Hour of Fatality – A Jane Rochester Mystery – First Chapter

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“At dead of night!” I muttered. Yes, that was ever the hour of fatality at Thornfield.

– Jane Eyre

Chapter One

I came to Thornfield Hall at the hour of twilight. I followed the road on foot as it wended among hay field and hawthorn, and when a bend in the road blocked my view of the house, I even ran in my haste. The noble building loomed high above me at the end of the road. The battlements on the roof looked black against the glimmering west. If I could touch them, the blackness would rub off on my skin like soot, and cling to me; such is the strange presentiment of dreams.

I had run from this house once, with misery and fear as my companions, nay, my pursuers. With swift steps, I sought Mr. Rochester here once more; the man who had offered marriage to such a one as I. Poor and plain as I was, he had begged me to marry him. I had worked as a hireling in his house, as the governess; a mere shadow in a great man’s household! And I had been chosen by him, whose company and conversation I held more precious than life. Had I ever known a day’s true happiness until that moment? When Edward Fairfax Rochester deigned to call me his future bride? My joys had been little more than the hard crusts and stray crumbs of happiness; dull, cold morsels to solace a drear and lonely dependence. Behind these blind walls, beneath these mute window panes, I had been loved, wholly and completely, by one I had adored.

And he had deceived me.

I reached the pavement near the door. It, too was black, and I stepped cautiously, fearing the sound of my own tread in spite of the silence that enshrined the dark hall. I mounted the steps, their stone faces worn smooth in well-remembered grooves. The vaulted hall within was deep in shadow, but a blaze of light shone from the dining room, majestic and warm. Was I welcome there? Mr. Rochester entertained fine company in that room, gentlemen and ladies endowed with wealth and grace. No, I had no place in the dining room. I would see where else he might be found. I went to the library, but the grate was cold, the chair tenantless. I searched the long gallery; every door yielded to my hand, but the rooms were vacant shells to me. Where was Mr. Rochester?

(Is it not singular, Reader, that I would search for one who had trespassed on confidence? who had violated trust? Mr. Rochester had wrought such an impression on my life, had so captivated my senses, enlightened my mind, filled me with with such assurance of his love that I could feel myself so deeply bound to no one else. I loved him, entirely, and could have no rest in this life without some assurance of his well-being.)

I sought him in the passageways and on the stairs. The nursery was no haunt of his, yet I searched there too. With a reluctant step, I approached the dining room once more. A laugh: low, lugubrious, familiar in its stirring antipathy, came from the room. What a strange foreboding inhabited me! It wrapped round me like a smoke that no breeze could dispel. But I would stifle fear for his sake; I would find him out, though my soul shudder and my heart sink beneath the discovery.

A wisp of smoke flowed from the dining room door like a mist creeping along the ceiling. I felt an urgency to be within the room, yet trembling arrested my step. Down timidity! Revelations must be made. I suppressed the shaking in my limbs and crept to the door – a wreath of flames embroiled the room and heated my face. The brocaded curtains, purple cloth, rich damask, all writhed together in fire.

A shadowy form seemed to inhabit the chair, senseless and still.

“Mr. Rochester!” I called. “Mr. Rochester! Wake up!” But a different form approached me from the fiery furnace, hauntingly familiar in its ghastly shape.

The flame did not touch her, yet her dark hair moved and lifted in the heat. Bertha Mason, black and menacing against the crimson light, barred the way. Her eyes burned, too, with a blue flame in their depths. It was her, Mr. Rochester’s wife, whom he had hid from my knowledge. In her madness, she raved and flung herself upon me, keeping me from my master…

“Mr. Rochester!”

“I am here, Jane, I am here.”

His voice dispelled the flames; his hand cooled my burning forehead. It was dark in the room, with the bright face of a full moon a-glow in the window. The smell of camphor and burnt vinegar pervaded the air; so familiar to me, but I could not determine why it should be so. I struggled against the sheets; they confined me.

“Mr. Rochester,” I called, but feebly. I felt such a weakness in my limbs that I could scarcely move. Someone brought water to my feverish lips, and bathed my brow in cool water. Mr. Rochester chafed my hand in his. I longed to speak and reassure him. But the effort of speech proved elusive; it was beyond my ability.

