The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 31

Sleep came somehow that night. My eyes were not closed for long, though, for the birds woke me a little before five in the morning. Anna was still asleep, lying on her back with her nightcap all askew, as if she had been pulling at it in her dreams. I didn’t want to disturb her or anyone else in the house by going downstairs at such an early hour. On the night table was the poem of Jane’s that I had copied out the previous afternoon. Comforted by the thought of having something of hers close to me, I reached for it and read it through:

When Winchester Races – a poem for St Swithin’s Day

When Winchester races first took their beginning

It is said the good people forgot their old Saint

Not applying at all for the leave of Saint Swithin

And that William of Wykeham’s approval was faint.

The races however were fixed and determined

The company came and the weather was charming

The Lords and the Ladies were satine’d and ermined

And nobody saw any future alarming.

But when the old Saint was informed of those doings

He made but one spring from his Shrine to the Roof

Of the Palace which now lies so sadly in ruins

And then he addressed them all standing aloof.

“Oh! Subjects rebellious! Oh Venta depraved

When once we are buried you think we are gone

But behold me immortal! By vice you’re enslaved

You have sinned and must suffer, then farther he said

These races and revels and dissolute measures

With which you’re debasing a neighbouring Plain

Let them stand – You shall meet with your curse in your pleasures

Set off for your course, I’ll pursue with my rain.

Ye cannot but know my command o’er July

Henceforward I’ll triumph in shewing my powers

Shift your race as you will it shall never be dry

The curse upon Venta is July in showers.

The strangeness of it struck me anew: not only the subject, but the fact that there was a rhyme that didn’t work in the fourth verse – surely the word should have been ‘dead’ not ‘gone’? And then there was the choice of words to be underlined: in some cases it was appropriate but in others not at all: why, for instance, had she chosen to emphasise the word ‘ruins’ in the third verse?

I sat staring at it for a while, then, on impulse, I reached for a pencil and paper. I jotted down all the underlined words, which were:

ANY; RUINS; ARE; ME; MY; SHOWERS.

Well, they don’t make any sense, however you arrange them, I thought. I started playing about with the letters, dividing the vowels from the consonants as I would for a game of anagrams. The first word that popped out was ‘Mary’. Then I spotted ‘Henry’. My heart began to beat a little faster. With the remaining letters I was able to make three other words. Rearranged, they made a sentence:

HENRY OUR NEMESIS WAS MARY

I whispered what I had written, my mouth so dry my tongue caught on my teeth. Had Jane known what Mary was doing to her? Impossible, surely? She would have made some attempt to save herself by telling Cass, not by sending some coded message to her brother. What was it Cass had said? The poem was dictated two days before she died: could it be that Mary had made some sort of confession, thinking Jane was too far gone to do anything about it?

I could just imagine the twisted satisfaction she might take in telling Jane what she had done to Henry and what she was about to do to her. If Jane knew she was beyond help at that stage the only thing to be gained by telling Cass was to make sure Mary hanged for it. Was Jane afraid of not being believed? Did she think her accusation would be put down to the effects of the laudanum she was taking?

If that was the case, I thought, any warning she wanted to give Henry would be dismissed in the same vein. Was the poem her only hope of getting the message to him? I stared at the words again. Then I heard a noise downstairs. The door of Cass’s bedroom opened and closed. I waited a couple of minutes before slipping out of bed and pulling on my shawl.

Cass was in the kitchen. She was standing at the doorway with her back to me, waving at someone outside. I caught a brief glimpse of a man on horseback, the profile instantly recognisable.

‘Henry is abroad early,’ I said as she turned round.

‘That wasn’t Henry,’ she laughed, ‘it was James-Edward. He’s going to Winchester to hire a carriage for Mary and Caroline.’ She set the kettle on the range and took cups from the shelf above. ‘He is the very image of his uncle. I can understand why you mistook him.’

I wondered fleetingly if Cass’s mind had ever followed the pathways mine had. But no: Cass was the sort of creature who sought the light in people, not the darkness. If she sensed shadows, I thought, she would turn her back on them. ‘Will they be coming to the wedding breakfast?’ I asked.

‘It’s not possible,’ she replied. ‘They have the offer of a holiday in Lyme and must leave Winchester by noon.’

‘Martha must be disappointed.’

‘Yes, a little. But they’ll join her in Portsmouth at the end of the week. Frank will have gone back to his ship by then.’

I watched her unlock the cupboard where the tea was kept. She placed the caddy on the dresser, next to the teapot then glanced over her shoulder at the kettle. Taking a deep breath I said: ‘Anna told me that Mary and Henry have fallen out: I suppose that will make things quite difficult at the wedding.’

Cass clicked her tongue. ‘Anna does tend to over-dramatise things. Did you know she writes? She has a children’s story ready to be published.’

‘I didn’t know,’ I replied. ‘But I’m not surprised. I think that of all the nephews and nieces, Anna’s character is closest to Jane’s.’ I paused for a moment. ‘Jane didn’t like Mary very much, did she?’

‘Why do you say that?’

‘Oh, it’s just the impression Anna gives,’ I said, my colour rising as I twisted the truth. ‘She said Jane would have sided with Henry, as she did.’

‘Well, they weren’t the best of friends, that’s true,’ she nodded, ‘but Mary was very good to her at the end. I think Jane saw a very different side to her in those last few weeks.’

More than you know, I thought. ‘Was she there the whole time you and Jane were at Winchester?’

‘Bar a few days in June when we thought Jane was getting better.’ The kettle started to whistle and she went to fetch it. ‘She would sit up all night with her sometimes so I could get some rest; she really was an angel.’

‘I was reading the poem again this morning,’ I said, ‘the one Jane dictated to you. It’s amazing to think she constructed all those verses in her head when she was so ill.’

‘It is amazing, isn’t it? I think it helped to distract her from…’ Her voice died as she poured scalding water onto the tea leaves.

I nodded. ‘I was curious about the words that were underlined: did she instruct you on that, too?’

‘Oh, yes – she might have been ill but she was most particular. I just followed her instructions without paying much attention to the sense of it. Afterwards I did think it a little odd: I expect it was the laudanum – it must have fuddled her brain a little.’

‘She must have wanted people to see the poem,’ I said. ‘Was it a sort of parting gift, do you think?’

‘She did say she wanted the family to see it. They all did, of course, when they came for the funeral. But then I put it away. It hurt me to be reminded of those last days, I suppose. It was James-Edward who made me get it out – he’s talking about collecting our memories of Jane for a book.’

I didn’t tell her, of course, that I had already begun writing mine. I was thinking about Henry, wondering if he could have paid any real attention to the poem at a time when he was caught up with organising Jane’s funeral. The message had probably never reached its intended target. The warning had gone unheeded but Henry had spurned Mary anyway. And she had got away with murder.

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