Oblivion: The Lost Diaries of Branwell Brontë (Part 7 of 12)
Updated: May 3
Volume II (continued)
Chapter XVII—Return to the Devil’s Cauldron
June 9th, 1842 The Parsonage
Today I had a letter from Grundy, informing me that no positions on the railways are available. I suppose I was a fool to entertain, under present circumstances, any very sanguine hopes respecting situations connected with railways, for there is a glut in that market. But I had thought that perhaps even something abroad might be attainable, especially given my rudimentary acquaintance with French.
I had carried Grundy’s letter out of doors and sat, despite the beauty of this early June day, musing somewhat gloomily on its contents, on a low wall skirting the rear of the parsonage, when John Brown himself appeared before me.
“There you are! Why so downcast, lad?”
I divulged these same contents to the sexton, to which he responded with his usual joviality. “Come come, Branwell, ‘ave you not begun to have considerable success with your verse? Did you not tell me tha’ ambition again stirred in tha’ breast of yours? ‘ow can you, with poems published nearly every day and this lovely soft breeze washing o’er you, not feel tha’ your life is jus’ beginnin’? For you’re ‘ardly an ol’ man like me”—Brown is one of those men in his early middle years who is still sufficiently confident in his powers of attraction over the fairer sex that calling himself old is largely ironical, almost an invitation for others to see him as still, at a mere thirty-eight, handsome, vigorous, and indeed, youthful, for his daily occupations keep him quick and elastic in his movements—“yes, you’re hardly an ol’ man like me—why, you’re a mere whelp, a babe of—‘ow old are you, lad?”
“I’ll be twenty-five later this month, Brown. A quarter-century. Much more to the point, my years of adulthood have borne no fruit whatsoever: a failure at painting (never my first love, but father and I thought it might yield a living); dismissed as a tutor (you may say that my appointment was simply not renewed, but it stings no less for that subtlety); and sacked by the railway. I mentally shake hands with you for your sanguine view of me, but I see nothing but false starts, shipwrecks, derailments, and sadly terminated attempts at making my way in the world.”
Despite my recent successes, I had determined to pity myself this day, and was not going to permit Brown to stop me. Indefatigable, he soldiered on in support of the forces of optimism. Drawing a folded sheet from his breast pocket, he said with a grin, “I’ve ‘ere jus’ the thing to cheer you up. Our old friend J.B. Leyland ‘as asked me to make the great journey to the bustling metropolis of Ha-lee-fax, to examine ‘is progress on the monument to Thomas Andrew. In it he says, ‘And for God’s sake, bring poor Branwell. The air will do young Northangerland good, and the Reverend Brontë will surely consent to allow him to serve as the delegate of that august committee with whom I met of late’.”
Joe, of course, knew my sonnet on Landseer’s dog all too well, and seeing my persistence in using my nom de plume, he had appended it to the growing list of sobriquets. Indeed, he had even sent me a brief note of congratulations, with the salutation “Lord Northangerland.” Brown, however, had been heretofore ignorant of anything and anyone connected to the mythical lands of Glasstown and Angria, including Alexander Percy, Duke of Northangerland. I had only lately confided to the sexton that my verse was appearing in print, and thus had to reveal my pseudonym.
It was with some reluctance that I agreed to travel with Brown to Leyland’s studio, for it is with much trepidation that I think back on the scenes there, of my earlier hopes and dreams, of successes and failures, of love and desire, and of genuine heartbreak and coldest debauchery. Will a visit only reopen old wounds? Will I find any joy in Leyland’s company there, or only wormwood and gall? In any event, we shall see, for Brown has already dispatched a letter promising a visit from us five days hence; how, he reasoned, could I avoid visiting my old friend, at a distance of only ten miles?
June 16th, 1842 The Parsonage
Leyland was right: the visit did me good. As Brown and I struck out on the waggon he uses to transport stones and the other implements of his trade, we could not have had a more brilliant day for the brief journey from Haworth to Denholme, then on to Keelham, and finally to Halifax. With Midsummer a mere week away, the oaks and ash trees now are all fully in leaf, that bright green of spring and early summer that will turn, all too soon, to deeper shades, before the decay and fall of autumn. As we descended, cotton-grass gave way to a riot of summer wildflowers moving rhythmically under the warm breeze, like wave upon ocean wave, while the last blossoms of spring danced merrily in the wind, like rice tossed at a festive wedding.
The becks and rivers, though flowing swift and full, were passing from the rushing rapids of early springtime to the calmer, almost stately motion of Midsummer. They, too, however would soon wither away. I recalled a few lines from my poem called “An Epicurean’s Song,” which I’d rewritten just a day or two earlier:
So seize we the present,
And gather its flowers;
For—mournful or pleasant—
Tis all that is ours.
While daylight we’re wasting,
The evening is hasting,
And night follows fast on the vanishing hours.
Yes—and we, when that night comes—
Must die as our fate dooms,
And sleep by their side;
For change is the only thing
And it sweeps creation away with its tide!
Or as Joe had said:
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.
Was it this achingly, fleetingly beautiful moment, where spring was—seemingly under our very eyes as Brown’s waggon bumped along the Halifax Road—ripening into summer, or was it our imminent arrival Chez Leyland, where Maggie had provided the model for Kilmeny under Joe’s voracious gaze and I had later, fruitlessly, pursued her myself, that brought to mind my friend’s words?
I mused on these things as we made our way into Halifax. The trip had taken a little more than two hours, and it was still before noon, the sun quickly rising high above us, the sweet, fresh breeze that filled our nostrils yielding to the pungent odours of a bustling manufacturing town. Joe had been watching for us, and as we pulled up to his studio, out he strode in his shirt-sleeves, forearms white with marble dust.
“Salutations! Pardon the dust, but non est pax impiis, no rest for the weary; in this modern age one must be a veritable machine to make ends meet.”
I could not resist correcting his translation. “I think you mean no rest for the wicked, don’t you, Joe?”
He surprised me doubly, both in his response and the expression his face wore as he spoke. Though it was as brief as the flickers of shadow and sunshine Brown and I had traversed on our leafy journey from Haworth, a look of great weariness, mingled with sadness and even despair, stole over Joe’s usually laughing eyes and large mouth, the usual attitude of which was a sarcastic smirk. He answered, seemingly in great earnest, “Is that not the point, Branwell?”—he generally reserved my Christian name for just such rare moments of gravity—“Does not our wickedness make us weary? Does not Jeremiah say, as he condemns Babylon for its wickedness, and they shall be weary?”
Was old Joe simply trying to put one over on the parson’s son? Or, more likely, had I placed my own cloak of weariness on his unsuspecting shoulders, attributing to him feelings he did not even have? How often we do this to our fellows, do we not?
Whatever the case, I determined to make light of his words, and parried, “He does indeed, and Job rejoins that when they die, the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest. I can hardly imagine that great, wicked bearish creature standing before me, Joseph Bentley Leyland, dying anytime soon!”
In the twinkling of an eye, Joe was his old, mirthful self, ushering us into the studio and assuring us that he would be along in a trice, once he had washed and changed. I looked round the cavernous studio, where monuments and tablets far outnumbered anything of a more whimsical, creative, or for that matter happy, aspect. As the balance of his work had increasingly tipped in the direction of church and funerary monuments, so too had the river of scorn he had once poured on my railway career trickled away to a mere stream, and one he revisited only with great sympathy, for as far as he was concerned, we were in precisely the same position in our respective fields. The only difference was that the inexorable march of Death would assure a ready market for his products. But mine?
Brown silently examined one monument after another, while I tried to imagine a naked Maggie modeling Kilmeny, or Leyland’s great fête with Listz pounding out his improvisations. I found so doing to be nigh-on impossible, for today all was merely tools, marble, and dust. I gazed out the begrimed back windows toward the little shed where I had kissed her that night, and then to the Square Chapel, where, overcome with desire, I had been prepared to defile God’s house—even if it was a mere dissenters’ chapel.
Had I been quite mad? No: any man who has been so inflamed with desire that he can think only of becoming one with the object of that most powerful of human yearnings would not scoff at such a notion, for truly he has lived moments of great passion, where reason takes flight and his very surroundings fall away, like the flimsy decor of a stage play, or more to the point, like the clothes of a beautiful woman slipping gracefully over each lovely curve of her person, where cascading silk reveals the luminous, shimmering skin of her shoulders, breasts, waist, hips, thighs, calves, and feet. Such a man as this knows what it is to feel a yearning to consume and be consumed, to run his tongue upon every inch of her frame, to swallow her up and be swallowed up by her, to burn together in a growing bonfire of mutual desire.
“A penny for your thoughts, Faustus. Though I’m quite certain they’re worth at least a sovereign or two, eh?” Leyland stood at my side, his large hands red from scrubbing, his forearms covered with a proper shirt and coat, and his hat in his hand. His monumental Head of Satan gazed down ominously upon us from across the cluttered room.
I turned to face Joe, answering a question with a question, as in a game of battledore and shuttlecock: “How are you, Mephistopheles? Upon our arrival this morning you seemed, ever so briefly, a bit weary. That’s not like you.”
“Nonsense,” said he. But after a moment he waved his hand over the scattered stones, monuments to the recently and future deceased, and smiled. “Well, truth be told, I am weary of this sort of work—but that’s surely no surprise to you, Brontë. Have you any idea what a trial it is find commissions for works of pure imagination, meant to delight the living rather than commemorate the soon-to-be forgotten dead?”
I raised my eyebrows.
A smile of mischief and true, brotherly sympathy broke over his face like the sun emerging from a summer storm. “Ha ha, of course, my friend, who knows better than clever Northangerland how little use this benighted world of bloody money-grubbing philistines has for a true artiste?”
Meanwhile, Brown had found the monument we had ostensibly come to visit, and waved us over from the far end of the room.
“Come,” said Joe, “let’s have a quick look and then make our way to the inn—I’ve already a powerful thirst. I never take a drop before noon, but I heartily welcome a large glass at one minute past. Let’s see what Brown has to say about my opus.”
Brown was on one knee, examining the monument, as we approached. “T’is a wee bit simple, don’t y’ think, Leyland?” The monument could not have been more austere, or more unlike the sculptor himself. Beneath a triangular tympanum a single dove—the Holy Spirit?—emerged from the stone (this, to be just, was clever), and beneath the bird a single fold of drapery symbolised mourning. On the lower half of the monument lay a monument within a monument, a tabula rasa where the dedication to Thomas Andrew was still to be lettered.
As we approached, Leyland looked at me meaningfully and said to Brown, who did not serve on the memorial committee, “Well, Sir John, I could not agree with you more, but see here, the august memorial committee of Haworthopolis had very specific ideas about how this simple surgeon, who dedicated his life to serving all people—most particularly the indigent souls of the village—should be remembered. They felt—strongly indeed, would you not agree, Branwell?—that this monument should mirror his very simplicity. And though it pains me to say it, this is a business, and the purchaser has a right to command what he sees fit.”
John ran his hand over the smooth, untouched scroll at the bottom of the monument. “So when do you think you’ll have it to Haworth, that I might letter the inscription?”
