Get ready for all the LOLs this summer, because the authors of MY LADY JANE are back with another fantastic, romantic, and entirely (un)faithful retelling that we’re totally thinking of as Ghostbusters meets Victorian England! And yes, it does sound like the perfect match.
Ever heard of the classic novel Jane Eyre? Well it actually doesn’t matter if you have or haven’t, because the Lady Janies (Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, & Jodi Meadows) are telling Jane’s story the way it SHOULD have been written—with ghosts! And murder! And all kinds of mayhem! In MY PLAIN JANE, the orphan Jane Eyre, aspiring author Charlotte Brontë, and supernatural investigator Alexander Blackwood are about to be drawn together on the most epic ghost hunt, in which all is not as it seems and the very future is at stake! Let us break down everything you need to know…
And now, you can start reading the prologue and first two chapters of MY PLAIN JANE!
You may think you know the story.
Oh, heard that one, have you? Well, we say again: you may think you know the story. By all accounts it’s a good one: a penniless, orphaned young woman becomes a governess in a wealthy household, catches the eye of the rich and stern master, and (sigh) falls deeply in love. It’s all very passionate and swoonworthy, but before they can be married, a—gasp!—terrible treachery is revealed. Then there’s fire and despair, some aimless wandering, starvation, a little bit of gaslighting, but in the end, the romance works out. The girl (Miss Eyre) gets the guy (Mr. Rochester). They live happily ever after. Which means (sigh) everybody’s happy, right?
Um… no. We have a different tale to tell. (Don’t we always?) And what we’re about to reveal is more than a simple reimagining of one of literature’s most beloved novels. This version, dear reader, is true. There really was a girl. (Two girls, actually.) There was, indeed, a terrible treachery and a great fire. But throw out pretty much everything else you know about the story. This isn’t going to be like any classic romance you’ve ever read.
It all started, if we’re going to go way, way back, in 1788 with King George III. The king had always been able to see ghosts. Sometimes he even had amusing conversations with long-deceased courtiers and unfairly beheaded queens who were floating about the palace grounds.
Then disaster struck. One particular day the king was without his spectacles. As he was walking in the garden, a mischievous ghost rattled the branches of a nearby tree and said, in its most stately voice, “Hey, look at me! I’m the King of Prussia!”
George, who had been expecting a visit from the King of Prussia, immediately bowed and exclaimed, “I am most pleased to meet you, Your Highness!” and tried to shake the tree’s hand.
From that moment on, George was referred to as “Mad King George,” a title he greatly resented. So George assembled a team made up of every kind of person he thought could help him be rid of these irksome ghosts: priests who specialized in exorcisms, doctors with some knowledge of the occult, philosophers, scientists, fortune-tellers, and anybody, in general, who dabbled in the supernatural.
And that’s how the Royal Society for the Relocation of Wayward Spirits was established.
In the years that followed, the Society, as it came to be called, functioned as a prominent and well-respected part of English life. If there was something strange in your neighborhood, you could, um, write the Society a letter, and they would promptly send an agent to take care of it.
Fast-forward right past the reign of George IV, to William IV ascending England’s throne. William was practical. He didn’t believe in ghosts. He considered the Society to be nothing more than a collection of odious charlatans who had been pulling the wool over the eyes of his poor disturbed predecessors for many years. Plus it was a terrible drain on the taxpayers’ dime (er, shilling). So almost as soon as he was officially crowned king, William cut the Society out of the royal budget. This led to his infamous falling-out and subsequent feud with Sir Arthur Wellesley, aka the Duke of Wellington, aka the leader and Lord President of the RWS Society, which was now underfunded and under-respected.
This brings us to the real start of our story: northern England, 1834, and the aforementioned penniless, orphaned girl. And a writer. And a boy with a vendetta.
Let’s start with the girl.
Her name was Jane.
There was no possibility of taking a walk through the grounds of Lowood school without hearing the dreadful and yet utterly exciting news: Mr. Brocklehurst had been—gasp!—murdered. The facts were these: Mr. Brocklehurst had come for one of his monthly “inspections.” He’d started right off by complaining about the difficulty of running a school for impoverished children, the way said children were always, for whatever reason, annoyingly asking for more food—more, sir, please may I have some more? Then he’d settled down by the fire in the parlor, devoured the heaping plate of cookies that Miss Temple had so kindly offered him, and promptly keeled over in the middle of afternoon tea. Poisoned. The tea, evidently, not the cookies. Although if he’d been poisoned by the cookies the girls at Lowood school felt it would have served him right.
The girls didn’t shed so much as a tear over Mr. Brocklehurst. While he’d been in charge they’d been very cold and very hungry, and a great many of them had died of the Graveyard Disease. (There are many terms for this particular illness over the course of history: the Affliction, consumption, tuberculous, etc., but during this period the malady was most often referred to as “the Graveyard Disease,” because if you were unlucky enough to catch it, that’s where you were headed. Anyway, back to Mr. Brocklehurst.) Mr. Brocklehurst had believed that it was good for the soul to have only burnt porridge to eat. (He meant the poverty-stricken, destitute soul, that is; the dignified, upper-class soul thrived, he found, on roast beef and plum pudding. And cookies, evidently.) Since Mr. Brocklehurst’s untimely demise, conditions at the school had already improved tremendously. The girls unanimously agreed: whoever had killed Mr. Brocklehurst had done them a great service.
But who had killed Mr. Brocklehurst?
On this subject, the girls could only speculate. So far nobody—not the local authorities nor Scotland Yard—had been able to uncover the culprit.
“It was Miss Temple,” Charlotte heard a girl say as she crossed the gardens. Katelyn was her name. “She served the tea, didn’t she?”
