Oblivion: The Lost Diaries of Branwell Brontë (12 of 12)
Updated: Jun 9
Volume III (conclusion)
Chapter XXV—Mother and Child
April 29th, 1846 The Parsonage
A full month has elapsed since my last entry in this catalogue of woes. I did meet with Frobisher at the old parish church in Halifax, and I did indeed drink myself into a stupour with Leyland—not once, but thrice—but neither of these events was especially remarkable. No, something else occurred of a quite unexpected nature, and which shook my being, wretched as it is, to its core.
As I walked Upper Kirkgate toward the Square, a cheerful voice rang out in surprise, with an accent I vaguely recalled, as if from a previous life—nay, almost as if from a dream.
“Hul-lo! By Jove, if it isn’t young Mr. Brontë himself! I wondered if our paths would ever cross again! Did I not tell you I find myself in Yorkshire from time to time? Yes, even here in the Devil’s Cauldron, ha ha!”
It was Rutherford, the master of Sunny Bank, and thus of Agnes Riley herself. Could it really be that six years had passed since I had seen her walking, for the last time, toward her parents’ cottage that spring day?
“I will never forget you, my sweet, beautiful girl.”
“Nor I you, Mr. Brontë.”
As is so often the case when suddenly presented with strong and unexpected emotions, I was entirely at a loss for words, and indeed scarcely even knew where I was. At last I mustered a question.
“And how do you do at Sunny Bank, and in Broughton?”
“Come, come, Mr. Brontë, let’s not be so formal. Let me offer you a glass—or two, eh?—and I will bring you throroughly up to date on the comings and goings round about Broughton, for I’ve at least an hour until my lad returns from the Piece Market up yonder. Let’s walk together and see if we might find a public house on our ramble, eh?”
When has a thirsty boozer—especially an impoverished one such as I—ever refused such an offer? Indeed, my confusion at seeing Rutherford had only inflamed my thirst, and I knew Leyland was occupied at that hour. After a stroll of a few moments we found what appeared to be a new establishment, and soon were seated, a reaming pint of ale—for such was the farmer’s preference—before each of us.
“Now then, young Brontë, first let us hear what has become of you.”
I gave him the shortest possible account of my life since leaving Broughton, artfully omitting, of course, my dismissals from the railway and from Thorp Green, allowing him to infer that I had left each post of my own accord, for the next best thing. My shame was too great: that my friends had knowledge of my failures was already too much to bear; why tear open these wounds before a mere acquaintance?
Yes, I explained, I had indeed found some success in writing—I was published, after all, and was not that in some small way a success? Indeed, I was in Halifax to enquire about a new position, which promised even more leisure to write, said I. If only, I added inwardly, I had such leisure, without being pestered by the small but countless botherments, which like mosquitos sting us in the world of workday toil. Oh Lydia, if only we could be joined at last, such a life would no longer be a dream! Of course, such a man as Rutherford, whose understanding—or at least whose interest—was limited to just such workday toil, would find such language at best, incomprehensible, and at worst, offensive.
Having satisfied my interlocutor, I again turned the conversation to Sunny Bank, doing my utmost—though apparently failing—to feign nonchalance.
“Ah ha,” said Rutherford quickly, winking and nudging me sharply with his elbow. “I always knew you fancied our little farm—as much for its human residents as for its lower creation, I daresay!”
I pretended not to understand.
“Oh, come now, Brontë, I am talking about that lusty young farm girl, Agnes Riley. I saw how she looked at you that day, and heard the rumours that circulated about the two of you, though I suppose you’d be the last to know that, wouldn’t you, since you fled the area after only a few months, eh?”
Six years. Agnes would now be twenty-seven—an old maid.
“Ah yes, I think I remember her, said I. “Is she still in your employ?”
“No indeed, and what’s more, she has flitted up the coast …married a lad from Bootle not three months since!”
“Oh, I see,” was all I could say.
We may have been seated in a smoky Halifax pub, but these actual surroundings fell away as wave upon ideal wave of memories burst upon me: Agnes’s skin against mine, my mouth upon hers, her entire person tightening around me with a quickening rhythm until our ecstasy joined and eclipsed that of nature’s itself, so that the bright green leaves of early spring seemed to shudder in faint response to our own supernatural frisson. Most of all, however, I saw her as she was at our final interview, her impossibly bright blue eyes brimming with tears as her feverish hands touched my forehead and my heart, and she claimed that what we had felt that spring would last forever.
I wondered: could Rutherford read all of this in my eyes? In any event, he was trying his utmost to call me back to the present, here, in Anno Domini 1846.
“Brontë, are you listening to me? What would you say if I told you that just this very moment I glimpsed in your own features the same expression I saw on Agnes Riley’s countenance the day you came to Sunny Bank? Ha! Indeed man, if didn’t know better, I’d suspect you as the father of her child!”
Now, as if by a magnetic force, I was drawn hurtling back to the present, and suddenly hung on his every word. “What did you say? A child? What child?”
“Why, Agnes Riley’s child, of course, the poor bairn, wee Mary. A sickly little thing, I’m afraid, but never peevish, never cried, or so they say, as if she had already made her peace with this life and the next. She lived only a year or so.” Rutherford sighed, resorting to the pious sentiment reserved for such occasions: “Ah, well, she was spared this vale of tears, poor little thing.”
Rutherford chose not to dwell on this subject, but returned instead to his earlier insinuations.
“Yes indeed, Brontë, there were three young women of the neighbourhood who became in a family way around that time. Not that such a thing is so very unusual, mind you, but in a tiny village such as ours it surely set tongues wagging that three unmarried girls gave birth, and that all three refused to name the father! And you, skipping off just in time to avoid being considered in any of the cases! Or, rather, perhaps, being considered all the more strongly for your rather sudden departure, ha ha!”
“I knew of Eleanor Nelson,” said I, remaining quite serious in the face of his mirth. “She was dismissed by the Postlethwaites while I was still at Broughton. Who was the third?”
“Why,” said Rutherford, again with a wink and an elbow, none other than that bonny lass Frances Atkinson, who was employed by your old landlord, Dr. Fish. Surely you remember her? Though I am now an old man, and long since widowed, I must say she was a natural beauty, that one—the kind to prompt old men to do foolish things.”
Lust—or perhaps a distant memory of its consummation—flashed over Rutherford’s weathered features, like a brief moment of sunshine on an otherwise cloudy day. I myself could hardly forget Francis’s saucy manner with me, but I knew I could only be the parent of the dead child.
And so he talked, on and on—after ordering a second pint—about this and about that, including the Postlethwaites—the boys were now nearly grown, of course, though I was astounded to imagine this to be the case—and the Fishes, but I lent only half an ear to his account. Surely far more pious and upright personages than I have sinned as I did that day, meeting their interlocutors’ eyes and nodding meaningfully at just the right moments, and yet without listening to much, if any, of what is being said. Had Rutherford said, at any moment, “Brontë, what did I just say?,” I am not at all certain that I could have answered.
Such was not the case, however, and he chattered volubly on, between rapid, appreciative swallows of the ale (“Ah, just the thing!” he said nearly each time). At length his “lad” appeared, and said servant, as my luck would have it, was none other than my erstwhile nemesis, John Nelson, whom I could thank both for introducing me to Agnes and for tearing us asunder. Now, however, the hardy youth had grown a broad-chested, towering young man, who looked as though he could lift me from the ground and crush my throat with a single, swift movement of his arm.
“Ah, John, you remember Mr. Postlethwaite’s tutor, Mr. Brontë, do you not? Now then, be a good lad and shake hands.” The young man frowned and uttered a syllable that more closely resembled “hmmph” than “yes,” but his massive right hand obediently shook my considerably more slender, and thoroughly uncalloused, one. John drew off, and turning to me, Rutherford explained, “When his sister was dismissed, young John there found it harder and harder—wor’ and wor’ as our countryfolk say—to work for Posthlethwaite. Not that the man is bad—far from it—but you understand, I’m sure, how relations might be strained once a member of one’s own family is sent packing from a situation.”
I did understand, and once again reflected how glad I was that Anne had already left Thorp Green when I received my letter of dismissal. It had been quite bad enough for her to learn of my conduct there. I wondered, again, whether she had witnessed Lydia and me inflagrante, or had simply heard us, in the shrubbery that night. The thought of her seeing me, my trousers lowered, with her mistress, her skirts and petticoats turned up, in amorous congress, was unbearable, and so I blotted it out, like so many other thoughts, so many memories, so many regrets.
Yet as soon as this image was crushed, one even less pleasant to consider recommended itself to me. What if John Nelson—he who had witnessed Agnes and me in the clearing—had, upon moving to Sunny Bank, tried to force himself upon her? Worse yet, what if she had welcomed the strapping lad’s advances? No, no: though they were of the same social order, I could not bear to imagine the boorish fellow with her, with my Agnes: more images to blot out, to cast to oblivion.
Whether from my downcast look, from the liberality inspired by his two pints—for who does not spend more generously after drink?—or from the length of time that had elapsed since last we had seen each other, Rutherford, as he took his leave, insisted upon buying me the drink of my choice. I ordered a tumbler of whisky, and once the good farmer had made a valedictory salute from his waggon, whose horses were directed by the ever-grimacing John Nelson, I sat back down and drew out one of the sheets of the paper I keep folded in my pocket, for the germ of an idea had been planted in our conversation.
I could not at first write, but instead gazed out the window at the busy passers-by, many headed to and from the new railway station, which had already become inadequate to the needs of the bustling city: Frobisher had told me that discussions were already underway concerning an even larger building, an elegant structure of stone to reflect properly the importance of Halifax and its industry.
My thoughts wandered from this to my days on the railway, but I was soon called back to the present when a baby cried audibly, perhaps even from one of the rooms of the inn. I thought about baby Mary—my baby Mary, Agnes’s baby Mary: our baby. Dead, and long since. Poor angel! And yet, how much happier than I, how free from every care! At last I began to write, titling my poem “Letter from a Father on Earth to His Child in Her Grave.”
Yes, thought I, smiling ruefully in response to Acton Bell, the child is in her grave, not in heaven. No namby-pamby, no sentimental, religious twaddle here.
Was it the drink, or the shock, that strangely made me feel at once shaken, and yet quietly, almost coldly, outside of myself, like a distant observer? I felt a conventional kind of sadness for the poor little thing—not unlike, in the end, Rutherford’s own sentiment, it occurred to me—but this was wrapped in an outer numbness, an absence of real grief, beyond which my mind could only reflect upon how fortunate my daughter was never to have known this world’s woes and wiles, to have been freed from care. I began to write, and found that, as seems always to be the case, this poem was far more concerned with myself than with poor little Mary, or anything else. The real grief was for me, for my lost youth; the poem had, in the end, the same subject as “Real Rest,” and I had simply substituted the dead infant for the floating corpse:
If seen, men’s eyes would, loathing, shrink from thee,
And turn, perchance, with no disgust from me;
Yet thou had’st beauty, innocence, and smiles,
And now hast rest from this world’s woes and wiles,
While I have restlessness and worrying care,
So, sure thy lot is brighter—happier—far!
I added a few more lines, concluding with “THOU are freed from care!,” and signed the poem, not to hide my identity from my sisters, should they come across this particular edition of the Guardian, but to announce it spitefully—angrily—proudly—to them in upper-case letters: NORTHANGERLAND.
I sighed, realizing that there now remained in all likelihood no other subject for my pen. I am turning round upon myself, descending into a private inferno where the only demon I meet at each turn of the downward spiral is myself, whom I encounter each time with more shame and disgust, and yet on whom I also feed for what little poetic nourishment remains. Indeed, had it not been for the chance meeting with Rutherford and the news he imparted, I would certainly not have been stirred to such activity, pitiful as it is.
And yet, at present I am hardly disposed to blow my brains out, or leap from a tree with a noose dangling about my neck. The marital noose, however—ah, that would be quite another matter! Again I thought of Lydia, the possibility of a rope so sweet that it would rest as gently as her own soft white arms round my neck. As the whisky took full effect, I lost myself in pleasant thoughts of being the master of Thorp Green, where no practical worries would assail me when the large head of Joseph B. Leyland—the sculptor himself now become, with his increasing girth, something of a monument of a man—appeared at the window of the pub, his features contorting into laughter when he identified me.
“Why the Devil take me, in all my life, little man, I never thought I’d find you here!” he exclaimed upon entering the pub and shaking my hand.
As if emerging from dark shadows into bright day, I squinted, uncomprehending, at my friend. He simply nodded in the direction of the bar and winked. “Surely you remember our friend Maggie, the beautiful Kilmeny?”
There, indeed, stood none other than Maggie Mortimer, a child on her hip and another en route, for her skirts showed ample evidence of the advent of yet another blessed event. My gaze of wonderment came as much from astonishment that I had been drawn into her husband’s new establishment—always scrupulously avoided—as it did from the vision before me. Rutherford had so surprised me that the physical world had dropped quite away, and so it was only now that I finally knew where I was.
Maggie handed her little girl to an older woman and walked toward our table, at which point Leyland whispered, “See here, Faustus, now that I’ve found you out at last, I must make my way to the privy. Fear not, however, I shall return!”
Whether the needs of nature had truly called him away or he had left to afford the two of us a few moments of intimacy, Leyland nodded and left me face-to-face with Maggie. I stood and bowed awkwardly, but knew not what to say. She, on the other hand, had her usual simple confidence.
“How fare you, Mr. Brontë? What has it been, four or five years?”
I responded as best—which is to say as vaguely—as I could, providing the same neatly edited account of my activities I had just shared with Rutherford. As quickly as possible, however, I turned the conversation back upon her and her family. The coming child would be the third, for the crying I had heard moments ago was her second. So many children, so quickly! Well, yes, thought I: poor Mamma, with her six children in as many years. Maggie was only half-way along the road my own mother had traveled. I genuinely hoped her end would be happier.
Surveying her features, I could see why her fortunate husband, like my own Papa, would hardly be dissuaded by an infant’s cry from being drawn irresistibly to her sweet embrace, for despite the lines that had begun to form with the passing of the years and the growing cares of motherhood, she remained a charming woman, her maternity only adding to her considerable gifts. Though the comparison might seem ridiculous to some, she glowed like one of those Italian Madonnas who somehow radiate at once both holiness and a sort of languid voluptuousness, the Mother of God nevertheless still sweet human flesh.
