The Life of Charlotte Bronte, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XII

Towards the end of January, the time came for Charlotte to return to Brussels. Her journey thither was rather disastrous. She had to make her way alone; and the train from Leeds to London, which should have reached Euston-square early in the afternoon, was so much delayed that it did not get in till ten at night. She had intended to seek out the Chapter Coffee-house, where she had stayed before, and which would have been near the place where the steam-boats lay; but she appears to have been frightened by the idea of arriving at an hour which, to Yorkshire notions, was so late and unseemly; and taking a cab, therefore, at the station, she drove straight to the London Bridge Wharf, and desired a waterman to row her to the Ostend packet, which was to sail the next morning. She described to me, pretty much as she has since described it in “Villette,” her sense of loneliness, and yet her strange pleasure in the excitement of the situation, as in the dead of that winter’s night she went swiftly over the dark river to the black hull’s side, and was at first refused leave to ascend to the deck. “No passengers might sleep on board,” they said, with some appearance of disrespect. She looked back to the lights and subdued noises of London — that “Mighty Heart” in which she had no place — and, standing up in the rocking boat, she asked to speak to some one in authority on board the packet. He came, and her quiet simple statement of her wish, and her reason for it, quelled the feeling of sneering distrust in those who had first heard her request; and impressed the authority so favourably that he allowed her to come on board, and take possession of a berth. The next morning she sailed; and at seven on Sunday evening she reached the Rue d’Isabelle once more; having only left Haworth on Friday morning at an early hour.

Her salary was 16L. a year; out of which she had to pay for her German lessons, for which she was charged as much (the lessons being probably rated by time) as when Emily learnt with her and divided the expense, viz., ten francs a month. By Miss Bronte’s own desire, she gave her English lessons in the CLASSE, or schoolroom, without the supervision of Madame or M. Heger. They offered to be present, with a view to maintain order among the unruly Belgian girls; but she declined this, saying that she would rather enforce discipline by her own manner and character than be indebted for obedience to the presence of a GENDARME. She ruled over a new school-room, which had been built on the space in the play-ground adjoining the house. Over that First Class she was SURVEILLANTE at all hours; and henceforward she was called MADEMOISELLE Charlotte by M. Heger’s orders. She continued her own studies, principally attending to German, and to Literature; and every Sunday she went alone to the German and English chapels. Her walks too were solitary, and principally taken in the allee defendue, where she was secure from intrusion. This solitude was a perilous luxury to one of her temperament; so liable as she was to morbid and acute mental suffering.

On March 6th, 1843, she writes thus:-

“I am settled by this time, of course. I am not too much overloaded with occupation; and besides teaching English, I have time to improve myself in German. I ought to consider myself well off, and to be thankful for my good fortunes. I hope I am thankful; and if I could always keep up my spirits and never feel lonely, or long for companionship, or friendship, or whatever they call it, I should do very well. As I told you before, M. and Madame Heger are the only two persons in the house for whom I really experience regard and esteem, and of course, I cannot be always with them, nor even very often. They told me, when I first returned, that I was to consider their sitting-room my sitting- room also, and to go there whenever I was not engaged in the schoolroom. This, however, I cannot do. In the daytime it is a public room, where music-masters and mistresses are constantly passing in and out; and in the evening, I will not, and ought not to intrude on M. and Madame Heger and their children. Thus I am a good deal by myself, out of school-hours; but that does not signify. I now regularly give English lessons to M. Heger and his brother-in-law. They get on with wonderful rapidity; especially the first. He already begins to speak English very decently. If you could see and hear the efforts I make to teach them to pronounce like Englishmen, and their unavailing attempts to imitate, you would laugh to all eternity.

“The Carnival is just over, and we have entered upon the gloom and abstinence of Lent. The first day of Lent we had coffee without milk for breakfast; vinegar and vegetables, with a very little salt fish, for dinner; and bread for supper. The Carnival was nothing but masking and mummery. M. Heger took me and one of the pupils into the town to see the masks. It was animating to see the immense crowds, and the general gaiety, but the masks were nothing. I have been twice to the D.‘s” (those cousins of “Mary’s” of whom I have before made mention). “When she leaves Bruxelles, I shall have nowhere to go to. I have had two letters from Mary. She does not tell me she has been ill, and she does not complain; but her letters are not the letters of a person in the enjoyment of great happiness. She has nobody to be as good to her as M. Heger is to me; to lend her books; to converse with her sometimes, &c.

“Good-bye. When I say so, it seems to me that you will hardly hear me; all the waves of the Channel heaving and roaring between must deaden the sound.”

