Sunday, April 28, 2013
ANNE EYRE (modern Jane Eyre) Chapter Three: Thornton
An ancient, stooped-over man opened the heavy door and peered out at me through the space between the safety chain and the wall.
‘Are you Mr Rochester?’
‘No, Miss. I’m Hector, the butler. I’m old enough to be his grandfather. The owner of Thornton is who you’ll be wanting. He’s away in Europe, not sure if he’ll be back here all summer. Sometimes he goes away and we wonder if he’ll ever return. Place will go to rack and ruin. No, it’s the younger Rochester you’ll be wanting, but I knew Rochester senior back when he was still a boy - giving away my age again,’ he chuckled. I could have assured him I would not have guessed it to be less than one hundred.
‘No, that younger Rochester has wild parties,’ he tutted and shook his head. ‘His father would not have approved, no he would not.’
With those words, the elderly man shut the door in my face. Already I was thinking he was pretty weird.
I sat on the doorstep wondering what to do next.
How was I supposed to interpret the letter, the paid for room in Devon, the helpfulness of Mrs Fairfax and the old-fashioned interview method – the telephone? I sat on the door step and put my head in my hands.
Moments later, an older but very well-dressed woman came out.
‘Anne? Anne Eyre?’
‘Yes, that’s me,’ I said with a mixture of eagerness and exasperation.
‘Oh, Anne, I am so glad you’ve arrived. I’m Edwina Fairfax, the housekeeper here at Thornton Hall. Sophie, the child you are to tutor, is having her afternoon nap but we’ve been expecting you all day…’ she leant in, ‘take no notice of Hector; he’s been here for decades, Nathanial would never ask him to leave, it’s his home too but he really doesn’t work as the butler anymore; though he’s very good at judging the young man who owns the place,’ Mrs Fairfax said.
She continued to speak as she led me through the vast entrance hallway of the house with grand, high ceilings and hall lights lit up like crystal. ‘Never mind Hector,’ she continued. ‘He’s over a hundred,’ she whispered. ‘He’s been working here for sixty years, he’s going a bit… well, he’s a bit confused. I can’t really talk to him and there are so few staff left here, just a cook and a cleaner and the grooms who come to work during the day. We have a lodger upstairs, Emma Poole, but she doesn’t speak much, does her own thing and writes all day from her room in the attic, or so I’m told. I’m not allowed to go in there as she doesn’t like being disturbed.’ Mrs Fairfax shrugged and raised an eyebrow. ‘Artistic types,’ she said disdainfully.
‘I mostly just run the house, organise the pay, the salaries. I read – a lot! Do you read novels Anne? Of course we have television and the local cinema but no internet connection while the renovations to the far wing are being done, not unless you go into the village - there are too many builders around here digging up phone lines and what not - so, they’re working on that.’
No internet, I thought. Good. I don’t want the distraction while I’m busy hiding from the world and its coldness.
‘The staff are… let’s just say they are not readers. They spend their evenings in the village pub mostly, when they are not wanted around here. Nathanial Rochester, he’s the owner now; he doesn’t visit much, either, but he’s supposedly bringing his friends to stay for the summer; some of them are in a band he manages and Nathanial agreed to let them rehearse here. Apart from that, his business interests are varied. He is coming home to organise the horses and buy some more, or sell them; I’m not really sure. I think he just wants someone to improve Sophie’s English over the summer. She’s no trouble, Anne, but she mostly speaks French. Do you speak French fluently?’
‘Yes, yes, of course.’
‘Good. Don’t speak it around Sophie, unless you have to! We want her to speak English as well as her French, if possible. Anyway, I’ll be interested to hear what you think of her.’
Mrs Fairfax talked on.
It was quite refreshing to hear her speak in this relaxed manner. I wasn’t expecting her to be like this - someone who lived in such a grand house and wore a twin set and pleated skirt. She looked like what I imagined a lady-in-waiting to a princess might look. She spoke to me as a grown up, an equal, something I was not entirely used to.
