Merry days were these at Thornfield Hall; and busy days too: how different from the first three months of stillness, monotony, and solitude I had passed beneath its roof! All sad feelings seemed now driven from the house, all gloomy associations forgotten: there was life everywhere, movement all day long. You could not now traverse the gallery, once so hushed, nor enter the front chambers, once so tenantless, without encountering a smart lady’s-maid or a dandy valet.
The kitchen, the butler’s pantry, the servants’ hall, the entrance hall, were equally alive; and the saloons were only left void and still when the blue sky and halcyon sunshine of the genial spring weather called their occupants out into the grounds. Even when that weather was broken, and continuous rain set in for some days, no damp seemed cast over enjoyment: indoor amusements only became more lively and varied, in consequence of the stop put to outdoor gaiety.
I wondered what they were going to do the first evening a change of entertainment was proposed: they spoke of “playing charades,” but in my ignorance I did not understand the term. The servants were called in, the dining-room tables wheeled away, the lights otherwise disposed, the chairs placed in a semicircle opposite the arch. While Mr. Rochester and the other gentlemen directed these alterations, the ladies were running up and down stairs ringing for their maids. Mrs. Fairfax was summoned to give information respecting the resources of the house in shawls, dresses, draperies of any kind; and certain wardrobes of the third storey were ransacked, and their contents, in the shape of brocaded and hooped petticoats, satin sacques, black modes, lace lappets, &c., were brought down in armfuls by the abigails; then a selection was made, and such things as were chosen were carried to the boudoir within the drawing-room.
Meantime, Mr. Rochester had again summoned the ladies round him, and was selecting certain of their number to be of his party. “Miss Ingram is mine, of course,” said he: afterwards he named the two Misses Eshton, and Mrs. Dent. He looked at me: I happened to be near him, as I had been fastening the clasp of Mrs. Dent’s bracelet, which had got loose.
“Will you play?” he asked. I shook my head. He did not insist, which I rather feared he would have done; he allowed me to return quietly to my usual seat.
He and his aids now withdrew behind the curtain: the other party, which was headed by Colonel Dent, sat down on the crescent of chairs. One of the gentlemen, Mr. Eshton, observing me, seemed to propose that I should be asked to join them; but Lady Ingram instantly negatived the notion.
“No,” I heard her say: “she looks too stupid for any game of the sort.”
Ere long a bell tinkled, and the curtain drew up. Within the arch, the bulky figure of Sir George Lynn, whom Mr. Rochester had likewise chosen, was seen enveloped in a white sheet: before him, on a table, lay open a large book; and at his side stood Amy Eshton, draped in Mr. Rochester’s cloak, and holding a book in her hand. Somebody, unseen, rang the bell merrily; then Adèle (who had insisted on being one of her guardian’s party), bounded forward, scattering round her the contents of a basket of flowers she carried on her arm. Then appeared the magnificent figure of Miss Ingram, clad in white, a long veil on her head, and a wreath of roses round her brow; by her side walked Mr. Rochester, and together they drew near the table. They knelt; while Mrs. Dent and Louisa Eshton, dressed also in white, took up their stations behind them. A ceremony followed, in dumb show, in which it was easy to recognise the pantomime of a marriage. At its termination, Colonel Dent and his party consulted in whispers for two minutes, then the Colonel called out—
“Bride!” Mr. Rochester bowed, and the curtain fell.
A considerable interval elapsed before it again rose. Its second rising displayed a more elaborately prepared scene than the last. The drawing-room, as I have before observed, was raised two steps above the dining-room, and on the top of the upper step, placed a yard or two back within the room, appeared a large marble basin, which I recognised as an ornament of the conservatory—where it usually stood, surrounded by exotics, and tenanted by gold fish—and whence it must have been transported with some trouble, on account of its size and weight.
Seated on the carpet, by the side of this basin, was seen Mr. Rochester, costumed in shawls, with a turban on his head. His dark eyes and swarthy skin and Paynim features suited the costume exactly: he looked the very model of an Eastern emir, an agent or a victim of the bowstring. Presently advanced into view Miss Ingram. She, too, was attired in oriental fashion: a crimson scarf tied sash-like round the waist: an embroidered handkerchief knotted about her temples; her beautifully-moulded arms bare, one of them upraised in the act of supporting a pitcher, poised gracefully on her head. Both her cast of form and feature, her complexion and her general air, suggested the idea of some Israelitish princess of the patriarchal days; and such was doubtless the character she intended to represent.
She approached the basin, and bent over it as if to fill her pitcher; she again lifted it to her head. The personage on the well-brink now seemed to accost her; to make some request:—“She hasted, let down her pitcher on her hand, and gave him to drink.” From the bosom of his robe he then produced a casket, opened it and showed magnificent bracelets and earrings; she acted astonishment and admiration; kneeling, he laid the treasure at her feet; incredulity and delight were expressed by her looks and gestures; the stranger fastened the bracelets on her arms and the rings in her ears. It was Eliezer and Rebecca: the camels only were wanting.
The divining party again laid their heads together: apparently they could not agree about the word or syllable the scene illustrated. Colonel Dent, their spokesman, demanded “the tableau of the whole;” whereupon the curtain again descended.
On its third rising only a portion of the drawing-room was disclosed; the rest being concealed by a screen, hung with some sort of dark and coarse drapery. The marble basin was removed; in its place, stood a deal table and a kitchen chair: these objects were visible by a very dim light proceeding from a horn lantern, the wax candles being all extinguished.
Amidst this sordid scene, sat a man with his clenched hands resting on his knees, and his eyes bent on the ground. I knew Mr. Rochester; though the begrimed face, the disordered dress (his coat hanging loose from one arm, as if it had been almost torn from his back in a scuffle), the desperate and scowling countenance, the rough, bristling hair might well have disguised him. As he moved, a chain clanked; to his wrists were attached fetters.
“Bridewell!” exclaimed Colonel Dent, and the charade was solved.
A sufficient interval having elapsed for the performers to resume their ordinary costume, they re-entered the dining-room. Mr. Rochester led in Miss Ingram; she was complimenting him on his acting.
“Do you know,” said she, “that, of the three characters, I liked you in the last best? Oh, had you but lived a few years earlier, what a gallant gentleman-highwayman you would have made!”
“Is all the soot washed from my face?” he asked, turning it towards her.
“Alas! yes: the more’s the pity! Nothing could be more becoming to your complexion than that ruffian’s rouge.”
“You would like a hero of the road then?”
“An English hero of the road would be the next best thing to an Italian bandit; and that could only be surpassed by a Levantine pirate.”
“Well, whatever I am, remember you are my wife; we were married an hour since, in the presence of all these witnesses.” She giggled, and her colour rose.
“Now, Dent,” continued Mr. Rochester, “it is your turn.” And as the other party withdrew, he and his band took the vacated seats. Miss Ingram placed herself at her leader’s right hand; the other diviners filled the chairs on each side of him and her. I did not now watch the actors; I no longer waited with interest for the curtain to rise; my attention was absorbed by the spectators; my eyes, erewhile fixed on the arch, were now irresistibly attracted to the semicircle of chairs. What charade Colonel Dent and his party played, what word they chose, how they acquitted themselves, I no longer remember; but I still see the consultation which followed each scene: I see Mr. Rochester turn to Miss Ingram, and Miss Ingram to him; I see her incline her head towards him, till the jetty curls almost touch his shoulder and wave against his cheek; I hear their mutual whisperings; I recall their interchanged glances; and something even of the feeling roused by the spectacle returns in memory at this moment.
I have told you, reader, that I had learnt to love Mr. Rochester: I could not unlove him now, merely because I found that he had ceased to notice me—because I might pass hours in his presence, and he would never once turn his eyes in my direction—because I saw all his attentions appropriated by a great lady, who scorned to touch me with the hem of her robes as she passed; who, if ever her dark and imperious eye fell on me by chance, would withdraw it instantly as from an object too mean to merit observation. I could not unlove him, because I felt sure he would soon marry this very lady—because I read daily in her a proud security in his intentions respecting her—because I witnessed hourly in him a style of courtship which, if careless and choosing rather to be sought than to seek, was yet, in its very carelessness, captivating, and in its very pride, irresistible.
There was nothing to cool or banish love in these circumstances, though much to create despair. Much too, you will think, reader, to engender jealousy: if a woman, in my position, could presume to be jealous of a woman in Miss Ingram’s. But I was not jealous: or very rarely;—the nature of the pain I suffered could not be explained by that word. Miss Ingram was a mark beneath jealousy: she was too inferior to excite the feeling. Pardon the seeming paradox; I mean what I say. She was very showy, but she was not genuine: she had a fine person, many brilliant attainments; but her mind was poor, her heart barren by nature: nothing bloomed spontaneously on that soil; no unforced natural fruit delighted by its freshness. She was not good; she was not original: she used to repeat sounding phrases from books: she never offered, nor had, an opinion of her own. She advocated a high tone of sentiment; but she did not know the sensations of sympathy and pity; tenderness and truth were not in her. Too often she betrayed this, by the undue vent she gave to a spiteful antipathy she had conceived against little Adèle: pushing her away with some contumelious epithet if she happened to approach her; sometimes ordering her from the room, and always treating her with coldness and acrimony. Other eyes besides mine watched these manifestations of character—watched them closely, keenly, shrewdly. Yes; the future bridegroom, Mr. Rochester himself, exercised over his intended a ceaseless surveillance; and it was from this sagacity—this guardedness of his—this perfect, clear consciousness of his fair one’s defects—this obvious absence of passion in his sentiments towards her, that my ever-torturing pain arose.
