"Yes, ma'am; I lived there once."
"I was the late Mr. Rochester's butler," he added.
The late! I seem to have received, with full force, the blow I had been trying to evade.
"The late!" I gasped. "Is he dead?"
"I mean the present gentleman, Mr. Edward's father," he explained. I breathed again: my blood resumed its flow. Fully assured by these words that Mr. Edward -myMr. Rochester (God bless him, wherever he was!) - was at least alive: was, in short, "the present gentleman." Gladdening words! It seemed I could hear all that was to come - whatever the disclosures might be - with comparative tranquillity. Since he was not in the grave, I could bear, I thought, to learn that he was at the Antipodes.
"Is Mr. Rochester living at Thornfield Hall now?" I asked, knowing, of course, what the answer would be, but yet desirous of deferring the direct question as to where he really was.
"No, ma'am - oh, no! No one is living there. I suppose you are a stranger in these parts, or you would have heard what happened last autumn, - Thornfield Hall is quite a ruin: it was burnt down just about harvest-time. A dreadful calamity! such an immense quantity of valuable property destroyed: hardly any of the furniture could be saved. The fire broke out at dead of night, and before the engines arrived from Millcote, the building was one mass of flame. It was a terrible spectacle: I witnessed it myself."
"At dead of night!" I muttered. Yes, that was ever the hour of fatality at Thornfield. "Was it known how it originated?" I demanded.
"They guessed, ma'am: they guessed. Indeed, I should say it was ascertained beyond a doubt. You are not perhaps aware," he continued, edging his chair a little nearer the table, and speaking low, "that there was a lady - a - a lunatic, kept in the house?"
"I have heard something of it."
"She was kept in very close confinement, ma'am: people even for some years was not absolutely certain of her existence. No one saw her: they only knew by rumour that such a person was at the Hall; and who or what she was it was difficult to conjecture. They said Mr. Edward had brought her from abroad, and some believed she had been his mistress. But a queer thing happened a year since - a very queer thing."
I feared now to hear my own story. I endeavoured to recall him to the main fact.
"And this lady?"
"This lady, ma'am," he answered, "turned out to be Mr. Rochester's wife! The discovery was brought about in the strangest way. There was a young lady, a governess at the Hall, that Mr. Rochester fell in - "
"But the fire," I suggested.
"I'm coming to that, ma'am - that Mr. Edward fell in love with. The servants say they never saw anybody so much in love as he was: he was after her continually. They used to watch him - servants will, you know, ma'am - and he set store on her past everything: for all, nobody but him thought her so very handsome. She was a little small thing, they say, almost like a child. I never saw her myself; but I've heard Leah, the house-maid, tell of her. Leah liked her well enough. Mr. Rochester was about forty, and this governess not twenty; and you see, when gentlemen of his age fall in love with girls, they are often like as if they were bewitched. Well, he would marry her."
"You shall tell me this part of the story another time," I said; "but now I have a particular reason for wishing to hear all about the fire. Was it suspected that this lunatic, Mrs. Rochester, had any hand in it?"
"You've hit it, ma'am: it's quite certain that it was her, and nobody but her, that set it going. She had a woman to take care of her called Mrs. Poole - an able woman in her line, and very trustworthy, but for one fault - a fault common to a deal of them nurses and matrons - shekept a private bottle of gin by her, and now and then took a drop over-much. It is excusable, for she had a hard life of it: but still it was dangerous; for when Mrs. Poole was fast asleep after the gin and water, the mad lady, who was as cunning as a witch, would take the keys out of her pocket, let herself out of her chamber, and go roaming about the house, doing any wild mischief that came into her head. They say she had nearly burnt her husband in his bed once: but I don't know about that. However, on this night, she set fire first to the hangings of the room next her own, and then she got down to a lower storey, and made her way to the chamber that had been the governess's - (she was like as if she knew somehow how matters had gone on, and had a spite at her) - and she kindled the bed there; but there was nobody sleeping in it, fortunately. The governess had run away two months before; and for all Mr. Rochester sought her as if she had been the most precious thing he had in the world, he never could hear a word of her; and he grew savage - quite savage on his disappointment: he never was a wild man, but he got dangerous after he lost her. He would be alone, too. He sent Mrs. Fairfax, the housekeeper, away to her friends at a distance; but he did it handsomely, for he settled an annuity on her for life: and she deserved it - she was a very good woman. Miss Adèle, a ward he had, was put to school. He broke off acquaintance with all the gentry, and shut himself up like a hermit at the Hall."
