Oblivion: The Lost Diaries of Branwell Brontë (Part 3 of 12)
Updated: Apr 18
Volume I (continued)
Chapter XV—Une Soirée chez Leyland
November 12th, 1840 Sowerby Bridge
Though I have sat before my coffee for an hour on this quiet Sunday, then splashed my face with the ice-cold water of my ewer, I am still unable to wake myself suitably after last evening’s excesses.
Leyland did indeed hold the promised banquet at his studio in The Square, and what a fête we had! What a band of stout-hearted artists was gathered round Joe! Some I knew from my days of portrait painting, but others were new acquaintances, all devoted in one shape or another to a love for the sublime and the beautiful.
John Frobisher, the musical impresario, was there, as were William Dearden (the “Bard of Caldene”), John Nicholson (“The Airedale Poet”), and Thomas Crossley (the “Bard of Ovenden”). Joe’s brother Francis (“Mr. Frank”) was there as well, standing a bit beyond the orbit of the rest of us, observing. Finally, there were others present who appeared to be members of a more businesslike subspecies of Homo sapiens: Joe’s patrons, perhaps?
Last, but far from least, I was pleased to see present a number of young women of indeterminate social standing—for they were neither ladies nor servant girls—present as well. Their connection to the sculptor was unclear, but their sole purpose appeared to be to add female companionship to our festive gathering. As I entered the studio Joe eagerly waved for me to join the cluster of people gathered around a large sculpture. He thrust a glass of brandy into my hand and announced, so that all could hear over the rising din of voices, “All hail the Bard of Haworth, Lord Patrick Branwell Brontë!” There was much laughter, followed by curious—though hardly timid—smiles from the women, introductions to new acquaintances, and warm greetings and claps on the back from friends of yore.
The sculpture that stood before us was a seated nude, a beautiful young woman. Her hair, adorned with flowers, is twisted into ringlets, some of which fall forward onto her lovely bare shoulders, just above her perfect breasts. She leans to the right, her arm supporting her weight as her legs extend out to her left, the right tucked under the left at the knee. Her hips are broad and perfectly proportioned, and one can even see the muscles of her torso reflecting her posture, which is that of a beloved who has just raised herself from her pillows at the approach of her lover. The fingertips of her right hand rest gently on a support, while her wrist lifts away from it; she draws her left arm toward her face, as if to brush away a stray ringlet. The lifelikeness of Joe’s sculpture is almost disquieting, for one could easily imagine this creature springing up to meet her lover, or pulling him down onto her couch of stone.
“If I had to wager,” said Joe, drawing me aside, “I would say that the same quality that has caused you to lose yourself in Kilmeny’s beauty”—for such is the sculpture’s name—“is that which has prevented me from selling her.”
“What do you mean?”
“You tell me, friend. You’re the philosopher. Why did you just stare at her in this way? Surely you have seen statues of nudes before. I know you have, in my own studio. Whence this current fascination?”
“It—she—appears to be so real, she looks as though she could come to life at any moment, as if she could throw that beautiful body of hers into the arms of the viewer.”
“Precisely. Do you wish to hear my tale of woe?”
“Of course,” said I, nodding eagerly. Leyland refilled our glasses and drew me far from the crowd that had formed around Kilmeny, indicating two chairs at the other end of the studio. Thus installed with large tumblers of brandy and fresh cigars, we leant back in unison as Joe sighed.
“Well then, what happened is this: some years ago I received a commission to create a sculpture based on James Hogg’s poem ‘Kilmeny’—you know it, of course you do, even those who scarcely know their letters do: ‘Kilmeny, the Sinless Maiden’—but once I had finished, the good gentleman and his pious wife rejected the lovely creature, and thus refused to pay what was due. I was left with their initial deposit and a statue with no home. They—especially the lady—called it vulgar and obscene, the representation of a harlot, the very opposite of the ‘sinless maiden’ of the poem!”
“Because you sculpted what looks like a real woman?” Here I lowered my voice. “It is not as if you had depicted her spreading her legs, or in the throes of congress.”
“I know, I know,” he said bitterly, “but since good Victoria—God save her!—became Queen three years ago, the notion of what is proper, what is wholesome, or even what is beautiful is becoming more and more restricted, like a noose tightening about the neck of artistic liberty. My erstwhile patrons—along with the rest of this island nation—are increasingly ashamed of their own bodies, and to see a sculpture that reminds them of this is surely what caused them to reject it. That’s my learned hypothesis, anyway. And to think, Victoria hadn’t even ascended to the throne then!”
Here Leyland smiled ruefully. “You, on the other hand, seem positively captivated by Kilmeny.”
“It reminds me of someone I once knew.”
“Truly now?” Joe now seemed distracted, and was looking past me. “Why lad, the lovely Kilmeny herself, surrounded by a band of hopeless sinners, is just there!”
He leapt up, seized my elbow, and towed me across the studio, toward one of the young women I had seen earlier. Her décolletage, elongated bodice, and ample skirts were scarcely necessary to accentuate her perfect face and form; her flaxen hair was twisted into braids, not unlike those of the statue before her. Had this young woman posed as a true model, or had the wicked Leyland seduced her and simply used his memory of her pretty face and exquisite form to create Kilmeny?
She blushed as we approached, and yet smiled bravely at Joe, saying nothing. He, meanwhile, took one hand of each of us and brought us together. Addressing the young woman, he said, “This, Miss Margaret, is Patrick Branwell Brontë, otherwise known as the young Bard of Haworth. Brontë, this is Maggie Heaton, the true Sinless Maiden.” Maggie wrinkled her brow, and both the form and substance of her first sentence immediately betrayed her origins, for she spoke with an only slightly polished version of the rough accent of the neighborhood. She seemed puzzled at my occupation.
“’ow d’y’ do?” said she, attempting a curtsy. Following a pause, she asked, “What does a bard do?” Joe, whose streak of cruelty far surpasses mine, and which he immediately lays bare to the world when in his cups, laughed loudly, and so I drew Maggie away toward another corner of the studio. “I am watching you both,” shouted Leyland after us, wagging his finger, “so take care!” but he was soon deep in conversation with our mutual friend, Frobisher, who gesticulated as feverishly as if were conducting one of his frequent Halifax performances.
Leyland, as he often did, had exhausted me with his energy and enthusiasm, his good humour and his incessant teasing. I was, moreover, warm from drink and from the overcrowded studio, for my friend had invited at least seventy-five people to his soirée, and the party was beginning to reach its zenith, where the maximum number of people present collides exactly with the highest level of general inebriation. One could not hear oneself, let alone one’s neighbour, speak. I fairly shouted in Maggie’s ear, “Do you want to take some air?” Then smiling, “I can tell you what a bard does, then.” She nodded assent.
Strangers to each other, we did not walk far, for truly my only desire as we quitted the studio was to breathe in the cool air of late autumn. As I looked at Maggie—Kilmeny, the sinless maiden, as Joe called her, for reasons still unclear—in the light of a full moon, I was nevertheless especially pleased to be with this lovely young woman, whose hair caught the moonlight almost like a mirror; it seemed to illuminate us both. For the first time I noticed how similar her eyes were in shape and colour to Agnes’s.
“Are you any relation to the Heatons of Stanbury? Ponden House? That’s just a stone’s throw from Haworth—my home—you know.”
“Oh, by gum, no!” she laughed. “Y’ can’t swing a cat round these parts without you’ll hit a Heaton.”
“What of young William Heaton, the poet, then? He’s one of Joe’s friends—see, he’s right over there.” I pointed through the window at our mutual friend Billy, who stood speaking in great earnest to Frobisher and Dearden; Joe was now whispering in the ear of a raven-haired beauty. “Is he one of your family?”
She laughed even harder. “I don’t have much t’ do with them types of folk.”
“Well then, it’s time to introduce you to one: me.”
I bowed, and she giggled. “A bard,” said I, “is an old-fashioned word for poet. Shakespeare is called the Bard of Avon, or oft times merely the Bard.”
“So you wri’ verses and such,” said she. “Don’t fancy there be much of a livin’ in tha’.”
I could not restrain my laughter, whereupon she somehow managed an adorable expression halfway between a smile and a pout.
“So, now yer laughin’ at me too, Mr. Bronte?”
“No, Maggie, I am laughing at myself. You see, I am not really a poet at all. I like to write poetry, but as you say—and that is why I laughed, because you immediately struck the proverbial nail on the head—it is no way to make a living, particularly at this time and place. So a more accurate description of me is that I am a railway clerk who dabbles in verse, when the time permits.”
Maggie immediately, and unexpectedly, grew so excited that I thought she might well throw herself into my arms. Instead, she contented herself with facing me and clutching both of my elbows, trembling with enthusiasm. “The railway, you work for the railway? ’ow thrillin’ tha’ mus’ be! So y’been on th’ train when she’s movin’ up the tracks?”
“I have indeed.”
“They’s say it’s like you might fairly fly apart, they do. But folks don’t, do they?”
“No, no,” I smiled, “no one flies apart, and one only feels faint by looking sideways, at the world racing by. One must gaze straight ahead.”
