After some very long time of absence, I remembered my allusion to my hypothetical intention of participating to that written competition for a Bronte-related short story, which I finally did. I didn't won of course and therefore didn't visit Haworth again, but I thought to post the story here anyway. The limit was 2000 words and so I couldn't develop it even further. Tell me your thoughts after reading it. Enjoy!
"George Smith meets Professor Heger"
"George Smith meets Professor Heger"
George Smith stretched his numb limbs wearily, as he was awakening. He found himself lying on the couch of his office, at his publishing house. The clock across the wall showed a quarter to eleven. He had missed dinner at his house, but Elizabeth wouldn’t mind. She was a patient, sweet kind of wife. His mother wouldn’t complain either. She knew what hard work meant. No, neither of the women occupied his thoughts right now. His mind was still bent on the subject of the vivid dream from which he had emerged.
He was in a foreign country, standing at a leafy, scented inside-garden. His attention was focused on a dark little man dressed in black, who through a grand window of the near building was giving a lecture to a roughly thirty female students of around the age of sixteen. His movements were abrupt, semi-hysterical and his face was fierce with a scowl. “Don’t you understand?” he was yelling in French furiously, while his students were ready to burst into tears. George knew who that man was. Either he had been transported inside Charlotte Bronte’s novel, “Villette”, which he had published four years ago, or he was looking at the prototype of its hero, Paul Emanuel. His name was Constantine Heger and he had been Charlotte’s professor of literature and also her first love, as Mrs Gaskell, Charlotte’s biographer and close friend had informed him.
He was in all probability the latter, as the next moment George was in Monsieur’s Heger office accompanying him to a cigar, both of them sitting in two comfortable armchairs. With the taken-for-granted logic of dreams, George found himself not obliged to explain his identity or reason of his visit. Their conversation inevitably turned to Charlotte Bronte herself. Her passion for Monsieur Heger had remained unrequited as he was married and a father of two by the time that she met him. She couldn’t help falling in love with him and after dealing with his wife’s antipathy and efforts to alienate her and make her feel unwanted, she left their school. Returning to England she had written him some desperate letters, where she confessed her feelings. The letters were not answered after a while and thankfully, for all sides, no scandal ever arose. Mrs Gaskell had ensured its continuing being so, by suppressing the whole story in her biography of Charlotte. For the above reasons George knew that some measure of tact was needed in his conversation with Monsieur Heger and so he simply noted that he must have known Charlotte for about two years.
“No, Monsieur”, he cried, “I would say that my acquaintance with Miss (he pronounced it Meesss) Bronte lasted nearly four years, as she continued writing to me after she returned to her country”
George felt relieved. Heger would talk to him about her after all. Still he proceeded with cautiousness:
“I dare say you must not find it very comfortable talking about her, considering what Lily Gaskell told me on the matter. Your wife especially did not seem too pleased with your connection with Miss Bronte”, he said. “You understand that as the publisher of Charlotte’s biography I had to be consulted” he apologized.
“These are two different matters that you mention, Monsieur Smith. Let me separate them.” he replied. “Claire and I may be a couple, but we are of different dispositions and we experienced somewhat opposite feelings of this case. Claire had to suffer all the anxiety of keeping the matter a secret and protecting, as she saw it, both her marriage and reputation of our school. I from my side can not say that I regret having met Charlotte Bronte. She was a brilliant woman: imaginative, intellectual and very courageous. She knew what she wanted and she fought to find the means for it. Some people despise ambition in a woman, but I found it honorable. She seemed to know better than me what she was to become. I naturally encouraged her to remain a teacher, not because she lacked the talent, but because one never knows what this business will bring to one who has based his whole living on it. God knows she was stubborn enough to do as she liked, although if I apply this adjective to her, I don’t know how to call her sister Emily”. He chuckled for a while shaking his head, as if he was reminded of something. “Anyway, they were both the most precious pupils for a teacher. Excellent minds, yearning to learn…” he searched inside his pockets and drew out a box of bonbons. He helped himself to one and offered to his guest. George declined shaking his head negatively. The box was put back in Monsieur Heger’s pocket.
“So, when she started writing to you, how did you feel? Were you aware of her feelings for you?”
