The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 24

The memory of the way Jane had looked at me that afternoon in the parlour at Hans Place came back to me many times over the next few months. I would have pressed her for an explanation had not Cassandra come into the room with the news that Edward and the family were going to call in on the invalid on their way home from Paris. As it was, I had to take my leave of her without discovering why the mention of Lizzy’s developing friendship with her cousin had disturbed her so.

On the journey back to Yorkshire I began to form my own theory. While Mrs Raike dozed fitfully, her head tipped back against the velvet banquette, I pieced together everything I could remember about James-Edward and his parents. I could not help recalling my first glimpse of his mother in the Pump Room at Bath; my instinct then had been that Mary and Henry were lovers and the sight of her son later that same day had intensified that feeling. Henry’s stinging warning at the White Hart Inn had strengthened my resolve to keep my nose out of the affairs of Jane’s family. But what if I was right? What if Henry had been dallying with not just one sister-in-law but two? What if the reason James-Edward looked so much like Henry was because he was his natural son? Had Henry fathered bastards on both of his elder brothers’ wives?

It sounded preposterous, but it would explain Henry’s violent reaction to the news that James-Edward and Lizzy were becoming close. What if they were to marry, as cousins so often did? The union would be that of a half-brother and half-sister. No wonder Henry had clung to me like a drowning man when Lizzy left the room. I would have dismissed his anguished pleas as the senseless ranting of a fevered brain had it not been for one thing: Jane’s reaction. She must have suspected what I was now thinking.

I began remembering other little details: Mary’s annoyance when Henry declined her invitation to dance at the ball in Bath and her subsequent hasty departure; her lack of surprise when he appeared unexpectedly at the Great House in Chawton; his decision to go and spend the night at Steventon, where James was confined to his sick bed. All these things seemed to point to just one conclusion: Mary and Henry were engaged in an illicit liaison that had been going on for many, many years. No wonder he does not choose to marry again, I thought: It is as I suspected – he is only interested in forbidden fruit.

As the coach rattled along, leaving London far behind, I attempted to divine the workings of Henry’s mind. Was there some peculiar attraction in seducing the wives of his brothers, as opposed to the wives of any other men of his acquaintance? Was there an element of jealousy involved? I reminded myself of the relative fortunes of Jane’s older brothers; of the fact that Henry had seen Edward plucked from obscurity to be showered with all the advantages money could buy, while James had the automatic right to their father’s living and the family home, with the promise of great riches to come when the Leigh-Perrots died. It wasn’t hard to imagine a bitter resentment taking root in Henry’s heart. Was it a kind of revenge, I wondered, to pursue the women his brothers chose to marry; to defile what they held most dear?

I longed to know if my theory was correct but it was the kind of subject that could only be embarked upon with the greatest subtlety and in the utmost privacy. Certainly I could not write to Jane about it. I knew that it must wait until our next meeting, which I hoped would occur soon after the publication of Emma. I decided that I would use the gold pocket watch as a starting point. She had been so reluctant to tell me that it was a gift from Henry and it struck me that there may have been an ulterior motive for his generosity: I could never believe Jane to be susceptible to a bribe, but I could imagine the watch being presented as a sort of peace offering…his way of saying that the thing she had accused him of would not be repeated.

The first letter I received from Jane after my return from London contained some shocking news. It seemed that the sudden breakdown in Henry’s health had not been due merely to a chance infection: his business empire had crumbled, leaving him bankrupt and his backers with monstrous debts. The signs of impending disaster had been evident for several weeks, Jane said, but he had kept his fears to himself. On the afternoon we had arrived in London he had received devastating news – the exact nature of which he still could not bring himself to divulge – and had literally collapsed under the weight of it.

‘Nearly everyone in the family has lost money,’ she wrote. ‘Edward must bear the brunt of it, of course: he has lost twenty thousand pounds himself and the Crown has ordered him to pay twenty-one thousand in installments on Henry’s behalf over the next twelve months. Uncle Leigh-Perrot is similarly afflicted: he lost ten thousand and must pay the same amount as Edward in installments to the Crown. James lost several hundred pounds, as did my brothers Frank and Charles. Cass had invested one hundred and thirty-two pounds of the legacy left to her by her fiancé and I put in twenty-five pounds and seven shillings, which was my profit from Mansfield Park.’

The losses meant that her mother would no longer receive the allowance her brothers had been making to keep them in comfort at Chawton Cottage, so any plans for travel had had to be curtailed. We had talked of her coming to stay in Yorkshire in the spring but that would not now be possible.

