A Woman of Will (excerpt)
“Are you a virgin, Miss Eyre?”
I felt my colour rise as I delivered to Mr. Rochester the brandy he had bid me bring him. My hand did not tremble, however, as it passed the glass to his; I set the decanter carefully on the small table that stood before the hearth, and looked up to meet his gaze. As our eyes met, I wondered suddenly whether my master could read my thoughts, and whether his definition of the matter in question would match mine.
“A ridiculous thing to ask!” Mr. Rochester reproached himself, taking a sip of the caramel-colored liquid. “There is only one reply that could be given by a well-brought-up girl of eighteen, a graduate of the Lowood charity school—and when there is no possible variety in answers, the man who makes the query is a fool.”
I held my peace, and regarded him as I stood awaiting his next request. We were in the library, and he was sitting in an armchair near the fire, whose light shone full on his face. It illumined dark eyes, beneath broad and dark eyebrows; a square forehead, made squarer by the horizontal sweep of his black hair; a decisive nose, full nostrils, and a grim set to his mouth, chin and jaw—all in all, it was a face more remarkable for character than beauty. His shape, as he sat back at ease, harmonized in squareness with his countenance: I considered it a good figure in the athletic sense of the term, broad-chested and thin-flanked, though neither tall nor graceful.
“I fear to sully your innocent ears with an honest answer to the question you have posed, Miss Eyre.” My eyes must have registered surprise; I had merely asked him how he came to have charge of his ward Adèle, the seven-year-old girl for whose education I had been engaged as governess.
“Do you believe, sir, that merely hearing a narrative can lead to corruption?” It was, perhaps, a bold inquiry. But though our acquaintance was hardly more than a fortnight old, I knew already that for Mr. Rochester, the questioning and examination of his ideas by a listener was something he not only welcomed, but craved.
“So the world supposes!” he replied. “Suffice to say,” he went on, “that I was thrust onto the wrong tack at the age of one-and-twenty, and have never recovered the right course since. I am a trite, commonplace sinner, hackneyed in all the poor, petty dissipations of the rich and worthless! Caring for little Adèle is a small, and almost certainly insufficient, attempt at redemption.” The expression in his eyes as he uttered his self-critique reminded me, all at once, of Helen.
She is right to punish my faults, my darling had said, of the headmistress’ humiliations, of the marks of the switch on her neck. While my soul burned with rage on her behalf, and fantasized revenge.
“Repentance is said to be the cure for any error,” I told Mr. Rochester now. Throughout these last weeks, I had remarked his frequent moodiness, his black scowls, his harsh remarks and severity to many of the other servants—alongside his warm cordiality to me, his frankness of manner, and his keen intellect. These things suggested, taken together, a man of better tendencies and higher principles than his circumstances and destiny heretofore had, perhaps, encouraged; one who, while now falling far short of his potential, might become much better than he was.
“Reformation, perhaps, is the cure,” my master countered. “I could reform—I have strength yet for that—if—but where is the use of thinking of it, burdened and cursed as I am? Besides, since happiness is irrevocably denied me, I have a right to get pleasure, at least, out of life—pleasure as sweet and fresh as the wild honey the bee gathers on the moor.”
“Pleasure without love may be a bitter, galling thing,” I replied.
“How do you know? You never tried it. Do not preach to me, you neophyte! You have not passed the porch of life, and are absolutely unacquainted with its mysteries.” Mr. Rochester drained his glass, and then refilled it. In my mind’s eye, meanwhile, there rose a vision of Helen, hurrying in her flowing white dressing gown to meet me, before dawn. Fleeing from the headmistress’ bed to mine.
My master’s voice broke my reverie.
“Nevertheless: rest assured, my little moralist, that I am positively paving hell with energy.”
“Sir?” I failed to take his meaning.
“I am laying down good intentions, which I believe durable as flint. Now amuse me by speaking of yourself. Sit down there.” His tone was sharp, and with an imperious nod of his chin, Mr. Rochester indicated an armchair opposite his own. I settled myself, a little flurried; and he added, with an air of exasperation at himself:
“I meant to say—if you please.” He ran one hand through his shock of thick black hair, as if his forehead required ventilation to release his ideas. Then he paused a moment. I waited, feeling strangely flattered by the sense that what would come next seemed to be formulated for me, and me alone.
“Miss Eyre, I beg your pardon,” Mr. Rochester ventured. “I put my request in rude style—but I don’t wish to treat you like an inferior. That is, I claim only such superiority as must result from twenty years’ difference in age and a century’s advance in experience. This is legitimate; and it is by virtue of this superiority and this alone that I desire you to have the goodness to talk to me a little now, and divert my thoughts, which are galled with dwelling on one point—cankering as a rusty nail.” His sincerity touched me; for I, too, know what it is to be preoccupied by memories of pain.
“I shall be glad to amuse you if I can, sir,” I replied. “But I cannot introduce a topic, because I do not know what will interest you. Ask me questions, and I will do my best to answer them.”
“Very well.” He sat back in his chair, considering, and extended his legs before him on the carpet, their ankles crossed.
“First of all, do you agree that I have the right to be a little masterful and abrupt; perhaps even exacting, for the reasons I stated—that I am old enough to be your father, and have battled through a varied experience with men of many nations, and roamed over half the globe, while you have lived quietly with one set of people?”
There was an instant’s pause before I replied:
“Do as you please, sir.” The statement brought a flash of anger to Mr. Rochester’s dark eyes.
“That is a very irritating and evasive answer! Speak clearly.”
Sitting up a trifle straighter and placing my hands in my lap, I determined to oblige.
“I don’t believe, sir, that you have a right to command me, merely because you are older than I, or because you have seen more of the world than I have; your claim to superiority must rest on the use you have made of your time and experience.”