“Hmm…let us say a week or so hence. I’ve a bit more polishing to do…and see here, at the top of the tabula rasa, there is room for a bit of a flourish, for who does not deserve a bit of a flourish in death? The memorial committee be damned! They won’t even notice such subtleties…more pearls cast before swine!”
We all laughed as Joe ushered us out of the studio and into the street. “See here, my good fellows, shall we betake ourselves to the White Swan? I slowed my steps instinctively, for this was, of course, the establishment operated by Maggie’s parents. Leyland grabbed my elbow and sped me forward, guessing my thoughts.
“Now now, little man, Maggie is married with a child, and she and her husband are naturally now at the Royal—don’t you recall?—and so we will quite intentionally avoid that place for your sake.”
I wanted to ask, “How is she? Do you see her? What does she look like? Is she happy?” I desire for her both happiness and misery; or perhaps I should say that those two desires warred within me: the half of me that had loved her wished her a bounty of contentment, while the half she had spurned wished her sufficient misery to regret her choice. Anyone who thinks such battles within us to be rare, or illogical, or absurd, is likely an automaton, for are not such contradictions woven into the very fabric of humanity? I confess that I also hoped to avoid Grundy, for while I did not fault the messenger for delivering his unwelcome news, I had no desire to see him. The same was true of Maeve, for she would only be a reminder of—and quite possibility a temptation to resume—my past behaviour.
As we stepped into the inn, there rose to greet us Messrs Francis Leyland, William Dearden, and John Frobisher. After the customary exchange of handshakes and pleasantries, we settled into our table. Is there anything like “settling into” a table with fast friends, when one feels already almost drunk with pleasure just by being amongst them, when the anticipation of the initial toast and first sip is at least as pleasing as that delicious draught itself?
“Well, gentlemen, are you pleased with my surprise?” He made an effort to include Brown, though the treat of seeing these old friends had been arranged far more for my benefit than the sexton’s. Joe’s manners were generally impeccable, a sign of good breeding; they were only eroded under the influence of drink, which would be soon enough. I, however, was determined to remain temperate, ordering a glass of wine and taking great pains to take rather small sips, rather than the great throatfuls to which I had become habituated at Luddenden Foot.
I cannot speak for Squire Brown,” I replied, “but I am utterly delighted to see my old companions.”
“Here, here!” was all Brown said, but his words were genuine, and his eyes sparkled with the delight of the married man who has briefly escaped his chains to be welcomed into the company of his fellows, with the prospect of a few drinks—and knowing Brown, quite possibly a brief dalliance—before him. We had told Papa that we planned to dine with the sculptor, and not to expect us before evening.
“Well, then,” said Joe, lifting his glass, “let us toast the return of our own prodigal son and his faithful advisor to the Devil’s Cauldron.” I still sipped, but the draughts were quickly becoming more generous. Joe leant back in his chair and added, “The best surprise of all is still to come. Brontë, our good friend Dearden here, the Bard of Caldene, has a gauntlet to throw down. You see, your poems—quite poorly disguised by that ludicrous nom de plume, Northangerland, I might add—have attracted quite the notice of a certain number of cultivated Halifaxois”—he pronounced this make-believe word with a French accent, omitting the “H”—“and I can assure you that such individuals are rare indeed. Indeed, the frequency of their publication has even elicited just a bit of envy, though in the case of the sonnet inspired by Landseer’s painting, it was more akin to laughter, and fond memories of a previous contest.”
Pleased with himself, Joe took a generous dose of whisky, at which point Dearden finally spoke: “You see, Brontë, reading that sonnet brought me back to our previous joust, and now that we are both being published with regularity, I propose a far more serious match, one where we write a substantial poem—perhaps in epic, perhaps in dramatic form, and then let these fine critics here judge the winner.”
“And what, pray, would you consider a worthy subject? Is it up to us to select?”
“Naaaaay,” interjected Joe in his favourite, most appalling Yorkshire tones, as the whisky began to warm him, “thou wil’st do nowt of t’ kind!”
Dearden smiled, but it was the only indication that he had heard Leyland’s remark.
“No, I think it should be a specific subject, as was the case the last time, do you not concur?”
A supercilious version of that well-spoken gentleman, Joseph Bentley Leyland, had suddenly reappeared at our table, speaking in the softened tones of the “civilised” southerly regions of the kingdom: “I can assure all this enlightened assembly that Lord Northangerland is capable of anything involving the written word. Have we not seen him write with both hands, simultaneously? Can he not compose verse in Latin or Greek, as if he trod the earth in days of the days of Caesar, or of Homer? Is he not blessed by Zeus above with the gift of poetical genius, mania, furor poeticus? Give him any topic you can devise and watch his genius soar on eagle’s wings!”
How often do our own frustrations prompt our attacks on—or, in this case, our making sport of—others? For does not the path of an arrow speak of the archer rather than of his target? In other words: was the bitterness of Joe’s life as he left the inspired work of his monumental, magnificent, maleficent Head of Satan and his voluptuous, alluring, and yet sinless Kilmeny for the dusty drudgery of commissioned monuments to the dead what truly lay beneath his mockery? I merely smiled and responded, not to Leyand, but to Dearden, “Well then, my friendly foe—for foes we must be in such an epic struggle—what do you have in mind?”
“I am certainly willing to consider your own suggestions, but I thought of this: what if we each write a drama or a poem, the principal character in which was to have a real or imaginary existence before the Deluge?”
Leyland, already well along with his third large tumbler of whisky, said loudly, “Après moi, le déluge!,” but Dearden continued apace. “Do you think a month’s time would be sufficient? I am more than willing to come to you, Brontë, what say you?”
We clasped hands on the bargain, but I requested that we meet not quite in Haworth, but just outside the village, at the Cross Roads Inn, halfway to Keighley. Meanwhile, Joe had risen to order dinner for the assembled, and when he returned a young woman was at his side, with an infant of about six months on her hip.
It was Maggie.
I felt my face grow hot at her appearance; words failed me. Though she hardly qualified as gentry, her simple, yet ladylike appearance—she might nearly pass for a governess—and the presence of the red-cheeked babe caused everyone at the table to stand. She was as beautiful as ever, a Madonna with child, though she had lost some flesh, and the slightest lines of care and fatigue encircled her eyes, and were beginning to march inexorably across her forehead. Those celestial eyes were unchanged, but her lovely tresses now were pulled back in the simplest, most practical way possible. The little boy on her hip was a true cherub, with flawless alabaster skin, an abundance of curly brown locks, and his mother’s eyes.
She stood uneasily before us, for clearly she would not have sought out our company, especially if she had espied Leyland and me from afar. She managed something between a bow and a curtsy, which reminded me of the first time I had seen her. My chest heaved as I felt warm tears swimming in my eyes: no, not for Maggie, not for me, but for us all—a sudden grief bordering on despair, the inescapable sadness of the transient nature of life, of all beauty and all joy, relentlessly slipping away into oblivion.
“Evenin’ gentlemen, how d’ye do?” said she, as those heavenly orbs traveled round the group, lingering on my face—or did I imagine it?—a bit longer than each of my friends. We each responded according to our character, and there followed an awkward silence. Leyland, with a horror vacui as always, came to our rescue.
“Mrs. Mortimer happened to arrive just as I stepped to the bar. It seems,” he continued, looking at me meaningfully, as if to apologize, “that her mother cares for the lad so that she can assist her husband at the Royal.”
“Well, gentlemen, I must indeed deposit this lad on ‘is grandmother’s knees and move m’self along, for ‘is father depends mightily on me. I do wish ye a pleasant afternoon and all good things hereafter—truly.” As she uttered this final word, her eyes again found mine. Were hers shining as well, or was I simply imagining it, and were my own moist eyes merely reflected in hers? Whatever the case, I felt like a papist kneeling before a vision of the Blessed Virgin, and her radiance washed over me like a benediction. As I removed my spectacles and furtively wiped my tears, I was filled—if only for an instant—with peace, as if I had, indeed, been forgiven, had indeed been blessed. After another partial curtsy, she and her little boy were off, back to the struggles of their real life, at which Leyland sat down, shaking his head.
“Well bugger me, she’s still a fine specimen of a woman. I daresay, if she’s not worn out by having too many children—or, more likely, by toiling beside that lout, her husband—she will retain that admirably elastic form for many a year to come.”
Meanwhile, that other great connoisseur of feminine charms, John Brown, leant over and whispered, “By God, lad, she’s still a beauty—a splendid creature! Her husband is surely a lucky devil!”
We dined on roast chicken, and Joe grew louder and a bit more inebriated, whilst his brother Francis looked on with mild disapproval, saying, as always, precious little. Whenever a brief respite in Joe’s antics permitted it, Dearden, Frobisher and I discussed all manner of things artistic, as well as the proliferation of the latest marvels of engineering and invention, especially the telegraph—at which point Frank joined our conversation, for it was still a passion of his—and the daguerreotype. As the conversation touched on this last topic, Joe pounded the table with his oversized fist.
“Now there, lads, is something worthy of discussion! Brontë, t’is a good thing you abandoned the portrait-painting business, for those French devils have come up with something that will surely turn all but a handful of painters into beggars!”
“What do you mean, Leyland?” said Dearden.
“What I mean, my dear Bard of Caldene, is that daguerreotypes will soon become cheap enough—for that is the way of all invention, is it not?—to appeal to the merchant classes, and perhaps even more common folk. The tedious process of dabbing paint on a canvas to represent the world and its inhabitants will become rarer and rarer, and so dearer and dearer, so that only the great and illustrious will sit for a painted portrait.”
Leyland was speaking with surprising coherence. I have witnessed such instances—in myself and others—when one’s passion for the subject at hand inspires unwonted clarity of thought and expression, even in the midst of drunkenness, the mind like a castaway plucked only briefly from a stormy sea.
“What then,” asked Francis, “will the painters do? Surely not starve in the streets, as you pretend?”
“Not all will. I predict that the finest will be in great demand, but all others will be scattered on the winds of change. Some will abandon their art altogether, while others will perhaps try to master the daguerrotype itself; some will become practical painters and, like yours truly toiling away on damnable funerary monuments, they will be reduced to painting broadsides and sketching handbills, or designing advertisements for newspapers and magazines; a final group will, perhaps, finally liberate painting from its shackles.”
“Shackles?” said I.
“Yes, Faustus: shackles. Think on it a bit: has not painting always been enslaved to something? In the dark ages, it was the medieval church; in the renaissance, it was the corrupt popes and the wealthy bankers of Italy, or the wealthy merchants of Flanders; indeed, in all times the powerful have determined what was to be painted, for it was their munificence that fed and clothed the artist. The final stage of enslavement is reality itself. If the daguerreotype can provide a representation of life more accurately, more cheaply, and more quickly, painting must find something else to do. In this way, it may finally join poetry, sculpture and music as an independent art devoted only to itself, which is to say to the goddess of beauty, Aphrodite.”
Leyland leant back, breathless, but evidently quite satisfied with himself, and he took a deep draught of whisky. I was sufficiently warmed by my wine, and yet far more sober than he, and that combination placed me in the perfect position to resume our old game of undermining each other’s theories.