“I see that your mind,” said Maggie, now smiling broadly from the safety of marriage and motherhood, “still floats away, just as it used to do. Do you know that I was studying you for some time as you wrote and gazed out into the street?—or far beyond, for all I know!” As she had that night in the Square Chapel, she made an effort to speak in softened, more genteel tones—along with money, one of the keys to social advancement. No doubt with the encouragement of her ambitious husband, Mortimer.
Not knowing what to say, I simply replied, “Ah, well, that must have been quite a sight,” adding, in a weak attempt at mirth, “Yes, it could be the subject of an engraving or painting: ‘The Poet Seeks his Inspiration in the Smoky Streets of Halifax,’ ha ha!”
Whether Maggie could tell that my laughter was forced and the attempt at humour manqué, I could not tell. “Well,” said she, “I don’t know how you do it, sitting there all day and just thinking and writing. I don’t have a moment’s rest, which reminds me that I must rescue little Mary from my mother-in-law—or rather rescue my mother-in-law from her!”
At this moment, Joe returned from his own important business, and said briskly, “Well then, Mrs. Mortimer, we are off to an engagement across town—we are late, in fact—so we will allow you to resume your duties.” We bowed and were on our way.
“What engagement?” I asked as we rambled uphill, to Cornmarket and the Old Cock.
“Well, we certainly have an engagement with the bottle. But I thought you wanted deliverance from an awkward situation. How could you not remember that this establishment belonged to Maggie’s husband?”
Though I could simply have said that I had been to Halifax precious few times in the past several years, I was already sufficiently in my cups to reveal all to Leyland—for to whom else could I confess such things?—how surprised I had been to see Rutherford, and to hear the story of Agnes’s baby, its death, and her recent marriage.
Not surprisingly, Joe quickly fastened onto the three simultaneously pregnant young women in the tale, the Holy Trinity, he called them. I found this too blasphemous even for my taste, and told him that if he must mock the poor things—and me in the bargain, of course—he might wish to call them The Three Graces.
“Very well then, the Three Graces. But the heart of the matter, you devil, is that you really were a very naughty lad once you’d escaped the petticoat tyranny of Haworth! Ha! Are you absolutely certain that you did not plant your seed in all three of the girls, seriatim? I suppose you had to make up for some lost time, eh little man?”
Leyland paused and seemed to reflect. Whether he was gazing into the remote distance or at the ample bosom of Mrs. Nicholson nearby, he did not reveal, but at length he sighed and said, “Ah, how delicious to be a Sheik, with a harem at one’s beck and call! No need for a cigar after a hearty repast, when one has that at one’s disposal. I can’t think of a better life, unless, of course, one could have Landseer’s situation, with a beautiful and wealthy mistress!
Seeing me scowl, he said, “Oh, so sorry little man, I forgot about your Mrs. Robinson.”
I could in fact see that Leyland was truly sorry he had spoken thus. For deep within his corrupt and jaded breast there beats, in the end, a heart not utterly devoid of human kindness. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if my corresponding organ harbours any such noble sentiments, or if bitter gall has consumed all else.
The next day, with a splitting headache my morning coffee had no power to dispel, I took my poem from my pocket and found that it was not at all so bad as I had thought. It is often the case that we condemn what we have written in a white heat when we remain still bathed in inspiration’s afterglow; is it because we still feel the ardour of its source, and so can see how poorly our real work conforms to our ideal? And yet, at a distance, when our passions have cooled, we have the impression that such work was written by another, often better, self. Indeed, we sometimes find that it is nearly impossible to imagine that we should have authored it at all.
After making a few corrections here and there in the cold and sober light of day, I submitted it personally to the offices of the Guardian, in which august periodical it was published on April 18 of this Year of our Lord, 1846. Did anyone in the Parsonage see it, since we do not have a regular subscription to the newspaper in question? In the end, I find that I am quite indifferent on the point, and that is perhaps not such a bad thing, even though I fear it is part of a more general indifference toward life itself.
Chapter XXVI—Boundless Hope, Eternal Despair
June 1st, 1846 The Parsonage
The days, weeks, and months pass, and no solution presents itself. All employment is either barred to me, or so distasteful that I would rather suffer the humiliation of remaining under the parsonage roof with Papa and my sisters. Everything is equally intolerable. I cannot help but think how different life was just a year ago! Indeed, only now can I fully appreciate just how ideal my situation was: though in constant fear of discovery, I was able to roam the park at Thorp Green for hours, and when the occasion presented itself, lose myself thoroughly in the hills and valleys of Lydia’s warm embrace. Ah, my nostrils hungrily drinking in the smell of her perfumed flesh, my hands beneath her long, alabaster neck, clutching at her thick auburn hair as her back arched and her breasts heaved upwards, her hips moving against mine! Her mouth, her mouth—oh God, her mouth—tasting wonderfully of French brandy as it pressed against mine! Oh, our summer idyll of a year ago, the two Edmunds fast asleep in their rooms whilst we two feasted on the seemingly unending pleasures of each other’s flesh made one, forever and ever, Amen!
I remember, too, when just over a year ago—Whitsuntide I think it was—I sat on the grassy banks of the Ouse and, with a commingling of fear and pleasure in my soul, I thought of a future still possible. I recall gazing at the great hall of Thorp Green, musing on how like a puzzle, or a Russian doll, or a Chinese box, it all was: that my heart should be imprisoned in Lydia’s, and yet she herself was a prisoner of that house, of that man. I took out pen and paper and wrote her maiden name—Lydia Gisborne—in Greek letters, and put these thoughts to verse, but adding the sad truth of how changed things now are:
The sky though blue was soon to change to grey—
I, on that day, next year must own no smile—
…My Hopes, they too, to woe’s far deeper sea,
Rolled past the shores of Joy’s now dim and distant isle.
I sketched myself gazing across a river and toward the setting sun, with two stones, one marked MEMORIA and the other, a gravestone, inscribed with the Greek for Alas! Like a schoolboy, I even wrote “Lydia B--”—for I dared not write Lydia Brontë, though I do it now—just to see how it would appear. Lydia Gisborne, Lydia Robinson, Lydia Brontë. If only that sequence told the tale of her life!
Surely I am now gone fully mad, for I still cherish the hope that Lydia will be mine. All of my problems would vanish, like a nightmare at waking—how easy all would become, if only Robinson were at last to shuffle off his mortal coil! But even I, in my heretical state, can no longer pray for his death—at least not under the roof of the parsonage and in sight of the church and the teeming churchyard, whose appetite even entire families cannot sate.
Still, does it really matter? For either You are there, God, listening intently, and already know what is in my heart, and have therefore damned me for all eternity, or You are not, and my prayer would have been uttered in vain. Two rather unhappy alternatives—the first cause for terror, the second for desolation. Best not to think on either.
June 13th, 1846 The Parsonage
Heavens—or God—or the Gods—or the Universe—be praised, for as I wrote the lines above Robinson was already dead and buried! I am beside myself—outside of myself—but now in the best possible fashion. I wrote to Mrs. Marshall immediately, to have her ask her mistress precisely how and when I am to join her. Lydia and I will be united, and this period of lethargy, this long winter of discontent, will at last draw to a close. My sufferings will be redeemed, and with enough time they will collapse into the past as a brief episode—surely I shall laugh at my present self as much as a grown man does at the recollection of his schoolboy antics! How—
I have placed a dash there, for my Lydia has exceeded even my fondest hopes: my letter to Mrs. Marshall has prompted her to dispatch none other than her coachman Billy Allison to Haworth, and he awaits me at the Black Bull! This is beyond even my wildest hopes and dreams, and surely the next time I write in this journal—if ever I bother to do so again—will be from Thorp Green itself, as its master!
August 19th, 1846 The Parsonage
Charlotte has taken Papa to Manchester to have the new surgery performed upon his cataracts, so that at last I am at my leisure to breathe and to think, for Anne and Emily are thoroughly occupied with the house and, as always, with each other; when we do speak, their few words lack their elder sister’s sharp, sarcastic edge of condemnation. Though it will mean that he will finally see how miserable I am with his own eyes, I genuinely hope the old man can at least see something when he recovers, for the poor fellow has gone thoroughly blind in the course of this past year.
More than two months have passed since I wrote the last entry, and with what bitterness I read it again. Schoolboy antics indeed—little did I know how close to the truth I was, and what castles in the air I had erected upon hearing of Robinson’s death! And as much as I ache to blot out the words from Thorp Green, as its master, I leave them there as a testament to my foolishness. Yes, I am a fool. Charlotte has called me so on more than one occasion, and I begin to believe she is correct. Even Lydia did, that once, when I dared to send her a valentine: are you quite mad, or just a fool?
Perhaps I am mad, for despite all, I still preserve the hope that somehow Lydia—and Thorp Green—will be mine. How can it not? Do I not deserve it as much as any man who simply inherits his wealth? Nay, for my sufferings, do I not deserve it more?
And yet what faculties of reason I have remaining tell me quite clearly that I have received the worst possible blow, my finishing stroke at last, and am utterly lost. The events of the past two months point in only one direction: perdition.
Upon hearing that Allison awaited me at the Black Bull, I raced out of the parsonage and down Church lane, nearly knocking John Brown over—no small feat, that—as he emerged from his house.
“It’s happened at last, John!” I cried out, shaking his hand vigorously. “God is in his heaven and all’s well with the world, it’s happened at last!”
I left the sexton scratching his head in the lane, a bemused smile on his face. Though I arrived at the Bull within seconds, I now recall those instants with unwonted clarity, as if gazing at a daguerreotype and examining each detail of my surroundings: the sun shone broadly, and at the approach of Midsummer even the churchyard hummed with life, from May midges buzzing about to a young couple walking hand-in-hand amongst the graves, whilst a dog chased a cat uphill toward the moors.
I fairly bounded down the lane, turned right, and raced past the church to the Black Bull. I stopped just outside the threshold to catch my breath. Betty Hardacre, the chemist, saluted me with her broom from across Main Street, whilst Martha Brown carried a brown paper parcel in the direction of the post office; I had not even seen her in my dash to the Bull. I thought of the book of Poems once more, and how I cared not a fig, now that my dreams were about to be realised. Just think what Northangerland—no, no, it will be Patrick Branwell Brontë henceforth—just think what P.B. Brontë will do when he is not harassed by the incessant, grinding need for money-grubbing!
As we shook hands, the usually cheerful Allison wore a grave expression on his face to match his black attire—no doubt, said I internally, for the sake of appearances, given his master’s recent demise. He had arranged for us to meet in one of the rooms at the back of the inn, and soon we were seated, a bottle of whisky and two glasses between us. The coachman poured me a large dose before giving himself half as much.
I could contain myself no longer, and I saw no need for discretion. Even if he were not one of the domestics who positively knew, he surely had heard the rumours about his mistress and the tutor. Besides, his master was—at long last!—dead anyway.
“Tell me Billy,” I said eagerly, “how does my lady fare? Am I to go with you to Thorp Green, or must I wait a few days?”
Allison shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
“Have a bit more whisky, Mr. Brontë. I’m so sorry to bring bad news; you know that I am fond of you, and hope you will not blame the messenger.”
The accuracy of the expression my blood ran cold was never less in doubt than at that moment, for my veins truly seemed to turn to ice, and a cold sweat spread instantly from my forehead down to my neck and shoulders. I shivered more than one does in the depths of a terrible bout of illness.
“Good God, man,” said I, “What on earth is it? Please tell me that your mistress is not herself unwell!”
Allison seemed to gather a bit more confidence at this, though he sighed and knitted his brows in concern, as he leant back in his chair, crossing his arms over his waist.
“Well, sir, that is just wha’ I’ve come to tell you. I regret to report tha’ Mrs. Robinson is in a dreadful state o’ health, and her sufferings are enough to break one’s heart. She is”—here the coachman looked at me meaningfully—“agonized by guilt for her prior conduct, and in the master’s final hours she was repentant, wearing herself out in attendance on him, though I know not if ‘e ever forgave her, which seemed to distress her doubly. She spends ‘er days on ‘er knees, cryin’ bitter tears and prayin’ for forgiveness.”
“You witnessed her in such a state? I find it difficult to believe—no disrespect intended, Bill, I merely say this as one subordinate to another—that your mistress would conduct herself in such a manner before her coachman.”
I was beginning to grow impatient. No, in fact it was now anger that was dawning: how could she cry for forgiveness from Robinson after his years of abuse? And if such repentance were real, did it mean she truly regretted all that she and I had done together?
A gentle man, if not a gentleman, Allison permitted himself a soft smile. “No, o’ course not, Mr. Brontë. T’was Mrs. Marshall confided in me, she did, and I’ve no reason t’ doubt the truth o’ the matter.”
“But surely she has a thought for me, Bill?” The ice in my veins had thawed, and began to boil. “Why have you come all the way to Haworth to tell me this? Does she not wish to see me?”
Allison did not answer this last question directly, but told me simply that he had been charged with informing me that his late master had, before passing into the next world, altered his will, not only cutting young Lydia off without a shilling as punishment for her elopement with Roxby, but also leaving her mother powerless to do anything but rely upon the executing trustees. Mr. Robinson, he added, had so clearly communicated his dislike of his son’s tutor to said gentlemen, that they now detested him—me—with a vengeance.
“Surely,” said I, as my heart continued to sink, and shock gave way to desperation, “this is exaggeration, Bill. Surely her wish to see me is greater than theirs to prevent it?”
My eyes, at last, filled with tears, as the coachman assured me that further communication was quite impossible, and that I was above all to stay away from Thorp Green.
“I regret to say it, Mr. Brontë, but at least one of the trustrees ‘as declared that if he sees you ‘e‘ll shoot you. That might be nothing but bluff and bluster, but I wouldn’t test it if I were you.”
It was now I who poured myself a large glass of whisky, before offering some to Allison, as an afterthought.
“No, Sir, thank you,” said he, rising to take his leave and seeking to make small talk. “I’ve a long road ahead and on these steep hills I must have me wits about me at all times. I imagine you’ve had more than one ‘orse break a leg right ‘ere in this devilish steep Main Street, eh?”
Every horse in Yorkshire could be shot in the head, and the streets and storefronts of Haworth painted with their blood, for all I cared.
“But will you not allow me to send a message to my—, to L—, to your mistress?” I said desperately.
Allison hesitated, biting his lip thoughtfully.
“I don’t think tha’d be wise,” said he at last, smiling weakly as we shook hands farewell.
“The only thing I’d like less than seeing you shot by a trustee of the estate is seeing me shot by one. They’ve made it clear to Mrs. Robinson that she is not to communicate with you, so that, the fact o’ the matter is, e’en my presence here today is already a risk o’ sorts, and could turn ‘em against ‘er.”
