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Searching for Captain Wentworth - Chapter Nine

Searching for Captain Wentworth
A Timeslip Novel inspired by Persuasion
Chapter Nine
Time paused, and the glove floated in slow motion to the floor. I bent down to pick it up but even as I did so, I knew the spell had broken. As I raised my head, the room started to revolve at speed. I shut my eyes to stop the world from spinning and felt the warmth from a strong, flickering light upon my face, but it was so bright I knew I had to wait until it was over before attempting to look again. When at last it stopped, I found I was sitting on the very same seat in the very same room. The past had vanished, evaporated as quickly as mist warmed by the rising sun on a summer meadow. It was as if time had not altered and as the images so fresh in my head faded into nothing, I looked about me.
I knew this must be one of the spare rooms that I had not investigated, largely because it was filled mostly with oddments of furniture, books and pictures that had obviously been stored to save being sorted out. I was sitting in the middle of a mountainous muddle piled high on every side. I looked at my wristwatch and knew that the hands had hardly moved. It was only eleven o’clock. I’d been away for ages and yet, time here had stopped. The white glove lay upon the floor at my feet and it was then that I began to question its significance. I recalled that I’d been holding the glove in my hand on the very first occasion I’d stepped back into time in the gardens. Was this the key? If I put it on again, could I return? Would time roll back to deposit me in this house with the family who’d lived here so long ago? I didn’t know if I wanted to do it again. I was feeling very strange, a little faint. I realized that there was something truly inexplicable happening and, I also knew that above everything else, I wanted it to happen again. I braced myself as I slipped my fingers inside the glove. Even as I did so, and as much as I willed it to take me back, I was not surprised when nothing happened. Perhaps there were only so many chances or perhaps the glove was not powerful enough on its own.
Whether I was right about it being some sort of passport to the past, I couldn’t be sure, but I wasn’t going to relinquish it just yet, even if I knew that was wrong. As I sat wondering what to do next, I spotted the edge of a familiar object down on the floor trapped beneath a stack of picture frames. The remains of a disintegrating reticule frayed at the edges, the cream satin aged to a dull grey, could only be the one I’d held moments before pristine in its newness. I picked up the frames two and three at a time to release the forlorn object from the dusty floor. When I got to the last, the final picture frame that pinned the reticule in place, I knew before
I brushed away the layer of thick dust on the glass that I’d found something of more importance than the remains of a fabric bag. In its gesso and gilt frame, the portrait of a young girl smiled at me in her best bonnet and blue gown. Signed in the corner, the pencil had faded too much to make out the name of the artist, but a name I recognized had remained clear enough to read.
‘Oh, Sophia,’ I cried out into the silent room, ‘what do you want with me?’
The portrait was a delicate watercolour and quite a substantial size. I took it downstairs into the kitchen and gently wiped away the years of grime from the glass and frame. Sophia Elliot was sitting on a rock at the seaside with her hands clasped together in her lap and her half boots crossed at the ankles resting in the sand. Happiness beamed from her as brightly as the sun shining down upon her features, on the bathing machines, the stone cottages and the line of cliffs in the background. I longed to know more. It was a picture that begged to be admired and hung up for all to see. There was a little piece chipped off the glass in one corner where the frame was broken and I wondered if it were possible to mend it. Carrying it with great care, I propped it up on the mantelpiece in the sitting room and remembering the white glove, I took it out of my pocket to pop it inside the rosewood box on the occasional table, telling myself that I would return it to Josh soon, but not just yet.
Suddenly, feeling completely exhausted, all I wanted was my bed. I’d just lie down for a moment, I thought, as my eyes closed instantly the second my body sank into the plump, silk eiderdown. When I awoke, it was morning. Bright sunshine streamed through the lace at the windows. I’d slept right through the rest of the day, on into the evening and all night long, without once waking up. I felt amazing, really rested and rejuvenated like I couldn’t remember feeling for a long time. I ran a bath in the cold, green-tiled bathroom that must have been the pride and joy of the Edwardian Elliots with its nod to Art Nouveau in the floral majolica tiles above the washbasin. I used every last drop of hot water, but there was enough for a decent soak. After crumbling in some bath salts from a glass jar on the shelf, which still smelled faintly of eau de cologne, I slipped into the steaming water to wash my hair and have a think. In the vivid light of day, I automatically began to question what had happened the day before, but this time I didn’t dismiss it completely. This second experience had been far more measured than the first jolt back in time, but possibly that had something to do with my increased receptiveness to the whole episode. What would it be like to really interact with those people, to live with them, I wondered? And if I tried to get back again, would I be able to get used to that feeling of not quite knowing myself and becoming used to the separation of my mind and body, the body that didn’t quite seem to be my own?
