Coming into the drawing room, I was gratified to note Miss Eyre had, at least, heeded my summons. Or at least, wished to avert the threat of my coming to fetch her. No doubt she would find that too great an embarrassment to bear. Hence why I bade Mrs Fairfax relay it.
She is not looking at me as I enter – her eyes are detained elsewhere – on the knitting in her lap. Indeed, she appears to be bestowing much attention on it; I almost wish I could take its place.
I have not beheld her since she left me, after that dreadful night when Bertha, daemon that she is, attempted to forsake my life to the flames. What bravery Miss Eyre had demonstrated; she had risked her own skin to save mine, yet how humble, how…Miss Eyre, she had been in the following moments. I had gazed down at her as I encased her small, cool hand in mine and fervently wished then I could take her into my arms and claim her for my own, as mine, forever. But she had departed me by virtue of being cold, and I had not lain mine eyes on her from then to now. A most disagreeable interval, I had found.
I did not lay my full gaze on her this night, however, lest it draw the attention of the other present ladies to her. I have found previously in my acquaintance with them that they had it within themselves to be spiteful, even cruel, when they wanted; I did not delude myself that they would look kindly on a governess. I turned instead to the nearest doll forthwith, and opened the first agreeable topic of conversation which I could lay thought upon.
I felt eyes on my back, at that moment, and knew, quite unequivocably, without even requiring to confirm it by sight, that Miss Eyre was now watching me – nay, staring at me. A most cheering thought, though I am certain my companions did not notice my distraction; I was quite thoroughly absorbed by the thought that dear Miss Eyre was bestowing her watchful, penetrating gaze on me.
I wondered what notions were passing through her mind – that singular mind – as she continued to lay her shrewd eyes on me (for I did not need the evidence of my own eyes for that, I could feel it quite as plainly as if she were rather laying one of her small hands flat upon my shoulder). I wondered if she were comparing me to my companions, and if indeed she was, whether she found in my favour or no. I was inclined towards the latter; I am aware, indeed, that I am deemed unhandsome by many – in fact, Miss Eyre told me so the first eve I spoke with her. The swans, the ladies surrounding me, were purposely dressed to their most pleasant state for the evening; I was a thorn on the rosebush of the room. I had not fine features, nor an elegant stance, nor grace nor distinction. My features were stern, harsh, even. I was quite in knowledge of the fact that were I poor and without heritage, I would hold no interest at all for these people and should instead be cast out.
Did Jane feel similarly? Were I to withhold wages would she turn away from me? Did she regard my visage, my figure, with disgust? The thought sent a fair stab of agony lancing through the left side of my chest. But no, that was not my Miss Eyre. She had said herself, beauty is of no consequence – not to her, in any case. And she would not let her eyes linger on me so long, surely, if she were repulsed by what they lingered upon. She must be finding something to merit her study, for study she did.
At this junction, the servants appeared in the drawing room with coffee, and there was distraction to be had; I felt the loss of Miss Eyre’s gaze as keenly as one would feel the lack of fire on a harsh winter’s evening. I felt bodily cooler now I could no longer feel her watching me. I wondered at the sensation, at once strange and unfamiliar, yet not unwelcome.
I drifted towards the hearth as these thoughts traversed through my mind, unconsciously craving the warmth lost to me. Miss Ingram approached, and I endeavoured to focus my attention on her and not to appear as scattered and at sea as I truly was. I was well-practiced at this.
‘Mr. Rochester, I thought you were not fond of children?’ There was open disgust detectable on her features. She was, indeed, intolerant of much, and anything she deemed to be below her – which was nearly everything. I could not, however, deny the charges.
‘Nor am I.’
‘Then, what induced you to take charge of such a little doll as that?’ She pointed at Adele, who was quite enjoying herself, it seemed. ‘Where did you pick her up?’ I nearly laughed at the notion that I had chosen to be saddled with the child, the enfant, as she would say.
‘I did not pick her up; she was left on my hands.’
‘You should have sent her to school.’
‘I could not afford it: schools are so dear.’ Thornfield was as good a place as any for her. She would, at least, breathe life back into the place; the need for a governess would provide company for Mrs Fairfax. Sending her away to school would feel too much as if I were abandoning her, anyway – I may as well have left her to her fate.
‘Why, I suppose you have a governess for her: I saw a person with her just now – is she gone? Oh, no! there she is still, behind the window-curtain. You pay her, of course; I should think it quite as expensive, - more so; for you have them both to keep in addition.’
At the hazy edge of my vision, I saw Miss Eyre shrink back, as if afraid I – or Blanche – would draw attention to her. I found I could not blame her; attention from Blanche would not be of the pleasant sort. I did not presently turn my gaze on her, therefore, and attempted to keep the irritation at the way she spoke of Miss Eyre from my tone. For surely I would have spoken of a governess such before I had met Miss Eyre.
‘I have not considered the subject,’ I replied blandly, keep my eyes facing forwards.
‘No, you men never do consider economy and common sense. You should hear mama on the chapter of governesses: Mary and I have had, I should think, a dozen at least in our day; half of them detestable and the rest ridiculous, and all incubi – were they not, mama?’
I could well imagine the torments and terrors the two Ingram sisters had put them through. I paid no heed to the conversation, until I heard mention of Jane.
‘I noticed her,’ Lady Ingram was saying. ‘I am a judge of physiognomy, and in hers I see all the faults of her class.’
‘What are they, madam?’ I interjected, trying to mask my indignation.
‘I will tell you in your private ear,’ was all the response I got. I had to exert tight control to prevent my eyes rolling to the ceiling.
‘But my curiosity will be past its appetite; it craves food now.’
She referred me to Blanche, who gave a recount of some of the torments I had previously imagined. The subject was tedious to me; I directed my thoughts to keener avenues.
‘Mr Rochester, do you second my motion?’ Blanche asked me, regaining my attention. I had little listened to the chatter, but I could well imagine she was seeking a change of topic. ‘Madam, I support you on this point, as on every other.’
‘Then on me be the onus of bringing it forward. Signior Eduardo, are in voice to-night?’
She wished for some music. I was unsurprised; she rarely let go a chance to show off her accomplishments. ‘Donna Bianca, if you command it, I will be.’
‘Then, signior, I lay on you my sovereign behest to furbish up your lungs and other vocal organs, as they will be wanted on my royal service.’
‘Who would not be the Rizzio of so divine a Mary?’
‘A fig for Rizzio!’ she ejaculated, tossing her head and making her shiny curls bounce as she opened the piano. ‘It is my opinion the fiddler David must have been an insipid sort of fellow; I like black Bothwell better: to my mind a man is nothing without a spice of the devil in him; and history may say what it will of James Hepburn, but I have a notion, he was just the sort of wild, fierce, bandit hero whom I could have consented to gift with my hand.’ How highly she thought of herself. She was without fortune; if it were not for her plentiful good looks, she should surely be as shunned by society as Miss Eyre, as cast out as I would be were it not for my position and my standing.
‘Gentlemen, you hear! Now which of you most resembles Bothwell?’ I asked.
‘I should say the preference lies with you,’ said Colonel Dent.
‘On my honour, I am much obliged to you.’
Miss Ingram was seated and settling herself at the piano now, chattering away as she tinkered on the ivories. She was on fine form, I observed, dominating the conversation and the room without apparent effort, as she liked to do. She continued to rail against the ‘young men of the present day’. The meaning behind her diatribe was pointed and clear. Fortunately, she closed it with a request to myself to sing alongside her piano.
‘Mr. Rochester, now sing, and I will play for you.’
‘I am all obedience.’
‘Here then is a Corsair-song. Know that I dote on Corsairs; and for that reason, sing it con spirit.’
‘Commands from Miss Ingram’s lips would put spirit into a mug of milk and water.’ I watched her flush with pleasure at the words, which in truth fell from my lips with scarce sincerity.
‘Take care, then; if you don’t please me, I will shame you by showing how such things SHOULD be done.’ Not one for modesty, was Blanche.
‘That is offering a premium on incapacity: I shall now endeavour to fail.’
‘Gardez-vous en bien! If you err wilfully, I shall devise a proportionate punishment.’
‘Miss Ingram ought to be clement,’ said I. ‘For she has it in her power to inflict a chastisement beyond mortal endurance.’
‘Pardon me, madam: no need of explanation; your own fine sense must inform you that one of your frowns would be a sufficient substitute for capital punishment.’
‘Sing!’ she ordered, and began to play.
I held the last note with Miss Ingram before letting it fade. She seemed to find great pleasure in the activity of performing a duet with myself, in any case, so I did not begrudge the insistence. And was it not my responsibility, nay, my duty, as host, to see to the merriment of these ladies? It was not a great imposition on myself. It has reached my ears a number of times that I do not have an unpleasant voice.
It was at this moment that I noticed Jane rise from her little secluded corner by the curtain, and slip through a little door to the side of the room, which was nearby the place she had chosen to sit – not a coincidence, I was certain.
Though I could not be certain why, something disquieted me. I felt a nagging in the region of my chest. A desire to speak with Jane, a pleasure she had denied me thus far this evening.
I turned to Miss Ingram. ‘Beg pardon,’ I murmured. ‘I must go and fulfil my role as Master of the house. Pray do not wait for my return to continue your delightful tunes.’
I set down my glass, wiped my mouth, and hastened to the door, certain that none else would have noted Jane’s departure, and thus none would perceive my swift follow to be out of the ordinary. I could not rest until I had spoken with her.
As I exited the dining-room, Jane was knelt at the foot of the staircase, attending to her shoe, I presumed, her head bent. She stood hurriedly at hearing me, and turned. Her face was wan and white, even in the orange candlelight; the nagging in my chest increased. ‘How do you do?’
She blinked. ‘I am very well, sir.’
‘Why did you not come and speak to me in the room?’ I studied her face intently, and noted a flash of fire in her eyes. She wondered, no doubt, why I had not indeed gone to speak to her. I had feared drawing the attention of the ladies to her, but would not tell her as much.
‘I did not wish to disturb you, as you seemed engaged, sir,’ she responded. Only engaged in feeling her gaze on the back of my head, thought I.
‘What have you been doing during my absence?’ I questioned. I had been away a number of weeks and wondered at the change in her during this interval.
‘Nothing particular; teaching Adele as usual.’
‘And getting a good deal paler than you were – as I saw at first sight. What is the matter?’
‘Nothing at all, sir.’
‘Did you take any cold that night you half drowned me?’ And saved my life, at great personal risk.
‘Not the least.’
‘Return to the drawing-room: you are deserting too early.’
‘I am tired, sir.’
I studied her countenance. Such ready answers for all I asked, and yet…and yet. She was quite out of sorts, I observed. Pale and strangely smaller than I remembered. I cursed the presence of my visitors. I longed to know the meaning of this depression.
‘And a little depressed. What about? Tell me.’ I did not expect her to be forthcoming, and I was not surprised, if not a little disappointed.
‘Nothing – nothing, sir. I am not depressed.’ But her face told me otherwise.
‘But I affirm that you are; so much depressed that a few more words would bring tears to your eyes.’ As I observed her, those same eyes did acquire a sheen of moisture. ‘Indeed, they are there now, shining and swimming: and a bead has slipped from the lash and fallen onto the flag. If I had time, and was not in mortal dread of some prating prig of a servant passing, I would know what all this means. Well, to-night I excuse you; but understand that so long as my visitors stay, I expect you to appear in the drawing-room every evening; it is my wish; don’t neglect it. Now go, and send Sophie for Adele. Good-night, my-’ I just barely stopped myself from the next word – darling. I bit down forcefully on my lip, and turned away, knowing that if I lingered any longer, I would not be able to stop myself blurting out something which would drive her away.
I returned to the dining-room, to the distractions of the ladies and their conversation, and attempted to forget what had just passed.