It’s the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth. Charlotte and I go way back, though I’m sure it would embarrass her for me to reveal this so publicly… so shamelessly.
It always bothered me that M. Emanuel and Lucy Snowe never got together in Villette. One of literature’s great downers, on a par with Winston Smith loving Big Brother after all.
A couple of years ago, The Bronte Society held a short story competition, asking for writers to pen a quick tale based on one of the Bronte sisters’ minor characters. It was too good an opportunity to miss…
I didn’t win, but this story will appear in my forthcoming collection, This Thing You Humans Call Love.
The Voyage of M. Emanuel
Slated sea gave way to lowering skies; lowering skies were enfolded by slated seas. It was odd, M. Paul Emanuel thought, how one’s stomach should be so poorly disposed towards this yin and yang, this endless conundrum of frigid water and bleak cloudscapes, while there was solid decking under one’s feet. And yet, when one was immersed in the stuff, there was a sense of equilibrium, if not quite calm.
Clinging to the bowsprit of the Hellenic, adrift in the middle of a tropical sea turned grim, M. Emanuel had learned to accept his blessings where he could find them.
It had been so quick; the clouds, the sudden wind, cannonades of thunder and lighting, a splintering crash, the world slithering at an unseemly angle, and then the cold shock of salt water. M. Emanuel’s fine linen shirt and black cotton trousers were drenched against his skin. Heads bobbed and and cries echoed out across the testy water, with no lifeboats launched; and then the terrible fish came.
Emanuel had watched, as the current took him away on the bowsprit, as Lambert, the Scotsman, was drawn down into the sapphire sea by a dreadful shadow with a jagged tail, tall as a scythe.
How Lambert had hated M. Emanuel’s pronunciation of his name; a bitter irony that the screamed word would have been the last thing his business partner ever heard as the water closed over his head, a great red stain blooming underneath.
Lambert’s legs had been long, but M. Emanuel’s were not; perhaps this was what saved him from the jagged smiles of the sharks while the rest of the crew thrashed and screamed.
The current pulled M. Emanuel away, away, away from that hellish feast, and pressed him to the sea’s cold bosom. Even when the clouds cleared and the sun shone on flat calm, M. Emanuel felt the chill seep into his bones, the warmth ebbing away from his arms and legs.
“My god, keep me safe,” he began. A stinging roll of seawater doused his prayers; M. Emanuel kept pleas to the almighty internal from that moment on. But how long could he last? Already the chill seas numbed his fingers and feet. At any moment, he expected one of his legs to be tugged by the razor-toothed fish. He counted decades of the rosary, clinging to the bowsprit. It was all M. Emmanuel could do.
When Lucy Snowe bobbed up alongside him, he supposed that his end had already come and gone. A bright green gown billowed out of the back of Lucy’s long, white form, a gaudy Ophelia sharing the current that pulled at the little Frenchman. Then the figure in the water rolled, exposing a blank face, devoid of nose, mouth, eyes; a smooth oval. It was a dummy, from the hold of the Hellenic; the very dummy he had devoted to modelling dresses for dear Lucy, back at le pensionnat, her den of asps and vixens. Lucy would have preferred something of a more delicate hue; perhaps a mint or pea green, instead of the brash emerald M. Emanuel had chosen. How cross she would have been to be presented with something so brilliant to drape across those white, white shoulders!
“And how like you to have no expression, even at sea!” he cried to the mannequin, as it drifted from him. “Even your frown has been washed away!”
A sudden compulsion to seize the mannequin overtook him – and not out of simple sentiment, either. If the two flotillas could be bound, somehow… perhaps using poor Lucy’s dress… M. Emanuel might take his legs out of the water, the better to dissuade the sharks from nibbling them. But, no sooner had the idea struck him, than the mannequin turned, and disappeared in a grey swell.
The weather began to settle as the sun sank; the water was stained gold, and then crimson. Flying fish skittered across the surface, startling M. Emanuel, and there was one very bad moment when he felt something immense pass beneath him, its motion lifting him up and setting him back down on the waves. “Not my toes!” he cried, wrapping his arms around the bowsprit as tightly as he could. Only a slight frosting atop the water and a slow hiss answered him, and the creature was soon past him and on its way.