The coachman paused and shifted somewhat uncomfortably, as he added, “Indeed Mr. Brontë, I ‘ave no doubt that it’s the mistress’s natural goodness that induced ‘er to send me ‘ere to give you the statement of ‘er case.” His usual sunny disposition had clouded for only a brief moment, for now he mustered a hearty “Farewell, Mr. Brontë!” as he gestured for me to keep the bottle of whisky, closing the door behind him.
I drank the rest of the bottle as quickly as I could, then sat as I fell deeper and deeper into the well of my own despair, when at last there erupted from its depths a great volcano of loss, not just of Lydia, but the loss of far more, of everyone and everything: of childhood, and hope, and ambition; of my talents—if any talents there were—and my prospects; and finally, of my self-respect, if ever I had it. Nothing but loss, and grief at the loss, and shame at the inability to turn it all somehow to account, to make a triumph of failure as some artists do. Even that I could not manage. I wept like a child, until at last my sobs drew two kindly souls from the next room, who walked me up the lane to Sexton House, whence Brown himself in turn half-dragged me and half-carried me to the parsonage.
I was thus already dead when the nails in my coffin arrived within two or three days of Allison’s visit, in the form of a letter from Dr. Crosby, whose hand I immediately recognized. It would be untrue to assert that I did not feel the slightest bit of hope kindle up at the arrival of his letter. Perhaps the coachman’s visit was mere theatre, something Lydia had orchestrated from Thorp Green for the benefit of the servants and trustees—for I had no doubt that Mrs. Marshall was capable of being not only a double agent, but also an informant of the latter gentlemen against her own mistress. Perhaps Crosby, from the independence and safety of Great Ouseburn, would be able to communicate the true state of affairs, and even bring news from Lydia herself!
Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, were occupied—I could hear them reading, through the closed parlour door, their voices moving as the Three Graces circled the table in their habitual dance. Papa was closeted in his study with his curate, Mr. Bell Nicholls, whilst Tabby and Martha Brown bustled from the inner to the outer kitchen and back. I know that the poor villagers believe that the parsonage, sitting above the rest of the town, higher indeed than all but the steeple of the church itself, is as grand as a manor house, but I was again suffocating within its narrow walls.
As the weather was fine, I crushed the letter into my pocket and strode out of doors and to the end of the lane, where village gives way to pasture, and pasture to moorland. To the left, Penistone Hill lay high above the town, while to the right rose even higher the Pennines, where as children we had so often hiked to Top Withens and even beyond. What dreams we had concocted up there, where the bracing wind has slanted the few firs and thorns that cling to the rocky soil!
I found a stone to make an ample seat and, as a bank of clouds massed above the hills, rolling in from the direction of Halifax, I drew the letter from my pocket and held it for a moment, closing my eyes and bowing my head in an attitude of prayer: Let it be the news I most fervently wish to hear, that my Lydia still loves me, and will endeavour to be with me in one fashion or another.
I exhaled, opened my eyes, adjusted my spectacles, and opened the letter with trembling hands.
Alas! Though it was, like the good doctor himself, kind and faithful, full of pity for both me and Lydia, it bore no good news. “Though I am used to the rough vicissitudes of this weary world,” Crosby wrote, “I shed tears from my heart when I saw the state of that lady and when I knew how you must feel.” His letter continued:
When I mentioned your name, dear friend, she stared at me and fainted. When she recovered, she in turns dwelt on her inextinguishable love for you—her horror at having deluded you into wretchedness—and her agony at having been the cause of the death of her husband, who, in his last hours, bitterly repented of his own treatment of her.
The good doctor goes on to describe her state of mind, which he says is totally wrecked, fairly debarring me from any hope in the future. In short, he sent me a mere complement to, rather than a contradiction of, the message Allison had brought in person. I even wonder if the latter, worried that I might appear at Thorp Green with a brace of pistols, had himself urged the good doctor to write.
Crosby concludes his letter with vague words about how, though I must not write to her, Lydia knows how much I must suffer, and that she seeks to make amends. What this means I know not. Make amends to God? To the memory of her late husband, whom she so ardently claimed not to love after lying together on the cloak at Thorp Green, within just a few yards of the bed where he would eventually breathe his last? To me, even though she has sent word, through both coachman and doctor, that I am forever banished from her presence?
Here is what I do know: my hopes are thoroughly and definitively dashed, and I cannot even bring myself to eat. My nights are dreadful, and I cannot sleep, and having nothing to do merely makes me dwell on past scenes—of Lydia, her thoughts, her voice, her body against mine—till I would be glad if God would take me. No matter what the next world—if world beyond the work of worms there be—I could not be worse than I am in this one. I am too hard to die and too wretched to live. And my wretchedness is no longer about castles in the air, but about stern realities. My hardiness lies in my bodily vigour. My mind sees only a dreary future, which I wish to enter upon as much as a martyr wishes to be bound to the stake.
At least the martyr answers a higher calling, and looks forward to a well-earned paradise. I do neither.
Chapter XXVII—The Woeful Impotence of Weak Resolve
December 7th, 1846 The Parsonage
How long since I have opened this diary! Perhaps it is because so little has happened, for I am no closer to any meaningful change in my existence, despite my efforts at obtaining work. At least I was spared the presence of my family for several weeks, for I “screwed money out of Papa,” as Charlotte said scornfully, with the promise that I would use it to seek employment in and around Halifax, and so I fully intended to do, stating aloud my intentions to my sisters and Papa as I put on my coat and hat to take my leave—as if making the promise audibly would oblige me to obey it. I did not add, however, that I was to sit for Leyland, who has agreed to sculpt a medallion of me in return for a poem I was to write about his ancestors: a project—like my novel—I have left unfinished, though I’ve not had the courage to tell Leyland himself just yet.
It was a lovely, breezy morning in mid-September, with massive, billowing clouds sailing slowly, calmly, toward the west. Charlotte accompanied me out the front door, standing at the threshold whilst I stood below in the walled garden, the church at my back. Only in this way could the diminutive thing look down upon me.
“So you’re off to Halifax, to seek a post, you say?” she said, skeptically.
“I am indeed, sister dear,” I replied.
“I am convinced that if only you would behave more steadily you could do almost anything you set your mind to, Branwell.”
“I am not certain that is possible,” I laughed. “Better to ask the zebra to change his stripes, or the mountain to come to Mahomet! But fear not, I’ll no longer be a drain on the family’s resources, or an impediment to anyone’s happiness. I’m far too hearty to die just yet, Charlotte, so we shall see what path I find forward, for like yonder sun, forward I must go, eh?”
I turned to leave, but my sister could no longer restrain her natural tendency to pontificate.
“The right path,” she intoned, “is that which necessitates the greatest sacrifice of self-interest and leads to the greatest good of others.”
I wished to be gone, and yet could no more resist the opportunity to speak than she had.
“I see,” said I, climbing back up the steps and reaching round her to close the door behind her, so that now I stood above her and we could not be overheard. “I see,” I repeated, snorting bitterly, my blood beginning to simmer with resentment. “Let’s see now, how have you sacrificed your own self-interest? Was it leaving your position with the Whites, and refusing further offers of employment as a teacher or governess, to return home at Papa’s expense? Or perhaps it was screwing money out of Aunt to study in Brussels, ostensibly to be equipped to start a school for girls, one only half-heartedly attempted and never realised?”
Or, I said inwardly, my blood now at full boil, to spend your inheritance from Aunt Branwell—which I would remind you I did not receive—on that meagre little book of poems, which appears to have sunk into oblivion without a trace?
But I preferred not to reveal the extent of my knowledge of my sisters’ weak literary efforts, and besides, I had kept the best arrow in my quiver for last.
“Oh no, now I see all. It must have been refusing Henry Nussey’s perfectly respectable offer of marriage. Was that your greatest sacrifice of self-interest?”
I looked at her triumphantly as if to say, Now then!
Charlotte had stood silent, her uplifted face reddening as I pronounced the litany of her sins. She chose, for whatever reason, to answer only the last of these charges.
“As I have told you on more than one occasion, Branwell, I could never marry a man I cannot love, no matter what material gain it might procure.”
“What do you know of love, sister? Have you ever felt a passion for another so overwhelming that you were ready to give up everything, even life itself?” My mind flashed to an image of myself, arriving at Thorp Green on horseback, a cocked pistol in each hand. “Now that would be the greatest sacrifice of self-interest, would it not?”
Here she bit her lip, and her great eyes filled with tears, until they spilt down her cheek, but she said nothing in response.
“I’m sorry,” I said, embracing her awkwardly as a wave of rare, genuine remorse washed over me. “I’m sorry sister, I meant no harm. Wish me luck, or Godspeed, or what have you!”
With this I at last took my leave, glancing back just once to see the tiny thing still standing on the porch, wiping away her tears.
Alas for good intentions and resistance to temptation’s wiles! Though I have made my own half-hearted attempts at discovering employment—compared to mine these past days, Charlotte’s efforts to open a school were Herculean—my mornings were largely spent sitting for the medallion or working on the poem I promised to Leyland in return, and the remainder of the day at the Old Cock with Leyland and associates. I resided at Mr. Walton’s inn at Ovenden Cross, close enough to walk into the Devil’s Cauldron each day, but along the steeply rising Keighley Road, where the air is refreshed by a near-constant breeze blowing in from the moors, and there I left a few poems and sketches in lovely young Mary Walton’s commonplace book, though before I could get to know her—a charming, green-eyed, pious beauty—I ran short of funds, and had to return to Haworth, devoid of both cash and employment prospects.
It was early in the morning when I arrived at the Parsonage, which I entered through the back kitchen, where Tabby and Martha were already fully engaged in the day’s domestic duties.
“Why, Mr. Brontë!” cried dear old Tabby, “You coom back ag’in, are you? What news then, eh?”
I begged a bit of bread and indicated that I needed to sleep, then made my way quietly upstairs and into the little room at the front of the house, which we had once used for our “school,” but more often for play and writing, and stretched out on the camp bed placed there for me since my return from Thorp Green. I was surprised to find that Charlotte had not yet seen fit to remove all traces of me. That is because she knew, said an unwelcome voice rising from within me, that you would soon be back.
To crown all, there arrived yesterday in Haworth a constable, one who very politely invited me either to pay my debts or enjoy a journey to the debtor’s prison in York. Of course, Papa rescued me, as he always does. I do not know which is worse: the humiliation of such an event itself, or the detestation of myself that springs from, but long outlasts, the initial shabbiness of my behaviour on such occasions.
What I do know for certain is just how loathesome my presence has become to Charlotte. As for Emily, she is, as ever, splendidly indifferent, as if it made no more sense to complain about me than to bay at the moon, or as if I were a new piece of furniture Papa had decided to add to the dining room. Anne avoids me as much as she is able in this small house; more significantly, she avoids my gaze. How all of this will end, I hardly know, but it surely cannot endure for long.
I used to believe that each New Year offered the possibility of a new beginning, of redoubled efforts, of opportunities for strengthened resolve. What folly! Anno domini 1847, I fear, is unlikely to bring anything good.
Chapter XXVIII—Death, Departure, Despair
January 25th, 1847 The Parsonage
I am indeed a fool, though about one thing I was correct: the year has dawned inauspiciously. A fool, because I flew in the face of prohibition and wrote a letter to Lydia, one last desperate attempt to communicate with her; inauspiciously, because the letter has been returned, unopened, and accompanied by renewed threats from the executors of Robinson’s estate. As if to underscore my misery, the weather has been dreadfully cold: the sky looks like ice, the earth is frozen, and the wind is as keen as a two-edged blade. Papa has developed an influenza, and Anne coughs so much that she can at times scarcely breathe, though each suffers stoically in his or her own way.
Honest, kindly Dr. Crosby was charged by Mr. Evans, M.P., to return my letter, which Lydia was not even permitted to see. He relates that she is in a state of perpetual religious melancholy; even if that were not the case, she is surrounded by powerful people, who hate me like Hell. Crosby exhorts me once again to abandon all hope of seeing her again. She believes, he says, that her sorrow is God’s punishment, and has resigned herself to her doom. Is this playacting, or sincere? Does it matter?
Any HOPE we held for the future is now crushed, and what is the result of our love? UTTER WRECK. At the moment I venerate her most, I must give up the dream of being the husband of the lady I loved best in the world, and with whom I might have lived at leisure, to try to make myself a name in the world of posterity rather than in the work-day drudgery for which I am singularly unfitted, and am in any event unwilling, to bear.
The hard truth of matter is that I have been too much spoilt and petted through life—as Weightman observed long ago—and at Thorp Green I was at last so much my own master, and gave myself so much up to enjoyment, that now when the cloud of adversity has come upon me it will be a disheartening job to work myself up again for life’s next battle. I am thrown back to where I was when I was dismissed by the railway; alas, though my army stands now where it did then, my youth, health, hope, and both mental and physical elasticity—on which I once built my hopes of rising in the world—have all been slaughtered.
Where great and noble works of art and literature used to rouse my imagination, they now cause only a whirlwind of blighting sorrow that sweeps over my mind with unspeakable dreariness. If I sit down and try to write the ideas that once came clothed in sunlight, they now press round me in funeral black, for nearly every pleasurable excitement that I used to know is either insipid or painful. My idea of paradise used to be having free range of the British Museum and Library for a week, but I now believe I would roam over its most exquisite marbles and treasured volumes with no more interest than would the eyes of a dead codfish. I can scarcely even bring myself to write in this diary.
Most painful of all is that I shall never be able to realise the all-too-sanguine hopes of my family, for at 28 I truly am a thoroughly old man—mentally and bodily. And finally, worst of all, is not the most painful reality that there is no one to blame for any of this but myself? For at some point in one’s existence, one must cease laying the fault for one’s own failings at the feet of others.
John Brown and my other rough acquaintances at the Black Bull seem to think that my unhappiness springs solely from my lack of employment, or my want of ready cash. I do not resent them for it, but they cannot possibly grasp how I would rather lack a shirt on my back than a springy mind, and that my total lack of happiness, even if I were to step again into the glorious light of York Minster, would be far worse than their lack of a hundred pounds when they might happen to need it. Indeed, if a dozen glasses or a bottle of wine suffices to drive off their cares, such cures only make me outwardly passable in company, but never drive off mine.
Such were the reflections I was in the midst of sharing in a letter to Leyland, when another missive arrived at the parsonage, this one from Ann Marshall. She repeats Dr. Crosby’s injunction never to write again, and claims that Lydia is now terrified by vows she was forced to swear to at her husband’s deathbed, that she would sever all ties with me, in whom nevertheless lay her whole heart’s feelings. Her husband was scarcely cold in his grave when her relations, controlling the whole of her property, overwhelmed her, forcing her to succumb in terror to her previous vows, and more to the point, to their wishes.
