Kintbury, March 1840
“MISS AUSTEN.” THE VOICE came from behind her. “Forgive me.” She turned. “I did not know you were there.”
Cassandra managed a smile but stayed where she was on the vicarage doorstep. She would dearly like to be more effusive—she felt the distant, familiar stirrings of effusiveness somewhere deep down—but was simply too tired to move. Her old bones had been shaken apart by the coach ride from her home in Chawton, and the chill wind off the river was piercing her joints. She stood by her bags and watched Isabella approach.
“I had to go up to the vestry,” Isabella called as she came down from the churchyard. She had always cut a small, colorless figure, and was now, of course—poor dear—in unhelpful, ill-fitting black. “There are still duties…” Against a backdrop of green bank dotted with primrose, she moved like a shadow. “So many duties to perform.” The only distinguishing feature about her person was the hound by her side. And while her voice was all apology, her step was remarkably unhurried. Even Pyramus, now advancing across the gravel, was a study in reluctance with a drag on his paws.
Cassandra suspected that she was not welcome, and if that was so, could only blame herself. A single woman should never outlive her usefulness. It was simple bad manners. She had come uninvited; Isabella was in difficulties: It was all rather awkward but quite understandable. Still, she once might have hoped for some enthusiasm from a dog.
“My dear, it is so kind of you to let me visit.” She embraced Isabella, who was all cool politeness, and fussed over Pyramus, though she much preferred cats.
“But has nobody come to you? Did you not ring?”
Of course Cassandra had rung. She had arrived with great commotion and business in a post chaise so that nobody could miss her. The coachman had rung and then rung again. She had seen people, plenty of them: a steady traffic of laborers balanced on carts coming back from the fields and a group of boys, wet to the knees, with a newt in a bucket. She longed to speak to them—she was rather fond of newts, and even fonder of boys in that fever of innocent passion—but they did not seem to see her. And the house had stayed silent, though that difficult maid—What was her name? Cassandra’s memory, always prodigious, was beginning to fray, if just at the edges—must know perfectly well she was there.
“I came at a bad moment. Oh, Isabella”—Cassandra held her arms and looked into her face—“how are you?”
“It has been difficult, Cassandra.” Isabella’s eyes reddened. “Really most difficult.” She struggled, but then composed herself. “But how does the old place seem to you now? Have you been looking around?”
“Exactly as it has always been. Dear, dear Kintbury…”
The vicarage had been a landmark—familiar, ofttimes sad, always beloved—in Cassandra’s life for forty-five years. A white, three-story building with a friendly face set east toward the ancient village; garden falling on one side down to the banks of the Kennet, rising on the other to the squat Norman church. It stood testament to everything that she valued: family and function, the simple, honest, good life. She rated this happy piece of English domestic architecture over anything grander—Godmersham, Stoneleigh, Pemberley, even. That said, she dearly would like to be inside it—by the fire, in a chair, getting warm. “Shall we—?”
“Of course. Where is everybody? Let me take that.” Isabella reached for the small black valise in Cassandra’s hand.
“Thank you. I can manage it.” Cassandra clutched the bag to her. “But my trunk—”
“Trunk? Ah.” Though Isabella’s face remained pale and blank of expression, her piercing blue eyes flashed bright with intelligence. “I am sure it is my fault. I have had so much on my mind.” One eyebrow arced. “And your letter arrived only yesterday—was that not odd?”
Not odd at all; indeed, it was entirely deliberate. Cassandra had never before been so discourteous as to arrive without proper notice but, on this occasion, had simply had no choice. So she gave a vague smile.
In the absence of any explanation, Isabella went on: “I did not grasp quite how long you are staying. Do you plan to be with us a while?”
Isabella’s displeasure at her arrival was now perfectly plain. Beneath that mild, quiet exterior there was, perhaps, a stronger character than had previously been witnessed. Nevertheless Cassandra would stay here as long as was necessary. She was determined not to leave until her work here was done. She muttered about possibly traveling farther on to a nephew, affecting an uncharacteristic indecisiveness brought on by advancing age.
“Fred will bring in your trunk. Please.” Isabella signaled toward the door, which opened at once from the inside. “Ah, you are there, Dinah.”
There. Dinah. She must remember that. She might be needing Dinah.
“Miss Austen is with us.”
Dinah squeezed out a negligible bob.
“Shall we go in?”
* * *
CASSANDRA HAD FIRST CROSSED this threshold as a young woman. She was tall then, and slim; many were kind enough to say handsome. Was time playing its tricks, or had she worn her best blue? A crowd of family had assembled to greet her; the servants—excited, admiring—jostled behind. She had stood still and thrilled at it—the power of her position! The force of that moment!
Oh, she still looked in the glass when she had to. She knew she would not be called slim now, but spare. Her spine, once a strict perpendicular, was kinked and shortening; her face so gaunt that her once-proud nose—the Leigh nose, the stamp of a distant aristocracy—more like the beak of a common crow. And the people who loved her then were gone now—as she herself was gone, almost. Those receiving her today—poor Isabella; difficult Dinah; Fred, who now passed through the vestibule, grunting and dragging her trunk—of course knew the facts of her history, but had no sense of the truth of it. For whoever looked at an elderly lady and saw the young heroine she once was?
