Read Jane and the Canterbury Tale Online

Authors: Stephanie Barron

Tags: #Austeniana, #Female sleuth, #Historical fiction

Jane and the Canterbury Tale (4 page)

In this I must be a sad disappointment to Fanny, whose spirits remained so elevated throughout our brief carriage ride home—Chilham being but a few miles from Edward’s estate—that in her mind it might have been only eight o’clock, and the whole evening before us.

I did not neglect to twit her on the immensity of
of her conquests.

“Mr. Thane?” She spoke airily, with an insouciance I failed to credit for an instant. “He is very
, to be sure, but I could not be entirely easy in his company, Aunt. He lacks … conversation.”

“Conversation?” her father repeated, indignantly. “Manners and all sense of propriety are what he lacks, my girl—and don’t you mistake!”

Fanny opened her eyes very wide; I detected a hint of a smile about the corners of her mouth, but could not be certain of this; the glow of a carriage’s side-lamps will make of every shadow a genii.

“Papa!” she exclaimed. “Do not tell me you were
put out
by Mr. Thane’s air of town bronze?”

“Town bronze! Is that what you call it?”

“Oh, not
,” Fanny assured Edward innocently. “It was Mr. Tylden who described him thus. The clergyman, you know. He informed Mrs. Wildman that Mr. Thane displayed the very best sort of

“—For a sadly ramshackle family,” I murmured almost inaudibly. It seemed Mr. Tylden suited his praise to his auditors.

“I thought Mr. Thane excessively handsome,” piped up Harriot Moore, from the corner of the conveyance, where she was quite crushed against the bulk of her husband.

“But as personal perfection invariably masks a host of
worldly faults,” returned George Moore coolly, “we cannot suppose Mr. Thane possesses even one amiable quality.”

I have neglected to mention the Moores until this moment, which would sadly discomfit
of them. Mr. Moore is a tiresome creature in his early forties, the son of the late Archbishop of Canterbury, and tho’ commendable for the gravity of his thoughts and the depth of his understanding—neither of which I should attempt to deny—he is sadly wanting in a
sense of humour
. Mr. Moore is rather too apt to stand upon ceremony, and consider what is his due in matters of precedence, and the deference that ought to be shewn to the son of so august a prelate—a prince of the Church. As he is unlikely to attain those heights his father once commanded, despite taking Holy Orders, I must suppose that an insistence upon precedence and deference are all that are left him. But I cannot abide a clergyman who must harp upon the grim vicissitudes of human existence, and neglect to revel in its absurdities. For what else do we live, if not to make sport of our neighbours, and be laughed at by them in turn?

Harriot Moore is a very different creature than her husband, sweet-natured and loving and a trifle simple-minded, tho’ generally prized as being the youngest sister of Edward’s cherished Elizabeth. She is Mr. Moore’s second attachment, and a full ten years her husband’s junior. Harriot makes it her business to be as much in company at Godmersham as Mr. Moore will allow. On the present occasion, the pair have been staying with us nearly a week, with the object of attending the wedding at Chilham, for both Harriot and George Moore have long been on excellent terms with the Wildman family.

“I was sadly disappointed in Mr. Tylden’s sermon,” he declared, turning the conversation adroitly from Julian Thane and his disputed degree of polish. “I thought it dwelt
too much
upon the temporal, and
too little
upon the sacred aspects
of matrimony. Had I been offered the duty of uniting such an ill-sorted pair as that soldier and Mrs. Fiske, I should have known where my conscience lay—I should have abjured them sternly to cast off the enticements of the Fashionable World, and prepare rather for the inevitable
of their earthly toils.”

“But is not that your funeral text, dearest?” Harriot enquired with pardonable bewilderment.

“You do not, then, regard an excess of gallantry and beauty as the perfect foundation for conjugal bliss?” I demanded, with a mental wink at Mr. Tylden.

“Both have brought Mrs. Fiske—I should say Mrs.
—nothing but grief in the past,” Moore replied.

