Oblivion: The Lost Diaries of Branwell Brontë (11 of 12)
Updated: May 31
Volume III (continued)
Chapter XVII—Anne’s Discovery
I could scarcely sleep in the days leading up to that fateful Saturday, but all passed without incident—or perhaps I should say almost without incident. The profusion of carriages and coachmen present that evening, as a lovely, powder-like snow began to fall, meant that an additional gentleman walking about the property would likely go unremarked. Indeed, it might almost have suited for him to arrive in his own gig as if he were attending the fête itself. How Lydia could escape from the house and find her way to my lodgings unseen, however, was a far greater question. But she was cleverer than even I had expected, and as she crossed the lawn I did not at first recognize her, for she had wrapped herself in Mrs. Marshall’s plain outer garments, putting up a great cowl to hide her face entirely, and moving naturally, like one of the many ladies’ maids, through the crowd of horses and servants, without so much as a single glace or comment directed her way.
As she climbed the stairs, she threw back the hood, revealing cheeks pink equally from the frosty air and from her excitement, her fair ringlets tumbling onto her shoulders, her brilliant white teeth laughing almost deliriously. For all her cunning, love had made her reckless. I could compassionate with her in this, for who—lest he be made of chiseled stone—has not been made foolhardy by love? Only those who have never truly loved at all, I am certain.
“Off ye lendings!” she cried gleefully as she dropped Marshall’s cloak on a chair near the fire to dry. “Ha ha, Mr. Roxby would like that, wouldn’t he—it’s Shakespeare, eh Mr. Brontë? Hamlet?”
“King Lear,” said I, smiling nervously and still watching for Roxby from the window.
“Ah well, both tragedies, n’est-ce pas?”
“Yes, that’s correct, Miss Robinson.”
After a few moments of standing before the fire, she sat down, uncharacteristically at a loss for words. At last she said, “You may wait outside for Mr. Roxby, Mr. Brontë, and show him in when he arrives. I shall wait here alone and turn over a few pages of your books if you don’t mind.”
Despite my best efforts to conceal it, I must have shown some concern, and ever quick to read another’s countenance, Lydia said sharply, “Now don’t worry, Mr. Brontë, I haven’t the slightest interest in rifling through your things, reading your scribblings or perusing your sketches over there. I mean these and these alone,” she concluded, pointing to two bound volumes sitting on a small table near her chair.
I bowed and took my leave, descended the stairs, and stood sentry just within the outer door of my lodgings. Soon enough a tall, erect figure appeared before me, bowing slightly and saying, in dignified, gentlemanly tones, as he removed his snow-flaked hat, “Mr. Brontë, I presume?”
I nodded in the affirmative and gestured to him to enter and precede me up the stairs. However, he first turned to me, removed his gloves, and said, “Let me shake hands with you properly, sir. This is a far preferable meeting than our last encounter, in Scarborough,” and laughing gently, “when I scurried away like a low ruffian and you, poor chap, were unhatted by that ocean gale and also, so I am given to understand, were quite berated by the lovely lady I abandoned. Most of all, thank you for your assistance this evening; I’m quite certain Miss Robinson is as grateful as I.”
Roxby’s demeanour was as pleasing as his manner of address was polite, and so I could hardly wish him ill. My only fear was, as always—though for a reason I would never have suspected—discovery. I showed him into my rooms without even glancing within, and could hear only the bolt drawn and a Lydia’s cries of delight at the advent of her hero. There followed only silence.
Once a full hour had passed I began to worry. Surely we would all be discovered, and what then would transpire? I was considering whether I should climb the stairs to alert them—for if they were truly in love all sense of time would surely have abandoned them—when I was given no choice. Another hooded female figure now traversed the fast-thickening snow, heading directly for my door. Oh God, thought I, who is it?
It was my sister. As she entered she pushed back her own head-covering and paused to catch her breath.
“Goodness, Branwell,” said she, “what are you doing out here? You should be dozing before a warm fire with a book.”
My heart raced, and I knew not what to say; surely the blood drained from my face. At last I replied, as calmly as I could: “I could say the same of you, Anne. What brings you out in this weather?”
“Mrs. Robinson, who insisted that I attend the soirée with Mary—and as you might imagine, Bessy, too, was quite adamant that I be there, at least long enough to see the rooms decked out and hear the music, and above all see her in her splendid new dress, after which I might take myself off soon enough—asked that I look in on Lydia, who is indisposed this evening. Imagine my surprise at not finding her in her room. I have searched everywhere but the stables and cannot find her, and have quite given up. Thorp Green Hall is a grand house, but not so grand as that.”
She was becoming increasingly agitated, but at the very moment she spoke these last words, laughter—unmistakably that of young Lydia—rang out from above. Only the face of an innocent lamb such as Anne—so shielded has she been from the baser realities of human nature—could have expressed such a look of astonishment and then, in rapid succession, horror and righteous indignation. Her eyes narrowed in disgust.
“Surely that was Miss Robinson,” said she. “What is she about in your lodgings?”
At least, thought I, I am not myself with her—though the very thought of my body pressed against that delightful creature gave me a frisson of desire, despite myself. I stammered like the bookseller Bellerby: “W-w-well…”
“Never mind,” said Anne, pushing angrily past me and rapidly climbing the stairs, then knocking on my door as I followed sheepishly behind.
There followed hushed voices and, after a moment, the door opened upon an annoyed Lydia, who began to say, “What is it Mr. B--”
She was, if only for a moment, struck dumb by the appearance of her former governess in my place. I followed Anne into the room, and could see from the state of my bed and the look of the young couple’s hair and clothing that they had been engaged in activities far more compelling than sitting quietly before the fire. I wondered if Anne, in her innocence, could see all of this as well. Yes, alas, was my thought: even she would see it.
Ere long Miss Robinson regained at least some of her composure, as she smoothed her hair.
“Good Heavens, Miss Brontë! You, sweet, delicate creature, out here in the snow? Surely you will catch your death of cold!”
Anne bit her lower lip with what I am certain was mingled fear and rage: fear of being dismissed for insubordination, and rage at being thunderstruck by such a multitude of hitherto hidden transgressions, chief among them lust and deception. Her face, too, regained its composure, and I marveled at the air of courage it now projected: my baby sister, transformed into a soldier steeling herself for battle.
“I might ask you the same, Miss Robinson. You have said you were indisposed, and your mother sent me to look in upon you. I found your bed empty.”
“Damn it,” the little lady said bitterly, almost sotto voce, between clenched teeth. “I knew I should have bolted the door and crept out a window, and yet that just wouldn’t do, I would have fallen and broken a bone, I’m quite sure of it.”
I looked over at her Adonis, wondering if he would be shocked by the use of such language by his lovely Aphrodite, but he seemed all the more enthralled with her. It was true that there was a powerful energy, an athletic and arousing beauty, in her angry defiance. She was irresistible, and she knew it.
At last her mind appeared to turn into a more practical channel, and she said, much more calmly, “Well, see here, Miss Brontë, Mr. Roxby was just about to take his leave, for he is returning at least as far as York in this snow and so must be on his merry way.”
The actor took his cue and had soon donned his hat and cloak, exiting the stage with only a curt bow to us all, after which we heard the rapid clatter of his boots down the stairs and the loud, swift bang of the outer door. Lydia walked to the window to watch him stride across the snowy park; reassured, she sighed with relief and returned to the fire. I can only assume that Mr. Roxby found his way to his waiting horse and shivering servant without incident, for we heard nothing of his visit from anyone else at Thorp Green the following day.
“Now then, Miss Brontë,” said Lydia calmly, “stand before the fire and warm yourself. Yes, that’s right. We must not further impose upon your brother here, for he has been most accommodating, but let us take just a moment to speak of this matter in earnest.”
Anne obeyed, though her face still glowed with indignation. Lydia examined her as if she were an exotic species, carried here from some obscure corner of the globe by one of her majesty’s vessels.
“Yes,” she continued, “let us take just a moment to discuss this.”
Anne opened her mouth to speak, but Lydia raised her hand before she could begin.
“No, no, you need say nothing just yet, Miss Brontë. I want to thank you—profusely—for coming in search of me. You see—as I will not fail to tell my worthy parents—I became so feverish that I was quite overcome, and, unable to breathe, I foolishly sprang up from my bed and, enveloping myself in Mrs. Marshall’s cloak, ran outside to cool my brow and breathe in deeply the cold dry air. Clearly the fever made me nearly mad, for what folly to run out into the snow in my satin slippers! Thank Heavens for Miss Brontë, I shall say! I may have left her schoolroom, but she refuses to abandon me, for she stands forever as my valued guardian and companion! Yes, yes, truly, God bless dear Miss Brontë!”
Lydia had seated herself by the fire, and now gazed up at us both with a look of defiance, her superior rank all the more evident for our physical position above her.
Anne spoke at last, her soft voice quavering with controlled rage, while her delicate frame seemed to tremble in every limb. “And so you would add further deceit to your depraved actions? You would make not just my brother, but me as well, join in your iniquitous proceedings?”
Lydia rose indignantly—whether such consternation was genuine or manufactured was unclear—from her chair. “Depravity? An innocent tête-à-tête”—here she smoothed another wayward ringlet, then the folds of her dress—“with a gentleman who happened to be traveling nearby? That is your notion of depravity?” She snorted disdainfully. “You really do not know the world, Miss Brontë. Peace, peace now; please don’t put yourself in such a passion.”
“If such wickedness is what you call the world, Miss Robinson, I am happy to be as little acquainted with it as possible. If this is what it is to have seen life, I would rather be buried in ignorance.”
Anne paused for an instant and drew herself up, looking now directly at Lydia. If Truth could have a human face, it was my sister’s in that moment: I loved, I admired, I feared her. She continued her address as serenely as she could.
“Here, however, Miss Robinson, is what I do know, and these are all quite practical worldly matters, mind; let us deal only with incontrovertible, worldly evidence, shall we? I promise that you’ll hear no pious opinions or overwrought emotions from your ill-tempered erstwhile governess. First, your mamma and papa have forbidden you from seeing Mr. Roxby, and yet you have seen him. Second, you have said you were indisposed when you were not and have already devised the further untruths you plan to tell your parents. Third, you have involved my brother—though he himself must answer for his own deceitful conduct, the extent of which I shudder to imagine—and now me, asking that we join not only in allowing Mr. Roxby to visit you undetected, but repeating deliberate falsehoods to conceal it. These are all simple facts, as the barristers say.”
Some particularly loquacious women—those who have seemingly inexhaustible organs of speech and cannot bear for a moment of silence to pass unfilled—fall, in moments of supreme indignation, utterly silent; so it was with young Lydia Robinson, though her flashing eyes and glowing face fully betrayed her fury. For what seemed an hour, but was surely a mere two or three minutes, we heard only the crackling of the fire in the grate, the ticking of the mantel clock, and the howling of the wind. Even the horses, groomsmen and coachmen waiting at the stables were silent, as if the world waited for her to speak, while she paced between the window and the fire.
At last, calmly and determinedly, Lydia said, “Well, we three young people—for you are still young, Miss Brontë, though some might call you an old maid—we three young people need to decide what is the best course for us, individually and collectively.”
As she had with me on the headland high above Scarborough that fateful summer day, she methodically laid before us the different possibilities.
“As I view matters, if either of you—oh goodness, what am I saying, I already know that Mr. Brontë can keep a secret as well as I can”—here she looked at me and smiled, somewhat wickedly I thought—“if you insist upon revealing anything about Mr. Roxby’s visit this evening, we shall all suffer greatly, if not equally.”
“Indeed?” said Anne. “How so?”
“Why,” she said, gazing into the fire, “I will surely be lectured yet again—and I hate to be lectured, by Papa or Mamma or you, for that matter, Miss Brontë—on the dangers of frequenting such a man—how it could damage my reputation and the family’s, and how marrying such a low creature as an actor is simply out of the question. There will be threats as well: how Papa will cut me off without a shilling, etc., etc. I’ve heard them all before.”
She turned then to face us both.
“But you see, those are surely empty threats, and besides, even if Papa speaks in earnest, we don’t need his money—Roxby has his own. His family is quite rich, you know.”
She sat back down, again smoothing her dress and leaning forward with mock-concern.
“No, my esteemed Brontës, frère et soeur, what truly worries me is not my situation, but yours. I can weather the storm of shrewish harangues from Mamma and the shower of pious sermons from good reverend Papa; I can even support his idle threats of destitution. But you, dear friends—for we are almost friends, are we not?—you will surely find yourselves without employment, poor things, for even if you are believed, Mamma and Papa will not want you about the place, will they? You, Miss Brontë, will be a constant reminder of my erring ways and, indeed, of your ultimate failure to correct them, whereas you, Mr. Brontë, will have been guilty of posting letters to Roxby all these months, and arranging and hosting our rendezvous this evening.”
Anne looked at me with shock and dismay, but I was simply relieved that Miss Robinson had said nothing more, particularly about her mother. I turned my gaze to the floorboards, which changed hues by the flickering flames of the fire, now burning low in the grate.
“You see, Miss Brontë, even your beloved brother is of this world. And in this world, a bit of helpful omission here and there, of looking the other way, of telling a harmless white lie now and then—well, that is how one gets on in this world. Think what chaos would ensue if everyone were to see the truth in such absolute terms as you!”
Anne sat for a moment in stony silence, then said, “I must tell you now, Miss Robinson, that if I am asked anything directly by your mamma and papa I shall refuse to tell a lie, and the truth will out. If this means I lose my position—as it surely will—I will suffer that blow when it happens…”
Anne’s voice trailed off. I knew, from our earlier discussions, that she was thinking of how to preserve my position, far more than her own.
“But..?” said Lydia in honeyed tones, with a sidelong glance, her lovely eyes somehow conveying at once supplication and malicious threat.
“But I am willing to keep silent so long as it is you who speak, and so long as you keep as close as you can to a simple truth: that you left the house, and that I went in search of you, found you, and brought you back. I would beg you to keep any embellishment of this tale to a minimum, and preferably out of my hearing.”
“Well then,” said our young lady, with a deep breath, “that’s much, much better. Not one of us has any inducement to break this agreement—for let’s call it an agreement, an alliance, shall we? Ha ha! What our elders don’t know”—here she again looked at my meaningfully—“can’t hurt them. Ignorance is bliss. After all, Miss Brontë, were you not so much happier when you were ignorant of these things?”
“But what,” Anne replied, choosing not to acknowledge this last cruel, superfluous remark, which Lydia had delivered like a coup de grâce, “what if your good mamma and papa don’t believe you?”
“Ah,” laughed Lydia, who had fully regained her usual good cheer, “but they will, they will. For you see, my worthy parents know, as we all do, that Miss Brontë may be a queer creature, but she always speaks the truth, ha ha!”
The two young ladies were soon fully enveloped in their cloaks and on their way. As they began to descend the stairs, my sister, who followed her former pupil, turned and looked at me with such an expression as to break my heart, for her indignation had given way to a weary blend of sadness and disgust.
