Project Darcy - A novel inspired by Pride and Prejudice
It is high summer when Ellie Bentley joins an archaeological dig at Jane Austen’s childhood home. She’s always had a talent for ‘seeing’ into the past and is not easily disturbed by her encounters with Mr Darcy’s ghost at the house where she’s staying.
When Ellie travels into the past she discovers exactly what happened whilst Jane danced her way through the snowy winter of 1796 with her dashing Irish friend. As Steventon Rectory and all its characters come to life, Ellie discovers the true love story lost in Pride and Prejudice – a tale which has its own consequences for her future destiny, changing her life beyond imagination.
Ellie asked herself again, for the hundredth time, how it was that she’d been persuaded to join in. Archaeology was hardly her thing and for that matter, neither was Jane Austen. But, in the end, it was impossible to refuse Jess this small request. Jess, her best friend, who she loved like the sister she didn’t have, had pleaded with them all. And it was Ellie who had made sure the others had agreed to come on the dig, reminding them when she’d managed to take them to one side that they were lucky to still have Jess around after her horrendous health scare of the previous year.
‘It’ll be fun,’ said Ellie, packing her sketch book into her bag as she walked along in the sunshine, ‘especially as it’s our last summer together before most of us have to join the real world and work for our living.’
‘So long as I can bring my straighteners,’ said Liberty, admiring her reflection and flicking back her chestnut mane as they walked past the refectory window on their university campus. ‘They do have electricity where we’re going, don’t they?’
‘Of course they do,’ Martha snapped, unable to disguise the irritation in her voice. With her nose buried in a book, she completely missed Liberty’s rolling eyes and the grin that passed between her and Cara. Although the five girls had struck up a friendship since sharing a student house, the mix of characters and personalities could hardly have been more different. Martha always remained just a little outside the group. It was Ellie and Jess, Liberty and Cara, and Martha drifted between the two, happy, for the most part, to be on her own.
Ellie purposely left out any suggestion that the trip might involve hard work or dirt, and made light of the fact that the archaeological dig was in a tiny Hampshire village in the middle of nowhere. Jess was obsessed with Jane Austen’s books and when she’d found out that volunteers were needed to find the remains of Jane’s childhood home in Steventon, she’d not talked about much else. Jess would never have done anything like that by herself; she’d always been timid with strangers. Ellie knew Jess wanted them all to go with her, but also realised that if Liberty and Cara had any idea of what was really expected of them, they might refuse the invitation. Instead, she focused on the parts she knew would keep them interested.
‘There’s a film crew going, and they’re making a documentary.’
Liberty, the drama student, could hardly contain herself. ‘OMG, do you think we’ll get to be in it?’
‘Oh, Liberty, our fifteen minutes of fame,’ said Cara, grabbing her friend’s hand and twirling her round. ‘I’ll have to tell my mum. When do you think it will be on the telly?’
‘I don’t know exactly, sometime next year, I should think, but I can tell you who will be presenting it.’
‘Who is it, somebody famous?’ Liberty looked as if she might explode.
‘Greg Whitely.’ Ellie knew she did not have to say any more.
Liberty threw her arms around Ellie. ‘But, I’ve been in love with him forever, and I’ve just always had this feeling that we were meant to be together. I think I might die at the thought of meeting him.’ Her hands flew to her mouth. ‘Do you think he’ll be there, Ellie?’
‘I don’t know, maybe not for the whole dig, but perhaps for some of it.’
‘Well, I shan’t be in any hurry to meet him.’ Martha closed her book and tucked her lank, mousy hair behind her ears. ‘My mother’s worked with him and she says he’s an insatiable womaniser.’
‘Even better! Perhaps I could be the one to tame him. I can just picture it – me in ‘Hello’ magazine on Greg’s arm swathed in satin and crystals,’ said Liberty, striking a pose, ‘as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge shower me with confetti.’
‘Dream on, Liberty,’ said Cara with a grin. ‘Martha, you’re so lucky. It must be wonderful to have an actress for a mother.’