I saw he was going to marry her, for family, perhaps political reasons, because her rank and connections suited him; I felt he had not given her his love, and that her qualifications were ill adapted to win from him that treasure. This was the point—this was where the nerve was touched and teased—this was where the fever was sustained and fed: she could not charm him.
If she had managed the victory at once, and he had yielded and sincerely laid his heart at her feet, I should have covered my face, turned to the wall, and (figuratively) have died to them. If Miss Ingram had been a good and noble woman, endowed with force, fervour, kindness, sense, I should have had one vital struggle with two tigers—jealousy and despair: then, my heart torn out and devoured, I should have admired her—acknowledged her excellence, and been quiet for the rest of my days: and the more absolute her superiority, the deeper would have been my admiration—the more truly tranquil my quiescence. But as matters really stood, to watch Miss Ingram’s efforts at fascinating Mr. Rochester, to witness their repeated failure—herself unconscious that they did fail; vainly fancying that each shaft launched hit the mark, and infatuatedly pluming herself on success, when her pride and self-complacency repelled further and further what she wished to allure—to witness this, was to be at once under ceaseless excitation and ruthless restraint.
Because, when she failed, I saw how she might have succeeded. Arrows that continually glanced off from Mr. Rochester’s breast and fell harmless at his feet, might, I knew, if shot by a surer hand, have quivered keen in his proud heart—have called love into his stern eye, and softness into his sardonic face; or, better still, without weapons a silent conquest might have been won.
“Why can she not influence him more, when she is privileged to draw so near to him?” I asked myself. “Surely she cannot truly like him, or not like him with true affection! If she did, she need not coin her smiles so lavishly, flash her glances so unremittingly, manufacture airs so elaborate, graces so multitudinous. It seems to me that she might, by merely sitting quietly at his side, saying little and looking less, get nigher his heart. I have seen in his face a far different expression from that which hardens it now while she is so vivaciously accosting him; but then it came of itself: it was not elicited by meretricious arts and calculated manoeuvres; and one had but to accept it—to answer what he asked without pretension, to address him when needful without grimace—and it increased and grew kinder and more genial, and warmed one like a fostering sunbeam. How will she manage to please him when they are married? I do not think she will manage it; and yet it might be managed; and his wife might, I verily believe, be the very happiest woman the sun shines on.”
I have not yet said anything condemnatory of Mr. Rochester’s project of marrying for interest and connections. It surprised me when I first discovered that such was his intention: I had thought him a man unlikely to be influenced by motives so commonplace in his choice of a wife; but the longer I considered the position, education, &c., of the parties, the less I felt justified in judging and blaming either him or Miss Ingram for acting in conformity to ideas and principles instilled into them, doubtless, from their childhood. All their class held these principles: I supposed, then, they had reasons for holding them such as I could not fathom. It seemed to me that, were I a gentleman like him, I would take to my bosom only such a wife as I could love; but the very obviousness of the advantages to the husband’s own happiness offered by this plan convinced me that there must be arguments against its general adoption of which I was quite ignorant: otherwise I felt sure all the world would act as I wished to act.
But in other points, as well as this, I was growing very lenient to my master: I was forgetting all his faults, for which I had once kept a sharp look-out. It had formerly been my endeavour to study all sides of his character: to take the bad with the good; and from the just weighing of both, to form an equitable judgment. Now I saw no bad. The sarcasm that had repelled, the harshness that had startled me once, were only like keen condiments in a choice dish: their presence was pungent, but their absence would be felt as comparatively insipid. And as for the vague something—was it a sinister or a sorrowful, a designing or a desponding expression?—that opened upon a careful observer, now and then, in his eye, and closed again before one could fathom the strange depth partially disclosed; that something which used to make me fear and shrink, as if I had been wandering amongst volcanic-looking hills, and had suddenly felt the ground quiver and seen it gape: that something, I, at intervals, beheld still; and with throbbing heart, but not with palsied nerves. Instead of wishing to shun, I longed only to dare—to divine it; and I thought Miss Ingram happy, because one day she might look into the abyss at her leisure, explore its secrets and analyse their nature.
Meantime, while I thought only of my master and his future bride—saw only them, heard only their discourse, and considered only their movements of importance—the rest of the party were occupied with their own separate interests and pleasures. The Ladies Lynn and Ingram continued to consort in solemn conferences, where they nodded their two turbans at each other, and held up their four hands in confronting gestures of surprise, or mystery, or horror, according to the theme on which their gossip ran, like a pair of magnified puppets. Mild Mrs. Dent talked with good-natured Mrs. Eshton; and the two sometimes bestowed a courteous word or smile on me. Sir George Lynn, Colonel Dent, and Mr. Eshton discussed politics, or county affairs, or justice business. Lord Ingram flirted with Amy Eshton; Louisa played and sang to and with one of the Messrs. Lynn; and Mary Ingram listened languidly to the gallant speeches of the other. Sometimes all, as with one consent, suspended their by-play to observe and listen to the principal actors: for, after all, Mr. Rochester and—because closely connected with him—Miss Ingram were the life and soul of the party. If he was absent from the room an hour, a perceptible dulness seemed to steal over the spirits of his guests; and his re-entrance was sure to give a fresh impulse to the vivacity of conversation.
The want of his animating influence appeared to be peculiarly felt one day that he had been summoned to Millcote on business, and was not likely to return till late. The afternoon was wet: a walk the party had proposed to take to see a gipsy camp, lately pitched on a common beyond Hay, was consequently deferred. Some of the gentlemen were gone to the stables: the younger ones, together with the younger ladies, were playing billiards in the billiard-room. The dowagers Ingram and Lynn sought solace in a quiet game at cards. Blanche Ingram, after having repelled, by supercilious taciturnity, some efforts of Mrs. Dent and Mrs. Eshton to draw her into conversation, had first murmured over some sentimental tunes and airs on the piano, and then, having fetched a novel from the library, had flung herself in haughty listlessness on a sofa, and prepared to beguile, by the spell of fiction, the tedious hours of absence. The room and the house were silent: only now and then the merriment of the billiard-players was heard from above.
It was verging on dusk, and the clock had already given warning of the hour to dress for dinner, when little Adèle, who knelt by me in the drawing-room window-seat, suddenly exclaimed—
“Voilà Monsieur Rochester, qui revient!”
I turned, and Miss Ingram darted forwards from her sofa: the others, too, looked up from their several occupations; for at the same time a crunching of wheels and a splashing tramp of horse-hoofs became audible on the wet gravel. A post-chaise was approaching.
“What can possess him to come home in that style?” said Miss Ingram. “He rode Mesrour (the black horse), did he not, when he went out? and Pilot was with him:—what has he done with the animals?”
As she said this, she approached her tall person and ample garments so near the window, that I was obliged to bend back almost to the breaking of my spine: in her eagerness she did not observe me at first, but when she did, she curled her lip and moved to another casement. The post-chaise stopped; the driver rang the door-bell, and a gentleman alighted attired in travelling garb; but it was not Mr. Rochester; it was a tall, fashionable-looking man, a stranger.
“How provoking!” exclaimed Miss Ingram: “you tiresome monkey!” (apostrophising Adèle), “who perched you up in the window to give false intelligence?” and she cast on me an angry glance, as if I were in fault.
Some parleying was audible in the hall, and soon the new-comer entered. He bowed to Lady Ingram, as deeming her the eldest lady present.
“It appears I come at an inopportune time, madam,” said he, “when my friend, Mr. Rochester, is from home; but I arrive from a very long journey, and I think I may presume so far on old and intimate acquaintance as to instal myself here till he returns.”
His manner was polite; his accent, in speaking, struck me as being somewhat unusual,—not precisely foreign, but still not altogether English: his age might be about Mr. Rochester’s,—between thirty and forty; his complexion was singularly sallow: otherwise he was a fine-looking man, at first sight especially. On closer examination, you detected something in his face that displeased, or rather that failed to please. His features were regular, but too relaxed: his eye was large and well cut, but the life looking out of it was a tame, vacant life—at least so I thought.
The sound of the dressing-bell dispersed the party. It was not till after dinner that I saw him again: he then seemed quite at his ease. But I liked his physiognomy even less than before: it struck me as being at the same time unsettled and inanimate. His eye wandered, and had no meaning in its wandering: this gave him an odd look, such as I never remembered to have seen. For a handsome and not an unamiable-looking man, he repelled me exceedingly: there was no power in that smooth-skinned face of a full oval shape: no firmness in that aquiline nose and small cherry mouth; there was no thought on the low, even forehead; no command in that blank, brown eye.
