Oblivion: The Lost Diaries of Branwell Brontë (Part 8 of 12)
Updated: May 10
Volume II (conclusion)
Chapter XXI—Another Death
November 2nd, 1842 The Parsonage
For the longest time—ever since we lost Maria and Elizabeth, in what seems another age—I pretended that Death was the stuff of poetry, fantasy, or nightmare, and that it affected only others, especially the poor villagers—and that somehow those close to me had a supernatural charm that warded off the Grim Reaper.
Was it that I felt we had already made our human sacrifices, first with Mamma, and then with my sisters, and that no other tribute was due? Did I believe that the parsonage walls had been infused with a homeopathic tincture of death that strangely warded off Death himself? Or did I believe that Papa’s piety somehow encircled and protected us with a fortress of Goodness, of Virtue, that would forever bar its return? How, I wonder, could I persist in this fantasy in spite of Papa’s own constant attendance upon the dying, and in the face of the perpetual sounds of Brown’s chisel on gravestones, or his shovel in the churchyard just beyond the parsonage wall?
Is it simply true that a youth—for at twenty-five I am more youth than mature man, though I sometimes feel I have lived more lives than a cat and am wearier than an old draught-horse—is it simply true that a youth is incapable of grasping his own mortality, and that only the constant witness of the deaths of others will, eventually, succeed in penetrating his thick skull with the reality the Reverend Brontë had been all too willing to recall to us at Weightman’s memorial service? Die we must, whether we will or no. Would youth fail to strive, and the world thus come to an end, if it knew that all is for naught?
This is a long way of saying that Aunt Branwell is dead, a second blow in almost as many months, and that my mind struggles to comprehend this loss; like an explorer happening upon a foreign land, where all customs and language are unknown, I am paralyzed with incomprehension, with disbelief, unable to think or act in any meaningful way: I am incoherent, so much so that it was Papa who wrote to Anne at Thorp Greene, and to Charlotte and Emily in Brussels, and all are en route to Haworth. I have only now regained sufficient presence of mind to reflect upon what has happened.
It occurs to me that I have written almost nothing concerning Aunt in these pages, and doubtless this is because I have taken her for granted. For how does one write of the air one breathes, the walls that protect one from the frigid blasts of winter, the sun that warms one’s body and soul as spring melts into summer? When she came to live with us after Mamma, her younger sister, died, Aunt became in some respects the guide and director of all the happy days connected with my childhood. Like Papa, she was firm and yet loving, and had law not forbade it, she might well have married him. How often have I heard him say, once I was a grown man, that Aunt had shared his labours and sorrows, and had behaved as an affectionate mother to his children?
The truth is, however, that she was far more rigid in her discipline with the girls than with me. Although Charlotte has often claimed, resentfully, that Aunt made me her especial pet, is it not natural to assume instead that the latter quite simply always believed that her province was to instill good breeding and a sense of neatness, order, punctuality, and most of all a mastery of self in the girls, and that every aspect of the formation and education of the boy was the responsibility of her brother-in-law? Is there not a reason that tutors teach boys and governesses girls? Just so, the division of labour within a family along such lines is a practice hallowed by time.
Indeed, my sisters would normally have been in attendance at her deathbed, but in their absence, it was I who sat and held her hand, whilst she writhed in agony over five days. At times her screams seemed as though they would rend the heavens, and whether I would or no, I could not but recall, once again, my memory—or vision—or dream—of Mamma, crying out ceaselessly: “Oh God my poor children!—oh God my poor children!”
By the fourth day I was wild with distraction, nearly joining my own cries to Aunt’s: “My God, can’t someone do something for her?!” I confess that an impious thought crossed my mind, as I tried to arrange the pillows for her comfort: why is it that a lowly horse’s suffering is acknowledged with a rifle shot, and why do we even understand—if not fully sanction—the gravely wounded, agonizing soldier who implores his fellow—be he friend or foe—to end his existence with a similar gesture, and yet extinguishing the suffering of poor Aunt could not be contemplated?
At last, on October 29th, she expired, and I was flooded with a relief I would be ashamed to avow to anyone but these pages; if nothing else, her suffering made it easier to release her to Death, for in this instance he was our great friend and ally, withdrawing Aunt from a living hell on earth. Just before her last breath, God—or Nature, that great mother—had granted her peace, so that her features regained a measure of her natural calm and reserve.
As I beheld this woman, who for twenty years served as my mother, I thought of her peculiarities, which had become as permanent a part of the parsonage as its stone floors and stairs: the tales of her youth in Penzance, her love of romance, and her general disdain of the lower creation, which was a source of constant, if mild, disagreement with my sisters, especially Emily; her overlarge, old-fashioned caps, the pattens in which she clicked about indoors to keep her feet warm, not to mention the sweltering temperature at which she kept her room at all times. As tears ran down my cheeks, I felt at last only gratitude for her life, and a rare instance of peace at her death: she had fulfilled a duty; she had suffered, as if for her few sins, in her final days on earth; and now she had the real rest we all will ultimately seek.
I have at last responded to Grundy, who at my request sent a fair copy of “The Triumph of Mind over Body”—let Brown and Leyland mock me as they will—to Leigh Hunt, Miss Martineau, and others. Already he has heard back from them, reporting that all spoke in high terms of it. So distracted was I by the suffering and deaths of my friends, however, that I did not for some days even open the letters, and when I did, I found myself chastised by Grundy—does he still hold a grudge from our dispute of yore, I wondered…Surely not!—chastised for not responding to his letters quickly, or enthusiastically, or gratefully enough to suit his tastes. He does seem ever ready to assume the worst on my part, and given my past conduct I cannot say I blame him entirely. And yet—even after I sent word that there was no misunderstanding between us, but that Weightman had died and now Aunt was dying—he persisted, adding that his sister, whom I have met but once, implied that I had the same penchant as Aesop’s boy who cried wolf, or that I was simply enamoured of the idea of death. I have assured him that the suffering was all too real, of a kind I would not wish my worst enemy to endure, and that dear Aunt is dead.
Tomorrow she is to be buried; let us hope that her funeral closes this grim chapter, and that brighter days lie ahead.
November 28th, 1842 The Parsonage
We are all gathered in Haworth once again, and how strange we have become, one to the other! If we were not united in grief, I should wonder what we would have to discuss. Weightman, Aunt, even Mary Taylor’s younger sister Martha, like the unfortunate curate, a victim of the cholera in Brussels: all dead. How dreary and void everything seems, and even if we seek a gay moment, the bleak season reminds us of our grief. Gone are the leaves, the soft breezes of summer, and the bright skies under which I rambled so often with Weightman—all of it a distant dream, now no more real than a fairy tale. Wrapped we are in cold and damp, enshrouded in mist, and there are days when one can barely glimpse the church steeple from what was once our little “schoolroom” above the front door to the parsonage.
Anne was the only one to arrive in time for Aunt’s funeral, and once we had consigned her to the earth—according to her wishes “as near as convenient to the remains of my dear sister”— Anne walked slowly to the new memorial to Weightman, which had been installed and lettered by Brown just days before. Her small hand gently caressed the image of an open book carved beneath the lettering, and her eyes welled with tears. Were her tears for Aunt, or for Weightman? She answered my question directly.
“Aged 26 years. He was so young, Branwell.”
At first I said nothing, my shining eyes mirroring hers. At last I placed her arm in mine as we walked toward the door. “I am afraid I was not always calm in the presence of poor Weightman; I raged against God at his unjust fate, until the curate himself had to comfort and calm me.”
Anne smiled, wiping her tears, as we emerged from the church. “Now that does not surprise me. Even in the face of stern death, I suppose his angelic smile chased the clouds from that brow of yours, and his musical voice even made you smile, or laugh, before it was silenced at last.”
In complete earnest, with no trace of mockery, I whispered to Anne, “So you did care for him.”
“Have I not told you,” she responded with a smile as celestrial in its way as the curate’s, “that we all cared for him; we all loved him, each in his way. It was not as if he singled me out. He was not my darling, he was our darling—and by that I also mean you and papa, and indeed everyone who had the honour of knowing him.”
“That’s true,” I confessed. “So we did. He was a good man, which makes his death all the more bitter a pill to swallow.”
“How then,” said she, seeking to change the subject slightly, but in a way that would still allow her to discuss Weightman, “did he turn you from your anger?”
Not wishing to reveal the details of my publications, I told her that we talked—and even joked—about poetry, and that my friend had encouraged me to continue writing, and was happy that I was to be employed at Thorp Green. I turned to Anne.
“I hope you, sister, are pleased that I am going to join you?”
“I’ve told you, brother,” she said patiently, “that I would never have recommended you for the post if I did not think it best not only for you, but for me.”
“My greatest wish is to make my independence, and in so doing to make you—and everyone else—proud. What may seem to some a list of failures will then take on quite a different aspect.”
“It is my wish, too, Branwell. I am sure that you will like the Robinsons, and they you. They are of quite a different order from the Postlethwaites—at least from what you have related to me—a somewhat higher and more ancient family, real gentlefolk, not purse-proud tradespeople or arrogant upstarts. Thorp Green is far from our manufacturing districts, where people have nothing to do but make money.”
After a moment, however, she added, biting her lip: “Though I do think the conduct of the ladies of the house could use some improvement.”
“The young ladies, you mean.”
“Well yes, that’s especially what I mean…although I’m afraid they are a reflection of their worthy mamma, who is raising them solely as superficially attractive, marriageable items, and she is interested not so much in their minds and souls as in their beautiful faces and forms, and ensuring that they acquire the showiest of accomplishments, so that they might attract rich young gentlemen, like moths to a flame. Mrs. Robinson’s idea of maternal success would be to contract three solid marriages of interest, three “Smithfield-bargains” as they say, for her girls. The eldest, her namesake Lydia, is a particularly vexing flirt. So you see, brother, that there is good and ill to be encountered at Thorp Green.”
The image of a lovely young woman whose sole desire seemed to be to flirt shamelessly did not dismay me as much as it did my sister; quite to the contrary. Anne paused before the parsonage, glancing down in the direction of The Black Bull. “I confess, too—please don’t be cross, Branwell—that I think it not at all a bad thing for you to be removed from the orbit of John Brown and your friend Joseph Leyland for a time.”
It flashed upon me now. Had she discussed this with Papa? Was this, in fact, a web into which I had blithely, blindly, blundered? It was entirely plausible. Angered at the possibility, and wishing to defend my friends as much as myself, I stiffened with resentment.
“See here, Anne, have you seen any unbecoming conduct from me?”
“I have not,” she rejoined, “but remember what Miss Austen says: Every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies. People gossip, I’m afraid, Branwell.”
“Well”—I paused, not knowing what to say, for we are often at our most bewildered and angry when we face, in our heart of hearts, the truth, for why should such wrath and confusion be present in the absence of culpability?
“Well,” snapped I at last, “Ignorant tongues may wag as they like, I know that my conduct these many months”—I was careful to confine my statement to my life after Luddenden Foot—“has been beyond reproach. But on one thing we can agree: with my departure in January, the issue will be moot.”
More than three weeks have passed since this interview, and today we bade a fond farewell to Anne as she began the journey back to Thorp Green, where she is to remain for the holidays: such is the bargain the Robinsons struck with her, in permitting her to mourn the loss of Aunt these many weeks. In the interim, Charlotte and Emily arrived from Brussels, so that all of papa’s “little ones” were reunited at his table for the first time in many a month.
Chapter XXII—Two Sisters, Two Conversations
December 17th, 1842 The Parsonage
How strange it is that children emerging from the same womb can be in some things so different! Emily has returned from Brussels seemingly unchanged, but Charlotte is another creature entirely. The plain, small creature, though unaltered in her appearance, now holds her head high as she speaks of how valued she is by Monsieur and Madame Heger, the directors of the school there. Do I detect a slight blush and frisson when she mentions the name of that gentleman? Or am I making the same mistake I made with Anne and Weightman, assuming that my sisters must be as infatuated with the opposite sex as I have been. Monsieur Héger even sent a letter to Papa, which he opened and, having perused to his satisfaction, proudly asked Charlotte to read to us all, in French. What follows is the essential:
I have a profound admiration for you, for in judging the father of a family by his children one cannot be mistaken, and in this respect the education and sentiments that we have found in your daughters can only give us a very high idea of your worth and of your character. You will undoubtedly learn with pleasure that your children have made extra-ordinary progress in all the branches of learning, and that this progress is entirely due to their love of work and their perseverance. With pupils like this we had very little to do; their progress is more your work than ours, etc., etc.
Emily shifted uncomfortably, whilst Charlotte tried, unsuccessfully, not to glow with pride as she read the letter in her vastly improved French. It has been determined that Charlotte will, in the new year, return to Brussels, for the Hégers have offered her a position as teacher, but Emily will stay in Haworth to assume the direction of the household that Anne took over after the death of Aunt Branwell.
