Chapter 1: The Book of Thomas Godbless
The book of Thomas Godbless
Gateshead House, November 1804
The widow Sarah Reed of Gateshead House was considered by all her acquaintance to be an exceedingly fashionable woman.
Her clothing and speech were always chosen with the utmost care, in accordance with the latest London fashions. Even her remote Yorkshire home, though it could of course not be held accountable for its unfortunate location, was considered perfectly lovely by all the great London ladies. The rooms were well-appointed in all the latest colors. The fabrics and drapes were all of the latest patterns and styles. The furnishings were arranged to create the most charming settings for morning chats and merry luncheons and afternoon teas and grand dinners.
Even her library was well-stocked with a great many titles, all pleasingly coordinated by subject and author and color of binding — though, in accordance with the very latest fashion, Mrs Reed had only the most perfectly superficial appreciation of her collection. In fact, the only book in her great library that ever received much of that fashionable lady’s attention at all was Proscriptions for the Care and Correction of Children by James Wallace Digby, by which she hoped to ensure her children would always do her as much credit as her hat or her mantelpiece.
Though Digby’s book was filled with all manner of valuable lessons and instructive anecdotes, Mrs Reed was in truth far too weak-willed and changeable a woman to make much real use of it. John Reed, Mrs Reed’s eldest and only son, was always well-dressed, and he stood with the bearing of a young gentleman, but he was prone to fits of temper and destructive tantrums. Miss Eliza Reed was pleasing enough to look at, but spent most of her energy imitating her mother’s fashionable whims and hiding from her French tutor. And Miss Georgiana Reed, a doll-like little creature with manners that charmed all her mother’s friends, had little in the way of independent thought, and was easily swayed to either good or ill by her elder siblings, as she could not tell the difference between such acts herself. In spite of their shortcomings, the Reed children were pretty and quiet in company - much like her hat - and so Mrs Reed felt she was quite free to be exceedingly fond of them.
But Mrs Reed had in her charge one other child — Jane Eyre, the favorite niece of her late husband — and this child was as far from her aunt’s ideal as it was possible for a child to be. All those shortcomings to which Mrs Reed was blind in her own children, became glaringly obvious to her in Jane Eyre. Perpetually pale and thin, Jane lacked her cousins’ lively spirits. She seemed to her aunt unwilling to be pleased with anything, and she argued back when she had much better remain silent. Indeed, poor Mrs Reed could scarcely speak in the girl’s presence without being forced to hear how unfair a thing was, or how a thing was really John Reed’s fault, or how Eliza put Georgiana up to it, or how any one or all of her natural children had started the whole affair, and Jane was merely defending herself, or trying to fix it, or uninvolved entirely. The lies she concocted to escape blame never failed to shock Mrs Reed: if it wasn’t the fault of one of the other children, it was that of faeries or ghosts or talking trees!
Her deepest fear was that John or her girls should pick up on Jane’s nonsense. Little harm could come from it in the case of the girls, as ladies were simply not magicians. But John was beginning to talk of possible careers, and his mother could not bear the idea that he might pursue magic, as Jane’s late father had done. She was not sure which would be worse: the stuffy, reclusive theoretical magician, who was prone to unkempt hair and a decided thickness about the middle, or the yellow-curtained vagabonding magician, with his rotted teeth and ragged hat. She shuddered to think on it. So she did her level best to discourage Jane’s fascination with magic, and if her children did not get on with their cousin either, then Mrs Reed was content to turn a blind eye — in the interest of their future happiness, of course.
Jane, for her own part, was quite content to pass the majority of her time in solitary reading.
Another rainy, dreary day in November had forced Jane and her cousins indoors yet again. Jane did not mind the weather in the least, but six days of rain had put John Reed in an increasingly foul temper. Fearful of becoming the object of his ire, Jane had built herself a little makeshift fortress in the library’s window seat. The thick curtains blocked the fire’s warmth, leaving only the chill from the rain-speckled window to pool around her little body, but this was a favorite hiding place of hers. No matter how many times she chose it, her dimwitted cousins never thought to check it first. Even if John was searching for her already, she should have an hour or perhaps more, before he thought to look behind the curtain. She pulled a shawl from its hiding place beneath the cushion and wrapped it around her shoulders. The cushion, she wedged up along the window to guard against the damp glass, and she settled back in the warmth of a stray sunbeam with her favorite book.
The book of Thomas Godbless had no title. A rather enigmatic swirl of gold leaf instead graced the front cover. Whenever Jane ran her fingers over it, she fancied she could almost understand whatever word that swirl was supposed to represent, like a voice half-heard in another room. It was magic, Jane was certain of it. The same magic that returned the book safely to the library every time Mrs Reed removed it. Thomas Godbless was supposed to be illiterate — several of her father’s other books about magic said as much — so Jane had come to the happy conclusion only a few weeks prior that the book was written by magic, perhaps even with the assistance of Godbless’ fairy servant, Dick-Come-Tuesday. She murmured the fairy’s name, reveling in the whimsy of it, and swore she could feel the book quiver in answer.
She opened the book carefully, ever mindful of the imperfect stitching of its pages, and lost herself in its eccentric spellings and emphatic flourishes.
“Little Rat,” came John Reed’s voice, singsong in the hallway. Jane started and dropped the book, which hit the floor with a resounding thud. “Madam Mope!” John Reed tore the curtain back from Jane’s hiding place. “There you are! Reading again, of course.” He snatched up her book before she could and held it up out of her reach, regarding it with a sneer.
“Give it back!” cried Jane.
Her cousin flipped carelessly through the pages, clearly enjoying the way she cringed at his treatment of the book. “Beg me,” said John. When she did not obey immediately, he turned the book to dangle it by its green leather covers. Jane lunged for the book, but he shook it menacingly, and two pages slipped out of their binding.
“Please, give it back, John.”
He clicked his tongue in disapproval and shook the book again. More pages drifted to the floor, rustling like autumn leaves. “I am Master Reed to you, Pest.”
“Please, Master Reed,” said Jane, with as much subservience as her bold little heart could muster. “Please, give me my book.”
For a moment, Jane thought he meant to return it. He closed the covers and collected the loose pages, tucking them neatly inside, but then everything was stars, and there was a sharp pain in the side of her face. He’d struck her with the heavy volume. “It is not your book, Worm,” said John. He seized her arm to make sure she was paying attention to his next words. “Everything here belongs to me, and I think this looks a great deal like kindling.”
He flung the book into the fireplace.
With a scream, Jane shoved him away. He struck his head on the library table, but Jane scarcely noticed. She threw herself down on the hearth, intent on rescuing her beloved book. Jane plucked a large portion of the book out of the flames, but saw to her dismay that the pages that fell out were entirely blank. Horrified, she looked back to the pages still curling in the flames and frantically pulled them out. Those pages too, had gone blank, but in the sparks and embers and flames flickering around her fingers, she could almost see the words. Could almost hear them in the crackle and pop of the logs. She gasped and inhaled a great mouthful of ashes.
