The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 5

When I woke the next morning after a few fitful hours of sleep I had a pain behind my eyes. When I tried to get out of bed the room began to spin and candle flames appeared and disappeared, as if some fiendish spirit lit them, pinched them out and hexed them back to life.

Fanny, who was quite recovered from her own illness, came to find me when I failed to appear in the schoolroom. Her reaction to seeing me so indisposed was to appoint herself my nurse, solemnly rearranging my bedclothes and laying a damp flannel on my brow, which set me smiling in spite of the pain. When she could find no other means of increasing my comfort she went off in search of her aunt.

On hearing of what ailed me Jane did a strange, lovely thing. She went out into the meadows that bordered the river, spending the whole of the morning collecting wild flowers, which she brought to my room. Spreading them out on the counterpane she told me of a remedy she had got from a woman called Martha Lloyd, the sister of Anna’s stepmother, who had made a careful study of the use of herbs for medicine.

‘I copied this from her,’ she said, pulling a folded sheet of paper from her pocket. ‘My eyes sometimes give me pain and I have learned how to treat them myself.’ She read the remedy aloud: ‘“Take of eye-bright tops two handfuls, of celandine, vervain, betony, dill, clary, pimpernel and rosemary flowers, of each a handful; infuse twenty-four hours in two quarts of white wine: then draw it off in a glass still: drop the water with a feather into the eye often.”’

‘Two quarts of white wine!’

She nodded. ‘Don’t worry – my brother will never miss it. He has enough wine in his cellars to float a battleship.’

‘It seems a strange thing, though,’ I said, ‘to put wine in the eyes. Does it really work?’

‘Oh yes,’ she smiled, turning the paper over. ‘It’s Martha’s best remedy for sore eyes. She has this other one, which you can try if you want to: “Take the white of hen’s dung, dry it very well and beat it to a powder. Take as much of it as will sit on a sixpence and blow it into the eyes when the party goes to bed.”’

She looked at me so straight-faced that I burst out laughing, my breath gusting over the flowers and scattering some on the floor. ‘Hen’s dung!’ I grimaced as she bent to gather up the pale blue heads of eye-bright and the fragrant stems of rosemary. ‘Please don’t tell me you tried it!’

‘Well, I did collect some,’ she replied solemnly. ‘But my mother mistook it for pepper and put it in an oyster pie.’

I almost believed her, so quick was she at mixing fact and fiction and so convincing her mask. She was such a different person from the one who had come to my room in the grey light of dawn. I think that she had set out that morning determined to dispatch whatever had robbed her of sleep the night before. I could picture her lacing up her boots and striding into the dew-soaked meadow, plucking flowers from their roots in a slow, deliberate act of extirpation.

I was glad that she asked no more questions. I shuddered to think of the consequences of telling her what I thought I had seen; of the utter devastation it would wreak. How could she keep such a thing to herself? And how would the family survive the recriminations that would surely follow?

I thought of Fanny, already so knowing, hovering on the brink of discovery. It was one thing to suspect a favourite uncle of holding a special place in your mother’s heart; quite another to find out that he had fathered your baby sister. I thought of Fanny’s brothers, young Edward, George and Henry, due to return to school in a few weeks’ time. A scandal of such proportions, if it got out, would put paid to any hopes for their future. And then there were the little ones, William, Lizzy, Marianne and Charles – still in the nursery and incapable of understanding why Uncle Henry would not be coming to play with them any more. And there was baby Louisa, who would never again gaze into Henry’s eyes the way she had done that day of the Canterbury races. I knew what it felt like to lose the closeness and security of family. If I told Jane what I suspected, hers would never be the same again.

‘This time tomorrow, when we’ve steeped the flowers and drawn off the liquid, your eyes will be quite better.’ Jane’s voice brought me up short. ‘Then we shall write another play and everything will be as it was.’

‘Yes,’ I murmured, settling back against the pillow, ‘I do hope so. And perhaps you will let me read your manuscript? I would love to know more about this family you have dreamed up.’

