A New State of Grace

Note: I wrote this story in early 2014 as an entry to the Bronte Society Creative Competition. It did not win any of the three prizes in the Short Story category, but I was happy enough with it to publish it here.

Update: I have now read the story that won third prize; it was terrific. I don't fault the judge for choosing that tale over mine! I look forward to reading the other two. You can find all three by clicking the red DOWNLOADS bar on this webpage.

 

Poor souls they are; and to your common townsman, your blacksmith or mill-worker or shop-keeper, they are naught but poor and pitiable – and, blessedly, far from view. Yet they must live somewhere, those souls with broken minds, for their bodies contain yet the breath of God. If theirs is not life as we live it or wish it, is not life itself sacred? Does not the reverend remind us that all are God’s creatures, and that as we treat the least of these, so do we treat the Son?

I have spent my best years with “the least of these,” keeping them from harm, from mischief, and from sight. 

For most of those years, I was a caretaker at the Grimsby Retreat. Townsfolk have heard the barest whispers about the Grimsby, about what sort of place it is, but they know little more, nor would they care to. A day’s visit there would give any villager a fortnight’s worth of sleep demons. 

          None is immune to the mind’s sickness, be he farmer, magistrate, or landed lord. For many, it comes from long age; for some, from strong shock or strong drink; yet for others, no man can tell the cause. This cruel disease may provoke odd movements or wild speech. But sadder are the ones who sit passive and empty-eyed, silently stunned by their strange fate. 

          Few people could face these possessed or haunted creatures day upon day. Having my son James work there with me was such a comfort. He came up strong and unafraid of hard unpleasant work. Would that his father could see what manner of man his son turned out to be; James had scarce begun schooling when my Michael was taken from us. Long have been the years since, and blessed have I been to have had work that sustained us. Even such work as this. 

          This work has now brought me to a different life, a different society where folks like me seldom enter. The tale is wondrous strange. I was called to serve in this most unexpected place by a most unexpected man. 

 

November’s first Monday laid a slippery frost along the side lanes leading to the Retreat. As we hurried along, James shivered in his father’s faded greatcoat, while our breaths hung in clouds of mist. 

Once inside, we lingered by the sitting-room fire as long as circumstance allowed before separating to begin our duties. I started down the dimly lit hallway and saw nervous young Alice Parkins, a nurse’s daughter training as an aide, beckoning me into Captain Lewis’s room. As I brushed the yellowed muslin curtain aside and entered, the Captain turned away from his window and toward me. But his gaze was weak and his eyes a dully shrouded green. His rumpled twill jacket and worn grey trousers spoke of better times. 

          “Been trying to leave us, he has, Mrs. Poole,” Alice mumbled anxiously. “Won’t listen to nothing.” 

          “Good morning, Captain!” I greeted him with false cheer, stepping closer. “And where are we off to today?” 

          Waving his hand dismissively, he trudged toward the door, trying to brush past me. I employed my left arm as a gate, halting his egress. “Now sir, you can hardly go out on such a chill morning in such garb, nor without your breakfast. Surely your appointment can wait while we prepare you?” 

          No sound issued from his open mouth, but he halted, still looking toward the hallway. “That’s the spirit, Captain,” I vigorously complimented him. “Do but give us a few minutes, and I daresay we’ll have you shined up and ready for business. At ease, sir.” 

          His head bobbed slightly, a shadow of a nod. His arms fell slowly to his sides, and he allowed Alice to ease his jacket off and lower him to an awkward perch on a nearby stool. He stared unseeing toward his bureau; as I eased quietly back toward the door, his features betrayed no knowledge of my departure. 

          Once Captain Lewis was docile, Alice could handle him as readily as I. Just as well, since Mrs. Farnham awaited me. 

          Stealthy as the Captain could be, that’s how brassy Mrs. F. was. As I bustled down the corridor toward her quarters, her shouting and cursing began, and it grew ever louder. Her habits of speech no longer shocked me, though I’d forgive anyone for flustering or fleeing when first they met her. 

          “Ooohhh, damn your black heart, Henry Farnham,” her scratchy voice bellowed, beseeching her late husband’s spirit. “Take me home, damn you! Oooooooooh!” The final dreadful cry peaked with a sobbing screech, as though a hot poker had pierced her innards. 

          I knew the tiny widow was unharmed; she was under constant watch to prevent mischief to herself or others. Still, she shared her torments with all who weren’t blessedly deaf. And now was the time for my shift in that horrid room. 