As I sat in my usual nook, and looked at him with the light of the girandoles on the mantelpiece beaming full over him—for he occupied an arm-chair drawn close to the fire, and kept shrinking still nearer, as if he were cold, I compared him with Mr. Rochester. I think (with deference be it spoken) the contrast could not be much greater between a sleek gander and a fierce falcon: between a meek sheep and the rough-coated keen-eyed dog, its guardian.
He had spoken of Mr. Rochester as an old friend. A curious friendship theirs must have been: a pointed illustration, indeed, of the old adage that “extremes meet.”
Two or three of the gentlemen sat near him, and I caught at times scraps of their conversation across the room. At first I could not make much sense of what I heard; for the discourse of Louisa Eshton and Mary Ingram, who sat nearer to me, confused the fragmentary sentences that reached me at intervals. These last were discussing the stranger; they both called him “a beautiful man.” Louisa said he was “a love of a creature,” and she “adored him;” and Mary instanced his “pretty little mouth, and nice nose,” as her ideal of the charming.
“And what a sweet-tempered forehead he has!” cried Louisa,—“so smooth—none of those frowning irregularities I dislike so much; and such a placid eye and smile!”
And then, to my great relief, Mr. Henry Lynn summoned them to the other side of the room, to settle some point about the deferred excursion to Hay Common.
I was now able to concentrate my attention on the group by the fire, and I presently gathered that the new-comer was called Mr. Mason; then I learned that he was but just arrived in England, and that he came from some hot country: which was the reason, doubtless, his face was so sallow, and that he sat so near the hearth, and wore a surtout in the house. Presently the words Jamaica, Kingston, Spanish Town, indicated the West Indies as his residence; and it was with no little surprise I gathered, ere long, that he had there first seen and become acquainted with Mr. Rochester. He spoke of his friend’s dislike of the burning heats, the hurricanes, and rainy seasons of that region. I knew Mr. Rochester had been a traveller: Mrs. Fairfax had said so; but I thought the continent of Europe had bounded his wanderings; till now I had never heard a hint given of visits to more distant shores.
I was pondering these things, when an incident, and a somewhat unexpected one, broke the thread of my musings. Mr. Mason, shivering as some one chanced to open the door, asked for more coal to be put on the fire, which had burnt out its flame, though its mass of cinder still shone hot and red. The footman who brought the coal, in going out, stopped near Mr. Eshton’s chair, and said something to him in a low voice, of which I heard only the words, “old woman,”—“quite troublesome.”
“Tell her she shall be put in the stocks if she does not take herself off,” replied the magistrate.
“No—stop!” interrupted Colonel Dent. “Don’t send her away, Eshton; we might turn the thing to account; better consult the ladies.” And speaking aloud, he continued—“Ladies, you talked of going to Hay Common to visit the gipsy camp; Sam here says that one of the old Mother Bunches is in the servants’ hall at this moment, and insists upon being brought in before ‘the quality,’ to tell them their fortunes. Would you like to see her?”
“Surely, colonel,” cried Lady Ingram, “you would not encourage such a low impostor? Dismiss her, by all means, at once!”
“But I cannot persuade her to go away, my lady,” said the footman; “nor can any of the servants: Mrs. Fairfax is with her just now, entreating her to be gone; but she has taken a chair in the chimney-corner, and says nothing shall stir her from it till she gets leave to come in here.”
“What does she want?” asked Mrs. Eshton.
“‘To tell the gentry their fortunes,’ she says, ma’am; and she swears she must and will do it.”
“What is she like?” inquired the Misses Eshton, in a breath.
“A shockingly ugly old creature, miss; almost as black as a crock.”
“Why, she’s a real sorceress!” cried Frederick Lynn. “Let us have her in, of course.”
“To be sure,” rejoined his brother; “it would be a thousand pities to throw away such a chance of fun.”
“My dear boys, what are you thinking about?” exclaimed Mrs. Lynn.
“I cannot possibly countenance any such inconsistent proceeding,” chimed in the Dowager Ingram.
“Indeed, mama, but you can—and will,” pronounced the haughty voice of Blanche, as she turned round on the piano-stool; where till now she had sat silent, apparently examining sundry sheets of music. “I have a curiosity to hear my fortune told: therefore, Sam, order the beldame forward.”
“My darling Blanche! recollect—”
“I do—I recollect all you can suggest; and I must have my will—quick, Sam!”
“Yes—yes—yes!” cried all the juveniles, both ladies and gentlemen. “Let her come—it will be excellent sport!”
The footman still lingered. “She looks such a rough one,” said he.
“Go!” ejaculated Miss Ingram, and the man went.
Excitement instantly seized the whole party: a running fire of raillery and jests was proceeding when Sam returned.
“She won’t come now,” said he. “She says it’s not her mission to appear before the ‘vulgar herd’ (them’s her words). I must show her into a room by herself, and then those who wish to consult her must go to her one by one.”
“You see now, my queenly Blanche,” began Lady Ingram, “she encroaches. Be advised, my angel girl—and—”
“Show her into the library, of course,” cut in the “angel girl.” “It is not my mission to listen to her before the vulgar herd either: I mean to have her all to myself. Is there a fire in the library?”
“Yes, ma’am—but she looks such a tinkler.”
“Cease that chatter, blockhead! and do my bidding.”
Again Sam vanished; and mystery, animation, expectation rose to full flow once more.
“She’s ready now,” said the footman, as he reappeared. “She wishes to know who will be her first visitor.”
“I think I had better just look in upon her before any of the ladies go,” said Colonel Dent.
“Tell her, Sam, a gentleman is coming.”
Sam went and returned.
“She says, sir, that she’ll have no gentlemen; they need not trouble themselves to come near her; nor,” he added, with difficulty suppressing a titter, “any ladies either, except the young, and single.”
“By Jove, she has taste!” exclaimed Henry Lynn.
Miss Ingram rose solemnly: “I go first,” she said, in a tone which might have befitted the leader of a forlorn hope, mounting a breach in the van of his men.
“Oh, my best! oh, my dearest! pause—reflect!” was her mama’s cry; but she swept past her in stately silence, passed through the door which Colonel Dent held open, and we heard her enter the library.
A comparative silence ensued. Lady Ingram thought it “le cas” to wring her hands: which she did accordingly. Miss Mary declared she felt, for her part, she never dared venture. Amy and Louisa Eshton tittered under their breath, and looked a little frightened.
The minutes passed very slowly: fifteen were counted before the library-door again opened. Miss Ingram returned to us through the arch.
Would she laugh? Would she take it as a joke? All eyes met her with a glance of eager curiosity, and she met all eyes with one of rebuff and coldness; she looked neither flurried nor merry: she walked stiffly to her seat, and took it in silence.
“Well, Blanche?” said Lord Ingram.
“What did she say, sister?” asked Mary.
“What did you think? How do you feel? Is she a real fortune-teller?” demanded the Misses Eshton.
“Now, now, good people,” returned Miss Ingram, “don’t press upon me. Really your organs of wonder and credulity are easily excited: you seem, by the importance of you all—my good mama included—ascribe to this matter, absolutely to believe we have a genuine witch in the house, who is in close alliance with the old gentleman. I have seen a gipsy vagabond; she has practised in hackneyed fashion the science of palmistry and told me what such people usually tell. My whim is gratified; and now I think Mr. Eshton will do well to put the hag in the stocks to-morrow morning, as he threatened.”
Miss Ingram took a book, leant back in her chair, and so declined further conversation. I watched her for nearly half-an-hour: during all that time she never turned a page, and her face grew momently darker, more dissatisfied, and more sourly expressive of disappointment. She had obviously not heard anything to her advantage: and it seemed to me, from her prolonged fit of gloom and taciturnity, that she herself, notwithstanding her professed indifference, attached undue importance to whatever revelations had been made her.
Meantime, Mary Ingram, Amy and Louisa Eshton, declared they dared not go alone; and yet they all wished to go. A negotiation was opened through the medium of the ambassador, Sam; and after much pacing to and fro, till, I think, the said Sam’s calves must have ached with the exercise, permission was at last, with great difficulty, extorted from the rigorous Sibyl, for the three to wait upon her in a body.
Their visit was not so still as Miss Ingram’s had been: we heard hysterical giggling and little shrieks proceeding from the library; and at the end of about twenty minutes they burst the door open, and came running across the hall, as if they were half-scared out of their wits.
“I am sure she is something not right!” they cried, one and all. “She told us such things! She knows all about us!” and they sank breathless into the various seats the gentlemen hastened to bring them.
Pressed for further explanation, they declared she had told them of things they had said and done when they were mere children; described books and ornaments they had in their boudoirs at home: keepsakes that different relations had presented to them. They affirmed that she had even divined their thoughts, and had whispered in the ear of each the name of the person she liked best in the world, and informed them of what they most wished for.
Here the gentlemen interposed with earnest petitions to be further enlightened on these two last-named points; but they got only blushes, ejaculations, tremors, and titters, in return for their importunity. The matrons, meantime, offered vinaigrettes and wielded fans; and again and again reiterated the expression of their concern that their warning had not been taken in time; and the elder gentlemen laughed, and the younger urged their services on the agitated fair ones.
In the midst of the tumult, and while my eyes and ears were fully engaged in the scene before me, I heard a hem close at my elbow: I turned, and saw Sam.
