Yorkshire, 1845. A young wife and mother has gone missing from her home, leaving behind two small children and a large pool of blood. Just a few miles away, a humble parson’s daughters—the Brontë sisters—learn of the crime. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë are horrified and intrigued by the mysterious disappearance.
These three creative, energetic, and resourceful women quickly realize that they have all the skills required to make for excellent “lady detectors.” Not yet published novelists, they have well-honed imaginations and are expert readers. And, as Charlotte remarks, “detecting is reading between the lines—it’s seeing what is not there.”
As they investigate, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne are confronted with a society that believes a woman’s place is in the home, not scouring the countryside looking for clues. But nothing will stop the sisters from discovering what happened to the vanished bride, even as they find their own lives are in great peril...
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2019 Bella Ellis
Haworth Parsonage, December 1851
Drawing her shawl a little closer around her, Charlotte adjusted her writing slope once more, and dipped the nib of her pen back into the ink, her head bent low, nose just above the paper. Yet, just as so many times before, her hand hovered over the blank page, and it seemed impossible to put pen to paper in a house so empty of anything but the ghosts of those she loved.
All was very quiet now: even the fire in the grate seemed muffled and muted, and it felt near impossible to draw any warmth from the brightly dancing flames, almost as if she were already a ghost herself.
Papa was in his study, as he always seemed to be these days. Tabby and Martha were in the kitchen, locking up for the night, even though, according to the clock that stood on the staircase, it was only a little after seven. Outside, the night leaned in against the little house, the weight of it creaking against the window glass. But even as the wind howled down the chimney breast, all that Charlotte heard was silence. All she felt was absence. All she knew was loss.
Not even Emily’s beloved dog Keeper was here anymore to keep her company with his snuffles and barks, playfully dragging at the hems of her skirts with his teeth. At least now that the dog too was gone, Charlotte didn’t have to witness his hopeful eyes searching for his mistress when the back door was opened, nor feel her own spirits rise every time the cold air blew in, bringing with it the promise of Emily back from a march across the moor. Oh, how she craved the companionship that had once seemed as commonplace as her own breath.
It had been such a short time, and yet a thousand years ago, that she had shared this table, this house, her entire life, with her siblings. Here, with what felt like the whole world at their backs, the three of them had talked, written, maddened, known and loved one another with such steadfast strength that it had been all-sustaining.
Here they had laughed and argued as she had written Jane Eyre, and her sisters their own great works, not one of them guessing at the whirlwind they were inviting into their small, humble lives. Now Emily, Anne and Branwell were all gone to a better place, and for the sister left behind this mortal existence was almost unbearably lonely.
Charlotte’s mouth curled into a small echo of a smile as she remembered what adventures they had forged together, the dangers they had faced, the shocking revelations they had uncovered, and the secrets they kept.
From the fashionable drawing rooms of London to the soirées of New York, the world had talked about “those Brontë women“, who had wrought such passion and pride on the page. At first some doubted they were men, then others refused to believe they could be women.
And it made Charlotte smile to think how very little of the truth those people knew. How very little of what she and her sisters truly were.
Now her sisters and her brother Branwell were all dead. Not another living soul on this earth knew everything. Not one memory of the wonders and the horrors that they had discovered for themselves had ever been committed to paper, and any correspondence that might have revealed them, had been meticulously burned by Charlotte herself.
When one day it would become Charlotte’s turn to join her siblings in God’s grace, all that had happened in those few glorious, thrilling years – the last years that they would be together – would die with her. No one would ever know of their adventures. Outside that very pane of glass that shook and trembled in its frame as she sat alone at the table, a universe of humanity gusted as hard as the wind in a ceaseless vortex of life and death. And all you needed in order to uncover its darkest secrets was to know exactly where to look.
It might even be said, Charlotte thought to herself with a smile, as her nib finally joined with paper and she began to forge worlds out of ink, that none had ever lived such adventurous, dangerous and exciting lives as those three women who grew up in a village no one had ever heard of, on the edge of the windswept and desolate moor.
Those were secrets that would never be told, but oh, what wonderful secrets they were.
