I've loved writing Searching for Mr Tilney and I hope you'll enjoy reading it too.
It was just a second or two, but I was so surprised that I shut the door again before I’d even begun to register what on earth was happening. I was in such a state of shock my first thought was that I must have opened the wrong door, so I traced my steps back to the bathroom in the dark, managing to stub my toe in the process before daring to put on the landing light. I was feeling spooked by the whole experience, though to be perfectly honest, it was very disappointingly lacking in scariness. When I got back to my room I opened the door, hesitatingly, but as in all the best frightening tales the vision was gone.
I’ve decided I saw a snapshot in time, as anyone living in an old house might see, though I really feel it was more than that. The girl, the room and all the objects were real and solid - not a wisp of ethereal ghostliness or ectoplasm, yet a part of me still can’t quite believe it. Had I been dreaming?
One thing I did investigate immediately was the room next to mine. It’s a very small bedroom with just space for a narrow bed and a small wardrobe, and I wondered if it might perhaps have been a dressing room at one time. Whoever I’d intruded upon was just as untidy as me, I thought, and it made me like her instantly. And, unlike a dream that usually fades on waking, I couldn’t stop thinking about her or wondering how my seeing her had been possible. Her face was extraordinarily vivid in my mind, with her flushed cheeks, and lips curving like a mischievous cherub into a pink smile. I distinctly saw the dark tendrils of hair curling on her forehead, and her forthright gaze, arresting eyes like topaz jewels. It was exciting to think that the possibility of ghosts were real, even if they were very ordinary, quite unlike Cathy wandering alone through the dead of night in Wuthering Heights.
Since writing the above, I’ve spent another day shopping with Ellen and had another quiet evening in with very little news or happenings to report. Though I’ve not seen or experienced any further strange visions I still can’t get it out of my head that what I saw was not a dream.
Before I went to bed last night Ellen said we’d be busy again today, and that we’ll be out for most of it. I suspect there’ll be more shopping involved, and I must admit I don’t relish the idea of traipsing round the shops buying more Christmas presents. What I’d really like to do is stay in, to see if I can enter that magical world once more. If it was my imagination playing tricks on me I shall be very sorry, but I shall never know if I have to go out all day.
I can smell breakfast, and my watch tells me it’s time to go down. I’m wearing the green needlecord dress today, which makes me feel very “Jane Austen” with its empire line and flower motifs. Perhaps Henry Tilney will be waiting for me in the breakfast parlour!
Breakfast was delicious, though if Mrs Partridge is going to feed us bacon and egg every morning, I think it will be no time at all until my new clothes will be feeling tight.
‘You need to keep up your strength, Caroline,’ said Ellen. ‘Your mother will never forgive me if you go home looking scrawny and under-fed.’
That’s not very likely, I thought, on a diet of cream teas and fried bread, but I know Ellen means well.
I was just enjoying the last delicious mouthful of fried egg when there was a knock at the front door. I always think the sound of a door knocker holds so much promise of excitement, and immediately thought of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility waiting for Mr Willoughby. But, there was no dashing suitor at the door or Colonel Brandon, only the postman with a delivery for me - a most mysterious parcel. It was huge, and I couldn’t begin to think what was inside. When I opened it up I found the most beautiful writing box. It had a mahogany writing slope, was lined with green baize, and complete with glass bottles for ink, a penknife, two stubby looking quills, a pair of old spectacles, and several stumps of sealing wax.
There was also a letter.
How are you, my darling? I hope you’re settling in and that the Bath air is working wonders - I trust all is going well!
I meant to give you the enclosed before you left, but in my usual muddle-headed way forgot all about it. Anyway, I found it while I was tidying up in one of the attic rooms a couple of weeks ago, and I thought you might like somewhere special to write and keep your journal while you’re in Bath. I’m not quite sure who owned it - there were several ancestors who might have had a writing slope, but I thought you might find it fun to try your hand at using a quill pen.