From the tone of this letter, it may easily be perceived that the Brussels of 1843 was a different place from that of 1842. Then she had Emily for a daily and nightly solace and companion. She had the weekly variety of a visit to the family of the D.s; and she had the frequent happiness of seeing “Mary” and Martha. Now Emily was far away in Haworth — where she or any other loved one, might die, before Charlotte, with her utmost speed, could reach them, as experience, in her aunt’s case, had taught her. The D.s were leaving Brussels; so, henceforth, her weekly holiday would have to be passed in the Rue d’Isabelle, or so she thought. “Mary” was gone off on her own independent course; Martha alone remained — still and quiet for ever, in the cemetery beyond the Porte de Louvain. The weather, too, for the first few weeks after Charlotte’s return, had been piercingly cold; and her feeble constitution was always painfully sensitive to an inclement season. Mere bodily pain, however acute, she could always put aside; but too often ill-health assailed her in a part far more to be dreaded. Her depression of spirits, when she was not well, was pitiful in its extremity. She was aware that it was constitutional, and could reason about it; but no reasoning prevented her suffering mental agony, while the bodily cause remained in force.

The Hegers have discovered, since the publication of “Villette,” that at this beginning of her career as English teacher in their school, the conduct of her pupils was often impertinent and mutinous in the highest degree. But of this they were unaware at the time, as she had declined their presence, and never made any complaint. Still it must have been a depressing thought to her at this period, that her joyous, healthy, obtuse pupils were so little answerable to the powers she could bring to bear upon them; and though from their own testimony, her patience, firmness, and resolution, at length obtained their just reward, yet with one so weak in health and spirits, the reaction after such struggles as she frequently had with her pupils, must have been very sad and painful.

She thus writes to her friend E.:-

“April, 1843.

“Is there any talk of your coming to Brussels? During the bitter cold weather we had through February, and the principal part of March, I did not regret that you had not accompanied me. If I had seen you shivering as I shivered myself, if I had seen your hands and feet as red and swelled as mine were, my discomfort would just have been doubled. I can do very well under this sort of thing; it does not fret me; it only makes me numb and silent; but if you were to pass a winter in Belgium, you would be ill. However, more genial weather is coming now, and I wish you were here. Yet I never have pressed you, and never would press you too warmly to come. There are privations and humiliations to submit to; there is monotony and uniformity of life; and, above all, there is a constant sense of solitude in the midst of numbers. The Protestant, the foreigner, is a solitary being, whether as teacher or pupil. I do not say this by way of complaining of my own lot; for though I acknowledge that there are certain disadvantages in my present position, what position on earth is without them? And, whenever I turn back to compare what I am with what I was — my place here with my place at Mrs. —‘s for instance — I am thankful. There was an observation in your last letter which excited, for a moment, my wrath. At first, I thought it would be folly to reply to it, and I would let it die. Afterwards, I determined to give one answer, once for all. ‘Three or four people,’ it seems, ‘have the idea that the future EPOUX of Mademoiselle Bronte is on the Continent.’ These people are wiser than I am. They could not believe that I crossed the sea merely to return as teacher to Madame Hegers. I must have some more powerful motive than respect for my master and mistress, gratitude for their kindness, &c., to induce me to refuse a salary of 50L. in England, and accept one of 16L. in Belgium. I must, forsooth, have some remote hope of entrapping a husband somehow, or somewhere. If these charitable people knew the total seclusion of the life I lead — that I never exchange a word with any other man than Monsieur Heger, and seldom indeed with him — they would, perhaps, cease to suppose that any such chimerical and groundless notion had influenced my proceedings. Have I said enough to clear myself of so silly an imputation? Not that it is a crime to marry, or a crime to wish to be married; but it is an imbecility, which I reject with contempt, for women, who have neither fortune nor beauty, to make marriage the principal object of their wishes and hopes, and the aim of all their actions; not to be able to convince themselves that they are unattractive, and that they had better be quiet, and think of other things than wedlock.”

The following is an extract, from one of the few letters which have been preserved, of her correspondence with her sister Emily:-

“May 29, 1843

“I get on here from day to day in a Robinson-Crusoe-like sort of way, very lonely, but that does not signify. In other respects, I have nothing substantial to complain of, nor is this a cause for complaint. I hope you are well. Walk out often on the moors. My love to Tabby. I hope she keeps well.”

And about this time she wrote to her father,

“June 2nd, 1818,

“I was very glad to hear from home. I had begun to get low- spirited at not receiving any news, and to entertain indefinite fears that something was wrong. You do not say anything about your own health, but I hope you are well, and Emily also. I am afraid she will have a good deal of hard work to do now that Hannah” (a servant-girl who had been assisting Tabby) “is gone. I am exceedingly glad to hear that you still keep Tabby” (considerably upwards of seventy). “It is an act of great charity to her, and I do not think it will be unrewarded, for she is very faithful, and will always serve you, when she has occasion, to the best of her abilities; besides, she will be company for Emily, who, without her, would be very lonely.”