“If you please, miss, the gipsy declares that there is another young single lady in the room who has not been to her yet, and she swears she will not go till she has seen all. I thought it must be you: there is no one else for it. What shall I tell her?”
“Oh, I will go by all means,” I answered: and I was glad of the unexpected opportunity to gratify my much-excited curiosity. I slipped out of the room, unobserved by any eye—for the company were gathered in one mass about the trembling trio just returned—and I closed the door quietly behind me.
“If you like, miss,” said Sam, “I’ll wait in the hall for you; and if she frightens you, just call and I’ll come in.”
“No, Sam, return to the kitchen: I am not in the least afraid.” Nor was I; but I was a good deal interested and excited.
The library looked tranquil enough as I entered it, and the Sibyl—if Sibyl she were—was seated snugly enough in an easy-chair at the chimney-corner. She had on a red cloak and a black bonnet: or rather, a broad-brimmed gipsy hat, tied down with a striped handkerchief under her chin. An extinguished candle stood on the table; she was bending over the fire, and seemed reading in a little black book, like a prayer-book, by the light of the blaze: she muttered the words to herself, as most old women do, while she read; she did not desist immediately on my entrance: it appeared she wished to finish a paragraph.
I stood on the rug and warmed my hands, which were rather cold with sitting at a distance from the drawing-room fire. I felt now as composed as ever I did in my life: there was nothing indeed in the gipsy’s appearance to trouble one’s calm. She shut her book and slowly looked up; her hat-brim partially shaded her face, yet I could see, as she raised it, that it was a strange one. It looked all brown and black: elf-locks bristled out from beneath a white band which passed under her chin, and came half over her cheeks, or rather jaws: her eye confronted me at once, with a bold and direct gaze.
“Well, and you want your fortune told?” she said, in a voice as decided as her glance, as harsh as her features.
“I don’t care about it, mother; you may please yourself: but I ought to warn you, I have no faith.”
“It’s like your impudence to say so: I expected it of you; I heard it in your step as you crossed the threshold.”
“Did you? You’ve a quick ear.”
“I have; and a quick eye and a quick brain.”
“You need them all in your trade.”
“I do; especially when I’ve customers like you to deal with. Why don’t you tremble?”
“I’m not cold.”
“Why don’t you turn pale?”
“I am not sick.”
“Why don’t you consult my art?”
“I’m not silly.”
The old crone “nichered” a laugh under her bonnet and bandage; she then drew out a short black pipe, and lighting it began to smoke. Having indulged a while in this sedative, she raised her bent body, took the pipe from her lips, and while gazing steadily at the fire, said very deliberately—
“You are cold; you are sick; and you are silly.”
“Prove it,” I rejoined.
“I will, in few words. You are cold, because you are alone: no contact strikes the fire from you that is in you. You are sick; because the best of feelings, the highest and the sweetest given to man, keeps far away from you. You are silly, because, suffer as you may, you will not beckon it to approach, nor will you stir one step to meet it where it waits you.”
She again put her short black pipe to her lips, and renewed her smoking with vigour.
“You might say all that to almost any one who you knew lived as a solitary dependent in a great house.”
“I might say it to almost any one: but would it be true of almost any one?”
“In my circumstances.”
“Yes; just so, in your circumstances: but find me another precisely placed as you are.”
“It would be easy to find you thousands.”
“You could scarcely find me one. If you knew it, you are peculiarly situated: very near happiness; yes, within reach of it. The materials are all prepared; there only wants a movement to combine them. Chance laid them somewhat apart; let them be once approached and bliss results.”
“I don’t understand enigmas. I never could guess a riddle in my life.”
“If you wish me to speak more plainly, show me your palm.”
“And I must cross it with silver, I suppose?”
“To be sure.”
I gave her a shilling: she put it into an old stocking-foot which she took out of her pocket, and having tied it round and returned it, she told me to hold out my hand. I did. She approached her face to the palm, and pored over it without touching it.
“It is too fine,” said she. “I can make nothing of such a hand as that; almost without lines: besides, what is in a palm? Destiny is not written there.”
“I believe you,” said I.
“No,” she continued, “it is in the face: on the forehead, about the eyes, in the lines of the mouth. Kneel, and lift up your head.”
“Ah! now you are coming to reality,” I said, as I obeyed her. “I shall begin to put some faith in you presently.”
I knelt within half a yard of her. She stirred the fire, so that a ripple of light broke from the disturbed coal: the glare, however, as she sat, only threw her face into deeper shadow: mine, it illumined.
“I wonder with what feelings you came to me to-night,” she said, when she had examined me a while. “I wonder what thoughts are busy in your heart during all the hours you sit in yonder room with the fine people flitting before you like shapes in a magic-lantern: just as little sympathetic communion passing between you and them as if they were really mere shadows of human forms, and not the actual substance.”
“I feel tired often, sleepy sometimes, but seldom sad.”
“Then you have some secret hope to buoy you up and please you with whispers of the future?”
“Not I. The utmost I hope is, to save money enough out of my earnings to set up a school some day in a little house rented by myself.”
“A mean nutriment for the spirit to exist on: and sitting in that window-seat (you see I know your habits)—”
“You have learned them from the servants.”
“Ah! you think yourself sharp. Well, perhaps I have: to speak truth, I have an acquaintance with one of them, Mrs. Poole—”
I started to my feet when I heard the name.
“You have—have you?” thought I; “there is diablerie in the business after all, then!”
“Don’t be alarmed,” continued the strange being; “she’s a safe hand is Mrs. Poole: close and quiet; any one may repose confidence in her. But, as I was saying: sitting in that window-seat, do you think of nothing but your future school? Have you no present interest in any of the company who occupy the sofas and chairs before you? Is there not one face you study? one figure whose movements you follow with at least curiosity?”
“I like to observe all the faces and all the figures.”
“But do you never single one from the rest—or it may be, two?”
“I do frequently; when the gestures or looks of a pair seem telling a tale: it amuses me to watch them.”
“What tale do you like best to hear?”
“Oh, I have not much choice! They generally run on the same theme—courtship; and promise to end in the same catastrophe—marriage.”
“And do you like that monotonous theme?”
“Positively, I don’t care about it: it is nothing to me.”
“Nothing to you? When a lady, young and full of life and health, charming with beauty and endowed with the gifts of rank and fortune, sits and smiles in the eyes of a gentleman you—”
“You know—and perhaps think well of.”
“I don’t know the gentlemen here. I have scarcely interchanged a syllable with one of them; and as to thinking well of them, I consider some respectable, and stately, and middle-aged, and others young, dashing, handsome, and lively: but certainly they are all at liberty to be the recipients of whose smiles they please, without my feeling disposed to consider the transaction of any moment to me.”
“You don’t know the gentlemen here? You have not exchanged a syllable with one of them? Will you say that of the master of the house!”
“He is not at home.”
“A profound remark! A most ingenious quibble! He went to Millcote this morning, and will be back here to-night or to-morrow: does that circumstance exclude him from the list of your acquaintance—blot him, as it were, out of existence?”
“No; but I can scarcely see what Mr. Rochester has to do with the theme you had introduced.”
“I was talking of ladies smiling in the eyes of gentlemen; and of late so many smiles have been shed into Mr. Rochester’s eyes that they overflow like two cups filled above the brim: have you never remarked that?”
“Mr. Rochester has a right to enjoy the society of his guests.”
“No question about his right: but have you never observed that, of all the tales told here about matrimony, Mr. Rochester has been favoured with the most lively and the most continuous?”
“The eagerness of a listener quickens the tongue of a narrator.” I said this rather to myself than to the gipsy, whose strange talk, voice, manner, had by this time wrapped me in a kind of dream. One unexpected sentence came from her lips after another, till I got involved in a web of mystification; and wondered what unseen spirit had been sitting for weeks by my heart watching its workings and taking record of every pulse.
“Eagerness of a listener!” repeated she: “yes; Mr. Rochester has sat by the hour, his ear inclined to the fascinating lips that took such delight in their task of communicating; and Mr. Rochester was so willing to receive and looked so grateful for the pastime given him; you have noticed this?”
“Grateful! I cannot remember detecting gratitude in his face.”
“Detecting! You have analysed, then. And what did you detect, if not gratitude?”
I said nothing.
“You have seen love: have you not?—and, looking forward, you have seen him married, and beheld his bride happy?”
“Humph! Not exactly. Your witch’s skill is rather at fault sometimes.”
“What the devil have you seen, then?”
“Never mind: I came here to inquire, not to confess. Is it known that Mr. Rochester is to be married?”
“Yes; and to the beautiful Miss Ingram.”
“Appearances would warrant that conclusion: and, no doubt (though, with an audacity that wants chastising out of you, you seem to question it), they will be a superlatively happy pair. He must love such a handsome, noble, witty, accomplished lady; and probably she loves him, or, if not his person, at least his purse. I know she considers the Rochester estate eligible to the last degree; though (God pardon me!) I told her something on that point about an hour ago which made her look wondrous grave: the corners of her mouth fell half an inch. I would advise her blackaviced suitor to look out: if another comes, with a longer or clearer rent-roll,—he’s dished—”
“But, mother, I did not come to hear Mr. Rochester’s fortune: I came to hear my own; and you have told me nothing of it.”
