The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 8

We arrived in Worthing on a warm September afternoon, having travelled for two days. I had not seen Jane to speak to, for she had come back from her visit to Lady Bridges very late the night before our departure. The next morning we had been put in separate conveyances, she in a barouche with her sister and mother and I in a carriage with Fanny and her parents. We had spent the night at Horsebridge near Battle and while Jane and her family went to see the Abbey I stayed with Fanny, supervising her meal and putting her to bed because Sackree was left behind at Godmersham with the younger children.

By the time we reached the seaside Fanny could barely contain herself, begging to be released from the carriage to go onto the beach. Her father seemed inclined to indulge her and said that we could all take a walk while the servants were making our rooms ready.

We came to a halt beside a white stucco house about the size of Henry’s home in Brompton. As I stepped down from the carriage and breathed in the salty air I saw my parents, as clear as if they were standing before me. I reached out for the blue-painted railings that ran along the front of the house, for the ground beneath my feet seemed to buckle. I remember tensing the muscles of my eyelids in a vain attempt to keep the image from fading away. I saw them walking across the sand, Mama in what she called her seaside bonnet – the straw dyed blue and trimmed with white ribbon – and the cashmere shawl with the pine cone weave about her neck. The wind was taking the tails of the shawl and whipping them across Papa’s face, knocking off his hat, which he chased across the beach, both of them laughing as he raced it to the water’s edge.

My fondest memories of my parents were of such days by the sea. Ramsgate was the favourite haunt of my father’s, the place where we had spent our last carefree week together along with my cousins Catherine and Constance and my Aunt Edith. A fortnight after our return my mother was dead of the typhus fever that swept through London in the autumn of 1803. Catherine, Constance and their mother died a week later. My father, who had never been the cleverest of men with his money, sank even further without Mama’s guiding hand. Within six months he had gone to join her and his creditors made sure that I was the only tangible reminder that he had ever walked this earth. It was his wine merchant – the one to whom he owed more than all the rest – who took pity on me. One of his other clients was Edward Austen, who happened to be in urgent need of a governess at the time. Some sort of bargain was made between them, the details of which I was never privy to. But it was a full year before I received anything for my labours beyond my bed and board.

Fanny was pulling at my skirts, chiding me for being so slow. ‘Come on,’ she said, ‘I want to go collecting shells! Aunt Jane will help us, won’t she?’ The others followed us across the road to the steps that led to the beach. The tang of the sea was mixed with other scents now; of oysters, whelks and vinegar on the carts along the promenade; of rotting seaweed washed up by the tide; of donkeys, dogs and people gently baking in the heat.

Seagulls tumbled above us as our feet became acquainted with the strange sensation of walking upon shingle. Fanny raced along, stopping every few seconds to crouch over some treasure that was scooped up into a little tin bucket she had carried with her all the way from home. Edward and Elizabeth walked behind her, with Cassandra and her mother following at a little distance. Jane and I fell into step behind them.

‘Your company was sorely missed at Ashford.’ Jane slipped her arm through mine. Her words set off a ripple of pleasure which I struggled to conceal.

‘Oh?’ I said, trying to sound nonchalant, ‘Was Lady Bridges out of sorts?’ I had observed Elizabeth’s mother many times and found her a most unpleasant, meddling sort of woman who used her title to intimidate all around her.

‘Where should I begin?’ she grimaced. ‘First of all she was cross with the Duke of Gloucester for dropping dead last Friday, which meant the ball at Deal was cancelled. Then she was hatching a scheme to marry poor Harriot off to a grumpy old parson with hairy ears. When Harriot returned from London to find him waiting in the parlour she turned and ran from the house. They say he is so much hated by his flock that when he married his first wife they sang the funeral hymn instead of the nuptial psalm.’

‘Seriously?’ I saw her lips were twitching mischievously. I wondered if this was another one of her tall stories.

‘Absolutely true,’ she grinned, crossing her finger over her heart. ‘And now I want to hear all about your trip to London. I hope you were not too fagged by the journey? Henry will talk people half to death when he has a captive audience.’ She was smiling still but there was an edge to her voice. If she was fishing I was not going to take the bait.

‘The journey passed quite quickly,’ I replied, ‘and Henry had business to attend to so I saw little of him after we arrived.’ I launched into a description of my visit to Signor Molteni, telling Jane of the spectacles and the enforced idleness I must now endure.

‘Oh! I am sorry for your eyes,’ she said, ‘but I will read to you every night, if you will let me!’

