Oblivion: The Lost Diaries of Branwell Brontë (10 of 12)
Updated: May 24
Volume III (continued)
Chapter IX—Interlude: A Picnic with the Brontë Sisters
June 19th, 1844 Haworth, The Parsonage
Here we four children are once again, thrown together at the approach of Midsummer. Charlotte is now 28; I, just a week shy of 27; Emily Jane, almost 26; Anne, 24. How changed we are, how very old! What remains of those seemingly endless days and nights of childhood, where words and plays and poems and stories and adventures flowed from us in such prodigious quantities, like molten lava streaming from a volcano? How I remember the innocence of those days, when my toy soldiers were seized upon and transformed into the heroes of our plays, over the years transmogrified by the four godlike genii—Tallii, Branii, Emmii, and Annii—into the dramatis personae of Glass Town, rechristened Verdopolis, and then Angria.
Charlotte and I were rivals and collaborators, while Emily and Anne broke away and created their own world of Gondal. Yes, our characters—informed by reading that would not have been permitted to the children of most parsons (or persons, for that matter), but learning had rescued papa, so little, if anything, was forbidden—yes, these characters were superhuman heroes, vile seducers, bloodthirsty soldiers, wanton adulterers, women both corrupted and corrupt, obsequious courtiers and submissive courtesans, illegitimate offspring, facetious chroniclers, bold blasphemers, cunning hypocrites, cynical charlatans, and artful conspirators.
Yes, by God Almighty, did we read! We read as if it were mother’s milk, for it was the vital artery that nourished us when all round us lay only death and desolation. I remember when, as a youth, I discovered that it was Papa who had written the little tale we had oft read, The Maid of Killarney, which he had published anonymously the year after my birth. What a discovery to make, that Papa was not two persons—the tall, gentle, soft-spoken sweet man who loved us with all his heart in the warm confines of the parsonage, and the serious, earnest parson who stood before us on Sundays and preached on man’s fall and Christ’s redemption (for is not every sermon a variation on this?)—but three persons: he was a writer! Upon interrogation, he confessed that he had also written several volumes of poetry, all meant to be both “profitable and agreeable,” dulce et utile he said, and ultimately shared them with us. So thrilled were we that our very own Papa was a published author that we read and reread his works until we had fairly committed them to memory.
Though I no longer share his views—did I ever, I wonder?—that poetry should have as its aim the salvation of its reader, I wonder if my disdain for novels comes ultimately from him, a prejudice so deeply rooted that it stands firm all these years later, though the entire landscape of literature has been altered, as if by an earthquake, a conflagration, or a hurricane of the West Indies. I still recall what he wrote in the fourth chapter of The Maid of Killarney:
The generality of Novels are so many poisonous boluses, sufficiently incrusted with honey to make them palatable, but in no degree adequate to counteract their pernicious effects on the constitution. Our libraries want to pass through such another fiery ordeal as the library of the renowned Don Quixote did, when it was scrutinized by the Priest and the Barber.
Did my father thus cultivate in me, so long ago, a profound distaste for the genre, as some mothers are said to sicken their young boys with draughts of bitter wine, to prevent them from being drunkards like their fathers? Perhaps he should have done the latter, not the former.
A far more interesting question, however, is how the same man who appears to recommend—or at least consider—the burning of novels for their potentially pernicious effects on the innocent, could allow his children nearly unfettered access to the most scandalous of writings? Far more “dangerous” than the silly novels of the age, after all, were the works of Lord Byron, of Shelley, of de Quincy, not to mention the satirical writings of Blackwood’s, like the Noctes Ambosianae. Did he, like so many humble men who claw their way to respectability through sheer force of will and higher learning, trust that reading and writing—especially poetry—were inherently good, and that his very presence would shelter his little flock from any possible evils that might proceed from their reading? Did he believe that those benighted souls who did not have a clergyman for a father needed guidance that his own children did not? Was this a form of arrogance, finally?
Or did Mamma’s death—and then that of Maria and Elizabeth—simply exhaust him, so that it was enough that his children were in good health, happily engaged with their games, their reading, and their scribbling? Yes, perhaps it was as simple as that. How many errors of education must proceed from the simple truth that parents grow tired, and how much more tired poor Papa, with all of his duties, and his young brood! It is only just now that I begin to realise what he has lived, poor man, what he has loved, and most of all, what he has lost. Only now do I start to recognize his sacrifices for us all, and especially for me. Our saviour, he has emptied himself of his own desires so that we might live with a certain dignity, a certain ambition, a certain hope. He is ever indulgent, ever merciful, ever forgiving. To think that I have rebelled against him in my heart and soul, in my thoughts and in my deeds! I do not know which sentiment is stronger, my gratitude to him, or my shame and disgust with myself.
But for all this, I do not feel any more inclined to ask God’s forgiveness, if such a being exists. As far as I am concerned, He quite abandoned us when He took Mamma and our sisters: there is no forgiving Him for that. Nor do I wish to alter, in any way, my conduct, and my only fear when I am with Lydia is identical to hers: discovery. We must not be found out; we must be careful; and if we are fortunate, her “angel” will be dead and buried by this time next year.
Such wishes do not to me seem evil, but merely natural. Am I wrong to think so? After all, does not one fate await us all, and inevitable death mock our transient happiness? Why should we not seize what is ours today, then?
It is late, and the flame of my candle gutters in the soft breeze, as it blows through the churchyard, making ghosts of the curtains of my open window. I must be off to bed, for tomorrow the four of us are to make a picnic at the ruins of Bolton Abbey, along the River Wharfe.
June 21st, 1844 The Parsonage
Yesterday we departed Haworth before six, in a hired phaeton, to travel the fifteen miles to Bolton Abbey, Emily holding the basket of provisions for our collation. We left the carriage at the Devonshire Arms, just as we had on our first trip here, with Charlotte’s friend Ellen, eleven years ago. How little changed is the inn, and even less the ancient walls of the priory, but again, how much altered are we! Mere children we were then, whose fond hopes have, in the interim, begun to slip away. As I write this I think of my sixteen-year-old self, racing feverishly round our large party—for the Nussey family had met us at the inn, where, if I recall correctly, Charlotte was ashamed of our pony-cart—in a near-frenzy, entertaining all who would listen with a host of facts about the priory and the geography of the area, and quoting poetry wherever appropriate. What an impetuous lad I was, and perhaps even brilliant in my manic way! Had my mind adhered to Leyland’s theory of decay? This would certainly explain why I rarely write anything new, but instead rework bits and pieces of old.
Together we walked the half-mile to the priory, whose long decline began with Henry VIII’s closing of the monasteries: the roofs, I have read, were stripped of their lead, exposing the delicate stonework to the elements. As the walls decayed and collapsed, local builders salvaged the stones and employed them anew in all manner of structures along the Wharfe Valley. Such it is with all things—all are born to decay, all are made of the detritus of the past. Food for worms. Bits and pieces of old.
As we walked round the ruins, the naked arches reaching into heaven, I thought how much more fitting is a church such as this than those where man comfortably worships a remote, carefully walled-off God of abstraction. Here man’s creation unites with his Maker’s, thrusting up into the sky, in sun or wind, in rain or snow, drawing heaven toward our earth again—here, God descends and surrounds every stone—here, He is not walled off from his pitiful, cringing creatures, whilst He looms over them with the threat of damnation—no, here, like a gentle summer rain, He washes lovingly over them in a benediction, a baptism, an amorous embrace.
Or could it be, instead, a great flood, a slow and methodical extermination? The priory church still functions, but it too will someday collapse, will it not? Does not everything eventually meet this fate? Will even York Minster, even Ripon Cathedral, collapse at last? Surely they will. My mind travelled over the Dales, to a recent ramble with Dr. Crosby and his nephew Will. We had walked up Grafton Hill where, on that perfect spring day following hard upon a period of rain, we could gaze from Ripon Cathedral to York Minster, taking in, in a single panoramic sweep, all that lay between the towering structures, from the peak of Great Whernside to Fountains Abbey. How exalted I had felt that day—for an instant born anew in the brilliant sky and balmy wind, embraced all round by the serenly waving grasses and vivid, fluttering leaves of spring. Upon returning to Thorp Green I had immediately set to work on a poem—a rare new poem:
O’er Grafton Hill the blue heaven smiled serene
On Grafton Hill the grass waved bright and green
Round Grafton Hill Old England’s noblest vale
Opened to summer’s sun and balmy gale…
The poem is a paean to Yorkshire, to England, to beauty, to life; yet why does it end thus, with the ruins and woods of Fountains Abbey, with death and oblivion?
Still nearer Grafton—Ripon’s holy fane
Like York’s drew heaven toward our earth again
And girt by Studley’s woods the walls that now
Like sunbeams shining upon winter snow
Mark with their ruin splendours long since gone
And say ONE FATE AWAITS ON FLESH AND STONE
These were my thoughts as we grown Brontë children circled the priory, though I said nothing. Charlotte strode with short but rapid steps ahead of Emily and Anne, who walked arm in arm, whispering occasionally—conspiratorially, no doubt, thought I—whilst I brought up the rear. It was another splendid day, billowing white clouds piled high to the east, but sharp cerulean sky overhead and a lovely warm breeze, through which flitted the occasional bird or bee. At last, we found a place to rest, in view of both the ruins and the river. Emily and Anne set the picnic out on a low, wide wall, sheltered from the sun by overhanging trees.
Charlotte led us in a prayer, after which we ate with considerable gusto, our conversation focused entirely on the meal before us. Finally, as we began to be sated, I spoke.
“Pray tell me, sisters, where do things stand with the school for young ladies?”
Charlotte appeared at once agitated and reluctant to respond, and so for once it was Emily who, following an awkward silence, spoke at last, in her usual direct manner.
“It seems that we’ll be advertising soon for our establishment. With you and Anne at Thorp Green, we propose to establish the school at the parsonage, and have Papa’s blessing.”
Papa had already informed me of this scheme, but I was curious to hear it from the lips of my sisters themselves.
“How ever will you do, Emily, with strange creatures in the house?” I asked, laughing softly. “You can scarcely tolerate having your own brother there. Moreover, do you not dislike teaching altogether?”
Emily smiled but hesitated to speak. Charlotte, unamused, spoke for her, as she often does.
“Emily, it is true, does not like teaching much, but she would occupy herself with the housekeeping; I would take responsibility for the instruction as well as the order, economy, and organisation essential in a boarding school.”
“Poor Papa,” I responded. “Sharing his roof with a gaggle of chattering little blockheads in his dotage. And where are Anne and I to sleep when we are home on holiday? In a chair before the fire with our feet up on the fender, next to Keeper and Flossy? In the back kitchen? In the privy? Well, in that case, at least I’ll not have far to go when nature calls!”
Charlotte’s little face grew red, as she responded sharply, “You have hardly concerned yourself with poor Papa all these years, have you?” What was this frustration, this controlled fury, simmering just beneath the surface of her every waking minute? It has become even worse since her return from Brussels. What happened there?
Doing my utmost to remain calm, I said, “I do not know what you mean, sister. I have endeavoured to make my way in the world for more than five years now, and have been afforded neither schooling nor travel.” I paused, then added: “Nor, for that matter, any inheritance.” These last words were calculated to elicit shame on her part, and perhaps even to silence her, but she would have none of it.
“Everything I have done,” said she, eyes now flashing and face a full crimson, “has been for Papa.” At this, Anne looked down at her hands, whilst Emily watched a pair of linnets hop along a low hedge that lay between us and the Wharfe, as the little birds trilled and twittered with unrestrained joy.
Charlotte soldiered on: “I left him after aunt’s death, it is true, but I did so because I wanted more instruction in French and German, to be in a superior position to start the school. If it were only to gratify my own desires, I should still be in Brussels.”
She bit her lip and paused, seemingly lost for a moment in reverie, but then continued, looking at each one of us in turn. “I have not told anyone this yet, but I have just been offered a position as first mistress in a large boarding-school in Manchester, with a salary of 100 pounds.”
Emily started with surprise, but I tried to use this new intelligence to turn the conversation into a more pleasant channel. “Why Charlotte, that is wonderful news! Surely you will accept, for then all will be gainfully employed”—here Emily glared at me, at which I smiled—“Yes, yes, especially you, Emily, for what you do for Papa is truly priceless; what you bring to the household exceeds what you take by a hundredfold!”
Charlotte scowled. “No, I cannot accept the offer, for I would have to leave Papa, and that I cannot do. Besides, my weakness of sight makes it nearly impossible to read and write. No…no…it is out of the question. Papa needs me.”
“I see,” said I; there was no point in continuing the conversation, for when Charlotte has made up her mind, there is no gainsaying her. Anne again seemed to be examining something in her lap—perhaps a loose thread in the fabric of her dress, or the lines in the palms of her hands—whilst Emily now gazed at the bank of clouds massing in the eastern sky, for the linnets had flown away.
What all three of us knew, I am quite sure, was this: what Charlotte had just said made no sense whatsover. If Papa needed her now, surely he had needed her when she rushed back to Brussels after aunt’s death; if Emily could care for him then, she could do so now; if her eyesight was so poor (I see no evidence of this in her handwriting or her continued daily reading—was she “going blind” in sympathy with Papa, was she a simple hypochondriac, or worse, an outright liar?), how could the very affliction that prevented her from being first mistress in Manchester permit her to operate and teach in and administer her own school in Haworth?
Anne, ever the conciliator, spoke at last. “Well I for one wish you well, for if the school is a great success and you have many young ladies, perhaps I can return home to teach with you, for I am grown weary of Thorp Green and my charges, who—though they have surely become attached to me in their condescending way—do not improve much in their conduct, but instead become more and more impudent and ungovernable. I thank God that young Lydia is no longer under my tuition, though I am still required to follow her about on her rambles, for her mamma is so worried she will be accosted by gentlemen beneath her station.”
Charlotte and Emily laughed, for they are ever ready to hear tales of the spoilt Robinson girls, which Anne forever narrates with the ease and elegance of a well-written novel, providing her usual mimicry and causing her sisters to laugh until they are short of breath.
I, meanwhile, sat quietly, thinking of my Lydia, wondering if I would again be summoned to the boathouse in Scarborough, would again taste ecstasy in her arms, our sighs covered over by the waves crashing upon the sands at midnight.
I thought, too, of her young namesake, doubly dangerous as a spy and a flirt, for I had to confess to myself that despite my love for her mother, I did not know if I could resist those pale blue eyes and perfect face and form, those golden ringlets, if she were to make a target of me, to try to shoot me through the heart. Already I thought too often of her; how much worst would it be if she tried to beguile me with her charms?