At first Papa tried to persuade Emily to return to Belgium, but soon, seeing that she longed to remain home—for she loves this place as much as I have come to loathe it—and knowing that she would happily throw herself into the household duties that would leave her mind free to wander the wild landscapes of its imagination, he soon relented. Truth to tell, he was all too pleased, himself, to kill two birds with a single stone, to have both a daughter at home as a companion, and to be relieved of the troublesome quotidian business of housekeeping, or worse, paying someone to do it. Here was the perfect balance, then: Anne was independent and valued in her position; Charlotte, now, too would be; I was about to leave his roof again and would no longer be a drain on his purse; and Emily, like Aunt, was a cherished family member who would provide an invaluable service, asking only that she be fed and clothed, with a roof over her head and books to read. So yes: to Brussels Charlotte will return.
In the meantime, her time in the Belgian capital has further exaggerated her unfortunate habit of sprinkling her speech with Gallic spice: rarely does a conversation pass without the listener being treated to a handful of French expressions. To this now has been added the occasional phrase in German, for her study of that language has also been considerable these many months. Of course, Emily has shared the same course of study, but if it were not for the frequency with which she has her nose in a French or German book, one would never know this—indeed, one would never guess that she had sailed beyond fair Albion’s shores at all.
I have had numerous occasions since Anne’s departure to sit alone with Charlotte, whilst papa and Emily go about their respective business. I find that I have little to say, for our childhood games, our scribblemania, our rivalry—is as dead and buried as Weightman and Aunt. I recall at such moments the words of my Sir Henry Tunstall, returning to England after sixteen years in India, in the poem I revised and sent to Blackwood’s:
So, Old Affection is an empty name,
When nothing, loved or loving, keeps the same;
But, while we gaze upon the vapour gay,
The light that gave it glory fades away:
And Home affection—where have we a home?
As the time of my departure draws nigh, so grows my desire—almost a manic desperation, like Leyland’s growing thirst as he approaches a pub—to be gone, to leap forward to the next phase of my life at Thorp Green.
I was turning these thoughts over in my mind as I sat before the fire with Charlotte the day after Anne’s departure. She was leafing through one of our childhood favourites, not William de la Motte’s drawing manual, but Thomas Beckwith’s History of British Birds. Little does she know that I—which is to say Northangerland—published that short essay on the artist in the Guardian, less than a week before Weightman’s death.
As she browsed through the well-worn volume—her face, even with thick spectacles, close to the page—I found myself torn between fervently wishing I could tell her of my publications and desperately wanting to keep my secret buried for all time. The latter impulse carried the day, and I said merely, “Ah, yes, Bewick. Do you remember how we would sit and pore over that volume, and copy the drawings?” To share some of the thoughts expressed in my article from the Guardian, as if they had only just occurred to me, was a compromise I allowed myself, permitting me to “read” some of my article to Charlotte, without divulging its actual existence.
“I have lately been thinking quite a lot of him,” I said.
“Really? Bewick? He seems a rather old-fashioned subject to be reflecting upon these days.”
In a few words Charlotte had—as she so often does—unintentionally flown directly to the heart of the matter. Indeed, there was something birdlike in the movement of her head, as it moved to consider me.
“Precisely,” said I. “Exactly. In these days of modern art—with its worship of brilliant effects, of imposing masses of light and shade—such a country-loving, nature-worshiping fellow as Bewick does seem like a subject out of antiquity, even though he almost created the modern style of engraving.”
“Dis donc, mon frère,” she replied, “you have given this a lot of thought. So what is it in the artist that has drawn you to these reflections?”
“I was not long ago leafing through that very book you have in your lap, and I thought—it is hard to describe—that there is something peculiarly English about Bewick, a particularly English desire to portray the realities of life. His little woodcuts somehow have the power to extract from everyday life scenes and situations of the greatest power or pathos. He somehow knew that to possess control over the mind it is not necessary to carry it beyond the world we live in.”
“So you are advocating for flat, humdrum reality as the proper subject for art? Comme c’est banal!”
I laughed. “No: what I am saying is this: when you look at his illustrations, you see the bent grass waving, the cold wind whistling, as if you felt with the traveler the length and loneliness of his road.”
“Ah, then it is of the manner of depiction of which you speak, not the subject. Ce n’est pas pareil.”
Charlotte paused for a moment before continuing. “After all, do not forget Bewick’s castle ruins, his tombstones, his gibbets and, most of all, his fiends brandishing pitchforks.” She moved her little arm comically, stabbing, like a she-devil flourishing the implement of her trade. “Surely those are not images of the realities of life as you say.”
As she spoke, her fine, large brown eyes were for a fleeting instant those of my playmate of old. How much has changed since I rode to surprise her at Roe Head School—she just sixteen years old, I not quite fifteen—at a time when hope was not yet tainted with disillusionment! In those days, she would correspond privately with me, saying that it was to me that she had the most to say. How altered we are!
Charlotte squinted critically as she closed the volume, and the phantom companion of my youth had already vanished. “Do you think, brother, that the same thing might be said of literature?”
I must have appeared puzzled.
“What I mean is this,” she continued. “Do you believe literature should touch primarily on the realities of life or go beyond them? What of haunted castles, ghosts roaming the moors, gypsy fortune-tellers, and the voices of faraway lovers conveyed on a breeze across hill and dale and moorland? What of that supernatural black dog, the Gytrash? Is any subject appropriate to literature as long as the manner or style can make you—what did you say?—feel the length and loneliness of his road? Or must we keep to the world we live in as you put it?”
“This world,” said I, “is so full of wonders that I can scarcely imagine the need for something beyond it.”
“That sounds heretical, brother.” She was not smiling, but I was.
“No, I am not talking about religion, sister dear, though I think we do carry our own heavens and hells with us wherever we go…here”—I struck my forehead—“and here”—I placed my hand over my heart—and the memory of Agnes Riley washed, unexpectedly, over my entire being, and tears sprang to my eyes. I have done my utmost to forget her, to forget everything about Broughton, as I have of late begun to do with Luddenden Foot.
“What is it, Branwell?”
“It’s Aunt,” I lied. “It’s Weightman, too. It’s all still such a blow.”
“But you’re happy, are you not, to be joining Anne at Thorp Green?” said she, genuinely trying to cheer me.
“I am indeed,” I responded, briefly feeling my old love for her begin to rise like a skiff on a swelling ocean tide.
“And do you still write?”
“Very little,” I lied again. “Do you?”
“I haven’t the time at the Pensionnat.” Those large, speaking eyes stared dreamily beyond me, as if gazing across the Channel, all the way to Brussels. “But if I did, I have long since bidden farewell to our old friends in the tropical latitudes of Glass Town and Angria, for I wish to paint from life.” She paused and laughed gently. “You see, Branwell, we agree after all! I, too, believe we should confine ourselves to the world we live in.”
“Well this is a change. Was it not I who upbraided you for being a writer who loved more to dwell upon Indian palm groves or genii palaces than on the wooded manors and cloudy skies of England?”
She blushed ever so slightly—or did I imagine it?—and said, “Eh bien, voilà, Branwell, I do listen to you sometimes. Even the most flawed vessel can carry the truth—is that not something Papa might say in a sermon?” I was not so sure, but I accepted her admission, despite the sting in its tail.
The passing renewal of affection I felt for her in this moment makes me wonder if I have, at times, painted too harsh a portrait of Charlotte in these pages. Or was it merely this momentary rapprochement –to use a word she herself might choose—that made me warm to her? In any event, I returned her smile. “Truly? You? The Queen of the Romance, creatrix of Mina Laury and the Duke of Zamorna? What of your ghosts and gypsies? What of the yearning lover’s voice transported across the countryside more swiftly than a telegraph message?”
“You said it yourself, did you not? If we can carry heaven and hell within us, with their legions of angels and demons, surely we are able to produce a ghost or two—or a fierce Gytrash—to haunt ourselves. And why could not a gypsy fortuneteller simply be someone in disguise, with an intimate knowledge of those she pretends to amaze? Could not the voice of a distant lover we hear in the wind be the product—a projection—of our own yearning?”
“You do not at all sound,” said I—thinking of my own feverish, if clandestine, writing, revising and publishing since my return to Haworth—“like someone who has given up on writing.”
“I think about it all the time,” she confessed, “but I have long ago abandoned the silly notion that I could achieve riches or glory with the pen. Papa is hardly getting any younger, and we must all put away such childish things and secure our independence.”
“At least,” said I, frowning, “Aunt has left each of you girls enough money to keep the wolf from your door for a time, should Papa die suddenly.” We had recently learned that Aunt Branwell’s testament left nearly 300 pounds respectively to Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and our cousin Eliza in Penzance.
“But at least a man is free, Branwell, to pursue whatever profession he wishes. That’s why Aunt left you no money. And please don’t talk so about Papa—he won’t die, he is as hale and hearty as ever, despite his failing eyesight.”
“Did you not just say that he is hardly getting any younger? If that blooming girl Martha Taylor and vigorous Willy Weightman can die in the flower of their youth, we have to be prepared for the possibility that our sixty-five-year-old father could succumb, and that when it happens we shall all be homeless.”
“But starting next month you have a post, and it is essential that you retain it, for as you say, Emily, Anne and I have a small provision in case the worst occurs. From Anne’s reports, I have no doubt that you will be better-suited to the Robinson family than to the Postlethwaites, and I never could see you as a railway man, though I credit you for trying.”
The wise elder sister—who in fact knew nothing of my life in Broughton, Sowerby Bridge, or Luddenden Foot—had returned fully, sending the carefree friend of my youth headlong to oblivion. I bristled defensively. “Do you doubt,” said I, “of my capacity to retain the post at Thorp Green?”
The directness of my question shattered the remaining shards of the short-lived harmony we had enjoyed before the fire.
“I believe you have the mind”—here she imitated my earlier gesture in a way that made it impossible to discern whether it was in earnest or in mockery—“to do anything you want in this life, but whether your heart”—she again mimicked my motion—“embraces it is another question. I pray that it will, but remember, der Geist ist willig, aber das Fleisch ist schwach—which being translated”—she added pedantically—“means that the flesh is willing but the spirit is weak.”
I grimaced and said nothing, wondering why she felt it necessary to quote scripture in German.
At last, Charlotte stood and walked over to kiss me on the forehead. “Bonne nuit, mon frère. Fais de beaux rêves,” said she, like a mother wishing her little one sweet dreams, leaving me staring stonily into the fire. She had succeeded in casting clouds of doubt over the hopes I had for my new life at Thorp Green, which heretofore had glittered like a sunrise on a dewy, cloudless morning. I, too, hope that my heart will embrace Thorp Green, for I can no longer move from post to post: I need safety, security, and a measure of stability, no matter how modest.
The next day Charlotte traveled to Brookroyd to see Ellen Nussy, and I was not at all sorry to see her go. My sister loves me, and I her, but as in so many families, this does not signify that we particularly relish each other’s company.
December 20th, 1842 The Parsonage
The days pass with agonizing slowness, so much so that I find myself wishing Anne back from Thorp Green, and even Charlotte returned from Brookroyd. Winter has thoroughly closed his icy fingers round the parsonage, and I find that I have no desire to leave the warmth of the fire. Papa, however, has his duties, as does Emily. There is little chance that she will bring a book to the fire—as long as I am there, at least—and even less that she will engage in any kind of badinage. Such pleasantries, she has made it clear on innumerable occasions, are no more to her than a peculiar form of hypocrisy sanctioned by society.
Yesterday, however, my desire for conversation grew so strong that I could bear it no longer, and I found Emily in the kitchen, kneading dough and reading a German book she had propped upon the table. She did not look up when I entered, but only continued her dual activities.
She is the tallest of the three—indeed, taller than I—with dark, liquid grey-blue eyes that seldom look a person in the face, auburn hair, a rather poor complexion like Charlotte’s, but with Anne’s long, graceful neck. Her lithesome, graceful figure—unlike dumpy Charlotte or delicate Anne—has, despite her efforts to conceal it, ideal proportions, not unlike Leyland’s Kilmeny. But woe betide the man who dares take notice of her, especially in that way! I would call her a hoyden, if a hoyden could be silent and earnest.
There is room for Keeper—who, since Aunt’s reign has now ended, sat with his nose pressed against Emily’s knees, in true devotion but also hoping, surely, that a scrap of dough might find its way to the floor—in the mysterious wilderness of her heart, but not for any male suitors, I think. Her height, her physical strength, her quick intelligence, her utter disdain for conversation that does not have a specific purpose, her head for logic, but most of all her stubbornness—for she is as confident of her own views as I am uncertain of my own—combine to intimidate anyone who would dare approach her, family or no. Even Charlotte, now, treats her with gloves of kid: when Emily insisted that she would not return to Brussels, Charlotte’s resistance was soon routed, even though this means that she will have to travel alone across the Channel, and live in solitude in the pensionnat.