The first thing Matilda French saw was the blood. There was such a quantity of it that for several moments she couldn’t make sense of the blackish pool of liquid that was spreading slowly under the closed door, not until the iron scent hit her, and she was reminded at once of the day her mother died, and the smell of her blood mingled with freshly cut violets.
Only then did the inevitable violence of what she was looking at begin to make sense of itself, the realisation that something dreadful had happened creeping through her veins like an infection.
And yet, it was so unexpected, so strange to make such a discovery in the perfect quiet of a pre-dawn house, that at first she did not scream, she did not faint. Shock held her captive and as if mesmerised into a trance-like state, body separated from mind, she did what she always did not knowing what else to do; she knocked twice on the door.
‘Madam?’ The boards were sticky underfoot, the room still dark and full of shadows. Dawn had yet to lighten the sky outside. Her voice was barely more than a whisper, her next words made little sense in the face of such horror. ‘Mrs Chester, are you well?’
When she pushed the door open she found the room silent and empty of its occupant, and covered in so much blood that she felt she might drown simply by inhaling.
As her eyes adjusted to the light she could make out that her mistress’s bed was empty, though from the head to the foot it was covered in what looked like one great ink stain, spreading outwards from the centre like a monstrous butterfly.
Trembling, breath held, Mattie crossed to the window, where she dragged open the heavy curtains, and loosened the window latch to let some of the damp, cold air in, sucking it in desperately. The first thin light of morning cast its veil over the room, and when finally she turned back to the bed, Mattie understood the terrible truth of what she was seeing.
‘You cannot just stop, Emily,’ Charlotte half-chided, half-laughed, as she stumbled into the back of her taller sister, ‘There is neither the room, nor the time for stopping.’
It had become the sisters’ ritual in recent weeks, this circular walk about the dining-room table, talking out their ideas, spinning them into thin air until they could see the words forming over their heads, lit by firelight and shaped by smoke.
It was not a grand dining room: if anything it was rather cramped, almost entirely filled with the pretty table, and a rather worn, black sofa. Charlotte had chosen the wallpaper, in dusky shades of pink and grey, as modest and muted as the plumage of a pigeon. On the wall hung a portrait of Lord Horatio Nelson, national hero, and military genius, still adored in the Parsonage forty years after his glorious death in battle. Charlotte liked to think of him looking down his splendid nose at them, keeping watch on all their coming and goings; she found it comforting.
‘I had a thought, Charlotte.’ Emily turned slightly to look at her sister over her shoulder with her enviable grey-blue eyes. ‘Yes, and a good one too, so good that I must write it down at once before it escapes me. Move.’
Charlotte watched in horror as Emily scribbled her nib furiously on a sheet of blotting paper, placed directly on the polished surface of the table.
‘Really, Emily,’ she said. ‘Have you not vandalised this table enough? Poor Aunt Branwell would be turning in her grave if she could see how easily you disregard half a lifetime’s worth of bees wax and elbow grease.’
‘Charlotte, it is many years since the ‘E’ incident, and I was only a child’ Emily replied, obligingly moving the blotting paper onto her writing slope never-the-less. Charlotte watched as her sister’s thumb searched out the initial, scratched crudely into the surface with a fruit knife many years ago, giving it a rub as if for good luck. ‘Some might say that carving my initial into the table was a form of ornamentation…’
‘Aunt Branwell wouldn’t,’ Anne said mildly, not looking up from the newspaper that she was engrossed in. ‘Do you remember Charlotte? Emily did her best to hide the transgression by refusing to move her hand for an entire morning? How Aunt Branwell howled when she saw what she had done!’
‘I seem to recall that Papa was quite impressed with me,’ Emily muttered, already half lost to her writing.
‘We may count ourselves most fortunate that we have a father so devoted to our enlightenment that a scratched table-top is not nearly so important to him as his daughter learning to make her letters,’ Charlotte said fondly. ‘Another Papa would have beaten you soundly, as our Aunt surely would have liked to, don’t you think Anne?’