I replied that she was very kind but I must not interfere with the entertainment of the family on their holiday. ‘Nonsense!’ she cried. ‘I don’t expect we shall see much of Edward and Elizabeth in the evenings – they will be dining out with their friends – and by the end of the week they will be gone back to Godmersham, my mother with them. We shall be left a very snug three, and we will spend our days exactly as we please. Now,’ she went on, hardly pausing for breath, ‘tell me more about London. It seems an age since I was there. How was Madame Bigeon? Did you meet Marie Marguerite?’

I began to describe the glimpse I had had of the life of the household in Brompton. I had not intended to mention Warren Hastings, but I found myself recounting the conversation about Eliza’s musical evening, at which point Jane interrupted me.

‘Oh yes, I well remember it! I was seized upon by an insufferable woman – the wife of Eliza’s godfather, Mr Hastings. She spent the whole evening criticising the pianists with her mouth full of sweetmeats and macaroons – she left the servants black and blue, pinching them by the arm every time they strayed near her with a tray – and then she had the nerve to suggest that she could offer me something far superior by way of entertainment.’ Here she paused and rolled her eyes. ‘Had she been anything resembling a civilised human being I would have been thrilled by her invitation to the opera; I had to accept, of course, for fear of offending Mr Hastings. How a woman like that ensnared such a man as he I cannot fathom; he is as refined as she is coarse; as courteous as she is rude. I suppose I should not blame her: after all, nobody minds having what is too good for them.’

I laughed heartily at that, picturing a grizzled old dame with bulging cheeks hanging on to the arm of a silver-haired gentleman with fine bearing and a benevolent smile. ‘Madame Bigeon told me that Eliza’s parents met Mr Hastings in India.’ I could not resist the urge to probe deeper, now that she had provided the opportunity.

She nodded, kicking up a little shower of broken shells as her foot slid sideways on the lumpy surface of the beach. ‘My Aunt Philadelphia decided there were no good husbands to be found in England so she set out for India to find one. Mr Hastings was on the same boat but they did not meet properly until some time after they arrived in Calcutta. She was married within weeks to a man called Mr Hancock, who then, a few years later, went into business with Mr Hastings.’

‘And the horrible wife? Was she in Calcutta too?’

‘Not at that time,’ she replied, ‘She was married to someone else then; a German, I think. Mr Hastings had been married too, but he was a widower when he got to know my aunt and uncle. He had a little girl who died and Eliza was named after her. My aunt was lucky to have a child herself: she was married for eight years before Eliza came along.’

A flock of tiny birds alighted suddenly on the stretch of wet sand between the shingle bank and the sea. Fanny ran at them, calling out, and they scattered like a shower of stones flung across the waves. As I watched them disappear I said: ‘I suppose Mr Hastings treasures Eliza, having no living child of his own?’

‘Yes, he does, and he has been her salvation. He put ten thousand pounds in trust for her when she was still a child – little did she know how much she would need it.’

Somewhere behind us a donkey began to bray and Fanny ran between us, catching our hands and pulling us round to see the beast, which had plucked off an elderly woman’s bonnet and was trying to eat the artificial strawberries that adorned it. I stared but did not take it in. I was thinking of the ten thousand pounds; calculating that if I worked for fifty years and saved every penny of my salary, it would not make a quarter of that sum.

‘You cannot blame the donkey, can you?’ Jane was saying. ‘The old dame should have chosen paper violets or silk roses: I cannot help thinking it is more natural to have flowers grow out of the head than fruit.’

The others had turned back at the sound of the hubbub on the beach. By the time the fuss was over we were half way up the steps to the road. Edward waved us onward, standing guard as his gaggle of females made their way across to the house. Once inside, the business of allocating rooms got underway. Edward and Elizabeth were to have the largest one at the front of the house, which had French windows and a little balcony overlooking the sea. Mrs Austen was given the chamber next door to them. At the back of the house were two more bedrooms, one of which Jane and her sister were to share and the other to be tenanted by Fanny and myself.

‘It is a shame that Henry isn’t with us,’ Mrs Austen declared as we sat down to tea, ‘but where he would have slept, I do not know. I suppose the servants have taken all the attic rooms?’

‘Yes, Mama,’ Edward’s eyes darted to his wife as he turned his head towards his mother. I saw Jane shift slightly in her seat. ‘There are three rooms in the attic,’ he went on, ‘Sayce has one, Roberts and the footman another and the cook shares the third with the housemaids.’

‘Didn’t Henry say that he might come later in the week, though?’ Mrs Austen persisted.

‘I think not,’ her son replied, ‘his business calls him back to Hampshire.’

‘Oh?’ his mother said. ‘He will be staying with James and Mary, then, I suppose. Will you see him there, when you visit your estate at Chawton?’