She concludes by saying that her mistress is grieved knowing that not only will we never see each other again, but that I am left without employment and fully dependent upon my ageing father, and hinting broadly that she will try to assist me. So that is what Mrs. Marshall meant by “making amends” in her previous letter! If ready cash cannot procure happiness, I will nevertheless put it to good use. Leyland has indicated that his medallion of my likeness is complete, and so I will make the journey to Halifax next week to collect it, and to celebrate. If I am forever barred from happiness, I will try and get pleasure where I can find it, by God.
February 18th, 1847 The Parsonage
Ah yes, the ensnaring “pleasures” of Halifax. I did indeed receive twenty pounds from Dr. Crosby, and was determined to use it to greatest possible effect, and as quickly as possible. Well into a second day of steady drinking, I sat, exhausted in body and mind, with Leyland at the Talbot. The depressed geographical situation of Halifax is such that the already brief days of winter are even more deprived of sunshine than in the scattered villages of the surrounding hilltops, and though it was only mid-afternoon, the last rays of sunshine shone through the smoky air as I removed my spectacles, rubbed my eyes, and looked across at my old friend.
“There is a still, small voice of rationality within me yet, Joe, and that voice says that more drinking will only deepen, rather than heal, my wounds; that I drink now not to drive away my cares—for it no longer does—but as a matter of course, by force of habit, and that I now can no more picture myself stopping than I can imagine myself being joined with Lydia in holy matrimony before the High Altar of York Minster.”
Leyland was only half-listening. He must, thought I, be weary of my talk of Lydia, of my self-pity, of my self-flagellation. Though all of this may have been true, I soon discovered by following his gaze that his attention had been diverted for another reason: at my back stood two women—one with reddish hair and the other a brunette—who had just come in from the street.
“Beautiful ladies!” said Joe as he leapt to his feet and bowed, before dragging two chairs over to our table. As the women settled onto their seats, Joe looked from the redhead to me and back, and at last could no longer contain himself.
“Why, little man!”—I did not appreciate this appellation in front of the “ladies”—“Don’t you recognize your friend Maeve?”
She, it was clear, had recognized me, for she was already smiling knowingly, shaking my hand and saying, with an Irish brogue far stronger than I recalled, “Mr. Brontë.” On her lips, Brontë was once again Brunty.
It hardly required genius to conclude that Leyland had arranged this meeting, for reasons both philanthropic and utterly selfish: the first, because he doubtless believed it would do me good; the second because he, himself, is short of ready cash nearly as often as I, and felt he could help lighten my purse while procuring a few moments of paradise for himself.
I now examined Maeve closely, and noticed that her fair skin had taken on an almost ghostly, translucent pallor, that her voluptuous charms had given way to an emaciated frame. She still retained a fragile beauty, and the body that had given so much pleasure—how much, I wondered, had it ever received in turn?—now stirred in me a welter of memories, a hundred images of her lessons, as she had called them. How strange it is so unexpectedly to encounter a woman with whom one has lain, with whom one’s own body has been joined, after so many years! Do all such men feel as I did then? Surely she did not share such sentiments, for the coupling in question was nothing more than her trade.
Every few moments Maeve brought a handkerchief to her mouth and coughed. That she was recovering from an illness explained the thinness of her frame. It was no wonder, given the winter we have had thus far.
“Now then, Miss Maeve,” said Joe, “I thoroughly recommend a flaming whisky punch for any ailments of the throat. You will feel better immediately, I swear it!”
It was not long—a few more drinks—before Joe and Isabella (for such was the name of the brunette, who also shared accommodations with Maeve) had excused themselves to a room upstairs, for which it was understood I would pay. After all, Leyland had done the same for me at Luddenden when first I met Maeve, had he not? How long ago that now seems! I thought I was miserable then, but how much happier I was—how much potential I still had!
Maeve coughed again, and nodded her head toward the stairs. By the time we reached our room, she was already short of breath, and as I closed and bolted the door behind us and she began immediately, mechanically, to undress, she was wracked by a wave of deep, shattering coughs, her handkerchief now spotted with blood.
Consumption. Poor little Maria and Elizabeth! How the rest of us have escaped it, I know not, but now that we have all lived to nearly 30, surely we are fully out of its clutches, thank God at least for that. Indeed, my constitution is so hard I cannot die, unless I finally have the courage to decide, for once and for all, to put a rope around my neck and end it it all. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished—or is it? Courage or cowardice?
Maeve pretended that there was no blood, and I that I hadn’t even seen it. Her fit of coughing subsided, she continued to disrobe. Though her form still retained an attenuated beauty and grace where once a wonderland of soft, seemingly endless curves beckoned, her ribs now protruded from beneath a bosom reduced by her disease to a drooping remnant its former self. I, who so rarely feel pity for anyone but myself, was suddenly lifted up and carried away by one of those rare, overwhelming waves of sorrow and grief, and—if ever I am capable of such—of genuine compassion.
What I did not feel was amorous desire, not so much because Maeve was unable, in a way, to provoke such a feeling, but because my overwhelming impulse was simply to draw her toward me, one fellow sufferer embracing another. I directed her to put her garments back on, but she resisted, a look of desperation on her wan features.
“But I need the money, Mr. Brontë,” said she, coughing again.
“And you shall have it,” I responded. “Though I cannot even take care of myself, let alone another, tonight I shall take care of you, and you me.”
Thus, fully clothed, we slept in each other’s arms like little children. Or rather, each of us was both child and parent, both cradled and cradling, cared for and caring. I know not the feeling of holding one’s own daughter as she drifts off to sleep, but I still remember Mamma’s arms around me, her little Branney—what security, what love, what paradise!
No dreams troubled my slumber, and I scarcely heard Maeve’s occasional coughing. She was surely more exhausted than I, and it was well on into the next morning when Leyland rapped impatiently on the door with his ubiquitous cane.
“Time to settle accounts, young Faustus,” he shouted from without.
“Here,” said I, drawing a five-pound note out of my wallet as I hastily bid her goodbye.
“Why ‘tis fair too mooch, sir!” she exclaimed, though her face seemed to colour with newfound, almost girlish life after her long night’s rest. Perhaps, thought I, she will be quite all right, and we might even see each other again—as we once had.
“Rubbish,” said I. “You have given me more peace of mind and rest from care in one night than I have had in many years. That is worth far more than I could possibly pay you.”
Having expended the last of my funds I’d received from Crosby on drink, the rooms, and Maeve—as well as Joe’s tumble with Isabella, which he took great pains to describe to me in the minutest details—I returned to Haworth, penniless again.
A week later, Leyland wrote to say that Isabella had awakened that day to find her roommate dead, her pillow dyed scarlet with blood, her green eyes gazing coldly into the distance.
Oh God, if I could pray, I would ask Thee to send me a sign that those five pounds vouchsafed for her a few moments of dignity and real repose before her final rest!
Midsummer, 1847 The Parsonage
Dr. Crosby has written to say that the Robinsons have, some two months since, departed Thorp Green for Great Barr Hall in the neighbourhood of Birmingham, where they are to live with Sir Edward Scott. Lydia is to help care for her cousin Catherine, Lady Scott, whose illness has only grown worse. “Thus occupied with service to another,” Crosby writes, “she may wish to escape her own sufferings.” He concluded his letter with an intimation that additional funds might be forthcoming: “Mrs. Robinson wishes, I am sure, that she could also lessen your suffering, and will endeavour to contrive a way to do so.”
Does any of it matter? Where I used to long only for financial security, now all the ready cash in the world cannot fill the void I feel, were Lydia to send me two hundred pounds a week. Nor would it blot from my mind a flood of images that haunts me continually since reading Crosby’s letter: Sir Edward and Lydia, embracing in the room next to Lady Scott’s (why would Lydia not?—for had she not done precisely this with me as her husband lay dying?); the two of them walking arm-in-arm together in the vast park that Great Barr Hall surely possesses; Sir Edward buying Lydia her every heart’s desire on shopping excursions to Birmingham and London; the two of them clinging to each other as his yacht slips away from the dock at Marseilles; and other, more intimate scenes, which I cannot bring myself to consider, let alone describe.
Most unbearable of all is the thought that, despite good Dr. Crosby’s protestations to the contrary, she has betrayed her own heart and cast my image to oblivion, blotted me out of her existence, knowing all too well that it would degrade her to marry me. As I write this, chills run up and down my spine, and I recall Leyland’s words about Maggie, and about the world at large: The only people who do not compromise themselves in one manner or another generally finish in Bedlam, or in the debtor’s prison.
Though I fight to crush these thoughts, does even this matter in the end? For I shall likely never see her again.
June 13th, 1847 The Parsonage
Last week I published another poem in the Halifax Guardian, “The End of All.” It is a poem I wrote ten years ago, in which Northangerland reflects on the death of his wife Mary. How strange that such juvenile work now gains acceptance, and yet I can rarely create anything new—and I am convinced that if I could, it would be rejected out-of-hand. My novel lies unfinished, as does the poem “Morley Hall,” which I promised to Leyland in exchange for the medallion. Fragments, scraps, shards of broken dreams.
At least I can still publish without paying for it, which is far more than I can say for the “Bell Brothers” and their worthless little book of poems. Our collective youth may be gone like a dream, but what have they to show for it? At least I have lived—lived more in my time at Thorp Green alone than they have in the whole course of their existence, or will to the end of their days, if they numbered a hundred years! They have neither lived, nor made a living. It must be true that misery loves company, for our shared failure is my only consolation. How mean, how pathetic, how bitter—in short, what an ungenerous ass—I have become!
Meanwhile, Papa’s vision is wholly restored, and he again writes letters to the papers and reads to his heart’s content. I daresay we have not seen him so lighthearted in years. I shall try to do my best not to swamp his spirits; I only wish that mine had half the buoyancy of his.
July 25th, 1847 The Parsonage
I have, at long last, started drinking less, which at first was attended by a violent palpitation of the heart—an attack of delirium tremens, or so says Dr. Wheelwright, our eminent local physician. He has told me that despite my hearty constitution I must stop the excessive drinking, and has prescribed a daily dose of laudanum in its place, to allay my irritation and produce sleep. I don’t know whether to thank him with all my heart, or damn him to Hell.
Thus far, at least, I take care of myself bodily, but to what good and for what purpose? The best health will not kill mental agony. Leyland has been to Haworth, and is the picture of hearty health; he claims to see the same in me, but Mephistopheles is never to be trusted.
We sat with Brown at the White Lion, behaving with nearly as much temperance as the three spinsters up the lane. As I told my friends, cheerful company does me good till some bitter truth blazes through my brain, at which point I would gladly receive the gift of a bullet to the temple.
I wish I could flee to writing as a refuge, as in days past, but I cannot. As to slumber, my mind, whether awake or asleep, has been in incessant action for eight weeks, ever since receiving Crosby’s letter: nothing I do can remove the images of Sir Edward and Lydia in each other’s arms, which haunt me like phantoms day and night.
September 15th, 1847 The Parsonage
Charlotte has left us to visit her dear Nell, and good riddance to her! She is taking the new railway line from Keighley to Bradford, the very same on which Grundy and his brilliant friend Daniel Gooch are employed at present. I only wish I had a telegraph operator at hand, and a willing accomplice at the other end! I would instruct him to apply some blasting powder to one of the bridges over the River Aire, to send her tumbling into the water, from which I would not be there to pluck her, as I did the young lad from the Wharfe.
It now seems that we only speak to quarrel, and such was the case as she prepared to leave yesterday. Her trunk sat corded by the front door as she tied her bonnet and drew on her tiny gloves. My recent abstemious habits accorded me an unusual degree of clarity.
“Well now, Charlotte, you are off at last to see your beloved Miss Ellen, are you? I do hope you will send her my affectionate greetings. I know you have been desirous that she come here, or so you say. Are you sure you did not tender the invitation with one hand and fling it away with the other, by an insinuation of how intolerable it would be for any proper person to be within a mile or your reprobate brother?”
This unwarranted, almost arbitrary provocation—yes, I was seeking to provoke her merely for the fun of it, to use an odd little word that has gained much currency of late—prompted only a calm and deadly rejoinder.
“On the contrary,” said she, gazing at me with the steadiness of a hunter taking aim at his prey. “I told her you had been thoroughly humbled, and that you were behaving yourself with the greatest civility now that you’d gotten to the end of a considerable sum of money, whose provenance we could all too easily guess. In fact, I told her you look the complete rake, and would be as smooth as oil if she came to stay. Now then.”
She uttered these last words with the same emphasis as, or so I imagine, a soldier in battle who delivers his finishing stroke, running his sword with delight through his enemy’s neck or chest. She seemed to relish the battle, glowing with triumph before I could even respond, and appearing no more capable of tears now than the Emperor Nero.
It was the confidence of her utterance rather than the words themselves that most unnerved me, and I stepped backwards as if her blow had been a physical, rather than verbal, attack. I nearly fell over Keeper, who had followed Emily and Anne from the kitchen to say goodbye to Charlotte. I merely scowled and turned on my heel, my blood boiling.
Yes, thought I, I hope that one of the new bridges over the Aire collapses, or that your train runs into a horse or cow, and that you go straight to Hell, damn you, Charlotte! How dare you look at me with such condescension, such smug self-satisfaction! What have YOU done, but been a parasite of your father and aunt? Have you even published something that you have not had to pay for with Aunt’s inheritance? Have you felt love? Do you know the white-hot blast of ecstasy in another’s arms?
Such were the thoughts I angrily turned round in my mind, grinding my teeth until my jaws hurt, so desperate was I for drink. I had that cast of mind one has when he is so thoroughly lost in thought that he scarcely perceives the physical world round about him, and it is a wonder that he is even capable of walking without falling off a cliff, or being crushed to death by a passing coach in a busy street. And such was still my state a few moments later, as I made my way down the lane toward Main Street, and so it was that I was nearly knocked down by two much larger persons who, it so happened, were come in search of me.
“What ho there, little man,” cried Leyland, laughing and clutching my arm to prevent me from falling. He had sent no word that he would be coming back to Haworth, but here he was, in the company of his frequent associate, the sexton.
“I wanted it to be a surprise of sorts,” he explained, still somewhat short of breath from his uphill walk. “Besides, it was not certain until today, but I’ve good news; Brown here and I have just come up the hill from lowly Oxenhope, where we’ve secured a commission to carve some decorations in the chapel.”
