It was pure instinct to look behind her to see if he was waving at someone else, but, of course, there was no one there. And when she turned back to see if he was still standing there, he had disappeared and Ellie began to wonder if she had imagined seeing him at all. There wasn’t time to investigate further and so picking up her bag, she decided to try and forget about the mysterious gentleman for the time being and ran downstairs to meet the others.
Mrs Hill had kindly arranged a taxi to take them into Steventon and told them that it would pick them up again at 10.30. ‘I don’t suppose you’ll be needing it any later than that,’ she said, ‘I know the caretaker insists on closing up at that time, whatever the event. I think if the queen herself arrived, he’d not allow it to stay open any longer.’
‘Ten thirty!’ Liberty’s sigh was audible. ‘That doesn’t give me much time then.’
‘Time for what?’ asked Jess, as the taxi driver set off, speeding down the lanes with the confidence of one who knew them well.
‘Time to charm Greg Whitely,’ Liberty answered, ‘By the time we’ve had the talks and everyone spouting off like in lectures, I’m guessing there’ll only be about half an hour for chatting and that just isn’t long enough!’
‘Well, if I know Liberty Lovell, half an hour will be ample time,’ said Ellie. ‘I believe if you only had ten minutes you’d make the best of it. Don’t be down-hearted – just think, you are actually going to see and possibly meet your hero.’
‘There’s no possibly about it,’ said Liberty, applying her lipstick and checking her reflection in a hand mirror, ‘If I don’t get to talk to Greg tonight, then I will have definitely lost my touch!’
The village hall had been decked out for the occasion with strings of colourful bunting and a number of cloth-covered trestle tables lined one side of the long room. There was a veritable feast laid on with the usual sorts of buffet fare: sandwiches, sausage rolls, quiches, and salads at one end, and trifle, jellies and cakes at the other. Cara and Liberty nudged one another when they saw the bottles of sparkling wine lined up, though Liberty was quick to point out that there didn’t seem to be enough of them for a proper party.
At the front near the stage were a series of displays and large graphic posters pinned up to illustrate maps of the area and the results of the geophysics that had already been done. Ellie spied several of the people she’d seen on the bus earlier though all looked as if they’d been spruced up for the occasion. She couldn’t see Charlie and Henry from the university yet, though several of their friends were being just as loud as they had been on the coach. But, it was all quite exciting. There was a buzz in the air, lots of animated chatter as people met up again to compare notes on their new living arrangements and talk of what was to come.
Ellie saw Jess blush pink a moment later and when she followed her gaze, she soon saw the reason. Charlie and his friend Henry had arrived in a fragrant cloud of after-shave, looking rather smarter than they had earlier in freshly pressed shirts and chinos.
‘Ooh, he’s scrubbed up nicely, don’t you think, Jess?’ asked Liberty, who had seen Jess’s blushing cheeks.
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, Liberty,’ said Jess, taking a seat and rummaging in her bag in an effort to compose herself.
‘Come on, Jess, he’s gorgeous! You can’t kid me, I know you like Charlie Harden.’
‘I don’t know him, so I couldn’t possibly say, though, I must admit, he does look quite nice.’
Liberty rolled her eyes at Cara who grinned back. ‘Jess has got a cru-ush,’ she whispered back in the singsong way of a playground chant.
‘That’s enough, you two,’ said Ellie.
‘Shush, look, something’s happening,’ said Martha, fetching out her notebook and pen.
The door leading to the kitchen opened with a flourish and Melanie Button swept through with all the air of a celebrated opera singer. She had been transformed. Her waxed jacket, men’s trousers and baggy jumper had been replaced with a long bohemian-style black dress. A lime green cardigan in jersey was draped around her shoulders and an amber necklace with a stone as large as a hen’s egg nestled in her ample cleavage. Her hair had been tamed and twisted into a French pleat, which she patted every now and then as if to make sure it was still there. Just as some of the audience were wondering whom she could possibly be, her voice sounded loud and clear over the speaker system.
‘Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3,’ she bellowed, before blowing into the microphone to produce such a whistle that the audience immediately clapped their hands over their ears.
With the volume adjusted, she started again. ‘Good evening, ladies and gentleman – welcome to Project Darcy, which, as you are all aware, is the codename for this special event, the first ever archaeological survey of Jane Austen’s childhood home, Steventon. Aren’t we a very privileged group? I must say you are all to be congratulated for keeping the secret thus far. There has not been one word leaked to the press and a good job, too, or we should be inundated with the likes of the paparazzi and I know Professor Whitely and Mr MacGourtey have quite enough to contend with on that score, without the rest of us having to be snapped at with long lenses the whole day long.’