‘Henry has had to give up his house and move in with us,’ the letter went on. ‘Poor Madame Bigeon and Marie Margeurite have returned to France, although they are very despondent about their prospects there. Henry feels wretched about them, of course, but despite everything that has befallen him he has come to Chawton as cheerful as ever. He talks of taking Holy Orders and has already written to the Bishop of Winchester on the subject. He hopes to get the living of curate at St Nicholas, which would give him a stipend of fifty-two guineas a year and allow him to keep a horse.’

The old Jane would have made some joke about the absurdity of Henry’s new-found vocation; the fact that she did not revealed just how sombre was the mood at Chawton Cottage. I wondered why, with all the chambers at the Great House, Henry did not reside there. I could only conclude that the jovial brotherly relationship I had witnessed on my last visit had been brought to an abrupt end by the collapse of Henry’s bank.

Subsequent letters from Jane and other members of the family gave few clues as to the cause of Henry’s misfortunes. Fanny hinted that the crisis had come about because a major backer had suddenly pulled out but she did not name the man nor state the reason why. I wondered if it was Warren Hastings, whom Henry himself had named as one of his chief investors. It wasn’t difficult to imagine him harbouring a grudge towards Henry in the wake of Eliza’s death, a grudge that might turn into outright war if he received some solid evidence of Henry’s misdeeds.

Fanny’s letter made clear her annoyance at Henry’s apparent ability to bounce back from disaster with a beatific smile on his face: ‘The idea of his becoming a curate worries me,’ she wrote. ‘I can think of no one less suited to the role of guiding the spiritual life of other people, yet the Bishop accepted his application without the slightest objection, not even bothering to test his competence in Greek – which, I’m sure, must be very rusty indeed.’

Anna was a little less sanctimonious: ‘Uncle Henry will no doubt be as charming in the pulpit as he is elsewhere. My father and stepmother have invited him to stay at Steventon in the coming weeks so that he may observe the running of a parish at close quarters. It is to be hoped that Reverend Papillon will reap the benefit of this when Uncle Henry returns to Chawton as curate – which he hopes will happen before next Christmas.’

So Henry is under Mary’s roof again, I thought. Would she find him quite so attractive now his money had gone? I wondered if his dramatic fall from grace had chastened him. Did he see it as divine retribution? Perhaps it was not just the promise of a living that led him to embrace the church with such enthusiasm: perhaps Salvation was his quest.

The next letter from Jane brought more bad news but this time it was about her, not Henry. She reported that she was feeling sick and faint and had been confined to bed for a week. She was trying to finish her new novel but found that the slightest exertion fatigued her. ‘Forgive me for making this so very brief,’ she wrote. ‘I promise to write again as soon as I am recovered.’

I had begun writing a reply when a loud cry summoned me to Mrs Raike’s side. She was doubled over on the sofa, clutching at the bodice of her gown and fighting for breath. Rebecca, who had heard it from the kitchen, was beside me in a moment. She didn’t need me to tell her how serious it was. She ran outside to send her father for the doctor.

For the next six weeks I hardly left Mrs Raike’s bedside. The doctor said she was not strong enough to recover from the attack and he doubted if she would live to see Christmas. Sadly, he was right. Rebecca tried to tempt her with all manner of tasty morsels but we could not get her to eat enough to keep a bird alive. I watched her fading before my very eyes.

The weather was bitterly cold and we kept a fire burning constantly in her room, hoping its warmth would revive her enough to sit up and eat a proper meal. On the morning of Christmas Eve she opened her eyes for a moment when Rebecca drew back the curtains. We thought she was trying to get up. But she slipped back onto the pillow and fell into a restless slumber, her breathing slow and rasping. I had heard that sound the night my mother died. As the pale winter sun dipped below the frozen fields, Mrs Raike passed away.

I had been her companion for eleven years and she had become like another mother to me – although in practical terms it was I who had done the mothering. Rebecca, her father and I spent a sad Christmas together, trying to put her things in order and making the house ready to be sold, wondering all the while what we would do for employment now. It came as a great surprise when her solicitor came calling one day in the first week of January to tell me that Mrs Raike had left me a considerable bequest.

He sat me down at the dining room table and read the Will aloud: ‘To Miss Sharp, who has not only been a loyal and compassionate companion to me but also a patient and devoted teacher to my servant, Rebecca, I leave the means to further a talent that deserves wider expression.’ He looked up and, seeing my welling eyes and uncomprehending face, explained what the bequest meant. I was to take possession of two houses owned by Mrs Raike. They lay beside the River Mersey in Liverpool, he said: adjacent properties that formed part of a terrace of villas in a district called Everton. Her wish was that I would transform the houses into a school for girls, with myself as headmistress and Rebecca and her father as housekeeper and caretaker. She had left me an additional sum of money to execute the necessary work.