Chapter XVIII—Rendez-vous en plein air
June 3rd, 1845 Thorp Green
Anne has at last given her notice, and will not return after our holiday, for which we depart in less than a fortnight. She has scarcely spoken to me since her fatal discovery of Lydia and Roxby, and she does her utmost to avoid my eyes. She is like one fallen into the sea, who holds her breath until she can at last break through the surface and fill her lungs. This, it is clear, will only happen when she leaves Thorp Green once and for all. For my sake alone she has remained silent, and kept the vile secret, as she calls it, though it requires every atom of her will.
Yet why is it that I feel no shame, but only fear discovery? At least Anne has not discovered me with Mrs. Robinson, of that I am quite certain. Just when I began to despair of feeling her again in my arms, especially after the unfortunate valentine incident, this latter—my Lydia—as imperceptibly but inevitably as bleak winter fades into hopeful spring, has warmed again to me, in recent weeks favouring me with glowing cheeks and tender smiles, and most of all, those bright eyes rekindled with desire.
Yesterday, as I neared the end of my lessons with the young master, she appeared at the library door, glided directly in, and kissed her boy on the forehead, running her small soft hands through his mass of chestnut curls.
“It is far too beautiful a day, my little Ned…”
“Mam-ma!” exclaimed he, “I’m nearly grown! I’m fourteen years old!”
“Yes, yes, my dear, but you will forever be my little Neddy. In any event, it is far too beautiful a day for you to spend any more time imprisoned in the house, so run along. I have some matters to discuss with Mr. Brontë. Stay away from the riverbank, though; the Ouse is running swift and high!”
I thought of the little boy I had rescued from the Wharfe.
“Hurrah!” was all he said, as he threw his arms around his mamma’s lovely neck, kissed her, and ran off to gambol, no doubt, with the dogs, inspect the horses in the stables, and even walk into the woods, where the first bright leaves have at last emerged under a brilliant, cloudless sky. At his age, he will not long be content with such simple pleasures, my own experience tells me. And yet, is there anything as sweet as that feeling in youth, of limitless possibilities against the backdrop of a spring day whose beauty is so overwhelming that one’s heart could fairly burst?
His mamma smiled and sighed as young Edmund raced down the corridor and out into the sunshine. I expected her to leave me to do as I pleased, but instead she closed and locked the door, saying simply, “Come to me, Branwell.”
Suddenly, unexpectedly, my every muscle, my every nerve, for so long slack with despair, felt as if they were drawn as taught as an archer’s bow, and I could feel and almost hear the blood beating in my veins. I rose and walked to her, and she drew me to her, placing her head on my shoulder.
“I am sorry,” said she, “for my froideur all these months. The chill, you must know, was mostly for show, and it was only because I feared discovery. I still do.”
“Oh God,” said I, “So you still love me? You still wish to be with me?”
“Of course I wish to be with you, foolish boy.”
I pulled her closer, feeling, for the first time in months, the physical counterpart of the desire that had never ceased to glow in my heart.
“Not now,” she said, but there was far more pleasure than displeasure in her voice, as she freely allowed me to embrace her, before standing on the tips of her toes and whispering in my ear. “Let us meet in the planting of shrubbery to the east of the house, tonight, at nine o’clock. I shall say I wish to take some air, and be alone with my own thoughts. Bring a cloak or mantle, as protection against the dew.”
Now she pushed me away, to arm’s length, unlocked the door, and bade me sit down across from her. Again she whispered, “Let us not raise suspicions”—then in a more normal voice, so that anyone passing by might hear—“sit down, Mr. Brontë, my husband and I have a proposition for you.”
I could not imagine what such a proposition could be.
“Your sister, as you know, is determined to leave us, even though Mary is not quite prepared to come out into society. If only we had one more year, she, too, would be finished.” She sighed. “Ah, well, as much as Miss Brontë will be missed, we hope that you will stay, for little Ned is only fourteen and is far from ready for university, I’m sure you will agree.”
“Indeed,” said I, but I knew not whither Mrs. Robinson was heading.
“Very good,” said she, “I am so glad that we can count on you. I had, of course, assumed you would want to stay at Thorp Green”—here she smiled sweetly and leant toward me—“but I wanted to be certain.”
“Of course,” said I, returning her smile.
“So, then, you will accompany your sister to Haworth? How long do you wish to holiday there?”
“I would not go at all if I could be with you always,” said I in a low, urgent whisper.
“Hush,” she whispered in return, “hush, naughty boy,” but again she was smiling.
“Usually we spend a fortnight or so at home in June, as you know, ma’am,” I replied in the steadiest tones I could summon.
“Well, that’s just the thing I wish to discuss with you, Mr. Brontë. Would it be too much a sacrifice if you were to return to us after only a week?”
The ire of Saint Valentine’s Day was no more, and her voice was sweet, her cheek glowing softly, her glancing eyes searching my face.
“Of course not,” said I, hoping against hope that this June would be an exact replica of that of two years ago. My every limb quivered with desire reawakened.
“Ah, lovely, Mr. Brontë, I am so glad. You see, the girls will be with their grandmamma for the fortnight before we go to Scarborough, and with my duties managing the household, and my husband’s failing health, my poor little boy will be quite abandoned without his tutor. He might like to run wild, but I fancy he would tire of that quickly enough, and besides, it would be better that he continue his lessons—they need not be too strenuous, mind, for it will be midsummer after all—just to lend a small portion of order to his days. When you are not trying to cram some Horace or Vergil into his head, perhaps you can accompany him on his rambles—you know, as a playmate of sorts.”
“Of course, of course, ma’am, I’d be honoured.”
Lydia leant forward, took my hands in hers, and pressed them affectionately. She had never been lovelier, as she whispered, her lust seemingly risen at last to a pitch equal to mine, “I wish you to be mine as well.”
Now my skin was tingling, and every limb and organ was hot and stiff with desire, and I tried to pull her toward me. She laughed again and withdrew her hands, remembering that she had unlocked the door.
“There’s one more thing, Mr. Brontë. Since you were once a railway man, surely you have been following the progress of the York-Scarborough railway in Mr. Bellerby’s newspaper, have you not?”
“Then you know that after some delay the first train is now set to arrive at the new station in Scarborough on the seventh of next month. Well, young Ned has been quite taken with this great event, and has the mania of today’s youth for novelty of any kind: he insists that he will be the first of all his acquaintance to take the train, and will brook no argument on the matter.”
Well, in at least one respect, thought I, the young master is just like the womenites of his tribe.
“Yes,” his mother continued, “I know some hardened souls—usually those who have not undergone the trials of raising a son, I might add—who would say: Simply tell him ‘No!’, but I cannot bring myself to deprive him of such a treat. He’s nearly grown, and surely if he is accompanied by his tutor no harm will come to him. I’ve discussed it with his papa, and so it is all settled—if you accept.”
“Why of course,” said I, smiling broadly at the thought. “It will be a jubilee for the lad—and for his venerable old tutor, late of the Manchester and Leeds Railway, for that matter.”
“Just as I had hoped,” said she, standing. “I will see to it that my husband, when he pays your sister her final wages, also advances your next quarter’s salary to aid with your travels home and back. Of course we shall pay for Ned’s and your train fare, when the time comes.”
She extended her hand, which I squeezed again with anticipation, as she leant forward, whispering, “À ce soir, alors.”
How impossibly long was the wait, how entirely distracted was I, as the sun crept across the sky! No book, no stroll, no scribbling of letters could speed the passage of time. What a mad, impossible, unreasonable creature is man! We wish our childhoods away and then pine for them until our death; we urge Chronos to hurry us toward anticipated joys, which, once attained, we then desire frozen for all eternity. Is it any wonder that Jehovah sent his flood?
Though I could not make the minutes pass more quickly, I at last settled into some practical employments, those which require not the peace of mind necessary to nurture creativity, but which can be accomplished mechanically, thoughtlessly, step by step, like the laying of bricks, one after the other—if only I could do so with all of my life!
I had, indeed, sent Mr. Bellerby some verse, the old sonnets on Black Combe and on Landseer’s painting, which he published some three weeks ago in his Gazette. Encouraged, I sent another pair of sonnets, inspired by Mary Taylor’s voyage to New Zealand, and in today’s correspondence there arrived a letter from Bellerby, announcing their publication for June 7th. Perhaps there is still hope for my poetic self, for old Northangerland. If only I had the leisure to devote all of my time to my craft, I thought, as I gazed out the window toward the house—indeed, if only I were the master of Thorp Green!
I replied to Mr. Bellerby immediately, with thanks and a request for some books to read during the holiday, including a French volume, Freycinet’s Voyage Autour du Monde. Should I not practice my French when I am surpassed in that language by the ladies, both here and at the parsonage? How long it has been since I felt, as I did in childhood, the master of all, the quickest of wit and the first to learn a new subject, absorbing words and languages like a sponge drinks in water.
At last, towards nine o’clock, the interminable day began to draw to a close, the sun still shining at that late hour, but now casting long shadows through the woods to the west of Thorp Green. The family had taken its final repast, the workers had retired to their dwellings to rest, and quiet had descended on the estate. As I made my way to our appointed assignation, the cloak under my arm, only a pleasant breeze stirred the shrubs and, beyond them, the sweet young green of the trees above. What a lovely music, that soft rustling of branches and leaves in the wind, somewhere between the patter of a soft but steady rain and the exquisite sound of a beautiful woman’s garments falling from her shoulders, hips, and thighs.
I was revolving just such thoughts in my mind when Lydia appeared before me, a veritable Goddess, my Goddess. How I had missed her! How long had it been? A lifetime, or so it seemed. My breath shortened with desire. As I took her in my arms, I asked, “Are you not afraid of discovery, so near to the house?”
“No,” said she, “that is the very thing that makes it so unthinkable. Besides, everyone is occupied, I made sure of that. But we cannot stay long.”
I laid down the cloak and we, too, were soon occupied, joined at last again, moving together, at first desperately, then steadily, rhythmically, until we moaned softly in unison, as past, present and future collapsed in an instant of electric joy—like all others but, with the fecundity of this season filling our dilated nostrils, in this warm crepuscular glow, with a quality entirely its own. The wind had ceased, and I could hear only the beating of my own pulse in my temples and a flight of swallows as it swooped round and round in circles, in search of twilight sustenance.
Soon we had returned to our rational selves, our garments in order and the useful cloak again tucked under my arm, for we were both of the opinion that it would be folly to linger.
“Wait,” said I, as she prepared to turn away.
“Yes?” said she, sweetly, but with a faint look of worry imprinted on her lovely brow.
“Will I see you in Scarborough? I mean, will it be as it once was—in the boathouse?”
She sighed, and placed her hand on my arm, looking earnestly in my face.
“What is it, Lydia?” said I. “What’s the matter?”
“I intended to tell you this when you returned from Haworth. But you cannot stay in Scarborough once you have delivered Ned to us. My husband has determined that, since Miss Brontë will not be there to instruct Mary, it makes no sense to have Mr. Brontë there—by so doing he will economise not only on your salary, but also on your rooms, says he. So you must return to Haworth the following day, to complete your holiday, I’m sorry to say.”
I could feel the colour mounting to my forehead. Was this a punishment of sorts, for Anne’s departure? Did the Reverend Robinson suspect something?
“Hush now,” said she, before I could even speak. “Do you not see that I was clever enough to encourage Ned in his designs to travel on the first train to Scarborough precisely so that I could justify your early return to Thorp Green, and so that I could see you one last time in Scarborough?—for that, Branwell, shall be your reward.”
She drew me to her, and lifted her head for a kiss, then continued, “And do you now see that I have sent the girls away to their grandmamma’s precisely so that we might be together for a fortnight, with only the two Edmunds—both of whom sleep so soundly that we could romp in either’s bed without waking them, if we chose?”
I at last relaxed, and drew her to me again, kissing her on the forehead, the cheeks, and the mouth. The bushes moved again in the breeze, which appeared to have returned with the final setting of the sun. Lydia tried to separate herself from me, but I pulled her close.
“Tell me, don’t you love your husband still—a little?”
The moon now shone full upon us, and as Lydia laughed her teeth caught and reflected its beams.
“Not one bit, by all that’s sacred!” she replied, kissing my cheek. “You know what I think of that creature: once a tyrant, he is now an embittered, mean, sickly old man, who would deprive the pleasure of all the world if he could.”
“Well, then,” said I, emboldened by the passion of her response, “what if the unfortunate fellow’s illness should get the best of him? What then? Would you be free to love the man who offers you a life of true happiness?”
“Hush,” said she, not with anger but with fear. She looked about and then, whispering, she added, “What was that? Did you hear something moving among the shrubbery?”
“No, my love,” I laughed softly, “it is nothing but the soft summer wind, or better still, the God of Wind, Aeolus, come to bless our union.”
Lydia still smiled whilst I snatched a final kiss, but her clouded brow betrayed her disquietude, as she broke from me and flew to the house, unobserved.
Chapter XIX—Mankind’s Disgusting Ways
June 15th, 1845 Haworth
Unobserved—or so I thought. For Anne had seen—or at least heard—enough to hang me.
Lydia had heard her moving in the shrubbery, not the wind. My sister did not accost me that night, as my mistress dashed to the great house, and perhaps might never even have mentioned it, had I not pushed her to do so with my usual impetuosity.
Yesterday dawned bright and clear—perfect for our long journey home. Alone again, but this time in a hired coach—for the family needed theirs that day—we were free to talk, but Anne sat in stony silence, her eyes refusing to meet mine, her eyebrows arched even more than usual by a wrinkled forehead, her gaze directed only at the passing scenery.
At last I spoke, making a weak attempt at jocularity.
“Well then, Miss Brontë, you have at last laid down your yoke of servitude at Thorp Green. Whatever will you do?”
“Anne, I said…”
“I heard you, Branwell.”
“Why do you not answer, then?” I queried.
Her face was one of immense and weary sadness, not of wrath.
“Here,” said she, drawing her prayer book from her bag and turning to the back cover. She held the book close to my spectacles.
“I don’t see anything,” said I.
“Look more closely.”
I took the book in my own hands and squinted hard, my spectacles nearly touching the page. In the minutest script possible, as we had in childhood, Anne had written, “Sick of mankind and their disgusting ways.”
As I handed it back, a dried primrose fell to the floor between us: touchingly, she had kept one of Weightman’s flowers, and pressed its petals between the pages of her prayer book. Her cheeks flushed as she bent to rescue the precious relic, whilst I gazed away, pretending not to notice.
When she had composed herself, I said, in reference to her condemnation of the human race, “Ah, yes, I know how upsetting it must have been to discover the truth about Miss Robinson and Mr. Roxby.” I paused and bit my lip, doing my best to manufacture a mien of sorrowful contrition. “And I know you must be profoundly disappointed in my role in the intrigue. I’m sorry about that.”
