Authors: Michaela MacColl
Also by Michaela MacColl
Promise the Night
Prisoners in the Palace
For Margaux. Always challenging.
Always worth it. I love you. âMom
Copyright Â© 2014 by Michaela MacColl.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the publisher.
The Library of Congress has previously cataloged this under: ISBN 978-1-4521-1174-2
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I got the sexton, who was digging Linton's grave, to
remove the earth off her coffin lid, and I opened it.
I thought, once, I would have stayed there: when I
saw her face againâit is hers yet!
he minister pronounced the final benediction for Elizabeth BrontÃ«, aged ten. The funeral was finally over.
The surviving BrontÃ«s huddled in the family pew. Charlotte, the eldest child at nine, sat stiffly, her back perfectly straight. She frowned at her younger sister, Emily, who had fidgeted unconscionably during the long service. Then she clutched her eight-year-old brother Branwell's hand. With a loud sniff, he snatched it away and wiped his nose with his knuckles.
The sexton led the Reverend BrontÃ« and the children to a wide gravestone embedded in the church floor. Their mother and other sister, Marie, were buried beneath it and now Elizabeth would join them.
As the Elizabeth-size coffin was brought down from the altar, a sob escaped from Charlotte. Emily stood off to one side, her chin up despite the tears rolling down her cheeks. Branwell blew his nose hard and pressed his body against his father's side.
The sexton, an old family friend, levered up the stone slab, exposing a crypt beneath the floor. When he placed a ladder inside the crypt, a heavy, foul dust floated up and obscured their vision. Charlotte and Branwell gagged.
Emily stepped forward, her color high and her eyes shining. “I see her,” she whispered. “The shape of dear Elizabeth.” Holding her hands out, she stepped to the edge of the crypt.
“Emily!” Charlotte yanked her back from the precipice.
“Don't fall in,” Branwell cried. “Then I'll have hardly any sisters at all.”
The sexton climbed inside the crypt. His assistant easily handed down the tiny coffin as though it were no weight at all.
“Thank you, John,” Rev. BrontÃ« said in a heavy voice when the sexton rejoined them.
“My sympathies, reverend.” He nodded to the children and added, “Do you have any other tasks for me before I close up the crypt?”
“Yes,” Rev. BrontÃ« said, drawing him to the vestry.
The children were left alone. Branwell moved a safe distance away from the opening to stand with his back to a stone column. His complexion had a greenish hue. Charlotte was about to join him when Emily broke the silence.
“Mr. Brown is going to seal up the grave?”
Branwell frowned. “Well, he won't leave a big open hole in the floor.”
“But how will Elizabeth ascend if she's locked in that hole?”
“A person's spirit can ascend through anything,” Charlotte declared.
“Through stone? Are you certain?” Emily persisted. “Have you ever seen a soul go to heaven?”
“No one can see it, Emily,” Charlotte said. “The ascension is invisible.”
“In paintings we see the angel flying upward,” Emily retorted. She might be only seven years old, but she was confident her logic was irrefutable.
“Don't be stupid, Emily.” Branwell finally roused himself from his misery. “That's just in art. Not life.”
“How do you know?” Emily shot back. “Just because you and Charlotte are older than me doesn't mean you know everything. What if Elizabeth can't escape unless the crypt is open?”
“Don't be morbid, Emily,” Charlotte scolded. “The crypt won't be opened until another one of us dies.”
“Exactly! So let's release her now.” Emily placed her foot on the topmost rung of the ladder.
“Don't do it, Emily!” cried Branwell.
Charlotte balked, glancing sharply between their father speaking in hushed tones with his sexton and her sister descending into the crypt.
“Come on, Charlotte,” Emily said. “Don't you want to know what it's like down there?”
Charlotte hesitated, then snatched a candle from the altar and followed Emily down to the narrow space. It was damp and smelt of decay. Built-in stone alcoves held the coffins on either side of her. Elizabeth's coffin was on a bottom shelf.
“There aren't any latches,” Emily whispered, running the tips of her fingers across the side of the coffin.
“There's no need.”
Emily reached toward Elizabeth's coffin to lift open the lid.
“Emily! You go too far!” Charlotte dropped the candle and grabbed Emily's wrists so tightly that Emily cried out.