Jess and Ellie exchanged a smirk. However pleased they were to be involved, they were quite sure the paparazzi would not be interested in either of them or Melanie Button.
‘I hope you have all settled in well at your various lodgings and that you are ready to get digging!’ Melanie shimmied like a disco diva and winked at her audience, which had Liberty snorting with undisguised laughter. ‘And without further ado,’ Melanie announced, with a flourish of her arm in the direction of the kitchen door, the gentlemen we’ve all been waiting for – Professor Greg Whitely and Mr Will MacGourtey!’
The audience burst into resounding applause as the two men walked in, beaming at their hostess.
‘Why does she keep calling him a professor?’ whispered Ellie in Jess’s ear. ‘If he’s a professor, then I’m a Dame of the British Empire.’
Jess giggled. ‘I expect some university has given him an honorary award.’
‘Typical! I doubt he could ‘dig up’ two qualifications in anything much except curling pubescent girls around his little finger along with the art of leather trouser adjustment. Have you ever seen such tight trousers?’
Greg Whitely had clearly styled himself on a well-known film star. He’d gone for what Ellie could only describe as the ‘pirate look’ with a scarlet bandanna tied around his black curls, a waistcoat over a seersucker shirt with voluminous sleeves and those tight leather trousers tucked into boots.
‘All he needs is a patch over one eye and his look will be complete,’ she whispered.
‘Well, he’s very good at his job,’ said Jess generously.
‘You are always so kind and soft-hearted about people, Jess. But, even you must admit, he does look as if he really fancies himself. Will MacGourtey looks like a nice man, and he dresses really well. I love blue jeans with a white shirt.’
‘Yes, I can see why Martha approves of him. He looks kind and intelligent, too.’
Will MacGourtey spoke first. ‘I expect you’re all waiting to hear about the results of our findings so far, but I thought it might be useful to fill you in with a little of the history that we know about. Jane Austen was born in the rectory in 1775 at Steventon and it was to be her home for the next 25 years. Her father was the rector at St. Nicholas church at the top of the hill and it was in this small village where she drafted her first three novels, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey. Today, the site of the rectory is the corner of a field marked only by an iron pump, which stood in the Austen’s courtyard. Further up the slope, behind the pump, are traces of terracing where a short walk across the top of the Austen’s garden was formed. From the eastern end of this terrace a path called the Church Walk led through wood and meadow to the church. In the surrounding fields George Austen farmed the land. As you will see on the plan of the Glebe land at Steventon in 1821, the rectory lies nearest the road junction and was bordered by property belonging to his son Edward. This plan shows the layout of the rectory and the yard where it’s thought the iron pump was positioned. A sweeping gravel drive bears out the descriptions left to us by descendants and we are told that the house had two projecting wings at the back, improvements possibly made by Mr Austen himself. Our initial findings indicate that we have a very good idea where to start with regard to the foundations, and if you would all like to follow me and gather around the exhibition boards, I can further explain.’
There was a scraping of chairs and a burst of chatter as the audience got up as one. The display was thoughtfully presented so even the least knowledgeable could grasp the implications of the job they had to do. Firstly, they would be trying to establish exactly where the house had stood, and though the geophysics were going to be helpful, it would really be a matter of testing the ground in the hope of finding the rectory. After Will MacGourtey’s talk, Greg Whitely spoke next on how the television programme was going to be made. Liberty was the first to put up her hand to ask a question.
‘Will there be any opportunities for presenting alongside you? It’s just that I’m studying drama and I’d love to be of any help that I can.’
Greg smiled. ‘Your name, young lady?’
‘Liberty … Liberty Lovell, Mr Whitely.’
‘Lovelly by name and lovelly by nature, too, I don’t doubt,’ he said, grinning at the audience and pausing for the anticipated chuckle. ‘Well, Liberty, there are always opportunities for promising students, and you will all be filmed, of course, as we go along. It may be that we want to interview people selectively, and a training in drama will, no doubt, be an advantage. However, what we’re after is realism. The country will be transfixed at the idea of a group of non-experts coming together in secret, looking for the rectory that inspired the creation of the character of Mr Darcy and we are looking for personalities who will fuel the public’s imagination. Liberty, I’ve a feeling you may well be a star in the making. And by the way, everyone, do call me Greg – I’m hoping we’ll all get to know one another really well!’
There was an enthusiastic ripple of applause from the ladies in the audience. Liberty blushed red, her eyes shining with delight at the impression she’d made, which was exactly what she’d hoped.
Melanie Button bustled her way to the front once more to announce it was time for the party to start, declaring that she hoped they would meet promptly at nine o’clock sharp the next morning at the site. Corks popped, beer bottles were opened and a general sense of jubilation ensued as paper plates were filled, drinks were swigged, and people found someone to talk to.
Ellie was fascinated. She always loved people watching and she noticed how most stuck to the groups they had come with, though venturing nods and smiles at others they recognised from the coach.
‘Well, that didn’t take long, Liberty,’ said Martha.
‘Time and tide wait for no man,’ answered Liberty, tucking into a ham sandwich and taking a large slug of wine. ‘I am determined to make use of every opportunity. If I can get a presenting job out of this, I shall be made. And having a friend in Greg Whitely has got to be an advantage.’
‘Just make sure he doesn’t take advantage of you, that’s all,’ Martha swiftly returned, abstaining from the glass of sparkling wine that was being offered on a tray.
‘I know how to handle him,’ Liberty muttered.
‘You’ve had enough practice, that’s for sure,’ Martha retorted, a little spitefully.
‘Jess, have you tried the spinach and ricotta quiche? I know it’s your favourite,’ said Ellie, steering her friend over to the trestles groaning with food. She knew Jess hated it when her friends squabbled and Liberty and Martha were experts at it.
They reached the table just at the same time as Charlie Harden and his friend Henry. Ellie saw Jess hang back, but Charlie had caught Ellie’s eye and was smiling.
‘Hi, I’m Charlie,’ he said.
Ellie shook the hand he held out to her, slightly bemused by his formal manners. ‘Hi, I’m Ellie and this is my good friend Jess.’
‘I’m really pleased to meet you,’ said Charlie, taking Jess’s hand and shaking it for what seemed, to Ellie, an unnecessary amount of time. ‘This is my friend, Henry.’
He turned to introduce him, but Henry had disappeared. Charlie looked a little embarrassed and began talking rather quickly as if to cover up for the fact that he knew his friend must appear really rude.
‘Where are you from? I remember seeing you on the coach. Did you have to travel far?’
‘No, we’re from Winchester Uni, so we’re not far away,’ said Jess. ‘How did you get involved in the project? I heard you say you were from Oxford.’
‘Yes, we’re studying there, but I’m actually from around here. My family live not far away at Deane and my mother told me about it. I’d invited Henry to stay with me for the summer, and he’s the one really interested in archaeology. It seemed like it might be fun. How about you?’
‘I love Jane Austen’s books, and my friend Ellie, here, persuaded my other friends to join in. It will be our last summer together and I’m so excited about what we might find.’
‘Do you really think there will be an exciting discovery?’ asked Charlie. ‘To be honest, I don’t know much about Jane Austen … I haven’t actually read any of her books, though I’d like to.’
‘Jess will be only too pleased to tell you everything you need to know about Jane Austen’s novels,’ said Ellie. ‘She would never say so, but she’s a real expert.’
Jess’s face was pink as she shot a warning glance at her friend. ‘I’ve read them a few times. I’m just a bit obsessed, that’s all.’
‘And modest with it, by the sounds of things. I was sincere about wanting to know more. Which book would you start reading, if you were me?’ said Charlie.
‘Oh, Pride and Prejudice, without a doubt. It’s by far her funniest and most sparkling of all her novels. I must admit it’s my favourite and the one I turn to if I ever need cheering up,’ Jess answered.
‘Pride and Prejudice, it is, then. I shall rely on you for explaining to me what is going on. Literature was never my strong point.’
Jess grinned. She couldn’t help herself. ‘It would be my pleasure.’
Just as the conversation was really getting going between them, Ellie saw Henry out of the corner of her eye. He was on the other side of the room waving wildly at Charlie, trying to get his attention. Charlie excused himself as soon as it was polite to do so, and the girls were left alone.
‘Don’t you say anything, Ellie Bentley … not one word.’
‘But, he is rather lovely, and he clearly thinks you are, too. I can just picture you both, reading together.’
Jess tapped her friend, playfully, on the arm. ‘You are determined to tease me, aren’t you? He was just being polite. I don’t expect he’s really interested in Pride and Prejudice or me, for one minute. Come on, let’s find the others.’
As they made their way back through the throng, Ellie nudged Jess when she spotted Liberty and Cara standing right next to Greg Whitely with most of the other females present. He was holding court, making them all laugh with jokes that made Ellie wince, and telling stories about his adventures in television. Liberty was talking now. Ellie recognised the unmistakable stature, Liberty’s head bowed, but her eyes meeting Greg’s, looking up at him from under her lashes.
‘If anyone could write a thesis on the art of flirtation, it’s our Liberty,’ she said, directing Jess to where Liberty had now caught hold of Greg’s hand and was peering at it intently.
‘What’s she doing now?’ asked Jess.