“Your fortune is yet doubtful: when I examined your face, one trait contradicted another. Chance has meted you a measure of happiness: that I know. I knew it before I came here this evening. She has laid it carefully on one side for you. I saw her do it. It depends on yourself to stretch out your hand, and take it up: but whether you will do so, is the problem I study. Kneel again on the rug.”
“Don’t keep me long; the fire scorches me.”
I knelt. She did not stoop towards me, but only gazed, leaning back in her chair. She began muttering,—
“The flame flickers in the eye; the eye shines like dew; it looks soft and full of feeling; it smiles at my jargon: it is susceptible; impression follows impression through its clear sphere; where it ceases to smile, it is sad; an unconscious lassitude weighs on the lid: that signifies melancholy resulting from loneliness. It turns from me; it will not suffer further scrutiny; it seems to deny, by a mocking glance, the truth of the discoveries I have already made,—to disown the charge both of sensibility and chagrin: its pride and reserve only confirm me in my opinion. The eye is favourable.
“As to the mouth, it delights at times in laughter; it is disposed to impart all that the brain conceives; though I daresay it would be silent on much the heart experiences. Mobile and flexible, it was never intended to be compressed in the eternal silence of solitude: it is a mouth which should speak much and smile often, and have human affection for its interlocutor. That feature too is propitious.
“I see no enemy to a fortunate issue but in the brow; and that brow professes to say,—‘I can live alone, if self-respect, and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld, or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.’ The forehead declares, ‘Reason sits firm and holds the reins, and she will not let the feelings burst away and hurry her to wild chasms. The passions may rage furiously, like true heathens, as they are; and the desires may imagine all sorts of vain things: but judgment shall still have the last word in every argument, and the casting vote in every decision. Strong wind, earthquake-shock, and fire may pass by: but I shall follow the guiding of that still small voice which interprets the dictates of conscience.’
“Well said, forehead; your declaration shall be respected. I have formed my plans—right plans I deem them—and in them I have attended to the claims of conscience, the counsels of reason. I know how soon youth would fade and bloom perish, if, in the cup of bliss offered, but one dreg of shame, or one flavour of remorse were detected; and I do not want sacrifice, sorrow, dissolution—such is not my taste. I wish to foster, not to blight—to earn gratitude, not to wring tears of blood—no, nor of brine: my harvest must be in smiles, in endearments, in sweet—That will do. I think I rave in a kind of exquisite delirium. I should wish now to protract this moment ad infinitum; but I dare not. So far I have governed myself thoroughly. I have acted as I inwardly swore I would act; but further might try me beyond my strength. Rise, Miss Eyre: leave me; the play is played out’.”
Where was I? Did I wake or sleep? Had I been dreaming? Did I dream still? The old woman’s voice had changed: her accent, her gesture, and all were familiar to me as my own face in a glass—as the speech of my own tongue. I got up, but did not go. I looked; I stirred the fire, and I looked again: but she drew her bonnet and her bandage closer about her face, and again beckoned me to depart. The flame illuminated her hand stretched out: roused now, and on the alert for discoveries, I at once noticed that hand. It was no more the withered limb of eld than my own; it was a rounded supple member, with smooth fingers, symmetrically turned; a broad ring flashed on the little finger, and stooping forward, I looked at it, and saw a gem I had seen a hundred times before. Again I looked at the face; which was no longer turned from me—on the contrary, the bonnet was doffed, the bandage displaced, the head advanced.
“Well, Jane, do you know me?” asked the familiar voice.
“Only take off the red cloak, sir, and then—”
“But the string is in a knot—help me.”
“Break it, sir.”
“There, then—‘Off, ye lendings!’” And Mr. Rochester stepped out of his disguise.
“Now, sir, what a strange idea!”
“But well carried out, eh? Don’t you think so?”
“With the ladies you must have managed well.”
“But not with you?”
“You did not act the character of a gipsy with me.”
“What character did I act? My own?”
“No; some unaccountable one. In short, I believe you have been trying to draw me out—or in; you have been talking nonsense to make me talk nonsense. It is scarcely fair, sir.”
“Do you forgive me, Jane?”
“I cannot tell till I have thought it all over. If, on reflection, I find I have fallen into no great absurdity, I shall try to forgive you; but it was not right.”
“Oh, you have been very correct—very careful, very sensible.”
I reflected, and thought, on the whole, I had. It was a comfort; but, indeed, I had been on my guard almost from the beginning of the interview. Something of masquerade I suspected. I knew gipsies and fortune-tellers did not express themselves as this seeming old woman had expressed herself; besides I had noted her feigned voice, her anxiety to conceal her features. But my mind had been running on Grace Poole—that living enigma, that mystery of mysteries, as I considered her. I had never thought of Mr. Rochester.
“Well,” said he, “what are you musing about? What does that grave smile signify?”
“Wonder and self-congratulation, sir. I have your permission to retire now, I suppose?”
“No; stay a moment; and tell me what the people in the drawing-room yonder are doing.”
“Discussing the gipsy, I daresay.”
“Sit down!—Let me hear what they said about me.”
“I had better not stay long, sir; it must be near eleven o’clock. Oh, are you aware, Mr. Rochester, that a stranger has arrived here since you left this morning?”
“A stranger!—no; who can it be? I expected no one; is he gone?”
“No; he said he had known you long, and that he could take the liberty of installing himself here till you returned.”
“The devil he did! Did he give his name?”
“His name is Mason, sir; and he comes from the West Indies; from Spanish Town, in Jamaica, I think.”
Mr. Rochester was standing near me; he had taken my hand, as if to lead me to a chair. As I spoke he gave my wrist a convulsive grip; the smile on his lips froze: apparently a spasm caught his breath.
“Mason!—the West Indies!” he said, in the tone one might fancy a speaking automaton to enounce its single words; “Mason!—the West Indies!” he reiterated; and he went over the syllables three times, growing, in the intervals of speaking, whiter than ashes: he hardly seemed to know what he was doing.
“Do you feel ill, sir?” I inquired.
“Jane, I’ve got a blow; I’ve got a blow, Jane!” He staggered.
“Oh, lean on me, sir.”
“Jane, you offered me your shoulder once before; let me have it now.”
“Yes, sir, yes; and my arm.”
He sat down, and made me sit beside him. Holding my hand in both his own, he chafed it; gazing on me, at the same time, with the most troubled and dreary look.
“My little friend!” said he, “I wish I were in a quiet island with only you; and trouble, and danger, and hideous recollections removed from me.”
“Can I help you, sir?—I’d give my life to serve you.”
“Jane, if aid is wanted, I’ll seek it at your hands; I promise you that.”
“Thank you, sir. Tell me what to do,—I’ll try, at least, to do it.”
“Fetch me now, Jane, a glass of wine from the dining-room: they will be at supper there; and tell me if Mason is with them, and what he is doing.”
I went. I found all the party in the dining-room at supper, as Mr. Rochester had said; they were not seated at table,—the supper was arranged on the sideboard; each had taken what he chose, and they stood about here and there in groups, their plates and glasses in their hands. Every one seemed in high glee; laughter and conversation were general and animated. Mr. Mason stood near the fire, talking to Colonel and Mrs. Dent, and appeared as merry as any of them. I filled a wine-glass (I saw Miss Ingram watch me frowningly as I did so: she thought I was taking a liberty, I daresay), and I returned to the library.
Mr. Rochester’s extreme pallor had disappeared, and he looked once more firm and stern. He took the glass from my hand.
“Here is to your health, ministrant spirit!” he said. He swallowed the contents and returned it to me. “What are they doing, Jane?”
“Laughing and talking, sir.”
“They don’t look grave and mysterious, as if they had heard something strange?”
“Not at all: they are full of jests and gaiety.”
“He was laughing too.”
“If all these people came in a body and spat at me, what would you do, Jane?”
“Turn them out of the room, sir, if I could.”
He half smiled. “But if I were to go to them, and they only looked at me coldly, and whispered sneeringly amongst each other, and then dropped off and left me one by one, what then? Would you go with them?”
“I rather think not, sir: I should have more pleasure in staying with you.”
“To comfort me?”
“Yes, sir, to comfort you, as well as I could.”
“And if they laid you under a ban for adhering to me?”
“I, probably, should know nothing about their ban; and if I did, I should care nothing about it.”
“Then, you could dare censure for my sake?”
“I could dare it for the sake of any friend who deserved my adherence; as you, I am sure, do.”
“Go back now into the room; step quietly up to Mason, and whisper in his ear that Mr. Rochester is come and wishes to see him: show him in here and then leave me.”
I did his behest. The company all stared at me as I passed straight among them. I sought Mr. Mason, delivered the message, and preceded him from the room: I ushered him into the library, and then I went upstairs.
At a late hour, after I had been in bed some time, I heard the visitors repair to their chambers: I distinguished Mr. Rochester’s voice, and heard him say, “This way, Mason; this is your room.”
He spoke cheerfully: the gay tones set my heart at ease. I was soon asleep.