I was not used to making friends. My history, as you may have gathered, is not an easy story to share with strangers. Together, we walked into the grand ballroom. There were high chandeliers and paintings on the walls and rows of mirrors and windows. It reminded me of one of those lavish palaces I’d only seen on the internet or in movies.
‘Nathanial doesn’t need a job. His family have inherited money over many generations, so his business is really about keeping the family finances in order. Mrs Fairfax raised her eyebrow and continued, ‘I often wonder at the logic of such a young man inheriting everything, but I suppose we can’t predict such excesses, now, can we? I am sure there must be a reason for it and so far he has acted with great thoughtfulness. I can’t say I approve of his producing movies in America or managing the band but those are his hobbies and not for me to judge,’ she trailed off. Though she instantly told me to call her by her name, Edwina, I mostly referred to her as Mrs Fairfax.
‘For some reason, Mrs Fairfax, I assumed Sophie was your child.’
‘Oh, no dear, she is simply in my care.’
Mrs Fairfax offered no further explanation as to Sophie’s existence and I was left to wonder.
‘Now, let’s show you to your room, and then we’ll make a nice cup of tea.’
I hadn’t been expecting a particularly warm welcome and I’d rarely experienced such kindness from a stranger. In little under an hour, I almost felt like I had inherited a grandmother because Mrs Fairfax was so unexpectedly friendly.
As it turned out, she was a distant cousin of the Rochesters (but, as she’d told me laughingly, not one of the rich ones). She’d originally been Nathanial’s nanny and had raised him and his brother from infancy. Nate’s older brother had died, leaving Nathanial Rochester to inherit the vast family estate and the wealth of family owned companies.
‘There are a few workers on the property. They are quite disinterested in activities like reading and movies so it will be wonderful to have someone to talk to in the evenings.’ Mrs Fairfax said.
Her chatter continued and I admit I found it refreshing to have an older woman, effectively my employer, take so much interest in me.
‘I’ve put you in one of the warmer rooms; there are twelve bedrooms to choose from, and it’s not the biggest, but I think you will like it.’
She led the way up the stairs and along a wide hallway.
My bedroom had high ceilings and a distant view of the ocean. There was a large desk beneath the window sill and a double bed with a thick duvet covered by an embroidered bedspread. I noticed the maid had left a glass of water covered in a lace doily atop a pile of fashion magazines.
‘This is perfect,’ I said. Almost too perfect, more than I’d ever dreamt, I thought.
‘There’s an ensuite to your right and a swimming pool that is heated in winter, downstairs. Mr Rochester, Nathanial’s father, had it installed when the boys were young but it doesn’t get used as much now. Perhaps, if you swim, you could teach Sophie. I noticed on your CV…,’ she trailed off again.
‘Yes, of course. I have my First Aid Certificate; I took the test during my final term at school.’
‘Was it an all-encompassing education? I noticed you attended Lockwood – one of the most prestigious ladies’ colleges in London.’
‘Oh yes,’ I replied, ‘very all-encompassing.’
I had learnt not to share past hurts. I pulled my sleeve down to cover the scar on my hand, courtesy of one of my sixth form classmates and her sculpture implement which tore accidentally into my skin during a pottery class. The mauling happened just after Irma left. I’d barely screamed let alone reported the incident - that would have led to further problems.
My education had included bitterly cold winter dormitories, corporal punishment dealt out in private by prefects (before the younger girls became prefects themselves) and gossiping, neglected, fiercely snobbish teenage girls.
‘Have a good sleep, Anne. You can meet Sophie tomorrow.’
I washed my face and could hardly believe my luck. The bedroom enveloped me but I’d never seen such splendour, much less lived in it. In the middle of the night, I had an unsettling dream. I was a child again and I was trapped in the locker room of my school and no one would let me out. When I opened my eyes, I stared above me at the high, intricately designed ceiling and felt a security under my blankets that had previously eluded me.