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Authors: Peter Rushforth

Pinkerton's Sister

BOOK: Pinkerton's Sister
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Peter Rushforth

ebook ISBN: 978-1-59692-835-0

M P Publishing Limited
12 Strathallan Crescent
Isle of Man
Telephone: +44 (0)1624 618672
email: [email protected]

MacAdam/Cage Publishing
155 Sansome Street, Suite 550
San Francisco, CA 94104
Copyright © 2005 by Peter Rushforth

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Rushforth, Peter, 1945—
    Pinkerton's sister / Peter Rushforth.
    ISBN 1-931561-99-0 (hardcover : alk. paper)
    1. Young women—fiction. 2. Mental illnes—Fiction. 3. Eccentrics and eccentricities—Fiction. 4. Characters and characteristics in literature—Fiction. New York (N.Y.)—Fiction. I. Title.


Book design by Dorothy Carico Smith

Publisher's Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

my father and mother
Sam and Emily Rushforth
with love

… a little cloud out of the sea, like a man's hand.

I Kings,
Chapter XVIII, Verse xliv


The Madwoman in the Attic

The Shape of the Clouds

The Wicked Shadows


I could not help it; the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes. Then my sole relief was to walk along the corridor of the third story, backwards and forwards, safe in the silence and solitude of the spot …

Charlotte Brontë,
Jane Eyre


The madwoman in the attic was standing at the window.

Something about the slant of her body — slumped, drooping to one side — gave her a look of Mariana-like weariness. Her right hand was gripping one of the vertical iron bars almost at the limit of her reach, and she rested her bowed head — too heavy to hold upright — against the upraised arm, her face hidden, her eyes closed. Her left arm hung loosely against her nightgown, drawn down — it appeared — by the weight of the hairbrush she was holding. It was as if she had been standing there all through the night, struggling against sleep and dreaming, waiting to glimpse the first glimmerings of light in the low winter sky.

I am aweary, aweary.

Yesterday she had been on display at 5 Hampshire Square, and Mrs. Albert Comstock and all her guests had studied her, eyeglasses raised, spectacles specially polished, elbows vigorously nudging each other in a see-what-she-says sort of way. “Oh joy, oh rapture,” she had muttered to herself beforehand, without enthusiasm, distinctly aweary at the prospect of an afternoon with Mrs. Albert Comstock and her farting Pekinese stretching endlessly in front of her like a prospect of the wind-chilled steppes. In the small pond of Longfellow Park Mrs. Albert Comstock, sharp-toothed, ravenous-eyed, was the big fish — the very big fish — big, and growing bigger. If she’d been on the menu at the feeding of the five thousand they wouldn’t have needed a second fish, and the five loaves would have been entirely surplus to requirements. They’d have had to leave a note for the baker’s boy.
No bread today, thank you.
She was quite sufficient for a feast all by herself, tasting foul, but undeniably filling. The five thousand could have come back for second helpings, and brought their hungry friends, brandishing baskets they just happened to have with them. “For later,” they’d mutter vaguely, raking in as much as they could with both hands. “For later”, they’d repeat, grabbing feverishly, with the air of men seizing their chance to stock up with fat celebratory cigars to commemorate some monstrous birth, piling them up one on top of the other behind their flapped-out, generously accommodating ears.

Mrs. Albert Comstock was one of those Lazarus-pale, white-fleshed, grotesquely shaped creatures drawn up from deep below the surface of cold dark water where light never penetrated, drawn up toward the shallows where the children paddled with their thin bare legs. When she had swallowed everything around her she would munch her way southward down the rest of Manhattan.

Munch. Munch. Munch.

The mighty Comstock teeth — with onomatopoeic avidity — could crunch through cast iron, through glass, through granite, and nothing would impede their irresistible advance.

The madwoman’s name was Alice Pinkerton, and she would soon be thirty-five years old.

She continued with what she had been doing, holding the hairbrush in her left hand as she brushed the left side of her hair. The awkwardness of her stance, the halting clumsiness of her movements, showed that this was not the hand she would normally use,
because she was dexterous. With her right hand she continued to grasp at the iron bar in the window, her back bent as if she was hanging there, supporting the weight of her body with this one hand.

“One, two, three …”

She tugged fiercely at the hairbrush, not as if she was angry about something, but more with an attempt at precise control, with determination, as if she had been given new energy after a pause. With each downward pull she swayed a little to one side and back again.

“… four, five, six …”

It annoyed her that they thought she was mad, but it annoyed her even more that they were wrong about the attic. The mad wife in
Jane Eyre
, Dorian Gray’s portrait, and herself: all were thought to be locked away in an attic, and not one of them was. If anyone wished to say such a thing about her, he or she could at least take the trouble to get the details right. Of the two pronouns “she” was by far the more probable, always excepting the Reverend Goodchild (Halitotic Herbert, as she thought of him, entirely without affection). She did not feel anger, she did not feel grief or shame (she had had enough of grief and shame);
was the word to describe her feelings. The mistake was an irritant, like the lack of an apostrophe in the name of Jacksons Bluff, or a missing question mark at the end of a question, leaving her wrong-footed and itching to correct it. If she was a madwoman, she was a pedantic madwoman.

Charlotte Brontë was quite specific about where Bertha (Alice sometimes thought of Mrs. Rochester by just her Christian name, as if she knew her well) was: in a room on the third story, the floor
the attics. In Chapter XI, as Mrs. Fairfax showed her around Thornfield, Jane Eyre stood near this room for the first time, in the low narrow central passage like a corridor in some Bluebeard’s castle. She heard, in the dimness and stillness, a preternatural, mirthless laugh. Months later, on the night of a full moon, Rochester summoned her to a room off that same corridor to tend Richard Mason, his arm soaked in blood where he had been stabbed and bitten by his deranged sister.

