The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 32

‘Will you help me with my gown?’ Anna’s voice summoned me from upstairs, joined in quick succession by Martha who was begging for assistance from Cass.

I laced the back of Anna’s spotted silk gown and stood back as she admired herself in the mirror. ‘Could you pass me my brooch?’ she asked. ‘It’s on the night table.’

I went to fetch it, biting my lip when I saw what it contained. ‘Is that Jane’s hair?’ I passed her the silver disc with its mount of tiny plaits fashioned into the shape of a flower.

‘It’s my father’s,’ she replied. ‘I have a ring for Aunt Jane, though I don’t wear it very often.’ She gave me a wry glance as she pinned the brooch to her bodice. ‘I’m afraid of spoiling it with all the things I handle in a day.’

I nodded, stroking the ring on my own finger. Stay with me, Jane, I whispered to myself. Come with me to Winchester, won’t you?

Cass, Anna and I travelled to the wedding together. Our carriage was lined up in the procession of vehicles provided by the Great House, which consisted of a barouche for the bride, a curricle for the groom and best man, a chaise for the groom’s children and a coach and six for Edward and his family. Henry’s rather humble gig brought up the rear.

‘Doesn’t Martha look lovely?’ Cass, whose only concession to the occasion was to swap her customary bombazine for black satin, gave me a tight-lipped smile. I wasn’t sure if she was overcome with emotion at the sight of her friend in a bridal gown or just self-conscious about her teeth. ‘She says she doesn’t like dressing up, but that pearl grey silk really suits her.’

‘And here comes Uncle Frank,’ Anna grinned. ‘He looks rather splendid, doesn’t he?’

‘There’s nothing quite like a man in uniform.’ Cass’s face turned wistful. I wondered how many years it was since she had gone to Portsmouth with her trousseau, only to find that her fiancé was dead. I felt I should say something; try to lift her spirits with some light-hearted banter about the day ahead. But my stomach was tied in knots at the prospect of seeing Mary Austen. I wasn’t sure how I was going to control myself in the cathedral when I caught sight of her.

Thankfully, Anna filled in the silences with her chatter and after an hour or so we were on the outskirts of the city. We stepped out into dazzling sunshine. Cathedral Close was a hive of activity, a group of schoolboys marching in a crocodile across the green, and hawkers parading up and down, shouting their wares at every passer-by. Shading my eyes I searched for Mary’s face in the throng. But there was no sign of her. Neither had she appeared by the time we all trooped into the porch.

It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the shadowy world within. Here and there pools of jewelled light fell on the stones. I breathed in the ancient, unchanging scent of incense and candle wax and aged wood. My heart shifted against my ribs. I’m here, Jane, I said silently.

‘We’ll sit at the back, shall we?’ Anna took my arm. ‘Aunt Cass is going in the second pew with Uncle Edward and Uncle Henry.’ As she spoke Henry walked past us, carrying the sweet-faced Eleanor, who was beautifully attired in a gown of fine apricot muslin trimmed with ivory rosebuds. He has so much to answer for, I thought, so much to reveal. But how could I interrogate him in these circumstances? And how would he react if, as I suspected, he was wholly ignorant of Mary’s crimes? I had lost my dearest friend but he had lost a sister, a brother and a lover. A man of the cloth he may be, but he would have to exert superhuman self-control on discovering such a thing. And whatever he did would impact on Eleanor. How could I contemplate threatening the well-being of a woman who so needed and deserved his support?

‘Come on.’ Anna steered me towards the side chapel where the service was to be performed. To reach it we had to pass the very spot where Jane lay. ‘Good morning, Aunt Jane – we’ve come to see Martha Lloyd marry Uncle Frank,’ she whispered. ‘But I suppose you know that already, don’t you?’ She kissed her gloved fingers and bobbed down to touch the stone. ‘I know I said I don’t believe in ghosts, but I bet she’s looking down on us; she wouldn’t have missed it for the world, would she?’

