Read Jane and the Canterbury Tale Online

Authors: Stephanie Barron

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

Jane and the Canterbury Tale (6 page)

F
OR A WONDER, THE PACK OF SPANIELS DANCED AT MY
heels all the way back to the house.

  
CHAPTER FOUR
  
 
The Pilgrim’s Tale
 

“For I dissolve all promises and vows
,

All grants you think I’ve made, all guarantees
.

You fool, don’t you know that love is free
,

And I would love her whether you weren’t or were?”

G
EOFFREY
C
HAUCER,
“T
HE
K
NIGHT’S
T
ALE

 

21 O
CTOBER
1813,
CONT
.

“M
Y DEAR
M
ISS
A
USTEN!” CRIED
M
ISS
C
LEWES, WHO WAS
hovering near the stairs with a square of linen clutched in one bony hand as I entered the Great Hall, “I was never more shocked! When our excellent Fanny
told
me what dreadful events had occurred in the Park, and of the
death
of that poor innocent at the hands of our gentlemen—a pilgrim, no less, intent upon an errand of expiation for his soul—I declare I suffered
palpitations!
Poor Lizzy and Marianne administered my vinaigrette, tho’ I am sure they were
equally
overcome, poor lambs! I should be lying down upon my bed this
instant
, were it not that my sense of duty required me to remain upright, and offer what assistance a frail woman may, in a household o’erwhelmed by tragedy!”

Miss Clewes is a recent addition to Godmersham, having been engaged by Fanny as governess for her little sisters only a few months ago. In this capacity, Miss Clewes follows a succession of unfortunates, both old and young, who have attempted to earn their bread by imposing order in Edward’s chaotic nursery in the years since Elizabeth’s death. I do not dislike Miss Clewes; indeed, I pity any woman whose circumstances are so sadly left that she must secure a respectable position in a genteel household—for governessing is in general an unhappy lot. I know full well that without the excessive generosity of my brothers, my sister, Cassandra, and I might well have been forced to a similar servitude—existing in that wretched limbo between serving hall and drawing-room, never comfortable in either sphere and despised as imposters by both. Instead, we two have been sustained by the funds contributed yearly by our excellent brothers—and by Chawton Cottage itself, which Edward was so good as to make over to our use. Tho’ we possess no carriage and set up no stable, tho’ we scheme and contrive to dress in a respectable ape of fashion, we four women—for I count my mother and my fellow lodger Mary Lloyd in this—are blessedly fortunate. The luxury of being free from want has allowed me to indulge the frivolity of writing. That I have been able to command a minor independence, from the monies secured by the sale of my novels, is but an added comfort. Miss Clewes was never so lucky.

Some awareness of the similarity, and quelling difference, in our circumstances encouraged me to answer her cheerfully now, when I might have lashed out with impatience. Miss Clewes is too prone to die-away airs for my taste; and tho’ not unintelligent, her volubility cannot serve to recommend her sense. A silly but well-intentioned creature without a particle of harm in her—that is Miss Clewes. Or so I was thinking, until she uttered the fatal sentence that must banish all charity.

“Naturally, I went
straight
to our excellent Mr. Moore, that he might offer a prayer for the repose of the dead,” she assured me, with evident satisfaction. “I thought it an office of the
first
importance, and was gratified to discover that my failing energies were equal to
so much
, at least.”

“You had better have sent him on an errand to Canterbury!” I sighed in exasperation. “Mr. Moore is
exactly
the person I should wish as far from the scullery as possible, at this present. He is sure to read us a sermon on the sad consequences of the encouragement of
sport
as a pursuit for young gentlemen, with illustrative anecdotes of his own excellent rearing under the late Archbishop. Dear Lord, I
must
attempt to keep him out of Edward’s way—”

Miss Clewes was immediately wounded. “My dear Miss Austen,” she cried, wringing her handkerchief—“I had no notion you would be
displeased
by a consideration of Christian charity—and must beg you will
forgive
my
presumption
, if such it was—but indeed, Mr. Moore’s views on the rearing of young people are highly worthy. On countless occasions he has condescended to advise me on the curbing of dear Lizzy’s temper, and the encouragement of Marianne in the use of the backboard—”

I did not linger to learn further what Mr. Moore thought necessary to the education of young ladies. Instead, I hastened in the direction of the housekeeper Mrs. Driver’s preserve: the warren of rooms below-stairs that comprehend the kitchens, serving hall, housekeeper’s and butler’s sitting rooms, pantries, stillroom, and scullery.

This last was a clean but chilly room equipped with two deep wash basins, a draining board, and a trestle table of scrubbed pine. The dead pilgrim had been laid carefully on the latter, to the evident disapproval of Mrs. Driver and the scullery maid, a girl of perhaps seventeen, who stared in bewildered horror at this invasion of her realm. A large stack of breakfast dishes had been hurriedly removed to the draining
board, and steam still rose from the wash basins; the girl’s raw, red hands twisted nervously in her apron.

