‘I am so hot!’ Liberty announced, ‘I’ll never be able to sleep, though it shan’t only be this sweltering weather that will keep me awake. My dreams will be all about handsome Greg tonight.’
‘Did you really like him?’ asked Martha, who clearly could not see the attraction. ‘He was a bit oily, if you want my opinion.’
‘Well, I don’t want it,’ Liberty snapped, fanning herself with the paper they’d been given on the programme for the next day.
Ellie, whilst privately agreeing with Martha, was distracted from the view outside for a moment, but turned back to witness the wintry scene melting before her eyes. Like a dream on waking; the figures vanished into thin air, the trees and gardens were lush with greenery and blooms under a pale moon. The house sat in darkness, in midnight blue, with only the sprinkling of stars studding the black dome of a clear night sky.
‘Are you okay?’ asked Jess. She, of all people, was most attuned to Ellie’s sensitivity to such experiences.
Ellie nodded. ‘Yes, I’m fine, a little overwrought, I think. It feels as if it’s been a long day.’
The girls scrambled from the taxi and up the steps into the house. Mrs Hill had been as good as her word, leaving them some supper on a tray. Only Liberty and Cara were hungry, the others contented themselves with filling the chocolate pot that had been left for them with hot milk. Taking their mugs up to bed with them, Ellie and Jess left Cara and Liberty still chatting downstairs. Martha had already gone up ahead, saying she must go, as she would, no doubt, have to be the alarm clock for them all in the morning.
Ellie undressed and put on her pyjamas, deciding that one last chat with Jess before they went to sleep would be a lovely idea. It all sounded quiet beyond her friend’s bedroom door so she knocked gently before cautiously opening it, but was completely unprepared for the sight she saw. The shock made her close the door again and glance behind her, in case by some mistake she’d opened the wrong door, even though she knew that was impossible. Warily, she slowly pulled the door back again. In an enormous four-poster bed in the middle of the room, hung with festoons of embroidered linen and lit by candlelight, a young man lay. He was in a deep sleep, his fair hair falling over one eye in a plume of gold, tousled and dampened into curls at his temples. Ellie recognised him at once as the mysterious figure she’d seen in the house before. He wore a crumpled shirt with a frilled collar, which was open at his neck where a pulse throbbed. His breathing was even and slow; his lips slightly parting with each exhalation, and like the chiselled cheekbones above were rosy pink from the heat of sleep and the linen and blankets partially covering him. It was a handsome face, Ellie thought. One long muscular leg poked out from under the patchwork quilt, smooth and firm like white marble, and diametrically opposite, an arm cradled his head. There was strength in the tapered fingers; and in his hands, one nestled next to his hair on the pillow, the other on the outstretched leg. He looked like a sculpture of Eros she’d once seen, and she stared, hardly able to tear her eyes away. On the bedside table she could see a pile of books, a candlestick whose candle had burned almost to nothing, and what looked to be a half-written letter. Curiosity got the better of her and creeping forward she tried to take a closer look. But before she could take another step, the body twitched. He was coming to, and rubbing his eyes. Ellie panicked, and running out of the room she shut the door with a bang, not daring to look back.
A knock at her own door a second later had Ellie trembling but when Jess bounced in and tumbled onto the large bed, Ellie was able to laugh even if she felt all her hair was standing on end.
‘Gosh, Ellie, you look as if you’ve seen a ghost. I’ve never seen you so pale!’
The last thing Ellie wanted was to frighten Jess by saying she’d seen the young man in her room, so she stuck to partial truths. ‘I did see something earlier. When we drew up in the taxi, I saw the rectory deep in snow, as if it was winter. There was candlelight at the windows, and I saw people dancing. It looked like a party – I could hear music.’
‘Wow, that’s amazing. I wish I had your talent.’
‘I’m not sure you would if you were me. It can be very unnerving. Things seem to happen when you least expect it. I don’t have any control over what and when I see it.’
‘Do you have any idea how far back you are seeing? Could you see anything of the clothes people were wearing, or get an idea of the time period they’re living in?’
‘Not really … though I did see that young man again before we left for the meeting. I’m not an expert, but his clothes looked like the ones in the portraits in your room.’
‘Ellie! How exciting – now, I really am very envious. Where did you see him? Was he any clearer this time?’
‘I saw him in the garden when I was looking out of the window. He was a little sharper, but it was such a fleeting moment, he’d gone before I got a really good look, and as we were just about to go out, I didn’t think any more about him.’
‘How I wish I could see him, too.’
Ellie looked at her friend whose expression was wistful. She’d never believe he’d just been occupying her room at the same time if she told her. ‘I wish you could, Jess. There seems such a thin veil between this world and the one I saw today. It’s just a heartbeat away. I can’t really describe what happens … it’s almost like being in a trance, I suppose.’
‘Well, next time it happens, you’ll be sure to tell me. Perhaps if I knew he was there, I could see him. I’d like to see your handsome ghost.’
‘He is good-looking, but whether he is as beautiful as young Charlie Harden, I would not like to say.’
‘Oh, Ellie! I wondered how long it would be before you brought him into the conversation again. But, I will say, he is very charming, and I like him. There, will that do?’
‘The word ‘like’ is rather insipid, I feel, but at least you’ve admitted a stirring of the heart. No, do not protest, Jess.’
‘No, I won’t. I will admit to a stirring of the heart … just a slight one.’
‘And you’ll be seeing much more of him, which can only be something to look forward to.’
‘Perhaps his friend might turn out to be more promising when we get to know him better, Ellie.’
‘That’s a nice idea, Jess, but I don’t think you should be matchmaking with the idea of him in mind for me. I happen to know he doesn’t find me very attractive. I heard him telling Charlie when I went to retrieve your bag. They didn’t see me. Henry called me a hippy, which I suppose is true, and I’m proud of it.’
‘Maybe he meant it as a compliment, Ellie.’
‘No, Jess, he indicated that he wasn’t so desperate as to find me in the remotest bit attractive. It’s fine; I don’t like him, either. Guess I’ll just have to stick to Mr Darcy’s ghost.’
Jess found this very funny. ‘I can’t imagine anything less likely, you’re such a modern kind of girl.’
‘You’re right! Though, let’s face it; most blokes we know are still living in the dark ages. I’m a hopeless case. Still, I shall be a very good godmother to your 2.3 children, and as long as I can see you being happy in love, that will be quite enough. And now all this reminds me that if we don’t get you to bed very soon, you’ll have such black circles under your eyes that even Charlie may change his mind.’
‘Change his mind about what?’
‘About the fact that perhaps you are the most beautiful girl he has ever set eyes on.’
‘Did he really say that?’
Ellie nodded. ‘Jess Harden, it has quite a nice ring to it, don’t you think?’
Jess picked up the pillow from behind her golden head and threw it before running off into the next room, only reappearing seconds later to shout goodnight. She was resigned. Ellie had always teased her, and nothing was going to change that.
The next morning dawned bright and sunny without a cloud in the sky, and felt even warmer than usual for the middle of May. Mrs Hill prepared a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs for them all before they set off in the car. According to the instructions they’d been given the night before, the kind vicar at St. Nicholas church had said anyone who needed to could use the church car park. It was quite a walk back down the hill but they took a short cut through the fields along what they imagined must have been the same route that the Austen family had used themselves, two hundred years ago. They could see people gathering at the bottom, and halfway up the field, a marquee had been erected where they could see Melanie Button, Greg Whitely and Will MacGourtey deep in conversation. There were a couple of cameramen training their huge cameras on the landscape every now and again. Several other people who were clearly technicians of one sort or other milled about, running up and down to the vans parked in the lane with miles of cable and sound equipment.
Liberty wasted no time in alerting Greg to the fact that she’d arrived, waving enthusiastically and calling out his name, and Martha wasted no time in telling her off. However, Greg appeared quite pleased to have been distracted from the attentions of Melanie Button, who was standing so close to him that she was completely invading his personal space, and excusing himself, he strolled over to join the girls.
‘Good morning, ladies! How are we today?’
‘We’re fantastic, Greg, and ready for anything,’ said Liberty, turning on her big beam smile and displaying a set of perfect, white teeth.
‘I’m glad to hear that, Miss Lovelly,’ said Greg, staring into her eyes, ‘because I’ve got a special job for you.’
Liberty couldn’t help showing her excitement and a whoop of sheer joy escaped before she could stop herself.
‘I was wondering if you’d like to shadow me, be my assistant for the day?’ said Greg.
Martha groaned audibly, but Greg appeared not to notice. Liberty jumped up and down with pure excitement.
‘Would I? You bet!’
‘Then, come with me to the operations centre, and we’ll discuss what’s required of your new role.’
Liberty turned to make a face at the others, her eyes wide and knowing, a huge grin spreading over her face. Cara looked disappointed. She’d clearly hoped she would be part of Greg’s team.
As they watched Liberty waltz away, Ellie spoke up. ‘Do you think she’ll be all right? Why do I feel I’ve just fed her to the lions?’
‘I’m sure she’ll be fine,’ answered Jess. ‘And you know Liberty, she won’t be happy until she’s got a starring role. I’m pleased for her if this turns out to be the opportunity she wants.’
‘She may get more than she bargains for,’ said Martha, ‘and I’ll certainly be there to say, I told you so. But, Liberty never listens, least of all to me.’
‘Let’s try to keep an eye on her,’ said Ellie. ‘In any case, it’s a bit unfair of us to assume Greg Whitely hasn’t her best interests at heart.’
‘Precisely,’ Jess agreed, ‘I think it’s really kind of him to give her a break. For Liberty, this is a dream come true.’
‘Are we ready now?’ Martha asked. ‘It looks as if everyone is waiting for us.’
