Jane and His Lordship’s Legacy
Chapter One: All We Have
Tuesday, 4 July 1809
I came into my kingdom today at half-past two—or so much of one as shall ever be granted me on this earth. Four square brick walls, half a dozen chimneys, a simple doorway fronting on the London to Gosport road and a clutch of outbuildings behind: such is Chawton Cottage.
“Lord, Jane,” my mother breathed as she surveyed the unadorned façade of her future abode from the vantage of our hired pony trap, “I should not call it charming, to be sure—but beggars cannot be choosers, you know, and we must admit ourselves infinitely obliged to your excellent brother. Observe, a new cesspit has been dug, and the privy painted! I declare, is nothing forgot that might contribute to our comfort?”
I did not reply, for tho’ the raw mud near the new plumbing works looked dismal enough, my mother could not hesitate to approve the generosity Edward has shown. A man of considerable property, as the heir of our distant cousins the Knights, my brother chuses to reside at his principal estate of Godmersham, in Kent – but has given us the use of his late bailiff’s cottage here in Hampshire. If a former alehouse, fronting the juncture of two highways overrun by coaching traffic, with rough-hewn beams, low-ceilinged rooms, and cramped stairs may be considered a luxury, then we are bound to be grateful to Edward; he has saved four women the expence of lodgings, and for a household of strict economy and perpetual dependence, that cost must be a saving indeed.
There are some among our acquaintance who would hint that, in possessing the freehold of every house in Chawton village, my brother might have done more for his widowed mother, and done it years since; but I will not join my strictures to theirs. My heart rises to smell the good earth again, and rejoices to think that my mornings will never more be shattered by the bustle of a town, and all the noise of commerce crying at the gate! There is nothing, when one is broken-hearted, like the healing balm of the country!
“I shall plant potatoes,” my mother declared briskly, “and if we are fortunate, we shall gather them by late September. The cottage’s aspect might be softened, Jane. It requires only a flowering vine, I think, to grow romantickly across the door.”
“—and to complete the picturesque, ought to be sagging in its casements. It is too much to hope for a shattered roof or a tower crumbling into ruin; we must contrive to be satisfied with a building that is only ample, sturdy, and in good repair, Mamma.”
The house’s position at the fork of Chawton’s two principal roads must be adjudged an evil—but outweighing this are the broad meadows to north and east, the stout wood fence and hornbeam hedge enclosing the grounds, and the delightful promise of birdsong from the thriving fields. Mr. Seward, the late bailiff, maintained a shrubbery and an orchard, but Mrs. Seward cannot have loved her flowers; the borders must and shall be worked. Syringas, and peonies, and the simpler blooms of mignonette—all these we shall have, and Sweet William too.
While the carter jumped down to secure his horse, I studied the distant view of the privy and banished the idea of a water closet, soon to be installed in brother Henry’s London house; such ostentation has no place in a country village. It is not for Jane to repine. I had found no love or joy in the habitation of cities—I had rather witnessed, in first Bath and then Southampton, the gradual erosion of nearly every cherished dream I held in life. It was time I made a trial of rural delights; it was they that had formed my earliest vision of happiness.
“The man will want something for his pains,” my mother urged in an audible hiss as the driver helped her to descend. “See that he shifts the baggage before he deserts us entirely. And do not go spoiling him with Edward’s coin! I am gone to inspect the privy.”
She moved slowly in the direction of my brother’s improvements, her gait marked by the stiffness of rheumatism. I stepped down to the rutted surface of the road and prepared to be—if not happy, then content.
* * * * *
We had set out from Castle Square in late April, bidding farewell forever to the glare and stink of a town. We made for Godmersham, where we tarried six weeks in the pleasant Kentish spring, tho’ the place and all who live in it are remarkably changed from what they once were. Elizabeth is dead now nearly a year and my sister Cassandra resident in the household, supplying the want of a mother; she is careworn but steady in her attachment to the little children, and a prop to Fanny, who at sixteen must now fill Elizabeth’s place. Tho’ the chuckling of the Stour was as sweet as I remembered, and the temple on the hill beckoned with serenity, I could not stomach the climb to its heights, nor rest an interval between its columns. In happier times I had sat in that very place with my brother’s wife beside me—and once, looked up from my pen to find the tall figure of a silver-haired man climbing the grassy slope—
Edward has not yet learned to endure his Lizzie’s passing. Indeed, he has come to see in it a deliberate blow of Divine Judgment: that having loved his wife too well, and delighting in the gift of every luxury and indulgence her fair form desired, he incurred the wrath of Providence—Who despised Edward’s attachment to things of this world so much, that He tore from my brother’s bosom the one creature he cherished most.
“Were it not for the children,” Neddy said bitterly as we sat together before the bare grate in the stillness of Elizabeth’s drawing room, “I should have gone into the grave with her, Jane. I should not have hesitated at self-murder.”
“—Tho’ the very act should damn you to Hell?”
“It is Hell I endure at present.”
I could not assure him that I understood too well his sentiments; could not add my misery to his own, as he sat glaring at the waste of all that constituted his happiness. Edward knew nothing of the Gentleman Rogue, beyond a passing acquaintance with one had who called briefly at Godmersham several years before, and had long since been forgot. I could not explain that I, too, must submit to all the agony of bereavement—with the added burden of suffering in silence. Never having been Lord Harold Trowbridge’s acknowledged love, I must be obscured and forgot in the world he deserted so abruptly last November.
As I studied my brother’s countenance—grave, where it had once been gay; worn, where it had formerly appeared the portrait of inveterate youth—I concluded that there was at least this relief in public grief: one was not forced to shield the feelings of others. The Bereaved might be all that is selfish in their parade of unhappiness. Whereas I was continually chafing under the daily proofs of inconsideration, imperviousness, high animal spirits and insensibility that surrounded me, when every hope of happiness for myself was at an end.
