Read Jane and the Canterbury Tale Online

Authors: Stephanie Barron

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

Jane and the Canterbury Tale (9 page)

“My dear girl,” I suggested, “you are looking decidedly unwell. Let us send the gentlemen back to their billiards, until such time as the coroner is able to hear their story of the morning’s events—while you and I repair to your boudoir. We might have our tea and apple tart brought up at once, and consume them there in peace.”

“I assure you, I could not swallow a mouthful!”

“Fanny, I should like to have a word with you in private.”

As one of my speaking looks attended these words, her indignant expression faded. “Very well, Aunt. I do admit to wanting my tea.” She ignored Mr. Finch-Hatton’s speared apple, sweeping by that cosseted gentleman with a scornful look that quite astonished him. “George, do pray challenge Mr. Finch-Hatton and Mr. Lushington to a game—and mind,” she added in a lowered tone as she passed her brother, “that you trounce Jupiter soundly.”

“Now,” I said once we were settled by a brisk fire in the
comfortable sitting room Edward had made over for his eldest daughter’s comfort, and which had been freshened with paint and hung with gaily-flowered paper during her absence that summer, “tell me everything you know of Curzon Fiske and Adelaide Thane.”

Fanny’s generally placid countenance was suffused in an instant with a wary aspect. “I did not take you for a common gossip, Aunt Jane.”

“Nonsense! You have been in receipt of my letters your whole life—and they are never filled with anything else! Very amusing, too, I daresay you find them. Do not be a hypocrite, Fanny. I cannot admire Jupiter Finch-Hatton, but I confess in this we are in agreement
—missishness
does not suit you.”

My niece flushed. “It is because of such creatures as Finch-Hatton and the rest that I was determined never to canvass all that old business—when Mrs. MacCallister is so happy, and so blessed, in her
present
choice. If you knew the avid looks and whispered slander that have followed her, even in the weeks preceding her wedding-party … I should never willingly add to so vile a chorus.”

“And I commend you for it. But do consider, you pea-goose, how strident the chorus shall become when the lady—or her husband—or perhaps, even, her brother—is taken up by your excellent father for
murder
.”

“What?” Fanny reared up from the sopha in dismay, and whirled upon me like a tigress. “You cannot mean it! None of the Thanes—and neither of the MacCallisters—was of the shooting-party this morning! You might as well accuse my brother Edward, or Jupiter himself!”

“I might, had Mr. Fiske been shot by a fowling piece in the middle of a crowd of beaters and dogs—but he was not, Fanny. He was murdered in cold blood in the dead of night, probably by a duelling pistol at close range. Or so I suspect the excellent Dr. Bredloe shall soon inform us.”

I took a sip of tea to allow her time to clamber down from her high horse. “I observed the black marks of powder discharged upon the man’s coat. He was certainly standing within inches of the person who killed him, and his belongings were tidily stowed to one side of the path—which suggests that he both knew his murderer, and was expecting to meet that person exactly where we found his body at about eleven o’clock this morning.”

“Good Lord,” Fanny said faintly, and sank back down upon the sopha.

“I am not an intimate of Kentish society, as you know.” Cook’s apple tart, I discovered, was unequal to the one my friend Martha Lloyd was in the habit of making, but was commendable nonetheless. “I have not been among you, indeed, in some four years. Adelaide Fiske, neé Thane, was an utter stranger to me before she proceeded down the aisle of Mr. Tylden’s church—and her first husband I do not recollect ever having met at all. I have heard some of the gossip you mention, of course—your young friends Sophia Deedes and her sisters were at it, hammer and tongs, even during last night’s ball—but I should far prefer a more sober history, delivered by
yourself
.”

“But you cannot truly believe it possible that someone we know—someone, perhaps, that I even danced with—could be capable of shedding an innocent man’s blood?”

Ah. The shadow of Julian Thane’s compelling countenance had slipped between us.

“I think it unlikely in the extreme that Mr. Fiske was killed by a stranger to himself,” I told my niece. “Beyond that, I may speculate nothing. Only consider, Fanny, how odd it is that he should appear in the neighbourhood of Chilham, on the very night of his wife’s second marriage … an event that he could have thrown into chaos.”

“—Had he known of it,” she pointed out. “We cannot be
certain he was even aware of the festivities at Chilham. Had he been, should he not have exerted himself to halt so bigamous a proceeding? Aunt Jane! Can you believe it possible that
any
gentleman should behave otherwise? No, no! You throw everything that is
right
and
good
into disorder, and by so doing, force all the parties concerned to behave in the most awkward and extraordinary fashion! Surely there is a more rational, and simpler, explanation?”

Poor Fanny. She had much to learn of the world, if she believed that all about her were
right
and
good
, and the reverse extraordinary. But I said only, “Murder has the effect of twisting awry what once appeared to be order. I cannot begin to conjecture what occurred in Mr. Fiske’s case—who might be embroiled, and whom we may place entirely in the clear—until I know more of the man and his history.”