Desperate for distraction, Charlotte did her best to catch Anne’s eye but her youngest sister was not to be moved from her reading. With only Anne’s little dog Flossy joining in the parade Charlotte, sighing heavily, walked on alone, with only Anne’s little dog Flossy joining in the parade, jealously observing as Emily scored her letters into her paper with the same furious energy and impatience with which she greeted much of life. If only Charlotte could find the same kind of inspiration to turn her mind away from the great unhappiness that preoccupied it, if only she could tempt her sisters to distract her with talk.
She should be content, happy even. For it had been many years since all of them lived under the same beloved roof. The fire burnt merrily in the grate, casting a warm dancing light on the walls, the snug and slightly smoky little room illuminated only a little further by the single oil lamp. Outside the rain came hard, flung into the rectory windows like handfuls of pebbles. Below them Haworth huddled against the cruel wind.
It was a typical Yorkshire summer.
‘Nothing comes this evening,’ Charlotte sighed in frustration, stopping to look at the crowd of gravestones that tumbled headlong down the hillside towards the church and town beyond, as if the dead were in a hurry to return home. ‘My head is as empty as a blank page, and just as useless. There is far too much – feeling – getting in the way of thinking. To even compose two good lines seems impossible to me.’
‘Then perhaps you should try thinking in feelings,’ Emily said unhelpfully, as the words poured from the nib of her quill, in the chaotic and ink-spattered scrawl that drove neat Charlotte to despair. Page after effortless page of jealously guarded verse filled Emily’s notebooks.
‘You may still find endless inspiration in childish fantasy, Emily,’ Charlotte snapped back before she could stop herself. ‘But I have grown out of our fantasy worlds of Gondal and Angria. Mine is a life burdened with more mature concerns.’
‘Mature concerns’ is a very novel way of describing ‘love sick,’ Emily muttered, without looking up. ‘And I care not what you think of me, Charlotte for the Gondals are in the midst of The First Wars, and I must bring them to victory or many will perish.’
‘You are impossible Emily,’ Charlotte said, but with little venom. In truth she longed for the days when she was more like her sister, for wherever Emily walked, wherever she looked, Gondal formed all about her, its people meaning as much to her, if not more, than those made of flesh and blood with beating hearts. Her imagination was her freedom, Charlotte thought enviously, wishing that she too was able to leave behind the ceaseless hurt of this mundane, earthly existence for a world where all turned on her command. In that world, her heart would never be broken.
‘Stop and rest, dear Charlotte,’ Anne said, as she set her paper down at last, regarding Charlotte with such sympathy that it felt almost unbearable to be pitied so. Charlotte knew that Anne would never mention that name, and Charlotte made a point to never speak it aloud. Even so it resounded constantly within her.
‘Come sit with me, and read The Times of London, it is only a few days old and there is much of interest. Brunel’s steamship the SS Great Britain has begun its journey across the Atlantic to New York, expecting to complete the voyage in only two weeks! Can you imagine, the other side of the world in less than a fortnight?’ Anne paused for a moment, her pretty eyes shining at the thought of adventure, before turning the page. ‘And see here, it seems that for three years now in London there have been eight specially trained and educated policeman engaged entirely in the exclusive profession of ‘detecting’ to solve crimes, using their wit and intellect to search out the guilty. Their success has been so great that The Times is calling for a fleet of such individuals across the nation, though others say that a free country should remain free from the tyranny of policing. One has to wonder if those people have crimes they’d rather remain undiscovered. I’ll find it for you, see here?’
‘It looks very interesting, Anne,’ Charlotte nodded, taking a seat at the table opposite Emily, and drawing the paper towards her but even so the words would not come into focus.
Charlotte could think only of her last letter to her former tutor, Monsieur Héger: how she had poured every ounce of her being into it. And yet he did not reply. No matter how carefully she drew out the shape of her broken heart, and pleaded for even a single crumb of mercy, he never replied. How could he? He was a married man certainly, and yet… Closing her eyes, Charlotte concentrated very carefully on folding and refolding the burst of agonising emotion that threatened to break through at any moment, and with some effort she made those feelings small again, as tiny as the books they used to make as children, enclosing them within a thick wall of self-imposed serenity. For if she did not, her misery would engulf her. There was no choice but to endure the pain of loving one who did not love her in return in perfect silence.
