Atherton Hall: The First Five Years
A Sequel to Jane Eyre
And so, dear reader, I married him.
Mr. Rochester and I happily spent the first year of our marriage at Ferndean. Although the house was gloomy as ever, and company far off, we were so wrapped in wedded bliss and in one another that we scarcely noticed. As winter settled upon us, and I brought Adele home from that wretched school, my master and I remained content, although the size of the house meant that privacy was occasionally lacking, and the advent of cold weather revealed that the fireplaces in both the parlor and the dining room smoked.
I was busy and happier than I had ever been before. My dear Edward, although he continued to improve both in health and in temperament, needed me to be his eyes. There was no aspect of his business in which I was not engaged. I wrote his letters, arranged his meetings, and corresponded with booksellers all over Europe as my husband was determined to rebuild his library, though he would not be able to read it. Then there was the household business to attend to: even though Ferndean was a far smaller house than Thornfield had been, meals needed arranging, bedrooms, airing; and our two servants, Maria and John, constantly wanted my direction on all matters. In the new year I wrote to Mrs. Fairfax, asking her to return to us as our housekeeper. When she agreed I will confess I was as glad to meet with her again for her own sake as I was grateful for her help.
Adele, of course, remained as hungry for my attention as ever. She had emerged from her short time at school chastened and a bit fretful; it pained me to see it, and I lavished as much love and affection on her as I could spare from my master. It should hardly surprise you, reader, when I write that the first year of my married life sped by in this agreeable manner.
As the first year gave way to the second it became clear that a move was warranted. Edward and I had tolerated the small rooms and smoky fireplaces with equanimity, but when unusually heavy August rains flooded the kitchen and cellar not once but twice we decided to find a new situation.
Together he and I had worked out a list of our requirements for a new house.
"So, Janet," he had asked as I sat upon his knee, as I often did in the evening when we were alone. "What sort of a house should you like, hmm? Shall I write and see if Versailles is available for your use?"
"Anything dry and above ground should do, sir," I had said tartly, listening to the rain drumming on the window. "Maria is quite put out that pots and pans keep floating away."
He had laughed aloud, something I am glad to say he now did far more frequently. "Very well. A dry kitchen. What else?"
"Hmm. A garden, I think." Ferndean was so deeply ensconced in woods that very little sun reached it, and neither Maria nor I had been able to encourage much to grow. "Not just a kitchen garden, but some flowers, too. Adele would like that."
"Which reminds me—add a well sized nursery for the brat to the list," he had said good-naturedly. "She is too much underfoot here."
"A suite of rooms, Edward. Adele is now too old for a nursery."
"A suite of rooms and a nursery, then. For any more brats that should some along."
He had tugged my ear fondly as he said this. I had not yet any signs of having conceived a child, but if I did not soon it would not be for lack of opportunity.
"Well, now, Jane, have I made you blush with that last statement?" He had asked with a grin. I was often surprised at how well Edward could read the expression on my countenance, though he could no longer see it.
To cover my blush I had shaken my head. "Let us not speak of babies, not at present. You shall need a library, for all your new books. And a study, for meetings and letter writing."
But Edward's mind had refused to leave certain topics.
"And a fine large bedroom. Perhaps with a southern exposure, so we can enjoy the view when we are not otherwise engaged."
"Mr. Rochester, if you continued on in this way I shall leave you until your mind is engaged upon more respectable matters," I had chided. I had even made as if to remove from him. So of course he seized me by the waist and held me fast.
"Very well, very well, I promise to speak of only drawing rooms and draperies for the rest of the evening if it suits you, my dear one. But you should not blame a fellow for yielding occasionally to temptation!"
We had gone on in such a way for another quarter of an hour. But finally we had assembled a respectable list. It was duly sent to his solicitors and to those of handful of his former acquaintance with whom he was still on good terms. Inquiries were made, and descriptions of likely prospects vetted. Most were rejected at once as being too far away. The Thornfield house itself was still a ruin, and neither Edward nor I yet had any heart or spirit for the monumental task of rebuilding it. But we did not want to forget the many families that made their living from its land either.
