The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 30

‘Where are they, then, those little Lefroys?’ Fanny asked as we walked up the path to the cottage.

‘I left them all behind,’ Anna grinned. ‘Now that Ben is Rector of Ashe we can afford a nursemaid.’ Her eyes shone with excitement as she described the new gown she had bought for the wedding – and who could blame her? The days she had had to herself since her marriage must have been very few indeed.

‘You won’t mind having Jane’s old bed, will you?’ Cass asked as she took her valise.

‘Of course not,’ Anna replied. ‘I don’t believe in ghosts – and even if I did, I’m sure Aunt Jane would never harm me.’

I couldn’t help wishing it was me who had been given Jane’s old bed: what a bittersweet thing it would have been to draw those dimity curtains around me and remember the evenings and nights we had spent in that treasured space.

‘I’ve had to put you and Miss Sharp in my old room,’ Cass went on, ‘because James-Edward is going in the spare room and Martha still needs hers – for tonight at least.’ She gave a self-conscious smile, which Anna returned with a giggle.

‘It’s a strange sort of wedding, isn’t it?’ she said. ‘Who would have thought Martha Lloyd would become a blushing bride at her age!’

‘I suppose it is unusual,’ Cass replied, ‘but Martha is such a good woman: she deserves whatever happiness comes her way.’

It was hard to imagine Martha as a bride. I supposed that the arrangement between her and Frank Austen was essentially a practical one: he would get someone to care for his children while he was away at sea and she would have a home of her own to run as she chose.

I went back to helping Cass in the kitchen, leaving Fanny and Anna to themselves in the parlour. Later on, when Fanny had gone back to the Great House and Cass was putting the finishing touches to the pastries, Anna and I went upstairs to unpack.

‘Fanny thinks she is with child,’ she said, as she shook out the spotted satin gown she had carried with her all the way from Basingstoke.

‘She told me,’ I nodded. ‘She’s very afraid, I think.’

‘The poor girl’s spent the past eight years trying to prevent it. Goodness knows how she managed – I wish I knew her secret!’ Anna gave me a wry smile. ‘Anyway, I tried to put her mind at rest.’

‘What did you say?’

‘Well, Martha always gives me something for my confinements. It’s a truly vile mixture of liquorice, figs and aniseed. It works pretty well if you can get it down. There’s a posset she makes, too, which helps with the after-pains and increases the milk once the baby has come.’

‘I should think Martha has people queuing up for those,’ I said.

‘All the married women in the village ask for them. And Aunt Cass always takes them with her when she goes to help anyone at a lying-in.’

I was arranging my nightdress on the pillow when she said this and I remember stopping dead, just staring at my own hands. This, I thought, could be the final link in the chain: Cass was with Elizabeth for the birth of that last child – and she would have taken Martha’s medicines with her. Was that how Mary Austen had murdered her rival? Had she tampered with the bottles before Cass packed them up?

‘Are you all right?’ Anna was beside me, peering into my face.

‘Oh, yes,’ I gave her a bright smile. ‘I was just thinking about Fanny’s baby: wondering if it would be a boy or a girl.’

‘A boy, I should think, knowing her,’ Anna laughed. ‘She always comes up trumps, doesn’t she? Not like me, with six girls to find husbands for!’

‘I’m glad you were able to talk to Fanny,’ I said. ‘You’re just what she needs, you know.’

‘Well, I feel sorry for her, actually: my stepmother’s always holding her up as an example – telling me I could have married as well as she has if I’d only waited – but her husband’s not exactly Mr Darcy, is he? I don’t think she loves him; in fact, I don’t think she even likes him very much.’

‘I hope the baby will bring her some solace, in that case,’ I replied. After a pause I said: ‘I suppose your stepmother will be coming to the wedding?’

‘I think she will be there, yes,’ she said, ‘although it’s by no means certain. She lives in Newbury now, which is not vastly far from Winchester, but she uses the distance as an excuse not to visit Chawton very often these days. She hasn’t been down here nearly as much as she used to when my father was alive. It’s partly because of the business over Uncle Henry, I think.’

