WHEN: Late October 1836
WHERE: Leeds, Yorkshire, England
WHO: Ladies of Class
WHAT: An Alternative Look at a Familiar Story
Grey clouds gathered in the sky, throwing sporadic, but intense, bursts of rain. It was a dull day; not even the colourful autumn leaves swept up by the wind could bring any cheer; they were but the forecast of yet colder months to come. Outside the main entrance of Lenhurst, that respectable and imposing residence of the Lynns, a woman alighted from a carriage. The carriage was as respectable and imposing as the house itself, it was Lady Margaret’s own. The passenger was, however, not Lady Margaret. She was a young woman of striking beauty, tall, graceful and dark-haired, dressed in the latest fashions. Shielding herself with the hood of her cloak, she ascended the wide stone steps leading to the front door.
All right, let’s get through this.
“Miss Bianca Ingram,” announced the butler.
Lady Margaret Lynn welcomed the visitor with outstretched arms. “My dear, I’m so glad you came!”
After asking about Bianca’s family, and subsequently being reassured that Bianca’s mother, the dowager Lady Ingram, Bianca’s brother Lord Theodore Ingram, and Bianca’s younger sister Mary were all well and in good health, Lady Margaret exclaimed: “Isn’t it a frightful weather? This is not helping my rheumatism, not one bit.”
“It’s awful,” Bianca replied.
Not like the day before yesterday, with its glorious golden autumnal sunshine. Bianca was out in town shopping for a new gown, when she bumped into Lady Margaret. “Bianca darling! So good to see you. And what are you doing here all by yourself? Is not Miss Eshton with you?”
“Oh, I’m not staying at the Leas. I’ve got a room at the Mill Cote hotel.”
“The Mill Cote hotel! Fancy that.” When Bianca failed to offer any further explanation, Lady Margaret continued. “You must come to Lenhurst. I’ve been feeling ever so lonely, the boys are in Wales, you know, visiting an old school friend. I’ll send my carriage over. I won’t hear any excuses.”
No, Bianca didn’t think Lady Margaret would hear any excuses. So now she was sitting in the Lenhurst drawing room; a rather overstuffed one, but cosy, with comfortable armchairs, overabundance of cushions, and a big fire. “Has Sir George left for Westminster?” she asked.
“Yes, only a fortnight ago. A new session of parliament, as you know…”
“Do you not normally accompany him?”
“I do, dearie, I do, but I’ve been feeling under the weather the past few weeks, quite under the weather, and that business at Thornfield Hall…” She put the back of her hand on her forehead and closed her eyes.
“Shocking, wasn’t it?” said Bianca.
“Shocking doesn’t even begin to describe it, Bianca dearie. It unsettled me something frightful.”
“You’re quite right to feel that way. It was unsettling.”
“And us, being there only mere months ago. Merciful god!”
“And now all that’s left is ashes.”
“Indeed, funny how the horrid affair met such an end. It seems to me it’s for the best. Of course, one can never be too cautious when it comes to fires. I keep telling George to be ever so much more careful with the pokers, but men never listen… Still, to think of such a stately home like Thornfield, burnt to a crisp.” She shook her head.
“Even the remains aren’t worth much.”
The elder lady tilted her head slightly to the side. “Have you, perchance, been there to have a look at it?”
Who hasn’t, thought Bianca. “Yes, we went there with Teddy and Mary and the Eshton sisters. It is, as you said, my lady, burnt to a crisp.”
“Those nice furnishings.”
“You admired the brocade draperies so.”
“All gone,” Lady Margaret sighed.
“And how about you, your ladyship? Have you fancied a visit to the ruins of Thornfield?”
“Merciful god, I wouldn’t dream of it! I’m positive it would give me nightmares. Hearing about the whole horrible business was enough to make me go lie down for days.”
Bianca conjured up an image of her hostess lying in bed in utter darkness, a wet towel on her forehead.
“And then, I hear people are having picnics at Thornfield ruins! Can you imagine anything so distasteful?”
Bianca’s lips twitched. Teddy and his japes! Truth was, the first sight of the black remains of that once mighty mansion was enough for even Teddy to lose appetite. “Bone chilling,” he declared gravely. When they visited the place the second time, with Mary and the Eshton sisters, her brother was his usual merry self. But there was no picnic—for one, it was too cold for it. They returned to the Leas, to dine with the Eshtons.
Bianca mumbled something in agreement and added: “I do hope you’re feeling better, my lady, you’re looking well.”
