The Duke of Zamorna, it must be confessed, had a fondness for mirrors.
In preparing a discrete residence in Glasstown for Una De Trois, his lover of the moment, he personally selected all the furnishings, hardware, & etc., with special attention to several antique pier glasses and other large mirrors in heavily carved gilt mahogany frames.
Indeed, it could be said truthfully that he applied the same tireless and imperious exactitude, in planning this decadent boudoir, that he had lately applied to a series of triumphant military campaigns. His fame, at this era, was that of a highly decorated leader and hero, despite his young age. He was the toast of the Kingdom of Angria, witty, charming, and seemingly well-bred, despite his mysterious past.
At last the drapers and gilders, painters and florists, all withdrew. The pastry cook had arranged the gleaming tiers of delicacies — petits fours, fruit glacees, and Turkish delight — that were scattered through the rooms on little tables. All was in readiness for the arrival of the adored voluptuary, Lady De Trois.
Zamorna stood before a full-length mirror in the inner parlor, admiring his own remarkable physique. He was clad in dove-colored deerskin breeches, his fine calves shown to a turn in lavender silk stockings, his medals gleaming on his chest, a crystal goblet of garnet wine in his graceful yet powerful hand.
As he gazed with not-entirely-undeserved complacency upon himself, he noticed something very strange. Viewed in the mirror, the room behind him seemed to have changed. It looked poor, dark, and shabbily furnished, with a bare wood floor and heavy, unfashionable furnishings, upholstered in ancient horsehair of faded puce!
Zamorna’s gaze then moved to the reflected image of his own high-arched foot, which appeared now in the mirror to be shod in a cumbrous and slightly muddy boot. With horror his eye traveled up a leg, shaped as his own, but dressed in a woolen trouser, to a belted waist and peasant’s shirt. Putting his hand to his throat, he felt his silken cravat, and yet the mirror reflected those same manly fingers, touching the rough fabric of a coarse neckcloth!
He was looking at an image that was he and yet not he, a room of the same shape and size but not, it seemed, of the same place and time.
With an insouciant shrug, the Duke turned his back on the mirror, and approached an ebony credenza stocked with a row of crystal decanters. Pondering, he refreshed his goblet with a stream of ruby port, then turned again to the sound of a bell ringing.
Footsteps were heard, and a servant announced, opening the outer door to the suite, “Her ladyship, Una de Trois.”
With a rustle of silk, Una entered the boudoir, in a dress with an extremely low cut square bodice, which was her trademark. All the fine ladies of Glasstown were rushing to have their dressmakers imitate the neckline, but none could duplicate that which it was designed to display: a monstrously large emerald pendant that had been a gift from Zamorna, a prize from the mines of inner Africa where he had lately been subduing the natives.
“Exquisite as always, my dear,” Zamorna drawled, surveying her indolently.
She smiled, then drew back.
“We are not alone?” Una asked indignantly, gesturing towards the mirror.
The mysterious reflection of an unkempt figure that Zamorna had seen before remained behind the glass, staring out at them, as if looking in through a window.
“Begone, you devil!” Zamorna commanded.
In echo, the figure in the mirror cried out faintly, “Begone, you devil!”
“Do you mock me?” demanded Zamorna.
“Do you mock me?” replied the figure.
Zamorna replied with an oath that shocked even the jaded ears of Miss de Trois.
The reflection did not repeat the oath, but instead cried, “Lucifer! Do you defy your creator?”
The surface of the mirror began to shimmer, like the surface of a pond, and the young man on the other side seemed ready to leap into the room. Zamorna rushed towards him, fists raised, but he struck at nothing, and instead plunged forward into the midnight darkness of a cobwebbed tunnel. He groped ahead — a sound of rushing water — a smell of sulfur. He stumbled upon a doorsill and fell forward onto bare wooden floorboards.
Or such was his perception.
What Una saw was a flash of light. It appeared to her that lighting struck Zamorna, throwing him backwards onto the floor. He lay on the embroidered velvet carpet of the boudoir, stunned but seemingly unhurt. And yet — there was something so odd and different in his aspect that Una cried out, “My lord?”
He sat up and stared at her, with a blank and almost an idiotic look upon his face. She immediately crossed to a silver stand where a silver ice bucket held a bottle of fine champagne, and, pouring out a glass, handed it to him. He remained staring, motionless and slack-jawed, and refused the proffered glass with a rough gesture. A chill went through Una as she recalled a dark rumor, lately circulating through the capitol, that madness ran in his family. Little she suspected the truth: that the stunned intelligence lurking behind those glazed eyes did not belong to Zamorna, but to the young man of the mirror!
With a frigid calmness, she left the room, closing the door behind her. From a desk she obtained a pen and writing paper, and quickly composed a note.
She rang for the servant, and met him in the outer room, where she handed him the urgent missive. It was addressed to Lucien de Rubempré.
The other — or true — Zamorna found himself tumbled unceremoniously onto the floor of a small room, dimly lit with a coal fire.
Looking up, he saw three very quaint young women peering down at him. All three were dressed in black, with starched cuffs and collars of a startling pure white that made their pale faces look whey and unwholesome by comparison. They immediately put him in mind of Shakespeare’s “three weird sisters.”
“Branwell,” one of them asked, “Are you ill?”
One of the young women took a key from a large key ring that she wore at her waist, and opened a small rustic cabinet that stood in the room. From it she removed a bottle of some dark cordial, and a very small thimble-shaped glass. She tipped a few drops into the glass and handed it to man, who drank it silently.
The Duke was not unfamiliar with uncanny and supernatural experiences, and accustomed as he was to maintaining a glacial composure even in the most dire of circumstances, he did not allow his nerves to fail him now.
Rising to his full height, he bowed and said gallantly, “Good day, ladies. I am the Duke of Zamorna.”
The three girls laughed. The name was not unknown to them, and yet, they surrounded him, petting him, calling him Branwell, and suggesting that he lie down on a pitiful cot nearby, which they seemed to think was his bed, so that they could administer a hot mustard poultice. He noticed at the same time that the tallest sister was preparing to lock up the bottle of cordial in the nearby cabinet.
Zamorna, with his famously adamant nerves — scourge of the Ashantees, the Arabs, and the French — hero of the War of Encroachment — fled.
He rushed down a steep flight of steps, through a kitchen, and out a small house door, only to find himself in a graveyard. Dusk was falling, and the frozen ground was half-covered in meager drifts of snow, which seemed to glow in the last low gleams of a stormy twilight. Slabs of tombstones paved the ground, and Zamorna hurried on, shivering as he found that he was dressed only in a rough peasant shirt and wool trousers.
Soon he saw the lights of a rustic village, and a most welcome sight — the sign of the Black Bull Inn.
From an upstairs window, the three young women watched him run away.
“Should we tell Father?” asked the youngest.
“No,” said the eldest. “Let us spare him the knowledge of this strange fit, if we can. He is still in a black mood about the collapse of the Royal Academy scheme.”
Then they stood silently, looking out at the dreary bare trees, each secretly fearing that their beloved brother might be going mad.
A similar fear was reflected in the whispered conversation between Una and Lucien. Branwell heard their voices, low and unintelligible, as he sat stunned on the floor of the boudoir.
The imbecile expression on his face did not reflect his true intelligence. Indeed he had a keen mind, although much folded in upon itself. Its chief power was not in observation, but in creation. His somewhat wild and sanguine temperament led his thoughts sometimes into an overheated and confused state, resembling a fit, although he did not lose consciousness, but seemed to be having visions which he could not later on recall.
Rising, he pushed open the boudoir door, unnoticed. He could see Lady de Trois and General de Ruprembré, their heads bent together, in an alcove of the elegantly furnished reception room. As Branwell listened to the hushed voices and took in the luxury of the room before him, a strange conviction dawned on him. He knew this house, this beautiful woman, this dashing young man — for he had created them!
Dimly he began to realize that he was in the pied-a-terre of Una de Trois, mistress of the Duke of Zamorna, in Glass Town. That very morning, as he sat at the deal desk in his cold upstairs room, hoping to distract his brain from the searing flagellation of memories of his recent humiliation at the Royal Academy, he had picked up his pen and begun a new tale concerning these very people.
“Lady de Trois,” he had written in a tiny print, designed to be too small for his father’s weak eyes to read, “had a stately, wintry beauty, with eyes the glowing blue of ice caves, and hands like milk that had frozen over in the pan…” He had been dissatisfied with that last simile, and as he gazed at her hands now, he knew that he had to change it — they were cool, not cold, and soft, like fine linen.
She gestured with them as she stood standing in a window recess, consulting sotto voce with Lucien.
Glass Town! Branwell thought. And a pleading voice inside his head said, Please, let this be real! Please let me stay here!
Glass Town! His heart swelled with an ecstatic excitement. In a fear that he might at any moment awake, he rushed to an open window. Glass Town! The glorious capital of the African federation, the jewel of the Western coast, the most beautiful metropolis ever to be conceived of in the world, or in the fervid minds of a brother and sister, two of a family of young prodigies, all destined for greatness!
A rosy summer sunset was glazing the domes and spires of Glass Town with warm, benignant hues, til they sparkled like frosted cakes and rock candy. From the high window, Branwell could see the great cathedral, with the last rays of the sun coruscating from its stained glass windows. He could see the graceful harbor, its water lapping pink and lapis, full of the ships of every nation. And he could see Wellesley House, the imposing palace of the Duke of Zamorna … but his acute senses had yet to perceive that he, himself, had become the Duke.