‘No, it’s not,’ said Martha, instantly turning scarlet to the roots of her hair, a frown wrinkling her forehead. ‘I don’t think you can have any idea. My childhood was spent largely alone with a succession of nannies in school holidays, none of whom ever showed me the slightest affection, whilst my mother travelled the world pursuing her career.’
‘But, you must have seen some incredible actors and met some of them, too,’ said Liberty, who really excelled at saying exactly the wrong thing at the worst possible moment.
Ellie knew she should step in before Martha started to say she wouldn’t be able to come after all. ‘There is someone going on the dig who I think you’ll be interested to meet, Martha. He’s been on that documentary series where they only have a week to dig up some bones and then reconstruct the faces. Will MacGourtey – you know him – he’s an archaeologist – fair hair, young and quite good-looking.’
‘At least there will be someone worth talking to, then,’ Martha said as she opened her book again. ‘Intelligent conversation coupled with the informed knowledge of a first-rate academic is my idea of heaven – something quite sadly lacking from my life right now.’
The other three exchanged smiles, and Ellie, who was glad that she now had all three girls on her side, sent up a silent prayer that they would all continue to be so happy.
Jess was beside herself with joy when Ellie told her the news. And Liberty looked even more excited when Jess told them that they’d been invited to stay at her godmother’s house for the duration of the dig.
They were all gathered in the cramped sitting room of the student house they shared, which didn’t seem big enough for the five personalities whose belongings lay strewn on every surface. Books and folders, half-finished essays and sketchbooks jostled for position with pens and pencils, bottles of nail varnish and tubes of paint.
‘Isn’t she the rich one with the big house?’ Liberty never took long to get to the point. She put down the book of plays she was supposed to be reading to bounce onto the sofa next to Jess, hugging her knees and staring up at Jess’s beautiful face with undisguised anticipation.
Jess laughed. ‘I suppose she is quite wealthy and her house is a sizeable one. I must admit; I haven’t been there for a while. I was just a young girl when I last visited. Aunt Mary has lived abroad for most of the last ten years.’
‘Will she leave you all her money?’ Cara chipped in, joining her on the other side so Jess was completely wedged in.
‘That’s not very likely, though goodness knows my family could do with it. My mum and Mary were at teacher training college together. My mum fell in love with a fellow teacher, but Mary was swept off her feet by a young man, who swiftly became a millionaire. We’re comfortably off, but my parents have worked so hard all their lives and Aunt Mary doesn’t really have a clue. But, she’s always been incredibly generous to my family, and sadly was unable to have any children of her own.’
‘It’s really kind of her to invite us,’ said Ellie, ‘but does she know what she’s letting herself in for having five girls come to stay?’
‘Oh, Aunt Mary isn’t going to be there,’ Jess said, smiling as she recognised the fear in Ellie’s eyes behind the question, ‘she’s in Tuscany for the summer – we’ve got the place to ourselves!’
The coach picked them up from the university. It was already half full with an interesting mix of people who, like themselves, had volunteered for the dig. There was a group of male students from another university occupying the row at the back of the coach, and Ellie had to stop Liberty from marching up to them before they’d even found where they were sitting.
‘We’ve got allocated seats, Liberty and Cara,’ Jess called, pointing at the two in front of her. Martha sat next to Jess, which Ellie had agreed beforehand, so she wouldn’t feel left out. As the coach headed out of Winchester, Ellie watched the urban sprawl gradually left behind: lanes of verdant green replaced shops, houses and flats. Fields and meadows, with tiny farmhouses in the distance looked like toy farm sets with cows and sheep grazing under oak trees dotted amongst the hedgerows. She was looking forward to the trip in many ways, and hoped there’d be some opportunities for her to paint. Google Earth had thrown up some beautiful images of the countryside around Steventon and Ellie loved nothing more than trying to capture a landscape in watercolours. It had been her ambition to study illustration for as long as she could remember and becoming a freelance illustrator was her goal. She was nervous about the future, but she’d already had a few commissions. Perhaps being in Jane Austen country would be an inspiration for her painting.
