I’ve had such a lovely time writing this book – to be able to combine all my favourite things into a special Christmas novella has been immense fun. Christmas is always a magical time, and so when a little bit of magic helps to propel my heroine, Lizzy, into the world of Pride and Prejudice, she feels her dreams have come true.
If you missed Chapter One of Mr Darcy’s Christmas Calendar you can read it here.
Lizzy knocked and waited. To her great disappointment she heard nothing, no answering voice, not even a sound. Mustering all her courage she turned the handle feeling all the while that she really wasn’t very sure if she should. Entering a narrow vestibule where a fire crackled in the hearth, another door with a glimpse of the room beyond beckoned her on. But, the sound of horses’ hooves approaching outside summoned Lizzy to the window and she gazed out in amazement at an ancient carriage rumbling by, and noticed the frozen duck pond she’d somehow completely missed on the way to the house. She was just wondering about the coach, and thinking how the scene must appear little changed over the last two hundred years when she heard light footsteps not far behind her, and as she turned to go into the other room, caught sight of a dashing figure of a young woman, stealthily running up the creaking wooden boards, two at a time, disappearing upstairs to rooms out of sight. A muffled laugh sounded above, a deliciously bright and happy noise which echoed in the silence, and Lizzy couldn’t help wondering if it had been Jane Austen that had made her escape, though that idea really made her chuckle. Whoever it had been, she clearly hadn’t wanted to be found, yet Lizzy couldn’t help feeling sorry to have missed her.
Cautiously advancing inside, she found a cheerful parlour and the delicious aroma of hot, buttered toast. A dining table and chairs occupied the centre space upon which a pot of honey, a blue and white plate bearing a few breadcrumbs with a sticky knife, and the scatterings of pretty china, consisting of a flowered teapot, a sugar box and a milk jug, were the remnants of what appeared to be a breakfast meal. A kettle hissed and steamed on a trivet over the roaring fire in the grate and on either side of the fireplace, a cupboard and a cabinet held a variety of precious treasures: miniature portraits of loved ones, beautiful teabowls, and a box of candles. Every picture was decorated with a glossy sprig of holly, and a swag of the same, entwined with ivy, was held in place on the mantle with scarlet ribbons. Set before the window a small tripod table and writing desk were placed. Lizzy was drawn to it by the sight of several leaves of paper, a bottle of ink and a quill pen, but as she approached she saw that the even handwriting in brown ink was partially hidden by a plain sheet, which had been placed on top. She tried not to stare, and though the temptation to nudge the paper slightly to reveal more was great, she knew she should not. However, she was intrigued by the words that caught her eye. The prospect of the Chawton ball was extremely agreeable to every female of the family. Lizzy couldn’t see any more than that, and in fact, it seemed this was where the author of the piece had decided to stop writing for the time being.
She didn’t quite know what to do next or where she should go, whether she should sit on one of the chairs at the side of the room. Sitting at the small writing table was out of the question. Lizzy had a feeling she knew exactly whose script flowed across the top of the paper, and besides that, the words she’d read seemed almost familiar. The prospect of a ball – it made her think of the Netherfield ball that Mr Bingley gave in Pride and Prejudice. Had this been left here on purpose as if Jane Austen herself had just penned the words to her famous book? Lizzy had no doubt this was all part of an elaborate entertainment put on by the museum, and she was so glad she’d decided not to go home. Standing by the window looking out at the frosty landscape, she saw two girls suddenly come into view, arm in arm, chatting and laughing, as they approached the front door. She heard their voices in the vestibule; within moments they’d entered the room still talking nineteen to the dozen, and were soon warming themselves by the fire, as bonnets and gloves were removed and outdoor capes thrown over a chair. They didn’t seem to notice Lizzy who couldn’t decide whether to interrupt their happy chatter and introduce herself. It was a few moments before they spotted Lizzy who was so surprised when they spoke to her that she plumped down on the little chair by the writing table.
‘How do you do? You must be Lizzy, my namesake.’ The lively girl who spoke these words was very pretty with dark eyes that sparkled under fine arched brows. She held her hand out, and Lizzy stood up again to take it, smiling back into the eyes that were full of humour.
