall after her. She was just as affectionate to me as her mother, but I could see from the glances they exchanged that something was wrong.

‘It is Monsieur Henry,’ the daughter said when I pressed her, ‘He came home from the bank yesterday feeling unwell – and now he is much worse. The doctor is here and Jane is with him.’ She told me that it had started as nothing more than a cough but now it had developed into a fever. I asked if she thought I ought to leave but she urged me to stay: ‘Jane wants to see you very much. Please, let me take your cloak.’

I waited in the parlour until the doctor had gone. When Jane walked into the room she looked more tired than I had ever seen her. Her face was chalk-white and she leaned on the handle of the door for support as she closed it. I jumped out of my chair and ran to her, gathering her up and half-carrying her to the fireside.

‘The doctor says he might die,’ she whispered. ‘What am I going to do?’

‘Does Cass know,’ I asked, ‘or any of the others?’

She shook her head. ‘I didn’t want to worry them.’

‘We must write to her immediately. You can’t bear this burden alone: she wouldn’t want you to. Martha can look after your mother for a while longer, can’t she?’

‘I suppose so.’ She looked like a frightened child.

‘What has the doctor given him?’

‘Not much. He bled him this morning and told me to feed him nothing but water.’ She closed her eyes. ‘I’m afraid to leave him: he cries out and says things I can’t understand. Madame Bigeon and Marie Marguerite are angels, I know, but I feel I should be with him all the time.’

‘Then I will stay with you,’ I said. ‘I’ll send a note to Mrs Raike – she won’t mind, I’m sure, when she hears the reason.’

‘But you—’

I held up my hand. ‘Don’t say anything. I’ll stay until Cass gets here. We’ll sit in his room together and if you need to sleep a little I’ll watch him.’

The next two days reminded me of the dreadful vigil at my mother’s deathbed. Seeing Jane so distraught I relived all the anguish, all the helplessness I endured the night before she passed away. It was deeply disturbing to see Henry so altered: the handsome, urbane charmer had been replaced by a dishevelled, tossing creature beaded with sweat who moaned like an animal in pain as he slipped in and out of consciousness.

After the first night had passed and dawn was breaking, I roused myself from the doze I had fallen into to see Jane uncorking a bottle and pouring a measure into a glass. I thought it was something the doctor had prescribed for Henry but to my surprise she drank it down herself.

‘What are you doing?’ I hissed.

‘Fortifying myself.’ She gave me a weak smile. ‘It’s Martha’s tonic wine: I never travel without it these days. Would you like some?’

I shook my head, relieved that she was not so dazed with lack of sleep that she had drunk her brother’s medicine by accident. Henry looked quite peaceful at that moment but a few minutes later he let out a blood-curdling cry that brought Madame Bigeon and Marie Margeurite rushing into the room in their nightgowns. Between us we quietened Henry and made him a little more comfortable. I don’t think that he had any idea of who was in the room but Jane’s voice seemed to have some power over him. When he was lying still we held a hasty conference outside the chamber.

‘There must be something more we can do for him!’ Jane wrung her hands. She looked absolutely wretched; her skin transparent and her eyes red and puffy. ‘Do you think we should call in another doctor?’

‘Don’t you have faith in the one that came last night?’

‘If I am honest, no. He was so unfeeling in the way he behaved. You should have seen him pulling off the leeches: there was blood everywhere; and he spoke of the risk to Henry’s life with no more compassion than a farmer losing a chicken to a fox.’

Her fingers had flown to her cap and she was pulling at her curls; twisting them round and round till they stuck out like horsehair from a mattress. I reached out for her hands and drew her to me, saying: ‘Is there any other doctor that you know of?’

I felt her head move against my shoulder. ‘There is someone,’ she replied. ‘He’s very expensive but Henry can afford it. His name is Doctor Baillie; he is one of the court physicians.’