“My dear sir,” I began, addressing him as if in a letter and lifting my glass in salute, “I see a great deal of wisdom behind your prognostications, but perhaps—alas—an equal share of error.”
“Let us hear your critiques, Lord Northangerland,” said he, folding his arms, but smiling broadly, pleased that I wished to play.
“Well,” said I, drawing a deep breath, “confusion might be a better word than error. Are you not the very man who daily vituperates against the current age, where the market controls all, and where you are reduced to grinding out a living—you see, I can be clever too—with gravestones, because your artistry is not sufficiently appreciated? This is the same world where we poets”—here I gestured to my friend Dearden—“are reduced to being published in the local newspapers, and where sentimental novels written for young ladies are the only saleable items? And is it not paradoxical that you condemn a system of patronage that you, yourself, have admitted is in fact your heart’s fervent desire? Do you not, in fact, wish yourself to be enslaved and shackled by a wealthy patron (or, preferably, a lovely patroness), rather than be set adrift on the market, one which rewards your memorial tablets more than your sculptures? In short, you appear quite prepared to betray your principles—nay, sell your soul—in exchange for a life of ease.”
Leyland tossed back the remainder of his whisky, gestured to Maggie's father for still more, and smiled. Was there a trace of bitterness in his grin?
“Very well, Brontë, you seem to have pierced my argument with a multitude of holes, I confess. I would, however, make just a few comments in response, if you will allow.”
I nodded assent, trying mightily to content myself with this single glass of wine.
The weary, serious expression I had glimpsed earlier that day returned, and Joe seemed to speak in great earnest, with a sobriety that could scarcely be credited.
“It is true that I view patronage as at once enslavement and as eminently desirable. That is to say, I detest it in principle as much as I despise the market in practice, and yet I confess that I desperately yearn for someone to remove the fear of want that haunts me, so that I might focus what abilities remain to me on works of the imagination.”
“I thought,” said Frobisher in quiet, but trembling, tones, “that such was the role of your brother Francis here?”
The nervous musician’s timid demeanour, which so often made him the target of Joe’s ridicule, and the innocence with which he had uttered this remark, made it especially humourous, and our entire table burst into laughter.
“Very well,” said Leyland when calm was restored. “I plead guilty to the charge of self-contradiction. Heaven knows you never suffer from that condition, Brontë! Ha! But hark me, I do my fair share of unpleasant work, and have the calloused hands to prove it.”
Francis, long silent and long-suffering, spoke. The rarity and sobriety of his pronouncements lend them gravity, and the party gathered about the table—even his loquacious brother—fell silent. “It seems to me that you want to do what you want to do, and yet how many grown men in this world are afforded such freedom?”
His use of grown men could not have been more pointed. It is true that neither Joe nor I are doing especially well with the adventure of adulthood: again, is it all, finally, as simple as that? Or are we in fact courageous for refusing to give up and give over? Courage or folly? Is the puer aeternus to be admired, or despised?
On that rather somber note, we parted company, with Leyland promising to have Andrew’s monument to us in July, at which time he would supervise Brown’s lettering. As for me, I felt strangely, unexpectedly, at peace. Seeing Maggie had not been what I had feared, but was instead like the gentle closing of a tumultuous chapter of my life. The calm—the wholeness—I felt was akin to what one feels upon closing a particularly satisfying book. I had succeeded in not drinking much at all, and had accepted Dearden’s challenge, which I would take up as soon as I had revised some other poems for publication. It remains all too true that I can hardly make my living through poetry, but at least I am slowly garnering recognition, and who knows what other opportunities might present themselves?
As our waggon rumbled north toward Haworth, the westering sun flickered through the leaves swaying in the still-warm June breeze. For a moment I had that old feeling, that anything was possible, that my entire life still lay before me. I was in love with the universe, and felt both the comfort of a mother’s embrace and the intimacy of lovers as they collapse, spent, in a tangle of warm flesh.
Yes, anything was possible, and I would be all right—a thought I retained even as dark clouds began to mass to the east and, by the time we reached the lower reaches of Haworth, a driving rain had overtaken us, and chilled us to the marrow.
Chapter XVIII—A Proposition from Anne
Midsummer’s Eve, 1842 The Parsonage
I write on the day that marks the completion of my twenty-fifth year on this earth, with hope again swelling in my heart when I least expected it. The depressed figure of several weeks ago seems but a nightmarish spectre of a man, a barely-recognizable wreck as foreign to me as a black African or inhabitant of distant Siam. Once again I have a direction, I have purpose, and can feel the world beginning to open up possibilities I could scarcely have imagined just days ago—and I have the youngest of the family to thank for it.
I returned that day from Halifax to find that Anne had arrived for her summer holiday, after which she will rejoin her employers and their charges, the Robinsons, in Scarborough. As I entered the parsonage, soaked to the skin—for it was positively throwing down—she exclaimed, part with mirth and part with true concern, “Oh, my, dear brother, off with those wet things, or you’ll catch your death of cold!” while Emily’s mongrel Keeper jumped and barked at the commotion, as the wind sent the door flying against the wall with a bang.
Soon I had changed and sat before a fire—fortunately John’s daughter Martha had, despite the season, been commanded to lay one—with a cup of tea, looking into the cheerful eyes of my youngest sister, who had wrapped a large woollen blanket about my shoulders. I believe that we shared an unspoken—and unspeakable—thrill at finding ourselves alone, for we had a common bond in our otherness: I, the only boy; she, the family’s youngest, the baby, who was forever treated as such, especially by Charlotte. Indeed, as I reflect upon the matter, it seems to me that our shared delight at that moment might well have been due to the absence of this latter individual in particular. For Emily—whom I respect and somewhat even fear as much as Anne adores—would have proven no especial burden before this fire. Father, meanwhile, was locked away in his study, while Aunt Branwell was occupied upstairs.
Anne has become a pretty thing, though far from a great, strapping beauty: a well-proportioned, if slight, figure, and quite a lovely, delicate face, with those bright, intelligent blue eyes approaching almost a violet colour, over which arch a pair of eyebrows that appear almost to have been artfully penciled; a more gently curved nose—which I envy her—than mine, and lips just slightly fuller than either of her sisters; glowing skin so fair that it is nearly transparent; and framing this pretty face, brown hair which, now that she is grown, is nearly chestnut-coloured. Though she is already two and twenty, I marvelled for the first time—perhaps because we were alone—at what a graceful young woman she is become.
“You examine me, Branwell,” said Anne, laughing softly. “Do you think me ugly?”
“No, dear sister, quite to the contrary. I think you have grown into quite a lovely young lady. Surely you must be breaking hearts for miles round Thorp Green! I suspect talk of you has even reached the ancient city of York itself!”
“Stop teasing me,” she laughed. “No, brother, this plain governess is very much a cipher surrounded by the elegant ladies and gentleman of Thorp Green, and indeed, the incandescent beauty of Mrs. Robinson and her young daughters utterly eclipses such a small satellite as me. I might well be a table or chair, or at best, a servant—for that, alas, is what I am: a glorified servant. Surely you had such feelings in Broughton, did you not? And yet, I was thinking….”
Anne hesitated, staring into the grate, the flames transforming her eyes into a violet kaleidoscope.
“You were thinking?”
She turned to me and smiled sweetly. Such sweetness is often mistaken for weakness or folly, but I have long since learned that Anne is not only good, but exceedingly thoughtful: nearly everything she says had been much considered, even debated, in that pretty little head sitting on those narrow, sloping shoulders.
“I was wondering is perhaps a better word for it: I was wondering if you might consider taking up the sacred mantle of tutor once again. After all, by all accounts”—I did not interrupt her to say that it was merely my account of the events at Broughton—“by all accounts you performed admirably. It was just that Mr. Postlethwaite had rather low, utilitarian aims, for which your talents were unsuitable, which is to say superior. I ask because young master Edmund—Ned, as the family calls him—has now reached an age—he is ten—where he requires true instruction in the classics. The Robinsons have begun to speak of engaging a tutor for him, effective January, until he goes off to university in a few years.”
“I hope,” said I, “that you have not yet said anything on my behalf.”
“Branwell,” she replied softly, her gaze mingling love and firmness in a way more parental than fraternal, “you know that I would not do that. But I did secret the information away for consideration”—here she tapped her fair forehead—“first mine, and now yours. After reflection, I realise, if I am to be entirely candid, that I am quite lonely, and that it would be splendid to have my only brother near me, to see him at least once or twice a day, not only for his own worth, but as a constant reminder of home.”
The chill had at last left me, and I removed the blanket and stirred the fire. I took off my spectacles and looked fixedly at her, though her face was now little more than a blur, which in turn put me entirely at ease: my old trick.
“This is most unexpected, little sister. It is now my turn to reflect, as you can well imagine.”
“Well then,” said she, “I will take up my book whilst you cogitate, big brother.” Her small hand brushed a wayward lock of hair off her forehead as the fire crackled anew. Keeper, much-becalmed, had long ago settled into blissful slumber between us, in which he appeared to be dreaming of some sort of prey, for he briefly shuddered and softly barked before settling into a rhythmic snore, his thick muscular flanks and shoulders rising and falling with each breath.
I did indeed cogitate, as Anne said. Who has not at least once in his life experienced the sudden, vertiginous, exhilarating, sometimes joyful and sometimes terrifying prospect of new vistas thrown open when least expected? One is so disorientated that one must breathe deeply, and possibly even lie down. A thousand thoughts thronged into my mind, among them chiefly these: Of course Anne was right: I had performed admirably for the Postlethwaites, had I not? There was a difference of educational philosophy, surely, and my master had every right to act upon his beliefs. Any regrets I had about the months in Broughton were personal, and I had remained competent to the end.
From Anne’s accounts, the estate at Thorp Green was grand indeed, in a pastoral district between Ripon and York, far from the dirty manufacturing of our neighbourhood. A distinguished family—Mrs. Robinson was even a cousin of the celebrated Macaulay—with three girls and a boy: Lydia, named for her mother, was now a great girl of nearly seventeen, her sisters Elizabeth and Mary one and two years behind her, respectively. If nothing else, the pleasing surroundings and the proximity of rich, lovely young girls blooming into womanhood—for more than once has Anne mentioned their beauty, though she is far less laudatory as concerns their character—would be a fresh beginning, and perhaps a family such as this would have the appreciation for my talents of which Mr. Postlethwaite and his breed are incapable.
I continued to muse. Perhaps, indeed, I am destined to teach, for I increasingly believe I am ill suited to any other occupation, especially those connected to the dirty, money-grubbing business of commerce. Perhaps the post as tutor—to only one lad, after all, and hardly a baby—will allow me to ramble, to sketch, and to write, all the while making my living amongst people of a certain quality, far removed from the oppression of home.
