Before we begin, a few words. This chapter appeared, though it has been slightly altered, as a short story on this blog last October (when we were writing about all things spooky for Halloween), so it might feel a little familiar to some of you. I wanted to expand the tale at the time, but knew not how. Then the idea of an Austen Variations original story was muted, and Leslie and I used this chapter as a starting point to begin co-writing a full length adventure that we hope will keep you entertained in the coming months.
I want to thank Leslie for being a great writing partner, she is so full of energy and brilliant ideas, and thanks also to C Allyn Pierson and Monica Fairview who helped in the initial planning stages.
Now, without further ado – off we go….
Chapter One – The Portrait of Lizzy
It was the painting that made Ellie step inside the red rope. She found herself drawn to it, genuinely interested in something for the first time since she had walked through the front doors of Pemberley.
The grandeur of the place had impressed her and it had been briefly interesting to think what it might have been like to live in such a great big house, in a time before cars, planes, dishwashers and go-pros, but she was not a fan of stately homes and after ten minutes or so, it had all started to look a bit the same; room after room full of antiques and thick rugs. The tour guide did nothing to alleviate her boredom either. His delivery was emotionless, and his jokes were cringingly bad. To be fair, he seemed well informed and most of the tour group still paid polite attention to him, but there was some restless shuffling of feet and a lot of coughing whenever they were asked to stop and pay attention to something in particular. Two elderly ladies, in dripping raincoats and plastic hoods, started their own conversation at the back of the group about where the tea room might be, further distracting Ellie. She had deliberately lingered and let them all go on ahead, and then she had seen the portrait.
The room was roped off, but the door was open. Reasoning it couldn’t be that private, she climbed over the barrier, intending only to lean in through the doorway and get a closer look. The subject of the picture, a dark-haired girl in a simple yellow gown made of some sort of floaty material, seemed to invite her further in though, and before she knew it, Ellie was standing in front of the fireplace, gazing up, lost in contemplation. The girl was very pretty, quite young, with petite features and dark hair. But it was her deep brown eyes, framed by beautiful long lashes that fascinated Ellie—the mischievous expression in them made the painting almost come alive and she was rooted to the spot.
A little bronze plaque on the portrait’s frame told her the name of the artist and the year it was painted, and the name of the girl in yellow, “Elizabeth”, she read out loud, gazing up at the painting again, and at the way her little rosebud mouth was parted, as if she were about to speak. “What’s up, Elizabeth? What did you want to say?”
“Who the hell are you, and what are you doing in here?” answered a deep, male voice.
Ellie gasped and jumped in surprise and fright, turning to see a man standing beside a mahogany desk, with a pile of post in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. He looked very pissed off.
She had come in from the hallway, but he had come in a different way. Ellie peered around him to see another door, one that joined the room they were in to what appeared to be a large library.
“Oh, I’m sorry. The door was open,” she said with a slight smile and a nod in the direction of the hallway.
He frowned. “No it bloody well wasn’t. I was only gone ten minutes and it was definitely shut before.” He was about thirty, square shouldered, tall, slim and dressed in those sort of smart casual clothes favoured by the rich country set. Her gaze wandered from his polished brogues, to her own feet, clad in battered converse—they had gotten wet and muddy during her walk from Lambton. He was glaring at her dirty shoes too. “It’s roped off. The entrance fee does not entitle you to go wherever you like, invading the privacy of those who work here. What are you up to?”
“Hey, I’ve apologised. I wasn’t stealing or anything and the door was bloody well open. I just wanted to see the painting up close.”
“Oh, I get it.” He set his coffee cup on the desk. “Well you can go back and tell the gallery owner, collector, or whoever sent you, that it’s not for sale, or loan. Any of the other works on the tour—which you should be sticking to—can be borrowed for exhibitions, but not this one. I don’t know how many times it has to be explained before people believe it.”
Ellie crossed her arms over her chest, annoyed by his arrogance and assumptions. “I just thought it was interesting, that’s all. Nobody sent me. I don’t know anything about art.” She went to leave, but fury overcame her and she turned back to rage at him. “Did anyone ever tell you that you’re really rude? Just because you work in this great stately pile, it doesn’t give you the right to speak to people like they’re the crap on your shoes, you know?”