Una saw him standing, and purred, “My dear, in case you are unwell, Lucien has offered to escort me to Baron von Fopl’s masquerade ball.”
As Branwell didn’t immediately answer, Una asked him, “Do you feel weakened, my dear?”
“I… I think I may benefit from some fresh air,” Branwell stammered.
Lucien looked at him scornfully. Una tossed her head and gave Lucien a sly smirk. Clearly this was the wrong answer.
“Weakened!” exclaimed Branwell with a disdainful laugh. He crossed the room in two steps, and clasped Una in a powerful embrace. He surprised himself — he was frequently so bashful with women that his suppressed admiration erupted in abstruse and angry words — but he did not surprise Una, who was accustomed to her master’s arbitrary moods. Lucien politely turned his back and tiptoed to the bureau, where he poured out three fresh glasses of Champagne.
Within minutes, Branwell found himself hustled into his own waiting carriage, and rolling rapidly through the glittering streets of Glass Town. In a few minutes more, he was secreted in an elegantly-appointed gentleman’s chamber, and a valet was combing perfumed oil into his moustaches and lacing him into a lavish Italian costume, for he was destined to appear at that night’s masquerade as Don Giovanni.
He said barely a word, and all was done for him. He accepted several glasses of port, and a warm glow suffused his mind. He felt handsome, self-willed, lustful, invincible. He was the Duke of Zamorna.
Zamorna ducked under the low scarred beam that crowned the doorway of the Black Bull Inn, and stepped down into an ill-lit and sooty room. A greasy barman stood in his stall, and Zamorna approached him, one hand in his pocket, where he felt a few small coins.
“Mr. Bronte, sir,” said the barman. “Can I be of assistance?”
“A glass of your best ale, my good man!”
Zamorna became aware of a stirring and murmuring around him. Apparently his entrance had created a sensation among the denizens of the public house.
As the barman pulled his draught, a young man approached Zamorna, whispering urgently, “Branwell, what are you doing here?”
“I am irrigating my parched palate, dear sir! Priming my sunken spirits! Whetting my flinty mood! And quaffing your health, mayhap?”
The young man laughed. “Very well, then, barkeep, another tankard!”
The two drinkers toasted one another, and sank into a familiar conversation. Zamorna discerned that wherever he was, or whoever he was supposed to be, this was a friend.
And so he asked, “Do you believe that people can move from one plane of reality to another?”
“Branwell, don’t you remember? You asked me that same question yesterday while we were walking on the moor. We discussed it quite at length, and you, I am quite sure, concluded that all reality exists merely as a subjectivity, and the truly powerful, truly masterful mind has the ability to control it.”
Strangely enough, Zamorna did recall a jesting conversation with Lucian along those lines, near dawn following a long night of revelry, as they sat before the fire consuming a collation of sherry, champagne, and quail with truffles.
“Yes… indeed I did… but I ponder it still.”
Zamorna never questioned the circumstance that everyone in the tavern seemed anxious to please him, laughingly eager to buy the next round. It was the manner in which he was treated among his soldiers, and he was accustomed to it. Little he suspected the coarse amusement derived by the villagers in aiding the debauchery of the son of their stern parson, whom they feared more than loved.
The more Zamorna drank, the less he worried about his strange position. Soothingly, if foundlessly, the idea instilled itself in his head that when he awoke in the morning, he would be back in his own downy couch at Wellesley House, Glass Town. Doubtless it was all a strange dream.
At length the drinkers would feign go home, and the inn emptied. Zamorna and his new boon companion, whose name, it appeared, was Luke, set off arm-in-arm up the steep cobbled road, roaring out an old battle song. Zamorna surmised that Luke belonged to the big, dark house from whence he himself had issued earlier in the evening.
Luke opened the house door with a latchkey and held it for Zamorna to enter, and then disappeared into the shadows, to sleep, it seemed, in some one of the outbuildings.
Zamorna entered a downstairs parlor where a single candle was burning. A woman sat quietly beside it, hands resting along the arms of an old carved chair. It was one of the sisters, the one with the searching gray eyes and mobile, skeptical mouth. She met his bleary glance with love, with reproach, with an uncanny knowingness and a deep, unsettled sorrow.
“But soft, what avenging sprite is this?” slurred Zamorna. “What eldritch, elfin being divines my actions and gazes upon them with silent contumely?”
True to the description, Charlotte viewed him with wordless disapproval, but he believed he discerned a tiny glitter of humor in her stern gray eye, and so he continued.