‘Hold hard, sisters!’ Branwell swung into the room, bringing with him a good portion of the evening rain dripping off the end of his nose, his ruby-red hair plastered against his pale skin, and the fug of beer and smoke radiating from him, his eyes alight with signs of gossip ‘Cease your girlish witterings, for I have a terrible tale to tell!’
‘Did they run out of gin at The Bull again?’ Emily said, not looking up as he took the chair next to her, shaking himself like a wet dog.
‘Steady yourself, for as young ladies you may find the news I have to relate both terrifying and despicable, perhaps even more than your gentle souls can tolerate.’
‘Tell us Branwell,’ Charlotte seized on the promise of distraction like a thirsty woman discovering a well. ‘What has happened?’
‘Word has come to Haworth that there has been a most bloody and awful killing.’ Branwell’s black eyes glittered with ghoulish delight as he spoke, the fire seeming to leap at his words. ‘And the dreadful deed was carried out but a few miles from this very spot.’
‘A killing?’ Anne’s brow furrowed.
‘A most violent murder,’ dear sister’ Branwell leaned towards Anne, who reeled away from the reek of him. Charlotte was not so deterred.
‘Tell us,’ she prompted him. ‘Tell us every detail at once.’
‘I heard it from the keg boy, who heard it from the wagon man, who heard it from the innkeeper in Arunton, near where the incident took place.’
‘Arunton,’ Charlotte said, thoughtfully. ‘I’m sure we have an acquaintance in Arunton. When did it happen, Branwell?’
‘Yesterday, a most terrible and bloody murder, by all accounts and but a stone’s throw from our very own front door. Are you very afraid?’
‘The only thing I am afraid of is that you will never get to the point,’ Emily said, finally putting down her pen. ‘Who has been killed, and who by?’
‘And,’ Branwell ignored Emily’s question. ‘The criminal has absconded stealing the body away with him. It is wholly possible that the murderer may be creeping about in the shadows outside our own home even as we speak.’
‘Hefting a body around?’ Emily frowned, ‘That doesn’t seem to me to be very conducive to creeping. Answer my question, who has been killed?’
‘A lady and a mother.’ Branwell leant back in his chair. ‘At least that is the assumption.’
‘How dreadful,’ Anne clasped her hand to her chest. ‘We must ask Papa to include this poor woman and her family in his prayers.’
‘The assumption?’ Charlotte pressed him irritably. ‘The poor lady is either murdered or not – there is no in between.’
‘Well, that, dear Charlotte, is where you are wrong.’ Branwell wagged his finger at her. ‘For it seems that in the early hours of this morning the second Mrs Chester’s bedchamber was found empty, except for great quantities of blood painted across every surface, with no sign of the young woman, nor her remains. She is feared dead of course, but it cannot be determined with any certainty, as she is quite vanished.’
‘Just taken from her home? How terrifying. I’ve gone quite cold, how horrifying.’ Anne gasped.
‘How interesting,’ Emily added, her eyes alive with curiosity. Charlotte was caught somewhere between fascination and horror, when another thought struck her.
‘Do you mean Mrs Elizabeth Chester? Of Chester Grange?’ She reached for Emily’s hand. ‘Chester Grange is where Matilda French took up the position as governess! That’s who we know in Arunton. You remember Mattie, Emily – she endured that evil establishment Cowan Bridge with us until Papa removed us, and we have corresponded ever since, though I have heard less from her since she took up her position and I was in Brussels.’
‘Now I think of it, I believe it was the governess that discovered the awful scene,’ Branwell added.
‘Oh dear me,’ Charlotte was horror struck. ‘It was Mattie that discovered the scene of the crime? Poor dear Mattie, you remember how fragile she was Emily?’
‘Matilda – pretty, timid, rather useless at most things – yes, I recall her,’ Emily said. ‘Imagine knowing that as you slept in your bed a murderer was stalking the hallways outside your chamber door wielding a knife! Terrifying.’
Emily could not have sounded less terrified if she had tried.
‘Presumably we do not know there was a knife,’ Charlotte said, raising her eyes heavenwards. ‘Oh dear, poor Mattie. She will not do well with this, she will not do well at all. I must write to her at once.’
