Emily Bronte (Robinson 1883)/Chapter 17

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Emily Brontë  (1883)  by A. Mary F. Robinson
Chapter XVII. Branwell's End.



The autumn of the year 1848 was tempestuous and wild, with sudden and frequent changes of temperature, and cold penetrating wind. Those chilling blasts whirling round the small grey parsonage on its exposed hill-top, brought sickness in their train. Anne and Charlotte drooped and languished; Branwell, too, was ill. His constitution seemed shattered by excesses which he had not the resolution to forego. Often he would sleep most of the day; or at least sit dosing hour after hour in a lethargy of weakness; but with the night this apathy would change to violence and suffering. "Papa, and sometimes all of us have sad nights with him," writes Charlotte in the last days of July.

Yet, so well the little household knew the causes of this reverse, no immediate danger was suspected. He was weak, certainly, and his appetite failed; but opium-eaters are not strong nor hungry. Neither Branwell himself, nor his relations, nor any physician consulted in his case thought it one of immediate danger; it seemed as if this dreary life might go on for ever, marking its hours by a perpetual swing and rebound of excess and suffering.

During this melancholy autumn Mr. Grundy was staying at Skipton, a town about seventeen miles from Haworth. Mindful of his old friend, he invited Branwell to be his guest; but the dying youth was too weak to make even that little journey, although he longed for the excitement of change. Mr. Grundy was so much moved by the miserable tone of Branwell's letter that he drove over to Haworth to see for himself what ailed his old companion. He was very shocked at the change. Pale, sunk, tremulous, utterly wrecked; there was no hope for Branwell now; he had again taken to eating, opium.

Anything for excitement, for a variation to his incessant sorrow. Weak as he was, and scarcely able to leave his bed, he craved piteously for an appointment of any kind, any reason for leaving Haworth, for getting quit of his old thoughts, any post anywhere for Heaven's sake so it were out of their whispering. He had not long, to wait.

Later in that cold and bleak September Mr. Grundy again visited Haworth. He sent to the Vicarage for Branwell, and ordered dinner and a fire to welcome him; the room looked cosy and warm. While Mr. Grundy sat waiting for his guest, the Vicar was shown in. He, too, was strangely altered; much of his old stiffness of manner gone; and it was with genuine affection that he spoke of Branwell, and almost with despair that he touched on his increasing miseries. When Mr. Grundy's message had come, the poor, self-distraught sufferer had been lying ill in bed, apparently too weak to move; but the feverish restlessness which marked his latter years was too strong to resist the chance of excitement. He had insisted upon coming, so his father said, and would immediately be ready. Then the sorrowful half-blind old gentleman made his adieus to his son's host, and left the inn.

"Presently the door opened cautiously, and a head appeared. It was a mass of red, unkempt, uncut hair, wildly floating round a great, gaunt forehead; the cheeks yellow and hollow, the mouth fallen, the thin white lips not trembling but shaking, the sunken eyes, once small, now glaring with the light of madness—all told the sad tale but too surely. I hastened to my friend, greeted him in my gayest manner, as I knew he best liked, drew him quickly into the room, and forced upon him a stiff glass of hot brandy. Under its influence and that of the bright, cheerful surroundings, he looked frightened—frightened of himself. He glanced at me a moment, and muttered something of leaving a warm bed to come out in the cold night. Another glass of brandy, and returning warmth gradually brought him back to something like the Brontë of old. He even ate some dinner, a thing which he said he had not done for long; so our last interview was pleasant though grave. I never knew his intellect clearer. He described himself as waiting anxiously for death—indeed, longing for it, and happy, in these his sane moments, to think it was so near. He once again declared that that death would be due to the story I knew, and to nothing else.

"When at last I was compelled to leave, he quietly drew from his coat-sleeve a carving-knife, placed it on the table, and, holding me by both hands, said that, having given up all hopes of ever seeing me again, he imagined when my message came that it was a call from Satan. Dressing himself, he took the knife which he had long secreted, and came to the inn, with a full determination to rush into the room and stab the occupant. In the excited state of his mind, he did not recognise me when he opened the door, but my voice and manner conquered him, and ’brought him home to himself,' as he expressed it. I left him standing bare-headed in the road with bowed form and dropping tears."[1]

He went home, and a few days afterwards he died. That little intervening time was happier and calmer than any he had known for years; his evil habits, his hardened feelings slipped, like a mask, from the soul already touched by the final quiet. He was singularly altered and softened, gentle and loving to the father and sisters who had borne so much at his hands. It was as though he had awakened from the fierce delirium of a fever; weak though he was and shattered, they could again recognise in him their Branwell of old times, the hope and promise of all their early dreams. Neither they nor he dreamed that the end was so near; he had often talked of death, but now that he stood in the shadow of its wings, he was unconscious of that subduing presence. And it is pleasant to think that the sweet demeanour of his last days was not owing to the mere cowardly fear of death; but rather a return of the soul to its true self, a natural dropping-off of all extraneous fever and error, before the suffering of its life should close. Half an hour before he died Branwell was unconscious of danger; he was out in the village two days before, and was only confined to bed one single day. The next morning was a Sunday, the twenty-fourth of September. Branwell awoke to it perfectly conscious, and through the holy quiet of that early morning he lay, troubled by neither fear nor suffering, while the bells of the neighbouring church, the neighbouring tower whose fabulous antiquity had furnished him with many a boyish pleasantry, called the villagers to worship, They all knew him, all as they passed the house would look up and wonder if "t’ Vicar's Patrick" were better or worse. But those of the Parsonage were not at church: they watched in Branwell's hushed and peaceful chamber.

Suddenly a terrible change came over the quiet face; there was no mistaking the sudden, heart-shaking summons. And now Charlotte sank; always nervous and highly strung, the mere dread of what might be to cpme, laid her prostrate. They led her away, and for a week she kept her bed in sickness and fever. But Branwell, the summoned, the actual sufferer, met death with a different face. He insisted upon getting up; if he had succumbed to the horrors of life he would defy the horrors of extinction; he would die as he thought no one had ever died before, standing. So, like some ancient Celtic hero, when the last agony began, he rose to his feet; hushed and awe-stricken, the old father, praying Anne, loving Emily, looked on. He rose to his feet and died erect after twenty minutes' struggle.

They found his pockets filled with the letters of the woman he had so passionately loved.

He was dead, this Branwell who had wrung the hearts of his household day by day, who drank their tears as wine. He was dead, and now they mourned him with acute and bitter pain. "All his vices were and are nothing now; we remember only his woes," writes Charlotte. They buried him in the same vault that had been opened twenty-three years ago to receive the childish, wasted corpses of Elizabeth and Maria. Sunday came round, recalling minute by minute the ebbing of his life, and Emily Brontë, pallid and dressed in black, can scarcely have heard her brother's funeral sermon for looking at the stone which hid so many memories, such useless compassion. She took her brother's death very much to heart, growing thin and pale and saying nothing. She had made an effort to go to church that Sunday, and as she sat there, quiet and hollow-eyed, perhaps she felt it was well that she had looked upon his resting-place, upon the grave where so much of her heart was buried. For, after his funeral, she never rallied; a cold and cough, taken then, gained fearful hold upon her, and she never went out of doors after that memorable Sunday.

But looking on her quiet, uncomplaining eyes, you would not have guessed so much.

"Emily and Anne are pretty well," says Charlotte, on the ninth of October, "though Anne is always delicate and Emily has a cold and cough at present"

  1. 'Pictures of the Past.'