“Yes?” she said, still not raising her head as I stood before here. The ‘yes’ was uttered with closed teeth and seemed to express the sentiment, ‘Go to the Devil!’ Or was I imagining this?
“What are you doing?”
At last Emily looked up, still kneading the dough, waiting for me to grasp the foolishness of my question. I changed tack: “What I mean is, how are you?” Knowing that this question alone would be construed as the worst kind of twaddle, I continued, “Are you truly resolved to stay in Haworth? Will you not miss Brussels, or your pupils, or the Hégers? Haworth is so isolated, for God’s sake—it’s a perfect misanthropist’s Heaven!”
On those rare occasions when her gaze is raised, it beams like a lantern through the darkness, cuts like a knife through tender flesh. As she stared, I chattered on; for who has not experienced such moments, when the stony silence of one’s interlocutor only makes one more voluble. Usually, of course, it is Leyland, with his horror vacui, who fills the void whilst I pause in thought. To make matters worse, Emily has the rare talent, solely with her gaze, of making one feel foolish, regardless of the gravity of the topic of conversation, or the elevation of one’s sentiments.
Finally she spoke, with her typical intensity. “In Brussels we were isolated in the midst of numbers, as Charlotte has said, and so returning home is quite the opposite, you see. Here I have Papa to care for, and he and Keeper to share my company—and they both love me unreservedly, unconditionally; neither wishes to shape me into something I am not, and can never be.” She paused, gazing fondly at the mongrel, whose ears had perked up and tongue had tumbled out of his mouth at mention of his name, and she allowed herself the faintest shadow of a smile. “And Monsieur le Chien does not even require conversation. So you see, Branwell, we are a suitable trio to divide the desolation amongst us.”
Clearly she was every bit as eager to see Charlotte return to Brussels and me to take up my new post at Thorp Green, as we were to do so. I sensed that even Anne—from whom, in youth, she had been inseparable, almost as if they were twins—was no more necessary to her happiness than Keeper, and indeed perhaps less so. As Emily spoke she proved that the dog—who sat like a devouring flame on the kitchen floor—hardly needed to wait desperately for an errant scrap of dough, for she pinched off a generous portion for him as a bit of a treat. Such behavior was hardly surprising: I have witnessed her giving him the best portion of a leg of mutton on occasion. With Aunt’s death, however, she could do so with impunity.
Keeper smacked and slavered and Emily returned to her kneading, so that only the sounds of an occasional thump of the dough and the wind whistling round the parsonage walls joined the dog’s rapid mastication of his delicacy. Outside fell the first feathery flakes of a snow shower, as the short day lengthened quickly into evening.
“Hul-lo! Do you see?” said I. “The first snow of the season.”
“Does it stick fast, or melt away as it lands?”
I approached the window and looked up toward the moors. The snow clung to the low stone wall, but melted wherever it touched grass or shrub or tree, or any other living thing.
“It depends,” I replied, and I pressed my forehead against the windowpane, the icy glass cooling my brow. I turned to find Emily smiling enigmatically to herself—whether it was in appreciation of the subtly of my response, or because she considers me an utter imbecile, it is impossible determine—and I found myself wanting to kiss her on the cheek, if such a gesture would not have been ill-received.
With nothing more to say, I performed a slight bow and said, “Now then, Mademoiselle, I will leave you and your trusted assistant, Monsieur le Chien, to your labours.”
An almost inaudible grunt of assent was all I received in return, signaling that Emily Jane had finished with me.
Chapter XXIII—Thorp Green
February 5th, 1843 Thorp Green
I arrived here a fortnight ago. The twenty-first of January was a wild, tempestuous day, with a strong north wind and a continual storm of snow drifting on the ground and whirling through the air. The railway covered only part of the journey, and the incessant snow threw impediments in the way of both horses and steam engines. The Robinsons had sent the coachman, Mr. Allison—Billy, he insisted I call him, with a grin—to collect me in York, and for the final miles of the journey, we progressed at a mere crawl.
At last, however, the coach came to a rest before the stately portico of a grand house, and soon I stood in a well-lighted, spacious gallery. The first person to greet me, apart from the servants, was Anne herself. She looked well, and seemed delighted to see me. How different she is from her “twin” of old, Emily.
“Branwell!” she exclaimed, “At last! We had quite given up on you, believing you to have been stranded at an inn, or worse, in a snowdrift. But here you are, none the worse for the wear, it seems!”
The “we” in question were she and her pupils, who had filed in behind her as she was speaking. Young Edmund or “Ned,” a solidly-built young fellow with sandy hair and matching eyes, stepped forward boldly to shake my hand, saying “Welcome, Mr. Brontë,” as his three older sisters curtseyed. The youngest of these, Mary, is fifteen, just passing from girlhood to womanhood, but already with a kind of coquetry about her that will likely serve her well. She is the shortest of the three young ladies, and yet has a pleasing roundness to her form, an embonpoint immediately suggesting a kind of voluptuousness to me—I am ashamed to confess. She has bright, darting green eyes, porcelain skin, and flaxen ringlets, which she shakes at every opportunity. Elizabeth—whom everyone calls “Bessie”—is a good-looking girl of sixteen, but a bit of a hoyden in the truest sense of that word. I have since learned that she frequents the grooms and stable boys, and that she can and does swear as heartily as they. Her complexion is a bit darker, as are her eyes and her hair, but she is a handsome creature nonetheless.
Lydia, the eldest, is everything Anne has hinted, and more. She is positively beautiful: tall and slender, but not thin, so perfectly formed that a corset would be superfluous, exquisitely fair, but not without a brilliant, healthy bloom; her hair, which she wears in a profusion of long ringlets, is of a very light brown, strongly inclining to yellow, her eyes are pale blue, but so clear and bright that few observers would wish them darker.
As I surveyed the Robinson children, another presence made itself felt, as their mamma sailed elegantly into the hall. “Ah, Mr. Brontë, you do exist. I was beginning to think you were a phantom of your sister’s overactive imagination. I regret that my husband Edmund is indisposed this evening and has already taken to his bed. His poor health is, I fear, yet another reason to enlist your services, for he had considered giving little Edmund lessons in the classics, though I did tell him that he hardly need occupy himself with such tedious matters; that is the reason we have tutors such as yourself.
“I am afraid,” said Anne, “that it is my own limited knowledge of the classics that is most at fault, for young Edmund has already outstripped all that I can teach him.”
“Nonsense,” said Mrs. Robinson peremptorily. “Primo, Greek and Latin are the province of men—everybody knows that—and secondo, Master Edmund here is no longer a little boy, so a governess will not do. You, Mr. Brontë,” said she, bowing her head ever so slightly, “are to be the bridge between the rudimentary childhood lessons he has received thus far, and his university studies. We have high hopes that Ned will follow in his father’s footsteps, to Oxford.”
Later, when we were alone, Anne spoke plainly: “You see, Branwell, there are poor clergymen like Papa, whose curacy is their entire life and livelihood, then there are those like the Reverend Edmund Robinson—nominal curates who live by their inheritance. The Reverend Robinson inherited Thorp Green Hall and the manorial rights of Little Ouseburn.”
As for Mrs. Robinson’s appearance, while she lacks the stunning, youthful beauty of her namesake Lydia, she is an very pretty woman, somewhere between 35 and 40 years of age, quite diminutive in stature but very well-formed indeed—she requires neither rouge nor padding to add to her charms—and she has olive skin like Bessie’s, and bright glancing eyes like Mary’s. Anne’s only comment about her, beyond her disapproval of the great lady’s rearing of her daughters, was that her chief enjoyments seem to be in giving or attending parties, and in dressing at the very top of fashion. It is true that she was—and always is—beautifully dressed. There is a certain hauteur in her manner of addressing Anne and me—we are, after all, her paid subordinates—that tells me that I shall have precious little to do with her, and that I shall be kept at arm’s length from her lovely daughters as well.
I did not have to wait long to learn just how true this was. She turned to her lady’s maid—whose name I have since learned is Ann Marshall—and said, “Even I am not so cruel as to send Mr. Brontë back into this snowstorm. Marshall, please see that he has what he needs for tonight, and when the snow has stopped and the servants have quite shoveled us out, we shall have his things moved to the Old Hall.” It was then that I learned—at first, I must confess, to my dismay, for by not “living in” as Anne does, I will have far fewer opportunities to appreciate the young ladies—that am to be lodged at the former “Monk’s House,” which is to say the old timber and stone hall that long predates the main house at Thorp Green, though it lies within its grounds.
I awoke the next morning to the scraping sounds of picks, scoops, and shovels, and looking out the window beheld a veritable phalanx of domestics clearing paths, walks, and drives. A brilliant sun shone fully in a wintry sky so pure that it took my breath away as surely as breathing the glacial air would do if I were one of the unfortunate lads labouring in the snow below. The cold, dry day and the absence of any manufacturing in the district made for an azure vault the likes of which I had not seen since my arrival in Broughton three years since. How much—and how little—has changed since then!
After breakfast, I at last met the master of the house, the Reverend Edmund Robinson. He stands no taller than I, and his illness has left him emaciated. He was most respectful, inquiring after the family, especially Papa, in the wake of the recent loss of his curate and his sister-in-law.
“The only constant in this life is change,” he said in a deep bass voice, sighing, “and our only hope heaven.” Perhaps he was only a clergyman in name, but his speech seemed authentically pious and orthodox enough. Anne had told us about little three-year-old Georgiana, who died two years since; was this the cause of the Reverend’s own melancholy and frail health? Whatever the case, I pity him, for he appears to be a good man.
March 22nd, 1843 Thorp Green
Man forever wishes to be elsewhere—ailleurs, as Charlotte would say. Why cannot he—why cannot I—sit quietly and contentedly without longing for something more? What is this endless yearning, this eternal restlessness, this unquenchable thirst? I am no closer to understanding it now than I have ever been. How I envy those who march calmly, coolly through their lives, content with their lot and undesirous of change, agitation, action, and fulfilment; or those others, though unsatisfied, who can harness their desire to the chariot of a single-minded pursuit.
Many, no doubt, would call me an eternal malcontent, but I cannot help it, for such agitation is in my very nature. At least a man is free, Charlotte would say. For Papa, such disquietude, such yearning, will only cease when we as Christians look forward to a joyous resurrection, as he said at Weightman’s funeral, in the hope of being forever reunited above, with those who have been taken from us by death, and whom we have loved here below. Dear Mamma, sweet Maria and Elizabeth! Is it as simple as this?
I can complain of nothing, for I am treated with the utmost respect by the Robinsons, and my quarters in the Old Hall are spacious, almost palatial, so that I can ramble about, can escape myself as it were, writing in one room, drawing in another, reading in yet another. Beyond the few hours each day I devote to Edmund’s instruction—he is a dull boy, but like many a dullard he at least he applies himself and does not misbehave, which suggests that he will have no difficulty becoming a cog in the great wheel of society’s machine; then again, what am I saying? The lad will inherit this estate, so will do just as he pleases after his papa dies—but I digress—beyond these few hours (sometimes four, sometimes six) I am at liberty to do as I please in this dreary season. Even the vast library of Thorp Green is at my disposal.
The infrequent glimpses I have of my sister's charges have only confirmed Anne’s portrait of their conduct: each, in her own way, appears to be an incorrigible flirt, and the simple fact that I am a young man is sufficient to titillate them—what a profusion of white teeth, what lovely shaking of ringlets, what batting of eye-lids! The middle girl, Bessie, seems somewhat different, and yet even her hoydenish conduct—her shocking language as her mamma and sisters call it as she strides about acting like one of her papa’s grooms, though that lovely form could never be mistaken for such—seems a quite deliberate sort of provocation calculated to impress upon me that she is capable of anything. At the very least, the three adorable creatures are endlessly entertaining, and forever pleasing to the eye.
In short, here I have what I wanted—time and space to write in genteel surroundings—and yet still I am sick unto death with unhappiness and loneliness. Anne is occupied with her three flighty charges, and besides, too frequent conversation between governess and tutor might rouse suspicion in the family, for surely we would be thought to be talking about them! Haworth—lonely, isolated, benighted, insalubrious Haworth—seems now a bustling metropolis to me, and how I miss the company of John Brown and the occasional visit of Leyland! Even watchful papa, taciturn Emily, lame Tabby, and young Martha Brown would be a sight for sore eyes.
Was it my last letter—or perhaps one from Anne, still in league with Papa—that caused him to visit this last week? No, he assured me, he had been summoned to York to bear witness in a trial, and how could he not see his beloved children when that city lay just 10 or so miles from Thorp Green? I had managed to find enough strength each day to fulfil my duties, but would immediately retreat to the Old Hall and, more often than not, to my bed. There I lay, gazing at the hard grey sky and bare, lifeless landscape—for though the snow has receded, spring has yet, in this dreariest and my least favourite of seasons, to show the first signs of life—when Anne and Papa entered my room.
