Mrs Austen was well enough in 1804 to go with her husband and Jane for a holiday to Lyme Regis. Here we hear Jane's voice speaking once again in cheerful tones. She gives the news about lodgings and servants, about new acquaintances and walks on the Cobb, about some enjoyable sea bathing, about a ball at the local Assembly Rooms
(David Cecil, A Portrait of Jane Austen)
'If I may say so, sir, you really are rather lucky.'
The proprietor of the only hotel on the Marine Parade pushed the register across and Morse quickly completed the Date – Name – Address – Car Registration – Nationality columns. As he did so, it was out of long habit rather than any interest or curiosity that his eye took in just a few, details about the half-dozen or so persons, single and married, who had signed in just before him.
There had been a lad amongst Morse's fellow pupils in the sixth form who had possessed a virtually photographic memory – a memory which Morse had much admired. Not that his own memory was at all bad; short term, in fact, it was still functioning splendidly. And that is why, in one of those pre-signed lines, there was just that single little detail which very soon would be drifting back towards the shores of Morse's consciousness…
'To be honest, sir, you're very lucky. The good lady who had to cancel – one of our regular clients – had booked the room as soon as she knew when we were opening for the season, and she especially wanted – she always wanted – a room overlooking the bay, with bath and WC en suite facilities, of course.'
Morse nodded his acknowledgement of the anonymous woman's admirable taste. 'How long had she booked for?'
'Three nights: Friday, Saturday, Sunday.'
Morse nodded again. ‘I’ll stay the same three nights – if that's all right,' he decided, wondering what was preventing the poor old biddy from once more enjoying her private view of the waves and -exclusive use of a water-closet. Bladder, like as not.
'Enjoy your stay with us!' The proprietor handed Morse three keys on a ring: one to Room 27; one (as he learned) for the hotel's garage, situated two minutes' walk away from the sea front; and one for the front entrance, should he arrive back after midnight. If you'd just like to get your luggage out, I'll see it's taken up to your room while you put the car away. The police allow our guests to park temporarily of course, but…'
Morse looked down at the street-map given to him, and turned to go. Thanks very much. And let's hope the old girl manages to get down here a bit later in the season,' he added, considering it proper to grant her a limited commiseration.
'Afraid she won't do that.'
'Still, perhaps she had a pretty good innings?'
‘I wouldn't call forty-one a very good innings. Would you?'
‘Hodgkin's disease. You know what that's like.'
'Yes,' lied the chief inspector, as he backed towards the exit in chastened mood. I’ll just get the luggage out. We don't want any trouble with the police. Funny lot, sometimes!'
"They may be in your part of the world, but they're very fair to is here.'
‘I didn't mean-'
‘Will you be taking dinner with us, sir?'
‘Yes. Yes, please. I think I'd enjoy that.'
A few minutes after Morse had driven the maroon Jaguar slowly along the Lower Road, a woman (who certainly looked no older a the one who had earlier that year written in to book Room 27) turned into the Bay Hotel, stood for a minute or so by the reception desk, then pressed the Please-Ring-For-Service bell.
She had just returned from a walk along the upper level of Marine Parade, on the west side, and out to the Cobb – that great granite barrier that circles a protective arm around the harbour and assuages the incessant pounding of the sea. It was not a happy walk. That late afternoon a breeze had sprung up from the south, the sky had clouded over, and several people now promenading along the front in the intermittent drizzle were struggling into lightweight plastic macs.
'No calls for me?' she asked, when the proprietor reappeared.
'No, Mrs Hardinge. There's been nothing else.'
'OK.' But she said it in such a way as if it weren't OK, and the proprietor found himself wondering if the call he'd taken in mid-afternoon had been of greater significance than he'd thought. Possibly not, though; for suddenly she seemed to relax, and she smiled at him – most attractively.
The grid that guarded the drinks behind reception was no longer in place and already two couples were seated in the bar enjoying their dry sherries; and with them one elderly spinster fussing over a dachshund, one of those small dogs accepted at the management's discretion: lb2.50 per diem, excluding food'.
'I think I'll have a large malt.'
'Just ordinary water, please.'
'On your room-bill, Mrs Hardinge?'
'Please! Room fourteen.'
She sat on the green leather wall-seat just beside the main entrance. The whisky tasted good and she told herself that however powerful the arguments for total abstinence might be, few could challenge the fact that after alcohol the world almost invariably appeared a kinder, friendlier place.
The Times lay on the coffee table beside her, and she picked it up and scanned the headlines briefly before turning to the back page, folding the paper horizontally, then vertically, and then studying one across.
It was a fairly easy puzzle; and some twenty minutes later her not inconsiderable cruciverbalist skills had coped with all but a couple of clues – one of them a tantalizingly half-familiar quotation from Samuel Taylor Coleridge – over which she was still frowning when the lady of the establishment interrupted her with the evening's menu, and asked if she were taking dinner.
For a few minutes after ordering Seafood Soup with Fresh garden Herbs, followed by Guinea Fowl in Leek and Mushroom Sauce, she sat with eyes downcast and smoked a king-sized Dunhill cigarette. Then, as if on sudden impulse, she went into the glass-pandled telephone booth that stood beside the entrance and rang a number, her lips soon working in a sort of silent charade, like the mouth of some frenetic goldfish, as she fed a succession of 20p’s into the coin-slot. But no one could hear what she was saying.