But what madness was this? Why would she try to seduce me? Then again, it was the same question I had once asked about her mother—and which was more absurd, that a young lady or her mother would find herself in the arms of a twenty-seven year old tutor? Finally, how odd was it, really, that I sat thinking such thoughts, imagining myself alternately in the embrace of mother and daughter, while close by my three virgin sisters laughed at their expense. Could a more vivid example be given of the vast chasm that separates our most secret thoughts from our external expression? Or, for that matter, the interior lives of men and women?
“Branwell. Branwell!” said Anne, who had finished her anecdote and, with Charlotte and Emily, had gathered up the fragments, knives, dishes, etc., and restored them to our basket.
“Shall we walk over to Bolton Bridge? Do you remember what a beautiful spot it is?”
I nodded and turned to speak in a near-whisper to my eldest sister. “Listen to me, Charlotte: I did not mean to grieve you just now. I know you love Papa and mean to do only good.” I lifted my hat, scratched my head, and adjusted my spectacles. “But you must know that I, too, mean to succeed, to continue to be valued in my position at Thorp Green, to do all that I am able to avoid being a burden upon the family.”
Inexplicably, I felt my eyes begin to fill with tears.
“You must know that I am doing the best that I can, and like a baited animal I lash out when I feel attacked. I never wish to harm you.”
“Come, then, brother,” said Charlotte, her mask of stony indifference cracking slightly under a residue of fraternal love. “Let us be friends. Or,” said she, her jaw tightening once again as she regained full control, “at least let us call a truce until you leave for Scarborough.”
“Yes,” said I, feeling that this was the best I could hope from her, “let’s do just that.”
We walked the half-mile back to the inn and onto the old stone bridge that spans the Wharfe. The water was still high at Midsummer, due to the heavy spring rains, so high that only the great arches rose above its swift but untroubled stream. We stood, we four, at the precise centre of the bridge, silently suspended for a few moments between sky and water, between past and future, the unbearably sweet and transient beauty of life once again urging me to believe fervently in a Creator but also to rise up immediately against Him in rebellion. And why? For withdrawing its delights from us, for making us mortal, for casting us out of Eden—and most of all for taking Mamma, Maria, and Elizabeth from us.
As I revolved these thoughts through my mind came the words of the Reverend Brontë of my York Minster dream: It is wrong to say that Adam and Eve were simply cast out of Eden; nay, in disobeying God our first parents chose to walk out of the Earthly Paradise he had wrought for them. I wondered: how would it feel if I were to fall into the water? Would I struggle to remain afloat? Or would I be all too happy to give up the fight, to sink once and for all into the cold, deep currents? Leaning over the stream, I recalled that moment in Hogg’s Confessions, where Wringham writes of his insatiable longing for utter oblivion: “I desired to sleep; but it was for a deeper and longer sleep, than that in which the senses were nightly steeped. I longed to be at rest and quiet, and close my eyes on the past and the future alike, as far as this frail life was concerned.”
No: it had not come to this, but I knew this feeling, the pull toward nothingness, the desire to blot out everyone and everything—above all my own embittered consciousness. Anne, ever sensitive to the moods of others, drew me out of these lugubrious musings by leaning her head on my shoulder and squeezing my hand.
“Isn’t it beautiful here?” said she.
“It is indeed, though are you not eager to regain your beloved Scarborough?”
“I am. But they are entirely different things, are they not? I cherish them both, for one hardly excludes the other. Here nature is in constant transformation: the foliage of the woods and the ebb and flow of the river following the seasons; there, even though the colours of the sea and sky and sands are forever shifting like those of a kaleidoscope, the waves and the cliffs upon which they break sing to me of God’s eternal, immutable majesty.”
What could I respond to that? I merely squeezed her hand in return, and replied, “I see what you mean.”
No sooner had I uttered these words than we heard the impact of something striking the water. A young lad had escaped his mother’s grasp, clambered up onto the bridge, and promptly fallen into the swift current of the river. She shrieked with horror at the sight of her little one’s hat floating quickly away, his own head sinking beneath the water. Without a thought, I was out of my coat and hat, and had leapt into the water after him. I was able to reach the boy and drag him unceremoniously to the grassy riverbank, where his mother and my sisters soon joined us. I restored the lad, who was now sobbing unrestrainedly, to his mamma, whose cries of terror were changed to tears of joy, alternating with bouts of vigorous scolding for her son’s naughty behaviour. His straw hat floated away into the distance.
Rarely have I been thankful to sit in the sun at the hottest hour of a summer day, but yesterday I was delighted, for my clothes were nearly dry by the time we reached Haworth. My boots, however, are quite likely ruined.
Nearly half an hour has elapsed since I wrote the previous line; all this while, I have been seeking the right words to describe how I felt as I leapt from the bridge, into the water, and swam to clutch the young boy and tug him to the shore. I can find no words, except to say that only an animal instinct caused me to do so, divorced from all prior knowledge or the workings of reason, from all consideration of the advantages and disadvantages of doing so—or indeed, of not doing so. Afterwards what I felt was not great joy at the lad’s salvation (though I am truly glad he did not meet a watery demise), nor exultation at my own heroism (though the mother and my own sisters, including Charlotte, showered me with praise), but a strange serenity unlike anything I have ever felt.
Peace, true peace. That is all. I do not comprehend it.
July 29th, 1844 Scarborough
Before arriving here, Anne and I “enjoyed” the visit of Ellen Nussey at the Parsonage in our final week at Haworth. Charlotte somehow felt it important that her dearest Nell see all of us, as if we cared as much to see Ellen as she did; or as if Ellen cared as much to see us as she did Charlotte. With each day, as the moment of our departure grew closer, I became more impatient to be gone. Sitting with the young ladies, or accompanying them on their rambles on the moors, to Ponden Hall, Oxenhope and Bradford, I struggled—in vain, I fear—to keep my own mounting passions, my yearning to be gone, my desire both to be with Lydia and yet to avoid discovery, concealed beneath a mask of gaiety. I fear that my conduct has been erratic—sometimes in the highest spirits, laughing and talking rapidly, quoting poetry as in days of yore, entertaining Ellen and my sisters; sometimes in the deepest depression, fearing that Lydia has abandoned me, or that we will be discovered. Sometimes, indeed, I even accuse myself of the blackest treachery and guilt, though such thoughts of culpability are rapidly crushed. Has not Lydia suffered at her husband’s hands? Is not our love divine, and the narrow notion of adultery a mere conventional impediment?
Whether “guilty” in man’s eyes or not, who has not at least once in his life been driven to near madness by the necessity of concealing a dark secret? In such a situation, what requires more effort than simply to comport oneself as if all were normal? As Anne and I waved farewell to our friends as our coach departed Keighley, I felt mingled relief and apprehension. At least I was now withdrawn from the ever-watchful, ever-critical gaze of Charlotte, and from the fading eyesight of papa, whom I can scarcely now bare to confront. Is it that I feel true guilt, or is it my knowledge of what he would think if he knew of my proceedings that discomfits me so?
None of this matters, I confess, when I am in Lydia’s arms. She has again summoned me to the boathouse beneath our lodgings; how sweet is love after such an absence! “You still love me, then?” I said on the first night we met, Mrs. Marshall standing guard outside the bolted door. “It has been a lifetime since we have been together.”
“Foolish puppy,” said she, “it has been just two short months, and a good portion of that you left me to enjoy the good and pious people of home. I’m sure you gave me precious little thought amidst such moral rectitude.”
So overwrought had I been at the twin thoughts of at last seeing her and yet being discovered, that I had drunk two large glasses of whisky in short succession not long before arriving: just enough to loosen my tongue, and to remove all fear of man and God. The spirits had further inflamed my desire, and I drew her close, my entire being, within and without, hardening with lust.
“I don’t give a damn about the good people of home. They would not understand this, my love.”
Our practiced hands found and caressed each other’s bodies, and soon we were moving together in perfect rhythm: at first with an almost unbearably delicious languor, she above me, the motion of her hips bringing me to near-ecstasy as she bent down to whisper, “No, the good people of home would not understand this…or this…or this…”—each this corresponding to the moment at which she took my full length entirely into herself—“no, they would say that I am an utterly wicked woman, I’m quite sure of that.”
“I don’t care what they would say,” was all I could manage. “I don’t care what anyone would say. I love you!”
Lydia answered only with her body, and as the moments passed, time marked only by the crashing waves, we moved with increasing rapidity, until at last we expired in each other’s arms.
This was the night we arrived, and I have seen her several times since.
Chapter X—Enter Mr. Roxby
August 4th, 1844 Scarborough
Two days ago, Anne and I were offered the rare treat of accompanying the young ladies to the Theatre Royal, just a short walk from our lodgings, to see Shakespeare’s Richard II. I sat just behind my sister, who was next to Miss Robinson and her younger sisters. My pupil Edmund had been spared the performance, which would doubtless have bored him senseless. How different are we all, one from another! I would have walked ten miles to attend such a performance at his age. As for his parents, they were nowhere to be seen; Anne was to be the young ladies’ chaperone for the evening, as she so often is. Two weeks ago, we attended a concert at the Town Hall, whose quality far surpassed anything poor Frobisher can seem to arrange in Halifax—except for the famous Liszt, of course. Ah, what the seaside and the rich together are able to draw in their wake, even in such a small place as this!
The theatre is owned and operated by the famous acting family, the Roxbys. Before the play began it was announced that this Saturday there will be what they call a “fashionable night,” with a performance by the celebrated comedian, Robert Roxby himself. I thought it unlikely that we would attend, for the Robinsons are giving a party of sorts that very night, a sort of summer echo of Lydia’s coming-out ball the previous January, another chance to show her off—to market her wares, as it were—but to a larger, more diverse crowd. The spacious rooms at The Cliff would more than accommodate a small but well-chosen portion of the beau monde summering at Scarborough, and yet the family could use the excuse of not being at Thorp Green to exclude whomever they choose. The essential, of course, would be to invite the largest possible number of wealthy, unattached men.
But as the curtain rose and the King began to speak, all such considerations melted away, the magical incantation of Shakespeare’s language more powerful than any sorcerer’s spell. For cannot everyone find in his characters not just a mirror of the world, but himself? In the presence of such genius, how can the aspiring poet be anything but overwhelmed, nay, defeated—routed before he even bends to scratch his first word on the page?
I leant back in my chair, closed my eyes, and throughout the performance let the waves of the bard’s genius break over me, and as always I seized particularly on those verses that most closely shadowed my own thoughts:
Woe, destruction, ruin, and decay; the worst is death and death will have his day.
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth
Clearly none of these sorrowful subjects occupied the minds of the Misses Robinson, and I was roused from my dreary thoughts by incongruous whispers and giggles. Anne had leant over to silence her charges, but was having difficulty persuading them to hold their tongues. Lydia, it seems, was particularly taken with the appearance, in the second scene of Act III, of one of the young actors—a tall, well-built young gentleman with hair as black as hers was fair, eyes as dark as hers were pale, but sharing her fair skin and brilliant smile. Though he merely played the role of Sir Stephen Scroop, he seemed to have captured more than one young lady’s heart in the audience.
On the short walk home, I could hear Lydia chattering to Anne and her sisters about the young actor, who appeared to have shot her through the heart.
This Sunday afternoon, I was on holiday from my duties. A steady rain fell without respite and, other than to attend to my corporeal needs, I had yet to quit my room: there would be no divine offices for me. From my windows I could gaze out beyond the sands, where the low clouds, persistent rain, and steely sea shaded imperceptibly into one another, as in a sketch of charcoal. To the right, no one traversed the Spa Bridge; to the left, scarcely visible beyond the South Sands and harbour, rose the old church—Saint Mary’s—and above it the Castle, high on its headland. I was just beginning to doze over a volume of verse when I heard a gentle tapping at the door.
It was Anne, a wet umbrella in her hand, a few stray drops of rain clinging to her bonnet and shoulders. The family had just been to services at Christ Church, and Mrs. Robinson had released her for the day, to do as she pleased. Once she had made herself comfortable opposite me, she said, “Oh Branwell, I cannot possibly share this with anyone but you. Indeed, I almost feel as though I am guilty of gossiping. But is it gossip to confide the truth to one’s own brother? I promise not to slander, but I must share this with someone. And I should like your advice on how to proceed.”
My curiosity was instantly aroused. At first I suffered an instant of dread, fearful that Anne had somehow discovered my proceedings with our mistress, but quickly realised that I would be the last person from whom she would seek counsel if that were the case.
“Of course, sister, of course. And no, it is not gossip to confide in me—would you not do the same if Emily were here in my place? Yes, I thought so. And if you speak only truth, and wish to know my thoughts, how can this be wrong? Finally, even if I were a lying rogue, and wished to tell the world this secret, whatever it is, I am no fool: why would I risk my position, or yours?”
I spoke calmly, though I was impatient to know what she had come to tell me. “Tell me your story,” said I, leaning back comfortably into my chair, as if to be entertained.
“Well,” she began, “I am sure the young ladies’ fascination with a certain actor on Thursday night did not escape your notice.” I nodded. “Imagine that the very next day, in my discreet, matronly role as chaperone, I was accompanying Miss Lydia across the bridge. What a lovely day Friday was, Branwell! What spectacular views, what quickening sea breezes that day!”
“I know you love this place, Anne,” I laughed, “but what of your tale?”
“Oh, yes, forgive me. Now then, as we glided across the footbridge, whom should we meet but this very young man, the fascinating actor from the Theatre Royal!”
“Oh, that’s hardly a marvellous coincidence,” said I, laughing again. “Scarborough is so small, and if you exclude all the servants and merchants and other common folk, as well as all those not wishing to pay to cross that fashionable bridge, you will see that only a handful of people could be crossing it.”
“Still,” said Anne impatiently, “his appearance there was seen as marvelous by Miss Robinson. Though I cannot prove it, and she heatedly denies it, I am quite certain that she feigned stumbling just as the young man arrived, fairly falling into his arms. She apologized profusely, but had gained her two goals, his attention and his name: Henry Roxby.”
“Well now, this is interesting. Do you mean to say that he owns the Theatre Royal?”
“It’s a family concern.”
“And the celebrated comedian who was to perform last night? Robert Roxby?”
The Robinsons had been occupied with their grand soirée, so did not attend the “Fashionable Night” advertised, and I was not about to devote any of my own meagre funds to this purpose.
