John Eyre: Chapter One

Lowton, England
October 1843

John Eyre stood over the freshly turned heap of earth, his head bent and his gloved hands clasped behind his back. The sun was breaking over the bleak Surrey Hills. A slowly rising rim of molten gold. It burned at the edges of the morning fog that blanketed the valley, pushing back the darkness, but doing nothing at all to alleviate the bone-numbing chill that had settled into his limbs.

Lady Helen Burns’s newly dug grave was located behind the church in a section reserved for those poor souls who had died outside of the grace of God. Unconsecrated ground. The final resting place of the village’s suicides and unbaptized infants. None had been blessed with so much as a simple marker. No cross, headstone, or marble angel to commemorate their passing.

Until now.

Helen’s humble plot was adorned with a tablet of gray marble. John had commissioned it himself. It didn’t state her name, or the date of her untimely death. Had it done so, Sir William would have no doubt demanded it be removed. Helen was still his wife, and therefore his property, even in death.

In lieu of Helen’s name, the stonemason had recommended a quote from the Bible. Something dire, from the book of Lamentations. “The crown is fallen from our head: woe unto us, that we have sinned!”

John would have none of it.

Instead, he’d ordered the stone to be chiseled with a solitary word of Latin: Resurgam. It was the promise of resurrection. Eternal life in the hereafter, free of earthly woe—whether the church believed she merited it or not.

It had been an act of defiance. And yet, how pathetic it looked in the early morning light, that small stone with its single word, propped over a hastily dug grave.

She had deserved better.

“I thought you would come.” The Reverend Mr. Brocklehurst approached, the tread of his footsteps nearly silent on the frost-covered grass.

John’s muscles stiffened. The beginnings of another headache throbbed at his temples. Megrims, the village doctor called them. Symptoms of a highly strung individual with far too much on his mind—and on his conscience.

Whatever they were, they were coming with more frequency of late. Even during those hours when the pain was at an ebb, the shadow of it still lurked behind John’s eyes.

“A sad end for an unhappy soul.” Mr. Brocklehurst came to stand beside him. He looked down at Helen’s grave with an expression of pious regret. “Though I cannot but think it mightn’t have come to this had you never offered her your…sympathies.”

“I was kind to her, and she to me. There was nothing more to it than that.” There hadn’t been. Not on John’s part. But Helen had come to view their friendship in a different light. She’d seen him as a savior. A man who might help her to escape the prison of her life.

He hadn’t helped her in the end. He’d been too concerned about his own future. Too respectful of the bonds of matrimony.

“In these cases,” Mr. Brocklehurst said, “kindness can often be a cruelty.”

John had no patience for the man’s homilies. Even less for his insinuations that John’s friendship with Helen had hastened her demise. He had enough to reproach himself with on that score without being lectured to by a clergyman.

“You’re young yet,” Mr. Brocklehurst went on. “You’ll soon learn.”

Young? At seven and twenty? John felt as old as creation. Weary in body and soul. After Helen’s death, he’d been quite ready to lay down and die himself. But that was all over now. It had to be. Guilt was a bog—a mire. He wouldn’t permit it to suck him under.

“Where will you go?” Mr. Brocklehurst asked.

“Far away from here.” John inwardly winced to hear the lingering bitterness in his words. In the preceding weeks, he’d thought the last ounces of emotion had been leached from his soul. Nothing remained, save a firm resolve to start again somewhere else. To move forward, safe in the knowledge that he would never make the same mistakes again.

And yet, that trace of bitterness remained.

It was a result of being here. Of seeing her small, ignominious grave.

“To another school?” Mr. Brocklehurst coughed. “I think that unwise.”

“I’ve taken a position as tutor in a private household.” John had placed the advertisement over a month ago. And then he’d waited.

And waited.

He’d begun to despair of ever receiving a response when the letter of enquiry had arrived from Mr. Fairfax of Thornfield Hall in Yorkshire. It was a brief missive, penned in spidery handwriting, offering a situation with two pupils, at a salary of forty pounds per annum.

It was precisely what John required. A remote locale, far away from Lowton. A place where he could focus anew on his teaching. It was more than work to him. It was his vocation. Given time and space, he hoped he could rekindle his passion for it.

“And Sir William has seen fit to give you a reference?”

“Not he,” John said. “It was her ladyship.”

“She knew you were leaving, then.”

John made no reply.

Of course, Helen had known he wished to go. She’d known he found the situation untenable. He’d told himself it was for the best. That in his absence, she might resume the normal course of her life. Not in happiness—for John was aware that such an emotion was impossible when married to the likes of Sir William—but with a spirit resigned to doing her duty as a wife. The same spirit with which she’d endured before John had come to the village, and taken up his post as schoolmaster.