“My son,” he said tenderly—for while I have so often felt judged in his eyes, I have never felt unloved—“you look better than I feared, but worse than I hoped. Are you sure this is the right place for you?” He looked about the room and seemed to approve, though his brow remained furrowed.
“Papa,” said Anne, “I must go, for the young ladies have their lessons, and their governess surely can’t keep them waiting—what a climax of horror that would be!”
As she turned to leave, there was a soft but rapid knock on the open door, and without awaiting the habitual Come in, in glided Mrs. Robinson, flushed from her walk across the grounds, followed by a respectable-looking, fortyish gentleman, with large greying whiskers and kindly, twinkling blue eyes, whom she introduced as Dr. John Crosby, the surgeon who attended on the Reverend Robinson. Our “sweet Anne,” guilty of the most cutting sarcasm, turned crimson, but Mrs. Robinson had failed to—or in any event had chosen not to—hear her remark.
“Ah, good, Miss Brontë, I am so glad you are here as well, for I wanted to see the whole family—well, those I know, of course—together. Mr. Brontë, your children are a credit to you. You should know that they are wondrously valued by my husband—poor dear, he is ill again today or would have accompanied me—and myself.” She apparently felt she needed no introduction, and her words fairly tumbled out, she spoke with such vivacity. She is inordinately fond of giving particular words a great deal of emphasis, a habit her daughters have not failed to adopt.
Father bowed and spoke in accents far more Cantabrigian than Irish, as if wanting to impress upon Mrs. Robinson the superiority of his learning. “The honour is all mine, Mrs. Robinson,” he said deliberately, “and it is we who are gratified.”
She waved Papa’s words away as if they were small, noxious puffs of smoke. “Nonsense. However,” said she, looking directly at me where I lay, “we are worried to find that Mr. Brontë is not as well as when he arrived here. That is why I have asked Mr. Crosby to step over to the Old Hall with me, for I always trust his diagnoses.”
As she spoke I surveyed her face, of which I had rarely had more than a glimpse since my arrival that snowy January night, and her form. There is something indescribably beguiling about those glancing eyes, that dark skin and hair, her rapid speech and movements, making her almost as exotic to me as would be a Florentine princess or a Persian concubine. Her lips are sensuous, her teeth beautiful, and her mouth turned up into a perpetual smile at its corners. Her nose is large but well-formed, while her substantial, smooth forehead, high red cheeks and lovely white neck do not betray an age much beyond thirty. Nor have the years been unkind to her form and figure, for she is neither too thin nor too stout, and chooses her fashions to accentuate her womanly shape.
I was not cognizant of the extent to which I had been staring until her gaze met mine, but rather than turning away, it held mine steadily for at least two seconds, at which point I looked down at my hands.
“Thank you,” said Papa. “You are most kind.”
“We shall have young Mr. Brontë up and about in no time,” said Mrs. Robinson, “with Mr. Crosby’s assistance, of course. Well then, Miss Brontë, will you accompany me back to the house? The young ladies must be waiting for you by now, but I will tell them that I have quite monopolised you.” Anne followed her mistress through the door, turning to me with wide eyes as she left, as if to say, Good Heavens, Branwell, I truly hope she did not hear me!
Off they went, Papa and Anne promising to write each other soon. I wondered what intelligence about me passed between the two, but forced my thoughts into another channel. Our father stood back and allowed Mr. Crosby to approach and examine me. After a few moments, he walked to the hearth and turned, warming his back, his arms and his hands, which he rubbed together behind him as he balanced on the tips of his toes.
“Time will tell, of course, but I believe Mr. Brontë is depressed in spirit, which may be nothing more than good old-fashioned homesickness. He’ll be fit as a fiddle in no time.”
Papa smiled sadly, his large furrowed forehead, shock of receding white hair and enormous white side-whiskers giving him the appearance of an ancient sage. “On the one hand,” he said, “I am pleased. Doubly pleased, primarily because his elder sisters died of consumption and it is that which I most fear for my children, but also because we miss him, and it is heartening to know that he misses us.”
“Of course I miss you, Papa,” said I, clutching his large hand, and I spoke with rare sincerity, my heart warming to the old man. How long it takes a son to grasp fully the boundless kindness, love, sacrifice, and forgiveness of a father!
“As much as I sometimes yearn to quit it when I am there, I miss my home when I am not; and as much as I fervently wish and need to make my independence, I am sometimes lonely here.”
Crosby bounced again on his toes. “All of this is quite normal,” he assured us. “Now, what I recommend is fresh air, vigorous exercise, and new scenes. When I think of the sick and dying I have attended upon, even of the poor Reverend Robinson—here his voice dropped as he nodded in the direction of the great house, as if someone else were listening—you are a most fortunate young man, and your cure is within your own reach.”
He walked over to my bedside, thrusting his now warmed hands into his pockets. “See here, springtime is fast upon us, and on the first warm day I invite you to walk over to Great Ouseburn to dine with me and my nephew William, who lives with me. We will show you round the countryside here, which, you will find when springtime comes, is unsurpassed in its beauty. Believe you me, Mr. Brontë, the snow and slush of winter, the thaws and mud of early spring, will all be as distant to your memory as the pain of childbirth is to a mother as she runs her fingers through the locks of her laughing babe.” He spoke nearly as rapidly as Mrs. Robinson, his voice somewhat reedy and yet somehow still agreeable—because lively and jovial—all the same.
“I would be most grateful, Dr. Crosby,” said Papa. “A little wholesome male company would not be amiss, for surely Branwell misses his friends in Haworth and Halifax.” He did not particularly emphasize the word wholesome; it was unnecessary.
“And,” said Crosby, “if you have not yet been to York since your arrival here, we shall plan an excursion there together soon as well. Have you seen the Minster?”
I said that I had not, and that I had only passed through the city in the snowstorm the day I arrived.
Crosby was astonished, but pleased, rubbing his hands together. “No? Heavens, surely you must ride with me to York, where I often have business to conduct. In short, that’s the only medicine you need for this ailment, Mr. Brontë.”
Papa stood and they shook hands, whereupon Crosby rapidly clapped his hat on his head and walked out the door, calling over his shoulder, “Fresh air, Mr. Brontë, exercise, getting out and about, that’s the thing!” Soon Father, too, took his leave, for he still had the long journey home before him. His pursed lips seemed to tremble; his eyes shone with tears.
“Papa, what is it?” I asked.
“When I think of your aunt, or poor Mr. Weightman, I know how fortunate I am still to be living, but each time I leave you I fear I might never see you again. And when I think of your mother, and your sisters Maria and Elizabeth, I worry about you, Charlotte, Emily and Anne as well.”
“Nonsense!” said I with great authority and rapidity, hoping that my imitation of Mrs. Robinson would make him smile, which he did, if only faintly.
“We will all be just fine,” I pursued. “Indeed, I intend fully to try the good surgeon’s ‘medicine’ soon, and I promise to write often, to tell you how I am faring, all right?”
Once Papa left, I did consider Crosby’s advice to be sensible indeed, and my heart was grateful for his diagnosis. At last my thoughts turned to Mrs. Robinson, to those bright glancing eyes and olive skin, the hair just a shade darker than chestnut, the flushed cheeks and heaving bosom as she arrived from out of doors, and most of all how our eyes met and interlocked. I clutched my pillow in my arms and pulled my knees up to my chest, as through my window I watched the sun emerge from a large cloud, with a promise of spring.
Chapter XXIV—A Journey to York
April 14th, 1843 Thorp Green
I have at last been to York with Dr. Crosby. What a lovely old place it is, with its medieval walls, timbered houses, and the great Minster towering over all. My companion and guide gave me a walking tour of the old city, including a detailed history, from the time of the Romans to the arrival of the railway four years since, thanks to George Hudson, the “Railway King” himself. After three hours of walking, during which he had rarely stopped talking—a discourse far from harassing, and doubly pleasant for me, as his explanations were most informative and relieved me of the need to speak much at all—my guide at last took care of his “business,” purchasing a number of remedies at an apothecary’s shop in Coney Street, after which he conducted me to a nearby pub, the Ouse Bridge Inn, down Spurriergate.
“Surely,” he said with vigour, for our tour had not seemed to tire him a whit, “you must be ravenous. I know I am! And a glass of wine would be just the thing, don’t you agree Brontë?”
I nodded in assent, trying not to appear too eager, though after the long walk I had an almost Leylandesque thirst. The doctor was well-known in these precincts, and was greeted with gusto by the proprietor, a barrel-chested gentleman whose copious black whiskers put Crosby’s own ample specimens to shame. His hair was as dark as jet and thick as wool. As he approached our table the doctor leant over and whispered, winking, “His parents came to York straight from Italy! Joseph Dimock here is really Giuseppe Damico.”
One would never have been able to tell his origins from his speech, for he spoke just as one might expect a York publican to speak. After Crosby made his introductions, Joseph said, “Say, Dr. Crosby, ‘ave you ‘eard o’ t’ passin’ o’ ol’ Dr. Beckwith?”
“No, by Heavens,” said my new friend, visibly shaken at the news. “I had heard that the poor man was ill, but this—this is a blow!” He turned to me in explanation. “Dr. Stephen Beckwith was beloved of his patients and a good friend and trusted advisor to many another practitioner, too—including your humble servant himself.”
“Aye,” said Dimock, “there’s e’en talk of raisin’ a s’scription to se’ up an’elegant memorial or some such in t’ Minster.”
I filled the silence that ensued by saying, “I have a dear friend who does just such work.”
“Oh?” asked Joseph. “’ere in York?”
“No, in Halifax.”
“’al-ee-fax? Why that’s nigh on ‘alfway t’ Liverpool! We’ve a load o’ sculptors right ‘ere in York!”
I was embarrassed to have mentioned Leyland. Of course the Minster would be surrounded by masons, stone-carvers, and sculptors. Why would anyone pay for a stranger like Leyland to work at such a great distance? I pictured the good doctor’s effigy bouncing across Yorkshire on a waggon, just as Kilmeny had. Maggie Mortimer: was she again with child? I wondered.
I took a large draught of wine. “Yes,” I said, with a forced laugh. “Foolish me! I only meant to make conversation.”
Dimock laughed heartily, his hands on his hips. “Well I weren’t mockin’ ye, lad! I’s jus’ tha’ this place is fairly crawlin’ with sculptors! A man can har’ly walk ten paces wi’out hearin’ tha’ infernal tink tink tink o’ t’ammer an’ chisel!” His soft brown eyes laughed merrily as he shook hands with us both and retreated to his labours.
Crosby was still shaking his head over the death of his fellow surgeon, Beckwith. “The last time I saw him was at the very chemist’s you and I just visited. He was a great believer in the healing properties of laudanum. Have you ever taken it, Brontë?”
“Just once,” said I. “Some years ago—1839, I think it was—I was in Liverpool and my face began to twitch uncontrollably. The laudanum gave me some relief, and soon the symptoms faded away.”
“Well,” he said, scratching his whiskers thoughtfully, “Although I hardly shared Beckwith’s unbounded enthusiasm for the drug—he subscribed to Young’s view, in his Treatise on Opium, that it cures just about every ailment known to man—it can be of help. It’s all a question of the proper diagnosis, Brontë, and moderation, of course.”
The truth of the matter is that I am frightened by opium; it was only when gripped by the incessant tick that drove me to desperation that my friend Merrall, who was traveling with me to Liverpool, had, not knowing what else to do, led me to the apothecary’s for aid. The amount of laudanum had been modest indeed, and had no more effect than a mild and transitory sense of exaltation, at once somewhat quite similar to, and yet strangely different from, the effects of strong drink. I have no wish to “experiment” further with the drug.
I thought of Hartley Coleridge, whom I had never seen again, he who had never responded to the translations I sent to him after returning to Haworth. What had he said about his great father? He stunned himself into oblivion. I reflected, too, on De Quincy—yet another who has never responded to my letters—and his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater:
Oh! Just, subtle, and mighty opium! … to the guilty man, for one night givest back the hopes of his youth, and hands washed pure from blood; and to the proud man, a brief oblivion…thou callest into sunny light the faces of long-buried beauties, and the blessed household countenances, cleansed from the ‘dishonours of the grave.’ Thou only givest these gifts to man; and thou hast the keys of Paradise, oh just, subtle, and mighty opium!
No, it is quite enough that I have lived through a period of debauchery that consisted primarily of perpetual drunkenness and lechery; the bitterness of Coleridge fils and the heretical adoration of De Quincy on the subject of opium are enough to terrify me.
All of this flashed through my mind in the time it took to take another draught of wine.
“I fear,” said I, “that laudanum is not for me.”
Crosby laughed. “I already know you well enough, Brontë, to guess that you’ve read too many fanciful poems and tales about opium—‘Kubla Kahn” and the like, eh? You think you’ll finish your days with incurable methomania, do you? Rubbish!” He leant over and whispered, “Of course I would never betray any of my specific patients’ medical secrets, but I can tell you that people like the Robinsons take laudanum for all manner of ailments, especially those that affect the softer sex.”
