Jane Eyre eText - Chapter XXIX

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Chapter XXIX

THE RECOLLECTION OF about three days and nights succeeding this is very dim in my mind. I can recall some sensations felt in that interval; but few thoughts framed, and no actions performed. I knew I was in a small room, and in a narrow bed. To that bed I seemed to have grown; I lay on it motionless as a stone; and to have torn me from it would have been almost to kill me. I took no note of the lapse of time—of the change from morning to noon, from noon to evening. I observed when any one entered or left the apartment; I could even tell who they were; I could understand what was said when the speaker stood near to me; but I could not answer; to open my lips or move my limbs was equally impossible. Hannah, the servant, was my most frequent visitor. Her coming disturbed me. I had a feeling that she wished me away: that she did not understand me or my circumstances: that she was prejudiced against me. Diana and Mary appeared in the chamber once or twice a day. They would whisper sentences of this sort at my bedside;

“It is very well we took her in.”

“Yes; she would certainly have been found dead at the door in the morning, had she been left out all night. I wonder what she has gone through?”

“Strange hardships, I imagine—poor, emaciated, pallid wanderer!”

“She is not an uneducated person, I should think by her manner of speaking; her accent was quite pure; and the clothes she took off, though splashed and wet, were little worn and fine.”

“She has a peculiar face; fleshless and haggard as it is, I rather like it; and when in good health and animated, I can fancy her physiognomy would be agreeable.”

Never once in their dialogues did I hear a syllable of regret at the hospitality they had extended to me; or of suspicion of, or aversion to, myself. I was comforted.

Mr. St. John came but once: he looked at me, and said my state of lethargy was the result of reaction from excessive and protracted fatigue. He pronounced it needless to send for a doctor: nature, he was sure, would manage best, left to herself. He said every nerve had been overstrained in some way, and the whole system must sleep torpid awhile. There was no disease. He imagined my recovery would be rapid enough when once commenced. These opinions he delivered in a few words, in a quiet, low voice; and added, after a pause, in the tone of a man little accustomed to expansive comment, “rather an unusual physiognomy; certainly, not indicative of vulgarity or degradation.”

“Far otherwise,” responded Diana. “To speak truth, St. John, my heart rather warms to the poor little soul. I wish we may be able to benefit her permanently.”

“That is hardly likely,” was the reply. “You will find she is some young lady who has had a misunderstanding with her friends, and has probably injudiciously left them. We may, perhaps, succeed in restoring her to them, if she is not obstinate: but I trace lines of force in her face which make me skeptical of her tractability.” He stood considering me some minutes; then added, “She looks sensible, but not at all handsome.”

“She is so ill, St. John.”

“Ill or well, she would always be plain. The grace and harmony of beauty are quite wanting in those features.”

On the third day, I was better; on the fourth, I could speak, move, rise in bed, and turn. Hannah had brought me some gruel and dry toast, about as I suppose, the dinner hour. I had eaten with a relish: the food was good—void of the feverish flavour which had hitherto poisoned what I had swallowed. When she left me, I felt comparatively strong and revived: ere long satiety of repose and desire for action stirred me. I wished to rise; but what could I put on? Only my damp and bemired apparel; in which I had slept on the ground and fallen in the marsh. I felt ashamed to appear before my benefactors so clad. I was spared the humiliation.

On a chair by the bedside were all my own things, clean and dry. My black silk frock hung against the wall. The traces of the bog were removed from it; the creases left by the wet smoothed out: it was quite decent. My very shoes and stockings were purified and rendered presentable. There were the means of washing in the room, and a comb and brush to smooth my hair. After a weary process, and resting every five minutes, I succeeded in dressing myself. My clothes hung loose on me; for I was much wasted, but I covered deficiencies with a shawl, and once more, clean and respectable-looking—no speck of the dirt, no trace of the disorder I so hated, and which seemed so to degrade me, left—I crept down a stone staircase with the aid of the banisters, to a narrow low passage, and found my way presently to the kitchen.

It was full of the fragrance of new bread, and the warmth of a generous fire. Hannah was baking. Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilized by education: they grow there firm as weeds among stones. Hannah had been cold and stiff, indeed, at the first: latterly she had begun to relent a little; and when she saw me come in tidy and well-dressed, she even smiled.