She plucked a sprig of celandine from the bunch in her lap and pulled off the flowers, crushing them between her finger and thumb. ‘It’s very kind of you, but I’d rather wait till I had something better to show you.’ She opened her fingers, revealing a smear of bright yellow. If she had pressed her thumb upon a sheet of paper the swirls and creases in the flesh would have left the kind of mark an infant makes on discovering a paint box. She seemed determined to view The Watsons as a waste of effort; a stillborn child that would never see the light of day. I wondered how long it would be before she trusted me enough to reveal any future creations.

Martha Lloyd’s herbal remedy had a wonderfully soothing effect but we did not write another play. Elizabeth, on hearing that I had been suffering with my eyes, decreed that I should return to London with Henry to see an optometrist. I was surprised and rather taken aback by this offer. I was only the governess, not a member of the family. Why should I be singled out for such exalted treatment, I wondered?

The appointment was made for the day after Henry’s planned departure. I was to stay overnight at his home in Brompton and he would escort me to and from the consultation. Mrs Austen shook her head when she heard where I was off to.

‘I cannot abide London,’ she said, her tongue peeping through the gap in her teeth like a mouse venturing out of a hole. ‘It is a sad place. I cannot comprehend why Eliza loves it so. I would not live in it on any account: one has not time to do one’s duty either to God or man.’

I was not sure what she meant by it, but her words reminded me very much of something my father had uttered as he lay dying. ‘I have failed you, my love,’ he said, ‘I have not done my duty to God or to man; but you must promise me that you will always do yours.’ I could not ask him to explain, for he lapsed into unconsciousness with the next breath. The following day, when his body was laid out in the parlour, the bailiffs came to take every mortal thing that he had owned. They would have taken the coffin itself if I had not thrown myself across it.

‘Pay no heed to Mama,’ Jane said, shooing me upstairs to help me pack my things. ‘She loves London as much as anyone. It affords her such opportunity for her study of noses. There is one in particular that she always must see when she goes there. It belongs to the gentleman who guides visitors around Westminster Abbey. She says he must be the cleverest man in Christendom.’ I could not help but smile at the thought of Mrs Austen stalking about the Abbey in pursuit of such an unfortunate soul. ‘And you should have heard her as we passed by Kensington Palace one time,’ Jane went on. ‘The King had employed a painter to improve the outside and my mother said: “I suppose whenever the walls want no touching up he is employed about the Queen’s face!”’

How could I be gloomy with such a companion? Before I departed she asked if I would take two letters: one for her cousin and another for Madame Bigeon, Henry’s housekeeper. ‘You will like Madame B,’ she said. ‘She is the very essence of kindness. She has been with Eliza for a long time – before she married Henry. She and her daughter are from Calais – they fled France during the Terror.’

I took the letters and tucked them in my valise. ‘I hope that your cousin will not think it an imposition,’ I said, ‘having a stranger under her roof.’ I couldn’t spell it out to Jane, but I was worried about how I would be received. I was the employee of Elizabeth, sent without notice to stay in the home of Eliza. If Eliza had any inkling of what I suspected her husband was up to I guessed that she would not be best pleased to see me.

‘Nonsense!’ Jane laughed. ‘I have written three letters already, telling her all about you. But I doubt that you will see her: she is rarely at home.’ This did not sit easily with the picture I had formed of Eliza; of a poor faded beauty who hid herself away while her handsome young husband did what he pleased. ‘She is in great demand,’ Jane went on. ‘She keeps her title of Comtesse in spite of having had all her land in France stolen from her; she’s always at some party or another, or going to the theatre. The only time she stays in is if she’s holding a soirée of her own. She has the most amazing salon for entertaining: Henry says that if you sit still too long up there you get your legs painted gold.’

She was smiling but there was agitation in her voice; it had all come out in a rush, as if she was trying to bolster Eliza, to dismiss any impression that Henry had lost interest in his wife. Then she said: ‘You mustn’t mind him. He’s a terrible flirt. He can’t help it.’ I tried to read her eyes. Was this a warning? Did she think I was about to become the object of her brother’s attention?

Before either of us could say another word we were interrupted by one of the housemaids coming to tell me that the carriage was ready and Henry waiting downstairs. She stood in the doorway as I bid Jane goodbye, probably under instructions from Elizabeth to hurry me up. Jane hugged me, saying she wished she was coming too. I wondered why she could not. Surely it would have been no trouble for Henry to take his sister to London for the night? I soon discovered why Jane had not been asked; indeed, the whole purpose of my trip seemed to unfold within half an hour of our departure from Godmersham.

