The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 25

My first instinct was to throw the letter through the window into the swirling grey depths of the Mersey. I told myself it wasn’t real; it wasn’t true. I doubled over as I lurched towards the casement, retching and gasping for breath. Then, with trembling hands, I read it again. The loops and curves of the words began to writhe like snakes. I felt the same suffocating sense of panic I had felt when my mother died: the thought of never being able to see or talk to Jane again was unbearable. I felt as if my heart had been ripped from my chest.

My next impulse was to leap onto the first mail coach heading south. Despite the evidence I held in my hand, I simply could not accept that she was gone unless I saw her lifeless body with my own eyes. But Cass’s letter was dated the thirty-first of July: she had been dead for two weeks. Her funeral must have taken place already – they had buried her without telling me – I could not see her, even in death. How could they do that? Did they not know what she meant to me?

Of course they didn’t: how could they? The answer came from within; from that part of my brain that saw things as the outside world would see them: a world that would not understand nor wish to understand the nature of my love for Jane.

The wave of nausea surged through me again. I slumped against the nearest piece of furniture, causing it to thud against the wall. Rebecca must have heard it, for she came running up the stairs to see what had happened. I tried to tell her but the words would not come out. I gave her the letter to read for herself and she cried with me when she realised that the woman whose books she loved above all others was dead.

I have little memory of the days that followed. Somehow I collected myself sufficiently to write letters of condolence to Jane’s family. I said nothing, of course, about the hurt I felt at not being able to pay my last respects, for I could well imagine the state of shock Cass must have been in at the time, cut off from the person who was dearer to her than anyone in the world. About a week later Cass wrote back. She sent me two precious mementoes. These were a silver bodkin, which Jane had used for her needlework, and a lock of her hair, a portion of which I fashioned into a tiny plait. I had it mounted in a gold ring, encircled in stones of moss agate, the colour of her eyes. I wear it on the third finger of my right hand and in the mirror it becomes a wedding ring.

It was early September when I made the journey to Hampshire. The school was ready to open its doors but the first pupils were not due to arrive until the fifteenth of the month, so I seized the chance to do what I dreaded and yearned for in equal measure.

The mail coach from Liverpool was hot and airless. By the time it rolled into Winchester the sky had turned a sulphurous yellow-grey. I had two hours to spare before boarding the coach that would carry me to Chawton; time enough to find the place I had visited every night in my dreams for the past six weeks. Cass had offered to accompany me but it was something I needed to do alone.

The cool, dark interior of the cathedral was a welcome relief from the heat outside. The scent of burning tallow and a whiff of incense hung in the air. As a child, I had found the smell of churches comforting but I felt no such sensation now. There were few people about; just a handful of curious visitors come to see the tombs of ancient kings and queens. It didn’t take long to find the tablet of black marble, newly laid in the north aisle of the cathedral. The sight of her name carved in stone paralysed me. It was a while before I could bring myself to move close enough to read the inscription properly:

In Memory of JANE AUSTEN youngest daughter of the late Revd. GEORGE AUSTEN, Formerly Rector of Steventon in this County she departed this life on the 18th July 1817, aged 41, after a long illness supported with the patience and the hopes of a Christian.

The benevolence of her heart, The sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind obtained the regard of all who knew her and the warmest love of her intimate connections.

Their grief is in proportion to their affection they know their loss to be irreparable, but in their deepest affliction they are consoled by a firm though humble hope that her charity, devotion, faith and purity have rendered her soul acceptable in the sight of her REDEEMER.

‘What about her books?’ I said the words aloud, as if the family were gathered there before me. The sense of injustice I felt at this glaring omission temporarily numbed the pain of seeing her grave. Then the enormity of it hit me: her body was lying there, beneath that stone, just inches from my feet. I sank onto a nearby pew, my breathing too fast and too shallow. I tried to calm myself, but my eyes were drawn back to that black slab with its dreaded affirmation of death. Shutting out the sight, I slumped onto the kneeler.

My relationship with God had not been close since the death of my parents; I was the kind of Christian who went through the motions but found it impossible to believe that a benevolent, all-powerful spirit watched over me. But the prayer that I sent up now came straight from my heart: Oh God, if you truly do exist, grant me some sign that she lives on: give me some hope that I might see her again in the hereafter.

I crossed myself and opened my eyes, steeling myself for the empty nothingness I expected. But up ahead something was moving. I could see a woman and a child, hand in hand, coming down the north aisle towards me. The child – a darkhaired girl of about six years old – suddenly broke away and ran ahead. I watched, spellbound, as she came to an abrupt halt right in front of Jane’s tombstone. Kneeling beside it, she traced the letters with her finger. ‘Look Mama,’ she said, as the woman caught up, ‘it’s my name!’

