• Northangerland

Oblivion: The Lost Diaries of Branwell Brontë (Part 4 of 12)

Updated: Apr 18

Volume I (conclusion)

Chapter XIX—The Great Liszt Performs

January 31st, 1841 Sowerby Bridge

Where to begin? The great Liszt has come and gone, and I feel almost at a loss to describe his passage. Though two days have passed since Leyland’s fête, my head still throbs. I journeyed to Halifax by omnibus as the day declined, for Joe wanted me to see the studio before the concert, which was to begin at 8 o’clock that evening.

As I entered, I nearly had the sensation that I had happened into the wrong building, so transformed was the vast room. All of the tools of Leyland’s trade had been cleared away, an extensive cleaning had been conducted, and colourful bunting was draped from window to window. Carpets had been laid over the stone floor, and fire already roared in the grates. Tables flanked two of the four walls, and were soon to be covered with all manner of dainties, whilst two lads were just beginning to prepare an assortment of beverages—mulled wine, claret, whisky and brandy, for there would be no ale or gin at an event honouring Herr Liszt.

Joe, however, was interested in the two objects confronting each other in the centre of the studio.

“So,” he said, gesturing with a grand sweep of the arm, “what do you think?” He was beside himself with excitement. Kilmeny the Sinless Maiden was no more, but had been replaced by Leyland’s monumental Head of Satan, whose ferocious, stony gaze stared directly at Frobisher’s pianoforte.

“I certainly hope Herr Liszt does not take this juxtaposition amiss,” said I, adding, “Though I must say that your Satan bears a striking resemblance to its creator.” What a lifetime ago we had seen it in Bradford! It, like Kilmeny, had languished in Leyland’s studio, hidden beneath sheets in a distant corner. I was now thoroughly convinced that it was an accurate self-portrait of Joe, at the height of his youthful, sardonic arrogance.

“Lucifer himself take me, Brontë,” said Joe, who, from his breath and even more expansive mood than usual, I could tell had already begun drinking—no doubt to calm his nerves over the impending events of the evening—“Satan’s soul may be black as pitch, but surely he must be a handsome devil—ha ha!—just as the sinless Kilmeny must be a beauty worth ravishing, if her virtue is to mean anything at all. I remember casting all about me at the time, and finding not a single face remotely as handsome as the one I saw peering back at me from the glass each morning! As for our distinguished guest and his band of musicians, this afternoon I met John Orlando Parry, the Welsh baritone accompanying him, and he assured me that Liszt is immoderately fond of cigars, drink and, especially, the softer sex. Ho ho! What an evening we shall have!”

Leyland circled the piano, growing thoughtful for a moment. “I surely hope he is willing to play, for we can hardly have Frobisher or someone else of his ilk—even you, Brontë, though you’re tolerably good for an amateur—hacking away at the keys with Herr Liszt in the room! And yet, we cannot force the poor man to play, especially after he has given a concert, now can we?” Brightening, he added, “Ah well, enough drink and conversation will surely fill the void. I shall make it plain that there is no expectation, for that and some mulled wine or fine brandy are more likely to do the trick than any form of supplication.”

“What of Kilmeny?” I asked.

“Dost thou mean mean the sculpture or the model, pray?” he said, raising an eyebrow.

“The sculpture,” I said impatiently, “has the buyer already taken her away?”

“Yes, alas, and I even shed a tear as the sinless maiden in all of her naked splendour bumped out of the square, chained, like some nineteenth-century Andromeda, to the back of a waggon. The only thing more modern would have been to load her into a railway coach and send her over the Pennines to Manchester!”

“Speaking of the original, is Maggie scheduled to adorn your gathering tonight?”

“Ah ha!” he responded, clapping me on the back with such force that I had difficulty not tumbling forward into his satanic sculpture. “Yes, little man, I anticipate that she will grace us with her presence, or so I have been told by her august parent, the gentlemanly innkeeper. I, however, have seen not a sign of her since your infamous, mechanized magic carpet ride to Manchester and back. I wonder, have you bewitched our poor Kilmeny? Perhaps she pines for your noble brow and Roman nose?”

“Or my towering height, these fashionable spectacles, or this shock of flaming hair,” I laughed. “No, I doubt that seriously, my friend.”

In whom could I confide my secret wish that Maggie was indeed pining after, or at least thinking of, me as often as I was of her? Surely not Joe Leyland. We had that sort of manly rapport that allowed for seriousness only in questions of art, history, politics, faith, or the meaning of existence, while matters of the heart were banished for all time. No, the subject of the fairer sex must be treated in a crude and bantering manner between men, with all noble feelings proscribed, and elevated sentiments considered a mere instrument of seduction, especially for the Leylands of the world. Above all, women must not be treated as the yearning, thinking, feeling creatures they are.

As for my own sisters—and three more yearning, thinking, feeling persons I can scarce imagine—I strain every imagination to picture any one of them in the arms of a man, though of course they are made of the same flesh and blood as I. How can we be so different, then? Is it nature that made us so, or has the world’s different treatment of the sexes turned us, in adulthood, into utter strangers? How curious it is that we could, as little children, be as solidly united as the trunk of a single great oak, but are now split by life’s storms into such different branches that we scarcely know each another!

I was still musing over these things an hour later, as Leyland and I sat in the front row at the Old Assembly Rooms, awaiting the concert. He nudged me with his elbow.

“Say, you’ll never guess who is here.”

A thrill of excitement coursed through my veins, for I expected it to be Maggie, as unlikely as that now seems. I turned in the direction of Joe’s nod, and saw, however, a few rows back and to our left, the Reverend Brontë, along with Charlotte and Emily, and, on the far side of my sisters, Papa’s curate, William Weightman. I had hardly expected them to make this trip or spend any of Papa’s scant income, but here they sat. I glanced at my watch and seeing that ten minutes remained, stood and made my way round to them.

“Why family, what brings you to Halifax in the depths of winter?”

As is usually the case, Charlotte spoke first, staring at me with those large watery eyes of hers, a tense smile closed over her crooked teeth. She forever seems—with me—on the verge of boiling over in a fit of passion, but never quite does.

“Hello to you too, dear brother. Surely you do not think only railway clerks are capable of enjoying the celestial beauty wrung from the piano by Herr Liszt, do you? I hope you are not too embarrassed to see your poor relations from Haworth.”

Emily said nothing, smiling enigmatically—with just a bit of wickedness to be detected around the upper edges of her eyes, I thought. I wondered what my two sisters truly thought about the dashing Weightman next to them, especially as he was now struggling to restrain his laughter. With his fair hair swept forward and large side-whiskers, prominent nose and chin, he was a taller and far more handsome version of myself.

“Come now, Miss Brontë, you are treating poor Branwell a bit harshly, don’t you think?”

He continued to chuckle warmly.

“No,” she replied, “quite the opposite: he wants a bit of unsparing treatment.”

This was said in a seemingly flippant, even playful tone, but her eyes told a different story, for they bore into my very soul. Did she recognize that, even in jest, such a pronouncement was an indictment of Papa himself?

The old man himself shifted uncomfortably in his chair and spoke at last. “We procured four tickets at a family rate, a mere 21 shillings, so how could we not make the trip from Haworth?”

Ah yes, always frugal Papa: he had realised the monumental savings of three shillings! At this it was Charlotte’s turn to move uncomfortably in her chair.

“Oh yes, and Branwell, Charlotte has some very good news to share, which she has not yet had the time to write you about,” he continued.

She rarely writes to me anymore about anything, I felt like saying, so I was not surprised that she had been too “occupied” to do so.

Really? Pray, tell.”

Charlotte reddened a bit, and then said, “I’ve been offered a post as governess to the White family, of Upperwood House at Rawdon, to begin in March. I’ve not yet determined whether I shall accept, however.”

“Why would you not?” said I.

She hesitated, whilst papa filled the silence. “The pay is quite modest,” he said, “only twenty pounds per annum.” I could see both sisters stiffen, and Willy Weightman made a point of studying a particularly pretty young lady sitting directly across the aisle from him, this pious man of the cloth giving her a thorough going-over, from her lovely auburn ringlets to her pretty little booted feet.

The Brontë children were, for a brief instant, once again united against the world, for we all feel the public discussion of money to be vulgar, and indeed to be in unforgivably bad taste. Papa has no such scruples, but he was correct in his assessment just then: Charlotte would be earning half of what Anne was paid at Thorp Green, not even a fifth of my new salary at Luddenden Foot. And yet, rejecting the offer would appear to be churlish, whimsical, and most of all selfish, for if Charlotte did so she would continue her dependency on papa whilst Emily managed the household and Anne and I were gainfully employed.

“I am certainly inclined to accept,” said she after an awkward silence, “and at least Rawdon is a mere nine miles from Brookroyd, so I shall see dear Ellen with great regularity.”

At this moment, voices began to fall silent as Frobisher strode across the stage on the tips of his toes, so I quickly took leave of my friends and made my way back to the front row. Our local concertmaster then introduced the London impresario and conductor Lewis Lavenu, who presided over the stage at the pianoforte.

The program was divided into two parts, the first beginning with selections from Mozart and Handel, performed by two female singers, a Miss Steele and a Miss Bassano; Richardson, the celebrated flautist; and John Orlando Parry himself. Three, four, five, six pieces were played, and still no sign of Liszt. Was he ill? Could he bear the English chill no longer? Had he left for France already, since this was to be his final performance in the Kingdom? No, no, after six pieces, the others left the stage, and Lavenu introduced not Herr Liszt, but Monsieur Liszt, pointing out that more than half of the great pianist’s life had been spent in France. He was more French than German, and after that, more German than Hungarian. As I learned later in the evening, he was even more Italian than he was Hungarian. Indeed, he had nearly obliterated his origins; I liked that about him.

Onto the stage strode a strikingly handsome man—as I also later discovered—of exactly Leyland’s age, nigh on thirty. From our seats in the front row, Leyland and I were nearly as close to him as if we had sat across from him at dinner. His thick hair was a chestnut colour, with streaks of a lighter brown here and there, and it was swept back from his large, noble brow and cut in a straight line just above his shoulders, so very different from the fashion in England. His prominent nose, lips and chin were perfectly balanced, and his prominent cheekbones gave a hint of some remote Slavic parentage.

But it was the eyes above all that impressed. Dark expressive brows stood over a gaze so intensely mesmerizing that it was easy to see why he had made a conquest of a duchess, and was rumoured to have seduced all manner of women, of all stations. As I have said before, what man possessing such power of attraction would not use it? Only a saint, surely.

Two lads had, under his supervision, turned the pianoforte to the side, so that the audience could see man and instrument equally, could watch his hands move over the keyboard.

Such a thing had never before been seen in Halifax, I am quite certain! Liszt sat and made his way slowly into his transcription of the overture from Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, his hands and fingers moving faster and faster until they attained a seemingly impossible rapidity, so that what I beheld, even from my vantage point, seemed little more than a blur. Towards the middle of the piece, he again slowed before reaching the celebrated, climactic finish, and then stood and bowed as he was showered with a storm of applause, his penetrating gaze moving over the assembly like the beam of a lighthouse across the sea. Parry then sang a buffo italiano, after which the curtain fell for intermission. Liszt had played one piece, for only a few minutes, but the audience was in raptures as a din arose in the wake of the concert’s first half.

“Let’s step out for a smoke, Brontë, I can’t abide the noise in here.”

“Let’s exit from the other side, then,” said I, hoping to avoid further conversation with my friends, and especially Charlotte.

As we left the assembly room, Leyland handed me a cigar and reached into his pocket for a flask of whisky. “Ha, not just a puff but a stiffener, too. That’ll make that din more bearable.”

I was sure that Leyland’s afternoon drinking had begun to wear off, and a headache had supplanted the agreeable numbness he had felt when we were inspecting his studio. I took a pull from his flask and then drew on the cigar as he lit it, coughing as I almost always do, for my lungs seem particularly sensitive to all manner of smoke and damp—something else I share with my sisters.

“There there, little man, keep smoking and that cough will clear off nicely,” said Leyland. “So what do you make of our Herr—Monsieur—Liszt?”

“I’m struck dumb with admiration, Joe. I’ve never seen anything like it. He deserves all the fame heaped upon him, and then some.”

“I concur. I’ll wager that if his health holds out he is just getting started. Did you see the faces of the ladies in the audience? Methinks that devil could wade out into that sea of femininity and have his pick, that he could merely crook his finger and induce any one of them to follow him behind the curtain for a good bang on the pianoforte, ha ha! My only disappointment is how little he has played. I hope we’ll hear more from him after the intermission.”

I had not paid any attention to the playbill, but one was posted directly behind Leyland’s head, by way of an advertisement for the concert. “Look here, Joe, it says right here: Part II will include Liszt accompanying Miss Steele on the piano as she sings The Wanderer, and he then will play a solo of the finale of Lucia di Lammermoor and the Galop chromatique. So I suppose we’ll be treated to a bit more this time round.”

Leyland harrumphed and said, “Well, we can always hope that he’ll play for us at the studio, eh Brontë?” I scarcely heard this, for my eyes had wandered down the playbill and fastened on the following: “MR. J. PARRY will sing his celebrated song, ‘Wanted, a Governess’.” Ha! How curious, and how droll! I wondered if Charlotte had read the playbill—of course she had, for she reads everything, and in the minutest detail, I will give her that—and if she was eagerly anticipating this particular song. I found myself wishing I could sit next to her to observe her reactions. This solo was to be followed by a trio of Miss Steele, Miss Bassano, and Mr. Parry, “Tis a Very Merry Thing,” which would close the concert. One could hope for an encore, for surely Liszt’s final concert in England should end with the great virtuoso himself!

Chapter XX—Wanted, A Governess

Soon we were back in our seats, restlessly awaiting the second half of the concert. As it got underway, the strange coincidence of Charlotte’s news of an appointment as governess with the appearance of Wanted, a Governess distracted me so that I scarcely heard and surely insufficiently appreciated the great Liszt himself, as he played his way through Lucia di Lammermoor. I did briefly think, however, how wondrous it was that our own childhood favourite, Walter Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor, had formed the basis for Donizetti’s opera, which in turn this brilliant Franco-Austro-Italo-Hungarian had effortlessly—or so it seemed—transformed into a piano piece. What a curious web was this nineteenth century, and how much more quickly would such translations and transmogrifications multiply with the advent of the railway!

Liszt’s piece was scarcely longer than five minutes, and soon he had moved on to his own Grand Galop Chromatique, which was even shorter. But the virtuoso had packed a multitude of notes into that brief span, expressly crafting a vehicle for his own dexterity, his fingers again flying across the keys, gaining speed like a locomotive that has crested a summit and has both momentum and gravity on its side as it charges downhill. The audience erupted in applause as he finished with a flourish.

Now it was John Orlando Parry’s turn to take the stage alone, with only Levenu at the pianoforte to accompany him, for the great Liszt had bowed, again surveyed the public with that penetrating gaze of his, and disappeared. Parry looked to be about the same age as Liszt and Leyland. His features were round but in no wise heavy, his Welsh eyes twinkling, his mouth drawn back in a perpetual smile, almost a laugh. Indeed, he almost laughed as he spoke, and his humour was infectious. “Greetings to you, fair nobility and gentry of Yorkshire. I would like now to share part of an operetta that I wrote just this past year, and which—if I may humbly say so myself—has a little something for everyone gathered here today.”

I glanced furtively back at Charlotte, who was gazing at Parry with considerable concentration.

“I have an especial interest in newspapers and advertisements—for surely they are read more often and by a broader public than anything in the history of the world—and so I set myself the challenge of putting a “want,” as they call it, to music. I must confess, in fairness, that my friend George Dubourg, Esq., is the author of most of these words, though I will take full ownership for the mischievous idea myself!

Parry cleared his throat, nodded to Lavenu, and as the piano music began, sang in a lovely, laughing baritone the following words:

I know not a cure so good for the vapors,

As reading the "wants" which appear in the papers;

There's “wanted a husband,” or "wanted a sample,"

Or "wanted to borrow," but here's an example:

Here Parry theatrically drew a newspaper from his waistcoat pocket, and balanced a pair of spectacles on the end of his nose, all the while continuing to sing:

"Wanted a governess" - "Wanted a governess" - "A governess wanted"-

A governess wanted, well-fitted to fill

The post of tuition with competent skill,

In a gentleman's family highly genteel,

Where 'tis hoped that the lady will try to conceal

Any fanciful feelings or flights she may feel.

For this gentleman's family's so very genteel, they're so very genteel!

Again I turned to observe Charlotte, whose gaze had lost none of its intensity, but whose visage had gone as white as the Duddon Sands. She had so often spoken, with such gravity and even ire, of the need to crush one’s feelings in the presence of one’s employers, to be little more than a servant, nay, even an automaton, if one were to retain one’s post. I certainly knew something of this myself, for my experience with the Postlethwaites had taught me the perils of too great an enthusiasm as well.

On sang Parry, still smiling and feigning to read:

Superior attainments are quite indispensable,

With everything, too, that's correct and ostensible;

Morals of pure unexceptionability;

Manners well-formed and of strictest gentility

The pupils are five—ages six to sixteen—

All as promising girls as ever were seen;

And besides (though 'tis scarcely worthwhile to put that in)

There are two little boys, but they only learn Latin.

I thought of father’s decision to keep me home and instruct me in Greek and Latin. No emphasis on modern languages for me—these were the province of the ladies, and besides, papa would often say, “if you know Greek and Latin, the modern languages are as easy to acquire on your own as A-B-C.”

I was hardly convinced of this now, and had realised that I was far more likely to employ the living languages of French or German in my current work, but how could papa have known all those years ago that his son would lead the life of a railway clerk? Again I glanced back at my friends, this time at the Reverend Brontë himself, who, unlike Charlotte, was by now smiling along with Parry and the rest of the assembly, oblivious to how the song might be affecting his children.

Wanted a governess, fitted to fill

The post of tuition with competent skill,

In a gentleman's family highly genteel.

