THE NEXT DAY commenced as before, getting up and dressing by rushlight; but this morning we were obliged to dispense with the ceremony of washing: the water in the pitchers was frozen. A change had taken place in the weather the preceding evening, and a keen northeast wind, whistling through the crevices of our bedroom windows all night long, had made us shiver in our bed, and turned the contents of the ewers to ice.
Before the long hour and a half of prayers and Bible reading was over, I felt ready to perish with cold. Breakfast-time came at last, and this morning the porridge was not burned; the quality was eatable, the quantity small; how small my portion seemed! I wished it had been doubled.
In the course of the day I was enrolled a member of the fourth class, and regular tasks and occupations were assigned me: hitherto I had only been a spectator of the proceedings at Lowood, I was now to become an actor therein. At first, being little accustomed to learn by heart, the lessons appeared to me both long and difficult: the frequent change from task to task, too, bewildered me; and I was glad when, about three o'clock in the afternoon, Miss Smith put into my hands a border of muslin two yards long, together with needle, thimble, etc., and sent me to sit in a quiet corner of the school-room, with directions to hem the same. At that hour most of the others were sewing likewise; but one class still stood round Miss Scatcherd's chair reading, and as all was quiet, the subject of their lessons could be heard, together with the manner in which each girl acquitted herself, and the animadversions or commendations of Miss Scatcherd on the performance. It was English history: among the readers I observed my acquaintance of the veranda: at the commencement of the lesson, her place had been at the top of the class, but for some error of pronunciation or some inattention to stops, she was suddenly sent to the very bottom. Even in that obscure position, Miss Scatcherd continued to make her an object of constant notice: she was continually addressing to her such phrases as the following.
“Burns (such, it seems, was her name: the girls here were called by their surnames, as boys are elsewhere), Burns, you are standing on the side of your shoe, turn your toes out immediately.” “Burns, you poke your chin most unpleasantly; draw it in.” “Burns, I insist on your holding your head up; I will not have you before me in that attitude.” etc., etc.
A chapter having been read through twice, the books were closed and the girls examined. The lesson had comprised part of the reign of Charles I., and there were sundry questions about tonnage and poundage, and ship-money, which most of them appeared unable to answer; still, every little difficulty was solved instantly when it reached Burns; her memory seemed to have retained the substance of the whole lesson, and she was ready with answers on every point. I kept expecting that Miss Scatcherd would praise her attention; but, instead of that she suddenly called out:
“You dirty, disagreeable girl! you have never cleaned your nails this morning!”
Burns made no answer; I wondered at her silence.
“Why,” thought I, “does she not explain that she could neither clean her nails nor wash her face, as the water was frozen?”
My attention was now called off by Miss Smith desiring me to hold a skein of thread: while she was winding it, she talked with me from time to time, asking whether I had ever been at school before, whether I could mark, stitch, knit, etc.; till she dismissed me, I could not pursue my observations on Miss Scatcherd's movements. When I returned to my seat, that lady was just delivering an order, of which I did not catch the import; but Burns immediately left the class, and, going into the small inner room where the books were kept, returned in half a minute, carrying in her hand a bundle of twigs tied together at one end. This ominous tool she presented to Miss Scatcherd with a respectful courtesy; then she quietly, and without being told, unloosed her pinafore, and the teacher instantly and sharply inflicted on her neck a dozen strokes with the bunch of twigs. Not a tear rose to Burns’ eye; and, while I paused from my sewing, because my fingers quivered at this spectacle with a sentiment of unavailing and impotent anger, not a feature of her pensive face altered its ordinary expression.
“Hardened girl!” exclaimed Miss Scatcherd; “nothing can correct you of your slatternly habits: carry the rod away.”
Burns obeyed: I looked at her narrowly as she emerged from the book-closet; she was just putting back her handkerchief into her pocket, and the trace of a tear glistened on her thin cheek.
The play-hour in the evening I thought the pleasantest fraction of the day at Lowood; the bit of bread, the draught of coffee swallowed at five o'clock, had revived vitality, if it had not satisfied hunger; the long restraint of the day was slackened; the school-room felt warmer than in the morning—its fires being allowed to burn a little more brightly to supply, in some measure, the place of candles, not yet introduced; the ruddy gloaming, the licensed uproar, the confusion of many voices, gave one a welcome sense of liberty.