I had forgotten to draw my curtain, which I usually did, and also to let down my window-blind. The consequence was, that when the moon, which was full and bright (for the night was fine), came in her course to that space in the sky opposite my casement, and looked in at me through the unveiled panes, her glorious gaze roused me. Awaking in the dead of night, I opened my eyes on her disk—silver-white and crystal clear. It was beautiful, but too solemn: I half rose, and stretched my arm to draw the curtain.
Good God! What a cry!
The night—its silence—its rest, was rent in twain by a savage, a sharp, a shrilly sound that ran from end to end of Thornfield Hall.
My pulse stopped: my heart stood still; my stretched arm was paralysed. The cry died, and was not renewed. Indeed, whatever being uttered that fearful shriek could not soon repeat it: not the widest-winged condor on the Andes could, twice in succession, send out such a yell from the cloud shrouding his eyrie. The thing delivering such utterance must rest ere it could repeat the effort.
It came out of the third storey; for it passed overhead. And overhead—yes, in the room just above my chamber-ceiling—I now heard a struggle: a deadly one it seemed from the noise; and a half-smothered voice shouted—
“Help! help! help!” three times rapidly.
“Will no one come?” it cried; and then, while the staggering and stamping went on wildly, I distinguished through plank and plaster:—
“Rochester! Rochester! for God’s sake, come!”
A chamber-door opened: some one ran, or rushed, along the gallery. Another step stamped on the flooring above and something fell; and there was silence.
I had put on some clothes, though horror shook all my limbs; I issued from my apartment. The sleepers were all aroused: ejaculations, terrified murmurs sounded in every room; door after door unclosed; one looked out and another looked out; the gallery filled. Gentlemen and ladies alike had quitted their beds; and “Oh! what is it?”—“Who is hurt?”—“What has happened?”—“Fetch a light!”—“Is it fire?”—“Are there robbers?”—“Where shall we run?” was demanded confusedly on all hands. But for the moonlight they would have been in complete darkness. They ran to and fro; they crowded together: some sobbed, some stumbled: the confusion was inextricable.
“Where the devil is Rochester?” cried Colonel Dent. “I cannot find him in his bed.”
“Here! here!” was shouted in return. “Be composed, all of you: I’m coming.”
And the door at the end of the gallery opened, and Mr. Rochester advanced with a candle: he had just descended from the upper storey. One of the ladies ran to him directly; she seized his arm: it was Miss Ingram.
“What awful event has taken place?” said she. “Speak! let us know the worst at once!”
“But don’t pull me down or strangle me,” he replied: for the Misses Eshton were clinging about him now; and the two dowagers, in vast white wrappers, were bearing down on him like ships in full sail.
“All’s right!—all’s right!” he cried. “It’s a mere rehearsal of Much Ado about Nothing. Ladies, keep off, or I shall wax dangerous.”
And dangerous he looked: his black eyes darted sparks. Calming himself by an effort, he added—
“A servant has had the nightmare; that is all. She’s an excitable, nervous person: she construed her dream into an apparition, or something of that sort, no doubt; and has taken a fit with fright. Now, then, I must see you all back into your rooms; for, till the house is settled, she cannot be looked after. Gentlemen, have the goodness to set the ladies the example. Miss Ingram, I am sure you will not fail in evincing superiority to idle terrors. Amy and Louisa, return to your nests like a pair of doves, as you are. Mesdames” (to the dowagers), “you will take cold to a dead certainty, if you stay in this chill gallery any longer.”
And so, by dint of alternate coaxing and commanding, he contrived to get them all once more enclosed in their separate dormitories. I did not wait to be ordered back to mine, but retreated unnoticed, as unnoticed I had left it.
Not, however, to go to bed: on the contrary, I began and dressed myself carefully. The sounds I had heard after the scream, and the words that had been uttered, had probably been heard only by me; for they had proceeded from the room above mine: but they assured me that it was not a servant’s dream which had thus struck horror through the house; and that the explanation Mr. Rochester had given was merely an invention framed to pacify his guests. I dressed, then, to be ready for emergencies. When dressed, I sat a long time by the window looking out over the silent grounds and silvered fields and waiting for I knew not what. It seemed to me that some event must follow the strange cry, struggle, and call.
No: stillness returned: each murmur and movement ceased gradually, and in about an hour Thornfield Hall was again as hushed as a desert. It seemed that sleep and night had resumed their empire. Meantime the moon declined: she was about to set. Not liking to sit in the cold and darkness, I thought I would lie down on my bed, dressed as I was. I left the window, and moved with little noise across the carpet; as I stooped to take off my shoes, a cautious hand tapped low at the door.
“Am I wanted?” I asked.
“Are you up?” asked the voice I expected to hear, viz., my master’s.
“Come out, then, quietly.”
I obeyed. Mr. Rochester stood in the gallery holding a light.
“I want you,” he said: “come this way: take your time, and make no noise.”
My slippers were thin: I could walk the matted floor as softly as a cat. He glided up the gallery and up the stairs, and stopped in the dark, low corridor of the fateful third storey: I had followed and stood at his side.
“Have you a sponge in your room?” he asked in a whisper.
“Have you any salts—volatile salts?”
“Go back and fetch both.”
I returned, sought the sponge on the washstand, the salts in my drawer, and once more retraced my steps. He still waited; he held a key in his hand: approaching one of the small, black doors, he put it in the lock; he paused, and addressed me again.
“You don’t turn sick at the sight of blood?”
“I think I shall not: I have never been tried yet.”
I felt a thrill while I answered him; but no coldness, and no faintness.
“Just give me your hand,” he said: “it will not do to risk a fainting fit.”
I put my fingers into his. “Warm and steady,” was his remark: he turned the key and opened the door.
I saw a room I remembered to have seen before, the day Mrs. Fairfax showed me over the house: it was hung with tapestry; but the tapestry was now looped up in one part, and there was a door apparent, which had then been concealed. This door was open; a light shone out of the room within: I heard thence a snarling, snatching sound, almost like a dog quarrelling. Mr. Rochester, putting down his candle, said to me, “Wait a minute,” and he went forward to the inner apartment. A shout of laughter greeted his entrance; noisy at first, and terminating in Grace Poole’s own goblin ha! ha! She then was there. He made some sort of arrangement without speaking, though I heard a low voice address him: he came out and closed the door behind him.
“Here, Jane!” he said; and I walked round to the other side of a large bed, which with its drawn curtains concealed a considerable portion of the chamber. An easy-chair was near the bed-head: a man sat in it, dressed with the exception of his coat; he was still; his head leant back; his eyes were closed. Mr. Rochester held the candle over him; I recognised in his pale and seemingly lifeless face—the stranger, Mason: I saw too that his linen on one side, and one arm, was almost soaked in blood.
“Hold the candle,” said Mr. Rochester, and I took it: he fetched a basin of water from the washstand: “Hold that,” said he. I obeyed. He took the sponge, dipped it in, and moistened the corpse-like face; he asked for my smelling-bottle, and applied it to the nostrils. Mr. Mason shortly unclosed his eyes; he groaned. Mr. Rochester opened the shirt of the wounded man, whose arm and shoulder were bandaged: he sponged away blood, trickling fast down.
“Is there immediate danger?” murmured Mr. Mason.
“Pooh! No—a mere scratch. Don’t be so overcome, man: bear up! I’ll fetch a surgeon for you now, myself: you’ll be able to be removed by morning, I hope. Jane,” he continued.
“I shall have to leave you in this room with this gentleman, for an hour, or perhaps two hours: you will sponge the blood as I do when it returns: if he feels faint, you will put the glass of water on that stand to his lips, and your salts to his nose. You will not speak to him on any pretext—and—Richard, it will be at the peril of your life if you speak to her: open your lips—agitate yourself—and I’ll not answer for the consequences.”
Again the poor man groaned; he looked as if he dared not move; fear, either of death or of something else, appeared almost to paralyse him. Mr. Rochester put the now bloody sponge into my hand, and I proceeded to use it as he had done. He watched me a second, then saying, “Remember!—No conversation,” he left the room. I experienced a strange feeling as the key grated in the lock, and the sound of his retreating step ceased to be heard.
Here then I was in the third storey, fastened into one of its mystic cells; night around me; a pale and bloody spectacle under my eyes and hands; a murderess hardly separated from me by a single door: yes—that was appalling—the rest I could bear; but I shuddered at the thought of Grace Poole bursting out upon me.
I must keep to my post, however. I must watch this ghastly countenance—these blue, still lips forbidden to unclose—these eyes now shut, now opening, now wandering through the room, now fixing on me, and ever glazed with the dulness of horror. I must dip my hand again and again in the basin of blood and water, and wipe away the trickling gore. I must see the light of the unsnuffed candle wane on my employment; the shadows darken on the wrought, antique tapestry round me, and grow black under the hangings of the vast old bed, and quiver strangely over the doors of a great cabinet opposite—whose front, divided into twelve panels, bore, in grim design, the heads of the twelve apostles, each enclosed in its separate panel as in a frame; while above them at the top rose an ebon crucifix and a dying Christ.
According as the shifting obscurity and flickering gleam hovered here or glanced there, it was now the bearded physician, Luke, that bent his brow; now St. John’s long hair that waved; and anon the devilish face of Judas, that grew out of the panel, and seemed gathering life and threatening a revelation of the arch-traitor—of Satan himself—in his subordinate’s form.