“The young man’s uncle, I believe.”
“Ah yes. They are very much the thespian dynasty, or so I have read in the newspapers. But on with your tale, if you please, Miss Brontë.”
“There we stood on the bridge, frozen for an instant, as the two young people seemed to play the lovers in a melodrama or a popular novel, struck by a coup de foudre. I must confess that there was something gratifying in seeing Miss Robinson—who always takes great pleasure in ensnaring men’s affections at will, while she remains coldly aloof, torturing them for her pleasure, like a little boy roasting birds alive for sport—in seeing her at the other end of Cupid’s arrow. Do you know that she has claimed on more than one occasion that she would never be so foolish as to fall in love, pronouncing the very word with disgust? So yes, I confess that I even smiled to myself to see her fall helplessly under the spell of Eros.”
“I fear you draw perilously near the Cliffs of Calumny,” said I, smiling, “or the Sands of Censure…say, why did not the great Bunyan include these in his Pilgrim’s Progress? What a shame! In any event, I believe you wished to adhere strictly to the facts, did you not?”
Anne laughed softly, clearly amused by the thought of her godless brother, lecturing her on morality. If possible, she sat even more erect, as if obeying a command.
“Yes, sir. So: there we found ourselves suspended between earth and sky, cliff and sands, the shimmering waves of the sea stretching as far as the eye could see, Miss Robinson’s flaxen ringlets and the flaps of her bonnet tossed merrily by the sea breeze, her dazzling eyes fascinated by the black orbs of the tall and dashing Mr. Roxby. The young people introduced themselves whilst I—great nobody that I am—stood awkwardly by.”
Here Anne paused for a moment, gazing out at the various shades of grey.
“You know, brother, that I believe it is foolish to wish for beauty, and that sensible people never either desire it for themselves or care about it in others. So Papa has wisely taught us, I know, but I must confess that the two made an extraordinarily handsome pair. After the requisite introductions, it was discovered that Mr. Roxby and his family were also staying at The Cliff…”
“Ah, you see,” I interjected, “the orbit of the beau monde in this town is so circumscribed that even that is hardly a coincidence.”
Anne continued, only slightly irritated by my impertinence. “Patience, Branwell, I’m just getting to the crucial part of the story. The two elegant young people stood facing each other, suspended above all the world, transfixed each by the other; Miss Robinson was speechless, it seemed, and blushed a lovely rose colour, two phenomena I had hitherto never experienced in her presence.”
“What a lovely picture you paint, Anne.”
Now she was beginning to be more than a trifle annoyed. “Very well, I shall hold my tongue for the rest of your tale,” I said, still smiling and leaning back in my armchair.
My sister is an excellent narrator, and so I shall record the remainder of the tale in her own voice. As she is wont to do at home in Haworth, Anne also leant back and put her feet up on the fender, folded her hands in her lap, and began:
Chapter XI—Anne’s Tale
At last Mr. Roxby, who, I would suspect, is quite accustomed to having this effect on the weaker sex, spoke.
“Miss Robinson,” said he, in a deep baritone. “I wonder if you and your family would care to be my guests at tomorrow night’s performance at the Royal?”
I stepped forward to speak in her ear, which gesture drew a look of confusion—though, I must say, it was not an unkind expression—from the young gentleman.
“Miss, have you quite forgotten the soirée your mamma has planned for you?” I whispered.
Had we been alone, I believe she would have stamped her little foot with dismay. Instead, she bit down hard on her lower lip and knitted her brows. It was, however, no more than two or three seconds before the resourceful girl had formed a plan.
“Mr. Roxby, I regret that we cannot attend. You see, Mamma has arranged for something of a soirée tomorrow—like the ball we gave in January on our estate, but of course much smaller—to introduce me to society.” She bit her lip again, this time not in anger, but coyly, smiling in triumph.
“The question then becomes,” said she, “whether you might be able to attend our soirée—after the performance, of course. Surely you might honour us with your presence for a few brief moments? Even if you and your esteemed uncle are fatigued, you are lodged at The Cliff after all, so you will be just steps from bed.”
No sooner had she said this last word than she grasped her error, and blushed a bright crimson. The handsome young actor’s face broadened into a smile that I found altogether too direct. He bowed.
“I may only be,” said he, still grinning, “a humble thespian, but I know not to present myself at such an event without a proper invitation from your parents. I might well be dragged out and shot, or cast headfirst from this bridge, or from the cliffs yonder,” said he, nodding in the direction of the castle.
“Sir,” said my charge, parting her lips in an inviting smile, her teeth brilliant in the midday sun, her extraordinary eyes catching and magnifying the sea and sky, “I will see to it that you receive a proper, written invitation, have no fear.”
At this, the young man bowed deeply and continued on his way. It was only with great effort that I refrained from clutching at Lydia’s sleeve, so agitated was I at what had just transpired.
“Surely, Miss, you do not think that your mother will approve of your taking it upon yourself to issue such an invitation to a complete stranger…and an actor no less. You know how she feels about keeping clear of anyone whom she has not, herself, approved!”
I can confess to you, Branwell, a far less noble reason for my apprehension: I was—am still, sometimes—worried that her dear mamma will fix the blame wholly on me, and will tell me that if I cannot control her daughters I must seek another situation. Though I have often chafed under the yoke of this position, I would prefer to leave of my own volition, and amicably. But let me continue.
Lydia turned to me, spinning her parasol defiantly, the eyes that had just made love to young Roxby now flashing defiantly, as hard and brilliant as sapphires. “Oh, Mamma’s so tiresome! As if I couldn’t take care of myself! Besides, I never forget my rank and station. All she thinks about is grubbing after money. But see here, Miss Brontë, did you not remark how elegantly he was dressed? Does his family not own the Royal, as well as theatres in Manchester and elsewhere? Are not his father and uncle amongst the most celebrated actors of the London stage? He must be fabulously rich.”
“I see, Miss, that there will be no arguing with you on this matter.”
Nor was there, either with her mamma or her papa, for they did not even hear of this until it was too late. Upon our return to our lodgings, she contrived—how, I know not—to have Mrs. Marshall dispatch an invitation to Mr. Roxby and his celebrated uncle, quite without her parents’ knowledge. Why Marshall would agree to this, and put herself at risk of dismissal, is a profound mystery to me. All I could observe, from my distance, was an unusually animated conversation that seemed to end with the faithful servant’s acquiescence.
The next evening was the grand soirée. I had no intention of appearing at such a gathering, but Mr. Robinson was insistent that the younger girls come, accompanied by their governess. He put a brave face on his illness, dressed handsomely for the occasion, and did his best to move about the company, though he soon enough betook himself to bed.
The drawing room was full of distinguished ladies and gentlemen, chosen either for their relation to the Robinsons, or their potential to become relations. Our mistress was in her glory, arrayed in a dazzling blue silk gown with wide flounces to her elbows, a sheer shawl, and long gloves, and gliding about to ensure that everyone had refreshments. From time to time I could hear her loud, vague, affected sigh of recognition—“Ahhhh!” However, once she had made her rounds, she spent the largest part of her time with her cousin, Lady Catherine Scott, who is quite frail and ill, and that lady’s wealthy husband, Sir Edward, a lively older gentleman, quite tall and handsome, with the broad shoulders and erect carriage of a military man, though I later learned that he is no such thing. He was dressed in a dark tail coat and trousers of rich fabric, and his large side whiskers and sweptback hair were remarkably dark for his age—so dark that I wondered whether he had dyed them! From where I sat with the young ladies, I could overhear some of their conversation, and—yes, I know I am wicked, Branwell—could not keep myself from listening. What was I to do, after all, clap my hands over my ears?
Lady Scott squeezed her cousin’s hand and said, “Lydia, I do hope that you will come to us at Great Barr Hall soon. My Edward and I would like nothing better.”
That distinguished gentleman simply bowed his head slightly and said, “It would be our pleasure, ma’am.”
Mrs. Robinson looked up at her cousin’s handsome husband with—was I imagining it?—the same inviting smile, the same full, parted lips and bright eyes her namesake had revealed to Roxby the day before on the footbridge. Is it any wonder, thought I, that her girls are such giddy, incorrigible flirts? With such an example as this in their own mother, they hardly need novels to corrupt them!
It was about this time that the doors opened, and the Messrs. Roxby—uncle and nephew—were introduced. I heard several muffled gasps from the ladies in attendance, as Mrs. Robinson rose to greet the gentlemen, concealing her confusion with a veneer of exquisite grace and the full powers of her charms. It certainly helped that the name of “Roxby” is known throughout the land, and that these two were impeccably dressed, handsome, and genteel-looking specimens of the stronger sex.
Soon her daughter had sailed across the room to greet the visitors she had invited, and it was immediately clear to all that Henry Roxby was already acquainted with her. I trembled, fearing that the blame for the initial encounter, as well as the invitation, would be laid squarely upon me, for how often has our mistress shifted it from where it belongs—viz., her daughters, or herself—to me, as if a governess could govern all things. Besides, she is out in society, so should her conduct really be my responsibility?
But yes, Branwell, I am aware that I digress. There followed a great deal of murmuring, after which the musicians struck up a waltz and some of the party began to dance. In the far corner of the vast salon I could see a red-faced Mrs. Robinson, now free to speak her mind, interrogating Lydia. The young lady later revealed to me what was said.
“Yes, Miss Brontë,” said she, after the Roxbys had departed, “I suppose you may gloat all you please. You were quite right in your estimation, that Mamma would not take kindly to my issuing an invitation to a stranger—and an actor no less.” Then her pretty face grew mischievous, as she added. “But I knew Mamma would never make a scene in such a situation, and besides, was not Roxby simply divine? Besides,” she concluded, setting her jaw with determination, “I will have my way.”
She did indeed have her way, for she had danced with Roxby not once, not twice, but three times, and I confess that no author or painter ever conceived a lovelier young couple. Meanwhile, her mamma returned to her conversation with Sir Edward and Lady Catherine. As the evening drew to a close and the guests began to take their leave, I felt my time had come to slip away, with the pretext of escorting Bessy and Mary off to bed. Instead, I was arrested near the door by Mrs. Robinson, who, liberated of all of her guests, now glowered unrestrainedly.
“Miss Brontë,” said she, her voice quavering with scarcely-controlled fury, “I would like a word, please. Such great girls as Bessy and Mary hardly need you as a nursemaid. Run along, girls.” She turned to me, her eyes flashing now with indignation.
“Miss Brontë, I do not know how these people came to be invited, but I understand that you and Lydia saw him on the bridge yesterday, is that true?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Was I to say, Branwell, that her daughter had fairly thrown herself into young Roxby’s arms?
“And you did nothing to prevent her from inviting him, without my knowledge?”
You know, brother, that I swallow my pride a great deal, but that I cannot abide an unjust accusation; I must speak out in my own defense. I could feel that my cheeks burned and my hands trembled with emotion, whilst I protested that I had, indeed, used all means at my disposal to try and dissuade Miss Robinson from inviting the Roxbys, and that my opposition had been routed at every turn.
At last, the good lady relented a bit, for if there is one thing she knows, I do not lie. Indeed, I think she might well like me far better if I were not so truthful. Of course this is the eternal dilemma of the governess, is it not, Branwell? I am told to gently remind the young ladies of this, that, or the other thing, which of course has no effect on such giddy, headstrong things. On the other hand, if I were to be more firm with them, I would be treated as a waspish tyrant, a modern-day harpy, and sent packing back to Haworth directly.
In any event, Mrs. Robinson softened just a bit, from wrath to mere dismay.
“Do, pray, Miss Brontë,” said she, “try not to be so touchy! There’s no speaking to you else. The truth of the matter is that I do not know how I can possibly keep this from her papa, who would be extremely angry if he knew of her treating this young actor”—she seemed to shudder at the word itself—“in such a familiar manner. But I will endeavour to conceal it, for it is often better to conceal what would grieve him in his state. I shall deal with Lydia, for I can no longer leave such things to you. Oh!—if you—if any governess had but half a mother’s watchfulness—half a mother’s anxious care, I should be saved this trouble.”
Anne paused here in her narration to sneeze, whereupon I asked, “Is that the entire tale?”
“No, not quite,” she responded. “Once our mistress had finished admonishing me, I went off to bed. No sooner had I lain down than I heard a soft rapping at my door. It was Miss Robinson.”
“Now Miss Brontë,” said she, “You must tell me everything Mamma said. I spied you two deep in conversation just now.”
“I’m dreadfully tired,” said I, “and do you not think you should ask your mamma yourself? I don’t see how it is my duty to serve as an ambassador between the two of you.”
Lydia, despite her difference in her height and colouring, was now the very picture of her mother, as she responded, “Goodness, Miss Brontë, do try not to be so sensitive. You know I can’t speak to her as I can to you.”
Because I am closer in age, thought I, or because I am a glorified domestic? But I said nothing. Not that she paused long enough for me to speak, mind you.
“What did she think of Mr. Roxby and his illustrious uncle?”
“Again, I would suggest that you speak to her about such concerns.”
“Oh! You exasperate me so! Surely you can tell me something?”
“Your mamma,” said I, weighing my words carefully, for I had no desire to see them turned against me in future, “said nothing about the gentlemen. She merely feels that I should have prevented you from inviting Mr. Roxby and his celebrated relative.”
“I hope,” replied Miss Robinson, “that you did not mention Marshall.”
“No, but if she had asked me, I would have told her, for I refuse to traffic in such deception.”
As I said, Branwell, Marshall’s role in all this was—and partly remains—a mystery to me. Why did she agree to send the invitations, knowing all too well that by so doing she would anger her employer? Further, why does the daughter wish to keep the mother ignorant of all this?
Lydia continued chattering, seemingly indifferent to my comment. “Well, in all events, Marshall is one of those domestic creatures who can do no wrong. She began as our nurse, you know, and is more family than servant at this point. Mamma would find a way to forgive her, I know that.” She paused and said, ominously, “And who knows what she has witnessed? She would not be the first lady’s maid to have a lifetime of secrets locked away in her breast.”
At last she rose from the edge of my bed and skipped away to the door, where she turned to whisper, “I will have my way, Miss Brontë, I will. Listen: we must go to the divine office tomorrow morning—rain or shine—for Roxby has promised to be there! You cannot tell Mamma.”
And so he was, Branwell. Mr. Robinson was ill, and his wife too exhausted from last night’s proceedings to attend, and thus Mrs. Marshall and I escorted the children to Christ Church beneath umbrellas. We were there early, and when Mr. Roxby arrived he positioned himself directly opposite us. Throughout the service Lydia’s eyes locked with his, and every few moments she sighed. I am quite certain that neither she nor Roxby heard a word the parson spoke, from the acclamation to the final blessing.
Anne removed her feet from the fender and, now sitting erect and smoothing her dress, concluded, “That, dear brother, is the entire tale, from start to finish. Who knows what will come of Lydia’s mischief? I would never have believed it possible, but this year I am positively thrilled to be leaving Scarborough in a few days, if only to remove that young lady from temptation.”
“You asked,” said I, “for my counsel. What is it you want to know?”
“What I wish to know is quite simple: do I reveal all, including Marshall’s role in the events, to my employers, or only answer when questioned? You know I will not lie, but is it right—as Mrs. Robinson herself claims—to conceal certain things, things that might only grieve others?”
Anne’s narrative had elicited, in rapid succession, so many emotions in me that I knew not what to think: trepidation, suspense, amusement, and dread. Dread because, despite the lack of any evidence thereof, I had a vague suspicion that Marshall’s inexplicable conduct was somehow, at least in part, connected to me. I breathed deeply and sought to perform a kind of disinterested calm.
“I say follow your heart, Anne, for it seems always to know what is just. But if I were in your place, I think I would keep entirely out of these affairs, unless of course you see something truly shocking, truly immoral, at which point you will be between the proverbial rock and hard place, for you will likely have to hand in your notice at the same moment you denounce the miscreants.”
Anne frowned. “Do you know, Branwell, that I have wished myself gone from Thorp Green almost from the beginning—that’s more than four years ago! Each time I prepared to leave, Mrs. Robinson convinced me that I was so valued in my position, and the young ladies so attached to me, that it was out of the question. And yet, as you see, when her humour or circumstances dictate it, she is perfectly comfortable treating me with all the respect she would give to a kitchen girl or farm hand.”
“Well, as you say, such is the plight of the governess—or the tutor, for that matter.”
My sister merely sighed and looked out to sea, where the dark skies grew blacker still in the gloaming, where the rain fell even harder upon the sands and the waves beyond. At length she coughed, and rose to collect her outer-garments, bonnet and umbrella.
“Good-night, brother,” she said, kissing me on the cheek.
Whence, I wondered as I watched her move down the great corridor toward her room, does such strength come? And such goodness! Why do I feel that any traces of those two qualities are, and forever will be, utterly alien to me?
Chapter XII—Love and Treachery at Scarborough Castle
August 14th, 1844 Scarborough
Tomorrow we leave for Thorp Green, and like Anne, I am eager to depart Scarborough. So much has unsettled me here that I can only hope that a period of calm and regularity will resume once the family has returned to its home, and we all assume our customary routine. Since the advent of Miss Robinson’s grande passion for Mr. Roxby, I have been thoroughly cut off from her mother, and after hearing Anne’s alarming tale I can do nothing but fulfil my duties instructing Edmund; though I ache to be in Lydia’s arms, I am almost relieved to be severed from her, so much do I tremble at the thought of some kind of discovery. As I was to learn several days after Anne told me her story, such worries were not unwarranted.
One glorious afternoon, after Edmund had finished his lessons, I determined upon a walk to the old church and the castle. Anne was feeling poorly and so I struck out alone, knowing how much she would have enjoyed the lovely breezes, the sun glancing across the waves, the quiet little churchyard perched high above the harbour, the boundless main beyond, and high above it all, the melancholy castle ruins, overgrown with a green riot of vegetation.
I paused to walk the churchyard, and said a godless prayer for the unknown sleepers in that quiet earth. Within me arose that old, inexpressible emotion I have so often felt: joy and wonder at being alive, mingled with the deepest sadness, a mourning, really, for the brevity of this life.
I followed the familiar Castle Road up to the ruins, and there climbed a wall for a view of both the South and North Bays, and to the east, the vast expanse of the sea, while to the west the ancient town lay at my feet, and far beyond it, mile upon mile of rugged hill and forest, of occasional valleys, across the breadth of England. It occurred to me that at almost precisely this latitude, on the far side of our island kingdom, lay Broughton-in-Furness. How long since I had thought of Broughton, of my six months there, of the joy I found in the arms of Agnes Riley. Agnes! What has become of you? Do you still think of me? Are you quite real? Was it all merely a dream? I thought of our first time together, thrown together, of how she made me feel. Had I given her half the ecstasy she gave to me? If I had the power of flight, I thought, stretching the front panels of my coat out into the constant ocean breeze, would I wing my way across the country to ask her? Or was I afraid to know the answer? She had called me a good man: a sign of her ignorance of the world, no doubt.
As these musings coursed through my mind, I fell into a trance-like state as deep as any dream, and was soon barely conscious of the wind whipping through my hair or the sun warming my brow as I clutched my hat in my hand and gazed to the west.
I was finally roused from my reverie by a laugh from below, where an elegant young couple strolled about, whilst a more matronly figure appeared to survey them from a distance. As the young man and woman walked in my direction, along the base of the ramparts, I heard sweet ringing tones come from beneath the twirling parasol, and a deep, mirthful voice respond from under a broad straw hat: they had halted just beneath me, and turned toward each other. The parasol’s gyrations had ceased, and I could scarcely see the young man’s hat, for he seemed to lean under the lady’s protection from the sun, which now served to shield them both from my gaze. I could hear them speak, but the wind and sea prevented me from grasping anything more than an occasional word.
Soon they were once again moving along the base of the wall, as I matched their steps high above. Why did I follow them? I wish I knew—and wish I had not done so. When they paused again to talk, I also stopped, and, for a mere instant, set down my hat so that I could sit comfortably, in hopes of overhearing them, for the height of the ruined wall on which I stood had decreased, and I was now closer to them. At precisely this moment—alas!—a great gust of wind seized my hat and carried it far over the heads of the young couple in question, landing and then rolling on its brim toward the cliff. My reaction was as involuntary as it was instantaneous: I cried out, stretching my hands toward the lost item. I immediately sensed my error, and stooped down to avoid being detected, but it was too late.
My blood ran cold as I fully heard, and recognized, the voice of the young woman, whose dulcet tones were promptly replaced by the shrill cries of a termagant. It was none other than Miss Lydia Mary Robinson. The gentleman, who had already beaten a hasty retreat, was of course Mr. Henry Roxby.
“Come down here, this instant, I say. Mr. Brontë, I insist that you come down directly!”
Soon I had clambered down, and stood before the young lady, who, still a picture of perfect beauty despite her wrath, was rapidly spinning her parasol in great agitation, her eyes flashing with indignation.
“Have you been listening all this while, Mr. Brontë—spying on me? What cause would you possibly have to do so? Do you not have enough of your own mischief to occupy you?”
At first at a loss for words, I finally stuttered, “I…I…was just out for a stroll, you see. I could not have known that you would be here…with…that gentleman.”
At this moment Mrs. Marshall—for she, of course, was the woman I had glimpsed from afar—walked up, my hat in her hand. Passing it to me, she dared to intervene.
“See here, Miss, I’m sure it was merely by chance that Mr. Brontë was here—he and his sister, you know, are quite fond of such rambles.” She looked at me meaningfully, adding, “I’m quite certain that he is the soul of discretion, and that your secret is safe with him.”
This speech only vexed Lydia more, and she stamped her right foot like a little girl.
“Hush! Don’t take his part, Marshall. And even if what you say is true, and he is merely an involuntary spy, what’s done is done, and I must make certain that he will never speak of it to Mamma and Papa. Now wait for me at the top of the road, for I wish to speak to Mr. Brontë alone.”
Marshall bowed stiffly and retreated, whilst the young lady turned and gazed out to sea, saying nothing. Once we were quite alone—now with heightened suspicion, she turned and surveyed even the castle ruins to be sure of it—Miss Robinson gazed directly at me, her visage such a curious amalgam of beauty and fury that I knew not whether I could even respond to what she was about to say.
“I don’t know what your sister has told you—for though she is a faithful confidante and as pious as a nun, blood is forever thicker than water, no matter what people claim—but that gentleman was Mr. Henry Roxby. You may remember him from the Theatre Royal?”
“Yes, he did seem familiar.”
“See here, Mr. Brontë, all proper ladies and gentlemen know more than they reveal. This is called discretion, the mortar that holds society together. I, for example—though I have no unassailable proof—believe that you and Mamma have carried on an illicit affaire de coeur—no, don’t interrupt me—almost since you arrived at Thorp Green. How do I know, you ask? First, I can see it in your faces, how you positively glow with pleasure when you are brought into each other’s proximity—though Mamma has gotten much better of late—perhaps it is over and finished?—though that matters not to me. Second, I am no fool—when Marshall has shepherded us all to York for the day, or stood guard at the door of your lodgings, or accompanied mamma down to the boathouse at midnight—”
I felt the blood drain from my face.
“Ah ha! Your face again tells me the truth! You see, I am just as capable a spy as you, Mr. Brontë.”
At last, knowing I could speak the truth—almost—and defend myself on at least one point, I responded, “You should know that I was not spying on you, Miss Robinson. I was merely rambling about, and enjoying the view from high above, on the ramparts, as I always do.”
Perhaps because she believed that my countenance had revealed what she had long suspected, Lydia’s face, and indeed her entire being, seemed to become less anxious, her muscles relaxing like those of a predator who has successfully seized and killed his prey, and now can tranquilly enjoy the feast. At last she smiled, a Fury transformed into cunning vixen. The revolutions of the parasol, which had slowed and stopped as she spoke, now began again, but this time with a merry, almost flirtatious movement.
“Yes, so you say—and even Marshall there”—here she tossed her head disdainfully in the direction of the Castle Road—“has sprung to your defense. Curious, don’t you think, that Marshall would appear to risk her very employment and future prospects by so bluntly disputing the statements of her young mistress? Don’t you wonder why?”
I said nothing, but assumed that an explanation was forthcoming.
“I am aware,” she continued, “that now that I am out in society, my orbit is more controlled than ever, my every movement observed. Mamma wishes me to marry some wealthy booby or disgusting old man for money, and to be as miserable as she has been. Indeed, society dictates that I should not even be seen speaking alone to you, Mr. Brontë, unless to give you orders in your capacity as a domestic.”
She surveyed me from head to toe, and exhaled rapidly through her nostrils, snorting like her sister Bessy’s prize mare. She was thoroughly unimpressed—I was no Henry Roxby, that was for certain.
Lydia’s eyes narrowed as she put her arm unexpectedly through mine and directed us toward the cliff, the ocean looming beyond the sands of the North Bay. At the foot of the escarpment, a flock of noisy seagulls battled over something that had washed ashore.
“I can see,” said she, glancing slyly at me as we walked along the edge, “that you might be suitable for someone like Mamma. Like your sister, you are not unpleasant to look at, though you certainly have no particularly laudable attributes, either. I suppose what I mean to say is this: no one would suspect me of making love to you, and should anyone observe us in this unusual and never-to-be repeated situation, we will say that I grew faint, and that you did what any gentleman—yes, even a lowly tutor—would do, and conveyed me back to Mrs. Marshall.”
The young lady could not have contrived to rouse in me a more frustrated, bitter form of indignation if she had tried, her mocking, if lovely eyes and sarcastic, curled lip surpassed only, in eliciting my irritation, by her infuriating insistence on the word tutor. My thoughts continued, it seemed, to be written across my face.
“Now, now, Mr. Brontë, don’t be so touchy! This is simply the way of the world, you know.” She paused for a moment, now biting her lip, and adding, “It’s that same order of things that would keep me from seeing Mr. Roxby, which brings us back to my subject. Let me lay things out before you, and let us see if you view matters as I do, shall we?”
I said nothing, feeling once again the mingled emotions of fear, anger, and confusion—and most of all a powerful desire to remove myself from Lydia’s presence. I tried to remove my arm from hers, but she would have none of it. “No no, Mr. Brontë, absolutely not, you will hear me out. This is how I view matters: I wish to continue to see Mr. Roxby if I can contrive to do so, and he has vowed to write me at Thorp Green—and Marshall has promised to help us.”
As we neared the cliff, she at last released me, and turned so that we faced each other. I must again have revealed my thoughts, this time puzzlement—perhaps I was too much in shock to have tried to conceal them—for Lydia paused and examined my face briefly, and finally added, “I see that further explanation is needed. Marshall, understand, is the key that unlocks the entire mystery; you may think her an obedient cipher, but in her quiet way she sees and controls all. Surely she is not the first lady’s maid to hold such power, hmm? She knows enough about Papa’s conduct of yore—don’t seem shocked, Mr. Brontë, I am sure Mamma has told you, and I have put together the pieces of that unseemly puzzle over the years—enough to sow discord in the family and sully his reputation; she has witnessed Mamma’s proceedings with you sufficiently that if she were to divulge them, Papa would cast his wife off without a shilling; and now I, too, am in Marshall’s thrall, for she could likewise destroy me. In short, we are all dependent upon her discretion, and could all be damaged if the good woman so desired.”
“But,” I said at last, “why do you permit this to continue? Why have your parents not given Marshall her notice long ago? Surely she would need letters of introduction, would she not? Do you thus not have something to hold over her head?”
Lydia smiled, somewhat ruefully I thought. “Do you think that Mamma and Papa want to take such a chance? Do I? How can one be sure? Marshall is clever, if not downright cunning, and she could wreak her revenge through other parties, while holding herself blameless. More to the point, Marshall has proven her allegiance to the family again and again, and has no interested in disrupting a calm in which she herself thrives. She holds secrets she could use against each one of us, and so we must all trust her completely. Only the present state of affairs prevents our mutual destruction.”
My head throbbed over the complexity of the matter, and Scott’s Marmion—one of Charlotte’s favourites—came to mind: Oh what a tangled web we weave / When first we practice to deceive! I began to understand why young Lydia had used Marshall to invite Roxby to the soirée, and why her mother had directed her ire at Anne, rather than her lady’s maid.
“But what if your parents enquire of Marshall, directly, whither you walked today, and with whom? What if they ask directly: did she see Mr. Roxby?”
“She will say that we saw no one, just as she has averred that Mamma was taking tuition from you in drawing and painting, and has—with Mamma—ridiculed you in Papa’s presence. Not too much, mind, for that, too, would raise suspicions—you know, ladies protesting too much and all that.”
“What?” I could not help from crying out with dismay, which only provoked laughter from my young companion. Would a just God, thought I, have united such an angelic face with such devilish cruelty?
“Hush, Mr. Brontë, I am sure Mamma is quite fond of you. Don’t you see that such conduct is necessary dissimulation?”
Despite her efforts to calm me, my face burned with indignation at the thought of the sickly old man joining his wife and her lady’s maid in mocking laughter, at my expense. I felt, for a moment, the fool’s craving to hear evil of self that haunts some people like a demon, wondering exactly what had been said in each of these instances.
“So what would happen,” said I, my anger triumphing over good sense, “if I were to say that you were with Mr. Roxby? And I should tell you, Miss, that had you been accompanied by my sister today, and she were asked, she would tell the truth, for she would sooner quit Thorp Green without a recommendation than utter a single untruth.”
She waved her hand in the air dismissively. “Yes, yes, my heavens, I know full well Miss Brontë’s saintly character—she is utterly ignorant of all of this, of course, as she is of so much of true human nature—and such honestly has its place, of course; but it also has its limits. This is precisely why I seized upon her being indisposed today to arrange a meeting with Roxby, don’t you see? As for you, sir, I am quite certain that you would withhold the truth—for you have daily practice in the arts of deception, don’t you?—if you were asked, so I prefer to view your question about yourself as conjectural rather than threatening.”
“What causes you to be so certain?” said I, still angry.
“Because,” she whispered seductively, her perfumed, oval cheeks fresh and smooth, her stunning eyes opening wide with mock-desire. “Because, dearest Mr. Brontë, if you were say such a thing, I would not only deny it, but would say that it was you I saw at the Castle ruins today, that you contrived to lose your hat, and when Marshall ran after it, you took me roughly by the arm and fairly dragged me out of her sight, behind the ramparts, and began kissing me passionately and attempting to proceed to further extremities, as I struggled to get away. It was only when you heard Marshall’s footsteps that you released me! Everyone sees the way men look at me—yes, even you, despite your infatuation with Mamma—and everyone would credit such a tale.”
I gazed at her in wonderment, realising that for each objection I might summon forth (Why would I lie about Roxby? Why did she wait to report my indecent advances?), she would have a ready answer (Mr. Brontë had heard about Mr. Roxby, and has invented a rendezvous to cover his own villainous conduct; she did not wish to report my conduct until we had left Scarborough, to avoid a scandal). More to the point, whom would her good Papa believe, his own daughter or his son’s tutor, toward whom he already had a measure of antipathy?
I felt at once thunderstruck and rooted to this spot, near the cliff’s edge; I was speechless as I gazed out on the expanse of the sea, whose dancing waves seemed to join gaily in Lydia’s mockery.
“Look at me, Mr. Brontë.”
I turned, and saw that if any young lady’s eyes were capable of shooting, in the same moment, both the amorous arrows of Cupid and the poisonous darts of Hercules, it was she who stood before me. As if reading my thoughts, she continued, “Yes, I am quite certain that you will say nothing. Surely you wish to continue at Thorp Green…yes, yes, I see that you do. Why leave, indeed, such a position, as long as it suits you and Papa—and, more importantly, Mamma?”
She at last turned and walked toward the Castle Road, where Ann Marshall, leaning against a low wall, waited patiently.
“Oh,” Lydia added, stopping after just a few steps, before Marshall could make out her words, and facing me once more. “You might be wondering why I choose not to have you dismissed directly.”
In reality, I had not allowed myself even to consider the possibility, but I was, for all my trepidation, curious to hear her reasoning.
“Let us look at the two possibilities: in the first, you are sent packing. Papa is enraged, and it is most likely that he also decides to dismiss poor, innocent Miss Brontë”— though I believe she has some true affection for Anne, she said this last with something of a sneer—“for no other crime than being your unfortunate sister, and so my sisters are without a governess, just when everyone has become used to one another, and Papa and Mamma must again advertise, and who knows what sort of wretched creature they’ll find? I’ll confess that I despise them all, though your sister, in comparison to others I have known, is the best one could ever expect from that peculiar tribe. Meanwhile, Mamma is so sad—tellement triste—without her young Mr. Brontë to pay her court—”
I must have scowled, for she laughed and added, “Now now, sir, please keep that Irish temper at bay…ha ha! What was I saying? Oh yes, Mamma is so sad, and so cross, and thus wishes to deny to her daughter the happiness she once had in arms of her son’s young tutor—no, don’t be shocked, Mr. Brontë, the truth is out, but we both have an interest in keeping each other’s secrets…I hope, at least, to have convinced you of that.”
I could not refrain from grinding—for want of openly gnashing—my teeth. “You said there were two possibilities.”
“Ah, yes, just so. As I was saying, we have a mutual interest in discretion, do we not? For the second possibility is this: all continues as it has been, and should you hear of anything concerning Mr. Roxby—indeed, should I need you to do anything concerning that gentleman—you will be my humble servant. Is that quite clear?”
Miss Lydia Mary Robinson would have the last word, just as she would have her own way, and so spun on her heel and descended the steep road into town, joining Mrs. Marshall without a single backward glance.
Chapter XIII—A Letter for Mr. Roxby
August 25th, 1844 Thorp Green
We have at last returned to the quiet daily life of Thorp Green. I have seen little of Mrs. Robinson—my Lydia—and then only in our proper rôles as mistress and tutor. When reason holds sway, I feel a kind of peaceful relief, for so long as we are apart there can be no discovery; but when, more often, passion gains dominion over me, I crave and ache and yearn for her, and am driven almost mad with desire. To be so near and yet so unable to be together as one! I would rather, I sometimes think, be across the Channel or beyond, than just a few steps away from her chamber, where her soft curves, enveloped in silk, embrace her bed as once they clung to me. Does she think or feel any of this?
This afternoon, at liberty to do as I pleased, I carried my drawing materials outside, for Charlotte has asked for a sketch of my lodgings. It was one of those splendid days of late summer when banks of white clouds render by their contrast the sky an even more brilliant hue, when the soft breeze occasionally hints of the shorter days and cooler seasons to come. I sat behind the Old Hall, on the stump of a tree felled long ago, and began to sketch: the trees bent to the left by years of wintry northern blasts; the little lane, skirted by an old stone wall, leading up to the “Monk’s House” (I thought of my distinctly “un-monklike” behavior there, with Lydia), the old seventeenth-century building with its steeply-pitched roof and tall chimney; the newer addition to the right and the outbuildings to the left; and finally, the brilliant sky and billowing clouds beyond.
I was lost in that blissful inner world of creation—so common in childhood and now so rare—where one loses all sense of time and place, and cannot say how long I worked in silence, a silence broken only by the occasional notes of a songbird and the rustling of leaves that were sere, but not yet ready to fall. It was not until a shadow fell across my sketch that I became aware of the presence of someone standing behind me.
It was Miss Robinson. Her gaze had not met mine directly since that fateful day high above the sea at Scarborough, nor had she addressed a word to me; but now here she was, still in her riding habit from an afternoon outing, a tall beribboned hat cocked jauntily to one side and her eyes twinkling with blue mischief, as confounding and bewitching as ever. She held what appeared to be a small novel in her hands.
I had started when her shadow fell over my sketch, nearly spilling my ink.
“Ha ha, Mr. Brontë, you see, did I not tell you?—you are not the only person capable of sneaking about!”
I knew not how to respond, so held my tongue.
“Mais alors, monsieur, il ne faut pas bouder! Ha ha! You see, your sister has not broken her head—elle ne s’est pas cassé la tête—and heart for naught—she has managed to get some French into my own pate over the years. I am not such a great blockhead as she thinks.” She speaks with great rapidity, and, increasingly, like her mother.
I laid down my pen and stoppered my ink. “Forgive me, Miss, I was not sulking. My mind was still on my drawing, I’m afraid. And of course my sister does not think you a blockhead.”
She gazed at me in such a way as to suggest that, regardless of how little esteem she has for me, she was incapable of resisting even this brief opportunity for flirtation.
She sighed sweetly. “Ahhhhh….well, perhaps not a blockhead, but I am certain that our austere governess feels that I rarely make inclination bow to duty, that I am incapable of moderating my desires or sacrificing my own will for the good of others, and that I favour all those things that produce the greatest show with the smallest labour.”
What should I say in response to this? Had not she herself told me that discretion is the mortar that holds society together? But she had paused only briefly for a response, for she seemed far more interested in hearing herself chatter on than in anything I might have to say. I again held my tongue.
“I see that you are intent upon being reticent with me today, Mr. Brontë. But see here, I was setting no trap for you. I readily agree to all such criticisms, but simply choose to view them in quite a different light. Why should I sacrifice my will for the good of others? Would they do so for me? And why should I not seek my pleasure, and wish to dazzle others, rather than pass my days in the deadly-dull perusal of dusty tomes? Such pursuits might suit the professor or the monk—or governess or tutor, for that matter—but they are hardly fitting pursuits for a young lady in society, don’t you agree?”
“I am sure,” I responded carefully, “that you have given these things a great deal of thought, and that you will surely do what you think is right.”
“Ha ha!” she laughed heartily, and genuinely. “Oh Mr. Brontë, what casuistry! You are every bit the clever diplomat, a veritable Jesuit! I suppose I am not a blockhead, for I am hardly fooled by such cant, which seems to say something, but means nothing. Or rather, I would translate it as this: You are my mistress’s daughter, and you will do what you choose to do, and far be it from me to correct you. Now then, how’s that?”
I could not but smile at this. She is a clever girl, despite her years of uneven application in her studies; above all, she knows how the world works. I wondered, for a brief instant, if her desires ever transcended those machinations at which she seemed so adept. Was there more to her than that lovely face and gracious figure, than that keenly scheming mind she had of late revealed to me? Were there great, unspoken, and perhaps indescribable yearnings, or silent stretches of sadness, buried beneath that perfectly fitted riding habit? Surely, if she has not yet felt true sorrow, she will someday—for who can escape that in this life?
She would hardly confide such feelings, if such feelings she had, to me. After all, was not the ability of her class to mask true feelings—to conceal any fanciful feelings or flights they may feel—one of the talents that ultimately made for their continued success in the world? Thus, still under constant threat of dismissal at her hands, I said only, “It is indeed true that it would hardly be my place to correct you. For that matter, you are no longer in the schoolroom, so I suppose my sister’s views are no longer of much import either.”
“Hmm…well,” said she, passing her small volume, marked with a folded sheet of paper, daintily from one soft white hand to the other, “while that may be strictly true, Mamma is always sending her along with me on my rambles, so that I can never be alone, and even when she does not speak, I can read it in her eyes whenever she disapproves of my conduct, which is quite often. Remember, I was her pupil for nearly four years, so I know her every mood and gesture, as if she were my own sister. And it is certainly true that she has some tiresome opinions, always thinking of what is right and what is wrong, and has a strange reverence for matters connected with religion. I trust this comes from being raised in your pious papa’s quiet little parsonage in the wilderness.”
She paused for a moment, her eyes narrowing. “And yet, you hardly seem to share those proclivities. I’ve only seen you in church perhaps a half-dozen times in all the while you’ve lived here, and even then, your face seems always to match my own feelings—when will this interminable service be done!—ha ha! Though I do love the comings and goings on Sundays, for it’s one of the rare occasions I am allowed to see other people, and don’t feel buried alive here at Thorp Green. I am especially fond of seeing the young gentlemen of the country, who come to worship me, of course, as much as the Almighty! Perhaps more!”
She was delighted with herself.
Squinting in the bright sunlight, I could now see, behind Miss Robinson, the unmistakable form of my sister, making its way across the park. The former’s sudden, unwonted—unless she had simply become so desperate to coquette with a young man, any man, that even her brother’s tutor would suffice—familiarity with me permitted my response, which I whispered conspiratorially: “I would counsel you to cease such blasphemy, for your erstwhile governess herself approaches. You would not want to hear any more of her tiresome opinions, would you?”
“Good Heavens,” said she, for she had remembered the true reason for seeking me out. She drew the paper, which was, in fact, a letter, from the pages of her novel, and tossed it in my lap. “Now then, you are to send this to Mr. Roxby…it’s already addressed and sealed…Mamma has taken to watching my every movement, and after the incident of the invitation in Scarborough, she is keeping even Marshall under close surveillance as well. Quickly now, hide it!”
I slid the letter into my vest pocket and picked up my sketch, as Anne approached. Lydia feigned surprise at her arrival. “Oh! Miss Brontë! I was just admiring your brother’s sketch of the Monk’s House. It reminds me of the pencil drawing you made of the church at Little Ouseburn.”
Anne reached down and lifted my sketch, which was nearly complete, and held it before her, comparing my rendering to the buildings themselves. “This is vastly superior to my work, I’m afraid. Just think,” she continued, teasing me gently as she placed her left hand on my right arm, “what he could do if he really applied himself.”
Miss Robinson, now standing behind Anne, smiled maliciously at me and said, “Well, I don’t know—Ned appears to be making progress—no small feat, for he is a bit of a simpleton, poor lad—under Mr. Brontë’s guidance, who is marvelously valued by Mamma…and Papa, of course.”
“Speaking of your good parents, they have sent me in search of you,” said Anne, oblivious to the double-entendre.
Having delivered Roxby’s epistle to me, the young lady was all too happy to decamp. “Bon courage!” she cried over her shoulder as she and Anne made their way back to the house. I am quite certain that this phrase was meant to apply to my delivery of the letter, and not my sketch.
Tonight, as I finished the drawing, adding final shades and shadows, I considered what to do with the missive in question, which I have in my pocket still. Denouncing Miss Robinson to her parents would not do, for she would surely make good on her threat and claim that I had tried to ravish her—and who knows how she might embellish? If desperate enough, she might even denounce her own mother, though I considered that unlikely.
I, on the other hand, may move about as I please, so nothing could be simpler than posting the letter from a nearby village; but I would then have aided and abetted the young lady in her intrigue with Roxby, against the express wishes of her parents. If it came to light that I had participated in these clandestine proceedings, I would surely be dismissed.
As I added P.B. Brontë to the lower left corner of the drawing and today’s date to the right, a third possibility arose before me: what if I were simply to feign mailing the letter? In that case, I could either destroy it, or keep it as evidence. But to what end? I wrote, in a firm and even hand, the year in the middle of the page, just beneath the sketch—1844.—and at the bottom of the sheet a note to Charlotte: “This is only a rough pen and ink sketch of the back of my lodgings—the ‘Old Hall,” built about 1680—or 85.”