They moved through to the wide wood-paneled hall. Cassandra followed them meekly, but once there was suddenly seized with alarm. She made for the generous stone fireplace, clung on for support, and looked with horror at the scene around her.
She could hear Dinah mutter: “Lord save us. She’s turned up and lost ’er senses. As if we don’t have enough on our plate.”
And Isabella whisper: “Perhaps it is more sorrow or sentiment that affects her. After all, this must be the last time that she will ever come here.”
Cassandra knew better than to acknowledge them. It was one of those conversations conducted as though she could not hear it, in which the young so often indulge around the old. But as if she could be overcome by sorrow or sentiment, when for decades they had been her constant companions. No. It was not the fact that this was the last visit—she gasped for air, her hands shook—it was the fear that she had left it too late. The house was already in a chaos of removals.
“My dear, are you sure you are quite well?” Isabella, softening, took her elbow, giving her something to lean on.
A portrait of the Fowles’ benefactor, Lord Craven, had hung above that fireplace ever since she could remember. Now it was gone from the wall.
“That coach was too much for you.” Isabella talked loudly as if to an imbecile, while untying the ribbon around Cassandra’s chin. “All that way in this cold weather.” Her bonnet was removed. From where she was standing, Cassandra could see into the study where the shelves had been emptied. Which books were gone? They had had the whole set of Jane’s. Who had them now?
“And she’s come alone then, I can’t help but notice.” Dinah was behind her, loosening off her cloak.
The furniture still in place looked abject, humiliated, like slaves in the marketplace.
“Perhaps her maid is away?”
“Which leaves who looking after ’er, may I ask?” Dinah flung cloak and hat over her arm. “Me and whose army?”
A vicarage without a vicar was always a sorrowful sight. Cassandra had borne witness to it more often than most, yet it still affected her every time. The Fowles had lived in this house for three generations. It had been handed on, father to son—all good clergymen, all blessed with fine wives—but that chain was now broken. Isabella’s father was dead, and her brothers had refused it. No doubt they had their reasons, and—to squander all that family heritage—Cassandra sincerely hoped they were good ones.
Church tradition allowed the relicts of the family two months to vacate the house for the next incumbent. And, although it was not anywhere written, Church tradition seemed somehow always to rely on the vicarage women to effect it. Poor Isabella. The task she had before her was bleak, miserable, arduous: just two months to clear the place that had been their home for ninety-nine years! Of course she had to start on it at once. But still, the Reverend Fulwar Craven Fowle had been dead but a few weeks. Cassandra had come as soon as she could. She was shocked to see that the work was already this far advanced.
To think that journey—so tiring, so uncomfortable, so shamefully expensive—might not have been worth it! To think that for which she had come might already be gone!
Cassandra felt nauseated and dizzy. Kindly Isabella smoothed down her hair—she must look disheveled—and led her through the hall.
The Kintbury drawing room was a thing of simple beauty: a perfect cube with walls of deep yellow that caught and held the setting sun. Each of its windows, on two sides, looked out over water: You could stand and watch the fishermen on the river or barges glide along the canal to east and west. Ordinarily it was one of Cassandra’s favorite places. It satisfied her soul. But on that day she approached it with nervous trepidation, consumed with a dread of what she might find.
She need not have worried. Even as she entered, before setting a sensible shoe on the needlepoint carpet, she felt herself safe. The atmosphere here was one of calm and repose. The air was quite undisturbed. And all the furniture was here, just as it had always been. So she had not come too late! Her knees almost buckled with the relief. She turned back to Isabella, her voice and authority returned to her at once.
“Now, perhaps I may repair myself before we dine?”
* * *
CASSANDRA HAD OFTEN privately observed that when the gentleman of the house died, fine dining died with him. It was a thesis that evening’s dinner was determined to prove. Their mutton was just that: mutton, with no sauce, potatoes, or pudding, its only companion a cabbage that had loitered too long in the ground. She smiled as she compared it with the meals she once enjoyed there. Isabella’s father was always a man of high standards and immoderate reactions. If Dinah had dared serve him something like this, he would have made his displeasure known.
But they were two ladies, so they politely thanked their Lord, with some effort cut their mutton, and chewed with a dogged determination. The only other sound was the loud ticking of the clock. Silence at that particular dinner table was another unwelcome innovation, one that Cassandra was finding more tough than the meat.
“I see from the labels on everything that you are already well ahead in dividing up all the effects.” Cassandra eyed the decanter, which was empty for the first time in its history. She tilted her head and read that Mr. Charles Fowle had already claimed ownership. It could look forward to a busy future with him.
“The will was read last week, and my brothers were able to make their decisions.” Isabella betrayed no emotion as she said this. Her face was turned down; those bright eyes studied her plate.
Copyright © 2020 by Gill Hornby