In this chapter from Heathcliff: The Lost Years, young Heathcliff makes a fateful decision to flee his adopted home at Wuthering Heights. The day which forever changes his life ends with him trembling with emotion and riding angrily away into the teeth of a storm.
Emily Bronte’s classic Wuthering Heights does not explain how Heathcliff manages to transform himself from a penniless orphan to a rich and ruthless gentleman during the three years he is away. Heathcliff: The Lost Years is the epic tale of Heathcliff’s remarkable and adventurous transformation, the untold story at the heart of Wuthering Heights.
A low sound caught Heathcliff’s attention. It could have been the growl of distant thunder. Black clouds massed over the hills to the north, a harbinger of autumn storms. A gust of cool wind swept over the field as Heathcliff turned to see the master of Wuthering Heights, riding away.
Heathcliff lay down his scythe, took leave of the cottagers, and sauntered toward the house. With Hindley gone, he would give himself a holiday and spend a pleasant afternoon with Catherine.
He found Catherine in the parlor wearing a very pretty silk frock and Nelly smoothing down the folds of her dress.
“Cathy, are you busy, this afternoon?” Heathcliff asked.
“You should be in the field now, Heathcliff,” she said. “ It is an hour past dinner time: I thought you were gone.”
Heathcliff sprawled out on the couch before them.
“Hindley does not often free us from his accursed presence,” he said. “I’ll not work any more to-day: I’ll stay with you.”
“Isabella and Edgar Linton talked of calling this afternoon,” she said. “You run the risk of being scolded for no good.”
“Order Ellen to say you are engaged, Cathy,” he said. “Don’t turn me out for those silly, pitiful friends of yours! I’m on the point, sometimes, of complaining that they — but I’ll not — “
“That they what? What are you on the point of complaining about, Heathcliff?” she hissed.
“Look at that calendar on the wall,” he said, annoyed and hurt that she should speak to him so sharply. “The crosses are for the evenings you have spent with the Lintons, the dots for those spent with me. Do you see? I’ve marked every day.”
“Yes — very foolish: as if I took notice!” Catherine peevishly replied. “And where is the sense of that?”
“To show that I do take notice.”
“And I should always be sitting with you?” she demanded. “You might be dumb, or a baby, for anything you say to amuse me, or for anything you do, either!” she replied.
“You never told me before that I talked too little, or you disliked my company, Cathy!” Heathcliff replied, crestfallen.
“It’s no company at all when people know nothing and say nothing,” Catherine sniffed.
Before Heathcliff could reply, he heard a horse clatter up onto the flagstones outside. Edgar Linton soon knocked and entered with a silly smile on his face. Edgar removed his high-crowned green hat and revealed a head of blonde hair which had been quite recently powdered.
“I am not come too soon, am I?” Edgar asked Catherine.
Heathcliff noticed that Edgar was alone. He fumed out the back door and returned to the fields, but he could not keep his mind on his work. He watched the house; Edgar Linton remained until Hindley returned, then trotted away quickly, looking dapper and extremely pleased.
When Heathcliff entered the house, Hindley was already shouting.
Hindley stood above him on the landing, holding little Hareton out over the bannister and drunkenly bellowing at the infant at the top of his lungs.
“Kiss me, Hareton!” cried Hindley, as the child kicked at his arms. “Damn thee, kiss me! By God, as if I would rear such a monster. As sure as I’m living, I’ll break the brat’s neck.”
The screaming infant squirmed out of his hands. Heathcliff jumped forward and managed to catch little Hareton before he hit the floor. The master of Wuthering Heights staggered down the stairs as Nelly snatched up the child.
“It is your fault, Ellen. You should have taken him from me. Is he injured anywhere?” Hindley snorted, making for his bottle of brandy.
“Injured!” Nelly wiped a spot of blood from her lip. “I wonder his mother does not rise from her grave to see how you use him. You’re worse than a heathen — treating your own flesh and blood in that manner! He hates you — they all hate you — that’s the truth!”
“Convey yourself and him away,” Hindley snarled, with a wave of his hand. “And hark you, Heathcliff, clear you too, quite from my reach and hearing. I wouldn’t murder you to-night.”
As Hindley poured himself a glass, Heathcliff headed for the barn. He stopped and sat down on the settle, whose high wooden back kept him from being seen. He heard Nelly carry Hareton into the kitchen, sit down, and begin singing the child to sleep with a pretty lullaby. Catherine’s voice startled him awake.
“Are you alone, Nelly?” Catherine asked. “Where’s Heathcliff?”
“At his work in the stable,” Nelly replied.
Heathcliff sat still as a stone, listening hard, his back pressed against the bench. A drop of rain spattered against the window-pane.
“Nelly,” Catherine said. “Will you keep a secret for me?”
“Is your secret worth keeping?”
“Yes, and it worries me, and I must let it out! I want to know what I should do. To-day, Edgar Linton has asked me to marry him, and I’ve given him an answer. Now, before I tell whether it was a consent or a denial, you tell me which it ought to have been.”
