The offer Heathcliff cannot refuse
In this chapter from Heathcliff: The Lost Years, Heathcliff has fled Wuthering Heights and found menial work on the busy docks of Liverpool.
Early one morning, for reasons which are not clear to him, he is sent across town to meet with a wealthy merchant who is active in the triangle trade.
© David Drum
On Saturday morning, Heathcliff walked up Paradise Street into a neighborhood of large grey-stone mansions. These were the homes of Liverpool’s wealthy aristocrats and merchants, he sensed, but to his eye the huge houses seemed austere and intimidating despite the formal beauty of their design, the orderly gardens, and their great spreading trees.
Set back from the street, behind four imposing marble columns and an elaborate stone facade, Number 55 Paradise Street looked to be among the very greatest of the great houses. Heathcliff looked at his pay envelope to double-check the address then crept diffidently up the sidewalk toward the mansion. He paused under the portico to catch his breath, dwarfed by the sheer magnificence of it all.
In the center of a tall, hand-carved wooden door lay a gleaming brass door-knocker shaped like the head of a roaring lion with a ring through its nose. Heathcliff thought the door-knocker made of solid gold, and for a time he hesitated to touch it. But he took a deep breath, lifted the golden ring, and rapped twice.
The door opened a crack. A dark brown eye and bloodshot eyeball peered at him.
“Your business, sir?” came a high-pitched voice.
“My name is Heathcliff,” he said, holding up his pay envelope. “I was told to call on Mr. Joshua Bullin here this morning.”
The first Negro Heathcliff had ever seen opened the door. The little man’s skin was blacker than coal but he wore a pressed white shirt and loose-fitting midnight blue velvet livery. The Negro’s wiry hair was heavily powdered and his features so perfectly cut they could have been hewn from black marble.
“Are you Joshua Bullin?” Heathcliff asked.
“My master is Mr. Bullin. Master Bullin call me Pompey. Have you calling card?” the Negro sniffed.
Heathcliff shook his head no. The Negro pointed out a chair in the hallway.
“Wait here,” he said.
Heathcliff sat down. The little Negro walked away.
On the marble-topped table before him stood two large Dresden figurines that seemed to welcome visitors to the house. A bewigged porcelain gentleman in a black suit looked at him with an amused smile, one hand on a walking-stick and the other extended in a fey, courtly bow. Next to him, a white-skinned porcelain lady in a pale blue gown stood frozen in a ladylike curtsey. On the wall above the figurines was a large oil painting in a gilt-edged frame: pink-skinned angels stroked harps of gold above an ominous white castle on the shore of a distant sea.
Joshua Bullin’s mansion smelled of cooking spices, rose petals, and smoking tobacco, Heathcliff noticed. He began to think the mansion a somewhat welcoming place.
Pompey opened the door to a nearby drawing room.
“Come in, young mariner,” came a thin voice from within the room. “I believe I have something of interest to you.”
In a high-backed chair behind a desk sat a pink-faced gentleman perhaps fifty years of age. The blue-eyed gentleman was casual in his appearance. He wore only a bathrobe, and no periwig atop his stringy grey hair. On his desk, a pewter teapot steamed beside an open ledger.
Joshua Bullin lit a white, long-stemmed ceramic pipe and exhaled a plume of smoke before motioning for Heathcliff to sit down. As the smell of American tobacco spread through the room like some dusky perfume, Joshua Bullin fixed Heathcliff in his cool blue eyes.
“You’re a young man who must think of his future. I offer you an opportunity to make a handsome sum of money. Are you interested, sir?”
“I certainly may be,” Heathcliff said, leaning forward.
“It’s hard physical work, in exotic climes. I know a captain who needs but one additional hand to complete his crew.”
“I am no sailor, sir. If that’s what you suggest.”
“To-morrow, a ship will sail on the most lucrative voyage to riches in all of Christendom,” Joshua Bullin said. “It carries English goods to Africa, black ivory to the New World, and returns with sugar and rum to England. The triangle trade, sir. Every man in Liverpool with money to invest wants in on it. Excuse me, but I am pressed for time. Will you avail yourself of this opportunity?”
“But sir. I have no experience at sea.”
“Every seaman alive has learnt, sir! My good-hearted captain will teach you all you need to know. Do look over this document, and give me your decision right away.”
Joshua Bullin’s eyes seemed cold and blue as the sea as he pushed some papers across the desk, and looked away.
When Heathcliff saw the amount of money being offered, he blinked, and looked again. He looked up at the merchant, not quite believing his eyes. Joshua Bullin quickly handed him a pen.
“You are very generous, sir,” Heathcliff said, and quickly signed his name.
Joshua Bullin waved off the compliment, then signed and double-checked the documents. “My word is my bond, sir. Of course, you must have a copy.”
“Thank you,” Heathcliff said, and accepted his copy of the articles.
“Keep your papers in hand, lad. To put matters in writing is good business,” the merchant said. “Now, listen up, you must get to the docks first thing in the morning. The Commerce sails with the tide.”
Joshua Bullin pulled a hanging velvet cord. Pompey hurried into the room and held the door. Heathcliff stood up and happily extended his right hand to the merchant.
“I am grateful for the opportunity you have proffered me, sir,” he began.
Puffing vigorously on his pipe, Joshua Bullin made a note in his ledger and closed it. Without looking up, he waved Heathcliff away.
++END OF CHAPTER++
Heathcliff: The Lost Years, a novel of 111 chapters, is available as a paperback, e-book, or an audiobook from vendors including Amazon, Apple, Audible.com and may be special-ordered from any bookstore.