Thursday, June 6, 2013
Sophie and I rose early the morning of my wedding day. Mrs Fairfax took care of Sophie while I bathed and had my hair and make-up done. The church was filled with more than the usual amount of people from Sunday services and the local community. No expense had been spared in preparations for the wedding, but I’d requested a small and tasteful ceremony. The household staff were dressed in their best and the most luxurious of Nathanial’s cars was decorated with ribbons to take us to the church.
We had not seen each other for two days because Nate had to finalise some business in London. I arrived at the church with Sophie who looked so small trying to adjust my train. Leah, Merida and a few girls from the village library, whom I’d befriended, acted as my bridesmaids. I was not nervous, as I knew deep in my soul this would be the happiest day of my life, so far.
When I looked inside the church, preparations had been made for a far more lavish ceremony than I’d intended. Most of the villagers were seated. There were huge bunches of flowers and ribbons at the end of every pew, festive garlands as far as the eye could see. The stained glass windows shed light on the entire room, with just the right amount of sun to create patterns on the walls and coloured light from the glass. These details had been left to Mrs Fairfax and she’d done an incredible job. We had not hired a photographer because one of Nate’s friends, a cinematographer, was invited. He’d brought his camera with him. As the music played, I had the feeling this event would irrevocably change my life.
My diamond tiara was covered with flowers. My hairdresser from the village had decided with me that the flowers would be removed after I’d said my vows to reveal the glittering jewellery Nathanial had bestowed upon me. It was a very grand tiara but Nate had insisted upon my acceptance of this family heirloom.
There were mostly unfamiliar faces in the small crowd that gathered to wish us well. I knew some of the people from the village. The band was the same one that played at the local pub on Saturday nights. They were brilliantly talented and had learnt some classical pieces for the occasion, putting their own spin on them. Afterwards, the band would play our first song. Nate, alongside Sophie, had picked the music, which was to be a surprise. Afterwards we would celebrate with a few friends and spend our first night together in a luxurious hotel that overlooked the sea in Devon. The next day we would make our way to the airport and Nate’s private jet. Nathanial’s sports car, the one he was driving when we met, would be decked out with a Just Married sign for the trip.
There was a look of apprehension on Nathanial’s face as Sophie and I walked slowly down the aisle in time to the music. The church was perfect, the faces of the congregation were glowing and Sophie was practically delirious with happiness as she smiled up at me throwing flower petals near my shoes.
I leant down to whisper to her.
‘Now you have to go first,’ as the music started and Mrs Fairfax ushered her in front and she started dropping the pink petals shyly.
Everything was perfect in that moment and as I glanced through the veil towards the man who looked at me, expectantly, I felt only perfect hope and joy at the prospect of our imminent union.
The service began and our vows were traditional.
Rochester looked nervous as words were spoken aloud. His voice, normally rich and deep, cracked for a moment as a draft edged under the door.
Now, don’t quote me on the exact vows that were said. What follows, is my memory of them…
We reached the point in the service where the vicar asked both of us and the congregation if we knew of, ‘any impediment why we would not lawfully be joined together in holy matrimony and that if we did we should speak now…’ or something to that effect.
Those words jumbled in my mind. All I could think about was the face of my husband-to-be, Sophie’s delight and Mrs Fairfax. She looked humbled, pleased that her concerns were unfounded. Meanwhile, some mysterious friends of Nate’s had arrived and taken seats in the first isle whilst the musicians above us in the balcony prepared to play our post-marriage song…
In the silence between sentences, a loud bang could be heard at the far end of the ancient stone building.
The vicar paused and after a moment it was obvious that the rattle at the base of the village church was simply the wind on a summer’s day.
‘Speak now or forever hold your peace…’
There was more silence as the vicar went through the motions then asked the question he knew by rote and considered rhetorical. He had never, in all the hundreds of marriages he had presided over, ever been answered with anything other than perfect silence. I looked into the eyes of the man I loved as more indirect noise interrupted the service.
A door finally opened and slammed shut in the space of a few seconds.
‘The marriage ceremony cannot continue.’
A man’s voice spoke from behind me.
The entire congregation turned their heads; even Sophie, who was used to behaving as if she was in her own little world, had stopped fidgeting with the flower petals in her hair and on the train of my gown. I froze as she looked up.
Christopher Mason, dressed in an expensive suit, his curls brushed from the determined expression on his face, stood before us.
Nathanial turned to the vicar and said, ‘Just ignore him. Please… continue.’
‘I’m here to declare the existence of an impediment to this marriage.’
I was frozen. I’d always been wary of happiness being snatched from my grasp, just when it was within reach, but this was inconceivable.
‘Just continue…’ Nate said under his breath, turning from the small crowd of drop-jawed onlookers.
Rochester took my cold hand which was a good thing. If he hadn’t steadied me I think I might have collapsed.
‘Take no notice of him Anne,’ he whispered.
It was kind of hard not to.
‘I declare the existence of an impediment… an insurmountable impediment,’ Christopher announced from just a few feet away from us. He walked closer, near me until he was standing close by. He peered into my eyes as if he could see into my soul.
‘There is something you do not know,’ he turned to the congregation. ‘There is a secret that exists…’
Sophie looked up at me, wide-eyed and innocent. There were many things she had not been told, did not know, so those words were not particularly shocking to her. She took my hand as Nathanial held the other.
‘Proceed,’ Nathanial stated clearly, but he appeared to be talking to the vicar and ignoring Christopher Mason.
‘I’m sorry Nate; I tried to call you out on this; I tried to reason with you. There is no way I can let you go through with this; you could be charged with bigamy…’
The word had a vague meaning to me, but it hadn’t sunk in yet.
‘What are you saying?’ The vicar (in all his many Saturdays of repeating the standard words) had never encountered a wedding like this one. He was almost as surprised as me.
He cleared his throat before speaking.
‘Eight years ago Nathanial Fairfax Rochester married my sister, Berenice Antoinetta Mason in a church in New Orleans on the twenty-sixth day of November.’
‘How do you know this?’
‘I was there. I am her brother. This man, Nathanial, is my brother-in-law.’
I could literally hear the congregation give a collective sigh, but the judgement of others was not uppermost on my mind. In those seconds, I began to lose all hopes I may have had for my future.
The intruder continued, ‘Our father was a rich industrialist who had companies all over the world and it was thought a merging of class and money would be fortuitous for both families but who knows, maybe they were in love. I only know they were married quickly; they had only known each other for two weeks. I was a witness; here is the documentation.’
He pulled from his coat a piece of paper. I did not wish to see the contents as I slumped in the aisle. Later, I was told the document was a copy of the marriage certificate of Nathanial Fairfax Louis Rochester and Berenice Antoinetta Mason, signed by both parties, witnessed and dated in New Orleans.
Rochester looked at him.
‘That document may prove I was once married but it does not prove Berenice Mason Rochester is still alive.’
‘She was a few weeks ago.’
‘And where is this Berenice Antoinetta Rochester?’, the lawyer who stood with him asked Christopher. ‘We must ask you to produce her.’
At this point Rochester turned and faced the congregation.
‘This girl… my…Anne knew nothing about this,’ was all the words he could find to say. Then he took my hand and walked with me quickly down the aisle.
‘Come on then, all of you who would do anything within your power to make trouble; come and meet the first Mrs Rochester; meet my wife.’
The band did not play and the sun did not shine as we hurried down the steps. No rice was thrown in celebration and no bells chimed. No wedding ring joined the large sparkling stone of my engagement ring. But what was worse, our love had been built on what I hated most – a lie.
The journey in his car was the fastest of my life. Through it all he spluttered broken words, ‘forgive me Anne, I should have told you. There is an explanation, I promise you.’
I couldn’t speak. I leant my head on the window until it occurred to me to ask, ‘Where is Sophie?’
‘She is okay, she is alright. She is with Edwina Fairfax.’
‘Don’t blame Mrs Fairfax. She knew nothing, or she knew something. Edwina knew we had a visitor, a woman who stays upstairs but I’d convinced her she was a lodger. No one except Christopher knew I had been married. It’s a long story and one I will try to tell you soon, if you can stand to listen.’
Berenice Antoinetta Rochester, lost in her confined, silent world, was beautiful.
More beautiful than either Nicola or me, or any of the local girls, she had long dark hair that hung to her waist in a messy, knotted braid and wore no make-up. She stared at me accusingly… and then at her husband. Her cheeks were flushed as though she had been crying. Her eyes were wild as she stared frozen into space. The woman wore faded pink pyjama pants and an old jumper – it looked like it must have been Nathanial’s since it had the words of his former school stencilled on the front of it. She looked to be about the same age as Nathanial.
