On Tuesday I will be marking the 201st birthday of Emily Brontë with a special post, so today I give you a post that is longer in length than most, but shorter in my contribution.
You may have heard of, or even read, Charlotte Brontë’s unfinished novel ‘Emma’, but in fact this wasn’t her only unfinished work, and certainly not the most remarkable. In 1853, after the completion of Villette, Charlotte began work on a novel entitled ‘The Story Of Willie Ellin’. Five fragments are all that we have of it, but together they give us more words than we have in Emma. It’s a Brontë work unlike any other. You shall see how fragments three and four follow on from each other, and how fragment five seems to be an alternative version of fragment four. It is a tale of sibling cruelty and abuse that wouldn’t be out of place in a Dickens novel, or even Wuthering Heights.
What I love most about Willie Ellin, however, is the second fragment which seems to deal with a supernatural element – a spirit who ‘came to consciousness within the rim of twilight’ and seems to have haunted the spot ever since. It’s a unique edition to the Brontë canon, if only we had more of it! You can read more about the story and its significance in this wonderful blog by Nicola Friar, an expert on Brontë juvenilia. The work itself is difficult to find, but as it’s out of copyright I feel it’s right that more people should be able to see it, so I present to you here Charlotte Brontë’s:
THE STORY OF WILLIE ELLIN
I will not deny that I took a pleasure in studying the character of Mrs. Widdup, nor that to me she seemed to possess a good deal of worth of a particular kind. Thirty years ago (our acquaintance dated its commencement thus far back) I had believed very heartily in her worth without studying her character. She then ruled me as one of a flock of four nurslings. Of this flock I was not her favourite; indeed my place was lowest in her grace. Even through boyhood and adolescence she held me for a riddle rather than a model. After two decades of separation and more than half a generation’s change beheld us again under the same roof, still the housekeeper of Ellin Hall, while respecting its master, revolved him day and night as an unsolved conundrum. It was and must be so: habit and circumstances attached us, but nothing could combine, nothing quite unfold.
In a certain sense Mrs. Widdup was spotlessly honest; she had the fidelity of a consistent and steady nature; she was a partisan in friendship, an unflinching foe; she was usually humane and cheerful. She was narrow minded, loved money, and by natural instinct still leant to the guidance of interest. Fidelity, partisanship, interest, all counselled her to attachment to the Ellin family, and accordingly she was attached to me, that family’s surviving representative.
Ellin Hall had for five ages been the home of the Ellins. In my youth it passed out of their hands. My eldest half-brother sold it. He died suddenly, leaving neither will nor direct heir; his fortune fell to me, and I purchased back the ancient homestead. That eldest half -brother of mine was a stronger man in body and a tyrant in heart. I would advert to his deeds, but they are such as we suffer Death to cancel from memory.
In other countries, and in distant times, it is possible that more of my kind might have been attracted to human dwellings – hut or mansion – and secretly taken them in lease, than for these hundred years past have been known to make their home in such abodes. Yet we were always few, our presence rare, its signs faint, and its proofs difficult to seize.
My house was not picturesque: it had no turrets, no battlements, no mullioned or lozenged windows. From the first, however, I believe its stones were grey, dug from a grey quarry on a grey waste. They who planned it had loved fresh air, and had chosen a raised site, building it where the green ground swelled highest. Its outlook was free and four-fold: it commanded both sunrise and sunset, and viewed an equal and a wide expanse north and south. These builders, too, preferred solitude to convenience: the village was distant – near enough, perhaps, in summer weather, but remote for a winter’s day walk. As to a sentimental peculiarity of the vicinage, I believe the first owners had not known nor reckoned it in their choice of ground. The short, green, flower-bearing turf around covered an ancient burying-ground – so ancient that all the sleepers under the flowers had long ago ceased to be either clay or bone, and were become fine mould, throwing out violets in May, and a carpet of close silken grass all spring, summer, and autumn. These violets were white, and in their season they gathered thickly in a· bleached wreath about what seemed a deep-sunk and iron-grey rock – the sole left foundation stone of a forgotten chapel, or the basement of a cross broken away. A quiet gable of the house looked upon this mossy bit of mead. In the lower story of the gable was no aperture, in the upper a single window, having before it a balcony of stone, a peculiarity rare in that neighbourhood, forming indeed the distinctive feature of the house and originating its name – Ellin Balcony.
