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DaguerreoTyped #24: Ekphrastic Response by Melissa D. Sullivan

Image: CC BY Wellcome Collection (Image cropped).

Melissa D. Sullivan responds to our monthly historical photo prompt with the story “The Lion’s Bride.”

“The Lion’s Bride”

The knock made Emily drop her book on the attic floor. Plumes of ancient Belgian dust flooded the air.

“Hell and damnation,” Emily choked out between rough coughs. Now whoever was on the other side of the door knew she was here. It was probably her sister Charlotte, coming to scold her about being unsolicitous to their benefactress. After all, Madame Hager hadn’t needed to take them in. Two girls from the wilds of Yorkshire with country manners and no education weren’t anyone’s idea of proper instructors for the young ladies of the finest finishing school in Brussels. But her father had prevailed upon an old family connection to secure them positions, and Emily should be grateful — or so Charlotte often reminded her. Emily could already see Charlotte’s brown eyes through her spectacles, kind but reproachful.

Emily grunted, which set off another round of coughing. At least that look was more acceptable than the lovelorn expression she’d seen in those eyes recently. Emily was twenty-four and untutored in the ways of romance outside of Keats, but even she could diagnose the sickly expression on her sister’s face every time Charlotte looked at the headmaster. Emily was sure that the fact that Monsieur Hager was married to Madame only compounded the romance for her poor sister. Thank goodness they would be leaving in the spring.

There was a knock again.

Maybe it was Madame, and not Charlotte. Madame was, Emily had to admit, a woman about which much could be admired. Madame Hager was a no-nonsense sort who ran a cheerful but tidy house while also overseeing the running of the school. It had been Madame’s school from the start, with Monsieur marrying in and becoming the lead instructor of the younger girls after the wedding. Madame still oversaw the curriculum of the upper forms, the school’s finances, and the instruction of her six apple-cheeked children. She was, in every sense of the word, maternal — toward her children, her husband, her students, and now her forlorn and destitute Yorkshire sisters.

It was this aspect that had caused Madame to invite Charlotte and Emily into her family’s parlor for a late Sunday supper that evening, and it was their concentrated merriment that had chased Emily here to her attic hideaway. Her heart ached to see Monsieur and the younger Hagers rolling about the Prussian carpet, playing at battles with their tin soldiers while Madame looked charitably on. The scene conjured home, when her sisters and brother Branwell and she had battled with their own red-coated regime on the rectory’s dining-room table while Mother and Father looked on from their chairs by the fire. So fine and far were those memories that a tear had fallen from Emily’s eye.

But not one of the boisterous crew took note of the dark Englishwoman crying in the corner. Even Charlotte had thrown herself into the play, crawling on her knees to arrange the artillery and clapping when little Anton’s cannon had finally broken through enemy lines.

No. To pretend to be like the other girls in the school, who cared only for music and fashion, was one thing. That was merely survival. But to be forced to participate in this proxy of a family, when her real family was miles away in Yorkshire, moldering in the damp English winter, was quite another. At least in the school’s dusty attic, surrounded by forgotten curio cabinets and threadbare armchairs, she could finally be her brooding self.

Some minutes had passed and there had been no knock. Maybe Charlotte or Madame had given up.

“Miss Brontë?” Monsieur’s French-accented English was muffled by the heavy door.

“Double damnation,” Emily muttered. Louder, she said, “Please come in.”

As the door swung open, Emily bent and hastily picked up her book from the floor, tucking it between the folds of her skirt. Monsieur entered. His square face made almost a skull in the sharp shadows of the single candle Emily had stolen.

“Are you well, Miss Brontë?”

“Quite well, Monsieur,” Emily said.

“My wife thought you might have taken ill.”

“No. I am of robust health.”

Très bien. Then let me offer you this.” Monsieur ducked out of sight into the hall and came back carrying a small porcelain plate. “Ginger cake,” he said. “Before my goblins gobble it all up.”

Emily looked critically at Monsieur, trying to conjure the love mask her sister saw. Atop his square head, Monsieur possessed a crown of dark hair that was now receding to show a foreboding brow. His eyes, though dark, were far apart, making one think of a hop toad, and his thick brows, instead of rising arched, sank in the middle. If Emily had crossed paths with him in the street on a rainy afternoon, she would have thought he was a low-level clerk at some dreary Belgian bank and immediately dismissed him into the fog.

Truly, love was an irrational creature.

“Miss Brontë?”

Emily sighed. Quicker to accept than to decline. “Yes, Monsieur. Thank you.” As she took hold of the plate, her forgotten book slid from the folds of her skirts and slipped to the floor again with a bang.

“Allow me,” Monsieur said and bent to pick up the volume.

Emily hastily set down the porcelain plate and held out her hand. But Monsieur did not hand the book back. Instead, he turned it over, running his pale fingers down the rough, green fabric of the spine.

“Adelbert von Chamisso,” Monsieur said with a hint of surprise.Where did you get this?”

Emily lifted her chin. “Charlotte and I sometimes spend our free afternoons with the booksellers. One of them recommended this.”

“I know this author, yes. His story of the man who sold his shadow to the devil was my favorite as a child. But this volume of his poetry is not as well known. Dark and, I must say, difficult to understand.”

Emily scowled. “I may be the lowly piano instructor, but I can make out the meaning.”

“Do you have a favorite?”

“‘Die Löwenbraut.’”