Maggie bit her lip—one of creation’s great gifts to man, a lovely woman biting a full, red lip, is it not?—and was silent for a moment, her eyes gazing far into the distance. “I’d like to ride on th’ railway someday.” Clearly there was no practical reason for her to spend her scanty income—whatever it was—on railway travel.
“What if,” said I, looking deeply into her eyes, which, though they could never match those of Agnes, were exceedingly large and pretty, with irises that sparkled like perpetual fireworks, “what if I were to arrange an excursion for you from my station at Sowerby Bridge to Manchester, when the Summit Tunnel is complete? Do you know it will be the longest tunnel in the world?”
Though I would have thought it impossible, her eyes widened even further, and I believe it was all she could do to restrain herself from giving me a kiss. Instead, her hands slid down from my elbows to my hands, which she shook vigorously up and down.
“Oh would you? Could you?”
“Of course, my dear, I wield enormous power as Assistant-Clerk-in-Charge at the Sowerby Bridge Station of the Leeds and Manchester Railroad. Your wish is my command.”
“Now you are teasin’ me,” she said, but without any trace of hurt, and the earlier pout—as adorable as it had been—was here supplanted by a dazzling smile.
“No, as I told you before, I am mocking myself. And now that our conversation has appeared to come full circle, we should probably rejoin the soirée.”
“I think,” said she, with a sincerity that would melt the iciest of hearts, “that you’re a good man, you are, and that there is much good not only here”—she placed a warm palm on my forehead—“but here”—moving her hand to my heart.
The memory of my last meeting with Agnes washed over and through me with such a force of mingled sadness and longing that I felt torn between, on the one hand, wildly embracing this girl whose eyes so recalled those in which I had bathed myself so many times and, on the other, falling to the ground in a convulsion of grief.
Not knowing how to reply, I simply said, “Now then, shall we find old Joe Leyland, the devil himself?”
She smiled again and walked before me, turning as we approached the threshold. “I know ‘e teases me cruelly, but I can’t ‘elp but like ‘im, Mr. Leyland.”
“I know precisely what you mean, Maggie.”
We agreed that I would send word about the railway excursion through Leyland, whose relationship with her remained a mystery.
The sculptor did not fail to notice us as we entered the studio, and shouted, “Oh ho, there are the lovers! I trust that the maiden is still free of stain in both mind and body?” He then leapt onto a chair, raised his glass, and drunkenly declaimed a snatch of Hogg’s own “Kilmeny”—much to our genuine and mutual mortification:
Never, since the banquet of time, Found I a virgin in her prime, Till late this bonnie maiden I saw As spotless as the morning snaw: Full twenty years she has lived as free As the spirits that sojourn in this countrye: I have brought her away frae the snares of men, That sin or death she never may ken.'— Some of the gathering began to applaud, but Leyland motioned for silence. “Wait, wait…come now, everyone, take a moment to recharge your glasses and join me in the final verses of Hogg’s touching portrayal of this exception to all of Eve’s daughters, through all of man’s history, that Presbyterian Virgin Mary”—there was great laughter at this deft blow to Scots and the Papists alike—“Kilmeny, the Sinless Maiden!”
“Ready?” shouted Leyland after a moment or two. “Here we go!” The poem was known by nearly everyone, and following Joe’s lead, the gathering fairly sang in unison:
It was like an eve in a sinless world!
When a month and a day had come and gane.
Kilmeny sought the green-wood wene;
There laid her down on the leaves sae green,
And Kilmeny on earth was never mair seen.
But O, the words that fell from her mouth
Were words of wonder, and words of truth!
But all the land were in fear and dread,
For they kendna whether she was living or dead.
It wasna her hame, and she couldna remain;
She left this world of sorrow and pain,
And return'd to the land of thought again.
The communal recital ended in thunderous laughter and applause, with still more drinking—considerably more. I looked round the studio for Maggie. Despite his advanced state of inebriation, Joe, ever the observant artist, said to me, “You seek Kilmeny? The sinless maiden is gone, little man—she is gone, never mair seen…she has left this world of sorrow and pain, and return’d to the land of thought again!”
Leyland was where he most liked to be: surrounded by friends, talking about art and literature and women, but taking nothing in earnest, eventually drinking himself thoroughly and quite happily into a stupour. With Maggie gone, I decided to join him in his descent, as the party lurched along to its inevitable collapse. I haven’t the slightest notion of how I got back to Sowerby Bridge and into my bed.
I awoke to find myself fully dressed, except for my boots, my coat and hat missing. In one pocket I found a small piece of paper, reading only this: Franz Listz, Halifax, January 29—written in what I recognized to be John Frobisher’s elegant, almost feminine hand. Slowly, like Hansel and Gretel picking their way home with breadcrumbs, I began to remember the end of the evening. Frobisher had been in a state of high excitement, for he had succeeded in including Halifax in the tour of the great virtuoso, Franz Listz. There were no bounds to his enthusiasm; it seemed he would positively explode with joy, and was spreading the good news through the studio. Perhaps realizing I could drink no more, I took my leave of Leyland and have the vaguest notion of stumbling the three miles or so home. It is a miracle that I did not fall into the Calder, or onto the railway line, though fall I clearly did, for my trousers bear the dirt and grass of at least one tumble, and my right shinbone aches as I finish this entry. I either lost my hat and coat en route or left them at my host’s. If the latter is the case, I suppose I will find out soon enough.
Thank Heaven I do not work today, for it is all I can do simply to move about: penning this entry has drained me of every atom of energy I was able to summon this morning. I know I should not drink to the same excess as Leyland—if only because his far greater mass can support it—but I doubt quite seriously that I will be able to make it through this day without at least one drink—surely the only way to soothe my splitting head.
November 15th, 1840 Sowerby Bridge
No sooner had the ink of the last sentence dried when I heard a loud rapping on my window pane, which might as well have been an iron stake driven through my skull. There stood Leyland, prepared to rap again with his walking stick. He held my missing hat and coat and gestured for me to meet him outside, clearly not wishing to disturb my landlord. Still dressed, I pulled on my boots and was outside in a moment. This time he had not brought Francis with him.
“So we made it home, did we, little man?” His voice—at least to my hearing—boomed. With mock gravity, like an obsequious tailor, he held my coat out so that I could slip my arms into the sleeves, and then planted my hat squarely—and I thought altogether too roughly—on my head.
“Oh, blast you, Leyland, that’s a nasty trick! And bugger all, must you shout so? Softly, eh?”
Though he obeyed, he tried to convince me that it was an excess of drink—not himself—that was to blame. “And, my friend,” said he, his voice rising enthusiastically in spite of himself, and my head throbbing accordingly, “I believe you know that there is but one solution to such an ailment, and it is homeopathic in nature—similia similibus curantur as the great physician Hahnemann dictates. Or as our good Mr. Hogg, the celebrated author of Kilmeny himself—what a coincidence, eh?—says, “If this dog do you bite, soon as out of your bed, take a hair of the tail the next day!”
Soon we sat at the same table of The Mermaid we had occupied with Francis a few days before, a glass of whisky before us. “Drink this one quickly,” said Joe, “it will soothe your nerves.” I obeyed my friend, and almost immediately felt much improved. He ordered two more and we then settled comfortably into what now seemed our personal corner of the establishment, with no desire to move. Morning had brought a steady rain, the kind that, in this season, seems far colder than snow. The amber liquids before us danced like dark jewels in the light of a fire blazing in the nearby grate, and soon my friend’s features had taken on a similar glow.
“Now that,” said he, “was a soirée, was it not? I half wonder how you made it home, Brontë, for you seemed to have had a bit of difficulty simply walking by evening’s end.”
I gestured to the knees of my trousers. “Indeed I did—I did have trouble walking but I did make it home all the same. I’m surprised you noticed my state, Leyland, for yours was rather exalted!”
Joe laughed. “I’m nearly twice your size, little man”—this is an exaggeration, but yes, he is easily five inches taller, and significantly broader—“and the only reason you can drink as much as you can, I am quite convinced, is that you’re an Irishman in disguise.”
Here he tousled my bright red hair, as a father would his son’s, and added, “Well, not much of a disguise…ha ha! I hope you say a prayer each day, thanking the Good Lord for that half of your lineage!”
My mind, at last fully awake, flew briefly to Haworth and Papa, and then to poor Mamma.
“Say, Joe, where was His Excellency John Brown last night? I’m surprised that he didn’t journey the ten miles to Halifax. Or did you not vouchsafe him an invitation because he somehow does not conform to your notions of proper society?”
“No, don’t be daft—I think Brown a capital fellow, the most learned sexton I’ve ever met and a first-rate stone-carver into the bargain. He can dig your grave for you, carve your headstone, and I fancy could even say the requisite prayers as he shovels you under, if the Good Reverend Brontë or his curate are otherwise occupied! Most of all, though, he is a lively companion in deviltry! What an appetite for wine, women and song! Had he been here he would surely have been standing on a bench singing at the top of his lungs, with his arm around one of those pretty, not-so-sinless maidens.”
“So why, then, was he not present?”