I sat quietly, eating my mutton, not knowing how to respond to such intelligence. From the street came the rattle of coaches, the clip-clop of horses’ hooves, the cries of drivers and, on the hour, the tolling of the great bells of York Minster. Within, the pub bustled with activity, as Joseph and his minions sought to assuage his patrons of their thirst and hunger, and to lighten their purses.
At last Crosby spoke again.
“Now tell me, Brontë, you’ve been at Thorp Green nearly three months. How do you like the place? And what do you think of the family?”
I meant to tread this ground carefully, for as fond as I already am of the good doctor, I am a late arrival at the place, whereas he has long been in the Robinsons’ service.
“It has been quite a remarkable change,” said I vaguely. “The setting, the house—and, I see now, York itself—are lovely, but I am so removed from all that I know that I sometimes feel quite at sea. And yet, it was just such an escape that I desired.”
Without knowing just how accurate were his comments, Crosby said with a laugh, “Too bad we can never escape ourselves, eh Brontë?! We have to drag that along wherever we go, ha ha!” He grew more serious, however, and leaning over conspiratorially, asked again, “But what do you think of the family?”
“Edmund is a good lad, and he applies himself diligently,” I said, faltering somewhat at the end of my sentence.
“But he is a bit of dolt—it’s quite all right, you can say it,” he said, smiling.
I was frightened at the prospect of where such talk might lead, so replied only, “I would not say that so much as that his talents are likely rather in an area of endeavour other than pure scholarship. He does work hard, and he is a well-behaved young fellow.”
Having failed to draw me into a conversation on poor Edmund’s shortcomings, he moved on to the young ladies. “And the three young ladies?”
I took a deep breath, and must have coloured up, for he continued, “Ah, there, my young friend, you, too, are smitten by the trio! My nephew can scarcely go to church without trembling before the angelic creatures as he calls them.”
“They are lovely girls, I will not deny; and they have been kind enough to me, if a little coquettish. But that is to be expected at their ages.”
“Well, finally, what think you of the Reverend and Mrs. Robinson?”
“I have scarcely seen the gentleman, poor man, he has been so ill, but he seems a genuinely religious fellow.”
“Hmmm…yes…indeed…indeed…,” he appeared to concur, albeit somewhat vaguely. “And the lady of the manor?”
I had not forgotten her kindness in bringing Crosby to see me, nor that strange communion of gazes we had shared that day, but those images had of late been eclipsed by others, for on the rare occasions that I glimpsed her she never lingered to speak, but only tilted her head slightly in recognition and continued on to whatever her destination might be.
“Well, she seems a kind woman, that’s clear,” said I, not really knowing what to say. “Very elegant, very lively. She appears to care a great deal about her children’s education, and what will become of them when they are grown. But you see Crosby”—he has insisted that I call him thus—“I rarely cross paths with her, even in the house, and when I do she simply nods her head and sails off.”
The good doctor simply grunted “hmm” and lapsed into an uncharacteristic silence. For the rest of our meal and for much of the ride home to Thorp Green, he appeared to be musing on something; I wonder what it is.
Chapter XXV—Two Ladies
May 13th, 1843 Thorp Green
I have been frightfully lonely, but today at least I had the distraction of a letter from Brussels, where Charlotte has long since returned. There is nothing extraordinary in this epistle—quite the contrary is true—and yet perhaps for that very reason my eyes welled up as I read, for here was my old playmate, my writing partner and beloved sister. Were these tears of shame? Have I truly been too severe in her regard? In her letter she seems genuinely solicitous of my health:
Are you in better health and spirits and does Anne continue to be pretty well? I understand Papa has been to see you—did he seem cheerful and well? Mind when you write to me you answer these questions as I wish to know—Also give me a detailed account as to how you get on with your pupil and the rest of the family. I have received general assurance that you do well and are in good odour—but I want to know the particulars.
She then opens her heart—at least some of its chambers—to me, as in the old days, the slant of her hand and the proliferation of dashes betraying the speed and passion of her composition:
As for me I am very well and wag on as usual, I perceive however that I grow exceedingly misanthropic and sour—you will say this is no news, and that you never knew me possessed of the contrary qualities, philanthropy and sugariness—das ist wahr (which being translated means that is true) but the fact is the people here are no go whatsoever—amongst 120 persons, which compose the daily population of this house I can discern only 1 or 2 who deserve anything like regard—This is not owing to foolish fastidiousness on my part—but to the absence of decent qualities on theirs—they have not intellect or politeness or good-nature or good-feeling—they are nothing—I don’t hate them—hatred would be too warm a feeling—They have no sensations themselves and they excite none—but one wearies from day to day of caring nothing, fearing nothing, liking nothing, hating nothing—being nothing, doing nothing—
I looked up from her missive and out onto the lovely grounds of Thorp Green, trying, in vain, to imagine being employed in a large and bustling city like Brussels, and more to the point, surrounded by over one hundred young ladies. I would surely go mad, too—though not for the same reasons. She continued:
Yes, I teach & sometimes get red-in-the-face with impatience at their stupidity—but don’t think I ever scold or fly into a passion—if I spoke warmly, as warmly as I sometimes used to do at Roe Head they would think me mad—nobody ever gets into a passion here—such a thing is not known—the phlegm that thickens their blood is too gluey to boil—they are very false in their relations with each other—but they rarely quarrel & friendship is a folly they are unacquainted with—The black swan Monsieur Héger is the sole veritable exception to this rule (for Madame, always cool and always reasoning is not quite an exception) but I rarely speak to Monsieur now for not being a pupil I have little or nothing to do with him—from time to time he shows his kind-heartedness by loading me with books—so that I am still indebted to him for all the pleasure or amusement I have—
I sat and reflected on her situation, and how it resembled and differed from my own. I, too, felt isolated and lonely, but now I had Crosby as a friend, at least, and have Anne nearby, whereas Charlotte no longer has even fierce, laconic Emily. Yes, I sometimes must suppress my impatience with Edmund’s dullwittedness, but he is my only charge, and is a pleasant enough lad, who at least applies himself.
I wonder if Monsieur Héger is truly the sole veritable exception or if she has made of him an idol, as I suspect she did of Mr. White. Is she playing at being Mina Laury, and is the poor unsuspecting schoolmaster now her Duke of Zamorna? Given how the mind works, it would not at all surprise me, for in her letter she next confesses that she has not—contrary to what she told me in Haworth—utterly abandoned the “infernal world”—the world below—of Angria we created together. Indeed, she hints, it is always, almost fanatically present:
It is a curious metaphysical fact that always in the evening when I am in the great dormitory alone—having no other company than a number of beds with white curtains I always recur as fanatically as ever to the old ideas, the old faces & the old scenes in the world below.
As for me, my mind has again returned to thoughts—if not the activity—of writing, following an impromptu interview with Mrs. Robinson a few days since. I sat with my pupil in the library—where we often are when Anne and her charges occupy the schoolroom—on a glorious May day, the windows open and a perfect breeze, neither too warm nor too cool, softly agitating the sheer white curtains. Edmund had begun to grow impatient, and glanced with increasing frequency at the verdant paradise that awaited him just beyond, in the park. My concentration, too, was beginning to wane, when the lad’s mother, a small parcel in her hands, swept almost silently into the library, only the slight rustle of her garments announcing her arrival. I stood up hastily.
I confess that I had thought a great deal about her after my conversation with Crosby in York, if only because of his somewhat mysterious behavior. She approached Edmund from behind, leant over, and wrapped her arms round his neck, turned his head to the side, and placed her mouth—it truly was lovely, second only to her eyes in beauty—on the boy’s forehead. “My sweet Neddy, still slaving away like a navvy?” She turned to me and, though smiling, said with unwonted gravity, “Why surely, Mr. Brontë, the boy should be allowed to romp a bit before this lovely day is gone, do you not agree?”
“As it happens, ma’am,” said I, bowing slightly, “the day’s lessons were just now drawing to a close.” I do not know what possessed me, but I dared the slightest bit of levity. “But even if that were not the case, I would obey you in this, as in all things.” Again I bowed.
“Very well, Edmund, run along. I have some things to discuss with Mr. Brontë.”
I wondered what she could possibly have to say to me.
“Please, let us sit down, Mr. Brontë,” said she, motioning to two of the larger, more comfortable chairs at the other end of the library, mine an arm-chair and hers a sort of stool, around which she elegantly arranged her ample skirts.
Smiling somewhat sadly, she said, “As I am sure you know, the man of the house would normally be the one to speak to you about his son’s learning—about how young Edmund is progressing under your tuition—but you see”—she paused and sighed—“you see, there are a number of such things that now fall to me, as heterodox as that may appear. My poor Edmund is so sick and emaciated there is little business he can attend to at present.” She bit her lovely lower lip and added, “He really is capable of nothing but trying to preserve what is left of his health at present.”
Not knowing how to respond, I simply said, “I see.”
“So that is why I am here, to ask how my son gets on in his studies.”
“He is a delightful pupil, ma’am, most diligent and compliant, with a good—a pure—heart.” All of this was quite true, but it was an incomplete truth; I knew that mentioning his mental inferiority would be a death-sentence—a “no go whatsoever” as Charlotte might say.
Here was a poser for me. It was my duty to be truthful, but how was it to be done? Too much truthfulness could send me packing to Haworth; too little might easily be detected and could destroy any trust my mistress might have in me.
I took a deep breath. “But…uh… some of the subjects are particularly toilsome for Edmund.” I paused. “After all, Mrs. Robinson, do we not all find some things easier to master than others? Surely Edmund is not alone in that.”
Her soft lips parted in a truly dazzling smile. “That is true indeed, Mr. Brontë, and it pleases me that you see matters that way. And let us be candid—my son hardly needs the knowledge of a scholar, the sort of mastery you have, for he will inherit Thorp Green regardless. What he needs are simply a gentleman’s acquirements.”
If she had meant this as a compliment to me, I can hardly say I received it as such. And yet, I found myself not caring in the least, for I had suitably responded to her enquiry, and was now utterly in thrall to her bright eyes and smile—those lips!—her dusky skin, and the fragrance of perfume and powder that arose from her neck and bosom, so close were we now to one another.
She lifted the parcel in her lap, which was a small package wrapped in colourful paper, the string tied with a bow. “Please open it,” said she, eagerly. I readily complied.
“This,” said she, “is a signed copy of Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome. As you may know, he is a somewhat distant relative of mine. I—we—would like to give it to you as a small token of the progress you have made thus far with young Edmund.”
“This is most generous, ma'am, and most unnecessary. I was only performing my duties.”
“Nonsense,” said she, at which I looked down, trying not to smile. I failed.
“Is there something amusing in all this?” said she directly, but not unkindly.
I looked up to find her examining at me: her gaze enveloped me completely, and how much warmer, how much more intoxicating than the strongest liquor it was!
I could not look away as I perhaps should have done, but replied, “As a tutor and occasional scribbler I am most attentive to language, and—well—I rather like the way you use that word—“Nonsense!”—that’s all. I mean no disrespect.”
Mrs. Robinson coloured slightly and became more serious, changing the subject. “Why yes, your sister has told me that the Brontë children are all fond of poetry and the like, scribbling as you say. I confess that I have asked her to tell me all about you…hence my choice of your gift,” said she, pointing to the Lays.
“Yes, well, as you might imagine that was a passion of our youthful, overheated imaginations; now in our maturity we are all become quite serious, I can assure you—three of us pursuing teaching and one managing the parsonage at home.”
She seemed somewhat disappointed at this news. “Do you mean to say that you never write poetry? Even for your own amusement?”
Did I imagine it, or was there a sweet solicitude in how she looked at me? I could hardly imagine such a gaze bestowed upon my sister.
Indeed, something in her manner invited an unwonted candour from me. I suddenly yearned to bear my soul to her, to tell her that I was a man of extremes, that I was beginning to think that I must crush all poetic desire if I am to make my independence in the world, since it appeared that the only alternative would be to live—and die of starvation in—the world of my own imagination. I wanted to tell her that the idea of writing poetry as a calm pursuit in one’s leisure hours—which is to say a pastime of no pecuniary benefit—was so foreign, nay, anathema to me that I would rather nip it in the bud, amputate it entirely from my being, smother it in the crib, cast it overboard as Jonah’s shipmates did him to appease Jehovah. But I said none of this.
“I will occasionally scribble a few lines, just as I sketch a building or tree from time to time.”
“Surely you have the time to do more,” said she, again smiling. “Certainly we are not working you too hard here at Thorp Green!”
After a pause, as if considering something, she added, “Indeed, if you have any pieces of which are particularly proud, I would be willing to send them along to Macaulay. Like your father, he is a Cambridge man.” Apparently, Anne has told Mrs. Robinson a great deal over the past three years, and father’s pedigree was surely one of the first things she revealed.