“‘The Lion’s Bride,’” translated Monsieur. “A most strange tale. A bride that is eaten in the end by the lion that professed to love her, yes?”

“Better to be eaten than married to a fool.”

Monsieur regarded her with measured eyes. “You are a woman of strong opinions, Miss Brontë.”

“I’ve been told.”

“And you are unhappy in our little school,” Monsieur said.

Emily’s scowl deepened. “I am content enough.”

“We have French and German and all the literature of the masters. And a fine piano forte at your disposal. What else do you desire?”

Monsieur’s face was kind but expectant, with a bit of pity glinting in his eyes. It was the way she had often seen it when he was leading one of the younger students through a correction. But Emily was not a little girl, and she had no need of correction or, indeed, to hide her thoughts. No matter what Charlotte or Father said.

“To study poetry and philosophy,” Emily said, her voice as sharp as she could make it. “To read the words of those who examine the darkness of the human heart and who are not afraid of it.”

“Like dear Adelbert here?”

“He is not afraid of truth.”

“Darkness exists at the center of every man,” said Monsieur.

Emily blinked in surprise. “Is that from a poem?”

Monsieur chuckled and shook his head. “And you are drawn to dark things, Miss Brontë?”

“I am a woman, Monsieur. I am a creature of surface by necessity. We are not permitted the dark things.”

“Permitted?”

“When M-Mother died,” Emily said, her voice catching. “Only Father and my brother Branwell, barely four, were permitted to attend the funeral. My sisters and I were secluded at the rectory.”

Monsieur looked down to the book, still holding it close. Emily tried not to reach for it again.

“It is a terrible thing,” Monsieur said at last, “to lose one’s parents at a tender age. It rips the veneer of kindness off the world too early.” He ran his hand down the spine slowly. “I often wonder if I will be consumed by wretchedness.”

Wretchedness? It was not a word Emily would have expected to hear from Monsieur’s lips. His world seemed small but bright: an occupation, a marriage, children, and all the trappings of a comfortable, forgiving life. But in the attic, in the light of a single candle, with darkness cocooning the two of them like a cloak, it were as if they stood in a sacred place apart from ordinary life, where confessions could be spoken without judgment.

“I fear my anger,” said Emily, her voice low. “I often dread that I will one day turn into a monster and consume everyone with my ferocious appetite.”

Monsieur stooped until his face was level with hers. In the flickering light, the fine whiskers on his cheeks glinted gold. “It is not a crime for a woman to be passionate, Miss Brontë.”

“No one wants to marry a monster.”

Monsieur smiled a little and stood. “But perhaps you are not a monster, but a lion. Cunning and strong, with an appetite, yes.”

Emily scoffed. “I am not a lion. Maybe a giraffe with long gangly limbs and a shock of dark hair.”

“No,” said Monsieur. “I am a learned man. I know my Animalia. You, Miss Brontë, are most certainly a lion. But what sort of a lion?”

Emily swallowed and looked again at the little book. So far, Monsieur had not opened it. But if he did, he would discover that, between the lines of Adelbert’s poems, she had given in to her one hunger: She had taken up writing again. But this time it was not the silly fairy stories that Anne and she, and even Charlotte, had occasionally made up around the dining-room table. These were real stories, inspired by the suffering in Father’s parish in Haworth and the sad Belgian women Emily saw in the street on her afternoon walks. It was her compulsion, these past months, to sneak away from her sleeping sister into the dusty attic and scribble her yearnings in the margins of books.

In his hand, Monsieur held her whole world, and he did not even know it.

Emily looked up at him. “I want to know the darkness, Monsieur. The meat of things. To get to the truth, the eternal rocks that lie beneath our world.”

Monsieur nodded. “Then, lion, I believe you shall.” There was that glimmer in his eyes again. But perhaps it was not pity, as she had suspected, but true fellow feeling.

Monsieur looked down at the book and for a moment, Emily desired that he would open it and find her lines and maybe, just maybe, she would be able to bare her heart to a person whose soul was secretly as dark and wretched as her own.

But he didn’t. Instead, he held out the book and Emily took it, bringing it close to her chest. It felt warm from the heat of his hands.

“Well,” said Monsieur, “I shall bid you good evening, Miss Brontë.”

Emily watched as he turned toward the door and then, as he pulled it open, turned back.

“And don’t worry,” he said. “I won’t tell your secret, Mademoiselle Lion.”

“But I am not a lion,” Emily said. “I am merely an angry woman.”

“That is sometimes the same thing, yes?” Monsieur said, and softly shut the attic door.

Emily Brontë published Wuthering Heights in 1847. One contemporary review stated that the book was “a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.” Emily died a year later, never having published another novel. Wuthering Heights is now considered one of the masterpieces of the English canon.

MELISSA D. SULLIVAN is a writer, editor, and parent. Her writing has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Nightingale & Sparrow, and elsewhere. Her flash histfic “Dear Jacqueline” was nominated for a 2019 Pushcart Prize. Melissa can often be found in the suburbs of Philadelphia, mourning changes to the Taco Bell menu.
Image: CC BY Wellcome Collection (Image frame edging cropped).

Each month, The Coil presents an ekphrastic challenge (photo prompt) for writers and lovers of history: We feature a different public domain historical photograph or illustration, and ask writers to respond to it. There is no wrong answer, and no set style guidelines. Poetry, prose, hybrid, fiction or nonfiction, experimental — anything goes that has a history bent. The best responses will be published on The Coil after the challenge ends. See all past challenges and responses.

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