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CHAPTER XIII. Mr. Rochester, it seems, by the surgeon’s orders, went to bed early that night; nor did he rise soon next morning
Mr. Rochester, it seems, by the surgeon’s orders, went to bed early that night; nor did he rise soon next morning. When he did come down, it was to attend to business his agent and some of his tenants were arrived, and waiting to speak with him.
Adèle and I had now to vacate the library it would be in daily requisition as a reception-room for callers. A fire was lit in an apartment upstairs, and there I carried our books, and arranged it for the future schoolroom. I discerned in the course of the morning that Thornfield Hall was a changed place no longer silent as a church, it echoed every hour or two to a knock at the door, or a clang of the bell; steps, too, often traversed the hall, and new voices spoke in different keys below; a rill from the outer world was flowing through it; it had a master for my part, I liked it better.
Adèle was not easy to teach that day; she could not apply she kept running to the door and looking over the banisters to see if she could get a glimpse of Mr. Rochester; then she coined pretexts to go downstairs, in order, as I shrewdly suspected, to visit the library, where I knew she was not wanted; then, when I got a little angry, and made her sit still, she continued to talk incessantly of her “ami, Monsieur Edouard Fairfax de Rochester,” as she dubbed him (I had not before heard his prenomens), and to conjecture what presents he had brought her for it appears he had intimated the night before, that when his luggage came from Millcote, there would be found amongst it a little box in whose contents she had an interest.
“Et cela doit signifier,” said she, “qu’il y aura là dedans un cadeau pour moi, et peut-être pour vous aussi, mademoiselle. Monsieur a parlé de vous il m’a demandé le nom de ma gouvernante, et si elle n’était pas une petite personne, assez mince et un peu pâle. J’ai dit qu’oui car c’est vrai, n’est-ce pas, mademoiselle”
I and my pupil dined as usual in Mrs. Fairfax’s parlour; the afternoon was wild and snowy, and we passed it in the schoolroom. At dark I allowed Adèle to put away books and work, and to run downstairs; for, from the comparative silence below, and from the cessation of appeals to the door-bell, I conjectured that Mr. Rochester was now at liberty. Left alone, I walked to the window; but nothing was to be seen thence twilight and snowflakes together thickened the air, and hid the very shrubs on the lawn. I let down the curtain and went back to the fireside.
In the clear embers I was tracing a view, not unlike a picture I remembered to have seen of the castle of Heidelberg, on the Rhine, when Mrs. Fairfax came in, breaking up by her entrance the fiery mosaic I had been piercing together, and scattering too some heavy unwelcome thoughts that were beginning to throng on my solitude.
“Mr. Rochester would be glad if you and your pupil would take tea with him in the drawing-room this evening,” said she “he has been so much engaged all day that he could not ask to see you before.”
“When is his tea-time” I inquired.
“Oh, at six o’clock he keeps early hours in the country. You had better change your frock now; I will go with you and fasten it. Here is a candle.”
“Is it necessary to change my frock”
“Yes, you had better I always dress for the evening when Mr. Rochester is here.”
This additional ceremony seemed somewhat stately; however, I repaired to my room, and, with Mrs. Fairfax’s aid, replaced my black stuff dress by one of black silk; the best and the only additional one I had, except one of light grey, which, in my Lowood notions of the toilette, I thought too fine to be worn, except on first-rate occasions.
“You want a brooch,” said Mrs. Fairfax. I had a single little pearl ornament which Miss Temple gave me as a parting keepsake I put it on, and then we went downstairs. Unused as I was to strangers, it was rather a trial to appear thus formally summoned in Mr. Rochester’s presence. I let Mrs. Fairfax precede me into the dining-room, and kept in her shade as we crossed that apartment; and, passing the arch, whose curtain was now dropped, entered the elegant recess beyond.
Two wax candles stood lighted on the table, and two on the mantelpiece; basking in the light and heat of a superb fire, lay Pilot—Adèle knelt near him. Half reclined on a couch appeared Mr. Rochester, his foot supported by the cushion; he was looking at Adèle and the dog the fire shone full on his face. I knew my traveller with his broad and jetty eyebrows; his square forehead, made squarer by the horizontal sweep of his black hair. I recognised his decisive nose, more remarkable for character than beauty; his full nostrils, denoting, I thought, choler; his grim mouth, chin, and jaw—yes, all three were very grim, and no mistake. His shape, now divested of cloak, I perceived harmonised in squareness with his physiognomy I suppose it was a good figure in the athletic sense of the term—broad chested and thin flanked, though neither tall nor graceful.
Mr. Rochester must have been aware of the entrance of Mrs. Fairfax and myself; but it appeared he was not in the mood to notice us, for he never lifted his head as we approached.
“Here is Miss Eyre, sir,” said Mrs. Fairfax, in her quiet way. He bowed, still not taking his eyes from the group of the dog and child.
“Let Miss Eyre be seated,” said he and there was something in the forced stiff bow, in the impatient yet formal tone, which seemed further to express, “What the deuce is it to me whether Miss Eyre be there or not At this moment I am not disposed to accost her.”
I sat down quite disembarrassed. A reception of finished politeness would probably have confused me I could not have returned or repaid it by answering grace and elegance on my part; but harsh caprice laid me under no obligation; on the contrary, a decent quiescence, under the freak of manner, gave me the advantage. Besides, the eccentricity of the proceeding was piquant I felt interested to see how he would go on.