Joe drew out some cash and winked. “Celebremus, my dear friends, celebremus!”
Any concern for my own health (go to Hell, Wheelwright, thought I, you bloody bugger, you son-of-bitch), of what was right, of what my sisters would think, and any other resistance to temptation, weak though it might be, fled at the sculptor’s invitation. As we crossed in front of the church en route to the Black Bull, I said, far louder than I had intended, laughing like a madman—no doubt because my desperation for drink was matched only by my jubilation that it was so near: “Thanks be to God for you, Leyland, for I feel as if I had an infernal fire in my veins, that all the waters of the ocean cannot quench!”
I turned to clap Leyland on the shoulder as we entered the Bull, and behind him, walking quickly toward the post office, was Anne, her bonneted head staring down at the cobblestones. Had she heard me? More to the point: do I give a toss if she did?
The remainder of the evening passed in the usual manner, in a kind of joyless mirth—if such a paradoxical expression makes any sense—a great, raucous and communal cascading toward numbness, rapidly spilling over into the still black waters of nothingness.
Chapter XXIX—Three Novels
January 15th, 1848 Haworth, The Black Bull
I know not how much longer I can bring myself to write in this journal. What I do know is that I cannot continue to live in this dissipated manner, the fruits of which are now made all too manifest. I am become a burden on friends and acquaintances alike, trailing embarrassment and the need for apology in my wake, wherever I go. Today I wrote to Leyland, asking that he tell Mrs. Sugden of the Talbot that I considered her conduct toward me during my “illness” as most kind and motherly, and that if I did anything to offend her, I deeply regret it and beg her to take my regret as an apology until I see her again. In point of fact, I don’t remember her behaviour at all, but John Brown, who brought me home, has assured me of her kindness when I was most in need of it.
What precipitated this most recent “attack” was an incident that has robbed me of any last feelings of superiority over my sisters; indeed, of any remnants of esteem or respect I had for myself. Now all is bitter wormwood and gall. No: more accurately, that was all I had; now I have nothing.
I accompanied Brown, who had business with Leyland, to Halifax last week. The two had work to do in the studio, and so I determined to spend the time in Francis Leyland’s bookshop and lending library in Cornmarket, where I browsed amongst the volumes of poetry. There were new works by Rossetti and the Southeys, by Tennyson, by the American authors Emerson and Longfellow, and even the long-dead Shelley. Moxon has reprinted his edition of 1839—the same Lydia gave me—and I picked up the volume containing “Epipsychidion,” my eyes feeling as if hot needles were being driven into them as they moved along the verses, the jumble of words interspersed with flickering images: Lydia’s sensuous mouth, those sparkling, wicked brown eyes, that voluptuous and yet still-elastic body, as much a slave to my desires as I was to hers. How many times had we melted into each other in the incandescent flames of passion?
Lydia: gone to Great Barr Hall to minister to Lady Scott and, quite possibly—no, I could not bear to consider it, I thought as I read the poem’s final words—“I tremble, I expire!”—and slammed the volume shut in an effort to blot out another set of images, where Sir Edward had replaced me in Lydia’s fevered embrace.
As I looked round the shop, I cast about in my mind for some kind of consolation, no matter how petty or childish. Scanning the titles of poetry ranged neatly on the shelves, I sniggered with a bitter, complacent glee at the thought that the “Bell Brothers”—squandering their inheritance just as they had on the pointless adventure in Brussels—had been published only through the offices of a mercenary bookseller, whilst for six or seven years now Northangerland’s poems had appeared in newspapers across Yorkshire. Ha ha, now then! I could not help laughing at their foolishness—indeed, at their vanity—for seeking publication at such a cost, and how quickly their stillborn efforts had disappeared without a trace.
But alas, even this smallest crumb of sustenance was about to be withdrawn!
If the event I am about to recount were to appear in a novel, even the most benevolent of gentle readers would scarcely find it credible, and would surely place it in the same category as spirits of the dead returning to haunt their erstwhile lovers, or disembodied voices of a loved ones winging their way implausibly along great distances, as if transported through a telegraph wire. The wondrous nature of the occurrence, however, was due not to any supernatural circumstances, but simply to an unlikely coincidence: for just as I was savouring the oblivion into which my sisters’ pitiful attempt at literary fame had sunk, the name “Bell” rang out within the all-too-real confines of the bookshop. I immediately turned toward the speaker.
“Have you heard,” said a small, well-dressed gentleman whose soft tones immediately indicated that he was likely not of Yorkshire, but of the more civilised regions to the south. “I say, have you heard of the book Jane Eyre, by one Currer Bell? It is the talk of London—of the novel-reading public, I mean, of course. The critics are falling all over themselves to see who can praise it more. One calls it ‘extraordinary,’ and claims that ‘all serious novel writers of the day lose in comparison to Currer Bell.’ Do you know,” he continued, apparently with a fondness for interrogations of the rhetorical sort, “do you know that I have recently read that this person has not one but two brothers, whose names I cannot recall, who have also published tales of their own, just some weeks ago? Imagine, three brothers, all writing novels. Who has ever heard tell of such a thing? Usually it is considered enough of a curse to have one artist in a family, ha ha! Be that as it may, I have just purchased Jane Eyre, and mean to read it on my return to London,” he concluded, waving one of the three volumes in the air to his travelling companion, “and I think it will be just the thing to help pass the time!”
Unable to master my feelings, I leapt up and snatched it from his hand.
“I beg your pardon, sir,” said he with more astonishment than anger.
I examined the book’s cover briefly and returned it to him, stuttering, Bellerby-like, in my embarrassment. “N-n-no, sir, it is I who must ask your pardon.” I pointed at the cover of his book and said, with uncontrolled candour, “I believe I know the author, and so was simply astonished to discover that he had published a novel. Please, do accept my apologies.”
I instantly regretted having spoken thus, for the little gentleman immediately pressed one question after another upon me. Where did Currer Bell live? Here in Halifax? Were there really three brothers? Etc., etc.
In the face of this flurry of questions I simply muttered that I must have been mistaken, doffed my hat, and made my way out of the shop and into the smoky streets of the city. I wandered aimlessly about, in a motion as much resembling an infernal spiral as the largely rectilinear streets of Halifax would permit.
Meanwhile, the words I had just heard roared round and round in my mind, incessantly, like a tempest showing no signs of abating: Currer Bell, the talk of London, ‘extraordinary,’ not one but two brothers, three brothers, all writing novels, a curse to have one artist per family, ha ha…ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! I was in equal measure attracted and repelled at the thought of reading these books; or rather, to put the matter more plainly and far more accurately, I felt equal measures of repulsion and dread at the thought of reading them as I did at the thought of not reading them.
I had little sense of the time that had passed—minutes, or hours—before I found myself back in front of Francis’s shop, where the good man himself stood, alongside his wife—they must have been at luncheon earlier—whom I had never before encountered. He whispered in her ear as I entered. Papists, I thought—and Frank a newly-minted one. And yet he looked no different to me than he had when I first met him at Sowerby Bridge. Surely, none of it mattered. What had Ellis Bell written?
Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain
Worthless as withered weeds
I could certainly espouse that creed.
I looked from Francis to his wife, who returned my gaze with a soft, though somewhat guarded, smile, as if already alerted by her husband to my conduct toward married women—or at least to one particular married woman. Or perhaps simply being the intimate of her brother-in-law was sufficient to cast suspicion upon me. Whatever the case, Ann Brierley Leyland was a pert, if not remarkably beautiful young woman, with a lively intelligence and a youthful spring in her step. I at once envied, and yet could not begrudge, good Mr. Frank his happiness with such a pleasant young lady. They seemed perfectly matched.
“Why Branwell,” said Frank, shaking my hand with genuine kindness, “what brings you to Halifax? Surely not to see me, a poor uninteresting businessman of quiet, steady temperament and no imagination.” He winked at Ann, drawing her to him affectionately.
“Let’s see—is it to exchange the bracing moorland air of the wilderness for the smoky atmosphere we are so adept at producing and retaining down here under the lid of the Devil’s Cauldron?”
It was no small feat to muster a measure of jocularity in response to this, but I did my utmost. “I’m sure it will not surprise you in the least that I am here with old John Brown, who has work to do with none other than the esteemed Joseph Bentley Leyland, alias Phidias, so I determined it would do me good to have a change of scenery, to changer d’air as our hereditary enemies say, be the air in Halifax ever so noxious,” said I, feigning a mirth I did not, and could not, feel.
“Whatever the reason,” said Frank, waving a hand through the air as if the chimneys of Halifax had discharged their smoke directly into his shop, “it is always good to see you. Can we be of service, or are you here for no other reason than to bring greetings?”
I asked whether he might have, in his lending library, Jane Eyre by Currer Bell, and quite possibly even two more novels, one by Acton and the other by Ellis Bell.
“By Jove, Jane Eyre! Why, that book is a sensation! Do you know that its first edition has already quite sold out, and a second is being printed? You are in luck, old boy, for the two copies I already possess are forever on loan, but one was just returned this morning.”
It was the same three-volume novel I had earlier seen in the little gentleman’s hands, but now I could examine it at leisure. The publisher was Smith, Elder, and the firm had produced a handsome work bound in fine-ribbed brown cloth and gilt-lettered spines.
I turned to the first page and read the first sentence, as flat and pedestrian—indeed quite literally so—as a sidewalk: There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. I realised that I would need peace, quiet, time, and, above all, solitude to read every word, as I now felt irresistably drawn to do. I would say that my blood ran cold, but such a description would be inaccurate; more precisely, a series of shudders, at first imperceptible, but gradually gaining in magnitude, wracked my frame.
“And what of Acton and Ellis Bell?” said I, trying my utmost to retain an outward calm.
This time it was Frank’s bride who, believing she was performing a kind act rather than driving another dagger into my heart, turned and snatched a second “triple-decker” from a large stack of newly-arrived books. “This just arrived yesterday, Mr. Brontë. I have seen no reviews of it, so cannot recommend for or against it.”
It—they—were the two-volume Wuthering Heights, signed by Ellis Bell, and a third, shorter novel, Agnes Grey, by Acton Bell.
I looked at the books before me, breathing deeply: and so it was true. I wondered, and wonder still: had they spent the portion of Aunt’s inheritance that was intended to fund the Misses Brontës’ School for Girls—as fantastical a project as it might have been, at least it had a respectability about it—to try their hand at novel-writing? Was there no end to their vanity? Moving in a mist, and nearly deaf to the Leylands’ adieux, I carried the books past the Old Cock and through the Piece Hall. Before me stood the Square Chapel, hard by Leyland’s studio, the very chapel I had yearned to desecrate with Maggie that snowy evening so long ago, when Listz made his memorable visit to Halifax. Downhill I continued, the six volumes shifting under my two arms, to Church Street and toward the old parish church, which I entered for no discernible reason.
I was quite alone, except for the windows and sculptures, which included the wooden figure of Old Tristram the beggar and his alms box, standing sentinel near the entrance (Sorry, old friend, said I, patting his head, I have no money to share with you), and Leyland’s own recent memorial to Bishop Ferrar, the last prior of Nostell Priory, on the western wall of the south aisle. Burned at the stake, poor fellow! Well, there’s at least one area where we’ve made a bit of progress, I suppose: Frank Leyland won’t be burned at the stake for his change in beliefs.
At length I knelt and tried to pray, but nothing came, not even Lord...and soon I left the church and crossed Lower Kirkgate and the new rail line along Hebble Brook, and made my way up the path that cuts through the woods at Bailey Hall Bank, at last joining Southowram Bank high above the city. I was short of breath by the time I reached the place where the path meets the main road, and turned to recover from my steep climb through the frigid January air.
Indeed, a bitterly cold wind had begun to blow from the East, and the first flakes of snow with it as I turned to survey Halifax, whose usual clouds of smoke had, if only for the duration of the coming storm, been swept away. A hundred scenes of my life in this city flashed before me, as did the ghosts of Maggie, Leyland, Maeve, Grundy, Listz, Frobisher, and many, many others. The wind flayed my face like an icy whip, and my teeth chattered, as a great shiver wracked me from head to toe.
Under my coat were the novels, which I could no more read up here than I could before the Leylands themselves, but read them I must. In the meantime, however, my trembling grew worse, and it was clear that I needed, above all, warmth. Bugger me!—what madness had driven me to the top of this towering hill on such an arctic day?
I returned with haste whence I had come, taking care not to slip on the snow that had begun to accumulate on the stone path. Soon I was at the Talbot, where Brown, Leyland, and a young fellow I had never met, one James Drake, sat round a large oak pedestal table. The proprietor, Dan Sugden, stood by, laughing merrily, a cloth over his shoulder.
“Hello!” said Leyland, who was already well in his cups, “By God, if it isn’t Saint Patrick! Or Lord Peter, or Faustus, or whatever your confounded name is, little man—here you are at last! Here now, Sugden Sugdiensis, have that saintly wife of yours bring us another flaming bowl of punch, will you? Yes, that’s a good man.”
Joe’s manners had already fled, and so I began to introduce myself to the young stranger.
“Oh, pardon me!” said the sculptor hastily. “This is Mr. James Drake of York. He has come to collect old Dr. Beckwith’s likeness at last, and drag him back to the celebrated Minster. He’s as finished as he’ll ever be, I’m afraid!”
The young Drake, who could not have been above twenty years old, had clearly been drinking right along with my friend. He introduced himself as a sculptor charged with the transportation of Leyland’s monument of Dr. Beckwith, and cousin of Leyland’s friend Joe Drake, a carver and gilder.
“Ah,” said my friend, patting the youth, who sat to his right, on the shoulder. “Young Jim here is far too modest. We have uncovered that he is of humble origins, the son of a blacksmith. Ambitious, just like you, young Faustus, and your father before you. I’ve already christened him ‘Draco the Firedrake,’ poor lad, for one cannot join this table without at least one such nom de guerre, ha ha!”
Turning to me, Joe squinted and said, “Say, little man, what’s that you’ve under your coat, eh?”
I muttered something about borrowing some novels from Francis and his wife.
“Oh, that’s all,” said he, a cloud passing over his otherwise glowing brow. “If that’s the case you’ve seen the charming couple more than I have of late. Though I shake hands with my brother mentally for his taste, I cannot stand to be in their presence, where every word and glance, or for that matter, every silence is a reproach. Argh!”
I knew exactly what he meant.
It took only the appearance of another bowl of hot punch for Joe to brighten, however.