When the Rogue expired of a knife wound on the fifth of November, some ten months ago, it was as though a black pit opened at my feet and I trembled on the brink of it for days together without being conscious of what I said or did. I know from others that the body was fetched back to London in the Duke of Wilborough’s carriage; that Wilborough House, so lately draped in black for the passing of the Rogue’s mother, remained in crepe for this second son; that nearly five hundred men followed the cortege first to the Abbey church at Westminster and then, on horseback, to the interment in the Wilborough tomb. It was said that no less than seven ladies of Fashion fainted dead away at the awful news, and three fell into decline. All this my mother read aloud from the London papers, offering comment and opinion of her own.
Murdered by his manservant, so they say, a foreigner his lordship took up with on the Peninsula. I’ll wager that fellow knew a thing or two of Lord Harold’s unsavoury affairs! It is a nasty end, Jane, but no more than he deserved. I always said he was a most unsuitable tendre for a young lady such as yourself, and quite elderly into the bargain; but nobody listens to me, I am always overruled. Still, it is a pity you did not get him when you could—you might have been the Relict of a lord! And now all his riches will go to Wilborough’s son—who will find no very good use for them, I’ll wager. The Marquis is a rakehell and a gamester, so they say. Kinsfell has taken a page from his uncle’s book, and will undoubtedly prove as disreputable a character. We must impute it to the Dowager Duchess’s French blood, and habits of parading onstage…
Four days after the murder I took up my pen to compose a few paragraphs of explanation and regret that ought to have been despatched without delay to his lordship’s niece, Desdemona, Countess of Swithin. That lady, despite her lofty position in Society and the cares attendant upon her duties as a mother, has been narrowly concerned—as much as woman could be—in Lord Harold’s affairs, and loved him more dearly, I suspect, than her own father. It seemed imperative that the Countess be in full possession of the facts of his lordship’s death—of the bravery with which he embraced it, and his determination not to submit to a form of treachery that might imperil His Majesty’s government—so that no scandalous falsehood put about by his enemies among the ton should shake her faith in his worth. From what I knew of Desdemona, I doubted that anything could.
Her answer was brief, correct and exceedingly cold. I knew not whether she regarded my letter of commiseration in the light of an impertinence; or whether she charged me with having precipitated her uncle’s death. Perhaps she merely judged his attentions to a woman so clearly beneath his touch as deplorable. I cannot say. But her ladyship’s brevity cut me to the quick. I have had nothing from her since.
Only Martha Lloyd, who in Cassandra’s absence has become as dear as a sister to me, understood a little of the pain I suffered. Tho’ she referred to my grief as a chronic indisposition, she was quick to order me to bed, and leave me in silence with a pot of tea during the long gray winter afternoons. My brother Frank, who had witnessed the Rogue’s death in company with myself, was a considerable comfort. Tho’ he no longer shared our lodgings, his occasional visits afforded the opportunity to unbend—to speak openly of what we both knew and mourned in his lordship’s passing. Even in Frank’s silence I felt sympathy, and in his accounts of his naval activities—he oversaw the landing in January of the remnant of Sir John Moore’s Peninsular army, a tattered band of harried soldiers deprived too soon of the leadership of that excellent man – I felt some connexion to the greater world Lord Harold had known and ruled. We are forced to go on living, however little we relish the interminable days.
In April, Frank quitted home waters for the China Station and we devoted ourselves to the activity of household removal. My mother’s querulous demands and persistent anxieties regarding the packing provided diversion enough; so, too, did the necessary farewells to naval acquaintance, the last visits to the little theatre in French Street, and a final Assembly endured at the Dolphin Inn. I even danced on that occasion with a black-eyed foreign gentleman too shy to enquire my name. But I had no joy in any of these things. The coming of spring mocked me with a promise of life I no longer shared. At the moment of our descent upon Edward’s house in Kent, I had determined I should never feel hopeful again.
There is no remedy for the loss inflicted by death except remembrance. And so I tried to recollect what his lordship’s dying words had been.
Promise me…you will write…
What is writing compared to life, my lord?
All we have, Jane.
He was wont to speak the truth, no matter how harsh its effect. It was one of the qualities for which I esteemed him: his unblinking gaze at the brutality of existence.
But I could not keep my promise. What are words and paragraphs in comparison of what might have been? A cold solace when love is forever denied. I had written nothing in the long months that followed his headlong flight from this world but stilted letters to Cassandra, remarkable for their brittleness of tone and the forced lightness of their jokes.
Before quitting Castle Square, however, I had gone so far as to enquire of Messrs. Crosby and Company, of Stationers’ Hall Court, London, whether they ever intended to publish the manuscript entitled Susan, which I had sold to them for the sum of ten pounds six years ago; but their answer was not encouraging. I was impudently informed by Mr. Crosby himself that he did not chuse to publish my work; that if I attempted to place it elsewhere, he should vigourously prevent its appearance; and in conclusion, that I might have the manuscript returned for the same figure he had laid out for it. Being hard pressed to command so considerable a sum as ten pounds, I was forced to let the matter drop; and was dissatisfied enough with the scant consideration offered prospective Authoresses, as to ignore the burden of Lord Harold’s dying breath.
Now, as I stood in the dusky heat of a Hampshire July, lark song rising about me, I felt the first faint stirrings of life. Feeble, yes—and a hairsbreadth from guttering out; but stirrings all the same. I unknotted my bonnet strings and bared my head to the sun. Lord Harold’s gaze—that earnest, steadfast look—wavered before my mind’s eye; I blinked it away. Perhaps here, I thought, as I opened the door of the cottage and stepped inside its whitewashed walls, perhaps here I might begin again.
© Stephanie Barron