I gave a DEVOIR, written after she had been four months under M. Heger’s tuition. I will now copy out another, written nearly a year later, during which the progress made appears to me very great.

“31 Mai, 1843.

“SUR LA MORT DE NAPOLEON.

“Napoleon naquit en Corse et mourut e Ste. Helene. Entre ces deux iles rien qu’un vaste et brulant desert et l’ocean immense. Il naquit fils d’un simple gentilhomme, et mourut empereur, mais sans couronne et dans les fers. Entre son berceau et sa tombe qu’y a- t-il? la carriere d’un soldat parvenu, des champs de bataille, une mer de sang, un trone, puis du sang encore, et des fers. Sa vie, c’est l’arc en ciel; les deux points extremes touchent la terre, la comble lumi-neuse mesure les cieux. Sur Napoleon au berceau une mere brillait; dans la maison paternelle il avait des freres et des soeurs; plus tard dans son palais il eut une femme qui l’aimait. Mais sur son lit de mort Napoleon est seul; plus de mere, ni de frere, ni de soeur, ni de femme, ni d’enfant!! D’autres ont dit et rediront ses exploits, moi, je m’arrete e contempler l’abandonnement de sa derniere heure!

“Il est le, exile et captif, enchaine sur un ecueil. Nouveau Promethee il subit le chatiment de son orgueil! Promethee avait voulu etre Dieu et Createur; il deroba le feu du Ciel pour animer le corps qu’il avait forme. Et lui, Buonaparte, il a voulu creer, non pas un homme, mais un empire, et pour donner une existence, une ame, e son oeuvre gigantesque, il n’a pas hesite e arracher la vie e des nations entieres. Jupiter indigne de l’impiete de Promethee, le riva vivant e la cime du Caucase. Ainsi, pour punir l’ambition rapace de Buonaparte, la Providence l’a enchaine, jusqu’e ce que la mort s’en suivit, sur un roc isole de l’Atlantique. Peut-etre le aussi a-t-il senti lui fouillant le flanc cet insatiable vautour dont parle la fable, peut-etre a-t-il souffert aussi cette soif du coeur, cette faim de l’ame, qui torturent l’exile, loin de sa famille et de sa patrie. Mais parler ainsi n’est-ce pas attribuer gratuitement e Napoleon une humaine faiblesse qu’il n’eprouva jamais? Quand donc s’est-il laisse enchainer par un lien d’affection? Sans doute d’autres conquerants ont hesite dans leur carriere de gloire, arretes par un obstacle d’amour ou d’amitie, retenus par la main d’une femme, rappeles par la voix d’un ami — lui, jamais! Il n’eut pas besoin, comme Ulysse, de se lier au mat du navire, ni de se boucher les oreilles avec de la cire; il ne redoutait pas le chant des Sirenes — il le dedaignait; il se fit marbre et fer pour executer ses grands projets. Napoleon ne se regardait pas comme un homme, mais comme l’incarnation d’un peuple. Il n’aimait pas; il ne considerait ses amis et ses proches que comme des instruments auxquels il tint, tant qu’ils furent utiles, et qu’il jeta de cote quand ils cesserent de l’etre. Qu’on ne se permette donc pas d’approcher du sepulcre du Corse avec sentiments de pitie, ou de souiller de larmes la pierre qui couvre ses restes, son ame repudierait tout cela. On a dit, je le sais, qu’elle fut cruelle la main qui le separa de sa femme et de son enfant. Non, c’etait une main qui, comme la sienne, ne tremblait ni de passion ni de crainte, c’etait la main d’un homme froid, convaincu, qui avait su deviner Buonaparte; et voici ce que disait cet homme que la defaite n’a pu humilier, ni la victoire enorgueiller. ‘Marie- Louise n’est pas la femme de Napoleon; c’est la France que Napoleon a epousee; c’est la France qu’il aime, leur union enfante la perte de l’Europe; voile la divorce que je veux; voile l’union qu’il faut briser.’