Mrs Poole, the person I’d been told was a lodger, was really Berenice Rochester’s “keeper”. This mystery had been hidden behind a bolted door. The lodger was hiding, locked up all day long, seen only at night, in shadows. From the day I’d arrived, I had been told Mrs Poole came and went as she pleased and did not like to be disturbed. I’d been fooled. The frail, unstable woman in the locked room had been able to look down on me in the garden, on all of us, from her barred, rooftop window. This woman was Nathanial’s wife. What living hell it must have been for her, in her lucid moments, to witness her husband’s happiness and his child’s laughter.
When she looked up, she saw Nathanial and greedily flung herself upon him, kissing him passionately, or trying to… she hung off his chest and whimpered like a kitten as he attempted to cradle her sobs; then in the blink of an eye she turned and merged from a docile lamb into a wild, caged animal.
There was chafing on her wrists from where she had obviously been restrained.
‘It’s one of her good days,’ Emma Poole yelled above the commotion, as Berenice’s brother, the lawyer and I looked on in stunned silence.
When Berenice had been constrained, Nathanial spoke.
‘Emma Poole is my wife’s psychiatric nurse; she has worked here for as long as Berenice has lived with me.’
I stared at Nathanial Rochester whilst Berenice’s eyes bored into me. I realized I was still wearing what remained of the wreckage of my wedding gown. The lace hem was torn and stained from the long walk through the muddy gardens. It was a degradation the dress had never been intended to endure. I’d already ripped off the veil.
This image of me caused the ensuing commotion, I think.
Berenice, his wife, had managed to free her wrist from the strap which bound her to the wall and she lunged at me and screamed like a mad woman… because she was a mad woman.
Nathanial caught her by her fragile, scarred wrists; she scratched and screamed into her husband’s face until she drew blood with her blunt nails. Berenice then licked her fingertips, her hunger for his blood seemingly insatiable. She was… a woman, a beauty and also a monster. Nathanial’s wife kicked out as she was constrained; she spat and screamed as she reached over to me, clutching at the hem of my dress. When she did this, she bared her teeth, which seemed more like fangs in that moment.
His wife could not speak any audible words but kissed Nate’s fingertips, the same hands that were holding her down. She licked and bit his fingers. I looked away, and then looked back. Like lightening, she shot from him to me, seemingly flying through the air. The woman (if that’s what she was) lunged at me until a guard held her down and she cried and screeched and kicked again as they subdued her with some sort of deep sleep medication shot straight into her arm with a syringe.
I fled from the room feeling muddied, beaten and almost completely broken. I was feeling blessed to have escaped that room with my life but betrayed to the core, and so tired from this deceit that I locked myself in the bathroom and turned on the taps.
I stood in front of the full length mirror in the wreckage of my wedding finery. Slowly, and then quickly, I began to rip off every layer, hardly waiting to unbutton those wretched ties. I stripped off the layers of my wedding gown until I stood naked and crying, a pathetic shadow of my former self. Less than an hour ago, the dress had captured the promise of my future life but now, as I collapsed into the bath and poured in half a bottle of bubbles, the dress had become meaningless to me. It carried the weight of betrayal in every designer fold.
Finally, the tears began to flow. These were tears I hadn’t shown for many years and with them my entire life, my messed up existence. The water soothed the cuts and bruises and cleaned off the mud from my body but my mind was in turmoil.
Eventually, there was a knock at the door, a soft knock. I heard a woman’s voice, Mrs Fairfax’s.
‘Anne, dear? Anne? Are you alright?’
‘Anne, I swear, I didn’t know, I suspected something was amiss, but I didn’t know the truth. Please answer me, Anne, are you alright?’
I could hardly speak but she kept asking.
Finally I croaked out the words even I was unsure of, ‘… Yes.’
I heard her footsteps walking away from the door.
I leant into my knees as the bubbles piled around me, covering my body, hiding my skin as I hunched over my hands.
‘Anne… Anne?’ he whispered. It was Rochester. Suddenly he’d become a surname to me again, a man I couldn’t trust.
‘Let me in,’ Rochester said.
‘Anne, please…. Let me in. I need to tell you something.’
I got out of the bath and wrapped a towel around me. I dried myself, partially, then dragged on the pyjamas I’d discarded in a drawer, the old ones, not fit for my wedding night. I didn’t care. After I wrapped my robe around me, my hair still dripping with bathwater, I opened the door.
He started to talk but as his mouth moved, I walked past him then collapsed.
When I woke, I was lying on my bed. My forehead was bruised, slightly and Rochester lay slumped on the couch on the other side of the room. His shirt was ripped and stained, his suit jacket discarded. It was early morning, but still ink black outside.
