Door Number One
It really did look like a Christmas card. The red brick house glowed with yellow light through frosted windowpanes brightening the gloom of the wintry day. Lizzy wrinkled her nose as feathers of snow tickled her face and settled like iced stars on her scarlet beret. It had been a bit of a nightmare to find it: a train, a bus ride, and a twelve-minute walk along snow-covered lanes, but now she considered it had all been worth it. Jane Austen’s house buried in the countryside village of Chawton couldn’t have been more perfect to Lizzy’s eyes. Perhaps deciding to visit the house in the middle of winter hadn’t been her brightest idea, but there was no denying her excitement. Lizzy felt a sense of anticipation, the house looked enchanted as if under a fairy spell, and she half wondered if she might bump into Jane herself at the door.
Finding the entrance at a barn door by the side of the building Lizzy soon realised it was locked, and it occurred to her then that despite all appearances the house might not be open. Looking up, dizzying spirals of snowflakes whirled through the air making her blink, and for the first time she prayed that the snow that was settling in high drifts might stop. Setting off that morning in fine weather Lizzy hadn’t even considered the house might be closed or that there might be a problem getting home. The snow was totally unexpected, and though she loved to see it, Lizzy felt a little anxious now she saw it continue to fall. She wondered if perhaps she should head back along the lane to the bus stop when, to her great surprise, she heard the sound of a door opening.
From the main building opposite the head of a tall man peered round the glass-paned door. ‘Look, we’re really short-staffed. No one’s turned up, and to be honest, I thought no one in their right mind would come today. I assume you’re here to see the house?’
Lizzy nodded. She saw a cross-looking young man in his late twenties with a mane of dark, almost black hair waving back from a face of strong features. She heard a public school accent, confident but with more than a suggestion of arrogance, the kind her father would be terribly impressed by. His dark eyes, to match his unruly curls, were boring into hers as if he hated the very sight of her. Unable to meet them, she was overwhelmed by a sense of rising panic whilst simultaneously thinking she’d never met anyone so rude. He hadn’t even said hello.
‘I’ve come from London,’ said Lizzy. ‘It’s taken me a while to get here, but I suppose if you’re closed, there’s not much I can do.’
‘No, we’re shut. Cassandra’s might give you a cup of tea, I suppose.’
Lizzy had a strange thought he was talking about Jane Austen’s sister for a minute until she remembered that the café across the way shared the same name.
‘No, they’re closed, too,’ she said.
The sign for the café had been a welcome sight on the way as she’d trudged up the road, but she’d known with a sinking heart that it was closed before she’d even reached it. As Lizzy waited for him to speak again, she heard the crunch of footsteps in the snow behind her.
‘I’m here now, Mr Williams, you can get back in the warm. I’ll open up!’ cried a cheerful voice.
Lizzy turned to see a lady with a pleasant face advancing gingerly towards her, picking up her long skirts to avoid getting them wet. Dressed from head to foot in Regency costume she appeared to be totally at home in her clothes, and Lizzy supposed it must be a kind of uniform she wore when showing people round the house.
‘Come in out of the cold, dear. I am sorry I couldn’t have been here sooner, but what with the weather and I know not what to tell you about first, I am in quite a dither this morning. My nerves are apt to plague me, but you’ll forgive me for running on so. Mr Williams would have attended you in any case, I am sure.’
The door opposite resounded with a loud bang as it shut. Mr Williams disappeared.
Lizzy didn’t like to say that the rude man had told her to go home, and decided to say nothing. In a way, she hoped he might see her and she felt a certain satisfaction in knowing that she’d got what she wanted, after all. Following the lady into the barn, Lizzy blinked as the bright strip lights were flicked on in the shop.
‘Do make yourself at home, dear. I’ll just make sure everything is in order in the main house so have a look round at your leisure. My youngest daughter was here yesterday, and though a delightful companion, she is inclined to be untidy. I daresay the dining room table will be littered with bonnets and ribbon, but that’s my Lydia – never happier than when she’s pulling apart a hat and making it her own.’
She reminded Lizzy of Mrs Bennet especially when she laughed like a young girl, her curls trembling as she disappeared through a door at the end. Lizzy suppressed a desire to giggle, and wondered how the lady managed to keep up her way of talking, as if she’d just stepped out of a Jane Austen novel.
Lizzy looked around at the wealth of books and gifts in the shop, most of which she longed to own. The shelves were lined with the books Jane Austen had written and revised in the very house she was about to see, and there were mugs and bags, bookmarks and fridge magnets to tempt the pennies out of her purse. On the counter was a pile of Advent calendars with a scene like the one she’d witnessed earlier. A painting of Jane’s house in the snow was sprinkled with twenty four windows to be opened during the festive season, some of which lay exactly over the place where the real windows were situated, over the doors, or were hidden in the snow-clad trees and sky. Lizzy was just making up her mind to treat herself to one when the lady came back.
‘Oh, my dear, you’ve made an excellent choice, and one you won’t regret, I’m sure,’ she said, and as Lizzy took out her purse to pay for it, the lady added, ‘Don’t trouble yourself about paying for it now. There’s time enough to do that later. Now, if you’ll just go into the changing room, you’ll find it all much more enjoyable if you put on your costume first.’