Melanie Button, Greg Whitely, Will MacGourtey and the film crew were soon in full flow. The cameramen and the director took up their places at the corner of the field by the gate whilst Melanie and Greg explained that they wanted the volunteer team to walk in, as if they had just arrived, so that the film crew could capture the moment.
‘We want this to look as natural as possible so don’t be put off by all the equipment. Just walk through the gate, as you would normally do, chatting to your friends. And whatever you do, don’t look at the camera.’
Liberty, who had been standing at Greg’s side with a clipboard to hand, passed it back to him and rushed to join Jess and Ellie, Martha and Cara. ‘I’m not missing out on this,’ she said. ‘Anyway, Greg said it would be quite all right if I wanted to be in the filming.’
‘It’s all so exciting, I do envy you, Liberty,’ said Cara, ‘but at least we all get a chance at being on television … my mum will be so proud.’
‘My mother won’t believe it,’ said Martha, ‘it will be a dream come true for her. She’s spent her entire life trying to get me in front of a camera, but I’d rather be anywhere else. I may not tell her; she will just not stop going on about this being the start of my acting career if she gets wind of it.’
A couple of rehearsals had the entire team in fits of laughter. The director encouraged them, saying he wanted them all to look happy to be there.
‘Please remember not to look into the lens of the camera,’ he said, looking at Liberty, and finishing with, ‘and most particularly, please do not make any gestures like winking.’
Cara nudged Liberty and they both laughed. ‘I’m sorry,’ shouted Liberty, ‘I just couldn’t help myself, the whole experience brings out the actress in me.’
‘Right, from the top, ladies and gentleman,’ said the director, ‘and please, Miss Lovell, look at your friend instead.’
‘It’s actually more difficult than it looks,’ whispered Jess to Ellie. ‘I suppose it’s because those cameras are huge and you’re so aware of those massive lenses trained on you.’
‘Exactly, I’ve never thought about it before but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t cope with being a celebrity,’ answered Ellie.
Once the initial filming was over, the activities of the day were able to start. Melanie Button introduced the archaeological experts who’d be in charge of the dig and they took over, explaining how they had a good idea where some of the main features of walls and foundations might be, and had been able to mark out excavation units where they’d be working. The team of volunteers were split into groups, those who would be digging, those who would be involved with note-taking and recording of artefacts, as well as people who would be helping with washing, labelling and recording into a computer database. Martha wanted to be right in the dig itself, Cara thought she’d be best washing or dry brushing found objects, and Ellie and Jess opted for helping to label and record everything. When Will MacGourtey spotted Ellie’s painting equipment, he suggested she might like to make some paintings, a record of the progress made.
‘I’d like you to come and look at the drawings we have of Steventon Rectory that were made by descendants of the family. Sadly, they don’t quite correlate, but perhaps when we’ve started digging and can make out the basic layout, we might have more of an idea. If you think you could work from what we’ve got, that would be so helpful. We could do with one or two sketches and paintings of the landscape as it is now, before we’ve done too much.’
‘I’d love to be useful,’ said Ellie, setting up the little stool she always kept with her for painting en plein air, ‘I’ll start straight away.’
‘Thank you, Ellie, your input will be invaluable for making the whole project come alive,’ said Will. He smiled warmly and Ellie was filled with confidence.
She made a start, but the sun’s heat felt very fierce on the back of her neck, and without the floppy hat she usually wore when outside working, she felt sure she’d get burnt very easily. It was typical of her to have left something behind, but at least she’d remembered her bag with paints and paper. There was nothing for it but to go and fetch the forgotten hat. Ellie ran back up the hill, her heart thumping in her chest as she reached the top. She’d left it in the boot of the car, which she soon retrieved, and found her way to the gap in the hedgerow where they’d walked earlier. The weather was really warm, and as soon as she put on the straw hat she felt instantly cooler. Everywhere looked so beautiful, light dappled the floor with golden coins, and the smell of earth, green leaves and nature, running riot, flooded her being with happiness.
The moment she stepped through the hedges and trees that screened the fields, Ellie knew something was different – her world was changed in more ways than she could ever have imagined. Like the little girl in Alice in Wonderland, she’d grown smaller and everything around her had doubled in size. Trees were so tall she could not see the top of them and the grass that tickled her bare legs nearly came up to her knees. Ellie looked back towards the way she had come but she knew it was fruitless. There was only one way to go, and that was to follow the sound that beckoned her. It was as if she saw everything through mist, layers of white vapour that rose to reveal a reality that became sharper with every passing minute. She was no longer Ellie Bentley; that she knew. She was a child, perhaps no more than five years old, and her thoughts intruded until Ellie had none left of her own. Her world was larger, more defined, sounds and smells were fresher, brighter and vivid. More than that, she felt different. Ellie saw life through the eyes of someone else, and when she heard the boy’s voice calling her name she knew him to be her brother.
Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten