title: Out of Darkness
word count: approx. 4055
fandoms: X-Men: First Class [movieverse], Jane Eyre
pairing: eventual Charles Xavier/Erik Lehnsherr [as Charlotte Eyre/Erik Rochester]
notes: Inspired by madsmurf, who had a dream about Charles and Erik being characters in Gothic romance novels - and in which Charles was Charlotte. And there was a graphic to go with it. So this is my first stab at Gothic pastiche, with tragedy, hope, and a girl named Charlotte Eyre.
The wind beat a lonely moaning refrain on the windows and I listened carefully for signs that others in the house might yet be awake.
Autumn had scarcely begun, and yet Xavier House had just plunged into the deeps of mourning, and in the past few days we could scarcely pass each other in the halls without exchanging doleful murmurs, without tears shining on one face or another.
I said we, of course, though I was merely a ward of the family. Of my own kin I knew nothing, other than that some of them had ventured over sea and then were never heard from again. I had only snatches of memory to remember them by, the distant idea that I had been sent to Xavier House because they were related to the master by ties of deep affection, and so when I spoke of my “family” I referred almost exclusively to the inhabitants of this house.
Was it only three or four days hence that we had received such doleful news? Oh, the world had been plunged into darkness as though night had come to usurp noon’s rightful place. A swift message from Westchesterfield, home to our mistress’s dearest sister. The messenger’s face blotched and twisted with grief. It had been I who had intercepted him in his dash toward our gardens, and he had nearly fallen from his horse with exertion – but I had helped to steady him and his lathered steed. And it had been to my hands that the message of Master has died from a hunting accident – Mistress has died of grief had been passed, and thence to the entire household.
There was a soft knock on my door – I had been expecting it – and I crept out of bed and unlatched my door, bade the little girl shivering in her nightgown enter.
Now this little girl was all the family I might have left in the world. The only child and now the heiress to Xavier House, young and wise beyond her years. Rebecca Xavier. If I carried a hint of pride in owning myself her primary instructor these past few years, it was tempered by knowing and admiring the depths of her native intelligence.
“Come in, Rebecca,” I said, and for all that she was eleven, already almost too big to be petted and cosseted, I let her climb into my lap, let her tuck close to me for warmth and comfort, as we sat near the fire.
“Charlotte,” she said, and I kissed her forehead and let her weep afresh. “Oh, I cannot sleep – I close my eyes and I can see Mother and Father in my dreams, and yet when I wake I see everyone crying, I see my own tears, and I remember. I remember they are gone, so suddenly, so far away from home. Tell me, when shall I see them for the last time, when are they to be taken here to be laid out?”
“I am to go there at first light. There being no others in the world but you – and me, paltry though the relation might be, I am still of my majority and may be given leave to conduct them home with respect and dignity – ”
“Oh, Charlotte, you know Mother and Father wanted you to be truly part of the family, there must be some papers that they had drawn up for you, you are the only family I have left – ”
“Nothing would please me more than for that to be true, dear Rebecca,” I said, and I knew I was crying once again, and could not stop. “But that I am eighteen and cannot now be anyone’s ward or responsibility – that is a fact I cannot escape, and the truth is that I must soon fly away from Xavier House and from you, fly away into the great world. I must tread my own path.”
“And who will look after me and represent me? Who will stand by my side and guide me?”
“Your own self,” I said, quietly, and smoothed Rebecca’s hair away from her face, as it had begun to fly up and bristle in her sudden passion. “Have I not taught you this? Have I not given you leave to develop your own instincts and trust in them? Have faith, sweetling, and let your sense guide you. You will be mistress of this house and of the people in it, and I look forward to meeting you once again, of making my bows to you and addressing you as the great lady to whom this house rightfully belongs.”
“Charlotte,” and again she said my name, and she threw her arms around me and I wept with her. I could feel the fear of the morning stealing its way into my bones and I held Rebecca to my heart, and willed that time should flow more slowly and leave us in its unfeeling wake.
The miles went by slowly, as slowly as the beat of my weary heart. I could not bear to think that I would soon be quitting Xavier House and its environs and perhaps be unable to see it for many more long years. I could not think of my uncertain future, of the trials that surely awaited me now that I would be forced to fly from the only place that I could have called home.
The weather seemed to agree with my bleak mood and the endless mists cloaked the road to Westchesterfield, and a heavy, dragging gloom pulled at my heart, made me keep my eyes fixed on my reins as my horse patiently covered the miles. I shivered and pulled my cloak and my veil closer. Rebecca had insisted I dress very warmly, and she had come just short of pressing one of her own fur-lined coats around my shoulders.