“To be sure, considering the exhibition you performed in his presence this afternoon, I might say it would be wise to refuse him.”
“If you talk so, I won’t tell you any more,” she sniffed. “I accepted him, Nelly. Be quick, and say whether I was wrong.”
“Do you love Mr. Edgar?”
“Who can help it? Of course I do,” Catherine replied.
Heathcliff put his knuckles into his mouth and bit them. He could have torn Edgar Linton apart with his bare hands.
“Why do you love him, Miss Cathy?” Nelly asked.
“Nonsense, I do — that’s sufficient,” Catherine snapped. “You’re making a jest of it.”
“By no means. You must say why.”
“He’s handsome, he’s rich, he’s young, he’s cheerful…and he loves me,” Catherine said. “And he will be rich, and I shall like to be the greatest woman of the neighourhood, and I shall be proud of having such a husband.”
“But there are several other handsome rich young men in the world: handsomer, possibly, and richer than he is. What should hinder you from loving them?” Nelly asked.
“If there are any, they are out of my way. I’ve seen none like Edgar,” Catherine snapped.
A dead branch screeched across the kitchen window-pane. Heathcliff felt the wind rising. From under the door of the kitchen came the first cold breath of a storm.
Heathcliff pressed back against the settle, his heart hammering. He didn’t dare speak. The certainty of what was happening hit him like a slap in the face. Yet he could not stir from the bench where he sat as if shell-shocked, and silent and numb as a stone.
“If I were in heaven, Nelly, I should be extremely miserable,” said Catherine.
“Because you are not fit to go there,” Nelly replied. “All sinners would be miserable in heaven.”
“I dreamt once I was in heaven but it did not seem to be my home. I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke up sobbing for joy,” she said.
“I tell you I won’t hearken to your dreams, Miss Catherine,” Nelly warned her. “I’m superstitious regarding dreams.”
“I’ve no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven, Nelly. If that wicked man in there had not brought Heathcliff so low, I shouldn’t have thought of marrying Edgar Linton,” Catherine said. “Heathcliff is more myself than I am. But it would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now — ”
Degrade her? Degrade her, he thought, quietly rising to his feet.
He slipped out of the kitchen and staggered up the stairs, flushing and gasping for breath. He was drowning in a roiling sea of anger, grief, and pain.
In the musty desolation of his garret, still gasping for breath, Heathcliff experienced an overwhelming urge to flee. Nothing on earth could hold him at Wuthering Heights. As he picked through his things, he felt utterly and totally betrayed.
He plucked up the enameled music-box Catherine had given him, the most beautiful thing he owned in the world. He hurled it against the wall. The music-box broke to pieces. The prickly metal heart of the mechanism dropped onto his pillow and released a few melancholy notes into the stuffy air.
Anger and pride welled up in him like a storm. He gathered what little money he had, pulled on a cloak, and hurried to the stables.
His old stallion stood in its stall, its back coated with sweat. The master of Wuthering Heights had not bothered to remove his saddle.
Wind whistled through the barn. Shutters banged against the side of the house. Joseph would be outside, he knew, pulling the shutters closed against the wind.
Heathcliff backed the horse out of its stall. Joseph burst through the door in a gust of wind, his eyes blazing with anger.
“Lowly flaysome Divil!” Joseph hissed. “What are you doing?”
“I’m leaving, and I’m taking this horse. A horse is little payment for all my labor!”
“You steal Master’s horse?” Joseph cawed. “Thief!”
Joseph pulled a hatchet from a wooden stump near the barn door. Heathcliff picked up a pitchfork. When Joseph stalked forward, his blue eyes blazing, Heathcliff lifted the pitchfork and backed the sputtering old Pharisee flush against a wall.
Joseph lifted both hands. He dropped the hatchet. A clap of thunder shook the timbers of the barn.
“Demon! Devil!” Joseph hissed. “Master will take the hide off you!”
“You can all go to Hell,” Heathcliff said. “I’ll endure no more foul treatment here.”
Heathcliff took a step back, tossed aside the pitchfork, and vaulted onto the stallion.
“Evil gypsy demon!” Joseph shouted. “You have nothing, you are nothing! You’ll crawl back here on your knees and beg for mercy! Master will tie you to a post and whip you until you die!”
Alongside the driveway, a shape-shifting wind stirred the tops of the fir trees. A few fat drops of rain struck the packed earth.
Heathcliff pulled up the horse before the porch of the old house. He tugged his cloak tight around his shoulders and took a final look at Wuthering Heights. Before he turned away, he saw two female figures framed in the golden light of the parlor window, staring out into the darkness of the gathering storm.
For a moment, he heard Catherine’s haunting voice cry out across the moor.
He kicked the stallion in the ribs and turned the horse away.
++END OF CHAPTER++
David Drum’s Heathcliff: The Lost Years is a 111-chapter historical novel available in paperback, e-book, and as an audiobook from Amazon, Apple, Audible.com and other vendors. The book may also be special ordered from any bookstore.