He raised an eyebrow at her, cross but also slightly amused. “I don’t think there is any crap on my shoes, there might possibly be some on yours though.”
She glared at him before turning with the intention of stalking back out the way she had come.
“Not so fast,” he said.
“No, I’m going. Don’t worry, I’m not a thief, or some sort of art spy. In fact, as of last Friday, I don’t even have a job.”
“Why what? Why don’t I have a job?”
“No, why so interested in the painting?” He came closer, his tone softening slightly.
“Oh,” Ellie shrugged and put her hands into the pockets of her jeans. “It spoke to me. It’s different to all the others I’ve seen here. In most of them, the women are dripping in jewellery and wearing bright, rich colours, with their hair arranged all in a big pile on top of their heads, but she,” Ellie pointed up at the painting, studying it again. “She looks like she has just come back from a walk through the woods, more like a country girl, but I guess she must have been important, rich, or she wouldn’t have had her portrait painted, would she? I suppose it must have cost a lot of money to have something like that done back in those days.”
He smiled but said nothing further.
Feeling like she was being laughed at, Ellie huffed. “And I obviously sound like an uneducated idiot, so I’ll be on my way.”
“No, hang on, you’re right. It is different, unusual; that’s why it garners a lot of attention. It also hasn’t moved from that exact spot in two hundred years. The subject is Elizabeth Darcy, and it was commissioned by her husband Fitzwilliam Darcy just after their marriage. He asked the artist, Mr Rainham, to paint her just as she was, without any adornments, in a natural sort of way. Rainham was very pleased with the result and wanted to display it at the great exhibition in London. Mr Darcy, however, refused. ‘I prize it too much to be exposed to the public eye. I cannot explain myself properly, but a mixture of love, pride and delicacy prevent me from allowing it to leave Pemberley.’ – so said in a letter to his friend Charles Bingley.” His features had changed while he’d been talking, and he had become enthusiastic about his subject. All the annoyance and arrogance from earlier had left him. He was a bit geeky, and wore chunky glasses, and his hair was too curly and a bit too long, but even so, he was quite attractive
“That a lovely sentiment,” she replied, “but it seems a shame to shut in here, where only a few people get to see it.”
“He could afford to be precious about it. The estate is much smaller now, but that particular Mr Darcy owned half of Derbyshire. Elizabeth lived to a ripe old age, and was considered one of the great mistresses of Pemberley. It’s a sort of talisman now, and every Darcy since has been afraid to move it, in case the walls should tumble down or something. A bit like the ravens at the Tower of London.”
“Well, she looks happy enough up there, like she’s having a laugh, or about to tell a joke.”
“She was a funny lady.” He rushed to the desk, picked up a book and brought it back to her before she could think about leaving. “It’s a collection of her letters, to various people; her parents, other relations and friends. Some to her husband, but it’s believed a lot of those were destroyed by one of their children. Maybe they thought them too intimate to leave hanging around. They were a very prudent lot, the Victorians. According to one reviewer it’s…” he turned the book over and read a quote from the back, “a fascinating and often amusing glimpse into the life of an extraordinary Georgian lady”.
As he seemed to have been offering it to her, Ellie went to take the book from his hands, but he pulled it away at the last moment. “A bargain at £9.99, available from the gift shop, on your way out.” She was affronted for a moment, until she saw his wide grin and realised there was a tease in his voice. “Can’t be giving them away, I’m afraid. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to deprive a poor starving writer of a living, would you?”
“Well, if it’s all the same to you, I’ll keep my £9.99, as I’m unemployed and soon to be starving too. Probably not my thing anyway. I can’t see me caring too much about the life of some over-privileged woman from generations ago. Don’t you think it’s obscene that one family could own so much when there was poverty and sickness everywhere? I don’t know how they lived with themselves, sitting about writing amusing letters, when there were children in workhouses and being sent up chimneys. It was all very well for them, wasn’t it, being spoilt and waited on hand and foot?”
“What? I mean pardon?” It wasn’t the reply she’d been expecting and threw her off her train of thought. “Oh, my name’s Ellie.”