“What! have you got up?” she said. “You are better, then. You may sit you down in my chair on the hearthstone, if you will.”

She pointed to the rocking-chair. I took it. She bustled about, examining me every now and then with the corner of her eye. Turning to me, as she took some loaves from the oven, she asked bluntly, “Did you ever go a-begging afore you came here?”

I was indignant for a moment; but remembering that anger was out of the question, and that I had indeed appeared as a beggar to her, I answered quietly, but still not without a certain marked firmness. “You are mistaken in supposing me a beggar; I am no beggar; any more than yourself or your young ladies.”

After a pause, she said, “I dunnut understand that: you have like no house, nor no brass, I guess?”

“The want of house or brass (by which I suppose you mean money) does not make a beggar in your sense of the word.”

“Are you book-learned?” she inquired, presently.

“Yes, very.”

“But you've never been to a boarding-school?”

“I was at a boarding-school eight years.”

She opened her eyes wide.

“Whatever can not ye keep yourself for, then?”

“I have kept myself; and, I trust, shall keep myself again. What are you going to do with these gooseberries?” I inquired, as she brought out a basket of the fruit.

“Mak’ ’em into pies.”

“Give them to me, and I'll pick them.”

“Nay; I dunnut want ye to do naught.”

“But I must do something. Let me have them.”

She consented; and she even brought me a clean towel to spread over my dress, “lest,” as she said, “I should mucky it.”

“Ye've not been used to sarvant's wark, I see by your hands,” she remarked. “Happen ye've been a dressmaker.”

“No; you are wrong. And, now, never mind what I have been: don't trouble your head further about me; but tell me the name of the house where we are.”

“Some calls it Marsh End, and some calls it Moor House.”

“And the gentleman who lives here is called Mr. St. John?”

“Nay; he doesn't live here: he is only staying a while. When he is at home, he is in his own parish at Morton.”

“That village a few miles off?

“Ay.”

“And what is he?”

“He is a parson.”

I remembered the answer of the old housekeeper at the parsonage, when I had asked to see the clergyman. “This, then, was his father's residence?”

“Ay; old Mr. Rivers lived here, and his father, and grandfather, and gurt (great) grandfather afore him.”

“The name, then, of that gentleman, is Mr. St. John Rivers?”

“Ay St. John is like is kirstened name.”

“And his sisters are called Diana and Mary Rivers?”

“Yes.”

“Their father is dead?”

“Dead three weeks sin’ of a stroke.”

“They have no mother?”

“The mistress has been dead this mony a year.”

“Have you lived with the family long?”

“I've lived here thirty year. I nursed them all three.”

“That proves you must have been an honest and faithful servant. I will say so much for you, though you have had the incivility to call me a beggar.”

She again regarded me with a surprised stare. “I believe,” she said, “I was quite mista'en in my thoughts of you: but there is so mony cheats goes about, you mun forgie me.”

“And though,” I continued, rather severely, “you wished to turn me from the door on a night when you should not have shut out a dog.”

“Well, it was hard: but what can a body do? I thought more o’ th’ childer nor of mysel’: poor things! They've like nobody to tak’ care on ’em but me. I'm like to look sharpish.”

I maintained a grave silence for some minutes.

“You munnut think too hardly of me,” she again remarked.

“But I do think hardly of you,” I said; “and I'll tell you why—not so much because you refused to give me shelter, or regarded me as an impostor, as because you just now made it a species of reproach that I had no ‘brass,’ and no house. Some of the best people that ever lived have been as destitute as I am; and if you are a Christian, you ought not to consider poverty a crime.”

“No more I ought,” said she: “Mr. St. John tells me so too; and I see I wor wrang—but I've clear a different notion on you now to what I had. You look a raight down dacent little crater.”

“That will do—I forgive you now. Shake hands.”

She put her floury and horny hand into mine; another and heartier smile illumined her rough face, and from that moment we were friends.

Hannah was evidently fond of talking. While I picked the fruit, and she made the paste for the pies, she proceeded to give me sundry details about her deceased master and mistress, and “the childer,” as she called the young people.

