The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 3

It was the play that started it. One morning we were watching the girls rehearsing a scene. Looking at Anna’s angelic little face it was hard to believe the words that had come out of her mouth a couple of weeks earlier in the Greek temple. How could a child apparently so sweet-natured hate anyone so much as to wish them dead? So intent was I on watching Anna that I dropped a page of the script. As I bent to retrieve it I saw that Jane’s eyes were not on the actors but on the ceiling, locked in an unblinking gaze, as if her soul had taken leave of her body.

‘Are you all right?’ I whispered.

For a moment I thought she didn’t recognise me. ‘Sorry!’ she gave me a puzzled smile. ‘I was somewhere else.’

‘Was it somewhere nice?’ I asked when the girls went off for their lunch.

She gave me a blank look. ‘Oh, in the rehearsal, you mean?’ She closed her eyes and gave a little shake of her head. ‘I was back at Steventon; at the rectory. Fanny reminds me of myself, I suppose. I was exactly her age when we put on a play in the barn one Christmas. It was the one I showed you: Which Is The Man? My brother Henry was in it. And my cousin Eliza.’ Jane gave an almost imperceptible nod to the chandelier above our heads. ‘We hadn’t met her before and she fascinated us. She had the most exquisite gowns, all made in Paris, and she used to swear at us in French. Henry was only fifteen but he—’ Her eyes snapped back into focus and she bit her lip. ‘Listen to me, droning on about the past! You must promise to pinch me if I drift off again.’

‘Are you sure?’ I turned up my palms and spread my fingers. ‘Have you seen the size of my hands?’

She grasped my wrists with a peal of laughter. ‘Oh, I didn’t mean to find you so agreeable! It would have saved me the trouble of liking you!’

The door opened then and Mister Priddle, the butler, stepped into the room. ‘Madam asks if you are coming to luncheon, Miss Jane.’ His eyebrow lifted a fraction of an inch, just enough to convey the annoyance Elizabeth had no doubt expressed at Jane’s absence. Turning to me he said: ‘Your tray is in the morning room, Miss Sharp.’

The morning room was where I took all of my meals. I ate alone, for it was not deemed suitable for me to eat below stairs. I would not have chosen to be singled out in this way; it underlined the sense of isolation I felt. Sometimes Fanny would stray in, but I felt bound to discourage this because it got her into trouble with the children’s nursemaid.

‘Thank you, Priddle.’ Jane stepped between me and the door. ‘Could you give my sister-in-law my apologies? There’s something I have to attend to. Perhaps you could bring a little extra luncheon to the morning room?’

I didn’t see the butler’s reaction to this, for she was standing in front of him. I could imagine it well enough, though. He was not accustomed to having the rigid order of things rearranged. No doubt he would report Jane’s instructions verbatim to his mistress. I wondered how that would go down.

‘Elizabeth won’t miss me,’ Jane said as we sat down to eat. ‘She likes my sister but she barely tolerates me. Cass is so good-hearted that no one could possibly dislike her. But I don’t know what I’ve done to cause offence, other than reminding her of her husband’s humble origins.’

I had pieced together enough of my employer’s background to know what she meant. Fanny’s stories about Grandpapa Austen and fragments of gossip I had picked up from the servants suggested that, by nothing other than sheer good luck, Edward had been adopted by childless relatives seeking a boy they could groom as heir to Godmersham.

Jane helped herself to a slice of the cold meat that the butler had left on the tray. ‘Elizabeth likes my brother Henry very well.’ She paused, a forkful of ham halfway between the plate and her lips. ‘He is rich, of course, which makes all the difference.’

There was something about the way she said it, the way she emphasised the word ‘all’; it brought back banished images; things I told myself I should not be thinking about. Intrigued, I prompted her: ‘Fanny sometimes speaks of an Aunt Eliza. Is she the cousin you were telling me about? The one with the Parisian gowns?’

She stared at her fork as if she had suddenly discovered it was dirty. ‘What does Fanny say about her?’