Henry’s familiar scent filled the carriage as we climbed in, roiling my thoughts like a stick in a wine cask. All the self-doubt came floating up again. I felt an overwhelming desire to think only the best of him; to submerge the memory of a few nights before. I had to remind myself that though he smiled he was someone to be wary of.

I sat there in some trepidation, wondering what topics of conversation I might summon up to while away the hours that lay ahead. But Henry made things very smooth, talking of the games he had played with the children and repeating all the funny little things that they had said and done. It wasn’t long, however, before he began to talk about Fanny. It started innocently enough, with some remark about the cow she kept as a pet, along with a collection of birds and kittens that made almost as much work as the children. ‘I heard she was unwell again the night I returned from Canterbury,’ he said. ‘And you looked after her.’ He beamed at me. ‘You were very kind to her, Miss Sharp: I heard you talking to her on the landing as I came up to bed.’

‘I…er…I was worried about her, yes.’ He was looking right into my eyes, as if he could see the images that lingered inside my head.

‘I hope that everything was all right? That you were not too much…disturbed?’ To my mind the slight pause and the emphasis conveyed his meaning exactly. I was sure that he wanted to know if I had seen him on the stairs; if I had heard what he said to Elizabeth. I felt the tips of my ears burning and was glad that they were hidden beneath my bonnet. I didn’t want him to know how much those frank hazel eyes discomfited me; how trapped I felt inside that carriage with him as my escort-cum-jailer.

I could hear the bump of the wheels on ruts in the road but behind the glass a thick silence cocooned us. He never shifted his gaze from my face. He was waiting for an answer. I hesitated, still trying to weigh him up. If I let on that I had seen him, what would he do? Would he have some story ready to account for what I had witnessed? Or would he write to Elizabeth the minute we got to London, warning her of the danger I posed and advising my prompt dismissal? The thought of this made my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth.

‘Did Jane come to help? I thought I heard her voice too.’

I swallowed hard. I mustn’t allow Jane to be dragged into this. ‘She was…in bed,’ I began, my voice made gruff by the dryness of my mouth. ‘She heard me talking to Fanny and popped her head round the door to see what was going on. Then she took Fanny into her bed.’

He held my gaze a moment longer before replying. ‘So everything was all right?’

‘Everything was quite all right, thank you,’ I said, nodding to lend my words conviction. I had to make him believe me. It was pure self-preservation that motivated me. I was not thinking, then, of the effect this tacit agreement to turn a blind eye could have on Fanny or the other children.

‘Did Jane tell you of Cassandra’s little drama?’ He stretched out his long legs and settled back against the padded velvet. ‘Had her ankle not been sprained it would have been the most amusing thing!’ I was taken aback by the sudden change of tone and subject. Henry launched into a spirited account of the ball at Canterbury, describing the man in military uniform who had been so taken with Cassandra until his foot became entangled in her gown during a cotillion and they had fallen to the floor, her foot beneath his leg and the back seam of his breeches rent asunder.

Finishing the story, he smiled at me again. It was Jane’s smile. They were so much alike in their looks and their humour and yet so very different in their dealings with the opposite sex. Jane talked about men but in a sharp, funny way that shielded her from the inescapable truth that she was, just like me, a woman close to thirty years old with no husband. Henry, on the other hand, had a confident charm that made him dangerous; he had the air of a man who could have any woman that he chose. Why, I wondered had he chosen Eliza? I hoped that she would be at home when we arrived: I wanted to see this wife of his for myself.

The rest of the journey was easier. Having apparently satisfied himself that he was in the clear, Henry kept me entertained with news of London. He talked about some of the plays he had been to see and told me of a scientist called Humphry Davy, who was attracting the fashionable set to his demonstrations of a thing called laughing gas.

‘It is a new pleasure that makes one so strong and happy,’ Henry said, chuckling as we rumbled through the streets of London. ‘I’m sure the air in heaven must be made of this stuff, Miss Sharp.’ He was eager to hear my opinion of the latest developments in the realms of science and medicine, and soon we were engaged in a most energetic debate. I was fighting myself all the way, mindful of Jane’s warning; he was a man I knew I should not allow myself to admire but his eloquence and enthusiasm were hard to resist.

