Jane and His Lordship's Legacy

Jane and His Lordship's Legacy by Stephanie Barron

Book: Jane and His Lordship's Legacy by Stephanie Barron Read Free Book Online
Authors: Stephanie Barron
forever. She cannot have achieved her twenty-first birthday.
    Freddy could tell me nothing of the babe—whether it was boy or girl. Write what you can, when you can—and believe me ever your loving son,

Chapter 9
    What the Cellar Told
    Thursday, 6 July 1809

    “A ND SO, ” MY BROTHER CONCLUDED, “ A VERDICT WAS returned of death at the hands of a person or persons unknown?”
    “It was—with Mr. Munro adjourning the proceeding, and placing matters in abeyance until Mr. Prowting should inform him otherwise.”
    “It is a curious business.” Henry drained his dish of tea and pushed back from the breakfast table. He had appeared at the cottage early this morning agog with the news of yesterday’s inquest, which had spread rapidly throughout the town and was subject to every kind of exaggeration. Henry had been unable to attend the proceeding himself, detained by that bank business which had occasioned his descent on Hampshire; but knowing
far better than Mr. Prowting, he was confident I should acquaint him with the particulars.
    “Drowning and murder might arise in a country village from any number of causes,” he mused, “—jealousy, petty hatreds, a dispute of long-standing between two parties. A woman might come into it—or several women, if you like. But why not leave the body with a great stone tied to its neck, sunken in the pond, to be discovered a twelvemonth hence? Why stow the poor fellow in our cellar, deserted as it may have seemed, to be found the very moment the new tenants turned the key in their door?”
    “In order to give as much trouble as possible,” my mother replied with indignation. “I am quite sure there was some deliberate design in the business. The mortification is all ours; I do not regard even the unfortunate wife as having any claim to greater misery. It was we who had the trouble of finding the corpse, and suffering the agonies of carters and magistrates and public notice; the widow is merely called upon to bury it.”
    “Mamma!” Henry cried in mock terror. “You cannot be so heartless!”
    “But design, Henry, there certainly was,” I insisted. “Whether to bring shame and suspicion upon the name of Austen—as we may believe
in Chawton village should like to do—or merely to employ the most convenient method of hiding an unwanted corpse, there was a good deal of thought in the business. Recollect the matter of the keys.”
    The final witnesses Mr. Munro called the previous afternoon, to conclude his panel’s education, were illuminating—and must give rise to further comment and rumour in the neighbourhood. Kit Duff, publican of the Crown, stated simply that Shafto French had drunk deep of his house’s best ale Saturday night on the strength of a week’s pay, had kept entirely to himself, and appeared disinclined for sociable conversation. Some small dispute had arisen between French and his fellow labourer Bertie Philmore—“what is Shafto French’s cousin on his mother’s side”—and the two men’s argument had stilled most of the public room, with Philmore accusing French of an unpaid debt, and French asserting that he should be a warm man before very long, and would settle all his debts with enough left over to rule them all, besides. The two had quitted the inn just before midnight, when the Crown closed in deference to the advent of the Sabbath.
    Bertie Philmore was next called—and admitted in a surly fashion that Shafto did owe him near to five pound, unpaid this year or more. He insisted that the two had parted at his door, with Bertie bound for his wife and bed, and Shafto saying as he had a man to meet—“tho’ who should be abroad at such an hour but thieves and footpads, I dare not think.” Mr. Munro attempted to divide Bertie Philmore from his assertions—to intimate, indeed, that the two men had carried their dispute so far as Chawton Pond a mile distant, and that death by drowning had occurred as a natural result of a

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