The big double door opened; a maid and a footman entered the drawing room, each carrying a tray. They placed on the round oak table a teapot, two cups and saucers, a milk jug, and a sugar bowl; as well as a plate of buttered bread, and a plate of sliced cake. They bowed and departed.
Lady Margaret poured out the tea. “No doubt you’re glad to have some good tea, not the weak brew they offer at those hotels,” she said.
“True,” Bianca nodded. The tea at the Mill Cote was in truth quite satisfactory, but under no circumstances would Bianca say it out loud. “Yours is ever so much nicer than any we had at Thornfield Hall. But so it is, even with a housekeeper as good as old Mrs Fairfax, a bachelor’s household is only a bachelor’s household.”
Lady Margaret put the teapot down. “You forget, dear, Edward Rochester was no bachelor.”
“Oh yes, of course… I meant it more that he ran his house as a bachelor.”
“That he did. See, we always knew him for a womaniser, but we expected he would eventually get married, after all he’d want an heir. And all along,” she shuddered.
“A wife in the attic.”
“Merciful god! Did he not think someone would find out? How did he believe he’d be able to hide her there forever?”
“He certainly had the nerve.”
Lady Margaret grabbed the milk jug and carefully poured a bit of the liquid into her cup. She added two lumps of sugar, picked up a teaspoon and stirred in a slow motion. “I thought, once—you remember that Christmas party at Thornfield some years ago, when you wore that gorgeous amber shawl, you were such a delight to look at, my dear—I was awakened at night by noise coming from upstairs. I’m a light sleeper as you know.” She picked up her cup and drank.
“You reckon it may have been her?” Bianca asked.
“I couldn’t say, I’m sure, but I do wonder now… it sounded like a piece of furniture falling, perhaps a small table or a chair. I can’t tell you what time it was, with everything so pitch black. The next morning I told George, who in that discreet way of his mentioned it to Mr Rochester. It’s such a blessing to be married to a man like George.”
Bianca felt a prick in her chest. Never again, never ever, ever again will she make fun of the Lynns’ marriage. Please forgive me.
“What did Mr Rochester have to say to that?” she asked, drinking her tea. She took it with milk, but no sugar.
“He just laughed it off. Nothing to worry about, only rats and mice, he said. So nonchalant over vermin, I should have suspected something wasn’t right.”
According to Grace Poole, it was always worse when there was company at Thornfield.
“They had cats,” Bianca said. “At Thornfield. They always had them.”
“Yes, of course it was nonsense, but I didn’t think anything of it, not then. Mind you, cats knock things down too, so it may have been a cat, I suppose, but anyways, if I ever thought back to it, I imagined some sort of, shall we say,” she lowered her voice, “indiscreet situation, oh forgive me, my dear.”
“You mean the servants—“
“That’s what I meant, the servants, getting up to—oh never mind that.” She paused. Then she continued: “You know, it’s funny, because that’s what he said. During our stay there last spring, that night there was that commotion. That it was a servant. Do you remember?”
“Yes, a servant with a nightmare,” she answered. “A nervous, excitable woman.” It was always a woman. For Rochester, anything inconvenient or unpleasant was always the fault of a woman.
“We thought he said it to cover up some imprudence the servants got into. Thinking back about it now, about his secret wife… one wonders. Although, I’m sure it was a male voice that screamed.”
Bianca reached for a slice of bread. “I’m convinced it was actually the servants this time.” She bit into the bread. Well, no harm done. All of the former staff at Thornfield got new positions. Richard recovered.
“You were in Italy when the news broke, weren’t you?”
“The news of the secret wife? Yes.”
“The very notion of Edward Rochester marrying his governess raised eyebrows, but at least he was marrying someone. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, given his behaviour at that party.”
“It didn’t surprise me.”
“I did think about you. I hoped you didn’t really care about him. You didn’t, dearie, did you?”
“Not a bit,” Bianca smiled.
“I’m glad to hear that. One couldn’t have been sure, with the two of you flirting the way you did.” Disapproval filled her voice. “And I must tell you, young lady, you should not be flirting with men as unashamedly as that, and I said so to your lady dowager mother—“
“That was for her benefit,” Bianca interrupted. “For the governess’s.”
“Indeed? How strange. You wouldn’t think there was any need for him to act like that. I mean, she most likely would have been in love with him anyway. I found it quite distasteful.” She wrinkled her nose.
“Edward was fond of games,” Bianca said. She shuddered at the memory of the governess. The governess, always sitting in the corner, crouching behind curtains, staring at her. “I find her creepy,” she told Mary and the Eshton sisters. “I noticed she only stares at you,” Louisa Eshton said. Mary remarked that maybe the girl was just admiring her. “You’re the prettiest of us.”