We sat together for what seemed a very long while, but what was likely only a period of five or ten minutes, Anne quietly turning the leaves of a book we had long ago used to learn to draw, William de la Motte’s Characters of Trees, and I staring into the fire, this new and sudden and entirely unexpected opportunity rising up before me. From time to time I could feel her gaze flit furtively over to me as she read. All we could hear was Keeper’s snoring, the crepitations of the fire, the wind and rain still lashing the windowpanes, and the march of time as papa’s inexorable clock marked our passage into the future. Or was it ushering what had been the waiting future into the present and just as hurriedly into the past? I seized an iron and stirred the embers in the grate, then stood, my back to the fire, and faced Anne.
“I am intrigued, I must say. Much good, I think, could result from such a situation, and I might just be well-suited to it. What do you think?”
The young woman of hard common sense that lies just beneath my sister’s demure exterior sat upright, closing her book, her finger marking the page; those violet eyes now seemed to have a quality of steel about them. “If you think, brother, that I would jeopardize my own position just to find you one, you are quite mad. No, no, I have thought and prayed about it, and am certain that if you apply yourself steadily and conduct yourself scrupulously, you will surely prosper, which will only redound to my benefit as well, for I will have done the family a great service.”
Anne knows nothing of Broughton beyond my official account, and neither father nor I have revealed to anyone the reasons behind my departure from the railway. The worst of my conduct has always been confined to the environs of Bradford and Halifax, and even those few times I have had too much drink at the Black Bull have occurred when my sisters were at school, or in Anne’s case, at her employers. In short, that person known by John Brown, but especially by Joe Leyland and his circle, or by Agnes or Maeve, is an utter stranger to my family.
No, here was the good brother, stirring the fire and sipping his tea, cogitating. After all, thought I, I want to be good, and if I am happily employed, in a beautiful neighborhood, with ample leisure to continue my writing, why should I not begin to gravitate toward good, and away from evil? Finally—I considered with a pang of regret that felt almost like a betrayal—if I am utterly plain with myself, living at some remove from Leyland and Brown might be a change far more salutary than disadvantageous. As I considered, I could find no reason for not accepting such a position, and began to build castles in the air about my life as a man of letters at such a fine estate, though finally I said to myself, you are running on too fast, slow down, Branwell, slow down.
“How much time have I to reach my decision?” I asked.
“I leave in ten days’ time, to spend six weeks with the family at Scarborough. It is so beautiful there, Branwell—I am certain that you would also love the place, for it is nothing like the west coast of England!” She laughed. “You see, I am already quite swept away by the waves of that place and begin to digress; I beg your pardon. I was going to say that you should make a decision by the end of the family’s holiday at the seaside, for they will surely begin advertising for a tutor upon their return to Thorp Green on the twentieth of August or so.”
“I will indeed give it much thought,” said I, but I could not bring myself to be hypocritical enough to add, and prayer. I reserve such hypocrisy for Papa alone, and that is merely a question of daily survival.
“Very well,” she replied. “While you reflect, I shall broach the subject with my employers. Once you have decided, write to me in Scarborough, at Number 15, The Cliff. If your answer is yes, I—or perhaps even Mrs. Robinson, for she oversees the education of her brood—which is to say that she hires those who do educate them—will write you a formal missive requesting a letter of interest from you in return.
I smiled at how thoroughly Anne had worked this all out in her mind. “Very well, sister, I shall continue to ponder it most assiduously,” said I, twirling the fire-iron and bowing with mock reverence before resuming my seat.
But my mind is, at this hour, already quite made up: to Thorp Green I shall go.
Keeper snored and the fire crackled on. After another long silence, Anne laughed, holding her book for me to see in the firelight. “Branwell, look. You naughty boy—you made sketches of soldiers and castle ruins throughout poor Mr. de la Motte’s quite earnest efforts to teach us to draw trees!”
Chapter XIX—All’s Right with the World!
July 5th, 1842 The Parsonage
What a difference a fortnight makes! I am now thoroughly reconciled—indeed, giddy with anticipation—at the thought of beginning anew at Thorp Green. For am I not still a youth, with life before me? My conversations with Papa’s curate, the Reverend William Weightman, have only confirmed me in my resolve. He appeared on my birthday, just as I was finishing the composition of the lines above, for Anne had decided to surprise me with a special tea for the occasion: there was not just a birthday cake, as is the new fashion, but nuts, jellies, and sweets. A small but agreeable party we made: Weightman, Papa, Aunt, Anne and I. A long morning ramble under clear skies, the prospects of my life to come, and the genial company now seated around me combined to make me feel better than I had in many a month, perhaps even many a year. Not since I embarked on my railway career—or possibly not even since I set out for Broughton—has my heart been so light. What joy, to begin anew!
Anne was not now merely the youngest Brontë daughter and sister; with Charlotte and Emily in Brussels she was the only one, and despite her self-effacing manner she clearly relished her role, serving the handsome young curate and laughing at his witticisms—always appropriately calibrated not to offend the ladies or his fellow clergyman, of course, though I often think that the son of a brewer must surely know some jokes of a more scurrilous nature—while her own pretty face glowed with pleasure, just shy of a perpetual blush. I took considerable pleasure in teasing her once he had departed, at which time he and I promised each other a long ramble on the moors three days hence.
“Well well, Miss Anne, I see that your organ of veneration has been hard at work in the presence of the dashing and distinguished young curate. You were positively radiant as he spoke!” We returned to the dining room—which only Aunt Branwell insists on calling the parlour—where today’s warmth had rendered a fire unnecessary.
“Nonsense,” said she, but after a moment of staring into the cold grate, added, “It is true that his visits are a source of considerable pleasure, for rare are the instances of proper contact with young gentlemen of his—his learning and manners.”
“Oh ho! You hesitate, which means that it is more than learning and manners that act as a magnet upon you. I think you might just be in love. At least that is what Charlotte has intimated, and now I have seen signs of it myself.”
Anne frowned, her penciled brows rendering her displeasure so plain that she hardly needed to speak. “Yes, Charlotte has quite fixed ideas about Mr. Weightman, whom as I’m sure you know she was fond of calling Miss Celia Amelia. Has it not occurred to you, brother, that she was in love with him? And while I would not claim that it is the sole reason for her escape to Brussels with Emily, could it not be at least partly because she could not bear to see one she knows will never seek the hand of a girl so plain and penniless as she—or any of us, for that matter?”
“Hmm. It’s possible; I’ve had the same thought. For all of her force and intellect, there is a part of her which, like her childhood heroine Mina Laury, desires to throw herself at the feet of an idol. Perhaps she’ll find the proper object of that passion in Brussels.”
Anne ignored this, as she does most of my unkind comments.
“I wonder, Branwell, why it is acceptable for men to gaze and gape in shameless veneration of feminine charms—for I regularly witness such performances at Thorp Green, and will surely see it every day at Scarborough, as the young Robinsons are paraded like show-horses, or cattle before the slaughter, choose your beast—but why it is so unbecoming for the softer or weaker sex, as you gentlemen would call us, to show any admiration whatsoever, no matter how innocent, for the male of the species? It does not signify.”
I had no proper reply to such an audacious statement, and so simply said, “Dear, sweet Anne”—this is a long-standing joke between us, a reference both to her being treated like a baby and to her temperament, which nevertheless sheathes a will of iron—“sweet Anne, I am sure you are not questioning the proper order of things, where loveliness is the special prerogative of woman. An ugly woman is a blot on the fair face of creation, but gentlemen need only strength and valor—and, of course, a fortune in the bargain.”
“That is precisely what I mean,” she replied. “Does that truly seem just to you, brother?”
“I don’t know. Does life seem just? Is it just that people of our education and breeding—and yes, I am speaking now of the Brontë offspring as intellectual equals, as we are—must bow and scrape as servants before the rich, whose manners and learning are so often inferior to ours? Is it just that the half-illiterate mill owner is richer than a scholar or curate or tutor ever will be?”
Anne bit her lip and again knitted her brows. Keeper, who had wandered in and placed his large, square head on her knee, whimpered. She at last appeared to be resolved to change topics. “Well, as for Mr. Weightman, I can only say that if his greatest sin is that he is sweet and kind to such plain spinsters as the Brontë sisters—and might I add that he is every bit as charming and kind to everyone he meets—surely he will have no trouble gaining entrance into Heaven.”
Still, it was clear she could not yet let go; after another silence, she added, “Truly, Branwell, I do want you to know that I do not cherish a grande passion for Papa’s curate, for I have never had to mask my esteem for him by giving him a feminine appellation or condemning him as a thorough male flirt who has scattered his impressions far and wide, as has Charlotte. I do love him as a brother, though, just as Papa loves him as a son.”
This last comment was uttered with great simplicity—all kindness and no malice—and yet it recalled to me how much better my friend had been than I, Papa’s own flesh and blood; I felt no envy of Weightman, but only gratitude to him and shame of myself.
To lighten her mood—and mine—I responded, as we made our way upstairs to bed, “And see, in any event you will soon be led away from temptation and delivered from evil as you make your way to Scarborough, and next year your happiness will be complete as your brilliant and companionable brother joins you in your work of training the tender Robinson plants, and together we shall watch their buds unfolding day by day!”
I must confess that as I uttered these words I was imagining the blooming of the rosy Robinson girls, for though I would be tutoring Edmund I would surely see his older sisters with great regularity. The thought of being able to—what did Anne say?—gaze and gape in veneration of their feminine charms at such close proximity fairly intoxicated me with anticipation. Of course I must do so discretely, for their mamma will surely be on her guard against such a low ruffian as I—ha ha!
The gentleman in question, the Reverend William Weightman, did indeed call upon us again on this bright July day, desiring that I walk out onto the moors with him. Still thinking of Anne’s passionate words, I said, “Why don’t we make it a triumvirate? I shall play the role of chaperone, with a fierceness to rival Keeper’s,” at which both of them laughed and—or was it my imagination?—both of them blushed.
“A capital idea, Branwell,” said he, bowing ever so slightly. “Why should not Miss Anne come along? Although I am sure that she, like me, will ignore your incessant teasing.”
“As the day is so lovely I’ll consent to go a small way with you gentlemen, but must bend my steps homeward, ere long. I leave two days hence for Scarborough, remember, and I’ve a number of practical arrangements to make this afternoon.”
Soon we were out of doors, with Keeper in the vanguard, walking in silence. A warming southerly breeze caressed our faces, twisting the curls at Anne’s temples like kite strings, and playing havoc with both the curate’s hair and mine. On the horizon, billowy clouds piled high with startling rapidity, but their dazzlingly white hue foretold no risk of a spoiled perambulation.
As we made our way up toward Penistone Hill, something had attracted Anne’s attention as she and I walked arm in arm. Above a heap of abandoned quarry stones there grew three primroses, peeping from between the twisted roots of an old ash tree. She broke from me and skipped forward—a young girl again, with the slight figure to match—where she tried, on the tips of her toes, her best to clutch at them.
“Allow me to gather them for you, Miss Anne,” said the curate, and in an instant the flowers were in her hand. She positively glowed with delight, but seemed unable to speak. “Thank you,” said she at last, in some confusion, again taking my arm. “It seems a two-fold miracle that such flowers should grow here and that they should grow now, in this late season.”