“Get along with you,” Mrs. Driver said crossly, “gawping like a heathen at a poor, Christian man wot’s met his Maker—” and she urged the maid out into the passage.

I eased through the doorway, which was almost entirely blocked by the worthy Mr. Moore, who appeared disinclined to breach the scullery itself and perform the duty for which he had been despatched. Perhaps it was the mingled odours of dirty dishes, hot iron tubs, and aging corpse that discouraged him—a faint expression of distaste was writ on his harsh features. Or perhaps he abhorred a crush—the small room was rather crowded with my brother Edward, his son George, Mr. Finch-Hatton, John Plumptre, and James Wildman—who, having laid their burden on the trestle table, appeared uncertain what further was required of them.

“George,” Edward said, “take these fellows upstairs where they may wash, and then recruit the general strength with tankards of ale all around. Mrs. Driver shall see to a nuncheon, presently.”

“That is very good of you, sir,” Wildman said hesitantly, “but I wonder whether we might relieve your mind by taking ourselves off—and returning to Chilham directly.”

Edward’s blue eyes met the younger man’s indifferently. “You may certainly do so—once the coroner has seen this man and heard your recital from your own lips. Until those duties have been discharged, I must beg you to remain under this roof, James.”

Wildman glanced at Finch-Hatton, who shrugged slightly.

“Naturally we shall remain,” John Plumptre said stiffly. “I should not
dream
of leaving you with such a tangle on your hands, Mr. Knight, having been a party to the cause of it. That should be a shirking of responsibility no gentleman worthy of the name would entertain. We shall be grateful for the
nuncheon, but our first object must be to ascertain whether Miss Knight is entirely recovered from her shock of this morning—which, in the event, must have been considerable.”

“Oh, Fanny’s all right,” Finch-Hatton drawled. “I’d go bail she’d stand buff against anything—capital little body, Fanny! But if we
must
stay here, we might have a neatish game of billiards, by the by. You don’t object to ale in the billiard room, sir, surely?”

“Not unless you’re prone to spill it,” Edward returned brusquely. “Mrs. Driver has enough mess on her hands this morning.”

Finch-Hatton had been lounging in the doorway again—it seemed the only possible attitude that young man could adopt. Now he thrust himself away from it with such an air of insouciance that the dead stranger might have been so much trussed game. What
was
it about Jupiter that drove all the young ladies of the neighbourhood to tears of ecstasy whenever he came in their way? The blond hair, unruly over the chiseled brow? The full lips, given to the most sardonic of twists? The powerful figure of a sportsman? —Or exactly this attitude of immense boredom towards the world and everyone in it? I suppose it might be considered
something
, for a young lady to excite so weary a fellow’s notice; but for my part, the conquest seemed not worth the prize.

“George.” Edward nodded peremptorily in the direction of the door, and the gentlemen trouped out of the scullery without another word.

“Young Finch-Hatton is growing positively insolent,” Mr. Moore observed. His nostrils were compressed as tho’
insolence
bore as strong an odour as the stables. “I wonder his papa does not check him. But, then, as I suppose it is
possible
he will be called an earl one day—perhaps the cultivation of arrogance is permissible.”

“An earl?” I repeated. Fanny had said nothing of this; Mr.
Finch-Hatton’s prospects had thus far entailed nothing more than the inheritance of Eastwell Park, a rather ugly modern house some seven miles distant.

Mr. Moore shrugged. “It is unlikely, of course—but Finch-Hatton stands to inherit the title if the present Earl of Winchilsea fails to produce an heir. His cousin’s estate is so entailed.
1
You may imagine how this increases his appeal among the damsels of the neighbourhood. My excellent wife has condescended to remark upon it.”

“Enough of Jupiter,” Edward said. “You have heard something of our sad mishap, I collect?”

“And of its cause,” Mr. Moore replied heavily. “On how many occasions have I observed the total want of care and reverence so essential to the employment of firearms, among the youth of our acquaintance! I suppose we must give thanks that it was not one of our
own
young gentlemen who suffered the fatal tragedy; but that any should be compelled to offer up his life, in the cause of another man’s
mere sport—

There it was, the inevitable stricture—but Edward cut off his old friend with one raised hand. “This fellow did not die of a fowling piece,” he said quietly. “Step closer, and observe the wound.”

As I expected, Edward had seen all that I had seen: the stiffness of the limbs, unnatural in one only lately killed; the way the blood had seeped entirely into the ground in the hours before the body was discovered by Bessy the spaniel, so that Mr. Plumptre’s coat was not even stained when we knelt upon it; the deathly cold of the unfortunate man’s skin; the coagulation of fluids around the wound; and the wound
itself—which was formed of a single, neat hole in the left breast, undoubtedly through the heart.

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