Why had I written this? Charlotte is far too accomplished an artist not to observe how much time and effort I had put into the drawing—the careful detail, the minute hatching and cross-hatching—it was hardly only a rough sketch. Was this true modesty or something else? In denominating it thus, was I already, contemptibly, seeking praise from my sister?
And Roxby’s letter? Tomorrow, when I post my sketch to Haworth, will be soon enough to take my decision, so I will sleep on it. Or as Miss Robinson might say: la nuit porte conseil.
October 17th, 1844 Thorp Green
I sent the letter to Roxby—and many more after it. How he communicates to her, I know not. Perhaps he does not, and the love is all on one side? No, no: her pride is far too strong for that. Who knows but that she has contrived to have a labourer or dairymaid deliver them! Despite an initial temptation, I have opened none of Miss Robinson’s letters, though I have no doubt that together with her hero’s replies they would make a fine bundle of trash, good enough to be printed as a novel. It is, alas, now far too late for anything but absolute submission to the young lady, for any other alternative would lead to my ruin. And yet, I wonder, where will this all end?
Charlotte has finally written, to thank me for my sketch and to admit at last that the scheme to create the Misses Brontës’ Establishment in the parsonage has perished in the womb. There are, it seems, no pupils to be had; even Ellen Nussey, with all of her family’s connections, has failed to secure a single one. I must say my sister is quite likely correct when she says that if a mother brought her little girl to Haworth the aspect of the place would frighten her so much she would take the dear thing back instantly. Indeed, she seems almost to be relieved on the subject, and I have no doubt that Papa and Emily are as well. Ever in search of a moral, she writes: We have no present intention however of breaking our hearts on the subject—still less of feeling mortified at defeat—The effort must be beneficial whatever the result may be—because it teaches us experience and an additional knowledge of the world.
More to the point, however: what will Charlotte do? She has declined the teaching post in Manchester, and will never again, says she, be “trampled upon” as a governess (Anne, of course, winces each time Charlotte thoughtlessly utters such comments in her presence). Will she simply live at Papa’s expense? What of marriage? No, each time her hand was requested, she refused, and that was many years ago. It is surely too late; who would have her now?
As I watch the leaves fall, I wonder: will I ever again drown myself in Lydia’s warm embrace? The ache is so great at times that I think only death would cure it.
Chapter XIV—Worldly Wisdom
November 10th, 1844 Thorp Green
At last! Oh God, how true it is that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and the flames of passion to leap higher. Early today, a Sunday, came a knock at my door. It was Ann Marshall, a letter in her hand. I wondered if it was yet another epistle for Mr. Roxby, but no—it was from Mrs. Robinson herself. As the lady’s maid handed me the letter, I surveyed her from head to toe. As quiet and plain as a Quakeress, she no more looked the part of intriguer, oracle, sphinx or éminence grise than my sister. Surely, thought I, this plays a part in her success. And certainly, the Robinson ladies relish being accompanied by such a cipher, who detracts even less than my sister from their own loveliness.
As Marshall turned and left, I opened the letter, or note, really, which simply read: Come to me in my bedroom, when all the house has gone to church. The house will be empty. I watched from my window and saw that all of the children, Anne, Marshall, and even Mr. Robinson—who has been better of late—crowded into the family’s coach. Once I was quite certain that they were well along to the church at Little Ouseburn, I flew across the lawn and up the steps under the portico, down the great corridor to Lydia’s chamber. The door was open enough for me to see her sitting up in bed, dressed only in a silk gown, her dark curls loosely arranged on her snowy shoulders, her brown eyes and bright smile seemingly delighted to see me.
And yet, after so many months, I was tentative, even fearful. Why had she at long last summoned me to her side?
“Are you quite all right?” I asked, trembling with mingled trepidation and desire.
“I am now,” said she. “For the official record, I am indisposed, but that is, I confess, a brazen falsehood. Sometimes such small untruths are necessary for the greater good. The fact is that I am quite the contrary of indisposed. I am altogether disposed to have you near me again.”
“You have missed me, then? You love me still?”
“Of course I have missed you, silly boy.”
So great was her passion, so swiftly and hungrily did her sensuous lips and creamy neck, her silken bosom and shoulders, her elastic arms and hips and thighs enfold me, that I was soon speechless, as my mind dissipated utterly into a warm, ecstatic glow of pure sensation.
Her mouth tasted of brandy, even at this early hour, which only added to my intoxication. If I could think at all, it was only a vague notion that I wanted to be her servant, her slave, to prostrate myself at the altar of fleshly passion, a knight eager to ride to his death for his queen.
As she took me into herself, all she could say was, “Oh, yes, yes, I want you all the time. All—the—time…”—she repeated the three words rhythmically as they became mere moans, until we reached the climax, the almost electric shock, after which the waves of madness that had submerged us began to recede, leaving cold reason in their wake.
“Yes, dear boy—you see? I have missed you.”
“Why,” I was now emboldened to ask, “have you kept me away so long, then?”
“It was necessary—you know that. We cannot risk discovery, and even this is dangerous, though everyone is at church and I have even liberated the remaining servants for the day, saying I simply wished to be left alone.”
“Why do you deem it dangerous, then?”
“My namesake has let fall sufficient sly innuendos in recent months that I have dared not see you at all.”
It is true that she had not so much as appeared briefly to confirm young Edmund’s progress, as she was wont to do in earlier days.
“Ah,” was all I could say in response, afraid of any conversation that would lead even remotely near to that young lady, and my part as her clandestine messenger.
“Have some brandy,” said she, pouring us each a rather large glass, and adding no water.
I must have shown surprise, for she laughed and said, “This is how I now manage without you, you see. If I had you by my side each day”—here she pulled me close for a kiss—“I would imbibe less, but this helps me manage, you see.”
She paused for a moment, before returning to the subject of her eldest daughter. “Lydia is a worry. You see, there exists an apple of discord between us, and time has only deepened the rift. I’m sure your sister has told you at least something about her infatuation with that Scarborough actor, Mr. Roxby.”
I again said nothing, worried that this conversation might lead into dangerous territory. Lydia only laughed.
“Oh, come now, I would worry if Miss Brontë had not said something to you about the matter. Such unnatural reserve would be suspicious, I think—don’t you? It’s enough to have that sphinx Marshall lurking about the place; two such creatures would be far too much to bear!”
“Yes, well, my sister did tell me that Mr. Roxby had come to your soirée, and that Miss Robinson seemed quite smitten with him.”
“And so she was—and perhaps still is, for all I know. I tried to keep it from her papa, but Bessy—bad animal that she is—made sure he knew all immediately, sur-le-champ. He has made his disapproval quite plain, and pronounced that should she be so imprudent as to run off with Roxby or anyone else of so low a station, he would rewrite his will, and she would forfeit every fraction of her inheritance.”
“But is he not of a famous family of actors and theatre owners, and are they not rich?”
“Whether he is rich or not, I have no idea, but I understand that his fortune depends on the whims of the theatre-going public, he has no estates and no inheritance to speak of, and no family name beyond what appears on the broadsides posted to advertise his performances.”
“What if she loves him? Would you prefer to force her into a marriage of interest that will make her miserable for the rest of her days?”
Lydia laughed, unhesitatingly, with a level of scorn so profound that it troubled me. “I hope she will not be such a fool as to fall in love. If I have taught them anything, my daughters should know that it is quite beneath the dignity of a woman to do such a thing. Love! Ha!”
“But did you not,” said I with considerable warmth, “with tears in your eyes, once ask me if I loved you?”
She laughed again, but drew me close to her, speaking softly, smoothing the wrinkles from my brow. “Of course I did. But that’s quite different. We are discussing marriage, here, and I firmly believe that emotion and marriage should have as little to do with each other as possible. One must be clear-eyed as one leaps off of that particular cliff.”
“How can you say such a thing?” I replied. “Has not such a model of matrimony been the source of your own misery? Do you not wish better for your daughter? What if Roxby could make her happy?”
“Nonsense. By my reckoning, there are at least three reasons why she should not consider such a thing. The first is that even if the young couple were “in love” as you call it, such passion fades quickly enough, and I fear that he, in particular, traveling in his circles (surely you have heard the tales of actresses, who are no better than harlots), would soon grow weary of being chained for life to the giddy thing, for her charms will surely fade far more rapidly than his. In short, he might keep her, but I doubt not that he would find other women, if he is like any other man I have met, that is. So: logic would dictate that if she is ultimately going to be kept, why not be kept in true style, rather than rambling about the kingdom like a gypsy?
The second reason is that her papa will cut her off without a shilling, and quite rightly, I might add. The third—one about which she likely gives not a fig, for she is a selfish girl—she would bring disgrace on the entire family, which would surely affect her younger sisters’ own marriage prospects.”
As she spoke, I saw that Dr. Crosby had been correct in his estimation of my mistress: she had long ago determined, through bitter experience, that marriage and love were better off remaining utter strangers. And, after all, as the lover usurping her husband’s place, how could I argue against such an arrangement? In the end, what truly troubled me was not so much her separation of the two, but what seemed to be a denial of the very existence of true and deep and eternal love altogether.
After a long pause, during which we could hear only the ticking of the enormous clock outside her door, the bare branches scraping along her window in the wind, and our own breathing, I dared say, “Would you not marry a poor clergyman’s son if things were otherwise? Or would you tire of me—or have the folly to believe that I would ever tire of you?”
“Things would have to be very much otherwise, would they not?” replied she, gazing out the window, her eyes betraying the flight of her thoughts to some distant place, like the swallows who were just now migrating over France and Spain to Africa. At last, she pulled me close again and said, “Let’s not talk of such castles in the air when our two very real persons are so warm and close, so real and so perfectly matched one to another. There is no one like you.”
I tried to speak, but Lydia placed a finger on my lips. “Hush, my young poet, there is only one thing I want before the family returns from church, and it requires no more words.”
What she wanted was simple: for me to worship her body with mine, and so I did. Would that I could do so every day, and forever, legally!
Christmas, 1844 Haworth
We are home again, and how changed are we all!—well, all but Emily. Papa’s vision grows dimmer still, the school scheme is dead, Charlotte is more irritable and agitated than ever, and even patient Anne has grown so tired of her employment at Thorp Green that I know she would seize any opportunity to leave. Emily is Emily: happily engaged in her household duties or immersed in her reading and writing, with little understanding, concern, or for that matter patience, with the rest of us.
As for me—I have written nothing, not even a few words in this diary—for many weeks. I can think of only two things, which seem forever at war with each other: keeping my position and seeing Lydia whenever I can. My mistress contrived, twice in November and once in early December, to arrange for us to meet, and each time she met me with hot, seemingly boundless desire, quickly followed by a sudden brooding, and nervous talk of her fears of discovery. Was she, at last, feeling remorse for having betrayed her angel Edmund, despite so many years of suffering at his hands? Did she fear that she was breaking not only man’s law, but God’s? Had something terrified her into a newfound piety? Or was it as simple as that she had heard new innuendos from the servants, or her daughters? She did not say, and I dared not ask. Whatever the case, these twin concerns—retaining my place and being with Lydia—are so closely linked as to form a veritable monomania.
Despite the most vigorous efforts, a single solution always rises up before me, like a mirage: if only the Reverend Edmund Robinson would die, all would be well. Is this absurd? No, not at all, though only a man who has at once felt a delirium of desire such as mine and stood before such an impediment as this, with his happiness beckoning to him just beyond it, can understand why some men have murdered in the name of love. I am convinced that the great mass of men have not felt such things, for their veins are full of ice water, while mine are boiling; alas, these are the automatons who make and enforce society’s laws.
I pondered all of this as the Robinsons’ carriage—for they had kindly arranged for Billy Allison to take us home—conveyed Anne and me on the long holiday journey to Haworth. The rocking of the coach had lulled her to sleep, leaving me to my own thoughts, and from time to time, to survey her delicate features. She looked like a pretty young girl of no more than twelve or thirteen, grown thin from illness and yet blissfully asleep in recovery, for there was a healthy bloom on her cheeks.
As we passed over a particularly tortuous and uneven stretch of the road her eyes fluttered open and she laughed softly. “Well, I for one shall be delighted when the railways have covered our fair isle like lacework, despite the infernal smoke that pours from those dreadful locomotives.”
“I believe your wish will come true in our very lifetime. Did you read in Mr. Bellerby’s Gazette that a line will arrive in your beloved Scarborough within months, and that the city fathers are hard at work on a station? We could well be arriving there by railway carriage as soon as next summer. But tell me, would you prefer to choke and cough on the smoke of a locomotive, so long as you can do so gliding along behind it on smooth rails?”
Anne smiled. “I fear I shall cough no matter what the means of locomotion, brother.”
“But Thorp Green, at least—and Scarborough, of course—have surely provided you with more salubrious air to breath than Haworth?”
“True, true”—she paused, frowning—“and yet…I don’t know how much longer I can go on.”
“Working for the Robinsons. When I return I will be teaching Mary alone, for Bessy is following her sister Lydia out of the schoolroom and into society. Will the Robinsons continue with the same remuneration when my charges have gone from three to only one? Will accompanying the young ladies—to keep off the unwanted advances of low ruffians and country clowns—become my chief employment?”
I could not help teasing my sister, ever so gently. “I must confess, you have a remarkable talent for protecting the young ladies, especially from actors.”
Anne groaned and rolled her eyes skyward. “Mercy, yes, Lydia—she is more ungovernable than ever. If I were her mother I would ransack her things to make sure she is not in correspondence with Mr. Roxby, but it is not my place to do so. Can you imagine a subordinate going through her pupil’s possessions? Such behavior belongs only in a novel. No, I would be sent packing in a trice. And then, what if I were to discover something? I would then be in the impossible situation of denouncing Miss Robinson or tolerating a deception that could lead to the downfall of her—and perhaps the entire family’s—reputation.”
I shivered. I was chilled not by the frigid December draft insinuating itself into the Robinson’s elegant carriage, but by my own participation in young Lydia’s all-too-real correspondence with Roxby.
“What would you do,” I asked, “if you discovered a letter or other proof of a forbidden correspondence or other improper proceedings? Would you confront Lydia? Would you take the intelligence directly to her parents?”
Anne bit her lip thoughtfully. “I don’t know, Branwell. I cannot lie, but I might simply take my leave at last and give no reason other than my feeling—and it is, as I’ve just said, genuine—that I am no longer as much needed at Thorp Green as I once was, and more needed than ever at home. This last is also true, though with the collapse of the school scheme I know not what we’ll do.”
Something was missing, and I suspected Anne had left something unsaid.