“I may perhaps be suffering — slightly, I say! But slightly! — from an over-application of tonic, but hear my tale! For my nerves have been tried most strangely. This very day did I pass from the kingdoms I have known, to find myself in a forbidding and mournful land, where my reputation, my powers, my very self, are sadly diminished. You look at me, and you see a poor creature named Branwell, and yet, I know myself to be the Duke of Zamorna.”
“Very well, Zamorna, then where is Branwell?”
“In Glass Town, perhaps. I shudder to think it, for tomorrow Parliament is to vote on my appointment as King of Angria.”
“Very good. Have you begun to plan an inaugural address?”
“Indeed I have. The theme is the vitality of nations as it waxes and wanes… the elusive flame, can it be steadied, so that a glorious nation need not decline and fall?”
Charlotte’s face reddened. “You have been in my desk!” she accused.
“Indeed, not! For haven’t I been in the Black Bull Inn since before tea time? However, that reminds me, if you could direct me to my sleeping chamber, and convince the stairs not to rise and fall like the foot pedals of an organ in the meantime, I have no doubt that all will be right in the morning.”
Charlotte led him, groping and weaving, to his room, and then retired to her own. But it was long ere she slept, for she thought gravely of what Zamorna had told her, and, reader, she half believed him.
Baron von Fopl, sole survivor of the siege of Swartezland, was master of a very large and not very exclusive residence in upper Glass Town. His parties were known for their licentiousness, and the waltz there was danced with impunity.
Half the town was crammed into long series of drawing rooms, and Branwell lost Lady de Trois in the crowd almost immediately.
He wandered through the rooms, unrecognized in his mask, and accepted glass after glass of champagne. His own secret world, which he had seen so many times in his imagination, was swirling before him. It dazzled, and yet he saw as through a glass darkly, for every character was masked and caped. Were the companions of his loneliest hours here in this mad crush — Percy, Sneachie, Ross, Frenchy and Quaisha? What about the beautiful, impetuous women — were the volatile passions of Lady Zenobia Ellrington wrapped in the folds of one of these black satin dominos?
Many times, locked in his room with pen and paper, or weaving plots with Charlotte before the parlor fire, they had fluttered and danced before his inward eye — and his sister knew them just as well. Instead of fading away, the enfant plays of brother and sister had grown with them. They had not cast off childish things. In their quiet hours, they did not meditate on the peace of heaven, but on a vast infernal world of sin, war and intrigue. They wrote in secret, hoarding up candle ends and dregs of ink, like an opium eaters with their grains.
The stifling ballroom, lit with a million burning tapers, took on the aspect of nightmare.
And then, he felt a cool little hand in his, leading him through the crowd.
Starting in their childhood, and well into their 20s, Charlotte and Branwell Bronte collaborated on a series of increasingly elaborate tales about an imaginary kingdom, supposedly founded by British heroes on the coast of Africa. A major character was the Byronic figure of Arthur, the Duke of Zamorna. Both Charlotte and Branwell were obsessed with his battles, and innumerable love affairs, his political career, and his passionate, amoral character.
In the first half of the story, Branwell and Zamorna switch places. It is the night before the Duke, thanks to his leadership in a recent war, is to be made King of Angria. Branwell, though baffled, is thrilled to inhabit the imaginary world that he spent so many years creating, while Zamorna is horrified to find himself in the dull, drab, morally rigid world of 1830s Yorkshire.
In Episode Five, Zamorna retreated to the local public house and got soused, while Branwell attended a glittering masquerade ball.
A loud, crashing noise resounded through the room, and the hundreds of masqueraders all stopped in their tracks. It was a gong, tolling the hour of midnight. By the rules of masquerade, all must remove their masks.
Branwell turned to the slim, feminine figure at his side, whose small hand continued to hold his firmly. The lady hesitated; she did not want to reveal her identity, and yet, with the masses all around her uncovering, she would be even more conspicuous if she did not. She guided Branwell into a recess where a large sweep of curtains partially concealed her, and removed her mask. His heart stood still; he recognized the beautiful, delicate pale face, the masses of black hair, the regal forehead, and the look of intelligent, uncoquettish, total devotion. It was his (Zamorna’s) first love.
He whispered, “Mina Laury, is it you?”
“Yes, my Lord, and believe me, I would never have approached in this way, if it wasn’t a matter of the utmost urgency. I have intelligence that what you suspected is true. The person you had doubts about plans to betray you.”
Branwell gazed at her aerial figure, her swanlike neck and exquisitely fragile ankles. He was distracted; and suddenly, she was gone.
Una, Lucien, and a crowd of other laughing strangers were jostling around him. It was time to go — he assumed, home to bed, as he was wholly ignorant of the scandalous habits of the band of young aristocrats who had elected themselves as his boon companions.
An ear-splitting explosion shook the old stone walls of Haworth Parsonage early in the morning, as it did every morning. It was the habit of the parson to discharge his fowling piece diurnally, to keep it from rusting.
Zamorna’s military habits had him on his feet before he knew where he was, or even who he was. The latter question, indeed, was not easily answered, even as he came to his senses.
His head felt as if it had become a trap for some small but vicious woodland creature, which was desperately trying to gnaw its way out somewhere to the north of his right eye. His stomach was luffing sourly. He was back in the same room where he had arrived on being unwillingly spirited out of Glass Town, and he glared angrily at the mirror which appeared to be the instrument of his transportation.
Approaching more nearly, he saw a horrible sight: himself.
His curling chestnut hair had become an appalling ginger. His aquiline nose was now merely a beak. His very stature seemed reduced, and his erstwhile hypnotic eyes were bloodshot and dim — although this was a not-unfamiliar result of a night of debauchery. He reached out his hand — ringless, now, and with the cuticles chewed and ragged — and touched the mirror’s surface. It was cold, hard, unyielding as steel.
There was a soft knock on the door, and Emily, the tallest sister, entered with a tray. She crossed the room and arranged the tea things with free, athletic movements. She had a bluestocking look, with wide-set gray eyes ringed in pale lavender shadows and light brown hair that wisped around her face in curls.
“You have been wild,” she said.
“Merely corning with the locals,” he replied.
“Are you ill?”
She poured out two small glasses of water, and unlocked, again, the dark little cabinet in the corner. This time, she removed a vial, and poured three drops of a tincture into each glass. She handed one to Zamorna, and drank the other.
It was opium.
Zamorna lay back as warmth suffused his veins. All became soft and comfortable, and he began to dream of what he would do when he returned to Glass Town. He would build himself a new palace in Angria — or no, an entirely new capital city, named after himself, with walls and turrets and staircases all around. Or no — he would build it in an Oriental style, with domes and minarets and hanging gardens. And down below would be waterfalls, plunging into vast crystal caverns, and a secret river would flow through the heart of the palace, making it a fortress that would be impossible to lay under siege. The rooms would be scented with cedar and gardenia, and glittering mosaics would portray his victories in battle, with each horse caparisoned in gold, and each spear gleaming with platinum as vast armies marched in endless processions.
Emily was gone, but she had shared with him the milk of Paradise.
Charlotte spent the day in a state of strange anxiety. A thousand questions reared up her mind, and she waited in nervous disbelief as her brother slept from breakfast to dinner to tea. Late in the afternoon, she had just made up her mind to knock on his door, when she heard male laughter coming from his room. She prodded the fire in the grate to a brighter flame, expecting him in the parlor at any moment. Instead, she heard the front door slam shut.
She looked out the window to see the figures of her brother and Luke, the hired hand, as they disappeared into the gloaming.
Charlotte’s heart sank as she watched her brother disappear down the lane. She knew his destination could only be the public house.
For an instant, she contemplated pursuing him, but she realized the vast unseemliness of such an undertaking. Her pride rose, too, and told her: let him go! Let him pursue his new-found passion for spirits! She would pursue her old passion, the one that had possessed both brother and sister for so long, the imaginary world that beckoned like a light on a lonely road, and which, indeed, had been the origin of all the uncertainty and strangeness of the past few days.
She climbed the steep stairs to her own room and sat down to finish the speech that the Duke of Zamorna would deliver upon being appointed King of Angria. She poured her bruised heart into the words: must even the greatest nations fall into ruin? Must the brightest flames burn out the soonest? Must so much promise inevitably fade to rust?
The Duke, meanwhile, was in search of the hair of the dog that bit him, a favorite remedy of his new friend Luke as well. But Zamorna’s reception at the Black Bull Inn was not what it had been the night before. There were more snickers than smiles; he had outworn his novelty, and become just another inmate. Nonplussed, he called for drinks, for which the barman promptly requested payment, whereupon Zamorna found he had but a few coins in his pockets. He was forced to drink plain farm ale as he pondered vaguely, in his narcotized state, his strange journey thither. He was pleased to discover in Luke an able discourser on metaphysical subjects, strange to the ears of the other imbibers.
A nearby villager leered at them in a way that irritated Zamorna’s overwrought — and, reader, we must admit, intoxicated — humor. “Do you find my visage so uncongenial, my good lad?” he demanded.
“I an’t no lad o’ yourn,” the surly villager replied.
Zamorna returned to his conversation with Luke, but I am sorry to say that in some of the less enlightened parts of the countryside, phrases like “rotation of the spheres” and “transection of the material plane” are as good as any other fighting words.