Where, in order that things may go "Toujours Tranquille,"

They seldom express themselves quite as they feel.

For this gentleman's family's so very genteel, they're so very genteel!

Must true gentility, then, forever be opposed to passionate feelings? Was the real secret of gentility then hypocrisy, a refusal to acknowledge man’s most basic emotions and instincts? I cannot call them animal instincts, for the slow and delicate congress I experienced with Agnes—where we prolonged the moment of ecstasy as long as possible, as if to spread it out over all of existence and to defy death itself—proved that Vergil was wrong, that love was not the same for all, that in fact amor omnibus non idem, did it not? What we had done together had no more in common with a dog in heat than that same dog’s howl had with Parry’s clever song, which continued thus:

The lady must teach all the several branches,

Where into polite education now launches;

She's expected to speak the French tongue like a native,

And be to her pupils of all its points dative;

Italian she must know, of course, nor needs banish

Whatever acquaintance she may have with Spanish;

Nor would there be harm in a trifle of German,

In the absence, that is, of the master, Herr Hermann.

"Wanted a governess," fitted to fill

The post of tuition with competent skill,

In a gentleman's family highly genteel,

Where the lady will find, by attention and zeal,

That she'll scarcely have time to partake of a meal,

For this gentleman's family's so very genteel, they're so very genteel!

Again I stole a backward glance, and again I witnessed a pale and stony gaze directed at Parry. Did Charlotte recognize that the real victim of his satire was the gentry and the nobility who employed such beings as her? On the other hand, did they get the joke? If so, no offense was taken, for nearly the entire assembly struggled not to laugh so loudly as to prevent themselves from hearing the singer’s concluding verses:

The harp and the piano (cela va sans dire),

With thorough bass, too, on the plan of Logier.

In drawing in pencil and chalk, and the tinting

That's called Oriental, she must not be stint in.

She must paint upon paper, on satin and velvet,

And if she knows wax work she'll not need to shelve it.

Dancing, of course, with the newest Gambades,

The Polish Mazurka and best Gallopades;

Arithmetic, history, joined with chronology,

Heraldry, botany, writing, conchology,

Grammar and satin-stitch, netting, geography, astronomy,

Use of the globes and cosmography!

These are the principal matters (en reste).

Address, "J. Z. X. Q. V., Easy Place, West."

As the salary's very moderate, none need apply

Who more on that point than on comfort rely;

But, perhaps, 'twere as well, to make matters shorter,

To mention the terms-namely, five pounds a quarter.

At last Parry’s satirical sword had fully penetrated Charlotte’s armour, for when I once again turned in my chair I could see her face had turned crimson, and this time she caught my gaze, returning it with one that surely rivalled that of the furies themselves. Parry’s lyricist, in seeking the most humiliatingly paltry salary, had alighted precisely upon the Whites’ offer to Charlotte of twenty pounds per annum; the only thing worse would have been a salary greater than hers. Papa was still too buoyed by the fun, it seemed, to make the connection, for he laughed uproariously: after all, he was himself, despite his years at Cambridge, not “so very genteel.”

Parry concluded where he had begun, as he folded his newspaper and spectacles and slipped them into his coat pocket:

Wanted a governess, well fitted to fill

The post of tuition with competent skill,

Where 'tis wished that the pupils should never be still,

Nor the governess either, be she well or ill­

"A governess wanted"-"Wanted a governess."

The assembly, now free to laugh without fear of missing a word, joined to its mirth a storm of applause. Parry laughed along with us, and took multiple bows, finally gesturing for quiet. “And now, as a special treat, we offer you an encore—or perhaps more, that is entirely up to him—by the person you truly came to see and hear, Monsieur Liszt.”

Parry and Lavenu left the stage and were promptly replaced by Liszt, who, as soon as the assembly was fully silent, and without looking at a single sheet of music, launched into as many as five or six pieces, none of which I knew, save the last: a dazzling set of improvised variations of God Save the Queen. Was this the virtuoso’s usual tactic, playing more in the encore than in the concert itself, a delay of his public’s delight, like a dessert that surpasses the meal itself, or like the wine Christ changed to water at Cana, which far surpassed that which had been served before? Or had Liszt, more simply, just prolonged his encore in recognition that this was his final concert in Britain, hence the choice of God Save the Queen? Whatever the case, as he finished and stood to take a final bow, the applause was deafening, the enthusiasm unlike anything I have witnessed in all my life.

Leyland clapped me on the back, as is his wont, and exclaimed, “Now then, what do you think of that?” I turned once more to see the reactions of my friends, but they had already gone.

Chapter XXI—The Mephisto Waltz

We did not wait for the applause to end either, but instead made our way quickly to Joe’s studio at The Square, for he was eager to see for himself that all was ready for the virtuoso and his entourage. The vast room was ablaze with candelabras, their light in turn refracted and reflected by the fine table service and glassware, dancing along the walls, ceiling and floor. No guests, no music, no laughter, and no drink—and yet already the décor was furnished for an evening of magic. A great pot of steaming mulled wine was kept hot over one of the two fireplaces, and a phalanx of bottles stood at attention, brave soldiers ready for deployment in the eternal war against ennui. Surveying all of this was Leyland’s enormous Head of Satan, across from which stood the pianoforte, positioned so that the musician would stare directly into the eyes of the great hulking portrait of evil, which so resembled our host himself.

But another pair of eyes—great beautiful blue eyes, in which, the moment I saw them, I wanted to lose myself utterly—surveyed the scene with businesslike seriousness. For indeed, all of the food and drink had been arranged through the White Swan, and so there stood Maggie—Margaret—dressed in the same attire she had worn at Joe’s soirée in the fall, but with all of her hair in ringlets, cascading onto her lovely shoulders, for the chignon she had worn—Kilmeny’s knot—had been undone. She was to serve, so it seemed, in the double capacity of proxy for her father and as an ornament for the evening: the first would require an effort, the second she could do wearing a simple smock—or nothing at all, I thought ruefully. My mind raced to an image of Kilmeny, and beyond it, to Joe’s description of Maggie’s very real, soft body as her dressing gown fell slowly around her shoulders, then her hips, then her legs, and finally her ankles.

She had not yet seen me, and yet I was already filled with desire, for all of this, fused with images of Agnes and the ghostly feeling of their respective hands, one after the other, pressed to my heart—“You are a good man”—caused my heart to race and my throat to tighten. I could scarcely restrain my emotion as I walked over to where, her brows knitted in concentration, she stood with her armed crossed.

“Greetings, Maggie!” said I, trying to appear somewhat nonchalant—so very genteel—though I fear my own eyes betrayed my true feelings: utter delight and breathless excitement at seeing her again. Who has not felt his heart quicken and his spirit soar at the sight of his beloved? Even Charlotte has felt such things, I am sure of it, if only in the presence of Weightman—before disguising them with sarcasm, castrating the poor fellow as “Miss Celia Amelia”—in short, concealing any fanciful feelings or flights she may feel. And even if she had felt the physical ecstasy that remains to her and my other sisters, I am quite certain, an utter mystery, what proper lady could ever give voice to it?

I wonder if they will ever know it. Even if they do someday marry, will they merely serve as passive recipients of some brutish oaf’s fumbling passion, and afterwards a vessel for his progeny? Will they ever be partners in an ecstatic, angelic dance, whose ineffable joy defies all description? Also, was it just having it off, just fucking, as Coleridge and Brown and Leyland would have it? No, surely it was more than that—I had felt it to be more than that, and I was desperate to feel it again with the woman who stood before me. Like stones falling from a tipped waggon, or books tumbling down a staircase, such were the thoughts that cascaded through my mind in the instant during which I awaited her reply.

Maggie had been so absorbed in her work that she appeared not to recognize me. Finally those marvelous eyes fixed upon me, and she blushed slightly.

“Hello, Mr. Brontë. I’d like to thank you again for the ride on the railway.”

I tried my utmost not to respond peevishly, despite my happiness at seeing her. “That was some time ago, Maggie. I confess that I had a delightful day, and that I have tried to see you on more than one occasion, but you were forever from home when I called at the Swan.” No way to seduce a woman, thought I, but I could not help myself.

She coloured up again, laughing nervously, and said, “It all comes back to the railway, don’t it? The planned branch line to Shaw Syke has created so much activity—rivalry, really—between the inns of Halifax that we scarcely fin’ time to sleep. Mamma and Papa are no’ getting’ any younger, so more and more falls to me. They count on me no’ only to maintain, but to increase, their income as they grow old.”

Before I could respond, the doors flew open and in strode John Frobisher, followed by Lavenu, Parry, and the other musicians, with Liszt arriving last of all, wearing, against the January cold, a small stylish Tyrolean hat and an elaborately decorated Polish fur coat and gloves of kid, which he hastened to remove as quickly as possible, revealing a slender but vigorous physique.

Frobisher was overcome with excitement, clearly, and was about to make a grand announcement, but before he could open his mouth the guests who had already begun to assemble spontaneously erupted in applause and acclamations. Liszt doffed his hat and announced in simple English, with an accent that betrayed his multiple origins, though surely it was more French than German, “Ah, thank you, dear friends. This is a lovely way to finish our concerts in England.”