We waited three tense hours for the arrival of this new doctor. Henry had begun raving again, throwing out his arm as if he was pointing to some evildoer who was about to attack him. We could not tell what he was saying, although I thought I heard the word ‘notes’ at one point and an oftrepeated phrase that sounded like ‘mustn’t tell him’. Doctor Baillie managed to get some sort of sleeping draught down him and he advised both of us to get some rest while we could. He said that until the fever broke there was no way of telling which way Henry would go, and it could be another twenty-four hours before the crisis came.

I suggested to Jane that we should take it in turns to watch Henry so that each of us could sleep in a proper bed rather than a chair. I said I would take the first turn, so that she could be with him when the effects of the drug wore off. She reluctantly agreed to my plan, although she would not leave the chamber until she was sure that he was sound asleep.

That evening, as she lay sleeping, we received an unexpected visitor. It was Lizzy, Edward’s fifteen-year-old daughter, who had apparently been allowed out of school for an evening at the theatre with her uncle and was quite unaware of his illness. Uncertain what to do with her, Madame Bigeon came to tell me that she was waiting downstairs and had begged to be allowed to see Henry, even though he was sleeping. I decided that there could be no harm in it and bid the housekeeper show her upstairs as long as she cautioned the girl to be quiet.

Lizzy had been just five years old when I last saw her, so I hardly knew the beautiful creature who came tiptoeing round the bedroom door. Her dark brown curls were just like Jane’s and she had the most enchanting eyes; not hazel but a pure shade of emerald. She gave me a worried smile of recognition then crept across to the bed. She lowered herself slowly onto the chair Jane had vacated and stretched out her hand to stroke Henry’s arm, which hung over the side of the bed. I held my breath for a moment, worried that she might wake him, but he slumbered on quite peacefully.

‘Go and rest a while,’ she mouthed at me. ‘I’ll stay with him.’

At this point I had been without proper sleep for nearly forty hours. I declined her offer at first, but soon found my eyelids beginning to droop. My head slumped forward and I almost fell out of my chair, making a noise that startled Lizzy and brought me to my senses. Henry moved his head on the pillow but, mercifully, did not open his eyes. I decided then that I should quit the chamber for fear of undoing Doctor Baillie’s good work.

I slipped into bed beside Jane, moving as slowly and quietly as I could. I need not have worried. She was in a deep sleep, having been awake the best part of three days. I lay there a while, unable to drop off despite my fatigue. I must have slept eventually, for when I opened my eyes the candle I had left on the bedside table had burned down to a stub. Jane had her back to me, her breathing slow and regular. I decided not to wake her, but crept out of the room, back to Henry’s chamber. As I neared the door I heard a young voice talking in a conversational way about a meal enjoyed at some London restaurant. It was Lizzy. She was addressing Henry, who was sitting up in bed with a sort of bemused smile on his face and a faraway look in his eyes. As I stood on the threshold I heard her say: ‘James-Edward is very clever, you know; he’s going up to Oxford soon. When he took me out to lunch he said I could visit him there next year, if I wanted.’

She turned then and saw me standing there. With a smile she beckoned me in. If Henry was aware of my presence he showed no sign of it. ‘He’s in a world of his own,’ Lizzy said softly, ‘but he seems quite composed; do you think he’s getting better?’ I replied with my eyes rather than my mouth, still fearful of breaking the tranquil spell the doctor had cast. We sat in silence then for a while and eventually Henry closed his eyes and slid back onto the pillows. ‘I should go now,’ Lizzy whispered. ‘It’s quite late, isn’t it?’ I nodded, though I had no idea what the time was. She said that she would call again soon and asked me to give her regards to her aunt. After a few minutes I heard the clatter of hooves in the street below.

I went to straighten the covers, which had fallen to one side of the bed. As I did so, Henry gave me a fright by suddenly opening his eyes and grasping my wrist. He stared wildly at me for a moment, as if he couldn’t fathom who I was. Then, in a perfectly clear voice, he said: ‘Keep her away from him! Do you hear me? Don’t let him touch her!’