“More likely it’s Edward she wants,” Bianca said. And he must have been aware of it, why else would he have made her sit in the drawing room with them? Because the governess would never have thought of doing so herself. She looked like someone who knew her place—and in any case, she wouldn’t have found the company entertaining.
“Until it caught up with him.” The words of her hostess brought her back to the present.
“And it did.”
Lady Margaret munched on the buttered bread with gusto. “Feel free to pour yourself more tea, dearie.”
Had she really gulped the whole cup already? Slow down a bit!
Bianca poured herself tea. Not perhaps from any fondness of the beverage; she preferred coffee, the quarter Italian in her coming out strongly—but this was too interesting a conversation. “You knew Edward Rochester as a young man, didn’t you, my lady?”
“A little. He left for the West Indies shortly after college, you see. I knew his brother Rowland better.”
“I hear he was quite a character.”
Lady Margaret smiled in reminiscence. “Indeed he was. An exceptional host, shame you never got to attend his parties, but of course, you would have been too young. Great sportsman and charmer, popular with everyone.”
“From what I can tell by his portraits, he was much better looking than Edward too. Although,” Bianca added, “that might just have been the artist’s hand.”
“He was, well, not handsome exactly, I couldn’t have called him that, but much more pleasant looking, though his colouring was the same as Edward’s. Took more after their mother’s side, the Fairfaxes.”
“Rowland never married.”
“No, but it wasn’t out of the ordinary, he was still fairly young, not yet thirty. He wanted to take his time, I guess, but well…”
“Time took him instead.”
“It did.” Lady Margaret sighed and took a slice of seed cake. “Couldn’t keep up with that lifestyle, I suppose. His father died too, shortly afterwards. Or was it before? I’m not sure exactly. Anyhow, they both died close to each other.”
Bianca, mirroring her hostess, also partook the cake. “How tragic!” she exclaimed. To herself, she thought: not.
“Edward had at that time been living in the West Indies for four or five years. None of us heard from him, until he returned to take over the estate.”
Bianca frowned. “Isn’t that strange?”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Not that we were ever close friends… but not even those that were… he had one or two friends from his college days, that’s if he had kept in touch with them at all. Neither Rowland, nor his father ever mentioned Edward’s name and nobody asked. He was all but forgotten.”
That would explain a lot.
“That was the year we were in Nova Scotia, you know,” Lady Margaret went on. “Naturally, we wanted to meet Thornfield’s new master when we got back. But he had travelled. That’s how it was with him, never at home. Always off to London or the Continent, amusing himself with different women. It was disgusting even then. And now, to think that…” she put the cup down. “Merciful god!”
“A wife all along,” Bianca said, picking up her teacup. “Hidden in the attic.” She sipped tea.
“Horrible,” Lady Margaret spoke in a whisper. “And made even worse by the—” she stopped.
“An ugly word, that.” Lady Margaret filled her cup and threw in another sugar cube. The spoon clanged as she stirred. “I suppose,” she said, “he married the woman in the West Indies in haste, and just as quickly got tired of her. I understand she came with money?”
“That seems to have been the deciding factor.”
“I wonder.” She took a sip of tea. “Old Rochester shares some guilt in this, he always favoured Rowland. It wouldn’t surprise me if he left the whole property to him. He was indeed a greedy man. Not that I’m absolving Edward, don’t get me wrong.”
You’d better not be.
“But well,” Lady Margaret sighed. “Old sins cast long shadows.”
“Edward kept that marriage a secret,” Bianca said.
“As if it was something shameful. What woman would like that? I don’t understand Edward’s conduct in this, I really don’t.”
“He didn’t want people to know he got rich by marrying a woman of wealth—and a Creole woman at that.”
“A wife is a wife, Creole or not. I won’t stand for this.” Lady Margaret put her cup down with vigour.
Bianca suppressed a smile. Inside, she rejoiced. Oh this is good, this is very, very good. “He probably didn’t expect Rowland to die without an heir,” she said. “Overnight, he found himself an owner of the Rochester estate—with a very inconvenient wife.”
“So he brought her to England and locked her in the attic and pretended he’s single.” Lady Margaret scoffed. “And then he claimed she was mad and insane. Who wouldn’t be, after a decade in the attic?”
“And then he goes and marries a governess.”
