John Eyre: Part Four
John pulled back the faded velvet curtains, letting in the cold, gray light of morning. The library at Thornfield Hall was a cavernous room, lined with bookcases that stretched up to the ceiling, and scattered about with heavy chairs and tables on which books were stacked in no particular order. Mrs. Rochester had determined that it must be used as the schoolroom. And it wasn’t entirely unsuited to its role. A cabinet piano resided in the corner, and near the bank of windows, a globe stood in a wooden frame, alongside an inlaid drum table covered in maps of the world.
Most of the books in the library were dusty tomes of history, philosophy, and archaeology. Relics of an age gone by. Among them, a single shelf had been allocated for John’s use. It was stocked with a variety of elementary works, along with several volumes of light literature and poetry. He supposed that Mrs. Rochester believed these were all a tutor would require, and indeed, they might have been, had his students been capable of understanding English.
As to that capability, John had no notion. He regarded the pair of them with a furrowed brow. Seated at their makeshift desks, Stephen and Peter were as mute after a week of study as they’d been when John had first made their acquaintance. For the last seven days, he’d read to them and talked to them, and made attempts at teaching them their letters. But how much was truly getting through?
There was only one activity the boys had exhibited any interest in.
John gestured to the cold hearth. “Shall you light the fire this morning Peter?” he asked. “Or perhaps you, Stephen?”
The boys’ eyes remained wary, but John knew enough of children to recognize the slight change in their posture.
“Come,” he said. “Both of you, up.”
Pushing back their chairs, the two boys slowly came to join him in front of the fireplace, their every movement as halting and jerky as a pair of automatons. As if they were, in each instant, willing themselves to move forward against their own better judgment.
Initially, John had found their lack of coordination disturbing. And he still did, to some degree. He couldn’t discern whether their awkwardness was due to physical infirmity or if it was merely a symptom of profound mental reticence. They were uncertain of him, if not outright afraid. Knowing that, John was careful never to speak harshly, or approach them with too abrupt a movement.
He knelt down, and motioned for them to do the same. It was a ritual he’d unknowingly started on his first day of instruction when, on arriving in the library, he’d discovered that the servants had failed to light the fire.
Since then, John had come to look on the library as his own domain. One in which he would have to tend to drawing the curtains and lighting the fire each morning. He didn’t resent the fact. Indeed, it was an opportunity for the boys to learn practical skills. They eagerly helped him to kindle a fire in the hearth, and then to light the table lamps from little twists of paper.
“Mind you don’t burn yourself, Stephen,” John said as the lad thrust his remnant of paper into the fire. “Well done, both of you. Very good job, indeed.” He gestured to their desks. “Back in your seats, if you please.”
The boys complied without a word.
Time had passed when John had wished for a quiet classroom. Now, he found himself longing for words—any words. Were the boys truly mutes? Mr. Fairfax claimed not to know.
Stephen appeared to be the eldest, though not by much. It was he who always took his brother’s hand. A protective gesture, or so it seemed to John. As if Stephen wanted to keep his brother close for fear of losing him.
Even now, sitting side by side, the boys often looked to each other for reassurance. When taken along with their waxen skin and malnourished bodies, it made John fear that the pair of them had been through some harrowing ordeal. Were they the orphans of war? Of pestilence? Two waifs Mrs. Rochester had saved from a life in the street?
Or perhaps they were merely what Mr. Fairfax had said: two boys who had lately fallen gravely ill.
John was no stranger to illness himself. An epidemic of influenza had robbed him of both of his parents, leaving him an orphan at the age of five. An undersized boy who had been obliged to rely on a charity school for his board and keep—and for his education. Not all of the teachers there had been kind to him. Many had been short tempered and cruel. It had made John all the more determined to show kindness to his own pupils. Especially those without benefit of a mother and father.
“This morning,” he said, “we will turn our attention to drawing.” Stephen and Peter sat still at their desks while John distributed paper and charcoal pencils. He pulled a chair up in front of them to demonstrate. “Pick up your pencils, thusly. Between your thumb and first two fingers. Not too tightly, Stephen.” John gently loosened the boy’s fingers. Stephen flinched at the contact. “It’s all right,” John said. “Do you see how I’m holding mine? Light but firm.”
When he was confident they understood, John drew the outline of a simple flower on the edge of his paper. He was gratified when the boys copied the figure on their own papers with unsteady hands.
“What about this?” John sketched the trunk and branches of a tree. “Can you draw the same?”
For the next hour, he engaged the boys in copying the various figures he sketched onto his pad. John was a competent draftsman, and had filled many a pleasant afternoon sketching a landscape, or a portrait of someone he’d met. But today’s work was nothing worth preserving in his portfolio. It was all basic outlines and shading.
Intermittently, he produced a letter next to a figure. An A for apple, or a C for cat. The boys dutifully copied, though whether they understood the meaning or not, was another question entirely.
“Excellent, Stephen. Very well done, Peter.” John rose from his chair and returned to his place in front of the bookcases. “Now, I’d like you to draw something of your own devising. Anything you choose. The globe. The door. Or perhaps a book, or this candlestick? Or something you alone can see?”
He urged them on with words and gestures, and at length, Stephen picked up his pencil, and hesitantly, began to draw. Peter followed his brother’s example.
John suppressed a swell of pride. He couldn’t communicate with his pupils through words, but he may yet do so through the medium of art. As a boy, drawing had been his own escape from loneliness. If he could convey the rudimentary techniques to Stephen and Peter, perhaps they, too, might find some measure of consolation.
It was a modest goal, but one that boosted John’s spirits as nothing had in days. He felt, all at once, as if he might actually be capable of making a success of his new position.
He kept back as the boys’ pencils scratched steadily over their papers. He didn’t like to loom over their shoulders. This was their time to express themselves. To be creative. Only when Peter put aside his pencil, did John finally approach.
He recognized the subject of the drawing at once. A feeble effort, but not the worst John had ever seen. He was determined to praise it to the heavens.
“Oh, well done, lad. The sea, I believe. You’ve rendered the waves beautifully. No doubt you saw enough of them during your voyage to England.” John collected the paper. “I shall save it for you in my portfolio.”
Peter betrayed no pleasure in being lauded by his tutor. He sat still and quiet, his back hunched over his desk.
John next moved to review Stephen’s work, expecting to find a similar effort. Gazing down, he saw…
But he didn’t know what he saw.
Stephen appeared to have blackened the whole of his paper with the edge of his charcoal pencil. Only a single square at the top was left unshaded. A solitary block of white. John crouched beside Stephen’s desk to get a better look.
On closer examination, he saw that the shading was not, in fact, solid black. It was darker at the bottom of the page, seeming to grow faintly lighter as it reached the top. As if light were coming in through the white square and diffusing the darkness around it.
“Ah. I see,” John said. “Is it a window?”
Stephen stared at him blankly.
“Window,” John said again, carefully enunciating each syllable. He gestured to the bank of windows opposite. “Like that one?”
The boy’s thin face registered no understanding.
John’s spirits sunk a little, but he was resolved not to be discouraged. “The shading is excellent. Altogether, a commendable first effort, I’d say.” He took the drawing from Stephen. “I shall save this one in my portfolio as well.”
Rising to his feet, John gave the boy’s drawing another lingering glance. A frisson of uneasiness tickled at the base of his spine. Odd that. There was nothing particularly sinister about the sketch. It was only that the perspective was all wrong. A window shouldn’t be placed so. Not on the ceiling of a room, surely. Unless, John supposed, it was a sort of skylight.
Then again, perhaps the white square wasn’t a window at all.
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.