Before I knew it there were shops and people and houses flashing past the window. I had not been to London since my parents died and in the first few years of the new century things were changing rapidly. Everything was brighter, busier and noisier than I remembered it; some of the young women looked almost naked, with gowns cut low on their bosoms and made of a fabric so fine you could see their legs when the sun was behind them. And the men preened like peacocks in their gay coats and pantaloons, wispy curls arranged just so on their foreheads. I felt like a drowsy animal poking its head into sunlight after a long hibernation. It was an assault upon my senses; painful yet intoxicating.

I was glad when the horses headed for Westminster Bridge, for London Bridge would have taken us very close to Maiden Lane. I wondered if Edward had told his brother anything of my circumstances before I came to Godmersham. It was possible he had heard it by some other means – the men of science Henry mixed with were just the sort to frequent my father’s shop.

The carriage clattered to a halt a good mile west of the river at number sixteen, Michael’s Place. It was in a row of elegant, newly built houses in the village of Brompton. Steps led up to a red painted front door with a shiny lion’s head knocker. The windows were veiled with fine lace panels and as I stepped on to the cobbles I saw a pair of bright black eyes peering through a gap, the lace draped like a spaniel’s ears on either side of them. I wondered if this was Madame Bigeon.

The owner of the eyes turned out not to be a woman at all: it was Monsieur Halavant, Henry’s French chef, who looked me up and down in much the same way that my mistress had done with Jane when she arrived at Godmersham. He was a strange little man, not much taller than Fanny, with a thin moustache and a blue kerchief knotted round his neck. It struck me as rather an extravagance to have a chef in a place of this size. I wondered how Henry had made his money, coming, as he did, from a modest background with none of the inherited wealth his brother Edward enjoyed.

Monsieur Halavant turned his back on me while he conversed in French with his master. He seemed agitated, his hands working like pitchforks, and I couldn’t catch all that he said. It seemed that Eliza had gone into town to find a man who repaired harps; hers had a broken string and needed urgent repair for a musical evening she was giving the next week. Henry looked unsurprised to hear of her absence and showed me into the parlour.

‘Madame Bigeon will be with you shortly.’ He stepped into the room behind me and when I glanced back at him he smiled at the expression on my face. The whole room seemed to shiver and sway. Rainbows of light slid over the fat limbs of plaster cherubs and snaked round the smooth columns of marble jardinières; mirrors caught the colours and tossed them back at the walls and the ceiling. A huge chandelier was the cause of the illusion, its cut glass prisms catching the sun’s rays as they streamed through the window.

‘A pretty thing, isn’t it?’ Henry reached up to the chandelier and tapped it, sending the rainbow rays into a frantic dance. ‘It’s designed to intensify the light and cut down on the cost of candles.’ His arm brushed my shoulder as he lowered it. ‘Sorry, Miss Sharp – how clumsy of me!’ His face was so near and the light so bright that I could see spots of gold in the muddy green of his irises. Something strange happened in that moment. My mind took flight and alighted at Godmersham; came to roost inside Elizabeth’s head. I was seeing him as she would have seen him that night on the staircase – if it was her. I was that close; close enough to slip my arm around his waist. How would that feel, I wondered? How was it supposed to feel when a woman touched a man in that way?

‘Will you excuse me?’ Henry’s voice broke the spell. ‘Monsieur Halavant requires fresh fish for a dish he is preparing and as my wife has taken the carriage he must go to market in my brother’s.’ With a little bow he made for the door, closing it behind him. I stood there in a sort of daze for a moment. Then I moved to the window and peered through the lace panel. I thought that Henry was simply going outside to instruct the coachman but to my surprise he jumped into the carriage with the chef. As it disappeared round a corner I heard footsteps behind me and turned to see a stout, olive-skinned woman with silver hair tucked into her cap.

‘Madame Bigeon?’ I moved away from the window, embarrassed that she had seen me peering after Henry.

She dropped me a little curtsey. I wondered if she knew that I was merely a governess and not a proper guest. Feeling my colour rise, I bent over my valise and pulled out the letter that Jane had asked me to pass on. I thought it would be polite to address her in her native tongue and she seemed delighted by this, despite my poor accent. Seizing the letter with a warm glance she took my valise and said that I should make myself comfortable in my room while she set out some food for me.