‘Yes, I am Lizzy Benson,’ she replied, and tried to curtsey as she’d seen the Bennet sisters do in the film of Pride and Prejudice. ‘I hope I’m not intruding.’
‘Not at all,’ said the other equally beautiful girl whose fair curls fell over her forehead in ringlets. ‘Welcome to Chawton; we were expecting you.’
‘You were expecting me?’
‘Forgive me, my name is Jane Bennet, and we are delighted to have your company. Miss Austen loves visitors, especially those that love her books.’
‘Miss Austen knows about me?’ Lizzy could not believe her eyes or ears, and even though she guessed they were actors making it all up, she still felt a kind of thrilling sensation at the thought that her favourite author somehow knew about her.
‘Yes, indeed,’ added Elizabeth, ‘and she is so pleased that you could come to Chawton. She has a lot of work to do, and would welcome your help.’
‘I’m not sure how I can be of any use to her,’ Lizzy replied, certain that she must now be dreaming. Was it a coincidence that these girls shared the same names as those of her favourite heroines?
‘To think Mr Bingley brought the invitation himself,’ Jane said. ‘He is most pleasant, and gentleman-like, Miss Benson.’
‘And, if that does not proclaim his very special interest in a certain young lady sitting next to me, then I will marry Mr Collins!’ added Elizabeth.
‘Oh, my dearest sister,’ laughed Jane, ‘you’d best be careful not to make such outrageous statements, for I am sure you do not wish such an attachment.’
Elizabeth laughed, throwing back her head and showing a pretty mouth. ‘No, indeed! It will be quite difficult enough avoiding a dance at the Chawton ball, let alone a walk down the aisle of Chawton church.’
‘But, I am certain you will not wish to avoid a certain redcoat,’ said Jane, looking demurely at her hands in her lap as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.
‘If you mean Mr Wickham, as I am sure you do, I will say that I would be quite happy to dance with that gentleman.’
‘Only ‘quite’ happy? Eliza, you are blushing at the very sound of his name.’
‘Mr Wickham may be assured of my accepting a dance … or two, if he is lucky,’ Elizabeth said. ‘I must admit I am looking forward to seeing him again.’
The lady from the shop walked in then, followed by Lydia and two other girls, one who kept whispering and giggling in the latter’s ear, and another whose studied concentration on a book meant that she hardly attended to the general conversation.
‘I’m so pleased you’ve met my daughters, Miss Lizzy,’ the lady said confirming that she must be playing the role of Mrs Bennet. ‘Here are Kitty, and Mary to say hello to you. Now, what have you been discussing? I expect all the talk has been of the ball to come and what you are to wear.’
‘Mama, I must have a new gown, I’ve simply outgrown all the others,’ said Lydia pulling a face. ‘It’s not my fault I’ve grown so tall, and, in any case, Kitty will be pleased to have my old gown, I’m sure, it’s hardly been worn.’
‘But, I am older than you,’ Kitty began, ‘and I do not see why I should have your cast-offs just because you can’t stop growing.’
‘Girls, girls, please stop squabbling. We shall see what we can do this very afternoon,’ said Mrs Bennet who seemed keen to stop an argument forming. ‘It’s too late to go into Alton even if it stops raining, but I shall ask Hill and see if we can’t find something to tack onto the bottom of your gown.’
Lizzy looked to the window and was astonished to see not only had the snow stopped, but also that the sky was dark with torrential rain falling in stair rods. It didn’t look as if it was stopping any time soon.
‘Oh, the snow is melting at last,’ she said out loud, ‘I’d better think about going home,’ but when there was no reaction to her outburst and they all ignored her, she almost felt as if she were sitting in the theatre and had rudely interrupted the play. More and more, the idea that she was watching a performance of her favourite book, Pride and Prejudice, formed in her mind. The names of the places were changed slightly to fit in with the locality, but other than that, it seemed so very similar. She had a minor part to play, and they were doing their best to include her to a small extent, but it was so well done, and the characters so real, it was as if she was really visiting Chawton cottage or Longbourn with the Bennet sisters.