He went on as a statue would, that is, he neither spoke nor moved. Mrs. Fairfax seemed to think it necessary that some one should be amiable, and she began to talk. Kindly, as usual—and, as usual, rather trite—she condoled with him on the pressure of business he had had all day; on the annoyance it must have been to him with that painful sprain then she commended his patience and perseverance in going through with it.
“Madam, I should like some tea,” was the sole rejoinder she got. She hastened to ring the bell; and when the tray came, she proceeded to arrange the cups, spoons, &c., with assiduous celerity. I and Adèle went to the table; but the master did not leave his couch.
“Will you hand Mr. Rochester’s cup” said Mrs. Fairfax to me; “Adèle might perhaps spill it.”
I did as requested. As he took the cup from my hand, Adèle, thinking the moment propitious for making a request in my favour, cried out—
“N’est-ce pas, monsieur, qu’il y a un cadeau pour Mademoiselle Eyre dans votre petit coffre”
“Who talks of cadeaux” said he gruffly. “Did you expect a present, Miss Eyre Are you fond of presents” and he searched my face with eyes that I saw were dark, irate, and piercing.
“I hardly know, sir; I have little experience of them they are generally thought pleasant things.”
“Generally thought But what do you think”
“I should be obliged to take time, sir, before I could give you an answer worthy of your acceptance a present has many faces to it, has it not and one should consider all, before pronouncing an opinion as to its nature.”
“Miss Eyre, you are not so unsophisticated as Adèle she demands a ‘cadeau,’ clamorously, the moment she sees me you beat about the bush.”
“Because I have less confidence in my deserts than Adèle has she can prefer the claim of old acquaintance, and the right too of custom; for she says you have always been in the habit of giving her playthings; but if I had to make out a case I should be puzzled, since I am a stranger, and have done nothing to entitle me to an acknowledgment.”
“Oh, don’t fall back on over-modesty! I have examined Adèle, and find you have taken great pains with her she is not bright, she has no talents; yet in a short time she has made much improvement.”
“Sir, you have now given me my ‘cadeau;’ I am obliged to you it is the meed teachers most covet—praise of their pupils’ progress.”
“Humph!” said Mr. Rochester, and he took his tea in silence.
“Come to the fire,” said the master, when the tray was taken away, and Mrs. Fairfax had settled into a corner with her knitting; while Adèle was leading me by the hand round the room, showing me the beautiful books and ornaments on the consoles and chiffonnières. We obeyed, as in duty bound; Adèle wanted to take a seat on my knee, but she was ordered to amuse herself with Pilot.
“You have been resident in my house three months”
“And you came from—”
“From Lowood school, in ---shire.”
“Ah! a charitable concern. How long were you there”
“Eight years! you must be tenacious of life. I thought half the time in such a place would have done up any constitution! No wonder you have rather the look of another world. I marvelled where you had got that sort of face. When you came on me in Hay Lane last night, I thought unaccountably of fairy tales, and had half a mind to demand whether you had bewitched my horse I am not sure yet. Who are your parents”
“I have none.”
“Nor ever had, I suppose do you remember them”
“I thought not. And so you were waiting for your people when you sat on that stile”
“For whom, sir”
“For the men in green it was a proper moonlight evening for them. Did I break through one of your rings, that you spread that damned ice on the causeway”
I shook my head. “The men in green all forsook England a hundred years ago,” said I, speaking as seriously as he had done. “And not even in Hay Lane, or the fields about it, could you find a trace of them. I don’t think either summer or harvest, or winter moon, will ever shine on their revels more.”
Mrs. Fairfax had dropped her knitting, and, with raised eyebrows, seemed wondering what sort of talk this was.
“Well,” resumed Mr. Rochester, “if you disown parents, you must have some sort of kinsfolk uncles and aunts”
“No; none that I ever saw.”
“And your home”
“I have none.”
“Where do your brothers and sisters live”
“I have no brothers or sisters.”
“Who recommended you to come here”
“I advertised, and Mrs. Fairfax answered my advertisement.”
“Yes,” said the good lady, who now knew what ground we were upon, “and I am daily thankful for the choice Providence led me to make. Miss Eyre has been an invaluable companion to me, and a kind and careful teacher to Adèle.”
“Don’t trouble yourself to give her a character,” returned Mr. Rochester “eulogiums will not bias me; I shall judge for myself. She began by felling my horse.”
“Sir” said Mrs. Fairfax.
“I have to thank her for this sprain.”
The widow looked bewildered.
“Miss Eyre, have you ever lived in a town”
“Have you seen much society”
“None but the pupils and teachers of Lowood, and now the inmates of Thornfield.”
“Have you read much”
“Only such books as came in my way; and they have not been numerous or very learned.”
“You have lived the life of a nun no doubt you are well drilled in religious forms;—Brocklehurst, who I understand directs Lowood, is a parson, is he not”
“And you girls probably worshipped him, as a convent full of religieuses would worship their director.”
“You are very cool! No! What! a novice not worship her priest! That sounds blasphemous.”
“I disliked Mr. Brocklehurst; and I was not alone in the feeling. He is a harsh man; at once pompous and meddling; he cut off our hair; and for economy’s sake bought us bad needles and thread, with which we could hardly sew.”