The hot ash was everywhere, in her mouth and nose, her eyes, muffling her hearing. Jane blinked hard to clear her vision, and suddenly, the library was gone. In its place was a vast landscape of open, flat moors and endless, flat sky. Jane felt as if she were a flower, pressed between the pages of some great book, preserved, rather than destroyed by the pressure. A wind rose up, smelling of old paper and dusty leather, and the rustling of the heather became a million million whispering voices. The flat sky became a fathomless depth above her, filling with clouds carried in on the wind. Every curve of cloud was a flourish of ink on the vast page of the sky. Then it was raining, and every drop was a word she could almost understand. The wind whipped around her, pulling the pins from her hair and making a pennant of it. The rain soaked her dress, turning its soft red the color of blood. Then the rain was not rain at all, but ink, and she was black with it: her dress, her arms, her hair.
And then she was back in the library. The howl of the wind became John Reed wailing for his Mama and Jane screaming for her book. Bessie dragged her away from the fire grate, her strong arms wrapped around Jane’s thin waist. Jane’s dress was soaked, and her arms, still stretched desperately toward the flames, were black. The hair straggling in front of her face was black as well. She froze in Bessie’s grip, paralyzed by fright.
She’d just done magic. That other place, with its ink-filled sky, it had been magic, or the place where the magic came from. She wasn’t entirely sure. But in spite of the magic, the book was gone. Pages lay scattered around the grate, blank and half-burnt, and everything was covered in a fine sheen of ash. Jane let out a hoarse sob as Mrs Reed flew into the room and went at once to her son’s side.
“My darling boy,” cried Mrs Reed, her hands fluttering ineffectually about her son’s wounded head. “What happened?”
John Reed raised one quivering hand to point accusingly at his cousin.
“Whatever has that little devil done to you this time?” She didn’t wait for an answer before she rounded on Bessie, who was still working to restrain Jane. “Call for a doctor! And get her out of here! Put her in the Red Room, and have one of the footmen do it, if you can’t manage her yourself.”
The Red Room, as its rather unimaginative name suggested, was a bedroom Mrs Reed had done up entirely in her late husband’s favorite color. It had been his bedroom before his death, and afterward, she hadn’t the heart to change a thing, in spite of numerous updates to the decor of the rest of the house. Mr Reed’s favorite books still lined the little bookshelf in the corner; his clothing still rested inside the bureau; his armchair beside the window still smelled faintly of cigar smoke when the sun warmed the fabric of the cushions. So little had the room changed in the years since her Uncle Reed’s death, that Jane felt quite certain his spirit had lingered too, long after his body had been removed.
Thomas the footman carried Jane to the Red Room, deposited her in the middle of the floor, and fled the room at once, fearful of the usual tantrum this treatment inspired. He locked the door hastily behind himself, but for the first time in her life, Jane had fears that outweighed those of disturbing her uncle’s restless spirit. Her book was gone. It would not be coming back, of that much she was sure. The painful state of her hands dashed any hope that the ancient pages might have survived the flames. Equally certain was the fact that she had somehow become entangled with magic.
A flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye had her heart jumping in her chest. A tiny creature of ink and blood was staring at her from over the dressing table. As its mismatched eyes widened, and a blackened hand rose to its mouth in horror, Jane realized it was her own reflection in the mirror. She had become some fae creature, the changeling child her aunt had always feared. The now odd-eyed stare proved it. Where once her eyes had both been a warm, if unremarkable, brown, the left was now a pale ash grey.
Ink dripped from the singed ends of her hair and streaked blackly from her eyes, and Jane had the notion that she should melt on the spot, become nothing more than an ink stain marring the painfully cheerful rose pattern of the rug. The thought conjured an image of her aunt’s face, and the horror that would no doubt contort her features if she were to find that Jane’s final act in this world was to ruin her beloved rug. She choked, torn halfway between a laugh and a sob, and sank to the floor in a heap of sodden fabric.
As panic gave way to exhaustion, the pain in her hands began to make itself known in earnest. It began as a dull throb in time with her heartbeat, but it quickly grew to the point that Jane felt certain her hands must still be aflame. She bit her lip and wiped them clear of the blackness - soot, she discovered, not ink - using her wet skirt as a handkerchief. She only managed a few fingers before the pain, and a cluster of sparks around the edge of her vision, forced her to stop.
Her head whipped up, but the fireplace was cold. It was always cold, ever since Uncle Reed had slept his last night there.
Sparks flared again in the corner of her eye, by the armchair this time, and Jane staggered to her feet. More sparks by the bed, then by the bureau, then flickering across the ceiling. More and more sparks, until everything in the room was limned in dancing light. It was the fire, Jane was sure of it. The fire that had tasted her hands and consumed her book, had come back to claim the rest of her.
She raced to the door and beat frantically upon it, heedless of the pain in her hands, as she screamed for Thomas to let her out, or for Bessie to come and get her, or anyone at all to come and put out the fire. Bessie at last threw open the door in a great panic, knocking Jane to the floor.
“Oh, Miss Jane!” said Bessie. “What a scream! Whatever is the matter?”
But Jane’s tongue tangled on the taste of ashes, and she could not make the words come, only strangled-sounding sobs. She could barely see Bessie for the sparks filling her vision. She crawled toward the door and clawed her way back to her feet, clinging to Bessie’s black skirt as if it could save her from the fire.
Footsteps in the outer passage announced the arrival of someone else. “What is going on here?” demanded Mrs Reed. “Bessie! I’m surprised at you! The doctor is in with John, and all this screaming and carrying on is disturbing his work. I believe I told you I would fetch Jane from the Red Room myself when I was prepared to deal with her behavior.”
“You did, ma’am,” Bessie confirmed over Jane’s continued hysterics, beginning to push her away from the door, back into the Red Room. Jane wailed, and the sparks flared bright, eating away everything in sight. Her last panicked thought before consciousness fled her was that they would all burn.
Chapter 2: Out of Bed
Out of Bed
Gateshead House, November - December 1804
Days passed, and with them the risk of pneumonia. By the end of the week, Jane was well enough to leave her bed.
Jane passed her period of convalescence largely in her own bedroom, though she had not been expressly confined to it. Indeed, since her Aunt Reed had come on the morning of the second day to deliver the village apothecary, Mr Lloyd, to tend to Jane’s hands properly, Jane had been almost entirely ignored by her family, and by most of the servants as well.
Only Bessie, one of the junior housemaids, was brave enough to face Jane’s odd-eyed gaze and incurably low spirits. Only Bessie saw to it that the apothecary’s instructions were followed in the changing of bandages and application of soothing salve to the burns. Only Bessie came in with a cup of calming tea when Jane saw sparks and tasted ashes and wailed that the whole house would surely burn up. Only Bessie brought Jane the news of the house: that John was likely to make a full recovery, that Jane was to go away to school as soon as could be easily arranged, and that the roses in the garden had burst into full bloom, though it was late November and an unusually cold year.