Reaching for a pen, Charlotte hesitated, and then felt a little thrill as she galvanised an alternative plan of action.
‘No, I shall do better than write. I shall visit, first thing tomorrow morning.’
‘I shall accompany you,’ Emily said. ‘I did always care for dear Martha French so.’
‘Matilda, dear,’ Charlotte said. ‘Chester Grange is but two hour’s walk across Penistone moor. Anyone who may wish to accompany me is most welcome, as long as that person is not coming along simply to relish violence.’
Emily looked longingly out of the window where the rain came down so heavily that it shrouded the town beyond in a veil of tears, and even though somewhere above the thick clouds the summer raged on, it was almost impossible to believe it. ‘I am done with being kept prisoner by the rain, and I am done with the inside of this house. Set me free to have my feet soaked through and frozen!’
Charlotte turned to Anne, who sat with her hands folded neatly in her lap, looking for all the world as meek and as mild as any maid has ever been, which is exactly how those who did not know her perceived her to be. She wore her mildness like a kind of disguise, Charlotte often thought, hiding a warrior within.
‘Well, I can’t very well let you both wander about alone,’ Anne said. ‘I feel I am duty bound to keep you both respectable.’
‘And I shall accompany you too,’ Branwell said with largesse. ‘You will need protecting from the crazed knifeman after all.’
‘Well, brother dear,’ Anne replied, a little resentfully. ‘I fear I am rather uncertain as to who would be protecting whom if you were to come with us. As it is we are quite capable of going alone.’
‘Are you still angry with me, Anne?’ Branwell asked, as if it had been a
thousand years since he made Anne’s position as governess at Thorp Green where they had both been employed, untenable. The utter humiliation of the Mrs Robinson business was almost more than any of the Brontës could bear, especially Papa. The thought of Branwell involving himself with his employer’s wife in proceedings that were bad beyond expression quite turned her stomach. And of course the moment Branwell was dismissed under such a thundercloud of scandal, blameless Anne had to resign her position. The indignity was still fresh in her mind, it seemed.
Certainly Anne was entitled to at least a little more angst at the loss of her income, not to mention the infamy that had been brought upon the family, and yet the moment she saw Branwell’s expression of remorse and dejection, Charlotte could tell that Anne regretted her comments.
‘Will you always hate me simply for falling in love?’ he cried. ‘Please, I beg you, help me move as far away from that that has crushed my heart as I may, and let me accompany you on your expeditions as I used to.’ He looked at each of his sisters in turn. ‘May I come?’
‘Yes!’ Emily said immediately.
‘I think not,’ Charlotte added at once.
Emily glowered at her, and Charlotte could understand her disapproval. Recently Branwell’s weakness to the draw of the Black Bull, and frankly, all of Haworth’s drinking establishments, had deepened considerably, and Emily thought anything that might keep Branwell away from hard liquor for a few hours must surely be good for him. It was a fair point, but Charlotte hesitated still.
‘Why not?’ Emily protested, taking Branwell’s hand. ‘Despite Anne’s assertion, we are but three defenceless women, embarking on a considerable walk without a man to protect us, after all.’
‘As if that has ever concerned you for one moment in your entire life, Emily,’ Charlotte laughed, softening her voice as she turned to Branwell. ‘Dear brother, not this time. This time your presence, though it would be welcome, would mark our visit out of the ordinary, and we do not wish to be noticed. It has always been the way of the world that it will pay attention to a man as fine as you. But we three countrywomen, they will not notice us… And on this occasion it will be to our advantage. Perhaps we three may even be able to discern the truth of what happened to Elizabeth Chester.’
Charlotte avoided Anne’s gaze, knowing that her little sister was appraising her at that very moment, trying to determine how much her planned visit to Matilda French was out of concern, and how much was down to a desperate need for distraction. In any event, Charlotte determined, one couldn’t not go to visit a friend at such an unfortunate time just because it might also be rather fascinating.
‘Well then,’ Branwell sighed, collapsing on the sofa, hooking one of his long legs over the arm. ‘I will just have to find another way to amuse myself while you are gone. Perhaps the Black Bull.’
‘Perhaps church?’ Charlotte suggested.
