• Victoria Reeve

Jane Eyre, Flipped? Seriously? Chapter 1

Updated: May 18, 2019

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mr. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so somber, and a rain so penetrating, that further outdoor exercise was now out of the question.

I was glad of it: I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Freddie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Leonard, Gillian, and George Reed.

The said Leonard, Gillian, and George were now clustered round their papa in the drawing-room: he lay reclined on a sofa by the fireside, and with his darlings about him (for the time neither quarrelling nor crying) looked perfectly happy. Me, he had dispensed from joining the group, saying, “He regretted to be under the necessity of keeping me at a distance; but that until he heard from Freddie, and could discover by his own observation that I was endeavouring in good earnest to acquire a more sociable and child-like disposition, a more attractive and sprightly manner,-- something lighter, franker, more natural as it were—he really must exclude me from privileges intended only for contented, happy, little children.”

“What does Freddie say I have done?” I asked.

“Jim, I don’t like cavillers of questioners: besides, there is something truly forbidding in a child taking up his elders in that manner. Be seated somewhere; and until you can speak pleasantly, remain silent.”

A small breakfast-room adjoined the drawing-room: I slipped in there. It contained a book-case: I soon possessed myself of a volume, taking care that it should be one stored with pictures. I mounted into the window-seat: gathering up my feet, I sat cross-legged, like a Turk; and, having drawn the red moreen curtain nearly close, I was shrined in double retirement.

Folds of scarlet drapery shut in my view to the right hand; to the left were the clear panes of glass, protecting, but not separating from the drear November day. At intervals, while turning over the leaves of my book, I studied the aspect of that winter afternoon. Afar, it offered a pale blank mist and cloud; near, a scene of wet lawn and storm-beat shrub, with ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long lamentable blast.

I returned to my book—Bewick’s History of British Birds: the letter-press thereof I cared little for, generally speaking; and yet there were certain introductory pages that, child as I was, I could not quite pass as blank. They were those which treat of the haunts of sea-fowl; of “the solitary rocks and promontories” by them only inhabited; of the coast of Norway, studded with isles from its southern extremity, the Lindesness, or Naze, to the North Cape—

“Where the Northern Ocean, in vast whirls

Boils round the naked, melancholy isles

Of farthest Thule; and the Atlantic surge

Pours in among the stormy Hebrides.”

Nor could I pass unnoticed the suggestion of the bleak shores of Lapland, Siberia, Spitzbergen, Nova Zembla, Iceland, Greenland, with “the vast sweep of the Arctic Zone, and those forlorn regions of dreary space,--that reservoir of frost and snow, where firm fields of ice, the accumulation of centuries of winters, glazed in Alpine heights above heights, surround the pole, and concentrate the multiplied rigours of extreme cold.” Of these death-white realms I formed an idea of my own; shadowy, like all the half-comprehended notions that float dim through children’s brains, but strangely impressive. The words in these introductory pages connected themselves with the succeeding vignettes, and gave significance to the rock standing up alone in a sea of billow and spray; to the broken boat stranded on a desolate coast; to the cold and ghastly moon glancing through bars of cloud at a wreck just sinking.

I cannot tell what sentiment haunted the quite solitary church-yard, with its inscribed headstone; its gate, its two trees, its low horizon, girdled by a broken wall, and its newly risen crescent, attesting the hour of even-tide.

The two ships becalmed on a torpid sea, I believed to be marine phantoms.

The fiend pinning down the thief’s pack behind her, I passed over quickly: it was an object of terror.

So was the black, horned thing seated aloof on a rock, surveying a distant crowd surrounding a gallows.

Each picture told a story; mysterious often to my undeveloped understanding and imperfect feelings, yet ever profoundly interesting: as interesting as the tales Freddie sometimes narrated on winter evenings, when he chanced to be in good humour; and when, having brought his ironing-table to the nursery hearth, he allowed us to sit about it, and while he got up Mr. Reed’s lace frills, and crimped his night-cap borders, fed our eager attention with passages of love and adventure taken from old fairy tales and older ballads; or (as at a later period I discovered) from the pages of Patrick, and Henrietta, Duchess of Moreland.

With Bewick on my knee, I was then happy: happy at least in my way. I feared nothing but interruption, and that came too soon. The break-fast room door opened.

“Boh! Mister Mope!” cried the voice of Gillian Reed; then she paused: she found the room apparently empty.

“Where the dickens is he?” she continued. “Lenny! Georgy!” (calling to her brothers) “James is not here: tell papa he has run out into the rain—bad animal!”

