John Eyre: Part Two
John was half asleep inside the carriage when it finally came to a rattling halt. The coachman jumped down from the box to open a pair of sagging iron gates. Resuming his seat, he drove the carriage through, the gates swinging shut behind them with a resounding crash.
They ascended a long drive, and at length, came to the front of an enormous stone house. Mist rolled about it, above and below, obscuring the architecture from view. What windows John could make out were dark. All but one—a curtained bow-window from which a glow of candlelight weakly flickered
The carriage stopped in front of a tall, wooden front door. It creaked open on hinges desperately in need of oiling. A white-haired gentleman garbed in a worn black suit emerged, his eyes cloudy and his back slightly hunched with age. He held a branch of candles aloft in one gnarled hand.
“Mr. Eyre?” he queried as John disembarked from the carriage. “Welcome to Thornfield Hall. Do come in and make yourself warm.”
Clutching his portmanteau, John followed the manservant into the house. The butler, he presumed, or some sort of steward. The fellow led him across a square, marble-tiled hall and through one darkened room and then another, before ushering him into a much smaller chamber. A fire blazed in the hearth, and candles flickered from atop tables both high and low.
John’s eyes were briefly dazzled by the light. It took a moment for them to adjust. When they did, he was at once put at ease by the picture before him.
It was a cozy room, with walls covered in figured silk paper, a floor carpeted in thick, floral Aubusson, and a polished brass carriage clock that quietly ticked the passing seconds.
Two velvet-upholstered armchairs, backs draped in crocheted antimacassars, resided in front of the fire. An inlaid mahogany table stood between them. A tea tray sat atop it, holding a painted porcelain teapot, two cups, and a plate of sandwiches.
The butler set the branch of candles down upon the mantel. “Do sit down.”
John took the chair nearest the door. It wasn’t, he suspected, the butler’s favorite. It had an unrumpled look about it.
“Your journey was tedious, I fear.” The butler sank down in the chair opposite. He poured out a cup of tea and offered it to John. “Jenkins will take his time.”
John thanked the butler as he took the teacup. “The horse was obliged to walk. There was a great deal of fog about.” He sipped his tea. It was scalding hot, as though it had just been prepared. “Mr. Fairfax has retired, I presume.”
“I am Mr. Fairfax, sir.”
“You?” John couldn’t conceal his surprise. The gentleman in front of him must be in his late sixties at least. “Forgive me. I assumed the boys were your sons.”
Mr. Fairfax gave a hoarse laugh. “Heavens, no.”
“Your wards, then?”
“They are the wards of Mrs. Rochester, sir.”
John went still. Slowly, he returned his teacup to the tea tray. “You have me at a disadvantage. I was under the impression that you were my employer.”
Another laugh. “Bless me. Is that what you thought? Goodness no, Mr. Eyre. Thornfield Hall is the home of Mrs. Rochester. Her ancestral home. I am only the butler—the manager. Mrs. Rochester commissioned me to find a tutor for the boys.” He gestured to the plate of sandwiches. “Eat, please. You look slightly ill, if I may say so.”
“A trifling headache. It’s plagued me since I left Surrey.”
“I’m sorry to hear it. Do you require anything for your comfort? A headache powder, or—”
“Thank you, no. Food and rest will be sufficient.” John helped himself to a sandwich. “I shall be well enough in the morning.” He paused. “Is there a Mr. Rochester?”
“What did you say, sir? I’m a little deaf.” Mr. Fairfax turned his ear closer to John’s mouth. “Pray repeat yourself.”
“I asked if there was a Mr. Rochester?”
“No, indeed. Mrs. Rochester is a widow.”
John considered the matter as he finished his sandwich and drank his tea. He’d never before been employed by a lady. Even Helen had been subservient to the wishes of her husband. It was he who had paid John’s wages, and seen to the needs of the students at the village school—albeit begrudgingly.
What sort of lady was this Mrs. Rochester? A wealthy one to be sure. Thornfield Hall was a formidable structure, and the interior—what John had seen of it—appeared well appointed. And yet, there was a smell of neglect about the place. Of damp and disuse.