Ellie could hear the guys at the back, some of them talking far too loudly, showing off whilst evidently trying to get the attention of Liberty who was constantly looking round. Dressed like any other student, nevertheless, everything about them suggested out of the ordinary affluence and confidence exuded from every pore. Rather too much self-assurance, Ellie thought, and decided they were arrogance personified – snobs of the worst sort. It crossed her mind that perhaps she was being a little unfair but it seemed to her they expected everyone to be impressed by them. Ellie made up her mind, right then, to give them a wide berth.
‘Isn’t it exciting?’ Jess’s face materialised in the gap between the seats in front, a halo of short blonde curls giving her an elfin appearance. ‘I can’t believe we are going to be walking on hallowed ground tomorrow.’
Ellie nodded back as enthusiastically as she could for Jess’s sake. It was fantastic to see Jess animated and looking well again. This last twelve months she’d been to hell and back. No one else could have suffered so much with such strength and courage. Ellie had watched her best friend grow pale and thin before her diagnosis, and then witnessed her growing sicker with every session of chemotherapy. When Jess’s long, golden tresses had fallen out in clumps, it was Ellie who’d cried. Jess had borne it all bravely, saying what a relief it was not to have to fuss about with hairdryers and hairstyles. But, that was the type of person Jess was – never thinking of herself, only trying to make things better for everyone else. Her fellow lecturers and students were full of admiration for the girl who had managed through it all to hang on to her dream of becoming a teacher like her mum and dad. She’d had time off from university, but nothing was going to stop her from going back and completing her course.
‘I hope we find something exciting. Can you imagine going to all the effort of digging and nothing of any interest turning up,’ said Ellie.
‘It will be enough for me just to walk in Jane’s footsteps,’ said Jess, a dreamy expression spreading over her face. ‘I think they are supposed to be determining exactly where the house stood, initially. There’s some debate about what the house looked like and its position on the land. Hopefully, the geophysics will be done by now and they’ll have an idea where we can start digging!’
Liberty’s head popped over the seat. ‘I’m so glad I came,’ she said, with one eye on the boys at the back, ‘though, there are more old people than I expected.’
Martha made a shushing sound. ‘You never know when to be quiet, do you, Liberty? I like the fact there are lots of different ages here. It’s wonderful to think that not all people in their seventies are gaga and are still reasonably mentally alert.’
Ellie wanted to disappear into the fabric of her seat. The silver-haired woman sitting opposite them looked across disapprovingly and muttered something about ‘the youth of today’ under her breath.
There was a sudden crackling noise from loud speakers and a lady brandishing a microphone at the front of the coach stood up to make a welcome speech, introducing herself as Melanie Button, and thanking the volunteers for their participation. ‘I hope you’ll all be happy with the accommodation that’s been arranged. Most of you will be staying in the village where you’ll meet some of the local volunteers this evening at the reception party. According to my list, I believe Jess Leigh and her friends have made their own plans and also Henry Dorsey and Charlie Harden. Am I right?’
Jess waved and gesticulated in their direction. ‘Yes, we’re all sorted out, Mrs Button, thank you. We’ll have use of a car and be walking in too, I hope. We’re at Ashe, just a mile away.’
One of the students sitting with the Oxford group raised his hand. ‘Charlie Harden here, Mrs Button. Henry and I are staying together – we’re in Deane so we’re not far, either.’
Ellie saw Jess looking at Charlie with interest. He was good-looking in a fresh-faced way with a mop of sun-bleached curls that looked even lighter against his tanned skin. He had the sort of piercing forget-me-not blue eyes that don’t look quite real and it was easy to see why Jess looked at him, albeit in her own covert way. At least he seemed to have some manners, which was more than could be said for his friends. The one called Henry, by contrast, seemed to scowl at her when she caught his eye.
‘Do call me Mel,’ said Mrs Button, smiling broadly at Charlie and Henry, ‘let’s not stand on ceremony. We’re going to be working very closely together.’
Liberty barely stifled a giggle and whispered to Cara, ‘She’s old enough to be their mother. Look at that gorgeous Charlie, he looks frightened to death at the thought of being personally intimate with Ms Button.’
