The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 4

Early next morning the air was tainted with the smell of mothballs. The servants were in a whirl of activity, preparing and packing several outfits for each member of the family party. They were to stay two nights in Canterbury and apart from the races there would be balls, a tour of the cathedral and dinner at the homes of two local families of Edward and Elizabeth’s acquaintance. I heard Sayce, Elizabeth’s maid, reading out the list, marking each event with a tick when the requisite items of clothing were ready to stow in the carriages.

‘I love dancing, but I’m in despair!’ Jane led me along the landing to her room, past maids carrying armfuls of petticoats, shawls and pelisses. ‘I don’t know what on earth I’m going to wear!’ She had put off her mourning attire a fortnight since and was now free to dress in whatever she chose. I wondered why she was so agitated. ‘Look,’ she said, pointing to the bed. ‘It’s my only good gown. But Elizabeth says there are going to be two balls.’ She flopped down beside the pale green satin dress with its trim of white silk rosebuds. ‘What am I going to do?’ she groaned, ‘I can’t possibly wear the same dress twice!’

‘Do you have a white gown?’ I asked, ‘Something you could trim up with a bit of lace?’

‘I have one of white cambric, but no lace. Elizabeth would disown me if I stood next to her in it.’

I could just imagine it. Elizabeth had a roomful of the most exquisite gowns to choose from. I had seen Sayce take out the oyster-coloured silk, its bodice embroidered with seed pearls, and the fine India muslin with the blush satin petticoat. She would, no doubt, pack at least two more ball gowns with matching reticules, slippers, caps and fans in case the mistress changed her mind. How could Jane, the unmarried daughter of a country parson’s widow, be expected to live up to that?

I wondered that Edward had not left his mother and sisters better provided for since the death of their father. He had inherited not one but two country estates and he had the command of dozens of servants, stables full of horses and the finest wine cellar in Kent. Why could he not spend a few guineas on decent dresses for Jane and Cassandra? What was the point of inviting them to stay if they could not hold their heads up in the company he kept?

Between us, Jane and I concocted a solution. I had some lace and an amber brooch left to me by my mother. She was quick with a needle and thread and by the time the maids came for her things the white dress was transformed.

‘Are you sure you don’t mind?’ she asked, as I held out the brooch. ‘It feels wrong, borrowing something so dear to you.’

‘I know that you’ll look after it,’ I replied. ‘And besides, I go to so many balls I’m quite fagged with them!’ I gave a little mock shudder and she snorted with laughter.

‘I wish you were coming,’ she said. ‘I’m bound to meet the most ghastly people.’

I wished it too. For all that I made I light of it, I would have loved to go to a ball. I had a vivid memory of the last one I had attended. It was at Ramsgate, with my parents. I had three partners, all naval cadets, none of them tall enough to look me in the eye. Afterwards, my mother and I laughed about it till we cried. It was only two years distant but it felt like two hundred.

As she put the brooch in her valise there was a knock at the door. It was a footman, wanting to know if her trunk was ready for stowing in one of the carriages. As she went across to speak to him I noticed something sticking out from under the counterpane, which had become disarranged from us sitting on the bed. It was a sheet of paper, handwritten. The Watsons – a novel in three volumes. That much I couldn’t help reading, for it was written in a larger hand than the rest. I turned away, guilty at seeing something so private. She was writing a book. And like me, she wanted to conceal her creation, afraid, perhaps, as I was, of failing to breathe life into the people she saw in her head.

Too late. She caught the movement as she turned back from the door. Searching my face she knew at once that I had seen what it was.

‘You’re writing a novel.’ I said it with a smile of enquiry, a clumsy attempt to mask my embarrassment. An awkward silence followed. She was bustling about with her things, not looking at me. I didn’t know what to say next. Everything that sprang to mind sounded fatuous. This was a delicate subject. I knew that for myself.

‘I was trying to write one,’ she said at last. ‘It’s hopeless. Too depressing. I can’t go on with it.’

‘You shouldn’t give up.’

‘You have not read it.’

‘But I’ve watched you write a play. If I thought I possessed one ounce of your talent I’d lock myself away and write day and night, even if I starved half to death in the process.’

She looked at me for a long moment. Then she said: ‘Did you mean to become a governess?’

Now it was my turn to look away. How could I furnish an answer without appearing careless of Fanny and ungrateful to Edward? Choosing my words carefully, I said: ‘It was not what my parents planned for me. My father was a dealer in rare books. He had a shop in London, just off the Strand. As I grew up I enjoyed helping in the business. I would have carried it on, I suppose, if that were possible.’

