Where was I? Did I wake or sleep? Had I been dreaming? Did I dream still? The old woman's voice had changed: her accent, her gesture, and all were familiar to me as my own face in a glass — as the speech of my own tongue. I got up, but did not go. I looked; I stirred the fire, and I looked again: but she drew her bonnet and her bandage closer about her face, and again beckoned me to depart. The flame illuminated her hand stretched out: roused now, and on the alert for discoveries, I at once noticed that hand. It was no more the withered limb of eld than my own; it was a rounded supple member, with smooth fingers, symmetrically turned; a broad ring flashed on the little finger, and stooping forward, I looked at it, and saw a gem I had seen a hundred times before. Again I looked at the face; which was no longer turned from me — on the contrary, the bonnet was doffed, the bandage displaced, the head advanced.
"Well, Jane, do you know me?" asked the familiar voice.
"Only take off the red cloak, sir, and then — "
"But the string is in a knot — help me."
"Break it, sir."
"There, then — 'Off, ye lendings!'" And Mr. Rochester stepped out of his disguise.
"Now, sir, what a strange idea!"
"But well carried out, eh? Don't you think so?"
"With the ladies you must have managed well."
"But not with you?"
"You did not act the character of a gipsy with me."
"What character did I act? My own?"
"No; some unaccountable one. In short, I believe you have been trying to draw me out — or in; you have been talking nonsense to make me talk nonsense. It is scarcely fair, sir."
"Do you forgive me, Jane?"
"I cannot tell till I have thought it all over. If, on reflection, I find I have fallen into no great absurdity, I shall try to forgive you; but it was not right."
"Oh, you have been very correct — very careful, very sensible."
I reflected, and thought, on the whole, I had. It was a comfort; but, indeed, I had been on my guard almost from the beginning of the interview. Something of masquerade I suspected. I knew gipsies and fortune-tellers did not express themselves as this seeming old woman had expressed herself; besides I had noted her feigned voice, her anxiety to conceal her features. But my mind had been running on Grace Poole — that living enigma, that mystery of mysteries, as I considered her. I had never thought of Mr. Rochester.
"Well," said he, "what are you musing about? What does that grave smile signify?"
"Wonder and self-congratulation, sir. I have your permission to retire now, I suppose?"
"No; stay a moment; and tell me what the people in the drawing-room yonder are doing."
"Discussing the gipsy, I daresay."
"Sit down! — Let me hear what they said about me."
"I had better not stay long, sir; it must be near eleven o'clock. Oh, are you aware, Mr. Rochester, that a stranger has arrived here since you left this morning?"
"A stranger! — no; who can it be? I expected no one; is he gone?"
"No; he said he had known you long, and that he could take the liberty of installing himself here till you returned."
"The devil he did! Did he give his name?"
"His name is Mason, sir; and he comes from the West Indies; from Spanish Town, in Jamaica, I think."
Mr. Rochester was standing near me; he had taken my hand, as if to lead me to a chair. As I spoke he gave my wrist a convulsive grip; the smile on his lips froze: apparently a spasm caught his breath.
"Mason! — the West Indies!" he said, in the tone one might fancy a speaking automaton to enounce its single words; "Mason! — the West Indies!" he reiterated; and he went over the syllables three times, growing, in the intervals of speaking, whiter than ashes: he hardly seemed to know what he was doing.
"Do you feel ill, sir?" I inquired.
"Jane, I've got a blow; I've got a blow, Jane!" He staggered.
"Oh, lean on me, sir."
"Jane, you offered me your shoulder once before; let me have it now."
"Yes, sir, yes; and my arm."
He sat down, and made me sit beside him. Holding my hand in both his own, he chafed it; gazing on me, at the same time, with the most troubled and dreary look.
"My little friend!" said he, "I wish I were in a quiet island with only you; and trouble, and danger, and hideous recollections removed from me."
"Can I help you, sir? — I'd give my life to serve you."
"Jane, if aid is wanted, I'll seek it at your hands; I promise you that."
"Thank you, sir. Tell me what to do, — I'll try, at least, to do it."
"Fetch me now, Jane, a glass of wine from the dining-room: they will be at supper there; and tell me if Mason is with them, and what he is doing."
I went. I found all the party in the dining-room at supper, as Mr. Rochester had said; they were not seated at table, — the supper was arranged on the sideboard; each had taken what he chose, and they stood about here and there in groups, their plates and glasses in their hands. Every one seemed in high glee; laughter and conversation were general and animated. Mr. Mason stood near the fire, talking to Colonel and Mrs. Dent, and appeared as merry as any of them. I filled a wine-glass (I saw Miss Ingram watch me frowningly as I did so: she thought I was taking a liberty, I daresay), and I returned to the library.
Mr. Rochester's extreme pallor had disappeared, and he looked once more firm and stern. He took the glass from my hand.
"Here is to your health, ministrant spirit!" he said. He swallowed the contents and returned it to me. "What are they doing, Jane?"
"Laughing and talking, sir."
"They don't look grave and mysterious, as if they had heard something strange?"
"Not at all: they are full of jests and gaiety."
"He was laughing too."
"If all these people came in a body and spat at me, what would you do, Jane?"
"Turn them out of the room, sir, if I could."
He half smiled. "But if I were to go to them, and they only looked at me coldly, and whispered sneeringly amongst each other, and then dropped off and left me one by one, what then? Would you go with them?"