‘This one’s for you, Di.’
I looked up at the face of my boss as he leaned over my desk and passed me a casefile. Mr Oliver was a massive-featured grey haired man, who spoke little and never let a glimpse of a smile through his proud expression. Still, he was the founder of the Vale Hall Detective Agency, and had built the business up from nothing into a thriving firm. And he’d employed me, a slip of a girl desperate to be a detective, when everyone else thought women should know their place and be content to be governesses and school teachers. I might not feel that we were friends, but I trusted him.
The file was empty except for a single letter
I write in haste. On the 20th October AD ---- (a date fifteen years previously), my sister Bertha Antoinetta Mason was wedded to Edward Fairfax Rochester, in Spanish Town, Jamaica. Their marriage has not been a happy one. His grim disposition and stormy moods have induced in her a fragile mental state, and he has exacerbated the problem by removing her from her friends and family to his remote hall of Thornfield, near Millcote. I would not usually interfere in how a man choses to run his estate and family life, were it not for the fact that a most troubling rumour has recently reached me, that Rochester intends to wed his governess, a girl by the name of Jane Eyre. As I am sure you will understand, I fear that some terrible misfortune has befallen my sister, and that Rochester has done all in his power to conceal this, as he has concealed her from society for the past 15 years. I last saw her a little over a month ago, when travelling in England, and although she was somewhat disturbed by my unexpected visit, she appeared hale and in good health.
I would not usually seek the help of private detectives in such a matter, but I am currently detained in Jamaica on business, and my solicitor Mr Briggs recommended your firm very highly. The wedding date is set for one month’s time, and so I am sure you will understand the urgency of the matter.
Signed, Richard Mason”
I stared at the letter, rereading it, letting the possibilities settle into my mind. Had Rochester really murdered his first love, to clear the way for marrying his second? Perhaps the governess, seeing the original marriage as her only barrier to wealth beyond imagining, had been behind it? Or I supposed it was possible that some unhappy accident had befallen the first Mrs Rochester, and the only crime was the secrecy with which it had been covered up. But if it was just an accident, why the need to hide it? And why the unseemly haste to marry again? I turned the letter over, vainly hoping for some further clue.
‘Oy, Rivers!’ For a detective, Mr Oliver was surprising in his lack of respect for thoughtful contemplation. ‘Are you going to sit gazing into space all day? The coach comes through at four, and it’s six and thirty hours to Millcote. If you want time to sit and ponder, you’d be better doing it while you’re actually making at least some physical progress.’ Of course, one of the other surprising things about Mr Oliver was how often he was also, irritatingly, right.
I put the letter back into the file, stashed all the paperwork in my daybag, and hurried home to pack.
Two days later, I found myself walking up from Millcote past the village of Hay. At last I rounded the bend and Thornfield was visible - a fine old English hall, three stories high with grey stone battlements on top. If I had had more time, I would have spent longer doing groundwork in the village first. But I hoped that the hasty nature of the engagement would work in my favour as much as to my disadvantage. One of the many advantages of being a lady detective with good breeding is that you are under much less suspicion than would really be wise. I took a deep breath and knocked on the door.
It was opened by a short girl of about eighteen, dressed rather quaintly in a Quaker style black dress. She was thin and plain, and it would have been easy to pass her in the street without a second glance. But there was a brightness in her eyes, and something in the line of how she held her chin, that caught my attention. Could this be the governess? Could this frail pale young girl be capable of murder? Now was not, however, the time for idle contemplation. Now was the time for charm and luck.
‘Good afternoon. You must be Miss Eyre? I’m sorry I’m late, you must have been terribly worried waiting for me. I missed the coach by a day, and had to delay starting the journey. I do hope I haven’t caused any inconvenience, particularly when you must all be so busy with the wedding preparations...’
Much as the woman in front of me was clearly used to keeping her emotions tightly controlled, I could still see the shadows of them racing across her face. Confusion, because she wasn’t expecting me. And the greater confusion, of being out of her depth in her new role as mistress of the house, desperate not to make any social blunder or cause offence. I might just get away with this one...