I had to fight back the urge to jump up and hug her. With tears blurring my eyes, I shuffled along the pew in the opposite direction and made my way out into the stifling heat of Cathedral Close. I walked in a sort of daze through Kingsgate to College Street, where I stopped and sat down on a low wall. It was very peaceful there, away from the main thoroughfare. All I could hear was the cawing of rooks in the tall trees that shaded the little street. When I had recovered myself I walked slowly past the houses, searching for number eight. This was the house where Jane had spent the last few weeks of her life.

When I found it I stood for a while on the pavement opposite, looking up at the first floor windows. I wondered if one of these had been Jane’s bedroom. I had planned to knock boldly on the door; ask to see the chamber where my friend had taken leave of her mortal self. But somehow it seemed unnecessary; I felt as if she had stepped from her grave and was standing beside me.

I could see someone working away in the garden as the coach pulled into Chawton. I thought it was Mrs Austen, digging away as usual in her vegetable patch, but as I walked towards the house I saw that it was Cass. I called her name and she straightened up, wiping dirt-streaked hands on her overall.

‘Oh, I’m so sorry!’ She fanned out her hands in a helpless gesture at her clothes. I noticed that she wore a ring on the same finger as me, tiny pearls encircling the braided hair within it. ‘Was the coach early? I wasn’t expecting you for another half an hour.’

She settled me down in the parlour and went off to change. The house was silent, then, for Mrs Austen was in bed with a chill and Martha had gone off in the donkey cart to visit her sister in Steventon. As I glanced around the room, I caught my breath. There was a new picture on the wall: Jane’s face, with that funny, sharp look I remembered so well, captured in pastels. Cass’s work, I guessed. I went across to the portrait and stood in front of it. Her eyes were on a level with mine but looking past me, towards the door; and that small mouth was set firm as if she had spotted an unwelcome visitor come to interrupt her work and was about to mutter some needling remark.

‘Why did you leave us, Jane?’ I whispered. ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were dying?’

I wheeled round at the sound of the door, jumping away from the picture like a child caught stealing cake.

‘It’s not very good, I’m afraid,’ Cass smiled. ‘I wish we’d had her painted in oils by a real artist.’

‘You’re too modest. You’ve captured her perfectly.’

‘I can make a copy for you, if you like.’ She sank down on the sofa and I saw that her eyes were brimful of tears. I went to hug her but that only made things worse. In a moment we were both wiping our eyes and trying to compose ourselves.

‘I still can’t talk about her without weeping,’ Cass shook her head, as if her grief was an unpardonable weakness. I nodded, although I ached to know what had happened in those last weeks of Jane’s life. My head was full of questions but I had no wish to upset Cass further. So I deliberately changed the subject, asking after Anna and her babies.

‘She’s longing to see you,’ Cass said. ‘She said I was to send you over to Wyards as soon as you had unpacked. The little girls are real beauties, although they’re wearing her out at the moment.’

‘Is it far?’

‘Only half an hour on foot. I’d take you myself but I can’t leave Mama.’

‘I’m sure I’ll find it,’ I said. I was pleased to be going alone, for it would give me the chance to talk to Anna without the fear of upsetting Cass. After a bite of lunch I made my way through the village, turning off the Winchester road into a narrow lane. The sky had lightened a little, sending shafts of sunlight on the tufts of cow parsley that stuck out from the hedgerows like bristles from an old man’s chin. Jewelled clusters of blackberries were turning ripe and I couldn’t help imagining Jane, her fingers stained with juice instead of ink, dancing up the lane ahead of me.

It wasn’t long before I spotted Wyards, a farmhouse set back from the road at the end of a muddy track. Anna and Ben lived in half of it and the line of baby clothes strung between two trees told me which side was theirs.

‘I’m sorry the house is such a mess.’ Anna shrugged as she showed me into the parlour. I saw that her mourning gown was smeared white at the shoulder. And her stomach bulged under her bodice. I wondered if she was with child again. Jane’s words came back to me very clearly: She will be another poor animal. I hoped very much that it was not another pregnancy, just extra weight put on after the second baby.

Julia, her youngest, was asleep in a basket in the corner but little Jemima began scrambling all over her mother’s lap the moment she sat down. I tried my best to distract the child with a toy I had bought: a doll with horsehair plaits that could be undone and brushed out with a tiny tortoiseshell comb. After a while she settled on the floor at my feet and Anna began to tell me what Cass had been unable to relate.