“Sir, shan’t you go to bed?” asked a voice. It was the servant, Mary, I thought. I had not seen Mary since I left Thornfield, a disappointed bride. No, that was not right. She had met me at the door; at Ferndean Manor, where I had found my master again.

“No,” Mr. Rochester replied. “Not this night.”

I tried to piece together recent events, but my mind refused to form an orderly sequence. Unaccountable images flashed before my mind’s eye. Past and present were equally shrouded in darkness, while the strange fever dreams hovered close.

Mr. Rochester lay down beside me on the bed; his hand gripped mine.

“Dear God in heaven, spare her. Be merciful – I have only just found her again – my darling Jane…”

The moonlit room vanished from my sight. Perhaps, it, too, had been a dream. I would fain have retained it, but I had no control of my restless, roving mind. I arrived at yet another present, yet another Thornfield. The cold moonlight left stark shadows beneath the leaves; the primroses opened wan faces to the growing starlight. I was in the garden, walking the well-remembered path to the orchard, but this garden was not as I had left it. The once neat hedges of box were overgrown into fantastical shapes. The roses sprawled haphazardly from their beds, and rank weeds towered among the fragile blooms. Dark vines of ivy overreached everything in sight, gathering wild and domestic alike in their gnarled creepers.

I knew the sweet fragrance of this garden, but when I breathed deep, I was reminded instead of Lowood, the school that had been my childhood home for eight long years. With sudden clarity, I remembered that scent; it was the dank, heavy air of the dell, dismal and disease-ridden. I remembered again the camphor in my nostrils, and the fever ward lined with blighted, childish faces. All around me, the pale flower blooms along the path melted into the pallid faces of children, wasted by their suffering. They lifted from their beds and slipped away; lanterns burning in their hands.

A heavy mist came creeping over the ground, obscuring sky and earth alike. It even drowned the moon. I no longer followed the path; I was rooted in place as the fog engulfed me. All directions were equally bewildering. I watched in helpless immobility as the first light appeared. It moved in the dark fog like a beacon, but it gave me no comfort. The lights waxed and waned around me. They brought no warmth to me; rather, an icy fear stole over me, inhabiting my very bones. Alone in that dark, formless and desolate world, I could not take my eyes from their luminescent gleam.

A light shone near me. With trepidation in every step, I began to follow it; it was farther off than I thought. I followed one, then another, down winding, unfamiliar ways. Some of them began to fade; I would not be left alone in this gloomy, sightless world; I followed as well as I could.

The ignis-fatuus led me on; I knew not where. My hands were chilled, my skin too; the cold seemed to penetrate my heart, yet my temples throbbed. I too, was ill; perhaps I was also dying. I dared not guess what shadowy paths the strange lights would lead me to, but I could only stumble on into the gloom, left to the fate that lay ahead of me –

“Wake up. Wake up, Jane.”

A woman’s voice, it’s accent gentle, familiar, but firm, assailed my ear. It was soothing to hear. I tried to listen.

“It is morning. Come, dear, wake up.”

I opened my eyes. It was a summer morning; sunshine fell on the sash of the window, and on the coverlet stretched over me. A smiling face bent toward me.

“Diana!”

My cousin, Diana Rivers, sat in the chair by my bed. “How are you feeling?”

I considered before answering. “I am glad to be awake. I feel so weak.”

“You have been very ill, but the crisis is passed I think.”

I closed my eyes.

“Does the light distress you? Shall I draw the curtain?”

“No.” I opened them to look at her and at the glow of morning light, that I might impress them on my mind. “No, I like to see the sun. But I have had such strange dreams.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

She took my hand where it lay on the coverlet. In my sojourn from Thornfield, by the mysterious hand of providence, I had found Diana, Mary and their brother St. John, and had learned that they were my family, the children of my mother’s brother. I had no knowledge of my relations as a child, and had been united with them only months ago.

Diana’s presence was truly comforting. Her ardent, cheerful nature was a real support to me. I leaned my throbbing head on her shoulder. It was still an effort to draw breath or to speak, but my questions must have shown on my face.