Anne’s eyes were suddenly wet with tears, which began to spill down her cheeks. My factitious remorse now gave way to genuine concern, for I cannot ever bear to see my sisters cry. Did it forever recall that scene—real or dreamt—when we all wept uncontrollably at the foot of our dying mother’s bed? I now felt a violent tug of sympathy, as if there existed an eternal, inner cord of communion between their hearts and mine, no matter how far apart we have drifted in the outer world.
I felt an explanation was in order.
“Wipe your tears, sister. See here, I will tell all: the truth is that nearly a year ago, by sheer chance, I happened upon Lydia and Roxby at the castle ruins in Scarborough, and the former threatened to have me dismissed, and even intimated that she would claim that I—I, can you imagine such an absurdity?—that I had tried to force myself upon her.”
I removed my spectacles, so that I could no longer see the heart-rending look on her face, and continued.
“I know it was wrong to aid her in her liaison, sister, but what choice had I? She made it quite plain that I would lose my place, and that you, too, would be dismissed. After what you have done to procure and help me retain my post, how could I let such a thing happen?”
“Well,” said Anne ruefully, “no one can claim that you are incapable of learning. In two years among such artful, deceitful, hypocritical, wicked beings as the Robinsons you have fully become one of them.”
I started to kindle up, but before I could speak she continued.
“Do you not hear yourself? Not only do you defend the part you have played in Lydia and Roxby’s intrigue—as if practical ends could ever justify immoral means—but you turn the matter artfully on its head, as if all that you have done was for my benefit alone.”
It was my turn to sit in silence. At last I responded, “I acted out of fear, I confess. But truly, I am so afraid to fail again, for a literary career is closed to me, I’m sure, and I don’t know what else I can do.”
Anne drew another item from her reticule. It was a part of a page torn from the Yorkshire Gazette.
“It seems to me,” said she, “that you are a published author. That’s more than any of your sisters can say.”
For a moment I considered denying it. But how often had Charlotte and I, so long ago, shared the characters of our Angrian saga with Emily and Anne—chief among them Alexander Percy, Duke of Northangerland? No words presented themselves.
“Surely,” said Anne—spitefully now, for though she is filled with goodness, she is human, after all—holding the paper close enough for me to read, “surely you did not think I would fail to recognise such an unusual nom de plume? And who but my morbid brother would write such lines as this? She read from one of the sonnets on “The Emigrants”:
Thus, when the sick man lies, resigned to die,
A well-loved voice, a well-remembered strain,
Lets time break harshly in upon eternity.
“Is this your first publication?”
I confessed that there were many, beginning at Luddenden Foot, and published, until just now, in the papers of the West Riding.
“Were they, too, attributed to Northangerland? How could no one in the family know of this, for all of their devotion to newspaper reading?”
“Yes, they were signed “Northangerland,” and yes, I assume that you are the first to learn of this. You were at Thorp Green, and Charlotte and Emily were abroad, when nearly all the poems appeared. Papa has never heard of Northangerland, of course. Mr. Weightman knew, but I swore him to secrecy—and soon he took the secret to the grave, poor fellow.”
Here a shadow passed over Anne’s countenance, clutching her prayer book, the precious flower hidden within.
“In any event,” I continued, “it never occurred to me that anyone would recognize the name.”
“That is because you think only of yourself, Branwell, and not how others might think or feel, whether they have minds and hearts of their own, as if they were machines without feelings, constructed solely to do your bidding. I’m sorry to speak so bluntly, but it’s true.”
She bit her lip and looked out the window at the bright June sky, where only an occasional cottony cloud drifted by. At some length she continued.
“I cannot blame you, really, for Papa has always, quite naturally, thought more of his only son than of his daughters, and so you have never been asked to think of others, as we ladies must think of you gentlemen. I cannot say that in this you are much different from most of the other men I have met in my short life. After all, it is a very convenient doctrine for the stronger sex, don’t you think?”
I began to seethe with resentment, imagining now that this was the most common subject of conversation when my three sisters were together, and I absent. Was it because, deep in my heart, I could only agree with her—and with them?
“Well,” I retorted, seeking to keep my own hot, angry tears at bay, “now that you three girls will be at home with Papa, and I the only one profitably employed, I shall be no burden upon anyone. You shall have his undivided attention, and only have to suffer my presence on the rare holiday, for I am sure that I will spend as precious little time in Haworth as possible. I cannot wait to return to Thorp Green, and only wish I could stay there all summer!”
At this—inexplicably it seemed to me—water stood in Anne’s eyes, and soon tears again began to stream down her wan cheeks.
I took out a kerchief and sought to dry them, but she turned away.
“I’m sorry,” said I, “Anne—I’m sorry I spoke in anger. I am trying to do the right thing.”
Tears had become audible weeping, great heaving sobs, which ended at last in a fit of coughing. I moved next to her and took her in my arms. She struggled briefly but then stopped, at last nestling her slight frame against mine, as when we were little.
When she had finished crying, she turned her face to mine and said, “Oh Branwell, I know. I know everything.”
“What do you mean?” I queried, my blood suddenly running cold.
“What of her?”
“Long have I ignored the innuendoes, the rumours from the servants and even from the giddy Robinson girls—that the mistress of the house had an unusually strong devotion to her son’s tutor. Long did I believe that tongues would always wag at the first opportunity, and when there is nothing for such people to gossip about—especially those buried in the countryside as they are at Thorp Green—they will invent something. Indeed, I even believed that, should the good lady attempt to seduce you, your pious unbringing would shield you from her unwelcome advances.”
“You did right.”
“Branwell, spare yourself the trouble of foreswearing yourself and racking your brains to stifle truth with falsehood,” she responded, her face that odd mixture of sadness and disgust I had glimpsed only once or twice before. “I was in the shrubbery that evening, and saw and heard for myself. I saw you kiss her there, I heard her say that she did not love her husband, and that she had arranged for you to return when the girls are sent to their grandmamma’s, so that you could—no I can’t say it, can’t even think it. She is an abominable woman, and she has clearly, utterly, bewitched you. She has corrupted you and deceived her husband. I will not ask how long this has gone on, for I wish to know no more, and detest the very sound of her name.”
Anne paused to wipe the last of her tears, sighing as deeply as her lungs would permit.
“At Thorp Green I have had such unpleasant and undreamt-of experiences of human nature as to sicken me truly,” she continued, “and I wish only to shake its dust off my feet and think no more of the place or its inmates. I shall say nothing of any of this to anyone, but shall only pray for your deliverance, and for your forgiveness. Only you can choose good or evil, and if you choose to make a beast of yourself with…with…that woman, God alone will judge. Do you not see that what you do is wrong, Branwell?”
I clenched my teeth and considered defending Lydia—considered revealing my true part in the proceedings; I even considered telling Anne about Agnes, about Maggie—though not about Maeve or the other whores—but was silent. How often does the attempt to protect oneself lead to such craven acts, such cowardice! Very well, thought I: let her think that the innocent tutor had been beguiled by a mature, wicked woman. As young Lydia had said, such sins of omission are how one gets on in this world.
At great length I spoke. “Why do you stay in my arms, and why do you lean your little head on my shoulder, if I am so wicked?”
Anne looked up at me, her lovely eyes betraying both bitter disappointment and unconditional love, so much love that I had to look away, at the passing scenery, itself painfully beautiful.
“You are my brother,” said she, “and if I hate the sin, I love the sinner.”
With that, like twin infants, we dozed off together in the warmth of the afternoon, as the coach—our cradle—gently swayed as it made its way home.
July 4th, 1845 Thorp Green
My week in Haworth was unremarkable, surely because my mind was focused entirely on returning to Thorp Green and my mistress’s arms, unfettered by fears of discovery by the young misses Robinson or their governess, who is now never to return. Anne has escaped, as she put it to Charlotte and Emily, and since neither of them has been able to endure the life of a governess—or for that matter anything close to responsible employment in the world—half so long as their baby sister, they can only welcome her home with open arms, with hearts devoid of reproach.
My sisters’ delight in their reunion pales in comparison to the hot pleasure, the wild abandon, the utter exaltation I have experienced in the past fortnight. It is as if Lydia had heard Anne’s condemnation in the coach that day, and sought not only to prove it true, but render it but a pale representation of reality. Freed from the shackles of fear—for she dreaded discovery by her daughters and Anne more than anything, and I have determined not to tell her what Anne knows—for what purpose would it serve?—she gave herself over to a brief season of mad lust, and I was all too pleased to oblige.
It was, indeed, a honeymoon of sorts, for the warmth of midsummer allowed us to lie in bed, unclothed, whilst the soft breeze caressed our skin and reawakened our desire almost as quickly as it was sated. Mr. Robinson, intentionally stupefied more than usual, slept, whilst his young namesake slumbered more innocently. The ever-vigilant Mrs. Marshall stood guard, a faithful sentry, deep into the night. What did she think of all this? Could she hear our poorly-stifled moans, or the sound of the bedposts tapping rhythmically against the wall? Was this still more information that she would lock away for future use?
On several occasions, Lydia sent Edmund happily away to amuse himself outdoors, whilst she did the same with me indoors. She would bolt the library door, roughly pull down my trousers, seize my already rigid prick, push me onto the settee, lift her skirts, and, wet with desire, take me into herself, with the inevitable, explosive result. The first time she did this, she said, “I quite simply had to have you—I could not wait, for the more I have you, the more I want you—l’appétit vient en mangeant, tu sais.”
Unlike our languorous nocturnal sessions—which resembled an exquisite banquet of many courses, in which we were drunk not only on the Robinsons' fine wine and spirits, but especially on each other’s flesh, and where we slowly savoured each inch, taste, and odour of the other’s body—these brief midday encounters were but a rapid yet necessary slaking of our appetites, like the greedy draughts of water or hastily-bolted luncheon of a labourer in the midst of a long day of toil in the fields. If we were not in each others arms, we were yearning to be so, every warm breeze as arousing as our fingertips, as they wandered softly up and down each other’s skin.
As I think on it, it seems to me that if this were recounted in a novel—well, if such truths could ever be printed in a proper book—how most readers would find such things preposterous! But as I have written before, I am thoroughly convinced that only the man whose body and soul have not been licked by the flames of such desire—at least once in his life—only such an unfortunate man would fail to give it the credence it deserves.
All of this came to an end two days since, when the young ladies returned from their visit to see their grandmamma, and this morning the family—less young master Edmund and his tutor—set off in high spirits for Scarborough. Mr. Robinson, whom I always try to avoid, seemed tolerably well, and even condescended to nod in my direction as I stood by the coach with my charge, who assisted Billy Allison in helping the ladies to their seats. Young Lydia positively beamed with pleasure, and I was certain that she had somehow managed to arrange an assignation with Mr. Roxby. Her younger sisters chattered, whilst her mother, the last to mount the steps of the carriage, turned to us, the rising sun catching and magnifying her bewitching brown eyes and flashing smile. Her back was to the others.
“I know you will conduct yourself properly with Mr. Brontë and the servants, my sweet angel”—here she glanced at me briefly—“I shall be on the platform, at the new station, when the train arrives in Scarborough on Monday.”
“Mam-MA,” protested the young man, “I am no child! Indeed, I could make the entire journey quite alone. I can also find my way to our lodgings—it is only a ten minutes’ walk. There is no cause for you to be present.”
“Oh, Heavens, Neddy, that simply would not do. It is anticipated that there will be thousands awaiting the train’s arrival—imagine what sort of persons will be there! All manner of rabble—not to mention the usual persons preying upon the crowd—filthy vagrants, scurrilous pick-pockets, women of ill repute—I can see—and smell—them all now! Ugh!”
“In that case Mr. Brontë can see me to The Cliff!” said the lad, who was just reaching the age where he no longer wished to be tied—or at least seen to be tied—to his mamma’s apron string, or worse, to be considered a miss nancy. Fittingly enough, however, his voice cracked as he said cliff, illustrating just how much, in fact, he was still half-man and half-boy.
“It’s true, ma’am,” said I, bowing slightly, seeking to cover his confusion. “I should be happy to accompany Master Robinson to your lodgings.”
A shrill voice came from within the coach/carriage.
“Ned!” said Bessy, “do you not think there are others who wish to watch—and to be seen watching—the first train as it arrives in Scarborough? After all, the town’s been waiting a thousand years for it, ha ha!”
Her elder sister, never silent for long, added impatiently, as if she had already fixed a rendezvous with her beau, “Come now, Ned, give over! We shall all be there when you arrive—perhaps even Papa will appear on the platform if he is up to the occasion—but do let us be on our way! At this rate,” she muttered, “it will be midnight before we arrive.”
“Whom have you to meet?” responded Bessy. An observer would be forgiven for thinking that one of the elegant young ladies had severely pinched the other, for soon they were quarreling loudly, whilst young Mary laughed gaily at the spectacle and Mr. Robinson tried, wearily, to intervene.
Ned, defeated, consented to remain a little boy a while longer, and embraced his mother, after which he and I waved as the coach at last bounced out of sight.
Lucky boy, to have had your mamma for so many years, and to embrace her still on the threshold of manhood!
Chapter XX—A Railway Journey to Scarborough
July 10th, 1845 Haworth, The Parsonage
I am returned again to the Parsonage, but shall soon be back in the embraces of Thorp Green and, I trust, its mistress. How long it has been since I have felt such great hope in the future! Three days ago I bade Lydia goodbye in the dark shadows of the boathouse, as the waves crashed just beyond. She came alone, saying that she did not even want Marshall to know. Our brief reunion was the perfect end to a long and memorable day.
That morning, Ned and I had climbed into our coach at about half past ten, and within moments, we were on our way to Scarborough, a three and a half hour voyage. How quickly the railways are changing, and have changed, since I sat in my lonely little station at Luddenden Foot! Here was a mighty train, with two new locomotives and nearly forty first-class coaches, bound for one of England’s most fashionable resorts. As it happens, George Hudson—the “Railway King” himself—was on board, and nearly all the first-class passengers were invited to luncheon in Scarborough before returning to York that evening, to attend a dinner at the Guildhall, hosted by the Lord Mayor himself. Though my charge and I would not be attending either repast, the Robinsons had used their considerable influence in York to secure our two tickets.
The young master quickly lost his inner battle to remain a sedate little gentleman, and his utter glee was fully on display as the train picked up speed and we made our way to our first stop at Castle Howard, a palace fit for royalty. Then it was on to Malton, Ganton, and, finally, Scarborough. I wondered if Anne would ever go there again. Would her fond memories and warm feelings for its natural beauty now be blighted by the conduct of those very persons with whom, in her mind, it must forever be associated? After all, she and Emily have just made a trip to York—Emily’s first—and Anne had used the delay of the Scarborough railway branch as the reason they did not travel to the coast. Surely that was mere pretext, however; after all, had she ever had a problem arriving at the sea before the advent of the railway?
Finally, we drew alongside a familiar lake, the one Scarborians call “the Mere,” and then, at last, though we could not see the nearby ocean, we were engulfed by a human sea that surrounded the train as it finally slowed and stopped at the new station at precisely one thirty-five in the afternoon, according to the station clock. The entire town seemed to be present, for there were thousands of people of both sexes, and of every age and social order, just as Lydia had predicted. An orchestra played God Save the Queen—a very different, very serious and patriotic version compared to Herr Liszt’s playful variations—beneath great swaths of colourful bunting. There were two tracks, two platforms, and a turntable at each end of the station for each track.