“He wouldn’t dare pull that trick with one of us. But a poor orphan with no close friends or relations…” Bianca left the sentence unfinished. She recalled the surprise in Edward’s face when the girl asked for leave of absence to visit a dying aunt. But you said you had no relations! And the relief upon hearing they were estranged.
“He still got caught.”
“Someone pronounced an impediment to the marriage?”
“That’s how it must have happened, I gather. After all, that’s why they ask, no? When they officiate a marriage.”
If this was a subtle dig at Bianca’s unmarried status, it didn’t bother her. Not anymore. “Obviously.”
“A solicitor stepped forward, with a witness, the secret wife’s brother. A terrible situation for the bride, I imagine, but at least they spared her from something even worse. Though I hear she’s not been seen since.”
“What happened, has she disappeared?”
“It seems so.”
“Do you think that Edward—“
“Oh no, merciful god, it’s nothing like that, she has just run away. Of her own accord. I don’t see why she had to, by all accounts she’s done nothing wrong. She didn’t know he was already married. Sure, she’s somewhat stupid—I heard she didn’t want any of the jewellery Edward had given her.”
“Evidently,” Bianca murmured. You don’t refuse jewellery from a man.
“But that doesn’t mean she should starve or freeze to death out on the moors. You know what I heard?” Lady Margaret leant closer to her visitor. “Edward walked the grounds at night, shouting her name.”
Lady Margaret gave a nod and took a sip of tea.
“And yet still claimed it was his wife that was insane?”
“Funny that, isn’t it? Men always call us crazy. Maybe they should have a look at themselves first.”
“She’s not insane?”
“Of course she’s not insane. She’s even been seen by a London specialist, who confirmed it. There would undoubtedly be some effects of the imprisonment, but otherwise there’s nothing wrong with her. She’s with her brother now, the same man who came to visit that day in Thornfield.” Lady Margaret narrowed her eyes at Bianca. “But surely you know this, you have met with Mr Mason, haven’t you?”
“Once or twice,” Bianca admitted. She wasn’t looking at Lady Margaret. Instead, she was admiring the pretty jasperware pattern on the Wedgwood china. Out of the corner of the eye, she saw Lady Margaret smile. She carefully placed the cup on the saucer. “It is as you say. Rochester lied. She is not mad.”
“Never for a second did I believe she was. I mean, if she was, why keep her in the house? Why not send her to an institution?”
“He only hired one woman to look after her, what was her name now—Peel?”
“Poole. Grace Poole.”
“Oh yes, Poole. Was she even a qualified nurse?”
“She’s a seamstress by profession, but has a lot of experience looking after people with certain conditions. She’s a Quaker, you know, from the York Retreat. Her son is the superintendent there.”
“Fancy that,” Lady Margaret took another piece of cake. “Well, she has fulfilled her duties, that much has to be said.”
“And the lady? Mrs Rochester. Is she recovered now?”
Her name is Antoinette. Bianca bit her tongue. “Almost. It will take some time, but Dr Foster is confident there is no reason why she shouldn’t make a full recovery. Rich—I mean, Mr Mason wants to take her to the seaside, before the winter sets in. South of France or Italy. A voyage back to Jamaica would be too strenuous at present, she also suffers from sea sickness.”
“I for one swear by the French Riviera. It has done wonders for my health.”
“I think the dissolution of that marriage will do even better wonders for her.”
“George has been working on that. Would you like more tea, dearie?”
“Oh, I’ll have more, thank you, my lady.”
“As I said, George is working on getting the divorce. Mr Edward Baines, the other member for Leeds, is with him on this. It’s not often you find yourself agreeing with a Whig.”
Bianca smiled. Good.
“So, how was it that the fire started?”
Bianca’s hand, which was lifting the teacup, jolted, and a little of the tea escaped from the cup into the saucer. “The fire? It seems to have been an accident. A candlestick fell down and the carpet and the drapes caught fire.”
“No wonder. The disorder that house must have been in after the housekeeper resigned. Not that I blame her.”
“The housemaid had left too. She was scared of Rochester.”
“Who wouldn’t be?”
Bianca rubbed her thumb on the rim of the cup. “Many contradicting rumours are going around this town.”
“About the housemaid?”
“No, about the fire.”
Lady Margaret raised her eyebrows. “Indeed?”
“At the dressmakers they believe it was the wife that did it, though not necessarily on purpose. The Eshtons have heard every kind of tale by now, from an outside culprit—a vagrant, carrying out revenge for not being given money when he came begging, to the poor dog being responsible. The staff at the Mill Cote are, for some reason, under the impression that it was Rochester himself.”