When we had settled on a likely place our Thornfield agent visited it, and, following his favorable report, Edward and I made the journey ourselves.
It was a fine September day when we visited Atherton Hall for the first time. It had the advantage of being no more than thirty miles from Ferndean, still in –shire, which would help Edward continue to manage his estates. This portion of the county was a bit more wild than that which surrounded Thornfield, with rolling hills and more trees, but the villages and farms the carriage passed seemed prosperous and busy with the harvest.
Atherton Hall, we had been told, had belonged to a very old family thereabouts, but the last Lord Atherton had died without heirs years before. The house and its lands were now under the management of the family's solicitors, and were to let for any period desired. It had, I understood, been shut up for some time. In his letters the local estate agent had seemed most anxious for Edward and I to take the place so there would again be a settled family in the neighborhood.
As the carriage drove up Atherton Hall's drive I leaned my head out the window and described the place to my master.
"It is a fair prospect, Edward. A long tree-lined drive ends before a stout, square brick house. The fields on either side are dotted with haywains, and there is a pleasant looking grove of trees to the west."
"Tell me more about the house itself."
"We are approaching it now. The drive turns around before a large front door, painted white. There are columns on either side and a portico above. The trim of the many windows is painted white as well. I should say the house is Georgian because it has a delightfully symmetrical appearance, and the red brick is now mellowed with age."
As I spoke the carriage rolled to a stop, and a tall, thin man stepped forward from the portico to great us.
"Ah, Mr. and Mrs. Rochester, I presume. You are just on time! I am Mr. Canby, the estate agent."
I stepped down from the carriage first, so that John could then help down my husband.
"We are very pleased to make your acquaintance, sir," I told him. "Your correspondence has been most welcome. I hope the letters full of details we requested were not too tiresome."
I watched Mr. Canby as he took in my husband's ravaged face and missing hand, but to his credit the man did not flitch or glance away as most do. My master still did not enjoy going out much in public near Ferndean, where all knew how he had received his injuries and were wont to regard him with either pity or scorn. But I had been gradually expanding his social circle, including a long visit from my cousins, Diana and Mary Rivers. They had treated him with kindness and respect, as he had them. I was hopeful that if we took this place as our new home we would find enjoyable company nearby.
"Of course not, Mrs. Rochester. It is only natural you should want to know as much about the place as possible before venturing a visit." He and my husband shook hands, and the agent led us into the front hall.
I held Edward's arm in my own, and as we walked I described what I was seeing.
"It is a lovely center hall, Edward, with a black and white marble floor and doors on either side."
"Those would be the drawing room, parlor, and dining room, ma'am," Canby put in.
"Just so. And there is a wide curving staircase to the upper levels."
"Humpf," Edward said, clearly unimpressed. "When was the place built, Canby?"
"1799, sir, by the late Lord Atherton."
"Ah, Georgian, indeed," Edward murmured in my ear.
"An architect was brought up from London for the job, sir, and many people once regarded Atherton Hall as the most comfortable house in this part of –shire, sir."
The estate agent led us through the rooms on the first floor. The furnishings were all shrouded in sheets, and the place did have a closed-up air. But the rooms were spacious and well proportioned, the fireplaces large and (as Canby assured me) in excellent working condition. There was even a library with its shelves of books standing forlorn.
"Lord Atherton's will did not allow for house and furnishing to be separated," Canby said a trifle apologetically as I took in a room so crowded with books that some sat still in piles on the carpet. "He was rather fond of his books, as you see. But, of course, I am sure you and Mr. Rochester may have all this cleaned out in a trice and do with the space what you will. I understand, for example, that Mrs. Willoughby of –shire has had her library turned into a card room, and I am told it is most comfortable for house parties."