‘But it was not?’

‘He died and—’ I shook my head like a dog shedding water. It must have made me look quite heartless. I couldn’t bear to describe it, to relive those awful days. And if her brother had not told her how I came to be in his employment I was glad of it. I didn’t want Jane to know of my disgrace. I was afraid that she would shun me if she did.

We were interrupted by another knock at the door: a sharp rap this time. It was Elizabeth, come to tell Jane to hurry up.

‘Everyone else is downstairs.’ She sounded cross. When Jane moved away from the door Elizabeth caught sight of me. ‘What are you doing here?’ Apparently I had outlived my usefulness where Jane was concerned now that they were all off to Canterbury.

‘She was helping me to pack.’ Jane said quickly.

Elizabeth arched her eyebrows. It was a look that said: You? Needing help? Why, when you don’t own more than half a dozen outfits?

She stood in the doorway watching Jane gather up the last few items. I nodded a goodbye and made a hasty exit. Within half an hour the carriages had departed. A strange sort of silence settled on the house, as if the heart had gone out of it.

Lessons that morning were not a success. Fanny was cross about being left behind. She longed to be old enough for balls and parties. My own head was full of Jane and the manuscript she had dismissed so vehemently. If only she would allow me to read it. The thought persisted as I tried to engage Fanny in The Tempest. Like mine, her mind was wandering. She was more interested in staring out of the window.

‘Look,’ she cried suddenly, ‘It’s Uncle Henry!’

He was in the courtyard, handing his horse to one of the grooms and she ran outside to greet him. He lifted her up and twirled her round so that she staggered like a drunkard when he set her back on her feet. Then, laughing with delight, she took his hand and dragged him up the steps to the house. I wondered why he had called at Godmersham instead of going direct to Canterbury. It seemed an odd thing to do when the rest of the family had departed.

He seemed quite unperturbed at missing them all and sat down to a hearty lunch. Fanny begged to be allowed to eat with him and she made herself quite bilious on curd pudding. She was sent off to bed for the rest of the day and when she had gone, complaining loudly that she was not really ill, Henry headed for the nursery.

I was sorting out books in the schoolroom on the floor above and through the open window his voice floated up to me. I heard him trying to charm Susannah Sackree, the children’s nursemaid, into letting him take Fanny’s younger brothers for a dip in the river.

‘I could watch the baby for you, Caky, while you get them ready,’ he said. Caky was the pet name by which Fanny called the nursemaid, having been unable to say Sackree when she was small. I thought how cunning Henry was, targeting that soft spot, for Susannah was not given to indulgence. She and I had found a way of rubbing along together by trading insults; she would throw some evil remark at me and I would try to parry it with something equally offensive, which she seemed to enjoy.

I heard her mutter a few words to Henry that I couldn’t quite make out. I thought he had no chance of coaxing her, whatever charm he used. She guarded that baby as if it was her own. But to my surprise the next thing I heard was the sound of footsteps on the gravel beneath the window and a low, sweet humming, like a drowsy bee. I peered over the ledge at the strangest sight: Henry was holding baby Louisa in his arms. Rocking back and forth on his heel, he serenaded her as she gazed up at him with bright, unblinking eyes. I watched as her lids began to droop. The rhythm of his rocking never flagged and the lullaby soon worked its magic. Within a very few minutes, she was fast asleep in his arms.

I don’t know how long I stood there, staring. Never before had I seen a man do such a thing. Surely, I thought to myself, no gentleman would entertain such a pastime unless the child was his own. Suddenly he turned back towards the house and I ducked away from the window, afraid that he would catch me spying on him.

The next thing I heard was the whooping of the boys as they raced towards the river, their uncle urging them on like a pack of hounds. They were gone all afternoon but by five o’clock Henry was back on his horse in a fresh set of clothes, ready to ride to Canterbury for the ball. He looked as handsome now as I had ever seen him, in a blue dress coat with velvet collar atop a waistcoat of coquelicot and a matching cravat. The clop of hooves on cobbles signalled his departure. As he passed the house he turned in the saddle and gave a little wave of his hat. This was directed at Fanny, who was standing with me at her window in her nightgown, furious at missing all the fun in the river. ‘He looks like Robin Redbreast in that waistcoat,’ she hissed. ‘Men should only wear red if they are soldiers, shouldn’t they?’

