The Thornfield house-party
Two disappointing weeks passed before we heard from Mr. Rochester again. During this time I tried hard to forget my feeling for him. I reminded myself that he paid me to teach Adele, nothing more, and that no other relationship could exist between us. When his letter finally came, Mrs. Fairfax announced with great excitement that he was planning a house-party at Thornfield. He was going to return in three days’ time, and had invited a large number of ladies and gentlemen to stay for several days. We all worked extremely hard in the next few days, cleaning all the rooms and preparing the food.
The only person in the house who did not appear excited was Grace Poole, who stayed in her room upstairs, coming down once a day for food and drink. None of the servants seemed at all curious about her, but I once heard two of the maids talking, and I listened when I caught her name.
‘Does Grace Poole earn a lot, then?’ asked one.
‘Oh yes, five times what you and I earn!’ answered the other.
‘But she’s good at the work, I expect,’ said the first.
‘Ah! She understands what she has to do, that’s true,’ answered the second, ‘and not everyone would want to do her job, not even for all that money!’
‘Quite right! I wonder whether the master-‘ Suddenly they saw me and broke off their conversation.
‘Doesn’t she know?’ I heard one of them whisper,
‘No,’ said the other, and they were silent. So I realized there was a secret at Thornfield, which nobody wanted to tell me.
At last the great day came. Everything was ready for the master and his guests. Adele and I watched from an upstairs window as the carriages arrived. In front rode Mr. Rochester on his black horse, and with him rode a beautiful lady, her black curls streaming in the wind. ‘Blanche Ingram!’ I thought. We listened to the laughing and talking in the hall, as the guests were welcomed by their host and his housekeeper. From a dark corner of the stairs we admired the ladies as they went up to their rooms, and then again as they descended to dinner in their elegant evening dresses. Adele was hoping Mr. Rochester would call her down to meet the guests, but in the end she was so tired with all the excitement that she and I both went to bed early.
Next morning after breakfast the whole group went out for the day. Again I saw Mr. Rochester and Blanche Ingram riding together. I pointed this out to Mrs. Fairfax.
‘You see, Mr. Rochester clearly prefers her to any of the other ladies.’
‘Yes, he does seem to admire her,’ admitted the housekeeper.
‘And she admires him. Notice how she looks at him! But I haven’t really seen her face yet. I’d like to.’
‘You’ll see her tonight,’ answered Mrs. Fairfax. ‘I mentioned to the master that Adele wanted to be introduced to the ladies, and he asked you to bring her down to meet them this evening.’
‘Well, I’ll go if he wants me to, but I don’t like meeting strangers. I’m not used to it.’
‘I understand how you feel,’ said the old lady kindly, ‘but the guests won’t notice you much, and you can easily escape after a short time.’
So Adele and I, dressed in our best, were waiting as the ladies came into the sitting-room after dinner. I was most impressed by the beauty and elegance of all of them, but was especially fascinated by the Ingram family. Lady Ingram, although between forty and fifty, was still a fine woman. Her hair still looked black, by candle light at least, and her teeth still seemed perfect. But she had fierce, proud eyes, that reminded me of aunt Reed’s, and a hard, powerful voice. Her daughter Mary was rather quiet, but her other daughter Blanche was very different. As soon as the gentlemen came into the room and coffee was served, she became the centre of attention. She played the piano excellently, she sang sweetly, she discussed intelligently, and all the time her flashing eyes, rich black curls and fine figure attracted glances from every gentleman in the room.
But I was looking for someone else. The last time I had seen him, on the night of the fire, he had held my hands, told me I had saved his life, and looked at me as if he loved me. How close we had been then! But now, he entered the room without even looking at me, and took a seat with the ladies. I could not stop looking at him, rather like a thirsty man who knows the water is poisoned but cannot resist drinking. I had never intended to love him. I had tried hard to destroy all feelings of love for him, but now that I saw him again, I could not stop myself loving him. I compared him to the other gentlemen present. They were all fine, handsome men, but they did not have his power, his character, his strength, or indeed his deep laugh or his gentle smile. I felt that he and I were the same sort of person, that there was something in my brain and heart, in my blood and bone, that connected me to him for ever. And although I knew I must hide my feelings, must never allow myself to hope, I also knew that while there was breath in my body, I would always love him.