“Upon my soul!” Lady Margaret’s eyes went wide. “Rochester himself! Now, what made them think of that?”
Bianca took a sip and said thoughtfully: “Remember the speculation about his financial difficulties?”
“Wasn’t that just a rumour?”
“What if it wasn’t?”
Lady Margaret frowned in contemplation. “With the life he led, wasting money on women and who knows what… and then, of course, Thornfield was not cheap to maintain. Taking in that little French girl would have meant additional expenses. Hmm, I see. Still, burning his house down because he can’t afford to run it anymore is a bit of a stretch.”
“It does seem a very risky thing to do, after all, he couldn’t have been sure it would work the way he’d want it to. Why, he could have perished in the fire himself. But who knows what state his mind was in. If he was walking the grounds at night…”
“It makes you wonder if he was the mad one, doesn’t it? You are quite right, dear Bianca, he easily could have perished in the fire himself.”
“As it happens, he got out of it alive.”
“And lost his sight and one hand in the process. It’s a miracle that the wife was able to escape, what with her locked upstairs.”
“Mrs Poole saved her. As soon as she saw the severity of the fire, she grabbed her—probably out of an instinct of a long-term carer—and they made it out before the main staircase collapsed.”
“Indeed, Mrs Poole acted well, for all they say that she drinks.”
“I hear it’s a common vice in nurses and carers—a difficult profession. Anyway, it’s likely that the whole experience will help sober her up, now that she’s back with her people.”
“It must be no easy feat saving a full human, in the middle of the night.”
“It certainly took courage. Apparently they ran all the way to Leeds, and stopped at the first inn they came across. Mrs Poole has been putting her earnings into the savings bank. She sent a message to her son at the Retreat, who came to fetch them. Antoinette—that’s Mrs Rochester’s name—has been there ever since, looked after by the Quakers. Her brother’s staying there too, he’s very pleased with her condition.”
Let her be taken care of; let her be treated as tenderly as may be.
Richard’s words, again, still causing that burning sensation down her spine, that strange mixture of pleasure and pain around her heart. Let her be taken care of; let her be treated as tenderly as may be…
“Did Mr Mason not have any idea about what Rochester did to his sister?”
“He says he knew nothing.”
I swear I didn’t know… he appeared a decent gentleman. I encouraged the match! Never will l forgive myself for that. You have to, Bianca told him. “For both of your sakes.”
“Only over the last couple of years his mistrust towards Rochester grew,” Bianca added. “He was mostly in West Indies or Madeira. He’s a merchant, you know.”
“I remember he said so when he came to Thornfield. You know, I always wondered why he’d left so abruptly. He was gone before we came down to breakfast the next day.”
“Rochester sent him away.”
“Did he? He couldn’t risk Mr Mason revealing his secret, I suppose.”
“But at least Mr Mason finally learned the truth about his sister.”
By getting stabbed by her?
A minor point, Bianca told herself.
“It must have been quite a blow to him. Rochester probably fed him a pack of lies.”
“Oh he did—strange sickness, needed to be isolated, and other such nonsense. Which made Mr Mason think, if that was so, then why invite company to Thornfield?”
“Exactly what I have been saying!” Lady Margaret’s voice was nothing short of triumphant. “Wasn’t that also the night there was that disturbance?”
“It was, because I remember he arrived when that gypsy woman was there. And the disturbance happened on the night of that day, because when the screams woke me up I thought of her first. You know how one’s mind plays tricks when one’s being awakened.”
“You’re right,” Bianca admitted, trying to keep annoyance out of her voice. Mention of the gypsy woman, however, gave her a chance to change track. “You know that was really Rochester in disguise?”
“I had an idea. I think we all did, secretly. Telling fortunes to young and unmarried ladies only! A real fortune teller would not exclude anyone.”
Bianca nodded. She and Louisa detected the deception straight away, Amy didn’t catch it till later. Mary, too kind-hearted to suspect anyone of such trickery, believed her to be only a beggar woman. She had no faith in fortune tellers. “We played along, you know how he liked to have his fun.” Bianca said. “Anyway, he got everything wrong. Apart from Teddy and Amy’s engagement, which was obvious.”
“Quite right that, it was about time those two got together.”
Bianca smiled. She couldn’t disagree.
“More cake, dearie?”
“No thank you, my lady, I think I’ve had enough.” She couldn’t eat any more. The last dregs of tea remained at the bottom of her cup. Lady Margaret still had half a cup. Bianca waited.
“So this Mr Mason,” Lady Margaret said, “does he have any ties to England at all?”
At last, the final item.