Old Mr. Rivers, she said, was a plain man enough; but a gentleman, and of as ancient a family as could be found. Marsh End had belonged to the Rivers ever since it was a house: and it was, she affirmed, “aboon two hundred year old—for all it looked but a small, humble place, naught to compare wi’ Mr. Oliver's grand hall down i’ Morton Vale. But she could remember Bill Oliver's father a journeyman needle-maker; and th’ Riverses wor gentry i’ thi’ days o’ th’ Henrys, as ony body might see by looking into th’ registers i’ Morton Church vestry.” Still, she allowed, “the owd maister was like other folk—naught mich out o’ t’ common way: stark mad o’ shooting, and farming, and sich-like.” The mistress was different. She was a great reader, and studied a deal; and the “bairns” had taken after her. There was nothing like them in these parts, nor ever had been; they had liked learning, all three, almost from the time they could speak; and they had always been “of a mak’ of their own.” Mr. St. John, when he grew up, would go to college and be a parson; and the girls, as soon as they left school, would seek places as governesses: for they had told her their father had some years ago lost a great deal of money by a man he had trusted turning bankrupt; and as he was now not rich enough to give them fortunes, they must provide for themselves. They had lived very little at home for a long while, and were only come now to stay a few weeks on account of their father's death: but they did so like Marsh End and Morton, and all these moors and hills about. They had been in London, and many other grand towns; but they always said there was no place like home; and then they were so agreeable with each other—never fell out nor “threaped.” She did not know where there was such a family for being united.

Having finished my task of gooseberry-picking, I asked where the two ladies and their brother were now.

“Gone over to Morton for a walk; but they would be back in half an hour for tea.”

They returned within the time Hannah had allotted them: they entered by the kitchen door. Mr. St. John, when he saw me, merely bowed and passed through; the two ladies stopped: Mary, in a few words, kindly and calmly expressed the pleasure she felt in seeing me well enough to be able to come down; and Diana took my hand: she shook her head at me.

“You should have waited for my leave to descend,” she said. “You still look very pale—and so thin! Poor child!—poor girl!”

Diana had a voice toned, to my ear, like the cooing of a dove. She possessed eyes whose gaze I delighted to encounter. Her whole face seemed to me full of charm. Mary's countenance was equally intelligent—her features equally pretty: but her expression was more reserved; and her manners, though gentle, more distant. Diana looked and spoke with a certain authority: she had a will, evidently. It was my nature to feel pleasure in yielding to an authority supported like hers: and to bend, where my conscience and self-respect permitted, to an active will.

“And what business have you here?” she continued. “It is not your place. Mary and I sit in the kitchen sometimes, because at home we like to be free, even to license; but you are a visitor, and must go into the parlor.”

“I am very well here.”

“Not at all—with Hannah bustling about and covering you with flour.”

“Besides, the fire is too hot for you,” interposed Mary.

“To be sure,” added her sister. “Come, you must be obedient.” And still holding my hand, she made me rise, and led me into the inner room.

“Sit there,” she said, placing me on the sofa, “while we take our things off and get the tea ready; it is another privilege we exercise in our little moor-land home—to prepare our own meals when we are so inclined; or when Hannah is baking, brewing, washing, or ironing.”

She closed the door, leaving me solus with Mr. St. John, who sat opposite—a book or newspaper in his hand. I examined, first, the parlor, and then its occupant.

The parlor was rather a small room, very plainly furnished; yet comfortable, because clean and neat. The old-fashioned chairs were very bright, and the walnut-wood table was like a looking-glass. A few strange antique portraits of the men and women of other days decorated the stained walls; a cupboard with glass doors contained some books and an ancient set of china. There was no superfluous ornament in the room—not one modern piece of furniture, save a brace of work-boxes and a lady's desk in rose-wood, which stood on a side-table: every thing—including the carpet and curtains—looked at once well worn and well saved.

Mr. St. John—sitting as still as one of the dusky pictures on the wall; keeping his eyes fixed on the page he perused, and his lips mutely sealed—was easy enough to examine. Had he been a statue instead of a man, he could not have been easier. He was young—perhaps from twenty-eight to thirty—tall, slender; his face riveted the eye; it was like a Greek face, very pure in outline: quite a straight, classic nose; quite an Athenian mouth and chin. It is seldom, indeed, an English face comes so near the antique models as did his. He might well be a little shocked at the irregularity of my lineaments, his own being so harmonious. His eyes were large and blue, with brown lashes; his high forehead, colorless as ivory, was partially streaked over by careless locks of fair hair.

