The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 26

As I drew near to Chawton Cottage I caught sight of Martha guiding the donkey cart through the side gate. There was someone sitting beside her; a woman whose face was obscured by her bonnet. When they came up the path from the stable I saw that it was Mary Austen.

I had a sudden, inexplicable urge to hide from her. I dodged into the kitchen, where Cass and Hannah Pegg were about to haul a rib of beef up the chimney to hang. I asked if I could help, but Cass shooed me out with instructions to go and put my feet up in the parlour after my walk.

Mary’s mouth twitched when she saw me. It was not a greeting, exactly; certainly not a smile. Having acknowledged my presence she turned back to Martha, who was showing her some needlework. But on seeing me Martha dropped the sampler and rushed across the room to hug me. As she drew back she shook her head and clicked her tongue.

‘Oh, Miss Sharp! Such sad times!’ She pressed her lips together as if she could not trust herself to speak on. She patted a cushion and waved me towards it. ‘I’ll fetch some tea,’ she whispered. ‘Back in a moment.’

An awkward silence fell upon the room. It reminded me of the ball in Bath, when Mary and I had been left together on the high bench watching the dancers. But this time there was no Mr Hastings to rescue me. She had picked up Martha’s needlework and was pretending to examine it. Apparently, she felt as uncomfortable in my presence as I did in hers. Remembering what Anna had said about her devotion to Jane in those last few weeks of her life I told myself that she couldn’t be all bad. Maybe she is just shy, I thought; perhaps she is self-conscious of her face and feels embarrassed to be seen by people outside the family.

‘I hear that you were very attentive to Jane in her illness,’ I began. ‘She mentioned you by name in the last letter she sent me.’

She looked up and blinked. Then she gave me a dazzling smile. ‘I tried my best,’ she nodded, ‘and it is a comfort to know that I was able to make things a little easier for them.’

I thought how very different she looked when she was smiling; there was an eagerness about her, like a sulky dog let off a leash to chase rabbits. ‘It must have been very hard for you and Cass, nursing her all those weeks,’ I said. Despite the pain I knew it would cause me I wanted to hear it all; every detail of those last days.

‘It was,’ she replied. ‘At first we thought she was getting better: we used to have her taken about Winchester in a sedan chair and in the evenings she would sit at table with us and manage a bite or two of her dinner. But then she suddenly went downhill again and Mr Lyford said there was nothing more he could do.’

‘What exactly was she suffering from? She never said in her letters.’

‘Mr Lyford never gave it a name.’ Mary gave a little shrug that made the black bead trim on her bodice jiggle. ‘She had all kinds of symptoms: biliousness and fevers, mainly, along with fainting spells and weakness of the limbs. The medicine he gave her seemed to work at first but about a month before she died he told us there was nothing more he could do. I was sitting with her the day before she died. It was about five in the afternoon and Cass had gone to the shops for some food. Jane suddenly let out a terrible cry and writhed about in the bed. There was blood gushing from her mouth and it went all over the sheets.’ Her lower lip twitched at the memory of what must have been a terribly distressing thing to witness. ‘I thought she would die then,’ she went on, ‘but she did not. When Mr Lyford came he said a large blood vessel had given way. He gave her laudanum and she fell into a sort of sleep. Cass was back by that time and she sat with Jane’s head cradled on her lap. Every so often Jane would cry out. Once Cass asked her what she wanted and Jane replied: “Nothing but death.”’

I turned away at this, no longer able to contain my emotion. Seeing my tears, Mary paused. ‘Please…tell me all of it,’ I mumbled, ‘It helps to know – really it does.’

She took a deep breath. ‘Well, she didn’t say much more after that. She begged us to pray for her and we did pray all that night. At one in the morning I told Cass she must rest, because she had been sitting like that, with Jane’s head in her lap, for six hours. She came back two hours later, and an hour after that Jane was dead.’

‘So her sister was with her when she died; that must be a comfort to her, I’m sure.’

‘Yes. She was able to close Jane’s eyes herself and wash her body before it was laid in the coffin. We kept her in one of the upstairs rooms until the funeral, so that the family could come and see her. There was such a sweet, serene air over her countenance: everyone remarked on it.’

That, at least, was something to be thankful for. ‘I would have come to see her if I had known,’ I said, dabbing my eyes and swallowing hard. ‘But I suppose her sister was overwhelmed with grief; it’s not surprising that she was unable to write letters until the funeral was over.’

‘She was quite calm, actually,’ Mary replied. ‘I was surprised how well she managed to control herself. We had to wait six days for the service to be arranged. Henry organised it: he knows the Bishop, of course, and it was because of his connection that permission was given for burial within the cathedral. Jane is very lucky – only three people have been granted such an honour this year.’