Night brought worse fortunes for M. Emanuel. As the sun sank, so went his hopes; and every lift and jostle in the water called to mind even worse phantoms than the sharks.
Perhaps some immense cuttlefish sought to squeeze the life from him with its stinging whips; maybe a sea serpent, with a horned head from a map out of antiquity, was streaking from its home in the darkest deeps to swallow him whole, as M. Emanuel might have tipped back an oyster; or one of the weird, caped rays, grown to enormous size, was preparing to wrap itself around him and wrestle him to the bottom.
He wailed and moaned as a distant storm burst on the horizon in a lilac fusillade. The bursts of light illuminated fantasies of distant lamps and safe harbour, comfort and feather beds. But they dimmed soon enough, leaving only the cold face of the stars. There was no hope, out here. But still, M. Emanuel clung on.
When the monster finally arrived, in the wretched hours before dawn, M. Emanuel felt more dead than alive. He was fading out of consciousness just long enough for his arms to slacken, whereupon he would start fully awake and cling to the wood all the harder. Then something immense exploded out of the water not ten feet from where he floated, its black sides studded with barnacles and hung with seaweed in the parts that were not slick and smooth.
Emanuel wondered if there should be pain when it engulfed him. But the creature did no such thing. It paid him attention – even by that scant light, M. Emanuel could see a great eye drift past him – and indeed it seemed to snort in indignation, perhaps even disgust, at the puny creature it shared its bathwater with. With a flick of its tail and a scandalised trill, it arched its great back and returned to the deep.
The rising sun brought no cheer to M. Emanuel’s heart, taking its time to shade the sky indigo, then scarlet, then palest blue. He must soon let go of the bowsprit, and accept his fate. This realisation brought no emotion stronger than a slight regret. That miles away, Lucy Snowe should not know of how he died, or that he had thought of her, as his life began to slip away. The sea had grown choppy again, and as he undulated along its delicate whitecaps he allowed himself to wonder at what Lucy Snowe was wearing; if the white tendrils that brocaded the sea looked anything like the shawl she threw around her shoulders, as she made her way to le pensionnat.
Yes, Lucy Snowe; he allowed himself to think of her, of taking that face in his gentle hands; of seeing the features broaden into a smile. Of embracing her at last. His heart flailed against the cold, a losing battle, a futile effort. Yes, M. Emanuel had decided. As the sea closed over his head, as it surely must, he would think only of Lucy Snowe. Perhaps the heavenly father would forgive her heathen ways, if only to comfort the afterlife of his poor servant, lost at sea. Yes; even if it meant death here, they would be together, M. Emanuel decided. He would see her face again.
At roughly 8am, M. Emanuel allowed his arms to slither off the bowsprit; he felt at ease without the strain on his muscles, buoyant on a calm sea. He watched his ocean sanctuary bob off only a few feet, still within striking distance, even in his enfeebled state – which was fortunate, as at that very moment the sails of a ship split the horizon.
Mr Emanuel sniffed the carnation and placed it in his lapel. The suit was ill-fitting, but was the best a Russian whaling crew could do for the little Frenchman they had found in the middle of the ocean. Six months’ passage back to a port on the Black Sea, and then another long voyage back to France, had left M. Emanuel here, in a dismal but sun-drenched backroom at le pensionnat.
A gardener sat in the shade outside the window, fanning himself after spending the morning tugging weeds out of the soft brown earth where the flowers waved. In the background, a spire stood tall against a cerulean sky, as its bells struck the quarter hour.
That meant the messenger had been gone five minutes, leaving M. Emanuel stood in this awful flannel suit, hat in his hand, waiting for the woman to appear.
Soon, footsteps sounded along the corridor outside, steady and measured. The handle turned on the door; the hinges creaked. And M. Emanuel beamed.
Copyright (c) Pat Black 2016