Mr. Rochester continued–‘Adele showed me some sketches this morning, which she said were yours. I don’t know whether they were entirely of your doing; probably a master aided you?’
‘No, indeed!’ I interjected.
‘Ah! that pricks pride. Well, fetch me your portfolio, if you can vouch for its contents being original; but don’t pass your word unless you are certain: I can recognise patchwork.’
‘Then I will say nothing, and you shall judge for yourself, sir.’
I brought the portfolio from the library.
‘Approach the table,’ said he; and I wheeled it to his couch. Adele and Mrs. Fairfax drew near to see the pictures.
‘No crowding,’ said Mr. Rochester: ‘take the drawings from my hand as I finish with them; but don’t push your faces up to mine.’
He deliberately scrutinised each sketch and painting. Three he laid aside; the others, when he had examined them, he swept from him.
‘Take them off to the other table, Mrs. Fairfax,’ said he, ‘and look at them with Adele;–you’ (glancing at me) ‘resume your seat, and answer my questions. I perceive those pictures were done by one hand: was that hand yours?’
‘And when did you find time to do them? They have taken much time, and some thought.’
‘I did them in the last two vacations I spent at Lowood, when I had no other occupation.’
‘Where did you get your copies?’
‘Out of my head.’
‘That head I see now on your shoulders?’
‘Has it other furniture of the same kind within?’
‘I should think it may have: I should hope–better.’
He spread the pictures before him, and again surveyed them alternately.
While he is so occupied, I will tell you, reader, what they are: and first, I must premise that they are nothing wonderful. The subjects had, indeed, risen vividly on my mind. As I saw them with the spiritual eye, before I attempted to embody them, they were striking; but my hand would not second my fancy, and in each case it had wrought out but a pale portrait of the thing I had conceived.
These pictures were in water-colours. The first represented clouds low and livid, rolling over a swollen sea: all the distance was in eclipse; so, too, was the foreground; or rather, the nearest billows, for there was no land. One gleam of light lifted into relief a half-submerged mast, on which sat a cormorant, dark and large, with wings flecked with foam; its beak held a gold bracelet set with gems, that I had touched with as brilliant tints as my palette could yield, and as glittering distinctness as my pencil could impart. Sinking below the bird and mast, a drowned corpse glanced through the green water; a fair arm was the only limb clearly visible, whence the bracelet had been washed or torn.
The second picture contained for foreground only the dim peak of a hill, with grass and some leaves slanting as if by a breeze. Beyond and above spread an expanse of sky, dark blue as at twilight: rising into the sky was a woman’s shape to the bust, portrayed in tints as dusk and soft as I could combine. The dim forehead was crowned with a star; the lineaments below were seen as through the suffusion of vapour; the eyes shone dark and wild; the hair streamed shadowy, like a beamless cloud torn by storm or by electric travail. On the neck lay a pale reflection like moonlight; the same faint lustre touched the train of thin clouds from which rose and bowed this vision of the Evening Star.
The third showed the pinnacle of an iceberg piercing a polar winter sky: a muster of northern lights reared their dim lances, close serried, along the horizon. Throwing these into distance, rose, in the foreground, a head,–a colossal head, inclined towards the iceberg, and resting against it. Two thin hands, joined under the forehead, and supporting it, drew up before the lower features a sable veil, a brow quite bloodless, white as bone, and an eye hollow and fixed, blank of meaning but for the glassiness of despair, alone were visible. Above the temples, amidst wreathed turban folds of black drapery, vague in its character and consistency as cloud, gleamed a ring of white flame, gemmed with sparkles of a more lurid tinge. This pale crescent was ‘the likeness of a kingly crown;’ what it diademed was ‘the shape which shape had none.’
‘Were you happy when you painted these pictures?’ asked Mr. Rochester presently.
‘I was absorbed, sir: yes, and I was happy. To paint them, in short, was to enjoy one of the keenest pleasures I have ever known.’
‘That is not saying much. Your pleasures, by your own account, have been few; but I daresay you did exist in a kind of artist’s dreamland while you blent and arranged these strange tints. Did you sit at them long each day?’
‘I had nothing else to do, because it was the vacation, and I sat at them from morning till noon, and from noon till night: the length of the midsummer days favoured my inclination to apply.’
‘And you felt self-satisfied with the result of your ardent labours?’
‘Far from it. I was tormented by the contrast between my idea and my handiwork: in each case I had imagined something which I was quite powerless to realise.’
‘Not quite: you have secured the shadow of your thought; but no more, probably. You had not enough of the artist’s skill and science to give it full being: yet the drawings are, for a school-girl, peculiar. As to the thoughts, they are elfish. These eyes in the Evening Star you must have seen in a dream. How could you make them look so clear, and yet not at all brilliant? for the planet above quells their rays. And what meaning is that in their solemn depth? And who taught you to paint wind? There is a high gale in that sky, and on this hill-top. Where did you see Latmos? For that is Latmos. There! put the drawings away!’
Charlotte Brontë. 1816-1855 (first published as Currer Bell). Jane Eyre, 1847. Vol1.ch13.