He hadn’t reckoned she would find it too much to bear.

“She has gone to God now,” Mr. Brocklehurst said.

John’s head jerked up. Anger flared in his breast. “You can say that? Yet you have consigned her here, to this piece of land, where God does not exist.”

“God exists everywhere.”

“I no longer believe that.”

Mr. Brocklehurst murmured a rebuke. “You are grieving, sir. But you mustn’t question God’s plan. You mustn’t lose your faith.”

John bent to retrieve the portmanteau that sat at his feet, his hand gripping tight around the leather handle. His trunk had already been corded and sent on ahead. All that remained was to get himself on the stage.

His gaze raked over Helen’s grave one last time before he turned away. “I already have.”

***

Three days later, John arrived in the village of Millcote at half past seven in the evening, his headache in full force. The George Inn was but a ramshackle building near the Yorkshire coast. Nothing much to speak of. A mere stop on the stage. John removed his hat and gloves as he entered. The door slammed closed behind him, shutting out the rain that had followed him all the way from Lowton.

“Evening, sir.” A grizzled gentleman in his shirtsleeves approached, hastily donning his coat. The innkeeper, John presumed.

“Good evening.” John glanced around the common area. A pendant oil lamp hung from the ceiling. It cast a shifting pattern of shadows on the empty tables and chairs. “Is there no one else here?”

“No, sir. None save the wife and me, and yon coachman. Will you be wanting a room?”

“I shouldn’t think so. That is, I was expecting to be met by someone from Thornfield Hall.”

The innkeeper gave him a blank look.

“Do you know of the place?” John asked.

“Aye. I know of it.”

John waited for the innkeeper to elaborate, but the man said nothing more. John suppressed a flicker of impatience. “Has no one been here today from Thornfield?”

“No, sir. We’ve not had anyone here today excepting the stage. Not with the storm coming.”

John supposed his new employer, Mr. Fairfax, might be reluctant to send a carriage out in such miserable weather. If that was the case, John had little choice but to remain here awhile.

He requested to be taken to a private room. Once there, he removed his frock coat and cravat, and bathed his face with cool water from the pitcher at the washstand.

There was no mirror available. He didn’t require one. He knew the limits of what could be achieved with his appearance.

He’d never been considered handsome. Not in the traditional sense. Though tall enough, he was too slight of frame and too plain of feature. His black hair, high forehead, and dark eyes spoke of book learning and quiet contemplation. A man who was all interior thought and emotion. Not a man of action. Not a hero who could have ridden to Helen’s rescue and saved her, damn the consequences.

A breath shuddered out of him.

It was this blasted headache. How was a man to think straight?

The innkeeper had placed John’s portmanteau on a bench at the end of the bed. He went to it and opened it, withdrawing a small, rigid leather case. Inside, arrayed in three neat rows, were more than two dozen glass phials of laudanum.

The village doctor had prescribed it for the worst of John’s headaches, but in the aftermath of Helen’s suicide, John found himself relying on the drug more and more.

On a good day, a single phial could be made to stretch to several doses.

Today was not a good day.

Relief wouldn’t be enough. He wanted—needed—oblivion, if only for a few brief moments.

Uncorking a phial, he swallowed the entirety of the contents in one grimacing gulp. It was sickly sweet. Increasingly familiar—as was the muzzy-headedness that followed.

He lay down upon the bed and closed his eyes.

And he must have fallen asleep, for when next he opened them, the candle at his bedside had guttered, and his room was swathed in darkness.

A knock sounded at the door.

John sat up, running a hand through his disheveled hair. His mouth was dry as cotton wool. “Yes? What is it?”

“Coachman’s come from Thornfield, sir. Looking for a Mr. Eyre.”

“I won’t be a moment.” John swiftly put himself in order, gathered his things, and hastened downstairs.

The coachman stood at the open door, droplets of rain clinging to his oilskin coat. He eyed John’s trunk, which the innkeeper had left in the passage. “Is this all of your luggage?”

“Only that and my portmanteau.” John followed the coachman outside. A one-horse conveyance awaited. It was nothing very grand. Just a box, really. The coachman hoisted John’s trunk onto the roof and secured it with a length of rope.

The rain had slowed to a drizzle, the air redolent with the fragrance of wet earth. John saw no evidence of stars in the night sky, nor any sign of a moon to light their way. A lamp hung at the front of the carriage, on the right of the coachman’s box, but all else lay in darkness.

“How far is it to Thornfield?” he asked.

“Ten miles.” The coachman opened the door of the carriage.

John climbed inside. “How long will it take to get there?”

“Two hours, give or take.”  The coachman fastened the door. Seconds later, the carriage shook as he took his place on the box, and gave the horse the office to start.

John leaned back into his seat as the carriage lurched into motion. Their progress, over the course of the next hour, was leisurely. Necessarily so given the darkness—and the evident age of the carriage. The vehicle was neither dashing, nor well sprung. Which suited John very well. He had no desire to be employed by a person of fashion. A simple country life, that’s what he required. Someplace quiet and orderly where he could teach his new pupils in peace.

In his letter, Mr. Fairfax had described the two boys as being shy, but eager to learn. They were ages six and seven. A bit younger than the children John had taught at the village school in Lowton.

He prayed he was up to the task.

Older boys were more trouble, but one could talk with them. Reason with them. They weren’t babies just out of the nursery.

But beggars couldn’t be choosers.

Mr. Fairfax’s letter had been the only reply to John’s advertisement. He hadn’t held out much hope of receiving another offer of employment. Certainly not one that would take him so far away from Lowton.

He rested his head against the rain-streaked window as the carriage rolled through the mud. The laudanum had left him with a dull headache, and a familiar sense of queasy malaise that wasn’t likely to leave him until he’d properly eaten and rested. It was going on midnight. Would the housekeeper at Thornfield have something prepared for his arrival? A cold collation, perhaps? Or a slice of leftover kidney pie?

The thought of food did nothing to settle his stomach. Rather the opposite. A surge of nausea rose in his throat. He let down the window and thrust out his head. Damp night air filled his lungs.

“You alright, sir?” the coachman called down.

“Quite well. Just needed a bit of air.” John’s answer appeared to satisfy the fellow. He made no attempt to stop the carriage. Indeed, he gave the plodding horse a brisk smack with the reins as if to speed the creature’s pace.

John kept the window down. The fresh air was welcome, and he could see better without the barrier of the streaked glass. A halo of light shone from the swinging carriage lamp. Enough for him to get an impression of the passing scenery. Trees and shrubs and twining brambles. It wasn’t a welcoming landscape. Less so at this time of year, as autumn marched inexorably toward winter.

There didn’t appear to be any houses hereabouts. The scattered fences and pitched roofs he’d spied as they left the George Inn were long behind them. Only emptiness lay ahead. A vast stretch of countryside engulfed in a silvery mist that clung to the branches, and swirled along the edge of the road.

He had the vague thought that Thornfield Hall must reside in a valley, for as the carriage rolled on, the mist appeared to grow heavier, settling over the ground and partially obscuring the way in front of them.

In time, they approached a crossroads. Looming to their right, John could just make out the stone edifice of an old church, its tower rising defiantly against the night sky. Its bell tolled the hour as they passed. One chime. Two chimes. And on and on, all the way to midnight.

The sound faded behind them as the carriage turned down the left branch of the road. It was still echoing softly in the night when John saw her.

And it was a her, however noncorporeal. She seemed to materialize from the mist ahead of them, a mere shimmer of vapor coalesced into the form and figure of a woman. A lady. A beautiful, beribboned wisp of one in a full-skirted gown.

John blinked hard to clear his eyes, but the figure remained. White and ethereal. She stood in front of the oncoming carriage, one hand held out in front of her. The gesture was unmistakable. Halt, it said. Don’t come any further.

And yet the horse plodded on, no change in its gate.

John’s pulse leapt in his throat. “Stop!” he called out to the coachman. “There’s someone ahead!”

The coachman slowed the horse. “What’s that?”

“There! A woman in the road! Can you not see her?”

“Ain’t no one in the road, sir.”

John blinked again. This time, when he opened his eyes, the lady was gone. Only the mist remained. His heart pounded. “She was there. I saw her.”

The coachman gave a low chuckle. “That’d be the Millcote mists, sir. Always do play tricks on folks. Reckon you’ll get used to them.” He clucked and the horse walked on, forward and through the very mist where the lady had been standing seconds before.

John sank into his seat, his forehead beaded with perspiration. His pulse beat an erratic rhythm at his throat. Perhaps it was the Millcote mists, whatever those were. Either that or the dose of laudanum he’d taken at the inn. He didn’t know which. All he knew was that he had seen a lady in the road. He knew because he’d recognized her.

It had been Helen.

Excerpt from John Eyre copyright © Mimi Matthews, 2020.
Reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part, by any means, is forbidden without written permission from the author.

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