The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 33

Ihave kept up my correspondence with Cass and Anna, although the letters we exchange become fewer as the years go by. They no longer express the hope of a visit from me: I think that the excuses I have made about the school or the state of my health make them believe that I no longer wish to see them. It is not true, of course. But it could never be as it once was. All the pleasure would be soured by those wounding words of Mary Austen’s.

Anna became a widow not long after Martha’s wedding. With seven young children to care for, she was in a perilous position and I sent her money whenever I could.

Fanny stopped writing to me at about the same time. She was safely delivered of her child – a boy, as Anna had predicted – but she seemed to want to cast off her old life and connections with the onset of motherhood. Anna, who remains very angry with her, tells me that she thinks herself too fine for the rest of the family now and seeks to cover up her Austen connections. She becomes embarrassed, apparently, when people ask if she is indeed the niece of the famous author. It grieves me to hear it.

Cass continues to live at the cottage on her own and when she is not tending the garden she spends her time sewing for the poor, teaching the village children to read and entertaining her great-nephews and nieces – the sons and daughters of Edward’s eldest son, who is now in permanent residence at the Great House. Edward himself continues to live at Godmersham with Charlotte and Louisa, the two women who have become indispensable to him.

James-Edward married the girl I saw in Winchester cathedral and three years ago, when Aunt Leigh-Perrot left this world at the grand old age of ninety-one, he inherited the Scarlets estate. Anna requires no more help from me now: her young half-brother has become her benefactor and protector. Her first children’s story, Little Bertram’s Dream, is to be published next year.

Cass makes occasional mention of Henry in her letters. ‘He and Eleanor have retired to Tunbridge Wells,’ she wrote to me this summer. ‘Despite her frail constitution, she shows no sign of making him a widower for a second time. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she outlived him.’

And what of Mary? ‘My stepmother continues as stout as ever,’ Anna reported with thinly veiled sarcasm in her last letter. ‘She is moving to another rented house in a hamlet called Speen near Newbury. Caroline is with her, of course. I think there is no prospect of my sister ever marrying now, as she is almost six-and-thirty. She reminds me in many ways of dear Aunt Jane. I never realised, when I was young, what life was like for her. Now I see, through Caroline’s eyes, what it is to have the care of a parent when one might have hoped for children to nurture. Aunt Jane did at least have the solace of a sister to share that burden – and a burden it must indeed be in my stepmother’s case.’

I have stored every scrap of intelligence I can gather about Mary Austen in a special notebook reserved for the purpose. It has been very hard, knowing that she still lives a comfortable life while Jane lies in eternal slumber beneath the cold stones of Winchester cathedral. The certainty of her guilt is a heavy burden to carry. It has eaten away at me over the years. But I have never stopped searching for a way to prove my suspicions. What drives me on is my love for Jane and the thought of what she might have achieved had she lived to a ripe old age. The six novels might have become sixteen; the royal patronage she had begun to attract would have elevated her to the highest heights of literary fame – something she should have been able to enjoy to the full in her lifetime, but was granted a mere taste of.

It is almost unbearable that this crime should go unpunished and unnoticed. With every passing year the sense of despair deepens. Can I accept that it may never be resolved? Must I, like Jane and the others, take the hand that fate has dealt me? No, I cannot. I will not. I will go on searching for the proof to my dying breath.

Anne Sharp

December 1840

9th July 1843

Reading my own words again has shaken my resolve. When I brushed the dust off the binding I had all but convinced myself to parcel it up, climb into a carriage and deliver it in person to Dr Sillar. But those last few pages hold such bitter passion. I find that I am shocked by the intensity of my longing for vengeance. It eclipses everything: all the joy, the wonder and the tenderness of the years I had with Jane.

Looking up from my desk, I see her face before me. Sometimes it takes a while to hear what she has to say but this time the message is instant. She does not crow with triumph at the prospect of justice. No: she begs me to pause, to reckon what there is to be gained from chasing an old woman to the gallows.

‘But Jane,’ I whisper back, ‘I was going to write to Anna: I was going to ask for a sample of her father’s hair from the brooch she wears to give to Dr Sillar.’

‘To what purpose?’ she replies. ‘Will it bring James back? And think what harm it might do: Anna could hardly hate Mary more than she does already, but what would become of Caroline if the case came to court? Would you set sister against sister?’