“No, it was Miss Scatcherd,” argued Victoria, her friend. “I heard she had a husband once, Miss Scatcherd did, who died suspiciously.”
“That’s just a rumor,” said Katelyn. “Who’d marry Miss Scatcherd with a face like hers? I still say it was Miss Temple.”
Victoria shook her head. “Miss Temple wouldn’t hurt a fly. She’s so sweet-natured and quiet.”
“Oh, tosh,” Katelyn said. “Everyone knows it’s the quiet ones who you have to watch out for.”
Charlotte smiled. She collected rumors the way some girls liked to accumulate dolls, recording the juicier details into a small notebook she kept. (Rumors were the one commodity that Lowood had in spades.) If the rumor were good enough, perhaps she’d compose a story about it later, to tell to her sisters at bedtime. But the death of Mr. Brocklehurst was much better than mere gossip passed around by a gaggle of teenage girls. It was a genuine, bona fide mystery.
The very best kind of story.
Once outside the walled gardens of Lowood, Charlotte pulled her notebook from her pocket and set off into the woods beyond the school at a brisk pace. It was difficult to walk and write at the same time, but she had long ago mastered this skill. Nothing so insignificant as getting from one destination to another should impede her writing, of course, and she knew the way by heart.
It’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for. That was quite a good line. She’d have to work it into something later.
Miss Temple and Miss Scatcherd were both reasonable suspects, but Charlotte believed that the murderer was somebody that no one else would ever think to consider. Another teacher, who had until recently been a student at Lowood herself. Charlotte’s best friend.
Charlotte climbed down into the dell and spotted Jane near the brook. Painting, as usual.
Talking to herself, as usual.
“It’s not that I don’t like Lowood. It’s that I’ve hardly been anywhere else,” she was saying to the empty air as she made a series of quick, short strokes onto her canvas. “But it’s a school. It’s not real life, is it? And there are no… boys.”
Jane was a peculiar girl. Which is part of why Charlotte and Jane got along so well.
Jane let out a sigh. “It is true that things are so much better here, now that Mr. Brocklehurst is dead.”
A thrill shivered down Charlotte’s spine. Never mind that this was (as we have previously reported) what every girl at Lowood had been saying lately regarding Brocklehurst’s untimely death. There was just something so satisfied about the tone in Jane’s voice when she said it. It seemed practically a confession.
It had been no secret that Jane had detested Mr. Brocklehurst. There’d been a particular incident the week that Jane had first come to the school, when Mr. Brocklehurst had forced her to stand on a stool in front of her entire class, called her a liar—worse than a heathen, he’d said—and ordered the other girls to avoid Jane’s company. (Mr. Brocklehurst had really been the worst.) And Charlotte remembered another time, after Mr. Brocklehurst had refused their request for more blankets, when the girls were waking up with chilblains (we looked this up, and chilblains are a red, itchy, painful swelling on the fingers and toes, caused by exposure to cold—gosh, wasn’t Mr. Brocklehurst the worst?), when Jane had quietly muttered, “Something should be done about him.”
And now something had decisively been done about Mr. Brocklehurst. Coincidence? Charlotte thought not.
Jane looked up from her painting and smiled. “Oh, hello, Charlotte. Lovely day, isn’t it?”
“It is.” Charlotte smiled back. Yes, she suspected that Jane had murdered Mr. Brocklehurst, but Jane was still her best friend. She and Jane Eyre were kindred spirits. They were both poor as church mice: Jane a penniless orphan, Charlotte a parson’s daughter. They were both plain—they even somewhat resembled each other—both exceedingly thin (at a time when the standard of beauty called for ladies to have a pleasant roundness to them), with similarly sallow complexions, and unremarkable brown hair and eyes. They were the most obscure type of person—the kind people’s gazes would pass over without notice. This was partially on account of the fact that they were both little—that is, short of stature, diminutive, petite, Charlotte preferred.
Still, there was beauty inside of them, if anyone cared to look. Charlotte had always known Jane to be a kind, thoughtful sort of person. Even when she was committing murder, she was thinking of others.
“What’s the subject today?” Charlotte stepped up beside Jane’s easel and lifted her spectacles to her eyes to examine Jane’s unfinished painting. It was a perfect facsimile of the view from where they were standing—the dell dappled with sunshine, the leafy boughs of the trees, the swaying grass—except that in the foreground of Jane’s painting, just across the brook, there was a golden-haired girl wearing a white dress. This figure appeared in many of Jane’s paintings.
“That’s quite good,” Charlotte commented. “And you’ve captured a sort of intelligence in her expression.”
“She thinks she’s intelligent, anyway.” Jane smirked.
Charlotte lowered her glasses. “I thought you said she wasn’t anyone in particular.”
“Oh, she’s not,” Jane said quickly. “You know how it is. When I paint people they sometimes come to life in my mind.”
Charlotte nodded. “The person who possesses the creative gift owns something of which she is not always master—something that at times strangely wills and works for itself.”
Jane didn’t reply. Charlotte lifted her glasses to look at her. Jane was staring off at nothing. Again.
“You’re not leaving Lowood, are you?” Charlotte asked. “Are you going to be a governess?” (That was really the only viable career choice for girls at Lowood: teaching. You could become a village schoolmistress, or an instructor at some institution like Lowood, which is what Jane had done, or a governess in some wealthy household. Being a governess was really the best any of them could hope for.)
Jane glanced at her feet. “Oh, no, nothing like that. I was just… imagining another life.”
“I imagine leaving Lowood all the time,” Charlotte said. “I’d leave tomorrow if the opportunity presented itself.”
But now Jane was shaking her head. “I don’t wish to leave Lowood. That’s why I stayed on, after I graduated. I can’t leave.”