“Ah, now that’s the thing,” he cried, thumping the table with both hands, like an infant whose favourite dainty has just been produced from the kitchen, his voice booming with rapid excitement. “Yes, that is just the thing. Poor Faustus is shivering here, tremens, but happily sans delirium, it appears…now then, Branwell, put your coat and that insipid trash away—did you say they were novels? By Heavens, how the mighty have fallen! Sanctus Patricius Braneullius Brontëio brought down to the level of reading novels for entertainment! Well, put the confounded things away and let us lift a flaming toast to my completion of both Dr. Beckwith and the Oxenhope monument.”
Ah ha, thought I, as Joe bowed his head in mock reverence to the dead Dr. Beckwith. This explains Joe’s ready cash, and his eagerness—even greater than usual—for a regular jollification. John Brown—“Saint John in the Wilderness” as Leyland is fond of calling him—sat smiling silently, even benevolently, though Joe had given him no credit for his own work on the Oxenhope monument. He rarely speaks at such times, though he listens intently; his kind of wit is not in the telling of tales, but of following the line of discussion carefully and, at just the right moment, inserting a mere word or phrase, always unexpected, which generally produces great laughter all round. Along with his general good nature, this quite specific talent—which has the further benefit of allowing such august personages as Joseph Bentley Leyland and Patrick Branwell Brontë to do most of the conversing—makes for a welcome addition to any group of revellers.
And yet, how different is John Brown from me! He is one of those steady bodies in this world who simply carry on with their work, regardless of whether they are praised for it. Fame is the last thing he would ever seek; the gnawing desire to be known to the world, to leave one’s name to posterity, to avoid somehow the terrifying fate of slipping beneath the waves of this brief life and into lasting oblivion, all of this appears to be utterly foreign to him. Fortunate man! Of course he does have his human weaknesses: for drink, yes, and especially for the ladies. In short, beneath his workday respectability lies a bit of a rogue. But where’s the harm in that? Is he not simply a man like any other?
“Brontë!” shouted Leyland, slamming his right fist on the table as I mused thus. “Are you listening to what Drake is saying about your countryman, Patrick Reid? You seem to have left us, little man! Can you not give over day-dreaming, even for a few moments?”
The table, including Drake, laughed aimiably. Dan Sugden, having heard Drake speak of a recent execution, had also drawn up a chair, and listened intently. “Are you Irish, then, Mr. Brontë?” asked our young visitor.
“My father is, yes, but my mother was from Penzance. I have never been to either place, I’m afraid.”
“Well,” continued Drake, “I was saying that two days since, at York, I witnessed the hanging of the Mirfield murderer himself. Do you know he insisted on wearing his cap to the bitter end, right up onto the Drop? The devil confessed that he alone had robbed and murdered that old couple and their servant girl—his supposed accomplice McCabe had nothing to do with it, said he—but be that as it may, I’d not be surprised if he’d raped the poor thing in front of them before slashing all three of their throats!”
“Is it any wonder that some people loathe and fear the Irish?” said I, running my hand casually through my reddish hair, but feeling like Peter at the moment the cock crowed a second time.
My comment seemed at first to be taken as not worthy of comment, and certainly not worthy of dispute, but Brown—as loyal to Papa in his way as Keeper is to Emily—bravely spoke up.
“Now see here, Branwell, your father’s the finest man I know, and Mr. Bell Nicholls, the present curate, is not far behin’ him in goodness, if not quite in learnin’.”
“Yes,” said Joe, laughing, “but that is because they have been transplanted to the fair soil of England, and because in their overweening ambition they have striven to efface all aspects of their savage, superstitious upbringing. Why, the Reverend Brontë has now no trace of his Irish origin remaining in his speech! He has scrubbed himself as clean as the Parsonage floors! As for Mr. Bell Nicholls, he is a much inferior specimen of which Mr. Brontë is the perfect exemplum, but he is a specimen all the same.”
Brown’s usual deference to his friend Leyland was here sorely tested, and I could see his jaws working as he silently ground his teeth. If the latter did not notice this, he certainly perceived the sexton’s furrowed brow and sullen silence.
“Come now, Saint John!” shouted Joe, “We’ll have none of your wild Haworth fierceness here in the polished metropolis!” He banged on the table once again, but this time with such force that it tipped toward the two of us, nearly knocking us over and—far more serious—spilling the contents of our punch bowl and nearly sending it to the floor, where it would surely have been shattered into a thousand pieces.
Brown leapt to the rescue, spilling his own glass but ultimately steadying the table and catching the bowl before it could fall. As he did so, the table rocked back, almost pushing Sugden and Drake out of their respective chairs as well. His good nature could not prevent him from laughing at the sight, and Leyland himself was quick to say that it had all been in jest, and hastened to order another bowl of punch from Mrs. Sugden as she wiped the table clean.
The following bowl of punch did its noble, intended work, for I remember little of the evening thereafter. All of this happened two days ago, but I am just now able to summon the strength to read the books that sit before me, here in the safety of the Black Bull, where I am quite certain no one from the parsonage will seek me, unless of course I am too dead-drunk to move and a lad is sent to fetch someone. I shall take care not to let that happen. Moderatio! Indeed, when it is time to sleep, I shall leave the books in the capable hands of Mr. Thomas himself, for I cannot risk a discovery all too possible in the narrow confines of the parsonage, especially with Charlotte forever nosing about, as she is wont.
I am overwhelmed with a sensation, which has gone from a transient to, now, almost a relentless feeling, of utter despair and futility, of a yearning for the end; where once I envied the peace of a corpse I imagined floating obliviously upon the waves, I now find myself wishing to be him—it—to be dead, to quit at last the pain of existence itself. I folded the large sheet of paper on which I wrote my letter to Leyland, and drew my head and shoulders hanging from a noose, with the caption: “Patrick Reid ‘turned off’, without his cap. 1848.” I drew a line beneath Patrick so that there would be no mistaking my meaning.
I sat sipping my whisky for a very long while. At last, when its welcome warmth began to steal over me and my mood began to shift, I sketched a comical depiction of Brown’s rescue of the punch bowl at the Talbot. There, thought I, that ought to entertain Leyland for a moment or two.
Only now do I lift the first volume of Jane Eyre from the table before me, lean back in my chair, stretch out my legs, and begin to read:
IN THREE VOLUMES
SMITH, ELDER, AND CO, CORNHILL
Chapter XXX—The Three Genii
January 17th, 1848 Haworth, The Black Bull
When I was a boy I could imagine no greater joy than to sit reading before a roaring fire, as a January snowstorm swept across the moors, the feathery flakes piling high on the window ledges, unless it was that of creating my own—our own—worlds in stories, plays and poems, all written in the minutest of script on scraps of old sugar bags and tied together with string, in our own publications, such as Branwell’s Blackwood Magazine.
Now, as I read the final words of Agnes Grey—“And now I think I have said sufficient”—and close the last of the Bell brothers’ novels and take up my own pen, I find myself utterly at a loss for words. In my desolation, such childish joys seem as distant and as fantastical as the construction of ancient York Minster. The last two days have been far from joyful, not because the novels of the Bells are the “trash” which Joe Leyland, not knowing who had authored them, believed them to be, but—alas!—to the contrary, because they are far superior to anything I could possibly have imagined.
Little, plain, Jane Eyre, all simmering anger and bottled-up passion, begging for release in her va-et-vient with Rochester, which my virgin sister instinctively writes to resemble two passionate, yearning bodies coming closer and closer together until she saves him from burning in his bed—no coincidence, this. They are thrown apart as he leaves Thornfield abruptly the next day, just as her longing is most acutely awakened; but when he returns with Blanche Ingram, the waltz continues, the two bodies moving with increasing rapidity through a series of events in which her hero masks his passion and manipulates poor Jane, until the ill-fated wedding, at which point they are seemingly torn asunder for all time, until at last the heroine, mystically hearing his voice from afar, runs back to him crying, I am coming!
Here, too, are so many details of our common life distilled into fiction: the school at Cowan Bridge and the deaths of Mary and Elizabeth, merged into one; Anne’s vivid, satirical accounts of the Robinsons, whose words are placed into the mouths of Blanche Ingram and her crowd; even the Haworth fortune-teller of so long ago, made into a disguise for her hero Rochester! Henry Nussey and his cold, pragmatical proposal of marriage makes an appearance as St. John Rivers, whose sisters Diane and Mary are none other than Emily and Anne, with the parsonage itself transformed into Moor House, and Tabby into their servant Hannah! She has even taken my drawing of a gravestone so many years ago, on which one reads Resurgam, and given it to little Jane’s dead friend, Helen Burns.
The mysterious Mr. Rochester is as much my Percy, Lord Northangerland as he is her own Duke of Zamorna. She has given him some of my turns of phrase, and made my vices his, though confining them to a passing, understandable escape from the mad wife to whom he has been shackled till death do them part, because of a mere human convention. St. John Rivers, too, is an inverted Branwell Brontë, for his noblest qualities—and there are many—are all those I lack. Did he not once burn for “the more active life of the world—for the more exciting toils of a literary career”? But like good Papa, he had succeeded in crushing these desires, for he had “heard a call from Heaven” to be a missionary. His delusions, at least, are far less destructive than mine.
Ah, but the moral of the story, that’s the thing. Jane summons the strength to flee Rochester when she learns that the madwoman living just above her is his wife Bertha, even though, as he points out, he and Jane could live together and no one would be the wiser. She would know, says she—and God would know. Is this not an insult, and do I not stand accused, in my conduct with Lydia, by inference? It is as if Charlotte has proclaimed to the world, Do you not see that DUTY to oneself and one’s God must triumph over all things, and will ultimately be rewarded? And indeed, this being a novel, there must needs be a happy end, and a marriage. Charlotte has Jane claim herself and Rochester to be equals—“as indeed we are”—so why must she disfigure the poor fellow, and give herself an unlikely fortune? To make this marriage acceptable to today’s reader?
Though I may take issue with its pious ending, Currer Bell has done it, she has written a novel, and this is the bitterest medicine of all to swallow. Hers is a long, engrossing, satisfying tale, which has captured the attention of the entire reading public here and, I have no doubt, wherever English is spoken and read. By contrast, my sole, risible attempt at a novel lies unfinished, stillborn, like so much else. Like everything else. In the shadow of her accomplishment, of her growing fame, I now see Northangerland’s publication in the local papers for what they are: the desperate attempts of a mediocre scribbler to be published at all costs. What I thought of the Poems of the Brothers Bell is now a more fitting a description of mine: sad, pitiful, pathetic.
Ellis Bell’s Wuthering Heights is a wild and wonderful monster of a book, and blowing through it are the violent storms of passion and intellect one occasionally sees flashing behind Emily’s own eyes, when she is incautious enough to let down her guard, as when something rouses her indignation. Still, for all of this sound and fury, hardly one word is out of place, and nary a phrase can be imagined other than it is, or where it is.
Good Heavens what a story, and with what genius constructed! We ride up to this strange, almost otherworldly place with the outsider Lockwood, for Ellis Bell knew instinctively that her gentle readers would never credit such ruffianly characters and strange scenes, such violent acts and shocking language, without a fellow traveler by their side to share their confusion, dismay, and disgust. There is much of Branwell Brontë in the fastidious, supercilious Lockwood, I am afraid; the author scarcely waits three pages to attribute to him an episode at the seashore that all-too-closely resembles my unfortunate experience with young Mary Taylor. I am also Heathcliff, however, for is not his monomaniacal passion for Catherine Earnshaw but a purer, unalloyed version of mine for Lydia Robinson?
The snowstorm that confines Lockwood to Wuthering Heights turns the land to “one billowing, white ocean,” concealing its features—pits and mounds, the refuse of quarries just like those behind the Parsonage—beneath, just as the welter of bewildering descriptions, events, mistaken identities, and dreams precipitate our narrator’s subsequent missteps, as when he cannot determine the relationships among and between Heathcliff, Hareton, and Cathy.
With what cleverness she has given a single detail, the writing scratched in the paint long ago, “Catherine Earnshaw, here and there varied to Catherine Heathliff, and then again to Catherine Linton,” to foreshadow the conflict at the heart of the entire tale! And as we read on, we find that each chapter is a small story—almost a miniature novel—within itself, nearly every word, phrase and act appearing as inevitable and eternal as if chiselled in stone, like the Hareton Earnshaw, 1500 carved above the entrance to Wuthering Heights. Each chapter is utterly necessary—to us Cathy’s word for Heathcliff—like the stones of an arch, though they are placed in such a way to propel the reader forward, as if he were bounding down the rocky path from Top Withens to the valleys below.
Like Lockwood, we will only begin to unravel the mysteries of this place—which is none other than a nightmarish depiction of our own neighbourhood, from Haworth up to Penistone Hill, and from thence across to Top Withens and back down to Ponden Hall—when, with him, we allow Nelly Dean, that curious blend of Tabby Ayckroyd (in manner, though much softened) and John Brown (in learning and speech, when he makes an effort), to tell us the tale. With Lockwood, we feel chill, and yet our head burns; with him we are excited in our nerves and our brains—as he says, “almost to a pitch of foolishness.” With him we sit at last before a warming fire, a smoking basin of gruel before us, when Nelly Dean, a basket of sewing in her lap, begins her tale—the true tale of Wuthering Heights.
What a story it is! And yet, it could not be more different from Jane Eyre in every respect, as satisfying as that novel might be. There is no simple moral here, and Nelly does her best—though she often falls short—not to tell us what to think, or whom to judge. Indeed, Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff seem to have no God other than each other; if Jane’s great fear is that she is in danger of loving God’s creature, Rochester, more than the Creator Himself, the lovers of Wuthering Heights fear only losing each other: “If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it.” Where is Jane’s God—the one Leyland called a pale Zeus—in all of this? No, love itself is the true religion of Wuthering Heights, and those who most zealously profess their Christianity—the old servant Joseph and, in Lockwood’s dream, the Reverend Jabes Branderham—are nothing more than “wearisome self-righteous Pharisees who ransack the Bible to rake the promises to themselves and fling the curses to their neighbours.”
Yes, it is true that Nelly tells Heathcliff, just before he dies, that he has “lived a selfish, unchristian life,” and reading these lines I could not help but think that Ellis Bell had me in mind. Had I not once responded just as he does: “I believe you think me a fiend, something too horrible to live under a decent roof?”
If not a religious one, then, what moral lies within this strange tale? It is difficult to tell. Here, certainly, is the great “crime” of betraying one’s heart for money and position: “Why did you betray your own heart, Cathy?” But there is so much more, some almost defying description. Does old Mr. Earnshaw bring a curse upon his entire family through his goodness, by saving the orphan Heathcliff from the streets of Liverpool? If so, what sort of moral is that?