“Carter — hurry! — hurry!” Rochester said to the surgeon. “The sun will soon rise …”

It was as if they were all in Castle Dracula, ruled by the powers of a vampire.

“She sucked the blood,” Richard Mason told them, “she said she’d drain my heart.”

Bad things happened when the moon was full, and the moon would soon be full. Sometimes there seemed to be several nights in a row when the moon could be described as full, and she was not confident in describing which of the moons was the moment of near-perfect fullness, the most complete circle. She looked up toward it, as if — she sometimes felt — from the bottom of a deep, dark well, holding her hands up, trying to shield her eyes from the circular glimmer of unattainable daylight far above her. She did not consult an almanac to discover when the full moon would be due; the moon-dial clock beneath the mirror warned her when the nights of cold light had come. She avoided seeing it when the time came close, turning her eyes aside. Perhaps she ought to have tried draining Mrs. Albert Comstock’s heart yesterday, just to cheer herself up. It would certainly have enlivened the proceedings: Mrs. Goodchild would have alased and alacked fit to bust (well, she had done this in any case), Mrs. Alexander Diddecott would have hurtled backward off the divan (ditto, one of her more spectacular efforts), and Mabel Peartree (now here was an incentive) would probably have burst into enthusiastic applause. However, she doubted that she’d have found much blood in that withered organ (if it existed), massive though the body was that contained it. She’d barely have been able to wet her lips and tongue: no refreshment there.

“… seven, eight, nine …”

(“… Light your lamp at mine.
Ten, eleven, twelve —
Loosely hold the helve.
We’re the merry miner-boys,
Make the goblins hold their noise …”

(The words came to her uninvited from long ago, from
The Princess and the Goblin
, as Curdie sang to drive away the goblins. The goblins couldn’t bear singing. The chief defense against them was verse, for they hated verse of every kind.)

She was to go to church this morning. She should be thinking elevated thoughts — heaven knows, you needed to when the Reverend Goodchild was your clergyman (this was a test of faith that would have had Job struggling) — and purifying her mind. Here she was — before breakfast, on a
— thinking of slurping at Mrs. Albert Comstock’s lifeblood, licking at her palpitating heart. She should never have read
when Charlotte — Charlotte Finch, her best friend at school, and still her best friend — pressed it upon her. What a corrupting influence that woman was. (“Is it horrid, are you sure it is horrid?” This variant of Catherine Morland’s line in
Northanger Abbey
was Alice’s usual question when Charlotte enthused about an enjoyably frightening novel. Charlotte had assured her that it was, indeed, horrid.)

Think of something else.

Grace Poole had been Bertha Rochester’s keeper.


There was another character in another novel who had been given the name Poole…

Which novel was it?

(The reflection in the pool: clouded, dark, malformed.)

Poole …

Poole …

Poole …


No. It was no good. She still preferred thinking about the slurping. She poised her lips as if about to down an oyster. She liked to live the moment to the full.

Slurp. Slurp. Slurp.


Alice, like Bertha Rochester, was in a room on the third story. This seemed entirely appropriate. The first story was about Jane, the second story was about Rochester, and then there was the third story. On the third story was Bertha Rochester’s room, and her room was described as being an inner room, a room without windows, its door concealed beneath a tapestry, hidden, kept apart, a room where it would have been dark, and difficult to breathe.

Alice and Dorian Gray’s portrait were even more closely linked. They were in the
room, a room right at the top of the house, but it was not the attic. It was the schoolroom. That was why the square-edged bars were there. They were there for safety, so that children could not fall from the window. It should rightly have been called the nursery (it had been used as such for her and her sisters) but she had started to call it the schoolroom when she was a girl, after reading — in some of her mother’s English novels — about lonely governesses and grand houses. This was what she had remembered best about these novels. It hadn’t happened in
Jane Eyre,
and it hadn’t happened in
Agnes Grey
, but it was the image that remained: the picture of a young woman going out into the world to make her way alone, sitting in a chair made for someone the size of a child, surrounded by the possessions of others, writing letters home. Jane possessed no home to which she could write: her home was memory and imagination, her search for someone to love, and these she carried about within her.

The detail Alice most admired in
The Picture of Dorian Gray
was the decision to locate the hideous portrait — the painting that bore upon it all the visible traces of damage and sin — in the locked and disused schoolroom where Dorian Gray had been an unhappy and lonely child, the room especially built for a hated grandson. This seemed to her to be, psychologically, profoundly and powerfully true, an insight of real genius. This was the room in which a monstrous thing had been created, long before the portrait had ever been painted. To place the portrait in the attic would have been to miss the whole point; the portrait
to be in the schoolroom, and the portrait
to be covered, and hidden from sight.

The rest of the novel had not impressed her as much. She had been unconvinced by Dorian Gray’s professed evil, and had felt — as she read the novel (it had to be a surreptitious reading) — that she was being slowly suffocated by rose petals, like the victim of a Roman emperor with depraved and specialized tastes. (What was the name of the emperor who had actually done this?) Adjectives proliferated in
The Picture of Dorian Gray
, an æsthetic thesaurus, but there was a coy evasiveness at the heart of the novel that weakened it, and the reader’s imagination — instead of expanding to fill a central void — was stifled, and withered away. “Is that all he’s done?” she had caught herself thinking. “Is that
?” She’d thought the same about Doctor Faustus. She was demonstrably decadent, corrupted by unsuitable literature, clearly capable of far greater excesses than had ever occurred to Wilde or Marlowe, with lots of helpfully enthusiastic suggestions to offer, all tried and tested (some of them several times, just to make quite certain), all thoroughly enjoyed.

BOOK: Pinkerton's Sister
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