On the evening of the day on which I had seen Miss Scatcherd flog her pupil, Burns, I wandered as usual among the forms and tables and laughing groups without a companion, yet not feeling lonely: when I passed the windows, I now and then lifted a blind and looked out; it snowed fast, a drift was already forming against the lower panes; putting my ear close to the window, I could distinguish from the gleeful tumult within the disconsolate moan of the wind outside.
Probably, if I had lately left a good home and kind parents this would have been the hour when I should most keenly have regretted the separation: that wind would then have saddened my heart; this obscure chaos would have disturbed my peace; as it was, I derived, from both a strange excitement, and reckless and feverish, I wished the wind to howl more wildly, the gloom to deepen to darkness, and the confusion to rise to clamor.
Jumping over forms, and creeping under tables, I made my way to one of the fire-places; there, kneeling by the high wire fender, I found Burns, absorbed, silent, abstracted from all round her by the companionship of a book, which she read by the dim glare of the embers.
“Is it still ‘Rasselas’?” I asked, coming behind her.
“Yes,” she said, “and I have just finished it.”
And in five minutes more she shut it up. I was glad of this.
“Now,” thought I, “I can perhaps get her to talk.” I sat down by her on the floor.
“What is your name besides Burns?”
“Do you come a long way from here?”
“I come from a place farther north; quite on the borders of Scotland.”
“Will you ever go back?”
“I hope so; but nobody can be sure of the future.”
“You must wish to leave Lowood?”
“No; why should I? I was sent to Lowood to get an education; and it would be of no use going away until I have attained that object.”
“But that teacher, Miss Scatcherd, is so cruel to you?”
“Cruel? Not at all! She is severe: she dislikes my faults.”
“And if I were in your place I should dislike her; I should resist her; if she struck me with that rod, I should get it from her hand; I should break it under her nose.”
“Probably you would do nothing of the sort; but if you did, Mr. Brocklehurst would expel you from the school; that would be a great grief to your relations. It is far better to endure patiently a smart which nobody feels but yourself, than to commit a hasty action whose evil consequences will extend to all connected with you; and besides, the Bible bids us return good for evil.”
“But then it seems disgraceful to be flogged, and to be sent to stand in the middle of a room full of people; and you are such a great girl: I am far younger than you, and I could not bear it.”
“Yet it would be your duty to bear it, if you could not avoid it: it is weak and silly to say you can not bear what it is your fate to be required to bear.”
I heard her with wonder: I could not comprehend this doctrine of endurance; and still less could I understand or sympathize with the forbearance she expressed for her chastiser. Still I felt that Helen Burns considered things by a light invisible to my eyes. I suspected she might be right and I wrong; but I would not ponder the matter deeply: like Felix, I put it off to a more convenient season.
“You say you have faults, Helen; what are they? To me you seem very good.”
“Then learn from me, not to judge by appearances: I am, as Miss Scatcherd said, slatternly: I seldom put, and never keep, things in order; I am careless; I forget rules; I read when I should learn my lessons; I have no method; and sometimes I say, like you, I cannot bear to be subjected to systematic arrangements. This is all very provoking to Miss Scatcherd, who is naturally neat, punctual, and particular.”
“And cross and cruel,” I added; but Helen Burns would not admit my addition: she kept silence.
“Is Miss Temple as severe to you as Miss Scatcherd?”
At the utterance of Miss Temple's name, a soft smile flitted over her grave face.
“Miss Temple is full of goodness: it pains her to be severe to any one, even the worst in the school: she sees my errors, and tells me of them gently; and if I do anything worthy of praise, she gives me my meed liberally. One strong proof of my wretchedly defective nature is, that even her expostulations, so mild, so rational, have not influence to cure me of my faults; and even her praise, though I value it most highly, can not stimulate me to continued care and foresight.”
“This is curious,” said I: “It is so easy to be careful.”
“For you I have no doubt it is. I observed you in your class this morning, and saw you were closely attentive: your thoughts never seemed to wander while Miss Miller explained the lesson and questioned you. Now, mine continually rove away: when I should be listening to Miss Scatcherd, and collecting all she says with assiduity, often I lose the very sound of her voice; I fall into a sort of dream. Sometimes I think I am in Northumberland, and that the noises I hear round me are the bubbling of a little brook which runs through Deepden, near our house; then, when it comes to my turn to reply, I have to be wakened; and, having heard nothing of what was read for listening to the visionary brook, I have no answer ready.”
“Yet, how well you replied this afternoon.”
