Thursday, June 6, 2013

ANNE EYRE (Engagement: chapter Nineteen) #Jane Eyre Retelling

Chapter Nineteen
   After I’d travelled from Devon to Cornwall, I took a taxi from the bus stop in the village to Hay Lane. I wanted to re-live the extraordinary sight of the estate in what was left of the summer sun. It was afternoon by then and Thornton Hall in the sunset was truly memorable. I took a photograph to add to my collection. All of the angles of the old mansion swept up into the fading light. The image of pink and gold took my breath away as I snapped a few more photographs. Sophie had texted me and had ridden to the gate with her father on her horse, Xavier, to greet me. I was very surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. Sophie and her father were excellent riders.
   My heart sank when I saw Nathanial’s handsome, smiling face. ‘If you had telephoned earlier, Anne, we would have driven to the station to collect you. It was Sophie’s biggest wish to greet you in the twilight,’ he said enthusiastically.
   I smiled again.
  ‘I wanted to make my own way to Thornton. I wanted to take some photographs. These moments in the summer light won’t come again for a long time.’
    It had been a privilege to see the faces of Sophie and Nate waiting for me at the gate, even more exciting than any photographs I could take.
   ‘Bienvenue!  Anne! You’ve returned to us!’ Sophie squealed as she slid off her saddle and ran into my arms to give me a welcome hug. Nathanial led the horse up the track as Sophie spoke to me in a rush of tumbling over sentences while the three of us walked towards Thornton Hall.
   ‘… and I know all the words you left for me to learn and we got Mrs Fairfax to prepare dinner especially in your honour – she made apricot chicken.’ I must admit, just the thought of my favourite dish excited me. Apricot chicken consisted of chicken pieces mixed with onions, apricots, nectar and spices then baked in a casserole dish until the sauce simmered and reduced in the oven. The chicken would be served with rice or my favourite creamy potatoes. Sophie talked on excitedly as my mouth watered. Even with a delicious meal, I wondered how I could endure another dinner with the Ingrams. I could always plead exhaustion after my lengthy day’s travel.
    Before dinner, I spoke with Mrs Fairfax in the kitchen. She was showing me how to make bread and butter pudding, a recipe I’d always wanted to make. I’d looked it up on the web but Mrs Fairfax had cooking skills passed down through generations of women in her family, skills that couldn’t be taught online and I’d resolved to learn some of them.
     For this delicious recipe, I was spreading the fruit bread with strawberry jam as Mrs Fairfax stirred the milk, eggs, sugar and vanilla all the while chatting to me like a close relative. I’d changed into an evening skirt, one I’d bought from the most fashionable shop in London and wore a cream antique blouse and bracelets I’d bought from a market store in Notting Hill.  I’d even curled my hair in an effort to look my best. It was as if, knowledge of my family and the wrong that had been done to me, was a weight from my shoulders. It was no hardship to dress up tonight. Deep inside, I knew I wanted to look my most desirable, to make it harder for him to say our inevitable goodbyes.
     I’d already bought a jobs magazine from the train station and had started looking for employment on the internet. I’d told Mrs Fairfax that I’d be ready to leave when summer ended and had started looking for work closer to Cambridge, where I intended to start my classes.
   ‘I’m so proud of you, Anne,’ she said. ‘You are such a smart girl; it’s no wonder you have been accepted into one of the best universities in the world.’
   ‘Thank you,’ I replied.
    I hoped, although my academic record was flawless, that I hadn’t just been accepted because I’d fitted a slot that was marked underprivileged. Still, my interviews had gone well and I’d had excellent references from my teachers and youth workers. That same day, I’d found a letter waiting for me, confirming my scholarship, but I’d still need extra money.