He nodded. “I suppose you’re right in some ways, Ellie, and yes they were fortunate; but those who worked on the estate and in the house were fortunate too. The Darcy’s way of life gave them employment, and most had a job for life. The Darcys were kind and generous employers and what would happen to the coachman, butler, cook, or maids, if there were no mistresses or masters to wait upon?”
“Elizabeth Darcy has never struck me as spoilt,” he went on. “She did a lot of good in her time, and established the first charitable school here. She even used to go down herself and read to the children occasionally. She came from humble beginnings, she had no money, no title, and her family were very ordinary. She was just very pretty and charming, and lucky too. She hit the jackpot! In today’s terms he would have been worth over twenty million.”
Ellie let out a small whistle. “I bet he was ugly.”
He threw back his head and laughed. “What makes you say that?”
“Otherwise he’d be too good to be true.”
“When you re-join the tour, have a look at the long gallery upstairs. There’s a picture of him at the far end, as a young man, before he married Elizabeth, and another one next to it; a picture of the two of them with some of their children. You can judge for yourself how handsome he was. Some people say I look a bit like him.”
“Some of their children?”
“They had eight.”
“She had the last of them when she was forty. He’d been overseas for a time on business, and was supposed to be returning on a ship that was lost in a storm. Everyone on it was presumed dead. When the news reached Pemberley, Elizabeth wrote him a letter; a letter she thought he would never read, full of all the things she loved about him, telling him how thankful she was for the life they’d had together.”
“But he wasn’t dead?”
“No, he missed the first sailing. He was on an entirely different ship and just walked through the door one day. Elizabeth fainted at the sight of him, and when she came to, she slapped him —for ‘having the temerity to make her so miserable by his supposed demise.’ And then they had one last child. It was a true love story. Even after twenty years of marriage and seven children, he couldn’t keep his hands off her. Fortunately for me, as it turned out,” he said. “Are you sure you can’t be tempted?”
She wondered what he was suggesting before she saw him tap the book again. Then she saw the name of the author, Thomas Darcy.
“Oh, you’re Tom? That’s you ? That last baby was your great, great, great, great someone or other?”
“Grandfather, yes. You missed a couple of ‘greats’ out though.”
“Poor starving writer, my arse. You own this mansion!”
He smiled again, revealing a little dimple in his left cheek. “No, I don’t. The house is owned by a family trust, and well, eight children, that’s a lot of descendants. I might be a Darcy, but I have to work for a living, I’m afraid. I’m the steward here. The book is a bit of a side-line. It’s a great love story, a happy every after.” He waved the book in front of her. “Come on, buy one. You’d be responsible for a hundred per cent increase in sales this week.”
“Sorry, but I don’t believe in happy ever afters anymore. They’re about as a real as the tooth fairy and Father Christmas.”
“Father Christmas isn’t real?” he asked in mock horror, making her laugh.
“Listen, if I said anything offensive about your great, great, great whose-what’s-its. I didn’t mean to insult you personally. I’m bit opinionated sometimes. I should learn to keep my mouth shut.”
He shook his head as he leaned against the edge of the huge desk behind him. “Not at all, I was rude. I can be a bit officious. It’s difficult sometimes, living and working in a place that has strangers walking around it almost constantly, and I’m sorry for mistaking you for a spy. It wouldn’t have been the first time an art dealer has sent a beautiful woman in to try and tempt me.”
Had he just called her beautiful? A warmth crept up around Ellie’s neck as he looked at her, and she had to resist the urge to wipe her sweaty palms on her already dirty jeans. She wasn’t used to being referred to as beautiful. Quirky, yes, pretty, yes, but beautiful? She imagined she appeared far from it, standing there in her damp, jacket and jeans, her hair bedraggled from the rain, and with not a scrap of make-up on.
“Did you walk here?”
“Yes, from the village.”
“Lambton? That’s a bit of a trek. I don’t mean to be nosy, but you don’t seem as if you’re on holiday, and you’re not the sort of visitor we normally have here. Some days I’m lucky if I see anyone under the age of fifty,” Tom said.
“I had a bad day yesterday. My boyfriend dumped me, so I quit my job.”
There was surprise and a question in his eyes.
“The boyfriend was also my boss.”