‘Oh, nothing of any consequence.’ Clearly this was dangerous ground. Her eyes moved from the fork to my face. She wouldn’t be fobbed off with such an answer. ‘She only mentioned something about her aunt being too old to have children.’

‘She is older than Henry,’ Jane’s features seemed to relax a little then. ‘She was married with a baby son when she came to us that Christmas.’ She cut a piece of cheese, held it up to her nose and made a face. Reaching for a plum instead, she said: ‘Her husband was a French count. He went to the guillotine, poor man.’ She gave a little upward roll of her eyes as she extricated the plum stone.

‘I should think that Henry made a fine stepfather for her son,’ I said. ‘He’s always so warm-hearted to the children.’

She looked directly into my eyes, slightly startled. I wondered if she knew how often Henry came to Godmersham; if she even knew that I had met him. ‘Yes, he did…’ she tailed off, her gaze moving away and over my shoulder. She looked as if she was remembering something that pained her to the point of tears.

‘I think I heard the girls calling,’ I said, afraid that I might have upset her and threatened this fragile beginning of friendship, ‘Shall we go and find them?’

She nodded quickly. As we rose from the table she took my arm.

I was surprised that there were no repercussions from Jane’s decision to take her lunch with me. Elizabeth came to watch the rehearsal in the afternoon but made no mention of it. I began to wonder if she might actually be pleased that Jane and I had become friends; it would, after all, save her the effort of toleration if Jane’s assessment was correct.

Edward was not at home that day but he arrived in time to see the play performed. He came back quite unexpectedly, in the middle of the night, from a trip to a property he owned in Hampshire. Fanny told me about it when I caught her yawning halfway through the morning.

‘It’s all Papa’s fault,’ she said. ‘He came home before dawn and turned me out of bed!’

‘Turned you out of bed?’ I frowned. ‘Why ever would he do that?’

‘I was in Mama’s bed,’ she sighed. ‘She’s been having trouble sleeping and she asked me to keep her company. She didn’t know Papa would be coming back so soon.’

I said nothing in response, of course, but I thought how selfish Edward was to do such a thing – not just to Fanny but to his wife also. Was he so unable to control himself? Could he not have found a bed elsewhere in the house and waited just a few more hours?

Watching Edward that afternoon, as he sat beside Elizabeth, smiling and applauding his daughter’s performance, it was hard to imagine the scene Fanny had described. He was being so affable; so attentive. Then I reminded myself of the side I had seen during the first week of my employment, when he had challenged me about the ideas Fanny should be exposed to. He had not shouted or even raised his voice but his manner had carried all the menace of a dog about to bite. Clearly he was a man who expected to have his own way in everything.

To my surprise Jane laughed when Fanny repeated the story to her. I was not sure whether it was out of spite for Elizabeth or a vicarious sense of triumph for Edward. Can a sister feel that way about her brother’s conjugal behaviour? As an only child, I can never know. But I thought it a strange reaction.

A few days after the performance of the play Fanny came into the schoolroom with a tiny lace-trimmed cap in her hand. ‘It’s for Anna’s new baby sister,’ she said. ‘Her name is Caroline and she was born yesterday morning at five-and-twenty to six. Mama wants me to embroider a ‘C’ and an ‘A’ on the front so it looks as if we made it especially. I don’t want to do it but she says I must.’

When I asked her why not, she said: ‘Because Anna must take it back with her and I don’t want her to go.’

This I could understand. The girls had become very thick in the weeks since Anna’s arrival and there would be no one of Fanny’s own age for her to play with when her cousin left.

‘She hates going home,’ Fanny went on. ‘She doesn’t like Aunt Mary. And I don’t blame her. I feel sorry for her, not having a real mother.’

No one had mentioned the fact that Anna had a stepmother. I considered this intelligence in the light of the conversation I had overheard at the temple. I wondered if this was the person the child hated so much; it was often the way. It might kill her, Fanny had whispered in response to the death wish uttered by her cousin. Yes, I thought, a baby might kill its mother.