Entering the lightly wooded hills that surrounded Westchesterfield for miles, I felt the sudden darkness like stones tied to my feet and the horse’s – and I feared I would go quietly mad, with nothing but my emotions and my fears for company. So I dismounted and took the reins in my hands, and resolved to walk for as far as my feet would take me. Perhaps the physical exertion would help me – and certainly it would keep me warm, and so I set out once again.
I had not gone a quarter of a mile when – there was a voice, there were sounds, coming at me from the shadows. I was not afraid. I merely steered my horse to the side of the lane, and waited for the rider to pass, and in the meantime I was sunk into my thoughts, in the rhythm of my feet on the ground.
Presently there was a soft tramp of feet, and a shadow striding toward me – and then a tall man, wrapped securely in greatcloak and hat and gloves. A piercing glance, a face like wind-worn cliffs, a mouth half-open with surprise and caution. Dark hair curling back from a broad brow; gray eyes like the storm and like deep water, alight in the gloaming.
“Good day,” I said politely, and I made him a little bow and tugged my horse to a halt. “How far to Westchesterfield?”
“Good day,” my stranger responded, after a moment’s surprise. “You will be within hailing distance of the house once you cross the ridge – but you will have to take it on faith that it exists, because this deuced fog prevents me from seeing anything and it will most certainly fool you if you do not take care.”
“And so I am walking, sir, in order to know how the earth runs between my own two feet. It also saves me from falling into a ditch, and my horse with me.”
“You are a practical woman, and I bow to your reasoning,” the man said, and here he swept off his hat and made me a proper greeting. “May I know what errand brings you to Westchesterfield?”
“It is a sad one, I am afraid,” I said. “I am Charlotte Eyre and I have come from Xavier House to escort my guardians on their final journey home.”
It was very strange to see that handsome face so suddenly turn solemn and brooding; the teasing mien vanished and its place directly taken by sadness. He took his hat off for the second time and offered me his hand. “Then you must be the woman I had been sent out to meet. Erik Rochester,” he said.
I was grateful, in any case, to have someone to walk with, and Rochester seized the reins of the horse from me, and he led us along as he began to retrace his steps.
“Tell me of the house; I know your family is connected with that of my mistress – how are they taking the deaths?”
An inelegant snort was the first answer. “About as well as you would expect – and as to justice, you will soon know that Aunt Emma has banished the guilty party and turned him over to the law besides. Do you know what happened?”
“Only that there was a hunting accident,” I said, quietly, though I knew in my heart that my curiosity was already awakened.
“Nothing of the sort; as you are the envoy, it is you who must know the truth first,” he said. “How much do you know about the families of Xavier House and Westchesterfield?”
“I know everything,” I said, thinking back to the quiet conversations with my master and with my mistress, thinking back to the nights in which they had allowed me to piece together the stories of their strange attachments. “I know how my kin are related to the master, and I know how mistress is related to you and yours.”
“We would be kin ourselves, you and I, if only the thread had stretched a little further,” Rochester said after a moment’s thought, after a moment looking at me as though he wished to peer past my veil and my cloak. He was forward, and I bore him impatiently, waiting for him to continue. “I would not have taken that amiss, surely, for you seem intelligent and good, as my Aunt is.” He paused again, and then: “If you know about that you must surely know about the enmity between the sisters and the rest of their family.”
“Because they married for love and not for their station.”
“Yes. Well. One of Aunt’s cousins joined us a fortnight ago, arriving just after your master and mistress did, and he said he had come to extend an olive branch to the sisters – but perhaps he should have taken care to phrase his greetings more correctly, for within an hour of his arrival he had offended everyone, from Aunt and her sister to her husband and all of us besides.”
“You could not turn him out?”
“How could we? He had ingratiated himself well with the other guests. He made quite a cynosure of himself, did Sebastian Shaw, and he very nearly managed to have all of us secretly at each other’s throats just as though we were mere playthings of his. Were it not for the nightly cup of tea with my Aunt, I too would have learned to turn against her while he was there.”
“And what did he do against my master and mistress?”
Rochester’s face went dark with fury. “Understand that I know all of this at second-hand, Miss Eyre, but that I have no reason to conceal anything from you.”
“I will hear anything you have to say, sir, and judge you and it on merit alone and not rumor.”
