An extract from Project Darcy
When Ellie goes back in time she becomes Jane Austen and experiences all the excitement and emotions of the writer's budding relationship with Tom Lefroy.
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.
‘Miss Austen, how do you do?’
I wanted him to say my name again. If he said it a thousand times it would not be enough. No one ever before had spoken it so softly. I dropped a mock curtsey, but I did not smile. I could not forgive him for not receiving me when I’d called at Ashe, and I was far too proud to allow him to see the effect his voice had on me.
‘How do you do, Mr Lefroy?’ I answered looking up to meet his eyes which stared steadily back at mine. ‘And where are you going on this cold morning?’
‘I’m visiting a local family, as it happens – a clergyman, his wife and his children. There is a daughter who lives in the parsonage – I believe she considers herself to be quite the dancer. Do you happen to know of such a young lady in the district?’ His grey eyes were twinkling with merriment and I knew he was teasing me.
I felt my mouth twitching, but I was determined not to laugh. ‘I think I might happen to know the family,’ I said, ‘though I have heard reports that the daughter of whom you speak is not merely a boastful creature. Her dancing prowess is talked of as far as Basingstoke, sir.’
Tom threw back his head and laughed. ‘’Tis a fearful distance you speak of, my lady – as far as Basingstoke, you say? This lady must, indeed, be a celebrated performer!’
He dismounted, leaping down with a jump to the ground, the white tails of his coat flapping with a snap. I’d forgotten how tall he was and his coat gave him a greater stature. Broad shoulders narrowed to a fitted waist and great skirts of voluminous fabric fell to the snowy earth. He smoothed down the wide lapels and adjusted his coat. Watching him tweak the tilt of his hat, I thought him a perfect coxcomb; even if his hair reminded me of spring cowslips, and it crossed my mind that he must be one of the most handsome young men I ever saw. Yet, his white coat symbolised everything I’d thought of him on first meeting: that he had rather too high an opinion of himself, and that he was a mere dandy, even if my first impressions were changing … just a little. I liked his teasing ways, and I knew that on occasion he’d shown that he didn’t take himself too seriously.
‘I’m sorry I was unable to speak to you yesterday,’ said Tom. ‘My aunt and uncle were out on parish business.’
He didn’t offer another excuse or say why he hadn’t invited me in to the rectory himself, and I wondered why he’d felt unable to speak to me. It was rather strange behaviour. I felt I’d established that although he might be a little shy with strangers, I was sure he’d overcome that with me. Talking to people I didn’t know well was an irksome activity, but I tried to make the effort where I could. With Tom, I’d glimpsed such a warm personality at the Basingstoke ball, but here in this snowbound lane, I was unsure of anything and I felt I could no longer see into the soul that had seemed so akin to mine.
‘Do you miss your home, Mr Lefroy?’ I asked, wondering if he was homesick. After all, he was living in a different country whose customs and ways were surely different.
‘No,’ he said, but he had such a faraway expression at that moment as if perhaps it was not his home that he was thinking about, but a person – someone dear to him. And then he smiled. ‘I have a great friend, Tom Paul, who would love it here – he’d think the scenery to his taste, I’m sure.’
He was studying my face all the time. His eyes travelled from the top of my bonnet to the curls on my forehead and followed the line of my cheek. I watched him take a step towards me and saw him stare at my mouth. I held my breath as his face came nearer, his eyes holding mine, before he put up his hand to hook an unruly curl around his finger. He tucked the offending hair under my bonnet. I felt my face flood with heat, but I didn’t flinch, nor could I move away.
‘You remind me of someone,’ he said.
I couldn’t speak, every sense in my body was alive to sensation, a quickening, heart-beating desire to possess and be possessed, which both thrilled and frightened me.
‘Her cheeks were of the oval kind; and in her right she had a dimple, which the least smile discovered.’ Tom placed a finger on my dimpled cheek and softly stroked my skin. ‘Her chin had certainly its share in forming the beauty of her face; but it was difficult to say if it was either large or small, though perhaps it was rather of the former kind.’ He held my chin and tilted it towards him. ‘Her complexion had rather more of the lily than of the rose; but when exercise or modesty increased her natural colour, no vermilion could equal it.’
I gasped and whispered, ‘Sophia Western.’
‘So, Miss Austen, you are a reader of great literature also, I surmise,’ he said, releasing me, and I blushed even more if that was possible when he finished his quote from one of my favourite books, Tom Jones. And then I realised he fancied himself as the hero who also wore a white coat.
‘I must admit, I am a great admirer of Mr Fielding’s work.’
‘Her pure and eloquent blood spoke in her cheeks,’ Tom continued, ‘and so distinctly wrought that one might almost say her body thought.’
My hands flew to my face. It was true, every emotion showed in my countenance: I’d always been teased about my scarlet complexion, but this was worse than anything I’d ever endured before.
I was anxious to change the subject. ‘Will you come to the house? I am sure my mother and father would be very pleased to see you.’
Tom looked thoughtful. ‘Whilst I am diverted by the idea of such convivial entertainment, my preference would be for some increase of fresh air. Besides, my horse needs some exercise. Would you care to join me?’
‘I’m afraid I do not ride, Mr Lefroy. The horses on our land have always been needed for work, and I have not the leisure …’
I did not know what else to say. I certainly didn’t want him to know that we were too poor to have such an activity as a given right.
‘But I know how much you would enjoy the pursuit, Miss Austen. You have such a vigorous look about you.’
I considered the fact that my face must be the colour of beetroot by now. ‘It is of no disadvantage to me, but I must admit, I like the idea of riding a horse.’