“La voix des timides et des traitres protesta contre cette sentence. ‘C’est abuser de droit de la victoire! C’est fouler aux pieds le vaincu! Que l’Angleterre se montre clemente, qu’elle ouvre ses bras pour recevoir comme hote son ennemi desarme.’ L’Angleterre aurait peut-etre ecoute ce conseii, car partout et toujours il y a des ames faibles et timorees bientot seduites par la flatterie ou effrayees par le reproche. Mais la Providence permit qu’un homme se trouvat qui n’a jamais su ce que c’est que la crainte; qui aima sa patrie mieux que sa renommee; impenetrable devant les menaces, inaccessible aux louanges, il se presenta devant le conseil de la nation, et levant son front tranquille en haut, il osa dire: ‘Que la trahison se taise! car c’est trahir que de conseiller de temporiser avec Buonaparte. Moi je sais ce que sont ces guerres dont l’Europe saigne encore, comme une victime sous le couteau du boucher. Il faut en finir avec Napoleon Buonaparte. Vous vous effrayez e tort d’un mot si dur! Je n’ai pas de magnanimite, dit-on? Soit! que m’importe ce qu’on dit de moi? Je n’ai pas ici e me faire une reputation de heros magnanime, mais e guerir, si la cure est possible, l’Europe qui se meurt, epuisee de ressources et de sang, l’Europe dont vous negligez les vrais interets, pre-occupes que vous etes d’une vaine renommee de clemence. Vous etes faibles! Eh bien! je viens vous aider. Envoyez Buonaparte e Ste. Helene! n’hesitez pas, ne cherchez pas un autre endroit; c’est le seul convenable. Je vous le dis, j’ai reflechi pour vous; c’est le qu’il doit etre et non pas ailleurs. Quant e Napoleon, homme, soldat, je n’ai rien contre lui; c’est un lion royal, aupres de qui vous n’etes que des chacals. Mais Napoleon Empereur, c’est autre chose, je l’extirperai du sol de l’Europe.’ Et celui qui parla ainsi toujours sut garder sa promesse, celle-le comme toutes les autres. Je l’ai dit, et je le repete, cet homme est l’egal de Napoleon par le genie; comme trempe de caractere, comme droiture, comme elevation de pensee et de but, il est d’une tout autre espece. Napoleon Buonaparte etait avide de renommee et de gloire; Arthur Wellesley ne se soucie ni de l’une ni de l’autre; l’opinion publique, la popularite, etaient choses de grand valeur aux yeux de Napoleon; pour Wellington l’opinion publique est une rumeur, un rien que le souffle de son inflexible volonte fait disparaitre comme une bulle de savon. Napoleon flattait le peuple; Wellington le brusqne; l’un cherchait les applau-dissements, l’autre ne se soucie que du temoignage de sa conscience; quand elle approuve, c’est assez; toute autre louange l’obsede. Aussi ce peuple, qui adorait Buonaparte s’irritait, s’insurgeait contre la morgue de Wellington: parfois il lui temoigna sa colere et sa haine par des grognements, par des hurlements de betes fauves; et alors, avec une impassibilite de senateur romain, le moderne Coriolan toisait du regard l’emeute furieuse; il croisait ses bras nerveux sur sa large poitrine, et seul, debout sur son seuil, il attendait, il bravait cette tempete populaire dont les flots venaient mourir e quelques pas de lui: et quand la foule, honteuse de sa rebellion, venait lecher les pieds du maitre, le hautain patricien meprisait l’hommage d’aujourd’hui comme la haine d’hier, et dans les rues de Londres, et devant son palais ducal d’Apsley, il repoussait d’un genre plein de froid dedain l’incommode empressement du peuple enthousiaste. Cette fierte neanmoins n’excluait pas en lui une rare modestie; partout il se soustrait e l’eloge; se derobe au panegyrique; jamais il ne parle de ses exploits, et jamais il ne souffre qu’un autre lui en parle en sa presence. Son caractere egale en grandeur et surpasse en verite celui de tout autre heros ancien ou moderne. La gloire de Napoleon crut en une nuit, comme la vigne de Jonas, et il suffit d’un jour pour la fletrir; la gloire de Wellington est comme les vieux chenes qui ombragent le chateau de ses peres sur les rives du Shannon; le chene croit lentement; il lui faut du temps pour pousser vers le ciel ses branches noueuses, et pour enfoncer dans le sol ces racines profondes qui s’enchevetrent dans les fondements solides de la terre; mais alors, l’arbre seculaire, inebranlable comme le roc ou il a sa base, brave et la faux du temps et l’effort des vents et des tempetes. Il faudra peut-etre un siecle e l’Angleterre pour qu’elle connaise la valeur de son heros. Dans un siecle, l’Europe entiere saura combien Wellington a des droits e sa reconnaissance.”

How often in writing this paper “in a strange land,” must Miss Bronte have thought of the old childish disputes in the kitchen of Haworth parsonage, touching the respective merits of Wellington and Buonaparte! Although the title given to her DEVOIR is, “On the Death of Napoleon,” she seems yet to have considered it a point of honour rather to sing praises to an English hero than to dwell on the character of a foreigner, placed as she was among those who cared little either for an England or for Wellington. She now felt that she had made great progress towards obtaining proficiency in the French language, which had been her main object in coming to Brussels. But to the zealous learner “Alps on Alps arise.” No sooner is one difficulty surmounted than some other desirable attainment appears, and must be laboured after. A knowledge of German now became her object; and she resolved to compel herself to remain in Brussels till that was gained. The strong yearning to go home came upon her; the stronger self- denying will forbade. There was a great internal struggle; every fibre of her heart quivered in the strain to master her will; and, when she conquered herself, she remained, not like a victor calm and supreme on the throne, but like a panting, torn, and suffering victim. Her nerves and her spirits gave way. Her health became much shaken.