“Why ever not?”
“This place is my home, and my… friends are here.”
Charlotte was beyond flattered. She’d had no idea that Jane had stayed at Lowood simply because she hadn’t wished the two of them to be separated. Charlotte was, as far as she could tell, Jane’s only friend, thanks to Mr. Brocklehurst. (Charlotte had never given a fig to what Mr. Brocklehurst had dictated concerning Jane.) Friendship was indeed the most valuable of possessions, especially for a girl like Jane, who lacked any family to speak of. (Charlotte was the middle child of six—which she counted as both a blessing and a curse.)
“Well, I think you should go, if you can,” Charlotte said gallantly. “I would miss you, of course, but you’re a painter. Who knows what beautiful things there are to behold outside of this dreary location? New landscapes. New people.” She smiled mischievously. “And… boys.”
Jane’s cheeks colored. “Boys,” she murmured to herself. “Yes.”
Both girls were quiet, imagining the boys of the world. Then they sighed a very yearning type of sigh.
This preoccupation with boys might seem a little silly to you, dear reader, but remember that this is England in 1834 (think before Charles Dickens, after Jane Austen). Women at this time were taught that the best thing that could ever possibly happen to a girl was to be married. To a wealthy man, preferably. And it was really good luck if you could snag someone attractive, or with some kind of amusing talent, or who owned a nice dog. But all that truly mattered was landing a man—really, any man would do. Charlotte and Jane had few prospects in this department (see the above description of them being poor, plain, obscure, and little), but they could still imagine themselves swept off their feet by handsome strangers who would look past their poverty and their plainness and see something worthy of love.
It was Jane who broke the spell first. She turned back to her painting. “So. What marvelous story will you write today?”
Charlotte shook the idea of boys out of her brain and took a seat on the fallen log she always perched on. “Today… a murder mystery.”
Jane frowned. “I thought you were writing about the school.”
This was true. Before all of this business with Mr. Brocklehurst, Charlotte had begun writing (drum roll, please) her Very-First-Ever-Attempt-at-a-Novel. Charlotte had always heard that it was best to write what you know… and all Charlotte really knew, at this point in her life, was Lowood, so the First Novel had been about life at a school for impoverished girls. If you’d flipped through Charlotte’s notebook, you would have found page after page of her observations of the buildings, the grounds, notes on the history of the school, detailed renderings of the individual teachers and their mannerisms, the girls’ struggles with cold, the Graveyard Disease, and, above all, the abominable porridge.
Consider the following passage from page twenty-seven:
Ravenous, and now very faint, I devoured a spoonful or two of my portion without thinking of its taste; but the first edge of hunger blunted, I perceived I had got in hand a nauseous mess: burnt porridge is almost as bad as rotten potatoes; famine itself soon sickens over it. The spoons were moved most slowly: I saw each girl taste her food and try to swallow it; but in most cases the effort was soon relinquished. Breakfast was over, and none had breakfasted.
That had all been fine, Charlotte thought, especially that bit about the porridge. But this was supposed to be a NOVEL. There had to be more than just simple observation. There had to be a story. A plot. A level of intrigue.
She was on the right track, she was fairly certain. The main subject of Charlotte’s novel was a peculiar girl named Jane… Frere, a plain, penniless orphan who must struggle to survive in the harsh environment of the unforgiving school. And Jane was smart. Resourceful. A bit odd, truth be told, but compelling. Likeable. Charlotte had always felt that Jane was the perfect protagonist for a novel (although she hadn’t told Jane that she had the honor of being immortalized in fiction. She was waiting, she supposed, for the right time for that conversation). So the character was good. The setting was interesting. But the novel itself had been somewhat lacking in excitement.
Until the death of Mr. Brocklehurst, that is. It had been, for the sake of Charlotte’s novel, anyway, a most fortuitous turn of events.
“The girls are beginning to theorize that it was Miss Scatcherd. What do you think?” Charlotte lifted her glasses to her eyes again to watch Jane’s face for any telltale reaction, but Jane’s expression remained completely blank.
“It wasn’t Miss Scatcherd,” Jane said matter-of-factly.
“You sound so certain,” Charlotte prodded. “How do you know?”
Jane cleared her throat delicately. “Can we talk about something else, perhaps? I’m so weary of Mr. Brocklehurst.”
How doubly suspicious that now Jane wanted to change the subject, but Charlotte obliged. “Well, I did hear a good bit of news today. Apparently the Society is coming here.”
Jane’s brow rumpled. “The Society?”
“You know, the Society. For the Relocation of Wayward Spirits. There was a ‘Royal’ in there somewhere, too, at one time, but they had to drop it on account of their falling out with the king. Which I think must be a terribly interesting story.”
Jane’s brow was still rumpled. “Well, of course I’ve heard of them. But I never—”
“Do you not believe in ghosts?” Charlotte chattered on. “I believe in ghosts. I think I may have seen one myself once, back in the cemetery at Haworth a few years ago. At least I thought I did.”
“What I’d like to know is, what do they do with them?” Jane said gravely.
“What do you mean?”
“The Society. What do they do with the ghosts they capture?”
Charlotte tilted her head to one side, thinking. “Do you know, I’ve no idea. I’ve only heard that if you’re having a problem with a ghost, you send for the Society, and they apparently all wear black masks that are quite striking, and then they come and…” She gestured vaguely into the air. “Poof. No more ghost. No more trouble.”
“Poof,” Jane repeated softly.
“Poof!” Charlotte clapped her hands together. “Isn’t it exciting that they’re coming?”
“They’re coming here.” Jane pressed a hand to her forehead as if she was suddenly feeling faint. Which didn’t alarm Charlotte, as young women of this time period felt faint regularly. Because corsets.