“Yeah. I’m a great big mess. I was in a state and just got in my car yesterday and drove, for hours, with no idea of where I was going. I got to Lambton and Mildred just stopped.”
“Mildred?” he asked, smiling.
“My car. I rented a room above the pub, tried the car again this morning, but she still won’t start. I called a local mechanic but he said he couldn’t get to me till late afternoon, and then I was at a loose end and thought the woods around here were pretty. Then it started to rain, so I paid for the tour, and…Why am I telling you all this?”
He didn’t answer, just watched her steadily. He had lovely eyes, behind the glasses, a perfectly straight nose, and a strong chin. They were both quiet for a moment, and then she was embarrassed and wanted to run. “I should get out of your way. I’m sorry, for intruding. Bye.”
Tom nodded and she moved towards the doorway, but stopped when something brushed past her. She scanned around for a dog, a cat, another person, but there was nobody in the room except for her and Tom. Then the door slammed shut, very firmly, as if a sudden breeze had caught it. Ellie looked towards the windows. It was windy and rainy outside, definitely, but nothing had been left open. There wasn’t anything that could have caused such a sudden draft. In fact, the air in the room was deadly still.
“What the hell was that?” she asked.
“I don’t know. It was odd, wasn’t it?”
“Are you winding me up? How did you do that? Have you got a secret button or something?”
“I didn’t do anything,” he said “But, you know, there are some that say Elizabeth Darcy adored Pemberley so much her spirit remains here to this day, that she’ll never leave it.”
“I don’t believe in ghosts.”
“Neither do I, actually, but your car broke down in Lambton. You claimed the door was open when you came in, when I’m certain it was shut. And you said the painting spoke to you.”
“Not like that, I just meant I liked it. I didn’t hear voices or anything. I might be a bit all over the place at the moment, but I’m not crazy.”
“Have a drink with me. At the pub, tonight?”
The unexpected invitation and the earnest way it was delivered unnerved her. “Thanks, but no, I am…”
He interrupted before she could finish turning him down. “Not into men into who shout at you, tell you soppy things about their ancestors and then try to freak you out with ghost stories? Yeah, sorry. I just thought, well, misery loves company and all that since I just got dumped too. Never had a lot of luck in that department.” He retreated behind the desk, and waved a hand in the air, as though he regretted asking her.
The sun came out unexpectedly, streaming in through the windows, bathing the room in light and sending a glow across his features. She liked him, Ellie realised. He had an awkwardness that made him abrupt at times, but he seemed kind, intelligent and his deep laugh was adorable. “Actually, I will have a drink with you.”
“Oh great. Something changed your mind?”
“It seems Elizabeth thinks I should,” she said, smiling at the painting.
He lifted his eyebrows. “But you don’t believe in ghosts?”
“No, or happy endings, but maybe I shouldn’t close my mind off entirely, to either possibility.”
“I’ll see you at seven then?”
Not trusting herself to speak again, she nodded and walked towards the door, suddenly desperate to see the rest of the house and the paintings he had told her about. She took the stairs two at a time, found the gallery and raced along it. Her tour party was at the end and the boring guide frowned at her for having fallen behind, but she paid him no attention. Luckily, she was just in time. He was throwing his hand out, guiding her eyes towards the portrait of Fitzwilliam Darcy. Ellie peered up at it and gasped. If she paid no attention to the Regency clothes, and added a pair of glasses, it looked just like Tom Darcy.
“Quite ‘hot’, wasn’t he? Is that what you say these days?” laughed someone, in response to her gasp. It was one of the two elderly ladies from earlier, who had been chatting at the back, previously only interested in finding the tea room.
“Yes, and he is. I mean, he was,” Ellie grinned, “very hot. I’m going for a drink with him tonight.”
The elderly lady edged away from her, with a dubious look. “If you say so, dear. If you say so.”
Hope you all enjoyed the first part. Next week in ‘The Near Miss’ Elizabeth’s ghost reappears and starts to cause havoc.
While we have named each chapter as we’ve been writing them, we don’t have a title for the whole story yet – all good suggestions are welcome, and let us know your thoughts. What’s going to happen next, and what would you like to see happen? Have a great week and see you next Wednesday.
Caitlin and Leslie x