Who am I? Was I owner of the house? No. Was I its resident tenant, taking it perhaps on lease, and paying the rent? No. Was I a child of the family? No. A servant? No. Ask me no more questions for they are difficult to meet. I was there, and it was my house.
I recollect the first hour that I knew it. I came to consciousness at a moment within the rim of twilight. I came upward out of earth – not downward from heaven, and what first welcomed and seemed to aid me to life was a large disk high over me, a globule, clear, cragged, and desolate. I saw the moon before I could see the sky; but that too, night-veiled and star-inspired, soon opened for me. A sweet silence watched my birth-hour. I took affection for this mossy spot, I stole all through building and nook of land. In the mild beam and pure humidity of a midsummer night I found my seal and sign printed here in dew and there in moonbeam on roof and lawn of Ellin Balcony.
I do not know that ever I was knit with humanity, or was mixed with the mystery of existence as men or women know it. Yet had no mortal relic slumbered near the Balcony, should I have risen? Would Night, my mother, have borne me, unwedded to a certain vital, mortal essence ? Tears had watered this ground; great sorrows and strong feelings had gathered here. Could a colder soil, drenched only with rain and visited only by airs and shadows, have yielded me as its produce? I even think that some one sleeper threw me out of a great labouring heart which had toiled terribly through his thirty, or sixty, or fourscore years of work, had lived and throbbed strongly, stood still while yet in vigour, and buried, yet warm and scarce arrested, had thrown forth its unslackened glow and ill-checked action in an essence bodiless and incomplete, yet penetrative and subtle. I believe this because my relations to men were so limited. To millions I felt no tie, found no approach; to tens I might draw gently. Whether units existed that could more actively attract it, yet lay with time and chance to show.
Whoever in my early days were the inmates of Ellin Balcony, on me they made no impression. I knew every stone in the walls. I knew the neighbourhood – the knolls, the lanes, the turfed wastes, all vegetable growth, field flowers, hedge plants, yellow gorse and broom, foxglove springing bright out of stony soil, ivy on ground or wall. I distinguished and now remember these things very well. I knew the seasons, the faces of summer and winter. Spring and autumn were familiar in their skies; night, day, and the hours were all acquaintances. Storm and fair weather complete my reminiscences. I cannot recall anything human, and yet humanity was in the house. Experience now tells me that it must have been busy, bustling humanity, an alert current of life flowing out after to towns and thickly peopled scenes, returning thence with accessions – life circulating in a free, ordinary channel, never stealing slow under the banks of thought, never winding in deeps, but coursing parallel with populous highways. At last, I suppose, this practical daily life forsook retirement and went permanently away to the towns which were its natural sphere. This departure made no difference to me, except that I remember looking at the sun and listening to the wind with a new holiday feeling of unconstraint.
About this time I first added a cognisance of the individual human being to a vague impression of a human race existing. A solitary old woman became housekeeper of Ellin Balcony. She used to feed a great dog chained in the now empty yard, to close and open shutters, to knit a great deal, and read and think a little. I believe it was because she did think, however little, that I had the power to perceive her presence. Those who had lived here before her never thought, and into an existence all material I could not enter.
Old Mrs. Hill, the solitary housekeeper of Ellin Balcony, was sitting one day, in her kitchen reading a pamphlet-sermon as old as herself, when, just as her kettle began to simmer for tea, she thought she heard a noise like the jar of the iron gate opening from a bridle road which approached the lone house. She held her hand, checked her clicking needles and listened. Was it an arrival? It was no more than the wind, which, when it blew as it now did from the south, could rattle that gate like a hand. Sedately superstitious, Mrs. Hill, every day and ·every night, heard noises about this deserted place which scared her, but, firm-nerved, her fears never passed her lips or affected her movements.
She passed the jar over and resumed her stocking. True, there blew a south wind, but in a low key. It shook nothing; it sighed only along the natural avenue which darkened above a path conducting upward from the gate. At this moment the shadow fell not on the path only, but on a small wayfarer – a child’s figure – perhaps a little rustic venturing through this gate and up this tree-dark way as a short cut to the bourn of some errand. Is his garb coloured like the path? Does it make a concord with gravel, moss, tree, stem? Are his cheeks and hands berry-brown and red?