I dried myself as quickly as I could, hopping about on the chilly, lino floor before wrapping myself up in the dressing gown I was now so pleased to have brought with me. Thank heaven for the twenty-first century hairdryer, I thought, as I sat down at the dressing table. Drying my hair and trying to coax it into a style that didn’t look completely hideous seemed to take forever and by the time I’d finished, I couldn’t decide whether it had been worth all the effort. There was a moment as I scrutinized my reflection when the green eyes that stared back at me didn’t look quite like my own.
There was an impression of fuller, darker brows, and of lustrous curls framing the face that looked back at me. A flash in time; it was over in a second. For a moment, I saw my mother in the curve of my cheek and recognized my grandmother’s hair rippling back from her brow, echoed in the waves of my own locks that refused to be tamed. Generations of Elliot women seemed to smile at me as they gazed back through the mirror from their own particular time. I glimpsed a powdered wig profuse with roses and feathers, above the glitter of diamonds encircling a white throat and a spangled, damask sleeve. I saw yellow taffeta and a cap to match, a dab of rouge on an ivory cheek, concealed in another moment with the flick of a fan from a dainty wrist. Creamy flesh pillowed over the stiff bodice of a silk corset studded with satin bows, its owner dressing her ringlets with a practised hand, adjusting a flower to fall over her forehead. Within a fleeting heartbeat, the ephemeral kaleidoscope of images flickered into life and was gone. But, the feeling of kinship with every one of them felt as if I’d been given an extraordinary invitation to join a unique, secret society. It was time to get dressed, to go out and seek the adventure my ancestors were calling me to embrace.
Sophia’s picture greeted me as I entered the sitting room, her eyes following my every move around the room. It looked a little sad to see the glass and frame in such bad repair, so I thought I would start by heading into town with a picture framing shop in mind. Finding some brown paper and string in one of the dresser drawers in the kitchen, I wrapped it up before grabbing my jacket and heading downstairs feeling grateful that it wasn’t too unwieldy an object to tuck under my arm. I’d just put it down to unlock the front door when it opened by itself, making me jump backwards in surprise. There was only one person who could possibly be opening the door, I realized, but even when I’d registered this thought, it was still a shock when we came face to face.
I was struck dumb and I knew my face was as scarlet as the fringed scarf Josh had draped round his neck. Even so, I thought how much it suited his dark colouring as one or two strands of those glossy curls nestled in the swathes of fabric round his neck.
He looked almost as astonished as I did.
‘Can I help you?’ he asked, looking at me so searchingly with his dark eyes that I found it difficult to maintain eye contact.
‘Oh, I know you,’ he said, just seconds later before I could answer, as his expression changed to one of smiling recognition.
‘You’re the girl from the Pump Room. Are you living here? I’ve been hearing the occasional footsteps upstairs, and Lara at the pub said someone had moved in.’
I managed to nod my head, but I was blushing more furiously than ever and feeling the heat on my cheeks like a furnace blast from an open oven door.
‘I’m Josh Strafford,’ he said, ‘your neighbour from the downstairs flat. This is such a coincidence, don’t you think?’
‘Sophie Elliot,’ I said, holding out my hand, and then regretting it instantly because it seemed so silly and formal to be shaking hands. But he didn’t shake my hand. He took it and kissed it like some Regency suitor in a romantic novel.
‘I’m very pleased to meet you, Miss Elliot,’ he said, with a mock bow and in a very serious voice, obviously thinking I was a complete noodle to be behaving so ceremoniously.
I giggled because he looked so solemn, but it did break the ice.
‘That name has a most familiar ring. Are you related to the family that own the house?’ he asked in such a direct way that I was taken aback.
I nodded again, a little hesitantly this time, wondering why he wanted to know.
‘It’s just that I’ve found some of the Elliot family whilst doing some research. I’m over at the museum across the road, temporarily, putting together an exhibition celebrating Georgian Bathwick and its inhabitants. I’ve got lists of people who were in the area at the time and I was interested to find out who was living in the house during the early eighteen hundreds.’
I nodded. ‘I’m the great-niece of the lady who still owns the house which has been in the family since it was first built.’
‘Wow, that’s amazing!’ said Josh, who looked genuinely impressed. ‘The family had a manor house, I believe … Monkford Hall in Somerset.’
‘The family seat,’ I said, smiling at his round-eyed expression.
‘We don’t have it anymore. To my knowledge it passed out of the family after the First World War. They’d lost all their money by then and after the war there was nothing to be done, but sell it.’
Josh looked genuinely disappointed. ‘Oh, that’s a real shame.’
‘Yes, I know, but I imagine great houses must be such a financial drain and always cold. I couldn’t imagine living in one, could you?’
