The following is an excerpt from Pinkerton's Sister by Peter Rushforth, forthcoming from MacAdam/Cage in March.
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 night-gown, drawn down—it appeared—by the weight of the hair-brush 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 hair-brush 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, gauche 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 hair-brush, 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); annoyance 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 below 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 arise…"
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 Sunday—thinking of slurping at Mrs. Albert Comstock's life-blood, licking at her palpitating heart. She should never have read Dracula 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 that had been given the name Poole…
Which novel was it?
(The reflection in the pool: clouded, dark, malformed.)
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.
—From the book Pinkerton's Sister by Peter Rushforth; Copyright (c) 2005. Reprinted with permission from MacAdam/Cage.