‘I’m the new governess? To take up your role, to start as soon as possible?’
A quizzical look, and then a smile. ‘Oh, I’m sorry! I thought Edward had planned to send Adele to school. But then I did ask him not to... so he must have arranged this for me.’ The briefest of frowns, and then she smiled again, and her face lit up with the pleasure. ‘Do come in!’
The housekeeper was summoned, a room made up, and I was introduced to my ward. All was going exactly to plan. There was only one more major obstacle...
And there he came, down the stairs. Edward Fairfax Rochester. A dark face, stern features and a heavy brow, and ireful eyes that seemed to look straight into me. If it seemed deeply unlikely that Miss Eyre was capable of murder, Rochester made a strange comparison with her. At that moment in time, I would have believed that he disposed of a wife a day, before 6am, and then devoured them for breakfast. His face was storm and shadow, moods and currents; he was master of his house, and he knew how things worked under his own roof. And I was not part of that.
‘Jane? I do not believe I have been introduced to this... lady?’
Jane smiled. ‘Oh, Edward, haven’t you guessed? She’s the new governess! Edward, this is Diana Rivers. Diana, this is Mr Rochester, the master of the house. My fiancé.’ Her smile slipped into an impish grin at the last words.
If Rochester had had time to think things through, then things might have gone very differently for me. But her smile distracted him, and melted the ice of his expression. ‘Why Jane!’ he laughed. ‘You sprite! You sly faery-fae! Had I not told you Adele was to be sent to school? You, always so meek and so demure, and yet as soon as my back is turned you arrange things just the way you want them. You are a pesky troublesome imp. Well, if it is your wish that Adele should have a governess, then let me never stand between you and your wish again!’ He gathered her into his arms, and I took the opportunity to slip away to my room. They clearly had other things on their minds than the mystery of the unexpected governess. And I had other mysteries on mine...
I spent my first week at Thornfield looking for any signs of the missing Bertha Rochester. There was no trace of her to be found in the hall. No sign of a woman’s touch in any of the master bedrooms, and no sign of hasty redecoration. I searched the graveyard around Hay church, and there were no tombstones from within the past three months. I went on long walks to obscure corners of the grounds, taking Thornfield’s lion-like Newfoundland dog with me, but there was no sign of disturbed ground. The only thing of note was a great chestnut tree, cleaved in two by lightning, that still bore the fading leaves from its final spring. The papers on Rochester’s desk were full of designs to travel on his honeymoon, and made no mention of any previous spouse at all. I found brief interest in an angry letter in feminine handwriting, but the author was a Blanche, not a Bertha, and the concerns were peevish and petty. I felt like I was making no progress.
Not that I had many hours of leisure to investigate. I had declared myself the governess, and the governess I must be. My ward Adele was a pretty French child of about seven or eight years old. A sweet child, if not an outstanding pupil, it was no great hardship to set her simple lessons. The main interest of the work, however, was that it frequently brought me into contact with Jane. The more I met her, the more I felt myself liking her. I tried to guard against this - after all, the sweetest rose can hide the deadliest snake, as Mr Oliver was so fond of warning us - but she had an engaging, original mind, the power of clear thought, and a strength of character that although not immediately apparent ran deep. She clearly cared for Adele, and made time out from her wedding preparations to check that all was going well with her ward’s new schooling. I had always thought that women who chose to be governesses were quite silly, to allow the world to limit them to the schoolroom and to tending children, but my time with Jane made me rethink this. The world might be silly, to limit this capable young woman to such a task, but Jane herself was a joy to be with. By the end of the first week I had acquired a great respect for her, and, much as I had fought against it, a deep fondness. It was this growing friendship, and the rapidly approaching wedding, that led me to take such an unprofessional risk.