“I am glad you are come,” Mr. Fairfax said. “It will be pleasant to have a companion. The winters can feel quite dreary when one is alone. I say alone—the staff is agreeable enough, but they are only servants. One can’t converse with them on terms of equality.”
John began to warm to the old man. He knew what it was to want for companionship. In Lowton, he’d had no real friends. No one to talk with, save Helen.
His tired mind formed a hazy image of her. But not of her. Of the creature he’d seen from the window of the carriage. An apparition, silvery white, standing in the center of the road. The memory of it sent a faint shiver down his spine.
He should never have taken that last dose of laudanum at the inn. Not when he was already exhausted and in a lingering state of grief. It was foolish. Self-indulgent. He downed another swallow of tea. “I hope you will find my company as agreeable as you’ve anticipated.”
“Oh, I’m sure I will, Mr. Eyre. Already, I begin to feel my spirits lift, just to have you here in my parlor, taking tea with me. But I won’t keep you sitting up all night. It’s nearing the stroke of two, and you have been traveling all day. If you’re warm enough now, and have finished eating, I’ll show you to your bedroom.” Mr. Fairfax rose and retrieved the branch of candles. “It is only a small apartment, but it stands between mine and that of the boys. You will want to be near them, I think.”
“Thank you, yes. I’m sure I’ll be comfortable wherever you put me. I’m accustomed to living simply.” John followed Mr. Fairfax from the room. The butler first stopped in the hall to bolt the front door, and then, having removed the key from the lock, he led the way upstairs.
The staircase was made of dark oak, with a wide, curving bannister and steps that seemed to go on forever. A high stained-glass window rose above it. The sort of window that appeared more suited to a church than to a stately country house. Rain fell steadily against the glass.
“We haven’t yet escaped the storm,” John said.
“That is no storm, sir. It’s just a wee bit of rain and wind.” Mr. Fairfax guided John down a long gallery, lined with closed doors. A vault-like chill pervaded the darkness. “The real storm has not yet come.”
“You expect it soon?”
“Undoubtedly.” Opening one of the bedroom doors, Mr. Fairfax gestured for John to precede him inside. He came after him with the branch of candles. “I shall light a fire for you.”
John was grateful for it. In the room he’d rented at the boarding house in Lowton, he’d never been allowed to have a fire. Mrs. Scatcherd, the proprietress, had been stingy with coals, refusing to permit anything more than a single small fire in the parlor each evening by which her boarders had huddled to warm their frozen hands and feet.
“There.” Mr. Fairfax stood. The fire in the grate crackled behind him. He looked about the room. “It is small, I grant you, but the furnishings are in the modern style. All of them excepting your bed. That dates to the fifteenth century, I believe, though it still has a practical use. Come, let me show you.”
John stared at the great oak monstrosity at the center of the room. It was shaped like a bed, certainly, but instead of being hung with heavy curtains, it was enclosed on all sides by carved panels of wood.
“A box bed.” Mr. Fairfax slid one of the panels open, revealing the mattress, pillows, and neatly folded coverlet inside. “I sleep in one myself. It does a splendid job of keeping out the cold and damp.” He looked over his shoulder, his bushy white brows lowered. “You’re not wary of enclosed spaces, I trust? If so, rest assured that you have nothing to fear. It opens from the inside as well as the outside.”
“It looks…” John faltered. What it looked like was a medieval cupboard—or worse. A tomb. But he was practically asleep on his feet, and the bedding appeared comfortable enough. “It suits me,” he managed finally. “I was always cold in my previous lodgings.”
“You won’t be so now, I promise you.” Mr. Fairfax lit a candle for John, and then bid him goodnight, adding, “We breakfast at eight. I shall see that the boys are brought to the dining room.”
“Thank you. Goodnight.” John fastened the door behind Mr. Fairfax. The coachman had brought in his trunk. He rifled through it until he found a linen nightshirt. He changed into it, and then—after washing, and winding his pocket watch—he climbed into his new bed.