I opened my eyes wide, wishing I’d opened my eyes wider, earlier. How could I have let myself fall in love with a lie?
He stirred as I pulled off my blanket.
‘Anne? Are you awake?’
‘Yes.’ I said.
‘You must hate me.’
I remained silent.
‘I am so sorry… I couldn’t tell you, I couldn’t risk losing you. I love you.’
I sat in silence on the end of my bed.
‘She is the secret. Hers is the story that haunts my life…’
I remained speechless as he spoke.
‘I was born as you know into the richest, most aristocratic of families. But it was my brother who was to inherit the lands, the title, the house… everything. When he was nineteen he died; he went out hunting and returned in a body bag. We are unsure what happened but there were bullet holes in his forehead.
There is madness in my family, Anne, and no one has ever spoken of it openly, but eccentric behaviour, selfishness and violence; these were the traits of my relatives. When I travelled to America, fresh out of school and attended college there, it was a whole new world, an open way of living, with no family feuds and no more secrets or violence… or lies, or so I thought.’
He stoked the flames of the fire that had been lit in my room and continued speaking in his rich, low tones. ‘There were no family fires to contend with there; I was free at last.’
I did not stir; I felt I at least owed him the chance to unburden his conscience.
‘As you know, I had significant funds and agreed to produce a film with Christopher when our screenplay won a competition. It was just a low-budget movie but we were granted enough funds to make the film the way we wanted and we were sent to New Orleans, one stiflingly hot summer, to film it. Christopher Mason was my best friend at university and my co-producer. Berenice Antoinetta Mason was his sister. We’d already auditioned an actress for the leading role but when his sister walked in… she had the part. She was…’
‘Beautiful?’ I answered for him.
‘Seductive.’ He countered.
‘And you could not resist marrying her.’
‘I could not but not for the reasons you think. I hardly knew her.’
‘Then why did you marry her? You were so young, my age.’
‘Their family, the Masons, were one of the oldest in New Orleans. Her father and my father did business together; it was arranged. I was now the only son and due to inherit everything. I went from being previously ignored by my family to somehow coming up in their world. My wedding to Berenice was a business transaction for my father, the merging of two family enterprises,’ he added bitterly.
‘She… loved me.’
‘That makes it worse. And you?’
‘I loved her the first moment I saw her.’
Breathless, I knew it. She must have been so exquisite he had not bothered to ask any questions about the arrangement, barely needing any incentive to marry her. The money had just been a bonus to keep his father happy and the family business running strong.
Nevertheless, the words that had come out of Nathanial’s mouth left me almost speechless. They were not exactly the words a woman expects to hear on her wedding night.
I started to dress, not caring if he stayed in the room. I began pulling on my woollen jumper over my pyjama top, buttoning up my jeans, pulling on socks as he finished his unrehearsed speech. I’d cut my hair in the bathroom, it was shorter around my ears, a shaggy long bob.
‘You look like a waif,’ he said, suddenly noticing my hair in the firelight.
‘I feel like one,’ I replied. ‘I am not the same person I was yesterday. I do not want to look like that girl.’ He reached out to touch me but I pulled away from him. He continued to speak…
‘Christopher swears he didn’t know that she was… more than different… more than mad… she thinks she’s a creature of the night. Have you heard of bloodsuckers Anne?’
‘Only in horror movies.’
‘I have lived a horror movie and now I want to return to the light.’
He continued speaking in low tones. I could not stop myself from listening even though his words were abhorrent to me.
‘We honeymooned in Jamaica. That first night was perfect; then I noticed, almost immediately after that night, some strangeness. She would not go out in the light; She had a horror of blood in the daylight but a craving to touch my wounds or “kiss them better” as she put it, when I least expected it. Unknowingly, I’d scratched myself on the bedpost and she began crazily licking my arm when I woke. It was not normal. The medical examiner at the resort said she was… deluded, psychotic.’
‘Please, I said. I don’t need to hear any more about your wife,’ I muttered under my breath. He kept speaking anyway…
‘I could not admit the truth of her apparent insanity. At first, I just thought it was behavioural, containable. She wanted to be with me all night, staying awake long after I fell asleep, waking me up as she paced the floors.