This last event was a source of great consternation to the gardeners, but it was this prospect which drew Jane out of her bedroom at long last. She had seen sparks and tasted ashes the night before, and the last thing she’d heard before Bessie’s chamomile tea sent her to sleep, was her Aunt Reed screeching about the ruined rug in the Red Room. That night, Jane had dreamt of that rug and of the blood-colored roses upon it. She did not know whether her dream was at all connected to the sudden riot of unseasonable color in the gardens, but she found the thought both worrying and exhilarating at the same time.
The idea that she, who had been utterly powerless, might now have some strange form of control over her surroundings, was an intoxicating one. Though she might have dreamed up any number of miraculous ways to use that newfound power, Jane’s dearest wish was for the return of the book that her cousin had burned. When the book of Thomas Godbless did not magically reappear by her side, Jane attempted to turn the roses in the garden from red to white, but she had no more success in that endeavor, or any other bit of magic she attempted. What she needed, she decided, was a book about magic, but she was not brave enough to fetch one.
It was two days more before Jane mustered the courage to even approach the library. Though she was missing her books terribly, she could not help but be nervous to return to them. At first, she worried that her aunt might not approve of her return. After all, there had not yet been any real punishment for her supposed attack on her cousin. What better way to hurt her than to keep her away from her beloved books?
Then, once she realized that no one in the house cared overmuch how she passed her days, she imagined her feeling to be akin to that of a villain returning to the scene of a crime. Surely someone would see her there and instantly know of her guilt. She had granted her cousin power over her for a few moments, and then failed to protect her book from his cruel games. She had known full well that John Reed had no care for books, and yet she had trusted him to return it to her.
As soon as that sense of guilt and shame took root, Jane began to be afraid that the books themselves would blame her. Her Aunt Reed had told her how several more books had been ruined by John’s blood and by the mess Jane herself had made, ‘floundering about in the fireplace like a little savage.’ Having no earthly idea as to the contents of her library, her aunt had been gleefully unable to tell Jane which titles had suffered damage or destruction. In her panicked imaginings, Jane painted half the room in blood and ash.
Between the guilt and the fear, it was a great many days of pacing in front of the heavy double doors before Jane at last mustered the courage to open them. One cold and dreary Thursday, after the roses in the garden had faded again to bare brambles, she laid a bandaged hand upon the door handle and told herself she would go inside. Even so, she would have lost her nerve once more, had it not been for the sound of someone moving the ladder along a bookshelf inside. Jane knew the squeak and grind of its casters like the sound of her own voice, and equally clear in her mind was the knowledge that she had never seen any of the Reeds use that ladder in her life.
Jane threw open the door to see a strange, dark man perusing the bookshelves. Beyond the dustiness of his coat and the bent brim of his hat, there was an air of fae wildness to the man that was utterly out of place at Gateshead House, and Jane could not imagine her Aunt Reed admitting such a creature, much less turning him loose in her exceedingly fashionable library.
She watched as the man selected a volume from the nearest shelf and added it to an alarmingly large stack on the reading table.
“What are you doing with my books?”
Chapter 3: The Little Book Murderer
The Little Book Murderer
Gateshead House, December 1804
Her eyes were what caught his attention and held it. Fierce and mismatched, they were flashing dangerously in his direction as she stood in the doorway - though what danger an eight-year-old girl posed to him, John Childermass could not have said. As she stared him down, a great black blot ran across the iris of her grey eye like spilled ink, then was gone. The effect was highly disconcerting, even to Childermass, a man who was used to confronting a great many strange and uncanny things in the course of his work for Mr Norrell.
“What are you doing with my books?” snapped the girl again, bandaged hands held stiffly at her sides. Shiny, half-healed blisters peeked out above the bandages where they ended on her forearms. “You have no business in here, sir.”
Childermass released a breath he had not realized he was holding and chuckled to himself at the absurdity of fearing an overindulged child. “You’d be the little ‘book-murderer’ then? I was warned I might meet you here in the course of the day.”
He did not expect an answer, nor did the girl offer one. She merely moved closer to the table to read the titles he’d pulled out. All seven were books about magic, save Lanchester’s Language of Birds, which was a book of magic. Childermass added a copy of Ormskirk to the stack. Norrell had a copy already, but Childermass was of a mind to rescue as much of this sad little library from its monstrous keepers as he could.
“What are you doing with them?” demanded the girl softly, and Childermass looked up once more. What he saw was not the spoiled child her aunt had led him to expect. The horror evident in her face was a great deal more mature than that. “These are my books,” she whispered.
Childermass set down the edition of Tott’s English Magic he’d been inspecting. “Easy now, little miss,” he soothed, placing a hand atop the stack. “I am buying these from your aunt.”
The girl stepped forward, seized with a sudden bravery. “I am not frightened of you, sir,” she declared, chin raised in defiance. “Even if you should be angry with me for saying so, even if you should turn me into something unnatural for answering back. You will know I am not afraid, nor am I a book-murderer. It was my cousin John Reed who threw my book into the fire.”
“And why should he do that?” asked Childermass. He only permitted himself the slightest smirk at the girl’s assumption that he was a magician, though her courage in the face of it both amused and impressed him greatly. “Any book concerning Thomas Godbless would have been worth a great deal of money to him.”
“He did it because I loved it. I loved my book more than I feared him, and so he burnt it to make me small and scared again.”
Childermass lounged against the shelf behind him. “And did it work, Little Miss? You do not seem so small and scared to me.”
“I may be small, but I am not scared, sir. Not of him, and not of you.”
Childermass could not help the small chuckle that escaped him. Her eyes flashed again, and it was clear once again that these books meant much more to her than some toy she didn’t want to share. “Why did you love that particular book so?” asked Childermass. “Surely it, and these others I have chosen, are somewhat beyond the realm of a young lady?”
“I have read them all,” declared the girl obstinately, “and the book of Thomas Godbless is the best and most beautiful thing I’ve ever read, and I am glad you shan’t have it!” She dashed away a tear with the back of her hand, obviously having forgotten for a moment that it was bandaged. She gasped in pain, but then soldiered on admirably. “If I were big, a woman grown, I should keep you from having any of them at all!”
Childermass chuckled a little sadly. “Little Miss,” he said gently, “I have bought books from low servants and high lords alike. When my master decides he wants a book, he will have it.”
The girl sniffled a little, but raised her chin once more to stare at him in defiance. “The book of Thomas Godbless is mine and mine alone, and neither you nor your master shall ever take it away from me.” With that, she marched to the window seat and sat, staring daggers at Childermass, as if she would compel him to reconsider by the sheer force of her will.
The girl perched there in the same stubborn attitude all the morning, while Childermass chose books - some thirty or forty titles, when all was said and done, some magical, most mundane. It was not until he made his payment to Mrs Reed after a lunch of cold sandwiches - none were brought for the girl, and she refused his offer to share - that she was chased from the library by her aunt, who cringed and shuddered at the very sight of her.
“You have my apologies, sir,” said Mrs Reed, when the library door had closed behind her niece. “The girl is intractably willful. I have done what I can for her following the death of my dear brother, may he rest in peace, but I am afraid this latest episode, of which we spoke earlier, has been the final straw. I hope she did not give you much trouble.”