“Well, they’re not coming to Lowood, specifically,” Charlotte amended. “Apparently the Society has been hired to do some kind of exorcism on Tuesday night at the Tully Pub in Oxenhope—you know the one they say has the shrieking lady over the bar? That’s what I heard this morning from Miss Smith. But perhaps they should come to Lowood. Just think of how many girls have died here of the Graveyard Disease.” Two of those girls had been her older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth. Charlotte cleared her throat. “The school must be bustling with ghosts.”
Jane began to pace.
“We should request that they visit Lowood,” decided Charlotte. Then she had a thunderous idea. “We should ask them to solve Mr. Brocklehurst’s murder!” She paused and peered through her spectacles. “Unless there’s some reason you can think of that we wouldn’t want to solve Mr. Brocklehurst’s murder.”
Jane put a hand to her chest, as if she was now having true difficulty breathing. “How could they solve Mr. Brocklehurst’s murder?”
“They can speak to the dead, apparently. I imagine they could simply ask him.”
“I have to go.” Jane started to gather up her painting supplies, in such a hurry that she smeared paint on her dress. Then she was practically bounding up the hill in the direction of the school. Charlotte watched her go. She opened her notebook.
It’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for, she read.
Jane Eyre had the opportunity and the motive to kill Mr. Brocklehurst, but could she have actually done it? Was she capable of cold-blooded murder for the good of the school? And if not, then why so agitated about the news of the Society? If not a murder, what else could Jane be hiding?
It was a mystery.
One that Charlotte Brontë intended to solve.
Jane stood across the road from the Tully Pub, her gaze fixed upon the door. The scent of pork scratchings and pickled eggs wafting from the building made her stomach cramp painfully. Her supper of a spoonful of porridge and a half glass of water were hardly adequate sustenance for a girl of eighteen. (But at least the single spoonful of porridge tasted better now that Mr. Brocklehurst was dead, she thought, which was a small comfort.)
A man came down the road. Jane checked for a mask, but he was a regular man, wearing regular clothing and walking in a regular manner. He glanced in her direction but did not notice her, and then he swung the door to the pub wide open—inside was warm firelight and more men and a burst of raucous laughter and music—and disappeared into the room, the door slamming shut behind him.
She sighed. Before she’d arrived, she had expected to see a sign across the door of the pub reading “Keep out! Exorcism of Screaming Ghost Lady, and other Regular Maintenance.” Surely a “relocation,” or whatever it was called, would be a big to-do. But she’d been standing there for nearly half an hour, and in that time men had been freely coming and going out of the pub as they would any other night. Girl like Jane didn’t belong in pubs, but she had to know if there was a ghost, and she really had to know what the Society would do to said ghost.
Jane, you see, had always believed in ghosts. When she was a small girl she’d lived with her horrible aunt Reed and two equally horrible cousins, and one night her aunt had forced Jane to sleep in the “Red Room.” (This room had red wallpaper, red curtains, and red carpets—hence the name “Red Room.”) It was creepy, and Jane had always imagined it was haunted by some shadowy, evil spirit. When Aunt Reed locked her in there, Jane tearfully begged to be let out, then screamed until she was hoarse, and finally fainted dead away—her heart, unbeknownst to Jane, actually stopped beating, so great was her terror.
She literally died of fright, if only for a moment. And when she opened her eyes again her late uncle was kneeling next to her, and he smiled at her kindly.
“Oh, good, you’re awake. I was worried,” he said.
“Uncle? How… are you?” She couldn’t think of anything else to say to him. She knew she was being terribly rude, since clearly her uncle wasn’t doing very well due to the fact that he’d been dead for years.
“I’ve been better,” he replied. “Can you do me a quick favor?”
In the morning, when she was finally let out of the Red Room, Jane had marched right up to her aunt and informed her that Uncle Reed was quite perturbed. He had loved Jane—and as he was dying he’d made Aunt Reed promise to take good care of her, to “love her like a daughter.” But Aunt Reed had obviously interpreted those words to mean “treat her like an indentured servant, and maybe starve her a bit for your own pleasure.” For starved Jane had been, and generally mistreated, and Uncle Reed had taken note of it all from beyond the grave, and now he demanded that Aunt Reed make amends.
“He wants you to remember your promise,” Jane explained. “He’d just like you to try to be a bit nicer.”
Aunt Reed had responded by calling Jane a “liar” and a “devil child” and sending her away to Lowood, where Mr. Brocklehurst had also labeled her a “disobedient heathen girl who was headed straight for hell.” But Jane never questioned what she’d seen. In her heart she knew that she’d really conversed with her dead uncle because it was the only moment of Jane’s rather tragic life when she’d felt that she’d been part of a real family.
She never spoke of her uncle now, of course. Not to anyone. In Jane’s experience, talking about it usually led to some form of punishment.
She stared at the tavern, her stomach grumbling loudly.
“Are you hungry, too?”
The soft voice startled her. She turned to discover a raggedly dressed little girl standing beside her. A street urchin.
“I’m hungry,” reported the child. “I’m always hungry.”
Jane glanced around. The street was deserted, save for herself and the urchin.
“I’m sorry, but I’ve nothing for you to eat,” Jane whispered.
The girl smiled. “I want to be pretty like you when I grow up.”
Jane shook her head at the wildly inaccurate compliment and turned her attention back to the pub.
“Are you going in there?” asked the girl. “I’ve heard it’s haunted.”
Yes. There was a ghost in there, and since nothing was happening outside, Jane must go in to see it. “Stay here,” she said to the urchin, and then hurried across the road. She took a deep breath and pushed through the door of the pub.