   ‘I think I may have found some jobs to apply for in Cambridge…’
   ‘Oh, no need to look, Anne. Mr Rochester has a company there and he will give you an excellent reference. All it will take is one phone call from him and I’m sure he can arrange suitable employment for you while you complete your studies. I don’t think we’ve ever had a staff member that was going on to Cambridge! Even Rochester went to university in the States after Oxford… oh, of course it was a top college, but then he’s never had anything to prove since he was born. His family gave him everything,’ and here Edwina Fairfax leaned closer, ‘which makes your achievement that much bigger but don’t tell him I said that,’ she laughed. ‘And guess what? He’s made preparations to travel to Europe. He’s ordered engagement rings from London for Nicola to choose from. They arrived in a parcel by express delivery and with a guard who travelled with them all the way from Paris!’
    I tried to smile but I felt gutted.
    We talked on as we cooked, then Sophie came into the kitchen reciting the poem I had taught her and announcing her intentions to sing me her new songs (the ones she’d been learning from her latest CD collection) after dinner.
    The house was alive that evening. The Masons, the Ingrams, and some other neighbours were at the table. I found I was off colour, though, after another half an hour of listening to the irritating Nicola describing all the reality TV shows where she’d been offered a guest spot back in LA.
     ‘Of course, I wasn’t tempted to take any of them since….’ And then she looked at Nathanial, pawing him after the entrée, ‘my heart belongs here.’
     After the main course, I excused myself, suddenly feeling nauseous. I didn’t know why but I suspected it had something to do with the casual way Nicola gave me dagger eyes, then brushed some lint off Nathanial’s jacket. He was speaking animatedly with Matthew Eaton when she leant over to take his hand and I was glad to notice their fingers did not linger together for more than a moment.
    Even so, it was time for me to leave and I excused myself and took a torch with me again to navigate the long hallway, at the end of which, the lights were almost too low to see in the dark shadows.  When I reached the door of my bedroom I heard footsteps rushing behind me.
    ‘Anne, why did you leave early?’
    ‘I’m tired from my journey. Um… you’re right, I should have congratulated you.’
    ‘You’ve obviously done a great job with Sophie while I was away. She is looking wonderfully happy today.’
    ‘She’s happy because you’ve returned to Thornton Hall.’
    ‘Oh well, of course. I should also congratulate you on your engagement.’
    I felt faint. Perhaps it was from exhaustion or emotion but I opened the door to my large bedroom, thinking he’d leave pretty quickly.
   ‘What engagement?’
   ‘The whole house is talking about your marriage to Nicola. They say you’ve made preparations to travel to Europe, after Sophie goes away to school, for your honeymoon. Mrs Fairfax…’
    He smiled incredulously, ‘What?’ he asked, quite rudely, I thought.
    ‘Mrs Fairfax says while I was away she’d never seen you look so happy. That you’ve been constantly with the Ingram’s and have been singing with Nicola and her brother in the drawing room playing piano and guitar with them every evening until late.’
    ‘I’ve been managing their band, Anne. I probably demonstrated a few chord progressions! You know they are trying out the new songs in the local pubs in the village. It’s true that suddenly I feel like listening to music again.’
    ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Nevertheless, it’s time for me to go.’
    He shrugged regretfully.
    ‘Well, congratulations on Cambridge. It’s quite an achievement.’
    ‘You mean, coming from my background.’
    ‘I mean, coming from any background.’
    ‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘I know.’ I wished I was more excited about going.
    ‘Modesty never became you.’
    ‘I’m not sure what you mean.’
    ‘You are a modest person, Anne, but I suspect your talents far exceed your current situation so I must let you leave. You are worth more than being stifled in this place.’
     I looked around at my beautiful room; the view at night, through my window, of a garden lit with lights that led to the ocean, was perfect.  This view was a glimpse of freedom, a better world than the one from which I’d fled. I didn’t know how I’d have the strength to leave this place - and Sophie - and him.
     Suddenly there was a loud thump on the roof of my bedroom.
      I jumped and turned to the wall.
     ‘What was that?’
     ‘Nothing. Just a squirrel, perhaps. They get into the roof at night.’