Josh didn’t speak, so to cover the awkward pause I just carried on talking. ‘My mother always kept an old print that gives an idea of what it must have looked like in its heyday. I understand it’s still a private house. I always think it was a shame that she never got to see it again, or have another look inside. Mum died some years ago so she’ll never see it now.’
‘Oh, that’s so sad,’ he said.
As I looked up at him wondering why I was telling this virtual stranger about every aspect of my family history, the thought then struck me that there was a very remote chance that I might be able to visit the house, though I seemed to recall that the Elliots I’d met in the past were to be in Bath for some time and not about to travel. How wonderful it would be, I thought, if I could go back to visit Monkford Hall and walk in the footsteps of my ancestors. I suddenly realized that Josh was staring at me. ‘I haven’t upset you by talking about your family, I hope.’
He must think I’m not all there in the head, I thought, as I became conscious that I’d been standing mute with a faraway expression on my face for longer than I should.
‘No, not at all.’ I felt so embarrassed I picked up the painting in an effort to disguise my flame-red cheeks. ‘I was just going out. It’s really nice to meet you, properly. Of course, I know we met before and everything, but …’
There didn’t seem to be anything else to add and what I’d managed to say hadn’t come out at all the way I’d wanted it to. I moved forward and then the agony was prolonged a bit further by the fact that we both went the same way and did that sort of dancing thing where you can’t quite get past each other. The hallway wasn’t very wide as it was and it was getting very ridiculous as we hopped about, until Josh put his hands on my shoulders steering me towards the door. I mumbled my thanks and opened it without looking back. Call me paranoid but I was sure he was watching me as I marched away, cheeks on fire. I didn’t hear the door shut straight away and I could just picture him with a puzzled expression, making a mental note to avoid me at all costs in the future.
I could still feel his hands. I’d noticed his hands the very first time we met and the touch of those long fingers on my shoulders stayed with me as far as Pulteney Bridge. It was quite a good feeling really, even if I was dying of embarrassment inside. Since I’d been in Bath, I’d had no real physical contact with anyone. I tried not to think about Lucas who instantly popped into my head, and my thoughts turned to home and my Dad, instead. We’d agreed to text rather than phone so I could save on money and the only phone call I’d made to him from the railway station seemed so long ago, even if in reality it had only been a couple of days. Walking into Bath, I found a nice card for him in a shop by the Post Office and wrote a little note to go with it, something suitably sentimental that I knew he would enjoy. Then, by the time I’d stopped someone to ask about where I might find somewhere to get the picture looked at and been directed to Walcot Street where the little picture framing shop was to be found, I’d begun to regret the idea of getting it mended, it was so heavy to carry. But they were so lovely in the shop, and said it could be left in their capable hands to pick up at a later date. Reluctantly, I left it behind feeling as if I’d somehow abandoned the real Sophia to a set of strangers she didn’t know. I wandered up Walcot Street to the church where I spent a few minutes looking round. Two American ladies stopped and asked me if I knew the location of Jane’s father’s grave. It’s funny how people talk about Jane Austen as if they know her and her family, but I suppose there’s something about the way she draws you into her books which makes you feel you know her quite like a friend. I’d no idea that Jane’s father was buried there or that her parents had married at St. Swithin’s. We found his tombstone and an inscription that explained that he’d died in 1805 and was buried in the crypt. It made me feel very sad to think of Jane and her sister grieving for their father, a family of women left to fend for themselves in a city where they were surrounded by wealthy visitors on holiday. I remembered hearing somewhere that Jane had disliked Bath and I wondered if this had been the real reason. My knowledge of Jane’s life didn’t extend much further than the books she’d written. It would be a good idea to buy a biography and find out a little more.
I needed some shopping so turned tail to walk back down the hill into town to the supermarket and wandered down the aisles selecting some chicken pieces to roast, a jar of Dijon mustard, a garlic bulb and a bunch of tarragon, new potatoes, French beans, and of course, the obligatory bottle of white wine. I’d missed my lunch and was feeling ravenously hungry, a state that seemed to be an ever-increasing problem since I’d moved to Bath. It must be all that time travelling, I said to myself, though even saying the words in my head seemed crazy as I stood at the very ordinary checkout loading my “bag for life” with purchases. Doubt that any of it had actually happened and that insanity of a kind had actually taken hold, hit me once more. I couldn’t explain any of it. When I was there it was as if I belonged in that time, and the present seemed remote. Being here in this supermarket with people around me going about their everyday shopping felt just as real and the past seemed a figment of my imagination. But I was beginning to feel that all this analyzing about what was going on was doing my head in. I didn’t want to think about it any longer.
I let myself into the flat. There was a piece of paper just poked under the door, which I knew immediately could only be from Josh. I opened it not quite knowing what to expect.
Jane Odiwe 
 Further links: Chapters One,Two,Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve

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