Bedlam: The Further Secret Adventures of Charlotte Bronte
Laura Joh Rowland
B EFORE I LEFT MY BED IN THE MORNING, LITTLE ADELE CAME running to tell me that the great horse- chestnut at the bottom of the orchard had been struck by lightning in the night, and half of it split away.
Reader, that sentence is from a novel I wrote. It ends the scene in which Mr. Rochester proposes marriage to Jane Eyre, she accepts, and a fierce storm rages over Thornfield Manor. The lightning symbolized the earth- shattering event in Jane’s life; the split chestnut tree, the lovers soon to be torn asunder. When I wrote the sentence, little did I suspect that I had prophesized my own future.
In the summer of 1848, lightning struck me when I was plunged into an adventure the like of which I had never believed possible. I journeyed far beyond my wildest imaginings; I experienced momentous events now cloaked in secrecy. If I now say that my actions influenced the fate of nations, please forgive me the appearance of immodesty: I only speak the truth.
During my adventures, I found the man of my dreams. His name is John Slade; he is a spy for the British Crown. We shared the love that I had hoped for all my life but despaired of ever knowing. But we were too soon torn apart. My heart was rent as severely as the poor chestnut tree. The similarity between my situation and Jane’s did not escape me; nor did the fact that the division between fantasy and life is sometimes akin to a line drawn in sand blown by the wind. While I mourned the loss of adventure as well as love, I had no intimation that what happens once can happen again.
In 1851, adventure came calling once more. The circumstances were different, but the second adventure had an important aspect in common with the first. Both involved John Slade. The first adventure led me to him, then took him away. The second brought him back.
Nearly three years had passed, time during which many changes transformed my life. But I never ceased to remember those events of 1848, nor to yearn for the happiness that had departed when he left. And I never suspected that far away, in the country to which he had gone, events were building into a tide of peril that would sweep me along in its current.
These events I did not witness, but the mind of an author can travel to places where she cannot. Her imagination substitutes for actual experience. Fiction built upon facts creates a semblance of the truth. I will now, to the best of my ability, reconstruct the events in question.
1851 January. The city of Moscow lay beneath a heavy fall of snow. Its rooftops glittered white in the light of the moon and stars that sparkled in a sky as dark as obsidian. Near the city gate loomed Butyrka, the dreaded prison built in the eighteenth century during the reign of Catherine the Great. Snow frosted the crenellated towers, blanketed the tops of the high stone walls, and covered the prison compound. The scene was as bright as day, but devoid of color, painted in stark shades of white and black.
The ironclad portals opened, and three men stumbled out. Blindfolds hid their eyes. Ropes bound their wrists behind their backs. They wore only shirts and trousers; their feet were bare. Prodded by three guards armed with rifles, they limped and staggered. Cuts, bruises, and gashes marked their faces and bodies. They shivered in the bitter cold as the guards, joking among themselves, lined them up against the wall. Their breath crystallized in the air. They trembled so hard they could barely stand as the guards aimed the rifles at them, but they were too weak to protest. Without ceremony, the guards fired.
The men uttered agonized cries; their bodies jerked. Blood spattered the wall and flooded the snow, wet and black and steaming. Gunshots blared until the prisoners fell. Three corpses lay on the ground. Cruel justice was served.
The echoes of the gunshots faded as they reached the heart of town. There, bonfires burned on the banks of the frozen Moscow River. Skaters glided over the ice, in rhythm to gay music from an orchestra. High above the river rose the Kremlin. The turrets, domes, and spires of its palaces and cathedrals soared to the heavens. The Grand Kremlin Palace was a magnificent Byzantine structure of white stone, lavishly gilded. Tiers of arched windows shone, the rooms within lit by crystal chandeliers. From one window, a man gazed down at the skating party. A high, intelligent forehead crowned his eyes, which drooped at the corners. His mustache curled up at the ends, but his mouth did not. His posture was proud, his expression humorless and calculating.
He was Nicholas Pavlovich, Tsar of Russia.
In the chamber where he stood, a lofty, vaulted ceiling arched from carved columns encrusted with gold. An entourage of soldiers, courtiers, and servants awaited his orders. Footsteps rang on the mosaic floor, and a man joined the Tsar. He was a Prussian, whose face had a Germanic cast laid upon pale eyes with heavily hooded lids and a long nose whose end overlapped the upper lip of a cruel, sensual mouth. His close-cropped silver hair gleamed. The Tsar waved his hand, dismissing his attendants. They discreetly faded away.
The only person who remained was a man who had secreted himself behind a column, from where the faintest word spoken in the chamber could be heard.
“What have you to report?” the Tsar asked.
“The agents from England have been put to death,” the Prussian said.
“All of them?”
“… Yes, Your Highness.” The Tsar didn’t notice that a heartbeat had passed before the Prussian answered.
Troubles weighed visibly upon Tsar Nicholas. “More will come. The British are determined to extend their control over the world and diminish mine. They have allied with France, Spain, and Portugal for the sole purpose of keeping me in check. But they are not content to stop at mere political maneuvering. They send their agents to spy on my regime, to foment insurrection among my people, to weaken my empire from within.” His eyes burned with the reflections of the bonfires on the river. “It is just a matter of time before our hostilities culminate in war. If only there were a way to guarantee a victory for Russia.”
“There may be.”
The Tsar turned to his companion. “Oh?” His eyes narrowed. His court was full of men who placated him with false assurances. “Have you a new idea?”
“I do. It arose from a message I’ve just received from our agents in London.” The Prussian related the contents of the message and told the Tsar how the information could be used to Russia’s advantage.
The hidden listener overheard everything. He knew he should make his escape before the men discovered him, but he lingered, rapt with horror. The details provided in the message were sketchy, but the Prussian built upon them a scenario of a battlefield that spread east as far as China, west over Europe and across the English Channel, of countries laid to waste and carnage on a scale greater than ever known in history. Yet the listener had more immediate, personal concerns: his own days were numbered.
All of this I learned about much later. By then I was already embroiled in the adventure, and it was too late to turn back. By then I had learned a lesson.
Lightning does strike twice.
Reader, I am proof.
Herein is my story. CHARLOTTE BRONTE
Haworth, England, 1852 June
When I was young, I wished for adventure and romance, for travel to exciting locales far from Haworth, the tiny village where I have lived most of my life. I wished for success as an author, to be famous and sought after, to leave my mark on the world. Outrageous ambitions these were for the daughter of a Yorkshire parson! Little did I