Childermass raised an eyebrow but assured the lady in the most polite language that she had not. Indeed, he was feeling worse now that the girl was gone, than he had when she was here: a little dizzy and very faintly ill, as though he’d had one pint too many without eating dinner first. He blamed the feeling on his conscience, and his growing suspicions about how things were done in this odious household.
“Well, I am thankful for that, at least,” said Mrs Reed pleasantly. “I feared some further tantrum. Jane is so unnaturally attached to these books, it will be good to separate her from them and put an end to all the mischief they have caused.”
Childermass made a noncommittal noise, which Mrs Reed took for agreement and left him to pack the books.
But when he moved to begin wrapping his purchases in brown paper for transport, he found that he could not lift a single one from the table, nor so much as open them. He tried a few little spells from Belasis and one of the less complicated creations of Martin Pale, minor tricks that he’d picked up from his work with Mr Norrell, but nothing he did allowed him to shift the books even half an inch in any direction. They might as well have turned to stone.
Frustrated and cross, for he was feeling more ill by the minute and only wished to be out of this loathsome house, Childermass drew out his Cards of Marseilles.
La Torre, Deux Épées, and l'Impératrice, reversed. Disaster and a potential truce, complicated by a female relative. Sept Deniers, patience and perseverance are required. And le Bateleur, the Magician. For a moment, it appeared as though the Magician was holding a book, rather than a wand, but a second glance showed it was only a smudge of ash on the paper, likely transferred from one of the books to his hand and then the card.
However, if there was one thing Childermass had learned, it was to respect his cards and his intuition when it came to reading them. It would seem that there was more to the ‘little book-murderer’ than he’d supposed. He called for one of the servants to fetch her, giving the excuse that he thought she’d like to say goodbye to her favorites. Her aunt had sent her out so that he might work in peace, but she was clearly attached to the books. He would simply not feel right if he did not allow the girl a chance at closure. The servant, a young housemaid, was sympathetic, and went to find the girl.
When she arrived after a few minutes, face reddened by crying, and odd-eyes flashing angrily once more, Childermass thanked the housemaid and dismissed her. He and the girl simply stood there for a few moments, she with ire written in the tension of every muscle, and he leaning casually against the bookshelf, waiting for her to master her emotions before he broached the subject of the immovable books.
Eventually, her eyes drifted away from his to the great stacks of books piled on the table before him, and Childermass felt a shift in the room. It was something nameless and queer, as if he’d suddenly heard the black of ink, or tasted the letter q. He took it for a sort of kinship between the girl and the books. If he didn’t know any better, he’d think the books were as distraught at leaving the girl as she was at losing them. The girl stifled a sob, and the shadows cast by the fire took on a strange tinge that was not quite blue, nor precisely lilac, and the dizziness and fatigue Childermass felt doubled in intensity, causing him to stagger sideways. The image of the smudged Magician card flashed in his mind’s eye.
“Did you call me so you could gloat, sir?” the girl asked tightly. She did not look at him.
“I thought you’d like to say goodbye to your favorites, Little Miss,” answered Childermass gently.
It was all the invitation she needed. She cast one wary look at Childermass, now leaning more heavily on the bookshelf, and then she was at the table like a shot. She pulled down one of the topmost books as if it weighed nothing, and Childermass’ suspicions were confirmed: there was magic in the library, and it was tied to the girl.
The girl held each book lovingly, as if she were trying to memorize the press of the embossed letters, every loose string in the binding, the imprecise cut of the pages. Some, she stroked a hand over and then returned to the table after only a moment or two, but others, she hugged tightly to her chest as she whispered to them.
Childermass, who tried casually to shift a book she’d just finished looking at, still could not make the thing move, though he was awarded a stinging paper cut for his trouble.
When the girl had said her goodbyes to them all and stood staring at the laden table as though lost, Childermass knelt down before her and offered a handkerchief. She sniffled and took the square of fabric. “Do not cry anymore, Little Miss,” he said. “This will be a good thing. Your books are going somewhere safer, where no one would ever think to burn them, nor do them the slightest bit of harm. My master has a vast library, where he keeps such books safe, cares for them and loves them, in his way.”
“But I love them,” the girl hiccuped. She ran a finger along the spine of the Language of Birds, looking in that moment every bit an eight-year-old child.
“I know, Little Miss,” he soothed, pulling her into an embrace. She was stiff in his arms at first, clearly as unused to receiving such gestures as Childermass was to offering them. Another suspicion confirmed. “But you cannot keep them safe here.” At that, she collapsed into his arms, like a puppet with its strings cut, and sobbed into his shoulder.
Childermass felt like the cruelest beast in existence, but what he said was true. She could not keep the books safe from her monstrous cousins. It was better for everyone that Mr Norrell should take charge of them.
The girl’s sobbing was loud enough that someone in the house should have heard, but no one came to comfort her, nor would they, he had come to realize. He simply held her as she cried, and slowly his own feeling of illness eased, as did the violence of her sobs.
“Will you help me pack them properly?” he whispered.
She nodded into his shoulder after a moment, and he eased his hold on her. She sniffled miserably but picked up the roll of brown paper Childermass had brought. Together, for Childermass could now move the books as easily as the girl could, they packed the books. She wrapped them carefully in paper, and he stacked them in the iron-bound chest he’d brought to transport them.
The girl did not cry again, but merely asked, as he placed the last book inside the chest and closed the lid, whether he promised to take care of them. Childermass assured her they would receive the utmost care, and when she saw them again, they would be just as she’d left them.
“Will I see them again?” she asked.
Childermass could hear the brittle hope in her voice, though she clearly tried to sound casual. “Of course you will, Little Miss.” He knelt again and wiped a single tear from her cheek, beneath her grey eye. He offered her an encouraging smile. “I don’t think there’s a soul in this world as could stop you.”
Chapter 4: Reports of a Most Curious Nature
Very short chapter this time, but we're getting closer to everything I'm most excited about!
Reports of a Most Curious Nature
Hurtfew Abbey, January - July 1805
John Childermass was not a man given to pity or sentimentality. He knew far too much of the world to allow himself to be so easily moved. No, if he could not find a way to smile at the novelty of a thing, or laugh at its expense, then his chief aim was to best it and move on. He was a survivor, a wry, often insolent man, and, so it seemed to all his acquaintance, utterly untouched by the highs and lows of his life.
And yet, there was something about the little book-murderer of Gateshead House that gave him pause.
He did not pity her — she was far too fierce a creature for that. He did not imagine she would abide his pity, even were he the sort of man inclined to bestow it. Nor did he suppose he was particularly attached to her, despite the way he’d held the child through her tears. Such an embrace would naturally have stirred some maternal inclinations in Hannah or Dido or Lucy, had they been there that day in the library, or it might have triggered some protective instinct in a man such as Lucas or Davey, but Childermass had smiled at the girl’s nerve in shouting at him, laughed at Mrs Reed as she flinched away from her own niece, and delivered the books to his master.