Fanny drew breath, and studied my countenance for the space of several heartbeats. “You are a formidable lady, are you not, Aunt Jane?” she asked wistfully. “When I was a child, I was used to think you were like a good faerie—always dropping out of the sky with your delightful stories, and the dolls-clothes you embroidered so neatly; playing at cricket regardless of the stains the lawn left on your dress, and teaching the little ones to toss spillikins. It is only now I am grown older—and have been privileged to read your novels, and apprehend the subtlety of your observations—that I know how cold a reason you command.”

“I shall chuse to take that as a compliment.” I set down my tea, which was growing tepid despite the warmth of the fire. “Cold reason may be a useful tool, Fanny, in your father’s pursuit of justice; for make no mistake, he
shall
pursue it, whichever one of his neighbours he must force into a noose. As he said only this morning, Curzon Fiske was a Kentishman, and deserves his measure of English law—no matter how depraved his past life may have been, or how justly his
murderer regarded the taking of such a life. You may help me, or no; but in helping me, you may save one of your friends from all the calamity of an unjust accusation.”

“Or tie a rope around his neck,” she said grimly. “This is serious speaking, indeed. Very well—I shall tell you what I know, but let it be understood, Aunt Jane, that I was a child when Adelaide Thane consented to be Fiske’s bride, and but seventeen when that gentleman fled England. He is so much older than the fellows of our set—I daresay he was almost
elderly
, nearly Papa’s age!—that I was never acquainted with him myself. Much of what I have learnt, therefore, has been taught at second-hand. Partial as the intelligence may be, however, I shall make you a gift of it.”

1
Members of Parliament and peers were permitted to affix their signatures or seals to letters, allowing them to be delivered free of charge—a practice known as “franking.” Otherwise, Cassandra would have paid the fee for Jane’s letter, according to its weight, upon receiving it from the post. —
Editor’s note
.

  
CHAPTER SEVEN
  
 
The Curious History of Curzon Fiske
 

You slender wives, though much too feeble for battle
,

Be fierce, like tigers roaming far-off India—

G
EOFFREY
C
HAUCER,
“T
HE
C
LERIC’S
T
ALE

 

21 O
CTOBER
1813,
CONT
.

C
URZON
F
ISKE
, F
ANNY ASSURED ME AS WE SETTLED IN FOR
a comfortable coze, was born of highly respectable parents—his father the second son of a viscount, and his mother the daughter of an earl. The family lived in stile in Chartham, Kent, some four miles distant from Godmersham. Fanny was well acquainted with another Chartham family, the Faggs, whose father held the parish living there; and it was in part from the intelligence gleaned by the clergyman’s numerous daughters—all of whom were acknowledged to be lamentably plain, and thus prone to gossip from a persistent desire for Notice—that she was in possession of so many of the whisperings that surrounded Curzon Fiske.

He had been reared, it was said, with considerable indulgence, being privy to the wilder habits of his noble cousins; and tho’ sent away to Eton at the age of ten, where his schoolboy days were edified by the example of one George Moore, a year his senior, he declined further instruction at the higher centres of learning, spurning both Oxford and Cambridge. The death of his excellent father while Fiske was as yet in his minority, threw his estate into the hands of trustees until he should achieve the age of one-and-twenty. Having done so in due course, he came into a respectable competence, without having inherited a fortune. This, according to Fanny, he contrived to dissipate in the swiftest possible fashion, through a determined exploration of the more notorious gaming hells the Metropolis might offer; an unbridled fondness for coats by Weston and boots by Hoby; and a predilection for the maintenance of a string of racehorses that invariably failed to place.

If Fiske’s former neighbours in Kent suspected that his funds were equally at the disposal of a string of High-Flying Cyprians, those frivolous members of the Muslin Company, whose petulant favours must be won with excessive outlays of cash on carriages, jewels, and snug little residences in Richmond—such exploits had never come to Fanny’s ears. Or perhaps she thought her elderly Aunt Jane should be
shocked
to learn such things from her innocent niece’s lips. Regardless, no mention was made of Mr. Fiske’s amorous proclivities—until the advent of Adelaide Thane.

It was evident to all, Fanny cautioned, that by the age of four-and-thirty Curzon Fiske had achieved so remarkable a degree of dissipation that he was no longer acknowledged by most of his old friends in Kent. There were genial clubmen abiding in Town—rakes, for the most part, or Pinks of the Ton, Slap Up to the Echo, who continued to regard Mr. Fiske as a Knowing One, and the best of good fellows—but respectable
mammas, with daughters to push off on the Marriage Mart, shepherded their charges in the opposite direction when Curzon Fiske hove into view. For the pockets of Mr. Fiske were entirely to let, and he was well-known to be hanging out for a rich wife.

By six-and-thirty, he had been forced to sell his patrimony in Kent—the comfortable manor at Chartham—and send his aging mother and unmarried sisters into lodgings in a dismal quarter of Bath. By seven-and-thirty, he had been refused by no less than nine young ladies of unimpeachable virtue and moderate wealth. At eight-and-thirty, he espied Adelaide Thane moving through the figures of the quadrille at Almack’s on the arm of his old friend, George Moore, whose first wife had lately died—and was lost.

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