‘Oh?’ I bent over my valise and drew out my hairbrush and nightcap, trying to disguise my avid interest in what she might divulge.

‘You know how much money he lost?’

‘Your Aunt Jane did tell me,’ I nodded.

‘Well, shortly after my father died, the Crown sent my stepmother a demand for eight hundred pounds. He was one of the guarantors, you see, and as his widow, she was bound to pay.’

‘Eight hundred pounds?’ This was more than the value of both the houses Mrs Raike had left me.

‘It’s a lot of money, isn’t it? Of course, when my father agreed to it he thought he’d be coming into a fortune anyway, and it wouldn’t matter if the Crown ever came chasing him for it.’

‘You mean the inheritance from the Leigh-Perrots?’

‘Yes.’ Anna grunted. ‘Can you believe Aunt L. P. is still alive? She’s eighty-three! Who would have thought she’d outlive Papa?’

Mary, probably, I thought grimly. What a shock it must have been, after losing Henry to another woman, to discover that she was going to be bled dry for his debts. ‘What did your stepmother do?’ I asked. ‘Was she able to settle it?’

‘She had to, in the end, although goodness knows how she raised the money. She tried asking Uncle Edward but he said he was having a hard time finding his own share of what was owed. Then she asked for a meeting with Uncle Henry to talk it all over. They were supposed to meet at a tearoom in Basingstoke but he didn’t turn up. You can imagine how that went down.’

Only too well, I wanted to reply – but of course, I said nothing of the sort.

‘I thought it served her right, actually. She was always needling Papa about how well Uncle Henry had done and what charming manners he had.’ She made a face. ‘Are all stepmothers as spiteful as her, do you think?’ Anna was unaware of the resonance her words had for me. I murmured something in reply, the substance of which I can’t recall, for my mind was racing ahead again. How, I wanted to know, could the widow of a country parson find eight hundred pounds? Mary was known within the family for being money-minded, but from what Jane had told me, Henry’s bankruptcy had hit them hard. James had lost several hundred pounds when the bank collapsed, so there couldn’t have been much left when the Crown came knocking on Mary’s door.

‘Where did your stepmother go when she gave up the rectory?’ I asked.

‘She went to Bath at first,’ Anna replied. ‘She took Caroline with her, of course. James-Edward was at Oxford by then so he didn’t go. After a few months she realised she couldn’t afford to stay there. So she moved to a place called Daylesford in Gloucestershire to stay with a friend. In the end she found a house to rent in Newbury.’

Daylesford. The name sounded familiar, but it took me a while to remember why. For some reason it triggered an image of Mrs Raike’s cousin, Miss Gowerton, eating lavender cake in the pastry shop in Bath. I frowned at my hairbrush as I laid it on the dressing table. ‘What was the name of the friend in Gloucestershire?’

‘Lord, I can’t remember!’ Anna said. ‘Something beginning with an ‘H’, I think: Harris or Hargreaves or something. Why? Do you know her?’

‘I might,’ I said. ‘Was it Hastings?’

I lay awake for hours that night, staring up at the tenting of what had once been Cassandra’s bed, and listening to Anna’s slow, rhythmic breathing coming from the place where Jane should have been. I raged inside at the thought of that sweet, bright life ebbing away as the poison worked its evil on her body. Every time I closed my eyes I saw Mary Austen, red-lipped and feline, as I had seen her in my dreams all those years before at the White Hart Inn. If she had come to the cottage that night I swear I would have killed her.

But you have no proof.