I guessed that she was thinking of her papa, who, as landowner, was also captain of the East Kent Volunteers and put on uniform whenever he inspected the troops. There was more going on inside that little head than mere disappointment at being sent to bed: I sensed that there was a battle raging, a fight between affection for her uncle and fierce loyalty to her father. She had seen Henry through a woman’s eyes; as her mama would see him when he joined the family party at the ball. And if I was not mistaken, she was afraid for her papa.

The next day Fanny seemed to be over her bilious attack and we were in the schoolroom as usual, reading Mr Cowper’s poems, when the clatter of wheels made us both look up.

‘Who can that be?’ She jumped to her feet and ran to the window before I could say a word. ‘Papa!’ She leaned out of the window so far I dashed across the room to catch her round the waist. ‘Why are you come back?’ she called to him. ‘What’s wrong with Aunt Cassy?’ I saw Jane’s sister alight from the carriage, leaning heavily on her brother as she did so. She had to be helped up the steps with Edward on one side and a footman on the other.

Fanny begged to be excused but I made her wait for half an hour until the home-comers could be attended to. She came back to the schoolroom, eager with the news. ‘A man stepped on Aunt Cassy’s foot at the ball and they both fell over and she landed on him and serve him right because he nearly broke it!’ she gasped. ‘Papa says she has to sit and rest and we mustn’t disturb her.’

It seemed that Edward, who was not the greatest lover of dancing, had offered to take his injured sister back to Godmersham. He had not wanted to spoil everyone else’s arrangements and so he bade Jane keep his wife company for the rest of the day’s engagements, leaving Henry to escort them back from the ball that evening. I nodded silently as Fanny imparted this information. I was thinking about what I had observed the previous afternoon. What would Edward have made of his baby daughter being rocked to sleep in his brother’s arms? Would Henry have done such a thing if Edward had been at home? I checked myself before my thoughts could run on any further. Surely Edward would not have left his brother in charge of his wife if there was any substance to my suspicions?

That evening Edward asked me if I would go and sit with Cassandra. She was all alone in the salon, for he was suffering an attack of gout and was bound for bed. I was a little afraid of her, thinking that she might resent my growing friendship with her sister. But she could not have been more welcoming. As the light began to fade and the candles were lit, she told me that she had been glad to come away from Canterbury because public dancing no longer held any attraction for her. I thought it impolite to inquire the reason, but she supplied it herself.

‘I feel like a fraud,’ she said, ‘for if any man comes near me, I know it must come to nought.’ I said nothing in reply, merely tilting my head a little and waiting for her to explain. ‘I was engaged once.’ She looked past me, her eyes fixing on the curtained window. ‘His name was Tom Fowle. He was a chaplain on a ship bound for the West Indies and we were to marry on his return.’

I could keep silent no longer, though I dared not raise my voice above a whisper. ‘What happened?’

‘He contracted yellow fever but I knew nothing of it,’ she replied. ‘I had bought my wedding clothes and went to meet him at Portsmouth. Instead I got the news that he was dead.’

I murmured some inadequate condolence and a heavy silence settled upon us. The servants had all retired and the only sound to be heard was the calling of night creatures; of owls and foxes venturing forth to feast on the bounty of the darkening fields. Cassandra’s face had a soft, youthful beauty, yet she made herself look older, with her spinster’s cap and plain dimity gowns. She has given up, I thought. She cares nothing for herself now and her sister has taken the place of any child she might have had. I wondered what would become of Cassandra if Jane should ever leave her.

I fell asleep that night thinking about The Watsons. I wondered what sort of family Jane had chosen to write about and why she found what she had created so disheartening. I started thinking of the vain, silly people she so loved to mimic and the figures in my head transformed themselves into dancers at the Canterbury ball. Jane came floating by in her white dress, frowning at rows of men with fat, pink faces.

I don’t know what time it was when Fanny woke me. She came knocking on my door, her teeth chattering, saying she felt sick again and had been unable to rouse Caky. I said that I would fetch something to warm her up and bade her climb into my bed while she waited.

I remember seeing a glimmer of light in the sky through the small window in the passageway outside my room, so I suppose it must have been getting towards dawn. The flame of my candle guttered and I paused to shield it with my hand. As I did so I heard the creak of the main staircase and a whispered ‘Goodnight!’ It was Jane’s voice. I heard the sound of her footsteps on the landing then the faint thud of her bedroom door closing. I longed to go and knock; to hear all about the goings-on in Canterbury. But there was Fanny to think of. I tiptoed past her room and on towards the staircase.