“He sent a note of regret, and stated simply that he is could not be away from Haworth. This means either that the residents of your little village continue to die at an unseemly pace, damn them—which, by the way, must be most inconvenient not only to poor John but also to your father and Mr. Weightman—or that Mrs. Brown has finally put our dear friend on a rather short leash. Or, perhaps, both. But you know him far better than I, Brontë. What do you think?”
I did know John Brown better. He had arrived in Haworth with his father when he was sixteen, and is a dozen years or so years my elder. As we both grew older and he eventually assumed the duties of sexton at his father’s death, I idolized him, for he was everything father was not: stout and hearty, plain-spoken just shy of obscenity and irreverent to the point of blasphemy, a lover of food and drink and women and song. He knew how things worked—how the world worked. He could repair nearly anything, and from all appearances knew all of the intricacies of women, too, for they were immoderately fond of him. He had taught me to box, and had ushered me into the mysteries of the Masons, which I joined not so much from any enthusiasm for freemasonry as from my blind worship of anything Brown himself did.
“I’m sure if John were here he would tell us with his usual candour, but I would guess that it is a bit of both. And he does love his Mary, even if he might stray on occasion.”
“On occasion?” Leyland laughed heartily, the second tumbler of whisky having its desired effect. “That rascal—he’s such a hearty, good-looking devil that women positively swoon when he’s about, so he fairly has his pick of the lot.”
“Some people might say exactly the same thing about you, Joe.”
Leyland bowed his head in acknowledgment of the compliment. “Well, thank you kindly for that, but the truth is that I’m a bit too rough and unpleasant—at times even cruel, as astonishing as that might seem to you, little man—whereas our friend Brown, despite his humble origins, knows how to concoct just the right admixture of pleasant raillery and sweet nothings, as if sprinkling so much fairy dust over his conquests. They are helpless before him, whereas I must rely on exploiting my artistic sensibilities and, more often than not”—here he lifted his conveniently-arrived third whisky as if to propose a toast—“enlisting the aid of Bacchus, for he works miracles on the softer sex, sometimes even transforming a shrinking little creature into a tigress of unfathomable desires.”
I finally hazarded the question that had been on my lips since I’d seen Leyland standing outside my window. “And what of that lovely girl, that Maggie Heaton, and why do you call her Kilmeny?”
“Oh ho, the lovely, sinless Kilmeny! Taken a fancy to that one, have we, Brontë? What a thoroughly exquisite creature, from her flaxen tresses to the tips of those little toes—and everything in-between of course.”
“I am in earnest, Joe. Who is she?”
“Becalm yourself, little man. She’s the daughter of a Halifax innkeeper. She lives with her parents there and serves in various capacities: kitchen-girl, housemaid, book-keeper—for she can read and write, and tally accounts, far better than her worthy parents, I’m quite sure. I suppose you guessed that she posed for Kilmeny, eh?”
I sat quietly for a few seconds, and Leyland, who is one of those beings who cannot abide doing so, read my mind as only a close friend can.
“I can see those wheels turning, my railway friend. Indeed, I can almost see smoke puffing out of those ears of yours. Let me put you at ease: here is the story of how Maggie came to be Kilmeny; or, if you will, how Kilmeny came to be Maggie. I’m surprised I’ve never told you of her in all these years, but then, you’ve never resided in the Devil’s Cauldron. Just think what discoveries await you, little man!”
Leyland leant back, crossed one leg over the other, and began.
Chapter XVI—Leyland’s Tale: Maggie Heaton, or the Sinless Kilmeny
“I had just received my commission for the sculpture of Kilmeny, and had the great ambition to executing it from life; I had not even really begun to consider how I might approach this, when I went to take my dinner at the White Swan, and who should appear but this lovely creature. I had seen her before, certainly, but she had just fully blossomed into womanhood within the last year or so, and it was at this most fortuitous meeting that I first saw her as such. The thought struck me immediately. But how could I convince her to disrobe and be my model?
“Indeed, I had no small work to convince her and her parents, because I determined that given her young age—for she was then just sixteen—and, more importantly, given the bearish physique of her papa, who is considerably more imposing than I, it would be folly to pursue my intent without their permission.
“Do you know how I did it? Well, I was as sly and calculating as Mephistopheles himself. I made certain to dine at the inn at least twice a week, and showed far more interest in Maggies’ parents than in her own person. I was temperate in all things except for my gratuities, which I showered on them as liberally as if I were a prince. I made myself wait nearly a month before I took even the first step toward the subject, and I did so by mentioning in a most offhanded manner that I had received an important commission, but that I had met a seemingly insuperable barrier to creating the kind of lifelike sculpture I had imagined; I then pulled out my watch and claimed that I was terribly late. I left them hanging from a cliff as I dashed out the door. Ha!”
I was at once fascinated and somewhat repelled by Leyland’s account of these proceedings.
I simply said, “It is well that you, yourself, recognize that you can be cruel, for this seems cruel indeed.”
“Bollocks!” said he, “what harm was done? A local artist was showing them great respect, and, far more importantly, was filling their coffers with his liberality. If this was a crime, I would ask you to seek the victim.”
“Tut tut, Brontë…the end justified the means, or as the great Bentham might say, the pleasure outweighed the pain. As for your truth, it is always open to debate, is it not? Whose truth? Tablets handed down from Mount Sinai? Mahomet scribbling down whatever Allah supposedly whispered in his ear? The Pope issuing preposterous edicts from the chair of Saint Peter? Or would you prefer the bishop of York, or perhaps the brainless, bible-thumping Baptists at the bottom of the hill in Haworth? All Beauty, Truth, God are one, and they are as resident in this”—he lifted his glass of whisky—“and that”—he pointed to the rainclouds scudding past the window beside us—“as they are in all creation, especially in the transcendence of Love. Which brings us back to your love, Miss Kilmeny.”
“She is not my love, Leyland.” I had heard such speeches from Joe on countless occasions, and was glad he had returned to the topic at hand.
He laughed. “The wee lad doth protest too much, methinks,” said he, and continued his tale.
“In any event, what next transpired was this: I returned two or three days later for my usual repast, and let them approach me. I studiously avoided the topic until the innkeeper could bear it no longer—he must know what it was I had meant by an insuperable barrier to my creation. The moment had come to land this big fish. I gestured to him to join me, and insisted that he have a drink with me—by now his expectation of my munificence made him, I am sure, loathe to contradict me in any way. Once he had settled in across from me, I leant over conspiratorially, my voice low, and told him that I needed to sculpt from life, which meant that I needed a beautiful young woman to pose as Kilmeny, and that although such modeling was perfectly acceptable in Paris or Rome, the accursed prudery of this island made it almost impossible to secure such services. How maddening, I said, thumping the table theatrically, to think that three hundred years ago the Duchess of Ferrara—a woman of the same social standing as our own upstanding aristocratic ladies—had considered it the highest honour to pose in the nude for the great Titian!
“I would not, as some artists might, employ a woman of ill-repute, especially when I sought to create Kilmeny, the Sinless Maiden. Heavens no! Nor would I, as others might, cover my model’s face with a mask, for it was the marriage of an innocent countenance with the beauty of the whole person that would convey the very essence of Kilmeny’s purity. Her innocence would only signify, I insisted, if she were as beautiful as she was sinless—for what virtue would there be in an ugly sinless maiden? No, it was the unity of bodily perfection—the kind, I thought to myself, but did not tell the innkeeper, that positively invites one to sin—with blameless conduct that I sought. In short, I was seeking a young girl or woman of just this appearance and character, and—here I brought down the coup de grâce—was willing to pay her very handsomely indeed for her modeling, as I was desperate at this point, for the commission needed to be fulfilled. I pretended not to see his eyes travel over to his daughter, and simply leant back and sighed.
“Well, Brontë, you can imagine well enough what ensued. I left an especially large gratuity, saying somewhat wistfully, ‘That’s for listening to my sad tale, my friend,’ and I made a point of all but ignoring Maggie as I put on hat and coat, leaving the rascal to think things over. It was he who took the next step, appearing at my studio the following morning. I feigned surprise and asked whether I had forgotten something at the inn. Nay, he had come with a possible solution to my dilemma. He had spoken to his wife, and together they had approached Maggie. At first she had recoiled at the thought of removing her clothing before a man, until they explained to her that great ladies of all sorts did this, and that though some people did not think it proper, they were just ignorant folks who did not know the true ways of the world—is it not delicious to think of the simple innkeeper castigating others for their lack of sophistication, Brontë? ha ha!—and that her mother would always be present in the artist’s studio, for it was only on that condition that they would consider this. They even told her that she could have a portion of the money to buy whatever she liked. She would be helping Mr. Leyland, who after all was Yorkshire’s greatest young artist, thereby helping her parents. No one would know about this, they assured her.
“Though I do not ever like to be observed while creating, I thought for a moment about these simple souls, and quickly concluded that having her mother present would be no more distracting than being kept company by my dog Dionysus, so I readily assented. Once the wily fellow had negotiated Maggie’s fee—which was nearly twice what I had hoped—I regretted having agreed so quickly, as I now wished I could get more in the bargain, if you know what I mean. But I was now so enamoured of the idea of sculpting Kilmeny from life, and—don’t be cross, Brontë—so thirsty to see, after such a lengthy process, the young lady as God had made her, for she truly is magnificent, that I was nearly ready to agree to anything, and we shook hands on the bargain.