“That was very false economy,” remarked Mrs. Fairfax, who now again caught the drift of the dialogue.
“And was that the head and front of his offending” demanded Mr. Rochester.
“He starved us when he had the sole superintendence of the provision department, before the committee was appointed; and he bored us with long lectures once a week, and with evening readings from books of his own inditing, about sudden deaths and judgments, which made us afraid to go to bed.”
“What age were you when you went to Lowood”
“And you stayed there eight years you are now, then, eighteen”
“Arithmetic, you see, is useful; without its aid, I should hardly have been able to guess your age. It is a point difficult to fix where the features and countenance are so much at variance as in your case. And now what did you learn at Lowood Can you play”
“Of course that is the established answer. Go into the library—I mean, if you please.—(Excuse my tone of command; I am used to say, ‘Do this,’ and it is done I cannot alter my customary habits for one new inmate.)—Go, then, into the library; take a candle with you; leave the door open; sit down to the piano, and play a tune.”
I departed, obeying his directions.
“Enough!” he called out in a few minutes. “You play a little, I see; like any other English school-girl; perhaps rather better than some, but not well.”
I closed the piano and returned. Mr. Rochester continued—“Adèle showed me some sketches this morning, which she said were yours. I don’t know whether they were entirely of your doing; probably a master aided you”
“No, indeed!” I interjected.
“Ah! that pricks pride. Well, fetch me your portfolio, if you can vouch for its contents being original; but don’t pass your word unless you are certain I can recognise patchwork.”
“Then I will say nothing, and you shall judge for yourself, sir.”
I brought the portfolio from the library.
“Approach the table,” said he; and I wheeled it to his couch. Adèle and Mrs. Fairfax drew near to see the pictures.
“No crowding,” said Mr. Rochester “take the drawings from my hand as I finish with them; but don’t push your faces up to mine.”
He deliberately scrutinised each sketch and painting. Three he laid aside; the others, when he had examined them, he swept from him.
“Take them off to the other table, Mrs. Fairfax,” said he, “and look at them with Adèle;—you” (glancing at me) “resume your seat, and answer my questions. I perceive those pictures were done by one hand was that hand yours”
“And when did you find time to do them They have taken much time, and some thought.”
“I did them in the last two vacations I spent at Lowood, when I had no other occupation.”
“Where did you get your copies”
“Out of my head.”
“That head I see now on your shoulders”
“Has it other furniture of the same kind within”
“I should think it may have I should hope—better.”
He spread the pictures before him, and again surveyed them alternately.
While he is so occupied, I will tell you, reader, what they are and first, I must premise that they are nothing wonderful. The subjects had, indeed, risen vividly on my mind. As I saw them with the spiritual eye, before I attempted to embody them, they were striking; but my hand would not second my fancy, and in each case it had wrought out but a pale portrait of the thing I had conceived.
These pictures were in water-colours. The first represented clouds low and livid, rolling over a swollen sea all the distance was in eclipse; so, too, was the foreground; or rather, the nearest billows, for there was no land. One gleam of light lifted into relief a half-submerged mast, on which sat a cormorant, dark and large, with wings flecked with foam; its beak held a gold bracelet set with gems, that I had touched with as brilliant tints as my palette could yield, and as glittering distinctness as my pencil could impart. Sinking below the bird and mast, a drowned corpse glanced through the green water; a fair arm was the only limb clearly visible, whence the bracelet had been washed or torn.
The second picture contained for foreground only the dim peak of a hill, with grass and some leaves slanting as if by a breeze. Beyond and above spread an expanse of sky, dark blue as at twilight rising into the sky was a woman’s shape to the bust, portrayed in tints as dusk and soft as I could combine. The dim forehead was crowned with a star; the lineaments below were seen as through the suffusion of vapour; the eyes shone dark and wild; the hair streamed shadowy, like a beamless cloud torn by storm or by electric travail. On the neck lay a pale reflection like moonlight; the same faint lustre touched the train of thin clouds from which rose and bowed this vision of the Evening Star.
The third showed the pinnacle of an iceberg piercing a polar winter sky a muster of northern lights reared their dim lances, close serried, along the horizon. Throwing these into distance, rose, in the foreground, a head,—a colossal head, inclined towards the iceberg, and resting against it. Two thin hands, joined under the forehead, and supporting it, drew up before the lower features a sable veil, a brow quite bloodless, white as bone, and an eye hollow and fixed, blank of meaning but for the glassiness of despair, alone were visible. Above the temples, amidst wreathed turban folds of black drapery, vague in its character and consistency as cloud, gleamed a ring of white flame, gemmed with sparkles of a more lurid tinge. This pale crescent was “the likeness of a kingly crown;” what it diademed was “the shape which shape had none.”
“Were you happy when you painted these pictures” asked Mr. Rochester presently.
“I was absorbed, sir yes, and I was happy. To paint them, in short, was to enjoy one of the keenest pleasures I have ever known.”
“That is not saying much. Your pleasures, by your own account, have been few; but I daresay you did exist in a kind of artist’s dreamland while you blent and arranged these strange tints. Did you sit at them long each day”
“I had nothing else to do, because it was the vacation, and I sat at them from morning till noon, and from noon till night the length of the midsummer days favoured my inclination to apply.”