Amidst all this, I had to listen as well as watch: to listen for the movements of the wild beast or the fiend in yonder side den. But since Mr. Rochester’s visit it seemed spellbound: all the night I heard but three sounds at three long intervals,—a step creak, a momentary renewal of the snarling, canine noise, and a deep human groan.
Then my own thoughts worried me. What crime was this, that lived incarnate in this sequestered mansion, and could neither be expelled nor subdued by the owner?—what mystery, that broke out now in fire and now in blood, at the deadest hours of night? What creature was it, that, masked in an ordinary woman’s face and shape, uttered the voice, now of a mocking demon, and anon of a carrion-seeking bird of prey?
And this man I bent over—this commonplace, quiet stranger—how had he become involved in the web of horror? and why had the Fury flown at him? What made him seek this quarter of the house at an untimely season, when he should have been asleep in bed? I had heard Mr. Rochester assign him an apartment below—what brought him here! And why, now, was he so tame under the violence or treachery done him? Why did he so quietly submit to the concealment Mr. Rochester enforced? Why did Mr. Rochester enforce this concealment? His guest had been outraged, his own life on a former occasion had been hideously plotted against; and both attempts he smothered in secrecy and sank in oblivion! Lastly, I saw Mr. Mason was submissive to Mr. Rochester; that the impetuous will of the latter held complete sway over the inertness of the former: the few words which had passed between them assured me of this. It was evident that in their former intercourse, the passive disposition of the one had been habitually influenced by the active energy of the other: whence then had arisen Mr. Rochester’s dismay when he heard of Mr. Mason’s arrival? Why had the mere name of this unresisting individual—whom his word now sufficed to control like a child—fallen on him, a few hours since, as a thunderbolt might fall on an oak?
Oh! I could not forget his look and his paleness when he whispered: “Jane, I have got a blow—I have got a blow, Jane.” I could not forget how the arm had trembled which he rested on my shoulder: and it was no light matter which could thus bow the resolute spirit and thrill the vigorous frame of Fairfax Rochester.
“When will he come? When will he come?” I cried inwardly, as the night lingered and lingered—as my bleeding patient drooped, moaned, sickened: and neither day nor aid arrived. I had, again and again, held the water to Mason’s white lips; again and again offered him the stimulating salts: my efforts seemed ineffectual: either bodily or mental suffering, or loss of blood, or all three combined, were fast prostrating his strength. He moaned so, and looked so weak, wild, and lost, I feared he was dying; and I might not even speak to him.
The candle, wasted at last, went out; as it expired, I perceived streaks of grey light edging the window curtains: dawn was then approaching. Presently I heard Pilot bark far below, out of his distant kennel in the courtyard: hope revived. Nor was it unwarranted: in five minutes more the grating key, the yielding lock, warned me my watch was relieved. It could not have lasted more than two hours: many a week has seemed shorter.
Mr. Rochester entered, and with him the surgeon he had been to fetch.
“Now, Carter, be on the alert,” he said to this last: “I give you but half-an-hour for dressing the wound, fastening the bandages, getting the patient downstairs and all.”
“But is he fit to move, sir?”
“No doubt of it; it is nothing serious; he is nervous, his spirits must be kept up. Come, set to work.”
Mr. Rochester drew back the thick curtain, drew up the holland blind, let in all the daylight he could; and I was surprised and cheered to see how far dawn was advanced: what rosy streaks were beginning to brighten the east. Then he approached Mason, whom the surgeon was already handling.
“Now, my good fellow, how are you?” he asked.
“She’s done for me, I fear,” was the faint reply.
“Not a whit!—courage! This day fortnight you’ll hardly be a pin the worse of it: you’ve lost a little blood; that’s all. Carter, assure him there’s no danger.”
“I can do that conscientiously,” said Carter, who had now undone the bandages; “only I wish I could have got here sooner: he would not have bled so much—but how is this? The flesh on the shoulder is torn as well as cut. This wound was not done with a knife: there have been teeth here!”
“She bit me,” he murmured. “She worried me like a tigress, when Rochester got the knife from her.”
“You should not have yielded: you should have grappled with her at once,” said Mr. Rochester.
“But under such circumstances, what could one do?” returned Mason. “Oh, it was frightful!” he added, shuddering. “And I did not expect it: she looked so quiet at first.”
“I warned you,” was his friend’s answer; “I said—be on your guard when you go near her. Besides, you might have waited till to-morrow, and had me with you: it was mere folly to attempt the interview to-night, and alone.”
“I thought I could have done some good.”
“You thought! you thought! Yes, it makes me impatient to hear you: but, however, you have suffered, and are likely to suffer enough for not taking my advice; so I’ll say no more. Carter—hurry!—hurry! The sun will soon rise, and I must have him off.”
“Directly, sir; the shoulder is just bandaged. I must look to this other wound in the arm: she has had her teeth here too, I think.”
“She sucked the blood: she said she’d drain my heart,” said Mason.
I saw Mr. Rochester shudder: a singularly marked expression of disgust, horror, hatred, warped his countenance almost to distortion; but he only said—
“Come, be silent, Richard, and never mind her gibberish: don’t repeat it.”
“I wish I could forget it,” was the answer.
“You will when you are out of the country: when you get back to Spanish Town, you may think of her as dead and buried—or rather, you need not think of her at all.”
“Impossible to forget this night!”
“It is not impossible: have some energy, man. You thought you were as dead as a herring two hours since, and you are all alive and talking now. There!—Carter has done with you or nearly so; I’ll make you decent in a trice. Jane” (he turned to me for the first time since his re-entrance), “take this key: go down into my bedroom, and walk straight forward into my dressing-room: open the top drawer of the wardrobe and take out a clean shirt and neck-handkerchief: bring them here; and be nimble.”
I went; sought the repository he had mentioned, found the articles named, and returned with them.
“Now,” said he, “go to the other side of the bed while I order his toilet; but don’t leave the room: you may be wanted again.”
I retired as directed.
“Was anybody stirring below when you went down, Jane?” inquired Mr. Rochester presently.
“No, sir; all was very still.”
“We shall get you off cannily, Dick: and it will be better, both for your sake, and for that of the poor creature in yonder. I have striven long to avoid exposure, and I should not like it to come at last. Here, Carter, help him on with his waist-coat. Where did you leave your furred cloak? You can’t travel a mile without that, I know, in this damned cold climate. In your room?—Jane, run down to Mr. Mason’s room,—the one next mine,—and fetch a cloak you will see there.”
Again I ran, and again returned, bearing an immense mantle lined and edged with fur.
“Now, I’ve another errand for you,” said my untiring master; “you must away to my room again. What a mercy you are shod with velvet, Jane!—a clod-hopping messenger would never do at this juncture. You must open the middle drawer of my toilet-table and take out a little phial and a little glass you will find there,—quick!”
I flew thither and back, bringing the desired vessels.
“That’s well! Now, doctor, I shall take the liberty of administering a dose myself, on my own responsibility. I got this cordial at Rome, of an Italian charlatan—a fellow you would have kicked, Carter. It is not a thing to be used indiscriminately, but it is good upon occasion: as now, for instance. Jane, a little water.”
He held out the tiny glass, and I half filled it from the water-bottle on the washstand.
“That will do;—now wet the lip of the phial.”
I did so; he measured twelve drops of a crimson liquid, and presented it to Mason.
“Drink, Richard: it will give you the heart you lack, for an hour or so.”
“But will it hurt me?—is it inflammatory?”
“Drink! drink! drink!”
Mr. Mason obeyed, because it was evidently useless to resist. He was dressed now: he still looked pale, but he was no longer gory and sullied. Mr. Rochester let him sit three minutes after he had swallowed the liquid; he then took his arm—
“Now I am sure you can get on your feet,” he said—“try.”
The patient rose.
“Carter, take him under the other shoulder. Be of good cheer, Richard; step out—that’s it!”
“I do feel better,” remarked Mr. Mason.
“I am sure you do. Now, Jane, trip on before us away to the backstairs; unbolt the side-passage door, and tell the driver of the post-chaise you will see in the yard—or just outside, for I told him not to drive his rattling wheels over the pavement—to be ready; we are coming: and, Jane, if any one is about, come to the foot of the stairs and hem.”
It was by this time half-past five, and the sun was on the point of rising; but I found the kitchen still dark and silent. The side-passage door was fastened; I opened it with as little noise as possible: all the yard was quiet; but the gates stood wide open, and there was a post-chaise, with horses ready harnessed, and driver seated on the box, stationed outside. I approached him, and said the gentlemen were coming; he nodded: then I looked carefully round and listened. The stillness of early morning slumbered everywhere; the curtains were yet drawn over the servants’ chamber windows; little birds were just twittering in the blossom-blanched orchard trees, whose boughs drooped like white garlands over the wall enclosing one side of the yard; the carriage horses stamped from time to time in their closed stables: all else was still.
The gentlemen now appeared. Mason, supported by Mr. Rochester and the surgeon, seemed to walk with tolerable ease: they assisted him into the chaise; Carter followed.