‘Miss Eyre?’ Mr Rochester was away from home overnight, visiting Sir George Lynn, and Mrs Fairfax had already retired. Jane was painting in the drawing room by the fading summer light. There would never be a better time to confront her.
‘Oh, Diana!’ Jane flushed, and rested her paintbrush in the pot of water by her easel. She looked very young and happy in the evening sun, with a few wisps of hair escaping round her thin pale face, and a smudge of paint on one cheek. I felt a sudden sadness that I was about to shatter her peace.
‘Jane...’ I took a deep breath and rushed on. ‘What do you know about the first Mrs Rochester?’
Confusion passed over Jane’s face. If she was an actor, if I had just thrown myself at the mercy of a murderess, then she was a very good one. Her pale face grew paler. ‘What do you mean, the first Mrs Rochester? There is no Mrs Rochester yet.’ She put a hand on the easel to steady herself, and knocked the waterpot to the floor. She gazed down as the pool of water slowly spread over the floor, making no effort to stop it. A brief flicker of optimism crossed her face. ‘You mean Edward’s mother?’
‘I’m sorry. There’s something you need to know about me. I’m not really a governess, I’m a private detective. And two weeks ago the firm I worked for received a very strange letter...’
Many women in Jane’s position would have immediately kicked me out of the house. Or fainted, or made a scene, or burst into hysterical tears. Jane, however, calmly and methodically sat me down, questioned me, and began to unpick my side of the mystery with the information she already held. I listened enthralled as she told me of the night-time attack on Mr Rochester, when she had found the curtains of his bed aflame around him, and of her vigil with Richard Mason, tending to his wounded shoulder. She explained how all things had been laid at the door of Grace Poole, (a square faced, red haired woman, introduced to me as a seamstress who helped the housemaid). Grace mostly kept herself away from the main life of the house, and so I had shamefully overlooked her in my investigations. Mr Oliver would have been most unimpressed with my beginner’s mistake.
Jane turned the letter over and over in her hands, clutching it tightly as she spoke. ‘”Somewhat disturbed by my unexpected visit”... Well, yes, you could say that’ Jane mused. ‘Diana, you should have seen it. The flesh on his shoulder... it was torn and ragged, and the surgeon said that the wound had been made not just with a knife, but with teeth as well...’ Her composure slipped for a moment and she shuddered.
‘What explanation did he give? How have you managed to stay here, calmly, in a house where at any moment someone could creep into your room and set you alight or tear into your flesh?’
‘Well... it has been terribly busy. With his courtship of Blanche, and the death of my Aunt. And then the proposal. Oh, Diana! I trusted him. He let me think there were good reasons, and I trusted him. Because he loved me, and I thought he wanted what was best for us. I think he did, you know.’ She looked suddenly wistful. ‘At least, he wanted what he thought was best for us, and in his mind that was the same thing.’ A look of shock passed over her face. ‘Diana? Does that mean Mr Rochester is married to Grace Poole?’
This seemed to me very unlikely, but as the evening had contained a large number of unlikely things, I did not want to dismiss it out of hand. ‘I suppose that could be the answer... but why would she go so quietly about her business, and willingly assume a false name?’ No, it seemed unlikely that Grace Poole was the solution to our mystery... but she did seem to hold the key. What was up there on the third floor of Thornfield? Had Mr Rochester taken matters into his own hands after his wife had attacked her brother? Was Grace Poole even now standing guard over a tomb? I could hear Mr Oliver in my mind, saying ‘Well, gal, mysteries don’t solve themselves! Go and do something and find out!’ And, as usual, he was right. I sat down with Jane and made a plan.
I had not interacted with Grace Poole enough to identify her weaknesses, but Jane was observant and quick witted. Once she mentioned that Grace came downstairs at around 11pm each evening to take a sip of porter by the fire the next steps were obvious. We left the porter out on the table as usual, but not before I had added six carefully measured drops of laudanum to it. Half an hour later, we had Grace Poole snoring loudly by the fire, and the keys to the third storey room out of her pockets and into our grasp.