“It is well I drew the curtain,” thought I; and I wished fervently she might not discover my hiding-place: nor would Gillian Reed have found it out herself; she was not quick either of vision or conception: but Leonard just put his head in at the door, and said at once:

“He is in the window-seat, to be sure, Jill.”

And I came out immediately; for I trembled at the idea of being dragged forth by Jill.

“What do you want?” I asked, with awkward diffidence.

“Say ‘What do you want, Miss Reed?’” was the answer. “I want you to come here;” and seating herself in an arm-chair, she intimated by a gesture that I was to approach and stand before her.

Gillian reed was a schoolgirl of fourteen years old: four years older than I, for I was but ten: large and stout for her age, with a dingy and unwholesome skin; thick lineaments in a spacious visage, heavy limbs and large extremities. She gorged herself habitually at table, which made her bilious, and gave her a dim and bleared eye and flabby cheeks. She ought now to have been at school; but her pap had taken her home for a month or two, “on account of her delicate health.” Mrs. Miles, the schoolmistress, affirmed that she would do very well if she had fewer cakes and sweetmeats sent to her from home; but the father’s heart turned from an opinion so harsh, and inclined rather to a more refined idea that Gillian’s sallowness was owing to over-application and, perhaps, to pining after home.

Gillian had not much affection for her father and brothers, and an antipathy to me. She bullied and punished me: not two or three times in the week, not once or twice in the day, but continually: every nerve I had feared her, and every morsel of flesh on my bones shrank when she came near. There were moments when I was bewildered by the terror she inspired; because I had no appeal whatsoever against her menaces or her inflictions: the servants did not like to offend their young mistress by taking my part against her, and Mr. reed was blind and deaf on the subject: he never saw her strike or heard her abuse me; though she did both now and then in his very presence: more frequently however behind his back.

Habitually obedient to Gillian, I came up to her chair: she spent some three minutes in thrusting out her tongue at me as far as she could without damaging the roots: I knew she would soon strike, and while dreading the blow, I mused on the disgusting and ugly appearance of her who would presently deal it. I wonder if she read that notion in my face; for, all at once, without speaking, she struck suddenly and strongly. I tottered, and on regaining my equilibrium retired back a step or two from her chair.

“That is for your impudence in answering papa a while since,” said she, “and for your sneaking way of getting behind curtains, and for the look you had in your eyes two minutes since, you rat!”

Accustomed to Gillian Reed’s abuse, I never had an idea of replying to it; my care was how to endure the blow which would certainly follow the insult.

“What were you doing behind the curtain?” she asked.

“I was reading.”

“Shew the book.”

I returned to the window and fetched it thence.

“You have no business to take our books: you are a dependant, papa says; you have no money; your mother left you alone; you ought to beg, and not to live here with gentlewomen’s children like us, and eat the same meals we do, and wear clothes at our papa’s expense. Now, I’ll teach you to rummage my book-shelves: for they are mine; all the house belongs to me, or will do in a few years. Go and stand by the door, out of the way of the mirror and the windows.”

I did so, not at first aware what was her intention; but when I saw her lift and poise the book and stand in act to hurl it, I instinctively started aside with a cry of alarm: not soon enough, however; the volume was flung, it hit me, and I fell, striking my head against the door and cutting it. The cut bled, the pain was sharp: my terror had passed its climax; other feelings succeeded.

“Wicked and cruel girl!” I said. “You are like a murderer—you are like a slave-driver—you are like the Roman empresses!”

I had read Goldsmith’s History of Rome, and had formed my opinion of Nera, Caligula, &c. Also I had drawn parallels in silence, which I never thought thus to have declared aloud.

“What! what!” she cried. “Did you say that to me? Did you hear him Leo and George? Won’t I tell papa? But first—”

She ran headlong at me; I felt her grasp my hair and my shoulder: she had closed with a desperate thing. I really saw in her a tyrant: a murderer. I felt a drop or two of blood from my head trickle down my neck, and was sensible of somewhat pungent suffering: these sensations for the time predominated over fear, and I received her in frantic sort. I don’t very well know what I did with my hands, but she called me “Rat! rat!” and bellowed out loud. Aid was near her: Leo and George had run for Mr. Reed, who was gone upstairs; he now came upon the scene, followed by Freddie and his valet Abbot. We were parted: I heard the words—

“Dear! dear! What a fury to fly at Miss Gillian!”

“Did ever anybody see such a picture of passion!”

Then Mr. Reed subjoined:

“Take him away to the red-room, and lock him in there.” Four hands were immediately laid upon me, and I was borne upstairs.

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