Soon Zamorna found himself laid out and bleeding in the half-frozen mud of a sordid Haworth village gutter. At last, the true enormity of his situation dawned upon him. He arose from the mire, hell-bent on finding a way back to Glass Town.
From the masquerade ball, Branwell was carried to the brilliantly lit drawing-room of a courtesan’s costly mansion. Crystal chandeliers, deeply piled Persian carpets, and polished mahogany panels swirled before his inebriated vision. Indeed, he could barely stand when Lucien gave him a draught of something that caused utter darkness to descend.
His indispensable valet, Rosier, woke him next day at noon.
“Sir, you are due in Parliament in one hour and a half. I advise that you to commence getting dressed.”
Here a word of explanation is in order. The Parliament consisted of all the kings and heads of state of the Federation, which convened in Glass Town. The kingdom of Angria was not, as yet, officially part of the Federation. The land had only recently been conquered by the colonial forces, with the Duke of Zamorna as their top military leader. His appointment as King of Angria had the support of the majority, but not all, and rumors had been circulating that his warrior temperament and excessive indulgence in gay parties were driving him into a state of mental instability.
The gentle rolling motion of his elegant and finely-sprung equipage sent waves of nausea through his complaining body.
It is sad to say that the great hero and leader, standing before the assembled heads of state in the amphitheater of the stately hall, and hearing himself anointed a king, could think of nothing but how to hold down his ever-rising bile.
Lucien had plotted this from the first glass of champagne that he had handed Zamorna the evening before. He knew from long experience that Zamorna, in this weakened and harrowed state, would not be able to counteract the treacherous ambush that his enemies, with Lucien’s secret complicity, had arranged.
“Here, here!” cried the Earl of Northangerland, rising from his seat, and claiming his right to be first to congratulate the new royalty — but then he continued to speak. He proposed a motion in which Parliament would appoint Lucien de Rubempre as Regent of Angria, with powers to check and control the political and financial movements of a king who was prone, perhaps, to impetuousness.
All eyes turned intently to the king, who remained standing on the dais at the bottom of the oval room, ringed by concentric galleries.
Zamorna would have recoiled. He would have responded disdainfully, sourly, insulted all the assembled heads of state, to his own detriment, and then gone home to bed.
But this was not Zamorna; this was Branwell, who, from childhood, had suffered from a severe shyness before strangers, a horror of public attention bordering on abject terror.
Reader, I hope you may never be wracked by wine-sickness, or seized in the paralyzing grip of stage fright. But if they should afflict you, pray that they do so concurrently. For it is a strange fact of nature that the effluvium of excessive drink and the ichor of fear are strongly reactive chemicals, and when brought into sudden contact, they effervesce into a soaring elation that, while it lasts, is like an inspiration.
From the pit, Branwell called out bravely: “Before we move on to secondary business” (with a sneer at Lucien and Northangerland) “I would like to address the assembled lords on the occasion of their honoring me with so high and generous a title.”
He reached into his pocket, where he had hurriedly crammed a few scribbled notes from his desk. But when he removed the papers, they were transformed. He held in his hand the pages of a very fine and noble speech, indeed, a work of passionate genius: a brilliant discourse on the great leaders of history; the rise and fall of nations; and the glorious future that was within Angria’s grasp. Declaimed in ringing tones, his address contained everything that could please an audience: extended metaphors based on obscure Biblical passages; a lofty, edifying moral tone; moving evocations of picturesque and sublime scenery; and a wondrous wealth of semi-colons, that could not fail to win the hearts of all whole harkened to the refined drama of their delicate half-pauses.
A resounding cheer filled the hall.
Northangerland hastily moved that all further parliamentary business be deferred, and the noblemen swarmed around Branwell, raising him on their shoulders and carrying him out into the street, where the assembled populace was celebrating.
Branwell was unsure what his first act as king of Angria should be.
The crowd had carried him aloft to the doors of his official residence at Wellesley House, where he waved to them from the portico, and entered. For the first time since his inexplicable transubstantiation, he was sober and alone.
He ascended the grand staircase, gazing upon the mystic, direful paintings of many a Spanish master that lined the walls. An enormous marble statue of Napoleon rose up, taller than the curving banisters: an inspiration, a reminder of the greatness of the Wellesleys, and, perhaps, a portend.
Rosier appeared, ready for orders.
“Send for my architect!” Branwell cried.
“Immediately, sir,” replied Rosier.
Branwell reclined in one of his many sitting rooms, on a velvet-upholstered divan, deep in thought. He wished Charlotte could witness his triumph. He sensed, from its tenor and certain turns of phrase, that his oration was of her authorship. There must be some permeability between the two worlds, he mused. Was there some way she could join him here?
Una de Trois sent up a card, but Branwell told Rosier he was “not at home to her, for the foreseeable future.”