And yet, something about that encounter plagued him. He found himself, almost without meaning to, checking up on the girl from time to time. He had always had a knack for making connections, and this instance was no exception. Within a week of his visit to Gateshead, Childermass had established contacts there. Lucy the housemaid had a cousin in York whose mother-in-law worked at an estate near Gateshead and was friendly with one of the kitchen maids there, so when two dozen pairs of gloves were ordered for the child, Childermass was among the first to hear. When a man called Brocklehurst paid the house a visit, Childermass was informed. And when the girl was sent away to school shortly after his visit, Childermass knew of it.
Tracking down contacts at the school, a charitable institution called Lowood, had proven more difficult. It was a terribly understaffed establishment, situated in an isolated, marshy part of the county, which did not make for a great many possible connections. Eventually, however, Childermass discovered that Mr Youngblood, who kept Davey’s favorite pub in York, had a younger sister who had married a man called Hartopp from Thirsk, who had relations in Nosterfield, which was quite close to the school. Hartopp’s Nosterfield relations had a neighbor whose nephew did repair work at the school from time to time, and over the following months, reports of a most curious nature filtered in to Childermass along this convoluted chain of informants.
In January, shortly after the arrival of a mysterious new pupil at the school, there was a fire in the dormitory which, though the flames leapt from the windows and raised an alarm as far as Thornborough and Well, did not a bit of damage to either the children or any of their possessions. All the region was atwitter with talk of this miracle, and news of it even made the paper in York, though no one at the school could be prevailed upon to offer an opinion on the matter.
Three weeks later, a massive order was put in with the carpenter in Well for all new benches, stools, and desks for the school. It seemed that a sudden, unseasonable infestation of woodworms had utterly destroyed all the furniture in the main schoolroom, rendering the space nearly useless until replacements could be brought in. Experts were hired to determine the extent of the infestation, but they were confounded to discover that only the one room had been impacted. None of the rest of the building showed the least sign of insect damage.
Toward the end of February, a strange story circulated of one of the schoolgirls having her hair cut, only for it to grow back completely overnight. No one knew quite what to make of this story, but his informants passed it on to Childermass all the same.
In March, the whispers grew to those of a changeling child in the school, a fae creature of chaos and mischief who had the stern, severe schoolmaster in fits. Half a hundred slates broken all at once in their cupboards, bonnets turned to puffs of candy floss, the headmaster’s shoes taking off down the hall without him, school books that showed everything but the assigned text… All manner, in short, of strange and amusing mishaps.
Late April and May, on the other hand, brought less-welcome news. A typhus epidemic overtook the school and claimed over half the students in its occupation of the premises. It was this news that first caused Childermass to suspect himself of some small attachment to the girl from the library. For nearly seven weeks, he awaited word of her death, never sure whether the lack of such news should be attributed to her continued survival, the anonymity of so many of the students at the school, or the scarcity of news in general from that part of the county.
At last, in June, a report came to him of rainstorms inside the school, and he knew that Jane Eyre had survived the outbreak. Childermass was more relieved than he’d expected to be, though he assured himself — and Lucy, when she teased him about it — that it was merely that he liked the notion of a little faerie chaos loose in the world. The reports amused him, he told her, nothing more.
He had almost convinced himself of his own indifference when, three weeks later, as he perused his cards casually in the library, the Two of Cups announced a difficult decision to be made.
The Three of Cups followed the Two and suggested the decision concerned someone isolated, the subject of gossip. The Eight of Wands urged him to move quickly. Then the Emperor and the Hermit and that smudged Magician card again. Then again. Then once more, though he knew he had only one Magician in the pack and had redrawn it to replace the smudged one shortly after his visit to Gateshead.
Alarmed, he packed his cards hastily away. As he rose from the table, the Tower fell out of the pack and to the floor, landing at a strange angle, neither upright nor quite reversed. The threat of disaster hanging over everything.
Childermass dared not ignore such a blatant warning, and so he wrote directly to his contact in Nosterfield for the latest news from Lowood. The reply, which arrived three days later, had Childermass leaving a mystified Norrell with no more information than that he had urgent business further north.
Chapter 5: A Badger's Hind End
A Badger’s Hind End
Lowood School, July 1805
Badgers, as a rule, enjoy sitting atop unexpected gentlemen’s heads only slightly more than do the gentlemen whose heads have suddenly become the badger’s perch. When one such gentleman roars like a wounded bear while a roomful of young ladies shriek in terror, the badger’s meager sense of enjoyment — perhaps at the novelty of the situation — evaporates understandably quickly.
It was a common sentiment among the students at Lowood that the headmaster’s hairpiece — a ratty, faded curiosity that perched crookedly atop his balding pate — held an uncanny resemblance to the hind end of the badger that occasionally visited the kitchen garden and dug up rows of the cook’s turnips in search of beetles and earthworms. When that sentiment came to Mr Brocklehurst’s attention, the girls were quick to blame Jane. She was an easy scapegoat, quiet and too withdrawn since the death of her friend to make any new alliances, and her scarred “sinner’s hands” were a favorite target of Mr Brocklehurst’s discipline anyway. Indeed, she the wore angry, red stripes from Miss Scratcherd’s birch switch across her palms more often than not.
So the headmaster, satisfied with further proof of Jane’s wickedness, ignored her protests of innocence with the ease of long practice, and commenced caning her palms himself, while extolling the virtues of forgiveness for the repentant soul. All of this, while in no way fair, was hardly remarkable, but for the fact that Mr Brocklehurst did not deliver his strokes as neatly as Miss Scratcherd usually did. When his fourth stroke landed crosswise over all the others, sparks burst in Jane’s vision, and the coppery taste of her bitten tongue became bitter ash, and she knew she was done for.
She had not meant to transform the headmaster’s hairpiece into a badger — indeed, she’d had not the slightest notion that such a thing was even possible — but there was a confused-sounding growl above her, and Mr Brocklehurst made the most curious, half-choked sound of surprise, and his fifth stroke never fell.
Chaos reigned in the schoolroom until Mr Brocklehurst, bloodied and purple with restrained fury, snapped at the girls to control themselves at once. He mopped at his bleeding head with his handkerchief while Miss Scratcherd chased the poor beast from the room, and then he took up the switch once more, not satisfied until he had drawn quite as much blood from Jane’s palms as the unexpected badger had done from his head.
Then he announced that she was the Lord’s charge now, and he confined her to the chapel to pray.
The chapel at Lowood was a dismal place at the best of times. Perpetually cold and drafty, and with a roof that leaked whether it was raining or not, the space reeked of mold and mud and death. Even the dozen or so white lambs, painted on the fading green walls by someone who’d had only the haziest notion of what lambs actually looked like, could not banish the sense of doom and despair that pervaded the place.
Sitting alone in the least drafty corner of the chapel, Jane flexed her fingers experimentally. Pain arced through her palms, and blood oozed from one of the cracked scabs, but she found she could scarcely bring herself to care. Nor could she find it in herself to care for the injury that had been done to the headmaster. She felt more guilt for the poor badger she’d apparently dragged into the affair, than she did for the odious Mr Brocklehurst. She considered that such sentiments must prove her wickedness after all, as much as she had tried to be good, but a great, heavy nothingness rose up, swallowing every emotion like a deep well swallows a tossed pebble.
