The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 6

The housekeeper was chuckling to herself as she set down the plate of buttered shrimps. She begged my pardon, saying that Jane’s letter had caused her such amusement that she could not think of it without wanting to laugh. ‘What a wonderful time she has been having with you in Kent,’ she said, ‘It will do her good – she has been so unhappy since her father died. And she tells me that you have been looking after little Anna as well as Fanny.’

‘Yes,’ I began, ‘Anna was with us for a…’ Before I could finish the sentence she was off again.

‘Ah, poor Anna,’ she sighed. ‘Her new mother is very mean to her, I think. Have you met her?’ I shook my head, thinking that she was very free with her opinions. There had been several Frenchmen amongst my father’s clients, but none as bold as this lady. ‘Mary Austen is a very jealous woman,’ she went on. ‘Do you know, she will not allow my mistress to accompany Monsieur Henry when he visits them in Steventon? And do you know the reason why?’

I shook my head but I doubt if she noticed, so intent was she on telling me.

‘It is because she is the second choice. When Anna’s mother died her father wanted to marry my mistress but she turned him down. She said she could not imagine herself as the wife of a country parson!’ She rolled her eyes, as if the very thought was quite insane. ‘So now James Austen has a scold for a wife. Not only is my mistress banned from their house, her name must never be mentioned, Monsieur Henry says. Imagine how difficult that must be for him, when he goes to visit!’

‘Does he go there often?’ I asked, with a sudden presentiment of dread.

‘Quite often,’ she replied. ‘He has plans to open a branch of his bank nearby.’

Seeing my blank look she chuckled again. ‘Did you not know? That is where he is now: not in Hampshire – at the bank he has in town.’

I nodded silently. So that was where Henry’s money came from. As I tucked into my buttered shrimps I wondered how he had come by the means to start such a business. Had Edward helped him out? This seemed unlikely, given his apparent reluctance to spend even trifling amounts on clothes for Jane and Cassandra. I decided that the money must have come from Eliza’s side of the family. That would explain why two Austen brothers had vied for her hand in marriage.

‘It is an amazingly clever thing, to run a bank,’ I ventured. ‘Your mistress must be very happy to have made such a match – her parents, too, I should think.’

Madame Bigeon gave a little sigh and rubbed her hands on her apron. ‘I wish that poor Madame Hancock had lived to see the day,’ she said. ‘She was the very best of mothers – and it was not easy for her, being left a widow so early.’

‘Oh?’ I said, ‘Eliza’s father is dead, too?’

‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘it is a great pity. She hardly knew him at all because his business kept him far away. But she is lucky to have a godfather, a very kind and generous man, Monsieur Hastings. He was a great friend of her parents when they lived in India. She named the child after him, you know, because he has none of his own.’

I turned my face to the shrimps to consider this. The Governor General was Eliza’s godfather, then, not a relative, and India was the connection. By ‘generous’, I assumed that Madame Bigeon was alluding to money. Henry’s wife was becoming more intriguing than ever. I wondered when she would return from her errand and whether I would have the chance to meet her. Goodness, what a busybody you are turning into! I heard my mother’s voice, as clear as if she had been sitting at the table beside me. I suppose I was poking my nose in further than I should, taking advantage of the garrulousness of Henry’s housekeeper. The fact was that I couldn’t help myself. Two years at Godmersham, almost starved of adult society, had turned me into a glutton for every morsel I could gather from the lives of others. I felt like Arabella in the The Female Quixote, locked in a castle with only books to give colour to her life.

Before I could probe any further, though, a face appeared round the door. It was a woman of about my own age, very similar in features to Madame Bigeon.

‘This is my daughter, Marie Marguerite.’ The housekeeper beckoned her into the room. Marie Marguerite had the same warm smile as her mother. I thought how very different these women were from the servants at Godmersham. It was as if Henry’s affability had rubbed off on them, in the same way that Elizabeth’s discontentedness seemed to settle on those who served her.

When the daughter discovered that I had spent the past few weeks with Jane she sat down next to me, eager for news of her. ‘You must tell her that we miss her very much. She has not come to London this year. Will she visit on her way back to Bath, do you think?’ Before I could reply there was a faint rumble from the street outside. ‘Is that Madame?’ Marie Marguerite and her mother were on their feet in an instant.

I stayed where I was, listening to the conversation, all spoken in French, that drifted to me from the hall. From her voice I would have supposed Eliza to be much younger than she was. She was in good humour, pleased at having found someone to repair her harp quickly and delighted with a new Mameluk cap she had purchased from a milliner in the Strand. I heard Madame Bigeon tell her that Henry was back from Godmersham. Then she was informed of my presence in the house and the reason for my visit to London. There was a moment of silence.

‘You say she is here to see a doctor? About her eyes?’ There was no mistaking the note of suspicion in Eliza’s voice. I shrank back in my chair, apprehensive of what might be going through her head.

‘Yes, Madame. She is a great friend of Miss Jane’s, you know: they have been writing a play together.’

‘A friend of Jane’s?’ I heard the brightness return. ‘She must take tea with me. And will you tell Monsieur Halavant that I will not be dining at home this evening – I ran into the Comtesse d’Antraigues in town and she begged me to accompany her to the Albany. Did Henry say whether he would be here this evening?’ This question was put in an even manner, with no hint of emotion, as if it was a matter of no great importance to her if her husband came home or not. I didn’t hear Madame Bigeon’s reply; nor could I see if she had nodded or shaken her head. I wondered whether I would be Henry’s dinner partner that night. For all his good humour and lively talk the thought of it made me uneasy. I felt as a goldfish must feel, swimming in a bowl as a cat approaches. I hoped that he would stay away and leave me to dine alone.

Eliza took tea in the upstairs drawing room, a place of breathtaking elegance that ran the whole length of the first floor. Its overall effect was of unbounded treasure: there were gold clocks and candelabra; glittering chandeliers and gleaming statuary. Rich tapestries and huge gilded mirrors hung from the walls, while the ceiling was painted with scenes of clouds and cherubs. There were ottomans piled with richly embroidered cushions and oyster-coloured lambrequins hung at the windows. The arms and legs of chairs glinted with more gold leaf, reminding me of the joke of Henry’s that Jane had repeated.

Eliza looked perfectly at home in these dazzling surroundings. She rose to greet me as Marie Marguerite ushered me in, holding out her hands to clasp mine. She was easily recognisable as the girl in the portrait despite the twenty years that had elapsed since it was painted. Her eyes, though darker than Jane’s, gave away the Austen connection: they had that same lively, mischievous look I had seen so many times in the past few weeks. But her frame was very different: standing side by side I guessed that Jane would be head and shoulders taller than her cousin. Eliza’s hands in mine were like rabbit paws in cabbage leaves.

My apprehension at meeting her was quickly dispelled by her easy manner. She plied me with questions about myself, but did it in such a way as not to appear intrusive, only interested and concerned. When I told her that I had obtained work as a governess after the death of both my parents, she shook her head sympathetically. She said that never a day passed when she did not mourn her own mother, who had been her wisest counsellor, best helpmate and dearest friend.

She didn’t mention her father, but went straight into talk of Jane’s papa, the Reverend Austen, who, she said, had so resembled her own mother in features that it had given her much comfort to look upon him after her passing. ‘Is Jane very much distressed, still?’ she asked. ‘She covers it well in her letters but I fear the loss of him has cut very deep with her. Henry seems much less affected; he has a bright spirit that cannot be dimmed for long.’ She smiled as she said it, but I thought it a weary smile.

‘I think that she was quite afflicted when she arrived at Godmersham,’ I replied, remembering her brimming eyes when she greeted her brother, ‘But I hope that the country air and the change of scene have had a good effect on her state of mind.’ As the words came out of my mouth I thought that this remark was not quite true; for the benefits of the visit to Godmersham had surely been eclipsed by what I suspected Jane had seen on the night of the ball. Perhaps Eliza saw something of this in my face, for her next question was about Henry.

‘Has my husband been enjoying himself in Kent?’ she asked. ‘I believe he was attending the Canterbury races?’

I reached for my teacup, mumbling a reply into it, so concerned was I that my expression would give me away.

‘What was that?’ she went on, ‘A ball, you said?’

‘Er…there were…two, actually…’ I faltered, waiting for her countenance to change.

To my surprise she let out a peal of laughter. ‘Two balls! Trust Henry to make the most of an opportunity! He would have been in good company, I suppose, with all the military men stationed thereabouts. He was a soldier, once you know.’

I said that I did not know and she told me how he had confounded his family by running off to join the militia when he was still at Oxford, studying to be a clergyman. ‘It is amusing, isn’t it?’ she said, noticing the upward movement of my eyebrows. ‘The idea of Henry standing up in a pulpit giving sermons! He is much better, I think, at talking people into parting with their money…’ She tailed off with a mischievous look that creased the corners of her eyes.

I remembered Madame Bigeon’s scornful dismissal of the marriage proposal by the older brother, James. I wondered if Henry had given up the Church in his quest to win Eliza.

‘Tell me,’ she went on, ‘How is the new baby? Henry says she has the Austen mouth, so perhaps she is talking already?’ That impish smile again. If she had any inkling of the thing I had lain awake fretting about, she was very adept at hiding it.

‘She is a little young for that, yet,’ I replied, returning her smile, ‘although her brothers and sisters never cease coaxing her.’

‘What a busy household it must be! I must confess I sometimes lose count of them. What is it now – four daughters and five sons? Am I right?’

I nodded and she shook her head, as if the thought of so many children made her dizzy. ‘I suppose there will be another on the way before long,’ she went on, ‘and that will make ten – a good, round number, don’t you think?’ She said it with a wry glance that could have meant something or nothing.

‘A good, round number, yes,’ I agreed. I had very nearly said something about the family’s luck in not having lost a single child thus far but, remembering Eliza’s loss, I held my tongue.