“Promptly spoken!” My master’s eyes widened at me for a moment, and his chin inclined ever so slightly, in what might have been approbation.
“But that will not do for my purpose,” he added with a low chuckle, “for I’ve made a scandalous waste of both advantages.” He regarded me over the rim of his glass as he took another draught. “Leave superiority out of the question then. You must still agree to receive my orders, without being piqued or hurt by the tone of command—will you?”
Mr. Rochester is peculiar, I thought to myself with a smile. He seems to forget that he pays me thirty pounds per annum for receiving his orders.
“The smile is very well,” said he, catching instantly the passing expression. “But speak too.”
“I was thinking, sir,” I replied, “that very few masters would trouble themselves to inquire whether or not their paid subordinates were piqued or hurt by their orders.” I held his gaze as I spoke.
“Paid subordinates!” Mr. Rochester rose from his chair, at this, and began to pace before the fire.
“What—you are my paid subordinate, are you?” Recollection, apparently, dawned. “Oh yes, I had forgotten the salary! Well then, on that mercenary ground, will you agree to let me hector a little?” He stopped before my seat and looked down at me, with an expression as open, genuine, and hopeful as a boy’s.
“No, sir,” I replied, looking up at him, “not on that ground.” For a moment he appeared crestfallen.
“But on the ground that you did forget it, and that you care whether a dependent is comfortable in her dependency—on those grounds, I agree heartily.” I cannot say which of us smiled first, and which in reply.
“And will you consent to dispense with a great many conventional forms and phrases, without thinking that the omission arises from insolence?” He spoke with eagerness, as if he would soon come to a point.
“I am sure, sir,” I replied, “I should never mistake informality for insolence; one I rather like, the other nothing free-born would submit to, even for a salary.”
“Nonsense!” Here my master chortled, loudly. “Most things free-born will submit to anything for a salary.” He drained his glass. “However, I mentally shake hands with you for your answer, despite its inaccuracy—and as much for your frank and sincere manner as for the substance of your speech.” I felt his eyes moving appraisingly over both my face and my person.
“The usual rewards of candor are affectation, or coldness, or stupid, coarse-minded misapprehension of one’s meaning,” Mr. Rochester said. “Not three in three thousand raw school-girl governesses would have answered me as you have just done.”
Helen would have felt the same, I thought, and would one day have grown bold enough to say it, had she lived. I felt a rush of pleasure both at his praise and at her memory, and it must have shown in my face.
“Mind you, I don’t mean to flatter you,” Mr. Rochester said gruffly, regaining his seat. “If you are cast in a different mould than the majority, it is no merit of yours: Nature did it.”
I made no reply to this, as none seemed required.
“I am glad, in any event, that we understand each other,” he went on. “I need an interlocutor, Miss Eyre, for my process of redemption—and one with whom I may speak freely, in the commanding manner to which I have grown accustomed. I would prefer, indeed, one who is not only comfortable in her dependency, but eager to oblige me.” He was silent for a moment, and when he spoke again his deep voice had gained in warmth, and softness.
“I need one who trusts that I am no villain, and would never do her harm.”
I breathed in, but did not speak.
“Kneel here, that I may look at you,” he said in a still quieter tone, indicating a spot of carpet at his feet; and my limbs seemed to move without my direction as I obeyed. The heat of the fire was warm on my face as I looked up at him; in a moment, I felt his gentle fingers on my cheek.
“Your innate sympathy for others shines from your countenance, Miss Eyre—unobtrusive and encouraging, with no scorn of others’ indiscretions,” he said. His hand traced the line from my cheekbone to my jaw. “In your future life, I predict, you will often find yourself elected the involuntary confidant of your acquaintances’ secrets: people will instinctively feel, as I have done, that rather than speak of yourself you prefer to listen, and that you do so extraordinarily well.”
I believe I blushed to hear this speech, and I could not meet my master’s gaze; instead I cast my eyes downward in discomfort, gaining a view of his legs, clad in their fine black linen breeches, and his shining leather shoes. I felt an agitation rising within me—this was such a strange proceeding!—and when he put a hand beneath my chin and tipped it upward, wishing me to look at him again, I closed my eyes.
“Ah, stay just so, Ja—that is, Miss Eyre,” Mr. Rochester said. I felt a delicate touch—the pad of his finger—trace first one of my eyebrows, and then the other.
“These eyes of yours see reality clearly,” he said. “And these lips”—here he drew his thumb across them so lightly that I almost doubted the sensation was real—“have the courage to speak the truth.”
Suddenly the high-pitched prattle of Adèle, nattering in French to Sophie, her nurse, was heard in the hall outside.
“That will be all for this evening, Miss Eyre,” Mr. Rochester said in a loud, clear voice. He rose to his feet and I, less gracefully, to mine.
The door opened to admit little Adèle and Sophie; the former rushed to the master insisting on a good-night embrace, which he supplied. Then he ushered all three of us out in the direction of the stair, bidding us a collective bonne nuit, without a single glance or gesture that seemed intended for my person alone.
As I undressed, alone in my room, I thought of Helen. For nearly two years, since her death in my arms, I had held her, every night, in fantasy. It was a solace, always, to recall her smooth shoulders, the rosy tips of her breasts, and the kisses of her sweet mouth; to imagine that the hands caressing me were hers and not my own. I had thought my heart a shrine to her, which could admit no other idol; and I was surprised to see, in my mind’s eye, another image superimpose itself on hers, as my pleasure reached its peak. A face more strong than handsome, with brows as black as jet; and a heavenly kindness shining from the eyes.
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~ Coeur Rebelle ~
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