She was meant to be praying for guidance and forgiveness, but such things had always been Helen’s strong suit, not her own. Thoughts of Helen made her sad for a while, but then the nothingness swallowed up her grief as well. She sat listlessly, vague notions of hunger and cold and sorrow surfacing through the nothingness from time to time, only to be swallowed up once more. Eventually, sparks flickered around the edges of her vision, but even they could not inspire the terror they usually did. She wondered briefly what new catastrophe they heralded, but wondering, like considering and grieving, seemed to take an inordinate amount of energy just then, so she stopped.
She turned, to curl into the corner beneath the comforting blanket of nothingness, and wait for whatever came next, but she was brought up short by the crunch of leaves.
Derwen, Helen’s sad little doll of oak leaves and worn lace, lay upon the damp stones beneath her knee. Jane picked it up with her stiff, swollen fingers. The nothingness parted, like flood gates opening, and Jane cried until she was empty.
No one came.
No one cared.
She flung the doll away from her, heard its acorn face crack against the corner of the altar, and saw sparks once more, but then the blessed nothingness returned and swallowed them too.
Chapter 6: The Girl in the Chapel
The Girl in the Chapel
Lowood School, July 1805
Lowood School was the perfect place for a man of Childermass’ skills to move about unseen. Shadows congregated there, even in broad daylight. They spilled from doorways and dripped from the walls, and pooled beneath the dark, somber bonnets worn by all the pupils. Childermass had spent days lurking about the place, watching, learning, and gathering leverage to use against the puffed-up old headmaster, while he awaited a final ruling from the girl’s aunt.
About the girl herself, there was no shortage of gossip to be heard. Brocklehurst maintained that she was a liar, a troublemaker, and a danger to everyone in his school, and he had bullied most of his staff into believing the same. They spoke scathingly of the stories she told of faerie mischief, of sparks and ashes and nightmares that came true. They lamented her stubbornness, her lies, and her blatant disrespect for the headmaster. The more superstitious among them claimed she was a changeling, and they blamed her for all manner of misfortunes: that spring’s typhus epidemic, or a recent outbreak of headlice, or even the slugs in the garden.
Many of the students capitalized freely upon those beliefs. They bragged to one another of the misdeeds they’d managed to pin on her. Broken slates, stained dresses, spilled inkwells… It seemed that if anything went awry at Lowood School, it was Jane Eyre’s fault.
Some were awed by her seeming ingenuity and creativity, wondering aloud how she’d managed to set a live badger loose in the schoolroom without once moving from the front desk. The most popular theory held that she’d somehow tamed the beast — and some of the girls claimed she’d enchanted it with faerie magic — and smuggled it in beneath her skirt. When the headmaster had laid into her that last time, the badger had risen to the defense of its mistress. To a small handful of girls, Jane Eyre had become something of a patron saint, the physical embodiment of mischief, freedom, and the apparently universal hatred of Mr Brocklehurst.
Whether they thought her sinner or saint or changeling child, everyone at Lowood waited to hear what the headmaster meant to do about her.
But as much as he had wandered about the school, Childermass could find no trace of the girl beyond her reputation. She wasn’t in the dormitory, or the schoolroom, or out on the lawn. She wasn’t scrubbing pots in the kitchen, or pulling weeds from the turnip beds. At last, quite by chance, he felt a familiar, if faint, thread of magic that drew him to the chapel.
A pitiful little bundle of leaves lay inside the door. A scrap of tattered lace bound the leaves to a stick, atop which sat an acorn, smeared charcoal picking out eyes and mouth. The acorn was split, and some of the leaves were coming loose from the lace tie. Another faint wave of dizzying magic had him fearing the worst, but a faint sniffle came from the corner on the other side of the altar, and he realized the ruin in his hand really was only a doll. He tucked it into a pocket for safekeeping, not sure who had broken it, or why they had done so.
Childermass kept to the shadows. He did not mean to speak to the girl, did not wish to offer her false hope in the event that her aunt caused yet more trouble. He wished only to see her, to confirm for himself that she was alright, that he had heeded his cards’ warning in time.
If not for the sickly, grey-green plaster creeping slowly in from the edges of her dress, Childermass might not have believed it was really Jane Eyre huddled in that corner. She bore little resemblance to the fierce little creature he’d met in the library so many months ago. While she had been pale and thin then, now she had the pinched, knobbly look of a child who was growing far too fast for her meager diet to keep up. She stared at nothing in particular, a slack frown further proof of her disinterest in even the encroaching plaster that threatened to consume her entirely.
Childermass was torn. His firm conviction that it would be better to keep her in the dark until matters were settled, seemed suddenly shortsighted and cruel. As in her aunt’s house, the girl was utterly alone. She could fade right into the chapel wall, and no one would notice, but for the way it interrupted the ghastly motif of demonic lambs. How could it hurt, even if he could not take her away immediately, to tell her that someone was there, that someone cared whether she lived or died or disappeared entirely?
He pulled a card from his pocket.
The Empress: nurturing, abundance, life in bloom.
The girl shifted suddenly, her attention snagged by her left hand. She raised it slightly, sending plaster crackling away from her elbow, and stared with a sort of detached curiosity at her bloodied palm. The spark of interest faded, and she returned her hand to her lap, and dropped her head back to the wall, where the plaster immediately began to creep into the edges of her bonnet.
“Hello there, Little Miss,” Childermass murmured, crouching before her and letting his shadows fall away. Already he was tucking his card away and pulling his handkerchief from an inner pocket.
She blinked in surprise, before her face slackened once more. “I haven’t any books for you today, sir,” she mumbled. “I am sorry for in-inconveniencing you.” Her lip trembled, and her cheeks flushed pink in her pale face, and she looked at anything but him.
“I’m not here for books, Little Miss,” said Childermass gently. He carefully reached in to inspect one hand, then the other. “I am here to see you.” Beyond the tangling burn scars that climbed halfway up her forearms — doubtless from the incident in the library all those months ago — her hands were swollen and bloodied from a brutal caning. Childermass was no stranger to such injuries himself, having been caught out by the local magistrates on more than one occasion in his pickpocketing days. He ripped his handkerchief in two and began carefully wrapping her palms to halt the sluggish bleeding for now, until he had charge of her and could tend to the injuries properly.
Jane flinched as he drew the first knot tight, and plaster cracked and flaked around her. “Have you taken good care of my books, sir?” she asked at last.
“They’ve had better care than you have, Little Miss,” he tried teasing as he finished with her second hand.
“I’m glad,” said the girl, smiling a little, as though the news had eased something in her, but still the plaster crept over her, nearly reaching her bodice now.
He wished to see her animated once more. Fierce and defiant. Even the magic in the air was limp and listless now, and he felt only the barest trace of dizziness at his proximity to it. Her current state alarmed him far more than he would care to admit, even to Lucy, who had guessed it. It would seem he was attached to the little book-murderer after all. “Would you like to see them again?” Childermass asked, unable to help himself.