‘I don’t know, Mama.’ Edward drew in a breath, lips pursed, as if he was tired of her questions. ‘You know as well as I do that Henry is a law unto himself. How long he will stay and whither he will fetch up next are a mystery to us all, I’m sure.’ I could not see Elizabeth’s face at this point, for she had raised her tea cup to her lips. ‘Now, Fanny,’ Edward turned to his daughter, wishing, so it seemed, to change the subject, ‘What do you say to a dip in the sea before dinner?’ This produced predictable squeals of delight. ‘Will you escort her, Sharp? He put his hand in his pocket and pushed a sixpence across the table. ‘You must go directly, before the sun loses its strength.’

As I rose to my feet I saw that Jane had risen too. ‘I’ll come with you,’ she said. ‘I do love to bathe in the sea.’

‘Oh, no, Jane!’ her mother cut in. ‘You and Cassandra must help me to unpack! You can’t imagine how fagged I am with all this travelling! There will be plenty of time for bathing later on!’

I caught Jane’s eye across the table. I could guess just what she was thinking: I am nine-and-twenty and still she tells me what I may and may not do! Would you be me? What I would have said, could I have answered, I am not certain. I saw that, like me, she was a species of prisoner. Although she did not have to work for a living and had no husband to answer to, there were other constraints on the manner in which her life was conducted. Was it better to be told what to do by a domineering mother or an employer? In the latter case there was some financial reward, however small.

My mother had never tried to control me, despite the disappointment I caused her by refusing to enter the marriage market. I wondered if Jane had chosen spinsterhood or merely settled for it, as Cassandra had; and if it was her choice, was there a chance she had made it for the same reason I had?

The next few days passed in a whirl of activity and my time was governed by Fanny, who woke up early every morning and threw open the curtains, eager to know what the weather would be. Mrs Austen, who was herself an early riser, would usually take her down to the beach to buy fish, giving me a little peace before the merry-go-round began in earnest.

When they had gone I would get back into my bed, listening to the squawking of the gulls outside the window. In the lulls in their banter I sometimes caught Jane’s voice through the wall, chatting away to Cassandra. How I envied them, those sisters. How I longed for that closeness, that intimacy, with a creature such as Jane. I was well aware that my time with her was limited; that once this holiday was over I knew not when I might see her again; and I found myself fighting a battle inside. I was wishing the days away, wishing Fanny and her parents to be gone so that I could make the most of those few precious weeks of Jane’s friendship, and yet I knew I would miss Fanny terribly: much more, I suspected, than she was likely to miss me.

On the Saturday evening Edward and Elizabeth went to dine with the Johnsons, a Kent couple who, like them, had rented a house in Worthing for the summer. Mrs Austen was feeling unwell and had taken herself off to bed with a cup of tea. Cassandra had gone to visit a Miss Fielding, another native of Kent whom she had got to know on a previous visit to Godmersham. That left Jane and me to entertain Fanny until her bedtime.

It had begun to rain for the first time since we arrived, so a walk on the sands was not possible. Jane suggested charades but Fanny said it would not be any fun with only three players and begged for a game of cards instead.

‘I will fetch Mama’s pack,’ she said, leaping out of her chair with her usual boundless energy, ‘I know where she keeps it.’ She returned in less than a minute, clutching an exquisite little card case of tortoiseshell inlaid with mother-of-pearl. ‘Look,’ she said, turning it over and bringing it near to my eyes, ‘it has Mama’s name engraved on the back. It was her present when Louisa was born.’

I nodded my approval, unable to decipher the letters at such close range. Jane took the box from her and bade her go to the kitchen and ask for wine and cheese to sustain us while we played. ‘What shall we play?’

she asked. ‘Will it be loo or vingt-et-un?’ She pressed the garnet clasp that held the case shut. As she drew out the cards I saw something flutter onto the table. She picked it up and stared at it. I saw the colour drain from her face.

‘Cook says what kind of cheese?’ Fanny marched into the room, hands on hips. ‘What’s the matter, Aunt Jane? You look all funny.’

‘Nothing, Fanny dear,’ Jane replied, stuffing the paper into her pocket. ‘Tell cook that any kind will do. Now run along!’

I turned to her as Fanny left the room but her face was set like a mask. ‘Well,’ she said briskly, ‘I think loo would be the easiest for Fanny to play, don’t you? Will you shuffle the pack for me? I’ve never been very good at it, I’m afraid.’

As she passed the cards across the table I saw that her hands were shaking. She would not meet my eye, but chattered on about the merits and demerits of loo and picquet and whist, as if she was afraid of leaving any gap for me to fill with a question. Before long Fanny was back and the card game began.

Jane seemed unnaturally bright throughout and the colour that had left her cheeks returned in abundance, giving her a rosy glow that fooled Fanny into thinking all was as it should be. I saw, however, that she had drained her glass of wine before the first game was finished and was well into her second as I shuffled the pack once again.