‘Now, we’re all meeting in the village hall at seven thirty,’ continued Melanie. ‘We are enormously excited to have Greg Whitely and Will MacGourtey of Dig your Ancestor fame arriving to kick off the party, and tell us what’s been accomplished so far. Are you digging that, ladies?’
There was a ripple of laughter from some of the older female volunteers and a few groans from some of the young men. And then the coach stopped. ‘Ashe Rectory,’ called the driver.
Ellie stared at the life-sized doll’s house in front of them. A doorway surmounted by a beautiful fanlight was set in the centre of the elegant Georgian façade, its panelled doors opening as they stepped down from the coach. Wisteria and roses climbed over the rose brick walls and the windows on either side. On the upper floor, the window under the pediment caught the glow of the sun in its rectangular panes. The light was blinding, but Ellie sensed they were being watched and when she shielded her eyes to squint at the glass, she saw she was right. It was momentary, but the sight of a young man with pale hair and skin standing at the window made every hair on her body stand on end. He was looking down at them and, for a moment, Ellie thought that she knew him. There was something so familiar about the turn of his head and his stance that caused a flicker of pleasure to quicken inside her, and when, at last, their eyes met, the sense of recognition and consciousness felt almost like coming home.
The light bounced from the panes, the sun blinking in her eyes so strongly she was forced to close them and when she looked again, he was gone. As all five girls stood before the house with the noise of the coach rumbling away down the lane, the doors opened and a white-haired lady in a twin-set and tweed skirt stepped out, dogs barking at her heels.
‘Now Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley, don’t carry on so. You remember Jessica, there’s no need to bark like that.’
The dogs were all over Jess, leaping up excitedly as they recognised their old friend. ‘Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley,’ cried Jess, laughing as they almost bowled her over. ‘It’s so long since I had the pleasure of seeing those wagging tails - you were always the most handsome and loving men of my acquaintance!’
‘We should have known they’d have names from Pride and Prejudice,’ said Cara, ‘Is your godmother as obsessed as you, Jess?’
‘No, not one bit,’ said the apple-cheeked lady who greeted them after she’d bestowed affectionate kisses on Jess. ‘Mrs Burke always says she prefers the Brontë sisters and has no time for Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. It was Jessica who was allowed to christen the dogs, you might know. I’m Betty Hill, by the way, the housekeeper. Come inside – leave your suitcases in the hall, my dears, and my husband will see to those. The kettle is on, we’ll have a nice cup of tea and then I’ll show you to your rooms.’
The girls walked into a large hallway with a staircase in front leading to the upper floors, and rooms leading off left, right, and beyond. A polished circular table in the centre held a Chinese bowl of pot-pourri and a country arrangement of roses and lavender from the garden scented the air with its fragrance. Off to the right they were taken into a morning room, a pretty old-fashioned space with chairs and sofas sprigged in chintz. The walls were panelled and on each side of the marble fireplace the alcoves held shelves in the recesses topped with richly carved seashells, on which were displayed pretty, floral china.
‘Oh, I thought we were to be on our own,’ Ellie heard Liberty whispering to Cara, the disappointment in her voice plain to hear. ‘I had high hopes of entertaining Greg Whitely here a bit later.’
‘Liberty, you are too naughty for words,’ Cara answered, giggling, as she plumped down onto an armchair covered in dove grey linen, sending the flowered cushions tumbling to the floor.
Mrs Hill appeared not to notice and when the tea came in they were introduced to the young girl, Nancy, who bore pots of Earl Grey tea, piles of chicken sandwiches and slabs of chocolate cake on delicate tea plates.
‘Nancy comes in from the village to help me,’ said Mrs Hill. ‘If you need to know anything at all about Ashe, Steventon or Deane and the people that live here, she’s the one to ask. Her people have lived here since before Jane Austen’s day. In fact, they were a very special part of the family.’
Nancy wore an expression of pride as she set down the tray. ‘Yes, my ancestors worked for the Austen family, they helped bring up the children. Mrs Austen used to send them off, once they were weaned, to live with my family until they were old enough to walk and talk and mind their manners. I suppose that seems an odd practice today, but that’s what they did in the olden days. The children were visited every day, and, no doubt, were in and out of the respective houses as they were growing up.’
