Thornfield and Mr. Rochester
Thornfield Hall was a large gentleman’s house in the country, near a town called Millcote. There, after my sixteen-hour journey, I was welcomed by Mrs. Fairfax. She was a little old lady, dressed in black, who seemed glad to have someone else to talk to, apart from the servants. Although the house was dark and frightening, with its big rooms full of heavy furniture, I was excited at being in a new place, and looked forward to my new life there, working for kind Mrs. Fairfax.
But I was surprised to discover on my first full day at Thornfield that Mrs. Fairfax was not in fact the owner, as I had assumed, but the housekeeper, and that my new master was a Mr. Rochester, who was often away from home. My pupil was a girl called Adele, seven or eight years old, who was born in France and could hardly speak English. Luckily I had learnt French very well at Lowood, and had no difficulty in communicating with young Adele, a pretty, cheerful child. It appeared that Mr. Rochester, who had known Adele and her mother very well, had brought Adele back to England to live with him after her mother had died. I taught her for several hours every day in the library, although it was not easy to make her concentrate on anything for long, as she was clearly not used to the discipline of lessons.
One day I took the opportunity of asking Mrs. Fairfax a few questions about Mr. Rochester, as I was curious about him, and the little housekeeper seemed happy to talk.
‘Is he liked by most people?’ was my first question. ‘Oh yes, his family have always been respected here. They’ve owned the land round here for years,’ she replied.
‘But do you like him? What is his character like?’
‘I have always liked him, and I think he’s a fair master to his servants. He’s a little peculiar, perhaps. He’s travelled a lot, you know. I expect he’s clever, but I can’t tell, really.’
‘What do you mean, peculiar?’ I asked, interested.
‘It’s not easy to describe. You’re never sure whether he’s serious or joking. You don’t really understand him, at least I don’t. But that doesn’t matter, he’s a very good master.’
I could get no further information from Mrs. Fairfax about Mr. Rochester, but instead she offered to show me round the whole house. We went through many large, impressive rooms, finally reaching the top floor, where there was a narrow corridor with several small black doors, all shut. I stopped to look at them, and thought for a moment they looked like prison doors, hiding evil secrets. No sooner had I turned away to go downstairs than I heard a strange, ghostly laugh.
‘Mrs. Fairfax!’ I called out, as the housekeeper was already on her way downstairs. ‘Did you hear that laugh? Who is it?’
‘It may be Grace Poole,’ she answered calmly. ‘She is paid to help the housemaid in her work, and always sews in one of those rooms.’ I heard the laugh again. It did not sound human to me.
‘Grace!’ called Mrs. Fairfax. I did not expect anyone to answer, but in fact a door opened and a middle-aged woman appeared. She looked too plain and sensible to be a ghost.
‘Too much noise, Grace,’ said Mrs. Fairfax. ‘Remember your instructions!’ Grace nodded and went back into the room.
Several times in the next few months I went up to the top floor again, where I could look out of the high windows in the roof to see the surrounding countryside and be alone with my thoughts. I was very happy teaching pretty little Adele in the daytime, and talking to kind old Mrs. Fairfax in the evening, but I felt that something was missing from my life. I had dreams of a greater and better life, and above all, I wanted to do more. People are not always satisfied with a quiet life, and women as well as men need action.
While on the top floor I often heard Grace Poole’s strange laugh, and sometimes I saw her too. She used to go silently in and out of the room with a plate of food or a glass of beer.
One day in January I had a free afternoon, as Adele was ill, so I decided to walk to Hay, a village two miles away, to post a letter for the housekeeper. It was a bright, frosty day, and I was enjoying the fresh air and the exercise. Stopping on the lonely road, I watched the sun go down in the trees behind Thornfield, and then in the silence I heard a horse approaching. Suddenly there was a crash as the horse slipped and fell on the ice, bringing down its rider. I ran to see if I could help the traveller, who was swearing furiously as he pulled himself free of his horse.
‘Are you hurt, sir? Can I do anything?’ I asked.
‘Just stand back,’ he growled, as he lifted himself painfully to his feet. Obviously his leg hurt him, and he sat down quickly.
‘If you need help, sir, I can fetch someone either from Thornfield Hall or from Hay,’ I offered.
‘Thank you, but I don’t need anyone. I haven’t broken any bones,’ he replied crossly. I could see him clearly in the moonlight. He was of medium height, with wide shoulders and a strong chest. He had a dark face, with angry-looking eyes, and was about thirty-five. If he had been a young, attractive gentleman, I would have been too shy to offer help, but as he was not handsome, and even quite rough, I felt I wanted to help him.
‘I can’t leave you, sir, so late on this lonely road, till I see you are fit enough to get on your horse,’ I insisted.
He looked at me for the first time when I said this.
‘I think you ought to be at home yourself,’ he answered. ‘Do you live near here?’
‘In that house over there,’ I said, ‘and I’m not at all afraid of being out at night. I’m just going to Hay to post a letter, and I’ll be happy to take a message for you.’
‘You live in… in that house?’ he asked, surprised, pointing to Thornfield Hall, which was lit up in the moonlight. ‘Yes, sir,’ I replied. ‘Whose house is it?’ he asked. ‘Mr. Rochester’s.’
‘Do you know Mr. Rochester?’ was his next question. ‘No, I’ve never seen him,’ I answered.
‘You aren’t a servant at Thornfield Hall, of course. You must be…’he hesitated, looking at my plain black dress. He seemed puzzled to know who I was, so I helped him. ‘I am the governess.’
‘Ah, the governess! I had forgotten?’ He tried to get up but his leg was still hurting him badly. ‘I don’t want you to fetch help, but you could help me yourself, if you like.’
‘Of course, sir,’ I said. And so he leaned his weight on my shoulder and I helped him walk to his horse. In a moment he had jumped on to the horse’s back. ‘Thank you, now take your letter to Hay, then hurry home!’ he called as he rode off into the distance. I walked on, glad to have helped someone, to have done something active for once. In my mind I saw that dark, strong face, and I still felt excited by our meeting. Even when I arrived back at Thornfield, I did not go in for a while. I did not want to go into the dark house, where I would spend the evening quietly with old Mrs Fairfax. So I stayed outside, staring up at the moon and the stars with a beating heart, wishing and dreaming of a different, more exciting life.
When I entered, the servants told me that Mr. Rochester had arrived, and that he had hurt his leg when his horse slipped on ice on the road to Hay.