Not at all; the shape is less picturesque. It is civilised and slender, a contrast with adjuncts, not a harmony. The dress was made in a town; the hair is long and waved, the face is fair, the countenance is informed. This seems to be a gentleman schoolboy, perhaps ten years old. He must have walked far to-day; he is footsore, pale, and with a few more miles of pilgrimage would become exhausted. He carries a knapsack, a light burden, but his weary shoulder aches under it. Emerging from the avenue, he halts on the little lawn, and looks at Ellin Balcony. He has measured the house, surveyed the enclosed ground, glanced ,down into the wooded valley and up at the barer and greyer hills towards which the Balcony fronts. He approaches the door.
The old lonely knitter was winding the worsted round her ball, and folding her knitting, preparatory to taking off the fire the kettle, which now boiled, when the house thrilled to a knock, a loud though brief knock at the front door. She started – and might well start, for it was the first time she had been thus summoned since she kept the Balcony. She ran amazed, she opened, and saw on the step a boy, well clad but dusty, viewing her from under light-complexioned brows with direct clear blue eyes.
“They call you Mrs. Hill? ” said he.
He was answered affirmatively.
“And this place is Ellin Balcony?”
“If you please, then, let me pass. I should like to come in; I should like well to come in. I’m tired.”
“But, master” – Mrs. Hill paused astonished, as if a sudden light broke on her. She quickly pursued-
“Surely you are not an Ellin of Golpit, surely not the little one – the baby?”
“I’m Willie, that is William Ellin, and I came this very day from Golpit- fifteen miles, a long way. I’m tired.”
Mrs. Hill let him pass. She took him to the kitchen, and he sat down in a chair that stood on the hearth.
“You are the baby, then? ” cried the housekeeper.
“Perhaps I was a baby when you saw me. I hope I’m a boy now.”
“How old, Master Ellin? ”
“Ten and a half, but I’m a thin boy.”
“You are thin and white. Have you good health?”
“Capital – when they let me.”
“You are like your mother.”
“Am I like mamma? I’m glad of it!”
” You have her mouth, you speak like her. But what, Master William, brought a child like you alone from Golpit? ”
“Several things, Mrs. Hill. I can’t tell you all in a minute – only here I am, and very hungry and tired.”
“Hungry!” echoed Mrs. Hill: “I’m afraid he is hungry,” and she hastened to get a tray and cups.
Before the boy took his tea he asked his hostess to fasten both outer doors of the house. When this was done he said, “Now I’m safe,” and proceeded to eat with appetite. The meal over, he lay down on a kind of settle. He folded both hands under his head, but did not close his eyes; he was pale but had no look of langour.
“Mrs. Hill,” he resumed, “you knew my mother?”
“I stayed with her in her last sickness, Master Willie.”
“Had she much pain when she was ill ? ”
“Sometimes she suffered greatly.”
“Was she patient, or not? ”
“She was silent when she suffered, and bore wonderfully.”
“She cared for me, didn’t she, Mrs. Hill?”
“Beyond words,” said the housekeeper. “And we all used to think you took greatly to your mamma.”
“Well, I suppose it was so. I was not much more than three years old when she died, but I remember her. I have wanted her always.”
“You must have something of her nature in you,” was the reply, “and I see you have. But I am afraid you have not found many friends, or your mind would not dwell in this way.”
“No more it would, I daresay,” replied the lad.
“Do they treat you well at Golpit, Master Willie? ”
“I have run away, Mrs. Hill.”
“Child, where do you mean to go to, and what will you do?”
“I shall think about it. You must hide me here for a day or two.”
“What has happened wrong? Do they starve you? ”
“Oh no, I get enough to eat, but Edward’s hand and stick are so heavy.”
“Ah! Mr. Ellin never liked either you or your mother.”
“I believe he was a cruel stepson, Mrs. Hill – he still speaks so savagely about mamma at times.”
“And does he strike you, child? ”
“If he thinks me slow in the business, which I find dry and hard enough to learn, he knocks my head about till it aches. It is very seldom that I cry, but if I look dull after punishment, he calls me a disaffected rebel, and strikes again. Last night he had been making bargains, and had taken some brandy and water. He knocked me down with a stool, for no particular reason that I know of, unless it is that in some moods he hates the sight of me. My temple was cut with the sharp corner of the stool. I wish, Mrs. Hill, you would give me a little warm water to wash it. It is sore and burning now, after my long walk.”