Her reverie was broken by the sound of a young man’s voice calling in a singsong fashion from beyond the door. ‘Yoo hoo! Halloo, ladies, where are you?’
A figure in clerical black burst into the room and made a beeline for Elizabeth, sitting too closely on the sofa next to her, and asking if she’d heard the news that they were all invited to the Chawton ball.
Lizzy looked across to see Elizabeth’s teasing expression with her dark brows arching high above her eyes, which sparkled with amusement. ‘Mr Collins, do you intend accepting Mr Bingley’s invitation? I imagine if you did, you might consider it improper to join in the evening’s amusement.’
Lydia snorted and nudged Kitty in the ribs, as they all waited for his response.
He nodded thoughtfully for a moment or two and looked most solemn before speaking. ‘Miss Eliza, I can assure you I entertain no scruple whatever on that head, and am very far from dreading a rebuke either from the Archbishop or Lady Catherine de Bourgh, by venturing to dance.’
‘But, as a clergyman,’ she responded, ‘whose behaviour is the standard for all those in his immediate society, surely you cannot condone such revelry. Should we not abstain from such evil, as the Bible instructs us?’
‘I am by no means of the opinion, I assure you,’ Mr Collins continued, ‘that a ball of this kind, given by a young man of character to respectable people, can have any evil tendency. I rather enjoy dancing myself, and I hope to be honoured with the hands of all my fair cousins in the course of the evening. I take this opportunity of soliciting yours, Miss Elizabeth, for the two first dances!’
Elizabeth’s astonished countenance brought forth several hardly suppressed giggles from Lydia and Kitty, and several more undisguised howls of laughter as they watched their sister reluctantly accept, before she rather huffily picked up her cloak, immediately leaving the room and heading off out through the front door in rather more subdued spirits than she’d entered it. Mr Collins left soon after humming a tune and looking very pleased with himself.
‘Mr Collins is very sweet on Lizzy,’ said Mrs Bennet. ‘Two dances – well – I can only hope it will lead to more! Come Kitty, come Lydia, we must make haste if your gowns will be finished in time.’
One by one, the others departed until Lizzy was left quite alone, not knowing whether she should burst into applause. It had been very good, but she really ought to think about getting home.
The sound of the front door shutting once more had her looking through the window for Elizabeth returning after her walk. To her great astonishment Lizzy saw somebody else. The rain had stopped and in the scene outside, large snowflakes were again falling thick and fast upon the broad shoulders of a gentleman Jane Austen would have described as tall and good-looking. A more Darcy-like figure Lizzy could not have imagined with his greatcoat flapping around him just as dramatically as Colin Firth’s ever did, his smooth breeches delineating a muscular physique, and with dark hair tumbling in curls to his collar. It was only when he glanced towards the window that she cried out in surprise and recognition. Looking quite unlike the irritable man she’d met briefly before, Mr Williams stared directly into her eyes.
She heard the sound of doors opening and shutting rather loudly and the clip of boots upon the wooden boards. When the dining parlour door opened and Mr Williams entered the room, Lizzy could not have been more astonished. She was slightly tempted to laugh for he still looked rather cross but she also had to admit if anyone could pull off a gentleman’s Regency outfit, it was him. It was a pity he was such an obnoxious person, he was actually quite handsome, she thought. Knowing he would only be rude if she asked him what he was dressed up for, she decided to say nothing and waited for him to speak first.
‘Mrs Bennet said I’d find you here. Look, we’re shutting up early, you can’t stay here any longer.’
He’s a silver-tongued charmer her mother would have said, she thought, but unable to be just as rude back again, she answered in a friendly way. ‘Of course, I’d better be going; the weather looks to be really closing in. Anyway, I’ve had a lovely time, even if it’s been a bit short. The entertainment has been wonderful in the rooms I’ve seen. Excellent acting, the characters were spot on!’
‘The bus leaves in five minutes.’ He was scowling at her again and checking the fob watch hanging from a grey ribbon attached to those breeches that left nothing to the imagination.