‘So your family actually knew Jane Austen?’ Ellie asked.
Nancy nodded. ‘My granny told me that one of the Littleworths once dressed Jane Austen’s hair for a ball. They were servants, really, but the Austens treated them as if they were their nearest and dearest. There’s not much the Littleworths didn’t know then, and there’s not much we don’t know about Steventon and all its neighbours now. And if there’s any gossip to be had, we’ll be the first to hear the news. It’s not a place for keeping secrets, I can tell you,’ Nancy said, lowering her voice to a whisper as if the walls themselves might hear something they shouldn’t. ‘It’s just village life, but if you’re not used to it, it can seem as if people are being very nosy and interfering, if you know what I mean.’
‘I’d better be on my best behaviour then,’ said Liberty, who pressed her lips together as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.
Everyone laughed. It was hard to get cross with Liberty who knew more than anyone else that trouble seemed to hunt her out like a heat-seeking missile.
‘It’s a beautiful house,’ said Ellie, keen to change the conversation. ‘It looks as if Jane Austen might walk out of a door at any moment.’
‘Yes, indeed, my dears, this house is not without its associations to that great lady. It was a former rectory and belonged to a very great friend of Miss Austen,’ Mrs Hill replied, as if the author was still alive. ‘Her name was Madame Lefroy, that was how she was known. She was married to the Reverend Lefroy who was the rector at Ashe. Jane always ran to her dear friend for advice – they shared a great many interests, I believe, books and poetry, in particular.’
‘I didn’t know that,’ said Jess, sitting up in her seat, instantly alert to the name of her favourite author. ‘I’ve never heard Aunt Mary talk about Jane Austen being here in this house.’
‘Well, Jane Austen and her books have never been of any interest to her, and it’s a few years since we’ve had the pleasure of seeing you in this house, Jessica. I suppose she thought you too young before, to be interested in the history of the rectory itself and the people who lived here.’
‘Just think, Jane Austen might have sat in this very room,’ said Jess.
‘Without a doubt, she did,’ answered Mrs Hill. ‘Not only did she sit in this room, but Jane also attended a few dances here. Madame was quite a figure in the neighbourhood and loved to throw parties. You see the folding doors that separate the rooms? They were always thrown back to make room for the dancing couples.
Jess opened her mouth to speak again. Ellie could see how curious she was and longing to know more, but Mrs Hill stood up, gathering cups and saucers together on the tea-tray. ‘I’ll just pop these in the kitchen – Nancy will show you to your rooms whilst I tidy up. I understand you’re all going out in an hour or so. I’ll leave the side door open and there’ll be a spot of supper, something cold left out for you when you get back. Have a lovely time, my dears.’
They followed Nancy upstairs and on reaching the first floor, Ellie remembered the haunting face that she’d seen earlier. ‘Does anyone else live here, Nancy? I thought I saw someone at the window when we arrived … could it have been Mrs Hill’s son?’
‘No, Mrs Hill’s nephew stays here with her sometimes, but she and Mr Hill were never blessed with any children. It’s such a pity because she would have made a lovely mum. Perhaps it was Mr Hill you saw – he’s always seeing to odd jobs around the house.’
‘I doubt it, unless Mr Hill is a very young man,’ said Ellie, wondering if she had, in fact, imagined the face that had seemed to smile when he saw her.
‘Oh, in that case it was probably the ghost you saw,’ Nancy pronounced, in such a matter of fact way that Ellie wondered if she’d misheard her.
‘Don’t tell me there’s a ghost,’ cried Liberty, ‘I shan’t sleep tonight. I love nothing more than a horror film but I don’t want to be in one!’
‘I don’t know anything about a ghost,’ Jess joined in. ‘Aunt Mary’s never mentioned him to me. Where did you see him, Ellie?’
‘Well, he must have been here standing at this window but, to be honest, I didn’t see very much and it could just have been a trick of the light. The sun was really bright … I got the impression of someone about our age, quite pale and fair. He was only there for a second – I probably imagined it.’