The housekeeper soon brought him a basin of water. She wished to aid him, but he took the sponge himself, and pushing aside his fair brown hair, discovered in the blue-veined temple a rough laceration and dark bruise – it was now darkened with blood – but he soon washed it clean, and then Mrs. Hill bound it up carefully.
“My lamb,” said she, compassionately, “this is wicked work.”
“Old lady, I am not a lamb,” replied the boy, while his eyes laughed. “And after all it is not so much the knock I think about. I did not runaway on that account.”
“What could it be for? ”
“Because Edward threatened me with something I really should dread. It seems I am quite in his power, as my parents left me no money.”
“I know, child. Your stepbrother’s property came to him in his mother’s, your father’s first wife’s, right. You are dependent on him, as they say.”
“Yes, and he tells me he will bring me up as becomes a beggar – he will make me a shop apprentice. I can’t bear it, Mrs. Hill.”
The old lady shook her head, and looked somewhat at a loss for a response.
“I can’t bear it. I don’t want to live with shop boys, and stand behind a counter. My mother was a lady – I ought to be a gentleman.”
“But you’ve no money; you can’t choose. You must learn a trade.”
“We have never had traders in our family for I don’t know how long till Edward out of greediness went into business. My father and grandfather and great-grandfather lived here at Ellin Balcony and farmed their own land, and were squires.”
“Yes, and lessened their income little by little. Ellin Balcony would have had to be sold if your brother had not removed into premises at Golpit, and gone, as you say, into business.”
“Would it? ”
“Aye; and mind me, you can’t do better than follow his example. Would he take you into his own counting house?”
“I should be so miserable.”
The poor lad groaned.
“But, remember,” said Mrs. Hill, with much sympathy, but also with deep warning in her tone, “you are without friends, Master Willie. Edward is your only chance: displease him as little and obey him as much as you can.”
“Can’t I go to sea, or be a soldier? ”
” You can’t – indeed you can’t.”
“But Edward is cruel, Mrs. Hill; he persecutes me, I think. I don’t complain much, I don’t tell you all, but indeed I hardly know how to go on living as I have lived for some years.”
“You must look to God – you must, my poor child. It is all that sufferers, whether grown up or little ones, can do in this weary world.”
“I wonder if mamma knows about me, Mrs. Hill? I sometimes hope not, lest she should be unhappy in Heaven.”
“Do you say your prayers at night? Have they ever taught you to pray?”
“Yes,” said he briefly. “They never taught me – that is, Edward and his wife never taught me my prayers, but I learnt them of mamma, and remember them yet.”
“Don’t forget them. Will you go to bed now? ”
“Yes, if you please. I’m tired.”
After Mrs. Hill had taken the child upstairs and shown him his room, containing a spare bed she always kept dry and aired, he came to the staircase head, and called out anxiously, yet quietly:
“Lock the doors fast, Mrs. Hill. Let nobody in, and tell nobody there is a strange boy in the house.”
She promised accordingly.
Worn out with fatigue, he slept till late the next morning. He had not yet risen when the iron gate clashed back and a gig drove furiously up the avenue. In an instant a man athletic and red-whiskered bounded to the yard pavement, entered the kitchen door, and seemed to take house and housekeeper by storm.
“Where is the cub? I tracked him here by sure marks, so let us have no lies. Where is he?”
“Mr. Ellin, what can you mean?”
Mr. Ellin held up a clenched fist in the old woman’s face, shook it between her two eyes, pronounced an oath, and dashed upstairs.
There were seven bedrooms. He tried the doors of six – they yielded. He entered, and found empty rooms. Testing the seventh door, he found that it resisted his hand – a drawn bolt opposed him.
“Run down!” said he. “I have him now. William Ellin!”
“Yes, Edward,” said a child’s voice.
“Open this door!” (Oath accompanying).
“I would open it directly if you would promise not to strike – at least, not hard.”
For answer the great athlete vigorously shook the slight door.
“I promise!” he yelled, “I’ll see you,” etc.
Silence within. Again the door was made to quiver.