“The purpose of the initial sitting was to allow me rough out Kilmeny’s position, and so Maggie was to recline on a couch in various attitudes until I found just the one that suited me. She arrived at my old Swan Coppice studio that morning with her mother, who seemed more nervous than she, and who helped her disrobe behind a screen. I had provided a dressing gown for her to wear, which she wore as she emerged into the full light of the studio, her mother trailing awkwardly behind her, not knowing quite what to do. The girl’s face was nearly crimson with embarrassment, but I tried to assure her by assuming a businesslike air.
“‘Just hand the gown to your mother,’ said I, turning my back on her nonchalantly, ‘and recline on the couch, on your back please, with your feet facing me. You mother may sit just there’—I motioned to a chair just a few feet to the side—‘Today I shall be determining the position of Kilmeny, and making a preliminary sketch.’ I turned toward her and Good God, Brontë, how I kept from crying out or rushing toward her I know not, for what a perfect exemplum of the female form! There was not a freckle, not a birthmark, not a single flaw on that lovely little body. I struggled mightily not to react, I tell you, but cannot say whether my eyes betrayed me or not. Only a fool or a poof would have been unaffected. Indeed, not to feel the urges that the sight of such a beautiful woman prompts would make me a cold savant, don’t you think? Besides, what would give meaning to Kilmeny’s purity would be her beauty, her desirousness. For her to appear, herself, tempted by sin, and in her attitude to tempt a man to sin—but not to give way—that was what I hoped to capture. What is virtue if it is not tested, eh lad?
“I walked up to the divan. Maggie averted her gaze and her mother stiffened in her chair. I explained to them both: ‘Now, it is essential that I be able to touch Maggie to indicate how she should move, and what position she should maintain. Do not be alarmed.’ Both women nodded vaguely, and so I drew beside the couch and surveyed the young woman from head to toe.
Truth to tell, I did make her assume a number of different positions before asking her to return to the initial one. I did, I confess, move her legs in diverse directions before tucking her right leg under her left, as you see in the sculpture. I placed my hand on her hips, then her abdomen, to twist her just slightly, in such a way that her ribs and muscles were visible, so that she seemed a creature of flesh and blood, the subject of the real desires of real men. I found a support for her right hand, posing it delicately by its fingertips, and bent her left arm at the elbow, bringing her fingers toward her face so that the viewer could not tell whether she was beckoning a lover or showing apprehension, as she appears to reach to pull her ringlets from her shoulder. I held her left hand in various positions near her face, and as I moved it about I grazed her soft cheek and lips with the back of my hand. What a goddess!
“Would you be surprised to hear that by this point in the modelling session I began to be aroused? No? Well, nevertheless, you should know that I was the very image of virtue: as the back of my hand rested for a moment upon her glowing check, I made a grand show of being all business, and finally stepped briskly away from her, back to my drawing table, asking her to hold that position as long as she could. Slowly her blushing subsided, her mother finally relaxed into her chair, as I set to sketching, and within just a few moments I was lost in my work. Is it not a wonder how times flies by—or disappears entirely—as the world seems to fall away, when we are truly immersed in creation?
“In any event, once I had finished my initial sketch, I sent her and her mother away with an assurance that I would send word once the sculpture had been sufficiently roughed out so that I would need her for the final sculpting. When they returned a few weeks later, Maggie seemed almost eager to get to work, and her shyness seemed to have dissipated: no doubt my virtue had made its desired impression. Perhaps, upon reflection and with an absence of several weeks, Maggie determined that posing for me had not been all that bad. Her mother also seemed more at ease, and this time they needed no direction. The girl was undressed and lying on the couch almost immediately.
“‘Do you remember the precise pose you held last time?’ said I, and though she then resumed nearly the identical position I could not help but use this excuse to touch her as I had before. Without changing much at all of her attitude, I placed my hands successively on her calves, knee, thighs and hips, and as I went to position her left hand again near her face, I confess that it took a supreme effort of self-mastery not to brush the back of my right hand lightly across her breasts.
“From day to day, my sculpture came closer to completion, and from day to day, Maggie seemed more comfortable in her modeling. I no longer even needed to position her, so thoroughly had she memorized exactly where to lie, and how to position her limbs, pose her fingertips, and tilt her head. Her mother grew positively bored with the monotony of the final sessions, and when I announced that the next day would be the last, she seemed overjoyed. I am sure she was also relieved that her daughter’s questionable employment had almost come to an end—with no harm to any party. Maggie, on the other hand, seemed almost downcast. I am convinced that she had come to enjoy posing, and was especially proud of the nearly-completed statue itself.
“The next and final day Maggie appeared without her mother. ‘Where is your dear mamma? Is she unwell?’ said I, the nascent hope that mother might not appear at all that day kindling a desire I had thus far successfully crushed.
“‘No,’ the girl replied, ‘she’s a mess o’ work to do, and tol’ me that she trusts Mr. Leyland, as ‘e’s a proper gentleman, to be sure.’
“I was not surprised that by now her mother trusted me, and that, between her boredom and her enterprising nature, she could not bear to sit still for one more day, especially with the end in full sight. I shuddered, though, to be alone with Maggie, and realised that the presence of Mrs. Heaton had hitherto protected me—and her—from myself.
“She climbed upon her couch and assumed her position, by now nearly an identical twin of the sculpture I caressed before her. At length we were finished, and I fetched her dressing gown, handing it to her and saying, ‘Well my girl, that is that. You have been a splendid model for Kilmeny.’ I wanted her to leave quickly, so little did I trust myself alone with her.
“Instead, she pulled the sash around her gown tightly and walked softly, in her lovely little naked feet, up to her replica, standing just beside me. She placed her hands on the shoulders of her likeness, and raised herself up on the tips of her toes.
‘Do I really look that that?’ she asked.
‘Well, I hope so!’ I laughed. ‘Otherwise I have wasted my money and we have both wasted our time!’
‘It’s jes’—this might soun’ vain—she’s jes’ so beautiful. No, no….I’m sure I don’ look like tha’,’ she said, lifting up to me those immense blue eyes that have already enslaved you, Brontë.
“I am sure you can guess what happened next. I could not help myself. I turned to her and placed my hands on her cheeks. ‘Hmmm. Now let me see…let’s have one last look to make sure, since you are questioning my craftsmanship.’ I loosened her sash and opened the front of her gown, thinking that her innocent question had a deeper meaning. As her gown fell away, I was overcome with lust. I fairly quivered as I ran my right hand over her breasts and slid my left down her abdomen; I wanted to carry her back to her couch and put her in quite a different position; indeed, preferably more than one pose before the day was through.
“Instead, I was sent reeling backwards with the force of a blow I would scarcely have imagined from such a little thing; my cheek burnt doubly, both from a hearty slap and my own confusion. In a flash, she had put on her gown again, and her sudden wrath was itself replaced with concern, if only that she and her parents would not be paid their due.
‘I’m sorry, I am, Mr. Leyland. It’s jes’…it’s jes’ tha’ I’m a good girl, I am.’
By expressing contrition she had offered me—us—a way to salvage this situation.
‘No, my dear girl, it is I who must apologize. I mistook your intentions entirely. You were quite right to do as you did. You see—for I must confess that I am not always as good as you—sometimes an artist and his model form a bond that goes beyond the work itself, and I am afraid your beauty intoxicated me utterly.’
Though flattery is always a help in such situations, I was hardly stretching the truth here.
‘You won’t tell Papa, will you?’ said Maggie, and whether she was referring to my actions or hers, I assured her on the souls of my ancestors that I would not say a word. Since the hulking innkeeper is known to throw two drunks into the street at once, and could probably crush a man’s throat with one hand, there was no danger in my telling her dear papa or anyone else anything. Of course, you don’t count, Brontë—though now that I think on it, this may explain why I haven’t told you this story until now. In any event, I told her to get dressed, and when she had finished, I handed her a five-pound note. ‘I shall pay your parents the agreed-upon amount for your work, but this is just for you—it will be our other little secret.’
‘You’re not a bad man, Mr. Leyland,’ she said, looking up at me with those damnably beautiful eyes, ‘You jes’ wan’ things you can’t ‘ave, like mos’ folks.’
“I remember laughing to myself ruefully: she had just done what I wanted my statue to convey: a maiden to tempt a man to sin—but not to give way.
“‘And you, sinless Kilmeny, are indeed a good girl,’ I said, and off she went.”
Leyland peered into his glass and smiled.
“That was five years ago. Now you know the whole story, Brontë, and why, especially on an occasion such as last night, I could not but tease Maggie as the Sinless Maiden. And if you are wondering how she finds herself at such events, especially after my bad behavior, the reasons are two-fold: first, I pay her worthy parents for the food and drink, and second, I think she truly likes being surrounded by different sorts of people. For all I know, her beauty has given her grand ideas about her future, for despite having a rash of suitors, she has refused them all.”