Jane looked up sharply, seeming to register him properly for the first time. The plaster on her skirt cracked and crumpled as she sat up straighter. “You’re really here? Truly?”
He laughed and answered that he was. “What did you think, Little Miss? That you had conjured me from air and shadow?”
She blushed properly, bright spots of color warming her pallid cheeks and throat, right down to the collar of her dress.
Taking that for a promising sign, Childermass took her by the elbows and tugged her free of the wall. “Come on, then, Little Miss. Up you get. Let’s have a look at you.” The plaster crumbled away to form a little heap on the damp floor as he chafed her arms to coax some warmth back into them.
“Will you take me away like you did my books?” the girl asked carefully, staring at Childermass as though afraid he might vanish if she were to so much as blink.
“There are some matters yet to be settled between the headmaster, your aunt, and myself,” he answered carefully.
Her face fell, as if she had known better than to hope.
“Take heart, Little Miss,” he scolded gently, lifting her chin to stare firmly into her mismatched eyes. Shapeless spills of black ink drifted aimlessly across her grey eye. “I’ve a mind to reunite you with your books as soon as I can arrange it.” He pulled a card from his pocket — the Star, of all things. “You take this now, and take good care of it. This cards says hope and luck are on our side. It is one of my favorite cards, so I don’t mean to be without it for long, and I certainly wouldn’t like to return and find it a smear of paint in this dismal little pit they call a chapel, understand?”
She looked down at her dress, now largely plaster-free, but still the color of the drab paint on the wall. The face of a lamb was imprinted upon the fabric near the hem. Color blossomed on her cheeks once more. “Yes, sir. Thank you.”
“Good girl,” he praised. “Now, I saw someone’s left you an oat cake and a cup of water by the door. You must promise me you will eat and drink after I’m gone. I mean to have words with your foul headmaster, and I won’t have you starving yourself any more than he’s already done.” She didn’t answer right away, so he stood and gave her a very stern look, indeed. “I want your word on it, Little Miss.”
“You have it, sir.”
Childermass stayed long enough to see that she at least took a sip of the water. Satisfied that she was drinking something, even if she was not interested in eating the petrified oat cake, he left to see a man about a troublemaker.
Chapter 7: Highly Irregular
Lowood School, July 1805
The headmaster blinked his beady eyes. “You must understand, Mr Childermass, that what you have suggested… Well, it is highly irregular, sir.” He blinked again and busied himself with his tea.
Childermass, lounging in an extraordinarily uncomfortable chair on the far side of Brocklehurst’s desk, shrugged. He’d finished his tea in two swallows, and he was now at leisure to watch the supposedly domineering headmaster shrink slowly in upon himself, his composure and self-possession collapsing like a cheap candle.
“This is a highly irregular situation,” he answered, when the silence had acquired precisely the right amount of tension. Brocklehurst had heard back from the aunt. Childermass had learned that much from his cards after he left the chapel. The aunt, he was sure, would be happy enough to be rid of the girl. It was Brocklehurst now who was dragging his feet, and Childermass was fast running out of patience.
“True enough,” Brocklehurst allowed at once, as though he could not stand to face another such silence, but then he hedged. “True enough. However, I think it bears careful consideration—”
“I was given to understand that you wished to be rid of the girl,” Childermass said plainly. “I do not see how you can expect to accomplish it with any greater convenience. The girl is clearly at the mercy of some form of magic, and my master is the foremost scholar of magic of the age. If her aunt is amenable—”
“Magic,” Brocklehurst spat, as though the word left a foul taste in his mouth. His ego inflated once more, this time in indignation, and Childermass was reminded strongly of a tom-turkey — drooping nose, puffed chest, and all. “Is that what you’re here for, sir? To validate a low superstition? Or to laugh at my institution’s expense?”
Childermass did not move as the man ranted, did not so much as blink when he stood to to tower over him. The light from the window cast the smaller man’s shadow large over Childermass and the bookshelf behind him.
“Magic, sir, is the refuge of a feeble mind. It is the domain of charlatans and cheats and yellow-curtain vagabonds who prey upon the most ragged, degenerate of souls to feed their own sense of self-importance. Magic is the last resort of godless men.”
“Is it now?” Childermass still had not moved, but he had allowed Brocklehurst’s shadow to eat away at the edges of his coat and hair during his little tirade. He was not impressed in the slightest by the man’s attempts to bully him, though he could now see how it was among the staff and students here. But shadows were Childermass’ old friends, and he was of a mind to show the man what they could really do. “And that ‘low superstition’ would be why you’ve locked the girl away in your chapel for the past week? Such a reaction looks suspiciously like belief to my eyes.”
Brocklehurst looked ready to burst. “She is there to pray for the salvation of her everlasting soul, sir! These low superstitions have raised her to notoriety among her peers. She has become the most brazen of liars, an attention-seeking little fiend who will stop at nothing to undermine my authority and torment my staff. I will not tolerate this disruption any longer.”
Childermass allowed the shadows to eat away his dark vest and coat, everything but his face, half-shrouded by his hair. A mere parlor trick, but enough to set the other man decidedly off balance and bring his tirade to an end.
“No matter what happens,” Brocklehurst said after he had collected himself somewhat and returned to his seat, “I will not have it said that I did anything less than my utmost to protect this child’s soul.”
Childermass allowed the shadows to melt away, sending them skittering under the table, just to amuse himself. Brocklehurst stiffened most satisfyingly. “Permit me to take charge of her,” Childermass said soothingly, as though his request were the most reasonable idea in the world. “I know you have had a reply from Mrs Reed. As the girl’s guardian, her decision will absolve you of any responsibility.”
Brocklehurst sniffed and sipped his tea. “Mrs Reed is a timid, weak-willed creature.”
She’d said yes, then. And Brocklehurst didn’t like it. Childermass gathered the shadows around himself once more. They filled out his lean frame and crawled over his hair, dripped from his fingers, and seeped into everything on his side of the office. “Nonetheless, she is her guardian.”
Brocklehurst shuddered and refused to look at him. He slapped a sheaf of papers onto the desk between them. “I assume you have the authority to sign for your master?”
Childermass collected the shadows and with a wicked little smirk, he tucked them effortlessly into his coat. Brocklehurst could do without them for a day or two, he decided.
Chapter 8: The Fool
The Green Goose, Kinford, July 1805
Aside from a handful of rather smart houses and a very pretty village green, the Green Goose Inn at Kinford was the town’s only notable feature. Local lore held that the Raven King himself had once stayed there, back when it had been a private home, and Kinford merely a convenient crossing point for the River Swale. Kinford was still little more than a convenient crossing point, but the inn was a small, cheery establishment, with a solid crop of regular patrons to keep up standards. Childermass thought it just the sort of place he and his new charge might find a good, hot bit of supper. He judged it quiet enough not to be overwhelming for the girl, and yet just busy enough to spark a little interest.