I crouched over the bed, afraid to move a muscle, for I really feared that he was going to strike me. But suddenly he loosed his grip and his arm fell away from mine, as if he had lost the use of it. His eyes closed and his breathing slowed until his chest was rising and falling quite peacefully again. I tiptoed back to my chair, wondering what on earth had prompted this alarming episode. The drugs, most probably, I thought; no doubt they had sucked up some long-buried memory that burst from his brain as a fragment of lucid speech.

I didn’t mention it to Jane when she appeared at the door an hour or so later. I went off to bed and slept soundly until the doorbell woke me next morning. It was Cassandra, who arrived at the same time as Doctor Baillie and quickly took over the duties Jane and I had shared. The next night I was back with Mrs Raike in Cheyne Walk and by the end of the week Jane sent me a note to say that Henry seemed to be over the worst. We were due back in Yorkshire the following Tuesday but she asked if I would come and take tea with her before I departed.

She looked a little less tired than when I had last seen her, but she had recovered none of her colour. Madame Bigeon fussed over her when she brought in the tea things, telling me what a marvel she had been, and how lucky Henry was to have two such devoted sisters. When she had gone Jane gave a wry smile.

‘The French are wonderful cooks but they do exaggerate so,’ she said. ‘She paints me as a selfless nurse when, in fact, I have benefited enormously from poor Henry’s misfortune.’

‘Whatever can you mean?’ I asked.

‘Do you remember me telling you that Doctor Baillie is one of the court physicians?’

I nodded.

‘Well, on his third visit, when Henry seemed to be recovering a little, he asked me if I was the author of Pride and Prejudice. I was very surprised that he had heard of it – and even more amazed when he told me that the Prince Regent admired it greatly.’

‘I am not surprised,’ I clapped my hands with delight, ‘but it is a wonderful compliment, all the same.’

‘You’ll never guess what: he wants me to dedicate Emma to him – the Prince Regent, I mean, not the doctor – and I’ve been invited to the library at Carlton House!’ We rolled about at this, for she had always reserved her wickedest barbs for the Prince Regent, whom she despised for his gluttony, his extravagance and his shameless adultery.

‘Will you still speak to the likes of me afterwards, I wonder?’ I was pleased to see that laughter had brought a little colour back to her cheeks. She swiped at me with her tea plate, sending a shower of cake crumbs onto my lap. For this she attempted to apologise and ended up on her knees, brushing at my gown in a fit of helpless giggles.

The sound of Henry’s voice put a sudden stop to her mirth. He was calling from the landing, asking Cassandra to fetch him the newspaper. Jane stuck her head out of the parlour door. ‘It’s all right,’ she said, glancing back at me over her shoulder, ‘Cass is on her way up now.’

‘He sounds much better,’ I replied, ‘quite like his old self.’

‘Yes, he is.’ She settled herself back on the sofa beside me. ‘I was so worried, though: that night when Lizzy called and I was asleep – do you remember – that was the worst. When you went to bed he started raving again. I really thought he was going to die. He was staring at me as if he didn’t have a clue who I was, then he’d shout out; the same thing again and again: “Keep her away from him! Don’t let him touch her!” It was horrible. I told the doctor the next morning and he said it was the laudanum – but Mama takes that all the time and I’ve never heard her raving; not like that, anyway.’

I told her he had said exactly the same thing in my hearing. ‘It was just after Lizzy left,’ I said. ‘I was worried that she’d disturbed him when she sent me off for a rest.’ I related what had happened, and how I had returned to find her talking to Henry.

‘What exactly was she saying to him?’

‘Oh, just ordinary things: she was telling him about a restaurant she’d been to for lunch. She mentioned James-Edward; he took her, I think. And she said something about going to visit him when he goes up to Oxford. That was all I heard.’

She was staring at me intently, as if devil’s horns had sprouted from my forehead.

‘What’s the matter, Jane? What have I said?’

‘Nothing.’ She shook her head violently, as if she was casting out an idea she wouldn’t own. ‘It must have been the laudanum, like Doctor Baillie said.’

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