“And you felt self-satisfied with the result of your ardent labours”
“Far from it. I was tormented by the contrast between my idea and my handiwork in each case I had imagined something which I was quite powerless to realise.”
“Not quite you have secured the shadow of your thought; but no more, probably. You had not enough of the artist’s skill and science to give it full being yet the drawings are, for a school-girl, peculiar. As to the thoughts, they are elfish. These eyes in the Evening Star you must have seen in a dream. How could you make them look so clear, and yet not at all brilliant for the planet above quells their rays. And what meaning is that in their solemn depth And who taught you to paint wind There is a high gale in that sky, and on this hill-top. Where did you see Latmos For that is Latmos. There! put the drawings away!”
I had scarce tied the strings of the portfolio, when, looking at his watch, he said abruptly—
“It is nine o’clock what are you about, Miss Eyre, to let Adèle sit up so long Take her to bed.”
Adèle went to kiss him before quitting the room he endured the caress, but scarcely seemed to relish it more than Pilot would have done, nor so much.
“I wish you all good-night, now,” said he, making a movement of the hand towards the door, in token that he was tired of our company, and wished to dismiss us. Mrs. Fairfax folded up her knitting I took my portfolio we curtseyed to him, received a frigid bow in return, and so withdrew.
“You said Mr. Rochester was not strikingly peculiar, Mrs. Fairfax,” I observed, when I rejoined her in her room, after putting Adèle to bed.
“Well, is he”
“I think so he is very changeful and abrupt.”
“True no doubt he may appear so to a stranger, but I am so accustomed to his manner, I never think of it; and then, if he has peculiarities of temper, allowance should be made.”
“Partly because it is his nature—and we can none of us help our nature; and partly because he has painful thoughts, no doubt, to harass him, and make his spirits unequal.”
“Family troubles, for one thing.”
“But he has no family.”
“Not now, but he has had—or, at least, relatives. He lost his elder brother a few years since.”
“His elder brother”
“Yes. The present Mr. Rochester has not been very long in possession of the property; only about nine years.”
“Nine years is a tolerable time. Was he so very fond of his brother as to be still inconsolable for his loss”
“Why, no—perhaps not. I believe there were some misunderstandings between them. Mr. Rowland Rochester was not quite just to Mr. Edward; and perhaps he prejudiced his father against him. The old gentleman was fond of money, and anxious to keep the family estate together. He did not like to diminish the property by division, and yet he was anxious that Mr. Edward should have wealth, too, to keep up the consequence of the name; and, soon after he was of age, some steps were taken that were not quite fair, and made a great deal of mischief. Old Mr. Rochester and Mr. Rowland combined to bring Mr. Edward into what he considered a painful position, for the sake of making his fortune what the precise nature of that position was I never clearly knew, but his spirit could not brook what he had to suffer in it. He is not very forgiving he broke with his family, and now for many years he has led an unsettled kind of life. I don’t think he has ever been resident at Thornfield for a fortnight together, since the death of his brother without a will left him master of the estate; and, indeed, no wonder he shuns the old place.”
“Why should he shun it”
“Perhaps he thinks it gloomy.”
The answer was evasive. I should have liked something clearer; but Mrs. Fairfax either could not, or would not, give me more explicit information of the origin and nature of Mr. Rochester’s trials. She averred they were a mystery to herself, and that what she knew was chiefly from conjecture. It was evident, indeed, that she wished me to drop the subject, which I did accordingly.
For several subsequent days I saw little of Mr. Rochester. In the mornings he seemed much engaged with business, and, in the afternoon, gentlemen from Millcote or the neighbourhood called, and sometimes stayed to dine with him. When his sprain was well enough to admit of horse exercise, he rode out a good deal; probably to return these visits, as he generally did not come back till late at night.
During this interval, even Adèle was seldom sent for to his presence, and all my acquaintance with him was confined to an occasional rencontre in the hall, on the stairs, or in the gallery, when he would sometimes pass me haughtily and coldly, just acknowledging my presence by a distant nod or a cool glance, and sometimes bow and smile with gentlemanlike affability. His changes of mood did not offend me, because I saw that I had nothing to do with their alternation; the ebb and flow depended on causes quite disconnected with me.
One day he had had company to dinner, and had sent for my portfolio; in order, doubtless, to exhibit its contents the gentlemen went away early, to attend a public meeting at Millcote, as Mrs. Fairfax informed me; but the night being wet and inclement, Mr. Rochester did not accompany them. Soon after they were gone he rang the bell a message came that I and Adèle were to go downstairs. I brushed Adèle’s hair and made her neat, and having ascertained that I was myself in my usual Quaker trim, where there was nothing to retouch—all being too close and plain, braided locks included, to admit of disarrangement—we descended, Adèle wondering whether the petit coffre was at length come; for, owing to some mistake, its arrival had hitherto been delayed. She was gratified there it stood, a little carton, on the table when we entered the dining-room. She appeared to know it by instinct.
“Ma boite! ma boite!” exclaimed she, running towards it.