‘Telling his fortune, it’s one of her favourite techniques. She gets to hold their hands and look into their eyes, whilst hopefully appearing to be perfectly innocent of any ulterior motive. Most guys fall for it, and by the looks of him, Greg Whitely is completely taken in.’
‘What do you think we should do?’ whispered Jess. She knew Liberty was a handful and needed looking after.
‘I don’t think there’s much we can do right now, other than marching in and taking her off, which would surely cause embarrassment. I’ll have a word with her later … at least Cara is there, and she’s a little more sensible.’
‘Oh dear,’ Jess sighed, ‘I’ve left my bag over at the food table. I put it down when I was wrestling with my conscience over whether to have both the ham sandwiches and the prawn tartlets.’
I’ll get it,’ Ellie offered. ‘You have a word with Martha – she looks miserable, as if she’s lost a pound and found a penny. I notice she’s all alone as usual.’
‘Martha never finds it easy making new friends,’ said Jess, ‘I’ll go and see if we can get her chatting to someone who’s interested in archaeology. That should help things along.’
Ellie made her way back to the trestle tables and noticed Charlie and Henry standing right next to the one where Jess had left her bag. Fortunately, they were deep in conversation. If she was careful, she could nudge round, pick up Jess’s bag, which lay just to the right of Charlie’s elbow, and they might not notice her.
‘I don’t understand you, Henry,’ she heard Charlie say, ‘there are some really fabulous girls here. All it takes is for you to smile a little and start a conversation.’
‘Why would I want to do that?’ answered Henry. ‘I haven’t seen anyone out of the ordinary, you’ve been chatting up the only good-looking girl here.’
‘Oh, come on, Henry, that’s just not true. Her friend Ellie is gorgeous! Though, I have to say, Jess has to be the most beautiful looking girl I’ve ever seen.’
‘I don’t remember her friend, she can’t be that amazing.’
‘They were here just a moment ago. She has long dark hair.’
‘Oh, I know who you mean, the plain hippyish one with dull brown hair. Charlie, I’m not that desperate, for goodness sake.’
Ellie had heard every word, and when they turned round in the next second to see if they could spot the girls, there was nowhere she could go. Charlie looked the most embarrassed when he saw her, and Henry glared at her as if she were a bad smell under his nose. His lip curled with distaste and he moved away at speed.
‘I’ve just come for Jess’s bag,’ Ellie said, pointing to where it lay.
Charlie was there before she could pick it up. He put it into her hands and seemed reluctant to let it go. She met his eyes.
‘It’s really good to meet you both,’ he said, colour flaring in his cheeks. ‘It’s always fun to make new friends.’
Ellie recognised the sincerity behind those blue eyes, which she felt studying her face. ‘And, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Charlie.’
He looked as if he might say something more, but Ellie turned before he could speak, clutching Jess’s bag as if her life depended on it.
It was dark by the time the taxi turned in at Ashe Rectory. The chatter all the way home had been about the day’s events and the day to come. Liberty was delighted with the way that Greg had responded, and Jess was already privately thinking that Charlie seemed like a young man she’d like to know better. Cara had been in awe of the whole proceedings and had watched Liberty in action with admiration. Martha was disappointed that she hadn’t got to speak to Will MacGourtey but knew that the chances to do so would be increased on the following day. Ellie, quite simply, felt exhausted. She was pleased that Jess had found someone who seemed as sweet as she, but she’d been a bit disturbed by the fact that the person who seemed to be his closest friend was clearly idiotic, and that was putting it politely.
She looked out of the window watching the car headlamps lighting up the narrow lanes. Cow parsley, frothing white in the hedgerows, loomed and tapped on the car windows, and the branches of summer trees arched over them like fan vaulting in a cathedral. Summer in all her lush greenery flashed past in a blink of the eye. Ellie felt her eyes closing, the rhythm of the car lulling her to sleep, and it was only when she felt the car stop that Ellie looked out once more. She shivered in her thin top. And it wasn’t only her tiredness and the lack of sunshine that made her feel quite so cold. The scene she saw outside could not be explained. There was a picture from a Christmas card in front of her – snow covered the ground, lit up from the moon above and from the candlelight in the windows, which threw bars of gold against the blue snow shadowed by tall trees. Powdering every surface, snow crystals were piled in pillows up to the steps and weighed down lacy boughs on trees, bending them to the smooth white blankets on the ground. The house was alight, the gardens and surrounding fields, dark, icy and mysterious. Feathery showers whirled to the earth, and as Ellie peered through the swirling snow she glimpsed moving figures at the windows. Like enchanted shadows at first, the spectres became alive, vital with life, real. It looked like a party, the rooms were full, and the strains of music, a piano and a harp, could be heard.
Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten