When they arrived back at the rectory, Ellie whipped Liberty out of the car as quickly as she could so that Jess might have a chance to say goodnight to Charlie on her own. She heard her coming upstairs half an hour later but pretended to be asleep as Ellie was sure Jess wouldn’t really appreciate being cross-examined there and then. That could wait for another day.
Liberty was not very well in the night, and predictably, in the morning said she couldn’t possibly get up and go to the dig. Everyone agreed that it would probably be best if she stayed in bed to sleep it off and when Mrs Hill was told a little white lie that Liberty had eaten something that hadn’t agreed with her, she seemed unperturbed, saying she would keep an eye on her though she was due to go out later to visit one of her sisters at Dummer, a nearby village. Ellie volunteered to come back in the afternoon to check on her and so they all left for Steventon, choosing to walk as it was yet another beautiful day.
Jess was in two states of mind. ‘I don’t know what Charlie must have thought of us all last night,’ she confided to Ellie as they walked along. Even though it was still early, the sun was beating through the canopy of trees that arched over their heads. It was going to be another hot day.
‘I don’t think he was shocked at all,’ Ellie answered. ‘I’m sure he’s seen a few people worse for wear in his time, though she was spectacularly loud. And who was that guy? Didn’t she see his wedding ring?’
‘You know Liberty, it’s not that she would purposely do such a thing, she just doesn’t think. I wonder why she craves such attention; though I know her home life is a bit chaotic. Her father’s never been one for being at home. He’s always away on business and, even when he is there, he doesn’t seem very interested in spending time with her. Perhaps if he took a little more notice, she wouldn’t be so desperate for any man’s attention. I must admit, I feel sorry for her.’
‘I do. Her mother doesn’t seem much better. Liberty told me she has an allowance on top of her student loan and her mother encourages her to spend it. It seems a bit irresponsible to support such reckless spending, especially as Liberty told me she has an overdraft as well.’
‘Oh, I didn’t realise it was as bad as that; it’s a cry for help, I think. I’m not sure what we can do to help, but I’ll try to keep an eye on her.’
‘We’ll just have to make sure she doesn’t get into any more trouble that could easily be avoided. Anyway, the upside of last night is that you got a drive home in Charlie’s very smart car,’ said Ellie, grinning at her friend. ‘And, I couldn’t help noticing that it seemed to take you a little while to say goodnight to him.’
‘Ellie, he is gorgeous. I think he’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. His sister seems very friendly too.’
‘Does she?’ Ellie didn’t know quite what to say. That wasn’t the impression she’d got, but then Jess always saw something good to say about everybody.
‘I was talking to her just before you alerted me to Liberty’s escapade. She’s younger than Charlie, but at Oxford like him. I got the impression she hangs around with her brother and Henry quite a lot. It’s really nice that they’re so close. They must have a good family background.’
‘I’m sure they have,’ answered Ellie, ‘and it’s very clear she likes Henry. Perhaps that’s why she was glaring at anyone who looked at them together. Not that I’d ever be interested in him, but I suppose some people might be attracted to a hateful, rich boy.’
Jess laughed. ‘I think you’ll like Zara when you get to know her, and really, Henry can’t be that bad if he’s a friend of Charlie’s. He is such a lovely person; I don’t believe he’d make friends with anyone awful.’
‘You are a truly wonderful person. I hope Charlie is good enough to deserve you. Are you excited at the thought of seeing him again?’
‘I must admit I am.’
Ellie took her friend’s arm. ‘I have such a good feeling about you two. And I’m so excited to witness the pair of you falling in love!’
‘And, how about you, Ellie? Have you met your handsome Mr Darcy again?’
‘I have, Jess, though I am sure you’ll not believe it when I tell you. I cannot believe it myself!’
‘It’s Tom, isn’t it – Tom Lefroy?’
‘How could you possibly know that?’
‘Oh, Ellie, I’ve suspected it from your very first encounter. You are witnessing Jane and Tom falling in love, I think.’
‘I cannot understand how or why this is happening to me. I’m visiting the past, travelling through time, if you like, and it’s so real when I’m there that nothing else exists. But, I sincerely wish it were all happening to you, and not me … none of it makes any sense.’
‘I’m sure there is a reason, Ellie, and despite what you think, I do not envy you. I know a little about Jane Austen’s life, and I do not think I am strong enough, emotionally or physically, to experience anyone else’s time on earth. I’m having enough trouble with my own.’
‘That’s true; Jess, and I know from experience that these ‘happenings’ rarely last long. Even so, they are exhausting. I just hope it will all resolve itself in the end.’
‘Don’t worry, Ellie, I have a feeling that everything will become clear before long, and in the meantime, I shall be here to hold your hand all the way.’
Jess and Charlie instantly made a beeline for the other. Charlie had contrived to get his computer placed a desk nearer to Jess in the operations tent, and whenever they had a spare moment, one or other of them would sidle over for a chat, often on the pretext of having found some nugget of treasure that had just been brought in.