Frobisher then led him to Leyland, to whom Liszt bowed and gave thanks for the soirée, as he looked about the cavernous studio. Standing next to Maggie, I wondered what he made of this homely, if festive, tribute to his genius, he who had from childhood played for royalty, had been surrounded by the Continent’s greatest artists and poets, and had even succeeded in seducing a countess, convincing her to leave her husband and children, so magnetic were his charms. How deliciously French it was to place passion and genius above morals and yes, even money!

Leyland had done his utmost to honour the great musician, of course, but this remained a sculptor’s studio, and the two fires burning in their grates on either side could not entirely chase the chill from the room, which was nearly as high and as wide, if not quite as long, as Haworth church.

Having paid tribute to his host, the virtuoso began to sweep the room with that mesmerizing gaze. Leyland supplied him with a steaming mug of mulled wine and a cigar, lighting it with a flourish. Liszt lifted his wine quizzically, but soon pronounced with satisfaction, “Ah oui, vin chaud, Glüwein!” In the meantime, the last stragglers from the concert had arrived, filling the room with voices, which, as the company partook of food and drink, rose in volume so one could scarcely hear one’s closest interlocutor.

In the meantime, none other than John Brown himself, whom I had not seen since Christmas, sidled up to me and Maggie, placing first his hand, then a mug of the mulled wine in my outstretched hand; as he did so, Maggie moved away to examine the state of the refreshments. “Well now, Branwell, wha’ an affair our friend Leyland ‘as put on for t’ grea’ virtuoso, eh? I wonder ‘ow ‘e pays for i’ all.”

Like Papa, his sexton felt no compunction about discussing money. I thought again of the sale of Kilmeny and pictured her bumping along, lashed to a waggon, and of Joe’s decision—so typical—to spend most of the proceeds on this soirée rather than to pay his debts. But I simply said, “I haven’t the slightest idea, John.”

“Oh yes, right, I’d forgot tha’ the Brontë children are averse to any discussion o’ filthy lucre—except when y’ need a loan from ol’ Brown, eh lad?” he added, winking and nudging me good-naturedly with his elbow.

I deserved this, for John has indeed paid my debts in the past, and I have never had any scruples about the topic when I have been most desperately in need of cash. As much as I wanted to counterattack on a different front—for example, asking how it was that his Mary had let him out of the house—my better self prevailed for once, and I could only laugh and raise my mug, still smoking, and say, “You have me there, my friend, you have me there.”

He nodded his head towards Maggie. “By the bye, who is tha’ loovely creature?”

“That is the very person I spoke of at Christmas, she of the infamous excursion to Manchester and back,” said I.

“Sod it all, lad, y’ didn’t do ‘er justice. Damn me body and soul, she’s a beauty, and strangely familiar.”

“She’s been to Leyland’s fêtes before, so surely it was there.”

“No, no, by God, I’d remember tha’ golden hair and those wa’ery blue eyes and pert li’l mouth, those lovely sloping shoulders and those perfectly formed little—”

“All right, all right, Brown,” said I. “I see we have similar tastes in women.”

“Ho ho, man! You really ‘ave fallen for the poor thing, ‘aven’t you?” Then, frowning, “But ‘ow odd, I know that I’ve seen her, and yet no’ seen her. How can tha’ be?”

Of course: Kilmeny. Had we been further into the evening—and into our cups—I might have said, “Don’t you remember Kilmeny, the Sinless Maiden? The sculpture that languished for years in Joe’s studio because the patrons who had ordered it were disgusted by it? Maggie was the model, and that lucky bastard Leyland got to fix his wolfish gaze on her perfect form day after day. He even tried to seduce her, but she resisted him!”

Instead, my affection and impulse to protect her triumphed over my desire to share a secret with old John Brown, and I simply said, “I can’t say, old squire. Have you never had the sensation that you have already seen something, though it is clearly unlikely or even impossible? Perhaps it is just that simple.”

Meanwhile, Liszt had wasted no time in noticing Maggie, and I saw Leyland lead him across the room to make the introductions. He may have seduced a countess, but Liszt was also rumoured to have done the same with pupils, actresses, opera singers—even housemaids and kitchen girls—so insatiable was his appetite. It was thus safe to wager that an innkeeper’s daughter or two had been among his conquests. I fairly trembled as he approached her, and since I had not yet met him I steeled myself to do so, for in my natural timidity I dislike meeting anyone new for the first time, much less this modern musical wonder. I left Brown behind me, and found myself awkwardly drawing up to Maggie’s side just as Leyland and Liszt arrived before her.

“This lovely young creature,” said Joe, “is Margaret Heaton, known hereabouts as Maggie.” He clearly could not bring himself to call the innkeeper’s daughter a young lady, though her valiant defeat of his own advances five years earlier surely made her one in my mind. The virtuoso simply said, “Franz Liszt, but people call me Ferenc or François or Francesco or Francisco or Francis; that depends on where I am.” He reached for her hand, lifting it to his lips as his mesmerizing gaze met her own wide, startled orbs. In just an instant or two, he seemed to have drunk in her eyes and her lips—his gaze lingered on her mouth as if imagining what it could do—and moved slowly, caressingly, down her person.

“And this young rascal,” said Leyland, “gesturing to me, is the Bard of Haworth, Patrick Branwell Brontë, Esquire, England’s greatest poetic hope since Wordsworth.”

Liszt turned his head toward me, but his eyes lingered for another moment on Maggie’s. When at last he met my regard, gone was the intense gaze he seemed to reserve for the softer sex, replaced by a quizzical squint, as he said, “Bard? What is bard?”

This was the same question Maggie herself had asked, but for very different reasons.

“Poet,” smiled Joe, delighted to be able to impart something to such a genius. “The Bard or the Bard of Avon is Shakespeare, and so sometimes we call other poets by the same name.”

“But in this case,” Liszt said, pointing at me, and smiling as the joke dawned on him, “you are mocking poor Monsieur Brontë, no?”

Joe, whose French is superior to mine, felt emboldened to say, “Oui, un petit peu.”

“I adore the poets,” said Liszt, “above all the Romantics—Goethe and Schiller, Heine and Hugo and Musset and Dumas, and George Sand, though that particular “he” is a she, a lovely woman”—here he paused briefly, gazing into the distance—“yes a lovely woman in her way—hardly a ravishing beauty, but full of passion, brimming with desire, the Baronne Dudevant, with eyes so impossibly large a man could nearly swim—and drown—in them: she devours men with those eyes the way men usually do women with theirs. Would you like to meet them?”

Liszt said this as if his illustrious friends were queuing up just outside Leyland’s studio, or, like Gulliver’s Lilliputians, were magically hidden within his Polish fur coat. Such are the subtle perils of speaking a language other than one’s own! I did not know what to say, and quickly sensing my confusion, he added, “What I want to say is that if ever you come in France or in Germany, I will present to you with pleasure my friends, but also the painters and composers. Do you like painting?”

Leyland interposed, “Now there, Monsieur Liszt, is a sore subject.” Liszt squinted again. “I mean, a painful subject,” he revised, and the pianist immediately brightened with understanding. “You see, young Brontë here tried to make his independence as a painter, and that did not work out so well.”

“Ah, l’argent, the money! What madness and degradation because of the money! We begin our lives in the search of the beauty, of the perfection, of the ideal, and we find ourselves fighting through the freezing mud and snow of Ireland and Scotland”—I suppose he was careful not to say England or Yorkshire, so as not to offend his hosts—“to earn some money.”

Leyland and I, not knowing what to say, were silent.

Ah, oui, I know precisely what you are thinking—the great Liszt, renowned throughout Europe, living with a countess, what care could he have? Well, my friends, the Countess in question abandoned the Count, so I suppose you know what that means. This is the reason for which I give lessons, and concerts, for gone are the days of the troubadours of Eleanor of Aquitaine or the court musicians of Louis XIV; all of that was swept away once and for all by the revolution. Guillotined, if you like. Non non, maintenant nous sommes tous des marchandises, n’est-ce pas? We are all cultural marchandises—to be advertised and sold—as in clever Mr. Parry’s “wants,” eh?—and no matter how great one’s genius, genuis alone will not pay one’s debts. Those days are gone, tout cela, c’est fini, das ist ganz kaputt!”

During this soliloquy Parry and Lavenu had drawn up to our group, the former smiling just as he had on stage—perhaps this had become a permanent feature of his physiognomy—and the latter looking ashen, as if to confirm Liszt’s grim view of the “business” of the arts. Before the troop had even arrived in Halifax, it had been rumoured that the entire tour of the kingdom had been a financial disaster—Liszt had forfeited his fees, and Lavenu had lost a small fortune. These “rumours” had come directly to Joe from the excitable Frobisher, who doubtless embroidered—as is his wont—on something he had heard from Lavenu or Parry.

Despite the rising tide of voices in the studio, Frobisher had decided that music, too, was needed. He began playing a harmless tune on the piano, at which Liszt’s brows knitted briefly as his raven eyes darted toward the center of the room, where we could see Frobisher’s back and, above his head, the towering Head of Satan, which the pianist seemed to see for the first time. He muttered something in French, then turned to his host, pointing one of his impossibility long fingers toward the sculpture, asking, “What is that?”