‘She wouldn’t.’ I swallowed hard. It was almost unbearable to think of Mary walking past her grave, as she surely would any moment now. I glanced over my shoulder. Edward was coming through the door with Charlotte on one arm and Louisa on the other. No change there, then, I thought. Fanny was behind him, accompanied by a gaggle of young people who ranged in age from late teens to late twenties. Anna told me that some of these were Frank’s children and some were Edward’s but the only one I recognised was Brook-John, because, like James-Edward, he was the spitting image of Henry.

We took our places at the back of the chapel and watched the other guests arrange themselves according to their relationship to the bride or groom. I watched Edward give a little bow to Charlotte and Louisa before walking back down the aisle towards the porch. With Martha’s father long since dead, he was to be the one to give her away.

‘Where is your stepmother?’ I asked Anna. ‘Shouldn’t she be at the front?’

‘I don’t know,’ Anna hissed back. ‘I think she must be late – I don’t know why though: James-Edward is here and he was supposed to be travelling in the same carriage.’ She pointed out her half-brother, who was standing behind the bridegroom and best man. There was a young woman standing next to him. ‘That’s his fiancée, Emma Smith. She’s going with them to Lyme.’

At that moment the organ struck up a loud and throbbing chord, startling us into silence. Anna glanced over her shoulder. ‘Here she comes!’ I twisted my head round, expecting to see Martha coming down the aisle, but it was Mary. Caroline followed in her wake, both of them scurrying as fast as their gowns would permit. They dodged into the pew across from ours. I clenched my fingers round the prayer book I held and took a slow, hard breath. Mary was now standing just three feet away from me. Her face was obscured by a white gauze veil draped over the front of a blue satin bonnet. No widow’s weeds for you, then. I dug my thumbnails into the cover of the prayer book. How can you enter this place? How can you kneel and pray while she lies not fifty paces distant?

I have a vague memory of Martha and Edward coming into my field of vision as a blur of blue and grey, but I have no lasting impression of the ceremony itself. My mind was seething with recriminations. I had a mighty urge to drag Mary from her seat with that veil pulled tight across her throat. I don’t recall what hymns I mouthed or catechisms I mumbled as I struggled with this instinct; I can remember Anna remarking on the fact that Frank and Martha were kissing each other and the next thing I was aware of was Caroline squeezing out of the pew past her mother to get to Anna, who gave her a big hug. I saw Mary slip out of her place then. She was walking fast, out of the little chapel and back up the north aisle. I followed her.

She was heading straight for Jane’s memorial stone and to my horror she walked not round it but right over it. I quickened my step. She won’t get away! I whispered it aloud as I skirted the black marble tablet. Mary disappeared through the doors of the cathedral. I lifted my skirts and ran, almost knocking into a surpliced old gentleman carrying a pile of hymn books. He spluttered some admonishment but I didn’t stop. A moment later I was outside, blinking as the sunshine stung my eyes. Where is she? With my hand pressed to my forehead I scanned the grassy expanse of Cathedral Close. A flash of blue satin disappeared behind the yew hedge.

‘Mrs Austen!’ I yelled it as loud as I could. A man selling wooden crosses looked askance as I ran past him. Mary looked back, startled. I don’t think she knew who I was. ‘Mrs Austen, wait, please!’ I was panting as I drew level with her. ‘Do you remember me? I am Miss Sharp: Jane’s friend.’ I spoke the words in a matter-of-fact tone, with no hint of the rage boiling inside me. Now I had her, I wanted to catch her by surprise.

‘Miss Sharp?’ She lifted the veil and tucked it over the brim of her bonnet ‘Were you at the wedding? I didn’t see you.’

‘But I saw you.’ I took a step closer. ‘Why were you so late?’

‘Oh…I…’ She looked away and the sun caught the scars on her face. ‘Why do you ask?’ She turned back to me with a determined frown.