“You are acquainted with the lady, I apprehend.”

He shrugged. “Only a little, and quite long ago.”

“Pshaw!” cried Harriot gaily. “You were
in love
with her, George, before she consented to have Fiske! And the merest
Adelaide must have been, too—no more than seventeen, and you a widower in your thirties! I am sure I shock you, Jane,” she confided, leaning a little across her husband, “but I ran a very poor second to Adelaide Fiske, when Mr. Moore looked about him for another wife. I was six-and-twenty, you know, and long since on the shelf.”

Mr. Moore stared coldly before him, unmoved by his wife’s raillery. “Your penchant for levity betrays you, my dear.”

Throughout this interesting exchange, Fanny might have been deaf and mute. An odd little smile still hovered at the corners of her mouth, but she was not attending to the Moores’ debate; she had learnt long ago to ignore her Aunt Harriot’s tedious partner in life, and quite often her aunt as well. Fanny is enough of an Austen to refuse to suffer fools gladly; but in the present instance, I suspected her thoughts were more pleasurably engaged.

So, too, did my brother Edward.

“Jackanapes,” he muttered—a reference that
be for Mr. Thane and his town bronze—and subsided against the carriage’s squabs.

at the door proclaimed my coffee was arrived. The fire had been lit several hours before, but I had slept on regardless, being aware that Fanny would certainly not be stirring. One rarely appeared downstairs before noon, the morning after a ball.

Yesterday’s rain was in abeyance, but the skies remained persistently grey, and a renewal of showers could not be far off. It would be a day for sitting close to the library fire, in one of Edward’s comfortable armchairs, and attempting yet again to absorb the interesting narrative of
, by Mary Brunton. I say,
yet again
, because try as I might I cannot like the novel. It is an excellently-meant, elegantly-written work, without anything of nature or probability in it. However, it shall serve very well for my purpose—which is to hide my own little scrapbook of jottings, as I doze by the fire.

The gentlemen would already be gone out with the beaters—a scheme for shooting had been renewed last evening at the ball, between the Chilham party and my nephews, young Edward and George, who were wild for sport. If only, I thought with gloom, Mr. Moore could be prevailed upon to join them. But there was no one less inclined to manly pursuits than that taciturn individual; he preferred to invade the library, and glower over a massive tome, entirely cutting up my enjoyment of the place.

I glanced again through the window, and considered of the cool perfection of Edward’s Doric Temple; of the damp earth and autumnal flutterings in meadow and grove; of the scent
of smoke and leaf-mould on the air. There had been so few days without rain since our coming into Kent, so few solitary rambles suited to contemplation. I set down my cup and threw back the bedclothes. If I were to enjoy any kind of exercise out-of-doors this morning, it was imperative that I bestir myself.

of an hour, and was just considering a return to the house and the recruitment of breakfast, when a breathless voice called my name.

“Aunt Jane! Aunt

Wonder of wonders, it was Fanny who approached, pelting at a girlish lope through the wet grasses from the direction of Bentigh, and the old stone bridge over the Stour.
I was astonished to find my niece awake, much less abroad, and concluded that she had spent a wretched night—there was
in her looks that warned of disquiet.

“My dearest girl,” I said as I perceived her disheveled aspect and flushed countenance, “your petticoat is six inches deep in mud!” And it was hardly her second-best petticoat, as one might expect for a wet morning’s exercise; she had obviously dressed with care, in another of the elegant gowns and the green pelisse ordered in London a few weeks since.
she had put on her new bonnet, with the sprig of cherries drooping rakishly over one eye. I suspected an attempt to Fascinate an Unknown. Could she have consented to meet Julian Thane clandestinely in the Park at the crack of dawn?

“Never mind my petticoat,” she said impatiently. “I do not
regard a little mud. I have been out following Edward and George—they are shooting this morning, you know, and all the gentlemen from Chilham have joined them. Mr. Plumptre and Mr. Wildman and the rest, with their dogs. But oh, Aunt—”

“Does Mr. Thane shoot as well?” I asked, with an eye to that bonnet.