“Brussels, August 1st, 1843.

“If I complain in this letter, have mercy and don’t blame me, for, I forewarn you, I am in low spirits, and that earth and heaven are dreary and empty to me at this moment. In a few days our vacation will begin; everybody is joyous and animated at the prospect, because everybody is to go home. I know that I am to stay here during the five weeks that the holidays last, and that I shall be much alone during that time, and consequently get downcast, and find both days and nights of a weary length. It is the first time in my life that I have really dreaded the vacation. Alas! I can hardly write, I have such a dreary weight at my heart; and I do so wish to go home. Is not this childish? Pardon me, for I cannot help it. However, though I am not strong enough to bear up cheerfully, I can still bear up; and I will continue to stay (D. V.) some months longer, till I have acquired German; and then I hope to see all your faces again. Would that the vacation were well over! it will pass so slowly. Do have the Christian charity to write me a long, long letter; fill it with the minutest details; nothing will be uninteresting. Do not think it is because people are unkind to me that I wish to leave Belgium; nothing of the sort. Everybody is abundantly civil, but home- sickness keeps creeping over me. I cannot shake it off. Believe me, very merrily, vivaciously, gaily, yours,

“C.B.”

The GRANDES VACANCES began soon after the date of this letter, when she was left in the great deserted pensionnat, with only one teacher for a companion. This teacher, a Frenchwoman, had always been uncongenial to her; but, left to each other’s sole companionship, Charlotte soon discovered that her associate was more profligate, more steeped in a kind of cold, systematic sensuality, than she had before imagined it possible for a human being to be; and her whole nature revolted from this woman’s society. A low nervous fever was gaining upon Miss Bronte. She had never been a good sleeper, but now she could not sleep at all. Whatever had been disagreeable, or obnoxious, to her during the day, was presented when it was over with exaggerated vividness to her disordered fancy. There were causes for distress and anxiety in the news from home, particularly as regarded Branwell. In the dead of the night, lying awake at the end of the long deserted dormitory, in the vast and silent house, every fear respecting those whom she loved, and who were so far off in another country, became a terrible reality, oppressing her and choking up the very life-blood in her heart. Those nights were times of sick, dreary, wakeful misery; precursors of many such in after years.

In the day-time, driven abroad by loathing of her companion and by the weak restlessness of fever, she tried to walk herself into such a state of bodily fatigue as would induce sleep. So she went out, and with weary steps would traverse the Boulevards and the streets, sometimes for hours together; faltering and resting occasionally on some of the many benches placed for the repose of happy groups, or for solitary wanderers like herself. Then up again — anywhere but to the pensionnat — out to the cemetery where Martha lay — out beyond it, to the hills whence there is nothing to be seen but fields as far as the horizon. The shades of evening made her retrace her footsteps — sick for want of food, but not hungry; fatigued with long continued exercise — yet restless still, and doomed to another weary, haunted night of sleeplessness. She would thread the streets in the neighbourhood of the Rue d’Isabelle, and yet avoid it and its occupant, till as late an hour as she dared be out. At last, she was compelled to keep her bed for some days, and this compulsory rest did her good. She was weak, but less depressed in spirits than she had been, when the school re-opened, and her positive practical duties recommenced.

She writes thus:-

“October 13th, 1843

“Mary is getting on well, as she deserves to do. I often hear from her. Her letters and yours are one of my few pleasures. She urges me very much to leave Brussels and go to her; but, at present, however tempted to take such a step, I should not feel justified in doing so. To leave a certainty for a complete uncertainty, would be to the last degree imprudent. Notwithstanding that, Brussels is indeed desolate to me now. Since the D.s left, I have had no friend. I had, indeed, some very kind acquaintances in the family of a Dr. — but they, too, are gone now. They left in the latter part of August, and I am completely alone. I cannot count the Belgians anything. It is a curious position to be so utterly solitary in the midst of numbers. Sometimes the solitude oppresses me to an excess. One day, lately, I felt as if I could bear it no longer, and I went to Madame Heger, and gave her notice. If it had depended on her, I should certainly have soon been at liberty; but M. Heger, having heard of what was in agitation, sent for me the day after, and pronounced with vehemence his decision, that I should not leave. I could not, at that time, have persevered in my intention without exciting him to anger; so I promised to stay a little while longer. How long that will be, I do not know. I should not like to return to England to do nothing. I am too old for that now; but if I could hear of a favourable opportunity for commencing a school, I think I should embrace it. We have as yet no fires here, and I suffer much from cold; otherwise, I am well in health. Mr. — will take this letter to England. He is a pretty-looking and pretty behaved young man, apparently constructed without a back- bone; by which I don’t allude to his corporal spine, which is all right enough, but to his character.