“Oh Heavens,” said Weightman, “Up in my neighbourhood, in Westmorland, such so-called spring flowers may be seen blooming as late as August, and we have just passed midsummer, remember. After all, in these rough hills spring comes late, summer is brief, and all too soon we are reminded of the ephemeral nature of beauty—of all earthly things—as autumn is rapidly succeeded by winter.”
As our footsteps carried us further onto the moors, my companions entered upon a banal and therefore harmless discussion concerning the flora of the North of England, while my mind wandered in quite another direction. These three flowers, clinging stubbornly to life far later than expected, seemed to me to augur well for the three young people who trod this uneven path: I had made up my mind to go to Thorp Green, if the Robinsons would have me; Anne was highly valued by them and could, seemingly, continue in her capacity until all three girls were quite grown; Weightman, just three years my senior, had an illustrious career before him, for he had made himself indispensable to our father, and beloved throughout the parish, and beyond.
As we reached the foot of a particularly steep incline, Anne—whose breathing is often even more laboured than mine—slackened her pace, then halted altogether. The midsummer sun had just begun its slow descent to the west, and its rays bathed my sister’s glowing forehead and bright, speaking eyes as she turned to face us. “I believe that here is where we must part company. Keeper will prove an able guide and protector, so you need fear nothing on that account, gentlemen.”
“Well then,” said my friend, “Off you go to Scarborough, eh? So often do you speak of your love of the sea that I must suppose you will be happy there?” His tone was more interrogative than declarative.
“Yes, I suppose so, although the young ladies will have no patience with my ‘dreary lessons’ at such a fashionable resort—believe me, they will only have eyes for the young gentlemen to be met along the sands or upon the Spa Bridge. I have no great hopes of making any progress with my charges until we return to Thorp Green, I fear.”
“I suppose I’ll not see you until the Christmas Holidays, then?”
“That’s right. But did you not just say that autumn will be rapidly succeeded by winter? In that case we shall see each other very soon indeed!” said she, laughing sweetly and clutching her flowers like a treasure, though doing her utmost to appear restrained as they shook hands and she called “Come, Keeper!” and began the walk home with her faithful companion. As they drew away from us, it occurred to me that not only did Emily’s dog take her place at Anne’s side; Anne herself played the same role for Keeper!
Weightman and I followed her briefly with our gaze, but I could not possibly guess what my friend was thinking. Even if she were not my sister, I am not sure that I could enter upon a discussion of feminine charms with the right hand and confidante of the Reverend Brontë, any more than I had been able to do with my erstwhile friend, Sugden Sowden.
As Weightman and I climbed a particularly steep hill, I wondered if Sowden had learned of the particulars of my dismissal, and had to conclude, grimly, that of course he had: for after all, Calderdale was a small place indeed, and was it not my counterpart at Hebden Bridge itself, Woolven, who had participated directly in the audit that resulted in my dismissal? Would not Sowden, hearing nothing from me, have enquired of Woolven as to my mysterious disappearance from the district? Truth to tell, I am more ashamed than ever of my behaviour in those not-so-distant days, from which I nevertheless now seem to be separated by an eternity.
In Weightman, I had found another Sowden-like friendship, but unpolluted by my own appalling conduct and the shame that ensued. Like Sowden, he has an affection for life nearly as strong as his love of God, and in his work with the simple folk of Haworth, he has made that selfsame love of God, rather than any fear of hell, the ruling motive for our obedience. His kindness extends equally to all, and far from making him a thorough male flirt, it simply demonstrates a genuine goodness blended with an eagerness to please. This man, who once walked ten miles to post valentines to all three of my sisters—surely because he felt sorry for them—is truly the opposite of a heartless Don Juan. Can he help it if he is naturally pleasing to the fairer sex, and should he be condemned for exercising that gift of God? Were he not so affable and good, I would surely envy him his good looks, stature, and most of all the great esteem in which he is held in the district, especially by Papa. But like Leyland—though for entirely different reasons—Weightman is one of the elect of this life who is quite simply nearly impossible to dislike.
We decided to make the climb to Top Withens, and when we at last reached the farm and caught our breath—he quickly and I with considerably more difficulty—he sat quietly on a large stone with his arms folded, the wind whipping his hair as clouds raced to catch the sun, as it bent toward Liverpool and the sea beyond. Jonas and Mary Sunderland were nowhere to be seen, and only a few scattered sheep grazed on the hillside, occasionally bleating to remind us of their presence.
“Now that we are alone,” said he with genuine interest, “tell me what you are about these days, Branwell. Are you in search of another post on the railways? Contemplating a return to the life of a tutor? Are you writing?” This was very much like him, to ask about me and say nothing of himself.
I at last was breathing freely, and spoke evenly. “I have looked into the matter of the railways, but alas, am told that no posts are available at this time.” I paused, contemplating whether I should share the news about my possible employment by the Robinsons of Thorp Green. No, not yet. “As for being a tutor, I have certainly not ruled that out. All would depend upon the suitability of the situation, the nature of the employers, and whether such a post matched my talents and inclinations.”
“And the writing? How goes that?”
I determined not to share my nom de plume with Weightman just yet, but instead spoke of my current project, the long poem I am revising for the great challenge with Dearden: “Azrael, or the Eve of Destruction.” In it, Noah confronts the Azrael, angel of death, over Methuselah’s grave, where they argue over the very existence of God. I failed to mention that the clash of these mighty figures represented the doubts within my own soul, or—especially—that I found Azrael’s speech far more interesting than Noah’s.
“Ah, a sacred subject! Your father will approve.”
“I’m not at all convinced,” I said ruefully, “that Papa will approve of any of my poetry. And I am certain that he is far more concerned that I make my independence with something more reliable than poetry.” Here I felt I could be honest. “What is sometimes a source of gall is that he instilled this passion for letters in us all; he encouraged my longing to distinguish myself in the world, whether through painting or writing or some more modest, steady employment; he has vaunted my talents, keeping me ever from harm when, perhaps, such harm might well have been most salutary.”
“Are you saying,” said Weightman, “that you wish you had been set adrift, penniless, in the world? Surely that is not the case.”
“No—no, of course not. But Papa infused us with his love of the written word in early childhood, and sanctioned it as long as we were young; but now he expects us to crush our passion as he did his, as if such blotting out were as natural as a falling leaf instead of what it feels like: the plucking of a limb from one’s body, if not the extermination of one’s very soul!”
Weightman sat quietly for a few moments, pondering. At last, he turned his kindly face to me.
“Perhaps you have been too petted in this life, and perhaps the Reverend Brontë has come late to the understanding that the chances of your—indeed, of anyone’s—making a living in painting or poetry are remote indeed. I’m sure that you can see that both of these failings—if failings they even be—proceeded from the purest motives, from paternal love, from a desire for your happiness.”
This, too, I knew to be true. Papa’s love and clemency were unfailing, and yet his goodness only made me, in my heart of hearts, sink further into shame. “I know, I know: he wants only the best for me, and worries incessantly what will become of me—what will become of us all—if he should die.”
More silence. There seemed little more we could say on this topic: it was intractable. The prospect of Thorp Green now rose before me like a golden dream, as I imagined a life of ease, gentility, and the leisure to pursue my writing. Still, I kept this from Weightman, wishing to wait until my appointment was assured.
“Well then,” said he, slapping me genially on the back, “that’s enough grim talk. Tell me about your poem.”
I explained that Azrael denies the existence of God and preaches defiance to the crowds assembled at the burial of Methuselah. It is human pride, says the angel of death, which cannot abide the thought of returning to dust:
Nature abhors to look at naught
And frames for ease a world of thought.—
So—when the Sickman lies to die
He gasps for Hope in Agony
And as the Earth yields none to save
He makes a Hope beyond the grave!—
Thus Heaven is but an Earthly dream,
Tis Man makes God—not God makes him!
“Why Branwell,” said Weightman, “this is very, very good!” Then laughing, he added, “Of course I sincerely hope that Noah has the final word, and that his argument is even more persuasive, else you will commit the grave error of Milton, of making the denizens of Hell far more appealing that those of Paradise!”
“Would that I might aspire to such a sin,” I replied, and though I said it with a smile, I wondered how much truth there might be in such an assertion. Would I—Faust-like—trade all for poetic glory? But I hastened to add: “But fear not, my reverend friend, Noah will obliterate Azrael’s argument, and I shall be as orthodox in my theology as I am brilliant in my execution!”
As we hopped down from our perch, Weightman clapped me once more on the back and said, “I have a good feeling, Branwell, that things are going to turn your way. As for me, someday I will have my own parish, and perhaps even a charming wife and a house full of little ones.”
“It sounds like the happy end to a novel in three volumes, Weightman,” said I, laughing. Despite my jest, though, my mind raced forward: I pictured father’s death, for surely he would die before any of us; Weightman’s appointment as his replacement; and yes, even the latter’s marriage to Anne, followed by the inevitably handsome offspring who would grow up happily, as we had, in the venerable parsonage. I, the eccentric but celebrated uncle, would be welcomed with great fanfare on my rare visits.
Why not? Why not indeed?
The clouds did not overtake the sun until we had reached Haworth, at which point a broad sunbeam, like Jacob’s ladder, shone down through the heavens, beyond Weightman’s rooms at Cook Gate. He pointed to the sky and smiled as he made his way home, shouting, “Branwell, surely that should inspire you to ensure that Noah’s argument triumphs over Azrael’s! What does Mr. Browning say in that little sixpence volume you lent me? God’s in His heaven—All’s right with the world!”
Chapter XX—Mirth and Mourning
July 15th, 1842 The Parsonage
Leyland has, at last, brought the Thomas Andrew memorial to Haworth. We have all had our part in it: the sculptor, of course, has fashioned it, Brown has lettered it, and I have provided the inscription—with the editorial oversight of the committee, of course. Even Weightman took part, at Papa’s request choosing its emplacement and overseeing its installation. The inscription reads thus:
This Tablet was erected by those who knew his worth, & who feel that, while in his death the neighbourhood has lost an honourable and upright man, the poor have lost an able adviser in their calamities, & a generous friend in their need.
John Brown, as he finished the lettering in the stifling July heat—for summer is now truly upon us—mopped his brow and said, “Verily, I’ve never ‘ad such an audience…I felt like a soddin’ player on a stage, for ‘eaven’s sake.” But he was grinning in habitual Brownian fashion.
Leyland followed the inscription of each letter with his right forefinger, wiping away the dust as he went. “You are simply not to be trusted alone, Brown. I am here to ensure that my masterpiece is not destroyed—after all, such script is not like one of Brontë’s poems, where an errant word can be scratched out and replaced with another. Written in stone: the expression exists for good reason.”
Weightman, ignoring Joe’s banter, sighed, for countless were the times that he and the good surgeon had held vigil at the bedside of a dying man, woman or child. He placed his hand on the cool stone, and his eyes shone with tears. “Such are we all; we go the way of all the earth. God bless you, Andrew.”
