The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner

Chapter One

Chawton, Hampshire

June 1932

He lay back on the low stone wall, knees pulled up, and stretched out his spine against the rock. The birdsong pierced the early-morning air in little shrieks that hammered at his very skull. Lying there, still, face turned flat upwards to the sky, he could feel death all around him in the small church graveyard. He must have looked like an effigy himself, resting on top of the wall, as if carved into permanent silence, abreast a silent tomb. He had never left his small village to see the great cathedrals of his country, but he knew from books how the sculpted ancient rulers lay just like this, atop their elevated shrines, for lower men like himself to gaze at centuries later in awe.

It was haying season, and he had left his wagon in the lane, right where it met the kissing gate and the farm fields at the end of old Gosport Road. Huge bundles of hay had already been piled up high on the back of the wagon, waiting for transport to the horse and dairy farms that dotted the outer vicinity of the village, stretching in a row from Alton to East Tisted. As he lay there, he could feel the back of his shirt, damp from sweat, even though the sun was pale and barely trying; at just nine in the morning he had already been hard at work in the fields for several hours.

The multitude of finches, robins, and tits suddenly quieted down as if on command, and he closed his eyes. His dog had been on guard until that moment, looking out over the mossy stone wall at the sheep that dotted the fields below, just past the hidden ha-ha that marked the perimeter of the estate. But as the farmer’s laboured breath became deep and rhythmic with sleep, the dog took his own cue and lay down beneath his master in the cool dirt of the graveyard.

“Excuse me.”

He jolted awake at the voice now resonant above him. A lady’s voice. An American voice.

Sitting up, he swung his legs down from the stone wall to stand before her. He looked at her face quickly, glanced at the rest of her, then just as quickly looked away.

She appeared to be quite young, no older than her early twenties. She wore a wide-brimmed straw hat with an indigo-blue ribbon tied about it that matched the deep blue of her tailored dress. She looked quite tall, almost the same height as him, until he realized she was wearing the highest pair of heels he had ever seen. In one hand she held a small pamphlet, in the other a black clutch purse—and around her neck hung a tiny cross on a short silver chain.

“I’m so sorry to disturb you, but you’re the first person I’ve met all morning. And I’m quite lost, you see.”

As a lifelong resident of Chawton, population 377, the man was not surprised. He was always one of the first villagers up and about in the morning, right behind the milkman, Dr. Gray on his more pressing rounds, and the postman doing his pickup from the local office.

“You see,” she repeated, starting to adjust to his natural reticence, “I came down for the day from London—I took the train out here from Winchester to see the home of the writer Jane Austen. But I can’t find it, and I saw this little parish church from the road and decided to have a look around. To find some trace of her if I could.”

The man looked behind his right shoulder at the church, the same church he had attended all his life, made of local flint and red sandstone and sheltered by beech and elm trees. It had been rebuilt a few generations ago—nothing notable was left inside of Jane Austen or her immediate family.

He turned and looked back now over his left shoulder, at the small stile at the rear of the churchyard, through which one could just glimpse towering yew hedges clipped into circular cones. Even as a boy they had looked to him like nothing so much as extremely large salt and pepper cellars. The hedges ran along the south terrace garden of an imposing Elizabethan house set on an incline, with a gabled tiled roof, red brickwork, and a three-story Tudor porch covered in vines.

“The big house is back there,” he said abruptly, “just past the church. The Great House, it’s called. Where the Knight family lives. Miss