My eyes go to the ring on my finger; to the braided strands that are as familiar to me as my own face. So much of what I am is contained within it but for the better part of two decades I have felt nothing but a festering anger when I look upon it. I know that I have allowed this to happen: this tainting of the thing that was so dear to me. But if I was to abandon this relentless quest for justice could I forget? Could I look upon her hair and not feel that all-consuming rage?

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10th July 1843

Last night I dreamed I boarded a train that took me all the way from Liverpool to Newbury without stopping. When I alighted the whole station was thick with smoke and I blundered about with streaming eyes, searching for a way out. When at last I found the exit I spied a fine chestnut mare tethered to a post. I straddled the horse as a man would, the lower half of my gown disappearing as I did so. I remember the sight of my legs, clad in breeches of yellow buckskin, gripping the horse’s belly as it galloped out of the town heading for open country.

We came to the hamlet of Speen, which was no more than a chapel and a few houses strung along the road like rosary beads. One of the houses looked familiar. It had a red door with a shiny lion’s head knocker. Dismounting the horse I walked up and peered through one of the windows. There was Mary Austen, sewing a patchwork. She was bidding goodbye to Caroline, who said she was off to a fair with the servants. I hid behind a bush as they all departed, then slipped into the house by the back door.

‘You!’ Mary’s cheeks blazed crimson against hair that was now snow white. ‘How dare you come into my house!’

Putting my hand into the pocket of my breeches, I pulled out the lock of hair I had sent to Dr Sillar. It was black and brittle, as if it had been singed with hot irons. ‘Look at this,’ I said to her. ‘It’s the proof I told you I would find. Here! Taste it!’ I stuffed the hair into her gaping mouth. Her face contorted and she slumped sideways like a puppet on slack strings. I clapped her on the back and she spat out the hair. Then I took her by the shoulders and tossed her about, demanding a confession. Her mouth began to move but no matter how violently I shook her, no words would come out.

I awoke with my hand across my face, Jane’s ring pressed against my lips. The room was still in darkness save for a thin beam of daylight piercing the curtains. I stared at the pool of colour it cast on the ceiling. As I lay in that twilight state between waking and rising I saw myself with sudden clarity. The cause of the dream is, of course, blindingly obvious – but what drives this insatiable thirst for vengeance? Losing Jane so suddenly, not being able to say goodbye or even see her face in death: that has created an impotent fury within me. Someone must pay for this bitter loss, this theft of my heart. I see that my quest for justice is really a mask for something entirely selfish; it is not the crime of murder I wish Mary Austen to suffer for but the pain of my own unrequited love.

But I did love you. Was that Jane’s voice or my own?

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12th July 1843

This morning a letter arrived from Dr Sillar. It is a polite reminder that I have not yet responded to what he communicated a week ago.

I am sure that Miss J.A. was very dear to you, he writes, otherwise you would not be in possession of a token so intimate. I fear that my remarks about the strength of the evidence might tempt you to a course of action that would be most inadvisable. I urge you, dear madam, not to confront any person, if indeed a suspect has come to mind. In itself, the Marsh Test will not bring a guilty party to book. Evidence of both opportunity and intent would be required in a court of law, as I am sure you are aware, and to act in haste in such a matter may result in a lawsuit for slander. Given the lapse of time it could be a difficult case to prove without an admission of guilt on the part of the poisoner.

Yes, of course. Even my sleeping self is aware of that insurmountable obstacle. What in this world would induce Mary Austen to confess? A gun held to the head of her son or daughter, perhaps? Nothing else comes to mind. Dr Sillar asks for a meeting to discuss the case but I am going to tell him that I have decided not to pursue it any further. What is done cannot be undone. I have tried to take a path the Bible tells us should only be taken by God Himself and it has led me to an utterly desolate place.

But I do not regret sending the hair to be tested, precious as it was. The secret it held has opened the wound in my soul and cleansed it so that it no longer festers. This evening I will ask Rebecca to light the fire in my study, even though the weather has been warm. The memoir can serve no further purpose, for I know now that I need no written record of what Jane meant to me: it is printed indelibly on my heart, wrapped in endpapers of crimson silk and bound in the softest hide.

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