“I get on here after a fashion; but now that Mary D. has left Brussels, I have nobody to speak to, for I count the Belgians as nothing. Sometimes I ask myself how long shall I stay here; but as yet I have only asked the question; I have not answered it. However, when I have acquired as much German as I think fit, I think I shall pack up bag and baggage and depart. Twinges of homesickness cut me to the heart, every now and then. To-day the weather is glaring, and I am stupified with a bad cold and headache. I have nothing to tell you. One day is like another in this place. I know you, living in the country, can hardly believe it is possible life can be monotonous in the centre of a brilliant capital like Brussels; but so it is. I feel it most on holidays, when all the girls and teachers go out to visit, and it sometimes happens that I am left, during several hours, quite alone, with four great desolate schoolrooms at my disposition. I try to read, I try to write; but in vain. I then wander about from room to room, but the silence and loneliness of all the house weighs down one’s spirits like lead. You will hardly believe that Madame Heger (good and kind as I have described her) never comes near me on these occasions. I own, I was astonished the first time I was left alone thus; when everybody else was enjoying the pleasures of a fete day with their friends, and she knew I was quite by myself, and never took the least notice of me. Yet, I understand, she praises me very much to everybody, and says what excellent lessons I give. She is not colder to me than she is to the other teachers; but they are less dependent on her than I am. They have relations and acquaintances in Bruxelles. You remember the letter she wrote me, when I was in England? How kind and affectionate that was? is it not odd? In the meantime, the complaints I make at present are a sort of relief which I permit myself. In all other respects I am well satisfied with my position, and you may say so to people who inquire after me (if any one does). Write to me, dear, whenever you can. You do a good deed when you send me a letter, for you comfort a very desolate heart.”

One of the reasons for the silent estrangement between Madame Heger and Miss Bronte, in the second year of her residence at Brussels, is to be found in the fact, that the English Protestant’s dislike of Romanism increased with her knowledge of it, and its effects upon those who professed it; and when occasion called for an expression of opinion from Charlotte Bronte, she was uncompromising truth. Madame Heger, on the opposite side, was not merely a Roman Catholic, she was DEVOTE. Not of a warm or impulsive temperament, she was naturally governed by her conscience, rather than by her affections; and her conscience was in the hands of her religious guides. She considered any slight thrown upon her Church as blasphemy against the Holy Truth; and, though she was not given to open expression of her thoughts and feelings, yet her increasing coolness of behaviour showed how much her most cherished opinions had been wounded. Thus, although there was never any explanation of Madame Heger’s change of manner, this may be given as one great reason why, about this time, Charlotte was made painfully conscious of a silent estrangement between them; an estrangement of which, perhaps, the former was hardly aware. I have before alluded to intelligence from home, calculated to distress Charlotte exceedingly with fears respecting Branwell, which I shall speak of more at large when the realisation of her worst apprehensions came to affect the daily life of herself and her sisters. I allude to the subject again here, in order that the reader may remember the gnawing, private cares, which she had to bury in her own heart; and the pain of which could only be smothered for a time under the diligent fulfilment of present duty. Another dim sorrow was faintly perceived at this time. Her father’s eyesight began to fail; it was not unlikely that he might shortly become blind; more of his duty must devolve on a curate, and Mr. Bronte, always liberal, would have to pay at a higher rate than he had heretofore done for this assistance.

She wrote thus to Emily:-

“Dec.1st, 1843.

“This is Sunday morning. They are at their idolatrous ‘messe,’ and I am here, that is in the Refectoire. I should like uncommonly to be in the dining-room at home, or in the kitchen, or in the back kitchen. I should like even to be cutting up the hash, with the clerk and some register people at the other table, and you standing by, watching that I put enough flour, not too much pepper, and, above all, that I save the best pieces of the leg of mutton for Tiger and Keeper, the first of which personages would be jumping about the dish and carving-knife, and the latter standing like a devouring flame on the kitchen-floor. To complete the picture, Tabby blowing the fire, in order to boil the potatoes to a sort of vegetable glue! How divine are these recollections to me at this moment! Yet I have no thought of coming home just now. I lack a real pretext for doing so; it is true this place is dismal to me, but I cannot go home without a fixed prospect when I get there; and this prospect must not be a situation; that would be jumping out of the frying-pan into the fire. YOU call yourself idle! absurd, absurd! . . . Is papa well? Are you well? and Tabby? You ask about Queen Victoria’s visit to Brussels. I saw her for an instant flashing through the Rue Royale in a carriage and six, surrounded by soldiers. She was laughing and talking very gaily. She looked a little stout, vivacious lady, very plainly dressed, not much dignity or pretension about her. The Belgians liked her very well on the whole. They said she enlivened the sombre court of King Leopold, which is usually as gloomy as a conventicle. Write to me again soon. Tell me whether papa really wants me very much to come home, and whether you do likewise. I have an idea that I should be of no use there — a sort of aged person upon the parish. I pray, with heart and soul, that all may continue well at Haworth; above all in our grey half- inhabited house. God bless the walls thereof! Safety, health, happiness, and prosperity to you, papa, and Tabby. Amen.