She’d done it. She’d gone inside.
The pub was packed. The scent of liquor mixed with body odor assaulted her senses. For a moment she felt paralyzed, unsure of what to do now that her waning burst of courage had propelled her into the tavern. There was no ghost that she could see. Perhaps Charlotte had been wrong.
She should ask. Of course, that would mean she would have to speak to a man. Jane had wistful fantasies about boys, but these were men. They were hairy and smelly and huge. It seemed utterly impossible to have a conversation with one of these drunken men lurching about the pub.
She did not belong here. She lowered her head, slyly pinched her nose to shut out the dreadful man smells, and barreled through the crowd toward the bar. (At least, Jane would call it barreling. We would describe it as delicately weaving.) At her approach the barkeep glanced up.
“Can I help you, miss?” he asked. “Are you lost?”
“No,” she said hoarsely. “No, at least I don’t think I’m lost. Is this the . . . establishment . . . where . . .”
“Where what?” asked the barkeep. “Speak up. I can’t hear you.”
Her corset felt horribly tight. (It was. That was rather the point of corsets.)
“Here. On the house.” The barkeep poured a glass of brandy and slid it over. For a moment Jane looked utterly scandalized that he should offer her such a thing. Then she snatched up the glass and took a sip. The liquid fire seared down her esophagus. She gasped and put the glass down. “Is this the place where the—”
She had just started to pronounce the word ghost when an unearthly shriek filled the room. Jane jerked her gaze upward to behold a woman in a white nightdress hovering in the air above the bar. The woman’s hair was raven black, floating all around her head like she was caught in an underwater current. Her skin was almost entirely translucent, but her eyes glowed like coals.
She was perhaps the most beautiful ghost Jane had ever seen. And Jane had seen her share of ghosts.
“Just ask your question, miss,” the barkeep was saying, his eyes still fixed on Jane. “I haven’t got all night, you know.”
He obviously didn’t see the ghost.
“Never mind.” Jane took another sip of the brandy and backed away from the bar to better regard the unhappy spirit.
“Where did they take him?” the ghost moaned. “Where did they take my husband?”
Jane felt a tug of pity for the woman.
“Where is he?” cried the ghost.
How awful, Jane thought, to be parted from one’s true love, to be so cruelly severed from one’s other half, like losing a part of your very soul. It was terrible. But also . . . terribly romantic.
“I know he’s here somewhere,” shrieked the ghost. “He always is. I’ve got a few things to say to him, I’ll tell you what. That good-for-nothing Billy-born-drunk!”
Oh. Oh, dear.
The ghost raised her arm and swatted at Jane’s brandy glass. It went flying, whizzing past Jane’s left ear, and crashed into the back wall.
“Cricum jiminy!” exclaimed the barkeep, because he had obviously noticed the flight of the brandy glass. “The Shrieking Lady’s back!” He glanced up a clock on the wall. “Right on schedule.”
“Not worth a rap!” bellowed the ghost. “The boozer!” She swept around the room in a whoosh of cold wind and then back to bar, knocking the clock off the wall for good measure. “The muck snipe!”
“Where’s the blooming Society?” the barkeep groaned. “They’re supposed to be here.”
“I know you’re hiding that ratbag!” The Shrieking Lady grabbed the bottle of brandy and lobbed it at the barkeep’s head. Her aim was true. Down he went, without another word.
This wouldn’t do at all. Jane ducked so that she would be less of a target, and crawled and slid and scurried until she was safely tucked away behind the bar, where she could use the unconscious barkeep as a shield. (Always thinking of others, that Jane.) The hem of her dress was sticking to the booze-soaked floor, which was unfortunate, but unpreventable at this point.
She peered around the incapacitated barkeep to watch the ghastly scene continue to unfold. The Shrieking Lady kept demanding to see her degenerate husband, all the while hurling things about the room. The bar patrons were cursing and bumping into one another in their haste to steer clear of the ghost, although they didn’t seem to be particularly interested in vacating the pub. They were probably used to it.
What a mess, thought Jane glumly as the Shrieking Lady sent a huge jar of pickled eggs crashing to the floor. By now she was feeling markedly less pity for the woman. This ghost is definitely troublesome, she concluded. So where was the blooming—oh dear, pardon her French—Society?
At that exact moment, as if her thoughts had conjured him, a man in a black mask jumped onto a table in the center of the room. He took a small object out of his pocket and threw it against the wall.
It exploded with a flash and a bang.
The crowd stilled. Then all faces turned to stare in open-mouthed silence at the masked man.
Jane caught herself staring, too, her breath catching—although, again, that could have just been her corset. She shoved the barkeep aside to get a better look.
The agent was a young man—even wearing the mask, that much was clear—although Jane wouldn’t call him a boy, either. Most of the men of this era had a mustache or, at the very least, sideburns, but he had neither. Jane wouldn’t call him handsome. (In the pre-Victorian age, a truly handsome man should be pale—because being out in the sun was for peasants—with a long, oval-shaped face, a narrow jaw, a small mouth, and a pointy chin. We know. We can’t believe it, either.) This young man’s jaw was decidedly square, and his hair was too long. But he was obviously of the upper class, wearing a fine wool coat and expensive-looking leather gloves.
“Everybody out!” he shouted, and Jane ducked behind the bar.
The crowd immediately exited in an orderly fashion. The room was now empty save for another masked man, this one younger than the first, definitely a boy, and wearing a much shabbier suit. Apparently they came in pairs.
The one with the exploding thing jumped down off the table.
“Now pay close attention,” he said to the second agent. “First we clear the room. Then we confirm the identity of the spirit.”
The spirit. Jane had almost forgotten. She glanced up to see the ghost. The Shrieking Lady had long since stopped shrieking, too busy staring at the agents.