"What! did he not leave England?"
"Leave England? Bless you, no! He would not cross the door-stones of the house, except at night, when he walked just like a ghost about the grounds and in the orchard as if he had lost his senses - which it is my opinion he had; for a more spirited, bolder, keener gentleman than he was before that midge of a governess crossed him, you never saw, ma'am. He was not a man given to wine, or cards, or racing, as some are, and he was not so very handsome; but he had a courage and a will of his own, if ever man had. I knew him from a boy, you see: and for my part, I have often wished that Miss Eyre had been sunk in the sea before she came to Thornfield Hall."
"Then Mr. Rochester was at home when the fire broke out?"
"Yes, indeed was he; and he went up to the attics when all was burning above and below, and got the servants out of their beds and helped them down himself, and went back to get his mad wife out of her cell. And then they called out to him that she was on the roof, where she was standing, waving her arms, above the battlements, and shouting out till they could hear her a mile off: I saw her and heard her with my own eyes. She was a big woman, and had long black hair: we could see it streaming against the flames as she stood. I witnessed, and several more witnessed, Mr. Rochester ascend through the sky-light on to the roof; we heard him call 'Bertha!' We saw him approach her; and then, ma'am, she yelled and gave a spring, and the next minute she lay smashed on the pavement."
"Dead! Ay, dead as the stones on which her brains and blood were scattered."
"You may well say so, ma'am: it was frightful!"
"And afterwards?" I urged.
"Well, ma'am, afterwards the house was burnt to the ground: there are only some bits of walls standing now."
"Were any other lives lost?"
"No - perhaps it would have been better if there had."
"What do you mean?"
"Poor Mr. Edward!" he ejaculated, "I little thought ever to have seen it! Some say it was a just judgment on him for keeping his first marriage secret, and wanting to take another wife while he had one living: but I pity him, for my part."
"You said he was alive?" I exclaimed.
"Yes, yes: he is alive; but many think he had better be dead."
"Why? How?" My blood was again running cold. "Where is he?" I demanded. "Is he in England?"
"Ay - ay - he's in England; he can't get out of England, I fancy - he's a fixture now."
What agony was this! And the man seemed resolved to protract it.
"He is stone-blind," he said at last. "Yes, he is stone-blind, is Mr. Edward."
I had dreaded worse. I had dreaded he was mad. I summoned strength to ask what had caused this calamity.
"It was all his own courage, and a body may say, his kindness, in a way, ma'am: he wouldn't leave the house till every one else was out before him. As he came down the great staircase at last, after Mrs. Rochester had flung herself from the battlements, there was a great crash - all fell. He was taken out from under the ruins, alive, but sadly hurt: a beam had fallen in such a way as to protect him partly; but one eye was knocked out, and one hand so crushed that Mr. Carter, the surgeon, had to amputate it directly. The other eye inflamed: he lost the sight of that also. He is now helpless, indeed - blind and a cripple."
"Where is he? Where does he now live?"
"At Ferndean, a manor-house on a farm he has, about thirty miles off: quite a desolate spot."
"Who is with him?"
"Old John and his wife: he would have none else. He is quite broken down, they say."
"Have you any sort of conveyance?"
"We have a chaise, ma'am, a very handsome chaise."
"Let it be got ready instantly; and if your post-boy can drive me to Ferndean before dark this day, I'll pay both you and him twice the hire you usually demand."