“I promised to make you a visit after your marriage, and thought I would give you a pleasant surprise. But it seems the power of suspense was in your hands instead of mine. I arrived to find you bed-ridden with typhus. It is not an illness I have been acquainted with before, and I admit I would not like to become more familiar with it.”

She squeezed my fingers, and with a faint smile touching her features, she added, “As soon as I could persuade him, I convinced your Mr. Rochester to go to bed.”

My Mr. Rochester; my heart thrilled at the words. I had come to Ferndean Manor at dusk, I knew not how many weeks ago, and found my master again. He was bereft of his stately mansion, he had lost both his left hand, and the power of vision. His first wife had ended her own life in the final flames of Thornfield Hall. But he was my beloved master still. No obstacles remaining to our union, we had wed at once.

“He was up late last night, waiting for the doctor. They gave you a sleeping draught at midnight. You were so very restless.” Diana held her hand to my forehead. “This house is a dreadful place for a lamb like you. The doctor agrees with me.”

“Edward spoke of it once as an insalubrious spot.”

“It is an absolute breeding ground for fever. But there is strength in you yet, Jane. Will you have anything to eat? Mary has made a lovely broth for you.”

I could not sit up for long, but I was nourished by the broth, and lay back on my pillow feeling content. “You will not leave, Diana, will you?”

“I will be here. And as soon as Mr. Rochester is awake, he will be here as well. He will be angry that I didn’t wake him to see you, but he is worn to a shadow from trying to look after you himself. He is truly devoted to you, Jane.”

I smiled; it took effort, but I could hardly help it.

“Rest now. I can see you are tired.”

I turned my face to the window, my eye feasting on soft spring greenery and summer sunshine. I could not move or speak for long, but I found I could think. I could force my mind to make an inventory of days passed. I wondered how long I had lain ill.

How many days had passed since I sat by my Edward’s chair in the parlor? I had hardly regarded the presentiment of illness then. The sun had been shining there, too, but little of the morning light penetrated my husband’s blinded eyes.

“Jane, where are you?”

I look away from the parlor window, and the elderberry bush that flourishes there. My husband leans his head against the massive, wing-backed chair, a faint look of melancholy on his dark and chiseled features. I dare to drop a kiss on his ebon brow. As one long exiled from her homeland rejoices at each well-remembered view, I watch my master’s face, so longed for in my absence.

“Here, sir.”

A smile effaces the grim lines of sadness. “Your voice is a banquet to a famished soul, Jane. Come, sit with me a while.” I take my preferred place, on a little stool at my husband’s feet. He keeps his mutilated hand tucked in his coat, but the other covers my own. “I need you to be my eyes, as you shall ever be in our married life. Prompted by your generous pity and magnanimous heart, you have pledged your life to a blind man, helpless and dependent on you even for such sordid and sundry tasks as letters of business. John has brought the mail this morning. Are you prepared to enter on your new duties?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Here is the first then.”

He passed me a letter sealed with plain wax. I read aloud:

“Dear Mr. Rochester,

For many years I have had the management of your estate, and I have always done my best to look after your interests while you were away. But now, sir, I must beg leave to give you notice of my departure. You have been a just and liberal master, and I am sorry to take leave of you when your fortunes have turned against you. I’ve done my best to take over every concern since your mishap, to spare you any trouble over the estate.

But I can no longer put off my departure. My brother’s farm in the south has prospered, and he asks me to assist him. I can no longer put off this obligation. The truth be told, I am not sorry to leave Thornfield Hall. There is not much of the hall left, of course, but there is something uncanny about the old place. I go to my brother on the fifth. Signed Malcolm Hinkley.”

I looked at Mr. Rochester, to see how he would take the news of the sudden departure of his land agent. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully and said at last,

“Peculiar letter, isn’t it?”

“What could he mean? What could be uncanny about Thornfield?”

“Pre-cise-ly. That’s what I would like to know. But we won’t get it out of him. Gone on the fifth, eh? That was yesterday. He didn’t want to be interrogated, and made good his retreat beforehand. Peculiar. Well, here is another. Do you recognize the seal?”

I studied the elaborate imprint in the red wax, but it was unfamiliar to me.

“It has a very distinct pattern to it. I could feel it with my thumb. You may recognize the sender, for you met him once. Read on.”

