In Short Stories: Stealing Charlotte’s Heart

Emily Jane could not be saved. Nor Anne.

But Charlotte’s heart will never be lost. Again.

When you were introduced to her, she peered up at you, as short sighted and flat-faced as a pug.

I met you once. Before.

We eyed each other. Two in-between women, like pressed flowers in a lending library book.

She had no conversation. Was not acquainted with the art of being silly and gay and entertaining. Did not know about lifting the mood of a dinner, brightening a dull drawing room. Did not have even the merest snippet of gossip to offer.

Or so you said.

She was so constrained, so naïve, she was almost impossible to be with. She would sit, quietly, away from everyone. Expecting you to do all the talking. As if she had been reared alone, isolated in a solitary tower, far from anywhere and anyone.

or

She stood no higher than your chest, so whenever she looked at you, she seemed to be looking straight into your heart. She had to tilt her head right back to meet your eyes.

or

Her own eyes were rather bulbous. She goggled at you the way a child would. She seemed in a state of almost constant surprise.

Perhaps you were.

She were a good listener, I’ll give you that. Just the sort to be creeping around a big house, watching, listening, prying. Always discovering secrets.

Didn’t matter whether you were maid nor master, she’d find you out.

I know about secrets. The secret acts between a man and a woman; the betrayals that can only come from within your own family.

I know how far we in-between women will go. And so do you, Charlotte, and so do you.

Lie still, now. I have come a long way to see you. To sit with you in your final hours. The least you can do is listen.

Listen to the true story of Claire Claremont.

We hear the voices of the dead, you and I. They swirl around us even now. They judge us harshly. I wish you could write my story, Charlotte, I really do. In your hands it would be poetry.

We start off as clever girls. Clever, perhaps, with a needle or a pen, but not clever enough to survive by elbowing our sisters out of the way.

An in-between woman would not do that.

An in-between woman lacks the strength, at the last, to overpower an inconvenient wife, a more ambitious sister. She finds herself quite suddenly displaced. Having to find employment or starve.

S—‘s first wife, poor, dear, muddled Harriet was scarcely more than a babe when she allowed him to penetrate her. Gimlet-eyed Eliza guided her every step of the way, I’m sure.

Spinster sister staying at home to look after their parents? She was old enough to be Harriet’s mother… and we have always thought —

After the elopement, Eliza never left them alone. She seized her chance and forced her way into their marriage and into their home.

Another in-between woman.

So sad for Harriet — and Eliza — that the union lasted such a short time before S— found other interests, and my sisters stole him away.

Harriet had been a respectable girl from a respectable family. Quite how she managed to drown herself in the Regent’s weed-infested duckpond, I shall never know.

And hard-faced Eliza was forced once again to move back to her father’s home to take care of him in his declining years.

A common fate for the in-between woman.

***

It had been difficult to drop Fanny. You would not have treated a sister so badly. But she had missed her first chance with him, even though he was so intrigued by the idea of a daughter of such a mother that he practically offered to buy her.

Sadly, the reality was a disappointment.

Fanny was so accustomed to being treated as second-best, that by the time she was eleven or twelve, she was frequently mistaken for one of the servants.

Looking and acting like a servant is, of course, a requirement for an in-between woman. And we did nothing to stop it.

All the girls at school believed that one day a hero would appear to raise us up in a whirl of love and money.

Fanny should have come with us on our grand adventure. But Mary refused to take her. She knew he had already overpowered Fanny, even as Mary herself was seducing him over the grave of her dead mother.

And make no mistake, it was the presence of that gravestone that aroused him to such an excess of passion.

Fanny was sent away to Wales in case there were consequences, poor little thing. Once she understood what it was that he had done to her, and that there might be a baby, she confessed all to her stepmother.

Mary was made of stronger stuff. As was I.

Fanny was my friend, and I loved her. She took her own life… she took her life after her stepfather told her he would not keep her any longer. Only Mary.

And when Mary and Claire ran away with S— they all blamed Fanny. So she lost the man who she loved and believed loved her, to her own sister, and ultimately her only home.

The consequences of any transgression by the in-between woman — or even a change in the circumstances of the household — could be severe. Even deadly. As you know only too well, Charlotte.

Mary took me with her because I wanted B— so much I had no eyes for S—. She above all, knew how fickle he was.

Oh, eventually he had me too. He was perpetually randy, like a little dog constantly thrusting himself against your skirts. In that crowded smoky cottage, full of babies and death, it was difficult to avoid him.

He would put his lips to my ear so that his voice quivered against my skin. “You let Him,” he would say, over and over. “You let Him, so why not me? Why not? Why not?”

