He should have known that it was simply all too good to last. After everything he had gone through, God's cruelty should have ceased to surprise him in its intensity by now. As it were, he despised himself for letting it sting him deeply each time as if it was the first encounter.
For one month—one glorious, shining month—Rochester had fooled himself into believing he had found an irrevocable love with the unearthly creature who now stood beside him enveloped in white. The kind of love that was honest and true, and came to be cherished for what it was only with the passage of time which brought him clarity too little too late; in short, real love.
But one sentence had ripped everything out from under him at the very altar.
"The marriage cannot go on: I declare the existence of an impediment."
Rochester had to master himself very quickly so as not to give in to the first animalistic impulse which came to him when those words rent the air, that being to strangle the person who uttered the phrase which was the absolute annihilation of every hope of happiness he had left in this savage life. He had to remind himself that throttling whatever it was that stood behind him in the presence of the clergyman, the clerk, and his sweet Jane, in the chapel no less, would not now stop what was inevitable in coming: his destruction.
Grasping frantically at the smallest inkling of chances to discredit this stranger's declaration, Rochester did that which he was only capable of doing in these beginning stages of devastation. Forcing himself to retain his balance by shifting his footing, he grated out to the clergyman, "Proceed."
He knew before the word had ever left his lips that it was useless. He could not even bring himself to look at Jane. Rochester had felt the spasm of her slight hand clutched in his own. He too had felt more than witnessed from the corner of his eye that her face had turned to look upon him when the unknown person had said his part. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, he could not yet gaze upon the features of face he loved best ridden with torment and their first vestiges of despair. It would be more than he could bear.
The events which happened next—his last-ditch efforts to disdainfully deny Briggs and Mason's disclosure of Bertha's existence and his reviled tie to her, his ultimate confession to its truth, the unveiling of Bertha like some monstrous creature on display in a menagerie—he could only remember in blurred snatches, like delusions experienced during a fever.
Only one thing stood out clear to him during these hellish proceedings: Jane.
Where before he could not seek her eye, he now could not tear himself away from it. Her pale face was not yet contorted in grief and hatred because the shock was still too fresh, but he knew it was coming. For the moment, she consented—or rather he should say, was almost insensible—to being dragged by him from the chapel to Thornfield, up the flights of stairs which led to the maniac's seclusion.
When Bertha lunged at her audience, Jane foremost among them, Rochester at last regained some sense of reality. The very devil himself could not stop him from protecting his Jane from that beast. He had almost gone into convulsions the night before when he learned from an unwitting Jane that Bertha's deadly nighttime escapades had reached the room of his dearest one, and of all nights during one which he was away from home. The thought still drove him to teeter on the razor-sharp edge of horror and redemption when he considered all that could have happened, and the good grace of God that kept it from happening, the only smile his Maker ever seemed to bestow upon him throughout his entire wretched life.
He grappled Bertha into submission until cords could restrain her. Breathing heavily from the struggle, Rochester turned to face the three men and Jane.
Practically mad himself from his twenty-years-kept secret being thus unceremoniously exposed in a matter of minutes and its subsequent events, he was hardly aware of what he said next. The only utterance he knew for certain passed his bared teeth was 'my wife'—that he was vividly conscious of because he could not stop the sudden taste of bile that rose into his throat the instant his lips framed those words in reference to the lunatic still shrieking behind him.
And then it was over. He mechanically withdrew to ensure that Bertha would not maim Grace in her rampage, leaving the others to their own devices. By the time he left that place of insanity, the three men had vanished from the outer room.
But so had Jane.
Panic gripped Rochester's insides with a sickening contraction as an unbidden thought occurred to him: What if she had departed Thornfield with them?
Wild with this newly-realized terror, Rochester made for the outer door and ripped it open with such force that he nearly loosed it from its hinges. Plunging down the stairs at a break-neck run, he leapt over the last five stairs and tore through the gallery until he stopped before his destination.
Jane's bedroom door was shut, and as his chest heaved, Rochester desperately prayed to God or whoever would listen that it held its inhabitant within. He had to be sure though. He could not ascertain this as a fact by forcing entry into what Jane was most certainly viewing as her last asylum and risk her hating him more for it; not yet. Picking up his dash again, he headed for one of that floor's many front abandoned chambers from which he could observe through the window the path that led to his house for some distance. Entering such a room, he flew faster than ever to the windows and threw back their heavy drapes to either side, almost wrenching them from their poles in his agitated haste.
