‘Come on, Jane, let us go again!’
Henry pulled me up the slope to the top of the field where the elm trees stood like sentinels and whispered over our heads in their hushing, leaf language. The day was hot like the one I’d left behind, and my legs struggled to keep up with him in the heat. He sensed that my small legs were tiring and he turned to wait, looking at me with a grin. Light flickered in his hazel eyes, those that I knew grown-ups said were so like mine, but his were almost golden on this day, like Baltic amber. The grass up at the top of the terrace was so long; it prickled the back of my legs. Beads of dew, like fairy necklaces strung along green blades, felt cold under my feet. When we reached the top, he showed me how to lie down in line with the trees, my toes pointing one way and my arms stretched over my head.
‘Jane, wait until I count to three,’ I heard him say.
Lying in the sweetly fragrant meadow, I felt so excited I started to giggle, and my body fidgeted in response. And before he’d managed to shout out the number three, I’d started going, rolling down the hill, and gathering momentum until the world was spinning. There was a blur of blue sky; then green fields, and then over I went again like a flyer on Nanny Littleworth’s spinning wheel. I could see Henry overtake me, going faster than ever. He got to the bottom before me but I came to a standstill at last, my heart beating with pure pleasure as I lay in the grass chuckling and laughing. There were grass stains on my dress and daisies in my hair, which Henry picked out, one by one.
Sitting up, I could see a house that I knew was my home and I had a sudden longing to see my father.
‘Are you not coming up again, little Jenny?’ Henry asked, calling me by the pet name my family used when they wanted to appeal to my better nature. He had his hands in the pockets of his breeches. His shirt was crumpled and stained like my gown. Brown curls flopped over his eyes, which looked into mine so tenderly that I almost changed my mind. I ran to hug him, stood on my tiptoes and planted a kiss on his cheek. Henry was my protector, and my beloved playmate. I longed to be just like him but my mother scolded me when I behaved too much like a tomboy. I knew I should not run or jump or shout, as my brothers did, but nothing she said would deter me, so when Henry begged me to play with him I did not usually need to be asked twice. But, as much as I wanted to be with him, home was calling.
I shook my head and muttered, ‘I’m going to see Papa.’
I ran through the glittering garden, past the sundial and the rose beds, where rosy blooms were crumpled like crushed paper in the heat. Along the pink bricks of the walled garden scented with apricots, I ran my fingers along the roughened surface, not stopping to pick the sweet strawberries lying below in their straw bed nests, and at last I saw him. I could see his white head as he sat at his desk by the window. There were piles of dusty books and yellowed papers on every side of him, and I knew his fingers would be stained black with ink as he corrected his accounts or marked his scholars’ work. I knew before I reached the house that the room he occupied would be wreathed in sweet-scented pipe smoke, just one ingredient in the magical elixir that conjured up his special smell. Gilt-edged books, paper and ink all had their own aroma as dear to me as any exotic perfume from India, and were as much a part of him as the glass of Madeira that he took in the evening, and his own cologne of bergamot, neroli and lavender. I could not reach him quickly enough, and at that moment he seemed to sense my presence and looked up to wave and smile. I waved back, and my heart was filled with love.
I ran into the house, dark and cool after the sunny day outside to find him still busy with his books. I brought the smell of the outdoors with me and knew I looked like a wild child with leaves in my hair.
‘Little Jenny, you have had a very busy afternoon, I think. Those grass stains tell a certain tale.’
I hung my head waiting for him to scold me, but I should have known better. He simply laughed and held out his arms to me.
‘Tell me a story, Papa.’
I loved to hear his voice and the tales of fairyland, wizards and magicians that he conjured up in a moment. Every word fashioned another golden link in an elfin chain; each phrase wrought an ivory tower or an enchanted castle. All my favourite objects on the window-sill found their part in the tale – the tiny bleached skeleton of a cat’s skull was a witch’s talisman, a peacock feather was a fallen treasure from a princess’s satin cap, and a blue glass bottle held a powerful potion.
‘And what happened next?’ my father asked after the wicked queen had imprisoned the princess in the castle tower.
It was my turn. I loved to watch his eyes grow wider as I spun my tale though I could not think of all the words I wanted even if I could see it all in my head. Mermen and mermaids steered the prince’s boat to the shore, which looked exactly like my father’s model ship made by my brother Frank. And, of course, there was always a happy ending.
‘That’s my Jane, my little storyteller. You will write great tales one day, I am certain.’
There was a face at the window watching us. Henry had his nose pressed up against the casement. ‘Come on, Jenny, come and play. Leave Papa alone now.’
Hopping down, I gave my father one last hug, burying my face in his chest, savouring his smell, his smile and the twinkle in his hazel eyes, before running back to the garden and my darling Henry. But as I took up my tiny watering can, made specially by my friend the blacksmith, the sun that was shining so brightly seemed blotted out by more than just clouds that were turning pink in the sky above on that golden afternoon. As I stood trying to make sense of it all, everything started to fade, the rich colours of a moment ago washed into pale tones like the silk embroideries mama had stitched as a child. The stark, bright reality of the scene just played out to me disappeared on the summer breeze that blew my hair back in the wind, and was gone forever.
Ellie blinked. She was back, as if she had never been away. The sun still felt as warm as the one she’d just experienced, but it took her a moment to recover. Her head felt light, and a feeling of fatigue was strong. But, as much as she would have liked to lie down in the field and sleep, she knew she would have to get a move on. She wasn’t sure how long she’d ‘been away’ and hoped that her absence had not been any cause for alarm. Running down the hill, she was reminded of the little girl whose pleasure she’d felt in rolling down, a far more enjoyable exercise.
‘I’m sorry it took me so long,’ she said to Jess as she caught up with the others.
‘I don’t think you could have been any quicker, you must have run there and back,’ answered her friend.
‘Really?’ Ellie queried. ‘I feel as if I’ve been gone a while.’
Jess looked at Ellie, a puzzled expression on her face. ‘Are you okay? You do look a bit washed out.’
Ellie nodded. ‘I’m fine, just feeling a bit tired that’s all.’
‘I expect it’s the sun, we’re not used to this kind of heat in England, are we? At least you’ve got your hat now. Don’t worry, you haven’t been missed.’
Ellie settled down on her stool and picked up her pencil but nothing could have prepared her for the ease with which she drew. It was almost as if she were possessed, and just half an hour later, though she hardly had any memory of executing it, there on the paper before her was an exquisite watercolour painting of the house she’d just been visiting, captured in sunshine exactly as she’d seen it. It was even possible to see the white head of Jane Austen’s father as he marked his books, and Ellie knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that she’d been ‘helped’ to see it.
The rest of the day passed swiftly and by the time the girls were back home they were feeling very pleased with what they’d already accomplished. Even Liberty was happy she’d decided to come along on the dig, and Ellie felt relieved that it had been a good decision for them all. They couldn’t have asked for better weather and it was good to be making new friends and discoveries. She could only hope that such an excellent beginning was a good omen, and feeling optimistic she looked forward to the coming weeks. As for her strange experiences, she had learned in the past to shelve them somewhere entirely different in her mind. They belonged to another world and time, one that she felt privileged to experience. If she was able to have another glimpse, that would be well and good, but she never took such things for granted, and knew time in all its guises would only make itself known to her as it wished.
Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten