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An Utterly Impractical Magician

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1

 

The book of Thomas Godbless

 

Gateshead House, November 1804

 

 

 

The widow Sarah Reed of Gateshead House was considered by all her acquaintance to be an exceedingly fashionable woman.

Her clothing and speech were always chosen with the utmost care, in accordance with the latest London fashions. Even her remote Yorkshire home, though it could of course not be held accountable for its unfortunate location, was considered perfectly lovely by all the great London ladies. The rooms were well-appointed in all the latest colors. The fabrics and drapes were all of the latest patterns and styles. The furnishings were arranged to create the most charming settings for morning chats and merry luncheons and afternoon teas and grand dinners.

Even her library was well-stocked with a great many titles, all pleasingly coordinated by subject and author and color of binding — though, in accordance with the very latest fashion, Mrs Reed had only the most perfectly superficial appreciation of her collection. In fact, the only book in her great library that ever received much of that fashionable lady’s attention at all was Proscriptions for the Care and Correction of Children by James Wallace Digby, by which she hoped to ensure her children would always do her as much credit as her hat or her mantelpiece.

Though Digby’s book was filled with all manner of valuable lessons and instructive anecdotes, Mrs Reed was in truth far too weak-willed and changeable a woman to make much real use of it. John Reed, Mrs Reed’s eldest and only son, was always well-dressed, and he stood with the bearing of a young gentleman, but he was prone to fits of temper and destructive tantrums. Miss Eliza Reed was pleasing enough to look at, but spent most of her energy imitating her mother’s fashionable whims and hiding from her French tutor. And Miss Georgiana Reed, a doll-like little creature with manners that charmed all her mother’s friends, had little in the way of independent thought, and was easily swayed to either good or ill by her elder siblings, as she could not tell the difference between such acts herself. In spite of their shortcomings, the Reed children were pretty and quiet in company - much like her hat - and so Mrs Reed felt she was quite free to be exceedingly fond of them.

But Mrs Reed had in her charge one other child — Jane Eyre, the favorite niece of her late husband — and this child was as far from her aunt’s ideal as it was possible for a child to be. All those shortcomings to which Mrs Reed was blind in her own children, became glaringly obvious to her in Jane Eyre. Perpetually pale and thin, Jane lacked her cousins’ lively spirits. She seemed to her aunt unwilling to be pleased with anything, and she argued back when she had much better remain silent. Indeed, poor Mrs Reed could scarcely speak in the girl’s presence without being forced to hear how unfair a thing was, or how a thing was really John Reed’s fault, or how Eliza put Georgiana up to it, or how any one or all of her natural children had started the whole affair, and Jane was merely defending herself, or trying to fix it, or uninvolved entirely. The lies she concocted to escape blame never failed to shock Mrs Reed: if it wasn’t the fault of one of the other children, it was that of faeries or ghosts or talking trees!

Her deepest fear was that John or her girls should pick up on Jane’s nonsense. Little harm could come from it in the case of the girls, as ladies were simply not magicians. But John was beginning to talk of possible careers, and his mother could not bear the idea that he might pursue magic, as Jane’s late father had done. She was not sure which would be worse: the stuffy, reclusive theoretical magician, who was prone to unkempt hair and a decided thickness about the middle, or the yellow-curtained vagabonding magician, with his rotted teeth and ragged hat. She shuddered to think on it. So she did her level best to discourage Jane’s fascination with magic, and if her children did not get on with their cousin either, then Mrs Reed was content to turn a blind eye — in the interest of their future happiness, of course.

Jane, for her own part, was quite content to pass the majority of her time in solitary reading.

Another rainy, dreary day in November had forced Jane and her cousins indoors yet again. Jane did not mind the weather in the least, but six days of rain had put John Reed in an increasingly foul temper. Fearful of becoming the object of his ire, Jane had built herself a little makeshift fortress in the library’s window seat. The thick curtains blocked the fire’s warmth, leaving only the chill from the rain-speckled window to pool around her little body, but this was a favorite hiding place of hers. No matter how many times she chose it, her dimwitted cousins never thought to check it first. Even if John was searching for her already, she should have an hour or perhaps more, before he thought to look behind the curtain. She pulled a shawl from its hiding place beneath the cushion and wrapped it around her shoulders. The cushion, she wedged up along the window to guard against the damp glass, and she settled back in the warmth of a stray sunbeam with her favorite book.