Fanny made a dismissive movement with one gloved hand. “Worse luck, he does not. And I particularly wished to see—But, Aunt Jane, you
attend! There has been a man found in our meadow.”

“A man?”

She grasped my elbow as tho’ I might require support.

“He is lying on the old Pilgrim’s Way. Quite dead.”

The Pilgrim’s Way ran, as it had since Chaucer’s time, along the Downs to the north of Godmersham, and divided Edward’s land from that of his neighbour, the same Mr. Wildman of Chilham Castle; indeed, it ran straight towards St. Mary’s Church in the little village of Chilham, where Mr. Tylden had united the MacCallisters only last evening. In other words—it ran
Edward’s house, whereas Fanny had come from the direction of the lane in front, which ran just beyond the river—quite the opposite end of Edward’s acres.

“I do not understand you,” I protested. “The Pilgrim’s Way is on high ground to the north!”

“Yes, yes,” she said hurriedly, “but you must know there is a side-path, often used by those who know of our church, that runs from the Downs, skirts the house, and comes out into the lane. I do not think it is above a mile from the
Pilgrim’s Way; and Papa does not mind those who employ the bridge for the purpose of visiting St. Lawrence’s, for Mamma’s grave is there, and he likes to think of more than just ourselves visiting the church. When I was little, Mamma
used to say that grass never grew on the Pilgrim’s side-path, because so many pious feet had trod it.”

I suspected grass never grew there from a dearth of sunlight, but forebore to utter so acid a remark. “I see. And now there is a man lying there?”

“Indeed,” my niece hurried on, “and I suppose he might be a pilgrim in earnest, from the look of him.”

“Not one of our neighbours, then, thank Heaven?”

She shook her head. “A tradesman, I should judge, in a stout travelling cloak, with a leather satchel lying a little off the path, beside a walking stick. He must have dropped them as he fell.”

I turned resolutely towards the river and the ancient Pilgrim’s Way. “How did he die, Fanny?”

“Shot through the heart, John Plumptre says.”

I stopped short and stared at her in dismay. I will confess that I had been perfectly content to think nothing of corpses and death during my visit to Kent; it was not the sort of country for melancholy. Weddings suited the general animation of the neighbourhood far better.

“Bessy, Mr. Plumptre’s spaniel, set up a baying over the body—”

Fanny’s voice wavered as she offered this inconsequential information; in all her haste to report the news she had forgot, for a little, to be tender-hearted. “Oh Aunt—I think Mr. Plumptre is afraid that one of
killed him!
Quite by mistake
, of course—having aimed for a pheasant.”

Fanny, I could see, feared this, too: That one of her brothers or friends had taken an innocent pilgrim’s life as carelessly as he might a bird’s.

“I must go in search of my father,” she said more steadily. “You will forgive me, Aunt—he must be informed.”

“Of course.”

Among his various duties and honours as a man of consequence
in Canterbury, Edward counted the office of First Magistrate. A surgeon being now useless, my brother was the next person who ought to be summoned.

Fanny was off again at a run for the house, her hand pressed against her stays, which must be cruelly impeding her lungs. Edward would still be closeted with his valet, unaware of the signal burden about to befall him. There would be the coroner to rouse, the jury to empanel. An inquest held in some publick house in Canterbury. An attempt to ascertain the unfortunate man’s identity, and convey the dreadful news to his relicts—

And one of our own young men to console, for having murdered a man all unwittingly. I sent up a hurried prayer that
fowling piece had fired the fatal shot, should
be ascertained—and kicked savagely at a pebble as I mounted the old stone bridge.

The River Stour chuckled below, but the happy dream that had been my sojourn in Kent was suddenly all to pieces.

Bentigh was an avenue of limes and yews. It led toward the old Norman church of St. Lawrence, where the Knight family worshipped. —
Editor’s note


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