In the end , the constant importuning wore out your refusals. It was easier to simply say, ‘Yes, Sir’, and let him put it in. There was no pleasure in it.

He spoke so earnestly, so publicly about the truthfulness of love. The freedom of love. But he was careful not to let Mary see what he was doing.

She knew. How could she not?

What I chiefly remember of it now, was the dampness of his hands and the wideness of his eyes, as he stared at me, even while he was doing it. He actually held my head between those wet palms so that I was forced to meet his gaze. Of my own physical sensations I have no recollection. His wife, my mistress, turned me out once I started to show and that was that.

So in the end I gave in. The first time, I felt nothing truly, except regret that I had allowed him to persuade me, and terror of being discovered by Mary. It was all over in an instant and I was left leaning against the kitchen wall with S— gasping against my throat. Whereas B—

Well, let me tell you this. Your hero, your lord of the imagination, took my virginity as perfunctorily as a chore to be got through, no more.

We were mad for him, of course. Who wouldn’t be? The greatest poet of our age or any other.

The terror of all the secret arrangements, the shabby room at the inn, the travelling there and the travelling home again. I was breathless with excitement before he laid a finger on me.

There were no murmured endearments. At least he was honest enough not to pretend there was any affection between us.

He was very fat at that time, Charlotte. He panted like a dog. And all the while he told me how much he despised me. A heavy pompous man lying atop a virgin.

I was prone to giggling, to helpless, undignified mirth in those days. I giggled then, as he told me how ugly my heavy breasts were, and turned me to lie on my front, sure he was only teasing, in his cold imperious voice.

We, who knew him in that way (and some rather better than others), knew that he liked his women titled and illiterate, and his boys pretty and slight.

Despite my plumpness and laughter he had no difficulty finishing within minutes. He did it with a sort of nasal bray, like a little donkey. Any pleasure I felt was all in my head. My bodily pleasure had barely begun when it was over.

Of course, he took no precautions, so there was a baby on top of all the other secrets.

I was not terrified, like Fanny; I was exhilarated. I exulted in carrying the poet’s child. To a girl like me, undistinguished daughter of a very ordinary mother, the baby was enough. Enough to get over the hurt of his rejection. His cruelty. The pain of the birth.

He commanded that one of the babes be taken to a convent where I believe there already resided a half-brother and at least one half-sister, none of them formally acknowledged. We shall probably never know the true number.

Mary was always trying to send me away, S— always bringing me back. Although I did not know it then, it was the first subtle sign that I was to become an in-between woman myself.

When the end came, it was a shocking, needless, wasteful death. They all were.

You and I have had so much grief in our lives, Charlotte.

She refused to have me in the house, shouting that I should instead ask B— for money. He refused that as he refused all my requests.

She said that I was not her sister by blood and had no claim on her. That Fanny was her only sister and Fanny was dead.

How cruel a repudiation of all that we had been through together.

***

In desperation, I concealed my past and any association with them.

For the wealthy families of St Petersburg, a woman calling herself governess who could speak good French and English was much sought after. So much so that many of them were employed after the most cursory of enquiries. We know of several who caused their employers much trouble.

In truth the children in my care learned little, but I took care always to be gay, always amusing. I earned my place at the family’s table. But it was hard work, and not without its dangers.

I implored Mary to rescue me from the indignities of being an in-between woman, but she would not.

The truth is, lords and masters do not marry besotted governesses, still less their cowed maids. They take advantage of them.

As Mary obtained a comfortable living from S—‘s family, from his life and works, my fury increased. She wrote about him. She did not mention me.

She kept his heart in a silk bag, wrapped in a poem, in her writing desk so that he would always be near her. Of course, there was speculation that the bag actually contained his liver.

I wanted that silk bag.

Imagine my horror when I discovered, too late, that she had died and no one thought to tell me.

That they should deny me, refuse to tell me of my own sister’s death. And, most hurtful of all, to keep that which should have come to me. To me, as the last survivor of that summer on the lake.

I had so little money, and what little I had, I spent on bribing the sexton to dig her up.

The family denied it, but she was buried with the little bag next to her heart. I have them both.

Just as I have B—‘s heart in a purse of hard leather.

Emily Jane’s heart would in some ways have been the choicest of all. But I did not learn of her death until much too late.

That tragic and short-lived marriage to such a hard-handed dolt reduced her cachet, as Mrs Gaskell so acutely perceived. She was no longer the virgin in the vicarage… her passion no longer… pent.

They require a fourth, a female heart, and they have asked for yours, dear Charlotte. They desire your creative force.

or

Rejoice, you are near death, but you will join the immortals.

or

I’ve always been clever with a knife.

***

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