The light bounced from the panes, the sun blinking in her eyes so strongly she was forced to close them and when she looked again, he was gone. As all five girls stood before the house with the noise of the coach rumbling away down the lane, the doors opened and a white-haired lady in a twin-set and tweed skirt stepped out, dogs barking at her heels.
‘Now Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley, don’t carry on so. You remember Jessica, there’s no need to bark like that.’
The dogs were all over Jess, leaping up excitedly as they recognised their old friend. ‘Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley,’ cried Jess, laughing as they almost bowled her over. ‘It’s so long since I had the pleasure of seeing those wagging tails - you were always the most handsome and loving men of my acquaintance!’
‘We should have known they’d have names from Pride and Prejudice,’ said Cara, ‘Is your godmother as obsessed as you, Jess?’
‘No, not one bit,’ said the apple-cheeked lady who greeted them after she’d bestowed affectionate kisses on Jess. ‘Mrs Burke always says she prefers the Brontë sisters and has no time for Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. It was Jessica who was allowed to christen the dogs, you might know. I’m Betty Hill, by the way, the housekeeper. Come inside – leave your suitcases in the hall, my dears, and my husband will see to those. The kettle is on, we’ll have a nice cup of tea and then I’ll show you to your rooms.’
The girls walked into a large hallway with a staircase in front leading to the upper floors, and rooms leading off left, right, and beyond. A polished circular table in the centre held a Chinese bowl of pot-pourri and a country arrangement of roses and lavender from the garden scented the air with its fragrance. Off to the right they were taken into a morning room, a pretty old-fashioned space with chairs and sofas sprigged in chintz. The walls were panelled and on each side of the marble fireplace the alcoves held shelves in the recesses topped with richly carved seashells, on which were displayed pretty, floral china.
‘Oh, I thought we were to be on our own,’ Ellie heard Liberty whispering to Cara, the disappointment in her voice plain to hear. ‘I had high hopes of entertaining Greg Whitely here a bit later.’
‘Liberty, you are too naughty for words,’ Cara answered, giggling, as she plumped down onto an armchair covered in dove grey linen, sending the flowered cushions tumbling to the floor.
Mrs Hill appeared not to notice and when the tea came in they were introduced to the young girl, Nancy, who bore pots of Earl Grey tea, piles of chicken sandwiches and slabs of chocolate cake on delicate tea plates.
‘Nancy comes in from the village to help me,’ said Mrs Hill. ‘If you need to know anything at all about Ashe, Steventon or Deane and the people that live here, she’s the one to ask. Her people have lived here since before Jane Austen’s day. In fact, they were a very special part of the family.’
Nancy wore an expression of pride as she set down the tray. ‘Yes, my ancestors worked for the Austen family, they helped bring up the children. Mrs Austen used to send them off, once they were weaned, to live with my family until they were old enough to walk and talk and mind their manners. I suppose that seems an odd practice today, but that’s what they did in the olden days. The children were visited every day, and, no doubt, were in and out of the respective houses as they were growing up.’
‘So your family actually knew Jane Austen?’ Ellie asked.
Nancy nodded. ‘My granny told me that one of the Littleworths once dressed Jane Austen’s hair for a ball. They were servants, really, but the Austens treated them as if they were their nearest and dearest. There’s not much the Littleworths didn’t know then, and there’s not much we don’t know about Steventon and all its neighbours now. And if there’s any gossip to be had, we’ll be the first to hear the news. It’s not a place for keeping secrets, I can tell you,’ Nancy said, lowering her voice to a whisper as if the walls themselves might hear something they shouldn’t. ‘It’s just village life, but if you’re not used to it, it can seem as if people are being very nosy and interfering, if you know what I mean.’
‘I’d better be on my best behaviour then,’ said Liberty, who pressed her lips together as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.
Everyone laughed. It was hard to get cross with Liberty who knew more than anyone else that trouble seemed to hunt her out like a heat-seeking missile.
‘It’s a beautiful house,’ said Ellie, keen to change the conversation. ‘It looks as if Jane Austen might walk out of a door at any moment.’
‘Yes, indeed, my dears, this house is not without its associations to that great lady. It was a former rectory and belonged to a very great friend of Miss Austen,’ Mrs Hill replied, as if the author was still alive. ‘Her name was Madame Lefroy, that was how she was known. She was married to the Reverend Lefroy who was the rector at Ashe. Jane always ran to her dear friend for advice – they shared a great many interests, I believe, books and poetry, in particular.’
‘I didn’t know that,’ said Jess, sitting up in her seat, instantly alert to the name of her favourite author. ‘I’ve never heard Aunt Mary talk about Jane Austen being here in this house.’
‘Well, Jane Austen and her books have never been of any interest to her, and it’s a few years since we’ve had the pleasure of seeing you in this house, Jessica. I suppose she thought you too young before, to be interested in the history of the rectory itself and the people who lived here.’
‘Just think, Jane Austen might have sat in this very room,’ said Jess.