“If you will not promise,” recommenced the treble organ, uttered in an awe-pierced yet not timid key, “I must defend.”
“Defend? What do you mean? Open if you value your life.”
“I do value my life, so I shall make a barricade,” was answered, and a dragging sound followed as of furniture moved. The child seemed quietly planning to resist this terrible besieger. Hereupon Goliath foamed at the mouth. Strong hand and heavy shoulder were both made to bear upon the door. It heaved, creaked, swayed. Below knelt Mrs. Hill on the landing praying for pardon
and forbearance. She might as well have implored stone. Ere long hinge, lock, panels yielded, the whole door crashed in, and thrusting aside an interposed chest of drawers, Edward Ellin sprang upon his young brother. Down went the child before the onslaught, but he got up soon on one knee, and his blue eye did not fall – it rose. Over him flourished the gig whip. He looked at the lash.
“Not too hard this time,” said he in a low voice, inexplicably quiet and steady. “I have considered, and mean to do my best at a trade.”
The wicked man’s arm stiffened its muscles; the cruel lash vibrated, but it did not fall. There was a Providence watching over that poor little Samuel kneeling on the floor in his scant night-shirt.
A voice spoke behind.
“Ellin – not so. I’ll not see that done,” declared accents manlier and mellower than those of the husky ruffian. “Whatever the lad may be, he is not strong enough for the discipline of a gig whip. Let him go.”
The speaker was the second occupant of the gig. Mrs. Hill’s cries and the breakage of the door had called him upon the scene of action. He looked at this moment a capable protector. He was a handsome man, as powerful as Ellin; and his face, his eye, his voice, attested that by him power would never be abused to cruelty. There might be a certain command about him, but it was unmixed with any propensity to oppress. Many a murderer has owned the light savage eye, the sensual traits, the strong jaw, massive neck, and full red whisker of Edward Ellin. No criminal ever displayed in a dock the countenance, bearing, feature and glance of Mr. Bosas.
“Come, Ellin, be calm,” said this last. “Give me that whip; I’ll take care of it.”
The person addressed looked ready to pour out oaths, and indeed forth they rushed, but not on his dark-eyed, pleasant opponent. Little Willie bore the brunt of the storm, or would have borne it had not Bosas stepped between.
“Dress yourself,” said he to the boy, speaking sharply but not unkindly. He was obeyed in haste. William meantime still eyed with dread, but no poltroonery, the bull kept at bay by the man. He washed his face and hands too, and as he wiped them on a towel, he looked up at his friend, and said, with a curious kind of resigned endurance, “After all, sir, do not give yourself too much trouble. I’ve had that whip before, and shall have it again when you’re gone.”
“I hope not,” said the gentleman gravely. “Come, Ellin, promise me you’ll let him off this time.”
Ellin made no promise and gave no answer for some minutes; then, as if his mood had changed suddenly, he burst out laughing, and said – “Pooh, pooh! I’m only in joke; I’ll not touch him.
Willie knows me well enough. I’m a passionate fellow but good-natured.”
“You forgive him, then?” said the mediator.
“Oh, to be sure. I owed the little booby no grudge. Let him play truant no more, and come home quietly now – that is all.”
“Very well. You agree, don’t you, my little fellow?” said the dark-faced but kind man. He spoke without turning to the child. If he had seen him at that moment perhaps the current of his own thoughts might have changed, perhaps an intention might have entered his mind which for the present did not occur to him. But Fate sat in the air invisible at her cloudy wheel. She span on impassive, unravelling no knot in her wool. It was in vain that Willie turned sheet-white, and, for an instant, heart-sick. No man regarded, or could read what a lot the child foresaw. He put neither his thoughts nor his forebodings into words. Prescient but long-suffering, he went back to Golpit that morning.
Mr. Bosas was no resident at Golpit. He lived, indeed, a great way off in a capital city. Notwithstanding his foreign-sounding name, he was English born, but report ascribed to him a Hebrew origin. There was nothing, indeed, of the Jew in his countenance or eye, yet in his features some of the handsomer lines of Israel’s race were perhaps traceable, and might he have worn a beard, curls, rich, dark, and Eastern would have graced his chin.