The book of Thomas Godbless had no title. A rather enigmatic swirl of gold leaf instead graced the front cover. Whenever Jane ran her fingers over it, she fancied she could almost understand whatever word that swirl was supposed to represent, like a voice half-heard in another room. It was magic, Jane was certain of it. The same magic that returned the book safely to the library every time Mrs Reed removed it. Thomas Godbless was supposed to be illiterate — several of her father’s other books about magic said as much — so Jane had come to the happy conclusion only a few weeks prior that the book was written by magic, perhaps even with the assistance of Godbless’ fairy servant, Dick-Come-Tuesday. She murmured the fairy’s name, reveling in the whimsy of it, and swore she could feel the book quiver in answer.

She opened the book carefully, ever mindful of the imperfect stitching of its pages, and lost herself in its eccentric spellings and emphatic flourishes.

“Little Rat,” came John Reed’s voice, singsong in the hallway. Jane started and dropped the book, which hit the floor with a resounding thud. “Madam Mope!” John Reed tore the curtain back from Jane’s hiding place. “There you are! Reading again, of course.” He snatched up her book before she could and held it up out of her reach, regarding it with a sneer.

“Give it back!” cried Jane.

Her cousin flipped carelessly through the pages, clearly enjoying the way she cringed at his treatment of the book. “Beg me,” said John. When she did not obey immediately, he turned the book to dangle it by its green leather covers. Jane lunged for the book, but he shook it menacingly, and two pages slipped out of their binding.

“Please, give it back, John.”

He clicked his tongue in disapproval and shook the book again. More pages drifted to the floor, rustling like autumn leaves. “I am Master Reed to you, Pest.”

“Please, Master Reed,” said Jane, with as much subservience as her bold little heart could muster. “Please, give me my book.”

For a moment, Jane thought he meant to return it. He closed the covers and collected the loose pages, tucking them neatly inside, but then everything was stars, and there was a sharp pain in the side of her face. He’d struck her with the heavy volume. “It is not your book, Worm,” said John. He seized her arm to make sure she was paying attention to his next words. “Everything here belongs to me, and I think this looks a great deal like kindling.”

He flung the book into the fireplace.

With a scream, Jane shoved him away. He struck his head on the library table, but Jane scarcely noticed. She threw herself down on the hearth, intent on rescuing her beloved book. Jane plucked a large portion of the book out of the flames, but saw to her dismay that the pages that fell out were entirely blank. Horrified, she looked back to the pages still curling in the flames and frantically pulled them out. Those pages too, had gone blank, but in the sparks and embers and flames flickering around her fingers, she could almost see the words. Could almost hear them in the crackle and pop of the logs. She gasped and inhaled a great mouthful of ashes.

The hot ash was everywhere, in her mouth and nose, her eyes, muffling her hearing. Jane blinked hard to clear her vision, and suddenly, the library was gone. In its place was a vast landscape of open, flat moors and endless, flat sky. Jane felt as if she were a flower, pressed between the pages of some great book, preserved, rather than destroyed by the pressure. A wind rose up, smelling of old paper and dusty leather, and the rustling of the heather became a million million whispering voices. The flat sky became a fathomless depth above her, filling with clouds carried in on the wind. Every curve of cloud was a flourish of ink on the vast page of the sky. Then it was raining, and every drop was a word she could almost understand. The wind whipped around her, pulling the pins from her hair and making a pennant of it. The rain soaked her dress, turning its soft red the color of blood. Then the rain was not rain at all, but ink, and she was black with it: her dress, her arms, her hair.

And then she was back in the library. The howl of the wind became John Reed wailing for his Mama and Jane screaming for her book. Bessie dragged her away from the fire grate, her strong arms wrapped around Jane’s thin waist. Jane’s dress was soaked, and her arms, still stretched desperately toward the flames, were black. The hair straggling in front of her face was black as well. She froze in Bessie’s grip, paralyzed by fright.

She’d just done magic. That other place, with its ink-filled sky, it had been magic, or the place where the magic came from. She wasn’t entirely sure. But in spite of the magic, the book was gone. Pages lay scattered around the grate, blank and half-burnt, and everything was covered in a fine sheen of ash. Jane let out a hoarse sob as Mrs Reed flew into the room and went at once to her son’s side.