“My Dear Rochester,

I have just heard the news of your marriage from Reverend Davenport himself. My best congratulations to you and Mrs. Rochester. I have long had it in mind to invite you to stay with us at Ingram Park, only I feared to obtrude any importunate invitation.

But should you be disposed, you and your bride are welcome to come stay with us. Indeed, the west wing might be practically your own. My mother and my eldest sister are in London, to prepare for Blanche’s wedding, so it will only be myself and my younger sister Mary to keep you company. Of course, the whole party will join us in a few weeks’ time, including Mr. Harrison, Blanche’s fiance. Feel free to choose the day of your arrival. Signed, Lord Ingram.”

“Well, how about it, Jane?”

My husband’s face was a curious blend of sarcasm and severity. I knew him in this mood, but I didn’t know just what was in his mind.

“It seems a well-intentioned letter. He shows more delicacy than I would have expected of him.”

“Oh yes, Ingram is the very type of gentleman. I’ve gotten several of these sorts of invitations. The whole county has felt sorry for me at one time or other. I refused them all. I have been in no mood to be plagued and coddled by the pity of my neighbors. And now that I have you, my fairy, what need do we have for anyone else? ”

The only time I had been in company with the Ingrams was when they had made a protracted stay at Thornfield. At that time, Mr. Rochester and the elegant Blanche Ingram had pursued a course of flirtation with one another that had left me little peace of mind. Miss Ingram, it seemed, had courted him only for his wealth. Mr. Rochester’s motives, while even less admirable, were nonetheless admitted on the plea that he sought to engage my affection by inspiring my jealousy. He might have saved his efforts, for he had won me over long before. The circumstances, such as they were, did not make Ingram Park a place that I would wish to pass my time. I had no taste for the scornful disdain of Miss Ingram, which I was sure would not be absolved by my position as her former suitor’s wife.

I would have said as much, but an uncomfortable ache made itself felt within me. I waited in silence for it to pass. When my attention returned to my husband, I could see that he had once more become absorbed in his own curious train of thought.

“But perhaps you are weary of our isolation? Besides, you might like to be a guest in a noble’s house. How would you like to be a fine lady waited on by a host of servants, surfeited with elaborate dinners, honored as the new bride by those who once dismissed you as a nonentity? It is no less than you deserve.” He gripped my hand tightly, as if I were going to hurry away to pack my trunk. “Would you be pleased by the look on Blanche Ingram’s face when you are announced on the arm of the man she sought to marry?” He chuckled to himself. A sardonic smile flashed across his face.

“You are sneering, sir. It is not her fault that you flattered her so.”

“The mortification of her pride would certainly change her hauteur, would it not? She might meditate on her own deficiencies when she is presented with what a woman ought to be; when she sees what a good, guileless, clever, wise and noble woman actually is. When she acknowledges your superiority – ”

“Now you are flattering me. It is foolish to speak so. There is no call for comparison between Blanche Ingram and myself.”

“No, thank God. Now I have secured you, I care for no other woman’s opinion. But what might you feel, Janet?” He sank back into his chair. All the levity was gone from his visage, leaving only a deep furrow across his forehead. “To enter the home of such fine beings on the arm of a blind and crippled man, ruined and blighted, who cannot walk but where you lead him? Would it be mortifying to enter company on such terms?”

“Of course not. I am always glad to be by your side; to lead you anywhere I can. Fine company can whisper whatever it pleases. I care for no one’s good opinion but yours.”

I looked with concern at the grim melancholy settled once more on his face.

“They would shake their heads in sorrow when they saw me. I would be ‘poor Rochester’, a miserable worm among them. How they would grieve for my misfortunes in my presence, and rejoice in spite when my back was turned!”

He was fretting himself into unhappiness. Desperate measures were called for.

“It is a kind invitation,” I said, rising to my feet.

“Yes, yes, a bit of salve for a pricked conscience. Now he has done his duty and can think no more of me. Where are you going, Jane? Why do you leave my side?”

“I am going to call John, to ready the horses and carriage.”

“What the deuce for?”

“We are going to pay a visit to Thornfield Hall. If there is anything uncanny among the ruins, I, for one, would like to know what it is.”

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