As I put out my hand for the banister I saw the shape of a man on the landing below. Henry. His face was in silhouette, the aquiline nose unmistakably his. His head was turned to one side and he had his back to me. He had taken off his coat and his waistcoat shone blood red in the light from a lamp set down on the floor. As I watched, his head moved slowly from side to side, like a horse nuzzling a fence post. There was something gliding round his waist, pale and slender as a birch bough. It was a long, gloved arm. I saw the fingers separate, ripple and tense, pressing the small of his back, pulling him closer. Then he took a step back and I heard him say something, very low. It sounded like: ‘Will you come?’

A second later he had disappeared into the shadows, where a door led away to the east wing and half a dozen empty guest rooms beyond. I didn’t hear the door open or close, because I was suddenly aware of footsteps behind me. I turned to see Fanny coming along the landing and Jane stepping from the doorway of her bedroom. I darted towards the child and held her fast. ‘Now, Fanny,’ I said, trying to control my voice, ‘What are you doing out of bed? I told you to wait in the warm!’

Jane put her hand on my shoulder and said: ‘Are you quite well? You look as if you had seen a ghost.’

I shook my head and tried to smile, telling her that I was just a little chilled; that it was Fanny who needed attention. Jane gathered Fanny up and put her in her own bed, saying she was not in the least tired and would be happy to attend to her. As she bid me goodnight she gave me the same intense, curious look I had received that first afternoon beneath the willow. It was as if she could see her own fears reflected in my eyes.

I lay sleepless in the early morning light, the red of Henry’s waistcoat burning the back of my eyelids every time I tried to close them. I felt a familiar aching of the head and a slight nausea. It usually came after reading for too long or sewing in poor light. Now I wondered if my eyes had failed me in perceiving that white, gloved hand. Was it actually a glove or just a pale arm? Could it have been a servant that I had seen caressing Henry? I wanted to believe that but I could not. I was convinced that the owner of the hand was none other than Elizabeth.

I told myself that even if it was Elizabeth, I had no real proof of any wrongdoing. Perhaps she had been overly affectionate in bidding him goodnight; perhaps he had been trying to tempt her into something more. But I had not heard her say yes and neither had I heard them open the door to the east wing. Had she gone with him to one of those empty bedrooms? Or had they heard our voices and crouched in the shadows, shamed by the thought of being discovered? Was Elizabeth lying awake now, beside her slumbering husband, fearful of what the morning would bring?

A faint knocking on my door made me stiffen. Was that Fanny again? Or had Elizabeth come to seek me out; to silence me?

‘Are you awake?’ It was Jane’s voice. I jumped out of bed and opened the door. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘Were you asleep?’

‘Not yet,’ I replied. ‘What’s wrong? Is it Fanny? Has she been sick?’

‘No. She’s sleeping now. But I was worried about you.’ Her eyes searched mine. ‘You looked so… anxious.’ The word was a perfect description of her countenance. I hesitated for a moment, afraid of opening my mouth. Then she said: ‘Is something troubling you?’

I didn’t want to tell her a lie, but neither could I tell her the truth. I had no brother or sister but I could well imagine what it would do to her, seeing what I had seen. Bad enough, I thought, to discover that your brother is being cuckolded by his wife; how much worse, though, if her lover is another brother? It was the kind of secret that would tear any family apart.

‘There’s nothing you want to tell me?’ There was something about the way she said it, the way she emphasised the words with a slow horizontal movement of her head. It suggested to me that she had seen something herself: not the thing that I had witnessed, of course, for she was inside her chamber then, but something very like it. If I was right in my guess she must be in agony, an agony intensified by the fear of my knowing it too. Perhaps, like me, she doubted the evidence of her own eyes; would not allow it to be true. Seeing the concern in her face, I formed the belief that she was really begging me not to tell her.

‘I was just a little frightened, that’s all,’ I said softly. ‘I heard voices on the stairs – I had quite forgotten that you were all coming back from the ball.’

‘Voices?’

‘Just the mistress bidding goodnight to your brother,’ I said. I held her gaze, determined to make her believe me. I felt myself trembling. Whether it was with cold or with emotion I don’t know. In an instant she took her own shawl and wrapped it round my shoulders.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she whispered. ‘It wasn’t fair of me to come knocking on your door.’ I felt the warmth of her hand on my arm as she rubbed it through the shawl. ‘I must get back to Fanny. I shouldn’t have left her.’ And then she was gone, leaving an invisible trail of lavender mixed with the faint, musky sweetness of a night’s dancing.

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