‘Without a doubt, she did,’ answered Mrs Hill. ‘Not only did she sit in this room, but Jane also attended a few dances here. Madame was quite a figure in the neighbourhood and loved to throw parties. You see the folding doors that separate the rooms? They were always thrown back to make room for the dancing couples.
Jess opened her mouth to speak again. Ellie could see how curious she was and longing to know more, but Mrs Hill stood up, gathering cups and saucers together on the tea-tray. ‘I’ll just pop these in the kitchen – Nancy will show you to your rooms whilst I tidy up. I understand you’re all going out in an hour or so. I’ll leave the side door open and there’ll be a spot of supper, something cold left out for you when you get back. Have a lovely time, my dears.’
They followed Nancy upstairs and on reaching the first floor, Ellie remembered the haunting face that she’d seen earlier. ‘Does anyone else live here, Nancy? I thought I saw someone at the window when we arrived … could it have been Mrs Hill’s son?’
‘No, Mrs Hill’s nephew stays here with her sometimes, but she and Mr Hill were never blessed with any children. It’s such a pity because she would have made a lovely mum. Perhaps it was Mr Hill you saw – he’s always seeing to odd jobs around the house.’
‘I doubt it, unless Mr Hill is a very young man,’ said Ellie, wondering if she had, in fact, imagined the face that had seemed to smile when he saw her.
‘Oh, in that case it was probably the ghost you saw,’ Nancy pronounced, in such a matter of fact way that Ellie wondered if she’d misheard her.
‘Don’t tell me there’s a ghost,’ cried Liberty, ‘I shan’t sleep tonight. I love nothing more than a horror film but I don’t want to be in one!’
‘I don’t know anything about a ghost,’ Jess joined in. ‘Aunt Mary’s never mentioned him to me. Where did you see him, Ellie?’
‘Well, he must have been here standing at this window but, to be honest, I didn’t see very much and it could just have been a trick of the light. The sun was really bright … I got the impression of someone about our age, quite pale and fair. He was only there for a second – I probably imagined it.’
‘That’s not likely with your history, is it?’ Jess had lowered her voice to a whisper and was looking at her friend earnestly. Ellie had only ever confided in Jess about the people she saw – not people exactly, they were more like shadows of real people, in three dimensions but dimmer in intensity, other worldly.
‘There is a young man haunts the place from time to time,’ said Nancy, opening the door of the first bedroom on the left. ‘He’s harmless enough, but I expect your aunt didn’t want to say anything to you about him when you were a little girl, Jess, for fear of frightening you.’
Martha who’d been quiet for some time spoke up. ‘I don’t believe in ghosts. I’ve seen too many so-called séances with hysterical people, mostly ridiculously stupid actresses, who whipped themselves into a frenzy of believing all sorts of nonsense – contact with the dead, and even one who swore she’d lived in another time.’
Ellie didn’t want to say too much. ‘I think some people are more in tune or have a sensitivity to such things. I’d hate to dismiss it completely.’
‘I agree with Ellie,’ Jess chipped in, ‘there is so much that we don’t understand. I was reading about the Akashic records the other day, the belief that everything that happens in the world is imprinted on the unseen ether around us, present in every atom of the world and universe – like a multi-sensory photograph or holograph being constantly captured and kept on file.’
‘Now you’ve lost me with all this talk of hollow graphs and science. It sounds like a lot of gobbledygook to me,’ said Liberty, hitching up her shoulder bag. ‘I am dying to put this down, it is so heavy.’
‘This is your room, Liberty.’ Nancy waved her through and the others got a glimpse of a charming room in shades of eau de nil with flamboyant peonies and exotic birds perched on Chinese branches climbing over the walls.
The others heard her shouting with excitement and the sound of running taps as Liberty discovered her own bathroom before Nancy whisked them away and dropped them off one by one along the corridor. Cara’s room was next in line to Liberty’s with Martha on the opposite side. Ellie and Jess were given rooms at the back of the house overlooking the garden which rolled before them in varying sizes of green lawns, high yew hedges, and hidden spaces interspersed with traditional flower beds. Jess’s bedroom with chalk pink walls boasted a French bed with buttoned silk upholstery and a chaise longue in one corner. On the walls was a collection of silhouettes of people from past times. The profiles of soldiers and debutantes looked across at one another from ebony frames ranged around the marble mantelpiece. It looked as if it had been designed with Jess in mind with its Regency furniture and vast portraits of ladies dressed in white muslin.