“My darling boy,” cried Mrs Reed, her hands fluttering ineffectually about her son’s wounded head. “What happened?”

John Reed raised one quivering hand to point accusingly at his cousin.

“Whatever has that little devil done to you this time?” She didn’t wait for an answer before she rounded on Bessie, who was still working to restrain Jane. “Call for a doctor! And get her out of here! Put her in the Red Room, and have one of the footmen do it, if you can’t manage her yourself.”

The Red Room, as its rather unimaginative name suggested, was a bedroom Mrs Reed had done up entirely in her late husband’s favorite color. It had been his bedroom before his death, and afterward, she hadn’t the heart to change a thing, in spite of numerous updates to the decor of the rest of the house. Mr Reed’s favorite books still lined the little bookshelf in the corner; his clothing still rested inside the bureau; his armchair beside the window still smelled faintly of cigar smoke when the sun warmed the fabric of the cushions. So little had the room changed in the years since her Uncle Reed’s death, that Jane felt quite certain his spirit had lingered too, long after his body had been removed.

Thomas the footman carried Jane to the Red Room, deposited her in the middle of the floor, and fled the room at once, fearful of the usual tantrum this treatment inspired. He locked the door hastily behind himself, but for the first time in her life, Jane had fears that outweighed those of disturbing her uncle’s restless spirit. Her book was gone. It would not be coming back, of that much she was sure. The painful state of her hands dashed any hope that the ancient pages might have survived the flames. Equally certain was the fact that she had somehow become entangled with magic.

A flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye had her heart jumping in her chest. A tiny creature of ink and blood was staring at her from over the dressing table. As its mismatched eyes widened, and a blackened hand rose to its mouth in horror, Jane realized it was her own reflection in the mirror. She had become some fae creature, the changeling child her aunt had always feared. The now odd-eyed stare proved it. Where once her eyes had both been a warm, if unremarkable, brown, the left was now a pale ash grey.

Ink dripped from the singed ends of her hair and streaked blackly from her eyes, and Jane had the notion that she should melt on the spot, become nothing more than an ink stain marring the painfully cheerful rose pattern of the rug. The thought conjured an image of her aunt’s face, and the horror that would no doubt contort her features if she were to find that Jane’s final act in this world was to ruin her beloved rug. She choked, torn halfway between a laugh and a sob, and sank to the floor in a heap of sodden fabric.

As panic gave way to exhaustion, the pain in her hands began to make itself known in earnest. It began as a dull throb in time with her heartbeat, but it quickly grew to the point that Jane felt certain her hands must still be aflame. She bit her lip and wiped them clear of the blackness - soot, she discovered, not ink - using her wet skirt as a handkerchief. She only managed a few fingers before the pain, and a cluster of sparks around the edge of her vision, forced her to stop.

Her head whipped up, but the fireplace was cold. It was always cold, ever since Uncle Reed had slept his last night there.

Sparks flared again in the corner of her eye, by the armchair this time, and Jane staggered to her feet. More sparks by the bed, then by the bureau, then flickering across the ceiling. More and more sparks, until everything in the room was limned in dancing light. It was the fire, Jane was sure of it. The fire that had tasted her hands and consumed her book, had come back to claim the rest of her.

She raced to the door and beat frantically upon it, heedless of the pain in her hands, as she screamed for Thomas to let her out, or for Bessie to come and get her, or anyone at all to come and put out the fire. Bessie at last threw open the door in a great panic, knocking Jane to the floor.

“Oh, Miss Jane!” said Bessie. “What a scream! Whatever is the matter?”

But Jane’s tongue tangled on the taste of ashes, and she could not make the words come, only strangled-sounding sobs. She could barely see Bessie for the sparks filling her vision. She crawled toward the door and clawed her way back to her feet, clinging to Bessie’s black skirt as if it could save her from the fire.

Footsteps in the outer passage announced the arrival of someone else. “What is going on here?” demanded Mrs Reed. “Bessie! I’m surprised at you! The doctor is in with John, and all this screaming and carrying on is disturbing his work. I believe I told you I would fetch Jane from the Red Room myself when I was prepared to deal with her behavior.”

“You did, ma’am,” Bessie confirmed over Jane’s continued hysterics, beginning to push her away from the door, back into the Red Room. Jane wailed, and the sparks flared bright, eating away everything in sight. Her last panicked thought before consciousness fled her was that they would all burn.