‘Perhaps the Black Bull is my church.’ Branwell chuckled as Charlotte’s eyes widened in horror.
‘Is it truly terrible,’ Anne said gravely, in a bid to distract her sister, ‘that I am a little thrilled to think of us as three invisible lady detectors seeking out the truth? I believe we could be quite the only such creatures in all existence.’
‘Detectors?’ Charlotte asked her. ‘What a curious phrase.’
‘Why yes, from the article in The Times I was telling you about. Detectors, that my dear sisters, is what we shall be.’
There was much more talk that night, stories and laughter that echoed on even after the grandfather clock on the stairs had struck midnight. And not one of the siblings noticed, as they talked, and wrote and laughed, how the darkness crowded all around their bright little house, threatening to blot it out.
Chester Grange rose up from the wild moorland that surrounded it like an
ancient beast: horned, spiky and recently awoken from centuries of slumber.
Emily fell in love with it at once. Although it sat atop majestic terraced gardens that had once been the height of fashion, in recent years Nature had done her best to reclaim this manmade folly for her own.
Grasses grew long and heavy with seed, where they once would have
been laid to lawn, and the only visible path left leading to the house itself was the weed-and-wildflower-strewn drive that the three sisters walked up. The once elegant terraces were covered in bindweed and ivy, tenacious little periwinkles and forget-me-nots growing out of every crack in the masonry, blurring the edges of Elizabethan carved stone, and crumbling ramparts, winding their way all around the ancient house in a slowly tightening choke-hold that threatened to obscure many of the windows.
There was nothing here to disappoint a woman who saw a story in every corner, for there was a potential mystery everywhere – from the towers and crenellations guarded by a series of foreboding gargoyles, poised to pounce on any poor soul that might be foolish enough to intrude, to the huge scattered stones that peered at her from the overgrown grass, and looked as though they had once belonged to a far grander and more ancient palace. It was like the setting of one of Tabby’s endless stories of folklore, myths and the ancient ways, stories that Emily had been told all her life.
In this place there were a thousand voices: she could hear them whispering to her. And as they drew closer Emily’s smile grew ever wider at the prospect of adventure.
‘Will you please stop grinning like a lunatic?’ Charlotte asked her abruptly, stopping Emily with a gloved hand on her arm. Charlotte’s expression looked so prim and so serious, framed by her bonnet, that Emily could not help smiling even more. ‘Emily, I am quite in earnest. It is most disconcerting, and I’m not sure that your rather obvious pleasure in this place or situation will give Mattie any comfort. Remember, Emily, we are respectable parson’s daughters. Try your best to believe it.’
Emily shrugged and galloped after her sister with a little more enthusiasm that was entirely seemly.
The back of the house was no less dilapidated then the front, but sure enough Mattie sat on a bench outside the kitchen, her head bowed, her fingers laced. She appeared to be either deep in prayer or thought, though Emily could not discern which.
‘Mattie!’ Emily shouted, just to see how Charlotte’s cheeks coloured.
Matilda French’s fair head came up sharply, and at once she sprang from her seat, hurrying towards her friends.
‘Dear Charlotte,’ she gasped, a little out of breath as she took her friend’s hands in hers. ‘Oh how glad my heart is to set eyes on friendly faces! Dear Emily and Anne, what a relief to see you, I hardly know where to turn in such terrible times!’
‘The news reached us in Haworth last night,’ Charlotte said. ‘We resolved to come and see you at once.’
Emily endured an embrace, noting how Mattie’s pale gold ringlets were a little ragged around the edges, and how purple shadows bruised the underneath of her blue eyes.
It seemed that Charlotte had been right when she said that Mattie would find the situation at Chester Grange intolerable. As they had walked here this morning, Charlotte had recounted the tale of the poor young woman, who had lived the first portion of her life a beloved only daughter, but when her mother died in childbirth and her curate father was carried away with cholera, her uncle did his best to rid himself of his burden once and for all, sending her away to school to be trained for the life of a governess – a life she had never expected or wanted. And now this horror had happened under the same roof that sheltered her. Despite the hardships of her life, Charlotte had fretted as they’d marched on through the mud and heather, poor Matilda was ill equipped for tragedy.