Martha settled to her careful digging. Using a trowel, the painstaking work was in progress. To her great excitement several shards of china were showing up, encrusted with dark soil. When she carefully removed the dirt, she could make out a very distinctive design. Still in use today, the blue and white willow pattern was easily recognisable. Several pieces looked as if they might fit together to form part of a large platter. Everyone was thrilled for her, and the hunt for more treasures continued in earnest. Martha carefully bagged up her find to take it over to Cara and the others who were waiting to inspect anything that might be carefully washed and sorted. Passing Ellie, who was sketching the landscape, she stopped to show her what she’d found.
Ellie smiled in recognition at the blue and white willow pattern shards of porcelain, and when she reached out to inspect the pieces, taking one or two carefully from the bag, she almost felt herself being pulled back again into the past. It was like looking down a long telescope at images that flickered like those on a silent cinema screen. She could see the dining parlour of the old rectory with every shelf, and every windowsill decorated with holly, ivy and paper streamers cut from gold paper. Sprays of holly hung from every picture, and even the clock had its own crown. Festoons of fir were strung across the mantel and twisted in garlands and a kissing bunch dangled from the ceiling with mistletoe and ribbon. The maidservants were lighting candles, fires roared in the grates and the table groaned with such delights as a roasted turkey resting on a willow platter in the middle of the table, rabbits with sorrel sauce, mince pies, a side of ham, gooseberry tart and fruit jellies. Nanny Littleworth and Rebecca were bringing in hot food from the oven, tureens of soup, platters of roast beef, dishes of snowy potatoes and sauceboats of rich gravy. The figures were shadowy, but there were Mr and Mrs Austen at either end of the gleaming table, which was set out for a banquet, on blue and white china. Jane in white muslin with a pale blue sash had her hair piled high, showing small pale ears like pink shells, and a ribbon, of the same cornflower hue as her sash, wreathed through her chestnut curls. Brothers Henry, Frank and Charles, were laughing at some shared joke, all looking very handsome. Ellie wished she could see more, but the pictures were already fading. As she placed the precious bag of shards back into Martha’s hands she felt grateful for this extra glimpse of life at Steventon.
‘Are you okay?’ asked Martha, looking at her with a puzzled expression. ‘You have a really faraway look on your face.’
‘Yes, I’m just lost in time, I suppose,’ she answered truthfully, and with a secret smile on her face she picked up her paintbrush. ‘Don’t mind me, Martha; it’s just that sometimes I get totally absorbed. I’m having a lovely time imagining the past and thinking about how it might have looked then.’
‘It’s a dangerous thing, the imagination,’ said Martha in her typically dry fashion before she walked off clutching her bag of treasure.
The morning passed off well though nothing more remarkable than some extra pieces of pottery were found in the excavation areas. By mid-afternoon, Ellie had finished her painting and both Will MacGourtey and Greg Whitely had been over to inspect and praise it. There was no sign of Liberty so she was obviously still feeling poorly. After checking with Jess who looked happy enough labelling a box full of pottery pieces with Charlie by her side, she set off for the rectory. The sun had continued to blaze down all morning and it was quite delicious to walk in the cool shade under trees. By the time she got to Ashe, the heat was almost unbearable. Entering the house, it was very quiet and there was such a sense of stillness about the place; Ellie didn’t think there could be anyone at home. Mrs Hill had clearly been there earlier; the fragrances of beeswax on polished wood and lavender in the bowls of pot-pourri smelt fresh and new. Perhaps Liberty was still asleep, she thought, and made her way up the staircase to Liberty’s room. She knocked on her door but there was no answer, and it was only when she heard a noise downstairs that she went to investigate.
Liberty appeared then, dressed in a bikini with a towel slung over her shoulder, and a drink in her hand. ‘OMG!’ she shouted, completely taken by surprise. ‘Ellie, you’ve totally freaked me out! Why didn’t you call me to say you were coming back?’
‘I didn’t want to disturb you in case you were still asleep,’ said Ellie. ‘Are you feeling better now?’
Liberty raised her glass, full of pink liquid and tinkling with ice. ‘I’m fine, nothing that a French Martini won’t sort out, hair of the dog and all that!’
‘I’m not sure that’s a very good idea, Liberty. Well, I just came to check on you, make sure you weren’t dying.’
Liberty smiled before draining her glass. ‘Thanks, Ellie, you are lovely. I’m just taking it easy by the swimming pool. It’s so hot and I couldn’t bear the thought of spending all day at the dig.’
Ellie knew Liberty could be thoughtless but this behaviour exceeded everything that had ever gone before. She could easily have phoned one of them to let them know she was up and fine. They would be bound to be worried about her, but she supposed such a thought would never enter Liberty’s head.
‘I won’t keep you from your swimming,’ Ellie said, thinking it was not worth saying anything else. ‘I’m just going to change into something cooler and I’ll head back. See you later.’
Liberty turned, tossing her hair over her shoulders and waving one hand in the air as she made her way back to the kitchen, no doubt with the idea of replenishing her glass.
Back at the dig, Ellie found Jess. She knew she would be worrying about Liberty, even if it were clear that Liberty suffered no qualms on that score.
