John Eyre: Part Five

As the next week slipped by, Thornfield began to feel more and more like a home to John. His duties as tutor were often taxing. Some days he felt as though he was making progress with his pupils. Others were an exercise in pure frustration. He was pushed to the limits of his creativity—forever thinking up new ways to engage the boys’ interest. Drawing, globes, and counting games. Anything that might ignite a spark in their lifeless eyes.

But teaching didn’t absorb all of his time. After morning lessons, and then again during those evening hours that he could call his own, John explored the house and the grounds, making full use of his pad and pencils to sketch anything that caught his eye.

No servants were ever around to impede his wanderings. Indeed, he scarcely encountered a soul. Mr. Fairfax was his only companion. The two of them often dined together in the evening in the same cozy little parlor where John had taken tea on the night of his arrival.

During the day, Mr. Fairfax kept busy managing the small staff, and seeing to meals, and the account books. Thornfield employed no housekeeper. What servants John observed were mostly males—several strong footmen, a coachman, and groundskeeper. The only women in residence besides the boys’ nurse, Sophie, were the cook and her scullery maid.

“Is it not too much, managing such a large house with so little staff?” John asked one morning, encountering Mr. Fairfax on the stairs.

The butler was breathing heavily as he climbed, clutching the bannister with one age-spotted hand. “Not usually. Most of the house is shut up. We attend only to the main rooms.”

“A large enough responsibility on their own.”

“Yes, but one must keep them in order. Mrs. Rochester arrives with so little notice, you see. One never knows.”

“And she expects the house to always be in readiness?” John frowned. “Is she an exacting sort of mistress?”

“Not particularly so, but she dislikes a flurry of activity upon her arrival.” At the end of the hall, the folding doors of the drawing room stood open. Mr. Fairfax entered, and immediately proceeded to dust some figures of fine porcelain that stood on the mantelpiece.

John followed behind. Until now, he’d only spied the lavish room from the threshold, not daring to enter it on his own. It was far too luxurious, with its rich chairs and curtains, thick Turkish carpets, and walnut-paneled walls. “Is she generally liked?” he asked.

“Oh yes. Her family has always been respected. They’ve owned most of the land in this county at one time or another.”

“But what of Mrs. Rochester? What of her character?”

“Oh…” Mr. Fairfax returned one of the figures to the mantelshelf. “She is rather peculiar, I suppose. She’s traveled a great deal, and lived in a great many odd places. I daresay she’s intelligent. Clever, even. But since she’s returned to England, I’ve had little conversation with her.”

“In what way peculiar?”

“Eccentric, you might say. And others have said. She speaks in such a blunt manner, you see, and has such decided opinions. She was always thus. Even as a girl.”

“What of her husband, Mr. Rochester? Did you know him well?”

“Not at all. Mrs. Rochester was both married and widowed during her travels. Her husband passed sometime last winter. She returned with Stephen and Peter in the summer. A month in residence, and then she was gone again. Heaven knows where. She doesn’t care to be idle.”

With that, Mr. Fairfax concluded his dusting—and his tale. He offered to show John over the rest of the house. “If you’re looking for the most scenic views to sketch, you won’t find them from the gallery windows.”

“Do you know of a better vantage?”

“The best, sir,” Mr. Fairfax replied. He led the way up the stairs to the third floor, and down a dark, narrow hall. They passed low-ceilinged rooms filled with oversized furnishings from years gone by—heavy bedsteads, rows of narrow chairs with carved animal feet, and Egyptian-style ottomans and settees. Some of the furniture was shrouded in holland covers, other pieces stood bare, revealing ebony surfaces painted with gold, and giltwood tables with jackal-headed figures standing upright in place of legs.

Such garish furnishings had been popular decades ago. Gaudy imitations of the treasures found in Egypt. John thought them more tasteless than sinister. And yet, when coupled with the gloomy quiet and the cold, stale air, the relics gave the third story of Thornfield Hall the feeling of a tomb. He couldn’t imagine spending a night in such a place.

“Do the servants sleep here?” he asked.

“No. They occupy smaller apartments to the back of our own. These rooms aren’t in use, nor are any on the third floor.”

John followed Mr. Fairfax up a narrow flight of stairs to the attics. From there, an even narrower ladder gave access to a trapdoor overhead, leading to the roof of the hall.

“I can no longer manage it myself,” Mr. Fairfax said, “but if you wish to venture up, you will have a fine prospect from the battlements.”

At the butler’s insistence, John made his way to the roof alone. Raindrops fell in a gentle patter, dampening his hair and collar. Leaning over the battlements, he surveyed the grounds below him: the winding road, the velvet lawn, and the great meadow with its thorn trees.

The Millcote mists were settled over the landscape like so much silver vapor, clinging to the trees, and swirling all about the drive. Were he standing below, they would obscure his view. Confuse him as they had on the night of his arrival. But here, on the roof, he could see above them. Over and beyond, all the way to Hay. He could just make out a little spire rising from the hills. The village church. Not but two miles away, and yet undiscernible when on the ground.

John inhaled deeply. His head began to clear, the fresh air whisking away the last remnants of the small dose of laudanum he’d taken the night before. Mr. Fairfax was right. This was a princely prospect, and one John looked forward to sketching when the weather permitted.