“Yes, there is your ‘boite’ at last take it into a corner, you genuine daughter of Paris, and amuse yourself with disembowelling it,” said the deep and rather sarcastic voice of Mr. Rochester, proceeding from the depths of an immense easy-chair at the fireside. “And mind,” he continued, “don’t bother me with any details of the anatomical process, or any notice of the condition of the entrails let your operation be conducted in silence tiens-toi tranquille, enfant; comprends-tu”
Adèle seemed scarcely to need the warning—she had already retired to a sofa with her treasure, and was busy untying the cord which secured the lid. Having removed this impediment, and lifted certain silvery envelopes of tissue paper, she merely exclaimed—
“Oh ciel! Que c’est beau!” and then remained absorbed in ecstatic contemplation.
“Is Miss Eyre there” now demanded the master, half rising from his seat to look round to the door, near which I still stood.
“Ah! well, come forward; be seated here.” He drew a chair near his own. “I am not fond of the prattle of children,” he continued; “for, old bachelor as I am, I have no pleasant associations connected with their lisp. It would be intolerable to me to pass a whole evening tête-à-tête with a brat. Don’t draw that chair farther off, Miss Eyre; sit down exactly where I placed it—if you please, that is. Confound these civilities! I continually forget them. Nor do I particularly affect simple-minded old ladies. By-the-bye, I must have mine in mind; it won’t do to neglect her; she is a Fairfax, or wed to one; and blood is said to be thicker than water.”
He rang, and despatched an invitation to Mrs. Fairfax, who soon arrived, knitting-basket in hand.
“Good evening, madam; I sent to you for a charitable purpose. I have forbidden Adèle to talk to me about her presents, and she is bursting with repletion have the goodness to serve her as auditress and interlocutrice; it will be one of the most benevolent acts you ever performed.”
Adèle, indeed, no sooner saw Mrs. Fairfax, than she summoned her to her sofa, and there quickly filled her lap with the porcelain, the ivory, the waxen contents of her “boite;” pouring out, meantime, explanations and raptures in such broken English as she was mistress of.
“Now I have performed the part of a good host,” pursued Mr. Rochester, “put my guests into the way of amusing each other, I ought to be at liberty to attend to my own pleasure. Miss Eyre, draw your chair still a little farther forward you are yet too far back; I cannot see you without disturbing my position in this comfortable chair, which I have no mind to do.”
I did as I was bid, though I would much rather have remained somewhat in the shade; but Mr. Rochester had such a direct way of giving orders, it seemed a matter of course to obey him promptly.
We were, as I have said, in the dining-room the lustre, which had been lit for dinner, filled the room with a festal breadth of light; the large fire was all red and clear; the purple curtains hung rich and ample before the lofty window and loftier arch; everything was still, save the subdued chat of Adèle (she dared not speak loud), and, filling up each pause, the beating of winter rain against the panes.
Mr. Rochester, as he sat in his damask-covered chair, looked different to what I had seen him look before; not quite so stern—much less gloomy. There was a smile on his lips, and his eyes sparkled, whether with wine or not, I am not sure; but I think it very probable. He was, in short, in his after-dinner mood; more expanded and genial, and also more self-indulgent than the frigid and rigid temper of the morning; still he looked preciously grim, cushioning his massive head against the swelling back of his chair, and receiving the light of the fire on his granite-hewn features, and in his great, dark eyes; for he had great, dark eyes, and very fine eyes, too—not without a certain change in their depths sometimes, which, if it was not softness, reminded you, at least, of that feeling.
He had been looking two minutes at the fire, and I had been looking the same length of time at him, when, turning suddenly, he caught my gaze fastened on his physiognomy.
“You examine me, Miss Eyre,” said he “do you think me handsome”
I should, if I had deliberated, have replied to this question by something conventionally vague and polite; but the answer somehow slipped from my tongue before I was aware—“No, sir.”
“Ah! By my word! there is something singular about you,” said he “you have the air of a little nonnette; quaint, quiet, grave, and simple, as you sit with your hands before you, and your eyes generally bent on the carpet (except, by-the-bye, when they are directed piercingly to my face; as just now, for instance); and when one asks you a question, or makes a remark to which you are obliged to reply, you rap out a round rejoinder, which, if not blunt, is at least brusque. What do you mean by it”
“Sir, I was too plain; I beg your pardon. I ought to have replied that it was not easy to give an impromptu answer to a question about appearances; that tastes mostly differ; and that beauty is of little consequence, or something of that sort.”
“You ought to have replied no such thing. Beauty of little consequence, indeed! And so, under pretence of softening the previous outrage, of stroking and soothing me into placidity, you stick a sly penknife under my ear! Go on what fault do you find with me, pray I suppose I have all my limbs and all my features like any other man”
“Mr. Rochester, allow me to disown my first answer I intended no pointed repartee it was only a blunder.”
“Just so I think so and you shall be answerable for it. Criticise me does my forehead not please you”
He lifted up the sable waves of hair which lay horizontally over his brow, and showed a solid enough mass of intellectual organs, but an abrupt deficiency where the suave sign of benevolence should have risen.