“Joe, I don’t think your behaviour was so bad. You could honestly claim that you thought she was seducing you. What surprises me is that you gave up so easily.”
“See here, my friend. Whether it is virtue or my high opinion of myself I know not, but I could never force myself on a woman. Join to that the likelihood that Maggie’s father would quite cheerfully have murdered me had he known, and there you have it. Many thanks for the high praise, however. Coming from the son of a clergyman of the Holy Church of England it means a great deal!”
I was growing weary of his constant references to the Good Reverend Brontë, and so simply ignored him.
“I told Maggie that I would try to arrange for her to take an excursion on the railway, and that I would send word through you. I assume, then, that you make frequent appearances at the inn?”
“Yes, but not so often that Mr. and Mrs. Heaton grow suspicious—and after all, what could be worse that to have such suspicions aroused when I haven’t even tasted the forbidden fruit!”
We have agreed that once I had secured a way for Maggie to join me on the train, I would write to Leyland and he would convey the message to her. I confess that I am pleasantly surprised by the turn his story took, and I find myself yearning to see her.
Chapter XVII—A Magic Carpet Ride
November 23rd, 1840 Sowerby Bridge
I have written precious little about my post here at Sowerby Bridge, for despite the bustle of activity, there is a monotony to it that can easily be condensed to this: trains come and go; passengers and goods are loaded and unloaded; figures and accounts—the bane of my existence—are kept current. Mr. Duncan keeps me on my toes, and that is quite all right by me, as time passes far more quickly when I am thus occupied. I have even succeeded in concealing my dislike of keeping the accounts, so much so that—cruel irony—he has delegated all such work to me. Would that I, in turn, had an assistant to whom I could hand such tedious work! In short, beyond the idea of the railway—of a vast web connecting nearly every village in England, so that people and goods can travel at increasingly dizzying speeds—and the exhilaration of riding on an actual train itself, the everyday work of the Manchester and Leeds is no more exciting than any other dreary sort of business.
Despite the cold weather, we have just received word that the last brick will be laid on the Summit Tunnel in three weeks’ time, and a grand ceremony is to be held. I have decided to take Maggie on her excursion just after that, so that we can travel all the way to Manchester and back, if both she and I can arrange to take the time away from our respective duties. I continue to think of Joe’s description of her, and picture her gown falling down around her shoulders, brushing past her hips, thighs and calves to his studio floor. The other night I even dreamt of her, posed as Kilmeny, beckoning to me.
Living at such proximity to Halifax is a mixed blessing indeed. That Frobisher has arranged for Franz Listz to perform in January is but one example of what is accessible to me there. But there also resides Mephistopheles himself, as I have taken to calling Leyland. Though his soirées are infrequent, Joe finds any occasion he can to join me for a puff and a stiffener—usually several of the latter—so much so that I begin to wonder how long even his sturdy constitution can sustain such self-indulgence.
Meanwhile, his teasing about Maggie—whom he insists on calling Kilmeny—is unrelenting. Last night he walked up from Halifax, just a few moments before I would be leaving the station for the evening. He followed me about, feigning interest in the minutiae of my work, until at last all was completed but the final accounts to be tallied in the ledger.
“Come now, Brontë, surely you can do that tomorrow. I am more parched than the Israelites after their forty years in the blasted desert,” and as usual, Leyland—for like most devils he is part bully and part charmer—prevailed. I scribbled a note of what was to be completed on the morn, and off we went to The Mermaid.
“Ah,” said Leyland, after his first swallow, “That’s the thing.” Though it was too soon for his libation to have had any effect, the very act of swallowing—nay, I suspect of simply having eyed the glass before him—was enough to settle his nerves. I told him about the completion of the tunnel, and asked him to communicate my invitation to Maggie. Like a schoolboy, he found the proximity of the words tunnel and Maggie in the same sentence to be a source of great amusement.
“Oh ho!” said he, “so you think your train is the thing to gain access to that tunnel of virtue, where the ‘Greatest Young Artist of Yorkshire’ has failed?”
“That’s not at all what I am thinking,” I lied. It was a lie because I confess to having imagined how it might feel to be lost in the arms of Maggie, who resembled Agnes in so many ways that by a force of imagination I could blur my actual memories of one into my ideal representations of the other. It was true, however, that I was just as eager to see the look on her pretty face, to watch those bright eyes open wide, as the locomotive picked up steam and the countryside passed by. If that was all that happened I would still count myself a happy man, just to be in her company, just to witness her delight.
“Whatever you say, little man. Besides, she has kept herself pure so long that now she’s fairly a spinster—she must be twenty-one—and stale goods are not much better than damaged goods when it comes to being marriageable, in my view.”
“Stale?” I objected warmly, letting my feelings get the better of me. “How can you say that of such a lovely creature? You, yourself, said she was perfect.”
“Calm those nerves of yours, little man. That was five years ago, remember? A woman’s body is like any other ephemeral gift of nature: it reaches perfection just before it begins to decay. Think of the rose, at its most expansive, ravishing beauty the very instant before it begins to brown and wilt away. Or a fruit, whose sweetest, ripest, tastiest moment just precedes the beginning of its ultimate decline.
“In any event, listen to me: I was talking about aesthetic perfection. Five years ago Kilmeny had just reached the full bloom of womanhood, like the aforementioned rose at the apogee of its beauty. Does she remain a lovely creature to ask round to my soirées? Absolutely! But if you look closely at her face, you will see that already the lines have begun to creep in about her eyes, and within a few years these will be joined by fissures on her brow, then her neck, and so on. That is all I meant to say, Brontë. It is a biologically undeniable and irreversible fact.”
There was no arguing with Leyland on this matter, and so despite—or because of—my dismay, I changed the subject.
“I imagine Frobisher is wild with excitement over the arrival of the great virtuoso in January—he was positively jumping for joy the other night.”
My friend also seemed relieved at this new topic, removed as it was from of our own experiences.
“By God, yes, he views it as a crowning achievement, I daresay!”
I confessed to knowing precious little about Liszt, except that he was, like Mozart before him, an Austro-Hungarian child prodigy, dragged by his father from one great city on the continent to the next, to perform for all manner of people, including the crowned heads of Europe. He was currently on his first tour of the Kingdom.
“Frobisher reports that he is around my age,” continued Leyland. “He says that the man is devilishly handsome, and so entrances his audience—especially the softer sex—that he is in danger of being crushed by his admirers! Frobisher told me the ladies have been known to fight over his coffee dregs and cigar stumps! Can you imagine having that sort of power over women? I’d wager that he could seduce the innkeeper’s sinless daughter,” he added, unable to help himself.
I refused to rise to Joe’s bait, instead asking him if any sort of formal reception or dinner had been planned for the great man. “Why that is an excellent question—I believe I shall ask Frobisher himself, if for no other reason than to watch him twitch with anxiety, poor fellow! I fear his nerves put yours to shame, Brontë, for they appear at any moment ready to snap like one of Herr Liszt’s piano wires!”
Joe lifted his glass to signal another, and was, uncharacteristically, at a loss for words—though not for long. Seemingly casting about for a topic, he said, “Oh yes, Brontë, have you been doing any writing of late?”
I had not, in fact, been writing much of anything, and had quite given up on ever hearing anything from Coleridge. It had not taken long for me to learn that performing my duties at the station with the regularity required, including the dreaded account ledgers, sapped me of all creative strength, so that I could do little more than scribble the occasional thought or sketch in my notebook, or at most, polish up old poems and translations. The creation of new work of any length was simply out of the question. I was not sure how to convey this to Leyland without triggering his usual mockery of my chosen profession. Not everyone, I thought, looking at Leyland’s fine clothes and thinking of his extravagant soirées, had a brother to rescue him from creditors at regular intervals. Not wishing to quarrel with my friend, I decided to frame my dilemma more positively.
“As a matter of fact, I have readied some pieces for publication and was wondering if you and Francis could exert some influence with your father’s old newspaper, the Guardian. It is hardly Blackwood’s, but their poetry pages are respectable enough—far superior to the other Yorkshire papers, from what I can ascertain.”
“The idea is, in theory, a sound one,” Leyland replied, “but for God’s sake man, do not even mention my name, for when father sold the paper three years ago, negotiations soured so much that a raft of solicitors were called in to settle the matter. The current proprietors would rather cross the street than speak to me, though with Francis they are on minimally civil terms—so you might speak to him.”
“If I had to guess,” said I, happy to have a rare upper hand with my friend, “you have not helped matters at all, and have even been heard publicly speaking ill of the newspaper and its editor, whereas Francis, ever the steady, prudent businessman, has tried to make amends, given the complementary nature of his reading room.”
“Guilty as charged,” said he, “but damn it, Brontë, they offered one price verbally—with the shake of a hand, mind you—and then changed their offer when it was time to sign the papers. They’re sodding thieves, I tell you.”
“So you fought it, and—let me guess—you ended up paying your lawyers considerably more than the difference in dispute, correct?”
“Yes, yes,” Leyland smiled ruefully, “if you want to speak of a band of highwaymen, we can discuss my solicitors. I think Frank just paid the last of those fees a few months ago.”