Could the lesson, after all, be that an overweening passion will destroy everything in its path, like the Car of Juggernaut? For not only does Mr. Earnshaw’s affection for Heathcliff set loose a chain of resentment and revenge, and Catherine and Heathcliff’s passion consume them entirely, but both Edgar and Isabella Linton’s infatuation for each of them, respectively, adds only oil to the fire. Even Hindley—yes, that poor fellow is also me—sets out on his self-destructive path of gambling and drinking only in a state of abject grief, after the death of his wife Francis. It is no great leap to conclude that he, too, has loved too much.
The rejected Heathcliff—“where did he come from, the little dark thing, harboured by a good man to his bane?” — is the cornerstone of the story, both scapegoat and sacrificial lamb, for he must finally abandon his plans of revenge and die for order to be restored, as the young Catherine and Hareton, possessing the best qualities of the two families (just as the peevish young Linton possesses the worst), are able to join them together at last in harmony. Lockwood might say that the young couple fears nothing, and “would brave Satan and all his legions,” but must we not read this with some irony, since our narrator “grumbles” at his missed opportunity of wooing the handsome young Catherine Heathcliff?
Nay, though they may restore domestic harmony, these two young people will hardly “labour for their race” like St. John Rivers. While Charlotte concludes her story with a quotation from Revelations, placed in the mouth of a (to my mind) fanatical missionary of the Church resigned to dying in a distant land (and concluding her book, to ensure that even the most dull-witted reader will comprehend, with the words Jesus Christ), Emily gives us an abandoned church, the old kirk of Lockwood’s nightmare, its windows broken and roof bereft of its slates.
As I read the novel’s final paragraph—
I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.
—I was suddenly overcome with emotion. My chest heaved, my throat closed, and hot tears soon spilt down my cheeks. How different, one from the other, were Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, and yet how brilliant both! One could scarcely credit that two sisters—two sisters who had lived nearly their entire lives together in four small walls—had written these novels; that anyone could believe that one person was masquerading as all three Bells showed a breathtaking imperviousness to the intricacies of literary style, for not even the Bard himself could have created works both so brilliant and dissimilar. No, it was more likely that complete strangers of different sexes, living on different continents, had written the two tales.
I was weeping, then, not with sadness or with joy, but from that strange sensation one has when confronted by the majesty of human genius, just as I had upon hearing Handel’s Messiah, reading Shakespeare or Wordsworth, and standing within York Minster. I remembered again entering that great structure with Anne, who took my arm and said, her voice trembling with reverential awe: “Oh Branwell, if man’s finite power can do this, what must be the power of the Almighty?!”
What, then, of Acton Bell’s slim novel, Agnes Grey? How like Anne herself it is: a nearly-perfect, little gem, as unlike both of her sisters’ books as frost is from fire, as Catherine Earnshaw would say. The reader of those two novels, once finished, might feel he has been to Hell and back, but not here. Though there are gloomy days, dark showers, and even great snowstorms in the book, Agnes’s voice is so warm, engaging, and utterly rational that we come away feeling as if, in her world, the sun is always shining and a gentle breeze is forever whispering, whether rustling through the trees at Horton Lodge or sweeping along the glittering sands at A—, as she has called the seaside resort; how faithfully she has reproduced Thorp Green and her beloved Scarborough!
Still, just as the confectioner sometimes places an unusual tartness at the center of his sweets, so this novel possesses not only Anne’s typical humour but a devastating, scarcely-disguised portrayal of her employers, both the Inghams and the Robinsons, the worlds they inhabit, and their guiding “principles.” Many a time did I laugh aloud, from the accounts of the horrible Bloomfield children, especially Tom, to her depiction of the Murray sisters, Rosalie and Matilda, who together are a nearly inexhaustible source of amusement, the first so perfect a picture of young Lydia Robinson, all coquetry and vanity, that the author seems somehow to have plucked her from life and dropped her into a book, including entire phrases I myself have heard her utter, the second a swearing, whip-cracking hoyden with the worst qualities of the two younger Robinson girls together, and none of their charming attributes, and whose “No –damn it, no!” and “you ass!” directed at her elegant elder sister made me laugh until my sides nearly hurt.
What a marvel that our baby sister was able to get out of herself and inhabit the minds and souls of beings who could not be more alien, but whom she had observed with great care for so many years. How amusing, and how clever, that she has her heroine quote her own pupils, as if listening at their door or perhaps even somehow entering into their very minds, in a manner which describes her, of course, but far more revealingly, them:
Miss Grey was a queer creature: she never flattered, and did not praise them half enough; but whenever she did speak favourably of them, or anything belonging to them, they could be quite sure her approbation was sincere. […] She had her own opinions on every subject, and kept steadily to them—very tiresome opinions they often were; as she was always thinking of what was right and what was wrong, and had a strange reverence for matters connected with religion, and an unaccountable liking to good people.
Despite Charlotte’s subtitle of Jane Eyre—an autobiography, edited by Currer Bell—Anne’s is the most autobiographical of the books, though she has brought dear Mamma back to life in Mrs. Grey, merged her sisters into one, created a far more flawed version of Papa, and blotted her reprobate brother—as if he were too painful to recall—out of existence, just as I long ago painted myself into oblivion, in that dreadful portrait I made of the four of us so many years ago. I could have appeared as a young tutor, but he, too, is sent packing to the Devil in this fictional version of events, though my friend Weightman has surely also been brought back from the dead, poor fellow, and given not only his own sterling qualities, but some of Papa’s, in her portrait of Agnes's beloved Mr. Weston. Even his tender gift of the primroses has not been forgotten.
But how much more do I recognize young Lydia in Rosalie’s flirtatious torturing—like the slow roasting alive Tom Bloomfield has planned for a nest of baby birds earlier in the book—of the unfortunate Mr. Hatfield! I am quite certain she would have done the same to me, merely for sport, had she not fallen so desperately in love with the dashing Mr. Roxby.
Perhaps, consciously or not, Acton Bell has created Mr. Hatfield to show just how foolish I was to believe that Lydia mère would ever marry an impoverished suitor such as myself: “To think that I could be such a fool as to fall in love! […] A preference I might acknowledge; but never for one like poor Mr. Hatfield, who has not several hundred a year to bless himself with. I like to talk to him, because he’s so clever and amusing.”
Upon reading this passage, I thought: did Lydia ever profess her love for me, or was it only fleshly desire? I could never recall those words—I love you—on her lips. For that matter, was my love for her ever anything more than a coupling—like our two bodies made one flesh—of my ambition and my lust? Have I ever truly loved anyone, least of all myself?
If the audacious Hatfield is a most oblique reference to my own folly, Acton Bell has taken no such pains to conceal her dislike of Mrs. Robinson, who under the name of Murray has all of Lydia’s flaws and none of her good qualities, except for her beauty. Still, her description of Lydia’s view of her governess’s goal in educating her girls—to “strive to amuse and oblige, instruct, refine, and polish, with the least possible exertion on their part”—is, I have to confess to myself, all too true.
The moral of Agnes Grey—unlike that of Wuthering Heights, if Ellis Bell’s monstrous tale even has one—is all too clear, from its first page to its last: only true love, unadulterated by worldly interests, unsullied by ambition for position or riches, can bring happiness. The novel describes a perfect circle, moving from her mother’s preferring to live “in a cottage with Richard Grey than in a palace with any other man in world” to, at precisely its midpoint, Rosalie’s insistence that she “must have Ashby Park, whoever shares it” with her, and concluding with Agnes and Edward Weston standing high above the sea on a “glorious summer evening,” watching “the splendid sunset mirrored in the restless world of waters” at their feet, with “hearts filled with gratitude to heaven, and happiness, and love—almost too full for speech.”
This seems at once so idyllic and yet so true that I cannot even mock the piety of the novel’s subsequent paragraphs, where the Westons “endeavour to live to the glory of Him who has scattered so many blessings” in their path, and “keep in mind the glorious heaven beyond, where both may meet again, and sin and sorrow are unknown.” No, no mockery is possible, and the purity of the sweet young couple’s love seems not just possible, but in its own way inevitable, so perfectly has Anne constructed her little tale, so great is the contrast with Rosalie’s bitter end as mistress of Ashby Park. Even if such love is but an ideal, the reader surely, and most ardently, wishes it to be real.
As I left the Black Bull and walked past the silent church and the scattered slabs of the churchyard, I stopped and turned to face the west, where the sun had just set behind the row of shops along the Main Street, and where, in an otherwise perfectly clear winter sky, two thin wisps of cloud fanned upwards from the horizon to the highest vault of heaven, like the cottony wings of an immense angel, or like the far smaller, icy seraphs we children made just over the wall, in our garden, one winter’s day long ago, by lying and moving our arms and legs in the fresh, powdery snow. Tabby had discovered us thus engaged, and shouted, “Y’ childer wail soon enou’ be angels if ye catch yer death o’ cold!”
I could almost see us there again, the snow so dry and light in the cold bright sunshine that it flew from us like puffs of smoke as we played, and there came upon me such wracking convulsions of grief, which no earthly remedy could cure, and for which no heavenly succour was offered, as the celestial pinions above broke silently into a thousand fragments upon the bitter east wind, which had suddenly risen as the sun slipped beneath the horizon.
Chapter XXXI—A Pit Full of Fire
February 5th, 1848 The Parsonage
How do I begin to recount what has happened in the past few days? I have truly been to Hell and back, have seen it with my own eyes, and nearly brought the entire parsonage and its inhabitants down into the burning pit with me.
Upon returning the novels of the Brothers Bell to Francis Leyland, I promptly set out to drown myself with drink, ably assisted by that good man’s brother. I can recall little of what occurred, so quickly did I seek to blot my consciousness out of existence. There was no time for witty banter, no time for whoring: I wished only for respite, and the bottle was my noose.
When I arrived in Haworth the following day I went to bed directly, awaking a full day later with a terrible cold and cough, feverish and chilled to the bone. My sisters and Papa have all had the influenza in the past two weeks, so I suppose it was at last my turn. Indeed, I found myself so ill that I had no desire for liquor, and was unable to stop coughing, though I could scarcely lift my head from the pillow.
Good Dr. Wheelhouse was sent for. The portly gentleman, whose double chin is so considerable that his overlarge head seems placed directly upon his shoulders, gazed down sadly as he gave me a generous dose of laudanum.
“Here now, young man,” said he, this will stop your coughing, and help you sleep. It will also help you get over your dependency on spirits, which you must once and for all crush, if you wish to recover fully.”
Feeling I could not possibly sleep more than I already had, I lit a candle and began to read; what book it was I cannot now even recall, for I had repeatedly tried making sense of no more than the first two or three lines, nodding drowsily over the page, and had the sensation of falling—falling fast asleep, yes, but also falling bodily through space, as if into the deepest recesses of the earth.
But no, I was very much awake, and walking along ocean sands, every sound and sensation magnified a thousand times over, each object bursting with significance, as if all of human history and knowledge were contained in this plenitude. The moon, three times its usual size, shone with unwonted brightness, and each breaking wave seemed to unlock the mysteries of the universe, things hidden since the beginning of time. This was no ordinary beach, however, but a phantom replica of the sands at Scarborough, and soon I found myself across from the boathouse beneath The Cliff. Perhaps Lydia is there!, thought I, and I raced across the moonlit shore and flung open the door.
What I found, instead, was Anne, resisting a man who had turned up her skirts and thrust down his trousers, and was attempting to defile her.
“Oh Branwell!,” she cried out, as I advanced in a rage, flinging her attacker to the floor. I kicked and trampled on him, and dashed his head repeatedly against the large stones that served as the boathouse floor. Oh God! The cold creeping horror of nightmare I felt, as he rose up weakly on his elbows, so that the moonlight spilling through the open door revealed his identity. For the would-be rapist’s bloody face was none other than my own.
I turned to Anne, who stood perfectly composed, as if nothing had occurred. She gave no appearance of having been touched, let alone attacked; her garments were perfectly smooth and crisp, as if Tabby had just starched and ironed them. She smiled, but with just a soupçon of mischief in those pretty violet eyes, which shone out from beneath her arched brows.
“Brother,” she said in what seemed, most unexpectedly, to be a teasing manner, “why must you always be at war with yourself?”
I looked down where my other self had lain, and where now was to be seen only a coil of old rope.
“Come,” said she, “let’s run all the way up to the castle ruins, shall we?”
Just as we had on the moors as children, we raced up the ghostly, empty streets of Scarborough, winding past the old church and further up the hill to the castle gates. This dream-Anne was hale and hearty, and as we arrived past the great ruined castle keep and dashed onto the grassy, windswept headland, she showed no signs of being in the least breathless.
The moon had grown even larger, so impossibly enormous that it filled the sky above the sea below, in which its vast and shimmering pendant was reflected. Anne turned and placed her small soft hands in mine.
“Oh Mr. Weston—Edward—you love me, then?” said she, the moon surrounding her face like a nimbus.
“Yes, Agnes, I do,” said I, drawing her to me for a tender kiss.
“Branwell,” cried Anne in alarm, pushing me from her, “What are you doing? Who is Agnes?”
Before I could confess my knowledge of Agnes Grey, its author—or the dream-spectre who resembled her—had vanished, and I was alone on the cliffs of the headland, high above the sea. The moon now began to move toward me, growing ever larger by the second, as the roar of the waves reached a deafening pitch. But this was no natural moon approaching, for clouds seemed to billow from above it; nor was this sound the rush of the ocean’s swells, for its quickening, rhythmic pace was not of God’s creation, but of man’s.
Onto the headland rushed a fantastical locomotive, stopping more abruptly than its real counterpart could ever do. Joseph Bentley Leyland, of all people, leant out a window and called, “Come now, young Faustus, why dost thou tarry? We’ve an appointment at Luddenden, damn it!”
Soon I had climbed aboard, and within what seemed only moments we had made the journey across Yorkshire, flying through the night sky. I could scarcely formulate a question to ask my friend before we alighted from our carriage at the Lord Nelson, where I had first met Maeve: the intoxicating one, now also dead, poor woman. But no, here she was, as buxom and rosy-cheeked as that first night together in 1841, she who later taught me just how many ways there are to savour the pleasure of the body purely for itself, stripped of all accompanying emotion but animal desire.