Leyland had now had sufficient to drink that he found nearly everything amusing, and so simply began laughing. I touched the great man’s sleeve meekly and said, “That, Monsieur Liszt, is your host’s most famous sculpture, his monumental Head of Satan.” The pianist swept his hands along either side of his chiseled countenance, pulling back his locks as if to reinforce the coiffure he had cultivated, moving rapidly from his proud forehead in a semi-circular motion, ending at his shoulders.

“Ah, has the rumour of my diabolical behavior traveled until the very city of Halifax itself?” This short sentence seemed to begin with great gravity, but by its grammatically awkward end, it was clear that Liszt was attempting to make a joke.

Leyland laughed all the harder.

“I am afraid my association with Monsieur Berlioz and others—and oui, d’accord, some of my own questionable conduct—has led some to call me something of a devil myself.”

“No, no, it’s a mere decoration,” I assured him. “My friend Joseph here was used to adorn his soirées with a beautiful reclining nude, but she was sold at last.” As I spoke, Maggie moved into my vision, as she walked from one table to the next, overseeing the food and drink and sending her lads for more as needed.

“T’is a pity,” said Liszt, “for I would far rather gaze upon the form of a beautiful woman than the face of the Great Deceiver.” Here his gazed followed mine, until it lit again upon Maggie. Only her neck and cheek could be glimpsed beneath her swaying golden ringlets, while the hourglass shape of her shoulders, waist and hips moved gracefully from one table to the next.

“Let us take a closer look, though,” said I, with dread in my heart, and as we passed Frobisher and stopped before Joe’s sculpture, I added, “Do you not see a resemblance to someone?”

“In effect!” cried Liszt, turning to Joe, who had come up behind us, “T’is the artist himself!”

“You see, Monsieur, it is not by chance that I have come to call Joseph here—with all the respect that is due him, of course”—and here I bowed obsequiously—“that I have come to call him Mephistopheles.”

Joe, who had finally recovered his composure sufficiently to speak, though he sniggered still, added, “And of course this”—he thumped me on the back so that my hot mulled wine nearly spilt—“is young Faustus himself. Do we not make quite a pair?”

As the conversation and laughter grew, Frobisher felt it necessary to increase the volume of his own playing, until the assembled company, in turn, fairly shouted to be heard, though their heads were drawn as closely together as in a tête-à-tête. Soon it had become unbearable, and whilst Liszt covered his ears, Leyland strode over to the pianoforte and thumped it as loudly as he could, shouting, “See here! See here! Quiet please! There, that’s much better. This may be a congregation of artists, but let us behave as ladies and gentlemen!” This last remark was said with the generous laughter that always made even the most insulting of Joe’s remarks seem innocuous. “Now that all are gathered, I wish to thank you for your attendance here tonight, and most of all to thank our assembled musicians, especially the world’s greatest virtuoso, Monsieur Franz Liszt!”

Here the pianist bowed politely and was showered with applause, which Leyland promptly quieted. “I also want to thank our own illustrious John Frobisher, without whom we would never have seen Herr Liszt—as the maestro travelled to so many other cities in the kingdom, John felt more envy and longing than an old maid who sees her sisters married off one by one, ha ha! The only greater gift Frobisher can give us now is to desist from playing the piano.”

Joe had calculated that such an unexpected stab at his friend would elicit a mixture of laughter and cries of feigned censure from the assembly, and laughing broadly, he again gestured for quiet and placed his hand on Frobisher’s shoulder. What he next said made it clear that had just reached that moment of inebriation where all reserve and timidity had been dashed to earth, but where he retained sufficient presence of mind to know exactly what he desired, and to express it as boldly as possible.

“Now, now, good friends, I say this only because I am going to ask Herr—Monsieur—Liszt to play one more encore. We have not discussed this, and I am putting him into an impossible situation—terribly rude of me, I know, but then all of you know me, and so will find nothing strange in that.”

Liszt, too, had now had enough to drink to be fully at his ease, and not only was his hesitancy in English now gone; so, too, were any reservations he might have had about resorting to the languages he spoke most often: French, German, and Italian—whether anyone understood him or not. He bowed and stepped over to the piano, shaking Frobisher’s hand while the latter stood and moved to the edge of the crowd that had gathered round the pianoforte.

Thank you, Mr. Leyland,” said he, pronouncing Joe’s name as if it were French for the Moorsles Landes—“it is a pleasure to end our tour of your beautiful kingdom with such a soirée, for what is more joyous than ladies and gentlemen thrown together, with good food and drink and conversation and yes, music. Since Mr. Leyland has surprised me in this way, though it is a far more agreeable experience than that of a lover surprised by a jealous husband”—here this already joyous assembly obligingly laughed—“I will play on only one condition.” He paused for dramatic effect, as if listening to the ticking of a metronome: one-two-three-four. “Do you know what it is?”

Again, a pause. He turned round and aimed his long forefinger toward the Head of Satan: “Behold the massive head of the Dark One!” He then glanced, with exaggerated theatricality, from the sculpture to its sculptor and back, a number of times, until the assembly laughed and clapped. “I have come to learn that not only does that evil face resemble its maker’s”—here the pianist was having more than his just revenge on Joe—“but that this very man has come to be called Mephistopheles!”

I laughed along with everyone else, unaware that I was about to drawn into Liszt’s comedy. “And this young poet—what is it again, this bard?—is Mr. Leyland’s amusing, no? Qu’est-ce que c’est drôle, ça! Please, Monsieur Brontë, come forward, though you may also regret your friendship with Mephistopheles in the end,” said he, with a conspiratorial wink.

I, too, had at last imbibed just enough to set aside my natural reticence, and so walked gamely toward the piano. The virtuoso put his right hand to his chin in mock reflection. “Hmmmm, what—or who—is lacking now?” Gazing across the room, and then extending his arm and long index finger with the rapidity of an arrow, he pointed directly at Maggie: “C’est elle! The story cannot be complete without her. You see, I will only play with their participation.”

Maggie was overcome by embarrassment, but doubtless fearing to be the only person to oppose Liszt’s will, and urged on by the assembly, whose laughter only heightened her confusion, she slowly made her way to the center of the vast room. She stood awkwardly, not knowing what to do with her hands, shifting from one foot to the other and back.

Voilà, there she is. I confess,” said he, again smoothing his thick hair and looking about the room, “that I tend to forget most names, but—chose étrange—when a name is united to a beautiful woman’s face, I mysteriously am able to recall it.” The men in the room sniggered at Liszt’s mention of this “strange” phenomenon, as common to ploughboys as it is to kings.

“In this case, what a perfect name for our little game, for this lovely creature is called Margaret—Marguerite, Margot, Maggie, Margarita, Margherita, Greta, Gretchen—yes, yes, Gretchen, too!” I did not think it possible, but Maggie coloured an even deeper shade of crimson, and if I did not blush as she did, I began to feel a creeping humiliation for us both. I found myself wanting to walk to the table along the wall, uncork a bottle of whisky, and take two or three long draughts. But Liszt talked rapidly on—for this had utterly ceased to be Joe’s event—improvising as he went. On one side of the room Lavenu and Parry were deep in conversation, whilst a smiling John Brown stood to the other side with Joe’s brother Francis.

“Now you all know the story of Faustus, yes? Did not even your Shakespeare—your bard—write about him?”

No one, including Leyland and I, dared interrupt Liszt to correct him on his misattribution; at least he had hit upon the correct century.

“So, it is quite safe to say my German friends are entirely obsédés by this story, and of course you know about the great Goethe, but my countryman Lenau, too, wrote such a poem just a few years since. Let me tell you the story; it is the price you have to pay, because your host has been so naughty.”

More laughter here, at Joe’s expense.

“Mephistopheles and Faust are passing through a village when they hear the joyful sounds—not unlike those we have been enjoying this evening—of a wedding feast coming from an inn.” Here Maggie knitted her brows so slightly that I—or at least so I fancied—was the only person to notice. “There is music, dancing, and carousing. Yes, my proper English ladies and gentlemen,” he said, raising his steely brows with his own mock-opprobrium, “I said carousing. Mephistopheles convinces Faust that they should enter and join the festivities, and the tempter soon takes the instrument from a lethargic fiddler’s hands—sorry, Mr. Frobisher,” said Liszt with another wink, “—and draws from the instrument the most seductive and intoxicating strains ever heard.” Here he paused to look round the room and said innocently, “Does this sound like anyone you know?”

Still more laughter from the assembly.

Standing now before Maggie and me, he joined our hands together in a farce of holy matrimony. “Alors, young Faustus joins in the wedding dance, and Mephistopheles’ music drives him mad with desire for the young village beauty he holds in his arms. Together they waltz in utter abandon, out of the inn and into the woods. What they do in the woods I leave up to your imagination.”

Maggie dropped my hand as soon as she was able, for she surely experienced the confusion anyone feels when made a figure of fun before a multitude. I felt the same.