When I woke the next morning she was staring into my eyes and her eyes… she told me they turned red in the dark, then black in daylight. Even after we’d…’ he hesitated, not wanting to say the obvious words, ‘… slept together, she would stay in bed all day and only want to go out at night. She spent vast amounts of money on a designer wardrobe but did not wish to be seen in daylight. Then she became violent and angry over nothing and one day, before we were due to arrive back in England, I found her sharing a hammock with a bartender she’d picked up that afternoon. When I went to move her, she appeared to be in a trance; the man was dead.
Investigations proved nothing and she was not blamed but still…. I did not know the beautiful woman I’d married, Anne. She was a stranger to me; she was not, human. She acted human enough in her lucid moments but her habits were strange, her thirsts, unquenchable. I could not control her. Finally, when we arrived back in England, she tried to kill me.’
He lifted his shirt and showed me a stab mark and scars on his hip mixed with what appeared to be bite marks.
‘That night?’ I asked.
‘Christopher came here to visit her. He went to the room, alone, and Berenice tried to kill him, her own brother. I did not think he would talk because he knows I am trapped by her insanity, but blood is thicker than water,’ he laughed bitterly.
Nathanial continued, ‘Before she’d tried to kill me, she had wanted me to feed from her blood just as she had fed on mine but I would not. She became agitated, pacing around the bedroom again once we were here at Thornton. My wife started screaming and wound herself up into a wild frenzy. Then she tried to stab me. She did not know her own mind. She was not properly diagnosed or medicated. A stranger was found outside the grounds of the estate, not long after I’d refused her, dead and drained of his blood.’
‘Stop… you are telling me an unimaginable story. I don’t want to hear any more. I would think it all lies if I hadn’t seen the evidence myself.’
‘I can’t stop, Anne. You deserve the truth.’
‘Why didn’t you leave her? Divorce her?’
‘After she tried to kill me, then herself, I refused to call in the police. We called in psychiatrists, instead. She denied everything, hid her true nature from them but after careful observation, they told me, if I were to press charges, take photographs of her violence, she would be sectioned and held indefinitely in a psychiatric institution.’
He put his head in his hands then looked up.
‘I couldn’t do it, Anne. Have you seen those places? Have you ever seen a prison for the criminally insane? They restrain people in padded cells, drug them all day; I couldn’t do it because I loved her. But I could not live with her and she did not return my love. Over time, she deteriorated, degenerated into whatever she is now.’
‘Then why didn’t you divorce her?’
‘Her family are catholic and do not recognize divorce. They threatened to disown her; she would have ended up in an institution without me to care for her. This way, legally, I am still responsible for her. In any case, she has cursed me all the same. When you arrived, I had not expected to ever feel love again.’
I was speechless with the weight of his words.
‘Don’t leave me Anne. I beg you, don’t go.’
I looked at him, honestly feeling sorry for him. But it was not my pity he needed. It was my love, my devotion.
‘I think I must,’ was all I could utter.
‘Stay here with me; we will be husband and wife in our eyes, if not the world’s. And honestly, who cares what people think? I have never followed the rules of this world anyway and it is not unusual to live together in this day and age. I will give you everything you ever wanted.’
‘All I ever wanted,’ I said, ‘was you.’
‘And you have me,’ he said reaching out to me, pressing me to him, covering my wrist with kisses and then moving up to my chest, my neck. I could barely refuse him. But I pushed him off me again.
‘No,’ I said. ‘I must leave. Tonight.’
‘Don’t go, Anne. Who is there to disapprove? There is no one in this world who will judge us once they see where the truth lies.’
‘I do not want to live this lie.’
‘Who would know? Apart from the staff, the village and they are all gossips anyway, who is there to care?’
‘I care.’ I could barely speak. ‘I would know, and I would judge myself harshly for living with another woman’s husband. I must leave, I cannot wait,’ I cried out as I pushed him away from me and ran down the stairs.
He had taught me to drive and I used that skill to flee to the village in one of his many fast and beautiful cars. I parked the vehicle in the parking lot near the station and sheltered from the cold behind a wall where no one would see me if they came searching. When the bus arrived that would take me to Devon, I sent Rochester a text telling him where he could collect the car. Then I threw my phone away.
Feeling the weight of my world on my shoulders, I travelled to Cambridge, not knowing what else to do. In that university town, I found a room to stay in until term started at university, but I could not settle. For days and nights, I could not relax or find any measure of equilibrium.
I knew I had to pull myself together. There was no one else to do it for me.
I had my saved wages, and I found a job working in a restaurant in the evenings which would leave my days free to attend classes, if I could settle into them. My approved scholarship would pay for the rest. I filled the weeks until term started with ordinary activities: watching television, reading and working.