“In short,” said I, “you are going to be of no help in getting me published.”
“Alas, you are correct. I am afraid that any publication you manage to secure, Young Faustus”—for such is his response to my baptizing him Mephistopheles—“will be on your own merits alone, with no help from this particular devil. In short, the surest way to have your poems cast into the fire by the august editors of the Guardian is to mention our friendship—on that I would be willing to wager.”
Leyland stood and insisted on paying; there was never any questioning him on the matter, as I learned long ago. As he stepped up onto the fly he’d hired to take him back to Halifax, I reminded him to inform Maggie of the train ride, and invited him to come the previous day to the grand opening of the tunnel. I had again mentioned Maggie in too great a proximity with the word tunnel, but this time my friend simply collapsed in uncontrollable paroxysms of laughter as he bounced away, his mirth giving his conveyance itself a kind of comic absurdity to my eyes. How could one not like him, Mephistopheles or no?
As I write these lines at day’s end, I wonder whether something more profound lies buried beneath Leyland’s words: think of the rose, at its most expansive, ravishing beauty the instant before it begins to brown and wilt away. Or a fruit, whose sweetest, ripest, tastiest moment just precedes the beginning of its decline. I think of the feeling of transcendence—ecstasy—with Agnes, that acme where mounting desire finally burst forth into glorious consummation, that wink of an eye that widened out instantly into eternity.
Indeed, is this the essence of life itself? Is it the spark—the heartbeat—separating a vital being from an inanimate corpse? Why did Mamma, Maria and Elizabeth die, while we others lived on? At what moment does ambition become success, or decline forever into hopeless failure? Is Leyland’s—and, I confess, my own—love of drink a sign of vitality, of a love of life, or is it merely the first step toward madness and death? When does the uphill striving of youth become the downhill march to the grave? Perhaps the walker knows not that he is on a downhill course until long, long after it is too late.
How simple it is to believe in the extremes of health and decay, or of good and evil, for that matter. But what if the meaning of human existence is concentrated in those infinitesimal interstices, as transient and ineffable as the play of light and shadow in the trees that waved above the meadow at Sunny Bank, as Agnes moved above me, and I inside her, until my mind at last felt no more pain, though it exploded into a thousand fragments. What if the secret of life—God himself, and His promise of life eternal—is somehow resident in that instant? Does not scripture say that in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed?
December 20th, 1840 Sowerby Bridge
The Summit Tunnel has at last opened, and one may now travel on a single train from Leeds to Manchester. The grand opening was an even greater jubilee than the event in October, after which the dignitaries dined at the Summit Inn whilst the workers were regaled at long tables of planks and trestles, hastily erected after the last brick was laid and the first train had made its way successfully from one side of the mountain to the other. Massive torches stood between the makeshift tables, and a fiddler added to the festivities. Each worker was permitted a pint of ale, but no more. I had no time to share in the celebration, and was kept so occupied with my sundry duties at Sowerby Bridge that I could scarcely even think of seeing Maggie the next day. Indeed, so exhausted was I that I had only the strength to eat a crust of bread and a bit of cold beef, washed down with a single glass of wine.
Is there any sleep like that of a man exhausted from physical exertion, rather than from worry or drink? I awoke feeling better than I had in what seemed like months, and was soon on my way to Halifax to meet Maggie, with whom I then rode the omnibus back to our station, so that we could take a train up to the tunnel, then down the western slope of the Pennines, through Littleborough, Rochdale and, at last, into Manchester. I was able to obtain a holiday, and had arranged with my friend the engine driver, Matthews, to let us ride with him in the locomotive itself. How Maggie had convinced her parents that she needed to be away from the inn I know not, but she is now truly a grown woman, and for all I know she is still drawing on the reservoir of the debt they owe her for fairly compelling her to model for Leyland.
I met her before The White Swan, where an omnibus was preparing to take its passengers up to Sowerby Bridge—how much more convenient it will be when the railway extends a branch line to Halifax itself! Maggie was radiant in the simplest of dress, her hair wound up and knotted on top of her head, “for I’m tol’ the win’ fairly lashes a person to death,” she said, those perfect sparkling eyes wide with anticipation. We traveled the steep hill to the station, and then Matthews and I helped her aboard, doing our best not to be observed by Mr. Duncan. Though I had spoken to him about taking a ride to Manchester, I had no wish to see him on this day, especially since I had failed to mention my highly unusual female companion.
We had just climbed onto the locomotive and wrapped ourselves in woolen blankets against the December cold, when he called out to Matthews. I motioned for Maggie to sit down with me and placed my finger on my lips to Matthews. He is no fool, so he merely winked and smiled, then hopped down to have a chat with my supervisor, thus preventing him for climbing up onto the locomotive and discovering us there. What I was doing was not wrong, but it would most likely have been frowned upon if discovered. I had not asked whether it was permitted, but had simply addressed myself directly to the good-natured engine driver. How often in life do we act in just this manner—knowing that we are quite possibly doing wrong, at least in respect to the letter of the law, and yet choosing to act rather than discovering the truth of the matter, so great is our desire to please ourselves, or others!
Soon we had left the station behind and could stand, and as the train gathered speed, moving along the Calder, Maggie positively squealed with delight, thrusting her arm through mine as we banked one way and then the next, following the path of the river, upstream, toward the tunnel. Her lovely face was an amalgam of childlike joy and fear, the first eventually dominating the second as it became clear that despite our speed and the route we traveled—so different from any a horse-drawn conveyance might take—she would be safe. Her initial apprehension settled into a state of constant, bubbling excitement, like a boiling kettle moved just far enough from the flame to simmer gently, and as we rounded yet another curve she shouted to Matthews, over the noise of the engine, “’ow is it tha’ we don’t fly fairly off the rails, into the river or the woods, with a great crash?”
Matthews laughed merrily, but not unkindly.
“Well you see, Miss, them great railway engineers ‘ave used all manner of learnin’, like mathematics and physics and other scientific know-how, to tell just how far they can tip the iron beast ‘fore it topples over. O’ course the fastest and easiest road is a straight line, and downhill at tha’, you won’ be surprised to learn, ha ha!”
“But though men sometimes act that way”—here Matthews winked at me slyly—“tha’s no’ how God made the worl’, is it now?” he said, gesturing across the rugged landscape. I could tell Matthews was charmed by Maggie, even wrapped as she was in a heavy cloak and the woollen blanket—and what man would not have been? We were making our way slowly uphill along the Calder, passing the future stations of Luddenden Foot and Hebden Bridge, currently under construction. At last the train entered the dark tunnel, and it was hard to believe that just a day earlier it had been the scene of the grand ceremony led by Mr. Dickinson, the tunnel’s engineer, followed by a rumbustious celebration of the workers, torches blazing, blasphemous oaths flying about, and no doubt manifold toasts offered in remembrance of co-workers who had died in the construction of the tunnel, this marvel of modern engineering. I have even heard Duncan say—in the reverential tones usually reserved for saints and martrys—that the great Stephenson himself is planning to visit the tunnel soon.
Today, however, it had been stripped quite bare, and only the train’s lantern illuminated the few feet in front and to either side of us as we slowly advanced into the darkness. Maggie clutched at my hand and stood close to me, and I could feel her warm cheek within an inch or two of my neck, could smell her sweetly perfumed and carefully braided hair just under my nose, and was overcome with a desire to take her in my arms, though all I did was squeeze her hand. Her hand embraced mine in return and, like a child huddling close to a parent—for there was far more fear than passion in her gesture—she pressed herself close to me. The pinprick of light we saw in the distance soon grew to reveal the tunnel’s opening on the western side of the summit, and as we emerged into the precious sunshine of this fleeting December day Maggie removed her hand from mine and gazed out the side of the locomotive, so that I could only see the back of her neck, which appeared to have flushed bright red.
“You were right, Mr. Brontë,” she said, now somewhat subdued, “a person only gets dizzy by looking at the world sideways…a body must gaze straight ahead.” Her gravity was soon dispelled, however, replaced by unrestrained glee as we gained speed downhill, rounding corners that caused our bodies to fly together and then apart, together and apart, together and apart. There was something of a dance in our movements, if not more, but unlike skilled dancers or passionate lovers, we had little control over our movements, dictated as they were by every twist and turn, every rise and fall, of the railway line itself. Just over two hours later we were in Manchester, which to Maggie might just as well have been the distant shores of the Americas, for it was easily twice as far from Halifax as she had ever travelled.
Soon we were retracing our route on another train, this time riding alone in a covered first-class coach, where we sat on benches opposite each other, as was her preference, a thick woollen blanket warming us each. She was quiet for the better portion of our journey, mostly gazing out at the bleak December landscape. From time to time I attempted to engage her in conversation, but her responses were generally limited to a nod or a “yes” or “no.”
After an especially long pause I ventured, “Imagine how glorious this ride will be in spring, when these woods will be swathed in green and wildflowers, and teeming with life!” Her lovely eyes met mine, and I imagined, if only for an instant, that we were in a meadow, loving each other—devouring each other—in utter abandon, and she was somehow at once herself and yet also Agnes.