“Some cousins down south, but from what I gathered, he only keeps a minimum contact with them.” They disapproved of his father’s marriage to a Creole woman. “But he’s about to make new ties.”
“Yes. He and Teddy have become good friends.”
“Oh. How nice.”
Bianca swiftly raised the cup to her lips to hide her smile. All in good time.
She asked about Lady Margaret’s sons and received a brief account of both of theirs comings and goings, and future plans. Finally, the hostess put an empty cup down. “I sure have enjoyed our little conversation.”
“So have I, Lady Margaret. Thank you for inviting me—I am much honoured. The tea and cake were lovely.”
“Oh it’s a pleasure to have you young things, my dear. We should organise another party for next year. When is the wedding to take place?”
“As soo—. You mean Teddy and Amy’s wedding? Next spring. April, or May at the latest.”
“Excellent. Spring weddings are the best. I hope we’ll see each other there.”
“Will you not come for a visit to Ingram Park?”
“I would love to, dearie, but I’m leaving for London the day after tomorrow to be with George. I am well enough to travel now.”
Bianca smiled. “Well, have a good time there. No doubt it’s thrilling to be in the middle of action.”
“It sure is. One day I’ll tell you all the stories.”
Lady Margaret accompanied her young visitor to the entrance. “Look, the weather’s cleared up.”
It was so. In place of the grey clouds, there were white ones. Bianca exited Lenhurst into the smell of autumn. She climbed into the carriage, waving at Lady Margaret from the window. The driver cracked the whip and the carriage was off.
Bianca leant back and relaxed.
That went well.
Richard was expected the next day. They’d leave for Ingram Park together, so that the proper announcements could be made.
“I think it would be good if we got married.”
She laughed. Then looked at him. “Wait, you’re in earnest. Why?”
“Why not? That way, I can protect you both.”
“Pure marriage of convenience only?”
“Of course, let there be no doubt about that.”
He knew it would be advantageous to her, but— “What’s in it for you?”
“I often felt that having a wife would be only beneficial for my business. Especially now that I own that mill. A lady of class, with a talent for social gatherings. You’re the right woman for that.”
“That I am. But don’t you want a wife that will be—well, a real wife?”
“No. I don’t care for that stuff. Just not interested. I can’t explain it.”
She thought for a bit, then said: “I think I understand.”
She nodded. They shook hands.
“We’ll have to keep up some sort of appearances,” she said.
“I’m sure that won’t be a problem. Would you like me to get you some jewels in London? What do you like—diamonds, rubies, emeralds?”
“Rubies will be lovely.” She liked rubies.
“Wait, Richard,” she called after him, as he was walking away. He turned back. “Yes?”
“Do you still have scars?”
He smiled. “Why—do you want to see them?”
“God help me, no. I just wondered.”
“They’re on my arm and shoulder. I pray they don’t fade. They’re but a reminder.”
“I don’t think you really need a reminder. But if you want them to be…”
“Look after her,” he said. “Please.”
The carriage came to a stop outside Mill Cote Hotel, in the heart of Leeds. A porter rushed to open the door and help the lady out. Bianca thanked him and went inside.
She entered her hotel room.
Antoinette was sitting in the armchair by the fireplace, reading a book. She shut the book when Bianca came in. “You’re back! How did it go?”
Bianca took off her cloak and hung it on the hook. She walked to the armchair, leant down and kissed Antoinette. “It was a blast.”
She sat down in the armchair opposite Antoinette and recapitulated her visit to Lenhurst, almost word-for-word, from time to time raising her eyebrows in imitation. “In-deed?” Not out of a wish to disrespect Lady Margaret, she was past that now, but merely to entertain Antoinette. And Antoinette was entertained. She laughed; a healthy, hearty laugh, ringing like joyful bells. Oh how blissful it was to hear her laugh like that!
“The mood is in our favour,” Bianca concluded. “The people we need to be on your side are on your side. We couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome.”
“Have they really turned against him?”
Antoinette would not speak his name. The name of the man who was her husband, her tormentor.
“It’s not that surprising, what with everything. You know what it’s like, when a scandal breaks, every idiot proclaims how they suspected all along, but at least in this case it works to our advantage.”
“I cannot yet believe it. I thought… I was afraid that they would support him, that everyone would always support him.”
“That’s just it. He wanted you to think that. In reality it’s not the truth. People only tolerated Edward because he was the master of Thornfield. The same goes for the women he was throwing money at. They never liked him. It was Rowland that was popular, though from what Lady Margaret said, he was just as rotten as Edward, albeit in a different way. It’ll be all for the best when that line finally dies out.”