And the station itself! No humble wooden outpost in the Calder Valley was this immense, elegant structure, with its wrought iron and glazed roof. No wonder that it was so imposing: a recent item in the Gazette had spoken of its multitude of offices, separate waiting rooms for first and second class passengers—and one for ladies—as well as indoor water closets, storerooms and a refreshment room.
It was Ned’s youngest sister who spotted us as we stepped down from our coach, and she broke from the party and dashed to meet us first. Little Mary, it must be said, is now quite a grown young lady, her girlish embonpoint of just two years ago transformed into the sensual hips and bosom of a woman, but topped by the same perpetually bobbing golden ringlets and laughing green eyes, which resemble the colour of the sea on certain warm summer days, when shafts of sunlight pierce an otherwise cloudy sky.
“Ned, Ned!” she cried breathlessly, in a most unladylike way, her excitement knowing no bounds. “Look at this mass of humanity! Sir Edward says that there must be at least ten thousand people here—they have closed all of the shops in town to make a holiday for everyone!”
“Except for you, dear sister,” teased her brother. “For how can you live even a single day in Scarborough without shops to visit, and little gifts to cajole out of Mamma and Papa? Whatever will you do?”
Like Emily and Anne, these two younger children seem to have been, from earliest infancy, allies, and Mary only laughed the harder, merely giving Ned a playful pinch before taking the arm he had gallantly offered her and leading him to his elder sisters, mother, and a tall, distinguished older gentleman who was, indeed, the aforementioned Sir Edward Scott. He had, it seems, generously accompanied my mistress to the station in her husband’s and his wife’s absence.
“Ah,” cried Mrs. Robinson, “my little man is safely arrived!” Then, bowing her head slightly toward me, she added, “Thank you, Mr. Brontë, for delivering our precious goods.”
Sir Edward looked at me curiously, with a regard that was neither wholly contemptuous nor particularly amiable. He, too, nodded his head slightly, just enough to acknowledge my existence, before we turned toward our lodgings at the The Cliff. The Robinsons’ had procured a room for me for a single night, after which I was to return to Haworth. I walked behind them all, the chattering girls and their younger brother, whose sister Mary still clutched his arm, and I wistfully recalled the outings with my own sisters in days past—how happy we were too, and how long ago that seems!
From my position I could spy them all, to my heart’s content. As we walked, young Lydia turned her pretty bonneted head from side to side, and I could not help but assume that she was on the lookout for her beloved Scarborough play-actor. I examined the erect carriage of Sir Edward, who with his hat upon his head seemed impossibly tall—perhaps taller still than the dashing Mr. Roxby himself. Though he is nearly Papa’s age, he has the healthy glow of those of his class who are fortunate enough to have inherited a vigorous constitution and both the means and the temperament to enjoy it. Mrs. Robinson had taken his arm, and I found myself battling a rising tide of jealousy. Or was it envy? Of course I wished to be where Sir Edward stood, with Lydia’s arm through mine; but did I also wish to be him, and to possess both his physical and social stature? Truth be told, it was both, though even with all that, Lydia would never risk everything to leave her ailing husband. And he—if only he would die! Why does he linger so?, I found myself inevitably, shamelessly, thinking.
I recalled Crosby’s comment, now, about how my mistress and Sir Edward had got on exceedingly, and young Lydia’s words about her mother: she has taken quite a fancy to Sir Edward. I had dismissed these thoughts, however, as mere attempts to provoke me. And the truth was that all of them—yes, my own Lydia herself, who had taught her daughters to emulate her—were incorrigible flirts. The very appearance of a creature in trousers or breeches sufficed to draw forth a multitude of sighs, witty utterings (preferably en français, of course), fluttering eyelids, glowing cheeks, sparkling teeth, and flashing eyes from this tribe of—one had to confess—remarkably exquisite specimens of the softer sex. And yet, I was certain—and, in the case of the two Lydias, had myself witnessed—that each of them could turn tigress toward any man who ruffled her humour.
That night, in the boathouse, as Lydia—her mouth tasting of the brandy she had taken for courage—took my body into hers, and we were again one ecstatic flesh; as we tightly clasped hands and hungrily joined lips; as we arched our backs and I felt her squeeze me deep within her as the waves tumbled softly outside the door; as we did all this, I could have no doubt where her heart lay, and that one day this would be our daily life. She drew me out of myself, and when, together, as Shelley says, we panted and expired, I felt again the blessed relief of oblivion, like Cowper’s castaway slipping beneath the waves, but unlike him, I did so joyfully, for a brief instant relieved of all cares, in a flash of ecstatic, simultaneous being and nothingness, where worrying thought is banished with lightning speed to the remotest ends of the universe.
When it was over, my Lydia gave me a last kiss before escaping to her quarters.
“I wish,” said I, “that I could stay.”
“Now now, silly boy,” said she as she took her leave, “we have discussed this, and it is quite out of the question. But we shall see each other again soon, at Thorp Green, and there”—this she said placing her hand playfully between my thighs—“we shall have quite the joyful reunion, I promise you.”
I waited a few minutes before emerging into a beautiful early morning, where the stars shone as they do only at the sea, far from the factory chimneys of the West Riding. As I walked along the front of the boathouse, my face tilted up to the heavens, I nearly ran into a man, whom I was surprised to find I knew. It was Robert Pottage, the Robinsons’ gardener, unusually far from home for a man of his humble station. He seemed as confused to see me as I was to see him.
“Why Bob,” said I, slapping him jocularly on the back, “what brings you to Scarborough? Surely you and Mrs. Pottage are not on holiday? Who is tending the garden at Thorp Green, my good man?”
He seemed particularly embarrassed, and though he does not share Mr. Bellerby’s condition any more than I do, he stammered, “I—I—I…W-w-why, Maister Robinson asked me to come ‘long behine Billy, t’aid wi’t’ horses and luggage.”
“But was that not two days ago?” said I. “I’m surprised that you’re still here, then.”
Pottage looked at me sheepishly, and toed the sand nervously, as if he were a boy caught stealing sugarplums. “Ah, well, t’maister tol’ me I could stay on t’ see t’ train arrive today, an’ after all, I never seen the sea, Mr. Brontë. I’ll be on me way home t’morro’.”
“By Heavens, man, then walk with me up to the castle ruins yonder! Have you been there? My hand to God, there is nothing like the stars shimmering over the sea on such a night as this!”
I still felt the tingling exaltation of a man whose body has just been with the woman he loves, who has just tasted the earthly rapture that surpasses all others.
Pottage reported that he had already been up to the castle, and so declined my kind offer, citing the need to sleep a few hours before an early departure. We shook hands and said our good-byes.
“Very well, Bob. But you see, I can now travel home almost entirely by railway, and so there will be time enough for sleep then, despite the bumps along the way, ha ha! In all events, I will see you soon at Thorp Green,” I said exultantly, feeling as though I were already master of the estate.
“Yes, yes,” said he, and it seemed he could not escape quickly enough, which I thought odd, for Bob Pottage is always a hale fellow well met, with a ready smile and a kind word, if not a bawdy jest and mischievous wink when there are no ladies within earshot.
Ah well, thought I, I shall go it alone, and so climbed up to the headland, where, standing on a cliff, I stretched my arms out to the sea as if to embrace it in its entirely, then lay on my back on a wall, extending my hands once again, this time upwards, where thousands of stars glimmered so brightly that I felt I could reach out and pluck them from the heavens at will.
At length I sat up and pulled my knees close to my chest, circling them with my arms, and inhaled the cooling, incessant breeze. All will be well, I thought. Yes, yes: all will be well. I am not yet 30, and my lady loves me, I am valued in my position, and my poems continue to be published. And just possibly, I will soon be the master of Thorp Green itself, at which point all of my time—well, when not obeying my lady’s orders, that is—will be spent on poetry. If I could pray, thought I, such would be my idolatrous prayer.
The next morning I rose at seven o’clock and, saying only a cool and formal good-bye to Mrs. Marshall—for the family was still in bed—I made my way to the station to begin the long journey from Scarborough to York, from York to Leeds, Leeds to Bradford, and finally, onwards to yet another new rail line, from Bradford all the way to Keighley. I would only have to walk the four miles home from there. In just over ten years, I mused, the tentacles of the railway had reached nearly every corner of Britain. Who knows but that the whistle of a train may someday soon reach the lonely hills of Haworth?
Scarborough, so perfectly clear and windswept the night before, now lay shrouded in a blanket of summer fog. As I gazed from the coach window, I saw that, though we were moving through the mist, one could scarcely tell that the train had left the station.
Chapter XXI—Torn Asunder
July 31st, 1845 Liverpool
Oh God, what a blow have I received! I feel as though my life were ending—that I am suffocating, as if a man buried alive. I am better only when my mind is sufficiently drowned or stunned, but such relief is transitory, leaving only bitterness and gall, regret and shame, and the stale taste of the previous night’s intemperance on my lips. For a fortnight, I have ended nearly each day in a state of torpor, since the fateful day I received word of dismissal from Mr. Robinson. I am never to return to Thorp Green, and, if he has his way, never to see my darling Lydia again.
The letter arrived on July 17th, and in it my employer, without entering into details, claims to have discovered my proceedings, which he characterises as bad beyond expression. I am warned on pain of exposure to break off instantly and forever all communication with every member of his family.
Once I had received the full force of the initial blow, I spent my hours and days—both in sobriety and inebriation—musing about what might have happened. How could I not? Had someone seen Lydia and me? Perhaps it was no coincidence that Pottage was outside the boathouse that night. Had he been sent to spy? Or perhaps he had merely wandered by, and hearing our muffled moans, peeped through a crack to discover us in flagrante delicto. I recreated the scene in my mind, but this time from the perspective of Pottage, peering through a keyhole or a knothole, watching his employer’s wife astride me, her pendulous breasts, which I had freed from her gown, swinging within reach of my thirsty lips and eager hands. I was within and without, and despite my suffering grew stiff with desire and remembrance as I gazed over the imaginary gardener’s shoulder at the phantom lovers.
If he had witnessed such a scene as this, the gardener could scarcely be expected to comport himself normally with me just a few moments later; that would certainly explain his strange manner.
And yet, thought I, No, that could not be what happened.
The wording of the letter, I thought, was curious: pain of exposure? Surely Mr. Robinson could not expose me without exposing his wife. This, therefore, seemed little more than an idle threat. Every member of his family? What did that signify? Finally, after several days of such reflections, the truth flashed upon me with the clarity of a cliff emerging from the darkness of night into the light of day, as the sun shoots brilliantly from behind a neighboring mountain: something had transpired between the two Lydias, mother and daughter, and the elaborate and fragile edifice of deceit they had constructed had come tumbling down. Yes, that must be it. Might Roxby be involved? Perhaps Marshall? Yes, surely Marshall had something to do with it.
A second, far more complicated, story begins to take shape in my mind. In this tale, young Lydia is again discovered with her beloved thespian, and her mamma threatens to reveal all to her dear papa. I can see it all develop, like the scene of a wretched novel one might read to pass one’s time in a railway coach: mother and eldest daughter—alone but for the faithful Marshall, the mortar holding this edifice together—are locked in battle. Perhaps they are walking together on the Spa Bridge, high above the sands, with the lady’s maid following a pace or two behind them.
“Mamma,” cries the daughter, “you must not tell Papa.”
Seagulls circle and scold, contesting each other for a dead fish that has washed ashore. The sun is brilliant on this cloudless day, and the two Lydias wield elegant parasols rather than gladiators’ swords, and are protected by bonnets rather than helmets. The younger bites her lip, takes a deep breath, and turns to face her mamma.
“Indeed, if you do, I shall tell him all about you and Mr. Brontë.”
“And what, pray tell, will you tell him?”
“I will say that you are lovers, and have been almost since his arrival at Thorp Green more than two years since.” Her passion grows as she speaks, and in my imagination she stamps her exquisite little foot, just as I have seen her do in life. “You will be quite cast out!”
The elder Lydia’s cheeks are flushed, but she laughs. She is more beautiful, in my mind’s eye, than ever.
“Pray, tell, my angel, what evidence do you have of such perfidious conduct on the part of your esteemed mamma?”
“I am certain that you are lovers!” she cries, hoping—like so many of us, so often—that the passion of her words will compensate for their lack of sense. “I have seen for myself the poem he wrote for you, and the valentine he gave you.”
It is the mother’s turn to fly into a rage. “You—you—you cunning vixen, you have rifled through my possessions? How dare you!”
Her daughter, finding this chink in her mamma’s armour, attacks. “And, I am certain that Marshall here has seen enough to banish you from Thorp Green and, indeed, from all of society.” She stares defiantly, exultantly. “Now then!”
Ah, young lady, grosse erreur! Mrs. Marshall, witnessing all, now steps forward and says, “Why Miss Robinson, I haven’t the slightest idea what you could possibly mean.” Her voice has a practiced innocence to it, and her gaze the cold steeliness of a sabre.
Like a wrestler who, on the threshold of defeat, flips his opponent and snatches an unexpected victory from the jaws of defeat, Lydia the elder laughs triumphantly.
“Ha ha, you wicked creature, did you really think you could set Marshall against me? Who pays her salary? You?”
Here an unanticipated fog rolls in from the sea, obscuring my vision. What happens next? Does the mother keep the upper hand, with the silenced daughter still desperate for her Roxby, and yet forbidden from seeing him? Does Bob Pottage report what he has seen, if indeed he has seen anything, the two tales merging into one? If so, do mother and daughter, reinforced by the ever-present Marshall, join forces to preserve their good names, in an uneasy alliance? Perhaps Pottage only saw Mrs. Robinson leave the boathouse, followed a few moments later by me, which permitted her to concoct a story that only a sickly old fool like Edmund Robinson would believe, his vanity even in his weakened state not permitting him ever to imagine himself a cuckold: she knew I was leaving the next day and had asked to see me in private, to tell me not to address the younger Lydia, who had reported that I had made inappropriate advances to her. Yes, yes, says the young lady, now standing in fear of her mother and quite possibly still hoping to win a belated approval of Roxby—for after all, how much more suitable was a rich actor than a destitute tutor!—yes, Papa, Mr. Brontë laid hands on me and positively attempted to ravish me. Despite his weakness, Robinson is furious, his deep bass thundering like that of Zeus from Olympus, By Heaven, why was I not told of this?! Mrs. Robinson explains that they had every intention of telling him once they returned to Thorp Green, but wished to spare him such grief during his convalescence in Scarborough, which seemed to be going so well.
Do I forgive my Lydia? Of course I do, for she has no choice. Yes, I tell myself, she is planning for the future—for our future—of course that’s it, sending me away only to call me back when the old man dies. Summoning all of her courage, she even feigns approval of his letter of dismissal, though her heart breaks and yearns for me, and when she at last retires to her chamber that night, her eyes shine with tears. Yes, that must be it.