The Brontë children, however, had lived almost their whole lives without a mother, and in the knowledge that should their father die, their home and means of support would go with him. He’d been training them to survive independently almost from their very first steps, and indeed, they had all worked as teachers and governesses in various positions until fate had brought them all home together this summer. Emily loved her father for his foresight with all her heart, even though she never liked to dwell on the day that she would be required to leave her beloved home, nursing a secret determination that it would never come.
‘Come into the kitchen,’ Mattie said, leading Charlotte by the hand. ‘I am so very glad to see you, even if under such terrible circumstances. You are my first visitors, and in happier times I would have delighted in taking you on a tour of the house, but of course we may not. You understand why…’
‘Why?’ Emily asked, pretending she couldn’t sense Charlotte starring at her.
‘Mr Chester is displaying such distress at his wife’s disappearance, and as yet no understanding as to what has happened to her. You say the news reached you last night? What have you heard? My employer is very concerned about tattletales misconstruing events and interrupting enquiries, such as they are.’
Her voice was bright as a naked flame, but strained, as she showed them into the country-house kitchen, which was, surprisingly for such a large house, entirely empty. Perhaps the staff had been sent home while the investigation took place, Emily supposed, wondering what sights lay behind the door that led to the main house.
‘We heard that there was no sign of Mrs Chester,’ Charlotte told Mattie, adding delicately, ‘and a very great deal of blood.’
‘That is… correct.’ Mattie’s voice trembled as she spoke, before she straightened her shoulders. ‘I will make you some tea. Thank you so much for visiting – you can’t know how glad I am to see you. There isn’t anyone to talk to, you see – no one to turn to. My only friend here… well that was Mrs Chester, and I don’t see how a person could be deprived of so much blood and yet live.’
‘You are not entirely alone, Miss French.’ A low rasp of a voice surprised them, and Emily turned towards the shadows where she could just about discern a mass of darkness galvanising in the gloom. An older woman, of somewhere between fifty and sixty lumbered into view, her small deep set and beady eyes focused on the group of women with the singular intent of a crow. ‘I am always near, never forget it.’
‘Of course not, Mrs Crawley.’ Mattie’s voice trembled as she bowed her head to the older woman, who took a seat by the unlit fire to better observe them. ‘Please do forgive my manners. May I present to you my friends Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë from Haworth Parsonage, who hearing of the news have come to visit me and offer comfort in these dreadful times.’
‘Gossipmongers, then.’ Mrs Crawley jammed herself deeper into the chair, a toad on a rock, dressed in mourning with a widow’s veil pinned into her iron-grey hair, wearing a pair of white, cotton gloves. On the right side of her doughy face ran a scar that had healed into a raised and ugly cicatrix. The unfortunate looking woman regarded the sisters as they curtseyed with barely-concealed disdain, taking them in and dismissing them at once as no one of any import, Emily was quite sure. Though it might be true, it rankled.
‘I can assure you, Mrs Crawley,’ Charlotte said, the colour in her cheeks high, ‘my sisters and I have no interest in speculation, only in comforting our friend in a time of distress.’
‘Keep to the kitchen and grounds,’ Mrs Crawley told Mattie as no sooner had she made herself comfortable, she hauled her considerable mass out of the chair, her starched linen rustling like treetops in a high wind. Emily wondered at Mrs Crawley wearing cotton mittens in the house for it was unusual, to say the least. ‘And use the servants’ china, girl! You are to be back attending to the children by four. This is not the time for shirking your responsibilities.’
Mrs Crawley lumbered towards a small inner room, which Emily could see through the open door was lined with bookshelves that held not books, but ornaments and objects that seemed they could not belong to such an intrinsically angry woman: a china shepherdess tending her flock, brightly shining silver thimbles, and a posy of wildflowers in a cut-glass rose bowl. Even more curiously there was a photograph, a curious magical object Emily had seen only very rarely, of a sleeping, or possibly even dead baby. She desperately wanted to find out which, but not enough to attempt to engage the toad woman in conversation.