They made these boxes to withstand all sorts of conditions - for travelling, of course, and many of them accompanied soldiers to war and back again. It has drop-down handles for ease of carrying, and a side drawer, which opens when a brass pin inside is released - there’s also a reading stand and a working lock and key.
Do you think Jane Austen must have written a journal too, like her heroine Catherine Morland when she went to Bath? You will, I know, remember the passage in Northanger where that charming rascal Henry Tilney quizzes her about it, saying she was bound to mention him in it. I wonder if Jane met such a young man herself and wrote about him in her diary.
Well, my darling, I must stop writing so I can get this off in the post - have a marvellous time and enjoy yourself!
Much love always,
Ellen and Roger seemed as excited as I was to see the box, and when we’d discovered how to pull out the brass pin inside, the drawer was released, and it sprang open. Disappointingly, there were no secret letters or journals inside, but we examined all the bottles and quills before Ellen suggested I try using one for a bit of fun. On a piece of cream card I tried my best to write as I’d seen Jane Austen’s letters addressed: Caroline Heath, Flat 5, 44, Fitzroy Street, London, W1. I stopped to admire my handiwork; the flat I lived in during term time seemed a lifetime away. My friends who lodged with me had been so kind when I fell ill, trying not to tell me too many exciting details about all the fun they were having while I was stuck in bed. When would I be able to return?
‘You must miss art school,’ said Ellen looking concerned. I think she guessed what I was thinking.
‘I do, but I’d much rather be here with you.’ I really meant it, I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else now, and thought how kind she was to have brought me to Bath.
Ellen smiled. ‘Why don’t you go and find a place for your new writing box in your bedroom,’ she said. ‘We’ll go out after lunch if you still feel like it, but the morning is yours to do just as you wish.’
I couldn’t wait, and ran upstairs as quickly as the heavy box would allow, tucking it under my arm before turning the stiff door knob. It wouldn’t give, so I put the box down, twisted the knob once more, pushing against the door with my shoulder and practically falling into the room when it opened unexpectedly easily. It felt almost as if someone on the other side were playing a trick, holding the door fast before pulling it open suddenly. It made me think about the girl I’d seen in the middle of the night until I told myself I was being silly.
Underneath the middle window there was an ancient desk with a lamp set on it, which I decided would make a suitable place for my writing box, and if I moved the chair placed beneath the adjacent window I could sit there, write my journal, and stare out of the window for inspiration. Feeling very pleased with the new arrangement, I opened up the box, and laid my journal on the slope.
There was a wonderful view down Pulteney Street, and if it hadn’t been for the cars roaring past down below I could quite have fancied myself in another time as I looked out on the golden stone houses, standing to attention like soldiers in their best uniforms. I decided to make a few lists in the back of my journal first. Being away from home was helping me think about the work I had to do without as much panic as when I was there, and I wrote down a list of everything I hoped to achieve over the Christmas holidays when I got back home. I even did a few preliminary sketches, though I didn’t want to use up all the pages of my journal for sketching. Thinking of Christmas meant I ought to think about buying presents of my own, and so the next list consisted of ideas of what to buy for Mum and my friends. Then, because I was feeling so positive I made a list of future goals though one or two were bordering on being over ambitious, and I decided optimism is all very well, but short term goals were probably the best, and wouldn’t lead to biting disappointment. I was enjoying myself so much, lost in my own world, and so glad to be feeling some creative energy again that time seemed to be slipping away very quickly. I’d just got time to do a few sketches, and pulled out the sketchpad from my case that I’d thought wouldn’t see the light of day. The writing slope was just the right angle for drawing, and I sharpened my pencil in readiness.