Then, with a flourish, the architect appeared. His name was Antoine Goudy, and he was a well-known, flamboyant figure in Glass Town society, who had been knighted for his contributions to the city’s sublime public edifices, including the turreted Opera House, the mosaic-clad Cathedral, and the Baths, which are famous for their Moorish excesses.
“Which shall we discuss first, your majesty;” he cried gaily, “the palace or the duel?”
In the course of a brief exchange, Branwell learned that it was expected by all, high and low, that in consequence of Lucien de Rubempre’s treachery, the king would demand satisfaction. Branwell could not but agree that it was the proper and fitting thing for a gentleman in his position to do, but he wondered whether he would prove to have the marksmanship of Zamorna — or of Branwell Bronte.
Goudy was more than happy to serve as second. The challenge was sent, and the answer came back promptly: the duel was set for dawn on the morrow.
Rising from the roadside muck, sodden both inside and out, Zamorna pointed his steps up the steep and winding lane to the parsonage. A keen, high wind blew through the wanton arms of a row of Cyprus trees, moaning like the hordes of Hades.
He had no latch key, but it seemed someone was waiting. As he approached the rough-hewn manse, the front door swung cautiously open. He hoped for Charlotte — she seemed dimly to understand his plight — but it was the youngest sister, Anne, who faced him on the threshold. She was a young girl of maybe 13 or 14, although there was an ancient look in her melancholy, violet-blue eyes.
“My God!” she exclaimed. “What has befallen you?”
“Never mind,” he said. “It is of little importance.”
Nevertheless she insisted on leading him into the kitchen, where she cleansed his muddy wounds with warm water, and affectionately ran her hands through his matted, curly hair.
“That’s odd,” she said. “There’s a sort of indentation, a hollow spot in the back of your head that I never noticed before.”
“It’s always been there,” he said — Ever since I tumbled from my pony as a boy in the hills of Ellibank, he added mentally, feeling the mal du pais.
“Where is Charlotte?” he asked abruptly.
“She has been sequestered in her room, writing, all the evening.”
“Writing?” he asked irritably. “What is she writing?”
“About Glass Town, I suppose, and Angria. Haven’t the two of you recently promoted that wicked Zamorna into a king of some kind?”
His blood ran cold. She knew his name, and yet did not know him. Here, indeed, was a most sinister puzzle.
“Take me to Charlotte’s room!” he demanded.
She wondered why he didn’t go alone, but she complied. He burst into the room without knocking. Charlotte was seated at a little pine desk, bent over some scraps of paper, which had been folded and sewn into the form of a miniature magazine. He snatched up the manuscript, and read the words she had just written, in ink that was still wet on the page:
“The challenge was sent, and the answer came back promptly: the duel was set for dawn on the morrow.”
As Aurora shyly unfurled her rosy robes against the spangled cloak of night, and diamond dewdrops sequined the velvet lawn like haughty jewels on the altar cloth of some popish ceremony, several resplendent carriages dashed across the causeway of the Olympian River. The acclaimed arms of Zamorna — per bend sinister vert and or — which struck such dread into the hearts of his enemies, flashed and gleamed in the early rays, followed by de Rubempre’s vairy argent and gules.
Thus wrote Zamorna, and then paused and gnashed his teeth at the interloper who was riding in his carriage.
A third carriage followed behind, holding the architect Goudy, de Rubembre’s second, and the surgeon, McCoy.
All descended onto smooth, grassy parkland alongside the river. Arms were presented; the dueling pistols were inlaid with ebony and silver, whose delicate artistry belied their deadly purpose.
The paces were counted out. The duelists removed their jackets, and Goudy called, “Ready, aim, fire!”
Two bright flashes rend the morning air; two loud cracks, like whips, ring out; two puffs of smoke envelope the scene.
Here Zamorna paused again. Much as he wanted to kill the imposter, he found, at last, that he could not allow Lucien to win the duel. It was unsupportable.
Lucien lay stretched out on the grass, gasping and bleeding. Branwell stood still. The pistol fell from his hand.
“My lord, are you hurt?” exclaimed Goudy.
Branwell said nothing, but he put his hand to his arm, where he felt a hot stinging, and his hand came away wet. A bullet had grazed his upper arm, and the blood was staining his shirt sleeve.
McCoy knelt over Lucien. He was not dead, but seriously wounded in the chest. The seconds helped lift him into his carriage, which sped away.
As Branwell and Gaudy bowled back towards town behind Zamorna’s splendid horses, Gaudy prattled on about his idea for creating a subterranean ballroom inside a salt cave, with narrow shafts bored through the dome, so that you could see the stars at midday.
Branwell was silent. He had nearly killed a man, but he was thinking of something else; not death, but sleep.