I heard Jane’s voice as clearly as if she had been lying beside me. She was right, of course; I had not one shred of evidence to unmask Mary Austen as a poisoner. I turned onto my side, certain that sleep would never come to me in this fevered state. Through the wall I could hear Cass. Tucked up in her mother’s old bed, she was snoring in just the same way. From the parlour down below Martha’s voice drifted up to me. Like me, she was too worked up to think of sleep. She was chattering away about the wedding to James-Edward, who had arrived just as we were all going to bed. I could only catch parts of their conversation but I heard enough to learn that Mary had gone ahead to Winchester with Caroline, where she would be spending the night with a friend.

Another friend, I thought. Mary seemed very adept at finding people to help her out of tricky situations. I wondered what part Mrs Hastings had played in the resurrection of Mary’s finances after the blow from the Crown. It must have been her, not her husband, who came to Mary’s aid, for I had read the death notice for Warren Hastings in the obituary column of The Times the year after Jane’s passing.

I cast my mind back to the last time I had seen them. Mary had been sitting next to me, at the ball in Bath, when Mr Hastings had come to ask me to dance. Yet he had not acknowledged her presence in any way. Were they strangers at that point, then? Had she got to know the Hastings later on? Warren Hastings had died the year before James Austen, so perhaps Mrs Hastings was in Bath at the same time as Mary, for the same reason. I tried to imagine the old dame with the snake eyes and the outrageous hats walking arm-in-arm around the Circus with her new friend. Why, I thought, would Mrs Hastings act in such a generous manner to someone she had only just met? Why would she offer a temporary home to a woman like Mary? A parson’s widow who had neither warmth nor charm to recommend her?

I decided that they must have got together well before that, sometime after my visit to Bath. But then I thought of an obstacle to the friendship: Mary hated Eliza, whom Warren Hastings doted on. How could she possibly have borne his company? How could she have listened to him singing the praises of a woman she had banned from her own home?

Perhaps it was this very hatred, I thought, that had formed a bond between the two women. I recalled the look in those cold eyes when Mrs Hastings found out about my connection with Eliza. What was it Mrs Raike had said afterwards? I scoured my memory for the conversation we had had upon quitting the Pump Room. It was something about Warren Hastings’ Will: some fear of his wife’s that he would leave his estate to Eliza instead of her sons. I began to wonder if Mary Austen had played some part in preventing this, to the eternal gratitude of Mrs Hastings. But what could she possibly have done? How could she have come between Eliza and the Hastings fortune?

My thoughts returned to the ball in Bath; to the conversation I had had with Warren Hastings while we danced. He had been asking about Eliza. Gently probing me about what I had observed on my visit to London. And what was it he’d said later, when we were all searching for Mary? You Austen men really should take better care of your wives…

With a sudden, blinding clarity it dawned on me: Warren Hastings was one of the two main investors in Henry’s bank – the one most likely to have caused the crash of the Austen business empire. What had prompted his decision to cut and run? I had always suspected Jane’s portrayal of Henry in Mansfield Park had played a part. But such an act would require more evidence than a work of fiction. Could that evidence have been provided by Mary?

A ripple of laughter came up from the parlour, as if they had heard my thoughts and dismissed them as too foolish to contemplate. Why would Mary want to ruin Henry? Why would she do such a thing to the man she was in love with?

To bring him to his knees.

‘Yes,’ I whispered into the pillow, ‘I can believe that.’ I thought of Henry, riding back to Chawton with nothing but the clothes on his back, the Church the only option left to him. And Mary waiting in the wings; already slipping poison down her husband’s throat. What a tempting prospect the living of Steventon would have been to a man in Henry’s situation. And how easy for Mary to play the part of the poor widow-in-waiting as everyone watched James fading away.

What went wrong, I wondered? Had Henry always planned to marry Eleanor Jackson but kept it a secret until the living was secured? Had he simply humoured Mary to make sure she went quietly, knowing all along that he would never make her his wife? Or had he intended to marry her but discovered just in time her role in his downfall? Had someone warned him? And could that someone have been Jane?

Did Mary find out? Is that why she killed you? There was no answering whisper in my head from Jane. All I could hear was the gentle snoring of Cass through the wall.

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