“I don’t know, Anne, I find it difficult to believe that you would not inform the Robinsons of their daughter’s conduct, even if you only did so for their—and her—own good. Wouldn’t they wish to know?”
She bit her lip again, and her eyes—did water now stand in them?—met mine. “The truth of the matter, Branwell, is this: I would quietly leave for your sake.”
“But what have I to do with this?” I asked, half-nettled and half-afraid that Anne knew something she had not yet revealed. Again I shivered.
She wiped a tear from her cheek. “It’s just that you have done so well at Thorp Green, you are so valued, and”—she hesitated, as if afraid to continue—“and this is the longest you have ever held a post.”
Though on another day I might have kindled up at this—my amour propre resenting this insinuation that I could not keep steady employment, and that I needed my baby sister to look out for my interests—now I simply breathed a sigh of relief that she did not know anything else, and leant over and kissed her cheek.
“You are a sweet girl, Anne. But fear not, I shall be just fine.”
“Don’t you see,” she continued ruefully, “I am afraid that if I were to find fault with any of the children, or worse, to cast aspersions on anyone’s conduct—excluding my own, of course, because that is always permitted before one’s masters—you would be swept up in the bargain, so that even if I left of my own accord, you would be forever tainted by my animadversions.”
Still relieved, I said, “Ah, yes, hoist by my sister’s petard!”
She summoned a weak smile. “Hold your tongue, you mauvais garçon, I speak quite in earnest. It may not be my idea of the most moral of all solutions, but I would have the satisfaction of knowing that you could continue as young Ned’s tutor, and I will not have lied. It may be a sin of omission, but that I can abide, knowing that the Almighty will forgive far greater sins than that.”
“You sound like a good papist, Anne,” said I. “Shall I worry that you will soon be going off to daily confession and mass?” The very thought made me begin to shake with laughter. “I promise not to tell Papa or Charlotte, though Emily would, I’m sure, be thoroughly amused.
But Anne had grown serious, and so I tried to follow suit.
“Yes, I know, you think I make a jest of everything,” said I. “But now I speak in earnest. Truly, dear sister, I am grateful for all that you have done for me. It was you who recommended me to the Robinsons, and now it is you who would sacrifice yourself for me.”
Anne sighed and responded, “Well, let us end by saying that it may not come to that, and if it does, it will be God’s will, and it will not be so great a sacrifice as you might think—for remember how weary I am of Thorp Green, and how ready I am for change.”
As the coach made its way slowly toward home, I thought: how does a return to Haworth constitute a change? But I said nothing, and soon I, myself, had dozed off, awakened only by what I thought was a little girl’s delighted squeal. It was Anne, however,—a grown woman, sufficiently on in years even to be considered by some an old maid—who had shouted in childlike glee at the sight of the first snowflakes of winter.
January 3rd, 1845 Haworth, The Parsonage
Has it truly been a full five years since I began this diary, and two since I began my employment at Thorp Green? So much has happened, and yet am I at all changed? What does Anno Domini 1845 hold in store for me? Things may change, but the questions always remain the same.
At times I feel a great transformation is coming, but at others that the train of my life will continue with little perceptible change, except a gradual narrowing, like iron rails that appear to converge in the distance. And what strange tricks time plays upon us! For if I sit on the bank of a river in midsummer, can I perceive its surface rise or fall, or its current grow swift or slow? Do the bright leaves dancing above me turn sere, or the wild grasses along the water spring up, before my very eyes? No, of course not. But remain absent a week, or a month, or a season, and change is unmistakable everywhere.
How much more is this true with people! I witness no change in Anne, and relatively little in my sisters or even Papa, despite his stooped frame and dimming vision. But what a transformation has been wrought in Charlotte’s friend Mary Taylor, who has come for a holiday visit. Yes, that lively, lovely girl I treated so shabbily, just five years ago; but that Mary Taylor seems as dead and buried as her unfortunate sister Martha, lying in the protestant cemetery in Brussels. In her place has arrived a stout, resolute young woman, severely dressed and coiffed, who has definite ideas about everything and everyone—a quality she shares with Charlotte—and though she has seen Europe, living and teaching in Belgium and Germany, that is not enough, for she has determined to follow her brother to New Zealand in the new year.
I have been a model of discretion and good manners, as has Mary; it is as if the unfortunate episode of years ago had never occurred. How often do we bury the memory of past actions and old feelings, whether warm and profound, or cold and cowardly, enwrapped by a cloak of deceit, simply to get on with the daily business of life? Is this what we are fated to do as we grow old, as Charlotte has so often lamented, destined by the pressures of worldly interests to lose one faculty and feeling after another until they go dead altogether? To become what the world believes to be wise, must one’s feelings go through a process of petrification which prevents them from ever warring against one’s financial wellbeing?
The rest of us left Mary and Charlotte alone as much as possible, though I must confess that I was once guilty of listening to them through a half-open door. A few days ago, upon descending the stairs, I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of the words “money” and “heaven” in the same sentence. Father was out, whilst Emily and Anne were occupied in the back kitchen.
I crept closer to the door to listen.
“Yes,” repeated Mary, “you ought to care as much for earning money as you do for going to Heaven. To do so you should look for success in writing, if you cannot bear to teach, and refuse to go begging anyone at all to marry you.”
“But Polly”—for by this name Charlotte, like her friend’s own family, has forever called Mary—“I feel in my heart that a career in letters is utterly closed to me. My youth is leaving me; I can never do better than I have done, and I have done nothing yet.”
“You do see,” said Mary in gentle but firm tones, “that logically, unless you give attention to earning money, you will forever be a prisoner of it. To no one would money bring more happiness, and no one would use it better than you would.”
From their voices, I could tell that Mary stood at the window, while Charlotte paced before the fire.
“Of course what you say is logical,” replied my sister, “but my heart rebels at the very thought of being at all absorbed in petty money matters. I would rather be dead than walking about so, stripped of all of my noblest faculties and feelings.”
“And yet, you say that you long to travel, that you would like to visit all the great capitals of Europe, see all the sights, and know all the celebrities, would you not? If you truly believe success in the world of letters is beyond your grasp, and have abandoned the parsonage school, surely you must consider leaving home, as Anne and Branwell have. Did you not tell me that you already felt buried in Haworth? Think of what you’ll be five years hence if you stay here!”
There was a brief silence, then a muffled choking, a repressed sob.
“Don’t cry, Charlotte!” said her friend, which was followed only by the sound of my sister’s footsteps up and down the room.
At length she replied, calmly, “I know it is not logical, but I intend to stay, Polly.”
My heart, I confess, melted, and it was with great difficulty that I was able to stifle my own unexpected and involuntary sorrow. Poor Charlotte! Yes, we had changed, and grown apart, and now such candour was reserved for the sympathetic ears of Mary or Ellen alone—for even Anne and Emily, contributing each in her own way to the family’s wellbeing, have grown weary of their elder sister’s “desponding” lamentations on the subject.
And yet, how much are Charlotte and I still so alike in the core of our being, at least in this crucial regard! We both know that it is absurd, that it is illogical, that it is selfish, and most of all, childlike, to despise the business of “money-grubbing,” especially since we desire all of those things money can procure. But understanding this absurdity does not make it something one can, by sheer force of will, tear up by its roots, for it is as much a part of each of us as the colour of our eyes or hair, or the pigmentation of our skin.
At this moment I was discovered, not by the young ladies, but by a pair of canine interlopers, Keeper and Flossy, who had escaped the kitchen and now frisked and wriggled like puppies at my feet. Hearing the commotion, Mary and Charlotte emerged from the parlour, the first wearing a polite but cool expression, the second a look of profound dismay.
“Have you been listening at the door, Branwell?” said my sister.
Deception, like other vices, is perfected with practice; I did not hesitate in responding, in the most natural of voices, “Of course not, ladies! Heaven forfend! Nay, these two contumelious quadrupeds heard my footfalls on the stairs and thus came racing from the kitchen to investigate.”
I bowed to the ladies and walked toward that room, calling the dogs to follow me. As I breakfasted, I thought about Charlotte’s dilemma, which was common to us all. Anne and I had taken up the yoke of servitude, though we have chafed under it almost as much as Charlotte had. Emily has found her place as housekeeper, which suits her temperament just fine. But the hard truth of the matter is this: Papa had raised us all to think far too highly of ourselves, and we have formed ambitions that are perhaps as unrealistic as they are grand.
What indeed, as Mary has asked of Charlotte, will have become of us five years hence?
Chapter XV—The Valentine
February 13th, 1845 Thorp Green
The snow we had witnessed that December day from our carriage window was the first and last of the winter thus far, for since then it has been a season of frigid rain, the sort that splatters down in large, cold drops, as they fall through air so frigid that one cannot countenance that it is still above freezing, so chilling to the bone is it. Such rain always makes one wish for the hard dry purity of snow.
Today Crosby and I set off for York, he with a list of remedies to procure, this time at Mr. Palmer’s, and I with a list of books to borrow—some for me and some for Anne and the Robinsons—from Mr. Henry Bellerby’s bookshop. Both of these august institutions lie in Stonegate, and we had agreed that once our commissions were fulfilled we would dine hard by, at the venerable Punch Bowl.
As I walked past the large display windows and into No. 13 Stonegate, I drew the list of books—written first in my lady’s hand and then, beneath hers, in my own—from my pocket. More often than not we send such requests by the post, but when Crosby invited me to accompany him, how could I resist coming in person? For the writer, only the embrace of his beloved is more thrilling than the intoxicating smells of paper, ink, and leather; to the worshipper of print, what is more inspiring that the sight of tomes of all shapes and sizes, from sixpence volumes to towering collections of the greatest poets, bound in leather and printed on gilded vellum pages, with elegant engravings scattered throughout? And finally, for the man who dreams of being crowned by laurels of poetic glory, what place is more responsible for both his inspiration and—alas!—his despondency?
Mr. Bellerby had met me two or three times before today, and had a merchant’s memory for faces and names, despite his thick spectacles and, surely, hundreds of patrons’ names to remember. Though he has a stammer—certain initial letters giving him particular difficulty—it should perhaps not be called an impediment, for it does not prevent him from speaking quickly. Quite to the contrary: it is as if he seeks to make up for the time lost by his defect of speech. Once he has launched into a sentence, it tumbles out more fluently than one expected, as if each thought begins behind a dam which, once collapsed, permits a powerful stream to flow unchecked, as if his mind is forever far in advance of what his lips are capable of uttering.
As I examined some of the newest titles, he walked up behind me, a somewhat portly man of about my height, but without a single hair or whisker on his head, except for two lively, copious dark eyebrows moving above his spectacles.
“W-w-well...now, Mr. Brontë it is, isn’t it…a m-m-most unusual name, that…y-y-you’ve come in person this time, have you?”
“I have indeed, Mr. Bellerby. As you can see”—I handed him my list of titles—“I have been charged by my employer, Mrs. Robinson, with borrowing some books from your lending library.”
“V-v-very well,” said he, “b-b-but do you not wish to consider purchasing something?”
“No, not for me this time—but it is not for want of desire. As for the Robinsons, I am certain they will continue to add to their personal library, will they not? But I’m afraid that far surpasses my authority as the young master’s humble tutor. It’s their account, you see, not mine.”
Bellerby would not be denied a sale, however, and not taking the hint that I had little money of my own, he held up a small volume with gold lettering across its red cover. “N-n-not even Mr. Dickens’s Christmas Carol? It’s b-b-been called a gospel for our age!”
I had not the heart to tell him that he could not have recommended more strongly against buying the book, by yoking together in a single sentence the words “Dickens” and “gospel.”
“No thank you, Mr. Bellerby. Christmas is long past, after all.”
To myself I said, it may have been all the fashion a year ago, but I hardly think anyone will want to read that sentimental trash in future.
“B-b-but I c-c-could offer it to you at a reduced price….p-p-perhaps a gift to your employers, the g-g-good reverend and his pious lady?”
Was there sarcasm in this last sentence? Or had I become so thoroughly impregnated with Lydia’s fear of discovery that I now heard, in every word uttered about her, suspicion and menace that were not, in fact, there? I would certainly not be purchasing anything by such a hack as Mr. Dickens, but I felt I should buy something.
Bellerby did it all, and had it all: not only did he publish the Yorkshire Gazette, sell books and operate two public lending libraries from his shop; he was also a stationer on a grand scale. I approached, in one corner, a shelf that held printed valentines. I can never see a valentine without thinking of Weightman, and of his kindness to my sisters—and to me, for that matter. Surely they still cherish their valentines, whilst he, poor fellow, is no more. And yet, I still see him springing eternally from his rocky perch on that wind-swept day, shouting his encouragements: I have a good feeling, Branwell. I believe things are going to turn your way.
I was lost in these thoughts when I felt Bellerby looming at my side.
“Ah, y-y-you have a s-s-sweetheart!”
“No, alas,” said I, though in fact I was tempted to purchase a card for Lydia. “I was thinking of my sisters. Or rather, my sister Anne—you know, you have met her, she is the governess at Thorp Green. I was thinking of playing a bit of a gentle trick on her.”
“Ah, y-y-yes, a p-p-pretty little thing—so quiet. W-w-well then, y-y-you must get her one!”
I chose a valentine, more to put an end to Bellerby’s unrelenting efforts than anything else.
As he happily assembled the books I was to carry back to Thorp Green—perhaps because he had succeeded in selling me something, no matter how small, that I had not expected to purchase—it did not escape him that I examined several volumes of poetry.
“Y-y-you f-f-fond of p-p-poetry, Mr. Brontë?”
“I am.” Even though, despite the vaguely encouraging words I had received from Coleridge, the Martineaus, and Macaulay, I felt a failure, and so it must have been a last vestige of pride that made me add, “I even wrote some poetry when I was younger. Still do on rare occasions. I’ve published in the papers, over in the West Riding, in Halifax and Bradford.”
As he placed my parcel in my arms and walked me to the door, he said, “W-w-well…w-w-why don’t you send me some? Even if they’ve b-b-been p-p-published before, all right? I’m always looking for good p-p-poetry for the Gazette.”
“I’ll consider it, Mr. Bellerby,” said I, slipping the valentine into my pocket and nodding my head as I exited the shop. “Always a pleasure, sir. Goodbye.”
Crosby was waiting for me when I arrived at the Punch Bowl, smoking a meditative pipe, a bottle of wine and two glasses on the table before him.
“Well now, Brontë, have you fulfilled your duties? Free to take your ease and share a drink with old Crosby, even at this Whig establishment?”