“Thank you, that seems to be the only way we can go on,” Rochester said. “This is what I was told: that Sebastian Shaw deliberately laid some kind of ruse for your master, and killed him with a single shot to the heart, and made it look as though your master had shot himself. Your mistress could not accept that hideous story, and she collapsed trying to rebuke Shaw for it.”
“My master – my mistress!” I cried out at last, roused to horror and anger by the terrible crime. “I could almost wish that your family had not meted out justice to this Shaw or I would have made him pay for his deeds myself, sir. He killed them for aught more than his pleasure – one such as he must not be suffered even to live a rat’s existence.” I must have looked quite terrible suddenly in the gloom, as I could feel the hot blood rise to my face. My voice was loud enough to rouse a muffled echo from the gloomy trees around us.
But Rochester merely nodded once, his lips set in a thin, grim line. “I would have him clapped in irons and gagged with a cloth before being sent back to us or to you for your vengeance, if I could.”
I was saved from having to answer by the sudden parting of the mists with torchlight and lanterns and then we were both coming upon the great gates to Westchesterfield.
Rochester put his fingers to his mouth and with a loud whistle he pierced the deepening darkness, and a servant came and held out his hand for the reins. “Give him your horse, Miss Eyre, we will see him rested and he will convey you back on your journey.”
“Thank you,” I said, to Rochester and to the boy both, and then I was taking off my veil and cloak as I stood on the steps to the house.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see the man who had been my companion, the man who had borne me those evil and truthful tidings, and I wondered what he thought of me, a girl on a terrible errand and alone – and then the door was opening and a woman was standing there, a woman I knew from pictures and paintings at Xavier House. I could remember the reports of how she was praised for her beauty; that beauty seemed undiminished, but made weary and sorrowful.
“Charlotte Eyre, is that you?” And she walked forward to clasp my hands. “Do you remember me?”
“Mistress Frost,” I said, and I let go and made her a formal courtesy. “I am come to claim my master and mistress, and to convey them home.”
“Oh, would that this were a social visit, and that you were calling to seek out better company than a house in mourning.”
“I come to a house in mourning just as I have left one,” I said, bowing my head. “On behalf of Miss Rebecca of Xavier House, please accept my deepest sympathies.”
“And accept ours for Rebecca and for yourself,” she said, and folded me close to her heart. “Erik,” she said next, “will you kindly conduct our guest to her rooms?”
I looked up. “May I see them first?”
She frowned, and wrung her hands with worry. “Are you sure? Will you not rest and take a moment to gather your thoughts?”
“I cannot wait,” I said. “I will not be easy until I have seen my master and mistress.”
“On your own head be it,” was the quiet reply, full of understanding and sympathy. “Erik.”
“Yes, Aunt,” he said, and he stepped forward and took one of the lit candlesticks. “Miss Eyre, if you will follow me.”
At the door garlanded with black crepe, Rochester stopped and offered me his hand. “Do you need support?”
I steeled my heart and took the candlestick from him instead. “I will go in alone, if you will not mind.”
“No,” he said, and he put his hand on my bowed head. It was warm against the gloomy chill. “I will stand out here and you may have some time to yourself. Call me if you have need of me.”
And so I was looking at my master and mistress by the guttering candlelight. They were laid out side by side on the bed. Someone had taken care to join their hands so that even in death they were still together.
For a long moment I could not see the room or the light or their faces, and the tears fell from my eyes like useless rain. I thought of their kindness towards me, of the love that they had shared with their Rebecca, and I thought of the world that I would now have to plunge into, friendless and alone.
Oh cruel morning! I had been unable to sleep – I had thought of my poor master and mistress, their faces lifeless and cold, and of Rebecca in mourning, of my departure from all the places I held dear. Yes, even Westchesterfield, for all that I was not even going to linger in its environs a full day and a full night. Already I knew that I would have to have my trunks packed before the funeral, so that I would not have to be a burden on Xavier House longer than necessary, that I would soon have to make my final goodbyes to friends and companions of old.
At the breakfast table none of us seemed to have any appetite – and in the end Mistress Frost sighed and motioned me to her side. “Come, Charlotte Eyre, you will convey some items back to Xavier House on my behalf.”
I followed her immediately, but as I stepped out of the dining room I thought I could see a look of determination flick across Rochester’s face.
I found him strange and also very intelligent; he had been very kind to me yesterday, and he seemed to act as though he understood my thoughts and my emotions. I could not deny that I had enjoyed his company, howsoever brief an acquaintance we might have had. But I could not wish for this day to go on, for I needed to return to Xavier House with my master and mistress, and I tried to tell myself to be content that we at least had the conversation we had shared.