“At first I was quite surprised. I tried to bring her to her senses. I chided her, I forbade her to write to me in the same vein. It is not that I was offended by the feelings she expressed. I heard the very vibrations of her heart as she whispered them in my heart’s ear. And I knew and appreciated her very well to misunderstand her feelings for a base sentiment. In other circumstances I would be flattered that she showed me this kind of attachment, but you see I was a married man and could not risk my understanding to be mistaken for encouragement. I had little to offer her, other than my advice and the satisfaction of her wish to continue answering her letters. She did not need my physical presence, as the future showed. She kept the very best of me by fusing me in her art. She wrote in “Villette”: I thought I loved him when he went away; I love him now in another degree: he is more my own”. So you see the image was more important than the person itself and I would do her no good by continuing writing and keeping her a slave of a hopeless situation. I did not also want to carry the burden of being in a way responsible for her, as if her happiness depended on my actions. She would have to take control of her life again. You would say that I could have been more of a man and say it clearly, instead of waiting for her passion to wear off. But I was postponing the disagreeable duty until it didn’t matter anymore”.
A pause ensued and while George was pondering, silently agreeing with his thoughts, Monsieur resumed once more:
“You asked me previously if I knew her feelings before she confessed them herself. I was hardly aware of them. Now that I think of it in retrospection, I may have traced some indications: her brightening eye when she met me, an occasional trembling of her hand, if I happened to touch her, when stooping over her to correct her devoirs, her blushing and emotion when I kissed her goodbye. But you see part of a successful teaching process is the creation of exactly such feelings as respect and admiration: a kind of platonic love that facilitates learning, as a pupil tries his best to satisfy his master. And I thought them indications of such. Moreover it is my habit to try to understand better my students and in Charlotte’s case I felt more obliged to so, not by duty only, but because she was in a foreign country and she was of a very shy character and eventually – why not admit it? – because I liked what I saw and wanted to learn more. She was right that there was a mental bond between us.
You may ask – and I myself have occasionally wondered – whether I crossed some invisible line while trying to do so. Whether I encouraged her to develop those feelings. Well, if I did, it wasn’t intentional. I had nothing to gain. But I think the mistake was mutually ours. We inwardly believed that my marriage was a safeguard. I never suspected she would fall for me and she – being the ethical and upright character she was – would never have dreamt that she could fall in love with a married man and a father. We should both be more guarded. But we closed our eyes to the fact that you don’t love someone for his marital status, but for his qualities as a person”.
“What happened next?”
“I believe that to Charlotte’s difficult situation and misgivings was added Claire’s silent persecution after realizing her feelings for me. It was not that she didn’t trust us or was suspecting some possible adultery, but she didn’t comprehend exactly the nature of our bond and furthermore she was afraid of Charlotte because she didn’t understand her. Her being pregnant at the time and the fear of a possible scandal for our school, made her act more readily. She never said a word to me about it and only much later – partly because of Charlotte’s accounts in “Villette” – I realized the invisible barriers she had spread between us. Not that I complain. She was wiser than both of us to do so, but it cost Charlotte dearly. She wasn’t a happy person and her prospects didn’t please her at the moment. I often had lectured her about her “malade coeur”, her melancholy and now I see how I contributed to it myself.
But what could be done? I couldn’t have helped her then, but when her letters arrived – enabling me to have a clearer view of the situation – the least I could do was destroy them. Not for fear of my reputation, but for her. Who that didn’t knew her could understand, if Claire herself, who once liked her, was so negatively predisposed towards her now? However, Claire disagreed about destroying the letters and secretly mended them and kept them. Oh, we had a great fight about it, when I found it out! But she promised me she would not use them to take revenge on Charlotte’s memory, even though she was terribly aggrieved by her literary portrait in “Villette”. Charlotte kept a most unflattering mirror for Claire, who is not a bad woman at all, but they both chose to show their nastier side one to another. In the end it may have been easier for Charlotte to believe that Claire was the reason that she’d lost the favor of her master, but it was inevitable.
And now, Monsieur Smith, I have answered all your questions and even more. I should think that I deserve an answer to mine: why didn’t you respond to Charlotte’s feelings about you? You were single and free to do so. Didn’t you love her, then?”
“How…how did you know…?” asked George perplexed.
“My dear sir, we are in your dream. I can borrow elements from both your conscious and unconscious part. I can sense for example that you are feeling some guilt. How else to explain your choosing to question me on how my behavior hurt Charlotte today of all days? The anniversary of her death two years ago! Didn’t you hurt her the same? I guess the gratification of your curiosity about who was that little professor who supplanted your literary impersonation, John Graham, in “Villette”, came with the cost to know that you didn’t act any better. After two years of visiting and writing to each other to the point of causing rumors you would marry her, you didn’t have the courage to tell her about Elizabeth on your own. Why? If you were only friends as you insist? It‘s easy asking questions and ascribing blame, but try answering some of these to yourself…”
The voice and dream came to blur, as it was interrupted, and George passed to consciousness. Still he could swear that he heard a rushing of silk as this happened. Could the invisible Madame Heger be watching in his dream too?