Making the adjustment to the life of an impoverished university student was not so hard, but it didn’t make me happy. Academic learning interested me less as every day went by. I simply could not see a future for myself. I attempted to make friends with people whose company quickly seemed shallow to me. My world had become uninteresting even to myself. I could not settle and searched within myself for something beyond the limits of my fragile reality.
After a few weeks, I deferred my courses and took a bus back to Devon where I found myself wandering through a village fair. I’d found the business card Connor Rivers had given me and contacted the family who invited me to visit them. I arrived at the country market with my suitcase in tow. The Connor siblings were selling candles in the marketplace to make money for their local church. They were still fundraising for their trip to India where they would go to build a school. We talked over lunch and they asked me where I was staying. I shrugged and they offered a place to stay. I accepted their offer without hesitation.
It was eight weeks since I’d left Thornton and I was truly lost.
The siblings were warm towards me and we got along well. The girls were still at school and Connor, as head of their small family at just twenty, was very involved in the local church community. Connor, who studied Theology, was very religious; He intended to become a minister. His sisters giggled after he glanced at me whilst saying grace before one of our evening meals. They seemed to think we were boyfriend and girlfriend by the way he passed me the butter and touched my fingers as he did so. He looked at them both, witheringly. His sisters smiled as if their brother was used to their teasing.
Connor told me they needed help at the local primary school, a tutor in English and French. I was grateful for this job offer as I was so over working at the local cafe and this gave me an opportunity to practise languages. There was also a school trip that I’d been invited on. Some of my university friends kept in touch; but my heart was heavy and I wasn’t interested in making further social connections. My heart was elsewhere, back at Thornton with Nathanial Rochester and Sophie Varens.
I was glad to have been able to defer university until I got my head together. Mornings were spent tutoring at the school and I found being around small children distracted me from the past. At least I felt I was doing something useful and I intended to return to my courses next year, so I had not thrown away that opportunity. I was aware, however, that I was in danger of drifting through life like an astronaut drifts through space.
I’d been with the Rivers family for six months and I had not contacted Nathanial Rochester or Sophie or Mrs Fairfax in that time. Of course, it was impossible for them to contact me, even if they wanted to, as I’d abandoned all formal communication, including my email.
I was extremely grateful that Connor Rivers had found me a teaching assistant’s job at the local church school. At Lockwood, religion had been incorporated into our daily routine, so this was not new to me.
His sisters, Rainbow and Daisy, became my friends. They were one and two years’ younger than me and studying at the local fashion college. In the evenings, as I prepared items for the morning’s lessons with the television playing and the usual evening news in the foreground, they spread patterns on the floor and sewed and sketched. Between the three of us, the house looked like a remnants factory. One night, as I was sorting felt covering for arts and crafts, I looked up to see Connor looking at me, strangely.
‘Anne, I have something to tell you.’
‘What is it?’
‘I need to talk to you… in private.’
The girls looked up and giggled as we walked into the spare room.
‘Anne, there was a solicitor looking for you in the village this morning. I said I knew you; I did not tell him that you were staying with us.’
I had no idea what to say. He knew me well enough by now to know I was hiding from something, or someone. Connor gave me the solicitor’s details and told me to call him straight away. I borrowed his phone and went outside and stood in the street to make the call.
When I came inside, my life had changed.
My adopted family and I stood in the kitchen.
‘It’s my uncle, the one I met only briefly. He’s died and left me a fortune.’
Connor raised his eyebrows.
‘This can’t be for real.’
Instantly, I knew what I wanted to do.
‘I want to share it with you all; this family has treated me like a sister.’
Connor looked at the kitchen floor.
‘Anne, this is a bit of a shock. You can give something towards the school in India if you like, but you must keep the majority of the money. It’s the first time you’ve had any by the sounds of it, and we could never take it from you; it wouldn’t be… right.’
Rainbow chimed in, looking disappointed nevertheless, ‘ That’s so true, our brother is absolutely right, though I fancy that new frock I saw in town yesterday,’ she said smiling impishly and pointing to a fashionable dress in one of the magazines on the coffee table.
Connor glared at her.
Daisy smiled and said placidly, ‘I’m so happy for you, Anne. Truly, we cannot accept any money for ourselves but I would be so happy if you would give me something to share with the orphans in India…’
‘Of course,’ I said.
‘And come with us,’ Rainbow added, ‘Help us build the school.’