The one in charge produced a small, black leather-bound notebook from an inner pocket of his coat, and a pencil. He opened the book gently, in a way that reminded Jane of Charlotte, and turned to a marked page.
“Tell me your name, spirit,” he directed at the ghost, sounding almost bored.
The Shrieking Lady pressed her back against the ceiling but refused to answer. The other agent, the short one with the mop of red hair and glasses—which Jane noticed he wore over his mask—stepped forward. “You should really answer him,” he said, looking at the ghost. “Please.”
The one in charge shushed the redhead. He turned to the ghost again. “You are Claire Doolittle, are you not?”
“I lost him,” the ghost whispered. She sounded suddenly forlorn. “They took him.”
“Took who?” The agent consulted his notebook. “Your husband? He was thrown into debtors’ prison, if I’m not mistaken. A gambling problem.”
The ghost swayed from left to right, but said nothing.
The agent glanced down at his notebook again. “His name was Frances Doolittle.”
“Frank,” the ghost sneered. “He was a hornswoggler.”
“Frank,” said the agent, jotting that down. “Hornswoggler.” He reached into his pocket again and drew out a silver pocket watch. “All right,” he said to the second agent, “now observe this closely. When capturing a spirit—”
The ghost let out a wail so loud and so mournful that Jane’s stomach twisted with a new wave of pity. Then the Shrieking Lady snatched the watch from the agent’s grasp. At least that’s what she tried to do, but failed, as the watch passed through her insubstantial hand and clattered onto the floor.
The next events happened in quick succession:
The agent in charge reached for the pocket watch on the floor.
The ghost sensed an escape window and darted downward from the ceiling.
“She flees!” cried the redhead.
The agent in charge leapt nimbly through the air and landed beside the ghost. “Get the watch! It’s—” But he couldn’t finish the order because the redhead clumsily lunged forward and dove to tackle the ghost, but instead of tackling her, he—naturally—flew right through her and landed in a clumsy pile next to Jane’s hiding place behind the bar.
At which point Jane shot to her feet.
All eyes fell on Jane, including the ghost’s.
“Uh, good evening.” Jane waved. “I was, um . . . sleeping . . . sweeping . . . then sleeping.”
A moment of complete silence passed. Nobody moved, except the redheaded one, who groaned and rubbed his temple. But the ghost began to drift purposefully toward Jane.
“Sleeping,” the first agent said skeptically.
“I… I…” Jane stammered. “I was drunk. From the drinking of… the brandy.”
By now, the Shrieking Lady was uncomfortably close to Jane, who tried with all her might to pretend she couldn’t see the wayward spirit.
“Hello,” the ghost said.
Jane could feel the masked man’s eyes on hers. She quickly glanced at the ceiling. A table. The painting on the wall. Anywhere but at the ghost.
“You are so beautiful,” the ghost breathed.
Jane’s cheeks went red. She never knew how to answer to this, mostly because living persons had been telling her all her life how very plain she was.
What a commonplace girl.
Oh dear. I do hope she can secure a position… somewhere.
Oh goodness. How unexceptional. (She always wondered why, if she was so unexceptional, did people feel the need to comment on it?)
To ghosts, however, she was the epitome of beauty.
This left Jane to believe that something was seriously askew in the afterlife.
“You’re so like my Jamie,” the Shrieking Lady continued. “With the sun setting behind him.” Jane didn’t know who this Jamie person was, but the dead woman obviously felt entirely different about him than she had about her husband. “A soft breeze ruffling his red hair,” she cooed.
Jane’s hand, almost on its own accord, reached up and brushed away a few strands of her unexceptional hair from her unexceptional eyes, as she tried desperately, tenaciously, to ignore the ghost.
The agent in charge glanced from Jane to the ghost and back again, his head tilted to one side.
“Oh my, would you look at the time.” Jane gestured to where, until a few moments ago, the clock had been hanging on the wall. “I must go.”
The dratted ghost breezed even closer. Jane had seen this type before. This could turn into a fly-on-flypaper situation. Which she could not let happen now.
She took another two steps back. The ghost floated two steps forward. “I’ve never seen anything so lovely,” she said in a sigh. “You’re truly radiant.” She wrapped her arms about Jane.
Jane smiled nervously at the men. “I wouldn’t want to interrupt your important work. So I will just stand here. Not moving.”
The agent in charge frowned at Jane in a puzzled way. Then he bent and picked up the pocket watch from the floor. He walked cautiously toward Jane and the ghost. When he reached the apparition he whispered, “Spirit, you are hereby relocated.”
“What are you doing?” Jane asked.
He didn’t answer. Instead he raised the pocket watch high into the air and bopped the ghost on the head with it.
(We understand, reader, this is an extremely pedestrian way to describe something, this “bopping on the head.” But after numerous revisions and several visits with a thesaurus, that really is the most adequate description. He bopped it on the head.)
A frigid blast of air blew Jane’s hair from her face. The silver pocket watch glowed, and then, to Jane’s horror, sucked the ghost in. Poof—Claire Doolittle was gone. Gone. But where?
Jane stared at the pocket watch, hoping the ghost was all right, but the watch vibrated and shook and jerked away like the ghost was trying to escape. The agent dangled the watch by its chain until it stilled. Then he made a move to toss it to the redhead, but at the last moment seemed to think better of it, and wrapped the watch in a scrap of fabric before returning it to his pocket.
It was all so sinister. “Where did she go? Is she in there?” For a moment Jane completely forgot herself.
The agent turned to look at her sharply. “So you did see her.”
Drat. Ever since the Red Room, Jane had operated by the following set of rules:
Rule #1. Never tell anyone that she could see ghosts. Never. Ever. Ever.
