Jane Eyre in Flash Fiction Chapter XIV
My Third and Most Peculiar Conversation with Mr Rochester
For several subsequent days I saw little of Mr. Rochester. He would sometimes pass me haughtily and coldly, acknowledging my presence by a distant nod or a cool glance, and sometimes bow and smile with gentlemanlike affability. One day he had company to dinner and sent for my portfolio to exhibit its contents. Soon after his acquaintances left, a message came that Adele and I were summoned to his presence.
Adele was gratified to see a little carton, on the table when we entered the dining-room.
‘Ma boite! ma boite!’ exclaimed she, running towards it.
‘Yes, there is your ‘boite’ at last: take it into a corner, and open it in silence: tiens-toi tranquille, enfant; comprends-tu?’
She untied the cord and exclaimed, ‘Oh ciel! Que c’est beau!’
‘Come forward Miss Eyre; be seated,’ demanded the master, drawing a chair near his own. ‘Don’t draw that chair farther off, Miss Eyre; sit down exactly where I placed it—if you please, that is. Confound these civilities! I continually forget them.”
When Mrs. Fairfax arrived, knitting-basket in hand, he instructed her to entertain Adele and turned to me. “Now, Miss Eyre, draw your chair still a little farther forward: you are yet too far back.”
The dining-room, which had been lit for dinner, filled the room with a festal breadth of light; the large fire was all red and clear. Mr. Rochester sat in his damask-covered chair and looked much less gloomy. He was in his after-dinner mood; more expanded than the frigid and rigid temper of the morning.
‘You examine me, Miss Eyre,’ said he: ‘do you think me handsome?’
The answer slipped from my tongue before I was aware. ‘No, sir.’
‘Ah! By my word! There is something singular about you,’ said he. “What do you mean by such a brusque answer?”
‘Sir, I was too plain; I beg your pardon. I should have said that tastes mostly differ, and beauty is of little consequence, or something of that sort.’
‘You stick a sly penknife under my ear! Go on: what fault do you find with me, pray? I suppose I have all my limbs and all my features like any other man?’
‘Mr. Rochester, allow me to disown my first answer. It was only a blunder.’
‘Criticise me: does my forehead not please you? Am I a fool?’
‘Far from it, sir. You would, perhaps, think me rude if I inquired in return whether you are a philanthropist?’
‘No, young lady, I am not a general philanthropist; but I bear a conscience. I once had a kind of rude tenderness of heart. When I was as old as you, I was a feeling fellow, but Fortune has knocked me about and now I flatter myself I am hard and tough. Does that leave hope for me?’
‘Hope of what, sir?’
‘Of my final re-transformation back to flesh?’
‘Decidedly he has had too much wine,’ I thought; and I did not know what answer to make to his queer question:
‘You looked very much puzzled, Miss Eyre; and though you are not pretty any more than I am handsome, yet a puzzled air becomes you.”
With this announcement he rose from his chair, and stood, leaning his arm on the marble mantelpiece.
‘I am disposed to be gregarious and communicative tonight,’ he repeated, ‘and that is why I sent for you. You puzzled me the first evening I invited you down here. I have almost forgotten you since: other ideas have driven yours from my head; but to-night I am resolved to learn more of you—therefore speak.’
‘What about, sir?’
‘Whatever you like. I leave both the choice of subject and the manner of treating it entirely to yourself.’
I sat and said nothing.
‘You are dumb, Miss Eyre.’
I was dumb still. He bent his head a little towards me, and with a single hasty glance, seemed to dive into my eyes. ‘Stubborn?’ he said, ‘and annoyed. I put my request in an absurd, almost insolent form. Miss Eyre, I beg your pardon. The fact is, once for all, I don’t wish to treat you like an inferior: that is, I claim only such superiority as must result from twenty years’ difference in age and a century’s advance in experience. It is by virtue of this superiority, and this alone, that I desire you to have the goodness to talk to me a little now, and divert my thoughts, which are cankering as a rusty nail.’
I was not insensible to his condescension, which was almost an apology. ‘I am willing to amuse you. Ask me questions, and I will do my best to answer them.’
‘Do you agree with me that I have a right to be masterful, abrupt, and perhaps exacting, on the grounds I have battled through a varied experience with many men of many nations, and roamed over half the globe, while you have lived quietly with one set of people in one house?’
‘Do as you please, sir.’
‘That is no answer. Reply clearly.’
‘I don’t think, sir, you have a right to command me, merely because you are older than I, or because you have seen more of the world than I have; your claim to superiority depends on the use you have made of your time and experience.’
‘Humph! Promptly spoken. Leaving superiority out of the question, then, you must still agree to receive my orders now and then, without being piqued or hurt by the tone of command. Will you?’
I smiled. Mr. Rochester seems to forget that he pays me 30 pounds per annum for receiving his orders.
‘The smile is very well,’ said he, catching instantly the passing expression; ‘but speak too.’
‘I was thinking, sir, that very few masters would trouble themselves to inquire whether or not their paid subordinates were piqued and hurt by their orders.’