Between Bosas and Ellin existed mercantile relations, for the former was in business too; and as he was the merchant who bought Ellin’s manufactured goods for export, and possessed besides, in his superior wealth and commercial standing, the power of either obliging or injuring to an important extent, Ellin held him in respect, and treated him almost with subservience. Hence the ready concession to his will in the matter of Willie; and for this reason, too, during the two days Mr. Bosas continued a guest at Golpit, his protege remained unmolested.
Perhaps Willie expected this respite would last no longer than the kind merchant’s stay; perhaps he wished to express as much; but if so he never found his opportunity to put in a quiet word, nor had he the chance of renewing or conforming an awakened interest at parting. Shortly before Mr. Bosas’ departure Willie. had been sent out on an errand, and when he returned his advocate was gone.
The lad had a small room he called his own. It was only a kind of garret, and contained but a crib and a stool. Yet, such as it was, he preferred it before the smart drawing-room, two floors below. If his poor tossed life numbered any peaceful associations, they were all connected with this cold, narrow nest under the slates. Hither he retired early, on the night after Bosas’ departure – rather wondering to himself that nothing had yet befallen him, even dimly conceiving a hope that perhaps his brother for once had sincerely pardoned. It was half-past eight of a summer evening, not yet dusk, consequently Willie had brought a book with him, and sitting near the little window he could read. A year ago some love of reading had dawned in his mind. The taste had not been much cultivate, but it throve on scant diet full as much as was healthful. At present he liked “Robinson Crusoe” as well as any book in the world. “Robinson Crusoe” was his present study.
His thoughts were all in the desolate island, when he heard a step mounting the ladder staircase to his room. It pressed almost the last round ere any more disturbing idea struck him than that it must be wearing late, as the maids who also lodged in the attics were coming to bed. Suddenly he felt a weight in the tread which forbade the supposition of a female foot. The wooden steps shook, his door shook too; it opened, and a shape six feet high, broad and rather corpulent, entered.
Willie had never, till now, seen his brother enter his chamber alone by night. In all his trials he had never been visited thus in darkness, and in secret. I should not, perhaps, say in darkness,. for the hour was shared between two gleams – twilight and moonlight. It was a very pleasant night, quite calm and warm, and only a few faint clouds, gilded and lightly electric, curled mellow round the moon. The door was shut, the thin child sat on his stool, the giant man stood over him.
“I have you safe at last, and I’ll very nearly finish you now,” were the first words, spoken in rough adult tones. None must expect qualified language or measured action from Mr. Edward Ellin. He stood there strong, brutal, and ungovernable, and as an ungoverned brute he meant to behave.
The boy pleaded only once. “Wait till to-morrow,” said he. “Don’t flog me here, and in the night-time. Do it to-morrow in the counting house.”
But his step-brother answered by turning up the cuff of his coat, showing a thick wrist not soon to be wearied. He had brought with him the gig whip. He lifted and flourished it on high. This was the rejoinder.
“Stop,” said the expectant victim earnestly – so very earnestly that the executioner did stop, demanding, however,
“What am I to stop for? It’s no use whining, sooner or later you shall have your deserts – you’ve run away and you shall pay for it.”
“But mind how you make me pay, Edward. A grown-up man like you should be reasonable. That whip is heavy, and I am only moderately strong. If you strike me in great anger you may cut deeper than you think.”
“What then? Who cares? ”
“If I were to be more hurt than you think of? If you had to be taken before a magistrate and pay a fine or be transported?” suggested Willie.
The idea was an unlucky one. The whole bearing of the boy was antipathetic because incomprehensible to the gross nature under influence. Mr. Ellin growled fury in his throat.
“Insolent beggar!” said he; “so you. threaten me with fines and magistrates? Take that! and that !”
He had fallen to work. It seemed he liked his business, for he continued at its exercise what seemed a long, a very long time. The worst of it was, Willie would not scream, he would not cry. A few loud shrieks, a combative struggle, a lusty roar, might probably have done wonders in abridging Mr. Ellin’s pleasure; but nothing in the present case interrupted or checked him, and he indulged freely. At last there came a gasp – the child sunk quite down-the man stopped. Through the silence breathed some utterance of pain – a moan or two, the slightest sound to which suffering Nature could be restricted; but in its repression only too significant. It induced Mr. Ellin to say, “I hope you have had enough now.”
He was not answered.