Rule #2. Never interact with or speak to a ghost in the presence of a living person.
Rule #3. No matter how tempted she was, no matter how interesting the ghost, no matter how pressing the situation seemed to be, refer to rules #1 and #2.
“No, I—I didn’t see her,” Jane stammered. “It, I mean. I saw nothing.”
The agent narrowed his eyes. “Who are you?”
“No one, sir.”
“You’re obviously someone,” he countered. “You’re a seer, at the very least. And you came from somewhere. Where?” His notebook was in his hand again. Jane felt a surge of panic. In spite of her strict adherence to the rules concerning ghosts (which were more like guidelines, really), she was not a very good liar.
“I assure you, sir, I am no one worth noting,” she said, although this did nothing to stop his obvious noting of her in his notebook. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m very late.” She gave a quick curtsy and started for the door, but the agent stepped into her path.
“You’re late? Who could be expecting you at this hour?”
“My students,” she blurted. “I’m an instructor. I am teaching maths.”
“You teach mathematics in the middle of the night.”
“Yes,” Jane agreed. “Imagine how worried my students must be.”
The agent frowned and was obviously about to question her further, but at that moment the bartender (having only now regained consciousness) stood up from behind the bar. “What happened?” he asked groggily.
The agent narrowed his eyes at the barkeep. “Who are you, sir?”
“I’m Pete. Obviously.” He rubbed the goose egg on the back of his head. “I own the place. You’re wearing a mask. You’re from the Society. Did you get the ghost?”
“Yes,” the agent said.
“I’m sorry I missed it.” Pete surveyed the destruction of his pub. “Good riddance, I say.”
The agent turned back to Jane, who had been silently sidestepping toward the door. “At what school do you teach?” he asked her.
She stopped. “Oh, I’m sure you’ve never heard of it.”
“There is a school nearby,” the redhead piped up from behind them. “Do you teach at Lowood? Perhaps you are acquainted with—”
“I suppose now you’ll be wanting to be paid,” the barkeep interrupted, clearly impatient to get on with his business of straightening up the pub and reopening it. He scratched his chin. “Ten pounds, was it?”
“Fifteen,” the agent clarified, reluctantly turning his attention away from Jane as Pete the bar-owner went to fetch his purse and then slowly, grumpily, counted the coins off into the agent’s hand. In shillings, not pounds, which was going to take a while.
That was all the opportunity she needed. Jane fled, pausing only to swipe a pickled egg or two from the floor on her way out, because she had learned never to leave a room with free food without grabbing some.
“Wait, I still wish to speak with you,” the agent called after her as Pete continued to count out the cash with excruciating slowness. “Wait!”
But Jane was out the door. The street urchin was still standing in the exact spot where Jane had left her.
“Did you see a ghost?” the child asked.
“Run, urchin, run!” Jane cried. The little girl sprinted away, and Jane ran, too.
The moment Jane stepped across the school boundaries, Mr. Brocklehurst appeared.
“Miss Eyre! What are you doing skulking about at this hour! I’ve caught you!” He pointed to the ground beneath his feet. “You shall be made to kneel on Cook’s cornmeal!”
The scars on Jane’s knees prickled at the thought. But happily Mr. Brocklehurst was dead.
Which, sadly, had not made him any less annoying.
“You know, I had a wife,” he said, wiping a nonexistent tear from his nonexistent face. “And children. What will become of them now?”
Jane considered feeling bad for him, but then a few victims of the Graveyard Disease floated by, and decided against it.
“You’re looking well, Miss Eyre,” Mr. Brocklehurst noticed, his eyes narrowing. “Please don’t tell me they have increased food rations at the school. I’ll have Miss Temple’s hide for this!”
Jane’s stomach growled. The pickled eggs had done little to take the edge off. She pushed past the ghost and headed for the second floor.
“Come back here at once!” Mr. Brocklehurst shouted. “Miss Eyre!”
“Oh, leave me alone,” Jane muttered. “You can’t hurt anyone anymore.”
Mr. Brocklehurst huffed, but to her relief he did not follow.
In the stairwell she came upon Charlotte curled up with a candle, writing. She was always writing, always, oblivious to the rest of the world, scribbling away into that notebook she carried around. Jane was exceedingly fond of Charlotte. The girl was a bit peculiar, but that only made Jane like her more. Charlotte was Jane’s favorite non-dead person at Lowood, but Jane was too frazzled for conversation at the moment.
She had almost passed by unnoticed when Charlotte looked up from her notebook.
“Did you say something about hurting someone?” Charlotte asked. “Tell me more.”
“Oh, Charlotte, good evening. I didn’t see you there.” Jane thought fast for a diversion. “Did you happen to notice the moon tonight?”
“Yes. Very round. Did you say something about hurting someone?” Charlotte held her pencil at the ready.
“Did you write something about hurting someone?” Jane replied.
And just like that, they seemed at an impasse in a contest of some sort, where the opponents had no idea what the contest was about.
“I do apologize, Charlotte, but I’m rather tired. I think I’ll go to bed.”
“Is that Charlotte Brontë?” came Mr. Brocklehurst’s muted voice from downstairs. “Skulking about in the middle of the night? Disgraceful. She should be punished!”
Jane was glad that Charlotte couldn’t hear him.
“Did you go to the pub?” Charlotte asked. “I thought you might. It’s what I would have done, if I were allowed to leave the grounds.”
The girl apparently missed nothing.
Jane attempted to look scandalized. “Why ever would I go to a pub? A young woman of my position does not belong in such a place. So… no, no, I certainly did not go to a pub. I was taking a midnight stroll.”