I glanced at her over my handkerchief. She was smiling again, as if it was the proud achievement of one of her children she was describing. I suppose she is proud, I thought, for it was indeed an honour to be laid to rest in such a place, although I had a feeling that Jane would rather have been closer to home, in the churchyard at St Nicholas.

‘It was Henry’s idea to ask for a place in the cathedral,’ Mary went on, ‘and he composed the inscription on the stone: it is very moving – have you seen it?’

I replied that I had. ‘But there is no mention of her books,’ I couldn’t help saying. ‘Why is that?’

‘Henry wanted a line about that but James and Edward talked him out of it. They always thought it rather unseemly that she was known to be a writer of novels.’ She raised her eyebrows as she spoke the word, as if it was a dirty secret. ‘That was Henry’s fault, of course: he was so proud of her he simply couldn’t keep it to himself. Everybody seems to know now, even though her name never appears on the books. Evidently the Bishop has read Pride and Prejudice and liked it very much, which must have helped persuade him to grant the burial, I suppose.’ She went on at some length then, describing Henry’s continuing efforts on Jane’s behalf; his determination to get her last novel published along with the one she had written many years earlier but never seen in print.

‘Did you know that Jane left him fifty pounds in her Will?’ She gave me a guarded look and I wondered if she thought I had been hoping for something myself. ‘She was so sorry for what had happened to him, you see. He was the only member of the family, apart from Cass, of course, that she left money to.’ She chattered on about the sterling service Henry was providing at Sherborne St John, and how ‘poor Austen’ – as she always called her husband – was so lucky to have such a reliable substitute. I thought that she was a little too enthusiastic, a little too effusive about Henry. She is doing what people do when they are in love but won’t own it, I thought: she mentions him at every possible opportunity; she veers to and from the main topic of conversation for the pleasure of uttering his name.

I wanted to steer Mary back to the subject of Jane’s illness, for I yearned to know what she had spoken of in those last weeks of her life, but we were interrupted by Martha bringing in a tray of tea. Cass followed close behind her with a seed cake, so all talk of Jane came to an abrupt halt. Mary left soon afterwards. She was collected by her son, James-Edward, who was returning from a trip to Winchester in the family carriage. He stayed only briefly at the cottage but I was struck anew by his resemblance to Henry – not just in looks but in his manners, his mode of speech, even the tilt of his head as he bid us all goodbye. At eighteen years old he looked every inch the gentleman-about-town.

I wondered if Mary had any inkling of what had gone on at Godmersham. Unless Henry had confessed to a liaison with Elizabeth she would have no reason to discourage her son’s attraction to young Lizzy. It beggared belief that Henry would allow her to continue in ignorance of the terrible consequence of such a union. I heard that warning voice again, the same that had whispered to me in the bedroom at the White Hart: You think of this as if it was a fact, yet it exists only in your mind. When Mary and her son had gone I went into the garden with Martha to help pick apples for a pie. I soon discovered that she was just as prone to tears as Cass when Jane’s name was mentioned. So, casting about for some safe topic of conversation, I asked how long she and Cass had known each other.

‘Goodness,’ she replied, ‘it must be nearly thirty years!’

‘How did you come to be friends?’

‘Well, it wasn’t long after we’d moved to Hampshire. My father had died and we were renting Deane parsonage from Reverend Austen. He invited us to Steventon and we met the whole family. Cass was only about sixteen then and I was in my early twenties.’

Quite unconsciously my brain jumped back to Jane, calculating that she would have been thirteen or fourteen at the time. I almost said this aloud but checked myself just in time. Instead I asked how old Mary had been when they arrived in Hampshire.

‘She was the same age as Cass,’ Martha replied. ‘I hoped they would be friends, because Mary was very shy in her teens. She had smallpox when she was ten and it knocked her confidence terribly.’ She gave a small sigh as she reached up into the apple tree. ‘She once told me she overheard the doctor telling our mother that she might as well forget about marriage because her face was quite ruined. But she seemed to blossom when we moved to Deane; she started going to balls and became very friendly with all the Austens. Of course, we had no idea then that she would end up as wife to James.’

‘I suppose he was already married to Anna’s mother when you arrived?’ I bent to pick up an apple that had fallen from the branch she was pulling on.