Rochester's wide eyes raked the road, fearing more than anything else at this moment that he would see the petite form of one Jane Eyre being accompanied by those self-righteous prigs Briggs and Mason away from him, as if she needed protection from him. Catching signs of movement at last, he saw figures nearer than he had suspected. Yes, there was the scandalized clergyman slipping back into his principled sanctuary of God. Not too far gone were the others, just now leaving his immediate estate, but still present on his land.
He felt his heart catch.
There were two; there were but two making their way up that road! His Jane had stayed.
Her presence secured, Rochester made his way back into the gallery with a much heavier step than he had left it. Crossing the passage into his own room, he took hold of the chair from his writing-table and half-carried, half-dragged it behind him out into the gallery. Placing it only inches away from Jane's bedroom threshold, Rochester sank wearily into the chair, gazing longingly at the door which barricaded him from its occupant so very dear to him.
It had been hours, and still Jane did not emerge.
Rochester thought he was beginning to lose his senses as he waited out this interminable silence. Not once did he move from his post guarding her room. His back ached from sitting so long, but he did not care. His mouth was dry from thirst, but it did not signify. The only thing that mattered to him now, the thing for which he would gladly suffer discomforts a thousand times worse than these, was Jane.
The quiet, however, was maddening. He had heard not a single sobbing breath, nor the muted rustle of her dress as she moved about her chamber.
And it terrified him.
He knew Jane was not the sort to be purposefully dramatic for the mere sake of seeming to suffer martyrdom for trifles as was common of the majority of her sex, but without passion she certainly was not. At a moment such as this of all times, he had not expected her to remain shut up for so long without one fervent outbreak of weeping, one minute of restless pacing…one word to him, whether honey or poison.
She would do nothing rash, was the hypnotic mantra he continually repeated to himself in his mind. These wavering reassurances, however, were all but worn thin as the clock in the gallery continued to wile the hours away with its resonant tick.
"I can take it no longer!" finally burst from Rochester's lips in an impassioned whisper. "I will give her but one minute more to come out or to make some sort of noise before I break down the door!"
He counted down the seconds of this allotted time.
Five seconds. Jane was all right. He would reduce her door to splinters only to find her crying quietly on her bed and then outraged at his impudence.
Twenty seconds. What other scene could possibly await him upon entering her room? It was not possible, no utterly ridiculous, to even consider that she had…
Thirty-five seconds. Settle your mind, fool. No one would resort to such extremes for the likes of you. …for the love of God! Is the clock broken?
Fifty-five seconds. What if he had waited too long? What if he was already too late? What if, in a moment of utter grief, his Jane had taken up the overly-sharp (as Rochester now knew it to be) letter-opener from her bedside table and—?
The metallic click of a lock unbolting met his ear. He nearly fell from his chair when he heard the sound, for he distinguished it quite clearly despite the blood pounding in his ears. He also heard Jane, his little Jane, murmur something in her soft voice as she turned the knob, but that he could not make out distinctly. Rochester had scarcely decided to stay seated as he was so as not to accost Jane with all his height and oppress her small frame in her present fragile state when he saw what he could of her body go limp and fall towards him.
He put out his arms to catch her instinctively.
So there she was, in his embrace as he had folded her to him so many times before; yet, it was not the same, like strangers pantomiming the motions of two lovers but only creating shadows of what the true act entailed. The look she gave him, once her eyes focused, upon realizing it was he who had caught her was not unlike how she looked at him when they had sat in this way in the library or in the garden most nights, but her face was so ravaged by sadness, so utterly contrasting with its usual serene appearance, that Rochester could feel his heart slowly breaking.
Before he could even attempt to hold his tongue or gather his thoughts to any coherent degree, he was babbling, voicing the petrifying thoughts that plagued his mind while he waited for her to come out, trying to rouse some of Jane's usual self, begging her forgiveness, beseeching his darling to understand what she could not possibly understand without some explanation on his part.
But all she had strength to express was her need for some water.
Rochester released his breath in a shuddering sigh to hear her talk so. He adjusted his hold on Jane and rose from his seat. With her gently cradled in his arms, he headed for the library. Rochester could felt her slender form trembling against him. He inwardly cursed himself for what he had done to her. Remorse and pain wracked his own body, but at the same time, a small flame of hope kindled in his chest as he held her again, generated and weakly sustained by this contact with the one who meant so very much to him.
All cannot be lost, he told himself.
How very wrong he found himself to be.