“Now, ma’am, am I a fool”
“Far from it, sir. You would, perhaps, think me rude if I inquired in return whether you are a philanthropist”
“There again! Another stick of the penknife, when she pretended to pat my head and that is because I said I did not like the society of children and old women (low be it spoken!). No, young lady, I am not a general philanthropist; but I bear a conscience;” and he pointed to the prominences which are said to indicate that faculty, and which, fortunately for him, were sufficiently conspicuous; giving, indeed, a marked breadth to the upper part of his head “and, besides, I once had a kind of rude tenderness of heart. When I was as old as you, I was a feeling fellow enough, partial to the unfledged, unfostered, and unlucky; but Fortune has knocked me about since she has even kneaded me with her knuckles, and now I flatter myself I am hard and tough as an India-rubber ball; pervious, though, through a chink or two still, and with one sentient point in the middle of the lump. Yes does that leave hope for me”
“Hope of what, sir”
“Of my final re-transformation from India-rubber back to flesh”
“Decidedly he has had too much wine,” I thought; and I did not know what answer to make to his queer question how could I tell whether he was capable of being re-transformed
“You looked very much puzzled, Miss Eyre; and though you are not pretty any more than I am handsome, yet a puzzled air becomes you; besides, it is convenient, for it keeps those searching eyes of yours away from my physiognomy, and busies them with the worsted flowers of the rug; so puzzle on. Young lady, I am disposed to be gregarious and communicative to-night.”
With this announcement he rose from his chair, and stood, leaning his arm on the marble mantelpiece in that attitude his shape was seen plainly as well as his face; his unusual breadth of chest, disproportionate almost to his length of limb. I am sure most people would have thought him an ugly man; yet there was so much unconscious pride in his port; so much ease in his demeanour; such a look of complete indifference to his own external appearance; so haughty a reliance on the power of other qualities, intrinsic or adventitious, to atone for the lack of mere personal attractiveness, that, in looking at him, one inevitably shared the indifference, and, even in a blind, imperfect sense, put faith in the confidence.
“I am disposed to be gregarious and communicative to-night,” he repeated, “and that is why I sent for you the fire and the chandelier were not sufficient company for me; nor would Pilot have been, for none of these can talk. Adèle is a degree better, but still far below the mark; Mrs. Fairfax ditto; you, I am persuaded, can suit me if you will you puzzled me the first evening I invited you down here. I have almost forgotten you since other ideas have driven yours from my head; but to-night I am resolved to be at ease; to dismiss what importunes, and recall what pleases. It would please me now to draw you out—to learn more of you—therefore speak.”
Instead of speaking, I smiled; and not a very complacent or submissive smile either.
“Speak,” he urged.
“What about, sir”
“Whatever you like. I leave both the choice of subject and the manner of treating it entirely to yourself.”
Accordingly I sat and said nothing “If he expects me to talk for the mere sake of talking and showing off, he will find he has addressed himself to the wrong person,” I thought.
“You are dumb, Miss Eyre.”
I was dumb still. He bent his head a little towards me, and with a single hasty glance seemed to dive into my eyes.
“Stubborn” he said, “and annoyed. Ah! it is consistent. I put my request in an absurd, almost insolent form. Miss Eyre, I beg your pardon. The fact is, once for all, I don’t wish to treat you like an inferior that is” (correcting himself), “I claim only such superiority as must result from twenty years’ difference in age and a century’s advance in experience. This is legitimate, et j’y tiens, as Adèle would say; and it is by virtue of this superiority, and this alone, that I desire you to have the goodness to talk to me a little now, and divert my thoughts, which are galled with dwelling on one point—cankering as a rusty nail.”
He had deigned an explanation, almost an apology, and I did not feel insensible to his condescension, and would not seem so.
“I am willing to amuse you, if I can, sir—quite willing; but I cannot introduce a topic, because how do I know what will interest you Ask me questions, and I will do my best to answer them.”
“Then, in the first place, do you agree with me that I have a right to be a little masterful, abrupt, perhaps exacting, sometimes, on the grounds I stated, namely, that I am old enough to be your father, and that I have battled through a varied experience with many men of many nations, and roamed over half the globe, while you have lived quietly with one set of people in one house”
“Do as you please, sir.”
“That is no answer; or rather it is a very irritating, because a very evasive one. Reply clearly.”
“I don’t think, sir, you have a right to command me, merely because you are older than I, or because you have seen more of the world than I have; your claim to superiority depends on the use you have made of your time and experience.”
“Humph! Promptly spoken. But I won’t allow that, seeing that it would never suit my case, as I have made an indifferent, not to say a bad, use of both advantages. Leaving superiority out of the question, then, you must still agree to receive my orders now and then, without being piqued or hurt by the tone of command. Will you”
I smiled I thought to myself Mr. Rochester is peculiar—he seems to forget that he pays me £30 per annum for receiving his orders.
“The smile is very well,” said he, catching instantly the passing expression; “but speak too.”
“I was thinking, sir, that very few masters would trouble themselves to inquire whether or not their paid subordinates were piqued and hurt by their orders.”
“Paid subordinates! What! you are my paid subordinate, are you Oh yes, I had forgotten the salary! Well then, on that mercenary ground, will you agree to let me hector a little”
“No, sir, not on that ground; but, on the ground that you did forget it, and that you care whether or not a dependent is comfortable in his dependency, I agree heartily.”
“And will you consent to dispense with a great many conventional forms and phrases, without thinking that the omission arises from insolence”
“I am sure, sir, I should never mistake informality for insolence one I rather like, the other nothing free-born would submit to, even for a salary.”