By the fourth game Fanny’s eyelids were beginning to droop. I told her it was time for bed, ignoring her pleas to be allowed to play another round. She kissed her aunt goodnight and Jane gave her a brittle-looking smile, as if the effort of containing her feelings was becoming too much to bear.

I sat beside Fanny as she settled down on the pillows, bidding her to cease her chatter and try to go to sleep. In the quiet moments that followed I listened to the rain beating on the window and the growl of the waves as they surged against the shingle. I wondered what Jane was doing, all alone downstairs. I stroked Fanny’s head, willing her to close her eyes so I could go to Jane. At length I saw the regular rise and fall of the bedclothes and, moving the candle closer to her shadowed face, saw that the child was indeed asleep.

I tiptoed out of the room and onto the landing. I could hear a low rumble, something quite like the sound of the tide. It was Mrs Austen, I think, snoring in her sleep. I heard the creak of the back stairs, which I took to be one of the servants on their way to bed, but otherwise all was silent. I hurried down, afraid that Jane, too, might be bound for her chamber to guard herself from my inquiring eye. But no, there she was, sitting just where I had left her, an empty glass in one hand and the tortoiseshell card case in the other.

‘Is she asleep?’ I heard the jewelled clasp of the case snap shut.

‘I think so,’ I replied. Her eyes were downcast. I could not catch them.

‘Shall I read to you now, before they all come back?’ It was not so much a question as a command. Without looking up she rose from the table and crossed to the bookcase, selecting a large, black-bound volume from the bottom shelf. ‘I think you should rest your eyes,’ she went on. ‘Sit in that chair by the fire and close them tight.’

I faltered for a moment, uncertain of her motive. Was she secretly hoping I would seize the book, cast it aside and ask what was in her heart? The set of her chin as she placed the volume on the table did not seem to invite opposition. So I did as she bid me, sinking stiffly into the armchair and tilting my head back until all that I could see was a smoky corner of the ceiling.

‘Now close your eyes.’

I did as she asked. I heard the gentle thud of leather on wood as she opened the book. The fire answered with a sudden crackle. Instinctively I moved my legs away from the heat. I wanted to open my eyes but I dared not.

‘Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister,’ she began. Her voice, usually so clear and strong, sounded strained. She paused and coughed a little. ‘Thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes, with one chain of thy neck. How fair is thy love, my sister! How much better is thy love than wine!’ She paused again. I waited for her to continue, wondering what text this could be. I heard a little rush of air in the chimney as the wind sighed into it. The coals shivered and settled themselves.

‘Well?’ she said at last. ‘Do you recognise it?’

‘No,’ I admitted, ‘I do not. Is it John Donne? Or Milton?’

‘Neither of those,’ she replied, ‘although I can see why you mistook it for Donne. Have another try.’

I trawled my mind for other likely candidates. It was not Shakespeare, of that I was certain. Who would write of love in such a style? It must be some new poet, I decided; someone that Jane had discovered before me.

‘Well?’ she repeated.

‘I have no clue,’ I replied. ‘You will have to tell me.’

‘I shall, by and by. One more question first: if a man were to copy such lines and send them to you, how would you feel?’

My eyes snapped open and I raised my head from the chair. ‘To me?’ I turned towards her with a little snort.

‘No looking!’ she cried, covering the book with her hands and throwing me a stern glance. ‘Close your eyes and answer the question!’

‘Hmmph. Very well – if you insist: I would suppose him to be in love with me, of course. More than that, actually: I would believe that I had bewitched him.’

‘But would you not be offended? Do the lines not suggest that the writer and his subject are lovers already? Listen to the last line again: “How fair is thy love, my sister! How much better is thy love than wine!”’

‘Well…’ I hesitated, thinking it through. ‘I suppose it does convey that meaning, yes. As to whether I would be offended, that would depend, wouldn’t it?’

‘On what?’

‘On what the man was to me. If he was my husband or my fiancé, I suppose it would be a sweet thing to receive. But if he was a…or I was…’ I tailed off, letting my upturned hands convey my meaning. ‘But do tell, now, Jane! Who is the poet?’

‘It is the Bible,’ she said. ‘The Song of Solomon.’

‘Really?’ I turned to her in blank astonishment. I thought I knew the Good Book as well as most but I had not realised it contained such lines as these. ‘Did you choose the passage or did it just fall open at that place?’

‘I did not choose it,’ she replied, ‘but someone else did: I found it in the card case.’ Her face began to swim before me, as if the sea had burst through the door and turned the air to liquid. But I could clearly hear the next words that she said: ‘I recognise the hand that copied it: it is Henry’s.’

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