‘What! you are my paid subordinate, are you? Oh yes, I had forgotten the salary! Well then, on that mercenary ground, will you agree to let me hector a little?’
‘I am sure, sir, nothing free-born would submit, even for a salary.’
‘Humbug! Most things freeborn will submit to anything for a salary. However, I mentally shake hands with you for your answer, despite its inaccuracy. Not three in three thousand raw school-girl-governesses would have answered me as you have just done. But I don’t mean to flatter you: if you are cast in a different mould to the majority, it is no merit of yours: Nature did it. And yet you may have intolerable defects to counterbalance your few good points.’
‘And so may you,’ I thought. My eye met his as the idea crossed my mind.
‘Yes, yes, you are right,’ said he; ‘I have plenty of faults of my own. I have a past existence. I was thrust on to a wrong tack at the age of one-and-twenty and have never recovered the right course since. I envy you your peace of mind, your clean conscience, your unpolluted memory.”
‘How was your memory when you were eighteen, sir?’
‘I was your equal at eighteen. Nature meant me to be, on the whole, a good man, Miss Eyre, but now I am a commonplace sinner. Remorse is the poison of life.’
‘Repentance is said to be its cure, sir.’
‘Reformation may be its cure; and I could reform, but since happiness is irrevocably denied me, I have a right to get pleasure out of life: and I WILL get it, cost what it may.’
‘Then you will degenerate still more, sir.’
‘Possibly: yet why should I, if I can get sweet, fresh pleasure? And I may get it as sweet and fresh as the wild honey the bee gathers on the moor.’
‘It will sting—it will taste bitter, sir.’
‘How do you know, you have no right to preach to me, you neophyte, that have not passed the porch of life, and are absolutely unacquainted with its mysteries.’
‘I only remind you of your own words, sir: you said error brought remorse, and you pronounced remorse the poison of existence.’
‘Justly thought; rightly said, Miss Eyre. I am laying down good intentions, which I believe durable as flint. Certainly, my associates and pursuits shall be other than they have been.’
He was thoughtful, and I stood to leave.
‘Where are you going?’
‘To put Adele to bed: it is past her bedtime.’
‘You are afraid of me, because I talk like a Sphynx.’
‘Your language is enigmatical, sir: but though I am bewildered, I am certainly not afraid.’
‘You are afraid—your self-love dreads a blunder.’
‘In that sense I do feel apprehensive—I have no wish to talk nonsense.’
‘If you did, it would be in such a grave, quiet manner, I should mistake it for sense. Do you never laugh, Miss Eyre? Don’t trouble yourself to answer—I see you laugh rarely. The Lowood constraint still clings to you somewhat; controlling your features, muffling your voice, and restricting your limbs; and you fear in the presence of a man to smile too gaily, speak too freely, or move too quickly: but, in time, I think you will learn to be natural with me, as I find it impossible to be conventional with you. You are still bent on going?’
‘It has struck nine, sir.’
‘Wait a minute: Adele is not ready to go to bed yet.”
Adele spread out her dress, she chasseed across the room to Mr. Rochester and wheeled lightly round before him on tip-toe, then dropped on one knee at his feet, thanking him for his present and asking, ‘C’est comme cela que maman fai- sait, n’est-ce pas, monsieur?’
‘Precisely!’ was the answer; ‘and, ‘comme cela,’ she charmed my English gold out of my British breeches’ pocket. I have been green, too, Miss Eyre. My Spring is gone, however, but it has left me that French floweret on my hands. I keep it and rear it rather on the Roman Catholic principle of expiating numerous sins, great or small, by one good work. I’ll explain all this some day. Goodnight.’
This is Mr Rochester’s third conversation with his ward’s governess, and he is clearly flirting as well as teasing her, in plain sight, while Adele and Mrs Fairfax are in the same room. It is an intense conversation in which he claims to have many regrets about the mistakes of his youth. He says he was thrust onto a wrong tack at twenty-one, and never recovered the right course since.
He claims to ‘lay down good intentions’ as a result of their conversation, and following Jane’s suggestions that repentance is the cure to remorse.
He says Adele’s mother ‘charmed my English gold out of my British breeches’ pocket’, which is a surprisingly vulgar way of describing his ward and Jane’s pupil’s mother.
To a modern reader, he comes across as a typical Byronic hero. That is a pompous, wealthy and privileged, pleasure-seeker. In his own words: “I have a right to get pleasure out of life: and I will get it, cost what it may,” who is trying to impress a naive, eighteen-year-old girl. Jane is obviously attracted to him and interested in ‘saving his soul’, but is he redeemable? And at what cost to Jane?
We shall see in the following chapters.
The summary is based on the free ebook by planet books which you can find here.
I’ll be posting a chapter of Jane Eyre in flash fiction every Friday. If you’re wondering why, read all about it here.
If you’d you’d like to Reread Jane Eyre with me, visit my blog every Friday for #JaneEyreFF posts.
See you next week for chapter 15.
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