Liszt would not be countermanded, however. “Nein nein nein, das könnt ihr nicht, you must play along to the end, mes enfants,” he said somewhat more softly, joining our hands once more. He grew very serious for a moment, his magnetic being now enfolding the entire gathering like a warm blanket, his eyes two glowing embers, touching one person after another as he gazed round the studio.

“How oft do we consider that the true essence of life—was die Welt im Innersten zusammenhält—is present in each single moment, but that each moment is then gone, each tick of the metronome replaced by another. Existence is so full that we cannot bear it, we are quite overcome! Do not believe those who say we seek distraction from the emptiness and misery of life, for they lie; no, no, we cannot bear its overwhelming plenitude, its unbearable beauty, for it is like looking directly into the sun, or upon the face of God. We can neither grasp it in its entirely, nor stop it from disappearing, we can only sense its ephemeral fullness as it passes. Perhaps such is the meaning of Goethe’s words, when he has his Faust say, “verweile doch, du bist so schön, stay but a while, you are so beautiful.” A hushed, almost reverential silence had supplanted the assembly’s mirth; the room was silent, expectant, rapt, in awe, and the moment seemed to contain the very fullness he described.

At the pianist’s last words my mind returned to the exaltation I had felt as a boy when, in the throes of creation, I would lose myself utterly in my writing; or the feeling of the wind whipping over me on my first railway journey; or, especially, the moments in the woods at Sunny Bank with Agnes, when our bodies formed one, and when, in a brief instant, we found an ecstasy that eclipsed the very sun and blotted out the universe—when our souls escaped time and place and perhaps even our bodies, and when for an instant we gazed into the face of a god synonymous with ecstasy.

I looked over at Maggie, who seemed mystified by Liszt’s flight into these more esoteric realms, and most of all impatient for this all to end. I squeezed her hand, but she glowered at me and even dug her fingernails into my palm.

When the silence became almost unbearable in its duration and gravity, Liszt at last brightened and said playfully, “Let us return to Lenau’s story, though, shall we?—for the great Goethe is far too serious for such a gathering as this. I pray you to excuse me to have spoken for so long.”

Turning again to Maggie and me, he put her left hand in my right palm, still smarting from her nails, and her right hand on my left shoulder, and finally, my left hand on her waist, and it became clear what the mischievous Liszt had in mind. He whispered to Maggie, on whose face was clearly written her dismay, “Ne t’inquiète pas, ma belle, toi et ton ami, vous ne serez pas tout seuls, you two will not be alone,” then strode around the circle with an elastic step, forming random couples wherever he could find a man and woman in close proximity to each other, fairly dragging them into the open area between the pianoforte and the Head of Satan. Some managed to elude his grasp and flee, laughing, to the extremities of the studio, and so Liszt was content once he had formed eight or nine couples, whom he demanded to assume the same position as us.

“Remember now,” he said, seating himself at the pianoforte, “we are all at a village wedding feast, and the musician is none other than Mephistopheles himself.” Turning to Joe, who now stood next to Frobisher, Brown and his own brother Francis, he added, “I am so sorry, je suis désolé, now I have supplanted you too, Monsieur Leyland, you may take a holiday from your satanic duties this evening!” Both Liszt—who under far more serious circumstances had displaced other men, such as husbands and lovers—and Leyland were having a grand time. I turned to face Maggie, who had becalmed herself somewhat as we were surrounded by other couples, though she was still clearly displeased.

“I know not ‘ow t’ waltz,” said she. In her wide eyes were mingled more emotions than I thought possible, but I could clearly see through the windows of her soul those of annoyance, resentment, embarrassment, confusion, and fear. Did I also glimpse a drop of desire in the blue ocean of her eyes, or was this merely a shadow of my own?

“Besides,” she whispered angrily, “why would Mr. Liszt ask an innkeeper’s daughter to dance wi’ a gentleman?” She seemed to think the virtuoso had done this only to mock her, but I had a different theory—or theories.

“First, he doesn’t know anything about you, does he? Second, you are the village beauty as far as I am concerned—and he clearly saw that too. For heaven’s sake, Maggie, one would have to be blind not to see that you are the most beautiful woman here. Third, you have the same name as the character in the story! As for waltzing, I don’t know how to do it either. It mostly seems that one spins like a top. The primary thing is to keep moving until the music stops. If we do not tumble down by the end of its course, I suppose we will have succeeded.”

As for Liszt, any Germanic froideur or French hauteur he might have possessed had melted away in the ambiance of the moment and with the warming qualities of the mulled wine, another tankard of which Leyland had posed on the pianoforte itself.

Allora, ragazzi, ascoltami per favore,” he began, “Now my children, listen to me please: I have been known to fantasize on this instrument, to invent as I go. The French call this l’improvisation. I may or may not write the piece down some day—and perhaps only years from now—and it will be quite a different thing when that happens, I am certain. In a sense the real music will die, and when it is again performed by me or anyone else it will be but a pale copy of the original, just as an actor plays a role invented by the genius of another man, and then goes home to drink his wine, eat his roast beef, embrace his wife, and fall asleep.

Mais l’improvision! It is a thrilling and terrifying thing, as if one were leaping off a great cliff without knowing where one will fall, and with only one’s coat tails to float down upon! The mind reels and races, the skin tingles”—here he looked at Maggie—“and one at last, if but for a moment, escapes the ennui of existence, one is alive, one is in the truth, dans le vrai. How bizarre, that a thing which happens only once has the most eternal of qualities! Is this the secret? Maybe even Goethe’s secret, eh? In the end, it is as different from playing each note from memory, or even worse, from a written score, as embracing a new lover is from going to bed with one’s spouse of many years, ha ha!”

I smiled to myself at the thought of Charlotte or Papa hearing such shocking language.

“But I digress,” continued he, “for what I want simply to say is that I cannot at all predict where this will go.” Nodding at Leyland, he pronounced with mock-solemnity, “Let us call this, in honour of our august and most generous host Mr. Leyland, The Mephisto Waltz.” He blew on his mulled wine, sipped it to find out how hot it was, took a generous swallow, and at last turned to the keys to begin his improvisation, shouting “Allora, allegro vivace!”

Still holding my beautiful prize, I thought, if this is half as genial as his fantasizing on ‘God Save the Queen,’ we should prepare for a rare treat.

He began with a truly Satanic pounding on the keyboard, the same note repeatedly, wringing from the instrument a sound more like the valves of a steam engine, bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam, on top of which he layered a second note, bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-, then a third, then a fourth, all pounding along together —at a speed that made it impossible to dance even the most rapid steps imaginable.

The couples did their best for the honoured guest, but we were more successful at colliding into one another than anything else. I was delighted to see that our collective confusion had at last drawn a smile, and then laughter, from Maggie, the dancers’ shared experience washing away, at least for the moment, her annoyance and her wrath: indeed, protected by the anonymity of the other dancers, she became giddy and girl-like, her eyes laughing in high glee, her body finally yielding to my touch as we did our best to spin to Liszt’s diabolical strains. Was there also a yearning, an unquenched desire in her gaze? I ardently wished it to be so!

Soon the virtuoso had changed tempo, and quickly altered it again, the thumping gradually giving way to what seemed, to my untutored ear, one shower of notes after another, like bands of rain passing through a village. The piece was as mercurial as Liszt himself, as changeable as the great deceiver Mephistopheles. Dancing was impossible, and yet still the couples fought on valiantly. At last, after two minutes or so, the tempo sped up again, slowed briefly, then raced forward, and we were again dancing furiously in circles. Another minute and the pianist had, like a rushing locomotive coming finally to a halt, slowed his hands so much that only two fingers of his left moved back and forth more and more slowly, more and more softly, the final note barely audible. The dancers stood motionless, awkwardly in each other’s arms; I felt more foolish than when we had begun our dance, and Maggie’s consternation began to return, her face to redden once again. The music had, in essence, stopped, and Liszt whirled round on his stool. He was smiling broadly, mischievously, those bright, twin beacons flashing round the assembly.

Ah là là là là là là, je vous ai joué un tour, I am afraid I have played a bit of a trick upon you! There are waltzes for dancing—smooth, clockwork things that allow you not to think at all, and no matter how much wine you drink you may whirl with your partners in elegant circles with nary a misstep. My naughty trick is this, as you have without a doubt now comprehended: my waltzes are not meant for dancing at all, my friends, they are meant for me to play and for you to listen and, especially, watch and admire, because le piano, c’est moi!

That Liszt truly had such a grand view of himself permitted no doubt, but his self-love was tempered by an amusing dosage of self-knowledge, just sufficient to raise him even further in our esteem and, no doubt, to make him even more fascinating to the ladies, if such a thing were possible.

Here he snatched up and raised his cup, laughing, “Let us toast our brave—or foolish, for the difference between courage and folly is always so hard to tell, nicht wahr?—dancers, for never in the history of music was a such a waltz invented with the express purpose of bedeviling those who wish to waltz—ha ha! Now it is time for them to have a drink—richement méritée, à mon avis—and for me to play.” Liszt drained his cup whilst we dancers, with laughter and cries of relief, faded into the crowd that encircled his piano, most of us moving quickly to obey his orders by charging our glasses afresh. To my surprise, even Maggie partook, filling a mug with mulled wine and blowing to cool it as quickly as possible.