With this she rose and again thanked me for the “progress” of my pupil, as I too stood and faced her. The spring sunshine, entering through the open window, caught her bright eyes and dappled her dark hair, just as it might a swiftly running beck and the bright green leaves dancing above it.
She offered her hand as she did so, and when I placed mine in hers, she gave it a squeeze so imperceptible that I scarcely knew whether it was real or imagined.
Chapter XXVI—On the Banks of the Ouse
May 18th, 1843 Thorp Green
Since this last encounter, my mind recurs far more often than is salutary to Mrs. Robinson, and I find I cannot think of much else. Had there been something different in her gaze, in her smile, in the squeeze of her soft fingers as we shook hands? No, surely. What a fool I am to think such a lady as she would care for a poor, unconnected tutor such as me! When I think of it coolly, rationally, it occurs to me that a greater fool than Patrick Branwell Brontë has never breathed the breath of life: that a more fantastic idiot had never surfeited itself on sweet lies, and swallowed poison as if it were nectar.
“You, I say, “a favourite of Mrs. Robinson? You of importance to her in any way? Go! Your folly sickens me! How dare you? Poor stupid dupe! Blind puppy!”
All the reproofs in the world, however, are vanquished each time her image rises before me, transformed in my overheated imagination into an angelic form, her glancing eyes turned to flashing beams, her dappled coiffure transmuted into a shimmering halo: Hera, Juno, Ceres, oh goddess, oh Queen of Heaven! At such times, I feel giddy—even mad.
I have read through Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, and have determined that I should not, in fact, abandon my verse altogether. Why should I not try my hand once again, through the benevolent offices of my mistress? Yesterday afternoon, with these thoughts in mind, I set out across the park with the book in hand, my lungs drinking in the fresh spring air and my eyes the beauty of the landscape, when I came across Anne, who, it so happened, was doing the same thing, a book in her own hand. Her black and white King Charles spaniel Flossy trotted alongside her.
“Hello, Branwell,” said she, “You look so well!”
“I surely feel better,” said I. “You did not lie, sister—springtime in this neighbourhood is lovely indeed, and how could I remain ill with such life bursting forth all round me?”
Though I have never had Anne’s—or especially Emily’s—wild enthusiasm for the lower creation, even I could not resist giving Flossy an enthusiastic pat on the head on such a splendid day as this.
Pointing to my book, Anne said, “What have you there?”
I hesitated, fearing that Anne would impute greater meaning than warranted to the gift of the book, but with feigned nonchalance handed it to her and said, “Oh, this? It’s a copy of Macaulay’s Lays. The Robinsons made a gift of it to me, in gratitude for my efforts with Edmund.” Poor lad, I almost added, but Anne’s mind was already flowing along in the same channel.
“Poor lad!” said she, “he does struggle to learn anything at all, doesn’t he? If he weren’t such a fine, docile boy I would call him a blockhead or a dolt, but that seems far too cruel an appellation for such a sweet young man.”
She handed Macaulay back to me. “Yes, when I first began at Thorp Green—can you fathom that it has been nearly three years, brother? I think I just might be the family champion of steadfastness—except for Papa, of course.”
I must have looked downcast at these words.
“Now see here, Branwell, I didn’t mean it that way. You worked on the railway nearly as long, and in the end, I’m sure that just wasn’t for you. I simply meant to say that I have been here for what seems an eternity.” Her countenance darkened for a moment. “If you only knew the number of times I have wanted to give my notice!”
“But Anne, that is not what you were about to say, is it? What has this to do with the book?”
“Oh, for mercy’s sake, yes, forgive me.” Her forehead was once again smooth and free of care, and her eyes laughed under those penciled brows. She playfully locked her arm tightly in mine as we walked the path toward the River Ouse: my baby sister once again.
“I was going to say that when I first worked here I was showered with gifts, but like a husband whose ardour for his bride cools after a few months, so too the family began to take me for granted as the subordinate that I am—quite right of them, I might add, for I found such attentions embarrassing—and the presents ceased.”
She smiled and stooped down, fairly throwing her arms around Flossy, adding, “But they saved the best for last, didn’t they, boy!” For the spaniel had, as a puppy, been a gift from the young ladies of the household.
We were within a quarter-mile of the Ouse by now, and so I asked Anne if she would like to continue on. “As long as we do not go too quickly,” said she, “for you know how my shortness of breath can tire me. Needless to say, Flossy will make a jubilee of it!”
She took my arm again and we walked together in silence for a few moments. I turned over in my mind what she had said, and I had to confess to myself a certain foolish disappointment that I had not been especially favoured by Mrs. Robinson—or the Robinsons, as I had quite intentionally said to Anne.
As we approached the Ouse, Anne grew somewhat serious. “Mrs. Robinson does ask a great many questions about you, Branwell. Unusual questions: where have you worked, what you have studied”—she blushed—“even whether you have ever had admirers.”
I fought back the feelings that now welled up at this unexpected revelation, assuming a stern mask and lying, with uncharacteristic coolness, “Well, you know that my only true encounter with the fair sex was the disastrous visit of the unfortunate Mary Taylor, when she revealed her feelings and I shrank icily into myself, like a fool.”
Anne frowned as we walked in silence until a thought occurred to me, a way out, the perfect—indeed, most obvious—distraction from Anne’s apparent misgivings about our mistress.
“Don’t you see why Mrs. Robinson wants to know all about me—especially about les affaires du coeur? It’s as plain as the little nose on Flossy’s little face.”
She could not resist smiling at this, and turned to me as we approached the banks of the Ouse.
“No? Why, Heavens, dear little sister,” said I, “what an innocent you are! Have you not seen what shameless flirts your three charges become when I’m in the vicinity? Or, for that matter, when any biped in trousers, including those who cluster round them after church, is within shouting distance? Of course you have, for you told me of their conduct before I had ever witnessed it myself. They are naughty little monkeys, don’t you think? I can only imagine their good mamma’s anxiety at their conduct, for if, as you say, she is concerned only that they marry well, she must live in mortal dread that one or more of them will run off and marry a nobody over the Scottish border, at Gretna Green. And who could be more of a nobody than their brother’s tutor, the son a poor clergyman? Since I have unquestioned access to the house, is it any wonder that she wants to know everything about me, especially if I am a vile seducer, the very devil among them? Ha ha!”
Anne seemed utterly calmed by this speech, on whose cleverness and reason I had to congratulate myself. I confess that I had nearly convinced myself of its veracity, though I hoped I was wrong and feared I was right. Still, would Mrs. Robinson not have made such inquiries even before engaging me as tutor?
“Those giddy girls have driven you mad,” said I, changing the subject. I pointed at the small volume she was carrying. “Now tell me what you are reading.” She passed me an edition of William Cowper’s poems.
“Of course, your beloved Cowper. Do you never tire of him?” I handed the volume back to her. Clearly she had not, so I did not give her time to respond. “Let us test my memory: his last poem, that monument to despair and oblivion, “The Castaway.” Fear not, for I’ll not recite the whole thing, just the last stanza—will that do, Miss Brontë?”
Her furrowed brow suggested that Anne feared that I was mocking her, Cowper, and even the Almighty himself; and though I could feel her silent consternation, I sallied on:
No voice divine the storm allay’d
No light propitious shone,
When, snatch’d from all effectual aid,
We perish’d each alone;
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm’d in deeper gulfs than he.
To make light of death, of Cowper’s own struggles, his belief that he had been abandoned by God at his life’s end, was a source of terror rather than amusement to Anne. We approached an old oak tree that had fallen under the weight of the winter’s snow, and its dead roots stretched out imploringly, impotently, toward the westering sun. One of its larger branches now formed, horizontal with the riverbank, a graceful bench, where brother and sister could sit and watch May’s swift steam rush southward toward York. It even gave gently with our weight, like the seat of a gig on its spring, and I could bounce us if I chose with a simple flex of my toes. Flossy, never losing sight of his mistress, carefully, almost daintily, explored the edge of the river, occasionally leaping and barking at a bird that flew too close, or perhaps at other creatures that remained unnoticed by the limited senses of his human companions.
Anne turned to me. “Do you not think, brother, that there are certain subjects that should remain above ridicule? Must everything be a jest to you?”
“Forgive me, Anne. I’m afraid I am overtaken at times by the attitudes of some of my childhood characters. Do you recall old Robert Patrick Sdeath, that red-haired minion of the Duke of Northangerland?”
“Yes, yet another of your alter egos, that one in particular having the nasty habit of mocking sacred scripture, among other things.” She shuddered.
“Whisht,” said I, trying to pacify her with an imitation of Tabby. “Do you know that even dear Mr. Weightman was known to jest in this way? Truly, he did.”
“Did he mock scripture itself or only those hypocrites who would use it to justify their own place in heaven, while flinging others into hell?”
I had to confess to myself that it was only the latter and never the former, and we lapsed into silence. So full was the Ouse that it crept here and there onto its banks, where wildflowers—bluebells and purple orchids, mostly—had begun to dot the bright grasses, and all waved together in a gentle breeze, like loved ones gathered on the docks of a great port city, bidding the soon-departed adieu.
Meanwhile, Flossy had returned from his investigations, and now pressed his head against his mistress’s knee, his eyes full of the purest, simplest love, his tongue lolling about as he caught his breath. Anne returned his affection with tender scratches behind his pendulous ears, and sighed as she gazed at the swiftly passing current.
“I find it difficult to conceive that such an innocent lamb as thee wouldst ever fear for thy soul,” said I at last, bouncing our bench with a single extension of my toes.
She smiled, in spite of herself. “I must suppose you mock the common folk and not scripture with your employment of thee and thy.”
Her countenance grew dark again. “Ever since that fateful day in our childhood, when the earth shook and the bog above Haworth exploded, and afterwards, when papa preached his sermon about the end-times, I have lived in mortal fear of dying unshriven and unforgiven. Or worse—as the Calvinists would have it—of being one of those predestined to damnation.”
“Nonsense!” said I, doing my best to imitate Mrs. Robinsons herself, and drawing yet another, albeit slight, smile from Anne. “If there is such a place as Heaven—
“Branwell!” Anne fairly shouted. “Do not utter such blasphemy!”
“Now, now, baby sister, calm yourself. Do you not believe in your heart that only the wicked among us—wicked not just in their thoughts but in their deeds—will be damned for all eternity?”
“For by grace are ye saved through faith,” said she. “And that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.”
“So you are suggesting that it is the presence of the slightest doubt—the blasphemy with which you charge me—that will send one to his perdition? Have you not had a doubt in your life—about God, that is, and the Bible—about Heaven and Hell?”
“I have, Branwell,” said she, her eyes beginning to brim like the Ouse before us. “Of course I have. That is why I fear death and damnation.”
Poor Weightman, thought I. Poor Anne. They really would have made a handsome couple, and pious, too—the kind of genuine piety that makes one want to be good rather than ridicule such fervour. Regardless of whether he had had feelings for her, or she for him, I was struck by how much in sympathy their gentle souls would have been. In that moment I felt a surge of love for them both, one living and the other dead.
“We all have doubts,” I assured her. “Even Papa would agree with that, would he not?”
I had spoken in earnest, though what followed rang false to me: I now became, myself, one of those hypocrites I so abhorred, as I added, “All we can do is pray for God’s grace, his forgiveness.”
This was hypocrisy precisely because when I pray to God I feel more like Cowper’s castaway, my prayers themselves cast into an unresponsive void: No voice divine the storm allay’d, No light propitious shone. It occurred to me: is not this sort of hypocrisy—the sententious pronouncement of religious beliefs that we, ourselves, do not believe, only for the benefit of others—a sin as bad as blasphemy itself? For if nothing else, the blasphemer says what he honestly feels, and what true believer would ever blaspheme? How could it be that I could feel, at once, a kind of tender, fraternal, almost religious love for Anne, whilst beneath its surface, just as genuine, rose a fury at a God—or Man, who invented God—who would allow such a sweet soul to be tortured with thoughts of eternal damnation?
Anne coughed, and I noticed the air had begun to cool, as the sun descended behind a line of trees to the west. “Here, sister, give me your arm. Let us wend our way home.”
As we made our way through a patch of woods, past the dairy and stables, and onto the vast lawn at Thorp Green, the grand hall itself rose up before us. Though we walked in shade toward the house, the setting sun shot beyond us to illuminate the billowing clouds piled high above it. For a boy raised in the crowded parsonage of a squalid village, here was a palace set in a pristine land; I could not have created anything more splendid in Angria itself. As I gripped my copy of Macaulay’s Lays in my left hand and squeezed Anne’s with my right, I felt the remnants of the gloom that had encircled me since my arrival at last melt fully away, like the final snows of winter.
What a fool, thought I, to have been depressed here!
May 22nd, 1843 Thorp Green
Plans are afoot for the summer holidays: Anne will, as usual, return to Haworth for a time next month, after which she will travel to her beloved Scarborough to join the Robinsons. To my surprise, I am to remain at Thorp Green in June, and accompany the family to the seaside in July. I learned of this all only this morning: as I awaited my pupil in the library, perusing the bookshelves, I heard behind me the familiar rustling of Mrs. Robinson’s garments. Her countenance was flushed, whether from her usual brisk movements or some interior cause, I knew not. In her arms she carried four volumes.