‘No,’ she replied, tossing another apple into the basket, ‘none of the Austen brothers had wives when we first came to Deane. But it was only two or three years later that James married Anne Matthew. That was difficult for us because James got the living of Deane on his marriage and we had to move out. We went to Ibthorpe, which was eighteen miles away and not nearly so pleasant.’ She paused to wipe her brow with the skirt of her pinafore then reached up into the tree again. ‘Mary used to visit them often – more because she missed the place than because she liked James’ wife, I suspect – so when Anne died it seemed natural for James to ask her to be mistress of the house.’

Yes, I thought, but only after Eliza had turned him down. No wonder Mary had refused to have the woman under her roof, when she had so very nearly deprived her not just of a husband but of the place she thought of as home. I could just imagine the ten-year-old Mary, lying in her sick bed as snatches of the doctor’s conversation with her mother reached her from beyond the bedroom door; I pictured her poor, blistered face as his words rang out like a death knell. I wondered if, rather than leaving her bereft, his pronouncement had forged an iron determination to prove him wrong. It occurred to me then that Mary might have set her sights on Henry first; perhaps she had singled him out long before James, merely settling for the older brother when the real object of her desire made it clear that he would only marry money.

Once again my thoughts returned to Jane, remembering what Martha had told me years before, in Worthing, about the bitterness caused when James and Mary took over the rectory at Steventon. Mary had apparently shown the same disregard for the feelings of Jane and Cass as she felt had been shown to her by their brother and his first wife. Seen in this light, her meanness was harder to condemn.

Over the next few days Mary was a constant topic of conversation at the cottage – or rather her husband was – because Anna called with the children to tell us that he was very ill and James-Edward had ridden to Winchester to call for the assistance of Jane’s physician, Mr Lyford.

By the time I left Chawton we had received better reports of him, but a few months later he seemed to have suffered a relapse. Anna wrote to say that he had been too weak to attend the christening of her new baby boy, George. She added as a postscript that her cousin Lizzy was to be married. My heart skipped a beat at this, but the next paragraph informed me that her fiancé was not Anna’s half brother, James-Edward, but Edward Royd-Rice, the wealthy young son of a sea captain, whom she had met at a ball in Paris.

I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking of Jane’s face that last day I saw her at the house in Hans Place. If anything had gone on behind the scenes to keep Lizzy and her cousin apart, it appeared to have worked. Whether she had had any hand in it I supposed I would never know.

At Christmas Anna wrote to me again. This time the paper was edged in black. ‘My dear father died, after a long slow decay, at Steventon,’ her letter said. ‘Uncle Henry is to replace him as Rector. My stepmother and Caroline must leave the house by the middle of January. They are to go to Bath until they decide where to settle.’

How ironic, I thought, that Mary is to be turned out of the home she took so smugly from Jane twenty years ago. It occurred to me that now she and Henry were both widowed the illicit union – if there was one – could be legitimised. As a man of religion, Henry would be setting a rather bad example by marrying his dead brother’s wife, but such a thing was not unheard of, even for a parson. Perhaps Mary would not be losing her home after all; perhaps she had simply gone to Bath to wait for the dust to settle.

But a letter I received from Fanny in April that same year put paid to any such possibility. ‘You will never guess what–,’ she wrote, in her usual breathless style, ‘Uncle Henry has surprised and shocked us all by taking a new wife. Her name is Eleanor Jackson and she is only six months older than me. She is the niece of the Reverend Papillon. Do you remember him? He lives at the rectory in Chawton, right opposite the Great House.’

Fanny went on to describe the visit she had made to the newlyweds while staying at the Great House with her father: ‘Miss Jackson has a good pair of eyes,’ she wrote, ‘but I fear she is not strong. She cannot go for walks by herself: Uncle Henry pushes her about the village in a wheelchair, which seems rather strange when one considers that he is close to fifty and she twenty-eight.’

The rest of the letter was taken up with Fanny’s own wedding plans. She was to marry the man in the miniature, Sir Edward Knatchbull, who, she told me, had six children under ten years old. Poor little Fanny, I thought. Perhaps she believes he will not be interested in fathering any more.

As I folded the letter and put it away I could not help thinking of Mary, kicking her heels in Bath. If my instincts about her were right she must be incandescent with rage: not only had Henry passed her over, he had chosen someone young enough to be her daughter. Perhaps now that Mary was available she was no longer desirable. I wondered if what Henry really wanted was a child: a legitimate child. If so, Mary was unlikely to be able to provide him with one at forty-two years old. Was that the reason for him choosing young Miss Jackson? If Fanny’s description of her was anything to go by she did not sound an ideal candidate for motherhood. Perhaps there was another attraction then: did this new bride come with money, or the promise of it?

I took a little cloth from my desk to polish the ring on my finger. ‘Well, Jane,’ I whispered, ‘What do you make of it?’

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