“How clever of you to think of that dress shop.”
“It was the best place to come across her, ostensibly by accident. Though she likely guessed. Lady Lynn’s not stupid, you know. She doesn’t let just anyone ride in her carriage.” Bianca’s face sobered. “How I used to mock her and Sir George! And yet, no one else in the whole world has helped you—helped us—more than him. Well, let this be a humble lesson to me.”
“He’s been so kind to me. The way he immediately agreed to arrange the divorce when Richard approached him. ‘Certainly, leave it with me,’ he said. But… sometimes I worry that one morning he wakes up and changes his mind.”
“That he won’t. Richard purchased that small flax mill in Holbeck. Which means—“
“Which means he gets the right to vote, I know. But I can’t help how my mind works.” She put her head in her hands. “I’m so afraid to hope. These past weeks, since Thornfield burned down… it’s been the best time of my life. When I was with him, the most I dared to dream of was being free. Being away from Thornfield and him, that was all. I’d have been quite content to live out the rest of my life among the Quakers. Feeding pigs and chickens, working in the garden, even baking, once I learned to do it right. But this… Bianca, I am not used to happiness. What if it gets snatched away from me, what if I don’t deserve it?”
“You do.” Bianca reached out and took Antoinette’s hand into hers. “You deserve every bit of happiness that comes your way. With time you will see. Don’t rush it, you’re still healing. Mr Poole said you’ve made an amazing progress.”
“Well, I only checked the room is not locked from the outside twice, while you were away. But I didn’t spend all that time here, I was downstairs having a cup of coffee, and I even struck up a conversation with that middle aged couple we saw at breakfast, the Morrises.”
“You did? That’s wonderful! What did you talk about?”
“York, mostly. I told them I used to live with the Quakers. They didn’t pry. I reckon they imagined I was at the Retreat nursing a broken heart, that I was abandoned by a man I loved in the past, perhaps even at the altar—I introduced myself as Miss Mason. The absurdity of it quite amuses me.” She smiled.
“I quite like that story. It may prove useful in the future, in case anyone gets too nosy.”
“We should be careful about telling too many tales, or else we’re as bad as him.”
“Not if it’s for a good reason.”
“Yes, but heed this.” She picked up the book she had been reading, opened it at the spot marked by a folded page corner and recited:
“O, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!”
“Marmion again?” Bianca laughed. “Alright then, we’ll make sure the web we’ll weave is not too tangled.” Her tone turned serious. “For people like us, some amount of deception is necessary.”
Antoinette closed the book. “I know that, I do. But—“
“I know. You’re still haunted by the past. But I promise you, it will get better.”
“It’s not what happened to me, it’s what I did. I did attack Richard.”
“And good thing you did. For one, it finally forced him to confront the situation. And two, his screams awakened the whole house, which happened to include a certain someone. A certain someone, who’d already had some suspicions, what with Rochester’s inexplicably flirtatious behaviour towards her at Leas, and his insistence that the company should transfer to Thornfield, when that was never the plan—which Mrs Eshton is still sour about, for she was a proud hostess. At Thornfield, the certain someone’s suspicions increased. And then came that fateful night. Unsatisfied with the host’s feeble explanation, the certain someone, unable to fall asleep again, indulged in a bit of snooping, observing the governess running errands for her master between his bedroom and upstairs. Finally, at the crack of dawn, the certain someone woke up her notoriously morning-hating brother, and persuaded him to investigate in the attic. Never one to miss an adventure, the brother agreed. So upstairs they went, and discovered a hidden door, a door that led to you. You know the rest.”
Antoinette smiled, then sighed. “Still, I wish there could have been another way.”
“There was no other way, Antoinette. You lived with a cruel, violent man, and so cruel and violent must also be the methods with which you free yourself of him. You were locked in the attic for ten years. You were no prisoner trying to escape justice. Your escape was the justice.”
A tear came to Antoinette’s eye. “The way you say it—you’re a poet, Bianca.”
Bianca stretched her hand to wipe the tear away. “You’ll turn me into a poet if care is not taken. I would write odes about you, and maybe someday I will, but for now I need to focus elsewhere. Richard’s coming tomorrow. He’ll have the licence ready. We’ll leave for Ingram Park and get married as soon as possible. I will have to do a lot of acting for that, most of all where my mother is concerned, which will require all my energy. I mean to get through the ceremony by pretending my groom is you.”
“Take care, then, not to say my name by mistake.”