“Perhaps,” said I, “you might wish to make this journey then?”
She simply nodded and returned her gaze to the window, and I could not tell what was wrong. Had I said something amiss?
“You are looking at the world sideways—I surely hope it does not make you swoon,” wishing to add that her bouncing along next to me on our way to Manchester had nearly made me do the same.
Here she granted me a small laugh and replied, “Though t’is dizzyin’ indeed, I rather like the way it makes me feel, the world flyin’ by, but me all safe and warm under me blanket.”
“If only life were like that,” said I, not thinking before I spoke.
“What d’y’ mean?”
“I mean that sometimes I wish I could wrap myself in a woollen blanket and simply watch the world go by, instead of labouring at a post I do not love, merely to earn money.”
She looked puzzled. “Why shou’ you be any different from anyone else, Mr. Brontë?” she said simply.
“I just feel different,” said I, and why I bore my soul to Maggie I do not know. Was I falling in love?
“I feel,” I continued, “as if I were meant for higher things. All of this hustling and bustling and grubbing about to earn a few pounds seems so coarse and undignified to me.”
She said nothing, but bit her lip, as she had that night at Leyland’s, but now there was only sadness in her eyes. I had wounded her, and soon grasped my blunder. She turned to me and said, with a curious blend of melancholy, reproach, and affection, “I think maybe yer jes’ a little boy who wants to be taken care of, are ye not?”
I could have kindled up then, and answered sharply in my own defense—that after all I was working and doing quite well at it, thank you very much—but she was so lovely, at once so strong and so vulnerable, her cheeks red from the cold, her eyes glimmering with just the hint of tears, her golden braids catching the last rays of this brief December day, that I could only say, feigning jocularity, “Yes, yes, I suppose you are right, Maggie. I imagine that what I really want to do is to read and write all day, and have someone else take over the wretched, dirty, practical business of everyday life, especially that nasty part about earning one’s living. But see here! I am in the exalted post of Assistant Clerk-in-Charge on the Manchester and Lees Railway, heroically fighting my every slothful instinct each step of the way—not unlike this train labouring up the hill toward the Summit Tunnel—even going so far as to keep all of the dreaded ledgers for the station at Sowerby Bridge! Surely the twelve labours of Hercules were as nothing when compared to this!”
I paused for just a second or two, and added, puffing up my chest, “So you see, I am fully a man. Indeed, let me protect you as we enter the mouth of the tunnel, for we shall be like Jonah in the belly of the whale, though our captivity shall be closer to three minutes than three days!” I moved over next to her and drew my blanket over hers as we approached the tunnel.
This silly speech had its desired effect, and she was now smiling in spite of herself. “I see why you and Mr. Leyland are friends,” said she. “You not only talk the same way, yer both naughty boys… and like naughty boys who misbehave an’ then smile sweetly, you confound those who’d rightly take y’ t’ task.”
As the train entered the obscurity of the tunnel, I could again feel her warmth and smell her breath and, most of all, her sweet perfumed hair just beneath my nose. I inhaled deeply, drew her closer, felt with my right hand for her face, cupping it in my palm as I leant to kiss her. She drew her lips away, and though we were alone in the carriage, she whispered as if not to be heard, simply, “No.” She did not move her body away from me, however, and I could feel her soft hip move against mine as we made our way through the tunnel and back into the rapidly fading sunlight. At least she had not leveled a blow at me, as she had at Joe five years earlier.
“I am sorry,” I began, but without moving from her side, “it is just that—”
She did not move away from me, but simply said, “Hush,” and as the train bumped its way down along the Calder and back through Hebden Bridge and Luddenden Foot, she let each jolt of the coach carry her where it would, sometimes against me for a brief instant, then away from me at another. In the final moments of our approach to Sowerby Bridge, she let her head fall back and rest on my shoulder, and I again drew a deep, hungry breath, savouring each instant of her presence while I could.
“And now who is the little child?” I said gently, wishing she would turn her head and place her lips on mine.
Instead, she gazed out the window and said, “We’re all of us children of God, aren’t we? And we’re never really fully growed. But we must ‘put away childish things,’ ain’t that what the good book says? But you and Mr. Leyland, well, y’ can’t do tha’, can you? And it’s why people hate you and why they love you and most of all why they are sad for you. They want the life you have, but don’t wan’ what comes with it, and you don’t wan’ the life they ‘ave, but you wan’ the things they ‘ave.”
This was not the romantic picture I had painted of my train ride with Maggie. She must have seen my knitted brow, and added, “You may be a naughty boy…but you’re a good man. Y’ jes’ don’t believe it yourself.”
We spoke little as the train pulled into Sowerby Bridge, or on the short omnibus ride down to Halifax. As I handed her down to the driver, who should be standing there but Joseph Bentley Leyland himself, waving his eternal, infernal, walking stick—and laughing.
“Ho ho, well I’ll be married, buried, devilled and damned, if it’s not our love birds!,” said he, then bursting into appropriately seasonal song: “Two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree! I suppose that makes me the partridge, eh?”
Maggie half-curtsied and smiled politely at Leyland, but quickly and silently made her way to her father’s inn, across the street. Leyland called after her, “Now Kilmeny, don’t be cross with old Joe! I’ll be sending you a note soon about my next soirée! Count on it!”
Leyland insisted that I come to the studio for a celebratory drink, and he was fairly bursting with glee as we strode across The Square. Once there, he hastily removed his coat and hat and drew two chairs up to Kilmeny, then fairly raced over to a sideboard to secure a bottle and two glasses. Gesturing me to sit, he poured us each a generous portion of whisky with trembling hand, stoppered the bottle, and nestled its base between Kilmeny’s smoothe marble thighs, its neck just a hair’s breadth beneath her perfect, lustrous left breast.
I feared my friend would begin a round of incessant teasing, but not today, for he had momentous news to share: after learning that the great Liszt and his entourage would have to pass the night in Halifax before making their way to London and then on to the continent, Joe had convinced the ever-worried and easily-led Frobisher that it was important—nay essential, for the reputation of fair Halifax itself was at stake—that a celebratory event be given in the musician’s honour. They had further learnt that the concert in Halifax was to be the last of his long tour of the British Isles. Joe was even paying Frobisher to transport a pianoforte to the studio—“just in case the virtuoso wishes to play”—and there would be nothing but the finest food and drink Yorkshire could produce in honour of the great man. All of this would take place immediately after his performance, with the studio transformed into a ballroom of sorts.
I wondered how Leyland was to pay for this, and suspected his usual banker, Francis, but as if reading my mind, he said, “And the beauty of it is that I have all of the cash in hand I need to give the party. Some might say that I should pay off my other debts or place the funds in reserve for a rainy day, but carpe diem, my good man, right? When will Herr Liszt ever play in Halifax again? Never, I should say, and what purpose will money serve sitting inside a bank, or squirreled away in a mattress? Only fools make an idol of their unspent gold, for does not the Holy Scripture say, Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal? Surely your righteous papa would agree, would he not?”
Leyland’s special talent for picking and choosing from the Bible whatever he felt would justify his present actions was unrivaled, and I decided not to crush his good humour with any contrariness, laughing along with him rather than pointing out that he had conveniently omitted the key phrase from the same passage in Matthew: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal. No man can serve two masters: ye cannot serve God and mammon.
“What the Devil,” said I, “have you at long last found yourself a wealthy patroness?”
“Alas, no,” he replied with feigned dejection, “but you are not so far off as you might think.”
He extended his glass toward his sculpture and said simply, “I have sold my dear Kilmeny, and am using part of the proceeds to fund my gala event. My sole regret is that the beauty will be carried away before Liszt can see her. I should like to see his reaction to her, famed rake that he is.”
I stood and walked over to the sculpture, placing my tumbler next to Kilmeny’s right thigh and scanning her from head to toe. “Perhaps,” said I, wondering if I would ever see Maggie as Leyland had, “perhaps her absence will give you even more room for entertaining your multitude of guests, especially with a piano placed amidst it all.”
At this Joe leapt up and walked over to where I stood. “No, no, I am prideful enough—and as it will come as no surprise to you it does not amount to a true confession—to want Europe’s greatest musician to see at least one work of Yorkshire’s greatest young artist.” He had once been called this in an article in the Guardian, and had never let his friends forget it.
Leyland ran his hands up the length of Kilmeny’s legs and torso, over her breasts and neck, then circling around the braids and knot of her hair before heaving a melodramatic sigh. “I will miss her, though,” said he, which finally brought him round to the conversation I had dreaded since first seeing him with Maggie.
“Say, I did not ask you, young Faustus, what transpired on your grand voyage to Manchester and back with Kilmeny, alias Margaret? Were you a great hero, a rake, a rascal, a regular Don Juan?”
“We rode with the engine driver to Manchester, then in a covered carriage on the return trip. I think she enjoyed herself thoroughly.”
“Is that all?”
“That is all, my friend.”
“Bugger me, Brontë, what a disappointment you are. Surely that was the moment—on your magic carpet ride, as you say—to take her in your arms and go to extremes. Were you never alone?”
“We were alone in the coach on the return journey.”