‘You were born for it, Miss Austen. And, if you will permit me, I shall help you to ride mine, though you may not like to ride astride the animal.’
My first instinct was to protest, but I didn’t want to appear as if I was frightened by it or bothered by the fact that there was no lady’s saddle. I could never resist a challenge.
‘I’d prefer to ride like a man, I must admit. When I was a little girl Mr Hilliard used to put me on top of the horses and lead me round for my pleasure.’
Tom showed me how to hold the reins, and I watched him put his foot in the stirrup and bounce up onto the horse. He dismounted and then it was my turn. I clung to the reins as he’d done, put my hand on the pommel and placed my foot in the iron. I started to bounce, and then strong hands were about my waist, the touch of his fingers staying with me long after I was lifted to my seat.
‘You will not be frightened, Miss Austen, if my horse should dance about a little at first setting off. He will, most likely, give a plunge or two, and he is full of spirits, playful as can be, but there is no vice in him.’
I was fearless, and I felt supremely confident as if I was formed for a horsewoman; and to the true joy of the exercise something was added in Tom’s attendance and instructions, which made me unwilling to dismount. At first my companion and I made a circuit of the neighbouring field at a foot’s pace; then, at my suggestion, we rose into a canter, Tom running alongside. After a few minutes we stopped entirely. Tom was near to me; he spoke with that faint trace of an Irish burr, so softly, I had to lean in close to hear him. He was directing my management of the bridle; he took hold of my hand and his fingers entwined with mine. It was exhilarating, every moment flooded my being with pure pleasure, and I could not think when I had ever felt so happy.
‘If only we were both mounted,’ said Tom, ‘we could take a ride together. I could show you how fast this horse can ride.’
‘But, that must be impossible, Mr Lefroy!’
‘It can be done, I assure you, Miss Austen.’
‘If someone should see us …’
‘There is no one about on such a cold morning, but if you care only for your reputation, and have no wish to experience the thrill of a gallop, Miss Austen, there is little I can do to persuade you.’
‘I do wish to gallop through the lanes, Mr Lefroy.’
‘No, Miss Austen. Indeed, you are right, it would not be seemly. Please forgive me for suggesting such an outrageous proposal.’
‘Why not climb up beside me,’ I heard myself say, and then realised how shocking that sounded. But, in the next moment, he gently released the reins from my grasp and pulled himself into the saddle shifting his body behind me. It was a snug fit, his thighs gripped mine, and he drew me closely to him, one arm encircling my waist. Tom urged the horse on, our breath misting on the frosty air as we galloped through the lanes powdered in white. We moved in rhythm together, flying faster and faster, as if chased by the devil himself. Blood pounded in my ears, and my heart was beating so fast I felt Tom must be aware of it through the gloved hand that gripped my ribcage so tightly. I didn’t want it to end, but when I saw the church looming in the distance, I felt some shame for what I had done. I did not want to imagine what Madame Lefroy might think if she saw me, and begged Tom to stop. He jumped down with a grin before turning to face me, encircling his hands round my waist. They stayed there, his thumbs resting above my hipbones and when he clasped me tighter to release me to the ground, my body clenched with longing.
‘Miss Austen, you are a bold rider, indeed, and as fearless as any Irish friend I have.’
I could not help but smile, but when he pulled me down and I fell into his arms, I was all confusion. He held me for a moment, and I lost myself in those eyes, which enchanted me. I wanted to feel his lips on mine, and I willed him to kiss me. His eyes strayed to my lips and his mouth moved towards mine. Then he seemed to think better of it and let me go.
‘Perhaps this was not a very good idea after all, Miss Austen.’ He started to walk away leading the horse with him. ‘Are you trying to bewitch me?’
I didn’t know how to answer. ‘I am not certain what you are about, Mr Lefroy.’
‘What would your parents say if they knew we’d been spending time alone together? Forgive me, I should never have suggested that we ride.’
‘I enjoyed it. I thank you, Mr Lefroy. No one has ever taken the time to show me how to be a horsewoman. It is a lesson I shall not forget.’
‘But, it is one we can never repeat.’
Tom wore an odd expression. Something between a scowl and a look of regret, I could not fathom what he was thinking. He had withdrawn from me and the Tom who had laughed and been so warm was gone. I began to regret what I’d done. How could I have let my guard down so much? I couldn’t begin to wonder what he must think of me. Stepping back, I started to speak of mundane subjects but Tom was already fading. In shades of sepia, I saw the past fold and collapse as if it were a piece of ancient origami, the paper disintegrating before my eyes. I watched it bend and crumble, diminish and fragment until the snow-splintered pictures vanished into the summer sun, and the fields and meadows, where just a moment ago I had been with Tom. Keeping in the shade, I saw the sweeping hillsides in the distance, the villages separated by hedgerows running through them like green ribbon, tall spires of pink foxgloves growing on the bank, and the woods, dark and mysterious with beeches, oaks and silver birch trees. Dappled cows sat in the shade of a giant oak tree in the middle of a golden field, whisking their tails as a blackbird sang above my head. As I walked along I tried to recall where I’d been that morning. Yet, somehow, it all looked a lot different, the road seemed dustier and narrower, and it wasn’t long before I began to question whether I’d taken a wrong turning. I looked behind to get a better sense of the way I had come and didn’t recognise where I was at all. In front, the lane became little more than a dirt track where patches of fresh green grass grew down the middle. If I left the road I was sure to get lost, but then as the road inclined again, I saw the church, and I knew I was home.