Soon we were within each other’s embrace, our lust seemingly boundless, in a night that seemed without end; she, despite her occupation, appeared to thirst as much for me as I did for her, but at last we collapsed in each other’s arms and slept, a long healing slumber, just as we had that final night in Halifax. When I awoke, the sun had risen well into what appeared to be a summer sky, and as she lay with her head propped up, carefully surveying my features, I was nearly blinded by the bright sunshine pouring through the window behind her, surrounding her face like a halo. She seemed altered, transformed; I squinted and frowned, but I could not make out how, until slowly, with a shudder of recognition, I knew.
“Why Branwell,” said she, “how very black and cross you look! And how—how funny and grim!”
The words were not Maeve’s, but Wuthering Heights's Catherine Earnshaw’s, and the graceful, lithesome figure stretched out beside me was that of my own sister Emily. She did not touch me, and I dared not touch her, and as she in turn saw that I had recognized her, her brow grew clouded. It was again Catherine Earnshaw who spoke, though the being who shared my bed, and through whose lips issued these words, remained Emily Jane Brontë: “You are like the rocks beneath, Branwell: a source of little visible delight, but necessary.”
At this moment came a loud rapping on the door; just as he had so often done in the real world, so now did Joe Leyland with his infernal walking stick, in the ideal realm of my dream. As eager as I was to leave Emily, I found that she had already stolen a march on me, for as I turned my head toward her she had vanished into the ether, like a ghost.
“Put your trousers on, little man!” cried Joe, laughing at the sight of my thin legs poking from beneath my nightshirt. “Time to settle accounts!”
I did as my friend commanded, and followed him out of the Lord Nelson and up a steep rise, much like the path from our beloved waterfalls above South Dean Beck to Top Withens. In the distance rose an old stone edifice, and as we approached, I could hear the distinctive sound of a chisel on stone: chink, chink, chink. It was John Brown, high on a ladder, finishing the lettering of a carving over the principal entrance. Here, surrounded by a riot of naked and convulsing bodies so true to nature that this orgy seemed to heave and shudder like fornicating flesh and blood, was the name Patrick Branwell Brontë, and the dates 1817-. The sexton, his hammer and chisel suspended above the second, as-yet-uncarved date, merely tipped his hat respectfully, as if he knew neither me nor his collaborator Leyland.
Joe laughed jovially at my bewilderment and clapped me on the back, lowering his voice with feigned piety, “Did ye never read in the scriptures: The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the cornerstone?” I followed him through what appeared to be an endless labyrinth of corridors; past old rooms filled with lumber and spiderwebs, and down stairs whose bannisters had quite rotted away. All seemed as if undisturbed from time immemorial, for a thick blanket of dust lay heavy upon all that we saw and touched. The only movement to be glimpsed was a door creaking gently to and fro on its hinges; as it opened an outline of bright light surrounded it, just as it had Emily’s head in the Lord Nelson, the luminous rectangle growing and fading each time it opened and closed.
“I know this place,” said I, but my companion simply smiled and nodded his assent. It fell on me like a thunderclap: I was walking through Wuthering Heights, at least as it took shape in my own troubled faculties. For here was the very spot where a drunken Hindley had dropped baby Hareton to a certain death on the flags below, the lad only rescued by an unexpecting Heathcliff; there was the ladder to Joseph’s garret; here was the landing where a young Nelly Dean had placed the gypsy brat Heathcliff himself, hoping it would be gone by the morning, and where later, Isabella Linton had wept, and slept. And so the room before me must be—
“Go ahead,” said my friend. “Go in.”
The room was just as Lockwood describes it, with a chair, a clothes-press, and a large oak case, with the squares cut out near the top, resembling coach windows. As I slid back the panels of the old-fashioned couch, the light of a candle left burning within showed plainly, in the paint of the window ledge, four scratched names. I picked up the candle and examined the names before me, but there were no Catherines here: only Lydias. Each of the first two names—Lydia Gisborne and Lydia Robinson—was struck through with a single, elegant stroke, while the third—Lydia Brontë—had been furiously attacked, seemingly with a variety of implements, including flames, so that it was scarcely legible. A final, elegantly-written name—Lady Lydia Scott—stood unblemished.
No longer did my body shudder with fear or horror but with rage, so much so that the candle fell from my hand and onto the bed, whose curtains caught fire immediately, and which I strove to extinguish by any means possible—my cloak, an ewer of icy water, even the flaming bedcurtains themselves or those hanging above the open window and moving slowly back and forth in the breeze, gently fanning the growing flames. I raced into the corridor to seek Leyland’s assistance, but he was nowhere to be seen, and so I dashed back into the room to find—with the same horror I had felt upon viewing myself in the boathouse with Anne—my own reclining form on the bed, surrounded by flames; in the midst of this blaze and vapour, I lay in deep, seemingly impregnable sleep.
“Wake! Wake!” I cried, shaking myself, but to no avail, for the smoke appeared to have stupefied me. At last, I heard a hissing and the breakage of a pitcher, and felt a rush of water over my face and shoulders.
“Charlotte?” said I, for that was the little figure who now stood—surrounded by a cloud of smoke that encircled her face like a dingy aura—where I myself had just been an instant ago, upon entering the room to find myself unconscious on the bed. How had she become me, or I her? I looked round, finding the room somewhat altered.
“Charlotte, where are we?” I said, sitting up in the bed.
“Why, in the children’s study, of course. Can you not see the garden below and the churchyard beyond?”
And so, as the phantom smoke vanished, I could. It was here in this little room we had transformed our grief into a vast outpouring of poems, stories, plays, and little magazines, several lifetimes of writing before our own lives—our real lives—could begin. Here the four Chief Genii—Genius Brannii, Genius Tallii, Genius Emmii, and Genius Annii—created, like four infernal evangelists, entire worlds from their feverish, precocious minds: Charlotte and I devising Verdopolis and Angria, and Emily and Charlotte their own mysterious land of Gondal.
“I suppose,” said I, drying my hair and face with an untouched portion of curtain, “I owe you a debt of gratitude.” I held out my hand; she gave me hers: I took it first in one, then in both of my own. I felt, in a sudden wave, that old—and, so I thought, long dead and buried—emotion of fraternal love, of delight in my Charlotte. My Genius Tallii. I lifted her hand to my lips and kissed it.
“But I— or rather we” she replied, “owe you so much more.”
These mysterious words were lost on me, for I found that howevermuch I sought to dry myself, it was of no avail.
“Charlotte, why do I perspire in this manner?”
“You have a fever, Branwell; do you not remember how ill you are? Here, let us make a clean and dry place for you. You must lie back down.”
“Oh God,” said I, suddenly in agony, repeating what I had said to Leyland as we walked into the Black Bull so many months since, but this time in dreadful earnest, rather than jest: “I feel as if I had an infernal fire in my veins, that all the waters of the ocean cannot quench!”
Eyes shut, I trembled uncontrollably, as an excruciating pain shot through my body like an electrical current, my fever fairly consuming me in a conflagration. Then all was dark, and for a brief instant, quiet, except for the pulse of blood throbbing through my boiling brain.
When I opened my eyes, the walls of the little room had fallen away, and I stood, my hands shackled and a noose about my neck, in the vast nave of York Minster. High above me, the famous Jabez Branderham of Lockwood’s dream—who bore more than a passing resemblance to the Reverend Patrick Brontë, but as he looked when I was a child—leant forward and stretched out his arm, levelling an impossibly long finger at my chest: “Thou art the Man!” cried Jabez. “What sin hast thou not committed?”
I was devoured by a scorching shame, for everyone I had ever known, living or dead, was ranged behind me: now near me stood not just Charlotte, but all five of my sisters and Mamma—dear Mamma!—weeping and tearing at their garments. My blood boiled through my veins, my brow searing so that I felt I could not stand another moment without exploding utterly in flames.
But Jabez Branderham had only begun his litany of my sins.
“Verily, verily, I say unto thee, thou hast broken every one of God’s commandments, in spirit if not in deed!
He proceeded through each of the Ten Commandments, detailing with fiendish relish how all of my various sins related to each—even those I had not, in reality, committed, or even contemplated.
Still my body grew hotter, as if I were now roasting on a spit.
“Doth not the Lord thy God also say, in Leviticus 18, verse 9, that ‘the nakedness of thy sister thou shalt not uncover’?”
This was too much. Enraged, I found my voice at last: “God confound you sir,” I thundered, “I have endured your outrageous discourse long enough! Yes, I am a sinner, and doubtless worse than most. But never—never, I say—have I lain with my sisters, and both the Lord above and Satan below know this to be true! You, sir, are the deceiver, not I!”
At this Branderham no longer resembled dear Papa, but began turning a vivid scarlet, as great wings grew from his back, and horns sprouted from his temples; his feet became cloven hooves, and his hands razor-sharp talons.
“So,” he snarled, “you have seen! Yes, I am the deceiver, the Great Deceiver!” He flew down from the high pulpit and began advancing toward me, flames now issuing from his nostrils. The great cathedral of York Minster and its occupants fell away into the void, except for my three living sisters—Charlotte, Emily and Anne—who wrestled with the demon as he sought to drag me down into the unfathomably vast pit full of fire that had opened up beneath us, to the opening strains of Liszt’s Totentanz. But they were losing the battle, and slowly, slowly, I felt myself descending with him to that great, eternal inferno, whose billowing smoke rose to frame the desperate, anguished faces of my sisters high above me.
I could stand no more, and wished only for an end—not a poetical, metaphorical annihilation, but true oblivion, true relief, true peace. I thought: would that I had never been born!
But—mirabile dictu!—as the last remnants of hope, of life, ebbed out of my body—without, unfortunately, any cessation of the perpetual incineration of my soul—the dark heavens above opened, and a miraculous rain poured forth, so great a deluge as to destroy the demon Branderham and extinguish the very fires of hell, for all eternity. My sisters’ faces again loomed above me, as the depleted clouds that ringed each of their faces whitened, fading softly back to form their white—immaculately white—ethereal wings. My genii, my angels of salvation, my Tallii, Emmii, Annii!
I felt, for an instant, as safe as I had in dear Mamma’s warm lap, and so I was—am—now there, on a night so long ago, as she reads to me by the lambent firelight. She draws me closely to her breast and points at a Bible. “See, Branney, my little angel: Paul says that though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”
Oh, dearest, most cherished Mamma, you have returned! Would that I might prolong this instant for all eternity! But no, my angels are moving now, in great agitation, and though they communicate with one another with force and urgency, I understand nothing they say, as if they were speaking in tongues. I smile, still basking in the warmth of love.
Love, true love.
“Branwell!” cried Emily, “Branwell! Wake! Wake!” My very real middle sister now proceeded to utter a string of curses generally heard only amongst the stronger sex, took hold of me under the arms, and dragged me out of bed, pouring still more water on the last of the flames. It had all happened within moments: Anne had discovered the fire, been unable to wake me, and gone to fetch Emily, who had pulled me from the bed and extinguished the fire.
Poor Papa—I do love the old man, for he does, and always has done, his best for me—knew nothing of the event until morning, but has determined that we are now to sleep together in his room. And yet, except to prevent me from lighting a candle, I know not what mischief this can prevent, for he forever sleeps soundly, whilst I, as is the case at present, lie awake, gazing at the churchyard, whose graves seem almost to tumble down the gently sloping hillside, in places seeming no more orderly than a child’s collapsed house of cards. Above the scattered dead rises the eternally accusing church steeple, and beyond it, high in the indifferent, glacial heavens, hangs a serene, dispassionate moon, an icy halo cast about its neck.
Chapter XXXII—The End of All
April 18th, 1848 The Parsonage
With the warmer weather, I feel tolerably better, and for the first time in months. Most of my time is spent sleeping, or imagining that Death will soon come calling for me—I have even sketched him, as a skeleton, reaching to snatch me as I slumber. I cannot confide this to my sisters, for they would just say that I am crying wolf. Leyland has been to Haworth, and urged me in person to meet him and his merry band in Halifax next week, at the Old Cock. Why not? For I have abandoned Dr. Wheelhouse’s counsel, and since the harrowing dream I recounted above, have refused that poisoning doctor’s laudanum whenever he tries to press it upon me. What else could have made me conjure up such terrible visions, worthy of De Quincey himself?
On the other hand, I drink as often, and as much, as I can afford—or have advanced to me on credit. The cheap gin I once disdained is now the only thing that does me good.
June 18th, 1848 The Parsonage
Nicholson has sent papa a demand for settlement of my bill owed to him, immediately, under penalty of a Court Summons. I have written to inform him that I shall soon be able to pay him the balance in full—for that I will write to Dr. Crosby, and request an advance through his hands, which I am sure to obtain. I also have an unpaid bill at the Talbot.
I have asked my friends to help me: I have given John Brown ten shillings, to place in Mr. Nicholson’s hands on Wednesday next, and begged Leyland to see both him and Mrs. Sugden at the Talbot, to tell them that my receipt of money from Dr. Crosby is morally certain.
If Nicholson refuses my offer and presses me with law, I am RUINED. Since reading my sisters’ novels, I have had five months of such utter sleeplessness, violent cough, and frightful agony of mind, and I know that gaol would destroy me forever. I cannot admit to them that I have read their work, any more than they will admit to its existence—no doubt, they believe they are sparing my feelings, but their pity only deepens mine—for myself. I cannot hate them, though, for they are good. Yes, even Charlotte—even my Genius Tallii, for all her faults—is good, through and through.
I can only despise myself.
July 8th, 1848 The Parsonage
Yesterday Charlotte and Anne departed Haworth in haste, but Emily did not divulge their destination, or the reason for their journey. The author of Wuthering Heights is not one to be asked anything twice, particularly when the first interrogation prompts a scowl every bit as black and fierce as Heathcliff’s first welcome of his tenant Lockwood.
It is only in the ferocity of her gaze that she differs from her sisters, however, for all three have ceased to speak to me unless absolutely compelled to do so. Any last ties of sympathy have been severed, seemingly for all time. How long, I wonder, can we continue in such a state?
August 3rd, 1848 The Parsonage
Crosby has sent the money, and I am saved—at least from gaol, and at least for the time being. Where Lydia Robinson gets her money, and why she continues to send it to me, are questions on which I prefer not to dwell. Even the feeling of her body against mine is now but a distant memory, and the very bitterness of her loss has begun to ebb away into weary indifference.
My mental wretchedness and corporeal weakness utterly prevent me from doing anything. I only think that, had I the strength and the will, I might still begin anew, far from Haworth.
When I was a lad, I was fond of saying: You have only to WILL a thing in order to get it. But what WILL do I have now? Indeed, what will have I ever had?
A discussion of the history and language of the novel will follow on 13 June 2020