Returning to the ladder, he climbed back down into the attic. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness.

“Go ahead,” Mr. Fairfax said. “I’ll fasten the trap-door.”

John retraced his steps down the narrow staircase to the third floor. Once there, he waited in the passageway for Mr. Fairfax. It was still and quiet as death, all the wood-paneled doors in the corridor shut, and nothing but a little window at the end of the long hall to give any light. It was in all this silence that he heard the sudden sound of a man’s laugh, echoing from the darkness.

It was a chilling noise. Cold and mirthless, with nothing of humor about it—or of humanity.

John’s breath stopped in his chest. He froze where he stood, listening. The laughter ceased for a moment only to begin again, louder and more inhuman than before.

“Mr. Fairfax,” John said as the butler descended the stairs.

“Yes, sir?”

“Who was that laughing?”

Mr. Fairfax answered, quite unperturbed, “Mr. Poole, probably.”

Mr. Poole?

John had never met the man. Which wasn’t saying much. He rarely encountered the servants. “You did hear it, didn’t you?”

“Oh, yes. I often do.”

At that moment, the laugh sounded again in a low tone.

“Mr. Poole!” Mr. Fairfax called out.

John didn’t expect the fellow to answer, for the laugh had sounded almost preternatural. Indeed, were he a superstitious man, he might have been afraid. But it was the middle of the day, and there was no other circumstance of ghostliness about the incident. Certainly nothing like the night John’s laudanum-addled brain had conjured Helen out of the mists.

Presently, a door at the end of the hall opened, and a middle-aged servant emerged. He was a large man—tall, broad, and muscular—with a dull, expressionless face, and a rapidly balding pate. A less apparition-like figure John couldn’t have imagined.

“Too much noise, Mr. Poole,” Mr. Fairfax said.

Mr. Poole bowed and returned to his room.

“He mends old furniture for Mrs. Rochester, and is always at his work all hours of the day. He’s quite skilled actually, particularly in matters of metalwork. On rare occasion you may encounter him at his forge in the stables.” Mr. Fairfax walked alongside John as they departed the third floor, returning to the warmer, brighter levels below. “How did you fare with Stephen and Peter this morning? Are you making any progress?”

“Some,” John said. “They’ve had another drawing lesson.”

“Oh?”

“I mean to expand upon it when the weather permits.”

“If you’re waiting for sunshine, sir, you’ll wait a long while. Until the storm comes, we’ll have nothing but fog and damp.”

John had begun to doubt whether the storm Mr. Fairfax so often spoke of would come at all. Though the rain fell, and the mist clung determinedly to the landscape, the weather never worsened. It was as if Thornfield were perpetually on the cusp of a storm—or caught in the eye of one. “Children aren’t made of spun sugar. Many enjoy a bit of mud. Unless… You don’t suggest that the wet weather would imperil their health?”

“No more than any other boys of their age. Though Stephen and Peter were ill during the journey. Sea-sickness, I believe.”

“Is that all?”

Mr. Fairfax regarded John with a look of concern. “You suspected worse?”

“Frankly, yes. They look as though they’d fallen victim to something grave. A wasting disease, or—”

“Heavens, no. Mrs. Rochester would have told me if that was the case. She was confident the children could be fed up. It’s why cook insists they eat double portions of liver and other red meats. To help them get their color back.”

“Have they yet seen a doctor?” John asked.

“On their arrival, Mrs. Rochester had the surgeon, Mr. Carter, in. He prescribed a tonic. Sophie administers it to them morning and evening.”

John’s lips compressed.

“You don’t approve?”

“Of patent medicines? No, I don’t. Not for children.” Most patent medicines contained laudanum. And while John didn’t scruple to take the drug himself, he knew enough of its side effects to be wary of it being administered to little boys.

“Mrs. Rochester wouldn’t have authorized the treatment if she didn’t believe it would work. She’s very discerning, and has no tolerance for any nonsense.”

John wasn’t so sure. What sort of lady would abandon her two young wards when they were in such poor health? Why wasn’t she there, tending to them, and looking after them? The boys must hold some affection for their benefactress. Surely her presence would be a comfort to them.

But of course, it would. John knew that much from experience.

As a newly-orphaned inmate of the charitable school, he’d often longed for the soothing touch of a mother. A cool hand across his brow, or a soft voice to sing him to sleep. It was easy to imagine the boys yearning for the same calming feminine presence. When one was ailing in body and spirit, nothing could compensate for the loving presence of a mother figure. Not a nurse, or a benevolent butler. Not even a conscientious tutor.

But John didn’t press the matter. Not now. He’d been in his position only a fortnight, and wasn’t yet in possession of all of the facts. There was time enough to learn the truth of the boys’ condition. He’d question Sophie if he must. Inspect the patent medicine, or even talk to the surgeon. And soon—if his mysterious employer was ever inclined to return to Thornfield—he would address his concerns with Mrs. Rochester herself.

Excerpt from John Eyre copyright © Mimi Matthews, 2021.
Reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part, by any means, is forbidden without written permission from the author.

John Eyre will be out August 31, 2021. Preorder today at:

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