Edward, who had been thumbing the leather spines on one shelf, turned his face towards me with an expression of amusement. I knew he was inwardly laughing at the idea of surrendering such a fine library to suit fashionable tastes. But I refused to join in. Instead I told Canby very politely, "Oh, no, sir, Mr. Rochester and I are very fond of books, indeed."
We continued our tour by ascending to the second floor.
"So it was known to be a very comfortable house, was it?" Edward asked the agent. "I had heard it called such before. But I had never visited it."
"Yes, well, I am afraid that with the late Lord Atherton an invalid for the last twenty years of his life he tolerated few visitors to the place."
We stopped before a window on the upper landing. As Canby had mentioned in his letters, there was a walled rose garden below, with a larger open garden surrounding it. There was even a smaller kitchen garden set near the rear door. I knew at once Adele would love the roses.
"Now, there are as I wrote seven bedrooms on this floor." Canby opened each door in turn, so that I could see the bedrooms were all airy and well furnished.
"This is the largest of them, Lord Atherton's own suite." At the far end of the corridor the estate agent threw open a set of double doors, and lead us in. It was decorated in colors fashionable two decades ago, but accommodated a large four-poster bed and several dressers.
"There is a dressing room on either side," Canby told us. "And there's a fine view from those large windows there."
I paused before them, and Edward with me. I could just make out the spire of a church in the distance. "Is that the village?" I asked.
"Yes, ma'am. Dovecote, it is called. Only a few hundred souls, but kind, honest people. The church there dates back to the days of Henry VII."
"It is a lovely view, Edward," I whispered to my husband. "The windows are arched and let the sunlight pour in."
"I know—I can feel it upon my face," he told me. Then he raised his voice a bit. "Is this a south facing prospect, do you know, Canby?" He smiled at me wolfishly.
"Edward!" I said, a trifle louder than I had intended to. "Hush!"
The poor estate agent only looked confused. "Ah, I believe so, Mr. Rochester. The house was designed specifically to complement its southern prospect. There is even a conservatory to take advantage of the full sun. I shall take you there next."
"Imagine that, Janet," my master whispered in my ear as we followed a few paces behind. "A whole house designed with southern views in mind!"
"I am going to stop speaking to you now, Edward," I said primly.
We descended the rear staircase, pausing only for Canby to point out a narrower flight that ascended to the servants' rooms on the third floor. Then, as promised, he took us to the conservatory. It was made of iron and glass and attached to the rear of the house off of the lady's parlour. The air inside was unseasonably warm and it was filled with pot after pot of exotic looking plants. Many had begun to grow untamed in jungle tangles toward the ceiling, an effect which to own the truth I rather liked. I could see myself sketching here on cold winter days, with Edward at my side and Adele at my feet.
"It is rather overgrown, to be sure," Canby admitted, mopping his forehead with his handkerchief. "But, again, it could all be cleared away…" he trailed off forlornly. I believe the poor man was forming the impression that we did not care for the place, so I hastened to correct him.
"It is a delightful room, Mr. Canby. Sitting here one might almost imagine one were in India."
Edward made a sound that was half-laugh, half-scoff. He knew I was needling him in return for his comments upstairs. He cleared his throat.
"Well now, sir, the only thing remaining on my wife's list is a garden. Do be so good to show us that now."
At this expression of interest the agent's face grew animated again. "Of course, of course. And a find garden it is. As fine as any in –shire."
The gardens were duly visited, Edward and Mr. Canby shook hands, and Edward promised to write with our decision on the place within the week.
As the carriage rolled away my master smiled at me.
"So, Jane, would it suit you?"
I retied the ribbons on my bonnet. "I might better ask if it would suit you, Edward. You would be living here as well."
"And would it suit Adele? Mrs. Fairfax? John and…"
"Enough, my dearest." He looked at me with his most ferocious expression. "I did not ask about them. Would it suit you?"
I smiled. "Yes, my husband. I believe it would suit me very well."
And so, early in the second year of my marriage, Mr. Rochester and I came into possession of Atherton Hall.