I smiled, thinking this seemed like a good, practical idea.
For the first time since I’d left Thornton, I felt I was part of a family. I also asked to stay with them as friends, be part of a house share. Daisy and Rainbow were quick to agree. Connor nodded with a more perplexed look on his face than I’d previously seen. This was my first experience of having house mates and I was prepared to enjoy this taste of self-devised freedom.
A few days later, Connor came to me and announced after dinner, ‘When we travel to India to build a school, help orphans and spread the word of God, I was wondering… I thought you might agree to come with me, as my wife.’
I was surprised. It wasn’t common for teenagers to marry but Connor appeared to know what he wanted; me. I was flattered in many ways but I could not hide my astonishment; nor could I go against my heart. He noted the look of disappointment on my face.
‘I know we don’t know each other that well but I would not wish to travel alone with you unless we are family.’
I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t sure how I felt about Connor but I knew I did not love him in a romantic way. I might possibly grow to love him – as I would a brother but I gathered that was not the kind of love he wanted from me.
The truth was, I had never loved any man before Rochester and now that I’d seen what I’d seen… that was history, but I was forever changed, forever older, less naïve, less able to bend to the wishes of a relative stranger.
‘I will let you think it over, Anne,’ he offered as he walked out of the room.
Days later, I felt lost and troubled. Connor had begun to treat me differently as he waited for my response. I knew I owed Connor an answer and an explanation. Later that night, after dinner, this is what I told him.
‘I have thought about your offer. I would like to go to India with you and help build the school but not as your wife - as your friend, as part of your family. You and your sisters have been more of a family than my own, far more, but I don’t think we should get married; I don’t love you.’
‘Love will come.’
His response was hard to fathom but he was stubborn in his beliefs.
I held firm to mine. ‘I don’t believe that kind of love can be forced,’ I replied.
‘And I do not think that we should travel together unless we are married, it is against my beliefs. God has put us together; we should marry and happiness will follow; you should not hesitate, Anne. You may not have another opportunity and I do not want to travel with you unless we are husband and wife. Even in this day and age where everyone is out of control and so many people just “hook up” and don’t bother to commit to each other, I want to do what I believe is right. You have a choice; I have brought you into my family, Anne, but there are limits, as to what is acceptable to my good nature.’
Wow. That made him sound like a real prince.
‘Are there limits to your love as well?’ I asked.
He did not smile, it was our first argument. Connor Rivers paused before he spoke again.
‘I know why you are hesitating; that solicitor I met told me he’d gone looking for you at Thornton Hall; it’s him, isn’t it? Your rich employer, the one you were in love with, the one you fled from in the night, the one you were sharing a roof with, a bed with. Did you really think he would bother to marry you after that? Not everyone in this community is as non-judgemental as me. You should abandon this unlawful desire of yours; it is against God’s plan for you.’
‘And who are you to judge me? Who are you to tell me that?’
‘I’m your friend, Anne. I’ve been your friend and I’d like to be more. Anne, listen to me; I am trying to help you. He was already married when he asked you to marry him. What kind of person does that? He didn’t tell you he had a wife? Or did you just not care? He’s a liar Anne, he’s ten years older than you, for starters, so he’s probably had a lot more practice telling girls he loves them.’
‘You know nothing about love!’
‘Oh, and you do?’
I paused as he continued to speak.
‘I know enough to know a man much older than you, a rich powerful man, was just using you. If he loved you, do you honestly think he would have let you go?’
‘He had no choice,’ I whispered, almost to myself.
‘But you do,’ he said.
By now, I wasn’t listening. I ran upstairs and gathered my bag, my purse.
On a whim I searched the internet for the bus timetable. Next, I stumbled upon a local news item about Thornton Hall. There was a photograph and half the estate appeared to be blackened ash. The article said two people had been killed in the blaze of a fire, one was a man. There were no more details released. I felt shocked and saddened.
My path was clear.
I packed my bags after the household had gone to bed. I wrote a note and left it on the kitchen table adding an envelope marked Daisy & Rainbow, lined with cash. I also wrote them a cheque to go towards the school in India and thanked the Rivers family for their kindness. There was something I had to do; some friends I had to go and see. I promised to stay in touch and hoped they would forgive me for leaving so abruptly.
I ran out of the house into the fading light and walked quickly, stumbling to the bus stop… I followed the dream in my head, the dream I’d had the night before about Nathanial and Sophie and Thornton Hall.
