SHIRLEY (1849)


Caroline advanced to the mighty matron with some sense of diffidence: she knew little of Mrs. Yorke; and, as a parson’s niece, was doubtful what sort of a reception she might get. She got a very cool one, and was glad to hide her discomfiture by turning away to take off her bonnet. Nor, upon sitting down, was she displeased to be immediately accosted by a little personage in a blue frock and sash, who started up like some fairy from the side of the great dame’s chair, where she had been sitting on a footstool, screened from view by the folds of the wide red gown, and running to Miss Helstone, unceremoniously threw her arms round her neck and demanded a kiss.
          ‘My mother is not civil to you,’ said the petitioner, as she received and repaid a smiling salute; ‘and Rose, there, takes no notice of you: it is their way. If, instead of you, a white angel, with a crown of stars, had come into the room, mother would nod stiffly, and Rose never lift her head at all: but I will be your friend: I have always liked you!’
          ‘Jessy, curb that tongue of yours, and repress your forwardness!’ said Mrs. Yorke.
          ‘But, mother, you are so frozen!’ expostulated Jessy. ‘Miss Helstone has never done you any harm: why can’t you be kind to her? You sit so stiff, and look so cold, and speak so dry, – what for? That’s just the fashion in which you treat Miss Shirley Keeldar, and every other young lady who comes to our house. And Rose, there, is such an aut– aut– – I have forgotten the word, but it means a machine in the shape of a human being. However, between you, you will drive every soul away from Briarmains, – Martin often says so!’
          ‘I am an automaton? Good! Let me alone then,’ said Rose, speaking from a corner where she was sitting on the carpet at the foot of a bookcase, with a volume spread open on her knee. ‘Miss Helstone – how do you do?’ she added, directing a brief glance to the person addressed, and then again casting down her grey, remarkable eyes on the book, and returning to the study of its pages.
          Caroline stole a quiet gaze towards her, dwelling on her young, absorbed countenance, and observing a certain unconscious movement of the mouth as she read, – a movement full of character. Caroline had tact, and she had fine instinct: she felt that Rose Yorke was a peculiar child, – one of the unique; she knew how to treat her. Approaching quietly, she knelt on the carpet at her side, and looked over her little shoulder at her book. It was a romance of Mrs. Radcliffe’s – The Italian.
          Caroline read on with her, making no remark: presently Rose showed her the attention of asking, ere she turned a leaf, – ‘Are you ready?’
          Caroline only nodded.
          ‘Do you like it?’ inquired Rose, ere long.
          ‘Long since, when I read it as a child, I was wonderfully taken with it.’
          ‘It seemed to open with such promise, – such foreboding of a most strange tale to be unfolded.’
          ‘And in reading it, you feel as if you were far away from England – really in Italy, – under another sort of sky – that blue sky of the south which travellers describe.’
          ‘You are sensible of that, Rose?’
          ‘It makes me long to travel, Miss Helstone.’
          ‘When you are a woman, perhaps, you may be able to gratify your wish.’
          ‘I mean to make a way to do so, if one is not made for me. I cannot live always in Briarfield. The whole world is not very large compared with creation: I must see the outside of our own round planet at least.’
          ‘How much of its outside?’
          ‘First this hemisphere where we live; then the other. I am resolved that my life shall be a life: not a black trance like the toad’s, buried in marble; nor a long, slow death like yours in Briarfield Rectory.’
          ‘Like mine! What can you mean, child?’
          ‘Might you not as well be tediously dying, as for ever shut up in that glebe house, – a place that, when I pass it, always reminds me of a windowed grave? I never see any movement about the door: I never hear a sound from the wall: I believe smoke never issues from the chimneys. What do you do there?’
          ‘I sew, I read, I learn lessons.’
          ‘Are you happy?’
          ‘Should I be happier wandering alone in strange countries as you wish to do?’
          ‘Much happier, even if you did nothing but wander. Remember, however, that I shall have an object in view: but if you only went on and on, like some enchanted lady in a fairy tale, you might be happier than now. In a day’s wandering, you would pass many a hill, wood, and watercourse, each perpetually altering in aspect as the sun shone out or was overcast; as the weather was wet or fair, dark or bright. Nothing changes in Briarfield Rectory: the plaster of the parlour ceilings, the paper on the walls, the curtains, carpets, chairs, are still the same.’
          ‘Is change necessary to happiness?’
          ‘Is it synonymous with it?’
          ‘I don’t know; but I feel monotony and death to be almost the same.’
          Here Jessy spoke.
          ‘Isn’t she mad?’ she asked.
          ‘But, Rose,’ pursued Caroline, ‘I fear a wanderer’s life, for me at least, would end like that tale you are reading, – in disappointment, vanity, and vexation of spirit.’
          ‘Does The Italian so end?’
          ‘I thought so when I read it.’
          ‘Better to try all things and find all empty, than to try nothing and leave your life a blank.’

[SOURCE: Charlotte Brontë, Shirley. A Tale. By Currer Bell, 3 vols (London: Smith, Elder, 1849), vol. 2, pp. 281–4]

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