Suddenly Lizzy felt she’d had enough of being polite. Knowing he was just the sort who would never remember her even if she chose to come back again one day, Lizzy decided she wasn’t going to let this pompous oaf have the last word. ‘Why are you dressed like that?’ she demanded. ‘Oh, don’t tell me, I’ve guessed it! You must be playing the part of Mr Collins. Yes, there’s no doubt who you must be – grave, stately, and with formal manners – true to the life!’
She said it to wound, as she knew it would. Mr Williams was clearly a vain young man judging from the care he’d taken with every little detail to get his clothes and hair exactly right. She bet he thought he was the spitting image of Mr Darcy (not that anyone but Jane Austen knew what he looked like) and she could just imagine him at an event like the Jane Austen Regency Week that took place every year in Alton, where he would make sure that everyone could see and admire him. No doubt, some silly girls would be completely taken in by his appearance and she imagined him playing on it to full effect. She could hear him chatting them up with that posh voice and see them hanging on his every word.
‘As a matter of fact, I’m just trying on my clothes for the Advent Ball tomorrow evening at Chawton Great House, just down the lane. Of course, it’s only for privileged, invited guests. The noblest families from miles around will be gathered in celebration. Ordinarily, a ball of this kind would command a ticket of a thousand pounds apiece.’
‘Why am I not surprised by that?’ Lizzy retorted, feeling that to be just as rude might be the only way to communicate. ‘Goodbye, Mr Williams. I hope you have a wonderful time, I expect you’ll be in your element.’
She turned to go, and promptly walked into Mrs Bennet who appeared at the door as if by magic.
‘Lizzy, where are you off to in such a hurry?’ she demanded. ‘You’re not thinking of leaving us, I hope. I’m afraid the last bus has been cancelled, my dear. But, do not worry. We shall be very jolly here. You must stay, mustn’t she, Mr Williams?’
Lizzy heard a sort of strangled grunt. ‘She may do as she pleases.’
Mrs Bennet ignored him. ‘In any case, it is all arranged, is that not so?’
‘Whatever do you mean?’ asked Lizzy.
Mr Williams shook his head, gave Lizzy one more look of scornful disdain and left the room.
‘We cannot send you home in this dreadful weather – I would feel forever responsible! If anything happened to you, I should never live with myself. Indeed, the very thought sets my poor nerves jangling.’
‘But, my mother will be so worried,’ answered Lizzy quickly.
‘Surely not when she discovers you’ve been invited to stay here, my dear. There’s a telephone in the hallway. Phone your mother, but I’m very sure she can spare you.’
‘I’ve my own phone, but I really will have to go. Besides, I’ve brought nothing with me. I haven’t a clean change of clothes or …’
‘I’m afraid it cannot be helped,’ interrupted Mrs Bennet, ‘and in any case, I am sure we can find you something to wear.’
‘It’s not so very far to walk to Alton, if I go quickly. I can get a train from there. Perhaps I should phone for a cab.’
Lizzy reached inside her pocket for her mobile, but saw immediately on taking it out that it was completely dead. How that had happened she had no idea, she was sure it was fully charged before she left home.
‘There won’t be any hansoms now, my dear, there’s not a carriage or conveyance to transport you anywhere and walking is quite out of the question. You would get lost in these country lanes that all look the same in the snow. And look, it’s getting dark.’
There seemed to be no arguing with Mrs Bennet who took charge immediately. ‘I will show you to your room first and then you can telephone home. Follow me.’
If you’d like to see some more pictures of the interior of Jane Austen’s house, and lots of lovely Christmas inspiration, as well as some of my paintings, do have a look at my pinterest page dedicated to Mr Darcy’s Christmas Calendar.
I hope you enjoyed the chapter and that you’ll join me on November 4th for launch day, Chapter Three, and some prizes to celebrate!
A novella for the Christmas holidays – Lizzy Benson visits Jane Austen’s house in Chawton, and buys a special advent calendar in the gift shop, but strange things start to happen when she opens up the first door and finds herself back in time with all the beloved characters from her favourite book, Pride and Prejudice. As she finds herself increasingly drawn into an alternate reality, Lizzy discovers not only is Mr Darcy missing from the plot, but Jane Austen has never heard of him. All Lizzy can hope is that she can help to get the story and her own complicated love life back on track before Christmas is over!