Brown, Leyland and I were silent. Soon Weightman took his leave, as did Brown, for he had three graves to dig: a young family struck down by cholera. No doubt, Weightman had also stood with them at their suffering, and had sorely missed the presence of his old friend the surgeon. As we set forth on the road to the Crossroads Inn, where we were to meet Dearden, it was clear that Joe had no desire to dwell upon such grim matters. With his business concluded, he looked forward solely to liquid refreshment and, quite possibly, some feminine companionship.
“Great God in his Heaven, Brontë, I have an unspeakable thirst, and this heat and dust do nothing to improve upon it. I feel like a lost soul wandering the Arabian sands, one who has lost all hope of finding an oasis.”
“Recall, my dear sir,” I laughed, “that the inn is but a little over a mile from here, and hardly a trek across the Sahara! Do try to keep your dipsomania in check, now do.”
“Fair enough, fair enough. But your remark has not made my thirst any less acute. Quite to the contrary, like a lover whose desire flames up at the sight of his beloved, like the prisoner who hears the keys of his freedom rattle in his gaoler’s pocket, so doth my thirst increase as we draw nigh!”
“I think,” said I, “that you should be competing with Dearden for poetical laurels, not I.”
“No indeed,” he replied, “I could hardly enter a contest with so elevated—nay, sacred—a subject as yours. No biblical themes for me, young Faustus; my style is more that of Benjamin Cooke, fils—do you remember his In Vino, Veritas? Joe began to sing in his deep baritone:
Round, round with the glass, boys, as fast as you can,
Since he who don’t drink cannot be a true man.
For if truth is in wine, then ‘tis all but a whim
To think a man’s true when the wine’s not in him.
Drink, drink, then, and hold it a maxim divine
That there’s virtue in truth, and there’s truth in good wine!”
Relieved to be alone with Joe, and to quit the outskirts of Haworth, I entered into the fun, feigning opprobrium: “For shame, Leyland; don’t you think such thoughts do nothing but justify poor conduct?” Though I felt a pang of remorse at making sport of Weightman’s genuine sorrow over the loss of Dr. Andrew, I added wickedly: “Do you not fear what will happen when you go the way of all the earth?”
He was swift to reply: “Why, what an idea, coming from the great Northangerland, who published—correct me if I am wrong, please—just a week or so ago, in the illustrious Halifax Guardian, “An Epicurean’s Song.” How does it begin? “Upon Sorrow’s visitation…something…something?”
“No, no, that is not it at all,” I corrected. It begins thus:
The visits of sorrow,
Say, why should we mourn?
“And does not the Bard of Haworth go on to proclaim: So seize we the present, / And gather its flowers?”
“He does indeed.”
“Well then, petit bonhomme”—ever since Liszt’s visit to Halifax Joe has added this Gallic version of little man to his repertoire—“let us heed his advice and carpe ourselves a wee bit of diem. Who knows but there might be some rosebuds to gather up yonder,” said Joe, nudging me conspiratorially, as we came into sight of the inn. “Yea, verily, a few drinks and a romp or two with a wanton wench—some lusty rigmutton or even a passive rompstall—either would suit me just fine today, by God—maybe even one of each—what could be better to clear one’s mind and cleanse one’s spirit?”
I have of late been so abstemious on all counts that I said nothing, but trembled at the memory of my late debauchery, my blood running cold with a fear that I could again fall into such conduct. Flowers, rosebuds, primroses. It was only after we had shaken hands with Dearden and settled into our table, drinks in hand, that I recalled the primroses Weightman had so recently gathered for Anne: she had placed them in a glass until they were quite withered, and this morning, when Martha discarded them, I noticed that only two of the three remained. What had become of the third?
As we lifted our glasses in our first toast of the afternoon, I remembered reading somewhere that Cooke, whose In Vino Veritas Leyland had just sung with such unbridled glee, had ultimately, and quite intentionally, drowned himself—not in wine, but in the mighty River Thames itself.
October 18th, 1842 The Parsonage
It cannot be! The man who so quickly became a good—and true—friend, and might well have become my spiritual guide, young William Weightman, is dead. I have been utterly silenced by the lightning-fast blow of his departure, for what is there to say in such moments? Two months have passed since I visited these pages, for I could not bring myself to open a notebook in which recent happy times were so vividly inscribed. How could I bear it? I just now begin to recover my wits, and following Papa's and Aunt’s stoical example—and with the memory of Weightman’s life and death as another—I have determined that self-pity must ultimately give way to action, and so once again I take up my pen.
A day after the visit to the Crossroads—where I had produced from my pocket not Azrael but another sheaf of papers I had mistakenly brought, thus obliging me to recite, as best I could, from memory—I again saw Weightman, sharing with him Noah’s response to the Angel of Death. As we sat on a low wall under the cooling shade of a spreading oak, I produced the poem I should have carried to the inn the previous day.
“Now,” said my friend, “let us hear if the eloquence of Noah can surpass that of Azrael!”
“I suppose,” I replied, “that if it does not, you will ascribe his failings to the literary—or worse, moral—deficiencies of the author himself, eh Weightman?”
“Naturally,” said he, all smiles. It was ever his way to nudge, rather than cudgel, one toward virtue. If I were ever to achieve a pure yet simple, unassuming faith, like his—or Anne’s—it would be due to the influence and example of such a one as he, which so reminded me of my old friend Sowden, whose friendship I had so carelessly abandoned during my dark days at Luddenden Foot.
A faint breeze lifted the leaves above us; the only other sounds were a fly buzzing lazily round our heads, and John Brown’s shovel—digging yet another grave—in the distance.
“Well then,” said I, “this is what I have, for what it’s worth. Noah stands over the grave of his grandfather, Methuselah.” I cleared my throat and read from the last few lines:
Shall storms from heaven, without the world,
Find wilder storms from hell, within?
Shall long-stored—late-come wrath be hurled;
Or—will you—can you turn from sin?
Have patience if too plain I speak,
For time, my sons, is hastening by:
Forgive me, if my accents break;
Shall I be saved and Nature die?
Forgive that pause:—One look to heaven
Too plainly tells me He is gone
Who, long, with me in vain had striven
For earth, beneath its Maker’s throne.
“Very nice,” said Weightman, by way of encouragement. At the same time, he frowned, scratching the handsome, perfectly straight nose I so envied.
“What is it?” I queried.
“It’s just that…that Noah—for all of his sacred gravitas—lacks the passion of Azrael.”
“Hold fast there, my reverend friend,” said I, now laughing, “I have only just begun.” I read on, intoning the words as dramatically as I could:
He is gone!—My Father!—full of days—
From life which left no joys for him;
Born in creation’s earliest blaze;
Dying—himself its latest beam.
But he is gone! And, oh, beyond,
Shewn in his death, God’s latest sign!
Than which more plainly never told
An angel’s presence, his design
“Ah, now we are getting somewhere,” he laughed. “I can smell fire and brimstone in the air already…or I suppose in this case it is the damp of the coming deluge.”
Like some genuinely pious souls, my friend was able to embrace clear notions of good and evil without indulging in either fanaticism or hypocrisy, and while his theology was surely orthodox, he could—like Sowden—often stand beyond the narrow confines of his own faith, and have just a bit of innocent fun—that same sense of fun that caused him to tease my sisters, or to shower them with attentions that they would surely never find elsewhere.
“Quiet, please!” said I, but fully sharing his mirth. I read on:
By it, the evening beam withdrawn
Before a starless night descend;
By it, the last blest spirit born
From this beginning of an end!
By all the strife of civil war
That brews without yon fated town;
By all the heart’s worst passions there,
That call so loud for vengeance down;
By that vast wall of cloudy gloom,
Piled round heaven’s boding firmament;
By all its presages of doom,
Children of men—Repent! Repent!
When I had finished, Weightman applauded enthusiastically. “You have outdone yourself, Branwell! Azrael is vanquished! And to conclude your poem with the words Repent! Repent! It is better than a Baptist sermon,” said he, clutching his sides. “I can hear your father’s arch-enemy, the Reverend Winterbotham, crying from his low pulpit down there—here he pointed toward the bottom of the Main Street—“Children of men—Repent! Repent!”
It was my turn to tease my friend: “Am I catching a whiff of the heresy of universal salvation? Tell me, truly, do you hold such heterodox views? Must I denounce you to the religious authorities—viz, to my own papa?”
To myself, however, I thought, far more seriously: Ah, here is another place that Anne and my friend are compatible, for she has let fall more than one hint in my presence that she rejects the traditional notion of hell; whereas Emily has said, staring at me pointedly, that we cannot know what lies beyond, but there can surely be a hell on earth, one of our own making.
“This is what I think, Branwell,” said he, with a sudden earnestness suffused with a goodness I could neither mock nor resent. “I think that a fear of Hell—which despite your raillery I believe very much in—will never be the ultimate cause of a person’s conversion, but that if one strives always to follow God’s example of love, surely one will see the Kingdom of Heaven: there is a reason that the Gospel of John tells us that God is love, not that God has love or loves us. The more of love we have within us, the nearer we are to Him, and the more of His spirit we possess. One cannot be goaded into real love by the threat of eternal damnation, but real love—yes, even our pale, feeble imitations of Christ’s ultimate love and sacrifice for us—will save us from eternal suffering, of that I am certain.”
Weightman paused, looking into the distance. “Besides, who are we to sound the depths of God’s mercy?”
As I write these lines, it is no exaggeration to say that my heart is full, my throat choked with emotion, and hot tears spill down my cheeks, for this was to be the last time I would see my friend well. His athletic frame sprang up as he said, “In that spirit, I have some poor cottagers to visit in the outlying districts, but surely I shall see you again very soon, Branwell.” We parted company with light hearts, as he said over his shoulder, “So—off the poem goes to the Herald or the Guardian, eh?”
“The first, I believe,” said I. “I think such a pious subject befits such a weighty publication, don’t you, Reverend? Indeed—and here I do not jest—I am contemplating omitting Azrael’s soliloquy altogether and changing the title. After all, what better way to ensure Noah’s triumph than killing off his rival? Not unlike your abandonment of hell in favor of love.”
“Yes,” he shouted over his shoulder, laughing, “you are the one insisting on damnation, while I embrace the love that vanquishes it.” He gave a final, hearty wave as he strode out of sight.
It was just three days later, early in the morning, that Mr. Ogden of Cook Gate—Weightman’s landlord—sent a young servant girl to say that the curate had fallen ill. Walking as fast as our legs could carry us, Papa and I crossed the street, passed the White Lion, and strode down the Ginnel. Though the brief walk took only five minutes, it seemed it would never end, so great was our concern. The sun was just rising in the east as we arrived.
Mrs. Ogden took our hats and coats and showed us into Weightman’s bedroom, where we found a wreck of the man we had known and loved. Papa, though composed without, nevertheless swallowed hard at the sight. He had seen his trusted lieutenant just two nights earlier; he had noticed that the young man did not look well and bade him stay home a day to rest. Thinking it a passing indisposition, father had thought nothing of his absence the following day.
Now, however—alas!—we found an ashen figure with sunken eyes, who weakly confided that it was indeed the cholera: a sentence of death, and not a rapid or painless one, either. There was nothing to be done. I stood in utter disbelief at the blow, and like a boxer whose wind has been knocked out of him, I struggled simply to breathe.