“Well confound it, little man, you missed your chance.”
“What would you have recommended,” said I, “handle her as roughly as you did five years ago? I did try to kiss her and was rebuffed.”
Pausing for a moment, I remembered how twice she had called me a good man. I looked from Kilmeny to her creator, whose expression was fading from disappointment to mere boredom, and simply said, as we resumed our chairs, “Well Joe, as she has told us on separate occasions, she’s a good girl, isn’t she?”
Chapter XVIII—A Promotion
January 15th, 1841 Sowerby Bridge
A new year and another new beginning! What wonderful news has come with Christmastide: I am so valued in my position here that I have been promoted to Clerk-in-Charge of the new station at Luddenden Foot, at the first of April! My salary has risen to 130 pounds a year, more than anything I have earned before, thrice Anne’s annual wages, and almost a third more than Weightman, papa’s curate’s.
Father was overjoyed at the news, no doubt feeling that I have found my calling—or at least a calling—and seeing that I am capable of advancement, even in such a short period of time. He doubtless thinks that I have finally exorcised the demon goading me to seek literary fame, just as he himself did so many years ago, at precisely my age. We shall see.
Emily and Anne seemed equally pleased with the news, and congratulated me sincerely, each in her own, distinct way: the first gruffly but genuinely, the second sweetly and warmly, with a light-hearted joke or two. Only Charlotte seemed unable to welcome this news: her response was a restrained “good for you,” which seemed to take every atom of her strength to utter; I later overheard her say to Emily, “Let us hope that his removal to another station will turn out for the best. It looks like getting on at any rate.”
As I have thought on more than one occasion, could it be that my success only reminds her of her own failure? For she has yet to secure another position, though she is better trained and more seasoned than Anne, who from all acounts continues to make herself invaluable to the Robinsons. Emily—for Emily is a special case—has made herself similarly inestimable to Papa, and I cannot imagine anything prying her loose from Haworth, for she clings to her home as a starfish fastens to its reef.
Charlotte, meanwhile, continues to be more burden than help, for she is dependent without contributing much, spending her days corresponding with her childhood friends, only half-heartedly attempting to find employment, even making Miss Wooler, her old teacher, do most of her work for her. I do not even think she is writing anymore, for when I asked her for news from our imaginary land of Angria, she simply said, somewhat haughtily in fact, “Branwell, there comes a time when the imagination should be pruned and trimmed and judgment cultivated in its place. It is time to clear away the countless illusions of our youth, is it not?” I find I no longer understand this strange creature—who not so long ago was my twin, nay perhaps even my better self—for her own judgment seems to vary according to the case at hand: as I have said before, she fits her pronouncements to the end that is most convenient to her. On the very day that she turned up her odd little nose at my advancement in the world—the real world of men, industry, railways, money—she excused her own lack of poetic activity by claiming sententiously that it was time to clear away the countless illusions of our youth. Really now? I begin to think that she is thoroughly impossible.
As I turn these things over in my mind and survey the year just passed, I wonder if I have been altogether too hard on myself. After all, I was a valued tutor in Broughton, and was dismissed only because of Mr. Postlethwaite’s lack of appreciation of a true education in the classics. The reality is that I performed my duties well and was an excellent boarder. I cannot bear to reflect at any length about Agnes, but that too was a good thing—it was as pure as the beck that tumbled down the hills and separated the farm from the woods at Sunny Bank.
I had ultimately followed Mr. Postlethwaite’s—and John Brown’s—advice and sought work with the railway, where I have quickly proved myself more than capable. With the exception of a rare visit home and an occasional trip to Halifax, I am forever trying to anticipate the needs of Mr. Duncan, and even offer to work additional hours if needed, taking over the ledgers and keeping them with an exactitude that surprises even myself, so much do I detest that dreary work. In one respect, my employment at Sowerby Bridge has been easier than writing a single poem, for the share of my mind required to perform such tasks is minimal; it requires an entirely different kind of thought and energy, and though it is not perfectly suited to my nature, I have laboured to make the adjustments required to excel.
Now then: what will the world hold for Patrick Branwell Brontë, aged 23 years, as Anno Domini 1841 unfurls? Luddenden Foot is scarcely two miles up the Calder, so that except for my lodgings, little in my life need change. My salary will have risen more precipitously than I could have dreamt just months ago, almost double of what I am earning now. Moreover, I will now be Clerk-in-Charge, and though such a title might draw the mockery of my elder sister, it far outshines anything she has accomplished. I can see, now, how easy it would be to lose oneself in the pursuit of mammon, for the thought of nearly twice the income for doing, I doubt not, altogether similar work, is positively intoxicating. Tempting indeed it is, to use Charlotte’s own words, to clear away the countless illusions of youth, if this is what assiduous application yoked to just a bit of intellect can yield in such a short time! What, then, might I accomplish if I were to give over entirely, and to bury my literary ambitions once and for all?
I confess that my mind has even wandered into uncharted territory with the news of this promotion: what of marriage, and what of Maggie as my bride? Would not her good papa think highly of such an offer from a man whose salary has nearly doubled? Of course I know what my own family would think of such a union. Charlotte would scorn to be related to such a woman—for in nowise would she stoop to call Maggie a lady—and would ridicule her simple manners and speech, and even rougher hands—as if Emily’s hands were not just as rough, and as if our own grandparents were not Irish farmers and Cornish shopkeepers! What a curse it is to be raised with the manners and expectations of the gentry, but to lack all means to live a genteel life! We think ourselves betters, but what makes us better? Our learning, our speech, and our manners: that is all. The thought of asking for Maggie’s hand unleashes a flood of contradictory emotions: passion, longing, excitement, fear and dread. But I run on too fast, and should not even think on it, for I do not even begin my new post for two months more. In the meantime, Leyland’s elaborate preparations for Herr Liszt proceed apace; even when sober, he is positively drunk with excitement over the coming event.
Though I am curious to see Liszt, as well as what Leyland has prepared for him, I am most eager of all to see Maggie. I trust and hope that she will accept Joe’s invitation. Twice I have tried to see her at the White Swan, and twice her father has reported that she was away on a commission. His scowl the first time encouraged me to finish my drink promptly and be off; the second time he was friendlier to me, for I was in the company of Joe, who used the occasion to place a large order of food and drink for his fête. This fact, of course, made the old man positively giddy, for he could surely already picture the sculptor’s cash filling his till. He even offered, “I suppose you’d like Maggie to be there, eh, to oversee all?”
“Well Heavens, yes, would you please tell her? Especially in this bleak season, her beauty will be just the thing to replace the flowers we need to adorn the studio!” Leyland paused artfully, and added, “of course you and your missus are invited as always. I do wish you would come for once. You would have all of your worst fears confirmed, about just how wicked we artists can be, ha ha! And Herr Liszt will be there, mein lieber Gott! It will be wunderbar!”
The innkeeper merely laughed. “Now y’ know full well, Mr. Leyland, that we cannuh’ leave the inn, especially if Maggie is t’ be there,” adding meaningfully, in what must have been an allusion to her modeling sessions for Leyland, “we trus’ you, and we trus’ Maggie.”
Laughing, he added, “and can y’ picture suchlike as us mingling with the likes of them grand folks? Did you no’ tell me last week tha’ the man’s lover is a countess, and that ‘e’s e’en played his pianoforte for kings and queens?”
“Ah, my good man, we are all God’s children, are we not?” He looked over at me and, holding the paradoxical attitude of playful gravity of which he was master, nodded meaningfully. “After all, is there much difference between the likes of Liszt on the one hand, and the Bard of Haworth here and myself on the other? I think not!”
Naughty Joe had once again charmed his audience, though the fat purse he intended to spend on the soirée surely did not hurt matters. After a bit of laughter all around, Maggie’s father got back to work. I leant across the table to Leyland.
“Are you daft? What are you thinking of, inviting her parents?”
“Hush, hush, little man. There is always method in my madness. Have you not heard of variolation, or inoculation against smallpox?
“Yes, yes, of course. What has that to do with this?” I was beginning to be seriously annoyed.
“Well, I’ve just conducted a bit of metaphorical inoculation with that rascal over there,” he said in a low, conspiratorial voice, nodding in the direction of our host.
“Meaning, young Faustus, that having invited—even insisted—that he and his wife come, we can now be thoroughly at our ease and as wild as we please—goodness, that’s a rhyme, did you notice that?”
“Go on,” said I, still impatient to understand his reasoning.
“Calm yourself, Brontë. What this means is that we may conduct ourselves with reckless abandon, and you may, if you’re so inclined, carry the innkeeper’s daughter off into a corner, or into the cellar, under a table, into a waggon, upon the roof, or out into the street if you please, and have it off with her. Please just do it, for pity’s sake, because your nerves are even more tautly strung than usual! Of course, the great pianist may have other ideas!” he laughed, finding himself, as was oft the case, most amusing indeed.
Throughout Joe’s stream of foolishness, I had kept a sharp lookout for Maggie herself, but when we left half an hour later, she still had not returned.
Good God in his Heaven, how I long to see her again! How I hope she will be there!
To be continued on 13 April 2020