“Good morning, Mr. Brontë,” said she. “I am sorry to inform you that young Edmund is not well this morning. My poor angel has a fever and a bit of a cough, and one can’t be too careful with these things.” Indeed, thought I: Maria, Elizabeth, and her own little Georgiana—all taken in childhood.
“Oh, I am so sorry,” said I with genuine concern, for he truly is a pleasant, if dull, little scholar. “Not too serious, I hope.”
“I am quite certain that with sleep and two or three days’ rest, he will mend himself in no time at all,” she responded, smiling. “While I am here I would like to discuss another matter,” she added, and without pausing for me to respond, she continued, “Since you have just arrived in January and are making such progress with Edmund, I wonder if you might stay at Thorp Green until we go to Scarborough. I worry that he will forget all that he has learned.”
She paused for a moment, her lips parting slightly, her nostrils widening and bosom rising ever so slightly as she drew in a breath. “I hope you and I can speak plainly with each other, Mr. Brontë.”
“Why yes,” said I, “of course.”
She ran her hand along her right temple, as if to smooth her hair, but no such adjustment was necessary. Did I imagine it, or did her hand tremble slightly?
“The truth is—and you and I can speak of this, even if my husband chooses not to”—here her brow clouded over—“the truth is that Edmund’s gifts are not of the intellectual kind, though he is such a good boy. The truth is that with enough effort—and especially under your constant tuition—he will know more than enough to succeed his father at Thorp Green. So what we ask is just two or three hours of lessons a day in the summer; the rest of the time you will be free to ramble, to write, or do whatever you are inclined to do.”
Another pause. “I know how fond you are of your sisters, and your venerable father, so do take a day or two to think about it if you like.”
My mind raced forward so quickly that such a period of reflection was hardly necessary: yes, I had been lonely and miserable at the outset, but the family had embraced me, so much so that I began to feel an especial favourite, and Dr. Crosby had grown into a faithful friend, through whom I had begun to meet fellow lovers of music, art, and literature in the proximity. Though I was careful to exercise moderation, we even met from time to time at one of the public houses in Little Ouseburn. Thorp Green is beautiful, and so near to York, where I have since returned, both with Crosby and the family itself. Surely papa will be pleased that I am so valued, and I will not shed any tears over my absence from Haworth, even though being there with my two younger sisters and without Charlotte has its appeal, and I do miss the company of Brown and Leyland, among others. Finally, and of capital importance, the brutal truth is that I might well be sacked—eventually—if I choose not to obey the Robinsons’ command.
All of this flashed like lightning through my mind. I looked at Mrs. Robinson, and the thought of walking these halls and grounds alone, seeing only her and her three saucy daughters, with her husband confined to his bed and my sister far, far away, gave me an involuntary, irrational frisson. I even considered…but before the thought could fully form itself, I crushed it, saying again: stupid dupe! But it did not matter, for just being in the presence of my mistress and her daughters would allow me to gaze and gape to my heart’s content.
I must have smiled at this thought, for Mrs. Robinson grew serious and said, “Does something amuse you?”
“No, no, not at all,” said I, inventing on the fly. “I was just thinking, in fact, how pleased my father and sisters will be that I am so valued at Thorp Green. I believe they would gladly be spared the pleasure of my company in return for such assurances!”
“Very well then, Mr. Brontë. Does this mean that you have taken your decision? No need to reflect?” The blush had faded from her cheeks, but her lovely eyes and teeth were now fully deployed in a beguiling smile.
“No need to reflect at all, ma'am.”
“I am so pleased to hear it.”
I looked down at the four volumes, which she still held in her arms.
“My, but those must be getting heavy. May I disencumber you? I’ll be happy to find a place for them on the library shelves.”
She extended the four small volumes to me, still smiling. “You may take them, but they are for you, not for our library. I was in York and saw them at Mr. Bellerby’s shop in Stonegate last week, and it seemed to me that it was just the kind of thing that would please you. Upon perusing them myself—for I confess that I have cut the pages and read a few of them—I am more certain of this than ever.”
Such unwonted familiarity brought forth in me, as it often does, a nervous, slightly jocular response. “Ah, so this is a thank-you gift for my agreeing to stay, rather than an inducement to do so.” The moment the words had escaped my lips, I desperately wished to call them back; my mistress, however, was happy to be part of the game. Her smile remained, as the years and social distance between us seemed to collapse in an instant, and she responded, “How could this be payment when you have not yet performed your duties?”
“You are correct in this as all things, ma’am,” said I, bowing.
Still smiling, she paused—did she bite her lip like a young girl, or did I imagine it?— then nodded slightly, and swept out of the room.
My daily duties abruptly cancelled, I sat down near an open window, where I could feel the warming breeze on my face and where birdsong drifted in from the park. From time to time came a burst of chatter or laughter from the schoolroom above, where Anne instructed the young ladies, or the occasional shout of a farmhand in the distance, but otherwise all was calm. I opened the first of the four volumes, curious to see what Mrs. Robinson was so certain to be just the sort of thing that would please me, finding the following on the title page:
PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY
BY MRS. SHELLEY
IN FOUR VOLUMES
EDWARD MOXON, DOVER STREET
The frontispiece bears an image of the eternally young poet, along with his signature, while the title page quotes Petrarch. What a lavish gift, though I, as I flipped through the volumes, whose pages had, as Mrs. Robinson had candidly reported, been cut.
I noticed a small slip of paper, with only with the initials LGR. It smelled strongly of perfume, and had been used to mark the page to Shelley’s “Epipsychidion.” I sat with my legs crossed, the book on my knee, and my left hand running the paper beneath my nostrils as I read somewhat distractedly, still thinking about our conversation:
Our breath shall intermix, our bosoms bound,
And our veins beat together; and our lips
With other eloquence than words, eclipse
The soul that burns between them, and the wells
Which boil under our being’s inmost cells,
The fountains of our deepest life, shall be
Confus’d in Passion’s golden purity,
As mountain-springs under the morning sun.
Distracted no more, I sat bolt upright, filled suddenly with an ardent admixture of desire and apprehension. Surely, this was not intended for me—and yet the perfumed paper had not been placed upon this poem by chance. I knew not what to think, and a number of contradictory thoughts crowded upon me: Oh God, could it be? Stranger things have occurred, surely, than a liaison between a tutor and his mistress. But no, this could not possibly be true: she is the daughter and wife of clergymen, her father an evangelical like Papa, no less. She is the doting mother of four children, one whose conduct is above reproach, or my sister would surely have fled long ago. Certainly there is much that Anne does not sanction about the manner in which Mrs. Robinson is raising her children—especially her daughters—but never has she hinted at immoral conduct. I read on to the poem’s end:
We shall become the same, we shall be one
Spirit within two frames, oh! Wherefore two?
One passion in twin-hearts, which grows and grew,
Till like two meteors of expanding flame,
Those spheres instinct with it become the same,
Touch, mingle, are transfigur’d; ever still
Burning, yet ever inconsumable:
In one another’s substance finding food,
Like flames too pure and light and unimbu’d
To nourish their bright lives with baser prey,
Which point to Heaven and cannot pass away:
One hope within two wills, one will beneath
Two overshadowing minds, one life, one death,
One Heaven, one Hell, one immortality,
And one annihilation. Woe is me!
The winged words on which my soul would pierce
Into the height of Love’s rare Universe,
Are chains of lead around its flight of fire—
I pant, I sink, I tremble, I expire!
Oh God! It was not solely the choice of this particular poem, but of Shelley himself. Shelley: he who had eloped with a sixteen-year-old and later abandoned her, pregnant, for another sixteen-year-old, she who would write Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, and who so many years later would edit the very book I held in my hands. Shelley, whose first wife Harriet had drowned herself and the baby she carried in the Serpentine in Hyde Park. Shelley, who had been expelled from Oxford for refusing to repudiate his pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism. Shelley, who wrote infamously of marriage:
I conceive that from the abolition of marriage, the fit and natural arrangement of sexual connection would result…In fact, religion and morality, as they now stand, compose a practical code of misery and servitude: the genius of human happiness must tear every leaf from the accursed book of God ere man can read the inscription on his heart. How would morality, dressed up in stiff stays and finery, start from her own disgusting image should she look in the mirror of nature!—
This, then, was the book Mrs. Robinson had decided would be just the sort of thing to please me. My ears and face hot with desire, my mind aflame with the possibilities, I gathered up the volumes and walked directly to the Old Hall, where I took out a sheet of paper and dashed off a letter to John Brown, that “Old Knave of Trumps,” the essence of which was to tell him of my situation, and ask if he thinks I should go to extremities with her.
I feel powerless to act, to think, to read, or to write. I am on tenterhooks until I know the issue of this situation. I wonder—I wonder if Crosby might provide some insight into all of this. If tomorrow young Edmund is still unwell I shall do my best to find the good surgeon, if not here at Thorp Green, then at home in Great Ouseburn. But how to ask him without really asking? Aye, there’s the rub.
Chapter XXVIII—Standing on the Precipice
May 23rd, 1843 Thorp Green
Good God—what a dream I have had! I sat in the front row as Papa preached from an impossibly high pulpit. This, however, was not our homely parish church in Haworth but rather the immense interior of York Minster itself. The subject of the sermon was the sanctity of marriage, which I found unbearably tedious; I grew weary and writhed, yawned, nodded, pinched and pricked myself, and rubbed my eyes, at which father showered several blows on the boards of the pulpit, scowling down at me as if to say thou art the man of whom I speak, the defiler, the adulterer!
“Now then,” he resumed more calmly, if no less sternly, “As Paul says in his Letter to the Hebrews, Marriage is honourable to all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge’.” Wide awake at last in my shame, I turned to avoid his gaze, finding that the cavernous cathedral held not only a full and attentive congregation, but my employers, Mr. and Mrs. Robinson, who sat on either side of me in this, the box closest to the pulpit. The first of these sat to my left, hunched in his nightcap and nightgown, swathed in a woollen blanket, his eyes sunken into his pale, wasting face; the second sat to my right in a low frock of silk, something from an earlier era—that of her youth?—her arms, shoulders, neck and bosom splendidly bare as she smiled warmly at me, squeezing my hand in hers. She seemed no older than I.
“So often,” continued the sermon, “man believes that adultery is a sin of the flesh, and so it is, so it is. Yet it is not merely a sin of the flesh, but far more seriously it is an extension of man’s original transgression: to be—to know—to possess—more than God has granted him. It is the sin of the first man and woman. It is wrong to say that Adam and Eve were simply cast out of Eden; nay, in disobeying God our first parents chose to walk out of the Earthly Paradise which He had wrought for then. Think of the word transgression itself: in its Latin origins, it is a going over or a going beyond. Adam was no more an automaton than we are.
“Yes, and tradition tells us that this was also the sin of Lucifer’s fall. Even the pagans who could never knew our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ understood—as we learn from the story of Icarus—the danger of human transgression, of overreaching—for is not human yearning just another form of lust, and is not lust the most sinful kind of desire?”
My mistress squeezed my hand again; her husband coughed.
“That is why,” the Reverend Brontë pursued, “it is natural that Paul should continue directly from a consideration of adultery in verse 4 to this, in verse 5: ‘Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee’.”
At this, Mrs. Robinson leant over to me and repeated the same words, in a blasphemous whisper, in my ear: “And I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” She took my face in her hands and turned my mouth to hers, and soon deep, passionate kisses were followed by caresses, for as we kissed she guided my left hand from her right cheek, down along her soft neck and into the warm, dewy cleavage between her breasts. I was wild with desire for her.
Over her shoulder, across the central aisle, I saw Brown and Leyland sitting together; they smiled and nodded enthusiastically, as my hands moved over her neck and shoulders and breasts. Strangely, as the flame of our passion leapt higher, Papa no longer seemed to see us; were we somehow shielded from him; or did he not care what transpired before his pulpit? He simply continued with his sermon. “Are not, in fact, adultery and theft just the result of man’s acting upon his covetousness? Do not most sins spring from man’s arrogance and pride, and his lack of humility and contentment?”
I heard nothing more, for I was drowning in lust, as deaf to my father’s sermon as the castaway who slips beneath the waves is to the shouts of his fellow mariners, who seek to save him. At last I was conscious that the congregation had crowded round us, pushing one another to get a better view of our amorous proceedings; and yet, I did not care, and as I slipped Mrs. Robinson’s silken gown from her shoulders and bent my head to kiss her breasts she cried out in delight, using my Christian name for the first time, “Oh Branwell! Branwell!” She uttered my name repeatedly until I wondered why she would not stop—and at last her form seemed to fade quite away, along with papa, and everyone else, until at last the very walls of York Minster vanished into air.