Papa stood over him, I at the foot of his bed, and together we recited the 23rd Psalm:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want…
I said the words mechanically, thoughtlessly, as I tend to do with all memorized scripture or liturgical language; my mind was elsewhere: like the blood pulsing at my temples, a single thought pounded again and again, like a drum: this simply cannot be, this simply cannot be.
We continued: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. What a shepherd, this Lord, leading his lamb to slaughter, I thought angrily. The psalm made no sense whatsoever to me; I found no comfort in any of this.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Enemies? Weightman had no enemies. My anger only increased at these words, so entirely disassociated were they from the reality of a good man dying a pointless death.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. How odd—how foolish, really—that I could at once feel the utter abandonment of God, and yet be prepared to strike a bargain with Him: Oh God, if you exist, please save my friend, for he, truly, deserves to live. If you save him I will change my ways, I will do your will. I prayed thus, not even knowing what I meant. I was desperate. As we recited the final words, I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever, I could restrain my sobs no longer.
Weightman, whose voice had been inaudible but whose lips had moved with ours, already had the look of the next world about him. Father stayed a few moments, but now having the work of two clergymen before him, he bade his curate goodbye with a promise to visit that evening. I stayed on, drawing a chair to my friend’s bedside as I brushed my tears away.
“Come now, Branwell,” said he, the old smile returning as he turned his head towards me.
“I have no horror of death. God’s will be done.”
“But it is so unjust,” said I. “Of all people …why?”
“These things pass our understanding, Branwell: Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh. And why should I be protected more than another?”
Now I was irrationally angry with Weightman himself. I gritted my teeth and cried, “Damn it, Weightman, I am sick unto death of this maddening, passive resignation of the faith! Do you not see the injustice in this? Does your blood not boil with fury? Do you not wish to say, shaking your fist at the heavens, ‘there exist two possibilities: either there is no God, or He is heartless, cruel, unjust or inept!’ Do you not wish to live, Weightman?”
He seemed already to have an acceptance of death that I could never imagine for myself, as he calmly surveyed my face and smiled with now unbearable kindness. “Certainly I wish to live, Branwell. I long to do some good in the world.”
That this good man—so much better a man than I could ever be—could possibly feel that he had not already done much good in the world was the most heartbreaking thought of all. All of my fury, all of my rancour, melted away in the presence of such humility, and I suddenly shared a small measure of his unshakeable calm, as if it were radiating outward, enveloping all in its orbit. Did he know that by saying this he had saved me—at least for a few instants—from my wrath and self-pity, since now I was obliged to comfort him? Or did he do so instinctively?
In any event, I responded, “Nonsense, Weightman. You have done more good in your few years here in Haworth than I will ever to do, even if I live to the age of Methusaleh,” and wishing to make him smile in his suffering, I added, “God knows that I will not be walking ten miles to post valentines to the sisters Brontë!”
His sunken eyes somehow managed to brighten perceptibly. “Thank you, Branwell, for saying so,” said he, stretching his hand weakly toward mine, then squeezing it. “I will miss our heretical talks, however. Speaking of Methusaleh, did you finish your poem?”
I smiled, but with tears streaming down my cheeks, at his usual thoughtfulness. “I have indeed, and sent it off to the illustrious Bradford Herald, where it is to appear next week.”
“And it is no longer the story of Azrael, but only Noah’s warning?”
“Yes, I have simply rewritten the first fifty lines or so and shipped it off as ‘Noah’s Warning over Methusaleh’s Grave (From an unpublished poem)’.”
“Wait a moment,” said Weightman, “do you mean to say that Azrael’s insistence that God is an invention of man—because of his fear of death—was to come after Noah’s warning to repent?”
“Well, then, in that case I am glad that you will not be publishing the entire poem, for the only thing worse that naming the entire poem after the angel of death would be giving him the last word.”
I must have looked puzzled. My friend continued: “Don’t you see? Azrael should begin the poem, with his argument then demolished by Noah, not the contrary!”
“But it is God’s wrath—the great deluge—that concludes the poem, proving the veracity of Noah’s words.”
“Ah, I see,” said my friend, growing serious, “but remember the power of words. For even the flood eventually subsided, but the Word of God remains. Indeed, is not our Lord Jesus Christ the Word made flesh, as John says?”
Even for such a skeptic as me, his comments made a purely rhetorical—in this case poetical—kind of sense: always conclude with the argument you wish to triumph, else your villain may well seduce your reader into sin. What I could not say to Weightman—and which his imminent demise only strengthened—was how much more appealing and persuasive I found Azrael’s words than those of Noah. Is this why I have given him the last word, have named the poem for him, and have failed to complete it, never even writing the lines devoted to great flood’s destruction of the earth?
“Yes, yes,” I lied, “you are right, of course. That is surely why I decided to publish it as I have.”
The curate’s hand again reached for mine, as he said, “Friend, I am tired and I think I just might be able to sleep. Will you come again?”
“I shall be here every day, as often and as long as you like.”
Although William Weightman looked, on that day, as if I might see him no more, he suffered on bravely for nearly two weeks, the strength of his young, so recently vigorous constitution refusing to be vanquished by illness, like Jacob wrestling through the long night with the angel of the Lord. His resignation, his willingness to die, was not at all the same as a will to die, for he loved the life he believed God had given him. It seemed that I was in attendance at his death-bed for so long, and so acute was his suffering, that I cannot now even bear to bring it mind. At last he died tranquilly—as tranquilly as anyone can quit this world—on September 6; we buried him four days later in Haworth Church, where he joined his old friend the surgeon, Thomas Andrew, for one final, everlasting vigil together.
As the days at last turned cool and September gave way to October, Papa prepared to preach a funeral sermon in Weightman’s memory. That Sunday afternoon even Joseph Bentley Leyland appeared—at my request, for we were to discuss yet another monument, for a subscription had immediately been raised by the good people of Haworth to memorialise their beloved curate—at the service, sitting with me in our otherwise vacant family pew, as the Reverend Brontë took to the pulpit.
As a sign of the importance of this event—or of just how affected he was by Weightman’s sudden passing—Papa had, for the first time in his many years at Haworth, written the sermon, for until now he had always preached extempore. He began with a passage of First Corinthians: The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, for as much as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.
Papa squinted through his spectacles, his large hands grasping the pulpit to steady himself:
Both in biographical sketches and funeral sermons great care should be taken to consider, full as much the interest of the living as the fame of the dead; and everywhere, and at all times, there should be a due regard to truth, whether it may please or displease, disappoint or satisfy.
Did this mean that he was not really going to talk about Weightman, but was using his death as a mere pretext for the usual consideration of man’s need to repent? It now seemed an age ago that Weightman had sat gamely with me under the oak tree, listening to my recitation of Noah’s warning. Father has forever been kind and patient, and he does have a lively sense of humour, but I am not at all certain that he could have viewed Noah both seriously and ironically, as my friend had seemed able to do. The sermon continued, with little sign that it would include anything about the unfortunate Weightman:
Die we must, whether we will or no, and judged we must be, though we should call on the hills and the mountains to cover and hide us from the face of Him, who will sit on the great white throne of judgment. And should we on the last day of account be found to have been under the law and not under grace, then we shall discover by sad experience that ‘the sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law’.
I looked at Leyland, who smelled of liquor. His head nodded forward as he struggled mightily to keep his eyes open. I wondered if he was stale-drunk, or if he merely possessed the remnants of the previous night’s tippling. Father’s gaze wandered about the assembly, though I felt it settled all too often on me: was this mere imagination, fueled by guilt? Each time his eyes met mine I felt it was he, not the law of God, who was the “stern and inexorable judge” whose sentence of eternal damnation he was describing with considerable gusto. I nudged Leyland’s knee with mine.
Yea we must come, continued Papa, after all our windings and subterfuges, and seek out the strait gate and narrow way, which is Christ, the truth and the life. We must enter in at the one, and walk in the other, if we would escape hell, and get into heaven.
Was he looking at, or beyond me? His vision has of late deteriorated somewhat, and so it is difficult to say.
This may puzzle, or perplex, and disgust fallen proud man; the infidel may sneer, the scorner may laugh, the philosopher may despise, the lukewarm may disregard, and the sophist cavil; and Satan, and the evil deceitful heart may join the unholy alliance; yet the cause of God must stand.
I could not help thinking about Weightman on his death-bed, his eyes sunken, his skin almost blue, his thirst unquenchable, his heart racing, and yet his brow clear and untroubled. Before he died I had shown him “Noah’s Warning” in the Herald, and he had asked to hear it again. “Listen to me, Branwell,” he said with difficulty, “you have a gift and you must pursue it. A gift from God Himself. ”
“You are kind, my friend,” said I, tears again stinging my eyes, “but I must also eat, and can no longer be a burden to papa.”
“You’ll find a way, I am sure of it. Follow what you love, so long as it is honest, and right, and good, and harms no one. Love, remember: not fear.”
I took his counsel to heart, and the very day he died—after I had written Anne, Charlotte and Emily—I sat and once more addressed Blackwood’s Magazine, enclosing a revision of “Sir Henry Tunstall,” hoping against hope that they would at last see fit to publish my work. A month has passed, and Blackwood’s, alas, has been as silent as my dead friend’s tomb.
Father continued, meanwhile, seemingly repeating the same point in as many different ways as he could conceive: Our frail bodies must soon perish, and return to the dust; but by the power of Him who has said, ‘Let it be,’ and the universe was created, they shall be raised in their own proper identity, in a manner far surpassing the comprehension of man, and probably of the highest Archangels, when this mortal shall put on immortality, and shine with unfading splendor for ever and ever.
At last he turned his attention to poor Weightman, his approach to ministry—rightly saying that his curate thought it better, and more scriptural, to make love of God, rather than the fear of hell, the ruling motive for obedience—, his origins and education, his agreeable manners, cheerful constitution, and sound and orthodox (I suppose these are synonymous for Papa) religious principles. As the sermon moved from preaching to an appreciation of the deceased, Leyland opened his eyes fully and appeared, at least, to pay attention.
Gazing far into the distance—here it was plain my father was resolutely not looking at me—he said, We were always like father and son…giving and taking mutual advice, from the best motives, and in the most friendly spirit; looking on each other, not as rivals, but as fellow labourers in the same glorious cause, and under the superintendence of our common Lord and Master.
Despite the true attachment that had developed between Weightman and me, I could not but feel a pang of jealousy at such a pronouncement. Like the biblical father’s for his prodigal son, Papa’s love for me knew no bounds, but I still felt myself to be a resounding disappointment, an abysmal failure in his eyes, and his almost supernatural patience and mercy only heaped further guilt and loathing on my sinking spirit.
Thus, our reverend friend lived—but, it may be asked, how did he die? Father assured the congregation that in his frequent visits to the young man’s death-bed he saw him in tranquility close his eyes on this bustling, vain, selfish world; so that I may truly say, his end was peace, and his hope glory.