It was strange to be enclosed on all sides by wooden panels. Strange, and yet somehow rather reassuring. He felt oddly comforted. A fact which stood in stark contrast to the bleakness of his life in the months preceding his departure from Lowton. There had been no comfort in them. No warmth.
First had been his decision to leave his position at the village school. A decision only reached after weeks of heartsick anguish. And then, Helen had taken her own life. It had been a blow from which John felt he’d never recover.
He’d wanted to shut himself away. To weep at the injustice of losing her. But he hadn’t the luxury of mourning Helen, nor the right. The best he could do was to hold to his plans. To leave Lowton forever and start afresh somewhere else.
Thornfield Hall was to be that place.
He was here now, warm and safe, in a new home and with a new position. It was an opportunity to wipe the slate clean. A chance to move forward—away from Helen Burns and the tragedies of the past—and into a brighter, more promising tomorrow.
The prospect of it brought John a rare measure of peace. At once weary and optimistic, his eyes slid shut and he fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
John woke at dawn, as was his custom. Sliding open the panel of his box bed, he blinked against the sunlight shining in through the curtains that framed his chamber window. His eyes were always more sensitive to the light after a dose of laudanum.
Rising, he washed and dressed in a plain black frock coat, vest, and matching trousers. He took care that the cuffs and collar of his white linen shirt were clean, and that his cravat was knotted in a fashion that was neither too dandified, nor too simplistic. First impressions were important, and as he fully anticipated meeting both his pupils, and his new employer, at breakfast, he intended to start as he meant to go on—neat, smart, and unpretentious.
Having threaded his watch chain through his waist coat, and assured himself of a clean handkerchief in his pocket, he at last ventured forth.
Thornfield looked far more welcoming in the daytime than it had in the dead of night. More luxurious, too. As John descended the oak stairs, his gaze took in the oil paintings on the walls, the crystal chandelier that hung overhead, and the great clock below with its case of carved ebony. He had no experience with such grandeur. In Lowton, the finest house had belonged to Sir William, and though it had been large and well appointed, it had been nothing very awe-inspiring.
On reaching the hall, John stopped to examine one of the paintings more closely. It was a portrait of a man from time gone by. Elizabethan, perhaps. He had a severe, narrow face, with a pointed chin resting in a high, ruff collar.
A somewhat sinister fellow. An ancestor? John wondered.
Across the hall, the front door stood half open. A sign that the servants were up and about, though he saw none of them nearby. Curious, he opened the door and crossed over the threshold.
Cold air nipped at his face as he stepped outside. The rain had stopped for the moment, and a shaft of early morning sunlight shone down through the dark clouds onto a well-tended expanse of lawn. It was abutted by a great meadow, and an array of knotty thorn trees, as strong and broad as oaks, which at once explained how Thornfield had acquired its name.
He turned to survey the front of the house. It had been too dark last evening to get more than the barest impression of its size. Now, however, he could appreciate the full height and breadth of it. Made entirely of worn gray stone, it was three stories high, with battlements along the top.
Brown hills rose in the distance, embracing the property at the front and the back, and giving it a feeling of seclusion. There was no evidence of any other dwellings. No sign of a neighboring village, nor even of a neighbor. It must be that Millcote was the closest thing to society in these parts. And that, some ten miles away.
No wonder Mr. Fairfax had admitted to being lonely here.
The thought had no sooner crossed John’s mind than the butler appeared at the door.
“I see you are an early riser, Mr. Eyre,” he said.
“That I am.” John went to join him. “I’ve been exploring.”
“So I observe. And how do you find Thornfield?”
“I like it very well,” John said. “What I’ve seen of it.” He paused, adding, “It’s bigger than I realized.”
“Yes, it is a grand place, though not at its best at the moment. A great house requires the presence of its mistress. I can only hope that Mrs. Rochester will one day decide to come and reside here permanently.”
John’s brows lifted. “She doesn’t live here?”