Elizabeth, I well knew, prepared herself for this eventuality every time she was confined. A few days before the birth of her youngest son, Charles, she had given me a letter, all sealed up and addressed to Fanny. ‘I want you to keep this safe, Sharp’, she’d said. ‘I would give it to my husband but it wouldn’t be fair to expect him to deliver it in the event of…’ the unspoken words hung in the space between us until she glanced down at her swollen belly and I apprehended just what it was she was asking me to do. It was a death letter; a goodbye. My mother told me she had written something similar to my father the week before I was born. When I asked what had happened to it she said she threw it on the fire when I was a month old. I did not throw Elizabeth’s letter on the fire. It was tucked away in the far corner of a drawer inside an odd glove whose partner was lost somewhere in the park and by the time I remembered it was there she was well into her next pregnancy. I wondered if Anna’s mother had written a letter like that to her, and how old a child should be before being shown such a thing.

On the day that Anna left us Jane and I took Fanny fishing in the river. But in the absence of her cousin, the child was in a tricky mood. She tried our patience by throwing little handfuls of earth into the water when she thought we weren’t looking.

‘Fanny!’ Jane cried, ‘You are turning the river into a mud bath! It is trout, not hippopotamus that we are after!’

Fanny dropped her head, sullen as a horse in a heat wave. ‘This is the wrong place for fish,’ she muttered. ‘Uncle Henry knows the best spots. He took Mama and me the day after her birthday and we caught three whoppers.’

‘Oh, Uncle Henry was here for Mama’s birthday, was he?’ There was the slightest tremor of her eyelashes as she looked at me for confirmation.

‘Yes, he was,’ I replied. I remembered it clearly, for it had been a strange, unsettling sort of day. I had been left watching Fanny and the rods while Henry went with Elizabeth to inspect the walled garden. As they scrambled up the riverbank she must have dropped the key to the garden gate. I saw it glinting in the grass a few minutes afterwards and ran to catch them up. But they were nowhere to be seen. Then I saw a flash of colour; the bright yellow of Henry’s coat disappearing into the little bathing house on the next bend along the river.

Of course, there could have been any number of reasons for him going in there; a call of nature perhaps, or a sudden request from Elizabeth for a parasol to shield her from the sun. But it wasn’t the first time that this brother and sister-in-law had aroused my curiosity. I remember standing there, nonplussed, on the top of the bank. Fanny was calling out to me, telling me to come quick; that she had hooked a trout. My head twisted this way and that, like the hapless fish on the line, from the bathing house to the shouting child, from one river bend to the other, my mind a whirl of muddied images. I told myself that I was mistaken; that the sun had played tricks with my eyes, which have never been strong. Fanny landed her fish herself and before we knew it her uncle and mama were beside us, laughing as they slipped and slid the last few yards down the bank.

‘The key, ma’am,’ I said, when Fanny had dragged Henry across to the keep net to see her fish. ‘You must have dropped it.’

I watched her face. The limpid blue eyes were untroubled. The tendrils of blonde hair quivered not an inch. ‘Oh, thank you, Sharp.’ She almost managed a smile as she took it. ‘I wondered where it had gone! We had to ask old Baines to let us in, didn’t we, Henry?’

I don’t know if he heard what she said. His head was next to Fanny’s, peering at the thrashing silver creature in the net. He simply laughed and raised his hand in a wave, as if nothing anyone could say or do could spoil the magic of the moment.

That night, as I lay in bed, I turned it over and over in my mind. I had overheard enough conversations between my father and his customers to know that stories of men desiring a brother’s wife thrilled the drawing rooms of London. Could Henry really be guilty of such a thing? Was that why he came to Godmersham so often? Was his eager interest in the children just a ploy?

I thought about how he had been spending his days during this visit. When he was not with the children he was often shooting or fishing with Edward. And yes, he did spend time with Elizabeth; probably more time with her than with anybody else. Unlike Edward, she did not have an estate to run. She had all the time in the world to entertain her brother-in-law. Too much time, perhaps.