This is a gentle delineation, is it not, reader? Yet he whom it describes scarcely impressed one with the idea of a gentle, a yielding, an impressible, or even of a placid nature. Quiescent as he now sat, there was something about his nostril, his mouth, his brow, which, to my perceptions, indicated elements within either restless, or hard or eager. He did not speak to me one word, nor even direct to me one glance, till his sisters returned. Diana, as she passed in and out, in the course of preparing tea, brought me a little cake, baked on the top of the oven.

“Eat that now,” she said: “you must be hungry. Hannah says you have had nothing but some gruel since breakfast.”

I did not refuse it, for my appetite was awakened and keen. Mr. Rivers now closed his book, approached the table, and, as he took a seat, fixed his blue pictorial-looking eyes full on me. There was an unceremonious directness, a searching, decided steadfastness in his gaze now, which told that intention, and not diffidence, had hitherto kept it averted from the stranger.

“You are very hungry,” he said.

“I am, sir.” It is my way—it always was my way—by instinct—ever to meet the brief with brevity, the direct with plainness.

“It is well for you that a low fever has forced you to abstain for the last three days: there would have been danger in yielding to the cravings of your appetite at first. Now you may eat, though still not immoderately.”

“I trust I shall not eat long at your expense, sir,” was my very clumsily-contrived, unpolished answer.

“No,” he said, coolly: “when you have indicated to us the residence of your friends, we can write to them, and you may be restored to home.”

“That, I must plainly tell you, is out of my power to do; being absolutely without home and friends.”

The three looked at me, but not distrustfully; I felt there was no suspicion in their glances: there was more of curiosity. I speak particularly of the young ladies. St. John's eyes, though clear enough in a literal sense, in a figurative one were difficult to fathom. He seemed to use them rather as instruments to search other people's thoughts, than as agents to reveal his own: the which combination of keenness and reserve was considerably more calculated to embarrass than to encourage.

“Do you mean to say,” he asked, “that you are completely isolated from every connection?”

“I do. Not a tie links me to any living thing: not a claim do I possess to admittance under any roof in England.”

“A most singular position at your age!”

Here I saw his glance directed to my hands, which were folded on the table before me. I wondered what he sought there; his words soon explained the quest.

“You have never been married? You are a spinster?”

Diana laughed.

“Why, she can't he above seventeen or eighteen years old, St. John,” said she.

“I am near nineteen: but I am not married. No.”

I felt a burning glow mount to my face, for bitter and agitating recollections were awakened by the allusion to marriage. They all saw the embarrassment, and the emotion. Diana and Mary relieved me by turning their eyes elsewhere than to my crimsoned visage; but the colder and sterner brother continued to gaze, till the trouble he had excited forced out tears as well as color.

“Where did you last reside?” he now asked.

“You are too inquisitive, St. John,” murmured Mary, in a low voice; but he leaned over the table and required an answer, by a second firm and piercing look.

“The name of the place where, and of the person with whom I lived, is my secret,” I replied, concisely.

“Which, if you like, you have, in my opinion, a right to keep, both from St. John and every other questioner,” remarked Diana.

“Yet if I know nothing about you or your history, I can not help you,” he said. “And you need help, do you not?”

“I need it, and I seek it; so far, sir, that some true philanthropist will put me in the way of getting work which I can do, and the remuneration for which will keep me: if but in the barest necessaries of life.”

“I know not whether I am a true philanthropist; yet I am willing to aid you to the utmost of my power in a purpose so honest. First, then, tell me what you have been accustomed to do, and what you can do.”

I had now swallowed my tea. I was mightily refreshed by the beverage; as much so as a giant with wine: it gave new tone to my unstrung nerves, and enabled me to address this penetrating young judge steadily.