I wrote to Jane the same day, wishing with all my heart that I could sprout wings and fly to Chawton to deliver the news in person. I began to entertain all manner of foolish fantasies, the chief of these being that Jane could come and live with me, writing in a room overlooking the river while I taught in the schoolroom below. It was foolishness, of course, for I knew that Jane would never leave Cass and Mrs Austen, even if she wanted to, which I doubted. Her last letter had been full of optimism; she felt much better, she said and was able to walk into the town of Alton – some three miles distance from the cottage – although she was not yet strong enough to make the journey there and back on foot. She had finished her latest novel, for which she had still to settle on a title, and was longing to read it to me. She added as a postscript that Anna had just given birth to her second child – another girl – and Henry had been ordained in Winchester. The whole family had been to hear him preach his first sermon at St Nicholas on the Sunday after Christmas.

I wrote to tell her that I would come to see her as soon as I had settled in Liverpool and got the scheme of work for converting the houses underway. If Cass and Martha were both at home when I visited I proposed to take a room at the Greyfriar Inn across the road. It gave me a huge thrill writing those words: Mrs Raike’s generosity had made me a woman of independent means.

I was a little surprised that Jane did not write back straightaway. The time soon came for me to leave Yorkshire and still there was no word from her. I wrote again the week after my arrival in Everton, thinking that she had perhaps sent a letter to the temporary lodgings I had taken in Doncaster when Mrs Raike’s house was sold. It was not until the end of May, when work on the new school had begun, that I received an envelope bearing her familiar hand. I frowned at the postmark, which was not Chawton but Winchester:

Your kind letter found me in bed, for in spite of my hopes and promises when I wrote to you, I have since been very ill indeed. An attack of my sad complaint seized me within a few days afterwards – the most severe I have ever had – and coming upon me after weeks of indisposition, it reduced me very low. Now I am getting well again and indeed have been gradually though slowly recovering my strength for the last three weeks.

My looks have improved a little, for my face was black and white and every wrong colour. I must not depend on ever being very blooming again. My chief sufferings were from biliousness, weakness and languor and as our Alton apothecary did not pretend to be able to cope with it, better advice was called in. The applications of Mr Lyford from the Winchester hospital have gradually removed the evil and I am about to go and reside in a house there for several weeks to see what he can do farther towards re-establishing me in tolerable health.

I am now a very genteel, portable sort of an invalid. The journey is only sixteen miles and Cass and I are to be conveyed there in my elder brother’s carriage, which will be sent over from Steventon on purpose. Now, that is the sort of thing which Mrs James Austen does in the kindest manner! But she is in the main not a liberal-minded woman, despite the recent death of my Uncle Leigh-Perrot bringing vast wealth ever closer. It is too late in the day, I fear, for her character to be amended.

I have not mentioned my dear mother: she suffered much for me when I was at the worst, but is tolerably well. Martha, too, has been all kindness. In short, if I live to be an old woman I must expect to wish I had died now, blessed in the tenderness of such a family and before I survived either them or their affection. You would have held the memory of your friend Jane in tender regret also, I am sure. But the providence of God has restored me and I may be more fit to appear before him when I am summoned than I should have been now! Sick or well, believe me your ever attached friend,

Jane Austen

Thank God, I breathed, as I set the letter down. Clearly she had been very ill but she was getting better. How sensible of Cass, I thought, to take her to Winchester, where she could convalesce under the watchful eye of Mr Lyford, the man who had cured her. I sat down immediately to reply, writing of my great joy at her recovery and the plans I had for the school, which I hoped she would be able to visit when she was feeling stronger.

But when the next letter arrived from Winchester I didn’t recognise the hand. My stomach lurched as I broke the seal and saw Cassandra’s name at the bottom edge of the paper. Cass and I did not correspond in those days, so I knew straight away that she had written in her sister’s stead. Jane must be taking longer than expected to recover her strength, I thought; perhaps the doctor has told her not to overtax herself while she convalesces. The address at the top of the letter was Chawton Cottage. ‘They are home then,’ I said aloud, the wave of panic ebbing a little. My eyes darted down the page:

I grieve to write, dear Miss Sharp, what you will grieve to read. My darling sister Jane, the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, passed away at Winchester in the early hours of the eighteenth day of July. Though she suffered much in her last weeks on this earth she never once complained. She was the soother of every sorrow, always composed and cheerful. It is as if I had lost a part of myself—

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