Only the voice remained, incessantly calling my name.
“Branwell! Branwell!” It was Anne, shaking my shoulder to wake me. She laughed.
“Goodness, brother, you were in the deepest of slumbers, though you were moving about and uttering nonsense. You just brought to mind Flossy, when he is dream-chasing dream-rabbits before the fire!”
“What is it, Anne? Is everything all right?”
“Yes, yes, of course. I just wanted your august opinion on a matter of the utmost importance. I thought you would be up at this hour.”
Anne sat down upon my bed. I rolled over and sat up, rubbing my eyes.
“Yes?” said I.
“I want to ask the Robinsons a favor, and yet I wonder if it will be poorly received. It’s about Flossy.”
I grunted for her to go on, thinking: My dream was interrupted by a question about a DOG?
“I think it would be such a lovely surprise for Emily and Papa if I could take him with me to Haworth next month.” She paused, the morning sun illuminating her eyes, beneath those perpetually arched brows. “What do you think?”
I thought about Mrs. Robinson—both the real one and the ideal one who had just dissipated with my dream: if it was true that she was quite adamant about having Anne take her usual holiday whilst I remained at Thorp Green, surely anything that would ensure the plan would be readily accepted. Besides, was not the dog Anne’s anyway? I said so.
“Wasn’t Flossy a gift to you, and is he not yours to do with as you see fit? Why, you could regularly thwack him on the skull with a walking stick if you wanted, or tie a large stone around his neck and drown him in the Ouse, for all the Robinsons care.”
I was well aware that such language would shock her; it was small punishment, thought I, for her having prevented me from consummating my adulterous embrace of the phantom Mrs. Robinson. My words had the desired effect, for her smile vanished.
“Branwell! Don't speak so of the lower creation, even in jest. They are sentient creatures, after all. Remember, a righteous man regardeth the life of his beast.”
Although I find animals, especially dogs, companionable enough, and in my heart abhor cruelty toward them as much as Anne does, I do remain somewhat mystified by the excess of affection given to these dumb creatures by my two younger sisters. In this respect, at least, Charlotte and I still concur.
“Yes, yes, I know, Anne. Of course we should not be cruel to any creature. I simply illustrate a larger point, which I hope your pious outrage has not entirely cast into obscurity: Flossy is yours. So by all means, I am sure your request will be granted, if you even think it necessary to ask.”
Her smile had returned, and she ran her hand through my hair. “I think,” said she, “that despite your attempts to shock your little sister, you are not, in the end, such a mauvais garçon.”
Long, long ago, when we were children, Emily had found a part of my History of the Young Men, read it, and written on the back of its title page, in rudimentary French: “It was very well written, I thought. No, not really. My goodness you are a naughty boy and you will be a shocking man.” While most such things are quickly and forever forgotten, Emily’s name for me—un mauvais garçon—had somehow stuck, to become a permanent part of Brontë family lore, by sheer force of repetition.
Anne leant over and placed a gentle kiss on my forehead, and was soon on her feet and out the door, calling “Goodbye, dearest brother, thank you for your wise counsel, as always!” As so often with Anne, it was difficult to tell whether or not her words concealed just the slightest hint of mockery or sarcasm.
Another free day before me, I dressed, breakfasted, and set out in the direction of Great Ouseburn, to find Dr. Crosby, turning over in my mind just how to ask about Mrs. Robinson. I was at a loss, but had close to an hour to consider things while I walked.
Unfortunately, I had not even reached Little Ouseburn when who should appear before me but the good surgeon himself.
“Hello!” cried Crosby. “I must say that from all appearances you have now made a full recovery, young man!”
“And that without the aid of your cure-all, laudanum, I would point out.”
“Now now, Brontë,” said he, laughing, “that was Dr. Beckwith—may he rest in peace—not me, remember? I simply stated that it was a substance commonly employed and not nearly so dangerous as some might have you think. Moderatio! As with anything else, eh lad?”
“Yes, yes, moderatio. Not such an easy proposition as some think, however, is it?”
“Oh, I don’t know. With enough will anything is possible.”
As Crosby uttered these words it occurred to me that he was part of that large portion of mankind for whom moderation is as natural as eating and sleeping, and who gaze uncomprehendingly, and sometimes even in hostile judgment, at the other lot, those who—like me—are forever at risk of plunging headlong into wild license, as I had at Luddenden Foot. I shuddered. My own thoughts, though, were far from censorious, for I could no more dislike the affable Crosby than I could a John Brown or a Joe Leyland.
Seeking to turn our conversation in another direction, and to know his destination, I asked whither he was bound at this early hour.
“Why, to see your young pupil, of course,” said he. “And pay my regular visit to his father, who as you know is more gravely ill. I might ask you the same question.”
“It so happens that I was on my way to see an illustrious surgeon in Great Ouseburn, but just as I conjured him in my mind’s eye, he appeared before me, as if by magic, like a little green man!”
“Ha! Well then, let us walk together,” he said, clapping me on the back.
I was silent for quite some time as we walked, not knowing how to broach the subject. Presently, Crosby solved the problem for me, taking my elbow and turning me to face him in the lane. It was another lovely spring day, and leaves of the brightest shades of green waltzed on the breeze above us.
“I must ask you something, Brontë.”
“What do you think of your mistress?”
A chill ran through me, and nervous perspiration sprang to my forehead.
“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
“Well, then, let me enlighten you, though a part of me feels I should hold my tongue. I have been alone in the presence of Mrs. Robinson on numerous occasions since your arrival—to discuss her husband’s health of course—and she is increasingly impatient with our usual topics of conversation.”
“I still don’t know what you are talking about, Crosby.”
“Can you guess what—or I should say whom—she wants to discuss?”
“No,” said I, but my heart rose at the possibility.
“You, of course.”
I feigned astonishment, though in fact his words were the final piece of a puzzle, and confirmed what I had hoped—or was it what I had feared? I was ecstatic at the possibility of losing myself in her—and here the images of this morning’s dream returned—and yet was terrified at the danger of discovery.
“I don’t understand,” I lied again.
“She speaks about you incessantly, and wants to know if you talk about her.”
“And what do you say?” I asked.
“I must confess, Brontë, that it’s a rather embarrassing position to be in, so I say very little. I am caring for her sick husband and am paid by him. When asked a direct question, such as whether you talk about her, I answer as simply as possible.
“And what is your response?”
“My response is that you do not speak of her any more than is appropriate for a subordinate, at which intelligence she bites her lip and gazes out the window toward the Old Hall.”
I could bear it no longer, and told Crosby about the gifts, especially The Poetical Works of Shelley, and how she had marked “Epipsychidion” with a perfumed paper bearing her initials. Crosby mused for a moment, then said at last, “If I had any doubts—though I really did not—they have now been removed: Mrs. Robinson clearly wishes to have an adulterous liaison with you. Her husband is ill, and yet I suspect that she feels herself to be still “young” and full of passion, if you take my meaning.
“What makes you think she would betray her husband by going to such extremities?”
“It would not be the first time.”
“How do you know?”
“I just know. I refuse to say more than that.” It was clear that he would speak no more on the topic, and I realised that I did not want to know either. I determined that if she loved me now, her past was irrelevant.
“So what,” I asked, “do you propose I do?”
“That, my young friend, is entirely up to you. If you are asking me if I would object to such a liaison on moral grounds, I can tell you absolutely not. We all have animal appetites—some of us greater than others—and I don’t believe mere human convention should stand in the way of them. As a doctor I can affirm that a bit of exercise would do both you and your mistress much good,” and here at last the glimmer of a smile appeared on Crosby’s face. “What your master doesn’t know won’t hurt him, surely.”
Still, he paused and frowned. “On the other hand,” said he, “I’m afraid society does not share my heterodox views, which are closer to Mr. Shelley’s than to the Church of England.”
“What do you suppose Mrs. Robinson’s views of marriage are, then?”
“I suppose she is a staunch supporter of the institution as it exists today. For is she not rearing her girls to be as marriageable as possible? But I suspect she does not utter such words as love in the same breath as marriage.”
“So, according to you, she is a hypocrite?”
“That might be one way of seeing the matter. However, she might just consider it practical. She might just see marriage as a means to an end, an invaluable instrument to get what one wants, and to do as one pleases: and that is where love finally comes in.” He paused to reflect. “Then again, if she had a happy marriage she might indeed have a different view of the matter.”
Crosby went on to reveal something entirely unexpected. The lady’s husband, it seems, is not at all the grave, pious gentleman that he shows to the world, but is in reality a waspish, splenetic creature who earlier in his married life had, himself, conducted innumerable adulterous liaisons. He would leave his wife and young children alone for whole seasons at a time whilst he, perpetually inebriated with his boon companions, whored his way through London. He would return just regularly enough to plague the household with his antics, and father another child. It was only when his debauchery began to erode his health that he was at last confined to Thorp Green. When no one is near, he continues, from his very sickbed, to heap unrepentant abuse upon Mrs. Robinson. Only Crosby and Ann Marshall—and, increasingly, the older girls, who at last begin to see things as they are—have been honoured with glimpses of the true Mr. Robinson, and this only by chance, for if he knows anyone else is near, he immediately dons his pious mask.
I turned this revelation round in my mind; it changed things considerably, for my mistress was now the victim. Had she not been buried alive in an infernal marriage? If she had, as Crosby hinted, once taken a lover, surely it was a case of legitimate revenge. She was not the epitome of hypocrisy, but was instead its lovely martyr. Her showering of gifts, her incessant talk of me—all now seemed plain. She was not a depraved, wicked, insatiable woman, but a sweet damsel in distress, crying out for salvation from her captivity.
We walked on in silence.
“I wonder,” said Crosby, “whether I’ve said far too much.”
“You know, my friend,” I said, slapping him on the back, “that even if I did not cherish your friendship in and of itself, I have quite practical reasons for holding my tongue, for would we not be mutually destroyed if I were to divulge any of this?”
I paused and looked up at the shimmering ceiling of green high above our heads, the leaves positively making love to the mild spring breeze. “Does Mr. Robinson ever mention me?”
“Interesting question. In fact, your name is no longer mentioned. The mistress was used to talking about you, and once even suggested that she send your poetry to McCauley, but her husband grew so peevish with jealousy—or so it seemed to me, for I was present—that I have never again heard your name uttered between them. If I had to guess, I would say that you are not entirely out of his mind, and so I would take care not to do anything that might be reported back to him.”
As I pondered this additional intelligence, I saw that our brisk walk had already brought us back to Thorp Green. Crosby again took my elbow, bidding me to sit with him on a low wall within sight of the great house.
“Well,” said he at last. “Do you reciprocate her feelings?”
But dare I betray my master? His choleric nature seems another obstacle to overcome. If we were ever discovered I would surely be dismissed. And yet, if I spurned my mistress, would she not in all likelihood find a pretext for sacking me, since she would henceforth find my appearance repugnant to her? Hell hath no fury, after all. Or was I justifying a possible betrayal through mere sophistry? Yet it did appear to me that I was navigating between Scylla and Charybdis, and indeed, Crosby’s thoughts were sailing along beside mine.
“If ever you were discovered you would be dismissed, you know. Then again, if you refuse her you may also be dismissed, though in a more amicable fashion, of course.”
“What am I to do?”
“I told you,” said my friend, “that is up to you. There’s nothing I can do…although…”
“Well, the one thing I can do is to tell her that you mentioned her gift, and that as we talked you finally declared your love for her, but begging that I keep it to myself and that I tell no one, including her. I will inform her that while I do not believe in breaking confidences, my duty is nevertheless, above all, to her. Once she knows how you feel, it will be up to the two of you to decide what to do next.”
If exultation and dread can reside in a single bosom, they shared mine: exultation at the thought that my mistress loved me, dread at what could go awry if ever we were discovered. I stood on the edge of a precipice, feeling I could not only soar like Icarus, but like him fly too close to the sun. Papa's dream-image, leaning over his impossibly high dream-pulpit, flashed before me, but was soon succeeded by that of my mistress, pulling my hand into the marvelously moist area between her ample breasts, which, as they emerged from her silken gown, seemed all too real.
Yes, I stood on the precipice, but not for long: I jumped. “Yes, Crosby, tell her how I feel.”
“I will indeed,” said he, and soon we were on our feet and crossing the vast park, parting ways before the house.
“Just one more thing, Brontë, and it is no small matter. Indeed, it goes to my very livelihood and the welfare of my nephew, who is like an only son. I wish to know nothing—absolutely nothing—of this matter henceforth, and will speak of it no more.”
I looked at him, puzzled.
“You see,” he continued, “I cannot fall from the favour of the Reverend Mr. Robinson, for if ever he discovers your proceedings, I must be able to say, with honesty, that I was unaware of them.”
I nodded assent and we shook hands in agreement. As I write these words, my nerves are strung as taut as an archer’s bow, for I know not what will happen next.
THE END OF VOLUME II
To be continued on 16 May 2020