“Humbug! Most things free-born will submit to anything for a salary; therefore, keep to yourself, and don’t venture on generalities of which you are intensely ignorant. However, I mentally shake hands with you for your answer, despite its inaccuracy; and as much for the manner in which it was said, as for the substance of the speech; the manner was frank and sincere; one does not often see such a manner no, on the contrary, affectation, or coldness, or stupid, coarse-minded misapprehension of one’s meaning are the usual rewards of candour. Not three in three thousand raw school-girl-governesses would have answered me as you have just done. But I don’t mean to flatter you if you are cast in a different mould to the majority, it is no merit of yours Nature did it. And then, after all, I go too fast in my conclusions for what I yet know, you may be no better than the rest; you may have intolerable defects to counterbalance your few good points.”
“And so may you,” I thought. My eye met his as the idea crossed my mind he seemed to read the glance, answering as if its import had been spoken as well as imagined—
“Yes, yes, you are right,” said he; “I have plenty of faults of my own I know it, and I don’t wish to palliate them, I assure you. God wot I need not be too severe about others; I have a past existence, a series of deeds, a colour of life to contemplate within my own breast, which might well call my sneers and censures from my neighbours to myself. I started, or rather (for like other defaulters, I like to lay half the blame on ill fortune and adverse circumstances) was thrust on to a wrong tack at the age of one-and-twenty, and have never recovered the right course since but I might have been very different; I might have been as good as you—wiser—almost as stainless. I envy you your peace of mind, your clean conscience, your unpolluted memory. Little girl, a memory without blot or contamination must be an exquisite treasure—an inexhaustible source of pure refreshment is it not”
“How was your memory when you were eighteen, sir”
“All right then; limpid, salubrious no gush of bilge water had turned it to fetid puddle. I was your equal at eighteen—quite your equal. Nature meant me to be, on the whole, a good man, Miss Eyre; one of the better kind, and you see I am not so. You would say you don’t see it; at least I flatter myself I read as much in your eye (beware, by-the-bye, what you express with that organ; I am quick at interpreting its language). Then take my word for it,—I am not a villain you are not to suppose that—not to attribute to me any such bad eminence; but, owing, I verily believe, rather to circumstances than to my natural bent, I am a trite commonplace sinner, hackneyed in all the poor petty dissipations with which the rich and worthless try to put on life. Do you wonder that I avow this to you Know, that in the course of your future life you will often find yourself elected the involuntary confidant of your acquaintances’ secrets people will instinctively find out, as I have done, that it is not your forte to tell of yourself, but to listen while others talk of themselves; they will feel, too, that you listen with no malevolent scorn of their indiscretion, but with a kind of innate sympathy; not the less comforting and encouraging because it is very unobtrusive in its manifestations.”
“How do you know—how can you guess all this, sir”
“I know it well; therefore I proceed almost as freely as if I were writing my thoughts in a diary. You would say, I should have been superior to circumstances; so I should—so I should; but you see I was not. When fate wronged me, I had not the wisdom to remain cool I turned desperate; then I degenerated. Now, when any vicious simpleton excites my disgust by his paltry ribaldry, I cannot flatter myself that I am better than he I am forced to confess that he and I are on a level. I wish I had stood firm—God knows I do! Dread remorse when you are tempted to err, Miss Eyre; remorse is the poison of life.”
“Repentance is said to be its cure, sir.”
“It is not its cure. Reformation may be its cure; and I could reform—I have strength yet for that—if—but where is the use of thinking of it, hampered, burdened, cursed as I am Besides, since happiness is irrevocably denied me, I have a right to get pleasure out of life and I will get it, cost what it may.”
“Then you will degenerate still more, sir.”
“Possibly yet why should I, if I can get sweet, fresh pleasure And I may get it as sweet and fresh as the wild honey the bee gathers on the moor.”
“It will sting—it will taste bitter, sir.”
“How do you know—you never tried it. How very serious—how very solemn you look and you are as ignorant of the matter as this cameo head” (taking one from the mantelpiece). “You have no right to preach to me, you neophyte, that have not passed the porch of life, and are absolutely unacquainted with its mysteries.”
“I only remind you of your own words, sir you said error brought remorse, and you pronounced remorse the poison of existence.”
“And who talks of error now I scarcely think the notion that flittered across my brain was an error. I believe it was an inspiration rather than a temptation it was very genial, very soothing—I know that. Here it comes again! It is no devil, I assure you; or if it be, it has put on the robes of an angel of light. I think I must admit so fair a guest when it asks entrance to my heart.”
“Distrust it, sir; it is not a true angel.”
“Once more, how do you know By what instinct do you pretend to distinguish between a fallen seraph of the abyss and a messenger from the eternal throne—between a guide and a seducer”
“I judged by your countenance, sir, which was troubled when you said the suggestion had returned upon you. I feel sure it will work you more misery if you listen to it.”
“Not at all—it bears the most gracious message in the world for the rest, you are not my conscience-keeper, so don’t make yourself uneasy. Here, come in, bonny wanderer!”
He said this as if he spoke to a vision, viewless to any eye but his own; then, folding his arms, which he had half extended, on his chest, he seemed to enclose in their embrace the invisible being.
“Now,” he continued, again addressing me, “I have received the pilgrim—a disguised deity, as I verily believe. Already it has done me good my heart was a sort of charnel; it will now be a shrine.”
“To speak truth, sir, I don’t understand you at all I cannot keep up the conversation, because it has got out of my depth. Only one thing, I know you said you were not as good as you should like to be, and that you regretted your own imperfection;—one thing I can comprehend you intimated that to have a sullied memory was a perpetual bane. It seems to me, that if you tried hard, you would in time find it possible to become what you yourself would approve; and that if from this day you began with resolution to correct your thoughts and actions, you would in a few years have laid up a new and stainless store of recollections, to which you might revert with pleasure.”
“Justly thought; rightly said, Miss Eyre; and, at this moment, I am paving hell with energy.”
“I am laying down good intentions, which I believe durable as flint. Certainly, my associates and pursuits shall be other than they have been.”
“And better—so much better as pure ore is than foul dross. You seem to doubt me; I don’t doubt myself I know what my aim is, what my motives are; and at this moment I pass a law, unalterable as that of the Medes and Persians, that both are right.”
“They cannot be, sir, if they require a new statute to legalise them.”
“They are, Miss Eyre, though they absolutely require a new statute unheard-of combinations of circumstances demand unheard-of rules.”
“That sounds a dangerous maxim, sir; because one can see at once that it is liable to abuse.”
“Sententious sage! so it is but I swear by my household gods not to abuse it.”
“You are human and fallible.”
“I am so are you—what then”
“The human and fallible should not arrogate a power with which the divine and perfect alone can be safely intrusted.”
“That of saying of any strange, unsanctioned line of action,—‘Let it be right.’”
“‘Let it be right’—the very words you have pronounced them.”
“May it be right then,” I said, as I rose, deeming it useless to continue a discourse which was all darkness to me; and, besides, sensible that the character of my interlocutor was beyond my penetration; at least, beyond its present reach; and feeling the uncertainty, the vague sense of insecurity, which accompanies a conviction of ignorance.
“Where are you going”
“To put Adèle to bed it is past her bedtime.”
“You are afraid of me, because I talk like a Sphynx.”
“Your language is enigmatical, sir but though I am bewildered, I am certainly not afraid.”
“You are afraid—your self-love dreads a blunder.”
“In that sense I do feel apprehensive—I have no wish to talk nonsense.”
“If you did, it would be in such a grave, quiet manner, I should mistake it for sense. Do you never laugh, Miss Eyre Don’t trouble yourself to answer—I see you laugh rarely; but you can laugh very merrily believe me, you are not naturally austere, any more than I am naturally vicious. The Lowood constraint still clings to you somewhat; controlling your features, muffling your voice, and restricting your limbs; and you fear in the presence of a man and a brother—or father, or master, or what you will—to smile too gaily, speak too freely, or move too quickly but, in time, I think you will learn to be natural with me, as I find it impossible to be conventional with you; and then your looks and movements will have more vivacity and variety than they dare offer now. I see at intervals the glance of a curious sort of bird through the close-set bars of a cage a vivid, restless, resolute captive is there; were it but free, it would soar cloud-high. You are still bent on going”
“It has struck nine, sir.”
“Never mind,—wait a minute Adèle is not ready to go to bed yet. My position, Miss Eyre, with my back to the fire, and my face to the room, favours observation. While talking to you, I have also occasionally watched Adèle (I have my own reasons for thinking her a curious study,—reasons that I may, nay, that I shall, impart to you some day). She pulled out of her box, about ten minutes ago, a little pink silk frock; rapture lit her face as she unfolded it; coquetry runs in her blood, blends with her brains, and seasons the marrow of her bones. ‘Il faut que je l’essaie!’ cried she, ‘et à l’instant même!’ and she rushed out of the room. She is now with Sophie, undergoing a robing process in a few minutes she will re-enter; and I know what I shall see,—a miniature of Céline Varens, as she used to appear on the boards at the rising of—But never mind that. However, my tenderest feelings are about to receive a shock such is my presentiment; stay now, to see whether it will be realised.”
Ere long, Adèle’s little foot was heard tripping across the hall. She entered, transformed as her guardian had predicted. A dress of rose-coloured satin, very short, and as full in the skirt as it could be gathered, replaced the brown frock she had previously worn; a wreath of rosebuds circled her forehead; her feet were dressed in silk stockings and small white satin sandals.
“Est-ce que ma robe va bien” cried she, bounding forwards; “et mes souliers et mes bas Tenez, je crois que je vais danser!”
And spreading out her dress, she chasséed across the room till, having reached Mr. Rochester, she wheeled lightly round before him on tip-toe, then dropped on one knee at his feet, exclaiming—
“Monsieur, je vous remercie mille fois de votre bonté;” then rising, she added, “C’est comme cela que maman faisait, n’est-ce pas, monsieur”
“Pre-cise-ly!” was the answer; “and, ‘comme cela,’ she charmed my English gold out of my British breeches’ pocket. I have been green, too, Miss Eyre,—ay, grass green not a more vernal tint freshens you now than once freshened me. My Spring is gone, however, but it has left me that French floweret on my hands, which, in some moods, I would fain be rid of. Not valuing now the root whence it sprang; having found that it was of a sort which nothing but gold dust could manure, I have but half a liking to the blossom, especially when it looks so artificial as just now. I keep it and rear it rather on the Roman Catholic principle of expiating numerous sins, great or small, by one good work. I’ll explain all this some day. Good-night.”