“Take care of him,” said Mr. Rochester to the latter, “and keep him at your house till he is quite well: I shall ride over in a day or two to see how he gets on. Richard, how is it with you?”
“The fresh air revives me, Fairfax.”
“Leave the window open on his side, Carter; there is no wind—good-bye, Dick.”
“Well what is it?”
“Let her be taken care of; let her be treated as tenderly as may be: let her—” he stopped and burst into tears.
“I do my best; and have done it, and will do it,” was the answer: he shut up the chaise door, and the vehicle drove away.
“Yet would to God there was an end of all this!” added Mr. Rochester, as he closed and barred the heavy yard-gates.
This done, he moved with slow step and abstracted air towards a door in the wall bordering the orchard. I, supposing he had done with me, prepared to return to the house; again, however, I heard him call “Jane!” He had opened the portal and stood at it, waiting for me.
“Come where there is some freshness, for a few moments,” he said; “that house is a mere dungeon: don’t you feel it so?”
“It seems to me a splendid mansion, sir.”
“The glamour of inexperience is over your eyes,” he answered; “and you see it through a charmed medium: you cannot discern that the gilding is slime and the silk draperies cobwebs; that the marble is sordid slate, and the polished woods mere refuse chips and scaly bark. Now here” (he pointed to the leafy enclosure we had entered) “all is real, sweet, and pure.”
He strayed down a walk edged with box, with apple trees, pear trees, and cherry trees on one side, and a border on the other full of all sorts of old-fashioned flowers, stocks, sweet-williams, primroses, pansies, mingled with southernwood, sweet-briar, and various fragrant herbs. They were fresh now as a succession of April showers and gleams, followed by a lovely spring morning, could make them: the sun was just entering the dappled east, and his light illumined the wreathed and dewy orchard trees and shone down the quiet walks under them.
“Jane, will you have a flower?”
He gathered a half-blown rose, the first on the bush, and offered it to me.
“Thank you, sir.”
“Do you like this sunrise, Jane? That sky with its high and light clouds which are sure to melt away as the day waxes warm—this placid and balmly atmosphere?”
“I do, very much.”
“You have passed a strange night, Jane.”
“And it has made you look pale—were you afraid when I left you alone with Mason?”
“I was afraid of some one coming out of the inner room.”
“But I had fastened the door—I had the key in my pocket: I should have been a careless shepherd if I had left a lamb—my pet lamb—so near a wolf’s den, unguarded: you were safe.”
“Will Grace Poole live here still, sir?”
“Oh yes! don’t trouble your head about her—put the thing out of your thoughts.”
“Yet it seems to me your life is hardly secure while she stays.”
“Never fear—I will take care of myself.”
“Is the danger you apprehended last night gone by now, sir?”
“I cannot vouch for that till Mason is out of England: nor even then. To live, for me, Jane, is to stand on a crater-crust which may crack and spue fire any day.”
“But Mr. Mason seems a man easily led. Your influence, sir, is evidently potent with him: he will never set you at defiance or wilfully injure you.”
“Oh, no! Mason will not defy me; nor, knowing it, will he hurt me—but, unintentionally, he might in a moment, by one careless word, deprive me, if not of life, yet for ever of happiness.”
“Tell him to be cautious, sir: let him know what you fear, and show him how to avert the danger.”
He laughed sardonically, hastily took my hand, and as hastily threw it from him.
“If I could do that, simpleton, where would the danger be? Annihilated in a moment. Ever since I have known Mason, I have only had to say to him ‘Do that,’ and the thing has been done. But I cannot give him orders in this case: I cannot say ‘Beware of harming me, Richard;’ for it is imperative that I should keep him ignorant that harm to me is possible. Now you look puzzled; and I will puzzle you further. You are my little friend, are you not?”
“I like to serve you, sir, and to obey you in all that is right.”
“Precisely: I see you do. I see genuine contentment in your gait and mien, your eye and face, when you are helping me and pleasing me—working for me, and with me, in, as you characteristically say, ‘all that is right:’ for if I bid you do what you thought wrong, there would be no light-footed running, no neat-handed alacrity, no lively glance and animated complexion. My friend would then turn to me, quiet and pale, and would say, ‘No, sir; that is impossible: I cannot do it, because it is wrong;’ and would become immutable as a fixed star. Well, you too have power over me, and may injure me: yet I dare not show you where I am vulnerable, lest, faithful and friendly as you are, you should transfix me at once.”
“If you have no more to fear from Mr. Mason than you have from me, sir, you are very safe.”
“God grant it may be so! Here, Jane, is an arbour; sit down.”
The arbour was an arch in the wall, lined with ivy; it contained a rustic seat. Mr. Rochester took it, leaving room, however, for me: but I stood before him.
“Sit,” he said; “the bench is long enough for two. You don’t hesitate to take a place at my side, do you? Is that wrong, Jane?”
I answered him by assuming it: to refuse would, I felt, have been unwise.
“Now, my little friend, while the sun drinks the dew—while all the flowers in this old garden awake and expand, and the birds fetch their young ones’ breakfast out of the Thornfield, and the early bees do their first spell of work—I’ll put a case to you, which you must endeavour to suppose your own: but first, look at me, and tell me you are at ease, and not fearing that I err in detaining you, or that you err in staying.”
“No, sir; I am content.”
“Well then, Jane, call to aid your fancy:—suppose you were no longer a girl well reared and disciplined, but a wild boy indulged from childhood upwards; imagine yourself in a remote foreign land; conceive that you there commit a capital error, no matter of what nature or from what motives, but one whose consequences must follow you through life and taint all your existence. Mind, I don’t say a crime; I am not speaking of shedding of blood or any other guilty act, which might make the perpetrator amenable to the law: my word is error. The results of what you have done become in time to you utterly insupportable; you take measures to obtain relief: unusual measures, but neither unlawful nor culpable. Still you are miserable; for hope has quitted you on the very confines of life: your sun at noon darkens in an eclipse, which you feel will not leave it till the time of setting. Bitter and base associations have become the sole food of your memory: you wander here and there, seeking rest in exile: happiness in pleasure—I mean in heartless, sensual pleasure—such as dulls intellect and blights feeling. Heart-weary and soul-withered, you come home after years of voluntary banishment: you make a new acquaintance—how or where no matter: you find in this stranger much of the good and bright qualities which you have sought for twenty years, and never before encountered; and they are all fresh, healthy, without soil and without taint. Such society revives, regenerates: you feel better days come back—higher wishes, purer feelings; you desire to recommence your life, and to spend what remains to you of days in a way more worthy of an immortal being. To attain this end, are you justified in overleaping an obstacle of custom—a mere conventional impediment which neither your conscience sanctifies nor your judgment approves?”
He paused for an answer: and what was I to say? Oh, for some good spirit to suggest a judicious and satisfactory response! Vain aspiration! The west wind whispered in the ivy round me; but no gentle Ariel borrowed its breath as a medium of speech: the birds sang in the tree-tops; but their song, however sweet, was inarticulate.
Again Mr. Rochester propounded his query:
“Is the wandering and sinful, but now rest-seeking and repentant, man justified in daring the world’s opinion, in order to attach to him for ever this gentle, gracious, genial stranger, thereby securing his own peace of mind and regeneration of life?”
“Sir,” I answered, “a wanderer’s repose or a sinner’s reformation should never depend on a fellow-creature. Men and women die; philosophers falter in wisdom, and Christians in goodness: if any one you know has suffered and erred, let him look higher than his equals for strength to amend and solace to heal.”
“But the instrument—the instrument! God, who does the work, ordains the instrument. I have myself—I tell it you without parable—been a worldly, dissipated, restless man; and I believe I have found the instrument for my cure in—”
He paused: the birds went on carolling, the leaves lightly rustling. I almost wondered they did not check their songs and whispers to catch the suspended revelation; but they would have had to wait many minutes—so long was the silence protracted. At last I looked up at the tardy speaker: he was looking eagerly at me.
“Little friend,” said he, in quite a changed tone—while his face changed too, losing all its softness and gravity, and becoming harsh and sarcastic—“you have noticed my tender penchant for Miss Ingram: don’t you think if I married her she would regenerate me with a vengeance?”
He got up instantly, went quite to the other end of the walk, and when he came back he was humming a tune.
“Jane, Jane,” said he, stopping before me, “you are quite pale with your vigils: don’t you curse me for disturbing your rest?”
“Curse you? No, sir.”
“Shake hands in confirmation of the word. What cold fingers! They were warmer last night when I touched them at the door of the mysterious chamber. Jane, when will you watch with me again?”
“Whenever I can be useful, sir.”
“For instance, the night before I am married! I am sure I shall not be able to sleep. Will you promise to sit up with me to bear me company? To you I can talk of my lovely one: for now you have seen her and know her.”
“She’s a rare one, is she not, Jane?”
“A strapper—a real strapper, Jane: big, brown, and buxom; with hair just such as the ladies of Carthage must have had. Bless me! there’s Dent and Lynn in the stables! Go in by the shrubbery, through that wicket.”
As I went one way, he went another, and I heard him in the yard, saying cheerfully—
“Mason got the start of you all this morning; he was gone before sunrise: I rose at four to see him off.”