Chapter XXII—Verweile doch, du bist so schön

Before I could speak, Liszt had begun again, playing in a completely different vein, a slow and languorous melody that spoke unmistakably of love. It was as if this virtuoso—more magician than musician—were taking the essence of what it is to love and wringing from it one beautiful note after another, so vividly did the next two minutes or so suggest the gaze of two lovers, of their caresses, even the slow movement of fabric over bare skin as their bodies grew closer and closer to each other, finally becoming one.

Perhaps wishing to ensure that his humble Yorkshire audience fully grasped what he was doing, he shouted, “Allora, espressivo amoroso!” I looked about the vast room and all was silence, the men—nearly all of an artistic temperament—lost in admiration, the women sighing with desire. And yet every two or three moments, just as the lovers seemed about to consummate their love, the devil Liszt would change directions, shouting “Presto!” but just as quickly returning to his languorous melody. It was as if the lovers were each time about to consummate fully their passion, and each time were chased from their lovers’ retreat—by a rainstorm, by a mischievous, prying child, or by Satan’s emissary Mephistopheles himself, for what is more infernal than a desire that is almost, but never, sated?

Maggie herself—all business before, and largely resentful during, our “waltz”—was not impervious to the music, and stood drinking it in as deeply as her wine. The dancing, the fire, the crowd of people, and now her steaming tankard had caused her cheeks to flush and her brow to glisten with the slightest perspiration. The strong, red mulled wine had given a sheen to her ruby lips, and caused her eyes to shine with the brilliance of sapphires. I leant over her shoulder and said, “I know you are entranced by Monsieur Liszt, but shall we take some air together? It is oppressively warm here, is it not?”

She turned to me, and her eyes continued to flash contradictory messages, as though a battle raged within her. She glanced round the room to make sure all was well with food and drink—or, perhaps, to make certain that no one observed us—and said, “Yes, let’s step outside, but only for a moment.” The January air cut into us as we left the warmth of the gathering, slicing our faces like a freezing blade; my delicate lungs felt as if they filled with the icy waters of Sladen Beck in early springtime.

“By Heaven, it is freezing!” said I. “Let’s see if we can find some shelter from this confounded wind.” I took her by the arm and led her round the back of building, where a small, unlocked shed stood. It held discarded pieces of marble and clay, some scraps of wood, a few rusted implements, and an abandoned chair. Over the chair hung an old dressing gown, which Maggie immediately recognized.

Why, this is the gown Mr. Leyland bought for me to use when I—I’m sure you know—posed for his statue. How long ago that seems!”

The garment had indeed seen better days, for it was stained with dirt and clay, and seemed to have more recently served its owner as a rag or mop. It was hard to believe that it was the same gown that had covered the young girl, and that Joe had untied and watched fall slowly to the floor. Whether Maggie reddened from the memory or from the frigid temperature, I know not. Alone with her at last, and several mugs of mulled wine into the evening, I cast all caution into the wintry blast.

“I want to kiss you, Maggie. Nay, I am desperate to kiss you and to hold you, and have been since first we met. If you feel even a fraction of what I do for you, surely you will not refuse!”

She bit her lip adorably, but her eyes, filling with tears, refused to meet mine.

“What is it?” I continued, “Why do you say nothing, either yes or no…for Heaven’s sake, why do you refuse to kiss me, and yet you do not run from me? What are you playing at?”

With Maggie I had forever felt as if I were trapped in Liszt’s melody, swept forward by overwhelming waves of desire, but each time thrown back onto the bitter rocks of reality.

She would not meet my gaze, and as the tears spilt down her cheeks she began to tremble with the cold. I shook the dust off the old dressing gown, and also enfolded her in my own waistcoat, so that I was dressed in only a shirt; still, I did not tremble, my distracted ardour eclipsing all other concerns. “There, there, Maggie, let me warm you,” said I, pulling her finally close to me, “that’s better, my love.”

At the words “my love” she pushed away from me, though gently, and her tears were now joined with great wrenching sobs. “What is it, what is it?” I said, “Surely you can tell me what’s the matter?” I sat down on the old chair and pulled her onto my lap, whilst she pressed her head against my chest so that she would not have to look at me, for doing so seemed to grieve her. This arrangement appeared to suit her, for at last she collapsed against my breast, like a little child who, after initial resistance, seeks only to be comforted.

“I’m a good girl, I am,” she began, “and—

“I know you are a good girl, and so you have proved yourself to be, again and again—no doubt remains on that score. I will not force myself upon you, Maggie.”

She laughed ruefully, but then smiled, not unkindly. “Tha’s not what I meant at all. I already know tha’ about you.”

“What is it, then?”

She took a deep breath. “’ere I am, goin’ on two an’ twenty, near a spinster by all accounts, wedded, it would seem, only to the White Swan. But do y’ think that jes’ because I’ve chosen no’ to give myself to a man, that I am soulless and heartless?” Still she averted my gaze, though her head pressed all the more fiercely against me.

“How is it,” she continued, at last drying her eyes and turning them to me, “tha’ I can ‘ardly know you, and yet feel wha’ I feel?”

“What do you feel?”

“I would rather not say, because—”


I felt positively driven mad, goaded by those twin demons, desire and despair. What could she possibly mean? What man with a beating heart and pulsing veins has not yielded to the temptation of drawing a woman’s uplifted face to his lips? Maggie’s was made all the more beautiful by the heroic struggle that seemed be taking place within her, by her flushed cheeks, by the gleaming veneer her tears had given to those lovely cerulean eyes.

I could stand it no longer, and repeating the word “because,” I drew her head towards me and pressed my lips to hers, and she at last, at last, at last, yielded, the struggle—at least for the briefest moment—over. Soon we were embracing as hungrily as ever I had with Agnes, our ardour nearly causing us to forget the icy gale rattling the walls of our squalid retreat, the heat of intoxicating lust spreading outwards from our lips to our extremities, engulfing our entire bodies as if in a protective flame. I began to wonder—in the kind of thoroughly unreasonable, impassioned state of mind one finds oneself in, when lust drives away all else, so that an amorous madness reigns triumphant over body, mind, and soul—I began to wonder if at last I might possess Maggie fully, began to wonder if I might lead the sinless Kilmeny to commit the delicious, exalting sin of fornication—and is it, really, a sin at all?

“Because?” I asked again, teasingly, this time kissing Maggie’s mouth deeply, as Agnes had taught me, my hands seeking, without much success, to make their way beneath her garments. She pulled away.

“It’s too cold here, and we ‘ave t’ talk.”

She stood up and threw off my waistcoat and Leyland’s gown, and I followed her out of the shed and into the night. The wind had shifted to a more temperate southerly breeze, and a light snow had begun to fall, the first of the season. Maggie ran toward the Square Chapel, shouting behind her, “I think my church is left open, follow me.”

Knowing that the Reverend Brontë and John Brown kept Haworth Church firmly locked against the less friendly elements of Haworth society, I was skeptical, but she did, indeed, find an open door and soon we were far warmer than before, the massive red brick walls sheltering us fully from the elements. It is said that the great John Wesley had visited the chapel, but all I could think of was finding a flat, dry place in this house of God to stretch out and love his creature, my Maggie. After weeks—nay, months—of imagining what it would feel like, aided by memories of Agnes, my every vein pulsed with yearning, my every inch strained to be one with hers, blotting out all other considerations. I did not wish to profane the house of the Lord—though I was not certain this Dissenters’ chapel merited such a holy appellation—but I would gladly incur His wrath for a moment of ecstasy in Maggie’s arms. I reached to pull her close, but her earlier consternation had returned, and she held me at arm’s length. I was wild by this point, any higher faculties having utterly deserted me, like Faust bewitched by Mephistopheles’ fiddle, though in my case the lovely innkeeper’s daughter needed no such supernatural intervention.

“Sit,” she commanded, though gently, pointing to a pew in the back of the chapel, taking a seat a safe distance from me. My madness had not yet subsided, for I immediately slid down the bench seeking to embrace her again, but she moved away as I did. “And now you mus’ stop, truly, please stop, because—”

“Ah,” said I, sliding again toward her, “because is just where we left off.” Snowflakes still clung to her flaxen ringlets, but soon melted out of sight.

“Yes, precisely,” she said now deliberately, trying—but not entirely succeeding—to enunciate her words more fully and properly, like a lady, as if she had practised her speech before a mirror. “I was goin’ to say tha’ we mus’ stop, because it’s impossible that you and I should ‘ave anythin’ to do with each other in future.”

“But what do you mean—what can you mean?” I cried, my desire almost instantly transformed into dread, tinctured with wrath.

“What I mean,” said she, looking at her hands, “is tha’, as I tried t’ tell you, I’m a good girl—”

“The Devil take me, Maggie,” I swore, now quite past my patience, “you have made that quite plain! Your virtue is as fully established as goddamned Sinless Kilmeny! Yet you continue to look at me a certain way, and what were those impassioned kisses a moment ago? You did not recoil from me then, did you?”

