I can still see the fire when I close my eyes. The flames high against the night sky, the smoke-filled passage, the crack-crack sound of everything burning. I’m not likely to forget it soon.
The House of Lies was destroyed by its own deception, I could have said. But that would have been a lie as well. The truth is much less poetic. The fire that tore down Thornfield Hall was an accident. An enormously stupid mistake on my part, but that is the truth. They tell me it wasn’t my fault. “You were sleeping in your chair when the fire started,” she says. Young Lord Ingram claims we can’t go around worrying about every single little candle. But I’m not so sure. I should have been more cautious, I should have taken that candle away. Worst I would have had to deal with would have been the master’s anger or a fellow servant’s annoyance. And I swear to god who made me, I didn’t have a drop of drink that night. I have never denied I liked a drink or two—or the whole bottle. But that night, the night Thornfield Hall burned, I was sober.
I was so tired. Working at Thornfield took its toll on me. I had been looking after that wretched woman for ten years. Ten years locked in the inner room of the attic for being what she was; that was her life. Anyone deprived of freedom for so long would have gone mad. Frequently she would scream and tear her hair out. On good days, she used to sit in the armchair or on the floor and rocked herself to and fro, but on bad days… oh god, the bad days! I was so weary. And there was nothing for her, only more years of imprisonment.
I took this position all those years ago, little suspecting how it would turn out. A letter was received at the Grimsby Retreat, where I lived and worked, from Mr Rochester of Thornfield Hall, near Leeds, seeking to hire a nurse and I was recommended. I travelled to Thornfield Hall, met Mr Rochester and my new charge and told what my responsibilities would be. It wasn’t my place to ask why he brought his wife all the way from Jamaica to his home in England only to hide her and keep up an appearance of a bachelor. The pay was good. I needed something to do. I had just lost my husband and left my young son Robert with the Quakers. And Mrs Rochester was not like any other patient I had worked with before. She interested me.
In the beginning, she would sit in a chair without a word, staring into nothingness. With time she opened up to me. “Antoinette…” were her first words whispered to me, “my name is Antoinette… remember that… Grace.” My master called her Bertha, I don’t know why. Antoinette was her middle name, but as I understood, she always preferred it to Bertha and that’s how everyone knew her back home. She was beautiful then, with deep dark eyes and skin that made me think of faraway places. A decade spent locked in the attic made her face all puffy, her eyes bloodshot and her skin and hair lost their shine.
I found out she liked books and during the early years, I would smuggle her volumes from the library. Then she stopped reading. Just like that, without warning, she didn’t want to read any more. I was sorry.
My duty was to look after her, detached. To make sure she had food and water and stayed in the attic. And to make sure nobody knew.
It wasn’t for me to pity the mad wife. It wasn’t for me to grow to care about her. But I did.
That was the reason I couldn’t resign my position. Who would look after her after I was gone? There was nobody in the whole country as capable as me, nobody. Even if I did like a drink. They would be cruel to her, I was sure, maybe even hurt her. I couldn’t allow that.
But there was nothing I could do for her.
And there was nothing I could do for myself. Ten years looking after the woman in the attic, I oft felt quite as mad as her.
Desperation, coupled with grief over the death of my dear sister Agnes, eight years after my arrival to Thornfield Hall, made me reach for the bottle more often. If only I could tell someone of my ordeal! But letting the secret of the attic out would do no good, not after so many years. Mr Rochester was good to me, he never scolded me for my drinking. I could not speak to anyone at Thornfield, for the other servants respected me greatly. I always wore a mask of cool calmness anytime I entered the kitchen or the servants’ hall. I excelled at that art, I mastered it a long time ago. They only suspected half of the reality of the attic, a vague story of a relative, a cousin or maybe even a bastard sister, prone to hysteria. No doubt they were a little scared of me too. I liked that.
The housekeeper, Mrs Fairfax, didn’t know either. She was a kind, honourable, god-fearing woman. She would not be able to bear the sordid details of the attic.
Who, then, was here to listen to me? Outside presented few opportunities. I didn’t get out much, apart from monthly trips to the bank in Leeds. The bank clerks are not the kind of folk you confide secrets to. The vicar? Out of the question. I didn’t wish to bring trouble on the master. I only needed to pour my heart out. The nature of my work didn’t allow for friends and I was loath to worry my son. The local innkeeper would only gossip. My dear Agnes was dead and buried. If only I had told her while she lived! Now, there was no one, no one… God may have listened, or he may have not. Oh Lord, forgive me my sins.
So it remained the bottle of gin.