    For some reason I associated squirrels with winter; the frozen St James’ Park I’d walked through many times on my way to the West End when I lived in London. I’d never seen any squirrels in the grounds of the estate but then I’d never looked very hard, either.
    I reached for my dressing gown and threw it on the bed.
    ‘What is to become of your daughter?’
    ‘You have prepared her well. She is to go to school, Anne. But I’m sending her to the best one I know; it’s new, modern and with a progressive education ethos. It will not be anything like the way we were brought up.’
    ‘Good,’ I said. ‘I shall stay in touch with Sophie to make sure that happens,’ I smiled, feeling, in my nineteenth year, very grown up, almost my own person, finally. I was adult enough to know that the minute I left Thornton Hall, Sophie would no longer be my responsibility and she would forget me. She would grow up and move on as all children do; just as some adults, like her father, already had.
   I opened the door to my sitting room and went inside, expecting Nathanial to leave.     He lingered at the threshold.
  ‘I shall miss you, Anne.’
  ‘And I you,’ I said matter of factly. ‘Now, if you don’t mind, I’m tired. I want to go to bed.’
   He was clearly reluctant to leave.
  ‘You have guests.’
   Nathanial paused.
   ‘Why do you have to leave?’ he asked.
   ‘Because you are getting married.’
   ‘Who told you this?’
   ‘The servants, Mrs Fairfax and everyone in the village says an announcement is imminent. They say traditionally your family places a notice in a London newspaper. I am staying until everything is settled with Sophie and then I’m leaving. I have applied for another job, closer to where I’m studying.’
   ‘But I don’t want you to leave.’
   ‘Well, I don’t care what you want. This is about what I want and I intend to go.’
   ‘Why Anne?’
    I was becoming frustrated, exhausted with all of these word games.
   ‘Because I don’t want to stay here, in the place where I have been happiest, in the place where I have felt loved only to become a shadow in the light of that vacuous woman.’
   ‘You mean Nicola Ingram?’
   ‘Yes, your fiancée.’
   ‘She is not my fiancée.’
   ‘Well, not yet.’
   ‘Not ever. Anne, if you were to leave me now, I don’t know if I’d survive. You have become as normal to me as every breath I take.’
   ‘Oh please, Nate. Those are the words to an old song I don’t wish to hear.’
    I walked over to my door.
    ‘Please leave now.’
    ‘I am about to pack my things.’
    ‘Where are you going to go?’
    ‘I told you, I’m going to university. I aim to change my fate.’
   ‘Your fate is with me, I feel sure of it.’
   ‘As far as I know, the last time I read my employment contract, you didn’t own me. I have my own mind, obviously, and my own desires and I’ve decided to leave Thornton - earlier than I’d anticipated, it seems,’ I added, under my breath.
   I turned from him, knelt on the floor, pulled my suitcase out from under my bed and flung it open, just as he reached for me and also found himself kneeling beside me.
    He touched my face and turned it towards his own. There was a loud noise as the band started to rehearse in the drawing room downstairs. The sound of the drums and base made a heavy beat and the raucous, drink-fuelled conversations became louder, drowning out our muffled voices which were raised louder causing even more commotion. He held my shoulders in his hands and I was aware of the strength in his grasp. This did not dissuade me.
    ‘You are right, Anne. It is up to you to decide your destiny yet I feel if I say what I am about to, you will reject me; if I were to let you leave this house tonight  you would just as easily forget me.’
    ‘Forget you? Forget Sophie and this place I have called my home? You must be joking! I will never forget you.’
    This led to an unexpected moment.  
   He pulled me into him so that my thin, unloved body and his were breathing almost in the same moment, and he kissed me. A kiss as soft and sweet as a summer’s day, a kiss I’d long remember and one I’d thought about since the afternoon I’d met him in Hay Lane. It was a kiss I never thought I’d get. For the first time, I felt what I could only describe as, unearthly.
