‘One day people will fly like birds,’ Jane Austen said. ‘They will soar to the distant horizon and circle the globe. They may even fly to the moon!’
‘Rot, poppycock, and balderdash!’
The retort came from Mice Hurley, the ill-named owner of the Fragrant Sewer. To emphasize his point, he slammed down his pint of ale, sending a spray over both himself and Jane.
‘How can you be so certain?’ Jane asked.
‘Because of the feathers.’
Jane sighed. There was nothing mouse-like about Hurley. Over six feet tall, he was balding with a big, round face. He was as much a librarian as he was tavern owner. The Fragrant Sewer was the best-kept secret in Steventon. Not only a tiny tavern, it also doubled as a library; one entire wall was lined with books, many of which were of a nature that could not be found elsewhere.
Jane wiped a stray droplet of ale from her chin. It was after closing time. As was typical, the later the hour, the more boisterous Mice had become. The only people in the bar were herself, Hurley, and a stocky man who had sat in the corner nursing a single pint all night.
‘Feathers?’ she said. ‘What if a person didn’t need feathers?’
‘But what about their wings?’
‘They may be unnecessary.’
‘No wings?’ Mice asked. ‘Then how would they fly?’
Jane frowned, a small crease furrowing the middle of her brow. ‘The Chinese have fireworks. Powerful rockets that rise high into the air. If enough rockets were tied together, they might carry a person to the moon. Possibly even to the stars.’
Mice snorted. ‘I’ll believe it when I see it,’ he said.
‘I thought you were a man of reason,’ Jane said, folding her arms.
‘I’m a reasonable man,’ he said. ‘That’s not the same thing.’
‘You’re a man of science,’ Jane insisted. ‘You’ve taught me more than any other person in Steventon.’
‘Apart from your father.’ Mice looked serious. ‘You must respect him. He’s a good man and gives spiritual guidance to all who need it.’
Jane nodded. That was true. She adored her father as she did her mother and siblings. Still, the Reverend George Austen’s concerns were all about the practicalities of life. His main preoccupations were preaching to the local people of Steventon, guiding his sons into suitable careers and his daughters into the right marriages.
He often spoke of marriage and love as if they were the same thing. On this point, Jane disagreed with him. Love did not exist. Oh, there was the love of family, but love between men and women was not real. All that existed was marriage, and it was a business contract that allowed the transition of land and wealth to the next generation. Anyone who believed otherwise was not being honest with themselves.
Mice stroked his unshaven chin. ‘There have been great advances,’ he admitted. ‘The world is moving ahead. One day people may fly to the moon. And you’re right about those rockets. Enough gunpowder under one of them might take a person anywhere.’
‘See!’ Jane said triumphantly. ‘I knew you were a man of science!’
‘I’m a tavern keeper,’ he said. ‘And it’s high time you were heading home.’
Jane sighed. It was early by her standards, but late by the standards of the Reverend George Austen. Her many visits to Mister Hurley’s establishment, the Fragrant Sewer were not known to him, nor her mother and brothers. The only person who knew was her sister, Cassandra. Three years her senior, and far more responsible, Cassandra constantly reminded her that respectable nineteen-year-old women in the Year of Our Lord 1795 should not be walking the streets of Steventon at night. More than considered unsafe, it was considered unladylike, a worse crime in the eyes of many.
Regretfully downing her ale, Jane sat the glass down and glanced at the other solitary figure in the tavern. He’d sat there the whole night, sipping gingerly at his drink, his focus entirely on a small notebook in his hand.
Despite her youth, Jane liked to think of herself as a woman who could use her brain. She liked to observe people and make educated guesses about their station in life. Now she turned her attention to the stranger.
He was obviously not a local. Jane had lived in Steventon her entire life and knew everyone as well as she knew her own family. He was, therefore, a visitor to the area, but with whom he could be staying, she had no idea. She’d heard of no local visitors, and the closest inns were in Andover and Basingstoke.
The man looked generally unkempt in a cloak, pants, and well-worn shoes.
He’s a soldier, Jane decided.
Why was a solitary soldier drinking ale at the Fragrant Sewer? England was, yet again, at war with France, and it was likely to be another drawn-out conflict. Perhaps this man had served his time and was retired from the army. Although, that seemed unlikely. The British army was in a perilously poor state; it seemed unlikely to be releasing the few men it had.
Turning her attention back to Mice Hurley, Jane bade him goodnight and exited the small establishment. She shivered as she stepped out into the night air. It was early November, but the evenings were already cold. Fog swam about the street like a hoard of ghosts, and the only light to be seen was that of the moon.
Following the road towards her home at Steventon Rectory, she turned off onto a thin, winding lane where the hedgerow closed in on both sides. It was dark, but she knew the way well. Both she and Cassandra often joked that they could make their way to the heart of the town and back blindfolded.
She sighed. Jane loved her family, but she often wished for more in life. Some way to make an impact on the world. At least she had her writing. She had three collected volumes so far, as well as the first draft of a novel entitled Elinor and Marianne. Her parents loved her work. Even Cassandra and her brothers were impressed by it. They all said she had a skill for pointing out the absurdities in life.
A sound came from the road behind Jane. She stopped and peered into the fog. It had sounded like footsteps, and she remembered the man in the tavern. He had been a stranger, and strangers were sometimes to be feared. A woman had been recently attacked and killed in Overton, and her killer had not been found.
Highwaymen were less commonplace these days, but they were still around. More worrying than them were footpads. These were horseless highwaymen. Their inability to escape on horseback often made them more dangerous; they would kill their victim rather than run the risk of being caught.
She quickened her pace. The fog was thicker than ever now, and the sound of her footsteps seemed to echo in the swirling fog, but she was sure she could hear something behind her.
Jane stopped and turned. ‘Hello?’ she called.
She balled up her fists. She didn’t like to be frightened, and she was frightened now. The memory of the dead woman came to her again as she recalled the man back at the inn. He had been a stranger but had appeared reasonably well-attired.
Well, she thought. A person could be well dressed and a murderer.
After all, if a criminal were prepared to take a person’s life, they were probably just as likely to take their clothing.
Jane quickened her pace as she continued up the lane. She had only gone a few feet when she heard the sound of running feet to her left. Someone was racing around on the other side of the hedgerow. She now stared in horror at the leafy wall. It towered over her head, but someone with enough intention could easily scramble through it.
The footsteps continued, circling around in front of her, and then scurrying about to her right.
‘I am not amused!’ she said, her voice quaking with fear and anger. ‘My father is Reverend George Austen and he will—’
The thing growled.
Jane ran. She sprinted up the lane through the swirling fog towards her home; it was less than a mile away. Although not of a sporting nature, Jane could run when needed, and she did this now. Jane was almost there when she heard the scrambling sound again. This time it came from directly in front of her, and she skidded to a halt. Whatever pursued her was now blocking her path.
How is this possible?
The murderer—and that was how she thought of him—seemed to move with some kind of demonic superhuman speed. Jane peered into the dark, twisting mist, striving to make out a shape. A form. Anything that would give body to the unearthly thing that had haunted her. At first, the fog moved about in layers of darkness, and then she saw a figure: a body, arms, and legs, a face.
Jane bit back a scream.