“C. B.”

Towards the end of this year (1843) various reasons conspired with the causes of anxiety which have been mentioned, to make her feel that her presence was absolutely and imperatively required at home, while she had acquired all that she proposed to herself in coming to Brussels the second time; and was, moreover, no longer regarded with the former kindliness of feeling by Madame Heger. In consequence of this state of things, working down with sharp edge into a sensitive mind, she suddenly announced to that lady her immediate intention of returning to England. Both M. and Madame Heger agreed that it would be for the best, when they learnt only that part of the case which she could reveal to them — namely, Mr. Bronte’s increasing blindness. But as the inevitable moment of separation from people and places, among which she had spent so many happy hours, drew near, her spirits gave way; she had the natural presentiment that she saw them all for the last time, and she received but a dead kind of comfort from being reminded by her friends that Brussels and Haworth were not so very far apart; that access from one place to the other was not so difficult or impracticable as her tears would seem to predicate; nay, there was some talk of one of Madame Heger’s daughters being sent to her as a pupil, if she fulfilled her intention of trying to begin a school. To facilitate her success in this plan, should she ever engage in it, M. Heger gave her a kind of diploma, dated from, and sealed with the seal of the Athenee Royal de Bruxelles, certifying that she was perfectly capable of teaching the French language, having well studied the grammar and composition thereof, and, moreover, having prepared herself for teaching by studying and practising the best methods of instruction. This certificate is dated December 29th 1843, and on the 2nd of January, 1844, she arrived at Haworth.

On the 23rd of the month she writes as follows:-

“Every one asks me what I am going to do, now that I am returned home; and every one seems to expect that I should immediately commence a school. In truth, it is what I should wish to do. I desire it above all things. I have sufficient money for the undertaking, and I hope now sufficient qualifications to give me a fair chance of success; yet I cannot yet permit myself to enter upon life — to touch the object which seems now within my reach, and which I have been so long straining to attain. You will ask me why? It is on papa’s account; he is now, as you know, getting old, and it grieves me to tell you that he is losing his sight. I have felt for some months that I ought not to be away from him; and I feel now that it would be too selfish to leave him (at least, as long as Branwell and Anne are absent), in order to pursue selfish interests of my own. With the help of God, I will try to deny myself in this matter, and to wait.

“I suffered much before I left Brussels. I think, however long I live, I shall not forget what the parting with M. Heger cost me. It grieved me so much to grieve him who has been so true, kind, and disinterested a friend. At parting he gave me a kind of diploma certifying my abilities as a teacher, sealed with the seal of the Athenee Royal, of which he is professor. I was surprised also at the degree of regret expressed by my Belgian pupils, when they knew I was going to leave. I did not think it had been in their phlegmatic nature . . . I do not know whether you feel as I do, but there are times now when it appears to me as if all my ideas and feelings, except a few friendships and affections, are changed from what they used to be; something in me, which used to be enthusiasm, is tamed down and broken. I have fewer illusions; what I wish for now is active exertion — a stake in life. Haworth seems such a lonely, quiet spot, buried away from the world. I no longer regard myself as young — indeed, I shall soon be twenty- eight; and it seems as if I ought to be working and braving the rough realities of the world, as other people do. It is, however, my duty to restrain this feeling at present, and I will endeavour to do so.”

Of course her absent sister and brother obtained a holiday to welcome her return home, and in a few weeks she was spared to pay a visit to her friend at B. But she was far from well or strong, and the short journey of fourteen miles seems to have fatigued her greatly.

Soon after she came back to Haworth, in a letter to one of the household in which she had been staying, there occurs this passage:— “Our poor little cat has been ill two days, and is just dead. It is piteous to see even an animal lying lifeless. Emily is sorry.” These few words relate to points in the characters of the two sisters, which I must dwell upon a little. Charlotte was more than commonly tender in her treatment of all dumb creatures, and they, with that fine instinct so often noticed, were invariably attracted towards her. The deep and exaggerated consciousness of her personal defects — the constitutional absence of hope, which made her slow to trust in human affection, and, consequently, slow to respond to any manifestation of it — made her manner shy and constrained to men and women, and even to children. We have seen something of this trembling distrust of her own capability of inspiring affection, in the grateful surprise she expresses at the regret felt by her Belgian pupils at her departure. But not merely were her actions kind, her words and tones were ever gentle and caressing, towards animals: and she quickly noticed the least want of care or tenderness on the part of others towards any poor brute creature. The readers of “Shirley” may remember that it is one of the tests which the heroine applies to her lover.