“She visits when she’s able—when her affairs permit it. Which isn’t as often as I’d like, I must tell you.” Mr. Fairfax’s rheumy eyes softened with memory. “Ah, but you should have seen Thornfield in the old days, all lit up for a ball or a party. It was a sight to behold. People came for miles to dine and to dance. Mind you, I was only a lad of eighteen when first I came here, employed as a footman by the mistress’s grandfather. And proud I was of it. But that was a long while ago. More than fifty years, at least. A different time.”
“It’s hard to imagine,” John said. “The location seems quite isolated.”
“Not entirely. There’s Millcote, of course. And Hay—a little village beyond that hill, not but two miles away from here.”
John squinted into the distance. Mist swirled over the hills and atop the meadow, making it difficult to see. “No neighbors?”
“A few of them on the other side of Millcote. The Eshtons and the Ingrams. But I don’t expect you’ll meet them. The Eshtons have gone to London for the winter, and the Ingrams are lately in mourning. They receive no visitors.” Mr. Fairfax escorted John back into the house. “Mrs. Rochester is still in mourning herself. She prefers a quiet life now. It wouldn’t be suitable to be entertaining. She won’t even permit the vicar to call when she’s in residence.”
If the vicar was anything like the Reverend Mr. Brocklehurst, John didn’t blame her. The man had no idea of how to comfort a grieving individual. His God was an unforgiving one—a God of fire and brimstone, with no love or Christian charity about him.
“You’re not likely to meet him,” Mr. Fairfax said. “Not here at Thornfield. But there are services at the church in Hay should you care to attend.”
John didn’t care to, personally. He hadn’t been lying when he told Mr. Brocklehurst that he’d lost his faith. It was hard to nurture any sort of belief in the wake of Helen’s loss. At the same time, he knew his duty. “If Mrs. Rochester desires it, I will accompany the boys.”
“The boys?” Mr. Fairfax shut and bolted the front door. “Goodness me. The boys are in no fit state to attend church. Mrs. Rochester would never hear of it.”
John felt a flicker of unease. No fit state? Were the children ill?
As he was meditating on the question, a creak sounded on the oak staircase. John stopped where he stood in the hall and looked up. The hairs rose on the back of his neck.
Two little boys descended the steps hand in hand. They were small and startlingly thin, with heads larger than their bodies, and dark, sunken eyes surrounded by deep shadows. Their black hair was shorn close to their scalps, and what skin was visible outside of their clothes had the appearance of wax—pale and bloodless.
“Here they are,” Mr. Fairfax said. “Boys! Come and meet the gentleman who is to be your tutor.”
John studied the boys as they came into the hall, schooling his features into what he hoped was an expression of benign greeting. He prayed his face didn’t betray his alarm, for the two children were alarming to look at. A pair of animated corpses with empty staring eyes. A young woman in a black stuff dress and white apron followed behind them, urging them forward. Their nurse, John presumed.
“This is Stephen,” Mr. Fairfax said. “And his brother, Peter.”
“Good morning, boys,” John said. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.”
The children stopped in front of him, still holding hands, their sunken eyes cast downward. Their nurse whispered a reassurance to them in muted French.
A sudden thought occurred to John. He turned to Mr. Fairfax. “Are they foreigners?”
“Their nurse, Sophie, is French, and Stephen and Peter were born on the Continent, I believe, though heaven knows precisely where. Mrs. Rochester adopted them during her travels. It’s she who gave them their names, after Saint Stephen and Saint Peter. The poor mites. They’ve had a trial in getting here. Mrs. Rochester says they took ill on the voyage, but she’s confident they’ll regain their health once treated to good food and a little sunshine.”
A little sunshine?
The children looked as though they’d never been exposed to sun in their lives.
John turned his attention back to them, wondering how the devil he was meant to communicate. He had a smattering of French and Italian, but couldn’t converse in either language with any degree of fluency. “Do they speak any English?”
“Forgive me, Mr. Eyre,” Mr. Fairfax said, “I thought you understood. Stephen and Peter do not speak at all.”
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.