فصل 21

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فصل 21

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CHPATER TWENTY ONE

Mr. Rivers’ sacrifice

I had twenty village girls to teach, some of them with such a strong country accent that I could hardly communicate with them. Only three could read, and none could write, so at the end of my first day I felt quite depressed at the thought of the hard work ahead of me. But I reminded myself that I was fortunate to have any sort of job, and that I would certainly get used to teaching these girls, who, although they were very poor, might be as good and as intelligent as children from the greatest families in England. Ever since I ran away from Thornfield, Mr. Rochester had remained in my thoughts, and now, as I stood at my cottage door that first evening, looking at the quiet fields, I allowed myself to imagine again the life I could have had with him in his little white house in the south of France. He would have loved me, oh yes, he would have loved me very much for a while. ‘He did love me,’ I thought, ‘nobody will ever love me like that again.’ But then I told myself that I would only have been his mistress, in a foreign country, and for a short time, until he grew tired of me. I should be much happier here as a schoolteacher, free and honest, in the healthy heart of England. But strangely enough, St John Rivers found me crying as he approached the cottage. Frowning at the sight of the tears on my cheeks, he asked me, ‘Do you regret accepting this job, then?’

‘Oh no,’ I replied quickly, ‘I’m sure I’ll get used to it soon. And I’m really very grateful to have a home, and work to do. After all, I had nothing a few weeks ago.’

‘But you feel lonely, perhaps?’ he asked, still puzzled. ‘I haven’t had time to feel lonely yet.’

‘Well, I advise you to work hard, and not to look back into your past. If something which we know is wrong tempts us, then we must make every effort to avoid it, by putting our energy to better use. A year ago I too was very miserable, because I was bored by the routine life of a country vicar, and I was tempted to change my profession. But suddenly there was light in my darkness, and God called me to be a missionary. No profession could be greater than that! Since that moment of truth, I have been perfectly happy, making my preparations for leaving England and going abroad in the service of God. Happy, that is, except for one little human weakness, which I have sworn to overcome.’

His eyes shone as he spoke of his great purpose in life, and I was listening, fascinated, so neither of us heard the light footsteps approaching the cottage along the grassy path.

‘Good evening, Mr. Rivers,’ said a charming voice, as sweet as a bell. St John jumped as if hit between the shoulders, then turned slowly and stiffly to face the speaker. A vision in white, with a young, girlish figure, was standing beside him. When she threw back her veil, she revealed a face of perfect beauty. St John glanced quickly at her, but dared not look at her for long. He kept his eyes on the ground as he answered, ‘A lovely evening, but it’s late for you to be out alone.’

‘Oh, Father told me you’d opened the new girls’ school, so I simply had to come to meet the new schoolteacher. That must be you,’ she said to me, smiling. ‘Do you like Morton? And your pupils? And your cottage?’ I realized this must be the rich Miss Oliver who had generously furnished my cottage.

‘Yes, indeed, Miss Oliver,’ I replied. ‘I’m sure I’ll enjoy teaching here. And I like my cottage very much.’

‘I’ll come and help you teach sometimes. I get so bored at home! Mr. Rivers, I’ve been away visiting friends, you know. I’ve had such fun! I was dancing with the officers until two o’clock this morning! They’re all so charming!’

St John’s face looked sterner than usual and his lip curled in disapproval, as he lifted his handsome head and looked straight into Miss Oliver’s laughing eyes. He breathed deeply and his chest rose, as if his heart wanted to fly out of its cage, but he said nothing, and after a pause Miss Oliver continued, ‘Do come and visit my father, Mr. Rivers. Why don’t you ever come?’

‘I can’t come, Miss Rosamund.’ It seemed clear to me that St John had to struggle with himself to refuse this smiling invitation.

‘Well, if you don’t want to, I must go home then. Goodbye!’ She held out her hand. He just touched it, his hand trembling.

‘Goodbye!’ he said in a low, hollow voice, his face as white as a sheet. They walked away in different directions. She turned back twice to look at him, but he did not turn round at all.

The sight of another person’s suffering and sacrifice stopped me thinking so much about my own problems. I had plenty of opportunities to observe St John and Miss Oliver together. Every day St John taught one Bible lesson at the school, and Miss Oliver, who knew her power over him, always chose that particular moment to arrive at the school door, in her most attractive riding dress. She used to walk past the rows of admiring pupils towards the young vicar, smiling openly at him. He just stared at her, as if he wanted to say, ‘I love you, and I know you love me. If I offered you my heart, I think you’d accept. But my heart is already promised as a sacrifice to God.’ But he never said anything, and she always turned sadly away like a disappointed child. No doubt he would have given the world to call her back, but he would not give his chance of heaven.

When I discovered that Miss Oliver’s father greatly admired the Rivers family, and would have no objection to her marrying a vicar, I decided to try to persuade St John to marry her. I thought he could do more good with Miss Oliver’s money in England, than as a missionary under the baking sun in the East.

My chance came some weeks later, when he visited me one November evening in my little cottage. He noticed a sketch I had been doing of Miss Oliver, and could not take his eyes off it.

‘I could paint you an exact copy,’ I said gently, ‘if you admit that you would like it.’

‘She’s so beautiful!’ he murmured, still looking at it. ‘I would certainly like to have it.’

‘She likes you, I’m sure,’ I said, greatly daring, ‘and her father respects you. You ought to marry her.’

‘It’s very pleasant to hear this,’ he said, not at all shocked by my honesty. ‘I shall allow myself fifteen minutes to think about her.’ And he actually put his watch on the table, and sat back in his chair, closing his eyes. ‘Married to the lovely Rosamund Oliver! Let me just imagine it! My heart is full of delight!’ And there was silence for a quarter of an hour until he picked up his watch, and put the sketch back on the table.

‘Temptation has a bitter taste,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘I can’t marry her. You see, although I love her so deeply, I know that Rosamund would not make a good wife for a missionary.’

‘But you needn’t be a missionary!’ I cried. ‘Indeed I must! It’s the great work God has chosen me to do! I shall carry with me into the darkest corners of the world knowledge, peace, freedom, religion, the hope of heaven! That is what I live for, and what I shall die for!’

‘What about Miss Oliver?’ I asked after a moment. ‘She may be very disappointed if you don’t marry her.’

‘Miss Oliver will forget me in a month, and will probably marry someone who’ll make her far happier than I ever could!’

‘You speak calmly, but I know you’re suffering.’

‘You are original,’ he said, looking surprised. He had clearly not imagined that men and women could discuss such deep feelings together. ‘But believe me, I have overcome this weakness of mine, and become as hard as a rock. My only ambition now is to serve God.’ As he picked up his hat before leaving, something on a piece of paper on the table caught his eye. He glanced at me, then tore off a tiny piece very quickly, and with a rapid ‘Goodbye!’ rushed out of the cottage. I could not imagine what he had found to interest him so much.

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