Before she could ask any questions the door was opened for her, and when Lizzy stepped inside the small cubicle she found a day dress and scarlet pelisse hanging up, along with a plain chemise, half-boots, and a fur trimmed bonnet with green satin ribbons. She’d always wanted to try on a Regency costume, and this one looked so authentic that she thought it would be fun to wear. Lizzy was soon dressed, the outfit was quite easy to wear and more comfortable than she’d thought it might be, fitting her to perfection, as if it had been made with her in mind. A glance across at the looking glass showed an image of a young woman she hardly recognised looking quite wide-eyed with astonishment.
When Lizzy emerged rather cautiously, the lady clapped her hands. ‘Oh, my dear, you look better than I dreamed possible. Scarlet is very becoming on you, and the green ribbon brings out your hazel eyes. Now, don’t forget your calendar. Please take it with you, and, as it’s December the first today, you should make haste, and open number one!’
Encouraged by the lady’s enthusiasm Lizzy carefully tore round the perforated edge of the window and peeled it back. She’d never grown out of the childish excitement of having an Advent calendar, and this was extra special. Behind a beautiful gothic window the picture gave a glimpse of the room itself. There on a chaise longue lay a pink satin bonnet.
Lizzy picked up her bag, and clutching the calendar set off around the back of the house following the path until she came to a white door. The thought that this was a doorway through which Jane had passed many times was thrilling, and turning the handle she crossed the threshold with a reverent step.
‘Lord, is that you, Kitty?’ came a shrill voice. ‘I thought you were never coming home!’
The room Lizzy entered was strewn with ribbons and lace, yards of satin and silk flowers covering every surface and tumbling onto the floor. A young girl seated on the chaise longue looked up expectantly.
‘Oh! I thought you were Kitty, but I suppose you must be here for one of my sisters, though I have to say you look as if you’ve just stepped out of my mother’s monthly magazine, and are not at all the sort of plain girl they usually keep for company.’
Apart from being completely taken aback at the sight and manner of the girl who looked just like an image from an illustrated edition of Jane Austen’s novels, Lizzy couldn’t think what she was talking about.
‘I’m so sorry,’ Lizzy began, ‘but I was told to come here.’
‘And I expect that person was a round plump lady who talks too much and quivers like a jelly not quite set. My mother! Lord knows she cannot help herself, but she will interfere. You’re not the first and I daresay you will not be the last. However, do not be alarmed. I am delighted you are here. You can help me trim this wretched bonnet. I cannot do a thing with it! Tell me, what do you think of this ribbon?’
Before Lizzy managed to speak the young girl spoke again. ‘Are you here for Jane or Elizabeth? I expect they’re closeted away somewhere telling their secrets to one another. I am not interested in their dull tales. Anyway, I have a secret of my own. I shall tell you if you like.’
Based on what she’d seen so far of her companion, Lizzy decided she wouldn’t be required to say much at all but something told her to be on her guard. ‘I don’t think…’
‘Good, I knew you would want to hear it. I know Miss Austen doesn’t like it when we peep, but I cannot help wanting to know what will happen next. All I wished for is to have our dreary cousin taken away, but I know there is much better in store. I’ve seen the very manuscript she’s working on!’
‘Of course Miss Austen! Miss Jane Austen, the one who owns this very house. At least, her brother Edward really owns it but Miss Jane and her sister Miss Cassandra live here with their mother.’
‘Miss Jane Austen is here in this house?’ asked Lizzy, hardly able to believe her ears.
‘Yes, of course, she’s in the next room where she sits scribbling on her little pieces of paper about us all. I should be vexed for it has to be said she can be very unkind about me, but she has promised to send me to Brighton, so she’s not all bad, by any means. I heard her say it out loud, and I cannot wait!’
Lizzy was sure her suspicions were correct. She’d visited houses and museums in the past where actors were employed to play the parts of historical figures, but she’d never seen anything quite so real or convincing. The girl who was clearly brilliant at role-playing must be acting the part of Lydia Bennet, and the lady in the shop was performing very convincingly as her mother, Mrs Bennet. It all made sense now.
‘Do you think I could see Miss Austen?’ Lizzy asked. Lydia looked doubtful. ‘She may see you, but then again, she may not like to be disturbed. Miss Austen keeps the door hinges deliberately unoiled, so she can hear the door squeaking when she is about to be intruded upon. You will soon find out if you go beyond the door.’
Lizzy followed Lydia’s pointing finger to the door ahead, which was firmly closed. ‘Do you think I should? I wouldn’t like to interrupt her if she’s writing.’
‘Only you can decide what is best. If you take a leaf from my book, nothing ever stops me from pursuing the wishes of my heart.’
Lizzy was most undecided, especially when she considered that it might not be wise to take advice from Lydia Bennet. But, surely this was all part of the exhibition, and she was being guided, even invited to go through the door. And if she didn’t hurry, time would run out, and she would have to go home. Pinned to the door was a piece of card with a number two engraved in silver upon its cream-coloured surface. On closer inspection she read the words, An Invitation to the Ball, written in a flowing script.
© Jane Odiwe