‘I will be in my parlour, should you require me,’ Mrs Crawley told them with more of a threat than a reassurance, and Emily bobbed a second little curtsey to her that only she knew was meant in an entirely disrespectful way.
‘Well, she’s a delight,’ Emily said under her breath, sitting down and picking up one of the slices of buttered bread that Mattie fanned out on a plain white plate for them rather apologetically.
‘So tell us,’ Charlotte said, glancing at Emily’s bulging cheeks as she took a seat at the table, ‘How fare you, my friend?’
Mattie glanced in the direction of Mrs Crawley’s room and smiled. ‘Indeed it’s a very difficult and trying time for Mr Chester and the dear children.’
But her hand trembled as she poured the freshly brewed tea, a single amber drop falling on to the back of her hand.
‘Charlotte, do you remember Cowan Bridge?’
‘Of course,’ Charlotte replied very gravely. Emily was certain that her sister remembered Cowan Bridge just as clearly as she did. The school Papa had sent her and her sisters to shortly after their mother had died was indelibly branded on their memories.
Charlotte reached for Emily’s hand. ‘Cowan Bridge was a despicable place, full of darkness and cruelty, where thinking was frowned upon, and any expression of joy snuffed out like a candle. It was there Emily and I first met you Matilda dear, and there, in that terrible place, where our dear older sisters Elizabeth and Maria were pushed to the brink of death, before being bundled into a carriage and taken away back home to finally slip away.’
Charlotte need not say more for the three of them to silently recall the horrors they had seen there, in that place that falsely claimed to be a place of God, a place that starved, beat and punished its innocent inmates routinely. Even now there were times when Charlotte would wake sharply in the night and cry out for Emily, sobbing as she recalled feeling the freezing body of her dying sister in bed next to her.
So of course none of them would ever forget Cowan Bridge. This was more than polite conversation, Emily realised. It was Mattie’s way of telling them how very frightened and full of despair she was, just as she had been in that awful establishment. Emily had never felt so desperate, nor so alone as she had in those dark and dreadful days, and if that was how Mattie was feeling now, then she must be truly afraid.
‘We are here now, Mattie,’ Emily said, steadying Mattie’s shoulder with a firm hand. ‘We shall help you feel safe once more.’
This day had begun as an adventure, an excuse to roam free, Emily was happy to admit it. Now though, as Mattie leaned into Emily’s embrace, she recalled all too vividly how women such as they had precious little defence against the cruelty of the world, and she saw the same thought returned a hundred times in her sister’s expressions of quiet determination. The wars of Gondal would have to cease fire for a little while, as long as Mattie needed them. She had the three Brontë sisters by her side until she was safe and protected.
Woe betide any that stood in their way.
Reading Group Guide
Readers guide for THE VANISHED BRIDE
Questions for Discussion
1. The Vanished Bride is set during a cold, rainy time on the moors—“a typical Yorkshire summer.” How does the setting influence the tone of the book? How does it evoke the Brontës’ novels?
2. Anne is described as wearing “her mildness like a kind of disguise . . . hiding a warrior within,” while Emily shuns convention. Do you think either of these ways is an easier approach to life or a harder one? Which would you choose?
3. The sisters love their brother, Branwell, but also find his drinking and self-destructive tendencies frustrating. Did you find Branwell to be a sympathetic character?
4. Emily believes she feels the presence of Imogen, Mr. Chester’s first wife. Do you think Imogen was really there, or is it just Emily’s vivid imagination?
5. Mattie falls in love with Mr. Chester despite knowing about his violent tendencies. Can you sympathize with how she feels? Does this dynamic remind you of any characters in the Brontës’ novels?
6. Emily believes that the sisters’ imaginations will help them to uncover the truth better than the authorities. How much does their power of imagination aid them in solving the mystery? How much does it help them cope with the difficulties of their daily lives?
7. Mrs. Crawley hides her son’s nature and her own identity in order to protect him. Are her actions in doing so understandable? Does she share any of the guilt for his crimes?
8. Many of the women in The Vanished Bride feel unable to live the lives they truly want or express their desires openly, due to societal restrictions. How much have things changed for women since then? How much have they stayed the same?
9. Why do you think we remain fascinated by the Brontës?