“Mr. Rivers,” I said, turning to him, and looking at him, as he looked at me, openly and without diffidence, “you and your sisters have done me a great service—the greatest man can do his fellow- being; you have rescued me, by your noble hospitality, from death. This benefit conferred gives you an unlimited claim on my gratitude; and a claim, to a certain extent, on my confidence. I will tell you as much of the history of the wanderer you have harbored as I can tell without compromising my own peace of mind—my own security, moral and physical, and that of others.

“I am an orphan, the daughter of a clergyman. My parents died before I could know them. I was brought up a dependant; educated in a charitable institution. I will even tell you the name of the establishment, where I passed six years as a pupil, and two as a teacher—Lowood Orphan Asylum, —shire: you will have heard of it, Mr. Rivers? The Rev. Robert Brocklehurst is the treasurer.”

“I have heard of Mr. Brocklehurst, and I have seen the school.”

“I left Lowood nearly a year since, to become a private governess. I obtained a good situation, and was happy. This place I was obliged to leave four days before I came here. The reason of my departure I can not and ought not to explain: it would be useless—dangerous; and would sound incredible. No blame attached to me: I am as free from culpability as any one of you three. Miserable I am, and must be for a time; for the catastrophe which drove me from a house I had found a paradise was of a strange and direful nature. I observed but two points in planning my departure—speed, secrecy: to secure these, I had to leave behind me everything I possessed except a small parcel; which, in my hurry and trouble of mind, I forgot to take out of the coach that brought me to Whitcross. To this neighborhood, then, I came, quite destitute. I slept two nights in the open air, and wandered about two days without crossing a threshold: but twice in that space of time did I taste food; and it was when brought by hunger, exhaustion and despair, almost to the last gasp, that you, Mr. Rivers, forbade me to perish of want at your door, and took me under the shelter of your roof. I know all your sisters have done for me since—for I have not been insensible during my seeming torpor—and I owe to their spontaneous, genuine, genial compassion, as large a debt as to your evangelical charity.”

“Don't make her talk any more now, St. John,” said Diana, as I paused; “she is evidently not yet fit for excitement. Come to the sofa and sit down now, Miss Elliott.”

I gave an involuntary half-start at hearing the alias.

I had forgotten my new name. Mr. Rivers, whom nothing seemed to escape, noticed it at once.

“You said your name was Jane Elliott?” he observed.

“I did say so; and it is the name by which I think it expedient to be called at present: but it is not my real name, and when I hear it, it sounds strange to me.”

“Your real name you will not give?”

“No: I fear discovery above all things; and whatever disclosure would lead to it I avoid.”

“You are quite right, I am sure,” said Diana. “Now do, brother, let her be at peace a while.”

But when St. John had mused a few moments he recommenced as imperturbably and with as much acumen as ever.

“You would not like to be long dependent on our hospitality—you would wish, I see, to dispense as soon as may be with my sisters’ compassion; and, above all, with my charity (I am quite sensible of the distinction drawn, nor do I resent it—it is just): you desire to be independent of us?”

“I do: I have already said so. Show me how to work, or how to seek work: that is all I now ask; then let me go, if it be but to the meanest cottage—but till then, allow me to stay here: I dread another essay of the horrors of homeless destitution.”

“Indeed, you shall stay here,” said Diana, putting her white hand on my head.

“You shall,” repeated Mary, in the tone of undemonstrative sincerity which seemed natural to her.

“My sisters, you see, have a pleasure in keeping you,” said Mr. St. John, “as they would have a pleasure in keeping and cherishing a half-frozen bird some wintry wind might have driven through their casement. I feel more inclination to put you in the way of keeping yourself, and shall endeavor to do so: but observe, my sphere is narrow. I am but the incumbent of a poor country parish: my aid must be of the humblest sort. And if you are inclined to despise the day of small things, seek some more efficient succor than such as I can offer.”

“She has already said that she is willing to do any thing honest she can do,” answered Diana, for me; “and you know, St. John, she has no choice of helpers: she is forced to put up with such crusty people as you.”

“I will be a dress-maker; I will be a plain work woman; I will be a servant, a nurse-girl, if I can be no better,” I answered.

“Right,” said Mr. St. John, quite cooly. “If such is your spirit I promise to aid you; in my own time and way.”

He now resumed the book with which he had been occupied before tea. I soon withdrew; for I had talked as much and sat up as long as my present strength would permit.