The sun, a glowing ball of winter pearl had come out from a bank of cloud and was shining so strongly into my eyes and on to the paper that it was blinding, making it impossible to see. The old shutters on the windows were folded back, but it looked as if they were stuck fast, encrusted with at least a hundred years or more of white paint. I tried them anyway, and one half unfolded with a bit of persuasion, but it still wasn’t enough to stop the light from piercing my eyes. It looked as if a little bit of paint was acting like glue, and suddenly remembering the little penknife in the writing box, I fetched it out. I only wanted to scrape away what shouldn’t have been there anyway, and told myself I wasn’t doing any harm, but as I chipped away at the hardened paint I could see it wasn’t going to give way easily. At last I was making some progress, and fitting my fingers down between the spaces I’d created, I got some purchase on the shutter door and pulled hard. It made such a noise as the paint finally gave way, splintering in shards when it moved, I thought for a horrible moment that I’d damaged it. Suddenly the shutter swung forward with a resigned creak. There was a lot of dust and dirt, which fell all over the windowsill and drifted to the floor making an awful mess, but it was free at last. And so was something else that had fallen from the deep recess behind. It looked like a cross between a giant butterfly’s cocoon and a spider’s nest, darkest grey and furry with what looked like two hundred years’ worth of cobwebs wrapped round it, and all I could do was stare at it to begin with. I didn’t want to touch it at first, but it didn’t look as if it were alive with tiny creatures, and when I poked it gently the dust balls enrobing it simply rolled away until the object underneath was revealed.
A knock at the door made me jump out of my skin, and Ellen’s voice rang out, piercing my dream-like state.
‘Lunch will be ready in five minutes,’ she called, ‘Mrs Partridge has made some soup which should warm us up before we head out into the cold.’
I said I’d be down straight away, though I was finding it hard to concentrate on anything but the little parcel I was now unravelling in my hands, and wished I could stay longer to examine it. Wrapped in silk that was rotting away in places I discovered a leather-bound notebook inside. Turning the fragile paper pages very carefully it became immediately clear I’d found a journal, and a very old one at that, with a year date on every page for 1788, written in a very neat hand. The writing was so small and so hard to decipher I could only just read the first sentence of the first entry.
We are arrived at my uncle’s house, and it is quite as grand as I imagined! Though I couldn’t wait to read more I closed the diary reluctantly, wrapping it up again and putting it away carefully inside the drawer of my writing box. It would need considerably more time to study it, and all my powers of concentration to read the tiny script, and right now I needed to tidy up before Mrs Partridge or Ellen discovered the mess I’d made. I rinsed my flannel under the hot water in the basin, and did my best to tidy up, wiping down the recesses where the shutters had been stuck with paint, never seeing light for what must have been a very long time. Folding them back, I decided they looked pretty much as they had done before I’d forced them open, and resolved not to mention what I’d done or tell them about my exciting find until I had a chance to examine it further. I raked a comb through my hair, pulled on a cardigan to help keep me warm, and ran downstairs.
‘We shall be out for the rest of the afternoon,’ said Ellen, as Mrs Partridge ladled out warming tomato soup into our bowls, ‘And then Roger has booked an early supper at a dear French restaurant we both love. Do tell Caroline our thrilling plans for the evening, Roger. He is wonderful, you know.’
Roger put down the newspaper he was reading for a moment. ‘We’re off to the theatre.’
‘Oh, that is exciting,’ I said, ‘I love a play.’
‘It’s Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol,’ he went on, ‘I know you like a ghost story, and Ellen said you’d like the Victorian fashions too.’
‘Yes, I’m very interested in costume design; I shall look forward to it, thank you, Roger,’ I said, thinking I might cope better with the idea of an afternoon’s shopping now such an evening lay ahead.
So, I really am glad about being in Bath with the Applebys, and I’m feeling very spoiled. I will write to Mum this evening after we’ve been to the theatre, and thank her for the writing slope. I can’t wait to tell her everything … except about the ghost, of course. In fact, I think it best if I keep that little episode all to myself - even now I can’t help thinking it was some strange kind of dream induced by being half asleep. I wondered when I came back upstairs to fetch my scarf whether I’d see her again, though I had a feeling I’d just find my room, which I did, and the thought occurred that it was likely a one-off occasion and I might never see her again.
I hope you enjoyed it!