“Do you know what soothsayers I would consult?” . . . “The little Irish beggar that comes barefoot to my door; the mouse that steals out of the cranny in my wainscot; the bird in frost and snow that pecks at my window for a crumb; the dog that licks my hand and sits beside my knee. I know somebody to whose knee the black cat loves to climb, against whose shoulder and cheek it likes to purr. The old dog always comes out of his kennel and wags his tail, and whines affectionately when somebody passes.” [For “somebody” and “he,” read “Charlotte Bronte” and “she.”] “He quietly strokes the cat, and lets her sit while he conveniently can; and when he must disturb her by rising, he puts her softly down, and never flings her from him roughly: he always whistles to the dog, and gives him a caress.”

The feeling, which in Charlotte partook of something of the nature of an affection, was, with Emily, more of a passion. Some one speaking of her to me, in a careless kind of strength of expression, said, “she never showed regard to any human creature; all her love was reserved for animals.” The helplessness of an animal was its passport to Charlotte’s heart; the fierce, wild, intractability of its nature was what often recommended it to Emily. Speaking of her dead sister, the former told me that from her many traits in Shirley’s character were taken; her way of sitting on the rug reading, with her arm round her rough bull- dog’s neck; her calling to a strange dog, running past, with hanging head and lolling tongue, to give it a merciful draught of water, its maddened snap at her, her nobly stern presence of mind, going right into the kitchen, and taking up one of Tabby’s red-hot Italian irons to sear the bitten place, and telling no one, till the danger was well-nigh over, for fear of the terrors that might beset their weaker minds. All this, looked upon as a well- invented fiction in “Shirley,” was written down by Charlotte with streaming eyes; it was the literal true account of what Emily had done. The same tawny bull-dog (with his “strangled whistle”), called “Tartar” in “Shirley,” was “Keeper” in Haworth parsonage; a gift to Emily. With the gift came a warning. Keeper was faithful to the depths of his nature as long as he was with friends; but he who struck him with a stick or whip, roused the relentless nature of the brute, who flew at his throat forthwith, and held him there till one or the other was at the point of death. Now Keeper’s household fault was this. He loved to steal upstairs, and stretch his square, tawny limbs, on the comfortable beds, covered over with delicate white counterpanes. But the cleanliness of the parsonage arrangements was perfect; and this habit of Keeper’s was so objectionable, that Emily, in reply to Tabby’s remonstrances, declared that, if he was found again transgressing, she herself, in defiance of warning and his well-known ferocity of nature, would beat him so severely that he would never offend again. In the gathering dusk of an autumn evening, Tabby came, half- triumphantly, half-tremblingly, but in great wrath, to tell Emily that Keeper was lying on the best bed, in drowsy voluptuousness. Charlotte saw Emily’s whitening face, and set mouth, but dared not speak to interfere; no one dared when Emily’s eyes glowed in that manner out of the paleness of her face, and when her lips were so compressed into stone. She went upstairs, and Tabby and Charlotte stood in the gloomy passage below, full of the dark shadows of coming night. Down-stairs came Emily, dragging after her the unwilling Keeper, his hind legs set in a heavy attitude of resistance, held by the “scuft of his neck,” but growling low and savagely all the time. The watchers would fain have spoken, but durst not, for fear of taking off Emily’s attention, and causing her to avert her head for a moment from the enraged brute. She let him go, planted in a dark corner at the bottom of the stairs; no time was there to fetch stick or rod, for fear of the strangling clutch at her throat — her bare clenched fist struck against his red fierce eyes, before he had time to make his spring, and, in the language of the turf, she “punished him” till his eyes were swelled up, and the half-blind, stupified beast was led to his accustomed lair, to have his swollen head fomented and cared for by the very Emily herself. The generous dog owed her no grudge; he loved her dearly ever after; he walked first among the mourners to her funeral; he slept moaning for nights at the door of her empty room, and never, so to speak, rejoiced, dog fashion, after her death. He, in his turn, was mourned over by the surviving sister. Let us somehow hope, in half Red Indian creed, that he follows Emily now; and, when he rests, sleeps on some soft white bed of dreams, unpunished when he awakens to the life of the land of shadows.

Now we can understand the force of the words, “Our poor little cat is dead. Emily is sorry.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gaskell/elizabeth/bronte/v1chap12.html

Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 22:17