The vague outlines of a third story occasionally rise up before me like a spectre, one I blot out the instant it appears: in this vision, Lydia smiles broadly at Sir Edward, as together they step aboard his yacht in Marseilles, the warm sun glinting on the gently undulating Mediterranean, reflected in her inviting brown eyes and sensual mouth, her teeth brilliant as Mallorcan pearls. As I stare out, today, at the cold grey Mersey, I know nothing could be more absurd, and that my mistress waits only for me.
Yes, I have been packed off to Liverpool and the coast with John Brown, for after several days of finding me slumped and unresponsive at the Black Bull, Papa determined that a change of scene was in order. We have taken a steamer along the Welsh coast and seen Penmaenmawr, and I have even written some verses, bad as they are, to sum up my state of mind:
Cannot my soul depart?
Where will it fly?
Asks my tormented heart,
Willing to die.
When will this restlessness
Tossing in sleeplessness—
Stranger to happiness—
Trash—I wrote better as a mere child. Has it all been for naught? What will become of me now?
Brown and I are to meet soon to lift a glass—many glasses, it is safe to say—and so before we do I must write to Charlotte, who surely will be unable to conceal her cold and silent rage at my conduct. Her genuine concern for my wellbeing is so obviously false that her eyes can scarcely mask her condemnation of my every word and act.
I duly assure Charlotte of my contrition, of my regret for my frantic folly, and promise amendment when I return, knowing that she will share my letter with Papa. Indeed, she will share it with anyone who will listen, including Emily, Anne and especially Ellen Nussey, framing her letters, to “Dear Nell,” I doubt not, with her own wise commentary.
As I seal the letter, my own hypocrisy leaves a bitter taste, but I know an evening of heavy drinking with John Brown, that faithful Old Knave of Trumps, will put matters to right: the first thing to disappear will be the hammering within my skull, and soon a gentle warmth will spread from my throat down my chest, and from my trunk through my arms and legs, until I can feel only a vague and pleasant shimmering where once my body was, like a man submerged, from the neck down, in a hot bath.
Since our return from a pleasure-steamer tour of the Welsh coast, Brown has tried his utmost each night to send me upstairs with a woman—to ease your body and mind, lad—and each night ends the same: I stumble off to bed and to a drunken, solitary slumber, while he shrugs and throws his arm about a whore’s waist—and on at least one occasion there were two, one for each arm—and slurs some sort of heretical “moral” about my failure to avail myself of the feminine bounty Liverpool has to offer.
Tonight it was, in the broadest possible Yorkshire accent he could muster, “Why, then, man, we mun no’ le’ sooch riches as these go t’ waste, eh? What would t’ parson Brontë say? Summat like how we should no’ bury our riches, but use ‘em for they are t’gifts of God hi’self, eh? If we fail to use ‘em, they’ll jus’ be takin’ away like”—and here his Yorkshire accent vanished, replaced by a quite remarkable imitation of my father, in the Cambridgian tones he usually reserves for the pulpit—“for would not the good reverend say, quoting Matthew: For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.”
Slapping his chosen partner on her buttocks as he followed her up the stairs of the inn, he added, now in his own laughing voice, “Y’don’ reck’n I wan’ t’ be cast into t’ outer darkness, where there be weepin’ and gnashin’ o’ teeth, do ya? ‘cause that’s what became of the poor bugger who buried his talent. Aye,” he added with a wink and a nod toward his partner, a buxom woman whose skin was so dark, whose hair was so raven-black, as to lead one to believe that she was a gypsy, or perhaps even a mulattress, probably orphaned on the streets of Liverpool, like so many other unfortunates too numerous to count. I thought of Maeve, and wondered if ever I would see her again.
“Aye,” said Brown, whose mind was clearly set on matters of a purely fleshly variety, “Aye, I’m only interested in burying my talent in one particular place, if y’know wha’ I mean, lad.”
I often ask myself why Papa allows—indeed, encourages—John Brown to be my guardian, this same John Brown who blasphemes with delight, mocking sacred scripture, whoring and drinking as much as possible whenever he is from home. But here is no great mystery, in the end, for like most men—like Titterington and his band in Luddenden, for example—John dexterously shows one face to polite society and quite another to his trusted confidants. Indeed, his conduct abroad, strange though it may seem, has never affected his faithful service to Papa and the parish, his paternal duty to his six daughters, or–as unfaithful as he is—his evident esteem for Mary.
Is this hypocrisy, or simply survival? Is it an abberation or, in reality, the very thing that allows for the smooth functioning of society’s great machine in this utilitarian age? I recall young Lydia Robinson’s admonishment to Anne in my lodgings on that snowy evening, which now seems so distant: Think what chaos would ensue if everyone were to see the truth in such absolute terms as you!
But what of her mother, of my darling Lydia? Does she yearn for me as I do for her? Does she ache to have me in her arms, to feel my hands and mouth move over her like a summer breeze, to feel me harden and then lose myself inside her, with the same sharp longing that tortures me? Writing this, I feel myself begin to stiffen with desire, and addressing my letter to Charlotte, wonder if tonight I might just be tempted to join Brown in his pursuit of the softer sex, for surely I could close my eyes and transport myself, through the power of imagination, back to Thorp Green, or to the boathouse at Scarborough, where the swelling and crashing surf without was as nothing compared to the surging, heaving tide of passion within.
Does she think of me as ceaselessly as I do of her? How could she not? If only I had a word from her, a mere crumb from my mistress’s table! Perhaps a letter awaits me at the parsonage. Yes, surely there will be some communication from Thorp Green when I return.
August 4th, 1845 Haworth, The Parsonage
Home again. Home. The poem I began in Liverpool concludes:
Home it is not with me…
My home has ta’en its rest
In an afflicted breast
That I have often pressed
But may not more
Meantime, I have succeeded in procuring some work for my old friend Leyland: the carving of a memorial for one Joseph Midgeley of Oldfield, which John Brown will be charged with lettering and mounting in Haworth Church. I’ve written Joe today, to bid him visit Haworth soon, and to tell him that a woman robed in black and calling herself “MISERY” followed me, in my journey with Brown, wherever I went.
Chapter XXII—Love and Duty
August 17th, 1845 The Parsonage
No letter has arrived from Thorp Green since I returned a fortnight ago, alas. I found only Papa and my sisters, in various attitudes of quiet sorrow (Anne), cold indifference (Emily), or simmering reproach (Charlotte, of course). The trip has done them far more good than it has done me, surely: for it removed me from their sight and allowed them to resume their feminine communion unhindered, while with Brown as Mentor, my journey has hardly instilled in me a newfound rectitude or different proclivities: nay, quite the contrary is the case.
But at least I have seen new sights, breathed in the fresh breezes of the Irish Sea, and gazed up at the stony brow of Penmaenmawr from the steamer. I even tried at last to join Brown in his whoring, with no success. It seems that despite my occasional phantasms of being in the soft embraces of her lovely daughters, Lydia is now the only woman for me, the only one who can arouse the longing and desire which, in the debauched days and nights of Luddenden Foot, burned so hotly that no number of women could quench it. Now, only a soft ember glows in my heart, and it glows only for my Lydia, my angel, my idol. All hopes of salvation are in her, for only she holds the key to unlock my future happiness, both in love and in the world. While some might call this a monomania, I cannot think but that it is quite simply true: without her love I am bereft, for her body’s absence turns mine to lifeless stone; I am certain that she longs for me, and that if only that eunuch-like fellow Robinson, that bloodless mock-husband, would quit the stage, which is to say get seriously down to the business of expiring, I would at last have his lady—whom I can only consider My Wife—and his estate, and all of my worries would at last and forever be removed.
Such were the thoughts—which God and man would both condemn as shocking and sinful, I am well aware—that moved slowly through my clouded mind this morning, after a particularly serious bout of drinking at the Black Bull. I sat on the sofa stroking Flossy, not out of any affection, but absently, to give my idle hand something to do. I gazed not out the window, but into the folds of my trousers, my chin nearly reposing on my breast as if in an attitude of slumber, for even lifting my head required a great effort. Quick, impatient footsteps entered the room, and Charlotte’s voice, in which I forever hear condemnation, struck my suffering senses like the sound of fingernails dragged across a schoolboy’s slate. Each hair on my head seemed to ache as she spoke.
“Well, Branwell?” said she.
“What is the question, dear sister?” I queried, irritably, my eyes now raised to meet hers. She stood wearing an apron, one hand on her hip and the other holding a piece of paper aloft.
“I was wondering when you might consider seeking employment?”
“Really now?” said I, rallying to my own defense. “Why, I have been employed, you will recall, for longer than anyone but Anne. I might ask the same question of you. With the scheme for the Misses Brontës’ School for Girls blasted to atoms before it ever began, surely you are sufficiently liberated to seek a position as a governess—or seek a husband, if that is more to your liking.”
Knowing that she had refused at least two offers of marriage but was now ageing and increasingly desperate, I added this last comment with deliberate cruelty, as if running her through with a sword.
Water rose to her eyes, but she quickly mastered herself. “Do you think, Branwell, that because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I will betray my own heart and soul to marry a man I do not love, for mere convenience or comfort—for money?”
Flossy whimpered slightly at the vehemence with which Charlotte said this, pressing his velvety muzzle against my right knee, at the same time looking up at her with his soft brown eyes, unsure of whether to fear or pity her, I’m sure. I shared his sentiments.
“I beg your pardon, Charlotte, I meant no offense,” said I with feigned concern. “Of course you are quite right. I, too, worship Cupid, and have felt the full sting of his arrow.”
The boy in me—her childhood playmate—wished to go on, to confide in Charlotte, to tell her that I was still wracked with uncontrollable desire for my mistress, and that once Robinson died I would have both love and livelihood, united in my goddess Lydia. Instead, I bit my lip and looked down at Flossy, who now gazed up at me with the stupid but irresistible love of a dog for the humans in his life, even though he was Anne’s, not mine. Flossy—our last living and breathing link to Thorp Green.
But Charlotte had guessed my thoughts, at least in part.
“I hope that you refer to some unnamed and suitably unattainable young lady, and not”—here she paused, uncertain as to whether she should proceed.
“And not to whom?” asked I, goading her onward.
“Not—not a married woman, a diabolical temptress from all I can determine. Anne refuses to speak of her, and I can hardly fault her for not wishing to revisit the disgusting ways of anyone in that wicked family, least of all the horrible mother.”
“I don’t wish to speak of them either, but I will not hear such calumny of Lydia—of Mrs. Robinson.”
“So you believe that what I say is false, is defamatory? Did she not seduce you?”
I considered. In fiction Alexander Percy—viz., Northangerland—was always the effortless seducer, but here in cold reality it was clearly to my advantage to allow Charlotte and the others to think me the victim, the innocent young tutor tempted into iniquity by the rich and corrupt older woman, who, after all, held his future in her pretty, immoral hands.
Besides, it was close enough to the truth, was it not? And yet, I burned with indignation; I yearned to spring to Lydia’s defense. For what my father and sisters would condemn as lust was merely their narrow, conventional view of the matter—why was the perfect, passionate union of two beings a sin, after all? How could something that made us feel like Gods be evil? What was it Shelley had written? Religion and morality compose a practical code of misery and servitude.
I tried—but failed—to hold my tongue, and turned the conversation away from who seduced whom, and into another channel.
“We love each other, Charlotte, and this is hardly something I expect you to understand.”
“But what of duty, Branwell? Surely you are concerned about God’s law, if not man’s: rectitude of conduct and resignation point out the straightest road from this world to the next.”
I scoffed, emboldened and reckless. Reckless after a fashion, of course, for I knew Papa was visiting parishioners, and that no one else was listening.
“If there is a God, I hardly think He is much concerned with affairs such as this, and am quite convinced that if I have transgressed anything, it is a mere human law. More to the point, if you had ever felt the true love of a grande passion, which like a hurricane sweeps away all, whether erected by God or Man, that stands in its way; if you had ever felt such love—yes, sister, even for a married man—you would, I am convinced, trample every last thing in your path, brave Satan and all his legions, and like that Great Deceiver himself you would raise your fist and defy your very Maker.”
I paused here, wishing to add: If you had ever felt the transports procured by the ecstacy of two bodies become one—but such a remark was not only beyond the pale; it would simply confirm her opinion of my depravity, so I simply said, “If never before have your veins been on fire, if never once has your heart beaten faster than you can count the throbs, you cannot possibly know what you would do, and you certainly are not equipped to sit in judgment upon me.”
As I spoke, Flossie buried his snout even further into my leg, as if to hide, and Charlotte’s face grew scarlet with wrath. She trembled so greatly that she had to reach out to a table to steady herself, as if shaken by something unseen, something far beyond my own transgressions.
“Do you think,” said she, eyes flashing and fists clenched, “so little of me? That I would cast away all that I have learnt, and all that has sustained me? That in a moment of temptation, when body and soul rise in mutiny, every law and principle would melt away into nothingness?”
“Nay,” said I, in a Yorkshire drawl, hoping to moderate, if not annihilate entirely, her wrath with a bit of levity, “nay, Sister, it is because I think so much of you, for clearly you are a woman of great passion, like all of the Brontës before you.”
Here there came neither laughter nor anger, however, but great tears spilling down her cheeks, as if from a hidden source.
“Truly, sister, I meant no offense. Let us speak no more of this. You were asking me about seeking employment, and I fear you touched a nerve. You are right, of course, but I know not where to begin, and in my sorrow I find no will to recommence.”
Now I was simply prattling on like a fool, trying to fill the void, to distract Charlotte from her own hidden sorrow, whatever it was. Could it be that she still harboured esteem and affection for me, which leapt as high as a bonfire in our youth, but which the intervening years had seemed so utterly to have extinguished?
She wiped her eyes with her apron and tendered the piece of paper. “Here,” she said simply, and turned and walked from the room. I squinted at the scrap of paper, which had been torn from the Leeds Intelligencer, announcing the proposal of a new railway line from Hebden Bridge to Oakworth, via Oxenhope, Keighley and Haworth. Yes, the railway seemed to be coming to us even sooner than we had expected.
In the meantime, I am swallowing my old aversion and reworking a childhood story as a novel, to be called And the Weary Are at Rest. Perhaps there is hope for me yet, in at least one of these two directions.
August 29th, 1845 The Parsonage
Hope indeed, but of a third kind, one I was beginning to think impossible! Dr. Crosby has written me, and wishes to meet with me at Harrogate on September 3rd. I am fit to burst through my very skin with elation, anticipation, and dread. What news will the good doctor bring from Thorp Green, from my Lydia?
Chapter XXIII—Crosby in Harrogate
September 4th, 1845 The Parsonage
I have seen Dr. Crosby. The flames of hope leap no higher, but neither have they been fully extinguished. Yesterday I hired a gig and arrived at the Crown Hotel in Harrogate at half past ten, where Crosby already sat at an oak table, a large breakfast before him.