Zamorna’s head sank upon the desk, and he drifted off, pen in hand.
Minutes later, it seemed, the same horrible blunderbuss explosion that had awakened him the morning before repeated itself. He was cold, his neck was stiff, and the side of his face was creased from the hard surface of the desktop. But he leapt up; there was urgent business afoot. He had to write himself back to Glass Town.
He ensconced himself in the parlor, surrounded by the three sisters, who sewed diligently as he chewed his quill. It must be the mirror, he mused — it had to be the mirror in Una’s boudoir.
Branwell awoke in a room of more than Oriental splendor, buoyed upon pillows of silk and goose down. He immediately rang for his carriage, and gave directions to Una de Trois’ townhouse.
Charlotte looked over Zamorna’s shoulder. “That is not right,” she said. “Why would he debase himself with the company of one who had plotted against him?”
Zamorna asked her, “Why did you make her into a traitor? I liked her.”
“She wasn’t worthy of you,” Charlotte replied.
“Ah ha!” he exclaimed suddenly, scribbling excitedly: Little as he wished to see the scheming enchantress, he must need return to her rooms, for he had left his signet ring sitting on the bureau in her inner sanctum.
He jumped up, calling: “Follow me, sisters!”
He bounded up the stairs to his bedroom. He stood before the mirror in anticipation. The sisters surrounded him, gazing into the glass. And the image began to waver.
While the faces of the sisters remained clear and serious, the face of the man in their midst began to fade. As if an invisible artist were scrubbing out his image, Zamorna saw his own features blur and disappear. In their place he saw the ugly visage of the redheaded personage who had impelled his transport to the parsonage. Glimmering in the background were hints of silver, velvet, and lace. He reached out his hand…
With glad relief, Zamorna saw his hand penetrate the shining surface of the mirror. He couldn’t resist grabbing for his counterpart’s collar, to give him a good shake for his impertinent presumption. Zamorna clenched the lace and velvet in his fist, but it seemed to melt from his grasp. Once again he stumbled into a dark, sulfurous passageway, with the sound of tumultuous waters in his ears, but this time he rushed forward, exultantly.
Branwell picked up the signet ring that was the occasion of his return to the room where he first entered Glass Town. It was strange, he mused, how abruptly he had remembered it, how strongly he had been impelled to retrieve it, after never having concerned himself with it before that he could recall. He inspected the dazzling emerald, mounted in gold, and carved with the crest of Zamorna, and he noticed the motto spelled out in reverse, so that the seal would impress properly into wax the words, “Nosce te ipsum.”
Branwell’s gaze wandered from the motto to his own reflection in the mysterious mirror that seemed to have conspired in his arrival in Glass Town. He saw his newly handsome and commanding visage, but lo! Wreathed in cloudy wisps, he also saw the faces of his three dear sisters. He called out to them, but they looked wistful, motionless and heedless.
With sudden shock, he felt a hand seize his collar with an iron grip. He struggled; his breath came short; he was falling; the wind was knocked from his body, and he heard a girl’s voice call: “He’s having another fit!”
Horror and disbelief overwhelmed his mind. He was home. Waves of livid red and deathly pallor coursed across his face. His sisters surrounded him, but he pushed them away. They were loathing leaving him, but there was an outcry in the yard: Luke’s chest had been caved in by the sharp kick of a stallion, and they hastened to the servant’s aid.
Branwell’s disappointment and dismay were boundless. Who dared deprive him of all his power and glory? He was a king!
He spied a little booklet, lying on the floor. In handwriting that resembled his own, he read words, the writing of which he had no memory: “he had left his signet ring sitting on the bureau in her inner sanctum.”
He tore wildly at the manuscript and dashed it to the ground. He paced madly to and fro about the room, then stopped and aimed a fixed eye at the grim old medicine chest in the corner, with its quaint rusty lock. In a frenzy, he shook the cupboard door, rattling its hinges.
From his desk he snatched a heavy cast iron inkstand of ancient origin. The ink bottle flew, darkly baptizing the room in an abysmal stream as black as heart’s-blood. The heavy base Branwell wielded in a frenzy, banging it against the cupboard door and smashing it against the lock.
Seated on softly piled carpet, Zamorna looked about himself with complacent delight.
Una had heard footsteps in the house, and entered the room.
“I see you are once again prostrate before your own image,” she said sourly.
Zamorna riveted her with stern eyes: “You may live here as long as you please, but keep out of my sight forever.”
She flounced from the room.
He picked up the signet ring that was lying on the carpet, and put it on his finger. Then, removing his cloak, he draped it over the necromantic mirror. He rang for a servant, and ordered carters to transport the costly ornament of wood and glass to his own mansion.
Then he strode, with regal and commanding step, to the bureau, and poured himself a drink.
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