‘The last time I saw Aunt Jane was on Easter Sunday.’ As she said it a tear rolled down her cheek to join the beads of perspiration on her upper lip. She drew the back of her hand across her mouth. ‘Caroline and I walked over to the cottage to see her after church. She looked very much altered in the face and she was so weak – she had not the strength enough even for talking very much.’

‘But she wrote her last letter to me in the third week of May,’ I said, ‘and she sounded in such good spirits; she said she had not been well, and that she was going to Winchester for treatment, but there was no hint of her being seriously ill.’

‘She did seem to improve,’ Anna sniffed. ‘My father called in on me after visiting her at the end of April and he said she looked much better. I couldn’t go myself because Jemima and Julia had chicken pox, one after the other.’ She paused and glanced over her shoulder at the basket, where the baby lay, pink and motionless. ‘My stepmother was Aunt Jane’s most frequent visitor: she called at the cottage nearly every day with new-laid eggs and milk from her own cow for Martha to make into possets; and when the time came to go to Winchester she offered their carriage to transport her.’ The tilt of Anna’s eyebrows betrayed her feelings about this; evidently she was as surprised as Jane had been at Mary’s uncharacteristic generosity. ‘She was with her right up until the end, you know,’ she went on. ‘She said it wasn’t fair to expect Aunt Cass to nurse Aunt Jane all alone.’

‘But what about Martha?’ I bent to pick up the doll, which Jemima had thrown across the floor with a chuckle of delight. ‘Couldn’t she have gone to Winchester with them?’

Anna shook her head. ‘Grandmama was feeling unwell too, so Martha had to stay in Chawton.’

‘That was very kind of your stepmother, then, wasn’t it?’

Mary Austen had not struck me as the kind of woman who would willingly spend six weeks at the bedside of a sick in-law – especially as her relationship with Jane had been one of ill-disguised dislike on both sides. ‘Had she and Jane become closer, do you think? I always got the impression there was not much common ground between them.’

‘There wasn’t. Aunt Jane despised my stepmother for having no interest in books and she thought the marriage had altered my father’s character for the worse. She said he’d become grumpy and intolerant, which is quite true, actually: he can be very difficult when the mood takes him.’ She leaned forward to retrieve the little comb, which Jemima had tucked into the side of her slipper. ‘My stepmother, for her part, was always running Aunt Jane down. She said she lived an idle life, because the only thing she was expected to do around the house was make breakfast. She didn’t count writing as work.’

‘So why was she so compassionate to Jane at the end?’

‘I don’t know,’ she shrugged. ‘Perhaps she just felt sorry for Aunt Cass, who says she doesn’t know how she would have managed without her. I would have given anything to be able to help, but…’ she tailed off with another shrug as Jemima spun the doll round by one of its plaits.

‘Were you able to see her when she…before the funeral, I mean?’ I couldn’t say it properly: it seemed an unseemly thing to ask, but I couldn’t help it. I wanted to know if Jane had looked serene in death the way my mother had; I wanted to hear that she had regained the sweet countenance her letter said had been so altered by the illness.

‘No.’ Anna blinked back more tears. ‘Uncle Henry organised everything. Uncle Frank was able to get there and Uncle Edward came over from Godmersham. Papa wanted to go but he felt too unwell, so James-Edward went in his place.’

‘You father is still unwell?’ I stood up to catch hold of Jemima, who was climbing on a chair next to the open window.

She gave a small sigh: for her father or the child – I was not sure which. ‘James-Edward called by yesterday to tell me that Papa had taken to his bed, seized with a pain in the bowels.’

I didn’t want to worry Anna by remarking on it, but I wondered if her father was suffering from the same complaint as Jane. She had talked of problems with her stomach in her letters.

‘Uncle Henry has gone to Steventon to take over some of Papa’s duties,’ Anna went on. ‘James-Edward says he’s serving Sherborne Saint John.’ Hearing Henry and James-Edward mentioned in the same breath reminded me of the question mark that still hung over the young man’s parentage. I wondered if I would ever know, now, whether my suspicions about Henry’s affair with Mary were correct. And what of Lizzy, I wondered? Were she and James-Edward still close? Had she been to visit him at Oxford or had Jane somehow intervened to nip their mutual attraction in the bud? I guessed that even if such a thing had been in her power, the debilitating nature of her illness would have prevented it.

Anna was not able to tell me any more about her aunt’s death, for the baby awoke suddenly with a loud, urgent cry. I took Jemima by the hand, intending to take her into the garden while Anna attended to Julia, but as we stepped outside I saw her husband riding up the track to the farm. I judged it best to take my leave then, and walked back to the village with a heavy heart.

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