“Sit by me here, and help me with these papers,” Mistress Frost said, drawing a wooden box from her great desk. “I must tell you that my sister had entrusted these items to me in the past, telling me that if anything should befall her or her husband, that I would be obligated to turn them over to you.”
“Surely you mean for me to pass these items on to Miss Rebecca,” I said as I read quickly through the papers in the casket. “She is the rightful heir to her parents’ property, and she knows now how to keep their affairs in order.”
“That is because they know it was you who taught her what she knows. They know, and I can see, that you have done your best by the family that has adopted you for its own. And so, though these are hardly the correct circumstances for this – I am pleased to inform you, Charlotte Eyre, that your master and mistress have seen fit to leave you a competency. They have both mentioned you in the wills that they have left behind.”
“Mistress Frost,” I said. “This is no time to jest.”
“I do not jest about matters like these, Miss Eyre,” was the ready answer. Was she perhaps smiling at me? “And so shall I call you, and perhaps in time we may be friends, or that at least I may come to call you a companion.”
“This is no competency,” I said, and almost dropped the papers from shock. “I am to be guardian to Rebecca and until then I am to be the mistress of Xavier House? But I was merely their ward, Mistress Frost, if you would call a governess and companion a ward – ”
“And do you not think, Charlotte Eyre, that my sister and her husband and their daughter came to see you so well, and even to love you?”
I bowed my head. “I did not know.”
“Too busy with your duties, perhaps,” she said kindly, and then I felt her hand on my cheek, turning my face up to meet hers. “My sister confided much in me in the hours in which she lay weak and dying, and again and again she came back to you, Charlotte Eyre. For your hard work, for your unstinting and faithful service, she wished to offer you gifts that could not compare, but she hoped nevertheless that you would accept them and take your rightful place. You have earned so much: their respect and regard and mine as well. Accept her thanks, and live well – that was her final wish for you.”
I put all thoughts of the wills aside until my master and mistress had been interred – and then I turned over the casket full of documents to Rebecca.
“Charlotte,” she said, “are you really so determined to leave Xavier House?”
“I do not wish to leave at all – but I cannot accept your parents’ gifts, as the property must belong rightfully to you.”
“My property? Yes, and so the solicitors have confirmed it,” she said, and she beckoned me close, made me sit down next to her on her couch. “And if I give you something out of my own property, will you accept it, and stay with me?”
“Let the value fit what I have done, nothing more, nothing less.”
“Precisely so.” And Rebecca smiled, and clasped my hands. “Stay, Charlotte. Be with me here.”
I bowed my head in assent.
“Now,” and though she was still carrying her tear stains Rebecca managed to smile. “Tell me all about Erik Rochester. I want to know if he will suit my Charlotte, and if he does not why I shall make him....”
It became my custom to walk part of the boundaries of Xavier House every day, and if I sometimes let my feet take me in a direction that looked toward Westchesterfield, none commented, save perhaps for my Rebecca, who peeped and giggled at me whenever she noticed.
The sun was shining from a slate-blue sky as I walked. Perhaps autumn had had pity on us after all, for while the cold frosts began to insinuate themselves into our memories and into our chambers, the weather was marvelously clear. Never had the harvest fields looked so beautiful and fruitful, and never had the horizons been so inviting. Rebecca was already asking me to make plans to take her up to London, and then to some sunny European shore, for the coming winter.
I had stopped to rest my feet under the familiar birches when there was a step and a crackle of leaves, and I looked up, and almost could not stop my cry of recognition.
Erik Rochester – oh, how my heart beat suddenly and frantically beneath my skin. The same face, the same piercing eyes, and now he was smiling as he strode down the lane with his face held up to the sunlight.
And he was smiling as he stopped and saluted me. “Miss Eyre of Xavier House, how wonderful to meet you again.”
Oh, courage! His irreverence and his wit! I took heart, and finished resetting my shoe, and returned his greeting with my own smile. “Mister Rochester of Westchesterfield, a pleasant surprise to see you here. What errand brings you to us?”
“I had heard,” he said, laughing, “that the house was now under the care of two mistresses. I wished to pay my respects to them, and so I have come.”
“That can be arranged,” I said, and I felt bold now, and I held out my hand to him, the two of us standing in the lane and the wind pulling at skirt and sleeve and coat. “Shall I accompany you to the house?”
“Please,” and I would never again know any feeling, any moment, sweeter and more perfect than this, like passing through the long night and glimpsing the sunrise at last.