“Let me see you play truant again, or wheedle Bosas, and I’ll double the dose.”
No reply – and no sob – perhaps no tear.
“Will you speak?”
The flogger seemed half-frightened, for Willie’s exhausted attitude proved that he had indeed received enough; possibly he might have swooned, which would be troublesome. But this was not the case. He spoke as soon as the severe pain of that last cut permitted him.
“I cannot bear any more to-night,” said he.
Ellin believed him – told him to go either to bed now or to another place, whistled and walked off. By and by, after Willie was left alone, he gathered himself up. It would have been sad to watch him undress and creep painfully to his crib, and sadder to read his thoughts. Scarce an interjection and not a word passed his lips; for some time scarce a tear wet his eyelashes. He had lain sleepless and suffering for over an hour ere there came any gush that could relieve; but at last the water sprung, the sobs thickened, his little handkerchief was drawn from under his pillow – he wept into it freely – then he murmured something about his life being very, very hard and difficult to bear. At last, and after a long pause, he slowly got on his knees – he seemed to be praying – though there were neither lifted eyes nor .clasped hands nor audible words to denote supplication – nothing indeed but the attitude and a concentrated, abstracted expression of countenance, denoting a mind withdrawn into an unseen sphere preoccupied with viewless intercourse. As he returned to earth, his eyes, hitherto closed, slowly opened. He lay down; probably he believed his petition heard; composure breathed rest upon him; he slumbered. Willie cannot take rank as a saint – his patience was constitutional, as his religion was instinctive. Temperance in his expression of suffering was with him an idiosyncrasy. Prayer was a need of his almost hopeless circumstances. Oppressed by man, Nature whispered him, “Appeal to God,” and he obeyed.
Some think prayers are rarely answered; and yet there have been penetrating prayers that have seemed to pass unchallenged all gates and hosts and pierced at once within the veil.
The man of bad propensities withdrew. William was left kneeling at his cribside, his face and hands pressed against the mattress. He had been severely flogged, and for a time felt sick, but he was not maimed or dangerously hurt – not corporeally maimed. How his heart fared is another question.
It might seem that the watchful care of God had temporarily been withdrawn from this orphan, as he shrank powerless to resist under a tyrannic hand – as he afterwards moaned alone, pale, faint, miserably though not passionately weeping, compelling himself, according to the bent of his idiosyncrasy, to a sort of heroic temperance of expression,. even in extremity of grief. In man’s judgment it might be deemed that this child was forgotten where even the fledgling dropped from the nest is remembered. William himself feared as much. There was great darkness over his eyes, and a terrible ice chilled his hopes – his very hearing was suspended. He did not now catch an ascending step on the ladder, nor notice the door once more opening. It required the near glare of candle-light to snatch him even transiently from himself and his anguish.
The hand which brought the candle placed it on the narrow window-sill. Some one then approached Willie, sat down beside him on the edge of the crib; an arm passed round him, another arm drew him towards a warm shoulder, lips kissed his forehead, and eyes wept on his neck.
“Poor boy! Poor wronged child! ”
The voice uttering these words belonged to an age not many years beyond Willie’s own: the speaker seemed a girl of seventeen, blooming, and with features which, if they borrowed at this moment interest of pity, gave back in return beauty distinct, undoubted, undenied. Fine indeed were the eyes which dropped tears on Willie, and all lovely the arms, the hands, the lips by which he was protected and soothed.
“I heard what has happened-heard it from my room below. I fear you are terribly hurt? “said she.
“I don’t care for the pain – my mind suffers the most,” the boy declared with a groan. This sudden transfer from terror to tenderness relaxed for one instant the power of self-control.
“Hush, my love, my child! Hush, Willie, forget him: he shall never hurt you more,” said the young comforter, rocking the sufferer in her arms and cradling him on her breast.
Softened even while relieved, Willie wept fast and free and was soon easier. By gentle hands he was helped to bed, he was lovingly watched till he slept, he was kissed in his slumbers; and then the guardian withdrew, only to think of him through the night, to listen against molestation, and to be prepared at one menacing symptom to come out resolved to defend.
2 thoughts on “Charlotte Brontë’s Willie Ellin – The Complete Text”
Masterful writing. Thank you for sharing. This is something I will read and reread multiplied by the hundreds.
Thank you Carol!