“Ah, worry not, my love, I have been practicing, repeating I take thee Richard. You know there was once a man who said the wrong name at the altar?”
“Was it Colonel Ross? Someone at the Retreat told me the story. The woman he wanted refused him, so he married another one, whom he didn’t love. The poor bride!”
“He was stupid, like most men.”
Bianca sat back and watched her lover. She looked beautiful—her hair, dark and thick and glossy, was coiled around her head in a braid, with a few curls falling on the side of her face. Her golden brown skin glowed; the horrible bluish tinge was gone. Her eyes, deep and dark, hid no more sorrow. It was the eyes… and the hands, she had pretty hands… that made Bianca, in those early morning hours in the attic of Thornfield Hall, see a woman, a whole woman, in place of the inhuman creature her brutal husband claimed her to be.
Antoinette… My name is Antoinette. He calls me Bertha, but that’s not me.
“No, I can see it’s not.”
A few clandestine meetings in the attic, and Bianca knew she had to save her, if it was the last thing she would do.
Grace Poole agreed to co-operate. With Teddy’s help, they traced Richard Mason, and the three began working on a plan to rescue Antoinette. But just as they were about to execute the first step, fire consumed Thornfield Hall.
The hours following the news of the fire were soul crushing agony. Now that she’d finally found love… but in the evening a message came from Antoinette and Grace. We are safe in Leeds, leaving for the Retreat tomorrow. In her relief, Bianca had to run to her bedroom to cry. She left for the Retreat herself, as soon as she cooked up a story to tell her mother. She and Antoinette had been together ever since.
She spoke now. “Sir George says you’re free to go anywhere you wish. We’ll travel to Italy first. Yes, Italy. Rome, Florence, Venice, Lake Como. A distant cousin of mine has a villa there. And we’ll winter on the Amalfi coast.” She sighed. “If only I had more than my small legacy. And you—”
“Richard has enough means for all three of us. You need to let it go, Bianca. My husband squandered my fortune. Nothing will ever recover it. It doesn’t matter. I’m free. You can’t put a price on freedom. Or love.”
“That doesn’t mean you can’t have some money as well.” Bianca stood up and went to sit on the arm of Antoinette’s chair. She put her arm around her.
“Richard says there’s still something left from father’s legacy,” Antoinette said. “And also, apparently, the governess girl is an heiress—an uncle she never met left her quite a large sum.”
“And Edward will soon be free again.”
“You reckon she’ll go back to him?”
“It’s possible. If so, history is bound to repeat itself. It’s different this time—he’s a broken, friendless man, maimed and blinded, and Ferndean Manor is far from the grandness of Thornfield. But—”
“He’s still a vindictive man, likely even more so.” Antoinette rested her head on Bianca’s shoulder. “I did my best to warn her. But I could do no more than tear up her wedding veil. She failed to understand the sign.”
“We can only hope she’ll have more sense. If she doesn’t,” Bianca shrugged, “that’s not really our concern. We shall live for ourselves and everyone else be danged. What do you say to that?”
“I say yes.”
Author’s Note: If you’re going to give an English Literature teacher a heart attack, at least make it worthwhile! I am no bird, no net ensnares me, my ass. Author is indeed a Jane Eyre heretic.
This story can be read as a sequel to my previous story The Silver Candlestick, or separately. There is no mention of Antoinette’s bisexuality in The Silver Candlestick, though I usually do headcanon her as bisexual. (I have many versions/universes in my head.) I changed Blanche to Bianca because I like it better (she gets called that once in the book) and I made her part Italian. And lesbian, obviously.
Lady Lynn doesn’t have a first name in the original book, but I wanted her to have one, so I gave her one.
Richard’s quote “Let her be taken care of, let her be treated as tenderly as may be” is taken directly from the book. I’m always surprised that such a beautiful quote gets ignored, but of course, it would mean either admitting Bertha’s (or Antoinette’s in my case, as in Wide Sargasso Sea) humanity, or admitting that Richard actually cares about his sister. The line “look after her, please” is lifted form the Sherlock episode The Abominable Bride, written by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat. (It was “look after him” actually, the line was spoken by Mycroft Holmes to John Watson and the “him” was Sherlock. A similar situation if you ship Johnlock–a brother asks a same-sex partner to look after their sibling.)
I use real place names; Millcote in the book is Leeds, but I named the hotel Mill Cote as a callback. Grimsby Retreat, where Grace Poole’s son is superintendent, is York Retreat.
Rochester’s gaslighting is no work of my imagination–it’s right there, in the text.
As ever, thank you for reading.