Ellie’s room was perfection to her way of thinking; she loved anything vintage. In muted tones of Naples yellow in the patterned wallpaper and silvery grey satin falling to the floor in a cascade at the windows, the room was flooded in light. Sunbeams danced through the ancient embroidered lace like a bridal veil at a summer wedding, parted to give a stunning view over the beautiful garden. Touches of duck egg blue in the embroideries on the walls and in the milk glass vases on the mantelshelf were echoed in a shot of deeper blue silk in the dressing gown dangling from a padded hanger of cream silk. It looked like a film set left over from the 1930s and in contrast to Jess’s room, which was a Regency haven, Ellie couldn’t have wished for anything more glamorous. A deco dressing table complete with a mirrored surface and a triptych looking glass was topped with a selection of exquisite objects – a porcelain tray and boxes for jewels, a Japanese fan, a silver hairbrush enamelled with blue as vivid as a butterfly’s wing, and a cloisonné vase filled with old-fashioned roses. The bed draped with grey satin and ivory lace was flanked either side with paintings typical of the era, watercolours of primroses or lilac in turquoise bowls, and a still life, of paper lanterns suspended from branches of white blossom, hung above the fireplace. She almost couldn’t wait to go to bed when she’d be able to sink into the pile of satin covered cushions on her bed, pull the quilted eiderdown up to her throat and admire all the treats before her.
‘I am so happy,’ said Jess, sitting down at Ellie’s dressing table and opening the lid of a jewel box. ‘I don’t know how you’ve persuaded the others to come but I’m so glad you did. You’re the most wonderful friend a girl could wish for – thank you.’
‘I only hope that you don’t regret those words when Liberty and Cara realise they’ve got to get their hands dirty,’ Ellie said, laughing as she sat down on a slipper chair in the corner.
Jess took out a diamonté necklace from the box and held it up against her collarbone. ‘If Greg Whitely turns up tonight, I think Liberty will be pretty keen to impress, not to mention those other boys from Oxford.’
‘Yes, I don’t think we’ll have much trouble keeping her engaged, though whether it will be on the task in hand, I’m not sure. I have to say, I thought you looked a little distracted at the sight of one Charlie Harden. He’s not my type, but he is rather gorgeous. I saw him looking at you in a very studious way.’
‘No, you did not. Ellie Bentley, you’re always making things up.’
‘I’m not – you’ll see. I bet he makes a move tonight. I’m sure he’s dying to meet you.’
Jess put the necklace back, closed the lid slowly and turned to face Ellie. ‘Charlie seems very friendly and just the kind of person who is naturally sociable. Don’t you go imagining things if he starts chatting to us.’
‘Oh, I don’t imagine he’ll be chatting to us at all. To you, maybe.’
‘Ellie, you’re incorrigible! But, I will forgive you and who knows, perhaps you’ll be the one who gets chatted up later.’
‘I hardly think so, Jess. I know you’d love to see me in a romantic entanglement but you know as well as I, that there isn’t a man alive who has yet taken my fancy to that extent. And your Charlie hasn’t got a friend I like the look of – they all seem a bit immature … or moody.’
‘He isn’t my Charlie, Ellie. But, I thought his friend Henry was your type, all dark hair and scowling looks.’
‘No way! He’s far too … superior. I don’t know, he just looks a bit arrogant, that’s all.’
‘Well, perhaps tonight he’ll charm you. You never know, he could turn out to be ‘The One’!’
Ellie grabbed a cushion and aimed. Jess leapt up, laughing as she ran from the room. ‘Come on, we’ve got to get ready, Miss Bentley, or we’ll be late.’
Half an hour later, Ellie was feeling refreshed for having had a scented soak in the bath. She’d washed her hair and was now standing in front of the wardrobe hanging her clothes, and trying to decide what she was going to wear for the party. It was still warm and light so she selected some cropped jeans and a short-sleeved cotton top, with a scoop neck and embroidered pin tucked front. The detail made it a little bit more special than the every day and to set it off, she picked a chunky necklace from her jewellery roll with turquoise stones and silver beads threaded on a long leather cord. Choosing a warm scarf in coral, scattered over with hummingbirds and edged in silk fringe in case it got cooler later on, Ellie then added a pair of canvas trainers to complete her outfit.
Jess knocked on the door. ‘I’ll just round up everyone else so I’ll see you downstairs in a minute!’
Ellie shouted back that she’d join them in a second and looked around for her bag. It was her favourite, an antique bag that had belonged to her great-grandmother. Made of black silk moiré, it was embellished with a bluebird and had a long silk strap. She’d left it on the chest of drawers in front of the window next to a blue and white jug and bowl. Dashing to fetch it, she was stopped in her tracks by the sense of something or someone moving outside in the garden below. Ellie glimpsed what she thought might be a person moving between the trees but it was too difficult to see clearly. It was most likely Mr Hill or a gardener, she thought. The gardens were so immense, there had to be several people working on them to be kept as beautiful as they looked. Yet, she had a feeling that the person, whose shadow moved across the grass in shades of deep emerald, was someone other than a working man. And then she saw him again. Too far away to be able to see distinctly, nevertheless, she knew he was the same young man she’d seen before. Dressed like a character from a Jane Austen novel in a long coat with breeches and boots, he made an arresting figure. Striding towards the house, his white coat billowed out like the great wings of a swan before it takes flight into the sky. Ellie could see him unwinding the stock at his neck with impatient fingers, and as he did so his lawn shirt exposed pale skin, a muscular frame beneath the fine linen. Suddenly, she knew he was watching her. He raised his hand and waved.
Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten