The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 29

Iwas back in the kitchen, pulping quinces through a sieve, when a new possibility occurred to me. Cass had her hand in the jar of vanilla pods, which reminded me of the remedies I had seen on the shelves in the larder. Suddenly I was in London, at Henry’s former residence in Hans Place; I was in his bedroom in the small hours, dozing fitfully by his sick bed, and opening my eyes to see Jane swallowing a draught of something I thought was intended for him. Jane’s words came back to me with a horrible clarity. It’s Martha’s tonic wine: I never travel without it these days. How easy, I thought, for someone to slip into the larder where Martha stored her medicines and add poison to one of the bottles. Was that how Jane had died?’

‘So this is where you’ve been hiding!’

I was so startled by this sudden intrusion that I almost dropped the sieve. There was a tall, willowy creature in a blue silk pelisse and ostrich-trimmed hat standing in the doorway. Her voice was the only thing that gave her away, for I don’t think I would have recognised her otherwise. Before I could get up Fanny bounded across the room and took my face in both her hands, planting a kiss on my forehead. ‘Uncle Henry said you were here,’ she grinned. ‘I’ve got so much to tell you!’ Turning to Cass she said: ‘Can I steal her for a half an hour?’

She took my arm as we walked through the village, chattering away at breakneck speed. She wanted to tell me all about the beautiful house she now inhabited; of its furniture and paintings; of its lakes and fountains; and of the army of servants she had at her command. I tried to concentrate on what she was describing but my brain was on fire with thoughts of Jane. We passed the blacksmith’s and the post office and walked on until we reached a left fork called Mounter’s Lane. Here the cottages gave way to hazel hedges dotted with purple-pink foxgloves and intense yellow clusters of St John’s wort. These hedgerow herbs were the very thing Martha used in her remedies. Nodding in the breeze, they took on a new sinister aspect, like plotters whispering murder.

‘Mersham Hatch is very like Godmersham, actually,’ Fanny was saying, ‘They knocked down the old house, which dated back to the fifteenth century. I’m rather glad – I hate old houses: they are so dark inside.’ It struck me then that her voice sounded too bright and brittle. And she had not once mentioned her new husband. Suddenly she gripped my arm tight and doubled over. Staggering slightly, she launched herself towards the hazel hedge and retched violently.

‘Fanny! Oh, Lord!’ I cupped her forehead in my hand, trying to support her as her body heaved. When she had recovered a little I pulled out my handkerchief and wiped her chin, which was flecked with foaming spittle. She took one look at me and burst into tears, burying her head in my shawl. I managed to lead her to a nearby stile, where I sat her down and stroked her head until her sobs subsided. ‘Can you tell me about it?’ I said at length.

‘I…think I’m…w…’ she stammered, her teeth chattering.

‘Are you with child?’ I whispered.

She clenched her jaw, a look of terror in her eyes. ‘I th…think so,’ she nodded.

‘Have your courses stopped?’

She nodded again.

‘How long ago?’

‘N…n…nine weeks.’

I pulled her to me, hugging her tight. No wonder she had behaved so strangely, I thought; she must have been desperate to unburden herself; desperate to confide the fact that her worst nightmare was upon her. ‘It will be all right.’ My words were more like a prayer than a reassurance. ‘Lizzy has had four babies already, hasn’t she? And she is just fine.’

‘But Mama was fine after ten babies!’ Fanny mumbled into my shawl. ‘That didn’t stop her from…’ Her shoulders convulsed with more sobs. At a loss for anything helpful to say I stood there, just holding her, until she’d cried herself out. I have no idea how long we were there and it was a wonder no one came clambering over the stile in all the time she was upon it. Eventually her breathing slowed to something like normal and she looked up at me with swollen eyes.

‘I’m sorry,’ she murmured, blinking back the tears that were welling up again.

‘You have nothing to apologise for,’ I replied. ‘It’s no wonder you’re afraid. Anyone who went through what you did would feel the same, I’m certain.’

‘I was there when she died, you know. She was sitting at the table, just as she always did, laughing and talking. Then all of a sudden she fell sideways onto the floor. She was kicking out and clutching her stomach. Then her face went all…’ she tailed off, pressing her lips together so hard the flesh turned white. She drew in her breath and said: ‘Caky wouldn’t have it, you know: she said it must have been the food. She played merry hell with the kitchen girls and the cook – called them every name under the sun. But as Papa said, it couldn’t have been the food, could it? We’d all have been struck down if it was.’

I found it difficult to utter anything in reply, so struck was I by this. No wonder Sackree had worn mourning black all those years after Elizabeth’s death; not only had she lost her darling, she blamed the death on the carelessness of others. Could she have been closer to the truth than she realised? But if Henry was not the culprit, who was? Had Elizabeth been murdered by some other member of the household for a reason I could never guess at? Or had the whole thing really been a tragic accident – the result of some random act of carelessness that had claimed her as its only victim?

‘You say she ate all the same things as you did? There was nothing extra that she took? Some meat or fish dish that no one else was partial to?’

Fanny sniffed and shook her head. ‘I suppose it’s just one of those things that no one will ever be able to explain. Anna told me that almost exactly the same thing happened to her mother.’

‘Anna?’

‘Yes. She told me her mama collapsed after eating her dinner, just as mine did. The difference, of course, was that Anna’s mother had not just been in childbed: Anna was two-and-a-half when it happened; she says it’s her earliest memory – seeing her mama lying absolutely still on the floor of the dining room at Deane parsonage.’

‘Poor Anna,’ I said. ‘I didn’t realise.’

‘It was very hard for her. She said Uncle James would never allow her to ask any questions about her mama. I think that was very mean of him, don’t you? My father would never do such a thing to his children.’

‘I suppose the difference is that Anna’s father married again,’ I replied. ‘Perhaps it was a rule made by your Aunt Mary.’ Highly likely, I thought, knowing what a jealous woman Mary Austen was.

‘Probably,’ Fanny nodded. ‘I think I feel a little better now. Shall we walk back?’ Leaning on me for support, she raised herself from the stile and took a few ginger steps along the lane.

‘Are you sure you can manage?’ I asked. ‘You could always stay here while I go back for the donkey cart.’

‘I’ll be fine, thank-you. I don’t feel nauseous any more; actually I feel quite hungry.’

We walked along in silence for a while. I was thinking about Anna’s mother, wondering if her death was caused by eating food that had gone off. It seemed odd, though, that both she and Elizabeth had died while sharing a meal with others who were not similarly afflicted.

As we reached the fork in the road Fanny said: ‘Aunt Mary was awful to Anna when she was a child, you know; when we were at Godmersham together we used to plot different ways of killing her.’

‘I know,’ I nodded. ‘I heard you once.’

‘Did you really? Goodness, how embarrassing!’

I almost told her what I’d overheard but thought better of it, remembering that what they’d actually been talking about was the possibility of Mary dying in childbirth.

‘She came to Godmersham once,’ Fanny went on. ‘Aunt Mary, I mean. Anna and I were about fifteen at the time and the two of them had had the most almighty row in the carriage before they even arrived. Anna said she couldn’t live with her any more and she was going to run away with the first man who smiled at her.’

I shook my head and said something about it being a miracle she’d ended up with a man as good as Ben Lefroy. But as I said it I was thinking about Mary: I had forgotten that she had been at Godmersham the summer before Elizabeth died.

‘Do you know who it was?’ Fanny was looking at me.

‘Who what was?’

‘The first man who smiled at her, of course! Weren’t you listening to me?’ She tilted her head at the sky.

‘Yes, sorry,’ I said. ‘I was listening – I just got confused. Who was it?’

‘It was Uncle Henry! I teased her unmercifully about it for the rest of the holiday.’

So Henry was there too. To my mind, that put a very different slant on the visit. Mary was bound to have noticed his closeness to Elizabeth. Knowing the bitter resentment she had displayed towards Eliza, how much more violently might she have reacted in this situation? If I was right about the long-standing affair between Mary and Henry she would have an obvious motive for murder. Could she have poisoned Elizabeth? Slipped arsenic into her food?

I quickly dismissed the idea as impossible, for Elizabeth had not died until almost eighteen months after that visit. But a new seed of suspicion began to grow as we walked back towards Chawton. As James Austen’s wife, Mary was an obvious candidate for his murder, especially if she had been hoping to lure Henry into marriage. But what about Jane? What possible motive could Mary have harboured for wanting her dead?

That afternoon at Hans Place – the last time I had seen Jane alive – I had convinced myself that she knew about Henry and Mary. What if she had said something to one or both of them? Threatened to tell James, perhaps, if they didn’t stop seeing each other? She had kept quiet about Henry’s affair with Elizabeth, probably thinking, as I had done, that things had cooled off between them. But could she really have contained herself if she had discovered that Henry was cuckolding yet another brother?

I recalled the way she had placed a very thinly disguised Henry on the pages of Mansfield Park. What if she had threatened Mary with the same treatment? Told her that the next novel would contain a character so like her in every way that no one who knew her would fail to recognise her – a character who would commit adultery with her own husband’s brother?

The more I thought about it, the more plausible it seemed. Before she had finished writing Persuasion, Jane had told me she already had an idea for her next novel. She said it was going to be called The Brothers. It had never struck me before, but now the choice of title seemed highly significant. It wasn’t difficult to imagine Mary’s mounting sense of dread each time she called at Chawton Cottage and saw Jane scribbling away in the parlour.

Of all the visitors to that house Mary was the most familiar with Martha’s potions. She would certainly have watched her sister when she first began experimenting with herbs; she would probably know, too, whereabouts in Chawton Cottage the remedies were stored. She could easily have added arsenic to Jane’s tonic wine and done the same thing to the medicine James was prescribed.

Such crimes would require ruthless determination and a complete lack of conscience. I recalled the image I had formed of the little girl, lying in bed with smallpox, overhearing the doctor say her prospects of marriage were ruined. Yes, I thought, determination she has in plenty. Her conscience or lack of it was something only she could answer for.

And what about Anne Mathew? Was that Jane’s voice? The words drifted into my head and settled on top of the mounting pile of questions. James’ first wife had died suddenly and unexpectedly at Deane parsonage – a place where Mary had once lived and where she was a frequent visitor. I recalled Martha saying that these visits were more for the sake of seeing her old home than out of a liking for its new mistress. Could Mary have begun her career as a poisoner as long ago as that? Could Anna’s mother have been her first victim? I frowned at the rutted road. No, I thought, it doesn’t work: she may have had easy access to Anne, Jane and James but what about Elizabeth?

‘Oh, look! That’s Anna isn’t it?’ Fanny’s voice brought me back to reality with a jolt. We were nearly level with the cottage. I had been walking without any sense of where my body was going. She was pointing to a carriage that had drawn up outside the inn. Several people were getting out, although to my eyes they were nothing more than blurs of colour. She bounded across the road with a vigour that belied the sickness that had seized her not an hour since. Before I knew it they were coming towards me, arm in arm, caught up in a stream of chatter.

Anna looked remarkably well, I thought, for someone who had produced a baby every eighteen months for the past twelve years. She was undoubtedly the very best person to quell Fanny’s fears on the subject. There was so much I wanted to ask Fanny; her mother’s death was a crucial link in the chain of motive and opportunity that I was constructing. But how could I do it? How could I risk upsetting the fragile balance of her mind?

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