‘How was Liberty?’ Jess smiled when she saw Ellie and put down her pen, glad to have an excuse to stop labelling for a minute.
‘Right as rain, and knocking back vodka cocktails by the swimming pool,’ said Ellie, unable to disguise her feelings. ‘I almost wished I hadn’t bothered, but at least you can stop worrying about her. She is still alive.’
‘Thank you for checking up on her for me,’ said Jess. ‘I couldn’t rest after the state she was in last night.’
‘Well, I don’t suppose for one minute that Liberty has been worrying about how her behaviour might have impacted on us. You must stop taking the responsibility of her upon your shoulders, Jess. She’s old enough to look after herself.’
‘I know, but I do feel responsible. It was me who suggested she come on the trip, after all.’
‘Just don’t go losing any sleep and worrying too much. I’ll keep an eye on her, she’ll be fine.’
Charlie joined them just then, sauntering over with that easy style he had. Ellie almost felt a twinge of envy. She wished someone would look at her like Charlie was looking at Jess. He was very boyish, and his blue eyes twinkled with obvious pleasure at the sight of her.
‘I’ve come to ask a special favour. My mother runs this annual charity ball at home, and she’s asked me to pass on an invitation. I’m sorry it’s such short notice, but I’d love it if you’d like to come … all of you, of course. Henry and my sister will be there, and I’m asking the other volunteers too.’
Jess looked at her friend with pleading eyes.
‘When is it?’ Ellie asked.
‘A week today … please say yes, it would make my day if you could come.’
‘Yes, we’d love to,’ Jess said, before Ellie had a chance to speak. And she didn’t need to, because it seemed that Jess and Charlie were oblivious to everything around them.
It was Ellie’s idea that they should look into the church before they went home. St. Nicholas church, a simple building built of grey stone and flint, guarded by giant yew trees, felt homely and cared for inside. There were hassocks lovingly stitched in needlepoint, embroidered pennants, brass candelabra and vases of flowers on every surface, some cultivated and some wild, which filled the interior with the scent of summer roses and lilies. Upon a display table, they found leaflets and postcards about the church and some information on Jane Austen. The church was early English, built sometime at the beginning of the 13th century.
‘We have to imagine the church without the spire, said Jess, reading from a leaflet, ‘if we are to ‘see’ it as Jane did … that wasn’t added until the middle of the 19th century, apparently. There’s a bronze memorial in the nave, which commemorates her life.’
The simple plaque was soon found. Erected by Jane’s great grandniece, Emma Austen-Leigh, in 1936, the simple tablet confirmed the dates of birth and death of the famous author and the fact that she’d worshipped in the church. Below it, someone had thoughtfully arranged a brass vase of tea roses with peach-pink hearts and fading petals of an old-fashioned variety, their yellow stamens shedding on the linen sampler.
‘It’s too cold in here for me,’ said Cara. ‘It’s all very lovely, but churches give me the creeps, I’m afraid, all those dead people under our feet. You can almost feel them, somehow, and I’m not sure I want to stick around. I’ll see you all back at the car. Are you coming, Martha?’
They wandered off outside, and Martha soon followed saying she wanted to investigate the gravestones to see if she could find any of the Steventon dignitaries mentioned in one of the pamphlets she’d picked up.
Ellie and Jess sat on one of the oak pews near the front.
‘Just think, Jane Austen might have sat right here in this very seat,’ said Jess. ‘In any case, we know she worshipped here and that her father stood right there to deliver his sermons.’
Ellie shivered. She suddenly felt terribly cold. The stone walls of the church seemed to prevent any of the sun’s warmth from penetrating and her thin cardigan felt completely inadequate. Looking up to the window set high above her head, she noticed that grey clouds were passing overhead, the sky a sheet of dark steel. The interior was plunged into darkness for a moment and she knew time was shifting again. She tried calling out to Jess, but her friend seemed oblivious, trapped in another dimension. Reality was blurring, everything around her shimmered and quivered so that she glimpsed images from both the present and the past. Ellie felt she was slipping once more into another world and there was nothing she could do to prevent it. She was drifting outside towards the churchyard, and the real world seemed a million miles away. The leaves on the trees above were turning, she noticed, from summer greens to autumn yellows, and heaps of them lay in drifts of amber and lemon, cinnamon and tangerine. Long skirts replaced her jeans, which slowed her progress over the snow-covered grass. An icy feather flicked her nose as it fell to the ground, and was swiftly followed by another. As if a great goose were being plucked in the skies above, the feathers grew thicker and faster, as big as two pound pieces. Ellie felt grateful for the warm layers she wore as the snow whirled from the heavens, and pulling up the scarlet hood on her long cape, she tucked her hands inside to keep them warm. And then she was aware of a voice calling to her. It was difficult to hear at first, and she couldn’t tell from which direction it came so she had to close her eyes to focus all her attention. When she opened them again, she was standing in a real-life snowglobe, and the voice was more insistent. She turned her head to see Anne Lefroy’s Irish hunter, but it wasn’t Madame who was exercising him that morning. Tom sat astride the beautiful horse, reins in hand and then he called her name again.
Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten
Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten