The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 7

From Pall Mall we did not go directly to collect Elizabeth’s younger sister, as I had expected. Instead Henry took me down to the Thames, to a warehouse owned by a cloth merchant. We stepped out of the carriage into a swirling mist laden with familiar London smells. Wood smoke, rotting fish and river slime mingled with traces of tobacco and exotic spices. I was suddenly a child again, playing on the muddy foreshore with my cousins, throwing stones at floating bottles or leap-frogging the fishing boats while their captains lay snoring down below. I wondered what Catherine and Constance would think if they could see me now, driving about London with the sort of man who, in better times, might have visited the shop to take my counsel on some venerable gold-blocked volume of poetry or classical literature. I thought also of how my father would have disliked Henry, for he despised any man who thought more about money than books; this prejudice, no doubt, was part of the reason he sank so low.

‘I want muslin for my sisters,’ Henry’s voice brought me back once again to the here and now. ‘I hear this place has rolls of cambric from Flanders. It’s quite a new design, with a pattern that does not run or fade when washed. I would be glad of your opinion of it, Miss Sharp.’

I was immensely surprised, not only by his generosity to his sisters – which was apparently sadly lacking in his older, wealthier brother – but by his very extensive knowledge of muslin. Never before had I encountered a man who knew his muslin from his bombazine, let alone one who appreciated the subtleties of texture, colour and pattern.

‘What do you think of this for Jane?’ He was rubbing the end of a roll of fine cream fabric between his finger and thumb. ‘Do you think the green sprig would complement her eyes?’

I had to say that it would. I doubted I could have found anything so agreeable if I had searched the place myself.

‘And what about this for Cass?’ He took a few steps to the left, pointing to a roll on the shelf above. It was a white muslin with a delicate tracery of pink rosebuds printed upon it.

I nodded. ‘That will suit her very well, I’m sure.’ It looked expensive. He did not ask the price, though: simply ordered a dress length from each roll and escorted me back to the carriage while they were wrapped.

The drive back to Godmersham was easier for me than the outward journey had been. Henry oozed charm towards Harriot Bridges, who was as pretty as her sister and eight years younger. Her conversation was as lightweight and inconsequential as ostrich feathers but Henry seemed perfectly happy to indulge her. By the time we reached the gates of the park he had promised to give her drawing lessons and a time had been arranged for their first session.

I began to wonder whether Henry was nothing more than the incorrigible flirt Jane had warned me about. Had I misunderstood what I had seen on the stairs the morning after the ball? Surely he would not be so attentive to Harriot if he was engaged in a clandestine affair with her sister? Then it occurred to me that this behaviour might be a deliberate attempt to put me off the scent.

Jane was nowhere to be found when we entered the house. I sought out Sackree, who greeted me in her usual acerbic manner: ‘Good afternoon, Lady Muck,’ she muttered, ‘Did you enjoy swanning around London while the rest of us were slumming it?’

‘Yes, thank you, Sackree,’ I replied, ‘One finds such a superior class of servant in London. None of your Kentish country bumpkins up there, you know: Mrs Henry Austen will only employ fluent French speakers.’

‘Is that so? Well, she’d better not send any of them down here, is all I can say: show a Kent man a Frenchy and he’ll string him up from the nearest tree!’ She gave me a broad grin and went to swipe me round the head with the napkin she was folding. ‘I suppose you want to know where Miss Jane has disappeared to? Well, she’s tired of you: she and her sister have gone to spend a few days with Lady Bridges, so hard cheese!’

I tried not to show my disappointment at this news and disappeared myself before Sackree had a chance to rub it in. Fanny, who had gone along with her father to deliver her aunts to Ashford, filled in the details. She said Aunt Jane would not return from her visit to Grandmama Bridges until the day before the trip to Worthing. Then she quizzed me about my trip to London, making me describe all the clothes, the hairstyles, the jewellery, even the ornaments on the hats that I had seen in the few short hours I was abroad in the city. I said: ‘Fanny, I know that you long to be a lady, but there is more to life than fashion, you know,’

‘But Miss Sharp,’ she frowned, ‘I must know about such things: what will become of me if I don’t learn how to make myself beautiful? I might end up like Aunt Jane and Aunt Cass, mightn’t I?’

‘Would that be so very terrible?’ I felt my lip quiver as I said it, caught between exasperation at her vanity and the sober realisation that she counted me among the sad failures peopling her world.

‘Would you not like a husband – if I was grown up and didn’t need you any more, I mean?’ She was looking at me with such solemn eyes I felt compelled to answer honestly.

‘No Fanny, I would not.’

‘But why? Don’t you like men? What about Priddle? I know he has no hair and his skin shines like goose fat, but he’s nearly as tall as you, isn’t he? Taller than all the other servants.’

We both laughed then and she seemed to forget what she had asked me, chattering instead about a gown she had seen in one of her mother’s fashion papers. I was glad that she had dropped the subject, for it was something I tried very hard not to think about.

That evening Edward and Elizabeth held a dinner party for some of their Canterbury friends. Afterwards Henry entertained everyone with a reading of Shakespeare. Fanny was allowed to stay up for this, so I was admitted to the proceedings as well. I have to own that he was one of the best amateur performers I have ever seen: the way that he altered his voice to suit every different character was most accomplished. It was clear that he had many of the passages off by heart and was able to imbue them with such feeling that he held his audience spellbound.

Edward was the first to applaud when the reading was over, jumping to his feet and shouting ‘Bravo! Encore!’ I stole a look at Elizabeth, seated beside him. She was clapping along with everyone else but her lips were forming words that were inaudible above the sound of the applause. Henry’s eyes held hers for a split second as he took his bow. The air between them seemed to sizzle, as if a bolt of lightning had shot across the room. I looked at Edward then, wondering if he had noticed it, but he was leaning over his wife’s head to speak to someone in the row behind. This was Louisa Bridges, one of Elizabeth’s other sisters, for whom the latest baby had been named. I had seen her only once before, when she came to stand godmother to the child at the christening. I thought then how very like Elizabeth she was: the difference in their ages was four years but they might have been twins. Their manner was markedly different though; she was a watcher, not a doer, and seemed content to hide in Elizabeth’s shadow.

It occurred to me then that Edward was looking at Louisa the way I had often seem him look at his wife. One side of his mouth curved up in an appraising sort of smile; the kind of look my father would give when he ran his hands over a particularly handsome book. I wondered if Edward failed to notice what was going on under his nose because he was too preoccupied with illicit conquests of his own. What was this fascination the upper classes seemed to harbour for the sisters of their wives and the wives of their brothers? Was it the tablet they saw each Sunday hanging from the church wall, listing every forbidden union, which fuelled such fantasies? And was the phenomenon really as rife in the quiet country seats of Kent as in the jaded salons of London? I reminded myself of the story Fanny had told me, about her father turning her out of her mother’s bed in the middle of the night. Could a man who so desired his wife really be taking his pleasures anywhere else, let alone with her own sister?

That night I sat a long time in my room, staring out of the window at the moonlit garden and, in the far distance, the columns of the Greek temple silhouetted against the purple sky. Being forbidden to read I was at a loss for some occupation to fill the hours before sleep.

Though the house was full of people I felt dreadfully lonely. There was an expectation that, having being allowed to attend the play reading, I would make myself scarce once it was over. I had been used to this, before Jane came; of sometimes being treated as a member of the family and sometimes not. But Jane had changed everything. She treated me as her equal; as her friend. Her taste in books and plays and poetry mirrored my own and she made me laugh in a way I hadn’t done for years. And now she was gone away I felt what had been lacking in my life more keenly than ever before.

The thought of the coming six weeks in Worthing to be spent at leisure with Jane and her sister acted like a balm on my troubled mind. I determined that nothing must be allowed to spoil this time; nothing must be said or done by me to upset our friendship. I was thinking, of course, of Henry and that gloved hand. I vowed to myself that whatever I saw or heard at Godmersham in the next few days I would not voice a single word of it while at Worthing. I would do nothing to make Jane anxious, nothing that might turn her against me.

As I gazed out of the window I caught sight of a figure moving across the grass. From the shape and the gait I guessed that it was a man. He paused by the lime walk, glancing this way and that as if he was waiting for someone. After a little time I saw another figure draw near – a person of smaller stature whose silhouette showed a skirt and a shawl. I do not know what happened next. Tempted as I was to watch, I turned my head away and pulled down the blind. Unless they were both servants, it was better I didn’t know.

To while away the evening I decided to begin packing for the trip for Worthing. The weather was still warm but if I was to stay until October, as Henry had suggested, I would need winter clothes as well as summer ones. I was rooting about for a pair of thick gloves when I came across the odd one I had tucked away eighteen months since; the one I had used as a hiding place for Elizabeth’s death letter. The folded paper slid out as I rummaged clumsily about. I had forgotten its existence and held it up to the candle to see what it was. The seal had broken and the letter fell open. There was Fanny’s name in Elizabeth’s writing. I was not supposed to be reading anything – least of all a final farewell from a mother to her daughter – but my eyes had already caught the first lines:

‘My darling daughter, if only this was not to say goodbye; if only we could be together again, you and me and your Papa, as we were in the days when you were born: so happy, so carefree and so full of love…’ I swallowed hard and laid the letter face down on the chest of drawers, bringing the flat of my hand down upon it. This was not meant for me to see. Now that it was no longer intact I should burn it. But my eye was caught by a postscript written on the bottom of the paper – part of it that would have been concealed when the letter was folded: ‘Kiss Uncle Henry for me and tell him it is his job to make you laugh, as he made me laugh. Remind him to read his Bible every day.’

If my sins had been read aloud from the pulpit I could not have felt more chastened. Screwing the paper into a ball, I tossed it onto the fire. I watched the embers flame green as it ignited and heard the hiss of the wax melting onto the coals. A mocking sound, it seemed to me; a warning to keep my nose out of the affairs of this family.

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