          Crossing the threshold, I saw Mrs. F. sprawled across a stuffed chair, taking short wheezing breaths that barely rippled her stiff brown bodice. Cora, her guardian that morning, stood nearby with hands on hips, appearing even greyer and more desiccated than the day before. “Morning, Grace. Madam had herself a bit of a thrash with that last yell, she did. Nearly time for a dose. I’ll ask Nurse Davies to bring the laudanum by.” 

          “Thank you kindly, Cora,” I replied. “I’m sure you had a weary night; go rest your bones.” Needing no further urging, she turned and left the room. I silently watched Mrs. Farnham in her pained repose. 

          The nurse soon brought in a breakfast tray and the dose. “Good morning to you, Mrs. Farnham!” she exclaimed brightly, bending to place the tray on a side table. “I hope you’re hungry – I’ve fried eggs for you, and a bit of sausage. Let Mrs. Poole help you to the table while I pour your tea.” As I reached out to raise Mrs. F. to her feet, I heard the nurse pouring a cup of strong black tea. I knew a large spoonful of honey would follow, along with the contents of a tiny glass vial. Laudanum’s bitter taste requires a strong mask. 

          Mrs. F.’s thin body revolted with a shiver against my touch. “Take your hands away! Awaaay!” she croaked piteously, but her strength was gone, and I guided her to her feet and then onto a small wrought-iron chair next to the side table. Atop the tablecloth were her breakfast dish and her tea. I picked up a fork to begin feeding her. 

          The curtain rustled behind me, and I turned my head as Dr. Ralston leaned through the doorway, his drawn face protruding into the room. “Pardon me, Mrs. Poole,” he murmured, squinting through his spectacles, “but you are needed in my office.” 

          I thought, “What on earth for?”, but I dared not question my employer’s summons. “Right away, sir,” I replied, replacing the fork. I glanced at the nurse, who nodded to me. She would tend to Mrs. F.’s breakfast while I answered this unexpected call. 

          My gait lost its dignity as I hurried after Dr. Ralston, who moved with unaccustomed speed. As my skirt’s hem swished to and fro, I wondered what was spurring our normally stately overseer. Behind us, meanwhile, began a fresh stream of curses from Mrs. Farnham, who must have been reinvigorated. I indulged in a moment’s pity for Nurse Davies, then pushed her from my thoughts as I entered Dr. Ralston’s office. 

          Half expecting a constable with bad news or a clergyman with worse, I was surprised to see the actual visitor. Seated in a plush chair opposite Dr. Ralston’s desk was a substantial man of dark aspect. His top hat – real quality, if my eyes know millinery – had been perched atop a wooden stand, from which a thick black coat hung. His eyes caught mine as he assessed me with a sober intensity. 

“Mr. Rochester,” said Dr. Ralston, “this is Grace Poole. Grace, Mr. Edward Rochester, a gentleman of fine standing, who has traveled from Millcote to discuss a situation with you.” His last words were accented by a loud quivering wail emanating from the distant Mrs. Farnham. 

          “Great God!” cried the visitor, turning toward the outburst’s source. “What means this ululation?” 

          “Begging your pardon, sir,” I replied, seating myself on a small bench beside the near wall, “but one of our residents is having a bit of a fit today.” 

          “Is that a common state of affairs?” he asked brusquely. “Are your patients unrestrained, vocally as well as physically? Do you work in a constant din?” 

“There’s quiet ones and there’s boisterous ones, sir, and everything in between. We can’t pick and choose; we work with whoever comes through our door.” 

          “I see. And do you, Mrs. Poole,” he continued, “grow perturbed or resentful when working with severe cases? Do they put your best intentions to an unbearable test?” 

          Wondering about the motive for these questions, I paused before replying. “Sir, our duties are not for the faint-hearted, but we hold no ill will toward these unfortunate souls. As our Lord proclaimed, ‘They know not what they do.’ If, heaven forfend, I suffered their fate, I would like someone to show me the same courtesy and care that we try to provide in our Retreat. Just as every child is some parent’s darling, every resident here has been beloved and still merits that love.” 

          Mr. Rochester brooded silently for a moment, resting his chin on templed fingers and peering at me as if weighing my worth. Then he dropped his hands and spoke again. 

