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MR. ROCHESTER

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. . . without esteem true love cannot exist.

-Charlotte Brontë

Shirley


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.

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