+Ann_Thornton_Going_AloftThe Lost Letters of Lizzie Austen; a novel in progress.

by Linda Collison

I was sitting in the Greenwich library,  staring at my notes and nearly falling asleep, having turned up little of note in my research that afternoon, when someone came up behind me, and coughed politely.  I turned to see an old seaman, dressed in costume, a performer or re-enactor, perhaps. But on second glance I realized it might be a woman.  She looked to be out of her mind; quite mad as they say here in the motherland.  Or maybe the poor thing was lost — or looking for the restroom.  Looking again, I saw she might not be as old as I first assumed.  Or maybe she was far older than I could imagine.  Her hands were so very wrinkled, as if she had been too long in a salty bath.  Her hair dripped from under her hat.

“Can I help you?” I whispered.

She looked at me with shrewd eyes, sizing me up.  “Yes ma’am, I believe you can.”  She then dropped her seaman’s gear bag at my feet with a thump.  It was damp and salty, speckled with tar, and smelled like bilge water.

“What’s that?”

“Jane’s letters.”

“Jane?  Do I know Jane?”

She snorted.  “Everybody knows Jane.  Jane Austen.”

I blinked.  Poor woman was obviously delusional.  “But why give them to me”, I asked, not wanting to seem rude.    “If they’re really letters the great novelist penned, shouldn’t you give them to the librarian? An historian, perhaps?  Or to the museum? You could aution them at Sotheby’s and make your fortune.”

She shook her head slowly.  Sadly.  A strand of seaweed fell out of her hair.  “They wouldn’t believe me.  They would think it’s but a hoax.”

“But why give them to me?  I’m an American.  So unworthy.”  My attempt at satire went completely unnoticed.

“True.  But you know.  About my kind.  And you’re a writer.”

“Your kind?”

She nodded, biting her lip.  Allowing her eyes to meet mine.  “Girls in breeches.  On ships. In disguise.”

What did that have to do with Jane Austen, I wondered. Or maybe I spoke aloud.

“Jane Asten was my sister,” the woman said.

My heart thumped in my throat.  Was this a ghost?  Was I mad?

“You’re Cassandra?”

She rolled her eyes and sighed. “Hardly.  Do I look like Cassandra?  I’m her other sister.  Lizzie.”

Before I could say a word, she blurted out, “I’m the sister mother conveniently forgot about.  Forgot, then denied.  But it’s here in these letters, it’s all here.  She thought she burned them but I tricked her, you see.  I made copies of all my letters before I sent them – and I saved all she ever sent to me. You might say I was her alter ego – except I was her younger sister.  The one they forgot.  It’s all there.  I want you to have them.  I want to you tell my story.”

I didn’t believe a word of it, of course, though as a novelist, the idea grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

“What do you want for the letters?  The whole sack, “I asked.

“Fifty quid.  They’re no longer any use to me, but I can’t just give them away, now can I?”  A slight smile tugged at her lips.

Heart thumping, I reached for my handbag and rummaged through my wallet.  I had just enough money.  Surely the letters were fake, or maybe the sack was filled with paper from the waste bin, but I must say, my curiosity was piqued.  I closed my handbag and reached  to give her the money, but she was gone.  Vanished.  Leaving only the damp canvas sack of letters, a puddle of water,  and the slight smell of the harbor at low tide.

To be continued…

copyright 2013 Linda Collison