“What harm can it do to look?” Emily pried Charlotte's fingers away from her hand. “If I'm right, her soul can soar away. If I'm wrong, at least we can wish her a proper farewell.”
Charlotte eyes shot back and forth between the coffin and her sister. Finally she said, “I'll do it. You're too little.”
Emily stepped back. Charlotte lifted the lid, her mouth twisting to keep from gagging on the sickly smell. Aghast, she let the lid drop.
“Open it, Charlotte! I want to see her dear countenance!” Emily's face was distorted and grotesque in the flickering candlelight.
“What if it isn't our sister anymore?” Charlotte asked urgently. “What if she's become something horrible?”
The thought gave even Emily pause. After a silence, she said, “I don't care!” She lunged toward the coffin and threw open the lid.
The sisters stared at the still body of ten-year-old Elizabeth. Her face was sunken from the ravages of the graveyard cough that had killed her. Her pretty hair had been cut short at the boarding school by a headmaster who thought long hair encouraged vanity. Her skin was pale, like ivory.
“She looks at peace,” Charlotte said, relieved.
“She does, doesn't she?” Emily said, staring intently at her dead sister's face. She reached over and brushed a lock of hair from Elizabeth's cold forehead. “Do you think we've released her soul?”
Before Charlotte could answer, they were startled by a booming voice above their heads. “Charlotte! Get out of there now!” Their father peered down at them, holding Branwell's hand. He was angrier than they had ever heard him before. “And you brought Emily with you? For shame!”
Emily started to speak, but Charlotte put her fingers to her lips. It would do no good for both of them to be punished.
Charlotte climbed out, followed by Emily. Standing in front of their father, they didn't dare meet his eyes. After an excruciating moment, he said, “Charlotte, what were you thinking? You must be more responsible. Don't you realize you're the oldest now?” His voice trembled and tears ran down his cheeks.
Charlotte put her hands to her face and sobbed.
Emily put her arm around Charlotte's shoulders. She couldn't imagine anything more awful than being the responsible one.
Many [girls], already smitten, went home
only to die: some died at the school, and were
buried quietly and quickly, the nature of
the malady forbidding delay
ow much farther?” Emily asked. Her long body pressed into the corner of the carriage seat, as if she were trying to propel herself back home toward Haworth.
“A mile less than the last time you asked,” Charlotte said between gritted teeth. She sat primly in the corner, her feet barely touching the floor. Charlotte tried to make up for her lack of inches with perfect posture. A notebook and pen were at hand, but Charlotte hadn't written a single word. Emily had proved to be a distraction as a traveling companion.
“You didn't tell me this school was so far away,” Emily said, staring out the dirty window. “I never would have agreed to go.”
“You didn't agree,” Charlotte pointed out. “Father insisted.”
“Because you badgered him without respite.”
“Badger?” Charlotte's hand went to her bodice. “I'm sorry if planning for the future is bothersome to you and Father.”
Emily glared at her sister with raised eyebrows. Suddenly she tugged the window open and stuck her head out.
“Em, close the window. Ladies don't thrust their heads out into the road. It's common.”
“I don't care what anyone thinks.” Emily shoved her body farther out the window. She recognized the landscapeâthey were near the great bog of Crow Hill. Charlotte had lied when she said they were making progress; they were barely ten miles from home. The landscape was still familiar. The great green hills were just starting to turn purple with the heather. In September, these hills would be heavy with the scent of the flowers and their vibrant color would swamp the eyes. But Emily wouldn't be there to see it.
On the horizon, beneath a row of fir trees stunted by the constant wind on the moors, Emily noticed a figure on horseback galloping across the top of a hill, the perfect symbol of the liberty she was giving up. Emily wanted to fix the memory of that rider in her mind. When she was locked up at school this anonymous figure would be her talisman; a promise that someday Emily would roam the moors again.
Suddenly her shoulder was gripped by a small hand and Emily was hauled inside. Charlotte, stumbling against the motion of the carriage, slammed the window shut. “The moors will still be there when you get home.” She sat back down and crossed her arms.
“But how long will that be?” Emily said. “When you went to school, you stayed for two entire years.”