‘Because I think you were wrestling with your conscience, madam,’ I replied. ‘You still have a vestige of it left, I assume? Tell me, why did you want to destroy Henry?’

She blinked once, twice. ‘What on earth do you mean?’

‘It was you, wasn’t it, who turned Warren Hastings against him?’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘Oh, I think you do: I knew him, you see. Don’t you remember the ball in Bath? You were sitting right beside me when he asked me to dance.’ I watched the memory of it dawn in her eyes. Now for the gamble: ‘I used to visit the gentleman and his wife at Daylesford. I was there the year Jane died. He told me all about the business with Henry.’

‘You’re mad,’ she hissed. ‘Henry always said you had an overactive imagination.’

‘Jane warned him off you, you know: she got a message to him before she died. She knew, didn’t she, because you told her when you thought she was too ill to do anything about it; you told her what you’d done to Henry and what you were doing to her.’

She stood motionless, the wind whipping loose strands of grey hair from under her bonnet. From the look on her face my lies had found their mark.

‘You thought you’d silenced her didn’t you? What did you do? Pretend you’d cooled things with Henry while you poisoned her? Waited for her to die so you could murder your husband and marry him? Well, she outwitted you, didn’t she? She ruined all your plans!’

She opened her mouth but said nothing. I saw her teeth, small and sharp, just as they had been in my nightmare.

‘You killed Elizabeth, too, didn’t you? It took me a while to work that one out, but I know how you did it: Cass and Martha will kill you themselves when they find out how you used them.’ I clenched my jaw, for my lips had begun to tremble. ‘And what about Anna’s mother? Was she your first? You’ve been doing this for years, haven’t you? What a miracle for Henry and his wife that they don’t need Martha’s potions. Eleanor, I suppose, is beyond the help of anything medicine could achieve: you’d have poisoned them too, wouldn’t you, if you’d had the chance.’

She looked at me coldly. ‘That’s laughable. You are laughable.’

‘Is that all you have to say?’ I clasped my arms tight about my waist. ‘Not a very spirited defence, if I may say so.’

‘We all joked about you behind your back,’ she said slowly. ‘The way you looked at Jane; the way you followed her around. Cass only tolerates you for her sake, you know. You’re unnatural; a freak.’

‘Call me whatever you like.’ My voice threatened to betray the pain her words had inflicted. ‘You can’t hurt me; and you can’t stop me!’

Her lip curled as she looked me up and down. ‘You wouldn’t dare tell anyone what you’ve just said to me because it’s all in your warped little mind! You have no proof do you, of what you’re saying? So do what you want; no one will ever believe you!’

‘All the proof I require is there in your eyes,’ I growled back, ‘But I won’t rest until I can prove it, in a court of law. I don’t care how long it takes. So think about that as you go about your daily business: there’ll be nothing natural in the way you end your days, Mrs Austen: the hangman will see to that!’

My legs were shaking as I turned my back on her and strode across the grass. I felt weak and proud and stupid and a dozen other things besides. What was I thinking of, coming out with all that? How in God’s name was I ever going to prove anything? The coded message from the poem was the strongest piece of evidence I possessed and what lawyer was going to take that seriously?

Ridiculous as it sounds, the overwhelming emotion as I stepped out of her sight into the shadows of the cathedral was a thrilling sense of vengeance: I might never have the evidence I sought but at least I’d had the satisfaction of rattling her; of planting a creeping dread of what might lie ahead.

In the carriage back to Chawton I was barely able to string two words together. I told Anna and Cass I felt unwell and when we reached the village I asked to be put down at the cottage, saying I would follow them up to the Great House when I had rested a while. The truth was I couldn’t bear to spend another minute in their company, not after what Mary had said.

It’s not true, Jane whispered in my ear. She only said it to hurt you.

Rationalising it made no difference: I had to get away. I left a note on the kitchen table and boarded the next mail coach to London. I fixed my gaze on the parlour window as the horses pulled away, knowing in my heart that I would never see Chawton again.

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