The first time he made to kiss her and she rebuffed him, he felt the crack in his heart expand, and desolation was the only emotion he had room for. Rochester nearly cried out in pain the first time Jane addressed him once again as 'sir'— it was as bad as a physical blow, no, worse.
As she continued her forcibly formal designations and clipped language in her quivering but resolute voice, something in him snapped. A blend of despair and rage fed him into frenzy. One moment she soothed him, listening raptly to his ghastly tale of the past, and the next she doused the guttering flame of hope that he would yet win her over with intimations of her leaving him. Moments like the latter caused him to rise tremendously into a fearful fury. Jane's tears moved him to shed tears of his own, but he could not let her go. He knew she still loved him in spite of everything, she said as much an hour ago; so, he continued to rave, hoping to convince her to listen to his plans of white-washed villas in France and the like.
All in vain.
By the end of his couple of hours of ranting and declarations of devotion, apologies, and love enduring, Jane was still resolved to act against him. Rochester was physically and emotionally undone. He began to weep.
Quickly, he felt Jane turn his bleary face towards her own and give him a kiss. It was on the cheek, though enough to make him spring upright and clutch after her while more excited sentences poured unchecked from his lips, but in moments, she was gone from the room.
Sleep was impossible.
Rochester was waiting impatiently for a semi-reasonable hour to continue his entreaties to Jane. He made himself stay in his own rooms as to give Jane time to think and consider. In a few hours, he would return to her bedroom door to revive and renew his urgings, his pleas on his own behalf and, in his mind, hers.
For the moment, he paced the length of his room repeatedly, anxious to be rid of some of the fretful restiveness in his own body and mind. Of all the things he had thought and hoped and longed for with intense fervor that this night would hold for him, he least expected to find himself here like this.
A faint creak stopped him in his tracks.
Had he made that noise himself? Or was it someone else? Had Jane come to him?
Stealthily he moved to open his door and peered out into the gallery. Darkness. She was not there; no one was. Bitterly disappointed, he shut the door and resumed his pacing.
The night seemed endless, but in reality less than six hours saw Rochester make his way down the gallery to Jane's room, the first streaks of dawn his only guide. At her door, he lifted his arm, fully intending to knock until she answered, but something stopped him.
The door was not closed. True enough, it was turned entirely to face the outer hall and was blocking the view of Jane's room, but it was not shut into its frame.
Rochester's breath hitched. "It can't be," he said gruffly.
Splaying out the curled hand he had raised to knock, he pushed open the door.
Jane was not there.
His breathing became louder and faster, but he did not notice the sound because his hearing had gone strangely dim as blood rushed and pounded in his ears. He stepped inside the room, looking around and around as if Jane might be hidden in some nook of the small space.
"Jane?" he whispered in a voice that continued hoarse.
Rochester ran from the room.
"Jane!" he called loudly, frantically, his voice reverberating throughout the marble halls.
"Jane!" he cried out brokenly.
The servants, only just now waking, were appearing nervously in doorways to gape at their master, but he cared nothing for their startled stares. He did not even attempt to regain his composure, for there was no composure left to be had in him. He blindly headed out to the leafy enclosure of the garden.
It was no good. Jane had left Thornfield…had left him.
After several hours had wasted in tormented searching on horseback across the countryside, Rochester was forced to return to Thornfield. He had ridden Mesrour so furiously and for so long that the poor horse was foaming at the mouth for most of the journey. It was not, however, until he threw a shoe on the outskirts of the crossroads of Whitcross that Rochester was required to dismount and walk back home, leading his lame horse behind him.
Now sitting in the library, bone-weary and even more heart-weary, doing nothing was agony. Rochester had wanted to immediately saddle and take out one of his carriage horses to pursue his forsaken course, but he retained some sense of reason which compelled him to do otherwise. Mesrour was his fastest and most reliable horse; waiting for him to be re-shod and a little rested would be more efficient than taking any of the other horses he owned which were used to hauling loads at sluggish paces when he needed all speed and endurance.
At this moment, every servant and hand in his employment was searching all directions for Jane. He had ordered them to abandon their usual posts and daily duties to instead dedicate themselves to her discovery. It was on these orders that the stableboy who would usually put Mesrour right, and who alone knew all the locations of the necessary equipment to accomplish that task, was gone from the estate and unable to help his desperate master in this new crisis.
The blasted clock continued to whittle down the hours at a leisurely pace, ignorant of the fever pulsing in the veins of its human companion.
Rochester stared blankly at his surroundings in a stupor. He was slumped on the couch where his Jane once would sit and caress or tease him, depending on her mood. He remembered how he first sang a ballad to Jane and accompanied himself on the piano in the corner after she failed so miserably at it herself. The painting above the mantel Jane had sketched in watercolors a scene of her own making, dreamt up in that mind he cherished more than his own life. There, lining the walls, were the scores of books Jane would rifle through and read aloud to him in her clear, sweet voice as their bodies lounged entwined in his armchair before a crackling fire—bah!
Rochester's hands buried themselves in the hair on his bowed head, his fingers twisting to hold hanks of it which he pulled on. Perhaps he did it to counter some of the inner torment he was suffering, to relieve his thoughts of his shattering heart with physical pain. Perhaps he thought to punish himself for what he had done. Or perhaps Rochester was so defeated that though he wrenched at locks of his hair with fists of iron, he was unaware of his actions or the self-inflicted hurting at all. He had to leave the library before thoughts of her drove him mad.
He strode from the room seeking refuge where there was none to be had. Rochester went to his bedroom and froze the moment he entered. Jane had saved him in that very bed from burning alive, from that lunatic's nonsensical vendetta against him. How well he remembered her look that night, the feel her shivering little hand enclosed in his, and his reluctance to let her return to her own bed afterwards. This would not do either.
He turned and left the room abruptly.
Already so near to it, Rochester could not help but reenter Jane's chamber for the second time that day. One quick glance had told him before that Jane had taken nothing of substance to sustain herself with. Now, he examined the room more closely. There were her trunks, corded and locked. Her new attire lay untouched, but he saw that even her two or three older dresses were abandoned in her haste to escape. Then there was the cloud of white ensconced in the recesses of the wardrobe; the revelation of this discarded garment in particular, the one which was worn by Jane on what was supposed the happiest day of his—their—life and the horrid actuality which it instead bore witness to, made him feel as if he were about to be sick. He shut the wardrobe doors firmly to be rid of the sight. His head started to throb from when he yanked at his hair.
Walking over to her dressing table, Rochester slowly pulled open its few cabinets, hoping at least they would be devoid of some jewels he bought her so that she could exchange them for some comforts. He knew the answer before he even saw it. The few ornaments she had allowed him to bestow on her were all present, as was her brooch. He slammed these drawers closed, and moved on to the last one.
In it he found the pearl necklace he bought her in Millcote. The strand of pearls was still in its velvet casing, never worn by Jane.
A sentiment close to anger at Jane's recklessness with her own well-being seized Rochester, and without knowing exactly why he did it, he grabbed the pearl necklace from its drawer and fastened it around his neck, under his shirt collar and cravat. The thing was entirely too tight for the breadth of his throat, but he liked the pressure; it reminded him of its presence, and it somehow made him feel the tiniest bit closer to its rightful owner.
Rochester caught sight of himself in the mirror as he tied the strand of pearls around his neck. His reflection looked haggard. His eyes were sunken and rung with dark shadows from his lack of sleep, and his cheeks were gaunt. Splashes of mud flecked his brow and his clothing from his fierce ride on Mesrour; in his mad dash to go after Jane he had forgone his riding cloak and the shield it gave him from the biting cold of daybreak and the dirt. But what did that matter now? All in all he looked quite demented.
Another minute saw him from Jane's room.
He went out into the orchard. Memories of sweeter times flooded him, his and Jane's declarations of love and their ardent engagement that stormy midsummer's night were among the most vivid. Recollecting them brought a hard lump to Rochester's throat and made his eyes burn with unshed tears. They were not unshed for long.
Utterly alone at Thornfield, he succumbed to his tears, crying long and hard well into the night.
Two months had passed and there was not a trace of Jane to be found.
Fear was a staple now and hope was long since forgotten. Rochester could no longer picture being reunited with his beloved Jane, if only to glimpse her face one last time and know she was safe and happy. All he could see, both while awake and in nightmares during his fitful hours of sleep, was her wet, cold, and hungry as an outcast among unfriendly faces—or the worst, a corpse laying forever still and silent underneath some unforgiving river or broken on the crags of some ravine floor.
Rochester let despair consume him, as it had been threatening to do since the very beginning of this ordeal when Briggs and Mason had their say in the church. There was nothing left for him. Nothing. Despair would be his sole companion now and his sole mistress.
He was a broken man.
With a life such as this his only future, he thought it well to let the grave have him when it liked.