They had been nearly two hours in the carriage from Lowood, and the tense silence inside had been broken only by the occasional “yes, sir” or “no, sir” Jane had offered in response to Childermass’ direct questions about her general comfort and needs. Childermass, having had little enough experience of children since he’d ceased being one himself at age ten, found himself rather at a loss as to what to do with the owly-eyed little girl who stared at him unceasingly from across the bouncing carriage. He’d called a halt for dinner at Kinford, but the change had so far gotten him no more liveliness from the girl than if he’d left her in that godforsaken chapel.
Watching a group of schoolboys play on the green through the window, and pretending he wasn’t the least bit uncomfortable with Jane’s continued scrutiny, he was struck by sudden inspiration. “I propose we play a game, Little Miss,” he declared, turning suddenly to face her. She appeared horrified at having been caught staring at him, and her eyes skittered nervously about, like little birds seeking a safe place to land. “A question for a question,” he continued, in the manner of a man quite used to being ogled for hours on end, “and whichever of us is speaking when our dinner arrives, is the winner. What do you say?”
Jane said nothing at all — indeed she looked terrified at the very idea — so he cast about for something to sweeten the deal. He would have to engage her somehow. If he could not, then what hope did Mr Norrel have of doing so? And if Mr Norrell could not engage with her, then there was little chance of her remaining at Hurtfew. And there was nowhere else for her to go.
“The winner shall have a gooseberry tart,” he announced, only a little desperately, as a serving girl whisked by with a plate of them.
“What storts of questions?” Jane asked with obvious reluctance.
Childermass smiled broadly and nodded his approval. “Any sort, Little Miss. I will answer any question you might ask, provided you will do the same for me. And now it is my turn, and I wish to know how old you are.”
“Nine, sir.” She said.
“You will have to do better than that, if you mean to win the tart.” He waited, to give her a chance to expand her answer.
“I am nine years old, sir,” she said haltingly, “as of my birthday a fortnight past.”
Childermass gave her a moment more, but she did not seem inclined to offer any further information. He smiled again anyway. “And now it is your turn again, Little Miss.”
“Are you a faerie, sir?” she asked. Then her eyes went wide. She blushed and launched at once into a stammered apology for any insult or offense she might have caused. She shoved her bandaged hands behind her back, leaving Childermass in no doubt as to how such impertinent questions were handled at Lowood. He wished for a moment that he had treated the headmaster to more than some mere theatrics, but he forced a laugh and lounged more deeply in his chair, as far from her as he could easily place himself.
“Easy, Little Miss. You’ve nothing to fear from me.”
But it occurred to him then that the girl did indeed have a great deal to fear from him. He had taken charge of her, but he hadn’t told her a thing — not even his name, now he thought on it. While he had expended a great deal of time and effort in learning about her, Jane had had no such opportunity to discover anything about him, his master, or what sort of use either of them might have for an eight — nine — year old girl.
He was potentially the worst sort of villain.
“I am no faerie,” he offered gently. “My name is John Childermass, Miss Eyre, and I am the servant of Gilbert Norrell of Hurtfew Abbey. My master is the foremost magician of the age, and it is to his house that I am taking you at present. You appear to have become entangled with magic of some sort, so it seems to me that a magician’s house is the best place for you to be.”
“And what is to become of me there?”
Childermass clicked his tongue at her. “It is my turn, Little Miss,” he chided, though she was not yet sufficiently recovered from her fright to recognize that he was teasing her. “How are your hands feeling?”
The girl pulled her hands out from behind her back and clasped them very deliberately on the tabletop in front of her. She watched Childermass’ hands closely for any sign of danger, so he busied them with fishing out his cards and shuffling through them. “They are much better, Mr Childermass,” she answered after a moment. “Your salve has helped tremendously. Thank you.”
Childermass treated her to another warm smile. “I am glad. As for the answer to your question, what do you know about the Cards of Marseilles?”
Interest flickered in her eyes, at last outshining any wariness. “Only what I have read in books, sir. They are meant to see futures, if one knows how to read them.”
“Precisely — though they can do a great deal more than that, if one knows how to read them.” He laid out a simple spread, naming the cards as he went: past, present, future.
He turned over the first card: the King of Swords, reversed.
“This tells me you have been governed by fools, people who claimed wisdom and authority, but allowed themselves to be governed by emotion, superstition, and fear. Your headmaster was chiefest among them, though from what I learned of your aunt on my visit last winter, I’d imagine she was another such figure.”
Their stew arrived as he spoke, but Jane was so engaged in their discussion, that he chose to say nothing about it. The next card he turned over was the Two of Coins, also reversed, and Childermass smiled ruefully. “This one, I think, pertains to me, and the worry I’ve given you over your fate. You have my apologies for not telling you more, sooner.”
Jane murmured that it was nothing, and Childermass turned over the last card: The Fool. It was reversed as well, though since it pertained to Mr Norrell, that was only to be expected.
Jane’s eyes sparkled with mischief, telling him quite plainly who she thought this card pertained to, though she did not dare voice such an opinion out loud.
Childermass chuckled and concluded his reading. “This card tells me we are about to go on an adventure, Little Miss. There will be delays, for my master is a stubborn fellow who would prefer to keep no company but his own. But if you’ve more faith in you than fear — as I suspect you will once you’ve had a chance to settle in a bit, well… At the very least, there will be no cause for you to be disappearing into chapel walls, and I’d count that an improvement in circumstance, by any measure.
The girl smiled a little at last.
The remainder of their dinner passed in relative silence, but it was a gentler one, less wary. Jane ate too quickly, even when she burned her tongue. The stew was quite good, and Childermass was sorely tempted to order them both a second helping, but he knew from harsh experience that her stomach, more accustomed to being empty than full, might not bear it well. They had a good twenty miles to go yet, on decidedly less-than-perfect roads, so he decided not to chance it. Instead, he settled for ordering the dessert he’d set as the stakes for their game, and he passed the treat to Jane, who looked rather like she thought it might jump up and bite her.
“But you won the game, sir,” she protested, even as her stomach gave a loud growl.
“Aye, but it was not my birthday a fortnight past,” he teased. “My gift to you, Little Miss. Tuck in.”
The tart disappeared in less than a minute, but Childermass took his time finishing his drink, to give her dinner a little time to settle.
With the tension gone from her eyes, Jane looked a great deal younger, and most decidely worn out. They settled in the carriage to continue their journey, and Childermass fiddled idly with his cards, hoping the child might sleep if left to her own devices.
Miles passed, and still she stared at him, though it was not fear he saw in her eyes when he glanced up through the curtain of his hair to catch her at it. Rather, it was some anxious sort of hope that mingled with her exhaustion. Feeling for the first time that he was perhaps equipped to cope, he smiled without looking up from his cards. “Rest now, Little Miss. I will still be here when you wake.”
She settled more comfortably into her corner of the carriage. She closed her eyes obediently, but not two minutes later, a tickling sensation at the back of his neck alerted him to her continued scrutiny. He glanced up and caught her peeking at him through half-lidded eyes. He sighed and climbed out of his heavy overcoat. He tucked it around her, choosing to ignore the way she stiffened briefly beneath his hands. “Rest,” he whispered, and at last, she did.