There had been one incident, a couple of months after I had taken up my post as governess, when he and Elizabeth had taken an afternoon walk. He had returned with a broken finger, saying that a buck had attacked them as they strolled towards Chilham Castle. Elizabeth was unhurt and praised Henry for his gallantry in fending off the beast. I thought at the time that it was unusual for deer to be aggressive in February; that autumn was the time for rutting.

Rutting. The word lodged itself in my brain. Were they really in Chilham Park that day? Was he really attacked as he said? Or had he come by the injury some other way? The weather had been wild and windy. Had they been in the bathing house? Had the door blown shut on his hand when they tried to leave?

Having taken this direction, my thoughts took me to an even darker place. Elizabeth had been delivered of her last-born child, Louisa, in the second week of November. I counted on my fingers. The birth had come exactly nine months after the accident in Chilham Park.

The next morning I told myself that I had no proof of anything. All I could be sure of seeing was a flash of yellow cloth at the door of the bathing house. It could have been a servant’s waistcoat or a maid’s petticoat; it could even have been a duster, shaken out as the place was made ready for the summer. I told myself that I must put away my suspicions as so much fancy and foolishness. For a moment I saw myself as Elizabeth no doubt saw me: a pitiable spinster with so little in her world that she must live her life through books and invent illicit encounters.

Henry left Godmersham later that same day and as May turned into June the heat of my imagination began to die down. By the time of Jane’s arrival I had succeeded in putting the whole thing to the back of my mind. But something in her eyes now, as she stood there on the riverbank, looking from me to Fanny and back again, reignited that uneasy feeling. It was the same look I had seen the day she took her luncheon with me in the morning room.

Perhaps some sixth sense told her what I was thinking. She said nothing more on the subject of Henry, but I thought her rather more quiet and subdued as the afternoon wore on. There were no more hippopotamus jokes; no delicious barbs about the people she had encountered in the salons and ballrooms of Bath.

Fanny seemed to catch on to her aunt’s change of mood, snapping out of her sourness into a stream of chatter. I wondered how much she was picking up from the adults around her; whether she had deliberately dropped Uncle Henry into the conversation to test her aunt’s reaction. She kept a diary, which she sometimes showed me and, while the entries were mostly mundane, they revealed a keen eye for observation. A year ago, four months after the Chilham Park episode, she had shown me a whole week’s worth of her jottings. Henry had been at Godmersham again and she had recorded every activity during his stay, including trips he made to Canterbury with her mother and father, places they had gone to dine, even a game of hide and seek that Henry, Elizabeth and Fanny had apparently played by themselves.

The day after his departure she had made a note of the fact that Mama had received a letter from Uncle Henry. I wondered at the time why she should record that occurrence, when her mother was sure to have received several other letters that day, as she would on most days. Now I asked myself if it could have been significant; had Elizabeth broken the news to Henry, during his stay, that she was expecting his child? Had he written to her the moment he got back to London, telling her of his delight at this news?

As Fanny chattered to Jane about dragonflies and water boatmen and all manner of innocent delights, I puzzled over Henry. He was stepfather to Eliza’s child by her first marriage, but that child must be a grown man by now. According to Fanny, Eliza was too old to give Henry a child of his own. And yet he loved children: despite my misgivings, I found it hard to believe that the fondness he showed was just an act. Was it too wild an idea that he might try to father one by his own sister-in-law? A child who would provoke no whiff of scandal as long as the true identity of the father was never guessed at? A child whom Henry could see whenever he chose and could cherish as a favourite niece or nephew?

I shook my head, unwilling to own such murky thoughts. Jane saw me and, thinking I was cold, bade Fanny pack up the rods and head for home. The girl ran on ahead of us. Weighed down with the fishing baskets, we were a good quarter of an hour after her in entering the house. As we set down the baskets she came skipping down the stairs.

‘Aunt Jane, do you know what?’ she said, all breathless, ‘Uncle Henry is coming for the Canterbury races!’

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