Once again, my belongings were in my back pack. I had no car so I walked to the nearest bus stop in the night, driven by my own desire for the truth. It was as if he was calling me, ‘Anne, Anne!’ Just his voice mixed with a light breeze. Hours later, I heard the crash of the ocean, ever nearer to the inland home I had once inhabited.
‘How much further to Thornton Hall?’
The bus driver looked at my sweaty face and messed hair, my dark jeans and smudged fingernails and merely raised an eyebrow when I told him I would be staying on the bus until it reached Cornwall. I knew the way from the bus stop on the main road that led to Hay Lane; I knew my way in the dark.
I saw the cottage in the distance at the far end of the road. It was situated nearer the cliffs. To my right lay Thornton Hall.
Even the gate that led to the property was blackened as I approached. From the front, the house still had its immense façade, but as I walked slowly down the driveway towards the main building, I had such a feeling of apprehension, that I started to jog, and then run towards it.
I felt intense panic inside. I wondered if those I’d loved had survived. The edges of my jeans were filthy by the time I arrived, not to mention my joggers. Light rain started to fall from the sky. It was nearly dark by the time I reached the main entrance. I hadn’t anticipated all the mud as I walked to the side of the house and noticed it was a shell of the building it had previously been.
All that was left of the ballroom I’d once stood in was ash. There were still the remnants of the fire all over what was left of the burnt walls, and most of the roof was missing. There were a few police dotted around the estate. The kitchen and far rooms were barely intact and when I rapped on the scullery door, I was surprised that Merida opened it. Mrs Fairfax, who was dressed for winter, then came out to greet me.
‘You have returned,’ she said.
‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘Oh, Anne, we were so worried about you.’
‘I saw what happened on the internet… did he, is he?’
‘Nathanial is still alive. Sophie was not here.’
I breathed a sigh of relief.
‘There was no one else in the house at the time except me and Leah, Mrs Poole, Hector and… Berenice Rochester.’
I winced at the name.
‘She is dead Anne. Berenice and Hector both died in the blaze.’
I looked at her.
‘It’s not what you think. Mrs Rochester started the fire; she was obsessed with burning flames. She once told Mrs Poole, it was the only way she could ever die; but the poor beautiful wretch was a complete lunatic, so who knows if it was true? Anne, I don’t know if, in the end, it was her own doing or if the smoke overtook her. Nathanial, actually tried to save her, he tried to save all of us. With her, he was overcome by the fumes, the firemen rescued him but not in time; he is, much altered Anne.’
‘Where is he?’
‘He’s on the bench, overlooking the ocean. He went there to listen to the sea.’
I turned from her….
‘But I must warn you, Anne…’
I started running, fed up with warnings.
Nathanial was seated with his dog, Pilot, beside him. Apart from being slightly more hairy than I’d ever seen him (he’d grown a beard) he was the same person, but when I called his name, he turned, and his eyes looked glazed over.
‘Is that… can it really be you, Anne?’
‘Yes, it is me.’ I walked towards him; crouched beside him, put my head on his knee.
‘I have come back to you.’
‘Anne? I can barely see you. The smoke caused an injury.’
‘I am here, to stay with you, if you will have me.’
I reached up and put my arms around him and hugged him, never wishing to let him go.
As you may have gathered, dear reader, I married him.
Months passed. The Hall was rebuilt.
By the time our baby son was placed in his arms, his vision had cleared and Thornton Hall had been reconstructed and refurbished.
We made plans to travel, to go abroad, to see the world as we’d always dreamt and planned to do.
I felt a contentment that had previously eluded me and when we returned from Europe, I began to study again. I wanted to complete the courses I’d enrolled in, not throw away the opportunity of a further education.
Sophie attended the local village school but we still studied together at home, if studying is what you would call the laughter and learning we enjoyed. My family teach me daily about all the things that were missing before I found these loves and helped to create this life.
I looked at Nathanial Rochester and our baby as he played on the blanket beneath us. In the distance, Sophie was walking her horse through the veil of trees that shaded the far corner of our home. Thornton Hall had been restored in all its springtime glory. The restoration of the house went some way to revitalising Nathanial; or perhaps it was the family we continued to raise, restoring us both.
Every person deserves to know this contentment and daily I count my blessings. Before I fall into sleep at night with the sound of my husband’s breathing beside me, I wonder at the extreme good fortune that led me to Thornton Hall and try to accept but not take for granted the joys that have been given to me in this life, joys that go far beyond any of my wildest imaginings.