“Hello!” said he in his usual hearty manner, waving me to a chair across the table from him.
“So sorry, Brontë, but I was positively ravenous after my ride, and was not sure when you would arrive. Here, let me order you up something to eat.” He proceeded to order a rasher of bacon, eggs, and potatoes, along with a pitcher of strong coffee and pint of ale for each of us.
I removed my cloak and hat and vigorously clasped the doctor’s hand, showering him with questions about Lydia: “How was she? How did she look? Did that brute of a husband—still an ogre, for all of his sickliness—make her life a hell? Did she ask after me? Had she sent him to see me? What were her instructions?”
“Now now, lad,” he began soothingly, “Becalm yourself, and most of all,” he added, looking around the room, “lower your voice. We will have ample time to discuss all of these things, to the extent that I am allowed to do so. First tell me, how are you, and what do you do with your time?”
“I have lost my love and my livelihood. How do you think I am?” I replied somewhat testily.
“Peace, Brontë, peace. I know you must have suffered greatly, but surely you are not angry with me?”
“Let us not place such suffering in the past tense, Crosby. Do you think I could forget one I cannot help loving, and not regret losing the single post in which I performed with such success in my life?”
Softening, I added: “And surely you must know that I yearn to return to the neighbourhood and its inhabitants—yes, you among them, Crosby—I had come to view with a fondness even greater than that which I hold for my childhood home?”
“Now that’s better, Brontë,” he said, smiling warmly once again. “I promise I come with news, but we must eat and drink, and you must calmly tell me what you are about these days, and then we shall see about it.”
I breathed deeply, determining that after nearly two months of silence I could wait a few moments longer. It would be foolish to damage my friendship with Crosby—both because he was a genuine friend, and because he could surely be of service, for he quite possibly had influence over Lydia herself, in the odd way that subordinates—especially medical men who hold life and death in their hands—sometimes do.
Over breakfast I recounted the trip to Liverpool and the coast of Wales, explained that I was considering making application for the post of secretary to the new railway to be constructed through Haworth whilst writing the odd poem here and there, but that I had devoted most of my hours of time snatched from downright illness—an “illness” that mingled lovesickness and the results of drowning my sorrows—to the composition of a three-volume novel, one volume of which was already completed.
Crosby laughed. “Have you not told me on more than one occasion that you would never stoop so low as to write a novel?”
“True,” I replied. “But finally I felt that I must rouse myself to attempt something while roasting daily and nightly over a slow fire—to while away my torment awaiting word from Thorp Green. Several years ago Hartley Coleridge told me that in the present state of the publishing and reading world a novel is the most saleable article; I knew he was right then, but I hated that he was: I have always disdained today’s fiction as the production of money-grubbers like Mr. Dickens, written for the delight of empty-headed, mostly female readers without a single original notion rattling about in their heads. A good story is all readers want today!”
“And what,” said Crosby, “is wrong with that?”
“But what of ideas, and what of feelings? What of art?”
“But cannot a novel have all those things? What of Defoe, or Smollet, or Fielding? What of Walter Scott, or Miss Austen, for that matter?”
“Yes, of course, you are right, but such novels are as rare as an April snowshower. What enrages me is that where ten pounds would be offered for a work of poetry or translation from the classics, the production of which would require the utmost stretch of a man’s intellect, two hundred pounds would be turned down by the proud author of a three-volume novel—a triple-decker as people are calling it now—whose composition would require no more effort that the smoking of a cigar and the humming of a tune, for Heaven’s sake.”
“So you know this state of affairs to be true,” said Crosby, smiling and stroking his tick side-whiskers thoughtfully, “and yet you simply wish it to be otherwise.”
“Yes,” I laughed bitterly, “I’m afraid that is the story of my life. My sisters aren’t that much different, I’m afraid. We seem especially—nay, spectacularly—ill-suited to what people call the World, or Society. Perhaps if we had significant fortunes to our names, it would be quite another matter, but alas…”
I suddenly felt a desire for strong drink: my mouth was parched and my head throbbed, and having little money, I ordered a gin and water. Indeed, since losing my post at Thorp Green, I have utterly abandoned my earlier aversion to gin—which has now become an old friend, one who does me a great deal of good at very little expense.
Crosby cleared his throat, perhaps uncomfortable with talk of money, given my recent dismissal. “Tell me, then—now that you are prepared to abandon all poetic scruples and launch your career as a novelist—what is the subject of your novel?”
“Ah, well, it is the result of years of thought. If it gives a vivid picture of human feelings for good and evil—veiled by the cloak of deceit which must enwrap man and woman—and if it reveals man’s heart, as well as the conflicting feelings and clashing pursuits we meet on our uncertain path through life, I shall be gratified enough. Who knows but that I might at last see some income in exchange for my efforts?”
I had again come round to the topic of money. Does it not always come back to that? My sisters and I could rage all we want, shake our fists at the world, but we could no more change it than King Canute could halt the tide from rising.
I sighed and emptied my glass. “And that, Crosby,” said I after a long pause, “is all I have to relate.”
“Will you, my friend, now tell me why I have been summoned more than half-way to Thorp Green for this interview? Do you have word from Lydia? From Mrs. Robinson? What happened? Does she suffer?”
Crosby himself sighed, as though he had suffered as much as anyone else. At last he began, slowly and, it seemed to me, carefully. “I wish I could say exactly what transpired, but I know little more than you, Brontë. I can say with certitude that the conduct of young Lydia—Miss Robinson—has become increasingly outrageous, and that she has so harassed and worried her parents as to fairly tear the fabric of the family to shreds. I sometimes wish she would simply run off with her Mr. Roxby and leave the family in peace. If she does not do so quickly, I’m quite certain that her parents will arrange a marriage of interest with some rich old gentleman of the neighborhood, or worse yet, some young rake who needs reforming. I’m fairly certainly neither of those possibilities would end any happier than an elopement with Roxby, though of course in the last case she would quite likely be cut out of her papa’s will.”
“Enough of Miss Robinson, Crosby—do you bring word from her mother? Can you tell me why I was dismissed? For the good reverend simply barred me from all contact with every member of his family. It is a mystery to me, though I’ve some notions of what might have happened.”
“I must say, Brontë, you look positively ashen. You could use another drink, I’m quite sure—something proper, this time.” Crosby called for a bottle of whisky to be brought to our table, jesting, to introduce a bit of levity, about our common Irish origins.
“Ah,” said he, “now that’s some good medicine!” Leaning forward and wrinkling his forehead as if to focus his attention, he continued: “Now then, Branwell—we are still friends and so I may call you Branwell once we both have a drink in hand, eh?—yes? Very well, Branwell, here is all I know: something occurred after you left the young master in his parents’ care in Scarborough. I have asked my friend Mrs. Marshall, but I’m afraid her loyalty to her employers trumps all, and she has only alluded to the great breach in the family over Miss Robinson’s infatuation with the young actor. That is precisely why I spoke of her, because I somehow feel that the naughty girl is involved in everything that has gone awry at Thorp Green. But perhaps that’s unfair.”
“I don’t believe it’s unfair at all, Crosby”—I could not bring myself to call him by his first name—“Do you know that the little vixen threatened to tell her mamma and papa that I had made improper advances toward her, if I failed to keep her conduct with Roxby a secret? And I know you have sworn me to silence concerning my connection with her mother, but now”—
“But now,” Crosby interrupted, “there is no such connection, and although I still wish to hear no particulars that could implicate anyone criminally, it will do no harm for us to admit, here and now, that your former mistress was inordinately fond of you, and is much aggrieved at what has befallen you. Of course she cannot write you herself, for her husband has given Mrs. Marshall strict orders that all of the correspondence of the household is to pass through his hands, and has made it plain that even the slightest hesitation from his wife’s lady-in-waiting will result in immediate dismissal, without so much as a fare-thee-well or a letter of reference. All the more reason, I’m afraid, that Marshall refuses to divulge what occurred in Scarborough, other than Miss Robinson’s mad pursuit of Roxby, of course.”
“Does Mr. Robinson treat his wife poorly? I cannot bear to think of her suffering at his hands.”
“He seems to have forgiven her,” said Crosby, adding with a wink, “if, that is, there is anything to forgive. No, he calls for her all of the time, and she is forever at his side, or following me out of his room, questioning me about the health of her ‘Angel Edmund’.”
At first I ground my teeth at this, but the gin and whisky were having their effect, loosening my clenched jaws, and I soon reasoned that Lydia was doing this for me, for us. Regardless of what Robinson had or had not discovered—or, more likely, had or had not suspected—my sweet Lydia had made it her mission to dissipate his wrath or dispel his suspicions. She would remain his devoted helpmate to the bitter end, for the sake of her children and so that she could then, at long last, be united with her true love. Perhaps, as I had imagined, she and her namesake had reached an uneasy truce, but one that was forever in danger of being broken.
How could I not but hope that this was true, and how much more so did it seem likely when Crosby reached into his pocket and drew out two gold sovereigns, which he slid across the table to me.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Why, don’t tell me you are such a poet that you don’t recognize cold, hard cash when you see it!” laughed Crosby.
“But this does not signify…the Reverend Robinson had already advanced my salary and paid my travel expenses.”
“Ah, but this is from Mrs. Robinson,” said Crosby. “She managed to arrange matters so that we had a few moments alone, and it was her idea that I meet you here, and that I give you some money, for she feels”—here I am recapitulating, Brontë—“wretched about your departure, and the manner in which you learnt of it. She devised a story to explain my absence, and the expenditure of the two pounds in Harrogate, and I confess that I, too, have been part of the deception.”
Here Crosby’s eyes filled; his esteem for me, aided by a generous infusion of whisky, was plain. “You see, Branwell, I am also saddened by your departure, and feel the absence of your friendship keenly.” He wiped his tears from his cheeks and smiled: “Just look at me, a sentimental old fool!”
Though touched by my friend’s demonstrations of genuine affection, I could not help thinking how quickly and gladly I would exchange the sovereigns, which I carefully placed in my own pocket, for the mere sound of Lydia’s voice, her tender words in my ear, her soft, full lips so close that I could turn and press them to my own!
Later, as we took leave of each other, Crosby clapped his begloved hands on my shoulders.
“By Jove, Brontë, I almost forgot: you are under no circumstances to contact Mrs. Robinson, or anyone connected to Thorp Green, including me, unless you hear from me first, do you understand? While it has far more to do with Mr. Roxby and Miss Robinson than anything else, your former employer has a veritable army on the lookout for communications from either you or the young actor, and I fear he has even placed spies among the postmen for miles round, including in my own little village.
Though I burned with vexation, flames of hope mixed with those of despair; the two sovereigns in my pocket and the whisky now fully and warmly in possession of me, I shook my friend’s hand enthusiastically, and promised to follow my lady’s commands faithfully.
“Did she say anything else, Crosby?” said I. “Can you not remember one thing to report to me verbatim?”
Crosby rubbed his chin thoughtfully and at last remarked, “Ah, yes, there was one thing: I believe she said, ‘Tell him to be patient, and that all will be well.’ Yes, I believe that was it.”
So: I am cast down but not cast away! Surely, surely her plan is to marry me when at last Robinson quits this world for the next! So it is that I am no longer suffering the torments of Hell, but instead dwell in a Limbo or a Purgatory, a twilight region where hope and fear share dominion.
September 10th, 1845 The Parsonage
Poor Leyland! He put off a planned visit to Haworth when a bust that had been commissioned cracked irreparably just as he was giving it his final touches. Surely there is a lesson here, but I am far too indolent to seek it. To distract the poor fellow, I repeated to him what I’d said to Crosby about my novel, though in truth I have already begun to lose interest in it; to cheer him I added a couple of my customary sketches, including one picturing a bust of myself that has been cast down to earth—we return to the clay, after all—with, in the distance, the silhouette of my Lydia as sculptress. The caption below reads: A Cast—cast down but not castaway.
Though it occupies my mind and helps pass the hours and days, there are moments when I’d like to cast away this wretched novel. Yes, I call it And the weary are at rest; it is a retelling of the story of Alexander Percy’s seduction of the married Maria Thurston, with my Lydia both seducer and seduced, and I a mere spectator—for would not Percy, Lord Northangerland, do something? I have no heart for it, and the thought of trying to make it saleable is almost as loathesome as the thought of becoming a bank clerk. Then again, I’m not sure what I have the heart for until Lydia is restored to me. I suffer from constant mental exhaustion, which arises from brooding on matters useless at present to think of.
Meantime, I will continue to urge Phidias—for such has Leyland jocularly begun to call himself, comparing his cracked bust to the Greek scuptor’s lost Zeus at Olympia—to come hoist a glass in Haworth, for of what other use are the two sovereigns in my possession?
October 25th, 1845 The Parsonage
I’ve at long last heard again from Crosby, but not on the subject I expected. At the same time, his news was hardly a surprise: on October 20th, Miss Lydia Mary Robinson at last made good on her threat, and eloped with Mr. Henry Roxby of Scarborough, marrying him that evening at Gretna Green. Her father, it seems, has channeled what little strength he retains into further wrath, and threatens to make good on his own threat, to have her written entirely out of his will.
I can picture the smartly-dressed couple—truly, as handsome as any described in the latest novel—kissing at their first opportunity, then driving all day to reach Gretna Green, passing through Thirsk and Bowes, Penrith and Calthwaite, and at last, as night approached, the final stretch through Carlisle and into Scotland. Or perhaps the runaways took the railway for part of their journey, by the less direct route, via Newcastle? In any event, I hope the weather was kind to them, that the sun shone brightly on their escape, and that all went as planned. I strongly suspect that Roxby will have no easy time of it with his young bride in the long run, but I envy him the honeymoon.
I did not share the news with Anne, for on those rare occasions when we converse at all, we never speak of Thorp Green and its inhabitants, and young Lydia’s decampment would only confirm her severest opinions of the young lady. Besides, she will likely hear about this matter from some other source, and soon enough.
As for me, I have proposed myself as secretary to the new railway. And so I wait. I wait for word from Lydia; I wait to hear from the railway; I wait to see what other opportunities might come my way. It is hard to say, on any given day, whether, in my breast, hope or despair prevails. These were the thoughts dominating my mind as I rode this morning, with Papa, to a meeting in Keighley. His eyesight is dimming, and so I often accompany him on such short journeys; I am sure that it has the further advantage, from my sisters’ point of view, of ridding the parsonage of my presence—or so I imagine. They have been behaving of late in mysterious ways: they are together even more often than usual, and there is a great deal of whispering and shuffling of papers, of falling silent at the approach of my footsteps.
As our gig bounced along to the road to Keighley, the rays of the shortening day’s sun struck and ignited the last flaming foliage of autumn, and against a cloudless sky the trees seemed, for an instant, to concentrate in their beauty not only life’s boundless hopes and limitless joys, but also its bottomless depths of despair—and not just of my own life, but that of every human who has lived since the creation of the universe. My heart so brimmed with this fullness—with the unspeakable pleasure of the moment and the equal measure of regret—nay, it was more akin to that sharp pain of mourning—at its passing, for pass it must—that tears started to my eyes. God Almighty, if Thou art there, in Thy Heaven, thanks be to Thee for this Thy creation, whose beauty surpasses all words—but why oh why oh why must such beauty be so fleeting as to disappear whenever we draw nigh to contemplate its sublime plenitude?