‘That’s not likely with your history, is it?’ Jess had lowered her voice to a whisper and was looking at her friend earnestly. Ellie had only ever confided in Jess about the people she saw – not people exactly, they were more like shadows of real people, in three dimensions but dimmer in intensity, other worldly.
‘There is a young man haunts the place from time to time,’ said Nancy, opening the door of the first bedroom on the left. ‘He’s harmless enough, but I expect your aunt didn’t want to say anything to you about him when you were a little girl, Jess, for fear of frightening you.’
Martha who’d been quiet for some time spoke up. ‘I don’t believe in ghosts. I’ve seen too many so-called séances with hysterical people, mostly ridiculously stupid actresses, who whipped themselves into a frenzy of believing all sorts of nonsense – contact with the dead, and even one who swore she’d lived in another time.’
Ellie didn’t want to say too much. ‘I think some people are more in tune or have a sensitivity to such things. I’d hate to dismiss it completely.’
‘I agree with Ellie,’ Jess chipped in, ‘there is so much that we don’t understand. I was reading about the Akashic records the other day, the belief that everything that happens in the world is imprinted on the unseen ether around us, present in every atom of the world and universe – like a multi-sensory photograph or holograph being constantly captured and kept on file.’
‘Now you’ve lost me with all this talk of hollow graphs and science. It sounds like a lot of gobbledygook to me,’ said Liberty, hitching up her shoulder bag. ‘I am dying to put this down, it is so heavy.’
‘This is your room, Liberty.’ Nancy waved her through and the others got a glimpse of a charming room in shades of eau de nil with flamboyant peonies and exotic birds perched on Chinese branches climbing over the walls.
The others heard her shouting with excitement and the sound of running taps as Liberty discovered her own bathroom before Nancy whisked them away and dropped them off one by one along the corridor. Cara’s room was next in line to Liberty’s with Martha on the opposite side. Ellie and Jess were given rooms at the back of the house overlooking the garden which rolled before them in varying sizes of green lawns, high yew hedges, and hidden spaces interspersed with traditional flower beds. Jess’s bedroom with chalk pink walls boasted a French bed with buttoned silk upholstery and a chaise longue in one corner. On the walls was a collection of silhouettes of people from past times. The profiles of soldiers and debutantes looked across at one another from ebony frames ranged around the marble mantelpiece. It looked as if it had been designed with Jess in mind with its Regency furniture and vast portraits of ladies dressed in white muslin.
Ellie’s room was perfection to her way of thinking; she loved anything vintage. In muted tones of Naples yellow in the patterned wallpaper and silvery grey satin falling to the floor in a cascade at the windows, the room was flooded in light. Sunbeams danced through the ancient embroidered lace like a bridal veil at a summer wedding, parted to give a stunning view over the beautiful garden. Touches of duck egg blue in the embroideries on the walls and in the milk glass vases on the mantelshelf were echoed in a shot of deeper blue silk in the dressing gown dangling from a padded hanger of cream silk. It looked like a film set left over from the 1930s and in contrast to Jess’s room, which was a Regency haven, Ellie couldn’t have wished for anything more glamorous. A deco dressing table complete with a mirrored surface and a triptych looking glass was topped with a selection of exquisite objects – a porcelain tray and boxes for jewels, a Japanese fan, a silver hairbrush enamelled with blue as vivid as a butterfly’s wing, and a cloisonné vase filled with old-fashioned roses. The bed draped with grey satin and ivory lace was flanked either side with paintings typical of the era, watercolours of primroses or lilac in turquoise bowls, and a still life, of paper lanterns suspended from branches of white blossom, hung above the fireplace. She almost couldn’t wait to go to bed when she’d be able to sink into the pile of satin covered cushions on her bed, pull the quilted eiderdown up to her throat and admire all the treats before her.
‘I am so happy,’ said Jess, sitting down at Ellie’s dressing table and opening the lid of a jewel box. ‘I don’t know how you’ve persuaded the others to come but I’m so glad you did. You’re the most wonderful friend a girl could wish for – thank you.’