          “Mrs. Poole,” he said in a gruff but restrained tone, “When I asked for a recommendation, Dr. Ralston assured me that you are a most capable and trustworthy servant – one whom he would be loath to release. However, I have need for someone of your abilities, and he has agreed to let me broach the subject with you. I ask now: would you, given the chance to increase your salary substantially, consider leaving his employ and entering mine?” 

He must have seen the shock in my eyes, as he spoke again directly. “Please pardon the suddenness of my inquiry; you know nothing of myself or my position, but the good doctor was acquainted with my late father, and he can provide references as to the Rochester family’s means and character.” 

          I was dizzied by the conversation’s abrupt turn. At one moment, I’d been spending an ordinary day in the Retreat; at the next, the roots of my very existence felt flimsy and changeable. 

          “Mr. Rochester, sir,” I said to him, struggling to keep a measured tone, “the Grimsby has long been a good home for me, and my work a source of pride. Nonetheless, if Dr. Ralston speaks as well of you as you imply, I am grateful for your consideration, and quite willing to hear more about your needs and how I might fulfill them.” 

          He paused a moment before asking in a gentler voice, “I understand there is no Mr. Poole?” 

          “My son has now assumed that mantle, sir,” I said. “My husband has been gone these seventeen years, such that James can scarce recall him. The consumption gripped our village that year; our home was one of many with an empty chair and widow’s weeds.” 

          “It grieves me to hear this, madam,” he said, lowering his gaze; “you have my true sympathy.” He raised his head and studied me again. “Have you no other close relations nor other responsibilities to tie you to these environs?” 

          “James earns his own keep now, Mr. Rochester, sir, and he lives with me still; the house shall be his one day. I’m beholden to none else.” 

          He nodded as if my answer had satisfied him. “It is well that your son has reached maturity and can maintain himself. Still, should he perchance acquire a wife and dependents, your greater earnings could be a boon to him. Dr. Ralston tells me you receive an annual salary of forty pounds?” 

          “Indeed, sir, and I do set a few shillings by when I can, though times have been tight.” 

          “Mrs. Poole,” he announced gravely, “I greatly desire your services. In exchange, I would like to offer you one hundred pounds per annum. You would also receive meals and private quarters at Thornfield Hall. In exchange, you would tend to a single inmate there. Shall I continue?” 

          I hoped my mouth hadn’t fallen too far agape. I managed to force words through it. “I mean no disrespect, Mr. Rochester, but I would feed and bathe Old Scratch himself for a hundred a year. Pray do go on.” 

          Mr. Rochester’s mouth twisted in a mirthful grimace. “No indeed, Mrs. Poole, the Devil does not lodge at Thornfield. However, the inmate of whom I speak may test your mettle as well as any mortal could. Despite her, ah, derangement, her mental and physical acuity set her apart from the residents of your current institution. Yet I would not propose this arrangement had I any doubts that you could discharge your duties successfully.” 

          “If yourself and Dr. Ralston believe I would fit the position well, sir, I will entrust myself to your judgments,” I said, bowing my head respectfully. “When shall I plan to take up residence in the Hall?” 

          “Mrs. Poole,” he replied, “your assent gladdens my heart. Would a week suffice to put your affairs in order before you travel to Millcote?” 

          “It would, sir.” 

          “Excellent. Provide me your address, if you would, and I will send a coach for you at ten o’clock in the morning, one week hence.” 

          I gave him the address; we bid each other farewell; and, as if dreaming, I walked away from that office and toward my startling future. 

 

His coach arrived at the promised time. The driver stowed my trunk aboard, while I clung to a small valise. I climbed in, and soon the familiar streets began falling away behind us, as the coach rolled along worn paths into the countryside. 

          After dozing for time uncounted, I awoke to my first distant view of Thornfield Hall – a soaring grey structure crowned with battlements, amidst well-tended green fields. How had Providence brought me from my own humble dwelling, little more than a cottage, to the stately mansion of a high-born gentleman? 

          As we neared the Hall, a curtain was drawn back on the topmost floor. Someone within was watching my arrival. I sent silent regards to this unknown inmate. 

          With that unspoken connection, my new life began to feel real. A challenge awaited me within those stone walls – a single patient who would occupy nearly all my waking hours. This was my duty; this would be my home. 

I was jarred from my reverie as the coach jolted onto the courtyard’s cobbled stones. It pulled to a halt beneath an archway, and an elderly footman strode forward and opened the coach door. 

Grasping my valise, I crouched through the doorway and stepped down, into a new world.