This shocking outburst, blasphemy in her own house of worship, seemed to give her the calm she needed, and she now admonished me, as a governess would her little charges.

“Allow me to finish, Mr. Brontë, and don’t interrupt,” she continued in her formal speech.“Wha’ I meant to say was tha’ because I’m a good girl I mus’ do what papa and mamma wish, and they wish me to marry Mr. Benjamin Mortimer, the landlord of the Royal Hotel; by joining our fortunes we plan to build a new public house near Shaw Syke.”

Of course: the station to be built at the end of the projected branch line—the very line I had so often hoped for, to ease my travel to and from Halifax. Maggie’s father, the wily innkeeper, had looked beyond the wild scramble of horses, coaches and omnibuses from Halifax to Sowerby Bridge, to a future where they would all be supplanted by a direct railway link, and was using Maggie as a pawn to win access to the new station, with the future station the dowry. The future, I thought bitterly, belongs to men such as this.

A crushing weight pressed down upon my chest. “But what of our first meeting, what of the railway excursion, what of the embrace we just shared? Do you not feel as I feel? Are you a traitor to your own sentiments? Why do you betray your own heart, Maggie? Are you nothing but a hypocrite?” I fairly shouted this last, and at last the stony fortress of her countenance gave way, and she collapsed again into tears.

“I’ve always done what papa says, and are we not commanded t’ honour our mother and father?”

“What if I told you,” said I desperately, “that I have been promoted to Clerk-in-Charge of the Luddenden Foot station, and my salary doubled? Eh? What of that? Would that not convince your worthy parents that I am a responsible young man, making my way successfully—in the railway, no less, on which they themselves seem so reliant for their future prosperity? I would gladly sacrifice all other ambitions, put my nose to the grindstone, my shoulder to the wheel, to make you my wife!”

“I scarcely know ye, Mr. Brontë, for we’ve seen each other but three times now.”

At this, I felt the slightest spark of hope flame up within the dying embers of my desires.

“But do you not feel what I feel? Surely you do—for as you say, you are a good girl—and so only true affection could have led you to kiss me as you have just done, not base desire.”

Again she looked away; again tears streamed down her cheeks. “Papa’s decided.”

“But,” said I, “what of my proposal? Would not your worthy papa look kindly upon such ambition and advancement as I have already demonstrated in just these four months at Sowerby Bridge?”

She again wiped her eyes, turning solemnly toward me. “No, papa’s firmly set ‘is sights upon this marriage, an’ e’ll brook no dissent on the matter. An’—” she said, hesitating to continue.

“And what?”

Her next words tumbled out with great rapidity as well as great passion, as though they had been considered for some time, but dammed up in her mind, and could at last finally burst free: “And I’ve seen the way ye look when ye talk ‘bout poetry, or music, or art; it’s the same way Mr. Leyland looks, and Mr. Liszt too, where the world seems to fall away an’ yer lost in a dream, as if ye fairly walked on clouds, yer faces shining like angels in communication with God. Nothing else matters then, not even me.”

“That is not true,” I exclaimed, “I adore you, I worship you! I would throw off my ridiculous poetic ambitions to earn a steady living for you and our children.”

I was again in a passion, which seemed only to confirm the wisdom of Maggie’s sentiments.

“Please ‘ear me now,” she said calmly, now finally past her tears, again struggling to make her diction as proper as possible. “I believe tha’ you sincerely believe tha’ you would, truly I do. But I would no more wish to break yer spirit—it’s the very thing that I am drawn to, like a moth to a flame, but also wha’ I fear, —than risk my future security and the love o’ my parents and friends. One of these two things would ‘appen if we were to wed: either your spirit would be crushed, or my family lost, and I can no’ endure either.”

I sat quietly for a moment, considering, remembering her words to me when first we met: So you write verses and such. Don’t fancy there be much of a livin’ in tha’. For all of the noble sentiments we had exchanged, could it be that I simply wanted to possess Maggie? Could it equally be, despite the concern she seemed to show for my spirit and the love of her family, that she feared, most of all—and quite understandably—being someday the repentant bride of a penniless poet?

In short, in the most unfavourable view of the matter, was I simply a man driven wild with desire, and she herself the hapless victim of commerce, sold by her parents to the young owner of the Royal Hotel? Was that all there was to this damnable existence?

Maggie stood up to take her leave, but before she could reach the door, I seized her arm.

“Are you quite certain about this?”

Again, biting her lip and refusing to meet my gaze, she replied, “Quite certain. Now we mus’ return before it’s noticed tha’ we’ve gone. Besides,” said she, now assuming her most businesslike air, “the platters will be raided and the mulled wine and spirits drunk by the serving boys if I’m not there t’ oversee matters.”

She ran ahead of me, down the chapel steps and along Square Road to Leyland’s. The snow now fell thickly as I walked, utterly dejected, round to the back of the studio, entering unnoticed only because I happened to arrive at the precise moment that Liszt’s hands banged out their final notes, swallowed up by the wild applause that ensued. Only a few minutes had passed since Maggie and I had left the fête, which had doubtless seemed to Leyland and his guests, and Liszt at his pianoforte—none of whom seemed to have moved an inch—as a mere instant. And yet in that brief time I had felt a lifetime of emotions: desire and the exaltation of a love briefly requited; followed by hope, fear and trepidation, jealousy, betrayal, and utter, final, disillusionment.

Maggie had resumed her oversight of the refreshments, and I walked quickly past the mulled wine to pour myself an extremely large glass of whisky. Leyland had only seemed oblivious to my comings and goings, and as the applause died away he sidled over to me, winking maliciously. “Well now, Faustus, that didn’t take long! I’d like to think that, had it been me, I’d have taken my time with Kilmeny, but then you are young and excitable, ha ha!”

“Lower your voice, Joe,” said I, crossly, “it’s not what you think. We only had a brief conversation, to set some matters straight.”

“I’ll wager you did get things straight! That’s just the kind intercourse you needed, Brontë. Tell me, how was it?”

The whisky had already begun its magic work as the last snowflakes disappeared from my shoulders. I was incensed, not so much at Maggie—for I see, especially as I write these words at the remove of two days—that her logic was unimpeachable, and that she was quite right about any future we might have. I can scarcely care for myself, and despite all of my protestations, I could no more imagine giving up my writing than dispelling my lifelong aversion to being a bank clerk. But that night I was angry at the world, and loathed myself, and drowning my sorrows seemed just the thing to do.

I looked across the room and lifted my glass in a mock toast to Maggie, who was far too occupied to notice. As I gulped the burning liquor, I felt myself falling, falling, falling into an abyss, found myself wanting to punish myself and the world, wanting to sin. Soon I was speaking as coarsely as Leyland, as I filled a second large tumbler with whisky.

“Sod it all, Joe, I wanted her, but it seems she is to marry Mortimer, the scion of the Royal Hotel. A goddamned bloody business decision, if you will.”

As if reading my thoughts, so alike do we often think, Leyland sighed. In a brief moment of clarity, in which he suddenly looked quite old, he said, “Ah, yes. But really, little man, can you blame the poor thing? Sometimes I think the only people who do not compromise themselves in one manner or another generally finish in Bedlam, or in the debtor’s prison, or blowing their brains out with a pistol.”

Meanwhile, after a brief pause, Liszt had been cajoled into a final encore, which he surely permitted himself—along with a great deal more to drink—because there would be no more concerts in the coming days.

Mesdames et Messieurs, all good things must end, yes, yes, even my visit to Halifax,” he said with laugh, and so it is only proper for me to share with you something I have been turning round in my mind”—here he tapped with mock-gravity on his impressive forehead—for some years, la Danse macabre, das Totentanz—the Dance of the Dead, you would say?”

The virtuoso’s hands began to pound out a slow, lugubrious march, and one could fairly see the Grim Reaper stalking across a barren landscape—the moors above Haworth perhaps—scythe in hand. Soon I heard the music no longer, and found myself speaking with anyone who would listen, becoming increasingly prolix as I drank my third and then fourth glass of whisky.

It is only with superhuman effort I am able to call dimly to mind a few scenes from the remainder of the evening: a final burst of applause for Liszt, and his subsequent departure, where he shook hands all round and said to me, “Remember, Herr Brontë, what Goethe says: das Ewigweibliche zieht uns hinan, the Eternal Feminine draws us aloft! Ha ha!,” and here he winked and nodded in the direction of Maggie; later, my shouting at her as she left the party with the servers from the inn, who carried trays, bottles and suchlike: “Maggie, stay but a while, you are so beautiful!”; lunging for a kiss from one of the less reputable women who remained behind, as the party staggered to its drunken, dismal close—with Frobisher back at the pianoforte—but instead pitching onto the floor, for by then I found it impossible to stand.

I have no memory of falling asleep, but apparently Leyland had, in the end, enough presence of mind to extinguish the candles, lock the doors, and find a blanket for each of us, leading me to one hearth whilst he took the other, so that each of us could be warmed, at least for a time, as the fires burned down to their dying embers.


To be continued on 18 April 2020


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