The chamber she gave me was dominated by a huge bed with an ornate carved headboard, its coverlet of lavender silk. It was at the back of the house and its window gave a view across open fields. Over the bed was a portrait. It showed a plump baby with blond curls sitting on the lap of a beautiful, fairylike girl whose pale wig contrasted oddly with her dark brown eyes.

‘Is that your mistress and her son?’ I asked.

She nodded, pressing her lips together.

‘It’s a very fine portrait, isn’t it?’ I smiled but she looked away from me, out of the window to the sheep that grazed the gentle, rolling fields.

‘He was such a beautiful child.’ She said it in a voice so low that I could barely make out the words. I hesitated before replying, working out from what Jane had told me that Eliza’s child must now be around twenty years old. I wondered where he was now.

‘We all miss him terribly.’ Madame Bigeon turned her face back to me and I saw that there were tears in her eyes. ‘He suffered more than any child should. The doctor said it was a mercy when God took him. But my poor mistress…’ she tailed off, wringing her hands, ‘She cannot bear to have this painting hanging in a place where she would see it.’

‘I am so sorry,’ I said, fumbling for the right words. ‘I didn’t know…’

She shook her head and put out her hands, sweeping the air. ‘My mistress doesn’t talk about it,’ she said, ‘and nor does Monsieur Henry. He was a wonderful father to the boy – and there are not many men who would take on a child with such afflictions. It is such a tragedy that she could not have another child.’ She blinked and drew in her breath. ‘Please come downstairs when you are ready,’ she said. ‘Do you like buttered shrimps?’

I stared at her stupidly for a moment, still taking it all in.

‘They are small shellfish,’ she went on. ‘Have you tried them? They are very good to eat with new bread.’

‘Oh…yes,’ I mumbled, nodding vigorously for fear she would think me ungrateful. I had not tasted shrimp since I was a child. The memory of it conjured up picnics with my parents on Hampstead Heath.

She smiled at my eager face. ‘I will have it ready for you in five minutes.’ I listened to her footsteps fade away to nothing as she went down the stairs. I found myself unable to move, transfixed by the eyes of Eliza. She looked so delicate, almost transparent, next to the pink-cheeked baby on her knee; I thought it sad and strange that this healthy-looking little boy had passed away while she still lived. I wondered what lay behind Madame Bigeon’s words: had there been a miscarriage or a stillbirth? Was there a second, failed pregnancy with her first husband, the Comte, before he went to the guillotine? Had Henry married her knowing that there would be no children? It seemed unlikely, given his undisguised affection for his nephews and nieces. More probable, I thought, that he had given up hope as the years rolled by.

I stepped closer to the painting to read what was written on the small gold-coloured plaque mounted on the frame: Eliza, Comtesse de Feuillide and her son, Hastings. Painted for Warren Hastings, Governor General of India, by John Hoppner.

I ran my finger under the name of the patron, whispering it to myself. I knew of Warren Hastings, as every person in England capable of reading a newspaper knew of him: he had made a vast fortune in India from timber and carpets and opium and had very nearly lost it all when he was accused of a multitude of crimes against the people he had governed. His trial had provided more of a spectacle than anything on offer in the theatres, with crowds gathering before the sun was up to queue for it. His accusers had been some of the most eminent parliamentarians in England. Against the likes of Edmund Burke, John Sheridan and Charles Fox he seemed to stand no chance. But to the amazement of everyone the case had, eventually, been thrown out of court. According to the papers, he now lived in somewhat reduced circumstances in a country residence in Gloucestershire.

I wondered why Warren Hastings had commissioned a painting of Henry’s wife and stepson. Apparently the child had been named for him, which suggested that he was a relative. Jane had told me that Eliza’s mother was the sister of her late father, Reverend Austen, so the connection must be on the other side. To have such a wealthy and influential man in the family must surely have enhanced Eliza’s prospects. Had his influence helped bring about the match with the French Count? If so, I wondered if he had played any part in Eliza’s choice of a second husband.

A distant voice from down below made me jump back from the portrait. Madame Bigeon was calling me. I hurried downstairs, my head bursting with questions.

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