Charlotte nodded. “Was the ghost there? Did you see the men from the Society? Did they capture the ghost? Was it very exciting?”
For a moment Jane was tempted to share her secrets to her friend, but that would definitely be breaking Rule #1, so Jane simply said, “I assure you, it was only a walk in the moonlight. You know I like walking. Well. Good night, Charlotte.”
She made her way up the stairs and to her tiny room.
Where Helen Burns was waiting. Her best friend and favorite ghost in all the world.
“Thank goodness you’re back! What happened?” Helen asked, her translucent cheeks flushed with the fever that had killed her so many years ago.
Jane dropped her face into her hands. “It was terrible. He just… bopped that poor ghost over the head.” And then the entire story spilled out of her in a rush.
“So the Society can do all the things the papers claim,” said Helen after Jane had finished talking.
“They can.” Jane kicked off her shoes and began to struggle out of her various layers of repressive clothing. “And they’re cruel. They didn’t even bother talking to the ghost much. They were simply intent on capturing her. And she wasn’t so very troublesome…” Jane recalled the brandy glass smashing against the wall. The clock. The jar of pickled eggs. “Well, she did need help. But she didn’t deserve to be trapped in a pocket watch.”
“A pocket watch. How awful,” Helen said with a shudder. “It must be so cramped. And think of the ticking.”
Jane finished dressing and blew out the candle. The two curled up together on Jane’s small, lumpy bed, as they had always done, even though sleep was only required by one of them. For a long while Jane stared up at the dark ceiling, then suddenly said, “The Society might come tomorrow.”
Helen sat up abruptly. “Here?”
Jane sat up, too. “Yes. The agents seemed very curious about me. And one guessed that I teach at Lowood. If they come, you must stay hidden.”
“I’ll stay out of sight,” promised Helen.
Jane paused for a moment. “It’s time to leave this place. This time I’m serious.”
Helen’s lower lip trembled slightly. “You would leave me?”
“I will never leave you! I meant both of us would leave. Together, as always.”
Helen had been Jane’s first true friend, her only friend at Lowood until Charlotte had come along. Helen had stood by Jane when everyone else shamed and punished her. And despite Jane’s excessive plainness and her many other inadequacies, Helen had loved her.
But Helen died when she was fourteen. That spring a particularly nasty version of the Graveyard Disease had descended on Lowood. By May, forty-five of the eighty pupils lay in quarantine, Helen among them. One night Miss Temple helped Jane sneaked past the nurses into the room where Helen lay dying.
Jane had climbed into Helen’s cot. “Helen, don’t leave me,” she whispered.
“I would never,” Helen promised. “Hold my hand.”
Jane clasped her friend’s hand tightly, trying to ignore how cold Helen’s fingers were. They fell asleep like that, and when she woke the next morning, Helen’s body was pale and still.
And standing above it was Helen’s ghost.
“Hi,” she said, with a mischievous smile. “I think I get to stay.”
It was always hit-and-miss with ghosts as to which ones stayed and which ones left for some great beyond. But Helen had stayed with Jane, true to her promise. And Jane promised, in return, that they would never be parted. Helen was the closest thing to a sister Jane had ever had. She could not—would not—abandon Helen. But now she worried that the Society would storm Lowood tomorrow. And if it wasn’t tomorrow, it was only a matter of time. There were so many ghosts here, one was bound to cause a problem. Mr. Brocklehurst, probably.
“It’s not as if we have anywhere to go,” Helen was saying.
“I could get a job.”
“I could be a seamstress.”
“Your sewing is terrible,” Helen pointed out. “I love you, but you know it’s true.”
“I could wash clothes and press them.”
“Think of how chapped and red your little hands would get.”
“I could be a governess.”
Helen nodded thoughtfully. “You are a good teacher,” Helen said. “And you like children. But you’re far too beautiful to be a governess.”
Helen was no different from the other ghosts in this regard. She thought Jane was beautiful, even though it was Helen, with her porcelain complexion, blue eyes, and long golden hair, who would have turned heads if she were still alive. “What does my appearance have to do with anything?” Jane asked.
“You’re so lovely that the master of the house wouldn’t be able to help falling in love with you,” Helen explained. “It would be a terrible scandal.”
Jane didn’t think that sounded so terrible. “I could handle it.”
“Trust me. It would end badly,” Helen said stubbornly.
“Please, Helen. We must do this. Say you’ll come with me. Say you’ll try.”
“All right. I’ll come with you. I’ll try,” said Helen.
They fell silent again. From outside Jane heard the mournful coo of a dove. Daylight was fast approaching. In a few hours, she had a French class to teach. She was quite good at French. And some Italian. She could conjugate Latin verbs. She could do maths. In spite of Lowood being such a hard place to grow up, she’d received a good education here. She’d studied classic literature and history and religion. She knew the rules of etiquette. She could embroider a pillowcase and knit socks (well, she’d only ever been able to finish one sock—two seemed overwhelming). She was adequate on the pianoforte, and more than proficient at painting and drawing and any kind of art. And she was a good teacher, she told herself. She’d make an excellent governess.
“You want to be a painter,” said Helen, as if she’d read Jane’s mind. “That’s what you should do. Be a famous painter.”
Jane scoffed at the idea of being a famous anything. “Yes, well, people aren’t posting job advertisements for famous painters at the moment.”
“They aren’t posting job advertisements for governesses, either.” This was true. Every week Jane scoured the job ads in the newspaper, seeking her escape from Lowood, and there had been nothing for governesses lately. It seemed that all the wealthy children in England were already being cared for.
“So we won’t be going anywhere at the moment,” Helen said.
“No,” Jane agreed glumly. “I suppose we won’t be going anywhere.”
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