    My hands moved into his hair and his into mine. Before I knew it, I had completely lost control; lost control with a man who thought only enough of me to hide away with me in my room, to keep me a secret from his rich friends and the entire world. Suddenly I pushed him, gently, but he took no notice, leaning into me again, wanting me and I him.
   ‘Stop,’ I whispered, not knowing if this was the right step to take with him.
   ‘No,’ he said in return, ‘Not until you promise me something…’
   ‘Anything,’ I laughed.
   ‘Now you really can’t refuse,’ he moved off me so that we were separated for the first time in minutes. ‘Marry me, Anne. It is you I want. I know you are young but I want only you to be with me forever and for us to be a family.’
    I stopped smiling. He may as well have been speaking Italian. His words seemed to make almost zero sense.
   ‘Marry you? But... You want me as your wife? Have you thought about this? Have you honestly compared me to Nicola?’
    ‘Yes, and there is no comparison.’
    ‘Exactly. I have no money, I am not beautiful and I’ve never appeared in any of those society magazines that are flung all over your house.’
   ‘You are beautiful to me. Your face is the only one I want to see when I wake up in the morning. Besides, I don’t care, Anne. That stuff is not important. It is inconsequential.’
   ‘Inconsequential? In your world everyone is status obsessed.’
   ‘But I am not. All I want is you. And you are more than my equal, Anne; you are my better, in so many ways. I want to be worthy of you.’
   ‘I disagree,’ I said. ‘We are equals.’
   ‘Okay,’ he agreed, ‘equals.’
    ‘You would say anything just to sleep with a new girl.’
    ‘Anne, if that is all I wanted, I could pick up a girl in the village pub any night of the week.’
    It was true. A guy as hot and rich as him, was prey to many local women, to almost any woman. How did he know I was different? It was as if he could see into my mind. I could never marry a man, be with any man, just for money. I’d been broke before and I wasn’t afraid of it.
    What he said, in essence, was what I’d longed to hear. His words were more perfect to me than the music I’d constantly listened to in my many walks along Hay Lane. I looked at him in the near dark, loving him, totally. 
   ‘I’ve wanted to make it official for a long time but I thought you were too young to get involved with me. This decision decides your destiny; one that will make you a young mother; that will require you to stay with me and Sophie and be a family.’
    A family... I longed to be part of one; my own, although I’d never put my feelings into words; I longed to be part of his world; I was speechless; this moment had to be a farce.
    ‘But what of Nicola?’ I asked, almost trancelike.
    ‘Nicola is nothing to me, she’s a girl I’ve known for years; we got together a few times at her instigation and she’s dated half of London as well. She’s more interested in becoming famous and being in magazines than me. And could you imagine her influence on Sophie? She likes children even less than I do,’ he joked. ‘Besides, neither of us are together for the right reasons. Her family want us to form a property alliance; that is all. She’ll forget me and move on. I heard she already has her eye on some guy in the village. Nicola is no hindrance to our union.’
    Those words should have given me a clue, but I did not want to listen to my head.
    ‘I want to marry you, Anne. I love you. I want us to be what we lack. Together we would be a family. Together we would know love.’
   Know love? It sounded deeply seductive, almost as seductive as the look in his eyes.
   ‘Are you serious? Is this a joke?’
   ‘Of course, I mean, of course I am serious. To prove it we should not sleep together until its official.
    ‘Oh, so you’re assuming I’d let you stay tonight?’
    ‘Not at all, I just want you to know I’m completely serious.’
     Still, I could not believe him.
    ‘This is not a joke. I love you Anne Eyre. Will you marry me?’   
    ‘Yes,’ I said quietly, ‘I will marry you Nathanial Rochester.’
    He covered me with kisses until I kissed him in return and I would not have stopped but for the fact that he did. I looked up, following his gaze. There was a shadow at my partially closed door and before Rochester left the room, I heard a creak in the floorboards and saw movement in the distance.