‘I only hope that you don’t regret those words when Liberty and Cara realise they’ve got to get their hands dirty,’ Ellie said, laughing as she sat down on a slipper chair in the corner.
Jess took out a diamonté necklace from the box and held it up against her collarbone. ‘If Greg Whitely turns up tonight, I think Liberty will be pretty keen to impress, not to mention those other boys from Oxford.’
‘Yes, I don’t think we’ll have much trouble keeping her engaged, though whether it will be on the task in hand, I’m not sure. I have to say, I thought you looked a little distracted at the sight of one Charlie Harden. He’s not my type, but he is rather gorgeous. I saw him looking at you in a very studious way.’
‘No, you did not. Ellie Bentley, you’re always making things up.’
‘I’m not – you’ll see. I bet he makes a move tonight. I’m sure he’s dying to meet you.’
Jess put the necklace back, closed the lid slowly and turned to face Ellie. ‘Charlie seems very friendly and just the kind of person who is naturally sociable. Don’t you go imagining things if he starts chatting to us.’
‘Oh, I don’t imagine he’ll be chatting to us at all. To you, maybe.’
‘Ellie, you’re incorrigible! But, I will forgive you and who knows, perhaps you’ll be the one who gets chatted up later.’
‘I hardly think so, Jess. I know you’d love to see me in a romantic entanglement but you know as well as I, that there isn’t a man alive who has yet taken my fancy to that extent. And your Charlie hasn’t got a friend I like the look of – they all seem a bit immature … or moody.’
‘He isn’t my Charlie, Ellie. But, I thought his friend Henry was your type, all dark hair and scowling looks.’
‘No way! He’s far too … superior. I don’t know, he just looks a bit arrogant, that’s all.’
‘Well, perhaps tonight he’ll charm you. You never know, he could turn out to be ‘The One’!’
Ellie grabbed a cushion and aimed. Jess leapt up, laughing as she ran from the room. ‘Come on, we’ve got to get ready, Miss Bentley, or we’ll be late.’
Half an hour later, Ellie was feeling refreshed for having had a scented soak in the bath. She’d washed her hair and was now standing in front of the wardrobe hanging her clothes, and trying to decide what she was going to wear for the party. It was still warm and light so she selected some cropped jeans and a short-sleeved cotton top, with a scoop neck and embroidered pin tucked front. The detail made it a little bit more special than the every day and to set it off, she picked a chunky necklace from her jewellery roll with turquoise stones and silver beads threaded on a long leather cord. Choosing a warm scarf in coral, scattered over with hummingbirds and edged in silk fringe in case it got cooler later on, Ellie then added a pair of canvas trainers to complete her outfit.
Jess knocked on the door. ‘I’ll just round up everyone else so I’ll see you downstairs in a minute!’
Ellie shouted back that she’d join them in a second and looked around for her bag. It was her favourite, an antique bag that had belonged to her great-grandmother. Made of black silk moiré, it was embellished with a bluebird and had a long silk strap. She’d left it on the chest of drawers in front of the window next to a blue and white jug and bowl. Dashing to fetch it, she was stopped in her tracks by the sense of something or someone moving outside in the garden below. Ellie glimpsed what she thought might be a person moving between the trees but it was too difficult to see clearly. It was most likely Mr Hill or a gardener, she thought. The gardens were so immense, there had to be several people working on them to be kept as beautiful as they looked. Yet, she had a feeling that the person, whose shadow moved across the grass in shades of deep emerald, was someone other than a working man. And then she saw him again. Too far away to be able to see distinctly, nevertheless, she knew he was the same young man she’d seen before. Dressed like a character from a Jane Austen novel in a long coat with breeches and boots, he made an arresting figure. Striding towards the house, his white coat billowed out like the great wings of a swan before it takes flight into the sky. Ellie could see him unwinding the stock at his neck with impatient fingers, and as he did so his lawn shirt exposed pale skin, a muscular frame beneath the fine linen. Suddenly, she knew he was watching her. He raised his hand and waved.
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.