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Mr. Rochester

By´╝ÜSarah Shoemaker

Book One

Chapter 1

I know little of my birth, for my mother died long before she could tell me—before I ever heard her voice or gazed at her face—and my father banished the woman who helped deliver me, blaming her for my mother’s death. Of course, my father himself had no interest in telling me the least part of it, even if he did remember, which he almost certainly did not. There was no room for sentiment in my father’s existence. Although my mother had proved her worth by providing him with two healthy boys, he would still have considered it a waste to lose a good broodmare.

But with her gone, who was there to oversee the raising of his sons? Not himself, that was certain, as he was away on business most of the time, so he turned to Holdredge, his butler, and to his housekeeper, Mrs. Knox, and a succession of nursemaids and governesses, who were sometimes bad and other times worse. It was years before I could think of a governess as anyone other than a presence that must be borne. But in large part, my brother and I were left to entertain ourselves, and we did so separately. Rowland was eight years older than I, and as one might imagine, eight years between brothers does not make for a great deal of affinity. I do not recall much of what he did with himself in those days, but as for me, whenever I was released from the schoolroom I was content to ramble the gardens and fields and woods of Thornfield-Hall.

Even now, when I think of Thornfield-Hall, I choose to remember what it was then—the playground of my childhood—and not what it was to become: a place of secrets and threats, of angers and fears. If I had been prescient in those days, I might have attempted to destroy it myself.

My mother was never spoken of; I never heard her name pass anyone’s lips, and it was years before I even knew what it was. But one of my earliest memories is of the portrait that hung over the mantel of the front drawing room, a cozy place where a fire was always laid, and which my father rarely entered. He spent his time at Thornfield riding around his holdings, seeing to business here and there. Running an estate as large as Thornfield occupied all of a man’s time, and my father had a steward to do the daily work of it, but when he was home, he took part in overseeing it all, leaving early and returning late, grumbling the whole time about the price of grain or the lack of dependable labor. As if I had antennae, I knew what he was about; it was in my best interests to do so. How else is a child to survive?

But how I loved the drawing room—its walls of a soft green, almost like moss, echoing in more muted tones the lawns beyond the window casements; its ivory-colored carpet and white ceiling with moldings of grapevines; the velvet-covered chairs whose dark wood glowed from decades of polish; the gleaming silver candlesticks; and, most of all, the portrait above the fireplace. The woman was fair-haired and fair skinned, with eyes the shade of the summer sky, standing slim and proud in a dress whose color seemed but a poor copy of her eyes. She stood on a terrace—which I did not recognize—and in the distance a pair of peacocks paused in mid-strut, as if taken aback by her beauty. Of course, without having to be told, I knew who she was; my brother, Rowland, was her exact image.

It became my habit, first thing in the morning and just before bedtime, to stand before that portrait, as if standing before the reality, as if waiting for her approbation, or, when I had done some little thing of which I might be ashamed, as if sensing her disapproval. My father caught me at it one day when I thought he was gone from the Hall. He must have come back for some forgotten item and passed the half-opened door and seen me there. “Boy!” he said, startling me. “Come away from there! You have no business in there.”

I stepped back, and then, fearing his quick hand, darted past him and up the stairs to the nursery, another place he never came. I stayed away from my mother for two whole days, but I kept hearing her calling me, until finally I crept back to the parlor and pushed the door open—and she was gone. In her place was another painting—a hunting scene, with horses and red-coated riders milling around, dogs nearly underfoot, the master of the hunt with horn in hand—the sort of thing that hangs in public houses. There was nothing familiar or reassuring about it, nothing to fill the aching hole that suddenly came to my gut. It was a painting that should have been in the dining room, or my father’s library or his bedchamber, not in this room that I loved so dearly.

I had, after that, only the memory of her portrait. From then on, I stayed mostly in the nursery or the schoolroom, when I was not in the kitchen or the stables looking for a kind word or a pat on the head, or outside wandering through the wood or across the moors. I peeked a few times into the parlor, hoping that I had been mistaken about the hunting scene, but after that I rarely entered that room again.

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