“It was mere chance: the subject on which we had been reading interested me. This afternoon, instead of dreaming of Deepden, I was wondering how a man who wished to do right could act so unjustly and unwisely as Charles the First sometimes did; and I thought what a pity it was that, with his integrity and conscientiousness, he could see no farther than the prerogatives of the crown. If he had but been able to look to a distance, and see to what they call the spirit of the age was tending! Still, I like Charles—I respect him—I pity him, poor murdered king! Yes, his enemies were the worst: they shed blood they had no right to shed. How dared they kill him?”
Helen was talking to herself now: she had forgotten I could not very well understand her—that I was ignorant, or nearly so, of the subject she discussed. I recalled her to my level.
“And when Miss Temple teaches you, do your thoughts wander then?”
“No, certainly, not often; because Miss Temple has generally something to say which is newer than my own reflections: her language is singularly agreeable to me, and the information she communicates is often just what I wished to gain.”
“Well, then, with Miss Temple you are good?”
“Yes, in a passive way: I make no effort; I follow as inclination guides me. There is no merit in such goodness.”
“A great deal: you are good to those who are good to you. It is all I ever desire to be. If people were always kind and obedient to those who are cruel and unjust, the wicked people would have it all their own way: they would never feel afraid, and so they would never alter, but would grow worse and worse. When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard; I am sure we should—so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do so again.”
“You will change your mind, I hope, when you grow older: as yet you are but a little untaught girl.”
“But I feel this, Helen: I must dislike those who, whatever I do to please them, persist in disliking me; I must resist those who punish me unjustly. It is as natural as that I should love those who show me affection, or submit to punishment when I feel it is deserved.”
“Heathens and savage tribes hold that doctrine; but Christians and civilized nations disown it.”
“How? I don't understand.”
“It is not violence that best overcomes hate—nor vengeance that most certainly heals injury.”
“Read the New Testament, and observe what Christ says, and how he acts; make his word your rule, and his conduct your example.”
“What does he say?”
“Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; do good to them that hate you and despitefully use you.”
“Then I should love Mrs. Reed, which I cannot do; I should bless her son John, which is impossible.”
In her turn, Helen Burns asked me to explain; and I proceeded forthwith to pour out, in my own way, the tale of my sufferings and resentments. Bitter and truculent when excited, I spoke as I felt, without reserve or softening.
Helen heard me patiently to the end; I expected she would then make a remark, but she said nothing.
“Well,” I asked impatiently, “is not Mrs. Reed a hard-hearted, bad woman?”
“She has been unkind to you, no doubt; because, you see, she dislikes your cast of character, as Miss Scatcherd does mine: but how minutely you remember all she has done and said to you! What a singularly deep impression her injustice seems to have made on your heart! No ill-usage so brands its record on my feelings. Would you not be happier if you tried to forget her severity, together with the passionate emotions it excited? Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity, or registering wrongs. We are, and must be, one and all, burdened with faults in this world: but the time will soon come when, I trust, we shall put them off in putting off our corruptible bodies; when debasement and sin will fall from us with this cumbrous frame of flesh, and only the spark of the spirit will remain—the impalpable principle of life and thought, pure as when it left the Creator to inspire the creature: whence it came it will return; perhaps again to be communicated to some being higher than man—perhaps to pass through gradations of glory, from the pale human soul to brighten to the seraph! Surely it will never, on the contrary, be suffered to degenerate from man to fiend. No; I cannot believe that: I hold another creed, which no one ever taught me, and which I seldom mention; but in which I delight, and to which I cling; for it extends hope to all; it makes Eternity a rest—a mighty home, not a terror and an abyss. Besides, with this creed, I can so clearly distinguish between the criminal and his crime; I can so sincerely forgive the first while I abhor the last; with this creed revenge never worries my heart, degradation never too deeply disgusts me, injustice never crushes me too low: I live in calm, looking to the end.”
Helen's head, always drooping, sank a little lower as she finished this sentence. I saw by her look she wished no longer to talk to me, but rather to converse with her own thoughts. She was not allowed much time for meditation: a monitor, a great rough girl, presently came up, exclaiming, in a strong Cumberland accent,
“Helen Burns, if you don't go and put your drawer in order, and fold up your work this minute, I'll tell Miss Scatcherd to come and look at it!”
Helen sighed as her reverie fled, and getting up, obeyed the monitor without reply as without delay.