As he poured, my friend asked if I had news from Leyland. Was the artist making progress on the Beckwith monument, he wanted to know? I had to plead ignorance, and was unable to offer any intelligence on the subject whatsoever. I had written two more letters, both unanswered, so I had at last given up. These last details I chose not to reveal with Crosby, for it hardly boded well for completion of the memorial.
Since discussing Lydia and me was forbidden, I asked instead after her husband’s health. What could be more natural than to show concern for one’s employer, after all?
“Oh, Mr. Robinson’s health wavers, you know. One day I think he’s giving us the slip and will soon be following his little Georgiana to the grave, but the next he is up and about and riding with the family to church. This week coming, for example, he and the lady of the house are playing host to their relations, Sir Edward Scott and his wife Lady Catherine.”
These names had merely a vaguely unpleasant association in my mind until I recalled to whom they belonged. This was Lydia’s cousin, and her husband, the rich Sir Edward of Great Barr Hall, near Birmingham. Trying to maintain my calm before Crosby, I took a long draught of port, though I could not avoid clenching my teeth at the thought of Anne’s words last summer: Is it any wonder that her girls are such giddy, incorrigible flirts? With such an example as this in their own mother, they hardly need romantic novels to corrupt them!
I was not terribly successful, it seems, in concealing my feelings.
“What is it, Brontë? Are you acquainted with Sir Edward or Lady Catherine?”
“No, not at all, though my sister saw them in Scarborough, I believe.”
“Ah indeed, that would not surprise me at all. He is exceedingly rich, you know, and is inordinately fond of the sea. Mrs. Robinson says he even has a yacht in Marseilles. You should have seen her eyes flash with envy at her cousin’s good fortune, ha ha! One can never be rich enough for the ladies, I suppose.”
While Crosby found all of this quite amusing, I was wrestling with my own envy, coupled with a jealousy I could no more crush than reveal. Indeed, thought I, was it possible that my friend, the affable Dr. Crosby, knew exactly what he was doing? Had he taken into account that, because I am forbidden from discussing my relationship with Lydia with him, he is free to say such things, knowing that I would be at once writhing with emotion and struck dumb by our agreement? I wanted to cry out, but resolved to be calm; there was no other alternative.
“How long are they to remain at Thorp Green?”
“A fortnight, to be precise. Normally, the Robinsons would not feel it necessary to confide such details to such a humble servitor as I; but Lady Catherine, you see, is in quite delicate health, and so the Robinsons have asked that I come round each day to visit her.”
“If she is so ill, why do they travel?” I asked.
Crosby eyed me slyly, and there was now no doubt that he was toying with me, as a cat would dally with a mouse. “Heavens, Brontë, one would think that you wished to bar Sir Edward and his wife from Thorp Green. Are you certain that you don’t know them?”
I took another generous draught of port, the very act of pouring making me feel immediately much better.
“No, Crosby, I have never laid eyes upon Sir Edward and Lady Catherine. Mine is purely idle curiosity. And like you,” I added after a pause, “I have heard nothing but good spoken about them.”
Crosby laughed. “I never said that, Brontë. But you have guessed correctly. The Reverend Robinson has jested that misery loves company, and that Lady Scott will keep him company in his infirmity. Meantime, Mrs. Robinson and Sir Edward get on exceedingly, I am told.”
Crosby seemed puzzled, or feigned puzzlement.
“By whom were you told this?” I repeated.
“Oh, by Mrs. Marshall. I’m sure she meant nothing by it.” He paused to take a sip of his port. “Surely you wouldn’t suspect anything untoward where your mistress is concerned, would you?”
“No, of course not,” said I, staring down at the table. The conversation had reached an impasse: there was no way forward that did not involve incriminating myself or Lydia, or making unfounded claims about her and her guest, Sir Edward. And besides—what business was it of the family tutor to be concerned about any of it?
I was happy when our cottage pie arrived, and when the conversation turned to books. I showed Crosby the volumes I had received from Bellerby, and that gentleman’s request that I send some poems for possible publication in the Yorkshire Gazette.
“By all means,” he said enthusiastically, his mouth full, “you should! See here, you are still a young man, and the young master will be off to university—well, or somewhere on his own—in a few years. It’s far from too late for you to build a career in letters, I’m sure of it! You just want persistence, Brontë. Persistence, that’s what matters.”
Now that the subject did not concern Lydia, I felt I could speak to Crosby as candidly as if he were one of my old friends, Leyland or Weightman—or Grundy, at least. “Surely persistence matters, but what of talent?”
“You’ve greater gifts than most, I’d wager. But no, believe me, it’s persistence that counts. One can be a success—of some kind—with persistence alone, if the effort is great enough; but try climbing Parnassus or any other mountain with no effort or persistence at all, and genius alone! Genuis alone won’t buy you a blessed thing, not even dinner at The Punch Bowl!”
I said nothing, feeling defeated and dispirited, believing that I had precious little genius and even less persistence. Oh persistence, single-minded persistence! What would it be like to have this quality? Was it not the same attribute that had ensured the success of the Postlethwaites and the Stephensons among us, grinding away tirelessly until, little by little, the world slowly gives way, like the last of the stone yielding at the piercing of the Summit Tunnel? My character is no more capable of such efforts than it is of holding up, Atlas-like, the celestial spheres. Even my sisters have, I am certain, far more of it than I.
After dinner, Crosby suggested a short stroll to the lower end of Stonegate, and then back up to the Minster; he knew I could never refuse it, even on such a chill winter day as this, where a mist midway between fog and rain obscured the upper reaches of the great cathedral’s towers. As we arrived at Saint Helen’s Square, and I turned to gaze at the church of that name and the far greater Minister, barely visible beyond, I heard my companion snigger.
“What is, Crosby?”
“Did you know, Brontë,” he said with typical rapidity, that Francis Drake reports, in Eboracum—that’s his venerable history of York—that this respectable square, with its lovely church, grand houses, and now those new offices of the Yorkshire Fire and Life Insurance Company going up—if it’s ever to be completed, that is, for they’ve been at it for nearly five years, by God—in any event, did you know that this square was once called Cuckolds-Corner? Do you think it was named for one particular cuckold, or several? Ha ha!”
Was Crosby still playing with me?
As we turned and retraced our steps, I thought: would I even be successful at persisting in cuckolding the Reverend Robinson? For this adulterous feat seems, to date, by far the greatest accomplishment of my life.
Chapter XVI—Fury and Deception
March 3rd, 1845 Thorp Green
Sir Edward and Lady Catherine have come and gone, and I have not seen my mistress since the day of their arrival. On that day she burst, without a knock, into the library, where my pupil was struggling through a page of Latin. Her dark eyes flashed and her fair cheeks burned with displeasure as she indicated to her son that she wished to speak to me alone. The lad was happy enough to lay down his arms in his losing battle with Aeneas, and beat a hasty retreat to his bedroom.
As the door closed, Lydia spoke to me with controlled fury.
“Are you quite mad, or just an idiot? What in heaven’s name made you think that sending me a valentine through Marshall was either proper or wise? Do you know how easily such a thing might be discovered? Do you wish to bring about my ruin, and yours with it?”
I sprang up and attempted to draw her into my arms. “I don’t care anymore, Lydia, I love you! That is the only madness that possesses me.”
“Don’t,” said she, pushing me violently away. “What if someone were to walk in upon us, you fool?”
I stepped to the door and turned the key.
“There now,” said I, seeking again to pull her towards me.
Again she repelled my advances, the arms which had so often embraced me now stiffening in defiance. I fell to my knees, throwing my arms about hers and pressing my head against her, as she struggled to remove herself from me. Like a madman I clung all the tighter, saying only, “Oh Lydia, Lydia!” At last, in utter desperation, she took hold of a shock of my hair and tugged smartly, as one might do to a child with whom all reasonable exhortations had failed, and I fell back in pain.
“Now then,” she said, “Enough melodrama. Sit down.” She indicated a chair with a trembling finger, and I obeyed her command, whilst she herself remained standing, still panting from her exertions. She was, despite the look of mingled fury and loathing she directed at me, still lovely. How much mother and daughter resembled each other in that uncommon ability!
“Do not speak,” she said, in tones even more clipped than usual. “I myself shall be quite brief. If you wish to retain your post here—for I have no desire to dismiss you, despite all—you are never to do such a thing again. You are to send me no notes, no sketches, no poems, and for Heaven’s sake”—here she seemed to kindle up again—“no valentines. Nothing, do you understand?”
Perhaps she saw that tears stood in my eyes, for her tone softened. “This is the only way, Mr. Brontë. You are not to approach me, seek me out, or speak to me—unless I speak to you first.”
“Will you never come to me again?” I asked, in tones that were half-whisper, half-sob. I removed my spectacles and wiped my eyes. “Will I never hold you again?”
“I really cannot say,” said she. Did she, too, have water in her eyes?
“Now,” she continued, “I must prepare for the arrival of Lady Catherine and Sir Edward. Their journey is long and they will require my every attention.”
With that, she spun on her heel, unlocked the door, and sailed rapidly out of sight.
Since that day—Valentine’s Day—I have felt ill: a constant fluttering in my stomach, a permanent feverish anxiety, and a feeling of impending doom. I know not whether it is simply that I fear I will never clasp Lydia to my breast, or whether it is simply a vague unease left in the wake of our last interview. My fond hope is that all of this is groundless, but quite natural, anxiety, which will soon fade away.
Meanwhile, young Lydia continues to make use of me. Two days after the arrival of the guests, she brazenly appeared at my door in the Monk’s House, unaccompanied by anyone. When I expressed surprise and concern, she only laughed, waving a dismissive hand.
“Oh, pooh, Mr. Brontë, everyone is far too occupied to care what I am about. Mamma and Papa and the servants are absolutely engrossed in playing the hosts for Sir Edward and Lady Catherine. I believe I could absent myself for a day or two and not even be missed, ha ha!”
“Now, Miss Robinson, you exaggerate, I’m quite certain. Not even my sister could be spared as your chaperone?”
“No, of course not, she is slaving away, good creature, in the schoolroom with Mary. That is why I have slipped out to see you now, don’t you see? I am here to ask a favour—I so much prefer to call it such, rather than make an order or command, it’s so much more pleasant, giving you the appearance of a choice, don’t you think?” She laughed merrily at her own cruel wit.
I said nothing, for what purpose would it serve in the face of this torrent of words, streaming from lips that were forever used to getting their way, and to whom I was bound for all eternity by extortion? I must also have frowned, despite myself.
“Don’t be so touchy,” Mr. Brontë. “Goodness, you and your sister are so alike in that regard, always the sullen, injured party, no matter what!”
I tried not to seem further insulted, and simply replied, “Your wish is my command, Miss.”
“Ah, well, that’s better. I’d rather have you tease me just a bit, as long as you also mean it au sens propre.”
“Very well. Here is what I wish: you will post this letter to Mr. Henry Roxby…”
“As always, Miss Robinson.”
“You interrupt, Mr. Brontë—I have not finished. I wish you to read this letter before it is sealed and delivered.”
My surprise at this unusual confidence, as she extended her letter to me, must have been plain, for she added, “Go ahead, Mr. Brontë, it’s all right, read it.”
The letter was brief:
My Dearest Henry:
Yes, now you may at last come to me at Thorp Green, Saturday next. Arrive by foot, after dark, as close to nine o’clock as possible. Proceed directly to the Old Hall (the Monk’s House), a tall antiquated structure that stands across the park from the house itself. You would be well advised to skirt the woods to avoid being seen; do not fear when the dogs bark, for they do so all of the time, and will cease as soon as you enter the building.
Papa and Mamma have planned a grand soirée—a ball of sorts, as Bessy’s début—during which I am quite certain to be indisposed. Little Ned’s tutor, Mr. Brontë, will stand lookout for us. Even if for but a few moments, I must see you!
Your Adored and Adoring Idol, Lydia
I was unable to restrain myself. “Are you quite mad? This will not do!”
Lydia laughed disdainfully. “First of all, I’ll ignore that insult this once. But do you mean to say, Mr. Brontë, that you find it more moral for you to carry on for two years with my own mother—no, no, again, please don’t try to lie to me—under my own father’s very nose, on his property and in his employ—so that he pays you to cuckold him—quite a feat, really, so bravo, well done you—you find it, I say, more moral to do that than to assist me in arranging a brief, innocent, rendezvous with Mr. Roxby?”
“I’m sorry, Miss, but I don’t believe I can do it,” I found myself saying, to my own surprise.
She sighed with mock resignation. “Oh, well, I did not realise that you had grown so tired of Thorp Green. Mamma will be grieved, I’m sure, though she has taken quite a fancy to Sir Edward,” said she, eyeing me slyly. “What a shame, really, that I have to reveal your ignoble conduct toward me in Scarborough as well, for—alas!—the whole nasty business will surely taint your good sister’s reputation in the end.”
She paused for a moment, rubbing her pretty little dimpled chin as if in deep reflection, though her eyes still shone with amusement.
“On the other hand, the scenes of indignation followed by your own ignominy would take my worthy parents’ minds off Mr. Roxby, and I can surely find someone else to post the letter to Scarborough—that’s no great impediment. I’ll just postpone his visit for a bit, until you and your things have been quite cleared out of the Monk’s House once and for all.”
“Very well,” said I, trying my utmost not to sound angry, for that would not do, either. “But do you not fear discovery?”
“Ah ha! Voilà, Monsieur Brontë, c’est simplement que vous en avez peur! It is really only fear that speaks in you, so let us hear no more of what you believe is right, for your hypocrisy doesn’t deceive me one whit. I daresay, if I could assure you impunity for life I think you’d do just about anything for me, just to keep your post and all that it entails. You might even kill a man.”
She moved closer to me, bending her face almost as if to snatch a kiss and whispering, “I daresay you would happily deceive mamma with me if I asked, and no extortion would be required in that case, would it, Mr. Brontë?”
I stepped back disapprovingly, at which she fairly skipped away, laughing, “Ah, Mr. Brontë, the good parson’s son! You don’t fool me—I see how you worship me, like all the rest, hard as you might try to mask your feelings! I could make you my slave in an instant—if I cared to, ha ha!”
The provoking thing had vanquished me again, so I returned to the true subject of her visit.
“You may consider the letter delivered,” I said simply, looking away to avoid her gaze.
Her mission accomplished, she was soon out the door and sweeping back toward the great house, taking care herself to skirt the woods so as not to reveal where she had been. As for me, what have I done, and where will this all end?
To be continued 30 May 2020