I, too, had seen such tranquility in his eyes, but it alternated with great pain and suffering, and a struggle to cling to this life. Of course who could blame the Reverend Brontë for omitting such details? I certainly could not, and yet I remembered my dream—or was it, finally, a memory?—of Mamma’s death, dear Mamma lying there in the vault just steps away from where Papa calmly read his sermon: My heart has always been more ready to attach itself to earth than to heaven. Had he similarly told himself a more uniform, orthodox story, about his own wife’s death? Surely this would, in itself, be no sin, but was just another tale to make existence bearable.
The Reverend Brontë at last moved toward his conclusion, looking, I was quite certain, squarely at Joe, if not me.
We may easily comprehend why the wicked have a desire for life, and a dread of death and judgment; but, that the followers of Christ should tremble at the last step of the journey, which will introduce them into His presence and His glory, can only be accounted for by the weakness of their faith, and the remains of sin, what would chain them down, or keep them back from those unspeakable pleasures which he has in reserve for them in the kingdom of their Heavenly Father.
“Sitio!” complained Joe in a blasphemous whisper, “I thirst!” he translated, as if suddenly I had forgotten my Latin; his irreverence and longing for drink had made it impossible for him to attend any longer to Papa's peroration. I am certain his thirst was real; his breath was certainly pestilential.
Brethren, the human heart is weak, wicked, and wrong in its reasoning and conclusions; let us, therefore, not trust in it, but in the strength and wisdom of God, let us walk by faith and not by sight, and be always prepared for death and judgment, looking forward to, and longing for, a glorious resurrection, and eternal salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour; to whom, with the Almighty Father, and Holy Spirit, we would ascribe all glory, praise, power and dominion, both now and forever. Amen!
“Amen!” said the packed church in response, and no voice was louder or more enthusiastic than Joe’s. Soon we were at Sexton House, availing ourselves of John Brown’s hospitality, since the pubs were closed for the Sabbath afternoon.
“Poor Weightman,” said Brown, with none of his usual jocularity. “’e was a good’n; not a mean bone in ‘is body. And now—God bless ‘im—the Reverend Brontë ‘as to go in search of yet another curate, and in the meantime take on all of ‘is burthens himself. Branwell, ‘ave you written a text for the good man’s monument?”
“I have—though I confess that my father had a hand in the final version, for there were certain words he wished to add.” I pulled a folded sheet from my waistcoat pocket, smoothed it on the oaken table, and read:
WAS ERECTED BY THE INHABITANTS,
IN MEMORY OF THE LATE
WILLIAM WEIGHTMAN, M.A.
WHO DIED SEPTEMBER 6TH 1842, AGED 26 YEARS
AND WAS BURIED IN THIS CHURCH ON THE 10TH OF THE SAME MONTH.
HE WAS THREE YEARS CURATE OF HAWORTH,
AND BY THE CONGREGATION, AND PARISHIONERS
IN GENERAL, WAS GREATLY RESPECTED,
FOR HIS ORTHODOX PRINCIPLES,
ACTIVE ZEAL, MORAL HABITS, LEARNING,
MILDNESS AND AFFABILITY:
HIS USEFUL LABOURS WILL LONG BE
BY THE MEMBERS OF THE CONGREGATION;
AND SUNDAY SCHOOL TEACHERS,
Joe seized the sheet as I wiped tears from the corners of my eyes. I still could not believe Weightman was dead. Dead and buried. Or as Papa had just said in his sermon, the visitation of death, the darkness of the grave, the worm of corruption, the loathsome work of decomposition, eternal separation and oblivion.
Mephistopheles performed his usual magic, which is to say that he distracted me from such somber ruminations. Nor did the whisky hurt.
“See here,” he said, holding the sheet at arm’s length with great ceremony, “I detect the hand of Brontë père in these words: orthodox principles, active zeal, and most of all, moral habits, whereas Brontë fils is responsible for learning, mildness and affability. It is almost as if the first three had been inserted by an editor—the editor of the Lord,” he laughed.
“Mind you,” he continued, knowing how fond I—and indeed, the entire family and parish, including Brown—was of Weightman, “I mean no disrespect to the deceased, for the few times I met him he was always of a right jolly disposition. He had that rare ability—rare, at least, among clergymen—of maintaining a gentle kind of holiness without making you feel as if he was, in his heart of hearts, ready to fling you into the eternal pit full of fire.”
I again thought of Sowden, who also possessed that rare gift. Did Papa? Perhaps he did, though Joe—pointedly or politely—failed to mention him; perhaps it was my own guilt—the poison corroding my own heart as I slept in his house, wore his clothing and ate his food—that transformed each kind look into an unspoken censure, each gentle word into an implied denunciation. Had my culpability jaundiced my perception of even the simplest, most merciful of his actions?
I have long since determined the necessity of a new beginning at Thorp Green, and just after Weightman’s death received confirmation from the Robinsons that they would, indeed, be most pleased to engage me as tutor to their son Edmund after the Christmas vacation. Leyland had found great amusement in my new post, and the solemnity of this day was not about to prevent him from swimming in the waters of his favourite new source of fun.
“Let us speak no more of death; let us toast life!” said he, taking a large draught of Brown’s whisky, refilling his glass, and passing the bottle to me. “Indeed, let us toast your acceptance as tutor to the esteemed Robinson family, far from these be-sooted districts, in the new Eden of Thorp Green! Three lovely lasses, you say, ripening into adulthood one on the heels of the other!” He smacked his lips. “And what of the mother?”
“Mrs. Robinson? What of her?”
“Well, truly, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, in my experience. If the Misses Robinson are as comely as Anne has hinted to you, does it not stand to reason that their good mamma is as well? You can’t get lovely strapping lasses from a pinched crone any more than you can get blood from a stone, eh Brown?”
John nodded his assent, but gestured for Leyland to lower his voice; this was hardly a conversation he wanted Mary or the girls to overhear.
Meanwhile, I realised that the appearance of Mrs. Robinson had never occurred to me; to my understanding she was easily fifteen years my senior, perhaps more. I said so.
Joe laughed, reverting to his favourite obsession. “Why little man, have you so soon forgotten about Landseer and his lovely Duchess? Twenty-one years between them, my friend.” He tapped his forehead knowingly. “Not to mention, a much safer business than seducing one of the young ladies. I suspect their reverend papa would frown even more on catching you in their beds than in his own, ha ha!”
“You are absurd, Leyland. I am, however, delighted at the prospect of a lovely, civilised setting, employment that is well matched with my interests and talents, and the leisure to pursue my poetry,” I pronounced with a somewhat lofty air.
Annoyed, no doubt, that I had not risen to take his bait, the sculptor said, “Oh yes, by all means, tell us, Northangerland, about your writing. By my count you have published eight or nine poems in just the last three months; you have been a veritable whirlwind of activity.”
I laughed. “See here, my dear sir, it is not as if I had anything else to do in Haworth, and now that at last someone sees fit to publish my work, it is as if a tap has been opened.”
“So, should we expect to see further outpourings of genius, or has the well at last run dry?”
“In truth,” said I, fervently hoping that what I was about to say was not true, “the well itself ran dry long ago, for most of these poems are reworkings of things I penned in my early youth.”
“Nonsense,” said my friend—for despite his incessant mockery he truly wishes for my success as fervently as he does his own. “The poem on ‘Landseer’s mongrel,’ or whatever the bloody hell it was, the little piece on ‘The Afghan War,’ and the pious ‘Noah’s Warning’—are all new material, and I am quite sure the revisions of earlier poems were so substantial that one could hardly find a resemblance. And don’t imagine for a moment that I missed, just the other day, your article on Thomas Bewick, in the Halifax Guardian. So, you have even turned your hand to appraisals of the great artists, in prose no less. I shall look forward to a denunciation of Landseer’s sentimental animals, followed by a panegyric to the great Leyland and his monumental Head of Satan!”
“It grieves me to disappoint you, Leyland, but even ‘Noah’s Warning’ has its origins in my childhood scribblings,” said I, ignoring his last comment.
“Well, still, I am sure that, like you, it is utterly changed.”
He paused for a moment, then added, “Though I confess to being profoundly disenchanted upon reading that you had confined Azrael, the Angel of Death, to oblivion—cast out, his wings clipped, poor fellow, like his master Lucifer before him—for he was by far the most engaging part of that poem! At any rate, what new works are on the horizon? The reading public—lowly Yorkshire swine that they are—surely awaits your next shower of poetical pearls with bated breath!”
Suddenly, with a rare, serious look—such was the effect of the curate’s death on us all, even on Joe—he added, “Or were you too occupied with poor Weightman?”
“Strange as it may seem, Weightman’s illness and death have been a spur of sorts, for each time I saw the poor chap, he encouraged me. He liked ‘Noah’s Warning’ and urged me to continue, and while he slept I revised and wrote, even sending a poem to Blackwood’s the day he died. I am at present revising a long poem called ‘The Triumph of Mind over Body’.”
By now we had drunk enough whisky so that the title of the poem caused both Brown and Leyland to laugh aloud. “Oh ho, a work of pure fantasy, eh? Ha ha!”
In vain did I try to convince them that it was a rewriting of a long, serious poem about Lord Nelson: they would have none of it—none but the title that is, which, in their current frame of mind, was a seemingly inexhaustible source of mirth. Who has not attempted to speak in earnest to friends who, for whatever reason, have been possessed by such passing madness? In the end, there was nothing to do but capitulate, and to join in their laughter. “I am vanquished!” said I at last, laughing nearly as heartily as they. When, at last, our levity subsided, there was a prolonged moment of silence.
“Un ange passe,” remarked at last Leyland, “as our hereditary foes across the Channel would say.”
I thought not of Azrael, nor even of Saint Michael and All Angels’, whose names are given to our own Haworth Church, but of William Weightman himself, so recently joined the world of spirits, if such a world there be.
Joe was thinking of the young curate as well. “Mr. Weightman was privy to the secret identity of Northangerland, eh? Were you not afraid he would divulge it to the Reverend Brontë?”
“No, not a whit….and at any rate,” I added, suddenly, quite unexpectedly, nearly choking once again with a grief I strove to conceal, “the secret has gone with him to his tomb.”
Leyland looked at Brown with mock suspicion. “Well, in that case only your friends in Halifax and a certain worthy Haworthian, yclept Saint-John-in-the-Wilderness, are complicit. Can the latter rascal be at all trusted?”
Brown laughed softly. “If y’think I’d introduce any strife twixt the Reverend Brontë and Branwell, y’r’ soddin’ daft, Leyland. I say so for purely selfish reasons, mind. The more ‘armonious things are for the parson, the bett’r for the sexton. And the philanthropist in me”—here he winked—“knows that the more I maintain the Reverend’s trust, well, the bett’r for all parties concerned, eh?”
After we shook hands early that evening upon parting, I stopped in the churchyard and, standing amongst the dead, gazed up at the parsonage, whose bright red bricks contrasted sharply with a vivid, almost sapphire sky, punctuated here and there with wisps of pure white clouds, drifting languidly above the moors.
The most harmonious thing of all, I thought at last, will be for me to live far from here, to make a fresh start, to begin anew.
To be continued on 9 May 2020