We hurried up the staircase, passed along the gallery, and proceeded up to the third storey. We paused outside the low black door. Wide eyed, we looked at each other, as Jane fumbled with the keys in the lock. Finally, she found one that fitted. She turned it, the lock clicked, and the door swung slowly open towards us. Not knowing what I’d find I stepped into the room...
Whatever I had expected, it was not this. It was a fine room, hung with tapestries. There was an easy chair in one corner, and a grim cabinet where the heads of the twelve apostles gazed up at the crucified Christ opposite it. A great bed dominated the centre of the room. There was no sign of life, no sound of any breathing. I felt my own heart beat more loudly in my chest as I walked towards the bed. What if he had smothered his wife here in the marital bed, and her mouldering corpse was waiting for me to find? I drew my courage tightly around me, and pulled back the curtains. I looked down... to see nothing but neatly smoothed sheets. The room was empty. Whatever the answer to our mystery, it was not here.
Jane had followed me. She looked round the room, and then began to lift the tapestries and examine the wall behind them. ‘Diana! Over here!’
There was another door, hidden behind the tapestries. Jane tried the keys one by one with shaking hands, until this door too swung open. The room beyond was dark and rancid. The sun had set by now, but even if it had been earlier in the day there was no window to admit daylight or fresh air. A fire burned low behind a high fender, casting a flickering light across the room. It illuminated a bed, on the far side of the room in the shadows, where it was possible to make out the prone form of a slumbering figure. Jane and I paused. Her hand found mine, and I squeezed it, unclear if I was reassuring her or comforting myself. Slowly we walked towards the far side of the room.
The shape in the shadows resolved itself into a tall woman, with a mane of dark hair covering her face. Our footsteps must have woken her, for she stirred in her slumbers. ‘Edward?’ Her voice was low and soft. ‘Edward, is that you? I have had the strangest dream, Edward.’ And then she rolled over towards us, her hair fell from her face, and I looked on such fearful and ghastly features as I had never previously beheld. Her face was purple, her lips swollen and dark, her eyes wild and bloodshot. As she turned, her movements were suddenly curtailed, and I noticed that she was bound to the bed with coarse rope, which had rubbed her wrists and ankles raw. The rope chafed at old wounds, and her voice broke into frantic keening - part sob, part manic laughter, winding together to make the cries of some wild beast of hell - and she lashed her body backwards and forwards, causing the bed to creak and rock.
I looked across at Jane, standing there with tears glistening in her eyes. Without a word, we turned and left the room, locking the door behind us.
Things resolved themselves remarkably quickly after our discovery. Jane confronted Edward Rochester when he returned the next day. I was not there for their conversation, and even if I knew of what had passed between them I would not break Jane’s confidence to recount it here. Suffice to say she returned looking as frail as a reed, bent and broken by sorrow, and yet with a resolute spark in her eye that no amount of trouble could destroy.
‘I must leave, Diana, and soon. I suppose now you have solved your mystery, you will be leaving Thornfield as well? I would not wish to impose, but I have come to value your friendship very much over the past few weeks. Indeed, it is only because of you I have not placed myself outside the law of both God and man. I wonder, would you mind if we travelled together?’
‘Jane, it is no imposition! After all that we have lived through together here, you have become like a sister to me. And what of after the journey? Come and stay with me at least for a little while, while you gather your thoughts together and work out what you wish to do next. There is a vacancy for a school mistress in my village... or have you ever considered becoming a detective? Mr Oliver who employs me is firm but fair, and is always looking for bright young people to take on. Why, you have all the experience you need to impress him with now!’
Jane smiled, a pale and wan smile, but like a glimpse of spring in the winter of her grief. ‘Well, I suppose I will have to find employment somewhere. It’s not like I can wait for some rich relative to die and leave me a wealthy heiress! If Mr Oliver will take me in, that sounds like an excellent idea.’
So we left Thornfield together, Jane and I. That was the first mystery we solved together - but it would be far from the last.