Beautiful moment, thought I, do not pass away—Verweile doch, du bist so schön! But as quickly as it had come, it was gone, and the world was as flat and colourless as before.
November 3rd, 1845 The Parsonage
Rarely do Papa and I speak, and seldom does he appear in these pages. I wonder, again, why that is? When I was a young boy, he united in his erect carriage and quizzical brow, his seemingly inexhaustible erudition (at lessons) and fearsome holiness (at church), everything I thought worth admiring—nay, worshipping. In short, he was a god. Or, at the very least, God’s great prophet.
There was no specific moment of shock or crisis that caused me to view him differently, which is to say as mortal, no humiliating or shameful episode of drunkenness or passing impiety—though he was certainly entitled to drown his sorrow or curse his Maker when he lost Mamma, then Maria and Elizabeth. No, it was more a gradual, imperceptible wearing away, like the erosion of the cliffs at Scarborough, or the ancient fort on Penmaenmawr, or the smooth recesses on the stone steps of York Minster, worn by the feet of six centuries of pilgrims.
Quite simply, I retained my affection and respect—akin to awe—for the old man, and those feelings are, curiously enough, the very reason I have nothing to say to him. What I mean is this: I simply disagree on matters religious—which is to say the very center of his existence—and have too much affection for him to wish to break his heart with my own apostasy, too much respect for his strength of character and force—in short, his goodness—to contradict what I consider to be his ridiculous, fanatical adherence to primitive superstition. In short, I hold my tongue, for that is the surest way to avoid injuring him, insulting his beliefs, or displaying my hypocrisy to the world.
I confess to these pages alone, however, that it is difficult to sit still and not cry out “Bollocks!” when I hear thank the Lord for this, or thanks be to God for that. Whence the silence to which I am bound: I can no more join in such foolish pieties than I can denounce them as such. Does Papa know all of this? If so, he has surely determined that silent prayer for my eternal soul is his sole recourse. So much the better for us both, then. Or does he feel that my failings are somehow his, has he blamed the peculiar education he gave me—keeping me from school precisely to protect me from the very things that have, to use language he might employ, ensnared me? Could it be that he is driven by despair to a silence not so dissimilar from my own?
Practical business matters, at least, escape this contradiction of character, and so it was with no great ceremony—albeit with a heavy heart—that he informed me, this morning, that he had learned through a fellow clergyman that the secretaryship of the railway committee has been awarded to someone else. The sweet man—for he is that—placed his large hand awkwardly, tentatively, on my arm, saying: “Well now, Branwell, it was not meant to be. The Lord must have other plans for you.”
He patted my arm and walked out of the room, relieving me of the obligation to respond.
November 8th, 1845 The Parsonage
Today the Halifax Guardian has again published my work, this time the poem “REAL REST.” The poet-narrator—Branwell/Northangerland, of course—addresses a bloated corpse that floats upon the waves, and considers what it would be to exchange places:
Thou hast what all men covet, REAL REST.
I have an outward frame unlike to thine,
Warm with young life—not cold in death’s decline;
An eye that sees the sunny light of heaven—
A heart by pleasure thrilled—by anguish riven—
But in exchange for thy untroubled calm,
Thy gift of cold oblivion’s healing balm,
I’d give my youth—my health—my life to come,
And share thy slumbers in thy ocean tomb.
How typical, that my one glimmer of success is in that field of endeavour where I find the most pleasure, but which brings no financial gain! For this reason I am again plaguing poor Grundy, in hopes that he might be of assistance in finding a post somewhere in the ever-expanding world of the railway. I have little hope, however, and in all probability have neither the will nor the force to retain such a post—in the unlikely event that I were to obtain one.
November 25th, 1845 The Black Bull, Haworth
Chill winter approaches with a vengeance, chasing the last of autumn’s leaves, which cling to the trees as last bits of matted hair and dried flesh cleave to a corpse. Cadavers below ground, cadavers above, and Brontës eternally sleeping in the church vault. How long it has been! Mamma a quarter century ago; Maria and Elizabeth four years later. And yet, how the sobs—yes, ours and Papa’s, but also Mamma’s—still din in my ears!
Meanwhile, encouraged by the success of “Real Rest,” I have written another poem, “Penmaenmawr,” inspired by my trip with Brown—but intended for Lydia’s eyes. How well I remember sailing under the Welsh mountain, when the band on board the steamer struck up Ye Banks and Braes. The sorrowful Scottish tune only added to my bitterness, and I trembled as I heard the final lines of the song:
And may fause Luver staw my rose,
But ah! She left the thorn wi’ me.
Surely, surely, though, Lydia is no false lover, and she is not the thief in question; I may be abandoned, pricked by the bitter thorns of desertion, but only for a time: cast off by the Reverend Robinson, but not cast away by my sweet Lydia. Like one who keeps a talisman in his pocket, rubbing it whenever he needs to call forth hope or courage, so I kept in my breast her words, reported by Crosby: Tell him to be patient, and all will be well. No, she is not false, for how could one love with such passion one day and coldly turn from her lover the next? Surely, such a thing cannot be possible.
“Penmaenmawr” is the only way I can imagine communicating with Lydia, since I have been forbidden all contact with her. I even took back, almost immediately, the one letter of comfort I had intended to send her through the private channel of Dr. Crosby, dreading not only the consequences of discovery but the good doctor’s reprimands. I know that printed lines with my usual signature “Northangerland” will excite no suspicion, as my late employer shrank from the bare idea of my being able to write anything, so he won’t know the name.
I have informed Joe how much I could use an hour sitting with him—by which, of course, I mean many hours of drinking and conversing about all manner of things—and that I would promise not to be gloomy. It was my hope that my friend would find the time to come to Haworth, though I fear, as I did not hesitate to tell him, that his e’re long has become ne’er, so I have informed him that I will do my best to accost him soon in that latter-day Gomorrah, Halifax itself. We shall see whether he delivers my poem to the Guardian and whether it is published. If it is, will Lydia see it? If I wanted to be certain I would submit it to Bellerby in York, though that gentleman has likely also been instructed to ignore all communications from me. After all, would he rather publish an unknown poet, or lose a wealthy client?
I tremble, half with hope, and half with fear, that she will see these lines:
I had an ear which could on accents dwell…
An eye which saw, far off, a tender form
Beaten, unsheltered, by affliction’s storm—
An arm—a lip—that trembled to embrace
An Angel’s gentle breast and sorrowing face—
A mind that clung to Ouse’s fertile side…
Am I mad? What if Anne sees this? Or, for that matter, what if Charlotte does? The truth is this: I do not much care. Is now the time for timidity, for caution? For fear of my three unemployed, unpublished, unwed, virgin sisters? No: like the great Welsh mountain, let me:
…arise o’er mortal care;
All evils bear, yet never know despair;
Unshrinking face the griefs I now deplore,
And stand, through storm and shine, like moveless
Midwinter, 1845 The Parsonage
“Penmaenmawr” was indeed published in the illustrious Halifax Guardian, two days ago. More may come of this than I reckon on, but I care not a whit. Yesterday I contrived to accompany Brown to Halifax, where at long last I was able to settle in for a long conversation with Mr. J.B. Leyland, the eminent sculptor himself.
The first thing I noticed upon entering his studio was a life-sized effigy of a man lying recumbent, his right arm extended straight along his right flank, his large left hand folded over his heart. His aquiline nose, a larger version of my own, stands out from a drawn, almost scowling visage.
“Who is this unfortunate gentleman, my dear sir?” said I. “By all that’s holy, rarely have I seen a beak more hooked than my own—and to think that his is cast in stone for all eternity!”
Mine, I thought to myself, will be food for worms all too soon; whether in five years or fifty, it will be too soon. How strange that such despair can flow just under the bright surface of life, like a dark and vast subterranean river beneath the joyous green riot of spring.
“And my word upon it,” I continued without a pause, as this stygian stream coursed through my mind, “he seems unhappy to be there—I hope his countenance is more joyful in the afterlife, at least.”
Leyland laughed, clapping me on the shoulder with hands still dusty from the chisel. A beam of ephemeral midwinter sun slanted down through windows set high in the studio’s south wall, giving shape to the white dust that hung in the air from his morning’s work. Or, perhaps more accurately, the dust gave shape to the shafts of sunlight, just as a sail or stand of trees allows us to catch, for a fleeting instant, a glimpse of the otherwise invisible wind.
“Ho ho! So the calumny begins before you grant me not so much as a meagre salutation, eh Brontë?”
Before a roaring fire he removed his smock, washed his massive forearms and hands, and then warmed himself for a moment.
“The unfortunate gentleman,” he at length replied, nodding over his shoulder, “is none other than your friend Dr. Crosby’s late acquaintance, Dr. Stephen Beckwith of York.”
I remained silent, remembering that he had received the commission—and advance—for this work more than two years earlier.
“Yes, yes,” he continued gruffly at last, “I know very well: it has taken me altogether too long, but at last it’s nearly complete. I can only hope it brings me, through its placement in the great York Minster, more commissions, because the Devil take me if I’ve made a bloody farthing on the damned thing.”
“Heavens, Leyland, you don’t habitually begin using such shocking language until you’ve a drink or two in you.”
“What makes you think, little man,” said he, pulling on coat, gloves and hat with a wink, “that I don’t already have a drink or two in me? But come, let’s go.”
Brown, who had some business to conduct with Leyland’s assistant, was to remain behind at the studio, whilst we walked uphill to the Old Cock, which had the advantage of being less than ten minutes away, and nowhere near Maggie and her husband’s establishment near the new railway station at Shaw Syke. Seeing her would only be a reminder of dashed hopes, youthful aspirations and ambitions unfulfilled. Who knows but that she has another child—or two—by now? I would not ask Leyland about such matters, though he could surely answer, since his own studio is a mere stone’s throw from there.
Our walk to the Old Cock was just long enough to chill us thoroughly, and so it was with heightened pleasure that we entered Mr. Nicholson’s establishment. The good man himself was there tending bar as we entered, standing well over six feet, his powerful arms wiping a glass dry as one of his boys stirred the fire crackling in the grate and his wife bustled about taking and delivering orders. Nicholson has jet-black eyes and hair, including wide side-whiskers. One would guess him a gypsy or a Sicilian, like Dimock in York, if it were not for his fair skin and merry blue eyes. He encourages levity, for it is good for business, but he brooks no nonsense or violence, and has been known to lift, one in each hand, two skirmishing drunks, and fling them out into the snow. Like Maggie’s own father, I would not wish to cross the man, that much is for certain.
It is unlikely that any such thoughts have ever occurred to Leyland.
“Hello, Tom!” he cried as we shed our outer-garments. “How are you, old man?”
“Greetings, ma’am,” Joe added, bowing ceremoniously to Mrs. Nicholson, a dumpy little thing with a pretty heart-shaped face, whose form still hints at a voluptuousness of days gone by, and whose coquetry is just sufficient to please the patrons without angering her husband. Quite to the contrary: Tom seems to know that such flirtation, like a moderate amount of levity, is good for business.
“Please, oh please, ma’am, “Bring us two of your smoking tumblers of brandy and water, for we are as chilled as Captain Parry on one of his celebrated voyages to the Arctic Circle!”
Mrs. Nicholson laughed, her ample bosom shaking. When she turned to go, and Joe was certain that her husband was otherwise occupied, he leant over and whispered in my ear. “Laugh if you wish, Brontë, but I’d give her a tumble. There’s something there—you can just see it in her eyes when a woman truly revels in it, can you not?”
I thought of Lydia, and shuddered—whether from the chill or other half-formed reflections which I would not permit to fully flower, I know not. Soon, thought I, it won’t matter: both cold and depression will melt away in the warmth of my beverage.
“You could certainly attempt it,” said I, nodding in Nicholson’s direction, “if you wished to be killed.”
Joe merely winked at the good lady as she returned bearing our steaming cups and, taking a first mouthful, said simply: “Aahh!”
I felt the same, for the effect of the warming liquid was well-nigh miraculous. It was not long before all doubts, all sadness, and all inhibitions began to lift, like the summer fogs in Scarborough, which, more often than not, burn away in the midday sun, to reveal white sands, laughing waves, and brilliant blue skies.
“Well, young Faustus, I suppose you wish to know what I’ve been doing these two years that I have failed to complete the good, yet no less dead, Dr. Beckwith, eh? The truth is that I took the advance from the committee in York and spent in on the pleasures of the flesh, I’m afraid. I had to borrow money from Francis just to complete the stern old fellow.”
“My dear sir, I’ve had my own troubles, as you know.”
“Yes, yes, you’ve not been reticent about your tribulations.”
I scowled: the fog had not fully lifted.
“Come come, cheer up lad! Above all,” he added, lifting his glass, “drink up! All will be well, I’m sure of it. Your Dr. Crosby is a good man—I’ve seen it for myself—let him guide you through the labyrinth to come. Either the lady will be yours, and all’s well that ends well, or she will prove false, and so she is not worth a second thought.”
I frowned again, feeling the chill begin to return.
“See here, that was said only in jest, Branwell.”
“And your debt to your brother?” said I, somewhat testily, not at all convinced that my friend was jesting.
It was Leyland’s opportunity to glower. He sighed, drained his cup, and signaled for another round, though my glass was still more than half-full.
“What happened is this, and you will see why I have no wish to dwell upon it: I spent my advance from the committee in York and then had nothing to show for it. Frances—dear old Frank, God bless him—once again rode to the rescue. He gave me enough money to complete the other commission, as well as pay off my other debts.”
He gazed now in the direction of Francis’s bookshop, just a street away, at 15 Cornmarket.
“He did it on one condition,” he continued, nodding his head in just that direction, as if Francis himself sat at our table, “that I never again ask for such assistance, with the understanding that if I did make such a request he would be obliged to refuse. ‘Not even,’ said my brother, in great earnest, but also with a tear trembling in his eye, ‘if it means you are carried off to the debtors’ prison, for I must now think of my wife, and soon, a family’.”
He confided that Francis had converted to Catholicism to marry his new wife, Ann. This seemed not to be the time for jesting about the evils of Popery, so I merely followed his gaze out into the street, where the first dry snowflakes of winter had just begun to fall. After a protracted silence, Leyland at last summoned his forces, fairly slamming his glass to the table and gesturing to Mrs. Nicholson for more.
“By God, let us drink to forget, Brontë: we both have our sorrows, but nothing that can withstand the tides of the River Lethe, so let us plunge in together: Round, round with the glass, boys, as fast as you can!”
There is little I recall from the rest of the evening. Who paid Nicholson? Do I remember seeing Francis, or do I only imagine it? There was certainly singing—was there? How did I find my way to Brown, or he to me, and when did we return to Haworth? At what hour did we arrive, and did I disturb anyone at the parsonage?