‘I have never known the joy of a brother or a sister,’ she said. ‘Henry is very fortunate in that regard. He loves to visit Edward at Godmersham. Do you know, he has even written a poem about it?’

‘A poem?’ I said brightly, ‘Well, it is a very beautiful place.’

‘Yes,’ she nodded slowly. ‘He calls it “The Temple of Delights.”’

I swallowed a mouthful of tea so quickly that it went down the wrong way. When I looked up she was staring at me with what looked like a mixture of concern and amusement. ‘Are you all right, Miss Sharp?’ she asked. ‘Is the tea a little too hot for you?’

She had set the trap and I had fallen right into it. Now I struggled to get myself out. Jane, or rather the memory of her, came to my rescue.

‘I beg your pardon, Madame,’ I said, ‘but your mention of the poem brought to mind something I had quite forgotten.’ Slipping my hand into my pocket I brought forth Jane’s letter to her cousin. ‘It was most remiss of me,’ I went on, handing it to her, ‘I should have delivered it earlier.’ At that moment Marie Marguerite appeared to clear the tea things and my audience was over.

‘I hope you will not mind eating with Maman and me tonight,’ she said as she led me downstairs, ‘Monsieur Henry has brought two gentlemen home to dine with him.’ I did not mind. After the encounter with Eliza I felt like a bone unearthed by a couple of dogs, gnawed on by each in turn for the marrow it might yield. I wondered how Jane felt when she came here. A brother married to a cousin could be quite delightful, I imagined, with all the easy familiarity of a close family circle. But this did not appear to be a conventional marriage. Eliza was clearly no biddable wife. She seemed to be the mistress of herself, free from the burden of childbearing and wealthy enough to do as she pleased, with a husband whose presence or absence did not greatly disturb the rhythm of her life. What did Jane make of this partnership? What would a writer make of it? Were the characters in The Watsons based on members of her own family? Was that why she had become despondent about the book and decided to give it up?

That evening I spent a comfortable few hours with Madame Bigeon and her daughter, talking mostly of Jane and the things she liked to do when she visited London.

‘Have you heard her play the pianoforte?’ the housekeeper asked.

‘Oh yes,’ I replied ‘She is much in demand in the evenings at Godmersham.’

‘Last time she was here Madame held a soirée – and what an evening it was!’ She threw up her hands, turning to her daughter. ‘How many musicians did we have, Marie Marguerite? Was it five singers and three harpists or the other way about?’

No Maman, it was three singers, a pianist and a harpist. You should have seen the drawing room that night, Miss Sharp. The chimney piece was lit with a hundred tiny lanterns and there were flowers everywhere. We had so many guests – sixty-six of them, I counted – that they spilled out onto the landing and into the rooms upstairs. Monsieur Hastings came, of course, and when he heard how much Jane had enjoyed it he invited her to accompany him and his wife to the opera the next night.’ She arched her eyebrows. ‘He has his own box, you know.’

So Warren Hastings was not living in such reduced circumstances as the papers had suggested, I thought to myself. I tried to picture Jane sitting between the great man and his wife and wondered what she would have made of them. No doubt any peculiarities of speech, dress or manner had been squirreled away with the bad breath, fat necks and pink husbands of the good ladies of Bath.

Eliza was not yet up next morning when the carriage arrived to convey me to the optometrist. I took my leave of Madame Bigeon and her daughter, as we were to go directly to Godmersham after the appointment, stopping only to pick up Elizabeth’s younger sister, Harriot Bridges, who was to travel with us.

Monsieur Halavant accompanied us for part of the way, off on another quest for some new ingredient that could not be dispensed with, and I was happy to sit in silence while the chef prattled away to his master, complaining about the rising price of Darjeeling tea.

The optometrist occupied rooms above a gun shop in Pall Mall. This was familiar territory to me. I used to walk this way with my cousins on summer evenings en route for the Green Park. We would compete with each other for the stupidest hat, the craziest wig, the most buffed-up dog and puffed-up person we could spy as we wound our way along from The Strand.

The optometrist could have amused himself in much the same way if he’d had a mind to, as his window looked out over the grand sweep of the avenue at its junction with St James’ Square. He was an elderly Italian gentleman called Francesco Molteni and his gentle manners put me quite at ease.

‘No, Miss Sharp, you are not going blind,’ he smiled as he peered into my eyes through a glass that made his own eye the size of a saucer, ‘but you need spectacles. And until they are ready you must rest: no reading or sewing for six weeks, do you hear me?’

‘She should go to the seaside!’ Henry spread his palms in a gesture of largesse. ‘You must stay on at Worthing, Miss Sharp, after the family have taken their holiday. Don’t worry, you won’t be alone – my sisters are planning to be there until November.’

I had the distinct impression that Signor Molteni had prescribed just what Henry had been hoping for. I couldn’t help thinking that he had cooked up this scheme to get me out of the way well in advance of our arrival, and that if the optometrist had not recommended rest Henry would have prompted him on the subject. But far from despising him for such a trick I felt indebted to the man. Nothing could have delighted me more than the prospect of a holiday by the sea with Jane for company.

Share your love