Such questions would discomfit a typical man, but I fear that my utter loathing of self has, like an overflowing glass, reached such a height that no further increase is possible, so that all fresh indignities simply splash away as excess. I am too numb, too stunned, too drowned even to remark—let alone worry—about such matters. Am I humiliated that Brown most likely carried me to bed like an infant? I should be, of course, but I simply blot it from my mind and think no more upon it. And I cannot change this any more than I can prevent the sun from rising.
When I awoke this morning it took what seemed—and what may have been—hours to determine whether I was awake, and where I lay. Familiar feminine laughter answered both questions. At length I sat up, safe in my own bed, and it occurred to me that at least one of the drums beating a tattoo in my skull would cease if I could overcome my biliousness sufficiently to swallow a bit of coffee. As I descended the staircase I heard renewed laughter, and so drew quietly near enough to the dining room—which Aunt Branwell had forever insisted upon calling the parlour—to overhear the proceedings within, for its door was just sufficiently ajar.
From their soft, rhythmic footsteps, I could discern that the three of them were walking in a circle round the table. In childhood I, too, would have been of their number—nay, I would have been the leader. Out floated Emily’s strong voice, reading a poem whose beginning I did not hear, but containing such heretical lines that I could have written.
Or perhaps, more appropriately, they might have been written about me:
I’ve watched and sought my life-time long;
Sought him in heaven, hell, earth, and air—
An endless search, and always wrong!
Had I but seen his glorious eye
Once light the clouds that wilder me
I ne’er had raised this coward cry
To cease to think, and cease to be;
I ne’er had called oblivion blest—
A low canine whimper prevented me from hearing what followed; faithful to his name, Keeper had quitted his post in the kitchen to carry out a reconaissance mission, and had taken up the position of sentry between me and the door, ignoring my instructions to hush—or whisht, as Tabby would say. The beast was not, however, unhappy to see me; on the contrary, his tail made its own drumbeat on the door while he gladly submitted to my caresses, as I rubbed his massive head and scratched behind his little rose-shaped ears.
The door flew suddenly open, and Charlotte stood before me, her cheeks flushed with anger or embarrassment—if it is not one it is generally the other—as she uttered her customary accusation: “Really now, Brawell—were you listening at the door?”
My tongue seemed quite stuck to the roof of my mouth, my hair wild from the night’s sleep and the evening that preceded it. She leant over the threshold and sniffed.
“Pouah!” said she, expressing even her disgust in French as she smelled, no doubt, the odours of last night’s spree. Stepping out and nearly, but not completely, closing the door, she spoke in an urgent whisper, like an actor on a stage. I had no doubt that she wished her sisters to hear her, but at the same time wished all three of us to think that she did not.
“Branwell, can we have no peace in this house? Have you no self-government, no desire to avoid dissipation?”
“Well, good morning to you too, dear sister,” said I, my tongue at last sufficiency freed to speak, though the pounding between my temples had only increased. “You should know that I was not listening at the door,” I lied. “No indeed, I just came to administer a pat on the head to old Keeper here. And it’s not at all clear to me how my troubles impede you from doing anything, if it means I’m either away from home or fast asleep when I’m here.”
I reached for her arm, but she pulled away.
“See here, Charlotte, each day from Midwinter’s dark gloom will grow longer, and I’ll wager that anno domini 1846 will bring happier times to us all.”
“This is no jest, Branwell,” she said with deadly earnest. “We do love you, but”—
“Yes, yes, I know: you hate the sin but love the sinner. I’ve heard that one before.”
She at last closed the door fully behind her, speaking in a low voice clearly not meant, now, to be overheard.
“That is true, but what I was going to say is that I shudder to think that you have hidden most of your misdeeds from your father’s and sisters’ eyes, but that all the same it is clear that you make no effort to improve your circumstances, but instead slide further into intemperance and dissipation, and appear to be either stupefied with self-indulgence or—as is the case this morning—recovering from its effects.”
“Come now, I was not meant to be a saint, but it’s hardly as bad as all that.”
“Every faculty, both good and bad, strengthens by exercise; therefore, if you choose to use the bad—or those which tend to evil till they become your masters—and neglect the good till they dwindle away, you have only yourself to blame.”
“You speak like an oracle, Charlotte, and all that you say is indisputably true. What would you have me do?”
“Fortify yourself against temptation.”
“Ah, well—if that’s all,” said I with a laugh. “I shall henceforth endeavour not to yield to temptation,” adding internally: or at least make a greater effort to conceal my conduct from you, dear sister.
“Come, Keeper, let’s see what temptations can be found in the kitchen,” this final word—kitchen!—clearly summoned immediately to the beast’s mind images of the generous scraps and bones Emily is in the habit of feeding him, for he leapt up excitedly and was all too happy to abandon his post at such a prospect.
Charlotte was amused by none of this, and sighing slightly once more, she passed into the dining room and closed the door behind her. I walked audibly away, but then crept back on the tips of my toes and pressed an ear against the door. Within, Charlotte spoke to her sisters, as was often the case, in a tone slightly redolent of a schoolmistress.
“It’s decided, then,” said she, “each of us will contribute a score or so of poems to the volume.”
“Are you quite certain,” Anne asked, so softly that I could scarcely discern the words, “that you do not wish to ask Branwell to contribute some of his poetry?”
“Absolutely not,” replied Charlotte. “Did you not say that he had published poems in York under his ridiculous nom de plume, Northangerland? And see here”—she must have had before her a copy of the Guardian, turned to the very page where “Penmaenmawr” had appeared—“he’s just done it again, under our noses, without saying a word about it. Does he think we are blind to this, any more than we are to his degrading conduct? God only knows what he did in Halifax yesterday! Let him have his secrets, and we shall have ours.”
Yes, let them have their secrets. Moreover, thought I, good luck and Godspeed being published, ladies. At least I have succeeded at that, by heavens, far more times than you three ever will.
March 3rd, 1846 The Parsonage
The days, weeks, and months pass with no word from Thorp Green, not even from Crosby. Will I never hear from Lydia? Will Robinson never expire? That alone will be my salvation, I am certain of it. Meantime, I have no prospect of employment—or perhaps more to the point, no interest in pursuing it. All desire, all ambition have fled. What strange creatures we are, to be capable, at one moment of our lives, of almost superhuman striving to make our way in the world, and yet at another to look back at oneself coldly, as if upon a stranger, to find our erstwhile ambition pure vanity, even a kind of white-hot madness! How can two such different beings reside in the selfsame breast? When does the arc of our lives begin to curve downward, the fruit begin to rot? Surely it is different with everyone, but should it already be so with me?
So: whenever I can, I drink. Yesterday, I borrowed a sovereign from Papa to “pay a debt” –he need not know that it was a debt I had not yet incurred, I reasoned—and to organize a shooting match, and made an afternoon of it at the White Horse Tavern. I found my tongue could scarcely move when Charlotte returned from Brookroyd, where she’d been on a visit to Ellen. My door was slightly ajar, and so she entered without knocking. The effects of the day’s drink had begun to dissipate—surely that is the only reason I can even recall our interview.
“Good evening, Branwell,” said she. “How have you been?”
I rose unsteadily from my chair to embrace her, and nearly fell.
“The same old steady body, as you can see, sister.”
“That’s all you have to say?”
“Hmm,” I grunted more than spoke. “How was the journey? And how was dear Miss Nussey?”
“What did you say?” she responded. What I had said seemed perfectly intelligible to me, but was not, apparently, to her.
“Never mind,” said I, first sitting on the edge of my bed, then stretching myself out as if to sleep. “Never mind,” I repeated.
“Branwell, I know you seek relief from your sorrow, but you should not seek it in drink. In your weakness and depression you have made it your medicine and support, your comforter, your recreation, your friend. Do you not see that you risk absolute bondage to that detestable propensity, so insidious in its advances, so inexorable in its tyranny, so disastrous in its effects?”
I was sufficiently conscious for this sermon to anger me, so I sat back up and said, raising my voice and fixing her eyes with mine, “If I could, I would ring a bell and order six bottles of wine—and by Heaven, I’d drink them dry before your eyes, just to spite you!”
Charlotte began to go without a word, but could not resist a parting shot.
“Emily said you were a ‘hopeless being’ and I now see that it is all too true. I cannot stay in the room while you are in this state.” She turned promptly and walked out, closing the door with bang.
Damn you! You and Emily can go to straight to the bloody Devil, is the last thought I recall before falling into a troubled sleep.
March 28, 1846 Haworth, The Black Bull
After that last unpleasant interview with Charlotte I determined to improve my conduct, and at the very least to lift my head above the swift stream of my dissipation. Alas, just two days had passed when a most unexpected occurrence cast me down yet again: yesterday all the family were occupied but I, when a parcel arrived, intended for C. Brontë, Esq. Surely, thought I, this is a mistake—and indeed, the letter “C” seemed rather to resemble a “P” to my eyes. Since anything destined for papa would have included “Reverend”, continued my logic, this could only be intended for me. Who had sent it? Was it a gift from Lydia? Another book, perhaps this time sent directly from a publisher, so that her kind gesture could not be detected by her jealous husband? Was it a signal to me that we would soon be reunited?
Alas, how often do we know full well, in the deepest recesses of our hearts, the truth of such matters, though every atom of our waking selves labours mightily to silence it! I now believe I knew all too well that this was indeed a “C” and not a “P”—for even the most ignorant schoolboy would not mistake one for the other—and that I tore into the parcel not despite its intended recipient, but because of her.
What I discovered were the page proofs of a volume called, quite simply, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. So—they had finally done it, though it was clear from the enclosed correspondence that they had paid for the publication themselves. So what, then? A publishing house would issue the scratchings of an ape, if said primate had enough money to pay for it! Had I Aunt Branwell’s inheritance to fling to the wind, I, too, could put a volume of Northangerland’s verse into print. After all, I had written as much publishable verse as the three of them combined, and published no small amount of it already.
Nevertheless, as I flipped feverishly through the stack of proofs, I saw some good, even brilliant things, especially from the vigorous pen of Ellis Bell. In “The Philosopher,” I found the poem I had heard Emily reciting, and could at last know its ending:
…I ne’er had called oblivion blest
Nor stretching eager hands to Death
Implored to change for lifeless rest
This sentient soul, this living breath—
Oh, let me die—that power and will
Their cruel strife may close;
And conquered good, and conquering ill
Be lost in one repose!
Sphynx-like sister of mine, though you may call it cowardly, you, too, understand my yearning for real rest. And you, sweet Acton Bell, have written some lovely verse as well; you too see that “In all we do, and hear, and see,/Is restless Toil and Vanity,” and that “Pleasure but doubles future pain,/ And joy brings sorrow in her train,” but your solution is to “Trust God, and keep His statutes still,/Upright and firm, through good and ill.” Do you not see, Anne, that without your fairytale God, who obstinately refuses to speak a word or show his face, all is indeed vanity, vanititas vanitatum, omnia vanitas.
As I turned at last to Currer Bell’s poems—and it occurs to me now that it is as significant that Charlotte placed hers first in the volume, as it is that I perused them last—I heard voices and footsteps in the parsonage, and tried in haste to wrap up the parcel of proofs so that they appeared untouched, but my trembling hands were unable to perform the task. I determined to tell a partial truth, though I now see that there was no veracity to it whatsoever. I wrapped the proofs as best as I was able and strode into the entryway, whence I could see Charlotte warming her tiny self before the parlour fire.
I walked over and held the package out to her and said, apologetically, “I regret to say, Charlotte…that…that I thought this was for me and opened it in error. You will see that it is addressed to a so-and-so Brontë, Esq., so I could not help but think, through simple process of elimination, that it was intended neither for our good reverend Papa nor for any of the Misses Brontë.”
Two days without drink, along with what embarrassment I was capable of summoning up, united to cause the proofs to tremble almost violently in my hand, so that at last I set them firmly upon the table.
Charlotte was uncharacteristically quiet, her great watery eyes gazing out from beneath her broad forehead. For a moment, all was quiet but the ticking of the clock on the stairs. Was her forehead flushed from her walk, did it glow from its proximity to the fire, or did it betray some unspoken emotion? She appeared to be weighing how best to respond, but at last said simply, “Thank you, Branwell. I will henceforth take care to instruct my correspondents to address me as ‘Miss Brontë,’ to avoid any further confusion.”
I stood mute—and apparently dumb—before her, steadying my trembling hand on the back of a chair, and for such a length of time that she was finally required to say, “Will that be all, Branwell?”
As with so many other things since we had grown up and apart, we were now, apparently, to feign that I had not seen the proofs, and that my sisters had not written them. How wrong we are to believe that make-believe is the sole province of childhood! No, alas, it is not that pretending ends as we age, but that we fashion it carefully into an instrument of practical deceit. Even the world of imagination must submit to the inexorable logic of the utilitarian.
These thoughts occupied me as I stared past Charlotte and into the fire; so lost in contemplation of the vanity of all things—yes, truly, Acton Bell had put her finger on the question, but unfortunately had retreated to an easy answer, to the easy answer—was I, that she was obliged to repeat herself.
“Will that be all, Branwell?”
This she said not with scorn or anger, but what was far worse, with what seemed to be an infinite reserve of pity.
“Yes,” was all I could reply, and I turned and walked out.
All of this—the arrival of the parcel and my perusal of its contents, interrupted by Charlotte’s appearance and our brief interview—took less than a quarter-hour, and yet, as I write about it the following day, I must confide that it was a far greater blow than I had at first believed; that to see my sisters’ poems, if not their actual names, in print, was a stinging rebuke, for their contempt was—is—so so great that they could not—would not—ask me to contribute my verse, even though I alone—as they are now all too aware—have been published. I blame Charlotte for this, as for most things. Yet it is hardly anger I feel, for such an emotion demands a reserve of energy of which I am no longer capable.
I now write with a steady hand, from my customary seat in the Bull, where the new owner, Enoch Thomas, has just brought me another—and my last, for my reserve of funds has also run dry—gin and water of the evening. One thing is clear: I must escape Haworth, this accursed village in the wilderness, where I feel increasingly buried alive, as if Mamma’s, and Maria’s, and Elizabeth’s graves, indeed, as if all the flagstones of the church and all the scattered slabs of the entire churchyard were thrown open at the Last Judgment, a maw gaping obscenely to consume me, to consume us all.
I am determined not to be the object of my sisters’ pity, and so must find employment, even if it takes me abroad. I have written to Leyland, and will make the trip to Halifax in less than a week hence. If a solution does not arise from that, I will at least have vouchsafed a few hours of levity, of escape, with a kindred spirit or spirits, for I have written Frobisher as well with a proposition, to set a poem on the recent events in India to Gluck’s Mater divinae gratiae. Above all, I must have pleasure, and I will get it where I can, for in truth, when I fall back on myself I suffer so much wretchedness that I cannot withstand any temptation to get out of myself.
To be concluded on 6 June 2020